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  • Masayuki Uemura and the Family Computer project

    Posted on April 30th, 2013 keving 4 comments
    Picture stolen from Weekly Playboy (Eigo Shimojo)

    Picture stolen from Weekly Playboy (Eigo Shimojo)

    I mentioned in Episode 1 of FUN that Masayuki Uemura, chief hardware designer for many of Nintendo’s consoles, did an interview with Weekly Playboy magazine in Japan last week to commemorate the Famicom’s 30th anniversary. (I said that the Famicom came out 1982 in the podcast; it was actually July of 1983.)

    As Uemura explains in the interview, he began work on the console that became the Famicom in 1981, not long after Donkey Kong hit arcades:

    “I was in the arcade-game development department, and the president at the time [Hiroshi Yamauchi] sent us a missive to ‘make something that’ll let you play arcade games on your home TV’. I, personally, really didn’t have any prospects of success.”

    Why not?

    “The Game & Watch series was flying off the shelves at the time, so I figured Game & Watch was where our company was going to go for a while to come. Just the fact you could carry those around and play whenever you wanted, I thought that was huge. What’s more, they were taking more and more people away from my department to work on Game & Watch, so my team only had three people in it. So we were given this mission when it was already like we were fighting a losing battle. I still have my notes from the early stages of the project, but it’s filled with all of this pessimistic stuff, like ‘I don’t see any future in this’.”

    Read the rest of this entry »

  • FUN Ep. 1: The playlist

    Posted on April 29th, 2013 keving 8 comments

    fun01

    Thanks to everyone who listened to FUN Episode 1! If you haven’t yet, you’re missing out on something I’m sure is very important!

    Here’s an RSS feed. iTunes feed is submitted and hopefully it’ll go up sometime soon.

    As promised I am going to outline the playlist below, along with some commentary. In the future I’ll just release it alongside the actual podcast, but I ran out of time over the weekend. How many did you guess right?

    Read the rest of this entry »

  • Podcast: FUN Episode 1 — Hypertension

    Posted on April 27th, 2013 keving 6 comments

    “No more fun and games of the mind; let’s get busy one more time” –Samantha Fox

    fun01

    FUN - Episode 1 - Hypertension

    Click above to listen/download!

    Welcome to FUN with Kevin Gifford and His Pretend Pals, a limited-time podcast run by me. I play lots of old game/demo/computer-generated music running the entire history of the genre. Throughout the show, I also cut in (about once every 15 minutes) with commentary about the game industry, favorite artists, and exactly what I think about E3 and where I’d like to see it shuffle off to.

    Features include:

    • An intro
    • A regular featured look at an artist I particularly like (this week: Steve Rowlands)
    • The Thursday Night Mystery News featuring everything that really matters in the game/ferrets industry
    • Music generated by SIDs, AY-9-3-8912s, Yamaha YM2151s, Amigas, and much more
    • A bit where I talk over music in humorous fashion
    • The wistful farewell song

    This is a free podcast and by all means let everyone know about it, because FUN is best when it’s shared, right?

    A full annotated tracklist will be released in a couple of days. See how many tunes you recognize until then! Lemme know which ones you like!

  • Getting the most out of your new Famicom Titler

    Posted on April 26th, 2013 keving 2 comments

    Someone on the Something Awful Forums’ retro thread finally followed through on his threat to get a Famicom Titler, a device that a lot of collectors have heard of but few have seen in action. (I got to play with one once but it was years ago.)

    Released by Sharp in 1989 (the third hardware device released by them under Nintendo license after the Twin Famicom and the C1 TV-and-FC-in-one), the Titler is a 43,000 yen monster that, in addition to being an FC, lets you edit home video and add assorted computer-generated audio and visual effects to them. There was a small boom in these sorts of amateur-oriented titling devices  in 1980s Japan, mainly targeted to parents with camcorders who loved videotaping every major moment of their child’s life. (These people were everywhere. It’s no accident that America’s Funniest Videos was a concept originally licensed from Japanese TV. And speaking of which, did you know that the US-based stereotype of the Japanese tourist snapping pictures of everything he sees dates back to at least the 1930s?)

    Along those lines, it’s got S-Video and composite audio/video inputs and outputs like a regular TV, as well as a full set of editing software when you select “Edit” with an on-console switch and turn the power on. The built-in software lets you do things like add scrolling messages to home videos, put in still graphic images (there’s a whole line of built-in themed images, ranging from “A day at the beach” to “Our child’s graduation” to “Tanabata“), or add voice-over narration. The user enters the content of message scrolls via the stylus and very tiny touch pad on the console itself; voice-overs are handled using the microphone on controller 2. Flipping the “superimpose” switch on the console puts your finished titling work on the video image. If you want, you can also play an FC game and superimpose that over the video too; the Titler displays your home videos wherever the FC is generating the color black.

