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?

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Altered Beast

Sega’s third-generation console, the Sega Master System, was released in 1985 to compete with Nintendo’s Family Computer (Famicom). Although it didn’t come close to dethroning Nintendo’s juggernaut console, it is estimated to have sold over ten-million units worldwide. It became especially popular in Europe and Brazil where the Famicom – known abroad as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) – didn’t have as much presence due to a less extensive marketing campaign in those regions on the developer’s part. Regardless, Sega realized that they needed to do something drastic in order to stand even a small chance of capturing Nintendo’s market share – especially after NEC entered the business and released the PC Engine.

Sega’s console research and development team, led by Masami Ishikawa, began work on a successor to the Master System almost immediately after its launch. They faced two especially daunting opponents: one that had a majority of the market share and the other rapidly gaining a lot of domestic popularity. Therefore, they decided to integrate a 16-bit microprocessor into this new system. The company had experienced a lot of success in the arcade scene, so Mr. Ishikawa and his team adapted the Sega System 16 arcade board, retooling it for a home console. Through shrewd negotiations, the team was able to procure a Motorola 68000 to use as the system’s central processing unit in exchange for an upfront volume order. The team originally wanted to call the console the Mark V, keeping consistent with the naming convention the company had been using up until that point. However, the management wanted a stronger name, so after going through nearly 300 proposals, they dubbed it the “Mega Drive”.

In contrast to the Famicom, which was primarily aimed at children, they sought a mature look for their console in order to advertise it to all ages. To accomplish this, the console’s design was inspired by audiophile equipment and automobiles. That way, when placed side-by-side with a Walkman or a CD player, it would blend right in. To demonstrate the significant technological leap compared to the Master System, the words “16-BIT” were proudly emblazoned upon the console’s surface.

The console was first announced in the June 1988 issue of Beep! magazine. It would see its domestic release the following October before launching in North America in 1989. From there, it would see releases in South Korea, PAL regions, and Brazil in 1990. It was known as the Mega Drive abroad but would be renamed the Genesis in North America. The exact reason for this name change is unknown, though some speculate it may have been a result of a trademark dispute. Much like how Nintendo made Super Mario Bros. a worldwide phenomenon by bundling it with every NES unit sold, Sega knew they needed to follow suit – and they had the perfect game for the task.

A developer by the name of Makoto Uchida had recently created a new arcade game on Sega’s behalf. It was known as Beast King’s Chronicle domestically and Altered Beast abroad. Mr. Uchida felt nervous, as it was the first game he developed, but to everyone’s surprise, Altered Beast became a hit – especially after it had been released overseas. As the System 16 arcade board served as the basis for the Sega Genesis’s hardware and the game proved to be a hit, it was the ideal choice for the developer to port to their newest console. It was ported to nearly every active platform at the time, including the Famicom ironically enough, yet the Genesis port would be the main point of pride for the company, who claimed it to be a perfect conversion. To this day, the game is considered a hallmark of both Sega’s arcade lineup and the Genesis’s library. In the face of fierce competition, was Sega able to make a grand entrance in the fourth generation of consoles?

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Final Fantasy Mystic Quest

By 1987, a game developer named Square was on the verge of bankruptcy. Knowing that their next project could potentially sink the company, they decided to take inspiration from Yuji Horii’s landmark Dragon Quest and create a turn-based role-playing game. In a bit of gallows humor, they named this game Final Fantasy. The name turned out to be highly ironic when it proved to be a resounding domestic success. This encouraged the company to try to have the game localized. To their surprise, the game sold even more copies in the West than it did in its native homeland. Because contemporary role-playing experiences were primarily found on personal computer platforms, Final Fantasy ended up being a gateway into the genre for those limited to home consoles. With at least two major RPG series proving to be successful, many other developers joined in, causing the genre to enter a golden age.

However, even with the success of Final Fantasy, console-based RPGs were still a niche market in North America by the early-1990s. It was ambiguous as to exactly why many of these games failed to find a large audience. North America already had a thriving role-playing scene by the time Dragon Quest was released there, making Mr. Horii’s effort, which greatly simplified the genre, seem redundant. It could also be chalked up to a difference in expectations regarding the medium. At the time, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog were some of the most popular video game characters. Both originated from series that placed a greater emphasis on gameplay over story. Because of this, slow-paced, story-focused experiences didn’t fit what Western consumers expected out of console games. Square’s executives, on the other hand, came down to a different conclusion. They cited their games’ high difficulty as a reason why Westerners shied away from them. Among other things, this caused the difficulty of Final Fantasy IV to be lowered.

