Archive for December 2012
Instruction Manual: None released outside of Japan
Played it as a child? No
Value: N/A – No official US release, most versions are fan translations and prototype carts have no official price
Other Releases: Yes – This game was updated and re-released in Japan on GBA as Mother 1 + 2
Digital Release? Yes – Although technically not true. Digital fan translations to English are available but not really legal.
Thanks to a strong and devoted fan community and some odd ambiguity with Nintendo’s releases of this series, Mother (known as Earthbound Zero with most circles that play english translations) has got to be one of the hardest series to cover. Having never played Earthbound (Mother 2 in Japan) I did the traditional completionist thing and started with the original game, which is extremely dated by almost all RPG standards. Mother suffers from everything I dread about going into retro role-playing games: a ton of grinding (or “meat walls”), constant random encounters, no true direction as to where to go next, casual dungeons with incredibly hard boss battles, slow pacing, and a limited inventory system. Not only that, anytime you try to look up help on this game, everyone who’s written about it has played the game a million times and speaks so condescending of people who get stuck that you feel like an idiot. That’s because Mother has a small but incredibly devoted community that feels this game and its sequels are the apex of game design. Despite all these faults, the charm of the writing and what it was doing at the time was enough to keep me invested until the grueling end.
Mother tells the story of Ninten (I believe some translations name him Ness after the name for the character in Earthbound), a 12-year-old boy living in the late 1980s that discovers he has psychic abilities after a paranormal event occurs at his house. Subsequently an adventure unfolds where Ninten traverses several towns and dungeons completing several tasks from finding a girl in a graveyard to saving the world as we know it. Along the way he finds a few friends that join his party and by the end of the game it somewhat emulates the battle structure of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Towns are named after holidays (or at least they are in the english version), what we know of as magic is “psi” powers, and careful attention to what is said must be taken to keep track of where to go and what to do next. Much like other JRPGs of the time period, the map is vast and there’s not much to keep you from exploring so you can get lost easily and die even easier. Since you can only save in towns, this can be problematic and typically the best solution is to grind like crazy and level yourself up. This makes continuing in the game’s relatively meager main plot drag as you consistently stop to grind for an hour or two after getting pummeled in a dungeon or new area. It’s not all bad, though, because just like Dragon Warrior you are simply returned to the place where you last saved and your money is halved, but all progress and items collected remain on your person. As I said before, this game is chock full of charm because of its non-fantasy setting, which makes for hilarious conversions of role-playing conventions. Instead of armor, you wear hats and coats. Instead of swords and shields, you pick up slingshots, baseball bats, and even boards with nails in them. Instead of traditional enemies you will confront hippies, smoking crows, and even weird alien life forms. You gain money for battle, like with most games of the genre, but instead of instantly receiving it you have to get it from your father at the ATM, who is a disembodied voice you only interact with on the phone. All of this ties together to be the ultimate mockery on modern culture: absent working father, mother who lets you risk life and limb to save the world, towns that just shrug off hostile zoo takeovers and zombie-infested graveyards with kidnapped kids.
This is only the beginning of Ninten’s larger adventure and once you start throwing in other factors like transdimensional travel, the game gets complicated fast. I did not play this with a guide, although I wish I had because much like a Sierra adventure game from the nineties, you can get stuck and upon looking up the solution discover that you’ve got a world of backtracking to do for one single item or quest. This is when the bare inventory system becomes a slog on your progress. Since Ninten can only hold six items from the start, holding a quest item along with a couple of healing items makes discovering anything new quite the chore. You will consistently need to store items in boxes scattered around the world (but only in towns, of course) and with the several reasons to be forced back into town (reviving teammates at hospitals, taking/leaving items, saving at the inn) the pace of the game slows to a crawl. It’s not surprising considering this game was developed by a famous Japanese writer, Shigesato Itoi, because the overall plot and dialogue seems well planned out and is entertaining while the gameplay aspects of this title make it hard to recommend. If you can, play this on a portable of some kind in smaller 30-60 min doses over the course of a month or so (it took me just over 35 hours to complete the campaign). I also must admit that I’ve read some things on Earthbound and even listened to a podcast or two discussing the plot and I feel that this game is extremely similar in terms of what happens: you need to find melodies in both, the cast seems to be identical, Gyiyg is the final boss (he’s renamed to Gyiygus in Earthbound). Knowing all that, I’m betting that Earthbound is just an overall better game that tells a similar story, so unless you’re a fan of the series there’s little need to play the first game. I’m sure there will be references, but I know for a fact that each game tells a story that’s self-contained.
