Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Decline and Fall of Taito

The upcoming Episode 29 brings to mind the sad state of affairs of one-time video game goliath Taito. You younger folks may not realize this, but at one time Taito was one of the grand old men of the video game scene, right up there with Atari, Sega, Namco and Konami. But after almost thirty episodes of Chrontendo, one thing has become painfully clear: Taito hasn't really been producing much for the Famicom.

Once a giant, now merely a subsidiary of Square Enix.

This is odd behavior on Taito's part. The Famicom single handedly revitalized the video game market in the mid-80s. As the arcade scene was slowly sliding into obsolescence, Nintendo's console was bringing in literally billions of dollars. Taito's response to this massive shift in the market was to produce a handful of arcade ports, along with the occasional original Famicom game, often utilizing outside developers. As we've seen, these original games have been almost exclusively awful.

Taito was, like Sega and Namco, a long established presence in the amusement industry when they began producing video arcade games in 1973. Through a distribution deal with Midway, their games were found in US arcades by the mid-70s. It was their 1978 mega-hit, Space Invaders that really kicked off the video game mania of the late 70s/early 80s, and set the stage for Japan's dominance in video game production in the 80s and 90s. While Taito never replicated the sucess of Space Invaders, a series of subsequent arcade hits, Qix, Elevator Action, Arkanoid, Bubble Bobble, etc, kept the at the top of the video game dog pile for a while.

The game that reportedly triggered a ¥100 coin shortage in Japan. For a while, Taito was the biggest producer of video games in the world.

By 1984 and 1985, all the major arcade manufactures, were devoting more and more attention to the home console market. Nintendo, Sega, Namco, Konami and Capcom all began allocating resources to create titles for the Famicom or SMS, and by 1988, huge dividends were being paid out for these investments. The odd man out was, or course, Taito. The most successful Taito products we've seen so far in Chrontendo have been port of Arkanoid and Bubble Bobble. Great games, sure. But look at their original releases for the Famicom: Takeshi no Chousenjou, Musashi no Ken, Mirai Shinwa Jarvas, Kyonshiizu 2. This must be one of the most embarrassingly bad selections of games produced by a major video game company, ever.

Musashi no Ken
. Remember this one? Me neither.

The two games that turn up in Chrontendo Episode 29 don't buck this trend. First off is Arkanoid II, a fine port of their 1987 arcade game that doesn't really expand much on the original. Now Arkanoid's a great game - don't get me wrong. But, when the chips are down, it's really just an updated version of Breakout, a Atari game from 1976.

More block-breaking action. A well produced port, but nothing we haven't seen before.

The second Taito game is a bit more interesting: a port of their 1987 Ghosts 'n' Goblins style platformer, Wardner. In Wardner (Pyros for its US arcade release) you control a fireball shooting young man out to rescue his girlfriend from the evil Mr. Wardner. In the hands of Capcom or Konami, the Famicom Wardner could have been a classic. While Taito tinkers a bit with the mechanics, adding a life bar for example, Wardner ends up being a missed opportunity. Taito choose to release it for the Famicom Disk System, which was virtually obsolete by 1988. With less ROM space than contemporary cartridges and the inability to add extra chips and RAM, the FDS was producing games that looked great by 1985 standards.

Wardner no Mori
: a game that failed to live up to its potential.

Compared to something like Contra, Wardner had ugly outdated graphics, lending it a budget-game feel. Throw in some less than ideal in-game physics and jumping controls (your character plummets straight down like a sack of rocks whenever he steps off a platform. It feels like you're playing Lode Runner or something), and you have a recipe for a less than stellar game.

Despite this, both Arkanoid II and Wardner would have sold well had they been released in the US. During the chip shortage (and resultant cartridge shortage) everything released for the NES was selling well -- demand for NES games was exceeding supply. Incredibly, Taito released only two games in US in 1988: Bubble Bobble and Technos' Renegade.

Publishers were allowed to release five games a year for the insanely popular NES in 1988. Taito released... two.

Obviously, I have no idea what was going on inside of Taito corporate headquarters during this time. Why did they focus so little energy on the emergent home market? Short-sightedness? Unwillingness to change with the times? Lack of internal talent? Good old-fashioned human folly? They would go on to produce more arcade classics, such as the Darius series and the various Bubble Bobble spin-offs such as Parasol Stars and Rainbow Islands, not to mention goofy beat-em-ups like Growl or the utterly insane PuLiRuLa. But they never really produced any hit console franchises the way so many of their contemporaries did. Eventually, they almost vanished from the video game scene. Think for moment -- how many Taito games for the PS2 can you name off the top of your head? Taito would end up being bought out by Square Enix in 2005, and now seems to exist entirely on occasional releases of reworked versions of their older arcade classics, and, in Japan, the Cooking Mama series (published by Majesco in the US.)

