Little Things: The Guardian Legend

It’s very hard to find an NES game with a decent story—or any story at all, for that matter. Many of them have premises, introductions, motivations, conversations, and perhaps a theme or two, but rarely does an NES title assemble a fully coherent and vital narrative. The Guardian Legend, Compile’s amazing shooter/RPG hybrid from 1989, certainly doesn’t. Yet it has all the story it needs.

With only a screen's worth of expository text, The Guardian Legend hurls a transforming jet-android woman at a planet-size asteroid headed for the Earth. Once the heroine (in her spaceship form) breaches the big rock’s outer defenses, she’s greeted by a harsh message.

“If someone is reading this…I must have failed," confesses the narrator of The Guardian Legend’s meager backstory: the asteroid, Naju, housed a proud and civilized race before it was overtaken by some deep-space menace. The message’s author was the only survivor of this attack, and he or she mounted a last-ditch attempt at destroying Naju from within. After explaining just how this can be accomplished, the author closes with a haunting reminder: "I hope this message will not be read by anyone...It will mean that I have failed."

It’s a simple introduction, swiped from any number of films and novels where a final desperate message sets the stage for some horrific danger, but it’s particularly effective in The Guardian Legend. It’s a game without much background, and the heroine herself is never properly named during the adventure (she’s dubbed “Miria” only in the Japanese version’s manual). This brief missive accounts for most of the game’s dialogue, and in that minimalism lies power. Accompanied by the somber chirps of the soundtrack, the message lays out a bleak challenge and makes sure you know that your only real ally, someone who actually knew what to do, has been dead for a long time. You’re all alone in this.

Well, not quite. Venture into one of the adjoining rooms, and you’ll meet Compile’s mascot Randar, who sells you weapons and never stops smiling. He offers no further reassurance, but the big blue corporate icon makes Naju and The Guardian Legend just a little less forlorn.

Might Have Been: Nuts & Milk

[Might Have Been tracks the failures of promising games, characters, and companies. This installment looks at Nuts & Milk, released for the Famicom in 1983.]  

Nuts & Milk has a small place in the equally small history of video games. It made the rounds as a simple maze-based game on various Japanese computers without much fuss. Yet when Hudson remodeled it for the Famicom in 1984 Nuts & Milk became one of the console's first titles released by a third-party publisher, apparently sharing that release date with Hudson's own port of the more commonplace Lode Runner. Considering what else was fighting for space in the Famicom’s early years, Nuts & Milk wasn’t a bad game—it just had an unfortunate title for English speakers.

When one stops snickering and actually plays the game, Nuts & Milk reveals itself as an entirely harmless imitation of early ‘80s arcade culture. Players control Milk, a pink blob who traverses levels of planks, pipes, and brick in search of his girlfriend, Yogurt. To properly rescue her, Milk much collect all of the fruit in any given stage while avoiding his rival Nuts, whose blue skin apparently brings instant death to Milk and his kind. And Milk must do this in 50 different levels, harried by multiple clones of Nuts.

It’s all very simple, but it’s not quite as cleanly programmed as appearances suggest. Just like Donkey Kong and its legions of single-screen imitators, Nuts & Milk works against the player in many little ways. Milk has trouble jumping when he's on wooden floors or against a wall, and a lot of his fruit-gathering solutions involve properly calculated falls. Particularly frustrating are the springs that bounce Milk up to greater heights, but only if the jump button’s pressed at exactly the right nanosecond.

The game also looks very much its age, though there’s some appeal in the characters. Nuts and Milk are early examples of the blob-with-eyes design trend that would mold countless characters and corporate icons in the Japanese game industry of the 1980s. The finest little touch comes when Milk falls from a decent height and lies immobile for just a moment, with a look of perfect befuddlement on his barely extant face.

Tape Test: Twilight of the Cockroaches

[Tape Test covers notable anime available in North America only through old VHS releases. This installment looks at Twilight of the Cockroaches, released by Streamline Pictures in the 1990s.]

