Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Nice Package! (Onyanko Town, Famicom)

I've written about this Japan-only Famicom game a few times before. I first mentioned Onyanko Town last fall in this "Shall We Do It?" write-up after my maiden experience with it. Early this year, I brought it up again in a post about my five favorite Pac-Man clones.

So, why am I covering it once more? Because neither of the aforementioned posts included photos of Onyanko Town's adorable packaging.

By far the most appealing component of this game's packaging is its outer box--or at least that's my opinion on the subject.

I mean, you'd need a heart of stone to dislike the Onyanko Town logo, which is lovingly crafted out of yellow-orange bubble letters. The same is true of the so-cute-it-could-make-you-barf cover illustration that sits beneath that logo.

The characters showcased on the front and back sides of this Famicom game's box are the only ones you encounter while playing it, by the way.

The larger cat on the far right of its cover art, the one grasping a fish, is who you control once the game begins. As for the kitten she's holding with her other paw, that's her baby, Michael. He runs away (or something of the sort) at the start of every level, and then you, as Mirukii, chase after him and drag him back home.

The "nasty dog" depicted in the upper-right corner of the manual page below basically serves as Onyanko Town's version of the ghosts that populate Pac-Man's pellet-riddled screens. A number of them stalk this copycat's levels. Should they catch you or your son, it's game over.

The fishmonger seen in the lower-right corner of the sample manual page above, as well as on the far left of the cart label below, also gives chase if you dare to steal one of his future fillets.

Thankfully, you can get these brutes off your tail by flipping the lids of the manholes that cover Onyanko Town's busy streets and sending them tumbling into their putrid depths.

This evasive action only offers a temporary reprieve, however, so keep that in mind if you ever decide to play Onyanko Town yourself.

With all that out of the way, this 1985 release's packaging is surprisingly nice, wouldn't you agree? Its key art is recycled a bit more than I'd like, I've got to admit, but other than that I personally think it's pretty sweet.

See also: previous 'Nice Package!' posts about the Famicom Disk Writer version of Bubble Bubble, Final Fantasy and Rainbow Islands

Friday, August 18, 2017

Ten questions with the guy chiefly responsible for the (nearly complete) English fan translation of Ripened Tingle's Balloon Trip of Love

You're all waiting with bated breath for the English fan translation of Ripened Tingle's Balloon Trip of Love to be released, right?

Don't tell me this is the first you're hearing of it. I wrote about it back in May--in a post titled, "Coming soon-ish to a DS near you: a fan translation of Irozuki Tincle no Koi no Balloon Trip"--for crying out loud.

Unfortunately, we've still got a bit of a wait before the patch is finished and made available to the hand-wringing masses. In the meantime, here's an interview with the guy who not only got this project off the ground but is seeing it through to its release.

I can't share his name in this post for reasons that should be obvious. I can, however, share the handle he tends to use for his fan translation work: joesteve1914.

With that out of the way, let's get to the 10 questions I recently asked joesteve1914 about this tantalizing project as well as his responses to them.

The Gay Gamer: Why did you decide to translate Irozuki Tincle no Koi no Balloon Trip? Are you Tingle fan from way back? Or maybe you're more of a general DS, Nintendo or Zelda fan?

Joesteve1914: I'm a big Zelda fan. I've loved the Legend of Zelda series my entire life, and I've played almost every game in the series. When I learned of the Tingle series, I was instantly intrigued since Tingle is one of my favorite characters. (Not many people share that opinion!) I played Freshly-Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland and liked it, so I wanted to experience its sequel as well.

The Gay Gamer: When did you start this project? You launched its blog in early 2013, but based on your first posts, it sounds like the project began before that?

Joesteve1914: Yeah, the blog was something I thought of a few months after I started working on the game. If we're being really technical here, I suppose the project started on July 31, 2012, at around 5 pm EST. That's when I posted in the RHDN forums asking for help with hacking the game, since I had never done ROM hacking before. I basically spent the next two years trying to learn about ROM hacking in my spare time. I didn't have the help or the knowledge to start a long-term project like this until the beginning of 2014. So realistically you might say the project started “for real” in 2014.

The Gay Gamer: How many people have worked on or are currently working on the patch? Also, can you explain what each person on the team has worked on or is working on now?

Joesteve1914: In total, around 13 people have contributed to the project so far. At the moment, our team consists of five people. First up we have our translators, waldrumpus and DaVince.

DaVince joined in early 2014, right around the time a major development occurred that made the translation of the script a realistic possibility. He translated the first “page” and some other miscellaneous stuff in the script. He also sometimes stops by our Slack channel and helps us with localization decisions (names, how to translate puns, etc.).

As for waldrumpus, he joined in August of 2014. Like me, this was his first time working on a fan translation. Despite this, he went on to translate nearly 90 percent of the very lengthy script by himself. The dedication waldrumpus has had over the last few years has been amazing. He also is going to be involved in the editing process and will be there to assist the other editors if they have questions.

Next up we have chir-miru, who's been helping out here and there since 2012. At the beginning of the project, chir-miru and I both worked on hacking, which included figuring out how to edit the script and the graphics in the game. We parted ways for a while, but chir-miru came back in 2016 and helped out with some graphics editing.

Zell0s joined in July of 2016 as a graphics editor. He’s been a great help to the graphical side of the project. He did, by my estimate, nearly half of the graphics in the game himself before he left the project this year. We also have masterofzoroark on the graphics side of things. He joined in June of this year. He's been a great help in recent months, too--especially as we near the end of the graphics editing. Finally, we have Pandamanu, who very graciously did the English graphics for the chapter scrolls in the game. There’s around 44 of those, so this was a big help and sped the project up a lot.

