January 2019 in Summary: Into the Thick of Things

Hope all of you are doing well in this new year so far! Now that the Oscars are around the corner, I’ve been running around attempting to see and review all of the nominations. As a result, when it comes to reviewing games, I had to make a lot of last-minute changes. I intend to complete everything I set out to do in short order, though.

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Pokémon Gold and Silver

Introduction

Between 1990 and 1996, a company named Game Freak worked on a game dubbed Pocket Monsters. The company began its life as a fanzine written by Satoshi Tajiri and illustrated by Ken Sugimori. It became a developer when Mr. Tajiri, unsatisfied with the poor quality of the games he discussed, decided to throw his hat in the ring. The project hit many snags along the way, with five employees quitting and Mr. Tajiri taking no salary, instead having live off his father’s income. They received help from members of Ape, Inc., the company that famously produced Mother and its sequel – passion projects of copywriter Shigesato Itoi.

The long development cycle had profound implications for everyone involved. By 1996, Nintendo’s inaugural portable console, the Game Boy, had begun showing its age. While a collection of highly regarded games debuted on the platform, they were eventually seen as watered-down versions of console experiences. This didn’t matter to enthusiasts at the time, for they felt it to be an acceptable tradeoff for being able to bring a game with them at all. It was when gaming entered its fifth console generation that this proposition became less defensible. The experimental 3D titles of the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64 made the monochromatic Game Boy seem less impressive by the day. Nintendo executives were ready to declare a loss after Pocket Monsters saw its release in 1996 – even after splitting it into two versions. The critical reception seemed to confirm their apprehension, as the few reviews written about it were lukewarm with Famitsu giving it a score of twenty-nine points out of a possible forty. In light of these circumstances, no one could’ve predicted that this relative newcomer would singlehandedly revitalize the Game Boy when Pocket Monsters began selling by the millions.

Despite this success, Game Freak was hesitant to localize Pocket Monsters. Indeed, the idea of releasing it internationally didn’t cross the minds of the development teams. It wasn’t until the then-president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, told them “Release this in America!” that localization was unavoidable. However, there was one slight problem: Game Freak didn’t have people to spare to create a port. As such, they found themselves in a precarious position between having to choose between focusing their attention on the sequel or develop an English version. Not wishing to stop the momentum Pocket Monsters had gained, they elected to begin developing the sequel immediately, believing “overseas development is just a dream within a dream”.

Fortunately, one man was willing to step up to the plate: Satoru Iwata, the president of HAL Laboratories. Joined by Teruki Murakawa, the Assistant Department Manager of the plan production headquarters, he began working on a version of Pocket Monsters tailor-made for Western languages upon obtaining the source code. It is highly unusual for a company president to perform extensive analyses of the source code, yet it was through Mr. Iwata’s efforts that Pocket Monsters saw an official release abroad under the name Pokémon. Because there was little faith in the games to find an audience in the United States, it came as a complete shock when they proceeded to become bestsellers there as well. Pokémon was to the late nineties what Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were to mid and late-eighties respectively – a truly inescapable phenomenon that united kids from all walks of life.

With Pokémon having fared well both domestically and abroad, Mr. Tajiri and the rest of Game Freak faced an enormous amount of pressure to succeed. Within a few short years, the games inspired an anime series, multiple manga stories, and a treasure trove of spinoffs. Even so, fans across the world were waiting with baited breath for an official follow-up to the titles that started it all. Nintendo first announced the existence of a sequel in 1997, calling it Pocket Monsters 2: Gold & Silver. However, 1997 passed without a release for these games. It wasn’t until March of 1998 when the company announced a delay, though the games were now called Pocket Monsters: Gold & Silver, having dropped the number from the title.

After a year passed with no official word, Nintendo of Japan’s website updated with new information with a revised release date in June of 1999. Even better, these games would be compatible with the Game Boy Color.

It is largely due to the overnight success of Pokémon that this machine was created. As its name suggests, the Game Boy Color was an upgrade to the original Game Boy, rendering compatible titles in color. It stood out from other handheld consoles in that it was backwards compatible. This allowed the Game Boy Color to launch with a sizable library from the onset.

The release date for Pocket Monsters: Gold & Silver was ultimately delayed again to November 21, 1999. Six months later, the game had sold 6.5 million copies domestically. With the franchise’s popularity transcending cultures, it was a question of when the localized games would make their international debut – not if. The games debuted in Australia and North America in October of 2000 before being released in April of 2001 in Europe. Keeping in line with their predecessors’ naming conventions, they were dubbed Pokémon Gold and Silver in foreign markets. As a contrast to their predecessors’ reception, Pokémon Gold and Silver were critically acclaimed upon release in addition to faring well commercially. Pokémon fever had well and truly set in with Pokémon Stadium being the bestselling console game in North America and Pokémon Gold and Silver dominating the handheld market. Most of the people who played both sets of games insist that they are major improvements over their predecessors. Were these games able to iron out the flaws holding back the original, thus allowing the series to fully grasp its potential?

