I’m aware that this is the second PSP-related article I’ve done in a row. Also note that I’ve used normalized caps for the title. Don’t know what I was thinking in the past; hopefully I can break that habit.
I’ve said before that I don’t review games unless I feel strongly about them. And I feel very strongly that Retro Game Challenge, Bandai Namco’s unique sendup of 1980’s gaming, needs more love.
I feel this way because its sequel is not already locked in for a U.S. release.
Released this past February by XSEED Games, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite publishers, the game apparently sold like day-old flapjacks. I can understand why. The line of thinking goes like this: why shell out $30 for an eight-pack retrogaming pastiche when there are compilations like Namco Museum, Taito Legends and Intellivison Lives! that feature real retrogames for a fraction of the price? I’ll admit, it took until May before I was able to justify purchasing the game, finding it at a Fry’s Electronics for $25 (and the sticker price said $28!), but now that I’ve played it…I feel like a fool for not making it a release day purchase as I originally planned. The whole, in brief, is greater than the sum of its parts.
To understand the game’s premise, thin as it is, we need to take a brief trip to Japan, where this game is called Game Center CX. It was conceived of as a spinoff of a TV series of the same name (which may or may not be released overseas as Retro Game Master), whose main attraction is comedian Shinya Arino’s attempts to conquer classic games. In Retro Game Challenge, it is explained that Arino’s evil digital doppleganger, the self-styled Game Master Arino, is haunting DS systems everywhere and he’s decided to pick on you, the player, by zapping you (or rather, your polygonal avatar) back into the 80’s, where you’re stuck playing video games with his younger slacker self until you can complete all his challenges.
All this is just a ridiculous framing device for one of the most gloriously meta games out there. The idea of making what amounts to a gaming sim seems ridiculous on paper, but this trip back in time faithfully recreates those days of way back when, before the Internet made cheats and hints ubiquitous. Your best friend is the fictitious Gamefan Magazine (which, ironically enough, was once the name of an actual game magazine), a periodic periodical dispensing tips, tricks, news on upcoming “releases” and the occasional bit of fourth wall-tapping humor. There is something satisfying about plunging through each game, relying only on what the manual tells you and what clues you glean from the magazines: there is an excitement to discovering new codes and secrets that is largely lost in this era where GameFAQs makes everything so simple.
I wax nostalgic because I do, in fact, remember those days when game magazines were the primary source of game info. I got my first Nintendo Power three months before I actually got my SNES for Christmas in 1993. Super The Empire Strikes Back was the featured article; we had Yoda sitting in Dagobah on the cover. It also covered Cool Spot, the infamous SNES version of Mortal Kombat, and divulged some of the finer points of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening’s first dungeon (information that would come in handy later, as I also got my original vanilla brick Game Boy that same Christmas). But I digress.
The game is structured as follows: a new game comes out, Game Master Arino drops four challenges in your lap, one after another, and when you’ve cleared them all, the game flashes forward a few months to the next big release. There are eight titles in all, summarized (as close as I can get to a summary, anyway) as follows:
Cosmic Gate is, at its most basic, a Galaga clone. This is good, however, because Galaga is an awesome game. There are also differences enough to make it stand out on its own: enemy wave movements are a little more erratic and unpredictable, the bonus stage is an asteroid shooting gallery (where you can die!), enemy sprites are palette-swapped instead of switched entirely (which arguably makes them look more freakish and alien on the higher levels), the game features actual powerups (as well as a hidden warp system), and it also has a finite end: after 64 levels of alien shooting, the game dispenses the obligatory CONGRATURATION! and sends you on your way. Keep this fact in mind: you’ll need to get there eventually.
Robot Ninja Haggleman is a silly-sounding name (though I suppose you could call him Haguruman if you prefer) for a decent “defeat all the enemies to proceed”-type arcade platformer in the vein of the original Mario Bros.. There’s some strategy involved with the matter of the color-changing doors (which, if used efficiently, can be your most effective means of defeating foes), and it takes a cue from Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins (complete with questionable English) by making you play the entire game again to get the true ending. A fine beginning for a fictional franchise.
Rally King is an overhead-perspective racing game. Four tracks, 19 opponents, no pit stops. Not a bad game, but not especially notable.
Star Prince is the spiritual sequel to Cosmic Gate, evolving from a relatively simple Space Invaders-type shoot-’em-up to a full-blown space odyssey in the vein of RayForce (a.k.a. Galactic Attack, a.k.a. Layer Section…), Ikaruga and the like. It seems short at first – there are only four levels, and the first three all have incrementally stronger incarnations of the same boss – but after you’re done, the game drops the Ghosts ‘n Goblins twist in your lap and sends you back through for another go-round. The number of projectiles approaches danmaku levels towards the end; fortunately, your ship is armed with a shield that absorbs bullets and sends ‘em back in an eight-way screen-clearing wave. Proper use of this trick is, unsurprisingly, the key to survival.
