Artbook review: Sonic the Hedgehog 1991__2016 by Cook and Becker

Hey guys, did you hear the news? Ever since Sonic Mania, Sonic is good again! I mean, nevermind that Sonic Colors came out and is easily one of the best platform games of that generation, Sonic officially doesn’t suck now! Rejoice!

And what better way to celebrate the triumphant revival of one of gaming’s most beloved and enduring characters than with a lavish artbook by Amsterdam-based modern/digital art publisher Cook and Becker? Why, that sounds like exactly the sort of thing I’d love to put on my shelf!

So here it is, Sonic the Hedgehog 1991__2016, a book celebrating Sonic’s 25 anniversary and packed with art, development anecdotes, and rarely-seen concepts, all printed on that sort of expensive, glossy paper that makes you feel like you’re ruining the book with your filthy fingerprint oils if you even think about touching it with your bare hands. This is the standard edition, which runs $47 USD plus shipping (which, while I don’t recall the exact amount, wasn’t as exorbitant as I expected.) There’s also a limited edition that comes with a lithograph for $125, but I decided to get just the basic book: I have more than enough prints and posters right now.

So let’s get a move on and dive right in to this hefty book!

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The Problems with Metroid: Samus Returns

Boy, people sure do love some Metroid, huh?

Samus Returns was one of E3’s biggest surprises, though I certainly had trepidation when I learned that MercurySteam was the developer. They’re a bunch of passionate guys, obviously, but I’ve found their previous games (the best-known of which are the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow sub-series) to be… lacking, to put it simply. I tried to keep a little bit optimistic, saying “They must have made a hell of a pitch for Nintendo to give them the keys to a Metroid game.”

And then Samus Returns released. And it was… good, actually! Pretty darn solid. It’s got some cool map design, the atmosphere is great, and there’s some neat puzzle design. If I gave it a numerical score, it’d be a nice seven-out-of-ten. That means it’s quite good!

… but it’s still not the rave-fueled 9s and 10s I’ve seen handed out to the game. Honestly, I find those a bit of a head-scratcher, because while Samus Returns is good, it has problems. Some really big problems, even. And I didn’t see anyone really touching on them, either. I can understand the elation of finally getting a 2D Metroid again after so long, but Samus Returns isn’t perfect by a long shot.

Thankfully, on this wonderful web site o’ mine, I can eschew the standard review format and dive straight into everything that grinds my gears about Samus Returns. To be fair, some of these problems were also present in the original Metroid II: Return of Samus — but shouldn’t a remake try its best to fix some of that? I also haven’t played AM2R, so there won’t be any comparisons on that front. It’s just me, you readers, and a whole lot of nitpicking from someone who’s not a Metroid die-hard but loves this sort of game. So let’s jump right in…

(I wanted to get screencaps to better illustrate some of my points here, but the whole Miiverse work-around to get 3DS screens is a ginormous pain in the butt, so I eventually had to abandon the idea. So, this article’s going to be all-text. My apologies!)

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Extra Credits: Youmais

Wow, has it really been a year since I wrote an absurd amount of text about Raimais? Well, I guess it’s time to finally get to the last bit that I’ve been putting off.

Ohhhh boy.

In 1988, the PC Engine’s base wasn’t quite there yet, the MegaDrive was on the cusp of launching, and the Super Famicom was still a ways off. However, the Famicom, and to a lesser extent the FDS, were going very strong. It made sense financially for companies to port their arcade games to the FC… even if the platform couldn’t do anything close to an accurate port.

There were several approaches taken to dealing with the FC’s lack of arcade horsepower. Some developers tried to port as much of the gameplay and graphics as they possibly could, aware that cuts and compromises were inevitable. Other developers took the arcade game as a base, but heavily rearranged and added things to the game to make for a similar — but different — experience. Finally, there were the ports that threw out everything except the concepts and characters, making completely different games that just happened to have the same title as popular arcade titles.

Taito was a big fan of option B. They did a lot of ports of arcade games to the Famicom Disk System that had notable, distinct differences from their arcade originals. Most folks are aware of Bubble Bobble and Kikikaikai’s FDS incarnations, but few are aware that Raimais got this treatment as well — probably because it’s under a different name: Youmais, or Yuu Maze if you go from a straight kanji/kana reading.

No, seriously, though — calling it Yuu Maze is a HUGE pet peeve of mine. It says Youmais right there on the menu, and it’s a Raimais reinterpretation! Have you people even heard of ateji?

Unfortunately, Yuu Maze is the title you’re more likely to find this game listed under in English, though I steadfastly refuse to use that. It’s Youmais or nothing, and I’m sticking to it. Fight me, nerds.