And then we have our script editors. We’re still assembling this team, so that work hasn’t really begun in earnest yet.

Although not part of the team, these next few people have also been a huge help to the project. There’s DarthNemesis, who coded the awesome script dumper and extractor (I can’t even imagine editing the text manually), as well as FShadow, who created the new English title logo.

There’s also Auryn, Kelebek, Normmatt and FAST6191; they have given advice and assisted me with some of the more difficult (at least for me!) hacking.

The Gay Gamer: What has been the biggest stumbling block to the project so far? Or what has been the biggest problem you've encountered since you kicked it off?

Joesteve1914: For me personally, the biggest stumbling block in general has been my inexperience with rom hacking. When I started this project back in 2012, I had no experience whatsoever in hacking; in fact, I decided to learn rom hacking for the purpose of translating this game.

I’ve had a lot of problems in terms of hacking that I’ve had to overcome, but the most major one would be figuring out the game’s text engine; specifically how to fit in more text, since English takes up more space than Japanese most of the time. Thanks to the help of Kelebek, we now know that the game uses an unconventional way of determining the length of text. Long story short, it ranges from extremely painful to impossible to expand the amount of text displayed manually. Fortunately, DarthNemesis’s text editor makes editing the text as easy as editing a .txt file.

The Gay Gamer: Have you been pleasantly surprised by anything while working on this translation?

Joesteve1914: I think what surprised me the most was the support and encouragement we got from people. Seeing hundreds of people view the blog every day, as well as the comments that people leave, is very encouraging. I’ve even received a few offers to donate money to the project! Unfortunately, if we accepted anything we’d be asking for a cease-and-desist letter from Nintendo.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Second Chances: Bubble Bobble 2 (Famicom)

Given my love of the original Bubble Bobble, you might assume I've adored this pseudo-sequel since the first time I played it. (Don't let its name fool you; Rainbow Islands is the real follow-up to the aforementioned classic.)

In reality, I've attempted to play--and enjoy--Bubble Bobble 2 a number of times since its release 24 years ago. Sadly, each attempt (made via emulation, I have to add; I haven't yet gotten up the nerve to drop a few hundred dollars on a game I've long struggled to like) ended with me shaking my head in disbelief, wondering how the masters at Taito could've screwed up so badly.

What do I mean by "screwed up"? Consider Bubble Bobble 2's graphics. Anyone who tries to tell you they even approach the kaleidoscopic adorableness of Bub's and Bob's first foray into the "cave of monsters" is someone you shouldn't trust, in my humble opinion.

Heck, I'd go so far as to say I prefer the aesthetics of the Rainbow Islands Famicom port to those of the game discussed here, and that particular home version of the official Bubble Bobble successor isn't exactly known for being a looker (especially when compared to its quarter-munching counterpart).

Another visual aspect of Bubble Bobble 2, aka Bubble Bobble Part 2 outside of Japan, that's kept me from warming up to it as much as I thought I would when I first became aware of it: its sprites. They're all out of whack in terms of size. Specifically, Bub and Bob appear to have gained a few pounds since their initial go-round, while their well-known adversaries seem to have been zapped by some sort of futuristic shrinking ray.

That's not the end of the world, admittedly, and if you're like me you'll get over the questionable art direction in time, but even then it remains one of the ugliest Bubble Bobble games around.

The worst offender when it comes to Bubble Bobble 2's looks, though, is its lazy backdrops. Although a couple of them are nice enough, they stick around for so long they become boring. This is especially true of the yawn-inducing, column-filled environment that opens the game. It barely changes while you progress through the first 10 levels, and when you finally make it to the 11th, the sky color switches from blue to coral and that's it.

Later stages offer backgrounds that are far more interesting, thankfully, but even they tend to overstay their welcome.

The good news amidst this deluge of negativity: all the complaints I've leveled at Bubble Bobble 2 so far are merely cosmetic. (That's not to say I can't think of a few others, such as its lackluster soundtrack and its abundance of flicker.) Even better, they irk you less and less the more you play the game--or at least that's been the case for me. As an example, I currently consider the Bub (or Bob) sprite to be kind of cute, which is worlds away from my initial, horrified response to it.

Also, Bubble Bobble 2 is an enjoyable enough single-screen platformer even though it's far from the most attractive one around. That's largely because of how bizarre it eventually shows itself to be.

A case in point: after nearly putting you to sleep with 19 straight stages populated by a few stray clouds, columns and bushes (as well as a bunch of baddies, of course), the game whisks you away to what looks like a brick-lined dungeon to battle what I can only describe as a xenomorph riding a motorcycle. (See screenshot above for evidence.)

How this fits into Bubble Bobble 2's overall story, I cannot say. I can say, however, that it served as a turning point in my relationship with this odd duck of the Bubble Bobble series.

After encountering that Alien-esque boss--as well as the enemy that looks like a mashup of a Star Wars AT-ST and a Zen-chan as well as the one that seems to be made up of a skeletal head, a chain-link body and bony little legs (again, see screenshot above)--I developed an appreciation for Bobble Bobble 2's unapologetic wackiness.

I'd still rather play the original Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands or Parasol Stars, mind you, but I think it's safe to say I'll toss this 1993 release into the mix now and then thanks to my most recent--and mostly positive--experience with it.

See also: previous 'Second Chances' posts about the Famicom ports of Chack'n Pop, Don Doko Don and Rainbow Islands, as well as Bubble Bobble Junior for the GameBoy

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Photographic proof I may be more obsessed with the PC Engine than I am with the Wii at this point

And that's saying something, as I'm really into the Wii right now thanks to all the fun I'm having with Opoona and Tabemon. (Here are some Opoona impressions, for the curious.)

