Fuga: Melodies of Steel, Memories of the Middle Ground

Fuga: Melodies of Steel belongs to the endangered species of middleweight video games. Neither a lumbering blockbuster nor a small-scale indie curio, Fuga is part of the Little Tail Bronx series that CyberConnect2 dearly loves and manages to visit about once a decade, and it’s their first independent release. It’s also priced at forty bucks and available only digitally, so it’s exactly the sort of title that may easily go neglected. And it shouldn’t. 

True, the game is niche by design. The previous Little Tail Bronx titles, Tail Concerto and Solatorobo and the obscure Little Tail Story, were joyful, bright-colored creations, but Fuga digs deep into a nightmarish animal-people vision of World War II.

It never outright says that, but the allegory is apparent even before a gentle arcadia of villages, farms, and cat-folk named after foods is invaded by the Berman Empire, leaving a pack of kids to seize a mystical tank and head out for revenge. There's no dog-person demagogue named Abolf Bitler, but subtlety was never the aim here. 

I reviewed Fuga months ago if you'd care to read my in-depth opinion, and I remain impressed by the way the game weaves simple tank battles and resource management into a small-scale social simulator. When not strategizing through the basic but hazardous showdowns with Berman armored units, you're helping the characters bond adorably over laundry and maps and the chicken farm that the tank somehow supports.

It all feels like a throwback to the Saturn and PlayStation era, when a developer could experiment and have the results on store shelves right next to the latest Marios and Maddens and Final Fantasies. The modern industry has plenty of room for independent, risk-taking creations, but rampaging budgets and triple-A releases have swept away that fascinating substratum of strange, inventive, and possibly flawed games that major publishers sometimes decided were worth the creative risks.

Today, unorthodox games usually get only online releases or limited-edition physical copies that don't earn the same attention. I think we’re better off overall, with hundreds of games that wouldn't even have been made twenty years ago, but I miss that level playing field. 

Self-publishing isn't the only chance Cyberconnect2 took with Fuga. I am perhaps the wrong person to ask about its use of an anthropomorphic version of World War II, complete with dog-people fascists conducting horrific experiments, spouting off about racial purity, or, in the case of the Dr. Mengele analogue, hiding his feline visage out of self-loathing. I always like it when something cute or allegedly lightweight dares to embrace sensitive material, no matter the incongruities. When others are offended or embarrassed, I remain amused and even impressed by something like Xenosaga's reckless integration of religious figures. That's another story for another time, though.

In fact, Fuga doesn’t mock of any of its wartime traumas. It’s far more grim than its predecessors, and its cheerful scenes of characters forging friendships and fishing for scrap metal hit harder simply because they’re just respites from the looming horrors of a massive war. What could be incoherent instead fits together very well.

So I'd recommend Fuga: Melodies of Steel, whether you go for its digital release or wait for a physical copy that no one seems to be planning as of yet. It's a charming game, and it's also a visit to a place most publishers rarely go these days. CyberConnect2 cared enough about Fuga to put it out there themselves instead of waiting who knows how long for a larger company to notice, and for that I wish the game all the success a furry tank battle RPG could possibly have in this day and age.

Happy Gravity Rushoween

Regular visitors to this site might have noticed certain subtle hints that I like the Gravity Rush games. How much do I like them? Well, I ended up on Retronauts to discuss the series. As the podcast points out, Gravity Rush falls just outside of their ten-year cutoff, but I think it's worth that little bend in the rules.

I also think Retronauts is ahead of the historical curve in talking up Gravity Rush. True, the series did not become an evergreen Sony title like Ratchet & Clank or Gran Turismo or a certain mythology-mauling disgrace that I loathe too much to name. Yet it has everything an enduring cult classic needs: unique gameplay, gorgeous worlds, memorable characters, and just enough mystery and depth to invite speculation and sequel hunger even after Gravity Rush 2 wrapped up almost everything. There may never be another Gravity Rush game, but I don't think it'll ever go without a strong and potentially obnoxious fan base. And I'll always do my best to be part of that.

