Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Episode 38 Has Arrived

What could be better than a urinal constructed out of old SNES carts?  How about a new episode of Chrontendo!  Episode 38 is now available in a variety of exciting formats on, or in a fast, convenient, streaming version on Youtube.  Unless you're like me, and your ISP also provides on-demand streaming video, in which case your Youtube download speeds may have become suspiciously slow lately.

This new episode can be divided neatly into four parts.  The parts consist of: a) one classic NES games, b) a few "interesting" but non-spectacular titles, c) a bunch of crap, and d) the 1988 Computer Game Round Up.

I mentioned the Computer Round Up a few posts ago, so suffice to say that it's a reasonably long, high-level view of some of the highlights and lowlights of the world of computer gaming in 1988. It's a quick run through featuring adventure games, strategy games, "arcade" games, sports games, and role-playing games.  It covers Western games only, and focuses on US computers, but a few British and European titles find their way in.

As for our "great" NES game this episode, it's none other than Tecmo's Ninja Ryūkenden/Ninja Gaiden/Shadow Warriors.  Something I neglected to mention this episode was that, due to Europe's inexplicable dislike of ninjas*, the game was retitled Shadow Warriors over there.  And apparently the idea of masked assassins doesn't go down in Europe, since Ryu was depicted as maskless and shuriken-less on the box art over there.

Ninjas in Europe are required by law to walk around without their masks on.

Playing the game in the cold, hard light of 2011 makes me realize two things - that Ryu is a terrible ninja, and that Tecmo has padded out a six level game with tons of cheap deaths.  On the other hand, the much touted cinematic cut-scenes are still very impressive.  Seeing them in the context of other NES games of the time makes them even more so.  

A relatively peaceful moment in Ninja Gaiden.

Ninja Gaiden also confirms what we assumed about Tecmo after playing Rygar -- that they understand the differences between a good arcade game and a good console game.  Ninja Gaiden stands next to Bionic Commando as the most successful NES reworking of an arcade title.  Just like Capcom's game, the home version Ninja Gaiden is an entirely new game.  This is because it was developed separately from the arcade version, by a different development team.   The NES Ryu has been heavily wussified; his arcade counterpart was capable of performing the flying neck throw, a game breaking and conservation-of-momentum-defying attack.   Additionally, the NES Ryu has been given an angsty back story involving the death of his father, and even falls in the love with a bouffanted CIA agent.  The arcade Ryu is concerned with one thing only: handing dudes their asses.  That and escaping the slowly descending saw blade, I suppose.  Despite this, Ninja Gaiden's transformation from a relatively simple beat 'em up into an epic Castlevania clone resulted in a far more memorable game.  By the time the sequel rolled around, Tecmo had ironed out most of the kinks.

It turns out blowing up secret fortresses is pretty effective as foreplay.

Beyond Ninja Gaiden, there are no other games in Episode 38 that that I can reccomend without hesitation.  Still,  a few titles are worth taking a closer look at.

King of Kings

Daisenryaku + an RPG + a deck of cards = King of Kings.

No, not the Wisdom Tree game, silly!  This is an oddball military strategy game in the mode of Daisenryaku/Famicom Wars, except with elves and dragons replacing tanks and jet fighters.  The title "King of Kings" is a bit strange, especially when you consider the main bad guy is named "Lucifer."  Since the game was developed by Atlus, we can chalk this up as another example of their inappropriate use of religious figures in their games.

Godzilla: King of Monsters/Godzilla: Monster of Monsters

It always though that "atomic breath" should look more fiery.

Military strategy games were so popular on the Famicom in 1988 that Toho and Compile decided to make a beat 'em up that looked like a military strategy game.  You move Godzilla and Mothra around on a hex based world map, and then play a short sidescrolling beat 'em up level for each space that you moved.  It works quite a bit differently from most action games, since your character sprites are enormous, and taking tons of damage is unavoidable.  Luckily you have huge lifebars, so you can just sort of smash you way through the levels.  It manages to feel a bit "off,"  however.

Hanjuku Hero

Yet another military/strategic/RPG type thing, this time from Square.  The game has a comedic slant to it, though the humor will be lost on anyone not literate in Japanese.  Later titles in the series would be far more interesting, but a couple things are notable.  Namely, the game's great Nobuo Uematsu score, and the Egg Monsters that you can use in combat.  These would later find their way into the Final Fantasy series as Summons.

Alien Syndrome 

Believe it or not, the Master System version looked worse than this.

As with Fantasy Zone from Episode 20 , this is a Sega game published on the Famicom by Sunsoft (and later by Tengen in the US.)  Somehow the Famicom Alien Syndrome manages to be better and more faithful to the arcade game that the Master System version.

Totsuzen! Macho Man/Amagon

You may have already seen this game in the preview of  Episode 38 posted on Youtube earlier.  If so, you know I don't really care for this game, despite the fact that this seems reasonably well made.

Kaettekita Mario Bros.

Nintendo pimps Mario out to an instant noodle company.

