Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Early Adopters: Sega's First Licensees Part 3

We're in the home stretch!  There are just five more early Sega licensees left to review... and just for the heck of it, I'll throw in an extra developer the advertisement missed to make it a nice, even number.  By the way, here's the ad in case you've forgotten about it...

Now that I've refreshed your memory, let's wrap up this feature!


Ah, Video System!  Who could forget the creators of Aero Fighters and, uh, the sequels to Aero Fighters?  I kid, I kid… Video System made other games, too.  There just weren’t many good ones.  The lone standout is Rabbit Punch, a side-scrolling shooter starring cute robotic bunnies in a surprisingly threatening futuristic setting.  The game was brought to the United States by Nolan Bushnell’s Sente, and later found its way to the Japanese TurboGrafx-16 as Rabio Lepus Special.

Video System went on to create many, many Aero Fighters games for many, many formats.  Most of these were for the Neo-Geo, but there was a Super NES conversion of the first game published by Video System’s Mc O’River label.  Why the company thought it would be a good idea to name its US branch after a fast food menu item is anyone’s guess, but that lapse in judgment could explain why Video System got super downsized in 2001, closing its Japanese headquarters along with its ridiculously named American division.  Many of Video System’s programmers saw the signs of impending doom early and fled the company to start Psikyo in the early 1990s.

Dammit, stop gawking and get me to a hospital!
Here’s the rub for Genesis owners… they didn’t get an Aero Fighters game, or even a port of Rabbit Punch.  Video System’s one and only Genesis release was the charitably titled Super Volleyball, designed by the masters of horror at Micronics.  You’ll probably recognize Micronics as the programmers of every crappy NES game you ever hated, and that tradition of (negligible) quality lives on in this hugely frustrating sports game, where you’re always offscreen when the ball is served and have no reasonable hope of returning it.  Even if you can intercept the computer opponent’s bionic spikes, there’s a good chance they’ll knock you over, leaving you curled up on the floor as the other team moves in for the kill.  As a final insult, there are numerous advertisements in the background for Rabio Lepus, a game that doesn’t even exist on the Genesis.  Yes kids, Video System hates you thiiiiiiis much!


It’s important to state for the record that this DreamWorks, a Minnesota-based company that was briefly in the video game business, has nothing to do with the film studio headed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen.  Evidently, the DreamWorks that made Genesis games was a division of Toy Soldiers, Inc., making you wonder if they also made those little green army men your brother used to stick up his nose.

Precious little is known about DreamWorks, but one thing that’s clear from looking at their slim collection of games is that they were pretty tight with Nippon Computer Systems.  Also known as Masaya, this studio made a name for itself with eccentric, distinctly Japanese titles like Langrisser, Assault Suits Leynos, Schibibunman, and Cho Aniki, the preferred target of ridicule for internet humorists for over fifteen years.  Only two of DreamWorks’ games, the delightful if derivative Fire Shark and the just plain derivative Mystical Fighter, were designed by other studios.

Seven years later, I finally
beat the first stage.
The game shown in Sega’s ad is Target Earth, part of the Assault Suits Leynos series along with Cybernator for the Super NES.  If you love heavily armed mechs, starships so large you expect to see “We Brake for Nobody” bumper stickers hanging over their thrusters, and merciless missions guaranteed to make you cry, this is your game.  In fact, if that’s your thing, you might want to skip Target Earth and head straight for its sequel, Assault Suits Leynos 2 for the Sega Saturn.  It’s just as vicious, but a lot prettier!


This company made a lot of noise in the early days of the Sega Genesis, toeing the line of good taste and frustrating parents’ groups with obscenely violent games like Technocop (shown here) and Death Duel.  However, in its rush to offend everyone on the face of the planet, Razor Soft made an enemy of Sega, the only console manufacturer willing to publish its games.  After an ugly fight over some bare boobs in Stormlord, Razor Soft fell on its own blade, and was quickly forgotten after Mortal Kombat became the last word in video game violence.

Finding information about Razor Soft twenty years after its demise has proven exceedingly difficult.  The company doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry, and Giant Bomb offers only an address to their long shuttered office and the helpful tip, “Razor Soft is a company that makes video games.”  Yeah, thanks for that news flash, putzes.  However, research on their games reveals that many were originally developed by European studios for the Amiga computer, suggesting that Razor Soft was a fly by night operation that purchased the licenses in the hopes of riding a wave of controversy all the way to the bank.

This can't end well...
One of these games was Technocop, developed by N2O creators Gremlin Graphics.  I was actually pretty excited about this game when I first read a review of the computer version in Video Games & Computer Entertainment.  I can only presume that teenaged me was suckered in by the promise of blood and guts, because as a game, it’s charmless and wholly unremarkable.  As the titular (heh heh, “titular”) cop, you first drive to a crime scene on a hauntingly empty highway.  There’s no scenery and no forks in the road… just a green void on either side of the asphalt, occasionally broken up with trees and signs.  Eventually, you’ll step out of your car and into a maze-like slum, where children kick you in the shins and punks beg to be blasted into hamburger.   You’ve got five hyper-accelerated minutes to take down your target… fail and you’ll have to hop in your car to find the criminal’s next hideout.  Or you could rip the cartridge out of your Genesis and throw it at the wall… that works, too.


Technosoft was, to quote our vice president, kind of a big f’n deal to Genesis owners.  Their first game for the system, Thunder Force II, was a fusion of two wildly different shoot ‘em ups.  Players hunted down targets from an overhead perspective in the odd-numbered stages, and clawed their way through side-scrolling gauntlets in the even-numbered ones.  Critics of the time hated the seek and destroy missions but saw promise in the side-scrolling stages, hoping that Technosoft would sharpen its focus on them in the sequel.

