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  • TV Baseball Game (Epoch, August 1978)

    Posted on April 12th, 2010 keving 6 comments

    Japan has a history of dedicated single-game systems (a.k.a. Pong consoles) that extends almost as far back as America’s. Chief among the later-era ones is this TV Baseball Game (テレビ野球ゲーム), a system from early home-game pioneer Epoch that I’m a little ashamed to admit came out the year I was born. The price: 13,400 yen, a number set in order to compete with Nintendo’s 12,500-yen Racing 112 (which I bet most readers have played in its Wario Ware, Inc guest appearance).

    Using technology developed by NEC that would later form the core of 1981’s Cassette Vision console, TV Baseball Game plays a simple little pastime that is more-or-less recognizable as baseball. It came out the same year as Atari’s Home Run for the 2600, and it’s amusing to debate over which is the better simulation. Epoch boasts a complete side of nine players in the field (we’ll just pretend the catcher is somewhere below the TV screen), but frankly I think Atari’s version has better gameplay. I’m a little biased, though, perhaps — during grade-school summer vacations in upstate New York, my 6-year-old self’s idea of a great way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon was to plug in Home Run and try scoring 100 runs in a single inning against the computer. It’s very zen, once you get into it.

    Here’s a video of some hot TV Baseball Game action recorded off a real console. This looks a lot more challenging than Home Run, I’ll give it that. What kind of baseball sim only allows realistic pitches that don’t snake to and fro as you waggle the joystick around? Come on!

    Despite this fault, Epoch’s console was reportedly popular enough to sell 230,000 units — a pretty decent feat considering the Cassette Vision itself only did about 300k. Epoch later released an improved version of this game for the CV; it was called New Baseball and added a computer opponent for single-player.

  • Rockman 2 MIN (2008)

    Posted on April 9th, 2010 keving 2 comments

    Rockman 2 MIN is probably the most extensive ROM hack of Mega Man II I’ve seen. You might as well just call it a total conversion at this point. The stages, music, graphics, enemy patterns, and a lot of your weapons have been changed.

    As for the difficulty? “I don’t intend it to be that difficult,” the author TAR writes, “but your choice of stage order might be vital. If you can beat the original, finishing this should be possible enough.” I don’t know about that. TAR really likes his spikes.

    You can take a tour of this mod through the TAS above (noting, of course, that the speedrun takes advantage of bugs that are no fault of TAR’s). See how much of the music you can guess — you should be able to spot at least a couple tunes from old Kirby and SaGa games.

  • Planet of Death (Artic Computing, 1981)

    Posted on April 8th, 2010 keving 1 comment

    The Sinclair ZX81 (a.k.a. Timex Sinclair 1000) could be the most underpowered personal computer in history that boasted a very active commercial games scene. It produced a strictly black-and-white display and had no sound hardware. It shipped with a whopping 1K of memory, about 672 bytes of which was usable as program space. You could expand this with a 16K RAM upgrade that didn’t attach firmly to the ZX81 and therefore crashed the computer frequently. Since there was no dedicated video chip, the CPU had to spend nearly three-quarters of its time drawing the TV image on the fly, in an arrangement sort of like what Atari 2600 programmers had to deal with. The BASIC language included was pretty powerful, but had assorted bugs — the first version of it thought the square root of 0.25 was 1.3591409. Graphics were limited to the system’s built-in character set, which included letters, numbers, a handful of symbols, but no apostrophe (though people found workarounds for this later on).

    But that didn’t deter British coders. One of them produced a full chess game in 1K — a very bad chess game, but one that’s astonishing simply because it works at all. 16K quickly became a base requirement for ZX81 gaming, though, and developers across England released action games, sports management sims, really rudimentary 3D titles, and so on. The aptly-named has archived a fair bit of these releases, but many are still missing in action, advertised in magazines but not known to exist anywhere at this point. Shame.

