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Column: Parallax Memories

COLUMN: 'Parallax Memories' - Cho Aniki

August 8, 2006 12:01 PM |

Cho Aniki Cover image['Parallax Memories' is a regular weekly column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles Masaya’s 1992 Shooter: Cho Aniki]

Not Homosexual

If you know of Cho Aniki, you probably know of it as that bizarre “flaming homosexual” shooter. While the bizarre part is correct, the gay part is at best something that you proclaimed on your own, or that you heard someone else say. Nothing in the game is directly homosexual in nature, although Freud might find your assumption intersing.

The title of the game translates roughly into Super Big Brother (no relation to 1984), referring to Sampson and Adon, who are only support characters for the first title. The playable characters are the celestial Edaten and Benten of Hindu and Japanese mythology. What the two sets of characters have in common is beyond me and my very limited Japanese knowledge. I don’t think that really matters because the unique atmosphere of the game still comes across even if the message doesn’t.

Elvis LIVES!Atlas Flexed

The game plays like just about every side scrolling shooter available at the time. The two characters are only slightly different in their charge attack, and both have a screen clearing bomb. The level design is fairly empty and the colors are mostly dark. Despite all of this the standard design and gameplay elements are well put-together, even if they don’t really offer anything that you haven’t already seen a dozens times. So then, why play it?

Giant chess pieces in space. Elvis space ships. Two muscle-bound brothers pruning flowers from their heads. Those are the biggest reasons. The sprites and graphics defy the imagination. Each level is broken up into three or four sections, each with unique bosses in them, and even the tamest are still challenging. This game, which has you soaring through a cityscape or into outer space with original and hilarious enemies at every turn, is the epitome of imaginative thinking in a stale genre.

I'm too sexy for my... most everythingFlex for Me

The music also separates this game from the pack. Written by Koji Hayama, the soundtrack is perfectly haunting, and at times beautiful. The juxtaposition of the exceptionally strange characters with phantasmagorical choral music just adds to the feeling of unease that the game creates. The flat-out gorgeous music itself was so popular the soundtrack actually outsold the game.

Cho Aniki is hard to properly evaluate outside of our knee-jerk reactions to it. The controls are somewhat clunky by today’s standards, and the bullet patterns are pretty tame. But you can’t find this type of experience anywhere else. And if you think that large men in Speedos, posing with oiled up bodies and rippling muscles is gay, well I know a governor who has a bone to pick with you.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]

COLUMN: 'Parallax Memories' - 32X

July 25, 2006 3:13 AM |

32X['Parallax Memories' is a regular weekly column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles Sega's accessory: The 32X]

The 32-bit Promise

The 32X is the reason that I lost faith in Sega. As a kid, I was jealous of my friend's Master System and its superior graphics. A little older and able to make my own purchasing decisions, I was an early adopter of the Genesis and Game Gear, which I proudly tauted as the best possible systems in their respective fields (even though I had to carry around an adapter for the Game Gear). The Sega CD was a little too much for me, and after playing a few games of Sewer Shark at a friend's house, my desire to own one waned. The 32X, on the other hand, got me excited.

The 32X was the first console add-on that fundamentally changed a console into something else. Unlike the CD add-on, which only expanded the current possibilities of the system, the 32X actually altered what the Genesis was capable of. The original system was only capable of 64 colors on screen (although a few games had some programming trickery which gave the appearance of more), yet the 32X promised over 32,000. The processor was also truly 32-bit with onboard scaling, rotation, and 3-D capabilities that were previously impossible.

The ADS!What Went Wrong?

Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama started the cartridge-based 32X project (originally titled Project Jupiter) . But Sega found that a CD-based system was more viable, and the production of the 32X was moved to the United States along with some of Sega of Japan’s engineers. SOJ continued independently with Project Saturn, the CD-based 32-bit system that would become the Playstation’s main competition.

