Zombie Nation

Introduction

In February of 1987, a company named KAZe was founded. Headquartered in Aoyama, Tokyo, the company sought to enter the rapidly growing video game market. They quickly turned their attention to the Famicom. Nintendo’s home console had revitalized the North American gaming scene after its devastating crash in 1983. Owing to the console’s success, one could expect any game released on the platform to sell reasonably well. There was only one major obstacle standing in the average developer’s way: Nintendo themselves. The company had researched what led to the North American gaming industry’s crash, or the Atari shock as it was called in Japan, and imposed strict limitations on how much help they could receive from third-party developers. If a game didn’t receive Nintendo’s Seal of Quality, it had no chance of seeing the light of day on their platform. On top of that, when considering international releases, only five of a given third-party developer’s output could be released abroad.

Even with these strict limitations in place, KAZe managed to launch their inaugural title, Hooligan Tengu, in December of 1990. The game saw its international debut the following month in January of 1991 under the name Zombie Nation. Despite being released on a popular platform, Zombie Nation was left to fall into obscurity. Only when a certain internet personality highlighted it in 2007 did Zombie Nation achieve any kind of notoriety. With thousands of titles passing through its ranks, did KAZe’s first game get the company off to a strong start?

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Ys IV: Mask of the Sun

Introduction

After Nihon Falcom released the first three installments in their Ys series of action role-playing games, the installments proved popular enough to make appearances on nearly every active console from the Nintendo Famicom (NES) to the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis).  Even if it was virtually unknown in the West, the series’ domestic success ensured the inevitability of a fourth installment.  Unfortunately, the success this series enjoyed came at something of a cost. After the release of Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, a substantial chunk of Nihon Falcom’s staff members quit, thereby depriving the company of the resources needed to produce a sequel. They were in such dire straits that they couldn’t even provide a full script for the game. Their contributions were limited to providing a vague outline and composing the music. They handed off what they could get done to Hudson, the company that published the highly praised compilation Ys Book I & II.

As Hudson collaborated with Alfa Systems on a game entitled Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys, Nihon Falcom pitched the idea to other studios so they could create versions for other prominent consoles. One such developer was Tonkin House, the company behind the SNES port of Ys III. Another was Sega, with whom Nihon Falcom had entered a partnership to port their output to the Mega Drive (Genesis). They even allowed the Korea-based developer Mantra to develop their own version of Ys IV. Mantra had released a highly successful version of the series’ second installment named Ys II Special, which greatly expanded upon the source material and included more secrets than any other version of the game. However, Sega’s version was canceled before it could get off the ground and although Mantra considered the offer, they ultimately declined.

Other than The Dawn of Ys, only the version developed by Tonkin House was making significant headway. Their take on the series’ fourth installment was named Ys IV: Mask of the Sun. Though both developers pushed for a release in late 1993, Tonkin House cut Husdon and Alfa System at the pass by releasing Mask of the Sun one month ahead of The Dawn of Ys. It was released to a fairly lukewarm reception with Famitsu, the most widely read gaming publication in Japan, awarding it twenty-five points out of a possible forty. Was Tonkin House able to do Nihon Falcom’s increasingly venerable series justice?

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Pokémon Gold and Silver

Introduction

Between 1990 and 1996, a company named Game Freak worked on a game dubbed Pocket Monsters. The company began its life as a fanzine written by Satoshi Tajiri and illustrated by Ken Sugimori. It became a developer when Mr. Tajiri, unsatisfied with the poor quality of the games he discussed, decided to throw his hat in the ring. The project hit many snags along the way, with five employees quitting and Mr. Tajiri taking no salary, instead having live off his father’s income. They received help from members of Ape, Inc., the company that famously produced Mother and its sequel – passion projects of copywriter Shigesato Itoi.

The long development cycle had profound implications for everyone involved. By 1996, Nintendo’s inaugural portable console, the Game Boy, had begun showing its age. While a collection of highly regarded games debuted on the platform, they were eventually seen as watered-down versions of console experiences. This didn’t matter to enthusiasts at the time, for they felt it to be an acceptable tradeoff for being able to bring a game with them at all. It was when gaming entered its fifth console generation that this proposition became less defensible. The experimental 3D titles of the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64 made the monochromatic Game Boy seem less impressive by the day. Nintendo executives were ready to declare a loss after Pocket Monsters saw its release in 1996 – even after splitting it into two versions. The critical reception seemed to confirm their apprehension, as the few reviews written about it were lukewarm with Famitsu giving it a score of twenty-nine points out of a possible forty. In light of these circumstances, no one could’ve predicted that this relative newcomer would singlehandedly revitalize the Game Boy when Pocket Monsters began selling by the millions.

