Transformers: Mystery of Convoy

Introduction

In 1984, five people, Kojin Ono, Takashi Matsuda, Hideaki Yoke, Hiroyuki Obara, and Satoshi Koizumi designed twenty-eight figures using molds from the Japanese toy lines, Diaclone and Microman. Hasbro, a high-profile American toy company brought the distribution rights to the molds, rebranding them as the Transformers for the North American market. They would later buy the entire toy line, giving them sole ownership of the intellectual property. In exchange, Takara, the company that originally owned the line would retain the rights to distribute the products in Japan.

Taking cues from the Diaclone toy line, the biggest selling point for Transformers was that, true to their name, they could transform. All of them had a default robot form, but through shifting the parts, they could turn into vehicles, devices, or even weapons such as pistols. The robots were divided into two factions: the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons (named Cybertrons and Destrons respectively in Japan). In the eighties, a majority of Western animated series were created with the goal of advertising toys to children. This was due to many factors such as regulations regarding appropriate content becoming stricter and the industry as a whole being on the verge of disaster. This is the approach Hasbro took, and with help from help from Toei Animation in Japan, a three-part miniseries based off of Transformers debuted in September of 1984. Both the animated series that spawned from it and the toy line were among the greatest successes of the eighties, and many more incarnations would follow in the coming years.

Shortly before the toy line’s conception, Nintendo launched their first gaming console to use programmable cartridges in 1983: the Family Computer (Famicom). The first consoles were prone to failure due to a bad chip set, but after a product recall and subsequent reissue with a new motherboard, its popularity soared. Its following became even greater in scale once it was released in the West rebranded the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Whether it was in its native homeland or overseas, games on this platform often sold thousands or even millions of copies. This was especially true if the game bore a famous license from another medium.

As the Transformers franchise reached the height of its popularity, a developer named ISCO was commissioned to create a tie-in game. It was released in 1986 under the name Transformers: Mystery of Convoy – the titular Convoy being the Japanese name for Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots. Strangely, despite the franchise’s success in the United States, Mystery of Convoy was never released outside of Japan. Is this an instance of the medium’s first Western hobbyists being unable to experience a classic?

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The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Introduction

In the eighties, a man named Eiji Aonuma took classes at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. He majored in design, primarily working on moving mechanical figures. After graduating in 1988, he interviewed at Nintendo, a company that rose to international fame throughout the decade with their classic arcade games and their successful home console – the Famicom (NES). During the process, Mr. Aonuma met Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the company’s most prominent figures, and he took the opportunity to show him samples of his college work.

His samples impressed the company, and he was given a job. However, there was one minor issue; he had never played a video game before, as he did not grow up with the medium. He then asked his girlfriend about video games, and she in turn introduced him to two of Yuji Horii’s works: the genre-defining JRPG, Dragon Quest, and the title responsible for codifying the visual novel, The Portopia Serial Murder Case. Prior to their respective inceptions, such games by and large did not exist in Japan. It was through experiencing these pioneering games that Mr. Aonuma’s career with Nintendo began in earnest. His first projects involved designing sprites for Famicom games such as the 1991 title Mario Open Golf (retitled NES Open Tournament Golf overseas). Five years later, he found himself in the director’s seat, overseeing the creation of Marvelous: Another Treasure Island for the Super Famicom. Impressed with his work, Mr. Miyamoto recruited Mr. Aonuma for an important development team. They were to bring The Legend of Zelda, one of Nintendo’s most successful franchises – both commercially and critically – to the Nintendo 64.

The origins for a possible Legend of Zelda installment on Nintendo’s first 3D console date back to 1995 when a technical and thematic demonstration video was unveiled at the company’s Shoshinkai trade show of that year. The game was originally slated to be released on the Nintendo 64DD (Dynamic Drive) – a peripheral touted as “the first writable bulk data storage device for a modern video game console”, making full use of its superior storage capabilities. Unfortunately, the device was delayed multiple times, and when it became dubious that it would ever see an international release, the team moved the project to a standard cartridge format.

Shigeru Miyamoto, who had been the principal director of Super Mario 64, was now in charge of several directors as producer and supervisor for this project. The five directors were: Toru Osawa, Yoichi Yamada, Eiji Aonuma, Yoshiaki Koizumi, and Toshio Iwawaki. Mr. Koizumi was notable for having conceived the scenario for Link’s Awakening, the then-newest Zelda installment. Mr. Osawa created the scenario for the new project based on a story idea between Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Miyamoto. It was stated in interviews by Mr. Miyamoto that the real-time rendering engine allowed the three-to-seven-person team in charge of developing cinematics to rapidly adjust the storyline and develop additional gameplay mechanics even up to the final months of development.

Within the first two years of the Nintendo 64’s debut, people criticized the console for a decided lack of hit first-party releases. Though there was a fair bit of variety within the scant games they did create for the console, they needed to aim even higher to avoid being decimated by the Sony PlayStation, their new, powerful rival. Next Generation magazine stated that “Nintendo absolutely [couldn’t] afford another holiday season without a real marquee title”. With Super Mario 64 having been one of the first successful games to feature three-dimensional gameplay, sparking a revolution that would shake the foundation of the entire medium, the prospect of The Legend of Zelda receiving a similar treatment was enough to make the new installment the most anticipated title of the decade.

After much speculation from the press and enthusiasts alike, the game, entitled The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, was at last released in the final two months of 1998. In a series that already had a stellar track record and worldwide fan adoration, the reception Ocarina of Time received seemed to utterly dwarf any of those previous accomplishments. It didn’t just get universal praise or win “Game of the Year” distinctions from every publication; it sold 2.5 million units in 1998 alone, and earned 150 million dollars in United States revenues – higher than any Hollywood film released within the final six weeks of that year. In the game’s lifetime, 7.6 million copies were sold worldwide. The year 1998 provided no shortage of competition, for it happened to be the same year that saw the release of Metal Gear Solid, Grim Fandango, and Half-Life. It stands to reason that something about Ocarina of Time managed outshine all of those efforts. Indeed, the reception this title received can never be said to have faded away; even today, it’s considered by many to be the absolute best game ever made. With all of the various artists who have appeared over the years to challenge the status quo in their own ways, how does Ocarina of Time remain a critical favorite all these years later?

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Final Fantasy V

Introduction

The debut of Final Fantasy IV on Nintendo’s sophomore home console in 1991 provided far more than just a graphical update to their familiar gameplay; it marked a significant turning point. Suddenly, complex, dynamic protagonists became the standard, and artists began putting more care and attention into their storylines. Before this point, the idea of a video game having such an intricate plot was largely unheard of, and its success both domestically and overseas under the name Final Fantasy II proved how important a strong writing staff could be for the medium’s growth.

This success prompted Hironobu Sakaguchi and the rest of Squaresoft to create a sequel. Developed over the course of a single year, Final Fantasy V debuted in Japan in 1992. Unfortunately, the series’ newfound North American audience didn’t get a chance to play it on the SNES. Plans for localization were made shortly after its Japanese release, and it was to be named Final Fantasy III, owing to the real second and third installments having been passed up for localization. The plans shifted slightly when Square announced that because of its different tone and increased difficulty, it was to be released as a standalone game with a title yet to be determined, but they were ultimately scrapped. Square translator Ted Woolsey claimed in a 1994 interview that “[Final Fantasy V is] just not accessible enough to the average gamer”.

Rumors then circulated that Final Fantasy V was to see a Western release under the tentative title Final Fantasy Extreme, but these plans fell through as well. A third attempt was made in 1997 to localize the game for Microsoft Windows-based personal computers by a studio named Top Dog. Though they made significant progress, numerous communication problems between the two entities sounded the project’s death knell. Later that year, a temporary solution appeared. A group of people under the internet alias RPGe released a patch for the game’s ROM image, translating it into English. It was a notable achievement for being one of the first completed fan translations in history. Finally, in 1999, Square found their opportunity to bring Final Fantasy V to Western audiences in the form of the Final Fantasy Anthology compilation for the PlayStation. By this time, the franchise had broken into the mainstream with its universally lauded seventh installment, and any lingering doubts about the theoretical reception of Final Fantasy V were assuaged. Was this game worth a seven-year wait?

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Adventures in the Magic Kingdom

Introduction

The late eighties marked Disney’s resurgence after nearly two decades of underperforming films. During their return to relevance, an up-and-coming gaming console known in North America and Europe as the Nintendo Entertainment System emerged. It revitalized the North American gaming industry after its severe crash in 1983. As many of the games on this platform became bestsellers, companies owning famous, successful franchises would license their properties to developers so they could capitalize on this rapidly growing trend. Unfortunately, many of these titles wound up being transparent cash grabs, as these largely unknown companies would put only the bare minimum amount of effort into creating them.  Products that could hardly be considered finished lined the store shelves alongside earnest efforts, waiting to swindle enthusiasts out of their hard-earned money.

Disney themselves would follow suit, allowing a company to turn their IPs into video games. However, in an unexpected move, the developer to whom they gave permission was Capcom. By this point in history, the company had made a name for themselves with classic arcade games such as Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Gun.Smoke. Their success continued in the home market once they released the first installment in what would become their most well-known franchise: Mega Man. Capcom gathered their most talented programmers, creating adaptations of DuckTales, Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers, and Tale Spin among others. Many of these efforts continue to be highly regarded to this day as some of the finest examples of licensed games in the medium’s history. Another one of the games released during this time was Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. This stands out slightly among Capcom’s other Disney-based games in that it’s an adaptation of a real-life location rather than a show or movie. It also generally isn’t remembered as much as their other Disney games. Does it nonetheless have a place in the NES library as an underrated classic?

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Lufia & the Fortress of Doom

Introduction

In Japan, role-playing games were a rising trend ever since the release of Dragon Quest in 1986. Though it inspired many artists throughout the decade, many of these bestselling titles, including Dragon Quest itself, failed to catch on overseas. This changed in 1990 with the international debut of Final Fantasy, notable for being one of the first JRPGs to fare better in North America than in Japan. To keep this trend going, the company behind Final Fantasy, Squaresoft, decided to localize the series’ fourth installment to coincide with the launch of Nintendo’s Super NES console in 1991. The result was a critically lauded commercial hit in both the East and the West. A boost in popularity for console RPGs ensued, inspiring more people to experience a genre that, up until then, was primarily enjoyed by a comparatively small niche of enthusiasts.