A genuine Famicom oddity, courtesy of Nintendo.  This game, released for the Famicom Disk Writer, is a merely an improved version of Mario Bros. (originally seen back in Chrontendo Episode 1!), with some ads for Nagatanien noodle and rice seasoning products edited in.  I assume the president of Nagatanien and Hiroshi Yamauchi belonged to the same country club or something.  Even weirder, this version formed the basis for the Classic Mario Bros. game released in Europe a few years later.

In the category of less interesting stuff, we have the following:
Momotaro Dentetsu

A screenshot of Momotaro Dentetsu.  Or maybe this is from Tetsudo Ou.  I can't remember.

One of Hudson's longest lasting and most popular series, Momotaro Dentetsu (Momotaro's Electric Railway) is a take-off on Hudson's earlier Momotaro Densetsu game.  Instead of an RPG, it's one of those train-themed board games, much like Tetsudo Ou, from Chrontedo 26.

Family Mahjong II

Another mahjong game from Namco, apparenty developed by Nichibutsu/Nissan Busan.


Great... the ice cream cone is humping the trumpet.

Another US release from Nintendo and Rare.  This one's a "board game" in the style of Pictionary.  If you're wondering how Rare cranks out games so quickly, part of it must have to do with the fact that certain assets, such as the system for typing out your answer using the d-pad, are borrowed from earlier Rare games  -- Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! in this case.

Nakashima Satoshi: F1 Hero/Micheal Andretti's World GP

A weird and visually unappealing F1 racing game from Varie.  These things never seem to get released in the US, but for some reason Sammy licensed the name and likeness of Michael Andretti (Mario's son) and gave it a whirl.  I assume no one out there actually remembers this game?

Tantei Jinguuji Saburo: Kiken na Ninin

For the third Saburo game, Sunsoft used the same release tactic as Nintendo did for its adventure games.  They split it up into two separate disks and released them about a month apart.  For those who don't recall, the Tantei Jinguuji Saburo games are Portopia style mystery/detective adventure games.

Nankin no Adventure

Another adventure game, though this one is a humorous game from the obscure Japanese cartoonist Nankin.

Chuugoku Senseijutsu

Speaking of Rare, do you recall a weird old NES game called Taboo?  We'll be covering that in around 5-6 episodes from now.  In the meantime, this Jaleco release is sort of like the Japanese equivalent.  It's a fortune telling game based on Chinese astrology.

Jaaman Tanteidan Matonarikumi

More crapola from Bandai, once again based on a kid's TV show.  We covered its sister game back in Chrontendo 29.

We have now reached early December 1988, and in a few episode we'll finally get to 1989.  We'll see a couple big name releases in late 1988, but before we do that we're going to switch gears for a second.  The next episode up will be something that at least some of you have been waiting a while for.

Until then, check out Chrontendo Episode 38 on Archive or Youtube.

*See also: Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It Appears We're Still Here

It's May 22, and the world still hasn't ended so I guess this means I'm going to have to finish up the new Chrontendo.  It's being hastily thrown together carefully edited even as I'm writing this. Check back in a day or so.

Until then, I'll leave you with this:

For those who didn't see this on Boing Boing, it's a urinal made of SNES cartridges, complete with how-to instructions.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May Is The Cruelest Month (For Chrontendo Viewers)

Here we are halfway into the month of May, and what's this?  Still no new Chrontendo?  What is that lazy son-of-a-bitch Dr. Sparkle up to, you might ask?

I'll have you know I've been neck deep in old computer games, assembling the 1988 Computer Game Round-up for Episode 38.   I'll be honest with you; in the past I've given myself a decent head start on these things, generally starting on the research well before beginning work on the rest of the episode.  This time, however, this did not happen.  I essentially began from scratch just a few weeks ago.  Bad time management on my part, I'm afraid, but I'm just now finishing up work on the Round-up.

This post's title is a cute joke for all you literary types out there.

Luckily, the exciting world of 1988 computer games makes the wait worthwhile.  The mid-late '80s were a strange, transitional time for computer gaming.  The Apple II and Commodore 64 dominated the first half of the decade, and by 1985, the next generation of machines had arrived in the form of the Commodore Amiga, Apple Macintosh and Atari ST.  Yet, as impressive as these were from a technical standpoint, they failed to catch the attention of consumers.  Instead, computers based the IBM x86 architecture and running DOS became the primary force in the marketplace.  From the standpoint of gaming, these IBM clones seemed terrible: they suffered from ugly EGA graphics and very weak sound capabilities.   Yet, by 1988 they accounted for almost 80% of the US home computer market, with Commodore taking around 10%, and the rest competing for the remaining sliver.  By the 1990, Commodore had virtually dropped out of the race, and the next two decades consisted of Macs and and PCs slugging it out (in a manner of speaking - Macs rarely reached more than 5% of the market for most of this time period.)

