One of the most awkward feelings in the world is seeing everyone around you get excited for something and not being able to partake in said excitement. I get that feeling every time a Level-5 game is announced for localization (or, really, just announced in general). Folks on the professional and consumer side of things seem to get super hype for anything Akihiro Hino’s team from Fukuoka cooks up, while I find myself kind of sitting on the sidelines trying hard not to rain on anyone’s parade. Because frankly, I really don’t like Level-5.
“But Heidi!” you say, completely hypothetically, “What’s not to like about Level-5? They’re one of the few Japanese developers investing in big, beautiful games that have global appeal! They’re proof that Japanese game development can still be on par with Western AAA offerings! Isn’t that a good thing?”
That wouldn’t be an incorrect statement, either. Level-5 is very much like a Western AAA developer – they make games that are graphically sumptuous, filled with charm, and are appealing to global audiences. And that, I feel, is their major problem.
In retrospect, my attempt to do a SaGa theme month for November was… well, not a bad idea, really, but terribly misguided. Here I was, thinking I’d be able to blow through Romancing SaGa 1, 3, and the heavily SaGa-inspired Legend of Legacy all in the course of a month. Not only did that not happen, but I learned a very hard lesson: SaGa games beyond the initial batch of localized Final Fantasy Legend titles require an intense persistence and dedication on the part of the player. The only way these games reward you is if you’re willing to put a hefty amount of time and effort into learning their weird quirks.
Not only that, but you have to be prepared to mess up. Like, a lot.
So in the time I’d hoped to have completed three games, I wound up kind-of-completing… one. Sort of. Actually, I didn’t finish Romancing SaGa at all. Instead, I got to a point where I realized “Holy crap, going into this totally blind was a real bad idea and I’m gonna start over now that I’ve learned what it is I should actually be doing.”
Yep, you heard me. I’m going to toss all my Romancing SaGa progress out the window and restart again at some point down the line. I’m thinking in… March or so? So consider this Part One of a continuing RS1 travelogue, with a continuation down the line once I’ve played through a few other SaGa titles and had some time to read over guides more thoroughly.1
So, the question is: What went wrong this time through, and what did I learn from it?
So it’s come to this: I’m writing about Undertale, as is seemingly required of any games journalist worth their salt at the moment. Not that I mind at all – Undertale was genuinely one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had all year, and a game worth analyzing with a critical lens on numerous levels. (I’m only sad that my pile of paid reviews prevented me from getting to it sooner than I actually did, because I could only go into it about 85% fresh rather than 100% fresh.)
I’ve played and finished Undertale on the Neutral and Pacifist endings1. I’ve come to realize that it’s nearly impossible to really talk about Undertale without massive spoilers for the experience, because Undertale is considerably more dense than its short playtime (5-7 hours for each ending in my case) might make it seem. Everything feels deliberately designed to build the game’s world without any dull padding or superfluous filler, which is why the whole thing just feels so darn good – but also why even talking in more than the vaguest terms about the game can detract from the experience. So lemme just go ahead and put this here:
There have already been a bazillion posts written along the lines of “Undertale made me feels so hard that it took me on a feels trip to the Feeld of Dreams where Officer Fielmann arrested me for feelsing myself in public etc,” so I’m opting for something a bit different in this article. It’s clear Undertale takes a lot of influences from other games – the Mother/Earthbound series in particular – but there are a lot of interesting parallels and influences from other titles that don’t seem to have been picked up on as much. I’m going to point a few of these out – and say why I feel the comparison is valid, in some cases.
In the interests of keeping this from getting much too long, I’ve decided to forgo game overs from survival horror games. Bloody, horrifying deaths come with the territory in those games, so it’s not particularly interesting to investigate them, in my opinion.1 In a way, it’s a more shocking if the creepy and/or shaming elements come completely out of left field than it is if you’ve dealt with the threat of evisceration for your entire playtime.