PuLiRuLa. A great game that never received a console release outside of Japan.

Is there a moral here? Dunno. Change with the times maybe? It's not like Taito never released a decent original game for the Famicom. We will eventually see a few. They just never had their own Contra, or Zelda or Mega Man.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Presenting... Chrontendo Episode 1?

So the secret project which was taking away valuable time from the production of Chrontendo 29 turns out to be Chrontendo Episode 1 Revised! This is merely a freshly recorded version of the first episode of Chrontendo, now available at

I was never particularly happy with the first episode. After all, I was still learning, had a terrible microphone, and was really just amazed that I was able to create the video at all. It's always irked me a bit that many people's first exposure to Chrontendo might be that particular episode, so I've finally taken it upon myself to fix that first episode. Eventually, I might try re-recording episodes 2 and 3 as well.

Probably most of you reading this have already seen Episode 1, but it might be worth your while to check out the new version. Not much has changed in terms of content; there's a brief history of Nintendo prior to 1983, and 15 games from July 1983 to June 1984. Originally, this episode was encoded at a pretty low bitrate, and it now looks quite a bit better.

If you need a refresher course in the early history of the Famicom, then here it is. A good chunk of the games covered here would eventually be released as launch titles for the NES in 1985, but very few of them have any sort of following today. They comprise a few arcade ports, some light gun games, three very simple, let effective, sports titles and two educational games. As no third party publishers had signed on yet, all 15 games were released by Nintendo themselves.

Of the games covered here, the one most likely to be remembered today is Duck Hunt, and that might be because it was released as a pack-in with the deluxe sku of the NES. By later standards, Duck Hunt is a staggeringly simple game: containing one screen, two "characters" - a duck and a dog - and about 2 seconds of in-game music. Pac Man is positively epic by comparison. Yet within this simplicity is found a sort of lovable charm. It was very easy to pull out Duck Hunt for some quick shooting fun with friends. And that damned dog never failed to infuriate and/or amuse.

Until relatively recent times, a major selling point of a console would be its arcade ports. This was true from Space Invaders on the Atari 2600 up until Virtua Fighter 3 on the Dreamcast. The Famicom was no exception, hitting the market with almost perfect versions of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr, and Popeye, and then bringing out Mario Bros a few months later. Donkey Kong is the one game from Episode 1 that can be considered a timeless classic. Shigeru Miyamoto's first game, DK was the pivotal point in Nintendo's history. Its release was the event than began Nintendo's transformation from a toy manufacturer and producer of uninspired arcade games, to one of the biggest names in entertainment history. The Famicom DK is a nearly pixel-perfect translation of the arcade game, and certainly the closest you could get a playing an arcade game in your home at that time.

Sports titles are always a reliable way to get some product on the shelves quickly, especially for new consoles. See Chronsega and Chronturbo for some additional examples of this. Naturally, Japan's twin sports obsessions, baseball and golf, found their way onto the Famicom almost immediately. For the time, Baseball ( from 1983) and Golf and Tennis (both from 1984) were cutting edge; a major step above Intellivision's highly regarded sports games. Throw in a couple titles based on Chinese games, Mahjong and Gomoku Narabe, and you've just come up with a half year's worth of releases without having to think of a single new idea for a game. As a huge bonus: Golf, Mahjong and Baseball were all shockingly successful in Japan, moving over 2 million copies each and outselling games like Zelda and Metroid.

Probably the only truly original games this episode are those created for use with the light gun. And even one of those, Wild Gunman, is based on an old, pre-electronic arcade game from Nintendo. While the game play can be described in one short sentence -- "you shoot at stuff" -- these games retain a certain amount of appeal. The breakdown is as follows: in Duck Hunt you shoot at ducks, in Wild Gunman you shoot at outlaws and in Hogan's Alley you shoot at gangsters. Furthermore, Wild Gunman is noted for being the first Famicom game to try speech synthesis, and Hogan's Alley is the first to feature any sort of scrolling.

