SCROLL

THE ARCHIVE 2011-2015

Filtering by Tag: namco

Ridge Racer's Hairpin Curve

In the past week or so I've been playing Ridge Racer Unbounded, a game I've been interested in for the better part of the year. When it was first revealed, It was shockingly amusing to see almost no one share my measured interest, and instead spew a lot of angry kneejerk responses -- mainly just repeating "fuck Namco" -- as if the company had made some bold proclamation that they wouldn't make any more Ridge Racer games except this one. I wrote about this episode in SCROLL 02's end-of-issue editorial to frame a larger point about pre-entitled people getting their panties in a twist over a game they just found out about and won't get to play for at least a year. But now it's almost a year later, Unbounded is finally out, and the reviews from critics and impressions from folks online are largely positive, or at best, not very mean.

ridge-racer-unbounded-screens-THUMB.jpg

I'll admit that the initial anger towards Unbounded was, to a degree, understandable. Word of it came just a little while after Capcom announced their Devil May Cry reboot, which went with a different kind of hero and a general tonal shift that didn't meet anyone's expectation. The pervading view was (and, er, still is) that Japanese giants are scrambling to keep up with the West by tossing their beloved franchises to Americans and Europeans who hang a little too long onto the word "reimagining." And so the collective gamer mood swings continue every quarter, all based on childish fears that someone new will come into their club and squeeze them out. Yet for every blatant molestation of a dormant series, there's a perfectly respectful treatment that everyone can agree on.

For me, Unbounded sits somewhere in between. Besides some music tracks borrowed from older Ridge Racer games, Unbounded is not a Ridge Racer game in the least. But even to an understanding guy like me, it's still kind of uncomfortable. The graphics are bleak, the cars are generic, the shoehorned "story" is never heard of past the intro movie, and the physics feel too realistic, focused on a drift button that immediately gets you swingin' along the road. Even if you nail that mechanic, the game's challenges are needlessly difficult from the get-go, almost devoid of the curve Ridge Racer games usually have, with cutthroat AI opponents that can toss you off the track even before lap one gets started. A course editor is a welcome addition, but when the developer-made courses are obviously cut from the same cloth, with the same road shapes dressed with the same patterns of buildings, the main campaign loses a bit of its appeal. Compared to its immediate competition -- Burnout, Split/Second -- it's just average. So why worry?

But is it actually fair to compare Unbounded to the rest of Ridge Racer? Given that it's obviously supposed to be something else, does that mean it automatically fails at being the original something just because it has its name on it? I don't think so.

Slow and steady

Ridge Racer fans get a lot of guff, usually indirectly, in reviews of recent sequels that call the games samey, too traditional, and other well-worn platitudes. And like other "threatened" fans of things, they have a standard set of defenses, and one of the main ones is the claim that RR games are just simple and proud arcade racers like always, and that the games themselves have always been just fine. I agree with that, but that's because I love arcade racers, so of course I'm going to recognize and deal with sameyness, because I still want the fun that I know I can rely on.

ridge-racer-ps-vita-gameplay-1.jpg

But I'm also starkly aware that Ridge Racer games have not been putting butts in seats. Since the PlayStation 2, they've only come once a generation, right at the beginning, and then never on the same system again (except Ridge Racers 2 on PSP). At the PS2 launch in Japan, Ridge Racer V was pretty much the best game you could get (and Tekken Tag), because the rest of the lineup was unanimously decided to be crap. With the Western PS2 launch, that wasn't so much the case, because then you had SSX, Madden, and several more worth caring about. It was even less the case when the PSP arrived: most people talked up Lumines, Wipeout and Metal Gear Acid. And now even less so with the PS Vita, where people are drawn in by Uncharted, Wipeout (again), Lumines (again), Rayman, Marvel, and the 20-or-so other launch games. And it's extra precarious, too, because the newest Ridge Racer has been widely panned for having no real single-player modes, not running at 60 fps, and relying on paid add-ons to pad out what's otherwise a husk of a game. That may be expected and even work with Ridge Racer Accelerated on iOS, but could Namco not foresee RR Vita averaging two out of five stars on the PlayStation Store user ratings?