There are also a few more obscure samples I want to include, but I lack the capability to capture them myself at the moment, and all the pre-existing images and footage of them online are woefully sub-par in quality. There’s a good chance this feature will be revised in the future to include these once I’m able to adequately showcase them, so keep your eyes on the Gaming.moe Twitter for updates.
Without further ado, it’s time to venture into a world of shame and failure!
Well, that and a lot of the survival horror game over footage available online come from accounts that seem really creepily obsessed with collecting death clips of female game characters. Nope nope nope ↩
It’s been argued that one of the most interesting things about games is that they allow the person engaging them to feel guilt and responsibility for their actions, something that can’t be done in more passive forms of media. Designers have actually been utilizing this since the early days of the medium as a way to belittle players’ lack of skill (and, hopefully, inspire them to invest more time/money to get better): think of how Missile Command used “THE END” when you lost all cities instead of “GAME OVER.” Guess what, jerk, your failure with the trackball just doomed humanity! Even a small change like that left a big impact on player psyches, and the medium has since evolved, finding plenty of new and exciting ways to make you feel really bad about what you do in games.
But for whatever reason, I’ve always been fascinated by the game over guilt trip. While most games just come to a screeching halt once the lives and health have run dry, others really go the extra mile to make you feel awful about your failure. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years looking into these , and over the course of my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of disturbing game overs:
A. Things are exceptionally grim, and only the power of a continue can stave off this impending doom! You will continue, right? You don’t want this horrible thing to happen, right?
B. YOU DONE FUCKED UP BUDDY, NOW DEAL WITH IT
Both of these are fascinating in their own way, but as a fan of old arcade games, A is particularly interesting. Arcade games are about spending money for play time, and the end goal for the operator is to maximize profits, so keeping play time down (so other folks can spend money for a turn on the machine) is an ideal. Continues might seem opposed to this concept, but they actually play right into it: You’d get more time-for-money-spent value if you started the game over than you would if you credit-fed, as difficulty tends to scale higher the further you get and credits usually last for shorter and shorter stretches of time. It’s why the one-credit clear is such a mark of pride among the biggest arcade: you’ve basically given “the man” trying to squeeze you for money the middle finger with your mad arcade game skillz.
So, in the interests of getting players to continue more, the devs began to put in continue screens that insinuate that a terrible fate awaits if you don’t put that next quarter/yencoin in. Some, like Blue’s Journey/Raguy by ADK, make a heartfelt emotional plea (and then call you names).
Others, meanwhile, place your character – or their loved ones – in more immediate danger. Won’t you spare a quarter to save our heroes from their doom?
Well, so far my most anticipated Vita releases for 2015 have (mostly) been serious disappointments.1 First there was Persona 4 Dancing All Night and its numerous issues, and now we have Corpse Party: Blood Drive, a follow-up to the superb (and very under-the-radar) PSP horror title Corpse Party. Unfortunately, Corpse Party: Blood Drive is most certainly not superb. Quite far from it, actually.
Let’s look back at the original game for a moment. Corpse Party was a horror-themed adventure game that began life as an RPG Maker project on the Japanese PC-98 computer, and eventually wound up on the PSP after numerous remakes and revisions. It’s the story of a group of students (and a teacher) who wind up trapped in the abandoned, cursed Heavenly Host Elementary after performing what they think is a harmless friendship ritual, but is actually a rite to enter an evil alternate dimension. Heavenly Host is a long-abandoned school that was the site of numerous horrific happenings, filled with numerous tortured souls who want nothing but to inflict their pain and suffering on others in the most agonizing ways possible. Its roots as an RPG Maker game were obvious in the visuals, which consisted of 2D sprite graphics and top-down environments, as well as its simple interactions, which made it more of a 2D horror adventure game than a “survival horror” experience.
