Kickstart This: GAME GIRLS GO!

15 09 2013

For the first time the next Happy Chicken project will be crowdfunded.  That’s right… we’re on Kicksarter now with a little something called Game Girls Go!, and let me tell you: it is awesome.

 

We have the girls: all professional Japanese idols who have appeared on various TV programs around Japan.

We have the games: Tons of retro games and consoles at our disposal.

We have the permission: It took almost two years, but we finally have the companies behind the games on board to legally use their products.

What we don’t have, is you.

 

That’s right, we have Japanese developers on board.  This news came midway through the campaign, and it is absolutely huge.  It means more than just having rights… it means they listened to what we had to say, saw the demo footage, and thought it was a fun, viable idea.  That means the only “what if” scenario is, what if we don’t get funded.

 

It’s been really difficult to get the word out about Game Girls Go!  Me, I don’t tweet… I only keep a small amount of Facebook friends (99% are actual people I know in real life)… and I’m not a member of any large game community or forum or message board.  It’s like I’m living in the 90’s; but then I really liked the 90’s.

 

As I said above, Game Girls Go! has been in my head for around two years.  These kind of things morph.  You get an idea and have to refine it.  I think Game Girls Go! came from two places: there was an idol photo book here in Japan that featured girls in various states of undress posing with retro game hardware that I thought was a great idea; and I’ve always been fascinated by the crazy things idols were made to do on Japanese variety shows.  Here’s an example:


So I took those two ideas and, just like the man walking with his tub of peanut butter colliding with the woman walking with her chocolate bar, I created a better beast.  No, not the delicious, mouthwatering goodness of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (where’s my money, Hershey’s?) but the greatest show about video games… ever.

 

The concept is simple.  We take a Japanese idol, like these:

These four idols are already booked to appear on the show.

These four idols are already booked to appear on the show.

 

and put her in a room with 3 retro games on 3 different retro systems.  If she’s able to complete a set amount of challenges in a set amount of time, she wins a prize.  If she can’t… well, I’ll refer you to that YouTube clip I posted above.  But the show is so much more than just girls in bikinis playing games.  As you can probably tell by looking around my blog, I love retro games.  So it was important to me that the show have a heavy dose of gaming history thrown in.  I want people who watch the show to learn about games and gaming history.

 

That’s why in Game Girls Go! we feature history and strategy segments for every game that’s played plus we highlight the systems themselves.  As I say in the Kickstarter video, by the time you finish watching Game Girls Go!, you’ll be a gaming genius.

 

So please support us in this endeavor.  I honestly believe that folks are going to like the end result.

CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT GAME GIRLS GO!





HCK PLAYS – Pretty Fighter on the Super Famicom

9 08 2013

Ah, Super Famicom how we love your classic games, and your… not so classic ones, too.   After all, hate is a twisted form of love, right?

Pretty Fighter is a middling beat-um-up made by Imagineer that actually did well enough to receive an enhanced port on the Saturn titled Pretty Fighter X, which received an 18+ rating and yellow label.  Now you’d think that was because of some sexy situations involving the all-female cast, and you’d be dead wrong.  It’s because there’s a cut scene that involves a male flasher.  In one awesome swoop Imagineer punked every Saturn owning pervert back in 1995.

This video was done as a rudimentary test for Studio Happy Chicken’s upcoming Game Girls Go! only I’m sorry to say the only game girls are the ones actually in the game.  I needed to see how long it took to finish of a 10 minute segment.  Keep in mind NOTHING here is going to be like it is on the show, this is simply a very basic and hilarious test.

Also, keep in mind it gets very NSFW, so keep it away from children and small animals.





NINTENDO: a History of Strange Business Decisions

9 08 2013

Nintendo is a company that’s been around the block a few times.  In fact, I would challenge you to find any other company as associated with pure gaming outside of Atari.  They’re also the only company who have remained a juggernaut in the industry over the past 30 years; but being the Big N doesn’t mean there haven’t been stumbles along the way.  For everything the House of Plumber does right, it seems they leave behind them a wake of decisions that often leave both fans and detractors scratching their heads.  Here is, in my estimation, some of their most huh-worthy contributions to gaming.

 

 

GETTING INTO GAMING IN THE FIRST PLACE

 

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Back in 1983 when Nintendo entered the market in Japan, they were known mostly as a company that made playing cards and the occasional arcade game.  Sure, they had been dabbling in games since the 1970’s, but when the Famicom first surfaced, gaming in Japan was dominated by computers.  It’s closest rival was Microsoft’s MSX series of computer consoles, licensed to the likes of Panasonic, Sony, Sanyo, and National.  That’s a pretty ballsy move, going up against some pretty heavy hitters with very, very deep pockets; but Nintendo had done their homework, and they came loaded for bear.  First off, the Famicom (short for Family Computer) was set to directly compete on the PC front, even though it wasn’t a personal computer at all, really.  You could outfit the Famicom with a keyboard, disk drive, and it even ran BASIC.  This would be the only time in gaming history that Nintendo would enter the market not having a monopoly on what makes Nintendo, well… Nintendo: it’s signature games.  Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, heck, even Super Mario Brothers were all available in one form or another on competitor’s machines; but it’s the superior Famicom versions of those games that would become classics.