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Luigi’s Mansion

Introduction

The Nintendo 64 marked Nintendo’s official entry in the fifth generation of consoles. The success of one of its launch titles, Super Mario 64, helped jumpstart the medium’s 3D revolution. Though countless developers from id Software to PF Magic had dabbled in 3D for quite some time, Super Mario 64 ended up being ground zero for the leap. What made it such a remarkable effort was that there were no signs of growing pains. The camera could be controlled by the player, yet was incapable of phasing through walls due to being operated by a real character. Mario’s shadow could always be seen underneath him because it helped players gauge where he was on a platform. Levels were made far less linear because players would be naturally inclined to explore the space in which they found themselves. Though these design choices sound prototypical when summed up on paper, future development teams attempting to create three-dimensional experiences would take cues from Super Mario 64 and many of Nintendo’s other pioneering 3D efforts such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in the coming decades.

Despite the acclaim these games received, Nintendo’s success did come at something of a price. Thanks to a combination of Nintendo sticking with ROM cartridges in lieu of adopting the increasingly popular optical disc format and third-party developers having to adhere to their strict policies, they soon found themselves face-to-face against Sony and their PlayStation console. The juggernaut electronics company had entered the console race as a result of the failed partnership between themselves and Nintendo to create a CD-based peripheral to compete with the Sega CD. Because many prominent developers such as Capcom, Konami, and Square began making games exclusively for the PlayStation, Nintendo began rapidly losing their dominance. Even the overwhelming critical success of games such as Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time did little to make up for their loss in market share. At that point, they needed to innovate quickly in order to remain in in the business.

The year 1997 marked the launch of a graphic hardware design company named ArtX. It was staffed by twenty engineers who previously worked at Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) – the company that helped develop the Nintendo 64’s hardware. They were led by Dr. Wei Yen, who had been SGI’s head of Nintendo Operations and outlined the console’s architectural design. ArtX partnered with Nintendo in 1998 in order to craft Nintendo’s entry in the rapidly approaching sixth console generation. Initially codenamed “Flipper”, the project was first announced to the public at a press conference in May of 1999 as “Project Dolphin”. Shortly after this announcement, the company began providing development kits to second-party companies such as Rare and the newly formed Retro Studios.

ArtX was then acquired by ATI in 2000, though the Flipper graphics processor design had been mostly completed. A spokesperson claimed ATI was to become a major supplier to the game console market and that the Dolphin platform would be the “king of the hill in terms of graphics and video performance with 128-bit architecture”. The console was formally announced as the Nintendo GameCube at a Japanese press conference in August of 2000. It was at the Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2001 that the GameCube’s fifteen launch titles were unveiled. Curiously, there appeared not to be a single Mario game in the lineup. However, a closer examination revealed that a game set in the Mario universe would be among the launch titles, but with his brother Luigi in the lead role.

During the Nintendo Space World exposition of 2000, many technological demonstrations were designed to showcase the GameCube’s capabilities. These took the form of full motion video clips – one of which depicted Luigi running from ghosts. After creating the footage, Nintendo decided to turn the demo into a fully realized game. It was shown again at the 2001 Electronic Entertainment Expo alongside the other launch titles and the console itself. This game, Luigi’s Mansion, was to offer an experience the likes of which had never been seen in a Mario title. Though the idea for the game had been conceived as early as 2000, once it became a GameCube project, Luigi was chosen as the protagonist to keep the experience new and original.

The GameCube launched domestically on September 14, 2001 and in North America the following November before receiving European and Australian releases in May of 2002. From a commercial standpoint, Luigi’s Mansion was the most successful GameCube launch title, being the single best-selling game in November of 2001. Nintendo attributed Luigi’s Mansion as the driving force behind the GameCube’s launch sales, for it sold more copies in its opening week than even Super Mario 64 in its own. Critically, Luigi’s Mansion was mostly positive, with critics especially taken aback by its stellar presentation. Despite this, the reception wasn’t quite as warm as that of Super Mario 64. Was Luigi’s first true adventure precisely what the GameCube needed for a successful launch?

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A Question for the Readers #12: “…and Stay Out!!”

You don’t really review games and films on the side without amassing a sizable collection of both. As a rule, I typically keep a work around until I’ve experienced it in full. Once I have done so, I make a decision as to whether or not it’s worthy of remaining in my collection. If I decide it isn’t, that’s when I decide to place it up for sale; no need to keep total disappointment around, after all. Admittedly, I don’t have a cast-iron rule; for video games, it usually needs to get a passing grade for me to not want to sell it. I may sell old editions of a work if a compilation appears, but if I award it a passing grade, you can safely bet it’s still in my collection. Meanwhile, for films, I tend to only keep the ones I awarded (or would award) an 8/10. Every so often, however, I’ll come across a work that, for whatever reason, I just want out of my collection as soon as possible.

