Monday, January 31, 2011

The LoadDown - 01/31/2011

An unusually quiet round of loadin' down this week, with several dormant platforms...

WiiWare -- One new title and two demos.  MAGIC DESTINY is not an RPG, unfortunately -- it's an Astrology program, applying modern technology to hopelessly medieval concepts of astronomy and psychology.  There are also free demos available for Zombie Panic in Wonderland and Racers' Islands - Crazy racers.

Wii Virtual Console -- Nothing new here this week.

DSiWare -- Four new titles this week.  All-Star Air Hockey is an old-fashioned tabletop disc hockey game with AI opponents, but apparently no online play.  myDiary is an electronic journal.  Mahjong is what is claims to be.  101 Dolphin Pets is a virtual pet simulation on a bigger scale than usual.

XBox Live Arcade -- Just one title this week, Breach, which I was disappointed to learn bears no official relation to the classic Commodore 64 strategy game.  But it might be a decent downloadable first-person shooter. 

Game Room -- The quiet continues.  Not a good sign.

PS3 on PSN -- Nothing new?  What's up with that?

PSOne Classics -- Nothing new here this week either.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ten Finished Nintendo 64 Games -- Make that Seven

The final issue of Ultimate Gamer magazine provided its readers with some last-minute "earth-shattering info" that unfortunately threw journalistic caution to the wind, proving to be wildly speculative and quantifiably (at least 30%) inaccurate:

This was around the time that the console originally known as the Ultra 64 was being rechristened the Nintendo 64, and gamers were anxious to know what the launch library was going to look like.  This article, unfortunately, proves a rather poor guide in retrospect.
Most of the photo coverage on this page is devoted to a Final Fantasy VII tech demo that was produced when Square was exploring the Ultra 64 hardware -- but it was never close to finished, and in fact, as most of you will know, the game ultimately arrived on the Sony Playstation, looking nothing like these early concepts.

Then there's something called Ultra Zelda Legends, purportedly "five times larger than the Super NES game," which might have been a meaningful measure if the game were in 2-D.  Or actually finished.  Or called Ultra Zelda Legends, which sounds like a title straight from the elementary school playground rumor mill.

At least this one probably wasn't horribly disappointing to anyone -- a Nintendo 64 version of Top Gun, which, according to Wikipedia, was a cancelled edition of a Spectrum Holobyte game released for the IBM PC and Playstation.

The other seven games on the list of 10 arrived in one form or another, so I guess the list isn't all that bad.

Although I also note here that Mario 64 apparently didn't make the list of the ten "finished or nearly finished" games.

Dang, I was looking forward to that one.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Larry Flynt Calls It Quits in '96

The always-controversial Larry Flynt has made a lot of money publishing magazines -- you know the kind.  But back in the 1990s, he took a crack run at the video game magazine market with a couple of titles.  Now, video game magazines have always come and gone, but I was intrigued to find this page in Ultimate Gamer's sixth and final issue, circa January 1996:

The magazine wasn't bad -- at least it had a decent lineup of talent, with editors including Chris Bieniek, Frank O'Connor and Tyrone Rodriguez.  And Ultimate Gamer wasn't intended as a limited run, I'm sure.  But it's rather unusual to see a page in a finished issue of a magazine announcing its own impending demise; usually the news comes in the form of a postcard, or the gradual realization that a new issue hasn't arrived in quite a while.

The issue's editorial content says nothing about the cancellation, which implies that the decision was made at the last minute, but at least readers had the option of two different replacement magazines (also published by Flynt's company), and could even apply for a refund on the unused portion of their subscription.

Say what you like about Mr. Flynt, but even when things didn't go well, he treated his subscribers right.

And I'm sure mothers the world over were glad the replacement options were limited, unlike, say, when Electronic Gaming Monthly went temporarily under a year or two back, and substituted subscriptions to Maxim in its place.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Dragon Knight III

The PC Engine played host to many Japanese role-playing game series that never saw the light of day in the US.  This particular game is a bit of an exception -- Dragon Knight III was localized and released for American PCs under the title Knights of Xentar -- but the game's adult content ensured that it never made it to consoles outside of Japan, and even this PC Engine version is toned down quite a bit.

The game was created by ELF for Japanese computers, and ported to the PC Engine by NEC Avenue in 1994, toward the end of the system's life:

It's a shame the series is not better known in the West, because Dragon Knight III has some very funny moments, and it's a competent RPG to boot.  The PC Engine Super CD-ROM version takes superb advantage of the format -- it's filled with fully-voiced, high-resolution cutscenes, and detailed illustrations.

And the technical mechanics are well-implemented -- forgoing CD Audio for background music, the engine relies on chiptunes instead, freeing the CD for rapid access when switching between the world map and villages.  The approach works especially well when jumping in and out of battles, minimizing the loading delays that plagued many early CD-ROM games, and as a result it's a joy to play.  I ended up spending several more hours with Dragon Knight III than I really needed to for this discussion.

The story is fresher than most RPGs of the time, taking liberties with many of the established cliches -- the game opens with our hero Takeru returning from his previous adventures, only to be set upon by bandits and robbed of all his possessions, including his clothes.  This leads to some comical encounters early on, as none of the shopkeepers will deal with the naked warrior -- here, the local innkeeper screams, "Hentai!"

Once Takeru has talked to a man in town and obtained some clothing, he's free to equip himself for battle.  But not before defending a sweet young barmaid from the same thugs who stole his possessions and forwarded them to parts unknown.  She seems sweet, and demure enough, though I must note that she doesn't bother to readjust her top for the entire duration of the conversation that follows her rescue:

Setting out into the world, Takeru begins at level 25, making short work of the local monsters.  But then he must sacrifice his experience, all the way back down to level 1, in order to pass through a gateway into the larger world.  He can, of course, rebuild his experience via traditional random battles, dungeon exploration, and story-driven boss encounters.

Of course, this is a Dragon Knight game, so most of the monsters encountered are attractive women of various kinds -- wood nymphs, nurses with giant hypodermic needles, blondes with whips, and witches who seem to... um... enjoy riding their broomsticks a little too much:

All of the dialogue and most of the text is in Japanese, but the standards generally apply to gameplay, and trial-and-error proves workable for the clueless gaijin like me.  The main combat menu consists of options laid out as follows, from top to bottom -- fighting; item use; fleeing; and spells.  I had some difficulty dealing with armor and weaponry, as I wasn't always sure what I was buying, but potions were easier to recognize.  Most of the items available for purchase can be figured out, if one assumes power correlates with price per RPG tradition.

