Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Chronsega Returns

Wow! The second episode of Chronsega is now ready and available to stream or download. For those just tuning in, Chronsega, is the companion series to Chrontendo, and is covering every release for the Sega Mark III/Master System in Chronological order. Episode Two examines 15 games released from September 1986 to February 1987, including the first US/Europe only releases. Unlike Nintendo, Sega wasted no time getting the Master System to the US, debuting it in October 1986, a year after the Japanese release. Before the year's end, Sega had 20 games on the US market; strangely enough, only 16 Mark III games hit the shelves in Japan that year. So from the very beginning, Sega was focusing very strongly on the Western market. As it happened, the Master System was most successful in Europe, Australia and Brazil.

In Chronsega Episode One, I lamented that most of the Mark III's releases seemed like rejected arcade games (along with a handful of ports of actual Sega arcade games.) The situation does improve somewhat this time around, with the November release of one of the Mark III's most fondly remembered games. Also on the board are an honest-to-good Portopia-style adventure game from Sega, as well as the usual arcade ports, US computer game ports, and so on...

Gold Medal goes to:

Alex Kidd in Miracle World

Our uncontested winner this episode is Sega's attempt at a Super Mario like killer app for the Mark III/Master System. While Alex Kidd sold only a fraction of the copies that the Mario game did, it remains (along with Phantasy Star) one of the few "must have" games for the system. The first Alex Kidd title, an arcade release called Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars, was a straightforward run and jump scrolling platformer. For the console-only sequel, Sega added some more advanced components into the mix. Alex Kidd now smashes blocks looking for items, collects money to spend in shops, rides a motorcycle and a helicopter, travels through vertical and horizontal levels, and explores maze like castles filled with some seriously tough platforming. While far from perfect - the controls are way too loose - Alex Kidd in Miracle World is slightly ahead of its time; it reminds me a little of Kid Icarus, which would be released a month later for the Famicom. Sega has proven they can make an excellent console game. Let's hope they pull this feat off again in 1987.

Silver Medals:

Space Harrier

At the end of 1986, the Mark III is finally graced with a port of one of Sega's greatest arcade games, Space Harrier. When Space Harrier first hit arcades in 1985, it was bleeding edge: incredibly fast action, amazing sprite based 3-D graphics, convincing speech. Can the Mark III hope to replicate this on a console? Definitely not, but it certainly tries its hardest. While the home version suffers from slower game play and problematic handling of sprites (see the image above), the fact even a semi-successful attempt was made to bring Space Harrier to a home console in 1986 is impressive.

The Circuit/World Grand Prix

The Mark III's first auto racing game plays like a four-wheeled version of Hang-On, but with a difference. After each race points are awarded based on your finishing time. After accumulating enough points, you can buy upgrades for your car. That's right, you can power up your car! However, these power ups only last for one race, thus preventing any progressive improvement of your stats. Still, it was a nice idea, and quite unusual at the time.

The Ninja

Terrible name, but surprising decent game. Certainly The Ninja is much better than the other vertical run and gun on display this episode, Ashura/Rambo/Secret Command. Your Ninja only has one weapon, but, to compensate, has the special ninja power to vanish momentarily. While most levels are standard Commando-style fare - you move upward, shooting at enemies that come down from the top of the screen to attack you - there are some more interesting, and more difficult levels thrown in. One level finds you running horizontally dodging enormous boulders; another places you in the middle of a horse stampede. All in all, The Ninja is better than its somewhat tarnished reputation would lead you to believe.

Brown Medal Games:

Ashura/Rambo/Secret Command

A terrible Commando/Ikari Warriors clone that manages to be less playable than than the Famicom/NES Ikari, Ashura is mostly notable for the fact that it was released in three different versions in different territories. In the US, it was Rambo: First Blood Part 2, in Japan, Ashura, with slightly different characters sprites, and in Europe, it was known as Secret Command. As if running around in broad daylight killing hundreds of people with machine guns and explosives could possibly be described as secretive behavior. At any rate, the game seems so Rambo-esque, down to the explosive tipped arrows, that I assume it was developed for US release as Rambo, then converted to the more generic Ashura for Japan, rather than vice-versa. Either way, this game is not a lot of fun.

Astro Warrior

The box for Astro Warrior should be labeled, "Marginally better than Satellite 7!" Yes, its another original vertical shooter for the Mark III. It looks and plays better than Satellite 7, but is absurdly easy, short and boring. While the Saturn, Dreamcast and even the Genesis had some excellent shoot-em-ups, the Mark III/Master System fell way behind the Famicom in this genre.

