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!


Raffa said...

Aiyaa, the doctor strikes again!!. Thanks for springing me from this Wednesday boredom ^_^

Anonymous said...

oh Dr. S, you have the prescription for the daily blues

Tork said...

That Keith Courage game might be the only Turbo Grafx game I played until Virtual Console. I wasn't too impressed and as a kid I didn't get the Japanese style art. It's a shame they didn't go with that axe game. The final boss looks like something out of Ghosts and Goblins.

Outside the Bonk games the system never really caught my attention. In fact, I remember a kid at our school mocking the Hu cards and that was enough to seal that consoles fate in my mind. Not that it lasted long after that.

Anonymous said...

Great episode! As usual!

elblanco said...

Here I came to check on a new Chrontendo and got something even better! Love it!

Anonymous said...

Hello sir! Someone mentioned Chrontendo over on Something Awful (in a good way), so I checked it out, and after watching the first few episodes, I was thinking "Oh wow, if he did this for the PC-Engine..."


Loving Chronturbo so far. Any plans for Neo-Geo, Saturn, or PS1?

Doctor Sparkle said...

Anon - no problem, I'll just push back the estimated completion date to 2050 or so.

The Professor said...

Another great episode, Dr. S! It's nice to find out the secret beginnings of Astyanax, a game I have very fond memories of getting pissed off at as a child.

qaylIS aka Nicolas Deußer said...

Just a question about that Noriko "game": When I think about it, I thought it was a typical japanese thing which I don't get. I mean, I don't have the slightest clue which person would buy a game (or interactive novel) to meet and greet some singer.
But, I am not so much interested in the person per se, more in the music and artistic history of the artist.
And when I think about it some more, I don't wonder why the japanese invented these, I wonder why we didn't had them. I mean, there are enough guys out there, interested in pop music, who would like to meet up an artist in a game. There are numerous cameos from artists in western games (at least I hope so, or my argument would be pointless), so why aren't there some western female-pop-singer-dating-sims?
Are male westerners less interested in the persons behind the music? Is groupying (man, I hope this is the right plural) so much a women thing, that there wasn't a market back then, and still isn't today?
Or are dating sims and virtual novels such uncommon in the western market that they wouldn't even fly, with a popular face on the box?
Or are male music fans more tending for music made by male artists, and vice versa, so the market would only work with gay people? Is there a heterosexual guy out there listening to Hannah Montana? Is there any guy out there who listen to her?

Doctor Sparkle said...

It's interesting that all the fans pictured lining up for the concert in the Noriko game are male. There seems to be a big crossover between otaku type video game fans and J-Pop fans. Also, in the East, singers are more expected to be multimedia personalities: singing, acting, modeling and making appearances on dumb TV shows. Adding video games to the mix is perfectly logical.

In the West, we become skeptical when musicians branch off into other careers like acting or producing their own brand of alcohol. Singers who have successful acting careers normally put their musical careers on hold, eg: Justin Timberlake and Queen Latifa. I would assume that "serious" artists would not want damage their image with (non-music game) video games, and artists like Hannah Montana are too trivial for any game developer to produce anything other than a cheap piece of shovelware. I know male Lady Gaga superfans who follow her on Twitter, but its hard to imagine them being interested in playing a Lady Gaga video game. Even Lady Gaga fans play normal games like Angry Birds or Modern Warfare.

As for male Hannah Montana fans - they play her music in clubs, so there are definitely guys out there who like her music. But if you walked around in a HM shirt, even gay gays would make fun of you.

Chris Sobieniak said...

Sega was a whore.

Plain and simple!

Also, in the East, singers are more expected to be multimedia personalities: singing, acting, modeling and making appearances on dumb TV shows. Adding video games to the mix is perfectly logical.

A certainly film by Satoshi Kon named "Perfect Blue" perhaps brings this to mind.

qaylIS aka Nicolas Deußer said...

Hannah Montana is more a girly-thing here in europe...and I am glad about that.

Chris Sobieniak said...

Hannah Montana is more a girly-thing here in europe...and I am glad about that.

At least that's the best you guys have, it doesn't have to be anymore than that as far as I'm concerned.

killias2 said...

Crest of Gaia/Gaia no Monshou is not just a spiritual prequel to Langrisser. Alongside Elthlead/History of Elthlead, it actually takes place in the same universe. In fact, Langrisser 3 takes place -before- Elthlead/Crest of Gaia. Sieghart, the hero of Elthlead/Crest of Gaia, is actually the creator of Langrisser (the sword). In fact, I guess he technically wields it in Elthlead/Gaia. Bozer, the main bad guy of Elthlead/Gaia, is also the main bad guy in most of the Langrisser games.

In any case, the game isn't very good. I gather that the original Elthlead game had a sort of mixed grand/tactical strategy thing going on instead of the linear scenario campaign, but I've never played it. Langrisser, on the other hand, is a personal favorite. Everyone should try it.