“Franz Kafka Meets Roger Rabbit,” proclaims the cover of Twilight of the Cockroaches. It almost fits. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? this odd half-anime film from 1987 has live actors next to cartoon characters. And like Kafka’s "The Metamorphosis," it’s…uh, it has roaches. Well, humanoid roaches. Even though Kafka’s story wasn’t necessarily about a roach. Oh well. I sympathize with whoever had to describe Twilight of the Cockroaches in a short tagline, and the Kafka one has a sharper ring than “Watership Down With Roaches” or “A Bleak Anime Version of Joe’s Apartment.”

Life is pleasant for the roaches in the bachelor pad of one Mr. Seito. They frolic amid dirty dishes, they swim in the toilet, and they fly where they please, all without Seito caring a whit. They have roach politicians, roach nightlife, roach class prejudices, and a roach holiday that commemorates a tragic loss of roach life. And if this isn’t an obvious enough allegory for the Japan of the 1980s, there’s even a meretricious morning-news show run by roaches. But the bugs aren't accurately insectile blattella asahinai. These roaches are largely humanized anime characters with antennae, an extra set of arms, and glovelike flippers where their hands should be. Fables about mice or rabbits get semi-realistic animal heroes, but biologically accurate roaches don't appeal to viewers so much.

All of this glorious roach opulence isn’t enough for Naomi, a 19-year-old (insect years, I assume) roach girl. She’s bored with her milquetoast fiancé Ichiro and generally discontented with the roach lifestyle. So she’s quite intrigued when a strange roach named Hans arrives at the Seito pad.

Hans brings the placid Seito roaches stories of his home, where roaches are systematically hunted and exterminated by humans. And no one’s more fascinated by it than Naomi, who likes Hans for his grim demeanor as much as his square-jawed German manliness. So when Hans departs for his native land like the dutiful soldier he is, Naomi follows. And she finds the adventure she so vaguely pined for. Hans and his fellow roaches live an apartment where a fastidious woman hauls out bug spray and shoes to rain death upon her unwanted tenants each night. She’s also lonely, and so, it seems, is Seito. And they’re neighbors. And so destruction is sown for the hedonistic roaches who in no way represent 1980s society.

Tape Test: The Awful Truth

I haven’t done much with Tape Test. With this week’s installment, I’ve put up only three entries in as many years. There’s a reason for that: everything is awful.

I should explain further. When I started Tape Test, I looked forward to writing about the various VHS anime that’s not yet available on DVD; I even had a stockpile of cheaply acquired tapes for starters. Of course, I knew that most of them would be mediocre, as the overwhelming majority of anime is, but I was convinced that I could find something interesting to say about each and every one of them.

I was wrong. There are indeed a few notable anime creations only released on VHS in the West, but the majority I’ve found are awful in the worst way: they’re hackneyed, boring, and completely devoid of valid entertainment. I realized a while ago that I didn't need to write thousand-word pro bono excoriations of DNA Sights 999.9, Explorer Woman Ray, Ehrgeiz, Ogre Slayer, Genesis Surviver/Survivor Gaiarth, Dragon Century, Raven Tengu Kabuto, Blue Sonnet, Luna Varga, Akai Hayate, AWOL, Grey: Digital Target, The Legend of Kotetsu, Roots Search, or the 1996 remake of Hurricane Polymar. Many of these I remembered all too well from that unfortunate time in my life when I was willing to watch just about any remotely promising anime the local Blockbuster or comic store had up for rental. I sat through Dragoon ten years ago, and I’m not doing it again. Not for free, anyway.

And that's what happened to Tape Test. As any critic could tell you, it’s not the worst of it that gets you. It’s the banal and unremarkably terrible.

Dreaming is Free, Games are Not

I haven't collected games in a while. I was into it thick and stupid for a few years when I lived in Ohio, because that's how your early twenties usually go. You want everything you didn't have when you were a teenager, and you finally have enough money and free time to enjoy it all. I gave up collecting upon realizing several things: most games weren't worth owning, I was just as content with emulating them, and amassing a huge library would turn me into the sort of person who regularly posts on forums like Digital Press and Atari Age without self-awareness or contempt. Yet I remember what it was like to visit flea markets and mom-and-pop stores, picking over crates of old NES games just in case there was a rare title or, better yet, a prototype of a canceled game.

