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Monday, July 16, 2018

Akira Psycho Ball: TESUOOOOOOOO!!!!! MULTI-BAAAALLLL!!!!!

Katsuhiro Otomo may not have a large catalog of work, but he remains one of the most iconic & influential names in both anime & manga, and his magnum opus is most definitely Akira. Debuting first as a manga in Young Magazine back in 1982, Otomo would work on it here & there while also working on anime productions like Neo Tokyo & Robot Carnival, before finishing it up in 1990, with a total of 6 volumes. On July 16, 1988, a host of companies decided to bring the manga into anime form as a theatrically released movie, with Otomo only agreeing to such an idea if he was given total creative control, which resulted in him becoming the director of the movie itself, and animation so fluid & mind-blowing (in general, let alone for its time) that the movie came with an absurdly high ¥1.1 billion, or roughly $10 million, budget that it obviously just could not recoup in its home country; only when you account for worldwide that the movie made its money back. Today, however, the Akira movie is looked at as one of the all-time greatest anime ever made, if not simply one of the best movies, in general; to this day, it remains the sole anime that The Criterion Collection ever released (Laserdisc #151).

So pinball sounds like the perfect tie-in for a movie about a mad, newly-powered psychic causing havoc & destruction everywhere he goes... Right?


Obviously, with hype of a scale such as this at the time, there were going to be video games to go with it. Unfortunately, this movie has had nothing but a rough time when it comes to this medium. The first game was 1988's Akira for the Nintendo Famicom, which was a visual novel-esque adventure game by Taito that was notorious for its ridiculous difficulty, with decisions that can kill you instantly, & sometimes requiring the player to pick painfully obtuse & illogical decisions, multiple times at that, in order to advance; even Famitsu gave it a 17 out of 40, or an average of 4.25/10 from each reviewer. For the longest time afterwards, the only other Akira game to see release was a British-developed action game for the Amiga & CD32 by International Computer Entertainment in 1994; it, too, was lambasted for its poor quality. Around the same time, THQ was developing a few Akira games for the Atari Jaguar, SNES, Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Game Boy & Game Gear, but all of them were postponed before eventually being canceled; prototypes for some of these unfinished games have since been retrieved & preserved, and now can be found online. After all that, there wouldn't be another Akira game until 2002, when Bandai worked with the video pinball meastros over at KAZe for Akira Psycho Ball for PlayStation 2, which came out to help promote the newly-remastered DVD release of the movie; Europe would receive the game in 2003 by Infogrames, using the 2001 Pioneer dub for audio. Unfortunately, there isn't much in terms of useful information regarding this game, at least in English, as nearly every review you can find online more or less dismisses Psycho Ball, either because the reviewer simply associates it with the piss-poor games that came before (including THQ's unreleased games), or outright downplays its relevance simply because it's a pinball game.

Therefore, to both celebrate Akira's Pearl Anniversary & put an end to my coverage of KAZe's video pinball legacy, let me tell you what Akira Psycho Ball really is all about, because this might very well be the best, if most forgotten, entry in the Digital Pinball franchise.

Being a pinball game, it should be obvious that it's nigh-impossible for the plot of the movie to be properly "adapted" in full. Instead, the game has four tables based on specific scenes: Neo Tokyo, an interesting competition-based table inspired by the iconic opening sequence where Kaneda, Tetsuo, & their biker gang take on the rival Clown gang; The Laboratory, which is primarily based on the scene where Kaneda joins up with Kei, Ryu, & their anti-government terrorist group to infiltrate the lab Tetsuo was taken to; A-Room, which adapts the eponymous "Baby Room" where Tetsuo first gets a proper feel for his new psychic powers; & Olympic Stadium, based on the location of the film's memorable climax.


