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  • “The Phantom of Akihabara,” Chapter 5: “Like the River Flow”

    Posted on July 16th, 2009 keving 4 comments

    090716-akihabara1

    “You know how I’m helping out with the Comiket down below, right?”
    “Uh-huh. That, and how you worked with the closet otaku in Urban Planning to keep it from attracting any attention.”
    “Yeah, well, the honeymoon’s just about over with that. I think they’re gonna do away with Comiket, and they’re gonna take down every damn store in this building along with it.”

    Here is chapter five (“Like the River Flow”) of The Phantom of Akihabara: GAME OVER, a serial novel written by Yoshitaka Ohsawa between 2002 and 2004. You’ll want to start at chapter one if you’re new to the tale.

    With an economy in shambles and a nation in chaos, the Japanese government has forced peace and goodwill upon its people — a movement that dovetailed all too well with media’s tendency to censor itself, starting in the 1990s. With all the “poison” sucked out of their popular entertainment, how can Japan’s game nerds continue to exist…if they can at all?

    Happy readin’.

    Read the rest of this entry »

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] XE-1 PRO HE

    Posted on July 16th, 2009 keving 1 comment

    XE-1 PRO HE

    Maker: Dempa Shinbunsha (MICOM SOFT)
    Release Date: 11/26/88
    Price: 9500 yen

    xe1When it first launched, the PC Engine was one damn hardcore system, a serious piece of equipment that touted arcade ports and high-end action. The whole scene would be pretty damn hard to believe for the horny otaku who got into the system with Tokimeki Memorial, but it was the PCE’s prime focus until ’92 or so, and no peripheral symbolizes that more than this ridiculously full-featured joystick.

    As with the X-HE2, the XE-1 PRO HE was released by Dempa Shinbunsha, a Japanese publisher of computer and electronics-industry books and newspapers. MICOM SOFT, their consumer development division, worked on a wide range of stuff for computers (and still do), as well as pitching in on the PCE port of Space Harrier and other titles. Most of MICOM’s current products are for hardcore gamers who also happen to be crazy audio/videophiles, and remarkably, they still give a lot of their products names that start with “X”.

    This particular stick came out in the fall of 1988 — just in time for the PCE’s first birthday, right when R-Type was the system’s killer app and all sorts of neat stuff was being released. Gamers saw the PCE as the best machine for arcade ports (a role that Sega positioned the Mega Drive for in its early advertising), and in response, no less than three arcade-style sticks came out at nearly the same time — this one, NEC’s Turbo Stick, and the ASCII Stick Engine. I don’t know how well any of them sold, but the PCE joystick fad didn’t last beyond the end of the year.

    The XE-1 PRO, to its credit, lives up to the “PRO” marking in every sense of the word. I dount MICOM was thinking about anything besides hardcore arcade freaks when working on this one, which is probably why it costs nearly 10,000 yen. If you were an arcade rat who couldn’t get used to all the control pads that dominated the console scene, you wanted this, badly, to get the sort of pinpoint control you enjoyed with the pro-spec stuff.

    The joystick mechanism itself is arcade spec, according to MICOM; it’s made of the sort of sturdy metal you see used in MAME panels these days. You’re able to switch modes between four-directional and eight-directional, which makes games like After Burner II feel truer to the arcade control-wise. (Of course, to get that game arcade perfect, you’d need an analog stick, but that wouldn’t come until the X-HE3 in 1992.)

    Meanwhile, the two buttons on the right are large, round, and rotatable. You can spin them around in a 270-degree arc, moving in 10-degree intervals. According to the manual, this feature was included so “you can play using your favorite position” — which, again, is important if you’re playing an arcade port and want the controls to feel exactly the same as what you’re used to. Most arcade and MAME panels have the bxe12uttons at a bit of a diagonal to each other, often in slightly different configurations depending on game; this feature is MICOM’s solution to that.