Despite this success, Game Freak was hesitant to localize Pocket Monsters. Indeed, the idea of releasing it internationally didn’t cross the minds of the development teams. It wasn’t until the then-president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, told them “Release this in America!” that localization was unavoidable. However, there was one slight problem: Game Freak didn’t have people to spare to create a port. As such, they found themselves in a precarious position between having to choose between focusing their attention on the sequel or develop an English version. Not wishing to stop the momentum Pocket Monsters had gained, they elected to begin developing the sequel immediately, believing “overseas development is just a dream within a dream”.

Fortunately, one man was willing to step up to the plate: Satoru Iwata, the president of HAL Laboratories. Joined by Teruki Murakawa, the Assistant Department Manager of the plan production headquarters, he began working on a version of Pocket Monsters tailor-made for Western languages upon obtaining the source code. It is highly unusual for a company president to perform extensive analyses of the source code, yet it was through Mr. Iwata’s efforts that Pocket Monsters saw an official release abroad under the name Pokémon. Because there was little faith in the games to find an audience in the United States, it came as a complete shock when they proceeded to become bestsellers there as well. Pokémon was to the late nineties what Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were to mid and late-eighties respectively – a truly inescapable phenomenon that united kids from all walks of life.

With Pokémon having fared well both domestically and abroad, Mr. Tajiri and the rest of Game Freak faced an enormous amount of pressure to succeed. Within a few short years, the games inspired an anime series, multiple manga stories, and a treasure trove of spinoffs. Even so, fans across the world were waiting with baited breath for an official follow-up to the titles that started it all. Nintendo first announced the existence of a sequel in 1997, calling it Pocket Monsters 2: Gold & Silver. However, 1997 passed without a release for these games. It wasn’t until March of 1998 when the company announced a delay, though the games were now called Pocket Monsters: Gold & Silver, having dropped the number from the title.

After a year passed with no official word, Nintendo of Japan’s website updated with new information with a revised release date in June of 1999. Even better, these games would be compatible with the Game Boy Color.

It is largely due to the overnight success of Pokémon that this machine was created. As its name suggests, the Game Boy Color was an upgrade to the original Game Boy, rendering compatible titles in color. It stood out from other handheld consoles in that it was backwards compatible. This allowed the Game Boy Color to launch with a sizable library from the onset.

The release date for Pocket Monsters: Gold & Silver was ultimately delayed again to November 21, 1999. Six months later, the game had sold 6.5 million copies domestically. With the franchise’s popularity transcending cultures, it was a question of when the localized games would make their international debut – not if. The games debuted in Australia and North America in October of 2000 before being released in April of 2001 in Europe. Keeping in line with their predecessors’ naming conventions, they were dubbed Pokémon Gold and Silver in foreign markets. As a contrast to their predecessors’ reception, Pokémon Gold and Silver were critically acclaimed upon release in addition to faring well commercially. Pokémon fever had well and truly set in with Pokémon Stadium being the bestselling console game in North America and Pokémon Gold and Silver dominating the handheld market. Most of the people who played both sets of games insist that they are major improvements over their predecessors. Were these games able to iron out the flaws holding back the original, thus allowing the series to fully grasp its potential?

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Ballz

Introduction

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior took the world by storm when it debuted in arcades in February of 1991. The competitive fighting game had existed since the mid-eighties, but Street Fighter II codified the genre. Countless enthusiasts formed long lines around the arcade cabinets, which eventually collected over two-billion USD in gross revenue within the next four years, meaning roughly nine-billion quarters were spent to play this game. Not surprisingly, when Capcom created ports for the prominent platforms of the fourth console generation, they became instant bestsellers.

In the wake of this overwhelming success, many developers saw potential in the exciting, new genre. One such developer was the San Francisco-based PF Magic. Their game was to be released on the Super NES, Sega Genesis, and 3DO. Tapping into the often sophomoric zeitgeist of the nineties, they titled their fighting game Ballz. Just to hit home that subtlety was off the table, the opening of the game stated “To be the champion, you gotta have Ballz!” Predictably, Nintendo wasn’t pleased and demanded the wording be changed for the SNES port. This version states “You gotta play Ballz!” The Genesis version was originally going to have online multiplayer support, which would have been made possible with the Edge 16, a planned modem adapter for the console. The plans for peripheral were scrapped by the time Ballz saw its release in 1994. Despite this setback, Ballz was released to a fairly warm reception. Famicom Tsūshin awarded it twenty-eight points out of a possible forty, Electronic Gaming Monthly gave the Genesis version a 6.2 out of 10, and GamePro wrote a positive review, praising its balanced gameplay and humorous sound effects. How does Ballz fare when compared to the countless other classic fighting games released around this time?

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Pokémon Red and Blue

Introduction

Growing up in the 1970s, a boy from Machida, Tokyo named Satoshi Tajiri enjoyed collecting insects. Such was the zeal for his hobby that other children called him “Doctor Bug”, and he initially wanted to become an entomologist. As he grew up, he became fascinated with an entirely new pastime: arcade games. He was enthralled with Taito’s 1979 arcade hit Space Invaders, though he played many others as well. Throughout his teenage years, his parents thought their son a delinquent, a perception exacerbated by him frequently cutting classes. He nearly failed to graduate from high school, prompting his parents, who were convinced he was throwing his future away, to take action. His father attempted to get him a job at The Tokyo Electric Power Company, but the boy declined. He eventually took make-up classes and earned his diploma. He didn’t attend university, instead opting to complete a two-year technical degree program at the Tokyo National College of Technology, majoring in electronics and computer science.

In 1981, Mr. Tajiri had begun writing a fanzine he named Game Freak. It was handwritten and stapled together. The content focused on the arcade scene, offering tips on how to win or achieve high scores. Certain editions even listed any Easter Eggs contained within the games. The fanzine proved to be fairly popular in his area; the edition in which he wrote about a game named Zabius sold 10,000 copies. It caught the attention of one Ken Sugimori, who found it being sold at a dōjinshi shop. As someone who had an affinity for art, he asked Mr. Tajiri if he could help make the fanzine even more of a success. Suddenly, Game Freak now had an official illustrator. As more people contributed to the fanzine, Mr. Tajiri decided that most of the games he discussed were of a poor quality. Therefore, he and Mr. Sugimori drummed up a simple solution: make their own games.

Mr. Tajiri had been interested in making his own game ever since he discovered the medium. After receiving a Famicom, Nintendo’s first true home console to use interchangeable ROM cartridges, he dismantled it to see the inner workings. He later submitted a video game idea in a contest sponsored by Sega and won. From there, he studied the Family BASIC programming package, which allowed him to grasp how Famicom games were designed. With the desire to head in a new direction, Game Freak the fanzine ended in 1986. Three years later, Game Freak the video game development company arose in its place. The duo wasted no time pitching their first game to Namco: Quinty.

Known as Mendel Palace when it was exported to North America, Quinty combined action and puzzle game elements. The player character is placed on a 5 by 7 grid of floor tiles. The player must flip tiles to defeat the enemies that seek to collide into their character.

Though satisfied with their first product, Mr. Tajiri wanted to create something a little more personal. As he grew up, the areas around him became progressively more urbanized. As a result, many incent habitats were lost. Moreover, with the rise of home consoles, children began playing in their homes rather than outside. Not wanting to let the joy he felt catching and collecting creatures die, he sought to make a game capable of encapsulating that wonder so he may pass it on to others. His idea for this game began forming in 1990. The previous year saw the release of Nintendo’s Game Boy console. In an era when portable games traditionally consisted of static images on a LCD screen, the Game Boy took the world by storm. The idea of a portable albeit monochromatic Famicom was unheard of, yet the reality couldn’t be denied.

As soon as he observed the Game Boy’s ability to communicate between consoles, Mr. Tajiri knew that this game was destined to debut on the handheld platform. When he thought of people using the link cable required for multiplayer sessions, he imagined bugs crawling back and forth between them.

The original name of this game was to be Capsule Monsters. Mr. Tajiri had taken inspiration from the gashapon, a variety of vending machines popular with children that dispense toys encased in a plastic capsule. The characters in his game would carry capsules containing monsters that were released upon throwing them. Because Mr. Tajiri had difficulties trademarking the name “Capsule Monsters”, he tried to make it into a portmanteau, “CapuMon”, before changing it to Pocket Monsters.

