Monday, November 13, 2017

Livin' on Channel Z

So, an old friend of mine (and when you get to be my age, they're all old friends. Pardon me while I pluck another grey hair out of my eyebrows) has been spending his free time mapping out old NES games. I jokingly asked him to make Capcom's Section Z his next big project. His response? "You're a bad person and you should feel bad." (I think he was joking.)

Fortunately, someone already took care of this a long time ago. My cousin had this game back in the day, and he got frustrated enough with it that he begged Capcom for assistance. They were kind enough to send him a handy map, charting a path through all of its Gordian-knotted stages. And here it is now!



I don't know how I managed to get this, nor do I know how I was able to keep it long enough to scan it for my old web site, The Gameroom Blitz. But here it is now, in all its "is that a game map or a schematic for a super computer?" glory. Note that the cartographer was Paul Biederman, who later promised to release a handheld NES called the Nintendo Express. Here's more information from the ninth issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly:



I'll give you the Cliff Notes on this. Biederman's proposed Nintendo Express had stereo sound (okay, sure), a four inch backlit color display (...), and could squeeze at least forty hours of life out of a set of batteries (BULLSHI- I mean, uh, rather doubtful!). Most of these specs are easily achieved with today's technology, but this magazine was published in December 1989. I think Biederman was either selling EGM's readers a false bill of goods or had entirely too much confidence in his abilities as an engineer. I mean, sure, mapping out a game like Section Z without losing your mind in the process is pretty impressive, but delivering on hardware like the kind described in this article twenty-eight years ago is a little slice of impossible.

EDIT: This site claims the issue in question was published in April of 1990, not December 1989, which would explain the ridiculous claims made about the system. Did I ever mention that I hated EGM's April Fool's jokes?

EDIT to the EDIT: I can't ascertain that the issue in question was from April 1990, because EGM was kind of squirrelly about publication dates back in those days. If the premiere came out in May of 1989 as the cover states, and the magazine really was published on a monthly basis, the ninth issue should have hit shelves in January 1990. However, none of that would mean anything if EGM had skipped months. Let this be a lesson to you... always clearly post publication dates on your magazines for archival purposes. Also, never publish bullshit April Fool's jokes like the ones in EGM.

Another freaking EDIT: I just found this page from the seventeenth issue of EGM, published on the Nintendo World Report forum by a user named Hudson Soft Fan. Evidently the Nintendo Express (or The Express, as shown here) was a real thing, and was considered for release by Camerica, the creators of the Game Genie peripheral and a perpetual thorn in Nintendo's side.


Now I'm not sure what to believe! But I still say an NES portable with forty hours of battery life is crap, unless that battery once belonged to a station wagon.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

I Played It on the X

Now that Miiverse is closing up shop, I'll have to find something else to occupy my time. Wait, how about that blog I never update? Yeah, that'll work!

Here now are reviews of a handful of games I've been playing (or in the case of Amped 2, trying to play) on my classic Xbox.

AMPED 2
Microsoft


Shown here: someone who actually knows
what the hell they're doing.
(image from YouTube)
Okay, so you're thinking to yourself, "Jess already humiliated himself trying to play SSX3! Why the heck would he try another snowboarding game?" Well, there are a couple answers to that question. The first is that I figured a different snowboarding game would be more accessible. This one's got a hands-on tutorial, while SSX3 thinks text messages are good enough. (They're not.) However, while the basics of Amped 2 are easy enough to understand, the finer points of the gameplay, like combos, pre-winds, and tilting the left thumbstick just enough to earn style points, are incredibly difficult to master. Just like SSX3, I find myself landing on my face, behind, and everything but the board half the time I attempt tricks. It's a shame too, because Amped 2 looks nearly as attractive as EA's game does, and I like the idea of showing off for the cameramen scattered across each mountain. I usually get a face full of snow trying to show off for the cameras, but it's a good idea in theory.

The second answer is that the game cost a little over a buck at Bookman's. Leave me alone. B-

BLOOD WAKE
Microsoft/Stormfront

Microsoft was willing to color outside the lines occasionally with its first game system, as evidenced by titles like Blood Wake. Speedboat combat with a quasi-Asian setting wasn't something you were likely to find on either the Playstation 2 or GameCube. Heck, I have to think back to the obscure Genesis release Bimini Run to come up with something similar... but while that game was dangerously close to torture, Blood Wake succeeds thanks to clearly defined missions, a boat that can withstand heavy fire, and impressive water physics. Hey, when most of the game's graphics are sea, you might as well make it look really good. The cherry on top is the story, told with meticulously detailed sketches and quality voice acting. The sepia-toned drawings add authenticity to the Eastern setting, and give Blood Wake a welcome touch of class. B-

ENTER THE MATRIX
Atari/Shiny


And it doesn't look that great, either.
(image from justrpg.com, which evidently isn't)
Tightly integrated with the film franchise and dismissed by the press, Enter the Matrix isn't quite as hopeless as you've been led to believe. It's never great, but in its best moments, Enter the Matrix is an admirably ambitious action title, offering much of the excitement and the time-shifting, wall-bounding combat of the first movie. The control feels a little loose and you're not always sure where to go, but it's nevertheless clear that a lot of work went into making this look and feel like an authentic Matrix experience.

In its lesser moments, Enter the Matrix folds car chases, sniping distant targets, and battles with heavily armed choppers into the action, and the game starts to sag under all that dead weight. The awkwardness that permeates the gameplay is never more keenly felt than when you're driving a tip-prone police van with half the screen obscured, and interactive plot points tend to be both needlessly confusing and abusively frustrating. Couldn't they save this stuff for the cut scenes? In fact, maybe you'd better save your craving for bullet time for one of the Max Payne games. C-

GUILTY GEAR X2 #RELOAD
Majesco/Arc System Works

Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in! For the last fifteen years, I've been in a perpetual cycle of trying to become a Guilty Gear fan, only to be repelled by its quirky design. Special moves are tough to remember with the game's odd button layout, and even tougher to properly utilize. Characters tend to lean toward the weird and flashy, and away from Street Fighter's predictable but comfortably familiar martial artists. There's an emphasis on chaining together lightning-quick combos, with the impact of each blow suffering as a result.

Yet in spite of all my beefs, I want to like Guilty Gear. It's crisply drawn and colorful and imaginative, which is why I keep coming back to it, hoping that someday it will all just click for me. Guilty Gear X2 #Reload comes closer to hitting that switch than any other game in the series. Maybe it's because it's more satisfying to play it on a big screen, rather than the Vita's tiny display. Maybe it's because I've finally found a character who works for me... the swordsman Ky Kiske is as close to normal as you're going to find in Guilty Gear, and the swipes of his blade do meaningful damage even when they're not part of a seven hit combo. I'm still not a Guilty Gear fan, but X2 #Reloaded tilts the scales of my love-hate relationship with the series a little closer toward love and a little further away from hate. B

LINKS 2004
Microsoft/Access


No can dunk, but good fundamentals.
(image from Thunderboltgames.com)
I don't normally like sports titles, but a good game of golf is like comfort food to me. Sometimes, it just feels right to dispense with the aggressive sensory overload of your average video game and concentrate on dropping ball A into hole B. Links 2004 scratches that itch as well as any game I've played, with strong visuals and brilliant camera work for your best swings, but it suffers from one serious problem. Links 2004 is... pretty generic. Like, generic enough that you'd expect to find it in a white box next to the real brands on a supermarket shelf. Sure, it's endorsed by a celebrity golfer, but the celebrity in question is Sergio Garcia, who I didn't know existed until I played this game. The title cards used to celebrate record breaking shots are in typesets seemingly pulled from shareware font collections. The rock music introducing each hole is functional, but not terribly catchy, and certainly not performed by familiar musicians. Links 2004 is more than competent, outperforming Tiger Woods 2006 on the more advanced Xbox 360, but it's nevertheless simple comfort food; more mashed potatoes and gravy than birthday cake. B

SCALER
Take-Two/A2M

What's unfortunate about Scaler is while it's a perfectly adequate platformer, the included art gallery hints at a more interesting one... something a bit more cartoony and a bit less focus tested. What we get instead is the story of a boy turned lizard who gets sucked into an alternate dimension, then fights non-descript enemies with powers both obvious (claws and a tongue lash) and confusing (a burst of electricity, charged up by surfing rails scattered throughout each lush stage). Scaler is the kind of game that specifically caters to its tween audience, who may be too young to recognize the profound lameness of the hero's snarky quips, and will be happy enough with the diverting gameplay to ignore its many cliches. The adults in the room will get a kick out of Scaler's alternate forms; creatures like a bomb-chucking gremlin and a spherical reptile which use physics to add some much-needed zest to the action. C+

TIMESPLITTERS: FUTURE PERFECT
Electronic Arts/Free Radical

As a general rule, first-person shooters are grim, gritty, and hardcore, punishing less skilled players with swift deaths. TimeSplitters: Future Perfect is absolutely none of these things, making it a welcome addition to this unwelcoming genre. The game was designed by the team responsible for the Nintendo 64 version of Goldeneye, and it shows in both its quality and a wacky, British sense of humor influenced by Free Radical's tenure at Rare. While on the trail of a mad scientist, Sergeant Cortez jumps from one time period to the next, teaming up with a dimwitted goth girl, a secret agent who makes Austin Powers look like Pierce Brosnan, and thanks to rips in the space-time continuum, even himself. Cortez is never at a loss for weapons, packing everything from a simple pistol to a rocket launcher, and each mission is both beautifully illustrated and offers just the right amount of challenge. It's a great introduction to first-person shooters, and a transcendent experience even for those who can't stand them. A-

WILD RINGS
Microsoft/Paon


Fire Pro Wrestling never LOOKED
this good, at least.
(image from Video Games Museum)
Wild Rings is one of the few Japanese exclusives for the original Xbox, and while it would be easy to describe it as a wrestling game, that's not entirely accurate. Wild Rings covers the entire pantheon of sports entertainment, from several flavors of professional wrestling to kickboxing to fistboxing to mixed martial arts. Each style of fighting has its own signature move, triggered with the L button... for instance, sumos charge into their opponents like a flabby freight train, while karatekas can deflect incoming strikes, leaving their rivals open for a split second.

It would be accurate to say that Wild Rings cribs mightily from the Fire Pro Wrestling series, with an achingly familiar presentation, copyright friendly clones of real life fighters, and fighting that leans toward the technical rather than the flashy. As it is with Fire Pro, the key to victory is to wear down your opponent with slaps and kicks, then work your way up to the heavy artillery of throws and submissions. 

Wild Rings isn't as good as Fire Pro- some fighting disciplines have an unfair advantage against others, and I'm still not sure how the grapple system works after sixty plus matches- but this is as close as you're gonna get to the real thing on the original Xbox. Also, you've got to give Wild Rings credit for its remarkably lifelike polygonal characters, certainly an improvement over Fire Pro's steroid-packed puppets. B

Monday, October 30, 2017

Slipped Discs

First things first. You'd think the success of the Switch would threaten the continued existence of the 3DS, but Nintendo has given its previous handheld a temporary stay of executionThis is good news for the millions of Nintendo fans who aren't quite fond enough of Nintendo to spend three hundred dollars on a Switch, but it comes with a catch. The 3DS line will now be marketed to a younger, more cash-strapped audience, with games to match. I guess I'd better work up an appetite for table scraps, because it sounds like that's what the system will be serving for the next couple of years. Special thanks to GBATemp for the scoop.

So, what else was I going to discuss...? Oh yeah! You may recall that I hacked my classic Xbox a couple of months ago, since I haven't shut up about it since. The machine is stocked with dozens of arcade hits from my childhood... but I didn't include them all. After some contemplation, I decided to leave the handful of laserdisc games in the past, mostly for the sake of hard drive space but also because... uh... what's the most charitable way to describe these? I keep reaching for a charitable euphemism, but the only thing that keeps coming to mind is "these miserable things suck ass."

I mean, really, have you seen these games? Thanks to the content maker-shafting magic of YouTube, you will.


By my estimation, laserdisc games come in four different flavors. The first of these is "western cartoon with nearly motion picture-quality animation." Nearly all of these came out at a specific time (1983) and were directed by a specific person (animation legend Don Bluth). The lone exception is Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp, shown here. The game was put into a time warp of its own thanks to the video game crash, and wasn't released for five years. This may have been good timing, because the mall arcade had made a comeback... but then again, maybe it wasn't, because 16-bit hardware had started to narrow the gap in visual quality between video games and movies pretending to be them.

Anyway. Bluth's games are a high watermark in the sewer that is the laserdisc genre. They're only barely interactive and require way too much trial and error to enjoy as a video game, but they're at least fun to watch. Dirk corrupting a plus-sized Eve, battling his way through Alice in Wonderland, and surviving a creative outburst from Mozart is Don Bluth at his "I forgot my meds again" peak.

Next we have "Japanese cartoon with nearly television-quality animation." Some of these were pieced together from footage of films most Americans had no idea existed. Stern's Cliff Hanger is one such example; a re-purposing of Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro. The dubbing is lousy and action scenes are repeated several times in a row to pad out the game, but the footage is from a Hayao Miyazaki film, so it's at least easy on the eyes. 


On the other hand, you've got something like Esh's Aurunmilla (shown here). The animation for this Gakken release was made especially for the game, rather than pasted onto it from other sources. On the down side, the game was designed on the cheap to capitalize on the fleeting popularity of Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, and it really shows in the anemic artwork and creatively bankrupt character designs. Recycling doesn't seem so bad now, does it? Esh merges the heroes of Don Bluth's games into one supremely dorky space barbarian, whose voice actor seems to ad-lib all his lines and would probably lose an arm wrestling match to your dead grandmother. The action is par for the course for this genre, except with tiny visual cues that are easily lost in the backgrounds. If you play only one laserdisc game this year... this probably shouldn't be it.


To be fair, not all of the Japanese laserdisc games were this derivative. Hell, I haven't seen anything you could compare to Data East's Road Avenger (aka Road Blaster), released years later for the Sega CD. Let me try to explain this... your wife is murdered by a gang moments after your marriage, so you kill them all in a spree of vehicular homicide. Road Avenger is seen from a first person viewpoint and there are extra buttons to press, making it even harder than the average laserdisc game, but you've gotta give props to the loony concept. It's like the episode of M.A.S.K. the networks were too afraid to air.


Let's move on from the not-really games to the kinda-sorta games. These were typically shooters using the primitive 8-bit technology of the time, superimposed over video footage. Sometimes it was Japanese cartoons, sometimes it was stock footage of a city seen from an overhead view, and sometimes it was Astron Belt's grab bag of low-budget space battles and MacGyver explosions. There's slightly more interaction here than in the previous games mentioned, with players being able to pilot their ship around the screen, but they're not given much to do beyond dodge the occasional laser and fire into the void of space. Sometimes your ship just explodes for no discernible reason. Thirty-five years later, gamers still aren't sure how to play Astron Belt, or if there's a point to it at all.


Other games made better use of the combined technologies, including Gottlieb's M.A.C.H. 3 and Simutrek's surprisingly advanced Cube Quest (shown here). Yep, those are really polygons in a 1983 video game. I was surprised too. Yet even in the better hybrids, there are still issues. The laserdisc footage is often poorly edited, with jarring transitions that take away from the sense of immersion, and the games are typically dull shoot 'em ups that don't compare to the best titles from Namco, Sega, and Williams. Throw in all the anime clips you want, but Bega's Battle is never going to be a match for Galaga or Astro Blaster.

Finally, we come to the full-motion video game. Most of these were released in the 1990s for the Sega CD, a console which was poorly suited to them due to its low color output and the limited capacity of the CD-ROM format. It's not a surprise that two of these games, Night Trap and Sewer Shark, were originally developed for the Control-Vision, a VHS-based game system bankrolled by Nolan Bushnell and considered for release by Hasbro. The Control-Vision was ultimately cancelled, but its games lived on thanks to the Sega CD. (Lucky us.)

Full-motion video games play similarly to Dragon's Lair, with live actors replacing the animation and a teeny bit more interactivity. For instance, in Night Trap, you can switch your view between eight rooms to find and catch vampires hoping to sink their teeth into the game's cast of perky co-eds. Most of these titles were console exclusives, with one odd exception.


This is Time Traveler, released by Sega in 1991. This arcade title features a cowboy who jumps from one period of time to the next, blasting cavemen, drug dealers, and some really unfortunate western-themed stereotypes. As expected from a full-motion video game, the acting is terrible, the set pieces are cheap, and the interactivity is limited. The game's only notable feature is the use of a holographic effect that makes the characters seem as though they've been projected onto a grid. It didn't take long for Sega to leave Time Traveler in the past and adapt its holographic technology to a fighting game, the claustrophobic Holosseum. It wasn't good either, but at least it was more relevant to gamers in the 1990s.

So there you have it. Laserdiscs offer a variety of gaming experiences... none of them particularly good.

(Thanks to the many users of YouTube for the video clips!
Special no thanks to YouTube, who keeps treating them like crap.)

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Urge to Merge

Not to be fickle, but I'm thinking of posting to this blog again. You know, two weeks after chasing all my viewers away with the previous announcement that I was taking a break. As Ochalla astutely observed, blogs are all about self-indulgence... I should just leave caution to the wind and post whatever the hell I want. Besides, the original Xbox that I've been spending so much time with is back en vogue now that the Xbox One supports a handful of its games. Engadget reports that you'll be able to choose from a selection of thirteen titles as soon as tomorrow, or just pop in the discs from the original system, if you happen to have them in your collection. The currently supported games vary wildly in quality (King of Fighters: Neowave? Seriously?), but you can always blow away the chaff and head straight to the wheat of Crimson Skies and Ninja Gaiden Black.

There was one other thing I wanted to mention, as was suggested in the title of this post. There are rumors floating around the 'net that Capcom is in dire financial straits, and that it may be acquired by another game company. We've heard such hearsay before, and there haven't been any conclusive reports from trusted video game news sources (or Kotaku). However, let's just indulge the rumors for a minute and ponder who might claim the Capcom IP in the near future. Personally, I'm hoping it'll be Nintendo, as the company has worked closely with Capcom over the last thirty years, and seem to understand better than anyone else (including, uh, Capcom) how to make the most of its stable of characters. Naturally, this would mean they wouldn't appear anywhere else, but that exclusivity would be a boon for the Switch, which has had trouble luring in third party developers despite strong sales.

An acquisition by Square-Enix, Konami, or Electronic Arts is also possible (and frightening, if I may editorialize). The only reason I can see Konami taking the reigns of Capcom is out of spite, since Capcom's early foundation was built almost exclusively by ex-Konami programmer Yoshiki Okamoto. Then again, Konami's sole motivation these days seems to be revenge, so I wouldn't put the purchase past them. Square-Enix has been merger-happy lately, absorbing Taito and Eidos over the last decade, so it's entirely possible that Capcom will be its next meal. 

Then there's Electronic Arts. Japanese game companies generally don't merge with Western ones, but if Capcom gets especially desperate for cash, and EA wants to wedge its foot in the door of the Asian market, it could happen. I wouldn't have much confidence in Capcom's continued existence if this comes to pass... after all, EA just shuttered Visceral Games, in spite of that company making EA relevant in the survival horror genre with Dead Space. Anyone familiar with Electronic Arts knows that the company has a habit of purchasing and then cannibalizing its development studios; most notably Origin, the creator of Wing Commander and the influential Ultima series. With any luck, Capcom will not share their fate.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Downtime

Forgive the extended absence. I'd post something, but in all honesty, I just don't wanna. I'm not interested in updating the blog at the moment, and I'm not convinced people would want to read what I've got to say. "Hey, let's take a look at these ancient Xbox games I'm playing!," I'd say, to the groans and snores of my audience. (Admittedly, I've been going to this well pretty often lately, and I'm not sure anyone else shares this thirst.)

