Virtual-On Historical: 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 Historical; FORCE

Previous: Oratorio Tangram

Sega often had multiple arcade boards running at the same time and never really dedicated their library and efforts on just one board. For example, while the Model 3 board was developed to replace Model 2 and was introduced in 1995, Model still kept going until 1998 and was phased out only after NAOMI hit the scene. Furthermore, Sega had their System 21 running from 1987 to 1996, while their H1 system was barely a blip on the scene in 1995, with it being their last Super Scaler board and had only two games. Other companies, like SNK with Neo-Geo, emphasized the amount of games on a board for a more economic approach. However, Sega had made good business in the arcades with excellent selection of timeless classics, but as we saw with the Dreamcast’s end, all things must come to an end.

Sega Hikaru hit the scene in 1999, before Model 3 was phased out and after NAOMI was put into public use, the Hikaru is almost a high budget, envelope pushing hardware to NAOMI’s ties to more budget conscious approach. Despite being derivative of NAOMI technology, it was expensive to produce due to its chipset, and it was hard to code for due to its intricacies. It featured a custom build Sega GPU with advanced graphical capabilities, almost a standard for Sega’s flagpole systems, with additional CPU, sound and other custom processors that utilised the expanded bandwidth and memory. All this was partially to enable the Hikaru to do Phong shading, which was the most advanced shading technique of the time, which essentially calculated the needed colour per pixel, making triangles on a model seamless and allowed better specular highlights.

The Hikaru was developed almost exclusively for Brave Firefighters, a 1999 arcade game.

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Adventure over Story

With recent game sales in store here, I decided to pick up Pokémon Sun. I’m the kind of fool who recognises how the series has gotten progressively worse, when the series hit Game Boy Advance with few saving graces thrown here and there, but nothing that could keep the series from falling steadily. Pokémon is, after all, mostly kept alive by its large fanbase, both in and out of electronic gaming, of which most people are have been there since the first few games. This has caused a certain kind of generational shift, where younger people see the franchise as something for their parents or the same age rather than for them. In 2014, Yo-Kai Watch‘s Jibanyan overtook Pikachu in overall popularity in Japan. This didn’t happen in the West though, despite Yo-Kai Watch being a franchise with potential. It was, as you might’ve guessed, a bit too Japanese. Pokémon overall outside few important bits, is rather global in its approach, something Nintendo and Game Freaks tend to emphasize to ensure further acceptance.

On the game front, there is now question which one is more popular, and here comes the core reason why Pokémon gains criticism with each further entry it sees and why Generation 2 is still so revered. It has everything to do with one single point; great world that supported a grand adventure.

It’s a small miracle the first Pokémon game generation even works as intended, most of the time. Under the good, the code may be rather terrible, but on the front the design of the maps and monsters was terrific. Well, to be completely fair, they weren’t the most imaginative map designs up to that point, which was partially their charm. Pokémon‘s earlier games’ maps shine because they’re mundane, everyday places you can see in your home town and surrounding it, with enough interesting points thrown here and there to add the feeling of fantasy. For example, no power plant would look or be mapped like Red/Blue‘s, but it still seemed plausible. The Burned Mansion was a place every child (and even adults) would like to wonder into, full of secrets and treasures left around. You didn’t need to info or story bit about them, all you needed was some sort of simulacrum to convey the place and a place’s name.

Second Generation had things a bit too mundane at places, making certain paths in Gold/Silver tedious, which detracted from the overall experience. However, because of the Day/Night cycle and new possible scenarios Weekday’s gave, you’d explore every nook and cranny.

The Third Generation’s overall map is terrible, slowing the progress. Fans know the drill; too much water, too much slow Surfing. That’s only half of it though, as the Ruby/Sapphire began to detract from the adventure. For Pokémon, the abandonment of adventure has been rather slow, yet in the latest entries its clear that most of advancements to the overall game play has been addition of more complex and intricate stories rather than expansion of maps and emphasize on their interesting design. We have no Friday Lapras to go around, less maps that are interesting to go through again or maps that would require returning to at later points for further venturing into outside the story or progression. The adventure of exploration has been replaced with story, to put it shortly.

Playing is an action, be it a video game, a play with toys or in bed. As much electronic games may split opinions, it is universal that when we stop an action we are currently enjoying (or finding a need to finish the act due to pressing matters) always impacts us in a negative way. However, with computer and video games having increasingly more elements that belong to films or books, the action of playing is cut and diminished. With some games nowadays, you are required to sit through a tutorial and intro cinematic that can last up to thirty minutes. While you can argue that tutorial consists of playing, this isn’t the case. A tutorial is like watching a toy in a box with a Try Me! function on it. Only when you unwrap and unbox the toy, you can play with it. What story does to this toy is that it makes you sit in front while telling you about the toy, and stops you every five minutes from playing to tell you something else.

Most developers don’t realise that you can tell a story through action, like kids do when they play, or simply refuse to consider it an option. Sometimes, like with Order: 1886’s director Dana Jan, regret that they were making a game when they could be telling a story. Just like how the use of mind and brains are valued over honest physical work, stories are seemingly only valued when we can wager the storyteller’s words, camera work or direction.

We’re at a time when adventure, or the sheer action of playing, is struggling. FMV games overall were the bane of game culture overall, yet seen as something that would enrich and truly bring something mature and irreplaceable to video and computer games. So very few succeeded to be games, how little interaction the player ultimately had with game. Games are not about taking you to an adventure like books or movies. Games are about you being on an adventure. Less so in puzzle games obviously, which is why it’s easy to see the same detrimental evolution in Zelda series.

To return to Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch, it must be mentioned that Yo-Kai Watch too emphasizes story, though to a lesser extent than its elder competitor. Playing the two games side by side, Sun and the original Watch, the differences in pacing and how much the games take your hands off from playing. Yo-Kai Watch, while still having story segments that stop playing, are not bloated to showcase the elaborate models and character animations, or have lot of empty air or simply slow and jarring text. While both games have scenes that are unskippable, try guess which one lets you more freedom from the get-go and tries to keep things to an optimal minimum.

With time being of the essence to many nowadays, one of the worst sins a game can do is to waste your time and keep you from playing.

 

Music of the Month: 8-Bit Brave

Ah, what a month has it been. If you’ve noticed that the writing has been all over the place for during January, that’s because I’ve had much less time to given any emphasize toward quality (or whatever quality goes into making this blog) and just getting something out. Let’s stretch a bit, as usual for these posts.

We basically skipped the usual robot related design and a review post. The Virtual-On historicals have taken their slot, as they require comparatively a bit more research than what I have time now, especially considering I still need to play the games to give them a proper assessment rather than just going with the flow. I’m also planning an additional post about where VO has appeared outside of its own games, mostly mentioning Valgern-On and MARZ‘s Super Robot Wars entries. There’s quite a lot of to do with these upcoming three, and I can’t even begin to write properly about A Certain Magical Virtual-On as of now. I’ve also added the VO entries into Robot Related Materials you can access in the menu on the top of this page.

With VO posts doing relatively well for a niche topic, I’m considering of doing more of post of their sort. Not necessarily historical entries per se, but more series or franchise comprehensive series. Still, Muv-Luv and Guilty Gear related stuff still reign at the top of most hits, with few mecha and that NES region free post in the mix.

With my new work contract that I’ve gained via career change, I’ll be working a full day-job in five shifts. Whether or not I have time, or simple energy, to write something of worth nothing twice a week may become rather challenging. I’ve decided not to push myself with this, and will allow myself to pass on one of the posts, if deemed necessary. I’ll try to drag A9Doc, who did the neat Digimon post recently to cover my sorry ass, if he manages to come up with a neat topic. You may see more Digimon related posts than usual because of this, but all of them should touch on character designs or the like first and foremost to keep it according to the blog’s theme.

This also means I’ll be breaking the thousand word limit I’ve had for years now. This is to ensure that I can include all the things I’ve wanted to mention rather than splitting some topics. In some cases, I’ll forgive myself if I got well under that golden standard I’ve been living up to. If somebody is wondering why I had such a limit, it was because early on I got some feedback that I tended to write posts that were too long to read. Thus, cutting back and making them more palatable was the goal back then, but that was then.

To help with things overall, I will take last year’s Monthly Threes and combine them into one larger post per topic. Is this cheating, I hear someone ask. It partially is, but these posts have some of the best stuff I’ve done. With some encouragement from a certain Casp O’saurus, I’ll be picking some of my better posts and try to spread them around a bit more.

As for the ixtl/âge stuff, there hasn’t been much I’ve wanted to comment on. I never made any posts about Avex picture’s acquisition, because I never got a good picture what sort of company they are, in the end. There are less good sources to go through, and things being more or less standard Japanese corporate politics says things can go either ways. Either ixtl will stay as they are and be milked to the end, until they’re absorbed fully into avex as a whole, or they’ll manage to do some seriously impressive stuff that will make money. Knowing ixtl’s track record, despite the Kickstarter, things can go either way. At least the translation team has now moved to ixtl’s stables. We’ll just have to sit back and see when everything has been cleared out, as they’ll have to relaunch Muv-Luv on Steam under a new publisher now that Degica is no longer involved.

TSF comparison entries are still planned, but just as with the Guilty Gear comparisons, time is a commodity  that I don’t have too much. I’ll plan one of each for March, as February is still Virtual-On country.

I once said that I’d follow Yo-kai Watch‘s success in the West, but seeing its success was less than expected, it really did drop from my radar. I picked up the first game from sales recently, and I have to admit that I’m liking its semi-automatic battle system. I’ll have to play it a bit more to get a proper feeling, but all things all, I can understand well why the series got such a loud applaud in Japan. Maybe a review is coming out on it at some point, but not anytime soon. I’ll be giving some of the sequels a look too, and how they’re managed to change the formula.

And oh, the reason why Yuusha Oh Tanjou! got the spot this time around is that The King of Braves GaoGaiGar‘s final episode’s 20th anniversary was on the 31st of January.

 

Monster Hunter’s streamlining

Quality of Life changes is pretty much just the latest buzzword that replaced streamlining when it comes to video games. Sometimes there are needs for it, as some games tend to have excess that that should be cut out to make the playing more enjoyable. Other times, streamlining or quality of life changes to a game series means cutting certain elements down that seemed too complex, or dumbing down, despite this not being the case. This has to be approached case by case, and with the latest entry in Monster Hunter series being released, looking at the changes to streamline the game might be in place.

I’m basing this post mostly to my own experiences with the series, and thus it is largely anecdotal. Starting with Monster Hunter Freedom, I’ve seen this series tweaking itself with each entry in some way, with Tri, 4 and Generations seeing the biggest changes to the overall systems. These included Tri’s swimming and underwater hunting, something that never made a return; 4’s emphasize on maps being more vertical, making ledge jumping, jump attacking and monster’s vertical movement an integral part; and with Generation introducing Hunter Arts, something that probably won’t be returning until another Best of All type of title comes out.

World is a large departure from previous entries with its single map approach rather than segmented areas per map, and almost a total overhaul to the pacing of the hunts. I’m using the term pacing here, as all the streamlining done seems to aim to make the hunts move all the time.

For example, when the player began gathering usable items from a plant previously, he had to pick up each individual item separately that could be obtained from said plant. If you got three items, you’d need to press a button three times. This was streamlined earlier already in the manner that you’d only need to keep pressing the button to complete said three item gathering. This would be a dedicated motion, which stops the flow of the hunt, as it the player stops. This seems completely natural thing to do, however, and was essential part of the game’s play overall. However, in World the player can now pass the same plant and gather those three items from it while running, without stopping.

The question I had with this, whether or not this sort of simple change impacts the game much. On one hand, it was more “real” in the sense that one had to stop to execute an action that in real life would cause you to stop for a moment. World‘s approach is very much what a video game would do, with gathering becoming very much similar to picking up a health item in Doom or the like; just walk over it.

This seems to be the approach in most places for the game, in that the sort of semi-realistic approach has been now replaced with seemingly more game-like approaches. The Scout flies are probably the best example of this, with them being completely bonkers when you think for it for a moment. They should’ve given the player a hunting hound or some other more natural option rather than blinking lights.

The game is about hunting, after all, and despite the Scout flies being partially optional in their use, their inclusion does tell that the developers want the player to “get to the good stuff” faster. Having a literal lighted up trail that shows the way after few foot prints and scratches on the walls have been identified doesn’t example mesh well, but it’s all easy to use. You can run by these tracks and pick their info up, making the tracking element very uninteresting. If there was a game element to them, something that would be tied to Skills for example, and asking the player to take an active role to do majority of the tracking themselves would not have introduced fat to the game, but meat to play.

On the other hand, in a lot of things World still sticks with the old mould all the while introducing some new problems. The item, armour and weapons management is about as tedious as always, the center hub area has been expanded to be a multi-level town, where you either need to traverse to your destination or use quick-travel via map, which necessitates a separate area load screen. With the game being in online all the time, the game treats single-player experience no different, with you “Posting” new quests online despite you going for the hunt alone. As a side note, single-player hunts seem to be balanced towards the easy side.

However, some of the changes are sensible, at least. For example, certain item that used to be consumables now exist in your inventory from the get-go and don’t vanish. A whetstone just doesn’t vanish when its being used. Pickaxes follow this same pattern, and don’t exist in your inventory anymore as a separate item entity. Despite this may look like some of the preparedness has been removed from the game, the rest of the item management is more or less the same. Then again, it does cut out some of collecting and gathering elements that existed in previous games, but perhaps this is to cut out some of the elements that did not surround the hunts directly. I would like to see a Gathering area like in Monster Hunter Freedom return at some point in the future, rather than just paying someone to increase your items.

That’s the crux of streamlining with Monster Hunter World. Lot of the changes has been made to make the hunting itself more about the forwards momentum, with everything around it being cut back. Except the plot. From the ten hours or so I managed to drop into the game, all the changes really are to make the huntings more about the scene rather than the game, perhaps hinting that the game indeed was streamlined and quality of life changes were made to make the game more accessible to the larger market. World has been the fastest selling title in the series thus far in the West, so maybe in the end they’re doing something right. We’ll have to see a year later or so to see how it has been doing and whether or not its userbase is still there.

The measure of Switch’s success

A week ago Nintendo Soup put out an article on how the Switch is selling three times faster than the PlayStation 4 in Japan. It’s a pretty straightforward chart. However, Just looking at the data isn’t really all that useful outside bragging rights, as it’s just Japan. Going back some three months ago, Gamespot had a bit more robust write-up on Switch sales topping two million, outselling more than its two competitors.

Long story short, the Switch is seemingly selling a lot more than its competitors. However, that’s not exactly the measure I’d make the Switch stand against. What the Switch should be compared against is Nintendo’s past consoles, and I don’t mean just one single of them. The Switch is a hybrid console, meant to encompass both the home and hand held console markets. As such, the plural doesn’t mean whole slew of the consoles at a time, but e.g. the Wii U and the 3DS as a whole. Granted, that’s not the best hardest challenge to beat.

However, something like comparing the Switch’s sales to Wii’s and DS’s sales would be more apt. Not only because both Wii and DS were runaway successes, but also because they also hit the similar sweet spot as the Switch does in overall terms. It’s all a bit relative in this terms, but the Switch seems to meet the wants and demands the public has now, which more or less moves gaming away from the living room and the usual stuff. The library of course is the main attention grabber, with Nintendo’s own IP’s currently making the most sales.

That said, I can’t say it’s enough to outsell the Wii/DS combo. The macro-economics we have now are very different than what it was a decade ago, with prosperity in the spending countries being higher and people having more money to throw at trivialities. Like games and consoles. I can’t say everything sells, but the situation is much better now. The Wii was a low-cost console for the public that could use the occasional, almost arcade-like breather with a controller that didn’t require too much effort to put in and that was good. The Switch, while not exactly Shakespearean console, does have a level more finesse to its, from the classical console perspective, where a solid, classical controller is a must.

Another thing that raises the bar for console sales overall is the increase in population. A population usually grows some in a decade, and new generation enters into work and gains more income than what they had previously. Spending on games generally has increased from what I can tell, and this is mostly because gaming has managed to have a somewhat steady market expansion despite the developers and publishers wanting to cater to the Red Ocean market, overall.

This is something most of these people comparing console sales tend to forget, that thirty years ago we had a smaller population and consumer base for video and computer games overall. A direct comparison of sales and revenues generated from them need to be adjusted to changes in inflation and population growth. It’d be easy to proclaim sales of some console to a direction or another just based on its sales figures alone. For this reason, Wii U’s sales are overall worse than they might appear at first. With the increase in overall consumer population, rising trends in macro-economics and the possible transfer from Wii’s userbase, the Wii U bombed worse than any of Nintendo’s other consoles. The only true contender against it is the Virtual Boy, though I would almost say Wii U gets the edge in this comparison as it was Nintendo’s mainline console and had more development and production put into it.

There’s no doubt that the Switch has a lot of success under its belt already. The media shouldn’t half-ass their criticism on it, however, and remember its hybrid nature. Nintendo is not going to put out a full-fledged home or handheld console in the foreseeable future until. Whether or not Microsoft or Sony are going to release a full-fledged Ninth Generation console at some point is somewhat a moot point, as Nintendo reacts mostly on themselves, sometimes on what Sony does. After all, Microsoft holds jack shit in terms of gaming market in Japan, making second-hand Xboxes pretty damn cheap overall, with some of the rarer software titles stupidly expensive.

That’s another ingredient to throw into the mix; regions. One region can religiously support one console over another, while another region does the opposite. There was an interesting split in the past few generations, where it seemed that the US preferred the Xbox, Japan preferred Nintendo’s consoles and Europe was a whole lot of mixed, changing from nation to nation.

Maybe the concept of a console “winning” is moot to a large extent, as it would seem most of the Red Ocean consumers would like to disregard cold sales statistics and concentrate on more personal views, emotional values or whatever point of comparison they would have for quality. Of course, we could use an academic view for high quality games, but I’ve yet to see a peer reviewed research paper that would establish the guidelines for such thing. Naturally, a high quality game for one differs from another, we all have a different taste after all and none is really any better than the other.

So, what is the measure of the Switch’s success in the end?  For normal everyday conversation its sales numbers compared to the 8th generation competitors is probably what you’ll see the most, whereas a more in-depth discussion should concern comparison to other more successful consoles all the while taking the whole population and consumer base expansion into notion with the positive macro-economic trend we have going on. That is probably what it should be contrasted against, though somehow I see discussion always moving towards the discussion of personal favourites and what sort of quality we value as individuals. Taste is the only thing we can properly contest over, after all, as you can’t really argue against cold data.

Virtual-On Historical: 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

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