Judge Dredd and the absence of generic licensed fluff on consoles

As it often is, Friday is another video day on the Kim Justice channel — and today’s is about Judge Dredd, published by Acclaim and Probe in 1995 for the Mega Drive and SNES. The game is, of course, based primarily on the terrible 1995 movie adaptation of Dredd — y’know, the one with all the “I AM THE LAW” memes — and it isn’t what anyone would call good. It’s a generic piece of licensed rubbish, a side-scrolling affair with generic backgrounds from the movie, average controls, and nothing much interesting for the most part…you don’t see too many games like this anymore, which oddly enough is something that I rather miss about gaming these days.

Licensed games that tie-in with some popular star or movie or TV show etc. are one of my favourite subjects in gaming — even if the quality is often average, some games have their moments (plenty more are legitimately very good) and I love seeing how a studio translates something like a big action flick into a traditional video game. Unfortunately, these sort of games aren’t as common as they used to be — tie-in games do exist still, but they often fit into a couple of categories: There’s the well established tie-in series such as the LEGO games, which are very good and working off a strict formula. For less famous IP’s, licensed games do exist still but they seem to be making their home more and more on smartphones these days, as opposed to consoles — which is a bit of a shame. Who wouldn’t want to see a proper game of the upcoming Baywatch movie on their PS4? Don’t kid yourself — you’d be curious at the very least. The amount of licensed games potentially starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson that we’ve missed out on is an outrage.

Digression aside, Judge Dredd is one of the more unfortunate IP’s out there when it comes to licensed games — it’s had some pretty miserable efforts in the past. This 1995 game is far from the worst – there’s a 1991 game by Virgin for home computers that makes this generic maze level-based platformer look like Super Metroid by comparison. Really, Dredd never got anything close to a decent game until the release of Dredd vs Death in 2003 by Rebellion Developments (who actually own the 2000 AD comic outright these days, including the Judge) – an FPS that certainly did the best job so far of capturing the Dredd universe. It’s funny, really — one of the odd things about licensed games seems to be that the simpler an IP should be to adapt to a game, the easier it is to screw up. Judge Dredd is a powerful lawman who goes around shooting and arresting creeps in a post-apocalyptic universe — is that really difficult to adapt? It turns out that yes, it is.

The crime is being a generic walking around goon in a lousy licensed game. The sentence, unreasonably, is death.

There are some more intriguing things about this 1995 effort, mind you. With very little in the way of action to work with in the 1995 movie (seriously, it’s really bad) the game decides to divert totally from the movie halfway through in terms of plot. The first half takes in all the events from the movie, ending with the corrupt Judge Rico’s demise atop the Statue of Liberty, but then the second half has Dredd fight the Dark Judges (Fire, Fear, Mortis and Judge Death), who are more traditional antagonists. This half is not based on the film, nor is it based on anything that happened in the “Lawman of the Future” comic series that spun off from it — and so naturally is a little more interesting in terms of levels and design as Probe work directly off the comic book…the play’s still not very interesting, mind you. Judge Dredd isn’t exactly a game that’s worth the time to check out on the whole, but it is a good example of a game that, sadly, you simply don’t get anymore. It’s almost a shame that console games are, on average, too good these days for something like Dredd to exist.

 

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Gaming computers of Japan: The Sharp MZ series

Sharp’s MZ series was among the very first personal computers released in Japan. Launching in 1978, Sharp largely patterned it after Commodore’s PET 2001, one of the first personal computers period. Just like the PET, the MZ series was an all-in-one package, with an integrated monitor, keyboard, and tape-based data recorder. Also like the PET, it required you to lift the entire chassis away from the base if you wanted to inspect the motherboard; pivoting on rear hinges, the main body would then stay propped up by a rod, as if you were looking under the hood of a car. You could compare it to the Famicom’s cartridge eject switch, lending a pleasantly toy-like aspect to the experience…just, you know, made of sheet metal and a heavy cathode ray tube.

In what was then a nascent industry, Sharp had to outsource programming for the MZ ROM, and they feared that any bugs that arose during the process could catastrophically impact system functionality—and their fortunes with it. This led to the MZ design’s most drastic departure from the PET model: The system software was limited to only the most basic functions—basically getting the monitor to display—and included no inherent operating system. Instead, MZ computers had to load an entire OS into RAM via a cassette placed in their tape drive. Sharp did provide a proprietary framework called S-BASIC, but separating it out like this meant several minutes of loading just to get started every time you powered on your machine. Perhaps it was Sharp’s saving grace that their tape drives proved faster and more reliable than the competition, so at least the long waits weren’t interrupted by loading errors.

