Sunday, May 13, 2012

Stone Hands and Game Boys

(UPDATE: The Professor has pointed out the sound is slightly out of sync in the MKV and MP4 versions. I've uploaded a corrected video to Youtube and the Achive versions will follow shortly!)

Ok, I've been able to tear myself away from overpriced beers long enough to cobble together Chrontendo 44. And what an episode it is! Head on over to Archive or Youtube to check it out. As always, the nice h.264 60 frames per second versions on Archive are considered optimal.

Episode 44 is a bit of an outlier. There are only 12 (gasp!) games covered, meaning all of April 1989. However, the remaining time is taken up by a lengthy bonus feature on the Game Boy. Yes, the Game Boy. In the past, I've said I will never do a Chrontendo Game Boy series, but since Nintendo's handheld debuted in April, I decided to do a quick overview of the 25 games released in 1989.

Alright you bastards! Game Boy! Are you happy now?
What did I learn about the Game Boy's first 8 months of existence? That a lot of crap was released early in the system's lifespan. The other consoles we've covered, the Famicom, SMS and PC Engine, were all born into uncertainty. No one knew upfront how those systems would fare. As a result, third party publishers didn't start coming on-board in droves until after those consoles had enough time to get their footing. The Game Boy, on the other hand, was a highly anticipated new product from the dominating force in the video game industry. Thus we have third party Game Boy support from the get-go. In fact, a third party game, HAL's Shanghai, was released at launch! I believe this is the first video game system in which that happened. Add in the fact that the Game Boy must have been relatively cheap and easy to program for, and it's not surprising that 1989 saw tons of games from Bandai, Pony Canyon, Toei, and the like. Of course, it also saw more ambitious releases from Konami, Square and Kemco. Overall, aside from a few classics like Super Mario Land and Tetris, 1989 was not packed with memorable Game Boy titles.

However, in the world of the Famicom, April 1989 has one very memorable game from Technos. Fresh off the massive success of Double Dragon in the arcades, Technos produced the newest Kunio-kun/Nekketsu game, Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, aka River City Ransom.

Because River City Ransom is a highly regarded cult favorite, it's easy to overestimate the originality of Technos's concept. Back when you were some snot-nosed punk in 1990, the idea of a beat-em-up RPG must have blown your mind. But after having encountered one RPG-ish sidescrolling action game after another throughout the course of Chrontendo, RCR no longer feels quite as fresh. At it's core, RCR is not that much different than Chester Field.

What Technos did create was an experience that is much more enjoyable than all those other cruddy games. Combat, in particular, is much more engrossing, what with all of RCR's punches, kicks, blocks, throws, and chain-whippings. We all love such bits of dialog as "Mamaaa!" "Welcome to your worst nightmare!" and, best of all, "BARF!" Add in the great music and that fact that RCR is a much more polished experience than the sometimes brutally unfair Double Dragon, and you get a stone cold classic.

Holy Diver is a diamond in the rough. Upon first glance, it is simply another Castlevania clone. A few minutes into the game and you'll realize it's an exercise in sadism aimed directly squarely at the player. I understand that that the life of a video game developer can be very difficult, particularly in Japan: insanely long hours, extreme pressure to work quickly, abusive bosses, destroyed marriages, low pay.... I assume that one day Irem's employees decided to funnel all that rage and frustration into a game and direct it back at their own customers. "It's all your fault for buying these games! Every time a game sells well, they want us to make one that sells better.  Now most nights I sleep under my desk. Why didn't I listen to my father and become an accountant!"

A classic example of misdirected hostility.
I got sick and tired of Holy Diver and gave up on the second to last level. If you want to someone play all the way through, check for videos online. I recommend the tear-stained playthough by Bangaa. You can almost feel his neurons frying in this thing. Also, please note that I decided against using Dio's "Holy Diver" as the intro music for this game. I thought that was a little too obvious.

What else is good in Episode 44?

