Notes on Gravity Rush 2

Gravity Rush 2 was delayed, and I needed to compensate somehow. Sony wasn’t diplomatic about their reasons, either. Both Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian are shipping in late November or early December, and those games would bury Gravity Rush 2 and bury it deep. The solution? It’s now coming January 17. That way Resident Evil 7 and Tales of Berseria can bury it.

Without any chance to buy Gravity Rush 2 this year, I decided to buy something related to Gravity Rush 2. I went to eBay and looked for the cheapest possible fix.

I found this, an apple-shaped Gravity Rush 2 notepad. Apparently given away at conventions, it’s pretty much the only promotional trinket I’ve seen for the game. It’s about the size of a standard Post-It pad, and it was only 99 cents. That wasn’t bad, even if buying it would mean that I spent money on blank pieces of paper somehow connected to Gravity Rush 2.

Yet there’s a pleasant surprise within. Instead of empty pages, the pad shows you Gravity Rush heroine Kat with a word balloon on each page. Technically that gives you less space to write than an off-the-shelf booklet from Staples would provide, but it elevates these notes from disposable scratchpads to a charming collectible for Gravity Rush fans. We must savor all we can get.

I’m not about to write directly in this pad, but I quickly scanned it for online use. Now it’s easier than ever to make Kat say anything you want, no matter how controversial or out-of-character it might be!

In fact, let’s have a contest. Whoever gives Kat the funniest word balloon gets a box of assorted video-game junk! Send your entries to kidfenris (at) before the end of December! Your chances are pretty good due to this site’s fairly low readership, so have fun!

The Tale of a TurboGrafx

What was the first thing you bought on eBay?

It’s an inane question, but I expect it’ll come up more and more often as the decades lurch onward and turn us nostalgic about every microscopic detail we recall from our younger years, whether it’s the first Star Wars figure you got or the LeMenu microwave dinner plate that your family reused almost every night for fifteen years. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you remember it.

In that light, it’s not hard to find some appeal for the early years of eBay. The website’s still around and will be as long as the Internet exists, but it was a different creature in the late 1990s, when just about everything online was more suspicious. Auctions didn’t need images, sellers and buyers were on largely even ground when it came to feedback, and PayPal was largely unknown. You might find yourself wondering if that Gundam model or old Arby’s kids-meal toy was really worth the trouble of getting a money order and mailing it off.

I first heard of eBay in 1998, but it was through a coworker who would interrupt conversations in the most awkward manner imaginable. He once accosted me in the store's video-game aisle just so he could point at Dead or Alive for the PlayStation and announce “this is the bounciest fighter.” When he mentioned eBay, I decided to stay away from it.

I didn’t stay away for long, and the next year I jumped into eBay. The first things I bought were not memorable: two Final Fantasy VII posters and an unopened Chun-Li figure from the G.I. Joe/Street Fighter cross-up of the early 1990s. The posters, which I now realize were bootlegs, stayed on my wall for only a month or so, and Chun-Li sat in a closet for a good decade until I sold her, still unopened, for about the same amount I’d paid.

My third purchase was the first important thing I bought on eBay: a TurboGrafx-16.

The TurboGrafx-16 was the sidelined loser in Sega and Nintendo’s slapfight of the 1990s, which meant that it was rare to notice the system in stores and even rarer to meet another kid who had one. Of course, I always wanted one, and it wasn’t long until I noticed an auction in my price range. It had a TurboGrafx-16 with all the basic hookups and Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, which was included with every console and swiftly forgotten. It was $25, the auction had a simple description with no photos, and the seller wanted ten bucks for shipping. I didn’t care. I sent off the money order, and I had my TurboGrafx-16 in a little over a week.

My first reaction upon opening the box? “This thing looks like someone puked on it.”

The system was in rough shape, as were its accessories. The seller hadn’t lied, but if the TurboGrafx-16 had been a stuffed animal, kindly relatives and teachers would call it “well-loved.” The RF adapter took some jiggling to work. The controller would detach from the port, leaving its multi-pronged connector stuck in the system. And then there was that curious stain across the left part of the console.