    I waned to show off Planet of Death because it so egregiously shows another challenge ZX81 coders faced. Since the computer’s video signal was generated by the Z80 processor, whenever you overtaxed the system with too resource-intensive a program, you ran the risk of having the screen go all wonky and flickery. Programmers had the option of turning off video output entirely to let the CPU devote all its time to running code instead, which is what Artic Computing seems to have done for this adventure game. A lot. After every single keypress, in fact. The resulting mess is somewhat mitigated by the fact that there’s no way you could touch-type on the ZX81’s membrane keyboard, so you couldn’t type faster than what’s shown in the video anyway.

    The game, the first of eight adventures Artic produced for the ZX machines, reminds me a lot of Mystery House and the other super-simple games Ken and Roberta Williams got their start with. Like those adventures, Planet of Death has no real plot development and is basically a series of item-ferrying puzzles with an arbitrary maze stuck in the middle. Enjoy the flicker, nonetheless.

  • Rick Dangerous (Microprose/Core Design, June 1989)

    Posted on April 6th, 2010 keving 3 comments

    Among the many reasons I love the 8- and 16-bit European game industry: British Telecom owned a game publisher for four years — and a pretty good one, too.

    Said publisher was purchased by Microprose in 1988, delaying the release of Rick Dangerous by about half a year while everything was being figured out post-sale. This gave the developers at Core Design time to port this game to six different computer systems, every major one of the day — PC, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC. It’s a testament to Core’s skill that every one of them control so well and “feel” the same despite the radically different hardware involved. (This was Core’s first game chronologically; Rick co-designer Simon Phipps went on to spend five years designing Harry Potter games for EA.)

    It’s hard to say why I like Rick so much. It’s a very formulaic platformer, and one that relies a lot more on memorizing stage layouts than having serious action-game skill. Rick dies all the time from unseen traps or unnoticed blowdart turrets, and the only way to see the ending is by trial and error, memorizing each stage until you can pull off every jump and crawl and ladder-grab perfectly. Zzap!64 and Amiga Power both slammed the game for this in their reviews, and I can’t blame them.

    But there’s something else Rick has, something difficult to lay one’s finger upon. I’d pin it down to “console-style response,” I think. It controls great on every platform, with none of the odd little unfair delays that were sort of part and parcel of computer games back then. It’s not that other 8-bit titles didn’t have responsive controls and quick gameplay, but something about Rick makes it feel far more console-y than a lot of other European computer releases of the time. Try it for yourself — any platform will do — and see if you agree with me.

    And if you’re going to try it out, why not use Rick Dangerous 128+, a brand-new version released last Christmas for the Amstrad? The French coders behind it claim it’s the best 8-bit version of Rick ever released, and I’ll have to agree — it’s got all the extra content from the Amiga and ST versions (about a third of the game was cut to fit into the 8-bitters), it’s quick and colorful, and the enemies make the cutest shriek of horror when you fill them full of lead. You’ll want to use the WinAPE emulator to play it.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Pac-Land

    Posted on April 5th, 2010 keving 4 comments


    Maker: Namco
    Release Date: 6/1/89
    5200 yen
    HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Action
    PC Engine FAN Score: 21.66 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “The fairy tale-like visuals are impressive in this game, where Pac-Man journies out to bring a wayward fairy back to her homeland. The familiar ghosts use assorted approaches as they get in Pac-Man’s way.”

    Yoshihiro “Kissy” Kishimoto, designer/programmer for Namco from 1982 to 2001, had a bad habit in the ’80s of creating original game concepts, then having Nintendo execute them a lot better later on and take all the credit. It happened with Baraduke, a 1985 arcade title that bears a lot of resemblance to Metroid, but it also happened with Pac-Land, Kissy’s first designer credit, which hit Japanese game centers about a year and a month before Super Mario Bros.

    I remember being completely amazed by SMB when I first saw it on a Vs. cabinet sometime in the mid-80s. I wasn’t alone, of course. Meanwhile, Pac-Land figures in my childhood memory only very faintly; it didn’t get much distribution where I was, and although it was quite nearly the first horizontally scrolling  jump-‘n-run action game, it retained only a very low-key sort of popularity. This despite boasting a lucrative tie-in with Hanna-Barbera’s Pac-Man cartoon, which had a successful two-year run on Saturday mornings — Pac-Land’s music is largely a Namco remix of the show’s opening and incidental sound library.

