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What is a Shmup?

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For some reason, this screen from R-Type is always what I think about when I hear the word "shmup".

It’s leap day, a day that on most years doesn’t even exist, and had it not been for today it would officially be March.  For those of us in the retro gaming world, shooter fans or basically anyone who listens to Drunken Gamers Radio it also means Shmuppreciation month.  For 31 long days we show our appreciation for intergalactic starships, Moai heads, tiered power-ups, sexy young girls with large breasts that aren’t involved in a hentai game, dodging thousands of bullets and actually seeing a vertical raster effect in a high-definition game.  It is all for the love of the shoot ‘em up, these days called “shmups” for short.  What’s distinct about the shmup is that aside from most other genres, it has been around as long as video games themselves – yes, the first video game was a shmup - and has remained relatively unchanged for more than 30 years.  As an avid fan with probably more than $1,000 in shmups alone among almost every system – did I mention the shmup has some of the most expensive games in existence? – I wanted to reflect on the history of the shmup.

Humble Beginnings

Many different definitions exist for the genre, but I define a shmup as any game where a single entity, usually a space ship but can be substituted for characters or animals, moves about the screen shooting down enemies while being attacked by all of them at once.  Plenty of sub-genres exist including the now highly popular “bullet hell” titles as well as “cute ‘em ups“, “rail shooters” and even developer-specific game styles like “Cave shooters“.  While this article will not get into each sub-genre specifically, you can bet we covered these games in their own articles.

Computer Space

Depending on your definition, the first video game ever created was Spacewar! by MIT students in 1962 on a PDP-1 (we covered the origins of the game here), and of course it was a shmup.  Two players would fight simultaneously to destroy one another in open space while also being affected by the gravitational pull of a star.  Due to the early nature of the title, there is no way to play the game next to a computer opponent, nor are there any “enemies” per se (unless you count your opponent), but the building blocks of the shmup are there.  Later on in time this would be adapted to the arcade version of Computer Space, programmed by Nolan Bushnell of Atari fame, and known as probably the first arcade game, releasing in 1971.  In Computer Space you would control a ship using four directional buttons and attempt to out maneuver flying saucers that would fire missiles at you – each hit would result in a point.  After 90 seconds if you had a higher score than the saucers the arcade would flip colors – it was only black and white, so it would create the negative of the screen with space being white and the elements being black – for another 90 seconds.  It was a commercial failure deemed too technical for casual bar users but generated the next step with a computer opponent.

Space Invaders

Atari would go on to create the culmination of both in a game called Asteroids in 1980.  Probably one of the most widely known games of all time, Asteroids combined the enemies of Computer Space and the gravitational effect of Spacewar! with the addition of floating asteroids resulting in a truly addictive hybrid.  As you can probably already see, the basic building blocks of the staple shmup are coming together, but even Asteroids lacked one important factor of all shmups: lots of enemies.  Sure, there may be a saucer or two, but not a screen of enemies.  That belonged to the even more popular Space Invaders by Taito, released one year earlier in 1979, and featured literally a screen full of enemies.  For those that have not experienced this, you control a single ship that can hide behind 3 destructible barriers as a grid of 5 rows containing 10-11 “invaders” each would descend upon you.  Your goal is to eliminate them as quickly as possible, the obvious focus being on the ones closer to the bottom of the screen.  If an alien gets through, you lose, simple as that.  What resulted was an arcade phenomenon that celebrated so much success that Japan actually had a temporary 100-yen coin (the cost of a single play) shortage and a total gross of over $2 billion by 1982.  In 1981 Namco would release a similar title, the also widely popular Galaga, that adapted the format slightly to allow more interaction between the ships and aliens as they would leave formation and attack the ship in random intervals.

Birth of the Shmup

Now we have most of the building blocks of a shmup - lots of enemies, bullet fire, and moving ships - but we still lack one more fundamental part: scrolling.  Until around the mid 1980s, scrolling wasn’t a fundamental part of video games whereas by the time the NES released it was an essential part of nearly every title.  Some of the first scrolling titles were arcade games with vector graphics, which created a grid-like look that simulated 3D through special monitors that created images with beams of light.  The first of this style was Red Baron, which is one of the few decent titles that can still be found in Xbox Live’s Game Room today, and featured an open space to navigate while you moved forward in an on-rails format.  Later, in 1983, Atari’s Star Wars would adapt the format to the popular “trench run” scene from the original film and offer yet another early example of the schmup.

Star Wars Arcade

Capcom would be one of the first pioneers of the shmup with their 1984 release of the arcade game 1942.  As a World War II fighter pilot, all of the elements of the successful vertical shmup would be integrated all at once.  In 1942 the player would control a fighter plane that could freely navigate the entire screen to avoid enemies and gunfire while the stages scrolled vertically.  Various different types of enemies, each with their own movement pattern and ammunition, would attack the player and each new level introduced a newer and tougher mix of them.  The goal was to avoid the bullets and enemies while destroying anything that came on-screen.  Even today, most vertical scrolling shmups follow this format.

In 1985 Konami would release its own version of the shmup, Gradius, which added in the popular space ship protagonist and the concept of upgrade systems.  In Gradius your goal is to destroy ships attacking and shooting at you on a horizontal plane, but just like 1942 you are able to navigate the screen as you see fit.  As additional conflict, the levels themselves would be etched in different pathways and have walls, borders and formations that would attempt to crash your ship in addition to the enemies.  This title also established the boss battle as the conclusion of each level, making it important to upgrade your ship throughout the level for the challenge ahead.  It also established a power-up system – your ship could be upgraded with various weapons and add-ons provided that you collected enough power-ups and added them to the ship.  For those that have played Gradius, the ideal setup was usually to get two options (bulbs of energy that trail you and fire bullets), a force field, missiles that attack the ceiling/floor and top speed.  Many frequent players can accomplish this on the first level with little issue (or simply put in the Konami code on the pause screen in the NES version), however if you die in Gradius you will lose all add-ons and go back to a checkpoint area somewhere in the level.  This is why titles in the Gradius series and many other offshoots are considered “1 life” titles, meaning they’re exponentially easier if you can complete them in 1 life with all upgrades.  In  my eyes, and in the eyes of many others, the first official shmup was Gradius and sequels are still releasing today (Gradius Rebirth on WiiWare is technically the most recent, although Otomedius on the 360 touts itself a parody of Gradius).