Sharp advertised MZs as “clean computers” in an attempt to sell their peculiarity as a feature, but the marketing spin actually came true thanks to one unanticipated factor: the homebrew scene. The fact that the MZ series relied entirely on removable media meant any up-and-coming software house could circulate tapes bearing interpreters for their own programming languages, a practice that became a cornerstone of the community. If there were a single stand-out, it would be Hudson’s Hu-BASIC, which offered parity with Microsoft BASIC at the time. Hu-BASIC became so popular that Sharp adopted it as their standard when they rolled out the next-generation X1 series in 1982.

Time Tunnel (1984). Time Zone is one of Roberta Williams’ least-liked games, but Bond Soft made a riff on it for the MZ series—Time Secret—which proved popular enough to get a sequel.

Parenthetically, this burgeoning relationship with Sharp may be what gave Hudson an in with Nintendo. (Sharp was the alma mater of Masayuki Uemura, the Famicom’s chief architect, and they would go on to release their own Famicom variants.) 1984 saw Hudson begin to convert games like Mario Bros. to computers, become the Famicom’s first third-party developer, and provide Hu-BASIC as the template for Family BASIC, a cartridge-based interpreter for coding on the Famicom. This in turn gave Hudson their start in the console sphere, where they became an industry leader—not a bad payoff for one little cassette tape.

Game development for the MZ series itself didn’t really take off until 1982, when the MZ-700 line introduced displays with more than two colors. Even then, graphics remained strictly character-based, consisting of only the primitive angles and shapes. The results weren’t gorgeous, but it’s impressive that developers were able to produce representational art at all considering what they had to work with. Some third parties created peripherals that could add to the available characters using a programmable character generator, or PCG; this could dramatically improve a game’s visuals, but few actually took advantage of it. It’s just as well, as the MZ-700’s pitiful capabilities are remembered now as part of its charm, and there are even art programs dedicated to drawing with its incredibly limited tool set. Like the proud tradition of ASCII art, its outdated aesthetic lives on thanks to artists willing to brave its challenges for the unique results.

Even HAL, the creators of Kirby and BOXBOY!, are still showing love for the MZ series. They were there in its heyday, creating one of the aforementioned PCG units for the MZ-700, and at this year’s Shizuoka Hobby Show, they revealed the PasocomMini MZ-80C, a one-fourth scale model of an MZ-80C computer. Clearly inspired by Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition (not to mention the Nintendo Classic Mini: Family Computer), the PasocomMini fits in the palm of your hand, but HAL is picking up Nintendo’s slack when it comes to the details. Those who were disappointed that the NES Classic Edition’s cartridge door was just for show may be comforted to learn the replica MZ-80C’s tape deck can be opened and inserted with cassettes, the monitor can be swapped out with a variety of displays, and the casing can still be lifted to reveal the motherboard: in this case, a Raspberry Pi A+. The PasocomMini comes installed with an emulator of HAL’s own design, capable of playing a number of pre-loaded games as well as the same type-in programs printed in old computer magazines of the day. You can also program on it yourself using SmileBASIC, a modern version of BASIC originally developed by SmileBoom for coding on the Nintendo 3DS. Everything’s handled via HDMI and USB, of course: The tapes are just for fun.

Although it doesn’t boast many notable games, Sharp’s MZ series remains an interesting case. Like all things, its imperfections have become its most memorable features in retrospect, but even in its own time, it was defined by peculiarities that became recontextualized as defining strengths by the community that grew up around it. While it came too early to catch the mid-’80s PC development boom, it laid the groundwork that made it possible—and kicked off Hudson’s rise to prominence, indirectly bringing the world Bomberman, Star Soldier, and the PC Engine itself. And nearly forty years on, the tribute it continues to receive proves it deserves more than a footnote in the history of gaming.

Time Tunnel image courtesy of MZ-700 Game Software Catalog. PasocomMini image courtesy of GAME Watch. Nusret Gökçe fan art by Kutsuwa

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For Star Wars’s 40th anniversary, let’s celebrate its most important celebration to pop culture

Hard to believe Star Wars debuted 40 years ago today. That’s twice as long as it had been when the Beatles chose to celebrate Sgt. Pepper teaching his band how to play (via an album that, in an odd coincidence, turns 50 tomorrow… meaning it’ll now have been 70 years since The Lonely Heart Club Band formed).

But, no, the math checks out. Star Wars is the first movie I remember seeing in a theater, or what passed for theaters circa 1980 — a big car lot where families drove their gas-guzzling Detroit boats to park in front of a large screen and listen to film dialogue on a small portable speaker. Not exactly the THX stadium experience. Could any film memory be more authentically a product of its time and era? I think back on my first Star Wars experience and I can almost hear the Stranger Things soundtrack playing.