Technosoft’s response to the criticism was to split Thunder Force II cleanly down the middle and make new games out of the two halves.  The overhead stages evolved into Herzog Zwei, an early real-time strategy game most keenly appreciated by fans of the genre, and celebrated in a nerdy rap opus by Del the Funky Homosapien.  The side view stages blossomed into Thunder Force III, which dazzled players with its special effects and screen-filling firepower.  Technosoft didn't get much mileage out of Herzog Zwei, but Thunder Force III was given two sequels, as well as a couple of collections on the Sega Saturn.

Where is Technosoft now?  The word on Wikipedia is that the company was purchased by a pachinko manufacturer after punching out a handful of Saturn and Playstation games.  However, Technosoft does have its own web site, which claims that its back catalog is available on the Playstation Network in Japan.  There’s also mention of a Thunder Force VI for the Playstation 2, but it’s not likely the game was ever finished.

If this jungle was to scale with the ships, its
trees would probably be 500 feet tall.
Well, that went on a little long!  Let’s talk briefly about Thunder Force III.  It’s one of those games that must have seemed incredible for the time but comes off as a little flavorless now.  There’s a whole lot of tiling going on in the background, the gameplay is frustratingly cheap, and the enemies are largely forgettable; certainly not on par with R-Type’s tail-flailing alien monstrosity or the gleaming metal fish in Sagaia.  There are a whole lot of shooters on the Genesis, and Thunder Force III isn’t one of the best ones.


Many of the publishers on this list that vanished along with the Sega Genesis met an expected end… either they went bankrupt, or were devoured by a more successful rival.  However, Micronet went an entirely different direction, releasing a trickle of games through the end of the century.  After the death of the Dreamcast in 2001, the company abandoned the increasingly aggressive video game industry, and found sanctuary in publishing computer animation software.  You can get a trial of its rendering tool 3D Atelier from the Micronet web site… although the fact that it “now supports DirectX8” suggests that the software might be due for an update.

Before doing its best Pixar imitation, Micronet lived up to its puny name as a software publisher of little consequence.  The company first got its feet wet on the Japanese MSX computer, releasing titles like Helicoid and Outlaw Suikoden, before diving into the deeper waters of the Genesis and Sega CD.  Micronet tried to compensate for its well-deserved inferiority complex by distributing games under the Bignet label in the United States.  When savvy players didn’t take the bait, Micronet upped the ante by teaming up with fellow underachiever Absolute Entertainment and changing the brand’s name to Extreme Entertainment Group.  That too fell flat, with both Absolute and Extreme disappearing after a couple of years.  Micronet’s last desperate grasp for glory in America was Robotica, a grungy first-person shooter released by Acclaim for the Sega Saturn.  Was there any part of that last sentence that sounds like it would translate to a fun game?  Most reviewers didn’t think so, either.

Junction has a slow down button...
not that it needs one.
Micronet has the distinction of creating TWO of the games in Sega’s advertisement.  Curse was already given the curbstomping it deserved, so I’ll put my blood-stained heel on the throat of Micronet’s next Genesis release, Junction.  The Konami branding suggests that good times could be had from this puzzle game, but the sluggish action and confusing three-quarters perspective will have you reaching for another cartridge long before you’ve run out of lives.  It’s a shame too, because I really loved Loco-Motion, the tile-sliding, track-building arcade oldie that inspired this.  The best explanation I can offer for Junction’s sketchy design is that it was only based on Konami’s past work, and that Micronet pasted the company’s name on the box to ward off lawsuits and move copies of a game that otherwise would have been glued to store shelves.


Taito is curiously absent from this list of early developers, which is puzzling as it was not only one of the first licensees on the Sega Genesis, but also the one with the most star power.  These guys gave the world Space Invaders and Bubble Bobble!  How do you not brag about this?!

Anyway, Taito has a deep history… deep enough to have been in business before video games existed.  The company sold vending machines and music jukeboxes in Japan until it took a chance on Pong in the early 1970s.  Encouraged by its success, Taito released the influential Gunfight and the record-smashing Space Invaders years later.  When the latter game caused coin shortages throughout Japan, Taito jumped into the video game industry with both feet and never looked back.

Taito’s first Genesis game, Final Blow, was distributed in America by Sega.  Sega changed the title to James “Buster” Douglas’ Knockout Boxing, thinking that it could one up Nintendo by giving a game to the man who dropped the mighty Mike Tyson.  However, it didn’t count on Douglas losing his next boxing match, and every match since, shortly after the game was released. 

Well, that's one way to fry a fish...
Taito’s later games were published by Taito itself, and varied wildly in quality.  When Taito was at the top of its game, it gave Genesis owners top-shelf titles like Space Invaders ’91, Sagaia, and Ultimate Qix.  When the company was under the weather, abominations like Chase HQ II, Growl, and a badly botched conversion of Cadash were the result.  It became clear after a couple of years and a half dozen crappy Genesis releases that Taito’s true love was the Super NES.  The company released just one Genesis game in 1993 (Flintstones!  Oh joy!), then abandoned the system completely a year later.

If a Taito game had been in Sega’s advertisement, I’d like to believe it would have been Sagaia.  It takes a lot to stand out in a library packed with side-scrolling shooters, but Sagaia delivers the goods, with sleek metallic visuals, creative aquatic-themed enemy designs, and branching paths that make each playthrough a fresh experience.  The critics loved this one- EGM gave it straight eights-and you’re sure to agree.

Special thanks to Wikipedia, Moby Games, GameFAQs, and Replacement Docs for their assistance in researching and fact-checking this feature.

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