Tag Archives: sony

Alundra is 20 danged years old

Yesterday, a classic action RPG designed by Sony and Matrix turned 20 — interestingly, just two days ahead of the 25th anniversary of the U.S. release of the game it shamelessly imitated. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past debuted 25 years ago tomorrow in America (April 13, 1992), and its greatest and most fascinating clone appeared in Japan just shy of five years later (April 11, 1997): Alundra.

I love Alundra, though I admittedly haven’t played it since it was a first-run feature. Who knows, maybe my opinion would change with two decades of hindsight. But at the time, it played like the follow-up to A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening that I dearly wanted but no one else was making. I was as excited as anyone for Ocarina of Time, but even then it was clear that game would play pretty differently from the 2D Zelda games. Alundra fell into the same category for me as Symphony of the Night: The kind of experience the entire industry was eager to move away from, but which I still wanted to exist. Technical progress doesn’t mean having to slash and burn everything that’s come before, and I hated the frustrating universal media consensus at the time which demanded all games had to abandon any visual vestige of the past in order to be acceptable.

It wasn’t just a media consensus, come to that. Sony, who by mid-1997 had already taken a strong lead in the console race, had an infamous policy of disallowing 2D games on PlayStation. It wasn’t absolute law, but certainly bitmap-based graphics were frowned upon and expected to take a seat at the kids’ table. Alundra, being a Sony-published game in Japan, seemed doomed to face the same unhappy fate as other first-party “relics” like Arc the Lad. That is to say, denied a visa into the U.S. I distinctly recall reading a massive import preview blowout on Alundra in (I think) GameFan magazine which made it clear that this game was a rad adventure in the style of Zelda, and also doomed never to come to America. For the moment, this restriction didn’t burn too badly, because I was in the midst of experiencing my very first import game (the aforementioned Symphony of the Night), but still the thought that such a fantastic-looking entry in an underserved genre I deeply loved would be dangled beyond my reach… it chafed.

As it turned out, Alundra really did suffer the same fate as Arc the Lad: It was picked up for U.S. release by Working Designs. The company did a solid job with the localization — aside from the spacey surfer dude Bonaire, who felt increasingly out of place and inappropriate as the game’s plot grew darker and darker, it largely eschewed Working Designs’s trademark approach to localization (e.g. throw out most of the original text and cram in a ton of jokes). You can probably attribute that to the fact that Alundra simply wasn’t as slight as most of the RPGs WD tended to localize; it came wrapped in a pretty intense storyline. The eponymous hero had the ability to enter people’s dreams, but even as he did so an evil force was also stealing into those dreams and murdering the dreamer. By the end of the game, a whole lot of people are dead or emotionally devastated. There’s not a lot of room for levity.

Working Designs also didn’t apply their usual dramatic rebalancing to the game’s difficulty, either. While they made a few tweaks, they felt smart and welcome. For example, they made the final boss hit harder while reducing the amount of damage he could withstanding, which resulted in a shorter, more intense fight. Alundra has a reputation for being a seriously difficult game, with some tough battles and brain-bending puzzles, but that wasn’t my experience. It’s one of those games that simply clicked with me for whatever reason, and I sailed through it… even the notoriously complicated sliding-block puzzles in the ice palace.

Funnily enough, I didn’t actually buy the game at launch despite my enthusiasm for it. I somehow won a copy from IGN in a contest they had right before the game shipped… and then, months later, I still hadn’t received my copy. (Now that I’ve worked in the press, I can definitely see how that happened; no hard feelings.) I wrote one of the editors an email, and he promptly called me, apologized, and promised to get the game sent out ASAP. He was true to his word! Within a week, I had the game and the PlayStation console that was also part of the contest, along with a few random trinkets and (inexplicably) a military grade beef stew meal-ready-to-eat. So whenever I think about Alundra, I think about… army rations.

You know, 20 years later, there still aren’t very many people making high-grade 2D Zelda clones. I should probably revisit Alundra.

