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.
“Candy cabinets.” It’s a catch-all English term to refer to Japanese-style sit-down arcade cabinets where you can fairly easily switch the games contained within. There seems to be a bit of speculation as to where the term came from… though I’d wager the most obvious source is the Neo Candy cabinets, which commonly housed Neo-Geo MVS units.
There are a lot of different models of “candy cabs” out there, but to many, the de facto candy cabinet is the Sega Astro City, a model you’ll still see around many a Japanese arcade in this day and age. Countless matches of Virtua Fighter 2 were played on these machines back in the day, and their versatility and adaptability have made them a popular choice for retrogaming setups to this day.
Yes, the Astro City is practically synonymous with arcade games to many Japanese arcade fans. Which is why we all exploded with glee when we found out that model maker Wave, who had previously made replicas of modern Vewlix cabinets and the riding Hang-On cabinet, was going to make an Astro City model. This was gonna be great!
And yes, it is a pretty spectacular kit! It’s not too tough to build for the beginner, but offers a lot of potential for customization if you really, really want to create the miniature arcade machine of your dreams. In my case, I wanted to put a very particular game inside one of these cabinets. But I wanted to build it together with you, my dear readers – and that’s exactly what we’re going to do today!
Yeah, that’s more or less my reaction to the shitshow of US politics, too. But instead of depressing ourselves, let’s look at the polls of yesteryear that truly mattered. I am, of course, talking about the favorite character polls published in seminal Japanese arcade gaming journal Gamest from 1987 through 1991.
Gamest, for those unfamiliar, was an early Japanese game magazine whose focus was almost entirely on the culture of arcade gaming. The magazine was founded in 1986 and enjoyed plenty of success, going from bimonthly to monthly issues fairly quickly thanks to strong fan response. When Street Fighter II rolled around and became a phenomenon, however, the magazine became even bigger, eventually going biweekly at the height of the fighting game boom. Bolstered by the strength of arcades in the mid-90s, the publisher, Shinseisha, expanded briefly into spinoffs like Gamest EX (console games) and Comic Gamest, and even had a store focused on selling arcade game-related merchandise called Marugeya. But everything ended rather abruptly in 1999 with Shinseisha’s bankruptcy, killing off the magazine and other business operations tied to it. (Several former Gamest staff migrated to publisher Enterbrain to create Arcadia magazine as a successor, which would encounter its own abrupt death many years later.)
The magazine had a ton of passionate, talented writers throughout the years: as the Japanese Wikipedia article on the magazine notes, many of Gamest’s early writers came from VG2 and VG3, early arcade gaming doujinshi publications that were the contemporaries of Satoshi Tajiri and his Game Freak doujinshi. Graphic artist Han, who’s best known for his work at Treasure, was part of their writing staff at one point, and artist Mine Yoshizaki cut his teeth doing various art pieces for the magazine.
Amongst all of the strategy guides, interviews, reports, high score tables, and special features, however, every Gamest issue would contain a section called “Gamest Island,” which was dedicated to reader submissions. In early 1992, Gamest collected all of its Island sections up to that point into one giant book, called Gamest Island Mokushiroku.
One of my current fixations is trying to snag cheap Gamest issues when they pop up for media preservation purposes, as the Japanese arcade scene of the 80s and 90s is a fascinating subculture that the West knows next to nothing about. When I saw this book for a good price, I jumped on it — and when I got it, I wasn’t disappointed in the content. This tome has 500-some pages of reader submissions that give a candid look into the Japanese arcade culture of the late 80s and early 90s from the very people who were the most passionate about it. There’s tons of art, plenty of letters, lots of terrible jokes, a bunch of reader-made “How much of a gamer are you” polls, parody game ideas, and even odd bits like someone’s Night Striker fanfiction. There are early memes and trends that show up, heated opinions (you start seeing some anti-Street Fighter II art and sentiment after the game blows up in popularity), and even in-column conversations between readers: one issue features a woman writing in to complain about men treating her badly at the arcade, the next issue has a guy sending in a drawing he did to support her, and the issue after that has her replying with more art as a thank-you. (It really seems charming and quaint compared to internet interactions today, especially since nobody got called a beta cuck.)
Every year Gamest would also hold reader polls on various subjects — and among them were various “favorite character” polls. From 1987 onwards, Gamest would have a reader-voted “favorite character” poll, along with rotating sub-polls in various other character categories. The results of each of these are also published in this book, and how the votes played out is pretty amusing: there are clear winners, some head-scratchers, and some utterly bizarre picks that appear to be ancient memes and jokes from a bygone era in Japanese gaming. Let’s take a look at how the polls went!
So the time change happened here in the USA this weekend, and like many folks subjected to Daylight Savings Time, the combination of bio-schedule disruption and winter shift to having less sunlight during the day makes me rather moody. Not to mention how cold it’s suddenly getting! Fortunately, we all have videogames and their blue, blue skies to make up for the seasonal loss of sunlight, and there’s no bluer skies than those of Sega arcade games! And what Sega arcade game is filled with blue skies, sandy beaches, and hot cars? All-time classic Outrun, of course!
Outrun, along with Space Harrier and After Burner (II), is one of the all-time classic soundtracks from the old Sega S.S.T. Band (now called H.). Hiroshi Kawaguchi was the maestro behind all of these scores, and he’s still kickin’ it as the veteran of Sega’s sound team.