We recorded a Retronauts Pocket episode a few years back exploring the impact of Star Wars on video games, and… as it turns out, we weren’t really able to come up with a lot of super strong examples. I feel instinctively that video games have a ridiculous amount of Star Wars DNA in them, but I think the problem is that Star Wars has become so ingrained in pop culture that those elements typically have a sort of hand-me-down quality to them. When you see an Alien reference in video games, it’s usually pretty unambiguous — you’d recognize H.R. Giger’s homoerotic biohorror aesthetics anywhere. With Star Wars, though, it’s so general, like… laser swords? Space dogfights? Maybe Cloud Strife realizing that black-clad samurai-looking Sephiroth is his “father” in a sort of vague, bioengineered sense? It’s a little harder to pin down.

“Time is the fire in which we burn.” No, wait, that’s a Star TREK reference, not Star Wars. Ah, heck.

I don’t name-drop Final Fantasy VII here frivolously; in all the history of video games, no one collective work has demonstrated more loving admiration for (and overt references to) Star Wars than Final Fantasy. And no Star Wars reference within Final Fantasy beats the original. That’s right, I’m talking about the series’ greatest recurring characters, Biggs and Wedge.

Note: Spelling may vary by region

Star Wars fandom was a very different thing in 1994 (when Biggs and Wedge made their first appearance in Final Fantasy III, née VI). LucasFilm Ltd. was just beginning to fire up its pop-culture engine after a decade of increasing irrelevance. Return of the Jedi had put a pretty definitive capper on the saga back in 1983, and within a few years all the signposts of a once-juggernaut franchise had faded from sight. The almighty toyline had been steamrolled by G.I. Joe and Transformers, and the ongoing Marvel comic had puttered to a finale. All we had left were those made-for-TV Ewoks movies… which weren’t great, although I did recently read speculation that the curly-haired little girl grew up to be Captain Phasma from The Force Awakens, which… well, why not. Still beats teen-angst Vader.

No, circa 1990, the only genuinely viable and enthusiastic expression of Star Wars love came in the form of the tabletop RPG system. I didn’t play pen-and-paper RPGs, but I would occasionally come across a Star Wars supplement book from time to time and found them to be fascinating rabbit holes. I didn’t really get the idea of “expanded universes” and “derivative works,” so I assumed the role-playing supplements were word-of-god creations along the lines of those art books that compiled production work by the likes of Ralph MacQuarrie and Joe Johnston. So it was exciting to get a peek behind the curtain of the films and read about the expansive world of Correllian corporate ventures and things like that. Pretty much everything in those old books has been redacted, but a great many of the ideas they introduced to Star Wars have become baked into the “new” canon, which is created by the sort of people who used to furtively read the RPG books in their thirst to learn more about George Lucas’s fascinating space worlds. Concepts like the Kuat Drive Yards have been inducted into actual Star Wars dialogue in recent years, but they got their start in West End’s fascinatingly detailed P&P books.

Given the heavy lifting traditional RPGs did for Star Wars during the franchise’s lacuna, I think it was fitting that the first fresh, relevant allusions I encountered to the Star Wars films in the wake of Lucas’s attempt to resuscitate the property in the early ’90s with new novels and comics would appear in a console RPG. Biggs and Wedge open Final Fantasy VI, a pair of heartless imperial soldiers who use the game’s protagonist as a brainwashed weapon and meet an unhappy end a short time later. Granted, this concept wasn’t exactly faithful to the source material, given that the films’ Biggs and Wedge were Luke’s allies and friends, and Wedge was the only minor character to survive the events of all three films. Plus, Final Fantasy III kinda garbled the reference in bringing their names back to English; I don’t think the localization team got the allusion, so Biggs became “Vicks” on Super NES.

“I’m just glad they didn’t translate ウェッジ as ‘Wedgie’.”

Which is actually what made the reference so great. I didn’t get “Vicks” at the time, because I didn’t know anything about the ambiguity of B/V in Japanese transliterations, but I definitely noticed Wedge. Our school events team had put together a public showing of the Star Wars movies earlier that year, and dozens of people cheered every time Wedge appeared on screen; for them, at least, he had taken on a sort of folk-hero status for being the only character skillful enough to survive all three major battles in the trilogy without the aid of plot armor. That experience made me aware of the fact that he had become a cult-favorite character in the movie trilogy. I ended up naming half my Final Fantasy III party after Star Wars characters on my first runthrough, thinking I was terribly clever to riff on an “accidental” Star Wars reference… not realizing that, in fact, that was the creators’ entire point.

There’s nothing mysterious or ambiguous about their cameo anymore, of course. Final Fantasy III has been properly re-translated as Final Fantasy VI, with “Vicks” having his name corrected to the nerdy reference the RPG gods intended. And the duo have gone on to reappear in just about every Final Fantasy since then in some capacity, whether as AVALANCHE eco-terrorists in VII, hapless enemy soldiers in VIII, or even randomly generated combatants in Tactics. Star Wars itself has become a sort of pop-culture juggernaut again, and what was once a winking insider reference to minor characters from the film has become totally prosaic now that “true” fans can tell you idiotic minutiae, including the names of hundreds of characters whose monikers are never mentioned on-screen. It’s all been downhill ever since the “Look sir, droids!” guy got a name and a backstory.