Konami wouldn’t stop there, and in fact the publisher is responsible for some of my favorite shmups to date.  Of those, my absolute favorite title is 1986′s Salamander (known better in the US as Life Force) which took the Gradius concept and integrated both vertical and horizontal levels as well as a respawn format to dying instead of returning you to a checkpoint.  You were also able to recover your options if you were fast enough with your respawns.  To many this makes Salamander the easy version of the shmup, but the biological format to all the levels and bosses combined with the variation of levels makes it my clear favorite.  Granted, it has to be much easier because even I have completed the NES version of Salamander in one life before (in this title the Konami code awards you with 30 lives, solidifying that you’ll see the end). 

My favorite ongoing series has probably got to be the Parodius series (which may technically also include Otomedius), which many American gamers won’t be familiar with because we never received a single title in the US.  These titles are colorful, bubbly cartoon versions of a shmup that tend to have animals, large breasted anime girls and lots of US political jokes (probably why Konami never localized it here, despite releases in Japan and Europe).  In addition, it tends to parody the Gradius series (hence the hybrid name Parodius) while still retaining the power-up system and much of the challenge required to succeed (especially with the brutal recent Otomedius).  Just like the Gradius series, Parodius has made appearances in arcades and on most major consoles from the Famicom to the Playstation Portable.  More than likely this is the first example of the “cute ‘em up”.

Contemporary Shmup

Independent Dreamcast Title "Last Hope"

Because of its arcade style and old school mechanics, it’s no surprise that the shmup has lost a lot of momentum in the United States and Europe as a niche genre since the late 90s.  This doesn’t mean that games don’t come out, just look at all of the collections that found homes on the portable consoles as well as a slew of solid US Dreamcast shmups and an odd resurgence on Xbox Live, but for many shmup fans there are definitely games with Japanese writing in your collection.  In Japan arcades are beginning to ween but held more consistent strength over the last 10 years and the market has seen great success with the genre even now.  Shmups have changed greatly and even included vast alterations to the formula, but at the end of the day it’s always a game where a ship blows up tons of enemies while dodging bullets and obstacles.  In the United States we’ve seen certain developers take chances, but the failure rate remains constant and high.  This is why we have games like Deathsmiles II only digital and only in Japanese, Sin and Punishment 2 on Wii even though the original on N64 never released here (you can get it on Virtual Console though), and the aforementioned Otomedius that picks up the reigns of a series we’ve never seen. 

Rez HD

There are far too many shmups to count and depending on how hardcore you are it’s difficult to decide which $60-$120 import you want to take a shot at.  Yes, you saw that right, most shmup fans need to adapt their classic consoles to play imports and then drop large wads of cash for a game that will kick their ass and that they may never see the later levels of.  You see why this genre can’t succeed in America?  Fortunately there are plenty of shmups that beginners can enjoy for low prices and domestic releases, not to mention theemulation scene can open doors previously locked shut.  This month we at Gaming History 101 celebrate Shmuppreciation 2012 with the shmup of the day that covers some of the most common and most rare series on the market.  Hopefully you will learn a thing or two and even begin to show interest in the shmup genre, or at least see what some of those expensive and cult titles are all about.

Ikaruga by Treasure

Written by Fred Rojas

February 29, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Suquels: Newer Isn’t Always Better

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Okay so the title (pronounced “suck-wells”) is a tad unsophisticated as is the concept it implies, but frankly I’ve had it up to my ears in recent sequels that don’t even remember what made their predecessors great.  Congratulations gaming, you’ve now entered into the same dangerous realm Hollywood has where production budgets are so great that the slightest tweak can result in a hit or miss product.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a new problem – ask anyone who was around for the crankfest that was the Mega Man series on the NES and they will tell you that it peaked at either Mega Man 2 or 3 and then tapered into oblivion.  Don’t misunderstand me, though, these games aren’t bad by any stretch, they just can’t live up to the quality of the previous game.  I know what you’re thinking, you’re wondering how one goes about topping Uncharted 2 within the same series or competing with the achievement of Legend of Zelda.  In short, perhaps you don’t.  Maybe its high time that publishers, because they are the boss, understand that some games run their course.  On the other hand God of War 2 was definitely the apex of that series  but thanks to a console generation between the second and the third, it was refreshing to receive a sequel that looked so much better.  There’s a formula that works, so stop worrying about your own personal issues or listening to too many focus groups and do your best to capture the magic of the property.  Please keep in mind that like the mantra of Scream 2, trilogies are not considered sequels in my eyes and thus are awarded certain liberties as a result.  That doesn’t mean I’m not going to rip into the entire trilogy once the third releases if obvious oversights weren’t dealt with.

Lately I feel that no developer out there understands this.  It may be because they’re too busy trying to trump the previous title that they make unnecessary changes and break the formula.  It may also be that the new title is way too similar to the previous title and thus leans on story to get through, but for whatever reason those writers don’t deliver.  Perhaps the developer is no longer interested in making a sequel, but thanks to the long arm of the publisher that holds all the money, they have no choice but to make yet another title in the same series.  The reason is irrelevant, there’s no excuse for creating a game that isn’t self-aware of the issues found within.  It’s not rocket science, these issues are apparent to every fan of the series so there’s no reason to believe that the developer doesn’t also notice it.  Here are some examples of sequels I’ve recently played this year that either felt too rushed or missing the point of what that series is all about.

What Happened to the Rest of the Game?