Storywise, Takeru must seek out and deal with a series of demons along the way -- they are disguised as normal human beings, but reveal themselves when confronted:

And, oddly enough, the designers take a page from Roberta Williams -- Takeru soon encounters Little Red Riding Hood, who is being accosted by a transvestite wolf:

Once the wolf is defeated, Ms. Hood shows Takeru her gratitude with a nighttime visit, complete with softcore musical accompaniment, and Grandma gives Takeru a nice monetary reward for "protecting" her granddaughter.  [Image redacted. :) ]

Later, he encounters a young woman who dresses like Snow White -- the original reportedly also included the Seven Dwarves, but this PC Engine version places her in the grip of a lecherous demon and vampire instead:

In a nearby dungeon, we must fight a mustachioed wizard who flings his cape open flasher-style to attack -- his power is apparently generated in the Latin sense of the word, that is, from his genitals:

Returning the Magic Mirror thus obtained to Ms. White, she also expresses her gratitude with a highly personal touch, not generally mentioned in the popular versions of her story:

I can't really go into too much more detail about Takeru's adventures, for obvious reasons, so I'll draw the curtain, noting in closing that Dragon Knight III is a well-designed, classic-style JRPG with an adult sensibility.  The PC Engine version is risque, not seriously dirty, and it has a sense of humor that keeps it from becoming too seedy.  I enjoyed spending some time with Takeru and his bevy of, er, friends.

The Dragon Knight games have held some value over the years, but you may be able to find an affordable copy for sale here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Games Are Art -- Experiential Art

I've written about this before, but a recent discussion with a fellow gamer at a party has spurred some new and more coherent thoughts.  I believe that the primary obstacle to establishing video and computer games as an art form, with a serious body of criticism and scholarship, is that games are fundamentally not the same as other established media.  And we don't have all the words we need to do the serious stuff yet.

If you and I see the same movie, we may have very different reactions and opinions about it, but our experience of the film is likely to have been very much the same.  The storyline, the cinematography, the acting -- and the ultimate edited record of the production -- will be presented to us as-is.  It will start in the same place, end in the same place, and move through the same sequence of events at the same pace.  The images and sounds, bar environmental and equipment differences, will be identical.

The same applies, I would argue, to books, poetry, music, sculpture, painting, dance, theatre, puppetry... any presentational art form you care to name.  Our personal tastes and knowledge will inform our reactions, but our experience of the work as presented will be consistent.

I don't mean to discount the effort we put into understanding and appreciating a work of art, reflecting the greater effort invested in its creation.  There's a very real interaction, even centuries removed, between the viewer's perception and the artist's intent.  But it's likely that if you and I have similar tastes, we will have consistent impressions of the same work, or at least we can have more nuanced arguments about it.

Games, on the other hand, really have to be experienced to be appreciated or criticized.  You may have noticed that watching someone else play a videogame is rarely interesting; if it's a familiar game, you've seen it, and if it's unfamiliar, you can't always tell what's going on. 

I suggest that this is because, in this medium, the artist's (or artists') work is only truly expressed through the player's experience of it.  Without a player actively engaging the work, it's just a collection of bits gathering dust or running through a demonstration cycle.  The art, if it exists, only manifests while a player is playing.

As supporting evidence, I note that good game design may, indeed, be experienced differently by different participants.  Some players are motivated by story -- "get this challenge out of the way so I can see what happens next."  Some by the opportunity to demonstrate skill -- "I'm trying to beat all my friends' high scores."  Others are more exploration-oriented -- "I don't care if I ever finish this, I just want to spend some time in this world and see and do whatever I can."  And many of us (these are not mutually exclusive types) enjoy the simple pleasures of mild addiction sans withdrawal complications -- "Match three.  Yes!  Can I match three more?"

I would further argue that games are actually a collaborative art form.  And, to be clear, I'm not talking about the cheap, switch-throwing "interactivity" of Dragon's Lair, a choose-your-own-adventure book or pick-the-ending DVD, where long stretches of watching are interrupted by brief flurries of activity.  I'm talking about an ongoing, intensely concentrated period of engagement.

Each player's experience of a particular game is deeply personal; mine will have elements in common with yours, but I believe that I am genuinely helping to create my own version of the "art" at hand, in collaboration with the game's designers.  I am exploring the game's parameters and applying my own habits, interests and preferences to the manner in which I approach it. 

Moreover, I am actively participating in the development of the game's "story," my specific memory of it, even if that story is only about how effectively I can shoot at a target or stack irregularly-shaped blocks.  As the player, I have a stake in the game session's development that nobody outside my own head can fully understand.  I can describe moments and share impressions with others, of course, and I do that via this very blog.  But I can't completely articulate what it's like to play a particular game, nor can I transplant my experience into your head.  You have to go do it yourself, and your mileage may vary.  It's a purely internal phenomenon, truly one's own private thing.

So, let me set this forth for future debate and argument next time I feel like tackling it: 

Games represent a new and unique art form that is experiential, not presentational, in nature.  The art of a game is collaborative and ephemeral, expressed primarily in the moment and the player's memory.
Discussion in the comments or via email is always welcome.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Elsewhere: Pitfall! Commercial with Jack Black and Lucille Benson

Everyone who posts this ad for Activision's Atari 2600 classic Pitfall! on YouTube mentions that a young Jack Black leads off the commentator lineup. But nobody ever mentions the enthusiastic grandma played by Lucille Benson, a terrific character actress who appeared in lots of 1970s and 1980s TV series and movies.  Her career only really took off after she reached a certain age, and she passed away in 1984:

What I like about this ad is its portrayal of the infectious, participatory enthusiasm engendered by great videogames -- at the time, its appeal was being exaggerated for comic effect, but it's not that far off the mark in the age of the Wii.  Now where's my pith helmet?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Adventure of the Week: 666 The Haunted House (1987/2003)

This week's adventure possesses a lengthy historical pedigree, at least by computer game standards.  666 The Haunted House is a Portuguese illustrated text adventure, released for the TRS-80 Color Computer in 1987 originally, and updated to this version 2.01 in 2003, at which time it was also converted to the Japanese MSX computers.  The original game was written by Guilherme Castro and Cristian Hofsetz, with the 2003 update credited to Hofsetz alone.

