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  • Hacker International’s head speaks

    Posted on June 29th, 2010 keving 8 comments

    As promised yesterday, more about Hacker International, the Japanese bad boy of 8-bit consoledom.

    I (like a lot of NES fans, I suppose) first heard about Hacker from David Sheff’s book Game Over, where he mentions that the company attempted to defy Nintendo’s third-party licensee system for the Famicom, was sued, and went out of business shortly thereafter. The only factual part of that synopsis is that Nintendo sued Hacker, but it wasn’t for anything related to publishing unlicensed FC porn games and it was settled out of court before a verdict was reached. What’s more, Hacker had a very long history — long enough to result in 16 Famicom games, 22 Famicom Disk System titles (more than most legitimate FDS licensees), 13 PC Engine games (seven on CD-ROM), 15 licensed PlayStation releases under the name Map Japan, and even a handful of Windows titles. That’s not bad for a company so associated with 8-bit pornography, as laid out in this screenshot gallery of their FDS stuff (link very not safe for work).

    Hacker was founded and led by Satoru Hagiwara, an entrepreneur and former music producer who thought he’d cash in on the personal-computer boom when it hit Japan in the mid-1980s. Their first product was a monthly PC magazine titled Hacker (above), as he explained in a 2005 issue of Game Labo:

    “PCs were hitting it big at the time and tons of PC magazines were getting launched all over the place, so I asked a friend of mine who ran a publishing business if he was interested in putting one out. I figured that once we started releasing a magazine, the writers and know-how would come naturally. That’s how ‘Hacker’ got started — it’s a bit of an embarrassing name, but since we were launching after the pack, I went with something that had impact.”

    So Hacker International wasn’t meant to be an “underground” outfit in the beginning?

    “Not at all. But people who were into that sort of thing were attracted to the name, and they came to us. A lot of our writers were into games, and they came up with a lot of ideas for offbeat and fun products. I created Hacker International to help put those ideas out on sale. At around that time, I had a lot of negative emotions toward the collusion and under-the-table agreements [console game] publishers had with each other. Even so, none of the products we made broke any laws. The music industry ran under a set of well-defined laws, so perhaps that experience affected me a little too, but either way, I didn’t think to myself that we wanted to break the law with our products.”

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  • Fujiya Thinking Games v1.0

    Posted on June 28th, 2010 keving 1 comment

    I thought that The Gentle Physics and Science of Hazardous Materials is about as obscure as off-market Famicom releases got, but I was wrong!

    Not much of anything is known about Fujiya and the (apparent) series of unlicensed Famicom games they released in 1987. The cartridge here is Fujiya Famikase Series 3: Shikou Game Shu (Fujiya Famicom Cassette Series 3: Thought Games Collection), and despite being number 3 of a series, the other two have yet to be heard from.

    Shikou Game Shu is a collection of four games, basically: checkers, concentration, poker, and Othello. The Othello game has an option where you can define whether the player with the most pieces on the board at the end wins or loses…and that’s about all that’s unique about the game itself. You can see more screenshots on this page.

    Fujiya, consisting of two men named Maeda who listed their address and phone number on the title screen, also released a Famicom Disk System disk copier circa 1987. This copier program included a couple of card games as well.

    I came across this release while doing some research into Hacker International, the company that was a thorn on Nintendo’s side for much of the late 1980s in Japan, after CRV linked to an interview with its president. I’ll tackle that interview in a later post, but for now — hey, guess what, collectors, I just found another game you need to complete your collection!

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] The Ninja Warriors

    Posted on June 25th, 2010 keving 4 comments

    The Ninja Warriors

    Maker: Taito
    Release Date: 6/30/89
    Price: 6200 yen
    Media: HuCard (3 Mbit)
    Genre: Action
    PC Engine FAN Score: 21.94 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “A side-scrollingg action game in the same style as the arcade original, but the characters are smaller and the graphics overall more plain. The player can choose between a male or female ninja, both of which can attack with a kunai (dagger) or a limited number of shurikens.”

    In 1989, worldwide, children were infatuated with ninjas. It was just, like, ninja ninja ninja, all the time. Our parents played cowboys and Indians in the back alley; we played ninjas and some other ninjas in the cul-de-sac. You had to be there to fully understand it, trust me. The Official Ninja Homepage is hardly an over-the-top parody — it would’ve been treated at total face value by my 11-year-old, Ninja Turtle-lovin’ arse at this point in time.