Mr. Tajiri was a bit nervous upon presenting his idea to Nintendo, believing they would reject his idea. Indeed, when he pitched the idea, they didn’t fully understand the concept. Nonetheless, they were impressed with the promise he had displayed in his first games and decided to explore it. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of two of Nintendo’s successful franchises, Mario and The Legend of Zelda, began to mentor the up-and-coming developer, teaching him as the game was being created. Pocket Monsters ended up taking six years to produce. For most of the development process, there wasn’t enough salary with which to pay Game Freak’s employees. Over these six years, five employees quit, and the company faced an impending bankruptcy numerous times. Mr. Tajiri himself didn’t take a salary, living off his father’s income. Fortunately, he and his team received help from an unexpected source.

In 1989, a company named Ape, Inc. was founded. Their first product, released in the same year, was Mother – a passion project of famed copywriter Shigesato Itoi. Though it would be some time before it saw an official release abroad, Mother remains to this day a beloved classic in its native homeland, possessing an intergenerational appeal few other games had. The team stuck with Mr. Itoi when creating its sequel, Mother 2. When the programmers began running into problems, Satoru Iwata of HAL Laboratory stepped in to salvage the project. The game was released to a warm reception in 1994. Unlike its predecessor, Mother 2 would receive an official Western localization, under the name Earthbound. Though initially a sales disappointment, Earthbound would receive a fair bit of retroactive vindication, and is now considered one of the best games ever made.

The Ape team was dismantled in 1995, and one of its former members, Tsunekazu Ishihara, with Satoru Iwata’s assistance, founded a new company in its stead: Creatures. Many of the same people who helped develop Mr. Itoi’s were about to take cues from Mr. Iwata by saving another struggling project. They invested in Mr. Tajiri’s idea, allowing his team to complete the games. In exchange, they received one-third of the franchise rights. Pocket Monsters took such a long time to develop that Mr. Tajiri had assisted in the creation of two Nintendo games in the interim: Yoshi and Mario & Wario. He even directed a game for the Sega Genesis named Pulseman alongside Mr. Sugimori.

After a long, arduous development process, Pocket Monsters was at last released domestically in October 1996. Upon completion, few media outlets paid it attention. This was reflected in how Famitsu, the most widely read video game publication in Japan, awarded it twenty-nine points out of a possible forty. In the six years between Mr. Tajiri conceiving the idea for Pocket Monsters and its release, the industry evolved to a point beyond recognition. Nintendo had a fierce, new competitor in the form of Sony’s PlayStation console, and they themselves had launched the Nintendo 64. Both consoles began experimenting with three-dimensional gameplay and every franchise attempted to make the leap. In the face of the medium’s experimental direction, any game retaining a 2D or side-scrolling presentation was doomed to fall by the wayside regardless of its quality.

As a result of these factors, the Game Boy itself had rapidly declined in popularity. Despite having sold more than 100-million units worldwide, the platform was but forgotten by 1996. The only person interested in releasing anything for the portable system was Mr. Tajiri himself. Nintendo, on the other hand, was prepared to declare Pocket Monsters a loss long before the project saw completion. Therefore, nobody could have predicted the game to not only sell rapidly, but singlehandedly save the Game Boy as a platform. One of the reasons Pocket Monsters sold as well as it did was due to Nintendo’s idea to produce two versions of the game: Red and Green.

In the face of this success, it was only logical for Nintendo to export Pocket Monsters to the West. In order to make this release successful, Nintendo is said to have spent over 50-million dollars to promote the games. Before their release, the Western localization team was highly skeptical about the concept. Believing the “cutesy” art style of Pocket Monsters wouldn’t appeal to Americans, they wanted them to be redesigned and “beefed up”. This was overruled by Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo at the time, who regarded the games’ possible reception in the United States as a challenge to face. On the eve of the games’ launch, an anime series premiered, bearing what was to be their localized name: Pokémon – a romanized portmanteau of its domestic title. In September of 1998, two versions of the game, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue debuted in North America before receiving an official release the following October in Australia. The European gaming community wouldn’t receive a port until October of 1999.

Whatever reservations the localization team may have had about the series’ overseas success were fully assuaged when these games began selling by the millions. It is nearly impossible to overstate how much of a phenomenon Pokémon was in the late nineties. It could be thought of as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers for a new generation of children – a truly inescapable work beloved by children from all walks of life. As a sign of the renewed interest in portable gaming, Nintendo released the successor to the Game Boy, the Game Boy Color, the very same year Pokémon debuted abroad. Having not only defied all odds and resonated with enthusiasts of varying backgrounds, but also breathed new life into Nintendo’s line of handheld consoles, how well do Pokémon Red and Blue stand the test of time?

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Super Mario 64

Introduction

Although the launch of the Super Famicom, known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) internationally, was a success, sales were affected by two factors. While the Famicom (NES) went a majority of its life unchallenged, the fourth saw the rise of a fierce challenger in the form of Sega. Owing to a successful marketing campaign revolving around their mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, and his eponymous 1991 debut game, Sega successfully tapped into the zeitgeist of the era, proving they could keep pace with the ostensibly out-of-fashion Nintendo. This could be seen in how Super Mario World was received. Though popular even when it was released in 1990, with no fewer than three predecessors, people dismissed it as another Mario title. On top of this, a failed business deal between Nintendo and Sony involving a CD-ROM player add-on to the SNES resulted in the latter company themselves entering the console race with their inaugural PlayStation console in 1994. Said console proved to be highly popular – especially once prominent third-party developers such as Konami and Capcom, dissatisfied with Nintendo’s draconian licensing policies, began releasing new installments of their big-name franchises on Sony’s platform.

The other factor that caused Nintendo’s sales to slump was something none of these companies had control over: the economy. Throughout second half of the twentieth century, Japan’s economy appeared to be a juggernaut with many Westerners speculating that they would effectively take over the world. This eventually proved not to be the case. In late 1991, the Japanese asset price bubble collapsed, and a devastating recession ensued.

There were numerous causes behind this recession. One of the biggest catalysts was when the Bank of Japan, attempting to keep inflation in check, raised inter-bank lending rates. Before then, the banks were lending more with barely any regard for the borrowers’ credibility. Their drastic actions caused the bubble to burst, and the stock market crashed, leaving banks and insurance companies with several books’ worth of bad debt. The period that followed would eventually be known as the Lost Decade with some economists believing it to have lasted long enough to warrant being called the Lost Score. With Nintendo facing not one, but two companies that were more than a match for them while also feeling the effects of an inescapable recession, they realized they needed to do something drastic to remain in the game.

The Sunnyvale, California-based company Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), had prided themselves by leading the pack in graphics visualization and supercomputing. They were particularly interested in expanding their business, adapting their pioneering technology so that it could reach a higher volume of consumer products. Observing the impressive momentum of the video game industry, they felt it to be the ideal starting point. Their lasted invention had them use the MIPS R4000 family of CPUs as a base, creating something that used only a fraction of the resources. SGI founder Jim Clark originally offered a proposal to Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske. If they declined, Nintendo would be the next candidate in line. The exact details of the subsequent negotiations have been lost. It has been claimed that Mr. Kalinske and a colleague of his were impressed with SGI’s prototype only for engineers to uncover multiple hardware issues. While they were ultimately resolved, Sega decided against SGI’s design. It’s also said that the real reason they partnered with Nintendo was because they, unlike Sega, were willing to license the technology on a non-exclusive basis, thus expanding SGI’s consumer base to a far greater degree if their newest console became a hit. Regardless, a partnership was made, and when Jim Clark met with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi in early 1993, Project Reality had begun. The eventual result would be the console to succeed the Super Famicom.

The first result from Project Reality was the Onyx supercomputer, which was priced anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 USD. The system’s controller was a modified SNES controller outfitted with an analogy joystick and “Z” trigger. The secrecy was such that when LucasArts expressed interest in making a game for the console’s impending launch, the prototype controller had to be placed in a cardboard box as the developers used it.

In June of 1994, Nintendo announced the new name of the unfinished console: the “Ultra 64”. Its design was unveiled for the first time shortly thereafter. The console was so named because it was to be the world’s first 64-bit gaming system. Atari had claimed that their Jaguar console was the first 64-bit gaming system. In reality, it only had a general 64-bit architecture, utilizing two 32-bit RISC processors along with a 16/32-bit Motorola 68000. For good measure, the Ultra 64 was cited in marketing campaigns as more powerful than the computers used for the Apollo 11 mission. Especially controversial was the decision for the console to retain ROM cartridges as opposed to utilizing the superior storage capabilities of the CD-ROM format, which drew much speculation from the press.

