Sega Dreamcast 18 years later

Earlier today Peter Moore tweeted out a birthday message to the Sega Dreamcast, a sombre reminder of that storied console. Hard to believe 18 years have gone by since 9.9.99 drop date, which changed console gaming. The Dreamcast was ahead of its time, as my friend – an early Dreamcast adopter and advocate – would always remark.

That in mind, I took a few minutes out to read up on Sega’s last console. There are so many sites and fan shrines out there now. Some of it is quite good. I heard the rumors and legends of Dreamcast’s troubled development, but I had no idea how convoluted it was. From SegaRetro.org, we learn about partnerships with Lockheed Martin (really?), Yamaha, Panasonic, Nvidia, and Hitachi. That’s just the base chipset.

I can imagine what the rest of the engineering looked like.

I dug my Dreamcast out of mothballs earlier in the year but never got a chance to set it up. I’m interested in the homebrew community, which is still considerable after all these years. I suppose we can hold out hope that Sega will return to the hardware market one of these days, but it’s probably never going to happen. Besides, with Sega Forever now, who needs them in that expensive arena?

Still, let’s peek into the abyss of nostalgia one last time, when there was more competition in the console world.

 

 

SNES Classic Edition Announced for September 2017

Nintendo created quite a stir yesterday when the company announced the SNES Classic Edition, the long rumored follow-up to last year’s NES Classic. The SNES Classic will launch on September 29 of this year with 21 games and two SNES pads. The unit will retail for $79.99. It should go without saying this will be a rare holiday gift this year. If you plan to get one (or several), you should bump it up on your priority list. While Nintendo says they’re ramping up production to meet anticipated demand, they don’t plan to continue making them after this year. So if you don’t manage to get one on the 29th, it’s likely you’ll have to deal with scalpers on the River and the Bay. If you’re in the US, you can sign-up for an email notice from Amazon now.

Enough of that. Here’s the breakdown of the games:

SNES Classic Games (First Party)

  • Super Mario World
  • Super Mario Kart
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
  • F-Zero
  • Super Metroid
  • Super Punch-Out!!
  • Kirby Super Star
  • Kirby’s Dream Course
  • StarFox
  • Yoshi’s Island
  • Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
  • Earthbound

And, of course, StarFox 2 – the finished-but-unreleased sequel to StarFox – will be included on the roster.

If you were to take a survey of all the Nintendo games that anybody owned in the SNES era, you would probably see all of those listed. This is a sampling of the golden age of the Big N’s game development prowess. Two Kirby games seem excessive; I would have rather have seen Pilotwings (yes really), but that’s a small quibble. There’s only one glaring omission to my eyes: SimCity.

SNES Classic Games (Third Party)

    • Street Fighter II Turbo (Capcom)
    • Super Castlevania IV (Konami)
    • Donkey Kong Country (Rare)
    • Mega Man X (Capcom)
    • Contra III The Alien Wars (Konami)
    • Secret of Mana (Squaresoft)
    • Final Fantasy III (Squaresoft)
    • Super Ghouls & Ghosts (Capcom)

The Third party list happens to include three of my favorite games ever. In fact, astute readers of this blog will remember my posts about SFII Turbo from earlier this year. (And didn’t I just write something about Contra?) Again, I challenge you to find somebody who lived through the SNES years and didn’t play, own or hear of any of these games. I’m a little disappointed that Chrono Trigger wasn’t included, but if I’m being honest, I’d take Secret of Mana over that title any day. I had my fingers crossed that Mortal Kombat II would make the list, important as it was to the history of the console, but I’m not surprised it’s not here. That game doesn’t fit in with the tenor of the library anyway.

There are some other third party titles that would have been nice to have: Turtles in Time and Final Fight come to mind immediately. But these are minor, entitled complaints. There’s hundreds of hours of gameplay here. Many of these games appear high on everybody’s “Best of all Time/Greatest of all Time” lists, year after year.

StarFox 2

Game Informer was nice enough to repost a video that breaks down StarFox and StarFox 2. I’ve embedded this video below (about 7 minutes long).

Super Shortage

We’ll close this with a few words about the SNES Classic’s life cycle. Several outlets have noted that Nintendo will produce “significantly more” than the 2.3 million units that ultimately got shipped for the NES Classic. According to the company, it will only ship the system from September 29 until the end of the year. So again, if you’re keen on owning this novelty item, you better plan ahead and set aside significantly more cash than 80 bucks plus tax. I was able to get an NES Classic thanks to my wife, and she admitted she paid “a few times” more than its list price. Frankly it sucks, but this is par for course for the console maker and the aftermarket guys.

From Nintendo’s mouth:

“Our long-term efforts are focused on delivering great games for the Nintendo Switch system and continuing to build momentum for that platform, as well as serving the more than 63 million owners of Nintendo 3DS family systems,” reads the statement. “We are offering Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Super NES Classic Edition in special recognition of the fans who show tremendous interest our classic content.”

Consider that your fair warning. This is truly a limited edition thing. Of course, if all you care about is the games, most of them are already available on the Virtual Console…and other ways. And if you really want to own the authentic article, you can shell out cash for the originals and any of the Retro consoles out there, or even an original SNES.

I wonder if they’re planning to do this for the Nintendo64.

Sega Forever revealed as free mobile games

Sega Forever, on your phone.

SEGA!

I saw a Sega fan site was abuzz when the company revealed a brand redesign to the other. Now, I don’t know if Sega Forever is a part of that push. But it may well be. As you can see from the tweet above, this morning Sega revealed the series of games that will be going “live in the next 24 hours”:

  • Sonic The Hedgehog
  • Altered Beast
  • Phantasy Star II
  • Kid Chameleon
  • Comix Zone

From Sega’s website:

FREE CLASSIC GAMES ON MOBILE
SEGA® Forever™ is a free and growing classic games collection of nearly every SEGA game ever released from every console era – Master System, Genesis/MegaDrive, Dreamcast, and more. Available on iOS and Android mobile devices.

When I have a chance I’ll give these games a whirl and see how the ports handle. For me, this is coming on the heels of the equally mysterious “Atari Box” announcement last week. Sure, Sega hasn’t returned to the hardware business – they would be insane to in my opinion, but stranger things have happened – but this is a good start. I don’t know why more companies don’t leverage their back catalogs in this fashion. I know there’s an incredible amount of conversion work involved to modernize a lot of these titles. It would seem to me that the costs would be outweighed by the nostalgia buyers, though.

Of course, I don’t think Sega (or anybody else) would be willing to port the weird games I like to play and watch. A man can dream though. A man can dream.

Contra NES Longplay

Contra for the NES, as played by RavenLord. Satisfy your nostalgia cravings below. The video is about 23 minutes long. You can consider yourself a hero if you watch the whole thing.

Contra Analysis

I’m sure there are other run-and-gun games I’m forgetting about, but I’d be hard-pressed to name a more memorable series than Contra. Like a lot of early third party NES games, Konami ported this one from the arcades. A perennial rental for me in the 80s, I remember this game frustrating the hell out of me. If only I had known about the Konami Code back then. Anyway, to list Contra’s particulars: it’s an action platformer, two players simultaneous, ten levels, a power ups system, lots of projectile shooting (and dodging) and many graphical nods to a certain movie franchise.

The perspective changes are an interesting aspect. I had forgotten about the pseudo-3D levels that are sprinkled here and there. Usually, these culminate with a boss fight. It’s a nice break in the action without radically altering the structure of the game. The graphics and sound are still surprisingly good for a 1988 NES game. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the ample sampling of HR Giger. The last boss is essentially the giant head of a Xenomorph. Even face huggers get a cameo.

Contra's final boss
Contra’s final boss, a Xenomorph knock off

Apparently, there’s a whole tortured history behind the console ports and regionalization of the game. Germany got a censored version, while the development team dumbed down the sprites for player characters Bill and Lance on the NES. If you’re interested in this, I recommend checking out Contra Encyclopedia. The site has a huge amount of information and trivia about all the games in the franchise, and some cool concept artwork too.

And yes, for the trivia buffs, the Iran-Contra affair may have inspired the name.

