Don’t touch this: the bizarre gaming influence of MC Hammer

The late 80s and early 90s are riddled with stories of meteoric rises to stardom and falls from grace, but perhaps none burned out quite as spectacularly (and publicly) as M.C. Hammer. We often forget just how much of A Big Deal Hammer and Vanilla Ice and other 90s musicians/groups were1. Honestly, I’m not sure if even modern social media powered bands like One Direction come close to just how visible, overblown, and heavily merchandised Hammer and company were. We laugh at the ridiculous crap their faces were plastered upon now, but at the time, these guys defined coolness to young people.

Yes, MC Hammer had it all in the early 90s: mansions, racehorses, a vanity Saturday morning cartoon series, and the admiration of millions, yet numerous poor investment decisions, a taste for expensive theatrics, and constantly overextending himself eventually bit him in the ass. I’m honestly surprised people didn’t see it coming at the time – watching the 2 Legit 2 Quit music video again, over 20 years after its debut, will rid you of any pity you might feel for his extravagant lifestyle and rapid crash really fast. The amount of sheer ego and hubris on display here is simply jawdropping.

One privilege that major English language recording artists have is that their stuff faces very few barriers to worldwide acceptance. Popular English music is inherently a global thing, just like Hollywood films, even in territories where English isn’t widely spoken. Such is the case with Japan as well, where audiences were equally taken by Hammer’s impressive dance moves, slick beats, and flashy performances. While his contemporary Vanilla Ice may have earned eternal infamy in Japan by becoming a nasty Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure villain with a prominent bulge, Hammer wound up getting tributes (and attempted tributes) in a handful of games, including an all-time classic.

Continue reading

  1. NKotB comes to mind, as well – we still haven’t found their NES game yet, but the prototype box has changed hands for a ridiculous sum.

Mystery Tournaments are the best tournaments (and SpeedRunsLive MT6 was especially great)

If you’ve been to a nerdy convention with a game room, you have doubtless encountered some manner of gaming tournament – usually for stuff like fighting games or FPS titles, maybe some RTS or MOBA sessions if someone arranged a LAN setup for PCs. Every so often, however, you’ll encounter the fabled “mystery tournament.” The idea behind these is that you get a bunch of people to play through a gauntlet of different games with varied short goals, eliminating players along the way until you wind up a champion. Pretty typical, save for the multi-game part – the catch is that none of the players know in advance what is going to be played, and typically the game choices are obscure or off-the-wall so that players, in all likelihood, have never played them before.

Mystery tournaments are tons of fun for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, they present a playing field that’s a bit more level – everyone’s going into these games at least semi-blind, so you don’t have the “oh, I’m out of practice” reluctance that would come when considering entering specific titles you may not have had time to play. Another factor is that they test a completely different set of skills than a typical game tournament: whereas a fighting game tournament might test your ability to compete against several different characters and individual playstyles in a single game you’re intricately familiar with, a mystery game tournament challenges your ability to quickly learn rules and figure out effective means of play coming from no familiarity at all across multiple titles. Sure, having a good knowledge of action games might be helpful when you’re given a random platform title to play, but what happens when you get something totally new like an unreleased indie game with completely bizarre mechanics that the dev gave to the tourney organizers? You’d better be able to learn, and quickly.

The absolute best thing about mystery tournaments, however, is the games themselves. You’re given an opportunity to discover interesting titles – some of which you’d never consider playing or overlook amongst your already-massive backlog – within a fast-paced and competitive environment. Now, this certainly isn’t the best way to first experience some games, but getting (or even just seeing) that taste of a game from a mystery tournament can be enough to get people interested in exploring it further. For example, when competitive indie darling Nidhogg showed up at the finals of a Northwest Majors mystery tournament, it got a whole heaping of hype and attention1:

Or check out the finals for Lethal League, from UFGT9:

Of course, the games don’t necessarily have to be obscure – you can take old favorites and put new and unexpected twists on them. UFGT was very well known for this, their mystery tournaments included stuff like Spinjustice (playing Injustice while people spin the chair you’re sitting in slowly), Marvel vs. Capcom 2 all-Thanos teams, Soul Calibur 2 on DDR pads (see the first part of the video above), and last year’s surprise ender Don’t Break The Ice:

It’s great on many levels: organizers can showcase games that they want to give more attention and think players would enjoy, participants get to explore a bunch of old and new games they may have otherwise overlooked, and developers can showcase, build hype, and get feedback from players in an exciting environment.

