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Column: Game Collectors Melancholy

COLUMN: Game Collector’s Melancholy – Genesis

June 22, 2007 4:01 PM |

[‘A Game Collector’s Melancholy’ is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we dig through old boxes in the corner of the garage and empty out the hall closet, searching for old Sega Genesis hardware.]

High Grade Multi Purpose Intelligent Terminal

sega_logo.jpgI developed my enthusiasm for video games a little bit later than most. Although the arcade and microcomputer scene fired my imagination in the late seventies and early eighties, most of my young adult-hood was concerned with other things. I have no sugary nostalgia for Nintendo and Saturday morning cereal bowls. The Atari 2600 was something that other kids got for Christmas and were already bored with by the time I came to visit.

Instead, my first console was the Sega Genesis and it colored all of my perceptions of video games since. I was reading Count Zero (along with Mondo 2000 and every RE/Search book I could get my hands on) at the time and in my mind the Genesis’ black surface, studded with vents and ports, seemed to be the embodiment of Gibson’s Ono-Sendai deck. The Genesis hardware pointed the way toward a looming digital landscape, wild and dark in potential and made all the more dangerous by its affordability. Over time, this exhilarating rush of possibility wore off, muted by endlessly replicating cute mascot characters. As the game industry grew and Sega struggled to find its place in it, my initial feelings of hope and wonderment were underscored by a melancholy strain of defeat.

COLUMN: Game Collector’s Melancholy – Zone of the Enders

May 25, 2007 9:01 AM |

[‘A Game Collector’s Melancholy’ is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we look at the often-dismissed Zone of the Enders series.]

Giant robots have been a staple of Japanese pop culture for decades. As Roboto Chan! shows, the robot in manga and anime has been rich source of inspiration for game designers. So when Konami’s Hideo Kojima decided to bring his post-modern touch to the giant robot genre, expectations were high.

Zone of the Enders

zoe.jpgReleased in 2001 for the PlayStation 2, Zone of the Enders was a remarkable demonstration of what the new hardware was capable of. Abandoning the lumbering tank movements of other giant robot games, the robots of Zone of the Enders moved with a pole-dancing, acrobatic style that would become the hallmark of modern action games like Devil May Cry or Dynasty Warriors. Called Orbital Frames, the game’s mecha were designed by Yoji Shinkawa as lithe, airborne seraphim. As if to emphasize their aerial nature, they did not even have feet. Instead, their legs terminated in elegant spikes. In close combat the Frames whipped out flashing energy blades. From a distance they launched bolts of plasma from their hands like a 50 meter Sailor Moon gone berserk.

Despite the slick presentation, Zone of the Enders was unable to get by on its looks. Initially the game invoked a wide-eyed thrill, but after a few hours of play, Zone of the Enders had revealed most of its impressive tricks, leaving the remainder of the game feeling only half-formed.

Zone of the Enders is an easy game to find, so don’t pay more than $15. However, make sure that it includes the Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty Demo disc which allows you to play the Tanker chapter up to the Olga Boss fight with the original Japanese voice acting.

COLUMN: Game Collector’s Melancholy – Kenji Eno

May 10, 2007 9:12 AM |

[‘A Game Collector’s Melancholy’ is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we take a look at the iconoclastic game designer Kenji Eno.]

tripd.jpgKenji Eno founded Warp, his small, independent game studio in 1994. Coming from a background in music, Eno wanted to bring the same energy and spirit of the electronic music scene to the rapidly expanding world of video games. With long hair and black clothes, Eno would pose for publicity photos with his Roland Jupiter-8 synthesizer (analog of course), cultivating a rock and roll image at a time when game designers were still considered members of the pocket-protector set. He also made it clear that Warp was not part of some corporate hive.

The company’s first games were for the 3DO system. Its straightforward licensing structure dispensed with the cumbersome and arbitrary approvals process that other hardware manufactures required and the machine’s CD-ROM format made it easy to publish for, lowering the barrier to entry for the start-up developer.

Warp’s initial efforts were basic puzzlers and mini-game collections. Although somewhat primitive, they were done with an absurdist graffiti style that made them distinctive. One of these early games, a Tetris clone called Trip’D made it to America in 1995, but it was the horror adventure D that would make Warp famous.

COLUMN: Game Collector's Melancholy - Clock Tower

April 26, 2007 2:01 PM |

[‘A Game Collector’s Melancholy’ is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we take a look at the Clock Tower series. Games loved by some, hated by a few, and ignored by most.]