The success of Final Fantasy IV inspired many artists to provide their own take on the genre. One such group was the Japanese developer Neverland. The company was founded in 1993, and they launched their debut title, Biography of Estpolis, shortly thereafter. For the North American localization, it was renamed Lufia & the Fortress of Doom after one of its central characters. The game proved popular enough that the publishing company, Taito, entertained the idea of creating a port for the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive), but the closure of their North American branch in 1995 caused the plans to fall through. Before that moment, there were a few advertisements for the port, one of which claimed its release date was delayed until spring of 1995, claiming “[it would be] worth the wait”. Furthermore, European enthusiasts never got a chance to play the game. Would the game they missed out on indeed be worth waiting for?

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The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

Introduction

A few years after the Game Boy’s release in 1989, a programmer from Nintendo by the name of Kazuaki Morita began working on an unsanctioned side project. Using one of the console’s first development kits, the game he created bore many similarities to The Legend of Zelda. His endeavors caught the attention of his peers, who were members of the Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development staff, and they joined him after hours, forming what they themselves described as something akin to an afterschool club. They saw potential in the experiments, and the 1991 release of the series’ third installment, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, prompted its director, Takashi Tezuka, to ask the executives for permission to develop a new entry for the handheld console. It was originally intended to be a port of A Link to the Past, but before too long, it evolved into an original game.

The game used the engine of The Frog for Whom the Bell Tolls, a 1992 title co-developed by Nintendo and Intelligent Systems, and a majority of the staff who worked on A Link to the Past returned for this installment. Entitled The Legend of Zelda: Dreaming Island, it took one and a half years to develop, debuting in June of 1993. The downgrade in visuals and hardware wound up not hampering the game’s reception in any way, as it received positive reviews from critics across the board, and millions of copies were sold. It saw its Western release later in the year under the name The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. The dual success of this game both domestically and overseas were such that it bolstered Game Boy sales by nearly thirteen percent. It also notably remained on bestseller lists for more than ninety months after its release – a feat very few games in the medium’s history have accomplished. From this, it could be extrapolated that Link’s Awakening had an enduring legacy which made people want to play it for themselves years after its debut. To this day, it’s considered one of the greatest games ever made, with some people citing it as a superior effort to even the beloved A Link to the Past. Working with far more restrictive hardware limitations, was Mr. Tezuka and his team truly translate a then-peerless experience to the Game Boy? Continue reading

Friday the 13th (NES)

Introduction

May 9, 1980 marked the debut of Friday the 13th. It was directed by Sean S. Cunningham, who previously worked with Wes Craven on the 1972 exploitation horror film The Last House on the Left. Inspired by John Carpenter’s classic film, Halloween, Mr. Cunningham wanted his own work to make his audience jump out of their seat on top of being visually impressive. He also sought to distance himself from The Last House of the Left in favor of a fast-paced experience akin to a rollercoaster ride. For the most part, it was not received well by critics with a notable detractor being the esteemed Gene Siskel, who called Mr. Cunningham “one of the most despicable creatures ever to infest the movie business”. Nevertheless, it proved to be a success in the box office, impressively grossing around $60 million on a $550,000 budget, and the film would go on to become a cult classic.

Though intended as a standalone story, its performance in theaters prompted the executives at Paramount Pictures, the film’s distributor, to plan out a sequel. It was originally intended to be the beginning of an annual, anthological series. However, Phil Scuderi, one of the three owners of Esquire Theaters, along with the producers of Friday the 13th, Steve Minasian and Bob Barsamian, insisted that the new installment should feature a character named Jason Voorhees, directly linking the two films. Steve Miner, who would go on to direct the film, believed in the idea, and when Friday the 13th Part 2 debuted in April of 1981, fans were introduced to one of the genre’s most iconic villains. Even those who have never seen a horror film in their life recognize the hockey mask-wearing revenant that is synonymous with the series and the slasher genre in general. Though the fourth installment would be dubbed The Final Chapter, the franchise endured to the end of the decade.

Around the time the fifth installment was released, a gaming console known as the Nintendo Entertainment System saw its debut. It almost singlehandedly revitalized the North American industry after its crash in 1983. Games on this console sold thousands or millions of copies. To capitalize on this success, companies commissioned the development of tie-in games to popular films. The results from this practice were decidedly mixed. While some proved passable or even good, others barely had any thought put into them and were solely meant to ride the coattails of the property’s success with little effort on their part. Despite the second installment necessitating the creators cut forty-eight seconds of footage in order to avoid an X rating, an NES adaptation of Friday the 13th was commissioned in the late eighties. Conceived by a Japanese developer named Atlus and published by the toy company LJN, the game was released in February of 1989. By this time, the series had an impressive seven installments with an eighth looming around the corner. As console games were typically perceived to have been enjoyed primarily by children at the time, how would Atlus go about translating a slasher film experience to such a platform?

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