Earlier this month, John Oliver's Last Week Tonight had a hilarious section on Japanese mascots. At least, it was hilarious to most foreigners. My wife didn't think it was that funny at all, but then again she's grown up with this society's need to put a cute face on practically everything. Hello Kitty and her ilk are a symptom of a much deeper thread flowing through the culture, and the current plethora of mascots is really nothing new. Many of them have been around for years and years, having their origins well before the craze made international headlines. For reference, here's what John Oliver had to say about the phenomenon:
One thing that he definitely got right was the success story of Kumamon, mascot for my home region of Kumamoto. The big cuddly bear's raking in tons of cash for the prefecture via the official souvenir shops, and even more for all the companies that have licensed his image for their own advertising. There's only one thing necessary to get permission to use Kumamon for anything, and that's to fill out a nice application form for the department of tourism to rubber-stamp. It really is that simple, and it's the reason how Kumamon has come to rival Kitty-chan herself in terms of ubiquity.
So it kind of rubs me the wrong way when I see that Funasshi, of all mascots, is still considered the most popular in Japan. Seriously, Kumamoto and Chiba Prefectures should just declare an official rivalry and have the two mascots duke it out. Or, we could try and beat the pear-head at its own game. One area that Funasshi has excelled in is digital media presence, especially in video games. He's making regular appearances in semi-casual smartphone game campaigns, and (at best count) is the star of a half dozen games for smartphones and the 3DS.
Kumamon, on the other hand, has two game titles — Kumamon Bomber Puzzle (a match-three style game) and a special Kumamon version of a downloadable reversi game, both for 3DS. In addition, he's got a series of 3DS wallpapers, and has made an appearance in Yokai Watch. There's a bit of catching up to do here.
What can we do? Make a new game that really showcases the Kumamoto spirit, of course! My imagination went into overdrive this week, imagining the possibilities. A game, maybe an RPG or maybe a collection of different games with a narrative thread (similar to Chocobo Tales), set in a make-believe version of the Kumamoto-Aso area. Aso plus Hi-no-Kuni equals "Asobi-no-kuni", when you play with the Japanese writing system a bit, and that translates to "Land of Playtime". Just like the real-life Kumamoto / Hi-no-Kuni, it's known for its natural landscapes and the quality of its aquifer. So for a villain, I'd use a caricaturish Snidely Whiplash type with a stovepipe hat, who's out to turn the entire region into one big plumbing-themed industrial complex and amusement park — Toilet World. To do so, he's sent his minions, the Toiloids, out to kidnap the rightful owners of major scenic spots and attractions. With them out of the way, he can do as he pleases. This way, we could get all of the prefecture's various mascots into the act as well. There sure are enough of them.
I had to stop myself at twenty-one. I'm sure that if I googled more specific towns in the prefecture, I could come up with more. As it is, we have here mascots for at least five cities or towns, one airport, two rail lines, several utility companies, a major local dairy farm, a dinosaur museum, the city police force, and a few more I still haven't quite figured out. This would make an excellent cast of characters. We even have a good authority figure in the form of real-life Kumamoto Prefecture Governor Kabashima, a long-time friend of Kumamon who actually had himself made over into a mascot during his successful 2008 election campaign.
You have to admire a guy who would take a potentially insulting wordplay on his surname and turn it into a campaign tool. The word kaba in his name actually means cattail (the plant), but it happens to be a homophone for "hippopotamus" in Japanese. So, many of his campaign leaflets and posters in 2008 featured him as an anthropomorphic hippo. I feel it only fitting to make Mr. Hippo the governor of Asobi-no-Kuni. Wouldn't you?
It's too bad I couldn't find any pictures of Mr. Hippo online, though. I shall have to rely on my memories of seven years past. Wow, now I'm really wishing I knew how to make video games, or knew someone who did. This could be fun.
Every now and then, a game pops up that challenges genre definitions. This isn't too uncommon in the RPGestalt, since there's big business in gimmicky subsystems, but some of the variations are just plain weird. Case in point, here's Venus Project, a game that is hard to describe as an RPG at all, except for the fact that the developers have pasted those three capital letters on every genre section of every bit of publicity I have yet seen for it.
So what kind of game is this? It's a beat-rhythm competition game with special skills and stat sheets. Set in the reasonably distant future, Venus Project features a society of advanced communications and video production values. In a world where image is everything, the most popular form of entertainment is "Formula Venus", in which pop idols face off in full-combat dance offs.
