Insert Credit reminds me I should be a better writer

So, Insert Credit is back in all its glory. Brandon & co.’s manifesto also reminds me I should be a better writer. We’ll see how that goes.

Sometimes I wonder which direction to take this blog – a “serious” treatise on old games, hardware modification tutorials, “look what I bought!” picture galleries, recording a gaming session, reviews? The end result is a bit of a mash, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The whole point of this blog is to act as a “catch-all” for my thoughts on video games, and given my time dedicated to actually playing games is sporadic and my thoughts on the topic often jumbled, it’s probably a good manifestation of what’s lurking inside my cranium.

If nothing else, at least it’s something to think about.

In the meantime, go and read Insert Credit – I used to check it out regularly for many years, but things dried up in 2009-ish, so it’s good to see everyone back at it. I can only hope one day they’ll cover the amazing news that Valis will be making a proper comeback on a console of some sort as a platformer, and not as a dodgy game on the PC.

Retro gaming blogs

I’ve recently added some new blogs to my links and thought I’d give them a plug since I’ve been enjoying reading them of late:

  • GameSpite
    Jeremy Parish’s gaming blog – not necessarily retro, but often covers old games along with the new ones. I’ve been listening to Retronauts since late-2006, so the blog makes for good reading. It’s also a frequent reminder I need to get around to ordering GameSpite Quarterly, as well as some other print-on-demand eMags.
  • Guru Meditation
    Blog from another local Australian retro gamer – found out about his blog via Aussie Arcade and proceeded to leave numerous comments on there. Hopefully they’re not being regarded as spam ๐Ÿ˜›
  • Famicomblog
    This one’s written by someone living in Japan hunting for old Famicom games. This is an awesome premise in and of itself, and it helps that the content’s fun. I discovered this one from Guru Meditation’s blog, so I can’t take credit for being clever and sourcing it via general Famicom hunting ๐Ÿ˜›
  • Old School Gaming Blog
    Another blog I discovered via Guru Meditation, but this one has an emphasis on old Commodore stuff (well, so far anyways), so plenty of Amiga and C64 goodness. I love my C64 and am only a fledgling Amiga gamer (didn’t have one back in the day – we went from our C64 in 1988 to a 386DX40 in 1993), but there’s some great stuff in there.

I’ve done some random Googling for updated/maintained blogs on retro gaming a while back and didn’t come back with much, so I’ve started checking out recommended sites from other places, or sites from people commenting on other blogs and figured I’d return the favour.

Am I a gaming aesthete?

Jeremy Parish recently wrote about the gaming aesthete, and the post captured something I’ve been trying to articulate for a while now. For whatever reason, I seem to prefer games with a particular aesthetic quality and loathe titles that go against my irrational sense of preference. Amusingly, a portion of my taste can be summed up in UK:R’s watershed Blue Skies in Gaming campaign – out with the poo-brown, grey, boring colour schemes, and in with colour, life and vibrancy.

blueskybanner3

No more silly gangs, testosterone, “extreme”/”hardcore” drab colour schemes and other such douchebaggery. The content doesn’t have to be sunshine, lollypops and pixies, but it should be allowed to have colourful vistas and degrees of depth to its aesthetic execution.

The problem is that with the rise and rise of US development in the gaming sector (underpinned by the dramatic fall from grace we’ve seen from Japan in the last 10 years, and the EU in the 5-7 years prior to that), it’s all very vogue and chic to be an (extreme) macho douchebag mirroring something out of a Michael Bay movie (with optional 1-dimensional arse-kicking but well-endowed female sidekick), or drawl like an (extreme) urban gangster or be an (extreme) racing game with unnecessary (but extreme) back story. You then play this on your (e)x(treme)box or your slick black PS3 (with optional extreme metallic blue/red/moose controller to complement the silly Spider-man font), with trophies/achievements to add to your signature on your underground/alternative message board where you compare how awesome you are.

And with a couple of exceptions, it just doesn’t appeal to me. I prefer the classical Japanese or European approach to gaming, which allows colour and not so much testosterone to overrun the landscape. The problem is that both of these communities are not the stalwarts they once were. In the 8-bit micro and 16-bit computer days, I played more games from the EU than I can count – some were stupid bouts of pixellated testosterone, but the underlying mechanics and aesthetics were fresh and interesting. But with the move to larger teams and bigger budgets, the old models failed to adapt to the changing scenery and unfortunately a lot of talent was lost or quelled as part of larger corporate mergers.

