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  • StarCraft: “Ghost” (get it?!!)

    Posted on April 29th, 2010 keving 3 comments

    It must’ve been the 2002 Tokyo Game Show where they first introduced StarCraft: Ghost to the general public. I remember covering it for GamePro. There was a press conference in a suite inside the hotel that Makuhari Messe is right next to, and Blizzard said they were announcing their next big release there the day before TGS began. Which makes sense, right? Asian people were crazy about Blizzard games even before WOW, after all.

    That’s why it was a little head-scratching when Bill Roper came out and introduced a console-exclusive action game set in the StarCraft universe. People looked at each other oddly. Fennec Fox (argh) was apparently aghast. You could even see the confusion among the Korean game-media outlets in the room with us. Nobody owns any consoles in Korea! And if they do, they’re piratin’ anyway! (That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not by much and especially not at the time.)

    A few months later I got a chance to visit the developers at Nihilistic for GamePro, either for a preview or a cover story; I forget at this point. They were in Novato, at the far end of San Francisco’s northern bay area, in a large warehouse-type facility. I don’t remember much about Jacob Stephens, head designer and the guy who gave me a full playthrough of Ghost’s first demo level — the one where it’s night and raining and you’re trying to dodge around a bunch of Terran guards. I do remember that he was very enthusiastic, and that the whole studio seemed really relaxed and confident about what they were doing. I also remember that you could bring your dog into work pretty much whenever you wanted, which I thought was a pretty incredible perk. Maybe that’s why everyone was so chill.

    That 2003 Ghost press run that I participated in was about the last anyone heard from Nihilistic for a very long while. They were silent for a year until they “completed their contribution” to the project in 2004, as Blizzard so diplomatically put it on their now-defunct Ghost FAQ page. The publisher handed it over to Swingin’ Ape Studios (makers of the completely forgotten but still very good Metal Arms), nothing further was heard for another year, and finally Blizzard just up and bought Swingin’ Ape and did the game-publisher equivalent of whistling innocently and pretending that they never mentioned anything.

    I’m not sure anyone gave Nihilistic much of a chance after they and Blizzard parted ways, but they’re still around, most recently doing Zombie Apocalypse on PSN/XBLA. They’ve moved to different office space, but it’s just down the street from the old one on this business card and (apparently) off the same exit from US-101. Stephens himself moved on to Crackpot Entertainment, one of the Gamecock Media Group-funded outfits; they made Insecticide and that appears to be it. Come to think of it, I may’ve talked to him during the media event Gamecock held in Austin back in ’08 without realizing that I’d met him before. That’d be a bit embarrassing.

    I think most agree at this point that Ghost was a pretty great action game but a poor fit for Blizzard and the image in game-dom they are trying to keep. It’s sort of like Warcraft Adventures in that respect, except that Ghost had a lot more promise.

  • “Want to Let Your Happy Times Begin?”

    Posted on April 28th, 2010 keving 1 comment

    A help-wanted flyer from I’d guess the late 1970s. Those wages don’t seem terribly low even by modern standards, but keep in mind that the dollar exchange rate was always over 200 yen around this time and sometimes much more than that. (The average minimum wage across Japan in 2009 was 713 yen an hour.)

    “McDonald’s is creating a hamburger sensation across Japan under its motto of Quality (Q) / Service (S) / Cleanliness (C). It’s an easy place to work, filled with a bright and fun atmosphere.

    Crew (male/female)
    – Everyone pitches in to run the restaurant. Men mostly handle kitchen work, while women take care of guest relations.
    – From students to housewives, everyone is welcome. No experience required.
    – You are free to pick your own work period, days, and hours. You can also choose your workplace from any of the McDonald’s in Japan.

    Salary: 530 yen/hour plus

    Maintenance Men (male)
    – Handle store custodial duty from 11pm to 7am.