So what do I mean when I say I'm obsessed with NEC's little white wonder, aka the PC Engine? Well, I mean that beyond playing the many PC Engine games I've owned for years now, I've been buying new ones over the last month or two.

In fact, I've bought at least 12 PC Engine games in that time. All are HuCards. Most are RPGs.

Their titles aren't completely visible in the snapshots included to the right, so I'll spell them out for you (in order, from top to bottom) while also sharing little descriptions for those who aren't so versed in PC Engine HuCards.

War of the Dead--A post-apocalyptic RPG from 1989 that features battles focused on side-scrolling action rather than selecting options from drop-down menus. Oh, and War of the Dead's badass protagonist--a woman, amazingly--uses guns, grenade launchers and the like rather than swords and magic to mow down the ghoulies that get in her way. Given all of that, is it any wonder I've wanted to play this since I first pinged my radar?

Necros no Yōsai--I told you early I was really into HuCard RPGs right now. Well, here's another. This one was released in 1990 and offers players slightly more traditional battles than War of the Dead. I say slightly because they're (said to be) far more cinematic than what's typical for the genre and for the time. Not that I've played it yet, mind you. The Brothers Duomazov have, though, and I always trust their judgment.

Susano Oh Densetsu--Surprise! Another chip-based role-playing game. This one is based on the Japanese manga, Susano Oh, created by Go Nagai. Again, word on the street is Susano Oh Densetu isn't your typical RPG. Enemies are visible on the overworld screen and the fights they pick with you via your avatar seem to be pretty strategic. Toss into the mix the ability to use everything from axes to rocket launchers against your opponents, and you've got a game I'm very much itching to play.

Double Dungeons--I can't say I've been itching to play this HuCard dungeon crawler, but I have long thought it looked interesting, so I went ahead and purchased a copy when I came across a cheap one while perusing eBay recently. The differentiator here is two people can tackle a dungeon at the same time. I'll likely never have the opportunity to experience Double Dungeons that way, of course, but hopefully I'll enjoy my eventual playthrough all the same.

R-Type I and II--The R-Type II shown and discussed here isn't the arcade sequel (to the original R-Type, naturally) Irem released in 1989. Bizarrely, the company split the first R-Type into two parts while porting it to the PC Engine. Yes, that meant the game was released on two HuCards. Ridiculous, right? Still, I have fond memories of playing the North American version (on my beloved TurboGrafx-16) back in the day, so I picked up both Japanese chips during one of my impromptu eBay shopping sprees.

Gomola Speed--I've had my eyes on this strange, Snake-inspired PC Engine title for ages now, but it wasn't until I had a Twitter chat about it with Snow Kitten that I finally bit the bullet and bought a copy. It sports some great cover art, plus its gameplay looks like good, breezy fun, so I'll definitely give it a go sooner rather than later.

Daichi-kun Crisis: Do Natural--Here's a HuCard with which I've had an on-again, off-again relationship since I first became aware of it. My interest in it should be easy enough to understand once you glimpse its cover art, which shows an erupting volcano surrounded by a bunch of adorable cows. As for why it took me so long to add Daichi-kun Crisis to my ever-growing collection of PC Engine games: its gameplay looks, well, bonkers--and not necessarily in a good way. That's rarely stopped me from trying something, so here's hoping it pays off this time around.

Nazo no Masquerade--This is the kind of game I would've avoided like the plague before I started learning Japanese. (Read about my progress in this recent post.) Now, though, I use such titles as inspiration to keep me going. Not that I see myself successfully completing an adventure game like this one anytime soon. Still, I may boot up Nazo no Masquerade in the coming weeks just to see what I'm able to suss out, as I'm attracted to its "1920s mansion" setting.

Momotarō Katsugeki--No need to know Japanese for this game, which is a side-scrolling platformer starring that country's popular "Peach Boy." (Momotarō often is translated to Peach Boy.) Momotarō Katsugeki looks quite PC Genjin-esque to me, and seeing as though I've loved every PC Genjin (or Bonk) title I've played, I have a feeling I'll love this Hudson Soft-published effort, too--once I finally pop it into my trusty PC Engine Core Grafx II.

Momotarō Densetsu Turbo and Momotarō Densetsu Gaiden--These games also were made and published by Hudson Soft, and they also star the above-mentioned Peach Boy. They differ from Katsugeki in terms of gameplay, though. Both are Dragon Quest-esque RPGs full of turn-based battles and travels across exotic landscapes. The latter's supposed to be miles better than the former, so most would say I should start with Gaiden, but I'll probably do the opposite.

Have you played any of these PC Engine games? If so, let me (and others) know what you think of them in the comments section below.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Manual Stimulation: Penguin-kun Wars Vs. (GameBoy)

I hate to begin this post on a negative note, but I'm going to do it anyway: the Penguin-kun Wars Vs. instruction manual can't quite hold a candle to the game's eye-popping cover art or cartridge label. (Both can be seen in the previously published, "Surprise! The Year of the GameBoy Continues: Penguin-kun Wars Vs.")

That doesn't mean you should click away from this write-up. The Penguin-kun Wars Vs. manual has plenty to offer even though it lacks the wow factor of the rest of this Japanese game's packaging.

Before we get to the meat of the instructional booklet at hand, though, let's address the scan above, which is of its front and back covers. Rest assured I had nothing to do with the off-color splotches that dot its surface.

Sadly, that's the condition it was in when it landed on my doorstep some time ago. Which is weird, as otherwise this copy of Penguin-kun Wars Vs. seems untouched. Maybe it wasn't stored properly?

Regardless, those splotches basically are nonexistent inside the Penguin-kun Wars Vs. booklet, so let's not linger over them.

