Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Music of Our Lives #1

Virtual Console Releases - January 29

Okay, I think someone in charge has just left the machine to run amok by itself. What the heck happened with Sega? What was that all about?! One freaking game?! Sure, it's Zelda 3, but, still. One freakin' game.

Now this week, Sega has released two of the three games they promised last Monday, but Gain Ground - still left out. Huh? So what's the deal, already? Either Nintendo is seriously enforcing some kind of "no more than four games per week" rule - or Sega just doesn't have many games coming out for Virtual Console. In that case, they're trying to stretch the releases as thin as possible. I am aware that the first Streets of Rage is on deck, but after that? They've pretty much stuck to the same releases that appear on all their previous compilation discs.


On a brighter note...what happened to the bad week? According to tradition, this is supposed to be one of the bad weeks, where the games are either disapointments or complete shit. Instead, we're getting classics, classics! Hits, baby! Nintendo 64 finally gets some attention, and even though we all know there'll only be five or six games released on that channel - the main franchises - this is one of the good ones. Oh, and we finally get to play Contra 3. You know, the one that was available in Japan for months. Thanks for the bone. Jerks.

Hey, it's better than Urban Champion or Altered Beast.

I already wrote about Sega's two Genesis games - Bonanza Bros. and Comix Zone - last week, so just scroll down the archives and read them over there. I'm not reprinting or rewriting anything. I'm listening to Zeppelin IV on vinyl, so there.

Which, by the way, is the Coolest Thing Ever.

Mario Kart 64 - Nintendo for Nintendo 64 - 10/10

The Mario Kart fans usually fall into two different camps on which game is their favorite. A lot stick with the Super Nintendo original, and a lot will stick with the N64 version. Of course, I have to throw a monkey wrench into the mix and root for the Nintendo DS version. Yeah, I do that for kicks. But, still, the latest version owes its existence to Mario Kart 64.

Mario Kart always evaded me for many years, and it took me a long time to finally, ya know, "get it." It's just a completely different beast from the original, and this may be the reason for that fan split. It's a different game entirely, only sharing a name. The trick is to discover the powerslides, which, as everyone knows, you hit by hopping your cart and then jerking the joystick left and right several times.

I can't believe Next Generation didn't figure this out. They only gave the game three stars out of five in their review. What's the deal with that? I had such hopes for them, and yet they still had this tin ear when it came to a lot of really good games. Hmm. I don't they ever gave Mario Kart a fair chance.

Wait, hang on. Zeppelin's over. Gotta throw on something else. Back to Sgt. Pepper's.

Mario Kart 64 has a pretty loose feel in the steering, but the racetracks are perfect for it, and there's a terrific design to everything. There's more balance between the racers, which is a great improvement from the original. Ah, who am I kidding? I still take the damn Smurf.

And, of course, there's the best thing about this game. Four players. Hey, you probably won't see the Wii version of Mario Kart until this fall, if not next year, so this is your real break. This will be one of the games that will be on everyone's Wii. Damn, that sounds lame - I hate this console's name.

Contra 3: The Alien Wars - Konami for Super NES - 9/10

For a short while, Konami continued its run of dominance into the 16-bit era with stellar versions of its classics and originals like Axelay. Contra 3 is one of the most celebrated of those games. It may even be their best on the Super NES. It certainly is one of the best of all the system's titles.

It's common knowledge that the top-tier developers at Konami responsible for Contra 3 were the ones who later split to form Treasure. You can see Gunstar Heroes as their twisted revenge against Konami's rigid formulas and longstanding franchises. The first level in Gunstar - the green earth one - is nearly a direct homage to the first level in Contra 3, mixed with a half dozen tabs of acid.

So, okay, Contra 3 is square and conservative and Nixonian, while Gunstar was Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. As far as straight-laced Rambo revenge fantasies, Contra's about as good as it gets. This game offers a steady stream of thrills and spills, a number of cool SNES effects, like that bomber swooping in with the napalm, and that giant turtle, and the robot-skeleton that breaks in from the back wall of a fortress.

Hey, wait a minute! This game isn't square or straight at all! I'll bet these guys were so tripped out they had to peel each other off the walls. Nintendo sure didn't have a problem with psychedelics in their games, now did they? Violence? Blood? Baaad!!! Yoshi eating spores and watching the screen melt? Contra LSD experiments? Hey, yeah! Party on!!

Now that I think about it, Nintendo was a lot cooler than we ever gave them credit for at the time. That whole rigid Puritanical thing was a front.

Oh, yeah, the game. It's fun. Brutally hard, which is a real change of pace for Contra, and the Konami Code doesn't work this time, but since when was that a problem? The series had one more great moment left in it - the Treasure rip-off Contra Hard Corps - before it just collapsed into a million pieces. What the hell happened to Contra? Probably too many acid tests. Contra is the Syd Barrett of videogames.

Okay, next week, I'm gonna listen to Nat King Cole records when I'm writing the VC reviews. This is just getting weird. I'm going to start getting comments from the government.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Real World Continues to Creep In

Short update here. I'm serious about expanding the scope of this little blog of mine, beyond just writing and talking about videogames, and into my other interests. I've added links to my favorite progressive weblogs, and a few media-related sites, including the always-essential Randi Rhodes Archives.

I'm not planning to abandon the games coverage, so all five of you who visit this site have nothing to worry about. But, let's be serious here - most of the time, the only thing I'm writing about are the weekly Virtual Console releases.

Oh, and did I tell you that I sold my Nintendo DS? It wasn't because of any dissatisfaction - I loved my DS dearly. I just need to use my precious time more wisely, and I'd rather use that Animal Crossing/Brain Age/Zoo Keeper time reading or writing or listening to my Beatles records.

Have I mentioned that I have a record player now? Yeah, nice.

I know blogs and websites are supposed to be focused on a single topic, for ease of selling yourself on the internet. But I'm just too sprawling by nature, and everything just keeps expanding into undiscovered countries. It was just the same a decade ago with my zines, so I really shouldn't be surprised at any of this, really. We should embrace as many colors of life as possible. Our lives should be, well, interesting. This is supposed to be fun...uh, right?

Psychedelic Beatles on Vinyl

For some unknown reason, this video is a lot darker once I posted it on YouTube. The video file is a bit brighter on my desktop, and you can actually see just what the heck it is I'm talking about. My records are really twisting and warping about, not excessively, but it's very psychedelic and very liquid.

I made a video of Sgt. Peppers with my digital camera, another piece of modern technology that isn't anywhere near as good as the old stuff. Well, at least I can hook it up to my computer and post stuff online. That's a good advantage. The reflections on the vinyl are quite a trip.

Remember when I said I expected to see the walls melt a few posts ago? It actually happened! And you tell me we live in a Godless universe. Sometimes I think I'm really tapped into the collective whatever-it-is. Thank heavens this time it's something good and fun; last year it was terrifying preminitions of death, followed by the sudden deaths of Sean Pettibone and my beloved aunt Barbara.

I really have too much time on my hands. What did you think happens to hippies once they're out of college? It's either this, or move to the burbs and become a repressed Republican. No thanks. That's like volunteering to lie down into your coffin.

Anyway, let me know if you can see the crazy tripped-out reflections on the record. If you like it, I'll get a bigger memory card and shoot more movies. I'm the Isao Takahata of my generation! Look upon my mighty works, ye mortals, and weep! Hah!

UPDATE: Okay, here's a second video, with more light in the room. Still not quite capturing that liquid effect, but you get a better idea. You'll just have to experiment on your own if you want to see the walls melting. Cough. You know what I mean.

100th Post

Yay!! 100 posts! And the majority of them actually have something to do with videogames! Let's see if I can say the same thing on post #200. Eh, probably not, but whaddya expect me to do? Have a seperate blog for every different topic that passes by my brain?

Be sure to tune into my new weblogs: My Unrepentant and Perfectly Rational Fear of Death, George Bush is Dry Drunk & Cheney is Evil, and 5000 Reasons Why Stryper Sucks. And I may start a blog detailing my readings on C.S. Lewis, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Carl Jung. And one blog devoted to each Beatles album.


Steve's Beatles Page - Go Visit

Here's a good site that tracks all the different anomolies, fragments, and tiny pieces buried deep in the mix of Sgt. Pepper's. The Beatles were pretty heavily influenced by Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds, and this album demonstrates that perfectly. Again, most of these little sounds only come out to me on vinyl. I've never heard any of them on the CD, aside from John Lennon's "Bye!" on the Sgt. Pepper's Reprise on side two.

I wonder if the Beatles albums were ever given the proper digital-remastering treatment for the CD's? I'm pretty deeply skeptical of that now, and I wouldn't be surprised to see CD reissues sometime before the end of the decade. 40 year anniversaries, and all. Whatever. Just stick with the vinyl, kids.

How Big Was "Paul is Dead"?

It got spoofed in a Batman comic. That's how big it was. Hilarious.

What is it with America and goofy conspiracy theories, anyway?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Stevie and Daytona USA

It's no secret that a lot of classic videogame music is heavily borrowed from popular and classical music. "Borrowed," as in, you know, "fell off a truck." It's not something to run into very much anymore - it's largely a relic of the '80s - but every once in a blue moon you'll spot something. Case in point - Daytona USA. Now, I know the songs on Daytona get a lot of snickers, but I really dig them. They're good.

How good? Well, the melody to the song for the Mountain stage - I wanna flyyyyy sky hiiiiigh... Remember that tune? Well, Sega stole that melody from a little-seen Stevie Wonder song called, "Send One Your Love." It's from his one album that's truly overlooked, The Secret Life of Plants.

Here, check it out for yourself. I knew that melody at the start sounded familiar. After a couple listens, it finally dawned on me - hey, that's in Daytona USA! I oughta know, 'cause I spent half my time on that game trying to start 20-car pileups. Which, of course, is the only real reason the original Saturn Daytona was any good. When you're trying to dodge stock cars falling from the sky, AND jamming to Stevie...life is good.

P.S. Now that I'm thinking of it...why did everyone bag on Saturn Daytona? That screenshot looks pretty damn good to me. I kinda like it. What was the big freakin' deal, anyway? I think everyone was just too wowed by Playstation, and too pissed at Sega. Can't blame anyone for that. Both were well-deserved. But, still, this game looks fine.

P.P.S. What's with all the freakin' post-scripts?! I'm outta control! I grabbed that screenshot from Michael Palisano's webzine The Laser. It's available on the links section to the right, so be sure to visit once or twice. It's a good site.

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Here's the "short, short" story about The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers - the vinyl version absolutely destroys the CD. The compact disc that we - my generation - has been listening to all our lives...how do I put it? It's shit. Absolute fucking shit. Seriously.

Vinyl was how Sgt. Pepper's was meant to be heard. There's a tremendous amount of depth and subtlety to the sound that's either suppressed or lost entirely on the CD. Were the Beatles' CDs ever properly digitally remastered? On my virgin voyage with Peppers on vinyl, I'm picking up all these sounds, little bits and pieces, that I'm hearing for the first time.

I'm a great lover of the Beatles. They're my absolute favorites, just ahead of Dylan and Jimi. I feel like I've just discovered them again for the very first time. It's a wonderful feeling. Like falling in love for the very first time. It's a miracle that's under our noses, and we're too suckered by commercialism and technology to ever notice. Ipod? Pulleeze. Sony should have stuck a turntable instead of a Blu-Ray on their Playstation 3. Would've saved them from oblivion. There's a lesson to be learned here, folks.

Good heavens, I can hear Ringo counting off in A Day in the Life. I can't hear the dog whistle, though. It's pretty evident on CD, so perhaps that sound effect was bumped up. I'm noticing, after going through my stack of records, that CD remasters often mess around with the original mixes. You're not getting the real deal. Someone's picking your wallet and selling it back to you, sans cash.

Here's a good comparison if you don't have a turntable handy. Go listen to the 2003 Dylan CD remasters, then compare them to the older versions. Get Blonde on Blonde, with the cardboard fold-out just like the gatefold record. Then get that old single-disc version, where whole chunks of the backing instruments were blurred out. That's a pretty good comparison to the difference between the vinyl and CD versions of Sgt. Pepper's.

This has been the best night I've had with music in years. I was beginning to fear that my days of explosive, ground-breaking musical discoveries - the kind you have as a teenager or in college - were behind me. I feared I had already mapped the globe, and all that was left was to fill in the blanks. Check out that final Doors album made after Jim Morrison died, even though you know damned well it fuckin' sucks. That sort of thing.

So, the moral to the story, kids - you ABSOLUTELY MUST LISTEN TO SGT. PEPPER'S ON VINYL OR YOUR ENTIRE LIFE WILL BE A FAILURE. Either that, or the terrorists win. It really is that simple.

Hey, look at this! My videogames blog is branching out into music. Same thing happened to my old zine. Wouldn't it be funny if I just started ranting about Bush and Cheney and my growing record collection. Hah! Sean Pettibone would be proud, I'd hope.

P.S. Here's one more thing I really love about vinyl, and analog recording in general - the way that sound bends during the fadeouts. It's the same thing as hearing the ambulance siren warp slightly after it passes you and drives away. I love that. It's something that's lost entirely on digital recordings. March of technology, I suppose, but I still miss that old sound. Sounds more natural. There's more to life than ones and zeros - am I the only one who sees this?

P.P.S. Why haven't any of the stoner or acid kids told me how psychedelic records are? Just look at your record when it's playing. Even if it's perfectly flat, there's this slight distortion in the reflections. I never remember seeing this when listening to records as a child. Another discovery, just tonight, just as I was listening to Sgt. Peppers. I think it was during Fixing a Hole, which is one of the more blatant wink-wink drug songs on the album. Hell, the whole album is on psychedelics. That's probably why I'm getting a contact high. Bill Hicks would be proud, I'd hope.

P.P.P.S. The run-groove loop at the end of the album still freaks me out. I can't wait to expose my three younger sisters to this album. They'll freak. Hah!! Never to see any other way...never to see any other way...never to see any other way....ARF! ARF! ARF!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

My Favorite Toy....OF ALL TIME!!


Today, after much searching and research and planning and hoping, I did something that I never thought I would do in the year 2007: I bought a turntable. A record player! How crazy is that?

This is something I've wanted to do for a long time, and thanks to the local Cheapo store, I've been slowly stocking up on classic vinyl records. At first, my plan was to frame and hang them on the wall. Eventually, the temptation became too strong; I needed to play them. So I picked up a Numark Portable Turntable from the local hip-hop store in Uptown Minneapolis (a serious hangout for the vibrant hip-hop scene - I think Atmosphere played here last year).

