Lost Anime: Anchor

It’s hard to dig up any details on Anchor. I can’t find any production sketches or promotional art from the film, and I’ve never seen so much as a sentence about its storyline. That’s understandable, since it never ventured past the planning stages in the depths of Studio Ghibli.

So why is Anchor notable? Because it involved three of the anime industry’s most intriguing directors: Mamoru Oshii, Hayao Miyazaki, and Isao Takahata. In 1985, Oshii went to work on a project at Studio Ghibli, which Miyazaki and Takahata had recently established. The three of them planned to assemble a film called Anchor, which saw Oshii directing while the Ghibli founders produced.

The whole thing fell apart in record time. According to Oshii, the three of them scarcely worked out a plotline before arguing and going their separate ways. Nausicaa.net has Oshii’s take on his whole Ghibli experience, with opinions both fascinating and bizarre. He doesn’t say exactly what broke up the project, though. Perhaps Miyazaki mentioned that he “never liked Basset Hounds very much.”

Anchor remains fascinating for the same reasons that likely killed it: Oshii’s style is often markedly at odds with the Ghibli aesthetic. He’s crafted enjoyable TV comedies like Urusei Yatsura and a good chunk of Patlabor, but his more personal projects tend toward the dense poltical flavor of the second Patlabor film and the moody lament of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Miyazaki tends to make happier, brighter, family-oriented movies, and Takahata’s work explores much the same ground. Anchor was conceived just after Oshii directed the ornate, mystifying Angel’s Egg (left) and Miyazaki completed the spirited adventure film Castle in the Sky (right). Combining the two would make an interesting mess, if nothing else.

Neither Oshii nor the Ghibli leaders mourned Anchor that much. Miyazaki and Takahata soon crafted Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso, and numerous other films that would make Ghibli the biggest name in Japan’s animation world. Oshii went on to direct the second Twilight Q episode in 1987, and the coming years would launch him into Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell. Even so, his recollections of working at Ghibli are particularly relevant in the light of the studio's present condition. Ghibli goes through new directors at a rapid pace, and rumors of the company's draconian leadership fit right into Oshii’s tale of the short-lived Anchor. Maybe one day he’ll tell us more about what the movie could have become.

Little Things: Quintet's Saving Grace

Real shame about Quintet, you know? It started so well. Masaya Hashimoto and Tomoyoshi Miyazaki played big parts in making Nihon Falcom games, but they broke off to do their own thing as the 1980s ended. They called their new studio Quintet, and they worked with Enix to craft Super NES games that blended action-RPG elements with strangely existential themes. Then Quintet detached from Enix, experimented in other genres, and was hobbled by one failure after another. Though technically not dead, Quintet has stood dormant for years, like a remote and dispassionate version of the world-creating gods their games often featured. Or like Willy Wonka’s factory.

Most of Quintet’s Super NES outings are good action-RPGs on their own, yet they're elevated further by director Tomoyoshi Miyazaki’s frequent searches for something deeper. Soul Blazer follows a divine emissary as he rescues a kingdom’s worth of people, plants, and animals, many of whom deliver little homilies about their lives. Illusion of Gaia turns a world-trekking boyhood adventure into a steadily darker tale of sacrifice and cataclysm. Terranigma, Quintet’s crowning achievement, finds its hero exploring the light and dark halves of a world and creating an entire civilization along his journey. The three games swing from the routine to the unexpected, dotting melodramatic and simple narratives with some intriguingly thoughtful moments.

One of those moments arises when saving. Like a lot of RPGs of the 16-bit era, Quintet’s titles let you record your game by talking to someone, who then asks if you want to continue playing. Other games reset to the title screen if you answer “no,” but some Quintet works don’t. They instead continue in an unbreakable loop, apparently thinking it rude to stop before the player does.

This first appeared in Actraiser, in which a godlike being tends to a human civilization through omniscient overseeing and side-scrolling battles. After you’ve saved and told the game to stop, it brings up some comforting text from your little cherub sidekick, who flutters in mid-air until you turn off or reset the system.

A Letter From BloodStorm

It’s time to confess something: I liked BloodStorm.