    Shooters were the hottest arcade genre in 1988, and therefore every high-end home stick (including the Turbo Pad, Turbo Stick and ASCII Stick Engine) had built-in rapid fire. The XE-1 is no exception, of course, but the sheer amount of functionality here is staggering. There’s a switch on the front of the panel that lets you select TRIGGER MANUAL, TRIGGER AUTO and TRIGGER HOLD. Manual means turbo is off; Auto means it’s on, and Hold retains turbo even when you remove your thumb from the button. Two sliders on the top let you pinpoint exactly how rapid you want turbo to be on each button, and there’s even a couple of LEDs on the top right that shows exactly how quick the firing pulses you’re sending the PCE are. It’s only 1988, and we’re already approaching the high end of home controller functionality for the 16-bit era.

    That’s not even all, either. As you can see from the pics, there are four ports on the right side of the XE-1. They’re PCE controller ports, and if you use them, then huzzah, you can connect up to five controllers to your PCE at once. Multitap schmultitap! (Though, again, YūYū Jinsei is still the only five-player game at this point…)

  • Me

    Posted on July 14th, 2009 keving 4 comments

    I have not thrown out a business card in nearly nine years on this loony express train. I thought I’d show some of ’em off, exploring some of the detours of game-industry history from 2000 on in the process. Starting with me, because I’m that way. Plus, I worked for Gamers.com and I gotta brag about it to somebody.

    gifford1My first paying job that wasn’t Wendy’s or the college bookstore was when I worked a summer at Gamers.com writing news and filling up their database with retro games. This was the 1999-era Gamers.com, when they hired 110 people to make a video-game website and had many of them devoting 40 hours a week to the most ridiculous things, such as educational games.

    Gamers.com was founded and run by world-famous cybergamer Dennis “Thresh” Fong, and therefore everybody on the staff also needed nicknames to put on their business cards. I used my IRC nick, which I took from the name of a character in Bonobono. The company was set up in warehouse space in a not-at-all-good part of Richmond, CA, and I was in fancy-schmancy company housing the whole summer. I remember calling my mother and excitedly telling her about the flock of Canada geese on the premises. There was free Snapple and a pristine example of Bally’s Xenon, which I wrote a strategy guide for in Gamers.com’s internal newsletter. Very good times. I’m very happy that I got a job at a dot-com back when it was still a social phenomenon.

    I left at the end of summer to finish up my last year of school. Before I could return, the site was sold licensed out to Ziff Davis Media in 2001 after Fong’s outfit exhausted their $14 million in VC — maybe they shouldn’t have paid full-time dot-com salaries to people like me for writing blurbs about NES games, huh?

    The name bounced around, and around, and around, and now Gamers.com is some sort of mainland-Chinese game news site.

    gifford2 gifford3

    After graduating from college I got a job at GamePro, which hasn’t existed at this location since 2005 or so. They were in San Francisco when I joined on, at a lovely location right by the Bay Bridge, but they moved soon after to this office in Oakland, right by the main BART station. Downtown Oakland gave you a real life view of “the wrong side of the tracks” — fancy outdoor mall and atrium on one side of the BART station, littered streets and gray buildings on the other.

    I was the International News Editor for GamePro.com, a title I earned because IDG had a deal going with Enterbrain at the time and so I got to translate articles from Famitsu.com for our website. (Does anyone remember this? I don’t think your average game-forum slug ever admitted to reading GamePro.com back then, but I am reasonably confident the Japan coverage on there was just as good as anything on IGN, etc. today.)

    gifford4 gifford5

    In 2004 IDG bought Star Wars Insider and regrouped it, GamePro and GamePro.com into a separate division, IDG Entertainment. This didn’t change day-to-day work much, but did result in some revised business cards. IDG Entertainment is officially called GamePro Media today, overseeing a flock of websites and their two print mags.

    gifford6 gifford7

    Late in 2004 I moved over to Ziff Davis Media in order to help create 1UP.com. I actually got two sets of cards for this job — one in English, one in Japanese. None of this “flip the card to get the other language” stuff. I was in the big time.

