Friday, September 24, 2010

Nintendo Unveiles a Wii Remote Plus That Will Never Be Used

Yes, it's nice that the doomed-to-obscurity Flingsmash will be graced by the new Wii Remote Plus - which integrates the Motion Plus accessory into the standard controller - and that can only be a good thing.  I'm looking forward to this game because it promises to be everything the Wii badly needs - a multiplayer, motion-controlled arcade game.  That said, today's announcement (in truth a goof by Gamestop) only leaves me feeling frustrated.

The Nintendo Wii is hurting in global sales for one key reason - Nintendo simply cannot be bothered to make games for the damned thing.  I remember something Shigeru Miyamoto said when Wii Music arrived at the end of 2008.  He said that the company had finally achieved all its goals; that is to say, they had made all the Wii motion-control games they originally envisioned, mission accomplished.  In other words, Nintendo made their four Wii Series games, and now they're done.  It's time to move on to the next gadget.

Now we are coming into the final week of September, 2010.  To date, Nintendo has released exactly four games for the Wii.  Just four.  All were sequels, only one was a moderate hit, and none fulfilled the promise of motion control games ala Wii Sports or Wii Play.  And nothing whatsoever for the Motion Plus.

Yes, we are coming into the all-important 4th Quarter of the year, where Wii Party, Kirby's Epic Yarn, and Donkey Kong Country Returns are potential blockbusters.  But notice that each of these come from outside developers.  Among Nintendo's internal studios, only one title remains - Zelda: Skyward Sword.  After that...???

I really have the sinking feeling that Nintendo is finished with the Wii.  The conventional wisdom is that 2010 is the console's final year, and that the Wii 2 (whatever it's called) will be revealed sometime next year.  Of course, a "Wii HD" would violate and contradict everything in Nintendo's strategy since 2004, but who can say at this point?  They're not making any games, and they're not supporting a console that has sold over 75 million units.  Why is this?  Who is responsible?  What's the plan?  If these questions are not asked by journalists, then they will be asked by investors and stockholders.

What's the point in a Wii Remote Plus?  Nintendo could care less about the Motion Plus.  If they did care, they would have bothered to make some games that require its use.  They would have bothered to follow through on their promise of motion controls, the kind of motions and ideas expressed in Wii Sports Resort.  Hell, they would have bothered to do something, anything.  Instead, where the M+ is concerned, Nintendo has done absolutely nothing.

I've seen stronger first-party support from Atari Corp when they were dying.  Nintendo has, thus far, utterly failed to take any meaningful action or offer any significant level of support for their Wii console since its momentum collapsed at the end of 2008.  Thank goodness for Super Mario Bros 5, is all I can say.  If it wasn't for 2D Mario and Wii Sports Resort, the Wii would be dead and buried.

Do you think we're ever going to see another 2D Super Mario or another Wii Sports Resort?  Fat chance.  You'll see another Wii Music before that ever happens.

Alright, that's enough of my cranky, "Grampa Simpson" rant.  Everybody go play outside for a while and get some sunshine.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Donkey Kong Country Returns - New Trailer!

Hey, look, Nintendo actually bothered to make a game for the Wii!  And it's Donkey Kong Country 4....with Rambi the Rhino! And I get to smash blocks?  Yeeehh!  Game designers take note: I love video games that let me smash things...blocks, rocks, alien spaceships, giant robots with bad Japanese get the point.

Nintendo may be slackers most of the year, but they always deliver the Christmas presents every kid wants.  All the oldschool gamers who made Super Mario 5 a blockbuster will bum-rush the stores for Donkey Kong.  We're hungry for more video games like this.  How many times must I say it?  We want videogames!

Last Bronx on Sega Saturn

Last Bronx was Sega's final, great 3D fighting game for the Saturn. This title arrived in the US just when Sega of America decided to prematurely kill the console, and so it was never allowed the time to build an audience and become a flagship hit ala Virtua Fighter 2. Thankfully, its reputation as a Saturn classic is secured.

I'm obviously a big fan of Sega arcade games, and fighting game in particular, but I've never really spent enough time playing Last Bronx. It is a more refined take on the Virtua Fighter formula - block, punch, kick - but it still lacks the iconic characters and wondrous color design of Virtua Fighter 2. The fighters are a bit generic, the colors a bit flat and grey and same-ish.

Thankfully, Sega's AM3 studio handled the home conversion, and you can see the technical brilliance as the Saturn's 3D powers are pushed to their limit. The faked 2D backgrounds are eerily convincing, especially in that garage stage with the low ceilings. The speed is fast and the action is tough, and before you know it, you're bashing away with multi-hit combos and beating your friends senseless.

Last Bronx was lucky enough to be a weapons-based fighter, at a time when such a thing was rare. Namco's Soul Edge was the main competitor, and their Dreamcast sequel, Soul Calibur, would become one of the greatest fighting games ever made. Again, I don't think AM3's game is quite that good, but it's excellent and fits perfectly in the Saturn library.

The Japanese release of Last Bronx also included a second disc, which contained move lists, tutorials, movies, and other cool bonuses. That would have been nice to see in the States. Heck, by the end of 1997, any Saturn games would have been nice to see. Lucky for us, we did get this one.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Soulless Corruption

This essay on Sega and Team Andromeda's Saturn classic Panzer Dragoon perfectly captures one of my greatest criticisms of the video game industry: the corruption of the gaming "press." I happen to know this from first-hand experience, as a freelance reviewer for Gamepro and a couple other prozines whose names I forget. This corruption, this mindless servitude to a soulless, corporate machine, is the very cancer that is killing video games:

One of the greatest paradoxes of the gaming world is its obsession with the new, and 'up to date'.

From a commercial perspective, this makes complete sense: game companies primarily benefit from sales of their latest wares, so this 'new is good' message is incessantly pushed, not just through relentless advertising and sequels, but also by the industry's dedicated press, who to this day remain in the most part completely corrupt. Brown envelopes are a core element of a game magazine's budget, usually hiding under the moniker of 'advertising'.

Creatively speaking, this approach has doomed the art of game-making. The market is now swamped with utterly disposable products, while one of the most important traits of a game - its durability - is seldom addressed.

