Friday, May 29, 2009


No, I'm not going anywhere. It's been a busy week and I haven't had time to blog much, but I have been squeezing in a few levels of Taito's XBox Live Arcade game, Exit.

Exit started life on the PSP in 2006 and was later ported to XBLA and (only in Japan, Wikipedia tells me) the Nintendo DS. But its origins lie farther back, in Taito's early-1980's arcade game Elevator Action, which also appeared on the NES and is available in that form on the Wii Virtual Console. Check it out there or on the Taito Legends collections on the PS2, it's a good design that's still fun to play today (even though it gets frustrating with cheap bullet hits and enemy attacks when you're trying to get in and out of doors on later levels.)

Exit is not a remake of Elevator Action -- it's more of a puzzle game, and hero Mr. ESC's action style resembles the Prince of Persia more than his ducking-and-shooting predecessor. But the roots are clear -- staircases operate just like the escalators in Elevator Action, accessed by landing platforms at the top and bottom, and there are elevators in many of the levels. And while Mr. ESC is an "escapologist" and rescue specialist, rather than a briefcase-liberating armed spy, there's a certain similarity in tone -- the jazzy background music and stylized visual design calls film noir and comic books to mind.

Of course, Exit is a much more sophisticated and varied game. Each group of levels (at least in the first 7 I have played so far) introduces new gameplay elements and challenges, and some levels demand paring the solution, once found, down to an optimal sequence of actions to achieve the maximum score. In the early going, Mr. ESC only has to save himself, but rescuees of different types complicate matters later on. The game's rules are sensible and consistent within the game world, but there's still room for "oh, I didn't realize I could do that!" moments -- like realizing you can crawl under a cloud of smoke, though you can't run or walk through it. The design philosophy is tough but fair -- I can usually play through a level in half an hour or less, depending on how much I beat my head against the wrong approach before noticing some detail that tips me off to the proper solution.

I really like this game, though I tend to play it intensely for a while, earn an achievement for completing a series of levels, then set it aside for a while. But it's a game I return to when I have just a little bit of time to play and am in the mood for a non-Tetris-like puzzle challenge.

There's a sequel, also on PSP and XBLA, named Exit 2, but I have a long way to go before I'm finished with the original -- I'm just approaching the one-third point (62 of 220 levels completed), and am nowhere near maxing out the score on every level.

(A side rant -- why do XBLA games have a 200 achievement point cap, generally, when they can take longer to play through than a full retail game? At this writing I have earned 15 points after approximately 25 hours of Exit play. I always feel like my gamerscore is negatively impacted by my gaming preferences. On the other hand, I have earned 50 achievement points while half-heartedly playing the Doritos-sponsored XBLA travesty, Dash of Destruction, so maybe I just need to focus on MEANINGFUL achievements and set points aside.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Worst Text Adventure Ever

Back in the late 1970's/early 1980's, text adventures were the state-of-the-art in computer gaming. They could be adult and engaging and literate, and they sidestepped the limitations of the era's graphics technology by ignoring it altogether.

Infocom really perfected the form, with rich, evocative text and a sophisticated parser that required a disk drive to hold each game's dictionary and content. Games like Zork and Planetfall are still richly rewarding and fun to play through today, and in its waning years the company continued to experiment with genre and form in titles like Nord & Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It and A Mind Forever Voyaging. Unfortunately, as home computer graphics improved from crude and blocky to slightly-less-so, the mass audience moved in that direction, and the text adventure market ceased to be commercially viable.

The first text adventure I really played, however, nearly turned me off the genre in its prime. Published by Radio Shack, Haunted House (no relation to the Atari 2600 game of the same name) attempted to bring the text adventure to life on an extremely limited platform -- the 4K TRS-80 Model I. The effort was not successful, as fitting both the game program and its text/data content into 4 kilobytes of memory induced severe constraints in every imaginable way.

