[GAME REVIEW] 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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[GAME REVIEW] Widget

Introduction

In 1984, American television producer Peter Keefe launched a show known as Voltron. The show was about five pilots who commanded a robotic lion. When combined, they would form the titular robot. They would use their technology to protect Planet Arus from an evil warlord by the name of King Zarkon. During its three-year run, Voltron became the highest-ranked syndicated children’s show. Creating the show involved cutting pieces of Japanese animated shows such as Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. As a result, Voltron ended up being an unconventional gateway series for Japanese animation – or anime, as it is more commonly known. After the success of Voltron, Mr. Keefe would go on to create other animated series such as Denver the Last Dinosaur and Twinkle the Dream Being.

The year 1990 marked the debut of another one of his animated shows: Widget. The protagonist and title character of this show was a purple extraterrestrial being from a planet within the Horsehead Nebula. Making use of his curious shapeshifting abilities, Widget would team up with a group of young human friends to protect the environment from those who sought to harm it. Because of its themes, the show was often compared to Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle’s Captain Planet and the Planeteers. As a result of its environmentalist themes, Mr. Keefe’s show was recognized by the National Education Association, who recommended it for children. Sometime into the show’s run, a developer in Japan named Graphic Research was commissioned to create a video game tie-in. The fruit of their labor was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1992 – two years after the domestic launch of its successor. Did Widget provide one last classic experience for the aging NES?

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[GAME REVIEW] Wonder Boy in Monster World

Introduction

Westone’s Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, despite its lack of a domestic release, quickly became one of the premier titles of the Sega Master System library. With an inadvertent shapeshifter as a protagonist and a level design that forewent the traditional, linear structure of its predecessor, The Dragon’s Trap was among the first Metroidvanias to grace the medium after Nintendo’s own pioneering work. However, even with a game as impressive as The Dragon’s Trap, the Sega Master System trailed behind Nintendo’s juggernaut Famicom console. Fortunately for Sega, they were about to take a significant step forward.

October of 1988 marked the release of the Sega Mega Drive. Redubbed the Sega Genesis when it debuted in North America during the following year, the console was a significant step forward in terms of presentation and sound quality. As Sega Mega Drive fans upgraded consoles, many of them began waiting for new installments of familiar franchises. For fans of the Wonder Boy series, they would eventually get their wish. Almost exactly three years after the domestic launch of Sega’s 16-bit console, Wonder Boy V: Monster World III made its debut. This decidedly bizarre title demonstrated that it was the fifth game in the Wonder Boy franchise and the third installment in the Monster Land subseries following Wonder Boy in Monster Land and The Dragon’s Trap. This game was localized and subsequently released in North America and Europe in 1992 under the name Wonder Boy in Monster World.

A heavily altered port was also released for the Sega Master System in Europe where the console enjoyed more success than in the United States. Retaining their partnership with Hudson Soft, a version of this game was released on the Turbo Duo. In a manner similar to The Dragon’s Trap, Wonder Boy in Monster World was retooled into a standalone game called The Dynastic Hero. The main characters were modeled after insects with the bosses resembling their natural predators. Regardless, the base game was largely unchanged. Does Wonder Boy in Monster World manage to retain the impressive amount of momentum generated by its predecessor?

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[GAME REVIEW] King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!

Introduction

On the eve of the release of King’s Quest IV, series creator Roberta Williams had many reservations – many of which were shared by her company, Sierra. Their flagship series’ fourth installment was to cast a female character in the lead role in an era when the medium had a predominately male fanbase. Princesses were expected to get captured so they could be saved by the noble hero; giving one an adventure of her own was simply unheard of. On top of that, Sierra had just finished developing their new game engine: the Sierra’s Creative Interpreter. Having been specifically designed for 16-bit little-endian computers, they feared many longtime fans lacked the resources to play it. They could not have anticipated King’s Quest IV to sell 100,000 copies within two weeks of its launch. Many journalists had nothing but praise for the new female lead – a sentiment shared by fans of the series.

With this success, the series had a future after gaining a powerful rival in the form of LucasArts. It was therefore only natural for Sierra to keep up the momentum by developing a sequel. After the significant technological leap from King’s Quest III, the programmers were in the process of refining their newest engine. The second version of the SCI engine, SCI1, was to feature 256 colors. Ms. Williams once again found herself in the director’s chair for the game that was to showcase the engine’s new capabilities.

