Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It's Chronturbo Episode 2! Oh Shiiiiiiiiiit!

Many amazing things have happened this week.  We've learned that Canadians are not all the mellow, polite people that the media depicts them as being.  We finally saw that Duke Nukem game get released after 15 years.  And now, the second episode of Chronturbo has suddenly appeared out of nowhere!  That's right, you can now find fancy-ass 60fps mp4 and mkv versions at Archive.org, or a plain vanilla version at Youtube.

It's been a while since the first Chronturbo, so here's a refresher course.  The series covers NEC's PC Engine console, and its US counterpart, the TurboGrafx-16.  Despite its reputation as a failure, the system was quite successful in Japan, and there were around 700 titles released between 1987 and 1997.  The most prominent publishers were NEC themselves and Hudson, who had actually designed the hardware was responsible for most of the software in the console's early years.

Pronounced "CD Rom Rom."  No, I don't much care for the name either.

Episode One covered the system's launch in October 1987 through mid 1988.  The second episode finishes up 1988, and sees the debut of the CD-ROM² add-on in December.  While the initial set of releases for the PC Engine was pretty impressive, the console's full potential was not unlocked until the CD-ROM² appeared.  Ahead of its time to a ridiculous degree (the first CD-Rom game for home computers would not come out until 1989), the new format revolutionized the very concept of what could be contained within a video game.

With 2000 times as much storage space as a Hucard (or a typical Famicom cart), this meant developers would no longer have to worry about trying to squeeze a game into 2 or 3 megabits.  The inherent limitations of sound chips was no longer a problem when it came to reproduction of speech and music.  Lengthy animations and FMV cutscenes could tacked onto games.  In some ways, the birth of modern gaming occurred with the introduction of the CD-ROM².

No one said street fighting was fair. (Not pictured: the "street.")

Of course, in 1988, no one knew exactly where the future of video games lay, even those who created the first handful of CD ROM games.  Fighting Street was simply a port of Capcom's arcade game Street Fighter.  If you've ever tried to play Street Fighter, you'll realize just what huge step forward Street Fighter II was.  Fighting Street may be a terrible fighting game, but as a technical achievement, it's quite impressive.  The PC Engine version has slightly fewer colors than the arcade original, but other than that, it remains remarkable faithful.  The main difference, however, was in the upgrade in music made possible by the CD format.  The arcade game's puny-sounding chip-generated music has been replaced with a much beefier re-recorded soundtrack.  Still, Fighting Street does seem like an odd choice to debut the new format with.  Since it's a game that... you know... nobody actually liked.

Noriko is like a non-scary version of the girl from "The Ring."

The other launch title, also published by Hudson, was No・Ri・Ko.  Here, the exact opposite approach was taken: rather than creating a traditional video game, Hudson and Alfa System chose to assemble a bunch of digitized photographs, prerecorded music, and audio clips of idol Noriko Ogawa talking.  No・Ri・Ko is barely a "game."  The story involves you taking Noriko out on a date, and you need to navigate a series of menu options to move the narrative along.  There is barely any interactivity involved, but the CD-Rom turns out to be the perfect format for viewing pictures of girls and listening to cheesy J-Pop music.  History was made.

The third and final CD Rom game of 1988, Bikkuriman Daijikai is even less game-like.  It's more of an encyclopedia of Bikkuriman characters, with a few trivia questions and lots of animated cutscenes thrown in.  While No・Ri・Ko and Bikkuriman Daijikai are not exactly exciting to look at today, they did serve as excellent experiments for developers to suss out what the CD-ROM² was capable of.

Aside from CD Rom games, Chronturbo Ep. 2 features 10 Hucard games.  Far and away the best of these is Makyou Densetsu, or The Legendary Axe, from Victor Musical Industries.

It's a "grittier, more realistic" version of Adventure Island.

