Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Episode 43 Hath Arrived!

Let me start by stating the obvious: after much delay, Chrontendo Episode 43 is available. You may stream it at Youtube, or get superior 60 fps h.264 versions on Archive.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a long episode; it covers the entire month of March, 1989 with a total of 20 games.  This "one month per episode" thing is not going to be permanent. Episode 44 will cover April, but will have quite a bit of bonus content since April, 1989 is light on games. 

Some interestintg comments were made about Famitsu magazine and their lists and game scores, as well as the overall issue of ranking games.  A little refresher about Famitsu's scoring: each game is reviewed by four people on a scale of one to ten. If a game receives four scores of 10, then it has obtained the "perfect" score of 40. In the past, Famitsu was very stingy about handing out perfect 40s. The only two games of the 1990's that received a perfect score were Zelda: OOT and Soul Caliber.  Since then, the perfect 40 has become more commonplace, with two or three a year not being uncommon.

For those who haven't seen it, I recommend this post on Magweasel, which translates a comic book conversion between Warp's Kenji Eno and Famitsu's Editor-in-Chief about the "fairness" or lack of fairness in the scoring system. It's quite informative about the magazine's philosophy behind the scores back in the 1990's.  Nowadays, or course, Famitsu gets chided for having loosened up its scoring process, and for handing out too many good scores, especially for popular games from major publishers.

How can you not trust a magazine with such elegant, understated cover design?

The same thing happens with Western gaming publications. Every time the new Uncharted or God of War game gets an A grade, accusations start flying around the internet. There are a couple reasons for this. First of all, professional game publications rely very heavily on game publishers for content.  Interviews, sneak peeks at upcoming games, advance review copies.... gaming mags and websites depend on these things to be competitive in the marketplace. I'm sure game publishers try to leverage this dependence from time to time.

Secondly, let's face it: as gamers, as lot of us have some pretty big chips on our shoulders.  We have declared our loyalty to certain companies, genres, and series and we often despise other companies, genres and series. And we love nothing more than making our feelings known to as many people as possible. The online gaming community is not the most vituperative group of people on the internet (that would be Yahoo News commentators and grammar/punctuation/word usage Nazis), but we love to tear down games we dislike.

An interesting manifestation of this is that the usual critic/fan duality is almost completely reversed.  Film critics are often labeled by the general public as being too critical. Movies that make hundreds of millions of dollars often receive very bad reviews.  Game fans, on the other hand, accuse professional game critics of being too lenient.  A quick examination of the reviews on Metacritic will demonstrate this. The majority of user reviews for movies will be higher than critics' reviews.  In the game category, the opposite is true. Check it out. An interesting corollary of this phenomenon: if a game title contains the words "Call of Duty," the the user reviews will be a good 30 points or more below the critics' reviews.

There is a notable exception to this rule.  One thing the armchair game critic (i.e.: myself and most people reading this) loves above all else is to champion the misunderstood or unjustly neglected game. This is especially true among fans of niche genres such as JRPGs, shoot-em-ups, strategy games, etc. This generally involves taking a game that received middling to poor reviews and claiming the mainstream gaming press failed to adequately give it the attention it deserved. Perhaps the game critics simply failed to understand the game or didn't devote enough time to it. Or perhaps only the hardest of the hardcore gamers are perceptive enough to realize the truth: that some obscure game that received bad reviews is actually far better than that popular game everyone is talking about. At its worst, the practice becomes a form or Armond White-ism.

Unfortunately, the above rant doesn't leave that much space to discuss Episode 43's content. Here it is in a nutshell: we have four adventure games, a few arcade ports, and a bunch or crap.

Deja Vu, with monsters.

