Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas From Chrontendo

Hey, Everyone! I've been busy during the last week, but I just wanted to take a moment and wish everyone Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. (Are we allowed to start saying "Happy Holidays" again? We no longer have to fear incurring the wrath of Bill O'Reilly for uttering those hateful words?)

The 00's have been a pretty rough decade, and 2008 and 2009 in particular have been hard years for many of us. Let's hope the next decade is filled with less war, disaster and economic meltdown.

Until then, if you're a Christmas celebrating sort of person, I hope yours is safe and happy, and that Santa gets you everything on your list. I personally asked him (or more realistically speaking, my wife) for a MAC chef's knife. Oh, how I long to get rid of my crappy old knife!

And, of course, Chrontendo will be offering up a new episode before too long. Next up: Metal Gear! And, uh.... Superman. And after Episode 26, the first episode of Chronturbo!

Note: Super Mario ornament image above is from Super Mario Bros HQ.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Greatest Week in Video Gaming History?

Wow, Chrontendo Episode 26 will go down as one of the longest delayed in recent memory. But, it is now available to download or stream at Was it worth the wait? That's for you to decide.

Episode 26 is a big, big episode, featuring both Mega Man and, the other game in our December 1987 RPG showdown, Final Fantasy. Not to mention some weird, interesting, and just plain pointless releases. Also, for bonus content, we have a brief look at that Famitsu Top 100 games list. And when I say "brief," I actually mean it this time. Episode 26 is right in the middle of the 1987 holiday rush, and as a result, it covers 15 games in a mere 11 days, from December 11 to December 22.

December 1987 turned out to be a huge month for launching successful franchises: Final Fantasy, Mega Man, Phantasy Star and (next episode), Metal Gear. Even more amazing - these games were all released within six days of each other! Has there ever been another week in video game history that can boast a lineup like that? I officially declare it to be the greatest week in video game history.

This Episode's MVP Game:

Errr... nice codpiece, dude.

No surprises here, it's Final Fantasy, the game that launched Square's gazillion dollar multimedia empire. I've already discussed it at some length in an earlier post, but suffice to say, Square took big bloody chunks of Dragon Quest and Ultima III, added a much deeper combat and magic system, a more involved plot, cooler monsters and ended up with the best Famicom RPG so far.

Our Runner Up Game:

What else could it be... but Mega Man? Capcom's Famicom history up to this point has consisted of a handful of arcade ports and a mahjong game - not exactly the stuff legends are made of. With Mega Man, Capcom suddenly and surprisingly entered the ranks of great console game producers. If this this game is any indication, 1988 is going to be a very interesting year for Capcom.

Other Fine Games:


After a year and a half of producing moderately interesting titles for the Famicom, Data East kicks it into high gear with this very playable port of their 1987 arcade game. As mentioned earlier, Karnov makes an interesting contrast to Mega Man; Data East's game being an exemplar of the older Ghosts 'n' Goblins style platforming, and Capcom's being the first example of a new, more sophisticated style of platform game.

Taito Grand Prix

We've seen a few racing games in Chrontendo and Chronsega that flirt with the idea of letting you upgrade your vehicle by winning races. However, Taito moves beyond flirting and heads straight to 3rd base with this ahead-of-its-time little gem. Tatio Grand Prix is virtually Dragon Quest on wheels, as you drive from town to town, win races, collect money and experience, and then level up your Mini Cooper. Sadly, the actual racing isn't quite as good as you'd hope, with Grand Prix playing like a slightly substandard Rad Racer/Out Run clone.

Ginga no Sannin

It turns out Squall Leonhart isn't the biggest douchebag in video game history!

Not a fabulous game, but Ginga was the distinction of being the first RPG published by Nintendo themselves. The bizarre thing is: it's a retitled port of an old Enix computer game. Aside from this, the game sports some intriguing names in the credits. The art is by Go Nagai and the music by YMO drummer Yukihiro Takahashi.

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

Barely playable by today's standards, this ASCII published port of Sir-Tech's pioneering computer RPG is remarkably faithful to the original version. Long dead in the US, the Wizardry series continues to survive in Japan, making it perhaps the longest continuously running video game franchise in history.

The Bad:

Ultraman 2 - Shutsugeki Katoku Tai

You've got to hand to Bandai. They could have simply rehashed their first crappy side scrolling action game based on Ultraman. Instead, they chose to completely switch things up, making a crappy game in an entirely new genre.

Stick Hunter

Shouldn't the yellow team be wearing pants?

The official entry in the "worst Famicom Hockey game" category, courtesy of Micronics and KAC. Also a contender for "most inappropriate-sounding title."

