Category Archives: Game Analysis

Kim recommends…Lionheart (Amiga, 1993)

The Amiga was, during its time, particularly well known for its demoscene — one side of this was, of course, the hacking of lots of Amiga games and all of that good old piracy stuff, but plenty of talent went into the “cracktros” that usually accompanied said games, not to mention the graphical demos that these teams would create on their own, using the Miggy’s graphical hardware to create some definite magic. There are lots of different stories from the demoscene world of software whizkids doing their thing, and occasionally taking their talent and applying it to games — one group of demoscene kids known as The Silents went on to become Digital Illusions CE, made their name with the likes of Pinball Illusions on the Amiga, and gradually became one of the world’s biggest video game developers as EA DICE. Another ex-demoscene group, Thalion, weren’t quite as fortunate — but before their demise, they left us with several classic games, chief among which is the frankly staggering Lionheart.

There’s not a whole lot to say here other than my god, it’s beautiful.

When I talk about Amiga graphics, “parallax scrolling” is likely to be the first thing that comes to your mind — the art of differently-scrolling planes is something that the system was pretty good at, as evidenced in the main by Psygnosis’s Shadow of the Beast. Naturally parallax scrolling could get overused — it soon stopped being impressive after a while, and there were plenty of egregious examples where parallax frankly just got in the way of the actual game. Lionheart, however, even after years of parallax-based fun before it, is the definitive example of how well it works on the Amiga — it manages to do the whole “every screen is a Roger Dean prog rock album cover” schtick even better than Beast does, and I’d struggle to find a game on the Amiga that, on the whole, is prettier than Lionheart. For the game’s artist, Henk Nieborg, this would be the title that made his name — you can also find his work on the likes of Flink, The Adventures of Lomax and the Shantae series.

Even better than the art, however, is the fact that Thalion matched it up with excellent gameplay. Lionheart is a very playable hack ‘n’ slash title — it’s fun to deal with the various creepy-crawlies and otherworldly behemoths the game throws at you. There’s enough variation to keep things moving, and as opposed to a more straightforward game like Shadow of the Beast you’re allowed to explore somewhat without things going wrong. One of the big problems with a lot of parallax-heavy games was the significant lack of gameplay that ended up being associated with them, but Lionheart showed that you didn’t need to sacrifice good gameplay for pretty pictures, and that they could co-exist comfortably.

Someone should re-release Lionheart, only with songs by Yes being the entire soundtrack. It’d definitely work.

Lionheart’s developers, Thalion, were all about creating games that, technically, were right on the bleeding edge for both the Amiga and the Atari ST — the majority of their games were all graphically excellent, and that was often married with very good gameplay. Alas, good sales often seemed to elude them — as one of the smaller games studios around, they often found their sales damaged greatly by the sheer prevalence of piracy in the Amiga scene. Lionheart was their attempt to see if making such graphically strong action games on the Amiga was still commercially viable — and despite excellent reviews, the sales showed that it weren’t. Thalion ultimately closed their doors in 1994, preserving their work on the UK computers for all time — Lionheart is perhaps the most accessible and greatest example of the legacy that they left behind, and one of the strongest Amiga exclusive titles out there to boot.

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Fire Emblem reaches into the past to give the series a fresh new feel with Shadows of Valentia

I very nearly embarrassed myself with my take on Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. If I hadn’t realized a few days ago that the latest 3DS entry in Nintendo and Intelligent Systems’ strategy RPG franchise is a remake of an old Famicom game, I might have waxed rhapsodic about how it offers a “welcome burst of inspiration” or “finally helps add some interesting new innovation” to the series’ formula. As it turns out, though, the “innovation” that makes Valentia so appealing was in fact laid down 25 years ago in the original version of the game: Fire Emblem Gaiden.

In fairness, it would have been an easy mistake to make. Fire Emblem Gaiden, also referred to by many fans as Fire Emblem II, has languished in Japan until now. Nintendo didn’t begin localizing Fire Emblem titles until the Game Boy Advance/GameCube era, so unless you deliberately went looking for information on that 8-bit sequel, you could just as easily assume Valentia was simply the latest new work in the franchise. You could also be forgiven for simply assuming the cumbersome subtitle is a series trademark, coming so soon after last year’s Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright/Revelation/Conquest. However, “Echoes” will seemingly serve as Nintendo’s branding for Fire Emblem remakes. This comes more than a decade late for their series’ first remake, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for Game Boy Advance, alas — though in terms of scope and effort, Valentia absolutely shames Shadow Dragon. [Correction: Shadow Dragon was released on DS — Jeremy]

If you remember Shadow Dragon, that remake simply brought the original Fire Emblem for Famicom up to approximately Game Boy Advance standards. It boasted nicer, more detailed visuals and more elaborate text than the older version, but otherwise, it felt pretty similar to the 8-bit release. Valentia, on the other hand, brings an older to the standards of the original 3DS Fire Emblem titles — and then takes it a step further. The combat engine comes straight from Fates: You shuffle your little strategy pawns as 2D sprites around a slightly tilted battlefield, and once a combat encounter commences the camera zooms in and blurs to a cinematic 3D sequence in which your characters’ actions play out against a foe.

This time, however, the 3D view serves an expanded role. It’s not just about looking pretty; once you claim certain map areas from the foe, you’re allowed to venture into that building or dungeon. Rather than play out as a static screen with actions determined by menu, these dungeon-dives feel more like a traditional RPG. Your hero or heroine ventures into the dungeon on foot, with the camera following behind them. You can hunt for treasures, smash up destructible objects in the environment, and even take on foes. Encounters with the enemy are initiated by making physical contact with them (and you can strike as you collide during exploration in order to gain initiative), and they play out as standard Fire Emblem battles.

You don’t often see this mix of classic RPG exploration and tactical combat. It calls back to older RPGs like SSI’s Dungeons & Dragons: Pools of Radiance or the first few Arc the Lad games for PlayStation, and for me it makes Valentia the most engaging Fire Emblem I’ve played to date. The constant stream of drawn-out engagements that comprise a strategy RPG can feel like a real drudge after a while; at the same time, it’s difficult to leaven things with lightweight battles, because they feel like an inconsequential waste of time. The free-roaming exploration sequences — limited as they may be here — creates just the right kind of palette-cleanser between major engagements to keep Valentia from becoming monotonous. The battles you face in most of the dungeons are inconsequential, feeling more like random filler battles in a standard console RPG than meaty tactical encounters… but in the context of exploration scenes that play like something out of a standard console RPG, they work perfectly.

This change of pacing would be a welcome innovation — the next step forward in Fire Emblem‘s evolution — if not for one critical fact: The dungeon exploration element comes directly from Fire Emblem Gaiden. While the 3D perspective is new for 3DS, the idea of breaking away from the map-by-map campaign for a bit of light dungeon-crawling was what made Fire Emblem Gaiden Fire Emblem Gaiden. It was something of an experiment, a creative side story excursion (as denoted by the title), and it ultimately proved to be an evolutionary dead-end; to my knowledge, no other Fire Emblem title has incorporated a similar mechanic. Even here, it’s somewhat diminished from the original game; Fire Emblem Gaiden allowed you to explore towns in a similar fashion, while in Valentia you navigate those areas through a bog-standard strategy RPG menu system, jumping from scene to scene.

All of this complements a solid core game. Valentia tells the story of two childhood friends thrust into opposition with one another by the tides of war and duty. Once you play through the two introductory chapters, which serve to set up protagonist Alm and Celica’s respective stories, the main game sees you playing out both hero and heroines’ campaigns simultaneously. You can switch freely between both characters, advancing each story as you see fit — and there are just enough dynamic events on the map (such as mercenary teams appearing to reinforce the enemy army at critical junctures) that you have to switch up your approach from time to time to put out fires or staunch the flow of bad guys.

The free movement sequences in Valentia never last long enough to overstay their welcome, and I have to wonder why developer Intelligent Systems dropped the concept in later games. They really do add a lot to the Fire Emblem formula, and I have to hope that positive reception to Echoes will inspire IS to consider revisiting the concept in future releases.