 

 

SUPER FAMICOM DISK DRIVE

 

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Probably the most well known head-scratcher in the history of the company, Nintendo was famously working with Sony on a CD drive for their Super Famicom game console when it put the kibosh on the project well within view of the finish line, literally throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  The end result of this gigantic corporate punking was the creation of the PlayStation, specifically designed to pee in Nintendo’s coffee.  You need to understand that Nintendo’s main competitor at this time wasn’t Sega, but NEC, whose PC Engine system was the #2 console in Japan… a console that was built around CDs.  The number 3 company, Sega also has a CD option for their system, and although the technology was new, it provided an obvious path as to where games were going.  Interestingly, the excuse Nintendo would provide as to exactly why they made the decision they made regarding a CD add-on for the SuperFami makes no sense whatsoever.  N pointed to piracy concerns over the easily copyable CD format, when there had already been devises specifically engineered to copy both Famicom and Super Famicom cartridges on the market for ages.  The reality is Nintendo did this simply because they felt they could, because… they were Nintendo.

 

 

STICKING WITH CARTRIDGES

 

SONY DSC

By the time Nintendo’s Ultra 64 rolled out as the Nintendo 64, the gaming industry had already embraced the compact disk as the chosen format for game delivery; but Nintendo made the decision to stick with cartridge based games.  Their explained reason: sure, CD games were cheaper to manufacture and held more data; but cartridges loaded faster.  That’s right, the Big N was so concerned about how you spend your time, they didn’t even want you wasting that extra 20 seconds it might take a game to load had it been available on CD instead of cart.  That’s just how thoughtful they are.  This would prove the beginning of a disastrous trend for the company to forgo industry standards… just because.  The end result of this decision would lead to the departure of one of the companies biggest 3rd party assets, Square Soft, and set the stage for the position in the console market Nintendo finds themselves today.

 

 

64DD / VIRTUAL BOY ONE TWO PUNCH

 

64DD copy

Although the Nintendo 64 proved far from a failure, two devices Nintendo would release alongside it would come to define the word.  Nintendo assured it’s critics that it would address the space limitations of it’s chosen cartridge based format with an-add on that harkened back to its Famicom roots: a disk drive that could read and write data, giving game companies not only more storage options; but also the ability to expand games.   Seemed like a sound and interesting idea at the time, and no one was exactly opposed to it; only it took them forever to actually release the thing.   Announced in 1995 and finally hitting shelves in 1999, by the time Nintendo made good on their promise almost all of the anticipated disk games had already been released in cartridge format, and no one was supporting it… including Nintendo.  That’s right, Nintendo released a device that it had no intention of supporting because they didn’t want to feel like they wasted their money.  But they had no problem with consumers wasting theirs.

The Virtual Boy parallels the disk drive in almost every way but one: while the 64DD was held back by Nintendo’s need “to get it right”, the Virtual Boy was rushed out the door even in the face of protests from it’s designer, Gunpei Yokoi.  Yokoi made the machine his pet project, and Nintendo was onboard having been fiddling around with 3D since it’s Famicom days (the Famicom supported 3D gaming through a pair of active shutter 3D glasses and some early Super Famicom games had 3D support built in, although it was never utilized.  In fact, the N64 was once conceived as a 3D system).  So while Nintendo had been doing it’s thing, the inventor of the D-pad, gameboy, and creator of such classics as Kid Icarus and Metroid was tinkering away in the background on his little 3D device.  He had it up and running just fine, but due to the cost LED diodes at the time it only was able to display one color: red.  Yokoi was pleased about his progress so far, but felt that it still wasn’t quite ready for prime time, and that in order for it to be viable in the marketplace it needed a full color screen, not just red.  Behind closed doors Nintendo agreed with him, but then they went out and publicly announced the Virtual Boy’s release, much to Yokoi’s horror.  This move was beyond bizarre: not only was there no reason to release the system at that time (Nintendo dominated the mobile gaming marketplace, they had no real competition), but the folks who designed the system has specifically told the bigwigs not to release it. The system flopped, just as Yokoi has predicted it would in it’s current state, and Nintendo not only publicly blamed Gunpei but also went out of their way to shame him, fire him, and then later murder him.  Yes, Nintendo killed Gunpei Yokoi.  They also never really made any games for the system, marking the second time Nintendo sold a product to consumers it never had the intention of supporting.

 

 

MINI-DVDS

 

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Finally capitulating to the demands of developers, Nintendo announced that the followup to the Nintendo 64, called Project Dolphin, and later given the Christian name Game Cube, would in fact utilize DVDs for game delivery (thus bringing the system in line with the standard game format of the day); but not just any DVDs… MINI-DVDs!  It was like getting all the audio and load times of a DVD, but with half the storage space, once again making it nearly impossible to port a great many games to their system.  It’s important to understand just why the distinction between DVD and mini-DVD is so important.  The biggest reason beyond the amount of data it can hold is the cost to manufacturer.  Because DVDs were the standard format of the day for games, movies and computer software, it cost less to manufacture them and thus cost developers less to produce games on that format.  Because mini-DVDs were pretty much a specialty item, the cost to mass-produce them was significantly higher than your vanilla DVD.  Once again, Nintendo said the reasoning behind this was to protect from piracy, but let me tell you: if you can copy a DVD, you can copy a mini-DVD.

 

 

CONTROLLERS ARE TOO COMPLICATED

 

PSX

As Nintendo was gearing up for it’s successor to the Game Cube, the company decided to go on an interesting tirade:  controllers had become too complicated, there were too many buttons and, where once gamers could just pick up a controller and go, they now had to learn the controls to the game before playing it and that impeded the joy-joy process.  Nintendo would fix this problem by offering consumers a simple controller that needed no explanation, said Nintendo’s talking heads.  The actualization:  the Wii remote and nunchuk.  Now maybe it’s just me, but having a two-part wireless controller that has to be in the very specific range of a sensor bar and whose function varies depending on what game you play at any given time, that can also be used horizontally as well as vertically is a lot more complicated than, say, a controller where you use one thumb to press a d-pad or analog stick and the other thumb to press a button.  This would be the beginning of a trend where Nintendo would identify perceived problems that didn’t exist within the industry and claim to fix them.

 

 

THE TWO SCREEN HANDHELD

 

nintendo-ds-1

Nintendo’s announcement that the followup to the wildly popular Game Boy series of handhelds would feature two screens working together had gamers in a heightened sense of speculation.  What would it look like?  How would it work?  Would the screens be side by side?  The end result, the Nintendo DS (DS for Dual Screen) was an unmitigated success; but the Big N’s explanation of just why two screens were needed was a little bit… odd.  You see, in Nintendo’s mind the idea of pushing a button to access a menu or map or secondary screen within a game was just unacceptable.  They argued that, using the Legend of Zelda as an example, it took away from the gaming experience to have to hit the select button to call up the items screen and then have to push left or right on the d-pad to see the map.  It was much more logical and handy to have a second screen that displayed items or location information.  An interesting concept, yes.  A thorn in the side of gamers?  Hardly.  This was another instance where Nintendo would claim to fix a problem that just didn’t exist.

 

 

IT’S NOT ABOUT POWER, IT’S ABOUT GAMES

 

mario-is-missing-snes-box

During it’s Wii years, Nintendo would take a lot of heat for releasing an underpowered game machine, a system that just couldn’t keep up with its competitors.  N’s answer to this criticism would be that gaming was less about the power of the system and more about the quality of the games.  They then proceeded to release the Wii U, another underpowered system, repeating the games over horsepower mantra… while at the same times not releasing games for it.

 

 

TOUCH SCREEN CONTROLLER

 

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The main selling point for Nintendo’s Wii U system was less the actual system and more about the system’s unique tablet based controller.  While controllers in the past had toyed with the idea of having some sort of interactive display (most notably the usage of VMUs on Sega’s Dreamcast), Nintendo went all in giving the Wii U a controller that could display the entire actual game on it, without the use of a TV.  An interesting and exciting idea to be sure; but once again the reasons given behind the decision making is suspect.  What if, Nintendo has said, someone wants to watch something on TV while you want to play a game?  You can play it on the actual controller without the need of a TV!  Additionally, Nintendo again brought up the problem of pesky menu screens.  It’s much more handy to have a second screen handling menus instead of having to press a button.  It keeps you in the game!  Well, I don’t know about you; but it takes me out of the game a lot more to have to divert my attention away from the game to a secondary screen I’m holding, then to find an icon, press it, and then return my attention to the main screen.  And what about when your playing your game on the controller screen without using your TV?  Doesn’t that mean there should be a secondary controller screen to your secondary screen?  If not, how important does that make the necessity of having tablet controller in the first place?  Once again, a fix for a problem that never existed in the first place.

 

 

ALL OUR CUSTOMERS ARE IDIOTS

 

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The most recent example of Nintendo Brand Business Wackiness comes straight from the top, Mr. Satoru Iwata.  He announced publicly that according to an internal study, modern gamers weren’t smart enough to finish level 1-1 of Super Mario Brothers.  This distain for customer intelligence had been one of those things hidden in plain sight at Nintendo for years.  Look at their early games: they’re all pick-up-and-go.  Then on the Super Famicom they started giving more in-depth tutorials when a new gameplay mechanic was introduced.  The Nintendo 64 and Game Cube would give players a chance to see where things were before levels started.  The Wii featured an actual ghost player to show you what you were suppose to do.  The 3DS offers you up an indestructible mode of play on Super Mario if you die enough, and many games offer endless tutorials because as Nintendo now openly believes, you can’t figure out things for yourself.