Nevertheless, when "fans" voice their opinion about Unbounded -- and I put that word in quotes only because I can't prove exactly how loyal everyone's been to the series over the years -- the underlying question is, why put the words "Ridge Racer" on it in the first place? The answer doesn't really require a communications degree. Ridge Racer, despite a glacial slide into irrelevancy, is still a brand a lot of gamers recognize. If you like racing games and were big into the PS1, this is a given, and you don't need to play any new ones to remember the name. This is what Namco banks on, and they still make Ridge Racer games, so it makes business sense.

And if they wanted to sign on Bugbear to make a racing game, what reasonable choice did they have but to include the brand of their only active racing franchise? Frankly, this isn't 2004, when everybody was trying to make their own Gran Turismo. Capcom and Konami had theirs, but Namco had the most, and kept throwing in racing games with wild abandon. Ridge Racer! MotoGP! Alpine Racer! Street Racing Syndicate! Not to mention R: Racing Evolution, a sort-of-not-really Ridge Racer spin-off that tried to be more like a sim, but ended up so thorougly boring that it evolved itself into the bargain bin. And that was the one they really tried to push -- ports on every console, ads all over the place, and almost no payoff. 

Since then, the playing field has leveled out, and that's just made it even harder to get a foot in. Racing games, at least on this side of the world, are a two-course meal at this point: You play either Gran Turismo or Forza, and those wanting something less realistic are playing Need for Speed, or more often than not, Real Racing HD. With an ever-dimming spotlight for racers that aren't simulations or at least have real cars in them, if you were a Namco executive, you'd probably start looking for workable options elsewhere, too.

Basically, Ridge Racer is the Dynasty Warriors of racing games. They're both around for system launches, their sequels rarely have any sweeping changes, and they both have a marginalized sect of loyal fans that grumble amongst themselves when a big website predictably gives new installments a bad review. But they're both still around, with no clear end in sight. I don't see Unbounded changing that whether it succeeds or fails, especially when Ridge Racer's lack of change has only made it more unique. The hyper-stylish cars plastered with names of Xevious enemies, the gorgeous track designs, and the insanely unrealistic drifting are what's remembered most, not another game where you break stuff. You should probably get used to paying $5 for new cars, though.

Shifty Supercade

xev000.png

You might remember the beginning of Valiant Comics, when their first big titles were under the "Nintendo Comics System;" officially-licensed comic books featuring Super Mario, Captain N, The Legend of Zelda, and a few others. It was potentially a great opportunity to get original stories from games that deserved them, but the comics were essentially extensions of the TV cartoons -- obviously Captain N, but even Mario and Zelda took more elements from the shows than the games. That said, they were all better than you'd expect, with the Mario stories in particular being genuinely funny, sometimes even deadpan. Their four books continued apace for just one year, when Nintendo parted ways, and Valiant continued on with their original superhero titles. Meanwhile, Archie scored Sonic the Hedgehog, which is the longest-running video game comic in the Western world.

I bring this all up to frame a recent development in game comics that had me thinking of Valiant: ShiftyLook, a comics site/imprint/thingy owned by Namco Bandai, but with the comics themselves done by contributors from Udon and Cryptozoic Entertainment. ShiftyLook's current lineup re-imagines three old Namco games (and one new one) as twice-weekly webcomics. And these really aren't Namco games that the average comics reader or gamer would remember. You'd have to be some retro game nerd who makes his own magazine to recognize or give a damn about Xevious, Bravoman and Sky Kid comics in this day and age. Given that, I was interested in what ShiftyLook was doing, and started reading what they have so far and thought I'd share some impressions. (Note that I base all this on the first month of strips, so whatever I describe may change one way or the other as months go on. Maybe I'll revisit them here in the future.)

One of Cryptozoic's strips is Xevious, which is pretty much my favorite Namco franchise, so I was drawn to this comic first. The setup is familiar: aliens are attacking Earth, starting with Peru (so far the only reference to the Nazca Lines in the game), but everything else about the story seems to take a sharp left turn. The hero is Oscar, nickname "Mu," a young guy from Argentina who joined the national air force to fight the Xevious (why not "Xevians?" They're aliens from the planet Xevious!). And apparently the Argentinian air force are the ones who fly the Solvalou ships.

xevious001.png

The first strip has a tongue-in-cheek air about it, or maybe that's just the utterly strange dialogue coming from Oscar. Regardless, that doesn't seem to be the actual intent once you keep reading. Oscar left his almost-fiance Eve to join the battle, but then discovers she joined up right after. How did he just now find out? Was she drafted really quickly? There isn't enough time and not enough panels to find out, because the next skirmishes are just around the corner. Despite some liberties in the characters and setting that make this comic look and sound like G.I. Joe plus emotions, it seems to be progressing towards something closer to the actual Xevious backstory, as Mu and Eve are both figures in the original "mythology" -- methinks I'm not the only one who's read the HG101 article.

Sky Kid is one of the Udon strips, and is ostensibly the most faithful to the game, with its world of anthropomorphic birds in endless dogfighting combat. Humorously, the comic is tonally similar to Xevious, opening with serious introspection and touching flashbacks, and me once again not knowing exactly if I should be taking this seriously or not. 

skykid.png

Bravoman might be the "webcomic-est" of the whole lineup: it's kiddish and features jokey two-character dialogues with distressing regularity. It sits in between Sky Kid and Xevious in terms of faithfulness: Bravoman and the Alpha Man and Dr. Bomb and most everyone else in the game are here, but it doesn't follow anything else about it. What started out normally is now mostly just character introductions to familiarize people with Bravoman again. The comic feels like it's just playing with a toy box of characters, and that's probably because the writer had never heard of Bravoman before. My question is, will Pistol Daimyo show up? How about the talking telephone box? I mean, really, you guys should've given me a call.

bravoman.png

Alien Confidential is the other Cryptozoic strip, and is based on a Namco game that isn't even out yet -- an iOS game with a more serious look than the comics -- so I don't really have much to say about it. Essentially it's a slightly goofier version of Alien Nation with a little bit of Men in Black, told through flashbacks of a former alien-busting agent. It is the fastest-moving one of the lineup so far, though, with the flashbacks being mini-arcs of only a few parts each. They just don't seem to be tied together, though that could be the point.

alien.png

Artistically, there's nothing wrong with these comics: they're done by professionals who clearly know a thing or two about ink 'n' color (iffy dialogue aside, I like Xevious and its slight watercolor look the best), and are written with relative creative freedom -- all good starting terms for a tie-in. Is that freedom bad, though? I'm not entirely sure yet. Valiant's Nintendo comics were based on the cartoons more than the games, and when they had to get creative, it mostly worked out. And years before that, game comics had to get extra, uh, interpretive because the games had practically nothing to work from (that link is Galaxian, by the way). If ShiftyLook's comics simply run long enough to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, that's fine. Rather, I think the immediate issue I have is with the concept of serialized, serious, short-form comics. Soapy superhero arcs are bad enough in the trades, but to have them portioned out daily in syndication is maddening, because more often than not you have days where absolutely nothing happens, or a tiny something happens and ends with a pregnant pause, and you have to wait at least 24 hours for the next one (48, in this case). Furthermore, not everything has to be serialized: Bravoman looks like it's meant to be a regular gag-a-day strip, but then it keeps introducing characters. And introducing, and introducing... It doesn't have to be Garfield, but Garfield was ready to go by strip two.

Nevertheless, ShiftyLook stands out immediately because its comics are based on games that no one outside Japan would care about -- no better way to get attention from me, anyway -- and on the whole, that's kind of what's bad. While I can understand the creators wanting to introduce characters and slowly build up the story as weeks go on, they're still making comics about unappreciated games with stories where not enough happens on a regular basis. It's worth noting that the site launched alongside a few big Namco and Namco-related releases: Soul Calibur V, Tekken 3D, and Street Fighter X Tekken, any and all of which would have made perfectly fine serialized comics, and in Udon's case, would be right up their alley.

Plus, if the site doesn't have ads or any other way to make money, then just what are they trying to accomplish? This is Namco we're talking about here; a company routinely criticized by their "fans" for doing more harm than good by overdoing DLC and making questionable sequels and reboots. Where and how do free webcomics fit? Well, to paraphrase ShiftyLook pre-launch, they want to re-expose these franchises with the possibility to expand them into other media, be it animation or even new games. And as another promotional image read, "No character is too obscure. No franchise is too dead. No husk is too decrepit. They can all be revived. Your voice will be heard." OK, well, I challlenge them to make a Phozon comic.

