Do Run Run: The Overlooked Runs of Summer Games Done Quick 2015

Last week, another fine Games Done Quick event went down in the books, and as always, there were plenty of highlights: Swordless Zelda! More high-speed Tetris TGM! Races upon races with photo finishes! We watched, we stared in awe at amazing gaming skill, and we collectively raised $1.2 million dollars for Doctors Without Borders – a new record for the SGDQ events. But, as always, there are a lot of fantastic runs scheduled during an event that goes on for seven straight days that people with jobs and sleep schedules have to miss, particularly of games that might not be headliners like the Megamans and Marios and Metroids of the world. I’ve gone through and picked out some of my favorite runs from the event that you may have overlooked. Grab a drink, sit down, and watch some awesome folks play through some obscure (and a few not-as-obscure) games with amazing speed!

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How to Power Up the Nintendo World Championships

Boy, E3 sure was a thing this year, wasn’t it? Announcements were made, expectations were blown away, and as many a thinkpiece writer has pointed out, it was like we were transported back into the 90s. I mean, look at how it started – Nintendo revived the Nintendo World Championships after 25 years of dormancy!

nintendochampionships

The NWC was one hell of a great way to start E3 this year. After seeing the great reception last year’s Smash Bros invitational got at E3, Nintendo decided to do something similar this year – but hold it before E3 rather than during to kick everybody’s week off in a Nintendo state of mind. And it worked!

…Mostly. As fun as the event was, there were several hiccups throughout that made me wince internally throughout the program. There were a lot of good things – and really, the decision to end on some downright evil Super Mario Maker levels was absolutely perfect – but if Nintendo wants to make this a regular thing from now on, the modern NWC has a long ways to go.

As I was thinking about this topic, I caught this episode of The Final Split, Go1den’s speedrunning-centric Twitch show, where NWC15 invitee Bananas talked about the experience. I highly recommend a watch, as there’s a lot of amusing stories in there about the run-up and the event.1 Going from her account, one gets the impression that things really were rather rushed and disorganized on Nintendo’s end.

Taking all of this into consideration, I decided to write an editorial of my own. How can the NWC improve from this point forward? I’ll posit several ideas.

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  1. The Final Split is a really fun show to listen to in general, as well, and I wish Go1den and company would put it up in a more traditional podcast format.

Arcade Road Trip: Grinkers Grand Palace (Eagle, Idaho)

I’ve mentioned Game Center CX more than a few times in my writing, and for good reason – it’s a fantastic show that everyone who enjoys older games will appreciate. But while the most popular segment of the program among most fans is the Arino’s Challenge portions, I personally enjoy the “Tama-ge” bits a lot more. In these parts of the show, Arino travels to visit various arcades, large and small, across Japan. It’s a wonderful combination of travelogue and nostalgia, showcasing the (sometimes very odd) places where arcades turn up, the games and atmosphere that make that particular arcade experience interesting, and the people who maintain these game centers. It’s both inspiring and a bit depressing, as the number of mom-and-pop arcades in Japan has been plummeting over the last decade. Oftentimes, it feels like Arino’s travels are an attempt to encourage people to help preserve a dying cultural institution (the segment’s title means “You should visit this game center sometime”).

When I was a teenager, I used to love doing what Arino did during my family’s trips across the country – looking up arcades in the area, visiting them, and seeing what they had to offer. (I was especially devoted to this when Virtua Fighter 3 was really, really hard to find in North America outside certain urban areas – my hunts were often targeted towards finding that particular game.) Nowadays, this is hard to do, because the state of Western arcades is utterly miserable. Most arcades these days – the ones that are still around, anyway – are parts of massive “entertainment centers” that make far more off of redemption games than dedicated video cabinets, and what they do have for games is often old and suffering from disrepair. But there are enthusiasts out there trying to find ways to preserve the more traditional, video-game-focused arcade experience: one of the more popular modern concepts is the “barcade,” a combination of pub/eatery and retrogaming arcade catering to an older clientele.

Generally, most of my experiences with said “barcades”1 have been kinda blah – the alcohol part doesn’t do much for me since I’m one of those irritating teetotalers, and the game selection is generally pretty similar across many of these establishments: Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, a bunch of Donkey Kongs, some Space Invaders, probably a Tapper or two to fit the bar theme, Robotron 2064, and a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat to get some 90s kid cred. These are good and all, but they’re also pretty easy to find. What I’m interested in are titles that you don’t see everyday, particularly Japanese games from the mid-late 80s – stuff that came out after the crash-correction of the Western video game market in the earlier part of the decade and is considerably less common as a result.

I discovered one such arcade on a recent trip. While I spent most of my life in Iowa, my parents retired to the Boise area in Idaho a couple years ago, so I went to visit my parents there over Mother’s Day weekend. My dad suggested stopping by a few arcades while I was there, and one of them was a place called the Grinkers Grand Palace in the Boise suburb of Eagle. It’s nestled into a corner of a strip-shopping center that doesn’t look like the kind of place that would host a bar-arcade. When I stepped inside, however, I knew I had found someplace very special. So today, I’m going to imitate our beloved Kacho Arino and tell you: you should go to Grinkers sometime!

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  1. Note that I’m referring to the “barcade” as a concept – there is an actual chain of these sorts of places called Barcade in the NYC area, which I hear are pretty awesome. Don’t confuse the two!

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.

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  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.

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  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.

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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.)

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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.

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