Monday, August 29, 2016

I'm not sure if this should be a congratulatory post or an RIP post--regardless, happy 63rd anniversary, Taito!

I haven't always been the Taito fan I am today. Oh, sure, I liked Arkanoid and Space Invaders well enough when I was a kid, and of course I loved (and continue to love) Bubble Bobble, too, but that's about where my knowledge of and interest in this Tokyo-based company--which first opened its doors on Aug. 24, 1953--began and ended until a few years ago.

What changed and when? To be completely honest, I'm not sure I can tell you. The most likely answer is that my perception and appreciation of Taito changed slowly over time.

If I were to guess, I'd say this evolution of sorts began when my adoration of Bubble Bobble pushed me to give follow-ups Rainbow Islands and Parasol Stars a second (or even third) look. Neither game impressed me when I first played them earlier in life, but revisiting them with fresh eyes and a clear mind prompted a nearly instantaneous change of heart.

The same could be said of Taito titles like Don Doko Don, KiKi KaiKai, Mizubaku Daibouken (aka Liquid Kids) and The New Zealand Story. As much as I wanted all of these games to bowl me over during my initial experiences with them, none succeeded for one reason or another.

Thankfully, my newfound interest in Rainbow Islands and Parasol Stars caused me to give them a second chance--and now I'm a fan of each and every one. (Mizubaku Daibouken, especially--it's now one of my all-time favorite games.)

After that, I actively searched for similar Taito releases I somehow missed during the time in my life when I was idiotically unaware of the company's brilliance. That bit of legwork turned me on to titles like Chack'n Pop, Chuka TaisenHana Taaka Daka!?, Insector X, Jigoku MeguriJuJu Densetsu and The Fairyland Story.

I also loosened up and gave some of the portable versions of these games a spin. Previously, I turned up my nose at most of them because they either lacked color--the idea of playing Bubble Bobble on the original GameBoy horrified me at the time--or they just seemed too watered down to be worth my while.

Imagine my shock, then, when I found many of Taito's on-the-go ports to be surprisingly well made, not to mention enjoyable. A few cases in point: Bubble Bobble for Game Gear, Bubble Bobble Junior for GameBoy and Puzzle Bobble for Game Gear.

What makes all of these Taito-made games so great? Their graphics and soundtracks are obvious replies to that question, but they're really only the tip of the iceberg. They draw you in, but if the gameplay that supports those aspects was anything but stellar, most people would walk away after plodding through a few stages.

For me, what keeps me coming back to Taito's creations is the gameplay. Every single title mentioned so far controls like a dream. And not only that, but most of them simply are a blast to play. To get a feel for what I mean, go play a couple of rounds of Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands, Parasol Stars or Mizubaku Daibouken.

Despite the challenge that's at the core of each of these games, the component that's likely to stand out for most folks is how fun it is to blow and pop bubbles (Bubble Bobble), conjure up and leap onto rainbows (Rainbow Islands) and send a torrent of water crashing into a mob of stunned enemies (both Parasol Stars and Mizubaku Daibouken).

That's the kind of magic Taito's designers and developers produced during the company's heyday, and that's why I'm doing my best to (belatedly) honor them today. I'd highly recommend you do the same if you've got the interest, means and time, as there's no doubt in my mind that your life will be made richer for putting even a few minutes into some of the games discussed here.

Note: a hearty thank you goes out to my Twitter pal, TepidSnake, for making me aware of the 63rd anniversary of Taito's existence

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Some of my favorite SNES games in honor of the system's 25th anniversary

If you asked me earlier in the week what I did back on Aug. 23, 1991, I would've answered, "I have absolutely no idea."

Today, though, I know exactly what I did on that date: I, along with my older brother and our parents, waltzed into the local Toys R Us (or Shopko, or Kohl's--I can't remember this particular detail) and bought a Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

It was the first game system I ever got the day it came out, by the way. Previously--with the NES, TurboGrafx-16 and GameBoy--I waited months or even years before jumping on board.

There was no way my brother and I were going to wait for the SNES, though. Both of us had followed the console's development and Japanese release like our lives depended on it, so we did whatever we had to do to ensure we'd be able to nab Nintendo's second system the minute it was available.

Sadly, that meant selling our precious NES and our enviable catalog of games. (The latter included such treasures as Bionic Commando, Duck Tales, R.C. Pro-Am and pretty much every other Nintendo-published title worth owning.)

On the flip side, it allowed us to get our hands on a SNES and a copy of Super Mario World pronto, so at the time the sacrifice seemed acceptable.

I still have that SNES, by the way. I also still have a handful of the carts my brother and I accumulated in the years that followed the console's debut--Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy III and Yoshi's Island among them.

Speaking of which, none of those games are discussed in this nostalgia-filled post that's supposed to celebrate the SNES' 25th anniversary. Also ignored here: A Link to the Past, EarthBound, Super Mario Kart and Super Metroid.

That's not because I dislike any of those classic games, mind you. On the contrary, I dearly love each and every one of them. No, the reason I'm not devoting any space to them is they're honored all the time (and rightfully so) for their greatness.

You'll also notice no Japan-only SNES--or Super Famicom, if you want to be technical--games are named here. That's because Aug. 23 was the 25th anniversary of the console's North American launch. So, I'll only ruminate about that region's releases. (Believe me, if I expanded this write-up's reach in that way, it'd feature blurbs about Ace wo Nerae, Pop'n TwinBee, Tetris Battle Gaiden, Torneko no Daibouken, Umihara Kawase and more.)

What does that leave? It leaves the following nine SNES titles, all of which are near and dear to my heart, and all of which did a stupendous job of showing what Nintendo's entry in the 16-bit game-system wars was capable of when the right people were involved.

ActRaiser--I still remember my initial reaction to this early SNES game. Teenage me thought it was so beautiful that someone at developer Quintet must have sold his or her soul to create such brilliance. Do I feel that way today about this ambitious title, which dares to combine the action-platformer and city-building genres? Yes and no. On the positive side, ActRaiser's looks still bring tears to my eyes. I also continue to appreciate some of its bold gameplay choices. On the negative side, though, I find the side-scrolling sections to be a bit stiff and unforgiving these days. Oh, well, as they say: two out of three ain't bad.

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest--Unlike ActRaiser, this Final Fantasy spin-off (in Japan it was called Final Fantasy USA) didn't immediately trip my trigger. In fact, I turned my nose up at it for a good long while. What changed? I rented it one weekend when no other game appealed to me. What I discovered during the ensuing two days was that, while the game strays far from the traditional Final Fantasy fold, it does so in some really interesting ways. (Much like Square's Mana and SaGa series.) I especially like the rock-leaning soundtrack conjured up by Ryuji Sasai and Yasuhiro Kawakami.

The Legend of the Mystical Ninja--It's kind of hard to believe this game, part of Konami's long-running Goemon series, made the trip across the pond when it did. At the time, most "wacky Japanese" titles stayed put in their countries of origin. Thankfully, the higher-ups at the company that Castlevania built took a chance on this one. It's still one of the system's best looking and sounding games, in my opinion--despite the fact that it's one of its earlier offerings.

Pocky & Rocky--Here's another unconventional game (according to Western tastes, at least) that a company had to take a chance on and that immediately appealed to me. I've got to say that I like this scrolling shooter, which actually is a sequel to Taito's KiKi KaiKai, a bit more than the action-adventure title mentioned above. Every single aspect of it is spot-on--a fact that explains why even loose copies of it tend to go for shy-high prices on both sides of the globe.

Secret of Mana--I know it's now popular to poo-poo this action RPG, but I love it. Always have, always will. Granted, you're talking to someone who gleefully ogled early screenshots of this "real-time Final Fantasy" for what seemed like ages before it finally saw the light of day. Plus, for me, its still-stunning aesthetics and wide variety of weaponry trump any of its gameplay or performance niggles.