The title screen provides a brief and mysterious backstory -- clearly, our mission here has something to do with an old family demonic curse:

The engine is fairly primitive technically -- we can see graphical objects being drawn and stored in memory before the game proper starts, giving away some of what lies ahead.  And the keyboard routine seems to have some issues with multiple hits, what we used to call "key bounce" back in the day, so we have to type with a light touch.  The parser doesn't support very many commands, and there's also no SAVE GAME feature, so we must tread carefully; fortunately the game is also fairly small and short, so replaying from scratch is annoying but not maddening.

It's not a difficult game, so experienced adventurers will not need to reference the CASA walkthrough -- but I will mention that while that solution is written for the MSX version, it applies equally well to this edition.  Beyond that, I advise interested readers to visit the old family estate for themselves before proceeding here, and advise all to brace themselves for a few religious oddities and questionable plot devices.  Hot off of Satan's griddle, we're serving up...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The player starts out in a randomized location within the house -- fortunately the map is fairly open, and I never found myself stuck in an impossible spot at startup.

The title screen illustration is unimpressive, and the in-game graphics are even simpler, drawn schematically from a simple perspective-based template, like a dungeon crawl.  The game's locations are generic and rather nondescript -- while the ECTO-SCREENING ROOM is nicely evocative, it's an exception, and we too often find ourselves in ANOTHER ROOM or a SMALL ROOM.

While the parser is simple, it does have a sense of humor, avoiding some of the old cliches -- if we attempt to navigate in an invalid direction, for example, it tells us You should buy some glasses.  I can't go there.

There aren't many items to deal with, but most have a clear purpose in this brief game.  In the library, we find a letter that reads, THE PACT IS SEALED! THE CURSE WILL REMAIN UNTIL THE CHRISTIAN SYMBOL IS RESTORED.  The meaning of this becomes clear when we visit the BEDROOM WHERE YOUR ANCESTOR WAS KILLED, which contains a bed and a cross-shaped frame.  Hmmmm.

Most useful objects are also mentioned in the text, but in the TRANSIT ROOM, a staircase is displayed with no further detail onscreen.  I had to experiment to establish that we can't go UP or CLIMB STAIRS -- we must simply GO STAIRS.

LOOK MIRROR in the bathroom yields MAN, YOU LOOK UGLY.. AND SCARED TO DEATH, but otherwise serves no purpose that I could discover.

There's a knife in the EXECUTION CHAMBER -- truly, this is an elegant and well-appointed domicile --  and a key in an attic room.  We can't UNLOCK DOOR with the key, but we can OPEN DOOR - WITH WHAT: - KEY.  This leads us to a LIVING ROOM with a not-so-secret PASSAGE -- though we can't GO PASSAGE until we first OPEN PASSAGE, so it does make an effort to conceal itself.

The passage leads us down to a creepy cellar, where we find a cross, a coffin and a skull.  We may be tempted to GET CROSS and hightail it out of there, but the skull will have none of that (and to be fair, remember that this was written in Portugal by a non-native English speaker):

Returning to this point on our next attempt, we note that LOOK SKULL indicates THE SKUL [sic] IS CREEPY; no surprise there, really.  LOOK CASKET also proves fatal, as A SKELETON HAND HOLD YOUR ARM AND PULLED YOU INSIDE.  What we need to do here, nonsensical as it may seem, is KILL SKULL - WITH WHAT: - KNIFE.  I was relieved and amused when THE SKULL DIED SAYING... WHATEVER!!!!!!

Now we can PUT CROSS in the bedroom, fulfilling the letter's instructions, at which time we are instantly informed that THE PACT WITH THE DEMON IS VOID!!! -- and that we have 15 moves with which to RUN NOW!!!!!.

Successfully escaping from the house proves more difficult than one might think.  We can reclaim the cross once the pact is broken, but LOOK CROSS only discovers a legend reading MADE IN BRAZIL Z.F. MANAUS, which may or may not be some sort of in-joke, not very useful in any case.

Because we don't have time to do very much at this point, it's best to take advantage of several unsubtle hints the game offers along the way.  If we examine the portal in the ECTOPLASMA TRANSPORT ROOM, the game replies I wonder how can we CROSS it.  Carrying the cross allows us to pass through the portal safely.

We can't actually exit the house this way, however; all we find on the other side of the portal is an ECTOPLASMA RECEPTION ROOM containing a Star of David; from here, we can exit to the attic, or go back through the portal, but we're still stuck in the house as the demon's vengeance approaches. 

So how does this all work out?  Well, if we tried to leave the house with GO ENTRANCE before breaking the demonic pact, we were told YOU HAVE NOT CANCELED THE PACT WITH THE DEVIL!   So this must be the right exit to take, if we can get circumstances properly aligned.

So at last... well...

This might have been handled with a little more finesse, or creativity.


If we try to pass through the door without the Star of David in hand, we are presented with this little poem:  THERE IS NO MOTIVE FOR YOU TO GET THRU; NO ONE WILL SURVIVE EXCEPT THE JEW.

Yeah.  I don't think it's meant to be intentionally offensive, but at best it's a clumsy bit of doggerel.  Anyway... I wish I could say it gets better, but...

With the Star of David in hand, we can escape the house and learn that The adventure was solved! 

Except that the story isn't over, and we don't feel very triumphant.  A sequel is promised, and we are warped through time and space... to a Nazi concentration camp circa 1940, because THE DEMON WANTS REVENGE!  This feels like the designers are trivializing the Holocaust, unfortunately, and the artwork here certainly does not help the situation:

Yikes.  The promised continuation never appeared, as far as I can determine, and that's probably a good thing.

It might have been in poor taste.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The LoadDown - 01/24/2011

What's up loading down...

WiiWare -- One new game and two free demos.  Jam City Rollergirls is an E10+-rated roller derby game, with real-life licensed teams (they do exist) and five tracks of intense rollerskating action.  There are also free demos of Furry Legends and Fish 'em All!

