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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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 III: Wanderers from Ys

Introduction

With Ancient Ys Vanished and its sequel, Nihon Falcom had a franchise that eclipsed Dragon Slayer in terms of popularity. Though Dragon Slayer helped codify the action RPG, the Ys duology was what helped it truly soar in popularity. Despite the second title being dubbed The Final Chapter, the team began work on a sequel in response to its immense popularity. This new installment, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, was released on the PC-8801 and MSX2 in 1989. Within the next few years, it would see additional ports on the prominent fourth generation consoles, including the TurboGrafx-CD, Super NES, and Sega Genesis. The TurboGrafx-CD port was particularly timely, being released in North America two years after the international debut of Ys Book I & II, a remake that combined the series’ first installments. Because of this, many versions of Ys III were translated into English despite the series’ obscurity abroad. Those who have played Ys III consider it an overlooked gem in the fourth-generation library. With a pair of impactful predecessors, how does Ys III hold up?

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Ballz

Introduction

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

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

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BioShock Infinite

Introduction

BioShock was released to a universally positive reception in 2007. Those who had been extolling the medium’s storytelling potential for years were particularly enthralled to see it move millions of units. It sold a many people on the idea that a game could have a cerebral plot rather than something akin to a mindless action film. There was only one logical thing for Irrational Games to do in the face of this commercial and critical success: keep the momentum going. However, director Ken Levine and the rest of Irrational Games opted against the idea of working on a direct sequel, leaving the development of BioShock 2 in the hands of Jordan Thomas, one of the original’s primary level designers, and 2K Marin. Mr. Levine, on the other hand wanted to set his sights higher by creating a BioShock game with a different setting. Thankfully for them, Take-Two Interactive allowed them complete freedom in this project.

The development of BioShock 2 was made known in 2008 before seeing its release in 2010. Unbeknownst to the public, Mr. Levine and many of the people behind the original began working on a sequel of their own, dubbed “Project Icarus”, starting in February of 2008. Only six months after the release of BioShock was the concept for this new game formed. In the cycle’s earliest stages, the team considered many different settings. Some wanted to reuse Rapture while others suggested setting it during the Renaissance period. In the end, they decided on a city named Columbia. In a stark contrast to Rapture, which rested on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, Columbia was to float in the skies above. The primary inspiration behind this setting came from The Devil in the White City, a non-fiction book written by Erik Larson in 2003. The book prominently featured the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was set in Chicago in 1893. The staff became interested in setting their game around the turn of the twentieth century and the historical events surrounding the exposition helped inspire the idea of a city in the sky.

With a setting and time period in mind, all Mr. Levine and his team now needed a theme. Rapture, the setting of BioShock and its sequel, sought to deconstruct the ideals of objectivism. They wanted to demonstrate why a society based on those principles would burn itself out quickly. Meanwhile, the World’s Columbian Exposition was considered to symbolize the concept of American exceptionalism – that is to say, the belief the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. Additionally inspired by classic films such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the team now had a goal and would stop at nothing to see it through.

The development of this game proved to be something of an arduous process. The original game utilized a modified Unreal Engine 2.x, which was quickly deemed inadequate to support the ideas for Project Icarus. The team decided to work with Unreal Engine 3, and as a result, every single asset had to be made from scratch. As a likely consequence of this, the game ended up taking roughly five years to complete. Its official announcement in March of 2012 finally gave this project a name: BioShock Infinite. It was also given a slated release date of October 16 of that year. However, in May, the release date was pushed back to February 26, 2013. Nearing the end of the year, it was delayed again – this time to the following March – to allow the team to polish the mechanics further. After much speculation from the press and varied reactions to the promotional material, Mr. Levine proudly announced the game had gone Gold in February of 2013. It had been approved by Sony, Microsoft, and PC makers, allowing it to exist on all three platforms simultaneously. As promised, BioShock Infinite was released on March 26, 2013.

As highly regarded as BioShock was, the critical reception to BioShock Infinite achieved the impossible by surpassing it in some circles. The publications that gave it less than nine points on a ten-point scale could likely have been counted on one hand – and this hypothetical person would likely still have fingers remaining. BioShock Infinite proceeded to win the highly desired “Game of the Year” award from forty-two separate publications, including the Associated Press, CNN, and Forbes. Much like the original, critics praised its scenario, paying special attention to its striking visual design. It wasn’t just critics who were singing praises of this game, for it sold 3.7 million retail copies within two months of its release, eventually moving 11 million units overall.