You will become extremely familiar with this level in Force Unleashed II

Sequels are a great thing, especially when they are for games that didn’t celebrate the commercial or critical success its fans hoped it would.  Perfect examples of this are The Darkness, Alan Wake and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.  Whether you’re trying to get better review scores or prove that your game has merit, why in the world would you cut corners?  Each of these games have caveats, or rather excuses, that developers and publishers alike can make for the stripped feel of the second title.  That’s great when they’re trying to back simple decisions or cover their own ass, but as a gamer I feel like they don’t even care about my beloved franchise.  For starters, the second game of all of these is not only shorter, but feels incomplete.  I won’t go into spoilers, but The Darkness II is a 4-6 hour campaign on a good day, strips multiplayer (not that it should have ever had it in the first place) and gives you almost no reason to justify the $60 purchase.  Are you trying to fail 2K?  The fact we even got a sequel is a good thing but not at the expense of giving the message that 4-6 hours is worth $60 in the market that offers Skyrim and Call of Duty for the same price.  Oh and mild side note, don’t offer a choice at the end if one of them offers no ending, no achievement and strips out the final level.  The Force Unleashed II didn’t even feel finished.  It was about the same length as Darkness II and half of the game was one single location; at least the lackluster original title had different worlds to visit.  I’m guessing the publisher figured that all Star Wars fans are mindless robots that will purchase anything in the series, after all they did move 3 million+ copies of the so-so original.  American Wasteland, the follow-up to Alan Wake, made a little more sense as a download title and a 3-5 hour campaign, but my big issue is that of the nine stages/levels, it’s really only 3 environments recycled three times each.  For an original game that was criticized for its lack of unique enemy encounters, the fact that the next game doesn’t learn this lesson and instead largely recycles environments is just disappointing.  So basically these publishers/developers have decided that my weekend is worth about $135 plus tax (that’s what all 3 games would cost at MSRP and with a total completion time of 11-15 hours the average gamer could easily do this in a weekend). 

Why in the World Did They Do That?

Worst place to start a brawl...ever...

By the time a game is on the third or later installment of the series, especially if I’ve enjoyed the others, there’s this calm anticipation for the next title.  You’ve seen the original and an improved sequel helps reassure you the developer has a firm grasp on the property, then a late addition comes out and it’s got some jarring flaws.  This was the case for me with Uncharted 3 and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.  Assassin’s Creed is the easier series to pick on, so I’ll start there first.  AC had everything – an amazing character (Ezio) that didn’t come until the second game, a three-game side story that we all accepted (and coughed up the cash for) and muliplayer additions that were a benefit instead of a detriment.  Why, then, did certain decisions in Revelations happen?  It added a horrendous tower defense that could be so easily avoided it seemed the developers themselves understood no one was going to play it.  The campaign was short and half of the missions had you dashing all over a city, retracing your steps and uncovering almost no new plot.  Furthermore, Ubisoft was too busy killing some of the only likeable characters and giving a half-hearted easy end to the best character the IP has spawned.  It’s almost ironic that we were staring down all speculative at Brotherhood and once that was a strong title we allowed the scant next iteration of Revelations to skate by with critical and commercial success.  Uncharted 3 is a bit more subtle about its lack of quality.  First off, the writing was still rock solid and although I have some minor qualms with how it wrapped up, which to me felt a bit like a story rushed into production to meet a holiday release schedule, I was pleased.  For some reason they decided to go back to the combat function of the first game, but now they made it so that you can be shot when you enter a combat scenario.  This is a big no-no for a game that has brawling and shooting – either you make the character invulnerable to random bullets while they battle in a quicktime event (QTE) or you allow them to run from the combat in order to avoid the bullet fire.  In Uncharted 3 not only would you die cheap deaths because of this, but the developers actually programmed scenarios based around getting you into a battle sequence while the distant gunmen easily picked you off.  Not only that, the stealth was nearly impossible for me, and I’m a hardcore stealth player, to the point that I just gave up.  Not only that, these guys could pick off a specific hair on your head from 500 yards once you’re spotted.  Tsk Tsk Naughty Dog.  It also had epic events where you would be running to or from crumbling buildings and cliff tops with no idea where to specifically go.  Sure, you might get lucky enough to pick the right path, but essentially it was all trial and error.

Getting it Right

I can’t believe that after all was said and done, my favorite sequel from last year was actually Resistance 3.  With the massive amount of sequels to solid titles I hoped for sure something would resonate – mind you, I never got the chance to play Arkham City or inFamous 2 – but this was clearly the year to rush a holiday release.  This may just be the mindless rant of a guy who made too much out of the little tweaks of new games, but for all the complaints about Call of Duty never offering something new I sure seem to be more pleased with those annual releases than what I saw last year.

Written by Fred Rojas

February 28, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Death of the Portable

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Portable gaming has been around almost as long as gaming as a whole.  Since the first moment bleeps and bloops could be captured on a screen, engineers have been hard at work trying to recreate the same experience on the go.  Now with both the Playstation Vita and Nintendo 3DS this goal has, for the most part, become a reality.  While neither is quite on par with the likes of their HD gaming counterparts, there’s no doubt that the smaller screen does make the distinction difficult.  Having personally played Resident Evil: Revelations, Super Mario Land 3D, Wipeout 2048 and Uncharted: Golden Abyss, I admit that I feel these games are nearly identical both in gameplay and graphics to home console titles.  This is nothing new, in fact many would argue that the Playstation Portable was nothing but a slew of PS2-style titles both unique and ported.  Unlike the PSP, though, it appears that the gaming public claim this is what they want.  The sales, of course, tell a different tale.

Building a Foundation

This very site’s Gaming To-Go series helps explain the apparent necessity and strength of portables: they are inexpensive experiences for when you are away from your console.  Today’s market is a different place than it was when the Gameboy premiered in 1989, but even back then it’s important to note that at $89.99, it was only $10 less than the NES at the time.  This may not sound like anything significant at first, but when you consider that Gameboy cartridges were usually $30-$35 when compared to the NES at $40-$50, the gap can begin to widen.  Couple that with the SNES, premiering in 1991 and having early games like Street Fighter II retailing for $69.99 or more at launch and eventually large titles like Final Fantasy III hitting the $100 mark, the difference is huge.  Then there’s the television factor – you don’t need a TV to play a portable game.  When the home console is attached to the main television for the household, it can be difficult to find the time to play in an American house of 3-5 people.  With the advent of the portable, all you needed was a place to sit and mind your own business. 

