[GAME REVIEW] Pokémon Snap

Introduction

Prior to the launch of the Nintendo 64 in 1996, Nintendo announced the development of a magnetic drive peripheral for the console dubbed the 64DD. The 64 references the console to which it was intended to attach along with its sixty-four megabyte magnetic disks and DD stood for “disk drive” or dynamic drive”. The peripheral as was to have features such as the ability to connect to the internet, a real-time clock, and rewritable data storage. Nintendo themselves touted the machine as “the first writable bulk data storage device for a modern video game console”. Because even a peripheral console wouldn’t amount to much without a library of games, Nintendo turned to their various development teams to create original titles for the 64DD.

One such company up for the task was HAL Laboratory. Their proposed game was entitled Jack and the Beanstalk. It was named after the famous English fairy tale and inspired by the numerous beanstalks Mario could climb throughout his series. The development team itself was dubbed “Jack and Beans”. The project’s existence was revealed in 1995, but no screenshots or videos were publicly released. There was much speculation as to how the game would have played with some fans suspecting certain elements found their way to Earthbound 64 – another title intended for the 64DD. This is because in an interview with Benimaru Itoh, one of the art designers for Earthbound 64, he revealed players could plant seeds that grew in real time using the 64DD’s internal clock. However, the Jack and Beans team wouldn’t have to wait for long before a sudden development caused them to shift gears.

The year 1996 marked the debut of Game Freak’s Pocket Monsters franchise. Although released to a lukewarm response, it had little trouble finding a fanbase. With the Game Boy considered a passing fad by then, the millions of units sold revitalized interest in the aging, portable console. When the game was translated for Western fans under the name Pokémon, it became a hit overseas as well, causing it to become a worldwide phenomenon. This led a plethora of spinoff media, including an anime series, several manga stories, and a collectable card game. Once it was clear that the Jack and the Beanstalk project had made no significant progress, the team eventually proposed turning it into a Pokémon spinoff. From there, the Jack and Beans team had a definite direction, and in 1999, they at last completed the project. The game’s final title was Pokémon Snap. Because 64DD had been delayed countless times, they converted their game to the Nintendo 64 platform whereupon it sold 1.5 million copies. Exactly what kind of experience does this game, released during the height of the Pokémon franchise’s popularity, have to offer?

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[GAME REVIEW] Sonic the Fighters

Introduction

In the year 1993, a game named Virtua Fighter debuted in arcades worldwide. Created by Yu Suzuki, a member of Sega’s second arcade game development division (Sega AM2), Virtua Fighter became a gigantic success – both commercially and critically. What particularly stood out was its presentation. Whereas many pioneering fighting games used two-dimensional sprites to depict its characters, Virtua Fighter featured three-dimensional polygon graphics. For braving the world of 3D gaming a before it became the standard and offering a level of complexity few contemporaries possessed, Virtua Fighter continues to be praised to this very day with some calling it one of the most influential titles of all time.

During this time, Sega was experiencing a lot of success in the home console market as well. Their 1991 breakout title, Sonic the Hedgehog, gave them a character capable of standing on even ground with Nintendo’s own mascot Mario. With Sonic as Sega’s mascot, the company sought to give him spinoff titles to demonstrate the character’s versatility as well as capitalize on the character’s popularity. Yu Suzuki once spotted one of his subordinates having created a model of Sonic during the creation of another fighting game entitled Fighting Vipers. This gave Mr. Suzuki the idea for a Sonic the Hedgehog fighting game, which he presented to Hiroshi Kataoka – a fellow head of the division. This, in turn, caused Mr. Kataoka to approach Yuji Naka, the leader of Sonic Team with the idea. Although Mr. Naka expressed concern that Sonic couldn’t fight given his large head and short arms, he was won over by the polygon animations provided by Mr. Suzuki’s team.

With Sonic Team’s approval, Mr. Suzuki and the rest of AM2 began developing a fighting game for Sega’s blue hedgehog. The result, Sonic the Fighters, was released to domestic arcades in June of 1996 before appearing in North America a month later under the name Sonic Championship. However, despite starring a popular character, the game quickly fell into obscurity due to its limited release in the West. It wouldn’t be until 2005 that the game received a greater amount of attention. In that year, Sega released a compilation dubbed Sonic Gems Collection, which most notably included Sonic the Hedgehog CD – a popular game that was highly difficult to find at the time. Sonic the Fighters also featured on that compilation. Between the release of Sonic the Fighters and Sonic Gems Collection, Nintendo, with the help of HAL Laboratory, conceived a fighting game starring their own mascot named Super Smash Bros. With Sonic having a three-year head start over Mario in this genre, was Sega able to successfully explore new ground?