Jump across the pond to Japan, and the quality of their arcade and console games in the 80s and 90s were unmatched and arguably the hive of some of the industry’s core creative content. Sega, Nintendo, Namco, Hudson, SNK, Capcom, Konami, Taito, Square, Enix… amazing studios that produced stunning games. But something happened between the DC/PS2/GCN/Xbox and the current generation, and the Japanese sector imploded – larger teams were required to fuel larger budgets and suddenly the shrinking local console market demanded more conservatism in game design. This meant the baby was thrown out with the bath water to accommodate the Western market (which meant the unique “Japaneseness” that made the games so appealing in the first place was often lost), or developers focused on placating niche local audiences with an abundance of moe and fan service (which are fine in moderation, but stifling when they’re pandering). To offset development costs and the changing Japanese market, the situation was further compound with the dramatic shift of development resources to handheld platforms (which I guess is fine if you prefer mobile gaming, but I prefer to play on a console). Thus you have a variety of factors that have essentially quashed Japan’s ability to compete with the West, in particular the US and Canada.

So that leaves me in an unusual position borne entirely from my own particular tastes in gaming, where I have to look a bit further than Japan for my gaming kicks. For the first time in a while I’ve been playing Western-developed games – The Darkness (developed by Starbreeze in Sweden), Mirror’s Edge (DICE, also in Sweden), Enslaved (Ninja Theory, UK) and Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, UK)… but what’s interesting is that these have all been developed in the EU (sorry to the UK studios for lumping you in there!), which is a trend I hadn’t consciously realised until thinking about my gaming habits for this generation of consoles. This doesn’t mean I’ve neglected Japan, as I’ve also enjoyed Ninja Gaiden Sigma (Tecmo), Valkyria Chronicles (Sega WOW), Street Fighter 4 (Capcom), Yakuza 3 (Amusement Vision/Sega) and New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Nintendo EAD). What’s interesting looking at this shortlist is that some games contain some of the elements I normally don’t like about current-gen games, but they’ve done so in a way that emphasises the often intangible aesthetics that appeal to me.

In short, my gaming preferences are confused and contradictory at times, but share a commonality that points to the resultant aesthetic which entices me to play the game in question.

It also means I’m more likely to play Wonderboy in Monster World on the Sega Mega Drive than Resistance 3 or GTA4.

I think that last point sums up the entirety of this post quite succinctly. Figures ๐Ÿ˜›

I think Capcom hates gamers (Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D and DRM)

resident-evil-the-mercenaries-3d

Capcom’s Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D continues to question how much Capcom actually appreciate their market, or if they plain-old hate gamers. Here’s a snippet from DVICE:

It’s been confirmed that Resident Evil: Mercenaries 3D for the Nintendo 3DS is a game that once finished, cannot be reset for complete replay. According to both the U.S. and U.K. game’s instruction manual “saved data on this software cannot be reset.”

Basically what Capcom has done is make Mercenaries 3D a one-time play affair. Once you’ve unlocked all the goodies and played the entire game, you will not be able to erase the game’s save data and start fresh as if it were a new copy. Consider this: lending Mercenaries 3D to a friend, a little brother or sister will be worthless because they’ll only be able to continue playing the game with your saved settings and create their own.
(Source [via Tiny Cartridge, via Eurogamer], and GameStop’s follow-up)

Capcom have made some terrible decisions with DRM in the past (Final Fight Double Impact and Bionic Commando ReArmed 2 need to “phone home” before you can play them on the PS3), and its disappointing to see them acting in such a hostile way towards consumers. While some may argue that this is potentially an act to sabotage second-hand game sales (as they derive zero profit from the on-selling of games once they’re past the first run at the retail counter), it’s important to consider the dependence many gaming stores have on second-hand sales in order to make up for the relatively slim margins offered at retail. Mind, I won’t go into that topic in more detail here, as it’s beyond the scope of this post and has probably been argued more intelligently elsewhere.

Returning to the topic at hand, I think this hurts a little more as I genuinely have a soft spot for Capcom games, having enjoyed so many of them over the years (during the Saturn and Dreamcast era, my purchases [at retail no less] led to many gaming sessions). This is the kind of move I would expect from some of the more aggressive players in the market, but not from them.

It also seems incredibly short-sighted in terms of being able to enjoy your purchase over time – I still crank out Atari 2600 cartridges every now and again, and the notion of anti-consumerist DRM would render this kind of thing impossible in years to come for new games. This means that, in the case of Resident Evil: Mercenaries 3D, I can’t reset the game back to factory settings to start it afresh; or to give another skew on this topic, in the case Bionic Commando ReArmed 2, I probably won’t be able to play it in 10 years time despite having paid money for it in 2011.

It marks a very dangerous point on the slippery slope of DRM and anti-consumer licensing enforcement on behalf of gaming publishers. Whilst only a handful of games on consoles are toying with the concept of DRM that is ultimately detrimental to the gamer, it’s a dangerous path. I hope Capcom is taking stock of the reaction from consumers to what they’ve tried slipping through with Resident Evil: Mercenaries 3D and don’t attempt this kind of tomfoolery in the future.

Reviewing… Story of Thor (Sega Mega Drive)

story-of-thor-title

I actually meant to get started on these reviews a while ago… better late than never!

My copy of Story of Thor and I go way back to 1994, when I was lucky enough to be given it for Christmas. I’d read the reviews from Sega-stalwart Sega Megazone and was just starting to get into anime (this interest would be fully realised as Robotech replayed over the summer holidays on Agro’s Cartoon Connection and when I saw 3×3 Eyes Part 2 at a friend’s place a few months later), so it seemed like a good combination. Ancient, and by extension Yuzo Koshiro (who rocked my gaming world with Streets of Rage 2 the year previous), helmed the game’s design and it gave me a chance to play a Zelda-like adventure game without having to swallow my pride and invest in a SNES (this would come 18 months later, but that’s another story). These are all very important points to a 12 year old boy you understand, so it’s important to irrationally preface this review accordingly.

I adored the game back in the day – it was an amazing feat for the humble Mega Drive and a fun game in its own right. When I went back to play it recently (“recently” being last year or the year before), I was still confident that the game would hold up well. Turns out I was right.

Visually I still think it’s fantastic – the Mega Drive’s colour palette is used sensibly (as it needs to be – only 64 of those colours can be on-screen simultaneously [or 183 in shadow/highlight mode – thanks Wikipedia]), sprites are large and well-animated (despite later enemies simply being palette-swaps) and there’s plenty of variety in the scenery. As a bonus, the game features a little sprite scaling when you fall down holes or gaping chasms. It’s all typical of Japanese game aesthetics of the era – clean, well-defined and charming with great attention to detail.

The fanboy wants to decry it the audio as an example of technical mastery for the system, and to a degree it is. The problem is that it hasn’t necessarily aged too well – Koshiro’s deft use of the Mega Drive’s audio chipset for the music is actually very good – it’s the garbled sampled audio that lets it down. Back when I was playing this on an old 51cm TV in my bedroom (complete with RF input and 80s faux-wood panelling contact over the MDF), I actually used to run the Mega Drive through my mini HiFi stereo and remember being impressed by the use of the stereo channels to simulate a surround-sound effect with the waterfalls in the palace. The effect’s still prolific, but the sample noise is a little rough on ears now. It was certainly ambitious, and was by no means unpleasant; today, it’s just a bit rough.

Another peculiarity is with the cartridge’s hardware itself and how it interacts with the Mega Drive. I normally run my Mega Drive games in 60hz, but the PAL Story of Thor cart is a bit of an anomaly with the way it handles the different refresh rates. When booted in 60hz it gives the usual region protection error, which isn’t uncommon – why it’s interesting is that when you try the usual trick to get around it (boot in 50hz, then swap to 60hz), the game slows to a halt and the image rolls. The only other games where I’ve seen the same thing happen are Streets of Rage 1 and 2, both of which also happen to be games by Ancient and involve Yuzo Koshiro. My only theory is that Koshiro is using either some unique hardware in the cart (I haven’t popped the cart open to have a look), or the oscillator that provides the refresh rate is tied to the way the game handles video timing, the Z80 audio CPU or other programmable variables. On the upside though, the PAL version of the game is surprisingly well-optimised for PAL TVs, including stretching the image so that it virtually covers the entire screen. I didn’t take notice of this back in the day (it wasn’t until the Saturn era that I became aware of PAL optimisation of games and the joys of 60hz), but it’s a nice touch looking back at it now.

It didn’t take me too long to plough through the game – my memory was surprisingly good and the game really isn’t too tough. There’s no excess padding with enough optional treasure hunting to get the balance just right (though I still didn’t manage to find all the hidden gems this time around!). I think it took up maybe… 5 or 6 hours? That’s a good time frame for me these days, as I’m time-poor given the realities of life typical of someone my age. Playing through games that last over 60 hours is a long slog when I only have a couple of hours each week (if that) to get in some gaming, so it meant Story of Thor was the perfect length to knock out in a couple of weekends.

I won’t assign a score for this one (or any other reviews for that matter), as I don’t think it’s necessary. What’s more important is the experience, and this one still delivers. The great news is that if you missed it back in the day, it’s available via the Wii’s Virtual Console for a cheap download, and M2’s work on the emulation on the Wii is amazing. It’s also on the Sega Mega Drive Collection (or Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for those in North America) on the PS3 and XB360, but the emulation isn’t anywhere near as precise as M2’s. Still, if that’s all you have access to, it’s worth a go. You even get a trophy/achievement for completing the first dungeon ๐Ÿ™‚