Monkey Ball

Introduction

In 1989, a man named Toshihiro Nagoshi graduated from Tokyo Zokei University, earning a degree in film production. Shortly thereafter, he joined Sega, a game developer that recently made a name for itself in the arcade scene and the budding console market when they released the Mega Drive – renamed the Genesis in North America. When the developer conceived its mascot in the form of Sonic the Hedgehog, whose debut game launched in 1991, they suddenly became a force capable of challenging Nintendo. Mr. Nagoshi was first assigned to the company’s second arcade department (AM2). Under the wing of Yu Suzuki, he was a CG designer for the 1992 arcade hit Virtua Racing – one of the first games of its kind to utilize three-dimensional polygons. He then used this knowledge to direct, produce, and design a game of his own in 1998: Daytona USA 2.

In 2000, Sega had separated their nine research and development departments from the parent company. They were established as semi-autonomous subsidiaries with a president acting as a studio head. Mr. Nagoshi found himself in charge of one of them; the subsidiary’s name was Amusement Vision. Their first two projects saw the creation of Planet Harriers and SlashOut. The former was a 3D rail shooter and the latter a fantasy-themed beat ‘em up. Their first console project saw them revamp the original Daytona USA alongside Genki for the Sega Dreamcast – the successor of the Sega Saturn.

Despite this success, Mr. Nagoshi felt he was bad at actually playing games. Therefore, his next project would be one that new players could instantly understand and play. Specifically, he wanted to make a game involving rolling a sphere through a maze. This was to provide a contrast to the increasingly complex titles dominating Japanese arcades at the time. Although they quickly conceived a physics engine, he felt the idea of guiding plain spheres to be visually unappealing. Worse, without any distinguishing features, it would be difficult for the player to gauge their avatar’s movements. Therefore, Mr. Nagoshi decided to place monkey characters inside the spheres, using concept art from designer Mika Kojima. The game, entitled Monkey Ball, debuted at the 2001 Amusement Operator Union trade show before formally hitting arcades in June of that year.

Despite its arcade design sensibilities, Monkey Ball provided gameplay that would make for an ideal console port. However, there was just one problem with such a proposition. Although it was well-received and is thought of as a great console for its time, the Dreamcast’s run ended up being short-lived. Isao Okawa had replaced Shoichiro Irimajiri as Sega’s president in 2000. Unlike his predecessor, he had advised Sega to leave the console business to focus entirely on software. Combined with a lack of third-party support, the enormous success of Sony’s PlayStation 2 console, and Sega’s damaged reputation as a result of previous failed attempts to launch new hardware such as the Sega 32X and the Sega Saturn, March of 2001 marked the end of an era when the Dreamcast was discontinued. With Sega officially having left the console race, they were now a “platform-agnostic” third-party publisher. Mr. Nagoshi still intended to create a console port for Monkey Ball, and the parent company had chosen the ideal platform for its debut.

The creation of Sonic the Hedgehog sparked the medium’s first true console rivalry between the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and the Sega Genesis. Due to their fairly high price points, most kids would only own one of these consoles. This meant you were either a Nintendo kid or a Sega kid. In schools, it wasn’t unheard of for gangs to form based on which console they owned. All of that came to an abrupt and shocking end in 2001 when, in the very same year as the Dreamcast’s discontinuation, a game published by Sega would be among the Nintendo GameCube’s launch titles.

Unlike Sony’s PlayStation 2 or Microsoft’s inaugural console, the Xbox, the Nintendo GameCube sought to draw in a younger audience, meaning that Monkey Ball would fit right in. Mr. Nagoshi even commented that the Amusement Vision staff felt more comfortable with the GameCube hardware than they did Sega’s own. He also joked that Nintendo was the only console manufacturer his staff members didn’t hate.

Sega assured fans that the port would be created in time for the GameCube’s launch. A little over a month later, the team modified their game to run on the GameCube’s hardware. They spent additional time to conceive bonus features, enhance the graphics, and even introduce a fourth character. As promised, this port, named Super Monkey Ball, was released alongside the Nintendo GameCube itself in 2001. The game proved to be a commercial success, though to Mr. Nagoshi’s surprise, it fared better in the United States than it did domestically. There, it became one of Sega’s bestselling titles in 2002. Many journalists even went as far as considering it the highlight of the GameCube’s launch titles. As the very first game Sega ever published for a Nintendo console, were they able to begin their new life as a third-party developer on the right foot?

