Friday, July 29, 2011

Chrontendo 39: Sequel-Mania

Another hot slice of chronogaming goodness is served, courtesy of Dr. Sparkle! (Did that sound a just a little dirty? Good.)  Chrontendo Episode 39 is ready for you downloading and streaming pleasure.  Nice looking h.264 60 FPS versions may be found at Archive.  And a plain old streaming version may be watched on Youtube.  As always, I recommend the 60 FPS videos so you can see all the cool flicker effects, like the force shield in Gradius II.

Last episode left off in mid-December, right in the middle of the 1988 holiday shopping season. Tons of quickie cash-in games are crowding each other off the shelves of toy stores and electronics boutiques.  And you know what that means, right, kids?  Sequels!  An amazing five games this episode are sequels to earlier Famicom releases.  However, out of all the games covered this time, there are only a couple that anybody will actually give two shits about.

Gradius II is probably the finest game on display in Episode 39.  Konami was one of the most prodigious and consistent publishers in the earlier days of the Famicom, but in the second half of 1988, they slowed down a bit.  The Japan-only Gradius II could almost be considered a comeback, considering that their last big action title was Mad City/Bayou Billy.

Creepiest boss ever?

The arcade Gradius II (Vulcan Venture in Europe) was covered in the 1988 arcade roundup.  It was considerably more visually impressive than the first game, but it was also substantially harder.  Sure, the Vic Viper had some new laser and shield choices, but those didn't stand a chance against the waves of screen-filling projectiles thrown at you.  This made the arcade Gradius II punitively difficult.  Thankfully, in order not crush the souls of young Famicom players, Konami toned it down a bit for the console release.  A good deal of this is due to the downgrade in hardware; the Famicom couldn't handle that many enemies and bullets onscreen at once.  But Konami also made a few deliberate choices, such as beefing up the shield so that it could take multiple hits before disappearing.

Gradius II plays very much like the first game, only with more variety in the level design, and a whole bunch of brand new, enormous bosses.  Sure, the Core guy returns, and a few favorites from Salamander make an appearance, but line up of new bosses is perhaps Gradius II's finest feature.  There's even an honest-to-goodness boss rush level.

After playing Parodius, I can't help but think of a Las Vegas showgirl here.

The other big game this episode is Square's flawed but fascinating sequel to their company-saving hit, Final Fantasy.  If you've ever played Final Fantasy II, you'll recognize it as a classic example of the black sheep sequel, just like Zelda II and Castlevania II.  In this case, however, it set the pattern for the enitre series -- that every FF game would be dramatically different from its immediate predecessor.  This allowed it to stand in stark contrast to Enix's Dragon Quest series, in which each new game built upon the foundation of the one before it, by gradually introducing a few new elements into each sequel.

You can't open a damned treasure chest without finding monsters.

With Akitoshi Kawazu leading the design team, FF II eliminated character classes, experience points and levels, replacing them with a system in which your stats, weapon skills, and magic increase based on what skills or magic you use in battle. Likewise, max HP and MP increase as you lose HP and MP in battle.  This sounds fine on paper, but in practice it results in a very tedious system for leveling up, especially when it comes to magic.  It takes a long time to level up a spell: doing so requires casting it over and over and over.  For basic spells like Cure, this doesn't seem so bad.   But spells that are useful only occasionally will never be built up unless you use a cheat or exploit one of the game's (perhaps deliberate) bugs.  This is especially true with spells you acquire late in the game, such as Ultima.  You'll need to cast a lot of Ultima spells before it becomes very effective, which is ultimately (sorry!) more trouble than it's worth.  And I probably don't need to mention that if two characters have the same spells you'll need to level them up individually.

You have a lot of stats.

While the leveling mechanic sucks much of the fun out of the game, FF II is still quite notable for the many characters, items, monsters, and ideas that became series mainstays: such as Cid, Chocobos, Phoenix Downs, Dragoons, and so on.  One character, Lion Heart (or Leon Heart in some versions,) had a distant relative turn up years later in Final Fantasy VIII.  

Beyond those two games, Episode 39 is mostly a vast wasteland of boring and/or crappy games.   Here are the worst offenders:

Fantasy Zone II: The Teardrop of Opa Opa

It's called that because Opa-Opa once killed a guy in prison.

A complete waste of plastic.  There was already a far superior version of Fantasy Zone II on the Master System.  The Famicom port, published by Sunsoft, suffers from ugly graphics and ear-piercing music.  There is no need for this game to exist.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I already bitched about this game a few posts back.  And I'm still all worked up about it.  Why do you start the game by hitting the "select" button instead of the "start" button?  What were you thinking, Tengen?  Were you not aware there was a button on the NES controller that was actually labeled START?!?