A Tarnished Dragon’s Crown

8 08 2013

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If you’re a gamer (and why would you be reading this if you weren’t) you probably know what Dragon’s Crown is.  Vanillaware’s latest, a fantasy-themed beat-um-up has found a great deal of controversy in the west, mainly due to its depiction of the female form, but has found even more praise from the review community.  All of this has left me scratching my head a little… allow me to break down why, in 3 simple steps, and address some of the controversy while I’m at it.

I became a Vanillaware fan through experiencing Muramasa on the Wii.  I think we can all agree what a beautiful game that is.  Although, now that I think about it, my relationship with Vanillaware dates back to Princess Crown on the Saturn.  I had a friend who was really into it, and I would watch him play.  I was enchanted by the beautiful and unique art of the game, but the actual game just didn’t strike me as… well, fun, I guess; so I never owned Princess Crown, although I’ve often felt it deserved a second chance.

 

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Muramasa is now Japanese slang for “gorgeous”

 

So my first real taste was Muramasa (yes, I know they made other games between the two; but they weren’t on my radar at the time).  I really loved this game on the Wii… loved it.  I especially loved that I wasn’t boxed in by gimmicky waggle controls when I played it (where are we exactly when being able to play a game with a proper controller becomes a breath of fresh air?).    Everything about the game oozed quality and attention to detail.  In fact, the beauty of the graphics in motion were enough for me to forgive the game it’s biggest flaw:  that there’s no skill to it.  It’s basically just run from one screen to the next whacking the attack button and occasionally switching swords for effect.  But like I said, the presentation was so spot on perfect that I continued to give myself repetitive stress disorder just to soak in the art of it all.  In fact, I enjoyed the presentation of the game so much that I purchased the Vita version, and the game’s 3 disk soundtrack as well.

 

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Seriously, I bought the soundtrack for the music. No, really!

 

 

You can imagine how I felt when Vanillaware announced their Muramasa followup, Dragon’s Crown.  It appeared in every way to build on the beauty and atmosphere of their previous offering, while giving us something new: exploration and gameplay options.  The trifecta.  I was actually on the fence about getting it… sure the game looked good, heck, it looked great!  But in Japan, where I live, the cost of Dragon’s Crown weighs in at around $80.  That’s right… $80 for the bare bones game.  No art book, no special first day of purchase swag.  $80 on Playstation 3 or $80 on Vita, take your pick.  Yep, $80 for a Vita game.  Now if you preordered it in Japan you did get the art book, but how Japanese preorders work is that you have to give them the full purchase price up front, and I just wasn’t that committed; but come release day I caved because the game store had it on sale for the bargain price of $61.  Thus, my adventure began…and what an absolutely beautiful adventure it is.  What an absolute pleasure to behold.  I don’t even think I’m going out on a limb when I say that Dragon’s Crown is the most beautiful game of this console generation.  But let’s be honest… beyond the beautiful art, Dragon’s Crown is pretty hollow.  I actually went as far to describe it to a friend of mind as “a beautiful turd”.  I’m not going to waste your time with plot description or play mechanics, you can get that elsewhere- the entire internet is one big Dragon’s Crown jerk-fest right now.  Let’s break down just why Dragon’s Crown is a steaming pile of doo encrusted in diamonds and gold.

 

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Really well protected glittery poo, but poo none the less.

 

 

REDUNDANCY REDUNDANCY REDUNDANCY REDUNDANCY

The game is redundant.  No, it’s beyond that… it’s redundantly redundant.  Period.  Sure, you can pick from one of 7 characters, and sure, they all play sort of different… but you’re doing the same thing with each.  It’s not like you choose the elf and get one story and then after you beat that you choose the dwarf and get a completely different experience.  It’s the same exact game no matter who you choose.  The plot is the same, the dungeons are the same, all hidden items are in the same places.  The only thing that changes are the characters upgradeable skill set.  Yes, there are branching routes through the dungeons after you’ve beaten all 9 of them… wait, what’s that?  9 dungeons?  9 DUNGEONS???  That’s right, there are only 9 levels to the game, none of them particularly long.  And like I said, there are branching paths; but these are only available to play after you’ve beaten the game, which leads up back to… redundancy.  You have to go back and play the levels you’ve already played, your only reward being a slight difference at one point in the level.  Additionally, you’re only allowed to play online with others after you’ve beaten the game, so now you can explore the 9 levels you’re already explored twice over with other people who have explored those same levels twice over themselves.  For an exploration beat-um-up, that certainly takes the exploration out of the picture, doesn’t it?