Mezase Pachi Pro: Pachio-kun

Hot-B finally has some competition in the terrible name department. The hideously monikered Coconuts Japan makes its debut with this weirdo pachinko game. Mezase Pachi Pro introduces Coconut's would-be mascot, Pachio-Kun, a human sized, living, talking pachinko ball who apparently likes to play a lot of pachinko. One mystery surrounds this game: the name "C-Dream" in the credits and on the cover. Who exactly were C-Dream? I have no idea, but the similarity in names has led to some confusion with Color Dreams, the US based producer of unlicensed NES games. In this episode, I bitch about Wikipedia and GameFaqs listing Color Dreams as the developer of the most famous Pachio-kun game, American Dream. I don't suppose anyone out there is a Wikipedia editor type who can correct this?

And the rest this episode:

Yamamura Misa Suspense: Kyouto Ryuu No Tera Satsujin Jiken

Taito breaks into the adventure game genre with this entry, based around the popular Japanese mystery author Misa Yamamura.

Exciting Boxing:

The sole Konami game this episode is an odd one. Exciting Boxing came with an inflatable balloon shaped like a boxer. The game is played by hitting the balloon; sensors inside the balloon would register your hits. Strange but true.

Family Tennis:

The latest in Namco's Family sport series. This time it's Tennis.

Tetsudou Ou: Famicom Boardgame

This dB Soft release is the first console game in the railroad-themed board game genre. Believe or not, there will be more.

Gokuraku Yuugi: Game Tengoku

This episode's most pointless title, another bingo number/dice throw generator type game, much like the second half of Santa Claus no Takara Baka.

Nazoler Land Special!! Quiz Ou Wo Ikuse

The third game in Sunsoft's shovelware series. This time it's all quiz questions.

That's all for this time. As always, this episode can be found at Hopefully, Episode 27 won't be so overdue.

Errata Update: Naturally, mistakes were made. In the segment about the Famitsu Top 100 list, I mention Chrono Trigger being in 26th place. That should be 28th place, as the caption states. Also, in the Nazoler Land Special segment, I refer to a game where you control a little train full of people and animals as a blackjack style game. Clearly, I meant to say roulette, not blackjack.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chrontendo 26 on the Way

Sorry for the long delay, but episode 26 should be posted in around 24-48 hours. All that remains is some QA and then uploading.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Chrontendo has List-o-mania

While we're waiting for my voice to recover, I guess we can spend a little time discussing something touched on in the upcoming Chrontendo 26. Namely, the vast disparity in the tastes of Japanese and Western gamers. No one would be surprised that folks in Japan, with their undying love for talky RPGs, Visual Novels, Dating Sims, and straight-up porn games, don't always see eye to eye with gamers in the US (who love First Person Shooters, PC Strategy games, and sports games). But there must be some points on which gamers on both sides of the Pacific agree; everyone loves Mario and Zelda, right?

And while, yes, that is true, Japanese gamers do tend to view the canon of "Great Video Games" a little differently than we do. The jumping off point for this discussion is a reader's poll undertaken by the Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu in 2006. Famitsu is the most widely read, prestigious gaming magazine in Japan; there's nothing quite equivalent to it in the US. So I'm going to assume Famitsu's readership is pretty representative of the Japanese geek population: mainstream enough to be interested in the big, popular games Famitsu promotes, but hardcore enough to actually bother reading a video game magazine.

Famitsu's readers voted on the all-time best video games, and the magazine compiled the results into a list of 100 titles. Looking at the top ten is quite revealing.

1. Final Fantasy X (PS2)
2. Final Fantasy VII (PS)
3. Dragon Quest III (Famicom)
4. Dragon Quest VIII (PS2)
5. Machi (PS/Saturn)
6. Final Fantasy IV (Super Famicom)
7. Tactics Ogre (Super Famicom)
8. Final Fantasy III (Famicom)
9. Dragon Quest VII (PS)
10. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)

Damn! We know they love Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest in Japan - but SEVEN out of the top ten? Apparently the best Playstation, PS2 and Super Famicom games are all Final Fantasy titles? And for those who are wondering, Machi is a visual novel from Chunsoft, and Tactics Ogre is a tactical RPG from Quest.

We are the champions.

And the next ten games on the list? Six more Square/Enix RPGs, two games in Sega's dating sim/RPG series, Sakura Taisen, one Hudson RPG... and Street Fighter II. Entries 21-30 contain another seven Square/Enix RPGs.

