Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

In 1993, the Japanese developer Neverland released Lufia & the Fortress of Doom for the Super Famicom – or the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) abroad. Although somewhat lost amid the slew of Eastern role-playing games that saw their own releases around the same time, Neverland’s effort received a warm critical reception with the American publication Electronic Games in particular calling it one of the best RPGs of the year.

The game also proved to be a modest hit – enough so that Director Masahide Miyata and his team began working on a sequel shortly thereafter. It was finished and released domestically in February of 1995 under the name Biography of Estpolis II. The game was released in North America in May of 1996 renamed Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, which would see its European debut the following year. As its predecessor hadn’t been released in Europe, the game’s title was truncated to Lufia. Like the original game, Lufia II was a success, selling a little over 60,000 copies in Japan. This time, however, the critical reception was significantly more positive with aficionados of the SNES library considering it an underrated gem of a classic. Was Lufia II truly able to improve on the formulaic original?

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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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Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons – Episode One: Marooned on Mars

In 1981, a company named Softdisk was founded in Shreveport, Louisiana. Some time later, they hired an alumnus from the University of Missouri named John Carmack. Despite not leaving the college with a degree, Mr. Carmack was an exceptional programmer – particularly in the field of the rising new medium of video games. He was initially hired to work on Softdisk G-S, an Apple IIGS publication. There, he met another programmer by the name of John Romero. With the help of Michael Abrash’s Power Graphics Programming, Mr. Carmack developed an engine capable rendering graphics capable of smoothly scrolling in any direction. This was practically unheard of at the time; IBM computers available for commercial use were not able to replicate such a feat.

With an engine capable of scrolling graphics to hand, it was only natural for Mr. Carmack and his colleagues to use it to create a game. Coworker Tom Hall encouraged Mr. Carmack to demonstrate the engine by recreating the first stage of Nintendo’s landmark platformer, Super Mario Bros. 3, which had been released internationally in 1990. Mr. Carmack and Mr. Hall were then able to do just that in a single night using a character the former had created for a previous game he called Dangerous Dave. The game, cheekily titled Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement, was then shown to Mr. Romero, who realized the implications of being able to bring the success Nintendo had enjoyed to personal computers.

PC gaming survived the 1983 North American crash by virtue of being a niche market and therefore largely unaffected by whatever problems had plagued the mainstream. The team’s manager, Jay Wilbur, was impressed with their work and recommended that they contact Nintendo themselves in the hopes of being able to create an authorized port of Super Mario Bros. 3 for PC platforms. This team of programmers, now going by the name Ideas from the Deep, spent the next three days working on the demo for the hypothetical port. Although Nintendo praised the efforts of this budding team, they ultimately turned down the offer, wishing the Mario series to remain exclusive to their own consoles.

Undeterred, the Ideas from the Deep team convened to come up with a completely original idea. Mr. Hall suggested giving the game a science-fiction theme, which prompted Mr. Carmack to envision a child prodigy saving the world. The protagonist’s name would be Commander Keen. It was after Mr. Carmack read the premise in an overdramatic voice that the group knew they had a winning idea on their hands.

The first three games in this new series, Marooned on Mars, The Earth Explodes, and Keen Must Die!, formed a trilogy called Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons. They were all released simultaneously in December of 1990. The Ideas from the Deep team distributed their game using the shareware model pioneered by their publisher, the Garland, Texas-based Apogee Software. Specifically, the episodes could be obtained individually for fifteen dollars apiece or in a single lump sum for all three at the cost of thirty dollars – all via mail orders. This way, buyers could choose between paying an amount smaller than the price of a full game for one episode or a comparatively cheaper sum for all three. This distribution method proved to be a success for Apogee, as their sales levels had jumped from $7,000 per month to $30,000 by Christmas of 1990. Speaking retrospectively, it was speculated that this trilogy of games moved at least 50,000 copies. As a trilogy of games that afforded PC users an experience many of them otherwise had no access to, could they be said to possess the same timelessness of their primary influence?

