The Future of Pokémon

April 20, 2010

The much awaited 5th generation of the mainline Pokemon games has been announced. Pokemon Black and White will be released in Japan this autumn, and probably following a global release schedule somthing similar to what Heart Gold and Soul Silver did. Of course a “new generation” of Pokemon games at this point is almost laughable. Most Pokemon fans have long since sunk into a feeling of doing the same old stuff they’ve been doing for over a decade now. Nintendo promises an extensive overhaul for these new games, but aside from a shift to primarily 3D perspective while wandering the overworld we haven’t seen anything terribly new. Here is my list of things I’d like to see to really improve the Pokemon experience.

1. No More Random Encounters

This is easily the biggest thing. Way back in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, random encounters were the only way game designers had to insert common cannon-fodder battles into a game. These days, much progress has been made in most every other RPG series to eliminate this tedious and annoying remnant of a bygone era, except Pokemon. I am so sick of just wanting to pass through a patch of grass to get somewhere and having to watch a long battle setup animation before I can run and move on. Often I go just a couple more steps and again, I’m challenged by a level 5 Pidgey or some other pointless shit. The best way is to have the enemies represented on screen somehow, giving you at least a chance to skillfully avoid them — or perhaps ambush them for a combat advantage. So how could the traditional Pokemon gameplay be preserved while implementing something like this? Well, just indicate to us where the Pokemon are using some generic means without revealing which Pokemon it is until the battle begins. In Pokemon’s omnipresent patches of tall grass, they could be represented as rustling squares of grass moving around. Perhaps an aggressive Pokemon chases you while a more reclusive one requires you to pursue it. In caverns, a similar effect could be achieved with a generic shadow on the ground, maybe along the lines of Zelda II’s generic badguy silhouettes.

2. No More HM Moves

HM moves have up to this point been an obnoxious but necessary part of Pokemon gameplay. Obstacles exist on the map as a means of limiting your access until you have made certain achievements, ensuring you get a proper gradual increase of challenges and go through the game’s story in its prescribed order. This is true of most any RPG, and in Pokemon this manifests as HM moves. Gaining gym badges allows you to use HM moves to overcome obstacles. The problem is the HM moves exist as moves known by your Pokemon. If your Pokemon leveled up in the field, and it allowed you to overwrite an HM move with a newly learned one, you could become stuck and unable to proceed or even turn back the way you came, breaking your game. So, you just can’t remove HM moves except at one prescribed place in the game. This was bad enough at first when there were only 5 HM moves, now we have 8. That means, at best, you would need two Pokemon with you who know nothing but HM moves in order to have full access to the map. That’s insane, especially considering most HM moves are mediocre to crappy and thus little use in battle, especially late in the game. This whole system needs to be reexamined. Maybe HMs become hold items that allow you to use an ability only on the overworld map. Maybe we just dump the idea altogether and use some other more story-related method of limiting your access the way a Final Fantasy game would. We need to do something though, because it’s getting out of hand.

3. Liven Up the Battles

Stills of Pokemon B/W have shown that we can still expect 2D Pokemon sprites staring each other down, though they seem to sit on a 3D battlefield. It’s more than a little odd looking. Anyway, since Pokemon Stadium-style 3D models are evidently still a dream, can we at least get some more motion into those battle sprites? We already have a short intro animation when the Pokemon switches in, how about a defeat animation for when they faint? Even better, how about some generic attack animations like opening their mouth or swiping with their claws that could be paired with appropriate attacks? Just, something. I’m tired of watching big static sprites twitch at each other.

4. Change Up the Story

Gyms and Pokemon leagues and a sidestory involving an evil team. Four times we’ve seen the same thing, and two of those have been remade. Enough. It was fine the first time, maybe the second, but this is getting ridiculous. Is this really the only story Pokemon can tell? I’d hate to think Nintendo and Game Freak are so uncreative. What if it was just a simple shift? Instead of the gym challenges being the main focus, what if it was the fight against Team Whatever? Instead of challenging gym leaders, we could be taking on the Team’s generals. Instead of collecting badges, we could be collecting items we need to thwart their plan and trigger the final showdown against their own version of an Elite Four. Those items we collect could even tie into my second point about having a way to not need HM moves. This change doesn’t even affect the core Pokemon gameplay that much, but it would at least feel a bit new.

5. New Types

The last new elemental types added were Dark and Steel back on the original Gold and Silver. I was still in high school when those games came out, and as little as I like to think about it that was a pretty long time ago now. Adding new types would really serve to shake up the stale Pokemon battle environment, and allow for some new and innovative Pokemon again. As for what those types would be, we already got a Dark type, how about a Light type? Seems pretty obvious to me.

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Kamen Rider: Climax Heroes

August 30, 2009

If you’ve looked around this blog, you’d notice something about my gaming habits. I play a lot of licensed games, specifically ones based on anime and tokusatsu. I’m even willing to put up with a somewhat bad game, as long as it utilizes its license well. That brings us to my latest gaming conquest, Kamen Rider: Climax Heroes.

Climax Heroes is the first console Kamen Rider game since 2006’s Kamen Rider Kabuto. It’s also interesting in that this is a PS2 game, clearly aiming to take advantage of the large install base compared to the 360 or PS3 in Japan, but for whatever reason not wanting to do it as a Wii game.

Climax Heroes fits into the overall theme of everything happening in Kamen Rider this year, celebrating 10 years of the “Heisei” Kamen Rider shows. On TV, Kamen Rider Decade was an ambitious crossover featuring Riders of the past Decade. Climax Heroes is essentially Kamen Rider Decade: The Game. While it doesn’t follow the story of the Decade TV series, the meat of the game does have you following Decade as he crosses through the various Rider Worlds, taking on their resident Riders. One interesting thing to note is that the versions of the Riders you encounter in this game are the ones from the original shows, not the alternate ones seen in the Decade TV series.

