Sunday, June 24, 2012

Miracle of Almana - NES Reproduction

Last weekend, I went to Too Many Games in Oaks, Pennsylvania. I wrote about the 2011 edition, and there's not much more I can say other than I bought video games and saw Brental Floss perform, who is entertaining. This post is actually about a special reproduction cart that was only being sold there - a cartridge version of Miracle of Almana.

This is the English title for a game we've covered in the past, known under its original Japanese title of Almana no Kiseki. (Technically it's "Arumana no Kiseki", but that sounds silly.) It was only released for the Famicom Disk System in Japan around 1987 by Konami, but was passed over for US release. This was probably due to Nintendo's licensing restrictions forcing them to only release the cream of the crop, and Almana no Kiseki isn't terribly good. Yet it's a game I have a weakness for, mostly because it's such a transparent ripoff of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, plus the soundtrack, provided by Castlevania's Kinuyo Yamashita, is excellent. And also because it's an early implementation of a grappling hook-style mechanic, even though here it's weird and doesn't really follow any semblance of sensible physics.

It was $50, and I already own the FDS version, but I'm a sucker for Konami, so I went for it. Above is what was included in the package - they took the FDS art and remade it in the grey box fashion of Konami games from the era, made a new logo, and assembled a neat package. There's still some weird stuff about it, though. The cartridge was clearly reused from another game and wasn't exactly the cleanest. The cardboard has a different feel, as does the manual, which is, surprisingly, in color. As you can see from the above shot, the color is SLIGHTLY off from other Konami games, although I'm not sure if that fading is due to age on the other boxes. It also came from a poster, a replication of a Japanese advertisement, though it was separate from the main packaging. I have mine rolled off somewhere, likely to be never found again.

What I was most curious about it was actually playing it. Most reproductions like these are simply ROM dumps - translations or other hacks. On the other hand, Miracle of Almana was originally a Famicom Disk System game, which means someone had to go through the trouble of getting it working on a cartridge. I'm actually really interested in how this was done - did it need to be hacked to use a memory mapper or something? Could any readers provide any answers? - but details on who actually did this seem to be scant. Anyway, there's no real text in the game other than the title screen, which is shown with a new logo in the above picture. There does seem to be a bit of glitchiness in the status bar whenever you switch weapons, that I don't recall being there originally, but the game itself was always kinda shoddily programmed anyway.

The other thing I was concerned about is how it would transfer over the extra FM synth from the Disk System version, since they aren't supported on cartridges (or any non-Japanese Nintendo system, for that matter.) Normally the music would have to be reprogrammed to use one of the standard square or triangle wave channels, so how much effort would these hackers put into this reproduction? As it turns out, there wasn't any effort at all. The extra sound channels are simply missing with nothing to take their place. It might not sound too bad if you're not familiar with the original music, but it was pretty heartbreaking.

It's neat to have around, I guess, though $50 is a bit much, even though that's about the going price for any old full packaging reproduction nowadays. It'll be good to have around for whenever the belt in my Twin Famicom goes, even though it's an inferior version.

Friday, June 22, 2012

21 June - Wonder Project J, Kolibri, City of Lost Children, Holy Diver, Soulless, GOTW, Tec Toy, iOS, Genocide, Aquario of the Clockwork

Wonder Project J is something of a rare charmer - a duo of Japan-only "life sims" where you teach a robot boy and a robot girl how to interact with humans. Toss in a slight Ghibli aesthetic and it's a fascinating set of games, both of which have thankfully be fan translated. Kolibri is one of the few notable titles on the 32X, having been developed by Novotrade, the same folks behind the Ecco the Dolphin series. History will forever know it "arguably the best hummingbird-based shooter for the 32X", according to Penny Arcade, and while that bit reduces the game to a punchline, it's actually quite a good game, one of the rarities that show off the 2D power of Sega's neglected add-on. City of Lost Children is a sort-of adventure game similar to Alone in the Dark based on the 1995 movie by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, which is not a fantastic game, but nonetheless a unique one. Holy Diver, one of the most ridiculously difficult action-platformers on the Famicom, starring a character that's practically a Trevor Belmont palette swap. And Soulless is a rather brilliant retro throwback, legitimately developed for and playable on Commodore 64 computers.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

199X Dispatch - Forever Munching Quarters

See those green blobs? That's why you're dead.
Nowadays we use the adjective "quarter-munchy" to describe any retro game that (1) allows players to continue playing so long as they keep feeding credits into the machine, and (2) is extra difficult for that reason.

