Donkey Kong 64

Donkey Kong 64

With the last installment seeing its release in 1996, Rare’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy served as both the pinnacle of 2D platforming and its swansong. During that time, Super Mario 64 was released as a launch title for the Nintendo 64. As the first successful fully three-dimensional platformer, it changed the direction of AAA gaming forever. While it is speculated that Nintendo’s landmark title may have resulted in Donkey Kong Country 3 enjoying less critical favor than its two predecessors, it was a success in its own right. Even so, Super Mario 64 made it clear that 3D was in, and it only made sense to adapt Donkey Kong Country to the new rubric. Gregg Mayles, who had served as the lead designer for Donkey Kong Country and its first sequel, led the effort to turn this possibility into a reality.

Development of this game began in 1997. It was originally slated to be released on Nintendo’s proposed 64DD (DD being short for “Disk Drive” or “Dynamic Drive”). The 64DD was intended to be a peripheral for the Nintendo 64 capable of reading magnetic disks and acting as an enabling technology platform for the development of new applications. It even boasted dialup connectivity in an age when the idea of connecting home consoles to the internet was in its infancy. However, development moved to the base console when the 64DD was delayed numerous times before being cancelled outright for international markets.

In the meantime, Mr. Mayles had acted as the lead designer and co-director of Banjo-Kazooie, which would become Rare’s first 3D platformer. Following the trail Super Mario 64 blazed, that game demonstrated Rare’s aptitude in platforming after dabbling in other genres with Blast Corps, Goldeneye 007, and Diddy Kong Racing – not a mean feat given the sheer number of developers who failed to adapt to these uncharted waters. Demonstrating they were every bit Nintendo’s equals in terms of 3D platforming, fans eagerly awaited a new Donkey Kong game more than ever – and that is exactly what Mr. Mayles and his team intended to give them.

With many developers transitioning from the Banjo-Kazooie team, they were determined to bring Donkey Kong into the third dimension. In fact, the game was so ambitious that the team allegedly ran into memory problems while programming it.

Expansion Pak

According to programmer Chris Marlow, a bug which caused the game to freeze after playing it for a significant length of time arose during development. It couldn’t be resolved without using the Nintendo 64’s Expansion Pak – an upgrade that provided an extra four megabytes of RAM (random-access memory). However, his story was disputed by artist Mark Stevenson. While such a bug did exist, according to Mr. Stevenson, the Expansion Pak wasn’t the solution to that problem. Regardless, Rare, at a great expense, made the decision to bundle each copy of the game with the memory upgrade.

Despite this setback, development of the game proceeded smoothly, and the project was completed in 1999. Keeping in line with the Nintendo 64 branding, the game was named Donkey Kong 64. Like Banjo-Kazooie, the game was met with a warm critical reception, being considered the single most ambitious title on the Nintendo 64 at the time. Review outlet IGN took note of the sheer amount of content and dubbed Donkey Kong 64 Rare’s War and Peace. With these sentiments having been expressed just one year after the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, can Donkey Kong 64 truly be considered one of the platform’s all-time greats?

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Mega Man 7

Mega Man 7

Having ended its run with a severe case of creative burnout, the Mega Man series received a new lease on life when Mega Man X debuted in December of 1993. A distant sequel to the original set of games, Mega Man X had a noticeably darker tone than any entry in what enthusiasts would retroactively dub the classic series. Combined with fast-paced, exploratory gameplay and a plethora of new mechanics, Capcom had yet another hit on their hands. With the release of its own sequel, Mega Man X2, the following year, an entire new series for Capcom’s signature franchise was confirmed.

Although Mega Man X was well received, fans of the classic series were a little worried. It was clear Capcom had struck gold with Mega Man X, so a sequel seemed inevitable. This caused fans of the NES games to worry if the classic series was effectively over. These worries were eventually assuaged when Capcom announced the development of Mega Man 7. Yes, for those put off by the dark tone of Mega Man X, this game would be a compromise, ignoring the new direction while still letting it develop and finding a way to revisit the series’ roots at the same time. In fact, such was the zeal for a continuation of the classic series that when Capcom revealed they did not intend to release Mega Man 7 despite having finished an English translation, the overwhelmingly negative reaction made them rethink their plans.

Timing and scheduling conflicts ensured a fairly difficult development cycle. Despite bringing the series to a new platform, the team had only three months to complete the game. Despite these setbacks both primary artist Keiji Inafune and Director Yoshihisa Tsuda felt the experience to be a lot of fun. The latter compared it to being part of a sports team camp, although he wished he and his team had another month or so to work on it. Regardless, the game was completed and eventually released domestically in March of 1995 under the name Rockman 7: Showdown of Destiny! Thanks to the efforts of Western fans, the game saw a release in North America and Europe later that year, renamed Mega Man 7 – the subtitle removed once again. In the wake of Mega Man X, what does the continuation of the classic series have to offer?

