The X Button Signing Off
by Todd Ciolek,
I thought hard about how best to close this little attraction that's occupied a fair portion of my life for the last eight years, and I remembered Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. I suspect it's my favorite comic series, because my favorite part of it changes every time I think about it. Right now it's an exchange from the last volume, which depicts William Shakespeare finishing The Tempest as the second of two plays written in a bargain with Morpheus, The Lord of Dreams. Shakespeare asks why his otherworldly benefactor requested such a play, and Morpheus, who is confined to live an eternity in an ethereal order called the Endless, replies that he wanted “a tale of graceful ends.”
That's the best way to close anything. I've had great fun writing The X Button, and I want to see if off while it's still fun. The X Button leaves a few places unexplored, but I'm fine with that. I'll continue to write about video games in several places, including good ol' Anime News Network, and I doubt I'll ever give up that nerd pastime entirely. When I play a game and really enjoy it, I avoid finding absolutely every secret or exploring every inch of it. That way I'll have a reason to go back.
Of course, an end can be only so graceful when it comes to a simple weekly column where some fool chatters on about video games for a few thousand words. But I'll do my best.
SEGA GOES BACKWARDS WITH SONIC MANIA
The Sega of today may be a mere husk of what it was in the 1990s, but Sega remembers its history and its fans. In fact, Sega relied on them to make the recent Sega Mega Drive & Genesis Classics collection on Steam, where fans could play old Sega games and upload ROM hacks of them. And now Sega turns to its best years for a new Sonic game to mark the hedgehog's 25th anniversary.
Sonic Mania presents itself as a remix and expansion of the cherished Sega Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog games, using the enemies and general scenery of the games in fresh ways. It's also stacked with new levels and challenges, including a giant lottery-ball machine to spin Sonic. The game is the work of Christian Whitehead, who's made a number of Sonic fan games, as well as Headcannon and PagodaWest Games. Reflecting the Genesis era, only Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles are playable, and the trailer shows no sign of Big the Cat or a human princess for Sonic to kiss.
I find that Sonic's appeal stems as much from his era of origin as his games. He's a creature of the early 1990s, and he's struggled to adapt ever since. Still, Sonic Mania is as close to a classic Sonic as Sega can possibly come without the aid of time travel, and it's due out in the spring for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. It's not the only new Sonic in the works, either, as Sega has the tentatively named Project Sonic 2017 planned for the Playstation 4, Xbox One, and the NX. Speaking of which…
THE NX WILL PART THE SEAS AND CHANGE BOOGERS TO DIAMONDS, OR SO SAY THE RUMORS
Nintendo must enjoy all of the speculation about the NX to some extent. Between Pokemon Go and the rumors about the company's next console, Nintendo's never been more culturally pervasive this decade. But what exactly is the NX going to be?
According to the latest round of rumors and reports from allegedly reliable sources, the NX will be a large handheld system with detachable controllers on either side of the screen. It will connect to your TV through a docking station when you're at home, and it'll use cartridges. Presumably these will be small, 3DS-like cartridges, though when I think of cart-based consoles it's hard to shrug off memories of the Nintendo 64's debut.
All of the above information exists only in rumors right now, as Nintendo hasn't confirmed anything. Yet it would be consistent with Nintendo's current fortunes. The Wii U lags behind in the console market while the 3DS effectively owns the handheld scene (smartphones and tablets notwithstanding), and combing the two would brace Nintendo's weakest sector with a stronger one. Of course, Nintendo can play it safe by making Pokemon Go 2 exclusive to the NX, but that's another matter entirely.
LADY LAYTON LAUNCHES LATEST LINK IN LEVEL-5'S LONG-LASTING LIKEABLE LECTURER LINE
Professor Layton was due for a shakeup. Much like Phoenix Wright, he became an endearing fixture of the current era through charming atmosphere as much as actual gameplay, but his adventures settled into routine after a few years. Now that Phoenix Wright's seen a 19th-century prequel and a Layton crossover, Level-5 decided to rattle things with a game about Professor Layton's daughter.