Wii Virtual Console -- Two more classic Capcom coin-ops hit the Virtual Arcade: WWII aerial shooter 1942, which needs no introduction, and the 1987 sword-and-sorcery platformer BLACK TIGER.

DSiWare -- Four new games. Airport Mania: Non-Stop Flights is another hectic time-management challenge with an air traffic control theme.  Rocks N' Rockets is a retro-style game that resembles the old Imagic game Atlantis crossed with Missile CommandDigger Dan & Kaboom is a gem-hunting underground maze game clearly inspired by Boulder Dash.  Ante Up: Texas Hold'em is -- wait for it -- more DSi poker.

XBox Live Arcade -- Just one new game this week, Spare Parts, also available on the PS3; see below for details.

Game Room -- Nothing again.  I'm starting to get nervous about this platform, though there are certainly plenty of existing titles to download and play.

PS3 on PSN -- Two titles recently arrived.  Spare Parts is a platformer with robot characters, family-friendly two-player cooperative gameplay, and voice work by Simon Pegg.  Modern Combat: Domination is a first-person shooter from a series new to consoles after finding some success on mobile devices.

PSOne Classics -- Two new, and worthy, titles this week.  SNK's Metal Slug X is a classic 2-D action game that originated on the Neo-Geo, and Capcom's Rockman is better known on these shores as Mega Man; this is a PSX port of the original 8-bit NES game.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Acclaim -- The Long Winddown Begins

Acclaim was a powerhouse videogame publisher during the 8-bit and 16-bit hardware eras, but as the 32-bit CD-ROM era dawned, the company found itself struggling with increased development costs and heightened quality expectations.  One potentially positive development in 1995 was a North American distribution agreement with Taito, giving Acclaim the right to market the Japanese game giant's titles in the US.

This ad promoted the first two games released under the agreement, and the tagline seems oddly prophetic, if misdirected:

Judging from the way the artwork has been squashed and distorted to fit the available space, the company was looking to save money by combining two full-page ads into one, and not, at this early stage, betting on either the Sega Saturn or the Sony Playstation to win the biggest share of the market.  Unfortunately, neither Jupiter Strike for the Playstation nor Galactic Attack for the Saturn was a major hit in the US.  Acclaim struggled on for almost another decade after this late-1995 ad ran, with few hit games to show for its efforts, until the company finally filed for bankruptcy in 2004.

It makes one wonder if copies of this clairvoyant ad were posted around the Acclaim offices as the debt piled up, suitably amended with regard to whom, exactly, was IN DEEP S#?T.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

wipEout Will Give You nosEbleeds!

Many gamers will remember wipEout -- Psygnosis' freshman Playstation effort was a fast-paced, visually stylish futuristic hover racer with an awesome techno soundtrack.  Many sequels and remakes have followed in its pioneering footsteps.

Fewer, however, will remember Sony's bizarre ad campaign for the game:

I think it's meant to imply that wipEout conveys such a convincing illusion of speed, it will rupture your nasal membranes.  But the game's impressive visuals are nowhere to be seen, and the racing connection is mentioned only in the fine-print review blurbs.  Instead, the most lasting impression this ad creates is that we've accidentally stumbled upon a ratty old sofa occupied by a couple of hipster meth addicts in random thrift-store t-shirts.

And what are the little icons with dotted lines directed at the female model's thighs supposed to be?  Cooties?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: A III

Artdink's A III (aka Take The "A" Train III) is one in a popular series of urban development simulations produced in Japan, where public train transport is a way of life.  US versions have appeared on the Sega Genesis (as Railroad Empire) and on the Playstation (as A Train), and the series is in its ninth major iteration today, for current PCs and videogame consoles.

This week, we're looking at the 1993 PC Engine Super CD-ROM version of A III, ported from home computers by the original developer, Artdink:

The gameplay is more-or-less manageable with minimal Japanese knowledge -- this is clearly a Sim City style game, with an icon-driven interface, wherein the player must build railroad routes and attractions in an effort to grow the tax base, keep the populace happy, and turn a profit.  The game's PC roots show in this straight conversion -- I'm using the standard PC Engine controller, but it supports the system's rarely-seen mouse, and I suspect it's a lot more playable that way.

The technical design keeps the disc available for frequent access, with all the background music rendered by the PC Engine's sound chip, though we can select from several music options with interesting English names (The Saboten Man is sort of a spaghetti-Western theme, saboten being Japanese for cactus):

We will spend most of our time panning around the map, observing the landscape, and building (or demolishing) various things.  Here, I am laying down some train track so the factory workers on a nearby island can travel into town more readily:

Now, I've built an amusement park to amuse the locals:

And here, I'm looking at one of several available real-time status reports -- I know the top line refers to some kind of money, I'm not sure what the other lines mean:

I don't personally find A III's play style compelling, mostly because it's not very goal-driven.  There are no competing railway barons, and while we can earn congratulatory messages for crossing certain goal thresholds, there isn't really much of a game here per se.  It's more of an electronic toy -- a virtual train set, really, with a relatively sophisticated simulation built around it.

The interface is a bit clunky -- even when we're trying to clear land to build something else, we have to select the specific feature that's already there in order to demolish it, limiting the possibilities for entertaining wholesale vandalism.  And on the PC Engine, panning around the map becomes painfully slow whenever we reach the edge of the current view, as we must click on an arrow to move the map a single isometric step in that direction, and it takes a moment to refresh.  We can use a handy Satellite display to jump more quickly to another section of the map, but it tends to break the flow of the game.

Once we've played with all of the controls, there isn't really much to see or do here.  The "A" Train series is an acquired taste under the best of circumstances; it's a gentle simulation, more ant farm than action.  There are more interesting urban development games, and certainly better implementations of the genre than this PC Engine version.

So by all means, Take the "A" Train.  Please!

I can't really recommend this one -- English-language versions are available if the gameplay appeals, and this version is technically sluggish -- but if you insist, the PC Engine title may be available for purchase here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ultra Review Roundtable: Chip'n'Dale Rescue Rangers (1990)

Ed.:  This is a neat idea hatched by one of my fellow retro gaming bloggers over at  We're all playing a retro videogame and commenting on it, with the assembled, hopefully entertaining results cross-posted on all of our blogs/sites.  The project kicks off with a review of Capcom's Chip'n'Dale Rescue Rangers, published for the 8-bit NES in 1990 based on the popular Disney animated TV series.  We're doing it EGM-style as a group, with most of the heavy editorial and layout lifting done by HagenDragmire.  The bulk of the material is below the fold -- enjoy, and please visit my fellow contributors' sites!