Moving on, boy, the penguin illustration above is adorable, isn't it? Stylistically, it reminds me of the similarly rough-hewn drawings that can be found in the manuals made for Bubble Bobble Junior and Penguin Land.

The text that sits behind that piece of art details the history of the Penguin-kun Wars series, by the way. Or at least that's what I was able to gather with my admittedly still-developing understanding of the Japanese language.

The pages above, on the other hand, detail the rules and controls of Penguin-kun Wars Vs., respectively.

The manual then moves on to explain the ins and outs of this GameBoy title's one-player mode.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Surprise! The Year of the GameBoy Continues: Penguin-kun Wars Vs.

In light of the recent news (see japanesenintendo.com for more info) that publisher City Connection is prepping a "modern remake" of Penguin-kun Wars--to be called Penguin-kun Gira Gira WARS--for the Nintendo Switch, I decided now was as good a time as any to publish a post about the original portable version of ASCII Entertainment's one-on-one battler.

If this is the first you've ever heard of Penguin-kun Wars, it's an arcade-style game that stars a handful of animals (specifically, a bat, a cow, a rabbit, a rat and, of course, a penguin) who, for some reason or another, come together to toss balls across a table at each other.

You, the player, choose and then control one of the above-mentioned creatures in a timed battle against another animal, with the goal being to get all 10 balls onto your opponent's side of the table before the clock runs out. Should you fail to accomplish that task, the next best thing is to ensure there are fewer balls on your side of the table than there are on your opponent's when the buzzer rings.

Not all animals are treated equally in any version of Penguin-kun Wars, by they way. For example, the rat moves quickly side to side but throws balls slowly. The cow, on the other hand, lacks foot speed but is fast to recover when hit by a ball. (Sorry, I forgot to mention earlier that characters are knocked unconscious when pelted by said projectiles.)

It's hardly the deepest of experiences, mind you, but it's good, clean fun while also being pretty darn cute, so it's an easy title to recommend even with its shallow gameplay.

Penguin-kun Wars began life--in 1985--as an arcade game, by the way. That same year, ASCII published home ports for both the MSX and the Famicom. The portable port discussed and highlighted here, which added multiplayer tournaments via the Game Boy Video Link to the mix, didn't see the light of day until early 1990.

Unlike the Famicom and MSX iterations Penguin-kun WarsPenguin-kun Wars Vs. wasn't a Japan-only product. In fact, Nexoft brought it to North America as Penguin Wars, while Nintendo handled its release, as King of the Zoo, throughout Europe.

Considering every other version of Penguin-kun Wars is crammed with color, a GameBoy conversion could've been a major disappointment. Like Bubble Bobble Junior, Tumblepop and Snow Bros. Jr., though, Penguin-kun Wars Vs. is surprisingly easy on the eyes despite being a black-and-green affair. Actually, I'd go so far as to say the sprites showcased in the latter game look better than either of its homebound counterparts.

Unfortunately, Penguin-kun Wars for Famicom bests this on-the-go effort in the area of gameplay due to the portable title's somewhat stutter-y frame rate. Don't let that scare you away from it, though; it's still perfectly playable--it's just not perfect.

Granted, I'd probably recommend this game for its packaging alone. I'm especially fond of its cover art, though the interior of its instruction booklet has its moments, too. Speaking of which, you can virtually flip through the entirety of the Penguin-kun Wars Vs. manual in this "Manual Stimulation" post of mine.

In the meantime, have any of you played Penguin-kun Wars in some form or fashion? If so, I'd love it if you're share your opinions of the experience(s) in the comments section of this post.

See also: previous 'Year of the GameBoy' posts

Saturday, August 05, 2017

A few thoughts on Opoona (Wii) now that I've finally played it for a couple of hours

Although I've owned a copy of this unique RPG for years now, its disc hadn't seen the innards of my Wii until a week ago.

What prompted me to get off my lazy butt and (finally) start playing Opoona? One of the first things I did after getting settled into our new home was hook up my Wii (mainly to see if it still worked), which in turn pushed me to unpack and organize all of my games.

Looking through my collection of Wii titles made me realize just how many of them I'd never even booted up. So, I decided then and there to free a few from their plastic prisons--beginning with this ArtePiazza-made oddity and Namco's similarly weird Tabemon. (Don't worry, I'll share impressions of the latter in an upcoming post.)

Since then, I've put approximately six hours into the former. That's an accomplishment worth crowing about, if you ask me. After all, Opoona's first hour or two are the definition of challenging. Not because its random battles are overly tough, mind you; rather, it's because the game takes its sweet time in telling you the protagonist's backstory and introducing you to the game's world. Also, the first area ("dome," actually) it drops you into is a real bitch to navigate.

Thankfully, things pick up a great deal once you're allowed to do as you please--which in Opoona generally means trying out a number of curious "jobs" and tackling the various quests that are associated with them.

The first job you're given is called "ranger." Sounds intriguing, I know, but in reality the ranger job is similar to the generic "fighter" role offered up by any other JRPG that's ever seen the light of day.

So, early on in Opoona, you accept a few tasks that force you into the forest that surrounds the opening dome (more become available in time) to fight alien-looking baddies using the titular character's "bon-bon."

Speaking of Opoona's bon-bon, it's the game's main claim to fame--and for good reason. For the unaware: the bon-bon is your main weapon while playing Opoona. It's controlled using the analog stick on the Wii nunchuck peripheral. While in battle, you pull back on the stick (or push it forward, or to the side) and then let it flick in the opposite direction to send your bon-bon careening toward one or more of the enemies that stand before you, à la Dragon Quest.

That's related to another of Opoona's selling points, by the way. If you want, you can play it one-handed, using only the Wii nunchuck. Personally, I prefer using the Wii remote as well, but I like that the game's developers included such an accessible control option.

