Monday, October 22, 2012

The Early Adopters: Sega's First Licensees Part 2

In the last episode of The Early Adopters, Treco was revealed as the illegitimate son of Sega, to the horror and disgust of Renovation.  Nuvision was stranded on a deserted island with nothing to eat but coconuts and small pewter Scottie dogs.  And what about little Kaneko?  Will she ever shake her amnesia?  This episode of The Early Adopters answers none of these silly questions.


Seismic seems to be a popular name for software companies these days… believe me, I would know.  I’ve discovered a Seismic that sells surveying apps for GPS devices and a Seismic that makes Facebook games, but try as I might, I’ve had no luck finding information on the Sega Genesis publisher.  THAT Seismic may as well be a figment of my imagination.  The company doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry, and its presence on Moby Games is limited to a tiny list of games and a history section left blank.

I can’t even find a pattern in the games Seismic published, because its approach to licensing was so scattershot.  The company localized software from T&E Soft (Super Hydlide), Compile (MUSHA), Toaplan (Hellfire), and Copya System (Air Diver), with R.C. Grand Prix for the Sega Master System being the lone game designed in America.  Moby Games claims that Dan Kitchen, previously responsible for Activision titles like Crackpots, headed the team that created R.C. Grand Prix, suggesting that the prolific developer either worked at Seismic, or was Seismic.  I’ve contacted Mr. Kitchen and will hopefully get more details about his involvement with this elusive publisher in the coming weeks.

What is this, some intergalactic on ramp?
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at Hellfire, one of Seismic’s earliest (and onliest!) Genesis releases.  This one goes right into the “fond memories” file, as I recall struggling through its death-laden stages with a friend.  Hellfire is a side-scrolling shooter with Toaplan’s typically off-putting art design but a clever weapon system… pressing a button cycles between forward, backward, vertical, and diagonal shots, letting you attack from all angles.  You could almost consider it a sequel to SNK’s Vanguard, except you don’t have a second joystick for firing.  After a couple of rounds, you’ll really wish you had one.  There’s also a remake on the TurboDuo, which adds redbook audio and animated cut scenes but cranks the difficulty down to negative three.


Even the name is confusing with this one.  The founders of this company must have thought it was mysterious and profound, like the spells weaved by a mystic living in seclusion high atop a mountain.  However, it just takes too much thought to figure out, like what happened to the company after the Playstation launched.   The best explanation I can offer is that Sage’s Creation was a publishing arm or at least a partner of Hot-B… the fact that all of their games but one were developed by the company certainly suggests it.  By the way, Moby Games claims that Hot-B went hot-bankrupt in 1993 before offering a link to its web site, which probably shouldn’t have existed in 1993 and definitely shouldn’t be promoting a late Playstation 2 release.

More research reveals that the site belongs to Hot-B’s American office, which stuck around for a while after the Japanese one went belly up in its koi pool.  I also discovered that the team behind the original Hot-B formed a new company, Starfish, and took all of its intellectual property with it.  (You know, because those half dozen fishing games were just too good to leave behind.)  Starfish produced a remake of its spooky Arkanoid clone Devilish for the Nintendo DS, which was skewered by IGN as “one hell of a bad game.”  That’s okay, IGN, you just keep trying to grasp that strange concept we humans call “humor.”  Also, apropos of nothing in particular, the name “Starfish” reminds of that scene from Conker’s Bad Fur Day, where a giant turd monster regales you with a song about how he’ll beat the himself out of you.

Just when you thought wasps couldn't
get any scarier...
The game shown in the ad, Insector X, is a side-scrolling shooter seen from a bug’s eye view, with insects for ships.  It’s a bit like Sagaia, but for entomologists instead of the seafood lover in you.  The arcade game by Taito had a lighthearted atmosphere, but on the Genesis, the characters are more streamlined and threatening, with bulbous compound eyes and bionic limbs.  As for the gameplay, it’s competent if a little lackluster.  You can boost your hero’s firepower to devastating levels, should you be lucky enough to survive that long, but past that there’s not much about Insector X that’s noteworthy.  Well, aside from its uncanny resemblance to Apidya, another bug-themed shooter for the Amiga computer.


In the board game Go, Tengen is the dead center of the playfield, the coveted area players strive to claim for themselves after taking the corners and edges.  However, in the video game business, Tengen was a source of headaches for Nintendo when the publisher invaded its own territory, the hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System.  After signing up as a Nintendo licensee, Tengen had its tech boys reverse engineer the development kit, then went rogue, making NES games after the license had lapsed.  Pretty sneaky, sis!

Tengen’s subterfuge sparked a battle of wits between the two companies.  When Tengen got its hands on the puzzle game Tetris, Nintendo broke its grip by having BPS Software’s Henk Rogers purchase the rights from ELORG, the branch of the Soviet government in charge of technology exports.  When Tengen released a minor arcade hit like Rolling Thunder, one of Nintendo’s licensees offered a suspiciously familiar knock-off.  Eventually Tengen got tired of the cat and mouse game and migrated to the Sega Genesis.  Tengen published dozens of titles for the system, including timeless hits like Dragon’s Fury and Gauntlet IV, before it was absorbed by Time-Warner in 1993.  Nearly twenty years later, the company formerly known as Tengen is now Warner Games.

The US version of Klax,
released by Tengen.
The Japanese version,
courtesy of Namco.

