[GAME REVIEW] Tacoma

Introduction

The year 2013 marked the debut of Gone Home – the inaugural project of The Fullbright Company. The team, based in Portland, Oregon, was founded by one Steve Gaynor, who began his work in the industry as a tester for Sony and Perpetual Entertainment before designing stages for BioShock 2. Gone Home was a resounding critical success. The most notable piece of praise it received was from Polygon when critic Danielle Riendeau awarded it a perfect, ten-point score, calling it a “quiet triumph in storytelling”. Despite its universal critical acclaim, Gone Home struggled to find an audience outside of its proponents due to its short length and lack of gameplay.

Despite its overall mixed reception, Fullbright would use their success to fund their next project. Keeping true to their Pacific Northwest roots, they conceived a story taking place in a home in Tacoma, Washington. However, they backpedaled from this idea when they felt it to be too similar to Gone Home. While Gone Home sold itself as a slice-of-life story told within a video game, their next product would incorporate science fiction elements by being set in a space station. The team would name their game Tacoma as a nod to its original setting.

Tacoma was originally announced at The Game Awards in December of 2014, though it wouldn’t see its release until August of 2017 due to their playtesters’ feedback. Released across various platforms, Tacoma received favorable reviews. Eurogamer notably ranked it twenty-second on their list of the best games of 2017. Despite its favorable reception, Tacoma went on to sell fewer copies than Gone Home. Mr. Gaynor himself attributed its modest performance on the sheer number of games released in 2017, believing by that it was harder for indie titles to break out into the mainstream by then. Regardless of the exact reason, they realized Tacoma wasn’t the success story on the same level of Gone Home. Was it truly a step down from their thunderous debut?

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Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom

Introduction

Although Westone’s Wonder Boy series garnered a following, its association with the popular developer Sega arguably ended up being its undoing. This is because 1991 marked the debut of Sega’s mascot: Sonic the Hedgehog. Seen as their answer to Nintendo’s Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog’s debut game proved to be a gigantic hit. As a result, Sega began primarily focusing on their popular character. The game marked a stark paradigm shift in Sega’s output, causing many of their older franchises to fall by the wayside. This included their former mascot, Alex Kidd. Despite not having been developed by Sega themselves, Wonder Boy was afflicted as well. With Sega electing not to export what would end up being the final installment, Monster World IV, to the West, the series quickly fell into obscurity.

Sixteen years later in 2010, an independent developer in Paris, France named Game Atelier was founded. They made their passion for the medium clear from the beginning, wishing to one day create a surprising, joyful, thrilling game everyone can enjoy. One of their first games was Flying Hamster – a colorful horizontal shooter. Their effort was a success, being downloaded over one-million times across the various active platforms at the time. Game Atelier took this opportunity to set their sights higher when it came time to make a sequel. To fund the game, they looked to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

Helmed by one Fabien Demeulenaere, Flying Hamster II was to provide a completely different experience from its predecessor, being an action-RPG platforming game with a shapeshifting protagonist. Parallels to the Wonder Boy series – more specifically, the Monster World installments that followed the original arcade game – were not a coincidence. Mr. Demeulenaere and his team were big fans of the series, and Flying Hamster II was to be both a loving tribute and a spiritual successor to those games with a projected release date in mid-2015. Before it could be determined if the creators reached their funding goal, the project was suddenly cancelled. The developer announced a partnership with FDG Entertainment, a company founded in 2001 that specialized in producing and publishing games for Java-compatible hardware. For the next year, no new information would be revealed.

Game Atelier then broke their silence by announcing their newest project: Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. Although Westone had filed for bankruptcy and liquidated their assets in 2014, Sega only owned the names of the games. This meant that series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa was able to retain everything else. As fate would have it, Flying Hamster II caught the attention of Mr. Nishizawa, who was flattered that his work struck such a chord in Game Atelier. From there, he used his ownership of the series’ rights to transform what would have been a spiritual successor to Wonder Boy into a canonical installment. Collaborating with Mr. Nishizawa, Mr. Demeulenaere and his team finished and subsequently released their game in December of 2018. Twenty-four years had passed since the release of Monster World IV when Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom saw completion. Outside of the comic book industry, not many people can claim to have directed an official installment of one of their favorite series. Was what Mr. Demeulenaere created worthy of marching under the Wonder Boy banner?

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Dark Souls

Introduction

In the 1990s, a man named Hidetaka Miyazaki graduated from Keio University with a degree in social science. He began working for an American company named Oracle Corporation wherein he managed accounts. However, he reconsidered his career path at age 29 when a friend recommended a game named Ico to him. Inspired by its design, Mr. Miyazaki sought a career in game design. Due to his age, few companies were willing to employ him. Fortunately, he found one promising studio in the form of FromSoftware. After being hired, he began working as a planner for the then-latest installment in their long-running Armored Core series of mech games: Last Raven. To his surprise, he soon found himself in the director’s chair, overseeing the development of Armored Core 4 and its direct sequel Armored Core: For Answer.

The seventh console generation began in 2005 following Microsoft’s launch of the Xbox 360. It was in full swing in 2006 once Nintendo and Sony released the Wii and PlayStation 3 respectively. The latter was largely criticized upon its launch due to its limited library upon launch and exorbitant price point of $599 USD. Having manufactured the console upon which FromSoftware made their debut, it seemed only fitting that the developer would provide Sony with a hot app. It was to be a fantasy role-playing game intended to be a spiritual sequel to their inaugural title King’s Field.