This nearly unplayable game was split into two loads -- one for the ground floor and one for the upper floor, with no way to go back downstairs after finishing the first section -- and even then, text and items were severely constrained. If memory serves, there were only a handful of rooms on each floor, a couple of items, and very simple puzzles made incredibly obtuse by the lack of description or suggestive responses to player actions. The game actually required invocations of the vintage adventure magical words PLUGH and XYZZY, but there were few hints in the game proper that might actually lead the player in such a direction. There was also a cryptic maze section in the time-honored drop-an-item/find-it-again/work-out-the-map style, but there were not enough items available in the game to allow efficient employment of this strategy.

After beating my young head against this maddening game for several weeks, I finally resorted to calling the Radio Shack customer support line, twice, in order to finish the game. They mailed me a map of the maze and gave me a solution to another vexing puzzle over the phone. I appreciated the assistance, but I wouldn't call the experience fun.

The good kind of text adventure bug didn't really bite me until I played a much better game: Pyramid 2000, also published by Radio Shack for the TRS-80, which shamelessly rips off a chunk of the classic Crowther/Woods Adventure, recasting the Colossal Caves in Egyptian terms and cramming it into 16K. It was no touch on Infocom's Infidel or even Scott Adams' Pyramid of Doom, mind, but it was infinitely better than Haunted House.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The LoadDown - 05/25/2009

Today on WiiWare, we get two remakes/updates of classic retro properties. Bubble Bobble Plus! includes a straight remake of the 1980's arcade/NES classic, updated with 3-D model graphics and a remix of the classic music, as well as several new gameplay modes. Adventure Island: The Beginning is a new prequel entry in the long-running series that started out as Sega's Wonder Boy arcade game and was remade by Hudson for various pre-polygonal consoles. At the moment I am inclined to spend some time with Bub and Bob and leave Master Higgins alone, but I will probably pick up both games as time goes on.

The Virtual Console release today I can easily leave alone -- it's the Sega Genesis version of Clayfighter, which had a sense of humor and some impressive digitized visuals in its day but wasn't really much of a fighting game.

What I'm most looking forward to this week is the first installment of Telltale Games' Wallace and Gromit adventure series on XBox Live Arcade, but that won't be available until Wednesday.

Enough of My Life as a King

I finished playing through the story of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King on WiiWare a few weeks ago, and I'm finally getting around to writing up my impressions.

I like the idea behind the game -- instead of putting the player in charge of a party of adventurers, the game centers around a young King who acts as a city manager. His responsibilities include developing the town, ensuring that weapons, item and spell/ability training facilities are available; encouraging people to move into town by building homes and amenities to grow the tax base; and sending adventurers and parties out on quests to support these goals. It's an interesting take on the classic RPG structure -- what exactly DOES the local authority do after issuing a quest, while waiting for you and your party to return victorious with the magical gewgaw/monster head/captured princess in tow? Apparently, he runs around town building stuff and raising the morale of the townspeople, keeping the shopkeepers happy, helping random citizens find lost items, and waiting for your party to return if you make it back before his bedtime.

I like the graphical style of this title -- the characters have a warm ceramic-doll look to them, and the town has a storybook quaintness that's impressive given the size limitations of downloadable games on the Wii. It's set in the Final Fantasy universe, which has a certain geeky, familiar appeal, and character conversations have some humor and character to them. There's a storyline, too, about the young king's missing father and the history of the reconstituted kingdom, but it's fairly thin and linear -- there aren't any branching points, and it's not difficult to finish given a little patience.

And therein lies the rub -- I have finished the storyline, but there's still more gameplay available, thanks to downloadable content. There are dungeons I have left unexplored and levels of development no adventurer in my kingdom has attained. But I am finding I don't care much at this point. The storyline was a motivator -- at least it gave me a reason to keep playing. Now that the credits have rolled, the game's fundamental flaws are more glaringly apparent.