Robot Ninja Haggleman 2 is a linear sequel to the original. Mad scientist Chingensai has kidnapped the princess again, he’s spirited her off to his Mech-Castle again, etc.. This game is basically “Haggleman 1, Extended 2-Disc Director’s Cut With Bonus Scenes“: levels are larger, bosses are harder, and if you get to the end of the game – the second end, I mean – there’s even an extra final boss battle to face. More of an expansion pack than a proper sequel, really.
Rally King SP is the fictional product of a phenomenon that never really happened in the United States. Sure, we had product placement games over here like the aforementioned Cool Spot and Yo! Noid (which was actually a heavily-localized version of a game called Masked Ninja Hanamaru, but that’s an entirely different phenomenon), but I don’t think there was ever a special edition version of an existing game made specifically for product placement. Imagine if Masked Ninja Hanamaru came out unmodified in the U.S. and then we got Yo! Noid. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about here. Rally King SP is a special edition promotion between Gamefan Magazine and an instant noodle company; the end result is that the game features remixed versions of the original four tracks with a new “sunset” color palette and some annoying, unskippable cutscenes of Gamefan’s blue bird mascot eating cup ramen between every stage. The moral of the story? There are some things you should be thankful the U.S. missed out on.
Guadia Quest…ah, Guadia Quest. This one’s an unusual sucker. You’ll probably go in expecting a pale rehash of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy: a band of young heroes go out on a quest, plumb dungeons, grind levels, rescue a princess or seven, slay the dragon, kill the Demon King, save the world, etc.. This synopsis, while partly true, is far from accurate. Guadia Quest is an unapologetically old-timey RPG, but it brings just enough to the table to be a decent game on its own merits. Battle damage is no longer left to the whims of the Random Number God; instead, every weapon has a sequence of “hit marks” that determine its performance. You have to weigh the damage output of the weapons you obtain against their reliability: which is better, a powerful blade that is guaranteed to miss 25% of the time, or a weaker weapon that is always sure to hit? There’s also the matter of the eponymous Guadias, mighty monsters that can be convinced to join your side through a trial-by-combat. That’s right, there’s a monster capture dynamic, but instead of lobbing balls or conversation, you have to beat the crap out of your prospective recruit, which is easier said than done as Guadias magically become boss-level monsters as soon as you offer to make a pact with them. The game’s world is small for an RPG, around the size of Dragon Quest’s Alefgard, but the plot is where this game might surprise you. It opens up with the boilerplate rigamarole about how you are the chosen descendants of a legendary knight who saved the world with the power of Guadias, establishing a treaty between Heaven and the Netherworld, etc. etc., and now the princess of Centraan has been abducted and her father the King tasks you with charging into the depths of the self-explanatory Deep Dungon and rescuing her. Sounds simple enough, but where it eventually goes will surprise those expecting the obvious RPG plot: without offering too many spoilers, the twist right before the end is less Dragon Quest than Bioshock, and while there is a nice happy round of forgiveness handed out before it’s all over, the note the game ends on is far from triumphant.
Finally, we come to Robot Ninja Haggleman 3. The first thing you’ll notice upon booting this game up is that Haggleman now looks like Metal Sonic. The second thing you’ll notice is that jumping on enemies (as per Haggleman tradition) is a good way to kill yourself. Yep, this ain’t your father’s Haggleman. Haggleman 3 is what would happen if you tossed Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, Kid Icarus and Metroid into a blender with some crushed ice and a twist of lime, and then splashed yourself over the head with the resulting concoction. Haggleman’s throwing stars now harm enemies instead of stunning them, and getting in close will allow him to dispatch foes with a sword swipe. There are only three stages (capped off with three consecutive boss fights), but they are long, labyrinthine and borderline sadistic at times: any one of Haggleman 3’s levels is easily worth three levels from most other sidescrollers, and exploring each and every nook and cranny of them is not just a good idea, it’s the law. (I’m serious. Haggleman 3 introduces an equipment system where you can customize Haggleman’s abilities by finding or purchasing “Hagglegears”. Some of the benefits these gears confer are required to proceed through key points in the game.) The only thing resembling forgiveness that the game shows is that it’s relatively generous with permanent checkpoints; levels are clearly divided into smaller (but still huge) subsections, and losing all your lives will send you back to the start of the current subsection rather than the beginning of the entire stage. You still lose half your cash, though, but you keep your Hagglegears. If this wasn’t the case, Haggleman 3 would probably have contributed significantly to the number of DS systems destroyed by violent impact.