The most notable games this episode are Jesus: Kyoufu no Bio Monster and Shadowgate. Both are menu-driven adventure games originally released on computers. Both involve wandering around confined, isolated environments.  Neither are known for having intuitive puzzles. Beyond that they differ quite a bit. Jesus is very character driven. The protagonist, a typical pink-haired, anime bad-ass, is frequently depicted onscreen, along with his jailbait keyboard-playing girlfriend and her neurotic pet robot.  In Shadowgate, your character is never shown and has virtually zero interaction with anyone else. In fact, there are hardly any other human beings in the game, other than a wizard who appears at one point with some advice.

You literally rock the monster to death!

Shadowgate loads you down with inventory - several menu screens worth - and then challenges you to figure out what to do with it. Most rooms require you to use an item in your inventory to open a door, kill a monster, or simply obtain another item.  Shadowgate never tells you how to use any of the items, so a lot of guesswork is required. Jesus, on the other hand, gives you very little inventory; instead you advance by examining your environment and trying out dialog options until you activate the hidden trigger to advance the plot. Also, you rarely (or perhaps never) die is Jesus. Shadowgate offers an astonishing array of deaths; there's a way to die on almost every screen.

You will probably see this a few times.

Shadowgate, being the first port of a computer adventure game on a console is fondly remembered in the US. In Japan, the Famicom version is considered to be kusoge. Once again, Magweasal helps explain this by translating some of the game's overwrought Japanese text.

Ankoku Shinwa: Yamato Takeru Densetsu

This is a very weird adventure game published by Tokyo Shoseki that was originally on the MSX. It's based on a manga and the story revolves around pre-Nara era Japan (essentially, it takes place in prehistorical or "legendary" Japan.). Despite there being an unofficial English translation the story is pretty hard to follow.

Hikari Genji: Roller Panic

This is the joker in the deck - an adventure game that stars a horrible, rollerskating Japanese boy-band.  I'll just repeat what I said the episode itself. This makes Noriko for the PC-Engine look like a work of genius.

Also, arcade ports!

Rolling Thunder

It's never explained why they need all those sandbags.

This is Shinobi before there was Shinobi, except it's by Namco, not Sega. The arcade game was pretty cool, but something is just not quite right about the home version. It's not terrible, its just that when playing Rolling Thunder I kind of wish I was playing Shinobi instead.

Afterburner II/Afterburner

Something was lost in the translation, it seems.

Speaking of Sega, for some stupid reason, someone thought it was a good idea to try to put Afterburner on the Famicom. On the postive side, this is the last Sega game that Sunsoft would port to the Famicom. Hopefully, we'll soon be seeing less stuff like this from Sunsoft and more stuff like Gimmick and Batman. Tengen released this on the NES in a slightly altered form.

Operation Wolf

Not the prettiest game on the NES

Maybe I'm just getting less patient with ports of arcade games that aren't rejiggered to make them into appropriate console games. Capcom and Konami have learned to do this. Taito apparently hasn't.  There's nothing wrong with Operation Wolf, aside from the fact that its simply a lamer version of the arcade game.

Marble Madness

March 1989 sees the debut NES games from Milton Bradley.  Naturally, they are developed by Rare.  Unlike Operation Wolf and Rolling Thunder, the NES Marble Madness looks almost exactly like the arcade game.  Unfortunately, Marble Madness without a trackball is an exercise in frustration.

John Elway's Quarterback

Again, there's nothing inherently awful about this game. In fact, if we hadn't just covered Tecmo Bowl, I might have been impressed with John Elway's Quarterback. However, timing is everything. This port was developed by Rare.

World Games

This is how you will feel playing World Games.

This is a port of a computer game instead of an arcade game. But do you want to guess who was responsible for this port? Rare, that's who. Yes, all three US-only games this episode were handled by Rare.

The rest:

Putt Putt Golf

A wacky golf game on the FDS from Pack-in-Video

Home Run Nighter: Pennant League!!

Another baseball game?! Oh, god, when will they stop? This one is Data East's attempt at a Family Stadium/RBI Baseball clone.