Tall Tales

Did you happen to see the news last week about Charlotte Toci, the Bandai Namco Europe community manager (or "junior community manager," apparently) who wrote some posts on Facebook responding to a fan asking about the PS3 version of Tales of Vesperia, and if BN would still localize it and bring it out (Vesperia on PS3 has a new character and other stuff left out of the original Xbox 360 version)? Toci said no, and that it was because Microsoft paid for the game's 360 exclusivity outside Japan. The original post was actually from April, but didn't get wide attention until recently. Here's Exhibit A:

namcovesperia.jpg

Again, the original post was from April, but that's not the funny part; it's the fact that when it resurfaced on forums and the like, it floated for a week. A week! That's like a year in nerd rage reckoning. More than enough time to verbally crucify Toci, Bandai Namco, Microsoft, Sony, and whoever else the delightful Tales fanbase wanted to peg. Meanwhile, BN said nothing; Toci said nothing; nerds continued flogging. Why? Who really knows. Maybe nobody pinged BN (or enough); maybe most people just saw it as BS and let it blow over. After all, Vesperia PS3 is two years old, and the ship had likely sailed regardless of the method.

So it wasn't until a week after its resurfacing, when enough people had made a fuss of it, when Toci admitted she was not being totally authoratative, and apologized:

A few months ago I replied to a fan who asked me why Tales of Vesperia wasn’t localized in Europe on my Facebook page. I replied that it was because of a Microsoft exclusivity, thinking that that was the reason why, even though I didn’t have any official information on that.

I was wrong to do so, and sadly my reply was relayed on many websites, thus sharing a false information to fans around the web.

I would like to send my sincere apologies to all the Tales Series fans I have wrongly informed, and Microsoft & Namco Bandai for any damage that might have been caused with this.

As ridiculous as it is, I won't say Toci should be condemned or fired or never trusted again -- that's dumb, and it's not always the best way to get a point across. With any luck, her lesson has been learned, and she can continue her job. And it's not like her saying otherwise about Vesperia would completely reverse any hatred directed at Namco regarding Tales games anyway (yeah guys, keep calling them "Scamco," that's bound to get you what you want).

It is, however, a misfire when a company gets someone to be a friendly voice that more or less does speak for the company, then unexpectedly breaks off the leash, and everybody just stands there. So, the most troubling part of this to me isn't how long the misinformation was out there; rather, it's the thought process of someone at the front gates of a company in an industry they clearly don't have the right idea of. If Toci really believed that Namco was paid off to keep Vesperia on 360 outside Japan -- enough to say so confidently in a public venue without checking with anyone -- then I start to wonder what inspired that. What if it was predicated on the more ignorant views of the video game industry, where people ceaselessly presume the entire business is founded on one big unending cycle of bribes? Would you want that to be the voice of your company?

But I get that sometimes, for some companies, they're not looking for a "voice." For them, a community manager is tantamount to an intern with a salary; a peppy guy or gal who doesn't need years of industry experience but can still properly promote the products and draw people in. Meanwhile, the comparative "grown-ups" continue producing the games or handling the "real" PR. And even then, sometimes the company doesn't know what to do with them -- but hey, everyone else has a community manager, and we need a Facebook page and a Twitter account, so get on it.

I think that community staff, Junior or not, should be more than just contest-givers; they should be internal journalists of sorts. Of sorts -- ideally, they're hired to help humanize the company, to learn about it, and be as reasonable as possible to fans (or non-fans), and if a good question comes up that they don't know the real answer to -- like if Tales of Vesperia on PS3 is ever coming out -- they should be inspired, allowed and welcomed to send a query straight to the top and get the best possible answer, even if it's going to piss fans off. Again, that's my ideal, but if you have the wiggle room to hire more than one of them, how about exercising twice the potential? For what it's worth, Toci originally gave a nice, human response, which is respectable -- but imagine how much more respectable if it was truthful.