ANYWAY. Youmais is fundamentally similar to Raimais in its premise and underlying gameplay. There are numerous differences between the two titles, however, and I’ll get to those in more detail shortly. But the biggest difference is how aggressively mediocre Youmais is.

If you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to write about this game, it’s because playing it feels like a genuine chore while knowing how much better Raimais is. I decided a few weeks ago I was finally going to suck it up and get this written, when suddenly, I was made aware of pure propaganda claiming Youmais is a mindblowing revelation on a FDS disk.

Well, as self-proclaimed Number One Biggest Raimais Fan On-Line, I can’t let that stand unchallenged, now can I? So come with me as we take a look at how Youmais compares to its big sister. (Spoilers: not well.)

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Interview: Akihiro Takanami/Hiroaki Fujimoto of h.a.n.d. and System Vision

I don’t know why, but I’ve always been strangely fascinated by Ragnagard. It feels like such an anomaly in the Neo Geo’s massive library of fighting games on numerous levels: the CG visuals, the slow-feeling gameplay, the focus on aerial combos. It’s the sort of game that I’ve felt a compulsion to research, to figure out just how it came into being.

I’m the sort of person who will delve into weird internet rabbit holes over the course of researching stuff and pursuing information, and sometimes that yields incredibly interesting results. One day, when I was out looking for things related to Ragnagard on Japanese sites, I came across a page that had a gorgeous illustration of the game’s main female lead, Benten. But that’s not all that was there: alongside it were numerous anecdotes written by someone who was clearly heavily involved in the game’s development. It turned out this site was run by one Powerudon, an accomplished artist in the game industry who had been one of the driving forces behind Ragnagard’s development.

Looking around his site yielded more interesting tidbits of info, particularly related to a Super Famicom fighting game called The Battle Master. It hadn’t hit me that this and Ragnagard were done by the same developer, as they have a dramatically different feel, but Powerudon had laid out a lot of details about the mechanics and development of these titles on their site — alongside some incredible artwork

I knew I had to talk with Powerudon. One of the reasons I created gaming.moe is to preserve elements of gaming history that might otherwise be lost to time, particularly the words and memories of the people behind games both well-known and obscure. I reached out to Powerudon for an interview, and he agreed, so I emailed him a batch of questions.

A while later, he sent me a massive text file containing replies to all of the questions I had sent. I had asked him to go into as much detail as possible, and he did just that — for which I’m extremely grateful, because he has some really interesting anecdotes and thoughts on game development. So sit back, grab a drink, and enjoy a lengthy interview about System Vision, Battle Master, Ragnagard, and the tumultuous environment of game development in the early/mid-90s.

Special thanks to Tom James and Jason Moses for translation assistance!

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Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders: The Epic Journey from F2P Hell

I think anyone who follows this site knows that I’m something of perfectionist: when I don’t have any editorial constraints, I’m the sort of person who will nitpick at something until it comes out just right. Sometimes, I feel like a piece is perfect almost from the get-go. Other times, well, it takes a while before I can mold a piece of writing into something I’m satisfied publishing. A lot of the stuff I cover here doesn’t see a lot of attention anywhere else, after all, and I want those folks who come here from a Google search on obscure gaming subjects to walk away feeling completely satisfied. So when I write a big ol’ piece about Raimais or MC Hammer’s video game influence or weird as hell Virtua Fighter OVAs, I want it to be really, really good.

So when Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders originally came and went as a Japanese-exclusive F2P mobile game, I wanted to write a lot about it. I would be the only person memorializing this odd little game chock-full of Taito fanservice in English, after all, and it would be my duty to preserve a little piece of gaming history most others would overlook. I’d done something similar for Bubblen March, another Taito F2P game that died suddenly months after I wrote about it, but in this case, I wanted to do it better.

Unfortunately, my perfectionistic tendencies kicked into overdrive, and while I poked away at it for months on end, I never really felt satisfied with the piece as a memorial. I was the sole person enshrining this game’s memory, dammit, I had to do the best job I could, and I would have rather not posted anything at all than posted something I wasn’t happy with.

But then a funny thing happened: out of nowhere, Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders was reborn as a global paid app on iOS and Android. For about $5, you can play the game with no further strings attached.

It was a weird relief: I didn’t have to hold myself responsible for preserving the game’s memory outside of Japan, because now it not only existed again, but was available in roughly a dozen different languages. It’s received a fair bit of word-of-mouth and good initial reception, too. However, I still think there’s something to be looked at here, since many of the people now playing the game didn’t have an opportunity to see how the game was transformed in its unlikely revival.

I think it’s finally time to sit down and talk about Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders.

