Sunday, September 30, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - September 10

Can you believe that I forgot about this week? What's the deal with that? I even had it written in the notebook and all. That probably doesn't say much for the games that came out....heh heh.

Ah, well. Actually, this was an excellent week. Only one lame game this time, which is fine by me. At least we're no longer being assaulted by those early NES know, the ones that Nintendo shouldn't even be allowed to give away for free. Nope, we're out of that muck. Now we're on to a higher grade of slop. But, like I said, only one dud this week. The other two are must-see titles, both sequels. Hmm...the third game was actually split off into a couple sequels as well. Perhaps this is why I forgot about the September 10th games.

Whatever. I've got far too many screenshots, as usual, so let's try and make space for 'em. Enjoy!

NES Play Action Football - Nintendo for NES - 4/10

Across the spectrum of gaming, there's something you learned fairly quickly: Nintendo can't do sports games. They really can't. No, wait, they actually did make one good sports game. That was Ice Hockey on the NES. But that is literally it.

The important to know is that this is not Tecmo Super Bowl. Not Tecmo Super Bowl.

Thank you and good night!

What, you want more? Um...why? What would be the point? This game sucks. No, really, Play Action Football sucks like a bilge pump. It's a shame, actually. You can tell that it's a game Nintendo put great effort and time into. I will give them that much. The graphics, the whole visual presentation, are top notch. Not only do you have players that are large and drawn nicely, but numerous animated scoreboard sequences appear after crucial plays. You have something that, in the modern mindset, would be a strong foundation for future versions.

But here's the problem. Well, the problem after the fact that it's not Tecmo Super Bowl. It's just this game doesn't play very well. It's incredibly slow and choppy. Do you remember those old Game and Watch handhelds that Nintendo made in the early '80s? Play Action Football moves exactly like that. I can't even call it animation, really. The players don't move. They just shuffle from one still pose to the next down the field.

Perhaps the NES just couldn't handle speed with a field full of players, I thought. But then I clicked know, that other one...wink, wink. And that game plays fast and smooth, with no problems.

Then consider that Play Action Football switches to a faraway arial view for pass plays. See that screenshot above? Forget it. That view is replaced with tiny ants. And they still move in patches. So I really don't know what Nintendo was thinking. Either the programmers were too inexperienced, or the game was designed way over in Japan, where no one in their right minds has any clue what the heck American Football is all about.

But then, there's Tecmo. So those alibis are thrown out the window.

Oh, and have I mentioned that I couldn't find the running plays for my offense? There's only a handful of plays in the entire game, and I can't find any running plays. Which only adds to the confusion when the computer runs the ball. And then it just hikes the ball to the running back, which confuses me more. Did the programmers even know what American Football was? Maybe they watched a commercial on tv once. Harumph.

At least the scoreboard clips are nice. Whatever. Tecmo Bowl smokes this one by a country mile, and Tecmo Super Bowl leapfrogs the lot of 'em. Hang onto your cash for that little gem, folks. And somebody tell Nintendo to stop making serious sports games.

Sonic the Hedgehog 3 - Sega for Genesis - 10/10

I've written about Sonic 3 for my never-ending Videogame Classics series. To be more precise, I wrote about the complete Sonic 3 & Knuckles. The pair join together in videogaming's great double album, released several months apart from one another in 1993 and '94.

You can read the full essay there. For whatever future book project these Virtual Console reviews assume, I'll most likely just reprint that original piece. So, yeah, I'm feeling a bit lazy here. But you know enough to get this game, anyway. You don't need my advice. Sonic 3. Sega Genesis. What more you need?

One issue does come to mind, and I'm not aware of any solution. While it is true that you can play Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles seperately, first one and then the other, Sonic & Knuckles was designed as a top-loaded cartridge, where you stacked Sonic on top. Doing this brings the two sides together as one, and you'll see numerous little changes, like a different title screen and a few staged clips. At least one scene is present in the full game, but not separately.

Now here's the question for Sega and Nintendo: will the ability to join the two games be possible on Virtual Console? This question hasn't been answered thus far, and I'm assuming that the answers would arrive when Sonic & Knuckles does. But I could be wrong. VC users may end up missing out on the full experience.

Perhaps - and this really is the most cynical idea in my arsenal - Sega will release Sonic 3 & Knuckles at a later time. I'm thinking of the emulation scene, where it's just like that. There are ROMs for Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles, and then the complete Sonic 3 & Knuckles. The only catch, if this became Sega's plan, is that you have to play money for each download. Perhaps they could find some way out of this, by allowing for a free download of the double album.

I'm just thinking ahead while writing. It's very likely that Sega won't do anything beyond releasing the four Genesis Sonics. Someone really ought to contact someone who knows these things, and dig for answers. If I were a Nintendo Wii owner, I'd have to wait for answers before getting Sonic 3. Just so I know one way or another.

And every time I see one of the old Sonic's, I always come away feeling sorry for the guy. Poor spud. He really used to be something long ago. Sonic the Hedgehog has become Fat Elvis for the videogame world. Poor guy.

Neutopia 2 - Hudson Soft for Turbografx-16 - 9/10

Hey, didn't the first game come out, like, last month? August 20, to be precise. Hudson likely figured that you had enough time to finish that game, and since you had such a fun time wasting your precious hours away, here's the crack sequel, better in every way. Pony up the cash, kids.

If you thought that first game was a ripoff from Legend of Zelda...hoo, boy. Get a load of the title screen from the sequel. Hudson didn't even try to hide it this time. They gave up any pretense of originality, and instead focused on creating the best damned Zelda ripoff they could. I think they really did a great job. No, I still insist that Sega's Golvellius was the best Zelda clone ever made, but chalk up Neutopia 2 for the runner-up.

This game features one unique premise, and it's one that I'm surprised Nintendo never tried. In this game, you play the son of the hero from the first game, who has turned up missing. You spend the game chasing him down. Travelling through towns and exploring dungeons just happens along the way.