With the success of BioShock Infinite, one would expect the sky to be the limit for Irrational Games. System Shock 2 flopped and was one of the causes of Looking Glass Studios’ bankruptcy only for Irrational Games to rise from the ashes and became a juggernaut among critics and fans alike. Unfortunately, such was not their fate. As a coda to this game’s success, Mr. Levine announced the dissolution of Irrational Games in February of 2014. The average AAA title of the 2010s had a budget that necessitated the company selling tens of millions of units just to break even. As a consequence, games from that era and scene rarely had a powerful, auteur voice, for any kind of experimental title could bankrupt a company instantaneously if it didn’t sell. Not only that, but because they had been working on the game for five years, the cycle took its toll on the staff. Mr. Levine himself would state in a 2016 interview that the stress of managing the development of BioShock Infinite adversely affected both his health and his personal relationships, causing him to opt out of directing an even larger sequel.  In its seventeen-year life, Irrational Games was only responsible for the development of a handful of projects. Was BioShock Infinite a particularly triumphant swansong for Irrational Games?

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BioShock 2

Introduction

Ken Levine’s BioShock was a critical success upon its 2007 release. In an era when console games weren’t expected to have plots more advanced than what one would find in a B-movie, a mainstream release that regularly touched upon erudite themes stood out in the best way possible. Contrary to what a wary person not in tune with the medium would believe, Mr. Levine’s willingness to take his audience seriously paid off from a commercial standpoint as well. Fans and critics alike instantly recognized BioShock as a significant step forward for video game storytelling. This was a far cry from the reception System Shock 2 received wherein it wallowed in obscurity until it received recognition in various retrospectives several years after the fact. With a hit on their hands, the 2K Marin staff did what any developer would do under the circumstances: set out to make a sequel.

Helming this project was Jordan Thomas while series creator Ken Levine occasionally provided creative input. Given that the potential endings of BioShock provided airtight conclusions, the first concern Mr. Thomas found himself facing was the question of where they could possibly go from there.

“How do you bring people back to an experience and terrify them and shock them in a way that they’re not expecting, but also fulfill the many expectations they’re projecting onto it?”

Nonetheless, he decided that his game couldn’t truly be considered a sequel to BioShock unless he set it in the city of Rapture. Luckily for him, Mr. Levine had created a setting teeming with many unseen locations and untold stories that making a sequel would be viable. 2K Marin thus set out with a team of eight to create a new game, adding seventy-eight additional personnel during the peak phases of development.

Like Ken Levine before him, Jordan Thomas took a decidedly unusual approach to level design. Teams consisting of an environmental artist and a level designer worked together to design each area of the game. This was a stark contrast to the standard approach wherein developers would design the level first and hand their work over to the art teams so they could add further details. Level designer Steve Gaynor recalled in interviews that with their approach, they could ensure the environments felt like places once inhabited by people.

The public’s first exposure to this project’s existence came in the form of a teaser trailer included with the PlayStation 3 version, which was originally made available in 2008. Initial media reports suggested the title of this game would bear the subtitle Sea of Dreams. It was eventually clarified that “Sea of Dreams” only referred to the trailer and not the game itself. As the team quickly revealed, the game was to be simply titled BioShock 2. The first substantial details were revealed in the April 2009 edition of Game Informer magazine. Around this time, the marketing department launched the site “There’s Something in the Sea” as a means to virally spread word of BioShock 2. Demo footage debuted on the Spike TV show GameTrailers TV with Geoff Keighley, showcasing many features such as the ability to walk underwater.

Though BioShock was well received, certain circles criticized it for its lack of multiplayer. The first-person shooter scene had built part of its identity on multiplayer deathmatches. Quake was the game that could be said to have popularized them while Halo brought them to the console market. As a response to this criticism, 2K Marin contracted designers from Digital Extremes to produce a multiplayer component complete with its own scenario.

After much speculation, BioShock 2 was at last released worldwide in February of 2010. Like its predecessor, BioShock 2 received largely positive reviews. Mainstream outlets praised the game for ironing out the unpolished aspects of the original. At the same time, they lauded the story for building upon the foundation of its predecessor. Despite receiving universal praise, a particularly vocal subset originating from the independent circuit was a bit more skeptical. One prominent critic accused the game of being a cheap cash-in while another expressed that the multiplayer component cheapened the series’ strong narrative. Regardless, the game was a commercial success, moving three million units across all platforms by March of 2010. Despite this, Take-Two Interactive’s Chief Financial Officer noted that the game’s sales were lower than expected and also took a relatively short amount of time to slow down. Prior to its release, a Take-Two chairman stated that he expected the game to sell five million units. From this, it could be inferred that the overall reception to BioShock 2 was more mixed than an analysis of the scores it received across numerous publications would lead one to believe. Is BioShock 2 a worthy sequel or is it a transparent attempt to capitalize on its predecessor’s success?

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