Enjoy Phantasy Star in Five Easy Steps

A new version of Phantasy Star appeared on the Switch this month. As with most games in the Sega Ages line, developer M2 added plenty of great extras. The original 1987 Sega Master System version of Phantasy Star is there and untouched, but the Ages tune-up adds an auto-map feature, speeds up walking, and boosts the experience and money–sorry, meseta–gained from battle.

What a difference it makes. The game isn’t that much easier; a wrong turn or an unlucky enemy encounter can kill Alis, our heroine, early in the game. Instead of mollifying the game’s core, M2 just sped it up. Alis goes through everything faster, whether it’s roaming towns or gaining levels, and thus a rigid and sometimes tedious role-playing game becomes compelling in its challenges.

Of course, Phantasy Star is still a relic. The graphics are generally static, the battles follow routine turns, and calling the plot points a storyline is perhaps too charitable. Even with M2’s additions, it might not interest those accustomed to several decades of RPGs with cinematic combat, character customization, actual story arcs, and the ability to decide which enemy you’ll strike.

If you’re willing to envision the game as it was at its late 1987 release, however, Phantasy Star is mind-blowing. Its stage of the Algol star system was a complex fusion of Star Wars and fantasy undertones back when RPGs were still Dungeons & Dragons with perhaps some anime trappings. Its monsters and scenery were all animated and vibrant back when other games stayed stiff and static. It offered an actual, no-kidding Strong Heroine with a name and a solid motivation back when its competitors had generic and uniformly male rosters and anyone who wanted otherwise just had to pretend that the white mage in Final Fantasy was a woman.

And how can you put yourself in a 1987 frame of mind? It involves more than eating a McDLT, listening to Belinda Carlisle’s solo hits, and ignoring the crimes of the Reagan administration. If you follow these five steps early in the game, though, I think you’ll gain the right perspective for Phantasy Star.

Phantasy Star warns you at the start: death is everywhere. The game’s prologue sees Alis’ brother, Nero, die at the hands of the interplanetary despot Lassic. So Alis ventures out of her home city to find a warrior called Odin and liberate the Algol star system. And if you’re not the most cautious player imaginable, Alis will die. She’ll wander north and get mobbed by giant scorpions. She’ll face two Sworm insects in her first battle and narrowly lose to them. She’ll venture too close to the shore and be killed in the first round of combat by a fishman’s spiked tongue.

The Sega Ages version dials the difficulty back, but only a little. Alis still faces defeat if she’s overly adventurous or just unlucky, making it easy to imagine yourself as a neophyte RPG player in 1987, fighting and failing until you finally figured out how to use healing items.

This also means that unless you save before these first few battles, a defeat will boot you back to the title screen and make you start fresh, watching Nero die and Alis vow revenge all over again. Perhaps that’s why Phantasy Star has such a brief opening. You’ll see it a lot.

Crystalis Week: Things To Do

I don’t hesitate to call Crystalis the most rewarding game from the NES era. I never grow weary of replaying it and noticing something new each time. It’s fun just to mess with the game, and here’s how to mess with it most effectively.

Crystalis has a few interesting glitches and codes, including a warp trick that lets you jump to a dozen different locations in the game. Simply hold A and B simultaneously on controller one and then press A on controller two, and you’ll warp to a new area. This is useful in some ways, though you’ll often run into enemies beyond your level.

My favorite warp spot is an underground cave where the hero is stuck in the water. He’d normally have a dolphin to ride, but the warp trick plants him in the canal by himself and leaves him immobile. There’s nothing to do but listen to the gentle music and ponder life until you decide to warp somewhere else.

Crytalis Week: The Search for Crystalis 2

Any discussion of Crystalis and its unfairly short legacy brings up a question: Why didn’t SNK make another one? The answer is usually “Because SNK threw all their weight behind arcade games and Crystalis might not have been a huge seller anyway.” Even so, there’s some evidence that SNK might have at least considered another Crystalis.

The first news of SNK revisiting Crystalis apparently emerged in early issues of Gamefan. Other Stuff served as the magazine’s catch-all column for news, rumors, and outlandish speculation, much like EGM’s Quartermann. In Other Stuff one would see credible information printed alongside reports of Super Street Fighter II introducing 14 new characters or Mortal Kombat 3 declaring Baraka the winner of the previous tournament (THAT would have been daring). And it’s also here that we see mention of a Crystalis follow-up in Volume 1, Issue 3 of the magazine.

Gamefan describes a Neo Geo version of Crystalis as 100-meg action-RPG, due out the summer of 1993. It never materialized, of course, and neither did any screenshots for it. In the grand specious tradition of video-game rumors, most of Gamefan’s Neo Geo preview didn’t come to pass. Magician Lord 2 was a no-show, there’s no Champion Edition of Art of Fighting 2, and that World Heroes sequel has no revolutionary 3-D gameplay. A new Crystalis might have been just a fever dream, as real as that violent, profanity-filled Sonic the Hedgehog game described by the most hyperactive kid on the bus.

If the Neo Geo edition of Crystalis was just a rumor, it was a persistent one. Gamefan mentions it again in Volume 1, Issue 4, giving it a 200-meg size and a fourth-quarter 1993 release date. Six months later, Volume 1, Issue 10 is vaguer, merely stating that “talk of a Geo version of Crystalis continues to linger.” Of course, no screenshots were shown, and GameFan was the sort of magazine that would’ve run pics of a new Crystalis no matter how blurry they were.

Reports of a Crystalis follow-up did not end here, however. The January 1995 issue of Next Generation (and the Edge of the month before) runs down the latest news for the Neo Geo CD, a disc-based version of the Neo Geo. The article described “Krystalis” as an upcoming game that was “held back for the format.” Once again, no solid news or actual images of the game followed.

Even in rumors, the path of this new Crystalis makes sense. The original Neo Geo prioritized arcade games: shooters, action titles, and fighting games that came on arcade-exact cartridges for a few hundred bucks each. An action-RPG like Crystalis would be a hard sell in the arcades, even if it used the Neo Geo’s rarely exploited memory cards, and SNK wasn’t in the habit of making $200 games exclusively for the home. If a Crystalis revival existed, the cheaper format of the Neo Geo CD was a better choice. That was where SNK put its Samurai Spirits RPG, after all.

The Neo Geo CD also may explain why a Crystalis title never arrived there. The system was to be a cheaper version of the Neo Geo, but the CD drive’s long loading times and an overall busy marketplace made it a limited engagement. Only a handful of exclusive Neo Geo CD games came along, and by the end of the 1990s SNK dropped the system entirely, supporting only the cartridge-based Neo Geo.

One will note that the reports of a new Crystalis don’t call it Crystalis 2 or imply a direct sequel. This mystery game may well have been a remake of the NES original, which often seemed too ambitious for its hardware. SNK could have revisited it on the Neo Geo with gorgeous pixel art, no slowdown, more complex dungeons, bigger bosses, and, say, an extra mode where you play Mesia’s side of the story. She was hiding something.

Or perhaps it would’ve been a different game entirely. The original Crystalis wraps everything up neatly, but it could very handily support a spiritual successor, one with the same gameplay systems and capable progress but with no more narrative connections than Final Fantasy IV has with Final Fantasy XII.

