Shenmue Musings (Shenmusings?)

July 17, 2015 Leave a comment

ryohazuki_iconIt’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that Shenmue III is really happening. It’s not that I didn’t think it eventually would. I never wrote it off as an impossibility. I’ve been into video games long enough to know that anything with a cult following as dedicated as Shenmue‘s will eventually come back around in some way, shape or form. Maybe it’s just because it all still feels nebulous. It’s been 14 years since Shenmue II was originally released, and it’ll be another three while we wait for the next game to be developed. But at least we know it exists, and it’s coming.

But it has made me reflect on my own affection for the series. I sort of feel like I fell into it a little awkwardly. I did not buy it when it first came out, as I wasn’t sure if it would be the kind of game I would like. Frankly, it sounded a little tedious. But I eventually picked it up on a whim about a year later (and at a nice budget price), and very quickly fell in love with it.

True, it wasn’t a fast-paced action game, nor was it your traditional RPG, but I was drawn in by the detective-like intrigue: talking to people, following leads, trying to solve whatever mystery was placed in front of me. And all of it happened in an incredibly detailed, atmospheric world. In fact, I think that’s what made it work. What fun is solving a mystery if every clue and checkpoint is laid out neatly in front of you? If truth be told, Shenmue has more in common with classic adventure games than either RPGs or open-world sandbox games.

But that world, itself, was the meat of the experience. Something about simply inhabiting it is a joy in and of itself. It’s so meticulously sculpted and fully realized, it’s hard not to admire it, even if the main “interaction” is just looking at it. Shenmue really isn’t so much a game game as it is an experience.

I fell in love with Shenmue so quickly that I instantly decided I was on board for the sequel on day one. And it was scheduled to be released on the Dreamcast just about a month later! It would be the last major release for the console in North America.

But literally two days after I bought Shenmue, it was announced that the sequel was canceled on the Dreamcast so it could be an Xbox exclusive. Talk about an emotional rollercoaster. I discover this amazing game only to be immediately slapped in the face with it.

That’s all history now, but I must embarrassingly confess that, to this day, I have still never played Shenmue II. I never did own an original Xbox, I never had the opportunity to get the European Dreamcast version, and I’m not really into the whole emulation thing. So, that leaves an enormous hole in my Shenmue experience. And I call myself a fan.

But with the success of the recent Kickstarter, there’s a chance it may have turned Sega’s head just a bit. I feel more confident that the first two games could see PC ports before the release of the third. Then again, this is Sega we’re talking about, so we’ll see.

But as for the Kickstarter, itself, well, it would’ve been nice if it wasn’t necessary and Shenmue III could be an actual Sega production, but that just wasn’t going to happen. As an independent project, it at least gives full creative control to Yu Suzuki to make a game aimed at the dedicated fans. And lets face it, after a decade-and-a-half and against all odds, Shenmue III is a game that Suzuki and the fans have willed into existence. Let’s not take this for granted.

Not to mention, Yu Suzuki, like Koji Igarashi, is a game creator whom I want to see continue making games, always. Whether it be with official sequels, spiritual successors, or completely original projects, I couldn’t be happier to see these guys back in action.

Shenmue III is a true Hail Mary pass. The final play. If Shenmue III doesn’t succeed, there will absolutely not be a Shenmue IV (or V), and the series will forever remain unfinished. But I would like to think that in the last 14 years, Shenmue has found its audience. It may not necessarily be a mainstream audience, but it’ll be reliable. And if we can get this far, the sky’s the limit. Let’s enjoy this Shenmue Renaissance (Shenaissance?) while we can.

Site News – June 30, 2015

June 30, 2015 5 comments

I hate writing apologies for neglecting the blog. I’d rather my apology simply be resumption of regular posting. But that hasn’t happened, and, well, I apologize for it.

No, the blog is not abandoned. I just haven’t been able to focus on it in the past few months. But I do want to get back to it, and in-progress series’ like Confessions of a Nintendo Fan will continue. Eventually.

In the mean time, I am still contributing to The Punk Effect, and I also run the Tumblr for Hardcore Gaming 101, so please check those out.

Hopefully I’ll be back to posting again soon.

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Ruminations – My Chrono Trigger Memories

March 30, 2015 Leave a comment

Icon - CronoThis year marks the 20th anniversary of Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger, widely regarded as one of the best Japanese RPGs of the 16-bit generation, if not of all time. Developed by a “dream team” pairing of Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy) and Yuji Horii (Dragon Quest), it broke the mold of RPG game design of the time.

