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  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Break In

    Posted on May 5th, 2011 keving 6 comments

    Break In
    (ブレイク・イン)

    Maker: Naxat Soft
    Release Date: 8/10/89
    Price: 5500 yen
    Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Sports
    PC Engine FAN Score: 19.34 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “A total of six billiards games are available for play. Each one is playable in action, simulation and techique modes, letting you enjoy the experience from practice to actual play.”


    When I think of pool, chiefly I think about being drunk in exciting, exotic locales. The last time I played pool was at a bar in lovely Breckenridge, Colorado, where I got involved in a game with an Englishman and an Irishman who spent the entire time whining that billiards is for addled baboons and snooker was a far superior table sport. My technique was the best out of all of us, no doubt thanks to my advantage in age and erudite dual-wield skills with a pint. These are abilities I lacked the time I played pool previous, Austin circa 2004, on an Acclaim press junket about four months before they filed for bankruptcy. It was on Fifth Street somewhere and — wahey, kind of like Break In — it wasn’t pretty.

    (My paragraphs, they always wrap themselves up like a neat little package in the end. That’s the Magweasel difference.)

    Billiards sims have never been common. It’s understandable. Until Jimmy White’s ‘Whirlwind’ Snooker in 1991, they all looked exactly the same — straight overhead view of the table, a bunch of little balls, nothing to stimulate you visually. They were all realtime geometry homework. After Jimmy White…well, it was the same thing, except in 3D. I never quite understood it, but in Europe, at least, they go crazy for it.

    There was sort of an audience for Break In in 1989, though, enough that Famicom Tsushin actually scored the game 30 out of 40 points (at a time when this still meant something). But to modern eyes, we may as well be playing Trick Shot on the 2600. There’s no story mode, nothing to liven up the action; just a lot of little balls on the screen. (There is a 3D targeting display on the bottom, but it’s tiny and of limited use.) The audiovisual atmosphere is there, from the sepia-toned competitor portraits — most wearing the all-important white shirt and vest that apparently identifies you as a cool billiards guy — to the lounge music that tends to permeate this genre of game.

    This is one of the few pool games to include a carom game — yotsudama, a Japanese varient on 4-ball pictured on the left above — but you really don’t care, trust me.

    Break In would be a very obscure release were it not for its worldwide Virtual Console relaunch in 2008 as part of the Kaga Create package. It tended to score very poorly, although judging by IGN’s review (which whines about how there’s no way to determine the numbers on each ball, a feature you activate by pressing the Select button), very few outlets cared enough about virtual billiards to give the game much of a chance. And neither would I. Pool is something to play with strangers, on vacation, drinking beer. Everyone knows that.

  • More on Tokuma’s Mario Guide

    Posted on May 4th, 2011 keving 6 comments

    Back on Monday I talked a bit about Tokuma Shoten’s Super Mario Bros. strategy guide, the one that sold 630,000 copies in 1985 (1.3 million overall, in the end) and became the bestselling book in Japan for two years straight. What I failed to mention — because I completely forgot — is that you can read the guide today even if you don’t know Japanese, because Nintendo of America translated it verbatim into English and sold it via the Fun Club News and early issues of Nintendo Power under the name How to win at Super Mario Bros. (This book was never sold outside of mail order and is now extremely uncommon, but .cbz scans are available on the net thanks to Retromags.)

    The book was entirely written and designed in house by the editors of Tokuma’s Family Computer Magazine in Japan. The first half of the book was largely recycled from coverage originally printed in the November 1985 issue of the mag, while the writing and screenshot-snapping for World 5-1 through 8-4 was handled by Naoto Yamamoto, who was a part-time writer that mostly worked for Technopolis, Tokuma’s computer hobby mag, at the time.

    Here’s a word or two on the ’80s Japan game-mag scene from Yamamoto, courtesy of his weblog:

    “We had planned to launch the guide in Japan with a run of 130,000 copies, but we already had plans for subsequent printings before the book was even released. Tokuma Shoten at the time held itself up to a very refined and literary image as a publisher, so it often divided up publication into several divided releases so it could produce a large number of printings and claim that as a status symbol for the book.

    Famimaga continued on with strategy guides for Pac-Land, Mach Rider, Twinbee and Spelunker, but there was no such thing as a specialist strategy guide writer at this point. They would get written by production outfits that dealt in children’s magazines, or by part-timers hired by those outfits if they had no previous game experience. I moved on to Pac-Land right from Super Mario, and I remember that the sample ROM Namco gave me to work with had a completely faceless Pac-Man in the game. They told me it was in order to keep the ROM from leaking out somewhere in the middleman process, but of course I couldn’t take any screenshots off of that thing. I wound up having my bosses go through these tense negotiations with Namco in order to get me a usable ROM, and ultimately the schedule got so tight that I had to spent four straight nights staying in the office.”

    If you think spending four straight days playing the FC version of Pac-Land sounds like fun, think again.