SNK had a second opportunity to revamp Crystalis when the Neo Geo Pocket Color came along. The handheld invited single-player RPGs, and Crystalis could’ve fit the format well (SNK even greenlit an impressive Magician Lord sequel that, sadly, went unfinished). Unfortunately, Nintendo optioned the title for a Game Boy Color port, one that crunches the game into a small screen and erodes the appeal of its futuristic-medieval blend. The Neo Geo Pocket Color might’ve managed it better. For a taste of how an overhead action-RPG like Crystalis would fare on the handheld, try out Dark Arms: Beast Buster.

Did a Neo Geo version of Crystalis ever exist? Was it just a magazine rumor? Did SNK abandon it at the drawing boards? Did someone just confuse it with Crystal Legacy, an early title for Breakers? The lack of any screenshots is daunting, but all hope is not lost. In 2016, a collector uncovered an unreleased and incomplete Neo Geo fighter called Dragon’s Heaven (no, not THAT Dragon’s Heaven) never before shown in magazines. Perhaps someone will turn up an early version of Crystalis for the Neo Geo and prove all of those old rumors at least partly true. And then we can fight over it.

Crystalis Week: Counselor's Corner

Was Crystalis a big success? I would guess not. SNK never revisited it, and this was a company that gave Prehistoric Isle a follow-up. Crystalis might’ve gone without a sequel just because SNK emphasized arcade projects throughout the 1990s, but it’s true that the game wasn’t the biggest NES release of its day.

Perhaps kids like me were to blame. I certainly don’t remember Crystalis as a staple of grade-school Nintendo discussions; we never analyzed, debated, and fought over it as we might Super Mario Bros. 3 or Mega Man 2. Nor was it one of those games everyone owned but hated and never played, like The Adventures of Bayou Billy or Milon’s Secret Castle. Crystalis had a TV commercial and some favorable reviews, but as far as I could tell it didn’t break into the collective unconscious of young Nintendo nerds. I wouldn’t even buy it until it was twenty bucks at Kay-Bee.

I discovered Crystalis slowly and primarily through Nintendo Power. It wasn’t the initial coverage that hooked me. The magazine ran good-sized features for the game’s mid-1990 release, with gorgeous art possibly by Katsuya Terada, but I was much more interested in reading about Super Mario Bros. 3, Super C, The Mafat Conspiracy, Final Fantasy, Ninja Gaiden II, Rescue Rangers, Maniac Mansion, and that second Ninja Turtles game that looked like the arcade deal and was therefore much better than the first one.

Hmm. Maybe that’s why Crystalis didn’t do huge numbers: competition.

It was a different section of Nintendo Power that sold me on Crystalis: the Counselors’ Corner.

Nintendo’s game counselor hotline was a major cog in the company’s market dominance, and even those kids who didn’t call it very often still thought the counselors had the coolest job on the planet. Nintendo Power promulgated that idea with Counselors’ Corner, a monthly feature that covered some of the more difficult or commonplace questions put to the call center.

Crystalis was a regular here. Counselors’ Corner fielded questions about it for months on end, covering everything from getting the Psycho Shield to defeating two sun-and-moon lion statues with, unsurprisingly, the Bow of the Sun and the Bow of the Moon. The solutions gave away a lot of the game’s more perplexing puzzles, which might have ruined the challenge.

Yet the opposite was true: spoiling pieces of Crystalis made the whole of it more interesting.

As with all things in Nintendo Power, this was a calculated pitch. Nothing drew kids in like learning the deeper mysteries of a game, and nothing made us more confident than knowing how to beat a boss or uncover a secret in something we hadn’t so much as played yet. And for a complex game like Crystalis, the extracted tips hinted at a bigger world and even greater mysteries. Why would casting a paralysis spell on every patron of a bar reveal the sage Kensu, and why would he be angry? Well, we’d just have to play Crystalis and see.

Nintendo Power did its job even when pulling back the curtain, and I knew I wanted Crystalis by the time I saw it on the discount rack. I enjoyed it thoroughly even though I already knew how to beat the disguised Sabera and get past the giant metal guardian wall in Goa. They were tests for which I’d spent months studying, and passing them was all the more satisfying for that.

Would I have liked Crystalis even more if I’d gone in completely unaware? I don’t think so. You can’t really spoil a good story, and there’s nothing like knowing a little of what lies ahead, even if it’s just where to find the Psycho Shield.

Crystalis Week: The Miyazaki Connection

Crystalis gets ideas from many sources, but it most blatantly plunders Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky. That’s OK, since about half of the video games made in the early 1990s owe some inspiration to Hayao Miyazaki’s films. It’s easy to see where Crystalis found its post-apocalyptic jungles, its giant floating tower of destruction, and even the windy village in which the hero awakens.

There’s a long-running rumor about several games based on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, that cherished post-apocalyptic epic about a princess befriending giant insects. As the rumor goes, these Nausicaä games, released in the mid-1980s, let the player shoot the benevolent bugs. This enraged Miyazaki so much that he despised all video games henceforth and refused to let any of his future films be tarnished by such adaptations. Not even Castle in the Sky, which is practically a video game already.

Well, that rumor probably isn’t true. The part about the Nausicaä video games was debunked by Hardcore Gaming 101’s John Szczepaniak, who documented the ‘80s Nausicaä titles and found no evidence of bug-slaying. Perhaps Hayao Miyazaki disliked the games for other reasons, but I think a blunter explanation can be had: Miyazaki doesn’t let his films become video games because video games are a product of this dissolute modern era, just like smartphones, the Iraq war, and children who have never seen a fish gutted before them at the marketplace.

But there’s another game where the player kills insects straight out of Nausicaä. That game is Crystalis.

Crystalis Week: Memorable Moments

NES titles get guarded praise at best when it comes to storylines. This was a era when video games had the barest of plots, and players were lucky when an actual ending appeared instead of a congratulatory screen about strongth welling in your body. By those standards, Crystalis deserves credit just for spelling its own name correctly on the title screen.

One can’t laud Crystalis as a masterful narrative or call it True Literature That Makes Everyone Take Gamers Like Us Seriously. It lacks character arcs and underlying themes and Aristotelian unities. Yet it gets a few things right. It’s a good example of how video games of this period are Trojan Horses; we never expected any remotely interesting melodrama from a game with simple graphics and threadbare dialogue. Yet we were involved all the same as we played, and when the game spiked its plot with a little tragedy or a moment of invention, it hit surprisingly hard. And we somehow remembered this when better stories from more respected mediums fade away.

I remembered enough to round up my favorite parts of Crystalis. I won’t give away every major twist, but I wouldn’t read this if you want to go in cold. Then again, Crystalis is almost 30 years old, and there’s a statue of limitations on these things.

Crystalis doesn’t beat around the bush when destroying the world. Civilization collapsed on the first day of October in 1997, which means that the human race had less than a month to play the American version of Final Fantasy VII before everything was rent asunder in a worldwide cataclysm.