One of Tengen’s first Genesis releases was Klax, one of the more inspired puzzlers of the early 1990s and a heartwarming tale for hopeful game designers besides.  Klax creator Dave Akers wrote his game in BASIC for the Amiga computer, before rewriting it in C for a speed boost, then rewriting it again for the Genesis when the game became an arcade smash.  Just when you thought this story couldn’t get more redundant, get this… Namco released its own slightly better Genesis version of Klax in Japan.  That one’s got more voice and crisper graphics, although the applause after each wave ends is conspicuously absent, replaced with a more subdued "Well done."  Damn it, I’ve got low self-esteem!  I could use the encouragement!


A series of corporate mergers and the stupidity of college frat boys have made Activision the number one game publisher in America.  However, Activision was strictly small potatoes in 1990, still recovering from the industry crash seven years earlier.  The company made a tactical retreat to the home computer market, but was eager to return to the video game industry after Nintendo returned it to profitability.  Activision first built a foundation for itself on the NES and Sega Master System, and decided to expand on it by publishing software for the 16-bit Genesis.

And then… bankruptcy.

Yes, the mighty Activision ran out of money.  Its planned debut on the Sega Genesis, Tongue of the Fatman, was put on the backburner while the company pieced itself back together.  Activision took another stab at the Genesis in 1994 with four games, headlined by the quite palatable Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure.  Strongly influenced by the work of David Perry (Earthworm Jim, Cool Spot, and Aladdin) and including a version of the original Pitfall! as a hidden bonus, The Mayan Adventure was a far better premiere on the Genesis than a creaky old computer game like Tongue of the Fatman would have been.

So it's not a good game, but at least they had
the right idea when they let you beat up Slimer
from The Real Ghostbusters.
Tongue of the Fatman would be released for the Genesis, but by a new publisher, and with a new name.  A cash-strapped Activision sold the rights to Razor Soft, which changed the title to Slaughter Sport and promoted it to teenagers as an edgy alternative to Street Fighter II.  Granted, there weren’t too many games in the early Genesis library which could scratch that itch for one on one combat, but anything, even renting yourself out to the local gym as a punching bag, was better than suffering through Slaughter Sport.  The gameplay was limited to simple button and joystick combinations, technique boiled down to spamming magic attacks purchased between each stage, and characters other than the wimpy default had to be selected with codes.  But hey, there’s blood!  Big whoop… I’ll wait for Street Fighter II: Special Championship Edition.


Namco… now we’re talkin’!  If you’re not familiar with the creators of Pac-Man and Galaga, well… it’s probably because Midway took all the credit for their work.  Namco wisely ended its licensing agreement with Midway, and after a successful partnership with Atari in the late 1980s, mustered up the courage to publish its own games under the Namco Hometek label.  It’s pretty clear from its early output that Namco had more faith in the TurboGrafx-16, making over a dozen games for that system in Japan.  However, when the machine cratered here in the United States, Namco wised up and put its full weight behind the Genesis.

Unfortunately, the early 1990s were lean years for Namco, and their Genesis games reflected that.  There were no smash hits with a lasting cultural impact… just conversions of obscure arcade titles like Phelios (shown here), Burning Fight, and Marvel Land, along with two pretty good Rolling Thunder sequels and several attempts to stir the embers of the long-cold Pac-man series.  In 1995, Namco swore off Sega and pledged their allegiance to the Playstation, even releasing games that were too similar to would-be killer apps Virtua Fighter and Cop to have been just a coincidence.  Today, Namco is a major player in the video game industry, even if its acquisition by toy giant (and game midget) Bandai leaves many gamers grinding their teeth.

Showdown at the Apollo.
Phelios, the game featured in Sega’s advertisement, is a perfectly playable shooter with a Greco-Roman theme.  The setting is a refreshing change of pace from the crapton of science-fiction shoot ‘em ups on the Genesis… heck, there are six in that print ad alone!  However, the game has issues that make it less entertaining than its cast of mythological monsters would suggest.  Your hero’s a massive bullet sponge, and the game is held back by the limitations of the Genesis hardware.  The arcade version of Phelios was an orgasm of scaling and rotation, with Apollo swooping down on his winged steed to unleash his fury on fire-belching skulls, but the Genesis port seems uncomfortably restrained by comparison.  Maybe Namco should have held onto this one until the Sega CD was released…


You know ‘em, you love ‘em… it’s Electronic Arts!  Well, you know them, anyway.  The company casts a frightening shadow these days, but EA was started with the best intentions.  Founder Trip Hawkins wanted to treat his game designers like celebrities, putting their software in packaging better suited for a Pink Floyd album and printing a detailed profile of the programmers in the lovingly crafted instruction manual.  The presentation was stunning, the admiration for the developers palpable, and the love for the customer obvious.

So what the hell happened?  It’s hard to say just when Electronic Arts turned to the dark side, but there was still some of that old spark left in the company when it made games for the Sega Genesis.  True, the elaborate packaging that had defined its early work on home computers was left in the past, but the developers were still given due credit in the instructions, and Electronic Arts was still willing to roll the dice on crazy concepts while all its competitors were cranking out samey shooters and Street Fighter II clones.  Who else would have published General Chaos, or Haunting starring Polterguy, or Rings of Power?

Everybody on my island looks happy.
I bet a flood would change that! Bwa ha HA!
Populous is another of those high-concept games, tailor made for the old Electronic Arts.  Created by Peter Molyneaux, now famous for the Fable series and underdelivering on his lofty promises, Populous puts you in the open-toed sandals of a god.  Your holy mission is to build a civilization, then send your worshippers to other islands to slaughter the heathens who live there.  The gameplay demands the patience of the patron saint of turtles, and the interface is icon-based and gallingly obtuse, but you’d expect that from a Molyneaux game made in the 1990s.  Seriously Pete, people love words.  You should try using some.


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