Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why Chrontendo? Hidden Secrets Revealed!

Sorry that the posting schedule has been a little light lately.  The rigors of working a full-time job have been taking their toll on me.  I must have some deeply buried aristocratic DNA somewhere within my genetic makeup, as I find having to actually work for a living to be rather bothersome. Still, I have found the time to get started on Chrontendo 37 (and Ninja Hattori Kun!), so I swear that a new episode will be up eventually.

In the meantime, I'd thought I'd take a moment to chat with you all about myself and the Chrontendo project.  Back in 2007, Chrontendo pretty much just appeared out of nowhere.  The fact that I don't have any presence in video game forums, or online at all, really (I don't even have a Facebook account), lends sort of an enigmatic air to Chrontendo.  Jeremy Parish from Gamespite/1UP recently called me "mysterious."  But it was never my intention to paint myself as some sort of shadowy, Pynchon-like recluse.

Welcome to my Presence.

The biggest question about Chrontendo is "why?"  Why would someone devote the requisite time and energy to such a laborious, pointless, profitless, foolhardy and silly task as playing every NES in chronological order... and then documenting the whole thing in video podcasts?   Maybe some of you out there have your theories.  Insanity?  Drug-induced psychological dysfunction?  Asperger's Syndrome?  Demonic possession?  Some form of über-geekery gone horribly wrong?    Honestly, I'm sometimes not sure myself why I'm doing this.  Let me give you a little background, anyway.

Back in 2007 I found myself unemployed after the company I worked for -- a long-standing business that I was fanatically devoted to -- declared bankruptcy and was liquidated.  I was unemployed for several months and feeling uprooted and untethered.  Since unemployment provides ample opportunities for wasting time, I started reading a few video game sites on a regular basis.   There were two direct inspirations for Chrontendo: a fellow on the Atari Age forums called Chronogamer, and more directly, an ongoing series by Scott Jacobi in Retrogaming  Times Monthly called Nintendo Realm (see here for the first column.), which contained brief write-ups of every Famicom game, in chronological order.  Jacobi stopped the column in 2007 after reaching September 1986, around the same time Chrontendo debuted.  There was also another, short lived attempt by someone else to do the same thing, but I lost the link a long time ago. (Update!  This is referring to a site now revealed to be Xaqar's Game Reviews.)

The thing that struck me was that old video games had gone from being poorly documented pop-culture relics (until the 2000s, how many people knew anything about the NES' Japanese doppelgänger? Or gave even a second thought to the fact that there might be bunch of video games that came out in Japan but not the US?) to being a rigorously documented cultural phenomenon.   Think about this: it wasn't that long ago that a game such as Custer's Revenge was virtually an urban legend. Supposedly it existed, but you didn't know anyone who had actually played it or ever seen a copy.  It could have been a hoax, and the very idea of a porno game for the Atari 2600 sounded pretty unlikely.  Now, of course, you can go online and in a matter of seconds turn up screenshots, scans of the box, even the ROM itself.   It was the same with the NES on a much larger scale.  Weird, old Japanese NES games?  Not only did they really exist, but you could easily find a list containing the name and exact release date of every such game.  Suddenly, all those old NES carts sitting in a shoebox in your closet became pieces in a much larger picture.  It occurred to me that a chronological list of Famicom games was not just a random collection of game titles, but a tool for telling a story.  It would be the story of how the Famicom went from simple games like Donkey Kong to epics like StarTropics II.  The story would show not only the development of the Famicom, but also the development of modern video games in general.

Am I the only one who's ever wondered what was in those barrels that causes them to ignite upon contact with oil?

Something else I found very appealing was that since every released Famicom game was documented, the story would have a certain completeness to it.  Maybe my background in mathematical logic is why the concept of completeness appeals to me.  (Roughly speaking, a formal logic theory is said to be "complete" if every statement in the theory is either provable or its negation is provable.  Some of you might have heard of Gödel's famous Incompleteness Theorem, which has penetrated into the non-mathematician consciousness through popular books like this.)  So in telling the story of the Famicom, nothing would be left out: every stone would be upturned and a light shone into every dark corner.

