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  • Smooth “Selling” (get it?!!)

    Posted on May 17th, 2010 keving 3 comments

    Magweasel is now a year old, and I must admit to forgetting one of the main reasons why I launched it in the first place — to build a showcase for the office cabinet full of old E3/CES promotional material I have. While the great majority of the collection isn’t half as exciting as AMAZING SETA HELPS RETAILERS Volume 1, much of it is so old that it’s beginning to ignite twinges of — dare I say it? — nostalgia for the ’90s whenever I go diving through the files. Case in point: this fold-out flyer from the 1995 Winter CES shilling Ocean’s Waterworld.

    As a high-schooler in 1995, my impression of Kevin Costner was that he was a self-centered, egotistical washout who liked to produce meandering snorefests starring himself. That period of his career was short-lived, honestly, but if you were unfortunate enough to grow up in the midst of it, that’s likely still the gut feeling you’ve got about the man. It’s perhaps a bit unfair, because Waterworld — despite being a  US box-office flop and certifiably a terrible movie — was a big hit overseas and wound up becoming very profitable for Universal, which still has special-effects stage shows modeled after the film running in three of their theme parks.

    You can see why a company like Ocean would be excited about nabbing the game license. This was a company that practically built itself off big-ticket game licenses in Europe, among them RoboCop, Batman and The Addams Family (the C64 version of which I pirated off a BBS in 1992 and played to completion — hey, I was young, and it never got an official NTSC-compatible release anyway). Those few decent games, however, were dwarfed by all the crap licenses Ocean released over the years, and Waterworld was their last major shot at the “genre” they helped to pioneer. Presumably, developing movie games for the PlayStation generation was expensive enough that it stopped making financial sense for them.

    Waterworld eventually came out on the SNES, Game Boy, and the Virtual Boy of all things, for which it was a launch title. Steven Kent called the Virtual Boy Waterworld the worst game ever made in an article once; I’d disagree with that, but it’s certainly the worst Virtual Boy game ever made. Genesis and Saturn versions were announced but never released; the Genesis ROM is easily available, but the Saturn version isn’t and I’m willing to bet that it wasn’t close to finished, a victim of Sega mucking around with the Saturn’s US release date.

    Ocean’s Saturn project has nothing to do with the games Interplay had developed for the 3DO, PlayStation and PC at the same time. Not much is known about this lost title, except that it apparently has a “fully dynamic virtual ocean with staggeringly dynamic water surface,” which would make it kind of unique among Saturn games, wouldn’t it?

  • 15 years ago…

    Posted on May 14th, 2010 keving 8 comments

    I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, but I missed a notable milestone back on May 11 — the 15th anniversary of the Sega Saturn’s North American release, more or less.

    The particulars are already well-known to most game historians, but in case you aren’t familiar with the story:

    • Sega of America president/CEO Tom Kalinske announces in early ’95 that the Saturn will come out on September 2; Sony then announces a September 9 release for the PlayStation.
    • At Kalinske’s keynote address, held 8:45 am on May 11 (the Thursday of E3 1995), the president announces that the Saturn’s actually on sale right now at select retailers for $399.
    • The move seriously backfires. The Saturn’s library is starved for releases through the summer. US third parties, not tipped off to Kalinske’s release-date shift, are angry that Sega robbed them of the chance to release launch titles.  Retailers that weren’t selected for the launch are even angrier; Kay-Bee refuses to stock the Saturn entirely for a while.
    • Sega sells 80,000 Saturns by September 9; Sony sells 100,000 PlayStations (which had its price dropped to $299 in response to the Saturn’s MSRP) during its own launch window. Sega thus loses the generation’s console war practically before it began.

    I happened to fish this out of my shelves the other day. It’s a cardboard newspaper holder with a humorous Saturn-themed cover (you can read it by clicking on the top image). I don’t know how it was distributed — I need to look into this detail later — but it seems logical to assume that Sega set up a deal with some hotel near the LA Convention Center to place it on guestroom doorsteps on the morning of May 11.