Well, that's exactly what I dreamed of last night. I was at a flea market, in a game vendor's stall that had inexplicably sprung up in the ruins of a gas station. I was looking over a massive bin of NES cartridges. I was also telling myself that I was over this, that I didn't collect games any longer. But a small part of me still said "What if there's an unreleased game in all this? What if it's something no one's ever heard of before, like that Sunman thing? You can preserve it and put it online so everyone can play it! You'll be famous in a small niche of the Internet." So I kept looking, albeit with a slow, feigned casualness. Me? Oh no, I'm just glancing over these old Nintendo games out of passing interest. I'm not a huge nerd or anything. Not me, never.

Then another shopper, roughly my age, wandered up to a section of the bin I hadn't yet checked. He pulled out a cartridge and yelled in excitement, and I knew he'd found something amazing.

He held it up, and it was indeed rare: an NES game based on Operation Dumbo Drop.

I was left standing there, wondering just what lesson I'd been taught. Had I lost out because I hadn't been a good and devoted game-scavenging nerd? Had I let this previously undiscovered piece of history fall into the hands of someone who might never share it with the world? Did I even care that a game based on Operation Dumbo Drop was possibly lost forever? What if it was actually a good game, some unexpectedly decent piece by Natsume or Compile or Aicom?

But mostly I was left wondering if my dream was somehow rooted in fact. Was an Operation Dumbo Drop game ever announced for the NES?

No, it wasn't, but someone else asked about it. Perhaps this dream isn't mine alone.

The Dark Side of Captain Commando

Captain Commando was a veritable chameleon among game mascots. As mentioned in a recent feature at, the Capcom icon started off as a box-art pitchman and went through two different designs in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1991 that Capcom finalized his look with an arcade beat-‘em-up.

Captain Commando is a typical enough outing in the Final Fight tradition. The eponymous Captain and his three Commando assistants pound street thugs and monsters, and it's dressed in a futuristic style inspired by manga superhero tales and old serial adventures like Captain Future and Lensman. It’s also pretty mild as the violence goes. Sword-wielding enemies can cut the Captain in half, and the mummy commando, a.k.a. “Mack the Knife,” causes foes to disintegrate into skeletons when he defeats them. That's about it. These scenes were removed in the Super NES version of Captain Commando, and there wasn’t much to take out.

There’s nothing in Captain Commando to suggest that Capcom’s underlying vision for the game was a bloody procession of sadism and gruesome deaths. For that, you’ll have to read a promotional comic that Capcom made.

It's a little graphic, so I'll hide it behind this cut.

Little Things: Wonder Boy in Monster Land

Wonder Boy in Monster Land may have a title both generic and silly, but it’s an important game in the history of Westone and their biggest series. The original Wonder Boy went through the motions of a rudimentary platformer (and spawned Adventure Island along the way), but 1987’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land slowed the pace while adding weapons, armor, shops, and other RPG-ish features. And so it started the franchise’s climb toward the fantastic Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap and Monster World IV.

Another thing about Wonder Boy in Monster Land: just about every foe has a death animation. Most side-scrollers of the NES and Sega Master System didn’t bother with this. Enemies exploded, flickered, or flipped off of the screen upon dying. Wonder Boy in Monster Land, on the other hand, gives each defeated creature a single-frame demise.

The most striking one comes from the mushrooms that amble toward Wonder Boy in the early stages of the game. At first, they look sedate and dutiful.

Then Wonder Boy stabs one, and its face changes to a look of pure agony. The creature’s final half-second on Earth is spent in tearful horror, gazing not toward Wonder Boy but out at the player. Or perhaps it’s looking at the vast spectrum of all it'll never be, at everything it longed to do with its brief fungal existence. A glimpse of a life unfulfilled torments this mushroom soldier, who couldn't even be a Goomba in Super Mario Bros., just before it vanishes from the world, leaving behind nothing but regret. And a shiny coin for Wonder Boy.

Many enemies in the game have their own death throes, but nothing so memorable as the mushroom underling. And Wonder Boy? He doesn’t react at all. As I pointed out years ago, Wonder Boy is a bit creepy.