 

The gameplay is also a bit on the wonky side.  I really appreciate the idea of exploring the dungeon for hidden treasure and items, but the way it was implemented leaves me a bit at a loss.  I have been playing the Vita version of the game, and I’m given the option of either using the right analog stick to move a curser around the screen to search, or I can jab my finger at the Vita’s touch screen.  Either option grinds the game to an absolute halt.  The game becomes an endless cycle of: move a little bit… fight… drag my finger across the screen… move a little bit… fight… drag my finger across the screen…  You’re telling me they couldn’t have come up with something better… like a simple button press?  They felt that having a character walk up to an area and search it via a button press was too complicated?  I mean, it’s only worked in RPGs for the last 30 years.  But now that I think about it, Chrono Trigger would have been so much better if I had to smear my hand across the screen every time I wanted to open a chest or search an area of a room.  Mapping the triangle button (as an example) to search an area seems like a no brainer to me; but then someone at Nintendo noticing that Kid Icarus Uprising’s controls were completely broken was also a no-brainer, and we all know how that worked out.

 

Finally, Dragon’s Crown does something that, for me, is an unforgivable: it gets me lost.  There are plenty of times when I have no idea where my character is on the screen.  This is an experience that’s been repeated in many of the reviews out there, so it’s not just me being an idiot.  Think about that… a game where at times you completely lose track of your character.   No, seriously, think about that.  Would that be acceptable in a Super Mario game?  How bout in Sonic?  What about in the combat in a Tales game?  Tomb Raider?  Final Fight?  Golden Axe?  The answer, of course, is NO.  It has never acceptable in any game for the player to lose track of their character.  Back in the 8, 16, and 32-bit days that would have been a game breaker; so it absolutely flummoxes me as to why Dragon’s Crown is getting a pass on this in the modern gaming press, which leads me to…

 

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 9.54.40 PM

 

I’ve been reading game criticism since at least… 1985.  That’s 28  years.  I have twice worked as a professional games journalist, and I’m also Kotaku contributor.  Them’s is my chops.  What I’ve seen is as games have become more mainstream, game critics have become less and less… critical.  It’s true.  Gameplay use to be held to such a high standard.  Loose controls would kill a game in the press.  Glitches would be a show ender.  Short, redundant gameplay would send a game packing.  But now it seems almost everyone loves everything, and why is beyond me.  I have to conjecture that it’s one of two things:  either gaming outlets are afraid that if they hold a game’s feet to the fire that they’ll lose access to that companies future offerings, or (and I believe this to be more true) today’s game critics have no idea what they’re doing.  They don’t know what makes a good game and a bad game- it’s just whatever they fancy at the moment.  Dragon’s Crown has received absolutely glowing review scores, even though critics admit to the game being redundant, short, and sometimes losing track of what’s happening during the levels.  All those are absolutely cripplingly damming things, yet reviewers are more apt to take points off a score due to how a character is drawn over how a character handles.  Can you see what’s wrong with that?  And of course that brings up…

 

THE CONTROVERSY

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Several outlets have made a huff about how the characters of the Sorceress and the Amazon have been represented in the game.  What you’re seeing here is the western mindset at work.  In Japan, nobody gives two flying flips; and to be honest, it surprises me that people in modern America care.  Look around you… look at how women are portrayed on magazine covers, in music videos, in movies, in comic books.  Look at how women dress at the mall.  It’s like the pot calling the kettle black.  I would say that before we go fixing the non-problem of the women of Dragon’s Crown, we should turn our eye on why it’s considered OK to eviscerate characters in games, disembowel them, shoot them in the head, decapitate them, and crow about how realistic rag-doll physics can handle the movement of dead bodies; but not OK to have a busty woman in a halter-top.  I mean, even putting the “violence is OK, but sexuality is not” argument aside, I never heard one peep from anyone how offensive the extremely popular God Of War games are to women, even though they feature scores of topless women and actual sex.  Not a word about the Grand Theft Auto series where you can hire a prostitute, have sex with her, and then beat her to death and take your money back.  Nothing.  People outside of the gaming community have raised a fuss about Grand Theft Auto, but not the gamers; they rush to its defense.  This is the only difference I can see:

 

  1. Both these series are developed in the west.
  2. They associate extreme violence with sex.

 

Therefore I must come to the conclusion that sexuality is acceptable to western game critics only when coupled with acts of extreme violence.  How messed up is that?  How sad is that?

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So apparently the image up top is hyper-sexualized, but this one isn’t. Got it.

