Posted on April 18th, 2013 5 comments
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traditional “previews/reviews/features” approach to both running a magazine and keeping a game-media website going is outdated.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?
Posted on April 17th, 2013 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.
Posted on April 17th, 2013 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.)
Posted on April 15th, 2013 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.)
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).
Posted on April 10th, 2013 1 comment
This is according to Law Enforcement for Crimes Related to Businesses Affecting Public Morals in 2012, part of the annual white paper released last month by the public safety department of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. It was reported upon by Game Machines, an amusement-industry publication in Japan that’s been in business since 1974.
According to the white paper, the number of businesses defined as “game centers” that have sent the correct paperwork to the government to remain in business (following the stipulations of Japan’s entertainment-related business law) was 6,181 as of December 2012. This is down 7 percent from 6,648 establishments at the end of 2011.
I think it’s fair to say that there are two kinds of “game centers” in modern-day Japan: Places by rail stations or inside large-scale supermarkets (which are often almost, if not completely populated by skill cranes, medal games and other amusements), and facilities like the lovely, eye-catching one in Yokohama pictured above that focus on traditional video games. I probably do not need to prove my case too rigorously when I claim that it’s mostly the latter kind of establishment that’s dwindling in number over there.
Looking at previous years’ Tokyo Metro Police white papers (and confirmed by the JP Wikipedia), Japan reached “peak arcade” a quarter of a century ago in 1986, when there were 26,573 registered game centers across the country. This went down to 19,540 in 1992, then 11,499 in 2002, and after that it’s been falling by a remarkably even pace — 500 arcades a year ever since. At the current pace, therefore, there will be no game centers in Japan by 2025. (I love flawed statistics.)
Posted on April 9th, 2013 3 comments
A thread from the “News Flash (VIP)” section of Japanese forum 2ch.net — which, despite the name, is mostly full of random crap, kind of like /r/gaming on Reddit now that I think about it:
1  Date: 2013/04/04 06:52:41.56 ID:ckKKVh7q0
You want to play games, but you don’t make it to the point where you do it
2  Date: 2013/04/04 06:53:07.84 ID:vKDZjYhU0
I kind of understand
3  Date: 2013/04/04 06:53:34.88 ID:7HUgc7nD0
Just buying them is enough for me.
4  Date: 2013/04/04 06:54:02.90 ID:mA4sJ/h50
My hobby is collecting games
5  Date: 2013/04/04 06:54:11.02 ID:ckKKVh7q0
Even if I buy or rent them, it feels like such a hassle to turn on the console
6  Date: 2013/04/04 06:54:27.81 ID:SbCyT/2l0
In the past I’d have the game system on right after waking up and start right then, but lately it takes time to get to the point of “Okay, let’s do this”.
7  Date: 2013/04/04 06:54:57.50 ID:ZmanyUPt0
I don’t want to abuse my eyes any more than I already am staring at a screen all day at work anyway
11  Date: 2013/04/04 06:56:17.07 ID:gkm2BpjW0
I just don’t have any time
12 [sage] Date: 2013/04/04 06:56:24.88 ID:TyC1pHYz0
I can’t finish any games, even if I don’t have any complaints about them.
Posted on April 8th, 2013 2 comments
Called Yoshi’s Road Hunting in Japan, which is a much apter name I think. The landscape is so flat and barren, I’d be hard pressed to call it a safari really, any more than I would call a trip across I-70 in Kansas that.
Yoshi’s Safari, that most whimsical and cartoony of the games that supported the Super Scope 6 TV-bazooka, is pretty easy. With a real-life rifle, anyone of average coordination can beat it in two or three hours. Yet the TAS (freshly posted today) takes distressingly long to get all the way through. Ah well.
The game is also worth noting because the American release in the fall of ’93 marks the first time Nintendo of America called Princess Peach “Princess Peach”, a fair while before Super Mario 64 cleared the air once and for all. She had been called that in Japan since ’85, but you know the sort of goofy stuff NES manual writers came up with all the time…
Posted on April 6th, 2013 10 comments
The story of Lode Runner on the Famicom — the game that turned Hudson from a computer-oriented developer to a console-oriented one for the rest of its existence — begins in 1983, when president Yuji Kudo decided that they needed to start making games for Nintendo’s new console. Toshiyuki Takahashi, the “Master” of all 8-bit gaming in Japan and a guy working in Hudson’s sales department at the time, wrote about it on his blog a week ago.