    All this was true despite the fact that, even if they weren’t 80-percent myth in the first place, real ninjas would not go around wearing flashy red outfits and walking down the street in broad daylight. There’s nothing even remotely “shadow arts” about that nonsense. We didn’t care. We preferred them that way, in fact.

    The Ninja Warriors marks both the height of this slightly skewed ninja sensation and the apex of Taito’s technical achievements of the late ’80s. The 1987 arcade version was the second game after Darius to use a three-monitor setup for a wide-screen effect that completely wowed me at the time but must have cost a fortune for the operator in electric bills alone. The screens were filled with huge characters that animated with astonishing smoothness. The music, sampled shamisen and all, was spectacular; it took other arcade devs a good couple of years to catch up with Taito in sound hardware expertise. The game itself was…hard, yes, but a mixture of pattern management and a bit of help from the control system (things get a lot easier once you realize that your ninja’s invincible during a flip) allowed you to get pretty far on a single credit once you picked up the basic skills. (Not even that could get you through the last level, though, a stage that combines a fiendish time limit with your ninja’s worrisome lack of urgency climbing up and down stairwells.)

    The PC Engine port scored high enough in the PCE Fan rankings, but frankly it doesn’t stand the test of time the way the earlier Kyūkyoku Tiger has. The music’s super sparse — something that can’t be helped, given the difference in sound tech, but surely Taito could’ve managed a better job than this. The graphics are okay, with a surprising amount of animation intact, but most of the little details from the arcade version’s backgrounds are gone. Few, if any, of the strategies from the arcade game can be applied here, something that always annoyed hardcore gamers during this era. Worst of all, there’s no tank in stages 2 and 4 — one of the most jaw-dropping bits of the original when you had to fight it, and an enemy that made it into both the 1993 Mega CD version and the 8-bit computer ports released by Virgin in Europe. Given the PCE’s powerful sprite capabilities, there’s no excuse, just like there’s no excuse for the flicker that plagues the game whenever four or so characters are onscreen.

    Still, Taito got the most important thing right with this port — the atmosphere. The world of The Ninja Warriors is desolate, oppressive, and brutally fatal. You are a merciless murder machine in a bedsheet, and you have to be, or else you’ll explode spectacularly at the hands of 150 knife-wielding African-American soldiers. For the consummate ninja junkie of the late 1980s, few other games slaked your thirst in such a comprehensive manner.

  • Another reason why the Satellaview was really awesome

    Posted on June 25th, 2010 keving 1 comment

    Microsoft got a lot of positive press for its Live implementation of 1 vs. 100 last year, with critics calling it an innovative example of socially-oriented online gaming. It turns out that Nintendo did nearly the same thing about 12 years previous.

    I’ve been going through a lot of Satellaview videos on Nico lately; there’s a ton of them, taped by forward-thinking Japanese gamers back during the service’s salad days of 1995-98. It’s given me a newfound appreciation of just how ahead of its time the thing was. That holds especially true for the SoundLink-compatible titles, which combined video games running on the SNES hardware with audio voiceovers from the digital-radio bit of the BS-X cartridge.

    The above video, a broadcast of Satella-Q from March 1997, shows how the two forms of media worked together. You had a couple of radio hosts serving as MCs of the quiz, moving the game along from their end, and you inputted answers to the questions whenever the hosts prompted you to. (Whoever taped this show just let it run without actually playing, which is why he gets all the answers wrong.)

    Maybe it’s not quite as straight-on interactive as 1 vs. 100 (scores were kept on the client side only), but it’s plainly working along the same lines.

    Between this and all the fusion radio drama-style stuff Nintendo and St. GIGA (the world’s first satellite radio company) were experimenting with, the Satellaview was one of the very few examples in game history of Nintendo being too far ahead of the technical curve for its own good.

  • FFVII CG doesn’t look thaaaaaaaat old

    Posted on June 24th, 2010 keving 5 comments

    A bunch of old press assets for Final Fantasy VII has showed up on the torrents lately; a 12mb .zip file that contains a lot of the concept renders and such that we all saw in EGM and GameFan in 1996.

    Seeing the files in their pixel-perfect glory rather than through the lens of a print magazine makes a lot of difference.

    It reminds me, in particular, of how instrumental FFVII was both to the PlayStation and to the entire JRPG genre. The game, alongside Super Mario 64, is what sold the “next generation” of consoles to the largest amount of gamers worldwide, and you can see why — maybe it’s crude 3D, but at its best, it’s incredibly colorful and inviting to the observer, something you had never seen before in video games. That, and whether you disagree with the direction it took the series or not, FFVII was far more massive in scale than anything Square had attempted previously — a harbinger, if you will, of the way the whole industry was going as its games grew a third dimension.