One of the striking things about the list is just how monolithic it is. RPGs completely dominate. Aside from the Square/Enix games, we'll find such series as Ogre, Megami Tensei, Tales, Mother, Mystery Dungeon, Grandia, and Fire Emblem.... Yet certain series are completely and inexplicable locked out: Capcom's Breath of Fire, Sega's Phantasy Star and Shining games, Konami's Suikoden, and Game Art's Lunar. Most baffling of all is the exclusion of series from the otherwise over-represented publishers, namely Enix's Star Ocean games and Nintendo's Mario RPGs.

For comparison, I picked out a couple random top ten lists from English language sources. First up is a very recent list from GameSpite's readership. The site has somewhat of a retro/Japanese bias, so one would think there would be some points of intersections with Famitu's list.

1. Super Metroid (SNES)
2. Chrono Trigger (SNES)
3. Final Fantasy VI (SNES)
4. Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)
5. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)
6. Mega Man 2 (NES)
7. Final Fantasy Tactics (PS)
8. EarthBound (SNES)
9. Super Mario World (SNES)
10. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS)

And from a somewhat more mainstream source, here's IGN's list from 2005.

1. Resident Evil 4 (GC/PS2)
2. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)
3. Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory (PS2/XBox)
4. Chrono Trigger (SNES)
5. Half-Life 2 (PC/XBox)
6. God of War (PS2)
7. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2)
8. Soul Calibur (DC)
9. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)
10. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)

These two lists have more in common that is immediately obvious. Super Metroid, Final Fantasy IV and Symphony of the Night all place very high in IGN's list, just below the top ten. And Ocarina of Time and MGS 3 made the top 20 of GameSpite's list. Both lists share numerous titles, including, interestingly enough, Suikoden II.

Suikoden: Weirdly popular in the West

After scanning enough of such lists, a cannon of classic Japanese video games emerges: Zelda and Super Mario 3 for the NES. Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI and Link to the Past for the SNES. Symphony of the Night, Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation. Super Mario 64, Goldeneye 007 and Ocarina of Time for the N64.

Oddly, with few exceptions, these games aren't topping Japan's list. Chrono Trigger checks in at #28, Link to the Past at #31, Metal Gear Solid at #50, and Super Mario Bros. 3 at... #99! Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night, Goldeneye 007, and Super Mario 64 do not make the Famitsu list at all. Crazy, huh?

Mario is Missing

When the chips are down, it seems the one game both East and West can agree upon without reservation is Ocarina of Time. I guess it has just the right amount of action, exploration, RPG elements, cuteness and ease of use for everyone.

A few stray observations. Out of the top 40 games on the Famitsu list, 29 are either Square, Enix or Nintendo.

US gamers like Sega RPGs more than Japanese gamers. If its not
Sakura Taisen, it's not on the Famitsu list.

Sega consoles are under represented on the
Famitsu list. Only three Genesis games make the top 100.

US lists tend to give equal space to both Western and Japanese games. The
Famitsu top 100 contains only three Western games.

Saga series rates much better than Seiken Densetsu/Mana on the Famitsu list with only Secret of Mana at #97.

Loved the world over.


A few other Western top 10s.

EGM, 2005

1. Super Metroid
2. Tetris
3. Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
4. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
5. Super Mario 64
6. Soul Calibur
7. Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
8. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
9. Final Fantasy VI
10. Super Mario World

GameFaqs, 2005

1. Final Fantasy VII
2. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
3. Chrono Trigger
4. Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
5. Super Mario Bros. 3
6. Super Smash Bros. Melee
7. GoldenEye 007
8. Metal Gear Solid
9. Halo
10 Final Fantasy VI

Edge, 2007

1. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
2. Resident Evil 4
3. Super Mario 64
4. Half Life 2
5. Super Mario World
6. Zelda: A Link to the Past
7. Halo
8. Final Fantasy XII
9. Tetris
10. Super Metroid

What does every Western top 10 have in common?
A Link to the Past.

Some pics ripped from GameFaqs.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

About That Episode 26

It's coming, eventually. Thanksgiving is over and done with, but I had no time to work on Chrontendo. Even though this episode contains Final Fantasy and Mega Man, those games aren't what's holding it up - they were finished some time ago. The only things that still need voice overs are Wizardry and a couple minor titles. Unfortunatley, I came down with something the day after Thanksgiving and have lost my voice. Hopefully, it will be back to normal in a couple days and work will resume. Thanks for your patience.

Wizardry, by the way, is not the prettiest looking RPG for the Famicom, that's for sure. It's also not the easiest to play. But along with Ultima, the 1981 Apple II release of Wizardry laid down the guidelines that most RPGs still follow to a certain extent. You can definitely see its influence on the original Final Fantasy. In this screen shot here, everyone in my party is either paralyzed or dead - something you'll see a lot in FF.