Yes, that BloodStorm. Strata’s 1994 arcade fighter that tried to outdo Mortal Kombat in the worst way. Staged in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, BloodStorm allows all of its hideously stereotyped characters to decapitate, dismember, and disembowel each other during combat. It remains the rare game where a halved warrior will scoot across the floor upon a pile of entrails, undeterred by the absence of legs or arms. You can still win a match like that. It's awful and hilarious.

I liked BloodStorm a lot. Part of it was indeed the relentless carnage, the willingness to get as gruesome and vicious as mid-1990s arcades would allow. Yet I also latched on to the game’s legitimate innovations. It had a remarkable amount of things to discover: hidden levels, secret characters, warps, and a series of “taunts” that showed up on-screen when you mashed buttons after a victory. BloodStorm also let players gain a new ability from each defeated opponent, and these powers could be stored in the arcade unit with a password system. Too bad BloodStorm wasn’t in arcades for all that long.

BloodStorm didn’t really stick around, and I was outraged at this. It led me to do something I’d never done before: I wrote a fan letter to a game company. In the years that followed, I would write several more (usually regarding some RPG that would never be released in the U.S.), but my BloodStorm gushery came first. And I got a better response than I ever expected.

SNK History: About a Blob

Our story begins with Athena, perhaps the most detested game that SNK released on the Nintendo Entertainment System. While most of SNK’s early 8-bit titles were terrible, Athena elicits a certain stab of hatred that Alpha Mission and Ikari Warriors just don’t generate. And it mostly deserves it.

Released in 1987, this misguided Athena awkwardly sculpts an arcade title into an NES game. The original arcade Athena was never particularly good, but the NES version suffers under truly baffling priorities. Instead of scaling back the game or turning it into an action-RPG (as Tecmo did with Rygar), the programmers of Athena tried to imitate its progenitor in ways that didn’t matter. So the NES game replicates the arcade game’s intro, level graphics, and box-wipe transitions. And it has nothing resembling coherent, enjoyable gameplay.

As you endure the unpredictable controls and grating soundtrack of Athena’s first level, you might notice the small blobs that emerge from trees. The Japanese version of the game dubs them “nuupah,” and the American manual calls them “goobers.” They’re easily dispatched, or rather they would be if the game’s hit detection weren’t so terrible.

Let's turn to Crystalis, which stands at the other end of SNK’s library. Unlike Athena and Ikari Warriors, Crystalis was built from scratch for the NES, and the effort produced one of the console's finest. An energetic action-RPG in the Zelda vein, Crystalis features a broad, Nausicaรค-inspired world ushered in by an apocalypse. Its hero wields a variety of spells and swords, plus other abilities far ahead of the NES era: chargeable magic, shape-shifting, and jumping. Far too many action-RPGs still lack in the jumping department.

There’s also an Athena cameo or two in Crystalis. The goddess heroine was rapidly becoming SNK’s first mascot by 1990, so Athena (as “Asina”) and her Psycho Solider sidekick Kensou show up to advise the hero of Crystalis. And this isn’t the only link between SNK’s best and worst NES games.

Lupin III: A Dream of His Life

It’s unfairly hard to dislike Lupin III. He’s one of the most appealing staples of the anime industry, and perhaps that’s due to his inspirations. Manga author Monkey Punch stole the whole idea from Maurice LeBlanc’s Arsene Lupin novels, but the comic-book Lupin III is as much the creation of ‘60s spy noir and MAD Magazine doodles as he is the grandson of the original Lupin. And this gives him an undeniable edge throughout many movies and TV series. Even in the midst of a mediocre Lupin outing (and there are a lot of those), it’s fun just to watch the heroic thief slink around, grin like a moron, help some plucky heroine who he'll never meet again, and perhaps end up saving the world.

Tokyo Movie Shinsha realized Lupin III’s wide promise as he slipped out into North America’s anime market in the 1990s. Even though American anime releases were haphazard back then, many English-speaking fans were introduced to Lupin through his best films: Soji Yoshikawa's cynical, chaotic Mystery of Mamo and Hayao Miyazaki’s endearing Castle of Cagliostro. But there’s much more to the Lupin III franchise than two films, and TMS wanted everyone to know that.

The following is a pamphlet that TMS presumably put together for the Tokyo International Anime Fair and other such gatherings. I can’t be sure when it was printed, but I suspect it was drawn up before FUNimation and Geneon licensed large pieces of the Lupin III pie. It shills the first three Lupin III TV series, providing a good look at the character’s evolution. The text…well, it could’ve used some editing. Yet it captures the charm of a Lupin III caper in an odd little way.