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Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy – Episode Five: The Armageddon Machine

Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy – Episode Five - The Armageddon Machine

Programmed in but a single month, the fifth official episode in the Commander Keen series, The Armageddon Machine, was released on the same day as its immediate predecessor as part of the Goodbye, Galaxy duology. Does this installment allow the duology to end on a high note?

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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?

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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 Druckmann 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.

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?

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Mega Man 4

Mega Man 3 was highly regarded upon its 1990 release. Unbeknownst to the people who bought it, however, the project had to overcome myriad roadblocks in order to see the light of day. Director Akira Kitamura had left Capcom and would later quit making games entirely while his replacement, Masayoshi Kurokawa, frequently clashed with the team, causing him to leave the project halfway through. This resulted in artist Keiji Inafune taking up the reins, forcing him to compile their work in a very short amount of time. Consequently, many ideas were left on the cutting room floor. For example, the team expressed the desire to replace the famous stage select system in favor of a linear level progression or take inspiration from Super Mario Bros. 3, which had been recently released, and implement a map system. Both ideas were shot down by Capcom executives. While Mega Man 3 remains a beloved classic, it does bear signs of its taxing production cycle for those who dig beneath the surface.

Although Mega Man 3 could have been considered a grand finale for the series, Capcom realized that the title character was their answer to Mario. With a formula that lent itself well to sequels, a fourth installment was an inevitability. Production of Mega Man 4 went much more smoothly according to Mr. Inafune, who worked as one of the three designers for this game. As a result, he and his fellow staff members often held this game in higher regard than its direct predecessor. The game was released domestically in December of 1991 as Rockman 4: A New Evil Ambition!! before abridging the title abroad to Mega Man 4 a month later. Mega Man 4 is notable for being the first installment in the series released after the debut of Nintendo’s Super Famicom console in November of 1990. Was Capcom able to give those who hadn’t yet adopted the new platform an experience worthy of its acclaimed predecessors?

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Tacoma

The year 2013 marked the debut of Gone Home – the inaugural project of The Fullbright Company. The team, based in Portland, Oregon, was founded by one Steve Gaynor, who began his work in the industry as a tester for Sony and Perpetual Entertainment before designing stages for BioShock 2. Gone Home was a resounding critical success. The most notable piece of praise it received was from Polygon when critic Danielle Riendeau awarded it a perfect, ten-point score, calling it a “quiet triumph in storytelling”. Despite its universal critical acclaim, Gone Home struggled to find an audience outside of its proponents due to its short length and lack of gameplay.

Despite its overall mixed reception, Fullbright would use their success to fund their next project. Keeping true to their Pacific Northwest roots, they conceived a story taking place in a home in Tacoma, Washington. However, they backpedaled from this idea when they felt it to be too similar to Gone Home. While Gone Home sold itself as a slice-of-life story told within a video game, their next product would incorporate science fiction elements by being set in a space station. The team would name their game Tacoma as a nod to its original setting.

Tacoma was originally announced at The Game Awards in December of 2014, though it wouldn’t see its release until August of 2017 due to their playtesters’ feedback. Released across various platforms, Tacoma received favorable reviews. Eurogamer notably ranked it twenty-second on their list of the best games of 2017. Despite its favorable reception, Tacoma went on to sell fewer copies than Gone Home. Mr. Gaynor himself attributed its modest performance on the sheer number of games released in 2017, believing by that it was harder for indie titles to break out into the mainstream by then. Regardless of the exact reason, they realized Tacoma wasn’t the success story on the same level of Gone Home. Was it truly a step down from their thunderous debut?

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New Super Mario Bros.

When Nintendo launched their handheld, dual-screened DS console in 2004, it quickly became a hot commodity. To showcase the machine’s technical capabilities, one of the system’s launch titles was a remake of Super Mario 64. Its debut in 1996 permanently changed the landscape of the medium, being the first successful, fully three-dimensional platforming game. However, there was the unspoken caveat that experiences like Super Mario 64 could only ever be experienced from the comfort of one’s home. The idea of being able to bring a game that advanced on vacation was thought of as rather ludicrous in 1996, yet just eight years later, such a reality came to pass. In fact, this remake, Super Mario 64 DS, looked better in many ways than the original version. Coupled with minigames that took full advantage of the system’s signature touch screen, and the DS was able to sell by the millions.

However, by the mid-2000s, the Mario franchise had a strange relationship with Nintendo’s handheld consoles. While mainline games had sparse releases on Nintendo’s home console, only having one entry per generation starting with Super Mario World, Super Mario Land: 6 Golden Coins would be the final installment of the 1990s to feature the side-scrolling gameplay that made the series famous in the first place. While the Game Boy Advance seemed like a prime opportunity to allow the Mario series to revisit its roots, its representation was limited to remakes and spinoffs. The Super Mario Advance series in particular was solely composed of ports. Discounting a few new extra stages being offered within these ports, it seemed as though the Mario franchise had truly moved on from its pioneering installments.