Corpse Party was unusual in many ways, but it worked wonderfully as a horror game: the sprite visuals were incredibly unsettling once the awfulness of Heavenly Host began to set in, the sound design and voice acting was nothing short of amazing (listening to characters’ death throes is nothing short of terrifying), and the technical/engine limitations meant that most of the game’s scariest scenes were told through only text and sound – making them even more effective than if they were purely visual. (You can only see so much hyper-detailed viscera before it loses its impact, but detailed descriptions and sounds of pain and suffering can be absolutely brutal.) The characters were engaging, and they interacted quite well with each other, revealing lots of weird and unique little personality quirks (some far more disturbing than others).
That’s a brief summary. If you want a more detailed review of the original Corpse Party, I shall point you in the direction of friend-of-the-site Gaming Hell!
Anyhow, despite being a PSP exclusive, the game seemed to do well for publisher XSEED – in fact, we wound up getting a collection of side stories (and a brief prologue to Blood Drive) in the 2012 release of Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, which took the game even further into adventure game/visual novel territory. Some folks found it disappointing, but I enjoyed seeing more about the characters and setting of the game as revealed through its various vignettes.
So how does Corpse Party: Blood Drive manage to screw up such a good thing? Oh boy, where to begin…
I made my third guest appearance on Laser Time’s Vidjagame Apocalypse podcast this week to talk about all manner of subjects. Since the show actually isn’t live yet as of this writing, I’m going to try not to spoil too much, but at one point I start going off into the history of Compile and the Puyo Puyo puzzle game series. Puyo Puyo Tsuu/2 was a massive hit in Japan and still considered a pinnacle of the series by many, but it also marks the apex of Compile’s meteoric, Puyo-fueled rise and fall into massive financial problems.
But that’s not the focus of this little featurette, given that I babbled about it at length on the program. Instead, I’m here to talk about Puyo Puyo Tsuu’s commercials; Specifically, a song that was used in them: Shakunetsu no Fire Dance (“Red-Hot Fire Dance”).
We’re used to songs being used to promote products in North American television commercials, but usually it’s stuff that’s already established as familiar through months or years of airplay. Japan has a tendency to tie new songs and talent more directly to products, often launching singles to accompany a shiny new ad campaign for a product. This is beneficial to both parties involved: the product being advertised gets association with a potentially hot up-and-coming talent, and the artist/song get additional exposure as people remember the catchy song snippet that played on TV and think, “hey, I should seek out the whole thing!” (The commercials display the song title and artist name specifically to help people remember what they heard.) Games utilize this tie-in strategy fairly often. Just look at Final Fantasy as an example: All of the single-player installments since 8 have prominently featured a vocal song in Japanese advertisements and in-game.
Puyo Puyo 2’s advertising hopped on the song tie-in bandwagon even earlier than Square did. They didn’t look too far outside of the firm for composition and vocal talent, however – they enlisted Katsumi Tanaka, one of their in-house composers,1 to do the vocals for the song they would use to promote Puyo Puyo 2 in various ads (and sell as a CD single later on). The result is Shakunetsu no Fire Dance, an infectiously catchy little dance number that ranks among my favorite pieces of promotional game music.
Since commercials are so short, however, you could only hear the whole thing on CD, in music videos, and in live show. Here’s a bonus video from the Saturn version of Puyo Puyo Tsuu featuring a (very heavily compressed) FMV of a live performance:
Even better: There are multiple language versions of the song! First off is the Korean version:
And guess what, there’s an English version too! Turn on the Japanese comments on Nico to see the subtitles with the transcribed English lyrics – they’re definitely off in that grammatically incorrect direct translation way, but at the same time, they actually do make sense. That’s more than you can say for a lot of English versions of Japanese songs.
The song’s legacy didn’t end with ads and performances in the mid-90s, however: it also features as Arle’s theme in Puyo Puyo Da!, the (rightfully) ignored dancing game spinoff of the Puyo series.