    As you can see, the holder comes complete with a vintage copy of USA Today from May 11, 1995. Top stories include Terry Nichols‘ indictment, public debate over talk-radio hate speech, and United Airlines raising their fee for canceling flights to $50 (they now charge $150). The Life section has a PR-y story about the upcoming 3D game-console revolution: “For the first time, video games approach reality: You’re in the driver’s seat, behind the punches, atop a dragon. The 16-bit games to date are two-dimensional environments with pedestrian colors; Sega’s Saturn and Sony’s PlayStation use multiple 32-bit processors, giving them power beyond the average PC and rivaling that of the advanced computers developers use to conjure video game magic.”

  • Getting cross over cross reviews

    Posted on April 26th, 2010 keving 2 comments

    I’ve been talking about Famitsu reviews a lot lately, and that habit’s going to continue for a while, because today they’ve triggered something of an international incident!

    The article on Kotaku gives the full story, but here is a summary:

    – Enterbrain president and ex-Famitsu EIC Hirokazu Hamamura appears in Japanese advertising for Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker in an endorsing fashion.
    Famitsu gives Peace Walker a perfect 40/40 review score.
    – Many overseas writers, including me over on 1UP, bring up concerns about the editorial independence of Famitsu’s review writers as a result of this. Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku writes a particularly long missive.
    – Ashcraft’s article gets reworked a bit for Kotaku Japan and translated in a more direct fashion by other Japanese blogs.
    – Kotaku Japan posts on its Twitter feed that Enterbrain has formally complained to them and that Konami has rescinded the site’s invitation to the Peace Walker release-day press event.

    This was all out lined on the Japanese blogs today, and Jin’s post on it is particularly prescient because in addition to running a personal game-news blog, he also contributes articles (mostly covering press events) to Kotaku Japan. “You idiots!” he jokingly writes in the article. “Now I lost work because of this! What’re you gonna do about it?!”

    The reader comments to the article are interesting — about half siding with Kotaku and half siding with Konami, as opposed to a much more unified anti-Japan-media response over on Kotaku itself — and so I thought I’d translate a few.

    In particular, it’s fascinating to note that many don’t see Hamamura’s advertising turn as that much of a problem. This is perhaps because it’s not the first time he’s shown up in games themselves, having made all-but-official cameos in both 428 and Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan! in the past. Many see him over there as a sort of avuncular father-figure for the game industry, a personable middle-aged guy with a funny mustache who provides comments to nearly every article written by Japan’s mainstream media about games, and they don’t make a direct connection between that and his position as the “man upstairs” at Famitsu’s company. There’s nobody quite like that in the American media, not since Howard Phillips left Nintendo Power and Thor Aackerlund stopped flogging Camerica’s NES games.

    Read the rest of this entry »


    Posted on April 22nd, 2010 keving 3 comments

    Kurt Kalata writes:

    I saw you wrote a bunch of FAQs for Shadowgate and such awhile back. I’m working on an article for ICOM Simulation’s games for my site, Hardcore Gaming 101, and I found something interesting – Shadowgate shows up on a bunch of kusoge lists, which I found pretty surprising. Apparently it was on a TV show awhile back […]

    It’s a ridiculous game, but it’s certainly nowhere even close to the depths of Deadly Towers or Atlantis no Nazo, and it’s usually at least relatively fondly remembered by the US fans. My question is – do you have any idea why they regard it as such? The Japanese Wiki entry makes mention of some of the wacky death messages – maybe there was something in the translation? Or maybe they just didn’t dig all the insta-kill stuff?

    There’s a few reasons for this. First, kusoge is often as much a term of endearment in Japanese as derision — the game equivalent of saying a movie deserves to be on Mystery Science Theater 3000. A kusoge may not be a fun (or even playable) game, but it’s entertaining nonetheless because of its sheer silliness, whether intentional or not. It’s “hating” a game so much that you start to find it lovable, somehow.

