Author Archives: Kishi

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

3 Comments

Filed under Game Culture

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

3 Comments

Filed under Retrogaming News

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Retrogaming News

Fans continue to make Mega Man for those who cannot

This Saturday, a massive, months-long collaboration between Mega Man fans will culminate in the reveal of Make a Good Mega Man Level 2, a fan game where each stage has been contributed by a different creator. At this point, it’s safe to call such projects a tradition in fan game circles, stretching back at least to 2010’s Super RMN Bros., which saw the RPG Maker community stabbing at the framework of Mario’s 2D outings in a prescient precursor to Nintendo’s own Super Mario Maker. By now, fans are no stranger to the twin joys of enjoying our friends’ work and sharing our own as we collectively explore our creative potential. Capcom showed some interest in the concept even earlier, with the level editor included in Mega Man: Powered Up and the cancelled Mega Man Universe, although fans drew more inspiration from their own previous efforts than any official outreach when they came together for the first Make a Good Mega Man Level.

Barely released a year ago, MaGMML was developed piece by piece by members of Sprites INC and Talkhaus from January to May of 2016, ultimately boasting twenty stages from twenty amateur level designers. Rather than modifying the ROMs of the official Mega Man games, the stages were created using a fan-made engine compatible with YoYo Games’ popular GameMaker software, tailored with a robust suite of tools to recreate the appearance and overall feel of an authentic Mega Man game. Of course, it also has the capacity to add custom graphics and music, so the results are sure to range from faithful iterations on the source material to willfully detached flights of indie fancy. The definition of a “good Mega Man level” is, after all, completely subjective, so contributors are free to approach the project as a challenge to measure up to the series’ most carefully crafted level design or an opportunity to run amok with someone else’s toys—or anything in between.

Although MaGMML is poised as a contest with each stage submitted for review by a panel of judges, the organizer, SnoruntPyro, has emphasized there is no quality control imposed on people’s contributions. Every single stage, good or bad, makes it into the compiled game, where they’re sorted into tiers: The judging just determines where they land in the hierarchy. Like Super RMN Bros. and its ilk, the game features a hub world from which each stage is accessed, tying the disparate stages into a (nominally) coherent experience that can be played from start to finish. The Mega Man series has enough bosses to its name that every stage could be punctuated with a duel against one of the Blue Bomber’s classic foes, but boss fights are instead reserved for the end of sets of stages—and while they may feature some familiar faces, they come as heavily remixed as the stages themselves.

Only your weapons are truly recycled, having been democratically selected from the official games by the community. All eight of them (plus mobility tools like Rush Jet) are available from the beginning of the game—a dramatic break from tradition to be sure, as a major part of Mega Man‘s focus has always lay with building your arsenal as you conquer each stage. On the other hand, this decision grants the player even greater freedom to tackle the game in the order they choose, lending an easygoing sensibility to what is ultimately a knowingly overwrought tribute rather than a serious attempt at blending in with Capcom’s NES canon.

Make a Good Mega Man Level 2 entered planning last September, only a few months after the first one wrapped, and is now ready to be revealed to the world. The concept is unchanged, but the scope has increased dramatically, comprising no fewer than eighty-one submissions—more than four times what the original contest received. Even Stephen DiDuro, designer of indie darling Freedom Planet, has gotten in on the action. The idea clearly has legs, and we can only hope it doesn’t get so big that Capcom slaps it with a cease-and-desist order. Then again, there is precedent for Capcom treating fan games with unusual clemency—even going so far as to publish Seow Zong Hui’s Street Fighter X Mega Man as a legitimate release back in 2012—so hopefully these eighty-one labors of love will remain free to be shared with the world.

As with last year’s installment, Make a Good Mega Man Level 2 will be formally revealed by way of a pre-release livestream on Twitch. The date is set for May 20—again, this Saturday—so even if it’s not of professional quality across the board, enjoy this feeling of looking forward to a new Mega Man game. Goodness knows it’s a rare pleasure these days.

GameMaker screenshot courtesy of ACESpark

1 Comment

Filed under Retrogaming News

To shmup legend IKD, a very HB

Today is a holiday for fans of shoot-’em-ups worldwide: It’s Tsuneki Ikeda’s birthday!