As was the case with King’s Quest IV, Sierra sought to make the game as accessible as they could. The original version would be released on a floppy disk while owners of top-end computers could utilize a format gaining popularity for its superior storage capabilities: the CD-ROM. Furthermore, it was during this time that PC game developers began taking note of the rapidly growing console market. Thanks to the successful launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the North American console market had recovered from its devastating 1983 crash, and it was soon outpacing the PC in terms of popularity. While PC gaming required a degree of expertise most people simply did not possess at the time, anyone could place a cartridge into NES and commence playing. By the end of the decade, anything released on the NES was guaranteed a significant return on investment for the developers. As a result, Sierra collaborated with the prolific, Tokyo-based developer Konami to create and release a port for the NES.

This installment, King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!, was released in November of 1990. Sierra spared no expense making King’s Quest V, giving Ms. Williams and her team a budget of one-million dollars. The company’s gambit paid off, for the game, like its predecessor, was a commercial success, moving 500,000 copies over the next few years. For a significant length of time, it had been the best-selling PC game of all time until 1995 when Cyan, Inc.’s Myst surpassed it. Many magazines praised it for its exemplary VGA graphics and sound card utilization with critics considering it the single greatest installment in the series thus far. Was King’s Quest V able ensure the popular series had a leg to stand on in the new decade?

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Pokémon Stadium

Introduction

In defiance of Nintendo’s expectations, Pokémon became a worldwide phenomenon when it debuted in the West in 1998. Realizing they had a new, venerable franchise on their hands, they decided to branch out the series as Satoshi Tajiri and the rest of Game Freak devised a sequel. One of their projects was to be called Pocket Monsters 64. True to its name, it would mark the Pokémon franchise’s console debut. Not only that, but because it would debut on the Nintendo 64, the franchise was to jump from its simplistic presentation on the Game Boy and into the third dimension. Nintendo even planned to up the ante by having the game debut on the 64DD (Dynamic Drive). This Nintendo 64 peripheral would utilize a new storage media and afford players many freedoms, including the ability to create characters. These plans ultimately fell through when it became clear the 64DD would require much more time to develop.

Responsibility of this game’s development ultimately fell on Satoru Iwata of HAL Laboratory. Putting his programming expertise to good use, he and his team converted Pocket Monsters 64 to a standard 32-megabyte cartridge. He ported the games’ unique battle system to work on the Nintendo 64. It took an entire week to read the Game Boy source code. Once that was done, he converted Shigeki Morimoto’s programming to the new console. Due to technical limitations, the final product only contained 42 out of the 151 Pokémon. The fruit of their labor, Pocket Monsters Stadium, was released in August of 1998 whereupon it sold 270,000 copies within its first month.

In February of 1999, Nintendo announced a follow-up intuitively named Pocket Monsters Stadium 2. Reception to its unveiling was positive. The original game was criticized for its anomalously high difficulty and several Pokémon being unavailable to use. This prompted Nintendo and HAL to tone down the AI for the sequel. The game saw its domestic release in April of 1999 before debuting internationally the following year. Abroad, the game was retitled Pokémon Stadium due its predecessor having never left its native homeland. It became one of the Nintendo 64’s bestselling titles, moving one-million units before the end of 2000. Did Pokémon Stadium allow the series’ traditional gameplay to make a triumphant entrance to home consoles?

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Bubsy 3D

Introduction

Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind allowed the title character to become Accolade’s mascot, being one most successful Western console games of 1993. Despite the game’s success, series creator Michael Berlyn left the team shortly after its release. Despite this, Accolade wished to keep their character’s success going, and commissioned a sequel. However, because Accolade nearly went bankrupt developing Bubsy, this new team had nothing but contempt for Mr. Berlyn’s character. They made it clear in interviews they were forced to make a follow-up and didn’t care about its quality. This apathetic team ended up making two games: Bubsy II and Bubsy: Fractured Furry Tales. Both debuted in 1994; the former on many of the same platforms as the original and the latter on the ill-fated Atari Jaguar. The little amount of care that went into these works was evident. While Bubsy II made marginal improvements to the gameplay, Fractured Furry Tales proceeded to mimic the original. Not surprisingly, Bubsy II ended up receiving more acclaim from critics.

