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  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Takeda Shingen

    Posted on March 31st, 2011 keving 4 comments

    Takeda Shingen

    Maker: Aicom
    Release Date: 7/28/89
    Price: 5600 yen
    Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Action
    PC Engine FAN Score: 17.18 / 30.00

    Another one of those rare console games that the Kogien, the great phonebook (published until 2008) that attempts to list every Japanese title ever released, actively criticized in their paragraph-long capsule review. The review text, verbatim:

    “The setting has Takeda Shingen delving solo into enemy territory in order to defeat his adversary Uesugi Kenshin. The large size of the characters is nice, but it’s somewhat of a shame that the controls and movements had to become so rough as a result. A side-scrolling action game.”

    The very definition of damning with faint praise, isn’t it? (Side note: The box shows Shingen fighting a mounted soldier, something that never, ever, ever happens in the game.)

    Takeda Shingen is second PCE game published by Aicom, the somewhat hapless early third party whose previous game was P-47. Three out of Aicom’s four PCE releases were ports of late-’80s arcade games from Jaleco, which — if you’re a fledgling publisher trying to establish a foothold in the console marketplace — really isn’t a great way to stand out from the pack. Jaleco games, after all, were all about finding whatever the latest trend was and copying it in as quick and budget-free a manner as possible.

    In this case, the arcade Takeda Shingen was released in 1988 to capitalize upon an NHK TV show of the same name, the station’s taiga drama of 1988. The 50-episode series portrayed the warlord’s life as he rose from the also-ran leader of Kai province (modern day Yamanashi prefecture) to the man who almost beat Oda Nobunaga at his own game. It was an enormous hit, the second most-watched taiga drama ever; the entire series averaged a 39.2% share in the TV ratings, a figure that’s all but impossible to achieve these days. Such is the influence of this show that many of the warlord portraits seen in Nobunaga’s Ambition and the other Warring States Period sims Koei’s released over the years were often based off the actors that appeared in the series. (The show also inspired Hot-B to make two FC Shingen sims, one of which was released Stateside as Shingen the Ruler.)

    So Jaleco cobbled together a Shingen arcade game and rushed it out while the series was still running. Aicom ported it, I guess, because they had a contract with Jaleco to port their arcade stuff and they didn’t put out anything more sellable than this for all of 1988.


    What’s so bad about Takeda Shingen? Well, besides the fact that the main character walks like a infant (see right), the game he stars in is a poor attempt at making a sort of medieval-Japan Double Dragon with a few RPG elements. You can freely mince through all the environments — you aren’t required to beat up any of the doomed ashigaru you run into — but rushing right to the boss of each stage without building up experience and upgrading your abilities beforehand is suicide.

    The gameplay itself copies the original Double Dragon in all the wrong ways. It’s slow, laggy, and there seems to be a half-second delay between button presses and Shingen doing anything onscreen. This results in the player having to very carefully toddle up to enemies from the classic 2D-brawler diagonal angle, press the II button, and largely hope for the best. Things improve once you get some useful power-ups (that sliding move you get is rad, but that doesn’t happen until near the end of the game), but whether you have the patience to make it that far or not is highly questionable.

    There seem to be three main signs that the PCE title you’re playing is crap: The controls are oddly lagged (cf. Energy); the main character walks like an idiot, and the music is surprisingly good. (That’s the Level 1 theme on the PCE, but the boss tune in the arcade version, where it sounds quite a bit more epic and taiga drama-ish.)

  • Contra (Konami, 5/26/89)

    Posted on March 28th, 2011 keving 4 comments

    Just a short update as I’m fighting allergies and mainly want to go to bed at the moment.

    Konami is undoubtedly the most important maker who worked on the MSX. The things they did with that machine were, and are, out of this world, and the developers used their technical wizardry to craft some killer games that worked around the system’s limits. (Vampire Killer is the classic example of this.)

    That’s why I’m unsure what happened with the MSX2 port of Contra Konami released in mid-1989. It’s one of the few real failures Konami released on the platform. The controls are weird, the graphics strangely undetailed, the original stages completely uninspired. The flick-screen scrolling is particularly confusing because Konami made smooth scrolling happen on the MSX2 only three months later with the baseball game Ganbare Pennant Race 2.

    The game gets only two things right: the music, and the way the 3D stages feature your guy moving left/right in addition to forward after completing a room (a little detail in the arcade version that got dropped from all the other 8-bit ports).

  • Jungle Emperor

    Posted on March 24th, 2011 keving 3 comments

    Since I just finished reading the comic on my iPad, I wanted to talk a little about Jungle Emperor (ジャングル大帝), aka Kimba the White Lion, originally drawn in 1950-54 by undoubtedly my favorite comic artist of all time, Osamu Tezuka. That’s him up there, 24 years old; he drew some Kimba characters around a photograph of himself with a chimpanzee for a color opener page in Manga Shōnen (漫画少年) in 1952.

    Manga Shōnen, despite being published for only eight years (1947 to 1955), had an enormous influence on Japanese comics for years to come. It was founded by Kenichi Kato, who edited Kodansha’s Shōnen Club before and during WWII. Shōnen Club was where series like Norakuro began; it was one of the most popular boys’ magazines in both the pre- and post-war period. Kato was driven out of Kodansha immediately after the end of the war as the US occupational forces cracked down on pro-war publishers; he funded Manga Shōnen with his own money and named his wife president of the publishing house in order to avoid MacArthur’s censors. Artists like Tezuka, Shotaro Ishinomori, Fujiko Fujio, Kazuo Umezu, Fujio Akatsuka, Leiji Matsumoto, and Yoshihiro Tatsumi either wrote for the mag or contributed manga to the “new talent” contests Kato regularly held in the mag’s pages. (For those unfamiliar with manga, the above names are pretty much a who’s-who of brilliance that largely defined the scene’s direction from the 60s until the turn of the century.)

    Kato played host to Tezuka, back then still in medical school over in Osaka, when the artist decided to pay an impromptu visit to the Manga Shōnen offices during a stint in Tokyo. Tezuka had the story in mind for Emperor at that point, but was intending to write it out as a one-off volume called Mitsurin Taitei (密林大帝). Manga, at that time, was chiefly written either in one-volume adventures published as distinct books or very small (four pages or so) regular series in boys’ magazines. Kato convinced Tezuka to take his idea for Mitsurin Taitei and flesh it out into a regular four-page series for the monthly Manga Shōnen. Tezuka agreed, and the results were so successful that Jungle Emperor expanded to ten pages in the second month of publication.

    Leo the lion strikes a somewhat familiar pose as he announces
    the birth of his children to his late father.

    A lot has been written over the years about how much Disney’s The Lion King resembles Emperor. Frederick Schodt devotes something like seven pages to the topic in his excellent (and still relevant) 1996 book Dreamland Japan, and I don’t have much to add except that I think it’s a moot point because Bambi is plainly Tezuka’s biggest influence for this work anyway. (They’re both stories about young forest royalty adventuring with animal friends while struggling to find a way to co-exist with humans, although Emperor’s a lot more epic in scale.) He never denied the influence Walt Disney had upon his drawing style, and it’s especially plain in this early work, as a lot of the jungle animals are straight-on Disney animals, no two ways about it.

    As Schodt also notes in his book, Emperor’s main fault is Tezuka’s habit of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into his early stories in an attempt to keep kids focused month after month. “The printed manga story,” he writes, “has gags, comedy, tragedy, allusions to ancient tectonic plates and ‘supercontinents,’ and exotic medical conditions.” (That tectonic stuff was completely speculative science when Tezuka threw it into the story, not receiving mainstream scientific backing until the ’60s.) It’s true that a modern manga artist could take all the content in Emperor and stretch it out into a 10-volume series (this one is only 3) — but on the other hand, the story’s breakneck pace is welcome compared to how badly Jump manga gets stretched out these days.

    Leo loses his temper as his daughter flirts with death from a mysterious pox.
    This is one of my favorite Tezuka pages ever as it demonstrates how complete
    a knowledge he had of comic pacing and structure even at a point where the
    whole genre was still in its infancy.

    The fact I’m able to enjoy Jungle Emperor on my iPad (legally) is miraculous for a couple of reasons. For one, Tezuka lost about half of the original art in the early ’60s — he lent some of it out to the animation staff for reference as they worked on the 1965 anime version, one of them died unexpectedly in an alcohol-related incident, and the authorities cleared out his apartment before Tezuka could retrieve his art. As a result, Tezuka had to redraw approximately half of the entire series for the 1977 Complete Works edition, something he later said was extraordinarily time-consuming as he found drawing in his extremely Disney-like early-’50s style pretty difficult years after the fact. (The original Manga Shōnen pages have themselves been restored and republished, most recently in 2010.)

