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Column: Might Have Been

'Might Have Been' - Kingdom Grandprix

July 8, 2007 8:03 AM |

I refuse to write it as '8ing.'[“Might Have Been” is a kinda bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Eighting/Raizing's Kingdom Grandprix, released for the arcade in 1994 and for the Saturn in 1996.]

Shooters had it tough in the mid-‘90s. At the decade’s start, games like Raiden, Gradius, Gate of Thunder, R-Type, Axelay, M.U.S.H.A commanded so much attention that they actually helped sell systems, but the years that followed saw shoot-‘em-ups thoroughly humbled. By 1994, American publishers seldom bothered translating them, critics disdained them as uniform and repetitive anachronisms, and the Japanese shooter scene was already shrinking into the niche it is today. And within that niche, developers found the space to experiment.

The original Mahou Daisakusen was a standard enough arcade shooter, and one of the first created by Eighting/Raizing. The two-in-one development house had a history with the genre, though, being staffed in part by former programmers from Compile, the creators of Spriggan, M.U.S.H.A., Aleste and other acclaimed “shmups.” (How I hate that term, and how I wish I knew why.) Yet Mahou didn’t quite stand out as much as the Aleste series had. Eighting/Raizing decided that its 1994 sequel needed a gimmick, and it found one by becoming something rarely seen: a 2-D racing shooter.

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Nightshade

June 23, 2007 4:01 PM |

No, that isn't the Japanese title.[“Might Have Been” is a kinda bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Beam Software's Nightshade, released for the NES in 1992.]

Nightshade is a strange one. At first impression, it’s very much like The Secret of Monkey Island, Leisure Suit Larry, King’s Quest and other adventure games of the ’80s, as it features a wry, semi-competent hero pointing and clicking his way through a joke-strewn world. Yet Nightshade is a little more than that. It’s also a popularity contest, a primitive fighting game, and a stunted attempt at creating a franchise.

It began as a simple idea: the higher-ups at Australia’s Beam Software wanted a “graphic adventure game that would be a whodunit,” according to Paul Kidd, Nightshade’s director, writer and lead designer. With vague orders to “fill in the details,” Kidd and the rest of the Nightshade team devised an offbeat superhero tale bearing a certain resemblance to later satires like The Tick or Mystery Men.

Not that it’s entirely cute. Nightshade’s prologue tells us that Metro City’s leading costumed hero, Vortex, was brutally murdered by a dog-headed crime lord named Sutekh, who’s since used all the local mobsters to conquer the entire region. Nightshade, an up-and-coming defender of justice, steps into this heroic vacuum with little more than a trench coat, a fedora, and a few caustic observations.

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Super Baseball 2020

May 26, 2007 8:21 PM |

Once again, Street Fighter II ruined everything.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at SNK's Super Baseball 2020, released for the Neo-Geo in 1991.]

In the years just before sports games came to be dominated by authentic rosters, realistic visuals and the terrifying visage of John Madden, there briefly flourished a school of titles that looked to the athletes of the future. Simultaneously cynical about human nature and optimistic about technology, they envisioned worlds where the public was entertained by brutal robot linesmen and exploding soccer balls.

Few of these games made a mark; Mutant League Football remains a cult favorite and Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball may live forever in infamy, but no one really remembers Namco’s Powerball, Sofel’s Klash Ball or Bitts and Triffix’s odd Space Football.

SNK’s Super Baseball 2020, however, is better known, partly because it’s a Neo Geo game. Specifically, it's a Neo Geo game that hit 1991, just when SNK was ferociously promoting the system as real competition for the Super NES and Genesis. That idea met with a quick death, but SNK’s marketing attempts won Super Baseball 2020 the sort of attention paid only to a new console’s first wave.

'Might Have Been' - Flash Hiders

May 11, 2007 5:31 AM |

The best fighting-game-named-after-a-firearm-accessory since Super Gas-Venting Recoil Compensation System 3.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Right Stuff's Flash Hiders and Battle Tycoon, released for the PC Engine in 1993 and the Super Famicom in 1995, respectively.]

Many will snort derisively at the idea of fighting games having storylines. The fighter, they will tell you, has always been about competition, about facing another human in matches free of plot or computer-controlled opponents. And they’re right. Modern fighters typically offer some story mode or a similar one-player attraction, but they’ve never really needed them. In fact, the first genre offerings to follow Street Fighter II’s 1991 debut had no real narratives. Fighting games had characters, and, if you were lucky, endings. That was all.

