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  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Tennokoe 2

    Posted on April 29th, 2011 keving 7 comments

    Tennokoe 2

    Maker: Hudson
    Release Date: 8/8/89
    Price: 2600 yen

    The Guinness Book of World Records claims that the NES release of The Legend of Zelda was “the first home console title to include an internal battery for saving data.” This is not actually true. Zelda came out August 1987 in the US, but in April 1987, Seta released Morita Shōgi, a Japanese chess sim that allowed you to save the status of the board and pick up a game in progress anytime you liked. (The cartridge version of Hydlide II on the MSX had battery backup even earlier in late 1986, and considering most Japanese people treated the MSX as a game console, that oughta count as well.)

    The tech may not have been common until 1987, but it gained prevalence pretty quickly on the Famicom and NES, just in time for the role-playing game boom that hit around the same time. Lucky thing, too, because the alternative to battery backup on a console RPG is junk like the 52-character passwords used in the Japanese version of Dragon Quest II. The first two FC Dragon Quests had a password system that Enix called fukkatsu no jumon (復活の呪文, the “incantation of resurrection”) which made children nationwide cry because the strings of kana it spat out were almost impossible to write down and type in correctly unless you had a lot of practice. (American gamers of a similar age might remember how the font on Hudson’s Faxanadu also led to frequent incorrect passwords.)

    The original PC Engine, as designed and released in 1987, had no provision for saving games without a password. It wasn’t part of the HuCard’s design spec because there just wasn’t any space for it on the card (although this changed later on). PCE games up to now all either had no save system or made you write down long, tricky passwords — Susa-no-Oh Densetsu actually had you type in your characters’ current HP, gold and other parameters alongside the password checksum. NEC Home Electronics and Hudson didn’t see this as a big deal at first, partly because they figured CD-ROM technology would advance more quickly than it ultimately did — Shinichi Nakamoto suggested in a couple game-mag interviews at the time that technology to write data onto CD-ROMs would be implemented on consoles in the near future. Thus, the PCE was without backup functionality until the CD-ROM² System came out in late 1988, and gamers unwilling to shell out for that had to wait until August 1989 for a solution that didn’t involve trying to decipher their own messily-written passwords.

    For whatever reason, Hudson and NEC both developed their own HuCard backup devices — Hudson had the Tennokoe 2, and NEC had the Backup Booster, released in November 1989. Why this happened, and why NEC’s peripheral came out so long after Hudson’s, is unknown. It should also be noted that HuCards had to to have backup support specially written into the code in order to be compatible with these devices, something that largely didn’t happen until late 1989, although a few Hudson titles had Tennokoe support built in before the hardware was released.

    Where did the name Tennokoe 2 (which literally means “The Voice of Heaven 2”) come from? The term is actually borrowed from Momotarō Densetsu, a 1987 Famicom RPG from Hudson set in the world of the Japanese folktale. Tennokoe was what the password system was called in the game, a similar bit of atmospheric decoration to Dragon Quest’s “incantations” but with a bit more of a Far East flair to it. As for the “2” at the end of the accessory’s name? That, according to Hudson, is because the unit contains two kilobytes of battery-backed SRAM. This is a very weird thing to name an accessory like this, but I suppose it helped the thing stand out in the shops.

    As you can see here, the Tennokoe 2 connects to the expansion port at the rear of the original PCE system. Perhaps “latches on to” is a better way of putting it, though. The thing’s huge, and heavy. The size is partly because  it doesn’t run off the PCE’s power supply — you have to load it up with two AA batteries, essentially supplying the “battery” of the battery backup yourself. A red LED on the plastic case turns on whenever the batteries are almost exhausted, and as long as you’re quick about switching in a new set, you won’t lose any data. Because the Tennokoe doesn’t have any composite video output on its rear, and because it occupies the only expansion port on the console, you can’t use it and an AV Booster simultaneously, which means you’re stuck with RF video if you wanted to save any games. (The only solution for this was to purchase a CoreGrafx or CoreGrafx II, which had separate composite outputs.)

    Still, the Tennokoe has the same amount of backup SRAM as NEC-HE’s Backup Booster and cost about half the price in shops, making it by far the most popular choice among PCE gamers. Thus, for whatever reason, Hudson’s third-party accessory beat out NEC’s first-party version in userbase, a trend that was set in stone by the time the Tennokoe Bank (a far more convenient storage device in HuCard form) shipped in 1991.