But there's kind of an understanding here, between quarter-munchers and quarter-possessors: keep playing and you will see something new; play even longer, and you might even get good at this. Beat-em-Ups were, by this standard, the pinnacle of quarter-munchery. The best games in that genre made sure to do something new and nifty in every stage.

The original Gauntlet games, however, are the black-hearted demigods of the arcade. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

When I selected Gauntlet II for this month's experimental "live challenge" I was remembering the fun times I had with the NES port as a kid. This version is somewhat fair AND it supports four players. I now realize that it was, without a doubt, the finest version of classic Gauntlet ever released in any format.

But Gauntlet II, it seems, is no Gauntlet II. It's the Anti-Fun. Here's why:

A Dollar Menu History of Cooking Games

Ever played Cooking Mama? I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer is yes; after all, the franchise has, at last report, sold over 16 million copies. It’s not exactly the most “hardcore” of games, but there’s no denying that it’s at least reasonably fun. (Not to mention hilarious, if you suck enough at it.) But of all the things Cooking Mama is, there is one important thing that it isn’t: a first. Cooking Mama might be popular around the modern family video gamer, but it’s far from being the progenitor of the cooking genre. The fact is, cooking games have been around pretty much since the very dawn of video gaming as we know it.

For purposes of clarification, it’s a very specific category of game that I’m (briefly) covering here. Burger Time doesn’t count, because making the food is compounded by obstacles like enemies. Diner Dash doesn’t count, because you have no part in actually making the food. And Pizza Tycoon also doesn’t count, because it’s arguably more about managing the restaurant finances than it is about making the food. The primary focus of the game should be making the food to order, and little or nothing else. So that also means nothing based tangentially on a food mascot license, either (I’ll leave that in Bobinator’s hands, honestly).

Pressure Cooker

So we start pretty much at the beginning, with Activision’s Pressure Cooker for the Atari 2600. This is one of my all-time favorite Atari games, and that catchy theme song is only half the reason. The other half is the utter insanity of the concept: you’re a fast food chef, and your job is to assemble burgers according to orders on the bottom of the screen. Except you aren’t just grabbing toppings out of bins like a normal chef; instead, you are in a room with a conveyor belt and five cannons that fire the toppings at you. You catch a topping simply by facing it while it is in flight. If the topping hits you in the face, back, or conveyor belt, it explodes, and you lose one of your 50 performance points. The performance points are basically this game’s equivalent of lives; you lose only one for dropping a topping, but you lose a lot more if you do things like put more than one of the same topping on the same burger, or let a burger drop off the conveyor belt, or try to deliver the burger down the wrong chute. It goes without saying that running out of performance points results in the game ending. They go fast, too, since the toppings fired at you do not necessarily correspond to the orders on the screen. Death is inevitable. Sometimes the game absolutely will not fire the correct topping at you. Such is the limit of video gaming in the early 1980’s.

Short Order

Moving on from Pressure Cooker is the NES game Short Order/Eggsplode!. We’re really more interested in the Short Order half of the game, as Eggsplode! (the alternate game you get if you flip the Power Pad over) is really just a foot-controlled Whack-A-Mole clone. This is one of those NES games that requires the Power Pad, Bandai’s attempt to get gamers to exercise more. Short Order is simple in concept. You are given a sandwich order, and you must assemble it perfectly to order by stomping on the correct buttons on the Power Pad. Honestly, a game like this is really not very fun when playing in a modern emulator, since the game is deliberately simplified to make up for how relatively unwieldy the Power Pad is compared to a traditional controller. It’d probably be much more fun - and more prone to human error - to play with one’s feet.

Ore no Ryouri

Dialing the Time Machine forward a handful of years, we have a Japan-only Playstation release by the name of Ore no Ryouri, which I’m told translates into “I’m the Chef!” This game gained a small cult following in the States after the Japanese demo was hidden away on a Playstation Underground demo disc. It is one of the few Playstation games to require the Dual Shock controller to play, because the preparation of each dish (and all other tasks for that matter) involves a unique minigame involving the use of both analog sticks. Pouring a glass of beer, for example, is more than just sticking the mug under the spout and pouring. You are actually expected to make sure that the beer has a good head, by tilting the glass with one stick while adjusting the spout pressure with the other. Chopping meat and vegetables requires you to move your hand with one stick and the knife with the other, and it’s entirely possible to accidentally cut yourself. Being a Japanese game, most of the dishes are decidedly Japanese in origin, like ramen and soba. I am told that there is a more modern Wii-based version available called Order Up!, but I have not played it.

