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Archive for January 2012

Storytelling: How Shigeru Miyamoto Saved NOA

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When Nintendo decided to move over to America, it wasn’t to begin the world of the NES but rather to establish a market for arcade games.  Nintendo of America (NOA) had struggled ever since it migrated to the United States, complete with difficulty finding a home base in both New York and New Jersey, eventually staying for good in the Seattle area.  At the time Nintendo’s owner, a gruff businessman by the name of Hiroshi Yamauchi, had inherited the company and vowed to make it into the powerhouse it eventually became.  Yamauchi recently warmed up to his son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, and decided to make him in charge of Nintendo’s American migration thanks to his free-spirited nature, familiarity with the country and ability to overwork himself.  Now Arakawa was attempting to find the big arcade game that would put NOA on the map like Space Invaders had done for Taito.  That game was to be a linear space shooter called Radarscope.

Unfortunately for various reasons the project was delayed hitting the United States and while NOA desperately waited a little arcade game by the name of Pac-Man took America by storm.  By the time Radarscope arrived it was viewed as boring and no one was playing it in arcades.  With more than 2,000 units in a warehouse, Arakawa’s heart sank and he desperately worked to find a way to save Nintendo’s future in America. His gestalt came when he figured out that all arcade cabinets had similar insides all working together in sync and possibly they could replace the main board that controlled the game without having to rebuild the arcade.  As a result, 2,000 Radarscopes could become 2,000 of some other great game – they just needed a game.  Arakawa reluctantly called back to Japan and spoke with his father-in-law, hoping that some of his amazing talent would be able to create the game that would save the day.  Because Nintendo’s dream team was busy working on the console that would eventually become the Famicom, Yamauchi wasn’t going to move someone off for a game to save the US market.  Instead he sent a fresh designer by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto to create an arcade game for Arakawa.  When word got back that some young designer that was still wet behind the ears would create the game that would make or break NOA, Arakawa was extremely nervous.

Miyamoto decided he wanted to adapt the story of Beauty and the Beast as the basis for his game.  He decided to go with a large ape not unlike King Kong – the obvious connection to the monumental movie ape has never been denied – that is mistreated by his owner.  Upon his escape the ape decides to kidnap his owner’s girlfriend to get back at him and the point of the game would be to take control of the owner and get her back.  Most of the decisions for main character “Jump Man” – eventually Mario – were made from personality or design standpoints.  He had a big nose to make him appear clumsy and he was a carpenter so as to make him more of an average joe.  The mustache was used to distinguish his facial features on a small sprite, as are the choice of red and blue overalls for his costume.  His arms swayed with movement to point out his courageous nature and he wore a hat to avoid dealing with his hair’s physics when he jumped or fell.  Miyamoto had the ape scaling different level’s at his owner’s construction site, which accounted for the beams and ladders as well as the barrels for ammo. 

The name was created by poor translations in an english-japanese dictionary: “kong” to mean ape makes sense in all languages, but the beast was to be also loveable and their dictionary claimed “donkey” meant goofy.  With one poor piece of translation literature “Goofy Ape” became “Donkey Kong”.  In America Jump Man was renamed to Mario after the harsh landlord of Nintendo’s first warehouse, Mario Segali, that they didn’t much care for.  Donkey Kong was replaced in the whole shipment of Radarscopes and sold off.  This is why even today, it’s possible to disassemble original Donkey Kong machines and potentially find hints of Radarscope underneath, but Donkey Kong was produced and reproduced in much larger quantity than the initial 2,000 machine release.

More than 60,000 Donkey Kong cabinets ended up being sold in 1981 alone, some of these machines cranking out impressive numbers of over $100 in quarters a day.  By the end of the year Nintendo of America had secured more than $100 million in sales and completed a licensing deal with Coleco to have Donkey Kong as the pack-in for the upcoming ColecoVision.  Nintendo of America spent 1980 ready to close its doors with the failure of Radarscope and finished 1981 as one of the most successful arcade producers in the United States.  It’s troubles wouldn’t be over for long, with a hefty lawsuit and the dwindling of the American arcade, but Miyamoto would later return to make Nintendo history once again with Super Mario Bros.  - but that is another story completely.

References:
Sheff, David, Game Over (New York: Vintage, 1993).
Special thanks to this novel and its amazing blend of storytelling and history, without which I may never know some of the details of this story.  If you are a gaming or Nintendo enthusiast, hunt this down.

Written by Fred Rojas

January 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Review: Adventure Island (NES)

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Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1988
Developer: Hudson Soft
Publisher: Hudson Soft
Famicom? Yes (as Takahashi Meijin no Bouken Shima)
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Easy
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $4.75 (used) $100.00 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price (eBay): $8-$15 (used) $600 (new)
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console (NES version) – $5.00

What Are You Supposed To Do?

Much in the same vein of Super Mario Bros., your goal is to navigate caveman Master Higgins through various levels and avoid enemies along the way.  You can collect weapons that are used to kill enemies, lots of platforming sections, and a boss battle completes the third or fourth level of each “world”.

Review

I know I’m going to get some criticism saying that Adventure Island is easy, but it very much is.  Even as a child it didn’t take long to see the ending and the lass boss had a very simplified pattern that I could quickly learn.  That doesn’t prevent this title from being one of the best games and series to grace the NES and anyone who hasn’t played Hudson’s classic platformer should make this a must play.  After having its name proudly on most top 100 and even a few top 10 lists for the NES, not to mention the millions in sales it achieved when it came out, this game is what you look for in an NES title.

Every level is decorated in bright, cartoon detail that brings Master Higgins’ caveman utopia to life, complete with varied enemies per world.  In the forest you will encounter cobras, dive-bombing crows and even a frog that just sits there.  When you move on to the second level by the sea, your enemies now switch to octopi, swordfish and for some reason grass skirt wearing anthropomorphic pigs.  The levels are also varied, nothing seems to follow too much of a format, much like the random but familiar underground stages in Super Mario Bros.  It’s just all part of the charm of Adventure Island that makes me love it so much.

