Saturday, May 23, 2009

Chrontendo Past and Present

Another inter-episode post today. Again, Episode 21 moves slowly. Blame the torpor brought on by a sudden summery heatwave.

I do however, have a couple thoughts about last episode. A comment from a much more prolific video game blogger than myself mentioned that Super Mario Bros 2 was one of the few good early NES games that allowed you to play as a female. This made me pause for a moment and wonder whether the inclusion of Princess Peach as a playable character was an intentional attempt to include young girls in SMB 2's target audience. (Or was it merely a matter of necessity? Nintendo needed to fill four slots with Mario characters. If not Princess Peach, then who? Bowser?)

Typically, video games aimed specifically at girls have been indifferently designed and more than a little lame. Think of all those horrible Barbie games as well as our very own Lost Word of Jenny. Assuming that girls either do not like or will not be able to play games that require much coordination or skill, "girl games" tend to strip out most of what makes video games enjoyable. The result is often is often a dull, toothless, repetitive game (of course, young children often enjoy such things. Much children's entertainment is fantastically dull to adults). The problem with developing and marketing games to females is that it is usually done in a very condescending way. Making a video based around supposedly female-specific concerns (let's say, shopping or horsies) is really no different than taking a cell phone, painting it pink, adding a few rhinestones and then claiming said phone is designed specially for women. Surely, ladies, isn't this a bit insulting?

However, all this stuff about making games for females seems pretty academic as far as Chrontendo is concerned, since I'm not sure we've actually seen many games aimed at girls, other than Lost Word of Jenny. Yet, there have been games that have featured female protagonists: Wing of Madoola, Apple Town Monogatari (whose character frequently exposes her panties when bending over), Dirty Pair, Titanic Mystery, and of course.... Metroid. As far as I can tell, these were all created with the typical male gamer in mind. It's clear that the most of the female protagonists in these games were intended for the purpose of titillation, not identification. Japan seems to have virtually invented the concept of female characters in video games. There were a few exceptions, such as Ms Pacman*, (and, er.... this game), but it wasn't until the mid-80s that we suddenly saw a wave of Japanese-developed titles for the arcade, home computer, and Famicom featuring female protagonists, often of the big-eyed anime variety. RPGs would end up being the genre to most organically incorporate female characters (female warriors having been a long-standing trope in western fantasy literature, it was natural they would wind up in D&D and its offspring). Despite often being stuck in the healer/support magic role (at least in Japanese games), the ladies in RPGs at least were sometimes sensibly attired.

Which brings us to Valis, Telenet Japan's series of action/platform games featuring short-skirted schoolgirl Yuko. Originally an MSX title, mysterious and unknown hands completely redesigned the game and released it as Mugen Senshi Valis on the FDS. The game is a mess, but surprisingly features none of the cute girl artwork and up-the-skirt shots the series is known for. In 1987 there was enough sex appeal inherent in the act of controlling a young, blue haired girl to satisfy most male gamers. Later iterations of this game, such as the far superior PC Engine version, would focus more heavily on Yuko's scantily clad charms, but in Mugen Senshi Valis she is surprisingly modestly dressed.

On the other end of the scale we have Taito's Kiki KaiKai. Its not clear exactly how old your character is supposed to, but her superdeformed proportions give her a sexless quality. So much so that a bootleg version of the game was released in the west as Knight Boy. While I don't know exactly who Kiki Kaikai was aimed at, it is an early example of using adorable, pre-adolescent girls as characters in video games. While young girls would eventually become highly sexualized in Japanese games, that moment hasn't really arrived yet.** Whatever their motivations for doing so, by 1987 male gamers had the option to play as a female character if they so desired.

All of this makes Nintendo's understated use of female characters in Doki Doki Panic/SMB 2 look even more admirable by comparison.

*For those not familiar with the story behind Ms Pacman, it was a western developed game.

**Standard adult themed video games, however, had already begun to appear on PCs and arcades in Japan. Nichibutsu, for example, had released a series of strip Mahjong arcade games, and even Sega had a naughty
Arkanoid rip-off, Block Gal, in arcades. Most adult arcade games are standard Mahjong or puzzle games that reward you with images of undressed women between rounds.

Monday, May 18, 2009

About that Episode 20

Fans of streaming video might be irked by the lack of streamosity in the last episode of Chrontendo. What's going on, you wonder? Well, Episode 20 suffered from the same issue as Chronsega 3: sync problems with the 256K MP4 file. Poking around's forums, it seems that program they use to derive the smaller size formats was updated sometime in April. Clearly, the updated version doesn't like the AVI files I've been uploading, since it causes much screwiness when it tries to compress them. I think I'll try authoring Episode 21 a little differently and see it that changes things.