Back in the early 1990s, the videogame fanzines were the underground alternative to the corrupt "prozines," who only served at the behest of their advertisers in the industry. They were perfectly fine with this arrangement, since, hey, we're gettin' paid to play video games! For such a low price they sold themselves out. And we zine editors were the arch-enemy. I still hold out hope that the internet would inspire a similar rebel spirit, but that doesn't seem to have happened. If anything, the corporatist grip of the game industry is even tighter today. Magazines and websites are little more than fanboys - tools of marketing.

And always, the endless rush for greater horsepower and more features and additional features that nobody asked for. Why does the Xbox 360 exist? It exists so Microsoft can achieve their ancient dream of a set-top box that as a convergence of digital media in the living room. Why does the Playstation 3 exist? Because Sony wanted to push the Blu-Ray format, and now 3D television. This has nothing to do with videogames, and to our surprise, the general public has rejected these overpriced, overpowered dinosaurs.

There's no reason why Playstation 2 couldn't continue to thrive. Heck, there's no reason Sega Dreamcast had to die; but the game industry demanded otherwise, and that was that. And they have slowly stripped the soul out of video games, turning everything into empty product, a Virtual Hollywood. Yuck. To hell with all of 'em. And to hell with the prozines for being such willing puppets.

This is why I hold out such hope for Nintendo, despite all the ways they don't seem to get it. Sometimes I think they lucked out with the Wii. They tapped into a vast audience that is hungry for traditional video games, and I don't think they really understood the impact they would have. Wii Sports just swept over us like a storm, like a fad that just won't die. Here we are in the year 2010, and Sony has just released their own Wii Sports knockoff. Imagine that. Of course, the Sony and Microsoft clones are just that, clones. It's more like something conjured by the marketing department after focus-group testing. The technology may be competent, but the inspiration, the quality, is nonexistant.

Nintendo is now the standard-bearer for Arcade Games, whether they like it or not. Their "superstar" designers certainly don't like it; they'd rather play "movie director" like the rest of this stupid industry. But the market has spoken, and the public has voted with their wallets. Look to the Wii Series. Look to Super Mario DS and Super Mario 5 on the Wii. Look to Pokemon Black & White. Those games are selling like gangbusters for a reason. See what's not selling? Disposable industry "product." Nintendo would be mad fools to follow the industry's march into oblivion.

It was never chisled into stone that the videogame would last forever, maintaining an endless high. It may finally fall out of favor and disappear, just as pinball machines have disappeared, just as vinyl records have disappeared. The Era of the Video Game may one day be seen as a cultural curiosity, a period stretching from the mid-Seventies to the turn of the century. The question is who, if anyone, will be able to arrest the seemingly permanent decline of this industry. The path of the industry is the path to extinction.

Trailer - Kirby's Epic Yarn

I know it's always fashionable to dance on the grave of Nintendo Wii, and this summer has been more irritating than usual, but let's not count Nintendo out yet.  Case in point: here's the latest trailer for Kirby's Epic Yarn, a dazzling 2D platformer with an astonishing visual style.  Everything is rendered in fabric.

It's funny how success breeds success.  Super Mario Bros DS became a blockbuster smash hit, and this inspired Nintendo to finally make Super Mario Bros 5 for the Wii.  Another blockbuster smash.  Now here comes the third wave of old school video games: Kirby and Donkey Kong.  Both will be excellent games.  Kirby is being handled by the studio responsible for 2008's Wario Land: Shake It, so the programmers have some experience with the Wii hardware.

The game industry continues its death spiral, and the vultures are licking their chops in anticipation of Nintendo's inevitable fall.  Then Nintendo drops Mario 5 and all hell breaks loose.  I don't expect the new Kirby do pull in those numbers, but the lesson still remains: people want video games.  Not "art," not "movies," not self-indulgent vanity projects like Metroid: Other M, but genuine, old school video games.

Just look at the numbers for the new Pokemon in Japan.  Damn thing sold two and a half million immediately.  The public is starved for real videogames, and that need is not being met.  Hence, the decline of the game industry.

Asuka 120% Burning Fest Limited on Sega Saturn

I couldn't resist tracking down this new gameplay video of Asuka 120% Burning Fest. Limited (whew!), one of the very best 2D fighting games for the Sega Saturn.  I wrote about this game back in 2007, when I discovered it after scoring my third Saturn.  Now it's 2010, and I'm looking for my fourth.

Asuka 120% has a dedicated, if small, fan following, as the series migrated from the FM Towns to PC Engine to Playstation and Saturn.  The Saturn version, Burning Fest. Limited, is generally considered the series' best.  This is a smart and frantic fighter, full of those insane 30-hit combos that skilled players love to pull off.  The combo and parry system has actually influenced other fighting games, such as the Guilty Gear series.

I still wish the backgrounds were animated, but the software studio that created this series was very small, and I think they did an excellent job, probably as good a job as was possible.  Don't kid yourself that this all-girl anime fighter is a pushover.  Asuka 120% BFL will challenge any brawler out there, and give you a serious run for your money.  This is one of the Saturn's true hidden gems.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rabbit - 2D Anime Fighter on Saturn

Here's another quality 2D fighter on Sega Saturn, and definitely one of the weirder ones.  It's called Rabbit, and it was the work a Japanese software house called Aorn.  They created Rabbit for the arcades, where it languished in obscurity, and was later ported to the Saturn.  Electronic Arts published the title in Japan, as they were trying to break into the Land of the Rising Sun (without success, of course).

What sort of fighting game is Rabbit?  Well, it's just kinda weird.  Eight colorful characters square off against one another, and they range from the usual anime suspects to the bizzare.  There's a crazy clown character, who apparently is a singer in a rock band or something.  There are a couple crazy, big guys.  There's a blue-haired girl with a parasol.  Everything is wrapped in a cartoonish, mainland Asian style, complete with the usual projectiles and combos.

The game's "hook" is that each fighter is accompanied by an animal spirit who floats on their shoulder, cheering them on, and contributing an extra special attack or two.  Defeated characters lose their animal to the winner, and as the game progresses, you can switch between your animal helpers during the fights.  It's an interesting idea, that's for sure.