I also made one last trip to Cheapo, before I became completely broke, and picked up the one album I've sworn to myself to finally listen to on vinyl - Sgt. Pepper. I've never heard it on vinyl before, never. Isn't that a horrible shame? I also grabbed a mint copy of Led Zeppelin IV for - get this - three bucks. Seriously, you can get everything in this place for three bucks. It's insane.

I get home, fix some sandwiches, sit down, plug the Numark in, and pull out Zeppelin. I'm too nervous and eager to go for The Beatles. I'll throw in Zoso and see how it compares. So here's a few random thoughts off the top of my head, after listening to both sides of the album once.

Number 1 - Holy Fucking Shit!

Number 2 - I'm beginning to feel like Dorothy in the land of Oz. Why didn't anyone tell me vinyl sounded this good? The sound quality is outstanding. It's beyond outstanding. I'm overcome with emotion through the whole thing, on the verge of tears. I'm well and truly awestruck by the beauty of Zeppelin IV.

Number 3 - I've listened to the Zeppelin albums on standard CD, on the "greatest hits" CD box set, and on the silver 10-disc box set that sells for a hundred dollars. This is the very first time I've listened to this album on a turntable. Zep IV on vinyl blows everything else away. There's no comparison. We're in a completely different world; it's as though the gates of Heaven were opened up, and you suddenly felt the hand of God on your shoulder.

Number 4 - By the time I get to Stairway to Heaven, I'm on the verge of having outright hallucinations. This is becoming a transcendent experience.

Number 5 - I can finally understand what music lovers mean when they tell you, when comparing vinyl to digital, that vinyl sounds warmer. It's very true. It's more organic, more natural. There's a wealth of sounds that I've never heard before, sounds that are diminished or somehow lessened on compact disc. After finishing Levee on the second side, I clicked on my copy of Zoso on my hard drive, where I store all my old CD's and MP3's. The digital version does sound cold. It sounds mechanical, robotic. You can hear the notes, but the warmth just isn't there. There isn't as much color.

I'm sorry if this sounds a little weird. I really don't know how else to describe it. Zoso on vinyl just sounds a lot warmer. You can almost smell the wood on the walls of Hedley Grange. Also, I should point out that I'm not listening to a newly-released, 200-gram reissue; this was someone's old, beat-up copy of Led Zeppelin IV.

Number 6 - I know, it really has to be said, and it's common knowlege, but still - it's awesome having a big record album in your hands, unfolding it to see the hermit illustration. We really do miss a lot of the scale on CD. Heck, the move towards a purely digital world, iPods and such, will take the album covers away entirely.

The player I'm using is a Newmark PT-01, and it sells for about $100. It runs on batteries, or you can plug into a wall. There is a small speaker built in, but you'd be far better off with a good pair of headphones or some stereo speakers. There are also plugs so you can hook up to your computer, and you could make digital backups of your vinyl record collection if you wanted. Right now, I'm not sure I'd even sure I'd want to.

I'm having a blast with my new toy. It well and truly is the Coolest Thing Ever. You should seriously think about getting one yourself. For the price of one new CD, you could score five or six records, depending on where you get your music. Also, many of the classic albums - Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Zeppelin, Sabbath - and a lot of modern music is still being issued and reissued on vinyl. I've heard this is making a bit of a comeback with the younger kids, the ones who are too young to experience record albums before CD's took over. I sure hope so.

Okay, time for a shower, and then it's time for Sgt. Pepper's! I fully expect to see the walls melting by the time I'm done.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Future VC Games List

I figured I should post the list of future game releases from Wikipedia. As with all things Wikipedia, take everything with a grain of salt, but it's still nice to take a peek.

Here's one crucial thing to notice - the "lost levels" edition of Super Mario Bros. Otherwise known as Super Mario Bros 2 on the Japanese Famicom. This is the first import release on the American Virtual Console. It's being released on NES, so it's the real game, not the SNES Mario All-Stars version.

Interesting that the American Super Mario 2 isn't scheduled for release. It was one of the launch titles for Gameboy Advance many moons ago. Perhaps Nintendo is treating Famicom Mario as a testing ground for future import releases. Successful sales would inspire them to continue with other import games.

Do you want to see other import games, like Sin and Punishment for N64? Then you better pick up The Lost Levels when it's released.


Dr. Mario
Duck Hunt
Hogan's Alley
Ice Climber
Kid Icarus
Kirby's Adventure
Mighty Bomb Jack
Punch-Out!! (not Mike Tyson's Punch-Out, sadly)
Pro Wrestling
Super Mario Bros - "The Lost Levels"
Super Mario Bros 3
Wild Gunman

Super NES:

Contra 3
Donkey Kong Country
Hagane: The Final Conflict
Kirby Super Star
Kirby Dream Land 3
Super Mario RPG
Super Mario World
Super Metroid
Tin Star

Nintendo 64:

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Mario Kart 64
Star Fox 64

Sega Genesis:

Bonanza Bros (!)
Comix Zone (!)
Gain Ground (!)
Bio-Hazard Battle
Streets of Rage


Bonk's Revenge
Bonk 3 - Bonk's Big Adventure
Chew Man Fu
Dragon's Curse

Genesis Games - Wait Till Next Week

Hmm. So much for surfing around. I'll be damned if I can find anything on any other sites. The best thing I can find is the Wikipedia page of Virtual Console releases. On this page, all the future releases are listed, based upon titles that have been given official ratings from the ESRB. Gain Ground, Bonanza Bros, and Comix Zone are all listed for a January 29 release date.

As I'd expect, if there was a delay, it would be for one week. So it seems that Zelda 3 was the only game to be released on Monday. This is what I get for not actually having a Wii console myself. Otherwise I could just go and look for myself.

On a slightly unrelated note, the buzz is that Mario Kart 64 will be released next week, so that's a real thrill. I'm still shouting out for online multiplayer. Gimmie online multiplayer! Ah, that'll never happen.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Where Are the Genesis VC Titles?

There seems to be a dispute about this week's VC games. According to Sega's Virtual Console release pages on their site, Gain Ground, Bonanza Bros, and Comix Zone are all scheduled for release today, and they should all be "live" now. However, Nintendo's official site only lists one title - Zelda.

As far as I know (based on what I've read at Digital Press), Zelda is the only new game online at VC. I really don't know any more than this, whether something happened on Sega's part, or if there were "bugs" with the games, or something on Nintendo's part.

I'm reminded that Hudson delayed the release of Dungeon Explorer by one week, because of bugs that needed to be ironed out. Hopefully, someone in charge will explain things for us, and get things back on track before too long. Until then - sorry, no Sega games.

Virtual Console Releases - January 22

One of these weeks, someone at Nintendo needs to come up with a better method for announcing its Virtual Console releases. Every week, I have to scour half a dozen websites in order to track down what's coming out. This time, I not only have to hit Nintendo's site, but Sega's as well. It seems that Nintendo only announced one game - their own, Zelda 3. Nice. Way to give the fans the impression that you're not supporting your console.

Whatever. This is one of the "good weeks," and right on schedule are the good games. We've been expecting three more Genesis titles, but Nintendo surprised us with one of their bigger guns. Not a moment too soon, I'd say. In any case, as I've said in previous posts, we're starting to get the interesting stuff, now that we're reaching the end of the usual titles that appear on every emulation compilation. The Turbografx games are a good example, and now we're seeing that again with Gain Ground and Bonanza Bros. Eventually, the lost gems will have to be pulled out.

Anyway, here goes - I have no idea what's coming next week. Assume it will suck eggs.

Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past - Nintendo for Super NES - 10/10

Hmm. Should I even say anything about this? Isn't this like commenting on The Beatles? You either know it by heart, or will never care. We're preaching to the choir. I did write an essay on Zelda 3 as part of the Videogame Classics series, so feel free to read that.

For most gamers, Zelda 3 represents the peak of the series. The original Zelda carries an arcade flavor that's unique, but this is the title that, really, has been ripped off in all the sequels. Ocarina...Majora's Mask...Wind Waker....Twilight Princess...all great games, naturally. But they're essentially 3D versions of Link to the Past on the Super Nintendo. For all intents and purposes, this is the apex of the Zelda franchise.

Again, you all know this by heart, and this is about as close to impulse buy as one gets on VC. One of the all-time Nintendo greats, and different enough from the original to still feel fresh. You can switch from one game to the next without feeling any burnout.

Bonanza Bros - Sega for Genesis - 5/10

I'm feeling generous this week, so I'll give a decent score to this little-understood and little-enjoyed Sega arcade title. Perhaps it just reminds me too much of Activision's Keystone Capers on the Atari 2600, and that's why I never enjoyed this.

However, stealth games became the vogue several years ago, somewhere between Goldeneye and Metal Gear Solid and the Patriot Act. So now a game like Bonanza Bros, which emphases stealth and strategy, will improve in the minds of gamers. What was a slow little game becomes one with depth, character.

I still say it's a glorified Atari 2600 game, but it does possess a lot of character, like flies landing on your head whenever you hide in one place for too long. Oh, and there's a 2-polayer split-screen as well, which adds a bit of fun. You may want someone to join in on the action. Maybe that's you. Good for you. Still, not really my speed. The Genesis is a bit toned down from the System-24 arcade game; the usual Genesis treatment circa 1990. The music is a little weird (in that Sega-rock sense), and there's some scratchy voices that weren't in the coin-op. Can't imagine why they tried to put that into the cart, since nobody liked the Genesis' voice sampling.

Again, if it works for you, good. Not my trip. I'll raise it one point for generosity. This is one of those things that you'll either enjoy as you play through, or you'll walk away bored within sixty seconds. But, then, we must remind ourselves - this was an arcade game. This was part and parcel of its whole design. Fun for five minutes, or boredom in five seconds. Those are the stakes we find ourselves in.

Gain Ground - Sega for Genesis - 7/10

Gain Ground is one of those more obscure Genesis games that's enamoured by a good number of fans, and classic gamers and what-have-you. This is probably a good opportunity to jump into the pool and see what the fuss is all about.

Basically, Gain Ground is a slow, single-screen variant on Gauntlet, with a good amount of action and tension as you lead a small squad against a horribly outnumbered set of enemies. The time-travel setup sends you through different ages, from spears to bows and arrows to armor and castle walls. It's a nice style, it adds character.

For me, however, here's the main beef, and you'll have to judge for yourself whether this will influence your own thoughts. The pace is extremely slow. SSSSLLLLLOOOOOOWWWW!!!! Fans would explain, I guess, that this is more of a strategically-minded game, not a mindless Rambo shooter. You have to bob and weave and use a little guerilla warfare to pick down your foes. And there's no denying that the tension is there once you get past the first half-dozen or so levels.

Again, I'm not really feeling this one. Gain Ground's always been a little lost upon me. Whatever. This is the space of my mind this week. When you're spending the weekend with your heavily-conservative Republican family, you learn to be diplomatic and generous. If that's your thing, good for you. It's not for me. Didn't DEVO say that once?

Hmm. I think I'm supposed to be writing about videogames. I'll give a thumbs-up for this one. Give it a try and see what it does for you.

Comix Zone - Sega Technical Institiute for Genesis - 8/10

Here's another one of the Genesis classics that reappears a lot on various formats, so, like Zelda, you're already going to know about it. It really is one of the best games from the latter Genesis period, showcasing a number of visual tricks and a terrific comic-book style. The whole thing just screams of character and style, and this was a trademark for Sega Tech. Not all of their games were hits - The Ooze was unfairly ignored - but you can never deny their skills or their American ingenuity.

Yes, Comix Zone is one of a thousand beat-em-ups, one that's even more limiting because it's strictly 2D, instead of the slanted 3D floors that's standard from Double Dragon and Final Fight and Streets of Rage and yadda yadda. It's an extremely challenging game that never lets the pacing or intensity lag for a moment. You're always going to be facing some new threat.

And, it should be noted, there are a lot of moves at your disposal, from punches and kicks to blocking. The trick is that you actually need these skills; you'll fare far better by utilizing your whole arsenal instead of merely bashing the punch button, which has always been the Achilles' Heel of this genre of games. It's a pretty mindless style of game, better suited to channel surfing than anything else. That Comix Zone can bring a level of skill and panache to these proceedings, and succeed on nearly every level, is a major achievement.

I don't have any interest in seeing beat-em-ups return to the fore of videogames, but if there's a few titles like this one, that would be nice. Well, hey, lookit that! This really was a good week.

Friday, January 19, 2007

New Atari 7800 Homebrew - BonQ

Retro gamer and homebrew game designer Ken Siders is busy adding the finishing touches to an excellent Atari 7800 port of the arcade classic Q*Bert, titled BonQ. This is a terrific title that deserves to become a beloved classic.

The near-complete version that Ken has made available is 48K, and is a nearly flawless arcade port of Q*Bert. All the elements from the arcade are present, including the introductory cut scenes, and a high score table. The gameplay is absolutely perfect, and it's a real thrill to play through. This feels like a professional videogame in every sense. Surely if this title had been released back in 1984, it would be hailed as a minor masterpiece.

Hopefully, I'm not piling on the hyperbole too highly. I can do that sometimes. But I'm a supporter of the homebrew videogame scene, and any title of exceptional quality deserves all the attention it can get. You root for the designers and hope that they make a couple bucks in the process.

From a graphics standpoint, BonQ continues to confirm my belief that the 7800 was woefully underutilized. The system was never even close to being pushed to its limits. The 256-color palette is bright and bold and dominant, characters feature impressive animation. That was something that really stood out for me. The 7800's large sprite engine, which dwarfed the NES and Sega Master System, could be used to create brilliant animation - more fluid than anything in the 8-bit generations.

I think Ken's BonQ fares very well against the GCC arcade ports. It's much closer to its original version than, say, the 7800 versions of Galaga, Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong Jr.

Ken's first 7800 homebrew title was Beef Drop, a home version of Burgertime, another one of the all-time classic aracde games that deserved a proper release on Atari's ill-fated console. I haven't had the chance to play that one yet, but I'll have to be sure to send him some money and ask him to send a ROM so I can play on my MESS emulator. Heck, maybe one of these days I'll get lucky and score an actual 7800, which would be kinda nice. Maybe. We'll see.

You can follow the progress of BonQ and other 7800 homebrew titles at the AtariAge forums here.

Download the 48K BonQ demo.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Atari 7800 - Best of the Best

Well, eventually, Nintendo's going to have to add more consoles to its Wii Virtual Console. At least, that's my sincere hope, but it seems that the major console players are all moving towards variations on a retro gaming service that preserves gaming's history. Nintendo is in the prime position to move on the home consoles (just as Microsoft has an advantage with arcade titles), and the continued success of the Wii should make VC a more attractive opportunity for everyone.