Much has been made about the way the internet makes it too easy to find things, thus negating the thrill of the hunt.  However, the internet sometimes works in the opposite fashion: it opens up new avenues for exploration.  We now have the possibility of discovering literally hundreds of previously unknown games, often with intriguing-sounding names, like "Bio Miracle Upa."   Or "America Daitouryou Senkyo."  What could that game possibly be about? (We'll find out in Chrontendo 37, if you're curious.)  And many of these games seemed virtually unplayed in the West.  You couldn't find much information online in English about Kyonshiizu II.

This game totally exists.

At that point in my life, I suppose I needed a new hobby.  I'd failed miserably at gardening (though I am thinking of trying tomatoes again this season.)   Golf is simply too boring.   I'd always been interested in video games, but didn't care too much for shooting other dudes in the head in Halo. So I decided to do a Famicom/NES themed podcast.  At the outset , it wasn't clear how long I'd stick with Chrontendo; possibly I would lose interest after a few episodes.  But I realized that if I had any chance of finishing the project, I'd need to pump out episodes pretty quickly.  This meant sacrificing slickness for speed.  I've tried to get a new episode out around every 2-3 weeks, and while I often don't succeed, I've managed to finish 36 + 7 episodes without burning out.   The fact that I'm able to produce a complete episode in a reasonable period of time is due to two factors:  I'm married with no children, and I don't watch television.  Often, on a quiet evening at home, my wife will want to watch some silly true crime show about husbands who murder their wives, or vice-verse (Why do women dig these things so much?  Years ago I worked in a book store, and noticed about 90% of the readership of true crimes books was female,)  so I'll often take this opportunity to work on Chrontendo for bit.  Completing a 55 minute episode in 15 days means I have to produce an average of only 3 2/3 minutes of footage a day.  It's not enormously time consuming, and doesn't require playing video games all day.

I'll let you all in on one little thing: "Dr. Sparkle" is a bit of a fictional character.  He's definitely more of a video game expert than I am in real life, and I try to instill him with a bit more confidence in talking about video games than I could ever have.  Despite the fact that I produce a gaming-themed video blog, I wouldn't consider myself to be much of a "geek" in real life.  I'm not particularly obsessed or fanatical about games, I don't read Penny Arcade, and don't have any interest in Japanese animation, Japanese pop music*, science fiction/fantasy novels, tabletop RPGs, Kevin Smith movies, or that sort of thing.  Speaking of which, does anyone out there understand the cultish devotion that so many people have towards Kevin Smith?  I've seen several of his movies, and there doesn't seem to be anything particularly distinctive about them.

I have nothing against fat people, but isn't it a little ironic that this guy is always wearing athletic-themed clothing?

The bottom line is this: I always try to finish what I start, and as long as circumstances permit me to do so, I'll continue to crank these things out.  I enjoy Chrontendo; I learn a lot from it, and hopefully you do too.   I'd like to extend a "thank you," to all the commentors on this site, for not being ignorant, misogynistic, racist idiots, unlike the internet in general.  I feel fortunate to have such an outstanding readership.

One last thing -- in case anyone's wondering about the name "Dr. Sparkle," here's where it came about.   It was inspired by a goth club in San Francisco called Dark Sparkle.  For clarification purposes: I myself am not a member of the leather and latex brigade, but I know some people who are.  I have attended various Goth-themed events, including a Goth wedding and Goth day at Disneyland.  The confused looks on so many tourists' faces made the Disneyland thing worthwhile.  Anyway... I had a theory that many great '70s rock bands had the word "Doctor" in their names. Dr. Hook, Dr. John, Dr. Feelgood, Dr. Strangely Strange, Doctors of Madness, and of course, Dr. Teeth.  Thus, Dr. Sparkle seemed like the best possible name for a really awesome glam-boogie band from the 1970s.  Since I would never be starting up a glam-boogie band, I hijacked the name for this project.

The 1980s introduced the concept of really awful bands with "Doctor" in their names.

So there you have it - Chrontendo explained.  In the near future, we should be seeing Episode 37, then a few more Chrontendos.  These will include some highly anticipated sequels from Konami, Square, and Capcom.   After that, its back to Chrontubo to finish up 1988 for the PC-Engine!

*I have a deep love of experimental/psychedelic music from Japan, however!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Mario, Morton and Wendy: 80s Icons (Updated)

All the downloadable versions of Episode 36 appear to now be corrected. The AVI version has been re-encoded, which seems to have fixed the blockiness that started in the Big Challenge Dogfight Spirit segment. If anyone finds any more problems, please report them.