FF did make some adjustments to some of the more frustrating aspects of Wizardry. In Wizardry almost every treasure chest dropped by a monster is booby trapped. You can try to disarm them... but its not uncommon to open a chest, obtain 10 pieces of gold and, as a bonus, get paralyzed: a status effect that costs 100 pieces of gold to cure! In other words, life is not fair in this game.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I hope everyone out there has a happy Thanksgiving. Chrontendo 26 will surface before too much longer, I hope. To everyone in those non-Thanksgiving celebrating countries: have a nice November 26 from me and my dog.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Square Rises to the Top

First up, a few quick updates. Substantial progress has been made on Episode 26. If next week were a normal week, I'd say it would be up in a few days. But with both my birthday and Thanksgiving coming up, finding time is going to be tough. But I hope to have that episode ready very soon.

One cool thing I've noticed is that occasional Chrontendo commenter Frank Cifaldi has posting on 1UP's excellent Retronauts blog. There's some great stuff covered, like the super obscure Homey D. Clown computer game, and one of those crazy Air Raid 2600 cartridges hitting EBay (current bid: $1999.99). And of course, 1UP's RPG blog is recommended as well.

But back to Episode 26. Aside from Mega Man (and Karnov!), Episode 26's main attraction is Final Fantasy, a game which I assume many of you have heard of. Heck, I'd say that along with Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros, FF is about the biggest game we've covered so far (though FF's fame was, of course, achieved retroactively.) Maybe I'm not the right guy to be discussing Final Fantasy in depth. True confession time: I've never finished FF VII. I guess that automatically disqualifies me from being an expert on these games.

However, I do love the 2D Final Fantasy games, and when playing the first one again for Chrontendo, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit in spots. One thing I had forgotten - the game is tough. Even more so than Dragon Quest II, FF loves to throw horrible status effects at you. Having three or four party members get poisoned is not that uncommon. And almost anything can poison you in this game: spiders, snakes, mucks, wolves and even... lobsters. Really now? Lobsters?! And of course, there's blindness, paralysis, silence and worst of all, being turned to stone. I suppose "death" could also count as a common status ailment. Keep in mind that Phoenix Downs have not yet been introduced, and while your White Wizard can eventually learn a revival spell, it cannot be used in battle.

Dungeons and caves are little more than enormous deathtraps, baited with special armor and weapons, treasure chests of gold and quest items. A common scenario is getting to the second floor of a dungeon, having a series run-ins with unusually tough monsters, using all your healing magic in an attempt to get your party's hit points back up to a reasonable level, then realizing you better head back up to the surface, rest, and then start again. Or alternately, a party member or two gets turned to stone or killed, leaving you to fight your way back out of the dungeon and into town. This element of danger lends a real tension to the game; you're only one "monsters strike first" away from total disaster at any given time.

There's much more to Final Fantasy than just its punitive difficulty. Every element from Dragon Quest is here, in enhanced and expanded form. Like magic spells? FF has tons of them, 64 to be exact. For weapons, we've got daggers, hammers, swords, nunchucks, staffs, Excalibur, Musamune - about 40 implements of destruction. In the defensive department we'll find armor, shields, gauntlets, helmets, rings, capes, and the ever popular ribbon. The world is populated not just with the standard kings and villagers, but also with dwarfs, elves, pirates, friendly dragons, confused robots, a cranky witch and talking broomsticks. The turn based combat is made substantially complex and involving. Character customization is added, giving Final Fantasy sort of a de facto difficulty slider. DQ's solitary ship is replaced with a ship, canoe and an airship. There is an in game map! And Nobuo Uematsu's score is freakin' fantastic.

Granted there are a few things that modern RPG fans will not cotton to. For example, if the monster targeted by a party member is killed before that party member moves, another monster will not be targeted. The party member will simply swing at the empty air, essentially losing a turn. Yes, it sucks when that happens, but that just means you need to chose your targets carefully. Despite such issues, in the context of 1987, Final Fantasy feels like a breath of fresh air. By rethinking or simply refining so many elements of the post Dragon Quest JRPG, Square manages to leap to the head of pack.

Final Fantasy's success apparently altered Square's business model entirely. 1988 will see them kill off DOG completely and greatly slow down the frequency of their releases. A few freestanding games will come out over the next few years, but Square will devote itself almost entirely to FF for the rest of the Famicom's lifespan.

