Sunday, May 27, 2012

Beertendo: A Russian River Odyssey

It's time for a new Beertendo! I had an idea for sort of a Beertendo sub-series: to review each of Russian Rivers "religious" beers. Or at least, all those I can get my hands on.

For the uninitiated, Russian River is a small brewery in Northern California with a serious cult following. RR's most famous product is a Double IPA called Pliny the Elder. Their brews are known for being very good and very difficult to find. Pliny the Elder is their most well-distributed product, and even then you very rarely see a bottle on the shelf. I happen to live in a town with a few places that almost always have it on tap, but in most parts of the country, Pliny the Elder is more spoken about than drank.

Not as well known are RR's "religious" beers, or "-tion" beers, as they might be called. Giving Belgian inspired beers religious-themed names might be a bit of a trend in the US. Another California brewery, The Lost Abbey, has a similar naming convention.  Like all RR product, these "-tion" beers have limited availability and distribution. However, bottles don't fly off the shelf with the same frenzy as Pliny the Elder, so they are a bit easier to find. I'll be reviewing these in the order that I happen to come across them.

Today we start with Sanctification, described on the bottle as a "Sour Blonde." Like the others in the series, it is "inspired" by Belgian beers, in this case, the Belgian Sour Ale. Sour beers have become increasingly popular in the US over the last few years among beer geeks, if not the general public. Generally speaking, a sour beer is brewed using a type of wild yeast called Brettanomyces and/or certain souring bacteria. In most beers, these critters are considered contaminants and give the beer unwanted sour flavors. In sour ales, the use of Brettanomyces is carefully controlled to produce a beer with an unusual and (hopefully) delicious flavor. Sanctification is a bit extreme since Brettanomyces is the only yeast used. The label proudly proclaims "No Saccharomyces* was used to ferment this beer," in text on the front of the bottle set an angle normally reserved for "100% Guaranteed," or "New and Improved!" on other products. This is definitely aimed at beer geeks. The label has a certain amateurish charm. Way too many different fonts are used, and the two color print job gives it a homemade appearance. Seeing a bottle on the shelf gives you the same feeling as finding an ultra-rare, private press LP in the racks at a thrift store.
What about the beer itself?  According to Russian River, Sanctification is based on a recipe for a Belgian Golden Ale, except with the normal yeast replaced with Brettanomyces.  In the glass, Sanctification has a pale orange color with a thin head of foam. It's somewhat fizzy, almost like Champagne, with lots of tiny bubbles rising rapidly from the bottom.  The smell is floral and fruity. As for the taste, it's a sour apple flavor with a slight lemony bite. It puckers the inside of your mouth, but has a bit of sweetness, sort of like a sour candy. There is almost no alcohol flavor. The alcohol content is pretty mild at 6.75%

It's difficult to describe the "brett" taste to someone who's never tried it. Enthusiasts often refer to it as “funky” or "barnyard," It is a slightly odd, sour taste. If it were more prevalent in the beer, it would make it undrinkable, but in Sanctification, the flavors are perfectly balanced -- it adds just the right amount of depth and complexity. Sanctificatiion is a pretty mighty beer, and a perfectly balanced sour beer like this acts a metaphor for life: the rain allows us to appreciate the sun all the more.

*Saccharomyces is the "normal" yeast used to ferment beer. Nowadays, beers are classified as either ales or lagers depending on the strain of Saccharomyces. Since Santification uses no Saccharomyces, it is technically neither an ale nor a lager.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Pleasant Surprise

Episode 44 is safely in the can, despite some issues with the sound synchronization on the initial version posted. Next up is Chronturbo Episode 3, which will cover January - March 1989. This is the point where the release schedule for the PC Engine really picks up.  After a slow January and February, we get 11 games in March; this is comparable to a typical month for the Famicom. The success of the PC Engine in Japan led to strong third party support which led to a very robust slate of games for 1989.

A couple things I should point out: there will be a few changes to Chrontendo and its sister series over the next few episodes. In Chronturbo 3 you'll notice some minor aesthetic improvements. These changes will slow down my normal workflow, so expect to see some slowdown until I get into the swing of things.