 

 

In the end, you’re going to get what you get out of Dragon’s Crown.  Is it the perfect game?  No.  Is it a great game?  No.  It’s is an acceptable game?  I guess.  If I was reviewing it, I would probably give it a 5 out of 10.  If it was the same game with Atari graphics, it’s probably a 2 out of 10.  Dragon’s Crown is, at its core, a grind-fest.  It just floors me that reviewers glaze over the games flaws simply because it looks good… and boy does it look good.  I have a saying that when I buy a game and really like the artwork but hate the overall game that I should have just bought the art book; but Dragon’s Crown is different.  It’s beautiful in motion in a way that still art can’t capture; but beyond that I don’t have much good to say about it.  And it really is such as shame that it’s sold so well based on the glowing reviews, because that just teaches Vanillaware that it’s OK to continue on this path, and it’s not.





Die, Minotaur, Die!

28 07 2013

Dragon’s Crown is out.  Who’s up for some orc hunting?

Haven’t had much of a chance to really get into it yet; been busy working on Game Girls Go! and getting the import game shop set up. Yeah, you heard me: the double punch of Japanese Idols playing retro games AND a store in Japan that’s English friendly and carries everything from brand spankin’ new back to before you were born.

So, anyway, here’s a look at Dragon’s Crown as played on the Playstation Vita. It’s really sort of slap-dash put together in-between Game Girls work; but I felt I should so something because people have been asking.

I’ll put something a little more professional together soon. Until then, this is all you get.

Oh, and a word of warning for those of you with small children and pets nearby… the video’s a bit NSFW, so keep that in mind.





HCK vs the Sharp X68000

5 06 2013

Back in the late 90s when I really started to expand my horizons in import gaming, there were two unobtainable machines: the Fujitsu FM Towns and the Sharp X68000.  Both were computers.  They were desirable because they played versions of games that were only whispered about in the darkest corners of gamer gatherings.  Arcade perfect ports of Splatterhouse; more prefect versions of Gradius and Salamander that were available at the time.  They were unobtainable because they were computers, and no import store carried Japanese computers.  Heck, back then it was almost impossible to get a JIS keyboard for a Windows machine, much less get a whole system in the States;  but my friend Matt actually managed it.  He imported, at great cost, two FM Towns II computers (a model F and and MX); but only one monitor.  I actually bought the MX off him but never used it, because… you guessed it!  I didn’t have a monitor.  Ah, gamer locgic.  The desire to simply own.

Still, I had yet to play anything running on an actual X68000.  Fast forward to 2011, and I finally come into my own with the FM Towns, and finding I enjoyed the system so much that I have since gone through six FM Towns II computers, and two FM Towns Marty systems (a consolized version of the computer that you hook up to your TV).  But still, the X68000 was out of reach for me.  Prices for the machine can easily run upwards of $500 in Japan.  Plus, you have to figure in the cost of the monitor, and maybe a keyboard, control pad, joysticks… well, you get the picture.   This week, though, I had a little visitor:

 

Hello :-)

Hello🙂

 

Yep, an X68000.  Actually and X68000 XVI to be more precise.  Oh, no, it’s not mine; I picked it up for a customer back in the States.  This X68 is just passing through.  But I was able to put it through it’s paces, and can give you all a little look at the machine.

 

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Back in the 90’s, companies were free to make promises that they couldn’t keep.

 

It really is a beautiful, impressive beast.  One of the reasons I always wanted to get my hands on one of these was because it’s what Capcom famously programmed their arcade games of the day on, thus Capcom arcade ports on the X68 are arcade perfect.  Plus, it was the go-to machine for Konami as well, with titles so popular, they still garner admiration from fans for their playability and music.  So it was with great anticipation that I plowed through around 20 games, waiting to be impressed.  And the funny thing is, overall I wasn’t.  Let me tell you what I found:

 

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The X68 is a very well thought out and fantastically designed machine.  It’s elegant in a way that few computers are now.  It even has a retractable steel handle on top for… carrying?  Anyway, it’s there and it’s cool.

 

The switch on the left is for changing the processor's clock speed.  Nifty!

The switch on the left is for changing the processor’s clock speed. Nifty!

 

Unless you have an HDD (listen up kids, computers didn’t always have hard disks), you have to have a disk in the machine in order to get it to do anything (the Towns is similar).  X68s take 5.25” floppies.  This, for me, is one big downside to owning an X68000, as some games can take up to 15 floppies; plus because of the fragile nature of the disks, they’re easily prone to demagnetization and data corruption, especially since they’re nearing 13 years of age!  The computer has two drives, labeled 0 and 1, the 0 being what we in the States called the A Drive at the time (or Drive 1).  You have to have a disk in here to run the game.  If a game has multiple disks, the B Disk must be in drive 1 (also called B Drive or Drive 2 in the west) in order for the program to fully load.  Interestingly enough, how the computer works it is it loads the 0 drive data fully into its memory, and then ejects the disk.  That’s crazy stuff.  One game even loaded the full contents of both drives into memory.  That’s some serious RAM for the day going on there! (boy, I sound like a computer geek right about now^^;)

 

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Interestingly enough, some games require only a control pad to be plugged in to play, and some require a control pad and keyboard.  See, the X68000 controller doesn’t have a START or SELECT button, so the spacebar on the keyboard would serve that function.  You can’t play Parodius on the X68 without a keyboard, but you can play Salamander.  Weird.  Just shows how the programming progressed over time, probably via user feedback.

