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Column: Might Have Been

Column: 'Might Have Been' - A Tribute To Seta's Battle Bull

June 23, 2009 8:00 AM |

[“Might Have Been” is a GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This edition looks at Seta's Battle Bull, released for the Game Boy in January 1991.]

When Seta Corporation breathed its last in January of 2009, many in the gaming press didn’t know how to mourn the company. It deserved to be remembered for something, but what was the standout Seta classic?

Most resorted to pointing out oddities like the non-racist Tom Sawyer NES game (not to be confused with Square’s hysterically racist one), the mediocre yet amusingly localized Kendo Rage, or Seta’s library of semi-pornographic mahjongg titles. Some even brought up the sad tale of Bio Force Ape, canceled just when it was about to deliver the best game ever to feature pro-wrestling cyborg simians. Yet the best Seta game might be a neglected Game Boy puzzler called Battle Bull.

Futurepunk Pengo

We must assume that Battle Bull is set in a future where the public is entertained by mechanical crane-tanks dueling in mazes, since there’s no real plotline to be uncovered. In fact, there are barely any characters aside from the anime-lookin' woman who winks repeatedly on the game’s password screen. Battle Bull is all business: your tiny shovel-tank is dropped into a labyrinth of blocks, which you push around to crush foes and avoid their own attacks.

It’s the exact same idea that Sega and Coreland used in the arcade masterpiece Pengo, though it’s enhanced for Battle Bull. The enemies show a little more variety, ranging from scuttling, block-pushing bugs to missile-firing tanks to viciously quick refrigerator robots. The blocks themselves include standard pieces to be shoved across the screen, plus stationary squares and boxes that disappear unless they’re pushed in the right direction. Battle Bull even adds pits that open and close, making it possible to lead enemies to their demise.

Column: 'Might Have Been' - Time Gal

November 13, 2008 8:00 AM |

[“Might Have Been” is a column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This week’s edition looks at Taito's Time Gal, released in the arcade in 1985, for the Sega CD in 1993, and for the PlayStation in 1996.]

Dragon’s Lair was not a good game. It didn’t really need to be. The typical arcade patrons of 1983 were quite willing to forgive awful, barely extant game structure as long as they could watch beautiful, seamless, laserdisc-streamed animation from the guy who directed The Secret of Nimh. And the laserdisc games that followed, from Don Bluth’s own Space Ace to half-cohesive anime collages like the Lupin-derived Cliff Hanger, didn’t have to be good, either, so long as they had cartoon visuals to smooth over their cheap, sudden deaths.

Time Gal was too late to ride that train. It was 1985 by the time Taito shipped it to Japanese arcades, and players were getting tired of laserdisc games that killed them over and over, with each death earning only a few more seconds’ worth of cartoon. Full-motion video games limped along into the next decade, spawning the likes of Time Traveler and far too much of the Sega CD catalog, but it was essentially over by the mid-’80s, when Time Gal’s arcade arrival was pricey, hard to translate, and too mired in anime atmosphere to interest a post-Atari America.

But Time Gal deserved better. Her title is a cut above the genre standard, with a bit more personality and cohesion than the usual live-action mishmash. More importantly, she was perhaps the world’s first human heroine from a video game. Sure, there’s Ms. Pac-Man, the mother marsupial from Kangaroo, the masked astronaut Toby from Baraduke, and the babysitter from Halloween on the Atari 2600, but Time Gal was the first game woman who wasn’t a cutesy abstraction, a by-product of a license, or ostensibly male.

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Kickle Cubicle

January 29, 2008 4:00 PM |

[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This week’s edition looks at Irem's Kickle Cubicle, released in the arcade in 1988 and for the NES in 1990.]

What was the first block-shoving puzzle game? Does Sega’s Pengo count? Probably not, but its 1982 debut helped lay the foundation for an entire genre of block-shoving that quickly matured in arcades, on computers and, of course, in the NES library.

The leader of this movement was perhaps HAL’s The Adventures of Lolo. With its blinking blue ball of a hero and morbidly cute style, it earned several sequels, gathered a cult following, scored its main characters spots in Nintendo’s Kirby franchise and, most recently, showed up on the Wii's Virtual Console.

But there existed another NES block-shoving puzzle game that deserved fans perhaps even more than Lolo. That game, the true successor to Pengo, began in 1988 as a winter-themed Irem arcade puzzler called Meikyu Jima, but it wasn’t brought to the West until 1990, when Irem ported it to the NES and gave it a title guaranteed to scare off adolescents insecure about the games they were seen playing. That title? Kickle Cubicle.