But Biggs and Wedge will always be there for us, dying admirably so that the latest heroes of Final Fantasy can kick some new nihilist’s butt.

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What old SEGA games should be brought back from the dead?

There certainly seems to be a lot of intrigue about what SEGA are up to lately — there’s talk of them bringing back some of their old IP’s, for a start, which has certainly got some tongues wagging. Not to mention all the talk about something called SEGA Forever that could be (although we obviously don’t know) a subscription-based sort of Games on Demand service for mobiles, which if true could perhaps cover the “bringing old games back” deal, depending on just how old SEGA are talking — you can find some of the workings of the rumour mill on videos such as this one by Youtuber RGT 85 right here.  As far as anything concrete goes though, nothing is confirmed whatsoever, and chances are nothing will be until E3 at the earliest — and as a highly distinguished retrogaming website it is quite frankly not cricket, or even baseball, for us to write an article all about this speculation that may well end up being untrue. I, for one, would never allow such things to appear on your computer screen.

With that said, the thought of SEGA digging up some of their old games from the dead is certainly worth having fun with, if only for the purposes of humour and light entertainment. So the question of today is; what old IP’s could SEGA bring back? And what, exactly, could they do with them? It’s all very well bringing a series back and doing the exact same thing that it originally became famous for — that would be the sensible thing to do, perhaps — but some IP’s might need a bit of a twist. Let’s review a selection from the archives and see how we can, for lack of a better expression, sex them up a bit.

Alex Kidd

SEGA’s pre-Sonic mascot has always had a bit of a raw deal — we’ve actually got a fair bit of time for him in Europe due to the Master System’s popularity here compared to the rest of the world, but even we just about managed to forget his existence once a certain spiky blue hedgehog came rolling in. It perhaps doesn’t help his cause that Alex was pinged around genres a lot in his time — there’s a couple of Mario-esque platform games, a trial biking game, a crossover with Shinobi, a terrible adventure-action hybrid…he struggled to find a consistent identity, which was a bit of a bummer for him really — however, that’s something we can use to our advantage nowadays. SEGA have explored the depressive side of Alex Kidd before, using him as a lowly clerk in their self-referential Dreamcast game Segagaga, and perhaps this can be delved into further with a depressive, noir-esque action sandbox title where an older Alex with a drinking problem finds himself having to combat villains on the crime-infested streets of the Miracle World. Think Max Payne, only with more Janken — it’s a guaranteed hit. There could even be a role for Sonic too as Alex’s unwilling, straighter-laced partner.

The Ooze

There’s a fair few games that folks remember from the days of the SEGA Technical Institute — those were the people who brought us the likes of Comix Zone, Kid Chameleon and Die Hard Arcade, games that people certainly remember well, and might even want to see make a return…however, everybody forgets about The Ooze.  There are a few reasons for that — the first being that the game was, put bluntly, not very good. Secondly, it did come out pretty close to the end of the Mega Drive’s life and so there weren’t a whole lot of eyes on it. The premise was certainly weird enough — you played as a scientist who had been turned into a giant blob of green goo, and was then tasked with getting revenge on the scum who’d put him in this situation…perhaps more could be done with this title? The roles could be reversed — you play as one of the human scientists in a survival horror game. It’s Alien: Isolation, only instead of a xenomorph you’re hiding from a giant cartoony puddle of luminous snot…it might sound somewhat incongruous for a horror title, but people said that about IT back in the day too, and look what happened to them! It’s worth looking at.

Streets of Rage

This should be the biggest lay-up of them all really — as soon as speculation started about Sega reviving old IP’s, Streets of Rage was undoubtedly one of the first names on people’s lips. SOR used to be one of Sega’s biggest franchises, but then it rather inexplicably disappeared, never coming out of the 16-bit era despite numerous failed attempts at a sequel and a bunch of dismissed plans. So just go ahead and make another beat-’em-up, right? Well…let’s think outside the box a little. Streets of Rage is a very open title that can be interpreted in a variety of ways — sure, it can describe a group of friends punching the teeth out of thugs in a battle against a crime syndicate, but what if a string of reality was brought in? Perhaps those streets could represent a city in crisis, possibly because it was invaded by a military force that needs to be repelled by another stronger military force that people like more. With that in mind, the best direction for Streets of Rage is surely an Army-based first-person shooter based in a foreign city, with questionable political content. Besides, everybody knows that beat-’em-ups don’t sell anymore.

