Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gears of Culture War

Perhaps things have slowed just a little bit over here at the Chrontendo ranch.  The last few days have placed a number of demands on my time.  And on top of that... I've decided to sit down and play a video game!  Yes, every once and awhile I'll actually fire up a video game that isn't related to Chrontendo and isn't Halo (which I have no special love for, but my nephews always seem to want to play) or Rock Band.

So, for some crazy reason, I decided to finally play Xenogears, a game I've long been curious about.  I'm not hugely familiar with the realm of Playstation-era RPGs, but the fact that so many gamers either love Xenogears or dismiss as a pretentious piece of twaddle intrigues me.  The game is pretty notorious for experiencing budget issues -- resulting in the second half reportedly being rushed mess which attempts to tie up any loose plot threads using lots of cutscenes.  I've also heard the religious content is somewhat controversial, and that, as Wikipedia puts it, the game is supposedly based on "The principles and philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Jacques Lacan...."  Jeez, if Square was going that route, why not toss in Jean Baudrillard while they were at it?

Expensive looking cutscenses that combine traditional animation and CGI probably sucked up a lot of the budget.

Completely optional tangent:  For those not familiar with the nutty squabbling that occurs between various insular academic disciplines, Nietzsche, Jung, Lacan (and plenty of other French guys like Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida) are all philosophers and/or psychological theorists whose reputations, as Metacritic would say are "mixed."  These guys tend to be quite popular with humanities departments and freshmen philosophy students due to their almost mystical obscurantism and eminent quotability (e.g.: "A geometry implies the heterogeneity of locus, namely that there is a locus of the Other" - Lacan), as well as the sense of self-assuredness with which they write.  One the other hand, they (except Nietzsche, to an extent) tend to be dismissed by those in the "hard" disciplines, such as experimental psychology, mathematics or analytical philosophy.  Lacan, in particular, is widely mocked for randomly inserting mathematical terms which he seemingly does not understand into his writings, in an attempt to give his work a patina of intellectual rigor - after all, his intended audience probably isn't going to know the difference!  The charges of intellectual elitism and even charlatanism are often thrown and Lacan and his ilk.  The typical response from his supporters is "Well, you're clearly not smart enough to understand his theories.  And, no, I cannot explain them to you in anything remotely resembling plain English."

Xenogears uses an ATB-like mechanism for battles.

Well, anyway, I've gotten a decent-sized chunk of Xenogears behind me and haven't come across any heavy duty philosophical or religious content yet.   Though I will commend Square for shoehorning giant mechs into a standard RPG setting in a pretty hilarious fashion.  The world of Xenogears is one where people fight using swords, rods and whips, and live in sort of medieval-looking houses, but also hop into ultra high tech Gears (big robots) when necessary.   Despite being big-ass robots capable of high speed flight and firing projectiles, Gears mostly engage each other using giant-sized versions of swords, whips, etc, and they  generally do this while running around on the ground.  One particular Gear is even seen standing around with its arms crossed for some unexplained reason.  Maybe it's trying to look tough?  Does its operator have to manually maneuver its arms into the crossed position, or did it come with a pre-installed automated arm-crossing sequence, I wonder?

Yes, those robots are equipped with 80 foot long spears.  Wouldn't missiles make more sense?

Despite the high levels of silliness involved, I find myself enjoying Xenogears quite a bit.  The characters seem a bit more relatable that those in Final Fantasy VII (a game that I've never cared for).  Maybe this is due to due the hand drawn character portraits that appear whenever someone is talking, as compared to FF VII's emotionless Lego figures.  Xenogears uses 3-D in the exact opposite way of FF VII: sprites move around in rotatable 3D environments, instead of  polygonal 3D characters placed on pre-rendered flat backgrounds.   So it feels more like you are are inside of Xenogears world, rather than simply walking around on top of a nicely drawn painting.

Detailed 3D environments abound.

I'll try to post a more Chrontendo relevant update soon.  One thing I must bring to your attention, in case you haven't seen it, is the Least Favorite Character Tournament over at  While some of the nominees are bit weird, naturally our very favorite baby persimmon has been doing quite well.  I suspect Tingle may win, but in the meantime, cast a vote for Percy when his next round comes up!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Moving Right Along

Tough times for chronogamers, it seems.  The original Chronogamer (at least, he's where I took the name from) has been silent for some time.  I ♥ The PC Engine has been put on the back burner, due to work, apparently.  Pre-Sonic Genesis seems to have similar issues with school.  And retro-themed podcast Pixel Dreams, after having recovered from  the "beer spilled on laptop" (perhaps a euphemism for a bongwater spill?) incident, have not released an episode in many months.  Well, no one ever said devotion to retrogaming was easy.  Fortunately, Juggle Chainsaws and GBA Weekly are still operating on schedule.  Does anyone know of any other chronogaming folks out there on the web?

Well, after our epic last episode, Chrontendo will be returning to a more regular schedule since the damned History of Adventure Games thing is out of the way.  I hope folks liked it.  Occasionally it's nice to throw something other than Famicom games into the mix.  Episode 33 shouldn't take as long as the last two episodes -- in the back of mind, I'm always thinking that I need to cover games faster than they were originally released.  We have what I hope are 4 good games this time around, including a long-time Capcom favorite: Bionic Commando.

Naturally, we've also got plenty of ridiculous crap, including Mr. Gold - Kinsan in the Space.  Whenever gaming sites come up with those lists of  video games with the worst titles, this one always gets overlooked.  I think it's the extraneous "the" that really put it over the top.

Yes, the game starts out with a musical introduction involving a pink haired lady singing a tender love ballad at the piano.  And this for a sci-fi adventure game?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Blasters, and the Mastering Thereof.

First and foremost: Chrontendo Episode 32 is now ready for download or streaming at

This post is just a little too late for the 25th anniversary of the Japanese release of Super Mario Bros, I'm afraid. Maybe I can time a perfectly time a post for 25th anniversary of the NES next month. Of course, in Chrontendo time, it's still mid-1988 and Super Mario Bros is a little less than 3 years old. An equivalent title today would be Mass Effect. That's in Japan; in the US, many kids were just getting their Nintendo consoles and popping in SMB for the first time.

Video games haven't changed much since the release of Mass Effect in 2007, but they sure evolved a lot from 1985 to 1988. Take Episode 32's Blaster Master: it features a huge multi-pathed world, the gameplay alternates between sidescrolling vehicular action and top down Zelda-like levels. Your tank is well-armed, being equipped with four types of weaponry and is eminently upgradable. By the end of the game, it will be able to move around underwater like a submarine and climb up walls and ceilings.

Similarly, Nichibutsu's Cosmo Police Galivan, offers a high degree of exploration and backtracking, and requires you to constantly find new items while improving the stats on your weapons. SMB merely demanded the player find their way from the left side of the world to right side, with poking around looking for coins and mushrooms as optional activities. On the other hand, while playing Galivan you will: find a new weapon used to open locked doors; pick up a crystal to make a hidden elevator appear; destroy a super computer to open additional locked areas; use a warp zone to teleport to a separate sublevel; defeat a sub-boss to obtain the "Cosmo Power"; and defeat another sub-boss and get a better sword. After all this, you'll reach the "real" boss. And all of this occurs on the game's first level! Throw in RPG elements such as experience points, hit points, magic points, some sort of points called "GP", levels for both you and your weapons, and you've got a game that would caused a mental meltdown to Famicom gamers in 1985.

Unlike Samus Aran, Galivan lacked the foresight to bring his armor with him.

And even though all three games are for the same platform, advances in cartridge technology and programming skill meant substantial graphical improvements.

Famicom Game, circa 1985.

..and circa 1988.

Despite being highly ambitious games of epic proportions, both Blaster Master and Cosmo Police Galivan have their flaws. Galivan's unbalanced leveling system requires that players do some substantial XP grinding. And its never ending procession of hidden passages, crystals, swords, and new abilities and equipment with names like Spark Booster and Cosmo Arm, make the game just a little too complicated. The shear amount of junk you have to collect in Galivan makes you pine for nice, simple games, like Metroid Prime.

Sunsoft's Blaster Master limits you to just one abilities upgrade per level. However, getting those upgrades requires that you hop out of your pimped-out tank and run around on foot shooting stuff with your tiny little pea-shooter of a laser gun. While the idea of mixing up Metroid-like tank action with Zelda/Metal Gear top-down sequences sounds great in theory, it fails in execution. Primarily due to the incredibly lame weapons you are forced to use while on foot, and the fact that the enemies seem to have hit boxes that would be more appropriate for your onscreen avatar in the latest Cave bullet hell shooter. You can literally see bullets passing through their heads while leaving them unharmed.

All this is bad enough, but then for Sunsoft to make a game of this size and complexity that doesn't use battery saves or passwords is pure, unblinking sadism.

The only known portrait of Blaster Master director Hiroaki Higashiya.

Master Blaster definitely takes top honors this episode, and Galivan is pretty decent as well. Nothing else quite compares to those two games, but Capcom's 1943: The Battle of Midway does a pretty decent job. The sequel to 1942 adds a few modern touches, like end of level bosses, but still feels quite old-fashioned compared to something like Konami's Salamander/Lifeforce. Aside from the glaring historical inaccuracy in the title (The Battle of Midway occurred in 1942), the most irksome thing is that your power-up and life bar are on a timer - and tend to run out right as you reach a boss.

Apparently, the Japanese were quite fond of frickin' gigantic planes with multiple mounted guns

I would hesitate to call it a good game, but Moonball Magic at least has a cool intro. Unlike Nintendo's Pinball - one of the very first releases for the Famicom - this DOG published title features multiple tables. Some interesting facts: Moonball Magic's intro prominently features the name of designer Mark Flint, a native Texan who found a certain amount of notoriety as a video game programmer in Japan. Also, it's the last game released by DOG, along with Akara Senki Raijin. By this time, Square was headed down a path that would find them focusing almost exclusively on Final Fantasy related games for the next several years. Shutting down DOG was another nail in the FDS coffin.

Episode 32 features the usual assortment of crappy games as well.

Fire Rock

From a purely geological perspective, this cave doesn't make a lot of sense.

The other Mark Flint game this episode, Fire Rock is an unbearable platfomerish action game that uses a truly awful wall climbing mechanic. Its definitely my least favorite game this episode. It uses a title screen almost identical to Moonball Magic, with the same "Mark Flint Presents" logo. Yet it was published by Use instead of DOG.

Akara Senki Raijin

A shoot-em-up published by Square? Don't get too excited. This ain't exactly Einhänder.

Also transliterated as Akuu Senki Raijin. This DOG title came out the same day as Moonball Magic, and its by far the worse of the two. It looks like a cut-rate Guardian Legend clone, with freakishly awful shoot-em-up sequences. It was developed by Microcabin, whom you might remember from last episode. They were an early developer of Japanese computer adventure games. I guess they weren't cut out to this sort of thing.

Kyuukyoku Harikiri Stadium

Yet another damned Family Stadium rip-off, this time from Taito. Sadly, the flood of lame baseball games isn't stopping real soon. This title would be completely unnoteworthy if it weren't for the cool box art.

The box artwork is absolutely the best thing about this game.

Saint Seiya: Ougon Densetsu Kanketsu-hen

Bandai and Tose team up for a sequel to their 1987 anime spin-off game. I'm not sure why, but they made this sequel duller and more repetitive than the original. Like the first game it mixes flavorless sidescrolling action sequences with turn-based boss battles.

In addition, we have some fair-to-middling games:

Sanada Juu Yuushi

A wild farmer approaches!

More Sengoku era action, this time in RPG form. Sanada Yukimura's clan were buddies of Takeda Shingen and and enemies of Ieyasu Tokugawa. While this bears a strong resemblance to Dragon Quest II in many ways, some of the underlying game mechanics are quite different. As far as I can tell you build up strength by amassing soldiers in your army rather than by leveling up in the traditional fashion. And you've round up your ten ninja retainers - the "Juu Yuushi" of the title.

Youkai Douchuuki

The Famicom came late to this party, as Namco released a better looking port for the PC Engine back in February 1988. This version is much uglier, but more faithful to the arcade game. It also adds a "Pious" meter, which draws the connection to another Now Production game, Spelunker II.

Risa no Yousei Densetsu - Risa Tachibana

Just like Nintendo's Nakayama Miho Tokimeki Highschool, this Konami release is an adventure game starring a J-Pop idol. Except here... instead of trying to date Risa Tachibana, you assist her in saving a fairy tale kingdom from an evil witch. Sounds fair to me.

Ninja-kun: Ashura no Shou

Jaleco has already created several spinoffs to UPL's Ninja Kun with their Ninja Kun Jajamaru series. This, however, is a port of UPL's official arcade sequel to the original game. It's a slightly updated variation on the arcade Ninja Kun that fails to be very exciting.

But most exciting of all, this episode also has the final two parts of our history of adventure gaming. Part 3 covers Western games starting from the introduction of the mouse-based point and click interface, through the genre's demise in the late 90s. Part 4 covers Japanese games from the introduction of CD-Rom adventure games through domination of the visual novel. Its exciting stuff, and points part add up to be quite huge, and hopefully somewhat informative.

Japanese visual novels all tend to look pretty much exactly like this.

Despite having 3 fewer games this time, the adventure game segment bumped up this episode's length to an unreasonable size, and the full size Xvid file is darned enormous. But if you have high speed internet, a few extra megs aren't going to make that much of a difference. So I left it as is, instead of trying to compress it further.

There you have it! Next time we switch back to 15 games per episode, as we close out July 1988, which was a pretty big month. 20 games were released in Japan, though two of them had previously come out in the US already.

Until then, head on over to and check out Episode 32!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hey F-F-Folks!

A few bits of news for y'all. Chrontendo 32 is fast approaching completion. Blaster Master is the last major chunk of work that needs to be done. So I hope to have it up in few days. Just like Episode 31, it will feature 13 games, and the second half of the huge segment on adventure games.

Also, looky here. It's another chronogaming site, this time focusing on the Game Boy Advance! And it features dual-commentary on each game, ala Siskel and Ebert, except with two different colored tentacles instead of a fat guy and a skinny guy. Thankfully, these are Maniac Mansion type tentacles, not, you know... the other kind.

On a personal level, I'm still hanging in there with the mother-in-law. I'm a bit worried about her mental state; hopefully it's her pain pills she's that are causing her to act a bit goofy. And for some reason, she requested that I rent the movie The Blind Side for her. If you've never seen the film... well, it takes an inherently interesting true story and turns into an insulting, repellent piece of Hollywood storytelling at its worst. I was only able to sit through about an hour. Probably the most terrible Oscar-nominated film I've seen since Crash -- though I haven't seen The Reader.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

How to Win a Woman's Heart in 7 Easy Steps

To answer a question posed a few posts back, it turns out that your cousin is one of several women you can engage in relations with in Welcome to Pia Carrot. I'm well aware that marrying cousins is considered acceptable in many parts of the world, but since I'm from the good ol' USA, I find the idea pretty disturbing. Anyway, because we are neck deep in adventure games, I thought I'd take a closer look at Pia Carrot, since it has the distinction of being one of the very few console dating sims playable in English. It's also one of only two PC-FX game to have been translated into English.

Women inept at cooking seems to be a recurring gag in these games.

If you've never heard of the PC-FX... I don't blame you. Released in 1994, the PC-FX was NEC's 32-bit successor to the now outdated PC-Engine. The system never really took off; only a few dozen games were released, mostly by NEC themselves. Other publishers such as Hudson, Koei, Microcabin, etc, released a handful of games, but most big-name 3rd party publishers never signed on. The game library is heavy on RPGs, Dating Sims and bishoujo games, and a few adult titles show up among these. So you get a lot of games with names like First Kiss Monogatari and Power Dolls FX.

A weird in-game parody of detective adventure games.

One of the adult titles, is is course, Welcome to Pia Carrot, from Cocktail Soft. Pia Carrot is a traditional dating sim, in the style of Tokimeki Memorial, meaning you'll need to plan your days correctly in order to build up your character's stats appropriately. Compare this to later, visual novel style dating sims, where the gameplay mostly consists of hitting the enter button over and over while reading walls of text. You can only find true love with one girl per playthrough, and this generally requires ignoring all the other girls. Thus, Pia Carrot heavily encourages multiple playthroughs; presumably many attempts will be necessary in order discover the correct choices for every girl. This is made possible by the fact that the game is reasonably short.

I'll give a little explanation how Pia Carrot works. For those of you who have played Persona 3 or 4: you sorta already know how to play this game. Every day you wake up in your room a few hours before you need to go to work at the Pia Carrot restaurant. You can spend those hours resting (to increase energy), studying (to increase Academics), calling one of the other characters, or visiting another location (park, train station, school, etc.) Visiting locations is best done if you know a particular character is going to be there, otherwise, you'll just waste valuable time. Later in the day, you report to work, and you will see two brief animations of your character working, then a particular stat will increase. Different sorts of tasks at work will increase different stats. At various points, other characters may show up for a short conversation, usually with a dialog choice or two. After work you can choose to say goodbye to one character. Then you go home, and repeat the next day. Special events, such as a vacation and a festival, are scheduled for certain days. The game takes place over one month, as compared to Persona's school year.

Your accursed stats! Everything you do seems to make Energy go down.

And that's Pia Carrot in a nutshell. To win a girl's heart (and complete her storyline) you must build up certain stats to the appropriate levels by performing specific duties at work. Also, you'll need to go to certain locations in the morning, and make phone calls on certain days. For example to win over Shiho, the sexy "older" manager of the restaurant (she gives her age as 24, which means she's ancient in the world of Japanese video games,) you'll need to go the Pia Carrot every morning, and call her on Tuesdays. In addition to this you'll need to make correct dialog choices whenever you talk to her.* How do you know how well you're doing with a lady? The only in-game indication you get is her general attitude towards you, and that you'll be rewarded with a sex scene near the game's end. As far as I know, the sex scenes are pretty tame, though I doubt it's possible for anything involving nude, saucer-eyed, balloon-chested anime girls to be called "tasteful."

You'll be treated to the "work" animations twice a day, six days a week.

I was intrigued by Pia Carrot primarily because of the translation project. Not too many console dating sims have been translated into English, and the translator even links to a review which calls it "the best hentai game of all time." Of course, being is best hentai game is somewhat akin to being the most high-performance Yugo. Despite taking place in the real world, the scenario is completely absurd - you get a job at a restaurant staffed almost entirely by young, attractive women who begin flirting with you almost immediately. The females are all stock characters: the moody loner, the sensitive intellectual, the tomboy, the cutesy immature girl. The last of which is your oldest childhood friend, which is weird. Doesn't the Westermarck Effect exist in Japan? To get the good endings on most characters requires a lot of just plain trial and error, and the game gives you very little feedback. And the fact that the game involves making the same actions day after day, results in a very repetitive, somewhat tedious experience.

Comiket, the semiannual gathering of every nerd in Japan.

There are a few oddities in Pia Carrot that might hold your interest for a moment. One potential paramour is a cosplayer you meet at Comiket! One of the items you can obtain in essentially a video advertising another Cocktail Soft title, Can Can Bunny. There is also a brief adventure game parody involving an incompetent female detective. And should you fail to get a girl and receive the bad ending, which involves taking your sister out shopping for video games, the accompanying illustration prominently features a Sega Saturn! My favorite scene is when the protagonist's father decides to get a bunch of under-the-legal-drinking-age characters roaring drunk, including his own daughter.

Hopefully, he isn't planning some sort of reverse "Lot and his Daughters."

At times, Carrot can be rather charming. But is it worth playing? Are you the type who can get emotionally involved in the clichéd sufferings of moist-eyed, two-dimensional girls who bear no resemblance to any female you'll actually meet in real life? Do you have a tolerance for women who are presumably in their late teens but who talk in high-pitched voices more appropriate for ten-year olds? Do you like the idea of accidentally walking in on women while they are changing their clothes (this happens a few times in Pia Carrot), including your own sister?** Then you sound like the ideal audience for this game.

*In addition to many other things that you either must or cannot do to get her "good" ending. There's little to no room for error.

**Thankfully, you cannot romance your sister in Pia Carrot. "Sex with a younger sister" is virtually an entire subgenre of H-games, and sometimes these have become quite mainstream.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Week Two of Personal Hell

OK, so that's just a bit of typical whiny, internety overstatement. But suddenly having to take full responsiblity for another person's every waking move certainly shakes up your complacent lifestyle. My wife and I were somewhat prepared for this, since we had taken in my 97 year old grandfather a few years back. But his general attitude towards life was quite a bit different than my mother-in-law's. I'm sure a good deal of her peculiar behavior has to do with the heavy-duty painkillers she's on. But she's still a very strange person: only a few years older than my own mother, but she acts like she came from an entirely different generation. I can't help but think of her more as a grandmother figure than a mother-in-law.

One way this effects Chrontendo is the loud, hot, oxygen-compressing machine that ended up getting stuffed into my office. It's impossible to record any commentary with that thing running. From time to time it will be turned off, or I might be able to move it elsewhere temporarily. But it will slow down production of Episode 32 a bit.

On the positive side, I think all the video for the highly informative second half of the History of Adventure Games is recorded, with only minor technical glitches on a few of the games.

I'll try to post regularly until Episode 32 is up. Expect a report on the PC-FX dating sim Welcome to Pia Carrot very soon.