Not that 'Boxxle' is better

If the name didn’t dissuade buyers between the ages of 12 and 20, Kickle himself probably did. A smiling, spear-bald albino midget in overalls and earmuffs, he resembles some breeding of Capcom’s Snow Bros. and Mr. Clean. His story’s just as cute: the Fantasy Kingdom is conquered by the Wicked Wizard King, leaving Kickle to make his way through four puzzle-heavy lands (provinces? fiefdoms?). Along the way, he’ll rescue the captive citizenry and several princesses, one of whom resembles The Guardian Legend’s Alyssa and wears surprisingly revealing clothing for a happy little puzzle game set in a world of ice and hypothermia.

Following along where Pengo left off, Kickle Cubicle revolves around punting blocks of ice, which Kickle creates by freezing enemies with his rapid-fire breath. The cubes can be kicked to create bridges across water or squash foes (and, if you’re not careful, Kickle as well). The most basic attackers are lumbering bloblike “Noggles,” but Kickle soon faces block-kicking chickens, roaming penguins, and some less cute obstacles, including flak cannons and bouncing ninja stars.

Column: 'Might Have Been' - Trojan

January 12, 2008 4:00 PM |

[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This week’s edition looks at Capcom's Trojan, released in the arcade and NES in 1986.]

History and Wikipedia tell us that Capcom was founded back in 1979, but in every way that mattered, Capcom didn’t start until the mid-‘80s. It was only in the latter half of the decade that the company birthed the games that first defined it: Street Fighter, Mega Man, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Strider, Bionic Commando and, if you’re charitable, Forgotten Worlds.

Trojan sits somewhere in the middle of all that. It was too successful to join Capcom obscurities like Avengers and The Speed Rumbler, but it didn’t stick around long enough to become a franchise or a cult favorite. Trojan even went one step beyond the usual arcade flash-in-the-pan and missed its chance two times: once as an arcade game, and again on the NES.

Leaving the Bronx

Like countless chunks of mid-‘80s arcade machismo, Trojan wholeheartedly stole from movies and comics, piecing together a post-apocalyptic world from the bleak future of Mad Max, the broken skyscrapers of Escape from New York, and the hulking mutant thugs of Fist of the North Star. As a result, Trojan resembles some sort of Italian-made Mad Max rip-off with a title like Lost World Warrior of the Bronx Wasteland Escape 2000. In the harsh piecemeal future of Trojan, a tyrant named Achilles (who was actually a heroic figure in the Trojan War of the Illiad, but never mind that) rules over everything, possibly with the help of evil spirits, and only a clean-cut warrior named Ryu bothers to challenge him.

Trojan’s biggest inspiration, however, came from earlier side-scrolling action games like Kung Fu and Capcom’s own Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Ryu trudges through relatively short stages while enemies swarm from both sides, overwhelming him if he stops moving for too long. And when those enemies get too close, Ryu can either strike at them with his sword or block them with his shield, which absorbs several attacks before flying away and taking Ryu’s sword with it. Ryu is then left with only punches to defend himself until he recovers his sword. An interesting concept at first, the shield doesn’t really work; it can absorb only a few hits, and defending at all usually lets enemies overtake you from both sides.

Column: 'Might Have Been' - Telenet Japan

December 17, 2007 12:01 AM |

[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This week’s edition looks at Telenet Japan, a developer and publisher in business from 1983 to 2007.]

Few Japanese game developers go out with a bang. For every studio-closing spectacle like Clover’s Okami, a dozen other companies sit idle, cranking out cell phone distractions and mahjong titles until their inevitable financial disintegration. That’s what happened to Telenet Japan this past October, when years and years of utter stagnancy finally brought down the company behind Valis (upper left), El Viento, Gaiares, Cosmic Fantasy and other not-quite-famous names of the 16-bit era.

There’s a lot to be said about Telenet, about the way they started off by making golf titles and trucking simulators in the mid-'80s, about the way they made hordes of games on Japanese computers, and about the way they spawned everything from largely forgotten developers like Glodia to Namco’s still-successful Tales series. But for those of us in the West, Telenet lived and died by the console games they made, and it’s those games that show a company perpetually just shy of something great.