Stunt Race FX--Did Nintendo's first Super FX title, Star Fox, blow me away upon it release in early 1993? You bet it did. To be honest, though, this second such game blew me away even more. That's likely because Stunt Race FX's genre and graphical stylings are more my cup of tea than those of its rail-shooter counterpart. Sadly, it's harder to ignore this game's big flaws--a pitifully low frame rate and a slow overall speed--these days than when it first hit store shelves. Even so, I continue to take it for a spin now and then just to bask in its goofy, googly-eyed glow.

Super Bowling--Although no one's likely to call this KID-made sports cart one of the SNES' best offerings, that doesn't mean it's not one of its most enjoyable--especially if you're in the mood for a multi-player romp. There's not a ton of depth here, admittedly, but the various characters, as well as ball, lane and gameplay options, provide more than enough content--not to mention fun--to make the price of admission worthwhile if the idea of a digital bowling title sounds interesting to you.

Super Tennis--This is one of a handful of video games produced by Japanese textbook publisher Tokyo Shoseki, so you might assume it's a bit of a turd. In reality, it's one of the best tennis titles ever created. It's not the most realistic, mind you, but it controls so well and feels so smooth that only the biggest tennis snobs will care. My only complaint: after you've spent a good amount of time with it, you'll be able to pick off most of the computer-controlled opponents with ease.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors--My brother, friends and I put an ungodly amount of time into this cartoonish run-and-gunner back in the day. That's the only way to play Zombie Ate My Neighbors, by the way--with another person sitting by your side. Which is too bad, in a way, as the designers and developers at LucasArts did a bang-up job on the game's controls, music, looks and even humor. The fact is, though, it's just not much fun if you go it alone. So, be sure to grab a pal or lover--or both--before you boot it up to get the best experience.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Is it wrong that Yasuhiro Wada's upcoming game, Birthdays, makes me wish I owned a PS4?

OK, so I'm sure I could think of at least a few other PS4 games that make me wish I owned Sony's latest console. At the moment, though, Birthdays is the only one that's coming to mind. (And, yes, this is despite the fact that Yasuhiro Wada's last game, Hometown Story, was quite a turd.)

What is Birthdays, you ask? Based on the handful of screenshots that've been released so far and the trailer found below, I'd describe it as being a thoroughly Japanese mix of Minecraft and an old SNES game called E.V.O.: Search for Eden.

According to one of the first English reports about this PS4 title, which will be published in its home country by Arc System Works, it "lets players create, steadily evolve and develop environments on new lands where living things are born."

The current plan is for it to hit the streets of Japan in early 2017. Apparently European and North American PS4 owners will get their hands on it shortly after that, as NIS America's already decided to localize Birthdays for those regions. (Here's hoping they keep the original name and logo.)

How about all of you wonderful folks? Are any of you also chomping at the bit to sink your teeth into Birthdays?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Thanks to this trailer, I'm probably going to buy The Princess is Money-Hungry (Vita) even though I doubt I'll understand much of its gameplay

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I published a post about this upcoming Nippon Ichi-made Vita game.

At that time, I suggested I'd place a pre-order for it as soon as possible. That suggestion was made based on its pedigree, a couple of screenshots and a tiny bit of information.

Well, we now have a trailer that shows off a lot more of what The Princess is Money-Hungry has to offer, and ... I'm not sure if it makes me more or less interested in the title than I was before I laid eyes on it.

OK, that's not completely true. I'm still almost painfully interested in The Princess is Money-Hungry--thanks in large part to its wonderfully pixelated protagonist and enemies.

I'm more than a tad worried I won't be able to suss out its gameplay, though, due to my continued discomfort with the Japanese language.

Some of you likely are thinking, isn't it likely NIS America will release an English version of the game sometime next year à la World's Longest 5 Minutes?

That may be true, but I doubt they'll offer up a physical limited edition like Japanese Vita owners probably will get.

I'll let you know what I decide either way, of course. In the meantime, are any of you thinking of buying this action RPG?  Or maybe you're now hoping it'll make its way across the pond in the coming months?