For over a decade after Taito released Space Invaders in 1978, shoot-’em-ups dominated the arcade scene. Every company worth their salt at least dabbled in the genre, and it wasn’t unusual for one to have multiple series going at the same time. People simply had to have their shmups: Heavy hitters like Capcom, Konami, Data East, and of course Taito inundated the market with one after another, and even then there was room for smaller outfits like NMK and Video System to carve out a niche for themselves as well. Toaplan, who fit into the latter category, were notable not only for the sheer volume of their output—rolling out shmup after shmup for years—but their consistent quality. In this fast-paced environment, many of their games made a strong enough impression to earn console ports and even direct sequels.

Unfortunately, the ’90s brought rapid changes to the genre landscape, with the mighty shmup ousted by a glut of beat-’em-ups and fighting games chasing the success of Final Fight and Street Fighter II, respectively. Toaplan, who had made their name doing one thing very well, struggled to adapt…and this is where our man Ikeda enters the picture. Joining Toaplan in 1992, he contributed programming to two of their final shmups, V・V (pronounced “Vee Five”) and Batsugun, before the company folded in ’94. But the spirit of shooting games was too strong to die with Toaplan, and that same year, Ikeda co-founded one of four new developers who arose to carry on its legacy. There was Raizing, who produced the long-running Mahō Daisakusen series (culminating in the cult classic Dimahoo); Takumi, who made Mars Matrix and the Giga Wing series under the auspices of Capcom; Gazelle, an existing company who made Air Gallet once ex-Toaplan staff joined; and Ikeda came up with a little company called Cave.

Dodonpachi can display up to 245 enemy bullets on the screen at a time. Yes, of course they counted!

While Raizing developed many of their games on the same hardware used by Toaplan in their later years—and Capcom let Takumi play on the boogie board that was the CP System II—Ikeda spent his first year at Cave working on a new framework that would run the games they’d make for the rest of the ’90s: the CAVE 68000. (Being family and all, the Air Gallet team at Gazelle used Cave’s board before merging ranks with them entirely.) For Cave’s debut performance, 1995’s Donpachi, Ikeda entered a dual role he would keep for years to come, serving as both a programmer and a designer. Drawing upon his experiences as both a developer and a shmup fan from way back, he set out to guide the player’s experience right down the line between brutal challenge and intense excitement. With this goal in mind, he meticulously orchestrated the patterns of enemies that would assault the player—and yes, the waves of bullets that showered over them.

More than anything, Ikeda simply desired to keep on making the games that Toaplan might have if they were still around, but that all changed in 1996, when Raizing released a little shmup called Battle Garegga. This game demonstrated what at the time was considered an irresponsible lack of restraint when it came to coating the screen in bullets, and here Ikeda realized his new calling. In 1997, Cave released Dodonpachi in direct answer to Battle Garegga, lowering the helpless player into what would become known as “bullet hell.”

In their heyday, shmups enticed casual players as well as die-hards with their escalating production values. Then Final Fight and Street Fighter II lured the public away from spaceships and war machines with vivid human characters. The advent of bullet hell helped restore shmups to mainstream attention with an obvious visual hook: “Just look at all those bullets!” In turn, it emphasized the underlying mechanical hook that had always been there: the simple, visceral thrill of weaving your way through death on all sides. As the harbinger of a new sub-genre, Dodonpachi became a massive success, and Ikeda dreamed of leading a shooting revolution that would return shmups to their former glory.

Ultimately, shmups couldn’t get out from under the stigma surrounding their imposing difficulty, so they remained in a niche, much to Ikeda’s chagrin. But the faithful, whose high-level technical play had constantly moved developers to increase the games’ challenge in the first place, flocked to Cave as their saviors. And Ikeda, who went on to meet their demands time and again, became lauded as the genre’s devoted steward and the architect of a new age—affectionately referred to as “IKD.”

Cave has finally begun to slow down in recent years, but Ikeda remains in high esteem, as evinced by the birthday wishes flooding Cave’s Twitter today. And although he’s twenty years older now than when he made Dodonpachi, he can look back on two decades spent keeping a dream alive.