I’ve always had special fondness for horror themed video games. Perhaps because horror game designers show a greater cultural awareness and are more willing to incorporate influences from other media into their work. Most video games seem to be influenced by other video games but horror is a genre with a distinct literary and cinematic heritage that is quite separate from the world of Mario.

The First Fear

clocktower0.jpgMost people know of the Clock Tower games on the PlayStation, but the series actually began on the Super Famicom. Created in 1995 by Human Entertainment, Clock Tower told the story of a teenage girl named Jennifer who was orphaned under mysterious circumstances. She and her friends from the orphanage are sent to live with a wealthy family whose gothic mansion lies isolated in the mountains of Norway. Upon arriving at the mansion things quickly turn sinister and Jennifer’s friends are murdered one by one in a variety of cruel ways.

Clock Tower resembled a point and click adventure but undermined the measured puzzle solving with a wicked twist. Periodically, a maniacal killer called the Scissorman burst into the scene and began chasing Jennifer. With no means of fighting back, she could only flee from Scissorman and hopefully find a safe place to conceal herself until the pursuer moved on. It was a unique style of play that called to mind frantic games of hide and seek or the desperate flights of nightmare.

Visually, the designers of Clock Tower had a particular love for the films of Dario Argento with Suspiria and Phenomena being major points of reference. One of the first murder scenes that Jennifer witnesses is a recreation of the brutal first ten minutes of Suspiria, including an earnest attempt at imitating Goblin’s crazed soundtrack on the Famicom’s sound chip. The game also gave a nod to William Peter Blatty’s Legion (filmed as Exorcist III) as Scissorman wielded an enormous pair of autopsy shears.

Clock Tower was later ported to the PlayStation under the title Clock Tower ~The First Fear~ and versions were also made for Windows 95, and the Wonderswan. However, none of these made it the United States.

COLUMN: Game Collector's Melancholy - NIS America

April 12, 2007 11:10 AM |

[‘A Game Collector’s Melancholy’ is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting.]


Mary.jpgRecently Nippon Ichi Software America announced their line-up of new releases as well as some big developments for their online store. To find out more, I posted a few questions by email to Jack Niida, marketing manager of NIS America and Mitsu Hiraoka, vice president of NIS America Online Business Development.

NIS America announced a slew of new titles including GrimGrimoire and Soul Nomad & the World Eaters for the PS2 as well as Disgaea and Dragoneer’s Aria for the PSP. Those, along with the upcoming Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm and Aedis Eclipse: Generation of Chaos represent a fairly busy release schedule. Do you expect to continue to move at that pace and are Sony’s PS2 and PSP the target platforms for the foreseeable future?

Jack Niida: We’re setting a good pace for now. It’s a busier release schedule than our norm, but the localization process is going well. Unless something drastically goes wrong, we won’t make any adjustments to our release schedule. That being said, the 2nd half of the year will be quieter than the first half, with fewer releases scheduled.

For a long time, NIS America has been releasing titles for the PS2 and PSP, so some people might think we are solely dedicated to Sony, but that is not true. Our goal is to provide quality games and services to all game fans, and looking ahead, there are several platforms that can help us reach out to a broader audience and gamers can expect surprises from us. Of course, we will also continue to work closely with Sony, providing great games for PS2/PS3/PSP users as well.

Tell me a bit about the new face of your online store at www.RosenQueen.com.

Mitsu Hiraoka: 2 years have passed since the opening of the NISA online store. During these past 2 years, we have been connecting with the media at press events, and also through our daily PR work, and we have communicated with our fans, receiving encouraging voices. However, at the same time our fans have voiced their concerns as well. Every year, in the month of July we hold a booth at Anime Expo to have an opportunity to meet with our fans. We also hold various contests that prove to be an important opportunity for fan interaction. Through these various activities, we have always contemplated on the “value” that we can provide for our customers. We came to realize that it is always important to increase game quality, but it is also equally important to provide a value that can offer a truly rich gaming environment. NISA is not the only company that is thinking about value. If we can provide fine products from these companies to our customers for their satisfaction, it will be very meaningful.

RQ_logo.jpgThe RosenQueen Company is taken from an item shop within a video game series by Nippon Ichi Software called Marl’s Kingdom. Etoile Rosenqueen, the rival of Marl’s Kingdom’s main character, is the representative of the RosenQueen Company.
As I mentioned in the previous section, it became necessary to create a vendor that isn’t specifically named after NISA, in order to provide non-NISA related products. However, at the same time, it is necessary to carry on the spirit of NISA. And RosenQueen fulfills both requirements.