    The other reason why I’m lucky to be reading this: Tezuka’s depiction of African natives in Jungle Emperor was also heavily inspired by how such folk would’ve been depicted in 1930s American cartoons — jet-black, enormous white lips, occasionally pinheaded. Tezuka’s natives are not caricatures personality-wise — their depiction is very human and thoughtful, although they have a yen to skewer Leo and add him to their collection of white lion skins — but the way they’re drawn certainly are. The Association to Stop Racism Against Blacks (黒人差別をなくす会), a small Osaka-based organization largely run by a single family, successfully held campaigns throughout the 1980s to remove books like Little Black Sambo and big-lipped depictions in manga like Akira Toriyama’s Dr. Slump from public view. This was a big problem for Tezuka — like any cartoon artist, he reveled in exaggeration with his art, and so his work is littered with that stuff throughout.

    From December 1990 to the spring of 1992, Kodansha’s Tezuka Complete Works collection was taken off of the market while the publisher figured out what the hell to do. If Tezuka was still alive (as Dreamland Japan observed), he almost certainly would’ve revised his comics as quickly as possible, but he wasn’t. The Association to Stop Racism’s aim to remove archaic caricatures from Asian media was a noble one, but removing Tezuka from the market was a bridge too far for a vast majority of Japanese readers, then and now. In the end, Kodansha (and all other publishers doing Tezuka work) decided to include a page in every volume describing the depictions as a product of their time and emphasizing the anti-racism message prevalent in a lot of Tezuka’s work — a wise move that kept the most influential manga artist ever in print through the early-’90s controversy and allows me to still enjoy them today, pinheaded natives and all.

    Is a 1950 manga worth reading today? I think so. This one is, at least — it’s an old story and one that jumps all over the place, but the ending still gets to me. Being able to access not just Emperor, but nearly all of Tezuka’s library legally for a fair price, makes me remarkably glad to be alive today.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Sidearms

    Posted on March 23rd, 2011 keving 6 comments

    The site was down for a bit today because I forgot to pay my web-hosting bill. Sorry!
    Side Arms

    Maker: NEC Avenue
    Release Date: 7/14/89
    Price: 5400 yen
    Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Shooting
    PC Engine FAN Score: 20.86 / 30.00

    Kōgien: “An innovative shooter that lets you attack to the left and right. A faithful port of the arcade game that features a fine-tuned balance that keeps things accessible for beginners and veterans. Collect an item power up your attack further.”

    Another NEC Avenue port of a Capcom arcade game, this one a shooter that oddly never made it to any other Japanese hardware platform, only finding official home release on European computers. (EDIT: I was wrong here. Capcom USA released their own Commodore 64 port for the US market in 1987. It’s not great.)

    It was never a very popular arcade game — I think I saw it only once or twice in person — but considering it came out in 1986, it was a pretty decent upgrade on what Gradius offered just a bit previous.

    Two main improvements make this game different from Konami’s: the screen can scroll vertically and diagonally as well as the standard horizontal; and your robot fighter can fire left or right depending on which of the two buttons you press. The power-up system is also a little freer, letting you choose your weaponry from the pause menu as you acquire the needed items (the arcade version had a third button for changing weapons on the fly). Grabbing the α/β items lets you combine with another fighter jet and transform into a super-duper robot that fires in eight directions; this also lets you take a hit without dying, which perhaps says something about the building standards they use on robots of the future — surely my last hope of Earth, savior of the people, etc., can take more than one stinking hit at a time. Also worth noting is that you can shoot onscreen power-ups before grabbing them to transform them into something else, a system that Capcom reintroduced a year later in the much more successful 1943.

    The game has no smart-bomb function, and presumably the left-right firing arrangement is meant to take its place. It becomes a bit of a moot point, though, considering that you’ve got enemies swooping upon you from both sides starting about two minutes after you press the Run button. If Gradius got a little tricky after you died and lost your weapon upgrades, this is the equivalent of challenging Darth Vader with a used Panda Express chopstick. Sure, it’s fun while you’re alive — you easily bash up swarms of enemies with your 8-way fire, and the game demands enough dodging ability from you that the pace remains engaging and fun. But lose them all, and you’re pretty much done for that go-around, especially given that Side Arms starts you right in the same place, still surrounded by all the bad guys that killed you the first time.

    This may be much of the reason why Side Arms never caught on worldwide the way that Gradius and, to a lesser extent, stuff like Capcom’s own 1943 and Legendary Wings did. But the PCE port is pretty faithful, at least. Despite its two-megabit size, all 10 arcade stages are included; the graphics are varied enough (although the bosses repeat too often); and the sound’s excellent throughout. NEC Avenue would go on to release a CD-ROM version of this game that included an original “Before Christ” mode and recorded music from Capcom’s in-house studio, but I’ll get to that later on.

    (Of particular interest with the HuCard version: The music was rearranged for the PCE by Takashi Tateishi, whose most famous soundtrack work in games probably still remains Mega Man 2. That title came out half a year before Side Arms in Japan, and tracks like the one above make it pretty obvious that it’s the same buy behind both scores. Tateishi still remains in games, running indie music contractor Most Company and making contributions to Dance Dance Revolution and the like.)