Then again, with this particular situation and subject matter, sometimes the biggest problem isn't on the inside...

talescrazy.png

Arcade Games That Time Forgot: Dancing Eyes

This article originally appeared on GamePro.com.

Arcade Games That Time Forgot is a feature about weird, brilliant, kooky, terrible, or just interesting arcade games. Why just arcade games? Because while arcades gave us plenty of amazing games that are now classic franchises, it wasn't unlike the PC market, where any ol' group of people could make and distribute them, and with that sort of freedom, crazy ideas had a better chance of making it through. And for better or worse, quite a few did.

Dancing Eyes (Namco, 1996)

Gratuitous titillation seems to be the M.O. of the Japanese game industry these days, at least if you go by the stereotypes. But there's a touch of truth to it, as the number of ways you can ogle cartoon girls in games is larger than ever. But when it came to out-and-out pandering, Namco was ahead of the pack. In 1996, using their expertise in 3D polygonal graphics, they produced the arcade action game Dancing Eyes (no relation to the Gary Stewart song... probably).

Namco recently announced a remake of Dancing Eyes, which is, so far, a Japan-only game for the PS3. But there's perhaps no better time for it to appear, given what I said at the start. In it, you control a cute little monkey, running along a grid that's laid over some surface that needs to be broken away, be it a schoolgirl's uniform, a magician's box, or a tree stump with mischievous twins inside.

Most of the time, though, it's going to be women whom you must disrobe by clearing the panels on the grid. You do this by holding the action button to set down a peg, then run along the grid trying to complete a whole shape while avoiding the enemies honing in on you. You don't have to connect the ends -- as long as you complete a whole shape, you can watch it get cleared away. Your "reward" for beating the stage is to (typically) watch the model prance around in her skivvies or otherwise play around with the "set" she's on.

On the surface, Dancing Eyes is not original -- plenty of other girlie arcade games, like the Gals Panic series, employed a variation of Qix's gameplay to get the player to slowly reveal a picture of a scantily-clad woman. But Dancing Eyes was the only such game to use real-time polygons, and Namco used that to their advantage by letting you walk all around the model as you cleared the grid. And in some cases, you can see the girls "breathing" as they patiently stand there waiting for their clothes to be destroyed. Yeah, well... that's worth a multi-page psychology paper right there, but nonetheless, it was one of the game's unique selling points. In the context of 1996, the game also looks amazing. It makes you wonder what kind of HD embarrassment the remake will bring!

Despite the groan-worthy sexism going on, Dancing Eyes doesn't really take itself seriously. As soon as the third stage, the game starts taking an absurd turn as it introduces cows and aliens. It shows that if you take out the suggestive material, you can still have a fairly fun game on your hands. Of course, it wouldn't have nearly the same appeal, would it? And it wouldn't be getting so much attention, both back then and now with the announcement of the remake. And as a matter of fact, there's plenty of eye candy for everybody...

See? It's inclusive, and totally realistic, to boot!

Arcade Games That Time Forgot: Mirai Ninja

This article originally appeared on GamePro.com.

Arcade Games That Time Forgot is a feature about weird, brilliant, kooky, terrible, or just interesting arcade games. Why just arcade games? Because while arcades gave us plenty of amazing games that are now classic franchises, it wasn't unlike the PC market, where any ol' group of people could make and distribute them, and with that sort of freedom, crazy ideas had a better chance of making it through. And for better or worse, quite a few did.

Mirai Ninja (Namco, 1988)

I kind of like Mirai Ninja (lit. "Future Ninja"). The thing is, there isn't a ton about it that's actually likeable. On the surface, it's basically Namco's take on Taito's The Legend of Kage: You got your ninja guy, he moves real fast, he jumps real high, and the game has really spacious levels. But this one is set in the future, after all, so it's automatically more badass. It makes ancient history look like ancient history! And in every respect, the game is so unabashedly '80s it's hard to hate. For starters, the music is fitting with the theme, and could have easily been from your favorite sci-fi anime. That's thanks to Namco's master maestro Shinji Hosoe, who did the music for almost every late '80s-early '90s Namco game you can think of, and is still kicking around the industry.