(Note: I apologize in advance for spending so much time discussing non-video game stuff in this post.)

Choices!  So many choices!  Chrontendo Episode 36 is now available in a variety of formats, including the standard AVI, the fancy 30 fps h.264 MP4, and MKV, which is some kind of weird format normal people don't use.  The MKV version uses the same codecs as the MP4, but maybe you can impress your friends by knowing what MKV is?  All of this is available to download or stream at  Or, you can stream it in good quality at Youtube.  My 15 minute restriction has been lifted ("Congratulations," said the Youtube message), so you can see the whole darned thing in one piece.  You'll probably want to choose the 480p option.

Let's not beat around the bush.  Just as Chrontendo Episode 5 is the "Super Mario Bros." episode, so will Episode 36 forever be the "one with Super Mario 3."  Finally, all of Nintendo's innovation, hard work, clever marketing ideas, artistry, and thuggish strong-arm tactics paid off in a huge way: with the best-selling video game of all time.*  In the US, at least, SMB 3 is the NES game - the game that defined the 8-bit generation.  In Japan it seems to have slightly less cache. If you recall the earlier post about the 2005 Famitsu reader's poll of the best games ever, you might remember SMB 3 placed at #99, below Kung-Fu and RBI Baseball!

Wait a sec? How does she even know where the warp whistle is hidden?

Commenter Chris Sobieniak calls SMB 3 "the game nobody would shut up about," and that's not about to change today, as I prattle on at some length during the actual episode.  In this post, however, I'll just discuss a couple bits of miscellany.

One thing that undoubtedly baffled kids back in they day was the Tanooki suit.  It's interesting that Nintendo didn't try to localize this item as a "raccoon suit" or something.  For those of you who don't know what a Tanooki is, it's simply the Japanese name for the animal we call the raccoon dog.  Japan seems quite smitten with the little creatures, and frequently depicts them as magical little guys with... there's no polite way to say this, I suppose... enormous testicles.

Yep, extremely large testicles.

As you might gather from the tanooki's English name, they are in no way related to raccoons, and are actually canines.  Probably the only time raccoon dogs have received any attention in the US was a few years ago, when it was revealed P Diddy was selling coats with raccoon dog fur trim.  Since raccoon dogs are basically dogs, people got a little upset and the coats were recalled.  Curiously, I've occasionally heard people of Japanese descent refer to Tanooki simply as "raccoons," so I suppose not everyone is aware that they are a completely separate species from the common raccoon.

Think about it.  This man was selling real-life Tanooki suits.

Another odd thing in SMB 3 is the renaming of the seven Koopalings.  Well, perhaps the idea that Bowser has children is kind of odd to begin with.  This means we know that Bowser has had sex, perhaps up to 7 times.  Take a moment to try to visualize that happening. (If you value your sanity, DO NOT click that link!)   In the Japanese version of the game, they were simply given generic names based on animals.  For the US release, they were named after talk show hosts and musicians.  Five of these names are still familiar today: Roy Orbison, Iggy Pop, Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Larry King.  The other two, however, might not be recognizable to those who weren't alive in the 1980s.

Morton Downey Jr was an acerbic right wing talk show host who became enormously popular in the late '80s.  He was sort of the prototype of the Rush Limbaugh conservative blowhard.  (No one in my city is particularly proud of this fact, but Downey and Limbaugh both had their careers launched by the same local talk radio station.  After Downey was fired, the station looked around for someone similar, and hired Rush Limbaugh as his replacement. Downey ended up with a TV talk show, and Limbaugh's show became nationally syndicated.)  Downey's TV show mostly consisted of him insulting his guests; he was known for popularizing the phrase, "Zip it!"   His rise and fall happened with amazing rapidity, so that by the time SMB 3 actually hit shelves in 1990, his show had been canceled and he had virtually disappeared from the public consciousness.