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[GAME REVIEW] Pilotwings 64

Introduction

Having been released within a month of the Super Famicom’s domestic launch, Pilotwings went on to become one of the console’s most beloved titles. Very rarely did one ever see anyone make a serious attempt at three-dimensional gameplay in 1990. Although Pilotwings lacked a true sense of depth, that the team led by producer Shigeru Miyamoto was willing to experiment allowed it to have a rightful place in history. Because it was such a widespread, mainstream success, many developers began to see 3D as the way of the future.

Strangely, despite the fact that it proved successful, it didn’t inspire any sequels immediately. Because of its simplistic gameplay, Pilotwings is thought of as an elaborate technical demonstration for the Super NES. It wasn’t that the developers weren’t interested in creating a sequel – they simply explored what Pilotwings accomplished using different properties. Whether it was using the console’s Mode 7 feature to supplement their presentation or adding action elements to the general gameplay and calling it Star Fox, the influence Pilotwings had on the medium could be felt for the duration of the console generation despite not being as prolific as Nintendo’s other successes. Therefore, with Pilotwings having demonstrated what the Super NES was capable of, it seemed only natural that Nintendo would wait until they were ready to make another strong impression to finally create a sequel.

In the mid-1990s, Nintendo was working on their newest console: the Nintendo 64. While the Super NES merely faked the perception of depth by creatively rotating and scaling scanlines, the Nintendo 64 was going to be the genuine article. With one of the most advanced graphics processers of its day, they would redefine the rules of the medium once more in the form of the launch title Super Mario 64. As Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, and Yoshiaki Koizumi directed its creation, Nintendo turned their attention to a company based in Addison, Texas called Paradigm Entertainment.

Founded in 1990, the company primarily focused on creating products specifically for graphics developers. This included military training simulations for pilots and ship captains. Their diverse clientele included the United States Department of Defense, NASA, Lockheed Martin Boeing, and the Walt Disney Company. With their endorsement of 3D graphics and virtual reality, Nintendo couldn’t have picked a better company to help co-develop the Nintendo 64’s iteration of Pilotwings. Led by Genyo Takeda and Makoto Wada of Nintendo, the two companies began developing the game in earnest in 1995. As Mr. Miyamoto was co-directing Super Mario 64 at the time, his role ended up being far more removed than his production work for the original Pilotwings, though he still oversaw the project from Japan.

Paradigm had developed simulators for military vehicles and aircraft, yet never created a video game. As such, the first hurdle the company had to overcome involved combating old habits. From the beginning, they had to choose between creating what amounted to an arcade game on a home console or a simulation. Rather than placing an emphasis on physics during development, they opted to create something that had a balance between realism and fun. While Paradigm worked on its graphical presentation, Nintendo was in charge of the game design. Using a naming convention that would become typical for the platform, the game was entitled Pilotwings 64. It would be one of the thirteen Nintendo 64 games showcased during the Shoshinkai event in November of 1995 – during which time, the console was dubbed the Ultra 64. The game debuted domestically alongside the retitled Nintendo 64 in June of 1996. It would launch with the console as it made its international debut the following September and March as well. Was Pilotwings 64 able to truly demonstrate the Nintendo 64’s potential?

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[GAME REVIEW] Kirby’s Adventure

Introduction

Kirby’s Dream Land was one of HAL Laboratory’s greatest successes when it launched on the Game Boy in 1992. It proceeded to sell over one-million copies over the next few years. Despite this, the game drew a fair bit of criticism. Veteran gamers in particular were critical of its short length and lack of difficulty. Even gamers of a middling skill level could blaze through the experience in the course of an afternoon. Nonetheless, its stellar commercial performance all but ensured a sequel would be made. Series creator Masahiro Sakurai found himself in the director’s chair once more, and his team was determined to expand upon the gameplay established by his inaugural title.

