X

Introduction

Gunpei Yokoi’s Game Boy sold millions of units on its launch day in 1989. So great was the popularity of the first handheld console to truly come into its own that the one million units shipped overseas sold out within a few weeks. Three years prior to the Game Boy’s release, a London-based developer named Argonaut Games created Starglider for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. This game, heavily inspired by the vector-based graphics of Atari’s coin-operated Star Wars adaptation was one of the earliest first-person combat flight simulators available for home computers. It wound up being one of the bestselling titles for the platform, and won Crash magazine’s “Game of the Year” award in 1986.

After observing the then-unique mechanics of Starglider, Nintendo sought to create a similar game for their handheld console. This project was slated to be published by Mindscape, a company established in Novato, California under the names Eclipse or Lunar Chase before Nintendo themselves took over the project after becoming interested in the idea of having three-dimensional graphics in a Game Boy title. Helming this project was Yoshio Sakamoto, a Nara Prefecture college graduate who worked under Gunpei Yokoi’s supervision, contributing pixel art for the NES classic, Metroid. Shortly before the game’s release, then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi shortened the title to a single English letter: X. When it was released in 1992, it proved to be a moderate success, providing the Japanese audience with a completely new experience while pushing the technical capabilities of the Game Boy to its absolute limits. Famitsu magazine would go on to list X as one of the Game Boy’s most influential titles, being the first 3D game released for a handheld console in Japan.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Introduction

Along with Bloodborne, Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4 proved to be one of the killer apps of its platform. As with the previous entries, it received nearly universal critical acclaim as a storytelling experience that far surpassed those of its peers. This caused many gaming enthusiasts to buy a PlayStation 4 for themselves in a parallel to how Uncharted 2 caused people to gravitate towards the PlayStation 3 in the previous console generation. Uncharted 4 was advertised as the series’ finale, as it gave its central protagonist, Nathan Drake, a conclusive sendoff.

However, shortly after the game was released in May of 2016, Naughty Dog began working on a new campaign within the same universe. Though many ideas were thrown out, Naughty Dog ultimately cast Chloe Frazer, a side character who debuted in Uncharted 2, as the lead. This campaign was billed as downloadable content for Uncharted 4, though it ultimately got a standalone, physical release when it debuted in August of 2017. This game, titled Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, didn’t exactly garner the same level of critical acclaim as Uncharted 4, with some outlets criticizing its lack of innovation and short length. The decision to continue a series after promising the previous installment would conclude it is a tricky proposition. Considering that mainstays such as Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley had little input for this game, it would indeed appear to be a recipe for stagnation. Was this new team able to do this critically venerable series justice?

Continue reading

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Introduction

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, despite providing a radically different experience than its predecessor, nonetheless became a bestselling game, continuing Nintendo’s winning streak. In 1988, they began work on a new Famicom installment for their increasingly popular saga known as The Legend of Zelda. However, as the development cycle continued, Nintendo found themselves face-to-face with unexpected competition. One year prior in 1987, NEC Home Electronics launched the PC Engine, a console with an 8-bit CPU that boasted a 16-bit color encoder and video display controller. Moreover, in 1988, Sega introduced the Mega Drive, the successor to their Master System and a full-fledged 16-bit system. Though Nintendo executives were in no hurry to design a new console, they reconsidered once the success of these consoles caused their industry dominance to weaken. As a result of these developments, the team behind the new Legend of Zelda installment brought their project to this new platform that would be dubbed the Super Famicom in its native Japan and the Super NES overseas.

The creation of this new installment, eventually named The Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods, would continue over the next two years, concluding in 1991 and seeing its release in November. Like the ones that preceded it, this third game received positive reviews from critics and fans alike. When it came time for localization, the game’s name fell victim to Nintendo of America’s draconian censorship policies regarding religious references. It was consequently renamed The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for its international debut in 1992. Western critics then too began to praise the game. According to Nintendo Power’s list of the top selling SNES games, A Link to the Past spent five consecutive years in the number one spot. To this day, it’s considered one of the greatest games ever made. It couldn’t have been easy to create a worthy follow-up to The Legend of Zelda – itself thought of as one of the best games of the eighties. How could Nintendo even begin to accomplish such an insurmountable task?

Continue reading

Final Fantasy II

Introduction

As Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team at Squaresoft developed Final Fantasy, the management decided to have 400,000 cartridges manufactured in order to make a sequel possible. To their amazement, the game was a success and they ended up selling all of the copies along with an additional 200,000. In doing so, the fledging Squaresoft created the first JRPG capable of standing on an even playing field with the Dragon Quest series. Suddenly, the possibility of a sequel was not a pipe dream; it was an inevitability.

From the project’s inception, Mr. Sakaguchi and his team lacked any concrete ideas. As a result, they decided to go in a new direction, not including any characters or locations from the original game. Simply named Final Fantasy II, the game was released for the Famicom on December 17, 1988. According to Square’s publicity department, the game exceeded the domestic sales figures of its predecessor by moving nearly 800,000 units.