FFCC: My Life as a King is extremely repetitive. Every day of gameplay is more or less the same -- wake up, review the reports from the previous day, pick a quest or two for adventurers to take on, and run around town doing this and that. When one quest is completed, other ones open up. But once the primary storyline is finished, the game's most interesting secrets have been revealed. Yes, there are tricky missions none of my parties has managed to conquer, because none of the adventurers have reached high enough levels to do so. And yes, once they level up enough to complete those missions, there will be a few other things for the King to do. Like build a THIRD tavern, or fund additional training abilities at higher levels, or construct another handful of houses on whatever dwindling real estate plots remain within the kingdom's walls.

But the only real challenge remaining at this point is having enough patience to let the adventurers keep working towards these goals, day after similar day. And frankly, that's not a lot of fun now that the story's victory conditions have been satisfied.

As a player I can only provide the environment to facilitate success by the NPC adventurers -- I can't control how they gird for battle, what equipment and spells they purchase, or whether they just get scared or tired and give up early. Nobody really dies in a lost battle, so there are no great stakes -- a "wiped out" adventurer is just out of commission for a few days, and the town goes on as before. There's much talk during the game of threats from monsters lurking in the outside world, and parents are always worried about their warrior offspring fighting the kingdom's battles out in the wild, but these dangers never really come home to roost -- there's no sense of danger, just the passage of time without pressure, and we don't get to SEE the battles take place, just textual reports about their outcomes. While the names of the battles and enemies are evocative, they're really just items on a checklist, and the King is too far away from the dramatic battles that make an RPG an RPG.

So while I enjoyed this title in the early going, it has worn out its welcome with me personally. I may go back to it someday and wrap up the remaining quests, just for completeness' sake, but I suspect I will not be motivated to do so. By the time the credits rolled, I was ready for the game to be over, and going back to mop up isn't appealing at this writing.

I am still looking forward to the upcoming pseudo-sequel, FFCC: My Life as a Darklord, in large part because it is not just a mirror-image of this title. The gameplay appears to be more tactical in nature, and provides a much better view of the crux of the matter - the dungeon battles between (in this case) the invading adventurers and the young Darklord's traps and minions. Being a King is fun for a time, but at such a great distance from the action, royal ennui soon sets in. I hope being a Darklord proves more entertaining.

Friday, May 22, 2009

My Earliest Videogame Memory

The first arcade videogame I really remember playing (as in putting money into it and taking the controls) was a two-player biplane game. I was going into 5th grade at the time, which would mean it was the summer of 1977, and I encountered it on a boat somewhere during a family trip, possibly en route from Liverpool to the Isle of Man.

I don't recall the name of the game. It was in black-and-white, and as far as I recall did not have a player-vs.-CPU mode. You needed two people, one to pilot the black plane and one to pilot the white plane, and you flew in loops and shot bullets at each other until one player downed the other. The rules escape me now -- I don't know if it was timed or best-of-three or what. It was basically Combat in the air, nothing fancy but entertaining and novel at the time.

But it was the first time I was really engaged by a game. I had seen Pong and Breakout and Gun Fight floating around, but don't recall playing them myself, and Space Invaders wasn't out yet. This game with its tiny airplane silhouettes was the first one that I played more than once, as my brother and I had time to kill and some 10p coins to spare, courtesy of me old Dad.

I have not been able to track this game down to revisit it -- my wife and I visited the amazing Funspot in New Hampshire last summer, but it doesn't seem to have a copy, and the game pre-dates the CPU generation which means emulation isn't an option -- all circuitry and no ROM makes MAME a dull aunt. Unless someone decides to dig obsessively into the circuit design and try to simulate the analog timing and display system for this minor entry in the videogame history books, I don't expect to ever experience it again.

And that's okay. I love retro gaming, but sometimes it's nice to let a memory be a memory.