To be clear, this anecdote doesn’t concern instances in which I deliberately bought a stinker for the sake of bashing it. As such, you won’t see me mention films such as You’re Next or video games such as Ride to Hell: Retribution or Ninjabread Man. Instead, I’m talking about instances in which I was genuinely looking forward to experiencing a work, yet by the end, I wanted nothing more to do with it. Keep in mind that I don’t consider most of the following works bad per se; if I do, they have more redeeming qualities than the average effort on the tier in which I placed it (or would place it). Granted, the easiest way a work can accomplish this is by having a terrible ending. Despite this, I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but if you’re interested in seeing these films or playing these games, your best bet is to skip to the next subject.

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Pokémon Red and Blue

Introduction

Growing up in the 1970s, a boy from Machida, Tokyo named Satoshi Tajiri enjoyed collecting insects. Such was the zeal for his hobby that other children called him “Doctor Bug”, and he initially wanted to become an entomologist. As he grew up, he became fascinated with an entirely new pastime: arcade games. He was enthralled with Taito’s 1979 arcade hit Space Invaders, though he played many others as well. Throughout his teenage years, his parents thought their son a delinquent, a perception exacerbated by him frequently cutting classes. He nearly failed to graduate from high school, prompting his parents, who were convinced he was throwing his future away, to take action. His father attempted to get him a job at The Tokyo Electric Power Company, but the boy declined. He eventually took make-up classes and earned his diploma. He didn’t attend university, instead opting to complete a two-year technical degree program at the Tokyo National College of Technology, majoring in electronics and computer science.

In 1981, Mr. Tajiri had begun writing a fanzine he named Game Freak. It was handwritten and stapled together. The content focused on the arcade scene, offering tips on how to win or achieve high scores. Certain editions even listed any Easter Eggs contained within the games. The fanzine proved to be fairly popular in his area; the edition in which he wrote about a game named Zabius sold 10,000 copies. It caught the attention of one Ken Sugimori, who found it being sold at a dōjinshi shop. As someone who had an affinity for art, he asked Mr. Tajiri if he could help make the fanzine even more of a success. Suddenly, Game Freak now had an official illustrator. As more people contributed to the fanzine, Mr. Tajiri decided that most of the games he discussed were of a poor quality. Therefore, he and Mr. Sugimori drummed up a simple solution: make their own games.

Mr. Tajiri had been interested in making his own game ever since he discovered the medium. After receiving a Famicom, Nintendo’s first true home console to use interchangeable ROM cartridges, he dismantled it to see the inner workings. He later submitted a video game idea in a contest sponsored by Sega and won. From there, he studied the Family BASIC programming package, which allowed him to grasp how Famicom games were designed. With the desire to head in a new direction, Game Freak the fanzine ended in 1986. Three years later, Game Freak the video game development company arose in its place. The duo wasted no time pitching their first game to Namco: Quinty.

Known as Mendel Palace when it was exported to North America, Quinty combined action and puzzle game elements. The player character is placed on a 5 by 7 grid of floor tiles. The player must flip tiles to defeat the enemies that seek to collide into their character.

Though satisfied with their first product, Mr. Tajiri wanted to create something a little more personal. As he grew up, the areas around him became progressively more urbanized. As a result, many incent habitats were lost. Moreover, with the rise of home consoles, children began playing in their homes rather than outside. Not wanting to let the joy he felt catching and collecting creatures die, he sought to make a game capable of encapsulating that wonder so he may pass it on to others. His idea for this game began forming in 1990. The previous year saw the release of Nintendo’s Game Boy console. In an era when portable games traditionally consisted of static images on a LCD screen, the Game Boy took the world by storm. The idea of a portable albeit monochromatic Famicom was unheard of, yet the reality couldn’t be denied.

As soon as he observed the Game Boy’s ability to communicate between consoles, Mr. Tajiri knew that this game was destined to debut on the handheld platform. When he thought of people using the link cable required for multiplayer sessions, he imagined bugs crawling back and forth between them.

The original name of this game was to be Capsule Monsters. Mr. Tajiri had taken inspiration from the gashapon, a variety of vending machines popular with children that dispense toys encased in a plastic capsule. The characters in his game would carry capsules containing monsters that were released upon throwing them. Because Mr. Tajiri had difficulties trademarking the name “Capsule Monsters”, he tried to make it into a portmanteau, “CapuMon”, before changing it to Pocket Monsters.

Mr. Tajiri was a bit nervous upon presenting his idea to Nintendo, believing they would reject his idea. Indeed, when he pitched the idea, they didn’t fully understand the concept. Nonetheless, they were impressed with the promise he had displayed in his first games and decided to explore it. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of two of Nintendo’s successful franchises, Mario and The Legend of Zelda, began to mentor the up-and-coming developer, teaching him as the game was being created. Pocket Monsters ended up taking six years to produce. For most of the development process, there wasn’t enough salary with which to pay Game Freak’s employees. Over these six years, five employees quit, and the company faced an impending bankruptcy numerous times. Mr. Tajiri himself didn’t take a salary, living off his father’s income. Fortunately, he and his team received help from an unexpected source.