    I can think of a lot of mid-to-late-’80s shooters that look just like this. They all seemed to get PC Engine ports, too, is the funny thing.

  • Computer TV Game (Nintendo, April 1980)

    Posted on March 21st, 2011 keving 3 comments

    Almost assuredly the worst-selling game console Nintendo ever made. That may perhaps be part of the reason a nearly new-in-box example recently sold for 242,000 yen on Yahoo! Auctions JP.

    Computer TV Game was a home port of Computer Othello, Nintendo’s first ever fully-electronic video game for arcades. Calling it a “port” is perhaps charitable, because the innards of the home console are the exact same as the arcade cabinet — Intel 8080 processor, specialized graphics chip from Mitsubishi Electric, small program ROM, and an enormous AC adapter that weighs over four pounds. Like the title suggests, it’s a video version of Othello, with one- and two-player options and a pair of CPU difficulty levels to choose from. The arcade version (which originally came out in mid-1978) has a strict time limit of 400 seconds, but you can play as many games as you want during that time.

    Video Othello was a bit novel compared to the ocean of Pong consoles on store shelves at the time, but because Nintendo simply stuffed the arcade hardware into a plastic box (a package, by the way, which was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto — he was originally hired by Nintendo as an industrial-arts guy), the thing was expensive. Really expensive. The retail price for the dedicated system was 48,000 yen, about $190 in 1980 dollars, at a time when the Atari 2600 was available across America for about half that. Even among the murky history of Nintendo’s pre-FC video games, this is one incredibly obscure device.

    Here’s how Computer Othello looks in action, by the way. Sorry I can’t find a better video, but if I were you, I’d just be glad there were any extant examples left, period.

    All in all, I think Epoch’s TV Baseball Game is a much better package.

  • Pilotwings (Nintendo, 12/21/90)

    Posted on March 18th, 2011 keving 4 comments

    Pilotwings Resort is coming out pretty soon, but why not concentrate instead on the only game among the SNES launch titles that got me really, really excited? (What can I say — Mode 7 was really amazing to me, in a way that the PlayStation wasn’t somehow.)

    This game, featuring music by my beloved Soyo Oka (who must have really like that “blaaa” instrument because it’s used in two tracks), is one of several to use a DSP-1 coprocessor in order to speed up the trigonometric calculations required for the quick scaling/rotation seen in-game. F-Zero does not use this coprocessor despite having even faster scaling/rotation moves. This is because — and I forget who told this to me, so I can’t give a source — something like half of the game ROM is composed solely of precalculated cosine tables, obviating the need to come up with the figures in realtime.

    Japanese Wikipedia claims (unsourced) that the first shipment of Pilotwings in Japan did not include a DSP-1, something which I don’t think is actually true. What is true is that the game may have either the DSP-1, DSP-1A, or DSP-1B chip onboard. The 1A is a simple hardware revision to make the chip smaller, while the 1B is the same as the 1 except with a few bugfixes to the microcode that drives the device. You can tell which chip is inside your Pilotwings without opening up the cartridge because the 1B revision actually triggers a bug that’s easily demonstrated. Start up the game and keep it running until you get the gameplay demo with the light plane. If the plane lands correctly, the game’s running on a DSP-1 or 1A; if it crashes well in advance of the runway, you’ve got a DSP-1B.

    Neat, huh? And until I started researching this, I didn’t even realize there was that “secret” side pool you could hit with that one bonus stage.

  • Po po po ponnn!!

    Posted on March 16th, 2011 keving 3 comments

    Play the above video and this one around ten times in a row, and you’ve got a pretty reasonable simulation of what watching TV on non-NHK networks in Japan is like right now.

    The private TV networks in the Kanto area have all shifted back to non-emergency programming at this point — in other words, they are airing advertisements again instead of providing wall-to-wall crisis coverage and updates. However, many Japanese outfits are hesitant to air pre-quake advertising for assorted reasons, and they haven’t had the time to film new ones that talk about their charity work and contributions to the recovery effort. Therefore, a lot of ad time is being filled up by public service announcements from AC Japan, the local version of the Ad Council.

    This means that if you’re a bad enough dude to watch TBS or NTV or TV Tokyo at the moment, you are seeing the above spot (devoted to the importance of using proper greetings and making friends) and the other linked one (encouraging women to get screened for breast and ovarian cancer) about fifty squillion times.

    This is starting to highly annoy people who don’t have anything else to worry about at the moment. “My one-year-old son has started to sing ‘A-C!’ [the jingle at the end] around the house,” says one tweet that just passed by.

