Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!














Nothing special to say here.  Another Halloween has come and gone. The best costume I saw this year - Christine O'Donnell.*  Hopefully everyone out there had a safe holiday, did not party too hard, and was not poisoned by candy or killed by Satanists.  A "real" Chrontendo update should be up in a day or so.

*Basically, just a chick in a business suit with an anti-evolution button.  But somehow she managed to look just like O'Donnell.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Another Blast from the Past

An ongoing Chrontendo mini-project is to re-record the first few episodes, which all suffer from terrible sound - among other problems.  So today I present a fresh, new version of Chrontendo Episode Two, available to download at the usual spot.

I have absolutely no idea why, but Episode Two is the most downloaded episode of Chrontendo, with almost twice as many hits as Episode One, and over three times as many as Five, the SMB episode.  It must be the scintillating selection of games featured.  C'mon, Pac-ManLode RunnerExcitebike?  Who could resist?

In all seriousness, the second episode does cover an interesting time period: the second half of 1984.  The Famicom reached its first year anniversary in mid 1984.  At that point Nintendo had exhausted their supply of arcade titles to port, barring the brand-new Punch-Out!! or really ancient games like Space Fever.  A steady supply of games would be essential to the console's survival, which meant Nintendo could either subcontract other developers to design games, or allow third party publishers to release Famicom carts.  Nintendo ended up doing both.



Hudson Soft has always had a special relationship with Nintendo.  Early on, Hudson ported some Nintendo games to MSX, heavily altering them in the process.   Despite Nintendo's well documented hostility to licensees releasing games for other consoles, Nintendo didn't seem particularly vindictive when Hudson teamed up with NEC to create the PC-Engine.  Hudson continued to release games for both consoles simultaneously.  In fact, the Will Virtual Console debuted with PC-Engine games in its library.  So, it's not surprising that Hudson was also the first third party publisher, releasing two titles in late July 1984. Shortly thereafter, it reworked one of its own computer games, Jyankyo for the Famicom.  This was published by Nintendo themselves, under the name 4-nin Uchi Mahjong.

Immediately afterwards, Namco became the second outside company to produce Famicom games, starting with Galaxian, and following that with three more arcade hits: Pac-Man, Mappy and Xevious.  Both Xevious and Hudson's Lode Runner were hugely successful, selling over a million copies each.  In 1985, more software companies joined the party, initiating a strange period when the Famicom existed primarily as a means for delivering high quality console versions of arcade and PC games.

About this time, Nintendo also began looking at using outside developers to ease the strain on their own development teams.  Balloon Fight was the first Nintendo game from Hal Laboratory, and was programmed by the young Satoru Iwata.  Eventually, of course, Nintendo would rely heavily on 2nd party developers such as Game Freak, Intelligent Systems, and Rare, but Hal  has been with them consistently for 26 years.

At this time both Nintendo and other publisher followed sort of a house style when it came to box art and packaging.  Famicom boxes were shaped like the carts: longer than they were tall.  Almost all Nintendo releases used a gray background with a cartoonish illustration in the center.   The game's title would be written in katakana on the left side, and the Nintendo logo would be on the right.  Hudson followed a very similar design blueprint for their own boxes.  There were a few exceptions: some boxes used different colors, and Excitebike features a more realistic painting of a motocross race as its centerpiece.











Namco's boxes were generally a bit more stylish, featuring cool arcade cabinet style artwork and diagonal stripes in two corners.  Also, Namco numbered its boxes sequentially, presumably in an effort to engage the Japanese collector mentality.   The next wave of publishers used similar box art templates.  Konami's early Famicom boxes look almost exactly like Nintendo's, and Taito, Irem and others numbered their boxes just like Namco.

For those who need a refresher on late 1984, here are the games covered this episode:

Donkey Kong 3

















Nintendo's first failed sequel, and the game that killed off  Donkey Kong for 10 years.

Nuts & Milk/Lode Runner

Hudson's first two console games. Nuts is based on their own computer game; Lode Runner is a Nintendo-fied port of the popular Apple II game. 

Galaxian

Namco's first console game, a port of their 1979 arcade game.  Galaxian was an fancy variation on Space Invaders, and proved to be Namco's first major arcade success.

Devil World

















The most "interesting" game this episode, Devil World is the first product from the team of Shigeru Miyamoto, Koji Kondo and Takashi Tezuka.  The next two games these three worked on were Super Mario Bros and Legend of Zelda, so Devil World certainly has impressive credentials.  It's a rather bizarre Pac-Man clone featuring a cute dragon and an inappropriately dressed devil.  The high level of religious imagery prevented a US release.

F1 Race

The first racing game for the Famicom, but certainly not the best.  It's also notable for being the first Famicom game to attempt any sort of sprite based 3D.

Pac-Man

















The game needs no introduction, but it should be pointed out that the Famicom release was the first nearly perfect port of Pac-Man after 3 years of botched attempts.  Also, this may be the game with the longest delay between the Japanese and US release: 9 years.  (Unless you count the Tengen release, which Nintendo seems to deny the existence of.)

4-nin Uchi Mahjong

I originally pegged this as an original title, but it turns out to be a console version of a Hudson MSX game.  Either way it's still just a mahjong game.

Xevious

















While not the first vertical shoot-em-up, Namco's 1982 arcade game popularized and defined the genre.  The Famicom version is pretty darned accurate reproduction.

Urban Champion

















Again, not the first one-on-one fighting game, but still a very early entry in the genre.  Naturally, it takes place in NYC, since that's all people do in New York: engage in street brawls.

Mappy

The last Namco game this episode; once again, it's an arcade port.  Perhaps sending a mouse police officer to apprehend a gang of cats was not a wise choice on the part of the Mappy Land PD.

Clu Clu Land

Another virtually forgotten original from Nintendo.  It sits halfway between being a Pac-Man clone and a pole dancing simulator.

Excitebike

















Unlike Clu Clu Land and Urban Champion, this one still elicits some excitement and nostalgia.  It's a fun game, but is also noteworthy for being the first Nintendo developed game to feature full on horizontal scrolling.

Balloon Fight

The first Famicom game to feature the talents of Hal Laboratory - at least as far as I know.  An unassuming yet playable Joust clone.  Hal's programming trick for smoother character movement was picked up by Nintendo and later utilized in Super Mario Bros.

Ice Climber

















Eskimos clubbing seals?  Polar bears in red Speedo briefs?  A condor that steals eggplants?  It's all found in Ice Climber.   Too bad weird jumping controls hamper the fun a bit.

Wow, a lot of "firsts" this episode.  Up next is another quickie project, and then, before too long... Chrontendo 34.  Until then, check out Episode 2 Version 2.0 at Archive.org.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Yes, Many of Us Hate Gamestop, but...

In a bizarre and shocking occurrence in my hometown, a man walked into Gamestop and started a fire.  Unfortunately, said Gamestop was inside a rather large mall; due to malls being large, unconfined areas with lots of flammable material, the fire is now burning wildly out of control.  And the last thing any store owner in this ecomony wants is for their shop to be burned down right at the start of the holiday season!  The moral is: while Gamestop is sort of a despicable place, you really shouldn't set them on fire.  Surprisingly, "Roseville Galleria" has become a trending topic on Twitter due to this.














Also: as hinted at a couple posts ago, I am currently working on a new version of Chrontendo Episode 2.  This shouldn't take too long, as I'm simply playing games I've already played before and recording improved voiceovers.  I'm also working on another special project.

In the meantime, I'll be trying to stay sane over the mother-in-law situation.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Happy Godammed Birthday!

I feel almost contractually obligated to deliver some words about today, the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System.  Considering that Chrontendo owes its entire existence to this this occurence, I suppose I should write something about the birth of Nintendo's 8-bit juggernaut.







To mark the special occasion, I decided to not use the standard Wikipedia NES photo.

The thing is, I don' know exactly what occurred on October 18th, the "official" date of the launch of the NES.  Nowadays, a console launch is a carefully coordinated event, with retailers placing orders and receiving product well before the street date.  The release date itself is generally announced well in advance, and fan boys start lining up outside of Best Buys a day or so before the thing actually goes on sale.   None of this was true back in 1985, however.

When Nintendo finally decided to make a concerted effort to sell the Famicom the US, they selected New York City as the test market.  Between 30 to 40 NOA executives and employees relocated from Redmond, Washington to a warehouse in Hackensack, NJ in the summer of 1985.  Armed with a $5 million dollar advertising budget, Nintendo's "SWAT Team," as they called themselves, began setting up promotional events in shopping malls and pestering retailers about carrying their new product. According to David Sheff:

"In October the push began in earnest. In pairs, the SWAT team hit the pavements, visiting department stores and large and small toy and electronics retailers.  They worked to convince companies such as Toys "R" Us, Sears, Circuit City, and Macy's  Although Charles Lazarus, founding chairman of  Toys "R" Us, and a very few others were receptive, most people could not pronounce Nintendo and were not interested in learning how."

The SWAT team themselves built and set up the in-store displays for the NES, and retailers were given the promise that Nintendo would buy back any unsold merchandise after Christmas.  Most stores were still resistant, but through sheer persistence, Nintendo got the console in about 500 locations by Christmas.  The final sales for 1985 were around 50,000.  Here's the first NES commercial aired in the NY area, courtesy of 1UP.



So what happened on October 18th?  Certainly, Nintendo, desperate for sales, didn't deliver consoles, games and displays to stores, and then tell them not to sell anything until that date?  Was 10/18 the date of the first console sold?  According to Gail Tilden, the first unit sold was at FAO Schwarz in Manhattan, though the article linked doesn't specifically date the sale as occurring on 10/18.   Interestingly, Scheff describes an impressive display being set up at FAO Schwarz later in the holiday season, but doesn't mention them as an early adapter of the NES.  Certainly, getting your new product to launch at the oldest and most famous toy store in the US would be a pretty big deal!  It strikes me as odd that if FAO Schwarz was one of the first retailers to commit to the NES, smaller toy stores would be so uninterested in carrying it was well.  And 10/18 was apparently not even always the canonical date for the system's launch.  The old Nintendo website claimed that the NES was "was released in the US in August, 1985." 

Well, regardless of what did or didn't happen 25 years ago today as bunch of overworked Nintendo employees were gradually discovering the horrors of New York winters,  we all fell in love with that ugly gray box.  And 25th years later we still have a weird little fetish for the thing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Greetings, Citizens of the Internet

I was perusing 1UP.com earlier today, checking on updates for the Least Favorite Character contest (I'm on "Team Percy"), when my attention was drawn to the 101 Favorite Video Game Sites article on the homepage.  Needless to say, I was quite surprised to find Chrontendo listed under the Game History category, alongside legitimately useful sites such as Sega 16, HG 101, KLOV, and so on.  Allow me to give a heartfelt (though confused) "Thank You" to Parish or Cifaldi or whichever staffer suggested this humble little blog for the list.

For those of you following the link from 1UP to Chrontendo: welcome to my little blog.  Here's the lowdown.  Chrontendo is in the process of examining every game released for the Famicom, Famicom Disk System and NES, in chronological order.  This is being done through a series of overly detailed "videocasts," which normally cover 15 games per episode.  All of these may be found to stream on download on the incredibly wonderful Archive.org.

We are currently up to Episode 33, which is covers July, 1988, and unlike some episodes, actually features some pretty damned good games (like Bionic Fucking Commando)  See our last blog entry for all the details.

I've been told that the tone of Chrontendo is serious, reserved, and scholarly.*  When originally planning Chrontendo, I wanted to go with concept that was very different from most of the popular video game themed series found online.  So the videos do not contain any yelling or screaming or jumping around in front of the camera (in fact, I never appear on-camera at all, due to my being "hideously deformed," as my wife says.)

Should you decide to check out any of the Chrontendo videos, my only request is that you try to avoid Episode 2 (the one with the most downloads.  I have absolutely no idea why.)  The first few videos have terrible sound and voiceover work; I've already re-recorded the first episode, and am part way through recording an improved version of the second.  It's far wiser to wait a week or so for the revised Episode 2.

Once again, thank you to the good folks at 1UP and all the loyal viewers of Chrontendo. Feel free to leave comments, as the regular commentors are all quite nice.

*Apparently looking stuff up on the Internet makes one a scholar nowadays.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

At Length Did Cross an "Albatros"



Well, for once, the new episode is more or less, sorta, on time.  Indeed, you can now go to archive.org and download or stream Chrontendo Episode 33.

Considering that Episode 32 was such a monster, length-wise, I tried to keep things concise this time around - at least for games that weren't Bionic Commando.  And we are back up to a full 15 games.  That will get us all the way to the end of July, 1988, at least in Japan.  As mentioned earlier, there are four pretty cool games that came out in July, which is definitely better than average.  There is one that stands heads and tails above the rest, however, and that game is Capcom's Bionic Commando.

We see tons or virtually identical games on the Famicom - just look at all the boring sidescrolling walk-forward-and-kill-stuff games.  We even have one this episode!  But Capcom decided to come up with a pretty darned weird idea for BC - you control a heavily armed, cybernetically enhanced super soldier, who is unable to jump, at all.  You can't even clear a gap a foot wide.  This is never explained in the game itself, but the player will quickly learn to rely on the extensible grappling-hook/robot arm that Ladd Spencer comes equipped with. Thus you move from platform to platform by swinging through the air, Spiderman style.















Of course there's a fire level!

It should be mentioned, that Ladd (possibly a mistransliteration for Radd? "Radd" sounds so '80s!) is probably the most punk video game character we've seen so far, with his spiky red hair, shades, and Devo-esque green jumpsuit.  Strangely, during cutscenes he transforms into a slightly more clean cut youth with natural brown hair.














 I think Der F├╝hrer might be overselling the "Albatros" a bit.

The plot, which gets doled out in bits of dialog with NPCs and Metal Gear-inspired radio conversations, goes like this:  a neo-fascist military commander is planning to build a long-lost Nazi superweapon with the assistance of a revived Adolph Hitler.  The superweapon, called "Albatros" (or, even better, "Abatros" in the manual), turns out to not be so amazing, as a rather large, exposed weak spot features prominently in its design.  The most notorious moment in the game occurs when you kill Hitler: his face explodes into lovingly detailed chunks of gory meat.  How this ever got past NOA is a bit of a mystery.  All the references to Nazis and Hitler were removed for the US relesae, but the version seen in Episode 33 has hacked them back in.

The Rest:

Nekketsu Koukou Dodge Ball Bu/Super Dodge Ball

Putting your mascot into a sports game was hardly new when Technos released Super Dodge Ball to arcades in 1987.  Nintendo had been doing it since day one, and even Sega quickly banged out an Alex Kid BMX game.  But unlike those games, Super Dodge Ball has real character -- it's not simply another generic sports game.  The gang violence of Renegade has simply been transported to the dodge ball court.  Kunio now beats people to death using a rubber ball in place of his fists, which only the adds to his victims' indignity.

Konami Ice Hockey/Blades of Steel

Konami has certainly been shoveling a lot of sports titles onto the FDS and NES, but Blades of Steel is one of the few to truly stand out.  Perhaps even more fun that Double Dribble, BOS has Konami showing off its full technical prowess in the service of a sports game.  Speech synthesis, tons of onscreen sprites, and dead-on controls make this one of the best 8-bits sports games ever.

Rainbow Islands












  

Rainbows in space?  I'm not sure that's even possible.

Bubble Bobble was pretty darned good, but this purported sequel is even better.  The simple black backgrounds of BB have been replaced with crazy make-believe worlds full of castles, clouds, and ultra sharp, deadly spikes. A very cute, but very dangerous place, so naturally you fight back with the most wondrous of weapons: killer rainbows.

The bad:

Mr. Gold: Kinsan in the Space

There is just something inherently hilarious about the name.  Too bad the game isn't as entertaining, except for the opening musical number.  Mr. Gold is a sci-fi detective adventure game utterly lacking in interesting sci-fi elements.  Being from Toei, it is naturally based on one of their anime movies, which was given some sort of release in the US as "Samurai Gold."

As a point of comparsion, we have another, much better adventure game this episode, Jarinko Chie: Bakudan Musume no Shiawase Sagashi from Konami.  You probably don't need a lesson from me in distinguishing the works of Toei from those of Konami, but just for fun, let's compare two screenshots.












Note the amount of detail put into Jarinko Chie: the attendant's wrinkly uniform, the deep shadows on the door inside the little room, the reflection of the sun on the red light above the door.  In the background we see some sort of alley with a brick wall, birds sitting on telephone wires.  Every inch of the illustration is used to convey you into the world of the game. Konami even went through the trouble of adding a beveled frame around each box.   Mr. Gold, on the other hand, gets by with the minimum amount of effort required to depict Mr. Gold standing in a spaceport.  A few quick vertical and horizontal lines delineate a window and a walkway. Gold appears to be staring at a monitor showing a not-too-futuristic cityscape.  No attempt is made to give Gold himself any sort of personality.  And the fact that the illustration itself is so darned tiny doesn't help, either.  Obviously, Konami didn't have to put that much work into a single background, but they did because... they're Konami.

 Hiryu no Ken II













This is the boring sidescrolling game I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.

A Japan only sequel to Flying Dragon: The Secret Scroll.  Sadly, despite Culture Brain's last game, The Magic of Scheherazade being so ahead of its time, Hiryu II is a beat-em-up on par with Hokuto no Ken plus RPG elements.   Someone must have been buying these, since Culture Brain continued to release sequels into the Nintendo 64 era. 

Super Real Baseball '88

From the infamous Vap and Nintendo developer Pax Softnica, this realistic style baseball game fails on several levels.  You'll probably be most frustrated by the terrible controls - even picking a ball up off of the ground is a chore.  But the ear-piercing soundtrack will eventually wear you down as well.  Why do so many Japanese baseball games feature an horrendous whistle sound in their background music?  Is that something done at real baseball games in Japan?  Do they have a squad of drum majors marching around the diamond or something?

The Quest of Ki














Today's theme is games with weird jumping mechanics.

Tower of Druaga isn't exactly Namco's most beloved game in the West.  But this console-only prequel manages to be nothing like the other Druaga games, and a really terrible monotonous game in its own right. You control Ki, the princess that Gilgamesh had to rescue in the first game, and you enter Druaga's tower completely unarmed.  In place of any sort of weapon, you have a ridiculous jumping mechanic that allows you to jump as high as you want, until you hit the ceiling and go plummeting back to the ground.  The tower comprises 100 floors.  The object is simply to pick up and key and exit each floor before the timer runs out.

And finally, we have a varied collection of flawed, non-distinguished, or uninteresting games.

Kakefu Kun no Jump Tengoku/Kid Kool














 Kid Kool suffers from difficult jumping and easy bosses.

Vic Tokai tries to make a Mario clone; ends up cloning the Japanese Super Mario Bros 2 instead.  Aside from generally insidious level design that includes way too many blind jumps, Kid Kool suffers from some seriously weird physics.   The developers didn't see fit to give Kool a "run" button.  Instead, as Kool begins moving, he transforms from a sluggard who moves like he's waist-deep in mud into Usain Bolt driving a McLaren with a rocket jet mounted on the trunk.  The fact that he has the momentum of a runaway locomotive doesn't help much either.  His jumps can range from about two body lengths to "all the way accross the screen," and he is just a wee bit difficult to land precisely.  Amazingly, he was based on  real person: Kakefu Kun was a young TV actor during the mid '80s.  I was not able to glean any information on his real life jumping abilities.

Radical Bomber!! Jirai Kun















It doesn't look that radical to me!

A nutty looking and impenetrable strategy/puzzle/board game thing from Jaleco. So named because you can set off little bombs to blow up the rails on which you and your opponents travel. I was not able to appraise the radical-ness of the protagonist, however.

Great Tank/Iron Tank















Nice looking game, but despite the name, it isn't that great.

 SNK reaches into its vaults for this one: a port of the 1985, pre-Ikari Warrriors game TNK III.  I's sort of resembles a cross between the tank sections of Ikari Warriors and Konami's Jackal.  Except that its not nearly as good as Jackal.

Best Play Pro Yakyuu














No one bought Best Play Pro Yakyuu for the fancy graphics.

A highly thought of baseball simulation game from ASCII.  It focuses heavily on stats and team management, rather than Family Stadium style action.  So it's basically a baseball game for geeks.  This appeared on the 2005 Famitsu readers' poll we mentioned a while ago, beating about fellow Famicom titles such as Gradius and SMB III.

Maison Ikkoku

A port of Microcabin's computer adventure game, briefly glimpsed in the adventure game segment of Episode 31.  We'll come back to it in more detail when we cover the PC Engine version in a future episode of Chronturbo.

Sangokushi: Nakahara No Hasha

Another military strategy game from Namco and Tose, much like Nobunaga's Ambition.  Except that instead of taking place during Japan's Sengoku era, it takes placing during China's Three Kingdom's period - which is just like Japan's warring states only it happened in 3rd century China.  It appears that Japan not only ripped off their writing system and religion from China, they even copied parts of China's history.  Anyway, this game should not be confused with Koei's much more popular Sangokushi series.

Miscellany

I can't cover every aspect of every game in Chrontendo, but, in retrospect, I should have gone into more detail about the following:

The top-down run-and-gun parts of Bionic Commando that occur when you run into a truck on the main map.  These sections are not very interesting, but do allow you to pick up additional continues.

The deathmatch sytle Bean Ball option in Super Dodge Ball.  Here, you run around in a free-for-all with no court and no rules, which actually more resembles the dodge ball I played as a kid.

For those of you with a chronological list of Japanese Famicom releases, there are two games not appearing in this episode, since they were released in the US first:   Jaleco's Densetsu no Kishi Elrond is simply Wizards and Warriors.  And for some reason Data East released Karate Champ for the FDS.   Also Nintendo re-released Donkey Kong Jr for the FDS.  I haven't really been mentioning this, but Nintendo has slowly been putting out FDS versions of their older titles over the last two years.

Very well!  See you next time, and don't forget to check out Episode 33 over at Archive!

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Fantastic Four of July 1988

Episode 33 should be ready before too much longer.  We're lucky to have not one, two or three great games this time around, but four!  Granted, July 1988 is not quite as epoch-making as December 1987, but having four high quality games in such a sort period of time is a bit of a rarity for the Famicom.  Strangely, all are conversions of arcade games.

First and foremost is one of the most fondly remembered titles from Capcom: Bionic Commando.  Capcom has not been the most prolific publisher for the NES, nor does it have the most impressive track record.  That honor goes to Konami.  But with Mega Man, Capcom released their first truly great console game, and now, with Bionic Commando, their second.













 Why can't I fire my gun straight up??!!


Capcom have been making changes to their arcade games when porting them to the NES; making them more "console like," -- perhaps adding to the length of the game, or throwing in some secrets or the ever-present "RPG elements."  But Bionic Commando has been completely rebuilt from the ground up.  It's not even clear whether it is a port or a sequel to its arcade namesake.  But that doesn't really matter.  What matters is this: you are a super-soldier with a robotic arm, whose job is to kill Hitler.

Taito's NES Bubble Bobble cartridge was almost identical to the arcade game. But when it came time to port BB's sequel, Rainbow Islands, Taito fiddled with the game's layout a bit.  Still, it's a game where you kill using rainbows!  How brutal is that?!  While the Famicom can't reproduce the arcade game's cotton candy and ice cream color scheme, it's a near perfect port, fun-wise.














Rainbows + rows of razor sharp spikes = good old fashioned fun.

Sports games on the Famicom have been hit or miss so far.  But, Konami, hot off Double Dribble, scores another win with Blades of Steel. Essentially just Double Dribble on ice, Blades adds one very nice feature: fighting.  Yep, winning a fighting minigame will get a member of the opposing team kicked off the ice!  Factor in tight controls, fast action, and  - amazingly - excellent automated switching between active players.  The result is one of the best 8 bit sports games.














  
Blood on the ice!

Another is Technos Japan's Super Dodge Ball.  Sort of a cross between the dodge ball you played as a kid and Rollerball, your team must literally murder their way through an international dodge ball tournament.  Despite the inappropriateness of beating your opponents to death  with a rubber ball, the game is tons of violent fun.  It just shows how the best sports video games are often the least based in reality.













 This guy got hit so hard he went flying off the right side of the screen and reappeared on the left.

Just to sum up: Episode 33 will feature many unusual means of killing, such as dodge balls, robotic arms and rainbows.  Also a game called Blades of Steel.  Seriously, this episode is going to be so badass it's like Danny Trejo in video game podcast form.