Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Atlus Workout

A few weeks ago, blogger and Japanese pop culture aficionado Apricot Sushi declared April to be Atlus Game-Along Month, a time for players to get re-acquainted with a few of their favorite titles from the niche Japanese game publisher. Now I realize that any random schlub can declare April the month of anything they damn well please (and here's proof!), but Apri-soosh seems like a good kid, and it wouldn't kill me to spend a little quality time with some of the Atlus games in my collection. There was just one problem, though...

What Atlus games?

If you think this is hard to look at, you should
see it on the actual hardware.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)
See, Atlus caters to a very specific audience, the RPG-loving otaku, and I left my weeaboo days behind in the late 1990s. For many years, the only experience I had with the company's signature series, Shin Megami Tensei, was a few minutes with the ill-considered Virtual Boy title Jack Bros. Some introduction, huh? Even after that, I didn't think of Shin Megami Tensei as a role-playing epic with a focus on Japanese culture and Eastern mythology, but rather that game with the dick rickshaw in it. (I'll spare you the pictures; chances are you've already seen them. Then screamed yourself hoarse.)

However, after leafing through my games, I came to the conclusion that Atlus had a stronger presence in my collection than I realized. Those remakes of Double Dragon and River City Ransom on the Game Boy Advance? Both published by Atlus, along with a handful of other Million/Technos games I intend to buy in the future. The King of Fighters XIII for the Xbox 360? That was published by Atlus in the United States as well... and so was King of Fighters EX 2: Howling Blood, released some years earlier for the Game Boy Advance. 

I've seen some things, man.
And also some stuff.
(Image courtesy of
The company was also responsible for Touch Detective 2 1/2 and Trauma Center: Under the Knife, both for the Nintendo DS. I've owned Trauma Center for years now (and was stonewalled by the GUILT virus shortly after I bought it... who thought practicing medicine would be this hard?), but the latter game I downloaded free for my Android tablet. I didn't make much progress in that, either... I find the obtuse puzzles, liberated from anything resembling logic or reason, hugely off-putting. The same could be said of the creepy moon-eyed lead character, who must have also seen that rickshaw.

Then there's Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzonoha vs. The Soulless Army. I picked that one up in the late 2000s to dip my toe into the waters of the Shin Megami Tensei series, thinking that its blend of action and adventure would be more palatable to me than the straight role-playing of other Megaten titles. I didn't make it very far, and after revisiting it I understand why. Like early entries in the Resident Evil series, the characters are polygonal but the backgrounds are still images, resulting in a jarring transition when Raidou moves from one screen to the next. It's disorienting, and leaves the game feeling dated. That may have been easier to tolerate when Devil Summoner was released in 2006, but I've gotten a little spoiled by crisp playfields rendered on the fly, which have become commonplace in the eight years since.

...says the talking cat.
(Image courtesy of GamesRadar)
Both the plot and combat seem to have promise, though. Devil Summoner is a period piece, taking place in the early 20th century. The magic and myths of ancient Japan are being left behind in favor of a more modernized country... but Japan's yokai aren't ready for retirement just yet! These bizarre creatures are hidden throughout the sepia-toned city, waiting to leap for the throats of unsuspecting heroes. 

That's where the combat comes in, which feels like a more sedate version of the battles from the Devil May Cry series. Raidou is armed with both a sword and a pistol, and can swap between the two on the fly. Pressing a trigger button lets Raidou summon a monster of his own to fight alongside him. Monsters can be paralyzed with ammo they're weak against, then scooped up into a glowstick for later use, giving the game a slight Pokemon aftertaste. The collection aspect is likely what will keep me coming back to Devil Summoner even after I get annoyed with the static backgrounds and the repetitive action.

The apparent result of a tryst between
Humpty Dumpty, Bozo the Clown, and a plush
toy found in the free bin of a yard sale.
(Image courtesy of Mojo Interactive)
Finally, there's Persona 4 Arena, which I've just barely touched. Truth told, there are a lot of fighting games on the Xbox 360 I like better, including the surprisingly awesome Mortal Kombat reboot and Darkstalkers Resurrection, a rock-solid port of the last two games in the underappreciated Darkstalkers series. Nevertheless, it cost me ten dollars, and I'd hate to think that I wasted that sawbuck. Maybe I can find the appeal of this one with a little persistence...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Leggo My Logo

We interrupt this extended hiatus for an important announcement. Atlus, the preferred game development house for hipsters with an unhealthy Japanese fixation, recently changed its logo. (Well, it happened a month ago, but I recently found out about it.) You may remember the original design looking something like this:

But shortly after the company's acquisition by Sega, its logo was dipped into a bubbling vat of 21st century minimalism, and came out looking like this:

Oh, the humanity! The Atlus logo has gone from sleek, dynamic, and imaginative to something you might find on a box of store brand laundry detergent. If you were worried that Sega's purchase of the company was going to suck all the personality out of Atlus, well, the new logo suggests that they've taken that first step in the journey toward Blandsville.

But hey, since we're talking about iconic corporate logos being shoved into the shareware font machine and coming out looking like last night's taco salad, let's try that with Sega's own calling card. Hey, they've been using it for thirty years now. It's about due for a revamp, right?

There, much better! No need to thank me, Sega. Just cut me a check and send me all those unsold copies of Panzer Dragoon Saga I know you've got hidden in a warehouse somewhere.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

World's Smallest Violin

In an interview with GameSpot, Microsoft's executive frat boy Phil Spencer said that he was "personally hurt" by the chilly reception to the original, hellspawned Xbox One design, and that Microsoft didn't do a great job of communicating the value of its features. You know, features like a camera that's always watching you even when the system is "off," and games so full of DRM that you couldn't play them without daily permission from Microsoft headquarters. 

I don't know what's more galling about Spencer's response to the complaints about the original Xbox One... the fact that Microsoft still thinks its mountain of anti-consumer features was a good idea, or that he's using guilt to manipulate players into grudgingly accepting them. Oh wait, it's definitely the last one. I mean, look at this doucher!

Is this a face that inspires sympathy? No, it's the face attached to the hands that pulled your underwear over your head in high school. I wouldn't give this man a dime even if the original Xbox One design hadn't been conceived in the bowels of hell.

I'll be honest, I can't think of too many reasons to buy any of the latest consoles. My Wii U is working on its third coat of dust, and I can't imagine any video games on either the Xbox One or the Playstation 4 that wouldn't work on their predecessors with only a modest visual hit. A recent Games Radar article declared in its headline that "Titanfall on Xbox 360 looks perfectly fine," which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone familiar with the system's still impressive capabilities. 

The fact is, the new wave of game consoles have got a long, long way to go before they can live up to the legacy of their ancestors. The Xbox 360 has nearly a decade of great games under its belt, with only the earlier ones showing their age. The Xbox One has... uh, Killer Instinct. No sale.

Since I'm kicking Microsoft in the teeth, I might as well finish this post by sharing a comic I found on Tumblr, drawn by Mike J. Larson. It's dated now, but just remember this was what Microsoft had in mind for the Xbox One. They'll likely try it again in the next console cycle, if Spencer's unrepentant, "you don't understand my genius" attitude is any indication.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Loser is Us: Fire Pro's Masato Masuda Dies

Back in the 1990s, there was a fierce rivalry between two American wrestling leagues, as well as the two developers contracted to make games for them. Some players pledged their allegiance to Yuke's and its WWE series, while others cast their lot with AKI Corporation, creators of the WCW/NWO games. However, a few especially dedicated wrestling fans refused to take a side in this battle, and instead declared their loyalty to the Fire Pro Wrestling series.

Six Man Scramble on the Sega Saturn, the
game that put Fire Pro Wrestling on the map.
(image courtesy of Terrible Pain)
Originally designed as a spiritual successor to the quirky but strangely entertaining NES game Pro Wrestling, Fire Pro had blossomed into an incredibly comprehensive simulation of the sport by the late 1990s, when Six Man Scramble was released for the Sega Saturn. The game didn't have the big names or the polished graphics of its better-known competitors, but it did offer almost limitless variety in its create-a-wrestler mode, as well as gameplay that was incredibly deep yet surprisingly approachable. If Yuke's and AKI's respective games were like front row tickets to Wrestlemania, Fire Pro Wrestling was more akin to a backstage pass at a mid-level event... perhaps not as flashy, but ultimately more satisfying.

It's with a heavy heart that I report that Masato Masuda, the creator of this cult classic, died of undisclosed causes at the age of 48. The news was revealed by Goichi Suda, a former co-worker who went on to achieve fame as the creator of stylish action titles like No More Heroes and Killer is Dead. On his Twitter page, Suda stated, "I genuinely pray for his happiness in the next world. He was one of the greatest creators of video games and he was my direct teacher. Thank you for giving us our favorite Fire Pro Wrestling. You are the god of it."

Personally, I wasn't always crazy about Fire Pro Wrestling. My first taste of the game was the dreadful Sega Genesis release Fire Pro Gaiden, which I'd found at a game rental store in Southern Michigan where I spent an unhealthy chunk of my teenage years. However, as the series improved and started to find its audience, I gave it another chance, picking up a used copy of Fire Pro Wrestling for my original Game Boy Advance at the turn of the century. It quickly turned me into a fan as well... I spent countless hours hunched over the Game Boy's tiny, light-deprived screen, making my own wrestlers and bending their spines in the ring.

Not long after, I purchased Fire Pro D for the Dreamcast and the series' swan song, Fire Pro Wrestling Returns on the Playstation 2. (Yes, there was a Fire Pro game released later on the Xbox Live Arcade service. I don't like to talk about it.) I honestly didn't enjoy Fire Pro D much thanks to the unforgiving timing for grapples, but Fire Pro Wrestling Returns quickly turned into a classic with the download of a save game packed with familiar fighters. Hulk Hogan! Macho Man Randy Savage! Sting in both his pre and post-goth phases! Uh, Hard Gay? Well, he must have been popular somewhere, anyway. I was nearly as fond of Fire Pro R as the earlier handheld game, and was crushed when I discovered that Amazon was selling it for just five dollars shortly after its release. (I suspect that it's going for far more on eBay seven years later. It's the curse of the underground hit, I suppose.)

For shame, Playstation 2 owners... for shame!
If you haven't played Fire Pro Wrestling yet, now is as good a time as any. The Game Boy Advance version is a pretty good starting point, although you can choose nearly anything in the series from 1996 on and have a lot of fun with it. (No, not Iron Slam '96. Not Blazing Tornado either.) And while you're sending your opponent's head into the canvas, put the game on pause, snap into your favorite spiced meat by-product, and remember who made it all possible. Thanks for everything, Mr. Masuda.