    101 Second Street is in the heart of SF, the sort of office any parent would be proud to see his son work at. GameSpot (ie. CBS Interactive) is a couple of blocks down the street, GamePro a bit further down, and Ubisoft’s SF office just around the corner.

    Most of the things that made 1UP a first-rate website didn’t happen until after I left, so I can’t take credit for any of it. If I was arrogant enough to try defending myself, I’d say that Ziff didn’t get super super serious about online until just after I left, when GMR and XBN were suddenly closed. That’s about when the podcast/video stuff really exploded.

    Do you have a business card from the game industry that’s historically interesting or has a neat story attached to it? Tell me about it!

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] X-HE2

    Posted on July 14th, 2009 keving 8 comments

    X-HE2

    Maker: Dempa Shinbunsha
    Release Date: November 1988 sometime
    Price: 1600 yen

    x-he2As licensed PCE accessories go, this one is pretty rare — a two-port multitap that came out to little fanfare in 1988 and was available for just a short time in the market.

    Dempa Shinbunsha, a Japanese publisher named after the electronics industry newspaper they were founded to run, released this peripheral under the “MICOM SOFT” brand. This was inspired by MICOM BASIC Magazine, a pioneering hobbyist computer mag — arguably, the first one to achieve popular support among the general public — that Dempa published in Japan from 1982 to 2003.

    A month after this, Dempa used the “X” label again for the XE-1 PRO HE, a sturdy joystick that cost the near-unimaginable sum of $100-ish in 1988 dollars. Dempa wanted to get in on the ground floor with the PCE, there’s little doubt about that — they even worked on some of NEC Avenue’s early releases as a subcontractor.

    If you’re the sort of person who thinks a 5-port Multitap has too many “unused components” (like that 5-CD changer that you only listen to one CD with) then why not use this instead and save yourself a few hundred yen? This isn’t the only two-port adapter, either — there’s Sur de Wave’s Twin Tap (1992), along with Hori’s unlicensed Twin Commander (1989).

    You’d think that more PCE gamers would’ve been interested in a two-port multitap, but in the end NEC-HE’s 5-port model was by far the most popular accessory in the genre, followed (not too closely) by Hudson’s three-porter.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Sadakichi Seven: Hideyoshi no Ohgon

    Posted on July 14th, 2009 keving 2 comments

    Sadakichi SevenSadakichi Seven: Hideyoshi no Ōgon
    (定吉七番・秀吉の黄金)

    Maker: Hudson
    Release Date: 11/18/88
    Price:
    4900 yen
    Media:
    HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Adventure
    PC Engine FAN Score: 23.92 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “Based from an offbeat parody novel. The gags inserted into each scene will make you laugh. The game, divided into eight chapters, features Sadakichi, the decchi with a license to kill, trying to recover Hideyoshi’s ancient documents from the evil NATTO syndicate.”

    Are strip-mahjong games and simulations where you “raise” virtual idols not Japanese enough for you? How about an adventure where the cast is mostly weirdo middle-aged people from Osaka and you’re fighting a terrorist organization whose aim is to destroy the Kansai region of Japan and make the entire land safe for natto?

    Sadakichi Seven Sadakichi Seven

    Sadakichi Seven, aka mild-mannered Osakan Tomokazu Yasui, is a secret agent who works for the underground Osaka Chamber of Commerce. He is the decchi (a term for a merchant’s apprentice in the Kansai area) with a license to kill, and with that kitchen knife he’s got on the game’s cover art, he keeps Osaka safe against NATTO, a group of evil Tokyo businessmen who want to destroy Sadakichi’s home. This is funny because (busts out Chris Rock impression) people from Tokyo are like this — “Wee wee wee, I like natto” — and people from Osaka are like this — “Rrr rrr rrr, I don’t like natto.” Get it?!!?!