ESWAT

As far as old IP’s go, any decision to revive ESWAT would come from right out of leftfield. The series only had 2 games, both of which had the same title, and it was never the most popular of SEGA’s ’80s arcade side-scrollers — it was quite a lot like a game version of Robocop, but that itself already had a successful arcade game thanks to Data East…however, there could be something in that Robocop influence. It’s something of a shame that there’s no such thing as a proper Robocop simulator — a big open-world city where you preserve the public trust, uphold the law and all that, solving crimes, chasing bad guys…it seems unlikely that we’ll get anything like that out of Robocop itself, or a similar franchise like Judge Dredd, but you know what? Maybe ESWAT could be the way to do it. “Robocop simulator” is basically my dream game, so this is a suggestion that I’m actually half-serious about.

Phantasy Star

There’s no need to be half-serious about this one, or even to make an attempt at being funny. For heaven’s sake, folks — give us another Phantasy Star. As in, a single-player RPG Phantasy Star. Even if it has to be crowdfunded. Please.

This could obviously continue on by looking at all of SEGA’s old and discontinued IP’s and thinking about ways in which they can be twisted and distorted to meet the demands of the modern gaming world, but it’s probably wise to draw the line at five. While nothing here should be taken seriously as such, it is certainly an exciting time to be a SEGA fan — there’s definitely something brewing, and the possibility of games being revived has certainly excited people to a degree that may well end up being too much, but in the meantime is still a positive for a brand that, not too long ago, was often thought to be a bit of a zombie. Whatever happens, whether it’s something beyond our wildest expectations or just another way to play those old games that lots of people love, it’s good to see people being interested again.

 

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I require your missives once again! It’s mailbag time

Tomorrow, I will hop onto a bus bound for Narita International airport. Then I will commence to travel backward in time to land in San Francisco about eight hours before I left Japan, whereupon I will sleep a lot before powering through a weekend of recording Retronauts episodes with Bob and a motley host of guests. I’ve already gathered listener correspondences on the topics of Secret of Mana and Breath of the Wild; now I ask your help for one final endeavor. The third of my topics for the coming weekend, I’m afraid, is the most niche of the three (which is by design, you know — Bob and I always try to balance topics that have broad appeal with more esoteric matters every time we record, for diversity). And that topic is…

– drumroll –

…the Dig Dug and Mr. Driller expanded universe. Yes, Namco’s classic arcade game somehow blossomed into a multi-series interconnected world that spans decades and appears to have a reasonable amount of continuity. It’s probably just a matter of time before someone tries to create a “cinematic universe” out of the properties, but in the meantime, we’d like to discuss the ins and outs of the series.

And yes, we know about Dig Dug‘s bizarre, Bomberman Act Zero-esque turn in Namco X Capcom.

As usual, please drop me a line with your thoughts on the games at jparish -at- retronauts – dot- com. Please try to keep the word count to around 200 or so! And keep on diggin’.

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Kim recommends…Trashman (ZX Spectrum, 1984)

With the ZX Spectrum Next Kickstarter campaign coming to an end after making £723,390 and hitting all stretch goals, it’s a good time to look at some of the Speccy’s more memorable titles. Over 24,000 games came out for the system, so there’s certainly a fair bit of memorable material — but more than that, there’s some games with premises and gameplay concepts you just don’t seem to get anywhere else. When you consider that a lot of Speccy games in the early ’80s were usually made in their entirety by just one (usually quite young) guy in their bedroom, the amount of weirdness there is on the Spectrum isn’t that surprising…what’s great though is when that weirdness is combined with an actual good game — something like Trashman from 1984, made by Malcolm Evans for New Generation Software.

Trashman is an extended look into the world of garbage disposal  — something that, as it turns out, is very freaking dangerous indeed. You play as the titular trashman of the title, and you have to collect bins from each house and empty them into the dustcart as it slowly moves down the road — naturally you’ve got to put the bins back too, don’t go thinking that part would be left out. You’ve also got to do this pretty fast — waste no movement, and for heaven’s sake keep off of the grass! If you’re on the grass, that means that you’re stepping all over Betty Swollocks’ geraniums (you clumsy oaf) and you’ll lose your time and your bonus. Just because you’re going fast however, doesn’t mean that you should avoid any requests that people make of you as that would be rude — if a kid wants to show you his new computer game then indulge them, as that will increase your time and bonus. Do this for every house on the street and you can consider the job to be a thoroughly good ‘un.

A typical street in the world of Trashman. Every one of these cars spells death for our hero. But then, every cleansed bin spells rejuvenation.

Sounds basic enough, but Trashman is on a dangerous mission. He’s going to have to cross the road quite a few times in order to complete this task, and this is a busy street packed full of cars that like to drive really fast. Most trashmen don’t even last one day on the job — they’re assigned to Montague Road on their first day, they unsuspectingly walk in front of an automobile driven by a raving maniac, and the next thing you know they’re the ones being put in the trash compactor — for in this dangerous vision of the world, too many trashmen die for them to be given a proper burial. Cars aren’t the only menace out there — sometimes a dog will speed out of a house with its eyes, mouth and teeth trained on the trashman’s scrotal sack. Even the pavement isn’t safe, with clueless bikers speeding down it and taking out unsuspecting targets — and while dogs and bikes will only leave you with a limp, that’ll make you an easy target for those damn cars because no matter what injuries you might have, the work’s still got to be done…seriously, I think it might be in these guys’ best interest to form a union.

Trashman is a strange little game that, as a lot of classics do, spins gold out of menial labour — And yet it’s too slow and even a little grounded in reality (somewhat anyway) to be considered an arcade game. It’s more like a dad explaining to their wide-eyed kid what they did today on the road, complete with exaggerated details and good old fashioned British humour – of which Trashman has quite a bit when you’re asked to go into people’s houses and the like, or if you go and visit the caff and pub for a much needed Full English/booze break. It’s often requested on my streams – partly because it’s weird and people like it a lot, but I think that in the main it’s requested because it’s quaint and charming. 24,000+ Spectrum games can be a big number for folks to get their head around, but this is undoubtedly 1 that you ought to play if you wish to understand the evergreen appeal of the machine.

 

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While you were hunting vampires, IGA studied the blade

After Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night broke crowd-funding records in 2015, developer ArtPlay updated its Kickstarter page roughly once a month with new information, artwork, and reports on the game’s progress. That comforting drip feed of news now appears to have dried up, with nearly two months gone by without a word. While it may be safe to say Bloodstained‘s staff are playing their cards close to their chest in preparation for E3 in June, producer Koji Igarashi also put in an appearance at BitSummit this past weekend. Combining his trademark cowboy hat with traditional Japanese dress—even replacing his trusty whip with a sheathed katana on his hip—he took the stage to introduce Zangetsu, Bloodstained‘s second playable character. While Zangetsu had technically been revealed in artwork shortly after the Kickstarter campaign ended, Igarashi was now prepared to show off the character’s polygon model. More than that, though, he wanted to specifically address his Japanese audience and—emphasizing his multicultural attire—explain what such an overtly Japanese character is doing in a game with Gothic horror trappings.

When development on Bloodstained began, Igarashi felt the need to include a supporting character who would ultimately fall on the same side as the protagonist but give them no end of grief along the way. (This trope should sound very familiar if you’ve played just about any of his Castlevania games.) Since Bloodstained is set in eighteenth century England, the role was originally planned for a strait-laced warrior evoking the image of the Knights Templar. (Never mind that the Templars were more tenth to twelfth century. Europe is Europe, right?) But then Igarashi asked his staff to redesign the character as a samurai.

He looks kind of familiar…but we don’t talk about Lords of Shadow in polite company.

He met resistance at first, of course: The idea of a samurai fighting Judeo-Christian demons atop European architecture doesn’t seem like the most natural fit. But his request came as the result of reflecting on the many games he’s made over his long career—particularly the Castlevania series, which shared Bloodstained‘s general aesthetic—and realizing he never made one starring a culturally Japanese character. Hearing this, the game’s staff relented and allowed him his wish. Zangetsu is a one-eyed, dual-wielding rōnin with a wooden arm animated by Shinto ofuda charms. He wears Western clothing, but his coat is tossed off one shoulder in a rugged samurai fashion (think Auron from Final Fantasy X), with nothing under it but a sarashi binding around his abdomen. Overall, his design is a relatively measured melding of cultural essences—just what he needs not to feel too far out of place in the world of Bloodstained.

Despite his simplistic reasoning for making Zangetsu the way he is, Igarashi said the character ended up fitting into the game so well that it gave him goosebumps. But the fact that he sees this as a big moment comes as no surprise if you recall his later years at Konami, when he arbitrarily inserted characters and imagery from Getsu Fūma Den, a forgotten Famicom game with a Japanese folk setting, into every game he could, from Castlevania: Harmony of Despair to Otomedius Excellent. At the time, one couldn’t help but wonder if he was trying to subtly reintroduce that game to the collective consciousness to justify a proper comeback down the line, but of course that and any other plans he might have had went to waste when he and Konami parted ways. Since announcing Bloodstained, he’s been nothing but open about approaching it as a continuation of his work on the Castlevania series, and now it appears he’s also used the opportunity to satisfy his lingering urge to shine the spotlight on a two-handed heretic of the sword. Honestly, I’m happy for him.