Mr. Berlyn made it no secret that he hated both games, as he was not involved in their creation. Fortunately for him, he was about to get a chance to make a triumphant return. The second and third installments of the Bubsy series did not fare well commercially. Therefore, Accolade approached Mr. Berlyn to develop a new installment in their rapidly sinking franchise. He agreed to their terms under one condition: the new game was not to be a retread of the original. Moreover, he sought to set his sights higher by doing something the gaming world, by and large, had never seen before. His team was to explore uncharted territory by making this new installment a platforming game with a fully three-dimensional presentation. The amount of ambition that went into this game was truly remarkable. Characters models would be composed of flat, shaded polygons, it was to feature cutscenes animated by hand, and Mr. Berlyn intended to give Bubsy a true voice.

Satisfied with how the game was turning out, Mr. Berlyn attended the Consumer Electronics Show in January of 1996 in order to demonstrate the beta of their work – aptly named Bubsy 3D. While he likely intended to make waves, little did he know that he was about to receive a brutal wake-up call.

As early as 1991, Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo had been playing around with the idea of a three-dimensional game starring his company’s own mascot, Mario. A mere five years later, he and his team were bringing this vision into reality in the form of a game named Super Mario 64. Mr. Berlyn realized after seeing its beta that his own game was vastly inferior to Nintendo’s offering. Indeed, Nintendo had stopped at nothing to ensure Super Mario 64 was as polished as they could make it, and delayed the game’s console, the Nintendo 64, to June of 1996. This was a luxury Accolade didn’t have. To make matters worse, another developer named Naughty Dog was about to enter the console business by having their own 3D platformer, Crash Bandicoot, debut on the PlayStation. This would ensure direct competition between it and Bubsy 3D.

Mr. Berlyn, realizing he couldn’t take what he learned from watching the Super Mario 64 demonstration, vowed to use the little remaining time to make Bubsy 3D as good as possible. The game was released in November of 1996 – five months after the domestic release of Super Mario 64. Despite being seen as an overall worse effort than Super Mario 64, Bubsy 3D managed to receive mixed reviews, earning acclaim from sources such as GameFan, GameZilla, and derision from others, including Next Generation and Electronic Gaming Monthly. Despite this, PSExtreme was particularly enthusiastic about the game, giving it 93% and their “Gold X Award”. The reviewer in question compared it to a Warner Brothers cartoon. Against the truly fearsome Nintendo, how has Mr. Berlyn’s effort fared in hindsight?

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Bubsy II

Introduction

The year 1993 marked the debut of Bubsy the Bobcat. Released for both the Super NES and Sega Genesis, Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind was seen as the Western equivalent of Sonic the Hedgehog with its hip protagonist and high-speed gameplay. After winning a “Most Hype for a Character of 1993” award from Electronic Gaming Monthly, Bubsy proceeded to garner a fair amount of critical acclaim. Critics were especially fond of its level design, graphics, and the title character having a definable personality. Super NES owners passingly familiar with Sonic the Hedgehog were especially excited about playing Bubsy, for it would be the closest they could come to playing the rival console’s premier game. Even before Bubsy saw its launch, Accolade, the developer behind the game, set their sights high for what they wanted to be their flagship franchise and began drafting ideas for a sequel.

However, production of this game was handled by a different team with no input from creator Michael Berlyn. To make matters worse, this new team was openly hostile to Mr. Berlyn’s character. Accolade had spent beyond their means in order to promote Bubsy, which included creating a pilot for an animated series that was never picked up. They even attempted to reverse engineer Sega’s cartridge copyright protection in order to avoid having to pay any licensing and publishing fees and making Bubsy a console exclusive. Sega ended up suing Accolade, though the judge ruled in the latter’s favor on the grounds that they wrote a majority of the cartridge code themselves and it was intended to be a cross-platform game from the beginning.

As a result of their expenditures, Bubsy nearly bankrupted the company. It paid off in the end when the game sold well, but the damage had been done. The team behind this game freely admitted they hated working on it and that they didn’t care if what they created was a quality product or a complete mess. Such was the extent of this team’s resentment for the character that they would sarcastically repeat Bubsy’s lines to annoy one another. Mr. Berlyn once mentioned that during a visit to their office, the team had even gone as far as stringing up Bubsy dolls from the office ceiling as though they were executing them. Another had been stabbed through the head with a pencil. The sheer apathy that went into this product can even be seen in the game’s title. While the original game’s formed an elaborate pun on a famous film, the sequel was simply named Bubsy II.

