Another’s World

I can’t decide whether or not we live in an era where we are demanding authors’ and artists’ works to be untouched by outside forces, or we demand changes to these works for whatever reasons. I don’t really care either way, but the blog’s standpoint is that if a work is by one primary author, it should be left alone by external forces and be allowed to contest in the marketplace just as any. If the work is by a team effort, then it is subject to the hierarchy and decisions of that hierarchy, for better or worse. In video games, it’s rather common to see consumers demanding one of a game’s creator’s position to be the highest priority, that a game franchise should not continue because its perceived primary force is either in a bad position or abandoned. At the same, the same consumers keep consuming games that have the original teams long gone and don’t give a one damn about who’s in charge and what’s being done by whom.

Mega Man as a franchise is a great example of this. The first game’s original team effectively broke away, with only the core who wanted to do a sequel worked on the second game on their free time, and the third game had a producer who didn’t know what was going on so Keiji Inafune had to pull triple duty. The rest is history, with Inafune effectively being the only guy who worked on the first game and was coined as the Father of the franchise, until Mighty Number 9 hit the corner and the consumer opinion changed vastly. Still, the franchise has numerous games that have been worked by stupid amount of different people and some of the most acclaimed games have been developed by someone else other than Capcom, namely Minakuchi Engineering and Inti-Creates.

The Game Boy Mega Man titles, or Rockman World titles, were not developed by Capcom. Outside the second game, they were handled by Minakuchi Engineering, a game developer that mysteriously vanished around 2002. Due to developers going uncredited as part of branding and recognition, their website could only claim to have worked on over forty titles, including Mega Man X3. It wasn’t a practice to showcase who developed the game in the Japanese game industry, and as such none of the games until Mega Man Zero show any names or branding that would contradict Capcom. As far as the customers and the reviewers knew, the Game Boy games were developed by Capcom themselves. The second World game (I’ll just call the GB Mega Man games as World games from hereon) was developed by Japan System House, another dead developer, but one that has less favourable reputation. They later restructured into Biox Co., Ltd, and then into JSH Co, only to change back to Biox in 1997. GDRI has a list of titles confirmed they worked on.

We’ll never know the real reason why Capcom switched their developers for the World games few times around, but looking at the quality of World 2 game, it’s most likely that the sad quality of programming and designing was the main reason. The game was put into developed right after the first game and released five months later. Programming is one thing, but sound effects being completely off, sound being tinny hell and the whole package smelling like cheap chop job, it’s no wonder Capcom would turn back to Minakuchi Engineering. They became Capcom’s most important second team with Mega Man then, handling the rest of the Game Boy games, The Wily Wars and the aforementioned MMX3 before Inti-Creates took their spot. While World 3 is still about as uninspired as the previous games on the Game Boy, the fourth and fifth games have been praised for their quality and design, as well as taking some steps to try innovating with the franchise a bit.

I doubt anyone will contest me too eagerly if I claim Mega Man to be rather static franchise. For each series entry, there’s not a whole lot room for innovation as much as there is for improvement. Giving Mega Man a charged shot was more or less a natural evolution of ramping up his ready arsenal, with Rush being normal evolution of the Item Weapons. Giving Mega Man a a slide improved his mobility, but also allowed more complex stage designs and enemy patterns. Small changes like these seem that much more significant, when the core game play was effectively perfected on the first go. Understanding limitations and how to work with them isn’t anything special for original creators, as pretty much all of the changes Mega Man has seen in its franchise run are by from other than original creators. They’re also an example how someone else, like a third party developer, can understand the idea better than the originator, and understand the customer wants and needs that much better. Mega Man (World) 4 has two things that elevates this title above its three predecessors; Item Replicator is a way for t he player to gain items that would might want and need, alleviating the lack of resources with new type of resource in P-Chips. Collected Chips can be turned into Lives, different kind of restorative Tanks and so on. Item Replicator would go down as something that would appear in later games, like Mega Man 7. It’s a surprising major change, but not as major as the second improvement; proper cut-scenes with higher production values than most in the series. While Mega Man games have had introduction and ending sequences, in-game cutscenes have been rather sparse. World 4 had short, to the point scenes moving the game along in certain points. While nothing world changing for video games, Mega Man always asked for something like this, and after this the series would see far more of these story sequences, for better or worse. There are other small tweaks that change how the player has to approach the game, e.g. the charged shot now has a kickback that will mess with jump trajectories and can push Mega Man off a ledge.