The Saturn conversion of Rabbit is very solid, although clearly a step below the arcade original.  Colors are washed out, slightly dull, animation frames have been sacrificed, and the fighters appear strangely pixelated. I'm really not sure why that is.  Graphics zoom in and out in the classic Neo-Geo style, which was very common with '90s brawlers, and goodness knows the Saturn has mastered many SNK fighters.  Heck, just look at Capcom's 4-Meg masterpieces to see how amazing 2D Saturn games can look.

In any case, I'll have to spend more time playing this game.  I think it's very good, very solid, and Saturn fans should be thrilled to have another great, "lost" 2D brawler in their collection.  So that said...diplomacy aside...the best non-Capcom, non-SNK fighting games for the console remain Sonic Council, Asuka 120%, and Astra Superstars.  Those are the must-haves.  Add those to your library first.

Trailer - Michael Jackson: The Experience on Nintendo Wii

Remember, kids, the Michael Jackson dance game will be a Nintendo exclusive this Christmas. Are there any doubts this won't become a monster hit? It surely would have been a critical title for Sony and Microsoft, as Move and Kinect struggle to win hearts and minds during these crucial months. Fortunately for Nintendo, that will never happen. If there were any true videogame journalists, they would be digging into this story and discovering all the details. Nintendo pulled off a coup with this title.

Just Dance 2 arrives at the beginning of October, and Michael Jackson follows a month later. With luck, both games will become blockbuster hits with the Expanded Audience. Everyone I know in Bogota will be begging me to bring home these games for Christmas.

Oh, and this commercial is very well made. Reminds me of last year's Just Dance ad campaign, only with a larger budget attached. Very little in-game footage shown, but the experience - ah, there's that word! - is what is being sold. This will succeed because it was in the minds of everyone who ever played JD. They have to make a Michael Jackson dancing game! Well, kids, congratulations. You got your wish. Happy holidays.

Video - Wii Sports Resort Table Tennis

Sony's Move controller was released last week, and right now, gamers are taking Sports Champions through the ropes.  Early word is very positive from the NeoGAF crowd, especially for the table tennis event.  We'll see how things develop and whether or not it becomes Sony's answer to Wii Sports.

Now here's some table tennis action from Wii Sports Resort.  This is just about my favorite event in the game, after bowling (of course!).  What impresses me is how Nintendo fully captures the arcade experience; this is not a simulation of table tennis, but a focused approximation.  The game is distilled to its pure essence, a Pong for the new century.  It's immediately accessible and always thrilling, especially with two players.

It will be interesting to see how Sports Champions table tennis compares a few months from now.  Will the greater degree of control make for a better game?  Or will the more simulation-like experience become a stumbling block?  In a sense, this is the ancient feud between arcade and computer games.  We could be talking about PS3 vs. Wii, or Commodore 64 vs. NES.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sony's Move Has Calibration Problems

Aha, so this is why we aren't seeing any demo stations for Sony's Move controller.  The damned thing just doesn't work.  Read this discussion thread on Sony's website, watch this Youtube video, and see for yourself.  Ah, nothing better than to spend a Saturday on the couch with your favorite beer mug and some video...what the heck?!  This thing doesn't work!

If it is true that Move requires you to stand two meters away from the camera, this would explain why Sony hasn't demoed the peripheral or games in stores.  The damned thing simply wouldn't work.  This would also explain Sony's strange silence on their newest toy.  This has easily been the quietest system launch in the history of video games.


Michael Jackson: The Experience on Nintendo Wii

Yes!  We have screenshots of the highly anticipated Michael Jackson: The Experience dance game for Nintendo Wii.  Ubisoft released new media for the game, and it looks...spectacular.

Also, did you hear the news that the Kinect and Move versions of Michael Jackson have been postponed until early next year?  I hadn't thought of the implications until this week's Tokyo Game Show.  But now, it seems clear to me that Nintendo played a hand.  The holiday season is where the video game business makes most of its money.  And Nintendo now has an exclusive lock on the two biggest dance games of the year - MJ and Just Dance 2.  These are system sellers, kids.  Don't doubt that for a second.

One of the biggest video game stories of the year has been Nintendo's aggressive and deepening involvement with third-party software developers.  They have collaborated with Capcom, Treasure, Tecmo, THQ, Activision/Eurocom, and now Ubisoft.  The only game that seemed to slip from their fingers is NBA Jam, a game that Electronic Arts sabotaged by giving to the HD Twins, literally, for free.  Aside from that, Satoru Iwata has been very successful.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Zero Divide: Final Conflict on Sega Saturn

Zero Divide was a robot fighting game that appeared on the Playstation in 1995. The gameplay was rooted in Sega's Virtua Fighter style, with Guard-Punch-Kick and focus on martial arts moves, and it was very enjoyable. After all, who doesn't enjoy futuristic fighting robots? Thankfully, the painful memories of....bleech...Rise of the Robots has been forgotten in time.

Zoom, the software studio, created a sequel on the PSX, and then, in a surprising move, brought the third game in the series to the Sega Saturn in Japan. Zero Divide: Final Conflict is probably the best game in the series, certainly the fastest and most refined, and it makes sense that this game would appear on a Sega console, whose best 3D polygon brawlers all owe a debt to Virtua Fighter.

Obviously, Zero Divide was never brought to the States. It sits alongside the other 367 or so Sega Saturn classics from Japan that Sega of America wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. They relied almost solely on Western developers, who, at that time, were nowhere near as skilled as the Japanese. You can see the divide between East and West on the Saturn, and the difference is striking.

To be fair, Playstation swept the American scene almost immediately, and so, most software developers focused their energy on Sony; Sega might get a quick port, which was almost always inferior, and this fueled the momentum to the Playstation side. Programmers and programmers simply never spent the time needed to learn Saturn's complex architecture.

Given this knowledge, the decision by Sega of America's executives to almost completely shun Japanese Saturn games - especially 2D games - proved to be a terrible miscalculation. Sega went into battle with all its best games, Saturn's strongest games, kept off the playing field. A crippling defeat at the hands of Sony and Nintendo was all but inevitable. And it was easily avoidable.

