Super Mario 64

Introduction

Although the launch of the Super Famicom, known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) internationally, was a success, sales were affected by two factors. While the Famicom (NES) went a majority of its life unchallenged, the fourth saw the rise of a fierce challenger in the form of Sega. Owing to a successful marketing campaign revolving around their mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, and his eponymous 1991 debut game, Sega successfully tapped into the zeitgeist of the era, proving they could keep pace with the ostensibly out-of-fashion Nintendo. This could be seen in how Super Mario World was received. Though popular even when it was released in 1990, with no fewer than three predecessors, people dismissed it as another Mario title. On top of this, a failed business deal between Nintendo and Sony involving a CD-ROM player add-on to the SNES resulted in the latter company themselves entering the console race with their inaugural PlayStation console in 1994. Said console proved to be highly popular – especially once prominent third-party developers such as Konami and Capcom, dissatisfied with Nintendo’s draconian licensing policies, began releasing new installments of their big-name franchises on Sony’s platform.

The other factor that caused Nintendo’s sales to slump was something none of these companies had control over: the economy. Throughout second half of the twentieth century, Japan’s economy appeared to be a juggernaut with many Westerners speculating that they would effectively take over the world. This eventually proved not to be the case. In late 1991, the Japanese asset price bubble collapsed, and a devastating recession ensued.

There were numerous causes behind this recession. One of the biggest catalysts was when the Bank of Japan, attempting to keep inflation in check, raised inter-bank lending rates. Before then, the banks were lending more with barely any regard for the borrowers’ credibility. Their drastic actions caused the bubble to burst, and the stock market crashed, leaving banks and insurance companies with several books’ worth of bad debt. The period that followed would eventually be known as the Lost Decade with some economists believing it to have lasted long enough to warrant being called the Lost Score. With Nintendo facing not one, but two companies that were more than a match for them while also feeling the effects of an inescapable recession, they realized they needed to do something drastic to remain in the game.

The Sunnyvale, California-based company Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), had prided themselves by leading the pack in graphics visualization and supercomputing. They were particularly interested in expanding their business, adapting their pioneering technology so that it could reach a higher volume of consumer products. Observing the impressive momentum of the video game industry, they felt it to be the ideal starting point. Their lasted invention had them use the MIPS R4000 family of CPUs as a base, creating something that used only a fraction of the resources. SGI founder Jim Clark originally offered a proposal to Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske. If they declined, Nintendo would be the next candidate in line. The exact details of the subsequent negotiations have been lost. It has been claimed that Mr. Kalinske and a colleague of his were impressed with SGI’s prototype only for engineers to uncover multiple hardware issues. While they were ultimately resolved, Sega decided against SGI’s design. It’s also said that the real reason they partnered with Nintendo was because they, unlike Sega, were willing to license the technology on a non-exclusive basis, thus expanding SGI’s consumer base to a far greater degree if their newest console became a hit. Regardless, a partnership was made, and when Jim Clark met with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi in early 1993, Project Reality had begun. The eventual result would be the console to succeed the Super Famicom.

The first result from Project Reality was the Onyx supercomputer, which was priced anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 USD. The system’s controller was a modified SNES controller outfitted with an analogy joystick and “Z” trigger. The secrecy was such that when LucasArts expressed interest in making a game for the console’s impending launch, the prototype controller had to be placed in a cardboard box as the developers used it.

In June of 1994, Nintendo announced the new name of the unfinished console: the “Ultra 64”. Its design was unveiled for the first time shortly thereafter. The console was so named because it was to be the world’s first 64-bit gaming system. Atari had claimed that their Jaguar console was the first 64-bit gaming system. In reality, it only had a general 64-bit architecture, utilizing two 32-bit RISC processors along with a 16/32-bit Motorola 68000. For good measure, the Ultra 64 was cited in marketing campaigns as more powerful than the computers used for the Apollo 11 mission. Especially controversial was the decision for the console to retain ROM cartridges as opposed to utilizing the superior storage capabilities of the CD-ROM format, which drew much speculation from the press.

Some time after this, the console was to be called the “Ultra Famicom” domestically and “Ultra Nintendo 64” abroad. It’s rumored that the name was changed to avoid legal action by Konami. They had ownership of the Ultra Games trademark, a shell corporation used to circumvent Nintendo’s strict policies limiting the number of third-party releases that could be published in the United States during the NES era. Nintendo themselves claimed that the trademark issues were not a factor. However, they wanted to establish a single worldwide brand and logo for their third console, so these names canceled. The name they chose, the Nintendo 64, was proposed by Shigesato Itoi, a famous copywriter and creator of two beloved classics: Earthbound Beginnings and its sequel, Earthbound. With a collective of elite developers nicknamed the Dream Team, the Nintendo 64 project was ready to begin.