In order to meet the promised release date of Christmas 1994, the 32X was released with the hardware availability well below initial demand (much as the PS2 and X360 would be in later years). Games were cut down and scaled back to get them out on time. Levels were cut and game-crashing bugs were left unresolved. On top of that, many systems had compatibility problems or were just plain faulty. Though initially popular and surrounded with hype, the console proved to be a major failure.

32X on the Console
A Quick Death

Unlike NEC’s console, the 32X did not thrive in any environment. There was only one region-exclusive game for the console in Japan (Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV). And the Saturn—which had superior hardware and software—had already been released in Japan by the time the 32X was available. In the United States, it debuted only six months after the United States release of the 32X.

Sega promised to support the 32X despite the release of the Saturn. But it was a lie. In less than two years, the final game for the 32X was released; the system never even had a “killer app” to justify its price. The system quietly died after being lampooned time and time again by the major gaming news outlets. All the goodwill that Sega had built up with me on the Genesis was in ruin after the 32X. I like to think that the Saturn's steady decline was a direct result of the 32X’s antics. I know it’s why I never purchased a Saturn until just two years ago.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]

COLUMN: 'Parallax Memories' - Turbo Duo

July 11, 2006 3:41 AM |

US Turbo Duo Box['Parallax Memories' is a regular weekly column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles NEC's console: The Turbo Duo]

A Hell of a Life

I admit that while writing this column, I have been woefully negligent of one system for far too long. This console was released in October of 1992 in the US and died in December of 1995, enjoying hardly more than three years of life. If you could even call it a life. NEC and Hudson’s Turbo Duo was the dream of many young, broke gamers but the possession of few.

The Sega CD was released the same month and was technically inferior to the Turbo Duo. But the established market of Genesis owners and the deep pockets of Sega helped to crush the Duo. Of course, considering how poorly the Sega CD did anyways, "crushing" may not be the best description.

Bonk, NOT Johnny TurboThe PC-Genjin

It is a little unfair to start with the Duo though. The original console was the TurboGrafx-16, which was released about three years earlier in 1989 for the US. In 1987, the PC Engine was released in Japan, one year prior to even the Sega Genesis. The console also saw an extremely small release in 1990 in Europe as the Turbografx. If you’re lost, the PCE and TG16 are the same thing in a different plastic housing.

To help sell their system, Hudson Soft and NEC needed a mascot. Sega was promoting their system with Sonic and his "attitude," so the TG16 tried to cash in on their ornery little cave man, Bonk. (In Japan, Bonk was known as PC Genjin, which was not only a pun. "Genjin" functionally translates into "primitive man.") It worked well, and early sales of the system were strong in the US.

It didn’t last long though. The early sales were quickly killed by the Genesis, and the TG16 was taking a back seat to even the original Nintendo Entertainment System by 1991. Shortly after that, the TurboGrafx CD add-on was released and doing abysmally, with only five games released during its six-month life span.

Japanese PCE Duo. Looks just like mine, but its not. I don't have mine here right now. Perhaps later. Seriously, it looks just like mine does
But the Soul Still Burns

By late '92, NEC is ready to release the total package of TG16 plus TGCD, with a few additional bits, as the Turbo Duo. Sales started off decent, and brought back some interest to the dying platform. For $299, you received six CD bundled games and one random Turbo Chip (also known as the HuCARD, which is a thin card on which games are stored). The system could take full advantage of every game previously released for NEC consoles as well as Super CD games, which otherwise required a special card to be played with a TGCD.

But by next year's holiday season, the system was scarce, and by '94, it was almost impossible to find one. The system was dead in 1995. Dead in America, that is. The US only saw about 75 CD games; Japan got over 270. Of the 300 plus HuCards that were released in Japan, the US hardly received 100. The PC Engine saw new games all the way into 1999, even though the US branch had completely shut down four years earlier.