In those days eBay didn’t give buyers a panoply of options for returning purchases, and that didn’t even cross my mind. I had a TurboGrafx-16 at last, and no way in hell was I about to pack it back in the box.

To soften the disappointment, I gave the system a name: Pukey. I soon figured out that the stain was probably red paint (brighter residue can be seen on the power cord), but it was too late to rescind. The TurboGrafx-16 was Pukey.

Pukey still works today, even though his accessories didn’t last. I soon replaced the controller, and the RF cable gave out a few years ago (fortunately, you can swap in an NES cable). Even the included copy of Keith Courage in Alpha Zones eventually refused to start up and did not respond to any cleaning attempts. At least I can still play Alien Crush, with its Gigerian pinball tables and haunting bonus level music.

In the long run, though, Pukey was a good deal. Old video games are a collectible gold rush these days, and the slightly obscure TurboGrafx-16 and its library ballooned in value. I could easily get twice what I paid for Pukey.

But I couldn't sell Pukey. It isn't because I’m a huge TurboGrafx-16 fan. Nothing in its catalog ever appealed to me like my favorites on the Genesis and Super NES, after all. As it was during my childhood, the poor Turbo is a distant third in a three-way race.

No, it’s because I made the mistake of naming him. It’s a tradition in my family to name cars, computers, and other expensive merchandise, and it always makes us a little more attached. I won't say we treat an old Apple IIGS or video camera like a pet dog or cat or rabbit or guinea pig, but learning that my parents got rid of their old van was like finding out that the family’s 30-year-old goldfish had passed away.

I now avoid naming my electronics, and Pukey’s continued presence reminds me why. He also serves as a memento of a riskier age. The wild-west nature of late-1990s eBay made it much easier for some anonymous charlatan to rip you off, but that uncertainty made things more appealing. We didn’t trust the Internet so much, and we didn’t know if we’d get a strange game console or a box full of newspapers and house centipedes. And we’d be nostalgic for those centipedes fifteen years later.

Fun with Mariner's Run and Loppy

Many canceled NES games exist only on paper, whether it’s a sheaf of old design documents, a press release, a magazine’s rumors section, or a bar napkin with DONKEY KONG FIGHTS GUNDAM scrawled on it. In some cases, having only a title makes a game all the more enticing, as we’re free to imagine what Vic Tokai’s Baby Gangster, LJN’s World War III, or Activision’s The Abyss might have been like had they shown up behind the glass at Kay-Bee. Even Yeah Yeah Beebiss I is a fair subject, though all evidence suggests it was a joke played by a mail-order company just to see who was copying their price lists.

Yes, some unreleased NES games left behind only their titles and vague descriptions. Until last month, I thought Mariner’s Run was among them.

Mariner’s Run is the work of Vic Tokai, a company that’s fascinated me for a while—and not just because of my unabiding fondness for Trouble Shooter. Vic Tokai crafted intriguing games throughout the NES era, whether it was the early action-RPG Chester Field, the complex adventure of Clash at Demonhead, the charming The Krion Conquest, or the Golgo 13 games, which might not be great but remain marvels of sneaking gruesome violence and bleak spy-pulp stories onto a game system where alcohol and crucifixes were no-nos.

We find little information about Mariner’s Run, known as Sea Dog in Japan. It appeared in magazines early in 1991, and the manual for Magical Kids Doropie (aka The Krion Conquest) describes it as a "battle RPG" with a March 1991 release date. That was all I knew about the game, and it was all I needed to imagine the best possible NES treatment. I pictured a naval warfare epic in a post-apocalyptic or high-tech future, where you might roam the seas from an overhead perspective and fight intense battles from a first-person viewpoint. Kinda like SubRoc 3D crossed with a fun version of Silent Service.

I somehow neglected to notice that Mariner’s Run survived online in not one, but two screenshots, plus a Game Players blurb that describes it as “a game in the style of Ultima or Dragon Warrior” that “takes place in a land of seafaring towns.” And that’s enough to destroy my vision of the game.