It wasn’t until 1993 that a developer called Right Stuff bothered to change things. They’d made a name by dealing in PC Engine games like Emerald Dragon, Fang of Alnam, and other RPGs heavy on cinematic cutscenes and anime archetypes. Why then, someone at Right Stuff surely asked, couldn’t a fighting game have the same focus? And so Flash Hiders emerged.

'Might Have Been' - Ehrgeiz

February 17, 2007 10:49 PM |

No huge Russian women in this one. Sorry.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Squaresoft and Dream Factory's Ehrgeiz, released for the arcade in 1998 and the PlayStation in 1999.]

It all started so well for Dream Factory. Even the developer’s existence made waves, as it was big news back in 1996 when some talented designers left Sega and Namco to make a fighting game for Squaresoft, and it was bigger news still when that game, Tobal No. 1, hit the PlayStation with a demo of what was then Japan’s most-wanted game: Final Fantasy VII. And there Dream Factory’s problems started.

While Tobal No. 1 has a number of ideas that are still unique today, it’s always been a plodding, straightforward game, and the Final Fantasy VII demo overshadowed it terribly in both Japan and the U.S. Tobal No. 2 went solo a year later and improved everything about the original, but translation problems and the first Tobal’s low profile kept it from coming to North America, and only importers would acclaim it, perhaps to an undeserved degree. The next year, Dream Factory abandoned Tobal entirely and tried a different sort of fighting game.

'Might Have Been' - Bucky O'Hare

January 21, 2007 12:15 PM |

From the writer of all those GI Joe comics.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Konami's Bucky O'Hare, released for the NES and arcade in 1992.]

For the discerning, irony-fed geeks of today, it might be hard to understand what Konami ever saw in Bucky O’Hare. A line of early-'90s cartoons and action figures, it revolved around a garish vision of intergalactic wars between huge-eyed animal people in an alternate dimension, and it barely lasted a year on the market. Why would a major game developer even bother?

But while it’s now a blip on whatever radar tracks old toy-commercial franchises, the Bucky O’Hare of 1991 had a lot going for it: a line of crude plastic figures, a comic book, plenty of merchandise, and a syndicated TV show. That was reason enough for Konami to turn it into not just one game, but two: an arcade side-scroller and an NES action game. Both faded quickly, yet they were hardly throwaway efforts on Konami's part.

Bucky travels to the arctic to investigate Neal Adams' insane hollow-earth theories.Where no ordinary rabbit would dare

Though the arcade game deserves some examination of its own, the NES game proves the more intriguing study. A rebel space captain and bile-green rabbit fighting the surprisingly goofy Toad Empire, Bucky’s tasked with visiting four different planets to rescue four members of his crew: cyclopean robot Blinky, psychic catgirl Jenny, the four-armed gunner Deadeye Duck, and the annoying, dimension-hopping, shoehorned-in human kid: a laser-toting nerd named Willy DuWitt.

Once rescued, the other four characters are all playable at any time, and each gets a unique ability, from psychic homing shots to ice-melting gunfire. Bucky fans might’ve noticed the absence of the hulking Bruiser Baboon, who was in the cartoon but not the original comic book. Perhaps his sprite would've been too large.

Surprisingly, the game doesn’t really pursue the atmosphere of Bucky O’Hare, with not even a synthesized 8-bit title arrangement of the cartoon’s obnoxious, catchy theme song. The game is perhaps all the better for that. If the four worlds and the later stages reveal the typical action-platform standards of fire, ice, forest, desert, and mechanized enemy fortress, players will find that each sub-stage has its own unique conceit, including mine-cart rides, ice-block puzzles, and a chase through a fleet of frog-faced imperial bombers. Not all the ideas are its own, but Bucky steals from good sources: the Red Planet has the heroes outrunning quick-flowing lava much like the lasers from Mega Man 2’s Quick Man level, while the Blue Planet includes a snake-riding sequence straight out of Battletoads.

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Wild Guns

January 6, 2007 7:02 PM |

With Becky.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This edition looks at Natsume's Wild Guns, released for the SNES in 1994 .]

The third-person “shooting gallery” game is a lost art. In fact, it was barely an art at all. It was just a misleading name given to the genre of action-shooters born when TAD Corporation's Cabal hit arcades in 1988. It wasn’t a particularly long-lived trend, most likely because every title that followed, from SNK’s Nam 1975 to Seibu Kaihatsu’s Dynamite Duke to Konami’s G.I. Joe, did little to enhance Cabal’s central idea of characters who ran across a limited foreground while dodging enemy attacks and shooting everything in front of them.