    Where’s the difference lie? I wonder if it has to do with SMB’s keener sense of discovery. At any given moment of Mario, you run the chance of uncovering something hidden under a block, encouraging an “adventure into the unknown” atmosphere as you tried discovering all of the secret stuff. Pac-Land is a bit simpler than that — it’s a purer arcade challenge, one where the primary aim is still to get your name on the high-score list, despite the inclusion of a real ending in the PC Engine version.

    Namco may have lazed out on previous PCE arcade ports like Wonder Momo, but Pac-Land is (predictably) a lot more faithful to the original. The dual-layered scrolling is gone, many of the item pickups are in different locations, and the music sounds just a tad different, but for a port from one 8-bit platform to another, it’s about the best anyone can hope for. All of the esoteric secrets are there, from the Round 2 -> Round 12 warp to the 1UP Pac-Man you can nab for chomping down on Sue as the fifth ghost after grabbing a power pellet. It’s no wonder, I suppose, because Kissy programmed both the arcade and PCE Pac-Lands himself.

    In addition to a real ending (the arcade version restarted you at Round 20 at higher speed after you beat Round 32), the PCE version also has a set of 32 “Pro” stages, unlocked after viewing the ending or entering a code. The challenge on these Pro levels are nothing short of ridiculous — ghosts riding airplanes that seem to go at 80 MPH, that sort of thing — and I’m honestly uncertain if anybody’s ever completed this second quest without cheating. Namco is so terribly mean to all of us.

    Pac-Land’s affinity for 7650-point bonuses (“765” being a goroawase pun for “Namco”) is also pretty well-known. The number shows up for doing all sorts of things in this game, from eating six ghosts with a single power pellet to catching a certain randomly-chosen balloon among the ones that pop up when you push certain objects.

    You can also get it for jumping at just the right moment at the end of a round, stopping the action just before Pac-Man hits the ground. What’s not so well-known is that if you finish a stage just as you start jumping — a feat just as difficult as the 7650-point trick — you get a whopping 10 points. Both of these moves require accuracy to within 1/30 of a second. It makes me cry.

    (One bug not ported to the PCE version, by the way, is a kill screen that flamboyantly crashes the arcade game if the player reaches 25,480,000 points. It’s due to another one of those 8-bit overflow bugs — that score just so happens to be the 256th time you earn a 1UP in the default settings.)

    Overall, Pac-Land is a nice effort, especially compared to the horrible Famicom version Namco released in Japan. Out of Namco’s PCE ports, this one and Splatterhouse are undoubtedly my faves. It leaves me wondering, too, what would’ve happened if Kissy kept designing platform games instead of stumbling across a once-in-a-lifetime hit with Family Stadium.

  • Update 4/3

    Posted on April 3rd, 2010 keving 1 comment

    Hooray! I’ve updated all previous PC Engine entries with TG16 box art where it’s applicable. (I think NEC of America did Japan better only once so far, with Deep Blue. Otherwise, I’m not sure what they were thinking. Even if they didn’t want cutesy anime-style box covers, why did they redraw the box for The Legendary Axe using the same staging and art style?)

    I also fixed broken Nicovideo links dating from before the site allowed embedded playback. Now you can learn how to play gateball without registering for a Nico account!

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Naxat Open

    Posted on April 3rd, 2010 keving 2 comments

    Naxat Open

    Maker: Naxat Soft
    Release Date: 5/30/89
    6300 yen
    HuCard (3 Mbit)
    Genre: Sports
    PC Engine FAN Score: 18.98 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “There are two modes (tournament and round) in this game. Like in real golf, the 18 holes are all connected to each other, so the game continues even if you shoot a ball outside the hole boundaries. A golf game unique in its attention to realism.”

    Looking back, maybe it’s a bit fortuitous that this game was released just five days after Power Golf in Japan — they each take remarkably different approaches to the game of golf, and your personal preference will probably depend on how much you care about realism.