    “I wound up passing out in the office, I guess because of all the fatigue that had accumulated since that summer, and I was taken to the hospital by ambulance. The hospital was really close by, to the point that the rest of the editorial staff arrived before I did, which became a funny story at parties afterward. I received some gifts and new clothes and such, and ultimately I rested up for about four days. Thus, the release date got delayed. Afterwards — and not that I was the reason for it or anything — but subsequent guides were written by outside production firms. They still had me running around for them with the Twinbee guide, though, since they had trouble finding anyone to play through the game’s ‘second quest’ and they needed screenshots.”

    How much money did Yamamoto earn for co-writing the most successful book in Japan for two years running?

    “The Mario guide was done entirely in-house, so I received no royalties for it outside of my hourly salary. My writing fee, in other words, was zero. Outside of physical production, [Tokuma] spent zero yen making the guide and sold such a vast number of copies of it. I did receive royalties for the English version, though, which arrived in my bank account a long time later — a grand total of 5,555 yen [about $37 in 1987 dollars].”

     

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Power League II

    Posted on May 3rd, 2011 keving No comments

    Power League II
    (パワーリーグⅡ)

    Maker: Hudson
    Release Date: 8/8/89
    Price: 5200 yen
    Media: HuCard (3 Mbit)
    Genre: Sports
    PC Engine FAN Score: 22.76 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “The popular previous game receives updated data and several new modes: an all-star game and a home run contest. The graphics have been extensively reworked and are much prettier.


    The first Power League, released a year and two months before this sequel, was a decent but fairly flawed attempt at presenting a realistic baseball package compared to Namco’s World Stadium. Power League II is a far more complete package, essentially ensuring the brand’s role as the PC Engine’s longest-lasting game series. (Bomberman didn’t come out for another year after this.)


    Released simultaneously with Hudson’s Tennokoe 2 “memory card,” Power League II pretty much defined how Hudson’s PCE baseball games would look for the next five years. The field, displayed in an awkward direct-overhead view originally, is now shown in the standard quarter-view that was used by nearly every other 8- and 16-bit baseball sim. That’s very much to the game’s advantage — the graphics look far more realistic now, with the view making it easier for Hudson’s artists to place more detail into the players and the Hu Stadium they’re playing in.

    The biggest graphical enhancement, though, lies in the home run sequence. The game decides right when you make contact with the ball whether it’s going to be a homer or not, and as you can see in the bottom of the 2nd in the video below, the view follows the ascent of the ball from behind the plate, which was a pretty impressive trick in 1989. The best part about it: as the ball flies upward, the ground below falls out of view in realistic 3D perspective, an effect that’s extremely impressive in the subtle realism it gives the whole sequence. It’s a bit of tiny detail that must’ve been a pain in the ass for whoever programmed it at Hudson, and I love it.

    There is indeed an all-star game mode, not that it matters all that much at this point since Hudson wouldn’t get the license to use actual Japan Professional Baseball League players until Power League 5 in 1992. The home-run derby is also pretty bare-bones, featuring the player of your choice taking BP for anywhere between 10 and 100 pitches. The Tennokoe support allows you to save your team’s progress in Pennant mode, which culminates in a Japan-US championship game that’s featured below.

    In a way you could call Power League II the zenith of the series, simply because none of the four subsequent titles changed the basic visual package or gameplay much at all beyond what we see here. It’s a shame that NEC based the TurboGrafx-16’s World Class Baseball off the first Power League and not this one, because I’ve half a mind to say this is better than anything that was on the NES as of 1989. That, and I like the “runners in scoring position” jingle a fair bit.

  • Mario Mania I (1985-6)

    Posted on May 2nd, 2011 keving 3 comments

    How popular did Nintendo’s Family Computer become after Super Mario Bros. was released on September 13, 1985? So popular that, as it turns out, a third-party Super Mario Bros. strategy guidebook was the top selling non-manga book in Japan for the entire year of 1985. And 1986.

    Super Mario Bros.: The Complete Strategy Guide (スーパーマリオブラザーズ完全攻略本) was produced by the editors of Tokuma Shoten’s Family Computer Magazine, the highest-circ game mag in Japan until Famitsu hit it big in the late 1980s. Simultaneous day-and-date guide releases alongside games didn’t really happen until later, so this book didn’t hit shops until October 31 — and still it managed to sell 630,000 copies before the end of the year. What’s more, the 10th best-selling book of 1985 in Japan was another SMB strategy guide — Futami Shobo’s Super Mario Bros. Secret Tricks Collection (スーパーマリオブラザーズ裏ワザ大全集), shown below.

    (In what was perhaps a sign of the times, the book that Tokuma’s Mario guide beat out to be #1 in 1985 was the Japanese translation of Iacocca: An Autobiography.)

    Mario Mania didn’t truly take hold in Japan until 1986, though. In that year, Tokuma’s guide was again the top-selling book in the nation, with Futami’s getting bumped up to third place. What’s more, those two books were joined by five other guides in the top 25 — strategies for Twinbee, The Goonies, Spelunker, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken. In 1986, you could sell anything Famicom-related and rake in massive profits, basically — and then it happened all over again in America two years later. I knew I was born too late.

    Sadly, the guidebook boom faltered in subsequent years as competition increased. From 1987 onward, the only strategy guides that made Japanese bestseller lists were Enix’s official guides for whatever Dragon Quest title they most recently released.