The Rising Sunman

Most of my attention this week was claimed by Sunman, an unreleased NES title discovered and distributed, in ROM form, by the folks at The Lost Levels. It’s the sort of thing that NES historians love: a complete game that has never before seen the light of day or even a mention on a release schedule. Not quite the legendary Bio Force Ape, but a great find nonetheless.


Apparently Sunsoft’s attempt to turn a lost Superman license into a viable title, Sunman is a rough action game impeded by grueling difficulty and limited attacks. Much like the Man of Steel, Sunman can shoot heat-vision eye rays and deliver powerful punches, but he’s limited to the latter most of time, and it becomes quite frustrating when you face laser-firing foes that deal out copious damage. And then there’s the speedboat boss, the gunfire of which cannot be avoided. I’m certain of it.


All the same, Sunman’s an interesting subject on account of its nebulous origins, its complete lack of press during the time it was apparently in development, and its director and designer, who is none other than Kenji Eno, the self-styled artiste behind the Ds titles, Enemy Zero, and the inscrutable Real Sound (which is played entirely without visuals). Sunman’s straight-on superhero tale has none of Eno’s characteristic experimentation, but perhaps there’s a message hidden in the actual gameplay. The unalterable challenge of Sunman might be Eno’s meditation on the true nature of heroism. Like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Sunman reveals that fighting crime isn’t all tights and laser eyes; it’s a harsh, unfair ordeal that often inspires dialogue unsuitable for children.

This interpretation throws a cynical light on the game’s level-skipping cheat code. (Pause it and press A and B at once on the second controller.) Maybe Eno was of the opinion that only suckers fight the hard fights.

Popularity Crisis

You’d think that some promotion through EGM would prompt me to update this site more frequently, but some part of my mind seems convinced that has hit it big and should therefore never be tampered with again. Despite that, I’m preparing some new stuff, including more box art features. Horrible game packaging has a frighteningly elaborate history, I’ve found.

Of course, I know what everyone really wants to see here: awful Photoshop gags. Check out this exclusive look at the American cover for Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose.

Xenosaga: Der Wille Zur Artbook

It’s tough to think of another video game that polarizes opinions like the 1998 PlayStation RPG Xenogears, which players tend to either love for its elaborate story, intricate battles, and giant robots, or detest on account of its slow pace, crawling text, and rushed second disc. Xenosaga, the recent PlayStation2 quasi-prequel to Xenogears, is nearly as contentious with its emphasis on lengthy story sequences, linear progression, and plot twists that almost defy comprehension. But like the excellent Yasunori Mitsuda soundtracks that accompany the games, the supporting artwork for both Xenogears and Xenosaga is difficult to criticize.

With characters by Kunihiko Tanaka (Ruin Explorers, Key: The Metal Idol) and mecha from the mind of Junya Ishigaki (Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz), there’s undeniable quality to the games’ conceptual designs. And though you’d need to import the rather expensive Xenogears Perfect Works in order to own that title’s artwork, Namco and BradyGames decided to make things a little easier with Xenosaga by offering an art book (along with art prints and a T-shirt) to those who pre-ordered the game. They’re crafty, those promotions managers. They know that, at the depths of their bizarrely materialistic hearts, RPG geeks would treasure the shrink wrap from their games if it gave off the slightest hint of being collectible.

Similar to the excellent Final Fantasy IX art book that BradyGames released years ago, The Art of Xenosaga is a slimmer volume encompassing most, if not all, of the game’s design work. The character art section has both Tanaka’s original illustrations and the final renderings for the main cast, along with space for supporting folk like Captain Matthews (and his “Caution: I AM BOOZER” hat). Tanaka’s in top form for Xenosaga, and his art includes standard-issue anime archetypes like the magical-girl-show tribute Momo and the white-haired, unabashedly rotten Albedo as well as less conventional creations. A gray-tressed teenage boy goes by the capitalization-rejecting name of “chaos” and wears an odd mix of orange and black hues, while the scantily-clad android KOS-MOS has a look that’s both blatantly sexual and coldly unsettling, and she joins Kula from The King of Fighters in sharing the hair and eye colors of Evangelion’s Rei Ayanami.

Though well-designed, the mechanical art isn’t quite as interesting, since the robots, or “Anti-Gnosis Weapon Systems,” are somewhat generic constructions that wouldn’t be out of place in an anime space opera like Vandread or Dangaio. The (which, a reader informs me, are only an anagram away from the A.W.G.S. units of Gungriffon Blaze) simply don’t show the same variety as the mecha of Xenogears, which paid tribute to every giant-‘bot cliché in the book and looked damn good doing it. Much like the robots in the game itself, the mech art of Xenosaga is an ancillary element that can be safely ignored. More noteworthy are the galleries of enemies and level layouts. The “Gnosis” aliens of Xenosaga are an intriguingly mixed bunch; some are humanoid grotesqueries, others could almost be machines, and a few bear more of a resemblance to tropical fish as drawn by H. R. Giger. Equally engrossing are the sketches of the game’s dungeons, even if some might spoil players who haven’t yet been through Xenosaga.

Of course, there’s a caveat (and my main reason for writing this piece). I’ve seen The Art of Xenosaga often clearing thirty bucks in eBay auctions, with one sale closing in excess of a hundred dollars. Not to judge another’s use of disposable income, but that’s just stupid. As nice of a bonus as this art book is, it’s far too slim and simple to be worth more than a strategy guide.