The Really, Really Lost Street Fighter

One good thing about liking Street Fighter is the knowledge that you can ignore just about every movie and TV series it inspires. After all, the games themselves don’t acknowledge any of them; not the hysterically awful live-action Street Fighter: The Movie nor the hysterically awful USA Network cartoon it spawned. The only exception is 1994’s Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. It’s quite stupid, but it was Capcom’s own project. They had money to spend on it, the experienced Gisaburo Sugi (Night on the Galactic Railroad, Touch) to direct it, and the advantage of video-game nonsense always going down easier as animation. And it paid off. Sort of. Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie is still the best anime inspired by a fighting game, even if that means next to nothing.

Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie was also close to Capcom’s vision for the games, and so pieces of it turned up in later Street Fighter titles, particularly the Alpha series. Ken, Ryu, Cammy, and several other characters had their looks tweaked in accordance with the movie, and Alpha 2 recreates some of the film’s battles. One character from the film even crossed over: Senoh, M. Bison’s bald scientist crony, pops up in one or two Alpha endings.

There’s another piece of obscurity attacked to Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. One character, also an agent of Bison’s Shadaloo syndicate, was on the drawing boards but never made it into the film. Her absence was noted in an old issue of Anime UK, and the magazine ran a sketch of her with this description: “In the outline, she worked for SHADOWLAW [Shadaloo] and appeared on the stage in Las Vegas wearing what one Japanese source describes as ‘radical bondage gear.’” Presumably, she was inspired by the showgirls that mill about in the background of Balrog’s stage in the original Street Fighter II.

Had she actually made it into the film, the unnamed dancer might’ve also slipped into the Street Fighter games and their loosely structured canon, which Capcom makes up only when circumstances and lawsuits demand.

Or maybe the dancer and her radical bondage getup aren’t so lost. With her Bison-like hat, she bears a certain resemblance to Poison, the Final Fight regular who was changed into a guy for the Super NES version of the game. Poison’s backstory has described her as both a cross-dressing man and a fully transgendered character, and the inconsistency has started far more fan debate than it probably should have. And now Poison’s in Street Fighter X Tekken, which will stir up even more debate. Of course, Poison is a non-existent video-game character and is therefore without any gender, but pointing that out makes you a jerk.

Was the dancer a Poison cameo that Manga UK didn’t notice? Or was she just some background filler that the story didn’t want or need? Whatever the answer, she’s still the most obscure of all unused Street Fighter characters, even more so than those early drawings of Dhalsim with six arms and an elephant’s head.

Phantasy Star III: Care and Feeding

Game manuals are a dying breed. As the industry shifts toward online distribution and cheap packaging, manuals grow thinner and less informative. In fact, some modern titles don’t even include them. And why should they? Most of today’s games have extensive, intrusive tutorials that make manuals unnecessary. Yet there’s one important thing that only manuals have: drawings of the game’s characters telling you not to set your new purchase on fire and throw it in the toilet.

The majority of games lack such warnings, of course. That sort of thing was seen mostly in Japanese releases during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when game companies felt the need to inform players of the best ways to care for the imposing technologies of CDs and game cartridges. My favorite little warning section comes from the manual for Phantasy Star III.

I don’t know Japanese well enough to fully translate this, but I’m not worried. I tried to do the same thing with a Demo Demo PlayStation cover, and someone dropped in to correct my largely wrong interpretation. So I’ll just translate this Phantasy Star III cartridge-care guide as best I can. It’ll all work out in the end.

Working Designs, Catalogued

One must be even-handed when discussing Working Designs. One may say that the small software house, co-founded and led by Victor Ireland, did great things by publishing semi-obscure games from Japan and localizing them carefully at a time when few U.S. companies did either. However, you must also mention the risqué, modern-day humor crammed into Working Designs translations. You might also mention that Ireland would berate game reviewers if they complained that Baywatch jokes didn’t fit in a medieval-fantasy RPG. You must present the good and bad of Working Designs, using phrases like “controversial” and “love it or hate it” to give readers an objective measure.