Even a small thing like completely changing how the Stage Selection screen looks and functions gives a massive change in tone. Rather than presenting a static four faces (or the standard eight in NES games,) Mega Man (World 4) opted to use a selection wheel with the stage view underneath. This is one of those small improvements that stack upon each other, until few games later the you have completely different kind of game in your hands. The core of the game hasn’t been touched, but everything else has been improved in a way or another.

Minakuchi Engineering understood after their first take how Mega Man games are at their core play out, how the stages need to be structured to present the player a puzzle-like challenge that more often than not requires dexterity and action. Perhaps even better than Capcom did, as after World 4 Capcom was more or less gearing up for the SNES entries. The last portable hurrah for the original series of Game Boy games would end up being the best in the franchise, with Mega Man (World) 5 changing some of the series’ established structures more Capcom has done at any point in the franchise history to this point. If Capcom wanted to shake things up drastically, they’d make a new series. Minakuchi Engineering understood how Mega Man functioned and now they could go and break it.

World 5‘s largest change is straight on the box itself; Mega Man now had a rocket punch as his main charged weapon. Dr. Wily didn’t end up being the villain of the game and the robots you fought were aliens. While the game plays like a Mega Man game in two dimensions should, it wasn’t chained down to the small progression any more. The Mega Arm, or the Rock’n Arm, doesn’t function like other standard weaponry. With purchasable upgrade it can grab items and enemies, meaning you can launch it to an enemy and keep causing it extra damage it would otherwise not receive due to the invincibility flicker. The Arm also has to return after being launched, meaning the player has to mind themselves for that period when they can shoot anything. While on the surface this seems like standard small addition, in a Mega Man game it breaks the slow gradual change in design, and the same applies with the Special Weapons, which now have far more wildly different applications. Both World 4 and 5 have some stages that you can tackle through different paths, and NES games already introduced few select hidden rooms for items, but Minakuchi Engineering ramped this up, and Capcom ramped this up again in Mega Man 7. Hell, if you look things in proper light, you’ll see that Mega Man 7 was very much influenced by the Game Boy titles. Starts with four stages selectable at the start, hidden room galore, Item Replicator, Mega Man has access to a weaker Rocket Punch with his armour, more and more cutscenes and more attempts to break away from the established moulding.

This is applicable to whatever form of entertainment. As long as you have someone who understand the underlying functions and structure, the original creators/authors are not required. That’s a big caveat, but something that anyone willing could be able to pull off as long as they’re willing to learn the ropes. World 4 is like a safe bet, not shaking the boat and showcasing a well-made meal everyone can enjoy, though it won’t blow anyone’s taste buds. World 5‘s meal would be still as expected, but the new chef prepared it with ingredients and new preparations methods that heighten the taste and texture.

I can’t wait to see when will Konami finally produce a new Metal Gear game to see how the franchise will be handled. Give it five or six more years, the Japanese game industry seems to have a habit to let a franchise lay silent for a period after some kind of hard negative event has taken place. Nevertheless, perhaps a Mega Man -like game with the grabbing mechanics and all that which World 5 made itself so good would’ve been a better option. There are always more room for more 2D action games.

Monthly Three; The Game Boy march

While reading on materials on the history of the Game Boy, there was always two things that popped up; people saying it outsold like no other despite having technological disadvantage and the fans of the its competitors calling each others’ favourites a piece of overpriced garbage. Unlike the NES, the Game Boy was a much larger success in all three main regions, despite it still seeing shortages in Europe overall. However, going into GB’s market success is not the point here. The design philosophy is, and how pretty much all ‘victorious’ consoles reflect this.