People enjoy the fictional part of video games, so we’re hoping people will enjoy the fictional setting of the vendor as well. Initially we will provide game related products that NISA is good at dealing with. But, eventually we would like to move forward with various other products and services, since even Disgaea is turning into an anime.

Now, even the cocky Etoile cannot live without the help of our customers. Therefore, like the NISA online store, we would like to provide products and services that the customers will enjoy.

I notice that you are making certain titles from XSEED Games and Atlus USA available through RosenQueen. What is the relationship between NIS America and those publishers?

Mitsu Hiraoka: From a business sense, our relationship will be as “publisher” and “vendor”. You might suspect that we, as a publisher, are in competition, but as I mentioned before, providing high quality products and services will benefit the customer the most. As a publisher, we acknowledge each other and increase our quality through competition. However, as a retailer we have a mutual relationship with those publishers to provide true value to our customers.

I was extremely pleased with the deluxe packaging that you gave Ar Tonelico – Melody of Elemia. Can we look forward to more premium editions? What are the economics of special boxed editions? Do you see less profit because of the printing costs? Are they more difficult to get on the shelves of retailers?

artonelico.jpgJack Niida: Judging cost effectiveness on a bonus item for video games is always a difficult task. What it comes down to is cost-benefit, customer interest, affordability, and future impact. If we believe that the added bonus would not gather enough numbers to cover the total cost we would pull the plug. However, if there are additional positive impacts by releasing a similar, yet smaller bonus feature that costs less for customer satisfaction, we may do so. There is no single specific recipe for a successful bonus campaign, but through our past campaign data and experience we have a fairly good picture of the outcome.

Placing special edition packages could be a challenge in itself, depending on the retailer. Few are flexible enough to work with these large size displays. However, there are retailers that are very cooperative and we really appreciate it. For our future titles, we would like to provide similar special editions packages.

On the subject of Ar Tonelico, one of the unique aspects of that title was its incorporation of Visual Novel elements. Although a popular genre in Japan, American game reviewers seemed to have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea. Is the U.S. ready for Visual Novels?

Jack Niida: There is no denying that visual novels are still a foreign game style. However, feedback from players was positive, so we believe there is at least an increase in interest. In general, we found that those with positive feedback are fans of anime or manga, so their understandings of the Japanese gaming culture perhaps helped embrace the new style. With all the increased interest though, we have yet to determine whether or not a full visual novel game will succeed in the states. Perhaps we should test the waters with some of our Japanese titles.

With the upcoming Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm you are making the soundtrack available separately through RosenQueen. Is it imported from Japan or are you establishing a US music publishing division?

ai3.jpgJack Niida: We are not importing the soundtrack, but not necessarily establishing a music publishing division either. The music source is provided from the Japanese developer, so we would re-master, create new package, and manufacture them on a small scale. Nothing extraordinary is done, but like I mentioned earlier, our goal is to provide quality games and services to our game fans, so we try to do our best to bring what they wish for.

Finally, I am very intrigued by Hayarigami. With the popularity of Japanese horror films and games is there a possibility that Hayarigami or its sequel may see a US release?

Jack Niida: With the increased popularity in Japanese horror films, there is certainly a chance. Our only concern is the game play style. Hayarigami is a full visual novel style game and unlike Ar tonelico it does not have any traditional RPG features, like combat and adventure. So, we are still a bit hesitant to release this game. However, if there is enough demand we will definitely try to bring the game over.

Many thanks to NIS America.


Images: © 2007 NIS America. All Rights Reserved


[Jeffrey Fleming is an East Bay writer. To read more, please visit Tales of the Future.]

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Shadowrun

March 29, 2007 2:39 PM |

['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week let’s datajack the Matrix and see what we can find on Shadowrun.]

srcover4th.jpgVideo games and role playing have always been close allies. Just as Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson attempted to extend Tolkien’s world into pencil and paper games, programmers have labored to model the ritual theater of tabletop role playing sessions in software. Personal computer RPGs have seen a steady path of development over the years, from the early days of Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth to the latest visual dream in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. However, in the West, console RPG efforts have been largely abandoned, surrendered to the Japanese, whose role playing aesthetics follow distinctly divergent lines. For an early snapshot of this evolution consider the three video games based on the Shadowrun license.

Shadowrun began life in 1989 as a set of tabletop role playing rules published by the FASA Corporation. The world of Shadowrun was weird mix of fantasy and sci-fi in which Tolkien-esque characters such as elves, orks, and dragons were given a serrated edge by dropping them into a near future, tech noir landscape. Magic existed alongside neural implants as “deckers” and shamanists hacked into computer networks to battle sinister transnational corporations. Life was cheap in Shadowrun and death often came quickly, whether it was by tempered steel, a 9mm Hydra-Shok, or a bolt of summoned lightning. Avoiding a potentially goofy and derivative premise, the Shadowrun game was elevated by the fevered intensity of its vicious world.