Dodonpachi and Ketsui Death Label images courtesy of Hardcore Gaming 101

2 Comments

Filed under Game Culture

Gaming computers of Japan: The NEC PC-8800 series

In the 1970s, the falling costs of microprocessors began to bring mass-market personal computers into the realm of possibility. At the same time, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (the predecessor to today’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, or METI) gathered six electronics companies to work together toward bolstering Japan’s computer industry, going directly up against IBM in the West. One member of this group was NEC, a telephone company founded at the end of the nineteenth century which had branched out into advanced electronics in the years following World War Two. In 1979, two years after Commodore and Apple kicked off the age of “appliance computers” with the PET and Apple II, NEC introduced the PC-8001, one of the first “Made in Japan” microcomputers. With an early lead on the domestic market, the 8001’s success was followed up in 1981 with the PC-6001 and the PC-8801. They couldn’t have known it at the time, but with the latter, NEC entered not only computing history but the history of gaming.

NEC had plenty of competition by the early ’80s, particularly from Fujitsu and Sharp, whose FM-7 and X1 series shared many of the PC88’s specs. For several years, this trinity seemed to enjoy more or less even success, but all that changed with 1985’s PC-8801mkIISR. Besides being a mouthful, this revision included a Yamaha sound chip called the OPN that was capable of FM synthesis—a great improvement over the three-channel PSG sound of previous models. This seems to be the point where the PC-8800 series began to pull ahead of the pack and become the hardcore enthusiast’s computer of choice—especially when it came to games.

When it came to computers, Konami generally stuck to the MSX. But they had to make an exception for Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher because the PC88 was simply where adventure games lived.

First and foremost, the PC88 is an all-purpose terminal intended for a variety of practical uses, from writing music to managing finances. It can run games, but as with many microcomputers, it’s quickly apparent it wasn’t specifically designed with them in mind. The speed at which graphics are drawn onscreen is a bit slower than the eye can detect, causing visible screen-tearing whenever the display changes significantly—say, by scrolling. The V2 display mode, which can draw a resolution of 640-by-400 pixels, is limited to just two colors, so developers generally stuck to the standard 640-by-200 mode (which could swing eight). Here, the image is stretched vertically to fill the same 8:5 aspect ratio as V2 mode, giving the appearance of being twice its actual height…albeit with every pixel noticeably shaped like a 1-by-2 rectangle.

Nevertheless, Japan’s burgeoning indie scene centered itself around the PC88. The graphical limitations were felt greatest in action games, so many developers focused on text adventures and RPGs with limited visuals. Some of the more ambitious outfits couldn’t help but poke at the limits of what was possible on the hardware, and here we get to some familiar names. In 1985, Square released Will: The Death Trap II, the first Japanese-developed adventure game with animated graphics. In ’86, Telenet achieved another industry milestone with The Fantasm Soldier: Valis, the first action game with a detailed story presented via cut scenes and dialogue. (No, it wasn’t Ninja Gaiden. Your world may be a lie.) In ’87, Falcom raised the action RPG genre out of its infancy with Ys, synthesizing the character growth of an RPG with the robust narrative of an adventure game and the immediately satisfying feel of an action game. The PC88 was such an important place to be that even Nintendo got in on the action: Super Mario Bros. Special get passed around a lot as a bizarre cracked-mirror reflection of the NES game, but Nintendo actually licensed Hudson to produce PC88 versions of a number of games, including Excitebike and Balloon Fight.

Screenshot from Testament (1987). The dev scene was comparable to similar movements in Europe and the States, and even today’s indie environment: Games made by just two or three people could earn massive attention.

Animator Mutsumi Inomata, who would go on to become one of the main artists for Namco’s Tales series, entered the industry with Square’s Alpha, the follow-up to Will. Yuzo Koshiro, whose reputation precedes him, developed his musical style on the PC88. Quintet, who seemed to come out of nowhere in the 16-bit era to drop classics like ActRaiser, Soul Blazer, and Illusion of Gaia? They started at Falcom and hopped straight to Super NES after wrapping up Wanderers from Ys on PC88. Streets of Rage developer Ancient? Headed by Ayano Koshiro (yes, Yuzo’s sister), who also split off from Falcom after drawing graphics for Ys, including its iconic title screen. Telenet’s name doesn’t garner much recognition these days, but there are even more notable creators who can be traced back to them.