While I tend to give Gunpei Yokoi loads of credits about his philosophy about mature technology, he was no different from any other Japanese business executive. The corporate culture is that the man upstairs gets the glory over the hard-working underling, and this can go well up to the main chairman if it benefits them. Such was the fate of Satoru Okada in Nintendo’s R&D1 under Yokoi. In an interview with Retro Gamer (shortened here) he goes over the main design points that the Game & Watch, the Game Boy and the Nintendo DS had. Even in this small bit you see that Yokoi’s Game & Watch series was a good starting point for what was to come, as the Yokoi’s group first wanted to downsize it and make more pocket fitting. Indeed, while Game & Watch was led by Yokoi, and the D-pad design is credit to him, Satoru Okada deserves the same amount of credit for creating said device when he handled the technicality of things. A designer is only part of the solution, unless he is a jack of all trades, master of none.

The point of this group wanting to do technologically better game system is nothing new, and while on surface is all about the cutting edge technology, nothing in the Game & Watch games was new when it came to hardware. This is where the design sets in with the D-Pad and the overall shape of the unit. These are the hardware design choices that matter more than how powerful the CPU is or the architecture of the machine in terms of what makes things tick right. It’s not exactly about bringing in something new. I hate to use this term, but innovating based on existing facts. The D-Pad was, and is still a great solution to a control problem. Single buttons don’t really give the most intuitive feeling out there, unless they’re in a cross shape like on the PlayStation controller. The wrong kind of design can make it feel terrible, like on the Dreamcast and Xbox 360. In the end, the D-pad really is a very downscaled, flattened joystick in its core form.

As for the Game Boy, what is a surprise that Yokoi’s initial pitch is essentially a continuation of the Game & Watch, which Tiger Electronics’ games essentially were in many ways. Indeed, the Game Boy as it came out is the child of Satoru Okada’s ambition to push the envelope further. If Yokoi had not given in to Okada’s persistence to develop a far more robust and ambitious handheld gaming machine, we might be calling any other handheld game console a Game Gear.

This is one of the elements of the silver bullets in creation a successful console. It’s not enough it to use existing, mature technology and innovate with it, but it also is required to innovate. The Game Boy’s legacy for future handheld consoles is in its careful design to be cheaply produced and sold, while offering a lasting housing that can be carried easily and take serious damage before being decommissioned (or even survive a missile strike in Gulf War), but also offered games that last more than few minute at a time. The hardware was not cutting edge for these reasons precisely, but was good enough. Good enough is a magical term that is more successful than cutting edge. Game Boy didn’t succeed because it was like the Game & Watch, it succeeded because it used the same ambitious model the FC and NES had… at least in Japan and US. We know how well Nintendo handled Europe.

There is nothing special or magical in Game Boy’s victory march over Atari Lynx, Sega Game Gear or PC Engine GT/TurboExpress. It sold for $99 at launch and was packed with Tetris, the only game that could be called perfect in design. Atari’s Lynx was out at $179.99 two months later, with lesser titles in its launch library. Game Gear launched at slightly lower price of $149 with the usual marketing campaign of it being the cooler option for mature gamers who liked hardcore titles. Like the PSP. While Game Gear was essentially a Sega Master System in a smaller box, the PC Engine GT really was a portable PC-Engine and able to play the same card based games as the home version. Its $249.99 price point was stupidly high, and this is 1990 money we’re talking about. Taking account devaluation of the dollar, the price equals around to $453.00 modern day money.

Paying $99 for a console that came with a game, earphones and a link cable to play with your friend was an option that couldn’t be beaten. Better, more robust hardware with backlit and coloured screens lost to a console designed to be enjoyed en masse by everyone, everywhere. Batteries ain’t cheap, and the fact that you got a whole lot more bang for you buck with the Game Boy than with any of its competition. The successive sales encourages more third party developers to develop games of the Game Boy over less popular options, and the rest is history. Nintendo would replicate the grey brick’s success with the DS… after they stopped treating it like portable N64 and tackled it as it were a portable SNES.

Yokoi left Nintendo at a point in the mid-1990’s and developed the WonderSwan, a terribly Game Boy-like console, for Bandai. Other than its extremely slim form and monstrous battery life of over 24h on a single AA-battery, it was also completely out of date and had no driving ambition behind it. Even its buttons were inferior in design, especially the loose D-pad that had no feeling to it. For a handheld console that came out in 1999, it had no legs to stand against Game Boy Color that was released a year prior. SwanCrystal, the best version of the console with colour LCD, saw a release in 2002, but with little support and mostly Bandai’s own games on the system, it was a relative niche product overall. Sure, it saw one of the best versions of Final Fantasy I, II and IV before modern era remakes, and even that is debated sometimes. WonderSwan is something what Game Boy could’ve been if Yokoi’s original idea had been implemented instead of Satoru Okada’s; a system standing on old ideas, re-using concepts rather than innovating based on them and creating something new.

To return to the opening to the start of the post, the very reason why people are astonished by the fact the Game Boy was so successful is because it was good enough, but still better than its predecessors. You don’t need to be cutting edge, just ambitious to have the good stuff available for everyone, and keep the quality high while delivering all sorts of games across the spectrum.

With this, I’m officially putting Monthly Three’s on hold. Whenever I get a subject that requires more than one post, it’ll return.

CAPCOM doesn’t get it #8

What have we seen lately in regards of Mega Man? A revised sourcebook is coming and a slew of toys. We’re also seeing a slew of fan made games, as well as few Mega Man added to some lists.

Y’know what wrong with all of these? These aren’t newsworthy. CAPCOM isn’t making any noise outside one post at their forums where they confirmed not getting how marketing should work.

Again, to who are these toys and statues aimed at?  People who are fan[s] of Mega Man. Who buy[s] the games? The fans. How do you get more fans? By producing more games to broaden the customerbase. Guess what CAPCOM isn’t doing. After all these years of wanting, the Western fandom finally got toys and books.  The game series just needed to die before CAPCOM decided to make money on the side products. Make the primary products.

Due to lack of any actual development with CAPCOM and their intent with Mega Man, outside making money with secondary products, the fans are grasping straws and saying the series is relevant because of the toys. Then again, we could say that G1 Transformers is relevant due to the Masterpiece toys. We all know that G1 has not been relevant in years outside the hardcore audience, and similarly Mega Man is only relevant to those people who keep buying the toys and blog about it. It’s sad that the younger audience knows Mega Man from his 9th and 10th outings, or just through emulation. Since those games Mega Man should already be known for at least three more games. Legends 3 would have elevated the situation to a better status, but the choice of players controlling someone other than Mega Man was stupid. Pokémon doesn’t get bought and played because it has Tamagotchis, nor people buy Devil May Cry to play Silent Hill.

But Legends 3 came and was cancelled in a whim. The time since that happened is a small eternity already, as macroeconomics have changed as has the console status quo, where all of the currently sold consoles are either barely floating or are slowly being pushed away. UK retailer Asda doesn’t even stock Wii U anymore. I can’t blame them, as Wii U doesn’t have any games that have lasting power. Pikmin 3 is a laughable. It was in development for a half a decade and come out and nobody cared outside the core fans of the series.

You might think that It’s enough for the companies to serve their core fans, as I myself have said that it is harder to gain new customers than keep the old ones. However, not broadening your customerbase is the road to stagnation and without taking care of your product with absolute care it will end up repeating itself and never improves, like the bulk of Finnish anime conventions or later Mega Man games. If you were to sell to a small audience, you’d have to make sure that your product is premium of the premium and as valued as its weight in gold. The smaller the audience you have, the costlier it should be in order to make profit, which then means to put more work, time and resources in said product.

However, this sort of Elite Market is nothing short of stupidity when it comes to video games. Games used to be for everybody and there existed games for all. It doesn’t help that targeting the Elites during depression isn’t your best bet in regards of long term planning. More games and a wider userbase doesn’t mean that the quality of the games would go down but just the opposite.

CAPCOM is doing itself a disservice on not actually doing anything of worth. Hell, I even said that nobody wants another Darkstalkers compilation and surprise surprise, CAPCOM just reported that it didn’t sell well enough to warrant new Darkstalkers. I’m surprised to see CAPCOM’s inability to realize that the Devroom and Darkstalkers Resurrection were extremely weak attempts at doing marketing and marketing research.

Are these toys a way for CAPCOM to wage how much demand there is for Mega Man, or are they just trying to keep the little fanbase they have left in tight lease? Most likely the latter. 

Speaking of unreleased games, CAPCOM has tentatively announced to put the Game Boy Mega Man games on the 3DS virtual store. Remember when CAPCOM wanted to release the GB games on the GameBoy Advance with upgraded colour support and all, but that never happened because they didn’t have all the source codes? I’m sure the fans haven’t forgotten. If CAPCOM would be a company that stood behind its grounds, they would release the GB games as one set named after [the] project, and then add the Xtreme games as two-in-one deal. Don’t expect to get anything special from these editions, unless CAPCOM suddenly decided[*decides] to reverse engineer the ROM images. We all know the chances of that happening. Why aren’t we hearing more news on this? Because CAPCOM isn’t doing anything for these games. As with most other VC releases of this kind, CAPCOM’ll just throw ROM images to the store and call it a day’s work. I’ll be surprised if they’ll do anything more than that. 

And they’re still doing absolutely nothing.

Five dragon heads down, one thunder to strike

The game #499 is… Penta Dragon.

This is the highest resolution you’ll ever see the box in. Sadly, my copy came without a box so I can’t provide a scan myself…

Now, if you remember me saying that I’d go down every console generation as we approach the 500th game, this is where we end. I have no consoles beyond the NES era, where GameBoy started (even thou the game was released on 1992.) The following game is a Joker card, and it can belong into any generation. We’ve started with PS3, went to Sega Saturn and hit the PC-Engine, avoiding most popular consoles like the Super NES, Mega Drive and PS2.

Let’s talk about Penta Dragon. While the bulk of the games in my collection represent memories I have, there are games like Penta Dragon that are plunging into unknown region. I just follow That Feeling in these cases. What feeling I initially got from it was that it would be a decent, small budget game that would serve itself well on long travels. The boxart promises simple gameplay, but it also tells that some love went into this game quite a lot. The gameplay skeleton might not be anything new or polished, but you can see that it’s should be pretty good. So yeah, I can say a lot about a game just by its cover, and thus far I haven’t been wrong with my initial impression.

But quite honestly, there’s very little information about Penta Dragon in the Internet. It seems to be rather obscure, even in Japan. Penta Dragon’s sequel, TRINEA, seems to be more well known mainly for two reasons; it’s for the Super Famicom and the cover art was made by Masamune Shirow of Ghost in the Shell fame. If Penta Dragon got a sequel, then it can’t be that bad, can it?

I’ve got no idea what I’m doing here

Well, Penta Dragon’s gameplay is that of a shooting game. Third person 2D shooting game no less. Actually, I have no other game if this genre in my library, so that’s one plus in that regard as well. So, what’s it like?
Well, the controls are tight and responsive, the visuals are pretty good for ’92 GameBoy game with Dragon Quest inspired SD look on the characters except in story scenes and the music is actually pretty darn catchy. The themes I’ve managed to hear are all something I could listen while working and get a kick out of it. I’d like to hear a modern remixes of these tunes in various fashion. Perhaps I’ll dig up something from Japanese remix sites, thou that’ll take a small eternity.

The game design is actually pretty good for a low budget game. The sprites are clear, the lack of HUD is a good choice and even if the environments don’t change much it serves the whole dungeon element going on. The weapons system confused me at first, but then I realized that collecting more than one icon of the same weapon upgraded it. Also, there’s that circling shield weapon which is strong as hell, killing those mid-bosses in few seconds. There’s also a Dragon form that you can access when certain conditions are met. In this form you gain a powerful flame attack that kills a lot faster than your standard peagun. While the B-button is for shooting, the A-button is a screen clearing flash weapon, that also has a gauge in the Item Selection screen. The Level bosses, as far as I’ve seen, take most of the upper side of the screen and should pose far higher threat level.

Penta Dragon is an interesting game to say the least. It’s now very well known and most of searches for “penta” and “dragon” only offer dragons and pentagons, and sometimes some tarot crap nobody gives two cents about. ペンタドラゴン gives a bit more diverse answers, but still not much info on the game. I doubt I’ll never find a copy with the package materials and all, as the game seems to be rather forgotten and for good reasons. While the game isn’t really anything special, it’s good fun. It certainly deserves a place in the Final Five games to Five hundred. Oh, it has Penta in the name as well!

I’m pretty certain that Penta Dragon is remembered solely because of TRINEA. I’ll get TRINEA at some point (most likely in January) and check it out. But for now, I’ll keep on hammering on Penta Dragon and enjoy it the most I can… as soon as all the upcoming deadlines are over.

Even the flyer mentions Penta Dragon, not that anyone else remembers you any more…