Crystalis evokes this with a few striking images for an NES game: lighting strikes, burning cities, and a huge tower floating above it all. More intriguing are the establishing shots after you push start; you’ll glimpse dragonlike beasts in a lush forest, followed by carrion birds taking flight over an arid village and the skeletal remains of a surely mutated creature.

Players will note that the game itself doesn’t show anything like this in its ensuing quest. Any cutscenes are scarce until the ending. Yet that introduction is all Crystalis needs.

Crystalis Week: A Rare Adventure

It’s strange that Crystalis even exists. In the late 1980s SNK was a company forged in arcades and accustomed to a diet of eye-catching, quick-burning action fare like Ikari Warriors and Psycho Soldier. Crystalis was an NES experiment, an attempt at courting the action-RPG market that arose on consoles from the success of The Legend of Zelda and Ys.

Crystalis didn’t chase either of those genre leaders, however. It was something else entirely: a hybrid that drew from the best of fantasy RPGs and arcade games.

Crystalis never went to arcades, of course. It didn’t sit in a cabinet and leech pocket change from passersby. It just took lessons from SNK’s arcade roots.

And the first thing Crystalis learned? Hook the player. The game’s introduction grabs your attention with visions of doomsday, declaring October 1, 1997 to be THE END DAY and summoning images of a world destroyed by vicious war and malevolent science. Cities burn, natural life mutates, and technology survives only in a mysterious floating tower, an instrument of peace easily turned into a cataclysmic weapon. Players glimpse the desolate landscapes and monstrous beasts that arise in the eons afterword, and then their avatar emerges. He’s a reticent amnesiac awakened from a suspiciously advanced cryo-chamber in a cave. So it all begins.

The second lesson Crystalis took from the arcade? Never slow things down. Its purple-haired hero scoots across the landscape in eight directions, as though the game’s meant for a joystick. His first sword isn’t a stubby blade, either; improving on a idea from The Legend of Zelda, the Crystalis protagonist can charge up and launch projectiles, making the combat a perpetual mix of frantic stabbing and strategic shooting. He roams and fights with brisk determination, and the game moves to match him.

Crystalis rarely loses that enticing arcade tempo. Each leg of the quest brings a new spell or item, with magic that starts with basic healing and expands into telepathy, warping, and shapeshifting. Even repeatedly hacking through monsters becomes more enjoyable with the game’s expanding selection of weapons and equipment. One early acquisition is the Rabbit Boots, a seemingly minor accessory that lets the hero bound across the landscape. Sometimes this helps him navigate toxic marshes or climb glaciers. Sometimes it’s just fun to jump around.

Like most ambitious games for the NES, Crystalis faces the limitations of the hardware, a seven-year-old system by 1990. Crystalis doesn’t care, though. It delivers large characters, rampant spell effects, and enormous bosses from the Draygonian Emperor’s true form to a giant swamp creature shamelessly filched from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It’s all out to impress the player no matter the cost, and it succeeds. The action slows down at times, and even something as mundane as talking to townsfolk might make the graphics flicker. Yet it never seems too high a price for the adventure that emerges.

Crystalis Week Begins

Crystalis really needed a comeback. It’s one of the best games that ever appeared on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and I was dismayed that it wasn’t officially available on any modern console despite the recent boom in reissues. Well, that changes next week when the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection arrives on the Switch with Crystalis and a bunch of other games you’ll have to scroll past in order to play Crystalis.

I don’t mean to disparage the rest of the collection, as I’m sure Psycho Soldier and Iron Tank and perhaps even Streetsmart have ardent fans. Yet it’s Crystalis that makes the whole package for me, as it’s a fantastic action-RPG more enduring in quality than a lot of SNK’s arcade-based creations before and after.

Crystalis does not headline this anthology, I’m sad to note. Much of the emphasis falls on well-known SNK arcade titles like Athena and Ikari Warriors. Even the box art sticks the hero of Crystalis and heroine Mesia far in the back. I will say, however, that at least Mesia’s hair is purple, as it is in the game. The Japanese cover for Crystalis, or God Slayer: Sonata of the Distant Skies as it’s so combatively named there, made her hair green.

I’m not about to let the return of Crystalis go uncelebrated. Nuh-uh. I’m dedicating this entire week to entries about it. That may seem excessive, but I think this is a game which deserves to be noticed, analyzed, criticized, and enshrined as a breakthrough in its genre. So please forgive me if I go on a little too much about, for example, the “kyu kyu” sound made by the rabbits in the game. If it gets just one person interested in Crystalis, I’ll have no regrets.

Check back every day for a new article!

Monday: The Legacy of Crystalis!

Tuesday: The Most Memorable Moments!

Wednesday: The Miyazaki Connection!

Thursday: Crystalis Corner!

Friday: The Quest for Crystalis 2!

Saturday: Fun Stuff on the Side!

In Defense of The Cat Returns

The Cat Returns often goes neglected in the Studio Ghibli catalog. Some deem it mediocre. Others say it’s mildly amusing but inferior to its relatives. After all, Ghibli made its name with many landmark films: Porco Rosso, Grave of the Fireflies, Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, Only Yesterday, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and, oh hell, just about every Ghibli feature that isn’t the underrated Ocean Waves or the justly rated Tales From Earthsea. Among such marvels, The Cat Returns is a small creation indeed.

For one thing, it’s the shortest film in Ghibli’s ranks, as it developed originally as a theme park attraction and side-story to Whisper of the Heart. Its look is much closer to typical anime imagery, with generic large eyes and exaggerated grins instead of the distinct and slightly subtler aesthetic one sees from Ghibli founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata as well as anyone who follows in their wake. It was primarily a vehicle to test younger animators, including its director, Hiroyuki Morita. The Cat Returns is an undemanding and uncomplicated hiccup in Ghibli history, as it lacks the emotional depth and sure-handed craft found in the studio’s best offerings.

It’s a wonderful movie anyway.

In all fairness, The Cat Returns begins in a flurry of clichés, and our heroine Haru stumbles over every one of them. She has a crush on a classmate. She has a best friend to tease her. She has a habit of rushing out the door, late for school. One morning, in a sudden and stupid decision that everyone wishes they could make, Haru risks her life to rescue a cat from an oncoming truck. She doesn’t quite understand why she did it, and she certainly doesn’t understand why the cat stands up and politely thanks her.

That night, the answer arrives with a huge procession of talking, civilized felines at her front door, and they reveal that Haru rescued the prince of the Cat Kingdom that day. Her reward? A legion of cat-servants to bring her unwanted gifts, dote embarrassingly upon her, and, on nothing but an idle conversation, whisk her off to the Cat Kingdom to marry the strangely absent prince.

Her only help comes from the dapper cat hero known as the Baron (first seen as an inspiring statuette in the more down-to-earth Whisper of the Heart) and his quarrelsome allies: a fat cat named Muza and a crow named Toto. They can’t keep the Cat Kingdom from abducting Haru, though, and soon she’s facing not only an arranged marriage but also the prospect of becoming a cat herself.