This changed shortly after the launch of the DS when Nintendo announced a new project by the name of New Super Mario Bros. As its title and teaser screenshots suggested, this game was to recapture the spirit of the series’ side-scrolling installments – albeit with a three-dimensional twist, using character models from Super Mario 64 DS. The game eventually saw its initial debut overseas in North America in May of 2006 before being released ten days later domestically. It then launched in Australia and Europe the following June. Just like the title it was named after, New Super Mario Bros. quickly became one of the best-selling games of all time, moving over thirty-million copies worldwide. Critics and fans alike had nothing but praise for the game, citing it as one of the console’s highlights. Did New Super Mario Bros. successfully recapture the aspects that allowed its predecessors to remain all-time classics?

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Pilotwings

With their Family Computer (Famicom), Nintendo proceeded to dominate the market throughout the entirety of the third console generation. The console proved to be such a success, it managed to revitalize the North American gaming industry after it crashed in 1983. Dubbed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) aboard, the console was responsible for injecting gaming into the mainstream. However, during the life of the Famicom, Nintendo gained two new rivals. First, NEC Corporation launched the PC Engine – internationally known as the TurboGrafx-16 – in 1987. Shortly thereafter in 1988, Sega launched the Mega Drive – rebranded the Genesis in North America. Although its launch titles had difficulties standing out from the competition, it was clearly a piece of technology superior to the Famicom with a graphical presentation that emulated arcade games in the latter half of the 1980s.

Masayuki Uemura, the Famicom’s designer, realized he needed to come up with something to surpass his lauded invention to ensure his company remained relevant, and thus made it so. In 1990, the Famicom’s successor, the Super Famicom, was launched. Nintendo realized it wouldn’t be enough to just continue their big-name franchises on this new platform. If consumers were under the impression the Super Famicom offered only a superior graphical presentation, they likely wouldn’t have been interested in purchasing it. They needed something to prove that the console was to offer experiences simply not possible on the aging Famicom software.

To this end, Nintendo formed a team consisting of various members of the Research and Development divisions. The team was named Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development (Nintendo EAD). Under the leadership of producer Shigeru Miyamoto, the team created three games within fifteen months of the Super Famicom’s inception. One was Super Mario World – the official sequel to the universally praised Super Mario Bros. 3. The second was F-Zero, a fast-paced racing game. The last of these games, however, would be something the medium had seen only a few times by 1990: a flight simulator. Named Pilotwings, this game was released one month after the Super Famicom’s launch. The console then proceeded to debut in North America the following year where it was renamed the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES). Pilotwings was highly regarded upon release and is still considered one of the console’s premier titles in retrospectives. How was it able to grab the attention of consumers and critics alike back in 1990?

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Wonder Boy in Monster Land

Escape’s debut game, Wonder Boy, became a hit when it was released in arcades in 1986. Because the publisher, Sega, only had rights over the Wonder Boy trademark, the company entered a partnership with Hudson Soft to have it released on the Famicom – or the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as it was known abroad. Wonder Boy, retooled into Adventure Island, would go on to be a beloved classic in the NES’s library as well. As a result, the game managed to find a broad audience, being one of the few titles legally available on both a Nintendo and a Sega console. With this success, two members of Escape, Ryuchi Nishizawa and Michishito Ishizuka, began work on a follow-up. To mark the momentous occasion of having released Wonder Boy, they changed the company’s name to Westone, believing the name Escape made them sound unreliable. Westone is derived from the first kanji in these two artists’ names – “Nishi” meaning “west” and “Ishi” meaning “stone”.

In the same year in which Wonder Boy saw its release, a skilled programmer named Yuji Horii put the finishing touches on a game known as Dragon Quest. This title was a massive success upon release, introducing countless Japanese enthusiasts to the role-playing game. One person who took note of this game’s popularity and its subsequent impact on Japanese enthusiasts was none other than Mr. Nishizawa. Drawing upon his experience, he sought to create a game that combined arcade and role-playing elements.

The result of this experimentation, Wonder Boy: Monster World, was released in arcades in August of 1987. Although the original arcade version never left Japan, it received a port on the Sega Master System in 1988. This port, which was redubbed Wonder Boy in Monster Land overseas, is frequently considered one of the stronger games in the Master System library. Similar to the case with the original Wonder Boy and Adventure Island, it also saw retooled ports on the PC Engine and the Famicom under the names Bikkuriman and Saiyūki World respectively. Bikkuriman was based off of a 1980s franchise centered on sticker collecting. Saiyūki World, published by Jaleco, was inspired by the classic Chinese tale Journey to the West in which players assumed the role of the monkey king Sun Wukong – or Son Gokū in Japanese – on a quest to save his country. Of these various ports and retools, only the Master System version saw the light of day in the West. Did Mr. Nishizawa successfully use the increasingly popular role-playing genre to give Wonder Boy a worthy sequel?

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