The pitch begins with a nice collage that shows Jigen, Goemon, and Fujiko clustered under Lupin III, the “Greatest Thief of Century.” Of note is the comparatively reserved Fujiko. Most Lupin promos put her front and center in some revealing attire, but perhaps TMS didn’t want to scare off skittish foreign investors.

Little Things: Monster World IV

Westone’s Monster World IV is full of adorable details. There’s the smile that heroine Asha wears after filling a bucket with water. There’s the way her flying pet Pepelogoo shakes himself off after a swim. There’s the yawn that Asha gives if you don’t touch the controller for a certain length of time. There are so many little touches that I hesitate to give any more away. After all, you can (and should) buy the officially translated game on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii right now.

Yet I must mention what happens when Asha dies. It’s a tradition for Monster World protagonists to turn into angels and float off the screen, which may be part of a larger motif in old Sega games.

Lost Anime: Route 20

A wise observer once described Gainax as two diametrically opposed anime studios in one. Good Gainax takes chances and creates interesting stuff. Evil Gainax does its best to ruin everything. Good Gainax made FLCL and those cool Daicon shorts, but Evil Gainax made Mahoromatic and He is My Master. Good Gainax made most of Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, but Evil Gainax made that scene. Good Gainax upended the anime industry with Evangelion, and then Evil Gainax exploited it with remakes and uncomfortable merchandise.
Where does the never-made Route 20: Galactic Airport fit into this tangle of heroism and villainy? We’ll never have a complete answer, since Gainax canceled the project over twenty years ago and hasn’t mentioned it since. Yet all available evidence points toward Good Gainax.

Route 20 apparently began life shortly after The Wings of Honneamise hit theaters. It was the 1980s, Japan’s bubble economy was surging to the skies, and Gainax had scored an unprecedentedly huge budget for Honneamise. A second ambitious film seemed natural, and early magazine previews suggested that Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and Mahiro Maeda’s Route 20 would be that film.

GameFan Readers of 1996: Conspiracies and Confusion

Much can be written about Diehard GameFan. Originally a catalog for Dave Halverson’s Diehard Gamers’ Club, the magazine launched in 1993 and gradually became something of a professional fanzine. It was chaotic, it was hyperbolic, and it attracted the most loyal following of any gaming mag in the 1990s. That’s probably why Halverson’s fourth and latest adventure in print is also called GameFan.

Yes, much can be written, and not all of it is positive. But for now, let’s just stick to GameFan’s letters page.

GameFan had two major mascots: a TV-headed superhero named Monitaur and his scraggly, deranged, vaguely aviator-like sidekick, the Postmeister. The two originally appeared in the magazine's comic strip, and Posty, as he was often known, ran the letters page. It was never as replete with nonsense as, say, the editorial excesses of Ultra Game Players, but Postmeister columns always delivered strange rants, genuinely interesting news, and bursts of that wacky, waffles-and-shotguns humor that seems so darned hilarious when you’re a young nerd.

The Postmeister pages were also cross-sections of just what hardcore game geeks cared about, and the April 1996 issue did something that I really appreciate now. The Postmeister (who was likely Casey “Takuhi” Loe at this point) put together a pie chart covering the reader mail.

It shows just how things were after the great game-industry upheavals of 1995: the Jaguar was dead, the PC-FX was never coming to the U.S., the PlayStation was popular enough to make Saturn fans worry, the Nintendo 64 was looming large, and RPG fans were up in arms over all of those impressive games that they’d probably never play in English. RPGs also dominate the list of most-mentioned titles, though it’s a surprise to see Samurai Shodown III at the top. Today the game is considered an unbalanced fighter that started the franchise’s decline, but back in 1996 it was riding high on the reputation of Samurai Shodown II.

Little Things: Undercover Cops

Let's discuss Undercover Cops, Irem’s gem of an arcade brawler from 1992. It follows the rules of a Final Fight clone, but it adds all sorts of satisfying touches. For starters, the three playable characters have sturdy repertoires of attacks and improvised weapons. Instead of jabbing away with pitiful knives and broken bottles, they can toss steel girders, swing massive stone pillars, heft motorcycles and Humvees, or pelt enemies with particularly large fish. They can also throw the first level's boss into a trash compactor. And they do it all in the same grimy detail perfected by Irem staffers, the same staffers who later formed Nazca and started the Metal Slug series.