    2K doesn’t go very far if you have a large HuCard collection, and more than a few gamers purchased multiple Tennokoe’s around this time to avoid having to delete anything. The accessory’s portability and separation from the games themselves also give it an advantage of convenience, letting you take your in-progress data to a friend’s house or trade it with others. In a rather perverse way, then, the Tennokoe 2 was the game biz’s first memory card. I told you the PCE doesn’t get enough credit as an industry pioneer.

  • The Goonies (Konami, December 1985)

    Posted on April 28th, 2011 keving 3 comments

    It doesn’t seem to be all that commonly known, but the first Konami game based on The Goonies wasn’t in arcades or on the Famicom. It was released for the MSX, a couple of months before the FC cartridge (largely coinciding with the film’s theatrical release in Japan), and it’s actually a wholly different game.

    You wouldn’t know it from the graphics, perhaps, but you are controlling Sloth, the deformed Fratelli brother that winds up befriending the gang and saving their hides in the movie. There are five stages, and in each one Sloth has to rescue all seven Goonies, locked behind doors which he has to find keys for. It’s actually a pretty complex game, one with an experience-point system (fill up the gauge to regain a little vitality) and a grand total of 27 items to power-up (or power down) Sloth with.

    The stages are similarly convoluted, involving warp doors and areas that take up multiple screens vertically and horizontally. In this way, it reminds me more than a little of a sort of prototypical Castlevania. The basic idea’s pretty much the same — explore creepy stages, find hidden items, defeat enemies, that sort of thing.

    You can find the rest of the stages on YouTube as well. If you have the patience, stick around for the ending after Stage 5 is completed — it’s so charmingly 8-bit.

  • Spelunker (Irem, 12/6/85)

    Posted on April 27th, 2011 keving 4 comments

    Spelunker is infamous (in Japan, at least) for featuring the wimpiest hero in video games, a guy who cannot survive a fall of half his body length and who blithely falls right off of ropes and ladders unless you specifically order him to jump off instead. In the hands of the right TASser, however, the dude suddenly acquires Mario-like powers.

    The main trick to this updated run lies in an obscure bug involving the “drug,” the hidden bottles of red liquid that are revealed when your explorer passes through certain points in each map. Drugs double your speed for a limited time, but it turns out that if you pick up a second drug just before your current one expires, the timer will go offline and you’ll keep the speed boost for the rest of the game.

    There’s a side effect to this, however: You cannot board the left-right moving boat in the third section while in double-speed mode, effectively preventing you from going any further. The workaround involves exploiting another obscure bug: If you tap A repeatedly to climb a rope or ladder quickly, the game (for whatever reason) will not reset the Y coordinate it uses to determine whether you’ve fallen to your death or not. As a result, as long as you get the A-button timing right, you can jump off the rope and fall as far as you want as long as you don’t tumble below the starting point where you first “boarded” the rope.

    This TAS uses that bug to essentially force the explorer into the boat. In the process, he also shatters everything I thought I knew about the Spelunker. Maybe he deserves to be treated seriously as a video game hero after all…

  • Quick note

    Posted on April 27th, 2011 keving 1 comment

    For future I ♥ The PC Engine entries, I’m going to add the capsule descriptions in Kōgien to the basic info up top. They’re a bit opinion-free, but they’re still interesting and occasionally cover something I don’t get to in the actual review.

    I’ve added Kōgien descriptions to all previous PC Engine games on this site, so browse around the category a bit if you’re interested in seeing what they’re like.

  • Atlantis no Nazo (Sunsoft, 4/17/86)

    Posted on April 26th, 2011 keving 1 comment

    A full TAS run of the mid-’80s Famicom platform game, one that has a remarkably detailed English Wikipedia page. It’s so detailed, in fact, that I’d like to meet the guy who decided that translating all the info on the Japanese wiki-page would make for a fun afternoon. I have the impression that he (let’s just assume he’s a gentleman) and I would have a lot in common.

    Atlantis no Nazo is a famous game in Japan for a number of reasons — it’s incredibly hard; your hero controls very wonkily and his weapon is extremely difficult to control; there are warps that’re found only by deliberately committing suicide; a couple of stages flash constantly; there’s a “Black Hole!” stage that is an immediate Game Over if you are unfortunate enough to visit it; and so on. Activision contemplated releasing the game for the NES (under the title Super Pitfall II) seriously enough to create a full-on preview version that even included a few upgrades, but the game was really just too old hat for the US audience by 1989.