    Why does Japan single out Shadowgate for this title, though? As Kurt mentioned, it’s a game where you have the freedom to die in all kinds of inventive ways, many of which produce overwrought death messages. The Japanese-language version, however, is far more overwrought than the English one — it’s written wholly from a first-person perspective and consistently reads like a ten-year-old trying to imitate Shakespeare. (The way the NES/Famicom Shadowgate always uses two exclamation points where one would suffice adds to the cheesiness.)

    Here are a few Shadowgate death lines, English followed by my translation of Japanese:

    (after using your torch on yourself three times)
    English: You finally set your hair on fire. The rest of your body soon follows!!
    Japanese: Yaagghh!! My hair, my hair!! It’s burning!! The burns spread across my body!! I writhe in pain as I breathe my last.

    (after using your sword on yourself)
    English: You thrust sword [sic] into your chest!! Blood begins to flow!! Suicide won’t help in your quest!! The Warlock Lord will surely triumph now!!
    Japanese: I thrust the sword’s blade into my left breast. …Blood pours out of the wound!! Ahhh!! How could I be so foolish? I took my own life, with my own hand!! …The world will surely be cloaked in darkness after I die…

    (after attempting to defeat a cyclops with your bare hands)
    English: A battle cry dies in your throat, as the cyclops crushes your skull with his club.
    Japanese: Quicker than I could attack, the club descends upon my head!! My head has been cracked open!!

    (after jumping out many of the game’s windows)
    English: With a cry you jump to your death!! It takes only a couple of seconds before you hit the bottom with a thud.
    Japanese: I scream in vain as my body floats in the air!! As I spin, various disconnected thoughts pass through my mind. The last thing I saw was a twinkling star, shining its eerie light in the midst of darkness.

    (after awakening the chained female werewolf)
    English: With a loud roar, the wolf pounces on you, taking your life!! The wolfs [sic] powerful jaws rip your throat out!!
    Japanese: Agghh!! The woman transformed instantly into a wild, ferocious wolf. It’s angry!! It’s attacking!! Ahhh!! I’m done for!! Arrghh!! The wolf’s fangs glint in the light, and at that instant, I became the werewolf’s latest meal.

    You get the idea, I think. It’s this rather odd writing style, unique among 8-bit console games in Japan, that makes Shadowgate so memorable over there for its kuso-ness. (The Japanese Famicom versions of Deja Vu and Uninvited aren’t nearly as pre-teen in their script, sadly.)

  • The Way Cross Reviews Work

    Posted on April 21st, 2010 keving 8 comments

    The question of how susceptible to corruption Weekly Famitsu magazine is has come up in the news again after the publication gave Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (which publisher and ex-EIC Hirokazu Hamamura himself shows up in the advertising for) a perfect 40/40 score. There’s little doubt that the mag’s a bit freer with the 10 scores than it used to be, but is it any more or less corrupt than it’s ever been during its 24-year-old history?

    To explore this, it’s time to go back to an interesting little 1999 interview, one of the few where Hamamura ever spoke very frankly about how his magazine evaluated and applied scores to games. This interview, conducted alongside indie developer Kenji Eno, was conducted by a manga artist named Miso Suzuki, who published a game-industry comic in Famitsu called Otona no Shikumi (おとなのしくみ, which I’ll loosely translate as ‘The Way Grown-Ups Work’) throughout the 1990s.

    The context of this interview is as follows: In 1997, Famitsu reviewed Real Sound: Kaze no Regret, a Saturn adventure game that shows absolutely nothing onscreen and is instead controlled (and enjoyed) entirely through sound. The game garnered fairly average scores — 8/6/5/8 for a total of 27 points. Eno, annoyed at this, railed on Hamamura in an interview published in a 1997 edition of Otona no Shikumi, criticizing Famitsu’s capsule reviews and the extreme weight placed upon them by gamers. Hamamura didn’t really respond to Eno’s statements, and the two industry figures had an unsteady relationship until 1999, when Suzuki reunited them in the same room for an in-depth discussion into game ratings.