I've spent some time with this game, since I've missed it entirely the first time around. I only had one or two chances to spend time with the Turbografx back then. Fortunately, I knew this kid in my high school, and we swapped game systems - his Turbo, my Genesis - for a few weeks. It was a good plan. I think this was after Sonic the Hedgehog appeared, by which time Nintendo was in the game, and poor Turbo was on the way out. The next time I saw any consoles was when local stores were dumping their excess stock for sale.

That's too bad, because it meant that a great game like Neutopia 2 largely missed out. And you have to admire Hudson's drive to push the system's limits, and push themselves. The tendency would be to just run through the numbers, planning their jump to greener pastures. But Hudson and NEC were joined at the hip, and the PC Engine was popular enough in Japan to keep the game running for another couple innings. Good news for us.

The first Neutopia looked very good for the time, and the sequel improves in every way. It's really amazing, actually. Far more color and detail, for more touches like grass and trees and rocks, desert and snow, and underground caves without any light. There was a tremendous amount of effort put into the graphics, and the assortment of monsters that lie scattered across the landscape. The landscape, of course, looks terrific, brilliantly conceived and varied.

Your hero, Junior, or whoever he's called, can also move and attack in eight directions. This is a great addition, one of those obvious things that too few developers noticed when copying the original 1986 Zelda. The feel is looser, as well; the pace seems a touch faster and more limber. Neutopia 2 is like an athlete who's already warmed up and ready for action.

I find myself constantly praising Hudson's virtues with their Turbografx reissues on VC, and there's a reason for that. They definitely deserve their praise for this effort. If the greater gaming public doesn't stand up and take notice of the Turbo, then there's really no hope for 'em, is there? They'll probably just go back to their karaoke games and custom drinks.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

We Are Never Leaving Iraq

The Iraq War remains vastly unpopular in this country, but it still remains largely detached from Americans. Most voters only vaguely assumed things would be over with the Democratic turnaround in the 2006 midterms, but the sad truth is that we cannot disengage ourselves from this terrible war while Bush and Cheney are still in the White House.

Some of us, however - perhaps in our more cynical and pessimistic moments - share a darker impulse in the back of our minds. We are never leaving Iraq. We are never leaving. For me, it was the day when the design plans for the new American, ahem, "embassy" in Baghdad surfaced online for a day. The size and scale of the compound (the size of the Vatican), as well as its resources and personnel, just left me sinking into despair. And then you add in the 14 permament bases scattered throughout the country, including a new one only four miles from the Iran-Iraq border.

But at least the Democrats will change course! They'll end the war, surely! Right?

Well...don't count on it.

You probably don't want to read this article from the NY Times. And you really don't want to read about this week's debate in New Hampshire, where none of the major Presidential candidates would commit to ending the war during their first term. And you really, really don't want to read this essay from the SF Chronicle, explaining why the Dems will never get us out. Just think about that for a moment, and let that sink in. We'll still be fighting a war in Iraq in the year 2013.

Oh, and by the way, there's going to be a new war with Iran. Yeah, the "shock and awe" scam all over again. I'm sure that will go nicely. You didn't really want to send your kids to college, anyway.

I honestly don't think this is something that we as citizens, and especially those in the peace movement, have faced up to. We're arguing with the Congress, but there's a basic assumption that the midterms settled the matter, and it's just a matter of time. Forget that. We're playing through 2002 all over again.

Here, I'll post a segment from the end of Carolyn Lochhead's piece in the SF Chronicle. Get your damned fingers out of your ears, truth seekers - before the machine grinds us all into dust.

7 reasons Democrats cannot end the war in Iraq

1. Lack of votes: Democrats have 50 anti-war votes in the Senate. They need 60 to overcome Republican filibusters that have blocked every proposal to change the U.S. mission. Even if they cleared that hurdle, they lack the two-thirds majorities in the House and the Senate to overcome a presidential veto.

2. Public uncertainty: Two-thirds of the public want to leave Iraq, but that majority is unsure how and when to do so. Politicians also are wary that the public mood could shift.

3. Strategic uncertainty: No one knows what would happen if U.S. troops pull back, and the potential for bad outcomes is high no matter what the United States does.

4. Blame game: Democrats are afraid that if there is a withdrawal and Iraq spirals out of control, they will be blamed for losing a war that might have been won and will be held responsible for any bad consequences in the Middle East.

5. Lack of bipartisanship: Bipartisanship does not serve either party's political interest. Agreement blurs partisan distinctions, makes Democrats look like they are capitulating and forces Republicans to countenance an American defeat.

6. Guilt: Many Democrats believe the United States, having invaded Iraq, bears responsibility for stabilizing it.

7. The Constitution: If the United States were a parliamentary democracy, the Bush administration would have been replaced last November. But under the Constitution, the president is commander in chief, and Congress' only tool is to cut off funds for the war, which it can't do because there are not enough votes.

Next Gen's Top 20 TGS Picks

Next Generation posted this handy little article on their 20 favorite games from the recent Tokyo Game Show. Predictably, Nintendo Wii and DS games dominate the list, but there are a sizable number of Playstation 3 games that impressed. As developers become more familiar with that console, the good games will start rolling in. Whether any of us will actually play them - gee, I don't think my bank will give me that second mortgage - is another story entirely.

And with XBox 360 all but invisible in Japan, that leaves Nintendo almost unopposed, and dominant for the first time in over a decade. I'm still amazed by their comeback.

Here's Next Gen's Top 20 TGS list:

20. Shooting Watch (Hudson, keychain game)

19. R-Type Tactics (Irem, PSP)

18. Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles (Capcom, Wii)

17. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (Naughty Dog, PS3)

16. Time Crisis 4 (Namco, PS3)

15. Final Fantasy 4 (Square-Enix, DS)

14. Dragon Quest 4 (Square-Enix, DS)

13. Final Fantasy Tactics A-2 (Square-Enix, DS)

12. Senjo no Valkyrie (Sega, PS3)

11. Time Hollow (Konami, DS)

10. Echochrome (SCEJ, PS3/PSP)

9. Nights: Journey of Dreams (Sega, Wii)

8. Ryu ga Kotoku Kenzan (Sega, PS3)

7. Ousama Monogatori (Marvelous/Cing, Wii)

6. Metal Gear Online (Konami, PS3)

5. Bangai-Oh Spirits (Treasure, DS)

4. White Knight Story (SCEJ/Level-5, PS3)

3. No More Heroes (Marvelous/Grasshopper, Wii)

2. Inazuma Eleven (Level-5, DS)

1. Metal Gear Solid 4 (Konami, PS3)

Friday, September 28, 2007

New Kunkel Report - Can Sony Make the Big Comeback?