Two years later, Square took a chance with their newfound success by localizing the original Final Fantasy, bringing it to the Western world. In an unexpected turn of events, it sold even more copies overseas than it did in its native homeland. Naturally, Square wished to capitalize on this newfound market by localizing the sequel as well. An early prototype cartridge was eventually created, bearing the name Final Fantasy II: Dark Shadow over Palakia.

Unfortunately, although the game was advertised in various Squaresoft publications, it ultimately failed to cross the Pacific Ocean. There were many reasons for this from the game having been two years old by the time the original was localized to the development cycle dragging on for too long. Kaoru Moriyama, the employee assigned to this project, admitted that, despite the prototype’s existence, the translation was far from complete. Running into memory issues compounded with their boss having no understanding of the amount of work it takes to create an English translation sunk any chances of the game had of venturing outside of its homeland. A game named Final Fantasy II did surface on the SNES, but unbeknownst to Western gaming fans, Square had skipped over the remaining Famicom installments and localized their then-newest entry, Final Fantasy IV, under that name. It was far more sensible to localize a game for Nintendo’s newest console than to sink resources in bringing over an old one for an outdated system. How does the true Final Fantasy II fare by comparison?

Continue reading

Lester the Unlikely

Introduction

The year 1991 marked the debut of Capcom’s Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. This arcade classic took the world by storm, codifying the fighting game as a genre and leaving a profound impact on the medium as a result. Such was the popularity of this title that the ensuing console ports sold by the millions. It didn’t take long for other companies to ride the wave generated by this rapidly rising trend. One of the most famous rivals to Street Fighter II was released the following year in the form of Midway’s Mortal Kombat. It generated no shortage of controversy due to its violent content coupled with the fact that the characters were represented by digitized spites based on real actors.

Another company that threw their hat in the ring was Visual Concepts. Founded in 1988, this company took the fighting game template and decided to provide a more humorous, cartoonish take on it. The result was ClayFighter, and though it didn’t fare as well in the critical eye, it nonetheless proved to be a modest hit, selling 200,000 copies. Shortly thereafter in January of 1994, Visual Concepts released a game known as Lester the Unlikely. During this time, certain developers began to experiment with the artistic side of medium, crafting unique experiences such as Flashback and Out of this World. I have little doubt Lester the Unlikely could be described as unique, but how does it fare against these pioneering art titles?

Continue reading

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Introduction

When The Legend of Zelda saw its international release in 1987, it quickly became one of the hallmarks of Nintendo’s 8-bit console. The reason for this far surpasses its impressive sales figures; it managed to offer gameplay only a select few had experienced before. It blazed the trail for open-world game design, and the ability to save courtesy of a battery wired in every cartridge changed the industry forever. Slowly but surely, artists began to move away from how they designed their works in the arcade era, instead opting to treat their audiences to epics in an interactive format – the expectation being that they could make progress, quit, and pick up where they last left off.

Because of this success, a sequel was inevitable. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of The Legend of Zelda had the idea to make a fundamentally different follow-up. A new team was assembled to create this game with key members of the original’s development staff having no involvement. Mr. Miyamoto himself served as the producer of this new title rather than the more proactive role he held during the original’s conception. In January of 1987, a little under one year after the series’ debut, the game was released under the name The Legend of Zelda 2: Link’s Journey. Similar to the case with The Legend of Zelda, the game saw its initial release on the Famicom Disk System, necessitating Nintendo to create a cartridge-based version, as the Famicom’s North American and European counterparts lacked a corresponding peripheral. The game debuted internationally in Europe and North America the following year with the title shortened to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

Continue reading

Final Fantasy IV

Introduction

With a trilogy of beloved Famicom JRPGs under their belt, the once-struggling Squaresoft became industry juggernauts able to stand toe-to-toe with Yuji Horii’s Dragon Quest series. Upon completing Final Fantasy III in 1990, Square planned to develop two games: one for the Famicom and another for Nintendo’s forthcoming Super Famicom console. They were to be called Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy V respectively. Unfortunately, due to the company’s small size at the time, they ended up stretching their resources thin, and the former project was canceled. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the series’ creator claimed in an interview that the game was nearly eighty percent complete when it was scrapped, but outside of his word and a single screenshot, very little information about it exists.

As a result, Final Fantasy V was renamed Final Fantasy IV, and some of the ideas that came about during the halted project were reused for it.

With a development team consisting of fourteen people, Final Fantasy IV took a single year to develop. It was released in Japan in July of 1991 whereupon it received the most critical acclaim of any installment thus far. Sales of the original Final Fantasy in North America surpassed those of Japan. Therefore, Square saw this as a perfect opportunity to appeal to their unexpected, newfound fanbase. They decided not to localize the remaining Famicom games in favor of focusing on their newest work. To avoid confusion, Final Fantasy IV was dubbed Final Fantasy II. Released in the same year as the Super NES’s launch, it became a hit overseas as well, and is considered to this day one of the finest efforts in the system’s library.

Continue reading