I’d like to encourage people to organize and participate in in-person mystery tournaments, which is why I’m writing this – to help bring more awareness to the format. But it can be difficult: having a bunch of different games usually means having a bunch of different consoles and controllers to manage, which can be a tech nightmare, especially when running on a tight convention schedule. It’s also a fair bit harder to promote a mystery tournament given that you can’t attach the name of a popular game to it (even if you’re playing some bizarre variant of said popular game).

Fortunately, it’s also possible to organize mystery tournaments through the internet. SpeedRunsLive, who you may know as part of the folks who put on the Games Done Quick marathon, holds their own online mystery tournaments twice a year. While I’m not a speedrunner, I’m (obviously) a huge fan of the format, and the SRL Mystery Tournaments have a few interesting twists that make them particularly appealing. Read on for an account of how my Mystery Tournament 6 experience went down.

Continue reading

  1. And thus Lord BBH’s shame lives on. I’M SORRY ;_;

Game music highlight: Intelligent Qube

Over the last month I participated in the SpeedRunsLive Mystery Game tournament, which just wrapped up this weekend and proved to be an exceptionally fun experience. I plan to write a more detailed post about the event shortly, but for now I can say that it’s something I highly encourage people interested in exploring a wide variety of games to participate in.

One of the games I drew (out of the four matches I played “officially”) was Intelligent Qube (“Kurushi”1 in Europe for whatever odd reason), a PSOne title that I’d heard of but hadn’t played before. It’s a very interesting game: its rules are somewhat complicated to explain but easy to grasp once you actually start playing. That isn’t to say that Intelligent Qube is easy. In fact, it’s extremely unforgiving, to the point where even minor mistakes made early on can come back and bite you in the ass later on, and a small slip-up can incur severe penalties. But every mistake you make is your own fault: the game is harsh, yet fair. It’s undeniably a clever, well-designed action/puzzle game, but it just didn’t click with me. Spatial puzzles have never been a strong suit of mine, and keeping track of the positions of multiple cubes and panels and such just kind of overwhelms me after a bit. (That, and I keep getting smooshed.) I can certainly see the appeal, but it’s not for me.

What I did really enjoy about the game, however, was its soundtrack, which took me completely by surprise. Usually when you think of puzzle game music, you think of boppy, catchy tunes that keep you alert while you’re figuring out a solution. Intelligent Qube’s soundtrack goes a distinctly different route, featuring big, bombastic orchestral pieces. Here’s my personal favorite.

Readers who were watching the stream I played IQ on can probably remember me making remarks about the music’s quality and wondering who the composer was. I suspected it was Hitoshi Sakimoto at first – it has a bit of an orchestral FF Tactics/Tactics Ogre vibe to it – but the composer is actually Takayuki Hattori, who actually does a lot of anime and live-action drama music, according to his Wikipedia entry. I suppose that’s why IQ’s soundtrack doesn’t quite give off that typical “game music” vibe.

Since I more or less stymied around stage 4 during my playthrough, I decided to look into what the game’s final stage looks like… and I’m now both impressed and terrified. There’s pretty much no way I could do this without panicking.

  1. I think this is a Japanese pun, which really leaves me wondering why the game only has this name in the EU!

Interview: Cave’s Tsuneki Ikeda (IKD) from 2010

Game Developer’s Conference is this week, so I’m going to be busy hopefully gathering material both for here and for assorted freelance outlets until Friday. Seeing as how I’m not going to have time to write new material for a bit, I think it’s time to once again reach into the vault and republish a piece that hasn’t been seen in English before, and one that I’m particularly proud of.