Bill Kunkel, legendary videogames journalist, has posted his latest online column over at Digital Press. He dissects this summer's E3 show in hopes of assessing Sony's current troubles with Playstation 3, and what future lies ahead. As always, it's an essential read from an engaging writer. Be sure to check it out.

Update: Okay, this appears to be an older column from July. I saw the link from the DP home page and immediately assumed it was a new one. But that's alright if you haven't read Kunkel's column back then. Somebody get him on the horn to write something new!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Saving Private Ryan - D-Day Sequence

In case you aren't aware, Ken Burns' "The War" is airing this week on PBS. Watch it. It's incredible, awe inspiring, and emotionally sobering. I think Burns may have equalled his Civil War documentary, if he hasn't surpassed it. It's the most important thing you'll watch all year.

I've thought of something to compare The War against, and the prime candidate would have to be Spielberg's opening D-Day sequence at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. So I found that scene on YouTube and figured I'd show it here. Enjoy, and be sure to spend some time with your grandparents.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - August 20

Ah, so this is what it's like to actually get enough sleep! I have all this...what it called? Oh,! Wow. That's fun.

Now that I can have a productive weekend for once, I think it's time to hack away at my endless list of Virtual Console reviews. I tell myself that if I stay current, and catch up on at least one or two per week, I'll be competely caught up in no time. Well, that's the plan, at least. It's a big of work putting these together, as you all know. I actually sit down and spend time playing each game that I write about, just so my feelings and impressions are current. I don't want to advise you to spend money on my personal memories, only to find out that the nostalgia has overtaken the reality. There are too many mediocre VC titles to just throw your money away. You need to be smart with the credit cards.

Fortunately, August 20 is one of the best weeks in the VC arsenal. You may be easily tempted to shell out the bones for all three. I can't blame you; if it weren't for my emulation collection, I'd be snapping these games just as fast as you. Let's take a look at the lineup....

Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master - Sega, for Genesis - 9/10

Shinobi is one of Sega's most celebrated heroes. The arcade original was a smashing success, building upon the foundation of Namco's Rolling Thunder (an early example of the long-running Sega/Namco rivalry), and adding in a ninja theme. Most of the home versions were pretty weak by comparison, but you didn't mind too terribly as long as there was a Shinobi down at the local arcade.

For the Genesis, Sega turned to its ninja master with one of the greatest videogame sequels ever made, Revenge of Shinobi. That game was arguably the first killer ap on the Genesis (although some would argue for Ghouls 'N Ghosts), and stands today as a masterpiece of the action-platform style. Another arcade sequel appeared, dubbed Shadow Dancer, but neither it nor the Genesis port (which was an almost entirely different game) managed to reach that earlier peak. So Sega turned back to their roots once more as the Genesis was winding down.

The result is Super Shinobi 2, or known in the West as Shinobi 3: Return of the Ninja Master. In both cases, the title makes it clear that this is the follow-up to Revenge of Shinobi, and that's plainly obvious at the very start. Thankfully, Sega creates a masterful sequel that builds upon the gameplay conceits of the original Genesis classic, offering a brilliant example of gameplay and design, and pushing the console's graphics powers to their limit.

I think these two titles were the only time anyone came close to matching the brilliance Tecmo achieved with Ninja Gaiden on the NES. Amazing, then, that with so many ninja games in the early '90s, nobody could reach that high peak. No one except Sega.

One thing Shinobi 3 has in spades is a sense of speed. It's a much faster game. Joe Musashi, the series hero, has a variety of new moves, including a sprint dash, the ability to climb on ceilings, and an assortment of attacks, both with his sword and his shurikens. The exciting thing is that it's equally fun to play both ways; in fact, I really wish there were an option to remove shurikens from the game entirely, and just go it with sword slashes and kicks.

Level design, likewise, throws out all the stops. Playing through this game is like taking a sightseeing tour of the Genesis' finest moments. You have assaults through the forest, stealth through underground caves, an attack on a military base, a vertical climb over falling rocks in a valley, one chase on horseback, another chase on surfboard....yadda yadda. Add in a series of challenging, thrilling boss battles that show off every visual effect mastered by Genesis, and you have a platformer almost without peer.

If you asked me which Shinobi title was the better one, I don't know what I'd say. Most probably I'd still go with Revenge of Shinobi, if just because of its immense impact on the early Genesis scene, and its towering stature at the time. Shinobi 3 is more of a 1993 refinement of that standard, albeit with all the bells and whistles you can ask for. Oh, and there is the music. Yuzo Koshiro's music for Revenge is among the finest you'll ever hear. Shinobi 3's music is standard action fare, probably the game's only letdown.

Sadly, Shinobi became another casualty of Sega's tragic fall at the close of the 16-bit era. The name was revivied a few years ago, instead as a 3D polygon series. But the Playstation 2 incarnation was a different beast entirely, and nowhere near as compelling. Like most 3D platformers, the tight structure and skillful design of the 2D sprite-graphics era is mostly lost. For these kind of fast-paced action games, you just can't beat the old school.

Neutopia - Hudson for Turbografx - 8/10

Neutopia was one of the standout titles for the poor, battered Turbo, which felt the squeeze of Sega's arcade hits from one side, and Nintendo's licensing monopoly from the other. There's a reason most of the PC Engine's best moments were kept away from Western eyes. Thankfully, this little gem managed to make the trip across the ocean.

On first glance, Neutopia appears to be a somewhat shameless Zelda clone. On second, third, fourth, fifth? Yep. Zelda knockoff. But is that really a bad thing? For many years, many developers tried to copy Nintendo's classic adventure formula, usually falling flat on their faces. Only a small handful of games remained compelling on their own - Golvellius on the Master System, for instance, was really great - a fact which only makes you appreciate Hudson's efforts all the more.