Yet Mariner’s Run is more interesting now that I’ve seen it. The first screenshot shows the overhead RPG portion, and it's downright primitive for an NES game from 1991. Still, it’s enough to speculate as to which sprite is the main character (my bet is the blue-gray one) and what time period it wants to evoke.

The second screenshot, recovered from a Japanese website through The Lost Levels forums, shows open water with some puzzling sights. The pink shape could be a submarine, a ship, or a mechanized dinosaur. The yellow things could be giant crustaceans or enemy craft. It's like examining an old photo of a lake monster.

Whatever they are, they’re more interesting than the dun-colored townscape of the first screenshot, and they make me wonder if Mariner’s Run actually had a high-tech element after all. Perhaps the simplistic village reflects the game’s setting in a world where rising ocean levels reverted civilizations to basic maritime pseudo-anarchy. And all this years before Waterworld!

Mariner’s Run may be out in the open, but plenty of other unglimpsed games abound in the NES fossil record. You'll even see more from Vic Tokai! There’s the above-mentioned Baby Gangster, the odd and seemingly tentative A-5, and my personal favorite: a Famicom “action/puzzle” game never announced for an NES release or even officially rendered into English. It appears in the same Doropie manual that mentions Mariner’s Run (as Sea Dog), and its title could be Ropie, Roppy, Lopie, Loppy, Roppi, Loppi, Ropey, or any variant on the name.

That’s as much as we know. Some believe that the game turned into a 1992 VAP title (above) based on the anime Chiisana Obake: Achi, Sochi, Kochi. Vic Tokai's name appears nowhere on the title screen, but the characters drag a rope through puzzle boards. So maybe it was "Ropy." Or "Ropey," which is an incorrect spelling but looks nicer on the box.

Never one to shy from speculation, I'll make up my own version of this mystery title. The game was called Loppy, and it starred a lop-eared rabbit who pushed around blocks to escape a mazelike realm of monster-machines unleashed by laboratory science gone awry. The rabbit protagonist could fly with whirling helicopter ears and leave turds to stymie enemies. Instead of getting 1-ups the usual way, Loppy would meet another bunny and spawn a random number of offspring to carry on the quest.

I’ll even draw what I think Loppy might have been, and I’ll do it so crudely that no one could ever mistake it for an actual image or design schematic from the game. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s personal concept of Loppy. Or Roppy. Or Ropey.

The Cap'n Crunch Reef Raider

If your life and its myriad tiny embarrassments are anything like mine, you went through a time where you weren’t just too old for toys—you were too cool for toys. That was me in the early 1990s, neck-deep in posturing, oversensitive nascent-teenage nonsense. I was having a miserable time in middle school, and I knew it would be even more miserable if anyone thought I played with toys. It’d be worse than getting caught watching the Disney Afternoon without any younger siblings in the room.

What’s more, 1993 was a barren year for toys as far as I was concerned. Ninja Turtles had grown really desperate, Transformers went through an awkward and recycled second generation, and old favorites like Battle Beasts and Starriors were long gone. I had given up on toys, but they had given up on me first.

Yet I noticed something on a Cap’n Crunch box one morning: a mail-away promo for a toy vehicle playset called the Reef Raider. It made a convincing pitch by being free with several box tops and a few bucks for shipping. I didn’t care that the Reef Raider looked like a Fisher-Price submarine or that playing with it would be considerably more childish than messing with Pirates of Dark Water figures or spending a Saturday morning engrossed from Toxic Crusaders to Taz-Mania. I wanted that sub.

The Reef Raider arrived soon, and I had some fun with it for an evening or two, unfolding it in my room with all the awkward secrecy I’d show a dirty magazine. Then I set it aside so that it could disappear into whatever strange vortex swallows up toys that inspire small yet persistent jabs of shame.

The Reef Raider’s unique spot in my uncomfortable years and its subsequent vanishing might explain why I remembered it so readily, though it probably doesn’t excuse my buying it again. As with anything remotely collectible, eBay sellers want more for a Cap’n Crunch promotion than anyone in their right mind would pay, but I managed to find one, still new in the bag, for only a little more than its postage cost all those years ago.

