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  • Yuji Naka discusses SMS programming

    Posted on July 31st, 2009 keving 1 comment

    Following up my post about the PCE version of Space Harrier, here is a bit from an interview with Yuji Naka printed in Sega Consumer History, a book published by Enterbrain in 2002:

    I did a lot of testing to figure out how best to port Space Harrier to the Mark III, but the hardware had very strict sprite limits and I really couldn’t show much more than the player and his bullets. If I was going to port this game, I naturally wanted to retain all of the impact of the original at all costs, but if I had rely on sprites for that, the results would’ve been pretty depressing.

    That’s when I began coding a system that drew [enemies] directly onto background tiles instead. That let me retain at least a bit of the original’s high speed, and it was ultimately what made Space Harrier possible on the Mark III. But I still kick myself over the square tiles that overlap all over the bosses! I tried really hard to come up with a software solution to this issue, but I just hit a wall when it came to CPU power.

    OutRun started out the same way, in that I knew I wanted to recreate the up-and-down motion of the original no matter what. I coded it so that it pretty much redrew the entire screen to create the effect, but it wasn’t everything it should’ve been. It was close, but not close enough. I don’t know if it was my fault or the Mark III’s, but it was probably somewhere between the two of us.

    Really, figuring out what game to port to which hardware at which time was a very important thing back then. You had to consider the development skills you had at hand very carefully, especially because the really flashy full-cabinet games like Space Harrier, OutRun and After Burner were coming out one after another that whole time. I pushed myself really hard from a technical standpoint during that era, so the time still conjures up a lot of memories for me.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Dragon Spirit

    Posted on July 31st, 2009 keving 8 comments

    Dragon SpiritDragon Spirit

    Maker: Namco
    Release Date: 12/16/88
    5900 yen
    HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Shooting
    PC Engine FAN Score: 23.71 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “Your fighter has anti-air and anti-ground weapons, like in Xevious, and grows new heads when he powers up. The difficulty level is set so that even players not good at shooters can enjoy the game well enough. A port of Namco’s epic arcade shooter.”

    This, along with Wonder Momo, is the StarTropics of the PC Engine. You could commonly find brand-new copies of this “Romancing Shooting Game” in shops for 100 or 200 yen well into the late ’90s, and even now it’s a functionally worthless card in terms of value. This shouldn’t be seen as a judgment on the game itself, though — it’s quite nice, though Namco didn’t try all that hard with the port job.

    Dragon Spirit Dragon Spirit (J)-006

    The second game to use Namco’s System 1 arcade platform, Dragon Spirit has more than a few interesting quirks. Anyone who’s toured MAME knows that the 1987 game has an “Old” and a “New” version; most of the changes made to the New version serve to make it easier, from a continue option that pre-equips you with power-ups to the removal of a bug where your max-power shots went right through enemies sitting in point-blank range. Hardcore gamers resisted these changes, of course, and arcade-game mag Gamest all but campaigned against them as it published a three-month-long Dragon Spirit “Old” strategy guide through the fall of ’87.

    The shooter also marked the musical debut of Shinji Hosoe, a composer whose name is synonymous with Namco even though he left the company and went indie starting in the mid-90s. Following high school, Hosoe went to the Japanese equivalent of DeVry, wound up getting a part-time QA/graphician job at Namco in 1986, and somehow convinced the Dragon Spirit staff to let him do the music and SFX for their top-flight shooter project. Maybe nobody else was available. I don’t know. It turns out Hosoe was one of the first home-grown computer musicians in Japan, a guy who (like Martin Galway and a lot of other European SID musicians around this time) had no experience with actual music, but was a virtuoso with all-purpose sound chips. His work on Dragon Spirit earned him a full-time career at Namco, and I’d say his maiden soundtrack is the main reason the game is still relevant today.

