Archive for the ‘Arcade’ Category
This week Fred is joined by Allen (@tearsofafeather) to discuss the Castlevania franchise. As a fan of both this show and Castlevania, Allen assisted in talking about the vast adventures of the first six titles for the Belmont clan (Castlevania I-IV along with Rondo of Blood and Bloodlines). Join us in one of the most technologically advanced and entertaining horror action platformers ever released.
It’s hard to believe, but the typical cartridge game began to phase out of gaming in 1995 when the new wave of consoles and the subsequent movement to disc-based media began. I’m sure plenty will be quick to point out that the N64 was a cartridge-based console, but I truly believe this decision was the result of Nintendo not wanting to give up the control over manufacturing and sordid history making a machine that read discs. This change happened 18 years ago, which means there is a significant number of gamers that are now in their early to mid 20s that have never played games on a cart. This is truly a shame because the versatility of cartridges is much more abundant than most people realize, but the crutch will always be that carts offer little storage for massive prices. In today’s lesson we will discuss what makes up a cartridge, benefits/setbacks, and how the cartridge was used to literally upgrade consoles for more than two decades.
Anatomy of a Cartridge
For the most part a cartridge is a plastic-encased board containing “read-only memory” or ROM data that has exposed pin connectors (male) that fit into a slot on the reading device (female). Since it’s a complete circuit board, multiple ROMs can be used to store data, which we will get to in a second, and allow for an expanse of memory based purely on the connected printed circuit board (PCB) and the device reading it. Of the most popular uses for ROM carts is software for computers that expands almost solely into gaming once game consoles begin to release. It was the dominant format for many microcomputers, mostly used outside of the United States, and almost all game consoles for two decades (mid 1970s to mid 1990s). Many believe that the use of a cartridge was due to no other decent format being available, but this is simply untrue. By the time carts were in use, programs/games could be loaded via floppy disc (5.25″), compact cassette tapes (not unlike audio cassettes), and removable circuit boards (think arcade machines). The decision to use cartridges was due to the fact that the memory was permanently stored in the chip and memory mapped into the system’s address space (ie: it was basically integrated into the machine). As a result data access was almost instant (no load times), the cart could be used for hardware expansion in addition to loading code, and due to the streamlined process it was very difficult to extract the code and thus safest for mass distribution of software. Unfortunately it was also quite expensive and thus storage space was expensive, not to mention that the code could never be altered or accessed, which made for difficulty with saving and loading.
The first console to use cartridges was the Fairchild Channel F, a game console that predates the Atari VCS/2600 by a year and featured many of the same aspects of the pop culture sensation. It is not as widely known due to the similarity of titles that were mostly archaic sports titles or educational material. Naturally in 1977 when Atari introduced the VCS with arcade ports and diverse addicting third party titles like Pitfall resulted in the streamline of the format. Due to the fact that the cartridge is an integrated part of the machine, Nintendo made heavy use of the cartridge to make both the Famicom and the NES capable of keeping up with changing times for quite a while. Not only that but some carts, especially in Japan where custom chips were allowed, were capable of acting as a game, a hardware upgrade, a save state, and an anti-piracy device all at once. This practice was pretty standard for most consoles that utilized carts until the aforementioned 32-bit era where expansions moved to actual hardware expansion ports and even the N64, which could lean on carts, used ports instead to expand the on-board RAM.