Nonetheless, the success of the original Final Fantasy proved that there did exist a fanbase for these kinds of games in the West. In an attempt to broaden their international market, Square greenlit a project specifically designed for Western gamers. The game was released under the name Final Fantasy Mystic Quest in Western regions – first in North America in 1992 and Europe in a year later. It would see a domestic release in September of 1993 with the slightly altered title Final Fantasy USA: Mystic Quest. Square would later reveal that the game sold 800,000 units, though roughly half of them were domestic sales. With neither side of the Pacific being especially enthusiastic about the game, it would appear to have been a resounding failure. Would it have been capable of selling newcomers on the genre?

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Sonic the Fighters

In the year 1993, a game named Virtua Fighter debuted in arcades worldwide. Created by Yu Suzuki, a member of Sega’s second arcade game development division (Sega AM2), Virtua Fighter became a gigantic success – both commercially and critically. What particularly stood out was its presentation. Whereas many pioneering fighting games used two-dimensional sprites to depict its characters, Virtua Fighter featured three-dimensional polygon graphics. For braving the world of 3D gaming a before it became the standard and offering a level of complexity few contemporaries possessed, Virtua Fighter continues to be praised to this very day with some calling it one of the most influential titles of all time.

During this time, Sega was experiencing a lot of success in the home console market as well. Their 1991 breakout title, Sonic the Hedgehog, gave them a character capable of standing on even ground with Nintendo’s own mascot Mario. With Sonic as Sega’s mascot, the company sought to give him spinoff titles to demonstrate the character’s versatility as well as capitalize on the character’s popularity. Yu Suzuki once spotted one of his subordinates having created a model of Sonic during the creation of another fighting game entitled Fighting Vipers. This gave Mr. Suzuki the idea for a Sonic the Hedgehog fighting game, which he presented to Hiroshi Kataoka – a fellow head of the division. This, in turn, caused Mr. Kataoka to approach Yuji Naka, the leader of Sonic Team with the idea. Although Mr. Naka expressed concern that Sonic couldn’t fight given his large head and short arms, he was won over by the polygon animations provided by Mr. Suzuki’s team.

With Sonic Team’s approval, Mr. Suzuki and the rest of AM2 began developing a fighting game for Sega’s blue hedgehog. The result, Sonic the Fighters, was released to domestic arcades in June of 1996 before appearing in North America a month later under the name Sonic Championship. However, despite starring a popular character, the game quickly fell into obscurity due to its limited release in the West. It wouldn’t be until 2005 that the game received a greater amount of attention. In that year, Sega released a compilation dubbed Sonic Gems Collection, which most notably included Sonic the Hedgehog CD – a popular game that was highly difficult to find at the time. Sonic the Fighters also featured on that compilation. Between the release of Sonic the Fighters and Sonic Gems Collection, Nintendo, with the help of HAL Laboratory, conceived a fighting game starring their own mascot named Super Smash Bros. With Sonic having a three-year head start over Mario in this genre, was Sega able to successfully explore new ground?

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Godzilla: Monster of Monsters

In 1954, a Japanese film production company named Toho planned to co-produce a film with Indonesia called In the Shadow of Glory. It was to be about the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. The project came to an end when anti-Japanese sentiment in Indonesia forced the government to deny visas for the filmmakers. A producer by the name of Tomoyuki Tanaka attempted to negotiate with the Indonesian government in Jakarta, but to no avail. On the return flight, Mr. Tanaka conceived an idea for a giant monster film, having been inspired by Eugène Lourié’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Another inspiration was the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon) Incident. It was a fishing boat transporting twenty-three men contaminated by nuclear fallout following the United States’ Castle Bravo thermonuclear weapon test at the Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954.