When Street Fighter II and its adjoining hordes of fighting games took over arcades in the ‘90s, the Cabal-inspired shooter and its routine play mechanics were mercilessly squashed. They lingered on through a few little-seen releases (including Nix’s surprisingly fun Pirates), but the dream essentially died with Wild Guns, a 1994 Super NES game from Natsume.

Annie's slightly maniacal grin suggests that she's on the verge of snapping completely and killing everything in her path. Clint's expression suggests that he's realized this.Just to watch it die

Natsume, while perpetually overshadowed by Konami and Capcom, built up a solid reputation during the NES era through action games like Shadow of the Ninja, S.C.A.T. and Shatterhand. Their break came in 1993, when they landed a major cult hit with Pocky and Rocky, a vastly improved Super NES port of an older Taito arcade shooter. Natsume followed it up with Pocky and Rocky 2 the next year and then, perhaps overestimating the demand for shooters, took a chance on the entirely original Wild Guns.

Pocky and Rocky 2 drew as much attention as the first, but Wild Guns was largely forgotten a month or so after its release. It had the lower-than-average production run common to Natsume releases and limited distribution through Tommo (even today, it’s tough to find a copy that isn't clearly a former rental) but there was something more basic behind its quick fade: no one really cared about shooting-gallery games during the mid-'90s, not when they had Mortal Kombat II, Donkey Kong Country, and a vast lineup of Atari Jaguar titles.

At most, Wild Guns had some praise from critics, who recognized it as an excellent game. Presumably inspired by Cabal’s sequel, the Western-themed Blood Brothers, a five-person team of Natsume programmers envisioned Wild Guns as an unpretentious tribute to the myths of the American Old West, albeit an Old West full of towering robots, futuristic tanks, flying androids, and other high-tech embellishments. In another stagecoach-era echo, the tale itself concerns the revenge-driven Annie, a gunfighter whose family was murdered by a massive criminal empire called the Kid Gang, and her only ally, the less attached Clint. They play much the same, and differ only in aesthetics. Clint pays tribute to you-know-who by wearing sensible desert clothes, while Annie wears a revealing dress, a floppy hat and a smile entirely too perky for someone who’s just seen her loved ones slaughtered.

How the South remembers the War of Northern Aggression.Like Harvest Moon, but with gutshot bank robbers

True to its genre, Wild Guns has Clint and Annie dashing to and fro before many different backdrops, including mines, railroads, the streets and bars of Carson City, and, of course, the enormous mechanical fortress of the Kid Gang’s mustachioed leader (whose name actually appears to be “Kid.”). The enemies range from generic thugs to an impressive variety of robotic creatures, and there’s an equal mix in the weaponry for Clint and Annie, who can use shotguns, grenade launchers, assault rifles, Gauss guns, a high-powered vulcan gun, a humorously ineffective "P. Shooter," and even an enemy-immobilizing lasso. Far more flexible than the typical shooting-game heroes, the pair can also double-jump, narrowly sidestep gunfire, and even toss back enemy-hurled explosives.

Wild Guns has its limits, of course. It’s an arcade game in design, if not in platform, and mowing your way through its six stages and two bonus levels doesn’t take all that long, especially not in the two-player mode. It also lacks the trackball-based control used by Cabal and other shooting-gallery games, and Clint and Annie are hampered by the fact that they can’t move while firing, the inevitable result of the SNES controller having only one directional pad.

Yet Wild Guns is rarely frustrating in its challenges, and it’s often fun just to play with the game’s smaller details, as everything from whiskey bottles to ceiling tiles can be shot. The soundtrack and visual style are both solid, and while Wild Guns never quite explains its setting, it doesn’t have to excuse the appeal of controlling a blond, manga-eyed Annie Oakley as she guns down horse-mounted bandits and Mad Max desert buggies racing beside a massive armored train.

Clint breaks the fourth wall to remind players that the point of the game is, in some capacity, to avoid bullets.Into the sunset

Unlike the other titles I’ve backhandedly complimented in this little chronicle of failures, Wild Guns fell short through no fault of its own. It’s a well-made action game that simply came too late and at too busy a time, when not even the best Cabal-style game could resurrect a buried genre.

At least there’s a nice ending to it all. In 2000, the shooting gallery game was brought back for one brilliant moment with Treasure’s Sin and Punishment on the Nintendo 64, and other games from the field have since been rediscovered through emulation. Wild Guns itself is now an underground favorite among 16-bit action games and stands as one of the rarer first-rate SNES titles. Despite its initial obscurity, it’s come into its own as a collectible classic, and an enjoyable reminder of how much potential yet remains down its path.

