Pizza Pizza

As long as I can remember, Domino’s Pizza has been the butt of jokes to the point even my Vietnamese associates know a few. They had a massive problem with PR and their pizza for numerous years and found themselves in a downward spiral in the mid-2000s, striking the all-time low in 2008 when their stock price was just three dollars. Nowadays they go for around 380 bucks. It wasn’t the easiest route.

Despite Domino’s hitting their lowest point, they experienced a massive PR crisis following Michael Setzer’s and Kristy Hammond’s Youtube video showcasing how much they loved to ruin the food they were preparing. They pleaded guilty a year later. This video effectively confirmed how Domino’s food was prepared in the minds of the consumers, further enforcing the jokes that were made and pushed customers away. It didn’t help that the video ended up being one of the top search results if you searched for Domino’s at the time. Even disregarding this incident, Domino’s was seen as some sort of crime against food and ingredients, or as Adweek’s short story put it on their focus testing, it’s startling to hear the degree to which consumers regard Domino’s as the embodiment of culinary evil. During this and numerous other focus tests Domino’s pizzas were called all sorts of names and claims of them using fake cheese and the like in their products were common, hence the jokes of the time. Some of them have survived long enough to be part of pizza-eating culture.

Domino’s decided that they need to turn their ship around and hard. Ever since their record-low stock price and the whole PR disaster with Setzer and Hammond, Domino’s began to comb through their complaints and reviews for the most common negative mentions and comparisons, as mentioned in their four and a half minute documentary what they were doing. This video, while being a corporate produced piece, is one of the things Domino’s did to have that boat turned. They went back to the recipes and worked on them and revised what they were doing wrong. Supposedly more training was given to the workers to prevent the mishaps the aforementioned video caused. Domino’s, in all effect, owned that they were rather shit company with workers who didn’t care if your pizza was terrible or not. The linked video shows how proud Domino’s was after they went and created new pizzas, which were more or less made from scrap. Everything from the dough to toppings was tested multiple times over and changed wherever needed. Whether or not this is all true will probably be always an open question, yet even from this video it is evident how much money Domino’s spent to revise their image by revising their image through their product. They even went as far as providing their focus group members with these new pizzas to test and get their opinions. They made these into ads, no less.

Domino’s Pizza owning up and takings steps to deliver to the customer the kind of pizza they wanted while making a public, transparent stunt out of it all has made them the most valued pizza restaurant chain. While some still retain the image of Domino’s being the worst kind of pizza you can have, that’s rather outdated view by about a decade. That, and they probably never had Greek pizza. Domino’s stocks have been in constant rise, and they’ve been trying to renew customer interest in various manners after their renewal, like collaborating with Hatsune Miku in Japan. part of their whole shtick of being transparent to at least some extent, they’ve allowed Food Insider to make a short video how their pizza is made and delivered, though personally, I have to say I’m not exactly excited by the idea of the dough being made elsewhere from the spot. Delivery food is making some nice bucks at the moment, so Domino’s made some nice bucks earlier this year as people didn’t want to leave their homes.

What’s your point? I hear Wes asking me there. My point is that Domino’s pizza listened to their customers, changed their product and working methods to better fit the demand. Not only they were willing to take in feedback and were honest about it to themselves, but were willing to make rather transparent transition from what they were to what they wanted to be. Customers love that, and that made them a billion-dollar company.

This same set of ideas can be applied to any industry on their basis. While the creative industries want to sell the image of one creator or a team of creative individuals delivering an earth-shattering piece that can only be experienced in so many fashions, the reality is that any product needs to be carefully planned out and balanced between the original intent and the customers’ wants. That is far harder than you would expect, as some corporate cultures do everything by data alone, which can lead to discarding feedback in total and the only thing that says anything is sales data. This can be combined with long-term career businessmen, who are hard stuck on their own methods of working, as it has produced large revenues up to that point already, making the total renewal of their productions hard if not impossible. In the foodstuff world, this is easier to do than e.g. in automobile production or the like, where you can only begin to start this process with the next series of cars rather what you already have in production. With games, music and film this could be implemented in an easier manner, but it requires humility among these egos, and that’s something the self-clashing creative industries do not see too often. Imagine if, for example, EA would make a public announcement that they’ve listened to all the feedback they’ve gotten through the years and have begun to consider how they produce, develop and publish games, as well as how they tackle advertising in their games or in which manners lootbox mechanics function. It’d take years for them to root out these methods and manners they’ve cultivated throughout the years and end up putting efforts into making games that wouldn’t nearly kill their workforce or would contain whatever is currently the most underhanded way of making that extra money. Something like this happening in the creative industries is as likely to happen as a pig flying through your window. It happens on occasions, but extremely rarely.

Few posts ago I wrote how I’m tired of the PR game. Domino’s Pizza turned their PR disaster into a chance of renewing their image through transparency. Because transparency to that effect would necessitate losing face first in order to gain higher PR wins in the long run, you won’t see this happening with franchises like Star Wars or any of the botched film franchises. You will never see one of the head honchos stepping up, admitting the money they spent on a movie bombing like no other was a mistake and that they will look into renewing and satisfying the customer. That would go against how things are presented to the audience, the whole Hollywood/ creative myth, how glamorous it is to be a successful creator. Yet even sure-shot franchises like Star Wars, Alien and The Terminator have slumped, the latter two effectively becoming more or less dead thanks to the latest movies. Hell, even the Predator franchise is back in the casket after The Predator managed to fuck up the series. As much as it often goes against the corporate grain, transparency and honesty are two things the customer values. If a corporation manages to be open about their faults and missteps about themselves and is visibly improving themselves, that creates almost natural emotional connections to both your current customers and your possible customers.

The one place where transparency should be the most important bit is in crowdfunding like Kickstarter. If you’ve run a Kickstarter and have managed to each your funding goal, every single thing you do with the money or with the project should be logged in without censorship shared with the backers. All the good you do is doubly more worthwhile when you admit fucking something up and explaining the methods of either supplementing or fixing what’s gone wrong. With crowdfunded products you have to remember that these aren’t your customers; these are the people who funded your project. Being transparent with them is the least you can do. The PR game wants to mangle and twist every screw-up into something positive in false manners, and more often than not the customer can see through that. It’s up to each individual customer how much leeway they might allow the PR game, and most often you can see it in the form of taking their business elsewhere. Of course, if you proceed to attack the customer when you want them to buy something from you, well, not everyone is masochistic.

Perhaps Marvel and DC should take after Domino’s Pizza. Japanese comics have been outselling American Superhero comics for some time now. In the face of this fiercer competition from beyond the ocean, it would be a good moment for American comic companies and creators to stop for a moment if they’re doing something wrong.

Double the Fantasy

An element video and computer games have to them is the necessity for the player to suspend their disbelief twice. The first is, and the one players are most aware of, is within the game’s own setting. We can suspend our disbelief that Mario can jump as high as he can or run endlessly without exerting himself. Take any game and you can find any number of elements that we freely suspend our disbelief about, because they are games. Not many games overall, outside sports, have a need to adhere to the rules of reality. There is no magic, yet there are no issues of understanding and using magic in a given fantasy game. It’s part of the system. However, even before that we have to suspend out disbelief with the technology, on the matters that are not about the game itself. Things like having save slots, passwords to continue or even creating a character are separate entities from the game’s play itself. We expect these things to be part of the whole deal. We expect the games offer a fantasy world we can escape, but we’re still in need to use the tools that the games are built to function on.

While game worlds exhibit elements of different worlds, they’re tied to their social functions. Using somewhat old terminology, the fantasy of these games crosses with the necessity of cyberculture. The player, as part of the cyberculture, often demands elements that do not fit with the fantasy of the world, like Non-Player Characters directly talking to the player rather than to the player’s in-game avatar, like whether or not they would like to save their game. Players’ socialising is also completely apart from the game most of the time, though some players do play their role properly, not breaking their character in-game. The human brain is capable of handling two opposites as true, as players treat the fantasy the game offers as reality just as much as the true reality the game functions in. The fantasy of the world, while contradicting its necessity to be tied to being a software that can only be on a screen we control via input devices as dictated by the game’s rules, is no less is not broken by the necessity of reality.