Everyone of course knows that Infrogrames currently owns the rights to the Atari brand, and its games, and they've made some modest effort to revive the classic games with the Flashback consoles for the 2600 VCS and 7800. That makes Atari a prime candidate for the VC, don'tcha think?

Anyway, if you've ever been curious about the short-lived Atari 7800, here's a listing of my favorite games. It's an interesting little console, probably more for its history than anything else. It was set for release in 1984, just as the videogame market crashed. When Atari Corp. was bought out by the Tramiel family, they famously dismissed the 7800 and scuttled it. Then, a few years later, after Nintendo became the dominant player, games were back in vogue, so the 7800 and its games were brought out of storage and dropped onto the market. Needless to say, it fared very poorly, but I think this is due largely to Atari's terrible management. The console was never properly supported, and Atari was stretched far too thin, with far too many computers and gadgets, and far too little software support.

I don't think the Tramiels ever understood the videogame market, and how Nintendo had changed the rules. They seemed to be stuck in 1982, trapped in the early Commodore years, and Atari would be Jack Tramiel's revenge upon his old company. In better hands, the 7800 might have fared much better.

Anyway, that's all in the long-buried past. Atari belongs to the ages now, and we can fire up the MESS emulator and play anytime. The immortality of the computer soul. Here are my favorite games for the Atari 7800:

Asteroids - 9/10

Joe Santulli of Digital Press fame boasts that the 7800 version of Asteroids is his favorite version, even moreso than the arcade. That's pretty high praise, and I think if you're a fan of Asteroids, you're going to have a lot of fun with this version. The graphics are bold with color, and the asteroids animate smoothly. There's the usual "Jaws theme" music, with various space sounds drifting in and out.

The best thing about 7800 Asteroids - and this is what makes the game a classic - is multiplayer. Two players can take turns, or play simultaneously, and you have the choice of cooperative or competitive play. In competitive, you can shoot the other player down, so now the game becomes a tense battle of wits, as you try to navigate through the rocks, avoid the satellites, and not get shot in the back.

Great stuff. Really, really great stuff.

Robotron: 2084 - 9/10

The 7800's greatest strength was its ability to manipulate a large number of sprites, far more than the NES or Sega Master System. The best example is Robotron, arguably the greatest of all "panic" games. You're dropped into the middle of a large crown, and never given more than one second of breathing room. The screen is literally packed with enemies, and yet it's all clearly visible, without any slowdown or sprite flicker.

The speed is just a touch slower than the arcade, and it's a bit easier on the earlier levels, but you'll likely never notice. This is easily the best home version of Robotron that's ever been made, and I'll put that against the later, 3D Robotron that appeared on the Playstation and N64. It's as close to the arcade as you can get without emulation.

Have I mentioned that 7800 Robotron allows you to play with two joysticks, just like the arcade? Here's another great reason why emulation rocks. I play on my PC with a pair of XBox 360 joypads, and the MESS emulator allows me to map the second-player joystick to the second analog stick. That means I can play Robotron, two-fisted, on a single pad! Imagine how clunky it was to play with two 7800 joysticks back in the day.

I think this may be my favorite Atari 7800 game. Forget what I said about Xevious.

Food Fight - 8/10

General Computers Corporation, who built the Atari 7800, also made this clever arcade shooter. It's basically a Robotron knockoff with a goofy sense of humor, but it's also a lot of fun. You're basically in a race to reach a melting ice cream cone, while hurling food at an onslaught of chefs, who are trying to beat you up for some reason. You throw food that's lying around and avoiding open manhole covers before the ice cream melts. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll get an instant replay.

According to The Atari Museum, GCC had become the house design team for all of Atari's games by 1984, and that probably explains why the early 7800 titles are so good. They certainly take advantage of the detail and color better than the later titles, almost all of which are terrible. I'd say Food Fight is among that top-tier of games, good for short bursts and quick thrills.

Centipede - 7/10

Another classic Atari arcade, yet another home version of Centipede. This was one of those games that appeared on every Atari console, so chances are you've seen Centipede in one form or another. I always liked it, even though I was never very good at it. It's a tough little game, another one of the Ed Logg classics.

The 7800 version is probably the best of all the home versions, even though the graphics are a little chunky. Most of the games on this system have that "chunky" look, which is probably endearing by now. The gameplay and intensity is fully intact, and heaven knows how hideous that Atari 2600 version was, with square blocks instead of muchrooms. Yuck. You'll probably like this one a lot more.

Galaga - 7/10

Hmm...see a pattern here? You can start to see why the 7800 was doomed once it was released in 1986, over two years late. Still, you can't really blame these games, since GCC did such a good job with them. Galaga is one of the all-time great arcade games, and just like Ms. Pac-Man, has never seen a poor home translation. Every version is fun to play.

7800 Galaga is a step slower than the arcade, and that's too bad, because everything else excels. I really like the bold colors and chunky graphics. It gives this game a sense of character. Also, remember, that for 1984, this is a top-quality conversion. All the features of the arcade are present, such as the tractor-beam ships and bonus rounds. I think this is a lot of fun to pull out and play every once in a while, and, again, I just like the look. Don't really know why, but I do.

Mario Bros - 7/10

A number of the early Nintendo games like Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. appeared on all the classic Atari systems, and they're all fairly good. However, I think Mario Bros was the best of the lot. Of the three games, it's the closest to the arcade, cutting only the cut-scenes, which never made it onto any home version. If you compare 7800 Mario Bros to, say, the NES version, you'll see that the resolution is slighly lower and the details are lessened, but the color is much bolder, and, most importantly, there's no sprite flicker.

All in all, a very solid version of Mario Bros. Better than the 5200 version, and light years from that sad little 2600 cart. I really don't know if the 7800 could have handled Super Mario Bros, since the hardware was never really pushed beyond this point. Perhaps, in the right hands, and with enough memory, it could have been done. I'm reminded of all those terrible early NES games. You wouldn't think a machine that spit out NES Tennis and Baseball could do Contra or Castlevania.

Another good game that was overshadowed by being left in storage beyond its time.

Xevious - 9/10

Huh? Where have you been? Go read my earlier posts on Xevious below. I'm not going to repeat everything here, when you can use the scroll wheel on your mouse.

One thing I should say about Xevious, and this is why I rate it so highly. You'll see that most, if not all, of the early 7800 titles are single-screen arcade games. Xevious is the first real step into a modern game world, with scrolling backdrops and changing environments. The chunker graphics (the 7800 hallmark) are only a testament to the age when it was made, but this game was clearly a step beyond everything else in the console's library.

Who's to say if later developers could have pushed the hardware further? The 7800's higher resolution was comparable to the NES, and if you add in the 256-color palette and the powerful sprite engine, you have a machine that could have been a contender. The more I think about it, the more I wonder just what the 7800's limits were.

Ballblazer - 9/10

Ballblazer if one of the true classic videogames, and I've written about in my Videogame Classics column. The 7800 version is the same exact game you saw on the Atari 800 and Atari 5200. The robofoils are more sharply drawn, the scrolling is just as smooth, and the gameplay is just as intense and fast. Oh, and the music is fantastic as always.

This is one of the only games in the 7800 library to include a special sound chip. Originally, this chip was to be included into the hardware, but it was sacrificed in order to save space. What the hell were they thinking?! GCC resorted to using the 2600 chip for the audio - which explains why most of the audio on this console sucks eggs.

The idea was to include the sound chip into the cartridges, but then Atari never actually uses it. It only appears on Ballblazer and Commando (although Commando doesn't have any music when run on emulator). And then we wonder why Atari tanked.