This system intimidated and eluded me for years. On all corners of the internet, amazing things were whispered about this rare and haunting console from my youth. It wasn't until after I had finally acquired one of the most coveted games for the PCE CD that I finally ended up breaking down and purchasing the Japanese CD behemoth. That was a few years ago, and there's still so, so much to catch up on.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]

COLUMN: 'Parallax Memories' – Alien Soldier

July 4, 2006 8:40 PM |

ENGRISH IN CAPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!['Parallax Memories' is a regular weekly column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles Treasure's sci-fi action game for Sega Genesis: Alien Soldier]

VISUALSHOCK! SPEEDSHOCK! SOUNDSHOCK! NOW IS TIME TO THE 68000 HEART ON FIRE!

Rarely today will a console game actively and repeatedly kick a player in the groin to the point of hospitalization (though Devil May Cry 3 and Ninja Gaiden come to mind). Super-hard difficulty is no longer the gold standard in the gaming industry. But Treasure's 1995 rarity Alien Soldier is definitely part of the Old Guard. To quote Treasure Corporation's CEO (Shacho) Masato Maekawa, "Alien Soldier was made from the beginning for 'Mega Drivers Custom' so of course that one is difficult."

But Alien Soldier is not only famous for its difficulty, it has one of the most whacked out stories and some of the best worst Engrish ever. If the title screen is not enough to convince you, here is a line from the intro: "The shadow of the evil terrolist [sic] called Scarlet blocked the way to the outside universe for human beings." It goes on to make a whole lot less sense involving the characters Epsilon-Eagle and Xi-Tiger. It's not really important, but it is funny: the game is so firmly seated in Engrish that you wonder, why bother with a story at all?

Epsilon Eagle will protect the world from the Scarlet.Xi-Tiger Sensed the Existence of Epsilon

Alien Soldier is the boiled-down essence of Gunstar Heroes. Epsilon-Eagle's job is to take down thirty-one bosses over twenty-eight levels as quickly as possible. And nothing else. The weapons are similar to Gunstar Heroes, but now you can hold three weapons rather than just two. While there are "areas" and "stages," they are more like refuel stations between the bosses. These levels last only about two to four screens, about ten to fifteen seconds, and most of the enemies are about as hostile as a slug.

If you don't want to take the time to master Alien Soldier, it's best not to even start playing. The game is all about mastery. It can be beaten in as few as ten minutes, but it takes a long time to get that good. Learning how to beat the bosses and how to get the most health naturally leads to faster progression through the game.

Does that thing look like a... yes, omg, it does.He Also Flew Away, Chasing after Xi-Tiger.

Gunstar Heroes is about keeping as many ideas inside of one project as it can, Alien Soldier is about refining those ideas as much as possible. While options seem plentiful at the beginning (there are over a dozen ways to display your health and ammo) you quickly realize that the game is nothing more than a boss parade spiked with pure energy. Where Gunstar Heroes's levels are long and very detailed, Soldier's are short and generic.

Even though some bosses are the same in both games, they fight quite differently, faster and more aggressively. In Gunstar Heroes, the bosses are very stylish and can be defeated in multiple ways. In Soldier, though occasionally you'll enter a free-form battle, most bosses are just large enemies with a single, direct route to destruction.

Gunstar Super/Future Heroes falls somewhere in the middle. Instead of having a few long levels, it has many short ones. The gameplay is not as improvisational as Gunstar Heroes and not as rigid as Alien Soldier. The length of the Super/Future, while shorter than the original, is longer than Soldier. There is a trilogy here, if you want to stretch the idea far enough. I highly recommend giving Alien Soldier a shot, now that it is not as highly priced as it was: just make sure you understand that Alien Soldier is for "Mega Drivers Custom."

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]

COLUMN: 'Parallax Memories' – Sonic & Knuckles

June 27, 2006 8:58 AM |

LOCKED AND LOADED!['Parallax Memories' is a regular weekly column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles SEGA’s locked-on: Sonic & Knuckles.]

More Than Just Blast Processing

Last week was Sonic the Hedgehog’s 15th Birthday. You all knew that though, right? Well, I guess that makes it late for a party, but let’s have one anyways! The original Sonic the Hedgehog was released for the Genesis in June 1991; its star was to be the mascot for the new Sega, and he ascended to the status of pop icon. Since I’ve already talked about how one of the initial designs for Sonic ended up, and I assume that most of you already know the original game with passionate familiarity (if not the original will be released for the GBA later this year), I’m skipping ahead a bit.