I don't know. Maybe I'll get my blogging groove back during the holiday season, but for the moment, my interest in posting could be best illustrated as an EKG flatline. I'm sure my enthusiasm will return in time, and when it does, you'll be the first to know.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Catch Me, I'm Fall-ing

It's officially fall. The birds are chirping (well, my birds are chirping... all the other ones seem to have flown south), the weather has cooled, and the game industry has roused from its slumber to release several highly anticipated products in time for the holiday season. After several years in limbo, side-scrolling shooter/1930s animation throwback Cuphead has been released to rave reviews. There's also the Super NES Classic, which Nintendo has released in adequate supply to fend off both scalpers and torch-wielding gamers still angry that they weren't able to purchase the company's last plug and play console. So I guess I won't get a chance to post this image complaining about the supply bottleneck I expected... but heh, I'm gonna do it anyway.


As for me, I'm still plugging away at my classic Xbox. What's great about this system- aside from the crapton of emulators available for it- is that games for the sixteen year old machine are still in abundance, still reasonably priced, and still look great, especially on the Xbox 360.

Oh yeah! Speaking of the Xbox 360, it's last call for the system's Indie Games service. You've got about... hmm... three days to purchase the handful of standout titles in the massive (and if I can be honest, massively awful) XBLIG library. I'd personally recommend Crosstown and Leave Home, and others have spoken highly of DELTA and, uh, qrth-phyl? Pat, can I buy a vowel here? 

Anyway, you've got until the 7th of this month to grab what you want, and while the signal to noise ratio on XBLIG is atrociously low, there are still a few games worth your time. On a related note, Nintendo is (finally) ending its Wiiware download service, but you've got about a year to stuff your Wii with software, so there's no great rush there.

This begs a discussion on the ephemeral nature of digital downloads, and I'm sure we'll be talking about that a lot in the future. Since I've got other things I need to do tonight, all I'm gonna say for the moment is that backups are your friend. Keep a few hard drives and SD cards around just in case.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How Sweet It Is!

It's been a while since I've posted, so I might as well take care of that while waiting for my homemade caramel to finish cooking. It's really not hard, y'know! You just drop a can of sweetened condensed milk into a pot of water, set it to boil, then turn down the heat to low and let it simmer for around three hours. Make sure there's always water over the top of the can, and...

Okay, okay, I'm stalling. I've got a larger hard drive in that Xbox now, and have been cramming every emulator I can find into it. One harsh truth has revealed itself in the process, though... no matter what game console or set top box you use, there's always going to be a flaw that keeps it just shy of perfection. For the Android TV I was using earlier, it was limited storage and the fact that nearly every emulator costs money. The Xbox comes closer to hitting that entertainment sweet spot than most, but without an HDMI port, the graphics in emulators suffer slightly. There may be options to sharpen up the picture in MAMEdOX and Final Burn Legends, but nothing I've tried gets rid of the blur entirely. I'll keep working at it.

Ow ow ow my hands ow ow ow
(image from YouTube)
Speaking of the 'box, I've been sampling a few of its games. You remember all those complaints about the awkward control in GunValkyrie? Yep, they were right on the money. My hands still ache from squeezing triggers and pushing in thumbsticks for the past hour. I get the impression that Sega was trying to offer the same nimble movement that Capcom had in Product No. 03, but couldn't make it fit in the framework of what is essentially a mech game. Twitchy camera control and unreliable targeting add to the frustration... there were far too many times where Kelly either wouldn't lock onto visible targets, or couldn't find them at all. I might come back to the game later, but I'm sure I could do better.

On the plus side, I tried the unreleased Xbox version of The Red Star, and enjoyed the game a lot more than I had when I first tried it on the Playstation 2. I'm guessing that I gave up on the game after getting soundly thrashed by the first stage. However, once you've muscled your way through the prologue and gotten the hang of the play mechanics, The Red Star reveals itself as a fairly diverting blend of beat 'em ups and bullet hell shooters. The challenge comes from juggling the two styles of gameplay, striking from a safe distance with your guns, then switching to melee combat to disarm shielded enemies. It's not the first time someone's tried to mix gunplay with CQC, but it works better here than it had in Capcom's quickly forgotten Cannon Spike.

Ooh, ooh! Caramel's almost done! I'll catch you all later. Apologies for the long wait between blog posts.