I also appreciate the fact that IS has taken inspiration here from another incredible strategy RPG remake: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for PSP. Specifically, Echoes incorporates that game’s rewind feature to allow you to undo a botched action. As in TO, this feature is absolutely optional; and here it’s far more limited, with the number of actions you can rewind strictly set per battle and parceled out based on the number of supplemental items you can locate. But given the (optional) presence of permadeath in Fire Emblem, the ability to step back two or three moves can keep the game from feeling like a huge waste of time. You’re definitely going to reset the game when the random number generator breaks unfairly and, for example, you lose a beloved character forever because you whiff twice on an action with an 80% success rate while the enemy lands a critical riposte despite less-than-even odds of even landing a blow. The rewind saves you the trouble of having to start all over again — but you can’t abuse it, and you can completely ignore it if you find it cheapens the game’s tension.

One other nice thing about Valentia — and this is admittedly a personal preference — is the fact that its retro roots tone down the party-chat dynamic. The most recent games in the series have nearly gone full-on dating simulation, with an increasing emphasis on character romances and marriage. Valentia feels a lot more buttoned-down than the other 3DS entries in the series, with the character-pairing mechanics taking on a far more limited scope than in Awakenings and Fates. Only specific characters — those with established interpersonal relationships — can build their affinity for one another by performing supporting actions, and those connections reach their max level without the marriage-as-resolution culmination that has become the standard. While some of the character dialogue certainly has undertones (and even overtones) of flirtation, hinting alternately at both mixed- and same-sex attraction, Valentia (at least so far as I’ve seen) stops short of the mai-waifu trend that’s come to define the franchise.

Of course, there’s plenty I haven’t seen of Valentia yet. I’m a long way from beating the game, and then there’s the game’s extensive downloadable content (which somewhat infamously costs more than the game itself). So who knows what shenanigans lie ahead? The important thing is that I actually feel motivated to find out — a new sensation for me when it comes to Fire Emblem. I respect the series and have enjoyed dabbling in the more recent releases, but the games have never truly grabbed me until now. And really, Valentia just goes to show what Retronauts is all about: The importance of looking to history for inspiration. Sometimes, the best and most refreshing ideas in games are the ones that have been laying around right under our noses, forgotten, for years and years.

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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.

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Kim recommends…Skitchin’ (Mega Drive, 1994)

(This post will be even better if you load up this here YouTube video and listen to the contents within while reading. Seriously, do it. In the words of Dr. Evil, throw me a frickin’ bone here.)

With news about old machines being rather slow today — as is often the case — it’s perhaps time for another recommendation post.  Skitchin’ is one of those games on the Mega Drive that can be somewhat unfairly maligned, perhaps due to it being the absolute single most ’90s game in existence – the entire decade runs through it. You’ve got the crunchy guitar soundtrack, the digitised pictures of folks with asymmetrical flattops and other ridiculous hairstyles, the graffiti aesthetics and the very art of skitching itself – hitching a ride by hanging on to the back of a car while also on skates or rollerblades. Skitching’s a real act and can be pretty damn dangerous, meaning that like any true ’90s video game, Skitchin’ also generated tons of controversy as people worried about their kids copying what they saw on the screen. Nothing even comes close to being as ’90s as Skitchin’.

Dunno about you, but I’ll buy anything sold by a greasy guy out the back of a van. Those shades are back in, by the way.

What’s often forgotten about the game amidst the entire summation of the whole Generation X period though, is how great Skitchin’ actually is. It’s an offshoot of the much more popular Road Rash series, with the same focus on beating your rivals — literally and figuratively — to first place, but the gameplay has a lot more features than just on the road violence. The art of skitching itself is so fun to do in game, as you quickly try to switch from the back of one car to the next, launching yourself from the side each time…it’s nuts and normally goes badly when you don’t quite make it to the car in front, but it’s so fast — it helps that Skitchin’ runs really smoothly, a lot better than Road Rash I and II does.