That’s more than anyone else has written about this weird little footnote in Puyo history in English, I think. How about we wrap this up with a Vocaloid cover?
He composed the fantastic Musha Aleste soundtrack, among many other things! ↩
Part of the Gaming.moe mission, as I’ve said before, is to look at and review games that would likely get passed over by bigger review sites for various reasons. Visual novels as a whole are generally passed up for reviews on many big outlets, and that goes doubly so for visual novels that have some element that puts them way out of mainstream accessibility. In the case of No, Thank You!, which I reviewed a while back, that element was gay romance and explicit content, but in the case of Amnesia: Memories, it’s because it’s an otome game targeting a primarily female player demographic.
I’ve written about otome games in the past – it’s a genre that interests me on many levels. Since I wrote that piece a few years back, we’ve started to see a more steady flow of localized otome games come westward, particularly on mobile platforms. They seem to be doing well, as the labels Shall We Date? and Voltage had a very noticeable presence at this year’s Anime Expo, MangaGamer’s bringing over OzMafia!!, and there are hints that Sekai Project might be looking at otome titles as well.
Japanese publisher Idea Factory does some of the most well-known otome games on the market under their Otomate label, some of which have been licensed to US publishers like Aksys for translation. Since Idea Factory now has an official US branch, however, they have an opportunity to publish English versions of more of these games themselves – an opportunity they seized with the English release of Amnesia: Memories on PS Vita and Steam recently. Since IFI kindly provided me a review code for the Vita version, well, I certainly wasn’t going to pass up a chance to take a closer look at one of Otomate’s most enduring titles.
Buckle up, readers, it’s time to mack on some digital boyfriends!
When your games are as heavily character-driven as visual novels are, having memorable character design is an absolute necessity. One of the best examples is the Ace Attorney series, which has delighted players worldwide with its engaging, distinctive casts of characters. The man behind many of character designs in the earlier Ace Attorney titles was one Tatsuro Iwamoto.
Iwatamoto is now freelance, doing jobs like creating the hunky dudes for Comcept/Idea Factory’s otome game Sweet Fuse (published abroad by Aksys Games) and, most recently, the character designs for the upcoming Monster Strike anime adaptation.1 Though he’s branching out quite a bit, it’s still Ace Attorney that is his most prolific work to this date. I had an opportunity a while back at Japan Expo USA 2013 for a short chat with Iwamoto about his time with Capcom and his work on Ace Attorney in particular. Read on to learn more about some of Capcom’s most endearing characters… and maybe some Michael Douglas movies, too.
One thing I’ve learned as a professional reviewer is that people will give you a huge ration of shit if they even think you haven’t beaten a game you’ve reviewed. In most cases, I feel like this shouldn’t even be an issue. Yes, you should certainly make a good-faith effort to play through as much of the game as possible, because there are many excellent games that are slow starters – and some with midgame sequences that are miserable and drag the product down. There are extremely few games that come to mind where the ending sequence really, really damages the product to the point where I’d actually give the game a lower score as a result (looking at you, Devil Survivor)1. Really, when you sit down and think about it, saying something like “I didn’t finish this game because of reasons x, y, and z” can be very helpful in a review context! But that doesn’t matter – unless you were totally thorough to some nebulous standard in your playthrough, your opinion is invalid in the eyes of many a reader.
Even when I’m writing on here, my personal site, I still feel like if I don’t spend as much time with a game as possible, I’ve somehow “failed” the criteria for reviewing it. I’m always looking for stuff to cover on this site that wouldn’t really fit with any of the pro outlets I work for. I’ve started and finished quite a few games that I intend to write about more thoroughly (like Phantasm, I swear!), but there are other games I picked up with the express intent of reviewing them on the site… and then never finished them, and have no real desire to finish them. So instead of writing “proper” reviews for these games where I give a general overview of a product and evaluate various aspects of it, I’m going to tell you why I’m not going to finish them. Short and to the point… mostly.