Toward the end of the ’80s, the PC88’s generation was gradually supplanted by a line of more advanced computers. The FM-7 gave way to the FM Towns, and the X1 begat the X68000. NEC had introduced the PC-9800 series way back in 1982, but now dedicated development for it finally took off, seemingly closing the book on the PC88. However, the trends it started and the careers it shaped continue to the industry even today, and it lives on as part of the collective memory of Japanese retro culture. While many indie composers keep the NES sound alive with software like FamiTracker, Yuzo Koshiro never stopped composing on his trusty PC88, bringing sharp FM tunes to games as recent as last year’s Etrian Odyssey V. Just as the ZX Spectrum’s attribute clash has become fetishized in retrospect, the PC88’s 1-by-2 pixels, screen-tearing, and copious amounts of dithering have been codified as the defining aesthetic of an age gone by. And while the hardware itself may crack and decay, many of its classic titles remain available digitally through D4 Enterprise’s Project EGG. Many of us outside Japan would never have guessed the long reach of NEC’s computer, but it’s never too late to let its mark on gaming history be known.

3 Comments

Filed under Game Analysis

When Puyo Puyo went head-to-head-to-head-to-head

After touching on the origins of Puyo Puyo last week, let’s trace the history of one of the most prominently advertised features in the latest release, Puyo Puyo Tetris. The main hook, of course, is the titular coupling of Puyo Puyo with the classic Soviet mind game. While both are puzzle games where you drop pieces into a well, they feel very different and of course comprise different working parts. You might not even guess they could be mashed up in a way that works, but Sega took advantage of the fleeting opportunity that is any deal with The Tetris Company to thoroughly explore the possibilities before them. So you can play Tetris against someone playing Puyo Puyo, crushing the Garbage Puyos sent your way with Tetriminoes; or you can play a mode where you continuously switch between the two styles every time a timer runs out, while maintaining the same well of pieces; or you can go all-in and effectively play both games at once, using Puyos and Tetriminoes alike to clear both lines and colored groups of pieces. It certainly makes for a novel experience…but we’re here to talk about old things, not novelty. Fortunately, it just so happens that another feature of Puyo Puyo Tetris, while implied to be novel, in fact has a secret origin stretching nearly to the beginning of the series. I speak of course of the “frantic four-player” emblazoned on the game’s logo.

Puyo Puyo introduced four-player way back in the second arcade game, 1994’s Puyo Puyo Tsū, but the form factor left something to be desired. The game screen only accommodated two players’ wells, so two cabinets needed to be linked to get up to four, making it hard to appreciate the big picture. This was less than ideal even in the advanced environment of arcades, so most of the game’s home ports abandoned any hope of carrying over the feature. Hooking up two systems to two TVs probably wouldn’t even have been too much to ask at the height of Japan’s Puyo Puyo mania, but the technology simply wasn’t there. Some of the only ports to even attempt to recreate the experience were the humble portable versions, where players could link two Game Boys or Game Gears via a link cable and play a simulated “four-player” match with two computer-controlled opponents. (The Game Gear version is on the Japanese Virtual Console on 3DS, and the wizards at M2 even engineered the system link to work wirelessly, allowing you to experience this bizarre cludge on modern hardware…if by some chance you want to.) Some computer versions also supported four-player, introducing the world to Puyo LAN parties.

But the only console version to try its hand was the Super Famicom release, naturally dubbed Super Puyo Puyo Tsū. Sega’s home port enjoyed nearly perfect accuracy to the original thanks to the close resemblance between the Mega Drive and their System C2 arcade hardware, and the PC Engine version flaunted its CD capacity with full voice acting for the skits that run through the game’s story mode. The Super Famicom version couldn’t match up to these feats, but it did have the benefit of being made by Compile, the game’s original developer, who made up the difference with a number of exclusive modes, including the return of four-player.

This came with its share of technical hurdles, of course. Without some way to link Super Famicoms, all four players needed to share one system, requiring a peripheral like Hudson’s Super Multitap to connect enough controllers. Not only that, but without two displays, four players also needed to share the same screen. The Super Famicom’s 256-by-224-pixel resolution already meant the game’s layout had to be narrowed down from versions on hardware with 320-wide displays, so how could it possibly fit four wells on the screen at once? Compile’s solution turned out to be the same method used to get Puyo Puyo on handhelds: In addition to moving things around, shrink the graphics themselves. The Puyos, which are normally 16-by-16 objects, got quartered to single 8-by-8 sprites—the most basic unit of graphics for practical use. With this, everything just barely squeezed into place.