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend

Dragons vs Aliens! At last!
 Dragon Spirit turned up in Chronturbo 2 in a pretty faithful port. The NES version lacks graphical fidelity, but is much more fun to play. Why? A shrunken hit box, for one. Also, more power-ups and a generous lifebar. Toss in some animated cutscenes, and we've got a pretty cool shoot-em-up.

Aoki Ookami to Shiroki Mejika: Genghis Khan

The only videogame (that I know of) whose title refers to inter-species sexual relations. But hey, it's Japan, right? At least it doesn't involve tentacles. Anyway, Genghis Khan is Toei's second epic historical strategy game on the Famicom. It's really just Romance of the Three Kingdoms with Mongols instead of Chinese warlords. Also, it's way better than the other military simulation game this episode.

The Bad:

A Week of Garfield

This screenshot should clear up any doubts you had about the quality of this game.
A classic piece of kusoge from Towachiki and the mysterious Mars Corp. Moby Games describes Mars as a "game design think tank" run by Shoji Masuda. Though very little thought must have been put into this game.  Stupid looking enemies, unfair deaths, awful sound effects, too many hidden items, and levels consisting mostly of randomly placed platforms -- Garfield commits just about every cardinal sin of platformer game design.

Taboo: The Sixth Sense

Did Rare literally just string together random words?
Rare's most infamous game, after Battletoads. Taboo is the second tarot card simulation we've seen for the Famicom; the first being Tarot Uranai from December 1988. The tarot card designs in Taboo are much less interesting than those in the earlier game, but Rare sweetens the deal with a bit of nudity and a lucky number generator. You have to chose the state you live in to get your lucky numbers. Too bad only around half the 50 states are listed. As a bonus, the writing in Taboo is so nonsensical that some online reviewers have assumed it was developed in Japan and then poorly translated into English. Also, doesn't "sixth sense" refer to ESP? Which has nothing to do with tarot cards? But then the game itself implies its fortune telling abilities are a form of time travel!? The guys are Rare must have either been on some serious drugs or just didn't give a shit.


This picture might be NSFW. I'm not sure.
Now here is a real ESP game! Mindseeker is based on the Japanese spoonbending psychic/entertainer Masuaki Kiyota. It makes you guess at Zener cards and other tests of psychic powers.

The indifferent:

Devil Man

HA! HA! That is pretty funny, dude.
A manga based action platformer from Namco, and developed by ISCO.  You'll remember those guys from Seikima II (the Japanese glam rock band game) and Transformers: The Mystery of Comvoy. Devil Man is better than those two games, so I guess ISCO is showing some progress.

Dragon Buster II: Yami no Fuuin

Namco's Dragon Buster was a pioneering game in the sidescrolling action genre.  It received a Famciom port in early 1987, and now a console-exclusive sequel.  Namco and Tose give it a very superficial Zelda-esque facelift, but it's still too repetitive to be of much interest.

Adventures of Lolo

A US-only compilation of levels from the previously released Eggerland games. As far as I know, there is nothing new here, aside from a spiffy opening animation. HAL must have liked the name, since all future games in the series, both American and Japanese, were released under the Adventures of Lolo moniker.


You are armed human beings fighting pigs. This should not be so difficult!
Another military simulation game from Soft Pro, the makers of 19: Neunzehn. Fairytale uses the same infuriating combat system as the earlier title.

Keiba Simulation: Honmei

Four words: horse racing simulation game. Does this sound enticing? Probably not.

I've also added a little best game/worst game segment at then end of the episode, as per a suggestion made by a commenter. Next up on our schedule will be Chronturbo 3. 1989 is when the pace of releases for the PC Engine really starts picking up. Hell, in one month, June, there were more Japanese releases for the PC Engine than there were for the Famicom. We probably won't see that happen again for a while.

For now you can check out Chrontendo Episode 44 on Archive or Youtube.


Knurek said...