P.S.: Now that I have reminisced, it's time to check myself with a little Google investigation. Ahhhh, here it is! Head-slapping moment -- the name of the biplane game I can never remember is, in fact, Biplane! Good times.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

An SNK Lament

SNK has always struck me as a schizophrenic developer and publisher -- they had a number of solid arcade hits in the 8-bit era, many of which made their way on to the NES while they were a Nintendo licensee and also found their way onto 8- and 16-bit platforms of the time. There was even a version of Ikari Warriors released for the Atari 2600.

But after SNK brought out their Neo-Geo coin-op/high-end home platform in 1990, they seemed to enter a new era with a new philosophy. They began sublicensing their newest hits to other publishers for home console ports that were often sub-par (in one case, a character's "Big Tornado!" battle cry sounded like "Baked Potato!" on the Sega Genesis). Worse, they almost completely ignored their own heritage. The Neo-Geo had many fine games, of course, but we never saw true sequels to Ikari Warriors or Athena.

Maybe the move from a vertically-oriented screen to a standard TV setup was a factor in leaving Ikari Warriors, Victory Road and Ikari III: The Rescue as the last of their breed, and the change to standard joystick/button controls without an aiming spinner may have been a factor as well. But Athena was always a 4:3 game that would have worked perfectly well in a sequel on the Neo-Geo. At least she and the Ikari characters appeared in a few of the flood of fighting games the platform hosted, so they weren't completely forgotten. This was an unfortunate trend of the time -- Karnov and the Double Dragon characters also appeared in generic fighting games on the Neo-Geo and have not been seen since.

I was freshly disappointed when SNK Playmore released SNK Arcade Classics: Volume I recently, because while it does include 16 high-quality titles, they are all from the Neo-Geo generation. One emulator fits all, I suppose, but it implies that the current owners of these properties see no value at all in the pre-Neo-Geo titles. And that irks me.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reliability Blues

Is it just my bad luck, or as videogame consoles have become more sophisticated have they also become less reliable?

I currently have a Wii that's dropping pixels when fogging effects are employed; matrices of incorrectly colored, flickering pixels show up onscreen. I ran into this when my Wii was fairly new and under warranty, and Nintendo replaced it completely; I thought perhaps my original machine had a faulty graphics chip, but it appears that two years later my replacement machine is failing in the same way.

I also have an XBox 360 that recently has shown me the "three red lights" twice, and while it will fire up and play if I am persistent, it freezes fairly often. The graphics are showing noise in the red spectrum and serious banding in shaded areas, as though the color depth were not coming through completely. So it looks like it's also due for a trip to the shop. I'm not sure if it will qualify for the 3-year warranty extension Microsoft introduced a few years back -- though it's less than 3 years old, this may be a genuine hardware failure and not the design flaw usually indicated by the ring of death.

And it's not just the most recent systems -- I have in the past had a Sony PS2 fail, requiring replacement. And I have replaced my original Playstation and Dreamcast along the way also, due to hardware failures that were cheaper to replace than repair.

Granted, I probably give my systems more of a workout than some. But my older, cartridge-based consoles from the Atari 2600 through the Jaguar are all still in fine working order. There's something to be said for solid-state technology; moving parts, however well-engineered, tend to fail eventually.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

East vs. West: Kato-chan and Jeff

Before the advent of the ESRB rating system and a broader American familiarity with Japanese entertainment, localization tended to wreak havoc on the Eastern sense of humor. The 1987 Japanese PC Engine game Kato-chan & Ken-chan came to America in 1990 as J.J. & Jeff for the TurboGrafx-16. When I first played the U.S. version, there were a number of puzzling elements that became clear more than a decade later when I saw the original Japanese edition. This much I knew in advance -- the Asian comedians the game was based on were unknown in the U.S., and so were replaced with generic 90's hipster characters.

And of course, the Japanese text was replaced with English; I have no idea whether the translation is in any way accurate.

But why is the other, unplayable character simply standing by a lamppost with his hands on his hips and his back to the audience at this point in the first level? He seems to have no reason for doing so... until we see the original animation, in which the character's hands are employed to properly direct a stream of tiny yellow pixels.

At least the birds are permitted their natural, comically outsized, bodily functions in both versions.

This next change actually has a frustrating impact on gameplay -- J.J. is armed with a spray can which fires in FRONT of him, a marginal advantage at best for taking out enemies approaching from the right, where there is plenty of time to plan a normal jump attack. And it seems odd that he has to squat to fire said spray can. But all becomes clear when we see Kato-chan's more conveniently targeted rear gunnery, so to speak.

And finally, why is Jeff squatting immobile in the bushes wearing a wolf mask and holding a spray can? Apparently because there were a few graphical bytes freed up by leaving out Ken-chan's straining facial animation.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that the original was a comic masterpiece. Potty humor is potty humor in any language. But at least it made a little bit more sense.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The LoadDown - 05/18/2009

Nintendo's Wii Virtual Console sees its 300th US title released today -- and it's a good one: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, a unique and somewhat controversial N64 chapter of the classic saga. I love the series but have never played this one with any serious commitment, so I will likely pick it up sometime soon.

There are also two WiiWare titles on offer today -- the second "R2" chapter of Square-Enix's Final Fantasy Crystal Defenders tower-defense game, and Silver Star Chess.

Silver Star Chess is rated E for everyone with "mild suggestive themes," which as far as I know does NOT mean the Queen walks like she did in Battle Chess. If Silver Star Chess had online play, I'd be interested, but it apparently does not, just player-vs.-CPU and 2-player local play, so I'm giving this one a pass even at its reasonable 500-point price tag.

I have been avoiding Crystal Defenders so far, even though I liked the gameplay demo on XBLA a lot, because it strikes me as a lazy port -- the graphics and controls originated in the cellphone world and have not really been improved for the console releases. So it doesn't look like it belongs on XBLA, and on WiiWare it's being broken up into three chapters, making it the most expensive version available. I will likely hold off on this title altogether in favor of Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, which is a true sequel to the SNES-era Final Fantasy II (US)/IV (Japan) , presented in slightly-updated 16-bit style, to be released in episodic format.

I also caught up a bit on recent XBLA releases over the weekend -- and am pleased to report that Space Invaders Extreme has been ported over from the Nintendo DS/PSP world, and remains excellent. It manages the same tricky feat Pac-Man: Championship Edition pulls off so well - it starts with everything you know about the classic game, then pulls the rug out from under you with new and pleasantly surprising challenges. The techno music is excellent, rather than annoying, synched to the action with some neat timing tricks, and legendary U.K. coder Jeff Minter contributes his speciality -- trippy, psychedelic background visualizations new to this version. But it's all about the gameplay, and Taito's update manages to make Space Invaders cool again, without ripping off Galaga. No mean feat, that, and well worth picking up on XBLA.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

East vs. West: The Psychotic and The Paranoid

When a videogame produced in one country is released in another territory, it almost always undergoes a process called "localization". This usually involves language translation and replacement of cultural references that may not make sense in the target market. There are also changes driven by cultural sensitivities, real or perceived, sometimes in the form of censorship and sometimes the opposite. And there are otherwise inexplicable changes driven by marketing.

Case in point: This odd PC Engine shooter set in the player's psyche, where the goal is to destroy weird creatures and save oneself from one's inner demons. I recently acquired the original Japanese version, and as far as I can see there are no differences aside from the title screen. Without skipping ahead to the answer, see if you can guess which is the US version and which is the Japanese version.

Okay, perhaps the "TM" trademark icon gives it away. But as you can see, there's no translation issue involved -- the Japanese game Paranoia's text is in English already, and the game is completely playable as-is by a US audience. But somebody somewhere in the decision-making process apparently decided that Psychosis sounded rad and cool and 90's extreeeeeeeme!!!, while Paranoia sounded like a downer, dude.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Mahjong Clinic Special

One of my recent import acquisitions -- for the PC Engine Super CD, it's:

Mahjong Clinic Special hardly seems to require the Super CD-ROM format, although it does have some nice piano lounge music for gameplay, and a slightly more rockin' desperation theme as my money disappears into the pockets of the clinic's nurses and patients, all of whom are female, attractive, and quite capable of kicking my butt at mahjong.

At least I have a shot at learning how to play this one well enough to beat a few of the lower-level opponents; it's not heavily dependent on comprehension of Japanese. I am far from good at the game, but I think I am starting to understand the basic rules of play and the esoteric scoring system. It's entertaining to play for a few minutes now and then, and I'm glad of an opportunity to honor more traditional gaming.

(And no, as far as I have discovered this is not a "sexy mahjong" game, though there are certainly plenty of those available on the PC Engine.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Crash: Moonlighting Mario

Back in the early 1980's, when Mario had only recently been officially named in the Donkey Kong Jr. arcade game, and had not yet become Nintendo's mainstay mascot, he moonlighted on a completely unlicensed basis in a game for Radio Shack's TRS-80 Color Computer.

Now, the CoCo was always a small market, which made it a haven for titles "inspired by" coin-op games with little concern for licensing. Mario had already appeared on the platform in a couple of unlicensed Donkey Kong games, including the great Donkey King, later rechristened The King.

And so it was that Tom Mix Software of Grand Rapids, MI conspired with a developer whose name escapes me to release Crash, a "new" Mario game. In this one, Mario started out flying a plane, which immediately crashed, sending him on a journey through four treacherous screens to safety. The game was not very well done -- the lazy graphics management was set up along byte boundaries, so sprites took huge 4-pixel jumps when moving horizontally, a serious limitation in a platformer. And it was fairly easy -- I beat it in a day or two, and it wasn't really entertaining enough to keep me coming back. From what I can recall, there were spiders to dodge and islands to jump across and ropes to cross -- it wasn't a very Mario-esque game, really, but it was an interesting effort in the absence of a Nintendo sequel to rip off properly.

Just an interesting footnote from the wild-and-wooly 8-bit gaming days. Although I privately like to think that it really WAS Mario, and Nintendo punished him for his after-hours shenanigans by replacing him with "Stanley the Bug Man" in Donkey Kong 3.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Nintendo Monday

Not much of note this week -- Family Pirate Party on WiiWare, and Sega Genesis title Galaxy Force II on the Virtual Console.

I am really hoping for more on the Virtual Console Arcade -- so far, nothing seems to be happening beyond the 4 launch titles.

My WiiWare gaming time of late has been taken up by Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King. It's fun, in a relaxed, Harvest Moon resource management kind of way, but is growing a bit repetitive in the later stages. I'll document my impressions more thoroughly when I have a chance.

On the import front, it appears I need to actually learn to play mahjongg if I'm going to get anywhere with a few of these games. It appears I only know what to do with the tiles if they're arranged a la Shanghai.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon -- The Sort-of-Game

The Monster Maker saga continues: Our heroine managed to make it to another town and add a third member to her party, a pink-haired warrior girl who seems fairly capable in battle. They made it to the top of a mountain, where they fought a cute orange dragon, who for its part happily incinerated all three members of the party, one per round of combat. I think maybe the group needs to gain some experience elsewhere on the map. Or I need to break down and dissect the kana characters so I can figure out how the interface works, at least.

As an alternative, I worked through a round of Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, another PC Engine CD game, based on the popular manga/anime series. I was expecting an action game, but it's actually a digital adventure/comic of sorts, with minimally animated illustrations and extensive, well-acted voice-over by what I assume is the original Japanese cast. It's not tremendously interactive -- there are occasional dialogue/option trees presented, and between chapters there are branch points where the viewer can choose one of two options, but it's not really a game. I played through Sailor Mercury's version of the story (all five of the original Sailor Scouts are represented), and the only videogame-esque action consisted of two simple maze-chase events, in which Ami-chan has to pick up five power icons while avoiding A) a boy wearing a headband and B) one of Queen Beryl's minions. These were more puzzle than game, as the enemy AI is easily fooled and trapped behind obstacles. And the player gets infinite retries, with no randomization, so it's not hard to figure out a successful pattern by trial and error if need be.