To use Monster Hunter as an example, we know humans can’t wield the kinds of weapons the game shows. There is no in-game explanation either, it’s part of the deal. The same with monsters themselves and many of the fantastic elements the game has to offer. Controls is an example where the dualistic mindset steps in; we can’t simply do Action X, because the game’s design and code doesn’t allow us. This is part of the rules of the game, despite the games often showing movies how the hunts really look like within the context of the world itself. Items are part of the mechanical elements of the game, where you can carry only this many items in a given number of slots in your inventory, though nothing actually shows on your character that you have them. No backpack or the like on the character.

Some games aim to dissolve the distinction of the two layers. Rather than having the player save their game, the game makes the player write a diary entry and does not make references to the player’s own actions. It’s the player avatar writing the entry, keeping the layer of fantasy unbroken. Yet this is rarely done in favour of making clear to the player what function is what within the game’s rules. To use Ultima Online‘s saving as an example, the player could not open a menu and click Save Game, as that breaks the game’s fantasy. First the player must gather the necessary equipment to camp, like a tent and firewood. Then the player must find a fitting spot to camp and initiate camping procedures before he can log off from the server. The player can’t simply cut the connection at any time he wishes, as that gains him a penalty, where the player character is forced to lay still and possibly be mugged by thieves or mauled by wild animals. EverQuest handles this differently by the game announcing camp preparations with a countdown. The fantasy is not broken, instead it has been replaced with a narrative element in both examples. With games like Final Fantasy, there is no consideration for the fantasy itself. The game and its in-game external functions are treated as two different things.

Games like Baldur’s Gate allow breaking the game’s fantasy even further through constant renewing of the player’s party and character, being able to rewrite the backstories as many times as they want and renew pretty much everything about the party as much as they want. In online mode, a player can bring in a character from their single player campaign that might be significantly higher in levels and progression in the single-player campaign. The fantasy of the game requires moulding that sort of character back into proper spot in that online campaign’s progression, otherwise the fantasy of the game world is broken down by the game’s own in-game external functions. Baldur’s Gate treats itself as a hybrid of what it is, thus allowing its fantasy to be very easily broken by the necessities of its Dungeons and Dragons roots. The game doesn’t try to mask majority of its mechanical functions with its fantasy. Incidentally, while the aforementioned Monster Hunter doesn’t go its way out to include any real ways to keep its narrative functions, a lot has been discussed if the monsters’ Life energy and states should be shown to the player. The game’s design relies the player to further themselves into the fantasy and observe the behaviour and actions of the monsters to determine how badly they’re hurt or if they are enraged. While the game’s rules makes these very apparent by drastically changing the monsters’ actions and adding new elements to the monsters, like raised spikes or glowing eyes, it has moved an element of the technical into the fantasy.

The separation of the fantasy and its mechanics have become clear, and the two-layered fantasy is mostly gone. It has become more a meta subject for some of the developers and designed to toy with, with Metal Gear Solid being one of the best examples how a game’s world can intentionally break the fantasy by using the mechanics accessible to the players themselves, like reading contents of the Memory Card to enforce the idea of Psycho Mantis’ psychic powers and necessitating the player to use the second controller port to fight him. That, and using the controller’s vibrating function as a massage device. This kind of meta approach, while breaking the fantasy, also ties the two layers together, making it meta. However, in the same vain other developers have been chasing the cinematic and Hollywood presentation of Metal Gear Solid to the detriment of the medium, fracturing. the game’s fantasy further.

Video and computer games’ main narrative elements comes from the player’s actions. Each play, in themselves, is the story the game has, not the readily made framework the player progresses through the game. The play’s narrative can easily mask the necessities of the game’s rules and mechanics by giving them further narrative elements. While the players themselves will break the fantasy by meta-discussion about the game, the fantasy of the game world itself can be kept wholly cohesive. However, the wants of the players themselves often necessitate breaking the fantasy in order to offer them things like Quick Saves or the like. While we can argue that we’ve advanced in designing games and their interfaces, the modern electronic media and cyberculture is very much different from what it was ten, twenty years ago. Video and computer game designs reflect this, where the player driven narrative and story has been replaced with an emphasize on the pre-determined framework, despite modern technology allowing far more complex game progression to be designed and realised. The paradigm in current game design however wants to fight this, as it has been separated from the technological fantasy of controls, mechanics and rules. Rather than games being presented as a cohesive whole, with the layers being as melded as possible, the current paradigm in design wants to present the games as sectioned as possible. Perhaps it is because different teams are working different sections of the game, where the need to make clear-cut definitions betweens them becomes apparent. However, the consumers at large don’t see to mind this and are capable sidestepping the necessity to suspend their disbelief with fantasy due to simple nature of games running on rules.

The Big N Creation Myth

One of the best marketing tactics a corporation in the creative industries can employ is to represent their product as something completely unique and new, or as something that has evolved the formula beyond the competition. The whole This game/genre has evolved! schtick is especially common with sequels, and was rather common in the Japanese ad media during the first decade of the 2000’s. You don’t see Japanese developers mentioning their sources of inspirations much outside few notable exceptions like Hideki Kamiya, who has been vocal about his love towards arcade games. Western developers often do the opposite, citing examples what their game is like. The difference between cultures here is rather contrasting to the point of American audiences preferring to refer their games ‘as like something’ even in genres, like Doomclone, Soulslike, Metroidvania and such.

Japanese like to invent new genres for specific games though, though this is in order to endorse the whole idea of these games being something completely unique. Shenmue‘s FREE, Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment and Mega Man Legends‘ Free-Running RPG are the ones I cite the most as examples, mostly because both of them are full of bullshit. Sometimes you can find these redefining genre names as a game’s subtitle as well, with Metal Gear Solid‘s Stealth Espionage Action being a prime example. By introducing something as new and wholly created by oneself or one’s own team, prestige, reputation and face can be gained. A culture most of the credit, if not even all of it, can be credited to one person alone while putting all the faults and mistakes unto lower staff members, it becomes understandable why Nintendo wants their customers to believe that they have created their games in a bubble of creativity, free of whatever is around them.

Staff at Nintendo have always been aware what’s around them. They have always been as much trendchasers as they have been trendsetters. With their pre-Famicom era Pong clones to the very early era of making Hanafuda cards, they’ve always taken something that exist and given it a whirl of their own. What I mean by this is that Nintendo, especially with their video games, have always taken a game and looked at it how it could be given a different spin. This sometimes improves the formula, sometimes it doesn’t. Devil World is a great example of a failed attempt at improving the Pac-Man formula.

The game is actually pretty bad. It has one nice tune, but overall you just wish you were playing real Pac-Man

The Legend of Zelda and the Action Role Playing Game myth is probably the biggest one out there. As touted by Nintendo Power during the game’s release, it was the first game of its kind. In reality, it of course wasn’t. Even Link’s Adventure, a game which is considered to be an outlier, adheres to pre-existing games to a large degree, trying to improve on mechanics and ideas that already established. However, it must be said that The Legend of Zelda was the first true mainstream success of its genre in the United States, as the closest relative the game had at the time was Ultima games. There are links missing between Ultima and The Legend of Zelda, though not many.

First of the links is Falcom’s 1984 Dragon Slayer, which more or less takes the Ultima formula and simplifies it down to one massive dungeon.

Zelda would adopt this same top view perspective. All the base building blocks are here that would be seen in The Legend of Zelda down the line, though battling is still done with statistics. You can expect a hard defeat if you don’t have proper stats or magic. Dragon Slayer wasn’t the only game in town to get inspired by Western RPG or use an early version of bump combat that year.