Thanks for the Game Boy write-up, looking forward to watching it once I get back from work. New Chrontendo episode is always a joyful occasion.

There are a few other good GB games that were released in 1989 that still hold up even today - Castlevania: The Adventure and Final Fantasy Legend (although the latter wasn't released in the US till late 1990).

Incidentally, you can listen to all of the Game Boy games (up to early 1991 so far, but adding new ones daily) on Portable Music History. It's no Chrontendo, since it only focuses on sound but it should make a nice addition to the chronogaming family, I hope. :)

Raffa said...

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy, Joy!!!
Thanks Dr for the joy you bring to us all on this gloomy Monday morning ^_^

Helm said...

Excellent episode. Always a pleasure to watch new Chrontendo eps. Thank you for your hard work.

re: Holy Diver

It's the sort of game where I watch the footage and the first thing that comes to mind is 'you're playing it wrong'. I mean no offense with this, I know it's a very grating thing to read, especially after completing the damn thing. Watching people play it on youtube, like this guy:

Who is not tool-assisting it, some of my suspicions seem to perhaps be founded. Games with respawning enemies (which are generally annoying, I agree) should be approached in an 'always be running' mode. The difficulty in planning a route where, when you always run, you might run INTO trouble, is less than the difficulty of playing the game very patiently and having to deal with respawning enemies. What I mean by this is that if Holy Diver is kind of cruel to advancing players, it's the kind of cruel that it has DESIGNED itself to be. But the kind of cruelty in store for timid players is beyond the scope of even programmers. As the patterns of respawn are not deterministic (they're depended on when you kill enemies so the timer goes off for them to respawn) the combinations you're setting yourself up for if you dally are not forseen. You're making it harder on yourself.

Also, the dude playing this on youtube turns mr. Ronnaey James Dio blue for a charged shot. I didn't notice that in your video, perhaps it wasn't in the edit? Where you aware of this mechanic. Doesn't seem to make the game much easier.

I kind of want to play Holy Diver, though. It's the standout game from the episode for me.

Helm said...

Ah, I see (playing it). That's magic, not a charged shot. My prediction is you have to use the right magic at the exact spots every time in this game, it's going to be very Memorex-dependent.

Chalgyr said...

Some very good thoughts in there - River City Ransom... that's a game I haven't heard anything about in ages. I loved that title though. I think one of my favorite surprises has to have been when Billy & Jimmy show up in the school - complete with music. Fun little Double Dragon reference tucked in there.

killias2 said...

"Games with respawning enemies (which are generally annoying, I agree) should be approached in an 'always be running' mode."

I can't speak to Holy Diver because, though I've played it, I never made any serious attempt to beat it. I just saw the name, cracked up, and played it for 5-10 minutes.

However, this is -certainly- true for Ninja Gaiden, which, in an earlier review, got a bad rap. Ninja Gaiden certainly has weaknesses, but the controls are about as tight as they come on the NES/famicom; the music is brilliant; and the respawning enemies and lack of technical platforming -is part of the game design.-

Ninja Gaiden 2, for example, is much more of a platformer than Ninja Gaiden 1, but it's also less of an action game. Think about all the time in NG2 you just sit and wait for something to happy. "Oh, I need the right wind." "Oh, I need to be able to see." Also, the dual-layer platforming results in more complex levels and "modern" game design. However, it also lowers tension and completely takes away from the frenetic run-as-quickly-as-you-can-to-the-right nature of the first game.

NG2 is a great game, but I'm honestly of the opinion that the first is better. The only unambiguous improvement is easier wall-climbing, but that's no issue to anyone who has played NG1 a few times. Sure, it was unfair to have players replay the last levels in NG1, but NG2 was only slightly better. The last level in NG2, IMO, is harder than the last levels of NG1, even if the game is much easier overall.

In general, the second game just doesn't have the design focus of the first, even if it seems more in keeping with the Mega Mans and Castlevanias and such. The first created a sense of speed, perfection, tension, and insanity. Once you get good, you actually -feel- like a ninja. I just don't think the second does that nearly as well.