 

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Games feature customized disk sleeves and, in some cases, branded disks.

 

 

The first game I’d like to show you is Star Wars.  I’m an old school Star Wars fan, having been there for the original trilogy and having suffered through the Atari 2600 versions of Star Wars games.  Because of the era in which it was released, I expected this to be similar to the NES Star Wars, maybe a platform adventure game.  Boy was I wrong.

 

I was completely unimpressed by the beginning of the game.  What a wonky opening crawl.  And once the opening shots of the film appeared represented by vector graphics I was almost rolling on the floor in fits of laughter.  But as the intro drug on (and it does drag on) the audio really impressed me.  Voice.  Lots of voice.  Then I actually played the game… what a treat for an old gamer like me!  Star Wars for the X68000 is a faithful expansion of the old Star Wars arcade game I played as a kid!  It really took me back to putzing around the old Bally’s Arcade in Town West Mall in Wichita, Kansas.  The levels do drag on a bit, with mission two requiring that you shoot more than 80 enemy whatevers to progress to the near impossible twitch shooting trench run.  Plus, the control with the stock joypad is really stiff.  Overall, though, I really enjoyed the game; but mostly for the audio.

 

 

Next comes one of my all time favorites, Puyo Puyo.  Having played this, I can now say I’ve experienced every version of the first game in the series.  I was quite tickled by that loading screen, where Carbuncle, the game’s mascot, psychedelically morphs into a puyo over and over and over…  The game itself remains unchanged from other ports, Puyo is Puyo.  What did strike me was how close this version of Puyo Puyo is to the PC Engine version, Puyo Puyo CD.  A great version of the game, but the FM Towns version is still king.

 

 

The final game we’ll take a look at is a Capcom classic, Final Fight.  Previously, I played the Super Nintendo version of the game, and the Sega CD’s Final Fight CD.  Plus I played it in the arcade.  Now I can say without a doubt that Capcom games on the X68 are where it’s at.  What beautiful graphics, and a great soundtrack!  Now, it’s only from memory, but I can’t tell a difference between this and the arcade version.  There were noticeable changes from the US version I caught, including Cody’s captured girlfriend being shown in the intro being battered and stripped down to her bra.  Plus, the character Poison is showing off a lot of under boob.  I’m such as a kid I would have remembered under boob.  I was that age.  But the control is superb, and the gameplay challenging and fun.  If I ever own an X68000, I will be getting this game.

 

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A little know law states that any system released in the 90s in Japan had to be accompanied by a Masion Ikkoku game. Look it up!

 

I think the main reason why the Sharp X68000 failed to blow me away is that I was already so familiar with so many of its showcase games.  And unfortunately, many of the games have been ported to other systems in better incarnations.  I would say your money is better spent playing the Sega Saturn or Sony Playstation versions of Parodius, Gradius, and Salamander than playing them on the Sharp.  Yes, the midi soundtracks are excellent, but graphically, the games are less than arcade perfect and sometimes suffer from flicker, something not seen in the 32-bit arcade perfect ports.   What I’ll remember most from my experience is the music, which is also an unfortunate thing because midi soundtracks for X68 games seem to be released and re-released ad infinitum, and I can get into those for a whole lot less than the cost of the system.  Still, I just barely scratched the surface of what the Sharp X68000 has to offer.  If the situation arose where the planets alined and I had the space and money for a machine offered at a bargain price, I’d happily get one.  Until then, though, I now know I can wait.





Bob Sadek and the Smallest of Kindnesses

2 06 2013

I’m going to begin my return to HCKBlog on a very personal note.  I talk a lot about filmmaking and video games here, touching on my past and what spurred my interest and informed me on what has become my career and hobby; but I don’t really touch on what came before that.

Really, there was a catalyst to where I am today, creatively; a spark to what started my fire.  And that spark came from a match provided by a teacher.

Before I get into things too much, I want to say that I come from a family of teachers.  My grandfather on my father’s side was a teacher.  My grandmother on my mother’s side was a teacher.  My mother was a teacher for 9 million years, and her 4 siblings were also teachers (my aunt is a minister, and if that’s not a teacher, I don’t know what is).  In fact, I have cousins that are, or have been, teachers as well.  You could accurately say that teaching is in my family blood.

