Zombie Nation

Introduction

In February of 1987, a company named KAZe was founded. Headquartered in Aoyama, Tokyo, the company sought to enter the rapidly growing video game market. They quickly turned their attention to the Famicom. Nintendo’s home console had revitalized the North American gaming scene after its devastating crash in 1983. Owing to the console’s success, one could expect any game released on the platform to sell reasonably well. There was only one major obstacle standing in the average developer’s way: Nintendo themselves. The company had researched what led to the North American gaming industry’s crash, or the Atari shock as it was called in Japan, and imposed strict limitations on how much help they could receive from third-party developers. If a game didn’t receive Nintendo’s Seal of Quality, it had no chance of seeing the light of day on their platform. On top of that, when considering international releases, only five of a given third-party developer’s output could be released abroad.

Even with these strict limitations in place, KAZe managed to launch their inaugural title, Hooligan Tengu, in December of 1990. The game saw its international debut the following month in January of 1991 under the name Zombie Nation. Despite being released on a popular platform, Zombie Nation was left to fall into obscurity. Only when a certain internet personality highlighted it in 2007 did Zombie Nation achieve any kind of notoriety. With thousands of titles passing through its ranks, did KAZe’s first game get the company off to a strong start?

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Ys IV: Mask of the Sun

Introduction

After Nihon Falcom released the first three installments in their Ys series of action role-playing games, the installments proved popular enough to make appearances on nearly every active console from the Nintendo Famicom (NES) to the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis).  Even if it was virtually unknown in the West, the series’ domestic success ensured the inevitability of a fourth installment.  Unfortunately, the success this series enjoyed came at something of a cost. After the release of Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, a substantial chunk of Nihon Falcom’s staff members quit, thereby depriving the company of the resources needed to produce a sequel. They were in such dire straits that they couldn’t even provide a full script for the game. Their contributions were limited to providing a vague outline and composing the music. They handed off what they could get done to Hudson, the company that published the highly praised compilation Ys Book I & II.

As Hudson collaborated with Alfa Systems on a game entitled Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys, Nihon Falcom pitched the idea to other studios so they could create versions for other prominent consoles. One such developer was Tonkin House, the company behind the SNES port of Ys III. Another was Sega, with whom Nihon Falcom had entered a partnership to port their output to the Mega Drive (Genesis). They even allowed the Korea-based developer Mantra to develop their own version of Ys IV. Mantra had released a highly successful version of the series’ second installment named Ys II Special, which greatly expanded upon the source material and included more secrets than any other version of the game. However, Sega’s version was canceled before it could get off the ground and although Mantra considered the offer, they ultimately declined.

Other than The Dawn of Ys, only the version developed by Tonkin House was making significant headway. Their take on the series’ fourth installment was named Ys IV: Mask of the Sun. Though both developers pushed for a release in late 1993, Tonkin House cut Husdon and Alfa System at the pass by releasing Mask of the Sun one month ahead of The Dawn of Ys. It was released to a fairly lukewarm reception with Famitsu, the most widely read gaming publication in Japan, awarding it twenty-five points out of a possible forty. Was Tonkin House able to do Nihon Falcom’s increasingly venerable series justice?

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Jumper

Introduction

On November 15, 1999, Dutch computer scientist Mark Overmars released a piece of software named Animo. It was a graphics tool that featured limited visual scripting capabilities. Within the next few years, the tool was renamed GameMaker to reflect its specific purpose. Before the internet age, creation tools such as Mr. Overmars’s were difficult to get ahold of. You either had to specifically go out and buy them or work for a big-name developer. However, with advent of the internet, people could distribute such software far more easily. Therefore, it was no coincidence that when the internet became commonplace, gaming began cultivating an independent scene.

One of the people who utilized Mr. Overmars’s GameMaker program was one Matt Thorson. Going by the e-handle YoMamasMama, he began making games as early as 2002. After finishing his first game, The Encryption, in 2003, he moved onto a new project: Jumper. He completed the game in February of 2004 at the age of sixteen. Though not a viral success like Cave Story, which was released in the same year, Jumper managed to find an audience and is considered an admirable freeware title. Speaking retrospectively on his website, Mr. Thorson would consider Jumper the first game he was truly satisfied with. Was Jumper a strong debut for a budding indie developer?

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Pokémon Gold and Silver

Introduction

Between 1990 and 1996, a company named Game Freak worked on a game dubbed Pocket Monsters. The company began its life as a fanzine written by Satoshi Tajiri and illustrated by Ken Sugimori. It became a developer when Mr. Tajiri, unsatisfied with the poor quality of the games he discussed, decided to throw his hat in the ring. The project hit many snags along the way, with five employees quitting and Mr. Tajiri taking no salary, instead having live off his father’s income. They received help from members of Ape, Inc., the company that famously produced Mother and its sequel – passion projects of copywriter Shigesato Itoi.

The long development cycle had profound implications for everyone involved. By 1996, Nintendo’s inaugural portable console, the Game Boy, had begun showing its age. While a collection of highly regarded games debuted on the platform, they were eventually seen as watered-down versions of console experiences. This didn’t matter to enthusiasts at the time, for they felt it to be an acceptable tradeoff for being able to bring a game with them at all. It was when gaming entered its fifth console generation that this proposition became less defensible. The experimental 3D titles of the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64 made the monochromatic Game Boy seem less impressive by the day. Nintendo executives were ready to declare a loss after Pocket Monsters saw its release in 1996 – even after splitting it into two versions. The critical reception seemed to confirm their apprehension, as the few reviews written about it were lukewarm with Famitsu giving it a score of twenty-nine points out of a possible forty. In light of these circumstances, no one could’ve predicted that this relative newcomer would singlehandedly revitalize the Game Boy when Pocket Monsters began selling by the millions.

Despite this success, Game Freak was hesitant to localize Pocket Monsters. Indeed, the idea of releasing it internationally didn’t cross the minds of the development teams. It wasn’t until the then-president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, told them “Release this in America!” that localization was unavoidable. However, there was one slight problem: Game Freak didn’t have people to spare to create a port. As such, they found themselves in a precarious position between having to choose between focusing their attention on the sequel or develop an English version. Not wishing to stop the momentum Pocket Monsters had gained, they elected to begin developing the sequel immediately, believing “overseas development is just a dream within a dream”.

Fortunately, one man was willing to step up to the plate: Satoru Iwata, the president of HAL Laboratories. Joined by Teruki Murakawa, the Assistant Department Manager of the plan production headquarters, he began working on a version of Pocket Monsters tailor-made for Western languages upon obtaining the source code. It is highly unusual for a company president to perform extensive analyses of the source code, yet it was through Mr. Iwata’s efforts that Pocket Monsters saw an official release abroad under the name Pokémon. Because there was little faith in the games to find an audience in the United States, it came as a complete shock when they proceeded to become bestsellers there as well. Pokémon was to the late nineties what Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were to mid and late-eighties respectively – a truly inescapable phenomenon that united kids from all walks of life.

With Pokémon having fared well both domestically and abroad, Mr. Tajiri and the rest of Game Freak faced an enormous amount of pressure to succeed. Within a few short years, the games inspired an anime series, multiple manga stories, and a treasure trove of spinoffs. Even so, fans across the world were waiting with baited breath for an official follow-up to the titles that started it all. Nintendo first announced the existence of a sequel in 1997, calling it Pocket Monsters 2: Gold & Silver. However, 1997 passed without a release for these games. It wasn’t until March of 1998 when the company announced a delay, though the games were now called Pocket Monsters: Gold & Silver, having dropped the number from the title.

After a year passed with no official word, Nintendo of Japan’s website updated with new information with a revised release date in June of 1999. Even better, these games would be compatible with the Game Boy Color.

It is largely due to the overnight success of Pokémon that this machine was created. As its name suggests, the Game Boy Color was an upgrade to the original Game Boy, rendering compatible titles in color. It stood out from other handheld consoles in that it was backwards compatible. This allowed the Game Boy Color to launch with a sizable library from the onset.

The release date for Pocket Monsters: Gold & Silver was ultimately delayed again to November 21, 1999. Six months later, the game had sold 6.5 million copies domestically. With the franchise’s popularity transcending cultures, it was a question of when the localized games would make their international debut – not if. The games debuted in Australia and North America in October of 2000 before being released in April of 2001 in Europe. Keeping in line with their predecessors’ naming conventions, they were dubbed Pokémon Gold and Silver in foreign markets. As a contrast to their predecessors’ reception, Pokémon Gold and Silver were critically acclaimed upon release in addition to faring well commercially. Pokémon fever had well and truly set in with Pokémon Stadium being the bestselling console game in North America and Pokémon Gold and Silver dominating the handheld market. Most of the people who played both sets of games insist that they are major improvements over their predecessors. Were these games able to iron out the flaws holding back the original, thus allowing the series to fully grasp its potential?

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Luigi’s Mansion

Introduction

The Nintendo 64 marked Nintendo’s official entry in the fifth generation of consoles. The success of one of its launch titles, Super Mario 64, helped jumpstart the medium’s 3D revolution. Though countless developers from id Software to PF Magic had dabbled in 3D for quite some time, Super Mario 64 ended up being ground zero for the leap. What made it such a remarkable effort was that there were no signs of growing pains. The camera could be controlled by the player, yet was incapable of phasing through walls due to being operated by a real character. Mario’s shadow could always be seen underneath him because it helped players gauge where he was on a platform. Levels were made far less linear because players would be naturally inclined to explore the space in which they found themselves. Though these design choices sound prototypical when summed up on paper, future development teams attempting to create three-dimensional experiences would take cues from Super Mario 64 and many of Nintendo’s other pioneering 3D efforts such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in the coming decades.

Despite the acclaim these games received, Nintendo’s success did come at something of a price. Thanks to a combination of Nintendo sticking with ROM cartridges in lieu of adopting the increasingly popular optical disc format and third-party developers having to adhere to their strict policies, they soon found themselves face-to-face against Sony and their PlayStation console. The juggernaut electronics company had entered the console race as a result of the failed partnership between themselves and Nintendo to create a CD-based peripheral to compete with the Sega CD. Because many prominent developers such as Capcom, Konami, and Square began making games exclusively for the PlayStation, Nintendo began rapidly losing their dominance. Even the overwhelming critical success of games such as Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time did little to make up for their loss in market share. At that point, they needed to innovate quickly in order to remain in in the business.

The year 1997 marked the launch of a graphic hardware design company named ArtX. It was staffed by twenty engineers who previously worked at Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) – the company that helped develop the Nintendo 64’s hardware. They were led by Dr. Wei Yen, who had been SGI’s head of Nintendo Operations and outlined the console’s architectural design. ArtX partnered with Nintendo in 1998 in order to craft Nintendo’s entry in the rapidly approaching sixth console generation. Initially codenamed “Flipper”, the project was first announced to the public at a press conference in May of 1999 as “Project Dolphin”. Shortly after this announcement, the company began providing development kits to second-party companies such as Rare and the newly formed Retro Studios.

ArtX was then acquired by ATI in 2000, though the Flipper graphics processor design had been mostly completed. A spokesperson claimed ATI was to become a major supplier to the game console market and that the Dolphin platform would be the “king of the hill in terms of graphics and video performance with 128-bit architecture”. The console was formally announced as the Nintendo GameCube at a Japanese press conference in August of 2000. It was at the Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2001 that the GameCube’s fifteen launch titles were unveiled. Curiously, there appeared not to be a single Mario game in the lineup. However, a closer examination revealed that a game set in the Mario universe would be among the launch titles, but with his brother Luigi in the lead role.

During the Nintendo Space World exposition of 2000, many technological demonstrations were designed to showcase the GameCube’s capabilities. These took the form of full motion video clips – one of which depicted Luigi running from ghosts. After creating the footage, Nintendo decided to turn the demo into a fully realized game. It was shown again at the 2001 Electronic Entertainment Expo alongside the other launch titles and the console itself. This game, Luigi’s Mansion, was to offer an experience the likes of which had never been seen in a Mario title. Though the idea for the game had been conceived as early as 2000, once it became a GameCube project, Luigi was chosen as the protagonist to keep the experience new and original.

The GameCube launched domestically on September 14, 2001 and in North America the following November before receiving European and Australian releases in May of 2002. From a commercial standpoint, Luigi’s Mansion was the most successful GameCube launch title, being the single best-selling game in November of 2001. Nintendo attributed Luigi’s Mansion as the driving force behind the GameCube’s launch sales, for it sold more copies in its opening week than even Super Mario 64 in its own. Critically, Luigi’s Mansion was mostly positive, with critics especially taken aback by its stellar presentation. Despite this, the reception wasn’t quite as warm as that of Super Mario 64. Was Luigi’s first true adventure precisely what the GameCube needed for a successful launch?

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Ys III: Wanderers from Ys

Introduction

With Ancient Ys Vanished and its sequel, Nihon Falcom had a franchise that eclipsed Dragon Slayer in terms of popularity. Though Dragon Slayer helped codify the action RPG, the Ys duology was what helped it truly soar in popularity. Despite the second title being dubbed The Final Chapter, the team began work on a sequel in response to its immense popularity. This new installment, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, was released on the PC-8801 and MSX2 in 1989. Within the next few years, it would see additional ports on the prominent fourth generation consoles, including the TurboGrafx-CD, Super NES, and Sega Genesis. The TurboGrafx-CD port was particularly timely, being released in North America two years after the international debut of Ys Book I & II, a remake that combined the series’ first installments. Because of this, many versions of Ys III were translated into English despite the series’ obscurity abroad. Those who have played Ys III consider it an overlooked gem in the fourth-generation library. With a pair of impactful predecessors, how does Ys III hold up?

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Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter

Introduction

Nihon Falcom’s Ancient Ys Vanished was a resounding success in Japan when it launched in 1987. Much like their earlier effort Dragon Slayer, Ancient Ys Vanished was an instrumental step in introducing action elements to the role-playing game genre.  However, this game differed from Dragon Slayer in one instrumental factor: it ended on a cliffhanger. As such, to an even greater degree than usual, fans clamored for a sequel. Fortunately, they were in luck. Believing the story of Ancient Ys Vanished could not be contained in a single game, Nihon Falcom were in the process of developing a resolution. It was released one year after its predecessor for the NEC PC-8801 and PC-9801 under the name Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter. Even for those who enjoyed the original Ancient Ys Vanished, Ys II was considered a vast improvement in every significant way. What did this highly anticipated sequel bring to the table?

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Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished – Omen

Introduction

In 1981, a man named Masayuki Kato founded a video game developer. Calling it Nihon Falcom, his company released its first game in 1982: Galactic Wars. Over the next few years, they released a slew of other games for the PC-8801– part of a popular series of home computers manufactured by Nippon Electric Company (NEC). Their first true success came in the form of their 1984 release Dragon Slayer. It was groundbreaking at the time for providing a dungeon crawling role-playing experience that took place in real-time. As a result, it laid the foundation for what is now known as the action RPG. With a gigantic success on their hands, Nihon Falcom became one of the country’s big-name developers alongside Nintendo, Namco, and Taito.

In 1987, they released a different kind of action-RPG called Ancient Ys Vanished – Omen. Like Dragon Slayer before it, Ancient Ys Vanished proved to be very popular upon release, garnering significant critical acclaim from many publications. Despite its domestic success, this game didn’t fare as well internationally. It received ports on the Master System and TurboGrafx-16 CD – neither of which even came close to approaching the popularity of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). When a port for the game appeared on the Famicom, the original Japanese version of the NES, not only was it a vast departure from the original, it never received an official localization. Because of these factors, Ancient Ys Vanished never had a strong following abroad despite having a reputation comparable with Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest in its native homeland. What kind of game was left to fall by the wayside?

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Ballz

Introduction

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior took the world by storm when it debuted in arcades in February of 1991. The competitive fighting game had existed since the mid-eighties, but Street Fighter II codified the genre. Countless enthusiasts formed long lines around the arcade cabinets, which eventually collected over two-billion USD in gross revenue within the next four years, meaning roughly nine-billion quarters were spent to play this game. Not surprisingly, when Capcom created ports for the prominent platforms of the fourth console generation, they became instant bestsellers.

In the wake of this overwhelming success, many developers saw potential in the exciting, new genre. One such developer was the San Francisco-based PF Magic. Their game was to be released on the Super NES, Sega Genesis, and 3DO. Tapping into the often sophomoric zeitgeist of the nineties, they titled their fighting game Ballz. Just to hit home that subtlety was off the table, the opening of the game stated “To be the champion, you gotta have Ballz!” Predictably, Nintendo wasn’t pleased and demanded the wording be changed for the SNES port. This version states “You gotta play Ballz!” The Genesis version was originally going to have online multiplayer support, which would have been made possible with the Edge 16, a planned modem adapter for the console. The plans for peripheral were scrapped by the time Ballz saw its release in 1994. Despite this setback, Ballz was released to a fairly warm reception. Famicom Tsūshin awarded it twenty-eight points out of a possible forty, Electronic Gaming Monthly gave the Genesis version a 6.2 out of 10, and GamePro wrote a positive review, praising its balanced gameplay and humorous sound effects. How does Ballz fare when compared to the countless other classic fighting games released around this time?

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Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap

Introduction

Westone Bit Entertainment’s 1987 arcade game Wonder Boy in Monster Land stood out from its predecessor in that how incorporated RPG elements into its gameplay. Though action-RPGs had certainly existed before 1987, it was exceptionally rare to see them in arcade titles. When a port was created for Sega’s primary home console, the Master System, critics had a lot of praise for it. Specifically, they enjoyed how the mixture of arcade action and role-playing elements resulted in a unique hybrid.

Naturally, with a winning franchise on their hands, Westone saw fit to make a sequel. However, this installment would differ from its two predecessors in that it was specifically designed as a console game. It originally debuted on the Master System in 1989 in North America and Europe. It was then ported to the PC Engine, known as the TurboGrafx-16 in North America, in 1991 before seeing a release on Sega’s portable console, the Game Gear, the following year. Whether it was called Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, Dragon’s Curse, or Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, the game received largely positive reviews. Electronic Gaming Monthly deemed it the Master System’s greatest game of 1989, and other publications noted how addictive it managed to be. Like Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap is thought of as one of the hallmarks of the Master System. Was it truly able to deliver an experience worthy of the increasingly venerable Wonder Boy brand?

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