Skitchin’ is also a very active racer — again, more so than Road Rash where it often seems like you just move from one biker to the next. Every other skitcher is trying to do the same thing you are, and it’s quite a difficult act — meaning that it’s not uncommon to watch as your rivals get sent flying everywhere on a busy road as a car slams into the back of them.  Hazards on the road are plentiful – cars aside there’s oil slicks, the odd barricade, and plenty of ramps, which can kinda surprise you. Ramps offer a chance to show off by doing a trick too, as long as you stick the landing…you can even do this off of any skater who happens to be lying in the road. Imagine flying off of a rival, doing a star jump and sticking the landing as the crowd admire you — that’s pretty freaking gnarly. Of course, unexpected jumps like that often result in you landing in a crumpled bone heap and then getting knocked for six by an incoming vehicle. Skitchin’ demands serious engagement, all the time.

The art of Skitchin’ itself. In the words of Dr. Dre, “Never let me slip ’cause if I slip, then I’m slippin'”.

It was often hard for people to take Skitchin’ seriously at the time and it obviously still is in many ways — it couldn’t hammer home the time it’s from any more than it does. But then virtually everything about the game actually works — the risk/reward gameplay that it revels in, the technical craft, even that music — which is one of the few times that anyone, especially in a Western game, has made electric guitar on a Mega Drive game sound really good. Only a few years after Skitchin’, extreme sports games would be absolutely everywhere as the craze for skateboarding gathered momentum, and in that context Skitchin’ is far from out of place. It’s taken me quite some time to take the game seriously — you’ll probably be the same — but I’ve come to think that it’s better than any of the classic and better known Road Rash titles. But whatever, enough beeswax from me — if you’ve got the cheddar, then peace on out to the local Atari store, and gank yourself a copy. It’s the bomb-diggity, no diggity. We outta here.

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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

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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

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Kim recommends…D/Generation (Amiga, 1991)

D/Generation always seems to be a game that slips through the cracks somewhat, despite being a thoroughly cyberpunk game that combines a lot of different elements together pretty well — there’s isometric shooting, a decent amount of puzzling, and a lot of good plot and mood setting. It’s also one of the legitimately really good games that came out for the CD32, not to mention one of the few CD32 re-releases that actually took advantage of the new platform — although it’s still probably best on the A500 simply for controlling reasons.

Anyway…D/Generation. What is it? You play as a thoroughly oblivious courier who has to deliver a package to the offices of a company called Genoq. Specifically, you must deliver it to a researcher named Jean-Paul Derrida, perhaps the most awesome compound name made up of two famous people in the history of games. In the beginning, you don’t really know anything at all — you’re just a lowly courier, until the office doors lock behind you and you’re suddenly greeted with lots of dead folk, security systems that have gone haywire, and a ton of biomonsters lurking on the ten floors between you and your delivery point…hey-ho, may as well deliver the package! We don’t want our wages docked or anything now, do we?

An iconic computer game quote. That’ll teach you not to peer down into weird alien egg-shaped things.

In D/Generation, just about every room offers something of a different challenge, or some neat little way to use the laser gun which you fortunately find along the way — more than just blasting enemies, it can bounce off of walls or travel through teleportation devices. You’ll need to use these for the puzzle-based rooms, although there’s plenty of other rooms where progress is merely a case of turning a bunch of abominations into anti-matter and saving one of the survivors of the attack from a somewhat grisly end. You do also have a quite limited supply of bombs, which can be useful — simply because you can use them to blast through a door if you need to, thus getting yourself out of a puzzle you can’t solve. They don’t grow on trees, mind you.

The game was very well received at the time — it earnt little but 90’s and high 80’s from most of the big magazines around, and Amiga Power actually rated it as the 40th best game in the whole history of the computer, which is no mean feat. And yet,D/Generation is largely forgotten these days…sometimes the isometrics can cause a few annoyances and it’s quite the touch cookie, but it never managed to get too far past the Amiga’s boundaries — there is a PC version, but that’s it. It’s a surprise that no attempt was ever made to port it to a console, either by Mindscape or someone else — it’d probably be better than some of the other Amiga ports we did see on the 16-bits, like Onslaught or Sword of Sodan. There is an HD remake of the game available on Steam, although reviews for this version are somewhat middling and thin on the ground. And so, D/Generation remains obscure, which is unfortunate — as just like the courier in the game itself, most folks have no idea what’s actually lurking within. Highly recommended.

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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.

