Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome to 2013 in the Land of Obscusion, and we're going to go into this month with a strong & plentiful focus on titles based on manga from the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump. This month is "Jump January", and one could say that the motto of this month comes from the insanity of Astro Kyudan (a.k.a. Team Astro): One Game, Full Throttle ("Isshiai Kanzen Nenshou" in Japanese). Though the focus of Jump January will be on a specific series of releases, what better way to ring in the new year & start this month off than to review another product of those crazy Astro Supermen?
When it comes to Astro Kyudan, there isn't that much out there in terms of multimedia. Sure, there's the original manga, which you can get in its original 20-volume release from the 70s, its 12-volume "Special Edition" release from the early-90s, or its (appropriately) insane 5-volume Ohta Publishing release from 1999, but outside of that there really isn't much else. In 1992 Group TAC (Touch, Captain Tsubasa, Night on the Galactic Railroad; filed for bankruptcy in 2010) was planning to make an anime adaptation, but a lack of support from TV stations due to a lack of baseball anime since 1990 plus a slowly-dwindling OVA industry kept that from happening; Ohta Publishing would later release TAC's original proposal & "steel cel prototype" in the 1999 book Astro Kyudan Memorial. Finally, in 2005 there was the live-action adaptation that I did review, and you can legally watch with English subs over at DramaFever.com, and in 2007 a pachislot machine based on the manga was released by JPS. But what I'm going to talk about is the title's sole video game entry, which was also released in 2005; this isn't Astro Kyudan's first video game appearance, though, since it was represented in the 1988 RPG Famicom Jump: Hero Retsuden for the Nintendo Famicom (Kyuichi Uno was a recruitable character).
This Playstation 2 game, developed by Sunrise Interactive (yes, the same Sunrise that makes Gundam), is all about one story arc: The match with Team Victory. Essentially, this game compiles the craziest moments from this match and has them play out in sequential order, having you play as both Team Astro & Team Victory at different points. So where's the gameplay? Well, here's where the game gets interesting... And simple.
As it says on the back cover of the game, the "Game System is 'Simple is Best'!!" Literally, the craziest moments in the story require the player to do something simple, like matching button prompts, spinning the analog sticks, or simple button mashing. True to the series' style, though, laid back effort won't win you anything, as you'll be required to do some fast button matching, twirl those analog sticks like there's no tomorrow, and mash the buttons on your controller to the point where you think you'll destroy the controller in the process! The button mashing specifically is absolutely absurd, as you'll be mashing everything but the d-pad, start, & select buttons (you can't even pause!); yes, at points you'll have to mash the square, X, triangle, & circle buttons, all four shoulder buttons (at the same time!), and even the L3 & R3 buttons (i.e. clicking in the analog sticks). All of this fills up a meter at the bottom of the screen to complete each objective & all the while you're accumulating "Astro Guts", which are essentially points. It's important to continue matching, spinning, & mashing even after you've filled up the meter, though, because not only are your Astro Guts for each challenge saved as a high score, but there are even three different endings that you can get (bad, not as bad, & "True"), which are determined by you total Astro Guts in the end. If you don't succeed in beating a challenge you can continue, but it costs 10,000 Astro Guts to do so, which is removed from your total, so getting the true ending might not be as easy as it sounds.
Because of this simplicity, though, there is one major problem with the game: It's extremely short. Literally, one could go through the entire game in roughly 2-3 hours, depending on how many times you need to continue. As you beat each of the nine challenges & attain each of the three endings you can view/play them again individually via the Album for the sake of attaining a higher score than last time (as Kyuichi says for each new high score, "There's no need for previous glory!), but aside from that the only other replayability is for the sake of seeing each of the insane moments from this story arc over and over again. Personally, these scenes are infinitely enjoyable to watch, but I can definitely see where the simplicity really hurts this game's longevity.
Another issue is with a specific mini-game, which is the batting & pitching sequences that happen between each major challenge. Essentially, when batting all you have to do is follow the pitch and press the button it's heading to at the right time for the strongest hit. Pitching let's you choose which pitch to use (either a fastball or a special pitch), followed by a quick meter timing challenge where you have to press a button at the right time for a strike; if you fail at that, then you have to press the corresponding button that the hit ball heads towards. Unfortunately, it's horribly unbalanced in terms of pitchers, because Kyuichi has three different special pitches (the Skylab Pitch, Rainbow Breaking Ball, & Phantom Miracle Ball), while Kyushiro only has one (the Skylab), which makes pitching as Kyushiro feel very hollow compared to pitching as Kyuichi. While there's nothing wrong with these sequences, they're just so plain compared to the actual challenges and feel like nothing but filler.