Family Pinball/Rock 'n' Ball

The umpteenth game in Namco's Family sports series takes a slightly different approach than most pinball videogames.  There are four pinball games found within. The most creative is a double-ended table in which gravity is reversed at the midpoint of the table. The least interesting is a pachinko/pinball hybrid!  Namco wasn't releasing NES games in the US at this point, so NTVIC stripped all the Namco references out and renamed it Rock 'n' Ball.

Jajamaru Ninpou Chou

This is the fifth title in Jaleco's Ninja Kun/Jajamaru series. The previous entries were action platformers, but Jaleco suddenly decided to switch genres, and Jajamaru Ninpou Chou turns out to be a Dragon Quest clone! Jaleco planned to release this in the US under the name Taro's Quest. The localization was at least partially completed, but Taro's Quest ended up being cancelled.  An unfinished beta cartridge later turned up and was made available online.

Bakushou!! Jinsei Gekijou

Another Jinsei game. That is, a video game based on the Milton Bradley's board game, The Game of Life.  Get used to Jinsei games, because they remain popular in Japan up to the present day.

Sakigake!! Otokojuku: Shippu Ichi Gou Se

What is going on with that guy's left leg?

A dreadful beat-em-up from Tose and Bandai, based on a hyper-violent anime series. It is, however, better looking than Hokuto no Ken.

Hayauchi Super Igo

An igo game from Kemco.

Matsumoto Tooru no Kabushiki Hisshou Gaku 2

The sequel to last year's stock market simulation game. The sequel is much expanded, and even features some unusual stuff for a simulation game, such as first person mazes.

SD Gundam World Gachapon Senshi - Scramble Wars Map Collection

This is not a new game, but instead a collection of new maps for Bandai's robot-filled strategy game.

What's up next? Good news for the handful of Chronsega fans out there. Chronsega Episode 7 will take us into 1989 and the end of the console's life in Japan. This epsisode won't take so long, I promise.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Almost There

Thanks to everyone for their patience while I finish up Episode 43. I've been so insanely busy this last month or so. My mother was in the hospital, I was sick, then my wife was sick... it's been hectic. Also, I've been unable to focus lately because I've so excited about the upcoming Hunger Games movie! OK... not really. I'm not even really sure what The Hunger Games is. It's a kid's book that's supposed to be the new Twilight or something? Yet adults are reading it? And its sort of like Battle Royale? I don't understand any of this stuff.

Episode 43 has been completely recorded and only needs to be edited at this point. If I buckle down and work steadily, it might be ready by Sunday. No promises. 

In other news, qayllS has pointed out this link to a post about a Famitsu reader's poll of the top 100 Famicom games. The poll is a few years old, but still quite instructional. You might recall I discussed another Famitsu poll about the top 100 games (all platforms) and was shocked and horrified by Super Mario Bros 3's low showing. Thankfully, the Famicom list corrects that error, with SMB 3 taking the third spot. Other than that the two lists line up pretty well in terms of Famicom games, with both lists agreeing that Dragon Quest III, Final Fantasy III, Super Mario Bros, Dragon Quest II and Dragon Quest IV are among the best 8-bit titles. The kids in Japan just loved themselves some Dragon Quest back then.

There is quite a bit of complete insanity on this list, most notably that Spelunker placed above Metroid. And somehow Castlevania III ranks at #75, below complete and utter crap like Kinnikuman, Ikki and various Dragon Ball games. Hell, Contra placed well below Wagyan Land! I hate to jump on the "Japan, you so crazy!" bandwagon -- but this list is pretty weird. There are some really odd omissions: Ninja Gaiden, Bionic Commando, and Super C to name a few.

So, keep your eyes open for the huge, 20 game, new episode of Chrontendo soon!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Your Pre-Superbowl Update.

One of the things that led me to start Chrontendo was the number of mysterious, obscure and bizarre sounding Famciom games that were never released in the US. Once every single official Famicom release was dumped and made readily available online, everyone suddenly had access to all these strange sounding titles.  One that always stuck out for me was Jesus: Kyoufu no Bio Monster/Jesus: Dreadful Bio-Monster. What in God's name could that game possibly be about? Jesus and a "bio-monster?" A bio-monster named Jesus? What the heck is a "bio-monster," anyway? Why does the word "bio" keep turning up in Japanese game titles? (Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa, Bio Senshi Dan.)