Anyway, that doesn't really matter here. The bottom line is that Ballblazer was, and remains, one of the finest multiplayer games ever made. The 7800 version absolutely trounces the lame NES version, and even the later Playstation sequel. It's arguably the best example of what could have been.

One on One - 9/10 ???

I put a question mark next to the score for one simple reason: I'm not entirely sure how well the game plays. When running on an emulator, 7800 One on One blurs by at an accelerated speed, much too fast to be effectively playable. It's running at about twice its normal speed.

I honestly don't know if this was the way the actual cartridge performed. I'm a great fan of this early Electronic Arts game on the Atari 800 computer, and to this day I'll insist it's among the best-playing sports games of all time. I'll have to have someone clear this up for me. I hope everything's all right, because it would be a crying shame not to have this classic available on the console.

The Atari 7800 version adds a textured floor, and improves the graphics somewhat. The graphics were never the game's strong suit, and we never cared, anyway. The thing played like a dream, spinning, dribbling, shooting, dunking, stealing. My favorite bits, naturally, are the instant replays, and shattering the billboard. I really wish someone would make a hack that added in swearing from the janitor.

This is what Electronic Arts was like when they were brand new, and great. I really wish they'd get their mojo back, 'cause this is one of their best games.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

VC Import Games - PC Engine Xevious

Xevious - Namco for PC Engine - 9/10

Sooner or later, the issue of foreign-released games is going to become an issue for Nintendo's Virtual Console. This won't happen just yet, as there are more than enough big-name American titles to work through first. But it will rear its ugly head eventually, and the console that's most likely to be the focus will be the PC Engine, aka Turbografx.

During the NES era, Nintendo locked developers into a rigid system, forbidding them to release any NES title on a competing console. This rule almost guaranteed that NEC's next-generation system would fail, as most of its best games - released on the PC Engine in Japan - were barred from any US release. This included arcade ports such as Space Harrier, Afterburner, Gradius, Lifeforce, and Xevious, among others. I'm sure you can scan through the rom lists and see for yourselves.

The end result is that a lot of the best PCE games were never seen here, and that's a perfect opportunity for the Virtual Console. Hudson Soft has done an admirable job of porting the old Turbo games, but the system had a short life, and at this rate, we're going to run out of games before too long. Nintendo's current policy is to limit VC titles to only those released originally in that region. Sooner or later, that rule will have to be challenged.

Xevious is an excellent example of a great PCE title that would be welcomed here in the West. I've been on a Xevious kick this week, I know. Can't really say why, other than I'm a fan of the game, and it's a fun shooter that holds its own. Maybe I'm still trying to figure out what went wrong with the NES version. Yadda yadda.

Namco's PCE version, as you can see, is faithful to the arcade, a sharper and more detailed version of the Atari 7800. The gameplay is fully intact, and it's easy to lose time blasting away. Namco has also included a second version on the game card, which offers different enemies and targets, some power-up icons that don't seem to do anything (letters that spell out words, for bonus points, I'll assume), and newer, bigger bosses that require multiple bomb hits to be destroyed. Oh, and there are a number of anime cut-scenes that were standard for 16-bit shooters.

On the whole, I'll still stick with the original version. Two things that may stand out, though, if only for the veteran Xevious fan. The game is notably easier than the 7800 version, even though everything's faster and smoother. There just aren't as many "panic" moments as you'll find on Atari's version. No doubt a lot of this is because the bomb target is closer to your ship in the 7800 version, which gives you a lot less time to bomb those pesky domes. Also, I can't seem to find any of the hidden bunkers and flags again. Did I just lose my mojo over time, or are there really more secret bunkers in the Atari version? I really can't tell.

Ah, well. Unless Nintendo starts courting whoever owns the Atari name these days, and pushes for them to add Atari's old consoles to VC, this will be our best hope for a killer version of Xevious. Yeah, I know, there are already half a dozen shooters out already. Whatever. There were just a lot of shoot-em-ups back then. Deal with it. Besides, you really want to see all those PC Engine games appear on our shores, and a good chunk of them are - you guessed it - shooters.

The game blogs have got to start rumbling on this issue. Let's see what you can do.

Classic Videogame Illustrations #5

The box art for Xevious, Atari 7800. Would be nice to find some of the classic Atari artwork without the boxes or logos, but what can ya do?

Xevious on Atari 7800

Xevious - Atari for Atari 7800 - 9/10

The real joy of emulation is that you can go back and browse through videogaming rich history, much like thumbing through a library. When writing this week about Bandai's NES version of Xevious, I could only think of my fond memories for the Atari 7800 version. The trouble with nostalgia, of course, is that the memories overshadow the actual events themselves. Our resonance is what truly stays with us, and this is what makes subjective memories so damned inconsistent. It's the whole Rashomon effect.

Anyway, I figured I should have a proper Atari 7800 emulator on my computer, so I downloaded the latest version of MESS, a great emulator for a whole slate of classic computers and consoles. And with one notable omission, 7800 Xevious plays as well as the real thing.

Here's the one omission, and it's something that seems to plague all the current 7800 emus - the seperate buttons aren't mapped. The Atari 7800 uses two different buttons, just like the NES, and on Xevious this allows you to use seperate buttons for your laser guns and your bombs. Otherwise, you could just plug in one of your ancient Atari 2600 joysticks, where both weapons fire simultaneously. Unfortunately, that's what happens on the emulators. You're stuck firing cannons and dropping bombs at the same time.

For me, this is a minor frustration, because as I've written earlier, one of the keys to 7800 Xevious is finding all the secret bonuses hidden throughout the landscape. Some award extra points, some award extra ships. And you need to keep an eye on your cross-hairs to see if these hidden bunkers are detected. That's harder to do when fending off all those weird geometric spaceships from above.

It's even more frustrating when you realize how simple it would be to fix. This couldn't take more than a couple of minutes for one of the emu programmers to map out properly. Dagnabbit!

Anyway, this most likely isn't going to be a major issue for most of you, at least those who may feel tempted to fire up MESS and see what the Atari 7800 was all about. For me, I'd say Xevious is my favorite 7800 game. The console's only real good games were those early arcade titles from 1984, and Xevious is by far the best of them all. It's the one example of what the console could have been capable of, if left in more capable hands than the Tramiels and Atari Corp.

This Xevious is an exact copy of the arcade, although you'll quickly see (check the NES screenshot below for comparison) that the graphics are a little blockier, more tiled and squarish. I thought about this for a while, and I came to the conclusion that I actually preferred this look to Bandai's version. The NES version is just too clinical, too clean. There's no real character, despite its sharpness. All you're seeing is basic colors over geometric landscapes; there's no warmth. For once, the 7800's blocky style makes for a better game. This Xevious feels more lived in.

The only other home version of Xevious I'm aware of is the Atari 5200 version, which appeared on the Atari computers as an unreleased prototype. It's a pretty decent version, but the colors are drab and flat; very clearly a step below the 7800 version. I don't remember ever spending any time with that version, and it's probably just one of those childhood time-wasters. Why human beings choose to squander their most precious resource is beyond me. Maybe that's why we want to believe in the immortality of the soul; it frees us to continue procrastinating and wasting time.

Ahem. Excuse me. This is what happens after you've been sick for a week, and you're grandmother's in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery. What was I writing about again?