Well, screw all that. I liked Working Designs. I liked the humorous dialogue changes. I liked the way they made pushover games harder and often more interesting for North America, though it’s a shame about Exile II. I liked Popful Mail, Thunder Force V, and Elemental Gearbolt just as well as the more popular Working Designs staples of Dragon Force and the Lunar games. And I liked watching the arguments between Ireland and everyone from GameFan magazine editors to Sega bigwigs. Right or wrong, Working Designs was damned entertaining. Atlus, Xseed, and other contemporary publishers of Japanese RPGs may be more professional, but they’re just not as marvelously dramatic.

Working Designs didn’t survive to see this age, but the company struck a 1990s vein of Japanese-RPG fans that other publishers ignored entirely. If those fans weren’t a significant force in the industry, they were at least devoted. They bought games, strategy guides, and, most importantly, all sorts of merchandise based on the games they liked. Working Designs figured this out early.

If you picked up a Working Designs game for the Sega CD or Sega Saturn, you probably found one of these brochures inside that needlessly oversized jewel case. It shills wares with a downright precious candor, inviting kids everywhere to cover their rooms and concern their parents with posters and pins and mousepads. Game companies of the 1990s sometimes offered a token t-shirt or two with their products, but that simply wasn’t good enough for Working Designs. Their games were important, and they deserved to be all over walls and backpacks.

Lost Anime: t.A.T.u. Paragate

Remember t.A.T.u., the Russian pop duo that bolstered their standard-issue songs with feigned lesbian overtones? Well, they officially broke up this past March. Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova’s act ran out of steam a good five years before that, of course, and it'll survive only as long as department store music stations keep “All the Things She Said” in rotation. However, t.A.T.u. was big back in 2003, with both international hits and tabloid controversies.

And what else was big back in 2003? Anime.

The short-lived t.A.T.u. Paragate was always something of a mystery. It was an anime film starring the stage personae that Katina and Volkova projected, but the details were vague, referring to some paranormal gate that the two characters entered. Even the official website's story section had a “coming soon” label until it all abruptly closed in 2005, revealing little else about Paragate.

The swift demise of the film was likely due to Katina and Volkova cutting ties with their manager, Ivan Shapovalov. As the architect behind much of t.A.T.u.’s image, Shapovalov was the driving force behind Paragate, and he’s even credited with the screenplay. Without him, the movie died quickly. Shapovalov never answered my e-mails, so I’ll assume that’s the whole story.

But why should anyone care about t.A.T.u. Paragate, a hollow vanity project based on an equally hollow pop act? There’s one reason: Shinichiro Watanabe, director of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. Some see him as the best thing about the anime industry, and he excels at mixing music and animation. He signed on to direct Paragate’s opening, and even a t.A.T.u. song could be amazing in Watanabe's hands.

It’s not clear if that opening animation was ever completed, or if any other parts of Paragate came together. It was in the planning stages for nearly a year, reportedly overseen by directors Norio Kashima and Susumu Kudo (who, coincidentally, ended up in charge of his own Mardock Scramble anime years after Gonzo canceled theirs). No footage of it can be found today. Searching for Paragate remnants is strange at any rate, as it’s hard to tell where the official material ends and the fan art begins. Perhaps that explains why t.A.T.u. Paragate was no major loss. At the most, it’d have a nice opening.

Metal Slug 3: Funny and Gimmicky Style

Metal Slug 3 barely qualifies as an unreleased game. It first arrived on the Neo Geo in 2000, and it was since ported to the PlayStation 2, the Xbox, the Wii, the PSP, and the Xbox 360. In truth, the only unreleased Metal Slug 3 is the North American version of the PlayStation 2 port. SNK Playmore prepped it in 2004 only to be shot down by Sony execs who still didn't care for 2-D action games. Metal Slug 3 made it to the PS2 in Japan and Europe, but North America saw only a few review discs made for members of the press.

No, I don't have a review disc. But I have the flyer that came with it!

The flyer's front shows the same art SNK used for the original Neo Geo release. Drawn by Shinkiro, it's a sampling of Metal Slug 3’s attractions: hidden tunnels, angry yetis, giant eels, walking eyes (say it like Doctor Venture for best effect), and a war between the standard Metal Slug villains and a race of invading aliens. Yes, Metal Slug 3 has all of this in magnificent detail. It’s a gem from SNK's hottest creative streak, which also included Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves, The Last Blade 2, and SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millennium. Of course, SNK followed up its greatest successes as only SNK could: by going bankrupt. That’s the SNK we remember.