Okay, enough with the tragic history lesson and back to Zoom's Zero Divide: Final Conflict. This is one of my favorite 3D fighting games on the Saturn, and it's also one of the most technically accomplished. The programmers had successfully mastered the dual CPUs, and you can see the results: stunning robot designs, skilled lighting effects, fully 3D graphics, all running at 60fps in Saturn's high-resolution graphics mode of 704x480. Everything looks terrific.

Take a close look at the robots in the video clip. Notice the subtlety of the lighting and shading as they move around the ring. This is much more refined, in a design sense, than the PSX, which was masterful at shading and lighting, but today often looks gaudy and over-syrupy. I'm quite impressed. The high resolution and fast framerate are also crucial factors, and I think this and similar Saturn games like Virtua Fighter 2 have aged so gracefully. This is the direction that game design evolved, as hardware became more powerful and the novelty of endless Gouraud shading wore off.

I'm impressed to see walls surrounding some of the fighting arenas, and these are 2D bitmap graphics instead of polygons (Zero Divide on Playstation had some terrific polygon backgrounds). This is the model that everyone followed after VF2 showed the way, and for the hardware, it's quite skillful. That said, I think these walls are a bit low-res and pixelated. These graphics should have been handled better. But, of course, I'm nitpicking, and it's 13 years after the fact. One of the joys of oldschool gaming is learning to make your piece with the limits of technology.

Zero Divide remains an obscure game for the Saturn, much like Anarchy in the Nippon, another spectacular 3D brawler. There are precious few articles on websites or videos on Youtube. I'm not sure what this means to the price of import copies on Ebay, but at least we can download the ISOs for free. Dedicated fans and collectors, of course, will want the physical disc, and they should be encouraged. This is a terrific Saturn game to surprise and impress your friends. Heck, add a few more classic Japanese titles to your library, and your Saturn will become your main console in the living room. Imagine that.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter - Sega Saturn's Final Masterpiece

Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter may be the best of Capcom's 4Meg-enhanced Saturn games. Just wait until you see this game in motion, with four fighters jumping in and out, blasting away with their astonishing super moves. The visuals in this game are chaotic, and yet there is no slowdown whatsoever. And there is virtually no loading time whatsoever. This may very well be Sega Saturn's crowning technical achievement.

Thanks to the 4-Meg RAM cartridge, MSH Vs. Street Fighter is absolutely arcade perfect. Every frame of animation has been retained, as every visual and audio effect, every kick and punch and special attacks...everything. I cannot emphasize enough how incredible this game looks and plays. As this was one of the final games developed for Sega Saturn, it represents a final, thrilling triumph of an era. Never again would traditional, 2D video games play such a prominent role on a console. From here on out, 2D would become a precious rarity, rarely championed, barely noticed. In the year 1999, Arcade Games were out; Cinematic Games were in.

This moment also marks, sadly, Capcom's peak as well. There would be future successes with Marvel Vs. Capcom and Street Fighter 3, but these would be the final triumphs. The CPS-3 board, despite its amazing power to render animation-quality graphics, would never become successful as CPS-2. And that's unfortunate, because I see no reason why these games should be abandoned. Heck, I'm kind of curious to know if the Saturn could have handled a perfect translation of SF3: Third Strike. Maybe an even larger RAM cart would be necessary. I'm fairly certain a Saturn Third Strike would kick everybody's ass.

I'm just as certain that Capcom would continue to be successful if they revived the CPS-3 arcade board and made more 2D sprite-drawn games. That's very unlikely at this point; the company bosses have declared that polygons are here to stay, in the vein of Street Fighter 4. I still say these Saturn Vs. games look better. The older games were a lot more popular, too. Something to think about.

X-Men Vs. Street Fighter on Sega Saturn

X-Men Vs. Street Fighter was the first game to utilize the 4-Megabyte RAM cartridge for Sega Saturn.  This added memory turned a 2D powerhouse console into a behemoth.  Now Saturn could deliver astonishing, jaw-dropping 2D arcade games with speed, fluidity and detail never before seen.  It is no hyperbole that these are the greatest arcade conversions ever made.  Good Lord, the Sega Dreamcast could not match this level of power and sophistication.

This game was nothing short of miraculous when it first arrived in the late '90s, and it's a testament to Capcom and Sega that future games would leave X-Men Vs. Street Fighter in the dust.  This is an amazing video game, with stunning animation, precise controls, and amazingly fluid speed.  The crossover appeal is a great attraction - has there ever been a better use of comic book characters in a video game?  I love all the various Vs. games that Capcom delivered during this period.

X-Men Vs. Street Fighter is easily overshadowed by the manic intensity of Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter, but there's no denying the spectacular animation and fluid gameplay.  The core of the fighting game takes center stage, and it's something I greatly appreciate; the Versus series had yet to devolve into seisure-inducing visual assaults and button-mashing for its own sake.  Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 was excellent on the Dreamcast, but nobody would mistake it for a serious fighter.  You could just drag the controller across the carpet and do very well.  Same for the new Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom on Nintendo Wii.

Once again, I don't mean to sound like a broken record, but none of the 4-Meg Saturn games ever left Japan.  Fighting games were immensely popular in the arcades, and the Saturn's strength lie in 2D.  So why didn't Sega of America bring these masterpieces to our shores?  Ah, yes...Bernie Stolar's absurd notion that "2D is Dead," and that gritty, macho, Westernized 3D games would sell.  It's funny to see how Sony made a mockery of these statements, as they brought many excellent 2D games, as well as RPGs and strategy games, to the Playstation.  Saturn was never allowed to compete because the executives thought they knew better.  Obviously, they were terribly, horribly wrong.

Ah, well, that's all in the past now.  We can appreciate these fantastic games today, and thanks to the overwhelming dominance of 3D polygon graphics, the 2D Capcom fighters haven't aged a day.  X-Men Vs. Street Fighter still looks amazing in 2010, and for that, we are all thankful.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Street Fighter Zero 3 on Sega Saturn

Obviously, since I brought up Capcom's outstanding fighting games on Sega Saturn, I have to show Street Fighter Zero 3. This game is absolutely astounding. Even in the year 2010, I am left speechless. This may be the greatest arcade-to-home translation of all time. Even the mighty Dreamcast could not match the Saturn for 2D brawlers.