There are a wide variety of game worlds, and the usual number of large dungeons. Everything is patterned on the original Legend of Zelda, so don't expect the level of sophistication and depth from Zelda: A Link to the Past. But I never remember anyone complaining back then, and I'm not complaining today. It would have been nice to see, gee, I new idea. But what can ya do? As a genre exercise, this is an excellent trip. Perhaps Sega's Golvellius on the Master System beats it, but that's really the only one.

What Neutopia had in its favor was the graphics power of the Turbo, which offered bright colors and larger character sprites which bounce and dance about. It remained an early example of the future that awaited the post-NES world, one determined to be nowhere near as dreary and drab. This game just looks terrific. It also sounds excellent, too; the audio is probably the Turbografx's best asset, as other titles like Devil's Crush and Dungeon Explorer can attest. There's just something about that deep, rich stereo tones that have never been matched anywhere else. The Genesis and Super Nintendo had their own, unique vibe. Ah, the good old days when videogame consoles were actually different. They occupied different worlds. Today, it seems as though all developers use the same standard toolkits. Little wonder, then, why everything looks so similar, so lifeless. Aren't you getting tired of the plastic dolls yet?

Well, I hold no illusions that classics venues like Virtual Console of Live Arcade will overtake conemporary games, just as I know that vinyl records will always remain a small, exclusive club. But these little clubs of ours are growing at a steady clip. Those in the know should start paying attention and taking notes. And Turbografx fans have another bright feather to put in their cap.

Super Metroid - Nintendo for Super NES - 10/10

Name the best game ever made for the Super NES. For some, it's Super Mario World or Zelda 3. Others, Super Mario Kart. A number will point to Final Fantasy 3, which was how it was named here in the States). And a lot of you will insist that it's really Super Metroid.

You may be right. This might very well be the SNES' finest hour.

I think some part of the mystique about Super Metroid is the fact that the game remained alone, without any sequels or follow-ups, for so many years. While Mario and Zelda and the rest continued with newer games on the Super NES and Nintendo 64, Metroid held back, alone in its own little world. It really wasn't until 2002, eight years later, that a new installment finally arrived, and even then, gamers were surprised to discover a 3D shooter that was closer to Quake and Doom then their beloved Metroid.

And, in the meantime, Konami completely reinvents its old Castlevania franchise by aping the gameplay structure of Super Metroid. The forgotten classic was becoming a legend, influencing others. Goodness knows Konami sure loved that game, enough to shamelessly steal from it for every 2D Castlevania game ever since.

Oh, yeah, sure, Nintendo eventually figured things out, and returned to their roots with a pair of Metroid titles on the Game Boy Advance. But let's be honest here. Those games weren't any good. The first one, especially was a clunker. The second, Zero Mission? Eh, better, but, again, it just felt like a dumbed-down kiddie version of the 1994 masterpiece. Remember those Atari 2600 games that had the child-friendly mode with the teddy bear icon? Yeah, that's exactly what Zero Mission was all about. A Metroid that holds you by the hand, when not stumbling into Miyazaki's Ohmus.

What comes to mind when I think of Super Metroid? Dark, moody, mysterious. This is just about the heaviest game Nintendo ever made - heavy in that late-'60s, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple sense. The whole enterprise just breathes in a dark, misty atmosphere, this strange alien landscape, this mishmash of different cultures. This world that Samus Aran finds herself in, this is a world with a history. You can almost trace that history as you progress through the game, spotting the places where some poor fool vainly tried to civilize the place. You can see the corpses for yourself to see how that turned out.

Modern videogames, if they really can be called "games" anymore, shove narrative down your throat. They think story can only be conveyed by scripted movie scenes. But a good game, all of the best ones, can tell a story without these tired cliches. Story, setting, mood, character - all can be shown by the actions and environment of the game itself. That's one of the things that makes Super Metroid a masterpiece. It's a very story-driven game at heart, but one that lets your imagination roam.

The only other exploration game that captures that same sense of mood and mystery, to my mind, is Todd's Adventures in Slime World on the Atari Lynx. And that game was created back in 1990. How's that? In many ways, Slime World serves as a foundation for the expansive game world Super Metroid builds upon. It seems impossible to keep the two seperate in my mind; the original Metroid serves as the original starting point, but this sequel stretches and expands and builds so far beyond those first boundaries that they become almost unrecognizable.

So that's what I take out of the experience. The dark, underground world, teeming with life and teeming with secrets. And the whole enterprise is hard. Real hard. In this game, Nintendo drops you into a cave, in the middle of nowhere, and just leaves you. No goofy sidekicks pointing the way out of the maze. No cheap icons to hold you by the hand and make things easy. In this life, things are much harder than in the afterlife. In this're on your own.

Forget about that first Metroid. It's a good game, but it's too dated to really hold your affections. This is the real version, the one that carries all the mystique. This is the moment which all future Metroids struggle to recapture. They'll struggle in vain. You'll probably never see a better action/adventure no matter how many years you'll live.

Create Your Own Atari 2600 Label

There's a website that let's you create your own custom Atari 2600 cartridge label. It's very easy to run, and allows you to use any art assets from your computer. Not a bad little time filler.

And, c'mon. Tell me this game wouldn't completely kick ass. It would beat the hell out of Journey, that's for sure. In fact, make that the game - you have to beat up Journey because they completely suck eggs.

Atari 2600 Label Maker

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Football From the Age of Dinosaurs

Continuing along today's football kick, I figured I should show some of the early videogame football titles, games from the late 1970's and early 1980's. For those too young to have played these games, you'll probably be amazed...that anyone ever wasted their time with 'em. I can't really blame you if that's how you feel. If it weren't for personal nostalgia, I'd probably avoid them as well.

But it's important to remember gaming's roots, and note how early developers tried to capture the essence of sport. Remember, these were the days when a game cartridge only offered two or four kilobites. That's 4K or less. We're already in the age of terrabytes. It amazing that such complicated sports could ever have been translated into such a microscopic space at all. The fact that many of them remain playable is nothing short of miraculous.