    I wouldn’t go quite that far when talking about the PC Engine port, though. Like Yōkai Dōchūki, this adaptation tries to act like a faithful port and somewhat looks the part, but lacks polish and suffers from the two-megabit HuCard size. The game doesn’t scroll horizontally at all, the smushed screen adds to the difficulty level, and Areas 7 and 8 from the arcade are gone entirely — Namco divided Area 9 into two parts and made that levels seven and eight instead. Wonder Momo was a fair bit different from the arcade version, too, although neither game is bad per se as a result. I don’t know if Namco was criticized for this style of porting back in the day, but the publisher tried noticeably harder with future PCE arcade titles — Ordyne, Splatterhouse and Genpei Tōmaden (which managed to simulate three-level parallax scrolling on the PCE entirely with sprites) are both incredible games and incredible ports.

    Dragon Spirit ain’t disappointing — in particular, the music is very faithful to the arcade, a pretty decent achievement considering what Hosoe achieved with the ol’ YM2151 on his first try — but it was quickly overshadowed by the original shooters that dominated the PCE’s library in 1989 and ’90. Maybe that’s why it’s so cheap nowadays.

    Here’s seven or minutes of Dragon Spirit action. Sounds great, yes, but compare Area 1 here to Area 1 of the arcade original and you’ll be pretty shocked at the difference in graphic detail.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] ASCII Stick Engine

    Posted on July 30th, 2009 keving No comments

    ASCII Stick Engine

    Maker: ASCII
    Release Date: 12/10/88
    Price: 5980 yen

    You can buy this officially-licensed joystick (the last one released for the PCE, thank God) right now off National Console Support if you like. The price on it is pretty typical for a Japanese reseller, but it’s not completely outlandish considering how uncommon this sick actually is. The walls of every used-game shop in Japan are plastered with ASCII’s assorted sticks and pads for the Famicom and SFC, but this one I’ve only seen once or twice in real life. (You could say that NCS is testing the waters with this price — not in any major hurry to move them, but more than happy to sell if someone’s willing to pay that much.)

    It’s something of a surprise that ASCII released any officially-licensed PCE hardware, considering that they completely ignored the system after this. It being late 1988, and the PCE beginning to build up steam in the marketplace, they must’ve figured that getting in on the ground floor wouldn’t hurt. Like I mentioned before, the PC Engine at this time was seen as the best platform for hardcore gamers looking to recreate the arcade experience at home — something that would probably surprise most PCE owners that got started with the system during its girl-game era.

    Like NEC-HE’s own Turbo Stick, the ASCII Stick offers turbo on both buttons, as well as a slow-motion function that takes the turbo and applies it to the Run button. Slow-mo was beginning to become a big thing in consoles worldwide (how many people bought a NES Advantage — a recolored version of the Famicom ASCII Stick — for that function, I wonder?), so it’s little surprise to see it here. The stick itself is plastic and not quite up to arcade standard, but is good enough for most home use.

    The demand for joysticks like these definitely dropped once the PCE plunged into the CD-ROM era. During the fighting-game boom, Hori released an unlicensed, six-button, and extremely high-end stick (also compatible with the SFC and Mega Drive), but NEC stuck with pads for its Avenue Pad 6, not particularly interested in going down the stick route again. ASCII and other third parties weren’t interested in trying their luck either, and so the PCE slowly (very slowly) entered its twilight years.

    While rare and not all that terribly useful, the ASCII Stick Engine is still an interesting symbol of the age when the PCE was high-end, cutting-edge hardware.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Space Harrier

    Posted on July 29th, 2009 keving 6 comments

    3270Space Harrier

    Maker: NEC Avenue
    Release Date: 12/9/88
    6700 yen
    HuCard (4 Mbit)
    Genre: Shooting
    PC Engine FAN Score: 22.72 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “A 3D shooter where you control the Harrier hero and defeat enemies. The animation is rough, but the graphics themselves are pretty. The bosses and bonus stages from the arcade version are accurately ported over. The first four-megabit PC Engine game.”