At the end of this long and unwieldy dissertation we come to the matter of the game’s localization, which is (of course) top-notch. Young Arino’s constant commentary is provided by Yuri “Sasuke/Suzaku/Simon” Lowenthal; he sounds about ten years older than what his character appears to be, but this is probably a blessing. The localization has been Westernized somewhat, with Gamefan’s content being written by actual American game journalists writing under pseudonyms (or so Wikipedia says); this is somewhat incongruous with the blatantly Japanese setting (tatami mats on the floor? And just where did the first console RPG come from, hmm?) but it adds a welcome touch of verisimilitude. Guadia Quest’s localization is fairly straight and to the point, with a few anachronistic gags thrown in for good measure (try talking to the ducks!), while older titles retain appropriate amounts of Engrish (”YOUR ADVENTURE IS NOT END!”), and Haggleman 3’s localization is suitably somewhat awkward and corny (the third boss transforms with a declaration that sounds almost suggestive).
All in all, the question you should be asking yourself isn’t “why spend $30 bucks on this when I can get a real retrogaming compilation for less?”, but rather “where else can I get eight excellent 80’s-style games that no one’s ever played before?” If there’s a Fry’s Electronics near you and they’re still selling this game for $25, it’ll definitely be worth your while (and your money) to go pick it up.
And if you don’t?
Then the evil Net Master Ryusui will haunt your PC and drag you into an alternate 90’s where you’ll have to start up the fan translation scene on your own if you ever want to get back to the year 2009. Gene Hunt will not be there to save you. Pleasant dreams…
Happy 2009, everybody!
…Oh, wait. It’s three months late for that. Nevermind.
Anyways, my first non-BoF2-related update of the year concerns an unusual subject: a game review. Usually I don’t write reviews except about games I feel very strongly about, for or against, and this game is no exception to that rule. I speak of Blue Lacuna, an interactive fiction title that debuted in demo form during the 2008 Spring Thing competition and finally saw a full release in the past few months. You can download the game at the author’s website; you’ll also need an interpreter (think of it as an emulator, only for a system that doesn’t actually exist), and I highly recommend Gargoyle for the task.
The superbrief version of the story is this: A Wayfarer Is You!
…Okay, let’s try for the brief version. (The verbose one can also be sort of found on the author’s website; Blueful is the story of how the protagonist came to be who and what he is, told in fragments scattered across the Internet. It makes sense once you’re familiar with the story, but I vastly preferred how it was originally all put together in one convenient place. Stupid shame I never thought to copy-and-paste it.)
You are a painter of incredible talents; you have displayed these phenomenal abilities ever since childhood. Of course, your painting didn’t bring you happiness; you were a curiosity, your artwork a source of income to exploit.
And then you learned to Wayfare, and left this world behind forever.
Wayfarers are artists armed with the ability to journey from world to world, creating gateways to new realities through their art. Painting, sculpture, music…any talent that can be called art can be a Wayfarer’s tool. As a result, you are something of a cross between Atrus from the Myst series, Scott Bakula’s character from Quantum Leap and Doctor Who: an adventurer whose path is defined only by imagination, but for whom every step along the road is irrevocable, and damned to an eternity of solitude. Wayfarers are one in a trillion; you’ve met a few in your travels, but such encounters are brief and bittersweet, and everyone else you meet just ephemeral wisps in the fabric of the universe. But then you found Rume.
Rume is not a Wayfarer, but is nevertheless the love of your life; you’ve lived on Rume’s world for a year when the story begins. You’re still an artist, but Wayfaring is something you’re content to leave behind: life with Rume, a joy and adventure in itself, is far sweeter than your previous, solitary existence. Naturally, this is where destiny comes knocking at the door.