    Salary: 710 yen/hour plus

    Variety of Unique Benefits
    – Worker’s compensation
    – Lockers on site
    – Uniforms provided on loan
    – Discount movie tickets
    – Seaside and other recreational facilities”

    The first McDonald’s in Japan opened up July 20, 1971 in the first floor of the Mitsukoshi department store in Ginza, Tokyo. That location closed in 2007 when Mitsukoshi remodeled the building space, but the next one that opened, McDonald’s #13002 in Yoyogi, has stayed in regular business since July 24, 1971. Stop by and see if you can find any gum under the tables dating from before you were born.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Fire Pro Wrestling

    Posted on April 27th, 2010 keving 7 comments

    Fire Pro Wrestling:
    Combination Tag

    Maker: Human
    Release Date: 6/22/89
    6300 yen
    HuCard (3 Mbit)
    Genre: Sports
    PC Engine FAN Score: 22.57 / 30.00

    Kōgien: “A well-done early game, despite its pedestrian graphics. You can choose from a roster of 16 wrestlers, each with his own set of moves. A wide variety of attacks are available.”

    The final week of June 1989 was a defining moment for the still-fledgling PC Engine. Why? Because two games came out that week, one after another, that eventually grew into two of the console’s most triumphant and fondly remembered series. This is one of them. The other: Valis II, released June 23. Whether your thing is high-school girls in skimpy clothing or thirty-something sweaty men in skimpy clothing, the PCE’s got you covered — what other console can say that?

    Fire Pro Wrestling is the first game ever published by Human, one of the most colorful mid-tier game companies that ever existed. Founded in May 1983 as a software subcontractor, the tiny outfit worked on a variety of Famicom titles, mostly for Bandai. Stadium Events, the most expensive NES game ever? That was Human’s work, as was most of the other Family Fun Fitness/Power Pad stuff that Nintendo themselves didn’t develop.

    Human had its heyday in the early ’90s, when Fire Pro and Formation Soccer both hit their stride and became the top titles in both of their genres. The era saw the company host a lot of very young talent, much of which is still in the business today. Goichi Suda (Suda51), current head of Grasshopper Manufacture, got his start working on Fire Pro. Hifumi Kono, designer of Infinite Space on the DS, got his start making games like Human Grand Prix and Clock Tower, both SFC titles originally. Chiyomaru Shikura, president of Japanese publisher 5pb., is a Fire Pro alumnus, as are Masahiro Yonezawa and Yutaka Hirata, both affiliated with prolific DS dev SUZAK (Wario: Master of Disguise). Kenichi Narusawa, a fairly well-known porn star and producer who once played Shinji in an X-rated remake of an Evangelion doujinshi, worked at Human right up until they filed for bankruptcy protection in November 1999. It must’ve been a very lively office environment.

    But before all that, there was the original PCE Fire Pro Wrestling, an unpolished game but one with all the features that made the series notable already in place. At its core, it’s an update of Nintendo’s Pro Wrestling, retaining the emphasis on timing and move combos instead of the mindless button-bashing that symbolized this genre through most of the ’80s. The exhaustive edit functionality that is Fire Pro’s modern-day trademark didn’t come until Fire Pro Wrestling 3: Legend Bout (1992), but the 16 wrestlers this game shipped with — and the fairly large move list they wielded — is a pretty remarkable stable for the time. (World Championship Wrestling on the NES was similarly impressive, but Fire Pro was released first by a few months.)

    Also remarkable, and perhaps one reason Human never bothered with scoring an official license: This is the first wrestling game where you can make competitors bleed visibly with the right moves. This didn’t show up in any other title until the PlayStation era, I don’t think. For hardcore Japanese rasslin’ fans, this feature alone made Fire Pro stick out from the pack, and thousands of them across the nation spent their Saturday nights in the summer of ’89 repeatedly hammering the heads of CPU opponents into turnbuckles.

    This is still a pretty primitive game by any standard — the computer AI is a complete pushover, and there’s nothing to do apart from choose some wrestlers and have them beat each other up. The seeds of a classic are here, however, and even though they didn’t grow into viny chair-wielding death plants until the Super Famicom era, one still has to appreciate the roots being formed here.