Swords and Schoolgirls

Telenet was never deeply entrenched in the anime business, but they were among the first game companies to ride atop Japan’s animation industry in the bubble economy of the ‘80s. There's no better example of this than Telenet's Valis. At first a clumsy PC game released by the company's Wolf Team sub-developer in 1986, Valis took a blue-haired schoolgirl named Yuko, turned her into a bare-bellied warrior, and tossed her at a dimension of monsters in a doomed attempt to rescue her cynical friend Reiko (who may have served as commentary on the trend of Japanese schoolgirls whoring themselves out to older men for shoes and Malice Mizer ringtones).

Valis was aimed at the anime crowd from the start; the game was stocked full of vibrant animated story scenes, and Yuko herself was designed by animator Osamu Nabeshima with help from Tomokazu Tokoro (who’d later come into his own by directing such modern-day anime as Haibane Renmei, NieA_7, and Hellsing Ultimate). Strangely enough, Valis never became an anime series in its own right, even though many popular games of the early ‘90s did. The best it got was a commercial supposedly handled by future Evangelion director and self-hating anime artiste Hideaki Anno.

Today, it’s hard to tell why Valis was a hit. Yuko’s story now seems trite, and the gameplay was always generic action-platform fare nearly as stiff as old-school Castlevania. Yet Valis impressed in the ‘80s and into the following decade, largely on the strength of its cinematic scenes and alluring fantasy tropes, and it steadily grew to include three better sequels, along with a few remakes and spin-offs. Telenet shipped it to the Sega Genesis, the PC-Engine, the Super NES and even, in a best-forgotten form, the Famicom/NES. The whole thing reached its peak with Valis III (upper right), which introduced two other playable characters and a wealth of stages. Valis IV had a similar lineup, minus Yuko, but by then players were getting just a bit weary of yet another Valis game about a scantily clad girl facing yet another generic monster overlord.

Column: 'Might Have Been' - Gun Force 2

November 17, 2007 12:11 AM |

GUN FORCE 2: BLAZE OF GLORY, starring Daniel Pesina and Cynthia Rothrock.[“Might Have Been” is a sorta bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This edition looks at Irem's Gun Force 2, released for the arcade in 1994.]

Metal Slug shouldn’t have succeeded, considering how games were in the mid-‘90s. Amid all the 3-D polygon revolutions and flashy new consoles and PlayStation ads with a blocky Russian dominatrix alienating female customers in droves, there wasn’t much room for Metal Slug, a side-scrolling Neo Geo action/shooter with a violently cartoonish streak and strictly 2-D gameplay. But it worked. Through either its own charms or the blind love of Neo Geo fans desperate for something that wasn’t King of Fighting Samurai Real Bout Ragnagard 3, Metal Slug did well and kept on doing well, to the point where it’s now arguably SNK’s biggest series.

Metal Slug wasn’t an SNK creation, of course. The series was devised and, up until the third game or so, developed by a smaller group called Nazca, which, in turn, had been started by programmers from Irem. Metal Slug fans were quick to uncover evidence of this in old Irem arcade games that use the same grimy, carefully detailed visual style later defined by Metal Slug. Undercover Cops, In the Hunt, Cosmic Cop, and even R-Type II all have the look, but there’s one old Irem title closer to Metal Slug than any other.

Women crying. Yep, this was made in Japan.Metal Slug Zero

Irem’s original Gun Force was a response to the Contra series, albeit one lacking the impressive bosses, smooth controls, unique weapons, and all of the other things that make Contra fun. For the sequel, Irem’s future Nazca staffers enhanced just about everything. Gun Force 2 ("Geo Storm" in Japan) was still a walk-and-fire Contra clone, but with much more impact.

Granted, most of that impact comes from the fact that everything looks so much better. The scenery brims with details, from the blackened husk of a train engine to the walls of the expected last-level crawl through an Aliens-inspired hive. It’s a dirty, burned-out, and weirdly interesting world. And, best of all, everything blows up real nice: flying bombers spew gouts of flame as they sink from view, a jointed mech boss sets a forest on fire, and boxcars go up in screen-filling blazes. And that’s just the first stage.

Irem also re-thought the game’s controls and came up with something odd: instead of basic single-gun armaments, the stars of Gun Force 2 (the man’s Max and the woman’s Lei, judging by the default name-entry screen) each carry two machineguns. One’s aim is directly controlled by the player, while the other just sort of tags along, sending its shots either a little higher or lower than the main gun. It makes for some creative, if unwieldy, firing patterns.

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Journey to Silius

October 24, 2007 12:03 AM |

Just slap a big logo over that Terminator shot, Taro.[“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 Sunsoft's Journey to Silius, released for the NES in 1990.]

