December 2019 in Summary: The End of a Decade

Happy New Year! Can you believe the year 2020 is upon us? I remember as a kid thinking 2000 sounded so futuristic. Crazy, isn’t it? When it comes to media, the 2010s certainly had its ups and downs.

Video games got off to a great start with 2010 and 2011 being excellent years for the medium. However, the bottom in the fell out in 2012, and suddenly AAA productions lost their dominance. I’m not sure if it can be attributed to a single incident, but I would probably have to name Mass Effect 3 and the negative reaction to its ending that caused people to be more wary of AAA products. Then there was 2013, which I consider the single weakest year for gaming within this decade, having an inordinate number of hyped games such as Gone Home and Beyond: Two Souls that utterly failed to deliver. While 2014 didn’t have as many bad games, barely anything from that year stood out. Then in 2015, Undertale was released, and that caused a major spike in interest for indie productions, which I think singlehandedly redeemed the medium from the treasure trove of bad games released in 2013. In a twist of irony, fans are now more supportive of independent efforts than the journalists – the exact opposite situation the film industry faces.

Depending on your perspective, the 2010s was either a great or miserable decade for music. While I think it was slightly better than the 2000s, there’s no getting around that the mainstream stuff was fairly weak. Fortunately, like video games, there were plenty of indie artists to pick up the slack.

I think of the 2010s as the decade in which films lost their claim to the artistic high ground to video games. They did get off to a better start than video games, having only a few critical missteps between 2010 and 2017. However, I think the release of The Last Jedi marked the moment film criticism lost its way, leading to the medium being in a bad way for 2018 and, to a lesser extent, 2019. Indeed, I consider 2018 to be the film industry equivalent of 2013 in that there was an inordinate number of films that failed to live up to the hype. However, films are overall worse off than video games ever were because I can safely say the independent game makers are far more ambitious than their filmmaking counterparts. Stuff like OneShot and Undertale are far more innovative than the most acclaimed indie films I’ve seen this decade.

As for other mediums, I can’t claim to be an expert, but from what I’ve seen, it was a great decade for animation – both from the West and the East, though the latter seemed to be more consistently good. Along those lines, it ended up being the decade in which I began seriously pursuing manga and graphic novels, though strangely, despite liking the MCU, I find myself gravitating towards non-superhero stories.

Anyway with that bit of rambling out of the way, let’s dive into the final recap, shall we?

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Mega Man 2

Introduction

The year 1987 marked the debut of Mega Man. The brainchild of Capcom members Akira Kitamura and Keiji Inafune, Mega Man was to be among the developer’s first original games for Nintendo’s highly popular Famicom console – known as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) abroad. The game, made in a few months by a group consisting of six people, proved to be fairly popular. It sold well enough domestically to have been considered a sleeper hit, yet flopped in the West partially as a result of a hasty, borderline nonexistent marketing campaign. Despite its mixed reception, Mr. Kitamura wanted to make a sequel, seeing further potential in what they created. These aspirations came to a stop when he was overruled by producer Tokuro Fujiwara. In response, the director then went to Capcom’s Vice President to get permission to make the game. The executives permitted Mr. Kitamura and his team to work on a sequel under one condition: they had to work concurrently on other projects as well.

Shortly thereafter, the project supervisor invited Mr. Inafune back to the new project. The artist had been working on a separate game at the time, but agreed to help. According to him, the development team willingly worked twenty-hour days to see this project through. He and his fellow staff members would spend their own time on the project to improve the gameplay established in their original effort. His second year working at Capcom, in his own words, “opened up a whole new world of stress for [him]” as he became far more involved with the sequel’s production and even got to mentor a new employee. Despite this, he would later describe it as his best time with Capcom because they were working towards a common goal and made something they truly cared about.

A few months later, Mr. Kitamura’s team completed the project. In Japan, the end product was released in December of 1988 under the name Rockman 2: The Mystery of Dr. Wily. While the original game was, at best, a modest hit, the sequel proved to be an overwhelming success. Still deciding to give the Western market a chance, Capcom had the game localized and released in the United States in June of 1989 retitled and abridged to Mega Man 2. To their surprise, the game was a hit abroad as well. Its international success and critical acclaim allowed Mega Man to become Capcom’s flagship series overnight. Even to this day, Mega Man 2 is considered one of the greatest games ever made as well as the standard to which a sequel should strive to achieve. How exactly was a sequel to a game many considered middle-of-the-road able to give its title character a new lease on life?

