Phantasy Star IV Disarmed

It recently came to light that Rieko “Phoenix Rie” Kodama passed away in May of this year. Kodama was a pioneer among women in the game industry as well as an incredibly talented designer, artist, and director. Just about all of her games, from early Sega arcade titles to the more recent 7th Dragon series, are well work playing. If you’re unfamiliar with her work and want to start at the pinnacle, however, I’ll point to Phantasy Star IV as the best game that involved Kodama—and perhaps Sega itself. 

Phantasy Star IV is a sci-fantasy RPG of rich of constant spectacle, a quest that spans a star system and rarely lacks for some cool new discovery. There are spaceships, sandworms, mutant conspiracies, tragic deaths, monstrous forces lurking behind other monstrous forces, and vast tributes to the previous Phantasy Stars. An even if you go in completely unfamiliar with the series, it’s easy to get caught up in the well-paced storyline and the case of bounty hunters, androids, aliens, sorcerers, and other oddities for the player to recruit.

One standout party member is Rika, a genetically engineered bestial Numan with an upbeat, mostly innocent worldview and big pointy ears. She’s also the subject of a little false advertising.

The back cover of Phantasy Star IV’s Japanese release shows Rika front and center with a giant mechanical arm. It’s something that would fit right into the game’s particular vision of space opera, where wizards and swordfighters could easily join up with a beast-girl armed with an unwieldy bionic appendage. 

The Mystery of The Missing My Little Pony Music

I am always intrigued by deleted scenes, especially when they’re presumed lost to time. It ties into my fascination with unreleased media in general and the innate appeal of uncovering a secret. Whether it’s the spider pit horrors in the original King Kong, a gruesome death scene from Disney’s The Black Cauldron, or just a short and meaningless clip excised to trim down running time, there’s a certain thrill in encountering something that you, the audience, were never meant to see. 

That might be why I went through the trouble of seeking out a deleted musical number from the 1980s My Little Pony cartoon. 

I should explain my history with this show. After my family moved to Germany in the mid-1980s, my grandmother sent me and my sister tape after tape of cartoons she had recorded (even going so far as to edit out the commercials, bless her heart). These tapes had a variety of Looney Tunes shorts and semi-educational programs, but they were heaviest on episodes of My Little Pony and Friends

I scoffed at the cartoon until my family moved off-base and loss access to the Armed Forces Network, and then I was grateful for any shred of American television. That’s why I have seen every episode of the 1980s My Little Pony series multiple times, and why I still can recall the personalities of every toy-shilling horse, from Wind Whistler the sesquipedalian pegasus to Gusty, a grouchy unicorn voiced by Nancy Cartwright with the same voice she’d later use for Bart Simpson. 

My sister and I were discussing this unavoidable childhood diet of My Little Pony not so long ago, and we learned something: the original broadcasts of the show’s “The Glass Princess” episodes featured a song called “Hurry” in the fourth and final part, but this song and the accompanying animation were removed for all subsequent airings. The rest of the episode was sped up slightly (meaning that it wasn’t cut for time) and the missing footage has never reappeared, not on VHS or DVD or streaming services like Tubi. It was also nowhere to be found online.

I actually remembered seeing this musical number on the old tapes my grandmother sent us, and that made me all the more curious about why it was pulled from broadcast. My sister did all the work of digging up the old VHS tape and recording the screen, and you can thank her by checking out her comic

Here’s the song sequence in full. Now everyone can find out what the My Little Pony cartoon deemed too shocking, too extreme for the airwaves of the 1980s. 

 

As you can see, it’s a brief and anodyne little number that shows the ponies and their sentient tumbleweed friends, the Bushwoolies, making a quilt. Meanwhile their human allies, whose hands would presumably provide more dexterity than hooves, offer no assistance and merely look on with vacant smiles. There’s no hint of controversy in this “Hurry” song and no inappropriate detail in the animation. In fact, there’s nothing objectionable about this scene. 

Or is there? Check out the Bushwoolie creatures around the 39-second mark and you’ll see them dashing around with a pair of scissors and wielding them perhaps a bit carelessly. That might’ve been enough to draw complaints and get the whole musical interlude yanked, for fear that impressionable children would ignore that ancient wisdom about scissors and running.

It may seem odd that the show would delete the “Hurry” scene and leave much darker elements untouched in other episodes; for example, the very first My Little Pony cartoon features a demonic centaur king who kidnaps ponies and transforms them into giant helldragons. Then again, there’s far less chance of a child imitating that. 

