This Week in Games - Crossed-Over and Painless

by Todd Ciolek,
Hey, remember me? I used to write this column back when it was called The X Button, when Nintendo's big system was the chronically underfed Wii U, and when all of this was just trees. I'm filling in for Heidi this week, and I have to say that a lot happened since I retired from the column in 2016. Gravity Rush 2 came out, Gravity Rush 2 was a cult success at best, Gravity Rush 2's online servers were almost shut down early this year, and Gravity Rush 2 fans managed to convince Sony to leave the servers up until July. And then Gravity Rush 2 dropped to twenty bucks, so everyone has a good reason to buy and enjoy my favorite game of 2017.

Of course, things that did not directly involve Gravity Rush came to pass. Nintendo rides high once again with the Switch, the Yakuza series finally gets some respect on these shores, and Toys R Us, haven of many fond video-game memories, is soon to vanish from just about everywhere but Canada. It's a bold and frightening new era, but it's comforting to know that we can always enjoy a video game, unless a solar flare wipes out all electronics and throws the world into feudalistic savagery. And in that case we'll have bigger worries than going without our favorite games.

Well, you'll have bigger worries. I'll be putting together a Gravity Rush puppet show.

BLOODSTAINED CURSES MOONS WITH AN NES THROWBACK
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night laid low for a good chunk of 2017, perhaps wary of getting anyone's hopes too high. The game may be producer Koji Igarashi's lavish attempt at reviving his Castlevania titles in everything save copyrights, but the disappointment of the similarly revamped Mighty No. 9 (which, for the record, I didn't hate) lingers around developer IntiCreates and the whole concept of Kickstarter-fed retro revivals. Yet Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night seems on the right track, and it even has a more old-fashioned companion with BloodStained: Curse of the Moon.

Just as Ritual of the Night resurrects the mazelike Castlevanias typified by Symphony of the Night, Curse of the Moon is pure NES-era Castlevania both as it was and as it should have been. The side-scroller presents four playable characters, from a samurai to a whip-wielder, in stages that could pass for old Castlevania stretches in their brickwork and roaming skeletons and tiny lamps and braziers that yield power-ups. Of course, Curse of the Moon doesn't limit itself to NES standards, as you'll see giant bosses and detailed spritework well beyond what an 8-bit system could show. But that's the standard practice for neo-retro stuff; we want it better than it ever could've looked.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon technically existed as part of the big-budget Bloodstained's Kickstarter, but it's now out in the open. Igarashi and InitCreates showed it off at the recent BitSummit convention in Japan, and it's due on the PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch, 3DS, and even the Vita this May 24. Yeah, next week.

FAMICOM, NEO GEO KEEPING PLUGGING AND PLAYING
This much is certain: plug-and-play consoles are no longer the domain of bootlegs and giant joysticks shaped like Pac-Man. Nintendo's NES and Super NES Classic Editions were successful, reasonably high-quality simulacra of their ancient game systems, and there's no stopping the trend now. Indeed, Nintendo just announced a new version of the Famicom Classic Edition, Japanese counterpart to the NES. The catch? It's loaded with old games based on Shonen Jump manga.

I'm certain that many Japanese kids grew up with these anime-based games, just as I grew up playing the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game and refusing to admit how little I enjoyed it. I must say, however, that most of the twenty games on the Shonen Jump 50th Anniversary Edition of the Famicom Classic aren't particularly good, ranging from just-OK to dregs like the original Hokuto no Ken Famicom game and a Kinnukiman game we were unlucky enough to get here as M.U.S.C.L.E. Yet you can't deny nostalgia when it comes to this sort of thing, and at least collectors get a gold-colored Famicom Classic and a box with Goku on it.

Meanwhile, SNK formally announced the Neo Geo Mini, a desktop arcade distillation of the Neo Geo. It has a built-in monitor and ports for hooking it to a TV or plugging in other controllers, useful when considering how many Neo Geo titles are fighting games. The Japanese version, shown below, is a little more colorful than its gray-and-black American counterpart.