One new developer for the PC Engine will make its debut in Chronturbo 3: Capcom.  "Wait," you say, "Capcom created the original Street Fighter arcade game, which we saw as Fighting Street last time!" True, but Capcom unveils its first original game (mostly) for the PC Engine in January 1989: SonSon II.  Those of you who remember the first SonSon game will probably not be too excited at the thought of a sequel. I certainly wasn't. Yet Son Son II turned out to be a pretty good, cutesy, action platformer in the Wonder Boy vein.

 The impression you come away with from SonSon II is that of a more polished Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Your diminutive hero slays enemies with his staff while picking up money and doing some light platforming. Money can be spent at the shops that occasionally appear. Aside from health refills, you can purchase special weapons, an item to punch through hidden weak spots in walls, and, most importantly, upgrades to your main weapon. Money, called "Zenny"* in the game, is in the form of various fruits and other edible goods, that often float in mid air. This will give you flashbacks to the first Wonder Boy game.

The whole shebang feels pretty similar to Keith Courage, though with much more charm and better controls. However, it turns out that SonSon II is essentially a light-hearted reworking of an earlier Capcom game, Black Tiger/Black Dragon. That game had a much darker, sword and sorcery theme, but the gameplay, as well as some of the sprites, have been retained in SonSon II. Black Tiger never got a console port, though it was released on some computers, and years later ended up on a PS2 Capcom compilation.

On a side note, it's been pointed out that there is a lot of similarity between last episode's Dragon Buster II and the ancient Intellivison game, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Cloudy Mountain. I'll admit, there is a very strong resemblance which is hard to chalk up to coincidence. The fact that your weapon is a bow, the layout of the dungeons, the final destination being an imposingly tall mountain...  all of these elements appear in both games. Though some things, like the final mountain, were carried over from the first Dragon Buster game. As I pointed out earlier, the structure of both Dragon Buster games are essentially the same. I suppose it's possible that one of the developers at Namco or Tose was enamored with this obscure (in Japan, at least) older game, and borrowed elements as a tribute. Too bad we don't know more about the origins of Dragon Buster II.

*Zenny appears as a form of currency in many Capcom games. Black Tiger may have been the first, but it later turned up in such series as Breath of Fire and Mega Man Battle Network.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Stone Hands and Game Boys

(UPDATE: The Professor has pointed out the sound is slightly out of sync in the MKV and MP4 versions. I've uploaded a corrected video to Youtube and the Achive versions will follow shortly!)

Ok, I've been able to tear myself away from overpriced beers long enough to cobble together Chrontendo 44. And what an episode it is! Head on over to Archive or Youtube to check it out. As always, the nice h.264 60 frames per second versions on Archive are considered optimal.

Episode 44 is a bit of an outlier. There are only 12 (gasp!) games covered, meaning all of April 1989. However, the remaining time is taken up by a lengthy bonus feature on the Game Boy. Yes, the Game Boy. In the past, I've said I will never do a Chrontendo Game Boy series, but since Nintendo's handheld debuted in April, I decided to do a quick overview of the 25 games released in 1989.

Alright you bastards! Game Boy! Are you happy now?
What did I learn about the Game Boy's first 8 months of existence? That a lot of crap was released early in the system's lifespan. The other consoles we've covered, the Famicom, SMS and PC Engine, were all born into uncertainty. No one knew upfront how those systems would fare. As a result, third party publishers didn't start coming on-board in droves until after those consoles had enough time to get their footing. The Game Boy, on the other hand, was a highly anticipated new product from the dominating force in the video game industry. Thus we have third party Game Boy support from the get-go. In fact, a third party game, HAL's Shanghai, was released at launch! I believe this is the first video game system in which that happened. Add in the fact that the Game Boy must have been relatively cheap and easy to program for, and it's not surprising that 1989 saw tons of games from Bandai, Pony Canyon, Toei, and the like. Of course, it also saw more ambitious releases from Konami, Square and Kemco. Overall, aside from a few classics like Super Mario Land and Tetris, 1989 was not packed with memorable Game Boy titles.

However, in the world of the Famicom, April 1989 has one very memorable game from Technos. Fresh off the massive success of Double Dragon in the arcades, Technos produced the newest Kunio-kun/Nekketsu game, Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, aka River City Ransom.