[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]

'Might Have Been' - BloodStorm

December 9, 2006 4:02 PM |

From the publishers of Golden Tee Golf.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Strata's BloodStorm, released for the arcade in 1994 .]

Killer Instincts

If games are judged by the company they keep, Mortal Kombat might well be the worst in history. Midway’s gruesome, hokey 1992 homage to Enter the Dragon was merely an average fighting game, but the waves of imitators fueled by its success include some of the most fascinatingly awful titles of their decade: Kasumi Ninja, Survival Arts, Way of the Warrior, Primal Rage, Shadow: War of Succession, and the mercifully unreleased Tattoo Assassins. Here you’ll find Strata’s BloodStorm.

While BloodStorm owes its very existence to Mortal Kombat, its direct sire was Strata’s first attempt at an arcade fighter, Time Killers. Perhaps the most detested Mortal knock-off, Time Killers built terrible hand-drawn art and barely-there gameplay around the novelty of cutting off an opponent’s limbs during a fight and, if the game was in a good mood, decapitating your enemy as well.

Defying all standards of taste, Time Killers was a modest success. So Strata moved on to BloodStorm, reasoning that if a shamelessly brutal game turned profits, their next arcade game should be even more violent.

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Wurm

November 26, 2006 5:04 AM |

Disclaimer: the pink dinosaur is Asmik's mascot and does not appear in Wurm. So don't get your hopes up.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Asmik and Sofel's Wurm, released in 1991 for the Nintendo Entertainment System.]

Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth belongs to that oft-ignored subset of NES games that try to be several different things at once. There’s a reason this field is oft-ignored: from The Adventures of Bayou Billy to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, most multi-genre NES titles are tepid and clumsy. But that didn't stop Wurm from trying.

In the purest sense, Wurm began with Vic Tokai’s Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode. A 1988 NES adaptation of Takao Saito’s manga, Golgo 13 mixed side-scrolling action with first-person shooting and several other play styles in a decidedly awkward manner (indeed, the game’s now remembered mostly for slipping a sex scene past Nintendo’s censors). The following year, two Vic Tokai developers, Hiroshi Kazama and Shouichi Yoshikawa, declined to work on the next Golgo title, The Mafat Conspiracy, and instead turned to a lesser-known publisher called Sofel. There, they set to work on a genre-mixing game that was entirely their own. Wurm was that game.

[Click through for more!]

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been - Thousand Arms'

November 11, 2006 4:06 PM |

thousandarmscover.png[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Atlus and Red Company’s Thousand Arms, released in 1999 for the Sony PlayStation.]

Risky business
The phrase “dating simulator” is seldom mentioned proudly among Western gamers, as it tends to conjure up images of saccharine anime romances and things unfit to describe on a work-safe website.

Such impressions paint a mostly accurate picture of the genre and its subculture in Japan, yet there are those interesting games that use dating-sim mechanics in the service of larger ideas. Thousand Arms was hardly the first to do this, but it was one of the first to bring the whole concept to North America.

While both Atlus and Red Company lent time and money to Thousand Arms, it was really the pet project of manga artist and anime creator Takehiko Ito, known for series that include Outlaw Star and K.O. Beast Century. Ito dreamt up a fantasy RPG, talked two companies into funding it, and recruited some of his anime-industry friends as staffers, including artist Hiroyuki Hataike and manga author Yuuya Kusaka. But perhaps the most important name on the project was Red Company producer Ohji Hiroi, who, at the time of Thousand Arms’ conception back in 1995, was working with Sega on Sakura Taisen, his own hybrid of strategy/RPG and dating simulator. Sakura Taisen became a phenomenon in both the game and anime sectors. Thousand Arms didn’t.

In a minor twist on convention, Ito made Thousand Arms’ hero, Meis Triumph, not a confused, tragic teenage swordsman, but rather a girl-crazed and relatively well-adjusted teenage blacksmith—a spirit blacksmith, to be specific. Rest assured that the remainder of the story’s jejune: after an attack on his hometown sends him fleeing, Meis heads for the nearest city and encounters a sweet-natured girl named Sodina, who introduces him to her blacksmith brother Jyabil and thus kicks off the game’s blacksmith-themed weapon customization. By the end of the game, Meis will traverse the world, face down an empire’s worth of enemies, and destroy a thoroughly evil would-be god.

[Click through for more.]