Little Things: The Falcom Bounce

Video games diverge when it comes to falling. A harsh, semi-realistic adventure like Dark Souls shows no mercy to anyone who drops too far a distance. A cute side-scroller like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Dino City lets you plummet from great heights unharmed, provided there’s a place to land and you’re not just tumbling into a bottomless pit. There’s not much to it: if you fall, you either take damage or walk away cartoonishly unscathed.

Some games from Falcom put a little more thought into this. Characters don’t just fall. They bounce.

A good example appears in Legacy of the Wizard for the NES. It’s technically part of Falcom’s Dragon Slayer series, and it sends an adventurous family (and their pet) through a ludicrously complex maze. The gameplay resembles a side-scroller, so the members of the clan can jump, climb ladders, and, of course, fall from great heights.

Observe this example with Pochi, the family’s loyal monster pet. I’m using him because he's a dog in the family portrait and a dino-dragon in the game and therefore the best character.

Gravity Rush Now Even More of a Cartoon

Gravity Rush 2 is little under a month away, and I prefer to pretend it’s already here. I’m running a Gravity Rush contest for a few more days, and I’m busy playing the demo that went up on the PlayStation Network last week. And just today, Sony released the two-part Gravity Rush: The Animation – Overture. Sure, you can watch it for free on Sony’s YouTube Channel, but why do that when instead you can read my opinion of it?

Or maybe I'll just use a picture.

A bridge between the first game and the sequel, Overture answers at least one important question about Gravity Rush: what do the characters like to eat?

Yes, it goes all of two minutes before trotting out a harmless but tiresome cliché: the heroine flying into a violent fury when a precious, newly acquired snack is destroyed. Floating around a market, Kat buys a kabob, loses it, and trashes bug-eyed Nevi shadow creatures, whereupon Raven, her less cheerful rival, shows up and lends a hand. This occupies half of Overture’s running time.

The second half jumps back a short while and finds Kat and Raven eating snacks (of course) and discussing a recent spate of disappearances in their home city of Hekseville. They’re suddenly sent to a mysterious floating island where a HAL-like computer holds children hostage in little power cels. Two half-masked, mummy-like antagonists appear, and then everyone ends up warped to the strange new city we’ll see in Gravity Rush 2.

Overture is an enjoyable gap-filler, all things considered. I can't imagine it swaying those with no interest whatsoever in Gravity Rush, but it brings up the game's best points. The animation is vibrant and mostly fluid, capturing the details of the floating city and Kat’s bubbly personality—which fortunately develops beyond “I like to eat” in the second half. It also keeps the fictional language from the games, as the characters all use the same melodious semi-French, semi-Japanese tone (in which Kat and Raven’s names sound the same as they do in English). I’m a sucker for made-up languages. I’d watch Barb Wire if everyone talked like they were speaking Italian and Swahili backwards.

 Short as it is, Overture stokes my Gravity Rush 2 interest, which was, of course, crazily high already. I’m gonna go play the demo another dozen times.

The Best of Anime...Music

America’s anime fans were pretty busy in the late 1990s. We weren't satisfied just watching Robotech reruns on Toonami; we fervently devoured favorite series, wrote letters to keep Sailor Moon on the air, and went to conventions in numbers previously unseen. We also spent lots of money on anime and its ancillary merchandise. So great was our hunger that some of us thought it a momentous privilege to pay thirty bucks for the imported soundtrack to a movie or series we enjoyed.

In that light, The Best of Anime seemed like a great deal. Rhino Records released it in 1998 at the same price as a new album from Weezer or Neutral Milk Hotel, and it settled the question of anime's finest music for all time.

The Best of Anime aimed itself as much at new fans as it did at old-timers, and it shows in the cover choices. The CD comes with an illustration of either Cutey Honey or Speed Racer, and the art itself is a thin cel-like sheet posed before the booklet’s cover image of a Silent Mobius cityscape. I was a teenage boy at the time, and despite Speed Racer’s ironic cred, I went with the Cutey Honey cover. And then I tucked the cel inside the booklet before anyone could see it on my shelf.

Despite the title, this isn't an authoritative collection of the finest music spawned in Japan’s animation circuit. If it were, it’d have the Orguss 02 opening.

No, this is less a Top-40 countdown and more an educational sampling from three decades of popular anime series, and it might be more accurate to call it The Best of Anime That We Could Afford to License. It’s helped by some nice liner notes from Fred Patten, who introduces each series and explains just how it fits into the broader vein of anime. He also provides a brief rundown of just how certain shows and the attendant fandom took off in America—starting with an anecdote about the heroine of Brave Raideen kicking an enemy soldier in the crotch.

And the songs themselves? The Best of Anime is a hodgepodge of corny opening tunes and disposable puffery surrounding a few genuinely good numbers. In other words, it’s a perfect encapsulation of anime music.

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.

Good thing there’s a surprise within.

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 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.

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. 

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 (and unreleased in the U.S.) 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 verboten.

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 at least three 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Cute Kills

My mother often complained about the video games I played as a kid. Sometimes she engaged in the usual parental griping about my dodging homework or wasting an afternoon on Power Blade instead of going outdoors, but most of her objections took on a rarer subject. When my mother spied me wrapped up in some NES or Super NES diversion, she’d accuse me of murdering cute little creatures.

I understood why. Old video games use simplified and cartoonish foes, and some look wide-eyed and precious even when they're deadly. I could see how my mother might sympathize with the little Boos in Super Mario World or the capering viruses in Dr. Mario.

Yet her mercies went far beyond conventional cuteness. She felt sorry for the giant-octopus boss in StarTropics, the ferocious lizards in Final Fantasy, and even some Castlevania horrors. One evening I showed her how easily I could defeat Mega Man 3's Hard Man, a robot master who repeatedly rams his head into the ground.

"The poor thing," she said after Hard Man exploded into light particles. "It didn't look very smart."

This was nothing new for my mother, who often made my sister and I feel bad for villains across movies, books, and television. She’d point out that the bully humiliated at the end of an Arthur story was clearly friendless and poor, or perhaps she’d wonder aloud what the mothers of all the German soldiers in a World War II movie would say when they learned that Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood had killed their sons. Video games were just another sharpening block for her cilice spikes of pure Catholic guilt.

Little Things: Adventures of Dino-Riki

I’d say that Adventures of Dino-Riki hates us all, but that's a harsh accusation to level at a goofy NES shooter where a smiling caveman belts prehistoric creatures with fireballs. It’s a side-project from Hudson Soft, so much so that Riki's axes look straight out of Adventure Island, and it’s from an age when NES games had to be fierce and uncomplicated.

That’s where Dino-Riki’s unabiding cruelty comes into frame. Monsters and projectiles and instantly lethal hazards swarm Riki at every turn, and his limited methods of counterattack involve jumping, tossing things, and yelping comically when he’s struck. The game has only three actual stage themes, but they repeat several times before reaching a final, buglike boss. Then it all starts over again from the first stage.

Adventures of Dino-Riki has no ending. It doesn’t even grant the player, who’s surely spent hours upon hours memorizing the behavior of caroming pterodactyls and sinking lily pads, some concluding graphic of Dino-Riki triumphant. The North America version of Karnov and its “Congratulations” screen often go down as the biggest disgrace in NES endings, but at least Karnov cared enough to acknowledge you.

Hudson crafted Adventures of Dino-Riki in 1987, when the NES had plenty of arcade-like offerings that didn’t need endings. Yet Dino-Riki has just enough cartoonish aplomb to invite denouement, even if it were just some seven-second finale with Riki and the cover illustration's apparently nameless red-haired cavewoman (or the Japanese wrestler who occasionally takes Riki's place). This was an oversight in 1987, but it became out-and-out fraud when Dino-Riki came to North America in 1989. By then, even simple shooters like Thundercade and Captain Skyhawk rewarded you.

Pin-zer Dragoon

A short time ago I said to myself, “I don’t have enough Panzer Dragoon junk,” and that bugged me more than it should have. Panzer Dragoon, Sega’s line of mostly excellent 3-D dragonback rail shooters, is on the short list of game series over which I will make a complete fool of myself, so felt the need to do just that.

Of course, there’s a limit to my fool-making, and I hit it rapidly when checking out the various Panzer Dragoon merchandise on eBay. A limited-edition Panzer Dragoon Orta Xbox? Too expensive, too big, and I’d never use it. An even more limited resin statue of heroine Orta? Not bad, but even more expensive. A VHS copy of the dreadful Panzer Dragoon anime OVA? Even that unendurable panorama of garbage is overpriced.

Yet I spied something cheap, small, and novel: a Panzer Dragoon Orta pin for about three bucks.

I assume these were given away at conventions, perhaps E3, before the game’s early 2003 debut on the Xbox. They’re neat for what they are. The design is true to Panze Dragoon's ornate future-byzantine motif, and they’re hard rubber instead of cheap promo-pin plastic.

One thing strikes me: instead of Sega’s logo on the front, we see that of Smilebit, the developer. Smilebit was part of Sega’s expansion in 2000, when the company, hubristic as ever, established nine different subsidiaries. All of them still answered to Sega, naturally, and Sega reformed the various groups into six larger entities in 2003 before folding them back into Sega proper in 2004. Sega is strange like that.

So why does Smilebit get billing on the front of the promotional pin when Sega’s copyright is on the back—and on the cover of the game, for that matter? Perhaps Sega wanted to push Smilebit as a new brand. By 2002, Sega was out of the console market that they had nearly dominated in the early 1990s, and their name no longer stood for anti-Nintendo coolness or screaming television commercials. Sega was shameful and tired, but Smilebit? Hey, that sounds fun!

Well, that’s my backward theory, at any rate, and it’s the most notable thing about the pin. That said, I’m glad I picked it up. Even the crappiest Panzer Dragoon errata is rapidly turning collectible, so perhaps even this little rubber square will pay for a trip to New Zealand in a few years.

Valkyrie Anatomia: In Profile

Valkyrie Anatomia: The Origin makes me doubt myself. I enjoy it, but I wonder if that’s because I’m hardwired to enjoy any Valkyrie Profile creation on some level. Am I having fun with Valkyrie Anatomia just as I did Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which lost me in the second half but still made me feel like a little kid awed by Return of the Jedi? Is it like a mediocre Lupin III movie that I watch only because it has Lupin slinking around while Jigen makes caustic remarks and never takes off his hat? Or is it more like ABC’s recently canceled The Muppets, a standard-issue mockumentary sitcom that I stuck with just to see Gonzo and Fozzie and Uncle Deadly going about their Muppet routines?

Should you trust my opinion of Valkyrie Anatomia? Can I even trust it? Probably not.

Well, here’s what I think anyway: Valkyrie Anatomia, as a mobile-game prequel to the rest of Valkyrie Profile, doesn’t form as well as its predecessors. Yet it has enough of Valkyrie Profile’s finest elements to draw me into whatever it’s trying to do to my spare time and money. For all of its failings, It knows what sets Valkyrie Profile games apart. I have irksomely sectionalized proof.

The three Valkyrie Profile games tell of struggles between Norse gods and mere mortals: the first is about a valkyrie slowly reclaiming her humanity, the second about a rebellious valkyrie locked in mortal form, and the third about a bitter warrior seeking revenge on the valkyrie who spirited away his father. Yet their best moments are often found in the smaller tales about the warriors the valkyries gather, the valiant and doomed souls who earn a place in Odin’s army one way or another. The original game excelled at this while Valkyrie Profile 2 had weak side stories, but the third, Covenant of the Plume, remembered the importance of a strong supporting cast. And I will defend it everywhere I can.

Valkyrie Anatomia remembers as well. It's just not as adept. The overarching story finds a younger (and possibly alternate-reality) version of Lenneth Valkyrie sealed in darkness, summoned out of it only by an equally younger version of Odin. He desperately needs warriors for the Aesir ranks, so Lenneth travels to the mortal realm with two raven familiars at her side. She recruits humans for Einherjar he same way the original Valkyrie Profile presented things: watching them in the days before their untimely demises, and inviting them to accompany her to the afterworld.

My limited knowledge of Japanese leaves me unable to comment on the nuances of Valkyrie Anatomia’s storyline, but I can grasp the tenor of it. It’s fragmented in quality, switching from a generic story about an all-too-perfect warrior to an intriguing chronicle of a homunculus mage’s final days. Most of the time, though, Anatomia strikes the right tone: morose, fatalistic, and yet hopeful for a life beyond. It’s easy enough to sympathize with Chloe, a dragon-hunter forced to watch her sister cursed, or Senna, a chipper swordfighter who dies in a tavern brawl.

That’s where Valkyrie Anatomia lays down the same rhythm that made Valkyrie Profile so compelling. Each little vignette isn’t just about a pathetic mortal; it’s an introduction to a new archer or magician or broadsword-wielder for you to recruit and develop. Anatomia even goes beyond the introductions. Once drafted, an Einherjar unlocks extra dungeons that explore the characters’ lives after they’re turned into foot soldiers for Ragnarok. It’s an excellent flourish on the original’s formula, which tended to forget about most human allies after they enlisted.

NFL Huddles: Rushers' Revenge

A while back I wrote about the NFL Huddles, a line of little figures representing various football teams. I openly wondered why the NFL didn’t revive the idea and market the Rams and Cardinals and Jets as cute characters for children. As it turns out, the NFL brought back the Huddles in concept, if not in name or spirit. And I learned about it through McNuggets.

I went to at a McDonald’s and realized that it’d been about twelve years since I’d bought a Happy Meal. So I asked what kind of toys they had. This particular McDonald’s didn’t have the Hot Wheels sets as advertised; as a substitute they offered NFL Rush Zone Rushers, a promotion apparently from 2012. This piqued my interest, and I bought one. Then I bought another.

The Rushers have the same underlying principle as the Huddles, embodying some NFL mascot in squat form. Design-wise, they’re different. Each of them is a huge helmeted head with arms and legs attached, plus whatever decorations evoke a team. It’s a physique that works well for creatures like Boglins or robots like Gurren Lagann (or the gun-headed things from Keith Courage/Wataru), but it’s a little strange when applied to human characters and humanoid animals.

Little Things: Tail 'Gator

Tail ‘Gator is one of those early Game Boy titles that stood all by itself. It has no tie-ins, no sequels, and no subsequent cameos for its reptile hero. It doesn’t even have the odd connections of Trip World (which is a spiritual successor to Mr. Gimmick) or Chalvo 55 (which stars the robot from the canceled Virtual Boy game Bound High). Nope, Tail ‘Gator is just a side-scrolling action game that Natsume released back in 1991.

Yet Tail ‘Gator is great fun. Its protagonist is an alligator named Charly, and he counters the menace of a dragon overlord by jumping around and whacking things with his tail—or launching a fiery tail-shaped corona across the screen, if he’s grabbed enough power-ups. The game runs through different realms that follow such standard templates as sky and water levels, and most of the stages are nicely designed despite their find-the-key simplicity and Charly’s sluggish movement. In fact, Tail ‘Gator is one of the best action games the Game Boy saw in its first few years on the market, and it has an appropriately small and devoted fan contigent.

Natsume also crammed Tail ‘Gator with a lot of entertaining details, all the more impressive considering the Game Boy’s small screen and the primitive graphics of many of its titles. My favorite little touch can be seen when Charly leaps into a waterfall.

Trouble Shooter Trivia

I admit that I’m lazy when it comes to investigating games. I'm willing to poke through old magazines in search of screenshots that differ from the actual released titles, but I rarely notice any changes unless it’s a game I really like. For example, I found something irrelevant about Trouble Shooter, which I enjoy and write about more than it probably merits.

Trouble Shooter, known as Battle Mania in Japan, is a charming Sega Genesis side-scrolling shooter, stitched together from two obvious sources. One is Capcom’s macho arcade fantasy-blaster Forgotten Worlds, and the other is Haruka Takachiho’s Dirty Pair line of novels and anime about bikini-clad interplanetary operatives Kei and Yuri blowing up a good chunk of space-faring civilization. Many people imitated both of these things to drab effect, but Trouble Shooter found its own identity. It’s colorful and competently made even if the gameplay is simple, and its sequel, Battle Mania Daiginjoh, is downright amazing. At the risk of perturbing Capcom diehards and the fansub kingpins of Reagan-era college anime clubs, I like Trouble Shooter more than Forgotten Worlds or any Dirty Pair adventure.

Most importantly, Trouble Shooter and Battle Mania Daiginjoh have genuine affection at their cores. It’s common for fans to declare their favorite games earnest labors of love regardless of how bland they may be, but the Trouble Shooter series truly seems to exist just because some staffers at Vic Tokai and Seibu Lease really, really wanted to make them. Rather than Xerox Kei and Yuri, they established heroine Madison (Mania in Japan) as a cranky, genre-wise mercenary and, in the American version, a slumming debutante with feminist quips. Along with her more placid and fun-loving roommate Crystal (a.k.a. Maria), she rescues a kidnapped prince who says things like “Coolness,” defeats a supervillain who turns into a giant buglike demon, and goes to even stranger places in the sequel.

