Ulala vs. Ryu and a thousand giant ants: the games of TGS

The best games that you may never play from this year's Tokyo Game Show.

There was a single image that summed up this year's E3 perfectly, and with a little alteration it pretty much does the trick for Tokyo Game Show 2012 too. Whereas western developers seem transfixed with Naughty Dog's semi-interactive model, in Japan there's still a rush to emulate Monster Hunter's unending success. Every game announced at Sony's conference seemed to be about tackling huge beasts in expansive environments - a theme that carried through to many parts of the show floor itself.

It wasn't the most spectacular of starts to the show's 17th year, and in truth it wasn't the most spectacular of shows. There's a sense that everyone's stuck in a generational limbo right now, and while it's untrue to say that Japan's games industry is in crisis (we'll have more on that in a future report), it's certainly as muted as anywhere else.

But away from the influx of card-battling games and the growing presence of mobile outfits (Gree took up a sizeable chunk of one of the halls, dwarfing Square Enix's booth, which somewhat miserably comprised of four large screens playing trailers on a loop while a large inflatable Chocobo floated idly above) there were still a selection of fascinating games. Some we knew about, some were fresh discoveries but most, sadly, may never make it outside of Japan. Still, here's a selection of some of the finest games to be found at this year's Tokyo Game Show.

Earth Defense Force 4

This one can get a little confusing. Despite what that number might suggest, Earth Defense Force 4 is in fact the first proper sequel to the much-loved Earth Defense Force 2017. How so? Well, 2017 was actually the third installment in Sandlot's series (which itself is getting a quite handsome Vita port), and it was treated to a spirited spin-off from American developer Vicious Cycle in the shape of Insect Armageddon.

Sandlot is back on the job, basically, and it's a delight to see its aggressively lo-fi stylings return. There's more detail on display - crowds of NPCs now flee from the swarms, while buildings aren't quite so quick to disappear into the floor once they've been toppled - and a tiny bit more polish, but the shabby appeal remains much the same.

It seems that Sandlot has a heightened sense of the ridiculous, but thankfully it doesn't appear to stoop to self-consciousness at any point. EDF4's trump card is the Wing Divers, a playable troop of jetpack-sporting women returning from earlier in the series and taking on the vehicle-heavy mantle of Insect Armageddon. A triumphant return to the series' ludicrous roots, then - let's hope that it crawls its way to the west.

Project X Zone

Ulala idly sings 'Space Harrier' to herself as she strolls on-screen to take down a Morolian. Opa-Opa flies in beside her, and as the Space Channel 5 star fires off two exquisitely timed pistol shots, Alien Storm's Scooter the robot appears, pulls his head off then hurries back off-screen. If you grew up idly admiring Sega's blue skies - or, for that matter, any aspect of popular Japanese video games over the last two decades - you're likely to make a happy noise or two at some point or another during Namco's Project X Zone on 3DS. This is fan service, but it's fan service delivered in triple portions and on a silver platter.

Thankfully there's more to Project X Zone than just testing how far your knowledge of Japanese games goes (I'll admit I started to draw blanks once characters started drifting in from the likes of Sakura Wars and the .hack series), and beneath those endless cameos is a strategy RPG that's fittingly hyperactive with its combat.

Players order a group of friendly units across a grid-based isometric field. Those units are pairings (Virtua Fighter's Akira and Pai team up, as do Tekken's Jin and Ling and Streetfighter's Ryu and Ken), but across the field are solo units that can be brought into play if you're fighting in their vicinity (and that's where Ulala fits in, and she's joined by other cult heroes such as Rival Schools' Batsu).

Combat itself takes plenty of cues from developer Banpresto's Super Robot Wars games, taking place on a 2D plane and asking for simple input commands and rhythm in order to juggle enemies in seemingly endless combos. They can climax, if worked right, with spectacular specials triggered with the shoulder button, with one setting off a solo attack while another calls upon the support character.