    Hudson’s Power Golf, like the Nintendo-y games it imitates, is all about pick-up-and-play arcade action. You tap the I button a few times, the ball goes in essentially the direction you meant it to go, you cheer, everybody’s happy. Naxat Open isn’t like that. It’s a bit more for actual golfers, I think, the sort of people who’d be playing Links 386 Pro (I’ve mentioned that game far too often lately) if they were PC-owning Americans.

    What makes me say that? A few reasons. The game’s course is all laid out in a single overhead view which scrolls from hole to hole as necessary. This offers a lot of realism that previous PCE golf sims didn’t have — there’s more curving and variety to the course, the holes progress like they would on a real set of golf links, and it undoubtedly looks different from the rest of the pack game-wise. There’s also the gameplay, which is as harsh and unforgiving as golf itself. The system is the standard three-tap jobbie, but — again, just like in real golf, I suppose — get your aim or timing wrong, and the ball will simply bounce a few yards forward or sail effortlessly over the green and into OB territory, not a care going through its small urethane mind. (Putting out is even harder, to the point where I often found it easier to chip shots in from 15 or so years than to actually putt.)

    With all this in mind, would I call Naxat Open fun? No, I wouldn’t, thank you. The gameplay’s slow-paced and frustrating, the graphics (once you get over the novelty) not all that interesting, and the sound boring and tinny. Many people in Japan, though, call this one a lost classic in the genre. Your call.

    (Naxat released a sequel, Super Naxat Open, for the Super Famicom in 1994. It’s notable mainly for featuring Spike McFang as a playable character.)

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Power Golf

    Posted on April 2nd, 2010 keving 2 comments

    Power Golf

    Maker: Hudson
    Release Date: 5/25/89
    5800 yen
    HuCard (3 Mbit)
    Genre: Sports
    PC Engine FAN Score: 20.37 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “Select your golfer from a group of two men and two women. Three play modes are available — stroke, match and competition — and up to three people can play at once.”

    I will admit that it’s been a while since my last visit to PCE-land. It’s partly due to work, partly due to research I’ve been doing on other old computers, but mostly because I have to write about two golf games in a row and the thought drove me to spontaneous fits of yawning.

    To most people, 2D golf games are just not that interesting any longer. Neo Geo collectors pay four-figures all the time for Neo Turf Masters, yes, but those people are degenerates. The genre has moved on, more or less, and that’s largely been the case since Access Software’s Links 386 Pro achieved near-photorealism on PCs in 1992. Power Golf is no exception to this fact — just like a lot of other early Hudson releases, it’s completely unoriginal in execution, but well-made enough that you won’t feel gypped for your time.

    Gameplay is Nintendo Golf in style, with the standard three-part swing and a little arrow gestating itself off your ball to help with aiming. The overhead perspective lies somewhere in between Winning Shot’s extreme close-up and Ganbare! Golf Boys’ faraway view, keeping things fast-paced while still cramming a decent chunk of the hole into the screen at once. There’s the usual stroke and match play options, the usual multiplayer support, and the usual bippy 8-bit golf soundtrack in the background.

    The one new feature to PCE golf this game brings is your choice of players — an average guy, a highly accurate female, and an older dude with glasses who hits the ball like most salarymen hit the whiskey sours. Hard, that is. Even that feature, though, first hit Japanese consoles a year or so with SNK’s Fighting Golf. Hmm.

    Despite my worrying inability to drum up much “care” for this game, I will grant you that Power Golf is the best PCE golf sim of 1989. It’s as generic as a can of Sam’s Cola, features very fiddly aiming, and doesn’t automatically choose clubs for you, but it’s workmanlike in design and engaging enough for what it is. It was well-liked in Japan, too, enough so that it got a Super CD-ROM2 sequel a good five years later — one of the few titles on the console to sport full-motion video, at that.

    (By the way, TG16 boxes included in these reviews when applicable from now on — yes, no, don’t care either way? They are never, ever better than the PCE version, but…)

  • Happy April Fools Day!

    Posted on April 1st, 2010 keving 1 comment

    I get to spend mine doing taxes!