Pokémon Snap

Introduction

Prior to the launch of the Nintendo 64 in 1996, Nintendo announced the development of a magnetic drive peripheral for the console dubbed the 64DD. The 64 references the console to which it was intended to attach along with its sixty-four megabyte magnetic disks and DD stood for “disk drive” or dynamic drive”. The peripheral as was to have features such as the ability to connect to the internet, a real-time clock, and rewritable data storage. Nintendo themselves touted the machine as “the first writable bulk data storage device for a modern video game console”. Because even a peripheral console wouldn’t amount to much without a library of games, Nintendo turned to their various development teams to create original titles for the 64DD.

One such company up for the task was HAL Laboratory. Their proposed game was entitled Jack and the Beanstalk. It was named after the famous English fairy tale and inspired by the numerous beanstalks Mario could climb throughout his series. The development team itself was dubbed “Jack and Beans”. The project’s existence was revealed in 1995, but no screenshots or videos were publicly released. There was much speculation as to how the game would have played with some fans suspecting certain elements found their way to Earthbound 64 – another title intended for the 64DD. This is because in an interview with Benimaru Itoh, one of the art designers for Earthbound 64, he revealed players could plant seeds that grew in real time using the 64DD’s internal clock. However, the Jack and Beans team wouldn’t have to wait for long before a sudden development caused them to shift gears.

The year 1996 marked the debut of Game Freak’s Pocket Monsters franchise. Although released to a lukewarm response, it had little trouble finding a fanbase. With the Game Boy considered a passing fad by then, the millions of units sold revitalized interest in the aging, portable console. When the game was translated for Western fans under the name Pokémon, it became a hit overseas as well, causing it to become a worldwide phenomenon. This led a plethora of spinoff media, including an anime series, several manga stories, and a collectable card game. Once it was clear that the Jack and the Beanstalk project had made no significant progress, the team eventually proposed turning it into a Pokémon spinoff. From there, the Jack and Beans team had a definite direction, and in 1999, they at last completed the project. The game’s final title was Pokémon Snap. Because 64DD had been delayed countless times, they converted their game to the Nintendo 64 platform whereupon it sold 1.5 million copies. Exactly what kind of experience does this game, released during the height of the Pokémon franchise’s popularity, have to offer?

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Kirby’s Adventure

Introduction

Kirby’s Dream Land was one of HAL Laboratory’s greatest successes when it launched on the Game Boy in 1992. It proceeded to sell over one-million copies over the next few years. Despite this, the game drew a fair bit of criticism. Veteran gamers in particular were critical of its short length and lack of difficulty. Even gamers of a middling skill level could blaze through the experience in the course of an afternoon. Nonetheless, its stellar commercial performance all but ensured a sequel would be made. Series creator Masahiro Sakurai found himself in the director’s chair once more, and his team was determined to expand upon the gameplay established by his inaugural title.

In order to successfully implement the myriad ideas they had for this new game, HAL Laboratory turned their attention to Nintendo’s home console. However, despite the Super Famicom, or Super NES as it was known internationally, having been released two years prior to the debut of Kirby’s Dream Land, the team decided the next game would debut on its predecessor – the Famicom. The game was named Kirby of the Stars: The Story of the Fountain of Dreams and saw its domestic release in March of 1993. It then debuted internationally in North America and Europe later in the same year retitled Kirby’s Adventure. By 1993, the fourth console generation was in full swing. It was a period of console gaming defined by the fierce rivalry between Nintendo and Sega. This did not prevent Kirby’s Adventure from becoming a bestseller. Unlike Kirby’s Dream Land, the game was a hit with critics as well. Retrospectives have since deemed it the NES’s swansong. In the midst of a battle that placed a great emphasis on presentation and technical prowess, how, exactly, did Kirby’s Adventure win over its predecessor’s detractors?

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Kirby’s Dream Land

Introduction

The year 1980 marked the founding of a game developer known as HAL Laboratories. Headquartered in Chiyoda, Tokyo, one of the first things the company created was a peripheral that allowed computers to display graphics when they were otherwise incapable of doing so. From there, they developed what a part-time worker named Satoru Iwata admitted at the time was slew of rip-off of Namco’s famous arcade games such as Rally X and Galaxian. As copyright laws surrounding software was not clear in that era, they did not ask for Namco’s permission, though they did eventually obtain a license from them. In 1982, Mr. Iwata graduated from college and joined the company as a full-time employee. Following that, the company developed original games for the MSX and Commodore VIC-20 before focusing their attention to Nintendo’s Famicom console.

As the 1980s drew to a close, Nintendo had just launched their Game Boy console and a young man by the name of Masahiro Sakurai joined HAL Laboratories. Nintendo’s portable console proved to be such a hit, that demand often exceeded supply and Mr. Sakurai was in the processes of developing a game for it. Naturally, in order to design a game, he needed to create a character for it. At the age of nineteen, he drew a blob-like character as a placeholder sprite until he could come up with a different model. However, as time went on, he preferred it over any of the other proposed designs he came up with.