In case I haven’t made this clear already, once a Wayfarer Wayfares, it’s a one-way trip; the artwork gets left behind, but is no longer a doorway, and a Wayfarer cannot simply “art” his way back to a world; you can’t simply duplicate your own work. However, there’s nothing stopping a Wayfarer from ending up on a world with another Wayfarer…in fact, a Wayfarer may find himself drawn to another Wayfarer’s world. This is what’s called “the Call”: a Wayfarer may find himself compelled to Wayfare to a particular world, one where a fellow Wayfarer is in distress. You’ve experienced it once before, and the Call has struck again, just as you were beginning to settle into life with Rume. The choice is yours whether to heed the Call or stay, but should you heed it, adventure awaits…
Blue Lacuna is an ambitious work, sometimes straining the boundaries of its own implementation (I played Release 3, which was still not quite glitch-free; an NPC who was supposed to be bedridden was walking around, giving messages for both his normal and his injured states, the beehive puzzle becomes unsolvable without guesswork after a point, when the actual “bees traveling” descriptions stop getting printed, and the bridge/staircase’s functionality is horribly broken), but what works, works solidly. The aforementioned inexplicable experience aside, most of the game is spent in the company – or with the nearby presence – of an NPC with a vast array of random actions and subjects of knowledge; virtually every time you encounter him, he’ll be in the middle of doing something and will very likely have something new to say. He manages to serve both as comic relief and the story’s key dramatic figure: in many respects, Blue Lacuna is the tale of this Ben Gunn-esque survivor more than it is your own, and much of your time on his island will be spent piecing together who he is and what he’s doing here.
The important thing to note here is that when I said “the choice is yours”, I meant it. The game gives you many choices, some more subtle than others, and a variety of nonstandard commands and unusual (but appropriate) inputs are recognized. The game tracks your behavior on many levels: every choice you make has its repercussions towards how the story proceeds and how it will end. True to its Myst-inspired origins, there is a choice to be made at the end of the game, although the nature of the choice itself is more reminiscent of the Shin Megami Tensei series, and truer to MegaTen than Myst, how you choose to enforce that decision also plays a role in things.
In addition, the game has what its author calls a “Drama Manager”; think of it as the story’s guardian angel, throwing things into the mix whenever there’s a lengthy lull in the action. It’s hard to get stuck in Blue Lacuna; an event will inevitably throw itself in your face and get the story back on track, and the necessity of sleep, normally a problem to be worked against, is instead vitally important to advancing the story.
Depending on who you ask, Blue Lacuna is either a work of art or a great big bundle of pretentious, sesquipedalian nonsense. Naturally, I view the latter group as a bunch of cretinous troglodytes who should not be allowed within ten feet of a parser. I’ll admit that I had some unkind words for the author after playing the demonstration version: it ends without fanfare or summation, dropping a “thanks for playing!” message in the player’s lap without even ending the game properly. Now that I have played the full, final version, however, I take it back. I take back every single foolish thing I said, and I apologize profusely. Blue Lacuna stole my heart and broke it, but the finished version put it back together again better than ever. Interestingly, the finished version covers almost the same territory as the demo, but there’s more to it: the story is fleshed out better, there are more events and numerous additions to the scenery, and despite featuring the same general locations and puzzles, once the new content comes into play, the finished version feels like a completely different game.
In short? If you like Interactive Fiction, play Blue Lacuna. If you don’t, play Blue Lacuna. It’s a wonderful balance between story and challenge with a compelling plotline and a beautiful setting. (Yes, it’s all text, but you can imagine, right? Well?) To be honest, glitches aside I’d like to call it the best interactive fiction I’ve ever played, and I’ve played quite a bit. (Sorry, Andrew Plotkin.)
So I got Persona 4 for Christmas. All I can say is…I’m sorry I ever doubted Atlus.
Let’s not mince words: the honorifics are back. But somehow, they’re not as grating this time around. The writing and voice acting has improved markedly from the last game: there’s still the odd quibble, but I’m up to June and I haven’t encountered anything on the level of the previous game’s disastrous flubs.
Teddie is a shining case in point. I know he gets replaced as spotter (hopefully by not another Fuuka Yamagishi, but if it’s who I think it is, it’s highly unlikely this is the case), but while he does drop honorifics, he’s funny enough to offset it (a statement that has no doubt shaved several points off of my credibility, if the petition and the perpetual delays in releasing Breath of Fire 2 haven’t done so already). He calls the protagonist “Sensei” (which has its pragmatic purposes from a writing standpoint, since the protagonist is named by the player), but seeing how he picks up the habit after watching the protagonist dispatch his first shadow, it’s not only a tolerable habit, it’s actually hilarious when you consider the implication that the protagonist has picked up a fanboy in the form of the strange mascot from the TV world.