California Crisis: Do a Lot of Coke and Vote for Ronald Reagan

We’ll remember the 1980s as a time of fanciful excess in North America and Japan, no matter how meretricious that may be. Never mind the Cold War or the AIDS crisis or the rampant sleaziness peddled as noble success. Textbooks will document an era of Thompson Twins singles, Schwarzenegger films, feathered hair, mecha anime, suspiciously avuncular presidents, and video games where you had to rescue suspiciously avuncular presidents from ninjas. Not ninja. Ninjas. It was the 1980s, and we didn’t care about faithfully pluralizing loanwords.

The indulgences of the 1980s fed Japan’s direct-to-video anime market in the decade’s latter half, ensuring that the acronym OVA would remain part of the nerd lexicon. Companies turned just about any idea into at least 45 minutes of animation, even if that idea consisted of nothing more than a giant mecha, a big-eyed heroine, or some combination of the two. Ideally, the OVA boom would’ve spurred a wealth of creative animation from rising talents, but it also brought a deluge of vapid trinkets with occasionally nice animation and all the enduring quality of a Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie. The typical 1980s OVA is not Angel’s Egg. It is Ladius, Good Morning Althea, Roots Search, Explorer Woman Ray, Relic Armor Legaciam, or anything else so generic that it’s hard to remember the title. I think one of them was called Steel Guarder Lyzerial.

California Crisis: Gun Salvo, a 1986 radar blip from Studio Unicorn, is smack-dab in the middle of this nonsense. It lasts under an hour, and its story pitch could be summed up in restroom graffiti. It’s a ridiculous joyride that imitates the shallowest parts of shallow action films.

Yet California Crisis stands above the dross. 

For one thing, it looks different. It’s animated with linework and shadows much heavier than the typical ‘80s cartoon from Japan or anywhere else. And instead of servicing a story about toy-ready mecha, Tokyo teenagers, or robot-demon warfare in the dead of space, California Crisis is all about the glorious sun-baked façade of America.

Major Miclus Moments

I just don't think that kids today know enough about Miclus. I'm sure they're familiar with video-game mascots like Mario, Sonic, Pac-Man, Jack Frost, Wonder Boy, Randar, G-Mantle, Disk-Kun, and the internationally famous duo of Rei Misazaki and Chris [LAST NAME NOT TRANSLATED YET], but Miclus remains obscure. That's understandable, though there was a time when you could find Miclus in just about every arcade worth visiting.

Miclus is a mostly blue dragon devised by Seibu Kaihatsu. Apparently without an official gender, the creature first appeared as the final boss in Wiz, a 1985 side-scrolling arcade game with a pointy-hatted protagonist and an unbearably repetitive soundtrack.

Miclus had more exposure in Raiden, Seibu Kaihatsu's landmark vertical shooter. By the early 1990s, Raiden was everywhere: full-blown arcades, mini-golf centers, bowling alleys, Chuck E. Cheeses, knock-off Chuck E. Cheeses, laundromats, 7-Elevens, and anyplace else that needed a decent coin-eating attraction wherein a lone jet dodged and blasted several hi-tech armies. Miclus appears briefly as a bonus icon; the player usually grabs medals (which always looked like stubby bombs to me) for points, but Miclus shows up for an extra score boost at times. You'll usually see it by the second level, but it'll appear on the first if you explode too often.

Later Raiden games give Miclus bigger roles. Raiden Fighters 2 and Raiden Fighters Jet make it a playable character that sweeps the screen with fiery breath. There are other ships to choose, but Miclus is clearly the best.

That aside, my favorite Miclus appearance comes in the Japanese manual for The Raiden Project.

While it's not a highlight of the PlayStation's first year, The Raiden Project was comforting at the time. Many early PlayStation games showed us fancy 3-D effects that would age rapidly, but The Raiden Project revealed a more enduring advantage of Sony's new system: letting us play nearly perfect renditions of older arcade games. The Raiden Project offers the original game and Raiden II in arcade-faithful style, aside from some loading times. Its default presentation puts big borders on the screen to show all of the vertical playfield, but you can turn your TV on its side to get a more accurate full-set look. That's where Miclus comes in.

The manual's last pages find the fat little dragon delivering a warning about flipping your TV for  arcade mode. On the left, Miclus turns away in disgust from an anthropomorphized and improperly rotated television. On the right, Miclus looks on in approval. Or maybe it's inspecting that humanoid TV for genitalia and other Videodrome-like abnormalities.