Lower prices, no need for a television and the amusement factor make the portable gaming system a temptation for a house with kids.  While we would all like to pretend that kids should share one Nintendo DS for today’s household, this is simply not the case.  Thanks to multiple children and the rough nature in which they treat the portable, it’s not uncommon for the typical household with two kids to eventually purchase three, four or even more of the same console in a life cycle.  It’s still a rarity, even for gamers, to have multiple copies of the same home console – I get weird looks when I mention I have three PS3s in the house.  This type of market created inflated sales, but as any 3rd party developer on these consoles will tell you, thanks to piracy and lack of demand your sales numbers can be one percent or less of that market. 

A Taste of Things to Come

We saw this most recently in home consoles with the Wii – the attach rate for the console teetered between 1-3 games.  This meant that for every console sold, only 1-3 games would be purchased with it.  There are literally millions of households in America that only have one or two titles for their Wii, and usually those are Nintendo first party.  This makes any impressive game that releases without Mario or Nintendo all over it will be ignored based on bias, not content.  The same can be said for the portable and has always been the case.  In the Gameboy era, many kids in houses with multiple Gameboys would be limited to Tetris and maybe one or two games from the initial purchase.  This is why the earlier a title releases on a portable, the more common it is to see on the used market.  Even the great and untouchable Call of Duty franchise has seen failure in the eyes of the Nintendo DS, resulting in portables rarely being considered for future ports.  Sure, those games have compromises, but then so does every portable port.

That’s another change that has been brought with this new generation of portables – no more compromises.  No longer do you have to get the dumbed down or stripped version of a game, now you can get the whole package.  Street Fighter IV 3DS is a rock solid port that comes pretty darn close to its console counterpart, complete with online play.  Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Rayman Origins are already being touted on the Vita as alternatives to purchasing the home version.  For titles like this it’s the concept that in the race for your attention, these titles can’t compete at home but perhaps they hold a strength as your “lunch break” game of choice.  We already saw popularity in the classic RPG/JRPG on the portable front – I’ve been able to complete Final Fantasy VII and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on portables in the same amount of time it took to complete half of Chrono Trigger on home gaming time.  Now it’s time that you decided not what game to get, but whether you want it at home, on the go, or both.

Apples to Oranges

When you strip it away, the Vita (and to certain extent, the 3DS) is just another console that happens to be “portable”.  It costs about the same as a Playstation 3 or Xbox 360, it has many of the same games, it has online patches/DLC and lets not forget an online community.  At a retail price of nearly $300 (even if you go wi-fi, a memory card or accessories get you there with little effort), this is not the portable you buy multiple copies for to appease your children.  In fact, the 3DS and Vita will most likely be nowhere near the hands of the average kid.  Not only are they more expensive, they just look like something that’s dying to be destroyed in the hands of the young.  I’m pretty sure my Gameboy and even my DS would give me a concussion before I ever dreamed of hurting them, especially with the clam shell closed.  Games have raised in price, most of them sitting in the $40-$50 range against the $50-$60 range of modern titles and I feel it’s only a matter of time before market tweaks result in identical pricing.  No, nowadays if you want a strong little device for your kids to play on you’ll most likely get them an iPod touch or a DS for like $100. 

This is why the apparent lack of sales for both consoles early on shouldn’t be feared, especially if 3rd party titles do well on the console.  There’s no doubt that from a hardware sales perspective that the 3DS and the Vita will most likely not compete with their predecessors, but it’s important to remember that the hardware is rarely responsible for the profit margin to the manufacturer and definitely not to the publisher.  The hardware is merely a vehicle to create a market for the games that release.  In the case of most portables it’s a sea of unsold software – I purchased Contra 4 on DS for $4.80 at Target and Final Fantasy III on DS for around twice that – which benefits no one.  What’s the point of having 100+ million consoles if your penetration rate is pathetic?  Despite so many DS systems in the world, to break 500,000 units sold is a crowning achievement for any non-Nintendo developer.  Is a goal of any 3rd party title to receive a 0.5 percent penetration rate a good thing?  Imagine if only half a percent of all drivers purchased gas, that would dry up the gas station business at a staggering rate.  This doesn’t happen because a car essentially needs gas to be valuable, which is not the traditional view of the portable gaming market. 

With any luck we will see benefits from having a smaller market; perhaps we will now see more dedicated customers who can add value to development that has been all but abandoned on portables in return for first party market control and vaporware.  There may only be 10 million Vita’s in gamers hands by the end of 2012, but if any 3rd party title can break the coveted million unit sold mark, I don’t see why anyone should be concerned.  This all comes at a price, though: portables are competing with home consoles as an option, not a supplement.  The Gameboy was you “on-the-go” option for the NES, but I don’t know that it would have been as popular had it been and actual handheld NES.  In addition, developers may be shooting themselves in the foot.  If all the Vita gamers that purchase Marvel vs. Capcom 3 would have eventually purchased the game for Xbox 360 or PS3, what was the point in developing it?  You’re basically robbing Peter to pay Paul.  This is the big issue I currently have with the Vita, it doesn’t have any console-specific software driving me to it yet.  Building on that, why wouldn’t any unique Vita title also release on PS3 since they’re so similar?  It’s a double-edged sword for the console in terms of getting me as a customer (but then, I’m a retro gamer, so of course I’m fine with DS and PSP titles, right?).  Furthermore, they haven’t ironed out all the issues with PSP/PSOne titles and until it can at least replace my PSP I’m even less likely to consider a purchase.  Here’s hoping it all gets worked out and we are seeing the portable equivalent to the hiccups of a console launch. 