Lady Layton: The Conspiracy of King Millionaire Ariadne introduces the London detective Catriel Layton, her friend Noah, and her talking Basset hound, Sharo (which seems oddly magical-realist for the normally explainable phenomena of Professor Layton). Catriel's latest case involves finding her father, and the search leads her to goofy London stereotypes as well as logic puzzles involving rabbits and cannons.
The biggest question among Layton fans concerns the identity of Catriel's mother, and they'll play through Lady Layton on the 3DS, Android, or iOS devices with that foremost on their minds. Is it Claire? Emmy? Or will the writers completely wimp out and make Catriel an orphan who Layton adopted?
GAMES YOU SHOULD PLAY
I covered many, many games in the years I spent on this column, and I like to think I gave all of them due recognition. Yet there are some that I really liked and somehow never got the chance to review at length. Some came along in busy months, some I didn't finish until long after they came out, and one just popped up at a bad time for playing games.
As this column shuts down, I'll return to a few games that I praised less often than I should have. This means that I won't drone on yet again about Valkyrie Profile, Gravity Rush, Darkstalkers or more popular favorites of mine like Final Fantasy Tactics or Grim Fandango. The following games are all well worth your time, but it's entirely possible that they slipped past you just as they did me. I can't turn out the lights and head for the door without mentioning them again.
THE LAST STORY
The Last Story couldn't escape comparisons to Final Fantasy, and that suited everyone involved with the game just fine. It emerged as a major Wii RPG from Hironobu Sakaguchi's Mistwalker studio, and if the title alone didn't evoke the Final Fantasy series, Sakaguchi's reputation as its creator and longtime steward cemented the bond.
Even so, The Last Story isn't a Final Fantasy game. Ignoring the vast worlds and grandiose designs of other RPGs, The Last Story centers on a lone kingdom where a mysterious power lurks. There the game lays down the basics of a fairy tale: the hero is a young mercenary named Zael, soon entangled with the rebellious niece of the vaguely insidious local count. It's replete with wish fulfillment and big mushy melodrama, and yet it soars on some top-caliber voice acting, an exquisite soundtrack, and an unflagging sincerity in its romance and comradeship. Sometimes we want happy endings.
Even the small details sell The Last Story. Bumping into villagers elicits complaints and grunts of surprise, and the game keeps a tally of it.
Nor does The Last Story stick to routine RPG battles. Inspired by Gears of War and other cover shooters, Sakaguchi and the game's designers crafted a battle system where the environment matters: characters scurry for cover, snipe at enemies, and launch attacks off walls and from around corners, all while following the basic lines of a real-time RPG battle system. It's messy work, but there's little else like it.
The Last Story never became Sakaguchi's second Final Fantasy. The best it has is an epilogue in his Terra Battle mobile game, and it's an unnecessary follow-up at best. The Last Story wraps itself up on its own, and it's all the better for it.
MONSTER WORLD IV
(Sega Mega Drive, 1994 - Wii / Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3, 2012)
The Wonder Boy and Monster World games are enduring little adventures. Westone technically made the last one in 1994, but recent years brought about a spiritual sequel in Monster Boy and The Cursed Kingdom as well as a gorgeous remake of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap. But what about the game that ended the series?
Monster World IV stands atop an already impressive series. It lacks any Wonder Boy title—appropriate, since the lead is a green-haired young woman named Asha. In a quest subtly linked to previous games, she travels to the city of Rapadanga and through caverns and dungeons housing all sorts of creatures and secrets. In pure gameplay, it's a side-scrolling action game with initially simple stages that grow steadily more complex. And yet it wouldn't be half the experience without the many details Westone laid over it. The world is a charming Arabic fantasyland, and everything brims with color and subtle animations, especially when it comes to Asha and her sidekick, an adorable flying puffball named Pepe.
Westone even manages something that should be impossible: they rework Monster World IV's main theme half a dozen times throughout the game without ever making you sick of it. Monster World IV isn't just the best of its own little series. It's a firm reminder that there's more to a game than just how it plays.