Even weirder, Tengen thought IJATTOD so valuable that they released an unlicensed version to compete with Mindscape's official release.

Family Trainer: Fuuun! Takeshi Shiro II

The umpteenth Family Trainer game and the zillionith Takeshi Kitano game.  Fuuun! Takeshi Shiro II caused Dr. Sparkle to have a bit of a breakdown this episode.

Kyuukyoku Harikiri Stadium: '88 Senshuu Shin Data  

Fake game alert!  This cart is really just the first Kyuukyoku Harikiri Stadium game rereleased with re-jiggered stats.

Captain Silver

Omigod!  Did we forget to feed the werewolf before we left?

The arcade Captain Silver was pretty annoying.  The Master System version, covered in Chronsega 6 was a huge improvement.  The Famicom port is notorious for its emaciated werewolves and is far worse than the other two versions.  One-hit deaths have been replaced by a lifebar, but your weapon and agility have been seriously downgraded.  Most enemies now take multiple hits to kill, so the net result is a game where it's actually easier to get killed than in the SMS Captain Silver.

And we have a few non-offensive carts as well:

The Triathron

This year's Triathlon had pretty high fatalities, due to giant whirlpools.

 The first of three racing games this episode.  Aside from the hilarious Engrish title, this KAC  game offers button-mashy swimming/cycling/running action.  It's pretty uneventful except for the deadly whirlpools in the swimming race.

Top Rider

An unabashed Hang On clone with a very unusual peripheral: an inflatable motorcycle featuring a built-in handlebar controller.  Yes, the player is supposed to sit on a big squishy airbag while playing Top Rider.

Cycle Race Roadman

My favorite of the three, Cycle Race is a simple little bicycle racing game. It works quite a bit better than the cycling sections in Triathron.

'89 Dennou Kyuusei Uranai

This would be another utterly pointless fortune telling/horoscope if it weren't for one thing - this cat:

A fat cat driving a teeny little UFO!

Micronics has created perhaps the greatest video game mascot ever.  Besides that, '89 Dennou has a few weird surprises, as shown in the video.


Another Tengen/Mindscape port of on old Atari arcade game.


Data East releases a console version of Midway's classic urban environment destruction simulator.

Kaguya Hime Densetsu

The game gets a little judgmental at times.  I don't see what the big deal is.  She's unconscious, so she'll never know the difference.

Micronics developed this wacky adventure game, which does an irreverent take on the old Japanese legend of the Woodcutter's Daughter.  Apparently, this tale was a favorite among video game developers, because it also inspired Nintendo's Shin Onigashima, covered back in Episode 22.

Fighting Road

This is what fighting games looked like in the 80s.  

Another non-distinguished title from Toei.  This time it's a single player one-on-one fighting game.

 How would you feel if I told you that Chrontendo Episode 40 will finish up 1988 (almost!).  Yes, I'll be glad to move onto 1989, too.  One thing we have to look forward to in 1989 is more damned Western exclusive games.  1989-1991 is probably the peak of NES mania in the US, so the number of games aimed at the US market will explode during the next year or two.   I can hardly wait.  Mario's Time Machine, anyone?

Once again, head on over to Archive or Youtube and check out Chrontendo Episode 39.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Final Fantasy, in Beer Form

Update!  The Squall Double IPA has been consumed and turned out to pretty decent, though a bit mild for a DPIA.  I wouldn't place it in the same weight class as the big California Double IPAs such Pliny the Elder or Stone's Ruination.  I guess I'm just a chauvinist when it comes West Coast brewing styles.  Wine snobs may dismiss Cali wines, but our beers are pretty unbeatable.

As Chrontendo Episode 39 is prepared for editing, I thought I'd share this tangentially related beer offering.

This is a Double IPA from Dogfish Head, a rather media-savvy brewer from Delaware, (they had their own reality show and an article in Smithsonian.)   The Double IPA is the most quintessentially West Coast-y of beers, so I'm a bit skeptical of the results.  Hopefully, it will taste plenty angsty and bitter.  And maybe a little bitchy?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Kawazu-spawned Brain Damage

Things have been busy on the Chrontendo ranch lately, but they should be calming down soon.  Once again, I feel obligated to report on the stuff that has been taking up my time -- time which could have been spent on Chrontendo.

No one was more surprised than myself at my participation in a Zombie Walk last week.  Being a man possessing a greatly dignified bearing, I was not actually dressed up as a zombie. Instead, I accompanied my wife and a friend, who were both in zombie makeup.  There was a pretty damned huge crowd of zombies, anti-zombie forces, and spectators.  Even in non-zombie form, I could feel a certain rush from the collective lack of inhibition that allows you to act really weird in public, scream and random bystanders, and pound on the windows of buildings as  you pass by.

Some of the zombies had very elaborate, impressive makeup and costumes.  There are not those zombies.