Personally, I put Outrun’s tunes into two tiers: “Magical Sound Shower” and “Other Songs That Are Pretty Good I Guess But Why Would I Choose To Play Them Instead of Magical Sound Shower.” All of the songs from the game have been remixed and redone over time, most notably getting a modern makeover in the recent arcade and console updates for Outrun. These are all pretty fantastic, as well, but only Magical Sound Shower got the Hatsune Miku treatment in the Project Diva titles. It’s probably my favorite version of the tune.
One of the game music trends that I’m really, really sad kinda died around the early 90’s was the existence of named company music teams that would put on live shows and events. You had Zuntata (Taito), the JDK Band (Falcom), S.S.T. Band (Sega), Alph Lyra (Capcom), Gamadelic (Data East), and others that are probably skipping my mind. JDK Band is the only one that still really exists in a form like it used to have – most of the old Zuntata crew went off to do solo stuff, Alph Lyra just kinda petered out, and Gamadelic died along with Data East. While you still have some live game music events, they’re usually either medleys or planned for a composer or series rather than encompassing the works of a whole company with a rock-concert-like flair.
Why am I talking about this? Because I want to show you this awesome clip of a live S.S.T. Band performance of Magical Sound Shower from 1989, that’s why! Get a load of that atmosphere and the enthusiasm. I really, really feel like I missed out with never having had the opportunity to go to one of these.
EDIT: GSK linked me to a video of the late, great Kenji Eno, along with Sega musicians Tomoko Sasaki and Naofumi Hataya, performing Magical Sound Shower at WARP’s booth at Tokyo Game Show 1997. It’s really, really good, to the point where I’d be remiss if I didn’t add it in! (Also awesome: Jun Senoue was the guy who provided the upload!)
So yeah, Magical Sound Shower is great, a true classic piece of game music. But you know what? It’s actually not my favorite piece of Outrun music. Yeah, it’s my favorite piece from the original Outrun, but my personal most-beloved Outrun tune actually comes from 1989’s Turbo Outrun. Rush A Difficulty is a tune with a delightfully memorable Engrish title that plays for the first portion of the game, and it’s absolutely fantastic.
Why do I like it more than Magical Sound Shower? Well, I think it conveys actual the feeling of racing and speed more effectively. You hear this and you know damn well it’s videogame driving music. It’s fast, it’s upbeat, and it’s got a catchy but complex melody that gets you pumped just thinking about it. Now that’s what I call game music! Alas, it’s a lot harder to find alternative/remixed versions of this song, but I’m still pretty darn happy just having the original to listen to. Maybe we can convince Takenobu Mitsuyoshi to slap lyrics on it someday. Ah, a girl can dream…
While consoles were the dominant forms of at-home gaming in Japan, proprietary personal computers were also quite popular amongst the more tech-inclined and older players (in other words, people who could afford them). Before Windows and MacOS became the standard systems most folks across the globe used, Japan had a whole mess of fragmented PC platforms from manufacturers like Sharp, Fujitsu, and NEC. I’m not going to pretend like I’m an expert on old Japanese PCs – it’s an area of gaming I’m still actively learning about and researching, but when I find interesting things about the systems and the games they played host to, I definitely want to share.
One such thing involves the port of Bubble Bobble for the Sharp X68000, a platform that played host to both a lot of amazing arcade ports and original titles. Bubble Bobble is an example of the former, a practically arcade perfect transplant which had creator Fukio “MTJ” Mitsuji himself aiding in the port.
The porting team at DEMPA didn’t stop there, however. With MTJ’s aid, they added a hidden “expert mode” with 20 brand-new levels… and a facelift connected to one of MTJ’s other titles.
Thus, Syvalion and Bubble Bobble had a beautiful crossover baby, and they named it…
The first thing I said to myself when getting this site up and running was “oh boy, I can’t friggin’ WAIT to talk about old Japanese Taito games!” And the first of said Taito games I want to look at is one that is oft overlooked in the West: Syvalion.
Syvalion was another creation of the late Fukio “MTJ” Mitsuji, who is perhaps best known for Bubble Bobble but was responsible for numerous Taito masterpieces (though personally, I’ll confess to wanting to like Rainbow Islands a lot more than I actually do like it). Syvalion is the third game by the Taito “Bubble Team” and considered another one of MTJ’s great works.
You’ll be hard pressed to see any affection for it outside of Japan, though. Syvalion doesn’t seem to have received any international releases, though a prototype “world” set of ROMs for use with MAME is floating about online. This is the only English version available, though the localization is… rough, to say the least. (So about par for the course for Taito arcade titles of this era.) It’s a truly fascinating game, though, so a closer look is certainly in order! Continue reading →
I must admit, when I first heard the news that the KEI-designed Sega Hard Girls were getting an anime, I was not terribly enthused. Not because I didn’t like the designs – hell, when I met KEI and was offered a sketch, I requested Saturn instead of the obvious Hatsune Miku – but more because the quality track records of game-themed anime and corporate-made material featuring moe anthropomorphics are pretty abysmal. Strangely, when I heard later that the show was being made in Miku Miku Dance – an inexpensive piece of CG animation software used primarily to create visuals for short music pieces – I became a bit more intrigued. After all, the delightfully absurd show gdgd Fairies had put MMD’s low-budget glory to utterly spectacular use. I said something on Twitter (which I can’t find – thanks, terrible Twitter search engine!) to the effect of “I would be perfectly okay with it if the Sega Hard Girls anime was just gdgd Fairies with old game jokes.”
Little did I know that that’s exactly what Hi-sCoool! SeHa Girls seems to want to be.