This game is the peak of the Street Fighter series. In addition to the new characters from the Zero/Alpha games, all the original Street Fighter 2 brawlers are included. There are two different speed settings, three different styles of super-combos, numerous game modes exlusive to the home versions (the same for PSX, Saturn, and Dreamcast), and the sharpest graphics and animation up to that point. Clearly, Capcom meant for Zero 3 to be the ultimate Street Fighter.

Personally, it's a toss-up between Zero/Alpha 3 and Street Fighter 3: Third Strike. Both games are very different, however, and I find they compliment one another perfectly. Zero 3 demonstrates all the innovations and flash of the Alpha series, while Third Strike is more strategic, a back-to-basics approach. They're both fantastic; indeed, here is one reason every gamer needs a Saturn and Dreamcast side-by-side.

How many must-have Saturn games from Japan have we uncovered? I've long since lost count. Sega of America executives like Bernie Stolar were guilty of criminal negligence. By declaring all 2D and arcade games obsolete, they all but guaranteed that Saturn would fall to the Playstation. But what would have happened if they played to the console's strengths, and brought home all these fighting games and shoot-em-ups and adventure-RPGs? I don't believe the tide of history could have been turned; the Sony Playstation was going to dominate the 5th Generation. But the gap between Sony and Sega would have been much smaller. Heck, Sega might have just saved themselves from death in the console market.

Imagine that. What if we still had the old Sega with us today? They just fell off a cliff after the Dreamcast died. It's no longer the same Sega. The old spark is long gone, and in its place now lies....nothing much. Ashes and faded memories.

Vampire Savior on Sega Saturn

When it comes to 2D fighting games on the Saturn, there's no question: Capcom is the King.  They supported Sega's consoles very strongly over the years, going back to all those stellar arcade titles on Genesis like Forgotten Worlds, Ghouls 'N Ghosts, Mercs and Strider.  With Saturn, they opened the floodgates to their excellent brawlers, and this was their golden age of fighting games.

The arrival of the 1-Megabyte and, later, 4-Megabyte RAM cartridge enabled spectacular home conversions of arcade titles that were far beyond anything seen before.  Indeed, the 4Meg Saturn games like X Men Vs Street Fighter, Street Fighter Zero 3, and Vampire Savior are literally "arcade perfect," even surpassing later arrivals on the Sega Dreamcast and Playstation 2.  Truly, Saturn was a beast for 2D video games.

Here is an excellent gameplay video of Vampire Savior in action.  This is the third title in the Darkstalkers series, which offers a monster-movie spin on the classic Street Fighter formula.  The original game first appeared on the Sony Playstation, courtesy of Psygnosis.  The Saturn conversion of Night Warriors: Darkstalker's Revenge absolutely smashed it to bits.  Whatever Sony's strength with 3D polygons, there was no doubt among gamers that Saturn was the king of 2D.

Vampire Savior is the magnificent capstone to this excellent series.  This game remains highly sought after by Saturn and fighting game fans, and eBay prices remain very expensive.  Ultimate bragging rights are yours if you can secure a retail copy.  With a good set of s-video cables, this game will look stunning on your brand new big screen TV.  If anything, the Capcom Saturn fighters look more impressive today, since traditional sprite graphics have faded.

Obviously, I would like to see this art style kept alive.  These games have not aged a day, and I'll bet that Capcom could continue to make arcade games for their CPS-2 and CPS-3 hardware.  I know I would gladly pay for games of this caliber on the Nintendo Wii.  Let the HD Twins have their overrated Street Fighter 4, with its clunky, freakish steroid mutants.  The old school will always be the best.  Watch Vampire Savior on the Saturn and tell me I'm wrong.

Video - Ninku (Saturn)

And now, if only to prove that I am not a Sega Saturn fanboy, here is a look at an early Saturn fighting game that has not aged very well.  It's name is Ninku, and it's based on a Japanese anime series.  For some reason, a lot of anime shows were turned into fighting games; probably because those types of games were popular in the '90s, and it's an easy way to bring together a cast of characters.  If you're used to importing or downloading Saturn titles, then you've seen a few examples of this.

Ninku was developed by Sega and published early in 1996.  The graphics are a mixture of 2D animation sprites and 3D polygon backgrounds.  It's a very interesting idea, and I have to admit, I am still impressed by these locations.  The textures are detailed and everything looks very good, even though there's still that slight shaky movement as the camera pans around.  Also, as there are no lighting effects or variations in color tones, the scenery does have a certain flat look.  It's certainly a time capsule from Saturn's early days.

The character animation was good for its time, and I do try to be generous.  It looks okay.  Later fighting games on Saturn and Neo-Geo would feature far more fluid animation, and that makes Ninku feel a bit stiff.  It's as though only key animation frames were used, and the in-betweens were entirely cut out.

To its credit, Sega did an excellent job of moving 2D sprites along a 3D world.  The fighters knock each other back and forth, and they quickly spin around in circles.  It's pretty cool to hit an opponent into the screen, even if they do become all pixelated.  The camera quickly rotates and always keeps the player perspective locked in place.  You can see the designers trying to think their way around the limitations of 2D, and whether sprite graphics could be integrated into the growing field of 3D fighers.  Remember that 1995-6 was a period of experimentation for video game developers.  The new 3D paradigm of Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider had yet to arrive.  Until then, everyone was just guessing.

The Saturn overflows with so many excellent fighting games that it's easy to become jaded.  Ninku was never going to become more than a cult hit (although it should have been released in the West).  The fighting engine is very basic, only a few standard and special moves, and little in the way of combos or complex techniques.  This feels more like an early Street Fighter 2 knockoff from the 16-bit era.

Again, I'm feeling spoiled.  Ninku will certainly entertain Saturn fans, and particularly anime and fighting game fans.  It's not outstanding, but it's not terrible.  It fits squarely into the, "Meh" category.