This Miclus comic wasn't necessary for the North American version of The Raiden Project. Sony technically left in the full-screen mode, but with only side-scrolling controls. They didn't want customers damaging their TVs. And yet I think Miclus could've given Sony airtight legal exoneration. If a tiny dragon cautions you about rotating your set, it's your own fault if you don't listen.

Monster Wrecks

What’s the anime-manga industry up to these days? Monster girls, from the look of it. Mike Toole recently wrote an Anime News Network article about this trend, which seizes the base elements of sex comedies or domestic dramas and adds centaurs, lamia, harpies, mermaids, ogres, spider-people, slimes, and other creatures, most of them female.

I find this fascinating in concept. I always like it when people appropriate legends and creatures in new and ridiculous ways, so I see nothing wrong with a sitcom about a guy forced to share a house with a snake-person or a pile of sentient protean goo. I’m sure the storytellers of ancient Greece and general antiquity came up with things like this. They just didn’t write them down.

The problem with most of these monster-girl series is that they’re typical stories beneath the new paint. The leader of the whole movement is Monster Musume, a manga and anime about an average guy with various roommates from the monster realm: first a lamia who can’t keep her coils off him, then a juvenile harpy, then a noble centaur, and so on. It adheres to the same bland template as countless other risque comedies, as nearly all of the mythical beast-women want the protagonist in one way or another. That's why I gave up on the series. Well, that and I started feeling sorry for the lamia, who met the protagonist first and clearly liked him best.

Monster Musume doesn’t hesitate to overload on titillation, and rarely does it take its premise to imaginative heights. For example, we’re told that lamia are all female and thus require human males to breed (gosh, how convenient), even though many brands of fiction have male snake-men. What about Michael Swanwick’s The Dragons of Babel, where a male lamia is called a lamius? What about the G.I. Joe movie, which features a serpent-emperor voiced by Burgess Meredith? What about those Piers Anthony novels that a lot of people warned me against reading? I’m sure at least one of them has a male lamia.

There’s one section of the monster-girl trend that I actually enjoy, if only for selfish, nerdy reasons. It’s a manga called T-Rex na Kanojo, or My Girlfriend is a T-Rex.

It’s ostensibly a parody of the whole monster-girl thing, and it envisions a world where dinosaurs didn’t go extinct so much as they evolved over untold epochs to live and work alongside humans. Of course, this evolution means that dinosaur girls look human as far as their heads and torsos are concerned—everywhere else they have scales, claws, horns, or armor plating.

Depressing Game Endings: El Viento

El Viento is among my favorite weird games, perhaps because it isn't all that weird. Compared to Katamari Damacy or Cho-Aniki or even the culturally ratified oddities of Super Mario Bros., El Viento is ordinary. It’s a side-scrolling action game with jumping and boomerang-tossing, and its base effect isn't so different from the many other Sega Genesis titles where a fetching heroine saves the world from some eldritch menace.

Look closer, and you'll see invention. Like the two other (lesser) parts of the Earnest Evans trilogy, El Viento is steeped in 1920s adventure and interdimensional horrors, as it sends lithe Peruvian explorer Annet from Chicago streets to hellish caverns and an Empire State Building designed to summon demons. Like Indiana Jones with gangsters and Lovecraft beasts instead of Nazis and chilled monkey brains, El Viento brims with lower-key strangeness, and it's more fascinating for that.

So much of El Viento mixes typical action with fabulously bizarre details. Annet starts off by fighting Al Capone's thugs, but then she leaps across a Mount Rushmore full of smiling gun turrets and a floating cactus chain. Then she raids a blind-tiger club full of tiny imp mobsters and sluglike bartenders who explode when struck by her boomerangs and magic spells. Then she hops on a dolphin and rides straight into giant pixel jellyfish-octopuses. They explode as well. Most of the enemies come in weird and flammable varieties, and there’s never a reason why. Even the rats that pester Annet in a sewer look like they're wearing little sunglasses.

See? They're cool rats.

Annet does all of this to keep cultists and criminals from summoning the ancient deity Hastur, but she's also out to rescue her sister Restiana. Despite rampant evidence that the cult's planning to sacrifice her, Restiana is convinced that she'll become a veritable goddess with Hastur's powers, and she openly asks why Annet opposes them. Annet's response?