To be fair, Adventure Island really is just a copycat of Super Mario Bros. that doesn’t allow you to hop on enemies’ heads, but the way it crafts its own unique world and puts a spin on the Mario platformer clone makes it a genuine series.  Everything you loved about Nintendo’s beloved plumber will come rushing back in its own form with Master Higgins.  This title deviates from the formula with random skateboarding encounters, a timer that has you frantically collecting fruit to survive and level design that doesn’t allow you to jump over obstacles in your path, but rather the need to deal with them.  From beginning to end Adventure Island is a charmer from the 8-bit era that shouldn’t be missed, especially in its even better sequels.

It’s Dangerous to go on Alone, Take This
A fun and extremely helpful secret in Adventure Island is the famed bee logo from developer Hudson Soft.  Collecting this at the end of the first level (you’ll see the “G” sign, but don’t cross it!) will net you the ability to continue if – er, when – you get a Game Over.  In the area in the screenshot you want to jump the open air and an egg will  appear, then you want to crack it with your weapon (if you have one) or jump on the very right tip of the egg and reveal the bee.  Upon collecting it, nothing special will happen, but after that each time you die you can hold Right on the d-pad and press Start to return to the last world you were on.  If you do not continue, however, or you power off the console, you will have to re-collect the bee.  Here’s hoping with this little guy you can finally see the mildly rewarding ending.

What’s the deal with this “Wonder Boy” guy?

See any similarities?  It’s not surprising because Wonder Boy was around first and acquired via Hudson Soft from developer Westone Bit Entertainment (later known as Escape) and publisher Sega.  Wonder Boy first released on the Sega SG-1000 (later upgrading to the Mark III/Master System) and is, in truth, a Sega property.  Thanks to issues with exclusivity and Nintendo, there was no way to get a Wonder Boy title on the NES aside from acquiring a personal license and doing what I consider to be a vague sprite swap.  The two games are nearly identical, especially when you view them side-by-side like this.  Wonder Boy is also available on the Virtual Console if you’re interested, although use caution comparing the two titles in subsequent sequels because they both went in different directions.  Hudson decided to utilize dinosaurs you can ride on and maintain the platforming roots for future Adventure Island sequels whereas Wonder Boy became more of an action RPG.

Written by Fred Rojas

January 26, 2012 at 10:22 am

Review: 1942 (NES)

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Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1986
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Famicom? Yes (as 1942)
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Moderate
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $4.10 (used) $12.99 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price (eBay): $7-$30 (used/5-screw/complete)
Digital Release? Yes – XBLA/PSN: 1942: Joint Strike - Remix of arcade game, not NES version – $10.00

What Are You Supposed To Do?

As far as shooters go, this is as simple as it gets.  You need to navigate your plane and shoot down all other planes.  You are given 3 lives and can collect power-ups for your guns as well as assistant planes.  In a pinch, the A button can be pressed to make you temporarily invulnerable.  You have 32 missions, each one the goal is to go from beginning to end without dying.

Review

Back when the NES was brand new, you would play games to death because there were very few options, both from a budgetary and supply standpoint.  I remember completing Super Mario Bros. once a week for the first six month’s of my life as a gamer and for some reason it never got old.  1942 came out in 1986, the same year that most Americans were able to get their hands on an NES, and it couldn’t be a better suited game.  With 32 long levels and a difficulty curve that is slow and steady, navigating every level is more of a patience game than one of skill.  You may die, you may get a game over, you can continue on the level you died on and fight the good fight.  Most times your game over results from only taking a single life from level to level, so once you’re replenished it’s a piece of cake.  That doesn’t mean the screen won’t fill with tons of enemies and bullets by the time you’re in that seven level home stretch, but by then you should have a good rhythm at how this game navigates.  It will be a taxing and time-consuming ride, though, because it took me nearly four hours to get to level 30 and I had to take breaks to rest my hand.  It felt so classic, though, because like it’s sequel 1943 this game will entice you to leave the console on, paused, until you’re ready to tackle it again.  Like its sequel, I also recommend a turbo controller or Advantage to make the ride less perilous on your carpal tunnel.

1942 is much more widely distributed than its sequel 1943 and this is most likely because it was the initial arcade game to see massive success.  Ironically enough this game is much more simple than its sequel but with a few years difference between them, it’s not all that surprising.  There are only about five enemies in the game and only two or three of them make consistent appearances.  Each level is a bit too familiar with one another so the boring factor can become an issue for the savvy contemporary gamer and even I found myself dozing in those long middle levels.  The sound design is basic – not surprising given that it’s one of the earliest titles, but with the high-pitched army march that tries to emulate the arcade’s more impressive score I’d recommend putting on external music and keeping this one on mute.  Although not the most basic version of 1942 in terms of graphics, the NES port is just a smidge above Atari 5200 standards but back in ’86 I’m sure the scrolling effect was amazing to gamers.  Like the arcade game, this title is intended to be played long periods of time as well as multiple completions and this is one of the few titles that really captures that replay value (albeit a more boring format).  By the time you reach the final battles in the Pacific you’re probably ready to give it a rest, but as one of the first widely successful shoot-em-ups it’s interesting to see where the genre planted its roots.