In 1990, Capcom released Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers for the Nintendo Entertainment System, a platform game featuring single and two player cooperative modes. Players are allowed to choose which levels to access via a map, giving them access to various locations in the city in whatever order they choose. Each individual stage is set-up as a side-scrolling action game where Chip and Dale battle enemies and bosses. The overall plot starts simple having the rangers rescue a small kitten but it quickly expands to Gadget being kidnapped. It’s up to Chip and Dale to rescue her and stop the nefarious feline kingpin Fat Cat's schemes.


In Rescue Rangers you can play as either Chip and/or Dale. Both Chip and Dale have exactly the same abilities which includes running, ducking, jumping, and throwing objects until you get to the end of each stage. Some objects restrict movement and jumping, while boxes and blocks allow you to hide inside them. Hiding allows you to be safely hit but you then lose the box you are hiding under; blocks stick around after being hit to be picked up and used multiple times. Throughout some stages
there are various things you must do to get through; such as using the wooden boxes to hit a switch, stacking blocks, or jumping up and down on something to be able to progress. The two player co-op mode was a given and pretty nice for whenever you had a friend over to tag along and
enjoy the game with you. You do have to be careful though since you can hit each other which can lead to “accidental” deaths.

Graphics and Sound

Rescue Rangers uses a decent array of colors and each stage has its own theme so it never gets boring to go through a level. No two stages feel exactly the same. The bosses are a treat to look at since in most cases they are pretty huge and have their own music. This makes it pretty epic to be at the end of each and every stage. Both Chip and Dale are basically just a sprite swap on one another with minor differences.

The music as with most Capcom games on the NES is extremely catchy. The main theme though is something that alone is worth listening to all on it’s own since it was captured perfectly in all its midi glory. The sound effects work well for their intended purposes, though sometimes the actual pitch of them is pretty horrific if you have your television up too loud. This is especially noticeable when collecting items or when you get hit.

Tag Lines

“Rescue Rangers is without a doubt one of the best licensed games that has come out.”

“Challenging enough to keep a skilled gamer occupied for a hour or so.”

“Throwin' stuff solves everything.”

“The most damning flaw is that Rescue Rangers is far too easy.”

“Does Gadget have big sexy boobs?”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Elsewhere: Popeye Parker Brothers TV Commercial

This is one of those crazy 1980s licensing chains -- Nintendo (which, rumor has it, had wanted the character for the game that became Donkey Kong) finally licensed E.C. Segar's Popeye from King Features and created a successful arcade game.  Parker Brothers then licensed the home rights, paying royalties to both companies, and released versions for almost all of the then-current videogame consoles and home computers (Nintendo later released its own version for the NES.)

Parker Brothers' television commercials featured the Colecovision version of the game; I don't even remember seeing this TV ad back in the day, and I'm going to include two versions here, both uploaded to YouTube by DigThatBoxRETRO.  The American version survives from a poor-quality home VCR recording, but you can get the general gist of it:

This French version is, y'know, in French, but features MUCH better video quality:

I like the ad's use of the animated characters -- after all, if Popeye won't play his own game, why should you?  And the subtle mixture of animated characters and live action props and sets works well.

Mostly, I find the look of Bluto/Brutus interesting -- he doesn't look like he did in the original Thimble Theatre comic strips and Max Fleischer cartoons, nor is he the redesigned and simplified version from the Paramount cartoons (the design used for the Nintendo game).  Instead, this character design seems to be drawn from the King Features newspaper comic strips and Charlton comic books -- as you can see, his scraggly beard is rather difficult to animate, so this might be the only cartoon appearance of this version of the character.

Yes, I am a total geek.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Adventure of the Week: menagarie (1982)

This week, we're playing a fairly obscure Atari 400/800 text adventure -- the game's stylishly simple (and misspelled) title screen announces itself as menagarie:

I believe this is the game otherwise known as SoftSide Adventure No. 16: Menagerie.  SoftSide Publications put out a popular print and disk magazine during the 8-bit home computer era, publishing monthly adventure games for several years.  The author is uncredited, and while the BASIC code is similar to other SoftSide games, the storytelling style seems unique (among the handful I've played.)

The plot begins, as so many escape-the-UFO adventures do, as the player is drawn involuntarily aboard a mysterious spacecraft just in time for lift-off; we must explore the onboard zoo, and use the unique abilities of the various creatures kept there, to plot an escape.

menagarie is not especially difficult; there are a few stumpers, but it's a fun little adventure and worth trying on your own.  In other words, if you plan to play this one yourself, you may want to do so before continuing here.  Because there are going to be thorough...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The opening sequence is almost completely non-interactive; we just have to hit the RETURN key a couple of times, without even the illusion of choice.  The game's writing is imaginative but amateurish, with misspellings and grammatical hiccups showing up almost immediately, as we are told that you see a strange vehicle what appears to be a spacecraft of some sort.

The initial location only has one exit, and it's dark in there.  I (not INV or any of the other standard variants) reveals that we are carrying a BOOK OF MATCHES, and LOOK MATCHES reveals that there are 5 left.  A lit match temporarily illuminates the room, then goes out before we can move again, so we should take note of our surroundings while we can.

In the first dark room, we can spot a flag pole on the wall.  LOOK POLE indicates that There's a red marsian flag on top (marsian looks like a misspelling, but who's to say what the indigenous population of Mars actually calls itself?)  If we try to GET FLAG, You can't reach it, but if we try an obvious gambit and CLIMB POLE, the parser tells us I don't know what "CLIMB POLE" means.  We actually have to GET POLE, at which point Something falls off and blows away.  (There is actually a reason for this, though the necessary air movement is apparently not otherwise noticeable.)  After this happens, LOOK POLE still insists that There's a red marsian flag on top, but the FLAG is no longer an available object, so we'll have to hunt it down later.