What about you, fellow gamers?  Is the Vita the next evolution in portable gaming that you have been waiting for or does its lack of original options hold you back from taking the high price plunge?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Written by Fred Rojas

February 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm

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Review: Abobo’s Big Adventure (PC/Mac/Flash)

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There have been a lot of games, especially in the indie scene, that harken back to the days of 8-bit and 16-bit systems.  Some do an incredible job of capturing that retro feel, developer Way Forward should be commended for work on titles like Contra 4, and other efforts like Capcom’s Dark Void Zero attempt to take modern game design and give it that retro flair.  Those are major companies, though, the small team indie developers are much more miss than hit, so you go into a title like Abobo’s Big Adventure with the overused term “cautiously optimistic”.  Fortunately the teams of I-Mockery (design/sound/story), Pestoforce (programming) and Pox Box (art/animation) have created exactly what was advertised: the ultimate tribute to the NES.

This screenshot best captures what we mean by "mash-up"

When I was a kid I would always dream of a game like Abobo that would fuse together aspects of every Nintendo game, intermingling the various sprites and characters.  Mind you I’m not talking about nods to the properties, like Uncle Mario in Assassin’s Creed II, I’m talking about full-blown torn from the game actual sprites in a hodgepodge.  Thanks to emulators, there have been many hacks out there (pun intended) that have been able to fuse these aspects but it’s clear that their game design is flawed.  It looks right but doesn’t feel right.  Although Abobo borrows about as heavily from gameplay aspects of the Nintendo titles it steals its sprites from – Mission 1 is from Double Dragon and the gameplay and level design are identical – it makes just the right kind of tweaks.  Make no mistake about it, although Abobo knows that things like extra lives and infinite continues assist the contemporary gamer in getting to the end, you will need pretty decent NES skills to complete it.  The reward for your hard work is completely worth it.

Abobo’s Big Adventure is like playing many of the most solid NES franchises all in one, complete with characters you know and challenges that are familiar.  Those that have played Double Dragon, Super Mario Bros., Punch-Out!!, Balloon Fight, Legend of Zelda, Mega Man and plenty others will recognize the level design and mission goals without being instructed.  This familiarity also has a ring of Scott Pilgrim mixed in – perhaps you don’t know why Abobo screams, “It’s so bad!” when he puts on the power glove, but those that get the reference to The Wizard will chuckle with delight.  It’s that type of fan nod that I appreciate, it includes everyone from the newest gamers to those like me that study video game history like it’s a college course and gives both audiences a pleasant experience.  Even the music, starting with the Mega Man 2 theme in the opening credits, will give chiptune fanatics a rush.  All sound effects and music come from classic games, I don’t think I can pinpoint a single piece of sound that didn’t originate from an NES title.  It’s Retro Game Challenge for the masses.

This game is great if you have a MAME cabinet to play it on.

Everything about this game screams NES, even the recommendation that you play it with an NES controller – unfortunately I prefer to play titles like this on an actual repro cart and don’t think highly of USB adaptors, but I was able to import it into my MAME cab and play it that way.  If you have a joystick, you can get access to the program Joy2Key and a quick and easy setup.  At the same time, it’s not an NES title.  I’m certain that some of the graphics, sounds and transitions are not possible on the NES and thus it cannot currently be used in an actual NES via a repro cart.  The game also has plenty of things that an NES game wouldn’t have, like achievements, and plenty of web-based unlockables.  As a flash game, it can be downloaded to any computer with Flash (including Macs) or simply played in a web browser.  This makes the game versatile, albeit a bit tougher to tweak – I still dream of the day that this game becomes a useable NES or SNES rom.  Make no mistake about it, regardless of how it looks or what it pays homage to, Abobo’s Big Adventure is not an NES game from a technical standpoint.  The reason it’s so significant is that unlike “neo-retro” titles like Dark Void Zero, it keeps all gameplay, difficulty and game design within the limitations of an NES game. 

Abobo's Big Adventure has nods to all of the 80s, not just NES

It really is hard to find flaws or criticisms with this game for the simple fact that it combines (some cynical will say literally rips off) many of the best NES games that ever existed and gives it a comical twist.  Therefore the entire time you’re playing it you’re bombarded with that feeling like you’ve played it before, but it’s still all new and the inside jokes harken back to the days of your youth.  It’s just a fun parody of NES as told through the very system that spawned the content.  What’s best is that it’s free and easy to run, most likely because there are so many borrowed sprites that they can’t possibly chance Nintendo’s response if they tried to sell it.  For that same reason, I recommend you download the game from the site and make a backup just in case, like other titles, it gets forced offline.  In addition you can donate to the site to show your support for the work they are doing and I highly recommend everyone donate at least $5 for this worthwhile endeavor, especially because you will get another free game out of it.  From the moment it began design docs so many years ago Abobo’s Big Adventure has looked like an amazing and hilarious title, which I am pleased to confirm is exactly what it is.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to play the Abobo on a Luck Dragon (Falcor from Neverending Story) minigame to unlock additional art.

Abobo’s Big Adventure can be found in flash and download format on its own web site where you can also get support software, donate and download the game.  In addition it can be found on New Grounds in flash.  It is completely free of charge.

Written by Fred Rojas

February 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Posted in PC/Mac, Reviews

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

Love Lessons Taught by Video Games

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Being an Aggressive Lover Will Make You Rich but Lonely
Learned by:
Custer’s Revenge (2600)

It’s always important to treat a woman like a lady, respectfully and gently.  Despite what some of my drunken college shenanigans have suggested, no one wants to be treated in the pathetic way that General Custer does in Custer’s Revenge.  Without going into much detail, this early Atari game for adults only is significant for two reasons: it’s one of the most expensive games on the Atari 2600 (nearly $200 on eBay) and no one has played it.  For reasons of an offensive nature and the fact that the game just isn’t that good, it’s forever stuck in Dead Pixel fame.  The message is clear: be an aggressive lover and you’ll be worth some money, but you’ll also remain dusty and alone. 

…oh yeah, I guess Kratos got away with it, but those were different times and from what I saw those women were begging for it.  So I guess you’re allowed to if you happen to be in a brothel in Vegas or something, but it isn’t real love.

Always Have a Place to be Alone With Your Partner
Learned by:
Nintendo

Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi, known as the man who reinvented Nintendo into the electronic’s industry and took the world by storm, knows the importance of privacy.  In Japan there are establishments known as “love hotels”, which are intended for short or long-term engagements with a special someone.  One of the many owners of a chain of love hotels is none other than Nintendo, whom Yamauchi himself was rumored to frequent in many of his extramarital activities.  In love you always need a person, a time, and most importantly a place.