    A lot of the humor in this menu-based adventure (a surprisingly prolific genre across Japanese systems in the late 1980s) is, admittedly, rather…local. Not only will you have to know a lot about Japanese culture; you’ll also need to know a fair bit about Osaka and the differences between it and Tokyo. For that matter, you’ll also need to know how to decipher written Osaka dialect, which is laid on thick by most of the main characters here. In fact, short of a shogi simulator, I can’t think of a PCE game that’s less accessible to foreigners. Sorry. The 007-ish music‘s nice and atmospheric, at least (the Hudson Soft Lounge Orchestra back in action), and if you do know Japanese, the humorous responses you get for trying outrageous things are worth the trip.

    Hideyoshi no Ōgon is actually based off a series of spy-spoof novels written by Ryu Togo starting in 1984, some of which are kind of funny — they’re all out of print, but available as cheap ebooks from the original publishers. The game’s characters and graphics were all drawn by Koichiro Yasunaga, a manga artist who’s earned some repute for his girl-laden ’80s comics. so there’s that going for it as well. (The Japanese Wikipedia cites a source that claims Togo lost the right to create further Sadakichi novels because Hudson trademarked the guy’s name and were presumably uncooperative somehow after this game came out. Odd.)

    This video gives you the basic idea of gameplay. Not much else to report.

  • Victor Ireland — NeoGAF’s last voice of reason?!

    Posted on July 14th, 2009 keving 6 comments

    vireland

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Fantasy Zone

    Posted on July 14th, 2009 keving 2 comments

    1250Fantasy Zone
    (ファンタジーゾーン)

    Maker: NEC Avenue
    Release Date: 10/14/88
    Price:
    4900 yen
    Media:
    HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Shooting
    PC Engine FAN Score: 22.47 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “The hero Opa-Opa can walk on the ground. He collects money from defeated enemies to purchase power-ups from the shops. The game is surprisingly difficult and will not be finished easily by most players. A port of the Sega arcade game.”

    The fourth port of Fantasy Zone to home systems, chronologically, after the Master System, MSX and Famicom. (It could be argued that the MS version is a sort of “parallel” to the arcade game, since both were developed simultaneously in 1986 and have a range of differences.)

    Although this game looks very faithful to the original, the controls are a bit of a pain and the music is simply awful — not unfaithful to the arcade tracks, but just very poorly rendered on the PCE’s sound technology. Despite this, PC Engine FAN readers rated it surprisingly high.

    Fantasy Zone Fantasy Zone

    This is the first PCE title from NEC Avenue, a satellite company of NEC’s formed in 1987 to be their record label. They worked on a great deal of PCE hardware and software, starting out with ports of Sega, Taito and Capcom arcade titles and moving on to girl-games as time went on. They also produced a bunch of game music soundtracks, including Koji Hayama’s Cho Aniki music collection — something that no gamer, really, should be without.

    NEC’s internal software and accessory development was spun off to a new division, NEC Interchannel, in 1995, with Avenue remaining as a record label until ’98. Interchannel was exclusively a girl-game maker — until very recently, I think the only non-gal-game they published in Japan was Puyo Puyo CD 2, coincidentally their inaugural release — and they went independent in 2004 after NEC sold the 70% share it had in the outfit.

    During the Avenue era, much of NEC’s internal software development was led by a man named Toshio Tabeta, a name infamous among PCE fans. He’s a talented man, and he produced some great stuff, but his reputation for perfectionism (perhaps speared by complaints toward this Fantasy Zone port) led to his titles getting delayed, and delayed, and delayed, sometimes into oblivion. Space Fantasy Zone, which was announced in 1993 and all but completed for the Super CD-ROM but was never released after four years on magazine “Coming Soon” lists, is the most classic example. Another one: Strider, originally announced as a HuCard but then bouncing through every possible PCE format there is before finally coming out as an Arcade Card-exclusive title in 1994. Not once, but twice, he made promises to magazines that “if my game’s delayed any longer, I’ll shave my head” — and then performed the act right in front of their cameras a few months later.

    He’s a colorful figure, and he’s still in the business running Prototype, a Japanese outfit that mostly publishes ports of famous girl-games to home consoles and cell phones.