In 1989, a company named Ape, Inc. was founded. Their first product, released in the same year, was Mother – a passion project of famed copywriter Shigesato Itoi. Though it would be some time before it saw an official release abroad, Mother remains to this day a beloved classic in its native homeland, possessing an intergenerational appeal few other games had. The team stuck with Mr. Itoi when creating its sequel, Mother 2. When the programmers began running into problems, Satoru Iwata of HAL Laboratory stepped in to salvage the project. The game was released to a warm reception in 1994. Unlike its predecessor, Mother 2 would receive an official Western localization, under the name Earthbound. Though initially a sales disappointment, Earthbound would receive a fair bit of retroactive vindication, and is now considered one of the best games ever made.

The Ape team was dismantled in 1995, and one of its former members, Tsunekazu Ishihara, with Satoru Iwata’s assistance, founded a new company in its stead: Creatures. Many of the same people who helped develop Mr. Itoi’s were about to take cues from Mr. Iwata by saving another struggling project. They invested in Mr. Tajiri’s idea, allowing his team to complete the games. In exchange, they received one-third of the franchise rights. Pocket Monsters took such a long time to develop that Mr. Tajiri had assisted in the creation of two Nintendo games in the interim: Yoshi and Mario & Wario. He even directed a game for the Sega Genesis named Pulseman alongside Mr. Sugimori.

After a long, arduous development process, Pocket Monsters was at last released domestically in October 1996. Upon completion, few media outlets paid it attention. This was reflected in how Famitsu, the most widely read video game publication in Japan, awarded it twenty-nine points out of a possible forty. In the six years between Mr. Tajiri conceiving the idea for Pocket Monsters and its release, the industry evolved to a point beyond recognition. Nintendo had a fierce, new competitor in the form of Sony’s PlayStation console, and they themselves had launched the Nintendo 64. Both consoles began experimenting with three-dimensional gameplay and every franchise attempted to make the leap. In the face of the medium’s experimental direction, any game retaining a 2D or side-scrolling presentation was doomed to fall by the wayside regardless of its quality.

As a result of these factors, the Game Boy itself had rapidly declined in popularity. Despite having sold more than 100-million units worldwide, the platform was but forgotten by 1996. The only person interested in releasing anything for the portable system was Mr. Tajiri himself. Nintendo, on the other hand, was prepared to declare Pocket Monsters a loss long before the project saw completion. Therefore, nobody could have predicted the game to not only sell rapidly, but singlehandedly save the Game Boy as a platform. One of the reasons Pocket Monsters sold as well as it did was due to Nintendo’s idea to produce two versions of the game: Red and Green.

In the face of this success, it was only logical for Nintendo to export Pocket Monsters to the West. In order to make this release successful, Nintendo is said to have spent over 50-million dollars to promote the games. Before their release, the Western localization team was highly skeptical about the concept. Believing the “cutesy” art style of Pocket Monsters wouldn’t appeal to Americans, they wanted them to be redesigned and “beefed up”. This was overruled by Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo at the time, who regarded the games’ possible reception in the United States as a challenge to face. On the eve of the games’ launch, an anime series premiered, bearing what was to be their localized name: Pokémon – a romanized portmanteau of its domestic title. In September of 1998, two versions of the game, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue debuted in North America before receiving an official release the following October in Australia. The European gaming community wouldn’t receive a port until October of 1999.

Whatever reservations the localization team may have had about the series’ overseas success were fully assuaged when these games began selling by the millions. It is nearly impossible to overstate how much of a phenomenon Pokémon was in the late nineties. It could be thought of as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers for a new generation of children – a truly inescapable work beloved by children from all walks of life. As a sign of the renewed interest in portable gaming, Nintendo released the successor to the Game Boy, the Game Boy Color, the very same year Pokémon debuted abroad. Having not only defied all odds and resonated with enthusiasts of varying backgrounds, but also breathed new life into Nintendo’s line of handheld consoles, how well do Pokémon Red and Blue stand the test of time?

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Super Mario 64

Introduction

Although the launch of the Super Famicom, known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) internationally, was a success, sales were affected by two factors. While the Famicom (NES) went a majority of its life unchallenged, the fourth saw the rise of a fierce challenger in the form of Sega. Owing to a successful marketing campaign revolving around their mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, and his eponymous 1991 debut game, Sega successfully tapped into the zeitgeist of the era, proving they could keep pace with the ostensibly out-of-fashion Nintendo. This could be seen in how Super Mario World was received. Though popular even when it was released in 1990, with no fewer than three predecessors, people dismissed it as another Mario title. On top of this, a failed business deal between Nintendo and Sony involving a CD-ROM player add-on to the SNES resulted in the latter company themselves entering the console race with their inaugural PlayStation console in 1994. Said console proved to be highly popular – especially once prominent third-party developers such as Konami and Capcom, dissatisfied with Nintendo’s draconian licensing policies, began releasing new installments of their big-name franchises on Sony’s platform.