“Game cartridges were all manufactured at Nintendo’s factory, and you needed to pay half the manufacturing costs at the time of making the order and half on delivery. This took a vast amount of money, and the figures we had dangling before us were such that we’d easily go under if it didn’t sell. So, naturally, we needed a known quantity whose popularity we could be sure of.”
Having been involved with games for Japan’s assorted 8-bit PCs for several years by that point, Hudson had numerous close connections with American game publishers. They decided to pore through the licenses they had at the time and port one of them to the Famicom.
“As we made our selections, one of our criteria was that it needed to have a lot of stages. Most games in 1983 basically just had three stages that repeated over and over again. It was hard to fit any more into the limited memory space of the time, but we figured that if we were going to go in on this, we needed something that would surprise gamers. So we wanted a game with lots of stages, that still didn’t take up a lot of memory, and would probably become popular. Around that time, Lode Runner was just beginning to get a worldwide following, so that was a top candidate from the start.”
Lode Runner was ideal for this sort of thing since its simple game world of blocks, bricks, and ladders could be easily compressed to a small space. However Shinichi Nakamoto, the programmer who handled the Lode Runner port and went on to be involved in many other FC and PC Engine titles, wasn’t convinced.
“He said that giving it the same-looking screen as on the PC wouldn’t be acceptable for kids. He ported it so that the character sprites were the same size as in other games, which had the side effect of making each stage too big for a single screen. That’s why he had it scroll right and left, and this turned out to be a big hit within the office. Lode Runner on a single screen offered a mixture of action and puzzle elements, but this way, you also had the thrill of not knowing when an enemy robot might pop up from outside the screen. It made it more fun as a game. However, Brøderbund needed some convincing — they said ‘This isn’t Lode Runner‘. I don’t know exactly how they were convinced to come around, but I think it was just our president constantly hammering on them what our impressions were inside the office.”
Development of the Famicom Lode Runner reached its closing stages in the spring of 1984.
“At the time, in order to get Lode Runner distributed, we had to go through a toy wholesaler called Shoshinkai which Nintendo introduced us to. Myself and Nakano, my boss in the sales department, went around to all the wholesalers across Japan in order to introduce the product to them. Nakano could have gone by himself but we thought it best to show the game in action as we did our little presentation, so I put on a business site and basically went on these day trips around Japan daily for about two weeks. And the thing everyone always asked us was ‘Isn’t the Famicom from Nintendo? Are you sure you can just make games for it?’ There was not much understanding of the concept of a third party yet in 1984. Nakano would have to explain that we had a license from Nintendo and it was all on the up and up.
So while he was explaining this and outlining our sales plans and so forth, I’d play the game for them and answer questions they had. I had the impression that people really liked it, especially the fact that both this and Nuts & Milk (which we were showing off at the same time) had 50 stages and let kids make their own levels to boot in edit mode. With the level of orders we got, we probably could have placed an order for half a million cartridges and just raked it in, but with the sort of finances Hudson had to deal with at the time, we could only afford to produce 300,000 — and that was combined for both of those games.”
Hudson wound up going through this entire shipment of both Lode Runner and Nuts & Milk in about a month, midsummer 1984.
“After the launch, we had heard about this toy distributor conference being held at the Prince Hotel in Akasaka, so we brought in a TV and Famicom and held a presentation. There were four people — me, Nakano, Nakamoto, and Mr. Osato over in PR. So we did the whole thing, and after the end of it, one of the distributors asked us something like ‘You have a game packed with all of these hot-button features and you only produced 300,000 of them? Are you seriously trying to sell this, or what?’ I remember Nakano struggling to come up with an answer, because he couldn’t exactly lay out the whole truth to them.”
Posted on June 15th, 2011 10 comments
Whoops! I’ve definitely run out of time and/or werewithal to update this site for a little while! Sorry about that!
I need to take some time off of regular updates here. This is because I’ve got quite a lot of that going on at the moment — day- (and night-) job work, that is, for much of the foreseeable future. In addition, I’ll shortly be spending a lot of time boxing and fixing up my magazine collection so I can donate it all to the Strong Museum of Play in a month or so. (View my column on gamesetwatch.com for more updates on that, starting this weekend or the next one.)
I’ll probably be back sooner or later once I recharge my “writing about old games” batteries, so don’t be a stranger. Thanks for reading!
Posted on June 7th, 2011 1 comment
Apologies that I’ve been out of the picture for a little while. I’ve had a great deal of pre/post-E3 work, and I’ve been a bit under the weather as well. I’ll get back to business here ASAP.