    A “full” or “warpless” run of Atlantis no Nazo, as defined by the creator of this TAS, follows two rules:

    – Do not take any doors that are not in plain sight (except for the door between 99th Stage and 100th Stage)
    – Do not take any doors that bring your intrepid hero five or more stages ahead of where he previously was

    Beating the game this way is pretty much impossible for a human being. I tried it back in the day (i.e. 1998), and I couldn’t no matter how much I tried. It’s not a title for weak sisters, or really for anyone besides hyperactive Japanese children, assuming it was still 1986. But nonetheless there’s a certain charm to this title, perhaps because of the hero’s proud, exaggerated marching gait.

    Note that pausing and unpausing the game right after finishing the stage cuts down the length of the little inter-level display, hence the odd sound after going through a doog.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Maison Ikkoku

    Posted on April 25th, 2011 keving 5 comments

    Maison Ikkoku

    Maker: Micro Cabin
    Release Date: 8/4/89
    Price: 5900 yen
    Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Adventure
    PC Engine FAN Score: 17.69 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “The player becomes Godai as he tries to find what Kyoko is looking for. An adventure game that pits you against the eccentric residents of the run-down Ikkokukan apartment house. As a game, it’s less of a puzzle-solving adventure and more one where you are immersed in the drama as one of the characters.

    Maison Ikkoku is Japan’s version of Three’s Company. No, really, this makes sense. Stay with me on this.

    The original Ikkoku is a manga by Rumiko Takahashi that ran in Big Comic Spirits from 1980 to 1987. If you haven’t read it (shame on you), it stars Godai, an eternally broke student, as he lives an incredibly sitcom-like situation at a ramshackle boarding house straight out of the 1960s. His comic foils: an alcoholic single mother, a bar hostess who wanders around the house in lingerie all day, a creepy middle-aged man who would have been on the sex offenders’ list if such a thing existed in the early 1980s…and Kyoko, the superintendent and a total babe despite already having married and lost one husband.

    The series (which has sold over 25 million volumes worldwide) grew into a sort of romantic comedy of errors over the years, with Godai and Kyoko developing a thing for each other that falls victim to a neverending cavalcade of misunderstandings and rival lovers. Before that love subplot kicks into high gear, though, the manga is nearly all about Godai’s hapless luck, his constant poverty, and the madness set off by his neighbors down the hall. So, really, Three’s Company, with  Kyoko’s domineering parents dual-playing the part of Don Knotts. Simple.


    Micro Cabin, the maker of this title, has something of an odd history in the adventure genre. When Sierra released Mystery House (one of the first graphical adventures) in 1980, the Mie prefecture-based developer countered with its own game for Japanese PCs, also called Mystery House, that also featured a mansion explorer trying to find a cache of diamonds. This sort of ripoff activity was pretty rife in the early history of Japanese video games (one of Nintendo’s first CPU-based arcade game was a Space Invaders clone), and while Sierra didn’t like it very much, they had little legal recourse given Japan’s laws at the time. (Sierra’s Mystery House would finally get an official port to Japanese computers in 1984.)

    Micro Cabin made two Maison Ikkoku adventures, the first of which was originally made for the PC-8801 and later ported to the 9801, X1, MSX, Famicom, and finally PC Engine. In a way, though, the game’s more like Mystery House than anything else. There’s not much of a plot (Godai learns from the rumor mill that Kyoko is hiding some kind of secret from the tenants of Ikkokukan, and he tries to find out what it is) and the gameplay mostly involves wandering aimlessly around the apartment house and surrounding neighborhood in search of stuff to do. After some experimentation, you’ll figure out that the plot advances whenever you sit down and have a conversation with Kyoko, but with all of the interference from the other tenants, getting that audience is a lot harder than simply knocking on the door.

    Maison Ikkoku, despite the standard Japanese menu-based adventure interface, is not a very orthodox adventure. There’s no stepwise walkthrough you can rely on to always take you to the ending — instead, the game’s about collecting items and keeping the NPCs happy and out of your way. Each tenant has an undisplayed “mood” statistic that changes their behavior, and at times you’ll need to give them things they like (such as instant ramen or sake) for them to get out of your way. This requires money, which Godai never has enough of, so figuring out how to score some extra yen is the game’s other main “puzzle,” if you want to call it that.

    The result is really just frustrating. You get the idea that Micro Cabin wanted to recreate the charm of the manga, letting you step into the story and enjoy the atmosphere, but instead it feels like you’re in this sort of cruel purgatory where you’re constantly harangued by strangers and forced to repeat previous actions multiple times to get anywhere. All this for what must be one of the most non-ending endings in the history of anime licenses.

    If I paid full price for this back in the day, I’d be angry — and yet, if some enterprising 8-bit software developer had tried making a Three’s Company adventure like this, I’m sure I’d lap it up at once. Funny how that works.