Images courtesy of VG Museum

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Filed under Game Analysis

A chance to reconsider Crash, maybe

Yesterday Activision announced that their HD remaster of the PlayStation Crash Bandicoot trilogy — newly dubbed the N. Sane Trilogy, because without a name what kind of gravitas could a trilogy possibly have? — will arrive June 30, almost exactly a year after its announcement at last year’s Sony E3 press conference. Now that I’m over the cognitive dissonance of Activision publishing Crash (when I was a lad, that was a Sony franchise, thank you very much), I find myself looking forward to the N. Sane Trilogy.

I am not, to be honest, a fan of Crash… which is precisely why I’m eager to try the new HD reissue. I don’t feel I really gave the Crash games a fair shake back in the day. The original game was part of the late 1996 wave of first-party publishers attempting to take platform action games into 3D, along with Super Mario 64 from Nintendo and NiGHTs: Into Dreams from SEGA. I was on the outs with Nintendo consoles at the time and starting to develop an appreciation for the PlayStation vision, so I should have been the target audience for Naughty Dog’s platformers… but they didn’t do it for me at all. Super Mario 64 was so grand, so impressive, that the other publishers’ respective forays into that space left me cold.

I don’t think that’s unreasonable, in the context of the times. Super Mario 64 felt like the future, a fully open 3D platform game that not only pulled the genre into a new dimension, quite literally, but also did it with style and refinement. Yeah, there would be better 3D platformers, but Nintendo got so much right with Mario 64. By comparison, Crash’s linear into-the-screen design felt like playing, say, S.T.U.N. Runner compared to Mario 64‘s DOOM.

At the time, there was also a suffocating sense within the media and the tiny little online gaming community that existed in 1996 that game design was a one-way journey: Progress or nothing. If a game didn’t shatter the bounds of technology and design, it wasn’t worth your time. S.T.U.N. Runner ceased to be fun once DOOM came into being, and Super Mario 64 mooted any game that restricted action to a mere two axes. This, of course, is nonsense, but it would be a few years before I became dislodged from that way of thinking and found a happy medium between that mindset and its “hardcore” USENET opposite, which posited that the value of a given game was directly proportionate to its age.

Now that I’m older and wise enough to recognize that a game can be great without pushing any particular envelopes, I want to go back and reconsider Crash. Maybe I was wrong about it, and there’s something great there despite being relatively less ambitious than Super Mario 64. Then again, maybe not — big first-party games cause a certain degree of blindness among the first-party faithful (hence the popularity of Smash Bros.…), so maybe Crash‘s adulating fans are simply suffering from an overdose of Kool-Aid. Either way, I’m eager to see for myself.

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Filed under Retrogaming News

Episode 44: Remembering PlayStation’s launch, and Satoru Iwata

A slightly unconventional episode this week. You can read about the specifics in our USgamer post, but the short version is that we had initially planned to publish this PlayStation anniversary tribute on the 20th anniversary of the system’s launch in September. However, Nintendo issued its press release announcing the death of its president, Satoru Iwata, in the middle of this episode. All things considered, it made more sense to run the episode now (skipping the Patreon paywall).

As we discuss in this episode, Sony and Nintendo’s console game businesses have always shared a close link. But after the experience of hosting this episode, the two will always be inextricably connected for me.

Download Links

Libsyn (1:38:02 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud )

Episode Description

Retronauts vet and Sony enthusiast/employee Shane Bettenhausen joins us to discuss the 20th anniversary of the PS1 launch in America. (This episode is running before its intended September time slot due to the tragic news that breaks midway through.)

Music in this week’s episode mostly comes from Exact’s Jumping Flash! The episode ends with Hip Tanaka’s “Balloon Trip” remix he created in tribute to Iwata.

Bob and I plan to reconvene next month to record more episodes, one of which will definitely focus on HAL and Iwata’s contributions to gaming. Also, yeah, I goofed on the SNES sound processor specifics — Yamaha worked on the Genesis sound processor. You don’t need to send corrections!

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Filed under Retronauts