The other factor that caused Nintendo’s sales to slump was something none of these companies had control over: the economy. Throughout second half of the twentieth century, Japan’s economy appeared to be a juggernaut with many Westerners speculating that they would effectively take over the world. This eventually proved not to be the case. In late 1991, the Japanese asset price bubble collapsed, and a devastating recession ensued.

There were numerous causes behind this recession. One of the biggest catalysts was when the Bank of Japan, attempting to keep inflation in check, raised inter-bank lending rates. Before then, the banks were lending more with barely any regard for the borrowers’ credibility. Their drastic actions caused the bubble to burst, and the stock market crashed, leaving banks and insurance companies with several books’ worth of bad debt. The period that followed would eventually be known as the Lost Decade with some economists believing it to have lasted long enough to warrant being called the Lost Score. With Nintendo facing not one, but two companies that were more than a match for them while also feeling the effects of an inescapable recession, they realized they needed to do something drastic to remain in the game.

The Sunnyvale, California-based company Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), had prided themselves by leading the pack in graphics visualization and supercomputing. They were particularly interested in expanding their business, adapting their pioneering technology so that it could reach a higher volume of consumer products. Observing the impressive momentum of the video game industry, they felt it to be the ideal starting point. Their lasted invention had them use the MIPS R4000 family of CPUs as a base, creating something that used only a fraction of the resources. SGI founder Jim Clark originally offered a proposal to Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske. If they declined, Nintendo would be the next candidate in line. The exact details of the subsequent negotiations have been lost. It has been claimed that Mr. Kalinske and a colleague of his were impressed with SGI’s prototype only for engineers to uncover multiple hardware issues. While they were ultimately resolved, Sega decided against SGI’s design. It’s also said that the real reason they partnered with Nintendo was because they, unlike Sega, were willing to license the technology on a non-exclusive basis, thus expanding SGI’s consumer base to a far greater degree if their newest console became a hit. Regardless, a partnership was made, and when Jim Clark met with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi in early 1993, Project Reality had begun. The eventual result would be the console to succeed the Super Famicom.

The first result from Project Reality was the Onyx supercomputer, which was priced anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 USD. The system’s controller was a modified SNES controller outfitted with an analogy joystick and “Z” trigger. The secrecy was such that when LucasArts expressed interest in making a game for the console’s impending launch, the prototype controller had to be placed in a cardboard box as the developers used it.

In June of 1994, Nintendo announced the new name of the unfinished console: the “Ultra 64”. Its design was unveiled for the first time shortly thereafter. The console was so named because it was to be the world’s first 64-bit gaming system. Atari had claimed that their Jaguar console was the first 64-bit gaming system. In reality, it only had a general 64-bit architecture, utilizing two 32-bit RISC processors along with a 16/32-bit Motorola 68000. For good measure, the Ultra 64 was cited in marketing campaigns as more powerful than the computers used for the Apollo 11 mission. Especially controversial was the decision for the console to retain ROM cartridges as opposed to utilizing the superior storage capabilities of the CD-ROM format, which drew much speculation from the press.

Some time after this, the console was to be called the “Ultra Famicom” domestically and “Ultra Nintendo 64” abroad. It’s rumored that the name was changed to avoid legal action by Konami. They had ownership of the Ultra Games trademark, a shell corporation used to circumvent Nintendo’s strict policies limiting the number of third-party releases that could be published in the United States during the NES era. Nintendo themselves claimed that the trademark issues were not a factor. However, they wanted to establish a single worldwide brand and logo for their third console, so these names canceled. The name they chose, the Nintendo 64, was proposed by Shigesato Itoi, a famous copywriter and creator of two beloved classics: Earthbound Beginnings and its sequel, Earthbound. With a collective of elite developers nicknamed the Dream Team, the Nintendo 64 project was ready to begin.

The console was formally unveiled in a playable form in November of 1995 at Nintendo’s seventh annual Shoshinkai trade show. As the hordes of schoolkids huddling around in the cold outside indicated, the anticipation for Nintendo’s newest console was extremely high. The Nintendo 64 was originally slated to be released by Christmas of 1995, but during the previous May, Nintendo delayed the launch to April of 1996. They claimed they needed more time for the software to mature and for third-party developers to become interested in producing games for it, though an engineer cited the hardware’s underperformance in playtesting sessions. As a result, the console’s launch was delayed again – this time to June 23, 1996. To placate potentially impatient fans, Nintendo ran ads with slogans such as “Wait for it…” and “Is it worth the wait? Only if you want the best!”

Similar to the case with their previous console, Nintendo knew full well that, as impressive as the new machine might be, it would be nothing for want of a selection of impressive launch titles. Once again, Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, the two most important names behind the Mario franchise were willing to step up to the plate. Joined by Yoshiaki Koizumi, who had recently cut his teeth writing the scenario for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the three were determined to make the Nintendo 64’s launch impactful.

As early as 1991, Mr. Miyamoto conceived the idea of a 3D Mario game as he worked on the SNES rail shooter Star Fox. He had considered using the Super FX chip to develop a game called Super Mario FX. It was to have gameplay revolving around an entire world in miniature similar to that of miniature trains. He reformulated the idea as the Nintendo 64 was being developed, though not because of its superior graphical capabilities. Instead, he observed the controller’s greater number of buttons and felt it would allow for more advanced gameplay. In accordance to the global branding of their newest console, the new game was to be called Super Mario 64. The scope of the project spanned three years. One year was spent designing the concept while two were allotted to directly work on the software. Guiding Mr. Miyamoto throughout this game’s development was the drive to include more details than any of its predecessors. He felt the style made the game play as a 3D interactive cartoon.

Information about Super Mario 64 was leaked in November of 1995. A playable version was presented days later. Because the game was only halfway completed by this point, Nintendo of American chairman Howard Lincoln once said that Mr. Miyamoto’s desire to add more to the game was a factor in the decision to delay the Nintendo 64’s launch. Indeed, Mr. Yamauchi, realizing just how observant players are, didn’t wish for the integrity of Mr. Miyamoto’s game to be compromised. When asked for an additional two months to work on the game, he granted the request without questioning it.

Super Mario 64 was released on the promised date of June 23, 1996 alongside the Nintendo 64 itself. While the Mario franchise had been no stranger to critical acclaim, the reception of Super Mario 64 seemed to trivialize that of its predecessors. As one of the medium’s first successful 3D platforming games, Super Mario 64 is considered one of the medium’s most important benchmarks. Such was the scope of its influence that it could be said to have singlehandedly effected the 3D video game leap. As the title often cited as ground zero for 3D gaming, was Super Mario 64 able to stand the test of time?

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Metroid: Samus Returns

Introduction

The 2000s was arguably the most prolific decade for a majority of Nintendo’s big-name franchises. The Zelda franchise issued several beloved installments such as Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess. At the same time, the Mario franchise became highly experimental; Super Mario Sunshine had the title character explore a tropical island with a highly pressurized water dispenser on his back while Super Mario Galaxy saw him explore the far reaches of space. However, Nintendo’s most unexpected move was in 2002 when the Metroid franchise saw not one, but two installments revitalize the franchise that had been dormant since the 1994 release of Super Metroid. One of these games, Metroid Prime, allowed the franchise to break into the third dimension. It was followed up with two sequels, forming what is considered one of the most solid trilogies in the medium. With the franchise proving its continued relevance in the face of their new competition, the future seemed bright for Metroid.

Indeed, going into the 2010s, enthusiasts were excited to play the upcoming Metroid: Other M. Retro Studios demonstrated the franchise’s flexibility with their imaginative scenarios, and Metroid: Other M would be a comparatively simplistic return to form courtesy of Yoshio Sakamoto, the man who directed Super Metroid. It seemed as though this new installment was geared to join Super Metroid and the Metroid Prime trilogy as one of the series’ hallmarks. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. In a shocking turn of events, the same game that topped countless lists regarding the most anticipated titles of 2010 received anomalously bad word-of-mouth. By the end of 2010, the game failed to sell one-million units. Only two years after its release would it pass the threshold. This was an unthinkably dismal performance for a first-party Nintendo game.

The point of contention among most independent critics concerned its story. Mr. Sakamoto had poured a lot of his soul into the project, wishing to provide a definitive characterization of series protagonist Samus Aran. However, said characterization proved problematic for a majority of the enthusiasts who played it – not only abroad, but domestically as well. Consequently, the scenario was universally panned to the point where many critiques failed to mention the gameplay. Depending on one’s perspective, said gameplay was either passable or outright bad. Though the exact quality of Metroid: Other M was hotly debated, its status as a commercial disappointment couldn’t be contested.

For many years, there was no word of a new Metroid installment. The only game bearing the franchise’s name saw the light of day in 2015 under the name Metroid Prime: Federation Force. Because players felt it had little to do with the franchise, the game received a monumental preemptive backlash that persisted once it was released. Many enthusiasts resigned themselves to the fact that the Metroid franchise was effectively dead.

Luckily, all hope was not lost. Developers led by Yoshio Sakamoto began work on a new project in 2015 codenamed Matadora. Joining them on this endeavor was the Spain-based developer MercurySteam. They had previously pitched a Metroid game for the 3DS and Wii U. It was ultimately rejected, but Mr. Sakamoto took note of their interest in the series, and decided to collaborate with them. MercurySteam wished to remake Metroid Fusion, but Mr. Sakamoto instead suggested reimagining the series’ second installment, Metroid II: Return of Samus. He himself did not work on the classic Game Boy title, but he was enthusiastic about remaking it, believing it to be a vital part of the series’ lore. With the knowledge he and his company had developing Castlevania: Lord of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, Jose Luis Márquez found himself in the director’s chair alongside veteran developer Takehiko Hosokawa.

As it turns out, their project couldn’t have been timed any better. Metroid fans had been clamoring for a Metroid II remake for many years. It was to the point where one enthusiast, who went by the alias DoctorM64, took it upon himself to develop an unofficial remake titled AM2R (Another Metroid 2 Remake). For his troubles, Nintendo issued a cease-and-desist notice, and the game was taken offline. While fans were understandably upset, they later learned the biggest reason why Nintendo did what they did when they announced their own official remake. For his part, Mr. Sakamoto stated that, though he hadn’t seen the game, he appreciated the fan for caring so much about the series. On that note, DoctorM64 was just as excited about Nintendo’s project as Mr. Sakamoto himself. In fact, he bought a New 3DS XL with the specific purpose to play Nintendo’s Metroid II remake.

After much speculation, the game was released in September of 2017 for the 3DS under the name Metroid: Samus Returns. The Nintendo Switch had been released six months prior, but Mr. Sakamoto had declined releasing it on that platform due to the 3DS’s larger consumer base at the time. He also felt the dual screens allowing players to view the map during gameplay would be of an immense help. Upon release, Samus Returns was well-received. After a lackluster showing for a majority of the decade, it was seen as the return to form the series needed to stay relevant in the eighth console generation. Mr. Sakamoto had spent a majority of this decade a laughing stock among long-time enthusiasts – especially on message boards. Was Samus Returns able to restore the goodwill he lost?

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Super Mario World

Introduction

Nintendo’s Family Computer, or Famicom, proceeded to dominate the console market after its 1983 launch. Sega had entered the market, releasing their own 8-bit console, the Master System, to directly compete with Nintendo, but they failed to even slow them down. This began to change in 1987 when NEC Corporation launched the PC Engine – later dubbed the TurboGrafx-16 internationally. The following year, Sega launched the Mega Drive, the 16-bit successor to their Master System. Though Nintendo’s executives were not in a hurry to design a new console, they reconsidered when they observed their market dominance beginning to slip.

It was up to Masayuki Uemura, the designer of the Famicom, to come up with something even greater. Fortunately, his newest creation, the Super Famicom, was ready to go a mere three years after the launch of the PC Engine. It was an immediate success with Nintendo’s initial shipment of 300,000 units selling out in a matter of hours. In fact, it caused such a social disturbance around shopping centers that the Japanese government stepped in, asking developers to only launch consoles on weekends to avoid any future chaos. A few sources even state that this hot commodity managed to capture the attention of the yakuza, leading Nintendo to ship the consoles at night to avoid any potential interceptions.

Naturally, consoles are nothing without their games, and after the success of Super Mario Bros. 3, Takashi Tezuka and Shigeru Miyamoto were determined to have the console make a good first impression on launch day. Joined by graphics designer Shigefumi Hino, they began work on a new Mario installment. The team consisted of ten people, most of whom had experience working on Super Mario Bros. Though Mr. Tezuka was the director once again, the core team said that Mr. Miyamoto wielded the most authority during the development cycle.

The staff members understandably had their reservations about the new hardware, anticipating they would have difficulties working with it. Mr. Tezuka stated that the software tools had not been fully developed. In other words, much like with Super Mario Bros., they found themselves for want of a style guide. As an experiment, they ported Super Mario Bros. 3 to the Super Famicom. They decided it felt like the same game in spite of its improved colors and sprites. Mr. Miyamoto realized then that their new goal was to use this improved hardware to create something entirely new. The game saw the light of day alongside the Super Famicom itself in November of 1990 under the name Super Mario World: Super Mario Bros. 4.

The Super Famicom was slated for a North American release the following year. Keeping consistent with its predecessor’s name, it would become the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES or SNES) overseas. Super Mario World, dropping the Super Mario Bros. 4 subtitle, was to be one of the console’s launch titles abroad as well. Though both Super Mario World and the platform on which it was released proved to be a success, Nintendo found themselves facing a particularly fierce competitor. Sega brought the Mega Drive to North America where it was known as the Genesis. One of their games, Sonic the Hedgehog, ended up being their console’s biggest hit. The hip, cool title character was popular with children and teens, playing up to the era’s zeitgeist.

Not pictured: Maturity

Sega of America didn’t stop at extensively marketing Sonic the Hedgehog. They claimed theirs was the superior console due to it having what they referred to as “blast processing”, and even went as far as outright insulting Nintendo and, by extension, Super Mario World. Thus began one of the fiercest and most famous video game rivalries of its day. As a result of the popularity of Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario World was dismissed in many circles as just another Mario game. Meanwhile, with its fast-paced gameplay, Sonic the Hedgehog was the title to own in 1991.

However, as is the case in many stories like this, the all-seeing, all-knowing power of hindsight granted Super Mario World a new lease on life. Though Sonic the Hedgehog is still considered a classic, Super Mario World is the game people would be more likely to find on a given list detailing the greatest of all time. On top of that, Mr. Miyamoto himself considered Super Mario World his personal favorite Mario game. Having a chance to fully establish its legacy, did Super Mario World manage to ultimately triumph over its flashier competition?

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Sin and Punishment

Introduction

In 1993, the Japanese developer Treasure made a name for themselves with their inaugural title, Gunstar Heroes. From there, they created many more games for Sega’s consoles such as Dynamite Headdy, Alien Solider, and Guardian Heroes, which would become beloved cult classics. After the release of Guardian Heroes in 1996, Treasure began making games for various platforms. Mischief Makers marked their first appearance on a Nintendo console, having been released in 1997 for the Nintendo 64. Around this time, Treasure wrote a proposal and submitted it to Nintendo.

They were inspired by the Nintendo 64’s decidedly abnormal controller. Nintendo themselves suggested two ways of holding the controller. The player’s left hand would grip the center or left handle in order to reach the control stick or control pad respectively. Due to the success of Super Mario 64, which effected the medium’s 3D revolution, gripping the center handle became the standard. This is because the control stick, being able to register precise, subtle movements, proved ideal for 3D gameplay. The control pad, on the other hand, was better suited for 2D gameplay. However, because a majority of the medium’s big-name franchises began experimenting with 3D gameplay, the Nintendo 64’s control pad was underutilized more often than not. Masato Maegawa, the president of Treasure, took note of this and began discussing ways with which to incorporate the left positioning. Thus, Treasure teamed up with Nintendo’s first Research and Development branch to create a new action game.

The team behind this hypothetical game started off as a skeleton crew, consisting of two programmers and two designers. By the end, more people were on this team than in any of Treasure’s previous projects. The lead programmer Atsumoto Nakagawa and enemy designer Yasushi Suzuki previously had roles developing the shoot ‘em up Radiant Silvergun. As this game was to be their first attempt at a true 3D action title, they were about to explore uncharted territory. Treasure believed the console’s graphics card lent a more robust 3D presentation than that of their rivals. They had made it part of their creed to push the limits of the hardware, but understandably ran into multiple difficulties with the Nintendo 64.

Because the two companies had wildly different design philosophies, the development of this game wound up being slightly tumultuous. Hitoshi Yamaguchi was placed in charge of Nintendo’s half of development. He described Treasure as a weird company. His attempts at establishing deadlines for the Treasure team often led to them deflecting the requests. To make matters worse, when Mr. Yamaguchi played an early prototype, he declared it to be too difficult – even though he was impressed with it on a technical level. Treasure responded by saying that if he wasn’t skilled enough to play the game, he had no business supervising its production. Mr. Yamaguchi understood that Treasure took pride in making difficult games, but still insisted they tone it down. These negotiations continued for roughly a year before Treasure relented and lowered the game’s difficulty level.

The working title for this game was Glass Soldier. This was to metaphorically reflect the fragility of the main character. As the proposed title consisted of two English words, it was spelled out in the katakana writing system. However, because many game titles ended up being written in katakana during this era, Mr. Yamaguchi suggested creating a new title written in kanji instead. Rare’s spiritual successor to their hit first-person shooter Goldeneye was in development at the time. Domestically, it was to be known as Perfect Dark, but in Japan, it had a different title: Aka to KuroRed and Black. Taking cues from this naming convention, Mr. Yamaguchi thought up of a new title: Tsumi to BatsuSin and Punishment. Believing the name would be too obscure, he then asked the younger staff members for a subtitle. They, in turn, came up with Earth Successor. Though Treasure did not like this name change, they warmed up to it.

Compared to its contemporaries, Sin and Punishment took an unusually long time to be developed. The cycle began in 1997 and wouldn’t see the light of day until the end of 2000. By this time, Nintendo was putting the finishing touches on the Nintendo GameCube, the Nintendo 64’s successor. Nonetheless, Satoru Iwata remarked that Treasure accomplished a lot with a relatively small team. Targeting older gamers, Sin and Punishment sold a modest 100,000 copies. Featuring English voice acting, Sin and Punishment was geared toward North American enthusiasts. However, because the Nintendo 64 was at the end of its lifecycle, these plans did not come to pass. Despite this, the few Western critics who managed to import the game praised it, believing it to be one of the most ambitious titles on the console. Like many of Treasure’s works, Sin and Punishment grew a cult following among Western gamers. They believed it to be one of the best Nintendo 64 games that never saw localization. Even so, with its lack of international availability, it was doomed to fall into obscurity.

Fortunately, hope was not lost. In 2006, Nintendo launched the Wii, their main platform in the seventh console generation and successor to the GameCube. Among its many features was the Virtual Console, a service that allowed players to digitally download classic games from Nintendo’s past platforms. When the service was announced, Sin and Punishment became one of the most demanded titles. Nintendo obliged, and Sin and Punishment was finally released in North America and PAL regions in late 2007. With the sheer amount of enthusiasm leading up to its international debut, was Sin and Punishment worth the seven-year wait?

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