    Perhaps more interesting to collectors is the fact that the Famicom Titler is the only official Famicom console to have native S-Video output. To accomplish this, Sharp developed the RC2C05-99 chip, a version of the RP2C02 PPU used in the FC upgraded to provide RGB output. This RGB output is converted into composite or S-Video for output from the console. Getting the system to output straight RGB is a fairly straightforward modification, and some hardware hackers have even salvaged the Famicom Titler PPU in order to install it into regular FCs for convenience’s sake. (Due to this new PPU, a small handful of games (like Just Breed and Paperboy) are incompatible with the Titler, and a few others, like Bubble Bobble, have graphical glitches with their color palettes.)

    The Titler’s existence was never greatly advertised, especially considering it came out just before the Super Famicom in Japan. Sharp offered brand-new systems in their catalogs until at least 1995, however, and a warehouse find circa 2000 led to a fairly large number of systems making their way to collectors over there as well. The prices have been edging up lately, though, and a complete-in-box sample went for 165,000 yen across 42 bids on Yahoo! Auctions Japan in January of this year, a price that even most Japanese collectors thought was way out of hand.

    The above video is a small demonstration of what the Titler can do, including goofy still images, scrolly messages, and superimposing FC games on top of other video imagery. The original video is of After Burner for the SMS for…reasons.

     

  • Japanese developers who care about looking tasteful in public

    Posted on April 24th, 2013 keving 1 comment

    nagosi
    Toshiyuki Takahashi posted on his blog yesterday about his appearance on SegaNama, a Nicovideo live stream hosted by Sega now and again. That’s him on the right, with Sega chief creative officer Toshihiro Nagoshi in the center.

    The photo reminded me of the fact that Nagoshi — the chief creative mind behind the Yakuza series, and a man who frequently shows up in the Japan gaming press to represent his company and comment on issues — has gradually gone more and more…um, what’s the word? Concerned about his personal appearance. He bucks the trend of nerdy Japanese game developers posing awkwardly in Famitsu interviews and actually spends a bit of cash on things like clothes and hairstyling. Here’s what he looked like in 1996, back when he was chiefly known for producing Daytona USA:

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  • Doing Genpei Toumaden the score-thrifty way

    Posted on April 24th, 2013 keving No comments

    I figured out how to embed Nicovideo files into this site again! It’s a world-class party for all of us!

    Genpei Toumaden is one of the most artistic games of the ’80s, one that still resonates with a lot of gamers over there. Impenetrably Japanese in a good way (as opposed to the possession-of-underage-material kind of way), it covers the exploits of the reincarnated Taira-no-Kagekiyo as he tries to recover the three sacred treasures of Japan and defeat his historical nemeses — Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune (the laughy guy who jumps around and throws knives), Benkei (the huge guy), and Minamoto-no-Yoritomo (the last boss).

    It’s trivial to get a high score in Genpei, since the game’s packed with little bugs and exploits you can use to play forever and vex the arcade operator. Instead, some gamers have gone on a quest to finish the game with the lowest score possible, an effort that’s been going on for a couple decades now. (These efforts are further inspired by the fact that a lot of things you’d expect to award you points don’t, such as taking energy-recovery candles and defeating Yoritomo.)

    The human record is more-or-less 8200 points, which has been refined to the point where the ReplayBurners video posted a couple weeks back includes a table of every point in the game where Kagekiyo has the terrible misfortune of scoring some points. With the power of tools, however, the TASser above has brought that down to 5800 points — scoring points only for nabbing the three required treasures, defeating Benkei three times, and slashing a frog. (He claims that he’ll try getting rid of the frog later, but ran into desyncing problems midway this time around.)

    Along the way, he dodges every other major enemy in the game, gets within one candlewick’s length of dying multiple times, and generally makes the numerous denizens of Japanese mythology look like idiots.

    Even if you don’t get what’s going on, you gotta love the music, penned by the incredibly prolific Norio Nakagata.

  • Writing about games, not making money

    Posted on April 18th, 2013 keving 6 comments

    MsbVteA

    I thought I’d talk about a bit about “Ad-blockers, the games press, and why sexy cosplay galleries lead to better reporting,” an article posted on the Penny Arcade Report site a day ago. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you do, because it neatly encapsulates the existential crisis facing “game media”, which now more than ever probably deserves to be put into scare quotes. (Tl;dr: The only way good writing about games will be supported in the future is if all sites turn into Bleacher Report, and also pleeeeease stop adblocking us.)