Journey to Silius is the rare game that’s interesting not for what it is, but for what it almost was. Created in 1989, it was first planned as an NES adaptation of James Cameron’s The Terminator, but at some point before the decade’s end, Sunsoft lost the license, possibly to LJN. In remarkably short order, Sunsoft’s programmers yanked all but trace elements of the Terminator license and turned what remained into yet another game driven by jumping and shooting.

And so Journey to Silius arrived in 1990, in what was perhaps the busiest year ever in the NES market. Everyone wanted Super Mario Bros. 3, and, once they had it, Super C, Final Fantasy, Maniac Mansion, Mega Man 3, Crystalis, Startropics, Rescue Rangers, Ninja Gaiden II, and even B-listers like Dinowarz, Code Name: Viper and Burai Fighter all waited. Silius was probably lucky to land its one-page Nintendo Power debut.

Sunsoft's Requiem for a DreamJourney to Harlan Ellison Lawsuits

And it was partly Sunsoft’s fault. After stripping away the Terminator tie-in, the company added only a simple story. Jay’s father is a key scientist in a race to establish a new space colony. Jay’s father is murdered by terrorists, who, judging by the intro, drop an atomic bomb on him. Jay discovers this and, with an expression suggesting either murderous determination or heroin addiction, sets out to avenge his father.

A tow-headed kid in a white space suit, Jay isn’t terribly charismatic, and neither are the apparently all-robot “terrorists” he faces. Colored in various shades of gray, the enemies could easily be reused sprites from the game’s Terminator days, which would’ve needed mechanical grunts bland enough to avoid breaking the movie’s tone. In fact, half the fun of Silius comes from spotting the leftovers: spindly-legged mechs from Sunsoft’s original Terminator preview became a single sub-boss in Silius, and the final battle features a bulkier version of The Terminator’s unmistakable T-800 endoskeleton. Even the game’s first boss, a helicopter that disgorges robot ostriches, could be a revamped model of The Terminator’s flying Hunter Killer.

The scenery itself is generally disappointing, though there’s an impressive atmosphere in the first level’s vistas of charred cities and dark skies. Yes, it’s clearly the future envisioned by The Terminator, with a few embellishments (Cameron’s world of coldly genocidal machines never included cutesy wanted posters), but it quickly gives way to duller futuristic corridors and conveyor belts in the later levels.

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Battle Circuit

October 8, 2007 12:12 AM |

To be specific, it was in arcades for about two weeks back in 1997.[“Might Have Been” is a somewhat bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Capcom's Battle Circuit, released for the arcade in 1997.]

Street Fighter II may go down as Capcom’s most enduring contribution to arcades, but there’s something to be said for Final Fight, or at least the games that built on Final Fight’s basic frame and were dubbed "beat-‘em-ups" for want of a better term. They were a varied pack of brawlers, what with the Arthurian staples of Knights of the Round and the medieval Chinese chaos of Tenchi wo Kurau and the customizable mecha of Armored Warriors and the perhaps inadvisable comic tie-in of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. Yet all of them held true to the Final Fight ideals of pounding rather stupid enemies, unleashing life-draining super moves, and gobbling food straight off the ground.

The line peaked somewhere around 1994’s Alien vs. Predator and 1996’s Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara, but it didn’t end there. At Japan’s massive AOU ’97 arcade showcase, Capcom’s booth promoted three major games with towering character stands, showing Lilith and B.B. Hood from Darkstalkers 3, Yun and Elena from Street Fighter III, and, surprisingly, a cybernetic superhero and a big pink ostrich from a game called Battle Circuit. It was a small, short-lived thing, but it was also the last of its kind.

The best part? He turns into short, fat Elvis when he's beaten.Captain Commando 2: The Age of LSD

A big pink ostrich, wearing eye patch and carrying a pigtailed girl, isn’t particularly out of place here. Seemingly based on the weirder elements of Capcom’s superhero-themed Captain Commando, Battle Circuit’s world is an anything-goes future of planet-jumping spaceships, cyborgs, aliens and tights-wearing defenders of justice, all rendered in with the inventive comic style that Capcom had pretty much perfected by the mid-‘90s.

The five selectable characters are a similarly unique bunch: the basic, balanced machine-man Cyber Blue, the elastic Captain Silver, the speedy catwoman (and fashion model) Yellow Iris and her pet fox-squirrel Fin, and the flamingo-colored ostrich, simply called Pink, and her handler, Pola. And then there’s Alien Green, a mass of eyeballs, fangs, and tentacles.

Spurred on by a cloyingly upbeat employer named Harry, the bounty hunters’ shared story is a simple war against a crime syndicate hunting for the all-powerful Shiva computer system. Unlike the branching, half-coherent narrative of Capcom’s Dungeons and Dragons titles, Battle Circuit’s a step back to the straight runs of Final Fight, with simple dialogue, no diverging paths and only one real secret.

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Chester Field

September 10, 2007 4:04 PM |

Guys, at least put a waterfall or something on your title screen. Zelda's going to eat you alive.[“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 Vic Tokai's Chester Field, released for the Famicom in 1987 and the Commodore 64 in 1989.]

Nintendo would never have another year quite like 1987. The NES had just broken through the anti-videogame bias that lingered in the American public after that Great Atari Crash of ’83, and the Sega Master System provided only token resistance in the console market. Nintendo would become an even bigger cultural icon in the years to come, but 1987 saw the NES truly realizing its potential, and a limited software library meant that any game more promising than, say, Chubby Cherub had a shot at becoming a cult favorite.

Chester Field never had that shot, but it came close. An action-RPG released for the Famicom that June, it was among Vic Tokai’s first console games, and it was set to lead the company’s first wave of NES titles in the U.S, even landing ad space in those Fun Club Newsletters that predated the marketing wonder of Nintendo Power. Yet Vic Tokai inexplicably backed off later that year, and their localized Chester Field vanished from release schedules just when it would have mattered most.

Chester Field Episode II: Attack of the Furries.Fantasy Island

Chester Field’s title screen gives way to an introduction surprisingly elaborate for an early NES game: when the king of Guldred is murdered by General Guemon, a loyal knight named Gazem flees for the island of Chester Field with the deposed queen and her daughter Karen. Along the way, Guemon’s forces attack their ship, kill the queen, abduct Karen, and leave Gazem to die. The fatally wounded knight washes up on the shores of Chester Field and lives just long enough to sum up the plot for a young man named Kein. Our hero immediately sets out to rescue the princess, because there’s not much else to do on an island with only a few dozen people.

At least Chester Field’s scarce residents are all shopkeepers, village elders, and other fairly useful villagers. In each of the game’s eight levels, they offer numerous weapon upgrades and items, and the game progresses surprisingly fast; Kein can pick up a mace, the game’s other major weapon, on the first level. And though the story’s a routine save-the-princess yarn, there’s a twist or two, such as when the game’s second-to-last boss is apparently revealed to be that very princess.

Chester Field’s origins are also curious. The game’s story is introduced as “Episode II,” but there’s no record of a previous chapter in Vic Tokai’s catalog, and though its advertising sports the manga-style art common to most Japanese RPGs of its day, it doesn’t seem to be tied to any novel, comic, or other license. Perhaps it’s just trying to be like Star Wars. Or Xenogears.

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Monster World IV

August 26, 2007 8:03 AM |

Holy crap, Asha is ugly.[“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 Sega and Westone's Monster World IV, released for the Mega Drive in 1994.]

The Monster World series is often recalled as one collective gem that went unappreciated in its time, but that isn't quite true: not only were there mediocre installments, but the series also had plenty of exposure.

If the original Wonder Boy was quickly overshadowed by Hudson’s fully licensed Adventure Island rip-off of it, Westone quickly developed the Monster World/Wonder Boy/Monster Lair/Whatever line into a succession of fairly popular action-RPGs, and nearly all of them came out in American and Europe. The only truly underrated, only-in-Japan Monster World was, sadly enough, the last and best of them.

There, that's better.Wonder Girl in Monster Land

Monster World IV is perhaps the only part of the series that can’t be mislabeled a “Wonder Boy” game; instead of an armored (or diapered) young swordsman, the lead is a silent, green-haired girl named Asha (“Arsha” shows up in some halfway official materials, but I don’t like it as much ), who pluckily departs her parents’ caravan to see the world.

And instead of a rudimentary Western fantasy realm, Monster World IV’s world is the stuff of 16-bit Arabian myth, full of ornate palaces, turban-sporting shopkeepers and bustling, sandy bazaars. The only things truly out of place are a breed of round flying creatures called Pepelogoo ("Peperogu" is another possible spelling, but it's not as aptly cute).

Shortly after arriving in the kingdom of Rapadagna, Asha hatches a rare blue “Pepe,” and it follows her throughout the game. A floating, dutiful little blob resembling both the title creature of My Neighbor Totoro and the Gundam franchise’s Haro robots (essentially the R2-D2 of Japanese pop culture), Pepe seems a highly marketable mascot that Sega never really tapped.