One thing my fair city can take pride in is the "invention" of the zombie walk; it's been a local tradition for years, and quickly spread to other cities across the world.  (We also originated the IKEA dinner party, but that's a bit more underground.).  Here's a random Flickr photoset of the event.

I've  been going to inordinate number of social events lately, including this weird party a couple nights ago out in the farmlands past the outskirts of town.  It was a pretty huge party - a patch of land was turned into a parking lot, there were porta-potties, and people were setting up tents and spending the night. It was definitely not my crowd -- there was sort of a Jimmy Buffet vibe going on, and the DJ was playing stuff like that "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" song.  Dudes in cargo shorts and Birks drinking Corona, if you know what I mean.

I did finally get to see the new Terry Malick film, The Tree of Life, which seems to be receiving a pretty limited distribution compared to his last two films, both of which played in mainstream multiplex type theaters.  Even among the art-house set, the movie has the power to cause audience grumblings and walkouts.  In fact, if I were to pick the three movies at which I noticed the most noticeable audience displeasure, it would be The Tree of Life, Malick's Thin Red Line and Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

The famous "no refunds" sign from a Stamford, CT theater.

I found Tree to be pretty engrossing, partially because I used to know the person whom the Brad Pitt character is based on.  But for anyone out there planning to see it, I'll warn you in advance: it is very elliptical.   Not quite as imposing was the musical The Producers, which I got into a dress rehearsal of for free.  As much as I like the original movie, the musical is pretty corny.  Big Broadway musicals and I have never really got along very well.*

Also, I'm suffering a bit of brain trauma due to one particular game from Chrontendo 39: Final Fantasy II.  The most-hated FF game, with the exception of X-2, FF II is from the diseased mind of Akitoshi Kawazu, later of SaGa fame/infamy.  There are a couple ways to look at this game.  On one hand, it rewrites the rules of the typical DQ style 8-bit JRPG.  This would appear to be a good thing, but.... it rewrites the rules in the most ill-conceived way imaginable.  Anyone who has played it will remember it as the game in which you spend as much time attacking your own party members as you do enemies.

FF II features various callbacks to the first game.

Despite its bad reputation, I felt the game was interesting and important enough to play all the way through, so expect a full report next episode.

Also, there's this:  Not sure who is behind this.  But if you go to the archive page, it's interesting how Jaleco's City Connection stands out.  Also, congrats to DK 3 for introducing animation to the Famicom title screen.

*Nothing can compare to the Las Vegas Phantom of the Opera, however.  It's like the Michael Bay's Transformers of musicals.  And calling it that is probably being a bit unfair to Michael Bay.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

USA! Not Yet #1 in Video Games!

As usual, Dr. Sparkle has been busy lately... it's always busy, busy, busy around here.  Another fine July 4th weekend has gone by, but something did seem a little different this year.  On most years, fireworks are lit on July 4th itself, but last weekend I noticed the fireworks started on Saturday and continued on through Sunday and Monday.  I suppose people had to get their fireworks fix over the weekend, but it did get a bit tiresome by the third day.  Constantly hearing the "pip, pop, pip" of firecrackers all night can work your nerves.

Every Fourth of July, while manning a barbeque grill, I wonder the same thing: why do we choose to celebrate this holiday, which happens in the hottest month of year, by throwing an outdoors party that involves cooking meat over open flames?  Temperatures hit triple digits last weekend, I think.  And the hottest 4th of July temperature on record for my city is 111 degrees Fahrenheit, from 1991!  In that heat it's impossible to step outside for 10 minutes without getting drenched in sweat.  So why should I toss flipping burgers over hot charcoals into the mix?  Really, I think BBQ parties would make more sense in mid-spring or late autumn.

A recent comment about Hannah Montana made me think of this frequently reproduced British tabloid cover.

You can't get more British than the phrase "sex shame."

I don't know much about UK tabloids but they appear to be much crazier than their US counterparts.  Our tabloids mostly concern themselves with reality TV stars having plastic surgery or gaining weight; UK tabloids seem much angrier somehow; almost a little demented.  I've seen this cover a few times recently in various news outlets due to some legal issues with the paper hacking into cell phones and interfering with a murder investigation.

I'll admit to loving the almost surreal juxtaposition of "Hannah Montana stickers" with "Sick Nazi Orgy."  Which raises the obvious question: who the hell is this paper being marketed to?   Exactly what demographic would be interested in both Nazi orgies and Hannah Montana stickers? (Other than Chrontendo readers, or course.)  Also a nice touch: the red "5" enumerating the number of hookers involved.  Because a mere three or four hookers in a Nazi orgy would not be nearly as newsworthy.  Seriously, any UK folks out there: who actually buys these things?