    I respect a game system by how well it can play Space Harrier. I therefore don’t think much of the Famicom. I do, however, have an absolutely tremendous amount of respect for the Sega Master System, which featured a port (programmed largely by Yuji Naka) that had no business being as impressive as it looked. The PC Engine, meanwhile, I have a fair-to-middlin’ amount of respect for. At least it runs at arcade speed.

    Space Harrier Space Harrier

    Space Harrier was the game that broke all standards of “extreme,” the way mid-’80s arcades defined it, and the PCE port follows in its footsteps…sort of. No, it’s nothing like the giant rotating sit-down cabinet that cost 1.66 million yen to purchase new from Sega 24 years ago.  The checkerboard landscape is replaced with an Amiga-like rasterbar flatland. The harrier and all the other sprites are smaller than in the arcade — this is actually the first 4-megabit HuCard ever made (hence the high price), but even 512K of cartridge space only got you so far with Yu Suzuki’s classic. The music, like with NEC Avenue’s last port, doesn’t hold a candle to the original, although the sound effects are nearly spot-on and at least one or two tracks sound pretty nice. (This one’s the bonus-stage theme — how many players even made it far enough into Space Harrier to realize it had a bonus stage?)

    Then again, maybe I should stop complaining. Naka’s SMS conversion was a remarkable novelty upon its 1986 release — a wonder of assembly-language programming that really has no equal on that platform outside of Phantasy Star’s 3D labyrinths — but the PCE version is frankly a lot closer in look and feel to the arcade. Like Fantasy Zone, it was programmed by the folks at Dempa Shinbunsha for NEC; Dempa released another port for the X68000 in 1989 that looked (and sounded) much closer to the arcade, but still featured that stupid stripey ground instead of the proper checkerboard. A completely, completely complete port didn’t come until the 32X version in 1994.

    Still, this port was head-and-shoulders above the SMS and Famicom in looks, and that in itself was enough to shift packages — and to further solidify the PCE’s reputation as an arcade powerhouse.

    Despite its reputation and apparent speed, Space Harrier is not hard to beat with a little practice. It’s a completely patternized game — the enemies (and trees/columns) always appear in the same place, with the same timing, and they are guaranteed to always fire at the player’s location. As long as you remember to keep moving at all times, you really never run into a situation where you’re too flustered to avoid death.

    To prove it, here’s part one of a complete run that makes the game look piss-simple. Click on for part two.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] No-Ri-Ko

    Posted on July 28th, 2009 keving 4 comments


    Maker: Hudson
    Release Date: 12/4/88
    4980 yen
    CD-ROM² (19.34MB + 96 audio tracks)
    Genre: Girl
    PC Engine FAN Score: 22.30 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “A simple adveneture that lets you go on a date with popular celebrity Noriko Ogawa. The story begins with the hero picking up Ogawa’s lost train pass and getting invited to her concert. Also includes three tunes sung by Noriko herself.”

    If you were man enough to invest nearly $1000 in 1988 dollars on a PCE with CD-ROM² unit at launch, then your choice of accompanying software was either this or Fighting Street.

    No-Ri-Ko No-Ri-Ko

    At the time this disc debuted in 1988, Noriko Ogawa (age 15) was a Japanese idol that sort of toed the line between “minor” and “major,” mainly known at that point for her role as a child actress in assorted TV shows and horror flicks. If your average person in Japan knows her, it’s for her role in a TV show, Hagure Keiji Junjoha, where she played the daughter of the main character for about 15 years straight, starting as a middle-schooler and graduating into adulthood until the show ended in 2005.

    She put out a few singles starting in late ’87, starting with “Namida o tabanete,” and Shinichi Nakamoto at Hudson had the idea of putting her at the center of a simple adventure game. The plot: You happened to pick up Noriko’s train pass off the street, so her manager sets the two of you up on a date around Tokyo for a day. (’80s girl-adventures in Japan generally didn’t get more complex than this.)

    There isn’t really much game here at all; the thing plays a lot like the early multimedia adventures released for American PCs in the early ’90s. Basically, you choose what places to visit on your date — visiting a clothing store (where you can choose an outfit for Noriko), taking some pictures of her, and maybe listening to a song or two. A playthrough takes about half an hour, and there’s not much in terms of alternate paths or endings, so there’s really no other genre to place this sucker in besides “girl.”

