Virtual-On Retrospective: MARZ

Previous: FORCE

In the early 2000’s, Sega’s plan was to deliver cheaper and more effective arcade hardware for the Japanese market, which of few would see worldwide releases. NAOMI 2 was given the emphasize over the Hikaru, which was phased out in 2002. NAOMI 2 would last to 2008, with Atomiswave, a Sammy developed NAOMI derivative, running by its side. Around the same time in 2001 Sega developed the Triforce with Nintendo and Namco, based on Nintendo’s GameCube. Two years later, Sega would release Chihiro to the arcades, based on Microsoft’s Xbox. All these arcade machines ran different games that Sega was directly involved and developed, like NAOMI 2’s Virtua Fighter 4 series, Triforce running AM2 developed F-Zero AX, Atomiswave running many fishing and fighting games Sega was part developer and publisher, and Chihiro most known for OutRun 2 and House of the Dead III due to their Xbox ports. Later in the 2000’s, Sega’s arcade hardware would be more or less completely home media derivative, based on normal PC architecture, making some of the modern games running on a modified Windows. However, there was no Virtual-On, on any of these systems.

With Virtual-On FORCE generally receiving lukewarm acceptance from the overall audience, regarding Oratorio Tangram the superior game, Hitmaker would develop a console-only sequel for the PlayStation 2; Virtual-On MARZ.

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Virtual-On Retrospective: Oratorio Tangram

Previous: Operation Moongate

Virtual-On was a relative success for its time. It saw most of its popularity in Japan due to larger availability of arcades and the Saturn doing better there than anywhere else. For America however, the success was much more limited. Less arcade machines to go around and Saturn’s lukewarm success were the main reasons. The PC version, much like other Sega’s PC releases, was less emphasized over their own console’s port. This lesser success seemed to convince Sega’s European section not to release the Twin Stick controller in the region. Despite how the game is considered a sort of landmark for Sega and mecha games overall among fans, that’s all mostly in retrospect. Its impact didn’t exactly topple any towers, and ultimately met similar niche status as Sega’s other Saturn seller title, Panzer Dragoon.

The decline of arcades, and Sega’s mismanagement of their hardware side (especially during Mega Drive’s later years and Saturn overall) limited Sega’s business success overall, with Sony taking their place as Nintendo’s main rival with the PlayStation. That is not to say that Virtual-On ended up being some sort of sales catastrophe, as Japanese arcade goers took the series close to their hearts. This being Sega, they gave more emphasis on this fact rather than considering the franchise’s world wide success.

Despite Sega Model 2 being a success on its own rights, Sega was always pushing their arcade hardware further. If Nintendo has an obsession to introduce 3D to home hardware, then Sega had an obsession to push the 3D hardware at arcades. Hang-On, OutRun and Space Harrier are all examples of 80’s Sega finding ways around to introduce 3D-like effect to their games, and you could even argue that Sega’s teams became master of sprite scaling in this fashion.

Sega didn’t cut much corners with their arcade hardware, and Sega Model 3 supports this approach, as it was the most powerful arcade system board of its era. As Sega’s last piece produced by their partnership with Lockheed Martin, it contained graphical hardware designed by Real3D and Mitsubishi, which was a spin-off company from Lockheed Martin. However, Real3D only saw success with Sega, and their partnership with Intel and SGI ended up as market failure, and in the end was sold completely to Intel in 1999 due to changed arcade markets.

The reason why Mitsubishi was brought into the partnership was Real3D had a series of delays with their GPU. Originally, the Model 3 was supposed to be released in 1995, but had to be pushed back to 1996, with Yu Suzuki claiming it would deliver the best 3D graphics thus far.


