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NIPPON ICHI Software America has released Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo, the second of two anthologies of classic shoot ‘em ups produced by Kyoto, Japan-based Psikyo, a videogame development company established in the early 1990s, and, not surprisingly, it winds up approximating the quality of its predecessor. As with Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha, the collection is made up of six shooters that preserve the look and feel of their arcade source material. And, as with Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha, it boasts of an overall gameplay experience that, with updated graphics and sounds, exceeds expectations.
THERE are undoubtedly those who will remember a promising tactics game by the name of Warsong. Released for the Sega Genesis, Warsong blended Japanese-role-playing-game mechanics with turn-based strategy gameplay, asking its players to not merely take control of several mighty heroes, but also direct whole armies into battle. At the time, the unique twist to the genre enabled it to stand out; it was able to use its much larger sense of scale to its advantage. Unlike other contemporary titles, it didn’t just compel characters to fight; it likewise required players to manage troop composition, take care of commander levels, and watch their overall positioning on the battlefield to win the day.
WHEN Two Point Hospital first made waves on the personal computer two years ago, it became known as the spiritual successor of Theme Hospital, and rightfully so. It carries the genetic imprint and soul of its 1997 progenitor, a business simulation game which has become an enduring hit in the video game industry. To date, Theme Hospital has sold over four million copies worldwide, a feat that Two Point Hospital hopes to equal, if not surpass, as it ports over to the Nintendo Switch. Developer Two Point Studios does have the pedigree; producer Mark Webley was also the project leader, as well as programmer and developer, of Theme Hospital for Bullfrog Productions. Today, with designer/artist Gary Carr and programmer Ben Hymers, former Bullfrog colleagues, they’re meeting the challenge head-on. Given its presence in six platforms all told, Two Point Hospital has become the second most downloaded game in terms of sales in much of the world.
THERE’S A huge lack of scary titles currently out on the market. Aside from the release of a few choice offerings such as the remake of Resident Evil 2 last year, the gaming landscape seems to have largely eschewed the genre; not many developers appear willing to try their hand at creating the next horror classic. Thankfully, Supermassive Games is not among them. From its humble beginnings making downloadable add-ons for the Sony PlayStation 3 platformer Little Big Planet in 2009, the independent company based in Surrey, England has come a long way; now, it’s recognized as an award-winning creator of content that pushes the envelope.
GAMERS have long learned to be wary of releases trumpeted as “story-driven” experiences. Time and time again, these titles have proven unworthy of the hype; lacking focus in gameplay elements, they wind up being little more than amusing distractions. And such seemed to be the fate of Detroit: Become Human when it first hit store shelves in early 2018. Written by noted developer David Cage and published by Paris-based Quantic Dream (which he not coincidentally founded), it seemed consigned to suffer the same fate of other games in its genre. After all, it did fall into the same traps, showing, on the outside, an ostensible over-reliance on quick-time events (QTEs) and button prompts, a devaluation of photorealistic graphics with wonky controls, and predisposition for heavy-handed messaging.
CAPCOM’S Monster Hunter series has stayed strong throughout its lifetime, and there’s no real wonder as to why. While not the most thought-provoking out in the market, it knows its strengths and is second to none in its unabashedly heavy focus on adventure and exploration. There’s simply no other franchise that can emulate the mystery its forests and jungles bring, or come close to approximating the dread, say, a Rathalos provides as it comes bearing down with fangs and claws extended. Even as it requires grinding to the point of excess, it invariably delivers on its promises of grandeur, riches, and glory that can only be the stuff of dreams.
SHOOT ‘EM UPS have retained their popularity in arcades for a variety of reasons. In large measure, they hold universal appeal because of the relative ease with which gamers can start enjoying them; the objectives are clear and uncomplicated, with little to no backstories required to set them up. Certainly, it was what moved Psikyo, a videogame development company established in the early nineties, to keep producing titles in the genre. And it was no coincidence that chief executive officer Shinsuke Nakamura’s resume included the design of the hugely popular Sonic Wings (Aero Fighters in the West).
