[GAME REVIEW] Mega Man 4

Introduction

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?

Continue reading

Mega Man 3

Introduction

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?

Continue reading

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest

Introduction

By 1987, a game developer named Square was on the verge of bankruptcy. Knowing that their next project could potentially sink the company, they decided to take inspiration from Yuji Horii’s landmark Dragon Quest and create a turn-based role-playing game. In a bit of gallows humor, they named this game Final Fantasy. The name turned out to be highly ironic when it proved to be a resounding domestic success. This encouraged the company to try to have the game localized. To their surprise, the game sold even more copies in the West than it did in its native homeland. Because contemporary role-playing experiences were primarily found on personal computer platforms, Final Fantasy ended up being a gateway into the genre for those limited to home consoles. With at least two major RPG series proving to be successful, many other developers joined in, causing the genre to enter a golden age.

However, even with the success of Final Fantasy, console-based RPGs were still a niche market in North America by the early-1990s. It was ambiguous as to exactly why many of these games failed to find a large audience. North America already had a thriving role-playing scene by the time Dragon Quest was released there, making Mr. Horii’s effort, which greatly simplified the genre, seem redundant. It could also be chalked up to a difference in expectations regarding the medium. At the time, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog were some of the most popular video game characters. Both originated from series that placed a greater emphasis on gameplay over story. Because of this, slow-paced, story-focused experiences didn’t fit what Western consumers expected out of console games. Square’s executives, on the other hand, came down to a different conclusion. They cited their games’ high difficulty as a reason why Westerners shied away from them. Among other things, this caused the difficulty of Final Fantasy IV to be lowered.

Nonetheless, the success of the original Final Fantasy proved that there did exist a fanbase for these kinds of games in the West. In an attempt to broaden their international market, Square greenlit a project specifically designed for Western gamers. The game was released under the name Final Fantasy Mystic Quest in Western regions – first in North America in 1992 and Europe in a year later. It would see a domestic release in September of 1993 with the slightly altered title Final Fantasy USA: Mystic Quest. Square would later reveal that the game sold 800,000 units, though roughly half of them were domestic sales. With neither side of the Pacific being especially enthusiastic about the game, it would appear to have been a resounding failure. Would it have been capable of selling newcomers on the genre?

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading