Backstage: Japanese manga as Nintendo DS trump card?
Published: Tuesday, August 16, 2005
I took an unusual position a number of months ago regarding whether to purchase Sony’s PlayStation Portable or Nintendo’s DS. My statements at the time were - hold off. Both systems were too expensive, and the DS lacked for compelling games. Of the two, the PSP was far more exciting technologically and had a few really impressive titles, but things have changed. Quite a bit, actually.
After an initial dry spell, Nintendo has been on a sort of roll lately - at least, in Japan. Nintendogs has been a big cross-over hit for female casual players, but two other titles recently released over there have caught my attention. Unless you’re a Japanophile, you’re not going to initially get the appeal of the first and more amazing one, but bear with me for a moment - it’s worth it. Especially given today’s DS hardware price drop to $129.99, which puts it closer to the point where I’d recommend buying it for giggles. (The PSP is apparently not doing so well at retail these days, having never been the sell-out Sony forecast, and mine is only one of thousands collecting dust waiting for more good software.)
So there’s this game called Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!. You won’t recognize the company that made it (iNiS). And if someone describes it to you by saying things like, you’re the leader of a male cheerleading squad that does things like inspire racehorses to catch fleeing bandits, you’d probably say, “you’re out of your mind. Why are you wasting my time with this crap?” My answer is this: watch the movie. Now. There are also real screenshots on that site, but you’re not going to understand them unless you see the movie.
Yes. I know. It’s insane. But it’s the sort of good insane that separates great games from the totally forgettable ones. This is a music game where you’re actively cheering on average people, and watching as they succeed (or fail) in crazy, charming situations. Think of the male cheerleaders as the guys from the Starbucks commercials who inspire Hank (or whatever his name is) to go into that job interview and give it his best. Except the stories are interesting. A student dealing with an obnoxious, unsupportive family. A Romeo trying to woo Juliet from her possessive father. And yes, a horse trying to catch a guy who just broke into a safe.
Ouendan uses the DS’s two screens for a combination of anime-style cartoons and 3-D characters, plus the touch screen and stylus to have you tap along to the beat of licensed music. Good licensed music. Good licensed Japanese music, legitimately catchy stuff. Tap at the wrong time and the horse trips over a gate instead of jumping it, or Romeo screws up and makes the girl cry while her father laughs. It’s compelling, interactive, and so Japanese that there is no way in hell that it’s coming out here any time soon. It should. They should do a rough, fast translation and pack it in with every DS. It’s made me more excited about portable gaming - and the DS format - than I’ve been in a long while.
Then there’s the other biggie. Jump Super Stars also isn’t going to ring a bell for most people, but imagine if there was a fighting game combining all of the best characters from Marvel, DC, and several indie comic book companies. And the game was based loosely-ish on the gameplay mechanics from Nintendo’s popular Smash Bros. series, which previously put all of the company’s best characters into arenas and let them duke it out. That’s Jump Super Stars. See the movie here.
Except the characters are all Japanese comic book heroes - Dragonball Z, Naruto, Yu-gi-oh, and 24 other comics with around 150 characters, based on manga cartoons found in the popular magazine Shonen Jump (now also available in the United States). Some of the characters are only there as occasional support staff for the game’s main characters, though. To the Japanese, it’s like putting Superman in the same game with Captain America and Spawn, with Lois Lane popping in to help by tossing in a punch or two now and again. Four different people can play against each other wirelessly, or one person can battle solo against computer opponents.
Despite the fact that it’s selling really well in Japan, my enthusiasm for Jump is a bunch dimmer than for Ouendan. It’s not because of my lack of native appreciation for Jump’s characters - it’s just that the game’s adventure mode isn’t terribly exciting, and the Smash Bros. mechanics were cooler to watch in a dynamic 3-D world than in this entirely 2-D one. There are some seriously smart ideas in Jump - the touch screen is used to arrange comic book panels that trigger assistance from your assistants, for instance, and there are far more moves per character than you’d initially assume from such a large cast. There’s also a great video opening which starts the game out way, way strong. But so far, I’m not feeling it on quite the same level as Ouendan. Sadly, Jump is going to show up in the United States before Ouendan if history is any meter. At least I have my copy.
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