Ore no Ryomi 2

While that game never got an English release, a Game Maker developer going by the name Mr. Chubigans released two games based on it, entitled “Ore no Ryomi” (which I’m told translates into nothing at all) and made not as a straight remake of the game, but as an interpretation of a magazine preview for it. While they bear amateurish graphics and music borrowed heavily from other games (and Hollywood film scores), the gameplay carries over to the keyboard input quite nicely, at times feeling more like a typing tutor game than a game about cooking, but as you purchase the supplies for more dishes to cook, your restaurant becomes more and more crowded, and the game becomes more hectic. This game was quickly followed up with a more featureful sequel, whose graphics are now 100% drawn by the author, as opposed to being screenshot rips from the Playstation game...for better or worse. The game is still available to download for free at Vertigo Gaming. (Hey, do me a favor while you’re there, pester the guy to make a third game, will you? =P)

Taco Joe

A lot of cooking games are actually not of the sort you can stick in a game console. Many are actually browser-based, but are not any worse for it. Back when games in browser windows were actually starting to become a thing, there was a Shockwave game by the name of Taco Joe (originally hosted at, now taking refuge throughout the rest of the Net, like here at I-Am-Bored). In this one, you basically work up a rhythm as taco shells scroll by on a conveyor belt. You aren’t working with different order types; all you need to do is make sure that every taco that passes gets one of every ingredient, and that you send the taco to the correct window (don’t try sending the taco to a window with no customer). In practice, it’s much harder than it sounds, especially with the need to kill cockroaches while you’re adding ingredients. The goal in each level is to make enough money (by giving customers complete tacos - you get no money if you forget an ingredient) to bribe the health inspector to let you stay in business.

Papa’s Pancakeria

A personal favorite among the browser-based games is the Papa’s series on Kongregate, by Flipline Studios. They aren’t in any particular order, but each one focuses on a different kind of restaurant. Papa’s Pizzeria obviously deals with pizza, but there are sequels involving pancakes, hamburgers, ice cream, and tacos. These are all made to order, naturally, but instead of being a strictly pass/fail thing like all the other games above, the Papa’s games will actually grade you in a percentage, based on how accurate you were with the various steps of the order, from how well-cooked the meat was, to the distribution of toppings (the rating won’t be as good if you just stack a lot of pepperoni on one side instead of spreading it) and how long it actually took you to get the order ready. Better ratings actually dictate how much money you make for each dish sold, which admittedly doesn’t work so well in real life (though I admit, I would love to see a pay-what-you-want burger joint).

Cooking Mama

And then we end up right back where we started, with the Cooking Mama series. Really, there isn’t much actual game to Cooking Mama. You are graded on the “quality” of your final dish, which does give you various medals (so you can brag to your friends that you got a gold medal on...popcorn?), but you generally aren’t pressured for time, and failing any of the individual steps of a dish just has Mama throw it away and do it herself. Where’s the “game”? Once you’ve cooked every dish, where’s the replay value? Why bother going back and making a dish again? Why is it that this game, as a series, has sold 16 million copies, while nobody really talks about the likes of Pressure Cooker or Taco Joe, despite them being better at being games?

Or maybe I’m just looking at this too hard?

Whatever the case, though, I would love to see more games about making food. We have yet to see games where you run a catering business, or games where you run a soup kitchen (there’s ripe material for one of those “Serious Games,” there)...

There’s one other idea, though, and I’d love to see a game developer roll with this one. You and your opponent are both chefs on opposite sides of a kitchen arena. You are each tasked with making various types of pies to throw at your opponent. Each pie has its own strengths, weaknesses, and individual traits - for example, a cream pie is quick and easy to make, but isn’t very “damaging,” but a lemon meringue pie takes longer and requires more precision in each step, but takes a lot out of your foe’s energy bar if it hits - but both chefs are not exactly stationary targets, as they dash between the different stations for making crust, filling, etc., so when a chef is aiming a pie, they need to be patient. Perhaps one could throw in a Scorched Earth sort of thing, too, where you need to adjust the angle and power of your throw in order to actually hit the opponent, giving you a reason to cook up lots of cream pies to use to gauge your throw for a costlier pie.

At this point I have to wonder if I’m actually this crazy, that I’m dreaming up ideas for fighting games involving pie.

(edit on 6/22/2012: when copying the blog post from my google docs account, i forgot to include the hyperlinks.)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Aquario of the Clockwork - Source Code Found

In our recent interview with Westone founder Ryuichi Nishizawa, we inquired about their cancelled game Aquario of the Clockwork (also known under its Japanese name, Tokei Jikake no Aquario / 時計じかけのアクワリオ). He pondered whether players would be interested in playing this long lost game, potentially as part of a Sega Vintage Collection. After the interview, Nishizawa delved into his company's archives and discovered the source code. It would be fascinating if this title were finally published after nearly twenty years, but precious little is actually known about the game. (The screenshot above is the only one currently in existence on the internet.) In this post, I've assembled all information currently in English about this game, in hopes to generate some interest. Most of this is taken from this Lost Levels forum post, with the interviews translated thanks to Johnny Undaunted.

An image from the Aquario source, posted on Nishizawa's Twitter account

Aquario of the Clockwork was developed in 1992/1993 and was to be the last arcade game by Westone. There were some location tests held in Ueno and Shinjuku, but the game tested poorly, and the release was cancelled. Any notes around this time seem to blame it on the popularity of Street Fighter II, wherein any game that wasn't a 2D versus fighter was left in the dust.
According to an interview with composer Shinichi Sakamoto:

It was going to be similar to Monster Lair. It was going to be a forced side-scrolling game, but with a bit of a cooperative multiplayer mode. It was originally going to be a 2-player game, but then we decided to add a third player as well. The three characters consisted of a boy (named Hack Rondo), a girl (Elle Moon), and a robot (Gash). The method of attack was by stomping on enemies and then grabbing them to throw them out. Oh, I think you could even catch enemies thrown by other players as well or something like that. You could even head butt thrown enemies thrown at you.

Most of the other notes are thanks these notes from a Japanese gamer that were posted a few years back:
*June 14, 1993

My first impressions of the game were simply that it was "pretty and cute". I imagine this feedback must had been quite difficulty for Westone to accept, as they were pretty aware that they weren't making much of an impression as a game company at that point. 

Aquario was a Super Mario Bros.-type side-scrolling action game. The controls originally consisted of three action buttons ("throw", "jump" and "invincibility").

Enemies are attacked first by jumping over them, rendering them unconscious. When the player moves towards an unconscious enemy, he automatically picks it up. At this point the player can throw the enemy by pressing the throw button. Enemies that are thrown flies off in a single horizontal line and are defeated by flying off-screen or being bashed to a wall. Thrown enemies can be used to knock other enemies unconscious as well. Moreover, by holding the joystick upwards, enemies can be thrown to the top of the screen as well. 

Pressing the invincibility button makes the player invincible to enemies for a brief period. In the upper portion of the screen, there's an invincibility gauge underneath the score display and when it reaches zero, the player's invincibility will wear off. The gauge can be replenished by picking up items. 

The key to the exit of each stage is kept by a sub-boss. By defeating the sub-boss, the player can obtain the key and use it to enter the boss' lair. Each boss can be defeated by jumping over him repeatedly or by throwing his henchmen to him. The boss of the first stage in this version was a crab.
The game featured a 2-hit points per life system similar to Ghosts 'n Goblins and Midnight Wanderers, in which getting hit once would make the player's clothes look tattered, and then getting hit a second time would make him lose a life. The player's clothes can be restored by picking up a health power-up. 

* Impressions of the June 14 version. 

This version was really difficult. I couldn't defeat the crab boss after several plays. It was a pretty difficult experience for novice players, since enemies move quickly and a lot of fake-outs are used by them. The invincibility button was difficult to use as well. Because it was difficulty to predict what kind of dangers would face in these kinds of action games, getting through them was simply a matter of "pressing the button on time". There were also unfair trap placement as well, such as the snapping trap in Stage 1. The game was still unfinished at the time, as there were bugs such as glitched text display during the playing instructions at the start of the game. However, the colorful graphics really caught my attention.

A revised version of the game was shown a few months later retooling the invincibility mechanics:
*August 15, 1993

Another location test for Aquario was held, this time in the comic book shop near the Spo-Lan in Shinjuku Nishiguchi. The content of the game were greatly altered since the last location test, to the point that the game was almost completed.

The number of action buttons was reduced to only two (punch and jump). This time, invincibility is only provided by a power-up item for a limited period (similar to the Starman in Super Mario Bros.). The invincibility gauge was replaced with a 1UP gauge that gives player an extra life when filled and it seems enemies are now defeated by knocking them unconscious with a punch, moving onto the unconscious enemy, and then throwing them. It was also possible to defeat enemies by simply punching an unconscious enemy further until he disappears. Since players were irritated that they were unable to defeat enemies quickly in the June 14 version, the resulting changes in this version made the game easier to play in longer periods. Perhaps because of this, the game was still deemed unsafe to release to the market just yet.

This makes it all sound rather fascinating. It seems to be sort of a spiritual descendant of Monster Lair, and the mechanics make it out to be something like a Treasure title. Plus, Westone has some amazing artists. Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's Trap/Monster World II for the Master System and Monster World IV for the Mega Drive have some of the most outstanding art and animation on their respective platforms, so imagine how fantastic this must've looked on the Sega System 18 board, which featured games like Moonwalker and Shadow Dancer.

So, as Nishizawa warns, he's not sure if all of the necessary files are included in the disk he found (or which revision of the game was contained). And while there was some interest bandied about by Sega producer Yousuke Okunari (who helmed up the excellent PS2 Sega Ages collection and the recent Sega Vintage Collection) and M2 president Naoki Horii (who develops the emulators for these collections), Okunari also warns that nothing is set in stone as far as production.

So assuming the source code is complete enough and it can be ported, what we can do to support the release of this game? Well, for starters, vote with your dollars and purchase the Monster World Vintage Collection games on the XBLA, PSN and Wii Virtual Console. (Just buy all of them in general, in fact - we could certainly use more of them in general, they're fantastic collections.) If you have Twitter, respond to Nishizawa's tweet and retweet it. (Some responses can be found here.) And join the Monster World Fan Page on Facebook, and write on the wall. Nishizawa reads and responds to the posts, so he is definitely listening to any feedback! There is also a thread on NeoGAF discussing its release.

If you want to support it in a roundabout way, also check out the downloadable soundtrack at EGG music, which was released a few years ago. Although the site supports English, getting it work properly is difficult (it kept removing the item from my shopping cart so I left it in Japanese.) It does allow Paypal, so it is possible to purchase for anyone outside of Japan. Due to network constraints I had to download the tracks one-by-one though - the site is not terribly intuitive. The music is composed by Shinichi Sakamoto, who also worked on most of the Wonder Boy games. It is a bit pricey though - the current exchange rate puts it at a bit under $25 US. I ponied up the cash, and while it's not amazing, it's still quite catchy. There are some samples there - it has more in common with his Monster Lair music than any of the Monster World games, with a distinct dance/house flavor to most of the tracks, but they're decent enough, and the included bonus arrangements are quite good.

An illustration of Elle Moon, drawn by the original artist, Mina Morioka

It's a little hard to drum up hype for this game since so little is known about it, but hopefully some more assets will be released in the future, and perhaps a future Sega Vintage Collection will feature Aquario of the Clockwork (perhaps it would be nice bundled with the rest of the Wonder Boy games...?) After all, there's been a revival of retro-style games in the past few years - why not release an authentic game from the time period?

A Review of The Zeroes - A Novel

A few months ago, in that sidebar to the right, I stuck an Amazon advertisement for a book called The Zeroes. It is by Patrick Roesle, better known as Pitchfork, who wrote the excellent Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy series, part of which was published at HG101 and all of which was published over at He also did the Darkstalkers article from several years back. Thematically, this book has little to do with video games, though I suspect it may have much to do with the generation of people who grew up playing them.

The summary on Amazon is a little scant, so here's the gist of it - The Zeroes follows an unnamed, everyman narrator through the course of roughly a decade, from his high school graduation around the year 2000 through the year 2009. Much of this time is spent working retail at the local mall and chasing his dreams of becoming a comic illustrator. This does not work out well for him. Much of the time is spent hanging out with his friends, whom also have similar aspirations, mostly as part of the band scene, and who are similarly failing. There is a narrative arc, of course - one might say it's a coming of age tale, as well as a period piece of the early 21st century. I've also seen it described as a "slice of life" story, because that's largely how the narrative operates. But that term is usually reserved for cute or uplifting tales, of which The Zeroes is neither.

For all of the anti-Occupy Wall Street and bootstrap bullshit rhetoric slung around by Republicans and Randians alike (is there even a difference nowadays in American politics?), very little focus is placed on the psychological wellbeing of our generation. It's absolutely depressing, is what it is. In times of prosperity, we were brought up to follow of our dreams. Media consumption has exploded in the last few decades - movies, music, video games - and we want to be a part of it. If some of the random shmucks that encompass "professional" artistry can make it (Rob Liefeld is specifically called out), then why can't we? Of course, reality doesn't really work like that - the medals for winners are limited - and at some point or another, people learn to compromise and either give up their dreams or temper them. But with the economic problems brought up by 9/11, worsened severely by the financial crisis of 2008, makes even compromising difficult. All that's left are retail jobs, paying wages which make it practically impossible to survive, despite the strawman that the spoiled youth largely waste their purported wealth on iPads or whatever.

The Zeroes is about trying to make it in that landscape, of dealing with not only struggling to survive, but also an equally distressing concept - the idea of a life lived in failure. The world moves forward, whether you want it to or not, and it's all too easy to get let behind just meeting the day-to-day needs of food and shelter. It gets pretty terrible watching that happen around you. It's written so that months pass within the span of a few sentences without anything much happening, capturing that feeling perfectly.

There's a lot I can relate to specifically about The Zeroes. Though the mall where most of the book takes place is not named, it's pretty obvious to anyone with a knowledge of North Jersey geography that it's the Rockaway Townsquare Mall. It's a place that I worked for nine months after graduating from college, during the general period where this book takes place, at one of the same stores (though the name is changed in the book). I was able to escape into a better paying job and financial independence, but those nine months were by far the worst period of my life - each day was filled with sort of an existential dread that you'll never escape the hole you've dug for yourself, with all potential you have just wasting away. (It was that mindset and desire to escape that inspired the creation of HG101, actually.) I consider myself lucky to get out, but this was also several years ago during slightly better economic times - today is harder still, and I still know several extremely talented people caught in the same awful place I once was. For those that are still in that spot, or those who ever have been, this book will resonate deeply.

At the same time, I'm not sure if anyone outside of our generation will really get it. Maybe they will be too old, and wonder why the narrator just doesn't go back to school, or try to get a better job. Of course, that's much easier said than done, especially with the self-defeating mindset that the retail world will pummel into you, but I get the feeling most people won't be able to truly understand it unless they've been there themselves. There are also plenty of references to bands or video games of the era, likely to provoke a sense of nostalgia, or at least to define the time period where they take place. And I was never particularly interested in the local music scene either, the culture of which also plays an fairly integral part of the novel. These are not necessarily negatives, though, as they are relatively superficial aspects of what is otherwise a shared generational experience for many.

It's also dark. Very dark. Pat's got a good sense of humor, if you've ever read his Final Fantasy pieces (I'd love to see a piece on Dragon Quest VII, were I not worried it would drive him to a more permanent form of alcoholism), but much of the book is incredibly bleak in its outlook. Any humor would likely seem out of place, but this is not a novel you read to feel good about things. Similarly, as mentioned before, video games are not a huge part of the story - there are many mentions of, say, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 or any other game the narrator and his friends like to play, but in general gaming is referred to in the same manner as alcohol or pot, a temporary distraction from the general awfulness of the world around.

Anyway, the Kindle version of The Zeroes is $7.50, and the hard copy (printed through Createspace, the same service I used for the adventure game book) is currently discounted at just over $10. It is rough, but it is worth reading.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

This Week on the J-PSN: Robotics;Notes demo

The PS3's region free access to any PSN, regardless of your location, is pretty great. For example, it lets you get free demos off the Japanese store, many of which are for games that will never come out here. Here's one that came out this week.

Robotics;Notes is the third visual novel from 5pb's 'science fiction' series, which began with Chaos;Head and continued with the time-travel adventure Steins;Gate.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Update 6/11 - Wonder Boy, interview with Westone founder Ryuichi Nishizawa, Game Club 199X Ep. 7, The Lost Vikings, Neo Turf Masters, Excelsior, Rocky Horror Show

Wonder Boy was one of the first articles on this site from back in 2004, and while it did an okay job parsing the series' rather confusing naming conventions, it was still kind of lacking compared to the articles we feature in 2012. I've rectified that now, having almost completely rewritten it to double its length, and conducted an interview with Ryuichi Nishizawa, one of the founding members of Westone, and one of the main developers behind nearly the entire series. It's always been one of my favorites, particularly Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap for the SMS, and this chat elucidates some of the more intriguing aspects of the series. For example, in most of the non-Sega ports of the games, the name "Wonder Boy" was removed from the title and the characters were changed. We long thought that this was due to licensing issues with Sega, but nope - most of these versions were actually developed by Hudson, who refused to comment on their alterations. Close one mystery door, open another.

Three of the games were recently released on the Wii, XBLA and PSN as part of the Sega Vintage Collection, which is absolutely imperative that you purchase - while it's unfortunately missing the The Dragon's Trap, it does contain the previously unreleased English version of the Monster Land arcade game, as well as a brand new translation of the also previously unreleased Mega Drive game, Monster World IV, which is one of the most gorgeous titles on the system. Coincidentally, Game Club 199X was playing the Monster Land titles this past month, and the seventh episode has been posted, featuring special guest Ray Barnholt, of Retronauts and Scroll Magazine, which is publishing its sixth issue very shortly. All of this taken together makes a rather brilliant Week of Wonder Boy.

Also featured this update is The Lost Vikings, an rather classic puzzle-platformer released by the folks who would eventually become Blizzard; Neo Turf Masters, an arcade golf game from the makers of Metal Slug; and Excelsior, a duo of 90s shareware titles heavily influenced by the classic Ultima series. Your Weekly Kusoge is The Rocky Horror Show, just a bad idea in general, for a number of British computers.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Xbox 360 RROD repair

Old model of 360 has RROD? Reckon it’s dead for good? Not really. I did the X-Clamp repair and it’s surprisingly easy! Actually, I’m astonished it worked at all, and how easy it was to do.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Gaming in Thailand (courtesy of HCK)

Even though I no longer update the Games of the World section on HG101, that doesn't mean interesting things aren't happening around the world. This photo, of an "arcade" in Thailand comes from GameFAN's Facebook page, courtesy of Charlie Maib, aka HCK, of Studio Happy Chicken Pink. I'm sure you'll agree it's pretty cool! As he put said in the original entry: Hey everybody, HCK here in THAILAND (yeah, I get around). While walking around the city of Pattaya, I stumbled onto an arcade, and it's nothing like I've seen in Japan or the States. Every cabinet was running off modified PS2 units, and 95% of them didn't even work. The biggest game they had? Ultraman 3. Take a look. The cabinet in the middle is stuck on the BIOS configure screen -HCK

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Update 6/3 - Spacewar! Legacy, Zenko, Cobra Triangle, Engacho!, more iOS Shooters, Alex Kidd, and Guardians of the Hood

Spacewar! is one of the earliest known videos games in existence. Born of a PDP-1 mainframe, the consumer version was known as Computer Space, also known as the first arcade game. Derboo's massive seven page article covers not only the history of Spacewar! and Computer Space, but also its many clones and spin-offs, including a whole huge section devoted to Asteroids!, and its many clones and spinoffs. The influence of the series runs far and deep, and this article covers them almost all comprehensively.

Zenki was a fairly prolific manga and anime series in the mid-90s, spawning a number of video game entries, including one for the PC-FX. Cobra Triangle is a Rare-developed title for the NES where you pilot a rather daring speed boat, and also runs up against Battletoads (also of the same developer) as one of the most infuriating titles of the era. And Engacho! is an amusing gross-out puzzle game for the PlayStation and Wonderswan, featuring, at the very least, giant walking asses. The tenth installment of the iOS Shooters article includes reviews of Doodle Arcade Shooter, Jet Fighter Ace, Neocell Fighters Evolution and Mortal Skies 2, while our latest Metal Gear interview has a chat with Toshinari Oka, the programmer for Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake for the MSX2.

Sega has been releasing a slew of excellent Vintage Collection packs on the XBLA and PSN in the past few weeks, so out Spotlight Articles will be focusing on them for awhile. First up: Alex Kidd, who shows up bundled with Super Hang-On and Revenge of Shinobi on the XBLA for some reason, was Sega's old mascot before Sonic took over the reins. Your Weekly Kusoge is Guardians of the Hood, which has the bad sense to follow up on Pit Fighter, of all things.

Friday, June 1, 2012

AverMedia Game Capture HD review

A few weeks ago I bought AverMedia’s Game Capture HD box (about £120 delivered from Amazon). You plug your system into the box using the supplied Universal Component cable, plus the box into your TV via component cable, and then attach either a USB Flash Drive, a USB HardDrive, or install a mini HardDrive. Then you can either grab images or videos of your games, using the supplied remote control. It supports the PS3, PS2, Xbox 360, and Wii, and it’s actually rather brilliant!

Limp steps towards evolution - A review of Home

To be honest, I've bought Benjamin Rivers' Home without reading up on it much, mostly because of the "Old-School Collector's Edition". Not to have more fancy stuff lying around, but because I figured if an indie developer went through all the effort to produce maps and other feelies, they certainly would have put as much work and love into the game itself, right? Right?! Let's see...

(This review is the product of playing the game without having seen any of the goodies. The official home page recommends to wait for them to arrive, but as the Collector's Edition has already been sold out during the preorder phase, this is a moot point for anyone who might still be considering to buy the game, anyway.)

At the center of the Home stands a nameless guy who wakes up in an unknown house with a wounded leg. Just in the next room lies the mutilated corpse of a man. Trying to find his way out of the property, he soon stumbles over details about the house and its inhibitants, but also more gruesome facts and some unsettling connections to his own life.

The game calls itself "an unique horror adventure," and it sure draws on a lot of common horror tropes. The animations of opening doors from first-person view are known to anyone who has ever touched a classic Resident Evil game, and the whole game world is covered in darkness all the time, with the closest vicinity illuminated only thanks to the light of a lamp that is found all too conveniently just at the spot where the protagonist wakes. up There also is a handful of skillfully applied fake shock moments, like a cat jumping away as the player walks toward it, but the most essential element of horror - a sense of actual or imagined threat - is lacking entirely. The mechanics of the game make it clear very early on that dying is not an option, not the least because the game doesn't have any save function whatsoever.

Now that might sound terrible at first, but it's important to bear with Home at that point - a session of the game can easily be completed within an hour. (Don't worry about that short time frame, either. The digital download version costs no more than two bucks) The game sure could have done a better job at communicating this concept (after all it goes out of its way to tell players to turn off the lights and use headphones at the start), but the appeal of Home is the replay, to do things differently and see how they play out.

Most of the choices just consist of either taking certain items versus leaving them, or examining clues vs. missing them, but there are also a number of obstacles that can be passed in different ways, with the consequences sometimes determining how later situations have to be approached. In the beginning, for example, it's possible to jump down a broken ladder at the cost of the player character's hurt leg, but findign a different means to descend saves him the pain, preserving his agility.

There are no "wrong" decisions that make one get stuck, though. The changes are merely nuances in the narrative, and, ultimately, in what the player gets to know about what actually happened. Piecing together the clues found on the way (which the game mostly does for you in text summaries of each "chapter") is what Home is all about. It's clear a lot of work has been put into compiling alternative narratives to make decisions matter, but often the player has no clues whatsoever what kind or quality the consequences might be. With no proper fail- and success states and no logical framework to the choice-consequence structure, it becomes a matter of just limping through the game with whatever choices and then maybe get some other results by doing just the opposite the next time.

Also, at the end awaits a decision that just shouldn't be there, a twist that works less the more interactive your product is. It could have suceeded if gave things seen throughout the game a different meaning, but instead it caused many scenes to have no meaning at all. I really wish I could elaborate on this some more, but it's impossible without massive spoilers.

Unfortunately, Home is also plagued by a number of scripting bugs that spoil the narrative experience. In the most harmless cases, they're just annoying repetitions of text, but they can also cause plotholes to the current playthrough and confusion to the player. At the end of the first section, for example, the protagonist may voice his regret for not having picked up the gun he found, even when the player hasn't even examined the bar of pixels that constitute the weapon on-screen.

An often-made argument when discussing the merits of games is the claim that hi-tech graphics are not needed to make a compelling interactive experience. But in the case of Home, questions after the expressive power of blocky pixel graphics have to be raised. With the chosen look, gory views appear censored by default, causing a dissonance in any reactions the player can have and the disgusted descriptions of the protagonist. When hurting his leg worse, the protagonist seems to limp a little more (or is he? Might be just a psychological efect...), but otherwise animations are sparse, and he has no choice but to keep the same dopey look throughout the story, no matter what happens to him. This is not to say that it hasn't been that way in countless great classic games, but here they add to the conclusion that Home can never hope to get all that creepy.

The flashback-like narration of the protagonist appears in cut-away text panels, like in a silent movie. What sounds cool at first gets aggravating real fast, though, as they're painfully slow. The text scrolling can be skipped, but there's always a weird delay in the text appearing and the game cutting back to the main screen.

Regardless of its shortcomings, Home is a fine exercise in interactive storytelling and one can only hope that it gives other developers some hints in making the narrative the actual purpose of the game. It is not, however, a very good game. The official homepage quotes the Totally Rad Show praising the game as "King’s Quest meets Heavy Rain," but all it really would have inherited from King's Quest are the blocky visuals. The farthest extend of a "puzzle" are certain objects that are only found by holding the lamp aloft, or levers that have to be pulled more than once. While it might be true that the traditional approach to adventure game puzzles might not be the optimal way in telling an interactive story (as they almost invariably demand harebrained stories or a weird disconnect between game world and puzzles), but when there's really nothing "gamey" to replace them, the final product is not much different from a simple chose-your-own-adventure story. Author Benjamin Rivers is quoted on Adventure Gamers for his "desire for evolution in the adventure genre." He also talked about horror in games created by engaging the player on "that unique mental level," but he tries to do so mostly while ignoring video games' strongest tool to engange the player. Home does a honorable job in trying to make actual gameplay obsolete, in creating an interactive narrative that is engaging enough on its own, but in doing so it offers no true solutions to the old problem of marrying gameplay and story in a way that both can benefit from the union.