Fight for your Woman
Learned by: Double Dragon and Final Fight

While developers Technos and Capcom may differ on the meaning of this lesson, they do agree that every woman in red is worth fighting for.  In Double Dragon, brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee fight the entire Black Warrior gang to save the red dress clad Marion.  While Wikipedia claims they were both always in love with the girl, I swore that the original game had Billy Lee as the sole love interest and the twist was that Jimmy would fight you at the end for the girl.  Ironically in the two-player version, Marion would fall for whoever won the fight, proving that this girl is more shallow than a kiddie pool.  If you like a little more loyalty in your brawler, Capcom’s Final Fight had both Cody and Guy can take on the Mad Gear Gang to fight for Jessica but all endings lead to Cody.  While Cody is Jessica’s boyfriend and third character Haggar is her father, Guy is in it only to help out a friend.  In fact, Guy is so loyal that he can even take on the entire gang himself to free Jessica and all he wants in the end is for her to run into the arms of Cody.  Just like in real life, this is the right decision to make but it’s unfortunately tarnished by loneliness and regret.

Go Big or Go Home
Learned by:
Internet Game Geeks

Leave it up to video game geeks to take the concept of proposal and marriage to a whole new level.  If you think that something simple like in game chat or an e-mail is going to do it, for the hardcore girl gamer you need a bit more gusto.  Most people remember the famed 2008 Halo-Themed wedding of John Henry and Desirai Labrada that included a proposal within the Forge.  How about the wedding that took place entirely in Everquest 2?  There’s always the LittleBigPlanet proposal, a setup my limited level-creating experience can attest will take little time or talent to create.  Perhaps my favorite was the fan who, in 2008, hacked a rom of Chrono Trigger with an entire area of memories for the couple and finished it off with a formal proposal of marriage.  In comparison, my paltry proposal on the top of the Hancock building in downtown Chicago on Christmas Eve doesn’t compete, but I knew it had to be bigger than a simple question over dinner. 

Sometimes it’s Nice to Just Sit
Learned by:The Darkness (360/PS3)

As a big time blabbermouth, there’s something to be said for silence.  Most guys, however, have no problem shutting up and often times can’t find something to talk about with their woman.  Ironically they are just the opposite in video games, which is why in The Darkness, you can net some bonus achievement points for just spending some romantic time with your girlfriend Jenny.  No kidding, you have to just sit there and do nothing while talking about a stupid TV show.  Get used to it, because that’s what real romantic life is all about, especially when you come home from a busy day.
 

Knowing the Right Moves can be Critical
Learned by:
Heavy Rain (PS3)

There’s a moment in Heavy Rain where all of the plot points start to come together and we finally see protagonists Ethan and Madison get a bit more, ahem, comfortable with one another.  Just like Quantic Dream’s previous title Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit in Europe), a sexual experience will unfold with you the player.  Unlike Indigo Prophecy, you’re doing a much more familiar set of movements with the analog sticks in Heavy Rain than the rudimentary quicktime event (QTE).  This is when, just like in real life, if you can’t properly set the mood, you will have very different results than when you have all the right moves.  Sex isn’t a game boys and girls, but games sure turn it into a challenge.

You Don’t Always Know What You Want
Learned by:
Catherine (360/PS3)

Main protagonist Vincent has a lot of problems, and being a lazy guy who’s future is going nowhere is just one of them.  One night while at his routine trip to the bar, while he’s milling over whether or not he even wants to be with his girlfriend Katherine, he ends up meeting a beautiful girl also named Catherine.  What unfolds is a tangled web of cheating, lying, deception and even a run-in with a few demons to boot.  If you’ve ever wanted to feel like a sheep running with the herd, Catherine will do that in a series of events you can’t even control.  It does have one important lesson to be learned: you won’t have all the answers all the time.

Written by Fred Rojas

February 14, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Posted in Features

Now & Then: The Simpsons Arcade Game

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Now & Then is different from both a retrospective and a review.  It tackles games you probably already know and is a place for gamers to discuss these games.  Below is an overview of a game’s presence in the market then and now.  Authors of these articles share their personal experience, so we encourage all of you to do the same in the comments.

Last week The Simpsons Arcade Gamereleased on the PSN, the XBLA version coming out a few days earlier, and completed Konami’s classic beat-em-up licensed arcade series.  For some reason media outlets decided to review this game - this makes little sense to me given that by definition the game will be outdated and any potential customer has already played it – but I know plenty of freelance reviewers that have amassed a decent collection of free retro games by trading a review for a download code.  Although this is not the best arcade brawler on the market, even among licensed peers X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it’s probably the most popular.  There’s a good reason for this, as Simpsons mania took America by storm at the beginning of the 90s, it was impossible to avoid the disfunctional family from Springfield, USA.

Then

It was a completely different world in 1991 when this arcade game made its first appearence.  Arcades still existed in abundance, the fighting genre had yet to gain momentum from Street Fighter II, which would release that summer, and you couldn’t enter a pizza joint, bowling alley, amusement park or theater without one.  Previously two arcades had been staples to most of Chicagoland: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Capcom’s Final Fight.  That was before some genius at Konami looked over potential arcade licenses and realized that of the most popular television shows out there, the animated format and family setup of the Simpsons would be perfect.  Since the family contained five members, Maggie always being a side note in most episodes, that a four-player brawler could easily be crafted on the series.  By this point the Simpsons was nearing the end of its second season and Thursday nights belonged to Fox.  Bart, the foul-mouthed troublemaking son, was a favorite among pre-teens and equally hated with parent groups.  Couple him with the other quirky members of the family – brainchild sister Lisa, moronic manchild father Homer and scratchy-voiced homemaker mother Marge – and you had a game on your hands.