We can’t really wrap up the mystery until someone from the production team confirms that, yes, this My Little Pony cartoon generated complaints about improper scissors usage. Yet seeing the deleted song bit is enough to satisfy my curiosity—and to free it up so I may focus on other things lost to the ages, no matter how trivial they might be. A secret is a secret, after all. 

Old Games and New Questions

There I was the other night, playing Eco Fighters on the new Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium collection. Eco Fighters is a creative and unfairly overlooked 2-D shooter, and the Capcom Arcade Stadium presents it well. Yet as I wove through flurries of enemy fire and blasted construction vehicles into scrap in some dubious effort to save the environment, one thought consumed me: how will future generations appreciate these old games?

It's perhaps not a pressing matter or even a serious one. There’s no lack of repackaged older games these days, whether they’re cheap digital reissues or lavish physical copies meant to sit on the shelf beside those decades-old original games without complicating the effect. Yet there’s a haunting reminder that a lot of these re-releases trade heavily on nostalgia—and that when this nostalgia runs dry there’ll be no appetite among the new generations for Gaiares or Dragon View or the original NES Duck Tales

Nostalgia is an unreliable thing, after all. It can be the catalyst for personal reflection and historical analysis, and it can be an unchallenging refuge that lets us wallow in the past. Whatever the incarnation, nostalgia is an undeniable part of anything “retro,” to the point where the actual quality of the work might not matter so much as the memories it evokes. 

How, then, does one make these games relevant and palatable for modern audiences with no compelling recollections of, say, unwrapping Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game on some distant birthday?

One possible solution is to grant the player unprecedented freedom in playing the game. The SNK 40th Anniversary Collection introduced a feature that let players skip to any point in a pre-established playthrough, just as easily as they might advance to a certain scene in a film. Most of the games in the collection weren’t all that interesting regardless of where one might skip to, yet it was an inventive new way to experience them—particularly in the collection’s standout, the phenomenal action/RPG Crystalis

Other re-issues dig into the games themselves, altering a few things to make them smoother or more interesting. Developer 2 seems to delight in rooting through the nuts and bolts of older games, especially those in the cruelly short-lived Sega Ages series, and adding a new feature or two that opens things up in new ways. Phantasy Star gets adjusted battle rates and experience levels that greatly improve its pacing. Lightening Force and Gunstar Heroes offer easier access to their arrays of weapons. It’s a great way to bring out a game’s best features and give those older fans a reason to pick up something they might've thoroughly explored already.

And what of the historical context of these games? Some retro-game reissues pattern themselves after the Criterion editions of movies, offering art galleries, interviews, and other extras that simultaneously entice hardcore fans and frame things for newcomers. 

Even so, such enhancements are preaching to a very devout High Seas Havoc choir. If nostalgia-free players, spoiled for choice with modern games that often imitate and even exceed the older ones, don’t care about Gunstar Heroes in the first place, they're not likely to care about new options or an interview with its designers.

It’s best to accept that these games will be forgotten by most. That’s the way of all entertainment or art: movies, television, books, theater, radio, postcards, billboards, backs of cereal boxes. The majority of it won’t be remembered at all by the majority of its audience. Why should video games dodge the inevitable?

Westone’s Clockwork Aquario arrived on modern consoles last year, nearly three decades after the game’s original arcade release was canceled. Some people ignored it. Some played through it once and forgot about it. Some enjoyed it thoroughly. And a few adored it enough that they’re still playing it regularly even though it’s only 28 minutes long and I have dozens of other games howling for my attention. 

Things would have been much the same had Clockwork Aquario actually come out in 1993: it would have been dismissed by some, briefly enjoyed by others, and dissected and venerated by an exacting few. Such is the life cycle of most video games. 

And there’s the best answer we have: let these old games decide. Enhance them and remaster them and surround them with extras, but don’t be afraid to throw them on the mercy of new eyes without a hint of nostalgia. Let them be judged on their own merits. If they were ever good games in the first place, there’ll be some kind of audience for them. 

I have no doubt that modern reappearances of the Battle Mania/Trouble Shooter games, as much as I adore them, would meet with little success beyond the Sega Genesis faithful and fans of hyperdestructive ‘80s anime heroines, but I’d also hope that at least one person with no great overriding affection for the 16-bit era still would find them charming and memorable. 

