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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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TecToy’s newest authentic looking Mega Drive clone is out…with some potential extras

The new adventures of TecToy’s brand spanking, old looking Mega Drive.

News has generally been pretty good for Sega recently — not only did they announce that their earnings are on the rise, but they’ve also announced that cult classic VANQUISH is heading to PC’s later this month following the success of Bayonetta’s arrival on Steam. That’s all well and good, but there’s something else on the retro side of things — their partnership with Brazilian electronics company TecToy has been going for 30 years, and that anniversary has been marked with the official release of TecToy’s new Limited Edition Mega Drive for the Brazilian market — yours directly from the company for the price of R$449 (or roughly $140).

This particular Mega Drive generated something of a stir when it was announced due to its highly authentic look — all of the packaging is based around the classic Mega Drive that TecToy would make back in the 90’s, and the exterior of the console itself is basically a Mega Drive 1, using the same molds that TecToy used in the past for the console and its joysticks. This is in direct contrast to previous, less authentic clones that TecToy have made such as, for example, Mega Drive 4 Guitar Idol — where Mega Drive games were packed in with more modern mobile titles and a Brazilian-focused take on Guitar Hero. The new Mega Drive also features a cartridge slot for any old games you might have, and is compatible with most games — the SVP-laden Virtua Racing naturally won’t play, and neither will the Sonic 3 & Knuckles combo, Eternal Champions, Super Street Fighter II or — weirdly — Truxton. I’m not sure why Truxton, of all the older games, is incompatible, and can only deduce that it’s because they’re not fans of Classic Game Room. Sorry, Mark.

This typical TecToy clone comes with a Guitar Hero clone that’s not as good as Rock Revolution, but it has a death pact with Guitar Praise.

Mind you, anyone looking to import the machine should be aware that it is still pretty much a console on a chip, like most MD clones, with 22 built-in games that come on a mini-SD card. This selection includes classics such as Shinobi III and Comix Zone, along with…um, Crystal’s Pony Tale and Last Battle – although apparently updates to the game list will be available, and it’s not clear whether you could just bung that SD Card full of ROMs and stick it in there. This Mega Drive is also composite video only using Brazil’s PAL-M video format, and naturally it’s designed with Brazil’s rather exotic power system in mind — so you’re going to have a whale of a time getting the machine to power up without frying it, let alone getting it to display a picture. In the end, if you do manage to not blow it up and get a picture out of it then you’ll be greeted with a quite low-quality clone system, with the usual poor sound and graphics you’d expect from such a thing — this is still an ATGames machine on the inside distributed by TecToy, therefore it’s not a recommended purchase by any means. For anyone outside of Brazil, it’s a commemoration of the country’s status as a market where Sega has continued to sell for 30 years now…of course, there are a myriad of different reasons for that — the incredible taxation that Brazil puts on imported goods, political corruption and general poverty being just a few — although that’s all a subject for another day.

What is potentially of interest, however, is that the company have announced that they will be reprinting several of their own classic Mega Drive games in cartridge form to go along with the release of the console. The first of these is Turma da Mônica na Terra dos Monstros (Monica in the Land of Monsters), which is a 1994 reskin of Wonder Boy in Monster World based on the popular Brazilian comic strip and cartoon “Monica’s Gang”. There are two other Monica games by TecToy, both of which are based on Wonder Boy titles — perhaps they’ll get released too, along with the likes of Férias Frustradas do Pica-Pau (Woody Woodpecker’s Frustrated Vacations) or Show do Milhão (The Million Show – basically Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?). TecToy president Stefano Arnhold also mentioned that they wanted to reprint Ayrton Senna’s Super Monaco GP II, the classic Mega Drive racing title that TecToy actually had a large hand in through introducing the late great F1 driver to Sega in Japan, but licensing issues thwarted it.

Monica in action. Instead of a sword, she beats the shit out of people with a bunny rabbit doll. She’s pretty cool.

The general hype and interest worldwide has certainly shown one thing — there is surely an interest out there for Sega to produce an authentic clone in the same vein as the NES Classic Edition. If some people are willing to import a TecToy system from Brazil just because it looks like a Mega Drive, then surely they’d buy something more globally produced. Of course, Sega have licensed their old systems out for cheap and cheerful clones for some time now — ATGames make them, and companies like TecToy, Hyperkin in the US and Blaze in the UK distribute them. But if Sega were to commission something more authentic looking and with, one would hope, better production values than the typical ATGames clone – including things like HDMI Output, or a neat little menu, or even some cool little fake scanlines? They could be onto a very nice little earner.

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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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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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Episode 95: Face it, you’ve got Batmania bad!

For this week’s Retronauts — Retronauts East — I invited the internet’s greatest Batman expert onto this show to discuss, well, Batman. Or rather, Batman games. Chris Sims of War Rocket Ajax and The ISB (and the upcoming SwordQuest comic) stopped by for this episode to help shed some light on a corner of video games that Retronauts has touched on in passing, but never with quite this much depth.

The original plan for this episode was to cover the entire span of Batman-based classic games from 1986-2005, but we ended up going into so much detail on the context surrounding the games — especially the character’s pop culture resurgence and rehabilitation throughout the ’80s — that we barely made it past Batman Returns. And that is OK! I do wish I had known we’d only be covering half the games I assembled notes for; I’d have gone for depth rather than breadth and really drilled down into the titles we did end up discussing. But there’s a lot of great and informative conversation about the Batman franchise (thanks to Chris) that helps to better define the games. It’s a good mix.