The Reef Raider seems unblemished by some twenty years in storage, aside from some dark spots on its underside. No one sticks glorified cereal-box toys in vacuum-sealed safety deposit boxes, so I shouldn't complain. 

Research tells me that the Reef Raider was part of Hot Wheels’ short-lived Adventures line, and it was sold in toy stores with a more elaborate yellow-and-black paint job. The red-and-blue variant was all Crunch, and the colors make it look like a bathtub toy for children too young for PG movies or bedtimes past eight o’clock.

Outwardly, it’s a decent but not remarkable trinket. The real value is inside.

Part Micro Machines and part Mighty Max, The Reef Raider opens into an underwater landscape, with a big coral tree at the center. It includes two sea serpents who attach to the sprig of coral, plus a rubber purple octopus and two small submarines. One appears to be a clone-child of the big playset sub, and the other is a sleeker green craft that was clearly adopted, possibly after its own mommy sub was torpedoed to shreds. Perhaps the large red sub actually launched those fatal torpedoes and couldn’t bring itself to finish off its green enemy’s surviving child. Perhaps the little green sub is slowly figuring this out. See the glint of suspicion in its purple eye.

The little figures aren’t as interesting as the ocean floor itself. One side features a pelican eel, a hammerhead shark colored to suggest a robot, and a huge crustacean in its lair. Most intriguing is the diver, pinned under shipwreck timbers and skeletonized but for the helmet, with a treasure chest within arm’s reach. There’s a story in this submarine.

The other side is even better. A metal-mantled squid wraps its tentacles around a turtle—not a sea turtle, but a regular turtle—while a similarly cybernetic manta ray grazes nearby. In the wreckage of another submarine (possibly green sub’s mother) you’ll see the skeletal form of a mermaid. Not only is it larger and therefore more monstrous than the human bones on the other side, the mer-corpse also has distinctly red hair. It’s a gift from Cap’n Crunch to any kid who wanted to show younger siblings what really happened to Ariel.

The Reef Raider lacks the multiple tiers or extensive moving parts of similar playsets from the 1990s, so it’s easy to deduce why its retail-shelf relatives didn’t last as long as Mighty Max. Once you take in the scenery, there’s not much to do with the whole thing.

Yet I think I appreciate it more today, now that I’m well past caring what my toys say about me. It’s strangely relaxing to open the Reef Raider's hull and contemplate the seascape within like the plastic submarine version of a zen rock garden. So maybe I just wasn’t old enough for it all those years ago.

Little Things: The King of Fighters XI

Picking a favorite game from The King of Fighters is a daunting task, considering how damn much there is of the series. It saw yearly iterations from 1994 through 2003, undeterred even by SNK’s collapse, and that’s not even counting the various spin-offs and odd experiments. Most devoted fighting-game fans lean toward The King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match and The King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match, as both are very polished and cover the broadest range of characters, but you could pick just about any piece of the series and find a convincing personal reason to praise it above the pack. Except for The King of Fighters ’94. Nobody seems to like that.

I don’t know if The King of Fighters XI is my favorite, but it has my favorite character-selection screen. That’s because almost everyone there is grinning like an idiot.

Most of the characters on the roster wear big, goofy smiles in their portraits. Some of them look a little off, especially when the headshots are flipped for the two-player side, but that only adds to the impact. They’re not happy despite looking stupid, they’re happy because they look stupid.

The grins of The King of Fighters XI range from smug little expressions to big, toothy face-splitters that perch their wearers on the edge of laughter. It adds a good-natured aura to the game. Yes, you’ll find insidious plotting and brutally difficult boss fights once you actually play, but for now almost everyone is happy.

The characters who aren’t smiling contribute as well. They look resentful or confused about the majority of their fellow fighters beaming unabashed at everything. Kasumi seems to suspect that a circulating joke has skipped her.