There’s another small sign that Undercover Cops was made with a bit more care than the typical Double Dragon imitation. In the first stage, the game’s violent peacekeeper heroes come across a pack of criminals squatting around a television. Whatever could they be watching?

Hey, they’re watching R-Type! That skeletal, Giger-ish embryo is the first boss from Irem’s classic arcade shooter, and perhaps the most recognizable monster in shooter-nerd history. It’s a great little touch in a game replete with impressive sprite work by the future members of Nazca. And I rather like the idea of the citizens of the Undercover Cops world all gathering every Sunday evening to watch the latest exciting episode of R-Type.

This detail was even included in Varie’s Super Famicom port of Undercover Cops (which almost came to North America). It’s yet another sign of Irem’s penchant for referencing its heritage, a tradition that continued right up to the R-Type cameos in Hammerin’ Hero for the PSP.

Unfortunately, that heritage lies in disrepair now that Irem’s halted most of its game development. They’re now dealing in Pachislot titles, though the most recent of these features the Game Boy versions of R-Type, Ninja Spirit, Hammerin’ Harry, and…Undercover Cops. Perhaps Pachipara 3D: Ocean Story 2 will keep Irem going, but no one would recognize it on a tiny television set.

The Consumer Guide to Nintendo's Space Dragon Baseball

Nintendo conquered the second half of the 1980s with video games, but the publishing industry certainly helped. While Nintendo Power stands as the company's most effectively crafted propaganda, there were countless other books and magazines that sliced off a piece of the Nintendo Empire and sold it to eager children over and over.

Consumer Guide's Strategies for Nintendo Games was both an early entry and a minor player in all of this. It never drew in as many kids as Nintendo Power, GamePro, or any other magazines. Yet the Consumer Guide collections were technically books, and that gave them an advantage. Like Jeff Rovin’s How to Win at Nintendo Games volumes, these Consumer Guide tomes crept in where magazines couldn’t, showing up in school book clubs and dodging the disdain that parents and teachers might have for the likes of Nintendo Power. A few children even found these guides to be their first good look at the whole Nintendo craze.

The guides were also a good look at how artists could distort popular Nintendo games. The cover of the first Consumer Guide Strategies for Nintendo Games is an abstract collage of game imagery, pairing a baseball player from Bases Loaded with vegetables from Super Mario Bros. 2 and a dragon, two planets, and an astronaut bird from I Don’t Know What. And then there’s a dwarfish, possessed Link squatting in the corner.

The book is far more mundane in its descriptions of notable first-generation NES games. Each writeup covers the basics of a particular title, with a big red suggestion that ranges from helpful (“SHOOT THE WALLS” for Gauntlet) to the confusing (“PRACTICE” for Skate or Die). Each screenshot is accompanied by some sort of tip, and one can easily tell when the writers were weary of penning one bluntly obvious caption after another and just wanted to finish up the page and move on to writing about printers or the new Honda. That’s how the Contra section stumbled across some very interesting advice.

Pictures of Toys and Toys of Pictures

It’s time I talked about toys. I’ve acquired a number of them over the years: some bought, some received as gifts, and some offered as promotional trinkets by game companies. Nearly all of them are stored in my closet, well out of sight.

But I decided to gather them all for a picture. And a reminder. Whenever I want to get any sort of action figure or miniature statue based on a video game I happen to like, I can look at this image and remember that I already have a pile of plastic merchandise that I've stashed away in embarrassment.

As you can see, my collec…wait, what’s that?

Hey! That’s a Tachiko…Fuchi…one of those robots from Ghost in the Shell! And Ghost in the Shell isn’t a video game! Well, there are actually three Ghost in the Shell games, but the whole franchise wasn’t a game from the start and therefore doesn’t count.

Yes, purge the intruder. THROW IT TO THE WOLVES.

Or just throw it over there, with all of the toys based on things that aren’t video games. The sanctity of our cherished gamer culture must never be violated by inferior alien elements such as anime or Star Wars or even Mystery Science Theater 3000. That’s another thing I’ll have to remember.

Review: Redline

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