Double Target/Quartet

Port of Sega's four player arcade game, except that only two people can play! Quartet unsuccessfully tried to ride the wave of revenue generated by Atari's Gauntlet, but providing four player simultaneous action and an oversize cabinet. The Mark III port has been seriously cut down: the number of players reduced to two, the speech synthesis removed, and the graphics and music downgraded. What is left is the most unremarkable sidescrolling platforming imaginable, not really any better than the stuff Bandai was releasing for the Famicom around this time.

Also this episode:

Great Ice Hockey - A decent looking ice hockey game that requires a special controller, the Sega Sports Pad, to play. A US only title.

Great Golf - Sega chose not to simply rip off Nintendo's Golf for this release. It seems the Great Sports titles are showing some improvement.

High School! Kimengumi - The second game based on a licensed property ( the first being last episode's Hokuto no Ken), Kimengumi is a weird graphic adventure type game involving running around, collecting, then using various items.

Marksman Shooting/Trap Shooting/Safari Hunt - Combo cart only relased in the US (without Safari Hunt, which was included on a pack-in cart with Hang On) and Europe. To be used with Sega's light gun accessory.

Loretta no Shouzou - Sega makes a Japanese, Portopia style adventure game. Involving Sherlock Holmes!

To download Chronsega Episode 2, head on over to

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Chrontendo Episode 15: Enter the RPG

After that charming little diversion into the world of Sega, we are back with the newest episode of Chrontendo, which may be streamed or downloaded at! We open in early 1987, and the Famicom's release schedule starts picking up again, with a nice solid 8 titles released in February. Episode 15 is virtually a special RPG episode, with two distinctively Japanese RPGs released. A handful of RPG games came out in 1986, the first Dragon Quest, the Zelda/RPG hybrid Athena, Hydlide, and the western-style Deep Dungeon. But this episode sees two JRPGs released almost back to back; one turn based, and the other an action RPG. But both seem to embody many of the elements that would define the JPG: super deformed character designs, quirky enemies, a substantial amount of required leveling, a combination of fantasy and sci-fi themes, and a relatively clear cut plot and objectives. Episode 15 almost became a three RPG episode, but Marchen Veil, a purported action RPG, turned out to be more of a top down adventure game.

Episose 15's MVP:

Dragon Quest II/Dragon Warrior II

The inevitable sequel to Chunsoft/Enix's suprsise hit of 1986, Dragon Quest II was an even bigger success, selling around 2 and a half million copies in Japan. Later games would sell even more, resulting in DQ becoming perhaps the biggest video game franchise in Japan. In the 1987 the concept of a sequel to a video game was still a little fuzzy; video games with actual plots being
a recent development. Unlike Zelda 2, DQ II is everything you could want in a sequel. It fixed many of the frustrating things in the first DQ, and then improved and expanded upon the things in DQ that made that first game so unique. The major change is the increase of the number of characters from one to three and that multiple enemies are faced in each battle. This makes DQ II's battles require a bit more strategy, as you need to decide which monsters to attack first, how many characters to use offensively versus for support, and whether you want to spend valuable magic points on offensive spells to soften enemies up. Magic plays a much bigger role in this game, but still feels underpowered. There are no really powerful offensive magic spells; the closest DQ II comes to a Nuke spell is Explodet, which does decent damage, but misses with alarming freuency (hitting 1 or 0 enemies out of 3 or 4 is not uncommon).

I had played Dragon Quest II in the past, but never finished it. Compared to later RPGs, it seemed impossibly old fashioned and virtually unplayable. Latter day RPG players may recoil in horror at some of the game's old school peculiarities: if two characters have selected the same enemy to attack and the first character defeats that enemy, the second character will simply do nothing and lose a turn -- the early Final Fantasy games also had this quirk. Yet playing DQ II in the context of early 1987, it seems like a mini-masterpiece and huge step forward for RPGs and console games in general.

Other Interesting Games:


The second released from HAL Laboratory, Eggerland manages to be substantially better than Gall Force (covered in Chrontedo 13). HAL had previously released two games for the MSX computers, and the Famicom EggerlandEggerland is a reworking of the second MSX game. One of the best Sokaban type games of this era, Eggerland is creative, clever and sometimes head-bangingly challenging puzzler. HAL would follow this up with lots more titles in the Eggerland/Lolo series.