Strangely enough, my memories of Chrono Trigger are less about the game, itself, and more about the experience of actually buying it, but it is one of my fonder gaming memories. I remember the previews of it in Nintendo Power magazine hyping it up as “a gem — polished, brilliant and beautifully presented,” and that “it belongs in every game library.” But I needed little convincing as I had already been thoroughly blown away by “Final Fantasy III” (aka Final Fantasy VI), and I was ready for another game of that caliber.

Unfortunately, I didn’t live in an area where it was easy to buy video games, and this was before you could just hop on the internet and have games sent to you. Rather, I had to wait until we took a trip to a neighboring town where I could buy games at a department store or a Toys R Us. It was excruciating to read about games in Nintendo Power, and then never be sure if I’d ever be able to actually find them. Still, I suppose there was a certain “thrill of the chase” back then.

Screenshot - Chrono Trigger

It must have been shortly after the game had been released when it so happened that my mother planned on taking my brother to see Cats (the musical) in a neighboring city. She asked if I would be interested in seeing it too, and I figured why not. At the very least, I’d be able to swing by Toys R Us and get a chance at finding Chrono Trigger.

And that’s exactly what happened. I remember being in Toys R Us, looking over their wall of laminated placards, hoping to see the box art for Chrono Trigger. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, back in the ’90s, the video game section of Toys R Us was essentially a bunch of plastic cards with box art on them hanging on the wall. If you wanted to buy the game, there were these little pouches filled with tickets beneath the cards, and you would take a ticket to the cash register, pay for the game, and then go to a little cage in the corner of the store where a guy would give you the actual game. It sounds a little convoluted to describe it, but believe me, it was awesome, and I think stores should go back to selling video games this way. It sure beats the hell out of rummaging through a GameStop.

Anyway, I looked over the wall of placards, and… I didn’t see Chrono Trigger. Disappointing, to be sure, but there were never guarantees. But maybe I just looked too fast the first time. So I took a second, more careful look, and there it was! Somehow, the muted tones of the box art didn’t quite stand out among the other more colorful box arts around it. I was ecstatic as I grabbed the ticket, literally jumping for joy and exclaiming “YES!” in a fairly loud voice. Another kid down the aisle gave me kind of a strange look, but I didn’t care. I got my prize!

Box art - Chrono Trigger

The only problem: this was before we went to see Cats. That meant I had to sit through a two-and-a-half hour musical, knowing that Chrono Trigger was waiting out in the car. Strangely, I didn’t actually mind that much. I think I was just happy that I actually got the game. Plus, how often did I get to see a stage play? It made for an exciting day all around. After all, I’m still remembering it fondly 20 years later.

The game, itself, did not disappoint. Admittedly, I never quite grew to love it as much as Final Fantasy VI, but I still played the heck out of it.

On a side note, it’s kind of interesting that the collaboration between the creators of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest happened before the Squaresoft/Enix merger, and nothing like that ever happened after.

Anyway, maybe it’s not really that much of a story, but it’s what comes to mind when I think of the game. Twenty years later, that’s my Chrono Trigger memory. My…

Memory
All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days
I was…
Oh, sorry! ;)


EDIT: I originally had written that it was the game’s 25th anniversary, but it’s only the 20th. I guess I really haven’t been thinking clearly lately. Post has been corrected.

Arcade Mania – Q*bert (1982)

March 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Icon - Q*bertQ*bert was one of my earliest go-to games in the arcade, along with Dig Dug, Pac-man, Ms. Pac-man, and, well, anything Pac-man. It’s a simple enough concept: you play as a round aardvark-like thing named Q*bert, and you jump around on a pyramid of cubes. Landing on a cube changes its color, and ultimately you need to make all of the cubes the same color. All the while you need to avoid an onslaught of several types of enemies, from bouncing balls to the pesky snake Coily. There are flying discs on the sides of the pyramid that Q*bert can use to escape back to the top and sometimes lure Coily off the edge to boot.

Speaking of Pac-man, I used to think of Q*bert as a similar type of game. Although it’s not a maze game like Pac-man, the goal is still to “cover” the play field in every level. In Pac-man, you do this by eating all the dots, and in Q*bert you have to jump on all the squares. What I didn’t realize when I was a younger, less skilled player was how much more complicated the game got in later levels, requiring the player to jump on each cube multiple times, and sometimes the cube’s color would even change back!