Back to video games: Chrontendo 39 will feature a few December 1988 releases for the US NES market.  All three are ports of US developed arcade games.  Now, I don't normally like to choose sides in the Western vs Japanese games debate.  I can see both sides of the argument.  On one hand, in the mid '80s we have US developers creating innovative games like Wasteland and Maniac Mansion while Japanese companies are pooping out countless unoriginal Portopia and Dragon Quest clones.  One the other hand... we have these three games:


I liked Rampage in the arcades.  Three Player co-op destruction.  Smashing helicopters with your fist.  Grabbing US Army solders and eating them.  Tearing down three or four buildings, then repeating ad infinitum.  Rampage was the sort of game best described as a "fun time-waster."  Since nothing ever really happens in Rampage, it wasn't even much of a quarter-muncher.  It wasn't as if you kept plugging in more quarters trying to get to the last boss -- there were no bosses or even any real "levels."

It's never explained why the army is just randomly blowing up buildings in this game.

This makes it sort of an odd choice for the NES.  Aside from this, the Data East published port had a few more issues.  First of all it received a downgrade from simultaneous three-player to two-player.  Also, many of the monsters' animations and facial expressions had been dropped.   Many of the various power-ups and harmful objects found in the game have been rendered unrecognizable due the NES' low-res graphics.  Instead of eating a bundle of TNT and then belching out a jet of fire, you would pick up a pixely thing on the ground and shoot a stream of something out of your mouth.

The same is true to a certain extent in Tengen/Mindscape's Paperboy, based on the 1984 Atari arcade game.  Probably the most offensive moment in the game is the truly awful-looking title screen.

NES vs Arcade. Note: his cap is backwards.  That means he's got "attitude."

What I am wondering is this: if Tengen was unable to prod the NES into producing a nicer looking facsimile of Paperboy's title screen than this, why did they even bother?  Why not design a new, simpler title screen, one more suited for the NES hardware?  One gets the feeling that Tengen's object was not to create an acceptable piece of title art, but instead to produce something that would remind players of the arcade game's title screen, regardless of how ugly the finished product was.

The same philosophy holds true in the game itself.  The arcade Paperboy featured a pesky breakdancer spinning around on his head.  Apparently Tengen was not able to reproduce this for the home version, so instead we have a guy standing on his head kicking his legs around in the air.  If you had never played the arcade game, you would undoubtedly be confused and disturbed by this character.  "Whats going on?  Is he... having a seizure?"  Once again, Tengen seems be aiming for the recognition factor rather than something that makes sense on its own.


Watch out for that blue... "thing" in the driveway.

Far worse, however, is Tengen's port of the 1985 arcade game, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  The original was pretty cool for 1985: it used speech samples from the movie, had fasting moving mine cart action, and plenty of underground caverns and lava pits.  In this case, the opposite approach was taken from that of Paperboy and Rampage -- the game was rebuilt almost entirely from scratch.  The game now involves running through a series of maze like caverns (made more confusing by the fact that each level screen wraps around both vertically and horizontally) looking for a bunch of hidden map pieces.  This wouldn't be so bad, except for a number of flaws, starting with a needlessly confusing control screen.  The very first thing you need to do is to start the game,, by pressing the Select button.  Not, Start, but Select.  From there you'll learn that the jump and attack buttons are reversed from the configuration found in every other NES game.   And that you don't jump in the direction Indy is facing.  No, you need to hold down the d-pad in the direction you want to jump and then hit the jump button.  Otherwise Indy will always jump towards the bottom screen, usually into a lava pit.

A pretty cool game, but who leaves canisters of gasoline lying around next to lava pits?

Beyond the controls, the game offers suffers from a plethora of opaque and illogical rules.  Keys are occasionally found -- these can open doors, but not all doors.  Doors leading to rooms containing TNT need to be opened using swords.  Swords are used to kill enemies (which makes sense,) but also are required to open these special doors (which doesn't.)  Guns are also used to kill enemies, but are also needed to find hidden grapple points.  These are found by shooting "small skulls," not to be confused with "large skulls," which are something else entirely and can't be shot with the gun.   None of this is explained in the game itself, so in order to have any idea what to do, you need to read through the poorly organized and repetitive 14 page manual.

 Ok, why is the cavern green?

And to top it all off, the NES Temple of Doom is hideously ugly.

All of this is giving me the impression that US developers in 1988 had no idea how to create a decent console game.  Certainly I've seen no NES games from any Western publisher that comes close to the stuff being produced by Capcom, Konami, Nintendo, et al at this time.  One major issue seems to be an over reliance on crappy arcade ports, usually of games a few years old and that have already been ported to every other system known to man before reaching the NES.

Nowadays, of course, US publishers dominate the US console game market, but in 1988 they made a pretty sad showing.