    Human isn’t a household name in the US — erm, come to think of it, it was never a household name anywhere, at any point in written history — but they enjoyed a hell of a ride through the industry for a decade, and this is what kicked it off.

  • Getting cross over cross reviews

    Posted on April 26th, 2010 keving 2 comments

    I’ve been talking about Famitsu reviews a lot lately, and that habit’s going to continue for a while, because today they’ve triggered something of an international incident!

    The article on Kotaku gives the full story, but here is a summary:

    – Enterbrain president and ex-Famitsu EIC Hirokazu Hamamura appears in Japanese advertising for Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker in an endorsing fashion.
    Famitsu gives Peace Walker a perfect 40/40 review score.
    – Many overseas writers, including me over on 1UP, bring up concerns about the editorial independence of Famitsu’s review writers as a result of this. Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku writes a particularly long missive.
    – Ashcraft’s article gets reworked a bit for Kotaku Japan and translated in a more direct fashion by other Japanese blogs.
    – Kotaku Japan posts on its Twitter feed that Enterbrain has formally complained to them and that Konami has rescinded the site’s invitation to the Peace Walker release-day press event.

    This was all out lined on the Japanese blogs today, and Jin’s post on it is particularly prescient because in addition to running a personal game-news blog, he also contributes articles (mostly covering press events) to Kotaku Japan. “You idiots!” he jokingly writes in the article. “Now I lost work because of this! What’re you gonna do about it?!”

    The reader comments to the article are interesting — about half siding with Kotaku and half siding with Konami, as opposed to a much more unified anti-Japan-media response over on Kotaku itself — and so I thought I’d translate a few.

    In particular, it’s fascinating to note that many don’t see Hamamura’s advertising turn as that much of a problem. This is perhaps because it’s not the first time he’s shown up in games themselves, having made all-but-official cameos in both 428 and Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan! in the past. Many see him over there as a sort of avuncular father-figure for the game industry, a personable middle-aged guy with a funny mustache who provides comments to nearly every article written by Japan’s mainstream media about games, and they don’t make a direct connection between that and his position as the “man upstairs” at Famitsu’s company. There’s nobody quite like that in the American media, not since Howard Phillips left Nintendo Power and Thor Aackerlund stopped flogging Camerica’s NES games.

    Read the rest of this entry »


    Posted on April 22nd, 2010 keving 3 comments

    Kurt Kalata writes:

    I saw you wrote a bunch of FAQs for Shadowgate and such awhile back. I’m working on an article for ICOM Simulation’s games for my site, Hardcore Gaming 101, and I found something interesting – Shadowgate shows up on a bunch of kusoge lists, which I found pretty surprising. Apparently it was on a TV show awhile back […]

    It’s a ridiculous game, but it’s certainly nowhere even close to the depths of Deadly Towers or Atlantis no Nazo, and it’s usually at least relatively fondly remembered by the US fans. My question is – do you have any idea why they regard it as such? The Japanese Wiki entry makes mention of some of the wacky death messages – maybe there was something in the translation? Or maybe they just didn’t dig all the insta-kill stuff?

    There’s a few reasons for this. First, kusoge is often as much a term of endearment in Japanese as derision — the game equivalent of saying a movie deserves to be on Mystery Science Theater 3000. A kusoge may not be a fun (or even playable) game, but it’s entertaining nonetheless because of its sheer silliness, whether intentional or not. It’s “hating” a game so much that you start to find it lovable, somehow.

    Why does Japan single out Shadowgate for this title, though? As Kurt mentioned, it’s a game where you have the freedom to die in all kinds of inventive ways, many of which produce overwrought death messages. The Japanese-language version, however, is far more overwrought than the English one — it’s written wholly from a first-person perspective and consistently reads like a ten-year-old trying to imitate Shakespeare. (The way the NES/Famicom Shadowgate always uses two exclamation points where one would suffice adds to the cheesiness.)

    Here are a few Shadowgate death lines, English followed by my translation of Japanese:

    (after using your torch on yourself three times)
    English: You finally set your hair on fire. The rest of your body soon follows!!
    Japanese: Yaagghh!! My hair, my hair!! It’s burning!! The burns spread across my body!! I writhe in pain as I breathe my last.

    (after using your sword on yourself)
    English: You thrust sword [sic] into your chest!! Blood begins to flow!! Suicide won’t help in your quest!! The Warlock Lord will surely triumph now!!
    Japanese: I thrust the sword’s blade into my left breast. …Blood pours out of the wound!! Ahhh!! How could I be so foolish? I took my own life, with my own hand!! …The world will surely be cloaked in darkness after I die…

    (after attempting to defeat a cyclops with your bare hands)
    English: A battle cry dies in your throat, as the cyclops crushes your skull with his club.
    Japanese: Quicker than I could attack, the club descends upon my head!! My head has been cracked open!!

    (after jumping out many of the game’s windows)
    English: With a cry you jump to your death!! It takes only a couple of seconds before you hit the bottom with a thud.
    Japanese: I scream in vain as my body floats in the air!! As I spin, various disconnected thoughts pass through my mind. The last thing I saw was a twinkling star, shining its eerie light in the midst of darkness.

    (after awakening the chained female werewolf)
    English: With a loud roar, the wolf pounces on you, taking your life!! The wolfs [sic] powerful jaws rip your throat out!!
    Japanese: Agghh!! The woman transformed instantly into a wild, ferocious wolf. It’s angry!! It’s attacking!! Ahhh!! I’m done for!! Arrghh!! The wolf’s fangs glint in the light, and at that instant, I became the werewolf’s latest meal.

    You get the idea, I think. It’s this rather odd writing style, unique among 8-bit console games in Japan, that makes Shadowgate so memorable over there for its kuso-ness. (The Japanese Famicom versions of Deja Vu and Uninvited aren’t nearly as pre-teen in their script, sadly.)

  • The Way Cross Reviews Work

    Posted on April 21st, 2010 keving 8 comments

    The question of how susceptible to corruption Weekly Famitsu magazine is has come up in the news again after the publication gave Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (which publisher and ex-EIC Hirokazu Hamamura himself shows up in the advertising for) a perfect 40/40 score. There’s little doubt that the mag’s a bit freer with the 10 scores than it used to be, but is it any more or less corrupt than it’s ever been during its 24-year-old history?

    To explore this, it’s time to go back to an interesting little 1999 interview, one of the few where Hamamura ever spoke very frankly about how his magazine evaluated and applied scores to games. This interview, conducted alongside indie developer Kenji Eno, was conducted by a manga artist named Miso Suzuki, who published a game-industry comic in Famitsu called Otona no Shikumi (おとなのしくみ, which I’ll loosely translate as ‘The Way Grown-Ups Work’) throughout the 1990s.

    The context of this interview is as follows: In 1997, Famitsu reviewed Real Sound: Kaze no Regret, a Saturn adventure game that shows absolutely nothing onscreen and is instead controlled (and enjoyed) entirely through sound. The game garnered fairly average scores — 8/6/5/8 for a total of 27 points. Eno, annoyed at this, railed on Hamamura in an interview published in a 1997 edition of Otona no Shikumi, criticizing Famitsu’s capsule reviews and the extreme weight placed upon them by gamers. Hamamura didn’t really respond to Eno’s statements, and the two industry figures had an unsteady relationship until 1999, when Suzuki reunited them in the same room for an in-depth discussion into game ratings.

    I’ve taken the liberty of translating the manga chapter that ensued from it, because it represents Hamamura’s official opinion on the “fairness” of Famitsu’s reviews back before the magazine had acquired a reputation for kowtowing to publishers with their scores. It’s also interesting to see how the magazine has shifted from the stance Hamamura laid out here — Eno would undoubtedly be happy with how lenient the modern Famitsu is with their 10’s nowadays, but chances are he’d have some more serious complaints about fairness.

    Footnotes are below the images. I’m in a rush, so forgive any formatting ugliness.

    This interview was published in April 1999, when Shenmue was in full development and facing a rapidly-slipping release date. Famitsu published a regular column devoted exclusively to Shenmue around this time.

    Read the rest of this entry »

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Wai Wai Mahjong

    Posted on April 16th, 2010 keving 4 comments

    Wai Wai Mahjong

    Maker: Video System Ltd.
    Release Date: 6/19/89
    5800 yen
    HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Board
    PC Engine FAN Score: 19.92 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “A two-player mahjong game with normal and tournament modes. Normal mode lets you select from three difficulty levels, while tournament mode pits you against opponents that gradually get harder.”

    In a few years, I’m going to be drowning in crap PCE girl-mahjong games. I know it all too well; I’m completely aware of the inevitable perfect storm of tiles and boobies lying in ambush for me, and yet I feel powerless to stop its advance. Ohhh, if only I had paid more attention to that how-to-play-mahjong feature in the first issue of GameGO! Then I wouldn’t be faced with this catastrophe in the waiting!

    Even if I were completely up on the rules of mahjong (the last time I seriously tried to play was in 2001), I would likely not be too excited by Wai Wai Mahjong, a board-game sim with very few amenities. It’s straight two-player mahjong, with a cast of weird-looking challengers and a shop offering a variety of “helper items” (i.e. ways to cheat the random tile generator), but no real story to glue it all together. From the presentation to the gameplay, everything’s pretty bland and 8-bittish.

    If anything’s noteworthy about this release, it’s that Kyoto-based Video System is behind it, one of three PCE games they published. For the longest time, I thought Video System was a Korean outfit, and I really can’t explain why I labored under that misconception except that Super Volleyball looked like a B-league Asian game to me back in middle school. I’ve since fully savored the charms of what’s inarguably the best 2D volleyball sim ever made, but not even that classic was enough to save the company (an offshoot of Japanese arcade distributor Visco founded in 1984) from obscurity for its long history. If anyone in the States knows them now, it’s for the Aero Fighters series of arcade shooters — which aren’t bad, of course, but c’mon, they ain’t Super Volleyball.

  • All about freelancing

    Posted on April 16th, 2010 keving 1 comment

    The Tutorial: Freelancing

    Mr. Demian Linn was the man who gave me my review assignments for EGM back during 2004, that glorious year when I lived in San Francisco, covering rent and everything, living entirely off freelancing for print (okay, almost entirely). Every month, I’d come visit his cube high up in the Ziff Davis Media office building, and he’d fumble through a plastic bin full of discs and say “OK uhm…hmm…okay, guess what, you’re lead review on McFarlane’s Evil Prophecy” and the like. Fine memories.

    If anyone is qualified to tell you how to become a game-media freelancer, he’s the one…although in my personal range of knowledge, doing the supplementary-income stuff like strategy guides and consulting is pretty much a must these days. Anyone disagree?

  • Jason goes eco-friendly, gets frog back in under 5 minutes

    Posted on April 14th, 2010 keving 1 comment

    He doesn’t need to spend hundreds on diesel fuel to drive his cool futuristic tank, SOPHIA THE 3RD, through the Plutonium Underworld or whatever the manual called it. He can just get with the green generation and hoof it. That, and warp in and out of existence at unexpected (but oddly beneficial) times.

    It turns out that the PAL version of Blaster Master (released three years after the game’s 1988 debut) introduced some timing bugs that allow skillful players to perform tricks like mid-air double jumps and going through doors that aren’t really there and other Rod Serling-type stuff. Programming bugs like these cropped up now and then on US or Japan-made games that were later ported to European NESes, where  — like with the Commodore 64 and Atari 2600 — the system ran at a different video-output speed (50hz versus 60hz). This meant that some games required extensive recoding to to work in foreign NESes, and it’s also the reason why European-exclusive games like Asterix and Mr. Gimmick suffer assorted dealbreaking bugs when you plug a real PAL cartridge into a real NTSC NES. (These timing differences are also why the music is pitched lower than you might remember it in this video.)

    The maker of this TAS has posted a long file explaining everything going on in the video.

    Something else I discovered as I was writing this: Area 4 is a lot easier in the US/Europe version than in the Japanese original. I remember gamers having enough trouble with the lock-and-key sequence that Nintendo Power did a whole bit on it, but Sunsoft actually made the solution a lot more obvious for America, didn’t they? Metafight’s take on that room makes it look like there’s a bug in the level data or something.

  • Your 29-year-old future, courtesy Clive Sinclair

    Posted on April 13th, 2010 keving 3 comments

    Clive Sinclair maintains an odd presence in computer history. At his prime, he’s like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs all rolled up into one person, never missing a chance to bathe in the spotlight yet far more interested in inventions and tinkering than market share and profit margins. In the ’70s and early 1980s, nobody in the European electronics industry was more respected — and reported upon — than he was.

    Sinclair got his start producing audio gear in the 1960s and branched out to pocket calculators (1972) and microcomputer kits before kicking off the ZX series of personal computers in 1980. The ZX Spectrum, despite having an abortive and unnoticed launch in America, sold in the millions in Europe — it provided fierce competition for the Commodore 64 and was the 8-bit system that many of today’s game designers and programmers first cut their teeth on. His successes earned Sinclair a knighthood and made him a household name in the UK, but his company was never far from financial ruin and, tiring of having to support a personal-computer business, he sold it to a rival in 1986 and went back to inventing. He’s still at it today, nearing 70 and working on fold-up bicycles and such, although you can’t help but think he’s a little daft when he talks with the press about how he doesn’t handle his own email.

    At the height of his public career, in mid-1982, Sinclair gave a speech to the British chapter of Mensa where he discussed his vision of the future. The speech would’ve been perfect as a TED Talk if such a thing existed back then. Reading the article about it (above, from the October ’82 issue of Sinclair User) is pretty neat just to see how tuned-in and far-out he was, nearly three decades ago:

    – He foresaw how massive storage and the power of networking will restore the power of the individual in society — or, to put it another way, he foresaw how blue-collar manufacturing wasn’t going to be the main economic sector of the West for long. “We have for some time been passing through a great industrial age in which the economic basis of society has demanded the bringing together of people in great numbers, many thousands per factory, many millions per city,” he said. “I believe that our move away from this type of organisation will restore the potential of the individual.” I can believe him there — I can work as an individual now chiefly thanks to cheap and abundant networking, after atll.

    – He foresaw what GM assembly-line workers and most white-collar laborers my age or younger know all too well by now — big companies often see employees as disposable goods. “We must change the pattern of expectation,” he said, “no longer to prepare people for a life-time’s work in major organisations but to give them the self-reliance for a broader role in smaller groups.” He predicted a massive wave of small companies being founded, something that you could say manifested itself en masse in the dot-com boom.

    – Where he maybe wasn’t so right (yet) is in the bit where he foresees a “Golden Age of man’s history” by the turn of the 21st century, thanks to machines doing all the brute-force heavy lifting for us. “Early in the next century we will have made intelligent machines ending for all time the pattern of drudgery,” he closed. “With them we can start the exploration of the universe. It may be that Western civilisation, seeded in seventh-century Ireland, is only just about to flower.”

    All this while Steve Jobs was foundering about with the Apple III, no less.

    It’s a shame Sinclair never quite had the sort of ruthless business sense the American computer bigshots were driven by. Whatever magic he had, it pretty much fizzled out by 1985 when serious US competition hit the European home computer market. A lot of what-ifs come to mind, though. What if Sinclair had a better US partner than Timex and the Spectrum was a budget-market success in America? What if it had been upgraded and expanded along the lines of an Amiga or ST? What if the QL wasn’t a pile of crap? A lot of ifs, yes, but I can’t help but like Sinclair and I wish his success was a tad longer-lasting than it proved to be. I dunno, he’s endearing.