The back of the flyer has another SNK staple: delightfully not-quite-right English. SNK was known for distinctly bizarre translations in its games, ranging from slightly strange wordings to victory quotes where characters were happy as oysters and kindly gave the palm to such a crock. This Metal Slug 3 flyer doesn’t reach those heights, but it offers "diverged ways" and “the new scale of the game with funny and gimmicky style.” That’s also the SNK we remember.

Metal Slug 3 is easy to find today. Unshaken by Sony, SNK Playmore brought the Xbox version to North America in 2004, and the game is readily available in the Metal Slug Anthology and on Xbox Live Arcade. You'll find that Metal Slug 3 holds up rather well, even if its modern incarnations are missing that all-important awkward translation.

Might Have Been: Zero Divide

[Might Have Been tracks the failures of promising games, characters, and companies. It ran at GameSetWatch several years ago, and I’ve revived it because I still find failure much more fascinating than success. This particular failure belongs to Zero Divide, released for the PlayStation in 1995.]

The first generation of 3-D fighting games aged quickly and poorly. It wasn’t just the embarrassing one-offs like Fight for Life and Criticom, either. The standard-bearing, system-selling Tekken, Toshinden, and Virtua Fighter all lasted about a year before time and sequels reduced their once-impressive polygon characters to laughable mannequins. Knowingly or not, a developer called Zoom had the right idea back in 1995: if the combatants in all nascent 3-D fighting games were bound to look like blocky robots anyway, why not just make a fighter full of…well, robots?

Zoom was quite familiar with the path that led to Zero Divide on the PlayStation. Their most prominent creation prior to this was the Genocide series, consisting of two side-scrolling, mecha-filled action games for the Super Famicom and Sharp X68000. Zero Divide takes a few design cues from Genocide 2’s large-shouldered mechs and adds all the necessary stereotypes of a fighting game. There’s a basic robot named Zero, a slightly different rival-bot named Eos, a swordsbot named Cygnus, a camouflage-painted gun-bot named Wild-3, and a feminine cat-bot named Io. Rarer archetypes edge in as well: Draco’s a mecha-dragon, Nereid is a slavering, multi-armed beast with a drill for a body, and Tau is a screen-filling robotic scorpion. And why are all of these robots fighting? They’re part of some virtual-reality attempt to expose a taunting hacker named XTAL. We'll come back to him later.

If the characters have moments of invention, Zero Divide’s gameplay is painstakingly copied from Virtua Fighter. Special attacks are done by tapping the direction pad, most of the moves are button combos, jumping sends you high into the air, and being knocked out of the ring ends your match. At least the robots can grab the edge of that ring and pull themselves back in. The game also offers a limited selection in which opponent to fight next, though you face them all eventually.

Zoom picked a decent base for their fighting game, but Zero Divide doesn’t escape the problems common to early 3-D fighters. The controls are a little too sluggish, the gameplay just a little too limited in its one plane of combat. While the difficulty curve is fair, the characters don’t have enough moves to keep things interesting through repeated playthroughs or extensive two-player competition.

Bill Clinton vs. Guilty Gear

Politicians often take on video games, but they usually stick to the big and controversial ones—the Night Traps and Mortal Kombats of their eras. Guilty Gear, Arc System Works’ fighting-game mishmash of anime and heavy metal, flies well beneath mainstream attention. It’s hard to imagine such a niche series riling politicians back in 1999, when it was still obscure even in the fighter scene. But that’s what happened.

Concerned over violent marketing that targeted children, President Bill Clinton announced a federal study of the ways that games, movies, and other media might corrupt the youth of America. The centerpiece of his evidence, according to wire reports, was a video-game ad that invited players to “kill your friends guilt-free.” That ad could only be the magazine spot for the original Guilty Gear.

The ad is relatively non-violent, aside from Sol’s contorted way of brandishing his sword. In fact, Atlus softened the tagline with asterisks and a disclaimer in the fine print. It’s a particularly mild offering from a time when Sega pasted screenshots on a naked women and Sony joked about dismemberment.