So, then, let's take a short look at some games, shall we?

Odyssey 2 - Football

Ugh. The Odyssey 2 was the sad system. While all the other kids had Atari, and a few lucky ones had Intellivision, there was always one poor kid whose parents sacked him with an Odyssey. You'd always feel sorry for that kid.

I can't say that I've played their football game, but it's a pretty sad system, and all the games were poor hand-me-downs. The Odyssey 2 was the Goodwill of video games. To be fair, this game does look nice. You have several players, you have a decent gridiron. A game from the ;ate '

Atari 2600 VCS - Football

Now here's a classic. Well, sorta. I kinda enjoy this, but for probably all the wrong reasons. It's a fun game in spite of itself. Then again, this game is 30 years old. I'm amazed you could fit this much onto a 2K cart. You can run or throw a football, and scoring only comes from touchdowns or safeties. One key feature is the first down line, which was a smart way of marking the field.

The scribbling, white-noise sound effect during that supposed to be the crowd or the players? I always thought it was the players, since they looked a bit unworldly and spooky. They flicker like ghosts, so maybe this is a football game from beyond the grave.

Atari Football actually plays pretty good, although it's really only the barest aspects of football. Still, I think it's a good example of design, of working with limitations, and it was clearly better than any other football game from 1978 or before. This really was the first playable football game, and, strangely enough, it winds up being the best ever made for the Atari 2600.

Atari 2600 VCS - RealSports Football

In the early '80s, Atari remedied their severe lack of quality sports games with the RealSports series. These games were meant to compete against the monster classics on Intellivision; games which, frankly, were cleaning Atari's clock. For the most part, Atari's new attempts were spotty, but at least they did cover most of the major sports.

RealSports Football certainly looked more like a real football game, but it somehow played weaker than the 1878 Football cart. How is this possible? I don't know. Once again, only the barest aspects of the game are present, and aside from kicks, there's no progression from the older game. Running and passing is a bit of a bad joke, and tackles are instant to the touch - a major weakness of all those old football games before Madden.

This game has more animation, and the graphics are a step forward, but when it plays so poorly, who the bloody hell cares? I never did, and neither did my peers. But then, to be fair, most of Atari's best talent had left for greener pastures by 1982. Well, at least RealSports Tennis was good.

Atari 1600 VCS - Super Football

Atari's third attempt at a football game on the 2600, Super Football was one of the late titles. It was actually programmed in 1988, well into the NES era, when the Tramiel-run Atari Corp. tried to return the company to former glory. They turned to their star designer, Douglas Neobauer, who helmed the excellent Solaris - a title that pushed the 2600 to its absolute limits.

So, how how is Super Football? Well, I fired up the Stella emulator and played half a game. It really isn't half bad. Of course, by the time this game was released, Tecmo had unleashed Tecmo Bowl on the NES, a system that was light years ahead of the poor old VCS. So that's probably why this game is seen as little more than a novelty or a pretty graphics demo.

On the graphics front, Super Football is excellent. It uses an overhead 3D view that would Park Place Productions would use for John Madden Football many years later. It's really amazing how well it all looks. You have some good animations, five players per team, players running formations, kicks, extra points, yadda yadda. The game also employs an extensive playbook, which is utilized simply. There are a number of different formations, although running plays are limited to the quarterback running with the ball.

For my Atari sports fix, I'd probably stick with the original Football, since its iconic nature ensures fast and exciting games. But anyone who has the means should give Super Football a chance. If only it were made at the beginning of the '80s, instead of the end.

Atari 5200 - RealSports Football

The Atari 5200 was a joke of a games console, and never let anyone else fool you. This really was the point at which Atari lost themselves. How they could have gone from an immensely popular system, to a throwaway piece of plastic - literally a stripped-down version of their stripped-down computer - is beyond me. But it seems to happen to everyone in this business. See: Nintendo, Sega, Sony.

RealSports Football was slow and chunky on 5200, despite its graphical improvements over the 2600 version. There are some nice features, like the details on the field and the number of players. You can see all that on the screenshot above. But I never remember ever having fun with it. This quickly became another Atari sports game that you put away for good within five minutes. Ah, well, maybe you could be more forgiving and patient. Eh, no you won't.

Atari 7800 - Touchdown Football

Touchdown Football is a translation from the home computers, where it appeared in 1985 by...Electronic Arts. Surprise! This was the very first EA football game. As such, it's an interesting little document of their earliest ideas which would later bear fruit with Madden.

At the time, I was always impressed with the title screen, but less thrilled with the game, which was somewhat slow. This was surely never a very attractive videogame, looking very much like a Commodore 64 title from the mid-'80s. If you give it a little more time, I think you'll find a lot of depth and strategy. You are in charge of a wide number of formations, and have to direct the strategies for nearly all your offensive players. Heck, you even have to move your kicker on extra points. I found that one out the hard way, after getting piled on by defenders.

There are little extras that would become EA hallmarks, things like endzone celebrations, cheerleaders, and refs. And the game itself, while still slow, plays well. You can run and pass with relative ease, and it's a cinch to pick off passes against the computer. Probably too easy, in fact, but these games were always meant for playing against friends, anyway.

Touchdown Football was getting dated by the time it appeared on the Atari 7800. It certainly paled against the flashier, faster Tecmo Bowl, which is a bit of a shame, because it's actually a deeper game. And you can play it on the MESS emulator if you don't have access to a 7800. I was really surprised by this one.

But there still aren't any late hits. Boo.

Intellivision - NFL Football

Now here's the real deal! Everything else is just a warm-up exercise for the main course. Intellivision was the home to sports games during the classic era, and no other classic game except Madden could really compete. Heck, I'm tempted sometimes to think this NFL Football may be the definitive sports game.

NFL Football was created in 1979, and immediately became the gold standard for the next decade. Thanks to the Intellivision controller, which more closely resembled a telephone, you had access to a wide variety of plays and formations. Gameplay included multiple speed options, out-of-bounds, safeties, field goals, extra points, touchbacks, timeouts, yadda yadda yadda. See that screenshot above? The players huddle. Remember the memory size of these early games. NFL Football was only 4K. The programmers didn't have enough room to include a computer player, but they could afford details like huddles. That's a level of ambition unheard of for its time.