Because River City Ransom is a highly regarded cult favorite, it's easy to overestimate the originality of Technos's concept. Back when you were some snot-nosed punk in 1990, the idea of a beat-em-up RPG must have blown your mind. But after having encountered one RPG-ish sidescrolling action game after another throughout the course of Chrontendo, RCR no longer feels quite as fresh. At it's core, RCR is not that much different than Chester Field.

What Technos did create was an experience that is much more enjoyable than all those other cruddy games. Combat, in particular, is much more engrossing, what with all of RCR's punches, kicks, blocks, throws, and chain-whippings. We all love such bits of dialog as "Mamaaa!" "Welcome to your worst nightmare!" and, best of all, "BARF!" Add in the great music and that fact that RCR is a much more polished experience than the sometimes brutally unfair Double Dragon, and you get a stone cold classic.

Holy Diver is a diamond in the rough. Upon first glance, it is simply another Castlevania clone. A few minutes into the game and you'll realize it's an exercise in sadism aimed directly squarely at the player. I understand that that the life of a video game developer can be very difficult, particularly in Japan: insanely long hours, extreme pressure to work quickly, abusive bosses, destroyed marriages, low pay.... I assume that one day Irem's employees decided to funnel all that rage and frustration into a game and direct it back at their own customers. "It's all your fault for buying these games! Every time a game sells well, they want us to make one that sells better.  Now most nights I sleep under my desk. Why didn't I listen to my father and become an accountant!"

A classic example of misdirected hostility.
I got sick and tired of Holy Diver and gave up on the second to last level. If you want to someone play all the way through, check for videos online. I recommend the tear-stained playthough by Bangaa. You can almost feel his neurons frying in this thing. Also, please note that I decided against using Dio's "Holy Diver" as the intro music for this game. I thought that was a little too obvious.

What else is good in Episode 44?

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend

Dragons vs Aliens! At last!
 Dragon Spirit turned up in Chronturbo 2 in a pretty faithful port. The NES version lacks graphical fidelity, but is much more fun to play. Why? A shrunken hit box, for one. Also, more power-ups and a generous lifebar. Toss in some animated cutscenes, and we've got a pretty cool shoot-em-up.

Aoki Ookami to Shiroki Mejika: Genghis Khan

The only videogame (that I know of) whose title refers to inter-species sexual relations. But hey, it's Japan, right? At least it doesn't involve tentacles. Anyway, Genghis Khan is Toei's second epic historical strategy game on the Famicom. It's really just Romance of the Three Kingdoms with Mongols instead of Chinese warlords. Also, it's way better than the other military simulation game this episode.

The Bad:

A Week of Garfield

This screenshot should clear up any doubts you had about the quality of this game.
A classic piece of kusoge from Towachiki and the mysterious Mars Corp. Moby Games describes Mars as a "game design think tank" run by Shoji Masuda. Though very little thought must have been put into this game.  Stupid looking enemies, unfair deaths, awful sound effects, too many hidden items, and levels consisting mostly of randomly placed platforms -- Garfield commits just about every cardinal sin of platformer game design.

Taboo: The Sixth Sense

Did Rare literally just string together random words?
Rare's most infamous game, after Battletoads. Taboo is the second tarot card simulation we've seen for the Famicom; the first being Tarot Uranai from December 1988. The tarot card designs in Taboo are much less interesting than those in the earlier game, but Rare sweetens the deal with a bit of nudity and a lucky number generator. You have to chose the state you live in to get your lucky numbers. Too bad only around half the 50 states are listed. As a bonus, the writing in Taboo is so nonsensical that some online reviewers have assumed it was developed in Japan and then poorly translated into English. Also, doesn't "sixth sense" refer to ESP? Which has nothing to do with tarot cards? But then the game itself implies its fortune telling abilities are a form of time travel!? The guys are Rare must have either been on some serious drugs or just didn't give a shit.


This picture might be NSFW. I'm not sure.
Now here is a real ESP game! Mindseeker is based on the Japanese spoonbending psychic/entertainer Masuaki Kiyota. It makes you guess at Zener cards and other tests of psychic powers.