Some time after this, the console was to be called the “Ultra Famicom” domestically and “Ultra Nintendo 64” abroad. It’s rumored that the name was changed to avoid legal action by Konami. They had ownership of the Ultra Games trademark, a shell corporation used to circumvent Nintendo’s strict policies limiting the number of third-party releases that could be published in the United States during the NES era. Nintendo themselves claimed that the trademark issues were not a factor. However, they wanted to establish a single worldwide brand and logo for their third console, so these names canceled. The name they chose, the Nintendo 64, was proposed by Shigesato Itoi, a famous copywriter and creator of two beloved classics: Earthbound Beginnings and its sequel, Earthbound. With a collective of elite developers nicknamed the Dream Team, the Nintendo 64 project was ready to begin.

The console was formally unveiled in a playable form in November of 1995 at Nintendo’s seventh annual Shoshinkai trade show. As the hordes of schoolkids huddling around in the cold outside indicated, the anticipation for Nintendo’s newest console was extremely high. The Nintendo 64 was originally slated to be released by Christmas of 1995, but during the previous May, Nintendo delayed the launch to April of 1996. They claimed they needed more time for the software to mature and for third-party developers to become interested in producing games for it, though an engineer cited the hardware’s underperformance in playtesting sessions. As a result, the console’s launch was delayed again – this time to June 23, 1996. To placate potentially impatient fans, Nintendo ran ads with slogans such as “Wait for it…” and “Is it worth the wait? Only if you want the best!”

Similar to the case with their previous console, Nintendo knew full well that, as impressive as the new machine might be, it would be nothing for want of a selection of impressive launch titles. Once again, Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, the two most important names behind the Mario franchise were willing to step up to the plate. Joined by Yoshiaki Koizumi, who had recently cut his teeth writing the scenario for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the three were determined to make the Nintendo 64’s launch impactful.

As early as 1991, Mr. Miyamoto conceived the idea of a 3D Mario game as he worked on the SNES rail shooter Star Fox. He had considered using the Super FX chip to develop a game called Super Mario FX. It was to have gameplay revolving around an entire world in miniature similar to that of miniature trains. He reformulated the idea as the Nintendo 64 was being developed, though not because of its superior graphical capabilities. Instead, he observed the controller’s greater number of buttons and felt it would allow for more advanced gameplay. In accordance to the global branding of their newest console, the new game was to be called Super Mario 64. The scope of the project spanned three years. One year was spent designing the concept while two were allotted to directly work on the software. Guiding Mr. Miyamoto throughout this game’s development was the drive to include more details than any of its predecessors. He felt the style made the game play as a 3D interactive cartoon.

Information about Super Mario 64 was leaked in November of 1995. A playable version was presented days later. Because the game was only halfway completed by this point, Nintendo of American chairman Howard Lincoln once said that Mr. Miyamoto’s desire to add more to the game was a factor in the decision to delay the Nintendo 64’s launch. Indeed, Mr. Yamauchi, realizing just how observant players are, didn’t wish for the integrity of Mr. Miyamoto’s game to be compromised. When asked for an additional two months to work on the game, he granted the request without questioning it.

Super Mario 64 was released on the promised date of June 23, 1996 alongside the Nintendo 64 itself. While the Mario franchise had been no stranger to critical acclaim, the reception of Super Mario 64 seemed to trivialize that of its predecessors. As one of the medium’s first successful 3D platforming games, Super Mario 64 is considered one of the medium’s most important benchmarks. Such was the scope of its influence that it could be said to have singlehandedly effected the 3D video game leap. As the title often cited as ground zero for 3D gaming, was Super Mario 64 able to stand the test of time?

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Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

Introduction

Though somewhat overshadowed by Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, a game starring a character more in tune with the zeitgeist of the early nineties, Super Mario World was a success upon its 1990 release. While dismissed as just another Mario game, when enthusiasts began giving it the time of day, they realized it was so much more than that. It and its predecessor, Super Mario Bros. 3, are now considered some of the best games ever made. Owing to its strong launch titles, Super Mario World included, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) found itself being able to keep pace with the Sega Mega Drive – or the Genesis as it was known in North America.