Mr. Tanaka drafted an outline for the film under the tentative title The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and pitched it to executive producer Iwao Mori. Mr. Mori approved the project one month later after determining the financial feasibility of the project. Once the project was greenlit, Mr. Tanaka wasted no time choosing a director: one Ishirō Honda. Early in development, Mr. Tanaka intended for the monster to be designed after a gorilla or a whale. It was through this contemplation that the creature got its name: Gojira. It combines the Japanese words for gorilla and whale – “gorira” and “kujira” respectively. Another possible origin is that the large stature of one Toho employee caused him to be nicknamed Gojira. Despite the initial plans, Akira Watanabe, the special effects art director, wished to base the monster’s design off of dinosaurs. Much like the title monster of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong, Gojira was intended to be rendered using stop motion animation. However, Mr. Tanaka pointed out that such an undertaking would take seven years to complete. To circumvent this limitation, a large, rubber suit representing the monster was constructed.

The film was released in Nagoya in October of 1954 before receiving a wide, domestic release the following week. In its original form, Gojira received fairly negative reviews. Critics at the time accused the film of being exploitative. As the narrative delivered a clear allegory for the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that occurred just nine years prior, the film opened up fresh wounds. Mr. Honda was particularly distraught, for his crew had worked hard to produce the film. Luckily, his work wasn’t for naught. Gojira was recut and subsequently distributed to the United States under the name Godzilla: King of the Monsters! Once the film made its international debut, Mr. Honda’s film gained a new lease on life. It was a box office success, and ensured the title creature’s place in pop culture worldwide. With a hit on their hands, Toho ended up producing several sequels to Godzilla. Every decade for the remainder of the century would see the debut of multiple Godzilla films, eventually making it the longest-running film franchise in history.

Around two decades after the debut of Godzilla, the world would see the rise of a new artistic medium. This one stood out from any of its predecessors by virtue of letting the audience control the characters within the work. These creations came to be known as video games. With Godzilla being one of the most recognizable film monsters of all time, it didn’t take long for developers to try to secure the license and create their own interpretation. The first such attempt was a 1983 Commodore 64 game, though it quickly fell into obscurity. After the launch of Nintendo’s internationally successful home console, the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System in the West), one developer by the name of Compile saw fit to create a Godzilla game of their own. The fruit of their labors was released domestically in December of 1988 before debuting in North America in 1989 and Europe in 1991. In its native homeland, the game was simply dubbed Godzilla, but fans overseas would know it by the name Godzilla: Monster of Monsters. Was Monster of Monsters able to give one of Japan’s most iconic creations a triumphant debut in a new medium?

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Widget

In 1984, American television producer Peter Keefe launched a show known as Voltron. The show was about five pilots who commanded a robotic lion. When combined, they would form the titular robot. They would use their technology to protect Planet Arus from an evil warlord by the name of King Zarkon. During its three-year run, Voltron became the highest-ranked syndicated children’s show. Creating the show involved cutting pieces of Japanese animated shows such as Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. As a result, Voltron ended up being an unconventional gateway series for Japanese animation – or anime, as it is more commonly known. After the success of Voltron, Mr. Keefe would go on to create other animated series such as Denver the Last Dinosaur and Twinkle the Dream Being.

The year 1990 marked the debut of another one of his animated shows: Widget. The protagonist and title character of this show was a purple extraterrestrial being from a planet within the Horsehead Nebula. Making use of his curious shapeshifting abilities, Widget would team up with a group of young human friends to protect the environment from those who sought to harm it. Because of its themes, the show was often compared to Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle’s Captain Planet and the Planeteers. As a result of its environmentalist themes, Mr. Keefe’s show was recognized by the National Education Association, who recommended it for children. Sometime into the show’s run, a developer in Japan named Graphic Research was commissioned to create a video game tie-in. The fruit of their labor was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1992 – two years after the domestic launch of its successor. Did Widget provide one last classic experience for the aging NES?

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Bubsy II

The year 1993 marked the debut of Bubsy the Bobcat. Released for both the Super NES and Sega Genesis, Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind was seen as the Western equivalent of Sonic the Hedgehog with its hip protagonist and high-speed gameplay. After winning a “Most Hype for a Character of 1993” award from Electronic Gaming Monthly, Bubsy proceeded to garner a fair amount of critical acclaim. Critics were especially fond of its level design, graphics, and the title character having a definable personality. Super NES owners passingly familiar with Sonic the Hedgehog were especially excited about playing Bubsy, for it would be the closest they could come to playing the rival console’s premier game. Even before Bubsy saw its launch, Accolade, the developer behind the game, set their sights high for what they wanted to be their flagship franchise and began drafting ideas for a sequel.

However, production of this game was handled by a different team with no input from creator Michael Berlyn. To make matters worse, this new team was openly hostile to Mr. Berlyn’s character. Accolade had spent beyond their means in order to promote Bubsy, which included creating a pilot for an animated series that was never picked up. They even attempted to reverse engineer Sega’s cartridge copyright protection in order to avoid having to pay any licensing and publishing fees and making Bubsy a console exclusive. Sega ended up suing Accolade, though the judge ruled in the latter’s favor on the grounds that they wrote a majority of the cartridge code themselves and it was intended to be a cross-platform game from the beginning.

As a result of their expenditures, Bubsy nearly bankrupted the company. It paid off in the end when the game sold well, but the damage had been done. The team behind this game freely admitted they hated working on it and that they didn’t care if what they created was a quality product or a complete mess. Such was the extent of this team’s resentment for the character that they would sarcastically repeat Bubsy’s lines to annoy one another. Mr. Berlyn once mentioned that during a visit to their office, the team had even gone as far as stringing up Bubsy dolls from the office ceiling as though they were executing them. Another had been stabbed through the head with a pencil. The sheer apathy that went into this product can even be seen in the game’s title. While the original game’s formed an elaborate pun on a famous film, the sequel was simply named Bubsy II.

Bubsy II saw its release in 1994 for the Sega Genesis and Super NES, before receiving a port for the Game Boy the following year. The public, unaware of the turmoil surrounding its inception, proceeded to give Bubsy II mostly positive reviews. Many outlets claimed that whatever issues plagued the original game were excised in this installment. Did this new team, despite their best efforts, manage to churn out a quality product worthy of standing alongside the greatest 2D platformers of its day?

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Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind

Video game designer Michael Berlyn got his start in the industry as an implementer working for Polarware. The first game of note he worked on was a piece of interactive fiction entitled Oo-Topos. Released in 1981, it was well-received among PC gamers, and he would continue his work on other adventure titles with Polarware before joining Infocom in 1983. Around this time, a company named Accolade was founded in San Jose, California by Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead. They saw their revenues increase with each passing year after releasing several acclaimed games for Amiga, Apple II, and the PC, including Test Drive, HardBall!, Law of the West, and Psi-5 Trading Company. Mr. Berlyn would join this company by 1990, and the first game he designed for them was Altered Destiny. However, it received a fairly lukewarm response, generally passed over in favor of Sierra’s output.

Shortly after this project saw completion, he became burned out on the adventure game genre and wanted to try something new. The answer came in the form of a game Sega had released in June of 1991 in order to compete with Nintendo: Sonic the Hedgehog. With Nintendo having dominated the console gaming industry for the entire third generation, Sega proved a formidable opponent. Sonic the Hedgehog was the embodiment of the era’s zeitgeist. He had a hip attitude and his gameplay was lightning fast compared to the slow, ostensibly out-of-touch Mario. Mr. Berlyn was so impressed with Sega’s game that he ended up playing it fourteen hours a day for a whole week. Already, he was figuring out how he could implement his own take on this game. Within the next few years, Accolade had created the lead character for Mr. Berlyn’s vision: a bobcat named Bubsy.

The game, named Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind, was to be released for both the Sega Genesis and Super NES in 1993. Accolade stopped at nothing to extensively promote their game. Director John Skeel sought to create a game as fast as Sonic the Hedgehog, yet as deep as Super Mario Bros. It would be easy to pick up and play, but difficult to master. He was even intended to be voiced in the game proper. His catchphrase “What could possibly go wrong?” was derived from a quip courtesy of the development team. They even commissioned a pilot for an animated series that aired later in the year, though the show was never picked up for any further episodes.

Nonetheless, as a result of Accolade’s marketing campaign, anticipation for Bubsy reached a fever pitch. The character even won a “Most Hype for a Character of 1993” award in the publication Electronic Gaming Monthly. When Bubsy was released, it received positive reviews from nearly every review outlet at the time. Though not as popular as Sonic the Hedgehog, critics enjoyed the level design, graphics, and the sheer amount of personality possessed by the title character. It was especially enjoyed by those who had a Super NES, as for it would be the closest they could get to playing Sonic the Hedgehog themselves without a Sega Genesis. In an era that saw no shortage of quality 2D platformers, does Bubsy stand to this day as a pinnacle of the genre?

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Zombie Nation

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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