We're currently living in the declining years of the import gamer. Every year, more and more games make it across the shore to the US, no matter how strange, odd, or "Japanese" they might be. Yet there remain a select few titles that the average US gamer will never see, unless he has import-capable PS2 and doesn"t mind large credit card bills. This is their story.
Venus vs. Braves
If you stick a knife in this game, it will bleed style. If there was anything that I learned from the art history classes in college that I didn't pay attention to, it is that just filling up a canvas with microscopic detail isn't art. Art is at least partly the process of deciding which details need to be included to convey the artist's intentions. There isn't a single polygon to be seen in V&B and the precious few FMVs are short and to the point, elegant like a well crafted sword. Every small detail of this game has been selected with care to enhance the overall visual impact, while the music and even the sound effects have been given the same loving attention, right down to the cheerful tune playing over the saving animation of leaping frogs.
It almost doesn't need a story or even gameplay, yet not only are these elements present, but they have also been constructed with care to create a unique experience that defy convention and comparison. You play the role Blood, a man who can not age, set on a journey across hundreds of years to face an evil prophesized to bring the world to ruin. Yet it is not a war he can win alone. He must recruit mortal allies who he must watch die upon the battlefield or fade away with old age while he remains untouched by time. The gameplay revolves upon gathering these troops and carefully arranging their combat order to not only strengthen each other in battle, but to also fall in love so they will bear children who will grow to be warriors more capable of dealing with the darker times ahead.
Taishou Mononoke Ikunroku
If there's one major beef I have with most of the RPG genre is that the combat is far too easy. The enemy AI normally has all the intellect of a patch of mildew and a little leveling is usually all it takes to scrub out even the most stubborn boss. It's not challenging and to me that's not fun. Which was why I fell in love with TMI. You can level yourself and your pet demons right to the max, but if you don't plan out your forces well and adapt to the fluid condition of the battlefield, you won't even make it past the first boss.
Because simply doing damage to your enemy isn't enough. All attacks and most other skills have an element alignment. Attack a demon that's strong in that element and you'll only do marginal damage, though hit them in their weakness and score big. With only four possible elements and up to four demons at your disposal, each capable of holding a variety of attacks, you would think this would be easy, right? Well, there's another little wrinkle I haven't mentioned. Every attack influences the dominate element of the battlefield. Raise that element high enough and you, or you opponent, will gain 'JMS" abilities. These are super powered skills that do massive damage. As such most battles are not about doing damage to your foe, but gaining control of the battlefield element, making it a tug of war where a single mistake is sometimes all it takes to lose the fight. This combined with a few other unique features makes TMI a game that rarely allows you to use the same strategy twice and forces you to think if you want to make any progress at all.
Super Robot Wars Alpha 2
Japan has a long and colorful history of giant robot cartoons, stretching all the way back to Gigantor up to more modern examples like the latest in the long running Gundam series. It wasn't rare for these series to cross over, especially when they were backed by the same creator. Someone at Barpresto got the million dollar idea of shoving together as many giant robots as one game could possibly stand... and then packing a few more in. So the Super Robot Wars series was born and continues to go strong in Japan with several new games a year, though not one has yet to be localized in the US.
As a game, Alpha 2 is as massive as the robots it features. With four playable characters with their own unique storylines stretching nearly sixty episodes a piece, there's more than enough here to keep you busy until the next SRW game is released. Especially when you command and modify the robots and pilots of over a dozen series. By the end of the game you'll have enough robotic firepower to take over the world five times over, but you might never reach the end. Not that the game is difficult. In fact, that's the problem. After a while, the battles become so easily accomplished that the next one will more tedious than enjoyable, especially when you've already seen the nicely animated 2D attacks of every robot several times over.
Summon Night 3
Ever wanted to be the magic teacher for a rich little brat, only to be captured by pirates and end up running aground on a remote island occupied by demons and other odd characters? Well, here's your chance in what is actually a prequel to the Summon Night 1 and 2, a SRPG series you probably never heard of. This game has the best character designs I've ever seen, to the point it didn't bother me too much that nearly half the game is spent staring at still images as the plot unfolds though copious amounts of Japanese voice acting. The rest is mainly taken up by a SRPG that simplifies certain aspects, such as equipment and experience, to speed up the normally tedious parts of the genre, though overall it frustrates nearly as often as it thrills, since it tends to limit your options in various ways. Every sprite is animated in loving detail, from the flowing cape of the main character to the monsters that occasional wander around the island map. This might be the perfect game for those who found Disgaea just a little too complicated.
Resist the temptation to laugh at the name. This shooter is serious business and one chuckle while attempting to navigate the bullet hell this game spews from its numerous digital orifices is enough to ensure a quick trip to oblivion. The enemy variety isn't likely to distract you, mainly consisting of "futuristic looking tanks" to "futuristic looking helicopters" to "futuristic gun emplacements," but you'll barely notice them as you struggle to chain your kills to keep the score multiplier flowing while keeping the microscopic hit box of your one woman killing machine from harm. Once you can one credit the carefully constructed chaos of arcade mode, you can tweak the game to you liking in simulation mode, take on the overpowered boss rush known appropriately as death label, or just relax and watch one of your own replays. Just make sure you always play it the correct way, the TATE way.
A 3D remake of the Turbographix classic known in the US as Bonk. Starring a caveman who uses his noggin' to solve problems and redone in a style similar to Paper Mario, the game is mainly 3D characters locked to a 2D and heavily textured plane of existence. The levels have been tweaked here and there, with Japanese commercials to unlock if you manage to locate all the hidden items, but the gameplay is still close to the original classic, making it a fun game to play when you want to smack things with your skull but don't want the resulting headaches.
Sakura Taisen Remake
Here's the black marker of this article. Originally born on the Saturn, this story-heavy adventure game was brought up to high resolution on the Dreamcast and then rebuilt again for the PS2. In Sakura Taisen, the player lives vicariously through the life of Ogami, a naval officer transferred, or perhaps demoted, to being the errand boy for a group of temperamental young woman, who happen to be the only people able to pilot the steam mecha "kobu" and protect Japan from the forces of evil.
While the story was expanded for the better in this upgraded version, they decided it was a good idea to cut out the fun mini-games, turning them into dumbed down versions for Japanese cellphones. They also replaced all the still images done in a new style and kept most of the old FMVs, which are both stylistically different but also fuzzy since they were originally designed for a different resolution. It makes the game feel more like a misassembled jigsaw puzzle than a compelling experience. Combat was easy in the original, but it's now brain dead to the point that you'll question why you're even bothering, especially when the ultimate reward for completing the game is just a blurry FMV from the Saturn original.