A Question for the Readers #11: “Well, YOU have a gambling problem!”

What’s better than playing a fun video game? The answer is playing a fun game within a video game. If an arcade or casino exists in a game, you can bet that the programmers took the time to implement several minigames for the player to check out. Sometimes, the staff may be taken aback when players begin dedicating more time to these minigames than the larger one they paid actual money for.

Continue reading

Super Mario World

Introduction

Nintendo’s Family Computer, or Famicom, proceeded to dominate the console market after its 1983 launch. Sega had entered the market, releasing their own 8-bit console, the Master System, to directly compete with Nintendo, but they failed to even slow them down. This began to change in 1987 when NEC Corporation launched the PC Engine – later dubbed the TurboGrafx-16 internationally. The following year, Sega launched the Mega Drive, the 16-bit successor to their Master System. Though Nintendo’s executives were not in a hurry to design a new console, they reconsidered when they observed their market dominance beginning to slip.

It was up to Masayuki Uemura, the designer of the Famicom, to come up with something even greater. Fortunately, his newest creation, the Super Famicom, was ready to go a mere three years after the launch of the PC Engine. It was an immediate success with Nintendo’s initial shipment of 300,000 units selling out in a matter of hours. In fact, it caused such a social disturbance around shopping centers that the Japanese government stepped in, asking developers to only launch consoles on weekends to avoid any future chaos. A few sources even state that this hot commodity managed to capture the attention of the yakuza, leading Nintendo to ship the consoles at night to avoid any potential interceptions.

Naturally, consoles are nothing without their games, and after the success of Super Mario Bros. 3, Takashi Tezuka and Shigeru Miyamoto were determined to have the console make a good first impression on launch day. Joined by graphics designer Shigefumi Hino, they began work on a new Mario installment. The team consisted of ten people, most of whom had experience working on Super Mario Bros. Though Mr. Tezuka was the director once again, the core team said that Mr. Miyamoto wielded the most authority during the development cycle.

The staff members understandably had their reservations about the new hardware, anticipating they would have difficulties working with it. Mr. Tezuka stated that the software tools had not been fully developed. In other words, much like with Super Mario Bros., they found themselves for want of a style guide. As an experiment, they ported Super Mario Bros. 3 to the Super Famicom. They decided it felt like the same game in spite of its improved colors and sprites. Mr. Miyamoto realized then that their new goal was to use this improved hardware to create something entirely new. The game saw the light of day alongside the Super Famicom itself in November of 1990 under the name Super Mario World: Super Mario Bros. 4.

The Super Famicom was slated for a North American release the following year. Keeping consistent with its predecessor’s name, it would become the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES or SNES) overseas. Super Mario World, dropping the Super Mario Bros. 4 subtitle, was to be one of the console’s launch titles abroad as well. Though both Super Mario World and the platform on which it was released proved to be a success, Nintendo found themselves facing a particularly fierce competitor. Sega brought the Mega Drive to North America where it was known as the Genesis. One of their games, Sonic the Hedgehog, ended up being their console’s biggest hit. The hip, cool title character was popular with children and teens, playing up to the era’s zeitgeist.

Not pictured: Maturity

Sega of America didn’t stop at extensively marketing Sonic the Hedgehog. They claimed theirs was the superior console due to it having what they referred to as “blast processing”, and even went as far as outright insulting Nintendo and, by extention, Super Mario World. Thus began one of the fiercest and most famous video game rivalries of its day. As a result of the popularity of Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario World was dismissed in many circles as just another Mario game. Meanwhile, with its fast-paced gameplay, Sonic the Hedgehog was the title to own in 1991.

However, as is the case in many stories like this, the all-seeing, all-knowing power of hindsight granted Super Mario World a new lease on life. Though Sonic the Hedgehog is still considered a classic, Super Mario World is the game people would be more likely to find on a given list detailing the greatest of all time. On top of that, Mr. Miyamoto himself considered Super Mario World his personal favorite Mario game. Having a chance to fully establish its legacy, did Super Mario World manage to ultimately triumph over its flashier competition?

Continue reading

Reel Life #24: First Man, The Hate U Give, and Giant

October seems to have completely defied the trends of the months that preceded it. While I struggled to see more than one film in theaters in both August and September, October has had so many interesting releases that I barely know where to start. This weekend, I managed to see two acclaimed films in theaters: First Man and The Hate U Give. At home, I watched the classic Western film Giant, which is popularly considered one of the best films of the fifties.

Continue reading

King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne

Introduction

After porting King’s Quest to a greater variety of platforms, it quickly became an overnight success for Roberta Williams and Sierra On-Line. It provided a novel take on the adventure game formula. Not only was it played from a third-person perspective, the protagonist had a name and backstory. This was quite a contrast from contemporaries, including Ms. Williams’s first efforts. In the oldest adventure games, protagonists were a little more than a stand-in for the player. In extreme cases, the two characters were one in the same. By going so far off the beaten path, Ms. Williams ensured her work shaped the genre in the coming years.

Shortly after the game’s release in 1984, Ms. Williams began thinking about where the story should go from there. Sir Graham, now King Graham, rules the land and is beloved by his subjects. She then realized he needed a queen to accompany him. Envisioning him starting a family, Ms. Williams would have Graham take the first step towards making it a reality. Joined by two up-and-coming designers named Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, who vowed to make the game an even greater hit than the original, she began work on a sequel. It was released in 1985 under the name King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne. Despite Sierra’s best efforts to make King’s Quest II a killer app for IBM’s PCjr platform alongside its predecessor, it was discontinued the very same year. Much like the original, it became a bestseller once it was ported to a greater variety of platforms such as the Apple IIe, Tandy 1000, and standard PCs. Does this sequel successfully take the series in a brave, new direction?

Continue reading

King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown

Introduction

In 1980, Roberta Williams and her husband, Ken, founded a company named On-Line Systems. Shortly thereafter, they released their first product: Mystery House. This Apple II title stood out from the pioneering Colossal Cave Adventure and all of the adventure games spawned in the wake of its success by featuring graphics. Before that moment, adventure games were like interactive novels – they conveyed stories and plot developments exclusively through text. The idea that one could interact with the environment and see the changes their actions had on it was groundbreaking at the time. As a result, Mystery House ended up selling nearly 80,000 copies worldwide over the next two years. Fueled by her success, Ms. Williams created four more games in the following years for the Apple II platform: Wizard and the Princess, Mission Asteroid, Time Zone, and The Dark Crystal. The last of these was based on the 1982 high fantasy film of the same name directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.

In the midst of these successes in late 1982, the famous computer company IBM contacted On-Line Systems, then known as Sierra On-Line, with an interesting proposal. They were putting the finishing touches on the PCjr home computer.

This new model was to retain the IBM PC’s central processing unit and BIOS Interface, but with an array of improvements, including enhanced graphics, slots for ROM cartridges, joystick ports, and an infrared wireless keyboard. With the opportunity to bring her work to a new platform, Ms. Williams accepted IBM’s proposal.

This new game was to be a departure from any of the ones she had developed for the Apple II computer. While her previous work consisted of static images presented from a first-person perspective, Ms. Williams sought to include animation. In her words, it was to be “the ultimate cartoon – a cartoon [the audience] can participate in”. To this end, programmer Arthur Abraham developed a prototype. Though he wouldn’t remain on the team by the end of the project, this prototype formed the basis for the game’s engine. Ms. Williams and her team of six full-time programmers worked on the game for eighteen months, official releasing it in May of 1984. Its name was King’s Quest.

IBM heavily promoted King’s Quest and their PCjr system, making sure to highlight its realistic animation and variety of sound effects. This made their ultimate decision to discontinue the product less than a year later all the more shocking to Sierra. As a result of the PCjr’s poor reception, King’s Quest itself didn’t sell well. However, Sierra wasn’t about to let their hard work go to waste. Using the development system, they were able to port the game to the Tandy 1000, the Apple IIe, and standard PCs. With King’s Quest widely accessible, it quickly became a bestseller. To historians, Mystery House provided the blueprints for the adventure game formula while King’s Quest perfected it. Does it still hold up as one of the greatest adventure games of all time?

Continue reading

September 2018 in Summary: Super Mario Bros. Month is Complete!

September of 2018 ended up being quite a productive month for me. I managed to make up for that one week in which I didn’t post any reviews (due to my piece on Breath of the Wild going on for over 10,000 words) by posting my reviews of Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3 within the same week. Even better, thanks to having recently written two reviews rather quickly, I am now one week ahead. That is, during a given week, I will be working on next week’s review. This is helpful because it means I won’t feel the need to rush these reviews as long as I stay on schedule. I’m also proud to announce that I have now written over 200 posts on this site!

Continue reading

Nerves of Steel

Introduction

In 1993, a company named Rainmaker Software released their inaugural title: Isle of the Dead. It was released around the same time as id Software’s Doom. As both it and their previous effort, Wolfenstein 3D, codified the first-person shooter in the minds of gaming enthusiasts, Isle of the Dead was left to fall by the wayside. Computer Game Review magazine claimed it to be “the best knock-off of Wolfenstein 3D that anyone has created” – a quote proudly emblazoned on one of the boxes. Actually playing Isle of the Dead revealed it to be a less-than-satisfactory product, combining the worst aspects of early adventure games and pioneering first-person shooters. It is considered by the few who played it to be one of the worst games of the nineties.