Written by Fred Rojas

January 25, 2012 at 11:07 am

Posted in NES, Reviews

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Review: Abadox (NES)

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Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1990
Developer: Natsume
Publisher: Milton Bradley
Famicom? Yes (as Abadox)
Instruction Manual: Not Necessary – Link
Difficulty: Insane
Played it as a child? No
Value: $0.87 used $34.99 new (pricecharting.com)
Price (eBay): Couldn’t find a listing
Digital Release? No

What are you supposed to do?
You control Second Lieutenant Nazal through various levels in a side-scrolling and top down vertical view shooter.  Various aliens and creatures will enter the screen in an attempt to shoot you down with bullets or by colliding with you.  In addition the level itself will feature obstacles that jut out of the walls, block your path with destructable walls that regenerate and create small pathways you must navigate.  Throughout levels you can collect weapons and power-ups that assist you in overcoming enemies and obstacles. 

Review

There are so many reasons to love Abadox, especially as a kid.  Look at that blood-soaked logo, the various body-part oriented enemies or even the fact that the entire game takes in an alien’s insides.  Not only that, it’s a shooter that switches between being a side-scroller and a vertical shooter, an aspect of my favorite shoot-em-up of all time: Salamander.  In fact, Abadox has been rightfully compared to being an essential clone of Life Force, the adapted version of Salamander that released on the NES in the US.  So why does the very mention of the game now fill me with so many chills that I refuse to play that game ever again?  Well, that’s simply because Abadox is a horrible game that lacks the merit to be compared with any of these gems.

Looking at the talent behind the game, it’s truly a hit/miss line-up, but don’t worry, none of the efforts are worthwhile.  Natsume developed the game, which on the NES was nothing more than a cloning machine including this title and Shadow of the Ninja, which can easily be mistaken for Ninja Gaiden.  In addition the music comes from Kyouhei Sada, who’s known for Konami greats Contra and Rush’n’Attack, both titles I appreciated the soundtrack of, but in Abadox seems like a forgetful and lax effort.  Perhaps Sada needed to fix a car or something and took the job as a weekend paycheck, either way it doesn’t even sound like the same composer.  This doesn’t really explain why the game is so horrible, so allow me to rail this game to ground.

Abadox is fiercely difficult.  I know all NES games are inherantly hard, but there is a large volume of these games, many touted as very difficult, that I have been able to beat and this game is harder than almost any game I’ve played.  I think it has six  levels and they are all unfairly difficult and from what I can tell purposely designed to kill you.  This may work if you had an immediate respawn and it were a quarter-chugging arcade game but this is a home console title.  Every time you die you lose all your power-ups and go back to a checkpoint, of which each lengthy level only appears to have one around the halfway point.  When you go back your character (ship) loses it’s speed, which is almost crucial to completing the game.  Thanks to all this Abadox becomes a 1-life game – one that needs to be beaten without dying – but all of its unfair trickery and left-field curve balls ensure that you won’t be seeing much beyond the first and second stage.  I remember renting this game as a kid and being all psyched because of the screenshots and box art, but not being able to get to the first boss.  After nearly an hour and only reaching level 3, I have completely given up on this game forever.  I even tried the Japanese Famicom version with hopes that it might be easier (often times difficulty is tweaked when localized), but it’s unfortunately the same game.  It’s not fair, the fleshy bloody effects are a gimmick and the game design is abhorrent.  As a result, I highly recommend it’s much easier and more fair counterpart: Life Force.

Written by Fred Rojas

January 24, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Posted in NES, Reviews

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Review: 1943: Battle of Midway (NES)

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Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1988
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Famicom? Yes (as 1943: Battle of Valhalla)
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Brutal
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $6.28 (used) $99.94 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price (eBay): $8-$20 (used)
Digital Release? No

What Are You Supposed To Do?

This is one of the earliest versions of the vertical shoot-em-up where enemies approach from the top and sides of the screen and attack the player, who is usually located at the bottom.  Your goal is to shoot the planes out of the sky, avoid being shot yourself and prevent your energy from depleting completely. 

Review

As a follow-up to 1942, 1943: Battle of Midway places you in the pacific theatre of World War II during the battles at Midway Atoll.  I always felt that this was the more popular of the two titles, but in most cases the arcade version was ported and re-released whereas the NES version is a bit different.  For starters you get to tweak and improve your stats, allowing you to improve your plane and abilities in future levels.  There are also more diverse enemies and bosses that weren’t present in the arcade and I personally feel the levels are longer, although I can’t confirm that.  At first it may be difficult to figure out why you fail a mission in 1943 and you will fail missions time and time again because the game is of the hardest shooters on the platform.  You not only need to keep up with the planes and bullets, but also your energy meter in the lower right corner – if it depletes, you crash.  All kinds of things deplete your energy from what I can tell: it naturally drops with time, every time you get shot and every time you use a charged attack.  Like all titles of this genre, power-ups will drop from certain enemies that can restore your energy, give you a new weapon or increase your number of special attacks. 

These are all necessary variables to keep in mind as you begin to progress through the games discouraging 16 levels – or at least that’s how many the arcade version had, I have yet to pass level 8 on the NES.  Each level is separated into two parts, one in the skies above the naval fleet and another closer to the aircraft carriers that ends in a boss battle.  There are no second chances and you need to work fast when finally taking on bosses because you’re fighting against your energy meter running out.  If it does, you get a game over and that’s all she wrote.  Frustrating as this may be, you do have the option to continue at the beginning of the level you died on, but the more difficult the levels get the more heartbreaking it is to get back on the horse.  1943 stems from a time where you needed to be on top of your game and the difficulty is punishing without any caveats.  There’s also no save feature, so you’ll want to do the infamous “leave the console on pause for days at a time” if you want to complete this title – it takes me at least an hour or two to reach level 8 and I’m familiar with the game.  Too bad this isn’t on virtual console, because the ability to save your state (which is available if you emulate the game) would make completing it just slightly less of a chore.