And the game itself? Nothing will ever quite top Persona 3’s setting, what with its Greek mythology overtones, its predominantly blue palette, the freakin’ Evoker pistols…but there’s something more comfortable about P4’s setting, and at the same time more unsettling. The town of Inaba is closer to your average Harvest Moon setting than anything the Persona franchise (heck, anything the Shin Megami Tensei series as a whole) has seen before, though instead of farming, you’re attending high school, trying to maintain a social life, taking part-time jobs, studying, hanging out, reading, cooking on occasion…oh yeah, and you’ve stumbled upon a nefarious plot to murder people by feeding them to the demonic denizens of the TV world. There’s definitely more to do in Inaba than there was in Persona 3’s city, but at the same time there’s a darker cloud over things (no pun intended) as you’re not a band of highschoolers contracted by a secret organization in order to save the world, but a band of highschoolers who discover they’re the only ones who can stop a string of serial killings. You’re not superheroes, you’re Scooby-Doo and the gang, only with less running, more fighting, and peoples’ lives on the line. The premise also hits much closer to home this time, as you even get acquainted with the second victim before her demise (even though she turns out not to be quite the person she appears to be).
Persona 4 fixes many of Persona 3’s issues, including the nagging gameplay problem that you could only control your allies as far as setting AI profiles for them. They still default to AI, but now you can select the Direct Command option and control them manually. There’s also a nice synthesis system of sorts in the game: Shadows drop materials which you can sell at the weapon shop for extra money, but selling enough of them will allow the owner of the shop to make new equips for your party members. You also have more characteristics to level up and more means of doing so: giving right answers at school will not only boost your Knowledge but also your Expression if you’re helping one of your classmates out of a bind, you can buy books you can read for stat bonuses, and part-time jobs will not only give you a little extra spending money, but also boosts to your characteristics. (One of the more humorous ways of boosting stats involves tackling the Aiya diner’s 3,000-yen rainy day challenge, a quintuple-size beef bowl: in addition to boosting several at once, the protagonist’s internal monologue is priceless.) Elizabeth’s Requests have been replaced by a quest system: there are fifty in all, obtainable by talking to people at certain times (or through the Hermit Social Link – yes, those are back). Many quests involve getting rare drops from monsters; others might involve answering questions or solving other peoples’ problems, and all provide useful (if primarily meager) rewards.
Thus far…yes, I think it’s been better than Persona 3, and I apologize profusely for talking smack about things I knew nothing about. Thank you for listening, and again, I apologize to Atlus for my…rude behavior.
Which brings us to the other half of the apology: that I haven’t gotten out Breath of Fire 2 by the end of the year. But my alpha run’s about halfway done (just finished up in Farma/FarmTown), so beta will begin…soon. I can’t say when; it’ll only jinx things.
See you all in the new year!
First, the good news: Breath of Fire 2 is nearing completion and the betatesting will hopefully begin in earnest in a month or so.
The bad news is, I’m still finding bugs, and every time I think I’m done I turn around and find another. The bugs are getting squashed nonetheless, though, and I’m even fixing stuff that d4s left broken.
And the just plain news: I like translation. Of course, if this weren’t the case, you wouldn’t be here right now. No, what I mean to say is that I have a deep respect for good writing in a translation, and all my work on fan translation is my own, possibly quixotic, attempt to stand with the greats. Square-Enix’s recent Final Fantasy localizations have been art, pure and simple. And once upon a time, I saw Atlus as an exemplar among U.S. publishers. They not only picked up the games no one else would touch, they gave them excellent English translations. Fluent, natural dialogue, stellar voice acting, the works. Okay, so they flubbed on a few demon names in Shin Megami Tensei, and I keep hearing how awful Magna Carta turned out, but they’re still good, right?
I stopped thinking that in August 2007, when Persona 3 came out. Apart from star performances by Vic Mignogna and Liam O’Brien, the localization of this game is an absolute trainwreck, with a crappy stilted script full of meaningless untranslated Japanese and some genuinely ear-bleeding voicework provided by the team’s support crew. This kind of garbage cannot be excused – I thought we left it behind years ago – and I refuse to tolerate it.
Now Persona 4 is on its way this December, and judging from Atlus’ hostile reaction to my criticism of their pathetic work on Persona 3, they’re set to repeat their idiot mistakes all over again. I’m well aware that this is coming far too late to be considered a “preemptive strike”, and the odds of actually making Atlus see reason are pretty much nonexistent, but I’ve started an online petition aimed at making Atlus understand that if they’re aiming for “cultural accuracy”, they should produce something that won’t make their audience slap their foreheads and groan as all the characters recite lines that sound like nothing any sane English speaker would utter. It’s goofy when Japanese characters pepper their speech with mangled English, and it’s no less goofy when people facing the end of the world sound like they’re reciting fansubs verbatim.
Read it – sign it – spread the word.
Even if we can’t change anything, we can always point to this and say “hey, it’s not our fault Persona 4 came out another trainwreck”, right?