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

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The ZX Spectrum Next meddles with the primal forces of nature and cooks an egg

No.

 

This isn’t right.

 

Not at all.

 

You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Olifiers. And you will atone.

What we have here is the ZX Spectrum Next (which has been talked about previously at Retronauts towers) showing off the benefits of its new, larger FPGA — which it reached thanks to achieving its first stretch goal. Because of this, they’ve been able to add some more functionality to the system…part of that being the ability to play with (or emulate accurately) a SID music chip. The SID is, of course, the chip that was used in the Commodore 64 to make some of the best game music of the decade — created by Robert Yannes, it was a technical marvel that still baffles people somewhat today, considering that most other computers at the time (including the Spectrum 48k) possessed little more than a single-channel beeper in terms of sound. The Spectrum 128k upgraded its sound to an AY chip — the same sort of thing you get in a Game Boy — but still, the SID was the undisputed champion in the world of ’80s computer sound.

Even though I myself belong more to the Spectrum crowd than the C64 crowd, hearing a ZX Spectrum playing SID tunes so effectively is almost wrong, as if the streams have just been crossed. Of course, it is just a cool little bit of functionality and emulation — the Spectrum Next folk are not busy cannibalising old C64’s and cutting out their SID chips in order to stick them into the Spectrum Next (something that actually can happen to C64’s that you buy on Ebay due to the chip’s value as a synthesizer), but the feeling this brings is strange, as if someone managed to get a Mega Drive cartridge to run on a Super Nintendo. We truly are in an odd dimension.

In other Speccy Next-related news, the system has already managed to secure itself a big name character — one that may be familiar to anyone who grew up in the era. Dizzy is an egg with hands and feet, and the ability to roll around all over the place collecting objects, solving puzzles and saving his kinfolk from evil wizards — he was one of the most popular characters around back in the UK computer days with several big games under his belt, although there’s a chance that Americans may know him from Fantastic Dizzy, which did come out for both the NES and the Mega Drive/Genesis. It has been announced by the creators of the series, Philip and Andrew Oliver (better known as The Oliver Twins), that a brand new Dizzy game directed by themselves and made by a team that remade Crystal Kingdom Dizzy — one of the more maligned entries in the Dizzy canon — will be released onto the ZX Spectrum Next, not for two pounds nor for three pounds, but for free as a way of commemorating the success of the project. After several false starts and failed Kickstarters, said new game will be the first official Dizzy title in 25 years, ending a pretty long wait.  Speaking of the project, there are four days left to run on the Next’s Kickstarter, and it stands at over half a million pounds — if you fancy sticking your two’pennorth in, then don’t hesitate to do so.

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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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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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Amiga classic “It Came From The Desert” comes full circle as trailer released for film version

Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Cinemaware were one of the more visible game developers out there, and often one of the first ports of call for anyone who wanted to show off just what you could do on the Amiga. They made games that wore a heavy cinematic influence on their sleeve and were usually pretty high on plot and cutscenes. The games didn’t always work out — the less said about their attempt at making a cinematic basketball game, the better — but games such as The Three Stooges, The King of Chicago, Defender of the Crown and their final WWI-based title Wings all certainly have their place and are loved by many. Perhaps no Cinemaware game is as loved as It Came From The Desert is, mind you — and thanks to the efforts of Finnish director Marko Mäkilaakso, a film adaptation of the game is going to be coming out soon, with a trailer released a couple of days back.

The original game sure loved to put you in a tight spot. Both ants and shadows are confirmed to be in the film.

The original It Came From The Desert is loved for being a heartfelt tribute to classic ’50s/’60s B-movies where you play as Dr. Greg Bradley and attempt to contain an infestation of giant ants — in particular, it takes a big dollop of inspiration from the 1954 film Them. All the while, you try and find evidence for the sudden appearance of these monstrous insects by way of scanning the town for evidence and conversing with the local yokels — some of whom aren’t exactly kindly predisposed towards your investigation. There’s certainly plenty of material there for a good film, although you’d expect that from Cinemaware.

Work started on the film adaptation of the game in 2015 courtesy of Finnish studio Roger! Pictures and producer Teemu Virta, with principal photography taking place in Almeria, Spain around the Autumn of 2016. It has been clear from the outset that the film takes a rather loose approach to the source material — if you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of the game’s plot and setting, forget it. This has been pitched more as a horror comedy based around hordes of ants attacking groups of younger people that presumably will have more than the odd callback to the source, but is quite in line with modern B-movies — the likes of Sharknado, Sharktopus, Dino Shark and about 1,000 other movies that also involve sharks. This movie is different from those ones because it doesn’t feature sharks, it features ants.