That’s why it’s sometimes enough just to see an older game bundled in a collection, translated for new audience, emulated perfectly, or even rescued from the lost dimension of cancelled things. It has a chance, just as it would have had ten or twenty or thirty years ago, and even if great hordes of modern audiences fail to mass around it, don’t worry. Someone will care.

Journey Into Darkstalkers

I usually can tell immediately when I’ll like a game. It may take a little while to fully seep into place, but even then there's something that grabs my reptilian synapses right away: a striking title screen, a memorable piece of music, a first-stage appearance by a skeletal villain who calls himself the chief of governors. It's also rare for me to initially dislike a game and then come around to utterly adoring it. 

Well, I didn’t like Darkstalkers at first glance. It was the winter of 1994, and I was still very much enamored with a hyperviolent arcade fighting game called BloodStorm. That’s a strange tale in itself, but the short of it is that I really liked BloodStorm and couldn’t understand why it had disappeared from every arcade in Ohio. I held out hope during a Christmas visit to my grandparents in New Orleans, where the arcades were better supplied and surely would maintain a BloodStorm cabinet for me and the fifteen other fans it had across the nation.

They didn't, of course. The New Orleans arcades had a plethora of new and interesting sights, but BloodStorm was long gone. One of the games that had taken its place was Darkstalkers, Capcom’s head-to-head fighter starring various classic monsters culled from myths and movies (it started off as a Universal monsters pitch, in fact). Its fluid animation and ornate designs were amusing and impressively detailed beyond any game of the era.

I hated it. What was this weird new thing with a grotesque assortment of creatures? Who were these warped and cartoonish versions of boring old movie monsters? Where was the conventional and comprehensible gore of BloodStorm or Mortal Kombat II? And is that cat-woman naked? Can they actually show that?

Darkstalkers earned only one try from me. I picked the spindly fish-man Rikuo, made it a few matches in, and then walked away. I couldn’t wrap my head around the bizarre sights and the bright backgrounds and the animation that was somehow a hybrid of Disney-style smoothness and anime expressions. And though I was accustomed to just about every fighting game dressing its female characters in impractical attire, I wasn’t going to be seen playing something with a character like Felicia, who indeed wore nothing but suspiciously sparse fur. 

So I shunned Darkstalkers and sulked over to the new Killer Instinct machine. Its robots and ninja warriors and off-brand velociraptors presented far more comfortable characters, and the game’s sole human woman only briefly turned into a cat and faced away from the player when she pulled open her top for a finishing move. It was nice to see things back to normal. 

 

Yet things changed over the next year or so. I started reading GameFan Magazine, where Nick Rox and Takuhi and other writers would lionize the wonders of Capcom’s hand-drawn animation while pish-poshing the “plastic rendered deathfest” of Killer Instinct. Several 1996 issues had lavish spreads about the upcoming PlayStation version of Darkstalkers and the Saturn version of its semi-sequel, Night Warriors. I spent far too much time examining all the screenshots and artwork, picking out the details in the characters and their oddball attacks. 

 I was ready to give Darkstalkers another chance, and after getting a PlayStation later that year I lucked into a heavily discounted copy of Darkstalkers at a store-closing Babbage’s sale. I now had time to enjoy the game at home and soak in it all. 

And I loved it. Playing Darkstalkers outside of the arcade let me take everything: the colors, the animation, the background details from the swinging bar sign in London to the neon riot of the Las Vegas stage. Characters that I’d once written off as generic or silly now seemed remarkable. Jon Talbain wasn’t just a werewolf; he was a werewolf with nunchucks, a hilarious taunting pose, and a special move that sent him hurling like a fireball all over the screen. Morrigan wasn’t a mere standard-issue sexy vampire woman; she was a playful succubus with Elvira-like swagger. Sasquatch wasn’t just another bigfoot; he was an adorable goof from his giant teeth to his huffy frost breath. 

As for Felicia, I was still uptight enough to dismiss her as a shameless piece of pandering. Then I saw the win pose where she turns into a regular cat and emits a pitch-perfect meow. At this point I grew convinced that she was the greatest character in the history of all artistic expression and that any who denied this should be exiled to a habitable yet remote island until they were willing to recant such heresy.

 

Darkstalkers even made me want to be better at fighting games. Capcom’s entries in the genre had always seemed a little complex to me next to Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct, but with Darkstalkers I had an incentive to learn every move, as they always resulted in some entertaining new sight. It was worth struggling with a stiff PlayStation controller to see Bishamon slice his foe into halves like some Looney Tunes gag. 

All this grew from the less-than-perfect PlayStation port of Darkstalkers. It’s an impressive feat for what it is, but it has strange bouts of sluggishness and seems brutally hard. It took months for me to beat even the lowest difficulty setting. Yet it was a great introduction, and I was intrigued by the idea of a much better version. I can’t say that Night Warriors was my only reason for getting a Sega Saturn the next year, but it was the first game I picked up for the console. 

I never drifted away from Darkstalkers. I was there to import the Saturn version of Darkstalkers 3 and its RAM cart, there to buy Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower for the PSP a week before the actual system came out, and there to complain when the Darkstalkers collection for the PlayStation 2 never got translated and when no one bought Darkstalkers Resurrection years later. 

The lesson? Don’t give up on something after a rough first impression. Especially not if you’re a teenager who likes BloodStorm—or even an adult who still likes it.

Video Game Rental Stickers Tour: Part 2

I discussed my fascination with rental stickers a while ago, and I haven’t let go of it. As physical media grows scarcer and the last remaining rental stores vanish, it’s fun to look back on a lost era of game cartridges and discs that were covered in labels and warnings. So here’s another round of rental stickers found on eBay. And hey, you can buy them if you like! 

 

ART’S VIDEO CENTER’S KINGS OF THE BEACH 
Seller: Corey7521 
This one has it all: a shiny and professionally printed sticker slapped right on top of the game’s label, a less professional sticker with an inventory number, and then, on the back, a marker-written reminder that this is Property of Art’s Video until the end of time. It even refers to the game cartridge as a “tape,” because sufficient numbers of parents still called them “Nintendo tapes” circa 1990 and it would cost a store good money to print up new labels just for the game rentals.

Unfortunately, Art’s Video Center seems to be so long and so far gone that I can’t find any record of it online: no placeholder Yelp pages, no vague directory listings, no ancient archived news stories about the store’s grand opening. This auction and my article might be the only record of this rental outlet existing, so I’m glad to spotlight it here. And unlike other games I’m covering, Kings of the Beach is dirt cheap, just in case you want to own a piece of Art’s Video Center. 

 

AN UNKNOWN STORE'S PRINCESS TOMATO IN THE SALAD KINGDOM 
Seller: awfulwaffles76
Some rental stores used generic cases for their video games, but this Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom has a less common white housing that I particularly like. Why? Because it makes Princess Tomato look like a kids’ movie in one of those cushioned, oversized white VHS containers. 

You can see it, right? A Princess Tomato cartoon, perhaps rendered in authentic Claymation or a reasonable facsimile, sitting right there next to the Disney films and Don Bluth movies and the censored, disguised anime imports in the children’s section of the video store? Perhaps some employee actually misfiled Princess Tomato there once or twice, either disappointing some poor kid who didn’t have an NES or delighting some fortunate kid who got a game rental for the price of a regular VHS checkout. 

Of course, Princess Tomato is not an animated film. It’s a cute adventure game where you explore a world of talking vegetables and where a sidekick persimmon throws out your items without asking. Like most cult-favorite NES games, it’s now very expensive. Still, if I was paying for a copy of Princess Tomato, I’d want the white Disney box with it.  

 

Unlimited Continues and Limited Enjoyment

Cotton Fantasy arrived this month. It’s a cute, colorful, charming little shooter in all respects, and I said as much in my full review. It has a creative power-up system, clever stage design, and a great variety of playable characters. There isn’t anything really wrong with the game apart from one glaring, grating, unfortunate design choice: it gives you unlimited, on-the-spot continues. 

Upon losing all of their lives or energy, players are given the chance to continue. Some shooters boot the player back to the beginning of a level or an earlier point in that stage.. But Cotton Fantasy lets players pick things right back up at the exact point where they perished, and the only penalty is the score resetting to zero. 

 

This isn’t uncommon in shooters. It’s a feature born from arcade games, where continuing requires the player to stuff another credit in the cabinet. In that light, getting to carry on the game with no pushback or punishment seems fair—a lot of shooters or side-scrollers even dole out power-ups to reward the player’s money.  

It’s not as welcome a feature in a game developed for a home system, or an arcade game ported there. You’ve paid your money up front, and now it falls to the game to challenge you. That doesn’t happen when you can continue on the spot as much as you like.  