It was easy to miss Monster World IV in its own time. Sega never released it outside of Japan, and unless you prowled fan translation circles, it was impossible to play it in English. Today Monster World IV is available on all three of the last generation's consoles, and it's in top form.
(Xbox 360/Playstation 3, 2010)
It took me a while to warm up to Nier. It carried the suspicious name of director Taro Yoko, who delighted in making a deliberately unappealing game with Drakengard. The reputation of Cavia, makers of Bullet Witch and other letdowns, also clung to the game. Even its characters were ugly compared to Drakengard and its sequel, which at least had the artwork of Kimihiko Fujisaka. Then I sat down to play it, and all of these trepidations fled.
Nier tries a great many things. It's the story of a hardened warrior out to heal his tragically ill daughter (or sister in some alternate Japanese versions), and it conjures up a gently primitive but clearly post-apocalyptic world without explaining just what's going on. On his journey, protagonist Nier picks up a sarcastic book, meets a foul-mouthed swordswoman, and tries his hand at fishing, boar-riding, and running errands. Those are the mildest of Nier's forays into other genres, too. Battles pepper action-game hacking and slashing with bullet-dodging to suit a Cave shooter, and one stretch of the game transforms into a round of interactive fiction.
Most importantly, Nier takes chances in its story. The whole picture can't be seen after the first playthrough, but a second trip streamlines the pace and lets players understand just what the game's humanoid Shade enemies are actually saying when they gibber and squeak. It's a staggering turn, and the game tops it by locking away the best ending behind a drastic decision. As the game industry embraces violent-dad themes so much that even God of War joined in, Nier remains above the fray.
Oh, and the soundtrack is spectacular.
TACTICS OGRE: LET US CLING TOGETHER
Final Fantasy Tactics deservedly remains a classic. Before making it, however, director Yasumi Matsuno built his own world of fantasy staples and faux-European ethnic hatred with the Ogre Battle series. And Square Enix remade its most beloved installment for the PSP with Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together.
There is no safe path in Tactics Ogre. While Final Fantasy Tactics digs the player into a straight-line story that heaps tragedy atop tragedy, Tactics Ogre cuts it crueler by making you think you can avoid the inevitable. The game follows young rebel Denam Pavel in the thick of a multisided power struggle for what could easily be any stretch of medieval Europe. His journey through the schemes of nobles and the miseries of the lower classes slaps him with a hard decision in each chapter, and someone suffers no matter what road he takes. It could be his sister Catiua. It could be his friend Vyce. It could be an entire village, or it could be the highly cool spearfighter Ravness Loxaerion, who the PSP remake introduced just to make the game's toughest decision even more vicious.
RPGs commonly give the player freedom, moreso in Western-made games, but Tactics Ogre is the rare example where choices have actual drama behind them. Each of Tactics Ogre's path has the royal machinations, betrayals, and backstories fit for Game of Thrones (more the books and less the simplified TV show), and it benefits from an able localization and exquisite music. You might never have the chance to drop a line like “The quickest way to the throne is a knife to the king's ribs” or “I piss on your common cause!” in actual life, but they flavor a grim fantasy strategy-RPG very well.
On that note, Tactics Ogre has plenty to see. The remake ditches the sluggish experience-grinding of the original in favor of a class-progressing system that's better but not without its strange impositions. Yet it's a voluminous game. You're free to recruit and develop characters across many different pursuits, the battles are challenging in their obstacles, and the remake's secrets are hidden almost too well. And more awaits in the alternate paths and hidden levels.
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is easy to come by, whether you grab the packaged PSP game or get it from the PlayStation Network for play on the Vita. It's one of the best values around—in how long it lasts and in what it'll show you.
VALKYRIE PROFILE: COVENANT OF THE PLUME
(Nintendo DS, 2009)
Remember when I said I wouldn't talk about Valkyrie Profile? Yeah, that was a lie. Partly.
The original Valkyrie Profile sees its praises sung all over the place, and its sequel earned respect for its battle system, though not its story. Yet I think the third game in the series is an undiscovered marvel.
Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume breaks with the two prior games. Instead of following a valkyrie, it's about a mortal: a young warrior named Wylfred hungry for vengeance upon the valkyrie who claimed his father. His quest spans strategy-RPG battles where characters position themselves like any Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea descendant, but the combat summons the Valkyrie Profile hallmark of four characters attacking in unison, guided by the player's button-presses. It's a great fusion of the two concepts, even if Covenant of the Plume can't agree on a smooth increase in challenge.
In fact, Covenant of the Plume is as much the child of Tactics Ogre as it is Valkyrie Profile. Wylfred forges a pact with the underworld and receives a feather that can turn any ally into a tide-turning warrior…who then disappears into the clutches of Hel and her dark realm. The journey spans three possible routes, and characters who join Wylfred in one branch might die or never appear in another. And if you want to see the entire game, you'll have to sacrifice companions who you've probably come to like. Tactics Ogre would be proud.
Covenant of the Plume remains sidelined even by some Valkyrie Profile fans, disappointed that Square Enix greenlit the game instead of a true Valkyrie Profile 3 focused on the grouchy goddess Hrist. Be that as it may, Covenant of Plume truly captures Valkyrie Profile's somber overtones and morbid beauty, and that's the keystone of the series.
And what about the now-obscure games I actually reviewed? Well, I think Pandora's Tower is a cult favorite in the making, and I want everyone who ever liked the Phoenix Wright games to go and play Ghost Trick—or play it again, if they already went through. I also stand firm in my belief that Drakengard 3 will be this generation's cultural flashpoint for video games. Just you watch.
One game I mentioned often but without a proper review? Cyberbots. Capcom's 1995 fighting game and its brawler predecessor Armored Warriors (a.k.a. Powered Gear) are two of the most lovingly crafted gifts that video games ever gave to mecha anime, and I recommend both heartily. Cyberbots can be had on the PlayStation Network, but you'll have to dive into emulators or arcades for a shot at Armored Warriors.
Yes, I could go on all day about my old favorites, whether they're as well-known as Super Mario Bros. 3 or slightly more recondite like The Guardian Legend or the two Trouble Shooter/Battle Mania outings. But that's enough out of me for now. I'd like you all to sound off in the comments about the best games that went largely ignored (and not just by me) over the last eight years. And if you just want to talk about whether or not Jon Talbain and Felicia are a couple in official Darkstalkers canon, go right ahead.
NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES
Developer: Giant Squid Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PC
Release Date: August 2
It's Better: Down where it's wetter
I did some cursory research to see just what was the first underwater-exploration game. I didn't come up with a firm answer, but the trail goes back past Aquanaut's Holiday and Dolphin's Dream, perhaps even to those educational PC games where you played a fish and tried to avoid the inevitability of the food chain. While we've seen many games set underwater since the time of the Atari 2600, it's rarer to find a game entirely about the wonder and relaxation of mapping an undersea realm.
Abzu plays things more abstract than the likes of Endless Ocean. You're cast as a diver descending through various seascapes, but the scenery goes well beyond typical aquatic life. While you'll ride on manta rays and dodge sharks, the watery world is rendered with glowing pastels and gentle lights, and the scenery expands to underwater temples and other curious structures. It's perfect for those among us who had childhood visions of finding ancient Atlantean crystals and crashed UFOs when we ducked underwater at the seashore.
Your techniques are limited to diving methods, though that's part of the appeal. You recruit cute little flipper-sporting robots who function as cameras, lights, and gatekeepers, unlocking new areas as their numbers swell. It's all very much in the style of Flower and Journey (which share an art director with Abzu), and it has the same aura of discovery about it. And then the sharks appear.
GAL GUN: DOUBLE PEACE|
Developer: Inti Creates
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PS Vita
Release Date: August 2
Missing: The Dragon Gun
MSRP: $59.99 (PS4) $39.99 (Vita)
The premise behind GalGun is amusing: instead of blasting zombies or terrorists or monsters, you're harmlessly zapping lovestruck schoolgirls who barrage you with notes and blushing confessions of their crushes. Beyond that premise, however, both GalGun and its sequel head straight for anime-girl exploitation. Cursed with unshakeable masculine magnetism by an inept cupid, the protagonist wields a pheromone gun that turns oncoming girls into quivering and cooing mushpiles.