    Compare this video to the arcade game, and I think except for the dual-layered scrolling, it’s a remarkably nice-looking port. Not a nice-sounding one, but still. Note that Level 2 of this game is the first time ever that a PCE title uses a shite-ton of sprites to mimic the effect of layered scrolling — a trick that got pretty common later on in the console’s life cycle.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Joy Tap 3

    Posted on July 11th, 2009 keving 3 comments

    Joy Tap 3

    Maker: Hudson Soft
    Release Date: 10/4/88
    Price: 1890 yen

    joytap One of the chief selling points for the PC Engine near the beginning was its extensive (for the time) multiplayer capabilities. The Famicom had only two controllers, both hard-wired into the system, which meant you were playing 1-on-1 or nothin’. With the PCE and its fancy-pants detachable controllers, you could connect up a Multitap (released simultaneously with the PCE itself) and have up to five pads snaking out of the white system. It was unique enough to still raise eyebrows two years later when the TurboGrafx-16 came out.

    The only problem: it took forever for games to come out that took advantage of this. Even Hudson, the PCE’s greatest supporter, didn’t release any decent multiplayer games until mid-1989, starting with Dungeon Explorer and continuing with Momotarō Dentetsu and Bomberman. Meanwhile, looking at the PCE’s early lineup, the only truly multiplayer title is YūYū Jinsei, a board game. If multiplayer was such a major selling point in NEC’s mind, then you have to wonder why titles like Pro Yakyū World Stadium and Power League only supported one-on-one play. And yet, even if you wanted to play your friend in baseball, your only choice was the 5-port Multitap — a major case of overkill.

    From the consumer perspective, the request was pretty simple to imagine: “I don’t need five ports, so give me something cheaper!” Thus, Hudson’s Joy Tap 3 — a Multitap with only three controller ports. They could’ve just made it two ports and supported every game available at the time except Pro Tennis World Court, but I suppose giving users three was Hudson’s way of saying “Don’t worry, we’ll think of something for this thing sooner or later.” Dropping two ports made the Joy Tap 3 600 yen cheaper than NEC’s Multitap, which is serious cash if you were a kid saving coins to buy the latest games.

    I don’t know how well this accessory sold, but you don’t see many Joy Tap 3’s in modern used-game shops — or, at least, they’re dwarfed by the mountain of five-port Multitaps lying around, indicating that NEC won the retail battle in the long run. Maybe there weren’t many games that supported five people at once, but what about three, huh? It seems like a bit of an odd number, and there’s no way around that.

    There are also two-port multitaps out there, including Dempa Shinbunsha’s X-HE2 (which came out not long after this) and the Twin Tap, released in 1992 by Sur de Wave for some reason. There’s also the Battle Tap, a four-port extender. You were nothing if not spoiled for choice in this sector.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Turbo Stick

    Posted on July 11th, 2009 keving 9 comments

    Turbo Stick
    (ターボスティック)

    Maker: NEC Home Electronics
    Release Date: 10/1/88
    Price: 6800 yen

    turst

    The same as the TurboGrafx-16’s TurboStick, except with different colors and horizontal instead of vertical sliders.

    This joystick, the first one made for the PC Engine, has the distinction of being the only stick ever released by either NEC-HE or NEC Avenue for the system’s entire history. Considering all the minor changes NEC made to the basic pad over the years, the fact they never released another stick for the PCE indicates to me that this must have not been a big seller. (And it wasn’t — except for some dead warehouse stock put out around 2003, these things are surprisingly uncommon in Japanese used-game shops.)

    By the time the PC Engine celebrated its first birthday, things were looking decidedly up for the system. Sales were accelerating, the platform had a killer app in R-Type, and three dedicated PCE magazines launched in Japan near-simulataneously in late ’88. The console had built a reputation for arcade ports that the Famicom couldn’t handle, and arcade brats were starting to take notice. This apparently made companies think that an arcade-style controller was just what the PCE needed, and the end of 1988 saw no less than three contenders — the Turbo Stick, Dempa Shinbunsha’s XE-1 PRO HE, and the ASCII Stick Engine. None of them were in the marketplace at full price for very long, and by the end of 1989, you’d be considered lucky to find any of them for sale in the high-street shops.

    As you can tell from the pic, the Turbo Stick is a simple two-button affair. Turbo functionality is included, but instead of the three speed levels on the standard Turbo Pad, you’ve got a couple of sliders that you can push up and down to fine-tune your turbo experience. The XE-1 PRO HE and ASCII Stick Engine both have slow-motion functionality, but that’s missing on this stick.

    The Turbo Stick’s structure — it feels like a cheap piece of plastic and yet it cost 6800 yen — was probably the main reason it wasn’t successful. Try using it these days, after years of using a pad of one variety or another, and one could hardly call this very comfortable…but then, I wasn’t a Japanese arcade brat at the time.

    There was a miniature tsunami of new, 6-button PCE controllers released in 1993 for Street Fighter II Champion Edition, but NEC-HE oddly decided not to participate in the rush. If you insist on playing the SFII port with a joystick, your only choice is Hori’s unlicensed Fighting Stick PC.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] PC-KD863G

    Posted on July 11th, 2009 keving 4 comments

    PC-KD863G

    Maker: NEC Home Electronics
    Release Date: 9/27/88
    Price: 138,000 yen

    kd863gAnother example of the “Core Concept” (last seen in the X1 Twin) gone mad.

    Along with envisioning the PC Engine as the “core” that drove a vast variety of home peripherals and accessories, NEC also saw the PCE’s internal hardware as a fully sub-licensable product, capable of being installed into all manner of other devices. These new products would be called “HE-System devices” (HEシステム機), and just as Sharp did with the X1 Twin in 1987, any third party could release PCE-compatible HE-System hardware if they were willing to pay a license fee to NEC.

    The PC-KD863G, by far the most uncommon piece of first-party PC Engine hardware, is the only labeled HE-System device that NEC-HE themselves released into the marketplace. Simply put, it’s a computer (RGB) monitor with PCE hardware pre-installed internally. As you can see from the pamphlet photo, there’s a HuCard slot and a single control port down below the screen, along with speakers on both sides of the CRT. This means that you could play PCE games with this set by itself without tying up Dad’s TV — sort of like a really big PC Engine LT or GT, I suppose.

    The unique thing about this device is that it was the only officially-licensed PC Engine to output straight RGB video. The X1 Twin could only do composite video for the PCE since the console’s hardware was functionally separate from the computer, but the PC-KD863G outputs a direct RGB signal, giving the sharpest picture you can expect to find in real life. (All PCEs output RGB video internally, and at one point Dempa Shinbunsha announced a standalone RGB monitor that included a special video interface for the PCE, but that dissolved into vaporware. High-end gamers used custom cables instead, which were sold by many mail-order joints.)

    The 138,000 yen list price makes this easily the most expensive piece of PC Engine hardware ever released. Most of that price is probably tied up in the cost of the monitor hardware — those things were expensive during the 80s, something rarely appreciated today (there’s a reason why most 8-bit PCs connected to television sets) — and when you consider the PC Engine LT itself cost just a bit under 100,000, that six-figure MSRP begins to become just a tad easier to swallow. Besides, maybe some customers looking for a plain ol’ PC monitor saw the PCE hardware as a little extra bonus. I don’t know.

    In reality, the PC-KD863G saw its most frequent use in the editorial departments of video game magazines, which used it for screenshot snapping until custom RGB cables came along. Otherwise it wasn’t too useful, thanks to its lack of expansion port and resulting incompatibility with the CD-ROM System.

    I’ve never ever ever seen one of these in real life. In fact, I’d honestly be surprised if there were any working examples left. Brandon Sheffield noted that a Hong Kong dude has had one up on eBay since last fall for $1000 even. French super-collector Adol has one, too. The last one I could find on Japanese auction sites was sold back in 2005.