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The Sportin' Life I

(The Games of Summer)

Before we get started this month, a brief note, or more precisely, a warning: I’m in the mood to wax poetically, so you’ll have to sit through this bumpy melody (Er, somebody gimme a beat)…

While summer to some is the season of sun
for the DP team I prefer to take one.
Sitting out the sunburn and sand in my shorts
to bring you this column on games about sports.
Before I continue I’ll just have to advise
that as these are all imports you’ll need to be wise
While a number of these games are quite English friendly
a little Japanese knowledge will come in quite handy.
If not for the gameplay, at least for the titles
But enough of this meter, let’s get to the vitals.

If you’re still with me, I decided to concentrate mostly on some of those slightly to extremely off kilter imports based on popular summer sports. By the time you’ve finished this column, some of you will notice that I’ve not covered any of Technos’ Downtown Nekketsu/Kunio sports games here, and that’s because there are a number of cool fan sites that go into spectacular detail on all the games in the series (some of which have been released here in altered form, mostly for the NES). There are so many sports games in general released in a given year in Japan that to try to go over the history and cover the more popular games in the genre would take a few columns, and frankly speaking, would bore both you and I to the nearest windowsill. I decided to break this up into summer and winter sports, which means you’ll be seeing Part Two around the end of the year. I haven’t yet decided whether or not to assault you with any more painful rhymes, but we’ll see what happens when the time comes. But enough suspense for now- let’s move on to the games.

Starting with America’s favorite pastime, Baseball, which Japan seems to love a hell of a lot more when you look the number of games released in a given year. One thing you’ll definitely see as you explore the wide variety of baseball games is that most US developers take the sport too damn seriously. More likely than not this is due to the greater emphasis on realistic visuals and minute details on the part of developers (and demanding fans) than any MLB restrictions. But all that starch is bad for the gaming diet, I say. When you look at Konami’s Powerful Pro Yakyuu series (represented here by Jikkyou Powerful Pro Yakyuu Dreamcast Edition, Jikkyou Powerful Pro Yakyuu '97 for the PlayStation and Jikkyou Powerful Pro Yakyuu 10 for the PlayStation 2), your first reaction may be to laugh at the overly cute characters onscreen. But the games are all not only quite simple for anyone to pick up and play, there’s a ton of depth and replay value in each and the balance of humor and fast paced action will make even the most rabid baseball hater want to pick up a controller.

Other fun titles like Namco’s World Stadium series (which grew from its earlier Family Stadium games) and Banpresto’s Play Stadium games are decent and inexpensive enough to pick up if you’re looking to try something a little different than the usual MLB game, but leave it to Sega to come up with a truly wacky twist. In 1999’s Pro Yakyuu Team o Tsukurou!, players got to owner/manage one of Japan’s major league clubs in a pretty deep simulation that happened to also have a fun bit of baseball gameplay for good measure. Pro Yakyuu Team de Asobou!, released a few months later, was a pick up and play ball game where players could choose to upload their best team from the first game and go for the championship. There were five games in total in the series including Pro Yakyuu Team o Tuskurou! & Asobou!, which combined parts of both games and dropped some online and data transfer features, Pro Yakyuu Team de Asobou! Net, an online version of the pick up and play game, and Motto Pro Yakyuu Team o Tsukurou!, the 2001 sequel to the original game. These games also happen to have possibly the most bizarre looking characters in a sports game to date. You’ll see giant caricatured heads that resembled actual Japanese players attached to tiny round bodies with floating hands and feet. Granted, only those of you out there fluent in Japanese would want to go near these games, but if wading through menus galore and skipping loads of text sequences isn’t your bag, there’s always a game like Pro Yakyuu Nettou Puzzle Stadium for the Super Famicom or PS One, a Puyo Puyo inspired game that featured mascots from Japan’s baseball teams. It’s simple, fun, and makes a nice addition to the collection if you’re a fan of puzzle games and have never heard of it before.

There are probably just as many Golf games as there are baseball games in Japan, which is not surprising at all given the popularity of the sport there. Sony’s Minna No Golf  (known here as Hot Shots Golf) is probably the first mass-market game one would think of when the talk turns to imports, but this isn’t just because the game is so well done. This “Golf for the People” inspired quite a few developers to copy many of its popular features, which resulted in quite a few interesting games like Golful Golf, Motto Golful Golf, Simple 1500 Series Volume 65: The Golf, and Konami’s Jikkyou Golf Master 2000 to name a few. The Konami game is more or less a direct copy of Minna No Golf, but with 12 pro Japanese players to go up against in your chase for the top slot. If you’d prefer to bring it back a bit, look for Battle Golfer on the Mega Drive, a great game of golf that happens to also have a story mode with a cute anime gal as the main character.

If you just want a simple no-frills game of golf that’s cool enough for anyone (and you happen to own a Super Famicom), Data East’s Super Birdie Rush comes highly recommended. Not only is it entirely in English, it’s quite easy to sink an elusive hole in one on the easiest setting, making it perfect for the uncoordinated gamer who’s all thumbs. As far as weird golf games go, I’d personally pick Upstar’s PS One game Zig Zag Ball as well as the recently released in the US Ribbit King (PS2, Game Cube). For my money, Zig Zag Ball is the better game of the two as it supports up to 4 players and has one or two even more oddball character designs then Bandai’s newer game. The game combines aspects of regular golf, miniature golf and billiards, and all of the courses are insanely colored and quite tricky to make par on.

Moving onto Tennis, there are a couple of notable games worth tracking down for more than just enjoyable gameplay. You’ll get a great design and trends lesson with Namco’s Smash Court series, for example. As you can see here, each new version of the game displays a completely different cover design, almost giving the impression that they’re three entirely different games from different publishers. When the series moved on to the PS2, the visuals changed accordingly and reflect a more realistic look akin to Sega’s Virtua Tennis series. The cover art on Capcom’s Netto de Tennis for the Dreamcast is cute enough to lure your wallet out of its hiding place, while Bimboosoft’s Boku no Tennis Jinsei really doesn’t make much of an impression at all. The game is actually pretty good, with a sweet art style that’s easier on the eyes than the cover art. Konami has a series of PS2 games based on a popular anime series called Tennis no Oji-Sama that I just heard about, and with titles like Tennis no Oji-Sama: Kiss of Prince Flame, Tennis no Oji-Sama: Smash Hit!, and Tennis no Oji-Sama: Sweat & Tears 2, this sounds like a cross between Tokimeki Memorial and Virtua Tennis. I’ll need to grab a couple of these games, play them and get back to you at some point down the road. For my money, Cosmic Smash has to be the most unique “tennis” game out there. It’s actually more of a throwback to Breakout with a dash of Rez added for good measure, and Sega could have probably sold the game in droves here as it’s entirely in English and amazingly addictive.

Nothing says summer like a good game of Volleyball, and there are few interesting games out there worth a look. Number one on the list has to be Klonoa Beach Volley, a bright and cheery PS One game of v-ball featuring major characters from Namco’s Klonoa games. In a cute touch, the game supports up to 4 players with either a multi-tap or two players on one controller, making this a perfect double date party game. Of course, some of you out there immediately think of hot chicks in bikinis spiking balls and bouncing about, so for you there’s Chousentou Kyuui Vanbogu, a sci-fi themed game with anime characters. Athena’s Waku Waku Volley leans more toward cute than sexy, but is still a fun little game to keep you indoors on those too-hot days. If you’ve got a Japanese PS2, you’ll want to grab Success’s cool follow up, Waku Waku Volley 2. Gamers on a budget can go for D3’s Simple 1500 Series Volume 54: The Volleyball- Break Volley Plus for some cheap thrills, but don’t expect any skimpy swimsuits to make an appearance in this one.

Now that Dodge Ball is back in fashion, it’s quite interesting to see that loads of adults are reliving their childhood terrors by actually going out to play against other adults in real leagues (and coming home even more bruised and battered than they did back in high school). You can go run around and throw your boomer back out, have a heart attack or sprain your groin if you want to. I prefer to get a simple ass rash from playing on the comfort of my couch with a cold drink nearby. Battle Dodge Ball: Tokyu Gekitotsu on the Super Famicom is a personal favorite, as it has super-deformed versions of characters from the Gundam, Godzilla, and Ultraman series in them. There’s also Battle Soccer: Field no Hasya, but we’ll save that one for a future column on soccer games. Anyway, the field here is pretty broad as well, with games like a number of Dogi Danpei Dodge Ball titles on the Famicom, Super Famicom and Mega Drive. These games were based on a popular manga and anime series and range from RPGs to straight up multiplayer fun.   Yumedia’s all-girl PS One game Dodge de Ball (which falls under “lousy cover, great game” status), and Atlus’ Nijiiro Dodge Ball, (a sim/action hybrid which has a number of players who seem to be dressed for events other than a sweaty game of dodgeball) are also worth looking up if you crave a bit of visual variety. Oh, by the way: Simple 1500 Series Vol. 76: The Dodge Ball is known as All-Star Slammin’ D-Ball here, in case you’re wondering which version has the more unwieldy title.

As the Olympics are still fresh on our minds, I figured you’d like to see a game or five based around simple foot racing. Battle Athletess Daiundoukai GTO (PS One) is a bit of strange racing fun based off the popular anime. As striking as the cover art is, the game disc, manual, and menu screens exhibit a rather extreme panty fetish on the part of the creators. There’s a second game, Battle Athletess Daiundoukai (Sega Saturn, also released as Battle Athletess Daiundoukai Alternative for the PS One) that’s more of a simulation game where you train and raise your girl to be a champion sprinter. But this one requires some Japanese language skills (and possibly some familiarity with the anime) in order to make any sort of reasonable progression. More straightforward racing action can be found in System Sacom’s Running High, a futuristic foot racing game that not only has all its menus and voiceovers in English, there’s a funky intro song that wouldn’t have been out of place on the radio circa 1990 or so.

For sheer racing weirdness and hilarity, you absolutely have to go with 1999’s Tomarunner, a PS One game that has one or two players racing in split screen on some tricky indoor and outdoor courses. What makes the game so funny is the combination of bizarre looking characters, jumping, swimming, flying and bouncing, and the ability to use weapons and traps to take out the opposition. There was a follow up in 2000 called Gekitotsu Toma L'Arc: L'Arc-en-Ciel vs Tomarunner, which featured members of the Sony Music Japan-signed band, L'Arc-en-Ciel as playable characters against the cast from the first game. Both games come highly recommended even though the menus are entirely in Japanese. It’s not too difficult to figure out what to do and you’ll more likely than not have a great time.

Speaking of racing, we may as well drop by the track and see how the horses are doing. There are so many different Horse Racing games in Japan that you’ll wonder just who the target audience is. Some games like Koei’s Winning Post and GI Jockey are hardcore simulations that require loads of patience and leave little room for error, while some games are just plain fun to play and have a playful art style that appeals to all ages. For fun, pick up Stakes Winner 2 (PS One, Neo Geo) by Saurus, based on their popular arcade game. Derby Stallion ’99 is also a fun simulation game, with its mixture of comical horses and serious breeding modes. Someone recently pointed me to Right Stuff’s PS One game Jockey Zero as really worth picking up, so I’m on the hunt for that even as we speak. One of the more inspired games in the genre is Squaresoft’s Chocobo Stallion, which is based on the mini game in Final Fantasy VII. There’s a lot more depth to be found in this game, which manages to be a lot better than one would think (it’s definitely far better than Chocobo Racing was). Some other fun miscellaneous racers that give off a nice summery feeling are Tyo’s Street Scooters, and one or two of the courses in Sammy’s MTB Dirt Cross, one of a very few mountain bike racing games to make it to the PS One.

Although one could go Fishing at just about anytime of the year, the lure of the sea seems to draw out any cat that can worm a hook. Of course, Japan is flooded with all sorts of fishing games, but I decided to skip the serious sims (and there are quite a lot of them, believe me) and focus on three games with particularly striking cover art. First off, it’s nearly impossible to see the cover of Magical Company’s Killer Bass and not want to buy it right away. The game in question is one of many Sega inspired arcade-style fishing games, and it’s actually pretty good. Team Daiwa’s Let’s Go Bass Fishing! has its bass practically taunting you on the cover art to buy the game with a word balloon asking if you’re “Having any luck?”, while Hori’s Winning Lure goes for a bold, striking design. This game in particular stands out, as it came either as a stand-alone disc or in a limited edition boxed set with a rather unique fishing controller setup that had a rod with a line attached to a base that sat atop your TV set. This enabled players to feel the virtual fish tugging on the line and battling against being reeled in, making every play some sort of “one that got away” story. If you prefer a more non-violent way to see digital fish, go with the gorgeous Aquazone (Sega Saturn) and one of the five expansion discs available for it or dive into the ocean on the PS One with Aquanaut's Holiday: Memories of Summer 1996, Artdink’s even more interactive, yet even more relaxing sequel to Aquanaut’s Holiday. You could also go with Depth (covered in my very first column), but neither of these three games are anything close to sporty, they’re just here as curiosities of a sort.

Are we there yet? Nope, but I may as well wrap things up with a couple of PS One odds and ends. Simple 1500 Series Volume 23: The Gatebar is a nice game of croquet (yes, someone made a croquet game!), and while you can go bowling 365 days a year, Waku Waku Bowling, Wai Wai Bowling, and Simple 1500 Series Hello Kitty Volume 1:  Hello Kitty Bowling all give off that summer fresh scent when they’re spun up around these parts. KSS’s Max Surfing and Max Surfing 2 are both fun diversions from the dog days, and great for non-surfers like yours truly who couldn’t float if you pumped me full of helium and kicked me out of a spaceship. Another fun game is Bakuryu, an arcade style kayak racer with some wild courses and decent split screen action. If you’re looking for something really interesting, Tomy’s Yacht Racing Game 1999: Ore no Yatto: Ganbare Nippon Challenge is the game for you. It’s based on an actual event, and while the game isn’t visually spectacular, it’s probably the only other pure sailing game out there since Sailing on the Commodore 64. Another singular experience is Kaze no Notam (Notam of Wind), a hot air balloon game by Artdink that’s also not so hot to look at, but unique nonetheless.  Back on dry land, Jordan’s 1 on 1 (I wonder who the company named themselves after?) is a funny, inspired blend of basketball and fighting action with a rather unusual cast of characters. It’s definitely worth a look as it’s decidedly different than most b-ball offerings out there.

It finally looks like we’re out of gas and Gatorade, which means you’ll get to go relax now. What, you were expecting maybe a closing rhyme or something? Drop by next time and we’ll be looking at a few scary games you may or may not have heard of. Be afraid…be very afraid (well, maybe just look over your shoulder every other day until then, OK?)…

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Last updated: Monday, July 04, 2005 10:03 PM