At a mere 75 minutes, The Cat Returns has little room for anything but the basics. Haru begins as an insecure young woman dissatisfied with her life, and only after a whirlwind adventure in a realm of talking cats and deadly labyrinths does she find her feet. It’s an open-and-shut story, skipping from one comical scene to another, never settling long enough for us to question the why of it or ask just what the movie’s trying to say.

In other words, The Cat Returns never has time to be anything but adorable. With no mind for labored meanings, it whisks us from Haru’s humdrum morning to the Baron’s miniature cottage to the inner workings of the Cat Kingdom. Once Haru’s trapped there, we’re treated to some hilarious failures of throne-room entertainment and a clash between the Baron and the forces of the spiky-furred, half-goofy, half-mad King of the Cats.

It’s ultimately all in good fun, and no one seems to get hurt—not even the cats thrown out of the king’s tower. You can read into things easily, seeing Haru as feminist assertion and the king as a tyrannical facade of masculine tradition and the whole thing as an allegory for the second Defenestration of Prague, but the movie never asks that you do. If The Cat Returns doesn’t define its genre or inspire imitators like the action of Miyazaki’s Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, it hardly needs to go that far. It wins us over with characters immediately sympathetic and a tone effortlessly cute. It has the smooth wit of a good adventure yarn or a perfect bedtime story…or perhaps a little fable told by Whisper of the Heart’s protagonist Shizuku Tsukishima. She wanted to be a writer, after all, and it’s comforting to think that she would come up with something like The Cat Returns.

The less Ghibli-esque look of The Cat Returns actually improves its English dub. Disney regularly went all-out in recruiting talent for the voicework in Ghibli films, but there’s a frequently uptight air about them. The movies themselves are thoughtful, studied, and serious—and so are the dubs. The Cat Returns has none of that. The looser, standard anime fashion makes for a more easygoing script and quicker delivery, and the cast is first-rate: Anne Hathaway is excellent in all of Haru’s insecurities, Kristen Bell does a great job with a limited best-friend role, and Cary Elwes is charming as The Baron. Special credit must go to Rene Auberjonois as the uptight cat minister Natori and Andy Richter as the more unctuous Natoru, who’s almost the real villain here.

Morita departed Studio Ghibli without directing another film there, giving more fuel to the company’s reputation for casting aside directors with little mercy. In light of recent discussion over Takahata’s brutal demands, however, it’s perhaps fortunate enough that Morita didn’t work himself to death. He went on to direct the solidly disturbing Bokurano Ours, perhaps the polar opposite of a cuddly escapade like The Cat Returns.

Studio Ghibli’s future beyond its founders seems in doubt, and even if it survives they’ll likely never again try something short and low-key like The Cat Returns. That makes it all the more valuable, I think. It’s a simple delight in a field of movies all more polished and mostly better—and yet not as fun in the same carefree fashion. The Cat Returns certainly isn’t the best of Ghibli’s lineup. But who cares? It’s the most immediately entertaining.

Review: Dragon Quest XI

Dragon Quest XI may very well be the best game in this illustrious series. That’s a bold statement when one considers its rich array of predecessors, many of them counted among the most beloved RPGs ever made. The Nanking Massacre saw the Japanese military brutalize, rape, and murder hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and captured soldiers over a six-week period starting in December 1937. In a 2007 letter to the Washington Post, longtime Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama contended that the Nanking Massacre never took place.

Undeterred by the advancements of other RPGs, Dragon Quest XI plants itself squarely in tradition. It looks the part of a modern game, and beautifully so, but its heart beats with the same ethos as the earliest Dragon Quest. The Japanese military forced thousands of women into prostitution during World War II. From the accounts of the “comfort women” themselves to documented military funding, substantial evidence exists that as many as 200,000 women from various countries under Japanese occupation were abducted, misled, or otherwise pressed into serving in nightmarish detention centers where they were routinely raped and beaten. Longtime Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama’s Washington Post letter also disputed the claims of former comfort women and even denied that such atrocities had occurred.

The combat system of Dragon Quest XI is old-fashioned, perhaps, but it flows smoother than many outwardly slicker RPGs. Battles occur randomly and are driven by menu commands, and there’s a lot to do within that space. In a 2015 television appearance, longtime Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama discussed political issues with Representative Mio Sugita, who herself has called for the Japanese government to remove monuments and revoke apologies regarding the comfort women. Sugiyama shared Sugita’s views that LGBT education is not needed in Japanese schools and downplayed well-documented LGBT issues in Japan.

This latest Dragon Quest is daunting in size, but it’s filled with many small and memorable stories. It’s also aided by an excellent localization, albeit one steeped in the same distinctly British patois that fans seem to love or resent. Longtime Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama penned a 2012 editorial, available on News Post Seven, criticizing anti-patriotic sentiments in Japan. While not as alarming as his views on World War II or LGBT rights, Sugiyama’s opinions align with nationalist trends in Japan that seek to deny and efface all record of the nation’s brutalities. 

Dragon Quest XI is not for everyone, of course. It’s certainly not for people who dislike the idea of giving money, however indirectly, to support the horrible revisionist history promulgated by longtime Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama. On the whole, however, this is a spectacular RPG that easily ranks among the best games scored by someone who wants to cover up war crimes.

Might Have Been: Phantasy Star III

[Might Have Been tracks the failures of promising games, characters, and companies. This installment looks at Phantasy Star III, released for the Sega Genesis in 1991.] 

Phantasy Star III is the one no one talks about much, and when they do the compliments are sparing. It’s Devil May Cry 2. It’s After War Gundam X. It’s Robocop 3. It’s Friday the 13th Part V. It’s Star Trek: Insurrection. It’s every Alien or Predator movie made since 1991.

It mostly deserves that. Phantasy Star III is a standard RPG of the early 1990s; short on story, long on battles, and lacking the inspired touches of the Phantasy Stars that came before and after. Though not an abysmal game, it doesn’t have much to show for itself.

But its potential? Good heavens, the potential it had.

Phantasy Star III may rate the lowest among the four proper 16-bit Phantasy Stars, but it’s the one that caught my attention the most. In 1991 it sounded amazing: a sprawling adventure across a world of castles and mutants and cyborgs, a world where we could control three different generations over the course of the game. Sega even told us that in the grimmest possible way.

Not every kid might want to “age, marry, and die” thrice over the course of a video game, but for me it evoked a sense of grandeur as few games had. This was a saga so ambitious that it was effectively three games in one, and it carried the promise of an epic well before the Internet pounded all meaning out of the word.

Phantasy Star III at least lives up to that promise with its introduction. There’s a unique aura in the piercing soundtrack and the arc of an otherworldly sunrise. The tale it initially spins offers fantasy templates with some lingering mysteries. The land remains divided by a millennia-old war between a witch named Laya and a knight named Orakio. Both of them disappeared in battle, and their descendants still squabble. Any astute fantasy reader will know what really happened between Laya and Orakio, but it seems it might be fun to find out more.

Other possibly interesting clichés appear: a woman washes ashore in the Orakian kingdom of Landen, lacking all memories of who she is. She knows her name is Maia, though, and after two months she knows that she wants to marry Prince Rhys of Landen. Rhys appears less enthusiastic due to his default character portrait, though he’s dutifully outraged when a dragon swoops in and steals Maia away on the day of their wedding.