Since I've seen the original anime series in both its US and subtitled Japanese incarnations, I was familiar with the story enough to follow it without being able to really read or speak the language. My impression is that the player's initial selection causes the version presented to focus on his/her favorite Sailor Scout, but that all of the separate story threads come together at the end; there aren't a range of different endings, just different ways of getting there. But I like the idea of experiencing the same story from multiple character perspectives.

It's pretty nicely done for what it is, and takes good early advantage of the CD-ROM medium -- there's way too much artwork to fit on a HuCard (the PC Engine's non-disc format), and the designers compressed the voice-over audio and relied primarily on chip-based music to maximize content. I wish there were more animation, but what's there works pretty well given the limitations of the technology. I can see why this title never came to the US -- there's nothing objectionable in it, but there's a LOT of dialogue to translate and re-record, and the series did not air here until after the TurboGrafx-16 was dead and buried.

At any rate, this one's an interesting pop-culture artifact. I wonder if these types of titles are still being produced in Japan? I would think that a standard DVD player could handle the level of interactivity employed here, if the wholly unnecessary maze games were left out.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Monster Maker

In which my American self attempts to play Japanese games with precious little working knowledge of the language.

This is a 1994 PC Engine Super CD-ROM import title I picked up last year, called Monster Maker. It appears to be trying to capitalize on the Princess Maker series, at least in terms of its overall cuteness factor, but it's more of a standard RPG in style.

Our purple-haired heroine is friends with all the animals, including a beautiful dragon.

Uh-oh! Something's gone terribly wrong at home. Better hurry back to town and see what the inciting incident is.

I have no idea what these people are saying, though I'm sure they're all worried about something having to do with their charred houses and injured children. In the spoken dialogue heard during my play session, I recognized only two Japanese phrases: Kawaii!, meaning "Cute!", and Gomen nasai, meaning "I'm sorry." So if I ever insult someone by calling them cute in Tokyo, I know what to say.

After some introductory speechifying, our heroine finds the road out of town blocked by a couple of inconveniently placed villagers, who are unlikely to move before she talks to the right people and learns more about the story. Of course, since I do not read or speak Japanese, all I can do is make her wander randomly around town and hope something triggers the next stage of the game. So we make the usual RPG rounds, talking to every person available and ransacking the chests in their homes to steal valuable items for her quest; apparently the citizens have appeared in an RPG before and are accustomed to this sort of intrusive behavior by adventurers, as nobody says a word about it.

At last we meet an elderly gentleman, who speaks to us in close-up with a full voice track for quite a while, then takes us downstairs to show our plucky gal some guy the villagers have tied up in a basement. Kinky!

But there's no time for deviant activity now. Our heroine finds a sack (stop it!) in someone's house which apparently has great sentimental value to her. As she leaves town, she contemplates it with brimming eyes and hugs it close to her chest.

Now she's officially off on her quest. The first "monster" she encounters outside of town is a little forest animal buddy first seen following her in the animated opening. No, he's not a stalker, he's a good guy. At least I think so... during the opening we observed him hiding in the bushes to watch some fairies bathing in a river. But cute critters in Japanese videogames are never evil, and he has the courtesy to wear overalls.

So he joins the party, and we're off to fight some monsters! Or make some. I haven't quite figured that part out yet. (Technical aside - the monster battle sequences run in a higher resolution than the rest of the game, probably for the sake of squeezing more statistics onto the screen.)

So we wander around on the map very, very briefly, then our heroine's plucky group runs into some killer rabbits.

We manage to take out two of them, but then...

