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.

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.