Tetris, for its part, introduced four-player in Super Tetris 3, another Japan-exclusive Super Famicom release. Funny ol’ world.

This version proved popular enough for Compile to follow it up with an improved rerelease, called Super Puyo Puyo Tsū Remix. After that, though, only a few Puyo Puyo games included four-player, usually coming on systems with four built-in controller ports, like the N64, Dreamcast, and GameCube—or in the form of the GBA game, which in Japan was proudly named after the mode itself: Minna de Puyo Puyo. If you go looking for older titles in the series, you definitely have to hunt to find one that allows Puyo Puyo en masse. But things have since turned around, and it’s practically become a series standard here in the age of wireless communication, sometimes allowing for as many as eight players.

While it appears hardware limitations were the only thing holding this feature back, one could argue the more aren’t necessarily the merrier. At its core, Puyo Puyo is a head-to-head affair, where strategic play means reading your opponent, identifying the combos they’re planning, setting up escape routes to mitigate incoming Garbage Puyos, and determining not only the right move but the right time to make it. Keeping all that in your head at once demands some high-level concentration, and that’s when you only have one opponent to worry about; adding two more could run up against the human brain’s capacity for processing information. As such, Puyo for four or more ends up less considered and more chaotic, sliding over into “party game” territory…but that’s not such a bad thing. Again we find there’s more than one way to enjoy a game, and it turns out Puyo Puyo is a great time whether you’re out to crush the competition or just messing around with friends. It’s the same “Why not?” approach that sees Sega dropping Tetris into the mix, and by the same token, it works.

Super Puyo Puyo Tsū image courtesy of RVGFanatic. Super Tetris 3 image courtesy of Hard Drop

Comments Off on When Puyo Puyo went head-to-head-to-head-to-head

Filed under Game Analysis

How Puyo Puyo set the world on “faiyaaah”

Sega’s release of Puyo Puyo Tetris late last month represents a triumphant return of the classic puzzle game to the West. Technically, the series’ last appearance outside Japan only came a year ago, when the second game, Puyo Puyo Tsū, was released on 3DS as part of Sega 3D Classics Collection. And before that, the same game was also released on Wii Virtual Console in 2008. But both of these versions left the game in its original Japanese, so for the last properly localized Puyo Puyo product, you have to go all the way back to 2004’s Puyo Pop Fever.

It’s hard to believe it’s been over a decade since a new entry in the series came west—so long that anyone but die-hard puzzle game addicts might need a primer to reacquaint themselves. The basic concept is simple enough: Pairs of differently colored slime blobs—the titular Puyo Puyos—drop one-by-one into a well, and you clear them out by linking them into matching groups of four or more. It differs from, say, Tetris in its potential for combos: If you have, say, two layers of blue Puyos separated by a layer of red Puyos, eliminating the red layer will automatically cause the top blue layer to fall onto the bottom one, turning a single move into a chain. This mechanic grows increasingly important as you realize its potential, and with careful planning, it’s possible to set up daisy chains of combos that clear the entire well in one big chain reaction. Dropping that last piece into place and watching your designs come to fruition is as viscerally satisfying as tipping over a winding line of dominoes.

Pictured: the humblest of beginnings.

Puyo Puyo‘s other trademark is its two-player competitive mode. This by itself was nothing new even when the game debuted in 1991, but “competition” in puzzle games usually boiled down to seeing who could keep their own well tidied up in isolation. In a stroke of brilliance, developer Compile took this basis and added the ability for players to “attack” one another by performing well. Clearing Puyos in combos causes a proportional number of “Garbage Puyos” to be dumped into your opponent’s well, disrupting their own combos and burdening them with that much more to clear away. The potential for vicious beatings is as limitless as the combo mechanic itself.

Still, Puyo Puyo didn’t make many waves in its initial appearance on MSX2 and the Famicom Disk System. The MSX was nearing the end of its relevance in ’91, and the FDS version didn’t even receive a retail release, coming packaged with copies of Family Computer Magazine. The game wouldn’t find a wide audience until a year later, when arcade giant Sega took Compile under their wing to produce a coin-op version. The core gameplay turned out to be a perfect fit for the heart-pumping world of arcade games; the only major change was throwing out the traditionally solitary puzzle game experience to focus entirely on the competitive aspect. Even the single-player mode wouldn’t let the player alone, instead pitting them against a series of zany computer-controlled opponents (drawn from Madō Monogatari, Compile’s RPG series where the Puyo Puyo first debuted as the requisite slime enemy). While the characters don’t have different abilities as in fighting games, they all have distinct AI patterns simulating the individuality of a human opponent.

The sequel, Puyo Puyo Tsū, put the finishing touch on the formula with the introduction of the “offset” rule, where players can nullify some or all of the Garbage Puyos coming their way by pulling off a combo right before they fall. With this, you can play not only aggressively but defensively, putting your long-term combo designs on hold to mitigate damage to yourself. This strategic depth, combined with the ability to overwhelm your opponent with snap decisions, distinguishes Puyo Puyo as a frantic tug-of-war with a cerebral bent, where the victory goes to the one who both outwits and outpaces their rival.

From here, Puyo Puyo grew into a major phenomenon with nationwide tournaments, countless sequels and spin-offs, and even its own line of Puyo-shaped sweets—at least in its native Japan. The whole thing was evidently considered just too darn cute to come out west at the time. You can’t argue with that kind of success, so Nintendo and Sega did localize their respective home ports of the first arcade game…but only after painting over Compile’s setting with visuals from their own brands, giving us Kirby’s Avalanche and Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine. (Ironically, Kirby is Nintendo’s cutest representative by far, but he had familiarity on his side.)

From there, localizations of the series formed a fractured breadcrumb trail under the moniker Puyo Pop, but even that dried up after 2004. Western fans have yearned without answer as one release after another has passed us by, from Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary to Puyo Puyo 7, 20th Anniversary, and beyond. So it comes as a great relief that Sega has finally given Puyo a second chance—and hey, it’s got Tetris in it, too.

Super Puyo Puyo Tsū manual scan courtesy of Gaming Hell

7 Comments

Filed under Game Analysis

Columbus Circle rescues a lost soul from digital Purgatory

Japan-based Columbus Circle is mostly a seller of clone consoles and accessories for ancient hardware, but their greatest claim to keeping gaming’s history alive is the trio of brand-new Famicom games they’ve released over the last year. Yesterday, they announced their intention to continue on this track by publishing NCS’s Kaizō Chōjin Shubibinman Zero (sometimes spelled Schbibinman Zero). But unlike 8Bit Music Power and its ilk, this isn’t an all-new game: NCS, under their Masaya brand, originally released it for the Super Famicom in 1997. But it’s not a reproduction of the game’s initial print run, either. In fact, Shubibinman Zero has never had a physical release at all until now, originally debuting as a download title for Nintendo’s Satellaview service.

If you’re reading this, your knowledge of the Satellaview is probably passing at best; it did, after all, comprise a lot of moving parts and never see release outside Japan. The heart of it was a Super Famicom peripheral supported from 1995 to 2000 in a joint venture between Nintendo and radio company St.GIGA. St.GIGA would broadcast data for games and even digital magazines from their satellite servers, which the Satellaview unit would then download into a Memory Pack slotted into a custom Super Famicom cartridge, not unlike the Super Game Boy. The distribution model was comparable to Sega’s Sega Channel and also recalled the Disk Writer kiosks Nintendo had previously placed in stores throughout Japan, where players could download Famicom Disk System games to rewritable media. But the crucial difference with the Satellaview was that you could pull games out of thin air from the comfort of your own home… Just imagine!

Some Satellaview games were designed around a concept called SoundLink, where a game could only be played during a specific time slot each week, throughout which it would be accompanied by music and voice acting streamed live over satellite radio. The logistics of this made for a bit of a disjointed experience, with the player’s time limited by the length of the performance, but it was a fascinating experiment in relating the medium of games to the shared experience of tuning in to a weekly TV show.