    What the developers at Alfa System lacked in enthusiasm, though, they made up for with all the CD-ROM experimentation you see here. All of Noriko’s dialogue is spoken, with each line an individual redbook-audio track on the disc. Three of her singles are included as full CD tracks in this game with video accompanient — the first time that a video game, any video game, synced CD audio with computer graphics in a meaningful way. (A few more of her tracks appear as chip-generated background music.) When you complete a run-through of the game, Noriko (her actual voice) speaks the name you input at the start of the game — in a completely accent-less, robotic fashion, but still rather impressive for 1988. (Tokimeki Memorial 2, released in 1999, claimed to be the first girl-game where the ladies called you by name. Whatever, Konami!)

    There’s not much point in reviewing this game further, because it’s not a game so much as a bucket full of small CD-ROM demonstrations and experiments. Noriko is a very nice lady, I’m sure she’s kind to stray cats and would gladly help an old, bent-over crone across the street, but her popularity was definitely in the “unknown outside of her fan club” range throughout her career. I’m not sure her face moved all that many CD-ROM²s, although owners appreciated Alfa’s experimentation enough to rate No-Ri-Ko remarkably high on the PCE FAN scale.

    I couldn’t find any gameplay videos online and I’m still too lazy to make my own, so instead here is a Nico-video that uses Noriko’s robo-voice to sing “Maho o Kakete”, a tune from The IDOLM@STER. The results sound like Catwoman disguising her voice while calling Commissioner Gordon’s office.

  • The Japanese website for Lost Kingdoms still exists

    Posted on July 28th, 2009 keving 2 comments

    Oh God, my favorite sub-50k-selling GameCube title is over seven years old, where did the time go D-:

    Normal updates are a-coming! I’m back to busy mode again!

  • Richter Belmont and His Keyblade

    Posted on July 24th, 2009 keving 2 comments

    Nobody in the Belmont family ever learned how to walk straight, really.

    Fun Fact: Count Dracula’s voice in this game is also the voice of MacGyver in the Japanese dub.

  • Pitfall II (Sega, 2/1985)

    Posted on July 22nd, 2009 keving 3 comments

    Classic gamers (real ones, not people who think the Super NES is classic) have always seen David Crane’s Pitfall II: Lost Caverns as one of the best Atari 2600 games ever made — or, at least, one of its greatest technical achievements.

    Lesser known is that Sega took the Pitfall II name and made an arcade title (later ported to the SG-1000 console) that…well, it’s sort of like Pitfall, but it plays like someone played Crane’s original, told another programmer all about it in detail, and then that programmer created his own version based off that description. All the individual elements are there, but they come together to form something remarkably different.

    Check out the video above for a full playthrough of this rather odd take on the game. (If you want to see more of this kinda thing, have a look at Sega’s home port too.)

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Fighting Street

    Posted on July 21st, 2009 keving 12 comments

    Fighting StreetFighting Street

    Maker: Hudson
    Release Date: 12/4/88
    5980 yen
    CD-ROM² (17.68MB + 23 audio tracks)
    Genre: Action
    PC Engine FAN Score: 24.41 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “A port of Street Fighter, the arcade game that gave birth to the fighting action game genre and later led to the wildly popular Street Fighter II. The two characters of Ryu and Ken, as well as special moves like the Hadoken and Shoryuken, were already in place in this game.”

    The first real video game to be distributed on CD-ROM, predating The Manhole (a Mac kids’ title that got a PCE port in 1991) by at least a month or two, is a pretty faithful port of 1987’s Street Fighter from Capcom. The purpose of the name change is a mystery that still eludes me, but may have something to do with the non-compete clauses that Capcom and other Nintendo third-parties worked under at the time.