Video - Groove on Fight (Saturn)

Alright, here's another video of a Sega Saturn classic from Japan, the colorful and brilliant 2D fighter, Groove on Fight.  This is Atlus third title in their Power Instinct series, and it's an excellent game in its own right.  The style is very close to SNK's The King of Fighter series on the Neo-Geo, with two-on-two teams, but it's far more goofy in its characters and special attacks.

I'm really impressed with this game.  Strong and vibrant colors are always my style, and this sort of look has all but disappeared in the age of $30 million cinematic games.  Perhaps it's just too difficult to impress gamers with Groove on Fight when they've got Modern Warfare 2 blasting away on their giant televisions.  I would hope that there is room enough for both.  Heck, I'd rather have a Sega Saturn in 2010 than any of today's consoles...and I may be a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

Video - Panzer Dragoon II Zwei

Panzer Dragoon II Zwei was one of the rare Saturn games to include a widescreen viewing option.  It didn't make much sense back in the mid-'90s, but it's very welcome today.  Indeed, this game feels more open and spacious when stretched to HDTV proportions (and a good s-video cable, of course).  NiGHTS was another Sega game that took advantage of widescreen.

This game looks absolutely spectacular.  I read an old magazine article with Team Andromeda, the studio responsible for the Panzer Dragoon trilogy, where they revealed they had experience programming with parallel processors.  Aha!  So that's why they were so far ahead of anybody else on the Saturn.  Dual CPUs was a relatively rare thing in 1995, and since most videogame programmers had no experience, their Saturn games suffered, while the Playstation, with its fast single CPU, was far easier to understand.

Throughout the 32-bit era, the Saturn was considered inferior to PSX with 3D polygon graphics, and goodness knows there are countless examples.  But the Sega faithful have always insisted that, no, the Saturn was just difficult to come to grips with, and once mastered, its games will match or surpass anything by Sony.  Panzer Zwei is a perfect illustration of this argument.  This is a fantastic, smooth, and visually polished video game.

Thankfully, now that the 5th Console Generation is long past, we don't need to pick sides.  We can enjoy the best of all the consoles, and appreciate the strengths of old rivals.  Personally, I'd be thrilled to see a compilation disc of the Saturn Panzer Dragoon Trilogy on the PS3.  You wouldn't even need to update the graphics - this is more than generous enough already.

Video - Dead or Alive (Saturn)

Here's are a couple lengthy Youtube clips showing Tecmo's excellent Dead or Alive in action. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Photos - Dead or Alive (Saturn)

The number of truly great Sega Saturn games that never left Japan is truly stunning.  Here's one of the best-known examples - a superb arcade translation of Tecmo's Dead or Alive.

I watched a lot of gameplay videos from both the Saturn and Playstation version of Dead or Alive, and I have to admit, the Saturn version has aged far more gracefully.  So many PS1 games smothered all the polygon graphics in gouraud shading and lighting effects.  This art style was considered "cool" and cutting edge in the 1990s, and that's what developers and consumers wanted.  But the years have not been kind.

Saturn Dead or Alive is focused on the fundamentals, things like a high frame rate, and a sharp, clear design to the character models.  The result is much more pleasing to the eye, more direct, and less cluttered.  The spectacular animation is allowed to shine on its own, and as a result, the video game has aged like fine wine.

I'm also greatly impressed by the use of 2D backgrounds to fake a fully 3D environment.  Sega's AM2 did this for Virtua Fighter 2, and it's a brilliant and skillful piece of software engineering.  An arcade-to-home translation depends greatly on what is cut out - Yars' Revenge on Atari is the pinnacle of this theory.  You have to make the strengths and limitations of the hardware work for you.  And so Tecmo follows AM2's lead in Dead or Alive, with even more impressive results.

Once again, I have to ask in frustration, why so many Sega Saturn games were not brought to the West?  This is beyond baffling.  Thank goodness we have import shops and internet downloads.  History has been very kind to the Sega Saturn.  Here is one excellent reason why.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Video - Virtua Fighter 2 (Saturn)

Today is the 15th anniversary of the Sony Playstation's launch in the US.  Today is also the Sega Dreamcast's 11th anniversary.  Happy birthday, free cake and ice cream for everyone!  Now here's Virtua Fighter 2 on the Saturn.

Why Sega couldn't properly follow up VF2 with another dozen high-resolution Saturn games is a bit of a mystery.  Fighting Vipers never quite did it for me, Fighters Megamix was an interesting experiment, but not quite serious, and Anarchy in the Nippon (the best of the lot) never even left Japan.  AM2 did produce Virtua Cop 2, which was outstanding, but that was it for the famed studio.  Yu Suzuki was consumed with his Shenmue vanity project for years, and the studio struggled with not one, but two translations of Virtua Fighter 3.  Ultimately, time ran out as Sega scrambled to the Dreamcast, which proved to be too little, too late.

The more I think about it, the more comfortable I am with the thought that Virtua Fighter 2 was the peak of the series.  Yes, it's terribly unbalanced, and there is a definite pecking order with the characters.  But this game has style, it has heart.  It has panache.  And it remains the most popular VF outside of Japan.

What is the Atomic Weight of Bolognium? it, "Delicious"?

California public schools are inviting BP to help craft their envonmental cirrciculum.  Joy.  It's amazing to see the scale of the public relations control by BP since the Gulf Coast oil disaster.  They really are working overtime to dazzle the peasants and keep the politicians in their pocket.  I probably shouldn't be surprised by any of this.  It's still unacceptable, and one more example of the deep-seated corruption in the American political system.

We really don't have time for this, kids.  The candle is burning and time is short.  We need to get off the oil now.  Not tomorrow, not next week, not "whenever," but now.

“Less Ice Covers the Arctic Today Than at Any Time in Recent Geologic History”

Yet another scientific study on global warming and the disappearing Arctic that will be ignored and assaulted by stupid and greedy bastards.  The melting of the polar ice caps - once the domain of science-fiction dystopias - will become a reality very soon.  Such a scenario was seen as, literally, the end of the world.  But now?  Silence.