Speaking of which, if you're wondering how Episode 21 is coming along, the answer is, "slowly." It's turning out to be sort of a tough nut to crack; it's almost sort of an "all-star" episode. Not only does it feature a mind-blowing three big Konami action adventure games, but also Square's Rad Racer, a forgotten Bomberman sequel from Hudson, Bandai's foray in to the world of RPGs, the first console game in Telenet's Valis series, the first game in Taito/Natsume's Pocky and Rocky series (sans Rocky), a little known shooter from HAL, and sundry bits of video game debris from the likes of Towachiki and Takara. of those Konami games is none other than Castlevania II!

On a somewhat related topic, I've decided to throw up a link to another great gaming site, Hardcore Gaming 101. A bit more than a mere review site, HG101 provides absurdly detailed and exhaustive write ups of classic games, both series and individual titles, with a focus on the forgotten and obscure. I was quite surprised and pleased to find they just posted an article on a game that I was working on for Episode 21, Almana no Kiseki. So check it out for a pseudo-preview of the next Chrontendo.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Twenty Episodes of Chrontendo!

It's a special anniversary edition of Chrontendo! We've now reached the twentieth installment of our humble little series. Feel free to head on over to and check out Chrontendo Episode 20.

This episode is coming out a little later than I had originally planned, so you have my apologies for that. I ended up taking a mini-vacation last week and left my cares behind for a few days. While I didn't leave town, I managed to check out some restaurants I've been meaning to go to and catch a few local shows.

Calling it an "anniversary episode" is probably the only way I can justify the unseemly length of this one. Upon editing it together, even I gasped when I saw the running length of the final cut. I'm going to chalk it up to two things: Doki Doki Panic/Super Mario Bros 2 being such a cool game and the bonus content included this time around. I had previously mentioned that a new, semi-regular feature would be making its first appearance in Episode 20. And true to my word, I've put in a little history of the British developer Rare, since Rare's first NES game, Slalom is covered this episode.

From Rare: Atic Atac, Battletoads, & Perfect Dark

Rare is a bit of a paradox; it's not really clear whether they should be considered a producer of good games or not. On one hand you have Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, games that almost everyone loves. Yet Rare's Donkey Kong and Banjo Kazooie games have seen their stock fall quite a bit since they were released. At one time universally praised, Donkey Kong Country and its sequels are now beginning to look like average platformers gussied up with cutting edge graphics.

Pre-DKC, the situation is even murkier. NES fans may remember Rare as the name in the credits of so many terrible games based on movies or TV game shows. Probably their biggest legacy from the 8-bit era is Battletoads, a title whose reception has been "mixed", to put it gently. But in the UK, Rare (or rather, Ultimate Play the Game, as they called themselves back then) is worshiped as the ne plus ultra of computer game design. Reading old reviews of ZX Spectrum titles such as Sabre Wulf or Knight Lore, one would think these were not just video games, but divine gifts to humanity, handcrafted by JHWH himself, and then presented to mankind on a solid gold dais slowly descending from heaven, surrounded by hosts of angels, while a celestial choir sings the Hallelujah chorus.* A contemporary gamer encountering these works for the first time will probably just scratch his head and wonder what all the fuss was about.

All of this is part of an attempt on Chrontendo's part to give a bit more context to the games we're covering. While focusing on the Famicom, it's easy to forget just how many games were being released in the arcades and for home computers. For this same reason, we do a quick rundown of the first three Dragon Slayer games while discussing Dragon Slayer IV/Legacy of the Wizard.

Obviously, the big game this episode is none other than Doki Doki Panic/Super Mario Bros 2/Super Mario USA.

Playing this game again after so many years, I must say... it's fantastic! The game is incredibly well designed, has tons of gameplay variety and surprises, and introduces a new and fresh mechanic for dealing with enemies (something we don't see everyday for the Famicom.) Considering it was developed by Nintendo's "dream team" of Miyamoto, Tezuka and Kond, this should come as no surprise. While discussing SMB2 this episode, I speculate as to whether or not Doki Doki was developed with the intent of eventually turning it into a Mario game.

Exciting Basket/Double Dribble

One of the first really great sports games for the Famicom, Double Dribble remains fondly remembered (at least in the US) to this day. Basketball games are hard to pull off, and compared to the miserable failure that was Sega's Great Basketball, covered in Chronsega 3, Konami's game is a joy to play. Much like Exciting Billiards, animated cut scenes are thrown in at key points. Though I would argue that slam dunking is a bit more exciting that watching some guy shoot a pool ball.