Unlike many shooters on the NES, there are so many enemies moving in different patterns that it can’t be memorized like, say, Life Force because you can’t destroy every enemy on-screen as they approach.  You can know exactly what major obstacles will be coming your way and how to appropriately plan for them and in the early levels know when to grab energy and when to grab a weapon perk.  Thankfully 1943 has some of the most responsive controls on the console, which makes it easy to use twitch reflexes to avoid surprise attacks.  At the same time, it’s a button masher through and through that requires the durability only an NES pad can afford, but it doesn’t take long for your hands to cramp up gripping such a small controller.  This is one of those few instances where the NES Advantage would come in handy despite it’s stiff joystick or even an NES Max for the turbo buttons.  1943: Battle of Midway is a classic that many who grew up with the NES probably played at some point, but given its steep difficulty you probably didn’t make it beyond the early stages.  If you stick with it this title will chew you up, spit you out and beg you to come back for more, but with each new level comes a new sense of accomplishment for the day you might eventually conquer the entire game.  Unfortuantely there are so many more balanced and better shooters, even on the NES, that it’s hard to justify spending so much time on this nearly endless and infuriating title.

Written by Fred Rojas

January 24, 2012 at 11:37 am

Review: 10-Yard Fight (NES)

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Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1985
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Famicom? Yes (as 10-Yard Fight)
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Variable
Played it as a child? No
Value: $0.87 (used) $2125.00 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price (eBay): $3-$5 (used) $1216.00 (new/sealed)
Digital Release? No

What Are You Supposed To Do?

Much easier to understand than most games of the era, 10-Yard Fight is a simple football simulation.  Your goal on the offense is to run the punt return as far as possible without getting bogged down by the defense attacking you.  During a punt return your players will surround you phalanx-style and allow you to get as much yardage as possible before getting tackled.  When on the offense you can run or pass the ball and attempt to score a touchdown.  On defense, you select one of two defenders with either A or B and attempt to sack the quarterback or person in control of the ball. 

Review

They're moving at a snail's pace, but go on, scream "Go! Go! Go!" anyway. You know you want to.

Full disclosure, I suck at football games.  Having said that, I understand even the more complex rules and plays in the game so I haven’t had much issue with football titles like Madden, but I’m never any good at them.  Thanks to varied difficulties, a surprise for me, I was able to play against a “high school team” instead of the “professional team” or “Superbowl team”.  Not only were these descriptors amusing ways to select how hard the computer-controlled opponent would be, but it allowed me to actually win at a football game.  Being a very early football sim, the simplicity of 10-Yard Fight is also the key to its addictive gameplay.

No matter what level of experience you or any opponent has with football, the basic gameplay (described above) allows anyone to pick up and play without a problem.  Games like this remind me why the NES was so popular when it first premiered, because it allowed you to play universally simplified versions of any sport or basic concept.  Even though there isn’t much happening on the screen, the tension of a competitive football game is no less in the room than with more modern titles.  In fact, without all the complications that bog down contemporary titles, it tends to even the playing field and increase that tension more.  My only issue with the game was how often, even on high school difficulty, the opponent was able to intercept the ball if it passed over defenders.  I watched several passes cross my entire defensive line and not once did a player hop up to snag that pigskin out of the sky, but the computer managed to do it on the second or third play if I wasn’t careful.  Since you aren’t able to control where your receiver runs, it’s more about chasing them from behind the line of scrimmage and setting up the pass that has the least possibility of going over a defender’s head.  Even with this minor setback, I never found myself frustrated and played three games in a row hoping to get revenge on my teenage rivals.

When you plug in a second controller, the core of 10-Yard Fight really opens up.  My wife and I found ourselves having fun playing against each other in a sports game of all genres.  While it’s a perfectly serviceable nostalgia title on single player, this immediately skyrocketed to the choice title to be playing in the background of my Superbowl party this year.  If there is an opponent on the couch next to you, and especially if there are onlookers, 10-Yard Fight becomes a brutal game of attrition that has you talking trash up to the final moments.  Those final moments will be brief, too, because the 30 minute clock counts down at a sped up pace and those critical five minutes that end a game are over in the blink of an eye.  Irem’s original arcade has been ported over to the NES beautifully and while it lacks the gusto of even other titles on the system – Techmo Bowl comes to mind – it has the same charm and appeal of early classics like Kung-Fu.  Given the low price and commonality of this title, it’s not a bad beginning to re-living your childhood or introducing new audiences to what made the NES so amusing when it premiered.

Written by Fred Rojas

January 24, 2012 at 10:27 am

Posted in NES, Reviews

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Homebrew

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It started predominantly with the Dreamcast, but for as long as consoles have been around “homebrew” make an appearance in one form or another.  Nowadays it’s not uncommon to find a myriad of independently developed applications and games for consoles.  Mind you, it does require you to hack your console – and these days that’s no simple feat and usually carries with it the risk of bricking¹.  Once complete, a modded console with working homebrew can greatly improve the capabilities of your device – certain Wiis, for example, can play DVDs and MP3s as a virtual media machine that even accepts external hard drives via USB.  There are plenty of dark sides to homebrew as well, including the inevitable piracy debate, and in some consoles the homebrew scene is almost laughable.  This article will discuss what homebrew is, why it has been beneficial and the legalese dance any homebrew user must take.

Basement Beer

I couldn’t find any direct correlation between the two, but most likely the name “homebrew” comes from the culture of brewing alcohol in one’s home that began wide popularity after it was made legal in most countries in the 1970s.  Independent “brewers” would create wine, beer or grain alcohols in their homes using various materials and methods.  It was said by these homebrewers that unique flavors were created via methods not possible in major distillers and breweries.  Much like these basement libations, the homebrew scene on video game consoles stems from a similar background.

Homebrew is defined as a program or game created for specific hardware (the specifications of the home console they are developed for) by the community.  In many cases these games are not authorized or licensed by the manufacturer of the console and at times aren’t even legal due to the use of protected materials and copyrights.  It is possible to have legal software created on a development kit and authorized by manufacturers, but this is rare and has only seen mainstream success via Microsoft’s XNA program.  From my experience homebrew either helps the pirating community open up the capabilities for a console to emulate games that never came to them, college students to get the most out of their device (the aforementioned turning a Wii into a DVD player) and hardcore fans of a dead console creating new and sometimes impressive games.

