Thursday, October 10, 2019

Liminal Advertising

Do you, by chance, remember Rolento's stage in Street Fighter Alpha 2? That's the one where you're hoisted to the top of a skyscraper on a wide metal platform. As you're sent upward, you notice screen-filling billboards of a half-dressed Statue of Liberty proudly holding a Fujitsu computer, instead of freedom's torch.

It's not subtle advertising, like, at all, but it definitely achieved the intended effect. Behold!



Yes, I bought a Fujitsu Lifebook T732 from eBay, then used a vectorized version of that very image as its desktop wallpaper. It's not the only reason I bought this computer- I'm hoping its tablet features will spur me into drawing again- but it was nevertheless a strong catalyst for this purchase. Congratulations Fujitsu, that shameless product placement has earned you a new customer. (Albeit twenty-three years late.)

Anyway, enough of that. Much has happened in the video game industry since my last blog entry, and it's my nerdly duty to report on these events. First, professional Hearthstone player Chung Ng Wai was stripped of his title, his prize money, and a chance to appear in the swimsuit competition after expressing his solidarity with the people of Hong Kong. 

Some background on all this. Hearthstone is a card battle game, similar to Yu-Gi-Oh! or SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighter's Clash, and tangentially related to the World of Warcraft series. Hong Kong has been struggling to keep its autonomy since China gained control of the country from Great Britain in 1996. Activision-Blizzard makes the Hearthstone game and does big business in China, which is why they felt the need to do the country's dirty work for it, and put the hammer down on Chung Ng Wai for the scandalous opinion that Hong Kong shouldn't have jackbooted thugs and face-identifying cameras on every street corner.



Okay, now that you're caught up, I can continue. Chung Ng Wai lost seven thousand dollars for his outburst, but Activision and its CEO Bobby Kotick stand to lose a whole lot more from their decision to defrock the Hearthstone champion. There's already talk of a Hearthstone boycott, along with a push to make Mei from Activision's other game Overwatch the face of the Hong Kong protests, making the lucrative game more difficult to market in mainland China. Members of Congress are even scolding Activision for its knuckling under to the Chinese government, which will likely mean bad press for the company and, if we're really lucky, an ulcer for Kotick.

What was the other thing I needed to mention? Oh yes, the Playstation 5 has officially been announced by Sony and will be launched late next year. In addition to the nearly instantaneous load times for Playstation 4 games, the new system will have a controller with variable resistance on its trigger buttons and haptic feedback, known on Nintendo systems as "HD Rumble." Guns in first-person shooters will have more realistic recoil, roads in driving games will have discernible textures, flight sims will have turbulence you'll have to fight against to stay aloft... you kind of see where this is going. 

I'm not eager to upgrade my Playstation 4 and Xbox One just yet, but at the same time, I'll admit that this console generation has been a little dull. The promise of a more tactile and immersive experience coupled with the backward compatibility that the PS4 was lacking makes me cautiously optimistic for the future.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Tender Viccles

As long-time readers know, my first video game system was the Odyssey2, but my first home computer was Commodore's VIC-20, given to me by an uncle in the tech industry. It was a modest machine even by the standards of the early 1980s, with less than 4K of RAM, harsh four channel sound, and a resolution so chunky you could spread it on celery sticks, but as a makeshift game system it more than made up for the Odyssey2's shortcomings. VIC-20 games were both plentiful and cheap during Commodore's transition to the more powerful Commodore 64, and life for this young nerd in training was good.

Fast-forward to... uh, now. Yeah, now works. The VIC-20 is ancient history in this era of high capacity hard drives, infinitely accommodating USB ports, and high definition flat-screen displays, but I still get the urge to dig up some of its games. Unfortunately, the system that was described as "the user friendly computer" in 1981 is anything but over thirty five years later. Only a handful of VIC emulators exist, with most of those getting orphaned by their designers years ago, and cartridge games are typically split into two files, forcing the user to guess which files go where, and which mode is required to run them, before the game will start. A000? 6000? What is this crazy moon language, anyway? It makes you nostalgic for the convenience of the VIC-20's grabby cartridge slot. Sure, you might not get the cartridge back out once it's in there, but at least it works.

That was the grim reality of playing VIC-20 games in VICE... until the emulator broadened its support to include the Mega Cart. This multicart by Anders Carlsson offers nearly every VIC-20 cartridge and a substantial chunk of VIC-20 tapes in one ROM. Want to play a different game? Just press ALT+R on your keyboard and you're sent back to a handy menu. There are even brief descriptions of each game that remind you of what you'll need to do to begin, if the software you've chosen doesn't start with a touch of the fire button. Now that's user friendly.

And these are a few of the games available for the system. I've chosen a random assortment of VIC-20 titles from high-profile arcade ports to easily overlooked indie releases, covering the good, the bad... and whatever the hell Parker Bros. was making. (Look guys, I know you were a board game manufacturer before Hasbro swooped in and swallowed half the toy industry whole, but video games need animation. Ask anybody.)

ROBOTRON: 2084
AtariSoft
"Guided by their infallible logic, the Robotrons conclude: The VIC-20 is too wimpy, and will be overburdened."

AtariSoft's VIC-20 games could go one of two ways. Either they were incredibly faithful to their arcade counterparts in spite of the VIC-20's handicaps, or they were incredibly too faithful to their arcade counterparts for the VIC-20 to realistically handle. Robotron: 2084, an overreaching conversion of the Williams arcade classic, fits squarely into the latter category. 

In its defense, it's a complete arcade port. You get the strobing title screen, which makes a strong case for why video game instruction manuals have epilepsy warnings on the first page. You get eight way firing, although it's a lot clumsier without a second controller port on the VIC-20. You get all the deadly robots and every member of the last human family, important details that could have been omitted.

However, this conversion of Robotron feels like someone at Atari stuck the arcade game into a shoebox, and stomped on it with their foot until they could put the lid back on it. It's cramped and slow, and the VIC's coarse resolution makes all the sprites too large and uncomfortably abstract. While it's easy enough to tell Mommy from the hordes of androids chasing her, she's got the shoulders of a linebacker and the pointy hair of a supporting character from the Dilbert comic.

It's not for lack of effort on the parts of the designers... they worked as hard as they could to get Robotron: 2084 on this system, common sense be damned. Unfortunately, like the game's killer robots, this is something that should have gone unmade. C

MOUNTAIN KING
CBS Software
"Beat on the bat, beat on the bat, beat on the bat with a baseball bat..."

Here's another overachiever on the VIC-20 hardware; a port of Mountain King that's nearly on par with the Atari 5200 version. The massive playfield that proved too much for the ColecoVision to handle scrolls smoothly in all directions here, and your hero's flashlight reveals hidden treasures and the dancing flame spirit as silhouettes, a nifty special effect. There are some weird quirks, like an invisible spider lurking at the bottom of the screen and pressing down to climb up to the crown in the inner chamber. However, everything you loved about Mountain King is present and accounted for... along with that one thing you hated.

Yes, it's the bat. The stupid bat that flits across the screen at regular intervals, snatching the crown off your head and forcing you to start your quest from the beginning. You have no defense against this maddening creature, and the tight corridors leading to the top of the mountain make it tough to avoid it. Generally, you'll get trapped in a long thin cave, and the leather-winged creep will meet you at the opening to take your crown and replace it with a steaming pile of guano. This is an issue with every version of Mountain King, but it somehow seems even worse on the VIC-20, because you have to press up to jump and it's harder to climb and dismount ladders than it should have been.

This is still one of the better ways to play this action game, which remains refreshingly unique after all these years. It's just a pity that when the bat appears, you can't swap the flashlight for a butcher knife, or a flamethrower, or an anti-tank missile... B

GARDEN WARS
Commodore
"Brought to you by Depends."

You flick the power switch on your VIC-20. A bomb angrily hums, then explodes, violently shaking the screen. You haven't even started this game yet and you already know you're in trouble.


Maybe you got the wrong impression from the title, or the cute mouse pulling back a bow on the front of the box. Let's clear up those misconceptions right now... there's nothing cute or peaceful about this game. It's relentlessly loud, hostile, and chaotic, in the tradition of the best arcade games of the early 1980s. Bugs swarm the maze-like playfield, dropping instantly fatal bombs and eggs. Fail to catch the eggs in time and they hatch into yellow spiders. Fail to kill the yellow spiders and they grow into bullet-resistant blue ones. Let them mutate into black spiders and your death is assured.

The only way to save yourself and move onto the next stage is to kill all the snails and caterpillars spawning eggs, but it can be hard to focus on that goal when the screen is choked with distractions. It's not just the roaming bugs, but the bonus items, strange random shapes which litter the playfield and pulse madly, threatening to send you into a state of sensory overload. If any game deserves the title of the urban legend Polybius, it's this one.

Garden Wars is likely the most intimidating game in the VIC-20 library, but it's got a lot of issues beyond the psychological trauma it might inflict on players. The control isn't as tight as it ought to be, and both the objective and the blocky graphics are unclear. All of these issues could be fixed in a remake, and while that's not likely to happen, it's fun to imagine the utter terror it could bring to today's players. Five Nights At Freddie's, eat your heart out. C+ 

ATLANTIS
Imagic
"Water we do now? We die."

As the legend goes, Imagic spread itself too thin in 1983, publishing its library of titles for more game systems and computers than it could realistically support. Without an adequate reserve of money or a plan of retreat from the declining video game industry, the company was doomed, officially going out of business in 1986.

Maybe it wasn't wise for Imagic to publish games for the VIC-20, but anyone who owned the system wasn't about to correct them! Their ports of Atlantis, Demon Attack, and Dragonfire were among the highlights of the VIC-20 library; easily as good as their Atari 2600 counterparts.

Atlantis makes an unexpected swerve from the original, however. Instead of giving the player three cannons to defend the fabled underwater city from a steadily advancing fleet of ships, they have just two. These cannons are fixed at an angle, making it a challenge to aim and adding to the tension when the ships get close. However, the player gets one smart bomb for each stage... if an enemy slips through your cannon fire, just let 'er rip with the fire button and every onscreen enemy is obliterated. Satisfying!

Beyond that, it's the same game as it was on the 2600. The ships makes an ominous droning noise as they cut through the night sky, stopping only to fire laser beams down on your cities and power generators. The ocean gently laps against the shore and all the sprites are built with layers of colors. It's a real treat for the eyes and ears, making up for the fairly simplistic gameplay. B

CAPTURE THE FLAG
Sirius Software
"You may not like it, but this is what peak performance looks like."

This one's impressive on two counts. The first is that Capture the Flag and its predecessor, Wayout, were first-person video games designed well before Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, or even MIDI Maze and Faceball 2000, typically considered the foundations of this genre. Capture the Flag doesn't use the lame 90 degree turns that were so common on 8-bit and 16-bit game systems either, but a real-time 3D viewpoint, with walls drawn at various angles. They're plainly drawn, looking more like cubicle partitions than the towering metal and stone walls in Doom, but hey, you've gotta start somewhere.

The second is that this is running on a VIC-20. The Atari line of computers got a version of Capture the Flag too, and it's more impressive than this one, but the fact that they got this running at all on Commodore's budget computer is worthy of applause. There are two separate 3D views, one for the player and the other for the computer, an overhead view of the maze that's mapped out as you explore it, and a catchy film noir soundtrack that adds suspense to the action. Designer Paul Edelstein aimed high with this one, and it shows.

As a demonstration of the VIC-20's full potential, Capture the Flag is bested only by the demoscene programs released much later. As a game, it's plodding and a little confusing. Where do you go? What do you do? Where is that flag, anyway? None of that matters... just fire up the cartridge and drink in the sights and sounds. B-

AE
Broderbund
"Bombs bursting in air, fish guts everywhere..."

Tired of being regarded as the dopey, harmless cousins of the shark, stingrays have revolted, flying through the air in mesmerizing patterns while dumping bombs on the world below. Your only defense is a cannon armed with concussive missiles. Keep the fire button held down to send the missile upward, then release it to trigger an explosion which will turn any nearby rays into cat food.


AE was developed by a Japanese team named Programmers-3. Nobody really knows who that is... some have speculated that they went on to form Compile, while others insist that the team became SystemSoft, the creators of the Master of Monsters series. What we can ascertain from AE is that Programmers-3 were big fans of the challenging stages from Galaga, as this plays a whole lot like them. The big difference is the concussive missile, which demands strategy from the player. You can't fire directly at the stingrays... you've got to instead anticipate their movement and set a trap in their paths.

It's kind of clever, but is it fun? Eh, not really. The missile explosions are too small to be effective... the stingrays have to be in the dead center of the blast to be, uh, dead. It doesn't help that the rays are really small and blend in with the white parts of the background, sometimes zipping behind buildings and planets to evade your shots. AE is one of those games that's technically sound but conceptually broken, offering a twist to the Galaga style of gameplay that nobody really wanted. C

LUNAR LEEPER
Sierra On-Line
"Nuke them from orbit, it's the only way to be sure."

It's worth noting that the Leeper in the game's title became the star of Learning with Leeper, an edutainment title for pre-schoolers. It's also worth noting that Leeper is an eyeball monster with a pair of stilt-like legs, which it uses to lunge for spacecraft, and a pair of pincer-like jaws, which it uses to force the spacecraft into its mouth. There is no part of Leeper that should be educating your children. You would be better off hiring a rhinoceros with a short temper and a criminal record as your babysitter.

Anyway. (Ahem.) Lunar Leeper is a shooter that's a bit like Defender and a bit like the Atari 2600 obscurity Cosmic Commuter. You're in a flying saucer, and it's up to you to collect stranded astronauts and drop them off at a safe point at the start of the stage. Leepers wander the surface of this forbidden planet, and will attempt to snatch the astronauts out from under your ship as you fly over them. It's possible to shoot the aliens while they're in the air, but if they manage to catch you, you'll be treated to an animation of the Leeper folding your ship into its mouth, swallowing it whole, and belching. The scene is played up for laughs, but it puts the Leeper near the top of my list of most terrifying space creatures. I'm just saying, even the xenos in Aliens don't grab you out of the air and devour you in one gulp.

Save all the astronauts (or more likely, watch the Leepers eat half of them) and you're whisked off to a bonus stage, where you navigate a cramped cavern. A giant eyeball waits at the end of this level, which I have to imagine is the Queen Leeper and which I also imagine deserves the worst death possible for bringing these wretched creatures into existence. Too bad you'll have to settle for a laser blast in the pupil. It's not a pleasant death, but it could have been so much worse...

Lunar Leeper isn't a bad game by any means... your ship has slightly too much inertia and the Leepers are too smart to actually let themselves get shot (damn it), but it's animated well and the play mechanics work. I just can't fathom why Sierra thought this... thing was mascot material. Go to hell, Leeper. C+

DONKEY KONG
AtariSoft
"Hail to the Kong, baby."

AtariSoft was a confusing chapter in Atari's history. The company took its sizable library of licensed arcade games and brought them to competing home computers and video game systems. However, unlike Mattel and Coleco, the games often wound up being better than what was available on Atari's own machines! In way of illustration, here's Galaxian on the ColecoVision, and here's the same game on the Atari 5200. You've got to be pretty arrogant, or pretty desperate, to not only take your star attractions to the competition, but improve them on the way there.


Donkey Kong on the VIC-20 wasn't better than the Atari computer version, but it nevertheless illustrates the hard work AtariSoft put into its games... for systems not made by Atari. (Maybe it was the cocaine. People did a lot of cocaine in the 1980s, right?) It's got all four stages from the arcade game, while other ports offered three or even two. It's got the intermissions and the "How high can you get?" stage transitions from the arcade game... the ColecoVision port had none of these. It even feels more like the arcade game than other ports thanks to more onscreen barrels and proper scoring for when you leap over several at once.

That's not to say the VIC-20 version of Donkey Kong is a perfect arcade port. Thanks to the computer's low resolution and color output, it looks like someone ran over it a few times with a monster truck. Mario climbs ladders sideways, and Donkey Kong flashes blue buck teeth when he's angry, making him look like a radioactive David Letterman. It's also worth mentioning that jumping is a little odd. Unlike the arcade game, Mario can be controlled in mid-air, so you'll have to lean hard on the joystick if you want to clear that barrel rolling your way.

Still, this is a very good conversion of Donkey Kong... better than Atari had to make it. It might even be better than they should have made it, all things considered. A-

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Oh Pac-Betty, Ban-Dai-Nam

In 1980, Namco released Pac-Man, and licensed the game to Bally-Midway for distribution in North America. When the game became a hit, Midway did all it could to capitalize on its success while sweeping its creators under the rug. Sequels and spin-offs were released, and Pac-Man was given a large extended family, all without Namco's consent. After one too many unauthorized Pac-Man titles, Namco ripped up its licensing agreement with Midway and partnered with Atari Games for the rest of the 1980s.

Alas, that is not the end of this story. One of these knock-offs, Ms. Pac-Man, was an even bigger success than the original, thanks to more varied gameplay and a welcome injection of personality. Unfortunately, since Namco didn't make the game, they had to share the rights with General Computer Corporation, the team of hackers who did. GenCom has since left the video game industry, and because a printer manufacturer has no need for the Ms. Pac-Man IP, it's decided to sell those rights to someone still in the business.

No, not Namco. Actually, AtGames bought the rights. Yes, that AtGames. Cue drama.

The AtGames Blast, referred to by Mad Little Pixel
as the "Assblaster." Look, I know it's not mature,
but it made me shoot cola out of my nose when
I heard it, so it's gotta be at least a little funny.
(image from Retro Magazine)
Namco is suing AtGames for the rights to Ms. Pac-Man, making this the geekiest custody battle since Bart Simpson fought with his friends over an issue of Radioactive Man. However, it goes a little deeper than that. Namco is also suing AtGames for that Blast plug and play debacle from earlier in the year, when the company promised a device that could play eight arcade-quality Namco games, but actually delivered a candy bar sized console that could barely run their NES counterparts. And the litigation doesn't stop there! Namco is suing AtGames for a Ms. Pac-Man arcade cabinet which they were never given permission to make. Here's the offending item, shown next to a full-sized arcade cab for scale.

image from Polygon
It looks okay I guess, aside from the puzzling size and a bezel that threatens to swallow the tiny screen whole and an overabundance of buttons. It's not likely to see a full-scale release thanks to this lawsuit, but considering the quality of AtGames products we probably won't be missing much.

One more thing I should probably add before I go... AtGames is currently embroiled in another lawsuit with Walgreens, because the pharmacy can't sell its products and AtGames won't take them back. Now there's a custody battle nobody wants to win.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Inert Mass

First, I thought this Jim Sterling video would make a good bookend to the comments I made earlier about the ESA's plans for next year's E3. Just a warning in advance... Jim approaches the topic with his usual brusqueness, so you may want to skip this if you're offended by colorful language and creative excrement metaphors. Special thanks to David Oxford for bringing this video to light by posting it in his Twitter feed.


Okay, now that we've gotten that out of the way... my apologies for the long wait between posts. Again. I don't know, man, I've just been creatively spent lately. I'm indifferent about the latest video games, and priced out of the older ones, which continue to rise in price. 

Hell, even personal computers from the 1980s have gotten too expensive for me to squeeze into my budget. Would I like to get an Atari XE to replace the one I had in the late 1990s? Sure, absolutely. Am I going to pay over a hundred dollars for an 8-bit computer with a tiny fraction of the power of today's systems? Hell to the no. It's just not a smart investment, nostalgia and brand loyalty be damned. Sure, I'm occasionally tempted to buy something frivolous, like an expansion pack for my long-neglected Amiga CD32, but then I look over at the ThinkPad I bought from eBay for a third of its price, and the temptation doesn't last long. I'll just install an emulator on that and pretend it's an Amiga on steroids.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

E3: All the News We Like, You Print

When you make a huge mistake, the solution is not to apologize and prevent it from happening again, but to make an even bigger blunder so people will forget your previous slip-up. At least, that seems to be the approach the Electronic Entertainment Expo will take. Shortly after leaking the personal information of everyone who attended the event last year, E3's organizers claim that they will "control content and the message" coming from next year's show. Control how, exactly? Given how fast and loose they've been with the addresses and phone numbers of attendees, one could only imagine how they'll keep the less flattering information about upcoming games from escaping to the public. Maybe it was an unfortunate choice of words on the ESA's part, but in light of recent events, I'm not eager to give them the benefit of the doubt.

In less depressing news, Bandai-Namco wants to rekindle some of its old franchises. Breathe easy, folks... they don't mean Bravoman or Wonder Momo. No, the games set for a revival include Splatterhouse, Mr. Driller, and Klonoa, along with Wagyan Land and Genpei Touma Den, two series that never had much of a presence in the United States. It's not clear what Namco plans to do with these "encore" games, but in the case of Klonoa, I'd love to see a collection of the first two titles, with the same visual enhancements the original got on the Wii. Heck, maybe they'll throw in the Game Boy Advance titles and that weird volleyball spin-off if they're feeling really generous.

Finally, PowerA is making a line of "Fusion" joypads for current generation consoles, patterned after the classic Sega Saturn controllers. Fusion pads will be available for the Xbox One, Playstation 4, and Switch. This is good news, as none of the other six button fight pads I've used for these machines have measured up to the original. The bad news is that they'll retail for (gulp) sixty dollars each. Maybe I can slum with my bulky Hori Fighting Commander just a little while longer...

Monday, September 9, 2019

It's Thinking. And Old.

It's the twentieth anniversary of the Dreamcast's launch in the United States. We're getting a lot of retrospectives from other writers, but just for fun, let's take a look at what it was like to experience the system a few months before its official American debut. Here's Sweet Dreams, an article I wrote in April 1999 for my old video game newsletter, The Gameroom Blitz. I'll be adding some editor's notes in italics at the end of every paragraph to clarify some statements which may not be immediately obvious, and to make observations about my analysis.
The illustration used at the top of the article.
Amy Rose had been, up to that point, a tarot
card reader, but I'm not sure if that detail
has since been retconned.

I must admit that I was very skeptical of the Dreamcast when it first debuted in Japan six months ago. It was incredibly frustrating to watch normally rational people praise the system to the heavens when the bitter taste of the Saturn’s demise still weighed so heavily on my tongue. Thus, I decided to take a stand against the system. It wasn’t long before another faned criticized me for this, claiming that I needed to actually SEE the Dreamcast in action to fairly judge it. I hate to admit it, but he was right. It took a first-hand experience with Sega’s 128-bit powerhouse to understand what all the excitement was about...

The term "faned" is short for fanzine editor, or someone who publishes newsletters about their personal interests. You don't see much of that anymore thanks to the internet... most of that enthusiasm is now directed toward blogs, forums, and social media outlets.

The El Con Mall, or what remains of it.
(image from Pinterest)
So there I was, hanging out at the El Con Mall with my aunt, her ex-husband, and their two screaming grandchildren. We were searching in vain for a Tucson restaurant which had recently relocated... I had no idea that I would come face to face with Sega’s latest and most anticipated game system instead.

The El Con Mall still exists, but as a shadow of its former self. Like fanzines, the mall has become an antiquated part of American life, obsoleted by the internet. According to Wikipedia, El Con had lost its anchor store and was in the midst of major renovations in 1998, which probably explains why finding that buffet was such a wild goose chase. 

It was at the mall’s Software Etc., running a demo of Sonic Adventure. You know, the game every Saturn owner had been begging Sega to release since 1995... but let’s not open that wound right now. I pulled myself away from the slick full-motion video intro just long enough to ask the rest of the fam for a few minutes... just enough time to see if my contempt for the system was warranted.

Software Etc. was one of several competing video game and computer retail stores, which ultimately congealed into GameStop by the mid-2000s. Personally, I preferred a handful of competitors to one giant store chain which holds the used video game market by the happy sack... but considering GameStop's current fortunes, we may be back to smaller stores soon enough.

"Insert three coins for extra absorbency."
I took a quick glance at the Dreamcast itself and was a little surprised by its appearance... the system was smaller and more delicate than the early pictures in Tips and Tricks seemed to suggest, bearing a slight resemblance to something you might find hanging on the wall of a ladies’ room in a Japanese restaurant. Because it seemed more likely to dispense tampons than play killer video games, I was momentarily convinced that the system was a mock-up and the footage I’d seen was actually running from a VCR.

Still standing by this analysis. The Dreamcast looks so feminine next to other game machines, and its slightly bulbous form makes it one of the few consoles that doesn't look fetching in black.

After coming to my senses and realizing my mistake, I approached the sales clerk and casually remarked, “So... I see you have the Reamcast.” Not taking the bait, he replied, “Heh, yes... you mean the Dreamcast.” I watched a conversation between Sonic and his female counterpart Amy Rose before resuming my own discussion with the man behind the counter. “I’m sorry. I just call it the ‘Reamcast’ because I get the feeling that Sega will do to Dreamcat owners what they did to everyone who bought a Saturn.”

I was hung up on this admittedly infantile dream/ream wordplay back in the 1990s. And in the 2000s. And in the 2010s. Look, I'm still working on breaking that habit.

“You’re entitled to that opinion,” the clerk replied, “but Sega means business this time. The Dreamcast is an incredible system, and licensees have been lining up for blocks to design games for it. Besides, with Sega, Hitachi, and Microsoft behind it, how can it go wrong?”

It found a way. Microsoft did pretty well on its own with the Xbox line, though.

I was too distracted by Sonic Adventure to mention that Hitachi manufactured the Saturn hardware as well, and that Bill Gates’ last stab at the video game market (the MSX, a computer designed primarily to play games like Konami’s Penguin Adventure) was a miserable failure in the United States. A simple “Good point...” was all I could muster as I stared at Amy Rose, who was wandering through a beautifully rendered hall.

When I was in my 20s, I had a bad habit of clutching at flimsy straws in my articles to make a point. Yes, Hitachi made the Saturn hardware, and even released its own Saturn in Japan. However, calling the MSX "Microsoft's last stab at the video game market" is a reach. This personal computer was co-developed by ASCII and Microsoft's Japanese division a good two years before Windows even existed! While it was moderately successful in its native Japan, the MSX was irrelevant in America, locked out of that market by the Commodore juggernaut. 

Dreamcast graphics were weirdly inconsistent,
featuring both well rendered heroes and
characters with polygons so sharp you
could cut meat with their elbows.
The petite pink hedgehog looked as though she were made of plastic rather than polygons, but this phenomenal detail came at a price... I noticed just a touch of slowdown as Amy approached a cache of rings. Almost as if embarrassed by its mistake, the Dreamcast quickly faded out and returned to the Sonic Adventure title screen.

Sonic Adventure really was impressive in 1999, but time hasn't been kind to it. I recently played the faintly enhanced Xbox 360 port, and while the lead characters still have an attractive sheen, the bystanders in Station Square look like they were fished out of a Playstation game!

There were a small stack of CDs on a shelf behind the counter. I politely asked, “Could I see another game?” To my surprise, the clerk agreed and reached for a disc on the shelf. “I suppose I could put Power Stone in...” There was no holding back my astonishment: my jaw dropped as he opened the system’s drive door and swapped discs. “Holy cow!,” I shouted, instantly shattering what little remained of my facade of disinterest. “That game isn’t even out in arcades yet!” The clerk smiled and proudly announced, “That’s the beauty of the Naomi hardware. Arcade conversions take no time at all because the Dreamcast is nearly identical to Sega’s newest arcade board.”

This was one of the defining moments of the Dreamcast for me. "You know that cool-looking game you read about in a magazine a month ago? I've got it right here, and you're going to get to see it." Awesome. I hadn't been that excited about a game since Super Mario Bros. 3, or maybe Gunstar Heroes.

The Visual Memory Unit, one of Sega's bad bets with
the Dreamcast. It only had 100K of usable flash RAM
and blasted out a shrill warning whenever its battery
ran dry, but at least you could play Chao Garden
on the go...?
(image from Wikipedia and Evan Amos) 
I couldn’t wait to see Capcom’s next big fighting game, but I would have to... the Dreamcast requested four blocks of memory, as no save card was loaded into the system’s controller. Perplexed, I asked, “Doesn’t the Dreamcast have internal memory?” Hesitant to answer, the clerk sheepishly replied, “Well... the Dreamcast saves the date, time, and basic system data, but no, you can’t save games to its internal memory like you can with the Saturn.” He then fiddled with the Dreamcast’s BIOS screen and finally coaxed the game to run.

Bad move, Sega. For all its advanced features, there was a lot about the Dreamcast which felt like an unwelcome step back to the Nintendo 64. Single analog sticks, memory cards and vibration packs you have to buy separately... bleech. I know this is the Dreamcast's 20th anniversary and I should examine it through a rosier lens, but even in 1999 that was pretty disappointing. 

I was a bit disappointed by the news... it’s hard to imagine why Sega would force its customers to buy pricey add-ons after they’d created the ultimate save system for the Saturn. Perhaps they wanted to create an interest in their handheld VMS unit and SNK’s Neo-Geo Pocket, but heaven knows the world doesn’t need another portable game system, let alone two.

"Ultimate" is hyperbolic considering how little internal storage the Saturn offered, but it was better than nothing, which is what the Dreamcast gave you. Also, the "VMS" unit mentioned in the article was rechristened the VMU later. Beyond that, there's plenty of room in the world for the Neo-Geo Pocket. Silly 25 year old Jess... he'll change his tune when he actually gets his hands on one.

Meet the Fokker.
(image from Capcom Database)
After a title screen which seemed to last forever, Power Stone’s attract mode finally began, giving the Dreamcast a chance to redeem itself. I wasn’t sure what to think of the opening- the hand-drawn characters looked sharp but strongly resembled the cast of Sunsoft’s Waku Waku 7- but the actual game was very impressive. I watched in awe as the combatants scurried around a lavishly detailed, beautifully lit room, collecting gems and hurling pots at one another.

Power Stone feels slightly cramped now, but trust me, you get a lot more room to move than you did in Ehrgeiz. Plus, it's possible to have playfields that are too large, as Stake: Fortune Fighters for the Xbox proved later.

Suddenly, after collecting a third jewel, one of the fighters was bathed in a swirl of bright light and emerged clad in a scarlet helmet and body armor. In a flash, I responded in my best Dennis Miller, “Whoa! Go, go Power Rangers!” I could almost feel the clerk wince as he muttered, “You just had to mention that, didn’t you?” Well hey, would could resist?

The Power Rangers reference needs no explanation... they've been fighting rubber suited monsters ever since. As for Dennis Miller, he was funny once. Really!

Conscious of the time, I thanked the Software Etc. employee for his and went on my way. As I walked back to the car with the rest of the family to resume our search for the perfect buffet restaurant, I marveled at how much my mind had changed about the Dreamcast. I still have doubts about its chances of success here in the States, but the system is incredibly powerful, and the list of titles planned for the Dreamcast’s stateside launch (including such hits as Marvel vs. Capcom, House of the Dead 2, and the incredibly weird but incredibly fun Jojo’s Venture) would tempt any self-respecting gamer.

It's funny to think how much more relevant Jojo's Bizarre Adventure is to Americans in 2019. Sure took us a while to catch up.

I just hope Sega gets its act together this time... Sony has become arrogant, lazy, and most importantly, vulnerable thanks to the success of its Playstation. This is Sega’s best and only chance to plunge a sword into the heart of its competition and become a driving force in the industry, just as it had in 1991, when Nintendo’s refusal to obsolete the NES gave the more advanced Genesis a head start in the next generation system wars.

That didn't happen, of course, but Microsoft did a pretty good job of repeating history with the Xbox 360. That system actually did take Sony and its Playstation 3 down a few pegs. Frankly, they had it coming.

Destroyer of nations.
(image from PS1Fun, although the "fun" part
seems doubtful in this case)
The Dreamcast needs to strike a chord with players secretly disgusted with the currently abysmal quality of the Playstation’s software library... if Sega can capitalize on Sony’s insane decision to bring the Rugrats to a 32-bit game system, and claim that the Dreamcast is intended solely for serious players, this could severely damage the Playstation’s reputation as technologically advanced and pave the wave for another Sega revolution. 

Sure Jess, a few Nicktoons games are going to topple Sony's video game empire. Now who's dreaming? I guess I saw parallels in how Nintendo's third parties were pumping out licensed dreck for the NES in 1990, shortly before the Genesis started gaining traction with Americans.

If Sega doesn’t take advantage of Sony’s momentary weakness, their last chance for glory will be extinguished, and the Dreamcast will be just that... a beautiful illusion which will fade from the memories of gamers everywhere in an instant.

And we end the article with a well-intentioned but clumsy poetic metaphor. Next Generation's "dream deferred" reference was more clever. Still, this is a nice piece of Dreamcast pre-history, and I'm glad I wrote it. There really is nothing like your first time.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Swlabr Day

"Don't you mean Labor Day?"
Eh, not really. Although I have no idea what a "swlabr" is, or how to pronounce it.


Two important bits of news. The first is that it's been leaked that an SNK character will soon be available as downloadable content for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Since we're all pretty sure it's going to be Terry Bogard, I'll move on to the next bit of news. Sega showed off a playable demo of Streets of Rage 4 at PAX, and aside from the slim selection of playable characters (you're giving us more than three, right...?) and the not-so-slim Axel Stone, it looks like a fine sequel to a series of fighting games that's been kept on ice for far too long.

The gameplay has been kept faithful to the original trilogy, with one key difference. You may recall that special moves cost you a small bit of health in Streets of Rage 2, while they could be performed without penalty in Streets of Rage 3 if you waited for a bar at the top of the screen to charge first. Streets of Rage 4 regulates the use of special moves with a risk/reward system that works like this.


Here's newcomer Cherry Hunter (daughter of frequent SOR no-show Adam Hunter) laying waste to enemies with her guitar. Using special moves doesn't cost you health per se, but it does change a portion of the bar green. She's performed a lot of specials in a short amount of time, so most of that bar has turned green. This is ill-advised, as you'll soon discover. 


Cherry can turn that green energy back to yellow by punching enemies, but if she gets hit, it drops off the health bar and can't be recovered. This forces the player to use special moves cautiously, preferably in situations where they're not surrounded. After all, it only takes one sneaky bastard approaching from behind to turn a whole lot of potential health into a whole lot of nothin'. Seasoned Streets of Rage players already know that there's nothing the Donovans and Yellow Signals love more than stabbing you in the back while you're distracted, so don't get careless!