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.