    Also, looking at this stuff, I didn’t realize Square put so much care into FFVII‘s vehicles. They came up with a complete description and design history for the Hardy-Daytona, the motorcycle that Cloud rides on his way out of Shinra HQ, for example. This sort of minute (almost obsessive) world-setting stuff is a hallmark of a lot of Japanese creative media.

  • This is what really good Puyo Puyo looks like

    Posted on June 23rd, 2010 keving No comments

    I wrote a couple articles today for 1UP about famous gamers in Japan, from Daigo Umehara (who needs no introduction if you’ve seen that SFIII 3rd Strike video — you know, that one) to Tomoki Maeda, a guy who’s won tournaments for both FIFA and Pro Evo Soccer. I didn’t get around to another interview printed in last week’s issue of Famitsu where they talked with Takashi Hattori, a guy who’s really, really, really good at competitive Puyo Puyo.

    You can see lots of Puyo tournament footage on Nicovideo; the above video’s an example from 2007. The preferred knockout format is for two competitors to play each other repeatedly until one side reaches 100 victories, which (even if you play as fast as these guys) is at least two hours of nonstop blob toppling. Hattori is the player on the right in this video, and I’ll let it speak for itself. Good Puyo is fun to watch because it’s a constant game of back-and-forth, with one player setting off a massive chain and the other setting off his own chain, the one he’s been preparing for just that moment, offsetting the attack and putting the first player on the defensive. Even if I can’t possibly fathom the strategy involved, it’s great entertainment.

    Hattori kicked off his Famitsu interview by revealing how he got into this odd Compile game:

    “The first Puyo I played was the PC-9801 version, when I was in fifth grade or so. For a while 2- or 3-chains were about the best I could do, but thanks to the fact I had friends to play against every day, I wound up becoming the best player in my neighborhood. Puyo Puyo 2 came out when I was in middle school, and I learned that they were holding events like the Sega AM Cup [Sega’s Puyo championship] and the Puyo Masters Tournament [Compile’s Puyo championship]. I signed up because I thought I could meet people better than me and get some hints on how to improve my game. This was before the Internet was popular, so it was a great opportunity to gather information. I performed pretty well at all the competitions, which gave me confidence, and that was about the point when I hooked up with the real national-class players. We’d all go to an arcade and I’d improve my skills by basically letting them pummel me in the game.”

    What’s his Power Player Advice for would-be Puyokings?

    “If you want to win consistently in Puyo, it’s better to think about beating your opponent wtih small chains in rapid succession instead of aiming for one large chain. Memorizing the possible structures of all the small chains, then applying them as needed in the game, helps refine your strategy and makes it easier to win. Also, you can’t just learn the winning patterns — you need to learn the losing patterns, too, and how to deal with them. That way, if you mess up a pattern during a competition, you won’t panic. Based on my experience, even if you don’t have that much technical skill, you can hold your own in competitive matches if you have a sound mental capacity. Everyone makes errors of judgment or joystick input, but it’s when you let the mistakes get to you that you lose. A really fearsome opponent is the guy who can come back from a bad situation.”

  • Bomber Man (Hudson Soft, July 1983)

    Posted on June 21st, 2010 keving 5 comments

    “You play a man who is trapped inside a maze. Place your time bombs wisely to defeat the balloon monsters. If the balloon monsters get caught up in an exploding time bomb, they will pop and disappear. Defeat all the monsters on the screen to proceed to the next stage. You can break down weaker walls with your time bombs. These walls can hide treasures and exit doors. Pick up treasure to receive bonus points. Go through an exit to proceed to the next stage. If you accidentally blow up a treasure or exit, four monsters will come out and attack (only once per stage). Move up, down, left and right with the cursor keys and press Space to set a bomb.”

    So go the Japanese instructions for Bomber Man (爆弾男) — not the PC Engine or Super NES version, not even the 1986 NES classic, but the very first Bomber Man (two words), released on cassette tape for the NEC PC-8801 in mid-1983.

    While not a massive sensation — the Japanese PC community was pretty small back then, after all — it was successful enough to get ported to nearly every other computer format in Japan the following year. Hudson also signed a deal with Sinclair Research to release a port for the ZX Spectrum in Europe titled Eric and the Floaters — technically, the first overseas Bomberman release.