  • While I’m working…

    Posted on April 19th, 2011 keving 1 comment

    …why don’t you go play some L’Abbaye des Morts?

    I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware of this little game until today. It was a very good use of about an hour or so, taking all the things that make 25-year-old ZX Spectrum platformers and making it smooth and modern enough for modern gamers to “get,” at least a little. The music, composed on a fantasy version of the PC speaker that features volume control, fits perfectly as well.

    There’s a bit of genius to the concept, too — take the standard Spectrum look, which lends itself to starkly-colored sprites hopping around on top of dark, muted backgrounds, and craft a platformer with a stark and dark, theme to match. It’s memorable.

  • Argh

    Posted on April 14th, 2011 keving 2 comments

    Sometime soon I won’t be so astoundingly busy, but until then, why not take a trip across the imaginary pipes with me?

  • The loons who developed arcade electromechanical games

    Posted on April 7th, 2011 keving 7 comments

    Hisashi Suzuki was the director of Sega-AM2 (Yu Suzuki was the head of development; Hisashi was the business dude) for much of its existence before retiring in 2004. Before that, though, he spent a couple decades making arcade electromechanical games for Sega through the 1960s and 70s — in fact, he was one of Sega’s first employees, as he explained in an interview published in Famitsu magazine’s Sega Arcade History (2001):

    It was a long time ago; it was 1962. That was before Akira Nagai [managing director of Sega in 2001] joined the company, even. Sega wasn’t Sega at that time; Nagai was the accounting department for Nihon Goraku Bussan, while I had joined Nihon Kikai Seizou, the company that eventually became Sega.

    Why did Suzuki join Sega?

    Really, it was just because they gave me a lot of off days. At the time we were looking for work, pretty much the only companies that had a five-day workweek as a rule were those funded by foreign outfits. Sega had that, and the third Friday of every month was an off day, too; it was just an unthinkable amount of holidays. The company’s work schedule had just changed when I joined in, so everybody left work at 6 pm, and people would get angry at you if you stuck around after that. There was a strict boundary between work and non-work, playaround time and so forth. On the other hand they were extremely serious about being at work on time, even if the trains were all shut down for a strike or whatever. Our salary was cut for whatever amount of time we were late. Since it was a foreign-owned firm, all of the top positions were held by foreigners and all of the internal documents and so forth were written in English. Everything was signed off with signatures instead of hanko, and that didn’t change until Sega joined the CSK family in 1984.

    When I joined Nihon Kikai Seizou, I was working on slot machines and jukeboxes. I designed a lot of slot machines. Japan was not exporting a lot of things at that time yet, so we built a name for ourselves as an exporter back then. After that, we went into the amusement market — starting out, we just purchased used machines from the US and either repaired them or took them apart so we could make copies. Eventually the internals went from relays to transistors and ICs, which then led to Pong, but before then it was all electromechanical machines. It was really fun, that era. There were racing games back then as well, but this was back before there were monitors or anything, so you took a model of a car and projected its shadow on a screen. There were no sound chips, either, so we loaded in an amp, stretched out a spring, and hit with a coil, which would create an explosion sound effect. Every machine we manufactured would sound slightly different.

    How were these things developed, anyway?

    There were development rooms for electromechanical games as well, but the hard part about these games were taking an idea and actually implementing it. With video games, very generally speaking, you can do anything as long as you have the program for it. With electromechanical games, you have to come up with the entire structure. There were lots of things to think about, from efficiency and cost and function to ease of repair. Design and development were two different jobs back then. Development would come up with a concept; they’d just present an idea for the entire function of a machine, and then design would implement it.

    Generally, a software developer becomes a seasoned employee in about three years’ time. Experience is a lot more important with hardware, so that takes five or six years. For electromechanical, that was more like 10 years. Younger people would come up with these bold concepts that would wind up becoming unreliable, breakdown-prone machines. How many millimeters thick should the cabinet’s outer layer be? You’ll never know unless you get experience. If you decide to just make it thick, then the entire machine will weigh far too much. Too thin, and it won’t be durable enough. Even with tabletop machines, you need to know how wide the doors are in an average arcade or else you won’t know how large the machine should be.

    It was a lot of fun, making these machines, but implementing ideas was extremely difficult, and you couldn’t afford to make anything that broke down too easily. With arcade games today, the only things that break are monitors or motherboards, and that’s really not all that often, but Sega needed an army of servicemen to take care of the electromechanical machines. We had to make sure to place all the intricate and delicate parts right nearby the small service door so they wouldn’t have so much work to get the thing apart.

  • Working…

    Posted on April 5th, 2011 keving 1 comment

    Still alive! Hang on!