More Than Meets the Eye: An Interview with XSEED Games About SENRAN KAGURA SHINOVI VERSUS

SENRAN KAGURA can be its own worst enemy. Considering the effort put into its breast physics, the Tamsoft developed series immediately draws a line between those who are put off by the title, and those who are willing to give it a chance. Neither camp is wrong in their feelings, but I want to do my part to better explain why these games are so enjoyable. SENRAN KAGURA Burst for the 3DS won me over last year, proving that the series is more than fan service, and with SHINOVI VERSUS‘ release for the Vita, I’m expecting yet another terrific brawler.

I took the opportunity to speak with XSEED Games’ Ken Berry and Brittany Avery about the process of bringing SENRAN KAGURA SHINOVI VERSUS to North American Vita owners, and what makes the game so much fun.

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What makes the SENRAN KAGURA series a perfect fit for XSEED Games?

Ken Berry, Executive VP, XSEED Games (KB): I wouldn’t quite call it a “perfect fit” since we were very hesitant to touch the series at first, for obvious reasons, but now that we’re part of the worldwide Marvelous umbrella of companies rather than just licensing titles from an unrelated Japanese IP holder, we have to make an extra effort to bring over as many Marvelous titles as possible.

After seeing the continuing success of the series in Japan, our intention was to release the original SENRAN KAGURA as an eShop-exclusive title and then publish the enhanced Burst physically on 3DS if that succeeded, but the producer Takaki-san was adamant that since Burst was the superior product, that should be the first one released in North America. Some people that were wanting a physical release of Burst may be bummed to hear this, but you have to respect a producer that is so adamant about quality that he wants to make sure people’s first impressions of his product are the best possible. Burst ended up being a success on eShop and we didn’t get as much backlash from mainstream media as we had feared, so we decided to go all in with a physical release of SHINOVI VERSUS.

What appears to be the biggest change from Burst to SHINOVI VERSUS is the step away from side-scrolling brawler into a more arena based one. What does this new approach do to improve upon the 3DS game?

Brittany Avery, Production Coordinator (BA): I feel it helped immerse me into the environment more. I enjoyed the side-scrolling aspect of Burst, but the way it’s set up makes you approach battles from a fixed distance. In SHINOVI VERSUS, you’re the center of the action and can move freely, so there’s a stronger sense of control and varied movement. It adds a whole new level of strategy to battle, too; with twenty playable characters in an environment like this, you now have to take the direction and range of your and your enemies’ attacks into account more often.

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Murasak-it To Me (Murasaki Baby – Vita – Review)

Despite outward appearances, Murasaki Baby is a pleasant experience. Its cast and setting bring Tim Burton’s The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy to mind, but its story of a lost child looking for her mother isn’t as somber a tale. While the game seems to host a taste for the grotesque, in reality it’s one of the most welcoming puzzle platformers I’ve played.

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Murasaki Baby isn’t a hard game. Its decision to double down on Vita’s touch controls may cause some difficulty towards the end, but an abundance of check points prevents frustration from setting in should you fail. Players take hold of the female protagonist almost literally; by placing a finger close to the character, her hand reaches out and you pull her along. It’s nice, but as with any touch based game, your fingers can block what’s occurring on screen, which is unfortunate considering how terrific the game’s visuals are.

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The touch mechanic extends well beyond that of hand holding. The world’s background can be swapped by swiping two fingers across the back of the Vita. In doing so, the way you interact with the world changes. One background allows rain to fall from the heavens, while another litters the skyline with televisions. As you make your journey, you’ll be changing backgrounds frequently to solve the game’s puzzles. The impact this has on the game is both good and bad. On the positive side of things, Murasaki Baby rarely recycles background from stage to stage. This means that the puzzles are always fresh, and there’s a constant sense of discovery as you uncover just what each new background affects the world. On the flip side, there’s no difficulty curve. Without the game having you revisit similar concepts with added twists, there’s no exploration of older ideas. With every puzzle, there’s never a chance to test your proficiency as you proceed. Just as get used to a mechanic, it’s dropped in favour of another.