Esper Dream

Konami's first RPG was released three weeks after Draqon Quest II, and while it pales next to Enix's title, it is an intriguing game which can be appreciated by English speaking gamers thanks to an unoffical translation. Esper Dream is an action RPG in which enemies are visible on the overworld, but still uses a separate battle screen, similar to Ultima III. Eschewing the usual sword and sorcerty theme, Esper Dream takes place in storybook like setting, with enemies such as bugs, fish and chess peices. Oddly, your arsenal includes laser guns and bazookas as well as ESP abilities. At times Esper Dream can stupidly difficult - later enemies can take many, many hits to kill, even with the best weapons. And some attacks are impossible to avoid. As a result, strategy often plays little part in the game - getting through a level will usually depend on if you have a enough max HP or MP to make it to the boss.

Mickey Mouse

One of the few non-Capcom Disney games of this era, Mickey Mouse was developed and released in Japan by Hudson. By 1988, Capcom had already inked their deal with Disney, and Mickey Mouse ended up being released by Capcom in the US, under the name Mickey Mousecapade. Strangely, either Hudson or Capcom changed many of the enemy sprites for the US release. On first glance, Mickey Mouse appears to be a rather simple platorm game, something the kids can enjoy. However, it soon reveals itself to be sadistically tough at times, perhaps to compensate for the shortness of the game. Unfortunatley, though it is a better than average Famicom platformer, Mickey Mouse is not quite as good as it should be. Once again, Hudson is phoning it in for a game based on a licensed property.

The Bottom of the Barrel

Shin Jinrui: The New Type

The other Hudson release this episode is almost a complete disaster: a land based shoot-em-up that reminds me of Square's terrible King's Knight. The one notable thing about Shin Jinrui, aside from the title, is that it is the sole game published by Rix Soft. I have no idea how Hudson got mixed up with them, but Rix Soft turns out to be a short lived software division of Ricoh Elemex, a Japanese manufacturer of precision measuring equipment. Taken in conjunction with Adventure Island and Bonk, I'm beginning to think Hudson has some sort of caveman fetish.

Black Bass

Fishing is not exactly the most exciting sport, and you wouldn't expect a fishing video game to be thrill packed. Black Bass is the Famicom debut from the hideously named publisher Hot B. Aside from giving their company a name that sounds like a deviant sex act or an obscure Southern rapper, Hot B introduced fishing simulations into the world of console gaming. Granted, there were fishing games before this, like Fishing Derby for the 2600. But did Fishing Derby let you chose your lure, pick your spot in the lake to drop your line, or give you a reeling-in mini game? Nope, it was Black Bass that first gave us a gritty, realistic fishing video game. Not included: 6-pack of warm Schlitz.

Ultraman -Kaijuu Teikoku no Gyakushuu

This dull, unimaginative, sidescrolling platformer helps demonstrate has stagnant the genre was
becoming, less than a year and a half after Super Mario Bros. Marginally worse than the Tose developed Pocket Saurus; Ultraman makes this list due to the sloppy programming.

Also this episode:

Famicom Golf Japan Course - Another sports title from Nintendo, and a virtual remake of their earlier Golf, courtesy of HAL Laboratory.

Hiryu no Ken - Weird beat-em-up/platformer/fighting game hybrid from Culture Brain. The platforming sections are terrible, but the fighting levels are decent.

Nazoler Land - Jesus, another awful game from Sunsoft. This time it's a "magazine" title, which means Nazoler Land 2, 3, etc will follow shortly.

Ikanari Musician - No relation to Ikari Warriors, this is a very simple music program. With rabbits.

Marchen Veil - Port of 1985 Japanese computer game with a fantasy theme. It'd be nice to see an English translation of this, but I very much doubt this will turn out to be a lost classic.

Super Lode Runner - Wow. Another Lode Runner game, this time from Irem. Funny how almost every pre R-Type game from Irem turns out to be a little lame.

Pocket Zaurus: Ju Ouken no Nazo - You are transformed into a bowtie and glasses wearing dinosaur and must travel back in time to 10,000,000 BC. Then you move to the right and jump over stuff. Courtesy of Bandi and Tose.

Family Trainer Aerobics Studio/Dance Aerobics - Yet another Family Trainer game from Bandai, released in the US by Nintendo for the Power Pad. Don't worry, there's only a few dozen more of these to go.

And that is it! Check back next time for Chronsega Episode 2, featuring 15 games from August 1986 to February 1987. Then its back to the Famicom with Chrontendo Episode 16, featuring... a couple more cool Konami games.

Download or stream Chrontendo Episode 15 here