This interview with Cave CCO Tsuneki Ikeda – known to shooting game fans as IKD – was originally conducted for France’s ig Magazine in 2010. A lot has changed since then, and not all for the better, in Cave’s case. Reading through the text now, you can definitely see Ikeda drop some hints of market troubles that would come to have a harsh effect on Cave’s shooting game development. It’s a very interesting read – but also quite heartbreaking.

And, of course, thanks to Jon Rogers for being awesome and helping to set this all up.

Continue reading

Buying game music on iTunes: what’s out there

I’ve always been a collector type ever since my youth (much to the chagrin of my parents), and though the stuff I’ve collected tends to change over time, it’s typically import goods with some connection to gaming. These days it’s primarily doujin goods and figures, but during my highschool/college years I acquired a sizable collection of physical game soundtracks and arrange CDs. MP3s were a thing back then, but portable MP3 players like the iPod weren’t1, so CDs were really the only semi-portable way to take your music with you. Me being who I am, I wanted my favorite VGM with me everywhere I went.

The problem with game music CD collecting is that it’s a niche market, even in Japan, so only a few stores carried a good VGM selection. Another issue was the price: Japanese CDs are ridiculously pricey compared to the West due to a whole mess of factors, so you’d be spending half the cost of an actual game just to legally own the music from it. A niche market combined with high prices meant stuff went out of print very quickly and would sometimes command absurd prices in the aftermarket.

Then iTunes happened. Love or hate Apple, iTunes provided a service people wanted: a way to cheaply and easily buy and enjoy music digitally. With the power of popular portable music players behind it, the iTunes store quickly became the favorite way of many consumers to legally obtain digital music. It also provided an easy way for producers and music labels to reissue old releases without having to put up the costs to reprint CDs and packaging – a perfect fit for niche markets like game music fans. For Japanese consumers, it’s even sweeter – they get all the music for considerably less than an actual CD.

While Japanese iTunes has a pretty amazing selection of game music, there’s also a substantial amount available on the US iTunes store, including a bunch of stuff you’d likely be surprised to find is available Stateside. Here are some recommendations for you to check out!

(Since I’m located in the USA, this article mostly covers items available in the US iTunes store. Availability may be different in your territory, but I encourage you to check and post your findings here! And hey, making a US iTunes account isn’t hard, either.)

Continue reading

Interview: Hifumi Kono of Nude Maker and Project Scissors/NightCry

Much as I take pride in my knowledge of gaming history, there are a few areas that I could stand to learn more about. One company whose history I don’t particularly know that well – though I’ve always meant to learn more about – was Human, a Japanese developer and publisher prominent through the late 80’s up until the end of the 32-bit era. Human was known for a lot of things: Fire Pro Wrestling (perhaps the best-regarded wrestling game series of its time), a game design school that produced fascinating experimental titles like The Firemen and Septentrion (S.O.S. in the West), the groundbreaking Clock Tower series, and a sudden collapse that left the firm in shambles.

So when I was offered the opportunity to conduct an interview with Hifumi Kono, the former Human employee who went on to found developer Nude Maker, I jumped at the chance. I was eager not only to learn a bit more about Human’s history, but also to look a bit deeper into the game that defined the company’s later legacy, the Clock Tower horror game series, and its spiritual successor Project Scissors/NightCry. Read on for a candid look at Human’s past, Clock Tower’s influence and how it symbiotically benefited from Biohazard, living on pachinko earnings, and what happens when you play a classic Western horror game without speaking the language.