Anyway, back to Opoona's job and quest system. I only have experience with the ranger and attendant jobs so far, but that's enough for me to guess the game is going to take me in some strange directions between now and whenever I'm finished with it.

Why? Take the attendant job. The first few quests or tasks you're given upon accepting that occupation have you filling orders at an intergalactic fast-food joint and delivering room service at a bustling hotel.

Admittedly, tackling those tasks is a lot less enjoyable than taking out baddies with the rubber-ball-esque bon-bon, but it's a nice change of pace nonetheless.

Given the above, it should be pretty clear that Opoona isn't your typical console RPG. For the most part, I've found that to be a good thing during my six-hour playthrough. I like its characters, I like its sci-fi setting, I like its snappy battles, I like its breezy soundtrack, and I like its overall aesthetic.

On the other hand, traversing the game's (unquestionably beautiful) environments veers between semi-tedious and tortuous. The huge domes that serve as its hubs are especially enraging. The game fails to provide you with a useful map, so when an NPC says something like, "go ask Mary in the library about this," you invariably spend a good 10 or 15 minutes (if not more) trying to find said location.

The fields outside Opoona's domes are less aggravating in terms of their layouts, but that doesn't mean they're without fault. My main knock against them at the moment: although you can move the camera while wandering around the game's interior spaces, you lose that freedom while outdoors. As a result, it's not unusual to find yourself in awkward positions that make it difficult to parse exactly where you are or where you're going.

Those gripes currently keep from flat-out recommending Opoona, but they aren't keeping me from continuing through its adventure. The bulk of it interests me to the point that the aforementioned niggles are fairly, but not entirely, easy to ignore.

Who knows if that will hold true until I encounter its credit roll, or until I prematurely walk away from the game--whichever happens first. I hope it will, though, as I'd really like to see Opoona through to the end.

In the meantime, have any of you played this Koei-published Wii title? If so, what's your opinion of it?

Thursday, August 03, 2017

A long overdue update on my quest to learn Japanese

Those of you with good memories may recall this series of posts from early 2013 about my initial attempts to teach myself the Japanese language.

In the last of that trio of write-ups, I declared that I'd finished learning the hiragana and katakana syllabaries. Near the end, I suggested my next steps would be to tackle basic vocabulary and grammar.

Fast forward to today--more than four years later--and, well, let's just say things haven't quite gone to plan. Actually, I did learn a bit of vocabulary and grammar in the weeks and months that followed my last blog post on this subject, but that's it.

Thankfully, although I didn't learn anything new in 2014, 2015 or even 2016, I also didn't forget what I'd previously mastered.

That's hardly worth crowing about, of course. As nice as it is to be able to understand a handful of Japanese words and phrases, the point of this "quest" was to become as fluent as possible in this challenging language.

So, one of my only goals for this "sabbatical year" has been for me to get off my lazy butt and return to my Japanese studies. Although it took me a while to actually do that, I'd say I've spent the last two or three months diligently learning kanji and sentence structure.

I'm still basically clueless when it comes to translating passages in games or on websites, mind you, but that's OK. I finally feel like I'm making progress, and that thrills me to no end.

Are any of you curious as to which apps and books and sites I'm utilizing as part of my studies? Here are the main ones, if so:

GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese--This is what I turned to after I mastered the katakana and hiragana syllabaries. It's basically a text book, and it isn't exactly cheap (about $50 on Amazon), but it's really helped me expand my vocabulary and overall understanding of how the language works.

GENKI Vocab Cards app--I've also spent a lot of time with this companion app, which mirrors the lessons presented in An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese. It was $5.99, and I consider that money well spent due to how easy it is to use and how much it's bolstered my knowledge of the language. (GENKI also sells kanji and conjugation apps via the Apple and Android stores, by the way, and I plan to buy both shortly.)

Japanese Ammo--I randomly stumbled across this site a few months ago while looking for answers to some questions I had about sentence structure. Not only did its "How to Build a Sentence in Japanese" guide help with that dilemma, but it turned me on to tons of other articles and pages about vocabulary and grammar and even culture that I'm sure will prove similarly helpful down the road.

Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters--This is one of three (including the GENKI book discussed above) resources I'm currently using to learn kanji. Remembering the Kanji 1's main claim to fame is that it can quickly teach you the meaning and writing of over 2,000 kanji. It does this by ignoring pronunciation, which is covered in Remembering the Kanji 2. Although I'm not going through this book as rapidly as author James Heisig seemingly intended, I'm finding it really useful--and interesting. The associative stories Heisig offers up in Remembering the Kanji 1 make more sense to me than the ones used by WaniKani. Also, I like that Heisig teaches stroke order, which I have found helps me both learn and recall individual kanji. As such, I'll definitely pick up Remembering the Kanji 2 as soon as I finish the first.

WaniKani--This is another of the resources I'm using to learn kanji. WaniKani isn't perfect--it doesn't teach stroke order and I don't always agree with the mnemonics it provides to help you memorize meanings--but I like it well enough to refer to it on a daily basis. One cool aspect of this site: you can go through the first three levels for free. That probably doesn't sound like much, but it is. I'm still working my way through the second level, for instance, and already I've learned more than 50 kanji and 40 related vocabulary words. Once I've finished with the third level, I'll have to pay either $9 a month or $89 a year to continue using the site and complete its remaining 57 levels, but I'm more than OK with that given my positive experience so far.