During the development of this game, Mr. Sakurai’s team called the character Popopo before ultimately deciding on Kirby. In later years, Mr. Sakurai himself remained unsure as to how they decided on that name. Given that Mr. Sakurai gave Kirby the ability to inhale and spit out objects at enemies, fans speculate he may have been named after the Kirby Company, which famously manufactured vacuum cleaners. Another theory is he was named after John Kirby, the attorney from Latham & Watkins LLP who defended Nintendo against Universal Studios’ infamous copyright infringement lawsuit they filed in 1981. Universal alleged that Nintendo’s popular arcade game Donkey Kong was an unauthorized allusion to the classic film King Kong. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Donkey Kong, has gone on record saying this is the reason why Kirby made a list of potential names for the character, though he wasn’t named after the attorney.

Whatever the case may be, Kirby’s debut game was released in 1992 for the Game Boy. The game was originally titled Twinkle Popopo, but Mr. Sakurai’s team changed it to Kirby of the Stars to reflect the character’s new name. For its Western release a few months later, the game’s title was changed to Kirby’s Dream Land. The game proved fairly popular, selling a little over one-million copies. Critics were fairly receptive to the game, believing it provided a unique take on the platformer genre. With Kirby going on to become the mascot of HAL Laboratories, how does his first adventure hold up?

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Pokémon Stadium

Introduction

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

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

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

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Mother 3

mother-3

Introduction

In 1994, Mother 2: Gigyas Strikes Back, the follow-up to Shigesato Itoi’s beloved Famicom game was released. It accomplished the impossible by eclipsing the seemingly insurmountable popularity of its predecessor. Although it took some time, the sentiment was eventually shared with Western gaming fans who knew the game as a standalone title named Earthbound. With two smashing successes under their belt, it wasn’t long before fans clamored for a sequel. They weren’t alone either; so great was Mr. Itoi’s own enthusiasm that he called the lead designer, Akihiko Miura, in the dead of night to inform him of his new idea for the series’ concluding installment before promptly being informed that “it wasn’t time for that”. In fact, he had this idea so early, it was originally slated to be released on the ill-fated Super Famicom CD, a peripheral for their 16-bit console made to compete with the Sega CD, their rival’s equivalent. The team behind Earthbound regrouped for its sequel, and in a daring move, they forewent the prototyping phase, going straight into development under the belief that they would create something unprecedented. Mr. Itoi is on record stating that he wanted to make the game like a Hollywood film. He and his team began the project in 1994, expecting to complete it in 1996 whereupon it would see the light of day on Nintendo’s then up-and-coming 3D console: the Nintendo 64.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for their plans to go awry. While Earthbound ran into its own problems, the Super Famicom was an established system, and any technical issues were solved once a gifted programmer named Satoru Iwata dealt them. The Nintendo 64 was a horse of a different color – especially in the mid-nineties when 3D gaming was in its primordial phase. That the hardware was largely experimental coupled with the team’s understandable lack of experience with it caused development to stall. Not helping was that Mr. Iwata had been promoted to president of HAL Laboratory, meaning he had far less time to work on the game, and in 1995, Mr. Itoi’s company, Ape Inc., became Creatures with many of its members proceeding to assist an up-and-coming designer named Satoshi Tajiri with a project of his own: Pokémon.

Despite these setbacks, by 1996, the game was in an advanced state under the working title of Mother 3: Strange Creatures Forest. During this, Nintendo tried once again to capitalize on the increasingly popular CD-ROM format that paved a golden road for Sony’s PlayStation console with their proposed Nintendo 64DD (Dynamic Drive). It was touted as “the first writable bulk data storage device for a modern video game console,” which included features such as a real-time clock for persistent game world design, and expanded, rewritable data storage. Shortly after the technology’s announcement, it was decided that Mother 3 would be one of the system’s launch titles. Nintendo originally intended for the 64DD to be released in 1996 – the same year as the Nintendo 64, but it ran into numerous delays until it was pushed back to 1999. By then, interest in the product had waned, and it only boasted nine games in its library by the end of its run.

The tumultuous handling of the 64DD prompted Mr. Itoi and his team to downgrade their project to a simple Nintendo 64 title once more. By 1999, they managed to complete a playable demo which was showcased at Spaceworld, an annual video game trade event hosted by Nintendo. This time, the game had a definitive title: Mother 3: The Fall of the Pig King, and it was even scheduled for a North American release under the name Earthbound 64. As Earthbound gained a significant following in the West and it was a beloved classic in its native homeland, fans waited with bated breath to see what Mr. Itoi had in store for them. Their hope began to fade once the game was delayed again to 2000, yet failed to make an appearance at the E3 convention of the same year. With nothing to show for all of their hard work, Mr. Itoi announced the project’s cancelation in August of 2000, and it seemed his story would remain untold.

However, Shigeru Miyamoto was still interested in bringing the work to fruition. In 2003, the fans’ faith in the series was restored thanks to the release of Mother 1 + 2, a Game Boy Advance compilation port of Mr. Itoi’s first two games. A small message at the end of a TV advertisement stated, “We’re working on Mother 3 for the Game Boy Advance…” Various people had approached Mr. Itoi for the proposal of film or novel adaptations of his canceled project, but he declined, believing it could only be a game and nothing else. Mr. Iwata speculated in hindsight that the game didn’t really need to be in 3D when his colleague’s talents lied in the written word, and Nintendo’s newest handheld console seemed to provide the perfect solution for their troubles. The machine would provide them with specifications similar to the tried-and-true Super Famicom, eliminating any uncertainties the team might have had. With an entirely different team formed by employees from two companies, HAL Laboratory and Brownie Brown, Mr. Itoi set forth to at last create the third and final installment of his series. The latter company was composed of former Squaresoft 2D artists, and one of its members, Nobuyuki Inoue, served as the director for Mother 3, having achieved success as the scenario writer and battle designer for Live A Live. This time, development progressed with little incident, and the game, now simply titled Mother 3, was finally released in 2006 – twelve years after its direct predecessor.

As the compilation Mother 1 + 2 was not released in the West, North American hobbyists attempted to persuade Nintendo to localize Mother 3. To ensure their pleas would not fall on deaf ears, they sent a petition that received over 30,000 signatures along with a book containing Earthbound art, stories, comics, and even music all made by fans. Sadly, these impressive efforts were for naught, as Nintendo announced that they were not interested in exporting Mother 3 overseas. Unwilling to let this deter them, the fans took it upon themselves to provide their own translation. The project was led by Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin, a professional translator who previously worked on anime such as Dragon Ball and Lupin the 3rd as well as other video games including Kingdom Hearts II. The process proved arduous, and Mr. Mandelin said that “no text display routine wound up untouched.” Even those with lesser roles were estimated to have spent anywhere from fifty to one-hundred hours while the leaders contributed one-thousand. Still, the team soldiered forward, and the patch was completed in 2008. Within its first week, it received over 100,000 downloads, and Mother 3 enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reception. Fans have been quick to point it out as one of the decade’s finest works – a sentiment echoed in several gaming publications – with some going as far as declaring it Mr. Itoi’s magnum opus.

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Earthbound

earthbound

Introduction

In 1989, Nintendo released an RPG known as Mother. It differed from its contemporaries in that its scenario was conceived by a professional writer who saw a great storytelling potential in this budding medium: Shigesato Itoi. His celebrity status, which he achieved long before he had an idea for a video game, played a big role in Mother selling over 400,000 copies in Japan. It wasn’t just a big name being attached to the project that moved so many units, however; kids and adults alike enjoyed the game for its compelling, emotionally driven narrative, and its appeal transcends generations.

Naturally, because Nintendo realized they had a hit on their hands, it wasn’t long before they asked Mr. Itoi to create a sequel to continue this newfound success. He happily accepted, as the Super Famicom was released in Japan a year after the debut of Mother. This new machine provided more than a mere graphical upgrade; it allowed for creative possibilities inconceivable on the original Famicom. HAL Laboratory, the company that would eventually create the Kirby franchise, joined Mr. Itoi and the rest of Ape Inc. to aid them on this new project. With this new talent and the prospect of ascending his canon to a higher level on a new and improved system, the possibilities were endless or so it would appear on the surface. Shortly after development began, the team began running into a multitude of problems. The isometric perspective that gave Mother its identity was difficult to render, new mechanics failed to work properly, the two studios were in entirely different regions of Japan, and eight megabytes of storage proved insufficient to hold the soundtrack let alone an actual game. The project began to stall, and all hope seemed lost.

This all changed when HAL Laboratory sent one of their most skilled programmers to save the day. Once appointed lead programmer, this man was able to systematically manage all of the technical issues plaguing the development process. His name was Satoru Iwata, the very person who would become Nintendo’s president a decade later. Due to his efforts, the project became even larger in scale, and took nearly four years to complete – something that was practically unheard of at the time. The game was finished in 1994 under the name Mother 2: Giygas Strikes Back. Like its predecessor, Mother 2 received a warm reception to the point where hundreds of thousands of copies were sold within the first few weeks. Mr. Itoi’s success was at an all-time high, and Nintendo decided to take a chance by pouring resources into getting the game localized for a Western audience. In North America, Mother 2 inherited the working title of its predecessor before the plans for localization fell through at the last minute: Earthbound, and Nintendo marketed the game heavily in the hopes that it would catch on overseas. Sadly, this effort ultimately fell short, and the game barely sold 150,000 copies – dismal sales compared to other Nintendo titles. What few critics did play Earthbound dismissed it for its seemingly childish presentation and not looking enough like Final Fantasy VI. Exactly what did they choose to pass up?

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