Saturday, January 12, 2013

Aussie Games and Krautish Rock

You will be pleased to know that Chrontendo Episode 46 is nearing completion. There is only one game left unfinished, and then it's off to editing.

Episode 46 will feature four non-Japanese releases - that is, games that were created for the US market. One of them is Monster Party, but today I wanted to bring up a different title: Airwolf.

The US Airwolf is the second NES game based on the TV show, which, as I pointed out when covering the other Airwolf game, was cancelled in 1987. It was published by Acclaim, whose prior two US-only releases were both developed by Rare. (Wizards and Warriors and WWF Wrestlemania.) For Airwolf, Acclaim brought in a brand new developer to NES, Australia's Beam Software. It's interesting that all the publishers of US-only games for the NES (Acclaim, LJN, Hi Tech, etc) were outsourcing the work to overseas companies. American development studios were apparently all too invested in PC games to consider doing work for the NES.

Airwolf is a pretty awful game. Each level places your helicopter on a map which contains a few prison camps and refueling stations. The object is simple to move Airwolf to each camp to pick up prsioners, refuel if necessary, and then move the edge of the map, thus crossing the border. Almost all the action takes place in first person perspective from inside the cockpit. The results are not exactly visually thrilling:

There is nothing at all original in Airwolf. The game handles worse than most After Burner/Top Gun type games. The sound and graphics are ugly. In the screenshot above, you can see two enemy missiles headed towards you. They are represented simply by a bunch of black dots arranged into a circle. I guess creating a series of missile sprites in varying sizes was too much work or something. You can see the map in the middle of your cockpit's display. Acclaim tried to hide how boring looking the game is with some slightly deceptive packaging: the back of the box uses mostly screenshots from the intro and various cutscenes.

Airwolf is considered to be a pretty awful game, and in the US, Airwolf is the sort of thing we associate Beam Sofware with - lame licensed games. From the 8-bit era, Beam produced Back to the Future, the JVC-published Star Wars, Hunt for Red October on the Game Boy -- the sort of games that cause Youtube videogame critics to get all worked up and starting cursing and screaming.  Their most notorious release was Power Punch II, originally created as a sequel to Punch-Out!! However, the resulting game was so terrible, Nintendo refused to associate themselves with it and sold it to a third party publisher, American Softworks. Somehow, amidst all the crap, Beam managed to turn out the Genesis version of Shadowrun, so their record is not 100% bad.

Yet, Beam's reputation outside of the US is very different. As a developer for games on the C-64, ZX Spectrum, etc, Beam (AKA Melbourne House) was considered to be a top-tier game company in the UK. You can find British and Australian sources describing them as legendary and pioneering. Prior to making NES games, they did have an international hit with The Hobbit, a text adventure game. But their most famous game overseas is Way of the Exploding Fist, a blatant rip-off of Karate Champ which improves a bit on the orignal.  It failed to turn many heads in the US (Beam created an unreleased NES port), but is considered to be one of THE old-school games in the UK and Europe. At the time of its release, it received massive acclaim from gamers and the gaming press in the UK. Check out this ad for some over-the-top quotes from critics.

"Spectacular, startlingly original," "virtually beyond criticism," "Fantastic sound effects, state of the art animation," "Far and away the best sports combat simulation available." It's hard to reconcile that sort of praise with the game itself. I assume it was just a matter of the Exploding Fist being in the right place at the right time. Beam ending up winning the UK's Golden Joystick award for Best Software House of the Year in 1985. As another example of how UK and US tastes differed, in 1989 that award went to Ocean Software, another company known for tons of licensed shovelware. And the 1989 Golden Joystick for best console game went to.... Thunder Blade on the Sega Master System!

Beam continued to release games throughout the 1990s and 2000s, going through a few ownership and name changes in the process. As Krome Studios Melbourne, they produced forgettable titles like Viva PiƱata: Party Animals and Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Republic Heroes. They ceased to exist as of 2010.

Moving on, I have another fine piece of Prog/Krautrock for the fans of that genre out there. This is sort of an oddity, a performance by Tangerine Dream from 1969. In the 70s T-Dream became a wildly successful electronic music act, creating music from behind massive banks of synthesizers.  In 1969, however, they were a psychedelic rock band consisting of guitar, bass and drums. There is already one version of this on Youtube, but it was only in 240p, so I uploaded it in better quality.

The performers here are Edgar Froese, Klaus Schulze (who moved on to Ash Ra Temple and then a solo career in electronic music) and someone named "Happy" Dieter, whose identity remains unknown. The band performs on a rather distinctive fountain in what is actually the courtyard of a restaurant on Potsdamer St in Berlin. Sadly, this very cool looking courtyard is long gone, though the St. George Fountain still exits, having been moved to nearby Hindemithplatz. You can see the fountain as it looks today here. This particular jam is called the "Bath Tube Session" for reasons unknown to me. The film is a great look into the world of the German psyche scene of the time.


Chris Bruce said...

Since I learned about it a few year's ago, the difference between 80s and 90s gaming culture in North America and Europe has been intriguing to me. Nintendo basically ignored Europe (and still mostly does), and it lengthened the period that computer gaming remained the most important type of gaming in the market.

Culturally, it seems that it caused Europeans to make celebrities of European game makers and studios like Rare and Ocean for example. However, in the US we began to make celebrities out of Japanese game companies like Capcom and Konami.

To a certain extent the same thing is true today, but less so. My European friends still have a preference toward PC gaming and Playstation (mostly because its region-free). While the US remains a mostly Xbox 360-centric market for the biggest name games.

It is all very interesting.

Kamiboy said...

I can tell you from first hand experience that Nintendo was certainly very popular in Europe in the early 90's.

Every kid had either a NES or SNES. Of course there were quite a few Master System and Mega Drives also.

C64 and Amiga 500's made their rounds as well, but were certainly a rarer sight.

In any case that video is heavy with the thick atmosphere of the era. That fountain and the people flocking it would not have been out of place cropping out in the very middle of the Woodstock festival.

Judging by their addled expressions I would imagine none would even bat an eye if some cosmic power had transported them there in an instant.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Europe definitely had its own computer scene, with oddball computer systems somehow clinging onto life for years after the IBM clone killed off all competition in the US. Years before I knew anything about this, I remember reading some British magazine in the mid-90s and seeing a casual reference to the Atari ST. It made no sense to me, like someone saying, "Hey did you see the new Mr. T movie?"

I understand Sega got into Europe much earlier that Nintendo did, but the NES and SNES did pretty well over there eventually. If the numbers on VGChartz are to be trusted, the NES, SNES and MD all had similar sales figures.
Once the Playstation came out, they dropped Sega like a hot potato.

Frank Cifaldi said...

I don't think Power Punch II was ever a Nintendo-published game, do you have a source for that or are you just confused?

Sean Clements said...
There are a couple of references. He didn't say it was Nintendo published. He said it was going to be Nintendo published but the sold it off because it was so bad. There is a good article about it on the link above at Hardcore Gaming 101. Nintendo apparently contracted out the game and didn't like the results. Also there was never a Power Punch One. Supposedly there is a beta ROM released with Mike Tyson still in the game when it was going to be Mike Tyson's Intergalactic Power Punch (Or Punch out 2 depending on what article you read.)

Knurek said...

Doctor Sparkle, could you please share the release lists you use for ChronSega and ChronTurbo?

That spreadsheet with NES/Famicom release dates is really, really handy, would be very nice to have the same available for the other systems.

Anonymous said...

Can't wait for the new episode! When will it come out? :) There are so many great classics to cover... I believe this next episode will be kind of RPG-heavy, haha. :)

Doctor Sparkle said...

Frank/Sean - Yes, exactly. I wasn't trying to imply that Nintendo published Power Punch II. But they supposedly originally intended it to be a sequel to Punch-Out!! How much of this is story is speculation and how much is fact, I don't know. The prototype ROM released - - is titled Mike Tyson's Intergalactic Power Punch and displays American Softworks' logo. So I would guess Tyson was purged from the game after American Software acquired the rights, not before. Maybe Nintendo sold the game to AS due to Tyson's accusations of spousal abuse rather than the poor quality? The timing seems kind of odd, too. The Tyson-less Punch Out!! was released in 1990, so presumably Nintendo had ended its deal with Tyson by then. Power Punch was finally released in 1992. Did it take AS 2 years to get that thing on the shelf?

The Dord said...

Well it looks like a new chapter in the Atari Inc saga has begun:

Wonder what Dr. Sparkle things about this?

InsaneDavid said...

As many a stinker as Beam Software developed, I still love their SNES MechWarrior game.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

Ha! I wrote the Nintendo Airwolf, and I'm not a bit insulted by your review because frankly, it was an awful game. I knew it at the time and I know it now.

Interesting comments about the split between the European and American game scenes, and the two faces of Beam/Melbourne House. I'd always thought of Beam as having produced mostly pretty decent games (at least during my time there up till about '89/'90) Now that I think of it, doing conversions for third party publishers rather than our own designs and publishing them ourselves was when the rot set in.

My affection for the company is definitely centered around the eurocentric days, and the good old Sinclair Spectrum, which was a delight to program.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Whoa, Hannah's Dad - it's always great to have a special guest appear in the comments. I'm glad you weren't offended by my take on Airwolf. Though, you pointed out that you knew you were working on a crap game; did others at Beam feel the same way? Was it a matter of Airwolf being work-for-hire, instead of a project they cared about?

If you have any stories to share about your time at Beam, please do so. Video game geeks like nothing better than that sort of thing.

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