Even those who grimace seem as close to happiness as they’ll ever get, like Gato there. As for Eiji, he’s putting in a rare appearance as a actual playable character, so we can assume he’s smiling under that mask.

The only strange exception is Kula, who’s normally cheerful even in the face of world-wrecking cataclysms and certain death. This can be explained by her being without the ice cream she constantly demands.

The King of Fighters XI is a memorable outing on other points. The backgrounds seem empty, but you'll find a large cast and a neat tag-team mechanic atop the sturdy gameplay the series normally fashions. SNK and Sony should put it on the PlayStation Network, because it still has a lot to offer.

It does not have Leona Heidern, however, and for that I unloaded on the game when I reviewed it many years ago. All was in jest, though I’m still a little resentful that The King of Fighters XI, in many ways the last celebration of the line before it recast itself with new artwork for the modern era, ignored a long-running character created specifically for the series.

Yet I now understand why Leona didn’t make the cut. She doesn’t smile much.

Collecting Dust-Up

Buying video games isn’t much fun these days. It’s not the games themselves; despite the modern industry’s gaudiness and the near-extinction of the middleweight publisher, it’s easier than ever to find something you like and ignore all the rest. No, I’m talking about the act of walking into a store, walking out with a game, and presumably paying for it somewhere in between, lest everyone call you "Thief" instead of "Link" for the rest of your adventure.

Driven by cost-cutting and digital distribution, today’s publishers do their best to emaciate physical copies of games. Most major releases are little more than a disc, a case, and an outer insert, with not even an anemic instruction manual to fill out the package and keep said disc from coming loose and getting scratched when Amazon ships it in a paper sleeve.

Publishers compensate for stripped-down retail games with overstuffed collector’s editions. Any major release now comes in a puny regular version as well as a deluxe collector’s set with a soundtrack, an artbook, a replica chainsaw, a spaceship model, a toy mech, a Master Chief helmet, a Kung Lao bobblehead, a Duke Nukem bust, a dismembered woman's torso in an American-flag bikini (really), or a small figure of Metallia, Nathan Drake, or some other character. That’d be Metallia from The Witch and the Hundred Knight, not Metalia from Thousand Arms. The sheer obscurity would impress me if anyone made a toy of the latter Metalia.

It’s all too much for the folks who just want a little more than half-empty cases with their video games. Sony’s upcoming The Last Guardian presents a good example. It’s a prestigious release, and Sony centered its $120 special edition around a small statue of the game’s boy protagonist and his giant griffin-puppy Trico. You’ll also get an artbook, a soundtrack, and an imitation wooden box to hold it all.

Oddly, that lineup is less impressive than an earlier collector’s edition that Sony briefly exhibited. The promo shot included a metal griffon-feather ring, some extra artwork, a different statue, and the game’s regular packaging for those who hate pulling discs out of those pinching steelbook things. It’s not a case of another region getting more material, either; some European news sites used this initial package, but all outlets and retailers have since shifted to the leaner bundle with the sleepier Trico.

I wouldn’t mind an artbook or soundtrack with my inevitable purchase of The Last Guardian. Fumito Uedo’s games always have wonderful, subdued design work and excellent music. But a statue? A collector’s crate? They’d just take up space, and I already have too many toys and novelty statues sitting in boxes because I lack the room or geek fortitude to display them. Besides, collector’s-edition figures can turn out to be low-quality. Eleven years later, and MOK-KOS is not forgotten.

Now I will be a glaring hypocrite and complain that the one upcoming game for which I WOULD buy a garishly supplied collector’s edition doesn’t have one. Gravity Rush 2: The Legend of Being Doomed Because It Comes Out Three Days After Final Fantasy XV is my most-wanted game this year, and I hoped that Sony would back it heartily. Well, that’s not apparent in the promotional goods. Reserving it gets you a digital soundtrack and extra costume, and there’s no lavish special edition with an artbook or perhaps the Figma-made Kat that came with Gravity Rush Remastered in Japan and still costs way too much.

Even so, I’m not going digital. I still like to have something in my hands on the rare occasions I put down money for a full-price game, even if that something is just a nice illustration and some box copy to mull over during the ride home.