In order to successfully implement the myriad ideas they had for this new game, HAL Laboratory turned their attention to Nintendo’s home console. However, despite the Super Famicom, or Super NES as it was known internationally, having been released two years prior to the debut of Kirby’s Dream Land, the team decided the next game would debut on its predecessor – the Famicom. The game was named Kirby of the Stars: The Story of the Fountain of Dreams and saw its domestic release in March of 1993. It then debuted internationally in North America and Europe later in the same year retitled Kirby’s Adventure. By 1993, the fourth console generation was in full swing. It was a period of console gaming defined by the fierce rivalry between Nintendo and Sega. This did not prevent Kirby’s Adventure from becoming a bestseller. Unlike Kirby’s Dream Land, the game was a hit with critics as well. Retrospectives have since deemed it the NES’s swansong. In the midst of a battle that placed a great emphasis on presentation and technical prowess, how, exactly, did Kirby’s Adventure win over its predecessor’s detractors?

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[GAME REVIEW] Pilotwings

Introduction

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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King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride

Introduction

Despite not selling as many copies as its direct predecessor, King’s Quest VI was yet another success for Sierra’s flagship franchise upon its 1992 release. While King’s Quest V was a major step up from its own direct predecessor in terms of presentation and gameplay, King’s Quest VI ironed out a majority of its flaws. The untrained office employees were replaced by professional voice actors. Combined with more user-friendly design choices and sensible puzzle solutions, there was little question King’s Quest VI managed to be the pinnacle of the franchise as soon as it debuted. Even if making a sequel was the logical thing to do, series creator Roberta Williams had her work cut out for her.

During this time, Disney’s success after having fully recovered from a nearly fatal slump in the 1980s effected what is believed to be the studio’s renaissance. The film most commonly cited for starting this era was The Little Mermaid in 1989. This triumph was then followed up by Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and Aladdin in 1992. All three of these films are beloved classics by anyone versed in the medium – and even those who aren’t. Realizing just how much life these films breathed into the medium, the Sierra staff sought to capture that energy and transplant it into the next King’s Quest installment.

With the rising popularity of the CD-ROM format, Ms. Williams had begun drafting ideas for a game featuring heavy amounts of full-motion video footage. Its name was to be Phantasmagoria. As a result of her busy schedule, she helmed the development of King’s Quest VII alongside two other new directors: Lorelei Shannon and Andy Hoyos. Even so, Ms. Williams was enthusiastic about the project, often bouncing ideas off of Ms. Shannon. It was to the point where they were sad when the planning process came to an end, for Ms. Shannon believed they could have devised new ideas for the next two years.

In order to make as good of an impression as possible, Sierra’s co-founder, Ken Williams, had the idea to contact an up-and-coming animation studio known as Pixar. They had made a favorable impression on animation enthusiasts with their collection of short films, and were in the process of creating their theatrical debut: Toy Story. To Mr. Williams’s surprise, he received a call from Pixar founder Steve Jobs almost immediately after proposing a possible collaboration. Unfortunately for Sierra, the plan fell through when it became clear the Pixar team was far too busy to entertain making a short film for them. To bring their vision of an interactive cartoon into reality, Sierra contracted four animation houses: Animation Magic Inc., Dungeon Ink & Paint, LA West Film Production, and Animotion.

Despite the fact that most of these animators had limited experience in computer gaming, the development cycle proceeded fairly smoothly. The project eventually saw its completion in November of 1994 under the name King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride. Being the seventh installment of a long-running franchise, King’s Quest VII had no problems finding an audience, selling 3.8 million copies within the next eighteen months. However, while fans and critics alike were enthusiastic about the series’ previous entries, the seventh left them divided. Some disliked the Disney-inspired presentation while others had nothing but praise for it. Although many games to follow the franchise’s pinnacle gain a new lease on life with the power of hindsight, King’s Quest VII remains a divisive entry to this very day. Was it even possible for Sierra to successfully follow up a game as beloved as King’s Quest VI?

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Kirby’s Dream Land

Introduction

The year 1980 marked the founding of a game developer known as HAL Laboratories. Headquartered in Chiyoda, Tokyo, one of the first things the company created was a peripheral that allowed computers to display graphics when they were otherwise incapable of doing so. From there, they developed what a part-time worker named Satoru Iwata admitted at the time was slew of rip-off of Namco’s famous arcade games such as Rally X and Galaxian. As copyright laws surrounding software was not clear in that era, they did not ask for Namco’s permission, though they did eventually obtain a license from them. In 1982, Mr. Iwata graduated from college and joined the company as a full-time employee. Following that, the company developed original games for the MSX and Commodore VIC-20 before focusing their attention to Nintendo’s Famicom console.