The games we tackle in particular this time around are: Batman (ZX Spectrum), The Caped Crusader, Batman (the movie games), Return of the Joker, Batman Returns (move games, again), and Batman: The Animated Series.

Episode description: Renowned Batmanologist and comics scribe Chris Sims joins Jeremy and Benj to explore the lore of early Batman games and how they fit into the evolution of the character’s franchise.

MP3, 48.8 MB | 1:45:28
Direct download
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This episode’s music comes from a variety of Batman games: SunSoft’s NES and Game Boy movie adaptations, Return of the Joker for NES, and the SEGA CD game — whose soundtrack, I fear, I unfairly maligned. After giving the SEGA CD soundtrack a closer listen, I owe Spencer Nilsen an apology. There’s some corny butt-rock at work there for sure, yeah, but also some pretty great composition (if decidedly of a ’90s vintage, soundwise).

Finally, a big thanks to this episode’s sponsors: BarkBox, Audible, Dell, and Casper Mattresses.

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Retronauts Episode 91: A survey of SEGA’s arcade work, 1980-85

It’s Monday morning, and you know what that means. Yeah, it’s time for another Retronauts episode.

Specifically, it’s time for another Retronauts East episode. Ben and Benj join me once again in my still-in-development home studio to sit and jaw for a couple of hours about a rarely explored video game topic: SEGA’s arcade games.

“But wait,” you say. “SEGA is a beloved arcade game creator and always has been! Its arcade hits are a known quantity!” And that is true indeed. However, we’re not really looking to the company’s hits; we’re digging further into its past, to the coin-op titles SEGA produced before the ones you know and love. Specifically, we’re focused on their 1980-85 lineup.

 

As you can see from the art above, we certainly do touch on some fairly famous games: Congo Bongo, Zaxxon, Pengo, and of course Space Harrier. They’re the exceptions. For the most part, SEGA’s output in the first half of the ’80s remains fairly obscure; their work from 1986 and on is far better known here in the U.S. SEGA does a better job of preserving and republishing its later games, allowing the likes of Flashgal and Super Locomotive to vanish into the realms of the unknown and unavailable-through-legitimate-means.

This unfortunately makes for a slightly dicey episode at the beginning. We’ve all played some of these games, but certainly not all of them, and a lot of what defines them is the arcade experience. Sure, you can emulate Pro Monaco GP or Zoom 909, but an emulator doesn’t include the funky LED readouts and gauges next to the screen. Stick with it, though, and you’ll find that the conversation comes into focus as we move into SEGA’s prime days. (We also concoct some pretty decent on-the-fly theories about why SEGA’s arcade output improved so significantly around 1985 or so.)

Despite some audio bugs we’re still trying to iron out of the Retronauts East setup, and the fact that we’re taking the Retronauts name seriously by exploring somewhat unfamiliar territory here, it’s a pretty solid episode overall. And a long one, coming in at more than two hours in length! We had actually planned to take this conversation up through 1987 but literally ran out of time. But that’s OK. That just gives us an excuse to reconvene again in a few months and explore SEGA’s work in the latter half of the ’80s.

Episode description: Ben Elgin and Benj Edwards reconvene with Jeremy to explore the first half of SEGA’s arcade output. Like the games we’re discussing, the episode starts off a bit shaky, but everything is awesome by 1985. Pengo! Zaxxon! Space Harrier! Hang On! And more!

MP3, 56.8 MB | 2:03:59
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Retronauts on iTunes
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Music in this episode comes from Space Harrier (except where noted in the show), because honestly there wasn’t really all that much music worth noting in SEGA’s output from this era. That’s just a sign of the times, though. Once arcade games got to 1985 or so, their soundtracks improved exponentially. Our next SEGA arcade episode will have the opposite problem: There’ll be so much incredible music to pick from we won’t know where to begin…

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Panzer Dragoon soundtrack review

I have four more weeks left in my run with USgamer before I go solo and try in earnest to turn this podcast and site into something capable of providing me with a living (or else admitting failure and going into, I dunno, real estate or something). Think of the next 20 work days as a sort of, I dunno, farewell tour. And I’ve kicked it off the only way I know how: By writing about something extremely esoteric and extremely retro in nature. Namely, Data Discs’s recent release of the Panzer Dragoon soundtrack as a double 45rpm vinyl LP set. Because why not go all in when I’m on the way out?

It’s a fantastic release, even by the admittedly high standards of Data Discs. I played through Panzer Dragoon a very, very long time ago, but for whatever reason its music never stuck with me. Going back now and listening to it in this context, I love what I hear. It’s very… well, I can’t think of any other way to describe it except “very ’90s.” But in a good way! Not a bad, cheesy way. There are passages here that remind me of Mega Man Legends —  this one synthesizer hit with a multilayered sound I can’t really describe that both games use — as well as tracks that feel like they served as the basis for huge chunks of the Skies of Arcadia soundtrack, too. But it works most of all as a great collection of music in its own right.

Altogether, the Panzer Dragoon soundtrack feels nostalgic in a way completely different from chiptunes and Super NES or Genesis music. It’s good stuff and I strongly recommend it to anyone who’s into great game music and ever listens to vinyl. But hey, don’t take my word for it; take my word for it.

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