One of these days, I'll get around to finishing Final Fantasy VII. Presumably Cloud will finally catch up to what's-his-name with the white hair?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Karnov: The Wrath of God

Poor Karnov. In our modern, cynical age, the fellow is widely mocked on this thing we call the internet. This is somewhat understandable. After all, Karnov isn't your typical video game protagonist. He's not sullen, introspective, amnesiac young man fated to save the world; nor a 16 year old girl who just happens to be the best mech pilot in the universe; nor is he a woodland animal with a surplus of attitude and a reserve of infectiously clever catchphrases. No, he's the least marketable sort of video game character: a "fat"*, bald, mustachioed fellow of Russian/Slavic/Asian persuasion.

Some of the blame should rest with Data East and their localization of the game for the US. The Karnov manual informs us he's a circus strong man! In search of treasure! Specifically, the "Treasure of Babylon!" The game itself provides not the slightest hint of any sort of narrative. After the title screen, Karnov beams down on a bolt of lightning and then the fireballs go a-flyin'. After defeating the final boss, well... if there really is such a thing as the "Treasure of Babylon," we never get to see it. (For the record, Karnov never offers any explanation as to what exactly the Treasure of Babylon is supposed to be. Maybe its the same treasure Nicolas Cage found in that movie?)

Karnov's plot is just the sort of typical, goofy, setup found in many 80's games. Thus, I was a little surprised when I played the Japanese version of Karnov for Chrontendo 26. It turns out Karnov isn't just some cirus freak traipsing around Asia shooting fireballs everywhere. No, it's revealed that he has been personally sent down to Earth by God himself in order to rid the world of a plague of demons. Karnov is apparently some sort of deceased fellow who's been called into God's service in penance for the bad deeds done in his lifetime. In between levels God zaps Karnov back up to heaven, and gives him helpful tips and little motivational speeches.

Data East's track record for the Famicom has not been exactly been phenomenal up to this point. Yet Karnov is a solid post-Ghosts 'n' Goblins platformer. Each level is given a distinct setting, and is crammed with power ups** and hidden items. The later levels have multiple paths to the end point, mostly of the "high road or low road" variety. There's nothing too out of the ordinary in Karnov: a bit a basic jumping, climbing ladders, falling down vertical shafts, etc. Karnov swims through one level and acquires wings and takes flight in another. While there's nothing groundbreaking in the game, one only has to compare it to similar games of the era, such as Data East's Kid Niki, to see the amount of craft put into Karnov.

Karnov is often called a difficult game. And while its not exactly easy, those seeking a real challenge need look no further than a cart released one day before Karnov in Japan. I'm talking about Mega Man. Capcom's game takes the standard Famicom run and jump formula and changes all the rules. Rather than a typical linear run through a series of levels, Mega Man lets you play the first six levels in the order of your choosing. The experience may change significantly depending on the order in which you tackle the levels. Defeating a boss will net you a new special weapon; certain weapons are very effective against specific bosses. Additionally, having a specific weapon or item, such as the magnetic beam, can make difficult segments easier. Finding the most efficient path through the game is left up to the player.

As for the game play mechanics, Mega Man is perhaps the first instance of what I would call "advanced platforming" for the Famicom. Games prior to MM certainly had moments that required some precision jumping, and moving platforms could be found in such titles as Super Mario Bros. and Adventure Island. But Mega Man went far beyond those games by adding a number of new and surprising elements: randomly moving platforms, disappearing and reappearing platforms, blind jumps from one screen to the next, creating your own platforms with the magnetic beam, and so on. Perhaps the pièce de résistance is the Yellow Devil, an insidiously difficult boss that disassembles itself and then hurtles each piece across the room, forcing you to memorize a series of precisely timed jumps over the pieces. Extremely controlled and careful jumping is not a luxury in Mega Man, it's a necessity for survival.

None of this would have been possible had Capcom not created a game with the most finely tuned controls we've seen for the system. It's clear than considerable time, love, and effort went into Mega Man, but it seems to have made only a slight blip upon release. Capcom clearly hoped it would do well it the US and gave the game almost simultaneous releases for the Famicom and NES. Perhaps the hysterically awful box art - maybe the most infamous video game cover ever - helped kill interest. Mega Man went almost entirely unnoticed in Nintendo Fun Club News; one ad in the Winter 1987 issue was all I could find. It wasn't until the extremely successful Mega Man 2 that the blue bomber found his way into the hearts of gamers.

Both Karnov and Mega Man will be contained within the forthcoming Chrontendo 26, perhaps the most massive, monstrous episode yet.

*Everyone says he's fat. But check out the guns on that guy. He's solid muscle. He just has a lot of stomach muscle.

** Best "power up" ever? The Ladder. Just imagine if Simon Belmont had one of those on hand. Or the guy from Kung Fu.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Phantasy Star! Here at Last!

Well, it's late, but Chronsega Episode 4 is finally here. As always, it may be downloaded or streamed at
This episode not only wraps up 1987 (almost) but also features the most well loved Master System game ever, Phantasy Star. In fact, Chronsega 4 acts as part one of a special RPG showdown, with part two being Chrontendo 26. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy were released only a few days apart. Since those games are the two 8-bit RPGs that still hold the most fascination for gamers nowadays - at least in the US - I figured I better make a big deal about their release. Which is better? That's a matter of personal opinion. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but I'd be curious to know what the viewers of Chrontendo think. So, feel free to give me your opinions. As for me, playing the games virtually back to back will undoubtedly provide a new perspective.

October also saw the redesigned Mark III released in Japan under the Sega Master System name. During the last half of 1987 Sega slightly picks up the pace of their releases. September through December of 1986 gave us nine Master System releases in Japan; the same period in 1987 sees 14 games. (And if you're wondering about 1988: six! The SMS was clearly on its way out in Japan by then.) Sadly, during its Japanese lifespan, the single month with the most games released was October 1987, with six games. Starting in 1988, we see Sega shift its focus from Japan to the US and Europe.

OK, so let's take a look at this episode's games. Our MVP is, obviously:

Phantasy Star

Sega finally catapulted itself into the big leagues of console gaming with this one. PS is considered (at least in the West*) to be among the best 8-bit games. Sega must have been quite pleased with the results since it became Sega's first console only franchise, with a sequel released a little over a year later.

The Runner's Up:

Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa Opa

If there was an award for most incongruous game title this episode, Fantasy Zone II would take the prize. How can Opa Opa even cry? He's a space ship! Sega choose not to alter a winning formula: FZ II is simply a bigger, wackier, more colorful take on the first Fantasy Zone. Strangely, FZ II did things backwards by starting off as a console game, then receiving an arcade port.

Haja no Fuuin/Miracle Warriors

The other RPG this episode, and the far inferior one. Title sound familiar? That's because we saw a Japan-only Famicom release a few episodes ago. The Famicom and Master System versions are completely different, and some of the kinks have been ironed out in Sega's release. Still, the SMS Miracle Warriors is quite a slog: tons of grinding and wandering around with not much payoff. And compared to Phantasy Star, there's really nothing in the way of characterization or plot. Hardcore Gaming 101 also has a fine article on Haja no Fuuin.

Doki Doki Penguin Land: Uchuu Daibouken

There's nothing too exciting about about Penguin Land. It's a decent looking puzzle/platformer game in which you roll around an egg. The Famicom had plenty of games like this, but Sega didn't seem real keen on puzzle games.

Bank Panic

A Europe only release, Bank Panic is a port of Sanritsu's arcade game. Oh sure, the game is simple and repetitive but I find it oddly appealing.

And the bad:

Zillion II: The Tri Formation

While I didn't care too much for the first Zillion, I saw that a lot of effort was put into it. I believe that much of the team that had worked on that game was responsible for Phantasy Star, meaning that the sequel was in the hands of less creative designers. Presumably Sega took a look at the Famicom catalog and note that games based on cartoons were supposed to be slapdash, generic affairs. Thus Zillion II is closer in style to the Transformers games than it is to Metroid. The Master System is not having a very good track record when it comes to sequels (see also: Alex Kidd, Zaxxon 3D, and next episode's Opa Opa game)

Zaxxon 3D

Releasing terrible console sequels to classic arcade titles? Not the best way to protect the value of your brand, Sega. One the few games to use Sega's fancy 3D goggles, Zaxxon 3D must be one the worst releases for the Master System.

After Burner

The 1987 arcade game had a lot going for it: impressive pseudo 3D graphics, an insanely rockin' soundtrack, huge explosions. The SMS port has.... none of those things. Despite an enormous 4 megabit cartridge, Sega utterly fails to either give us a worthy approximation of the arcade game or fashion it into something more suitable for consoles.

Let's not forget the rest:

Nazca '88/Aztec Adventure

A prime example of a good idea that doesn't live up to its potential. The gimmick in Aztec Adventure is that you can through money at certain enemies, converting them into your followers. Alas, any attempt to put your hired helpers to good use will be met with utter frustration as they march directly into enemies and get stuck on rocks and trees. Other than that, the game superficially resembles Legend of Zelda, minus the non-linearity, exploration and fun.

SDI/Global Defense

Shoot down missiles before they blow up the planet. Wait a sec... didn't we play a game just like this called Missile Defense 3D?