The console was formally unveiled in a playable form in November of 1995 at Nintendo’s seventh annual Shoshinkai trade show. As the hordes of schoolkids huddling around in the cold outside indicated, the anticipation for Nintendo’s newest console was extremely high. The Nintendo 64 was originally slated to be released by Christmas of 1995, but during the previous May, Nintendo delayed the launch to April of 1996. They claimed they needed more time for the software to mature and for third-party developers to become interested in producing games for it, though an engineer cited the hardware’s underperformance in playtesting sessions. As a result, the console’s launch was delayed again – this time to June 23, 1996. To placate potentially impatient fans, Nintendo ran ads with slogans such as “Wait for it…” and “Is it worth the wait? Only if you want the best!”

Similar to the case with their previous console, Nintendo knew full well that, as impressive as the new machine might be, it would be nothing for want of a selection of impressive launch titles. Once again, Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, the two most important names behind the Mario franchise were willing to step up to the plate. Joined by Yoshiaki Koizumi, who had recently cut his teeth writing the scenario for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the three were determined to make the Nintendo 64’s launch impactful.

As early as 1991, Mr. Miyamoto conceived the idea of a 3D Mario game as he worked on the SNES rail shooter Star Fox. He had considered using the Super FX chip to develop a game called Super Mario FX. It was to have gameplay revolving around an entire world in miniature similar to that of miniature trains. He reformulated the idea as the Nintendo 64 was being developed, though not because of its superior graphical capabilities. Instead, he observed the controller’s greater number of buttons and felt it would allow for more advanced gameplay. In accordance to the global branding of their newest console, the new game was to be called Super Mario 64. The scope of the project spanned three years. One year was spent designing the concept while two were allotted to directly work on the software. Guiding Mr. Miyamoto throughout this game’s development was the drive to include more details than any of its predecessors. He felt the style made the game play as a 3D interactive cartoon.

Information about Super Mario 64 was leaked in November of 1995. A playable version was presented days later. Because the game was only halfway completed by this point, Nintendo of American chairman Howard Lincoln once said that Mr. Miyamoto’s desire to add more to the game was a factor in the decision to delay the Nintendo 64’s launch. Indeed, Mr. Yamauchi, realizing just how observant players are, didn’t wish for the integrity of Mr. Miyamoto’s game to be compromised. When asked for an additional two months to work on the game, he granted the request without questioning it.

Super Mario 64 was released on the promised date of June 23, 1996 alongside the Nintendo 64 itself. While the Mario franchise had been no stranger to critical acclaim, the reception of Super Mario 64 seemed to trivialize that of its predecessors. As one of the medium’s first successful 3D platforming games, Super Mario 64 is considered one of the medium’s most important benchmarks. Such was the scope of its influence that it could be said to have singlehandedly effected the 3D video game leap. As the title often cited as ground zero for 3D gaming, was Super Mario 64 able to stand the test of time?

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Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)

Max Fischer is a prodigy, for he is able to solve an equation that left his geometry teacher’s mentor utterly stumped. As promised, he never has to crack open a textbook for the rest of his tenure at Rushmore Academy – or so he believes. Unfortunately for him, reality comes knocking at the door, waking him up from his dream. In reality, Max Fischer is an eccentric 15-year-old scholarship student. He’s quite the paradoxical individual, for he participates in an astounding number of extracurricular activities, yet Dr. Guggenheim, the school’s headmaster, considers him the school’s worst student; his grades do nothing to assuage this assessment.  At one school assembly, Max meets the disillusioned Herman Blume, and the two of them strike up an unlikely friendship. Meanwhile, Max develops an obsession with Rosemary Cross, a widowed teacher who has recently arrived at the school. The next few months will stretch both relationships to their absolute limits.

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Widows (Steve McQueen, 2018)

Harry Rawlings, a highly skilled thief, has planned a heist against the Chicago crime boss Jamal Manning. Helping him are three partners: Carlos, Florek, and Jimmy. Things take an unfortunate turn when the four of them perish in an explosion during a shootout with the police. Veronica Rawlings, the widow of Harry, is now being threatened by Jamal. As the wife of Harry, she must repay him the two-million dollars lost in the botched heist. As it turns out, Jamal needs this money to finance an electoral campaign for alderman of a South Side precinct. His opponent is Jack Mulligan, the son of the incumbent alderman, Tom Mulligan. As luck would have it, Veronica has found the notebook of her deceased husband, Harry. It contains a detailed plan of what was to be his next heist. Realizing she is running out of time, Veronica bands together with the other recently-widowed woman, determined to appease the powerful crime boss.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, 2018)

A happy-go-lucky cowboy with a penchant for singing is offended when the wanted poster bearing his face calls him a misanthrope. Another cowboy enters a small bank with the intent to rob it. An old impresario travels the Wild West alongside a young man with no arms or legs. An old prospector arrives in a pristine mountain valley hoping to strike the mother lode. A woman named Alice Longabaugh travels with a caravan to Oregon for hopeful new opportunities. Five people travel by stagecoach as the sun sets. There are countless stories inspired by the United States’ westward expansion in the nineteenth century, and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs compiles six of them.