ROM types and Special Chips
The oldest ROM type is Mast ROM, which refers to information stored permanently via integrated circuit when the chip is manufactured. The term “mask” refers to the masking pattern on the integrated circuit when it is created. This is the oldest form of ROM and definitely what went into the creation of Nintendo carts, which were manufactured by Nintendo and worked as a supplemental business to the license fees and cut of each unit sold on the NES. This is the cheapest way to get the most memory, however unless you have a mass production line the masking of the integrated circuits can be a costly endeavor and without the vast quality controls like Nintendo had one poorly made program or coding error can ruin an entire production. You can understand why Nintendo was so strict back in those days, especially because masked integrated circuits cannot, by their very nature, be re-written or reused. The up side is that there is little chance once successfully produced that the chip will suffer decay, failure, bit rot, and various other issues that can plague other ROM types, which is why you will see most classic carts last nearly forever (please note that the save battery memory is a different story). I know that this was the most common type in all Atari consoles, NES, Turbografx-16, and Sega Master System. Beyond that it is entirely possible that the SNES, Genesis, 32X, and portable consoles may have used other formats like Erasable Programmable ROMs (EPROM) that allowed you to reprogram chips with ultraviolet light or Electronically EPROMs (EEPROM) that allow you to erase and re-write electronically. There are generic PROMs that can be created with a ROM burner and remove the need to produce them like a mask ROM, but they are still one time use and were more for arcade and pinball repair, which may mean they can be found in Neo Geo carts. As for Jaguar and N64, I’m guessing EEPROMs, but there’s still a striking possibility that these companies known for mass production of carts since the 80s still made traditional mask ROM carts, especially with the lowering price of PROM and the relative high emulation/piracy of the late 90s. It has been said that PROM, EPROM, and EEPROM may have a higher chance of failure, but most carts don’t seem to have a problem no matter what is used and plenty of fixed arcades have had no problem whatsoever (especially because they can be wiped and reprogrammed). ROM chips typically varied in size from 2 kbit (not to be mistaken for the large 2 kbyte) that held roughly 256 bytes all the way up to the expensive 32 megabit chip that held 4 megabytes. This is why you saw statements on Street Fighter 2 that said things like “32 MBit Chip!” because it was touting massive storage space. Some games are rumored to have even larger ROM chips that compressed data and justified hefty price tags like Final Fantasy III launching for $80 in the US or Street Fighter Alpha 2 having load times on the SNES while data uncompressed. It was all par for the course when trying to get as much data on a cart as possible. I do believe that as RAM was integrated into consoles, like we saw on the N64, that compression and temporary storage allowed for more data to be stored for the larger 3D games of that console.
In addition there can be extra chips placed into the carts to allow all kinds of extra functionality, which basically means the carts acted as hardware upgrades. This makes sense when you think about the massive leaps between launch games and later releases. 2600 carts were pretty straightforward, but NES carts had a few extras like the anti-piracy NES10 chip that was required to be on the PCB in order for the NES to play (if it doesn’t detect this due to a loose connection you get the popular blinking console effect, which is the NES10 chip on the console rejecting the cart). Saving became a large feature as well, which led to almost all cart-based save states to be stored on Static Random Access Memory (SRAM), which was able to keep save data stored after power is cut (uncommon for RAM) provided that a small current still passed through. This is why a lithium button cell CR2032 battery is used in most cases and once that battery dies (typically around 20 years, but can go much longer) the SRAM no longer functions. To fix this, simply de-solder the dead battery from the SRAM leads and solder in a fresh battery to the leads. In Sonic 3 as well as a few others, Sega decided to use much more expensive non-volatile RAM (NVRAM), which was an early form of flash memory we have today and retains information after power is cut, which is why Sonic 3 carts should retain save data indefinitely.
As for expanding the functionality of a console, special chips could literally upgrade a console to allow it to do things it was never intended to do. In Japan the Famicom was allowed to have special chips put into its carts so companies could go crazy on internal development – due to no video game crash, Nintendo did not force Japanese development studios to manufacture carts through them like in the US. This explains the VRC6 chip in Akumajo Densetsu (Castlevania III) that allowed for extra channels on the Famicom’s unused sound port. In America Nintendo began releasing special Memory Management Controller (MMC) chips that allowed for some of the Japanese innovation to happen on the NES, albeit in a stripped form due to the different hardware profile of that console. Here are some of the popular chips:
- UNROM: Split the program data from a 32 kbit chip into two 16 kbit chips, one that stored the data and one that transferred data to RAM chip for faster loading and effects. This was seen early with impressive titles like Ikari Warriors and Mega Man and assisted in side scrolling of dynamic characters and certain effects.
- MMC1: Allowed for save games. In addition to having 16 or 32 kbit ROM programs, 4 and 8 kbit SRAM was integrated and powered with a button cell lithium battery. This was essential to getting Famicom Disk System titles that had save data to run on NES carts such as Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Dragon Warrior. Although Metroid didn’t support saved checkpoints like the FDS version did, massive passwords allowed pre-stored save data.
- MMC2: Basically split a 32 kbit chip into a 24 kbit chip with two sets of 4kb banks for pre-loaded graphical data. It allowed more graphics to display on screen at once due to the additional banks being only referenced without assets in the main code. Only used for one game, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! to load the massive sprite opponents.
- MMC3: This massively split the memory allocation and integrated a scanline IRQ counter to allow for certain assets to scroll while others remained stagnant. Necessary when keeping dynamic items like consistent scores, life bars, and more fixed on the screen and moving while a second “window” was performing more dynamic gameplay. Nintendo’s most popular chip and key in many large titles such as Mega Man 3 and Super Mario Bros. 3.