While developing Super Mario World, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto introduced a character named Yoshi. He was a dinosaur whom Mario could ride like a horse. Fellow developer Takeshi Tezuka speculated that Mr. Miyamoto’s fondness for country and Western themes played a role in Yoshi’s creation. In fact, Mr. Miyamoto had envisioned Mario with a dinosaur companion as early as when he worked on Super Mario Bros. in the mid-eighties, but the technical limitations of the Famicom made this idea impossible. Almost immediately after his introduction, Yoshi become one of the series’ most popular characters. Over the next few years, Yoshi was prominently featured in various spinoff titles. One such title was Yoshi’s Cookie, a puzzle game that even featured a special mode designed by Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov. Another was Yoshi’s Safari, a rail shooter that utilized the Super Scope, the successor to the NES Zapper.

As it turned out, Yoshi’s striking popularity extended to his creator as well, for Mr. Miyamoto thought about making him the series’ protagonist. However, he did not particularly care for other games featuring Yoshi’s name, and strove to make something more authentic. He presented his idea to Nintendo’s marketing department. To his surprise, they rejected his proposal. In 1994, Nintendo had published and released Donkey Kong Country, which was developed by the England-based developer Rare. Its pre-rendered graphics allowed it to stand out from the traditional, comparatively simplistic art style associated with the Mario series. Frustrated at the marketing executives, Mr. Miyamoto felt they were more interested in superior hardware than art. He even went as far as denouncing Donkey Kong Country, feeling it proved that “players will put up with mediocre gameplay as long as the art is good.”

As something of an act of rebellion, Mr. Miyamoto took the cartoonish art style for which the Mario franchise was known and escalated it. The result was a hand-drawn, crayon style reminiscent of children’s drawings. To achieve this effect, artists drew graphics by hand, scanned them, and approximated them down to the exact pixel. When he presented this revised art style to the marketing department, they accepted it. The game had actually been in development in various forms for four years, allowing the team to add what he described as “lots of magic tricks”.

This new game was released domestically in Japan in August of 1995 under the name Super Mario: Yoshi’s Island. It was released in the West the following October with the slight name change Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Though it wasn’t as financially successful as Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island gained a dedicated following of its own. It too became one of the most beloved titles on the Super NES. In fact, some people have even gone as far as claiming it to be the superior effort to Super Mario World, citing is unique gameplay, art, and sound design. How does Yoshi’s Island fare in the face of its impressive predecessor?

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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 extension, 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?

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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

Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3

Introduction

When Super Mario Land debuted as one of the Game Boy’s many launch titles in 1989, it became one of the handheld console’s first big hits. Notably, it would go on to sell over eighteen million copies, surpassing figures of its direct predecessor, Super Mario Bros. 3. Three years later in 1992, its sequel, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins was released. While Super Mario Land impressed many enthusiasts by giving them what amounted to a handheld version of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Land 2 managed to improve upon the original. Featuring graphics and level design that wouldn’t seem out of place in the highly regarded, 16-bit Super Mario World, Super Mario Land 2 is considered even to this day to be one of the Game Boy’s strongest offerings.

After the success of two Super Mario Land installments, fans eagerly waited for a sequel. Super Mario Bros. formed the basis for a solid trilogy on the NES. It therefore stood to reason that Nintendo would make a trilogy out of Super Mario Land as well. Such a development came to pass, but in a way nobody could’ve predicted. Part of why Super Mario Land 2 remains a popular game is its significant contribution to Mario canon. Specifically, it introduced Wario, a character who stood for everything Mario opposed. His name is derived from the Japanese world for bad, “warui”, but other cultures could identify his diametric opposition to Mario simply because of the letter emblazoned upon his cap resembling an upside-down “M”.  In other words, a nuance that could’ve been lost in translation found itself jumping between cultures seamlessly. He was the perfect rival for Mario. He was driven by greed and self-interest. He proved what an effective villain he could be in Super Mario Land 2. He was to be the protagonist of its sequel.

Nintendo was known for its unambiguously heroic protagonists; the idea of playing as Wario seemed inconceivable. Any chance of the ensuing marketing campaign being an elaborate joke on Nintendo’s part was dashed when promotional materials made the game’s name known: Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. Despite, or perhaps as a direct result of, having gone completely off the rails, Wario Land was a commercial success upon its 1994 release, moving over five million copies worldwide. In some circles, this game is considered the strongest entry in the Super Mario Land trilogy. With its unlikely protagonist, did Wario Land truly surpass its highly regarded predecessors?

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