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The difficult, unending hunt for good gaming T-shirts

I don’t think of myself as a particularly fashionable person. I’m completely out of the loop when it comes to “mainstream” fashion trends, and my knowledge of high fashion is limited to the supporting cast of Jojo Part 6. Even a lot of counter-culture fashion goes right over my head: I just don’t see the appeal.

But there’s one article of clothing I genuinely love: T-shirts! I have a closet and a dresser full of various tees in a rainbow of colors, all emblazoned with printed imagery. I’m never wanting for something nice to wear on my torso.

In the past couple decades, the image of a T-shirt as something cheap and lazy to toss on when you don’t want to wear your good or even your “business casual” clothes has begun to change, thanks in part to designers who have taken the idea of a printed image on a shirt to new artistic heights. It’s great for us nerdy types: there’s a wealth of tees out there that let us express our passions and interests to the world at large — and T-shirts are typically more affordable than most other types of fashion, which means we can enjoy them without breaking the bank too much.

There’s still one big problem though: A lot of nerdy T-shirts are terrible. And this goes doubly for gaming T-shirts. Many widely available gaming tees offer up a level of cringeyness that few other poorly-conceived tees can even hope to match.

I don’t think it’s possible to see this and not immediately want to punch the person wearing it

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Inexplicably memorable EGM ads of the early-mid 90s (Part one)

The first non-Nintendo Power game magazine I subscribed to was Electronic Gaming Monthly. I was never a GamePro fan, Game Players had atrocious layouts until about 1995, and Gamefan didn’t get distribution in my neck of the woods until around 1995ish, so EGM was the go-to multiplatform magazine I’d buy on newsstands and take to school with me to read with classmates. Eventually, I convinced my parents to get me a subscription for Christmas of 1992.

Let me tell you, being an EGM subscriber in 1993 was an amazing thing. Every month, you’d get this humongous catalog-sized magazine dropped off in your mailbox, filled with screens and info on games for every platform under the sun, along with all the juicy details on the still-far-off 32-bit revolution and the vaporware SNES CD. Yes, the screenshots were generally terrible — I’m pretty sure their initial Mortal Kombat 2 screens were taken with a Polaroid and scanned in — but we all loved them regardless.

But with those gigantic issues came ads. Loads and loads of ads. For many games and peripherals, magazine ads were the best way to get the word out — TV ads were expensive, and they knew there were plenty of kids like me taking their magazines to read at recess with everyone else, so a national magazine ad purchase was an extremely smart buy.

Every so often, I pop onto archive.org’s collection of game magazines and go looking for old ads that I remembered. I’m still utterly mystified by what my brain has chosen to retain memories of, as some of the ads I remember very clearly are, in retrospect, not the sort of things that would likely worm their way into an easily impressionable pre-teen brain.

I want to share some of these with you, readers. They’re not the best ads of the era, nor are they the worst. But somehow, in EGM issues packed to the gills with screaming neon 90s ads that didn’t garner a second thought from me, they left such a lasting impression that I can still recall them.

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Nostalgia for sale: What you’re actually buying

I’ve been attending a few events over the past couple of months (thanks, in no small part, to the gracious support of fans and readers). While at shows like PAX East and GDC, I’ve had a chance to play quite a few in-development titles, big and small, that were banking heavily on nostalgia appeal. While it’s a good idea to reserve full judgement of a game until it’s in your hands as a full-fledged product — after all, a lot can happen over the course of development — there were quite a few not-particularly-great games I tried that were attempting — and failing — to capture the spirit of the retro games that inspired them.

Originally, I had a big feature written up called “This Is Why Your Retro-Inspired Game Sucks,” where I went into great detail about some of the more egregious flaws I saw across several games. I didn’t name any titles specifically, of course — that would be just rude. Ultimately, though, I scrapped it: the tone of the piece sounded combatitive and assholish, and while I’m certainly opinionated at times, I didn’t want to come off as a jerk when all I really wanted to do was point out why these games weren’t coming together as the people making them intended. It’s pretty hard being an indie dev already, y’know?

But with the crash and burn of Mighty No. 9 and the less vitriolic but noticeably tepid response to Yooka-Laylee, two of the most prolific crowdfunded “retro revival” games yet made, I feel like we should discuss why a lot of retro revivals seemingly fail to hit the mark once they’re in our hands. There are a lot of reasons, but ultimately, they can be summarized by saying:

What you think you want is a game made to the exact standards of the retro titles you cherish. But what you actually want — and don’t realize you want — is the feeling those games gave you when you encountered them for the first time.