    When I got out of college, I joined GamePro. I was hired to work on their website, but that’s not why I applied; I wanted to work on a print magazine, because in my mind that was prestigious. I was a 12-year-old subscriber to Nintendo Power and I grew up envious of the people who produced these mags. They seemed like the ultimate in “cool big brothers”; just sitting around an office, playing Super Famicom games, and typing their reviews into fancy Wang word processors like what I saw on L.A. Law. (I later learned that this image in my mind was essentially true, and the only reason I wasn’t one of them was that I was born too late and didn’t know the right people.)

    Even in 2002 when I got my GamePro job, game media consumers didn’t really idolize game media producers the way I did growing up. GamePro still acted like they did, with the personas and the “one united voice” editorial approach they took, but it was flying in the face of reality. Gamers were getting older, and really quickly too, and they where intelligent enough to realize that the guy on the other end of that review of Whiplash or Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles or whatever may not have known what the hell he was talking about half the time. If I wrote a preview about something like Age of Empires for GamePro off of PR material, a game in a genre I knew nothing of and cared even less about, it was guaranteed that the potential audience for this preview would know more about the game than I did. They had every right to regard paying for that sort of content as silly.

    That sort of traditional “previews/reviews/features” approach to both running a magazine and keeping a game-media website going is outdated. Gamers no longer go to IGN or whomever first to find out more about a new video game; they go on Google and from there they move on to forums or YouTube. Publishers are aware of this, and they aren’t afraid to remind media outlets about it whenever something comes up they disagree with or it’s time to discuss ad rates. And we’re now at the point where, as the PAR article points out, the sort of readers you think would appreciate good game media the most — intelligent, technically capable adults — are the exact audience most likely to use ad blockers. Every time the topic comes up, whether on PAR or Destructoid or elsewhere, commenters bring up their pet peeves about popups and interstitials and IGN’s still-fondly-remembered 2003 McGriddles re-skin by the dozen. It’d be a lot easier if we all ran just ran coupon affiliate sites or something.

    The parallels to the music/TV/game publishing industries are obvious. We have a commodity that used to be seen as worth paying $3.95 a month or $20 a year for, and we thought the people behind them were geniuses. Now, in the era of Big Data, we expect everything at once and we balk at paying any more than our ISP bill for it. Like with music, lots of people want to write about games, but nobody wants to pay more than a pittance for it, and even then only on very rare occasions and with a lot of prodding and whining on the part of the producer. (Part of the reason iOS gaming still doesn’t get a lot of respect, after all, is that charging more than $2 upfront unless you’re Square Enix all but guarantees instant obscurity.)

    Except for the news articles I write sometimes for Polygon, all my work these days is for professional translation companies and agencies. I’m glad for that, even if working freelance presents its own stresses now and then. After years of hard work, tight deadlines, and a general sense of “why am I doing this”, I’m in no hurry to get back to game media. And even if I were, the jobs I’d be qualified for seem to be more PR-y, pageview-driven, and originality-draining than they ever were when I worked at Ziff Davis et al. One thing I’ll say about all of the bosses in game media I ever had is that they never pressured me to write brainless articles to drum up pageviews. I’d feel horrible doing that today. (Fair disclosure: For GamePro I did put together one or two booth-babe galleries for E3 2002 and ’03. Apologies to Ms. Alexander.)

    Ben Kuchera is optimistic that a happy balance will be found sooner or later. I’m not. I don’t think there’s an answer to the question of “How do we fix game media”. You might as well ask “How can I make the Internet do what I want it to do,” and no government’s been entirely successful at that, much less any media publisher. I think you’ll see fewer game media sites overall and more Cracked.com-style “top 20 pairs of tits” articles going many years into the future. Of course, you’ll find more “boutique” sites that do neat things with games writing and find creative ways to stay in business doing it…and you’ll also find the editors of said sites taking side jobs in order to make ends meet. Ain’t being a creative type in the digital generation grand?

  • Earthbound finally coming to Wii U Virtual Console

    Posted on April 17th, 2013 keving No comments

    Happy “now we can all play EarthBound cheaply and legally” day! I doubt this will do much to lower the price of complete-in-box examples of the game — collectors are always going to be loons that way — but the days of your beat-up loose cartridge with the ripped label fetching you $120 will hopefully be over for a few years, at least.

    To celebrate, here’s a TAS from a couple iterations ago. This is no longer the fastest, but I find it the most entertaining in terms of the rather surprising turn it takes just before input ends.

    Note: Of course, don’t watch this if you care about having the ending spoiled to you. Mother fans are anal that way.