As indicated earlier, Akira Psycho Ball is the final entry in KAZe's Digital Pinball franchise, & is the last pinball game in general the company would develop for consoles, but one wouldn't be able to tell at first glance, because it lacks most of the stylistic trademarks of DP, or even Super Pinball before it. In fact, the only mentions of Digital Pinball at all are on the disc & manual cover, where it officially(?) is fully titled Digital Pinball: Akira Psycho Ball, & the "dP" logo appearing on the cover & on screen before the intro plays; Infogrames' release even removes the logo from the front cover! I'd argue that this game was hastily made a part of the franchise to rely on the cachet it had, but by the time the original Japanese release happened, it had been roughly five years since the last release, Last Gladiators Ver.9.7, and even that was apparently a limited release only available via mail order! Anyway, arguably two of the most iconic things about Digital Pinball were the meticulously-drawn, pre-rendered tables & the hard rock/metal-focused soundtrack, and Akira Psycho Ball has neither of them. In this game, the tables are all rendered in real-time using polygons, & the soundtrack is far removed from the over-the-top rock of the mid-90s. Luckily, though, what the game lacks in terms of Digital Pinball's aesthetic, it more than makes up for with the gameplay.

In fact, I'd argue that Akira Psycho Ball feels like an evolution of what KAZe had done in the 90s, even more so than the move from Super to Digital; it's like how The Numbers in Akira were looked at as the evolution of human capbility. This is immediately showcased with the Neo Tokyo table, which is literally two identical tables put side-by-side & connected at the top via a giant half-pipe, plus some ramps that go around the back, with the goal being to launch balls to the opposing side & force the opponent to drain more balls first. You can deactivate your opponent's kickbacks, activate ramps that you can shoot a ball into that lead directly into your opponent's outlanes, and with a seemingly-constant rate of balls in play at any given time, the action never slows down. Even today, such a table concept is pretty much impossible to create in real life, and that fantastical feel carries over into the remaining tables, which are much more traditional in concept, but offer just as enjoyable experiences.


As for The Laboratory, A-Room, & Olympic Stadium, Akira Psycho Ball offers an interesting twist. Instead of simply making an individual table for each, the game mixes things up by only having the top 1/3 of each table actually be specific to each area. As for the other 2/3 of the table, they actually rotate out between three "rounds" that always work in a specific order: Kaneda vs. Army, Tetsuo vs. Numbers, & Tetsuo vs. Kaneda. Kaneda vs. Army is the most basic, Tetsuo vs. Numbers adds in a second level & an extra pair of flippers, & Tetsuo vs. Kaneda splits the inlanes into four, making getting access to extra ball, which requires you to light up the inlanes & then hit a drop target, harder to accomplish. While it does sound like this results in the three areas feeling very similar to each other, since the three main playfields are overall shared between them, it is that upper 1/3 that really does make each area its own table. The Laboratory requires you to time a shot so that you launch a ball into the properly-lit hole so that you have the correct key card, A-Room has you run certain lanes in order to open up a trap door, while Olympic Stadium climaxes with three, four, & even five-ball multiball. There are also "mini-games" to activate, some of which utilize two or three-ball multiball, & both The Laboratory & Olympic Stadium feature "subfields", ala classic pinball machine Black Hole. These subfields allow for more scenes from the movie to be utilized, specifically the sewers beneath the lab where Kaneda & Kei commander a floating security vehicle, the Akira Dome beneath the stadium, & even the SOL orbital laser that fires down upon Tetsuo near the end. In the long run, this gives the game on the whole a total of nine tables, if you want to be technical, and while this method does result in a little bit of sameness between the three main tables, I think the ways they do differ help keep things from becoming monotonous.

