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  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Nectaris

    Posted on August 29th, 2009 keving 8 comments

    (Military Madness)

    Maker: Hudson
    Release Date: 2/9/89
    5800 yen
    HuCard (3 Mbit)
    Genre: Strategy
    PC Engine FAN Score: 22.62 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “This game’s main draw is its approachability for beginner players. All the complexities of the genre have been removed in an attempt to emphasize the core fun of the game. You cannot create your own units, but otherwise the game is very well put together.”

    A game that blazed trails (although Famicom Wars lended it the machete a few months previous) and eventually led to Advance Wars and the “console strategy RPG” genre at large, but wasn’t fully recognized for it until years afterward. The PCE FAN score seems shockingly low, especially when you consider the sort of games that outrated it at the time (such as Sunsoft’s loony RPG Out Live, coming soon to this column). VideoGames & Computer Entertainment gave it a “Best Military Strategy Game Award” in 1990, but that sounds like damning with faint praise, somehow. I mean, what other console military strategy games were released in 1990? Nobunaga’s Ambition?


    Japan was no stranger to serious wargames by the end of the 1980s. Koei was going full-tilt with their historical sims and PC developer System Soft had the modern era covered with its Daisenryaku games — basically straight-on recreations of tabletop wargames, even more grognard-y than Koei’s stuff. Nectaris’ battle system is nowhere near on the scale of either of these games; there are fewer components to it, but every part of it is expertly polished and expertly balanced. And that’s what makes it a classic — the system’s so refined that even beginners can master it. (Intelligent Systems’ Famicom Wars was first with this general concept by about half a year, but I think Nectaris is far more polished than even that game, itself considered a classic in Japan.)

    Even if you ignore the in-game tutorial and feed the instruction booklet to the dog, it only takes a couple rounds to grasp how things work. Essentially, this is a very expansive game of rock-scissors-paper. Ground units are weak against air units; air is weak against anti-air artillery; artillery is weak against ground forces. That’s the basic rule of thumb, but each individual unit has its quirks as well, making it more than a simple “if A, then B” contest. Ground may be weak against air, but some ground units have such overwhelming defense that they can deal against airplanes well enough. You have to be aware of the potential surround effect, the support effect and the zone of control behind each conflict, but the way the game teaches you that without a hitch is remarkable — and also pretty much unheard of in the genre, anywhere in the world.

    Strategy-game maniacs need no introduction to the “zone of control” idea, but simply put, it means the hexes that surround any given unit. If you have allied units next to you when entering combat, the enemy unit’s actions will be restrained, making it easier to gang up on the guy. This means that neither you nor the enemy are free to move units around the map without a care in the world, and that little facet is what provides most of the depth behind Nectaris’ gameplay. Tactics like using one unit to stop an enemy, then sliding another one to the side to launch an ambush, are the bread and butter of the game. To this is added the “surround effect” (if the enemy has fewer adjacent hexes to escape to, its defense will take a penalty) and the “support effect” (if you have an ally adjacent, you get an attack bonus). There’s also the terrain effect, which the lovely battle screen makes self-explanatory at a glance.

    Nectaris Nectaris

    For a strategy game, Nectaris can get surprisingly exhilarating, especially when you gang up on hapless enemies with multiple leveled-up units at once. This holds especially true later on, when you might have three Hunters (the highest-level air unit) wiping out low-level enemy air fighters in one go, or tanks mowing down unarmored soldiers like some kind of Liveleak video.

    Not only do you see it unfold onscreen, but all the calculations are made for you on the bottom before anything happens, so if the enemy’s hopelessly outclassed, you get a rush when you see the numbers. I have an attack of 900 and they have a defense of 8? Hmm. Shame. That said, even weak units have a chance to hold their own (or at least not die) against tanks and such when leveled, and with each map easily graspable in the mind (and with no such thing as unit replenishment), you can’t help but really care about your little guys.

    Nectaris isn’t a fully-on strategy game and shouldn’t be compared to them. It’s a matter of scope, after all. Daisenryaku and the rest are very literally war simulators, giving you control over vast numbers of units across an entire ocean or continent or whatnot. Meanwhile, this was the first game you could call a “strategy RPG” — a small stretch of land, just a few units at any given time, the individual building blocks that get stacked together to create, for the first time, a war. It’s neat, it is.

    I am making my own YouTube videos now. Let me know if you think the subtitles (annotations) are annoying or helpful. There’s only one in this video, but…

    Nectaris was not a massive sales success — it broke 100,000 copies in Japan, which puts it in the same realm as a lot of early Hudson HuCards — but it was obviously a game well-loved by its creators, because it keeps on popping up over the years. The game was ported to the PC-9801’s MS-DOS flavor by System Soft, offering much needed mouse support; Hudson themselves created a native Win95 port in 1997 and released it for free on LOGiN magazine’s covermount CD.  (This is still playable on Vista, but if you asked me, the PC-9801 port still handles a lot better.)

    Neo Nectaris (1994) is the direct PCE sequel, one of those games Turbo users wistfully dreamt for but never had a chance of getting; this despite the fact that opinions are pretty mixed on that game in Japan. Hudson released Earth Light and Lunar Strike for the Super Famicom, both of which use the Nectaris system. Military Madness has been on Virtual Console for years now, of course, and a full-on WiiWare update is coming soon as I write this.

    Point bein’, it’s retained a faithful fanbase. And for good reason — it’s both a nifty introduction to the genre and one of its most well-polished examples, even 20 years on.

  • Hidden messagin’

    Posted on August 29th, 2009 keving 45 comments

    Programmers for 8-bit consoles, whether American, European or Japanese, stuck hidden messages — sometimes accessible, sometimes non- — in their games all the time.