Hydlide has become a sort of punching bag on the Internet for being terrible, but in reality it’s no worse than other RPGs of the time. Visually there are similarities that we’d see in later games like Dragon Quest, which in itself is a combination of Ultima’s top-down view and Wizardry‘s in-window battles. The way both these games hit the scene in 1984 is telling how much impact early Ultima and Wizardry had on the Japanese PC gaming. Falcom’s influence on Nintendo wouldn’t stop with Dragon Slayer, as 1985’s Xanadu‘s battle mode very much like Zelda‘s overall play.

The difference of course being that all of the games still use statistics and experience as a play basis, not removing them from Ultima too much. The Legend of Zelda changes the formula by removing experience and the need to grind for experience points to item statistics. While Link doesn’t gain any visible statistics during the game, the player progression and curbing is done by gaining stat growth via weapons. This makes the game easier to approach and opens all of the game map to the player from the start, and encourages the player to wander around to adventure even more. Falcom’s influence on the series can also be seen in Link’s Adventure, which more or less uses Xanadu‘s changing battle-mode to shake things up, but keeps things viewed from the side. While not exactly new at the time. While Link’s Adventure is seen as a kind of black sheep of the series, despite historically it outselling its stock and being an excellent title on its own rights, Falcom released their own game using the same side-view concept Link’s Adventure had in Sorcerian.

The two games were developed about the same time, though Sorcerian sticks to the side-view throughout its whole game without changing perspectives. The play itself is dramatically different, structuring the game on particular quests and scenarios. Combat itself is surprisingly downplayed, though player has to directly attack enemies in similar fashion to Link’s Adventure. Having four party members means you can have mages shooting fireballs while melee characters hack with their swords. Sorcerian can be traced as one of the ancestors of Wanderers from Ys rather than be coined as a Link’s Adventure clone. Influenced without a doubt, just like Falcom’s and other companies games influenced Zelda overall.

Zelda just happens to be one of the better examples, where most of the influences never arrived to US. European micro-computers had their own games depending on the countries, with Sabrewulf being the most popular example. Another would be F-Zero, in which Nintendo can’t really deny influences of other racing games. The game was developed as a tech-demo for SNES’ Mode 7, which largely explains why the series has been left on the side. F-Zero X showed how fast and furious games can be on the N64 and improved the concept leaps and bounds, but Nintendo never really knew what to do after that. For them, the lower revenues and lack of ideas how to introduce a new kind of gimmick to the game has left the series dormant. AM2’s F-Zero GX is effectively just an improved version of F-Zero X, but the genre doesn’t exactly offer the best chances of installing new gimmicks without breaking the purity of play. Mario Kart on the other hand does, and gets all the attention instead.

In the absence of new futuristic racing games, Wipeout hit the scene of fill the empty niche. Games like Redshift have continued this sort of tradition, but more games in the genre are being inspired by Wipeout rather than F-Zero, similarly how Nintendo’s games inspire other titles rather the original sources

Not all influences are in the open or traceable. Argonaut Software’s Croc: Legend of the Gobbos was stated to be a primary inspiration for Super Mario 64 according to the studio’s founder Jez San. In an interview with Eurogamer, San goes over how they had a completed Star Fox 2 and had made a pitch for a 3D Yoshi game to Nintendo, but appropriated much of their Star Fox 2 code into Star Fox 64, and have people would never see royalties from Star Fox 2‘s release on the Super Nintendo Mini or through Switch’s online service. Super Mario 64 is very similar to what their pitched prototype was. Despite Croc released year later than Super Mario 64, these similarities they carried from their original pitch are evident, even having similar movesets. It’s easy to see Croc as an alternative skin to Yoshi, changed enough not to infringe copyrights. Shigeru Miyamoto has effectively admitted lifting the 3D game idea from Argonauts to San despite their close relationship.

“Miyamoto-san came up to me at a show afterwards and apologised for not doing the Yoshi game with us and thanked us for the idea to do a 3D platform game. He also said that we would make enough royalties from our existing deal to make up for it. That felt hollow to me, as I’m of the opinion that Nintendo ended our agreement without fully realising it. They canned Star Fox 2 even though it was finished and used much of our code in Star Fox 64 without paying us a penny.

Super Mario 64 would go cited as the first ‘true’ 3D game, which in itself is patently untrue. Despite the hype around Mario 64, 1980’s already saw games like Star Wars and Battlezone, which used wireframe models to create a 3D environment. We can cite Ultima Underworld as one of the earliest examples of 3D game that didn’t use wireframe models. Alone in the Dark can be cited as an example as well. The distinction of course becomes whether or not all the environment is modelled in polygonal 3D or not, in which case we need to give the first ‘true’ 3D distinction to Quake. We shouldn’t forget Sega’s Virtual-On series either, which offered full 360-degrees of free range of controls via its twin stick control scheme. Ultimately, the pretty much everything Super Mario 64 did, from its 3D nature to having game designed to be controlled via a stick, can be traced to numerous other titles and sources.

 I fully admit, I never liked Quake

However, cultivating the idea Nintendo, and every other company out there, is some kind of single creative force makes good money. It’s a PR dream to have a product that stands apart from the rest of the shelf, but is familiar enough for the consumer to understand at first sight. One you manage to gain a position as the one who defined a type of product, yours is the standard that is compared against. The Legend of Zelda doesn’t have much direct competition any more, though games like Nier: Automata are effectively in the same Action RPG genre, but a distinction is made between the two to make a separation for marketing reasons. It’s all about the money and position at the end of the day, and if you can claim to be at the top, you’ll get the most fame and money.

Skating nostalgia in HD

It was recently announced that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 would be remastered in HD. You can check their trailer on their Youtube channel if you want, but you already know what’s there. Game that looks like the originals, just with higher polygon count and such. We can’t say if the play is the same, but seeing how easily that can be fucked up, I wouldn’t hold my breath. We already got part of this game as THPS HD and it was terrible. Not as terrible as THPS5, but close enough. If we’re completely honest, despite American Wasteland was pretty damn well playing, its levels were rather stale and we could ignore the franchise from Downhill Jam onwards. With the death of the Xtreme Sports craze the IP really went to hell and nobody really cared about it, not even the fans. Why play worse sequels when you had at least five high calibre games already? That, and Skate already had stolen THPS’ thunder for the time being, when realism became the thing to have in sports games. Oh yeah, THPS HD also got levels from the third game, but that game’s gone, and you can’t even play THPS5 proper any more due to expired license.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is deeply damaged franchise, IP and brand. Consumers have frond memory of playing the original games, and most have missed the latter day titles before the HD remake, which damaged the series even further. Gaining back customer confidence is a high bar, and the best way is to appeal to their emotional connections. A remake makes about as much sense as the remakes of Crash Bandicoot and Spyro did. You have an existing consumer base already there to take advantage of. It’s testing ground to see if there are enough sales to push a new entry out, or so the marketing would like to hint, but remakes like this are really a safe bet. A team might need to work out how to take assets out and all that, but that’s “just” the technical bit. Everything regarding the games’ designs are already finished, all you need to do is replicate them. If you have assets from somewhere, you can just use them as the basis. You could go and fuck with the designs and all, but by doing that we’d have to ask what’s the point of remaking something like that rather than make a new entry? Nostalgia, of course. Remakes are new products relying on old proved ideas, but the rest can be changed as the team wants.

All that is why THPS 1 and 2  has that name. It wants to emphasize what it is and what it’s remaking without referencing the whole HD entry. Well, it might get a name change down the line, but that’s neither here or there for the moment. To make it short, there are less risks in remaking the first two titles. They are very fondly remembered, they have a place in sports and video game culture histories and looking at the reception, there is a large number of consumers on a nostalgia trip and wanting to get their hands on it already, some wondering why the games hadn’t had a remake already. Well, I did say some people missed THPS5 and the HD entry altogether, so that at least seems to be on spot. Some are begrudging about it being Epic Store exclusive on PC, but hey, that’s just competition in the end. This remake compilation of the first two games have relatively low expectations threshold, as all you really need to do is make the game play like the originals and not fuck with the physics or rules. THPS2 has the Big Drop mechanics, in which a fall from too high would always make a landing fail. This simply can’t exist in the first game’s stages, as some rely those high drops. This was issue in THPS HD, so chances are it either gets removed like it did in the later games. THPS6 would have high expectations, as it would need to meet with the best level designs to this point in the series history as well as have a great soundtrack, with spot-on play. That is much higher ordeal, and if THPS6 is ever going to be reality, testing the waters a bit first seems like a more logical business decision. It also shows how risk averse the publisher is being as well as how little faith they have in the brand.

In larger context, the way these HD remakes have been successful tells us few basic things. First is that these PlayStation related brands are still strong and could be taken further as long as future games stuck very close to the core of the games rather than trying to push the envelope too much. Scrap that, you can push the envelope without reinventing the wheel. Secondly, Sony mismanaged their PlayStation Classic like no other. Sony has so many important brands associated with PlayStation in the public’s mind, but something like THPS must be a licensing nightmare thanks to all the skaters and music involved. There is no easy way around that but money. Then again Sony has a rule that their Classics games on PSN must be the exact same to their original releases, meaning Capcom had to re-license soda drink brand they used in Mega Man Legends. Of course they didn’t want to dish that dosh for the mini and its selection was trash. At least you can hack the device and put something worthwhile on it and remove the subpar emulator.

As usual with game trailers, it’s better to sit back and wait until something that represents that actual game’s play pops up. Maybe going for nostalgia in THPS case is the right thing to do, even after the THPS HD did that already. Clean the air, let some of the bad blood out from the system. I doubt even strong sales would convince the higher powers to allow a development of a whole new THPS title, but you never know. Just wait until you see what’s coming. In the meanwhile, I guess I’ll pop my copy of THPS2 into Dreamcast and relieve some stress.

Short Series Introduction: Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman

While NCS and Masaya are more well known for their strategy titles, mostly Langrisser, their library consists of multiple genres across the board. However, they are very different in quality, some topping at some of the best games in a genre, while others are outright trash. Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman, or Chbibinman if you want to use their own official romanisation, falls somewhere in between. All the three titles, and a spin-off of sorts, all fall into the same kind of 2D action as the genre’s golden standard, Mega Man, but due to numerous small issues the franchise never really hits the same stride. Not that it intends to, as one of the most peculiar, and perhaps series defining element, is that every game plays significantly differently.

For a 1989 PC-Engine title, Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman the game somehow looks pretty damn nice and has frustrating graphics at the same time. Some sprites hold up better than some, mostly the player and enemy sprites, but the game underachieves with inanimate projectiles, bland character portraits and some of the worst lava of the era. Colours tend to be muted and nothing really pops up despite being clear, but this means all the sprites are easily tracked. Can’t say the same about some of the stage obstacles though, some platforms are exactly the same grey and the background. All the sprites are showcased directly from their side without much dynamic posing or the like, making the game look cheaper than it really is. This doesn’t really help the sprites’ designs, as most of the stage bosses are effectively the same recoloured sprite with an additional dragon head. There are also only three stage archetypes that get used until the final boss stage, which overstay their welcome. Nevertheless, in comparison to most other 1989 PC-E titles, Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman does have tad higher calibre graphics, with flavour that fits more a Mega Drive game.

Music falls into the same category, with only handful of songs on the card, but outside of one particular stage theme, none of them are offensive to the ear. They all fit their designated stages, with with one or two of them being almost worth getting stuck in your head. Having relatively clear voice samples in a HuCard game is a minor achievement, and they’re sprinkled around the game in proper spots.

While the game looks more or less run-of-the-mill, it’s gameplay has some great elements that make it stand out. The game is split between a map screen and an action stage à la Super Mario Bros. 3, with shop and all. You can take a couple of different routes to the final boss stage. Each stage is effectively a type of a mission, flavour wise, with interactions with the city’s denizens popping up at proper times. The cash gained from enemies is spent on upgrades, which are your usual flare, ranging frontrols are what you’d expect, about as tight as the second games with few oddities herm more Life to a charged projectile attack. These upgrades are necessary in the long run, as the game likes to throw fast moving enemies at you all the while stage hazards move at the speed of sound. The player has to move carefully and with patience all the while he needs to push forward as fast as he can. The faster you can remove threats from the screen while dodging whirling spikes of death and jumping monkeys you can, the higher are chances to survive. It takes a bit of time to get used to how the game flows, as it is equal amount of split-second reaction and knowing what’s coming. The game’s design tries to emulate Mega Man to some extent in stage design, but it is significantly less on-point with its challenge-per-screen design. Oh, and the game has a time limit how much you can dilly dally in stages collecting gold for the upgrades. If you don’t beat the game in an allotted time, it’s an automatic Game Over.

The controls don’t exactly help any with the game, as player characters need to accelerate to their full speed every time you start moving, plus jumping is awkward at best. The jump arc feels rather unnatural and lacking, requiring somewhat precise platforming. With some stages having overtly bullshit hazard designs, enemies having jerky patterns and nothing really delivering satisfying feeling from being hit, the game feels and plays loose. However, it must be given props to the developer for allowing the screen to scroll forwards when the player is 2/5 from the screen’s left side, rather than other way around like in Valis series. This gives the player ample time to see and react to whatever the game is dishing at him.

Despite all this, Shubibinman went on to have three sequels. While the above seems to be all negative, as a whole the game comes together as a unique little title. It’s not exactly the lengthiest title, and allowing simultaneous two-player mode changes how the players have to approach the stages and bosses. While the two share the same Life bar, and the only difference between the two is their design and voices, the charged attacks become even more powerful when used in unison. All the things the game lacks in quality is met charm and personality. The game did come out during time when Japanese pop-culture media was going through certain kind parody phase towards 70’s and early 80’s media, especially old tokusatsu shows. Shubibinman, much like Battle Golder YUI, plays the whole android/cyborg angle that was the cornerstone of so many henshin hero shows and goes to have fun with it.

The game’s setting is, after all, about two cyborgs: Tasuke and Kyapiko. Tasuke was a fisherman before Doctor Goutokuji operated on him, much like how Kyapiko was a normal highschool girl. The two got mad over the doctor operating on their bodies, and promised to return both of them back to their old selves. Apparently the doctor is rather paranoid and predicted the incoming Akumadan invasion. With their modified superhuman bodies, Tasuke and Kyapiko venture forth to save the city, block by block. That’s pretty much all there is, but as I said, the charm-factor is strong. After every stage your chosen hero makes a pose and conveys its personality, and the same thing happens when being hit by a hazard and the like. Little things like that made the game go some extended ways, but you can easily tell that this game was NCS/Masaya’s first try at an outright action game, though development was done by Winds. The formula was interesting on its own already, and probably with some tweaking would yield a high-class action game, but seems like the staff didn’t manage to escape Mega Man‘s influence.

Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman 2: Aratanaru Teki (tl; A New Enemy) ditches the map parts from the first game and goes straight up level-by-level fare. Significantly more important is the complete loss of the sword and all close combat weapons, as the game goes for shooting action. Few stages do shake things up and are played like a standard vertical shooting game, though don’t expect them to play like Gradius or R-Type in terms of quality. The charge shot is still in there from the first game, with the player character yelling Shubibeam! every time its launched. It can get grating after a while. Pretty much everything from the first game has been upgraded, with graphics have more colour and variety in them, sprites having much better designs and animations all around. All the characters now showcase their persona much better, with some enemies being on point with the whole parodying things. Big eyed robots with silly faces are great, and they’d fit just fine with other games that parody tropes and genres, like Battle Mania.

Much like sprites, all the stages look pretty great with more variety in them. The shooting stages look significantly different from the action ones, though that can be said most of the stages and some of their respective areas. You go from cityscape to techno-mines and everything in-between. Some stages also scroll upwards, much like how Super Mario Bros. 2 did compared to the first Mario game. The layout design is not directly action, not all the time. The first game’s stages were almost all about the hazards and this has been carried over to some extent into the second game. They don’t pose the same head cracking challenge without any context though, outside few specific bits here and there. Many of the stages have dramatic moments built into their sections during play, but every stage also has a specifically designed spot to have story bits happening.

Music’s great, with more songs and some very memorable ones to boot. There’s not much to say about it, outside that the main theme of the game seems to be considered sort of unofficial theme for the whole series as it has seen the most remixes, with one of the famous one being in Dangerous Mezashi Cat’s 14th release, Newtype Destroyer.

In a straight up side by side comparison, Shubibinman 2 is the better game, but the play between the two is different enough to mention something about apples and oranges. Perhaps the improvements over the first game were enough to convince its release in the US a year later under the name Shockman. To modern players, and fans of the series, it’s less an issue whether or not one game plays better over the other, but which kind of play they like. The same could be said for the tone and the story of the game too.

While Shubibinman 2 still parodies, it does take itself tad more seriously. The whole silly side can be found in character’s expressions and enemy designs, as well in other silly matters, but the interactions are more serious in nature. This actually does follow up well with how the parodying was evolving in the early 90’s, peaking with comedic franchises like Slayers that don’t explicitly parody anything, but under the hood those in the know are having a good damn time. The story in itself is a cliché (intentionally though), with a new enemy and evil versions of Tasuke and Kyapiko, just because. Taking place some time after the first game, Tasuke is still working as a fisherman while Kyapiko is dealing with her classes. Despite his promises to put the two under the knife and return their bodies back to normal, Doctor Goutokuji has been putting that back due to him expecting a new invasion. After many wild goose chases, Emperor Ryo and his two Shubibinman Shades, Jeeta and Myu begin begin their attack. While Jeeta is played out like any generic black repaint rival that wants to destroy the original, Myu is that meek and somewhat forced in her role, wanting peace rather than war. Spoilers, but Emperor Ryo kills her bit over halfway into the game. Of course Jeeta thinks the player offed her, and after beating him and after some convincing, one of the game’s best moments hits when Jeeta joins the player for a stage, like you were playing with another player.

It’s hard to say whether or not the departure from the first game was met with split fandom, but whatever the case, the third game would mix things up again, this time with the power of compact disc.

By 1992, PC-Engine had saw the success in its CD ad-ons and so many games on the system took advantage of the larger space with CD-quality audio and animated cutscenes, and Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman 3: Ikai no Princess (tl: Princess of Another World) was there to fulfil the trope. It also changes how the game plays, though this time it’s a hybrid between the two first games. Fighting with a sword makes as return, and alongside the slightly numb feeling when you’re hitting an opponent. Shubibinbeam is still in as a charged attack, though this time it functions more like a magical projectile you have limited controls over, like how it moves up and down, left and right. However, keeping your character intact and moving the sphere around does require some skill. Controls are what you’d expect, about as tight as the second game, though some of the hitboxes can be wonky at times. The screen also scrolls only when you’ve passed the middle mark, making this one of those games where you can’t see where you’re going. The game also likes to employ the Japanese action game design of Throw everything at the player, where enemies spawn almost constantly and keep attacking until they’re defeated or the player scrolls far enough. This in turn makes the best strategy to keep hacking and moving forwards as fast as you can. If this sounds familiar, a lot of Japanese 2D actions games did this at the time. Luckily the sword swing hits both above and slightly back of the player character, so crowd control isn’t impossible.

Sadly, all of the bosses are one-trick ponies and none of them really pose any threat. They just take time to beat. Combined with the numb game play and lacking level design, the game is rather boring in the play department. Hell, there’s exactly one spot in the whole game you need to walljump, but you wouldn’t know that unless the game told you to do that. Whether or not the game was rushed is an open question, but the game lacks specific stage hazards that had defined the first two games. It’s also probably the easiest game in the series.

Visually, the game is more or less standard PC-Engine CD quality, though it does look significantly better than its two predecessors. Most characters are now built from multiple sprites that give them some extra movement and looks rather damn nice. Sprites are bigger to boot, which does give them more detail and appear more lively. The animated FMV sequences are nothing to write home about, but at least they’re fully voiced. Just like the game, the FMVs are middle of the road. Stages use colours to a large extent and the overall is very pleasant and crisp. Sadly, the stage’s designs themselves aren’t all that interesting, as most of them have been stripped of any platforming. Few of them feel like run-through fares. Still, the background and enemy designs do stand out, even if its a fantasy fare in a SF series. Some of the enemy designs are absolutely gorgeous though, and for a 1991 title, the game does look rather impressive.

As for the sound, the levels are a bit off, effects seem like they’re taken from stock archives and music’s surprisingly muted. Despite this, the soundrack is very much what you can expect from a PC-Engine game, full of synth rock and chips in the side. You’ll probably find something to like if  you have a preference for Falcom’s PC-Engine games’ soundtrack and the like.

It appears Hitoshi Ariga worked at Winds at the time. Ariga is better known for his comics, especially of his Mega Man Megamix series. Note the translation done,

As you’d expect from the title, the story is a generic another-world tale. Shubibinman are summoned to another world during their beach vacation (androids do find appreciation in vacations, apparently.) Shubibinman end up fighting the titular princess’ forces after being summoned due to misunderstanding (hilarity ensued), until they’re thrown into the underworld to fight Demon Lord Kargan and his troops. Right after Kargan is defeated, they’re thrown back to the beach, and the princess and her goons want that technology to gain more power. Even for a series that doesn’t put much emphasize on story outside comedy, this is rather out of place. The Shubibinman Shade, rescued at the end of the second game, only appear as an omake during the credit sequence.

Whatever transpired between the third and the fourth game has never been revealed, but Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman Zero was finalised in 1994, but was released in 1997 for Super Famicom’s Satellaview service, where users could download games and other material off a special online service. The game is, in all essence, a reboot with only Doc returning from the previous games. Tasuke and Kyapiko have been replaced with Raita and Azuki, and their designs look painfully mid-90’s anime. Columbus Circle’s recent re-release makes them look much better. Tomomi Seki’s designs usually are on the spot, but for whatever reason this time they’re a miss with the in-game graphics.

The game’s play of course is nothing like the previous titles’. Instead of characters only being visually different, now the two characters play differently. Raita smashes through generic mooks with his diamond tipped boxing gloves, while Azuki plays closer to classic Shubibinman heroes with a sword. Both still have Shubibeam as their charged projectile, but that’s pretty much the only thing that was carried over. In terms of play, the game plays like a one-lane 2D brawler, a beat-em-up, with a focus on platforming at places. The controls are tight, the best in the series, and the same goes for the level design. Most of the enemies are, quite literally, grey mobs you just hack through, with some interesting level specific enemies here and there. Bosses are much better than in the previous game, but they’re a joke if you’re doing a two-player run, as the Super Shubibeam is overpoweringly strong, taking care of some bosses in one shot. You also gain experience from defeated enemies, which upgrades your health meter

Sadly, this being a Satellaview game, as well as a Super Famicom game, the sprites have been toned back. There is a nice use of colours, but both characters and stages lack in detail, and this is due to size of the sprites themselves. Shubibinman 2 and 3 made great headway how the sprites look, but Zero had to take a step back and make them look like upgraded NES sprites. Some stages use a nice green, but there’s also an overuse of brown in couple of them. That said, some of the sprite designs to convey the characters’ personalities through just fine, though not to the same extent previous two games.

The soundtrack suffered as well, with some memorable tunes here and there, but Super Famicom always sounds like it’s played through a tunnel. Some samples are very Capcom-y in places and can even get you in the mood, but the overall soundtrack doesn’t really stand out too much from the rest of Super Famicom library.

The story doesn’t go out of its way to impress, concentrating on BB Gang’s criminal activities stealing stuff left and right while blowing stuff up, and Shubibinman are there to stop them. BB Gang has their own trump card in Kagemaru, a response of sorts to the Shubibinman, while Galko, the gang’s leader, is your classic high-class lady in hi-heels ready to whip and command every and all mooks.

While there is a minor resurrection with Masaya’s IPs, with Langrisser I and II remade, Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman probably won’t resurface. Columbus Circle re-releasing Shubibinman Zero made the game properly available for the first time, and you can still pick up a copy off your favourite import stores. The rest of the games have been easily available everywhere, as PC-Engine games have been ported via emulation, like on PSN. They’re always cheaper there than their original releases, as despite the overall mediocre quality of the franchise, Shubibinman did gain a strong following and is remembered as one of the better PC-Engine games overall. It might be an example of mediocre Japanese games, the kind of Japanese consoles are full of, but its charm and overall competence does make rise to the surface a bit more. It’s not an obscure or forgotten franchise, despite what Youtube might tell you. It’s just that many other games just did it better and it’s a perfect example of products of its time.

Wool socks

Product providers have a hard time bringing the right stuff to the table based on what consumers say what they want and how they behave. The two don’t always, if rarely, meet up. Y’know, that example I always use about customers saying they like a runny tomato sauce because that’s the standard and they’ve always eaten that, but when they’re given the chance to eat chunky tomato sauce, they find that’s the bee’s knees best thing. As a side consequence, or perhaps as an addition, you have the example of wool socks. Y’know, the present nobody wishes until they wish they had some nice damn wool socks to warm their feet.

A diverse product catalogue in a given niche is a must to have. There are some that can survive with just one kind of product, but then they’re extremely specialised to that one kind of product either as a sub-contractor or something similar. An example would be something like a farm equipment manufacturer, which doesn’t only provide tractors, but also other equipment to maintain the farm from shovels to clothing to small tools. The more you can offer, the less you’ll have a situation customers will slide towards the competition that have something you can’t offer. Within video games you can take Nintendo as an example as a provider that has a library of games from their own end, ranging from action to sport, from music to cardboard building. Looking at Sony, they don’t have the same offering. They have to employ third parties, just like Microsoft. These third party titles are, however, on every platform in some form and thus it loses its competitive edge. Exclusivity on the other hand gives an edge over the competition; you’re the only one that can provide this particular catalogue. The competition may be able to offer simulacrum, but not the real deal. Hence, there must be something they do to directly compete, but that’s become a less a thing nowadays the more platforms share the same library.

Still, all of them need to have wool socks in there. Wool socks are kind of product that are mostly given as a gift during Christmas or the like, and more often than not they go unappreciated at first. Especially children will find wool socks a present to despise, they’re not as fun as that toy train Jack got. However, with time and need wool socks, or other so-called soft presents, will gain a spot where you simply want to have one every year because they’re something you use. It’s a product that has a long shelf-life, may go unused for a long time, may be even scoffed by the customers at first, but dammit they just sell and they’re stuff customers find need for.

Games, and entertainment media overall, don’t really have anything like this as they’re a non-essential market. We can slightly modify it to depict genres or games that the customer doesn’t exactly want actively, but when such title is produced, it flies off the shelves. Not that there are many like that, the customer behaviour is a good indicator what’s in-demand all the time and what the customers would like to purchase. 2D Super Mario titles have always sold more than the series’ 3D games, but certain key staff members don’t want to produce 2D Mario due to the sheer work they require. Developing and producing games is labour intensive, and while we can understand a developer opting to produce games that they can treat like a school project, often then end result doesn’t serve the customer. The wool sock situation is reversed, sort of. Instead of customer not really wanting wool socks, the customers really do want to feel that nice and comfy warmth around their legs, but the provider doesn’t want to knit any. Instead they want to provide these thin-ass socks that don’t reach to your ankles and your toes keep freezing over even during summer season. It doesn’t help that the gaming media touts for the industry, not for the customers.

It must be said that appreciation for wool socks increases with age. The younger you are, the less you are concerned about things like this. Dad’s the one having to fix that rocking chair and he’s the one wishing he had a good screwdriver. With time and with more concerns in life, the products that do give such comfort, that are needed sometime later and products that feel you don’t need at first, things like wool socks just find the right spot. This kind of product might end up as a shelf-warmer, but these are also evergreen products. There will always be a demand for them and they’ll always sell. Slowly maybe, but that’s long term. Corporations that find themselves wanting quick and high revenues don’t produce wool socks, as it’s a slow product to sell. It sell all the time, but like a small stream that travels towards a larger lake.

Much like movies, gaming makes it biggest bucks at the front. Everything from marketing to special editions and pre-orders are front loaded. That first month sales is important, like how movies make the bucks in the theatres. However, some games have the potential to become wool socks, games that are always in demand. Sometimes its a game that makes big sales originally and continues to make sales every time its made available again, like Super Mario Bros. 3, and sometimes the game is found to be a cult classic but still finds itself into mainstream culture and sees a steady flow of sales. In individual cases, maybe games that you consider to be outside of your genre preferences become wool socks. You may be into fast paced action games incredibly hard, but found yourself putting hundred hours into a slow paced hunting simulator. Conversely, you might love slow-ass RPGs with text-heavy play, but find solace in a no-frills fighting game by an accident. Wool socks surprise how much you’ll end up loving and needing them despite your initial dislike. After that, you just appreciate their existence and wish to have just the right kind pair.

Well done, Turner!

We have more electronic games at hand than we’ve had ever before. Same with television, with Youtube and other streaming services allowing each individual to put their own show and tell what’s on their mind. The same way how blogs and such are the newspapers’ opinionated pieces of the Internet. The more we got everything, the less the little gems pop up, the less we’ll know about those single pieces of media that are being lost in the twenty-four/seven information onslaught. We can talk about how nothing is lost to the media and how every game or show gets reviewed by someone and you’re able to find some bits of information about something, but that’s not even the case with English language games. Less so with titles that are only in a language you personally don’t understand. There’s absolutely nothing about African video game industry on the overall Internet, as they’re all extremely local and do not do well in comparisons. There are no reporters or interest looking into what’s happening there outside curiosities. You’d think this wouldn’t apply to Japanese markets, but even then you have stupid amounts of self-published titles that haven’t been listed anywhere, despite later being introduced to digital stores like DLSite. Big names roll the most, and looking at the titles that are the most hyped and on the nose of the market, there’s nothing new on the table.

From what I gleamed quickly at a casual glance, the Internet’s all about the new Doom game, the new Animal Crossing and about Final Fantasy VII Remake. There certainly are some other titles there too, but these are the ones that seem to pop up the most frequently. All three are titles belonging to long running franchises, and you could argue Doom Eternal is a remake of sorts of Doom II. All three have been selling like hotcakes and not many people are complaining about any of the three. They all have different target audiences, and all three resort to combination of the two Ns; Nostalgia and Novelty.

Good ol’ saying from the business world is that the customer is afraid of everything new. That is largely true, as people tend to find the most comfortable spot with the things they are most used to, the things they know the best. The things they’re connected with the most. With games this is easily seen in genres some people prefer over other and sometimes aren’t willing to step outside their comfort zone to try out something completely new. For example, a person who has always played Role-Playing Games ‘knows’ he wouldn’t like a semi-realistic hunting simulator. It just isn’t something he’d like. Customers are strange beasts in that we don’t actually know what we like or what we want. While our purchasing decisions are based on complex sets of decisions on merits of a product compared to its competition and how it’d do in our personal use. We might deviate from the usual product we buy if there’s something cheaper at hand that does the job better, or we want to change things up. It’s more common to abhor a new product or its competition though, and we want to change things even less if we’re emotionally connected. All things corporations capitalise on, hence why you see one company offering multiple different kind of sauces on the store shelf. On one hand, you might like that runny tomato sauce from X Brand, but that chunky tomato sauce looks pretty good and now they’re having a sale of three for price of two. Plus, that new sauce with seeds and chopped stuff in it looks good too and I know this brand has good sauces, so trying that out won’t lose me much. Turns out you love the chunky sauce and wonder why you never tried it out before.

I tend to default for mint ice cream.

The three aforementioned games are like that. They’re safe options for anyone who has experienced a game in their series or have a passing experience within the genre. All three titles also belong to games that have made an impact on the cultural scene, though Animal Crossing‘s the least of three. It’s effectively Japanese Sims with anthropomorphised characters, a simulator of everyday activities in a more peculiar environment. Doom created the modern first-person shooter, while Final Fantasy is effectively the golden standard series for role-playing games as a whole. You can contest Dragon Quest or some other franchise here, but as a global phenomena they can’t really hold the candle. They’re safe bets, titles that will deliver profits even when handled in a half-assed manner. They’re a franchise, something will keep ’em afloat just fine. With title like Final Fantasy VII Remake, there was never any questions if it made any money. The question was how much money it would make. Not because FFVII Remake would ever be reviewed or seen by its own title, but because it is a remake of a game that is perceived as one of the pinnacles of modern-day popular culture. Because the game this remake was based on managed to attach consumers emotionally to the brand and the name, striking just the right time in the right place. Whether or not the game was put into production because the developers felt they could do FFVII more justice with modern tools and methods doesn’t really enter the equation, when the game was a safe bet. It has been requested for years on end and it would be gobbled up no matter what the end result was, and the sheer power of personal emotional attachment would colour however the game would end up being. All usual business, and I’m ranting about this again.

We could split the history of video games in slots where certain genres or certain styles were the most popular. The First electronic game Generation saw large amounts of Pong clones, with the Second Generation trying out a lot more stuff with titles like Pac-Man and Space Invaders. From the Third Generation onward we saw the 2D platformer surfacing as the most common type, but whether or not 2D action was the game that was best done in that manner could be open to debate. PC side was doing 3D stuff at the time already, but not all that well. Come to modern day, and most games, even RPGs, are third-person action. While mechanics may be a bit different, they’re effectively the same kind of game all over again. The coat of paint might be different, yet third person is the way to go now. In reality, that’s not the case, is it? Despite some of the most spoken about games in last years, from Nier: Automata to Metal Gear Solid V and even Senran Kagura are all variations of this same core game concept of controlling a character’s actions from behind them. Despite the third person view, it isn’t uncommon for players to refer the character on the screen as themselves in action. “I have to sneak there,” for example. Even with VR the most titles are some kind of variation of the first person type, because there’s nothing much else you can do. Perhaps that’s part of the equation, where gaming isn’t exactly able to do anything else what we’re now having. After all, playing with Star Wars dolls is in effect the same action as playing Knights of the Old Republic or how Doom is like taking a toy gun and going outside to play war with your friends. The framing and limitations are just different, the act of playing is still the same

The game industry is already feeling a moment where they are having workers who have grown up with video games. Logic would dictate that these workers know how a game functions, but that becomes a limitation and a liability. Games like The Legend of Zelda are based on real-life experiences, the adventures and explorations a child does in a forest with a wood stick as his sword and finding a cavern. Pokémon is about insect collecting and finding the biggest, baddest one and then to compete with your friend. When your life experiences are with games and the game media all around, you ultimately end up resorting to what you know best, your experiences and nostalgia. Games based on other games become saturated by its own culture, inbreeding itself. The concept of the play has already been somewhat lost in modern gaming, where story is considered to come from pre-existing narrative rather than from the act of playing. Interestingly, it is common for games to section themselves into story bits and game bits, and has been doing this increasingly so as time has passed. Perhaps nostalgia and experience with previous generations of games has produced this approach with experimentation being left out. The inverse of course is if a person doesn’t have any experience with games and comes from another industry, like film, a game might lose its play in favour of film elements. This arguably already happened with the FMV titles in the 1990’s, when gaming was being pushed to become a second Hollywood and abandon the element of game in favour of video, and left a crater on the gaming as a media. That said, it’s easy to pick up one of the modern games offered and trace its influence in gaming back at least a decade or two. Easier still with titles like the FFVIIR, where you see the connection with the original FFVII and Kingdom Hearts in terms of gameplay and how progression is handled. History of the developers on the showcase.

The mainstream gaming doesn’t see many truly innovative games, or games that try to tackle the pre-established mould all that often. When it does, it’s often tacked unto a pre-existing IP. While Mega Man Battle Network still splits some opinions, it is a game series that doesn’t have much imitators. Its combination of RPG elements with real-time action with card collecting makes it stand as a unique piece, but something that didn’t necessarily need the Mega Man IP name to carry it. While it certainly helped with the recognition of the game at first, we’ll never know of Battle Network could’ve been bigger if had been something completely original.

That’s where the whole thing rolls back around to itself. Customers know these things, they’re familiar with certain kind of things, execs and investors want to make the best bucks and developers end up making games according to these points. However, it’s also a point that while developers are chained to this leash, often devs also want to make a game similar to this fashion or that fashion, a game in this particular genre and this way. Japanese may showcase some of their titles as unique titles with no real connection to the past, but that’s PR speech and trying to pass yourself in a higher degree compared to the lower tier workers in the company hierarchy. Shit rolls downhill. You look at a developer like Platinum and their library of games, and you don’t see any real innovation and chances. All of their high profile games are effectively one-horse tricks. There’s no innovation in them for the medium as a whole, they’re “just” well made games in a given genre. Just like the big heads sitting in the board meetings, the devs resort on pre-established patterns and methods which have been found to be working and a success. No need to fix what’s broken, and that applies to the creatives just as much. Sometimes you find the perfection combination of chance, time and people with the rights wants and intentions that push the envelope, even if by mistake, but combining all the right parts of past in a way that creates a new tapestry. To use an old example, whole Super Mario Bros. wasn’t anything new, the way it was put together and as to end the cartridge games on the Famicom, the genre gained a completely new lease in life and a the franchise in itself was reborn more Super.

Video games don’t necessarily need avatars

The one thing I hope you’ve gleamed off from this blog, if you’ve been a long time reader (fat chance, I know) is that video games are not their special snowflake thing. Despite them being a new medium, what video and computer games are in themselves are just continuing the long history of games and play humanity has cultivated even before we begun to stand on two legs. Electronic games allow realisation of age old games in forms that would not be possible otherwise in such manner. For example, strategy games allow players to live the role of a commander in the exact same manner tabletop wargames have allowed for centuries, with bells and whistles like lively animated soldiers, sounds, music and all that. Impossible with tin soldiers, even if they were teeny tiny animatronic dolls. Playing out stories is part of this, though with electronic games the story has been framed for you and has strict rules how you can play it out. No video game can still beat the play value of a wooden sword, an unexplored forest and an inventive mind.

In the same breath, we have tons of games that we don’t have ourselves into in a role or the like. For example, in card games we have no role or avatar. There’s nothing to reflect ourselves unto or from, but there’s no need either. While electronic games extensively use avatars to make an emotional connection with the player, as well as convey an easily understandable object of control, none of the game’s core elements require these characters to be characters unto themselves. While the Internet may make jokes about Tetris’ L-block getting some sort of character status, Tetris is a prime example of a game that can’t exist outside digital realm and has nothing the player can use as an avatar. Everything Tetris does is through its play. Visuals with the game can change, the music can change, but the rules of the game and its play can’t.

There are multiple games out there that have no avatar. Some games simply use a cube on an endless runner course or a marble that is spun around the stage. You could extend this to shooting games with fighter crafts rather than characters, but this can be easily broken if the craft has a pilot or if the player is assumed to be the pilot. It is an extremely careful balance when an outside control becomes “me” with video games, and is very dependant on each player’s own personality. There are, however, two factors that favour a character that the player can use as an avatar. First is sheer marketing potential and the possibilities it opens with. If the player has something they can recognise themselves as (not with) they are more likely to adhere to game, and thus to the IP, for future sales as well. Second is that having a character simply makes the game’s design and word easier. With a character you can justify setting, rules, abilities and such, technology allowing. While it can be argued that Pac-Man could’ve been the avatar the players became, it doesn’t exactly justify its own game’s mechanics and rules, unlike how Dante can be used to explain how his control mechanics work. Mario jumping over a gap or on a Goomba makes sense, people jump. A geometric shape can’t jump, but we can suspense our disbelief due to the nature of games needing rules.

It can’t be said that the complexity of the game necessitates the need for a player avatar either. You could have any games with any kind of blobs. The more we distil games from their excess, the more we get to a point where player’s avatar becomes an object of control over personification of the player. That is it would offer something more to the player if they can become the character. It’s not identifying with the character we control as much as we take up the role of the character. Players don’t need to character to be anything like themselves in order to play the role. Just like we can see admirable qualities in people that are oppose to us in whatever regard, we can also step into prescribed shoes to fill a role. If that role is like an empty vessel and we have certain rules how to play out that character, we often end up filling that character either with our own personal qualities or with something we consider to be fitting to that character. People have different approaches and some lean more towards one than the other. There is also a tendency to fill in certain gaps in characters and in their actions that makes sense to ourselves, in which cultural background and history plays a role to some extent.

It all ends up about the game design. Electronic games benefit in having the player in a role as a method of engrossing the player with the product as well as opening venues what kind of games can be made. Of course, the whole point of playing a game is all about playing something, and electronic game scratch an itch only Dungeons and Dragon and other pen-and-paper games used to be able to. Avatars are not necessary, but extremely beneficial.

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.

Unmade money with old games and consoles

Masayuki Uemura was interviewed by Nintendolife recently. He was the main engineer of the Nintendo Family Computer, as well as the guy who lead Super Famicom development. Naturally, he also was behind the workings of their American and Western equivalents. The interview covers decent ground and has some interesting factoids spread around. For example, all the innards of the FC was to cost give thousand yen and then sold for fifteen. Taking inflation into count, that five thousand is about six and half thousand yen, or about fifty five euro. The FC wasn’t exactly cutting edge for its time either, and the initial FC games are a whole another world from what the Western world came to know with the NES. You could even say that the split between the games, sort of, is pre and post Super Mario Bros., as that game was build to be the ultimate cartridge game before the disk system hit the corner. After SMB‘s success, the quality of the games on the system skyrocketed in number and begun yielding classic titles after another. I still maintain that the NES’ US launch line-up was one of the best a console has seen, as Nintendo of America had the chance to hand pick all the most fitting titles from the Japanese releases to fit the American taste. The Wii also had a relatively low-cost innards, which didn’t hamper its success. Nintendo’s lack of support after few years though, and Wii’s sales were still top notch.The Wii’s Virtual Console on the other hand, that sold the system to so many people.

Uemura mentions costs to be one of the driving elements in the design, and this is something the common consumer doesn’t tend to think. Certainly you know that better materials cost more money, but that’s only part of the equation. Shapes and colour add to the cost as well. For example, pink plastic has a higher melting point than blue plastic, requiring more time and energy to melt the plastic into the moulds. The colours themselves are also a factor, as mixing and making different colours cost different sums. Of course, you also have consider what that colour can do to plastic on the long run and if it’s worth it. For example, Beast Wars era Transformers toys have Gold Plastic Syndrome, where the colour and flakes added to the plastic have chemically interacted with each other and brittled the plastic, making it prone to break very easily. Some examples were found on the store shelves during the 1990’s already, and the issues has only become more pressing with time. Let’s not forget the shape. The more complex the shape, the more time and money it takes to develop needed production methods and finding the proper material to work with those shapes. Machining and maintenance are the key factors, and sometimes shapes need to be simplified due to either needing excess amount of parts or corners and loops that simply wouldn’t fill. Uemura mentioning that they went through numerous different variations for the controller is nothing surprising, but something that hasn’t been recorded and archived anywhere. If NES would’ve had the same kind of joystick as the Atari 2600, it would not have been the same success. The choice to try out Game & Watch Directional Pad appears to have been a somewhat desperate attempt to cull costs and prevent breakage if a child steps on the controller, and it worked.

The most interesting, and perhaps even most important section in the interview, is Uemura talking about the Famicom Mini;

Why make it mini? I think they could still develop a regular Famicom and people would still buy it.

Uemura’s hitting the nail with this, and it’s not just Nintendo that this applies to. Unlike what the industry wants to tell you, a console has no true life cycle or end of it. A system lives as long as the parent company decides to support it. However, the practice currently is to support one home console and one handheld at a time, thought the Switch really does both. All these reproduction consoles that are going about are an example how there is a market that’s untapped by the original companies. If Nintendo decided to develop and official GameBoy with a backlit screen, it would sell not only to the collectors, but to all interested parties. Reproducing cartridges nowadays is much simpler and cost effective. I’ve discussed this topic previously in a review. While it would increase the cost of the mini-consoles to add a port where consumers could use their own old cartridges, it is something these companies should have strongly considered. The games and their players have not gone anywhere. These same games are being published time and time again either as individual games or as parts of compilations. The game industry is almost schizophrenic in this. Something is supposed to have a limited lifetime, and yet people pirate ROMs to play these games and purchase compilations. Developers try to push for the new titles and games with high budgets and production values, and it’s the small side-game that’s more true to the older games that sells like hotcakes. We are still playing the same board and card games from hundreds if not thousands of years ago, and the could apply to electronic gaming if the industry wouldn’t treat them as one-time consumables. Yes, old cartridges and consoles will yield to time, to wear and tear, but the question really is why isn’t any of these companies willing to address this? There is a market that Sega, Konami, Sony, Nintendo etc. could go and tap.

Of course, developing a new console that would be planned to run old games would be time off from the more modern and current projects. Where’s the prestige in that? It would take some time and effort to see what made the original systems tick, if we’re to avoid emulation, and then expand what they can do. Using HDMI would be the first step, though if fans have created modifications to add HDMI output to old systems, so can the parent companies themselves. That is, if there is know-how and skill to do yet. Just like in the film industry, where colour and digitalisation effectively killed old skills (nobody knows how to make a true black and white movie anymore or how to properly run a reel, everything’s just a guess) the video game industry is in the process of forgetting how to develop for analogue platforms. Only the enthusiasts and retro-game programmers are keeping these skills alive. Hell, most big developers don’t even develop their engines any more, opting to use pre-existing engines. Capcom is one of the few developers that do their own in-house R&D, and it shows. Perhaps the kind of sameness games nowadays exhibit is partially because of this, and partially because games don’t develop as fast any more. In the 1980’s and early-to-mid 1990’s the industry kept developing fast and weren’t defined to the point of being set to stone. You had separation what kind of game was on what kind of system (PC, console or arcade) yet now more games are more the same. I’m ranting again about this, aren’t I?

There is money to be made with games and consoles, even if the industry perception is that they wouldn’t be much worth. The NES Mini outsold itself twice, the SNES Mini sold itself out about as fast, the Mega Drive Mini has been hailed from left to right as the best Mini system to date with excellent choice in games and the PlayStation Mini is still sitting on the shelves for being shit. There needs to be quality of course, as not even the hardest of the core customers will stand for lack of proper effort and lacklustre products. This market isn’t just for the small percentage of people stuck in the past. Old games, as long as they are available, will sell. A game is an ever-green product you can press again and again and sell it over and over again. They don’t grow old, playing games is an ageless pastime. They are mass consumer entertainment, and if you were to present them in their proper, original form with somewhat updated hardware for the new times, you’d have a new pillar to support your business with. Then again, we’ll always be an impasse, as that’d be looking back into the past and not trying to push the latest newfangled stuff.