The number of plays and options available were downright daunting back in its day. Heck, I'm still indimidated now. This is why emulation is so difficult where Intellivision is concerned. You really do need all those extra buttons for this game. Pity the controller is so hard on the hands.

Fortunately, there's an excellent retro package available called Intellivision Lives! It's a excellent compilation that manages to capture the whole retro experience. It's the next best thing to owning one of those old machines, which I suppose you could find somewhere. Actually, there's a shop right by my apartment that stocks videogames, from Nintendo Wii all the way back to Atari. I think they may have an Intellivision in stock. Hmm...if only I weren't completely broke.

If you're going to play only one classic football game, make it this one.

John Madden Football on Genesis - The Original

And now, since I'm on a kick, YouTube footage of the original John Madden Football on the Sega Genesis. If I recall, this game first appeared on computers, in a much different and weaker form. It was the Genesis port that changed everything for the better, quickly sending Electronic Arts towards dominance in the console market, and ushering in a new generation of exciting sports games.

C'mon, be honest. Most sports games before 1990 sucked. You can count the good ones with the fingers on one hand.

Madden '96 Late Hits Montage

See, this is why late hits are so much fun. This is taken from Madden '96 on the Genesis. Kinda reminds me of the year EA put blood into the NHL Hockey games, and you'd occasionally end up with massive head wounds by mistake, wink, wink.

Madden '92 Ambulance Montage

This is back when Madden Football really rocked. I can't imagine why they took the ambulance away from the series. Wouldn't that be great to see in today's games, even if only as an easter egg?

I'd Still Rather Play NFL 2K1

My brother came home this week with an XBox, the original one, as he had promised for many months. Included was Knights of the Old Republic, Madden '97, and the real star of the show, NFL 2K5.

You know something? I'd still rather play NFL 2K1 on the Dreamcast. Is there something wrong with me?

I've missed the entire 2K series since Dreamcast died, which is a shame because it's always been my favorite football franchise. I even loved the original NFL 2K enough to consider it the best football game ever made - despite the fact that the running game was completely, hopelessly nonexistent. It was nearly impossible to ever gain more than a couple yards. But so many of the intangibles...the hecklers in the stands, the referee conferences, snow on the field, the astonishing animation (one television reporter infamously quipped that these games were starting to resemble acid trips), and the play-by-play commentary...all of these built into the best football experience I'd ever had.

NFL 2K1 fell upon us like a hurricane. Unlike the tepid approach EA takes with its Madden games, Visual Concepts radically retooled and improved the game. The running game was working, and it worked spectacularly. The tv commentators still rambled on endlessly, dragging us into their arguments. Online play was available for the first time. Passing was a great improvement, introducing the ability to lead passes in any direction. The animation was even more detailed and intricate, putting Madden to shame. And the most beloved feature of NFL 2K1? Late hits.

This was something that was done ages ago on Genesis Madden, and is probably the most shameless fun you can have with the game. You have to remember to turn off the penalties that apply, and just start knocking heads. You hit another player after a play ends, you laugh, you shout out, "It never gets old!" It's really the perfect stress reliever.

You can even make a drinking game out of it. The goal is to strike down the football player that the camera has focused on, after the play. It's so unbelievably funny to see a closeup of some star player, strutting after making that long catch, getting nailed from behind. Does the camera even follow him when he goes down? Ha ha ha ha ha!! Another shot!

At the venerated Dinkytown Pizza Hut, we played Dreamcast every weekend night until daybreak. NFL 2K1 was the champion bar none. There were always six or seven games lined up before the thing was even hooked up to the televisions. Beer, soda, breadsticks, pizza, all flowed freely. I have countless memories of team breakdowns and legendary comebacks, of haunting sounds from the back of the kitchen, and grudges that never end. And, of course, a hundred late hits per game. Ha ha ha ha ha!

My favorite comeback was this one spectacular 4th Quarter finish with Favre and the Green Bay Packers. I was completely drunk, couldn't even see the screen, unless I squinted with one eye. Even then I never really saw what was happening. It was all blurs and blobs. I still managed to win that one in the closing seconds. Hah! What a game.

You see, this is why I never like reading videogame reviews. They always focus on the same cliched categories, like they're filling out Mad Libs. The Graphics are "so-and-so." The audio is "so-and-so." The gameplay is "so-and-so." How patethic is that? Nobody ever bothers to mention the little intangibles that stay with you, those throwaway moments that really define the great games. Perhaps they'd never admit it, or perhaps the publishers wouldn't want consumers to take away the wrong impression. There's so much hype to make games into the next Hollywood, something "respectable," instead of what they should be, which is fun. A video game is not a work of art. It's not even work. It's a form of play. That reporter who mentioned LSD trips hit it right on the head.

So when I finally had the chance to play NFL 2K5 on the XBox, what were the first two questions that popped in my head? The same ones I had when I learned 2K Sports was bringing back the franchise this year with All Pro Football 2K8. One, do they still have those play-by-play announcers? Two, are there late hits?

2K5 has just about everything you'd ever want in a football game. It really is a wonder, packed to the gills with extras and features and online leagues that still command a fan following today. It's still leagues apart from Madden. But it does not have late hits. Booo!!

That settles it. I'm getting a Dreamcast.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Olberman Special Report 9-20

Keith Olberman's latest Edward R. Murrow rant against the current President. As always, it's essential viewing. Enjoy.

New Grow Available - Grow Island

EyezMaze Website

One of the best videogames to come along in memory is Grow. This series of flash animation games hails from Japan, and each new installment is an event in itself. As soon as the latest one arrives, I immediately stop whatever it is I'm doing, and sit down to play.

Grow is a puzzle game at its core, one in which you are asked to choose a series of icons in the correct order. But such a description is far too reductive, too literal-minded, to carry through the spirit of what makes Grow so much fun. You have a puzzler, mixed with a life simulation, mixed with a quirky Japanese pop style, mixed with the conventions of classic console games. It's more of an experience than anything.