It's infectiously energetic, and combined with that exquisite fan service it's enough to tip you to fever point (my notes from the show floor start calmly before descending into frenzied scrawls: 'Batsu! OMG IT'S BATSU!'). There's every chance that this one could make it to the West, too - most games at TGS were accompanied by laminated sheets explaining the controls, and Project X Zone was one of the few that presented an English-language version. Someone clearly wants to drum up a little interest in this one overseas, and given what's on offer that shouldn't be too difficult at all.

E.X. Troopers

Capcom's anime-inspired Lost Planet spin-off for 3DS and PS3 was one of the surprises of the show - and it actually threatened to overshadow its Western-developed bigger brother. It helps, perhaps, that E.X. Troopers feels diametrically opposed to what Spark is doing with Lost Planet 3; rather than going for stark, lonely horror, this is playing for Japanese excess.

It does so brilliantly, a palette of soft pink, ice blue and glow-stick orange making for an attractive world that takes Lost Planet's world and puts it through a psychedelic spin-wash. Mechanically it performs a similar trick; this is still about third-person gunplay and blasting away at the Akrid's glowing orange weak spots, but it's been distilled into something brighter and breezier for E.X. Troopers. There's a jetpack that keeps the action ticking along at a brisk pace, and the lock-on circle strafe combat is light but engaging.

It feels like a PS2 game, but I mean that in the best possible sense; E.X. Troopers brings to mind the the kind of unheralded gem you'd find in the corner of a tatty games store and that would fill an entire happy weekend, and the kind of game that sadly seems lost this generation. There are no plans to bring this over to the West, but the PS3 release later this year seems like perfect import fodder.

Fantasy Life

Brownie Brown's whimsical RPG has been on the periphery for so long - the project started life as a DS game before moving to 3DS - that it threatened to become vapourware, so it's heartening to see it at Level 5's TGS stand. Fantasy Life's a big-hearted game, too, and the involvement of Final Fantasy stalwarts Nobuo Uematsu and Yoshitiaka Amano gives it a broader appeal than many other Japanese RPGs.

Fantasy Life is a gentle experience that's earned comparisons to Animal Crossing. It's a little broader in scope than Nintendo's misleadingly cutesy life simulator, but there's certainly a line that can be drawn between the two. At the outset you're asked what kind of life you want to lead, your answer either setting you towards a world of action as you're assigned to a mage, knight or archer class, or a more leisurely life as a fisherman or lumberjack.

The world you're set free on is vast and colourful - Amano's loose-lined artwork doesn't seem to extend to the game itself which is full of soft edges and childlike character design - but right now it feels a little sparse, and the many jobs that Fantasy Life offers feel wasted when there's a lack of any real work to be done.

One that could come to the West? Brownie Brown's games haven't had a particularly good track record of making it overseas (hell, even when they make an RPG about London it still doesn't make it over here), so it's sadly unlikely.

Yakuza 5

A funny, wonderful thing happened when I was strolling around Shinjuku in the build-up to this year's show. Completely lost in the neon sprawl of bars and shops, I managed to find my way out through some sort of instinct - an instinct I later realised was a knowledge of the area picked up through the Yakuza series. That much was made explicit when confronted with a towering poster in the area for Ryu ga Gotoku 5, which is fast approaching its Japanese release.

For all of its comic excesses, Yakuza manages to translate a certain something about Japan, and for Yakuza 5 it's spreading its wings to different corners of the country. Osaka, Fukuoka, Nagoya and Sapporo are all destinations on the game's map, explored by five playable characters in what feels like a logical extension of the path taken by Yakuza 4.

Unlike last time out, though, time has been spent on changing up the formula, and after the apocalyptic Dead Souls this is something of a fresh start for the series. That's not to say it's a radical departure - it'll still involve killing time in big cities by picking up one of the countless story threads or taking to a mini-game - but it's a slight rethink of what's gone before. The move from exploration to combat is now near-seamless, while those mini-games run deeper (there's talk of a fully playable Virtua Fighter 2 in one of the game's arcades, though sadly that's nowhere to be seen in the TGS demo).

All of Yakuza 5's predecessors have made it to the West, including the offbeat Dead Souls, so there's every chance that this will make it across too.

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