The Cult of the Game: Sin and Punishment
March 8, 2009, 10:22 pm
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Importing seems to be dead these days. With the global nature video games have become few gems of games are rarely released exclusively to a single region. While importers in the past would clamor for games like Parodius, Snatcher and fighting games based on the Dragon Ball Z and Ranma licenses nowadays games that may seem too “Japanesecentric” or based off major anime titles get released here with some level of regularity. Much of this is to the Kudos of publishers like Atlus who see the massive cult followings these games have and reward the loyal fanbase by releasing titles like Odin Sphere, Diagaea and Persona for the masses. Even if titles aren’t released on this side of the ocean thanks to the internet it’s easy to e-mail imported games and with most systems having loose legion locking measures it’s often fairly painless to get these games running on your system.

This wasn’t the case during the 90’s, where the video game import scene was starting to build steam. Many people had to find specialty retailers in their area, most of them Asian run shops that would get games for their customers who had brought over systems from Asian territories. Failing that most would have to go through mail order services from the backs of video game magazines. From here many import superstars came to be and one of the biggest import only games for a long time and one of those last superstars was Sin and Punishment for the Nintendo 64.

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The Cult of the Game: Startropics
March 2, 2009, 12:14 am
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It may seem odd but this month is the Cult of Nintendo month. I say odd because in all honesty few companies are as consistent at releasing top selling AAA titles as the big N. From old classics like Zelda, Mario and Metroid, to new franchsies like Pokemon, Animal Crossing and Nintendogs it always seems Nintendo is able to touch anything and turn it into franchise gold destined to sell millions along its many consoles.

However Nintendo is a company about good gameplay first, and as the Cult of the Game shows being good doesn’t always mean you’ll be popular. Odd settings, difficult (at first) game mechanics and lack of availability have caused a number of Nintendo’s first party titles to slip under the Big N’s and consumer’s radar and have created wonderful cult games.

The creation of Startropic was an odd birth. Directed by Genyo Takeda who had originally worked on Punch Out!! Startropics was developed in Japan but never released there. The game was an answer to the growing North American and European markets. While games were becoming hugely popular in both regions many US publishers at he time had a large amount of xenophobia to games from Japan which sometimes were steeped in Japanese ideals and pop culture they felt would turn off gamers. Startropics was an early attempt to design a game with western audiences in mind only and was released only in North America and Europe.

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The Cult of the Game: Shenmue
January 25, 2009, 11:33 pm
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What happens when your eyes are too big for the world around you? We are often told to reach for the stars and never hold back, but sometimes when you reach too high disaster strikes. In the entertainment industry these are affectionately known as “flops,” endeavors that fail far below the expectations made by their creators. Such notable flops like the film Heaven’s Gate had destroyed their studios while others like Mariah Carrey’s Glitter left artists in holes they would need to claw their way out of.

The video game industry has had its share of flops. And while some are understandable others are tragic. It’s sad to see genres, platforms and games despite all their good intentions and best efforts fail and possibly crush portions of the industry. The fan base is fickle and hard to predict and often their cruelty, by withholding the dollars that keeps the industry alive, can be costly and stifle the notion of building interesting games in favor of “safe dollars.”

This brings us to a man and his magnum opus. Yu Suzuki is often regarded as one of the best game designers of all time. He was Sega’s answer to Shigeru Miyamoto, was the man behind some of Sega’s early coin-op hits like Space Harrier and Hang-On and brought the idea of 3D gaming to the forefront with the Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter and Virtua Cop series. In the dying days of the Saturn Yu Suzki would embark on his “Project Berkley”, a massive undertaking of a game that would prove to be one of the death nails into the Dreamcast coffin but would influence and inspire gamers from that point on. The game cost millions and while it sold well there was no way for Sega to recoup its cost unless it became a mega hit.

Project Berkley ended up being Shenmue and while Yu Suzuki would use lots of buzz acronyms to describe it gameplay (he would often refer to the game as a FREE game, which stood for Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment) it was, if nothing else a daunting undertaking of trying to revamp, remake and pull the adventure game genre into the twenty first century.

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The Cult of the Game: Power Stone
January 5, 2009, 8:15 pm
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A little over 10 years ago the Dreamcast was launched into Japan with little fanfare, something that would dog the system to its dying days. The epitome of the “Cult Console” the life of the Dreamcast was an odd one at best. Snubbed in Japan, Embraced early in America it seemed that Sega could not figure out how to market their system so that users on both side of the pacific (the exact opposite occurred with their previous system the Saturn.) Despite its shortcoming and ultimate failure the Dreamcast to this day still has one of the most vocal and loyal followings in the history of video games.

It’s hard to pin point where exactly Sega lost it with the Dreamcast. For many the 32X and Saturn debacles had Sega losing before they even got out of the gates. The absolutely saturation of the PS1 in the United States probably also spelt doom for them. Still the lack of backing from key third parties, namely, EA was a nail shoved into Sega’s Dreamcast coffin. Was the ease of piracy for the system a considerable blow to the point of premature death? Let’s not forget with the eventual onslaught of the more powerful PS2, Xbox and Gamecube could any underpowered system weather the storm no matter how good the games were?

This isn’t to say the Dreamcast was bad or even poorly developed. In its small library contain a slew of amazing AAA titles unseen on any other platform. So this month we’re celebrating all things Dreamcast with a four week look at some of the Dreamcasts biggest cult faves. Unfortunately with so many cult hits on the system four weeks isn’t enough to cover them all but rest assured games like Space Channel 5, Chu Chu Rocket, Seaman, Ikaruga, Bangai-O, Project Justice, Virtual-On Oratorio Tangram, Borderdown, Phantasy Star Online, Outtrigger, Cannon Spike, Rez and Mars Matrix will get their day in the sun (and will probably bring speculation as to which games I will be looking at.)

On the subject at hand though is one of the Dreamcast’s launch titles here in the North America. With Capcom backing it up huge Power Stone was one of the systems planned early “killer apps” (along with Soul Calibur and Ready 2 Rumble) that was going to push the Dreamcast market hard through its launch. The game garnered an anime series and Power Stone characters were being featured prominently in Capcom cross promotion material such as the Neo Geo Pocket game Card Fighters Clash and early versions of their Cacpcom vs. SNK game featured a Power Stone background.

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The Cult of the Game: River City Ransom
December 29, 2008, 1:30 am
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It seems today you can’t have a game come out and the press release doesn’t try to convince you it’s more than what it really is. Everything is a genre bending mish mash, a 3rd person fighting adventure game with RPG elements. While most of these games and fail at delivering because they stretch too far and end up satisfying none of what they touch you get the odd game that is able to meld genres and derive something that’s totally fascinating in the process.

It maybe the evolution of sophistication of the gamer today but back in the fledgling 8 bit console days such practice would spell the death of a game. This isn’t to say that it was for a lack of trying, but when genres would bleed gamers, weaned off twitch based arcade games would not get the brainier elements of these hybrid games. We’ve touched on how Herzog Zwei was thought to be an “overly complicated” shooter at first. The same would happen to games like System Shock and Blaster Master.

River City Ransom would be hit by the problem even harder mainly due to the fact that beat ‘em ups were an extremely popular genre. Prior to River City Ransom’s release ports of Double Dragon, Double Dragon II and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game were released to great success. While River City Ransom was also a beat ‘em up it’s squished chibi anime inspired graphics and RPG elements turned off potential US publishers. In a strange twist of irony developer Technos would publish and localize the game themselves and put it into direct competition with the Double Dragon series that they also developed but were able to sell to US publisher Tradewest.

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The Cult of the Game – Okami
December 22, 2008, 6:59 am
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What makes a game successful in terms of the financial “people buy it” sense. It’s an equation that’s tough to gauge and would almost be impractical to decide. To me the world of game design from a business stand point is a game of darts, throw an idea art the wall and hope that it sticks.

However there must be some criteria that the majority of big number games must share right? A lot of these games are created in thriving genres; this is true in examples like the renaissance of RPGs for Oblivion. Most of these games often have outstanding graphics, some would ground breaking in the case of some like Gears of War. Excellent reviews can push an otherwise obscure or lesser known game into the stratosphere in the case of Bioshock. Having big name developers or publishers backing a game can bring it success such as the case with Dead Rising. Then we have good ol’ fashion hype, something that a Halo 3 or a Mario Galaxy can thrive on. Of course a game has to be solid gamplay wise which all of the aforementioned titles are arguably.

So how can a game that had these elements end up selling only 270,000 units on one of the biggest system of all time? It’s proof that even with all the good ideas you can have in the world you can never determine the often baffling fickleness of the gaming public. The title being mentioned here is Clover Studio’s Okami published by Capcom. An amazing action adventure game hyped by the media and given great rating it has since become a story of how even a great game can flop. Despite all the heart that seems to have went into creating his modern masterpiece and being released on the PS2 and the Wii the game has failed to find a strong audience on both sides of the Pacific ocean.

This is in all honesty a shame because few games seem to have captured its very world and essence as strongly as Okami. A virtual work of moving art Okami’s design is strong from the game play to the story to the stunning art design. It’s both familiar and original; surprisingly old school yet feels like a next gen title. Its action packed and yet full of exploration and in my opinion a must play game experience for anyone.

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The Cult of the Game – Herzog Zwei
December 15, 2008, 12:05 am
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There was a period in the mid to late 90’s where you couldn’t look at a shelf of PC games and not see at least a half dozen Real Time Strategy (RTS) games. After the immense success of Warcraft 2 and Command and Conqueror the genre exploded, causing every publisher and developer to stop in their tracks and try to cash in on the craze that was taking the PC world by storm be it noble efforts like Age of Empires or utter schlock like Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3.

It’s quite easy to see where the appeal of the RTS game comes from. It provides some of the depth of strategy that the Turned Based Strategy like Master of Orion and Civilizations before them but has the sort of instant gratification that players of more action oriented gamers are uses to. A single player Civilization game can suck up hours to perfect and multiplayer affairs could take days or even months to complete. With an RTS all your actions are immediate, there’s a sense that you can see what a given upgrade will bring in terms of cause and effect and campaigns can be as short a few minutes given the players skill in both single and multiplayer.

While the RTS has been a predominantly a North American PC phenomenon (yeah yeah I know about Korean Starcraft players but that seems more like a freak occurrence than anything) it seems odd then that the roots of the modern day RTS are seeded in a Genesis game made by Japanese developers. While older PC games such as Stonkers, The Ancient Art of War and Modern Wars could be classified as RTS they lack many of the elements the modern RTS game employs today that, arguably, Herzog Zwei brought to the table.

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