In the winter of 1994, no longer a child, I was purchasing my own games, but money was pretty tight. I heavily debated which game would be worth the most for my money. I was bombarded with television advertisements for a game that promised to give me not only one game, but also allow you to attach other game cartridges which would expand their play as well: Sonic & Knuckles. Initially I was going to hold off for Christmas and hope to get it from a loving family member, but I caved in—I must be weak against advertising or have a soft spot for midgets.

The O.G. Logo? Who can say? Where is Tails? What is an echidna? These questions answered next week!Locked On

Back then, I was not as knowledgeable in games, so I didn’t know what went into the creation of Sonic & Knuckles. I just knew that I could play as that flying ... what was he? Oh yeah, an echidna. Initially, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was to be twice as long as it was when released. To get a game out on schedule, the second half of Sonic 3 was cut out, and the first half was polished into a final product. The other half was then completed and also turned into a standalone game, Sonic & Knuckles, released with lock-on technology. The top of the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge would lift open and you could then “lock-on” the Sonic 3 cartridge on top to create the complete game.

When the two games were combined, and upon completion of Sonic 3, you move right into the levels on the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge. The rivals become friends and team up to stop the real enemy: Dr. Robotnik. As further evidence, the stage select shows inaccessible levels in Sonic 3 that were later included in S&K, and if you look at the sound test you can even listen to music from those levels. With the two games locked together, the vision is finally completed and many new things can be found, including mini-games, more bosses, side stories, more saves, additional music, changed icons, new forms, and more emeralds.

Don't touch the red jems... balls... err, spheres
Blue Bonus

As I said, the lock-on technology promised more than just one game; you could now also play as Knuckles in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (which was bundled in with many Genesis systems and is probably one of the most common games for the system). Unlike Sonic 3, however, Sonic 2 was not initially designed for use with the red spiky-haired mammal. This makes many parts more difficult, if not exceptionally frustrating. Still, the ability to completely explore every inch of a game that I thought I knew inside out made up for this.

Curious as I was, and even though it was not mentioned anywhere, I figured I would attempt to play Sonic the Hedgehog 1 using lock-on technology. It didn’t work, but I was treated to one of the mini-games from Sonic & Knuckles: the blue-sphere game. Sonic 1 will allow you to play though all 134,217,728 possible random combinations of the blue-sphere game if you have the mental capacity to do so. Experimenting with other games leads only to single blue-sphere levels.

The only negative thing about Sonic & Knuckles was that it was the first purchase of a Genesis game I made which had a cardboard box. Sonic and Knuckles gave me much more than any game had previously offered from a single purchase, and because of this, no Sonic game released since has been anywhere near as important to me. Hopefully Sonic Team can deliver sometime in the future, but so far they have been largely unsuccessful.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: As you might remember us recently reporting, Turner's GameTap service for PC just added officially licensed versions of Sega's Sonic The Hedgehog, Sonic 2, and Sonic 3 with the lock-on technology, if you want to see what MattW is talking about in this column without digging out your Genesis. UPDATE: Commenter JohnH points out: "Sonic Mega Collection has included games that account for all the "lock-on" configurations, including using Sonic 1 to play Blue Sphere, so that's probably the best way to experience them, since Mega Collection is the same price as two months of Gametap.' Good man!)

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]

COLUMN: 'Parallax Memories' - Mega Drive Encyclopedia Book Review

June 20, 2006 6:01 AM |

sticker on the front['Parallax Memories' is a regular weekly column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles SEGA’s: Continue Japanese info book.]

FOR MEGA DRIVERS CUSTOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

As an introduction to this little side story I just want to make it perfectly clear that I have almost no knowledge of Japanese besides recognizing the occasional kana or the characters for Save and Load. Knowing this (though I wish I could change it at times) I recently went ahead and purchased the Mega Drive Encyclopedia. It was pretty expensive and I could not find any kind of information on the book outside of the store that I was getting it from, so I just dove in and bought.