Monty no Doki Doki Daisassou

This one came as a bit of a surprise. Jaleco are becoming the go-to guys for weird ports of western computer games (see also Knight Lore from Chrontendo 13. While researching Rare's old Spectrum games, I discovered that Jaleco's port more resembles a similar game from Rare, Pentagram, than the original Knight Lore.) Ostensibly based on Gremlin's Monty of the Run, Jaleco's version borrows almost nothing from the original. Instead, Jaleco chose to create a brand new game, even changing the character of Monty from a mole to a human! What's even odder is that Jaleco's Monty is pretty good. I haven't exactly been impressed with most Jaleco games so far, but they seem to be moving in the right direction.

Dragon Slayer IV/Legacy of the Wizard

Here's a tricky one. The fourth game in Falcom's Dragon Slayer series, and the first console game from Falcom, DS IV walks the line between good and bad. While it is an ambitious, carefully crafted game that allows you to explore an enormous, complex dungeon, trying to actually play DS IV is an exercise in frustration. The player is given virtually clues as to what to do once you enter the dungeon, and the dungeon itself is is too huge and difficult to navigate. Do there really need to be so many dead ends or ladders that terminate in a brick wall? Is it necessary to constantly be forced to look for hidden exits and breakable walls? The inventory screen itself is enough to give most gamers pause. One commenter on the last post mentioned that he enjoyed playing this game back in the day. Well, some people enjoy being made to suffer; as proof, see the 30 minute speed run that said commenter kindly provided a link to.

For kusoge games, you can find few more perfect examples that Batsu and Terii. Taken from a baseball themed manga, Batsu combines the platform based gameplay of Super Mario Bros with the keen aesthetic sensibilities of Hokuto no Ken. One of my favorite moments came when facing the first boss; he can be defeated simply by walking into him! Your character takes a bit a of damage, but so does the boss - enough to kill him, as a matter of fact.

Square's first console RPG, Cleopatra no Mahou, is a bit of a disaster. It serves as a painful reminder that not every Square game was designed by Hironobu Sakaguchi. Cleopatra is actually an unsuccessful attempt to meld an RPG with the Japanese menu based adventure game. Grinding becomes much more tedious that normal when you are required to select a "move" option from the menu every time want to take a step forward.

Rare's first console game, Slalom isn't exactly a promising start. While downhill skiing seems like a good premise for a game, the imprecise controls suck most of the enjoyment out of it. That, and the fact that you spend the entire game looking at your skier's lovingly detailed butt cheeks.

Hector '87/Starship Hector

Considering that Hudson's last Famicom shoot-em-up was the very fun Star Soldier, I was really looking forward to the quasi-sequel Hector. However, Hector turned out to be a little too old school for my tastes. Aside from being absurdly hard, the complete and total lack of power-ups was a deal breaker for me. It's too bad, because Hector is not a bad looking game, but there are way too many enemies and not enough firepower for my tastes.

Also featured:

Chester Field: A sidescrolling action RPG type game similar to last episode's Zombie Hunter, but better.

Fantasy Zone: I'm not sure what the deal here is, but somehow Sunsoft has brought a port of Sega's classic cute-em-up to the Famicom. This means that (not counting Wonder Boy/Adventure Island) Fantasy Zone is the first Sega game to receive a Famicom port, and that it is the first game to be covered twice by Chrontendo: in this episode and in Chronsega Episode 1.

Titanic Mystery - Ao no Senritsu: Just like the Monty game, this is a heavily modified port of a C-64 game. This one is courtesy of Gakken, another mainstream Japanese publishing house who decided to try their luck in the video game field.

Karaoke Studio
: Bandai continues to reach out to the casual gamer crowd with this one. It's really just 8-bit music videos that you sing along with.

Family Trainer - Meiro Daisakusen: The fifth game in Bandai's Family Trainer series.

Jongbou: Mahjong meets Arkanoid - a match made in heaven.

Mahjong Kazoku: Mahjong meets nothing.

And there we have it! All in all, I found this to be a satisfying episode; it has a bit of everything. Episode 21 will prove to be.... interesting. There's a pretty solid lineup of games, and I'm going to have to struggle to avoid the bloat that Episode 20 suffers from.

There are a few more remarks I have on the games this episode, but I'll save that for another post.

In the meantime, stream or download Episode 20 here.

*One ecstatic reviewer described Sabre Wulf as "unrateable." Presumably because the normal human brain cannot fully comprehend the vast sublimities of this game.