    I’ve taken the liberty of translating the manga chapter that ensued from it, because it represents Hamamura’s official opinion on the “fairness” of Famitsu’s reviews back before the magazine had acquired a reputation for kowtowing to publishers with their scores. It’s also interesting to see how the magazine has shifted from the stance Hamamura laid out here — Eno would undoubtedly be happy with how lenient the modern Famitsu is with their 10’s nowadays, but chances are he’d have some more serious complaints about fairness.

    Footnotes are below the images. I’m in a rush, so forgive any formatting ugliness.

    This interview was published in April 1999, when Shenmue was in full development and facing a rapidly-slipping release date. Famitsu published a regular column devoted exclusively to Shenmue around this time.

    Read the rest of this entry »

  • All about freelancing

    Posted on April 16th, 2010 keving 1 comment

    The Tutorial: Freelancing

    Mr. Demian Linn was the man who gave me my review assignments for EGM back during 2004, that glorious year when I lived in San Francisco, covering rent and everything, living entirely off freelancing for print (okay, almost entirely). Every month, I’d come visit his cube high up in the Ziff Davis Media office building, and he’d fumble through a plastic bin full of discs and say “OK uhm…hmm…okay, guess what, you’re lead review on McFarlane’s Evil Prophecy” and the like. Fine memories.

    If anyone is qualified to tell you how to become a game-media freelancer, he’s the one…although in my personal range of knowledge, doing the supplementary-income stuff like strategy guides and consulting is pretty much a must these days. Anyone disagree?

  • Your 29-year-old future, courtesy Clive Sinclair

    Posted on April 13th, 2010 keving 3 comments

    Clive Sinclair maintains an odd presence in computer history. At his prime, he’s like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs all rolled up into one person, never missing a chance to bathe in the spotlight yet far more interested in inventions and tinkering than market share and profit margins. In the ’70s and early 1980s, nobody in the European electronics industry was more respected — and reported upon — than he was.

    Sinclair got his start producing audio gear in the 1960s and branched out to pocket calculators (1972) and microcomputer kits before kicking off the ZX series of personal computers in 1980. The ZX Spectrum, despite having an abortive and unnoticed launch in America, sold in the millions in Europe — it provided fierce competition for the Commodore 64 and was the 8-bit system that many of today’s game designers and programmers first cut their teeth on. His successes earned Sinclair a knighthood and made him a household name in the UK, but his company was never far from financial ruin and, tiring of having to support a personal-computer business, he sold it to a rival in 1986 and went back to inventing. He’s still at it today, nearing 70 and working on fold-up bicycles and such, although you can’t help but think he’s a little daft when he talks with the press about how he doesn’t handle his own email.

    At the height of his public career, in mid-1982, Sinclair gave a speech to the British chapter of Mensa where he discussed his vision of the future. The speech would’ve been perfect as a TED Talk if such a thing existed back then. Reading the article about it (above, from the October ’82 issue of Sinclair User) is pretty neat just to see how tuned-in and far-out he was, nearly three decades ago:

    – He foresaw how massive storage and the power of networking will restore the power of the individual in society — or, to put it another way, he foresaw how blue-collar manufacturing wasn’t going to be the main economic sector of the West for long. “We have for some time been passing through a great industrial age in which the economic basis of society has demanded the bringing together of people in great numbers, many thousands per factory, many millions per city,” he said. “I believe that our move away from this type of organisation will restore the potential of the individual.” I can believe him there — I can work as an individual now chiefly thanks to cheap and abundant networking, after atll.

    – He foresaw what GM assembly-line workers and most white-collar laborers my age or younger know all too well by now — big companies often see employees as disposable goods. “We must change the pattern of expectation,” he said, “no longer to prepare people for a life-time’s work in major organisations but to give them the self-reliance for a broader role in smaller groups.” He predicted a massive wave of small companies being founded, something that you could say manifested itself en masse in the dot-com boom.