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While I argue against it, perhaps that constant want to keep things fresh was the goal of the developer. While the Vita is flush with games (contrary to what you may have heard), there isn’t as many that it can call its own. Ovosonico set out to make a Vita game, and by god did they ever. While other games fumble in their attempts to make use of the Vita’s features, Murasaki Baby succeeds just as Tearaway did last year. It transports you to an odd world and has you conform to its rules of interaction. I never felt as if anything was a gimmick, but instead an attempt to make a strong impression that this game belongs on the Vita. While the game was brisk, it’s one that will stick with me for a long time.

Despair Indeed (Danganronpa 2 – Vita – Review)

Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair concludes with a photo finish, a spectacular ending that wraps the game up with one hell of a bow.

Unfortunately, the ending stands in stark contrast to the content that came before it. While enjoyable, the opening 20 hours of Danganronpa 2 are a far cry from its predecessor’s, and I found its early chapters disappointing upon comparison.

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Mechanically, the game’s structure remains the same. Each chapter opens with a new area to explore, a murders occurs followed by an investigation, and it all comes to an end with a trial. The efforts made to improve upon the first game come in the form of new and improved minigames. I only say improved as it’s a term the game itself makes use of, but that is a case of Spike Chunsoft putting the horse before the cart. Unlike the original Danganronpa, the trial’s minigames this time around are worse than a simple change of pace. Logic Drive, for example, is a boring tube slider that has players navigating a totally rad snow/skate boarder along a path, with answers to several questions represented as forks in your path. Another new mode has the player mash buttons to destroy an opponents phrases as they swoop past, only to be more reserved when the highlighted phrases that you can counter come into focus. All the minigames are long winded efforts to arrive at simple conclusions, and we would be better off if the game stuck to what it excels at. The same can be said of its predecessor, but in that case the minigames were less and obstacle than a bump in the road. The Improved Hangman’s Gambit (their words, not mine) is an exercise in frustration, with plenty of health being lost as the letters you collect to fill in the answer’s blank spaces collide into each other while your attention is placed elsewhere.

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With little else to fall back on, all focus is placed is placed on the story, which is hardly unexpected considering the genre. Danganronpa 2 boasts a wonderful cast, full of colourful characters the series has led us to expect. There’s some you love, some you hate, and others you can’t quite put your finger on. Nagito in particular is an interesting character, who early on appears to be more of a protagonist than your own avatar. The plot itself isn’t quite as strong, with plenty of blame owing to the environment. Taking place outside the harrowing school halls of the first game, Danganronpa 2 places its cast on an island getaway. As the “fun in the sun” atmosphere quickly gives way to a more foreboding one, so too does the game’s sense of mystery waste away. While the rooms and secrets of Hope’s Peak Academy unraveled slowly in Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, the sequel lacks that same drip feed. I never felt that there was some larger mystery to the islands, and the reasoning behind this setting seems to be an opportunity for the developers to craft a wider range of absurd attractions at each new island. While the story is good, it doesn’t manage to grab hold of me like the previous Danganronpa did. Instead of story that slowly reveals itself layer by layer, Goodbye Despair leaves all of its revelations for the very end. As terrific as the ending is because of this decision, it leaves a majority of the game without any means to keep the player motivated.
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I enjoyed playing Danganronpa 2, but I can’t help but walk away feeling disappointed. While it is just months that separate this release from its predecessor here in North America, years past in Japan before Danganronpa saw a sequel back in the PSP days. I’m surprised more couldn’t be done to craft a worthy successor, a game that raised the stakes despite the odds. I think back on Virtue’s Last Reward, a sequel to 999 that defied expectations without sacrificing what made the original so great. I recommend this game to you, despite its flaws, but I hope the series can make a stronger impression next time around.

Text Adventures: The Story of Visual Novels in America

Hey, sorry about the dry spell! I was neck deep in my latest feature for the fine folks at USGamer.net. It’s called Text Adventures: The Story of Visual Novels in America, and it’s a look at the history of the genre, what it’s like bringing one to our shores, and what the future holds.

It gave me a chance to speak with Ben Bateman (999, Sweet Fuse), Mike Engler (Xblaze Code: Embryo), Phoenix Spaulding (Danganronpa 1 & 2), and Tom Lipschultz (Corpse Party). I think you’ll enjoy it!

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Grin & Bare It: An Akiba’s Trip Post-Mortem With XSEED Games’ Tom Lipschultz and Ken Berry

It’s fitting that a brawler like Akiba’s Trip: Undead & Undressed has to fight for your attention. Unfortunately, the concept of stripping vampires naked can give off the wrong impression, which means the folks at XSEED Games have their work cut out for them. While reviews like my own tell of  game that’s far more than its window dressing, the fact is those hurdles remain. I spoke with XSEED Games’ Tom Lipschultz (Localization Specialist) and Ken Berry (Executive VP) about the process of bringing Akiba’s Trip to North America, the difficulties in breaking through perceptions, and what the future holds for the series. Enjoy!

What makes Akiba’s Trip: Undead & Undressed a perfect fit for XSEED Games?

Tom Lipschultz (TL): Well, we pride ourselves on having carved a distinct niche for ourselves over the years, and Akiba’s Trip is a game that seems custom-tailored to that niche. It’s a game for those who are deeply entrenched in Japanese design tropes — for people who know JRPGs and anime like the backs of their hands, and love them dearly, but are fully aware that like everything else in the world, the thing they love is not without its unique faults and its disturbing underbelly. And yet, even that disturbing underbelly has a certain charm all its own.

With a game like Akiba’s Trip, the people localizing it need to be just as much “in on the joke” as the people playing it. And fortunately for players, we’re pretty hardcore nerds here, so we know a thing or two about otaku culture, and we’re not afraid to “let our freak flags fly,” so to speak.

So in a way, I guess you could say Akiba’s Trip is a game about otaku, for otaku, developed by otaku and — ultimately — published by otaku. It’s the perfect storm of nerdery!

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The game’s premise deals with otaku culture and its eccentricities. For those less familiar, is the idea of an “otaku” easily comparable to that of a nerd (a term I use without negativity)? Are there aspects of otaku culture you feel a player should know before starting the game to experience Akiba’s Trip in the way it was envisioned?

TL: An otaku is indeed a nerd (no negativity implied in the term on this end either!), more or less, though otaku are generally thought of as being either more devoted or more obsessed with their chosen fandoms than traditional nerds (depending on your point of view). Stereotypical Otaku are the types of nerds who claim they prefer 2D people to 3D people, or declare their favorite anime character to be their “waifu” (wife), etc. You may recall a news story from a few years back about a man in Japan who legally married his virtual girlfriend, for example — and that’s
pretty much the height of otakudom, right there. Some might call him the ultimate otaku… the “perfect ideal,” of sorts.

We’d like to think most people can pick up and play the game without knowing any of this, though, as Akiba’s Trip does a really good job of explaining what it means to be an otaku and providing countless examples within its diverse cast of characters. All you need to do is go into it with an open mind and an appreciation for the quirky, and you’ll likely find the game’s mixture of satire and reverence (or irreverence) to be both amusing and engaging.

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You were a strong voice in one of the game’s NeoGAF threads, detailing some of the decisions behind the game’s localization. At one point you promised an evaluation of a term the team had come up with (“brotag”) after some criticism from the community. At times like that, how do you decide between a vocal minority and what’s best for the game?

TL: That’s a really good question. No matter what decisions you make during any localization, there will always be those who strongly disagree with them. So if you make your approach known in advance and people start crying foul, it is sometimes tough to decide whether or not to take their opinions to heart or stick to your guns.

In those situations, the best thing to do is to look at the specific reasoning behind those fan objections, and see if they make a good case. And that’s exactly what we did here.

For those unfamiliar with what the question is referring to, the little sister character in Akiba’s Trip regularly calls your main character “Niinii” in the Japanese, which is a variant on the word for “big brother” that directly translates as something like “Brobro.” We decided early on during localization that going with “Brobro” or any other variation on that wouldn’t quite have the same tone in English as it does in Japanese — it would sound a little too saccharine for the character, who’s far more of a “weird/awkward” character than she is “cutesy.”

Our original solution was to use something that, while still cute, was also a little tongue-in-cheek and indicative of her unique brand of strangeness, so we settled on having her call you “Brotag”– short for “brotagonist.”

When I mentioned this on NeoGAF, however, a lot of people were really unhappy with the idea, bringing up that “Brotag” is a nickname often used for the Persona 4 protagonist, or that it calls to mind images of a “bro” character — as in, a frat boy-style heavy-drinking sports nut or something, which is pretty much the polar opposite of what was intended.

And when we discussed this internally, we all pretty much agreed that… yeah, the NeoGAF fans made some very, very good points.

So after discussing the matter further, both on the forums and internally, we settled on the (fan-suggested) “rotating bros” solution — the little sister would use a different “bro” nickname every time “Niinii” came up in the script, ranging from “Brotato” to “Brosen One” to “Brokedown” to — of course — “Brotagonist.” Not only would this fit her quirky personality, but it would also allow for context-appropriate nicknaming, which adds an extra level of quirk to an already quirky character.

So, that’s what we did, and I think the end result pretty much speaks for itself. It really worked well in-game, and gave a lot of extra flavor to the character of Nana, bringing her ever closer to the goofy weirdness conveyed by the original Japanese. Much love to the fans for helping to bring about this change!

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Ghost in the Machine (Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds – Vita – Review)

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While derided for its poor translation, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds’ description on the PSN Store does illustrate two important points.

Smooth animation of retro 8-bitGraphic is highly evaluated, and player is increasing even now. Moreover, it has attractive game system of (Maximum)four on-line and off-line simultaneous co-op game play.

First, we can see a publisher experiencing growing pains, as admitted here on their FaceBook page. But, no matter the hiccups, 5pb pushed through to develop and publish a game they believed in. The other fact on display is how difficult a time Phantom Breaker has in explaining itself, hindered by odd choices and buried explanations.

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These Are The Daves I Know: An Interview With Jason Cirillo About Woah Dave!

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Woah Dave! is one hell of a name. Hailing from MiniVisions, the game is quick to earn your attention with its puzzling title. Naturally, the thing to do considering the circumstances is find out just what Woah Dave! is. From speaking with the game’s creator, Jason Cirillo, it sounds like your curiosity will pay off.

Cirillo runs MiniVisions, a branch of Choice Provisions (of Bit.Trip fame), that specializes in smaller scale affairs. But despite its size, Woah Dave! aims to be as addictive and enjoyable as the industry’s best.

The game, coming soon for the 3DS and Vita, charges players with racking up a high score in the most hostile environment possible. Controlling the titular Dave, players grab hold of the eggs that fall from the sky, and use them to clear the single screen arena. Their defeat yields coins, which are collected to increase your score (high scores of $1.50 take the place of those in the hundreds of millions, a preferable approach in my eyes). What initially seems simple quickly becomes chaos as the eggs that once served to aid you crack open to birth the enemies inside. The landscape is littered with foes, but if you’re quick enough the beasts before you may pave the way to fame and fortune.

I was lucky to have the chance to pick Jason Cirillo’s brain on the matter of Whoa Dave!. Enjoy!

I’d like to start off with the significance of a studio’s name, but in your case, maybe I can learn of two. What’s the origin and meaning of both Robotube and MiniVisions?

Jason Cirillo: Robotube was something I came up with in 1999 when times were quite different. There were few online games, there wasn’t even YouTube. I started this weird little website that had games on it I had developed, and wanted to come up with a strange, unique URL. The internet, being so different and still in its infancy, was this thing I saw as a new sort of smart television. So I called it Robotube. Like a robot television. MiniVisions is the new name, and is born from the “visions” part of Choice Provisions. Since our little division makes the smaller games that come from our quirkiest of ideas, the name MiniVisions seemed to fit.

At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to be a game developer?

JC: I think when I was probably about 7 or 8 I really started going to arcades, and had just gotten a ColecoVision. I still have notebooks that have sketches of games that I thought up around that time, as well as drawings of games I saw in arcades to help me catalog the games I had seen. My grandparents got a Commodore 64 around then, too, and I learned BASIC and made some weird little games with that. I think I’ve probably wanted to make video games nearly most of my life. I’ve always just enjoyed making things.

How did Whoa Dave! come to be? Is it one of those old game ideas you had written about in one of your arcade notebooks?

JC: Actually, my son got a 3DS not long ago, and I downloaded a few old NES games on there to give him a little intro to the origins of Mario. He got really into the original Mario Bros., and we would play together. I realized the simple joys of these little single-screen platformers and wondered how I might design something a game like that, but make it super bonkers and crazy. I think I started working on Dave shortly after that.

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