I also like the implicit option of throwing a game on eBay and recouping my losses if it turns out that, for example, Gravity Rush 2 is just a reskinned version of Bratz: Girlz Really Rock for the Nintendo Wii. But I’d probably keep it even then.

Lost Order Finds Lost Director

CyGames announced several titles at their recent showing, and Lost Order is the most intriguing. That’s Lost Order, not to be confused with Last Order as in the Final Fantasy VII OVA that’s now forgotten or the Battle Angel Alita sequel that squandered itself on a directionless tournament story arc. Lost Order is a smartphone strategy-RPG directed by the long-absent Yasumi Matsuno.

It’s rare for game creators to do well at both writing and directing, but I’ll always praise Matsuno as a success on those counts. His Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Tactics Ogre are superb in both design and story, and I will defend Final Fantasy XII, which he helmed about halfway through, no matter the slights and barbs you might toss its way. Go ahead. Toss 'em.

Yet Matsuno went missing for a good while. He dropped out of sight after leaving Final Fantasy XII mid-production, and he only emerged for brief supportive stints. He scripted Platinum's MadWorld, though you wouldn't guess it from a plot with irony as its sole defense, and he served as an advisor for the PSP remake of Tactics Ogre.

Matsuno then joined Level-5 just long enough to make Crimson Shroud, a small-scale tabletop RPG simulation for the 3DS, and he left the company before they could put him on an Inazuma Eleven game. His most recent work came with Playdek and a Kickstarter-fed strategy game called Unsung Story, but he wasn’t involved far beyond the basic world-building. The whole project is now troubled and lurching through funding issues, but I’m sure it’ll emerge by the end of the decade.

Lost Order is the biggest project granted Matsuno since his Square Enix days, and it shows promise. Platinum Games is aboard as developer, illustrator Akihiko Yoshida (himself a frequent Matsuno collaborator) provides art director and character designs, and the story takes place in the demolished Gold Heaven capital, an ornate, smog-encrusted city that narrowly evaded obliteration.

That stage suits a Matsuno game well enough, but Lost Order’s earliest screenshots fall in line with the usual smartphone strategy diversion. Characters walk around a loosely mapped battlefield with a network of colored rings, and nothing looks that different from the usual pastel anime-echoing RPG unleashed on smartphones and handhelds these days.

The same goes for what little we see of the world in the first screens; it’s altogether too bright for a city of shadowy backgrounds and apocalyptic grime. Matsuno's older games have brilliantly rendered and subtly detailed environments, and the first glimpses of Lost Order gameplay leave me wondering if someone mixed up the screenshots in the press releases.

And the characters? From left to right, we have Shon, Chelsea, Rorz (Ross?), and Blaze, all young heroes drawn in a style similar to Yoshida’s Bravely Default artwork (and all translated by my quick-and-dirty glance, so don't be surprised if the actual English names are different). They seem entirely too hopeful and childlike for a dour Matsuno game. Shouldn’t there be at least one suave or brooding older character? And where are their surnames? They can't be just Chelsea and Rorz. They should be Chelsea Phaxaerion and Rorz Von Dolgastein!

I’m quick to judge, of course. Some of Matsuno’s best games have teenage heroes. What's important is that they aren’t stuck in teenage worlds. Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre put their youthful protagonists through an industrial potato pulper of betrayals, scheming, dark secrets, and ugly victories, and even Final Fantasy XII had the grace to stick its youngest characters in fittingly passive roles.

Lost Order could find the right path after all. I only hope I’ll have an easy way of finding out. CyGames may deal in smartphone material, but they’re an ambitious company. Granblue Fantasy is successful enough to get a Platinum-made sequel (and an English patch for the original), and CyGames even aims for consoles with the still-very-early Project Awakening.

So I’m not deluded to think that Lost Order might be translated. Yes, I can nab the Japanese version when it arrives, but I’ve played Valkyrie Anatomia that way and understood only a third of the storyline. I’m sure I’d comprehend even less in an unlocalized Matsuno game.