Lastly, we dregs of the barrel: Popeye no Eigo Asobi and Donkey Kong Jr. Math. Both are quickie education games which recycle virtually all their sprites from the parent games. Happily, Nintendo immediately dropped any pretense of using the Famicom as a tool for improving the minds of young people.

Looking back, it's difficult to know what to make of the Famicom's first year. We don't find most of these games to be particularly interesting nowadays. Yet, the platform did what it needed to do: demonstrate its superiority to any other video game console on the market. The Famicom was an almost instant success in Japan, paving the way for Nintendo to expand into the western world. So, if you want to relive the earliest days of the system, head on over to and check it out.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Some Bonus Chrontendo

Hey everyone! Things have been moving a bit slowly on the Chrontendo ranch since the release of Episode 28. Spring is here, and you know what that means: yard work! Yes, the sun is out and the grass and weeds are growing again. Oh, Lord, how those weeds are growing. It sometimes feels my life is a never ending struggle between me and the less respectable members of the vegetable kingdom.

Oddly, something else that's been occupying my time has been... Dragon Quest III! The Super Famicom version, that is. Ever since DQ Translations' patch came out last year, I've been quite curious, having heard that the SFC game was the definitive version of DQ III. I fooled around a little with the translated version while preparing the video for Chrontendo Ep. 28, but recently I've picked it back up again, and have found that I really like it. Much more so than the Famicom original. Since I cheated up the wazoo while playing the old DQ III in order to produce the video in a timely fashion, I sort of feel that I never really experienced the game. I've been able to move through the 16 bit version in a much more normal fashion.

The SFC game is very faithful to the original; it simply speeds the game up a bit, improves the menus and inventory management, and adds a some bonus content, new weapons, sidequests, etc. It also seems less "grindy" than the original. If nothing else, the fact that your characters now can move considerably faster through towns and dungeons makes the pace feel much less glacial. And there are now items hidden all throughout the towns and NPC's houses, making non-dungeon exploration quite a bit more rewarding.

And there are, of course, the graphics. A little bit of eye candy makes the old school style gameplay go down much easier. Everything now just looks gorgeous -- the battle scenes feature animated enemies and wonderfully rendered backgrounds. The game is essentially just the Game Boy Color Dragon Warrior III with about 5000% more visual appeal. Playing this version, almost every reservation I had about the Famicom DQ III has now been swept away.

But that wasn't really what I wanted to post about. Rather, I wanted to make a quick announcement that I'll be posting some bonus content soon. It's nothing too exciting; it's not a new episode per se. Instead, it's a just a little project I've been working on for a while and have suddenly found the time to finish up. Check back in a few days.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Another Long, Hard One!

...episode of Chrontendo, that is. What did you think I was talking about? In the annals of Chrontendo, few episodes have been as delayed as Episode 28. But it is finally here, so check it over on!

Still, this is one of the biggest delays Chrontendo has experienced. Part of this can be chalked up the the games involved: Dragon Quest III, Contra and Guardian Legend, all in one episode?!? Add in the death in the family, the double lay-off, and my mother almost going blind, and it equals a crazy month. (By the way, a reminder for all you folks out there to get your eyes checked from time to time. Glaucoma can lead to serious problems, including sudden, permanent blindness. In the case of my mother, it was caught just in time.)

A commenter, Kevin Moon, recently brought up the possibility of me getting discouraged or burnt out on the series. But at this point, I don't really picture that happening. When I first envisioned Chrontendo, I realized it was a huge, almost insane, idea. Yet I figured that with a bit of perseverance I would be able to pull it off. So I certainly don't foresee myself backing out at any point in the future. My one concern is that I' m not always able to pump these episodes out as quickly as I'd like. At some point in the future I should write about my motivations behind the series, but for the time being, let's take a look at the new episode.

I generally single out one game that stands out among the rest. In this episode, that proved to be difficult, so we give out a double gold medal this time around. Both games were already discussed a bit earlier.

Dragon Quest III

Ironclad logic at work: I don't know you, therefore you must come from another dimension.

From a Japanese perspective, this is the one: the old-school RPG to end all old-school RPGs. One of the biggest selling Famicom titles, and the game that elevated Dragon Quest from a piece of successful entertainment to a national obsession. But if you strip away the "you had to be there" quality, what is left? A very long, well-made, 8-bit JRPG that builds on the DQ II formula, in this case by adding a job system.


One of the biggest selling action games on the NES, Konami's genre-defining run and gun brought two player co-op to countless young gamers. Later games, such as Gunstar Heroes and the Contra sequels, improved on the formula, but the original Contra remains one of the most influential titles for the NES.