    The above video shows off the 1984 MSX port, as well as a 3D version released by Hudson not long thereafter. The 3D game is, frankly, terrifying. Resident Evil could stand to learn a thing or two from it. I think I’m going to have nightmares.

  • How rich people play Super Mario Bros.

    Posted on June 17th, 2010 keving 7 comments

    Professional violinist and music teacher Teppei Okada claims on his webpage profile that he can play any piece of video-game music by ear after one listen. He’s recently started demonstrating this talent on Nicovideo and YouTube, and it’s a remarkably impressive sight even before he starts playing sound effects alongside the music.

    There’s a selection of small performances available on YouTube, including recitals for Donkey Kong, Tennis, Dragon Quest, Star Force and a few others.

  • Hokuto no Ken / Black Belt (Sega, ’86)

    Posted on June 16th, 2010 keving 3 comments

    Many retro-fans know that the Sega Master System release Black Belt is a heavily revamped version of a Sega Mark III action game based on the Hokuto no Ken anime/manga property. A smaller minority would also know that both games were programmed by Yuji Naka, part of his rather prolific Sega 8-bit years (Girl’s Garden, Penguin Land, Great Baseball, the SMS port of Spy vs. Spy, OutRun, Space Harrier and Phantasy Star).

    Only a very tiny subset of that group, I’m sure, knows that the soundtrack for these two titles was handled by Katsuhiro Hayashi, a name I last mentioned a couple weeks back when I discussed High School! Kimengumi. You can pick up his distinctive drums throughout. Both music sets are nice, but if forced into a corner on the issue, I would take Black Belt’s songs, which sound more Hokuto-y than Hokuto’s own music.

    Here’s a video of Hokuto in action. This version had a secret warp where if you can defeat a boss without getting hit, you can execute a high jump at the start of the following stage to go right to the boss again.

    And now for Black Belt. Note how the bosses run on largely the same patterns, despite the completely revamped graphics.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Tengai Makyō Ziria

    Posted on June 15th, 2010 keving 9 comments

    Tengai Makyō Ziria

    Maker: Hudson
    Release Date: 6/30/89
    Price: 7200 yen
    Media: CD-ROM² (141.58MB + 3 audio tracks)
    Genre: RPG
    PC Engine FAN Score: 25.68 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “A sort of Eastern charm pervades the story, which features fire-tribe child Ziria as he faces off against the 13 members of the Great Gate sect with his friends Tsunade and Orochimaru. An RPG with a flashy team behind it, including director Hiroi Ohji and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto.”

    This, along with the later Ys I/II, established the PC Engine CD-ROM² System as a truly viable game platform in Japan. It’s the first RPG ever released on the CD-ROM format (I’m not going to count No-Ri-Ko as an RPG), and it’s also the first installment in the Tengai Makyō series, one which never really came out here but has stayed alive in Japan since its inception, most recently in a 2008 compilation released on the PSP. In my opinion, though, Ziria is important for another reason — it’s the first real “mega-RPG” project, a JRPG where the graphics were a main sell right alongside the gameplay, and in that way it had the same effect on Japanese gamers in 1989 that Final Fantasy VII had on the worldwide audience in 1997.

    It’s interesting that Ziria wound up doing all this for the PCE, because the game wasn’t even a game at all in the beginning. Instead it was a movie script, or at least the outline of one, penned in 1986 by Teruhisa Hiroi (better known as Hiroi Ōji these days) for media outfit Red Company. Hiroi had an idea for a non-samurai samurai flick — a dramedy that took all the samurai/ninja/shogun legends of Japanese folklore and bunched them all together Alice in Wonderland-style — and he figured it’d work best as a live-action feature film.

    Hiroi’s pitch was turned down by movie studio Daiei in the summer of ’86, but he got a connection via Daiei to animation firm Tokyo Movie Shinsha soon afterward. Hiroi and Red Company then restructured the script to work as an anime series instead, a project that occupied the remainder of the year for them. Torajiro Tsujino, who worked for TMS as an animator back then, went on board as art designer for the project, creating the colorful, exaggerated samurai-era “Jipang” you can still see in the series today — “a foreign observer’s skewed view of old Japan,” as Hiroi put it. (This world-view has stayed constant through the whole series except in Daiyon no Mokushiroku, which turns the tables and portrays 1890s-era America as imagined by Japanese people without the benefit of a world-history textbook.)

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