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

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?

Continue reading

Mega Man 2

Introduction

The year 1987 marked the debut of Mega Man. The brainchild of Capcom members Akira Kitamura and Keiji Inafune, Mega Man was to be among the developer’s first original games for Nintendo’s highly popular Famicom console – known as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) abroad. The game, made in a few months by a group consisting of six people, proved to be fairly popular. It sold well enough domestically to have been considered a sleeper hit, yet flopped in the West partially as a result of a hasty, borderline nonexistent marketing campaign. Despite its mixed reception, Mr. Kitamura wanted to make a sequel, seeing further potential in what they created. These aspirations came to a stop when he was overruled by producer Tokuro Fujiwara. In response, the director then went to Capcom’s Vice President to get permission to make the game. The executives permitted Mr. Kitamura and his team to work on a sequel under one condition: they had to work concurrently on other projects as well.

Shortly thereafter, the project supervisor invited Mr. Inafune back to the new project. The artist had been working on a separate game at the time, but agreed to help. According to him, the development team willingly worked twenty-hour days to see this project through. He and his fellow staff members would spend their own time on the project to improve the gameplay established in their original effort. His second year working at Capcom, in his own words, “opened up a whole new world of stress for [him]” as he became far more involved with the sequel’s production and even got to mentor a new employee. Despite this, he would later describe it as his best time with Capcom because they were working towards a common goal and made something they truly cared about.

A few months later, Mr. Kitamura’s team completed the project. In Japan, the end product was released in December of 1988 under the name Rockman 2: The Mystery of Dr. Wily. While the original game was, at best, a modest hit, the sequel proved to be an overwhelming success. Still deciding to give the Western market a chance, Capcom had the game localized and released in the United States in June of 1989 retitled and abridged to Mega Man 2. To their surprise, the game was a hit abroad as well. Its international success and critical acclaim allowed Mega Man to become Capcom’s flagship series overnight. Even to this day, Mega Man 2 is considered one of the greatest games ever made as well as the standard to which a sequel should strive to achieve. How exactly was a sequel to a game many considered middle-of-the-road able to give its title character a new lease on life?

Continue reading

Mega Man

Introduction

In the year 1987, a graduate from the Osaka Designers’ College by the name of Keiji Inafune received a degree in graphic design. During this decade, a new form of entertainment was quickly gaining popularity. Known as TV games in Japan and video games in the West, this medium distinguished itself from others by allowing the audience to be a part of the experience. Twenty-two at the time, Mr. Inafune sought a job in this booming new field – hopefully as an illustrator. He originally wanted to join the prolific developer Konami, but there was another one much closer to his place of residence: Capcom. For one of his first assignments, Mr. Inafune was placed on a team led by Takashi Nishiyama. The result, released in the same year he graduated, was Street Fighter – one of the first fighting games to achieve mainstream success.

Capcom had a lot of success in the arcade scene throughout the 1980s. When Nintendo’s Family Computer (Famicom) was released in 1983, Capcom began porting their more well-known arcade games to the platform. Although the graphical capabilities of the Famicom – called the NES abroad – weren’t nearly as advanced as the most prominent arcade titles at the time, players found themselves drawn to the ports. The idea of being able to play even a downgraded version of an arcade game in the comfort of one’s home was highly enticing. Although the ports sold well, Capcom eventually wanted to develop something specifically for the Japanese home console market. To this end, they decided to recruit fresh, young talent for a new team.

Among the recruits was Keiji Inafune. He found himself on a team of five other people. Leading this team was Akira Kitamura, who mentored the newcomer throughout the development process. To design a protagonist for this game, Mr. Inafune drew inspiration from Astro Boy – the eponymous protagonist of Osamu Tezuka’s landmark manga series. In fact, the game was originally intended to be an adaptation of Astro Boy, but the team ended up with a creation of their own. Before Mr. Inafune had joined the project, Mr. Kitamura developed a basic character concept for this game’s protagonist. After a few illustrations, they ended up with a humanlike robot boy. This character went through several names, including Battle Kid, Mighty Kid, Knuckle Kid, Rainbow Warrior Miracle Kid, and The Battle Rainbow Rockman. Eventually, the team settled for cutting out a significant portion of the last of these names, ending up with Rockman. He was so named because the team went for a musical motif – Rockman’s sister being named Roll to complete the genre allusion. The game, named after the protagonist himself, was domestically released on December 17, 1987.