While it’s not fair to judge the piece from a minute-long trailer, it doesn’t look particularly hot – and if you’re looking for a film that’s faithful to the game, you’re probably not going to find it here. It appears to be rather action-oriented and set in the present day, with motocross bikers running from ants that, considering the quality of the CGI on display, should probably not have been shown in the trailer. The acting is in keeping with typical B-movie standards in that it’s stilted, wooden and generally very bad indeed, and I don’t know about you but I had a really strong urge to buy Nissan after the trailer was done. Fans of the original game, needless to say, are not best pleased by what they’ve seen in this trailer.

It is worth keeping in mind though that this film is in itself a B-movie. It Came From the Desert is unlikely to see the inside of a theatre — that sort of quality just isn’t there, and it’s more likely going to be found on an on-demand service near you sometime later this year, or perhaps even on the SyFy channel at some point. If cheesily acted, comedy tinged modern horror B-movies are your bag, then perhaps this will be suited for you — especially if you don’t have any ties to the original game, as this film appears to be connected to that by virtue of name and setting only. Of course, the worst case scenario is that we end up with an Uwe Boll-style disasterpiece on our hands, in which case those who are tasked with covering the thing will probably be hoping that the director of this film doesn’t share Uwe’s penchant for punching up critics in the ring.

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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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The sad day that third parties arrived on NES

For the next few weeks, Retronauts Video Chronicles will be mired in October 1986. Although U.S. release dates from the 8- and 16-bit eras have proven to be depressingly vague — we can pin releases to the month, and not always accurately, but precise days are out of the question — whichever day in October 1986 saw the American debut of third-party publishers for NES will live in infamy. Until we somehow can narrow that event down to a specific date, though, I’m afraid we simply have to indict the whole month.

Third parties, of course, have proven through the years to be essential to the success and survival of any platform. With the NES, though, that wasn’t a given. The biggest precedents Nintendo had to go by were the terrible impact unregulated third-party releases had on Atari, and the wildly variable quality of Famicom third-party titles in Japan — not exactly the most encouraging standards to work against. Nevertheless, the company decided not to shut down third-party releases for NES but rather to wrangle absolute control over them. It was a bold and daring concept… not entirely without precedent, but certainly something that had never been attempted at the scale and scope Nintendo aspired to.

Obviously, it worked out pretty well for them. Nintendo is still around today, and the concepts they laid down for third parties continue to serve as the standard for an entire industry. Love it or hate it, licensing under watchful first-party supervision is a fact of video game life these days.

That said, you certainly would not have expected Nintendo and its licensing scheme to have made it this far based on its debut releases. Those first four games to hit the market in the U.S. without the familiar Black Box branding were not good… well, there’s one exception to that, but yeah. Bad times all around. Here’s the first of them, if we’re going by original Japanese release dates: M.U.S.C.L.E. Tag Team Match by TOSE and Bandai. It’s based on the toy line by the same name (and the manga that inspired it), and this game is very much the M.U.S.C.L.E. to Black Box Pro Wrestling‘s G.I. Joe: Simple, primitive, and clumsy. The analogy does break down along the way, I admit. M.U.S.C.L.E. toys possess a certain charm and appeal that the game lacks.

Things would get better from here, but really — not an inspiring proof of concept.

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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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Retronauts Episode 99: More game music. More! More!

This week brings another episode of Retronauts Radio. You should know the drill by now. Lots of music, lots of musing about that music. With this latest episode, I’ve highlighted four different works.

  • Snatcher (LP, Ship to Shore): Definitely the highlight of this episode — it comprises about half the total running time.
  • BRA*BRA | Final Fantasy Brass de Bravo 3 (CD or MP3, iTunes): A collection of Final Fantasy soundtrack covers, loosely affiliated by the inclusion of brass instruments across a huge variety of styles. Not that the world needs yet another Final Fantasy cover set, but some of these are pretty fresh.
  • HuCard Disc in Taito Vol. 1 (CD, CDJapan): A collection of classic Taito music… but not the original Zuntata arcade performances. Instead, these are taken from the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 ports of the games. Some of it is quite good, some… less good.
  • Switched On: A Link to the Past (MP3, Bandcamp): Another entry in the expanding field of retro analog synthesizer covers of beloved classic game music.

MP3, 53.7 MB | 1:51:24
Direct download
Retronauts on iTunes
Retronauts at PodcastOne

In other words, some great stuff this month, and some acquired tastes. Next month, I’ll look at some actual Zuntata arcade jams, another Konami adventure, and… who knows what else?

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