April 2020 in Summary: The Exterminating Red Metal

Also known as the one in which Naughty Dog lost the plot – literally. I won’t go into further detail because I don’t wish to spoil it for those interested, and I insist on not judging a work until I experience it regardless of how much the odds are against it. Seriously, if you are interested in playing The Last of Us: Part II, try to refrain from using social media until it’s released next month.

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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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A Rebuttal to James Whitbrook: Our Fascination With Canon Is Not Killing the Way We Value Stories

On April 1, 2020, a news editor by the name of James Whitbrook wrote an article for Gizmodo entitled “Our Fascination With Canon Is Killing the Way We Value Stories”. His central argument being made clear in the title, he claims that with pop culture being dominated by large franchises featuring interconnected stories, the fanbase’s love of stories is morphing into what he calls an archival competition. He then laments that critics and fans alike don’t discuss the underlying themes of a given work, but rather melt down the base components to what he calls “pure, unflinching facts”.

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Dear Esther

Introduction

In the mid-2000s, a professor and lecturer from the University of Portsmouth named Dan Pinchbeck had an idea for an experimental video game. Creating mods using Valve Software’s Source engine became a favorite pastime of many PC enthusiasts at the time – Mr. Pinchbeck included. He then realized he needed someone to score the game. For this task, he turned to his wife, Jessica Curry. Ms. Curry had earned a Bachelor of Arts for English Literature and Language at the University College London in 1994; her postgraduate work saw her earn a diploma in Screen Music from the National Film and Television School. Using her experience, she was more than happy to help her husband with his project. Thus, in 2007, the couple founded their very own independent game studio they dubbed The Chinese Room – named after the famous thought experiment devised by philosopher John Searle in his work “Minds, Brains, and Programs”.

Being a research project at the university, it received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Mr. Pinchbeck conceived the script, citing the works of William S. Burroughs as an inspiration. He sought to capture a poetic use of language while drafting the script, contrasting the descriptive tone typically found in the medium. The game, entitled Dear Esther, was originally released as a free mod in 2008. It was later selected for the Animation Exhibition at the Prix Ars Electronica. There, the website Mod DB selected it as one of the best mods of the year, placing it on their top 100 list. The following year, Dear Esther won the award for Best World/Story award at the IndieCade festival.

Like many successful mods, Dear Esther went on to receive a commercial release. This Landmark Edition was released in 2012 on the digital distribution platform Steam. An artist of renown within the independent circuit named Robert Briscoe had the honors of completely redeveloping Dear Esther from the ground up. As the original mod, though praised, was also criticized for baring numerous glitches and a poor level design, Mr. Pinchbeck gave Mr. Briscoe his full blessings for the redesign. As a standalone release, Dear Esther received positive reviews overall. When the original mod was created, the independent gaming scene had started gaining traction. Even now, it is considered one of the scene’s early hallmarks. How, exactly, did it capture such a profound amount of critical attention?

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Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)

Three years ago, a meteor landed on a coastline in the United States. Ever since that day, a strange disturbance known as the Shimmer appeared. In response, many expeditions have been carried out by the army, though only one person has ever returned from them: a man named Kane. Upon returning, he reunites with his wife, Lena, but is unusually evasive when asked what happened during his expedition. Shortly thereafter, his health begins to deteriorate and is quickly hospitalized. With Kane in intensive care, Lena is approached by Dr. Ventress. She is prepared to go on a new expedition into the Shimmer. Determined to learn what happened to Kane, Lena volunteers to join her.

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March 2020 in Summary: Silent World

I hope you’re all doing well out there in the face of this daunting pandemic. To think that nearly one-hundred years after the infamous influenza outbreak of 1918, we’d have another one our hands. Isolation won’t be easy but doing so will pay off in the long term, so remember to take care of yourself.

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Mystery Blogger Award from Ospreyshire

Well, once again, I find myself tagged with a Mystery Blogger Award – this time, courtesy of Ospreyshire. Outside of video games, you don’t see many creative types who actually acknowledge international efforts these days, so I’d say his is a blog worth following. He asked five questions from me, so let’s dive right in.

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Mega Man 4

Introduction

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

Introduction

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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