Mr. Miyazaki was especially interested in the project, though the rest of the company considered it a failure. Not helping matters was its negative reception at the 2009 Tokyo Game Show. Nonetheless, Mr. Miyazaki felt that, once assigned to the game’s development, he would do his best to put his own artistic spin on it. He rationalized that “if [his] ideas failed, nobody would care – it was already a failure”. In spite of its poor initial showing, the game, entitled Demon’s Souls, began selling surprisingly well through word-of-mouth. FromSoftware soon found they had a sleeper hit on their hands. Such was the hype surrounding Demon’s Souls that it caught the attention of Western gamers – some of whom went as far as importing it. Luckily, they wouldn’t have to wait long for a chance to play it themselves because the surprising success of Demon’s Souls allowed them to easily find publishers willing to venture an overseas release. Thus, Demon’s Souls went on to become one of the PlayStation 3’s exemplary exclusive titles.

Having made such a popular game, it would seem only natural for Mr. Miyazaki and his team to rally themselves for round two. As soon as they could, they began working on a new game. However, things were not so clear-cut. Demon’s Souls was published by Sony whereas this new game would have Bandai Namco do the honors. As a direct result of this transfer, the intellectual property rights prevented FromSoftware from making a direct sequel to Demon’s Souls.

Undeterred, Mr. Miyazaki and his team retained many of the same basic ideas from Demon’s Souls to create not a sequel, but a spiritual successor. Working hard over the next two years, the game was finished and released worldwide in 2011 for both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 under the name Dark Souls. While Demon’s Souls brought the company true international exposure, Dark Souls signposted to everyone that their success wasn’t an accident. Selling over two-million copies over the next two years, Mr. Miyazaki would soon be rewarded for his creativity by being promoted to the company’s president in 2014. To this day, Dark Souls is considered one of the greatest efforts of the 2010s. On the heels of a surprising sleeper hit, how was Dark Souls able to continue this momentum?

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Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Introduction

Call of Duty: Ghosts proved to be a success when it was released in 2013. However, particularly bad word-of-mouth ensured it was met with a poor fan response. Independent critics disliked it for the campaign’s litany of unfortunate implications whereas fans were unimpressed with its multiplayer capabilities – or lack thereof. Despite selling over nineteen-million copies, Call of Duty: Ghosts was considered by its creators to be a failure, thwarting any immediate attempts at creating a sequel. In order for the series to win back its wary fans, the creators realized they needed to shift gears.

Sledgehammer Games had co-developed the third and final entry in the Modern Warfare trilogy with Infinity Ward after much of the latter company’s key personnel was fired for what Activision CEO Bobby Kotick considered acts of insubordination. However, even before then, Sledgehammer had been working on an installment of their own entitled Call of Duty: Fog of War. Announced before the release of Modern Warfare 3, this game was to be set during the events of the Vietnam War. It would defy the series’ conventions by being an action-adventure game presented from a third-person perspective. The plans for this game were put on hold when Sledgehammer dedicated all of their efforts to seeing Modern Warfare 3 to completion.

Fog of War was then silently canceled when Sledgehammer began working on an entirely different project upon completing Modern Warfare 3. According to its director, Michael Condrey, the game’s engine had been built from scratch. On top of that, the game was to boast an advanced facial animation system using the same technology James Cameron sought to employ in his then-upcoming film Avatar 2. Even with a technological advancement other developers could only dream of possessing, Sledgehammer wasn’t done. In an attempt to capture the Hollywood sensibilities the AAA industry had been pursuing for some time, they recruited actor Kevin Spacey to portray a central character. With these enhancements, it seemed only natural that they would entitle the game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. All of the steps Activision and Sledgehammer took in order to get people talking about their game paid off when it received fairly positive reviews upon its 2014 release. Many critics called it the breath of fresh air the series desperately needed after the annual releases rendered it stale. With no shortage of hype surrounding this installment, was Advanced Warfare able to maintain the Call of Duty franchise’s relevance going into the eighth console generation?

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Bokosuka Wars II

Introduction

Kōji Sumii’s Bokosuka Wars proved to be a revolutionary game upon its 1983 debut on the Sharp X1. By commanding the forces of King Suren, players needed to smart tactics to defeat the evil King Ogereth. Having won a Software Contest held by ASCII Entertainment, Bokosuka Wars laid the building blocks for both real-time strategy and tactical role-playing games. Even now, it is considered one of most notable releases of the early 1980s in Japan. However, its reception in the West was far more mixed. Because it never saw an international release, it remains a practical nonentity among Western gamers. The few that are aware of its existence dismiss it as a half-formed action-adventure game due to primarily being exposed to its Famicom port, which significantly downplayed the strategy elements. Nonetheless, its impact on the medium is very real, and those who enjoy series such as Fire Emblem or Shining Force have Bokosuka Wars to thank for blazing the trail in the first place.

It seemed that the game would enjoy its status as an obscure, standalone, if highly influential title. However, in the year 2016, something unexpected happened. A sequel, simply entitled Bokosuka Wars II was released for various platforms, including the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. In the thirty-three-year interim between entries, the medium had changed quite a bit. While the original Bokosuka Wars was in a class of its own, people now had names for the genres it invented. In light of the incredible amount of evolution that took place between 1983 and 2016, what does Bokosuka Wars II have to offer?

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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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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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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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