In addition to the main Satellaview interface cartridge, some Satellaview-compatible games were released as slotted cartridges unto themselves, using the Memory Pack to download additional content such as new stages and modes. Nintendo is known for staying behind the curve technologically, but here they were doing DLC in 1995!

As you might begin to suspect, though, all these extra features have since made the Satellaview a game preservationist’s nightmare. All the modern anxieties surrounding the lifespan of digital games locked down to proprietary systems have already come to pass here, and then some. Many games survive in emulation thanks to their ROMs being dumped, but this still leaves out the content that was never in the ROM in the first place. More ephemeral aspects of the experience, such as the broadcast music and voice acting, only endure if someone in Japan thought to make a VHS recording back in the ’90s.

Shubibinman Zero, for better or worse, didn’t explore the Satellaview’s more esoteric possibilities. But like many downloadable games, it did come built-in with a limited number of uses, similar to demos on Wii U and 3DS. Once these games were booted up a certain number of times, they would be rendered inoperable until the player re-downloaded them, and Shubibinman Zero was only available in four scattered months between 1997 and ’98. After that, any Memory Pack loaded with it had its days numbered, effectively making emulation the only sound solution…until now.

As for the game itself? It’s a two-player co-op beat-’em-up platformer, the culmination of a series that steadily evolved from the late ’80s through the mid-’90s. (The second game was localized as Shockman for the TurboGrafx-16.) It’s a bit tonally ambiguous, never quite deciding if it’s a parody of the outlandish costumes and plots of the tokusatsu genre (even the title is a joke: Chōjin sounds like the Japanese word for “superhuman” but is written with the kanji for feudal Japan’s merchant class) or merely a cute but straightforward example of it. But the confusion seems to be part of the joke to some extent, as the cutesy aesthetic occasionally gets juxtaposed with the kind of gruesome visuals found in more hardcore NCS games like Gynoug. Zero, for its part, tends toward the more lighthearted side.

Shubibinman Zero bears a copyright date of 1994 on its title screen, implying it was initially slated for a cartridge release before getting cancelled and resurrected years later for a limited run on Satellaview. No one could ever have guessed it would circle back to its original format after so many years, but that’s precisely the miracle Columbus Circle is working here. Come June 30, anyone will be able to own an official hard copy with its own cartridge, box, and all. Even if it’s unlikely to change anyone’s life, it’s nice to know it’s finally come home—no strings attached.

Satellaview image courtesy of Muband

7 Comments

Filed under Retrogaming News

Monster Land and the pleasure of tension

As I recounted yesterday, Wonder Boy in Monster Land runs hot and cold with its enticing RPG Lite mechanics belied by unmistakable arcade difficulty. But I’m here today to tell you there is life after being thrown from the final stage straight back to the title screen. In fact, this is where the game’s simplistic veneer begins to give way, revealing a textured bag of tricks the player can use to stack their odds in a rematch with the dreaded Round 11.

The first step on road to victory is raising funds, and this is where some outside information comes in handy. You’ll already have found many spots throughout the game where standing or jumping causes coins or money bags to materialize, and it pays to poke around and locate as many of these as possible. However, if these invisible fonts of wealth weren’t arcane enough, Monster Land layers an even more obscure secret right on top of them. By taking damage from an enemy, using a sub-weapon, or—and this is real—rapidly wiggling left and right the instant the money appears, its value will increase dramatically. Unassisted drops typically have values in the single digits, while drops manipulated in any of the described fashions will always come in between sixty and seventy. The technique demands precision, but pulling it off even part of the time will give you a major advantage.

The benefit is so crucial that it’s almost unfair of Westone to have hidden it so well, but it’s really another influence of the arcade scene of its day, where players needed to pool their knowledge to puzzle out how to reveal the treasure chest on any given floor in The Tower of Druaga or unlock better endings in Rainbow Islands. Fortunately, the Sega Vintage Collection release of Monster Land makes up for the loss of that cultural context by explaining these mechanics up-front in the digital manual. Developer M2, in all their wisdom, even let you map a button with the sole function of wiggling at inhuman speed. This is why they’re the best in the business.

The Sphinx is second only to the last boss in difficulty, but you don’t need to fight it at all if you heard the gossip at the pyramid bar.