Development

A quick Google search reveals surprisingly little about Contra’s development history. There’s not even any sort of post-mortem on Gamasutra. I figured there would be something around, considering it’s the 30 year anniversary of the arcade game. So, perhaps Konami is letting the franchise lay fallow for a while. On Mobygames none of the team members listed in the credits have any bios or trivia sections. No linked media for interviews or things of that nature. The only thing of note is that the majority of these guys worked on basically every game I played in my youth, from the Ninja Turtle games to Castlevania, and even oddball titles like Blades of Steel. I wasn’t surprised to see one programmer also worked on Snakes’ Revenge. You know, the unofficial-official US sequel to Metal Gear. The games feel similar.

I suppose it’s not uncommon, especially for these 80s arcade games, that the developers had little to say about their work. We can rely on others to give us some insight though. A recent article on Gamasutra talks briefly about the power-up system and clever strategizing it forces on the player. And of course, there’s the Konami code. Technically Gradius was the first game to include it on the NES, but Contra is the more famous example. I also didn’t know that the game gets harder with each playthrough, a tidbit I gleaned from one of the fan sites.

Critical Reaction

Folks liked Contra quite a bit, as indicated by the number of sequels that it spawned. Here’s what Retro Game Reviews has to say about it, circa 2014:

The smooth controls, impressive level design and variety are key to what makes Contra such an amazing game. The addition of co-op play is a huge plus for an NES title and Konami should be applauded for making a game that is practically flawless in all areas.

Ok, maybe “practically flawless in all areas” is a tad too fawning, but we get the point. For what it is, Contra is a great game. But here’s a more critical review, from Mean Machines, circa 1991:

The problem with this is that it’s not particularly challenging. It takes a few goes to get used to the slightly ropey control method, and after that it’s simply a case of blasting your way through the pretty weak alien defences. It’s fun at first, due to the fact that you can get pretty far into the game, but once you’ve completed it, it all gets rather predictable. Gryzor fans might enjoy the action, but really you’d get far more out of something like Snake, Rattle ‘n’ Roll or Megaman 2.

This reviewer must have been a much more skilled gamer than I was in my elementary school years. Just from watching the longplay, I think what he’s getting at here is that gameplay is repetitive. That’s a fair criticism. Repetitive doesn’t necessarily equal easy, but it can.

Legacy

How about 11 sequels and a Vampire Weekend album as a legacy? Infogalactic notes that:

Contra was followed by Super Contra a year later. It was the only Contra sequel for the arcades developed in-house by Konami. Following the success of the NES adaptations of both, the original and its sequel (which was retitled Super C in its American release), subsequent sequels would be produced specifically for the home console market such as Contra III: The Alien Wars for the Super NES and Contra: Hard Corps for the Genesis, becoming one of Konami’s landmark series.

Indeed, Contra remains one of Konami’s landmark series, even if they’re just making PES and casino games these days. Where would you rank Contra among powerhouse franchises like Castlevania, Silent Hill, and Metal Gear? Perhaps it doesn’t quite hit those levels in gamer culture today. But I recall that Hard Corps was considered a coup for Sega in the midst of the Console Wars. So, Contra was quite significant in the 90s. And I challenge you to find somebody who’s familiar with the Konami Code and doesn’t think of Contra.

Up Next

Next week I’ll take a different tack and venture to the PC world for an extended longplay look. Not to give too much away now, but it’s a Sierra game. Thanks for taking a trip down memory lane with me.

T2 Judgment Day (Game Boy) Longplay

As played by SCHLAUCHI, T2 Judgment Day for the Game Boy. The longplay is about 16 minutes long:

I owned this game back in the early 90s. I remember it taking me a long while to beat it (that damn reprogramming stage!), but I enjoyed it. It’s one of the few Game Boy games that I finished. If you didn’t watch the longplay, it’s your standard action side scroller with some light platforming elements. I posted a Sega Genesis longplay of Terminator before, and as you can see, these Terminator brand games came in two varieties: action side scrollers and light gun arcade games. The latter was far more popular of the two if I remember right. I certainly spent several carts worth of quarters on T2 Arcade Game, back when there were arcades around these parts.