Model 3, of course, ran the latest Virtua Fighter

Continue reading “Virtual-On Retrospective: Oratorio Tangram”

Virtual-On Retrospective: Operation Moongate

Virtual-On is one of Sega’s hallmark game franchises, developed by Sega’s AM3 department. It had everything the arcades required in 1996; 3D graphics that you wouldn’t see at home, unique controls, flashy graphics and fast paced gameplay. When most of the 3D mecha combat games on the market aimed for slow and emphasized on realistic simulation, like Shattered Metal or Mech Warrior 2, Virtual-On hit the arcades with sharp, colourful 3D models in fast paced third-person action with (relatively) easy controls. This is perhaps the best example of East VS. West mentality when it comes to giant robots. Even in arcades, among other blooming 3D games, Virtual-On stood apart with its excellent presentation and unrelenting game play.

 

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It’s the Mania

I’m sure some of you are already completely tired of hearing people telling you how good Sonic Mania is. Despite all its faults and recycled content from Mega Drive Sonic games, it still ends up being the best game in the franchise. It’s a sort of The Best of Sonic, if you will. It’s essentially a game the fans, and people at large, have been waiting for since Sonic 3 and Knuckles came out.

There have been pretty good 2D Sonic  games since then. Sonic Advance games were overall enjoyable games to play, although their stage design and some of the physics were off. Sonic Rush games on the other hand nothing but the speed, and this was evident in rather lacklustre stage design again with the speed Boost gimmick being the main culprit. Nevertheless, still pretty good time. Just not as good as the Mega Drive games. That’s where we always go back, because those three (or four, depends how you want to count) games were in many ways the pinnacle of the series in the eyes of fans, sales and cultural impact. Sonic made its name on the Mega Drive.

Sadly, the Sonic titles are one of the worst sufferers of creators wanting something new and grand, something that doesn’t meet the expectations of the paying consumer. Sonic Adventure had a heavy emphasize on the story, something that peaked with Sonic ’06. I’ll tell you how to weed out the bad Sonic games from the good ones; the bad ones put the story to the front of things. Sonic‘s gameplay is hard, if not impossible, to transfer to 3D. They’ve been trying to do it for some two decades now, and even Sonic Generations, a game that was hailed as the first good Sonic game in a long time, felt off with everything done in 3D. Sonic 4 was just terrible.

The franchise really is a case study of creators losing sight what made their product wanted and revered. One could even go far enough to say that Sonic Team and Sega as a whole can’t do classic Sonic anymore, and have had no intention of replicating the Mega Drive games in any fashion. Sonic Generations could’ve been one, but physics clearly weren’t replicated accurately.

It’s not much of a surprise to see Sega hiring  fans to create a 25th anniversary game then. Fans, who have showcased themselves as capable in replicated the mould that made the Sonic franchise what it used to be. To say that the fans knew better than Sega would not be exaggeration. However, Sega did screw up the game by not giving it a proper physical release, and even the limited edition package comes with a digital download code only. I’m guessing they’re banking on Sonic Forces, which will probably end up lesser of the two games. The simple fact that its colour palette is dry and consists of black, red and beige is a harsh contrast to Sonic Mania‘s bright blue red and yellow.

Sonic the Hedgehog as a brand suffers from Sega overusing nostalgia mixed with whatever hell they’re trying to do in their latest games. Much like how Super Mario can exist in two different iterations at the same time, modern 3D Sonic could exist with classic 2D games. The biggest misstep of Sonic Mania is that it adhered to old stages, albeit remixing them with new areas and secrets. Sega’s no stranger to this, as their obsession of pushing out the Western teams at the end of Mega Drive’s era.

Nintendo is a stark contrast to this. While Nintendo has given some of their most significant IPs to outside companies to work with, like Retro Studios’ Metroid Prime, their attitude towards them and their fans is cold at best. Metroid Other M supposedly removed the Prime series from the canon, though why that should matter isn’t the point. The point is that Sakamoto himself didn’t deem the Prime series good enough. Other M and the upcoming Metroid II remake are the worst entries in the series and all that is on Sakamoto.