The official game selection hasn't surfaced yet, but a list leaked a while ago. It's disappointing in ways small and large. While it nabs 40 games from the Neo Geo library, it's lacking great sports games like 2020 Super Baseball and Neo Turf Masters. It also reflects the Neo Geo's biggest problem: it can't afford to be stingy. The NES and Super NES Classic Editions could get away with twenty or thirty games, just as long as they had Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, and other names known even to people who rarely touch video games. The Neo Geo doesn't have that luxury, despite the cult presence of The King of Fighters. SNK may as well throw in every last available Neo Geo game and hope to sell a system or two to the people who fondly remember The Super Spy.

CRYSTAL CRISIS CREATES CRAFTILY CRAZED CROSSOVER
I doubt anyone predicted Crystal Crisis in its entirety. It makes sense that Nicalis would attempt a big crossover puzzle game, since they're doing the same thing with fighters. Blade Strangers brings together characters from Code of Princess, Shovel Knight, Cave Story, Azure Striker Gunvolt, Umihara Kawase, and The Binding of Isaac. Crystal Crisis, a falling-block puzzle game for the Switch, has much the same mixture of characters but reaches even farther with its crossover. For one thing, Crystal Crisis brings in at least two Osamu Tezuka characters: Astro Boy and Black Jack. It's hardly the first time Tezuka icons will make guest appearances, but it's amusing to see legendary surgeon Black Jack matching multicolored gemstones alongside Solange, the Code of Princess heroine who wears so little armor that not even her own game could let it slide without criticism.

The big surprise, however, is Johnny Turbo. The bearded, be-goggled superhero is among the least successful mascots of the 1990s, having starred in a short series of comics that saw him defend NEC's doomed TurboDuo company against a monstrous game company called Feka. The comics were an in-joke that a higher-up NEC executive took seriously enough to turn into print ads, and Johnny Turbo drew abundant mockery well after the 1990s system wars. Yet that notoriety helped him live on, and Jonathan Brandstetter, the NEC employee who inspired Johnny Turbo in the first place, bravely revived the persona for his retro-gaming company, Flying Tiger Entertainment.

And now ol' Johnny Turbo is a genuine video game character. That can't be said for some of his rivals. No one bothered to make a game for Niles Nemo, the largely forgotten mascot of Sega Visions magazine. Nintendo's Captain N had a cartoon and comic book, but never an actual game. So let them laugh, Johnny Turbo. You came out ahead after all.

FIGHTING GAME TIDBIT: OG GUILTY GEAR RETURNS
I never thought I'd see the original Guilty Gear reissued. It started a major fighting-game series, but the first Guilty Gear is a crude prototype that Arc System Works overhauled and completely re-drew with Guilty Gear X. No one really clings to the debut Guilty Gear the way they do to older Street Fighter or The King of Fighters outings.

That said, I'm overjoyed that Arc System Works is releasing the original 1998 Guilty Gear on the Switch, PS4, and PC. It's messy and unbalanced, but I really like the uniquely soft-edged sprites and detailed backgrounds (for a PlayStation game, anyway). It's also a fierce and energetic garage album of a game that creator Daisuke Ishiwatari stuffed with every anime and heavy metal tribute he could imagine, perhaps suspecting that he might never get another fighting game past the suits. He did, of course, but his first attempt is fascinating on its own.

Now, if Arc System Works wants to talk about really crude prototypes, they should root around their archives and find the unfinished original version of Guilty Gear. It had ugly CG graphics and all of the illustrations looked like unpolished fanart of the characters—which they were, in a way.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF UNEXPECTED CROSSOVERS

We live in an age of unbridled crossovers. Game companies frequently loan their characters to other developers, and rampant mergers mean that once discrete game catalogs are now enormous grab-bags. We're almost inured to the concept of Professor Layton meeting Phoenix Wright, of Virtua Fighter characters guesting in Dead or Alive, or of Mario popping into half the games on any modern Nintendo system. Even the gigantic pile-ups of Project X Zone and Namco X Capcom were not without firm precedent, since we'd seen the idea before with Super Robot Wars.