Is that a Nintendo game on your Genesis?

Whenever homebrew is developed for a console, the first step is usually to get it to emulate other consoles.  As we’ve seen from the manufacturers themselves, there is a high demand for consoles that will play its predecessors and with emulation each expensive game of yesteryear is only a short download away.  It’s always fun to run NES games on an N64 or Genesis titles on your Dreamcast, but essentially this isn’t some amazing advancement for consoles.  There’s also the world of ports, which thrive mostly on the Dreamcast and original Xbox.  Each console has a wide variety of old PC point-and-click adventures like Day of the Tentacle, PC ports like System Shock 2 and even run PC games as if it were a PC.   Frankly it seems like a lot of risk, time and effort to do something your computer can do with none of these setbacks.  In addition, prior to the use of writeable discs it was often expensive to get media to run these items and even with discs you have copy protection to worry about.  Not only that but due to the limited hardware many emulators don’t run at optimal speeds, resulting in a chugging mess when the N64 tries to run Gameboy Advance games.  I have to admit, though, there’s limited appeal to running games that never belonged on a specific console, like running Sonic the Hedgehog on SNES.

Unreleased games and fan translations fit into that gray area of neither being a pirate game nor technically being homebrew, so I view them as both.  A game like Earthbound Zero (Mother in Japan) was intended to come over to the NES in the States, it was even translated, but Nintendo never released it.  This game is a lost gem to the thousands – okay, hundreds – of fans that loved the SNES title Earthbound (Mother 2 in Japan) and want to see its roots.  Fortunately through leaks from within Nintendo, the original version of Earthbound Zero can technically be played on an NES.  This can be done in various ways from emulating the game on PCs, newer console homebrew or even a repro or homebrew cart.  Repro carts are individual carts that have been built just like an original cart but have rare or unreleased games on them.  Homebrew carts are predominantly used for piracy, but are flashable blank cartridges that work with consoles and download individual games from a storage bank like an SD card or CompactFlash card plugged into it.  Fan translations are games that only released in another country, typically Japan, that has been completely reprogrammed for another language, usually english, because a localized version never released.  For any of these games, homebrew has given a new opportunity to experience lost games of the past.

The True “All-in-1″ Console

It amazes me sometimes when I see the capabilities of some home consoles.  One of the early examples of hardware modification is the PSX, a Playstation 2 released in Japan that had DVR (digital video recorder) capabilities.  There was also the Japan only Panasonic-Q, a region free Nintendo Gamecube that had a built-in region free DVD player.  These are modified and licensed adjustments for consoles with hefty consumer price tags to accompany them – the Panasonic-Q retailed for $500 compared to the $200 price tag of the GameCube.  Homebrew applications don’t cost anything though and open up your console at no additional charge to do the exact same thing on a Wii.

Early versions of consoles usually lack the lockout hardware and software to prevent these exploits from being blocked, although most current consoles have consistent firmware updates to help with this problem.  Thanks to that and early more expensive hardware often being integrated near the beginning of a console life cycle, homebrew tends to thrive on early or obsolete versions of various consoles.  First generation Wiis can play DVDs as we’ve discussed, early Dreamcasts can play burned games right out of the box and there was a mountain of homebrew games and apps on the PSP before it even released in the US.  Thanks to this the Wii can be just as valid a multimedia center as the 360 or PS3, the Dreamcast has a vast library of legal freeware that has released after it was discontinued and the PSP is basically a netbook.  All versions of the Nintendo DS can be modified with homebrew to run almost every multimedia application that the PSP can.  With all of the wonderful capabilities that utilize mass media and have nothing to do with piracy, it’s a wonder that these manufacturers don’t open up this functionality.

New Games

This is why I love homebrew.  Independent developers are starting to get the praise and attention they deserve thanks to Playstation minis, XBLA Community Games and Steam, but before these outlets it was limited mostly to online distribution.  Dreamcast was definitely the first place I saw games like this see the light of day.  I had recently gone to the Midwest Gaming Classic and members of the press who went to a specific lecture were rewarded with a copy of a game called Last Hope.  Developed by NG:DEV.TEAM out of Germany, Last Hope is a side scrolling shoot-em-up (shmup) for the Neo Geo.  It was initially released on the AES and Neo Geo CD, with the AES version having a limited print run of 60 copies and retailing for about $725 it’s one of the rarest games ever released.  A much more affordable version, the Dreamcast port, was released in the United States for $40 by RedSpotGames and sold online at play-asia.com.  This was the version I received and began my love for the play-asia site in 2007.  Last Hope is an appropriate title because it’s brutally difficult and the bullets that come at you are hard to see despite the fact that it’s a VGA-compatible side scroller.  In 2009 the Pink Bullets edition released that eased some of the difficulty and made the bullets, you guessed it, pink and thus easier to see.  It also integrated immediate respawns a la Salamander rather than checkpoints like Gradius.  As an indy shooter this is a solid title that demonstrates promise for games of its kind.

On the opposite side of technology, Ed Fries of Microsoft fame flexed his Atari VCS/2600 programming muscles by creating Halo 2600 in a mere 4kb of space.  To put it into perspective, 4 kb is a blank formatted Notepad document, and this is a full 64-level game with Master Chief against the Covenant.  It is available in a rare cartridge format – around 100 sold for $20 apiece at a classic gaming show – or can be played for free online.  Normally a project like this can get you sued but I think that Fries connection to the franchise and the fact that he’s not garnering much of a profit on the game are helping his case.  Either way, Halo 2600 is one of the crowning achievements on the 2600 and a perfect example of how 30 years can enhance one’s ability to do some amazing things on some limited hardware.