Capcom’s executives believed that Rockman wouldn’t sell. They were proven wrong when Japan’s limited quantities quickly began disappearing off of store shelves. The company had a sleeper hit on their hands, which prompted them to hastily commission a Western localization. Caught completely off-guard by this development, Capcom’s North American branch quickly began work. The Senior Vice President at the time, Joseph Marici changed the protagonist’s name, and by extension the game’s title, from Rockman to Mega Man. Why he imposed this change is straightforward enough; he did not like the character’s original name. As this was going on, the president of the North American branch told a marketing representative to have cover art for the box done in one day. In a panic, said marketing executive had a friend draw the cover in six hours. Working with only a single vague description of the game over the telephone, the results were memorably terrible.

It is said that this cover art contributed to the game having flopped abroad along with a general lack of press coverage overseas. Nonetheless, with strong domestic sales in spite of its tepid critical reception, Mega Man was a modest success. Did Mega Man allow Capcom to put their best foot forward in the console market?

Continue reading

Super Pitfall

Introduction

David Crane’s Pitfall! ended up being one of the most popular games on the Atari 2600, selling over four-million copies when it debuted in 1982. Players assumed the role of an adventurer named Pitfall Harry, who sought to collect all of the treasures in a jungle. It broke the mold for gaming as a whole, codifying many conventions of the side-scrolling platformer genre. Pitfall! was also notable for having been one of the most successful products conceived by a third-party company: Activision. During the first and second console generations, companies didn’t think to credit developers for their work. Some crafty developers would circumvent this by placing Easter eggs in their games, but the behavior was discouraged. This is what caused a collection of developers, including Mr. Crane, to form Activision in the first place. Such was the game’s popularity that despite its sequel, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, having been released in the wake of the North American industry’s crash, it still managed to become one of the Atari 2600’s most lauded titles.

One year later, the North American gaming industry would regain its footing with a little help from a Japanese company named Nintendo. Following a long, arduous campaign to convince retailers to stock their own gaming console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), it proceeded to sell millions of units. Included with the purchase of these systems was a copy of Super Mario Bros. This game could be said to have perfected the side-scrolling platformer formula using the blueprints Pitfall! drafted. While Pitfall! itself was a beloved classic, Super Mario Bros. ascended to a level of fame that left a definable impact on pop culture after it became the greatest-selling game in history at the time.

With many famous games predating the crash such as Pac-Man and Galaga having well-received ports on the NES, it seemed only natural that the Pitfall! series would be represented on the console as well. For this installment, dubbed Super Pitfall, Activision outsourced the job to a Japanese developer named Mirconics. This company was primarily in charge of porting arcade games to the NES, including Elevator Action, Ikari Warriors, and 1942, so Super Pitfall would be their chance to make a good impression with an original work. Were they able to do so?

Continue reading

Godzilla: Monster of Monsters

Introduction

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?

Continue reading

Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair

Introduction

With Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Westone Bit Entertainment had another hit on their hands. The idea of an arcade game placing a great emphasis on role-playing elements was something rarely seen before or since. If one wanted an experience similar to the one offered by Wonder Boy in Monster Land, they would need to pay for a powerful gaming computer or the latest home console. It was therefore highly ambitious of Westone to place such an experience in a scene known for fast-paced, simplistic gameplay.

By this point, Westone clearly had a flagship series, so it was only natural of them to continue the momentum by creating a sequel. The third installment in this budding franchise, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, debuted in domestic arcades in 1988. Though it wouldn’t reach international arcades, it was ported to many popular home consoles such as the TurboGrafx-CD. Strangely, this would be the only port North American gamers received. One was created for the Sega Mega Drive, allowing Japanese and European enthusiasts to play it, but a Genesis port never surfaced. With its two predecessors different as night and day, what did Westone decide to do for the third installment in their popular franchise?