I mentioned anime, but the funny thing about Mirai Ninja is that it's a movie game. Namco wasn't known for their movie games back then, but this is different because Namco actually had a stake in producing the live-action film of the same name. It was released in the US as "Cyber Ninja" (the game never showed up), and it's, um... interesting? Click that link and note the giant walking mecha houses in the intro, which also show up in the game. It's nothing if not faithful!

But Mirai Ninja is still a movie game, and so in accordance with the unwritten law, it's not that great compared to other great arcade games that year. Again, it's basically Legend of Kage, complete with deceptive difficulty: You can pretty much sprint through the first few levels without taking much damage, but then the game starts throwing more enemies at you at once, and makes bosses even bigger assholes. Naturally, this would be easy to deal with under normal conditions, but by default, you only get one life, and continuing puts you back at the beginning of the stage. Come on, Namco, did you expect everyone to love everything about Mirai Ninja that they'd see the movie dozens of times and play the game dozens more regardless of how much it beat their brow?

Still, I like Mirai Ninja. It's not friendly, it's not super original, but what it lacks in unoriginal gameplay it pays back in absurd character and level design that sometimes does feel like an over-the-top Japanese action movie. Go figure.

Arcade Games That Time Forgot: Pistol Daimyo's Adventure

This article originally appeared on GamePro.com.

Arcade Games That Time Forgot is a feature about weird, brilliant, kooky, terrible, or just interesting arcade games. Why just arcade games? Because while arcades gave us plenty of amazing games that are now classic franchises, it wasn't unlike the PC market, where any ol' group of people could make and distribute them, and with that sort of freedom, crazy ideas had a better chance of making it through. And for better or worse, quite a few did.

Pistol Daimyo's Adventure (Namco, 1990)

Namco is credited with pushing arcade shoot-em-ups forward with Galaga and Xevious, though they rarely stepped out of those two universes afterward, except Dragon Spirit and Dragon Saber, which aren't too mechanically different from Xevious anyway. For the most part, they let other companies concentrate on that genre while they went ahead and tried to innovate in others. Namco's straight-up shooters were more about looking different than being completely different.

Enter Pistol Daimyo. It was one of Namco's few horizontal shooters (Ordyne being among them), and was not at all serious. The cartoony style lampooned many tropes from Japanese history and mythology and simply turned it into an absurd shooting game. It wasn't the first "wacky" shooting game, since the aforementioned Ordyne and Konami's Parodius came years before, and it definitely doesn't seem like something that Namco was putting a lot of marketing muscle behind. This seems more or less like a passion project (or at worst, a goof-off time-filler) for the team that made it.

Pistol Daimyo's Adventure is notable for a few things. OK, it's notable for one thing: you play as a daimyo with a giant gun fused to his head, and who flies around by rapidly flapping fans he's holding with his feet. His origin is a mystery, but few would want to question a guy with a gun on his head. Technically, Pistol Daimyo's Adventure is a spin-off of Bravoman, as the Daimyo first appeared as a boss character in that game. He's been redrawn and refitted here, as his "Adventure" takes place in his home world of Feudal Japan But Crazier (my nomenclature).

Indeed, this take on ancient Japan certainly paints an odd picture of the nation. You'll be fighting angry frogs, throngs of ninjas, giant whales, entire battleships, and more as Pistol Daimyo slowly floats along the countryside. If nothing else, it looks consistent; it's not so absurd as to throw digitized people or large sexy women in your face like Parodius or PuLiRuLa does. It's just a big damn fun cartoon.

But the true defining characteristic of Pistol Daimyo (the game) is that it's unrelentingly difficult. For something that looks like it's meant for kids, it starts bringing the hurt from the get-go. And since this was before the days of bullet-blanketing shooters like DoDonPachi, the difficulty doesn't come from the volume of bad things coming at you as it does the speed and the volume. Most of the enemies are made with their own movement patterns, so there's lots of grouping of enemies who jump or fly or run in their own ways, leaving you with few "outs." Quick reaction time is important, but if you've been playing too many recent shooters, where most of the time you're making incremental movements to avoid waves of bullets you can clearly see coming, then you might need some readjusting. Regardless, for a clever shooter that's as challenging as it is baffling, simply look down the barrel of Pistol Daimyo.