- MMC4: Utilized only in Japan for the Fire Emblem titles to create effects similar to the MMC2.
- MMC5: The biggest, most versatile, and most expensive chip Nintendo offered. Developers avoided it like the plague due to the high cost and reduced profit margin. This had several different memory allocations, IRQ counters both horizontally and vertically, allowed for very dynamic effects, and opened extra sound channels along with a 1KB of active RAM. Since Koei was almost the sole user and none of its MMC5 titles came out in America, the only title to really use it was Castlevania III to create a similar, but still inferior, version of the Famicom title in America. The MMC5 chip was so complex that almost all clone consoles do not support it and emulation took a long time to decipher integration of the ROM. For this reason alone Castlevania III was one of the few games you had to have original hardware to run. Emulation is currently no problem however clone systems that run actual carts still do not support the title.
- MMC6: This final mapper chip extended the size of SRAM over the MMC3 chip by 1KB, which allowed for the larger save files of Startropics and its sequel to save games.
There were more custom chips that did eventually show face in America, but these were the most common and basic chips. Nintendo would loosen their policy and generate several custom chips for the SNES as well allowing for all kinds of impressive hardware tricks. Some of those are as follows:
- DSP: The digital signal processor chip allowed for various 2D and 3D calculations in several iterations that allowed for asset conversion for older graphics techniques, rotation effects, raster effects, and mathematics that could all be performed independently on the cart instead of using the SNES. Popular games that used this rotation technique are Super Mario Kart and Pilotwings.
- Super FX: This was a supplemental CPU for performing graphics calculations that the SNES simply could not do. Think of it as an external graphics card for the 16-bit console, as it was a separate 16-bit CPU integrated into the cart. Since it had simpler duties than the SNES, the Super FX chip’s iterations were capable of 10.5 mhz and eventually 21 mhz of processing power, which blows past the 3.5 mhz processor of the SNES and allowed for the 3D rendering of titles like Starfox. Later updates allowed for support of larger ROM sizes (for a long time the game program had to be less than 8 mbit or 1 mbyte of data).
- Cx4: This chip was Capcom’s way of showing off rotational, polygonal, and wire-frame effects in the Megaman X series. While the first title used a traditional chip, Megaman X2 and X3 had special test screens and crazy title screens that to this day cannot work on cloned consoles, flash carts, or even later hardware emulation (like the Megaman X Collection on PS2/Gamecube). Of course the emulation community has successfully gotten this working on software-based ROMs.
- SA1: The Super Accelerator chip that independently worked with the SNES as a co-processor creating a faster 10 mhz clock speed over the 3.5 of the original hardware, faster RAM functionality, MMC capabilities (see the NES section above), data storage and compression options, and new region and piracy lock out protection. This chip was essential in certain impressive titles like Super Mario RPG! and Kirby’s Dream Land 3, which cannot currently be replicated on flash carts. Software emulation on both the openware PC scene and official Nintendo Virtual Console titles do support the chip.
There were several others that were utilized for specific function in addition to the Genesis having the Sega Virtual Processing (SVP) chip in Virtua Racing to make the most technically impressive 16-bit game ever created. Unfortunately it also cost $100 at initial launch, wasn’t impressive from a gameplay standard, and doesn’t work with any clone or flash carts out there. Emulation is possible but with varied results.
Well there you have it. A brief breakdown of the technical marvel that was the cartridge and the hardware benefits it provided. It’s almost difficult to imagine a world without load times, where data access is instantaneous (something even flash carts can’t currently do). While it wouldn’t be possible with the massive memory required today and the equally massive cost of manufacturing, there was a time where a few bits in a plastic case meant to world to each and every gamer.
Developer: Midway / Rage Software (console)
Publisher: Midway / Acclaim (console)
Ports: Genesis, SNES, Playstation, Saturn, PC/DOS
Digital Release? No (probably due to license issues)
There are some games you can’t help but adore, even if they are completely without merit. Revolution X is definitely one of those games. When the title released to arcades in 1994, Aerosmith’s Get A Grip album was just around a year old and with solid hits like Living on the Edge and a slew of videos featuring Alicia Silverstone (who was discovered by the band and started her career in these initial videos). What originally started as a Jurassic Park game much in the same vein as previous title Terminator 2, Revolution X had to be retooled when Sega outbid Midway for the rights to Universal’s film. The result is a game with more off-the-wall and undeveloped ideas than a season of Lost that involves helping children around the world, saving the band, and stopping the New World Order and its leader Helga – a nazi-esque goth queen.
Revolution X has a hell of an intro, but as we often see in games like this it’s only a matter of time until it all falls apart. Aerosmith is performing in some drab downtown Los Angeles club (Club X) and the New World Order shows up to kidnap the band. You start off shooting the endless supply of henchmen with CDs as your grenades and large blood spatters as you take out enemies. After all, this is the team that gave us Mortal Kombat. Before even entering the club you will face literally hundreds of enemies, large security bosses with shields and bulletproof armor, and a massive tank. Once inside you will blast away at (literally again) hundreds of NWO henchmen while destroying the intro lounge, complete with Kerri Hoskins (Sonya in MK3) as thonged dancers in cages, and eventually entire the massive main area where Aerosmith is jamming away to the song Eat the Rich.
After a brief drop by the band’s dressing room and a visit from lead singer Steven Tyler, you’ll be tasked with attacking the NWO in various locations throughout the world, which also releases members of the band. Before that it’s one action-packed crazy escape from the club before eventually destroying an attack chopper and leveling the building while you’re at it. By now you should have spent approximately $10 or more in quarters because there’s no skill or chance in the world your health will last very long. This is why most people have fond memories of the game, because it was so insane to begin with you can’t imagine how things could go wrong. It does. There are out of control school buses, natives in grass skirts of Africa that would make anyone who criticized Resident Evil 5 cringe, and eventually an endless boss battle with Helga, who sits in a re-purposed version of the final boss of Smash TV.
Not only was the game brought horribly to 16-bit consoles with graphics removed, sound and music (of all things) stripped, and violence toned down, but you didn’t get unlimited credits. This made an already lackluster title impossible to boot and ruined the experience of what was designed to waste credits and eat quarters. There wasn’t even a cheat code to get unlimited life or credits, just an eventual Game Genie code. In addition, the dancers from the arcade were flipped to be front facing – a fact no teenage boy at the time missed. Fortunately it was a bit of a different story on DOS and CD-based 32-bit consoles, violence was brought back in and all of the graphics, movies, and sounds were all re-integrated. Also there’s a Pro Action Replay code on the Saturn that gives unlimited credits and any import gamer will have one of these already for the purpose of playing those Japanese gems.
Revolution X was an example of the times and probably the last great light gun shooter from the concept that spawned with Operation Wolf. While I don’t have a great way to capture the game in arcade form, I have provided a video of the Saturn version in its entirety for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy.
Developer: Midway / Probe Software (console)
Publisher: Midway / Acclaim (console)
Ports: Gameboy, Game Gear, Master System, Genesis, SNES, PC/DOS (all as T2: The Arcade Game)
Digital Release? No (probably due to license issues)
In 1991, the sequel to Jim Cameron’s film Terminator hit theaters and literally launched the careers of Edward Furlong and Robert Patrick as well as ushering in a new generation of computer generated image (CGI) effects. With a monster budget the film was accompanied by a marketing blitz like no other. At that time making an arcade game for the movie was a great and potentially cost-free endeavor (it would make as much in revenue that it cost to produce), which resulted in one of the heaviest cult following of a licensed game I’ve ever experienced. Not only was it a licensed arcade game, but it was also a bolt-on light gun game (which I describe in my Operation Wolf article) that made it significantly more approachable than any other format. For me, it was the “why can’t I beat the damn third level!” game.
It’s quite an expansive experience that takes you through most of the pivotal moments of the movie, including several levels that take place in the post-apocalyptic future and subsequent present day challenges. Like other shooters of its type, you have a primary machine gun weapon and bombs that can be fired off for some of the stronger enemies or to take out clusters. I must admit that at the time it was awesome taking out the original T-800 cyborgs we first saw in the original Terminator and the neo-future setting. Then you hit level three. Most people don’t remember and even fewer talk about the fact that unlike arcade quarter-swallowing titles like Revolution X, level three requires skill to complete and no amount of money in the world will get you past it. This is why most people who have played this game get hung up on or never see beyond the third level. It’s a protection mission where you literally have to memorize the spawn points of the oncoming enemies that seek to destroy the truck John Connor is fighting in. This vehicle is very susceptible to damage and if you can’t intercept the airborne enemies right as they appear you have no chance of completing the level. If John dies, you have to restart with no true penalty. This resulted in long, repetitive, and frustrating replays of an escort mission you never wanted to play. It’s really disappointing too, because the remaining seven levels are both fun and provide much more fan service for those that have seen the movie. These levels are also brutally difficult to the point that I don’t think it’s possible to pass on consoles and requires more than 50 credits on arcades/MAME.
There are plenty of people out there that adore Terminator 2: Judgment Day but as for me the impossible nature of the third level remove all desire to tackle this game. At the same time, all you need is a pencil and paper to record where each ship spawns from and the level should be a breeze (they never change, always the same patterns). Still, even with only three levels played, this is a great shooter in the Terminator universe, but I still can’t let the frustrating third level go.
This title was ported to most home and portable consoles as the retitled T2: The Arcade Game due to the Terminator 2 game that had nothing to do with the arcade. While I don’t see much of a point to the gameplay on the Gameboy or Game Gear, the Master System, Genesis, and SNES ports are faithful recreations. You are forced to use the gamepad on the Master System, but I think that is a better option than trying to rapid fire the Light Phaser at the speed T2 requires. On the Genesis you could use the Menacer, which I didn’t care for, and on the SNES you can use the Super Scope and even the mouse that came with Mario Paint (a great way to play, might I add). Graphically they all look close to the same but the different graphics modes on the SNES (especially Mode 7) allows that port to look and act quite close to the arcade game. Basically if you have a choice, go with the SNES version.
Ports: NES (1989), Sega Master System (1990), DOS (1991), PC-Engine (Japan Only, 1992), Microcomputers (varies), PS2 (in Taito Legends, arcade version), Xbox (in Taito Legends, arcade version)
Digital Release? Yes – NES Version on Virtual Console (no light gun support, see below)
Operation Wolf is a game I can’t help but associate with Pizza Hut. Taito’s introduction and unique take on the light gun shooter flooded the American franchise so much in the late 80s that I can think of no other place I’ve actually played the game. Of course being a pizza franchise and not an arcade the difficulty was always cranked to the highest and I swear they timed the machine to play approximately half the time it took to cook a pizza so that families with two kids would each play one credit before the food was ready. This title brought more realism to the light gun shooter as you play a member of special forces diving behind enemy lines in Cuba to extract five hostages. Aside from the realistic violence of invading and destroying enemy encampments, this was the first light gun shooter to feature a plot and natural progression as well as a moving, scrolling stage instead of a fixed location. Did I mention it was addicting too?
Mind you, we are still back in 1987, where arcade games were more about providing a specialized challenge with amazing graphics instead of explicitly drinking as many quarters as you’ll offer. The cabinet had a large mounted Uzi machine gun that could only swivel slightly with forced feedback to emulate gunfire kickback, pretty nifty for games of that time. At first glance it seems like a spray & pray title, but as you run out of ammo, die, and get captured you begin to realize you might need a slight bit of strategy. If you die, even if you have another quarter in the machine, you will still need to complete the current level from scratch (although you will now have full ammo and life). Innocent people are thrown into the mix, which you should not shoot, and animals, which you should shoot, for bonus items. Early on there’s not much penalty (as I prove in the video below) for blasting civilians or missing a vulture flying overhead, but by the final levels your screen will have a literal 50/50 spread of civilians and enemies with these animals being mostly your only source of ammo and power. I only do one playthrough in the video, but in truth I replayed this game for a couple of hours of fun. Unlike other light gun shooters before it, this game was less about accuracy and more used the gun as a placeholder for an invisible reticule. This is why most home ports and conversions don’t suffer from controller porting and in truth this type of game has proven to be just as effective, if not more so, with a reticule and controller as opposed to a light gun (which I cover in the home ports below).
Operation Wolf was the next step in interactive game design at the arcades and had everything a kid looked for when plunking down 25-50 cents: a big cabinet with flashy accessories, lots of explosions, and even catchy music that anyone who’s played the game will recognize. It also gave way to a new type of light gun shooter that will later be used with some of my favorites like T2: The Arcade Game, Revolution X, and even the more recent Resident Evil Chronicles series on Wii and PS3.
Operation Wolf was released all over the place, and I mean that from a worldwide perspective as well as the number of consoles that received a port. There was, of course, an NES version that did what it could to bring the action home but aside from a visual downgrade the fact that only three enemies could be on a screen at once made the game feel rather vacant. You can use the Zapper in this version, but with the intended design for single bullets the change to automatic firing meant all you’d hear was the constant clicking of the Zapper’s trigger (although the heavy reduction of enemies seemed to balance this out). It got a little better on the Sega Master System, where this console definitely had more popularity in Europe than America. Graphics were improved slightly, more characters could appear on the screen, and even Light Phaser support, which had a much quieter click to the shooting of the trigger, but as with the NES version there’s a distracting amount of flicker and visual oddities when playing the game with a gun. Mind you, both of these versions improve slightly when you use the controller but in today’s market you can find much better ports for the same price. The US version on NES was ported to the Wii, but for whatever reason you can only use the controller and all light gun (or WiiMote) support is stripped, as with all other ported light gun games on the Virtual Console.
It was also ported to tons of microcomputers, also a European staple of the times, including the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Atari ST, MSX, and even DOS. Aside from the DOS port, all of these versions looked incredibly similar depending on the era (C64/MSX vs. Amiga/ZX Spectrum). I’m sure there’s a European retro gaming site that is battling it out over which version had the better synth sound but I have little access to actual hardware of these titles and even littler interest in comparing the nitty gritty of each. With these versions your biggest problem is the lack of colors and the stuttered scrolling, which claims responsibility for most of my gripes with microcomputer ports. Still, the soundtrack is noticeably better than the 8-bit console ports and graphically the games are on par. You can use Magnum Light Phaser, which to me looked identical to the Master System Phaser, on the ZX Spectrum version with the same issues as any other light gun version of this game, but for the most part it’s all keyboard or controller. The DOS version sounds terrible but looks close enough to the arcade to be notable, I think it also features mouse support, but either way it’s a decent port. Finally there is the PC-Engine (Japanese Turbografx-16) version that stripped two levels, allowed you to select which level you wanted to play, and removed almost all game music. Graphically it looks nearly perfect, the game runs super smooth and seems to have no problem with many large sprites on screen, and with the built-in turbo on the gamepad it’s a great way to enjoy the game. Unfortunately I do feel there’s much lost to the plot and progression aspect of this game when you remove the mission structure and with no background music there are some eerily quiet times.
Operation Wolf was also brought to the Playstation 2 and Xbox in arcade-perfect ports as part of the Taito Legends Vol. 1 collection. Due to a unique form of coding this version is incompatible with the 360 backwards compatibility as well as any software backwards compatible PS3, however it still runs fine on a launch PS3 with actual PS2 hardware. Despite both consoles having light guns, the Guncon 2 on PS2 and whatever that light gun that came with House of the Dead III on Xbox was called, there was no support for them in this collection. I played through the Xbox version for the video below and felt that while there is a reticule on screen, the game is otherwise arcade perfect. I still had a huge smile on my face when I heard the build-up music followed by the very monotone “Operation Wolf!”
Developer: Nintendo R&D 1
Instruction Manual: Not Necessary – Link
Played as a child? Yes
Price: $2.00 (used) $500.00 (new)
Famicom Version? Yes, as Hōganzu Arei
Digital Release? No
There’s more to Hogan’s Alley than it originally seems. If you’re doing a double-take and noticing considerable similarities (especially on the main screen) to Duck Hunt, that’s not a mistake. Considering it was developed by the same studio, in the same year, and a launch title for the initial NES, this was the next logical step for a light gun shooter. I was probably one of the few that picked this title up at its initial release but it impressed the hell out of me. It was a surprising simulation of the FBI training program with cardboard cutouts for new recruits. Basically, if you’ve ever seen a shooting range in a movie, this is the basic design for the program. When Duck Hunt and Wild Gunman were the only competition, Hogan’s Alley (especially in the cityscape “Game B”) was a breath of fresh air and gave way to the more popular Lethal Enforcers and Crime Patrol series.
You have 3 games to choose from: one is a cardboard shooting range, one is a simulated town (complete with amazing music) where you take out the bad guys and spare the innocent, and finally a can shooting game that provides the most compelling gameplay of the mix. The game was apparently named for the FBI training program, which I was unable to validate, but I can confirm it was part of a Special Police training school at Camp Perry pre-World War II and an actual training camp name at the Quantico FBI training camp. While there’s not much else to say about the title, it’s just a fun time that demonstrates what we all love about light gun shooters.
This week Fred flies solo to discuss the shoot-em-up (shmup) series Salamander, better known as Life Force in the United States. He discusses the various games from the arcade titles to the NES/Famicom port, to even the MSX and PC-Engine (Turbografx-16) ports. Additionally the connections to series Gradius are discussed and the various ways to play the games today. He also announces April’s game club title.
I can’t explain my love for the light gun. It’s one of the oldest forms of interactive entertainment, dating back to the carnival days where you would fire air rifles at a metal bullseye to make an old man’s hat pop up or a dog bark. Once the gun made the transition to video games it honestly became one of the most lifelike and violent gaming tropes throughout history. Not to get deep with it, but you are pointing a gun at a target, usually alive, and shooting it. There is not other gesture like it, you are shooting a modern device to kill something, virtual or not. At the same time it also doubles as the most simple form of proficiency. I don’t think anyone will claim that being good at Duck Hunt or Lethal Enforcers relates to being a good shot in a shooting range, but it’s got a much higher chance of significance than being able to get a headshot in Call of Duty. Whereas the FPS emulates the concept of aiming and firing a gun with 1:1 responses from a controller, a light gun truly simulates the experience.
Light gun games have been a niche genre, but that doesn’t prevent them from withstanding the test of time and being available on most home consoles and one of the most popular games, even today, in arcades. I guess it’s because despite the maturity implied behind firing a gun, it’s one of the easiest concepts for us to pick up. I’ve been on many adventures thanks to light gun games – whether it’s cleaning up the future in T2: The Arcade Game, battling zombies in a haunted house through House of the Dead, or enjoying some of the worst acting of all time in Mad Dog McCree.
It’s also significant because the light gun is a genre nearly impossible to emulate and doesn’t translate well in today’s technology. While there are exceptions, you will have a hard time playing Crypt Killer properly on a PC running MAME and most HDTV technologies don’t support light guns from the past. Authenticity is as important as the genre itself. This month I’ve decided to dedicate to a timeless style of video game that I always make first priority when buying a new (or old) system: the light gun shooter. Come join me to learn about some of the best, worst, funniest, and definitely weirdest titles to ever grace the hobby of video games. Thanks to my huge CRT television and original hardware, I can even show you videos.
Also Known As: Vampire Savior: Lord of the Vampires in Japan
Ports: Playstation 1, Sega Saturn (as Vampire Savior: Lord of the Vampires in Japan only), PS2 (part of Vampire: Darkstalkers Collection, released only in Japan), Dreamcast (technically, see below, as Vampire Chronicle for Matching Service in Japan only), PSP (as Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower), PS3 (part of Vampire: Darkstalkers Resurrection, released to disc only in Japan)
Digital Release? Yes – As a PSOne game on PSN ($5.99) that works for PS3/PSP/Vita, as Darkstalkers: The Chaos Tower for PSP ($10.00), Part of Darkstalkers Resurrection in the US on XBLA or PSN ($15.00)
This is the game where Capcom went nuts. As the list above suggests, there were several ports of this game and in different forms. So many, in fact, that a brunt of this article is about the ports and differences themselves than the actual game. Darkstalkers 3 released to a very crowded arcade in 1997, most fighters at that time were also developed by Capcom might I add, and thus Darkstalkers 3 was almost unnoticed in an arcade in America. Furthermore, the dwindling US arcade market probably saw it releasing to fewer locations. Originally titled Darkstalkers: Jedah’s Damnation for the US, this title was dropped – I can think of a few reasons why – and the very generic Darkstalkers 3 replaced the title domestically. As it stood in 1997 you could walk into an arcade and choose between Street Fighter III, Street Fighter EX Plus, Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter, and that’s just the Capcom fighers.
This title did away with rounds, substituting for a more versatile life bar that could regenerate in certain instances and multiple life bars were used to decide a round winner. Each time a character depleted a life bar they would separate for a moment and then continue fighting without the other player’s life being regenerated. The special meter now had a “dark force system” that allowed certain special moves to only be performed during certain meter ranges. These complexities were interesting but again they were all mixed into plenty of Capcom’s fighters and even for an enthusiast like me it’s hard to focus on any one game for the time. A new story involving Jedah, a noble being from the demon world that gets resurrected, has decided to rebuild the demon world and use a group of souls to do it. Wouldn’t you guess, it just so happens to be the Darkstalkers clan. Characters Donovan, Huitzil, and Pyron are dropped – guess bosses weren’t a good idea – and four new characters Jedah, Lilith, Q-Bee, and Baby Bonnie Hood (who named her?) are added. Now if you’ve seen characters like Donovan in Darkstalkers 3, bear with me, I’ll explain in a minute. There’s also a hidden character in the arcade game, Shadow, who takes on the moves and attacks of the character he last defeated. To play as Shadow, in the character select screen you want to highlight the character you wish to start off as and press Start 3 times (it’ll be random if you skip this), then highlight random fighter, press start 5 times, and finally press any punch or kick button.