The design here almost guarantees that we'll have to replay a bit to map the early stages, as our limited store of matches gets used up quickly, but we can save on sulphur by navigating in the dark once we know where we're going.  If we take a wrong turn with the lights out, however, we are likely to step on something undesirable, so called because running into it is fatal.  Even though we can't see any details in most locations without light, we can somehow see a snake poised, readt [sic] to attack, with red beady eyes.  The snake blocks half of the six exits from this room, and can't be killed, so this presents our first puzzle.

The nearby Hall of Mirrors shows the player an image of him/herself as a stowaway.  We can BREAK MIRROR here, which in a break from tradition is not bad luck; doing so creates a hole, and we can GO HOLE to a room where It's getting windy...   It continues to get windier as we progress, and in the next room down the way, we learn that Your torch just blew out!   This message occurs even if we're not carrying anything resembling a lit torch, which provides an accidental hint -- if we LIGHT MATCH when we are carrying the flagpole, it turns it into a torch, or we can LIGHT POLE for greater precision.  Fortunately, just as our torch is blown out, we can use another match to discover a LIGHT ROD in this room, and we will want to LIGHT ROD, as the burning pole eventually becomes (HALF BURNT) and a BURNING STUMP before giving out altogether.

With a more reliable light source, we can discover that the red flag has blown to the room northeast of the snake's lair.  We can also GET MIRROR to take a LARGE PIECE OF BROKEN MIRROR from the Hall of Mirrors.  If we SHOW MIRROR to the snake, Snake is hypnotised by the mirror and we can walk casually past him, but the effect is temporary; we must SHOW MIRROR again any time we need to get past the snake.

The game doesn't put a lot of pressure on us, but I like the way it depicts the passage of time.  There's a robot work room onboard, where we find a robot lettering a sign.  At first, we can see that So far he has painted E.  Later, ... he has painted EARTH.  If he gets all the way to EARTHLING, we have become a permanent resident of the alien zoo.

The ship is strangely deserted, and we're not really given any explanation for this; perhaps it's run entirely by robots and reptiles, but there's a meeting room with a set of keys on the table, and a control room with a lever and an empty battery clip.  These seem to be humanoid (or bipedal creature-ish) artifacts, and they are, at least, convenient for our puzzle-solving purposes.

The menagarie itself lies on the ship's bottom level, where we encounter a variety of alien creatures chained up in their stalls.  Some are punning inventions, like the VENUSIAN METAL EATERUS, while others are variations on familiar animals: the SATURNIAN PEACOCK, NEPTUNIAN TERMITE, and the intriguingly-named MERCURIAN LAZY CLAM (how can the alien taxonomists tell?)  The GALAXIAN WISE OWL will dispense a few semi-cryptic hints if we TALK OWL; one such tip is "ask the cat," and when we find the JUPITORIAN CATASK CAT yields "bring me a pearl and I'll tell you how to escape."

Most of the puzzles from this point on are nested, so most of the work involves trying various possibilities until something works and provides a clue to another puzzle.  Some animals can be released using the keys found in the meeting room, while others yield only That key's not on the keychain if we try to UNLOCK CHAIN.

We can unlock the chain of the VENUSIAN METAL EATERUS and take him along; thinking I could use this creature to bite through another animal's chain, I tried to DROP EATERUS near the clam, which yielded Not here, implying that there's a correct place to drop this creature.  This is one of a series of such hints, and it turns out that the only place we can drop this particular critter is in the room with the metal wall.  Befitting its name, the Venusian Metal Eaterus eats through the metal wall, leading to another room with... a wall of plywood.  We can now go back and fetch the NEPTUNIAN TERMITE, enjoying a few comical sound effects as each of these creatures goes about its business.

A tank of water in one stall has an electric eel in it -- picking it up isn't fatal, but we need to find and WEAR GLOVES before we can successfully take it along.  We can PUT EEL in the battery clip in the control room, and PULL LEVER to disable a force field that will be an obstacle later on if we haven't done this.

The meeting room also contains a map, with oddly simplistic compass settings for a spacefaring intelligence:  MARS: N, EARTH: S.  These details will also be important later.

There's a PIECE OF HALF-EATEN CHEESE in one stall, where an EMPTY MINITURE [sic] CHAIN hangs.  We can't EAT CHEESE, which is probably a good thing, but we can use it later on to lure a JANUSIAN MOUSE into our grasp.

We can also GET FEATHER from the peacock, and TICKLE CLAM to get a PEARL.  This game isn't a treasure hunt, so we can GIVE PEARL to the cat, who claims we can escape on Mars, and that the ship will make a stopover there in approximately 25 turns.  If we ASK CAT again, it asks us to bring it a mouse to learn more.

However, it soon develops that the cat has given us bad advice -- if we try to step out of the ship after it lands on Mars, we are immediately gored by an alien bull.  On my next attempt, I tracked down the mouse first, and instead of bringing him to the duplicitous cat, I heeded his pleas for mercy and let him go.  Freed, the mouse suggests that we need to reroute the ship back to Earth, which does seem like a much better idea.

The wise owl hints that "diamonds cut glass," and the PLUTONIAN DIAMOND-HEAD WOLF seems like a useful animal in that light.  Beyond the plywood wall lies a sheet of unbreakable glass - DROP WOLF doesn't work here, as the beast just sits there, but holding the wolf while we CUT GLASS does.

Beyond the glass wall is an even more solid stone wall.  To get through it, we have to wait out the ship's Mars stopover.  If we're near the entrance, we can see that a MARSIAN BULL comes aboard and disappears, ending up in one of the western stalls on the zoo level.  Despite being fatally gored by just such a creature in another life, it turns out that we can simply UNLOCK CHAIN and GET BULL like the other animals.  If we DROP BULL in front of the stone wall, then WAVE FLAG toreador style, he will oblige us by breaking it down (and conveniently disappearing afterwards).

Like some of the other SoftSide adventures, menagarie has no QUIT or SAVE GAME commands; we must succeed, or die trying and start over.  Or, as a meta-solution, use an emulator with save-state capabilities.

Beyond the various walls we finally discover a navigation chamber with a compass, but the dial is missing; its needle is currently pointing N for Mars, per the map in the meeting room.  The dial is nearby, in an alcove; we can now take it to the navigation room and PUT DIAL to install it on the face of the compass.  A quick TURN SOUTH, and we are headed back toward Earth. 