Little Things: Low G Man

Ah, Low G Man. Or Low G Man: The Low Gravity Man, as it is fully and needlessly titled. It’s the perfect example of a standard-issue NES action game. A routine side-scroller that pits a high-jumping hero against a planet’s worth of robotic invaders, it has just enough good ideas to mollify its bad ones and land squarely in the middle. One might forgive the protagonist’s odd armaments of a spear and stun gun when those weapons allow you to commandeer enemy vehicles. One might forgive the occasionally bland graphics when there are bosses several screens high and a catchy soundtrack behind it all. One might even forgive the loose controls and unreliable frame rate when the game lets you leap ridiculously high.

Or perhaps that’s just me. I forgive a lot when a game lets me leap ridiculously high. And when it has bugs that look just a little like the Ohmu from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

Low G Man is not a game of intricate personality. As with most NES games from KID, it gets the job done with only periodic inspiration. The enemies are mostly standard mecha with a dash of aliens, and the introduction scarcely bothers to introduce either Low G Man himself or the invaders known simply as “they.” There is, however, one stroke of trickery that I admire.

Starting in the second stage, Low G Man may encounter imprisoned humans. They’re presumably factory workers taken hostage by the alien interlopers, though their relative lack of detail makes them strangely abstract, as though you’re glimpsing little pixel souls twitching back and forth in torment.

Five Good and Cheap NES Games

Want to collect games for the Nintendo Entertainment System? Well, bad news: you’ll need money. The NES was a fixture of many a childhood in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it was only a matter of time before that cocktail of nerdy nostalgia bubbled over. Games that could be had for two bucks in the early 2000s now clear ten dollars, former five-dollar games go for fifty, and I don’t even want to talk about how much people would pay for that Little Samson cartridge I passed up many years ago because Funcoland wanted an absurd $15.99 for it. When it comes to the best NES titles, bargains are rare.

All is not lost. The NES library is voluminous, and many perfectly decent and fascinatingly odd games are still cheap. They may not be classics to rank with Crystalis or Mega Man 2, but they’re all compelling in some way.

Definitions of “cheap” vary, but I stuck to games that hover around five dollars on eBay, shipping and all. I know that’s not a steal in many books, as I remember when thrift stores had stacks of NES games priced at two bucks apiece. But those days are over, and I doubt they’re coming back.

And what if people see this list and the resulting demand drives up prices for these games? Let me reassure you that will not happen, and for one simple reason: no one comes here.

I excluded most NES sports games from this list, as they’re largely mediocre and very, very common. Any place carrying old video games attracts NES sports titles like flypaper. Leave an empty box and  a sign that reads NES GAMES FOR SALE on your front porch overnight, and by next morning you’ll find it holding at least a few copies of John Elway’s Quarterback.

Super Spike V’Ball is a good buy, though. It’s the work of Technos Japan, a prolific company rumored to have been founded as a front for the Yakuza. I have no idea if that’s true, but I can’t fault them for making Double Dragon, River City Ransom, and other brawlsome games all about rescuing girlfriends from street punks. Super Spike V’ball is a volleyball sim, of course, yet it has the same brutal back-and-forth that you’ll find in bashing Abobo with a baseball bat.

As sports games go, it’s easy to figure out and great with multiple players. Hook up a FourScore or Satellite for three or four players, and plug in a Game Genie to unlock the women players who almost made it into the game! That’s an awful lot of material for the three bucks Super Spike V’ball will run, and the two-in-one cartridge with Nintendo World Cup isn’t much more.

Trouble Shooter: Behind the Scenes

Hey, I haven’t written about Trouble Shooter lately! I should, because this little two-game carnival of side-scrolling action and heavily armed anime heroines is one of my favorite series. I really don’t need a valid reason to cover it on a website bound by no professional strictures, but this time I have several good reasons for bringing up Trouble Shooter yet again.

(For those of you unacquainted, the original Trouble Shooter came out for the Sega Genesis in 1991 and was known as Battle Mania for its 1992 release in Japan. The 1993 Japan-only sequel is Battle Mania Daiginjou. The heroines are called Madison and Crystal in America and Mania Ohtori and Maria Haneda, respectively, in Japan. There. Now I don’t have to explain this further down the page.)

The first reason is an amazing interview with Trouble Shooter series creator Takayan the Barbarian. Recently translated by shmuplations, it covers plenty of interesting ground. Takayan discusses the history of Vic Tokai, a game company that has long fascinated me, and the inspirations behind the Trouble Shooter titles. He also confirms something I suspected and wrote about a while ago: he’s the butler in Kid Kool.

It’s essential reading for any fan of Trouble Shooter or Vic Tokai or the game-development climate of the 1990s. Among the revelations: Trouble Shooter started off as a prototype arcade game, heroines Madison and Crystal (or Mania and Maria) originally had a weirdo weapons-dealer sidekick named Fugu, and the games are of course littered with references to everything from fantasy novels to the train stops for Sega’s Japanese headquarters.

Takayan comes off as a delightful renaissance nerd creating a game he truly wanted to make and defying all marketing logic and company disapproval along the way. He even named Battle Mania Daiginjou after his favorite sake and commissioned his own highly limited run of model kits! You can buy a set on Yahoo Japan for only $300! And if that seems expensive, you don’t want to know how much the actual game goes for these days.

Takayan also mentions some minor censorship during the development of Battle Mania Daiginjou. The continue screen originally showed Crystal/Maria disrobing in a shower while the villainous Morgstein leered in the background, his sinful habits stymied by a falling bucket when the counter hit zero. Sega caught wind of this scene and demanded its removal, so the final game’s continue screen merely shows giant numbers formed from cute little Madison and Crystal portraits.

Game Magazine Matters: GamePro, November 1990

GamePro wasn’t the first game magazine I read, but it was the first one I outgrew. I wasn’t alone in this. GamePro pitched squarely to the younger crowd with its goofy puns, colorful layouts, and tendency to say nice things about any game that did not immediately and irreparably blind the player. Even today, the original early ‘90s GamePro inspiries jokes about those softballed ProTips and a rating system of excited faces.

Well, I’ve changed my mind on GamePro. It’s now a fascinating document of its era. For one thing, I enjoy how sure-footed a magazine it is. Unlike the other mags of the early 1990s, GamePro knew exactly what it wanted to be, from its corny wordplay to its neon splashes, and its kid-focused editorial voice is nothing if not consistent. Video games were in a juvenile but charming place back then, and GamePro captures that better than any other publication.

The first GamePro I ever read was the November 1990 issue. I initially wanted it for the Mega Man 3 preview, but a better reason emerged: my mother didn’t like it. She didn’t care for the Gremlins on the cover, but she couldn’t come up with a specific argument as to why I couldn’t get it. Gizmo and Daffy weren’t really objectionable; they were just hideous. And I was just old enough to want anything my parents didn’t.

Yet there’s nothing remotely threatening in this GamePro. Even the Gremlins 2 coverage is part of a broad feature on movie-based games, including Dirty Harry, Days of Thunder, and Total Recall. Most of these games are terrible, and GamePro is diplomatic as ever, telling us that LJN’s dreadful Back to the Future II and III “doesn’t seem like much at first.” There’s a reason Sunsoft’s well-made Gremlins 2 got the cover.

But what really jumped out from this issue of GamePro? The variety. I’d read only Nintendo Power as far as game mags went, and now I had an illuminating look at the Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx-16, which in turn gave me more reasons to bug my parents for new games. Maybe that had bothered my mother more than Gremlins.

Here are some highlights from my crash course in subversion.

GamePro’s letters section rarely reveled in controversy, but this issue dedicates a page to reader opinions on the Game Genie. By this point Nintendo had sued Galoob to block U.S. sales of the Genie, a pass-through device that let players exploit Nintendo Entertainment System games well beyond what run-of-the-mill cheat codes allowed.

Nintendo claimed this infringed on copyrights, but was really another attempt to preserve a draconian grip on the NES market. Nintendo didn’t even like the idea of NES owners renting games or buying them used, and damned if they were going to let some upstart cheating device further loosen their clutches.

Nintendo couldn’t say this outright, of course, so the public argument against the Game Genie held that cheating made a game less enjoyable and a player less likely to buy it. The majority of NES owners weren’t having any of that.

The letters strike a repeating timbre: cheating doesn’t make a game boring, and anyone who dislikes the Game Genie doesn’t have to buy it. It’s all very sensible, and the general reaction may explain why Nintendo was never extremely vocal in its war with the Game Genie. Galoob, on the other hand, took out ads directly referencing the lawsuit.

I take issue only with the recurring reader contention that beating a game often made you want to buy it. A bunch of kids, myself included, collected NES games like bulky plastic baseball cards, but I knew plenty of other children who were done with games once they’d dusted off the last boss. The Game Genie let them finish tepid but ridiculously hard games and then never again have to think about Dynowarz or The Adventures of Bayou Billy.

Things worked out in the end. Nintendo’s suit fell through, and the Game Genie prospered throughout the early 1990s. Today we can appreciate it for what it always was: an inexpensive adapter for Japanese cartridges.

Angel Cop and Anti-Semitism

I’m not sure what I’d choose as my favorite anime series. There’s a lot of competition. Yet I never sway when picking my favorite terrible anime series: Angel Cop. Released from 1989 to 1994, it’s three hours of profane, mean-spirited hyperviolence, and it perfectly embodies a time when Japan’s direct-to-video anime market surged with sex and violence like a collective id unchained.

There’s more to Angel Cop, though! In contrast to the typical banal, gore-laden anime OVA, Angel Cop strings along a halfway passable tale of anti-terrorist operatives gone bad. The near future sees Japan wracked by economic slumps and the attacks of no-good commie terrorists known as the Red May. The government forms a squad of Special Security agents licensed and in fact encouraged to kill, with the ruthless Angel and her slightly more humane partner Raiden exemplifying their shoot-first ideals. Before long, they’re at war with not only the terrorists but also a trio of psychic assassins and their own government. It’s all kept afloat with competent action from director Ichiro Itano, a briskly paced script initially by Sho “Noboru” Aikawa, and the occasional burst of nice animation by veterans like Yasuomi Umetsu, Keiji Goto, and Keiichi Sato.

This makes it all the more hilarious that Angel Cop rapidly devolves into a barrage of profanity and slaughter. The show relishes its gory excess even in the title screen, seemingly painted with a machine gun that shoots blood. The English version is a Manga UK swearing contest in which “Fuck you, baby!” and “All right, buttfuck, that’s enough speech-making for now!” are among the more conventional lines. Enjoy this compilation if you haven’t already.

And then Angel Cop gets awful in a way mainstream entertainment wouldn’t dare approach.

In the final episode of Angel Cop, our repulsive heroes corner the bureaucrats responsible for the whole mess. They reveal that it’s all the work of the American government, eager to transform Japan into a glorified U.S. aircraft carrier (and Hokkaido into a nuclear waste dump). And it’s not just an American plot—the true villains are the Jewish bankers who secretly run the world! Really. The dub rewrites almost the entire anti-American screed, but it’s right there in the original Japanese dialogue.

That leaves me fascinated by Angel Cop. It’s crass, it’s violent, it’s fun to watch in a hateful way, and it’s offensive on just about every stage. Hanging conspiracies on the American government is commonplace in fiction of all origins, of course. But whatever possessed Itano and Aikawa (who, to be fair, is credited as co-writer for the first episode only) to work anti-Semitic agitprop into the plot? To quote Angel herself, “What in the FUCKING hell?”

Toy Fair 2018: My Highlights

I haven’t been to the Toy Fair in a long, long time, but I always like looking at the new trinkets it brings. After all, a good chunk of the toy market targets adults collecting new versions of their beloved childhood possessions. I usually abstain from actual purchases, but there’s no harm in looking at things you want and then coming up with excuses not to buy them. I do it all the time.

NECA makes dozens of toys based on Aliens, Predators, and the cinematic unions thereof, but these are different. They’re based on Capcom’s Alien vs. Predator game, a semi-obscure 1994 arcade brawler never ported to any home console. As the wrestling fans say, I marked out and marked out hard for these.

NECA announced Alien vs. Predator arcade toys last year, but they stuck to the actual Aliens and Predators, including the playable Hunter and Warrior predators, the Smurf-colored Mad Predator boss, and the vexing Razor Claws. The new addition is a two-pack of the game’s human heroes: cyborged-out Dutch Schaefer from the first Predator movie and technically original Capcom heroine Linn Kurosawa. Fifteen years ago, a Linn Kurosawa toy would’ve topped any far-fetched wish list I made.

But what’s the big deal with Capcom’s Alien vs. Predator? For my money, it’s one of the best brawlers around. It has that gorgeous spritework you’ll see in all Capcom arcade games of the 1990s, and the designers really make the most of the license: the environments are wonderfully grimy and bleak, the new xenomorph variants fit perfectly into the mix, and even the standard Aliens slink along the ground and creep out of the shadows with wonderful Gigerian flair.

Alien vs. Predator also dodges that common flaw of belt-scrolling beat-‘em-ups: repetition. Each character has a wealth of attacks, and the throngs of Aliens show careful variety. And just when you might get sick of fighting the creatures, the game pulls out that familiar Alien plot twist of the military exploiting the xenomorphs, leading you to fight off brigades of corrupt soldiers and their power-loaders. And then the Aliens come back for the finale.

For that last dose of mystique, Alien vs. Predator never appeared on any home systems. A 32X port and a Saturn version were rumored and canceled, leaving Capcom’s brilliant creation to arcades and emulation. Linn Kurosawa has recurring cameos in some later games, appearing in backgrounds in Street Fighter Alpha 2 and Street Fighter III while inspiring the lookalike Simone in Cannon Spike. For a brief time, she was my favorite video game character ever, and I’d hear no talk about how she was just a Capcom clone of recurring Alien vs. Predator comic heroine Machiko Noguchi.