Naming a Koopaling after Wendy O Williams was even weirder.  One of the odder relics of the 70s/80s punk revival, Williams' band The Plasmatics briefly found a degree of fame for their outrageous stage shows.  The onstage antics involved chainsaws, Williams running around topless, and, most famously, blowing up cars.  The Plasmatics' music never really entered the punk rock canon; it's telling that their highest profile gig was opening for KISS - who were not exactly punk icons. In some ways they were more of a novelty act than a legitimate band.  However, in the early 80s, the US mainstream media didn't really know what to make of punk rock, and the Plasmatics' wild costumes, hairstyles and stage act seemed emblematic of the genre as a whole.   The result was an awful lot of media attention given to the band, with such figures as Tom Snyder claiming the Plasmatics were considered to be "the best punk rock band in the world."

While Williams and the Plasmatics became quite well known, this never translated in record sales.   You can only blow up so many cars before people start losing interest, and when SMB 3 was released in the US, Williams had disappeared from the public eye.**   At a time when bands like the Misfits were posthumously growing in stature, the Plasmatics were vanishing from the collective memory.  Of course, you can't really blame The Plasmatics for being gimmicky; there were tons of gimmicky punk bands at the time.  Once, while talking to Mike Watt, of Minutemen and fIREHOSE, I asked him about the distinctive flannel shirts that Minutemen wore.  He said that at that time, punk bands all had their own crazy costumes.  "Some of the bands wore garbage bags... we wore flannel shirts."  Apparently, Minutemen singer/guitarist D. Boon was a huge John Fogerty fan.  Interestingly, Watt later ended up backing Iggy Pop by playing bass in The Stooges. (Did you see what I did there? Brought everything back around full circle, to show the interconnectedness of the universe?  I'm like the Kieślowski of video game blogging!)

That concludes our tour of some of the lesser lights of 1980's pop culture.  What about the rest of the games this episode?   They're mostly a bunch of crap, but here's a quick look.

Jeopardy!/Wheel of Fortune


Wipe that fucking grin off your face, Marty.

One of the overarching stories we'll see unfolding throughout Chrontendo is the emergence of the US video game market.  Another chapter begins today, with the appearance of GameTek, a Miami Beach based publisher which specialized in games based on preexisting properties.  Their first two releases were developed by Rare, and proved that spending an entire game spelling out words using the d-pad is not very fun.  I was also quite outraged to find a spelling error in Jeopardy!, especially since the game penalized my (correct) spelling as the wrong answer.

Knight Rider

You would think having a shoot-out on I-5 would attract some attention from the California Highway Patrol....

Here's a surprisingly fun game.  I say "surprisingly" because the nameas on the outside of the boxes are Pack-in-Video in Japan and Acclaim in the US.  Knight Rider is very basic little drive-and-shoot game, but compared to Cobra Command, it's not bad.  I'd like to apologize in advance for using the Knight Rider game as an opportunity to make fun of German musical tastes.  I do it out of love, guys -- not only for cool German bands like Neu!, but also for awesome-yet-unhip stuff like Kraan.

Incidentally, Activision also had a bit of involvement with this game. (The entire interview, with Tom Sloper, is quite informative, BTW)

8 Eyes

Simon who?  I have no idea what you're talking about.

I don't really care for 8 Eyes, but the game sure has its fans.  Despite some protestations to the contrary, 8 Eyes is a blatant rip-off of Castlevania.  It does add a twist - you have a hawk (or is it a falcon?) that can be launched from your shoulder to attack enemies.  It also has really good music.  Give it a try.

Vegas Dream/Viva Las Vegas

Oh hai there, slot machines!

Sure, this is just a gambling game!  But this HAL-developed title adds in some nutty randomized NPC encounters between rounds of slots and roulette.  For example, a strange women approaches you and asks you to "escort" her to a show.  Later that night, she steals half your cash!   I think I can read between the lines:  beware Vegas hookers, kids.


During the actual episode I compare Daisenryaku to Hydlide: both were innovative games that had the misfortune to reach the Famicom after a superior, yet derivative game (Famicom Wars and Dragon Quest, respectively).  The granddaddy of Japanese military simulation games first hit computers in 1986.  Two years later, it got a console port.  A little too late, it turns out.

Genpei Toumaden: Computer Board Game 

A really ugly dog is about to attack me.

Way back in Chronsega 19 we saw a Konami game called Getsufuu Maden, and I pointed out its strange similarity to a Namco arcade game called Genpei Toumaden.  Well now the shoe is on the other foot, Konami!  Because Namco released Genpei on the Famicom, and made it look kind of like Getsufuu Maden!  It's gone from being a side scrolling action game to a top-down RPG.  It's also one of the most Japanese games ever - even the numbers are displayed in Japanese characters.