Interestingly enough, I don’t have many fond memories of the actual teachers who taught me, especially once I got on into my later years in school.  I had a rough time of it, and I didn’t exactly help myself out.  To say that I was disinterested in school would be a massive understatement.  It’s not that I wasn’t interested in learning; but I had such a great aversion to going through motions and wasting my time on things that I deemed inapplicable to my adult life that I began avoiding it at every cost.  School became less a dear friend that I spent the majority of my weekday time with, and more a rival for my time that I occasionally passed by and waved at out of obligation.  Eventually, I was told by my high school vice principal that my school would “be better off if I wasn’t there” (a direct quote, actually) so I dropped out and moved on.

But in that in-between time, a teacher did interact with me in a way that would prove to have a massive effect on my life.

It was during gym class.  I was shooting hoops with my friend Tony Wilkes and Steve Dykstra.  I distinctly remember that day because the REM song “Shiny Happy People” had been released, and Tony had wonderfully mistaken the refrain to be “Chinese Happy People…” which Steve and I thought was a wonderfully hilarious thing.  I began to do play-by-play, coloring our attempts at B-ball greatness in an overly exaggerated announcer kind of voice, and the school’s head coach, Bob Sadek, overheard me.  After class, he approached and ask if I would be interested in taking up the job as announcer for the school’s baseball team.  I accepted.

I worked with Steve Dykstra as my technical assistant because he was good with electronics and I wasn’t as handy.  Steve also had the job of filming the games for post game review and posterity’s sake.  Sometimes, Tony would show up as well.  I have no idea what he did… I think he was just there.  We would trudge out all this heavy equipment an hour or so before every home game, and set it up.  If memory serves, this consisted of a folding table, two giant speakers, a giant mixing board, a CD player, and a microphone and table stand.  Looking back it seemed as if everything weighed 16-tons.

I would do my shtick during the game, announcing the home and opposing batters as they approached the plate, as well as calling on field position changes, substations, and hollering about home runs.  During long pauses, I would play a predetermined list of approved songs selected by Mr Sadek.  I really got into it.  I even took it upon my self to do a seventh inning stretch, leading our meager crowds in horrible renditions of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.  It was grating, but Mr. Sadek let me continue.  In fact, one of my fondest high school moments came about because of that, and almost went unnoticed.  I have no idea who we were playing, but the local cable access channel was there filming the game.  After everything was finished, one of the camera guys approached me and said he had something he thought I should hear.  He backed up his tape and handed me his headphones.  He had captured some audio from the dugout… there was a moment during my screeching of the National Pastime’s official song where one of the players had approached the coach and pleaded with him to make me stop.  Mr Sadek’s reply would stick with me and provide the foundations of one of my core beliefs: If you want something enough and work hard at it, you can achieve it.  What he said, quite angrily in fact, was:

“If you guys had the enthusiasm he does, we’d be winning the game!”

Eventually, I would quit the announcing gig.  It had actually led to a job offer for the same local cable access channel to be their on air color commentator for high school football; but I knew nothing about football, so I passed.  Really, I quit for the pettiest of reasons:  the “managers” of the team, two girls from school whose job it was to keep score and count pitches, had been given high school baseball jackets at the end of the season for their hard work.  Steve and I had just received the school’s hearty thanks.  I felt slighted.

Later, Mr Sadek would tap me again for work on our high school video yearbook.  This was another Bob Sadek, Steve Dykstra, and me project.  It was my first introduction into film editing.  My school had an AV lab with, what was then, a state-of-the-art editing facility.  It was a behemoth.  All analog, you had to cue up in-and-out point on tapes and make manual edits.  It has some very cheesy built in early 90’s video effects (the kind that were waaaaaay overused in pornographic films of the day, not that I’d know) a full sound board, and other switches and knobs and doohickeys.  Long hours were spent in that room with Mr. Sadek, Steve, and me.  Somehow I ended up with the key and I would use the equipment on weekends when no one else was around, experiment making anime music videos… editing together scenes from the landfill of tapes I had collected and laying my selections over the audio of Japanese punk pop band Shonen Knife’s tunes.  I would practice timing and fast edits, and it helped form the strong bond I have between music cues and visual action.

I can honestly say that without Bob Sadek’s influence in my life, I would not be where I am today.  It seems like such a little thing.  I mean, it wasn’t like in the movies where he’s showing up at my house, kindling my imagination and spurring me onto higher education.  But if it wasn’t for his interest in me and my then unnoticed talents, I never would have gotten my military broadcasting gig that built upon the foundation he laid so many years before.  Without Mr Sadek, the odds of me having ever come to Japan would be slim to none.

I have a picture that was taken for my sophomore yearbook.  It’s of the baseball team, Mr Sadek, Steve Dykstra, Tony Wilkes, and me.  The school was going to toss it, but I saved it from the burn bin.  It’s been tucked away in a file in a closet for some time.  I’m going to find that picture, frame it, and hang it on my wall as a reminder of the truly important life-lesson that Bob Sadek taught me:

Even the smallest of kindnesses can leave a lasting and remarkable impact on someone’s life.

Bob Sadek, passed on today.  He was greatly loved by many, and he will be missed.