Looking back on it, it’s easy to see why Q*bert was such a big hit at the time. It had colorful graphics, memorable characters, catchy music, and most of all, really fun gameplay. It even had humor, as Q*bert would spout “foul language” every time he lost a life, and if you fell off the side of the pyramid, the arcade cabinet made an actual physical “thonk” noise to simulate Q*bert hitting the floor.

Screenshot - Q*bert

Image source: vgmuseum.com

Q*bert was released by Gottlieb, who was more known for their pinball machines, and it was their only major hit videogame. It was followed up with a number of sequels, beginning with the obscure arcade game Q*bert Qubes. Of course, he also got his own pinball game, Q*bert’s Quest, which is one of the more oddball pinball machines you can find. Still, nothing quite matched the popularity of the original game.

Oddly enough, the original arcade version isn’t quit as readily available as most other classic arcade games. Being that it wasn’t created by one of the “major” arcade developers, like Namco or Midway, it was never included in a compilation pack. But it has been ported to several platforms over the years, with varying degrees of quality.

Still, Q*bert is just as much fun now as it ever was, and I think deserves a little more recognition than it generally gets. If you have the means to play the original arcade version, or at least one of the better ports, it’s definitely worth revisiting.

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Hardcore Gaming 101: Q*bert

Confessions of a Nintendo Fan II

February 27, 2015 3 comments

Icon - Dark LinkIn the last part, I mentioned that my being a Nintendo fan wasn’t about loyalty. As someone who grew up with Nintendo, I do want to see them do well, but if I felt they were going in a direction that didn’t agree with me, I wouldn’t continue to support them. It’s also not my intention to say that Nintendo is somehow inherently superior to other console makers or game publishers, just that their style aligns with my personal tastes. Thus, I classify myself as a “fan,” but not a “fanboy.”

But I admit, that wasn’t always the case.

Nintendo had such a dominant position in videogames during the NES era (partly because of some shady business practices) that any other platforms, like the Sega Master System, merely faded into the background. Of course, being the greedy kid I was, that didn’t stop me from being curious about them and wanting to own everything. Still, Nintendo was the king in my mind, and they got top priority. I even owned both a SNES and Sega Genesis, and while I loved my Genesis and played tons of Sonic the Hedgehog, the SNES still got the lion’s share of my attention.

By the time the next generation rolled around, I had it firmly in my head that Nintendo was going to be the dominant force, with Sega running second. Other consoles that tried to get a piece of the action, like the 3DO and CD-i, came and went, and I laughed when I heard that the electronics company Sony would try to squeeze their way in with something called the PlayStation.

Well, Sega fumbled and that left enough of an opening for the PlayStation to get a firm foothold, but when the Nintendo 64 hit stores in 1996, I expected it to blow the competition away. Believe it or not, I wasn’t alone. Coming off two great consoles like the NES and SNES, Nintendo was still considered a major force to contend with back then. Yes, I was sure Nintendo would dominate once again, and this new kid on the block was going to get slapped back down the pecking order. I mean, obviously Nintendo was the best.

Of course, that didn’t happen. What did happen was that third-parties, even loyal ones like Squaresoft, began running away from Nintendo. The PlayStation was getting tons of great software, and the N64 was getting software droughts. But that didn’t stop me from deluding myself into thinking that the N64 was still superior and that the PS1 was all hype. I knew that eventually the truth would be seen, and the tide would swing back to Nintendo.

This was my worst time as a gamer. I wasn’t quite on the level of an angry fanboy, aggressively deriding the PS1 and Saturn or openly insulting their fans. In fact, I seriously considered getting one of the other consoles myself, but even if I had, it probably would’ve been the same situation as with my SNES and Genesis. I just couldn’t change the idea in my head that anything on a Nintendo console would always be superior to anything any other console could offer, no matter how much third-party support they had.

This was also a disturbingly cynical period for me. Even my attitude towards Nintendo’s games tended to be negative, always wanting to pick them apart and criticize them for not being as good as the classics from the NES and SNES days. I was also bitter that the 2D games I had loved were being replaced with clunky polygonal 3D, and yet everyone insisted that 3D was inherently better than 2D.

I don’t know if it was just my age, or maybe I had grown jaded, but I’m almost certain that first getting home internet access at about this time was a big factor. For the first time, I was connecting with other like-minded Nintendo fans online, and the cynicism flowed like water off of Niagara Falls. Even back then, something about the internet just amplified anger and nurtured negativity. I certainly wasn’t immune to its effects.