---

front.jpg back.jpg

Visual Shock!

The book itself comes in a nice black box with gold letters on the front identifying it as “16-BIT.” On top of that there is an interesting sticker attached to the plastic wrap that gives me either a distinct sense of excitement or the idea that someone was getting paid per punctuation mark.

Turning the box over reveals an interesting item: a Genesis gashapon (capsule toy). Specifically, it is not a Mega Drive, and even the strange box sticker brings this to your attention. The box is about 2” thick, and unfortunately the plastic container that holds the gashapon in place takes up a good inch of that space.

The dimensions of the book are approximately 8” high by 5” wide and it has a nice thin dust cover protecting it. On the book itself (under the dust cover) is an artistic picture of the Mega Drive, printed on the corners of the book as though it is shining through shadows. The paper stock of the book is high quality and a good weight. The words are all very clear and the color is perfect without any bleeding or blurring.


pagetwoandone.jpgpagethree.jpg

Sound Shock!

The Encyclopedia is divided into three main parts. These parts start at the time of each of the three main Mega Drive releases: The Mega Drive, the Mega CD, and the 32X. The book is further divided by year starting in 1988 and ending in 1996. Each year is also noted with a black and white pictures from what I assume are important pieces of Japanese contemporary history.

There are reviews for 554 Japanese-released Mega Drive games for the consoles and accessories. They are broken up anywhere from one to three per page. At the end of each part of the book is a new interview with important people who worked with the Mega Drive. The only person who I recognized was Rieko Kodama of Phantasy Star fame. I am happy to report that many of the game highlighted in this column were made into one-page review items.

SPEED.jpgchapter.jpg

Speed Shock!

But what this all boils down to is disappointment. To clarify, my disappointment is in the fact that I don’t understand the language. This is a fantastic set for Mega Drive fans. It’s comprehensive and has many new interviews and features with interesting facts that may have been previously unknown. The layout is spartan and gorgeous, and the love of the system can be seen on every page.

There are no cover shots for most of the games and even titles that were once in English were converted to kanji and kana; this makes it exceptionally difficult for me to learn of new titles I may have missed out on (my initial reason for the purchase) . So while it may not have been a smart purchase for me, I know that someone is going to get a lot of value from this.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]

COLUMN: 'Parallax Memories' - Umihara Kawase

June 13, 2006 7:14 AM |

Umihara Kawase SFC Box Cover.jpg['Parallax Memories' is a regular weekly column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles TNN/NHK SC’s 1994 bizarre platformer for the Super Famicom: Umihara Kawase]

Hook

Umihara Kawase is one of the most surreal games that I have ever played. In case you haven't had the pleasure, it's a platforming, grappling-hooking, fishing, action rubber band simulation game. That sounds confusing, though, so just visualize a grappling hook game in which your grappling hook is a fishing lure attached to a rubber fishing line.

The game itself takes place inside of the dream-like world of Umihara Kawase, the name of the main character as well as the game. The name is made up of four kanji: sea (umi), belly (hara), river (kawa), back (se). It is an old fishing proverb that means "sea fish are fat in the belly; river fish are fat in the back." So, now you get the pun, maybe.

In a tight spot with only a goldfish in sight!Line

The subtitle of Umihara Kawase is, roughly, Rubbering Action Game. With her rubber fishing line and hooked lure Umihara can either catch fish or hook onto walls, platforms, pistons, and treadmills. While it may sound rather plebian, rest assured that this is not your father's fishing.

The creatures all walk around with two legs and range from coelacanths to eels. You can hook them from any angle, and they are rendered momentarily unconscious while you reel them in (how this small girl can fit fish twice her size into her backpack I will never know).

Everything you can do with your hook and line you can do in the first level of the game; you gain no more items or abilities. What you do gain is knowledge from brief visual tutorials before the first levels. They show how to appropriately dodge enemies while hooking them in, swing down from ledges, use momentum, and many other useful actions that you'll probably discount when you first encounter them but become essential as the game progresses.

As you get more accustomed to the level design and enemy placement it’s easy to notice things hidden in the earlier levels. These were put there for master fishermen who know how to get in and out of sticky situations. (Sophomoric, overdone pun removed for my and your sanity. - Ed.) Little ledges just off the edge of the screen, seemingly unreachable, hold extra lives (backpacks). When you first start playing, while you have the abilities to reach these areas, you don't have the experience or skill – but then, when you first start playing you don't really need the extra lives as much either. Each of these little challenges is a puzzle unto itself, and the choice to wager your current life for the payoff of a one-up is entirely yours to make, but be aware that it's quite possible you'll acquire the backpack only to find yourself stuck on a platform with no obvious way off.

Giant Tadpole Boss. As a strange twist of evolution the tadpole gives birth to frogs.And Sinker

The game, like pretty much every good platforming and puzzle game, is one-hundred percent about its level design. Where's that fish heading? How do I get over there? How will I get off of there? Hey, might that be a special warp door? Are my thumbs physically capable of employing this strategy? Sometimes, though, the game breaks this purity, and spawns a fish where you're about to land or too close to another. Unfortunately even if you have your plan of attack routed about as perfectly as it can be the game will occasionally throw a wrench in the gears by randomly spawning fish either into an area that you are about to land on or swing into, or just too close to another enemy to be caught in the remaining time.

Bland, digitized photo backgrounds aside, the game is delightful. From all the silly little details of the walking fish, to the way that Umihara winds her reel and the red and white of the fishing line. It’s difficult to get into, but once the initially steep learning curve is overcome you can really begin to enjoy it. The game received a sequel for the PSone titled Umihara Kawase: Shun. If we're lucky, one of our other guys here at GameSetWatch will take on that one - but for now, if you've got a Super Famicom handy, give Umihara Kawase a try.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]

COLUMN: 'Parallax Memories' - Ecco The Dolphin

June 6, 2006 5:59 AM |

Ecco Mega Drive Cover['Parallax Memories' is a regular weekly column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles Novotrade International's underwater adventure: Ecco the Dolphin]

Tide of adventure

One of the most important and difficult things for a game to accomplish is the atmosphere. From the newest sci-fi FPS to the earliest 8-bit platformers, they worry about sound, lighting, and color to immerse the player into their worlds. One of the key elements in this equation of atmosphere is audio, not only the sound effects from your actions, but also (and sometimes more importantly) the music.

One of the major problems with 16-bit and pre-16-bit games is that the music was entirely synthesized interpretations of real instruments. This style bores many people who don't enjoy chiptune music beyond humming the underworld theme of Super Mario Brothers (though this is not always the case). There is an artificial wall between the players and the game that prevents them from full immersion. If nothing else, the use of compact-disc media started tearing down this wall with Red Book audio. Novotrade International knew this and jumped on the opportunity to create one of the most immersive and atmospheric games of the 16-bit era.

Ecco still has friendsA sea of discovery

Ecco the Dolphin has been released many times on different platforms and is a fairly well-known game. I hope everyone can understand if I skimp on the details for this game under the assumption of familiarity. Besides, all you need to know about the game is on the cover. But more importantly, it's a game about loneliness. The game's atmosphere and plot details emphasize this theme, but its story elements are introduced gently enough that they never detract from the real star of the game--not the dolphin, but the dark, claustrophobic arena of the ocean depths.

Mood plays an incredibly significant role in the game, and so you must take music into great consideration when choosing which version to play. Obviously, this is where the Sega CD comes in. By placing special emphasis on the sound of the game for the CD version, Tassonyi Kadocsa created the quintessential version of Ecco. Spencer Nilsen produced the music for the CD version, and while some fan cliques accuse him of butchering the US version of Sonic CD, he created quite a masterful soundtrack to accompany Ecco's dark and desolate ocean setting.

Ecco so lonelyDeep sea diving

It's quite a task to reproduce a pelagic setting in a game. The few earlier attempts failed, and most platforming games up before then had terrible underwater control, so it is a singular feat that the game moves so freely and smoothly. It captures the flow and elegance of fish through a glass tank, at an aquarium, or in a zoo. Navigating gracefully around the ocean floor and through the countless coral catacombs is just the start of the game. The backgrounds become darker and darker as you swim further and further underwater. You begin to run out of oxygen, and you are constantly harassed by enemies and obstacles while you attempt to reach each tiny pocket of air. The game keeps Ecco further and further from the surface until you are forbidden from returning there.

If the atmosphere and immersion of the CD version is not a good enough reason to track it down, its playability should be. The exceptionally frustrating difficulty of the Genesis/Mega Drive version has been toned down for the CD version. Restart points are now closer to the place of death, instead of much further back in the level (or even at the start). As well-known as this game is, most people haven’t really played it. For one reason or another (perhaps you were too young, or it was too hard, or you were struggling to be a man at an age where dolphins were totally just for girls) it goes overlooked, and people who've never played it assume they must have, once, somewhere, like at a friend's house or something. Perhaps, now is the time to go back and give it that chance.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]

COLUMN: 'Parallax Memories' - Fushigi no Dungeon 2: Fuurai no Shiren

May 30, 2006 9:51 AM |

Title Screen With Tabletop Mountain['Parallax Memories' is a regular weekly column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles Chunsoft’s roguelike: Fushigi no Dungeon 2: Fuurai no Shiren]

What-like? Roguelike.

Wandering around in a world of hash marks, peroids, and number symbols may be familiar to the longtime gamers here. Entering a room and encountering the letter "D" could cause you to sweat after running though ASCII hell for days. This game would either have been Rogue itself, or a roguelike. When Enix commissioned a spinoff of the Dragon Quest series from Chunsoft, the result was a strange Super Famicom roguelike based on Torneko, the chubby shop keeper of Dragon Quest IV.

Chunsoft is a small development company - so small that they don't even have a Wikipedia entry (remedy this!). Their first game, that commission for Enix, was Torneko no Daibouken: Fushigi no Dungeon (Torneko's Great Adventure: Mysterious Dungeon ), but this article is not about the tubby salesman. This is about their first non-commissioned creation: Fushigi no Dungeon 2: Fuurai no Shiren (Mysterious Dungeon 2: Shirin the Wanderer). Released December 1995 in Japan only, Shiren uses a roguelike structure to create a hellishly difficult action role-playing hybrid.

Dungeon QuoteThe Impasse Valley

Shiren the Wanderer is firmly entrenched in Japanese culture and mythology. In a rain hat and cloak made of grass, Shiren attempts to reach the dwelling place of the Golden Condor at the summit of Tabletop Mountain, beyond Impasse Valley. He isn't the first to attempt this, and the designation “Wanderer” refers to “the men endlessly seeking this place.”

Death is a major theme of the game. Traversing the dungeons (and forests, towns, mountains, etc.) will lead to death in a multitude of manners which are all recorded on the high score chart. The game teaches you how to deal with this, or rather you slowly learn how to approach and survive the multitude of ways to die. It's notable and initially frustrating that when you die, you lose everything: money, equipment, and even your levels of experience.

There are cushions in place to dull the pain these hundreds of deaths. At certain points you can relinquish your equipment to have it return to warehouses throughout the game. There are towns where you can continuously upgrade your equipment in preparation for a run-through in the future. You can also enlist certain characters to aid you in your Wandering. And perhaps most importantly, the levels are randomly generated every time you enter them, without any of the problems that have plagued random levels from other developers (i.e. unreachable areas, impassable walls, blocked exits).

On the Bridge
A Talking Weasel

To keep playing to reach the eventual end is only the original goal. The people in the towns through which you pass remember what you did when you were there previously. While you may die and restart and die and restart, the towns keep going, and visiting them will uncover new surprises about them and their progressing stories. Eventually, you begin look forward to your returns to these towns and start to live for the journey, and not just the destination.

Unfortunately the few Chunsoft games that have made it outside of Japan have been unsuccessful. The company's games are like climbing a mountain: unless you're strong enough and smart enough, you'll fall. Picking yourself up and starting again from the bottom, and maybe reaching that next ledge, are what these games are about. The concept seems foreign to most gamers these days, who are used to having their hands held by game designers, and for whom losing all their “progress” (sad, superficial, numerical progress) is like a slap in the face.

This fall, though, Chunsoft’s Pokemon Rescue Team games are coming out in Europe and the US for both the GBA and DS. I am greatly anticipating these Chunsoft roguelikes, and recommend that you don't let their “children's game” trappings steer you away or lull you into a false sense of security.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]

COLUMN: 'Parallax Memories' - Snatcher

May 23, 2006 2:36 PM |

Mega CD Cover['Parallax Memories' is a regular weekly column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles Konami’s cyberpunk adventure: Snatcher]

Junked

Snatcher is a game that many people know, yet few have played. And if you haven’t played it yet, I don't know that I can change your mind with only a short column even though I will try. One doesn't quite play this game so much as just progress its story. But though its gameplay is lacking, Snatcher makes up for it in just about every other possible way.

The only English-language version was released in late 1994 for the Sega/Mega CD, although many versions of the game were released over three generations of Japanese consoles. The game takes full advantage of the CD format; programming tricks increase the number of colors the Genesis can display on screen, and the extensive voice acting is enjoyable and well produced. While not a commercial success (mainly due to Sega's mishandling of the Sega/Mega CD), it developed an enormous cult following and is highly sought after to this day.

Neo Kobe CityNeo Kobe Pizza

Gillian Seed has recently been assigned to the Anti-Snatcher task force where he will be a Junker eliminating snatchers—artificial life-forms who take the skin of humans and wear it. Both Gillian and his wife have amnesia (which doesn't come off as cheesy as it sounds) and are separated as they try to regain their memories. They make their new homes in Neo Kobe Japan, a city both skeptical and scared of the snatcher invasion which has been leaked by the press. The scene is set for a sci-fi detective story.

While Snatcher is usually touted as being based on Blade Runner, anyone who has read Philip K. Dick's sci-fi novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the inspiration for the film), knows that Kojima was also familiar with it. As both the writer and director of the game, a young Hideo Kojima shows his affinities for film and literature, even as he masterfully presents a piece of media that could only be accomplished as a videogame.

Snatcher is basically a menu-based adventure game; even the navigation goes through menus. Occasionally, you will get a shooting-gallery-esque section where you are to aim and shoot on a grid. The Konami light gun—The Justifier—can be used at these sections (though I can't imagine how it would be possible). Above the menus, you see your location from Gillian's perspective. "Looking" and "Investigating" will become your friends as you throw away logically looking in strategic locations and just search and look at everything a couple times before moving on.

Console The Tears Romantic Cyberpunk

I don't mean to sound negative about the game, just its mechanics. The story is engaging and masterfully told. The characters in the game all feel like more than just two-dimensional caricatures of real people. The relationship between Gillian Seed and his wife is truly touching. Because of the intimate and personal nature of their conversations, I always felt the need to return to the privacy of Gillian's apartment when calling her, even though I could have been anywhere. And just like in his most famous series (Metal Gear Solid), Kojima constantly reminds you that you are playing a game.

I hesitate to give concrete examples for fear of spoiling the parts that make this game so exceptional, but the game twists your perceptions with questions in a conversation tree, with options in the menus, and even by using your TV against you. Snatcher creates some of the most original and memorable videogame moments I have ever witnessed.

Looking above, I realize there is too much to say about the game and all its little touches. Touches like the name of Gillian's mechanical assistant "Metal Gear Mk2," the little homages to Konami games like Goemon and Castlevania, the visual jokes and puns, and personal memos from Konami staff and Kojima himself. All these things are just a small part of the whole—even combined with the clunky controls—that make this one of the best stories told in a game ever. On October 27, 2005, Konami renewed the Snatcher trademark, and although all it means is that US law requires the renewal every five years, at least we know that they have not forgotten the series.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]