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.


qaylIS aka Nicolas Deußer said...

I believe I can help a bit out with the british folks, and not just because I stayed some days on vacation there: The whole news are as some kind of theater to them, and the crazy news from Newspapers like The Sun or The Onion are a humorous play. They don't read them for serious news, but for entertainment.
People from bavaria are also a bit like that, they love when there politicians are doing shit like fight over posts in gouvernental departements, talk about stuff they have no clue about, or affront whole ethnicities without realizing it. Hell, the last Gouvernor of Bavaria (Gunther Beckstein) was also known to wear womens clothing on Mardi Gras.
But back to topic, the british are people with a strange humour, if you watch some episodes of Monthy Pythons Flying Circus you can get a bit in that mindset, and then maybe you understand the tabloids a little bit better.

GarrettCRW said...

If you think things are bad now, wait until you get to the European-developed NES and Master System games, which assault the player with some of the most painful soundtracks on the two systems. Maybe it's a side-effect of the PAL speed-up issue, but European-produced background music in this era give me headaches.

matt.mcneely said...

I remember playing that Indiana Jones game on the NES when I was a kid. My dad rented it and brought it home for us to play. I actually didn't see the film but was happy to play the game with him anyway; or so I thought.

I was very confused by the design of the caves and just found the whole thing strange compared to my favorites such as Super Mario Brothers, Ninja Gaiden, Batman, Castlevania, etc. My dad ended up taking the controls and I can't remember if he was any better at it than I was. One thing is for sure though; my memories are hazy of the game and I don't wish to revisit them.

Nonetheless I'm looking forward to seeing the next edition of Chrontendo as usual.

Doctor Sparkle said...

News of the World actually ceased publication today, due to the phone hacking scandal, it seems. It's hard fro me to think of NOTW as "funny," due to the association with Rupert Murdoch, who as guy behind Fox News, is considered by some people to be only slightly less evil than Hitler.

The nuttiest tabloid we had in the US was the much-missed Weekly World News which really did approach Onion-like levels of silliness. One of the paper's creations, Bat Boy, now even has his own musical:

Tabloids also seem to be a much bigger deal in the UK. Despite the UK having a much smaller population that the US, NOTW had a circulation of over 2 mil, as compared to the Enquirer's 1 mil.

As for European NES/SMS, games, I'm looking forward to them. Does anyone have any particularly egregious examples?

Oh yes, and we love political wackjobs over here, too. How else can you explain all the attention given to Sarah Palin and her constant stream of gaffes?

blobolonia said...

Paperboy looks like it might be based on a computer port -- I spy some "fat pixels" on the boy's title screen graphic.

InsaneDavid said...

Oh God, NES Temple of Doom... I still have nightmares from completing it for Retrogaming Times Monthly.

Citrico said...

The red 5 makes me think of the Count. "One, two, three, four, five! Five hookers! Ha Ha Ha!"

GarrettCRW said...

I was referring to Codemasters titles in general in my previous comment. People call them good games for both the SMS and the NES, but I simply cannot tolerate the music.

Anonymous said...

Sparkle, in case you haven't heard it enough, you're doing a fantastic job!!

I saw a brief comment about chrontendo 3 or 4 days ago & it sounded like genuine praise so i checked it out and i've been stuck to it ! i've suddenly found myself on vacation watching every episode, in chronlological order. In doing so I've noticed the meaninglessness of that whole dumb world of practicing music, having friends and earning money-tickets. I'm at #37 now which means I'm, "pretty much screwed."

sebastian said...

btw, the wizard in the bottom right corner of Tantagel Castle courtyard in DQ1 will fill up your MP for free.

I also missed this my first couple times through because early in the game whenever i talked to him it seemed nothing had happened, since my MP was already full, and he said nothing about MP. he just says, "may the light shine upon thee" and the screen flashes.

i remained curious about him because of that flash, but whenever I finished the game it just seemed like another inconsequential character saying stuff.

--sebastian (anonymous above)

Doctor Sparkle said...

As I recall, the wizard guy who restores your magic is found in the exact same spot in DQ III, which takes place way before DQ I. It's a little sad, to think of that guy standing behind that counter for hundreds of years, never able to move from that spot or say anything other than that one line of dialog...