Humanity continues to ride for glory in suicide machines.  Your grandchildren will die for your stupidity.

China Surpasses US in Renewable Energy Market

This is what complete domination by the fossil fuels industry will do to a nation.  The United States is falling behind China in the energy race of the 21st Century.  Moving to a post-carbon fuel future is not only essential for our survival, it's smart business.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Video - Christmas NiGHTS

Here's a look at the spectacular Christmas NiGHTS on Sega Saturn. This was a special holiday-themed demo disc which featured an astonishing amount of replay value, and boundless surprises including CGI portraits, movie clips, promotional material, a karaoke mode, an artificial life program, even a cameo by Sonic the Hedgehog. The Saturn's internal clock also affected the graphics, based on the calendar year - Winter, Christmas, New Years, and Valentine's Day.

A spectacular achievement from Sonic Team's finest hour. Christmas NiGHTS should be required study for all game designers. This is how it is done!

German Military Study Warns of Peak Oil Crisis

Climate Progress delivers the goods, as always.  Shouldn't we be doing something about peak oil?  Is civilization really going to do absolutely nothing?  Really?  This is absolute madness.

Sometimes I wonder if the suits in charge are greedy bastards or just painfully incompetent.  Humanity is facing catastrophe on several fronts at once, and all as a result of our consumption of oil, gas and coal.  What part of "get off the fossil fuels" isn't getting through?  Is the money from these corporate behemoths that tempting?  Are you willing to sacrifice your grandchildren on the altar of $2 gas?

Look to Russia, children.  Look to Pakistan.  When crop failures become common, when food and water become scarce, when the economies of the world are crippled by dwindling resources, then you will understand.  But it will be too late.  Your children will die for your selfish delusions and your greed.  And they will know in their bones that you were warned for generations...and consciously chose to do nothing.

“Time is Running Out For Ourselves and Future Generations”

So says Philippe Cousteau, grandson of famed Jacques Cousteau.  We need to stop this endless pollution and burning of fossil fuels and tackle global warming.  Time is running out.  What part of this isn't getting through?!

Photos - Virtua Fighter 2 (Saturn)

The greatest game ever made for the Sega Saturn. Virtua Fighter 2 was a spectacular graphics showcase that, in one blinding flash, reversed Sega's terrible fortunes, made the Saturn a contender, and challenged the unstoppable momentum of the Sony Playstation. It hasn't aged a day. Not one day.

Why do I still believe VF2 is the peak of the series? Perhaps because it was the one that left the greatest impact. It certainly was the most popular game in the franchise back in the day, back when it was still possible for rookies to learn the ropes and become fans. Good Lord, you could write a graduate-level thesis on the depth and complexities of Virtua Fighter. This is as close to studying an actual martial art as you can get in an arcade video game.

I've long tried to follow this series ever since the Saturn days, but I felt myself slipping behind. To put it another way, I felt the tournament-level players had grown too skilled, too difficult. The game itself had grown too complex, and the basic formula of rock-paper-scissors is being lost. Maybe I'm not interested in learning the nuances of multiple throw-escapes, or memorizing flow charts. Maybe my finger skills just aren't there anymore. At age 37, is this really a priority for me?

So I'll stick with VF2 on Saturn, thank you very much, where I have many warm memories and a belief that just about anyone can play, with only a little practice. The tremendous depth and strategy is still there, but it's not overwhelming. I don't feel helpless if I can't perform the Stun Palm of Doom.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Photos - Sega Rally Championship

It's very hard to find quality Sega Saturn screenshots.  I'm not quite sure why that is.  The 32-bit generation is strangely overlooked by video game fans; it's too late for the classic gamers, and too late for the internet.  Thankfully, I was able to score these outstanding photos of Sega Rally Championship in action.

Sega Rally is still my favorite arcade racing game of the past 15 years.  It's just as beautiful and exciting as it was in December of 1995.  I honestly can't think of any single title that I'd rather play by myself or with friends.  Sega Rally on Saturn is a textbook example of how a fantastic racing game should perform - fast, immediate thrills, precise controls, spectacular graphics, and endless action.  And the game is hard!  Remember when video games were actually challenging?!

Also, call me an old grouch, but I still think the graphics are fantastic.  I'm still amazed at the vibrancy of color, the painterly quality to the textures, the sharp details on the roads and hills and mountains, and especially the rock-solid speed of the graphics engine.  Sega Rally is a crowning achievement for Saturn's 3D polygon powers.  I still remember the one-two-three punch of Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop, and Sega Rally at Christmas 1995.  Why Sega couldn't duplicate those achievements on Saturn remains a puzzling mystery.  Why were later Sega racing games so terrible?  Daytona CCE, Manx TT Superbike, Touring Car Championship....yuck, yuck, yuck.  None could hold a candle to Sega Rally.  Isn't that weird?

Hardly any racing games are even made anymore.  Only simulation-style games, in the vein of Gran Tourismo, are released by one or two publishers.  The arcade fundamentals are completely lost.  It's getting to the point where Mario Kart is a flagship racing game.  Not to knock Mario Kart (the DS and Wii versions are excellent), but what the heck happened here?!  To my eyes, the Cinematic Games Era has completely ruined video games.  Everything is dragged down with bloat and excess, way too many cinematics or cut-scenes, and stupid, useless tutorials.  Even Excite Truck, a relatively good racer, is bogged down by these faults.  The very word "arcade" is seen as a snub to the $30 million video game crowd.  Frankly, I think they're nuts.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Photos - Panzer Dragoon II Zwei

Some excellent photos from the spectacular Panzer Dragoon II Zwei on Sega Saturn.  Yes, I know the title repeats the number "two" twice...very strange.  Easily one of Saturn's greatest games and a classic shoot-em-up with atmosphere, skill and depth.

The gameplay is a direct descendant of Space Harrier, only with the ability to rotate 360 degrees while flying on dragons.  I enjoy how the game begins with your young dragon still unable to fly; you must run through your destroyed village, exacting revenge on various monsters and imperial ships.  Later, in a thrilling dramatic moment, your dragon leaps off a great cliff, then glides down to the distant ground below.