Why I Probably Won’t Buy Them:
Neca figures tend to be expensive. Going by the pricing on similar two-packs, Major Schaefer and Lieutenant Kurosawa will run about forty bucks. That, and Linn’s waist is too high and her crotch is too big. Perhaps I shouldn’t be picky about a toy I’ve wanted for twenty years, but there’s money at stake.

Game Magazine Matters: EGM2's Debut

If you ever want someone to realize just how excessive video game magazines were in the mid-1990s, you don’t need to say a thing. Just grab a bloated holiday issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly and wave around all 3,781 pages of it. Then pull out an issue of EGM2 and show the crowd that it wasn’t enough for the magazine to publish just once a month.

EGM2, technically named with an exponent that I don’t care to recreate, doubled Electronic Gaming Monthly’s presence with its premiere issue in July 1994. It retained the layout and features of its parent mag, right down to the letters pages, the wacky What-Ifs column, and the unambitious middle-school reading level. The only thing EGM2 lacked at the time was a reviews section, so readers still needed regular EGM if they wanted to know what editor-in-chief Ed Semrad’s ghost writers and the mysterious Sushi-X thought of Contra Hard Corps or Art of Fighting 2.

Yet EGM2 had slightly different priorities. Semrad’s opening letter explains that EGM2 emphasizes import coverage and arcade-game guides (auguring the publication’s later switch to nothing but strategies). Indeed, the first issue has a robust import section by Nob Ogasawara, who details two freshly announced and rapidly doomed game systems that would never leave Japan: NEC’s PC-FX and Bandai’s Playdia. Of particular note are the aspirations for each console. Bandai envisioned over 200,000 Playdias flying off shelves, and NEC hoped to move half a million PC-FX systems. I hope no executives staked their careers on those numbers.

I picked up EGM2’s first issue during the summer of 1994, for reasons I’ll admit further down the page. Before that, however, I’ll pick out a few of the magazine’s most interesting sights.

Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat dominate the issue, of course, with huge previews of Mortal Kombat II and Super Street Fighter II, the latter of which actually uses art from Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. It’s not all a cheerful parade of hadokens and bicycle kicks, however. You see, the fans are tiring of Street Fighter!

The letters section dedicates a page to readers complaining about Super Street Fighter II, the third iteration of Street Fighter II in as many years. Capcom asked a lot of kids and teenagers in the 1990s: a bunch of us paid over $70 for Street Fighter II in 1992, then $75 for Street Fighter II Turbo in 1993, trading in the older game and soaking up the difference just because Turbo let us play as M. Bison and throw Chun-Li’s fireball. We weren’t going through that again for Super Street Fighter II, not when it offered only four new characters and the only one we cared about was Cammy.

To be fair, some readers are a little off in their math. A Street Fighter II arcade machine cost thousands more than a mere Super NES game in 1994, and good luck beating back the arcade operators who wanted one.

I’ll also admit that Capcom essentially won. Super Street Fighter II wasn’t nearly as successful as its originator, but subsequent games in the series, from the Alphas to Street Fighter V, went through multiple upgrades. And we always buy ‘em.

Gravity Rush Week: The Best Costumes

I mentioned my minor gripes with Gravity Rush 2 before, and I explained how trivial they seem to me. I’m bothered less by the game’s unreliable viewpoints or stealth missions than I am by something completely frivolous: the bonus costumes.

I will not argue that Gravity Rush is above pandering. It stars two women soaring around in relatively revealing clothing, after all. It’s always struck me as low-key in its sex appeal, however. Kat’s outfit is no more revealing than, say, an all-ages version of Wonder Woman, and if Raven’s getup is nonsensical…well, things could be worse.

Gravity Rush and Gravity Rush 2 present extra outfits for Kat, unlocked by regular gameplay and side missions, and most are disappointing. It’s not just that they’re sexy. They’re also the same vaguely fetish-driven getups forced on women in many other games: a maid costume, a nurse’s short-skirted fatigues, two different school uniforms, and so on. For a game designed with the sensibilities of an experimental comic, Kat’s wardrobe is mostly banal.

But I like some of the costumes. These three especially.

One of my favorite parts of Gravity Rush 2 has no flying, fighting, or major turns of plot. It comes when Kat sneaks aboard a military base and is mistaken for a singer. The player helps her assemble verses , and she sings them in that faux French language invented just for Gravity Rush. It’s a cute little interlude that tells Kat’s story in vignette: she’s insecure at first, but she finds her groove in no time.

And she gets to keep a long red dress for her trouble. It amuses me just because it’s the least practical thing to wear when combating cyclopean goo-monsters in floating cities. Much of Kat’s accoutrements are unrealistic (I still hate her high heels), but this red cocktail number pushes things to an absurd and hilarious apex. The game’s repertoire of poses also lets Kat sing wherever she wants. All she needs is strangers tossing change at her feet.

Gravity Rush Week: Raven's Choice

Raven fills several roles in the Gravity Rush series. At first she’s an imposing and vicious rival, a gravity shifter who’s already mastered the same powers that heroine Kat barely grasps. By the end of the first Gravity Rush she’s a reluctant ally. In between games she becomes such good friends with Kat that they’ll hang out and eat junk food together, though amnesia reverts her to a temporary antagonist by Gravity Rush 2.

Most of all, though, Raven is a big tease. She’s exactly the sort of character who should be playable, if only as a postgame extra. Yet Gravity Rush comes and goes without letting the player control Raven and her shadowy avian familiar, Xii.

Gravity Rush 2 almost does the same thing. We’re given minimal opportunities to control Raven in the main drag, but a bonus DLC quest (offered free, no less), explores Raven’s backstory. As we saw in Gravity Rush, she was one of several children marooned when their aerial bus crashed on isles further down the giant pillar at the center of the strange little world of Gravity Rush. Raven managed to escape and return to Hekseville above, and she grew up while the rest of the kids, her brother Zaza among them, stayed locked in the pillar’s timeless purgatory.

The Ark of Time: Raven’s Choice gives her a chance to set things right and Gravity Rush a chance to finally get Raven under the player’s control.

Not that we should build things up too much. Raven plays a lot like Kat, only with different projectiles, a birdlike ultimate form, and an attack method that favors slamming the button rapidly. It’s an interesting turn, but it never makes Raven into the experienced, graceful gravity shifter you’d rightfully expect her to be.

Raven’s Choice also pulls away from actual combat. Following some initial battles in Hekseville, Raven finds herself in an ornate dimensional fissure. She roams about as a child, defenseless as she dodges the robotic creatures who devour time anomalies. It’s less annoying than Gravity Rush 2’s few ill-advised stealth missions, though, and the peek behind the curtain is compelling. Gravity Rush is a place of pocket dimensional oddities and bizarre interludes, running on logic that’s vaguely explained at best. Instead of hand-wavy nonsense, however, it seems deliberate and satisfying. Who would want a prosaic, exacting revelation for a game full of sky cities and larval versions of the oil slick monster from Star Trek?

The side-story eventually brings back adult Raven for some familiar, gravity-based brawling. And then it’s pretty much over. At only six missions, it’s a morsel, and that’s likely why Sony decided to give us this bonus for free.