The indifferent:

Devil Man

HA! HA! That is pretty funny, dude.
A manga based action platformer from Namco, and developed by ISCO.  You'll remember those guys from Seikima II (the Japanese glam rock band game) and Transformers: The Mystery of Comvoy. Devil Man is better than those two games, so I guess ISCO is showing some progress.

Dragon Buster II: Yami no Fuuin

Namco's Dragon Buster was a pioneering game in the sidescrolling action genre.  It received a Famciom port in early 1987, and now a console-exclusive sequel.  Namco and Tose give it a very superficial Zelda-esque facelift, but it's still too repetitive to be of much interest.

Adventures of Lolo

A US-only compilation of levels from the previously released Eggerland games. As far as I know, there is nothing new here, aside from a spiffy opening animation. HAL must have liked the name, since all future games in the series, both American and Japanese, were released under the Adventures of Lolo moniker.


You are armed human beings fighting pigs. This should not be so difficult!
Another military simulation game from Soft Pro, the makers of 19: Neunzehn. Fairytale uses the same infuriating combat system as the earlier title.

Keiba Simulation: Honmei

Four words: horse racing simulation game. Does this sound enticing? Probably not.

I've also added a little best game/worst game segment at then end of the episode, as per a suggestion made by a commenter. Next up on our schedule will be Chronturbo 3. 1989 is when the pace of releases for the PC Engine really starts picking up. Hell, in one month, June, there were more Japanese releases for the PC Engine than there were for the Famicom. We probably won't see that happen again for a while.

For now you can check out Chrontendo Episode 44 on Archive or Youtube.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Episode 44 will enter the editing phase shortly and should be released sometime soon. Before that happens, I'll take the opportunity to introduce a new occasional feature, which I am dubbing Beertendo. I've written about beer here before; it ranks as one of my great passions, along with videogames and obscure 70's German prog albums (and various activities not fit to be mentioned in family friendly blog such as this.)

I don't see any reason why I can't write about non-videogame content here. After all, Gamespite occasionally discusses weird flavors of Kit-Kat bars or even Jeremy Parish's experiments with Bruno Mars cosplay. Today seems like a good time to start, since we are smack in the middle of the multi-day, beer-intensive holiday known as Cinco de Mayo. In case you are not from these parts, Cinco de Mayo is one of America's oldest, continuously celebrated traditions. And despite what you might think, it does not derive from Mexico, nor was it created by marketing companies to sell more beer. It's as American as a Louisville Slugger or a hotdog from Coney Island, having been observed in California since the Civil War.  The character of Cinco de Mayo has changed over the years; in the early 20th century it transitioned to a celebration of Mexican culture in general, rather an observance of the political ideals surrounding the Battle of Puebla.

Our first beer review is North Coast's Otsuchi Old Stock Ale 2012. North Coast Brewing, from Fort Bragg, a small town on the Northern California coastline, is probably best known for their excellent Imperial Stout, Old Rasputin. Aside from OR, North Coast makes a couple Belgian style beers, as well as some less exotic brews that you often see on the shelves of Trader Joe's. One of their very best offerings is the Old Stock Ale, of which the Otsuchi is a limited release version. The term "old stock" or "old ale" will be unfamiliar those who are not beer geeks, but it originally referred to a type of British ale: dark and slightly aged, with higher than average alcohol content, and similar to a barleywine.

I don't know how long North Coast ages its Old Stock ale, if at all, but it does have some of the characteristics you would expect of aged beer. The alcohol content is pretty high, 11.70%. The color is quite nice, a shadowy reddish copper. Upon pouring, a thick head rises but quickly subsides to a thin ring of foam. The beer itself is heavy and slightly sweet, with a bit of alcohol flavor. Hints of coffee and fruit flavors are also found, with very little hoppy bitterness. I thought it had a slight black tea aftertaste. It's definitely a "big" tasting ale, but not the best thing I've ever tasted from North Coast. I prefer the regular Old Stock, which is exceptional. I'll give it a B minus.

This beer was bottled to raise funds for the Otsuchi recovery fund. Otsuchi is a sister city to Fort Bragg, and was hit hard by the 2011 Tsunami. If nothing else, you can drink the beer knowing that the profits are going towards a good cause.