Nintendo is also infamous for their Cease and Desist letters to fans, like with the Another Metroid 2 Remake. Nintendo has had hard time celebrating their fans works or even allowed legally sound fan-products to be made. While they are required to protect their intellectual properties, this has never been good PR for them. Of course, you don’t want to have the same situation Paramount/CBS had with Star Trek Axanar, though it’s no secret Axanar challenged the official Trek stuff, and the team behind Axanar essentially broke the rules by making money off of their piece. There’s always the question why wouldn’t you want to make something original and new if you’re able to design and code a whole new game.

Sonic Mania is essentially the New Super Mario Bros. of the franchise. Much like with 2D Mario, classic Sonic is something people have been wanting for ages. However, whether or not this is just a one-hit-wonder or if Sega sees some sense and continues on developing and releasing more of these classic games is still open. However, they should learn from the failures of NSMB series and improve upon the concept and allow the games to stand up more and give them full fledged release status. Nostalgia is a delicate thing, and as said, Sega’s been overusing it already. Pushing the stage designs and sprite graphics to Saturn level next while still keeping with the style of Sonic Mania might be a natural step. Sonic Mania, as an anniversary game, does things right and manages to squeeze in twists that you’d never see in an equivalent Nintendo game.

A game of Puyo Po– I mean Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine as a Boss Battle in Chemical Plant Zone? This is the right stuff right there

Sega could do right with the rest of their franchises and seek out the right people to work on them in a similar manner. There are development houses that would love to give, for example, Streets of Rage a similar best-of treatment. The iron is now red hot, it’s time for Sega to hammer it.

A delicate piece of hardware

Much like with other modern technology, we’ve managed to squeeze more into smaller space. The laptops or pads we have nowadays are engineered to a point that barely anyone can open up their cases and fix them without further studying on the subject. Game consoles aren’t any different, though the PlayStation 4 is almost as big as the original Xbox. It wasn’t until we began to have consoles that began to show easily damaged sections in the mainline consoles. While the PlayStation could take some hefty damage (personal experience tells me it can survive a trip in a lake), the PlayStation 2 could be damaged by having enough weight at the wrong spot. This was the time when PCBs started to become thinner and more packed up with components downsizing with almost each year. You could lob a NES or SNES outside a window have it working with a cracked case, and the same really for the PlayStation as well. Personal experience, don’t ask. PlayStation 2 however was the first truly delicate piece of hardware that in the end begun to have issues with reading the discs. Sometimes from the very beginning.


Goddamn, this video came out sometime early 2000’s. Takes me back

Nintendo’s consoles usually have been durable, especially their handheld consoles. There has even been discussion how Iwata drove the DS’ tech team mad by demanding the console to be able to withstand multiple drops from a standard height.

However, the more we pack delicate technology in a smaller place, the more easy it is to break it. While most people fellate companies over the hardware, it’s uncommon to see anyone appreciate the design and intentions of the design. The PSP was applauded for its higher raw power over the DS, and while it was snazzy to have in your hands, it was a delicate piece of hardware that could break down very easily. The console wasn’t meant for everybody, and much like how SEGA used to sell Mega Drive for more mature gamers, SONY’s western branches clearly had the more adult audience in mind. The PSP really couldn’t take much damage, I’ve had to fix a few. The same applies to the Vita to some extent, thought the Vita seems to be able to take a beating or two more than its elder sibling.

The Switch has been out only for a while, but it’s already showcasing very erratic behaviour. Some have it going completely mad in sound department, some consoles refuse to launch games, connection issues with the controllers, and the screen’s been scratched by the dock itself. I saw the dock scratching issue the very moment the whole thing was revealed (it had no guiding rails to keep the screen clear), but having a plastic screen is a necessity. Why wouldn’t you want to have a glass screen? They’re so much better! The reason for this is safety and durability design. See, when you have a plastic screen, the console can dissipate a fall impact by wobbling around rather move the energy directly into rigid parts, destroying them. The very reason your phone’s screen shatters so easily is because it can’t bent, and the energy from the is released by shattering. It’s a design decision between durability and looks.

To sidetrack a bit, this really applies to Muv-Luv‘s BETA as well. The Destoyer-Class has a shield hardness of Mohs-15, but because that’s hardness topping that of a diamond, their shields should shatter when shot at. They don’t flex when hit due to their hardness. Mohs scale is for mineral hardness after all and should never be applied outside jewellery.

Newly borked devices is nothing new, either. The 360 had firmware issues since day one, and the infamous Red Ring of Death haunted machines every which way. Hell, the 360 may be a good example overall how to fuck your console from time to time, as some of my friends have told me their 360 crapped out because of an update. For better or worse, my 360 hasn’t crapped out yet.

No modern console is truly finished at launch. Firmware and software issues are relevant and will be patched out at a later date. This is largely due to modern technology. A Mega Drive never needed firmware patches, because it was less a computer than the modern machines. Whatever problems with the firmware Switch has now will be patched at a later date. However, the hardware and design problems are harder to fix, and if Nintendo is anything to go by, they may revise some of the designs in later production versions.

Though there really isn’t any good excuses to use paint coating that peels off with stickers. That’s just terrible. Who puts stickers on their consoles any more? You’d be surprised.

The first wave of adopters will always have to go through the same pains with modern technology. New smart phones and tablets suffer from firmware issues to the point of most common consumers willingly buying last year’s model in order to get a properly functioning device. The price has already dropped at that point too. Apple has been infamous with some of their smart devices’ firmware problems, and sometimes they were removing basic utilities from the hardware alone. Nobody really expected iPhone 7 not to have a headphone jack.

The question some have asked whether or not it’s worth buying a game console, or any modern smart device or computer component for the matter, if they require multiple updates months later down the line? We can’t see into the future, and it’s hard to say what device will go through a harsh update cycle. Essentially, you’ll need to look into history of a company and make a decision based on that. Just trusting that a company will update broken parts is strongly not recommended.

I guess releasing things partially unfinished and patching them up is an industry standard practice. Games get patched to hell and back, and while this isn’t much new for PC side of business, it’s one of those things that show how little of classic console business is in modern consoles. Not all games get patched though, even when they have console destroying bugs in them. NIS America’s track record with localised games that supposedly lock permanently and prevent you from finishing the game, break your console or generally have terrible translation would a perfect chance to use these patches to fix these issues. However, unlike with consoles and other devices, game developers can ignore these problems as the purchase has already been made and they probably are banking on hardcore fans.

Not that any product is final when it’s released. All products are good enough when released, but that good enough has seen a serious inflation with time.

Reprints and the aftermarket

In the wake of good news from the good ol’s Sega, they seems to be intending to further promote Yakuza in the US by doing a reprint run of the first four games. Reruns are good and bad news to collectors. Those who misses the original run can pick up these sort of games and enjoy them good as new. Then there are those who would hoard them for future sales who buy them amass. Scalpers, if you were to use the bad tongue.

The game aftermarket is bloody battle, and certain fields are largely controlled by a group of individuals. There are those who collect games in mint condition to use in the future as the basis for higher priced sales. It’s not an unknown tactic to buy the market empty of loose cartridges to eliminate competition, thus causing a shortage of supply to already supply diminished market.

Not that there isn’t anything wrong in that in itself. It’s the buyer who is stupid enough to pay extraordinary prices.

You're asking what now?
You’re asking how much now?

I picked up Battle Mania Daiginjou for some 200€ some years ago, and that was a stupidly high price. A reprint of the game would in place, but a reprint to a dead console like this is less than likely. But Aalt, why would you repress PS2 games then? Because pressing DVD is so much cheaper than mass producing plastic shells and PCBs to run a cartridge based games. As a side note, we’ll get back to this series on a later date in form of a review, and I’ll be revising Daiginjou‘s old review.

Some people were guessing that digital redistribution of games would bring down old games’ prices. Either it had no effect on the aftermarket or  raised prices further. In principle, there are more games available now than ever before in digital format for consumers. However, the core collectors who want the real deal, so to speak, are more or less willing to dish out the dosh for whatever. That’s pretty unhealthy, but such is the nature of a collector.

This is one of the reasons I don’t personally believe that physical distribution will die out any time soon, if you allow me to step outside my own rules here. As long as their collectors and people who wish to gain control over what they put money into, or value an item enough to wish to have total control over it. Not all people are comfortable with the idea of allowing another to have total control over their purchased goods. However, it is undeniable that digital distribution does cut down multiple factors in inconvenience, through the pricing overall is still overt, often meeting with physical releases’ prices. I’ve been told I’m wrong when it comes digital distribution for good decade now, and I’ve yet to see digital distribution killing the physical goods market. Diminishing it perhaps and taking its slot in there, but not killing the market overall. Of course, not all games have seen official digital redistribution, something that is extremely unfortunate. However, it is something we have to live with, especially with so many titles having their source code missing.

To get back on the subject, reprinting Yakuza is a rather clear sign from Sega what consumer market group they are targeting. It’s not the general public, but the collectors, red ocean gamers and Japanophiles. Let’s not forget the people who got into the series during PS3 games, who never managed to get their hands and play the first titles. The Yakuza games weren’t exactly hot sellers and ended up warming the shelves long enough to cut the price at least 80% in rather short time. The supply was rather large in comparison to the demand, but it seems that part of them were moved away from the circulation. In Japan the series is far more popular than in the West, and banking current fans and niche audiences is Sega’s best bet to have the series be successful.

Furthermore, the Yakuza series has not been through the best of localisations. Whatever you think of the first game’s dub, it was a fair attempt at making the game more open for the general public. The second game wasn’t tampered with, but pretty much all the rest of the games saw removal of minigames and missions to some degree, up until the latest titles. Whether or not we believe Sega’s statements why content was cut from the games, they didn’t really give them any positive press and seemed to affect the sales to some extent, considering these same niche audience that are their main target audience currently tends to prefer their games in more untouched form, head petting games intact and all. I can’t fault  them, I share their sentiments for my own reasons.

The question that rises from here whether or not it would be worth to run reprints on more games, even when the price might be higher. It’s not exactly an easy question from the consumer point of view. On one hand we do have collectors and retro collectors that would gladly purchase a new print of some high-calibre NES game like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Castlevania III, both games that tend to run at a higher price. The price would need to be gauged beforehand and probably be handled through a sort of pre-order similar to Kickstarter to meet up the costs of running a new production run. That is if we assume that we would replicate the original NES carts. As we’ve seen with 8bi Music Power and Kira Kira Star Night DX, there are more cost-effective alternatives. However, if we assume SMB3 would get this sort of reprint through modern technology, there would be split between the consumers; those who would like to have the “original” release and those would be “satisfied” with the reprint. In reality, both would be Nintendo produced official version of the game on NES. The semantic of what’s original and what’s not is strong with collectors, and these tend to drive up sales. NES is a prime example of a system to which people want to collect, and its partially because of its large library of games.

The retro game market may be skewered to hell and back, but that seems to be natural progression of valued old products market. It’ll take few decades before video games would be appreciated as proper antiques.

It’s been long time since SEGA got positive financial results

Sega never really recovered after Nintendo beat them with Super Nintendo. No matter how much we want to discuss how good 2D machine the Saturn was or how accurate ports the Dreamcast got, the truth is both consoles were mismanaged to hell and back. Sega’s consoles weren’t the only thing they mismanaged, but their Western front as a whole saw a dump. Franchises that went strong and could’ve continued strongly were dropped dead as Sega of Japan wanted to concentrate their side of the business. As with Xbox, the hardcore Japanese media doesn’t really find all that great success here in the West outside the niche audience. Streets of Rage, for example, is inherently Western in its styling as was Eternal Champions. Neither survived the paradigm shift Sega went through in the mid-1990’s.

However, with the Mega Drive Sega pushed the idea of them being the more mature console over its contemporaries. It worked for a time, and things like allowing blood in Mortal Kombat showed that they’ll be willing to give more exploitative products room to breathe. It really worked, giving the Mega Drive (or Genesis in Ameriland) that games-for-adults fame. Sports games helped by the boatloads, never underestimate sports games even if you don’t like them. PlayStation would inherit Mega Drive’s status. Not Sony themselves, but the brand itself. Sony’s fame has gone poof in the last few decades, and nobody really knows what the hell they’re up to now. Their movies suck and don’t make money, their electronics aren’t top-notch any more and the only thing that they seem to make a buck on is games.

The Sega we used to know is long gone. Not just because I should be talking about Sega Sammy all this time, but because of the changes the company went through. They went from one of the top arcade game manufacturers to top-notch console and game corporation, and then just failed miserably only to step down and become a rather lousy third-party publisher. I’m willing to argue that Japan didn’t really get why they were popular in the West. After they went third-party, it’s like they don’t care any more.

This is reflected in their Flash report.  This consolidated financial statement from the last nine months of 2016 show a rather nice result for Sega, putting them squarely in the black and getting some extra while they were at it.

The games that special mentions come in set of three; Football Manager 2017, Ryu Ga Gotoku 6 and Phantasy Star Online 2. Outside Football Manager 2017, the two other titles are inherently related to how Sega sees their model; Japan first, the rest of the world later. Neither Ryu ga Gotoku 6 or PSO2 are available in the west, and while the western release of Ryu ga Gotoku 6 will be out under its Western title Yakuza 6 next year, PSO2 is still officially Japanese-only despite being released originally in 2012. Whether or not PSO2 would be a success in the West is an open question, but it would be a venture worth considering for Sega. Phantasy Star name is one of the few franchises that Sega kept alive ever since the Master System days, and still calls up some positive reactions from the high-end gaming consumers.

Yakuza has always had a limited audience in the West, and probably will continue to have. However, it’s perhaps a core example of Sega willing to go all out to put the money down into a game development they truly believe in. Another is that Yakuza series is outright maybe the most mature franchise in under their belt, and it’s easy to see why they would like tone down some of the elements in these. Luckily, they’ve manned up and begun listening to their core consumers on the matter. However, it is highly understandable why they never localised the two samurai spin-offs. Not because of themes like child prostitution, but because samurai games don’t sell in the West.

Soccer manager games will keep selling, there’s a good market place for them that seems to be relatively healthy and not too saturated with low-end releases to jumble the market up.

But as said, Sega doesn’t really care how things go in the West. Their Kantai Collection arcade game seems to rake in the dough just fine, something a similar product wouldn’t make its localisation money back. Yes, I’m talking shit about your waifu battle ship. Similarly, their smart device sales indicate a thing that most consumers don’t seem to realize; in order for a smart phone game to keep you with it, it requires constant content updates and events, at least in Japan. Once you miss something or start game later than others, you’ve already missed a chunk of its contents. This works Japan rather well, as their keitai culture grew to this in many ways (there’s a post up about Japan’s keitai somewhere on this blog, look it up) but for a Westerner who wants more wholesome package in one go it doesn’t really do the trick. A niche audience would keep it up for sure.

Their non-game related products seem to have done rather well and their plans for future releases seem to be solid and revolve around Japan mainly. Valkyrie: Azure Revolution most likely will hit Western shores at some point, whereas Initial D Arcade Stage most likely won’t due to the series being pretty much forgotten outside its meme status.

Talking about Sega is really dry and boring, because the company is like that. There’s no sazz or sparkle with them any more. It’s business as usual and that’s all there really is to them nowadays, but that’s not exactly a bad thing either. Them making some dough does warm up my shattered heart a big, because it also means once-loved company could possibly try to up itself at some point. (No they won’t.) The difference between Nintendo and Sega was always very pronounced, but how they work nowadays is like night and day. Still, I’m happy I managed to shove in a positive entry about Sega for once.