Other great games from Episode 28:

Guardic Gaiden/The Guardian Legend

Three-eyed skulls that shoot lasers? I guess that's pretty cool.

Successfully mixing genres has proven to be difficult: the history of video games is littered with failures (see Kamen Rider Club below). Few succeeded to the extent that The Guardian Legend did. This Compile developed game, a sequel to their 1986 MSX release, Guardic, manages to shoehorn shoot-em-up sequences into a Zelda-esque action adventure game. In addition, you play as a cute robot chick that can transform into a spaceship! Typically, Broderbund botched the US release a bit with some seriously unappealing box art, especially compared to the original.

Good: Robot chicks. Not so good: Giant faces with blue eyelashes.


Capcom digs deep into its vaults for this one - a port of the 1985 arcade game. Originally a follow up of sorts to Commando, Gun.Smoke is a vertical run-and-gun with an old west setting. Rather intriguing is Capcom's attempt to avoid legal complications over the name by using some non-standard punctuation. Would this have really worked, had the owners of the TV show Gun Smoke tried to sue? Could the Final Fantasy guy simply have renamed himself Final.Fantasy?

Donald Land

A video game based on a character from an advertising campaign? Why not? Data East's Ronald McDonald game has nothing to do with the more widely known M.C. Kids. Instead, it's a surprisingly well done platformer, in which Ronald rescues his McDonaldland friends from a terrifying wizard/clown with razor sharp teeth. Also notable are the slightly psychedelic enemies such as exploding purple jack-o-lanterns and kids in yellow raincoats who cry enormous, deadly tears.

Of course, every episode of Chrontendo has its share of crud:

Kamen Rider Club

I've already discussed this one a bit. Suffice to say, it's a platfomer/RPG hybrid that fails on every level.

Tetsuwan Atom

Even a cat can look at Astro Boy.

Once again, Konami and Osamu Tezuka join forces. The first time produced Hi no Tori; this time around, we have a game based on Astro Boy. Sadly, the result is a big, steaming pile. Probably the fact that an outside developer, Home Data, was brought in to work on this has something to do with the an ugly, illogical, and at times, almost unplayable, mess.

Paris no Dakar Rally Special

I wonder what CBS/Sony thought was even remotely "special" about this game. Definitely, the most mind-boggling example of kusoge this episode.


This game is mostly about phallic symbols.

An extremely odd release from Taito, Replicart is merely a clone of the old Snake/Worms computer game. In order to distinguish it from the million other Snake clones, they decided to give it an extremely awkward control scheme.

And the rest:

Fire Bam

"As we can see this sceenshot, Fir-- Auugggh! My eyes!! My eyes!!"

A less than stellar side scrolling action game from HAL, Fire Bam, features some of the most eye-bleedingly garish colors you'll ever see. Now that I think about it, this game really is quite bad. Maybe I should have lumped it in with Kamen Rider Club and the rest above.

Tantei Jinguji Saburo: Yokohama Renzoku Satsujin Jiken

Yep, the second game in Data East's Saburo Jinguji murder mystery adventure series.

Jumbo Osaki no Hole In One Professional

Another golf game from HAL, this time a slightly more challenging swing mechanic. Also, it's the first Famicom game have the name of a real life golfer attached to it.

Matsumoto Tooru No Kabushiki Hisshou Gaku

Not all Famicom games were aimed at children, as this release from Imagineer proves. Sporting one of the most boring video game covers ever, Matsumoto Tooru... is a stock market simulator crammed into an Japanese adventure game interface.

Exciting Soccer - Konami Cup

The final game in Konami's Exciting Sports series, Exciting Soccer is sadly no more exciting than Exciting Billard or Exciting Baseball. And I really had hope for this one!

Karaoke Studio Senyou Cassette Vol. 2

Another god damned Karaoke cartridge from Bandai and Tose.

I hope next episode will go a bit more smoothly. No games quite as huge as those here, but we will see the first game in a very long running series from Koei.

Until then, check out Chrontendo Episode 28 over at

Monday, April 5, 2010

One Last Stumbling Block

There is only one thing keeping Chrontendo 28 from being finished, and that a rather big hunk of cheese called Guardian Legend. Have you guys ever played this thing? Because it is hella hard.

I'm hoping to finish it up soon, and then the latest Chrontendo will be on its merry little way.

Also, happy belated Easter to everyone.