Ah, yes, Xevious. My favorite game from the Atari 7800, a poor little console that was never given a fair shake. It's a touch faster and a touch harder than the arcade, which probably explains why fans enjoy it so much. This is the Xevious you turn to when you really want a workout. Good heavens, I still remember my hands cramping up from those terrible controllers. Atari couldn't build a good joystick worth a damn. Never could.

You can download the rom for Xevious, and most of the 7800 library, from Atari Age. If you look to your right, you'll see that I've added some emulation links. These are the rom sites I turn to whenever I need something quickly, and they've always been reliable. Feel free to load up your pirate ship with the booty. MESS can be found easily from Zophar or a simple Google search, like all the emulators. Aye!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - January 15

Another week, another batch of Virtual Console games. And, hey look - something for the Super Nintendo! That never happens. And, hey look - this isn't a crappy week! It's still a "bad week" overall, but as far as bad weeks go, we've had far worse. I came so close to giving this week's games the thumbs up...but then I remembered to actually play them. Oops.

Now you know why the other VC reviews don't bother with actually playing these games. Nostalgia is a much better thing to play with. Yeah, whatever. We've already got more quality games than we know what to do with. I'll bet hard money you still haven't finished Ecco or Zelda yet. So quit yer griping!

Instead, turn off the TV today, go outside, go to a shindig with lots of people, and read your favorite Martin Luther King speech. I Have a Dream, Vietnam, The Promised Land. Take your pick. Then make the dream a reality. Get to work, kids. You can't be playing with your toys forever.


Xevious - Bandai for NES - 5/10

Xevious is one of the classic arcade shoot-em-ups. If you haven't tried it by now, well, there's not much hope for you. You're pretty well lost. Goodness knows there have been enough home versions, not counting the arcade game itself, which you can now play freely via MAME.

Speaking of which, I wonder when Nintendo is going to get MAME signed up to its Virtual Console? Just asking.

Fortunately, most of the home versions of Xevious are really good. Unfortunately, Bandai's NES version is one of the clunkers. Oops! Sorry! Did we fuck up like that? Our bad. Seriously, though, this version isn't terrible in any way, so much that it's just mediocre. The graphics are considerably cut down from the coin-op, and was never much of a standout when it was released in 1988. Much of the intensity seems to be lost, too. Maybe you won't notice, but if you were to play the NES version, then play the coin-op, you'd notice the difference pretty quickly.

Bandai was one of the weaker NES developers at the time, certainly a second banana to the giants like Konami, Capcom, and Tecmo. Their games were always a notch or two below the standard. This is no exception.

If you really want to know, the best home version of Xevious was on the Atari 7800. Now that was a killer version. Sure, those lousy controllers cramped up your hands, but the action was there, the colors were bold and confident, and - best of all - there were numerous bonus items that could be bombed out of the ground. This was a feature on the arcade, but Atari really ran with it; secret flags are literally all over the place, adding another layer of tension to the shooting.

I don't know if the secret flags appear at all in Bandai's version. Too bad. What's here to keep you from playing another round of Lifeforce or Contra? Nuthin'. Absolutely nuthin'.

Moto Roader - Hudson for Turbografx - 4/10

The problem with a console like the Turbografx is that so many of its games acquire a legendary status over time. Few people actually get to play the games, so they gradually build up in their minds as lost classics. That image overtakes everything, to the point where the actual games themselves become irrelevant.

We've already seen that with Military Madness, we've seen that (to a lesser extent) with Alien Crush, and we see it again with Moto Roader. This is one title that will be hyped up by other sites and prozines as a multiplayer classic. Don't believe the hype.

The simple truth is that Moto Roader was one of many, many overhead racing games released on consoles and computers, with only one feature to its credit: multiplayer. You could race five players at a time. Back in the late '80s, this was a novelty, but it's really only that. A novelty.

Let's get beyond that. What do we have? We have a very, very slow racing game. We have very basic racetracks with little or no variety. We have a somewhat pedestrian graphics style. We have sluggish steering and sluggish acceleration from the cars. We have this annoying trait of cars being picked up and dropped back onto the track if they fall behind. And have I mentioned that it's slow?

There's a flyby before each race, to show you the layout. That's a fast bit, and it builds up your hopes. Why can't the actual race move that fast? I swear we're driving golf carts.

Codemasters made a series of racing games called Micro Machines. They're among the greatest, fastest, and most competitive multiplayer racers ever devised. Micro Machines is everything that Moto Roader is not.

R-Type 3 - Irem for Super NES - 8/10

Well, here's the winner for the week. Irem's R-Type has already been released on VC a few weeks ago, and it should belong in everyone's collection. Here's one of their later Super NES follow-ups, and it's one of the best shooters for that console.

Irem released Super R-Type early in the SNES' lifespan. It was certainly cool to look at, but the game was plagued with terrible slowdown (like most of the early SNES titles), which just ruined the whole experience. Thankfully, they returned a few years later with R-Type 3, and they showed their mastery of the hardware.

Most of the console's strengths are on display here. The fantastic graphics and vivid color, the large enemies, the orchestral music, the Mode-7 effects. And there's no slowdown. Hey, look at that! So what if there were only four or five great shooters ever released on the Super Nintendo - R-Type 3 is one of them.

Also, don't forget that this is R-Type, which means that it's gonna be hard. If you've been buttered up by Super Star Soldier and Soldier Blade, you're probably in for a rude awakening. So what? You're just soft. I'm impressed by how well classic shooters have been represented on VC; many of the best titles have already made an appearance. Now somebody's got to get Sega off their fat asses and give us all the classic Genesis shooters - Thunder Force 3, Gaiares, Fire Shark, yadda yadda.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - January 8

Time once again for another Monday helping of the Virtual Console. Fortunately, we're on a "good week," so the games are pretty good. I don't think we're going to be seeing anything as golden as the Christmas releases, but we're probably entering into a better phase for the VC. So far, we've mostly seen the same big-name classics that always appear and reappear from time to time. Super Mario, Street Fighter 2, Sonic, all those wretched NES games from Animal Crossing - you get the point.

Now that those titles are dwindling down, we'll be getting to the real gems, the lesser-known games that you'd rather play anyway. That's the promise of VC, of giving a second life to all those games you missed out on years ago. I think Hudson Soft understands this better than anyone, which is why the Turbografx lineup is looking so damned good. If I were judging the performance of the five consoles on the Virtual Console, I'd say the Turbo has fared the best.

Anyway, let's take a look at this week's offerings. If the VC tradition holds, next week will be a loss, so let's spend our time and money here.

Gradius - Konami for NES - 7/10

I think this is around the time that the NES started to come into its own. Gone are the lousy earlier games; we're now in the post-Super Mario world, and other game designers have taken note. The Nintendo console finally starts to come into its own in 1986. Konami, as well, begins to emerge as a major player; the next year would see the release of Contra and Castlevania, Blades of Steel in '88, yadda yadda.

Gradius became one of the most influential of all space shooters, second only to R-Type. It's almost certainly the easier of the two, and has a lot more personality. We all know about the weapon system, where you destroy red ships to collect powerup icons, saving them to purchase shields, missiles, laser cannons, and faster engines. The options

There's also a more overt reference to the hidden surprises of Super Mario. There are many secret bonus points that can be discovered by flying through various pathways. Things like gaps in the mountains, or backing up into the right side of a giant rock. The whole idea of secrets and easter eggs became standard during the NES reign. Everybody picked up on it. Every game had to have a couple secrets buried away somewhere, like the prize in the Cracker Jacks.