There are some great examples of homebrew originals below, but remember these numbers grow every day:

  • Odball for the Magnavox Odyssey marks the longest release stretch ever: 36 years since a previous release.
  • Pier Solar and the Great Architects is an original (and solid) RPG originally developed for the Sega CD and later moved to the Genesis/Mega Drive.  The original can be hard to find due to high demand but if you have the money, $300 should net you a US copy and $750+ gets a PAL copy.  Great game, I highly recommend grabbing the reprint edition from the link for $50 before this adventure is lost forever.  (Update from 09/2014: Pier Solar HD is now available on PC, 360, PS3, PS4, and Xbox One for $14.99).
  • For the more affordable titles, Good Deal Games has Sega CD games like re-releases of canceled titles Citizen X and Marko as well as original homebrew titles like Mighty Mighty Missile.  Average price: $20-$30
  • Battlesphere for the Jaguar is a space combat game that even allows for networked consoles to battle with one another.  It is easily the rarest and most technologically advance of the Jaguar games.  As for how good it is, there is a review, but with auction prices climbing over $2000 for a copy it’s up to you whether it’s worth a look.
  • Popular Streets of Rage/Final Fight openware Beats of Rage has had countless remakes on the Dreamcast starring everything from Mega Man characters to Resident Evil to even Mortal Kombat 3 sprites.  Every game is your classic walk to the right and beat guys up approach, but the sprites are adapted to create entirely new games.  It can get old if played back to back, but for every once in a while they are tons of brawling fun.  All are free and available for download at sites like DCISO Zone.

As you can see, certain homebrew games that are only available on cartridges or in limited print runs can be extremely expensive and hard to find.  On the flip side, there are a ton of indy homebrew games that are easily found and distributed for free online, so you need just hunt them down.  Homebrew has come a long way since the early days of running Gameboy games on an SNES, but it continues to stay strong thanks to a rock solid and dedicated community for every console from the first (Odyssey) to the most recent (Wii).

¹ bricking: due to a hardware or software issue from a modification, the console no longer works and thus is as useful as a brick

Written by Fred Rojas

January 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Review: Friday the 13th

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Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1988
Developer: Pack-In-Video
Publisher: LJN (Acclaim)
Famicom? No
Instruction Manual: Helpful – Link
Difficulty: Hard
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $2.57 (pricecharting.com)
Price (eBay): $5-$10 (used) $100.00 (new/sealed)
Digital Release? No

What are you supposed to do?
Survive three day/night cycles while attempting to kill Jason.  You are given six camp counselors, three boys and three girls, each with one of three template play styles.  At random moments throughout the game Jason will attack another counselor, a group of the 15 children you are watching, or the counselor you’re currently playing as.  If he attacks another counselor or children, you have to find the cabin they are in and fight Jason.  If he attacks you, fight him and stay alive.  In order to eliminate Jason each day his life must be depleted, which requires the use of either the machete, torch or axe (technically you could probably do it with the rock or the knife, but it would take so long I wouldn’t recommend it).  To assist you on all three days you can find Jason’s hidden lair in the cave, fight his mother and receive a crucial item for the day.  On the first day you get a machete, on day 2 you get the sweater (which reduces damage from Jason by half) and on day 3 you get the pitchfork, which permanently kills him.  You will need to light fireplaces in big cabins with the lighter to move events forward.

Review
This game was doomed to suck for so many reasons, namely that it’s a game based on a movie and it’s published by LJN – Acclaim’s toy company that released licensed games.  Back in the day I thought this game sucked because I couldn’t figure out what you were supposed to do.  In typing this out I realize that this game was quite complex and possibly even mildly innovative for the time.  Day/night cycles, fetch quests and even legions of undead zombies are par for the course of bad license games of today and they’re all in Friday the 13th.  Unfortunately this game still fails to succeed because the cheap kills invalidate the concept of “challenge”.

Aside from figuring out what to do, many of the key factors of this game rely on random spawns, endless fetch quests that can be interrupted by untimely Jason attacks and a specific formula.  Perhaps you don’t know that the same counselor needs to collect the sweater and pitchfork in order to even have a chance on day 3.  Maybe you don’t know that dying with any key item prevents you from beating the game.  Heck, maybe you don’t even know that there are multiple days to survive.  If this is the case, then you can’t beat this game.  Furthermore, you won’t even want to.  I won’t spoil the ending, but I assure you it will do nothing but disappoint.

Everything that prevents this game from being a standard side-scrolling action title is a hinderance to its attempt at fun.  You don’t need multiple counselors, except as cannon fodder, save for Mark and Laura (who are interchangeable).  Attempts at switching up the scenery with the forest creates a randomized maze that can’t even be covered in a walkthrough and it seems like the navigation of a cabin is purposefully attempting to get you lost as well.  Jason deals a ridiculous amount of damage, although he is easy to dodge on the first two days, and unless you know what you’re doing you’ll never get a shot at him.  In the end Friday the 13th is just too many time-consuming tedious tasks that net no feeling of accomplishment.  On the other hand it is a campy example of what made thrown together games so horrible and reminded everyone to steer clear of these licenses.  Many say this game has merit and is fun despite the bad reputation, but this is not true, this game may not even be worth a virtual console price of five dollars.  Aside from all that, how can you trust a developer called “Pack-in-Video” in the first place?

Written by Fred Rojas

January 13, 2012 at 11:49 am

Posted in NES, Reviews

Tagged with , , , ,

Bang For Your Buck

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Video games are similar to several other hobbies, like comic books, that have two different worlds: collectors and players.  Players, like comic book readers, are more concerned with the content rather than the value or potential value as items become old and/or rare.  Collectors, in any form, are always concerned with several aspects like condition, completeness and rarity.  In the case of retro gaming, the two worlds collide quite often, especially because plenty of rare games are also known for their amazing content.  Fortunately digital downloads and re-releases have assisted in making former high-cost classics like Final Fantasy VII and Phantasy Star IV cheap and easy to get your hands on.