Yet crossovers were not always such a routine sight among video games. Some of the stranger ones stood out for their time, their tone, their history, or their heroes' refusal to wear clothes.

BATTLETOADS & DOUBLE DRAGON
(NES/Genesis/SNES/Game Boy, 1993)

Video-game crossovers were rare indeed during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Games from the same wheelhouse might share characters and themes, of course, but the idea of Capcom's Mega Man meeting up with Castlevania characters was the stuff of playground lies and Captain N cartoons. That's what made Battletoads & Double Dragon stand out.

Both Rare's Battletoads and Technos Japan's Double Dragon were side-scrolling brawlers in one way or another, and the two united under publisher Tradewest. Neither series was a top contender in 1993, though; Battletoads hadn't become the multimedia smash Rare clearly hoped for, and Double Dragon was no longer the defining arcade brawler it had been circa 1988. Nobody had much to lose by slapping them together and putting the results on every major game system.

Billed as “the Ultimate Team,” the game brings Double Dragon's heroes Billy and Jimmy Lee into the Battletoads playbook, interspersing street-punk bouts with speeder-bike rides and spaceship battles. It's neither as varied nor as memorably frustrating as the original NES Battletoads, and it does nothing remarkable with its Double Dragon imports. This was long before crossovers brought out in-jokes and self-mockery, so the most we get out of the team-up are humdrum quips from the Battletoads, fresh off their terrible one-episode cartoon.

Battletoads & Double Dragon didn't help much. Battletoads blipped off the radar and into humorous obscurity, and the Double Dragon series spent the rest of the 1990s coasting on name recognition and stumbling through a live-action movie and syndicated cartoon that draw little affection even in this modern irony-uber-alles world. So there's some comfort for Battletoads & Double Dragon: it's far from the low point of either series.

CHAOS WARS
(PlayStation 2, 2008)

You might not even mark Chaos Wars as a crossover game at first glance. It plucks characters from Growlanser, Shadow Hearts, Gungrave, and Blazing Souls, but they're all recast in a cutesy fashion that might obscure their identities. Check the box art. It took me a moment to realize that the fellow up top is actually Beyond the Grave, protagonist of the Gungrave series.

That isn't what makes Chaos Wars notable, though. It's a routine strategy-RPG from Idea Factory, and it gives its dopey original characters more attention than the established guest stars from better games. What sets it apart is the English voice acting. It's marvelous, dreadful, clearly amateurish stuff, and it gave a forgettable RPG a permanent spot among those compilations of terrible dubs in video games.

What's especially fascinating is the story behind it. Chaos Wars saw a limited release as a GameStop exclusive, and as the story goes, publisher O~3 Entertainment wanted to release it with only the Japanese voice track. Sony wouldn't have this, however, and so O~3 stuck the game with the cheapest dub imaginable, roping family members of their employees into the recording booth and having actors play as many different characters as possible. In fact, O~3 Entertainment is an intriguing enigma themselves. They're one of those smaller publishers that showed up during the PlayStation2 and GameCube era and vanished by its end, and Chaos Wars was their last release. Did that voice acting, budget-shelf as it was, actually sink a company?

CROSS EDGE
(PlayStation 3, 2008)

One thing lifts Cross Edge above the typical game-company wife swap. It stews together characters from the game libraries of Nippon Ichi Software, Gust, and Idea Factory, three companies closely aligned in their output of anime-styled RPGs. And so the characters in Cross Edge hail from Nippon Ichi's Disgaea, Idea Factory's Spectral Souls, Gust's Atelier and Mana Khemia, and…Capcom's Darkstalkers.

The last one is a surprise. Darkstalkers was a leader among fighting games in the late 1990s, but Capcom granted it nothing but reissues and remixes like The Chaos Tower for the following decade. Perhaps that's why Idea Factory got it cheap for Cross Edge. That, and Darkstalkers sorta fits into Cross Edge's central concept of multiple worlds colliding with a pack of original and boring characters caught at the center.