Well, with Episode 43 we'll finally reach March 1989 and with it, Jesus: Kyoufu no Bio Monster.  At last our questions about this game will be answered! Sadly, Jesus... is nowhere near as weird as the name suggests. It is simply another Japanese adventure game; though it is a relatively high-quality game originally released by Enix.  The Jesus of the title is not the well-known Jesus, but simply a space station named "Jesus." Not addressed in the game is why anyone would name a space station that. In fact, the space station plays very little part in the game and is rarely mentioned. My dreams of playing some nutty Japanese game with a gonzo take on Christianity have been shattered.

You suffer from a bad case of anime hair.

The plot of Jesus: Kyoufu no Bio Monster is lifted from a very secular source: the 1978 Dan O'Bannon/Ridley Scott film Alien. In Jesus the xenomorph was hiding out on Halley's Comet, infiltrated a space ship, then killed everyone on board.  The hero, some anime dude with hair that alternates between red, pink and purple, explores the hallways and storage areas of an empty spaceship while occasionally encountering the creature. Eventually he defeats the monster, though methods too absurd to repeat here (I'm not kidding: the secret weapon used against the creature is jaw-droppingly dumb.)

Jesus: Kyoufu no Bio Monster has its strengths -- great music by Koichi Sugiyama, of Dragon Quest fame, and art design by Shintaro Majima, who later became the head of Arte Piazza, the guys responsible the DS Dragon Quest ports, among other things.  Yet it still suffers from the same problems that plague so many other Japanese adventure games of the Famicom era.  On the surface, Jesus appears to offer a non-linear and open-ended experience. You can wander around the ship freely, looking for clues and items. But in reality, the game enforces a strict, linear, series of events, mostly through a series of triggers, which are often hidden.

The game is not subtle about its influences.

For example, at one point you encounter the alien in a freezer. If you had entered the freezer earlier, you would have noticed a valve to release some liquid coolant. The game originally forbids you from opening the valve, instead advising you it would be too dangerous to release the coolant. By this point you already know the alien is sensitive to cold and have armed yourself with some sort of freeze ray gun.  Once you encounter the alien in the freezer, it's pretty obvious you are going to need to open that valve.  However, again, the game does not allow you to turn the valve.  So instead you use your freeze ray again. However, the freeze ray has suddenly run out of power.  It is then screamingly obvious that you are going to use the valve to release the coolant and freeze the alien.  Yet, once again, if you try to open the valve, the game advises you it's too dangerous, despite the fact that there is a cold-sensitive alien standing there about to bite your head off.  No matter how many times to try to open the valve, the game refuses to do so.

Those of you with experience in adventure games might be trying to think of a logical solution to this puzzle. Maybe there was an item you forgot to pick up, like an environmental suit to protect you from the coolant. Or maybe searching the room will reveal a control panel to activate a blast shield to seal off the part of the room you're in.  However, the actual solution is nothing like that. Instead you need to use your freeze ray again, despite the fact you already tried to use it once and were told it was non-operational. Once you try to use the freeze ray for the third time, the game will suddenly suggest you use the coolant valve instead. Then, and only then, will the option to turn the valve be unlocked. You can't just figure out that the valve needs to be turned, you need to figure out how to get the game to tell you to turn the valve.

This style of puzzle perfectly sums up Jesus: Kyoufu no Bio Monster and all the frustrations it produces.

Episode 43 will be a little heavy on the adventure games. We will also cover Hikaru Genji - Roller Panic, a game staring a popular 80s Japanese boy band, as well as Ankoku Shinwa: Yamato Takeru Densetsu and little something you may have heard of called Shadowgate.

Episode 43 is totally a real thing and will be happening before too much longer. Check back later.