Of course, now a SENTRY ROBOT appears, blocking our path to the ship's exit.  The dial can't be turned back to deactivate the guardian machine, so we have to find another way out.  I tried at first to MOVE CARPET in the navigation room, because it looked suspicious, but learned only that It's stuck.  Subsequent experiments established that the Venusian Metal Eaterus won't eat the sentry robot, either.

I finally dug into the program code and discovered that at some point the carpet becomes a hole in the floor, so I knew I was on the right track.  Further play confirmed that we have to MOVE COMPASS, then GET CARPET (as MOVE CARPET still says It's stuck).  Going through the hole, we emerge in the western stall area, and can now navigate out of the ship successfully (if we disabled the force field earlier.)  If we've been too efficient here, the game becomes a bit annoying, as just before we wrap it all up, we have to wait around until the ship gets to Earth and opens its door.

Exiting the ship, we find ourselves back on an imperfect Earth, with what may be the least congratulatory ending message I've yet encountered:

I enjoyed playing menagarie -- it's a quick little old-school adventure, and the SoftSide Publications games are not well-known today, so the series is well worth exploring.  I'll be taking a look at more of these as time goes on, I'm sure.  I didn't find a published walkthrough for this one, so mine is below the fold; it's also been made available at the CASA solution archive.

Well anyways, This adventure is over.

***** WALKTHROUGH *****

Monday, January 17, 2011

The LoadDown - 01/17/2011

It's Martin Luther King day, and time to celebrate freedom (of gaming choice) with a roundup of recent downloadable releases...

WiiWare -- Once again, we see two new titles and a demo.  Indie game creator Stickmen Studios releases Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time, a time-travelling platform/puzzler meant to be the first in a series.  Urbanix is a retro arcade-style game, where the player's tractor must build a town in spite of comical invaders, claiming territory a la Qix.  And there's a free demo version of BIT.TRIP BEAT, first in the popular series from Aksys Games.

Wii Virtual Console -- All's quiet on this platform this week.

DSiWare -- Four new titles up.  Glory Days - Tactical Defense is a military-themed tower defense game.  Animal Boxing is a stylus-controlled boxing game.  The Seller is a card game with an interesting backstory of corporate backstabbing and bankruptcy.  Alien Puzzle Adventure is another Match 3 puzzle game.

XBox Live Arcade -- One new game, Zeit², a new scrolling shoot-'em-up from Brightside Games.

Game Room -- Still no sign of a Game Pack 014.  Is history repeating itself, as the new coin-ops stop coming?  Will our virtual arcades have to resort to ticket redemption games?

PS3 on PSN -- One new game: Faery: Legends of Avalon, a downloadable action/RPG, arrives on the PS3 after debuting on XBLA in November.

PSOne Classics on PSN -- Nothing new up this week, but rumor has it some much-loved titles will be arriving in the near future.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cyber Cop! The Other One!

 This is one of those full-page, full-color game ads I occasionally run across in the archives that personally rings no bells whatsoever:

It's The New Wave in 3-D VidGame Software!  With 3-D Spritable Characters! And Full Spectrum Color Animation!

The Commodore 64 version reportedly never came out, and I'm suspicious about the Apple II version also.  In fact, I haven't even been able to track down a copy of the IBM PC version, presumably the most successful SKU; a completely different Sega Genesis/Amiga game by the same name (aka Corporation) keeps throwing itself in the path of my furious Googling.

But I did track down an interesting interview with Pedersen Systems' chief developer and CEO, Roger Pedersen, over at  He developed and produced successful games for many other publishers, both before and after striking out (in both senses) with his own company, including a lot of successful GameTek and Acclaim titles.  But when left to his own devices, he wrote an ad that might have meant something to game developers, but probably didn't do much for the general public, who may have thought Quick Manual Response meant it had an index.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Senecom, What Wert Thou?

This is one of those ads that sounds suspiciously like a scam -- few details are provided beyond what sounds like an opportunity to make easy money.  They won't even tell us exactly what's on the three PDQ (Premium Disk Quality) diskettes they're sending us for our $9.95 (with free shipping!):


So it appears that the parent company was primarily a software publisher/office supply company, which leads me to believe purchasers of these disks were expected to achieve a "New Future" by pushing SENECOM's products in a multi-level marketing system.


So it's possible that the three disks contained sample career training course material, with the advertised "new future" derived from acquiring new skills.  This is, perhaps, still a money-making endeavor at heart, but one more in the time-honored tradition of the correspondence course than the pyramid scheme.

It seems neither business was very successful -- both trademarks lapsed soon after this magazine ad ran in 1984, with an abandoned petition to revive noted in the archives circa late 1986.

Too bad I can't think of anything fun to do with them.

Friday, January 14, 2011

East vs. West: Makyo Densetsu / The Legendary Axe

I bought my TurboGrafx-16 shortly after the system's debut, back in 1989, along with a copy of The Legendary Axe, produced by Victor Musical Industries, RCA Victor's Japanese division, and published in the US by NEC.  I've always liked this game, and out of curiosity I recently picked up the original HuCard, Makyo Densetsu, released in Japan in 1988 as Victor's first PC Engine title.

It's clear why this was selected as a US launch title -- the graphics are detailed and colorful, the music sounds better than anything the NES could put out, and the hack-and-slash action is late-1980s arcade quality.  It's the only game featured in Video Games & Computer Entertainment magazine's early coverage of the PC Engine that actually made it to North America.

And, contrary to NEC's general approach to TurboGrafx marketing, they didn't screw up the cover art too badly, replacing the clean, airbrushed Japanese original with a cluttered but legible new drawing, marred primarily by poor logo placement and coloration:

The game was originally 100% in English, aside from the title screen, so little localization was required; as far as I can tell, a title screen redraw was the only change made for the American release.  Here's the original Japanese version:

And the updated US version:

Even better, the game is a lot of fun in any language.  The level designs and enemy characters are varied, the chiptune music is great, with unique hi-hat sounds and a solid bass line, and the power-up approach makes preserving the hero's health important.  Because the hero's axe charges up, doing more damage when employed at full strength, and gets reset to zero whenever he takes damage, there's a bit of timing and strategy involved.