As the 1980s drew to a close, Nintendo had just launched their Game Boy console and a young man by the name of Masahiro Sakurai joined HAL Laboratories. Nintendo’s portable console proved to be such a hit, that demand often exceeded supply and Mr. Sakurai was in the processes of developing a game for it. Naturally, in order to design a game, he needed to create a character for it. At the age of nineteen, he drew a blob-like character as a placeholder sprite until he could come up with a different model. However, as time went on, he preferred it over any of the other proposed designs he came up with.

During the development of this game, Mr. Sakurai’s team called the character Popopo before ultimately deciding on Kirby. In later years, Mr. Sakurai himself remained unsure as to how they decided on that name. Given that Mr. Sakurai gave Kirby the ability to inhale and spit out objects at enemies, fans speculate he may have been named after the Kirby Company, which famously manufactured vacuum cleaners. Another theory is he was named after John Kirby, the attorney from Latham & Watkins LLP who defended Nintendo against Universal Studios’ infamous copyright infringement lawsuit they filed in 1981. Universal alleged that Nintendo’s popular arcade game Donkey Kong was an unauthorized allusion to the classic film King Kong. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Donkey Kong, has gone on record saying this is the reason why Kirby made a list of potential names for the character, though he wasn’t named after the attorney.

Whatever the case may be, Kirby’s debut game was released in 1992 for the Game Boy. The game was originally titled Twinkle Popopo, but Mr. Sakurai’s team changed it to Kirby of the Stars to reflect the character’s new name. For its Western release a few months later, the game’s title was changed to Kirby’s Dream Land. The game proved fairly popular, selling a little over one-million copies. Critics were fairly receptive to the game, believing it provided a unique take on the platformer genre. With Kirby going on to become the mascot of HAL Laboratories, how does his first adventure hold up?

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King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

Introduction

Jane Jensen, the youngest of seven children, always had a fondness for computers. Attending Anderson University in Indiana, she received a BA in computer science, a quickly budding field at the time. Shortly thereafter, she found herself working for Hewlett-Packard as a systems programmer. She then felt inspired to enter the gaming industry after playing a classic adventure title called King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella. As fate would have it, her passion for computers and creative writing, led to her finding a job at Sierra OnLine where she wrote the scenarios for Police Quest III: The Kindred and EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus. Both games were successes for the prolific company, but she was about to receive a task of even greater and personal importance.

In the year 1990, company co-founder Roberta Williams placed the finishing touches on King’s Quest V. This fifth installment in the company’s flagship series became the single greatest-selling game in the franchise. The following year, Ms. Williams, impressed with Ms. Jensen’s work, had an interesting proposal for the then-newcomer. She had already begun preliminary work on the newest King’s Quest game, having conceived a rough outline for the plot. The two of them then began working alongside each other, brainstorming new design ideas in the process. Their goal was to retain the familiar tone of the series had established in previous installments while giving the game an identity of its own. Furthermore, Ms. Williams wanted players to connect with the game on an emotional level, deciding to fulfill this objective by penning a central love story between two characters.

With King’s Quest V having been a significant technical leap from its predecessor, Ms. Williams sought to set her sights even higher for its sequel. Co-director Bill Skirvin along with the artists began work on storyboards and character designs. One artist in particular, John Shroades, had sketched the eighty backgrounds that would end up in the final product. Taking advantage of the recent advent of motion capture technology, the team ended up transcribing the movement of live-action actors for the potential player decisions and subsequent character animations – of which there were over 2,000. Similarly, the game would feature over 6,000 lines of written messages. Handling this task was Ms. Jensen, who scripted the game, defining for programmers how it should respond to a given action.

Development of this game was completed by September of 1992. In an interview for The New York Times, Ms. Williams estimated the game’s budget was around $700,000 USD. The crew, led by her, Mr. Skirvin, and Ms. Jensen, consisted of twenty people and the project took fourteen months to complete. Although it was scheduled for a release in September of 1992, Sierra delayed it until the thirteenth of October. Entitled King’s Quest IV: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, the fruit of their labor was originally released on nine floppy disks for DOS and Macintosh. It was rereleased upon an emerging format – the CD-ROM – in 1993 for DOS and Microsoft’s newest operating system, Windows. Taking advantage of this new format, the team added a voiceover for every single line of dialogue and included a ballad named “Girl in the Tower”, which was composed by Mark Seibert. Sierra sent a CD containing the song to local radio stations and included a pamphlet listing them along with every copy of the game. In the pamphlet, they suggested fans request the song to be played. The owners of said radio stations were not impressed; they legally threatened Sierra as a result of the myriad requests with which they were bombarded. This prompted a bemused Ken Williams to label the stations the real criminals for ignoring their customers – “something [he believed] no business should ever do”.