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Mega Man

Introduction

In the year 1987, a graduate from the Osaka Designers’ College by the name of Keiji Inafune received a degree in graphic design. During this decade, a new form of entertainment was quickly gaining popularity. Known as TV games in Japan and video games in the West, this medium distinguished itself from others by allowing the audience to be a part of the experience. Twenty-two at the time, Mr. Inafune sought a job in this booming new field – hopefully as an illustrator. He originally wanted to join the prolific developer Konami, but there was another one much closer to his place of residence: Capcom. For one of his first assignments, Mr. Inafune was placed on a team led by Takashi Nishiyama. The result, released in the same year he graduated, was Street Fighter – one of the first fighting games to achieve mainstream success.

Capcom had a lot of success in the arcade scene throughout the 1980s. When Nintendo’s Family Computer (Famicom) was released in 1983, Capcom began porting their more well-known arcade games to the platform. Although the graphical capabilities of the Famicom – called the NES abroad – weren’t nearly as advanced as the most prominent arcade titles at the time, players found themselves drawn to the ports. The idea of being able to play even a downgraded version of an arcade game in the comfort of one’s home was highly enticing. Although the ports sold well, Capcom eventually wanted to develop something specifically for the Japanese home console market. To this end, they decided to recruit fresh, young talent for a new team.

Among the recruits was Keiji Inafune. He found himself on a team of five other people. Leading this team was Akira Kitamura, who mentored the newcomer throughout the development process. To design a protagonist for this game, Mr. Inafune drew inspiration from Astro Boy – the eponymous protagonist of Osamu Tezuka’s landmark manga series. In fact, the game was originally intended to be an adaptation of Astro Boy, but the team ended up with a creation of their own. Before Mr. Inafune had joined the project, Mr. Kitamura developed a basic character concept for this game’s protagonist. After a few illustrations, they ended up with a humanlike robot boy. This character went through several names, including Battle Kid, Mighty Kid, Knuckle Kid, Rainbow Warrior Miracle Kid, and The Battle Rainbow Rockman. Eventually, the team settled for cutting out a significant portion of the last of these names, ending up with Rockman. He was so named because the team went for a musical motif – Rockman’s sister being named Roll to complete the genre allusion. The game, named after the protagonist himself, was domestically released on December 17, 1987.

Capcom’s executives believed that Rockman wouldn’t sell. They were proven wrong when Japan’s limited quantities quickly began disappearing off of store shelves. The company had a sleeper hit on their hands, which prompted them to hastily commission a Western localization. Caught completely off-guard by this development, Capcom’s North American branch quickly began work. The Senior Vice President at the time, Joseph Marici changed the protagonist’s name, and by extension the game’s title, from Rockman to Mega Man. Why he imposed this change is straightforward enough; he did not like the character’s original name. As this was going on, the president of the North American branch told a marketing representative to have cover art for the box done in one day. In a panic, said marketing executive had a friend draw the cover in six hours. Working with only a single vague description of the game over the telephone, the results were memorably terrible.

It is said that this cover art contributed to the game having flopped abroad along with a general lack of press coverage overseas. Nonetheless, with strong domestic sales in spite of its tepid critical reception, Mega Man was a modest success. Did Mega Man allow Capcom to put their best foot forward in the console market?

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Pokémon X and Y

Introduction

Around the time director Junichi Masuda and his team were putting the finishing touches on Pokémon Black and White, they had already begun drafting ideas for the succeeding set of games. Mr. Masuda wanted the themes of the sixth generation to revolve around beauty, bonds, and evolution. Evolution had always played a key role in the series, being a power many of the title creatures possessed, though it would be more accurate to describe the process as a metamorphosis. Bonds had also been a running theme throughout the series with narratives emphasizing the teamwork between Pokémon and humans in their universe. This just left beauty as the sole theme the series hadn’t covered at length. It was therefore fitting that Mr. Masuda would base the setting of these games off of France – a country known for its beauty. To this end, he brought a team with his to France to study the countryside and architecture.

As they worked on the games, the DS’s successor, the 3DS, was about to be released. The console, which would be released in 2011 worldwide, boasted the same dual-screen gameplay of its predecessor in addition to a litany of new upgrades. This included built-in motion sensors, a larger screen, and true to its name, a true three-dimensional presentation. Although it didn’t initially sell as many units as its popular predecessor, it eventually gained momentum following the release of several high-profile, acclaimed games such as Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7. It would also be the console that finally allowed Intelligent Systems’ Fire Emblem series to get mainstream acclaim in the West when Fire Emblem Awakening was localized in 2013.