Masters Golf/Great Golf

A reasonable playable golf game, I suppose. The last game released under the "Great" sports name.


Nowadays, lots of games are released on multiple consoles, but this was rare back in the days of the Famicom/Master System rivalry. Ghostbusters, along with Spy vs Spy, Choplifter, Haja no Fuuin and Fantasy Zone were the exceptions as of 1987. The Master System clearly has the upper hand in these cases; the Compile ported Ghostbusters is much better than Tokuma Shoten's crappy 1986 Famicom version. This means the SMS Ghostbusters is merely dull, rather than out-and-out awful.

Alien Syndrome

Another unsuccessful port of a popular Sega arcade game. The Master System Alien Syndrome doesn't bear much resemblance to the original game, but the most surprising thing is just how ugly it is. You really get the impression very little time and effort was put into this thing.

Mahjong Sengoku Jidai

Yep. There was exactly one mahjong game released for the Master System and this is it.

BMX Trial - Alex Kidd

A BMX bike racing game, with Alex Kidd. Will we ever get a real Alex Kidd sequel?

I'm tempted to say that Chronsega 4 has the best selection of games we've seen for the Master System so far. After all, Phantasy Star stands heads and shoulders above everything else we've seen released for the console. But, the other games on display here aren't too impressive. In fact, there are some big disappointments, such as Zillion II, Aztec Adventure and After Burner. PS shows that Sega has turned an important corner when it comes to console games; let's hope they continue to move in the right direction.

Maybe things will be different in Chronsega 5. Looking at the list of titles I'll be covering for that episode, there are a lot of games I haven't played and some intriguing sounding titles. Until then, head on over to and check out Chronsega Episode 4.

*Do you recall the Famitsu readers poll a few years ago? Japanese gamers voted on the 100 all time best video games. There were many 8 and 16 bit RPGs on the list, but none of the Phantasy Star games made an appearance. We'll be discussing this list in more detail in Chrontendo 26.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

We're Back!

Chrontendo is back, from an ultra-brief Southwestern vacation. One interesting and marginally related fact I discovered regards slot machines. In Las Vegas casinos, the predominant manufacturer of slot machines is IGT, the largest such company in the US. However, the other two big names on electronic gambling machines will be familiar to video game fans: Konami and WMS (i.e. Williams, of Defender/Joust fame). You won't see too many new Konami video games in arcades nowadays, but Konami slot machines are a common sight. I don't recall seeing any machines that weren't from those three companies.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, Chronsega 4 and Chrontendo 26 will form sort of an RPG showdown mini-series. You see, these episodes will include two of the most popular 8-bit RPGs, Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy; those games were released just two days apart in Japan.

Phantasy Star is a strong contender for the title of "Best Master System Game." It's certainly the SMS game with the biggest post-mortem following. Even though PS never achieved the massive success of Final Fantasy, it did spawn three numbered sequels, a remake, various spin-off games, and a series of MMORPGs. The US will see a release of Phantasy Star 0 for the DS next month, and Japan will get Phantasy Star Portable 2 for the PSP in December, so the series is still quite active.

The original PS is a notable game for a number of reasons; not the least of which is that is marks Sega's most determined attempt yet to make a great original title for the Master System. It is the first Sega game which could seriously compete with similar titles being released on the Famicom. And in one category, PS topped anything on Nintendo's console -- the graphics.

Yes, Phantasy Star was one fantastic (phantastic?) looking game. The Master System was capable of some pretty nice graphics, but PS surpassed all previous expectations. Beautiful character portraits; huge, detailed enemies; eye-pleasing colors on the overworld; and most impressive of all -- excellent first person dungeons. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, PS couldn't be beat.

And from a gameplay standpoint? Well... Phantasy Star owes a lot to Dragon Quest II. From a high level perspective, the games are identical. The object is defeat the evil ruler. To do this you'll need to roam the world looking for your fellow party members. Along the way you'll need to acquire some transportation in order to travel to previously inaccessible areas. You move from town to town, fighting random battles, picking up gold and experience, finding new towns, and purchasing better weapons and armor. You'll also be making your way through various dungeons and towers, usually in order to get a some sort of quest item. Once you've gotten all the necessary quest items and the special armor and weapons, head on over to the final dungeon and fight the boss. The battle mechanics, level up system, magic system and menu system are all taken virtually unchanged from DQ II.