Of course, Guilty Gear harmed no malleable young minds. As an impressive 2-D game on the PlayStation, it was noticed by dedicated fighting-game enthusiasts and a few others, but that was as far as it went. Clinton’s task force may as well have examined movie-industry marketing by scrutinizing posters of New Rose Hotel.

No children cared about Guilty Gear or its ads, and that’s how things stayed. Senate hearings on video-game violence made Night Trap notorious, but there would be no inadvertent publicity bump for Guilty Gear. Perhaps that’s because Clinton never mentioned it by name. So Guilty Gear stayed on the outskirts. It resurfaced a few years later with the Guilty Gear X line, which features a cross-dressing boy nun and a guitar-slamming witch who pulls off her top in victory. Such things might’ve horrified government investigators, but no one told them.

One question remains: Did Clinton’s staff put together a blown-up display of that Guilty Gear ad for their press conference? And did they later throw it away? I’m long past the stage in my life where I’d hang video-game posters on my wall, but I might make an exception for a souvenir of Guilty Gear’s moment in the government spotlight.

Lost Anime: Gonzo's Mardock Scramble

Studio Gonzo is known for several things: making lots of anime series, letting those series disintegrate by the halfway mark, and epitomizing the style-over-substance approach that bloated the anime industry throughout the past decade. Studio Gonzo is also known for playing it safe. Most of their work, good or bad, goes right for the mainstream jugular or the sadly reliable vein of pillow-molesting anime nerds. There are few true experiments in the company’s catalog, and one of them was abruptly canceled: Mardock Scramble.

Mardock Scramble began as a novel by Tow Ubukata, a prolific author rarely at a loss for some bizarre idea. His works were behind Capcom’s Chaos Legion game, Production I.G’s mystic historical anime drama Le Chevalier d’Eon, and the incomprehensible Renaissance-superhero manga Pilgrim Jäger. Unlike Ubukata’s more fanciful tales, Mardock Scramble is straight science fiction: in Mardock City, a prostitute named Rune Balot is murdered by her amnesiac boyfriend. Resurrected by the local authorities, she awakens with powers over electricity. Then she tries to bring down her killer, with only a vague conspiracy and a talking, shapeshifting mouse named Oeufcoque to guide her.

Gonzo announced a Mardock Scramble anime series in 2005 to mark the studio’s 15th anniversary. Many were skeptical of Gonzo at this point, having endured Kiddy Grade and Burst Angel and other disappointments. Yet Mardock Scramble had names behind it: Ubukata himself provided the screenplay, artist Range Murata’s disquieting sad-girl artwork suited the story, and director Yasufumi Soejima had crafted the shifting patterns of Gankutsuou, which will likely be remembered as Gonzo’s only interesting series. Apparently out to make a good impression with this prestige project, Gonzo announced that Mardock Scramble would use a new type of 3-D digital animation.

Trouble Shooter: Nintendo Haters at Heart

The Sega-Nintendo War of the early 1990s may go down in history as yet another small-scale market squabble, but it left an impression. Uncouth as it is to compare trivial game-industry rivalries to real life, Sega and Nintendo fought a World War, polarizing the masses and reducing NEC’s TurboGrafx-16 to a cringing pocket of irrelevance. It was a momentous age, with every young nerd sifting magazines and playground rumors for the latest revelation that would see Sega or Nintendo triumphant. Friendships were tested, lifelong biases were forged, and at least one person claimed that Eternal Champions was better than Street Fighter II Turbo. And it all happened without widespread Internet access to feed the bonfires.

Yet the battle rarely bled into the games themselves. For the most part, Sega and Nintendo avoided attacking each other in their creations. Sega originally named a mustachioed boss “Mari-Oh” in Alex Kidd in Shinobi World, then changed it for the final version. Nintendo took the high road until the last years of the war, and their most savage blow had Uniracers telling players that names like "Sonic" and "Sega" were, in fact, not cool enough.

The majority of third-party developers avoided taking sides, but some couldn’t help it. Naxat buried an exploding “S?GA” logo in the code of their awesome NES shooter Recca, even though that barb went undiscovered for decades. Bart’s Nightmare, a horrible 1992 Super NES treatment of The Simpsons, snipes at Sega in mini-game where skyscraper residents toss things from windows. Among the items rained down on Bartzilla are cats, TVs, fire extinguishers…and what looks like a Genesis.

On the other side of the conflict, one game bluntly targets Nintendo and the Super Famicom. That game is Vic Tokai’s Trouble Shooter.

Trouble Shooter was never a classic of the Sega Genesis library. It’s basic and slow-paced, though strangely charming in its fusion of the free-floating gameplay of Forgotten Worlds, the humorous tones of Parodius, and the destructive heroines-for-hire of The Dirty Pair. The game sends heavily armed bounty hunters Madison and Crystal (Mania and Maria in Japan) floating through levels and gunning down all sorts of slightly bizarre machines. It has the affectionate, in-jokey air of a pet project, crafted by a Vic Tokai team called Studio Uchuu Tetsujin, or Studio Space Iron Men. Reportedly irked by Vic Tokai’s support of Super Famicom games, Studio Space Iron Men hit Nintendo with a stunning assault. They stepped on the Super Famicom.

Vagrant Story: The Graphic Comic Novel Book

Comics based on video games are usually awful for two reasons. Most games have lousy stories to start with, and their comic versions often show artistic standards that even Rob Liefeld would find wanting. Yasumi Matsuno’s games fix the first problem: from Tactics Ogre through Final Fantasy XII, they’re on the relatively short list of game storylines that could become books or movies without completely humiliating themselves.

They could, but they don't. The comics based on Matsuno’s games are still terrible, but that's more the fault of the adaptations. Over in Japan, there’s a bland Tactics Ogre manga and an awful two-volume Final Fantasy XII project, both made with no attempt to enrich the source material. In America, we have only a Vagrant Story comic that’s barely a comic at all.

Vagrant Story is already part comic, anyway. Matsuno’s game is a PlayStation dungeon-crawler, heavy on customization and the darkly political tone that guides most of his stories. The characters are realistically proportioned (in artist Akihiko Yoshida’s strange bondage outfits), and their dialogue’s all told through unvoiced word balloons. So it feels like a comic book, albeit one where medieval-fantasy cult leaders and scheming pontiffs chatter on about sellswords and faerie tales. At the very least, a Vagrant Story comic would attract those who hastily extolled the game as true art upon its release.

Eruptor Entertainment’s Vagrant Story comic is really just a preview issue, given away at E3 in 2000, but its cover promises all sorts of camp wonder. Are main characters Ashley Riot and Callo Merlose now 1990s-style comic heroes? Will they be preposterously built vigilantes with violent, mysterious pasts? Will they pose uncomfortably while hiding their feet or hands or whatever body part the artist can’t draw? Will they scream miles of expository dialogue in mid-air as they leap at enemies? Will they say things like “Kill THIS, ya bastards!” before pulling out handguns large enough to launch short-range aircraft?

The Lunar II That Almost Was

I prefer Lunar II: Eternal Blue to the original Lunar: The Silver Star. I could attribute this to playing Eternal Blue first, which made The Silver Star seem repetitive. Yet Eternal Blue is also a shade less cliché, with better character development and an ending that cruelly toys with the player. It’s the more interesting of the two RPGs, and the same goes for its unused ideas.

Lunar II was originally going to carry over the cast of The Silver Star, and its preliminary designs reflect that. Game Arts changed plans, however, and Lunar II got a mostly new lineup of characters. Some of those characters, including standard-issue protagonist Hiro and gallivanting monk Ronfar, didn’t change all that much from their initial concepts. Other characters did.

One of the biggest alterations: royal knight Leo and his priestess sister Mauri are beast-people in the final game, but they were first designed as centaurs. I suspect this was changed for two reasons. One: Leo would be harder to animate during battles if he were a horse from the waist down. Two: the romance between centaur Mauri and the fully human Ronfar would’ve raised all sorts of questions.

Leo still went through more redesigns, growing less bestial in each phase. That’s his near-final look on the right. Character designer Toshiyuki Kubooka abandoned a more leonine face in favor of a snout and horn.