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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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Mega Man 6

Mega Man 5 continued the success of Capcom’s best-selling franchise despite having been released two years after the release of the Super Famicom (SNES). Shortly thereafter, Capcom announced a sequel, which would be developed concurrently with a highly anticipated SNES entry. The game saw its domestic release in late 1993 under the name Rockman 6: The Greatest Battle in History!!

However, as the game came out when the fourth console generation was in full swing, the Famicom (NES) began to show its age, and Capcom decided against exporting it. This was a problem, as the monthly publication Nintendo Power had held a contest for its readers to design a new set of Robot Masters. While this had been standard practice since Mega Man 2, Mega Man 6 would include two Robot Masters designed by North American fans – Daniel Vallée and Michael Leader. To have North American fans participate in the contest for a game they wouldn’t get to play was unacceptable, so Nintendo stepped in and published it abroad. The game was released in North America in 1994 simply titled Mega Man 6. Due to the NES having far less presence in Europe, fans from that region wouldn’t see an official release for another nineteen years when it debuted on the 3DS Virtual Console in 2013. Mega Man 6 would be the final game in the series to debut on the aging NES. Was the game able to end its run on its debut platform on a high note?

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Mega Man 5

Even one year into the lifespan of the Super Famicom – known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) abroad – Mega Man 4 became a bestselling game for Nintendo’s aging Famicom (NES) console. The game Capcom executives originally saw little potential in had a presence on the console only Nintendo’s own characters could rival, and it wasn’t going to stop there. Continuing the momentum from the previous games, artist Keiji Inafune helmed a new project that would see the creation of the series’ fifth installment. Having established a formula by this point, development proceeded uneventfully.

The game was released domestically in December of 1992 for the Famicom under the name Rockman 5: Blues’s Trap!? – Blues being the Japanese name for the character Western players knew as Proto Man. It surfaced in the United States shortly afterwards before being released in Europe months later. In those regions, Capcom’s American branch once again excised the subtitle, renaming it Mega Man 5. With four predecessors boasting highly similar gameplay, does Mega Man 5 bring anything meaningful to the table?

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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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Mega Man 3

The year 1987 saw the debut of Mega Man. Made by Capcom, this game only proved to be a modest hit. Nonetheless, director Akira Kitamura and his team found much potential in what they created, and sought to make a sequel. Capcom’s executive branch permitted them to work on it under the condition that they contributed to other projects at the same time. To see this project to completion, the team had to regularly work twenty-hour days for four months. Although Keiji Inafune, one of game’s original artists, described the process as daunting, he also considered it the single greatest period of his tenure working for Capcom. The care and attention they put into the game paid off when, to everyone’s surprise, Mega Man 2 sold well both domestically and internationally. With a clear triumph in the console market, Capcom began working on a sequel in 1989. However, the team faced a significant setback during the planning phase when Akira Kitamura resigned from Capcom. He would soon join the developer Takeru wherein he directed a game highly similar to Mega Man known as Cocoron before leaving the industry in the early 1990s.

Not willing to let the series come to an end, Capcom assigned Masahiko Kurokawa, a man who had proven his skills on other projects, to direct the newest Mega Man installment. Creative differences between him and Mr. Kitamura’s former teammates resulted in a troubled production cycle. The immense frustration led Mr. Kurokawa to leave the team before the game was finished. With the project quickly falling behind schedule, Mr. Inafune stepped up to salvage what they had completed before the deadline. Realizing his own lack of experience helming a project, he recruited Yoshinori Takenaka, who had designed Capcom’s adaptation of the popular Disney animated show DuckTales, for assistance.

Soldiering on through, Mr. Inafune and his team completed the game, which was released domestically in 1990. Named Rockman 3: The End of Dr. Wily!?, Mr. Inafune would regard this particular installment his least favorite entry in the series. Even if he and his team were able to get the game released on time, they had to leave many ideas on the cutting room floor. Nonetheless, the game was met with a positive reception; some regard it to this day as the series’ definitive entry. After it was exported to the West under the name Mega Man 3, the game went on to sell over one-million copies worldwide. In defiance of Mr. Inafune’s negative feelings about the game, does Mega Man 3 stand as one of the series’ highlights?

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