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Old 09-09-2011, 02:30 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Tail Concerto and Fading Memories of the Good Ol' Days

With Xseed debuting their developer localization diary for Solatorobo: Red the Hunter here on 1UP today, and the game nearing launch with a shiny new gone-gold announcement, it seems like the perfect time for me to publish a look-back at the game's predecessor I wrote a few months ago.

Mega Man Legends was a great, if underappreciated, gem. Clearly it wasn't entirely without its fans, though. A couple of years after its release, developer CyberConnect2 made its debut with a game that bore an uncanny resemblance to Legends: Tail Concerto.

'Uncanny' may not be quite the word here, since it doesn't really convey just how much Concerto and Legends had in common. Yet I don't think 'rip-off' is quite the proper word, either, because CyberConnect2's work wasn't so much like the original Legends as it was the series' whimsical villainous spin-off, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. The thing is, Misadventures and Concerto were released within months of one another in Japan—far too concurrently for one to be a ripoff of the other. Even Howard Scott Warshaw took six weeks to bang together something vaguely resembling Pac-Man for VCS, and that was considered an impossibly short amount of time back in 1983. The idea that an entire studio could assemble a complex PlayStation game and get it manufactured and distributed in a similarly short amount of time is laughable.

No, any similarities between Tail Concerto and Capcom's more famous franchise should probably be chalked up to the fact that both were biting off the same source: Studio Ghibli's Laputa, AKA Castle in the Sky. In fact, the two games probably represent the single most notable example of the so-called Laputa Effect in gaming. Tail Concerto's pretty shameless about it, as the entire story (not just the climax) is set on small floating continent above a ruined world. Both games feature a gang of air pirates with dominant female leaders and lovably inept (and largely indistinguishable) minions: Tron and her Servbots in Legends, Alicia and her cats in Concerto. (Both games do diverge briefly from Ghibli's template here by making the pirate gang leader a tentative 'bad girl' romantic interest for their respective heroes, something that thankfully never happened with Laputa's Dola.)

More interestingly, both Legends and Misadventures specifically revolve around a corrupt and greedy swindler-type businessman whose sole aim is to rise to power by uncovering and reviving ancient mechanical colossi from the ruins of the old world. These both turn out to be something of a combination of Laputa's silent castle guardians and Nausicäa's God Warriors, hulking behemoths of pure destructive potential that appear vulnerable during their revival phases—though notably without the intelligence and moral complexity of the God Warrior. Ultimately, each game builds up to a tremendous showdown of the plucky little hero and his trusty suit of power armor versus an ancient war machine 100 meters tall.

There are worse games to resemble than The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, and Tail Concerto is a good enough work on its own merits that it's all the better for the overlap. Visually, the game looks like nothing so much as a whimsical classic European cartoon turned into a boxy PlayStation game. This shouldn't be too surprising given the predilections of the game's obvious spiritual inspiration, director Hayao Miyazaki, but Concerto manages to stand apart even so by rendering its entire cast as talking anthropomorphic animals. These days, the idea of anthropomorphic characters sends a cold shiver down the spine of most Internet users, since such things have become forever intertwined with furry culture, which in turn is intertwined with very strange sexual practices. Thankfully, Concerto predates the mainstreaming of that nonsense; its characters are very much in the classic cartoon mold of funny talking animals. Yeah, the female dogs and cats are drawn to be vaguely sexy, but in the same innocently risqué sense that Disney used to draw Minnie Mouse. You get the idea that the characters are meant to be attractive to one another—not to their creators, and definitely not to you.

A second unique notch in Tail Concerto's belt is its emphasis on flight. While the moment-to-moment action feels a great deal like that of Mega Man Legends—albeit more G-rated, since your police mech is armed with a bubble gun that captures foes rather than obliterating them—the fantastic sky-borne setting comes into play throughout the adventure. Waffle's mech has limited gliding abilities (it comically flaps its arms) and can occasionally even equip a rocket thruster to send it hurtling from one island to a next. My strongest memories of the game tend to revolve around these portions (many of which are mercifully optional), as they're tremendously challenging and require precise mastery of the game controls.

In the end, the game is a shade too derivative and unpolished to reach the heights of excellence at which the Legends games soared. But you know, a game doesn't have to be a pioneering masterpiece to be worth playing, and that's certainly the case for Tail Concerto. It's derivative, yes, but entirely too few games have used Legends' blend of light-hearted storytelling and exploratory 3D run-and-gun action as a template, let alone used it to such great effect. There's something to be said for a breezy, good-natured game that doesn't overstay its welcome, and Tail Concerto remains as pleasantly entertaining today as it was a decade ago. Pity that most Americans will probably overlook its enjoyable sequel, Solatorobo. Undemanding, unpretentious happiness isn't as valuable a commodity in gaming today as it used to be.
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