This wasn’t the first time a Simpsons game had come out, but attempts at pathetic Bart-centric platformers (ie: Bart vs. the Space Mutants) failed in every way on home consoles.  Little did Konami know that its decision to include the whole family as a single unit would allow for better marketing as the show aged into varying degrees of character focus.  Series staples Mongomery Burns, Homer’s aged greedy boss, and his assistant Smithers would play the antagonists, as they did so frequently on the show.  It came packaged in a bright blue four-player cabinet with a large 25″ monitor and different colors that corresponded to each player.  No matter what arcade you entered, there would always be a crowd of players and bystanders attempting to save Maggie, Bart’s blue controls would always be taken and Marge would be ignored. 

Given the circumstances of gaming and arcades at the time the phenominally short campaign – I usually clock in at about 30 minutes completion time – was never realized by most gamers.  Back then arcades were slogs of bad guys intent on taking your quarters and it was nearly impossible to complete the Simpsons on even a few quarters, let alone one.  Furthermore we arcade gamers usually refused to continue on someone else’s game, their progress was not ours, so we’d always start over from the beginning.  As a result, no one ever saw the end and late levels like the Channel 6 news station were such new environments whenever my sister and I would reach it that we would die before reaching the samurai boss.  Back then it was also customery for parents to come yank you away from the game when your pizza was ready, the game of bowling started or the movie was starting, so we couldn’t beat it even if we played a “perfect” game.  In addition, the popular characters – in my neck of the woods it was Homer and Bart – would usually have broken joysticks or buttons, so you’d start a game only to find out you couldn’t jump.  It was all part of the experience of the arcade and the Simpsons.  It was a different time and I loved every second of it.

Now

The Simpsons Arcade Game suffers a major flaw that all modern arcade ports have: it tries to make a retro-style title out of a quarter-chugging arcade.  These games were never intended to be very skill-based and your urge to continue was supposed to drive you to cough up more money.  Once you limit continues, increase difficulty or attempt to beat the game in one life you are trying to do something the game didn’t intend you to actually do.  When this happens, especially in the interest of making a lengthy game out of something that isn’t, frustration or boredom result.  Attempting to beat this game on one life (or 10 total on Expert) is a crash course in masochism and with endless continues you’ll rarely feel like beating it more than a few times.

Not only that, this port is an afterthought at best.  Backbone has ported the game over, sans many of the functions and features they have included in other arcade ports, in a quick bare-bones version of the arcade.  Even the screen side art, which is necessary for widescreen TVs that want to avoid horizontal black bars, is nothing more than a black outline of an arcade cabinet.  Really?  It’s nearly indistiguishable from no art at all.  There are two options for graphics: sharp and smooth.  Sharp takes the pixels from the original 288×224 presentation and giant-sizes them for 1080p (1920×1080) resulting in a bad version of blown up sprites from the mode 7 days.  Smooth does what you’d expect, blends out pixels so it looks like the poor resolution blurry mess we all remember from the arcades, so be sure to keep that as your visual option.  Even the inclusion of the Japanese rom does nothing more than change the scoring system and refill your life at the end of a level, nothing I feel lucky to recieve. 

What I used to love best about The Simpsons Arcade Game was playing it with other people, which ended up being my sister most times.  Now that I have the option to play with online strangers I figured it would be more fun but the interactions I’ve had are limited to silent people avoiding enemies to unlock an achievement or people who join and drop games like it’s a professional sport.  Trying to get four people on the couch is not only difficult, but expensive these days as I don’t have four $60 controllers to spare.  At a price point of 800 MS points/$9.99 it’s just expensive enough to be a tough sell for most of my friends.  Thankfully this game was a free title on PSN+ and just like many of the retro titles before it (mostly Sega games), this is the type of free content I appreciate.  It was a great nostalgic romp from days I have forgotten, but sadly even on my own MAME cabinet that provides an actual arcade as opposed to a virtual one, The Simpsons Arcade Game is best in short, infrequent doses.

Written by Fred Rojas

February 13, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Posted in Now & Then

Tagged with , , , ,

Review: Quake 4

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Console: Xbox 360
Released: 2005
Developer: Raven Software, id
Publisher: Activision
Value: $4.99 (360) $4.44 (PC)  $10.19 (Mac) (pricecharting.com)
Price: $5.99 starting (ebay) $4.99 (GameStop used) $19.99 (GS Digital)
Also Available On: PC (recommended), Mac
Watch For: Copies on PC that have the bonus DVD of content and copies on 360 that have a bonus DVD containing the same content as well as Quake 2.

Round IV

The Quake series is quite an interesting one, especially when you consider its legacy and creation.  Developer id, of the Wolfenstein and Doom series and bascially responsible for the first person shooter (FPS) genre, finally created a true 3D FPS with the original Quake.  Unlike games before it, the engine didn’t ignore things like height and depth when calculating shots or movement, Quake understood the 3D plane.  As the series progressed in Quake II marine Matthew Kane was introduced as a strong protagonist to help fight off the alien race known as the Strogg.  I don’t want to discredit the plot completely, but there are striking similarities to the Quake series and Doom series in every way.  Continuing that similar trend, Quake III was an arena-only shooter that took the online PC gaming community by storm whereas the plot-heavy game belonged to none other than the revamped demonic classic Doom 3.  It is for this reason that Quake 4 marks an interesting place in the id universe given its continuation of Kane’s story from Quake II and drastic visual similarity to Doom 3

4 Play

Welcome to Stroggos!

For those not familiar, an alien race known as the Strogg have been attacking the human race for years and in Quake II Kane’s team, Rhino Squad, finally managed to kill their leader Makron.  Quake 4 opens back with Kane as humans begin to invade, and attempt to irradicate, the Strogg home world Stroggos – one of many lazy naming conventions you’ll notice as you go.  If you are used to modern day shooters, the Strogg army will pose little threat to you, especially if you’re aggressive.  Back in 2005, however, the need to run, get in the enemy’s face and strafe the room was an interesting hybrid between FPS conventions of the past and future.  After the introduction of regenerative health I always groan at classic health plus armor mechanics that I feel creates unnecessary backtracking and item hunting, but Quake 4 manages to keep it balanced.  You won’t notice much diversity in the enemies, but standing still is dangerous in Quake 4 so it’s important to learn each enemy’s strategy and how to overcome. 

A vast collection of weapons is at your disposal, each one having amusing twists on the basic armaments all FPS titles from the 90s seemed to boast, along with a few welcome additions like series staple the nail gun.  The developers decided to dole out weapons slowly, building from the basic phaser pistol to the dark matter gun about 70 percent through, with ocassional upgrades to specific weapons that insure you use them sparingly.  It’s not a detrement, you try a new weapon for a few enemies and then usually swap over to your weapon of choice – achievement addicts will need to complete a single level only using each weapon, which is difficult both from an ammo and a tactical standpoint.  By the home stretch, you should have all weapons (and ideally many of them upgraded once or twice) at your disposal to take on heavy resistence. 

I was pleased to see very linear level design.  In Doom or Duke Nukem 3D you might find yourself stuck in a spot where you’re wondering around for hours trying to find that single door you walked past, but Quake 4 always has a set path you simply cannot get lost in.  That doesn’t mean the areas are barren or endless corridors – admittedly you will frequently find yourself in a corridor – but open and sometimes multi-level rooms keep combat interesting.  The only bad news is that these more inventive and open rooms don’t seem to appear until the final levels, but they were trying.  Out of the total 31 levels of the game all ending with a traditional “Exit” sign, you’re going to feel a spur of repetition in the first 20.  Cinematic events, plot points, vehicle combat and a boss battle or two help break up the monotony but observant gamers will notice that there’s not much fluxuation.  Having said that, the traumatizing events your character will undergo is a decent twist on both the universe and overall plot detail of FPS titles. 

The Stroggofication scene was one of the best levels in the game

All in all Quake 4‘s gameplay felt very “good enough” even when compared to today’s shooters.  You almost wonder what was going on with Prey, an space alien zero gravity FPS romp by the same developer released at about the same time, because Quake 4 knows better than to do many of the things in that title.  Perhaps the stronger team took the reigns with this one or the game was in development much longer, which delayed its release, but for a launch game Quake 4 is a much more solid title.  That’s not to say it isn’t without its gripes, like the taxing rotation of weapons that doesn’t seem to respond anywhere near as fast as you need it to in a pinch.  There were even times where the weapon wouldn’t rotate at all and I found myself shooting a rocket at an up close enemy or popping a pea shooter bullet into a massive baddy.  Furthermore there are early implementations of what would be be known as the killbox and by the end of the game it really comes down to whether or not you know what’s coming for you.  As a result, there’s a lot of “enter a room, die, retry, kill everything as it appears”, which can be frustrating in the home stretch where you keep hearing that you’re almost there.  I also didn’t like the unkillable boss near the middle of the campaign, until you know better than to keep running he’s basically a reload nightmare.

Best With Friends

Like Quake III Arena before it, Quake 4 provides a frag-fest multiplayer experience that fans of the Unreal Tournament or Time Splitters series are sure to enjoy.  Each level is designed to basically run and gun while trying to stay on top of the various pickups that keep respawning.  Sure, there’s a big advantage to knowing the level and with me getting a six year late start on the game made it mostly a spawn/die scenario, I still had fun.  The potential is there and after begging and pleading with enough of my friends, we played an online game with all of us virgins to the maps and it was as addicting as any Call of Duty.  Mind you, it’s still a frag fest – which basically means quick and frantic kills, typically with high-powered weapons like a rocket launcher – so even the newest player can get some lucky kills racked up.

If you happen to get your hands on the PC side, there’s a massive mod community that can do everything from tournament modes to community maps and perks that include new weapons, as well as a Team Fortress mod that merges the Valve classic in a Quake-style world.  It’s a much weaker community these days, but there are still the Quake faithful out there that know the next Quakecon is less than a year away.

Do I stutter?

If you get one version of this game, there are obvious reasons to pick up the PC version (performance, graphics, mods), but the Mac and Linux versions (a free patch is available via id or online and requires a copy of the game on PC/Mac to run) hold up well too. 

Being a launch title for the 360 meant that this game was seen with very bittersweet impressions back then and most of them still exist now.  You’ll immediately notice that the production values are impressive, graphics and sound are still rock solid by today’s standards.  We’ve come a long way with new engines, including the popular Unreal 3 engine, but Quake 4 running the id Tech 4 engine looks great for one of the first 360 titles.  The setback, however, is that the game can stutter way too often, dropping the framerate to nearly nothing and having hiccups during the most intense encounters.  It really reminded me of playing a game on the SNES, suddenly everything starts to slow down and your immersion immediately disappears.  While this would never happen today – even the most common gamer is aware of frame rate to the point that it can be a bulletpoint on the box – the 360 was brand new and no one thought Quake 4 would even run looking that good.  In addition the load times are god awful.  No, really, like the same or worse than Duke Nukem Forever bad.  If you hate long load times after frequent deaths, you’ll end up shattering controllers or furniture while you watch that all-too-familiar green Quake logo on your screen.  It took me about 10 hours to beat this game, which probably would have been about six had I gotten decent load times.  This will be the toughest barrier for entry to any contemporary player trying to re-live launch glory on the 360.

Quick, look for something that isn't dark and metallic

Quake 4ever

There are two types of FPS players these days: campaign players and online players.  The former is a dying breed, Call of Duty converting a gamer or three every second and the expectation is for highly competitive online gaming where an unplayed 5-hour campaign is an afterthought.  For gamers like this, you’re just too late to the party to really gain much out of Quake 4 no matter how determined you are.  As for the campaign player, I feel that Quake 2 and 4 have an interesting interwoven plot that so far puts the Doom series to shame.  If you can manage to get both titles and play them back to back – especially if you’ve been fortunate enough to find a copy at a GameStop with the bonus disc – it’s an interesting journey that unfortunately didn’t get much closure out of Quake Territory and I doubt we’ll see a fifth installment.  I’d even go so far as to say that if you can stomach the load times – I did – this is even worth a go on 360 at $5, but barely.

Written by Fred Rojas

February 8, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Posted in PC/Mac, Reviews

Tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

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