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Altered Beast

Sega’s third-generation console, the Sega Master System, was released in 1985 to compete with Nintendo’s Family Computer (Famicom). Although it didn’t come close to dethroning Nintendo’s juggernaut console, it is estimated to have sold over ten-million units worldwide. It became especially popular in Europe and Brazil where the Famicom – known abroad as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) – didn’t have as much presence due to a less extensive marketing campaign in those regions on the developer’s part. Regardless, Sega realized that they needed to do something drastic in order to stand even a small chance of capturing Nintendo’s market share – especially after NEC entered the business and released the PC Engine.

Sega’s console research and development team, led by Masami Ishikawa, began work on a successor to the Master System almost immediately after its launch. They faced two especially daunting opponents: one that had a majority of the market share and the other rapidly gaining a lot of domestic popularity. Therefore, they decided to integrate a 16-bit microprocessor into this new system. The company had experienced a lot of success in the arcade scene, so Mr. Ishikawa and his team adapted the Sega System 16 arcade board, retooling it for a home console. Through shrewd negotiations, the team was able to procure a Motorola 68000 to use as the system’s central processing unit in exchange for an upfront volume order. The team originally wanted to call the console the Mark V, keeping consistent with the naming convention the company had been using up until that point. However, the management wanted a stronger name, so after going through nearly 300 proposals, they dubbed it the “Mega Drive”.

In contrast to the Famicom, which was primarily aimed at children, they sought a mature look for their console in order to advertise it to all ages. To accomplish this, the console’s design was inspired by audiophile equipment and automobiles. That way, when placed side-by-side with a Walkman or a CD player, it would blend right in. To demonstrate the significant technological leap compared to the Master System, the words “16-BIT” were proudly emblazoned upon the console’s surface.

The console was first announced in the June 1988 issue of Beep! magazine. It would see its domestic release the following October before launching in North America in 1989. From there, it would see releases in South Korea, PAL regions, and Brazil in 1990. It was known as the Mega Drive abroad but would be renamed the Genesis in North America. The exact reason for this name change is unknown, though some speculate it may have been a result of a trademark dispute. Much like how Nintendo made Super Mario Bros. a worldwide phenomenon by bundling it with every NES unit sold, Sega knew they needed to follow suit – and they had the perfect game for the task.

A developer by the name of Makoto Uchida had recently created a new arcade game on Sega’s behalf. It was known as Beast King’s Chronicle domestically and Altered Beast abroad. Mr. Uchida felt nervous, as it was the first game he developed, but to everyone’s surprise, Altered Beast became a hit – especially after it had been released overseas. As the System 16 arcade board served as the basis for the Sega Genesis’s hardware and the game proved to be a hit, it was the ideal choice for the developer to port to their newest console. It was ported to nearly every active platform at the time, including the Famicom ironically enough, yet the Genesis port would be the main point of pride for the company, who claimed it to be a perfect conversion. To this day, the game is considered a hallmark of both Sega’s arcade lineup and the Genesis’s library. In the face of fierce competition, was Sega able to make a grand entrance in the fourth generation of consoles?

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Sonic the Fighters

Introduction

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

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

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

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Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair

Introduction

With Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Westone Bit Entertainment had another hit on their hands. The idea of an arcade game placing a great emphasis on role-playing elements was something rarely seen before or since. If one wanted an experience similar to the one offered by Wonder Boy in Monster Land, they would need to pay for a powerful gaming computer or the latest home console. It was therefore highly ambitious of Westone to place such an experience in a scene known for fast-paced, simplistic gameplay.

By this point, Westone clearly had a flagship series, so it was only natural of them to continue the momentum by creating a sequel. The third installment in this budding franchise, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, debuted in domestic arcades in 1988. Though it wouldn’t reach international arcades, it was ported to many popular home consoles such as the TurboGrafx-CD. Strangely, this would be the only port North American gamers received. One was created for the Sega Mega Drive, allowing Japanese and European enthusiasts to play it, but a Genesis port never surfaced. With its two predecessors different as night and day, what did Westone decide to do for the third installment in their popular franchise?