Vampire Hunter 2: Darkstalkers’ Revenge
This was a Japan only 1997 arcade release (update) that came out shortly after Vampire Savior and was an interesting experiment in updating the engine of the previous title. Still, I consider it to be an alteration of Darkstalkers 3 and not Night Warriors. This game brings back the soundtrack of the previous game, removes all of the new characters and retains the 14 character cast list of the previous title as well. Aside from the roster and soundtrack, the entire game is brought into the Darkstalkers 3 engine, animation, and style, move lists are based on the new moves and attacks, the game and rounds function as the newest title, and air chain combos are removed. It basically feels like an experiment that Capcom wanted to do to test if the game’s popularity would change based on retaining the character list of the previous game and I’m guessing omits the new characters due to memory limitations. Before Darkstalkers 3, no characters had ever been removed from the game, only added.
Vampire Savior 2
This was another 1997 Japan only experiment released alongside Vampire Hunter 2 that switched around the roster at the cost of removing characters to keep it at 15 fighters. This further suggests that memory limitations are responsible for the shortened list, especially with the integration of all fighters in most home ports. In this version the roster gets rid of Sasquatch, Rikuo, and John Talbain to bring back Donovan, Huitzil, and Pyron. As I never much cared for the boss characters and Sasquatch and John Talbain (werewolf guy) are two of my go-to fighters, I find this to be a very poor updated. As with its simultaneous tweaked brother, this game is identical to Darkstalkers 3 save for the roster tweak.
I don’t know if it was due to the end of the Darkstalkers series – with arcades dying out and a bunch of fighters being cranked every few months by Capcom to both arcades and consoles all while the genre was dying – but Capcom handled releasing home versions of Darkstalkers 3 much like the arcades. The most abundant version is the Playstation port, which features the entire roster of Darkstalkers characters, totaling 18, as well as playable versions of four secret characters including the aforementioned Shadow, Dark Talbain (color and sprite change, moveset the same), Oboro Bishamon (secret character from Night Warriors now playable), and Marionette (secret mode in Hunter 2 and Savior 2 turned into character, she retains attributes of your current opponent). This was clearly a throw everything at the wall move that makes for the most complex and full version of the game to date. Much like Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 there are some who think integrating all characters throws off the balance of the game, although with this series and its many releases I tend to disagree. The port was decent, most of the animation was smooth, load times were still a bit of a problem, and the graphics were okay. I’m biased due to the fact I have played and own the Saturn port that was released to Japan only.
Saturn’s version, known as Vampire Savior due to its Japan only status, utilized the cartridge port to add 4MB of RAM and make for near arcade perfect animation and graphics. It was packaged with the game when it released in Japan, although to play it on an American system required the Pro Action Replay that also acts as a 4MB RAM cart. This version also compiles a hybrid of all versions of Darkstalkers 3 with all 15 original characters and the three omitted for a total of 18 characters. Shadow can also be used but Marionette didn’t make it over. Additionally, as far as I’m aware, Dark Talbain and Oboro Bishamon are not playable, but can still be fought like in the arcade.
In 2000, via Capcom direct, a hybrid of all the Darkstalkers games entitled Vampire Chronicle for Matching Service (sounds better in Japanese) released in Japan only for Dreamcast. This game took all of the characters, all of the fighting styles, and all of the assets from the three (technically five) games and made one giant game. Additionally online play was added. If the Playstation Darkstalkers 3 is like UMK3 then this is the Mortal Kombat Trilogy version. This title was re-released to all territories on the PSP as Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower in 2004, although online play was cut for ad-hoc play.
Finally the Playstation 2 yet again collected all five games, although separated and not fused together like Chronicle, in the Vampire: Darkstalkers Collection in Japan. With Vampire Savior you literally select which of the three arcade versions you wish to play, but there’s no way to play a hybrid version like on the Playstation or Saturn ports. Also the XBLA/PSN version of Darkstalkers Resurrection features only the original arcade version of Darkstalkers 3 and does not include the updated versions or any hybrids of such.