FASA was always adept at licensing its properties (in fact, the original company currently exists only as licensing rights manager, leaving the publishing and distribution of its properties to other companies) and soon enhanced the Shadowrun brand with tie-in novels and a series of unique video games, each produced by a different developer.

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Shenmue

March 15, 2007 10:33 PM |

['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we take a look at the epic, and lamentably unfinished Shenmue series.]

shenmue.jpgWe had been hearing about Shenmue for years before it was released. First there were rumors that Yu Suzuki was working on a Virtua Fighter RPG for the Saturn. As the director of Sega’s AM2 division, Suzuki had been responsible for some of the company’s most exciting arcade titles. Space Harrier, Hang-On, Out Run, Virtua Cop, and the epochal Virtua Fighter series were all the work of Suzuki and his AM2 team, so the idea of a new title for home consoles was very intriguing.

As more information trickled out of Japan, VF RPG became known as Project Berkley and development moved to Sega’s new generation of hardware. No one knew what Project Berkley was except that it would big, different, and amazing. As Katana became Dreamcast, Project Berkley was given the official title of Shenmue. Suzuki called the game a F.R.E.E. RPG, which stood for Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment and it would feature Q.T.E. or Quick Timer Events. No one could figure out what he meant by that either. After years of development and a budget estimated at 20 million, possibly as high as 70 million, the first chapter of Shenmue was released for the Dreamcast in 2000 to critical acclaim and consumer indifference.

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Treasure's Shooters

March 1, 2007 8:37 PM |

['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we dig up Treasure’s shooters.]

treasure.jpgTreasure is a game developer whose name is written on collector’s hearts. Formed in 1992 by ex-Konami staff, the company is well known for creating anarchic games that gleefully undermine genre expectations. Often filled with bizarre characters, discordant music, and lots of explosions, Treasure’s games move at a frenetic pace, seemingly fueled by Lucky Charms and DMT.

However, on occasion the studio dials back some of its eccentricities and focuses on creating rigorously formal shooters. Within the narrow confines of the shooter Treasure approaches its craft with a seriousness that elevates their pop trash (I mean that in a good way) into nuanced works that are as beautiful to look at as they are to play.

No Refuge

silvergun.jpgRadiant Silvergun was Treasure’s first effort at pure shooter design and probably its most famous despite not ever being released in America. Initially created for the arcades in 1998 and then quickly ported to the Sega Saturn, Radiant Silvergun was a vertically scrolling masterwork.

Players were given a generous selection of weaponry with which to clean the field and face down a succession of elaborate boss fights. Not content with simply satisfying twitch and reflex, Radiant Silvergun was also a thinking person’s shooter. Utilizing a combo scoring system and complex pattern memorization, the game rewarded thoughtful play. Radiant Silvergun was further enhanced by a Hitoshi Sakamoto score and animated cut-scenes from GONZO (Blue Submarine No. 6, Last Exile).

Radiant Silvergun enjoyed a generous print run and healthy sales in Japan making it easy to find online. However, its elevated reputation among Western importers has insured that the game’s price remains in the $175 to $200 range.

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Carnage Heart

February 15, 2007 10:20 AM |

['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we take a look at Carnage Heart, a high point for strategy games and a key title for Playstation collectors.]

artdink_logo.jpgArtdink has a reputation as an unusual game developer with an aggressively creative streak. Most famous here in America for creating the bewildering “non-games” Aquanaut’s Holiday and Tail of the Sun, Artdink is also responsible for the No One Can Stop Mr. Domino puzzler, and the A-Train urban development sim. Less well known is Carnage Heart, one of the most unique strategy games ever offered for a home console.

Over Kill

tsuki_kage.jpgCarnage Heart was designed by Masaki Iizuka with mecha designs by artist and kit modeler Kow Yokoyama. It was firmly rooted in the ‘realistic robots’ tradition of Japanese sci-fi and featured mechs fighting corporate battles across the moons of Jupiter. Packaged with two dense manuals and a separate tutorial disc, Carnage Heart was not a game that one could just pick up and start playing.

You begin by designing your combat units called Over Kill Engines, choosing their body type, engine size, armaments, and other accessories. This part is fairly generic and familiar to anyone who has spent time with Armored Core. Once a design is settled on, you also have to put it into mass production which involves managing factory assembly lines while making sure income levels stay in the black. There are also opportunities to do business with various trans-national corporations, buying technology, funding research, and engaging in a bit of industrial espionage.