No one counted on Cross Edge to revive Darkstalkers, and with good reason. The game trudges through laborious battles, and the scattered storyline invests its borrowed characters with nothing new (and don't look for much from Bandai Namco, as Tekken's Mokujin has a bit role). Worst of all, it's not even thorough in its Darkstalkers tributes: you'll see Dimitri, Felicia, Jedah, Lilith, and, of course, Morrigan—she's the first recurring character to join up, in fact. And that's it. No Sasquatch, no J. Talbain, and no crazed bounty-hunter version of Little Red Riding Hood. Yet perhaps it's for the best that they sat this one out.

There are much better crossovers out there, of course, and others loom on the horizon. So what's your favorite? Do you remain loyal to Marvel vs. Capcom, even after Infinite? Are you hoping for Project X Zone 3? Or will nothing satisfy you but the debut of the perpetually delay-mired Tekken X Street Fighter?

NEW RELEASES

LITTLE WITCH ACADEMIA
(PS4, Steam) It's comforting to see Little Witch Academia shoot from a one-off anime episode to the big-time accomplishment of a licensed video game. Creator Yoh Yoshinari deserves it, having animated explosions, co-designed Valkyrie Profile characters, and generally been an underrated talent for many years. Some might say that getting the Little Witch Academia animated series on Netflix helped, but if that was all it took, we'd be deep into games based on Speed Grapher.

Little Witch Academia: Chamber of Time eschews the seemingly inevitable RPG adaptation and turns the anime series into a brawler. Akko and her magic-studying schoolmates are stuck in a timeloop at the start of summer, forced to delve into an underground realm of monsters and evil timepieces. Stages play out like Dragon's Crown, Castle Crashers, and other games that I'm not comfortable calling “belt-scrollers,” as three-character parties face enemies in battles thick with combos and spells. My early impressions are not favorable: the game takes forever to get going, and the combat is disappointingly loose. But I'll save my final opinion for a review.

SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: STRANGE JOUNREY REDUX
(3DS)

You might've missed Strange Journey's first release. It was an RPG on the Nintendo DS at a time when RPGs swamped the system, so it's understandable if you were distracted by Sands of Destruction or Luminous Arc 3: Whoa, They Made Three of Those. And here's your chance to try an improved version for the 3DS.

Strange Journey isn't a central game in the Shin Megami Tensei series, but it plays to traditions. An entrance to a demon-filled realm called the Schwarzwelt (which sounds less spooky when translated from German) opens up in Antarctica, and the player's avatar dons a Demonica environmental suit and leads a party inside. The dimension they explore is a hazardous labyrinth of monsters, but in Shin Megami Tensei fashion, you're allowed to negotiate with them as much as you can pound on them in turn-based battles. Redux gives the interface some minor polish and new difficulty levels, plus a bonus dungeon and extra endings that involve a demonic interloper named Alex and a new dungeon called the Womb. It'd be Die Gebarmutter in German, so I can see why Atlus left that one in English.

OTHER NOTEWORTHY RELEASES
Nintendo continues its quest to very slowly bring every major Wii U release to the Switch, and the latest carryover is Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition. It has every story arc and character from previous iterations of the game, bringing the Zelda-based brawler 29 playable characters. It's a good, meaty distraction until Nintendo Switch-ifies the defining Wii U masterpiece with Devil's Third: Definitive Edition.

The Switch also gets a few emigrants from beyond Nintendo space with The Banner Saga, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, and Battle Chasers: Nightwar. The last of these may be the most intriguing to the anime crowd, since the Battle Chasers comic was awash with blatant anime and video-game plunderings before Joe Madueira left it to form a video game company that never went anywhere. But that's a story for another time.

Well, that's it for my guest column. You'll see me around Anime News Network, of course, and I still run my own site at kidfenris.com because I enjoy pretending that it's 2005 and that everyone isn't doing podcasts and YouTube videos and live Twitch stream charity unboxings instead of blogs. I only have to wait thirty years until it's “retro” and popular again!


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