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Feature Event Report: World Hobby Fair 2003 02/19/03
Virtua Fighter Evolution and all the cuddly cuteness you can bear

There were some notable games being shown at the World Hobby Fair in Nagoya over the first weekend of February, and being the game freak that I am, it was my obligation to head down there and check stuff out.

One thing you should know about the World Hobby Fair: This is not E3, or even TGS. This show is primarily geared towards children and adolescents who love popular games/anime/manga franchises and are very easily marketed to. I'd say something like 65% of the people in attendance was under the age of 14, and most of the other 35% was befuddled parents (leaving me in a very small minority). As such, all the games shown there were things that could be considered as appealing to the younger generation. For example, as opposed to promoting things like DMC2 and Killer 7, Capcom went all out promoting Rockman EXE and the upcoming Rockman X7. (Rockman is considered pretty "kiddie" as a whole here in Japan, I might add.)

Having to claw my way through the giant mess of Japanese youth is, sadly, what prevented me from getting access to many games I wanted to play before the show closed (Castlevania, F-Zero GC). Most of my time was spent at the Sega booth, where the Sonic series, Virtua Fighter 4, and Monkey Ball were all being actively promoted. (There was a Monkey Ball tournament Ai-Ai stuffies as prizes! So cute!)

Anyways, here's what you're all wanting: impressions of the upcoming Sega games being shown.

Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution PS2: This was, admittedly, my main reason for coming to the World Hobby Fair and putting up with the hordes of screaming children. The game looked almost fully complete, with many modes available from the title screen. However, the only mode that was being demo-ed there was Versus, and the game was constantly being played.

The most common issue brought up with PS2 VF4 and now VF4E is how the graphics compare to the Naomi 2 original. Let me say right off the bat that it does indeed look lots better than the original PS2 port: fewer jaggies, better textures, etc. That having been said, compared to the Naomi 2 VF4E, it still looks like junk. The character models are lower in polygon count, the textures still don't hold up well, colors are generally dithered, background detail (such as the number of spectators in Wolf's stage) has been reduced, and the lighting is way, way off. Having played the arcade game on a daily basis since I got to Japan, these difference are blatantly obvious. Not that it isn't an admirable conversion given the limited power of the PS2 compared to the Naomi 2. I think of it like VF2 on Saturn, i.e., glaringly inferior when compared to the arcade original but highly impressive given the hardware.

But indeed, graphics aren't everything, and I am happy to say that from what I saw and played, the gameplay is absolutely spot-on, and the game will likely have lots of fun little extra bits to make up for the loss of graphic clarity.

Other things of note:

- Dural was selectable in versus mode, meaning that she will definitely be selectable somehow in the finished game. She will probably be an unlockable, though. - The Palace stage that was exclusive to PS2 VF4 is back. It's a sunset background this time, but it seems the music is the same. Ah well, small-walled stage ahoy! - You get random prize matches in Versus mode if you're using your saved characters, just like in the arcade. - It seems that you can finally load two characters off one memory card. Amen.

The new Hori VF4 Evo sticks were on display there, as well. If all you want to do is play VF4 with an authentic Japanese arcade configuration, these will be right up your alley. However, since they lack a 6-button face, they are pretty useless for most other fighting games. New to the Evo versions of the sticks are the addition of L3 and R3 buttons on the face. Supposedly these buttons will be used to access customization features, but are not for use in actual gameplay. Hmmm . . .

There are two version of this joystick: A blue model with Akira, Goh, and Brad on the face, and a reddish/pink model with Jacky, Sarah, and Wolf adorning it. If you're kicking yourself for not buying a stick with VF4, now is your second chance, so reserve 'em while you still can. If you managed to get the VF4 sticks, hold onto 'em, they will still work great with Evo. And, given a choice, I'd get the pink VF4E stick, solely because Akira's ugly visage is absent. ^-^

Demoing the game for the masses was none other than Takuan, the most proficient secret agent in Her AM2's PR Service. The last time we saw him, he was looking quite exhausted at the computer. Hey, nobody said PRing was easy! I should note that Takuan does a lot of great work for the company, and deserves some recognition for his efforts. Kudos to you!

Sonic Adventure DX: Well, it's . . . Sonic Adventure. SA with double the framerate, which makes it run smoother and slighty faster at points. There were only a few stages playable on the demo shown, and the layout of the stages was exactly the same as the DC version. I was running through Speed Highway the exact same way I did back in '99. There are some noticeable graphical tweaks here and there, such as the strangely shiny Sonic, and the camera does seem to be a lot more dependable (keep in mind that no 3D platform game has yet had a decent camera). However, I really hope this demo isn't indicative of the finished version, because one thing about it struck me like a ton of bricks: SLOOOOOOOOOWDOWN. It's very noticeable at several points while playing. Slowdown was especially bad in the Knuckles demo. It seriously hit some points where the framerate looked like that of the original DC version. I think it's just a result of the code not having been cleaned up/optimized yet. At least, I really hope so, because if not, then the GC is giving Sonic Team some very serious problems.

In any case, if you've played the original SA as much as I have, I don't know if this game will honestly be worth it. Unless Sonic Team throws in some big extras (e.g., extended Chao raising), I think my DC version will be sufficient.

Sonic Pinball: Sonic Team pulled this one out of nowhere to show at the WHF. When I first heard of it, I thought maybe it would be Sonic Spinball's concept done right. In truth, it's a lot closer to Pinball of the Dead than it is to Spinball, which is probably a very good thing. Look for typical pinball concepts with Sonic characters and twists; imagine the concepts presented in the pinball games of the first Sonic Adventure taken to their fullest and you'll have something like this game. It seemed like only one table was playable on the demo (the Neo Green Hill Zone Sonic-based table), but the display for the game featured artwork from NiGHTS and Samba de Amigo, and tables for the two games were listed on the menu screen. I'm quite looking forward to seeing what these tables are like, especially the NiGHTS one.

By the way, I still suck at pinball, sadly.

New Sonic Anime: "A Sonic anime? Isn't there one already?" Yup, there was a OAV series made a few years back, and in all honesty, it was quite underwhelming. But, after seeing a great potential to reach a young audience on Japanese TV, it looks like Sega and TMS are going to give a Sonic anime another try. It's apparently going to start broadcasting on Japanese TV late this year. There was a trailer for the show being broadcast at the Sega booth. Familiar characters from recent Sonic games all made an appearance: Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy, Rouge, Shadow, Cream and Cheese, and others, all in their post-Sonic-Adventure styling.

There are some new human characters as well. In fact, one of the series' main characters looks to be a Generic Anime Boy you see so much in kiddie anime nowadays. Ugh. I hope whoever this kid is, he won't mess up the concepts of the Sonic universe too much. Actually, I take that back - this kid isn't that generic, he looks more like a rip-off of the lead from a truly craptacular recent anime called Dragon Drive. (Off topic! In case you're wondering what Dragon Drive is and why it sucks: imagine Yu-Gi-Oh, Digimon, and any other "collectible card/toy merchandising" anime with more annoying, stereotypical characters and even stupider plotlines, and you've basically got DD. Why anyone is bothering to even fansub it, I have no idea.)

The quality of the animation and design from the trailer looked decent. Obviously, it's a TV series, so OAV-quality animation isn't going to happen. Character design, voice, and the settings looked faithful to the existing in-game Sonic universe, apart from the aforementioned kid. I'm looking forward to seeing it, but I have lingering doubts. Prepare for the worst but hope for the best, as Ali would say. But no matter what, it still has to be better than Sonic Underground. Hell, Dragon Drive is better than Sonic Underground.

Supposedly the production company has already begun to shop the show around to US production houses to be dubbed/reworked into something American Sonic fans can consume. With more and more anime being brought to US TV, I'd say this one's a no-brainer for being aired eventually.

Thanks to Zero for an excellent report. She and Ali continue traveling the globe bringing us developer profiles and event reports while the rest of us sit at home deciding whether we should order pan or hand-tossed.

Hmm, I passed outside Midway the other day. And I saw Electronic Arts and Vivendi Universal when I was in California. Does that count?

· · · Zero

2003 The Next Level