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Retrospective: Psychonauts

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Psychonauts has still got to be one of the most interesting cases of game neglect I have ever seen.  Okay gamers, lets cut through all the lies we tell ourselves and face facts: when someone tells you a game is a “great game that you should try out”, we rarely do.  As hobbyists that claim to have so much in common we are quite fickle when it comes to altering our plans on what we’re currently playing and what we will play.  As someone who maintains a site destined to never generate the traffic that I would if I focused on contemporary gaming, it’s almost a waste of breath and writing to mention a title from last generation.  This is the world that Psychonauts lives in – no one played it when it released and few will drag themselves back to play it now.  It’s a shame because this is an imaginative masterpiece that justifies the, frankly, so-so releases that Double Fine has offered in recent years.  Don’t get me wrong, I love most of Double Fine’s efforts more than the average gamer, but most of the studio’s games require some sort of caveat as of late.  Not Psychonauts.  It’s a complete package.  Although it’s a waste of my time, I have to say it: You need to play Psychonauts. 

Almost every excuse you can clamor is gone for not playing this game.  It’s on every HD platform: Steam, PC download (on gog.com so it’s compatible with Win XP-7), Xbox 360 (it’s an Xbox Original), and as of today it’s on PSN as a PS2 digital release.  You won’t even pay more than about $10-$15 for it either.  Okay, so it’s easy to get, but you’re still wondering why to play it, right?

Psychonauts is simply put a 3D action platformer that follows protagonist Rez through his adventures at a summer camp for children with psychic abilities.  Tim Schaefer, best known for his early work with LucasArts in famously popular adventure games like Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, creates an odd world that is as stylized as a Tim Burton film and charming as games come.  As you progress through the game, mysteries begin to unravel and Rez finds himself traveling into the minds of people at camp, which results in crazy level design and art direction.  If you want a bit more variety in your game you truly need look no further.  Whether it’s becoming a Godzilla-like creature and destroying a town, traversing a Mexican-style village that looks like it’s illuminated in blacklight, or trying to imagine what the Meat Circus looks like, there’s no lack of creativity in Psychonauts

It stands as Double Fine’s best work simply because it came out at the right time.  3D platformers, while not the powerhouses they used to be, still hold up today provided the game is polished and Psychonauts does a decent job with its mechanics.  The game length balances at right around 10 hours without any significant obstacles to make you pull your hair out, and the plot never stops making you chuckle.  It also is recent enough that the graphics don’t look quite like the blurry, dated, 5 frames per second mess that has become of most PS1-era titles.  Most importantly it captures a gameplay style familiar to players while also letting Double Fine’s charming and hilarious writing do its work and not forcing you into the very niche world of a point-and-click adventure. 

Needless to say I’m a fan.  But more than that I really feel Psychonauts stands as the apex of Double Fine’s portfolio in terms of both being accessible and demonstrating the talent that everyone touts about when the name is dropped.  Unfortunately it’s also probably the poorest performing title from the studio and sadly enough other works may assist in justifying why not to go back if you missed it.  Don’t make this mistake, it’s worth returning to.  If you play one retro game this year, please don’t go back and replay Metal Gear Solid for the fifteenth time or shoot through Halo: CE because you know you can best it in about eight hours, undo the mistake you made in 2005 by not picking this title up.  Double Fine and digital distributors have gone out of their way to make this title accessible, don’t turn your back in vain.  If you’ve played Psychonauts then hopefully nothing I’ve said in this article is news to you.

Written by spydersvenom

August 28, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Posted in Reviews

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How To Be A Japanese Import Gaming Poser

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As a retro gamer, it’s inevitable that you have to acknowledge games from other countries, especially Japan.  Why?  Because many of the foundations of gaming began in the land of the rising sun and lets face it, there’s just something intriguing about integrating completely foreign languages and concepts to a domestic gaming collection.  Well and there’s that whole thing about a long list of amazing games that we never saw on our shores.  It wasn’t until this console generation that gaming started to go region free (unless you’re talking portables, which ironically just recently started segmenting by region after decades of being region free), and even now it’s really only the PS3 and 360 with plenty of exceptions.  Before that games were segmented into different regions for distribution, licensing, and localization, resulting in a diverse list of releases from country to country.  On a macro level your release decisions were segmented into three major regions: North America, Europe, and Japan.  Import gaming skates an odd line in America because Europe has the common language (English) but a completely different broadcast standard (covered here) that requires special modifications and/or hardware to play games on.  Japan has a language many Americans can’t understand (and more importantly in retro games, read) but has similar broadcast standards making most games essentially plug and play.  As a result you’re more likely to import a Japanese game than a European game, most likely choosing an action platformer or fighting game over, say, a high-end RPG.  But limiting yourself to just those games means all you’re going to play are licensing titles from the Super Famicom like Ultraman or PS1 games like Dragonball Z.  That’s where this guide comes in – it’s a cheeky, sarcastic look at the elitist gamer that thrives on Japanese titles and gives you starting hints at how to pretend you are a Japanese gamer in the know.  Those of us who love Japanese gaming are guilty of at least a few of these in our lives and who knows, maybe it’ll even give you the starting point you need to enjoy Japanese gaming. 

1.) Always reference Japan instead of America

There is no more NES, Super NES, and you’ve no longer even heard of a Turbografx-16.  Nope, instead you know them as the Famicom (or Family Computer), Super Famicom, and PC-Engine.  The Genesis is the Mega Drive and you never played an Atari VCS/2600, you had an MSX (Microsoft Personal Computer).  Everything came out earlier than you know, like the Famicom’s 1983 release and Legend of Zelda coming out in 1986 along with Dragon Warrior (we got it in 1989).  In fact, there is no Legend of Zelda or Dragon Warrior, they’re now Zelda no Densetsu and Dragon Quest, but we’ll get to the names of games later on.  This is the first step in becoming a true Japanese gaming genius: reference only Japanese console names and finish every fact based on a game with “in Japan” so that those listening are aware you know exactly what’s up.

2.) Know the Games

This is a twofold requirement because you not only have to know the proper names of titles in Japan (including how to pronounce them), but also knowing the coveted list of “secret best” games we never got in America.  As I hinted at above, games aren’t necessarily called the same thing in Japan as America and in many cases Japan had more sequels than we did.  Final Fantasy didn’t just have a single release on the Famicom, Japan also got the lackluster Final Fantasy II and decent Final Fantasy III, which are not the same as the American counterpart.  The US release of Final Fantasy II is actually a dumbed down shortened version of Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy III is Final Fantasy VI – no longer can you refer to Final Fantasy II or III as 16-bit games, they are now permanently IV and VI to your savvy Japanese-centric mantra and you refuse to call them anything else, even if it confuses your friends (what do they know).  Many games in Japan have shortened names for ease of reference that are different from America.  Dragon Warrior is actually Dragon Quest in Japan (it was later changed here with Dragon Quest VII), but it’s DraQue (pronounced “draw-kw-ay”) for short.  Additionally Super Mario Bros is SuMari (“sue-ma-ree”) and of course Seiken Densetsu (the Mana series) is SeikenDens (“say-ken-dens”), so you are also no longer allowed to pronounce the full name of this and many other games, nor should you ever explain discrepancies like the fact that SeikenDens 2 is Secret of Mana.  On that note, always reference only the Japanese franchise and pretend the American version doesn’t exist – no longer does Castlevania, Gradius, or even Street Fighter Alpha exist, they are known as Akumajo, Nemesis, and Street Fighter Zero.  It’s also important to know that in Japanese “L” is pronounced like “R” and visa versa, so be sure and do this every time, even with games like Gradius, which are still pronounced with the “R” sound in Japan (although you shouldn’t have that problem since it’s now Nemesis, right?).

Box art for Seiken Densetsu 3 (Secret of Mana sequel, technically Secret of Mana 3)

In addition, it’s important to know many of the hot topic games that retro/import gamers will consistently reference when discussing the titles that we so desperately missed out on in America.  I must note that these games are actually quite remarkable for most players, but almost all of them can be played in a fan translated version via emulation with ease (and for free), assuming you can handle the loose interpretation of the law that comes with it.  First and foremost is the first game in the Earthbound series, which is Mother in Japan, and often referenced as Earthbound Zero by gamers.  This fully translated but never released NES game has a strong cult following in both America and Japan, making Mother top of the must-own titles for the import gamer (it’s a bit slow-paced though, so perhaps you should opt for the Japan-only GBA collection that includes Mother and Mother 2, which we got in the form of Earthbound in America).  Mother 3 also never saw our shores so despite an easily found translated version online, you should instead proudly announce you have the imported Japanese version.  SNES had a massive bunch of games we never saw over here, but the biggest ones have to be Final Fantasy V and despite a few translated releases in America it’ll only be valid if you have the original Japanese one, as well as Seiken Densetsu 3, which is the sequel to Secret of Mana that we’ve never seen here (but was fan translated).  The list goes on and on but without reference another batch you’ll want to mention casually to show you know your import games are Zero Wing (Mega Drive), Monster World IV (Mega Drive), Radical Dreamers (Satelliview), Policenauts (micro computers, 3DO, Saturn, PS1), Sin & Punishment (N64), Shining Force III (remind the naysayers that US never got parts 2 & 3), etc.  Google searches for “best” and “import” plus the game title will net great results and it’s a safe bet that anything with a fan translation has a cult following.  In many cases when talking to others you don’t even need to know what the game looks like, just know a tidbit like the fact that Radical Dreamers is a side story to Chrono Trigger or Policenauts is the only Hideo Kojima (of Metal Gear Solid fame) game not released in America.  When you hear these names just nod, make slight noise, and kinda reel your head back like you just had a fresh swig of some good coffee, that’s all there is to it.  I did omit Persona 2: Innocent Sin because we just got it on the PSP.

3.) Know the Significance

It’s also important to know which import consoles are worth your time.  The Saturn was a completely different console in Japan and Nintendo is known for tons of unnecessary add-on consoles (the Famicom Disk System, the Satelliview, the 64 DD) that failed just as bad as the Virtual Boy.  Embrace the never-released Gameboy challenger the WonderSwan and its updated Gameboy Color competitor the WonderSwan Crystal.  And there’s no PC-Engine without the Super CD add-on, especially with the vast library of games it opens up like Rondo of Blood from the Castlevania series and many of Falcom’s hits like the Ys series.  Oh and apparently no one in Japan has a portable Nintendo system without a paddle add-on for old school arcade-style games.

***

All snarky kidding aside, there is a lot to be learned and appreciated from our pioneers in the East and given the (debatable) slip in game design from Japan more and more gamers are appreciating the past.  If you truly are interested in Japan’s games and knowing a lot of the 8-bit and 16-bit roots of titles, there’s a great series that airs in Japan known as Game Center Cx that can be easily found, translated, on YouTube (I have found literally over 100 episodes) and offers incredible insights to Japanese gaming of the past.  If this just isn’t the thing for you, hopefully you’ve come across the import gamer I’ve listed above and a smile crossed your face while reading this.

Written by spydersvenom

August 27, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Posted in Blog, Import

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Podcast: The Final Countdown – Part 3

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We continue our Final Countdown series that swaps the wonderful stories associated with some of the most beloved games of all time.  We still couldn’t quite wrap it up, but we crank through games 39-10 and break down some of the biggest titles ever released.  This time around Fred from Gaming History 101 is joined by Trees from EZ Mode Unlocked and Jake/Jacob from Gameranx.

Download this episode (right click and save)

You can see our other podcasts in the podcast section.

Written by spydersvenom

August 21, 2012 at 12:00 pm

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Know this Publisher: Sunsoft

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Normally we focus on developers, the true makers of video games, but it’s also important to focus on the publishers responsible for making sure we ever see the game in stores.  In many cases these notable publishers are the ones that grab a bunch of smaller developed or imported games and grants them release in another region.

Sunsoft was such a great publisher back in the days of the NES.  Back in those days the few of us who read the labels of game boxes didn’t normally notice a developer, but rather a the publisher logo (although to be fair the two were often the same).  Whenever the Sunsoft logo crossed your boxed copy you could almost guarantee two things about it that normally don’t go together: 1.) your game would be a license game 2.) it would be good.  Yes, you read that correctly, Sunsoft made good licensed games on the NES.  As time continued, Sunsoft got more linked in with lackluster mascot games of the 16-bit era, but that doesn’t stop them from still being a publisher worth noting.  In fact, had it not been for Sunsoft porting many a game that wasn’t slated for release outside of Japan, we may never have seen these classics.  Oh yeah and Blaster Master, they made that too.

Atlantis No Nazo box art

Sunsoft is not in any way related to the short-lived SunSoft that was part of Sun Microsystems in America, but rather a subsidiary of Sun Denshi (or Sun Electronics) that entered the video game realm in the late 1970s.  When the publisher/developer opened a branch in the United States it went under the title Sunsoft of America but the logo still remained simply “Sunsoft”.  They developed mostly unknown games on arcades at that time: Arabian, Ikki, and Kangaroo – a weird hybrid of Donkey Kong and Popeye – but it wasn’t until the company moved to the NES that it really started making waves.  Sunsoft developed arcade ports and original Famicom games in Japan, mostly odd titles that would never come out over here like Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi (English: Stations of the Tokaido), which is a side scrolling action platformer where you play Kintaro, a fireworks salesman and use fireworks as a weapon.  Of the most famous is a kusoge (Japanese slang for cult video games that literally translates to “sh*tty game”) known as Atlantis No Nazo (English: Mystery of Atlantis), which has the player navigating an explorer through 100 levels of platforming.  What most don’t know is that the hit detection is horrendous and the platforming physics are a crash course in masochism, not to mention the game doesn’t move linearly (ie: you don’t necessarily go onto level 4 when you beat level 3).  Like most other games of the 8-bit era, a game over results in you completely starting over and the real aggravating part is that the game is completed by doing a sequence of about seven brutal stages in a certain order (including hidden warp zones).  Without having the information from the onset, I’d safely declare this title impossible.

So with what you know of so far, why in the world is Sunsoft significant?  It all starts in America with another pathetic port of a game we all played and loved on the NES: Spy Hunter.  If you haven’t booted this version up in a while, you may forget that the game can’t detect a crash with anything other than cars if you’re pointed straight ahead.  You can literally navigate to the extreme left or right, point your car straight, and walk away for the rest of the afternoon.  You may crash, but it’s not that likely.  Ironically Spy Hunter never released on the Famicom, making it of the few games that we got and Japan didn’t.  They also released a little game called Blaster Master in 1988, which is another game that receives the highest praise from most old school gamers, myself included, but few tolerate going through the game these days.  Despite this fact, when it was your Christmas $50 purchase and you had nothing else to play for the next two weeks, this bad boy was a prize piece.  Nostalgia goggles strike again.

Gremlins 2 on NES

After that Sunsoft began to release a slew of licensed games, which I must admit are almost all remarkable.  Internally they were responsible for Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Fester’s Quest, and the highly credited Batman on the NES.  Despite a high difficulty on all of the games, they featured impressive sound and graphics for Nintendo’s 8-bit console and games press went nuts when Batman was ported to the Sega Genesis.  Unfortunately due to a contract with Nintendo of America, the game wasn’t allowed a release in America until 1990, well after the mass rush of the game, and few people own or have even played this version.  Sunsoft also published odd ports like Ocean’s Platoon game on NES and a canceled Superman title, later renamed to an intended Sunsoft mascot Sunman.  Fortunately for you emulation fans it’s not difficult to find Sunman in nearly complete form online and you can see what an essential NES port of the Superman arcade game would be like.  It wasn’t all licenses and ports for Sunsoft either, notable titles on NES/Famicom in retrospect are Gimmick! and Ufouria (known better as the Hebereke series of games in Japan).  Gimmick! is a Japan-only released platformer starring Yumetaro, a weird looking green creature, that uses a star above his head for all sorts of things that assist him in taking out enemies and traversing a level.  The game is extremely hard and I can’t get very far at all.  Ufouria, on the other hand, came out in Europe and is available on the US Virtual Console and is basically a cute aesthetic put into a Metroid clone.  Just like Metroid the game is pretty hard, but with the crazy character Bop-Louie (who is named Hebereke in Japan standing for “drunk” or “lazy” person).  For $5 it’s a great title to get for Virtual Console and is one of those hidden value titles that make owning a Wii still justifiable, especially when you consider playing an English translated version of this game is impossible due to PAL’s video format.

Final Fantasy Legend (Seiken Densetsu in Japan) on Gameboy

Sunsoft released a handful of Gameboy titles as well.  Easily the biggest and most thankful being Final Fantasy Adventure, or by you Japanese collectors as Seiken Densetsu, which is a Final Fantasy side story that launched the Mana series.  This game is not to be mistaken for the Final Fantasy Legend (Adventure had the plain green box), which saw three releases on Gameboy, all published by Sunsoft, and follows the SaGa series.  SaGa is odd, difficult, and seems to repeat itself in almost every way in these early Gameboy releases, but nonetheless going into the game in the blind is a surprisingly feature-heavy portable RPG.  Sunsoft also released Blaster Master: Enemy Below, which is a Gameboy Color hybrid of the first game and some unique content.

Beyond that Sunsoft entered the 16-bit era with the world at its fingertips.  Critical and commercial successes were abundant in its resume of home and portable titles and Batman on the Genesis looked like it was sure to continue the trend.  That’s when things went incredibly south.  Most of the games released in this era were so-so licensed titles, like The Death and Return of Superman, or mascot titles including (no joke) Aero The Acrobat and Zero, the Kamikaze Squirrel.  Sunsoft had started to fall from grace, which didn’t stop them from cranking out games on the SNES/Genesis including Blaster Master 2 (Genesis), Bugs Bunny Squeak (Genesis) and Rabbit Rampage (SNES), Road Runner’s Death Valley (SNES), and the weak port of World Heroes for SNES.  Beyond that Sunsoft basically became non-existent in the US, although they continue on in Japan.  The last Sunsoft release I can remember was Blaster Master: Blasting Again on the PS1, another attempt to recreate the series in 3D, that was a clearance title upon release and few thought would even hit our shores.  It was basically $10-$20 on store shelves near the end of the PS1 era and I picked it up back then because $10 for a Blaster Master title seemed like a safe risk, which the game ended up being worth just about that.