I'm also on the new Retronauts episode about Addams Family games, in which it's revealed that Fester's Quest might not be the weirdest game in this category. Uncle Fester fighting aliens is offbeat, but that TurboGrafx-16 outing is an entirely new world of baffling decisions. By the way, I have to correct myself. In the podcast I mention that Fester's Quest had a poster in Nintendo Power. Technically, it just had maps on the back of a poster. A minor gaffe on my part, but I don't want any avid collectors haunted by the suggestion that their old Nintendo Powers are incomplete. 

So that's my way of wishing everyone a happy Halloween. If you're in search of something appropriate to play, check out my older entry about Darkstalkers and other suitable holiday games. Or you could just fire up Fester's Quest.

A Dino Land Discovery

My previous entry sunk deep into the history of Dino Land, a middleweight pinball-video game from Telenet Japan and Wolfteam. While it had little time in the spotlight, Telenet used the Dino Land characters as mascots for their Cosmic Fantasy arcades. I recounted tales of people getting prize figures of the game’s protagonists, Bunz and Meeshell, and I wondered if we’d ever see evidence of them. 

Well, longtime reader Chris Tang (@strikeharbinger on Twitter) came through with amazing, incontrovertible photo evidence that those Dino Land figures existed. He even had some original tickets, a flyer, and a carrying bag from the Cosmic Fantasy Restaurant and Game Resort in Hawaii!


 

You’ll note that Bunz and Meeshell are molded so that their hands link together, making for an adorable pair of plastic toys and possible wedding cake toppers. Perhaps Dino Land wouldn’t be the number-one choice for a Telenet-themed reception, but I don’t think anyone will make bridge-and-groom figures of Earnest Evans and Annet Myer any time soon. 

I’m very glad to see these little collectibles. Dino Land may not be remembered among the best Telenet and Wolfteam offerings, but I’m fascinated that a company’s arcade briefly appropriated them for mascots. It’s a reminder of just how much odd video-game merchandise popped up in the 1980s and 1990s—and how little of it is documented well. The Japanese game market was compact enough that a publisher could crank out short runs of toys, t-shirts, or other promotional trinkets that would soon be forgotten by anyone who didn’t stop by a particular arcade or subscribe to the right fan club. As the push to preserve old video games and their attendant media expands into new horizons, we shouldn’t forget their toys, the proof that someone believed in a game enough to capture it in plastic.

Now, with this mystery laid to rest, I think I’ll see if anyone has the art cards from the Battle Mania Daiginjou cassette soundtrack.

Dino Land: Token Prehistoric Pinball

Telenet Japan has a good reputation if you know where to look. Aided by developer Wolfteam and its American publishing arm Renovation, Telenet dug out a fine little niche on the Sega Genesis in the early 1990s. Much like mid-tier anime OVAs rented from Blockbuster, Telenet’s action titles were flashes of an intense, bizarre realm beyond the conventions of the early 1990s. If they weren’t consistently well-crafted, games like Valis, Gaiares, Final Zone, Sol Deace, El Viento, Granada, and Arcus Odyssey were stylish and engaging enough to earn cult followings and, once the game-collector scene mutated beyond all control, command high prices. 

Dino Land isn’t among the upper tier of Telenet and Wolfteam fare in reputation or inflated eBay auctions. It’s a pinball game stocked with little dinosaurs, a far cry from the intergalactic wars and boomerang-slinging Peruvian sorceresses of other Renovation releases. For a while in 1992, however, it was the perfect game. 


It’s a cute enough treatment of pinball, with prehistoric levels crawling with dinosaurs and their equally fearsome relatives. As in Alien Crush and Devil’s Crush, players send a ball flying across a unorthodox multi-level board, defeating little enemies and triggering secrets.  