Ah, yes! Speaking of easter eggs! Gradius marks the first appearance of the most popular videogame easter egg of all time - The Konami Code. Repeat after me, class: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start. You can use this once per level to fully equip your spaceship.

To be fair, these kind of codes were de regeur on the NES, but Konami had the horse sense to use the same exact code, game after game, until it became a mythology unto itself. Oh, and Gradius is a really good shoot-em-up. A bit on the slow side, and probably more famous for its history and name than the game itself. It's also monstrously difficult on later levels if you get killed and have to rebuild your ship from scratch. Such is life.

Soldier Blade - Hudson Soft for Turbografx - 8/10

I almost put down "Super Star Soldier" before I realized the error. It's easy to make that mistake, since Soldier Blade is really just the next installment of Hudson's Star Soldier series, and yet another quality shooter on the Turbo. This one comes near the end of the console's life, in 1992, and it demonstrates the development team's confidence and experience. They've been down this road enough times to know it by heart.

I don't know if you're going to be interested in Soldier Blade unless you're a real shooter fan, since Super Star Soldier was released on VC some weeks ago. You may decide that you only need one game in the series, since the games are practically interchangable. A little time spent playing will reveal more subtle differences, such as Soldier Blade's reliance on large enemy sprites and numerous boss battles. The game itself is still a cakewalk when compared to Gradius and R-Type, but then again, most shooters are.

I think games like Soldier Blade are what make the idea of a Virtual Console work. In an ideal world, we'd have free access to an entire console's library, not simply the biggest hits. We'd be able to discover the hidden gems that were overlooked or simply forgotten over time. I'm not seeing a lot of attention being paid to this game among the videogame blogs; it's clearly last on their weekly lists. Whatever. I think you'll have a fun time with this one.

Dungeon Explorer - Atlus for Turbografx - 8/10

Ah, now here's the game that everyone's waiting for this week. It was supposed to be released last week, but Hudson claimed to run into unexpected bugs at the last minute. Phooey. I say they didn't want this game to be tagged as part of the "bad week."

Dungeon Explorer was one of the real standouts from the Turbografx's early days. Very clearly inspired by Gauntlet, the game never played like a cheap ripoff, but a nuanced, challenging adventure game in its own right. It was also the great selling point for the Turbo's multi-tap, which allowed for five players to join in on the action. Back in 1989, this was still a pretty novel concept.

If you asked me what I like most about Dungeon Explorer, I'd say it's the music. Without any hesitation, it's the music. I think this is the best soundtrack in the console's library, a vibrant, full stereo mix that echoes and churms in your head for days. I forget sometimes how talented the Japanese game musicians were back then. Many of them could have been successful making pop music and becoming stars. They chose instead to put their gifted pop hooks into a bunch of videogames. Maybe they were shy.

Oh, and the game, the part where you actually play? It's really, really good. There's a clear effort to bring as much variety into the maze-exploration adventure as possible, offering many varied environments, a number of cities and towns, and a large cast of heroes. This is just the sort of thing that Tolkein nerds and Legend of Zelda fans live for. Just as long as they don't dress up in goofy costumes. That would just be sad.

Not many are aware the Dungeon Explorer was later ported to the Sega CD, with beefier graphics and a larger cast of characters. It has a lot going for it, and if the Sega CD is ever added to Virtual Console, that would be a game to look out for. But the music? Nah. It just wasn't as good as when it was on that little HuCard.

Now what the Turbo needs is Legendary Axe and Neutopia and Devil's Crush.

Classic Videogame Illustrations #4

The American arcade flyer for Donkey Kong, Junior, circa 1981. I was never really a fan of the game, but there's no denying that the artwork is terrific. A lot of the best videogame illustrations come from this period, when graphics were still too abstract and blocky to really stand on their own. You needed to provide your own imagination to fill the gap, and suspend disbelief.

Here, the Nintendo characters like Mario and Donkey Kong hadn't been canonized yet, so you still have that American, Popeye inflence, instead of the Yoichi Kotabe designs from Japan.

Oh, that reminds me. One of these days, someone is going to have to explain to me why Kotabe retired from animation and went to Nintendo, of all places. I don't have a clue how someone goes from Horus and Heidi to illustrations for Mario and Zelda. It's all so...weird.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - New Years Edition

Welcome once again, my friends, to the show that never ends. We're so glad you could attend, step inside, step inside. Hope the holiday season went well for you, 'cuz now reality is back to hit you in the face. More specifically, here's Nintendo with their "bad cop" week of Virtual Console releases.

Just so everyone is perfectly clear, I make sure to sit down and spend time playing each week's games before writing my recommendations. I'm pretty sure I'm the only one doing this, if the VC reviews on the main websites are any indication. Of course, there's also nostalgia and long-supressed memories to fall back upon. I just want to make sure that you have the best information available to you, when choosing which retro games are worth your hard-earned money.

All of which is a long way of saying that this week is a complete and total waste. These games aren't ever acceptable for free - paying five dollars for them is practically criminal. Avoid at all costs. Don't you still have all those Christmas games to play through? Don't get greedy!

Baseball - Nintendo for NES - 2/10

There are over a dozen baseball games released on the NES, and pretty much all of them are superior to Nintendo's 1984 Baseball game. So what's the deal, here?

I don't think this was a bad game when it was new. Compared to the sports games on Atari 2600 and Intellivision and Colecovision, this was pretty good. The baseball players look fairly detailed, some nice poses. The umpires appear to make calls, which was still a new novelty. And to the game's credit, the pitcher/batter battles are somewhat competent.

Here's where everything goes sour. I don't think you can control your fielders. If you can, I could never figure it out. They're moving on their own. And they waddle. Very. Slowly. Knock the ball into the outfield, and you can sleepwalk to second or third base before the fielders even reach the ball. Huh?

I thought Japan was really into baseball? What gives? The only group of losers in existence who've never seen a baseball game, and they're working at Nintendo.

Oh, and the animation is non-existent, closer to the Game & Watch style of jilted still poses. Again, very very slow. The audio is limited to one cheap melody that plays during home runs, and that Atari 2600 white noise that passes for a crowd.

This is clearly among the very worst NES games. I'd say it's a hair better than Tennis and Soccer, if just because of the batting. That was the only moment of grace; the rest of this game is stuck somewhere in the sixth circle of hell.

Urban Champion - Nintendo for NES - 3/10

Here's a perfect example to see if the writers have actually played any of these classic games. Check their write-up on Urban Champion, and observe if the game itself is ever addressed, or if it's merely a nostalgic spin on the later fighting genre. Well, Street Fighter, that was a popular game. Here's a fighting game from many years earlier. It must be good. Right?

Please. Spare me. The first time I played Urban Champion was in the dorms at St. Scholastica fifteen years ago. I was convinced that it was the worst NES game ever made and never touched it again. Until now, when getting ready to write about it for the VC release.

I don't think this is the worst NES game ever made. Which is to really say that I've since then discovered many games that were inexplicably worse. Urban Champion still sucks. It really sucks when you discover that all you have to do is just start bashing our stomach punches and pushing forward. Even worse when you discover that there really is no level progression, only one faceless goon after another, except the later ones learn how to block.

Urban Champion was a pointless, boring game then, and it's even more pointless and boring today. It does have atmosphere - I'll give it that - but what good does that do when the game itself runs for thirty seconds? The emergence of Street Fighter 2 has nothing to do with this turkey, and anyone who tries to make a claim for some "lost classic" is a fool.