Backlog: In the City Edition

941140_10100876896419456_725765878_n Since it's the Golden Week holiday in Japan, it's allowed our two Japan-based correspondents -- Doug and Tyler -- to re-unite for a brief vacation. Your man in the Japanese countryside has come up to the bright lights for a week of wandering around the city, failing to get into tourist spots, running into friends and enjoying all the amenities of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. It's been fun, and has led to some gaming stuff you'll hear about in the next couple weeks. And it's appropriate that what I've been playing is incredibly Japanese in design and execution, too.

As for the rest of the crew, Nick has learned a very hard lesson about bugs, Tyler is diving into a new-school nostalgia trip, and Spencer is enjoying a game or two of cards. And without further ado, onto the Backlog itself.



Nothing says intrigue like a sketchy fellow in a poncho and gas mask

This week’s Backlog is a cautionary tale for any Japanese visual novel enthusiasts who save their games consistently.

So just me.

After all my hemming and hawing, I finally dug into Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward this past weekend. You might remember that my absolute favorite game I played last year was 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, the predecessor to Virtue’s Last Reward. I was excited to get into it, sure, but I think I wanted to give myself ample time to let the first game’s mind-bending plot sink in a bit. So a few months passed, and eventually I felt like I was ready for the next chapter.

For the fifteen hours I played it, Virtue’s Last Reward proved to be an apt sequel. Everything I was hoping for — the outlandish characters, the challenging puzzles, the crazy-go-nuts plot — was present and accounted for. And the voice acting and a more forgiving approach to navigating the branching narrative are welcome additions to the formula. Everything was going great.

But remember, this is a cautionary tale.

As it turns out, there’s a bug in VLR that I hadn’t heard about — and it’s a bad one. If you save your game while solving two of the game’s puzzle rooms, “PEC” and “Crew’s Quarters,” your save will become corrupted and you’ll have to start from scratch.

I’m feeling pretty burned right now. The developer still hasn’t found a way to fix the problem, but I have to wonder if that’s more on the original developers, the localizers or Nintendo itself. It seems like there’s no way to push a patch out to a game for Nintendo 3DS — at least, not a cartridge-based game. How is that still acceptable in 2013?

I don’t know if I’ll be going back to VLR anytime soon. I loved what I saw, but the thought of tapping through the same 15 hours of dialog again sounds awful.


You had me at "imitation Mode 7 sprite scaling"

Nostalgia is a funny thing, especially when it comes to games. Most other media isn't dependent on technological hardware the way games are. Sure, I can't play my old VHS casettes on my Blu-ray player, but Back to the Future is largely unchanged regardless of format, especially when compared to the original cut that debuted in theaters. However, I can't dig up my fifteen year old copy of Link's Awakening DX and plug it into my 3DS, nor do I really want to. Most consumers don't actually want to play games as they literally were, or at least they don't know that's not what they want. No, what they want is a simulacrum: they want to play the game they remember playing, not the game they actually played.

This is why high-definition remakes or remasters are so popular this generation — well, that and it's a much cheaper investment for a publisher than a new game. Playing even a previous-generation title on current hardware is a chore and uneasy on the eyes. Games as a medium have changed greatly in design over the past decade. Consumers now have the benefit or more standardized controls, ability to load titles from hard drives, easier and faster internet connectivity, social features such as achievements and trophies, and, of course, better visual fidelity. I have bought numerous HD collections over the past few years and none of them are games I didn't originally own on PlayStation 2. I know that even if I dug out those original DVDs and played them, they would look atrocious and suffer from awful frame-rates and loading times. I don't mind paying for the games again because when done well, these collections don't ever force me to take off the rose-colored glasses.

HD re-releases are not the only contenders for nostalgic consumer dollars, however. Nintendo's Virtual Console and Sony's PS1/2 Classics are more faithful products (usually just dumps of old code with a built-in emulator for new hardware) but they still come with certain modern conveniences like save states, possible remapping of controls and faster load times.

What's most interesting is not old content but brand-new titles done in familiar styles. People like me who grew up playing games often yearn to play new ones that are like the ones we remember but still manage surprise us and introduce us to new ideas. Released on the PlayStation Network this week was Dragon Fantasy Book I by independent developer The Muteki Corporation. If the title sounds familiar, that's quite deliberate — it's an amalgam of the two most popular Japanese role-playing titles of the NES/SNES era, Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior) and Final Fantasy. But here's where things get more complicated: the game is a 16-bit remake of an 8-bit homage on iOS (more simply titled Dragon Fantasy on the iTunes App Store) similar to the Dragon Quest I-III titles from the Nintendo Famicom that were later remade for the Super Famicom.