The actual ball, however, is a coiled-up Mesozoic armadillo named Dino-Bunz, and he’s out to rescue his pink girlfriend, Meeshell. If you land in the right spot, Bunz will unroll himself and march off into a boss fight, also played out in pinball form. And while most of the game occurs in the main jungle board, triggering its slot machine in the right way can warp Bunz to undersea or aerial pinball fields with bosses of their own.



It's too bad that Dino Land doesn’t do enough with its little creatures. The multiple stages and bosses are an interesting conceit, but the general flow of the game grows monotonous while too much of the scenery is only briefly charming. Compared to the spidery xenomorphs of Alien Crush or the monstrous imagery of Devil’s Crush, Dino Land seems bland in both looks and music. It’s actually more fun to watch the little protagonist scuttle around the board and high-score screen than it is to play the pinball. 


Even the dinosaurs aren’t varied enough. You’ll see a giant sauropod and some assorted genetic carnivores, but there’s nary a Triceratops, a Stegosaurus, or a Velociraptor to be seen. Bunz, Meeshell, and their non-combatant friend Malchi are all of an indeterminate arma-dino species, though they’re similar enough that I can declare them honorary Ankylosaurs.  

Yet there's more to Dino Land than a mere pinball simulator.

Unsung Game Creators: Takeru, Part 2

The second half of Unsung Game Creators’ Takeru feature is now up! While the first part was modestly hopeful in chronicling the developer’s side-scrolling action games Cocoron and Little Samson, the conclusion delves into the legacy of Nostalgia 1907, an adventure game that brazenly ignored just about every popular trend of its era. It’s a fascinating title for that reason as well as its own ambitions, but as we see, it wasn’t what the market really wanted.

We capped off the video by pointing out a unique thing about Takeru: they didn’t develop any licensed games. Just about every smaller developer, from Treasure to Wayfoward, funded their future cult classics by taking on projects based on movies, cartoons, and anything else that might have turned the heads of casual customers.

I won’t say that this was Takeru’s only mistake and that they should have canceled Little Samson and farmed out their esteemed ex-Capcom talent to making video-game versions of whatever TV shows or films looked at them twice. After all, they could have picked up Stunt Dawgs or A Far Off Place just as easily as a Jurassic Park deal. And perhaps Takeru just wasn’t around long enough to land any licenses.

As always, we’re thankful for every like, view, comment, and subscription we get—and for the patience subscribers showed during the long delay for this video. We’ll tackle some shorter subjects next, and they’re not quite as depressing as this one!

Metal Warriors: A Clinking, Clanking, Clandestine Classic

Metal Warriors walked a difficult path. Fresh off the cult favorite Zombies Ate My Neighbors, developers Dean Sharpe and Mike Ebert conceived Metal Warriors as their homage to mecha anime like Mobile Suit Gundam and Armored Trooper Votoms. LucasArts greenlit the idea, and the project went through bug-testing and development with surprising ease.

The problem came in getting the game to market. LucasArts initially struck a publishing deal with Nintendo, who discarded the game and countless other Super NES titles as new systems emerged in early 1995. Konami scooped it up for a mid-1995 release, but the production run was a mere 50,000 copies, and it was soon lost in the utter chaos of a year where multiple new consoles launched and the established ones saw their strongest libraries ever.



Metal Warriors inevitably provoked comparisons to Cybernator and the rest of the Assault Suits series. They’re both tales of robot warfare wages in space and on the earth, with semi-realistic mecha that clank and lumber just as much as they jet around with rocket packs or swing beam sabers (or lightsabers, as we can probably call them without fear of LucasArts suing themselves). Metal Warriors casts its player-named character, Stone by default, as the linchpin in a struggle against the dictator Venkar Amon and his Dark Axis Forces. No benevolent leader would name his army the Axis, so there’s plenty of fearsome opposition in the enemy mecha and their pilots.

Yet Metal Warriors shrugs away all ripoff accusations. In an interview from the second Untold History of Japanese Game Creators, Sharpe and Ebert reveal that they were inspired more by Blaster Master and the freedom it gave players in letting them exit a vehicle at will. Metal Warriors does the same, and Stone can eject from any mecha at any time, equipped only with a jetpack and a dinky firearm that damages only other tiny, robot-less humans. It turns Metal Warriors into less of a straightforward action game and more of a giant puzzle, as you’re driven to leave your protective mock-Gundanium frame several times in each stage. Or you can just see how far you can survive in puny pilot form. True freedom is often suicidal.



The designers didn’t stick to routine robots, either. Artist Harrison Fong devised an inventive roster of half a dozen different mecha. The Nitro and the Havoc are standard humanoid types, rushing and jetting and firing much like an Assault Suits machine, but it’s hard to find stock anime equivalents for the rest of the lineup. There’s Prometheus, a plodding bipedal tank that makes up for its slow pace and lack of jumping by sporting a flamethrower, mines, a shield, and cannons that let player control just when a shell fragments. There’s the Ballistic, which moves by rolling into a ball, charging up and smashing into things, though it can only fire when stationary. There’s the Drache, a flying ship with a dive attacks and eight-way gunfire. And there’s the Spider, which does the best it can by crawling on any surface and immobilizing enemies. It’s okay, Spider. You’re still an essential part of the game. 

Dynamite Düx and the Lost Sega Mascot

The history of Sega mascots is rather short for a company with such a voluminous catalog. Sega’s first attempts at company spokes-things appeared mostly in game manuals instead of the games themselves, as the rabbit-like Dr Asobin and the blandly human Dr. Games traded places. Sega then toyed with Fantasy Zone’s faceless ship Opa-Opa before giving the vaguely simian Alex Kidd an iconic slot almost by default. In 1991, however, Sega concocted Sonic the Hedgehog and never bothered with another mascot. 

But what other characters could have filled that role? Which Sega game had the makings of a mascot if Sonic had never existed? I can think of one: Dynamite Düx.



An obscure Sega title today but a modest success back in 1988, Dynamite Düx appeared during the heyday of the side-scrolling brawler, or “beat ‘em up,” popularized by Double Dragon. As the genre favored, things start with a woman’s abduction. Lucy, the owner of two large and partly dressed ducks, is kidnapped by an enchanter, and her pets take up arms to rescue her.

The typical brawler of the era had players controlling vigilantes and bashing around a street gang, but Dynamite Düx roams more freely. Heroes Bin and Pin face ranks of comical animals, including Bullwinkle-like moose heads and goggle-eyed soldier hounds, but their arsenal is suitable for any Contra or Metal Slug. Bombs, flamethrowers, machine guns, and rocket launchers all can be picked up and fired, and the game allows its heroes a little more range than the humanoid crime-fighters of other belt-scrollers. You're not limited to attacking just from the side, and that helps a lot in the crowded battles.



It’s messy and short and in need of more memorable bosses, but Dynamite Düx shines with the cartoon nonsense that video games handled so well back then. It’s an neat little hybrid: an early 1980s arcade game in concept, but constantly showing off the large characters and memorable sights that would define arcade classics from the era of Strider and Ghouls 'N Ghosts

Little Things: Totally Rad

 

If anyone tells you that story doesn’t matter to a video game, you’ll find the perfect counterargument in an NES side-scroller called Totally Rad. Jaleco’s American branch took a bland Famicom title named Magic John and remodeled its plot into a parody of the early ‘90s surfer-dude patois that everyone mocked and imitated at some point in between the first two Bill & Ted movies and Wayne’s World. The revamped dialogue turns a standard-issue game into a gnarly, badical, most righteous zeitgeist fragment, and it’s the only reason anyone really remembers Totally Rad.