Sunsoft is best known as the company that gave us Blaster Master, but in truth it should be more appreciated for giving value to the licensed game and bringing over titles like Final Fantasy Legend and Adventure when Square didn’t see the value in doing so.  As both a developer and a publisher it pushed the limits of the 8-bit era and is responsible for many of my fond NES memories because as a child you’re stupid enough to ask Santa for licensed games without hesitation.  Heck, I’ll even throw in some of Sunsoft’s sadder mascot games – I prefer Zero over Aero – just for old times sake.  If you’re re-learning your roots you should check out a few of Sunsoft’s lesser known titles, they just might impress you.

Written by spydersvenom

August 17, 2012 at 11:06 am

Head to Head: Super Mario Bros. 2

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Ask anyone who grew up playing NES games and they will tell you that Super Mario Bros. 2 was somewhat of an anomaly.  It is completely unlike the other games in the series, complete with an Arabian theme, veggie-pulling, the option to select one of four protagonists, and Bowser (King Koopa) is nowhere to be seen.  Fortunately for Nintendo it blended right in with sequels to various other popular franchises in the console, including the radically different Zelda II: Adventures of Link and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.  As a seven-year-old gamer back then I shrugged it off and said, “why not?”  It may shock you to discover that the American version of Super Mario Bros. 2 is not actually the intended sequel to the original Super Mario Bros., nor is it in Japan.  The true Super Mario Bros. 2 is better known as Lost Levels in America and our Super Mario Bros. 2 began life as the game Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic! and based on a Saturday morning cartoon in Japan and was later re-worked, improved, and re-released as Super Mario Bros. USA.  Both versions of Super Mario Bros. 2 are as different as two games can get and thus warrant a head to head.

The “Real” Super Mario Bros. 2

In Japan the Famicom (NES) was released in 1983 as opposed to holiday 1985 here (and only to a select few near FAO Schwartz stores or in New York City).  This is why many of the launch games on the NES didn’t seem quite as consistent as Super Mario Bros., which came out in 1985 for both regions.  In Japan the Famicom had a more established market whereas Nintendo was still testing the waters in America, so when Super Mario Bros. 2 hit Japan in 1986, there was some hesitation to port it over to our market.  First of all the game was solely a Famicom Disk System (FDS) title, so to bring it to the US required re-working and conversion to cartridge form, something titles like Metroid and Legend of Zelda would later do but required more money and work.  Additionally the game had an aggressively ramped up difficulty that still challenges longtime platforming fans today and I can personally attest has a brutal difficulty.  While Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, creators of the original, were in charge of this game it still feels like a rushed sequel that re-uses assets from the original and creates the ultimate obstacle course.  In many circles, the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 is considered a rom hack, which is a term used when an individual creates new levels using original assets by hacking an original game’s rom (basically the program).  Technically that is exactly what this game is and in screen shots it almost looks like a fake game.  When it was tested in America, gamers slammed it for being so difficult it wasn’t fun and Nintendo quickly scrapped all plans to convert Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES, opting instead for an alternative version.  In the US we finally got to see what all the fuss was about when the game was renamed to Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels and included in the Super Mario All-Stars collection on SNES.  Not surprisingly, it was criticized even then as a frustrating and pointless addition by the general game-playing public.  Still, it looks and feels much more like a Mario game than the version we got here.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA)

Since we were already a few years behind Japan, it became necessary to either skip Super Mario Bros. 2 altogether, which was pretty much not an option, or to create an alternative version.  Fortunately this was in 1987 just as a licensed Japanese game from Yume Kojo, a popular cartoon series, was releasing on the FDS.  Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic! was originally to be a game about two cooperative players throwing each other around a world in order to overcome enemies and platforming puzzles.  Early conceptual gameplay proved to be unpopular and eventually Miyamoto’s EAD team (Entertainment and Development) received the project and created an action platformer where four different protagonists traversed an Arabian world (as seen in the cartoon) with the ability to pick up and throw everything from projectiles to enemies.  As for NOA (Nintendo of America), the fact that the game was created by the same team as Super Mario Bros., complete with composer Koji Kondo, it seemed like an easy translation to America for Super Mario Bros. 2, especially because we wouldn’t recognize the popularized enemies from Yume Kojo

It’s important to note that Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic! is not just a palette swap for Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA). Since it only released on FDS in Japan, both Super Mario Bros. 2 and Doki Doki Panic! are difficult games to emulate because they never released on Famicom and thus require special files and emulators.  Additionally the sound design and graphics of Doki Doki Panic! are much lower in quality to that of the revamped Super Mario Bros. 2.  Since the FDS had built-in memory for saving games, Doki Doki Panic! required that you beat each level with each of the four protagonists in order to complete the game.  As each character beats a level, it would get checked off on the main menu until all levels were complete.  Imagine trying to tackle some of the more complex levels in Super Mario Bros. 2 with each of the characters, quite a chore. 

For the American release Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool, and Toad replaced the four selectable characters.  When you first start playing the fact that jumping on enemies no longer kills them is odd, but once you’re a few levels in it becomes second nature.  There are still 8 main worlds, warp zones, and touches like the invincibility star (which was originally in Doki Doki Panic! as well) kept it close enough to a Mario game to sell the transition.  Nintendo Power also launched its first issue with coverage on Super Mario Bros. 2 to explain the differences, which were consistent with the drastic changes to most of Nintendo’s sequels.  It released in holiday 1988, nearly two years after Nintendo’s initial boom in America so most of us were itching for a Mario sequel.  Despite some people claiming the game was too easy, I loved it.  It was just different enough and with the four selectable characters had plenty of replay value to keep me happy.  It was so popular in the US that it was eventually ported back over to the Famicom, with the now defunct FDS system making Doki Doki Panic! harder to find and play, and released in Japan as Super Mario Bros. USA.  Technically if you don’t have an FDS in Japan, this is the only version of Super Mario Bros. 2 to release in a cartridge, so its possible that it’s the only Mario 2 you have. 

Imagine if we had only received the original Super Mario Bros. 2 in the US and never even saw Doki Doki Panic! – I’d bet that few gamers would find it to be as essential to a retro collection as the US version is today.  Not only that, but the themes and concepts that began in our version continued over into other side story Mario games and even on the portable front.  Either way, the story of how Super Mario Bros. 2 was so drastically different is one that every gamer should know about, even if you’re only hearing about it for the first time here.  Super Mario Bros. 2 (Lost Levels) and Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) can be found together in any version of Super Mario All-Stars as well as on the Virtual Console so don’t hesitate to pick them both up if you’re curious.  Only five minutes with the Japanese version will prove to you that sometimes the import version isn’t always best.

Written by spydersvenom

August 13, 2012 at 1:10 pm

Feature: Mascots

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Mascots, you have to love them.  No, wait, you don’t.  For the most part mascots have been one of the dark spots on a game publisher’s marketing blitz.  At first there was only one iconic mascot, Mario from Super Mario Bros., and frankly he was an accidental mascot that Nintendo had never imagined would become its poster child.  After Mario other companies were consistently trying to establish mascots no matter the negative cost to the consumer.  Mario is an exception not because he’s a particularly good or mistakenly genius mascot, he’s just iconic because his game was the catalyst to the return of video games after the crash of 1983.  During the mid 80s Nintendo established a handful of strong franchises that are beloved by many fans and despite Mario being the “leader” per se, he’s definitely not alone when Nintendo wants to sell a product.  I would argue that Link (from Legend of Zelda), Kirby (from Kirby’s Dream Land), Pikachu (from Pokemon), and to certain extent Donkey Kong (from Donkey Kong/Donkey Kong Country) and Samus (from Metroid).  Much like Disney, Nintendo brings with it a cast of characters and franchises that all assist the overall brand in creating long running quality games.  Everyone wanted to have that same wonderful family in the 90s (all of the above named characters had at least one title on the NES by 1992), but they seemed to miss the point that these characters were not created to be mascots, they just happened to get popular enough to become mascots. 

Early Attempts

Sega, the leading direct competitor to Nintendo, was first on the scene to try and establish an iconic mascot.  In the Master System days it attempted to put Alex Kidd (from Alex Kidd in Miracle World), probably because Alex Kidd was in a platforming series and seemed most likely to be a cartoon character like Mario.  This failed miserably because Alex Kidd in Miracle World wasn’t a great game and few fans of Sega’s console immediately named the title as a must have.  Opa-Opa from Fantasy Zone also shared a few months as Sega’s next attempted mascot, another complete failure despite its title being of the more fondly appreciated titles in retrospect.  On the NES some 3rd party publishers attempted to establish mascots as well.  Hudson attempted to make Master Higgins from Adventure Island its iconic mascot, which is hilarious considering that true fans of the Hudson library always associated the much more appropriate bee as the mascot.  The only semi-successful early attempt was probably Capcom and Mega Man, which is mostly due to the fact he had a whopping six titles on the NES and his second and third outings became beloved titles that even today make the top of gamers’ all time list.  It wasn’t until Sega decided to take its aggressive new campaign with the Genesis attempting to thwart Nintendo that a manufactured mascot finally succeeded in being the voice of an entire company.

Fast Times at Sega

Sega was desperate to find a mascot to take on Mario and with the Sega Genesis gaining speed in both Japan and America, many believed that one great mascot with its own platforming series could dethrone the giant.  Several anthropomorphic animals were designed to do the job – some that would go on to be first party titles at Sega: Mighty the Armadillo, various conceptual dogs, an old man in pajamas made to resemble Theodore Roosevelt (this design would later go on to create Dr. Robotnik), a rabbit that could extend his ears for collectibles (would later become Ristar from the self-titled game), but it was an attitude heavy teenage hedgehog named Mr. Needlemouse that was chosen. 

While Mr. Needlemouse was created by Naoto Oshima, a designer at Sega, programmers Hirokazu Yashura and Yuji Naka were responsible for turning him into Sonic.  Yashura is probably more integral in terms of the actual game Sonic the Hedgehog as he designed most of the levels and the gameplay, but Yuji Naka brought him to life.  Japan’s love for American pop culture gave his personality, which was hilariously described in design docs as Bill Clinton’s “Get it Done” attitude mixed with a teenager’s sass all wrapped in a bright blue (his original color was teal) outer fur to accompany his shoes, directly intended to match the color’s of Michael Jackson’s leather jacket in Bad.  Naka did miss some important details however, like the fact that hedgehogs can swim, which was pointed out after certain people at Sega asked why Sonic died in water.  He also integrated some quite Japanese concepts like large fangs to display power and a human girlfriend named Madonna – a commonality in Japanese fictional cartoons and manga but a taboo in America.  Enter Madeline Schroeder, the self-proclaimed “mother of Sonic” at Sega of America, who made Sonic a bit softer with larger less sharp quills (probably based on the Bart Simpson concept), a much larger head, green eyes instead of black, and a slightly more slender body.  His famous move in both advertising and games was to take his index finger, smile at you, and wave it back and forth in a “no” motion, proving that his attitude ruled his personality.  His other major trait was that he could run incredibly fast, a unique trait of mascots and game characters that fit perfectly with Sega’s claim of “blast processing”, which offered super speeds (and in fact was twice the strength of the SNES processor at 7 mhz).

With the character created as well as a game to accompany it, Sonic the Hedgehog hit stores and became the pack-in game for the Genesis in the summer of 1991, just before the release of the SNES in holiday season 1991.  Sonic was all over the place, taking up 4 pages in your copy of Electronic Gaming Monthly (because he was THAT fast), and you couldn’t say “Sega’ without also mentioning “Sonic”.  It was a pretty easy sell, too, with the Genesis retailing at $99.99 (half of the upcoming SNES) and the graphics quite similar to the early screens of Super Mario World.  Sonic had the same personality in game as he did on television, impatiently tapping his foot and giving you a dirty look on screen if you left him in idle too long, whereas Mario has always ignored the fourth wall and stared blankly while he waits.  Each level composed of various routes to the end, allowing both speed and non-speed players to enjoy the game equally – I’ve taken nearly five minutes exploring all that Green Hill 1 zone has to offer and also flew through it in a perfect run of 33 seconds.  He was equally different and similar to Mario enough that a large number of fans flocked to Sega’s console, myself included, to encompass an impressive 55 percent market share over Nintendo’s 45 percent in 1992.  Unfortunately time would prove not to be as nice to Sonic as it was to Mario due in most part because Sega couldn’t find a proper way to move him to 3D polygonal gameplay, but for the early 90s, Sonic temporarily dethroned Nintendo and became a pivotal mascot to Sega that still survives today.  As a result, everyone started jumping on board.

Quantity over Quality

Immediately following Sonic, the concept of the mascot exploded in the mainstream hoping to be the next big partner to take on Mario.  It was a horrid mess of anthropomorphic game characters that ended up in completely inappropriate places.  The examples are too many to name but a few examples include Sparkster, an opossum, from Rocket Knight Adventures becoming a temporary mascot for Konami and appeared in the game and manual for Snatcher.  A bunch of games that received a franchise and never should have like Gex, Bubsy, Conquer, Aero the Acrobat, Zero the Kamikazee Squirrel, and oh so many more.  While a lot of these games showed some success, in a more competitive world or time they would have pathetically fallen to the wayside.  Still, the anthropomorphic animal can garner some praise with certain companies, like Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot becoming the temporary mascot for the Playstation – Naughty Dog later admitted that they came up with the character as they attempted to make a Sonic-like character that worked in 3D.  Longtime mascots like Taito’s Bub and Bob from Bubble Bobble received updated looks for various Playstation-era games and Pac-Man is now synonymous with Namco. 

Mascot use Today

Nowadays the mascot is still a clever marketing ploy best utilized by Nintendo and Sony.  As the Playstation consoles continued, Sony was able to acquire a family of mascots much like Nintendo has including Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper, Jak & Daxter, and even Sackboy, while also retaining more mature mascots like Kratos from God of War and Cole from inFamous.  Microsoft is a bit of an anomaly with only a few recycled Rare characters from the N64 era, including Banjo and Kazooie, and Master Chief from Halo.  It’s not that important these days, though, as mascots are now extensions from brands instead of replacements. 

As we look back over time many people wonder why certain mascots did or didn’t work.  I personally have a simple answer: the games.  Mario wasn’t intended to be a mascot and Sonic was manufactured as a mascot from scratch, but both of them have solid games that back the character they represent.  When we go to the game store or read the preview, just the mention of some characters, like any Ratchet & Clank game for me, will immediately drive us to that game.  As marketing professionals and brand managers struggle through a world of high budget titles and large risks that cost tens, even hundreds, their jobs with every failure it’s important to focus on the game.  Mario, Pac-Man, and even Rayman caught on because they had amazing games that were referenced along with the company.  Both Sonic and Sackboy may have been used as mascots prior to their release and thus reveal an underlying plan, but they would be nothing if the games they starred in weren’t great.  This can directly correlate with the fact that as Sonic’s games, and many other mascot games, diminish in quality, so does the strength of the mascot.  In honor of these hits and misses we will be featuring reviews for various mascot games on various platforms all month.  If you’re not into mascots, don’t worry, we’ll be doing plenty with non-mascot games as well.

Written by spydersvenom

August 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Dissecting the Ouya or Rant and a Top 5!

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So everyone’s been buzzing about that new Ouya console that managed to raise its $1 million Kickstarter goal in only 8 hours!  At first glance this console looks way too good to be true especially with backed support from none other than former Xbox creator himself, Ed Fries (he also made Halo 2600 for you neo-retro fans).  Ouya promises to offer a full catalog of Android-based software, online capabilities (wired and wireless), a controller, recently announced OnLive support, free games, and at only $100.  All that’s missing is an “act now and you’ll save $5 off the price!”  Oh, but wait, that’s exactly what they did for the first 1,000 Kickstarter donators.  They even came back and said this would easily support old school gaming via emulators, opening up the possibility for even more games and essentially makes this the catch-all console for anyone not interested in contemporary console titles.  Obviously we here at Gaming History 101 were going to weigh in on this and I just want to forewarn you that after I get through all the smoke and mirrors you will not only know why all of this is possible but also what they’re really selling.  I may break some hearts here, but it’s all in an attempt to inform the consumer.

There’s a lot of marketing double-speak woven into the sordid tale of manufacturer Boxer8’s little console – but I must admit the cube-like design looks slick.  In the past gaming consoles have been non-existent, like the appropriately named “Phantom” console, or try to do too much and failing at everything, hello N-Gage.  That’s not what the Ouya is though, which is why it doesn’t seemingly make the mistakes these other failures have.  I don’t believe the Ouya will be a failure, in fact I expect it to sell many consoles provided they can iron out the manufacturing plans, but I think this is going to be a useless gadget that most consumers will buy and eventually forget about.  You see, the Ouya is nothing more than an Android-compatible cell phone without any of the cellular communication.  It boasts a strong NVidia Tegra 3 quad-core ARM processor, 1 GB of RAM, 8GB of flash memory, HDMI-out, USB in, wired ethernet port, wi-fi and bluetooth connectivity, and a controller.  You’ve heard many of these specs before, they mirror most of your Android phones, and that’s why all of these components, if purchased on a mass scale, can be combined to make a console that will turn a minor profit for $100.  It’s like a computer, or even more closely related, the Wii, which was able to be manufactured and sold for a small profit margin. 

So how can it do so much?  It really isn’t built to do all of that, it’s just capable of doing these things.  It runs Android operating system 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and has specs equal to today’s top cell phones, so yeah, of course it can run Android games.  You know how Square Enix just announced that Final Fantasy III (which was a longtime Japan only release on the Famicom)?  Guess what – Final Fantasy III just hit the Android store for the “low” price of $15.99 – and it runs on almost any Android device, so this console can support it and thus it’s an “Ouya game”.  Same goes for previous announcements of Angry Birds, Dead Trigger, Grand Theft Auto III, and the list goes on and on, they’re just re-iterating what is on the Android store (known as Play).  Most of the people who haven’t caught on are iOS users, at least among my circles, so it doesn’t surprise me that they can’t see the connection right away.  I will admit that the good news about this is the controller, which will make controls on many of the games better but mind you that’s only if the developer supports controller inputs.  That emulation thing that everyone is going nuts over, not that big of a deal either.  The freaking Gameboy Advance was capable of playing NES games, the DS can play almost anything up to the 16-bit era, and the PSP/iOS/Android phones can run 32-bit games with ease.  They just noticed that there were a ton of emulators on the Android store and decided to use those as a selling point and if you know how to root your phone (which I think this console will already allow root-like access out of the box) you can easily use free alternative versions of these emulators by simply copying program files to the memory.  They also make mention of free games, which is another use of smoke and mirrors to explain a majority of things on the Android store: they are either free or have free “Lite” versions (just like iOS devices).  And finally OnLive.  Really?  The OnLive micro console was cheap and required nearly no components and OnLive runs on any web browser, surely this comparative computing powerhouse can stream a game remotely.  As you start to think about it, the gusto fades away and you now see how this console can do all these things: because your phone has been able to do them for years.  It’s just a new way to market the non-communication features of your cell phone, whether or not that’s a useful device is up to you.

I can go on and on with all their bullet points and tear them down.  “1080p video”, yeah yeah, it has an HDMI port and all HDMI devices are capable of 1080p resolution, even if the game looks blown out to hell and crappy.  China already makes much cheaper looking versions of this thing (yes tech junkies, I know, not nearly as impressive internal components) for like $40-$50 that will play emulator games and pirated Android/iOS games downloaded on the net – they are manufactured to look like PSPs, PS2s, Xbox 360s, and more.  So that’s what you’re getting with the Ouya, for better or for worse.  Now you may be reading this and thinking, “so, what’s wrong with that?  That sounds great.”  Excellent, then you are now an informed customer who knows what they are purchasing and will appreciate a new device on your home TV.  In fact, heavy Android users will have massive libraries of both free and paid content right out of the box if you sink your Google account to it.  The only thing that threatens this console at this point is the manufacturing deal.  At the time of this post, only a prototype of this device has been developed and with the massive response on Kickstarter, there is fear that even if they can make a working design, that they’ll never be able to create the 200,000+ consoles they have already pre-ordered, but also future consoles for the mass market.  That’s a time thing, I guess we’ll see on the proposed release date of March 2013.

With all this talk of consoles that may or may not exist, I think it’s best to point out my top 5 consoles that either didn’t come out or failed miserably to deliver what it promised:

  • The Phantom Console: Phantom Entertainment came to E3 2004 with a prototype of a console that would play video games via downloaded content instead of discs or carts.  At the time this was a very ambitious undertaking, especially when you consider that download speeds at that time didn’t come close to today and the inherent fear that downloading a 4GB game would take a week (which it probably would).  Phantom even hired DirectX founder Ty Graham and Xbox development liaison Kevin Bachus along with 220 other engineers and developers to work on the console, which still sounded too good to be true.  Not only that, it was due to release in January 2005.  Then March 2005.  Then in the summer, Phantom was a no-show at E3 2005, the only ray of hope was Kevin Bachus hinting at a Fall 2005 release alongside the Xbox 360.  To no one’s shock it didn’t come and in February 2006 it was indefinitely put on hold due to lack of funding.  The console finally disappeared altogether on August 15, 2006, never to be seen again.  Now in annuls of history it serves as an ironically fitting name for the never-released console.
  • ActionGamemaster: Active Enterprises was a company you love to hate.  As a responsible gamer I scoff at those “300-in-1″ DS carts, knowing they are the seed of piracy and cheap components from China, but to the general public they are an end to purchasing video games.  Active had already released 52-in-1 carts for NES, SNES, and Genesis, but unlike many other collections they did not pirate a batch of existing games and opted instead to create original (read: horrible) games.  The most popular among them is a rough action platformer known as Cheetahman, which also got an unreleased sequel available on the net for emulation.  At CES 1994 Active announced the Action Gamemaster, a catch-all 16-bit portable system that would sport a rechargeable battery, DC adaptor, 3.2″ color LCD screen, and adaptor carts that allowed it to play NES, SNES, Genesis, and PC CD-ROM games.  Sound too good to be true?  Yeah, it was. We never even saw a prototype.
  • Gizmondo: We’ve already covered the Gizmondo in our history of portables but this nearly non-existent portable only saw the light of day for a few thousand European early adopters and a handful of US gaming press.  In fact, if you find the console in the wild it will always be set up for Europe and requires you to turn off all the communication devices (such as cellular and GPS) to run games without stuttering horribly.  After the apparent failure of the company Gizmondo it was discovered that executives, including known criminal boss Stefan Eriksson, were using the company purely as a front to launder money.  In its wake the all-in-one device that promised to be a cell phone, e-mail server, GPS, and portable game device had a handful of games and a $400 price point legacy.  Still, there was a game that never released called Colors, which had a scene where you could go to prison and perform sexual acts on your bunkmate to avoid getting beaten, perhaps an internal development joke on the future of the executives?

  • ApeXtreme: Apex, the company that developed super cheap DVD players for sale in Wal-Marts and RadioShacks in the early to mid 2000s (some of which were graciously region free), was also at the infamous 2004 E3 alongside Phantom to show off their conceptual console.  As you can see the prototype model looked sleek enough and flaunted a realistic $300-$400 price tag depending on the model.  What did it do?  Simple.  Put a media disc (CD/DVD) in it and it would play whatever the content was.  Mind you, it wouldn’t play console CD/DVD games, but as for PC, it would play any game, read any DVD, read any CD, and even play various new and old media types like MP3 and VCD.  Honestly most of Apex’s $30-$50 DVD players already did most of this (including MP3 support), but the idea that you could put any PC game into it and it would run it instantly without installation and spec management raised an eyebrow.  Of course it never came out and Apex was all but forgotten after big companies like Sony started selling DVD players for $50.
  • N-Gage: Ah Nokia’s N-Gage, the taco phone/console.  Like the Gizmondo, it promised to do almost everything – cell phone, e-mail, web browsing, gaming – and unlike the Gizmondo it actually came out.  Yes friends, if you have a GSM cellular service (T-Mobile, AT&T) then you can, even today, have a working taco phone to walk around and look cool with.  The only problem with this device is that it sucked at being a phone and it equally sucked at being a portable.  It had a bunch of ports, but they were pathetically inferior and its original games still make reviewers of the time tremble in the night (just as Jeremy Parish).  So neither the gaming or cell crowd even touched it and nowadays its just a waste of money in many pawn shop display cases.  I chose this as the top example because it comes the closest to matching what the Ouya is, only just the opposite.  Here’s hoping that portable devices brought to the home and TV work out much better than home and TV devices brought to portables.

Written by spydersvenom

August 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Review: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1)

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Console: Sony Playstation (also released on Sega Saturn in Japan only)
Released: 1997
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Japan? Yes (as Akumajo Dracula X: Gekka no Yasokyoku  Translation: Devil’s Castle Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight)
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Moderate
Played it as a child? No
Value: $22.87 (used) $64.45 (new) (pricecharting.com) – NOTE: There are two versions: original and greatest hits. Original is much more rare and expensive, so adjust your buying habits appropriately.
Price: $15-25 (used GH) $35-$60 (used original) $90-$130 (new GH) $400 (new original) on eBay
Digital Release? Yes – released as PSOne title on PS3/PSP and on XBLA – $10.00 for all versions. Also available with Rondo of Blood in the Dracula X Collection for PSP – $15 digital, varies on UMD.

***We also did a podcast on this and other Castlevania titles like it here.***

Review

While Rondo of Blood may be the hidden gem of the Castlevania series, Symphony of the Night is anything but.  There wasn’t a Playstation gamer around that didn’t see this release back in 1997, bringing a much-needed change to the traditional formula.  Every Castlevania game that released on consoles seemed to push the hardware to do things it was never intended to do and usually had amazing results, so it was interesting that in a world consumed by 3D polygonal graphics Symphony of the Night was a 2D side scroller.  In Japan, the series has a much easier way to identify the games that go together – main campaign titles often wore Akumajo in the title and in this case Dracula X – but in America we had not received (and most of us had not played) Rondo of Blood.  The game starts out with you climbing the stairs to Dracula’s chamber at the end of Rondo and you re-create the final fight with Dracula (of which you cannot die).  Then a long bit of lore scrolls the screen and next thing you know you’re playing as Alucard, Dracula’s son, and you’re rushing to Castlevania to rescue Richter from its curse.  It was like being dropped into the middle of an epic you had not previously learned the story of.  Frankly, it didn’t matter, and even today playing Rondo of Blood only assists in giving you background detail because like all other Castlevania games it’s the gameplay and level design that keeps you hooked.

In theory the games were always to be about the adventures of the Belmont family as they repeatedly stormed Dracula’s castle and defeat the infamous vampire, but due to technical limitations and design structure the games always remained linear experiences.  As the series continued we begin to see little tidbits of a bigger picture – from branching pathways to hidden areas within levels – until finally pulling it off in Symphony of the Night.  You’ll find upon beginning the game that there are immediately multiple paths to venture to with no indication of where to go or what your path is.  As you continue to explore, dead ends will quickly force you into a pseudo-linear pathway, but this only holds up for a short while in the beginning.  By the time you’ve defeated a few bosses and conquered some wings of the castle it becomes clear that there is a pre-set layout and you are free (and somewhat required) to explore all of it.  This was a level design choice most notably found prior to Symphony in the Metroid series, where a map would slowly be created as you explored areas and you were only limited by your ability to reach certain areas.  This is why Castlevania titles that had you exploring a new castle were nicknamed “MetroidVania” titles from here on out, even if that name makes you cringe with distaste (I never really cared either way).  Conceptually it was quite an arduous task to make everything available from the beginning and to only limit the player enough to not wonder around for hours from the beginning to find the early basic items and powers.

Series writer and later producer of titles of this style, Koji Igarashi, said he came up with the concept after noticing how most Castlevania titles in Japan ended up in bargain bins due to their lack of replay value.  I assure you that there’s nothing of the sort in Symphony of the Night, especially when there are multiple endings and to get the good ending requires you to discover the upside down castle that literally doubles the game’s size.  Role playing elements were integrated with Alucard equipping weapons, armor, and special items along his quest and a traditional hit point system for fighting enemies.  You could also get familiars, or creatures that would assist your character, and completing the game unlocks the ability to play as a powered up or powered down Alucard or even as Richter Belmont (use “Richter” as your player name).  It really is a game that you have to experience to appreciate, but I warn you that you’ll be hooked if you can get past the early blockades all around you.  The video below gives you the opening sequence to help set up the style of gameplay.

Symphony of the Night was only released on Playstation in the US, but Japan also received a port on the Sega Saturn, which was a much larger commercial success in that country.  This version had few differences to the PS1 version, although it does allow you to also play as Maria Renard, the unlockable character from Rondo that is my personal favorite to use.  I have heard horror stories about this version and in a recent purchase of a Saturn import lot of games, I can say that it’s not quite as bad as everyone’s claiming.  Apparently due to poor coding and the fact that the Saturn team attempted a direct PS1 port, the Saturn version suffers from bad slowdown, long load times, and glitchy effects – this is considered odd because Saturn was a much better 2D system than 3D system and often outperformed the PS1 in such titles.  I have heard that the problems are the result of using all 3 save slots, a commonality for most RPG titles and this is no exception and I had little issues using only two despite a clear performance drag on loading times.  Once I filled that third slot, however, the game came to a messy crawl, dropping framerate consistently and for no apparent reason at all.  If you can avoid this version, the much easier (and in English) US PS1 version is probably preferred.  Also interesting is a misprint in the US game that claims the battle at the beginning is from Castlevania: Bloodlines, which most likely comes from a misunderstanding that Symphony of the Night began its life as a Sega 32x game, Castlevania: The Bloodletting, and we never saw Rondo of Blood in the US.

Written by spydersvenom

August 1, 2012 at 4:53 pm

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