With this knowledge in hand, you’ll have plenty of money; you just need to hold on to it. And the best way to do that, of course, is not to die. That’s easier said than done, but just as dying the first time sets you on a downward spiral of poverty and defeat, having enough cash to buy boots and a shield at the earliest opportunity goes a long way toward keeping ahead of the curve. Treating the entire game as a one-credit affair also reveals a system where meeting certain score thresholds earns boosts to your maximum HP. Like gold, your score is reset when you die and continue, so you could spend an entire credit-feeding session unaware that you can add to your hearts at all. In fact, you can augment your initial quintet of hearts with up to five more, potentially doubling your odds of survival by the end of the game.

These windfalls afford greater margins of error in which you can practice basic skills like precision movement and positioning, and you’ll wonder how you ever traded so many hits with enemies once you can reliably plant yourself outside their range and stab them with the very tip of your sword. (Aggressively wiggling at coins also has a way of helping you get a handle on your momentum.) Your mind will also be freed up to devise schemes to wring even more leverage out of the game, like dropping  a few gold on a bar drink just so the minimal HP recovery will reset the hourglass, or checking in to a hospital with nearly full health for a score bonus that’ll bring you that much closer to your next heart.

The next time you arrive in Round 11, you’ll be so decked out that you probably wouldn’t mind if you had to lose your remaining gold and points to a continue—but again, it’s all or nothing from here on out. While you may recall from The Dragon’s Trap‘s prologue that the castle is a maze, that incarnation is a mere reenactment, made to recall the basic concept while being short and simple enough to serve as the first area of a new game. The real thing, on the other hand, is as arduous an ordeal as you’d expect from an arcade game’s final challenge. Leaving a screen via the wrong exit will warp you to an earlier position with no sense of structural logic, so your only guide is that the path forward is usually the trickiest one to reach. The reaching itself can be an endeavor as well, whether it requires defeating enemies that spawn sequentially on opposite ends of a hall or quickly leaping back and forth between a pair of alternately rising platforms.

While you’re piecing all this together, of course, the hourglass continues counting down, slowly but surely sapping your hearts and heralding the Game Over of no return. There is a bell item that chimes when you’re on the right track, but it can only be acquired by talking to all the right people throughout the game and foregoing a ruby that can cut the final boss’s life in half. As unfriendly as the labyrinth is, the dragon at the end of it is hard to kill even at partial strength, much less without that gem. The choice is not easy, and playing this game now, staring down the very real possibility of all your carefully laid plans ending in another trip back to square one, no one could blame you for taking the ruby and looking up a map online.

I should also note you can save and load your progress with impunity in the Sega Vintage release—a temptation I resisted until the first time I made it to Round 11 in peak condition. I admit it: I was so pleased with my progress and balked at the thought of doing it all over again if I died in the final stage. And died I did. Now empowered by the clemency of retro rereleases, I simply loaded my save to try again. My second attempt went about as well as the first, but the third time was the charm. I beat the game…but I didn’t really feel like I’d won. I’d nearly gone the distance on Monster Land‘s own terms, and I knew merely watching the credits roll couldn’t be as exhilarating as sealing the deal in one beautiful, unbroken assault on the dragon’s castle. Far from feeling done, I couldn’t wait to start over from Round 1. Half an hour later, I beat the game again. First try—didn’t even need to use the life medicine I got in Round 10. And though I was back where I’d just been, watching the same credits roll, the feeling couldn’t have been more different.

This, at last, is Monster Land‘s greatest strength, perfectly encapsulating how our experiences with games can be transformed simply by altering our approach to them. First you learn to keep moving because the game demands it, and you might figure that’s what it’s about. When moving by itself proves insufficient, you gradually learn to make strategic considerations and identify the opportunities provided to you. Once you’re at this level, you can focus on honing your skills, and only when you’ve mastered them can you finally put together a winning run. (And somewhere along the way, you learn to wiggle.) Each layer you uncover requires your mindset to evolve and adapt, and it rewards you with an ever-increasing sense of accomplishment. Save-scumming may get you to the end, but you might not look back on what you beat as anything more than a pleasant diversion. However, should you engage and appreciate everything it has to offer, you just might remember Wonder Boy in Monster Land as one of the most satisfying times you’ve ever spent with a game.

1 Comment

Filed under Game Analysis