Erika to Satoru no Yume Bouken

An obscure adventure game from Atlus and Namco.  It would be almost completely forgotten if a programmer hadn't left an insane Easter egg in the game.

And at the bottom of the heap we have:

Cobra Command

Is Cobra Command the least faithful port of an arcade game ever?  The original arcade title was a laser disc game with high quality animation.  For the Famicom version, Data East turned it into a Choplifter clone.   That doesn't sound too bad, but Data East equipped your 'copter with missiles that cannot hit anything.   Even stranger, the screen scrolling is set up so that when you move forward, your 'copter ends up pressed against the far left side of the screen, making it unreasonably difficult to dodge enemy fire.  My least favorite game this episode....

Big Challenge! Dogfight Spirit

If this screenshot makes the game look boring, that's because it is.

... except for possibly Dogfight Spirit from Jaleco.  You fly a helicopter in this one too, though Dogfight Spirit is a vaguely Compile-inspired vertical shooter. Except that you spend the entire game flying over boring scenery evading screenfuls of enemies who constantly fire aimed shots directly at you.  That would be fine, except your helicopter is equipped with worthless, lame weapons that cannot be powered up.  One of the worst shoot-em-ups we've seen so far.

Dandy: Zeuon No Fukkatsu

No, it's Okay.  You can just totally leave the top 2/3 of the screen completely blank. No one is going to care.

An extremely ugly Zelda/Action RPG type game for the FDS.  Not much can be said about the game itself, but the history behind it is a little interesting.  The original Dandy was an old Atari 400/800 game that served as the inspiration for GauntletDandy's creator John Palevich asked Atari to include his name in Gauntlet's credits; Atari didn't do this, but a couple years later released a similar game, Dark Chambers, that was credited to Palevich, though he seemingly had nothing to do with that game.

Donald Duck/Snoopy's Silly Sports Spectacular

All right!! An Disney game... from Kemco.  It seems Hudson and Capcom weren't the only ones with rights to Disney characters.  Released as a Donald Duck game in Japan and a Snoopy game in the US, this is simply a collection of uninteresting sports minigames.  A few years later, Kemcom did a similar number when it released Game Boy Mickey Mouse games as Bugs Bunny games outside of Japan.

Black Bass II

Don't laugh. It's still much better looking that the first Black Bass game.

Or, in the USA, just plain The Black Bass.  Sure, this is better than the dreadful original Black Bass, but it's still just a dull fishing game.

Ultraman Club

While not as bad as earlier Ultraman games, this one replaces the standard side scrolling action with a strange turn-based battle system.  So it looks like an RPG, but it's really not!

I've been informed that I incorrectly typed in the number 20,000,000 in this episode.  I can't beleive I overlooked that, but remember that all episodes of Chrontendo are sold "as is."  And speaking of 20 million insane people, I wanted to point out that Chrontendo sometimes adds on a little MST3K-style stinger at the very end.  I'm quite amused by the crying ladies hugging each other at the end of this one, so make sure you watch past the credits.  And, by the way, I now have that stupid song in my head.

Last time, some folks indicated that they were having problems with the MP4 playing on Quicktime.  I tested this episode on QT and didn't get an error, so hopefully it will work for everyone else.  If not... then I guess Steve Jobs is giving you freedom from Chrontendo as well as porn.

So anyway, Chrontendo 36: check it out now.

* A record held until the Wii days, I think.  Not counting games bundled with hardware like SMB 1.

** Williams released one final, hip-hop flavored album in 1988, then retired from music.  After a few unsuccessful suicide attempts, she fatally shot herself in 1998.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Episode Status Report

Here's some post-Super Bowl news for you: Chrontendo Episode 36 is more or less "done" in terms of content, and just needs to be checked, compressed, and uploaded.  As mentioned a few posts back, I started a new job on Monday, and all the attendant stresses have taken their toll on me.  But it's now time to pull myself together and focus on finishing Episode 36.  So, I'm thinking... maybe tomorrow night?

(2/7/2011 - Not all the formats are uploaded yet, so Chrontendo 36 will not "officially" out until tomorrow night. But impatient types can check the usual places.)