Gameplay takes the form of a 1-on-1 fighting game. All 10 main “title” Riders of the Heisei era are playable, along with Zeronnos, Ixa, and DiEnd as unlockables as well as a “Dark Decade” created just for the game. You can also play as Gatack, G3-X and Auto Vajin in secret Story Mode missions, though their abilities are incomplete.

Controls are fairly simple, which is not necessarily a detraction. Square initiates a weak combo, Triangle initiates a strong combo. You can not switch between weak and strong attacks during a combo, but you can change the combo depending on what direction you hold when you start it. You can double tap left or right to cancel a combo in the middle and transition to another one, but this costs you two blocks of your Rider Bar. X uses support moves, also costing you Rider Bar energy. These are usually summons, but may be another type of attack depending on the Rider. The support move also changes when used as a counter while being hit by your opponent. Finally for basic attacks, O uses “hissatsu waza” moves like your various Rider Kicks, Ongeki, whatever you’ve got. Again, these may change depening on the direction you hold. Evasive moves include a dash by double tapping left or right, and evasive rolls using L1 and R1. Usually the control seems OK, though there are some things which are annoying, like the timing to do an aerial attack being very specific. Usually, you have to hit the attack button before the apex of the jump, which will be executed from the apex. You can not vary the timing to control the angle of attack.

L2 initiates a “Form Change”, which is key to the game’s mechanic. Generally speaking, this causes your Rider to use one of his power up forms, changing his abilities and fighting style accordingly. Form Change can only be done with a full Rider Bar, which is then begins to drain. The rate which it drains depends on the exact Form Change, as a way of balancing things like Kabuto’s Clock Up and Faiz’s Axel agains more basic Form Changes like Kuuga Pegasus. The most important thing is that anything which requires Rider Bar (combo cancels, support moves, some hissatsu attacks) does not have any cost during Form Change. This nuance causes what may be the game’s biggest problem, spamability. The relative strength of a character tends to come down to what kind of attack/combo you can spam the hell out of during Form Change. Some of them require some skill to pull off, which is OK. However, others basically have, what I’ve heard best described as a “win button”. Zeronnos, for example, goes into Zero Form for his support move and does a machine gun burst from the Denebic Buster. When you Form Change (to Vega Form), you can then just sit there and mash X at point blank range, easily draining half or more of your opponent’s life with no effort. The best they can hope to do is try to get knocked down, then lay there until your Form Change runs out. R2 initiates your Super Hissatsu waza. These consist of a lead in hit which, if it connects, will trigger a cutscene attack that drains exactly 1 life bar of health from the opponent. There is no penalty if it is missed or blocked which, again, leads to a potential to be really cheap.

Decade himself adds an interesting level of depth to the game. As you go through the game’s story “Decade Mode”, you will unlock abilities for Decade. At the beginning, he is very limited having no Form Change, no Super Hissatsu, and very basic X and O attacks utilizing his Ride Booker weapon. As you progress, you will unlock other Riders that you can “Kamen Ride” into as your Form Change, as well as unlocking “Final Form Ride” attacks that can be used to replace X or O button moves. This customization, deciding which set of abilities work best for you, makes Decade a really fun character to play. The last thing you get is his Super Hissatsu move, utilizing Decade’s Complete Form. Unfortunately, you have to choose between this and the ability to use Final Form Rides, though you can still use the Kamen Ride Form Changes. Personally, I think the FFR’s are more fun and more useful than a cutscene attack.

Overall, as a Kamen Rider fan, I had a lot of fun with the game. It lets you set up dream matches, improves on the experience of playing some of the older Riders compared to their own games, and brings in Den-O and Kiva who did not get their own games. It also makes extremely good use of the license by allowing you to use all these Riders, power up forms and hissatsu waza, as well as really making each Rider play in his own unique way. For those of you who are Kamen Rider fans, its ease to pick up and play will be a benefit to those who are not fighting game hardcores. It also has an option, presented right at the first power on, to put the game in “Kid Mode”, which makes all menus and in-game text switch to hiragana and katakana for the kanji-impaired youth (or stupid foreigner). However, I think some game balance issues, slightly quirky controls and mediocre graphics will probably keep more hardcore fighting game fans away. If you can get past those faults, it’s worth a play. If you love Kamen Rider, this is a game you’ve been waiting for.

I mentioned when talking about the Famicom Disk System that despite its being a great add on for the Famicom, it had all the same flaws as any other floppy disk system. One of the most common problems with any floppy-based computer is that the floppy disk media itself degrades. Most commonly, the magnentic signature that stores the data weakens over time. This is not a death sentence for the whole disk, however, it just needs to have the data copied back onto it. For other computers, this is trivial, as you can easily make a backup copy of the disk.

For the FDS, however, this is not so easy. It doesn’t have any sort of file and disk management since it was just a game console. Also, the copying of disks was intentionally discouraged since that would mean the games could be pirated. Initially, the only thing Nintendo really did was alter the shape of the disk by putting a recessed Nintendo logo into it. This meant that standard QuickDisks would not physically fit in the FDS, as the FDS had a matching raised plate.

There were ways around that, of course, pirate game makers just modified their disks to match. They would either slightly modify the Nintendo logo, or just cut big holes in there to make it work. In addition to pirate games made in this method, there were also some disk copying utilities. One such utility was Disk Hacker, which I recently came into possession of.

As you can see, it’s physically a little ghetto, but it gets the job done. The utility is pretty idiot proof, at least if you can read some basic Japanese. There’s no menu, no options, no controls. You never need touch the controller once. Just do what it says on screen. When you first load the utility, the title screen briefly appears.

This will disappear on its own, and you will be presented with the following text:

ゲームディスクヲ イレテクダサイ。

This is asking you to insert the game disk. Pop out Disk Hacker and pop in the game you wish to make a copy of. The FDS will churn a bit, then you’ll see this:

ナマディスクヲ イレテクダサイ。

This is asking you to put in a fresh disk, or the disk you wish to copy onto. Put that in, and again the FDS will churn a bit. When it’s done, it will most likely go back to asking you for the game disk. The FDS RAM adapter only has 32k of memory, but one side of an FDS disk holds up to 64k, so it’s going to take two passes. Put your game disk back in with the same side facing up you did last time. After that you will once again be prompted for the target disk, so put that in, again with the same side up you used before. When Disk Hacker’s job is done, you get this:

オワリマシタ。

This simply means, “Done.” Shut off your Famicom and remove your newly cloned disk. If you are copying a two-sided game, you will need to repeat the process from the start for the other side. All in all, it only takes a few minutes to copy a disk.

This method is not perfect for everyone, as there are a few concerns. The most obvious one is, where do you get blank disks? Well, you don’t. Not unless you stumble onto some unused stock from the Disk Writer kiosks. What you can do is ask your favorite retro/import game dealer for some non-working FDS games, which is what I did. Any dealer who sells FDS games gets dead disks from time to time, and is probably sitting on a small mountain of them. More than likely, they’d be glad if you’d take them off their hands for a few bucks. The vast majority of them probably aren’t physically damaged, their data has just degraded or become corrupt. Once they’re rewritten, they’ll work great.

The less obvious, but bigger problem is your FDS drive. Nintendo wasn’t stupid, and got wise to this method. They implemented two changes in later FDS drives to prevent it from copying disks. First was an expanded power board that included circuitry preventing large-scale write operations. You could still write a save file just fine, but try to write a whole disk and it stops you. This can be patched around if you have the soldering skills. The second measure is a chip inside the actual QuickDisk drive that serves the same function as the circuitry on the power board. There’s nothing that can be done about this chip.

If you need to identify whether your FDS drive is capable of writing disks, there’s a great thread on Famicom World that explains how to quickly do so. Remember, you need both the smaller, regularly shaped power board and the 7201 chip to write disks. This is also the case if you are planning to build an FDS Loader cable that bridges your FDS drive to a PC for dumping and rewriting disks. If you have the electronics skills to do this, it’s much better than using Disk Hacker because you wouldn’t need blanks, you could just restore a degraded disk from a previous dump file.

That’s all I’ve got to say about Disk Hacker. If you have the right kind of FDS drive, and come across a copy, it might be a worthy investment for backing up your precious games.

Update: One other detail I forgot to mention. In addition to modifying the FDS itself, some games also played some tricks with the file system that prevent some cloning utilities from working. Specifically, they would write some data at the end of the disk, but not mark in the disk’s header that those blocks are in use. However, the game will check if that data is there and refuse to run if it’s not. The some utilities would only copy the blocks marked used, while some would just copy the disk wholesale regardless of the header. The latter case would be able to copy these games.

Famicom Disk System

March 30, 2009

Back when I talked about the Famicom I mentioned it had an add on floppy disk drive as one of its most unique features. This was known as the Famicom Disk System (FDS). The drive was based on Mitsumi’s Quick Disk format. Nintendo added an imprinted Nintendo logo on each disk that matched an embossed plate in the drive. This was a rudimentary protection against piracy as it prevented standard Quick Disks from being used in the system.

Nintendo released the FDS in February 1986 in an attempt to address some shortcomings of the Famicom’s cartridge format. Principally, the FDS offered 128k (64k per side) of storage and the ability to save game data. This was important in a time when ROM space and battery backed saves were both expensive. The FDS drive itself could run on 6 C-sized batteries or its AC adaptor, and connected to the Famicom through a device called the RAM Adapter. The RAM Adapter was an oversized cartridge containing the FDS BIOS, a drive controller and 32k of RAM. Additionally, the RAM Adapter contained an FM Synthesis module that connected to the Famicom’s audio expansion pins, meaning FDS games could offer richer, bigger sounds than Famicom carts of the time.

Initially, the FDS was a big leap forward for console gaming. Its increased storage capacity and ability to save allowed complex games like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid to come about. FDS games were also generally cheaper than cartridge games. For example, Super Mario Bros. 2 (an FDS exclusive) was only 2,500 yen at launch. Additional distribution was available through a network of Disk Writer kiosks at department stores throughout Japan. These kiosks would allow a user to download a new game onto a blank or unwanted FDS disk for only a few hundred yen.

As revolutionary as it was, the FDS was not without problems. For one, it has all the same problems as any other floppy disk drive. It’s dependent on a rubber belt, which in the FDS has a tendency to melt and is of a very difficult to obtain size. Also, the disks themselves degrade over time like any floppy disk. Nintendo opted not to include a shutter on most FDS disks to keep costs down, so extra care must be taken not to let foreign material contact the disk surface.

Due to these and other issues, Nintendo decided not to release a version of the FDS for the American NES, though the bottom expansion port on the NES was designed for it. Zelda would not be released for the NES for over a year after the FDS launch, pending the introduction of the MMC1 mapper with its larger memory capacity and support for battery backed saves. Metroid would launch in the US around the same time, though its save system would be replaced by a cumbersome password. Both games lacked the additional sound channel provided by the FM synthesis module in the RAM Adapter.

In Japan, the FDS’s heyday would last only a few years. Cartridges soon reached a point where they could match the FDS’s capacity and battery backed saves were more practical. Cartridges had the advantage of being available to all Famicom owners, not just those who owned both the Famicom and FDS, so developers naturally gravitated back. Though the first two games in Konami’s Dracula (Castlevania) series were FDS exclusive, Akumajou Densetsu (Castlevania III) would debut in cart format. Nintendo itself released Super Mario Bros. 3 on cartridge to take advantage of the new MMC3 mapper. Square, despite being a big FDS developer with its Disk Original Group (DOG) released Final Fantasy on cartridge.