If... Then...

europa.jpgSo far, all of this sounds interesting but not radically different from many other strategy/economic sim games. What really makes Carnage Heart distinctive is that you have no direct control over your Over Kill Engines when they enter combat. Instead, during the design phase you must preprogram the combat behavior of your Over Kill Engine. This is done by laying out modules of set commands on a grid and linking them together in a flow chart of “IF... THEN...” statements. A simple example would be IF enemy detected within 100 meters THEN fire main weapon.

Of course, success in the game requires much more subtle strategies. There is a wide variety of modules to work with, including the ability for OKEs to communicate with each other, enabling complex, coordinated attacks. Once you become familiar with Carnage Heart’s programming language much of the pleasure of the game comes from working out clever OKE programs. It is a remarkable and creative experience to able to “play” the game while sitting at a table with pencil and paper, writing new programs to try out.

Black Coffee

ch_cover.jpgFirst published for Japan in 1995, Carnage Heart was brought to the U.S. in 1997 by Sony Computer Entertainment in an ambitious attempt to push the boundaries of console video games. Unfortunately, the game’s indirect and rigorously intellectual style of play was a hard sell to an audience more accustomed to fast action and glossy visuals. Spare, complex, and difficult, Carnage Heart was like a cup of hot, black coffee that few had the taste for.

Although Carnage Heart quickly vanished without a trace in America, the game enjoyed an extended life in Japan. In 1997 Artdink brought out a revised version of Carnage Heart called Carnage Heart EZ (Easy Zapping). A full sequel followed in 1998 titled Zeus Carnage Heart Second for both Playstation and Windows. In 1999, Artdink brought out Zeus II Carnage Heart and sponsored national Carnage Heart competitions in Japan to promote the game. The series lay dormant for several years until Carnage Heart Portable for the Sony PSP was recently published in Japan by Genki in the fall of 2006.

Resources for English speaking Carnage Heart enthusiasts are scarce. In the spring of ‘97 Sony began publishing its Playstation Underground CD magazine. Included in Volume 1, Issue 1 was a Carnage Heart demo along with a set of OKE designs from Artdink that could be downloaded on to a memory card. Issues of Playstation Underground show up from time to time for auction but generally do not sell for much.

Sometimes the most interesting games in a collection are not necessarily the most expensive ones. Carnage Heart can be found with relative ease for around $20, making it a painless acquisition for those wanting to add some depth to their collection.

[Jeffrey Fleming is an East Bay writer. To read more, please visit Tales of the Future.]

Images: (C) Artdink/SCEI/Kow Yokoyama All Rights Reserved

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Shadow Hearts

February 1, 2007 11:12 AM |

['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we take a look at the work of Sacnoth/Nautilus, creators of the Shadow Hearts series.]

Koudelka

koudelka.jpgShadow Heart’s developer Sacnoth got its start in 1997 when a group of Squaresoft employees split off to form their own studio. Headed by Hiroki Kikuta, the music composer for the Secret of Mana series, Sacnoth had an ambitious goal of reinventing RPGs and moving them beyond stale genre conventions. Their first effort was Koudelka for the Playstation, published by SNK for America in 1999.

The game opens with a movie of a lonely rider crossing a darkened moor. A haunting viola strain plays as the empty landscape is scoured by wind and rain. The cloaked rider eventually arrives at the crumbling ruins of an abandoned monastery that is right out of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. The opening FMV sets a tone so perfect, so drenched in atmosphere and mystery, that the ensuing game play comes as an abrupt shock, falling far short of one’s initial expectations.

On the surface, Koudelka looked like an ornately rendered survival horror game, a sort of gothic Resident Evil, except with turn-based combat and lots of RPG style stat management. Set in 19th century Wales, Koudelka’s narrative was literate, with mature characters voiced by some excellent acting talent. Unfortunately, two steps into the game you were faced with a combat system that was so wrong that it completely undermined everything else that the developer got right. A typical engagement could take up to ten minutes to complete, with probably half of that time just maneuvering your character into a position to fight. Once combat was done, the encounter rate was so high that after taking two more steps you were in it again. A full description of how not fun Koudelka was could take up an entire essay so let me just emphasize that the game was tedious in the extreme.

And yet, there was something about Koudelka that made it difficult to dismiss as just another crap game. Yes it was bad, but it was tragically bad in way that hinted at the possibility of greatness. Masochists may want to seek it out, but please don’t pay more than $25.