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King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human

Introduction

With her successful series of adventure games that debuted on the Apple II computer, Roberta Williams proceeded to create King’s Quest in 1984. Once this game was ported to a greater variety of platforms, it became a bestseller. This paved the way for a sequel a year later: King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne. It too became a hit with adventure game enthusiasts. While she was satisfied with her games from Mystery House to King’s Quest II, she relented that they were “essentially glorified treasure hunts”. The plots served no higher purpose than informing players of what their end goal was. This began to change by the mid-eighties. With computer platforms such as the IBM AT, Amiga, and Macintosh boasting a superior processing power compared to the previous generation, many new possibilities opened up.

Ms. Williams wished to take advantage of these machines to set her sights higher in the form of a brand-new installment in her popular King’s Quest series. She found herself leading a much larger team this time around, though it consisted of many of the same people who worked with her on her previous two games. The lead programmer was one Al Lowe, who made a living as a jazz musician before joining Sierra. He composed the music of King’s Quest II, and saw this as the perfect opportunity to learn the ins and outs of programming before creating something of his own while his wife, Margaret made the music. The game saw its release in October of 1986 under the name King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human. Like its two predecessors, King’s Quest III was highly popular among adventure game fans. It is common for retrospectives to cite this particular installment as the one in which the series began hitting its stride. Was Ms. Williams able to use the new technology to elevate her series to a new level?

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Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

It is the middle of the sixteenth century in Japan, and a horde of bandits have descended from the mountains. Though they contemplate raiding the village, the chief decides to wait until after their harvest because they had attacked it recently. A farmer overhears the message and the villagers ask Gisaku, the village elder, what they should do. He tells them of a village that once hired samurai. As this village has since remained untouched by the bandits, he declares that they should follow their example. Due to the bandits’ merciless attacks, the village is on the brink of starvation, and they are out of options. With nothing substantial to offer, they will need to find samurai willing to work for a paltry reward.

After a brief period of fruitless searching, the group happens upon a wandering rōnin named Kambei. He immediately demonstrates his skill when he rescues a young boy who had been taken hostage by a thief. A young samurai by the name of Katsushirō then asks to become Kambei’s disciple while the villagers ask for his assistance. Though reluctant at first, he eventually agrees. Kambei then enlists the help of Shichirōji, an old friend of his whom he believed to be dead. From there, they recruit three more samurai, including the wily Gorobei, the rough, yet good-natured Heihachi, and the silent Kyūzō. They eventually welcome Katsushirō himself into the group despite his inexperience because time is of the essence. Shortly thereafter, a drunken man who fancies himself a samurai and claims to be named Kikuchiyo asks to be in the group. The six reluctantly accept him, and they march back to the village. Outnumbered, these seven samurai will need to do everything they can to ensure the farmers’ survival.

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Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)

Bess McNeill, a young Scottish woman, has just married the love of her life, an oil rig worker named Jan Nyman. Her choice has been met with disapproval from her community owing to the fact that Jan is an atheist. Bess is a pure-hearted woman who is steadfast in her beliefs. She also has a darker side to her, being childlike and naïve while having a history of psychological problems. She frequently attempts to speak with God, and answers her own prayers. She believes that He responds directly through her. She also experiences high amounts of anxiety when he is separated from Jan. One day, she prays to God to send Jan home, though she may not be happy with how her wish comes to pass.

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The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)

In 1630s New England, William and his family have been banished from a Puritan plantation having expressed heretical beliefs. They have built a farm in a secluded forest, where they live a solitary life. William’s wife, Katherine, has given birth to their latest child, Samuel. One day, their daughter, Thomasin plays peekaboo with the baby only for him to disappear without a trace. Unbeknownst to the family, a figure clad in red has kidnapped the unbaptized infant and kills him, using his blood and fat to make an ointment. Though William insists a wolf stole the baby, his wife and children suspect evil forces may be at work.

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Metroid: Samus Returns

Introduction

The 2000s was arguably the most prolific decade for a majority of Nintendo’s big-name franchises. The Zelda franchise issued several beloved installments such as Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess. At the same time, the Mario franchise became highly experimental; Super Mario Sunshine had the title character explore a tropical island with a highly pressurized water dispenser on his back while Super Mario Galaxy saw him explore the far reaches of space. However, Nintendo’s most unexpected move was in 2002 when the Metroid franchise saw not one, but two installments revitalize the franchise that had been dormant since the 1994 release of Super Metroid. One of these games, Metroid Prime, allowed the franchise to break into the third dimension. It was followed up with two sequels, forming what is considered one of the most solid trilogies in the medium. With the franchise proving its continued relevance in the face of their new competition, the future seemed bright for Metroid.

Indeed, going into the 2010s, enthusiasts were excited to play the upcoming Metroid: Other M. Retro Studios demonstrated the franchise’s flexibility with their imaginative scenarios, and Metroid: Other M would be a comparatively simplistic return to form courtesy of Yoshio Sakamoto, the man who directed Super Metroid. It seemed as though this new installment was geared to join Super Metroid and the Metroid Prime trilogy as one of the series’ hallmarks. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. In a shocking turn of events, the same game that topped countless lists regarding the most anticipated titles of 2010 received anomalously bad word-of-mouth. By the end of 2010, the game failed to sell one-million units. Only two years after its release would it pass the threshold. This was an unthinkably dismal performance for a first-party Nintendo game.

The point of contention among most independent critics concerned its story. Mr. Sakamoto had poured a lot of his soul into the project, wishing to provide a definitive characterization of series protagonist Samus Aran. However, said characterization proved problematic for a majority of the enthusiasts who played it – not only abroad, but domestically as well. Consequently, the scenario was universally panned to the point where many critiques failed to mention the gameplay. Depending on one’s perspective, said gameplay was either passable or outright bad. Though the exact quality of Metroid: Other M was hotly debated, its status as a commercial disappointment couldn’t be contested.

For many years, there was no word of a new Metroid installment. The only game bearing the franchise’s name saw the light of day in 2015 under the name Metroid Prime: Federation Force. Because players felt it had little to do with the franchise, the game received a monumental preemptive backlash that persisted once it was released. Many enthusiasts resigned themselves to the fact that the Metroid franchise was effectively dead.

Luckily, all hope was not lost. Developers led by Yoshio Sakamoto began work on a new project in 2015 codenamed Matadora. Joining them on this endeavor was the Spain-based developer MercurySteam. They had previously pitched a Metroid game for the 3DS and Wii U. It was ultimately rejected, but Mr. Sakamoto took note of their interest in the series, and decided to collaborate with them. MercurySteam wished to remake Metroid Fusion, but Mr. Sakamoto instead suggested reimagining the series’ second installment, Metroid II: Return of Samus. He himself did not work on the classic Game Boy title, but he was enthusiastic about remaking it, believing it to be a vital part of the series’ lore. With the knowledge he and his company had developing Castlevania: Lord of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, Jose Luis Márquez found himself in the director’s chair alongside veteran developer Takehiko Hosokawa.

As it turns out, their project couldn’t have been timed any better. Metroid fans had been clamoring for a Metroid II remake for many years. It was to the point where one enthusiast, who went by the alias DoctorM64, took it upon himself to develop an unofficial remake titled AM2R (Another Metroid 2 Remake). For his troubles, Nintendo issued a cease-and-desist notice, and the game was taken offline. While fans were understandably upset, they later learned the biggest reason why Nintendo did what they did when they announced their own official remake. For his part, Mr. Sakamoto stated that, though he hadn’t seen the game, he appreciated the fan for caring so much about the series. On that note, DoctorM64 was just as excited about Nintendo’s project as Mr. Sakamoto himself. In fact, he bought a New 3DS XL with the specific purpose to play Nintendo’s Metroid II remake.

After much speculation, the game was released in September of 2017 for the 3DS under the name Metroid: Samus Returns. The Nintendo Switch had been released six months prior, but Mr. Sakamoto had declined releasing it on that platform due to the 3DS’s larger consumer base at the time. He also felt the dual screens allowing players to view the map during gameplay would be of an immense help. Upon release, Samus Returns was well-received. After a lackluster showing for a majority of the decade, it was seen as the return to form the series needed to stay relevant in the eighth console generation. Mr. Sakamoto had spent a majority of this decade a laughing stock among long-time enthusiasts – especially on message boards. Was Samus Returns able to restore the goodwill he lost?

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Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki, 1967)

Goro Hanada is the third-ranked hitman of the Japanese underworld. He has flown into Tokyo with his wife, Mami. There, they meet Kasuga, a formerly ranked hitman who now makes his living as a taxi driver. Kasuga asks Hanada to assist him to break back into the profession. Hanada agrees, and the three of them go to a club owned by yakuza boss Michihiko Yabuhara. The two men are tasked with escorting a client from Sagami Beach to Nagano. Little do they know that they’re about to drive into an ambush.

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