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.

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