Dragon Fantasy retains some of the headaches of JRPGs of the era — obtuse instructions, frequent random battles, necessary level and gold grinding — but it introduces some modern benefits such as stronger writing and the ability to save anywhere. What this marriage of tropes both new and old results in is an enjoyable new title that harkens back to experiences I grew up playing. Dragon Fantasy is also far less self-serious than the titles of old, making it a lighter and much more humorous affair.

Nostalgia can be an easy emotion to cash-in on for a producer. Done poorly, the resulting product will feel cheap and manipulative and can even tarnish positive memories. Done well, however, it enables players to reminisce without the flaws they'd potentially long forgotten. It allows us to reexperience the past without reminding us why certain styles were left in the past.


If you can name any of the wrestlers in this image, then you probably already have Fire Pro Wrestling Returns

My gaming time has been scarce this week, but for the first time in a long time, I was geeked out and eagerly anticipating a PlayStation 2 game coming to PlayStation Network. Yep -- when I heard that Fire Pro Wrestling Returns was coming out this week, my ears perked up like I was some kind of cartoon character.

Let me explain. I’ve talked before about my secret, shameful love of pro wrestling (which may require a longer, dedicated article in the near future), and while the THQ WWE games are okay and quite fun, Fire Pro is held in reverence. Created by Japanese developers Human Entertainment and (since 2000) Spike, the Fire Pro series began on the PC Engine in 1989 and became popular in the 16-bit era, continuing up through Returns’ 2007 release. (There was a recent Xbox Live Arcade game branded Fire Pro, but it’s a pale imitation of the original and features Xbox Live avatars. Avoid.)

So it’s an old Japanese wrestling game. Cool. The biggest hallmark of the series is its tricky, timing-based gameplay. Even with stripped-down controls that would still work on a SNES controller it's an incredibly deep game. It's in many ways a Japanese "strong style" puro-resu simulator, but seeing as that lends itself well to video games, that's hardly a bad thing. Partnering with the tight controls, from the first days of the franchise, the classic Fire Pro games have always been overhead, isometric sprite-based games. Thanks to PS2 horsepower Returns is a very good-looking sprite-based game, and that also helps backstop one of the key selling points for the series: customization.

See, Fire Pro is a lot like one of my other favorite Japanese series, Pro Evolution Soccer/Winning Eleven. Returns has zero licensed wrestlers or federations, but about 300 base characters who look and have moves just like many famous international grapplers -- and slots for about 500 or so more. Of course it helps that the game has an incredibly in-depth editing system (being sprite-based aids in this). This was a game in its original incarnation that inspired fans to buy PC adaptors, find software to manage PS2 saves on their computers, and swap saves on web forums. Well, thanks to the PS3's ability to import saves in a straightforward manner from USB thumb drives, finding a save chock full of perfectly edited wrestlers is easy as pie.

What's the end result of all this? Fantastic wrestling. Control, drama, and quite possibly the best wrestling simulator available today. It's a classic example of a "easy to pick up, hard to master, impossible to put down" kind of game, and I'm probably going to break it out at parties going forward. It's a great game. And for the record, I can identify two of the wrestlers in the above picture -- Keiji Mutoh and the late great Mitsuhara Misawa. If anyone knows the other two, feel free to comment.


Time to kick back for poker night with the bros.

Being busy with a number of things, my game time has suffered. Here’s what I’ve managed to wedge into the cracks.

I haven’t had the time to try out Monaco, because Poker Night 2 launched almost in parallel with the long-awaited indie title. Here’s the thing about me and Telltale’s electronic poker series: the voice acting is great (if occasionally repetitive), the selection of characters is expert, and for as many times as I would drop five bucks to see a bunch of video game and cartoon favorites playing high stakes Texas hold’em, I have to own up to one simple fact.

I’m lousy at poker. Seriously, severely lousy.

There’s a number of reasons for this. I’m naturally impatient, so I can’t stand waiting and folding. I’m dangerously curious, so I’ll pay any amount to see new cards. Most of all, my familiarity is with cribbage, so I play good cribbage hands without thinking - and then lose my chips as a result.

The core mechanics of the game, as you can see, aren’t my cup of tea. Despite this, Poker Night 2 was five bucks well spent - even if I may not return to the game once I finish getting my Team Fortress 2 and Borderlands item unlocks.

I’m playing some Hawken again. Add me on there, my tag is Oz_K.

Last Saturday I went to the pre-release event for the new Magic: The Gathering set, Dragon’s Maze. It's a somewhat guilty pleasure, on account of the perceptions of the community (especially its vocal members), but everyone I've encountered here in Seattle has been very laid-back and open-minded. The game itself has evolved quite a lot from when I was playing it in seventh and eighth grade, but the flavor and mechanics have only improved with age. At this rate, I'll be planeswalking 'til I die.