    Development duties for both this and fellow launch title No.Ri.Ko were handled by Alfa System, a prolific subcontractor that mainly worked on Hudson titles around this time. Since Alfa couldn’t afford CD-ROM² dev/authoring systems (which ran into the tens of millions of yen in 1988), their staff actually traveled to Hudson headquarters in Sapporo to produce this and No.Ri.Ko in time for the system’s launch. Other than a lack of parallax scrolling and clouds moving in the background, the PCE port features nearly the exact same graphics and animation as the arcade original.

    Fighting Street Fighting Street

    I would like to say that Fighting Street is a revolution, something that changed the path of video games that followed it the way that fellow launch titles like Super Mario 64 and Halo did. I’d be lying, though. That’s because, like the CD-ROM format itself in 1988, Street Fighter was a great idea that needed a bit more time to evolve. All the basics of the fighting-game genre are here — one-on-one combat, special moves unleashed by specific button sequences, that sort of thing — but the whole thing needs polish and game balancing that didn’t come until Street Fighter II a few years later.

    The results are frustrating most of the time, when they aren’t humorous. Ryu’s special moves — the Hadouken, Shoryuken and hurricane kick — are incredibly hard to pull off with a control pad (a bit easier on a keyboard or if you use a secret code). Hit home with one, though, and it’s devastating, taking off nearly half your enemy’s life. In the PCE port, Ryu’s blocking powers are extraordinary enough that you can punch your adversary (all of them) once, hold back to block, wait 90 seconds, and win the round once time expires. Plus, there are the voices. A laugh riot, they are. Everyone sounds like this. I could listen to that sample repeatedly for an hour straight and still not get sick of it.

    To sum it up, Alfa did a great job porting an arcade game that, in many ways, played like a rough “concept” version of Street Fighter II instead of a full game. But Fighting Street is truly revolutionary in one way: it brought CD-quality scores to video games. The music here, all remixed versions of Street Fighter’s chip-generated soundtrack, would define the PCE’s CD sound for years to come — it’s loud, synth-heavy, pop-infused, and remarkably catchy. The tunes for Joe and Eagle’s stages are the most memorable in my mind, but a lot of Asian folks on the net seem to go for Retsu and Geki, the two Japanese competitors, a bit more.

    To save you the toil (and the loading-time waits) of going through Fighting Street yourself, here’s someone doing it in just under ten minutes for you. I wish I was in the audience for those two brick-bashing demos. They all look so happy.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] CD-ROM System

    Posted on July 17th, 2009 keving 37 comments

    CD-ROM² System

    Maker: NEC Home Electronics
    Release Date: 12/4/88
    Price: 57,800 yen

    cdrom0The greatest contribution the PC Engine made to video-game history is undoubtedly the CD-ROM media it successfully introduced. Maybe there wasn’t an install base that goes into the multi-millions like you see with later systems, but the PCE CD-ROM was successful enough for NEC — and it was also the first success story for the format, something that irrevocably changed console hardware and software design ever since.

    Musical CDs first went on sale in 1982, gradually growing in popularity toward the end of the decade and replacing LP records as the primary medium for the music industry. While originally developed as a musical format, CDs (as we all know today) can store any kind of digital information you can think of. Dozens of companies introduced concepts and systems that took advantage of CD-based storage throughout the ’80s, but in the very beginning, the disc was seen purely for “serious” use — digital encyclopedias, library databases, that sort of thing.

    It was Hudson Soft’s hardware staff that first came up with the idea to use CDs as the medium for a video-game system, an idea that was seen as more than a little crazy for its time. The push was chiefly spearheaded by Shinichi Nakamoto, an old-guard software guy who began working for Hudson in 1978 while studying in college and now serves as its executive vice president. Hiromasa Iwasaki, a game journalist and programmer who worked on Ys Book I & II, wrote in a 1996 issue of Dengeki PC Engine that Nakamoto, “a fun guy who, for better or for worse, loves going on adventures and trying new things, was the one who pushed the [CD-ROM²] project — or, really, stuffed it down everyone’s throats.” Iwasaki was one of the programmers of the system’s BIOS (i.e. the System Card 1.0), and he was involved with developing the hardware architecture from the start. (He was originally headhunted by Hudson for his experience working on the Green Book CD standard, co-developed by Sony and Philips in 1986.)

    Why was Nakamoto so interested in the CD-ROM format for games? Judging by assorted interviews he’s done over the years, the original inspiration was the ability to use real-life voice in game productions. It was Teruhisa “Ohji” Hiroi who expanded that concept to full-on visual animation, the anime cutscenes that would highlight a vast amount of PCE CD games to come. Hiroi, a freelance designer whose experience at the time was mostly in the trenches of anime development, heard about Nakamoto’s project and brought a game concept to him before the PCE was even released — a concept that eventually became Tengai Makyō: Ziria (1989), the first “killer app” CD game. “I wanted to make a game that really used CD-ROM,” Hiroi later wrote, “and after that, it was almost like NEC was making the machine for me.”

    It was, indeed, NEC’s computer division that created the CD-ROM hardware — or, to be exact, repurposed it for game console purposes. Former NEC-HE hardware designer Nobuhiro Takagaki mentioned in a 2003 interview with Dorimaga magazine that, starting in 1986, NEC was working on a next-generation computer, a CD-ROM-equipped “multimedia machine” meant to replace the PC-8801 in the consumer market. The concept isn’t unlike what Fujitsu came up with for the FM Towns in 1989, but Hudson ultimately convinced NEC to take the CD functionality of this new computer and work it into the PC Engine instead. (NEC themselves wouldn’t release a CD-ROM computer until the PC-9821 in 1992.)

    The CD-ROM² System wasn’t released until a year after the PC Engine itself, but from the size of the HuCards to the jewel case-like packaging they were sold in, it’s plain to see that the system was designed around the CD-ROM unit, not the other way around. Still, it was released as an optional accessory because NEC didn’t seriously think it’d eventually become the system’s primary media. It’s obvious why they had their doubts. After all, this was the first consumer-level device ever to use CD-ROMs after the Yellow Book standard was finalized in 1985. CD-ROM drives were eye-poppingly expensive until the early ’90s — the PCE’s system ain’t exactly cheap at nearly 60,000 yen, but consider that a PC CD-ROM drive cost over 200,000 yen in the Japanese marketplace back then, and it’s easy to see the pains NEC must’ve gone through to keep the price as low as it was.

    The revolutionary nature of this system is particularly impressive when you remember that it came out in 1988, when the Famicom was still king and even the largest of games for it were two or three megabits (and even that was thanks to fancy bankswitching techniques that Nintendo didn’t anticipate). By comparison, a PC Engine CD-ROM can hold up to 540 megabytes, 4320 megabits, per disc. As PC Engine FAN put it in one 1988 headline, “you could put all the Famicom games that exist on one CD-ROM!” — and a lot of gamers back then had trouble even imagining what could be done with that much space. (You can easy fit every single HuCard release on a single CD-ROM too, by the way, and hackers have put lots of HuCards on SCD-compatible discs in the past.)

    Developing for this pioneering system was not straightforward. Hard drives didn’t come in 540-megabyte models back then (the one I got with my first PC in 1992 was only 120MB), so — as veteran game developer Satoshi Mikami described to Dorimaga in 2003 — Hudson’s developers had to string several drives together to create a “CD-ROM² emulator” to work with. The equipment cost alone went into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for each individual dev workstation. CD-Rs didn’t exist yet, either (the standard for them wasn’t defined until 1988), so if you wanted to test a game out on a real PCE, you had to copy all the CD-ROM data to tape storage and send it off to the factory for pressing, which cost the equivalent of a cool $10,000 or so per cycle.

    Realizing all this gives you an idea of exactly how crazy it was to introduce CD-ROM to game systems as early as NEC and Hudson dared to. It’s also a window into the massive “game bubble” the Famicom had created in Japan — even in the mid-1980s, there was so much money to be made off of video games that incredible risks like these were taken on a regular basis.

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