    – Where he maybe wasn’t so right (yet) is in the bit where he foresees a “Golden Age of man’s history” by the turn of the 21st century, thanks to machines doing all the brute-force heavy lifting for us. “Early in the next century we will have made intelligent machines ending for all time the pattern of drudgery,” he closed. “With them we can start the exploration of the universe. It may be that Western civilisation, seeded in seventh-century Ireland, is only just about to flower.”

    All this while Steve Jobs was foundering about with the Apple III, no less.

    It’s a shame Sinclair never quite had the sort of ruthless business sense the American computer bigshots were driven by. Whatever magic he had, it pretty much fizzled out by 1985 when serious US competition hit the European home computer market. A lot of what-ifs come to mind, though. What if Sinclair had a better US partner than Timex and the Spectrum was a budget-market success in America? What if it had been upgraded and expanded along the lines of an Amiga or ST? What if the QL wasn’t a pile of crap? A lot of ifs, yes, but I can’t help but like Sinclair and I wish his success was a tad longer-lasting than it proved to be. I dunno, he’s endearing.

  • Rich or poor, white or black, young or old, whether we want to or not, we’re all gonna have to go to our place in the sky and accept Officer Jim Walls (Ret.)’s final judgment upon our souls

    Posted on March 26th, 2010 keving 5 comments

  • Cross Review number crunch

    Posted on March 24th, 2010 keving 2 comments

    It’s Official: PS3 Has The Best Library Ever (1UP)

    I wrote that article mainly so I could use that wonderful picture of Mr. Kutaragi just one more time and get paid for it, but here’s some more review-score trivia if you’re interested.

    In its 24-year-long history, Weekly Famitsu has cross-reviewed a grand total of 14,288 games. (By “cross review” I mean the familiar four-person scoring system, which didn’t kick off in Famitsu until the 9th issue in October 1986.) As you can tell from the graph, the PlayStation has the biggest library among any console in Japan, but the PS2 has more games that earned a Gold award (32/40 points) or higher — just over three times as many, in fact. A lot of this is due to the score inflation that began in earnest with the PS2 era, but it also reflects, I think, just how bloated and dross-laden the PS’s library really was in Japan.

    The first game to achieve “gold” status in Famitsu, although they didn’t have the system in place back then, was Castlevania in the above-mentioned October 1986 issue. It scored 8/8/9/9. “In a way this is an un-Konami-like title,” one reviewer rather ironically wrote back then, “but as a game, it’s a remarkably complete product. It’ll probably be a big hit. I’m a little dubious of all the hidden objects that give you nothing but points, though, even though this isn’t a game where you’re competing for points.”

    Modern-day Famitsu gives out Platinum awards to games that score more than 35/40, which has happened a lot — 398 times as of this writing, in fact, starting with Zelda II (8/10/9/9) in early 1987 and ending with God of War III (10/9/9/10) last week.

    The Game Gear has the honor of having nothing earn a Gold title in its entire 205-game library — a fate shared by the Neo Geo Pocket and Lynx, although both of those systems have a much smaller selection of software. The WonderSwan has one Gold game — Gunpey, of course — out of 208 releases.

    You can see pretty plainly from the stats, by the way, that Famitsu began inflating their scores in the PS2 era, a trend that rages unabated today. How else to explain why the Xbox 360 enjoys 104 Gold-rated titles to the PS1’s 130, despite having a library not even a tenth the size?

  • Are you a bad enough dude to buy the April issue of Famitsu Xbox 360?

    Posted on February 26th, 2010 keving 2 comments



    Well, do you? Like, you know, without hiding the magazine between a couple of newspapers or something? Do you have the guts, the bravery to look the (female, did I mention she was female) clerk in the eye and say This, please! No, I don’t need a bag!

    Me, I can. That’s because every PC Engine mag looked like this by the end of 1993. I got experience!