    AC Japan has gotten enough complaints about this that they posted an apology for it on their website, although it’s really not their fault. Blame, you know, McDonald’s and Aflac and so on for not having suitably stoic and reserved ads on call for times like these.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Final Lap Twin

    Posted on March 16th, 2011 keving 7 comments

    Final Lap Twin

    Maker: Namco
    Release Date: 7/7/89
    Price: 6200 yen
    Media: HuCard (3 Mbit)
    Genre: Racing
    PC Engine FAN Score: 23.04 / 30.00

    Kōgien: “Three game modes are available: a single-player race against the computer, a two-player simultaneous mode, and a role-playing Quest mode.”

    Namco and racing games go a long, long way back. Pole Position (1982) was far from the first behind-the-car racing game, but it was undeniably the most popular racer of the “classic” era, becoming the biggest earner in North American arcades during 1983 and spawning (among other things) a Saturday morning cartoon. 

    Final Lap (1987) was largely a graphical update taking advantage of 16-bit microprocessors, but it did offer one revolutionary feature — while Pole Position was strictly one-player (the first Namco arcade ever to not have a two-player option, in fact), Final Lap allowed filthy rich operators to link up cabinets and allow for up to eight players to course through a single track simultaneously. It was also arguably the first racer to deliberately implement “rubberbanding” to ensure that less talented players were never too far behind the leader — a feature that Mario Kart would later polish to maddening, Saturday night-ruining perfection.

    The game got ported first to the Famicom in August 1988, a pretty remarkable effort that included a built-in sound chip and a 2-player mode that split the screen in half, a pretty impressive feat that must’ve been murder for the programmers to get right on the platform.

    Final Lap Twin on the PCE has the same functionality, as shown above, but the system’s superiority in processing speed gives the proceedings a much greater sense of speed than was possible on the ol’ FC. That, and you get a choice of F1 racers, a skill difficulty function, assorted tuning options, a career mode of sorts, and so on. In other words, it was a bit of a simulator — or, at least, as much of one as the genre was capable of handling on Japanese consoles back then. (Formula One Grand Prix, the first F1 game that we could still recognize as a real “simulator” today, came out in early 1992.)

    That’s not why modern people enjoy this game so much, though. No, all the praise is reserved for the RPG mode, which — like the one in Namco’s last PCE sports game, Pro Tennis World Court — takes the cake for sheer lunacy. “Oh, a racing-themed RPG,” you might think. “Maybe it’s something like Speed Racer, where you have a little racing team with your family and you fight off masked rivals and robot drivers and so on.” Pfft. As if. Instead, it combines the world of mini 4WD cars (on the cusp of a major toy boom in Japan at the time of release) and  Star of the Giants, the most famous overwrought sports anime of all time.

    “I have something important to speak to you about today, [name],” your stern, unshaven father tells you in the in the game’s intro. “I have hammered into you all the mini-4WD techniques I know, but now it is time for you to embark on a training mission of your own. [Name], my child! First you must match wits with the mini-4WD champions dotted around each region and test your skills against them. […] You must keep your races clean, [name]! Never forget the value of friendship as you compete. …If darkness should ever cloud your heart, then you may return to your father’s side at any time. I will punish you with my family lashings, just as I did before! I will give you my 4WD machine, the “Star of the 4WD,” the very same as what I once used. It will serve you well, [name]. Now, go, [name]! Become the star of the 4WD world!”

    And so it goes, really. You travel around the world map, fighting random battles against bratty kids in order to earn the cash to upgrade your little RC car. Six bosses need to be defeated, and the game’s climax takes place in a domed stadium situated on an island shut off from the rest of the world for some reason. The backdrops in this mode, as you can see, are blown up to reflect the small size of the mini-machines you’re racing here, and overall it’s a pretty bizarre world being depicted. At least the world of Pokemon kinda-sorta makes sense if you don’t squint at it that hard. This “RC car” angle was completely removed from the RPG mode of the TurboGrafx-16 version, with “turbo engines” replacing the idea of upgrading your car’s battery. The backdrops are still enormous, though, which must’ve caused some confusion among kids.

    (Interesting side note, by the way: The music for Final Lap Twin is by Katsuhiro Hayashi, a widely under-appreciated composer who I last discussed when I wrote about High School! Kimengumi and Hokuto no Ken.)

    This video (half of a TAS released a year or so ago) should give a basic idea of what the RPG mode’s like. You have to race a lot of “random battles” in this game to scare up the cash you need — I suppose you could call it a classic ’80s JRPG in that respect, eh?