Regardless, share your thoughts and feelings on the matter in the comments section below.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

CIB Sunday: World’s Longest 5 Minutes Limited Edition (Vita)

When the recently released Nippon Ichi-made Vita game World’s Longest 5 Minutes--aka Sekaiichi Nagai 5 Funkan or 世界一長い5分間--was first announced, I planned on buying it via my favorite import shop, AmiAmi.

The game's art style and mishmash of genres--it's part old-school RPG and part visual novel--really appealed to me. Plus, I was pretty sure copies would be cheap, much like Ikenie to Yuki no Setsuna and Roze to Tasogare no Kojou.

Actually, they were--and are. Or at least that's true of the vanilla version of World’s Longest 5 Minutes. Once I became aware of the game's limited edition, though, I quickly switched gears and set my sights on that release.

Fast forward a few months and I'm absolutely thrilled I changed my mind and spent a tad more money on the Sekaiichi Nagai 5 Funkan LE.

If you're wondering why that is, well, keep scrolling through this post. It shouldn't take you long to realize why I'm so stoked about owning it.

Before we get too far, I should let you know what's included in this particular LE package. Snuggled within the lovely outer box showcased in the snapshots above and below are: a copy of World’s Longest 5 Minutes, a soft-cover book of some sort, a two-CD soundtrack and a small, tri-fold desk calendar.

All of this limited edition's "innards" are well worth slobbering over, of course, but let's first spend a couple of seconds ogling that outer box I mentioned in the last sentence. 

Each side edge features pixel-art depictions of what I assume are this Vita title's main characters. Oh, and when you open the box, you reveal the slightly more detailed representations seen below. 

The fun continues inside the World’s Longest 5 Minutes box. Nestled within one of the cutest retro-RPG cityscapes I've seen in a while is a copy of the game.

Here's another look at the aforementioned cityscape, in case any of you are curious:

And here's a look at the back of the World’s Longest 5 Minutes game case:

As for the rest of what's packed inside this limited edition, here's the "soft-cover book of some sort" I eluded to early on in this post:

I say it's a "book of some sort," by the way, because I'm honestly not sure what it is or what it's supposed to be. Before I opened it, I assumed it was an art book, but the first half of it is mostly text. That text doesn't appear to provide tips or tricks or hints to would-be players, though, so maybe it talks about the game's development or something like that?

Regardless, the last few pages of this Sekaiichi Nagai 5 Funkan booklet offer up some nice illustrations and pixel art that make the whole thing worthwhile.

Finally, hidden beneath the game case, the soft-cover book and the two-CD soundtrack (sorry, I didn't like the snapshot I took of it so I'm leaving it out; I'll take another soon and toss it onto my Flickr photostream) is a lovely little tri-fold desk calendar.

I've yet to set up this calendar, or even take a peek at its pages, but I can assure you I'll rectify that shortly--and when I do, I'll take a photo of it and either share it via Flickr or Instagram.

That's basically it--unless you're dying to see the back of this Vita LE's outer box. If you are, take a gander at the photo above.

Much like the rear of the World’s Longest 5 Minutes game case, the reverse side of its outer box isn't anything to shout about, but every other aspect of this limited edition is so grand that I'm not going to complain.

See also: previous posts about World’s Longest 5 Minutes plus previous 'CIB Sunday' posts

Friday, August 19, 2016

Nice Package! (Parodius Da!, PC Engine)

Before I became aware of games like Konami's Parodius Da!, I wasn't all that interested in the shoot 'em up (or shmup) genre.

Sure, early examples like Galaga and Gradius and even R-Type were well crafted and provided a certain thrill, but their deep-space, sci-fi settings left me kind of cold.

The second I laid eyes on titles like Parodius Da! and Detana!! TwinBee, though, I knew those chills--the bad sort, at least--were a thing of the past.

Although TwinBee and other, similar, games like Cotton, Hana Taaka Daka!?, PC Denjin and Twinkle Star Sprites, give me the warm fuzzies, none of them do so as strongly as the game that basically defines the entire cute 'em up genre.