Unlimited continues rarely provoke any criticism from the devoted contingent of 2-D shooter fans who play their favored genre for high scores and the accomplishment of beating a game on a single credit. They’ll argue that shooters are meant to be one-credited and played for score, though if this were true the game shouldn’t let you continue at all.  

Some developers work around this. Treasure’s home versions of Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga instituted a clever rule: players got a few continues to start, and each hour of time spent with the game granted another continue. And it worked. By the time you’d played enough to unlock free-play mode or rack up enough credits, you had also played enough to learn the patterns, master the weapons, and hone your reflexes well enough that you could make it to the last boss and its “BE PRAYING” admonitions anyway. It’s a shame that more shooters don’t apply that structure. 

Were shooters always like this? No. A glance across the libraries of the Super NES, Sega Genesis, and TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine reveals a wealth of shooters and action games, both original creations and those titles based on arcade games. And I have trouble finding a single one, from Axelay to Insector X to Spriggan to Zero Wing, that allows the player the crutch of unlimited, penalty-free continues right off the bat.  

When did this change? I’m not entirely sure, but I remember the problem coming to light when Strider 2 arrived on the PlayStation in the summer of 2000. GameFan, by then well into its second generation and billing itself as The Last True Enthusiast Magazine, ran a fawning review of the game, half of which was spent complaining about the Internet and sales figures instead of actually discussing the game in question. A month later, Electronic Gaming Monthly reviewed Strider 2 in somewhat positive tones but knocked it for giving the player unlimited, on-the-spot continues that, in their view “destroy this game for a wider audience.” 

Arcade of My Youth: Cap'n Bogey's Golf & Games

A woman knocked on our door one summer evening in 1992. She was circulating a petition against the planned construction of a huge arcade and mini-golf course that would be built not far from our neighborhood. As a Concerned Citizen, she felt that it would lower property values and promote delinquency in the delicate suburban environs of Beavercreek, Ohio. 

I feel bad for that woman. Not only did my father, a man so cautious he balked at giving his credit card to Blockbuster, decline to put his name on the petition, but her visit guaranteed that arcade one more customer: I couldn’t wait to visit Cap’N Bogey’s Golf & Games. 

 

Cap’n Bogey’s was close enough to our neighborhood to worry overprotective homeowners, and that meant it was within easy walking distance. Every weekend I’d hike there, usually early enough to avoid major crowds, and spend far too much time lost in a maze of arcade cabinets. My sister would tag along, but I’d make her walk a good distance behind me. Because you needed to look as cool as possible when you arrived at Cap’n Bogey’s.  

There were many arcades in the Dayton suburbs, but compared to the typical nook in a mall or the back room at a pizza joint, Cap’n Bogey’s wasn’t just an arcade. It was a kingdom. The main building surrounded itself with a golf course, bumper-boats, and batting cages. Inside, the first floor was devoted to a snack bar and redemption games, with everything decorated in white, blue, and occasionally pink. I usually walked past such juvenile distractions and made straight for the upper level and the genuine arcade games.

This was the 1990s, and that put me right in the middle of the fighting-game craze. Street Fighter II had started it in 1991, Mortal Kombat had cemented it in 1992, and within a few years every arcade had a wealth of head-to-head fighters and the coin-op industry was bigger than it had been since the early 1980s.

Cap’n Bogey’s arcade was stocked with every genre, including four sit-down Dayton USA cabinets, two T-Mek machines wired for versus play, the elaborate foot-pedal setup of Time Crisis, and the glorious driving-shooting hybrid of Lucky & Wild. Yet it was the fighting games that drew me. The gaming magazines of the day couldn’t stop hyping up the latest Street Fighter or Darkstalkers or Samurai Shodown or Virtua Fighter, and the first place to see them was the arcade. This was well before consoles were on par with arcade hardware, and unless your parents bought you a $600 Neo Geo home system, the arcade versions were always just a little bit better.

Some of these games would vanish within a month, but the big names stayed and took me through the heights of an arcade renaissance and its whimper of an ending.

KILLER INSTINCT
Is Killer Instinct the best fighting game of the 1990s? Hardly, but I think it’s the best example of a 1990s fighting game. Rare and Nintendo fashioned it with CG-rendered visuals that looked impressive in early 1995 but awkwardly plastic by that September. The game boasted every possible stereotype in its lineup: a Predator-like robot, a mystically powered ninja, a boxer, a velociraptor, a low-detail ice alien, an equally low-detail fire mutant, and, of course, a female character whose signature finishing move involved pulling open her top to give her opponent a heart attack. I'd say that the 1990s were a different time, but in this case I'm not sure that applies.