DRAGON BALL has a rich, colorful history. From its humble beginnings as a fun, over-the-top anime series created by manga artist Akira Toriyama in 1984, it has evolved into a giant franchise pervading just about every book and cranny of popular culture. And even casual observers know and understand why: Its deceptively simple story of perseverance, heroism, and strength entertains and resonates among a loyal base of followers with otherwise-disparate tastes. It’s filled to the brim with good-natured humor and fun, with epic tales about godly powers and all-too-human frailties. Notwithstanding the countless competition, it has remained a favorite of both the young and young once, and with reason.
JAPANESE role playing games have come so far from their once-humble beginnings. The early releases struggled to gain a foothold in the West, but subsequent offerings from such franchises as Final Fantasy 7, Fire Emblem, and Dragon Quest managed to find homes in the hearts of gamers. Intellectual properties like these have reinvented the genre, however slowly, and their success underscores the core tenets of timeless examples: proper emphasis on deep stories, interesting gameplay mechanics, and immensely likable characters.
TOUTED AS A spiritual successor to the underrated Slain: Back from Hell, also developed by the two-man Steel Mantis Games, Valfaris packs the heavy in heavy metal and thrives as a two-dimensional action platformer. It’s a classic side scroller packed with contemporary goodness; the soundtrack successfully serves to pump up the adrenaline and helps gamers prep for swath after swath of enemies. Appropriately diverse, the latter keep coming, and their onslaught is interrupted only by the appearances of mid- and end-level bosses; they’re fodder for mayhem, and provide benefits for even more mayhem by way of their loot drops.
WHEN Nekketsu koha Kunio-kun (roughly translated as “Hot Blood Tough Guy Kunio”) made its way to arcades in 1986, not even its biggest fans thought it would have legs. Even as developer Technos Japan had high hopes for it (going so far as to name its principal protagonist after company president Kunio Taki), it seemed to carry a one-off vibe. After all, it was a side-scrolling beat-em-‘up that, for the first time, employed four-direction movement and required multiple hits to dispatch enemies. It turned out to be a commercial smash, prompting the release of a port to the Nintendo Family Computer the next year and serving as the kickoff point of an immensely popular franchise.
THE LAUNCH of Tom Clancy’s The Division in 2016 was met with great expectations. As an online role-playing game, it bore the expertise of developer Massive Entertainment, whose previous work in seeing Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and Far Cry 3 through gave it the confidence to pledge the setting of new standards in multiplayer engagement. Needless to say, the assistance that it received from other Ubisoft subsidiaries, particularly Red Storm Entertainment, Ubisoft Reflections, and Ubisoft Annecy enabled it to meet its objectives, albeit not without growing pains.
CONSIDERING that the Dead or Alive franchise first came about due to necessity, it couldn’t but have drawn inspiration from successful titles in its genre. Pressed to produce a videogame that would prop up Tokyo-based Tecmo’s flat sales figures, designer Tomonobu Itagaki saw fit to survey the landscape and take what he felt were the most popular features of the best titles on the market. Dead or Alive, the result of his exertions, combined aspects found in such notables as Sega’s Virtua Fighter, SNK’s Fatal Fury, and Midway Games’ Mortal Kombat series. And, even as it was so named in reference to his do-or-die mandate, it took coin-operated machines by storm in 1996 and promptly spurred work on Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation versions.
REAL-TIME strategy games on consoles are a dime a dozen, but few stand out. The problem isn’t in the effort; in fact, developers continually try to exceed themselves in lifting up the genre for home gaming platforms. Unfortunately, they’re hard-pressed to do so given intrinsic limitations. Broken down to basics, control sticks exhibit frailties vis-à-vis keyboard-and-mouse configurations of personal computers, thus requiring reprogramming of ports to present streamlined mechanics. The more successful titles — Halo Wars and They Are Billions, for instance — are fondly viewed as diversions that admittedly provide an enjoyable experience for casual gamers, but nonetheless fail to match the sophistication of dedicated rigs.