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Wonder Boy in Monster Land

Introduction

Escape’s debut game, Wonder Boy, became a hit when it was released in arcades in 1986. Because the publisher, Sega, only had rights over the Wonder Boy trademark, the company entered a partnership with Hudson Soft to have it released on the Famicom – or the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as it was known abroad. Wonder Boy, retooled into Adventure Island, would go on to be a beloved classic in the NES’s library as well. As a result, the game managed to find a broad audience, being one of the few titles legally available on both a Nintendo and a Sega console. With this success, two members of Escape, Ryuchi Nishizawa and Michishito Ishizuka, began work on a follow-up. To mark the momentous occasion of having released Wonder Boy, they changed the company’s name to Westone, believing the name Escape made them sound unreliable. Westone is derived from the first kanji in these two artists’ names – “Nishi” meaning “west” and “Ishi” meaning “stone”.

In the same year in which Wonder Boy saw its release, a skilled programmer named Yuji Horii put the finishing touches on a game known as Dragon Quest. This title was a massive success upon release, introducing countless Japanese enthusiasts to the role-playing game. One person who took note of this game’s popularity and its subsequent impact on Japanese enthusiasts was none other than Mr. Nishizawa. Drawing upon his experience, he sought to create a game that combined arcade and role-playing elements.

The result of this experimentation, Wonder Boy: Monster World, was released in arcades in August of 1987. Although the original arcade version never left Japan, it received a port on the Sega Master System in 1988. This port, which was redubbed Wonder Boy in Monster Land overseas, is frequently considered one of the stronger games in the Master System library. Similar to the case with the original Wonder Boy and Adventure Island, it also saw retooled ports on the PC Engine and the Famicom under the names Bikkuriman and Saiyūki World respectively. Bikkuriman was based off of a 1980s franchise centered on sticker collecting. Saiyūki World, published by Jaleco, was inspired by the classic Chinese tale Journey to the West in which players assumed the role of the monkey king Sun Wukong – or Son Gokū in Japanese – on a quest to save his country. Of these various ports and retools, only the Master System version saw the light of day in the West. Did Mr. Nishizawa successfully use the increasingly popular role-playing genre to give Wonder Boy a worthy sequel?

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Wonder Boy

Introduction

Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. proved to be a tour de force when it was released on the Famicom in 1985. After the Famicom was allowed to make its international debut as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo had the honor of single-handedly revitalizing the North American gaming industry, which had been in shambles due to a devastating crash two years prior. Super Mario Bros. fared especially well commercially due to having been frequently bundled with the console itself. In a year, the NES became synonymous with gaming itself and Mario became one of the most recognized characters in the medium after Pac-Man. This presented a problem for any would-be developers. How could they possibly stand up to a company that so thoroughly dominated the market?

In 1986 as Super Mario Bros. took the world by storm, a company named Escape was founded in Sumida, Tokyo. They had teamed up with another up-and-coming developer, Sega, who just entered the console market upon launching their Master System console in 1985. Escape allowed Sega to publish what was to be their inaugural game: Wonder Boy. It was among the first electronic games to bear Sega’s name. As a result, the title character became one of the company’s mascots along Sega’s own Alex Kidd when Wonder Boy proved popular in arcades. The game was then ported to several prominent home consoles, including the Sega Master System.

Despite Sega directly competing against Nintendo at the time, Escape had entered a deal with Hudson Soft to port the game to the NES and the TurboGrafx-16 – domestically known as the PC Engine. When Wonder Boy was ported to the NES and certain other consoles, Hudson replaced the title character with an exaggerated caricature of Takashi Meijin – one of their spokespeople. The likeness even shared the same name in Japan, though he was renamed Master Higgins in the West. Versions of the game that cast Mr. Meijin’s 8-bit doppelgänger were renamed Adventure Island. Though not nearly as well-known as Super Mario Bros., Adventure Island became one of the hallmarks of the NES among Western gamers when it was released internationally in 1988. Whether it was called Wonder Boy or Adventure Island, did Escape manage to leave a good first impression in an increasingly competitive industry?

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