I actually learned to play fighting games on Killer Instinct. I’d enjoyed Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, but I was never particularly good at them, rarely pulling off a special move more complicated than jamming a button really fast. Killer Instinct was approachable enough that I could pull off the special moves and even trigger the extended combo attacks that made the game’s announcer yell BLASTER or AWESOME. And when I went back to playing Street Fighter Alpha or The King of Fighters ’95, I actually understood what was happening.

There’s a better reason I remember Killer Instinct well. One Saturday, local radio station Z-93 set up a contest with a Super NES and the newly released port of Killer Instinct. The previously selected participants didn’t show, so the station held a quick lottery and drew names of five random arcade patrons. I threw my name in and, thanks to the relatively light crowd, I got picked.

The contest wasn’t an actual tournament. Instead of facing each other, the five of us just played solo, using the ninja Jago, to see who could rack up the highest score in a single match. This was clearly planned by someone who still thought that video games were in the score-driven heyday of Pac-Man and Space Invaders, even though an actual fighter like Killer Instinct was all about beating an opponent and showing off an ULTRA combo.

And I won. I managed to perform a bunch of combos and Jago’s finishing move, which put me well ahead of the other participants. I got a nearly new Super NES and made a brief appearance on the radio. To this date it remains the nicest thing I’ve won in a contest, eclipsing the cake I got at a county fair when I was five and even the used DVD of Steel Angel Kurumi Encore that I received in a trivia challenge at Anime Central.

In retrospect, spending all my time in the upper-level arcade of Cap’n Bogey’s wasn’t as practical as visiting the lower-level, where at the very least I could have played skee-ball, earned tickets, and exchanged them for prizes. Yet that day I walked out with a game system and the assurance that, for once, no one could tell me that I’d wasted my time at an arcade. 

Valkyrie Elysium: The First Profile

Gosh, I really wish someone would make another Valkyrie Profile game. It's been over a year since Valkyrie Anatomia shut down, and that was a mobile game with all the expected baggage. It's gotten to the point where I'll latch on to any unrelated name with Valkyrie in the title, like Square Enix's newly announced Valkyrie Elysium.

Oh wait. Elysium actually IS a new Valkyrie Profile. It has the signature series silhouette in its logo, after all.

Yet the game's initial trailer doesn't show much immediate connection with earlier Valkyrie Profiles. We're told that Odin has summoned a valkyrie to ferret out the reasons for the apparent ruin of the worlds both below and above. And as Valkyries are wont to do, she’ll roam the land and recruit the souls of brave and dead mortals to join her cause. 


It’s the same premise as the original Valkyrie Profile, but Elysium has an apparently new heroine and a new emphasis on combat. The first trailer shows off a 3-D action game in which the blonde heroine (who’s seemingly not Lenneth Valkyrie OR her sister Silmeria) leaps and slices and dashes around. Square Enix’s initial writeups promise that her einherjar recruits can join her in battle, though there’s only a flash or two of that in the trailer.

As many have critically observed, Valkyrie Elysium doesn’t look so great. The scenery is sparse well beyond an intentionally bleak landscape, and the battle system doesn’t show enough to set it apart from any other brawler where you might juggle enemies for mid-air combos. It resembles a routine mid-level action game from the PlayStation 2 or PlayStation 3 era.

And I'm looking forward to that. The rising budgets of the modern game industry eroded a lot of the middle ground over the past generation, bifurcating the market into indie creations and expensive triple-A blockbusters. In its primitive looks and apparently ambitious plot, Valkyrie Elysium hearkens back to an era where developers didn’t worry if their ideas were too big for their budgets—an era of Bujingai, Gungrave Overdose, Red Ninja, Spy Fiction, Nano Breaker, Folklore, and other 3-D action games with unique styles and compelling mechanics wrapped up loose and cheap, like a Christmas present from a younger sibling.


Developer Soleil Game Studios seems new and untested, but their catalog is awash in B-level action. Games like Wanted: Dead were once commonplace, and though they couldn't stand next to polished, lengthy, and balanced blockbusters, they could at least share a store shelf.

That’s why I’ll refrain from judging Valkyrie Elysium on appearances. It’s always the part of a game that interests me the least. I’m more intrigued by the prospect of Valkyrie Profile’s button-jabbing, combo friendly RPG battles morphing into a faster-pacer action game. I’m looking forward to seeing just what Elysium does with the whole concept of valkyries, a myth seldom explored fully by video games. If I were hung up on how nice a game looked or how smoothly it ran, I might have discarded Nier, Pandora’s Tower, Advance Guardian HeroesDrakengard 3, or perhaps even dear Gravity Rush. How disturbing.

 

Besides, Valkyrie Profile fans must admit that we weren't getting another game in any fancier packaging. Valkyrie Anatomia lasted four years but now seems largely forgotten. Covenant of the Plume, the DS strategy-RPG, earned far less of a following than it deserved. And even Valkyrie Profile 2, the last outing for consoles, didn’t catch on like the original. We're lucky to have a new Valkyrie game, opaque as it may be in referencing the original series. 

Of course, there are links to be found. You’ll see the field of weeping lilies that figures prominently into Valkyrie Profile motifs, and the official art and the last shots of the trailer show a halberd-wielding, raven-tressed armored figure who's a dead ringer for Hrist. She's the grouchiest of the three Valkyrie Profile sisters--and the only one who didn't get her own game.

The main illustration implies that she’s equal to the protagonist, though I'm afraid that 1980s cartoons like G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe, She-Ra, Beverly Hills Teens, Visionaries, and Lady Lovely Locks conditioned me to assume that all fictional dark-haired women are innately evil. I'm not sure if I'm kidding.

And what about the new valkyrie heroine? My nutty suspicion is that she's related to the amalgam Valkyrie we saw at the end of Valkyrie Profile 2, when Hrist, Lenneth, Silmeria, and human princess Alicia all combined into one warrior like little Norse toy robots. That likely won't bear out in the game, but I should get it out there just in case I'm right and Square Enix owes me a payoff to keep me from suing. I'm pretty sure that's how spoilers work.


I might never be able to fully hate anything that involves Valkyrie Profile, but I think there’s some valid anticipation here. Valkyrie Elysium looks like a potentially cool new take on a favorite series and the sort of mid-range action game I’d like to see more often. And hey, the music’s nice.


Bounty Arms: The Hermie Hopperhead Connection

So what's new with Bounty Arms? Nothing major, as you might expect when it comes to a PlayStation action game canceled back in 1995. However, I made a Twitter post about how Data West’s Bounty Arms is chief among my video-game white whales, edging out Mega Man Legends 3 and Ultimate Journey and even Super Dog Booby

 

It received a decent number of likes for a game that never got noticed much when it was viable and in development, and I'm grateful for all of the responses—even the one from somebody who wants to see Bounty Arms heroines Chris and Rei as muscular circus clowns. Sometimes the best way to keep an obscure video game alive is through equally obscure predilections.  

So it's a good time to discuss Bounty Arms. In the absence of real news, I'll just speculate about the connection between Bounty Arms and Yuke's.   

Yuke’s is best known these days for their extensive lineup of wrestling games, but they’ve tried all sorts of genres since Yukinori Taniguchi founded the company in 1993. Taniguchi figures tangentially into Bounty Arms’ history, as he worked on a number of Data West titles, including Rayxanber III and the LaserActive shooter Vajra.  

The first Yuke’s game unrelated to wrestling was an early Japan-exclusive PlayStation action-platformer called Hermie Hopperhead. While perhaps not a genre trailblazer in its depictions of a red-haired kid jumping on enemies and hatching allies from eggs, Hermie charmed GameFan founder Dave Halverson so thoroughly that he vowed to put it in every issue of his magazine until a publisher brought it to North America.   

This did not come to pass, but before giving up, GameFan ran an extensive interview with Taniguchi and Sony’s Tetsuji Yamamoto. They discuss a lot about the company’s history, and there’s one interesting detail for the Bounty Arms files.  

Yamamoto mentions that Taniguchi was working on “some boring project” before they developed Hermie Hopperhead. Might this refer to Bounty Arms?  

I doubt that for two reasons. One: the timeline doesn’t quite add up, as Taniguchi had founded Yuke’s and apparently stopped working with Data West in 1993, years before Bounty Arms was announced or canceled. Two: I refuse to believe that anyone would find Bounty Arms boring, even in jest.   

Yet there’s another connection. I’ve previously speculated about a former Data West staffer named Kenji Nakamura—and how he may be the same as Kazuhide Nakamura, who directed the first Vajra and designed or directed the three Rayxanbers. Even when sticking to separate credits, Nakamura directed Vajra 2, the last game Data West released before starting up Bounty Arms, and I suspect his departure was either a result of or the reason for Data West canceling it.   After leaving Data West, Nakamura joined Yuke’s. And what was his first game contribution there? 