Even with this setback, Rainmaker Software was not ready to throw in the towel. Two years after the release of Isle of the Dead, Rainmaker Software finished their sophomore effort: Nerves of Steel. Isle of the Dead fell into obscurity shortly after its release while Nerves of Steel immediately became a practical nonentity in the history books. Due to its poor commercial performance, Rainmaker Software ended up dissolving shortly thereafter. Could Nerves of Steel be considered an improvement over Isle of the Dead – for whatever that is worth? Continue reading

Sin and Punishment

Introduction

In 1993, the Japanese developer Treasure made a name for themselves with their inaugural title, Gunstar Heroes. From there, they created many more games for Sega’s consoles such as Dynamite Headdy, Alien Solider, and Guardian Heroes, which would become beloved cult classics. After the release of Guardian Heroes in 1996, Treasure began making games for various platforms. Mischief Makers marked their first appearance on a Nintendo console, having been released in 1997 for the Nintendo 64. Around this time, Treasure wrote a proposal and submitted it to Nintendo.

They were inspired by the Nintendo 64’s decidedly abnormal controller. Nintendo themselves suggested two ways of holding the controller. The player’s left hand would grip the center or left handle in order to reach the control stick or control pad respectively. Due to the success of Super Mario 64, which effected the medium’s 3D revolution, gripping the center handle became the standard. This is because the control stick, being able to register precise, subtle movements, proved ideal for 3D gameplay. The control pad, on the other hand, was better suited for 2D gameplay. However, because a majority of the medium’s big-name franchises began experimenting with 3D gameplay, the Nintendo 64’s control pad was underutilized more often than not. Masato Maegawa, the president of Treasure, took note of this and began discussing ways with which to incorporate the left positioning. Thus, Treasure teamed up with Nintendo’s first Research and Development branch to create a new action game.

The team behind this hypothetical game started off as a skeleton crew, consisting of two programmers and two designers. By the end, more people were on this team than in any of Treasure’s previous projects. The lead programmer Atsumoto Nakagawa and enemy designer Yasushi Suzuki previously had roles developing the shoot ‘em up Radiant Silvergun. As this game was to be their first attempt at a true 3D action title, they were about to explore uncharted territory. Treasure believed the console’s graphics card lent a more robust 3D presentation than that of their rivals. They had made it part of their creed to push the limits of the hardware, but understandably ran into multiple difficulties with the Nintendo 64.

Because the two companies had wildly different design philosophies, the development of this game wound up being slightly tumultuous. Hitoshi Yamaguchi was placed in charge of Nintendo’s half of development. He described Treasure as a weird company. His attempts at establishing deadlines for the Treasure team often led to them deflecting the requests. To make matters worse, when Mr. Yamaguchi played an early prototype, he declared it to be too difficult – even though he was impressed with it on a technical level. Treasure responded by saying that if he wasn’t skilled enough to play the game, he had no business supervising its production. Mr. Yamaguchi understood that Treasure took pride in making difficult games, but still insisted they tone it down. These negotiations continued for roughly a year before Treasure relented and lowered the game’s difficulty level.

The working title for this game was Glass Soldier. This was to metaphorically reflect the fragility of the main character. As the proposed title consisted of two English words, it was spelled out in the katakana writing system. However, because many game titles ended up being written in katakana during this era, Mr. Yamaguchi suggested creating a new title written in kanji instead. Rare’s spiritual successor to their hit first-person shooter Goldeneye was in development at the time. Domestically, it was to be known as Perfect Dark, but in Japan, it had a different title: Aka to KuroRed and Black. Taking cues from this naming convention, Mr. Yamaguchi thought up of a new title: Tsumi to BatsuSin and Punishment. Believing the name would be too obscure, he then asked the younger staff members for a subtitle. They, in turn, came up with Earth Successor. Though Treasure did not like this name change, they warmed up to it.

Compared to its contemporaries, Sin and Punishment took an unusually long time to be developed. The cycle began in 1997 and wouldn’t see the light of day until the end of 2000. By this time, Nintendo was putting the finishing touches on the Nintendo GameCube, the Nintendo 64’s successor. Nonetheless, Satoru Iwata remarked that Treasure accomplished a lot with a relatively small team. Targeting older gamers, Sin and Punishment sold a modest 100,000 copies. Featuring English voice acting, Sin and Punishment was geared toward North American enthusiasts. However, because the Nintendo 64 was at the end of its lifecycle, these plans did not come to pass. Despite this, the few Western critics who managed to import the game praised it, believing it to be one of the most ambitious titles on the console. Like many of Treasure’s works, Sin and Punishment grew a cult following among Western gamers. They believed it to be one of the best Nintendo 64 games that never saw localization. Even so, with its lack of international availability, it was doomed to fall into obscurity.

Fortunately, hope was not lost. In 2006, Nintendo launched the Wii, their main platform in the seventh console generation and successor to the GameCube. Among its many features was the Virtual Console, a service that allowed players to digitally download classic games from Nintendo’s past platforms. When the service was announced, Sin and Punishment became one of the most demanded titles. Nintendo obliged, and Sin and Punishment was finally released in North America and PAL regions in late 2007. With the sheer amount of enthusiasm leading up to its international debut, was Sin and Punishment worth the seven-year wait?

Continue reading