In addition to the above, I used the Dr. Moku apps to learn the katakana and hiragana syllabaries. They're $3.99 each, or $6.99 as a bundle (if you're an iPhone user). Yes, you can learn both syllabaries for free via various sites and blogs and even apps, but I went with Dr. Moku's because of the clean interface and the ability to do randomized quizzes. (On a related note, I see there's now a Dr. Moku kanji app. I'll likely buy it soon and add it to "the pile.")

Are any of you trying to learn Japanese? Or have you already learned it? If so, and if you want to share any advice with me or anyone else who is in the same boat, please do so in the comments section of this post.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Welcome to WonderSwan World: Tane wo Maku Tori

This Bandai-published WonderSwan game was one of the first I picked up--along with Engacho!--when I began collecting for this GameBoy competitor back in 2012.

Not that I was able to play it at that time. I didn't buy a WonderSwan system, a translucent black Color model, until three years later. (Here is the post I published about that momentous event, in case you're curious. And if you'd like to learn more about the WonderSwan Color hardware, check out this "Welcome to WonderSwan World" write-up.)

So what do I think of Tane wo Maku Tori now that I've spent some time with it? I like it--quite a lot, actually.

As for why that is, here are the main reasons:

Tane wo Maku Tori is a puzzle game, a genre which the WonderSwan handles better than almost any other.
* To play it, you hold your WonderSwan system of choice sideways, in portrait or "TATE" mode. (Any title that allows this earns bonus points from me.)
* This 1999 release features an appealingly high-contrast aesthetic.
* It also offers up an eclectic soundtrack that veers from morosely moody to buoyantly blippy.

Tane wo Maku Tori's gameplay is noteworthy, too, although not always in the most positive way, if I'm allowed to be honest.

On the surface, at least, the puzzling action presented here is refreshingly unique. Your goal: to guide water droplets from the top of the WonderSwan's screen to a seed or seeds that are waiting at the bottom.

You do this to help the game's protagonist, the crow seen in the first screenshot above, fill his hometown with flowers before his migratory friend returns from the south. (That description was provided by shinjuforest.blogspot.com, by the way.)

As for how you guide the above-mentioned droplets from one end of the screen to the other, that's not so easily explained. The gist, though, is each water drop can take one of four paths down to the seeds scattered on the ground, with the paths in question represented by bamboo stalks, vines, construction girders and more. To complicate matters, these "vessels" are joined at various points.

Those connectors--tree branches, additional beams and the like--are all you control while playing Tane wo Maku Tori. Using the WonderSwan's left-most set of face buttons, you press up or down to move the "connecting bits" in that same direction, while pressing left or right changes which section of connectors are under your control.

So, you move the branches and beams and whatnot up and down to enable the water drops to land one of the seeds below.

Early on, that's all you have to worry about while playing Tane wo Maku Tori. After a few levels, however, enemies--in the form of water-loving bugs and slugs and other creepy-crawlies--throw a wrench into the works by joining the fray.

That's where things get a little messy, or at least that's where they tend to get messy for me. Trying to corral droplets while also keeping them clear of roaming baddies quickly becomes a real challenge--to the point that Tane wo Maku Tori often feels a bit too frantic for its own good.

Still, I'm glad it exists, as its many quirks allow it to stand out in the WonderSwan's dense field of puzzle games. Also, it's a puzzler that stars a sad crow; it would be kind of hard not to like such a thing, wouldn't you agree?

Have any of you played Tane wo Maku Tori? If so, share your own feelings about it in the comments section of this post. And feel free to share any advice or tips you may have with me there, too--I'm all ears!

See also: previous 'Welcome to WonderSwan World' posts and photos of Tane wo Maku Tori's lovely packaging

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My 10 Most Influential Games: Panzer Dragoon (Sega Saturn)

Truth be told, I've never been a fan of rail shooters. You know, the type of shmup--or shoot 'em up--where the ship or flying character moves and shoots into the screen while the game pushes them along a set path.

A few examples, if the description above isn't enough: 1985's arcade classic, Space Harrier, 1987's Thunder Blade and 1988's Galaxy Force, among many, many others.

Don't get me wrong, I love the looks and even the general idea of each of those titles. Their gameplay has never appealed to me, though--or maybe I should say their gameplay has always confounded me. Moving around a screen while simultaneously shooting into it just feels weird to me.

Still, when I bought a Japanese Sega Saturn system in early 1995 (embarrassing aside: I paid about $600 for the console, one controller and a copy of Virtua Fighter), I also bought Panzer Dragoon.

Admittedly, I didn't realize Panzer Dragoon was a rail shooter at the time. I had a feeling that was the case, thanks to all the articles I'd read in magazines like DieHard GameFan and Electronic Gaming Monthly, but I wasn't absolutely sure.

I wasn't disappointed when I finally spent some time with this particular into-the-screen shooter, thankfully. Its softly colored visuals, dynamic camera positions and majestic soundtrack helped acclimate me to it, I'm sure, but they only would've taken me so far had Panzer Dragoon's gameplay been a total bore.

I guess some folks may describe this Sega product using that term, but not me. In fact, I've found its gameplay exhilarating since day one. Chiefly responsible for that, I think, is the fluid movement (for the time, at least) of the blue-and-pink dragon that serves as the protagonist's airborne "steed."

That movement gives Panzer Dragoon's gameplay an element of depth I thought was lacking in older rail shooters--I have a hard time judging where I am in relation to oncoming enemies in the vast majority of those games--and that was key to me finally enjoying one of this shmup sub-genre's offerings.

Did this surprising love affair prompt me to seek out, play and even lust after other into-the-screen shoot 'em ups?

To an extent, yes. I certainly found 1997's Star Fox 64 for the Nintendo 64 far more appealing than I would have if Panzer Dragoon hadn't pushed my buttons, so to speak. And the same could be said for 2000's Sin and Punishment and 2001's Rez.

Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say rail shooters have become one of my favorite game genres thanks to this early Sega Saturn title, but I definitely enjoy them a lot more than I did before I took it for a spin. For that reason alone, I think declaring Panzer Dragoon one of my most influential games makes perfect sense.

See also: previous '10 Most Influential Game' posts about The 7th Guest, Balloon Kid, Bubble Bobble, Final Fantasy V and Kid Icarus

Sunday, July 23, 2017

I tried the Hey! Pikmin demo and I think I liked it

When Nintendo first revealed this handheld Pikmin spinoff last September, I immediately added it to my ever-growing (or maybe I should say never-shrinking) "buy these 3DS games as soon as is humanly possible" list.

Later, when it slipped out that Hey! Pikmin's developer wasn't an internal Nintendo team but the forever-maligned Arzest--makers of Yoshi's New Island, among other titles of debatable quality--my interest flagged a bit. It diminished even more after early hands-on impressions of the game made their way onto the Internet.

None of the above caused me to give up on Hey! Pikmin entirely, mind you. Even when my (uninformed) opinion of it was at its lowest, I still expected I'd pick up a copy once my bank account allowed.

Fast forward to this weekend, when I played through the Hey! Pikmin demo Nintendo recently--finally!--dropped onto the 3DS eShop. The gist of my reaction to that bite-sized version of the game: I'm definitely buying it, and sooner rather than later.

As for what tossed me back onto the Hey! Pikmin hype train, here are the first four reasons that came to mind:

The game looks great when splashed across a pair of 3DS screens--OK, so "splashed across" probably is the wrong phrase to use here, especially if your 3DS is of the LL or XL variety. If you use one of the original 3DS models, or one of the smaller New 3DS systems, though, Hey! Pikmin looks superb on its screens. Which shouldn't be a surprise, really. 3DS screenshots often disappoint visually when viewed on a computer or phone, but the games they represent almost always appear many times more impressive when experienced in motion and on the "real deal." At any rate, the hand-painted art style Arzest employed while producing this platformer is beyond pleasant. It reminds of the aforementioned Yoshi's New Island, but improves upon that title's aesthetic in pretty much every regard.

I already love its rather deliberate, exploration-focused gameplay--Early on, Hey! Pikmin's gameplay stumped me. It looked like a side-scrolling platformer, but that didn't really gel with strategic nature of the series' other entries. Thankfully, everything becomes abundantly clear once you start plodding your way through this portable Pikmin offshoot. Basically, it is a side-scroller, but it doesn't require players to hop from platform to platform, à la Super Mario Bros. Instead, you move Captain Olimar to the left or right with the 3DS' circle pad--or its directional pad or even A and Y buttons--while a tap of the systems' touch pad launches the Pikmin that follow in his wake to and fro. (You do the latter to collect or break objects, or to damage enemies.) I know it sounds clumsy, but I found it to be both competent and comfortable while completing the demo.

No 3D? Doesn't bother me a bit--I know some folks gets riled up when a 3DS game doesn't support the system's stereoscopic 3D feature, but I'm not one of them. Although I understand where they're coming from, and I wish every release made for Nintendo's second dual-screened handheld allowed people to customize their experience in such a way, I never turn on 3D while playing 3DS titles. Plus, adding stereoscopic 3D effects to Hey! Pikmin wouldn't have made much sense, as most of its action takes place on the portable console's lower screen.

I also can't say I mind being forced to use the 3DS' circle pad and touch screen--A lot of people prefer to use traditional input methods--directional pads and buttons--while playing games. I get that. In the case of Hey! Pikmin, though, ignoring the 3DS' touch screen would only make corralling the titular creatures more awkward than it needs to be. I guess the developers at Arzest could've included a mode that aped the control scheme of Yoshi's Island (where pressing a button brings up a target reticule, and another press launches a Pikmin). Even if they'd gone that route, though, I'd personally stick to the one highlighted in this demo, as I found it plenty precise.

Don't take all of the above to mean I had no issues whatsoever with the Hey! Pikmin demo. One negative that popped up during my 30-minute playthrough: the frame rate chugged or skipped now and then. It didn't bother me much, but I could see it being a problem if it happens frequently or if the action ever slows down substantially in the retail release.

Also, the soundtrack in the Hey! Pikmin demo is a bit too subtle for my liking. That doesn't mean the same will be true of the full game, of course, but I won't be shocked--or dismayed--if that's how things play out.

Have any of you tried the Hey! Pikmin demo? If so, what did you think about it? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section of this post.

Friday, July 21, 2017

So, who else has pre-ordered a physical copy of Undertale for PC, PS4 or Vita?

Three days ago, fangamer finally opened up pre-orders for physical copies of Undertale's PC, PS4 and Vita ports.

Although the initial batch of Collector's Editions--going for $64 a pop--sold out yesterday, the site's now letting people pre-order CE copies that will ship in December. (The first run supposedly will be sent to eager buyers in late September.)

As much as I adore the Undertale Collector's Edition--which will contain a two-CD soundtrack of 100-plus songs, a booklet of sheet music, a gold-plated music-box locket, a matchbox-style box and a copy of the game--I no longer have the space for such bulky items. So, I went for the Undertale Standard Edition, which still looks pretty sweet and only set me back $25.

Have any of you pre-ordered one or more versions of Undertale's PC, PS4 or Vita ports via fangamer in recent days? If so, which did you buy?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Happy (belated) 26th anniversary, Final Fantasy IV!

Although I recently singled out Final Fantasy V as one of the 10 titles that most shaped my taste in video games (read this post for more of my thoughts on the matter), that doesn't mean I dislike its 1991 predecessor.