    One of my favorite has always been the one thrown into Pachi-Com (パチコン), a very primitive pachinko simulation released for the Famicom in 1985 from Toshiba EMI. You can load the .NES ROM up in any hex editor to see a long message right at the top of the image, written in romaji:


    Nearly five percent of the entire ROM space is taken up by this inaccessible message, which I’ll take the liberty of translating:


    Mr. GOUHARA from JPM planning does absolutely nothing but gives me all sorts of crap anyway. SHUT UP, YOU IDIOT!
    DEG/NANA/KOYA from company “T” [presumably Toshiba EMI]
    You RETARDS say one thing, then something else later all the time. I worked ALL NIGHT working on what you told me to; don’t say to me “it was better before”! Who the hell do you think is going to play this, with its boring bonus stage and the balls that get stuck? If you use SELECT to put the JOY right, that’ll make it +1, you idiot! You’re a sound company; quit ignoring pachinko sounds and trying to put these weird sounds in instead! Do you WANT it to be this hard to hear the balls?! I’ve left the PREVIOUS sounds, so edit this if you want to hear it. Set hex address AFFC to 1FAF and AFC4 to E0EE to get decent sounds. (Tiger_V & Kugi) Company “T”, you idiots! GOU, you retard! Anyone can tell you what good sound is!
    Does company “N” develop with company “I”‘s PROS80? I’m AMAZED they can make stuff on that weird (3” floppy disk) machine! Do they trace the holes when drawing art, too? [i.e. Do they program graphic data directly without the use of any artist tools?] If you’re sick of tracing holes, I’ll sell Bear’s art machine (ROM) and debugger for 5 million YEN… Tel 03-864-6880 That’s cheap if you want pretty art!!!
    Why did they take out the 6502’s decimal mode [from the NES architecture]? It’s a decimal computer… Did they mess up the mask cutting or something?
    Anyone who happens across this is a pervert! There’s another message in the MSX Pachi-Com… If you’re a pervert, buy it and see! It’s in Okinawan dialect, though!
    by Y.S

    The secret message attached to Namco’s Erika to Satoru no Yumebōken, however, is much more infamous these days — and it’s accessible within the game, too. A cutesy, kid-friendly adventure that used the N106 sound chip Namco included with a few FC carts, the game has a long message (seen starting in 5:20 of the above video) that perhaps sets the bar internationally for this sort of thing.

    Its presence within the ROM image was known for a while, but it wasn’t common game-otaku knowledge until 2007, when hackers finally figured out how to unlock it within the game itself. The GDRI folks have taken an interest in it lately, too, because it establishes a link between Atlus and the games LJN released for the NES — the music that plays during the hidden message is taken from LJN’s The Karate Kid, although Erika to Satoru was coded by Atlus for Namco.

    It’s a long, convoluted code you have to type in, involving waiting half an hour after the game’s ending and then inputting all sorts of button combinations on both controllers at the right time, but it’s worth it to see the message, which I’ll again translate freely:

    Mmm, that’s a nostalgic song playing. Those were good times. Meanwhile, who the hell are these people with this project? I’m so glad it’s over. You think it’s nothing but good memories? Hell no! Let’s use this space to give out some thanks.

    First off, Kaoru Ogura, who ran off with some guy in the middle of the project. Yes, you, you bastard. Don’t show up at the office without showering after having sex 6 times the previous night. Next, Tatsuya Ōhashi. Yes, you, you bastard. Don’t give me your flippant shit — coming in late on the day we ship the ROM like nothing’s amiss. You can give me all the porn you want; I’m not forgetting that one. All that fucking weight you put on. No wonder you paid out 18,000 yen and still got nothing but a kiss out of it. Kenji Takano, Namco debugger. You are a part-timer; don’t dick around with the project planner. And finally, Kiyoharu Gotō, the biggest thorn to my side in this project. Yes, you, you bastard. Once I get a time machine, I’m sending you back to the Edo period. Go do your riddles over there.

    Ahh, that’s a load off…wait, no it’s not. Kiyoharu Gotō — yes, you, you bastard. Aaaagh, just disappear already.

    Come to think of it, some people were helpful to me, too. Mr. Okada, who took all the good stuff. I know all about your abnormal tendencies. Yamagishi, who swore off soaplands until the project was over. Go ahead, knock yourself out now. Iwata, who joined in midway and gave it all he had. Sorry I yelled at you. Keep hanging in there. Fujimura, Udopyu, you probably had it the worst of all. Thanks. I mean it. Gotō’s the one to hate here. Also, Takayama, Kudō, Suzuki, Makki, Kaneko, Aihara, Sato (the angel of my heart), Iga. Thanks, everyone.

    Yoko-G, good work. This game is dedicated to your wife’s birthday.

    If you type in another secret code after this message, you get a further note:

    Kazumushi, I’m sorry I couldn’t come back home much. I love you and always have. Hidemushi

    In late 2007, someone posted on 2ch’s retro-game board claiming to be one of the men behind the message. He had only a dim memory of how to unlock the message; the hackers took it from there to figure out the exact process. Here’s what he said:

    I’ll reveal here that I was Hidemushi’s co-worker at the time (don’t pry any closer, please). I heard all the stuff [written about in the message] from the guy himself, so it’s not fake. As obscene as it is I planned to take it to the grave without announcing it, but since someone peeked into the ROM and revealed the message, I went ahead and followed up with it. […] By the way, The Karate Kid is a NES game based on the movie released overseas. He was involved with the development of it. (Also, the girl we whined about who had sex N times the previous night programmed the mini-game events in The Karate Kid. She’s probably one of the few female programmers in the industry. Wish she didn’t have to tell me about how her boyfriend wipes the sweat off her back with a towel after every lay.)

    Aw, good times!