RED DEAD REVOLVER almost never came to light. Angel Studios began working on it at the turn of the millennium, and managed to move it forward enough to be officially announced alongside three other intellectual properties two years later. Despite the support of industry giant Capcom, however, it went on to miss production targets and wound up being canceled not long after. Fortunately, fate intervened, and holding company Take Two Interactive’s acquisition of its erstwhile developer paved the way for its resurrection at the hands of subsidiary Rockstar Games. Under the tutelage of Rockstar San Diego, it lived up to its promise as a spiritual successor to Konami veteran Yoshiki Okamoto’s vertical-scrolling arcade shooter Gun.Smoke on sixth-generation consoles.
NOT A few eyebrows were raised when Sega decided to release Super Monkey Ball on the GameCube. Timing was, of course, critical to the decision. The success of Monkey Ball in coin-op machines at the turn of the millennium prompted moves to port it over to a home platform, and its programming for the Japanese videogame company’s New Arcade Operation Machine Idea cabinet made the Dreamcast an obvious choice. Unfortunately, the pioneering 6th-generation console floundered off the gates, leading to its status as a launch title for Nintendo’s own piece of gaming hardware.
EVEN CASUAL observers know better than to undervalue the degree of affection those with a predisposed bent towards tactical role-playing games have for the Disgaea series. Certainly, it benefited from, and contributed to, the rapid rise in popularity of the Sony PlayStation 2 en route to being the best selling videogame console of all time. It took Japan by storm with the debuting Disgaea: House of Darkness in January 2003, and the title’s localization, commissioned to Atlus for the United States and Koei for Europe and hitting store shelves seven months later, proved such a critical and commercial success that Nippon Ichi Software saw fit to establish a permanent presence in California by the end of the year.
TIME TRAVEL is a tricky concept to incorporate, whether in the gameplay or in the story of any given videogame. It requires from the developer a not insignificant attention to detail, lest the vagaries encountered in its implementation be lost in translation and its net result wind up being much less than the value of its parts. Thankfully, Nippon Ichi Software has it down pat in Destiny Connect: Tick-Tock Travelers. In fact, it’s the engine that drives the Japanese role-playing game as nine-year-old Sherry, her friend Pegreo, and a robot named Isaac designed by her father to protect her strive to uncover the mysteries behind the literal loss of time in the town of Clocknee.
IT’S A testament to the intrinsic pull of The Legend of Heroes series that noted videogame developer Nihon Falcom proudly disclosed production on the third installment in the Trails of Cold Steel subset during its 2015 stockholders meeting. The optimism accompanying the announcement was likewise due in large measure to the potential of the title to push the franchise’s foray into current-generation consoles. Needless to say, the Tachikawa-based company deemed its bullishness merited; after all, the first two releases in the Erebonia arc proved to be critical and commercial hits, and there was little reason to believe that the next one would not be as successful.
CONSIDERING how hardly any news about Little Town Hero hit gaming circles from inception to release, pundits wouldn’t have been wrong to buttress its status as a “Little Known Title” when it finally made its way to the Nintendo eShop last week. It was announced with no fanfare and scant information in August last year. Even then, the public knew, well, little apart from its genre (role-playing game), working title (Town), and synopsis (a young lead defending a — what else? — town from monsters). And, after that, virtually nothing was heard of it until the week before its Oct. 16 launch.
POSITIVE RESPONSE met The Legend of Legacy’s release on the Nintendo 3DS in 2015. As a collaboration of industry veterans who had previously worked on such revered notables as the Final Fantasy and SaGa series, it featured distinctive elements of Japanese role-playing games in the ’90s. The finished product was as director Masataka Matsuura envisioned: a throwback to the golden age of the genre that eschewed the casual nature of mobile gaming. He moved to highlight the advantages — and limit the disadvantages — of portability, but from the perspective of those with console sensibilities.
DEVELOPER Numantian Games’ They Are Billions is one of Steam’s Early Access success stories. Despite its humble beginnings, it has managed to make a name for itself in a genre that many consider long dormant. Presenting a mix of city-building, tower-defense and real-time-strategy elements in a post-apocalyptic setting, it pits a budding human colony against innumerable hordes of the undead in the late 22nd century. Its gameplay forces the last bastions of the human race to build and develop a base of operations on which they survive, and then thrive, against a seemingly never-ending tide of flesh-tearing, brain-eating zombies.
FOR VISUAL CONCEPTS, success seems to be a sure thing year in and year out. As the sole developer of titles off the NBA 2K franchise since 1999, it has benefited from the immense popularity of the National Basketball Association to move a whopping 90 million copies across 18 different videogaming platforms. At the same time, there can be no discounting its continuing efforts to churn out the very best in pro hoops — or, to be more precise, any type of hoops — simulations. It has come a long, long way from its Sega Dreamcast roots, and to contend that it‘s in a particularly sweet spot given the Sony PlayStation 4’s singular reach, the Microsoft Xbox One’s cutting-edge hardware, and the Nintendo Switch’s unmatched portability would be an understatement.
VISUAL NOVELS (VNs) are niche games not often seen in western markets, and for good reason. Most VNs are characterized by their manga/anime art style, a design choice that may well appear childish and cartoony to those otherwise predisposed to realism. Add to this a predilection for often-cheesy accounts heavy on fan service, and it’s easy to see why the genre is seen as an acquired taste. Which is not to say all VNs are overlooked and fated to land in the dustbins of mediocrity. In fact, quite a few VNs have cultivated loyal followings, both in Japan and abroad; they distinguish themselves by injecting interesting gameplay elements alongside rich plots. Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is one such example; localized for Western audiences two and a half years ago, it even goes a step further, moving to combine a compelling-enough turn-based combat system alongside a deliberately textured narrative.
WHEN MICROSOFT acquired the rights to the Gears of War franchise in early 2014, it was evidently out to push back against the underwhelming results of Gears of War: Judgment. Granted, the fourth installment of the immensely popular series still moved seven figures in aggregate physical and digital copies. However, it produced numbers that paled in comparison to previous releases and thereby failed to match expectations. More importantly, the technology company saw fit to protect its intellectual property far beyond the near term.
Takayuki Nakamura is in his early thirties. He’s between jobs in Tokyo, and a scheduled house renovation compels him to do some cleaning. As he rummages through things in storage, he comes across a set of letters dating back 15 years. He recalls putting out an ad in a magazine for a pen pal, and then getting a response all the way from Shimane Prefecture. His subsequent back and forth with Aya Fumino was what enabled him to survive senior year in high school, he notes. And, across the miles, he believed he found love. Unfortunately, his 10th letter wound up unanswered, and it was all that became of their long-distance friendship. Or so he thought.
JUST TO be clear from the outset: RICO stands on solid ground. As the acronym for “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations,” it speaks to the procedurally generated action it offers, requiring the disposal of armed enemies with literal do-or-die persuasions. Gamers take on the role of a member of a special operations force charged with dismantling extremely entrenched criminal groups. Random missions need to be completed in the process, but the overriding objective in invariably involves getting any and all lowlife scums to meet their maker one room at a time.
IT’S A testament to the confidence Morphies Law intrinsically engenders that Cosmoscope didn’t just let it rest on its laurels when it launched on the Nintendo Switch last year. Even with mediocre to poor reviews greeting its release, the Switzerland-based studio could have allowed it to thrive by way of built-up anticipation off its unique properties. After all, it isn’t akin to the typical third-person multiplayer shooter on a 4v4 arena store shelves already have myriad versions of. The notion of gamers accumulating mass for their characters by hitting the competition on the grid is arguably novel in and of itself. What makes it truly stand out is the twist in the implementation: when a specific body part is shot, the shooter’s grows even as the opponent’s shrinks.