The FDS was manufactured through 2003, and supported by Nintendo Japan through 2004, and still retains a cult following. Gamers desire it for the enhancements (primarily the FM synth sounds and saving) that it offers over the NES or later Famicom cart versions of classic games. Many games would never be officially released in any other format. Overall, the FDS is worth it for discerning 8-bit gamers who want the complete experience of games like Zelda, Metroid and Castlevania. Just be prepared to deal with its quirks, and if you see any replacement belts for sale, buy them while you can.

A quick rundown of the games I have for it is as follows:

Akumajou Dracula — This would become the first Castlevania game upon its US release. The principle changes are being able to save after each boss and the enhanced FM synthesis based sounds. Also, in a rare case for games being adapted for the US, the Japanese version is actually easier. Enemies in later stages don’t do as much damage as in the US version.

Hikari Shinwa: Palutena no Kagami — Adapted for the US as Kid Icarus, again this game lost its save feature in the translation. In its place there was a cumbersome password. It did take advantage of the Famicom’s built in microphone on the second controller, as yelling into it would negotiate for lower prices in the item shop.

Kamen Rider Black: Taiketsu Shadow Moon — This is one of the worst games I have ever played. The graphics are good, the sound isn’t bad, and the intro cinematic is pretty cool. What kills it is the controls. They are impossible. Simple things like jumping and attacking are a constant struggle. Don’t bother unless you are a really, really big Kamen Rider fan. And a masochist.

Metroid — This classic game from the mind of GameBoy creator Yokoi Gunpei was meant as a showcase of the FDS’s capabilities, but wasn’t quite ready for launch. It has a number of very impressive FM synthesis powered sounds, from the opening music to the doors opening to the screams of certain enemies when shot. The ability to save is also much more convenient than the password system used in the US version. Metroid is one of the top reasons to invest in the FDS.

Nazo no Murasamejou — Nazo no Murasamejou could have been a much more significant game had it not been sandwiched between the juggernauts of Zelda and Metroid. It’s a very good overhead action game where you play a samurai tasked with defeating the demon-possessed daimyo of 4 castles, before taking on the source of the evil in the 5th. It’s also hard as hell and I can’t get past the second castle. ^^; For some unknown reason, it was never released on the NES.

Yume Koujou Doki Doki Panic — This game is most remembered for forming the basis of what we got in the US as Super Mario Bros. 2. The original version of the game does have some differences aside from graphics. First, rather than switching characters on the fly between stages, each character has their own progress. You must beat the game completely with each character to truly finish it. Also, there is no running with the B button, making some shortcuts inaccessible to some characters.

Somewhere in the late 90’s, Final Fantasy V was translated to English and a ROM patch was released to the Internet, allowing English speakers a chance to play the game for the first time. In the wake of this, other unreleased Japanese RPGs were translated and patched. One which caught my attention was Sailormoon: Another Story. The show was at the peak of its popularity on Toonami, and I was heavily getting into anime and Japanese culture through (VHS!) fansubs of it. I downloaded ZSNES, the ROM, and the patch, and played through it enthusiastically.

Recently, I bought a few Super Famicom carts along with a simple cart adapter to let them fit in my SNES. Of course, one I particularly sought out was Another Story. I hadn’t initially intended to play through it, as I’ve already beaten the translated version a few times, and I didn’t think I wanted to sit through a whole RPG in Japanese. After turning it on for a few minutes though, I decided the level of Japanese would actually be manageable and decided to give it a go. With kanji and translation dictionaries at my side, I didn’t have much trouble. Good practice, actually. Also, as I played through it I was referencing a FAQ that summed up most of the dialogue in the walkthrough, based on the translated ROM. There were a lot of wild translation errors that I can see now. For example, during Venus’s segment in chapter 2, the Japanese dialogue uses the term “jibun jishin” which means one’s self. Jishin can also mean earthquake, so the translated ROM apparently starts talking about earthquakes within Venus’s self or something like that.

As for the game itself, it’s a classic Super Famicom style RPG. You wander around exploring your environment and talking to people. In some areas, you’ll be pulled into random turn-based battles where your party squares off against some monsters pulled from the anime’s Monster of the Day ranks. The story is set after the 3rd manga story arc, or the Sailormoon S anime, and is an amalgamation of the two continuities with original material thrown in. All 10 inner and outer Sailor Senshi are playable (but not Tuxedo Kamen), and have access to all their special attacks from both the anime and manga. As with the show, Senshi are able to combine their attacks for new or more powerful effects. You also have access to a full party combo attack depending on the formation you’re in, and if you’re using the 5 Inner Senshi, you can use their powerful Sailor Planet Attack. One oddity of the battle system is that EP for using your special attacks caps at 12 for each character, but refills after every battle. This actually has the effect of encouraging you to bust out powerful attacks, which really speeds up leveling up. However, it does reduce random encounters to simply tapping the A button to repeat the same attacks you’ve been using to defeat the enemy party in 1-2 turns, once you’ve figured out how to do that in the current area. Another criticism of the combat is that the enemies, even most of the bosses, only pull from a very small pool of special attacks which get old quick. With all the unique and amusing monsters from the anime that make an appearance, it would have been nice if they all used their own signature powers.

The gameplay is very dialogue-heavy. You will typically go through long story sequences, followed by being cut loose on an area with random battles where you train up to fight a boss. Then, another story scene and repeat. The story centers around an evil being attempting to alter destiny, which leads to fan-pleasing showdowns against the series’ previous villains like Queen Beryl, the Black Moon Clan and the Death Busters. You also do some time traveling to visit the Silver Millennium and the Earth Kingdom of their previous lives, and the events leading up to their destruction. If you don’t like Sailormoon and aren’t into the story though, you will be very, very bored.