Igarashi photograph courtesy of GAME Watch. Zangetsu image courtesy of 4Gamer

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Chubby Cherub reconsidered, kinda

The game Chubby Cherub, when it bobs to the surface of the collective conscious at all, tends to be treated as one of those NES games that makes a nice, easy target for a few softball jokes, and little more. I mean, come on: It stars a fat, naked angel eating candy and avoiding dogs. I suppose any concept can make for a great game, but it’s an early third-party release for NES, so the chances of it having turned out well were pretty nil. I don’t remember if Seanbaby ever made fun of Chubby Cherub… but if he didn’t, that just underscores how unremarkable it is. It would have been perfect fodder for his pioneering “let’s insult slipshod NES software” work in the ’90s.

Personally, my only memories of the game involve being annoyed at its omnipresence on that fateful summer of 1988 as I scoured the country in a desperate search for Castlevania, not realizing Castlevania was (1.) temporarily out of print and (2.) about to get a new manufacturing run. When what you really want is gothic horror but all you can find are candy-obsessed flying babies, it’s hard to hold a kind thought in your heart about the flying babies.

Anyway, going into this week’s video project armed with nothing but an awareness of the fact that Chubby Cherub is widely reviled and hails from the same developer/publisher combo as last week’s M.U.S.C.L.E. Tag Team Match, I was pleasantly surprised that it’s merely a mediocre game rather than an aggressively terrible one. The action moves at a sluggish pace and the overall design feels lopsided and unfair, but it’s not without a bit of merit. Like the video says, I could see kids back in the day having an OK time with this one — and indeed, several commenters have confirmed that they did, indeed, have a not-entirely-painful experience playing this game when they were young. Plus, if nothing else, I had an excuse to talk about vintage anime thanks to the game’s origins.

Speaking of which, I considered throwing these snapshots I took in Nakano last week of vintage Obake no Q Taro merchandise into the video:

Those are some hefty prices for a few chunks of painted plastic. They don’t begin to compare to the outlandish premium prices attached to Chubby Cherub, though. The cartridge is trending toward $100, and complete copies have been selling in the $500-1500 range of late. That’s a lot of money to pay for a game that maybe isn’t terrible but definitely isn’t great.

And on that note, thanks once again to Steve Lin for lending me his boxed copy of the game for documentation!

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Artdink celebrate 30+ years of A-Train with a game that goes back to the past

While a lot of long-running video game series tend to be fairly high profile for most of their existence, some of them can creep up on you. In the case of A-Train (A Ressha de Ikou), Japanese company Artdink’s railway simulation game, you might be shocked to find that the series has been going since 1985 — 32 years of building a city off the back of the rails. While immensely popular in Japan, the series has rarely risen above cult status in the West — its highest profile outing was back in 1992 when the third game in the series was published in America by Maxis (and Ocean in Europe) as, simply, A-Train. A lot of its other outings in the West have weirdly been on consoles — the PlayStation got the fourth game, AIV: Evolution, as a launch title, there was a very poorly received version of A-Train HX for the Xbox 360, and there’s been a couple of handheld releases in recent times. However, the series has returned once again with Artdink announcing A-Train PC Classic for release on the Steam platform in roughly two weeks’ time.

The new A-Train is notable for having considerably older aesthetics than more recent installments such as A-Train HX that have usually gone with full 3D (often resulting in them being panned for substandard 3D graphics).. Instead, railway building in the new game is done in the classic isometric style, with a look that’s reminiscent of the earlier games in the series as well as the likes of SimCity 2000. You can choose to view your city in 3D by taking a tour of your rail track, but most of the game will be played in good ol’ 2D — this is a decision that may well help the series as it takes it away from competing with the successful and graphically intensive likes of Cities: Skylines.

The look of the new A-Train is closer to the modern handheld installments — probably wiser than trying to imitate ol’ Skylines.

Of course, A-Train isn’t just your average city building sim — it is very much based around mass transit, particularly the rail. As you build an ever more complex and efficient railway system and develop the land around your stations, your city will gradually grow with the help of the computer as important resources such as coal, iron and people are funneled in — slowly turning your area from a wet patch of grass with a railway line through it into a sprawling modern cityscape. The game can be tricky to get at first, and the actual aim of the game hasn’t always been communicated too well by Artdink — which in many ways has contributed to A-Train games often getting rather poor receptions in the West. If the game is approached as a more traditional city building sim, people are likelier to be confused and annoyed by the game — instead, the focus is on combining rails, roads and trams in a way that makes sense and helps your city to grow in terms of size and population.

The first A-Train game in the West, with glorious high-rise buildings all over. Often misunderstood then, but hopefully not now.

The new A-Train promises to do what the series has largely always been known for: There will be multiple scenarios introducing competitors who will build their own networks, the chance to develop both an overground and an underground transport system, the ability to play through various different ages from the modern era to the days of steam locomotion, the sort of intensive tutorial that hasn’t always featured in these games, integrated Steam Workshop support so you can share your creations with others, and of course — lots and lots of trains. More trains than Sabin can physically suplex, in fact. If you fancy yourself as a capable Fat Controller then barring the presence of any leaves on the line, A-Train PC Classic will hit the virtual shelves on June 8th — and who knows? Maybe people will actually get the game this time and not immediately dismiss it as just another city builder.