Let's put this in no uncertain terms: Legendary Axe is the best original title for the PC Engine from its first two years of existence.  I'd go so far as to say its one of the best sidescrolling action games we've in Chrontendo, Chronsega or Chronturbo so far.  It works on every single level - it's fast paced with lots of interesting enemies, it controls well, the sound and graphics are great, and it has an interesting attack mechanic involving a charged-up axe blow.  Legendary Axe only really falters in its final level, which is too long and repetitive.

That's one freaky looking boss.

The surprising thing is that it was developed by Aicom, the same folks who were responsible for Amagon, Hoops and Chuugoku Senseijutsu, that Chinese fortune telling game from Chrontendo 38.  Axe belongs to the same genre as Amagon, but is dramatically more playable.  Enemies in Axe are fast moving, but they use understandable attack patterns and don't constantly fly across the screen at warp speed and slam into you mid-jump.

The other great game this episode is Alien Crush, from Compile and Naxat.  This H.R. Giger inspired (with just a dash of M.C. Escher thrown in) pinball game remains one of the most well known of the early TurboGrafx releases.  It was successful enough to warrant a demonically themed sequel, Devil's Crush, in 1990.  If the screenshot isn't enough to sell you on the awesomeness of this game, you're probably a lost cause.

We haven't seen a whole lot of sports/RPG hybrid games so far, but thankfully, Namco's Pro Tennis: World Court is here to remedy that.  Aside from the standard gameplay options, Pro Tennis offers a "Quest" mode, which awkwardly inserts tennis matches into a Dragon Quest inspired world.  It's a silly gimmick, but the actual tennis part is a step above what we've been seeing on the Famicom so far.

Did I screw up and accidentally slip in a screenshot to a Famicom game by mistake?  Nope, that really is Pro Tennis.

The relatively high standards imposed the PC Engine's software publishers means that we haven't seen any real kusoge so far.  But there have been a few games that fell a bit short of the mark.  A prime example is Hudson's Majin Eiyuuden Wataru/Keith Courage in Alpha Zones.  There's nothing horrifically bad about the game; it's a inoffensive platformer in the Wonder Boy in Monster Land mode with the added bonus of wonky controls.

The Japanese original was based on a videogame inspired animated series from Sunrise.  For the US release, an original story and characters were whipped up, and a promotional comic book was created.  Since there was not even the slightest hint of a story in-game, it was up to the comic to explain who Keith Courage was and wy he was defending Earth from an alien invasion using an ultra high-tech armored suit .... and a sword.  You can check out samples from the comic here, on the old Sardoose/Sardius/Danny Cowan site.

Doesn't the guy with the gun for a head look like he stepped right out of the Yellow Submarine movie?

The comic's artwork in done in the typical sloppy 70's/80's Marvel Comics style, but the artist, Steve Vance, later went on to become a Grammy winning album designer and illustrator, working on seemingly every Grateful Dead CD reissue, and creating the art for this very cool Rockabilly box set.

Anyhoo....Keith Courage was chosen as the pack-in game for the TurboGrafx upon its release in the US in 1989.  Since then, it has become, along with Johnny Turbo, synonymous with the failure of the system in the West.   As if, by releasing the TG-16 with such a underwhelming pack-in game, NEC was dooming the console from day one.  I know Keith Courage has its supporters, and some of them even read this site!  So feel free to defend it in the comments.

The Rest:

Gaia no Monshou

Before NCS/Masaya created the Langrisser series of tactical RPGs, they produced Gaia no Monshou (Crest of Gaia).  While Gaia features all sorts of cool units such as knights riding dragons, the game itself is sort of infuriating.  As far as I could tell, there is no way to see your units' hit points, damage taken, etc.  You have no way of knowing if a particular unit is at  full strength or one hit away from being annihilated.  And then Gaia has the gall to use a points-based scoring system that allows you to lose the game without having lost a single battle.   On the plus side, an English translation is available should you choose to try your hand at this thing.

Dragon Spirit

Dragons vs Flowers - the eternal struggle.

The port of Namco's 1987 arcade game should be cool.  It's a vertical shoot-em-up in which you control a fire-breathing dragon that can grow up to three heads!  Yet, somehow it just doesn't work for me.  Maybe it's the unimpressive enemies.  Maybe it's that your dragon is just too damned large to squeeze between enemy projectiles.  Maybe it's the Xevious style controls where you have to operate separate buttons for air and ground attacks.

Appare! Gateball

Have you ever heard of gateball?  No?  It's an exxxtreme version of croquet played by elderly Japanese folks.   I believe this to be one of only two gateball video games ever released.

Space Harrier/Fantasy Zone

What?!?  Sega on the PC Engine?  I don't know the how or why, but 15 days before Sega's new 16-bit console hit the shelves in Japan, these two games came out for the PC Engine.  And they were released in Japan by NEC Avenue, making them the first video games published by NEC themselves.  The fact that these two titles were also released for the Master System and Famicom leads me to only one conclusion: Sega was a whore.

Sadakichi Seven: Hideyoshi no Ougon

A wacky culinary themed James Bond spoof.  Oh, and it's the first Portopia clone/adventure game for the PC Engine. 

What's up next for Chronturbo?  1989 is year the PC Engine's release schedule really picks up, so episodes will be coming more frequently from now on.  We are also going to bump up production to a full 15 games per episode.  So we've got a few more Chrontendo's scheduled, another Chronsega, and then Chronturbo Episode 3!  While your waiting make sure you pickup Episode 2 on Archive or Youtube!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mario's Secret History

Hello everyone.  Sorry I've been out of commission for the last week or so.  Things have been busy in the Sparkle household lately, and yesterday was my wedding anniversary.   And I just saw that darned Super 8 movie today!  So, I just wanted to get in a quick word to let you know I'm still here.

I would like to point on a recent and very interesting article from Wired on Super Mario Bros 2.  If you recall Chrontendo Ep. 20, you know I'd become pretty dubious regarding the standard story of SMB 2, as is often repeated on the internet.  The narrative generally goes something like this:  we see Howard Lincoln or some other NOA executive sitting behind his desk when a package arrives from Japan.  Said package contains the anxiously awaited  Super Mario Bros 2, which Lincoln enthusiastically shoves into an FDS, dollar signs flashing his eyes.  A moment later we hear his voice thunder throughout the halls of Nintendo's Redmond offices,"What is this crap?!  No kid in America is going to want to play this!  It's too hard!"  Fuming, he flings the disk into a nearby waste basket.

Sometime later, Lincoln, Arakawa and a few others are still bemoaning the loss of their treasured cash-cow, Mario.  Suddenly, some bright young executive has an idea!  "Why don't we take some other game and release it as Super Mario 2?"  Grabbing the top disk off a stack of recently arrived Japanese releases, he says, "How about this one here?  It's, uh.... Doki Doki Panic.  It looks like it has running and jumping and stuff."   "Brilliant!" shouts Lincoln. "Quick, have one of the programmers hack some Mario sprites into this thing.  Those stupid kids will never know the difference."  Lincoln and Arakawa then commence puffing on their cigars between bouts of Satanic laughter.   The moral of this story is: you got played, chump.

Everything you see here is a lie.

The problem with this story is that it overlooks the fact that the Doki Doki Panic/SMB 2 creative team comprised the key players behind the first Super Mario Bros.; and the game greatly resembles SMB; and that creatures from SMB 2, such as the Bob-ombs, were immediately integrated into the official Mario canon.  In Chrontendo 20 , I surmised that due to the amount of money and talent behind Doki Doki Panic, someone at Nintendo must have realized during the development process that it would eventually get a US release, and that this release wouldn't feature the Doki Doki characters owned by Fuji TV. 

Well, the article in question is based around an interview with Kensuke Tanabe, the actual director of Doki Doki Panic/SMB 2, and it goes into a good deal of background on the game.   It turns out it originated as an uncompleted game from Nintendo EAD that was intended to be similar to SMB, only with vertical levels.  At some point, Miyamoto assigned Tanabe to work on a new game based on this concept.  Miyamoto later recommended adding traditional horizontal scrolling to the game to make it more "Mario-like." 

The chronology is not discussed in any detail, but at some point, a deal with Fuji Television was signed, and Tanabe was told add the Doki Doki characters into the game.   For the US version, Mario characters were used instead, since as Tanabe states: “We knew these Fuji TV characters wouldn’t be popular in America, but what would be attractive in America would be the Mario characters.”

One thing to remember is that at this time, Nintendo did not always design games with particular characters in mind. Nowadays, when a game like Gears of War is being created, the developers are already thinking ahead to a sequel in the event that the first game is a success.  However, back in the 80s, the game idea was often designed first, and then characters added later.  The first Kirby game is a fine example of this method.  I also vaguely recall hearing that one of the Zelda games was not originally conceived as a Zelda game, but that it was incorporated into the series midway through the development process.

Anyway, the article fills out some of the gaps in the history of Doki Doki Panic/SMB 2, and shows the story behind this game is a bit more interesting than most people thought.  You can read the article here.  Definitely check it out if you have any interest in SMB 2.

For those who are wondering, Mudflaps the Kitten is fine.  She is currently behaving as any normal kitten her age would - meaning she's running around like an idiot all the time.  A poster wondered about the blood on my mother's dog's face.  They were caused by Mudflaps scratching at the dog.  The dog's injuries were very minor.

I've also cleaned up the Links sections a bit: added some new links and deleted some non-updating ones.   I've been meaning to do this for a while.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Brief Interruption

Sorry folks, for discussing non-videogame subjects in this blog, as I am going to do today.  Hopefully, everyone approves the freshly released Episode 38?  I'm still hard at work on Chrontendo, but over the last few days I've been distracted with an animal related matter.

A couple days ago a received a late night call from my mother.  She was on the verge of hysteria, since her two dogs had captured some sort of animal behind her backyard shed.  She was concerned that they were in the midst of mauling a neighbor's cat or perhaps fighting a racoon.  For those of you who have not had face-to-face experience with raccoons, please note that, while cute, they are larger than you might imagine them to be, and are capable of blinding or even killing a medium sized dog.  I rushed over and was able to squeeze behind her shed and drag the dogs off.  Once I got a hold of a working flashlight, a I went behind the shed to see what sort of animal it was and found a tiny kitten lying on the ground.

One of the dogs had blood on his face, and my first concern was that the dogs had either maimed or trampled the kitten.  The kitten was still alive, but I couldn't tell what sort of condition it was in, especially since it was completely covered in dirt and mud.  Using a pair of leather work gloves, I picked her up, and brought her into the light.  We weren't sure if the kitten was feral or domesticated, but at this point the cat was in deep shock and didn't resist.   We didn't see any blood or injuries on her, but her eyes were glazed over and her tongue hanging out.  We weren't sure she was going to make it, but we covered her with a blanket in an attempt to keep her warm.  Eventually, she seemed to snap out of it a bit, so it was decided to bring her back to my house and set her up in a pet cage.

After getting most of the mud off her front end.

By the next day it was clear she was a tame kitten and would let us handle her.  We were pretty sure she didn't have any broken bones.  While the presence of a strange animal in the back yard must have set my mother's dogs off, it seemed clear they hadn't been trying to hurt her.  We tried to get as much mud off as we could, and the next day gave her a bath.  It turns out the thing is pretty darned cute.

Cleaned up and looking precious!

At this point, we are going to make a poster and put it up around the neighborhood, in the off chance that she actually belongs to someone.  However, I am hoping that end we up keeping her, as she is just as sweet and adorable as you would imagine.  My wife does not approve of this name, but I am calling her Mudflaps.  If the next episode of Chrontendo is delayed at some point, it's probably due to Mudflaps suddenly leaping onto the keyboard while I'm in the middle of something.