Anyway, this game isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but I remember it because of its uniqueness. Yeah I know, I just said there were only two classes of Terminator games, implying they were all generic. And to a large extent, they were generic. To a point they all had the same plot, they all featured the same characters, and they all had the same mechanics. But this version put forward some distinctive gameplay which I give points for. In the future missions with John Connor, you have to complete different objectives on each stage. I already mentioned the programming stage. The Terminator half of the game was so-so. That final level against the T1000 was pretty meh in particular. But overall I appreciate the developers at least making an attempt to challenge the player. As an LJN show, they easily could have ported an even more watered down version the console games.

Speaking of the developers, I’m going to take a closer look at a few of the alumni here in a future post. You may be surprised to see who some of them were and what they worked on.

Nintendo PlayStation Prototype Restored

Via Gamasutra, one of the Nintendo PlayStation prototypes is now working. Recall that the retro community was abuzz at the discovery of the prototype, which is no small way changed the direction of the console gaming world back in the early 90s. See the full video below from Element 14 (about 13.5 minutes long).

I had no idea that there was any sort of homebrew community for the SNES CD. I’m with Heck in hoping that the community takes the mapping of the hardware he’s done and makes some impressive games for emulators.

Story Behind the Nintendo PlayStation

The Nintendo Playstation, such as it was, was Nintendo’s attempt to get into the “multimedia” craze of the late 80s and early 90s. NEC and Sega had both released systems that were more impressive than the NES, and the Super Nintendo was late to market in the 16-Bit era. If I remember right, Ken Kutaragi’s kids sparked his interest in the consoles. He realized Sony could do better sound chips and his designs became sort of a skunkworks project on his own time.

As for the Nintendo PlayStation, a lot of its history appears in Game Over. I highly recommend you read it to learn about Nintendo’s run during the seventies to the mid 90s. But to repeat what’s commonly known, Nintendo of Japan pulled the plug on the project – and the partnership with Sony – at the very last minute. I’m talking like, an hour before Sony was to unveil the machine at CES. Sony wanted a good share of the licensing rights which Nintendo was unwilling to give them, and Phillips offered a better deal for the hardware. Like I said, read all about it in Game Over. .

But the rest is history as they say. Sony decided to give Nintendo  big middle finger over the incident and make the Playstation a standalone system. Imagine how things would have been if the Nintendo PlayStation had actually hit the the market in 1994.

The AI of Street Fighter II

Gamasutra discovered a blog post on SF2Platinum that discussed the AI scripts of the venerable fighting game. From the post:

“By today’s standards, the Artificial Intelligence in Street Fighter 2 World Warrior isn’t very sophisticated. These days, when most people talk about AI they’re talking about machine learning. There’s not any of that in SF2. Anyone looking for some insight into how to write an AI engine for a game today will be disappointed.

Moves made by computer opponents are not made independently but are instead grouped into small scripts, written in a bytecode similar to machine language. A computer avatar has a repertoire of different scripts for each opponent they could face in the game, and set of circumstances, such as a nearby fireball.”

The rest of the post details the bytecode instruction sets ad confirms what most of us already suspected: the AI is capable of cheating in the game, and probably does so regularly. One of my pals was always incensed that the CPU player “had your moves” and could react faster than you. I doubted him then but it looks like he had a higher sophistication than I did when it came to single player modes.

Recall that a few months ago I was playing SFII Turbo fairly regularly. Now, from the early days of getting an edge on the computer (Trickman Terry, et al) the standard advice to everyone was to learn the patterns of the game. I always found that unhelpful and a little bewildering, especially in fighting game. Besides the obvious move sets I could never discern a pattern of the AI. It always seemed random to me. Well, better late than never I suppose, as you can now study the patterns right there in the code.

It may be hopelessly simple and outdated by today’s standards, but it’s instructive to anybody with an interest in the older arcade games. I’ve been working in Unity for about 5 months now and can tell you that I recognize a few of the patterns here, as well as some that wouldn’t have occurred to me.