Continue reading

Awesome(?) 90s gaming hip-hop music

Ahh, the early 90s. It was, indeed, time for Klax, but also time for a sharp rise in popularity of rap and hip-hop music. Anyone who was a kid watching cartoons on North American TV during the late 80s and early 90s was well aware of how companies quite cynically exploited hip hop music and culture to look “cool” and “with it” to the youth. We got all manner of terrible faux-rap theme songs, new and improved character designs with backwards baseball caps, and some of the most hilariously awful commercials ever transmitted through the airwaves.

Game companies were no exception when it came to utilizing hip-hop’s popularity for commercial means, with predictably bad results.

(To be fair, Nintendo would eventually improve Zelda rapping significantly.)

Making a commercial with a rap theme song was one thing, but taking inspiration from hip-hop and combining it with game music was something else entirely. The rapidly improving sound quality of VGM, bolstered by the introduction of CD-ROM redbook audio, gave enterprising game music composers the ability to implement things like samples and voice into their songs, allowing for them to create original rap and hip-hop tunes for games. The songs were still predominantly hilariously bad, of course, but there’s a weird and lovable kitsch to them that makes them incredibly fun to look back on. Most of them, anyway.

So today, we’re going to be looking at several of these awkward game-related attempts at jumping on a musical fad. I’ll be leaving out one really obvious track – the Street Fighter III Third Strike character select theme – since we featured it previously. (I’m also leaving out Parappa because it’s just too obvious.) Everything else on here should hopefully either jog memories or be completely new to you lovely readers. So put on your Reebok Pumps and bootleg streetwise Looney Tunes shirts, and get ready for a game music time warp!

Continue reading

Cool Runnings: The Underappreciated Speedruns of Awesome Games Done Quick 2015

If you’re anything like me, you had the Awesome Games Done Quick charity speedrunning marathon running throughout most of last week. The great thing about AGDQ is that, since it runs 24/7, there’s always something going on. However, since our frail humanoid bodies require things like “food” and “sleep” and “jobs through which we acquire necessary funding to live,” it’s almost impossible to watch everything that looks interesting on the AGDQ schedule as it airs live. While a lot of us make time to watch the speedruns of really big games, there are a lot of smaller titles with really fantastic play that get shown as well. But since they’re at odd times, or they’re of relatively unknown titles, or they’re not really viral-video material, they have a tendency to kind of happen and be forgotten. Even people who see the schedule and think “Yeah, I’ll watch this later” may likely forget them amongst all the other stuff happening that week.

But personally, I think there were a lot of really noteworthy speedruns at this year’s AGDQ that I worry a lot of folks missed out on. Yes, we all saw and enjoyed stuff like Tetris TGM and the Megaman X race and Boshy and Shovel Knight and blindfolded OoT, but just because you missed it and it wasn’t trending on Twitter doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great run. Here are some of my picks for the best runs of AGDQ 2015 that you might have missed!

Continue reading

(Sort of) Review: Why NES Remix maddens me

It’s a feeling I think we’ve all experienced: the uncomfortable notion from withing that there is something deeply wrong with us for not enjoying a particular piece of media. It’s especially discomforting when it’s something that seems engineered to push all of our individual Like buttons, as though somehow we’re the ones that are flawed for not properly adoring this work made to cater explicitly to us.

This feeling cropped up when I started playing the NES Remix games on Wii U. Here were cleverly conceived compilations of classic NES titles with the addition of “remix” games: parts of classic titles remodeled and mashed together in unique ways to deliver bite-sized new challenges. I certainly love Nintendo history, having grown up on so many of these titles, so the concept excited me immensely. But actually playing NES Remix 1 and 2 on Wii U felt strangely unfulfilling,  even downright frustrating. I wondered if it was the platform – these sorts of short objective-driven challenge experiences, I feel, tend to work better in mobile games that you can dig out and play for ten minutes. With this in mind, I picked up Ultimate NES Remix on 3DS, but even playing it to break up long Persona Q sessions left me feeling more irritated than amused.  Obviously, it wasn’t the platform that’s the problem. So then, what is it that makes NES Remix considerably less than the sum of its parts?

Continue reading