Finally, from a story standpoint this game is not very friendly to newcomers to Astro Kyudan. Setting aside the fact that the game starts with the last story arc of the manga, entire sequences in the story arc, like Dynamite Ken's removal from Team Victory, Kyugo's major injury during the game (hell, Kyugo isn't even voiced!), & Baron Mori's introduction, are essentially skipped over, getting only text explanations during the game with pages of the manga in the background. This game pretty much requires that you have read the manga, or at least watched the live-action adaptation, before playing if you want to fully understand each of these sequences. Admittedly, though, Astro Kyudan is so insane & absurd that playing this game without having any previous knowledge of the series probably won't hurt too much. It is worth it alone to see stuff like Kyuroku's Andromeda Nebula Swing, Ujiie vs. Kyuichi, or Daimon hitting Kyuzaburo with the Human Niagara... Yeah, Human Niagara.
Visually, the game really does an excellent job adapting the manga, with many shots looking exactly like the manga, except in color. The music is also a nice highlight, with a style that actually reminded me of the always awesome God Hand from Capcom; there's only about four or five actual songs in the game, but they all sound great, from slow themes for sad moments to fast beats for the insanity of these challenges. The game also uses the song "Astro Kyudan Ouenkan" by Douhatsuten, that awesome insert theme from the J-Drama, for the title screen, and the ending credits theme is a simple little song which is, appropriately, all about being a MAN. Finally, though not every line in the game is voiced, the cast is worthy of note, especially since none of them are exactly super-well-known names in the industry:
Kyuichi Uno: Atsushi Imaruoka (Dallas Geonard in Baccano!, Stroheim in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure)
Kyuji Ueno & Shinjiro Ujiie: Yuuichi Ishigami (Hazuki Kirishima in Makademi Wasshoi!, Ogura in Play Ball)
Kyuzaburo Ijuin: Yoshimasa Hosoya (Yukitaka in Level E, Sentaro Kawabuchi in Kids on the Slope)
Kyuroku Takao: Kazuhiro Anzai (Johnny in Cobra the Animation, Kojimo in Gunslinger Girl -Il Teatrino-)
Kyushichi Akechi: Jun Oosuka (Ogawa in Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu, Senri Chitose in Prince of Tennis)
Kyuhachi Akechi: Yasumichi Kushida (Nobusuma in Demon Prince Enma, Sneivan in The Last Remnant)
Daimon Ijuin: Kouji Hiwatari (Kurain in Fresh Pretty Cure, Viscount Braunschweig in Meine Liebe wieder)
Baron Mori: Yoshitaka Kuremoto (Nakayama in Play Ball)
Female Doctor: Komichi Yamawaki (Kasuga in Kikou Sen'nyo Rouran)
Kyushiro Touge: Hideo Watanabe (Makaze in Ring ni Kakero 1: Shadow, Narrator in Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings)
All of these people do a very good job with their characters, with some going above & beyond in order to truly fit in with the frenzy of absurdity this title delivers. Imaruoka in particular does an absolutely amazing Kyuichi by sounding like he's trying to scream his vocal chords out of his throat with most of his lines. Also of note is Kuremoto's pompous-yet-passionate Baron, Watanabe's Kyushiro, & Hosoya & Hiwatari's Ijuin brothers. Considering how most of these seiyuus are known for more subdued & calm roles, it's pretty cool (& surprising) to hear them belt out some very hot-blooded performances here.
Astro Kyudan: Kessen! Victory Kyudan-hen ("Team Astro: Decisive Battle! Team Victory Chapter" in English) is purposefully meant to be a simple game, and with that comes some issues regarding overall length & replayability, but the visual content of the story arc's craziest scenes, combined with some very good vocal performances, really helps make this game better than the sum of its parts. Even though there is no English translation for this game, its simplicity & easy-to-understand dramatics make it very easy to pick-up & play, and with the live-action J-Drama being available with English subtitles legally, one can simply watch that and then have some quick & crazy fun with this game. It isn't exactly easy to get outside of Japan, but it doesn't tend to cost too much now, usually ~$20 on the high side, so if you can play Japanese PS2 games and are able to buy this up, I say go ahead & do so... "Short but sweet" has never been more appropriate.