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NieR Automata and the risk of pissing players off

If you haven’t heard by now, NieR Automata is unbelievably good. Like, easy Game of the Year tier good. Hell, it’s probably in my top games of all time at this point. It’s nice to have a Yoko Taro game that you don’t have to recommend with any reservations about things like “sluggish, repetitive combat” or “framerates that sometimes dip into the single digits,” and for that I owe Platinum Games gratitude.

I remember hearing concerns back when this game was first announced, though. By this point, Yoko Taro’s games had become known for having a degree of jankiness to them. Some fans were worried: would having a top-tier developer like Platinum onboard strip NieR Automata of some of the “charm” of previous games? Now that the final product is in our hands, we can see that, thankfully, the answer is mostly “no” for one big reason — Yoko Taro is one of the few figures working on the game industry who is daring enough to actually piss players off.

See, one of the big problems I have with most big-budget AAA titles is that they constantly play it super-duper safe: familiar gameplay and story tropes, overused character archetypes, mandatory tutorials up the wazoo to make sure you never struggle at all. Everything from character designs to control schemes to cover art has been focus-tested and run through EEDAR analytics to appeal to the widest group of potential game players possible. Nothing is allowed to turn off a particular segment of the player population, because these games cost absurd amounts of money make, and if it doesn’t sell several million globally then the entire dev team gets shut down tomorrow, so make that quest-giving lady more attractive, tighten up the graphics on level 3, and no you can’t give that boss a 90% damage attack even if it is heavily choreographed, are you NUTS?

As a result, we’ve wound up with a huge slate of really technically impressive, incredibly polished games that are somehow profoundly bland to actually experience. Much like Hollywood blockbusters, they are designed from the ground up for mass appeal, taking care not to do anything deemed too radical in terms of story, world, or gameplay design. The biggest risk they might take is maybe offending screaming internet jerkwards by having gay NPCs. But doing something deliberate in-game that might make some people angry? Oh hell no, did you see what happened with Mass Effect 3? They weren’t even TRYING to upset people with that one, and look what happened!

But somehow, Yoko Taro has never gotten the memo that “pissing players off” might be a bad idea, and Square-Enix has just let him run with it. Now we have NieR Automata: a beautiful, polished game that’s packed full of high-grade action, phenomenal music, incredible storytelling, and emotional gut-punches… and some master tier trolling. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS UNDER THIS CUT!

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Game Music Highlight: Tactics Ogre (but it’s really a lot of words about “improving” chiptunes)

Things happened when CD-ROM was introduced to gaming in the late 80s. Look at this new technology, they said! 600-some megabytes — not megabits, megaBYTES — of storage, more than any human being could ever need! Cinematic video with REAL VOICES! And, oh my gosh, actual CD-quality audio played right off the disc itself! Forget those bleeps and bloops from FM synth, you could get actual ORCHESTRAS playing music for a video game! WOOOOOOWWWWW!

Indeed, the moment you’d put on Ys Books I and II for the Turbografx CD and watch the opening cutscenes play, people would be stunned. Game characters were animated and actually talking! The music was amazing! Yet the price tag on CD game technology then was so prohibitive that only the kids with the richest parents could possibly afford it, even after the prices began to come down in the early 90s and more CD consoles began to hit the market. That barrier to entry and the low install base of CD systems made a lot of developers wary of investing significantly in developing CD-based games. More than a few of them opted to take a “safe” route: low-cost ports of cartridge games to CD with some added cutscenes, maybe a handful of new levels or something else taking advantage of additional tech, and, of course, a redone soundtrack. This practice persisted well into the 32-bit generation: you can find quite a few ports of 16-bit console games (and Japanese PC games of the era) to the PlayStation and Saturn, and even the 3DO.

To young game music nerd me, the idea of new soundtracks was perhaps one of the most appealing points of these platforms. I never owned a Turbo CD or Sega CD when they first came out, much less something crazy like a 3DO. But boy, was I ever jealous! I’d beg the people I knew with Sega CDs (because seriously, nobody my age owned a Duo) to record the soundtracks off their games for me onto cassette. Yet somehow, when I actually heard most of this music, I’d come away disappointed more often than not — especially with the redone chiptune music. Something about the chiptune-to-“real”-music conversion just felt off.

Of course, now that I’m older and am not trying to constantly justify my hobby’s legitimacy, I fully understand that sound chips of old hardware are instruments in themselves, capable of producing distinct, powerful sounds that make fantastic songs — these compositions have no need to be orchestrated and played with anything else to be recognized as true music.

Where am I going with all this? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how these attempts to make “enhanced” chiptune soundtracks frequently turn out to be disappointing — including a fairly recent example, in my opinion, does a disservice to one of my favorite 16-bit-era compositions.

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