Anonymous said...

Keep on keepin' on, Dr. S. You are probably the very best games-related personality going right now.

ShaneWM said...

Love this series! :D

The Professor said...

Another fantastic episode Dr. S! I do feel like I should mention that the MKV file I watched always had the audio out of sync. Not sure if the problem was on my end (though, I can't remember another time that a MKV has gone out of sync) but I thought I'd mention it in case anyone else had the same problem.

drunkmessiah said...

I love you dr sparkle. real talk!

klarthailerion said...

The Game Boy segment was great... it's amazing to me how many of those first year releases my cousins had (I didn't have a Game Boy myself).

GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Loved the Gameboy stuff--that was my first real game system, and it really brings me back. Sword of Hope may well be nearly forgotten, but man oh MAN did I play the shit out of that game. It's actually quite fun when you get into it, though later enemies can get pretty brutal. One question: the version of Tetris you're playing. That music is NOT any music in the version that I played for many many hours. Were there multiple versions? Was the US release different? Why would they change the music? What gives?

Doctor Sparkle said...

Helm, you are exactly right about Holy Diver requiring a lot of memorization and trial and error. There are many instances of needing to know exactly when and were an enemy is going to appear and what sort of weapon you should use to kill it. A good example is at 1:09, when you enter a room and a huge snake enemy appears and you must instantly kill it using either Thunder or Over Drive. And it must be positioned in a spot where you can reach the item it drops after dying. Anyone would screw up a couple times at first. The whole game feels like that: you need to have a pre-planned strategy for every room. Ninja Gaiden, at least gave you some wiggle room. Holy Diver is a great game that slowly broke down my desire to play it. You should give it a try.

Helm said...

Yes. It broke me too. I played the first four levels legit, but then went through the game with savestates to verify the sort of design it's going going for it and it really is the sort of game that requires daily practice and memorization to beat. I'm not knocking that, I've finished Dodonpatchi after a decade of playing it, but it took a decade because I played it sporadically and because I enjoyed it. Holy Diver's fine, it just doesn't inspire that sort of commitment.

Rodneylives said...

On River City Ransom being the best game Techno Japan made for the Famicom, that distiction may actually belong to the whimsical and charming Suguro Quest.

Anonymous said...

You know what game that Dragon Buster sequel is really like? The first AD&D game for the Intellivision.

matt.mcneely said...

I enjoyed the best/worst segment at the end; it's a nice way of capping off the video. The Game Boy bonus content was awesome as well. Also, did I detect a bit of AVGN influence sneaking into your segment on A Week of Garfield? The level of ire in your voice as well as the various scatological references made me think of the Nerd.

Kevin "k8track" Moon said...

Just to confirm what Anonymous #2 said (I came here to post just that and he/she beat me to it), Dragon Buster 2 is very much without a doubt a direct graphical update of AD&D: Cloudy Mountain for Intellivision. I recognized it immediately, right down to the layout and shape of the dungeons and how they are revealed one section at a time, the ricocheting arrows, the paucity of monsters and being able to hear them just offscreen, the overworld, and the cloudy mountain being your final objective!

I guess whether Dragon Buster 2 is a good game or not depends on the prism through which you look at it. It would definitely be a snoozer by today's standards. I imagine that most gamers in 1989 would have been fairly disappointed by it, having been accustomed to more action-filled and complex stuff on the NES. If you're an Intellivision enthusiast like me, however, you might think it's rather cool and warmly regard the clearly intentional homage.

Chipacabra said...

Coming in a bit late, but I'm pretty sure the reason that Taboo only gave you lucky numbers for 24 states is that those were the states that had a big lottery at the time. That's why the minimum and maximum number changes by state; those were the possible numbers in the respective lotteries.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Chipacabra - That actually sounds like a pretty reasonable explanation. Its better than my "Brits don't know how many states are in the US" theory.