Category Archives: Game Culture

Gaming computers of Japan: The Sharp MZ series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: Spelling may vary by region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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Enhance your Retronauts East experience with Kirin’s Retro Closet

This received a mention in our most recent episode, but I forgot to link to the site in the show comments. Whoops! Well, allow me to amend my error now.

Ben Elgin has begun compiling a Tumblr blog centered on classic gaming (and toy) material, including packaging, swag, merchandise, and other odds and ends he happens to have on hand. Best of all, the blog now includes a category specifically designated for posting material related to Retronauts East conversations. Both he and Benj have a tendency to bring along visual aids to our recording sessions, despite the fact that podcasts aren’t really a visual medium, so this is a handy way to see some of the stuff we’re talking about. Such as some original (and not-so-original, ahem) Macintosh game diskettes:

I didn’t even own a Mac until color was the baseline standard, but this is still taking me back. The multi-colored line work on the Somak Software diskette’s illustration was a popular visual element for Mac publishers back in the day; I can’t even remember where else I’ve seen it (Aldus PageMaker? ClarisWorks?), but it causes an itch in an underutilized corner of my memory banks.

Anyway, you should bookmark it and see what other weird and wonderful things Ben manages to dig up. And of course, we have Benj Edwards posting retro scans on a weekly basis over at Vintage Computing… maybe he’ll throw in some Retronauts East ephemera from time to time as well.

Related: I also forgot to link to Archive.org’s Macintosh System Library, where you can play a bunch of the games covered in the latest Retronauts episode in your web browser. No Alice to be found, but you can certainly check out Dark Castle, Scarab of Ra, The Dungeon Revealed, and several others on your next coffee break. Do it… for the Steves.

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Don’t let hype happen to you

On July 14, 2016, Nintendo announced the NES Classic Edition, a replica NES pre-loaded with thirty games from that system’s library. It was released worldwide throughout November 2016, and then, on April 13, 2017, Nintendo abruptly announced they were ceasing production. For many people, however, this living piece of gaming history might as well never have existed at all.

Fans reacted with immense enthusiasm to Nintendo’s initial reveal. Some were simply eager to revisit some of their favorite games from their childhood—while others, now with children of their own, saw it as a perfect means of weaning the next generation on the classics. Getting decent audiovisual quality from the original hardware is no simple task on a modern display, and emulators and clone consoles, if they’re accurate at all, still lack a certain authenticity. The Classic Edition embodied a more ideal solution: an official product from Nintendo, looking just like a miniaturized version of the real thing, with a curated collection of games built right in. Criticisms such as the lack of expandability for more games were rationalized with assurances that the target demographic wasn’t so much the retro enthusiast but the multitudes of adults who casually experienced the NES back when it was synonymous with video games.

But the Classic Edition never reached such a wide audience. It didn’t even satisfy the ranks of die-hard fans who were ready to open their wallets from the word “go.” Demand was still through the roof when Nintendo pulled the plug last month, and much as been made of whether this was a strategic choice or a blunder and what it means for Nintendo’s fortunes as it moves on. Not much has been said, though, of all the potential customers left in the lurch. To a large extent, their frustration is understood, taken as read—but it warrants some reflection, especially if it can be avoided in the future.

In the weeks leading up to the Classic Edition’s release, retailers warned customers they were expecting shipments in quantities so limited they wouldn’t even be accepting pre-orders. When November came, the situation was perhaps even worse than expected. Stores reported shipments of one or two systems at a time—first come, first serve. Online stores were slammed with activity as they sold out in seconds. It was not unlike Nintendo’s Amiibo, which remained scarce for ages following their release in 2014. This was different, though. This was nostalgia at work. Again, some reasoned they had to do this for their kids. For Christmas! And so they hunted the Classic Edition with all the ferocity their own parents had pursued the red Power Ranger and the Tickle-Me Elmo twenty years prior.

For all but a lucky few, acquiring the Classic Edition required becoming obsessed with it. Determined shoppers had to remain ever vigilant for tips on stores getting stocked, competing not only with fellow hopefuls but also the scalpers looking to flip the hot item for an obscene premium over the sixty-dollar MSRP. Online, they had to try to out-click bots programmed to fill their shopping carts the instant a Classic Edition went up for sale. Maybe they would get lucky enough to Add to Cart and select their shipping address, only to be informed when they tried to pay that it was already gone. Maybe they would show up to Best Buy an hour before opening, only to see the last one go to someone who got there two hours before. If you run in retro circles, you’ve probably heard stories to this effect. This might even have been you.

Christmas came and went, but nothing changed. The mental labor necessary to obtain a simple luxury item wore on people through to April, their acrimony and contempt having long since eclipsed any enjoyment they might have derived from the item itself. Then, without warning, Nintendo closed the book on the NES Classic Edition. Thousands now find themselves at the end of a long journey with nothing to show for it. Cooler heads who decided to wait for demand to die down will probably be waiting forever. Scalper prices will continue to rise (eBay prices this morning hover around two hundred dollars at the lowest, with the more brazen sellers going as high as eight thousand).

Aside from the pundits guessing at the reasoning behind it all, Nintendo themselves have not done much to explain themselves. Company reps have stated in multiple interviews that it was always the plan to discontinue after the holiday season, which—whether it’s true or not—rings awfully false when they never saw fit to mention this before and neglected to follow through until a quarter into 2017. Reggie Fils-Aimé vaguely alluded to Time that “we don’t have unlimited resources,” perhaps corroborating the theory that they killed the Classic Edition to manufacture more Switches. The lack of a reasonable excuse doesn’t help, but for some, no explanation could really make up for the grief they’ve endured.

Some have declared this the “last straw” following any number of perceived boneheaded moves by Nintendo. While these jilted fans may not number enough to affect Nintendo’s bottom line in the future, the evidence certainly shows there are a lot more of them than Nintendo anticipated when they kicked this whole thing off, and they shouldn’t be discounted out of hand. Consider how Capcom is haunted by the negativity surrounding Street Fighter V‘s launch even as they continue to add to the game over a year later, or how Sega came out swinging with the Dreamcast but ultimately couldn’t recover from losing fans’ trust after the mismanaged 32X and Saturn. Bad PR can stick.

After all we’ve been through, though, we shouldn’t come away from this worried for Nintendo’s sake. We would do much better to be concerned for our own mental health as consumers. The sentiment of “shut up and take my money” stems naturally from our love for the medium, and nothing’s wrong with that. But we’re often too quick to buy into and propagate a culture of hype around products that don’t even exist in our hands. “Never again” may in fact be the lesson here, as long as we understand the personal responsibility in learning it. As valid as it is to feel victimized by corporations when our expectations aren’t met, the part we play in sales is, in this case, voluntary, and we can and should fight to resist the siren song of the marketing department. Nintendo is already rumored to unveil a Super NES Classic Edition later this year, and some of the same old marks have vowed to own one by any means necessary. As we’ve just seen, though, “any means necessary” can include a tremendous emotional cost.

So before this happens to you—and especially before this happens to you again—ask yourself if the product really matches the promise. Do you even want the product, or do you just want to be reminded of happier times? Do you really need to own that box with the blue-to-black gradient to enjoy the feeling it inspires? Like Buddha said, suffering stems from desire—especially desiring without receiving. Like Mom said, it’s just stuff.

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