DATE A LIVE has been around since the turn of the decade, and it’s a testament to the franchise’s appeal that it picked up a loyal following off the bat and, more importantly, developed the legs to cross media platforms over time. Written by Kōshi Tachibana, the light-novel series parodies the invasion proposition common to Japanese mecha offerings and runs with it via Idea Factory mainstay Tsunako’s distinct art style; it deftly mixes science fiction and romantic comedy, with organized undertakings to prevent alien annexation deemed successful only when the occupying beings wind up falling for the principal protagonist.
IT’S A testament to the depth and breadth of the Advance Wars series that it continues to be viewed as the gold standard insofar as turn-based defeat-all-enemies-type games that require no small measure of strategy are concerned. The first title (released way back in 2001 for the 32-bit Game Boy Advance), direct sequels Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising and Advance Wars: Dual Strike, and the stand-alone Advance Wars: Days of Ruin all compel gamers to either vanquish rival forces or capture opposition headquarters. Several interface options are on offer, but the Campaign Mode, where an intricate storyline unfolds in the midst of deliberate, if engrossing, action, takes the cake.
DRAGON STAR VARNIR is far from a typical Japanese role-playing game. In fact, it’s anything but run of the mill, eschewing the notion that demand for releases in the genre is fueled by entertaining gameplay and not depth of narrative. For Compile Heart, in particular, it represents a striking departure from the norm; instead of going for yet another Hyperdimension Neptunia offering that would have been gobbled up by a solid base of loyal fans, anyway, the Tokyo-based developer saw fit to churn out an entirely original intellectual property that calls to mind the dark and gruesome undertones of the early works of the Brothers Grimm.
THE Atelier series has churned out a game just about every single year since 1997, and with reason. Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg, its first offering, wound up being a critical and commercial hit, in the process serving as a solid foundation. And, creditably, developer Gust has taken nothing for granted since then; improvements that serve to strengthen the brand have come with every succeeding release. And, in this regard, Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland lives up to billing; it’s an excellent Japanese role-playing game that meets fans’ expectations in delivering a healthy blend of combat, exploration, and creativity, with a light-hearted story weaving all the elements together.
UNLESS GAMERS have been living under a rock all this time, they would most definitely be familiar with the Senran Kagura series. The arrival of the Nintendo 3DS handheld console at the turn of the decade gave Marvelous the impetus it needed to bring Senran Kagura: Skirting Shadows and Senran Kagura Burst to the attention of those on the lookout for actioners featuring no small measure of fanservice. The newly formed Japan-based publisher, out to make an impact as an offshoot of the merger of industry players Marvelous Entertainment, Livewire, and AQ Interactive, felt it had in its hands a solid franchise featuring appealing characters, deep and unpredictable gameplay, and nuanced storylines designed to transcend platforms.
THERE WAS a time when the Sony PlayStation Vita wasn’t prematurely headed to the dustbins of video game history. Featuring a quad-core 32-bit processor, PowerVR graphics, a five-inch organic light-emitting diode — or, in the case of the slim version, liquid-crystal display — screen, and relatively strong built-in stereo speakers, it offered 8th-generation console technology in a portable format. More importantly, it boasted of an impressive library of titles that could be played on the go without significant sacrifices made on audio-visual fidelity.
DESPITE having taken off only at the turn of the decade and coming up with zero output in 2016, the Hyperdimension Neptunia series has managed to churn out a whopping 17 titles to date. The bounty is both a testament to the popularity of the franchise and the sheer inventiveness of developer Compile Heart and publisher Idea Factory. And it isn’t as if they’re simply out to satisfy the cravings of a captive market across platforms and media. To the contrary, their prolificacy is a reflection of their creativity and ensuing willingness to test the boundaries of their constituencies.
CONSIDERING the significant interest generated by Sniper Elite V2 on the Nintendo Wii U and the lack of tactical shooters on the console’s successor, it was no surprise to find Rebellion Developments bringing the game’s remastered iteration to the Switch. Perhaps it would have done so regardless of circumstance; after all, the reboot-cum-sequel of 2005’s Sniper Elite remains the most popular title in the series. Announced in 2011, it was slated for release only on the Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 3. However, clamor from quarters seemingly left out by the limited offering led the developer to look beyond its partnership with 505 Games and publish by itself a version for the personal computer soon after.