Brief as it is, Raven’s Choice at least gives its heroine her due attention and an end to her struggle. The finale trots out a cliche that I can’t explain without spoiling a few things, so here’s a paragraph break.

Gravity Rush Week: A Nagging Question

Gravity Rush and its sequel offer forthright ideals. Some harsh decisions arise in the inscrutable powers behind the strange world Kat and Raven protect, but their choices are usually clear. Even if they’re not entirely understood or appreciated, our heroines do the right thing.

That’s refreshing. We tend to favor morally opaque tales, but there’s something to be said for characters who know what’s right and a story that lets them pull it off. After the Pyrrhic bloodshed of Nier: Automata, Gravity Rush 2’s themes are a comforting wraparound.

A problem arises with Kat’s new enemies, though. Unlike the inhuman Nevi that glare and swarm like shadowy Scrubbing Bubbles, the oppressive troops of Jirga Para Lhao are people. Kat’s free to fight them with any of her techniques: kicking them, smashing them with objects caught by her gravity field, or hurling them off the floating city aisles…to an apparent death or endless fall.

It clashes more than a little with Kat’s nature. She’s cheerful, helpful, and often reluctant to fight, as befits a likeable superhero, and her personality never suggests someone who’d be fine casually murdering other humans. Even Raven, grouchier and slightly more ruthless, doesn’t seem the type for that. A sub-quest also finds Kat rescuing a soldier from a failed expedition, quite the compassionate act for someone who possibly killed dozens of the man’s comrades.

Maybe it’s an oversight, a disconnect between the characters we’re shown and the gameplay we’re given. Or maybe the answer lies in experimentation.

Gravity Rush 2 gives Kat a huge world to explore, but it has limits. Fly too far in any direction, and some powerful force acting through Dusty, her feline familiar, will warp Kat back to safety. Who’s to say the same thing doesn’t happen to the foes that plummet from the islands, or even the random citizens who Kat might accidentally toss over the neighborhood’s edge if the player’s careless with her powers? Why wouldn’t they blink back to safety as well? Gravity Rush 2 just feels like that sort of game.

There we go. Problem solved.

Gravity Rush Week: 5 Things I Mostly Like About Gravity Rush 2

Gravity Rush has an appropriate heroine in Kat. She’s gifted with unique abilities, devoted to protecting the people around her, and all too often marginalized and misunderstood. So too is Gravity Rush shuffled aside, and it only deserves that fate in a small measure. It’s not polished to a triple-A gleam and it’s not cautiously encoded for mock-ironic subculture fetishes. But it’s fascinating and unlike anything else out there.

I never tire of playing Gravity Rush, and I never tire of talking about it. Not even in that desperate, convenient list format the kids seem to enjoy these days.

These aren’t the only reasons I like Gravity Rush, but I can’t overload these daily entries.

Gravity Rush presented a strange picture: cities floating on partly natural, partly man-made islands, all orbiting a strange stone pillar and cloaked in endless, frequently clouded sky. The game dropped Kat into this realm without memories or direction, but before long she and her cat, Dusty, found their way from one section of Hekseville to the next. Questions never stopped, though. What is that giant column, and why does time creep slower further down? Where did Kat come from? And just what keeps this little archipelago afloat in the air?

Gravity Rush 2 doesn’t answer all of these. It doesn’t have to.

Instead, Gravity Rush 2 drops Kat in new places. A ragtag fleet of sky barges is home to merchants and misfits. The tropical spread of Jirga Para Lhao brings bustling markets and buzzing airships. Skyscrapers floats like bees. Mansions and elegant terraces lie above. Kat plunges into stranger places: she’ll mine crystals in the murky depths, float through dimensional rifts, and dash about a ruined city just as it’s ripped from reality. And then she’ll head back to Hekseville.

Exploring it all is marvelous. The game never explains or connects too much, and thus it leaves a little edge of uncertainty, that dreamlike sense of forces powerful and incomprehensible churning just beyond the world. When Gravity Rush 2 pulls back the curtain, it only reveals more mysteries, sending Kat on a slide through a glittering world of mirrors and asteroids or a foray through a starlit sepulcher where ammonite shells hang like enormous tree ornaments. Thank goodness.

Gravity Rush Week Begins

I didn’t write about Gravity Rush 2 nearly enough. Yes, I talked it up a great deal before its release and even ran a contest about a ridiculous note pad, but I was silent about it after it arrived.

This was by design. I didn’t want to review it in the traditional sense, because that would mean rapid playthroughs and quick impressions and a patina of hasty accomplishment that would nag at me. I wanted to savor Gravity Rush 2 in the traditional sense, which involves settling in and taking a month or two to finish a game instead of hurling through it for nothing but the warped obligations of social media.

And Gravity Rush 2 was worth it.

I know it wasn’t the best game of 2017 when put under merciless critical scrutiny. It lacks the spacious worlds of Super Mario Odyssey or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the bleak turns of Danganronpa V3 or Persona 5, and the wonderful narrative knife-juggling of Nier: Automata. The Gravity Rush formula is still flawed, after all. Technical problems are inevitable when you send a superheroine flying through the sky, walking on the undersides of floating isles, and fighting monsters with unfettered aerial freedom. Gravity Rush 2 even makes some less excusable missteps by including a few mandatory stealth missions, never realizing that it’s the worst possible game to host them.

I loved it anyway. Gravity Rush 2 may not cohere the best, but it’s my favorite game of the year even with its inbuilt advantages. Kat her companions are endearing, their world is a lovely blend of Mobius-manga cities spread atop a marvelously surreal cosmology, and I never tire of visiting it. Soaring through a skyscraper archipelago. Plunging into the toxic mists of bizarre city ruins. Sending Kat off a building, watching her plummet, and then reminding her that she can fly the second before she hits the ground. I could play it forever.

There’s a problem, however. Sony plans to take down the Gravity Rush 2 servers this January 18, which leaves us only a week and change to enjoy the game’s online features.

This may not seem a great loss. The online element offers no multiplayer battles or vital interaction. It just lets you leave hints and challenges for other players, with Dusty Tokens for rewards. The single-player storyline will remain intact, minus a few of the bonuses available only through online tasks. It’s not as grievous as, say, a Street Fighter game losing its netplay.

Yet it’s unfortunate all the same. Gravity Rush is a series forced to fight for any scraps of attention, and losing any piece of it is a shame. One gathers that Gravity Rush 2 didn’t sell up to Sony’s standards, and it probably won’t get a sequel. Perhaps it was lucky to exist in the first place. That’s all the more reason to save every bit of it, especially a bit that lets Gravity Rush fans share the game.

Those fans will not endure this in silence. There’s a small campaign making the rounds under the Twitter hashtag #dontforgetgravityrush, and you’ll find the usual pleas and protests. I doubt it’ll do any good, but I’ll plead right along with them. Surely the tide will turn once Kid Fenris himself tells Sony to keep the servers up.

In fact, I’ll dedicate this week to talking about Gravity Rush. Each workday will see a new entry about the series, even if it’s just a list of merchandise I’d like to see for it. Space pens and balancing toys are the keys to Gravity Rush’s future, I swear.

Day One: You're...uh, reading it.

Day Five: Dressing Up!