But the devil, they say, is in the details. The addition of many, many, large first-person dungeons makes PS feel quite a bit different than DQ II, whose top-down dungeons were much more limited in scope. Larger chunks of text and more detailed character graphics allow for more personality from your party and the NPCs. The game's science fiction setting sets it apart from the majority of RPGs. However, PS is set in the sort of sci-fi universe where you battle dragons and skeletons while equipped with a sword and leather armor, so its really just "Elves in Space." (You would think a futuristic society such as the one in PS would have taken some action to thin out the populations of dangerous animals. We don't all have laser guns and talking robot companions here on planet Earth, yet we can somehow travel from San Francisco to LA without being constantly attacked by bears and wolves.)

Phantasy Star
took DQ II and gave it a snazzy new coat of paint. Then it added some racing stripes, bolted a spoiler on the back, and maybe even added some of those rims than spin around. Sure, it looks like a completely different game, but under the hood, its still DQ II. That's not a bad thing; virtually all JRPs coming out about this time owe something to DQ. But I do beleive that Phantasy Star devotees tend to overestimate the game's originality and innovation. Many of PS's lauded aspects - a female protagonist, the science fiction setting, first person dungeons, being able to occasionally communicate with enemies - are all things we've seen before.

We'll see Phantasy Star in action in the upcoming Chronsega 4. Incredibly enough, that episode will feature two Master System RPGs. The other is Miracle Warriors, a much less interesting game, and one that we mentioned in Chrontendo 23. Hopefully, Chronsega 4 will be ready before too long.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

On Vacation

Dr. Sparkle will be out of the office, on a very short vacation. Originally I had planned to finish Chronsega 4 and post it before I left town. But that didn't happen -- not even close! Blame Phantasy Star. Of course, since PS is almost universally considered to be the best game released for the SMS, I suppose it deserves some extra attention. I'll be posting something about PS once I get back.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sega at the Crossroads

The second half of 1987 finds the Sega Master System at a bit of a turning point. To see what I mean, lets go back to release of the Famicom in 1983. An early selling point of that console was the ability to faithfully replicate Nintendo's arcade hits. As you might recall from Chrontendo Episode 1, a launch title for the Famicom was Donkey Kong; this Donkey Kong demonstrated far more fidelity the original than the existing home versions. Playing arcade games at home was a major selling point of consoles starting in the late 70s (think of all the quarters you'll save!). Atari built its console empire first upon home releases of Pong, and then upon a port of Space Invaders for the 2600.

Donkey Kong: Arcade (Left); Famicom (Right)

Once other publishers joined Nintendo in releasing Famicom carts, owners of that machine could enjoy Pac-Man, Space Invaders and even, for some reason, Front Line in the comfort and safety* of their own living rooms. Throughout 1984 and 1985, the Famicom subsisted almost entirely on ports; original titles from third party publishers began appearing in late 1985, and didn't really edge out ports until well into 1986. This was partially due to publishers realizing the demand for original games after the success of Super Mario Bros. But, as arcade hardware became increasingly powerful, the technology gap between arcade machines and the Famicom became increasingly wide.

However, this cycle seems to be repeating itself with the Master System. Recall the SMS's launch titles were Hang-On and Teddy Boy Blues. Since then, Sega has been rolling out releases of both grade A and grade B arcade games, often with a bit of marketing hoo-hah: Out-Run introduced the FM sound chip and After Burner - with 4 megabits of ROM - more than doubled the size of the largest carts available at the time.

Hang On: Arcade (Left); Master System (Right)

But by 1987, Sega was stuffing truckloads of scaling, rotating sprites into their latest arcade games. The Master System's Hang-On looked very impressive in 1985 and Fantasy Zone looked darned good in 1986. But by the time After Burner was released for the SMS in December of 1987... well, it was clear the jig was up. Four megabits or not, the After Burner port was a pretty sad looking beast. Alien Syndrome, from October of the same year, was not any better, despite the arcade version not displaying too many fancy graphical tricks.

After Burner: Arcade (Left); Master System (Right)

So Sega is at a crossroads of sorts. Should they continue to focus on producing a series of neutered ports of arcade titles? Or devote more resources towards making better, more substantial console-only games? The second choice seems to be a viable possibility with the release of Phantasy Star a few days after the SMS After Burner.

Alien Syndrome: Arcade (Left); Master System (Right)

Similar attempts at "console-style" games were made with Aztec Adventure, a vaguely Zelda inspired romp, and Zillion II: The Tri Formation, a considerably less inspired sequel to Sega's would be Metroid killer. Neither game succeeded in making much of an impression. All these titles will be covered in the upcoming Chronsega Episode 4. Whether the Master System will be able to reinvent itself as something other than a repository for middling arcade ports remains to be seen.

*Arcades were apparently havens for junvenile delinquents and shady characters. Or so we were informed by the mass media.