Character customization is minimal. You can equip each Senshi with up to 3 accessory items which affect their stats, though each Senshi has two accessories of her own gemstone hidden in the game which are vastly superior to any of the regular items, so there’s no reason not to use them. The extent of strategy with the characters is to just look at which stat is their highest after getting their gemstone accessories, then fill the third slot with a regular item that complements it. For example, you would put an attack enhancing Bracelet in Mars’ third slot, and put her toward the front of the formation to capitalize on her high damage attacks. Mercury, you would put either a Tiara (defense) or Anklet (speed) and put her in the back where she’ll be near impossible to kill and good for doing healing.

Difficulty of the game seems to be wildly debated depending on who you talk to. Some find it extremely easy, others extremely difficult. I tend to fall in the prior camp. I think some people get so wrapped up in the story, that when the game returns control, they forget they’re playing an RPG. As long as you remember to put some equipment on new characters as you come into control of them, explore the areas thoroughly so you don’t miss those valuable gemstone accessories, and make sure to not let characters fall behind in level, you’ll be fine. There is a point where you gain free roam of the world with an airship and have to go to the North Pole, only to find the enemy parties there are substantially tougher than previously. That can be a bit rough, especially since this is where you first gain the ability to choose your own party out of the full group and there are several characters in need of catching up. Use your head, don’t forget to make good use of your formations, and carry plenty of status healing items. This is also where you learn one really annoying thing about the game—Chibi-Moon is mostly useless, and nothing you do will make her anything but a wasted slot in your party whenever you’re forced to take her along. So, just like in the anime, pretty much. Chibi-Moon is actually unique in that she has three gemstone accessories, but all they wind up doing is giving her good defense and the highest speed in the game, easily hitting 999 on speed. Even then, she’s only really useful for doing a combo healing technique with Mercury.

Overall, I like this game despite its flaws. But, I really like Sailormoon, and can sink myself into its very fanservice oriented story. If you’re a Sailormoon fan, this is a game you shouldn’t pass up. For the rest of the world, I’d say pass. There just isn’t really enough RPG meat in there to sink your teeth into if the story doesn’t do anything for you. The translated ROM is easy to find, and if you’re up for a bit of a Japanese workout, I got my cart CIB for about $30 or $40 I think.

In the 80’s, the American video game market was initially booming, then tanked under the weight of too many consoles and a flood of poor quality bootleg games. In 1985, Nintendo would pull the American market back from the brink when they imported their popular Family Computer (Famicom) as the Nintendo Entertainment System. We’ve all heard that story a million times, but what about the Famicom itself? What was different and interesting about it, and what was maybe improved by the NES?

I had long been curious about the Famicom. Nintendo Power briefly mentioned it a couple times, giving glimpses of the nature of this mysterious machine in the age before the Internet. Fortunately, we do live in the age of the Internet now, and information on the Famicom is plentiful, and Famicoms themselves are not difficult to obtain. I bought one recently from Rising Stuff, a used/retro game dealer run by a couple of American ex-pats out of Japan. I highly recommend buying from a dealer like them rather than a random eBay user as they have some accountability if your equipment doesn’t work. Rising Stuff’s prices are very fair as well.

Beginning as a maker of playing cards, Nintendo eventually began to make electronic toys (many designed by Yokoi Gunpei), and eventually simple video games like its now-legendary Game & Watch series. Building on its successful arcade games and its line of TV games, Nintendo decided to throw its hat into the ring of modular, cartridge based game consoles. The Famicom was released July 15, 1983. The Famicom retailed for ¥14,800 and did not include a pack-in game. After some initial manufacturing issues were resolved, the Famicom quickly became a runaway success.

As you can see, the Famicom is externally very different from the NES. It sports a primarily red and white color scheme and a top-loading cartridge slot. The controllers are permanently wired and come out of the back of the console on very short cords, as the intention was that it would be pulled out from the TV and sitting next to you. The second controller did have a built-in microphone which would play sound out through the TV’s speakers, and was utilized in certain games. The only expansion port on the Famicom was a 15-pin connector under the little red cover on the front edge, which was used for external controllers. For output, the Famicom had only an RF-out. Adding AV jacks to the Famicom is doable, and a popular mod among owners with electronics skills.

Compared to the NES, the Famicom’s primary weaknesses are its short, permanently attached controller cords and its lack of AV outputs. It does have some advantages, however. The Famicom’s cartridge connector  sports pins for expansion of its audio capabilities, pins the NES lacked. Also, since it uses a more standard top-loading cartridge connector, and does not have a lockout chip for unlicensed games, the Famicom is not nearly as susceptible to cartridge reading issues. Just cleaning the cart’s contacts with something as simple as cotton swabs and off the shelf rubbing alcohol will take care of most game-related issues.

As for the games themselves, the Famicom had most of the games that were released for the NES, as well as a wide library of Japan-only titles. Some were deemed inappropriate for US audience, like Miyamoto Shigeru’s Demon World with its religious imagery. Others were tie-ins to anime not released in the US, or otherwise deemed not likely to sell in the US. Occasionally, a tie-in game would make it over despite its source material being unknown in the US. Golgo 13 saw US release, and a game based on the tokusatsu series Solbrain was reworked and released as Shatterhand. The process sometimes worked in reverse as well. The first Ninja Turtles game was released in Japan ahead of the Turtle’s Japanese debut, so it was retitled Gekikame Ninja Den.

I’ve accumulate a total of 18 Famicom carts in the time I’ve had the system, most for pretty cheap. I’ll just run down them really quickly.

Chou Jikuu Yousai Macross — A side-scrolling shoot-em-up based on the highly influential Macross mecha anime. The game is ambitious in that it tries to take advantage of the Valkyrie’s transformation abilities. However, like many early Famicom games it just repeats the same basic level with it getting harder each time. Not a terrible game, but probably only worth it for Macross fans.

Chou Wakusei Senki Metafight — Released on the NES as Blaster Master. Graphics are really good for the Famicom, and there’s some good gameplay variety as you could be either driving your vehicle, walking around on foot, or on foot in an overhead view. I need to look up a guide for the game though, because I’m not completely sure what I’m supposed to be doing.

Kage no Densetsu — A brutally difficult side scrolling adventure where you try to save a princess from ninjas. It’s fairly successful at reproducing wire-fighting martial arts movie style action on the Famicom. Released in the US as Legend of Kage, I think pretty much unchanged.

Kidou Senshi Z Gundam: Hot Scramble — Another ambitious anime adaptation, as the first two parts of each stage are in first person and resemble a primitive version of the Super Famicom’s Mode 7. The third segment of each stage you infiltrate a base or ship in side-scrolling view where you can transform the Zeta Gundam into waverider to fly around. It’s a solid game, but like Macross merely repeats the same basic stage structure over and over.

Lode Runner — A port of Broderbund’s classic computer puzzle game where you attempt to collect gold and avoid robots with little more than your wits and reflexes to help you.

Mach Rider — One of the NES’s launch titles, I don’t believe anything is different here. It’s a fast, challenging bike racing/combat game.

Saint Seiya: Ougon Densetsu — An RPG based on Kurumada Masami’s fighting manga, and its insanely popular anime adaptation. The battle system is absurdly confusing, and it has nothing to do with being in Japanese. Even reading up on how it’s supposed to work doesn’t help, as the game gives no indication of how much energy you should use for an attack, and once you run out you’re screwed.

Seicross — You race a sort of hover bike through a landscape full of obstacles and hazardous terrain while trying to bump or shoot other riders out of your way and pick up people stranded on the course. Or something like that. I really have no idea what the plot is supposed to be, but it’s fairly fun.

Star Force — This game’s only failing is that it doesn’t do anything in particular to set itself apart from the masses of vertically scrolling shooters. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it, but nothing terribly compelling either.

Super Mario Bros. — We all know this one. In fact, I haven’t noticed a single difference from the American version. The Toadstools even speak the same English. If anyone knows of any differences, feel free to point them out. I know the Disk System version had a different Minus World though.

Super Mario Bros. 3 — As above, this game needs no introduction. The primary difference is that when hit you will go directly back to regular Mario as in the first game, not to Super Mario as in the US release. There’s also minor graphical changes like an iris effect when you enter a stage similar to Super Mario World, and power-ups sort of fall out of you when you get hit. Also, this time the characters do speak Japanese.

Takahashi-Meijin no Boukenjima — A classic side scrolling platformer released in the US as simply Adventure Island. What the US release doesn’t mention is that the titular character Takahashi-Meijin (lit. “Master Takahashi”) is a real life person, and was a sort of mascot for Hudson. If you watch the episode of GameCenter CX where Arino attempts to get a bonus in Star Force, Takahashi comes on as a guest to show off his legendary fast button mashing skills. Who needs a turbo controller anyway?

Thexder — One word describes this game: Brutal. I can barely get anywhere before I’m mobbed by enemies. What makes it bad is that getting hit knocks you from jet back to robot form, and it’s hard to get away because you wind up like stuck on the enemies somehow. It’s nothing to get hit once, get stuck, and have all your health drained in seconds. It’s no wonder Square was in such dire financial straits by the time they made their “Final” Fantasy.

Tower of Druaga — Starting life as an arcade game, and later ported to many consoles, this game somehow never made it to the US despite its popularity. You guide Sumerian hero Gilgamesh through each maze-like floor of Druaga’s tower, seeking to find the key to the next door while avoiding all sorts of monsters. The game is simple, yet addictive and extremely challenging. I have yet to get past floor 5. Damn wizards.

Transformers: Convoy no Nazo — Convoy is missing, and it’s up to you as Ultra Magnus to defeat the Destrons! This side scrolling platform shooter is notorious for its difficulty. Once I got used to its quirks though, I actually kinda grew to like it, and I have beaten it. Check it out if you like a serious challenge, just make sure to remember that you hold B+A and hit Start to continue!

These last games were randomly included with my Famicom:

Mahjong — I wish I could comment on this, but I have no idea how to play Mahjong, and don’t really like luck-based card games (though Mahjong uses tiles, not cards)

Moero! Pro Yakyuu — A baseball game which was also popular in the US under the title Bases Loaded. I’m not much of a baseball person, but as I understand it this was one of the Famicom/NES’s better baseball games.

Shinjinrui — Released in the US as The Adventures of Dino Riki, this is essentially a vertically scrolling shooter where you are a caveman on foot rather than the typical spaceship. This game would be great if not for two problems. One, you can’t shoot through power-ups, which is real irritating when enemies wind up right on top of you when you could have shot them from across the screen. Secondly, and this is the big one, you are required to jump over water at certain times, but the jumping controls are extremely awkward making this task very frustrating.

I also have what may be the Famicom’s most unique aspect, its add on floppy disk drive known as the Famicom Disk System. I’m waiting for a couple more games for it though, so that will be a post for another day.

Gundam: Climax U.C.

September 7, 2008

I’ve got yet another little game review here. Mobile Suit Gundam: Climax U.C. came out in March ’06, as another entry in the long line of Gundam shooters on the PS2. I got it a few months after that, but never actually got around to playing it. The problem was, I also got A.C.E. 2 around that same time, and compared to it every other mecha shooter seemed disappointing. Looking for something to do recently, I dug it back out of my pile of PS2 games and decided to give it an actual play through.

The premise of the game is to allow you to play major events from throughout the Universal Century timeline. Missions start with the original Mobile Suit Gundam, and hit everything through Gundam F91. Each of the individual series are short, but all together there’s a lot to do in the main Chronicle Mode. After finishing each main character’s story, you’re also given the chance to replay missions from other pilots’ point of view. As it stands, the only Chronicle Mode mission I haven’t done is Sazabi vs. Nu Gundam. I mopped the floor with Sazabi when doing it as Amuro, and it goes the same way when I try to do it as Sazabi. There’s also an Extra Mode, unlocked after beating all the main stories of Chronicle Mode. This gives a number of standalone scenarios. One of the best ones I’ve played so far is one where you take out all of the kids from ZZ. Oh, is that ever satisfying. I hate them all.

The first thing that you notice about Climax U.C., and what threw me off at first, is its somewhat unique combat system. Rather than switch weapons, or assign them to different buttons, each MS has 3 attacks accessed by charging the square button to different levels. For example, Zeta has a rapid fire beam rifle at level 1, the wrist mounted missiles at level 2, and the hyper mega launcher at level 3. I’m not sure I like this style, as it removes a lot of the tactics involved in combat. Generally, you’re just trying to charge the strongest possible attack, rather than tactically use your weapons based on their strengths and weaknesses. The lock on system is also terrible, since it just flips through targets in some random order. The way it should work, and the way most competent games work, is to target the nearest enemy. That way, if something is pounding on you right in front of your face, you can target it and retaliate quickly rather than flip through every target in range. I also never did figure out how to move on the Z axis in space missions. Enemies can do it, but damned if I can figure out how.

Much as with A.C.E. 1, I did eventually get used to the controls and get into the game. However, this is also a case where I can’t recommend it when there are other, superior entries in the series. I’d suggest Encounters in Space or any of the VS. series games for your PS2 Gundam fix. This does represent some unique opportunities, however, like playing the Norris/Gouf Custom scenario from 08th MS, or getting to play as the F91 (mediocre movie, great mobile suit). Anyone who’s suffered through Gundam F91 on the Super Famicom can appreciate that. My question is, where the hell is V Gundam? It’s UC, it’s at least better than ZZ, so where’s the love? Is my only option to use the V2 in the series’ own lackluster Super Famicom game?

In summation, buy this if you’re dying to play some of the rarer scenarios/units present in it, or if you’re really dying for a simpler, more arcade like experience than the other PS2 games. Honestly though, EiS is better… or you should play A.C.E. 2 🙂

Another Century’s Episode

September 3, 2008

A while back, I talked a bit about Another Century’s Episode 3, a game which along with its predecessor A.C.E. 2 I feel is one of the best shoot em ups ever. A.C.E. 2 and 3 are certainly among my favorite PS2 games. I’d never played the original A.C.E. until I picked it up at this last Otakon. So, how does it compare to its illustrious successors?

Initially upon beginning to play A.C.E., I almost decided to put it aside and never mess with it again. The control, the part I loved most about A.C.E. 2 and 3, is nothing like the sequels. It seems the wonderful “shift” system for using subweapons, where holding L1 changes the face and R buttons into subweapons, didn’t get invented until A.C.E. 2. That leaves you with a severe shortage of both buttons and weapons. Instead of a dedicated melee button, your main attack toggles between ranged and melee depending on range. This is frustrating as hell, since sometimes you know you won’t hit with one or the other, but can’t control what happens at will.

The tune up system is also not to my liking. You can only upgrade a fixed number of stats at a time, and that number varies by unit. In addition, each stat weakens another. So, if for example you beef up armor, you lose speed. If you beef up reload rate on your main weapon, you decrease its power. That’s extremely frustrating because you’re perpetually out of ammo on any useful weapons. You can upgrade opposing stats for a net gain on both, but not nearly as much of a gain as if you’d done one stat alone. It makes me wonder why bother spending so many points upgrading the units at all? If I’m going to be penalized in another area for upgrading one stat, wouldn’t I just leave it alone to keep a good balance?

I also don’t feel the difference between the various units that I didn in the other games. My choice of unit was basically this: Wing Gundam or someone else. Wing was special because the buster rifle makes it a keen boss slayer, especially when the target’s big like Psycho Gundam or a super sized Aura Battler. That’s about all it’s good at though. When Wing wasn’t appropriate, it didn’t really feel like it mattered if I picked Zeta, Nu, Billbine or whatever.

Available units are a little disappointing in comparison to the later games as well. No Macross? It is nice to play Zeta or Hyaku Shiki, and I don’t think the TV series versions of the Gundam Wing guys have been available in any other shooter style games. However, a mecha fan would be much happier with the spread in A.C.E. 2 or 3.

After forcing myself to play enough to get used to the differences (and awkwardness) of the controls, I did find the game to be playable and decent overall. I think I would have liked it better had I played it before its sequels. Unfortunately, I didn’t, and I have a hard time recommending the game when A.C.E. 2 and 3 are out there (and probably easier to find). Unless you want to play the original Wing Gundam that badly.

Battle Stadium D.O.N.

August 23, 2008

One of the things I bought at Otakon—one that was actually on my hit list—was the import crossover fighter Battle Stadium D.O.N. I got the PS2 version, since I haven’t made the molestations to my Game Cube that allow you to run imports. See my previous post on some of the insanity I’ve gone through for that. I have since replaced the Go stones with a rubber stamp pressed down by rubber bands to get the adequate pressure.

The game is a fighting crossover between three of Shonen Jump’s biggest properties: D.O.N. stands for Dragonball-One Piece-Naruto. Gameplay is heavily based on Nintendo’s own fighting crossover, Super Smash Bros. Given the extreme similarity, I’ll be describing the game based on that comparison. I’m assuming everyone has at least played SSB. For the most part, you have a standard attack button, a special attack button, a grab/throw button, and a block/dodge button. Each of these works mostly the way they do in SSB. DON also adds a super attack button, where you can unleash your character’s most powerful (and flashy) attack.