What all this amounted to was the N64 becoming my least-favorite Nintendo console. I never did accumulate much of a library for it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy games on it, though I often rented more than I purchased. Still, I was a fanboy for continuing to think that a Nintendo-developed game was inherently better than anything else.

The straw that finally broke the camel’s back was Yoshi’s Story. One of the best games I had rented for the system was Mischief Makers, one of its very few 2D side-scrolling games. I didn’t end up buying it, though, because Yoshi’s Story was just around the corner. Not only was it the follow-up to one of my favorite games on the SNES, but if a game like Mischief Makers could be so good, just imagine how amazing Nintendo’s own in-house developed game would be!

I still remember standing in Toys R Us with a fat wallet in my pocket, and staring at both games. For a brief moment, I considered going with Mischief Makers. After all, N64 games were expensive, and at least I knew what I would be getting into. Not to mention reviews for Yoshi’s Story were a little lukewarm. But once again, without even having rented it, I convinced myself that it was just media bias, and of course Nintendo made the better games. Naturally.

Actually, I kinda like Yoshi’s Story now, but it took more than a decade for me to warm up to it. At the time, however, my disappointment was like a punch in the gut, as it was a far cry from either Yoshi’s Island or Mischief Makers. I just didn’t like it, and I couldn’t convince myself otherwise. It was at about this time that it finally sunk in: Nintendo was not infallible.

I also started to become aware of how bad my attitude was towards gaming. I spent so much time negatively comparing modern games to the classics of my youth that I had forgotten why I enjoyed videogames in the first place. As a kid playing games on my NES, I didn’t pick them apart. It wasn’t about putting them on trial, I just enjoyed them for what they were.

I wanted to get that back. I wanted to start simply enjoying games again, and it took a conscious effort for me to change my attitude. I had to put aside my impulse to judge. I needed to stop getting hung up on stupid details, and just go along for the ride. I disconnected from the online gaming communities I was a part of, and limited the amount of time I spent on the internet. It was time to cleanse myself as a gamer and get back to basics.

At about this time, I started hearing about a new game console called the Sega Dreamcast.

The Dreamcast came along at the perfect time, and it did a lot to heal my gaming wounds. I even remember telling someone at the time that it reminded me a lot of the NES. Not technologically, of course, but the creativity and personality in its gaming catalog made it feel like I was discovering videogames all over again. Even the Official Dreamcast Magazine gave it that community feeling that the early years of Nintendo Power provided so well. The Dreamcast helped me see the fun in videogames again.

Of course, the console didn’t last long, but what a ride! If I had the opportunity to go back in time, knowing how things would turn out for Sega, I’d still get on board.

After that, I was in a very neutral position as a gamer. If Sega hadn’t gone third-party, I probably would’ve continued being a Sega fan. But as it was, I had three other consoles to choose from and no brand loyalty to guide me. I looked at the game libraries for each platform, and I seriously considered the PlayStation 2, but in the end, I realized one thing: I still loved The Legend of Zelda, and I would never forgive myself for passing up the next game in the series. After all, the one N64 game I bought during the Dreamcast era was Majora’s Mask.

Not to mention Metroid was coming back.

And so I chose the GameCube, and just like that I was back with Nintendo. But not without being a little older and a little wiser.

It may sound funny, but the Dreamcast taught me a lot about what it means to own a videogame console. Every system has its own style and personality, and provides a certain kind of experience. Even if that console isn’t the most popular or successful, as long as you enjoy what it does have to offer, you’ll still come away with fond, irreplaceable memories.

Every Nintendo system I’ve owned since then has been a conscious decision, not a foregone conclusion. Yeah, there’s some sentimentalism involved, but at this point, how could there not be? As long as I still enjoy the games, I’ll play what I like.

And that’s what it comes down to. I bought a Wii U a year after it launched, and I went into it knowing that it may not last long or provide a very large game library. But as with the Dreamcast, it had the experience I was looking for, and I was going to enjoy it for all it’s worth. I knew what I was getting into, and so far, it has surpassed my expectations.

The difference between being a “fan” and a “fanboy” is the difference between being open-minded and closed-minded. It’s easy to get caught up in internet drama; to develop a very narrow view of what gaming should or shouldn’t be; to think you know better than everyone else. I was lucky enough to recognize my biases and let go of my judgments, and I’ve been a much happier gamer ever since.

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