Although King’s Quest VI didn’t sell as many copies as the series’ fifth installment, it ended up being the single best-received game in the series. Every single one of its five predecessors was similarly well-received, yet King’s Quest VI seemed to possess something they lacked: staying power. When parsing the first five installments in the series from a modern perspective, one is likely to conclude they don’t hold up so well. They were all, to some extent, trailblazers, yet any contemporary review will invariably include phrases such as “fair for its time” or “aged horribly”. This isn’t true of King’s Quest VI – even now, you can find it on lists compiling the greatest PC games ever made. Is this the installment that allowed the series to finally escape the genre’s early trappings and deliver an experience worthy of being called an all-time classic?

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Super Widget

Introduction

Graphic Research’s attempt at adapting Peter Keefe’s environmentally conscious, animated show Widget for the Nintendo Entertainment system proved less-than-satisfactory. Not only did it sell very poorly, the few people who did purchase it immediately dismissed it as an inferior take on the run-and-gun gameplay pioneered by Mega Man. Even those willing to ignore the subpar controls were ultimately treated to an unstable mess of a game that threatened to crash at the slightest provocation. Nonetheless, a sequel to the game was greenlit. However, taking up the reins of the development process was the company that published the original game: Atlus.

The Setagaya-based developer had made a name for themselves in their native homeland due to their successful adaptation of Aya Nishitani’s Digital Devil Story. From this adaptation, their flagship series would soon be formed: Shin Megami Tensei. However, because none of these games saw an international release, Atlus was fairly obscure outside of Japan. As such, their adaptation of Mr. Keefe’s animated series, released under the name Super Widget in late 1993, was one of the very few games of theirs Western enthusiasts got to play during the fourth console generation. With its predecessor leaving much to be desired, does Super Widget manage to be an improvement?

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Monster World IV

Introduction

With Ryuichi Nishizawa and the rest of Westone having created Wonder Boy in Monster World, the versatile franchise now had a presence on the Sega Genesis. However, while Wonder Boy had arguably been Sega’s premier franchise throughout the third console generation, the company provided its answer to Nintendo’s Mario with their own mascot in the form of Sonic the Hedgehog. His debut in June of 1991 garnered a lot of critical and commercial attention, moving millions of copies. Suddenly, the Genesis could stand toe-to-toe with Nintendo’s then-newest console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES). However, the success of Sonic the Hedgehog ended up being a radical paradigm shift for Sega. Because they had a popular franchise on their hands, they focused their attention on making Sonic as versatile of a character as Mario. This ultimately overshadowed their third-generation triumphs. Most jarringly, their previous mascot, Alex Kidd, was left to fall into obscurity when his Genesis debut failed to resonate with fans.

Nonetheless, Mr. Nishizawa and his team were determined to create a follow-up to their fifth Wonder Boy game. Realizing that Monster World was far more popular than the Wonder Boy franchise from which it had spun off from, it seemed highly fitting for Westone to drop the original title for the sixth installment. The result of their efforts was thus simply entitled Monster World IV and released in 1994. Although fans of the Wonder Boy franchise existed in the West, Wonder Boy in Monster World would be the last time they ever saw a new entry.

As the century drew to a close, the internet began rising in popularity. It was only natural for the first adopters to be savvy in the art of programming and, by extension, video games. Through using the internet, they learned of the many games that never left Japan – including installments of popular franchises such as Square’s Final Fantasy. In extreme cases such as Intelligent Systems’s Fire Emblem, entire series were never released in the West. Among the games Western fans learned of was Monster World IV. The use of the internet along with the widespread availability of the titles’ ROM images allowed enthusiasts to band together to translate these Japan-exclusive games – including this one. Thankfully for Western fans who weren’t knowledgeable about emulation, Monster World IV did at last see the light of day in May of 2012 on the Xbox Live Arcade, the Wii’s Virtual Console, and the PlayStation Network. Unlike most cases of a game not previously localized being imported, Sega went a step further and provided an official translation for Monster World IV. Unfortunately, in the eighteen years since its domestic debut, Westone had gone out of business. Monster World IV was the newest installment in the series in both 1994 and 2012. Was Westone able to end their most famous series’ initial run on a high note?

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