Personally I am not much of a collector, despite the fact that I do have a decent collection, because I’m more interested in the game itself.  My copy of Snatcher is not worth what others fetch on eBay - it has a large rental sticker all over it that someone attempted to remove (and failed) not to mention it had several surface scratches before I resurfaced it – but the game plays in my Sega CD nonetheless and I enjoyed it as much as any other gamer.  Other than the games I bought new, many of the expensive games I have acquired don’t have cases, instructions or even labels.  Although rare, there are even a few games that were so badly beaten they wouldn’t play but I was able to resurface or create backups because there was no copy protection on the console (I do not perform permanent hardware mods or install mod chips).  I am a player and I’m not shelling out $150 for Snatcher.  I want the largest amount of quality games I can get and my budget is limited, therefore I get what I can.

No matter how rough a game is (assuming it’s playable) or what format you get it in, there are always going to be minimum and maximum points at which to purchase games.  It’s just not reasonable that you will ever find a copy of Snatcher for $20.  When you’re out and about, it’s important not to get taken advantage of because like all collectible items, video games can suffer heavy mark-ups from those cashing in on the misinformed.  Your best bet is to get a price guide, especially when you want to check if that copy of Final Fight Guy on SNES really is appropriately priced at $30.  It’s also fun to look back at the classics and discover what games from the past became gems of the present.  In addition you may discover that you own some of the top dollar products out there and cash in if times are tough.  These higher value titles are also good trade value – I recently traded my second 32x console, which I thought was broken but just had the wrong AC adaptor, for most of the cost of a Turbografx-16 at a brick & mortar shop near me.  It’s like the stock market, you want to consistently keep up with the trends so as to make the most out of your dollar.

Be One Step Ahead

Anyone who has been a collector knows not to trust one source unless it’s considered an industry leader in pricing – think Kelly’s Blue Book or Overstreet’s Comic Book Guide, although I’m not even sure those are considered “authority” anymore.  In addition, collector’s and appraisers alike have been relying heavily on eBay because that is where the biggest auctions have occurred.  Much like the housing market, value is only truly deciphered by what one would pay for an item and with the contractual status of eBay, no one bids unless they know they can pay for it.  This helped appropriate the $10,000 – $13,000 value of a boxed copy of Stadium Events because before the infamous recent auction no one had a copy in that condition for sale so no one knew what someone would pay for it.  On the other hand, the eBay market is also guilty of obscene price gouging so just because it’s listed there doesn’t mean that it’s valid.  The first group of price boosters are those cashing in on recent events – take for example that same auction above, many con artists flooded eBay with ridiculous $10,000+ auctions for a simple NES with a few games hoping that the average person wouldn’t notice that the real item for sale in that auction was Stadium Events*.  Then there are the guys who get there first, which happens often for rare items that usually don’t show more than once or twice every few months.  We’ll go back to Snatcher on eBay and right now there are copies of the game on auction for $145-$200, one even trying to sell for $250 with a Justifier (a light gun that enhances the game and usually sells for $15-$25).  These sellers are welcome to try to fetch that price, but until someone actually pays for it, that’s not necessarily the value – nor is it just because one person paid that price.

***DID YOU KNOW?  There are actually two versions of Stadium Events, one that is NTSC (United States) and one that is PAL (United Kingdom/Europe).  While the PAL version is rare, it’s worth only around $400 compared to the $13,000 price tag associated with the US copy.  For this reason, it’s important to catch the scammers, lest you pay $2,000 for a $400 game.  Below is a guide to telling the difference.***

Click to expand

If you go to Price Charting for Video Games, an excellent resource for getting recent “market” values of online auctions, the pricing seems to be right about correct.  When you search for that specific game you can see that not only does the average copy sell for $188 on eBay, but that the overall average is $177 and that the game is trending on a major upward slope.  Unfortunately the reasoning could be anyone’s guess from the info on the site – perhaps Kojima’s work is getting more praise with the rising popularity of the Metal Gear Solid franchise or the fact that english version of Snatcher or even a re-release seems farther away.  It does allow you to view completed auctions that justify the price, which can be useful to view market trends and get into what people are usually paying for the product given factors like the holidays and geographic location.  On the other hand, let’s face it, the convenience factor of eBay tends to inflate the price, so I’m not sure the game is actually worth $177 or if that’s what it should be selling for on a used game shelf in Chattanooga, TN.  For a much more informational and accurate price guide, which takes into account both used game shops and online auctions, I recommend VG Collector magazine.  To me this guide feels much more like an Overstreet and has great updates with each new issue – I think the magazine is seasonal – providing a value versus a price for used video games.  It also accounts for factors like condition, which is necessary when trying to adjust a price depending on how rough the gamer was with the game.  Currently the web site does not provide a price guide, but the publication contains informational articles that are a charm for any classic gamer, so what’s the harm in dropping a mere $8 to pick up the current issue?

It’s important to know the value before you buy, otherwise you may not notice that Night Trap isn’t worth that much anymore and end up dropping $50 for a game that used to be worth that and is now more like $15.  It also prevents your jaw from dropping when you go to buy a new SNES and they quote you an $80 price tag.  Not to mention, who doesn’t love sifting through a price guide?

Written by Fred Rojas

January 12, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Super Mario Land 3D: Not Your Father’s Mario

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While I’m perfectly capable of giving a review of this title, its merits and setbacks hold more value to me in a comparison to the series as a whole instead of a single title of the generation.  This is not a retrospective either, I’m more than happy to compare the timeline of the series if my content slims to that point. 