Probably the most interesting thing about Akira Psycho Ball, though, is when you find out who was behind it over at KAZe. Though a Digital Pinball game, to some extent, this was not headed up by Takashi Kobayashi. While Norio Nakagata was still involved as "Chief Director", this game was actually designed & directed by Naruaki Sasaki, the man behind Super Pinball II: The Amazing Odyssey &, last we saw, Power Rangers Zeo: Full Tilt Battle Pinball! Considering how flawed that latter game was, it's honestly amazing how well this game came out, showing that Sasaki did know his pinball & how to make a good one. Whereas Zeo's game was too focused on featuring Power Rangers stuff, & possibly making it less of an honest-to-god pinball game, Akira Psycho Ball aimed to be a pinball game first, and it's all the better for it. It's also much easier to be able to instantly tell what you have to do in terms of objectives, as the game relegates specific colors of lighting on the field to specific things: Blue is for "clearing" a table, yellow is for activating mini-games, green is for activating the extra-ball drop target, & orange is for things like kickback & ball "freeze" (i.e. the ball saving mechanism). In terms of controls, the game follows the same basic control schemes that the prior KAZe games used, and the physics are simply outstanding; there were moments where I feel like the ball just barely missed where I was aiming, but maybe I'm just not that good. Another nice touch is that it's very easy & consistent to catch the ball with a flipper, as long as it comes down an inlane; it doesn't break the balance, but it also makes it welcoming for less-seasoned pinball players.

This is an actual 1980 Buck Rogers table that got
custom-made into an Akira table. The back cover
for Psycho Ball's manual has this exact image on it.

Graphically, the game still holds up really well, and since nothing is pre-rendered, it's able to feel much more "alive" than the older KAZe games. For example, during A-Room a teddy bear walks across the field that you can hit & destroy, & there's an entire mini-game about destroying a monstrous form of it, while in Olympic Stadium the SOL laser constantly blasts down onto the field; it doesn't alter the field in any way, but it's still a nice touch. There are also small, more subtle nods, like how your ball will have a color trail behind it when launched at full strength, referencing the iconic trails that the motorcycles had. The game also takes advantage of the PS2's enhanced FMV playback capabilities by showing off various scenes from Akira during gameplay. Granted, this is normally done as a replacement for the usual dot-matrix scenes that would play when activating mini-games, losing a ball, or clearing a table, but the Neo Tokyo table does feature a looping piece of footage that plays on the sides of each screen during competition. If anything, it feels a little like Williams' barely-existed Pinball 2000 line from 1999, which only predated Akira Psycho Ball by three years. In terms of video quality, the smaller videos look really nice, but the full-screen videos don't look too amazing. I blame it for the game being released on CD, instead of the more-standard DVD that PS2 games used; I guess they didn't want the game to outright show the fully-remastered footage in full-screen. As for the music, KAZe went with its in-house composer Yusuke Takahama, and while it's not the same thing as the haunting movie score done by Shoji Yamashiro & the Geino Yamashiro Gumi, it still follows the general style to an extent, with a heavy use of percussion to go alongside the use of guitars; it's an interesting middle ground between Digital Pinball's metal-focused style, & Akira's orchestral style. The game also uses an English-speaking "narrator", who does a fine job, though there is a second one for the Neo Tokyo table that does get really repetitive whenever a player drains a ball; you'll quickly get tired of hearing "Left Player, LOOOST!" (at least, that's what I think he's saying).


I completely understand that Akira, sadly, doesn't have a good reputation when it comes to video game adaptations, but that doesn't mean that people should be instantly throwing Akira Psycho Ball in with the other games just by association, let alone simply because it's in a non-standard genre. Is it odd that the best video game based on one of the most iconic anime films of all time is a video pinball game? Sure, I guess, and there's no doubt that it's effectively the best by default, due to the rest being just terrible, but that doesn't mean that you should belittle Akira Psycho Ball in any way. Yes, the implementation of Akira might be more ancillary than anything, though no more or less than most other pinball machines based on licensed properties, but it's just such a good game of pinball, and it really does feel like the proper evolution of what KAZe had done back in the 90s, mixing together the outstanding flow & ball physics with things that you just can't do with actual pinball tables; personally, I'd play this more than Digital Pinball: Necronomicon. Naruaki Sasaki managed to redeem himself after Power Rangers Pinball, and it's a bit sad that KAZe is no longer in the game industry, because the people there had amazing talent that I don't think was truly appreciated until years later. Today, Akira Psycho Ball doesn't command insane prices by any means, usually around $15-$30, and this applies to either the Japanese or European release. Yes, the best Akira video game is a pinball game, but it's really damn awesome pinball, so deal with it.

Happy 30th Anniversary, Akira!

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