Each game follows the same basic formula, but the set and setting - always the crucial ingredient, kids, don't forget that - is completely different each time. You typically begin with a blank area, be it a sphere or a meadow, or in this fifth installment, an island in the sea. You then must assemble the available items in the correct order. Events balloon into one another, meld with one another. For example, you could select to build a road, and the character icon appears with a pickaxe. Then, later, you select to build transportation, which leads to cars, boats, trains, and rocket ships. The character with the pickaxe would then chop away a small harbor for the boat, which would then lead to other events, which lead to others, and so on.

You get the picture? Part of the fun lies in guessing just what the final form the landscape will take. There's always a sense of surprise, partly brought on by the designer's love of surrealist J-pop, which always seems ready to veer into unexpected directions at any moment. A series of logs grows into a home. A tool grows into a series of cutsey robots. At some point, the moon comes into play. A strange character right out of Yellow Submarine appears, and something happens. Is it important? It is a crucial point to the story, or is it there for the sake of being there? You'll have to figure that out for yourself.

I've found Grow to be a fair challenge, although I've never really been stumped for too long. The game does follow a certain sense of logic, no matter the scenario, and the limited number of icons keeps the game from spiraling out of control. It doesn't aspire to drain away your precious hours. It's aware that it's only a game, here to amuse you and sparkle your imagination. Perhaps that's what I love the most about Grow.

The above screenshot comes from the newly-released Grow Island, the sixth in the series. Earlier installments have included a sphere, a cube, and a fantasy role-playing world - one that sends up adventure games like Legend of Zelda. These games are beautifully made, wonderfully drawn and animated, and arrive far too rarely. I'm amazed that no major publisher hasn't chased after this developer with a big contract. Here is a game concept that is screaming for a wider release. More, more!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - September 17

Ugh. This week's Virtual Console releases are especially bad. I suppose the pirates found out about it beforehand, and just looted all the vaults, leaving only the crumbs. How else to explain things? In fact, this really hasn't been a stellar month for the most part, apart from a couple Genesis classics. Nothing really exceptional or surprising. But, at least we still get some console variety, with titles spread across three consoles. And Hudson still does a far better job supporting the Virtual Console than everyone else combined. I keep waiting for Sega to follow their lead and really start cranking out the Genesis gems. But that hasn't really happened yet, apart from the biggest names. Whatever.

Let's pinch our noses and take a look at what's on the buffet line this week...

Yoshi's Story - Nintendo for Nintendo 64 - 4/10

Yoshi's Island was a major surprise on the Super Nintendo, and in fact was among the greatest action platformers ever made. It was a surreal masterpiece of game design and psychedelic style, and it absolutely came from out of nowhere. Nothing in Nintendo's history up to that point could have predicted such a crazed left turn into the cornfield. The game was an enormous gamble; but it was a gamble that paid off.

Perhaps Nintendo thought they could gamble and win a second time, but by the time the Nintendo 64 era had arrived, their magic touch was fading. Their brand was in decline. Sure, on one hand, they had created what was being hailed as The Greatest Videogame Of All Time, Super Mario 64, but the consistency and brilliance you came to expect from the Super NES was strangely missing on this clunky little console. Who knew? No, wait, that was Donald Rumsfeld's excuse for the Iraq War. Scratch that.

Nintendo was entering into their experimental phase, where their classic hits were reinvented for the 3D polygon age. They gambled with Mario and hit the jackpot. They gambled with Mario Kart and won big. They were in the slow process of gambling with Zelda, and would really hit the big score. So it's unfair to pile on Yoshi's Story for failing to make the grade. It was bound to happen sooner or later.

We really should have seen it coming. Yoshi's Island was a major surprise hit, and its relative independence from the Super Mario franchise empowered the designers with some degree of freedom. I don't think anyone ever really figured out what to do with it. There was no Miyamoto directing things or pulling strings, so Yoshi's Story waddles around, aimless, a character in search of an author.

There's really no magic in Yoshi's Story. For all its colorful playfullness - and it does this beautifully with pre-rendered graphics, ala Donkey Kong Country - the game lacks any sense of purpose. It lacks any sense of challenge. The original title only looked like a children's game, which masked a fiercely challenging platformer. This sequel is content to settle for the mask. I've read online that skilled players could complete the entire game within an hour, which is an idea so sacrilegious that it should set off alarm bells. You don't bulldoze your way through a Nintendo platformer in an hour. Hell, New Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo DS was a cakewalk, and even that took more time than that.

Was this meant to be a kiddie game? Maybe. It surely looks the part. But the whole approach is so basic, so simple - run around and collect fruit, yadda yadda - that I can't imagine any kids having fun with it. Certainly not in 2007, where children are supposed to be reaching Elroy Jetson-levels of computer sophistication. The average six-year-old probably has his or her own weblog up and running by now, and they're already quickly learning how to the fix the computer for us hapless parents. Help! Fix the magic box!

I think kids are a little better than this. They don't need a cheap, cut-rate game to idly pass the time. Idly passing the time is something grown-ups do. That's what the television remote is for. And alcohol. And traffic jams. And lines at the coffee shop. You get the point.

Super Thunder Blade - Sega for Genesis - 3/10

Super Thunder Blade was among the very first Sega Genesis games; in fact, it was one of the first three games to debut with the Mega Drive in Japan at the end of 1988. And wouldn't you know it? It shows. Yuck, it really shows.

Sega had one key advantage in the home console race, and that was its successful arcade division. They were the cats responsible for Outrun and Space Harrier and Hang-On and Shinobi, and a pile of great titles that made you want to reach for one more quarter. It was a crucial source for home games, since Nintendo had a complete stranglehold on the market, and competition was squeezed out. So, at least on paper, offering a number of arcade conversions on their new 16-bit console was a smart move for Sega.

The problem, and this is always a problem for any new home games system, is that many of those arcade games are shallow, simple, and short. Altered Beast is probably the best example of this. It may be fun at Aladdin's Castle, but when you bring it home and finish the whole thing in 20 minutes, you come away feeling slightly used.