Jaleco of America knew what they had with Totally Rad, and they knew it needed to stand out in some way besides gameplay. That’s because Totally Rad just coasts through the concept of a side-scrolling action title of the NES era. It’s a perfect example of Jaleco’s proclivity for merely adequate games and developer Aicom's varying levels of quality. Protagonist Jake has a chargeable shot and magic spells that range from healing to shapeshifting, but the level design is mediocre, the scenery unremarkable, and the gameplay itself just a little too sluggish. It’s perhaps worth a play through if you’re exploring every Mega Man game and imitation thereof, but you could just as easily watch the tubular cutscenes or page through the faithful instructions.


Yet there’s one more thing that I like about Totally Rad. One very minor thing. 
 

Might Have Been: World Beach Volley

[Might Have Been tracks the failures of promising games, characters, and companies. This installment looks at World Beach Volley, released for the Game Boy in 1991.] 

Cute sports games often go unappreciated. Most sports titles may strive for realistic takes on baseball, soccer, football, ice hockey, curling, field hockey, bowling, water hockey, snooker, cricket, dino hockey, and every other type of pastime, but credit must go to the developers who went the opposite direction and turned a popular sport into a simplified cavalcade of big-headed characters and approachable gameplay. It’s still a viable field today, but it was especially prolific on the Game Boy, where basic hardware inspired—or perhaps demanded—more abstract appearances. That’s where you’ll find Graphic Research’s World Beach Volley.



Straightforward in its presentation, World Beach Volley offers a player two-on-two matches with adjustable rules about points and court-swapping. Controls are handled well with two buttons for serving, spiking, and blocking. It’s all similar to Technos Japan’s excellent Super Spike V’Ball, though perhaps not as aggressive with its fierce spikes. 
 
Two players can take part via a link cable, but it’s not so bad to be stuck with computer-controlled opponents and partners. The AI actually proves helpful here, as it can spike and block instead of just setting up your character for a move. This also results in your teammate getting in your way at times, but that's the price of an independent thinker.


Shunning any real-world rules about gender-based leagues, World Beach Volley offers an international tournament where men and women compete side by side. You’re given a spread of six countries with four players apiece, complete with delightful names and specialties. What’s more American than a blonde spiker named Liftty and her “strong attack through block” or the “Big Fighter” Bill? Or perhaps you’d prefer the Russian player named Rossyan or Lie and her “Chinese Hope,” whatever that means? 

Lufia and the Fortress of Doom's Grand Opening

I did not own Lufia and the Fortress of Doom as a kid, but my cousins did. Each summer they’d bring it along when the family gathered at grandma’s house, and each summer I’d play the first few hours of the game. By the next summer my save file would be gone, long since overwritten by my cousins or one of their friends. I didn’t mind, because this meant that I got to play the game’s introduction all over again.

In Lufia and the Fortress of Doom, Neverland Company and writer/director Masahide Miyata made a bold move for a Super NES RPG from 1993: they opened with its final battle—or a final battle, at least.



It begins with an ominous crawl across a floating isle, the home of four godlike beings of destruction called Sinistrals. Four brave mortals, led by a warrior named Maxim, rise to face this threat, and we’re taken right to their climactic journey through the isle. Tales of ancient heroes are very common in a fantasy RPG, but instead of simply telling us how things went, Lufia and the Fortress of Doom lets us play it out entirely.



We find Maxim and his allies already at the heart of the Sinistrals' inner sanctum. With finely tense music and eerily vacant halls, the castle evokes a final stage so well a casual viewer might glance and assume that this is, in fact, the big finale of a 40-hour RPG and not an opening in media res. 

As befitting a final dungeon, heroes Maxim, Selan, Artea, and Guy are all high in levels and outfitted with powerful weapons and magic, and it’s hard for them to lose against the monsters that pop up throughout the fortress. You might notice, however, that those monsters pop up very often. Remember that.

The Sinistrals await at the center of this citadel, and Maxim’s party tackles all four of them. Each is a screen-filling creature that’s a little harder to beat than the grunt-level monsters, though you’d have to make a real effort for them to defeat you. Aside from that, however, they feel like end bosses. They even disintegrate dramatically, just like a proper chief villain should.