GalGun Double Peace finds its hero, the previously normal Hodai, caught in war between incompetent angelic emissary Ekoro and the devilish Kurona, and he's put through the motions of a rail-shooter. Classrooms and streets unfold before him, and everywhere he's confronted by schoolgirls and must shoot them out of their twitterpated trances. In between stages, the game hatches a plot that links Hodai to one of several girls who might like him without the artifice of a high-tech cupid's pistols.
The levels commonly involve more that zapping, and it's there that GalGun makes its true nature obvious. Story interludes and boss battles offer frequent appeals to various fetishes, whether they involve a young woman stomping a possible lecher or a host of girls being gripped by a tentacle-monster. GalGun is that sort of game, and even in the first level it contrives a situation wherein the player must plink away at a schoolgirl's rear end to extricate her from a window. It's OK! She's grateful!
Normally one can find this uncomfortable nonsense in the latest round of anime shows, but some must prefer it in the form of a gun game. As for me, I'll just haul out an old TV and play Elemental Gearbolt instead.
MOBIUS FINAL FANTASY|
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: iOS / Android
Release Date: August 3
Mobius Final Fantasy is a blatant reminder of just how far games have come in appearances, if you'll pause to consider. It's not the sharpest-looking thing in the whole industry, but it has character models and scenery eclipsing those of any game from ten years ago…and Mobius Final Fantasy runs on iPhones and Android devices.
Keeping with a long tradition of amnesiac protagonists, Mobius Final Fantasy opens with a young man awakening on the barren plains of Palamecia, summoned there by some ominous-voiced presence. Taking the name Wol and wandering around, he meets a moogle named Mog, a princess named Sarah, and a heavily armored knight named Garland. This should all sound familiar to anyone who dug into the original Final Fantasy, though the world of Mobius Final Fantasy also leads to other dimensions in the series—including the upcoming Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Built for smartphones and tablets, Mobius Final Fantasy opts for a touch-screen battle system, as tapping and flicking the interface will launch various attacks and spells. Wol can switch from swords and other melee weapons to elemental magic, and enemies are most vulnerable once dizzy. It distills the typical Final Fantasy battle into speedy combat centered on one character, and it drops references in the bonus items, the music, and the lineup of armor and clothing available to Wol. Early previews of the game showed Wol wearing little, inspiring bizarre complaints in certain parts. But Wol's wardrobe contains all sorts of Final Fantasy costumes for the sensitive types. And hey, it's not like Wol's being groped by mutant tendrils.
And with that, it's time for The X Button to end its run, perhaps by standing on a cliff and watching an ancient sky fortress crash in the distant mountains. Ah, Crystalis. There's another game more people should play.
I'd like to thank all of the company reps who helped me with coverage over the years—especially Rannie Yoo, a wonderful person who supported me a lot during my first year on the column. You are missed, Rannie.
I'd also like to thank everyone at Anime News Network for giving me this column. They put up with my affection for off-the-radar games, and they gave me a rare freedom. Eight years is a long time, and I wouldn't have kept at it without all of the great people watching over me.
Lastly, I'd like to thank the readers. You kept my column going, you pointed out my mistakes, and, though you may not have known, you made me glad to have spouted off about video games every week. Special credit must go to forums user belvadeer, who I believe gave point-by-point breakdowns for every column over several years.
Whenever I thought about ending The X Button, I figured I'd use a big “The End” screen from a favorite game to conclude the last column. That would be somewhat graceful. But the fact is that I'm not going away, and neither is the spirit of the column. I'll continue to write for Anime News Network, and should you want even more of what I have to say, you can look to my personal site, my Twitter feed, or the odd places I happen to visit. If you see a “Kid Fenris” or a “Todd Ciolek” online, it's probably me.
So I'll just say this…
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