I suppose you can make the case for looking the other way, as long as the arcade game is exciting and fun and thoroughly challenging, but none of those things apply to a clunker like Super Thunder Blade. In fact, I really don't know what the point to this game ever was. I certainly can't explain why a tepid shoot-em-up like Thunder Blade ever warranted a sequel. Perhaps it was a big hit, and I've always been in the minority. Super Thunder Blade was also an early title for Sega's 16-bit arcade board, which was the basis for the Genesis. So, in a sense, it really never was much more than a show-off game. The problem is that it never did a very good job of showing off.

Super Thunder Blade is a helicopter shooter with levels that switch between a 3D, third-person view, and a 2D, overhead view. The 3D was slightly novel at the time, using scaling sprites for enemy copters, tanks, and city buildings; but graphics gimmicks like that are always doomed to age poorly. This game was looking tired and haggard long before the polygon age arrived, an event which relegated nearly all games of this type to the dustbin.

On Genesis, the 3D is absolutely terrible. Scaling was never part of the Genesis' hardware, as it would be on the Atari Lynx and the Super Nintendo, so I can't imagine why Sega would stack its launch library with not one, but two, but three 3D games - Space Harrier 2, Super Hang-On, and Super Thunder Blade. None of them are really any good. The scrolling of the objects onscreen is choppy and amateurish on all of them, nowhere near as smooth as in the coin-op versions. And I think Super Thunder Blade is the worst of the bunch.

The overhead levels, you'd hope, would be a little bit better, but you'll discover how lifeless and dull they are once you start playing. The point-of-view is far too close, with no real sense of where you are or what's coming around the bend. You really don't have time to react properly. Not that it matters, because it's just a flat version of the same tired marching patterns from the 3D levels. It doesn't help matters that two excellent overhead shooters, Thunder Force 2 and Truxton, would quickly appear on the shelves. That pretty much makes this game obsolete, doesn't it?

Oh, and the pace of the game is unbearably clunky and choppy, something which is practically unforgivable for this genre. Get used to seeing your helicopter crash and burn. Don't ask me how it happened. I don't know either. Maybe this is a game where your aircraft just breaks apart on its own. Yeah, that's the catch.

I applaud Sega for remembering its early Genesis library, and reminding the public that there was more to their system than Sonic and EA Sports. But enough with the throwaway games, already. We've already been offered Ghouls 'N Ghosts; that's a fine start. Now start coughing up the goods.

World Class Baseball - NEC for Turbografx-16 - 5/10

NEC included this baseball game among the initial lineup of the Turbografx-16 in the fall of 1989, which was a smart move on their part. Sports games have always been consistent sellers for home videogames, and baseball is immensely popular across the seas in Japan. As it so happens, Sega offered their own baseball game for the Genesis during this season, dubbed Tommy Lasorda Baseball, and both titles are strikingly similar.

Unfortunately....yeah, you saw this coming, didn't you? There always has to be a down side when we're talking about sports games "B.E," which, of course, means "Before Electronic Arts." It's no real surprise to gamers that EA muscled in and dominated every sport practically from day one. The dirty little secret for this is quite simple, you see: most sports videogames before 1990 were absolute junk.

Now baseball, you'd think, would at least be the one sport to be done right, since it's popularity in Japan and America would mean no shortage of titles. The growing pains, as well as the technological limitations, that hampered other sports like football, soccer, basketball, and hockey, could be overcome here. Also, baseball has always just been easier to render on the classic games consoles. In fact, now that I think about it, Intellivision really was the only classic system to get sports games right. What's the deal with that?

Which brings us to World Class Baseball on the Turbo. To its credit, this was a decent, presentable little game for 1989, and the bright colors and catchy synth music was a good draw for the new system. But it ultimately suffers from the same problems that hurt all the baseball games back then. that I'm thinking about it, it seemed like all the baseball games were exactly the same. Hardly anyone would even bother to try anything different, except renegade computer games like Hardball.

Maybe that's why I'm just as fine with the ancient Home Run on Atari 2600 as anything else. Actually, no. Scratch that. I'll take Home Run over any of the others, including this one. Home Run was fast. World Class Baseball is not. It's painfully slow. Slooooowww.....

I dunno. Maybe designers deliberately made these games play extra slow because it was so difficult to follow the action at a decent clip. Perhaps the hardware at the time couldn't allow for a fast enough speed. Maybe they were just thinking about all those stoned teenagers, too zonked out to follow anything unless it moved at a snail's pace. Who knows. It's a mystery for the ages.

In any case, what we have here is a baseball title that moves extremely slow. And it's not just a matter of the ball dragging along, or the players lunking away like drunks. It's the fact that everything moves at the exact same speed. Fielders can never catch up to a ball that's rolling away. You have to actually follow the damned thing until it stops moving to grab it. And have I mentioned that all the fielders move as one? This was another common practice at the time, and it was a real pain. Somehow, I always end up with the ball right in between the second baseman and the center fielder, and they're so far apart....and slow...slow....slow...

These were the days before computer-controlled players in sports games - one of the crucial hallmarks of the early EA Sports classics. Ah, to be there when Madden was new, when NHL Hockey was new, and to discover that you weren't responsible for moving every athlete on the field. That was a major breakthrough in the early '90s.

As a matter of comparison, I played around with a few other sports games, including Tommy Lasorda Baseball on the Genesis, and a handful of NES baseball titles. Pretty much the same thing. Graphics would steadily improve over time, but the pacing was always slow, the fielding nonexistent, the tension all but gone. These old games were little more than glorified home run derby's...but without the home runs. Should I be bothered if an infield ground ball still results in a base hit? Should I get peeved when I never know where my off-screen fielders are when I need 'em?

Again, this was a major flaw with pretty much the whole field, so perhaps it's a bit unfair to dump on the poor Turbo, which only offered this one baseball title. So I won't blame you if you've become a fan of the system and want to collect as many games as you can for your Virtual Console. If you pick this game up, I won't hold it against you. Heck, I may even be envious if the game clicks for you. It didn't for me. I'll stick with Home Run.