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Mighty Gunvolt: The quest for identity

The fifth annual BitSummit was held in Kyoto over the weekend, and just one announcement to arise from the Japanese indie game festival was a new game from the 2D action veterans at Inti Creates. Mighty Gunvolt Burst is the sequel to Mighty Gunvolt, the quasi-8-bit counterpart to 2014’s Azure Striker Gunvolt.

The original Mighty Gunvolt was revealed just a week ahead of Azure Striker Gunvolt‘s release, not as a stand-alone game but as a free download bundled with the latter game during its first month out. At the time, Inti Creates advertised it as a “thank you gift” to supporters of Gunvolt. Giving away an all-new game in its entirety—even a brief one with lo-fi graphics—seemed tremendously, even suspiciously generous, and a few months later, Inti Creates announced that it would receive both a major update and a second release as a paid product unto itself, plus new stages and bosses in the form of DLC. In retrospect, it adds up that Mighty Gunvolt was always headed for this state and Inti Creates simply saw an opportunity to push out an early, incomplete version as an incentive to boost Azure Striker Gunvolt‘s day one sales.

That would explain why Mighty Gunvolt came out in the manner it did, but why the game exists remains a bit unclear. Featuring the titular Gunvolt, Beck from Comcept’s Mighty No. 9, and Eroko from the Japan-exclusive Gal☆Gun series, it appears to be a celebration of all things Inti Creates—an indulgence rarely afforded by contract developers with a catalogue scattered across various self-interested publishers. Then again, Beck’s presence and the “Mighty” name framed it more specifically as an early promotion for Mighty No. 9, which was believed at the time to be a few months from release. Azure Striker Gunvolt and Mighty No. 9 share a common ancestor in Capcom’s Mega Man games—some of which Inti Creates also developed—so they combine well in what plays out like an obvious pastiche of that series. But since Eroko is co-starring, you can’t simply sum this up as a Mega Man/Gunvolt/Mighty No. 9 mash-up—nor is there quite enough of Inti Creates’ history on display to really qualify Mighty Gunvolt as all-inclusive crossover on the order of Super Smash Bros. or Project X Zone. (You certainly can’t have an Inti Creates tribute without so much as a shout out to Speed Power Gunbike.) What we end up with is two things that go together and one that doesn’t. It just feels like a smattering of stuff.

Perhaps it’s telling, then, that Eroko is off the team for Mighty Gunvolt Burst. Reducing the lineup to Gunvolt and Beck may seem like a step backward, but it’s a move that’s sure to lend Burst a tighter focus and a clearer reason for being. Now it just has to contend with the new problem that arises from giving Beck a greater share of the spotlight: the catastrophic amounts of anti-hype emanating from Mighty No. 9.

Mighty No. 9 followed Mighty Gunvolt not by a few months but, after multiple delays, the better part of two years. It is probably safe to say it is not well-liked on the whole. The missteps made by developer Comcept were so numerous I couldn’t even recount them all here—nor do I probably need to, as the whole fiasco has welcomed no shortage of hot takes and postmortems examining what went wrong. Suffice to say Comcept explored the full range of public opinion over the course of three years, parlaying a wildly successful crowd-funding campaign into a slow-motion train wreck leading up to release. Their reputation was so thoroughly tarnished by the end that it probably didn’t even matter much what the final product was like: Everyone was poised to hate it. Some went in still clinging to hopes that the promised game would be worth the PR nightmare, but even they found it in need of an extra layer of polish at best and a ground-up reinvention at worst.

Less than a year out, the bitterness surrounding Mighty No. 9 is still fresh in the public’s memory, and although most of the blame was laid on Comcept, Inti Creates has caught flak as well. Even having served as a secondary co-developer has diminished their standing in the eyes of some once-ardent fans, so at first glance, it’s baffling that they’re associating Mighty No. 9‘s setting and characters so strongly with Mighty Gunvolt Burst. While the first Mighty Gunvolt borrowed various concepts from Azure Striker Gunvolt, Burst looks for all the world like a reimagining of Mighty No. 9, including all eight of its main bosses. Surely no one involved with Comcept’s game has been lucky enough not to know how poorly it was received, so why risk rekindling that negativity? Perhaps this is Inti Creates looking to clear its name—to go all-in with Mighty No. 9, give it that ground-up reinvention it needs, and show how much better it could have been if only they had been at the wheel. Comcept, for their part, reportedly licensed the use of its characters free of charge, so maybe they think they’ll benefit as well if Inti Creates can get people thinking fondly of Beck and his world again. It’s definitely one tall order, so it’ll be exciting to see if they can pull it off.

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