EVEN FOR hardcore gamers, visual novels are an acquired taste. By their very definition, they focus more on story as opposed to gameplay, and rely on visceral reaction rather than physical feedback to produce a unique brand of entertainment those digesting them would have to willingly partake of. In this regard, they’re on one end of the gaming spectrum that has pure action on the other. In an overwhelming number of cases, their interactivity is limited to inputs at certain points, representing choices in crossroads to pursue storylines as seen fit.
EVERY ONCE in a while, gamers are struck by the stunning simplicity of a new release. With myriad titles vying for their attention and seeking to rise above the din by striving to outshout the competition, they find themselves appreciating the modulated approach of an astutely positioned title. Such has been the reception generated by Lapis x Labyrinth, which hit store shelves in Japan (as Lapis Re Abyss) late last year and which just made its way to the West. Even official Nintendo sites for United States and United Kingdom constituencies yield little by way of information. “Help a struggling town recover from bankruptcy in an age of dwindling adventuring,” they intone. “Plunge into the mysterious Labyrinth while collecting more loot than you can ever imagine.”
DEATH END RE;QUEST offers a tantalizing hook that even jaded gamers will find hard to resist. Its narrative finds the consciousness of developer Shina Ninomiya somehow stuck inside World’s Odyssey, an unfinished role-playing videogame she helped start but was then shuttered for some reason. Enter lead programmer Arata Mizunashi, who, after learning of her plight from the outside, strives to help her escape from the milieu in which she is required to literally fix bugs. Making things more complex for them in their objective of both crafting and completing the game in its best form is its artificial intelligence, inexplicably at an advanced state and determined to keep the status quo.
FROM the outset, Gust projected Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists: Ateliers of the New World to tread off the beaten path. It was first announced to be in the works during a social-media broadcast on Atelier Lydie & Suelle: The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings early last year; in particular, producer Keisuke Kikuchi noted that it would boast of a “festive feeling,” industry parlance for the involvement of an all-star cast. Subsequently, the developer undertook an online character popularity poll to close its yearlong celebration of the series’ twentieth anniversary, with participation rewarded by a teaser on the upcoming game in a “new land.”
FLIGHT SIMULATORS don’t normally appeal to the masses, so it’s a testament to the quality of the Ace Combat series that it has managed to earn a multitude of fans all the same. It certainly had modest beginnings; Air Combat, its very first release, found shelf space in 1995 shortly after the Sony PlayStation was introduced and left much to be desired. Publisher Namco strove for realism, but wound up making compromises, particularly in graphics, to speed up play, resulting in what not a few quarters noted as an unpolished presentation. Still, there were more than enough positive elements for the pioneer to plant the seeds for long-lasting success.
IT HAS been 16 years since Atlus thought to release Revelations: Persona on the Sony PlayStation. Expectations were modest then, with the title taking on many of the features of the Megami Tensei franchise from which it drew inspiration. Regardless of outlook, however, it wound up being a sleeper hit, in the process building an extremely loyal fan base and jump-starting a series with immense crossover appeal. For all its humble beginnings, it spawned an intellectual property giant. Boasting of memorable characters, killer soundtracks, and storylines that transcend genres, it now carries a name synonymous to great gaming — a veritable seal of quality that ensures unparalleled entertainment value.
NOT COINCIDENTALLY, Shin Nihon Kikaku (SNK) picked up steam around the time the video game industry rose in popularity. As the tumultuous ’70s gave way to the optimistic ’80s, gaming arcades and home-console versions of popular titles reached critical mass. And, in the face of rapid growth, the developing, publishing, and manufacturing company was determined not just to take advantage of the boom, but to ensure its sustainability through constant innovation. Soon enough, it became a major player in the coin-operated business, and it astutely leveraged its experience to penetrate the expanding home market.
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