Mother released in Japan in 1989 and by that time gamers had already experienced a couple of Dragon Quests and a couple of Final Fantasy titles as well, so it’s hard to say that Mother couldn’t have taken the lessons from these games and applied them to a better design here. This is probably best explained by the fact that Mother didn’t consider itself to have much in common with those games because it’s not taking a fantasy setting and definitely not trying to emulate Dungeons & Dragons. Additionally it was developed in-house by Nintendo (Shigeru Miyamoto was even the producer on it) and they had little experience creating an RPG so the fact that it turned out as decent as it did is admirably. Still, the game is a 10 hour experience begrudgingly stretched to nearly four times that size by backtracking, complicated quests, and endless grinding. Not only that but it feels like you can’t walk more than a few steps in certain areas without being constantly bum-rushed by enemies. There’s also a major balance issue and the fact that quite a few bosses have a gimmick to beating them that you don’t much time to discover. An example of this is a Starman, who is an early boss at the zoo: he can deal nearly fatal damage in one attack, doesn’t seem to be remotely concerned with your attack, and simply needs to be tied up with rope to beat. Unfortunately you may have not discovered the rope on your way to him or not had enough inventory slots to pick it up when you found it. You may not know to use the rope and you’d have to die a dozen times to figure this out. You may get killed by an instant critical hit before even getting a chace to tie him up first. Given the fact that the zoo is in a remote area and to travel to it and reach Starman can take up to 30 minutes each go, this can be an early example of why you would want to quit before too long (and it only gets worse from there). If you hang in there and eventually save the world, the extended ending from the english translation does nicely wrap the plot and feels quite rewarding. Oh well, it wasn’t the most productive mass of hours I’ve ever spent, but at least I can check it off of the “games I’m ashamed I haven’t played” list.
The Sordid Tale of Earthbound Zero
Mother is one of those anomalies that spawns from several frustrating decisions of Nintendo near the end of the NES console cycle. Mother was fully translated and localized by Phil Sandhop and slated for release on the NES in 1991. With the appearance of the Super NES the same year, Mother, which was named Earth Bound for the US, was permanently delayed in the interest of focusing on SNES releases instead. Similar considerations were made for Final Fantasy II and III, which would be SNES games in America and actually FF IV and IV, so just like Mother we never saw those later Famicom titles. It was probably a smart business decision too because Enix decided to ignore this precedence and release Dragon Warrior III and IV in the US after the SNES release and both suffered horrible sales. As a result, we never got Dragon Warrior (Quest) V on the SNES in America. Instead, Mother 2, which was developed by nearly the same team and talent, was translated and also named Earthbound (obviously with a slight title change) and released in America. This title was huge and sold with an equally large price tag of up to $100 on release, which is why it released in a huge box and included scratch-and-sniff stickers and a full game guide (which I’m told was definitely necessary). It also suffered poor sales and along with the comparatively larger fan population in America, the title sells for $200+ for cart only, more than $500 for a complete version and several thousand (as much as $10,000) for a sealed copy.
During the mid-late 90s when fans tried digging up copies of the original to translate for emulation in english, the prototype of the completed english title was discovered and released on the web. It was later confirmed that the copies of Earth Bound in english that were found were, in fact, translated by Phil Sandhop and not Demiforce, the hacker group that discovered the game. This is further backed by the re-release of Mother in Japan on the GBA has all the enhancements and changes from the english version. To help gamers and anyone who looked for the game from being confused by the same title, Mother has been renamed and is better known these days as Earthbound Zero. Of all the unreleased and prototype NES titles I’ve seen and researched over the years, Mother/Earthbound Zero is easily the most “ready to ship” title I’ve ever come across. You have to wonder what the market for this series would be like in America had Earthbound Zero been released. Perhaps more would have played the game and been turned off by the difficulty ramp and discouraged Nintendo from taking the risk to release the sequel. The more likely theory is that it would have celebrated success (it sold more than 400,000 copies in Japan) and more people would have purchased Earthbound (or whatever it would be called) and brought down the rarity from America’s $200 price tag to Japan’s much more appropriate $30-$40.
For our holiday show, Fred is joined by Shawn Freeman of Knuckleballer Radio and Rob “Trees” O’Connor from EZ Mode Unlocked to discuss the holiday releases of days passed. With a plan to cover 20 years of releases we only get through five (1985-1989), but plenty of fond memories are shared.