Continue reading

Wonder Boy in Monster Land

Introduction

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?

Continue reading

Wonder Boy

Introduction

Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. proved to be a tour de force when it was released on the Famicom in 1985. After the Famicom was allowed to make its international debut as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo had the honor of single-handedly revitalizing the North American gaming industry, which had been in shambles due to a devastating crash two years prior. Super Mario Bros. fared especially well commercially due to having been frequently bundled with the console itself. In a year, the NES became synonymous with gaming itself and Mario became one of the most recognized characters in the medium after Pac-Man. This presented a problem for any would-be developers. How could they possibly stand up to a company that so thoroughly dominated the market?

In 1986 as Super Mario Bros. took the world by storm, a company named Escape was founded in Sumida, Tokyo. They had teamed up with another up-and-coming developer, Sega, who just entered the console market upon launching their Master System console in 1985. Escape allowed Sega to publish what was to be their inaugural game: Wonder Boy. It was among the first electronic games to bear Sega’s name. As a result, the title character became one of the company’s mascots along Sega’s own Alex Kidd when Wonder Boy proved popular in arcades. The game was then ported to several prominent home consoles, including the Sega Master System.

Despite Sega directly competing against Nintendo at the time, Escape had entered a deal with Hudson Soft to port the game to the NES and the TurboGrafx-16 – domestically known as the PC Engine. When Wonder Boy was ported to the NES and certain other consoles, Hudson replaced the title character with an exaggerated caricature of Takashi Meijin – one of their spokespeople. The likeness even shared the same name in Japan, though he was renamed Master Higgins in the West. Versions of the game that cast Mr. Meijin’s 8-bit doppelgänger were renamed Adventure Island. Though not nearly as well-known as Super Mario Bros., Adventure Island became one of the hallmarks of the NES among Western gamers when it was released internationally in 1988. Whether it was called Wonder Boy or Adventure Island, did Escape manage to leave a good first impression in an increasingly competitive industry?

Continue reading

King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella

Introduction

Like the two installments before it, King’s Quest III was a great commercial and critical success upon its release. Fans were initially confused as to what its protagonist, Gywdion, had anything to do with the adventures of King Graham. After a few months passed, they answered the questions for themselves, and began seeing King’s Quest III as the best game in the series thus far. Whether or not a sequel would be made was never a question, for Roberta Williams and her team dropped many hints throughout their game that King’s Quest IV lurked just around the corner.

Though the visuals had improved in subtle ways since the inception of Sierra’s Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI) engine, it was beginning to show its age. In 1987, LucasArts released Maniac Mansion. This unique take on the adventure game genre ended up being a grand success in its own right, impressing critics with its cast of characters and smart humor. Among those who praised it was acclaimed science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card. In the face of this fierce, new competitor, Sierra needed to step up their game to remain relevant. This led to the creation of the AGI engine’s successor, SCI. Interchangeably referred to as both the Script Code Interpreter and Sierra’s Creative Interpreter, this new engine was designed by programmer Jeff Stephenson

With the outdated engine ready to be replaced, there was no better game Sierra could have chosen to than the latest installment of their flagship King’s Quest series. However, as the engine was designed specifically for 16-bit little-endian computers, they realized longtime fans may not have the specifications required to run a game made with the SCI engine. On top of that, the engine had not yet been proven commercially. Therefore, Ms. Williams and her team opted to develop two versions of the game concurrently: one would be built using the AGI engine and the other upon the SCI engine. The former was intended as a fallback in the event the latter didn’t sell. Fortunately for Sierra, the series’ fourth installment, entitled King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella, ended up moving 100,000 copies within two weeks of its debut in August of 1988. Even better, the SCI version comprised a majority of those sales, eliminating the need for its AGI counterpart, which was discontinued mere months after its release. The commercial success of King’s Quest IV proved beyond any shadow of a doubt the sheer popularity of the series. Was the new SCI engine what the series needed to evolve?

Continue reading