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How “Wonder Boy 2” became genre soup

Released in 1986, Westone’s Wonder Boy might be the quintessential arcade platformer. Even a casual observer would note its breezy sensibility, its single path forward, its sense of forward momentum—its “arcade feel.” But what all these boil down to is an intimate connection to the economics of arcade games. To wit: “Time is money.” We know from interviews with industry veterans that arcade developers designed their games with a certain rule of thumb in mind: On average, players should drop a hundred-yen coin into the machine every three minutes. This was easily gauged early on, as games didn’t allow for downtime at all: There’s nowhere to run from the encroaching aliens in Space Invaders, and aside from some inherently brief intermissions and flashes of invincibility, Pac-Man keeps the player under constant threat of being hunted down by monsters. But as games evolved into more granular experiences, they began to allow the player more control over their pace. With this came the potential to lengthen that all-important wait for the next coin, so developers realized the need for measures ensuring the player would always be either in danger or in the process of moving somewhere dangerous.

Bosses in Gradius games abruptly explode if fights drag on too long, not to reward or even admonish the player but simply to get the screen scrolling again, hopefully to somewhere they might be better at dying. Some games track an invisible timer that spawns a hard-to-dodge hazard when time’s up, such as the infamous Baron von Blubba in Bubble Bobble or the fatal mist that slowly but inexorably creeps up behind the player in Splatterhouse. Many others settled for the less organic but easily understood tactic of imposing a hard limit on the player’s time and throwing it up on the screen. This was the approach Westone used for Wonder Boy, but they took it further by making the timer a distinctly prominent part of the display, depicted as a gauge so the player can watch as the color drains out of it. And it depletes quickly—far more quickly than you can complete even a single stage—demanding you gather fruit to bump it back up. This constant tug-of-war against entropy proves to be a major focus of Wonder Boy‘s design, as important as beating enemies and leaping hazards as you charge ever to the right, eyes peeled for the next melon.

A year later, producer Ryuichi Nishizawa found himself in a mindset that couldn’t have less to do with arcade games. Much like Yuji Horii, he was obsessed with the seminal computer RPG Wizardry. But while Horii had no trouble transitioning from graphic adventures into Dragon Quest, Nishizawa was burdened by his previous success. Everyone expected a sequel to Wonder Boy. Ultimately, his solution was to take the first game’s trademark urge to move and mash it up with an RPG’s exploration, resource management, NPCs, and character growth. The Frankenstein child that resulted was Wonder Boy in Monster Land.

Even the display is influenced by RPGs of the day, with a screen-sized HUD divided into discrete little sections for your stats and equipment while the action unfolds in a window.

You won’t find much fruit in Monster Land, but you will find money that can be spent in shops for boots, shields, and armor. As you upgrade your equipment, you can run faster, jump higher, block projectiles, and sustain more damage. Temporary buffs appear as gauntlets for offense, helmets for defense, and winged boots to make great flying leaps. You can duck into bars and listen to gossip in the form of boss strategies and directions to otherwise unindicated secrets. You’ll knock on invisible doors, outsmart the Sphinx, use an array of magical sub-weapons, and even embark on a game-spanning side-quest for an item of unrivaled power. But throughout it all, true to Monster Land‘s heritage, you will always be under the gun to press on as fast as you can.

Shops close forever after you make a purchase, visit them twice, or idle inside for maybe twenty seconds. Aside from the shop screen, there are no menus. Your sub-weapons can’t be selected; they just pile on top of each other in one big stack in the order you picked them up. And most pressing of all, the timer from Wonder Boy is back, now in the form of an implacable hourglass. When the sands run out, you’ll lose one heart from a row  of only five, and then the thing flips over and starts counting down to the next heart. Recovering HP by any means (including completing a stage) will also reset the timer, but aside from that, the sand can only be restored by touching a rare hourglass item.

As you’re pressured to advance, your first trip through Monster Land will likely be a comedy of errors where you dash past opportunities to improve your condition and rush headlong into enemies due to your slightly slippery movement. When you inevitably die, you can keep your progress as long as you insert another credit, but you lose your gold. This leads to a vicious cycle where you lack the funds to buy equipment, die because you’re sorely underdressed, lose your gold…and repeat. Swords don’t cost a thing, but they’re all guarded by optional bosses, and you’ll reach a point where these become practically unwinnable without the right gear. With enough determination, though, it is possible to bumble through the game in this sorry state—right up until the Round 11, the final stage. When you die here, you’ll line up the next credit as you’ve done many times before…only to find yourself looking at the title screen.