The Panzer Dragoon trilogy (I'm only counting Team Andromeda's games on the Saturn) is a textbook example of creating a vast, richly conceived video game world.  The fundamentals of the game - the precise controls and the fast, challenging action - are very, very solid.  Andromeda was able to build this great world, with its many locations and surprises, only because they had already mastered the basics.  They recognize that Panzer Zwei is an arcade shoot-em-up, and proceed accordingly.  Cinematic cut-scenes and story are secondary priority.  They are crucial in fleshing out this strange world, but they do not dominate.

This is the critical distinction between Arcade Games and Cinematic Games.  In the Cinematic Era, the movie scenes dominate, and the actual video game is swept under the rug, forgotten.  The "creative vision" of the director becomes  the primary focus, and not the game player.  I am not saying that this way is "bad" - this is simply a different paradigm.  But I would argue that this paradigm has run its course; video games have lost their spark, their challenge, their immediacy, and their fun.  The promise of deeper, richer worlds, the promise of games as a storytelling medium, has largely failed.

Panzer Dragoon Zwei is an excellent illustration of these two paradigms at the crossroads, Arcade and Cinematic.  With the Arcade values in charge, the result is a classic game that continues to challenge and thrill.  When Cinematic values are in charge, the result is a bloated, conceited mess, with little or no role for the game player.  There are countless examples of this on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, and even on Nintendo Wii (Metroid: Other M).  The future of video games lies in a return to the Arcade values, to that immediacy and that excitement that classic games provided.  The new paradigm - the Social Games Era - will take us there, but only if we embrace these values and return to our roots.

I can't think of a better time to get a Sega Saturn and Panzer Dragoon Zwei.  Hint, hint.

Box Art - Panzer Dragoon in USA and Japan

One of the key reasons - out of many - the Sega Saturn failed in the West was because of the hideous box designs and illustrations.  In America, Sega used their hideously large plastic Sega CD boxes
, which must have been a serious challenge for the designers and illustrators.  Legend has it that this decision was made because the company manufactured so many Sega CD cases, expecting that peripheral to become a smashing success.  Obviously, that didn't happen.

The cover designs for the early Saturn games followed the aesthetic of Sega's other consoles at the time, with the system named in large letters on the side.  This was never a good decision, and I was never a fan of the red Genesis boxes.  I much prefer the older design, with the black grid and Genesis logo, laid over a VHS box.  At least those games could fit into your media library comfortably.  The Sega CD and Saturn cases just stood out.

Do I really need to say anything about the cover illustration for Panzer Dragoon?  Of course not.  It was terrible in 1995 and it's terrible today.  To me, this says, "rush job," and that probably was the truth.  Remember that Sega of America rushed Saturn to market several months early, in a desperate bid to stop the building momentum for Sony's Playstation, which at the time had ALL the buzz.  Playstation was the hot new thing and all game players knew it.  And Sega was burning its reputation into the ground with all those crummy machines.  32X felt like a mugging.  Yuck.

 Now let's look at the Japanese cover for Panzer Dragoon, and it's wonderful.  Notice that Sega Japan used CD cases, which would soon become the industry standard.  It's far more economical and compact, it fits on your shelf perfectly, and allows illustrators more freedom to create.

This cover was drawn by famed French artist Moebius, whose work was a great influence on Panzer Dragoon.  You can see his influence on all three PD games on the Saturn.  This is a rich world, full of mysteries and secrets that the games themselves only reveal in small pieces.  You can see the vast potential for future games without ever running out of ideas.  It's a shame that Team Andromeda is no longer around.  Sega gave the series to their Smilebit studio for Panzer Dragoon Orta on Xbox, but it really wasn't the same experience.  I know I'd rather play the older, chunkier Saturn titles instead.

The Japanese PD cover is brilliant.  I want to explore this world.  Even if I know nothing about the game itself, I'm interested.  A skillful cover design can be a hook in itself.  Too many publishers don't seem to understand this, and the result are many video games that fail miserably at retail.  Who in their right mind doesn't want a kick-ass album cover?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Super Mario Collection Special Pack for Wii

Now this is a surprise.  Super Mario All-Stars, the 8-bit compilation on the Super NES, is set to be released on the Nintendo Wii in Japan on October 21.  The extremely low price - 2,500 Yen - strongly implies that this will be a reissue of the SNES cartridge, but part of me really wishes for updated graphics ala Super Mario 5.  That would make the game a monster success....let's see what Nintendo actually delivers.

Kirby's Epic Yarn - New Trailer Released

The new Kirby game looks better and better.  This may become the Yoshi's Island of our time.  As always, my only wish is that the game isn't too easy, as Kirby games tend to be.  Video games are always better when they're a tough challenge.  The visual style is dazzling -- expect Kirby's Epic Yarn to arrive on many best-of lists at the end of the year.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Donkey Kong Country 4 - Here's the Cover

Alright, I was hoping for a color-themed cover just like Super Mario 5, but this is an excellent design for Donkey Kong Country 4.  Everything looks exciting and fun...and did you see our rhino friend on the left?  Retro Studios never said whether or not the animal sidekicks would make a return, so this will be a very welcome surprise for the fans.

Kudos to Nintendo for moving Donkey Kong into the flagship position for the holiday season.  It's fascinating to see this cascading effect of 2D Nintendo platformers.  The runaway success of New Super Mario Bros DS led to Super Mario 5 on the Wii (the first 2D Mario on console since Super Mario World in 1991), and that in turn led to Kirby's Epic Yawn and Donkey Kong Country 4.

Remember that the 2010 flagship title on Wii was going to be Legend of Zelda.  This speaks volumes to Nintendo's growing confidence in classic 2D video games.  I have great confidence in Retro Studios to deliver an outstanding game, and I'm very impressed that they're adding new themes and ideas to the formula.  This won't be a lazy rerun by any stretch, and for that, I am very thankful.  All I ask now is that the game is challenging.  Video games used to be hard, and we were all the better for it.

C'mon, Nintendo, let Retro make a 2D Metroid.  I want a kick-ass, tough-as-nails classic Metroid, with old school arcade values and no stupid movie scenes.