Bunnies suck.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Nintendo Monday, Import Fever

Today's Wii Virtual Console release is Tower Toppler for the C-64, an odd choice given that Cocoto's Platform Jumper, released last week on WiiWare, borrows some of its game concepts from this 8-bit predecessor. And I won't be picking it up on the VC myself because I... well, I'm a geek, and I already own it in TWO different forms. I have the Atari 7800 cartridge version, and the C-64 version on one of those self-contained plug-'n-play TV joystick units. How embarrassing! (Note that were I actually easy to embarrass, I would not even be writing this blog.)

So it's a good day to mention that for the past few years, around summertime when new video game releases slow down, I have devoted some of my gaming time and money to building my retro collection at flea markets and rummage sales, and online.

Lately my intentional collecting has been dominated by the PC Engine, released to little success in the US as the TurboGrafx-16 back in 1989 after being a huge hit in Japan. I have a TG-16 and enjoy its games, but lately I've been more fascinated by the Eastern PC Engine gaming scene, because so many great and bizarre games released over there never reached North America. (Or if they did, they were seriously bowdlerized to protect our delicate American sensibilities.)

I have acquired several quality Japanese PC Engine titles via the Virtual Console, but I have also been importing some actual PC Engine games every summer for a few years now. I don't have the hardware to play the card-based titles, at the moment, but PC emulators can run the CD games right from the original discs. And, since I own so few import games, I can always add a few common titles to my library at very reasonable prices during the slow season.

It felt like summer this weekend, and I have accordingly ordered a handful of PC Engine games. I will likely not be able to play most of them to completion, as I don't read or speak Japanese; translation effort was a big barrier to US release, given the TG-16's poor sales. But I will capture a few screenshots and share my impressions as time permits; some of these titles don't even have Wikipedia entries, so be prepared for some really obscure stuff.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Unsung Heroes: Winky

Winky, a red smiley face armed with a bow and arrow, made his debut in Exidy's early-1980's coin-op game Venture.

The game was very impressive in its day -- its dungeon rooms had variety in layout and monsters, AND multiple musical themes, which was a rarity then. The game started out with Winky viewed from above as a small red dot, exploring the dungeon and avoiding the giant spider creatures roaming the hallways. When he entered a doorway, the view zoomed into the room -- the zoom-in effect was pretty impressive, though it wasn't smooth and I suspect a quick series of screen displays built out of progressively more detailed blocks was used to simulate a zoom. Within each room, Winky tried to shoot or avoid the monsters and grab the treasure; more points were earned for taking the risk of leaving the monsters alive and maneuvering around them. Dead monsters remained deadly to the pixel-touch until they decayed away, which added additional time pressure, as the giant spiders would invade the room if Winky was too long at his task. There were also rooms with moving walls instead of monsters, another nice touch for variety's sake, and the treasures were unique to each room.

Venture was reasonably popular in the arcades, and the Colecovision home version was very faithful to the original. Coleco also released less-faithful versions for the Atari 2600 and Mattel Intellivision, so Winky got his day in the sun; I would bet more people have played one of the home versions than the arcade original.

Exidy is apparently no more, which means we're not likely to see a commercial re-release or update of Venture any time soon, unless whoever owns the rights comes out of the woodwork. And that's fine -- like Pac-Man, Winky has such a distinctively 2-D design that I don't think he could even be made recognizable in 3-D. And the basic game concept has been built on and redone to the point that anything that actually PLAYED like the original would seem woefully out-of-date if it were released today.

But I do miss Winky's smiling face beaming broadly in the face of danger. He had personality, or what passed for it in the early days, and the game was a lot of fun. What bothers me most is the naggingly persistent memory that, at the time, Exidy promised a sequel or series of games starring the circular red adventurer; I'm fairly certain I read this in the pages of Electronic Games magazine, or one of its competitors. But as far as I know, no further Winky games ever saw the light of day.

So here's to Winky. Link owes you an unacknowledged debt.