Yes, in the harshest reminder that it’s an arcade game first and foremost, Monster Land cuts off the ability to continue once you approach the end, ruling out even a cynical “pay to win” option. It’s a shot in the gut if you’re not expecting it, but this is a short enough game that you can keep most of it in your head at once. Once the shock wears off, you may find yourself thinking back over every wrong turn and how much better things could have gone—formulating an all-encompassing plan of attack. And the trip back to Round 1 may not be the cruel joke it appears to be, for it’s here, in the runback, where Monster Land really starts to shine.

Come back tomorrow for what I promise will be my last time writing about Wonder Boy and/or Monster World…for a while. And I swear I’ll tell you about the wiggling.

 

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There awaits only more Monster World

Last month, French developer LizardCube released their beauteous remake of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap remake, a painstaking ode to a classic game which had gone largely overlooked solely for being trapped on the wrong hardware. Now any fan of retro platformers, action RPGs, and/or Metroidvanias owes it to themselves to put console allegiances aside and spend a few hours getting lost in the dense forests, arid wastes, winding caverns, and deep blue sea of Monster World. Then again, being the on-the-ball Retronaut you are, maybe you’ve already completed Bocke’s journey to regain his human form and found yourself yearning for more. If that’s the case, you should look no further than the assortment of Monster World games Sega brought to PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii back in 2012.

Ported by the masters at M2, the titles number three in all: Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy in Monster World, and Monster World IV. Looking past the localized titles that only exacerbate this series’ confusing lineage, what you have here are in fact Monster World I, III, and IV. (Though in fact, the arcade version of Monster Land is titled as such even in Japan. For whatever reason, the Japanese Sega Master System version was renamed Monster World, and the series continued from there.) The Dragon’s Trap, which is Monster World II, was unfortunately passed over at the time, perhaps owing to the fact that only the downsized Game Gear version had been released in Japanese before; the Master System version was exclusive to America and Europe. But with this year’s remake, which includes the game in its original form, the entire Monster World series is now available to play in one modern format or another. (But not, mind you, the entire Wonder Boy series… Westone must have been on some kind of mission to make a line of games this mystifying.) Whether you’re a new recruit or you carried Westone’s torch all these years, there’s never been a better time to plunge into this world of side-scrolling role-playing and funny animal people.

Same.

Monster World IV is the easiest to recommend, boasting a fluid move set, fleshed-out dungeon puzzles, a heartwarming story, a setting that evolves over time, adorable animations, and a stunning use of color that you’d never guess was brushing up against the limits of the Genesis hardware. All that said, it’s also the least similar to every other game in the series—a brave new world unto itself, but maybe not the first thing to reach for if you’re just after a fundamental Monster World experience. Wonder Boy in Monster World is a more workmanlike installment that plays out a bit like a “greatest hits” compilation of the series up to that point. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but it’s definitely best to play in order of release. Come to it before its predecessors, and its many homages will fly right over your head; go back to it after the clean break that is Monster World IV, and you’ll probably find yourself disappointed by its relative lack of ambition.

If you’re fresh off The Dragon’s Trap, I would instead point you to its direct predecessor: Wonder Boy in Monster Land. For one thing, The Dragon’s Trap begins shortly before the end of Monster Land, with our hero facing down a robotic dragon at the heart of an impossible maze, and you might be wondering how he got into that predicament in the first place. For another, well…Monster Land might actually be the secret best game in the series. Compared to a latter-day 16-bit effort like Monster World IV, it may appear simplistic at first—archaic, even—but there’s a lot going on under its hood. There’s so much, in fact, that I started talking about it and soon realized I couldn’t stop. So come back tomorrow for part two, where I’ll explain at length how Monster Land‘s various moving parts combine to instill the player with a sense of tension and accomplishment rarely found in games. For now, I’ll leave you with this hint: it involves wiggling. A lot of wiggling.

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