On the contrary, I adore Final Fantasy IV nearly as much as I adore Final Fantasy V. The former's characters, graphics and soundtrack all blew me away when the game originally landed on store shelves 26 years ago--nearly to the day, if we're talking about the Japanese release--and they continue to have a special place in my heart today.

Going back a bit, though, can you believe Final Fantasy IV first saw the light of day 26 whole years ago? Actually, I can believe it, as it definitely feels like it's been ages since I was 15. (That's how old I was when the game hit the streets in my neck of the woods.)

Illustration by bykillt
That said, I remember tackling Final Fantasy IV for the first time like it was yesterday. The SNES my older brother and I shared was set up in the lower level of our childhood home, attached to a tiny color TV our parents bought us for Christmas a few years earlier. (Granted, it was quite the improvement from the even smaller black-and-white television we previously used to play our stack of NES carts.) As we did with most games back then, my brother and I huddled in front of the aforementioned monitor and slowly but surely made our way through Final Fantasy IV as a team. One of us would play for a few hours--with more than a bit of verbal assistance, of course--and then hand the controller to the other so he could do the same.

My fondest memories of that initial experience (spoiler alert!): being introduced to Rydia and her summoning skills, climbing Mt. Ordeals so Cecil could become a Paladin, Palom and Porom sacrificing themselves, and journeying to the moon to defeat Zeromus and save the planet.

What are your most cherished memories associated with Final Fantasy IV? Also, which version of the game do you like best? (I personally prefer the original release, though I'm also pretty fond of the DS remake.)

See also: previous posts about Dōbutsu no Mori's 15th anniversary, the GameBoy Advance's 15th anniversary, the GameBoy's 28th anniversary, the SNES' 25th anniversarySega's 56th anniversary and Taito's 63rd anniversary

Friday, July 14, 2017

Pardon the interruption

Hello, everyone. Some of you likely have noticed that I haven't updated this blog since July 8. Rest assured all is OK with me, my husband, my family--even my cat.

As for why it's been a whole week since I last published a post here, the answer is pretty straightforward: I've spent that time driving across the country (from Wisconsin to Texas) and moving into the cute little home my husband and I bought about a month ago.

The house in question is showcased in the photo above. Actually, so is my rather handsome (if I do say so myself) husband.

Want to see some more snapshots of my house, my husband, my cat, myself and some of the amazing things we've seen this year while living in various parts of the southern and southwestern US? Check out the photos I've shared on Instagram.

Don't worry, I'll return to publishing two or three blog posts a week shortly. In fact, things should get back to normal on Monday or Tuesday--as soon as we gain access to the Internet at our new abode.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Introducing: the Singing Mountain podcast

I've been a fan of Drew Mackie's Back of the Cereal Box blog ever since I first came across it--which was shortly after it made its debut in early 2003, if memory serves.

If this is the first you're hearing of Back of the Cereal Box, boiled down, it's a pop-culture blog. Or, as Mackie himself puts it, it's a "record of the weird ways pop culture intersects with [his] life."

Often, it's a record of how pop culture intersects with his life as a gay man who has long loved video games.

Considering all of the above, it shouldn't surprise that Mackie piqued my interest when he revealed his plans to launch a podcast about video game music.

Singing Mountain is the result of those plans. In the four podcasts he's published so far, Mackie's discussed Super Mario RPG, the Mega Man series, The Great Giana Sisters and EarthBound.

That's not the full extent of what's covered in Singing Mountain's initial batch of episodes, mind you. The latest ("Ric Ocasek in Moonside"), for instance, focuses on EarthBound while also bringing Mackie's childhood, The Cars, Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory,” the litigiousness of Beatles and even Janet Jackson into the mix.

Hell, Mackie may even introduce you to a new word or two if you keep your ears peeled. He certainly expanded my vocabulary a bit when he dropped the word diegetic into his commentary on Onett's arcade theme.

See also: posts about The Nichiest Podcast Ever

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Nice Package! (Bikkuriman World, PC Engine)

Over the years, I've "come around" to loads of games I initially found underwhelming (or worse).

A few examples I've written about as part of my on-again, off-again "Second Chances" series: Bubble Bobble Junior for the GameBoy, Don Doko Don for FamicomMagical Taruruuto-kun for Game Gear and Valkyrie no Densetsu for PC Engine.

Why I've yet to publish a "Second Chances" entry on Hudson Soft's Bikkuriman World is beyond me. After all, while my first experiences with this PC Engine reimagining of Sega's Wonder Boy in Monster Land left me feeling unimpressed, my opinion of it improved substantially following subsequent playthroughs.

That's not to say my negative early impressions of Bikkuriman World weren't warranted. The game features tiny character sprites, a rather intrusive HUD (status bar, basically) and controls that are equal parts slippery and stiff.

Later jaunts through its adorable environments were far less annoying. The complaints I just leveled at the game remained true, of course, but some of them slowly, but surely, morphed into aspects I either accepted (its controls) or appreciated (its graphics).

A few things I didn't have to come around to regarding Bikkuriman World are its HuCard label and manual cover.

Both are showcased in the photos above. Even when I wasn't a fan of the game, I still liked the chibi character illustrations that are the focus of its cover and cart-label art. I've always long loved the bubbly Bikkuriman logo, too.

Sadly, the instruction manual packed inside copies of this side-scrolling platformer isn't quite as visually impressive as that booklet's cover imagery. To see what I mean, check out my "Manual Stimulation" post about Bikkuriman World.

Also, if you're a PC Engine fan in general, keep an eye out in the coming weeks and months for more "Nice Package!" posts devoted to games made for NEC's console.

In the meantime, enjoy the ones I've already published about Dungeon Explorer, Pac-Land, Parodius Da! and Son Son II.