  • Let’s talk about Popeye’s contribution to video-game history

    Posted on April 17th, 2013 keving 3 comments

    Here’s the first Popeye video game ever made — the Game & Watch one, which Nintendo officially released in August of 1981. This was five months after the arcade release of Donkey Kong and about half a year before Donkey Kong Jr.

    It’s fairly well known at this point that Donkey Kong got its start because Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi had to come up with a new game to replace the slow-selling Radar Scope. What’s lesser-known is that this replacement game was originally meant to star characters from the Popeye cartoons, a license that Nintendo had retained for a number of years by that point. What’s even lesser-known than that is that the Popeye world — in particular, the 1934 short “A Dream Walking” — was the direct inspiration for the entire game.

    Here’s Yokoi talking about it, as quoted in the book Game no chichi – Yokoi Gunpei Den, a biography published in 2007:

    “There was this Popeye cartoon where Olive was sleepwalking or something, and she was walking through a construction site. Whenever it looked like she was just about to step off her foothold, there’d be this other platform that would show up just in time. That scene really impressed me. I figured we could do a lot with a construction site, so that’s where we took Popeye. Once we decided to have a construction site be the game background, Miyamoto suggested that we have the player dodge barrels rolling down from up above. At that point in time, the ladders were there to just allow you to dodge the rolling barrels; once they passed by, you’d climb back down and then the platform you were on would start climbing again. It was a pretty simple idea at first.

    You had Popeye on the bottom left, then Bluto and Olive up top. The question was how to get players to realize that they were supposed to get Popeye climbing upward. We first figured that if it looked like Olive was kidnapped, the player would naturally bring Popeye closer to her. Still, Miyamoto gave a lot of thought to players who still wouldn’t quite realize this what to do. Ultimately he decided that while you were jumping over barrels coming at you from above, you’d also have fire coming at you from behind, chasing you. You’d be forced to climb upward no matter what. Thus, the screen setup itself provided a sort of how-to-play description for the player.”

    That book says Nintendo had to scrap Popeye — and Miyamoto then had to invent Jumpman, Pauline and DK — because they couldn’t get clearance in time from King Features Syndicate. I could have sworn I read somewhere that Nintendo themselves made the decision because the arcade board didn’t have high enough resolution to realistically portray Popeye’s likeness in sprite form. This is backed up by the fact that the 1982 Popeye arcade game features very high-res sprites for the time. I have no way of backing up this statement, though, since I probably read it 15 years ago and it was in some doujin publication that I can’t remember the name of any longer. Oh well. Sounds plausible, at least.

    (Miyamoto himself talks about this a little in the Iwata Asks for New Super Mario Bros. Wii, too.)

     

  • Chimera Beast (Jaleco, 1993)

    Posted on April 15th, 2013 keving 2 comments

    Chimera Beast is a very obscure shooter, and not just because it’s a ’90s arcade game released by Jaleco. It’s even more obscure than that, and that’s probably why the fact that it’s currently available for play at the Mikado arcade in the Takadanobaba section of Tokyo is actual news to some people.

    As the opening demo explains, you are an “Eater,” a grotesque alien creature who can either shoot down enemies or consume them in order to power up its body. Different foes transform your guy’s shape in different ways, giving him a selection of fire patterns and charged attacks. (Consuming an enemy also recovers a little energy.)

    It seems like a forgettable shooter, given the relatively large size of your ship and the general blandness that generally pervades Jaleco products from the early ’90s. However, it actually demands a lot of precision. Bullets fly all over the place in later stages, but both your tail and the mandible-like thing you can shoot by pressing the “consume” button cancels enemy shots, so you have to strike a balance between careful positioning and delicate maneuvering in order to keep your life consumption as low as possible.

    That’s probably why it never got released in Japan, where it was shown off at the AOU show in 1993 and subsequently disappeared despite being 100% complete. Japanese sources claim it was released overseas, but MAME lists it as “prototype” and I certainly never saw it in the Philadelphia-area arcades of 1993. (Or any other Jaleco title, either. They  may have never had a distributor for the region, because I honestly can’t think of one I played before MAME came along. It was news to me that Astyanax was originally an arcade title.)

    chimera beast

     

    Normally something like an old arcade board from an obscure shooter showing up at a Tokyo arcade wouldn’t be news. But the debut has been accompanied by the launch of a mystery Twitter account, @chimerabeast, that’s apparently manned by one of the developers. He’s been uploading pages from the original design document and fielding questions from the general public, some of which are maniacs and/or masochists when it comes to playing this game down to the roots.

    Have a poke around if you’re interested in more detail after watching the video above, which gets the “good ending” (although it requires a few minutes’ worth of boring procedure before defeating the last boss in order to get it).