 

Yep. Nakamura was a designer on Hermie Hopperhead. And that brings more speculation from me. Did he leave Data West to work on a new game at Yuke’s? Was he lured away by the opportunity to make a side-scroller about a street-savvy tentacle-haired boy and his battle against garbage enemies? Did Hermie Hopperhead kill Bounty Arms?  

Probably not, but it’s still interesting to play Hermie Hopperhead and other Yuke’s games that involved Nakamura, looking for any common ground or residual influences of Bounty Arms. I’m particularly curious about EOE: Eve of Extinction, a PlayStation action game with Nakamura as scenario creator and lead designer. It’s fallen into such obscurity that I can’t even remember if I ever played it, but I’m still driven to investigate for the sake of the Bounty Arms Preservation Society. And because the English version has a nice lineup of then-ubiquitous voice talent. Cam Clarke! Kim Mai Guest! Jennifer Hale!  

A few notes for those just learning about Bounty Arms: You can download the only known playable demo of the game here. And if you want to trick it into playing the entire first stage, check out these directions. And then you can devise nonsensical theories of your own!  

Little Things: Quarter Back Scramble

Lately I've grown interested in football games of the NES era, specifically those developed in Japan. At that point football (that'd be American football) hadn't proven nearly as popular in Japan as baseball or soccer or possibly even badminton, so I'm intrigued by what Japanese developers of the 1980s envisioned when crafting a sports game primarily for Americans.

Quarter Back Scramble: American Football Game is a great example. Aside from the capitalization of “Quarterback” in its delightfully blunt title, it's mostly on point in its gridiron depictions, and it was scheduled to come out here as Mike Ditka's Big Play Football. It's also the work of Natsume, and its graphics and soundtrack even recall the slick appearances and punchy sounds of action titles like Shadow of the Ninja and S.C.A.T. 

Yet Natsume made one very strange decision with Quarter Back Scramble, and you'll see it as soon as you press start. 

A woman in full Playboy bunny attire inexplicably poses next to the game's initial menu. She'd be right at home in a casino game of this era, but I have no idea what she's doing in a football title. There's a lot written about the sexist depictions of NFL cheerleaders, but I can find no record whatsoever of possible connections between Playboy costumes and football. Even the risque sights of the XFL cheer squads and the Lingerie Bowl were years away from Quarter Back Scramble's 1989 release.  

Natsume evidently wanted some sex appeal to accompany those staid gameplay options, but why not just show a cheerleader? Perhaps some confused programmer thought the rabbit-eared cocktail waitress regalia actually was the sort of thing football cheerleaders wore, but I doubt that, considering that a conventionally garbed cheerleader shows up in the game’s intro. Or perhaps Natsume just had leftover graphics from a canceled anthology of blackjack and poker games, and damned if they were going to waste them.

There are other amusing details in Quarter Back Scramble. I like the Pony Canyon logo in the middle of the field, as though the music publisher (and purveyor of many a crappy Famicom game) bought an entire football stadium. And like many sports games without official team licenses, Quarter Back Scramble had to make up its roster. You’ll pick from the Denver Miles, the Los Angeles Arks, the Chicago Forces, the San Francisco 50s, the New York Subways, and, my personal favorite, the Washington DC Hogs. With the real-world Washington team just about to announce a new name, I can only hope they’ll dig deep and reference a 1989 video game. 

I also appreciate Natsume’s rendition of the referee. Instead of a detached face or a stiff single image, he’s a squat little goblin in the super-deformed tradition of many an anime gag. And his expression relays that he’s not about to tolerate any guff from the more evenly proportioned football players.  

And then we have the game’s curtailed journey overseas. Accolade planned to release it on the NES as Mike Dikta’s Big Play Football but quietly canceled it. Footage of the American version shows only a few changes: the teams now have their official names, and the NFL logo replaces the Pony Canyon motif in the stadium—as well as the bunny-girl on the menu screen.  

However, Hidden Palace and the Video Game History Foundation recently released a prototype of the American version before Ditka and the NFL license were attached. It’s almost identical to the Japanese release, complete with rabbit-eared women inviting fans to Pony Canyon Stadium to watch the Denver Miles play the Washington Hogs. Accuracy aside, that would’ve been much more memorable for American NES owners than just another realistic football game.