We’re Sorry, but Your Princess is in Another Castle

As a gamer who has been conquering Bowser Koopa - back then we called him “King Koopa” – in 1987 when I unboxed my first NES, the Super Mario franchise is as dear to me as gaming.  Needless to say that for better or worse, I have at one time or another owned every Nintendo console and thoroughly completed any part of the Super Mario platforming series.  As the years carried on I grew older and more mature, as did the Super Mario series.  One thing always remained consistent: each new release on a Nintendo platform played to the strengths of the hardware.  Super Mario Land 3D is no exception; it thwarts bold statements that the 3D hardware doesn’t enhance a game just like Super Mario Galaxy did for motion controls on the Wii.  It is not, however, Super Mario Bros. 3 meets Super Mario Galaxy, not in the least.

Photo courtesy of invaderkurosaki11 at Deviant Art

Super Mario’s series is really only about two characters: Mario and Bowser.  Sure there’s a brother, a princess, Toad (who wasn’t annoying as a silent protagonist) and even Koopa kids, but these characters merely support our main stars.  This dynamic relationship keeps getting wiggled around as Nintendo tries to figure out what modern and retro audiences alike want in one cohesive game.  When they just try to do something unique like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario 64 it nets amazing results, but as an older gamer when I see attempts to bring back the classics I can’t help but get that “Sonic” vibe.  Oh you don’t think Sonic and Mario are all that alike?  Mario may have more popularity, but little things like re-integrating old costumes, levels and characters are poor attempts at saying, “remember that?”  These are aspects about Super Mario Land 3D that make me cringe, especially when all of the suits are basically toned down versions of the ones in Super Mario Bros. 3.  On the other hand, when left to its own devices and enjoyed as the next step of evolution in the Mario series, it’s a thankful breath of fresh air.  To be clear, saying this title is a hybrid between SMB 3 and Galaxy is a marketing ticker for all gamers because in my opinion it’s really more Super Paper Mario‘s 2D/3D shift mixed with New Super Mario Bros. 

Where’s Wario?

Super Mario Land, if you haven’t noticed, is the different name handed down to the Gameboy entries of the Mario series.  The first game was weird, outside the box and didn’t even pretend to have anything to do with the Koopa tribe.  It still needed a lead antagonist, though, so Wario was brought in with Super Mario Land 2: Six Gold Coins and the series was definitely better for it.  It was such a good fit that by the 3rd title the subtitle Wario Land became the surrogate name and eventually paved the way for Mario’s bizarro form to get his own series.  This is why Super Mario Land 3D is an interesting name because it suggests either an alternative reality where this is the third installment for Mario, which is somewhat true, or that this will be a new side story for the Mario Land series.  In either case, this game deserves its unique but oddly similar title because that’s exactly what the game feels like.

Complex Simplicity

Early Mario games were brutally difficult and could take up to a half an hour to complete certain levels, especially starting with Super Mario World when the game wasn’t designed to be conquered in one session.  Despite this fact, the level design was usually simple and short.  Think of how brutal level 8-1 in Super Mario Bros. 3 was the first time you played it, but the level is literally small enough to fit on a landscape sheet of paper.  I appreciate the fact that Mario Land 3D hasn’t forgotten those roots.  From the first level it’s possible to spend five minutes roaming the casual golf course but if you’re in a hurry it can easily be completed in less than 90 seconds.  This remains consistent throughout the entire game, even leading into the special levels.  Speaking of special levels, it was impressive to see an alternative version of the entire game brought to life after collecting all 160 gold coins.  Not only that but as both a completionist and someone looking for a more difficult game, I was handsomely rewarded.

Newer is not Necessarily Better

Unfortunately with this new direction for Mario comes a handful of setbacks, some having to do with this generation and some just simple missteps.  First of all, the game is too easy.  I mean way too easy.  I managed to rack up more than 150 lives playing through the first 7 worlds and never lost more than a handful of lives in all of World 8.  Not only that, the collectible gold coins were way too easy to find.  In the previous New Super Mario Bros. games, there was always a gold coin or two that I had a problem finding in each world, some that even resulted in incomplete guides online.  Not the case in this one, no sir, I could write the FAQ right now having only spent about five hours with the game.  For all the good that the special world provides after dispelling of Bowser, the levels themselves are basically the same as the ones you’ve already played.  It makes for a pretty repetitive second ride, especially when this time around you want a challenge.  I think the harder version should be an option from the beginning to give old school gamers a decent challenge.  I also hated that most of the challenge in World 8 was purely artificial.  You died because of a trick or gimmick that you couldn’t see coming and didn’t react fast enough for.  Twitch reflexes are always a necessary evil in a Mario game, but never before has it been the goal of the camera to hide your obstacle until the last second.  It takes the freedom of Mario 64 and spits in its face, using the camera as a setback rather than a feature.  Certain aspects of the final Bowser battle felt like they had nothing to do with skill and everything to do with cheating the camera or having enough power-ups to endure the collateral damage.

Closing Thoughts

Super Mario Land 3D is a great platformer and has breathed new life into my nearly forgotten portable.  Unfortunately, much like the console itself, it’s really just a matter of desperation.  Mario Land 3D does not do what Nintendo marketing promises and can’t deliver the goods that we’ve come to expect out of a Mario game.  I expected more levels, better unlocks or at least more of a challenge, but I got none of it.  It was a hell of a ride and a solid experience, but when I compare to even some of the free ambassador games like Yoshi’s Island, Mario Land 3D falls short.  I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t the staple series that defines quality for Nintendo.  If they begin to get lax with Mario, then what’s to become of the series and future Nintendo properties as a whole?  Nintendo leads by example and frankly with each new property on the 3DS there’s still a sense that even Nintendo is tired of trying to create quality titles for its gimmicky platform.  

Don’t take this laying down, if you agree or disagree please let us know in the comments below. 

Written by Fred Rojas

January 11, 2012 at 8:30 am

Posted in Blog

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