Released: December 1996
Developer: Sonic Team
Instruction Manual: It did not have one – manual of the original game should suffice
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $24.25 (used), $56.00 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Other Releases: Yes – A Japan only PS2 remake of Nights Into Dreams includes the Christmas content
Digital Release? Yes – included in the HD remake of Nights Into Dreams on XBLA and PSN, certain content removed (see below)
Christmas Nights Into Dreams is significant for several reasons, but most of all it’s one of the only Christmas themed games to ever come out. No, seriously, look through the vaults of retro console history, this is a holiday that is rarely celebrated save for games that focus on certain days (Animal Crossing, for example). In the winter of 1996 Sega was already in big trouble with the Saturn. At only about a year and a half old, Sony’s Playstation was killing it in terms of sales and there were few exclusive titles that generated any kind of buzz. Even Sonic, the faithful hedgehog that always seemed to sweep in and save Sega’s butt, hadn’t released a real game yet. Not only that, but this was the Christmas release of the Nintendo 64 and Mario 64 was selling out consoles nationwide. Nights Into Dreams was the only recent release on the Saturn that appealed to the typical gamer and with its colorful aesthetic, roots in platforming, and Sonic Team developer it was Sega’s best bet for the holidays. Under these circumstances Christmas Nights invaded the market in several forms from being a free pack-in with Christmas console bundles (that already included Nights), inside several magazines, a mail away/in store offer with certain game purchases, and even for rent at Blockbuster Video. This “sampler” title was everywhere, but only for about 45 days, and now it’s one of the more rare and sought after pieces of a retro gamer’s collection.
When you first boot it up, the game isn’t really much. You get to play as either of Nights protagonists Elliot and Claris in the Spring Valley level from the original game. Claris was the only character who could play this dream in the original game, so to be able to play Elliot complete with different item layout was somewhat of a treat. It’s a short run, only probably 10-20 minutes depending on your familiarity and exploration, which was as much a demo back then as it is now. The devil is in the details with this game, though, because it has a ton of hidden content to explore. Depending on the game clock you can get several special versions of Christmas Nights including a heavily adapted Christmas theme if your clock reads December, New Year’s and Halloween also receive special aesthetics, and playing on April Fools will let you play as Reala (Nights’ nemesis) instead of Nights when you change. You can also unlock a speed mode, sound test, and a few other extras like artwork and visual options. Probably my favorite unlockable is Sonic the Hedgehog: Into Dreams, which lets you play through the level as Sonic the Hedgehog without the ability to transform into Nights and the boss, Puffy, is instead Dr. Robotnik.
Sure, when you tell someone about this title, especially with online prices for this game starting around $35 and getting as high as a $100 asking price, it’s a tough sell. For those of us who picked it up when it was nothing more than a throw away demo disc, forgotten in the “no case” bin of your local FuncoLand or GameStop that was liquidating Saturn inventory, it was a robust find. I think I paid $10 for mine and I was surprised to find out about all the extra content years after picking it up. It’s not like the content is hidden by any means, I just had no interest back when I brought it home amidst a stack of games. If you happen to own the HD remake on 360/PS3, the Christmas Nights content does unlock after completing the game, although I’m not sure about the non-Christmas holiday motifs, much of the extra content has been stripped, and Sonic the Hedgehog: Into Dreams is gone as well. For fans of the original Nights that have about an hour to kill and get all festive in the holiday spirit, it’s a great Christmas Eve game. Given its high price and frankly unjust amount of content, I’ve created a gameplay video to show you what all the fuss is about. Merry Christmas!
This week we celebrate the release of the Neo Geo X Gold by celebrating the original Neo Geo hybrid console/arcade. We discuss the launch, initial pricing, history and iterations of the console, and eventually get to the many games you can enjoy. As the holy grail of my 16-bit gaming as a child, I always dreamed of (and now currently cherish) my Neo Geo.
Song in the opening and closing is Keith Apicary’s “Neo Geo Song” (Music by FantomenK) and song info, album info, and music video can be found here.
For more streaming options, you can also visit our podbean site.
Released: October 24, 2003
Developer: Inevitable Entertainment
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Instruction Manual: Not Necessary
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $4-$10 (used), $10.49 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Other Releases: Yes – PS2, Gamecube, and PC and a modified version for the Gameboy Advance
Digital Release? No
No, sorry, this is not the ZX Spectrum game from 1983, but rather the more widespread console release from twenty years later, although I’ve never played the original so perhaps it’s garbage and this is the better choice. Back when the Lord of the Rings film trilogy was nearing its end, a slew of video games hoping to cash in on the wild success of Peter Jackson’s movies released. After sapping all of the film properties, the books themselves became source material for spin-offs and one of the first was based on Tolkien’s prequel book The Hobbit. As a mild fan of the series I always felt that The Hobbit was the better book and overall story, which explains the tale of how Bilbo Baggins became the first hobbit to embark on an adventure with 12 dwarves and wizard Gandolf the Grey. Not only that, but it introduces the ring, odd creature Gollum, and probably one of the only dragons in that universe, the unrivaled greedy dragon Smaug. Despite the semi-decent cartoon version of the book that I had seen in my youth, I was immediately drawn to the playful cartoon re-imagining of Tolkien’s book and despite some major snags in the gameplay department, I was pleasantly surprised.
The Hobbit was touted by Sierra as one of its newest “entertainment experiences” but it was really media company Vivendi publishing it for a developer Inevitable Entertainment (which would the following year be purchased by Midway and become Midway Austin for the Area 51 re-hashes). As a newer developer – Inevitable’s only other title was Tribes: Aerial Assault, which garnered quite positive reviews – and one that had only done a first-person shooter, The Hobbit was an odd choice as a 3D platforming adventure game. As a result the strengths and weaknesses learned from developing a title like Aerial Assault come through, like the platforming (a large part of the mobility focus of Aerial Assault), but hand-to-hand combat was weak to say the least. You can also tell this was a game that was planned first by the license and then adapted into gameplay form based on the developer’s ability to craft levels out of the story. In this regard, and I stress this as one who has read the book countless times, the decisions were quite odd. There are several levels where you’re jumping around caves and forests fending off creatures and insects while major plot points like an attack on the dwarven camp or a harrowing escape from Gollum get bypassed in cutscene. There is also an annoying save system that requires you to check into certain spots within a level and every death results in going back to your last save. Finally the overall campaign is stripped down in most levels to nothing more than a fetch quest or a killbox for a brunt of the adventure. Couple that with the fact that it’s clearly a licensed product cashing in on the success of another, there’s no reason this game is supposed to be good but to my surprise I like it.
Many of the areas in The Hobbit are set pieces we don’t see in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the overall adventure spans fewer years and area, so it was a first glimpse at many of them. The focus on areas like the watertown or dwarven caves that are thriving (as opposed to the abandoned ones in Lord of the Rings) was also a welcome addition. I also like that the game is catered to a completely general audience, so there’s absolutely no fear of letting a child play or watching you play resulting in a devastating conversation or learning something inappropriate (unless you count the swearing that would undoubtably come out of my mouth when I die). It just has a bright atmosphere and charm that allows me to forget the game design is weak, which is a pass few other games (American McGee’s Alice also comes to mind) can get out of me. It’s a bit nipicky, but I also like that Gollum is the dark, drab cave-dweller that I always remembered him as in the books and cartoons as opposed to the pathetic faux-hobbit he was transformed to in the movies. I have ready the books many times and I don’t remember Gollum, even when he converted to Smegal, having such a drastic appearance change between the stories. My favorite level, the cinematic sneak to and battle with Smaug, is one of the best looking set pieces I’ve seen in a game to date (not necessarily from a tech perspective, but from an art design one).
The Hobbit was not well received back when it released. Although some would argue that a 5-6/10 is an “average” score, most venues of the time considered a 7 or higher to be as such, and from a critical level on simply the elements of the game and not the combination of all these parts I can see where they were coming from. It was a dark time for the 3D platformer – all games that weren’t Mario were getting sneered before the package was even opened and even Mario Sunshine couldn’t get through unscathed – so it doesn’t shock me that this licensed knock-off so-so platformer was bashed by review staff. I’m not suggesting that reviewers had pre-conceived notions and I understand how easy it is to look back and attack words from the past, but I remember even back then thinking that reviews and previews were a bit harsh on the title (there was plenty of Internet video game coverage by this time). Still, I think it holds up as a lighthearted collect-a-thon from the days of modern 3D platforming and I argue that the graphics competed with most games of the era. Just to make sure I haven’t been too blinded by memory, I replayed the game in its entirety (as I do with all the games covered here) and even captured it with commentary. I have included those videos below just in case you’re interested and I do warn that since they are “in the moment” gameplay commentary there’s a bit of swearing, but I keep the bad language somewhat to a minimum. It may not have been what most gamers wanted, but I feel The Hobbit was a great preparation for this week’s release of the film in theaters.