Naturally I'm talking about Parodius Da!

What's so great about it? For starters, there are the visuals. Calling them "candy coated" or "kaleidoscopic" or anything of the sort doesn't quite do them justice, in my opinion.

So what does do them justice? How about "so crazy and colorful they'd make the Ringling Bros. proud."

OK, that's maybe a bit over the top, but if it conjures up thoughts of flying penguins, bathing octopuses, sunglasses-wearing moai statues and other circus-esque entities, well, it's done its job.

There's a lot more to Parodius Da! than its graphics, though. Nearly as important to its stature as a top-shelf cute 'em up is its wacky soundtrack, the bulk of which consists of remixes of classical music.

The cherry on top: this entry, like pretty much all of the Parodius series' entries, hits the gameplay sweet spot in that it's equal parts fun and challenging.

And then, of course, there's this title's packaging. I wouldn't say the cover art produced for the PC Engine port is as stellar as the imagery created for the Super Famicom one, but it's still far better than OK.

Its HuCard label and manual innards are similarly sensational--as evidenced by the snapshots above--while the back of its case is just so-so. Oh, well, you can't always have it all, right?

See also: 'Nice Package!' posts about Pac-Land, KiKi KaiKai and Hana Taaka Daka!?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Manual Stimulation (Valkyrie no Densetsu, PC Engine)

Truth be told, I've never had the highest opinion of Namco's PC Engine releases. Or maybe I should say I've only recently gained an appreciation for them.

What gave me pause in the past? My main issue with the company's PC Engine output was that most of it was made up of watered-down arcade conversions. Although that kind of thing doesn't bother me now--in fact, in many cases I appreciate the differences between the quarter-munchers and their console counterparts--it definitely irritated me when I was younger.

Thankfully, I've since gotten over such closed-mindedness--to the point that I'm now a pretty big fan of the games Namco produced for NEC's Famicom competitor.

Valkyrie no Densetsu is a good example of how things have improved between me and the folks who developed Namco's PC Engine offerings. Until a few months ago, I turned my nose up at this 1990 release. It's not exactly a looker, as the saying goes, and when it comes to old games like this one, that often means the difference between it being played or ignored.

The good news regarding Valkyrie no Densetsu is that it looks a good bit better once it's in motion. It's also surprisingly fun--in an overly linear, original Legend of Zelda kind of way.

Even if that weren't true, though, I'd probably want to own a copy of this colorful HuCard. If you need a reason why, just look at the scans shared throughout this post.

The pair of spreads above really show off how far Namco's artists and designers were willing to go to create quality instruction manuals back in the day.

I especially like the image of the eponymous Valkyrie taking on one of the game's caveman-like baddies that covers the pages that immediate precede this chunk of text but, really, all of the art included on this manual's many piece of papers is awesome if you ask me.

Even pages that otherwise might be considered boring are better than your run-of-the-mill how-to booklet, thanks to the use of color and callouts and whatnot.

Not that you could call much of the Valkyrie no Densetsu instruction manual "boring." Consider the following spread--which reminds me of the similar products Nintendo created for titles like The Legend of Zelda and Kid Icarus.

Somewhat-related aside: I've always been a softie for illustrations of common game items like bottles and keys and weapons and armor.

Finally, we have a map of the areas players have to traverse if they want to conquer the PC Engine version of Valkyrie no Densetsu.

Or at least that's what I think the pages above are supposed to depict. I can't say for sure because I've never made it past the HuCard's first few stages.

How about you? Are you a hardcore Valkyrie no Densetsu fan who has seen its end credits many times over, or is this the first you're hearing of this not-quite-classic (outside of Japan, at least)? Regardless, please share your thoughts on this title's manual if you have the time and interest.

See also: 'Nice Package! (Valkyrie no Densetsu, PC Engine),' 'Second Chances: Valkyrie no Densetsu (PC Engine)' and previous 'Manual Stimulation' posts