Prior to 1988, DOS games tended to look pretty terrible.  But a series of technological improvements changed that quite quickly.  Newer graphics standards such as MCGA and VGA would allow for higher resolutions and more colors.  Compare the the graphics of 1986's Might and Magic Book I with that of the Might and Magic Book II from 1988:

 Might and Magic Book I (1986)

Might and Magic Book II (1988)

From here on out, things improved rapidly, with the popular Sound Blaster card released in 1989, and the XGA graphics standard in 1990.  By the time of 1991's Might and Magic III , DOS games would look like this:

Might and Magic III: The Isles of Terra (1991)

In addition, something of a changing of the guard was occurring in the world of game publishers.  Many of the significant smaller publishers from the first wave of computer gaming, such as Muse, Adventure International and California Pacific Computer Company had disappeared by this time.  And in 1988, several major older publishers such as Epyx were on their last legs.  The most significant such failure was that of Infocom, who virtually kicked off the computer game craze with their massive hit Zork in 1980.  After a string of flops, they finally closed up shop in 1989.  At the same time, a new wave of publishers destined for success in the 1990s and 2000s arose.  In the 1988 Round Up, we'll see the debut games from Cyan, Naughty Dog, Westwood, and DMA (later known as Rockstar North.)

The Colony: it's like System Shock minus the excitement.

Another interesting development in 1988: the emergence of "real" 3D graphics.  Oh sure, we saw a couple primitive 3D games in the 1987 computer game round up, but '88 is when the floodgates began to open.  Oddly, British developers were leading the way.  It seems unlikely that the country with such terrible home computers would take the initiative in technological innovation.  Yet out of the UK sprung games such as Starglider 2, a shooter that used polygon based 3D.  You might not be familiar with Starglider's developer, Argonaut, but you certainly know their work: they later helped Nintendo create the Super FX chip used in Star Fox.  On the other side of the pond, Mindscape released the proto-FPS The Colony for the Mac, which featured suprisingly decent looking 3D enviroments.  Still, the US was definitely behind in the 3D computer games race until a bunch of dudes in Shreveport, LA came along a couple years later and blew everyone else out of the water.

Once Episode 38 makes its appearance, in the very near future, we'll see all this and more.  Did I mention Ninja Gaiden yet?  It's going to be an episode jam-packed with excitement.

By the way, Blogger was doing some sort of update recently, and I think some comments may have disappeared.  If your recent comment got lost, I apologize.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Strange Times

My Goodness!  Look at all the things that have happened in the world since I last posted!  Alabama and neighboring states have been devastated by tornadoes.  Osama bin Laden has been killed.  And most importantly, at least judging by amount of TV news coverage it has received, a member of the British royal family got married. 

I'm sure the Windsors are very nice people, and over the years they've done a good job "protecting the realm" or whatever exactly it is they do, but I don't understand why a certain segment of the US population gets all worked up whenever one of them gets married or dies.  Considering that we actually went to war in order to get these guys out of hair, why are we now obsessing over them, 200 years later?  I'll confess to a certain amount of naïveté in regards to the massive interest in the royals.  Years ago, when Princess Diana died, I heard the news and thought, "Oh, that's too bad," and assumed that the world would move on the something else the next day.   I literally had no idea that we would be subjected to round-the-clock media coverage for a week, followed by endless rounds of books, tributes and repeated exposure to Elton John.  I really had no conception of how much people were "into" Diana, and to this day I still don't understand why .

Also surprising: this site is receiving some traffic courtesy of a link on the blog of The Weekly Standard writer Jonathan Last.  I would never, in a million years, have imagined any sort of link between The Weekly Standard and this site, but Mr. Last has an interest in various geeky hobbies, it seems.

So what have I been up to lately, you ask?  Working on Chrontendo Episode 38, of course!  I've now completed Ninja Gaiden and am neck deep in 1988 computer games.  But I've also been up to other stuff, like seeing the world premiere of Planet of the Vampire Women!  This locally produced, low-budget horror/sci-fi movie had its first public showing Saturday night.  The film features a few people that I know, and my wife stopped by the set one day and worked a fog machine, or something.  Here's the trailer:

The basic premise behind the film is that if you throw in vampires, spaceships, blood, topless women, and topless women being splattered with blood, you end up with a pretty entertaining experience.  The trailer is the PG-13 version, but I think you will get the idea.  I have no idea what sort of distribution Planet of the Vampire Women will be receiving, but I advise you to keep an eye out for it, as it's far more entertaining than Transformers 2.

What's that?  You thought that was all I had for you today?  Oh, hell no!  This post is loaded with content and it's only getting better!  I also have a link to Matt McNeely's "micro-documentary" Unlimited Continues.  This uber-short doc about the appeal of retro video games contains a few words from none other than Dr. Sparkle himself, including a moment where I struggle to remember the name of 3D Dot Game Heroes.  Unlike Chrontendo, this is produced by someone with real movie making skills, so prepare to be impressed with its slickness.

Unlimited Continues from Matt McNeely on Vimeo.

And, while you're waiting, there's a new video up on the Chrontendo Youtube channel.  It's a preview of Episode 38 -- namely the segment that deals with Amagon, a wacked-out body builder-themed game from Vik Tokai.  Let me tell you kids something: this game gave me much more hassle than Ninja Gaiden.  Or, at least, the first few levels or Amagon are much harder than the first few levels of Tecmo's game.

And now, I'll continue to forge ahead on Episode 38.  Catch you later.