The Pokémon franchise had always been on handheld devices, so it was only natural for fans to eagerly await a new generation to debut on the 3DS. In defiance of the series’ naming conventions, which involved colors or gemstones, the team decided these new games would be called X and Y. These letters were chosen in order to represent different forms of thinking, bringing to mind an x-axis and a y-axis. It was also a subtle allusion to the simultaneous, worldwide release of the games in 2013. Mr. Masuda’s team even attempted to make the names of the Pokémon the same in every country whenever possible, though Mr. Masuda found this task exceptionally difficult.

The anticipation for these games was such that Brazilian stores attempted to sell them prior to their official release date. This prompted Nintendo to issue a warning stating they would penalize them if they continued to do that. However, the United Kingdom ended up following suit when a store in Bournemouth started selling the games on the eve of their release date. This created a domino effect, prompting other retailers across the nation began selling the games early as well. Like the preceding sets of games, X and Y were well-received critically. Commercially, they beat the records set by Black and White by selling four-million copies worldwide during the opening weekend. Being on the 3DS, X and Y would be the first games in the main series to leave spritework behind in favor of three-dimensional models for their characters. After this, there was no going back. Were X and Y able to successfully translate the series’ iconic gameplay into three dimensions?

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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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Colossal Cave Adventure

 

Introduction

The Second World War brought about one of the most significant advancements in technology in recorded history. Decades after the conflict ended, the world’s superpowers began working with advanced machines capable of expediently conducting calculations. These machines were eventually named computers. In the 1960s, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a branch within the United States Department of Defense invented a packet-switching network. Named the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), it was the first network to implement the TCP/IP protocol suite. Government agencies would use this internetworking process to quickly share important information in a secure manner.

One of the programmers who helped develop ARPANET was Will Crowther. In his spare time, he and his wife Pat would frequently go spelunking. Mr. Crowther had previously helped create vector map surveys of the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky for the Cave Research Foundation. He was also a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, a tabletop role-playing game that launched its first edition in 1974. These good times weren’t to last, for he ended up divorcing his wife in 1975. Striving to find some way to connect with his daughters following the separation, Mr. Crowther had an idea. Combining his fondness for cave exploration with his programming expertize, he decided to create a computerized simulation of his travels.

Development of this project began in 1975 and took a year to complete. It consisted of nearly 700 lines of FORTRAN code with another 700 written for BBN’s PDP-10 timesharing computer. The result was considered the first known instance of interactive fiction. The executable file for this program was called ADVENT, but the opening screen provided its more famous name: Colossal Cave Adventure. One person who discovered Mr. Crowther’s work was Don Woods – a recent graduate from Stanford University. Mr. Woods added his own ideas to the code, including a scoring system and high fantasy elements – the latter of which was inspired by his fondness of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Unlike Mr. Crowther’s original version, the source code of Mr. Woods’s was widely distributed. What started off as a way for a man to connect with his daughters became ground zero for a type of entertainment the public later dubbed adventure games. As computers became more commonplace in the average household, Colossal Cave Adventure became a great success. Even those with limited programming knowledge could enjoy playing this game, and its impact on the medium cannot be denied. In an era before people regularly used the term “video game”, how does Colossal Cave Adventure hold up?

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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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200th Game Review Special Finale: Masterpieces on Parade

When I started this site, I wanted to make it clear that creators have to work to achieve every single point. While certain critics hand out 10/10s out like penny candy, you won’t see me use the grade very often. Indeed, my 150-review milestone was notable in that I hadn’t actually awarded any 10/10s. This milestone is strange because it’s the first time in which I actually awarded more 10/10s than 9/10s. Regardless, the reason I tend to be sparing with these grades is because I want to make it clear that when I award them, the recipients are true masterpieces. Here are the games that went the extra mile to achieve that distinction.

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200th Game Review Special, Part 3: Greenlit for Success

As you may have noticed since my 150th game review special, I ended up awarding passing grades far less often than middling or failing ones. It was to the point where I had gone at least two different months of this year without awarding a single one, causing me to promise to review at least one good game the following month. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why things turned out that way, though reviewing long-running series that took a few installments to finally get good probably had something to do with it (the Bubsy series was responsible for three failing grades by itself). Either way, we’ve finally reached the games I can straight-up recommend, so if you haven’t played them, seek them out.

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