One major difference in control is that while SSB will change your attack based on however you’re holding the stick, DON requires you to tap the direction on the stick and hit the button at the exact same time. I always found this approach irritating, as in the heat of a match, your character frequently fails to do the right move because you didn’t hit the timing. Generally speaking, DON’s controls are not as tight as SSB’s. Jumping is difficult, as you can’t jump very high even with a double jump. Many ledges are barely within reach of your jumping ability, so any mistake and you won’t make it onto the platform. Dashing can also be really bitchy about timing your double-tap.

As far as the actual game mechanic, there are two major differences from SSB. While SSB is entirely based on ringout, DON is based on KOs… sort of. Every character in the match shares a single health bar at the top of the screen. Attacking your enemy allows you to steal their health, as well as sending some of it flying out as red orbs. Your goal is to take control of the entire health bar, or be the player with the most at the end of the timer. In matches with more than 2 players, you’re not out of the fight if you lose all your share of the health. As long as no single player has taken the entire bar, you’re free to fight and try regain your share.

When you have a certain amount of the bar, you go into “burst”, wherein you are stronger and faster than before, as well as becoming Super Saiya-jin, or whatever your character powers up to. In addition, attacks that can be charged, including the super, are instantly at full charge. This allows you a chance to clean up the last bit of health from your opponents, but beware. If someone hits you hard while in burst, it could trigger a “Reverse Attack” where you lose a ton of health and are suddenly the one at a disadvantage!

The other big change in mechanic from SSB is the use of a fairly typical energy bar to govern use of special attacks. Specials all cost a certain amount of energy, and using your super requires something like 2/3-3/4 of your bar. I have no particular problem with this, especially as it prevents spamming and overuse of supers. However, blocking and dodging also drains the energy bar. There does need to be a way to limit turtling, but it should be separate from your special bar. Also, dodging should be free. Doing this discourages using the defensive moves that add a level of tactics to fighting games and encourage button mashing blitz attacks. Very bad.

Before I get to my biggest peeve about the game, let me point out that I actually do like this game. Once you get used to the quirks of its controls, it actually is pretty fun. Who doesn’t want to smack Frieza around like a bitch with Luffy’s rubber arms? With some fine tuning, and some more content to unlock, this could be a very good game should they make a sequel. Content, however, is where my biggest gripe is.

THIS GAME HAS THE WORST UNLOCKING MECHANISM EVER. By playing the single player battle stadium mode, and no other mode, you have a chance to accrue coins. You accrue these coins on three random stages, where you are given a randomly generated “mission”. Succeeding in the mission gets you coins. The missions range from simple, like don’t use your super, to near impossible, like take no damage, to the bizarre, like jump 100 times. Any difficulty above normal, and the missions are damn near impossible to do while the computer harasses you, so you play Easy or Normal where the game is boring. Except for the final boss, Cell or giant Buu, who are overpowered and cheap as fuck.

Let’s say you get some coins though, then you get to play a slot machine after beating the boss. You have to hit a jackpot of Jump logos, then you go to the bonus slot machine. If you get a similar jackpot of ? icons in the bonus slot, you may unlock a character or stage… or maybe you just get some ultra rare tickets for use in the custom battle mode. The real insanity is that you can’t hit the jackpot except for certain times where the screen goes dark and it basically gives you the jackpot on a platter. I tried many times to hit that jackpot naturally, and it will always cheat you out of it. It’s very observable that it is adjusting how long it takes the third column to stop so that you always miss the jackpot—except when it wants you to. This unlocking system is so convoluted and irritating, that I just can’t think of a way to describe it besides “bullshit”. That’s what it is.

Overall, if you like shonen action shows, you should check this game out. Rasengan, kamehameha, it’s all there for you to fling at your friends. I’m hopeful they’ll make a sequel to iron out some of the kinks, add more characters, stages and modes of play, and have a real winner on their hands. Just beware of that damn slot machine.

Otakon hit list

July 31, 2008

One of the main reasons to go to an anime convention is to buy things that you would otherwise have to import youself, or that are flat out impossible to find due to being out of production. I don’t spend an immense amount of time trolling the dealer’s room, but I usually have a fair amount of money budgeted to snap up some goodies as I wander it. Here’s a list of tasty import items I wouldn’t mind finding at Otakon this year:

Yamato Queadluun-Rau (Miria colors) – I saw this a previous year but was strapped for the cash. I consider lacking the venerable Q-Rau as a major gap in my Macross collection.

Battle Stadium D.O.N. – An import game for any fan of shonen manga. Featuring a crossover of characters from three heavy hitters of Shonen Jump’s stable of properties (Dragonball, One Piece and Naruto), you engage a an all out brawl, trying to beat your opponent into submission. So just who would win in a fight, Sasuke or Vegeta? This game is still available, but I’d still like to pick it up without the wait.

Daizyujin or the original Megazord – I really don’t care if I get the import version or the MMPR one, this is an iconic robo to most toku fans in the US. Would any of us be watching Sentai if not for cutting our teeth on MMPR, despite its flaws? Finding a sealed Timerobo last year was big, finding Daizyujin would be huge.

Transformers reissue Soundwave or Soundblaster – This is a hole in my collection of Transformers. A classic and unique character that I somehow always manage to miss picking up every time it’s released. I don’t care which version, I just want to have one.

Kamen Rider souchaku henshin figures – Some particular characters I’d like to nab would be Faiz, Chalice, Kabuto, Sasword, Black, Shadow Moon, Zeronnos and Kiva Dogga Form. These are nice figures with high die cast content, and they don’t cost very much. I’d really like to build out my collection of them.

That’s about all I can think of off the top of my head. Though, finding stuff in the dealer’s room you didn’t even know you wanted is half the fun 😉