With a setup like this, it's not hard to imagine what it looks like. Skimpy outfits, teenage girls, tons of pastels and neons. Character stats include things like Singing, Dancing, Acting, Speaking, and Visuals, with all attacks and skills based around these themes. Battles progress as competitive rhythm games within a mission format. Equipment lists include supporters as well as items. Story? Apparently there is one, but the Japanese articles don't mention it much. Everyone knows what the attraction is here.
Venus Project is already out in Japan, being a free download on the PS Vita from the end of April. As is normal with such free-to-play stuff, there are lots of items to buy with real money. I'm sure that it's making a small fortune, because Japanese fans just buy this crap up.
For almost twenty years, Gust kept to a pretty regular schedule. The company would announce an Atelier game around the end of March, and then have it in stores by the end of June. This happened with very few exceptions, mostly due to issues with production or distribution. So, I was looking forward to seeing what came up last month. Would the developers announce a continuation of the Dusk subseries, either with a fourth game or a sequel trilogy? Would they have a new Atelier subset for us? Nope to both, as it turns out. A month later than the usual schedule, Gust announced a completely new IP.
Yoru no Nai Kuni (Kingdom without Night), in keeping with Japanese overly specific genre traditions, is referred to as a "beautiful girl and demon servant" RPG by the developers. Those gamers who like their RPGs to have yuri themes, real or imagined, are probably going to love this one. Of its two stated primary themes, the first is an ongoing war between humanity and a fey race, the Youma, who have vampiric aspects to them. The other main theme is the relationship between the two main characters.
On the left is Arnas, a half-Youma descended from the King of the Night (shades of Vampire Hunter D here). She's fighting on the side of the humans, using the powers gifted to her by her bloodline. While it's not said outright that she feasts upon her enemies, it's certainly a possibility. Her personality is described as quiet and reserved. On the right is Loulitis, the destined Holy Child who will help bring the end to the Youma menace. She just needs a champion to protect her. Looking at the screens made available so far, it's hard not to describe the relationship between these two as romantic. There's even a dance scene.
In battle, Arnas makes use of servant familiars, lesser demons with whom she creates contracts of service. The overall system seems to be more action RPG in style, but the different types of servants lend themselves to different sorts of tactics. Arnas fuels their attacks with the power of her half-demon blood, which she must replenish from enemies on a regular basis.
In addition, as she battles on Arnas builds up strength on a special gauge. When full, it allows her to unleash her full Youma potential, which is when things get really crazy. She can't keep this transformed state going for long, but it'll be carnage all the way when it happens.
Now that I think about it, this sounds a bit like the Kuzunoha Raidou games on the PS2, with blood instead of magnetite. The prospects of a Gust game with MegaTen elements and a lot of implied girl-girl romance is certainly... interesting? We shall have to see how this all pans out.
Yoru no Kuni is due in stores at the end of August. It will be for PS3, PS4, and PS Vita, with physical and digital releases available for all three.
I'm sure most of us have some idea of what a perfect game should be, if only we had the opportunity to make it a reality. Even professional game makers can have long-held dream concepts that they would like to make real. That's apparently the reason why Tomoki Tauchi, director of Metal Max 4 et al., has left Crea-Tech and joined up with Compile Heart to make a game that he's dreamt of since the old days of Data East (sometime in the early 90s). That game? Death Under the Labyrinth
Now, I can't fault a man for having a vision, or for going over to Compile Heart in order to make that vision real, if that's what it took. What I can wonder about — have to wonder about, really — is the unnecessary focus on cleavage.
That's not even a random observation. In the Dengeki interview and article, it's explicitly stated that boobs are a major part of the game's esthetic, to the point where it's described in quote marks as an "oppai-gatari" (boob story). I've double-checked; there's no other possible meaning to be had there.
The game itself is a dungeon-crawler with a fairly generic plot. Simply enough, one day the world stops spinning. Darkness reigns supreme without the rising sun to banish it, and monsters ravage the land. The heroine is Estra, one of five young women (of various cup sizes) chosen to bear the magical weapons that can stand up to the darkness. They're off to brave the trials of the four protector gods in their distant towers, in the hopes of winding the metaphorical spring of the world and getting things spinning again.
MeiQ no Chika ni Shisu (Death Under the Labyrinth) will arrive on PS Vita eventually, but there's no word as to the exact date. We're likely to see more of it at TGS, at least.