Both versions feature the game's first major enemy, a giant tarantula, on the packaging, but in truth this is just a mini-boss -- we have to jump and run to avoid its web missiles, striking a series of blows as opportunity permits to sever its limbs one by one, before proceeding to conquer the remainder of Zone 1:

Animal abuse is a common theme here -- we will also fight bears and eagles, in addition to the game's various axe-wielding goblins -- but presumably these are evil animals.  At least, this appears to be clear in some cases, like this missile-spitting giant weevil:

This was an early PC Engine release, but it makes solid use of the system's technical capabilities with detailed graphics and atmospheric music.  This cave level even puts some environmental stalactites and stalagmites in the foreground, although if we look closely we can see that the priority isn't always set properly -- here, we also appear to be jumping BEHIND the brown wall in the background:

Zone 3A pits us against giant rock men, whose reach exceeds our own, so hitting them with a powered-up axe is important:

 And, just in case we're getting bored, there's some Jungle Hunt-style vinework to deal with in Zone 3B:

I managed to finish this game back in the day, but that was more than twenty years ago and my video gaming skills are not what they used to be.  But there's a lot of challenge and variety packed into this HuCard release, even if we only sample the early levels.  The Legendary Axe was an excellent launch title for the American console, and is still one of my favorite action games of the era.

The US version is fairly easy to find, as TurboGrafx-16 games go, but unfortunately it has not yet found its way onto the Wii Virtual Console (and is not, at this writing, likely to.) Fortunately, it can be found at

If the import version appeals, you may be able to purchase it here or here:

Makyo Legend PC-Engine Hu

News - IBM's Jeopardy-Playing Watson Computer

This is potentially big news, and at the least a very interesting development, in artificial intelligence:

IBM has developed a supercomputer, called Watson after the company's founder, that is capable of participating in the game show Jeopardy, in entirely human terms.  It listens to the host in spoken English, breaks the audio signal down into text it can analyze, comes up with a plausible answer from its database, and makes a decision about its confidence level in that answer, as it decides whether and when to "buzz in" before delivering it (in the form of a question, of course) in a synthesized voice.  In a practice round, reported in the AP story linked above, it managed to beat a couple of champion human opponents in some (though not all) categories.

It's not too surprising, really, that a computer can pull this off; the elements involved are not hard to envision, given the current state of the technology.  It's still a fairly narrowly defined problem, as well.  But it's impressive because it's dealing with a considerably more complex problem than the traditional chess-playing benchmark -- especially given that Jeopardy tends to use humor and puns in its answer/question format, something computers have traditionally been very poor at parsing.

I look forward to seeing the serious tournament play broadcast scheduled next month -- will this AI experiment break down and reveal its mechanical workings under extended scrutiny, as has historically been the case, or will it present a convincing illusion of human-style intelligence at work?

The practical applications of such a technology are myriad, but game feasibility is, of course, a long way off.  But I can't help imagining something akin to the classic text adventure, where the hosting system understands not only everything the game designer could foresee, but is capable of comprehending a broader context.  Material properties, traditional object usage, even social conventions could be roughly delineated, leaving it to the system to fill in the gaps based on its own synthetic knowledge of the world, inside and outside of the game, employing what we could come to think of as an artificial imagination.

At a more realistic level, it appears we are approaching a machine that can produce novel responses to novel input -- and that would truly be something new under the sun.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

At Random: Goal! (NES, 1989)

Sports games don't get a lot of love from retro gamers or collectors -- the qualities that make a sports game fun to play don't change much over time, so as the technical state of the art moves on, so generally does the gaming community.  There's really no reason (beyond pure nostalgia) to go back and seriously play an old Genesis version of, say, Madden Football.  Still, I have a number of sports titles in my collection, and my latest completely-at-random pick has come up with Jaleco's Goal! for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System.

Jaleco found American success on the NES with Bases Loaded, a baseball title that aimed for greater realism than the cartoony R.B.I., and a similar design approach is evident in this 1989 soccer title.  The game features full teams of 11 members each, with small sprites to suit the hardware's capabilities, and an isometric playing field, which improves visibility and also reduces the number of sprites likely to end up on the same horizontal line.

According to the box copy, each player is rated in 7 different skill categories to lend some simulation-style realism to the action, though as far as I can determine there's no way to view or modify these stats.  There's a World Cup mode, and a full tree-based tournament mode, with real cities but no licensed teams -- oddly, the European version features the same American cities as the U.S. release.

It's easy to forget that in 1989, professional soccer was still struggling for recognition in the US.  The North American Soccer League went defunct a few years earlier, and the game box does its best to promote the game in decidedly nationalistic terms, mentioning chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" and calling it "America's favorite new sport, soon to become your favorite new home video game, thanks to Jaleco!"  The box cover of my beaten-up, used video rental store copy (apparently a promotional edition) also promises to kick in fifty cents in the buyer's name to support the U.S. Soccer Team and Youth Soccer Association (Details Inside!)

No, I did not actually pay $9.95 for this game.

As an 8-bit NES game, the game gets a little chuggy at times, with the framerate dropping substantially when too many players are active onscreen.  But it plays well in general, and the cartridge is large enough for some impressive illustrative animations -- soccer victory laps, with a nice "blurred" depth-of-field effect:

Detailed referee calls (though how the computer team managed to get OFFSIDE, I'll never know):

And a small complement of halftime cheerleaders wearing wholly inadequate skirts:

The game plays fair by using the same AI for the player's teammates as for the opposing team -- maybe too fair.  In fact, I found that I could put the controller down altogether, and my team would still defend fairly competently, keeping the ball out of our goal and somehow managing to dodge flurries of inept steal attempts by the CPU-controlled team.

Of course, this is no way to win; I got better at defense as the game progressed, but never managed to score a goal of my own, ending my first game with an embarrassing 4-0 defeat:

There's also a simple goal-shooting competition mode, which features larger, more detailed sprites than the main game:

Goal! is one of those games that, from today's perspective, simply exists.  It was a decent soccer title in its time, but despite a sequel and a 16-bit SNES version, the franchise died out before 3-D hardware and the FIFA series came to the fore.  It's a very typical 8-bit soccer game -- competent, and fun, but unspectacular.

Easy to come by, easy to afford, if you're in the market: