Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country

After receiving an unlimited budget from Nintendo, the company that revitalized console gaming in North America with the Famicom (the Nintendo Entertainment System/NES abroad), the Twycross, Leicestershire-based developer Rare created several games for them. The company’s first game for Nintendo, Slalom, which was originally released in arcades under the Vs. System, proved a modest hit. From there, they developed various games utilizing famous film licenses such as Beetlejuice and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it was their original property Battletoads that would cement themselves as a force to be reckoned with.

Then, in 1990, the successor to Nintendo’s Famicom console, the Super Famicom, was released. It would see its international debut the following year as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Rare had been quite prolific throughout the third generation of console gaming, but after the SNES saw its release, they decided to limit their output. To this end, they invested the money they made from their various NES games in Silicon Graphics (SGI) workstations. These devices were notable for their ability to render 3D models in an era when such a thing was unheard of. It proved to be quite the financial risk, as each workstation cost £80,000 apiece. In doing so, Rare became the most technologically advanced developer in the United Kingdom. Rare tested the technology by creating an arcade installment of Battletoads before beginning work on a boxing game they named Brute Force.

Meanwhile, Nintendo was in a heated console war against the Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis in North America). Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario series, had become a smash hit, and won the Genesis many fans in the process. Some of those fans included Disney animators, who lent their talents to Virgin Games to create an adaptation of Aladdin. It was notably the very first game to ever feature hand-drawn animation. Realizing they needed to think of something quickly to remain relevant, Nintendo, impressed with Rare’s work on Brute Force, bought a 25% stake in the company, which eventually increased to 49%.

Now part of a second-party developer for Nintendo, Rare founders Tim and Chris Stamper were contacted by Nintendo with an interesting proposal. Released in arcades in 1981, Donkey Kong was Nintendo’s breakthrough hit, turning them into one of the industry’s most respected developers. Despite this, it was the then-unnamed Mario, not the title character, who ended up becoming synonymous with the company. This may have been justifiable as Mario was the player character while the game itself had been named after its antagonist. Even so and with the exception of scattered cameo appearances and a Game Boy remake of the arcade original, the title character hadn’t been used at all since Donkey Kong 3, which itself fell into relative obscurity following the infamous North American video game crash of 1983. As journalist Jeremy Parish writing for USGamer pointed out, it was “quite an ignominious twist” for one of the medium’s most recognizable characters.

On the back of this, Nintendo wished to revive Donkey Kong for a modern audience, and the Stamper brothers were to do just that. Development began in August of 1993 with an estimated development budget of $1,000,000 and a team of twelve. The creator of Donkey Kong, Shigeru Miyamoto, did not work on the game directly, but he ended up contributing ideas throughout the development process. This game was to be a side-scrolling platformer, as much of the staff had grown up playing Super Mario Bros. and its sequels. Finally in November of 1994, Rare completed their work. It was called Donkey Kong Country (Super Donkey Kong in Japan), and it set a record upon its release for the most man hours ever invested in a video game’s development at 22 years. The game was highly acclaimed and a commercial success, selling seven-million copies worldwide in four months. As the third-best selling game in the SNES’s library, how does Donkey Kong Country hold up?

Continue reading

Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

In 1993, the Japanese developer Neverland released Lufia & the Fortress of Doom for the Super Famicom – or the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) abroad. Although somewhat lost amid the slew of Eastern role-playing games that saw their own releases around the same time, Neverland’s effort received a warm critical reception with the American publication Electronic Games in particular calling it one of the best RPGs of the year.

The game also proved to be a modest hit – enough so that Director Masahide Miyata and his team began working on a sequel shortly thereafter. It was finished and released domestically in February of 1995 under the name Biography of Estpolis II. The game was released in North America in May of 1996 renamed Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, which would see its European debut the following year. As its predecessor hadn’t been released in Europe, the game’s title was truncated to Lufia. Like the original game, Lufia II was a success, selling a little over 60,000 copies in Japan. This time, however, the critical reception was significantly more positive with aficionados of the SNES library considering it an underrated gem of a classic. Was Lufia II truly able to improve on the formulaic original?

Continue reading

Keen Dreams

Keen Dreams

Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons was a massive success for Ideas from the Deep, a development team formed by programmers John Carmack, John Romero, and Tom Hall. With a clear hit on their hands, the team sought to break away from their company, Softdisk, and strike out on their own. Their boss and owner of Softdisk, Al Vekovius, confronted the team on their plans – particularly after he learned they had used company resources to develop the three games. They would work on the game after hours, even going as far as taking the computers to Mr. Carmack’s house on weekends. Mr. Vekovius proposed a joint venture between the Ideas from the Deep team and Softdisk, which ultimately fell apart when the other employees threatened to quit in protest. After three weeks of negotiation, the team agreed to produce a series of games once every two months for Gamer’s Edge, Softdisk’s subscription service. Ideas from the Deep, having renamed themselves id Software after one of the Freudian components of the psyche, then proceeded to use these games as prototypes for their own releases.

In spring of 1991, Mr. Carmack and his team began work on another Commander Keen game. Initially, they did not want to make another installment for Softdisk, but eventually decided that doing so would let them fulfill their obligations, and hopefully improve another set of games for publisher Apogee in the process. For this installment, id Software crafted a brand-new engine rife with new features, including the ability to have the background scroll at a different speed from the foreground and support for sound cards. As a result of these changes, it was decided that this game would be a standalone effort as opposed to a true sequel. Even with other members of the team working on another project at the same time, this game, entitled Keen Dreams, was finished in less than a month following the engine’s creation. Despite the previous three installments having been bestsellers, Keen Dreams did not receive much attention from publications at the time, and thus fell into relative obscurity. Now considered a “lost episode” of sorts, how does Keen Dreams fare in the grand scheme of things?

Continue reading

Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons – Episode One: Marooned on Mars

In 1981, a company named Softdisk was founded in Shreveport, Louisiana. Some time later, they hired an alumnus from the University of Missouri named John Carmack. Despite not leaving the college with a degree, Mr. Carmack was an exceptional programmer – particularly in the field of the rising new medium of video games. He was initially hired to work on Softdisk G-S, an Apple IIGS publication. There, he met another programmer by the name of John Romero. With the help of Michael Abrash’s Power Graphics Programming, Mr. Carmack developed an engine capable rendering graphics capable of smoothly scrolling in any direction. This was practically unheard of at the time; IBM computers available for commercial use were not able to replicate such a feat.

With an engine capable of scrolling graphics to hand, it was only natural for Mr. Carmack and his colleagues to use it to create a game. Coworker Tom Hall encouraged Mr. Carmack to demonstrate the engine by recreating the first stage of Nintendo’s landmark platformer, Super Mario Bros. 3, which had been released internationally in 1990. Mr. Carmack and Mr. Hall were then able to do just that in a single night using a character the former had created for a previous game he called Dangerous Dave. The game, cheekily titled Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement, was then shown to Mr. Romero, who realized the implications of being able to bring the success Nintendo had enjoyed to personal computers.

PC gaming survived the 1983 North American crash by virtue of being a niche market and therefore largely unaffected by whatever problems had plagued the mainstream. The team’s manager, Jay Wilbur, was impressed with their work and recommended that they contact Nintendo themselves in the hopes of being able to create an authorized port of Super Mario Bros. 3 for PC platforms. This team of programmers, now going by the name Ideas from the Deep, spent the next three days working on the demo for the hypothetical port. Although Nintendo praised the efforts of this budding team, they ultimately turned down the offer, wishing the Mario series to remain exclusive to their own consoles.

Undeterred, the Ideas from the Deep team convened to come up with a completely original idea. Mr. Hall suggested giving the game a science-fiction theme, which prompted Mr. Carmack to envision a child prodigy saving the world. The protagonist’s name would be Commander Keen. It was after Mr. Carmack read the premise in an overdramatic voice that the group knew they had a winning idea on their hands.

The first three games in this new series, Marooned on Mars, The Earth Explodes, and Keen Must Die!, formed a trilogy called Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons. They were all released simultaneously in December of 1990. The Ideas from the Deep team distributed their game using the shareware model pioneered by their publisher, the Garland, Texas-based Apogee Software. Specifically, the episodes could be obtained individually for fifteen dollars apiece or in a single lump sum for all three at the cost of thirty dollars – all via mail orders. This way, buyers could choose between paying an amount smaller than the price of a full game for one episode or a comparatively cheaper sum for all three. This distribution method proved to be a success for Apogee, as their sales levels had jumped from $7,000 per month to $30,000 by Christmas of 1990. Speaking retrospectively, it was speculated that this trilogy of games moved at least 50,000 copies. As a trilogy of games that afforded PC users an experience many of them otherwise had no access to, could they be said to possess the same timelessness of their primary influence?

Continue reading

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light

February of 1986 marked the release of the Famicom Disk System. A periphery unit for Nintendo’s highly successful Famicom console, the Famicom Disk System was capable of reading ​3 ½-inch floppy disks. Not only did the disks boast superior storage capabilities to contemporary ROM cartridges, but the peripheral also added a new high-fidelity sound channel. These features allowed for the creation of games previously thought impossible. The Legend of Zelda and Metroid saw their debut on the Famicom Disk System. Between their open-ended design and the ability to save the player’s progress without the use of passwords, both games successfully broke the mold for console gaming.

Nintendo wished to release these games internationally following the console’s successful debut in North America in 1985, but plans to export the peripheral were eventually scrapped. It also wouldn’t be long before the pioneering periphery was rendered obsolete. In the years since the Famicom’s debut, Nintendo had vastly improved the semiconductor technology of their cartridges. Among other things, this allowed developers to embed a battery in the Famicom cartridges. Any cartridge with these batteries could record a player’s progress – a mainstay feature of Famicom Disk games. Because there was no reason to continue developing games on an increasingly outdated format, Nintendo deemed it necessary to convert many of the titles that originally debuted on the Famicom Disk System to cartridges. Needing a programmer to port the Famicom Disk System games to a standard ROM format, the company hired a man by the name of Toru Narihiro. He and his auxiliary program called themselves Intelligent Systems, working with Nintendo’s premier research and development branch led by Gunpei Yokoi to see these conversions through.

Using the experience he gained working alongside Mr. Yokoi’s team, Mr. Narihiro and his team switched gears, and began programming games of their own. The first title he programmed was Famicom Wars – a turn-based strategy game that proved to be a hit upon its 1988 release. The game’s development attracted the attention of one of Mr. Narihiro’s colleagues – one Shouzou Kaga. As a budding scenario writer, Mr. Kaga sought to take the strategic elements present in Famicom Wars and combine them with the story, characters, and world of a role-playing game. With this project, Mr. Kaga wished to create a scenario that allowed players to care about the characters. At the time, he observed that role-playing games had strong stories, but rather scant casts. Meanwhile, he felt tactical games had the exact opposite problem, having large casts, but weak stories. Therefore, he decided to provide a solution to this odd discrepancy with his game.

In its earliest advertisements, the game was dubbed Honō no Monshō (Emblem of Fire). By the time the game saw its release in April of 1990, Honō no Monshō was rendered in English – the full title being Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. When the game was released, Mr. Kaga noted that it received extensive criticism from Japanese publications. Despite the team’s efforts to avoid emphasizing stats and numerical data, critics found the gameplay too difficult to understand. Exacerbated by its simplistic presentation, and it would appear that Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was a failed experiment.

Mr. Kaga and his team saw Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light not as a commercial product, but as a dōjin project made on a whim. A dōjin project is a work intended to attract a group of people sharing the same interests. As many such projects are self-published, they are typically below the quality one would expect from a professional company, although many such artists use them as a springboard to bigger and better things. Because of this, it seemed only fitting that Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light would gain a new lease on life when one notable journalist devoted a column in Famitsu magazine to the game. Coupled with positive word of mouth, the game saw its sales increase significantly after two months’ worth of flat numbers. Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light would thus not enter the annals of gaming history as a failed experiment, but rather a sleeper hit.

As a possible consequence of its experimental nature, the game was not released internationally. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 2001 with the release of Nintendo’s mascot fighting game Super Smash Bros. Melee that international fans even knew of the franchise’s existence. Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light would be remade twice with the latter version being released internationally. However, it wouldn’t be until 2020 when the game in its original form finally saw an official release outside of Japan, being offered for a limited time on the Nintendo Switch. In the end, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was a game that ran the risk of becoming an obscure footnote. What did those fans see in it that critics couldn’t?

Continue reading

The Last of Us Part II

Upon its 2013 release, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us proved to be a tremendous hit with fans and critics alike. It proceeded to receive awards from nearly every conceivable outlet with one journalist considering it gaming’s Citizen Kane moment. Emboldened by the success of this game, series creator Neil Druckman and the rest of Naughty Dog began working on a sequel in 2014. As development proceeded, Naughty Dog also provided gamers with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The former provided a sendoff to series protagonist Nathan Drake whereas the latter continued the story with two prominent female characters. Both games were well-received and cemented Naughty Dog as one of the most beloved American developers in the process. With the sequel to The Last of Us announced in 2016, fans eagerly awaited what Mr. Druckmann and his team had to offer.

Unfortunately for Naughty Dog, the development process would prove to be less than uneventful. While Mr. Druckmann had previously encountered tremendous difficulties on his path to bringing his artistic visions into reality, it was nothing compared to what was about to occur. The troubles began brewing as early as the very year they began work on the game. In March of 2014, it came to light that the creative director of the first three Uncharted installments, Amy Henning, had left Naughty Dog alongside game director Justin Richmond. One article from IGN speculated that they had been forced out of the company, citing how it coincided with Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley’s subsequent replacement of their respective positions. Naughty Dog’s co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra released statements, clarifying that neither of them had anything to do with the departure of Ms. Henning or Mr. Richmond.

The controversy eventually subsided, and the fans continued to await the sequel to The Last of Us. Shortly after the release of The Lost Legacy in 2017, the first trailers for this sequel surfaced. Fans were now more excited than ever – particularly after the game became slated for a release in September of 2019. However, history repeated itself – this time, in the worst way possible. Jason Schreier, writing for Kotaku, wrote a report that revealed Naughty Dog’s intensive crunch schedule wherein 12-hour workdays was the standard. Many people concluded that Naughty Dog had been exploiting their programmers’ passion, and soon enough, the company gained a bad reputation in Los Angeles County for up-and-coming programmers. With its staff unable to bear working such untenable hours, the company had a 70% turnover rate. Although several other sources claimed such a thing was not unheard of in the industry, this caused many of Naughty Dog’s fans to turn on them.

Because of these harsh working conditions, the game found itself delayed yet again – this time to 2020. Naughty Dog assured fans the game would be released by that year’s summer, but then a disaster the likes of which humankind hadn’t experienced in nearly a century occurred. In late 2019, a coronavirus dubbed COVID-19 had broken out in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province. Being highly infectious and capable of causing severe damage to one’s respiratory system, everyone on the planet not employed by an essential business soon found themselves under lockdown the following March. Unemployment skyrocketed and the ensuing stock market crash was likened to the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the end of the year, over one-million people had lost their lives to the virus. It would eventually be considered the single worst pandemic in recorded history since the influenza outbreak of 1918.

In response to logistical problems caused by the virus, Naughty Dog opted to delay the game once more – this time indefinitely. By this point, fans were beginning to lose patience with Naughty Dog. It would seem that the game was not to surface for quite some time. However, an undesirable development forced their hand. In April of 2020, key details of the game’s story were leaked onto the internet. Although it was initially dismissed as a hoax, the leaks were quickly confirmed as the genuine article. Under most circumstances, leaks spoiling major content would cause fans to despair. The emotion these leaks instead inspired was sheer, raw anger – directed at Mr. Druckmann himself. Due to the content of these leaks, many fans swore off buying the game entirely with some going as far as canceling their preordered copy.

A few days after these leaks occurred, Naughty Dog announced the game had gone gold. Discs could now be manufactured for a slated release date of June 19, 2020. Many fans were excited about getting their hands on the game sooner than expected, but it was clear the leaks had taken the wind out of Naughty Dog’s sails. Regardless, the game, simply titled The Last of Us Part II, quickly amassed a level of acclaim rivaling – and in some circles, surpassing – that of the original. Many of them considered it the first true masterpiece of the 2020s. Facing delays, internal problems, and a worldwide pandemic along the road to seeing the light of day, was The Last of Us Part II truly able to surpass the acclaim of the original game and truly tap into the medium’s storytelling potential?

Continue reading

Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back

Although it managed to receive some accolades for setting out into uncharted territory, fans and critics alike would eventually dub Bubsy 3D one of the worst games ever made. Coupled with having to compete with Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 and Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot, the latter of which debuted on the same console as Bubsy 3D, the game had no chance of retaining any kind of long-term appeal. If there was any chance for the series to recover its fleeting relevance, Accolade’s dissolution in September of 2000 completely ruined it.

For the longest time, the series was looked back upon as a curious novelty from the 1990s. It thus came as a surprise when, in June of 2017, a new Bubsy game was announced. Rights to the franchise had been acquired by the Hong Kong company Billionsoft. Developing the installment would be Black Forest Games – a company based in Offenburg, Germany that had previously revived the Giana Sisters series in 2012 to a generally favorable reception.

Although nostalgia for the 1990s arguably saw its peak during the 2010s, the announcement of a new Bubsy game was met with much derision. The creators leaned into the series’ bad reputation, creating a social media account for the character for the purpose of making self-deprecating jokes at his expense. Whatever goodwill this may have generated was lost when the game debuted in October of that year. Although it wasn’t as disliked as Bubsy 3D, critical reviews were almost universally negative. Fans were only slightly more kind to the game, but it clearly wasn’t a hit with them either. How, exactly, did this game manage to invoke so much ire in the press?

Continue reading

The Final Fantasy Legend

In 1987, a struggling game developer named Square released Final Fantasy. It was so named because the team wished for a name that could be shortened to FF. That way, it could be abbreviated in the Latin script and pronounced in four syllables in Japanese. It is also speculated that the name came about due to series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi being in dire straits at the time. Had the game failed, he would have quit the industry entirely and gone back to university. Mr. Sakaguchi himself later stated that these theories, despite having a ring of truth to them, were overblown and any two words beginning with the letter “F” would have worked. In either case, the game proceeded to ship 520,000 copies in Japan. When the company decided to localize the game for North American markets, the company managed to move an additional 700,000 copies. Suddenly, the company that had been struggling to find its voice could now stand tall with the artists from which they drew inspiration.

Two years after the release of Final Fantasy, Nintendo launched the Game Boy console. As it was considered a monochromatic, portable Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), units began flying off of the shelves. Square president Masafumi Miyamoto, seeing a prime opportunity to expand into another section of the market, requested his developers to turn their attention to the Game Boy. Employee Nobuyuki Hoshino came up with the central concepts for this hypothetical game while Akitoshi Kawazu was handed the reins. The success of Tetris and Super Mario Land demonstrated that there was an audience for the portable market, and Mr. Kawazu alongside Koichi Ishii sought to provide the platform with something a little more advanced: a role-playing game.

The project was completed in 1989, seeing its domestic release in December. The game was named Makai Toushi SaGa – or Warrior of the Spirit World Tower: SaGa. It was highly acclaimed by Japanese critics, and it became Square’s first game to sell over one-million copies. The following year would see Final Fantasy becoming a sleeper hit in North America, so to bank off its popularity, SaGa was renamed The Final Fantasy Legend. Although it wasn’t as acclaimed abroad as Final Fantasy, The Final Fantasy Legend did find an audience, and even today, it is considered one of the Game Boy’s hallmarks. As the first role-playing experience for a popular, portable console, how was The Final Fantasy Legend able to craft an identity distinct from that of Final Fantasy?

Continue reading