Perhaps if it were hardbound, nicely packaged, and twice as thick, like the Japanese Xenosaga Official Design Materials, one could justify spending so much. But in its current form, The Art of Xenosaga isn't worth it. If there’s any consolation, it may be that the price recently began dropping, as though buyers are starting to realize that there’s no shortage of the book. Of course, my take on this might be contaminated by the luxury of getting my copy of The Art of Xenosaga for free. If I hadn’t received it as a bonus, I might have guiltily sought one through some bidding-bloated auction. Such is the allure of a nice art book. So despite my cautions, I can at least admit that even if you pay three times its sensible cost, you’re at least getting something good in the deal.

Xenosaga Is Art, Technically

One can’t accuse Namco of skimping on the hype for their PlayStation 2 RPG Xenosaga. Not only has the publisher created a promotional group for eager geeks to join, but pre-ordering the game from Electronics Boutique or GameStop will net you a selection of bonus merchandise: a T-Shirt, a miniature art book, or two lithographs.

At least that’s what Namco’s in-store displays call it, though what I picked up doesn’t resemble a lithograph so much as it does artwork printed on an 11 X 14” piece of poster board. But why quibble when it’s free, and relatively nice at that?

The art in question is a pretty CG rendering of bright-eyed Xenosaga heroine Shion Uzuki leaning on a red A.G.W.S., which is presumably what game designers call giant robots when they’re intent on coming up with a mecha moniker that no one has ever used before. (Gear? Taken. Variant Armor? It’s been done. Grand Chere? Strangely enough, that’s also off the market.) Amusingly, the word is pronounced something like “Eggs” and stands for Anti-Gnosis Weapons System; not gnosis in the traditional definition of “deeper wisdom,” mind you, but Gnosis as in the invading race of aliens that harrows the remnants of humanity in the Xenosaga universe. There’s irony in there somewhere, I suspect.

The render work is fairly impressive, and it’s interesting to note that Shion goes against the stereotype of RPG protagonists by a) being female, b) not being a dedicated warrior, and c) wearing glasses. I’ve seen a few role-playing games in which the main character met the first two criteria, but for the life of me, I can’t recall an RPG heroine who sported glasses.

I’ve yet to play a minute of Xenosaga, but any game than contravenes genre standards in its main character has already scored a point with me. The art print, however, presents a problem: I’m not sure what to do with it. It’s not the sort of thing that you’d thumbtack to the wall, yet it’s not high in quality to the point where you’d frame it or anything.

As useless game junk goes, this is truly without purpose, but I’m somehow compelled to preserve it, and even seek out the other art print, which features an extensively winged image of chaos (who’s apparently the e. e. cummings of the cast) another of Xenosaga’s cast. Am I a stupid, materialistic game dork? Probably, though I’d like to consider my fondness for this “lithograph” an example of how expertly Namco is appealing to its audience.

A Totally Xtreme Calendar

The Dead or Alive series is regarded by some as a first-rate, aggressively fun line of fighting games, while others see it as overrated, generic pabulum based on nothing more than simple, back-and-forth gameplay. Yet neither camp will deny that, high quality or not, Dead or Alive features some of the gaming world’s most unabashed attempts at sex appeal, with an ever-expanding lineup of buxom, heavy-chested female characters. Though there are some men in the DoA roster, no one pretends that the game’s attention is and always has been directed at anything other than Hitomi, Kasumi, Tina, Helena, Ayame, and any other voluptuous lasses that Tecmo’s Team Ninja have created for the latest game in the franchise.

And that latest game just happens to be Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, in which all of the girls spike, serve, and wear even less than they do when fighting. And what, some Tecmo think tank probably asked, would be the best way to promote this attempt at making the athletic, sparingly clad women of Sega’s Beach Spikers look like ninety-year-old nuns by comparison?

Why not a calendar? Sports Illustrated has their swimsuit issues, so shouldn’t the Dead or Alive gals fare just as well in their own catalogue of sensual poses and tropical backdrops? Someone important apparently answered “yes,” and now, amid the stacks of strategy guides at your local game vendor, you just might find (no lie) the Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball 2003 Calendar.

 Comparisons between this publication and those featuring real-life women aren’t quite accurate, however, as the Dead or Alive calendar lacks any degree of sensuality. All of the females are rendered in a smooth, blatantly curvaceous style, but their computer-generated look is so artificial that they’re about as sexy as a Barbie doll. Perhaps there’s some allure to the way the girls animate in the games, but they’re little more than mannequins when placed in a static capacity. Granted, you might mistake Christie, Lei Fang, Ayame, and their ilk for flesh-and-blood models when you’re standing several feet away from the calendar and squinting, but a closer look reveals only an impressive example of video game graphics. It’s likely to titillate only hormone-crazed early adolescents, who I think are horribly spoiled by today’s video games. When I was an awkward preteen, we didn’t have volleyball titles stocked with jiggling 3-D women! We had to ogle the referee in Super Spike V-Ball! And we thought she was hot, dammit!

Anyway, there’s also the superfluous question of how well this thing holds up as an actual calendar, in which case it's fairly cheap. The light colors make it easy to write on (which is more than I can say for the largely black décor of the H.R. Giger collection that I used for 2002), but the pages aren’t nearly as sturdy as a usual calendar, and the whole thing seems in danger of falling off of the wall when it has only a single flimsy page to hold up the weight of the following months.

The calendar really isn't worth an in-store price of fifteen bucks, though it’s not a bad collectible if you can get it as a promotional giveaway with Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball for the Xbox. Yet I wouldn’t worry if you miss out, as it's little more than a semi-useful bonus and an tribute to how far Tecmo will go to capitalize on the T & A element of Dead or Alive. As such, only fans of the series will want to bother with this extra, and they might be better off saving up for Dead or Alive Wet T-Shirt Dodgeball or whatever else Team Ninja has in mind.