Bubsy II saw its release in 1994 for the Sega Genesis and Super NES, before receiving a port for the Game Boy the following year. The public, unaware of the turmoil surrounding its inception, proceeded to give Bubsy II mostly positive reviews. Many outlets claimed that whatever issues plagued the original game were excised in this installment. Did this new team, despite their best efforts, manage to churn out a quality product worthy of standing alongside the greatest 2D platformers of its day?

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Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind

Introduction

Video game designer Michael Berlyn got his start in the industry as an implementer working for Polarware. The first game of note he worked on was a piece of interactive fiction entitled Oo-Topos. Released in 1981, it was well-received among PC gamers, and he would continue his work on other adventure titles with Polarware before joining Infocom in 1983. Around this time, a company named Accolade was founded in San Jose, California by Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead. They saw their revenues increase with each passing year after releasing several acclaimed games for Amiga, Apple II, and the PC, including Test Drive, HardBall!, Law of the West, and Psi-5 Trading Company. Mr. Berlyn would join this company by 1990, and the first game he designed for them was Altered Destiny. However, it received a fairly lukewarm response, generally passed over in favor of Sierra’s output.

Shortly after this project saw completion, he became burned out on the adventure game genre and wanted to try something new. The answer came in the form of a game Sega had released in June of 1991 in order to compete with Nintendo: Sonic the Hedgehog. With Nintendo having dominated the console gaming industry for the entire third generation, Sega proved a formidable opponent. Sonic the Hedgehog was the embodiment of the era’s zeitgeist. He had a hip attitude and his gameplay was lightning fast compared to the slow, ostensibly out-of-touch Mario. Mr. Berlyn was so impressed with Sega’s game that he ended up playing it fourteen hours a day for a whole week. Already, he was figuring out how he could implement his own take on this game. Within the next few years, Accolade had created the lead character for Mr. Berlyn’s vision: a bobcat named Bubsy.

The game, named Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind, was to be released for both the Sega Genesis and Super NES in 1993. Accolade stopped at nothing to extensively promote their game. Director John Skeel sought to create a game as fast as Sonic the Hedgehog, yet as deep as Super Mario Bros. It would be easy to pick up and play, but difficult to master. He was even intended to be voiced in the game proper. His catchphrase “What could possibly go wrong?” was derived from a quip courtesy of the development team. They even commissioned a pilot for an animated series that aired later in the year, though the show was never picked up for any further episodes.

Nonetheless, as a result of Accolade’s marketing campaign, anticipation for Bubsy reached a fever pitch. The character even won a “Most Hype for a Character of 1993” award in the publication Electronic Gaming Monthly. When Bubsy was released, it received positive reviews from nearly every review outlet at the time. Though not as popular as Sonic the Hedgehog, critics enjoyed the level design, graphics, and the sheer amount of personality possessed by the title character. It was especially enjoyed by those who had a Super NES, as for it would be the closest they could get to playing Sonic the Hedgehog themselves without a Sega Genesis. In an era that saw no shortage of quality 2D platformers, does Bubsy stand to this day as a pinnacle of the genre?

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Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand

Introduction

By the time Nihon Falcom was slated to make a fourth installment in their highly popular Ys series of action RPGs, a significant number of their staff members had quit. Though the team drafted a rough outline for Ys IV, they had no resources with which to develop it. They were then left with no choice but to outsource the project to other companies. Of the developers they approached, only Tonkin House and Alfa Systems saw their interpretations of Ys IV to completion. Both versions, Mask of the Sun and The Dawn of Ys, debuted in late 1993 for the Super Famicom and PC Engine respectively. They received fairly positive reviews, though The Dawn of Ys ended up being the more acclaimed game despite Mask of the Sun eventually being declared the canonical Ys IV.

Shortly after both games were released, Nihon Falcom, having hired new talent, now had the resources with which to continue the series on their own. In December of 1995, they released Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand for the Super Famicom. Although fans were initially ecstatic that the series’ original developers regained creative control, the game was ultimately met with a cold response. Was Ys V worthy of such a backlash or is it a game misunderstood due to differing opinions of what the series should entail?

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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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