Yet the list had one feasible, low-priority entry: buy some cheap old video games. It’s very easy to find imported games on eBay these days, and many of them aren’t even expensive. Sellers frequently put up lots of potentially decaying cartridges and start the bidding low, counting on their exorbitant shipping fees to turn a profit. I watched for a few weeks before deciding on my inexpensive and possibly damaged vicarious Japan-trip shopping spree: a bundle of four Super Famicom games.
Were these games that I’d buy on a trip to Japan? Well, one of them is. The others are just a sampling, the Super Famicom version of a cheese-and-sausage platter you get at Christmas. Let's unwrap it.
Condition: Decent front, faded back
F-Zero was very important to the Super Famicom’s Japanese launch in 1990. It was slightly less important on the Super NES a year later. The Super NES had a wider array of games when it arrived in North America, but on that November 1990 morning at Japan’s toy and electronics shops, the world's first Super Famicom owners had F-Zero, Super Mario World, and nothing else.
Both were necessary. Super Mario World was the better game, and yet it looked and played like a prettier version of Mario’s older, regular-NES outings. F-Zero was something new, a dizzying futuristic racer that did things Nintendo’s old hardware never could. You played Super Mario World much more, but you showed F-Zero to parents and friends who scoffed that this “Super” Nintendo was the same old circus.
Today, F-Zero wants for impact. It’s a solidly designed game, but so much has happened since its debut. It doesn’t have weapons or a split-screen multiplayer mode, and the player gets only four different hovercraft to control. The designers make the most of what was brand-new hardware, though you'll note that later courses are just tighter, meaner versions of previous tracks. It’s a show-off game.
The Japanese version of F-Zero is the same as the U.S. version, aside from a slightly different ending. The cartridge label, however, sports an elaborate tagline entirely in English: “THIS IS THE FIRST ADVENTURE OF OUR NEW HERO ‘CAPTAIN FALCON’. LITTLE IS KNOWN ABOUT HIM, EXCEPT THAT HE WAS BORN IN THE CITY OF ‘PORT TOWN’ AND HAS BECOME THE GALAXY’S GREATEST PRIZE HUNTER.”
It’s odd to see Captain Falcon built up as an enigmatic Samus Aran, since F-Zero has no story mode. The hovership-selecting screen doesn’t even list the craft’s pilots. And why’s it so important that our hero was born in “Port Town”? Did Nintendo hope that Captain Falcon would be their next breakout star? Well, he’s in Super Smash Bros., so that counts for something.
Will I keep it? Ehhh. It’s straightforward fun, but I’m not attached to F-Zero. I don’t really need to prove the technical prowess of my Super NES to anyone now.
POP'N TWIN BEE
Condition: Filthy front, clean back
Konami’s Twin Bee series is yet another long-running moneymaker that’s huge in Japan and scarce in North America. In fact, only one Twin Bee was released over here, and we knew it as Stinger on the NES. Europe also saw more Twin Bee games than North America, in a strange reversal of the usual trickling effect seen in 16-bit localizations. This doesn’t nettle me as badly as a certain other game that skipped my home country, but we’ll get to that later.
Like a brighter, better version of Stinger, Pop’n Twin Bee is a merry vertical shooter that sends its two semi-anthropomorphic ships through levels full of panda projectiles, pastel underwater arcologies, trudging pineapple soldiers, and endlessly upbeat music. I’d call it a cute-‘em-up, but I never liked that term.
There’s more to it than pink hippos and mad scientists, of course. Pop’n Twin Bee has plenty of ideas: close-range punch attacks, satellite followers, and power-up bells that change their bestowed ability as you bounce them across the screen with your shots. It even has a “couple” mode where enemies prefer to target one player, presumably the more skilled of the two.
Pop’n Twin Bee isn’t bad at all, but something bothers me. You know how games like Xevious and Dragon Spirit and the rightfully forgotten XX Mission give you separate shots for aerial enemies and ground-based ones? I hate that. Can’t we, the players, assume that whoever is piloting that starfighter or helicopter or dragon is skilled enough to fire on terrestrial and airborne targets without our help? It’s a needless separation that rarely makes a shooter more interesting. The Twin Bee titles do this, so Pop’n Twin Bee has the same discrete weapons. At least it's forgiving in its shot detection. Yes, even the bullets are laid-back.
Will I keep it? Probably not. It’s worth playing through once, but I’m sure I can find someone who likes Twin Bee games more than I do.
Condition: Dirty label, faded all over
An observant soul once noted that “RPGs are the sports games of Japan.” Just as you’ll find heaps of Madden and NHL titles if you look for old video games in North America, retro-hunts in Japan turn up cheap RPGs aplenty. While I’m not sure if RPGs are the most common find in the Japanese market (what about pachislot games?), they’re much easier to come by there. This Chrono Trigger cartridge would command ridiculous eBay prices were it the North American version, yet its Japanese equivalent probably goes for less than a vending-machine soda in its native land.
Of course, it’s still worth playing. It’s Chrono Trigger, the inventive time-travel RPG that brought together major talents from both Square and Enix, who by 1995 dominated the genre. Chrono Trigger is breezy, compelling, and backed by some of the best music and visual design to hit the Super NES. If you want proof of its quality, look to the insufferable twits who’ll tell you “There’s only one Japanese RPG I like,” as they swirl the “Japanese” part like it’s a mouthful of spider venom. Their next words will be Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, or perhaps Panzer Dragoon Saga. Clearly, Chrono Trigger has undeniable appeal.
My Chrono Trigger isn’t in the best condition, and upon starting it up I saw no save files from previous owners. This made me suspect a degraded battery, but the game recorded progress just fine. Whoever sold it simply wiped out the saves. That was thoughtful, but a little disappointing.
Will I keep it? I think so. I own Chrono Trigger on the DS, but there’s something comforting about having the original cartridge on hand, worn as it is.
Condition: Pretty nice
This brings me to the real reason I picked up these four cartridges. One of them is Tenchi Souzou. It's known as Terranigma in England, France, Germany, Australia, and, well, a lot of countries that aren’t the U.S. or Canada. That’s because Nintendo never released it on these shores, despite their having a perfectly valid English translation. This remains a terrible oversight, as Terranigma is the third, final, and best part of an unofficial trilogy that includes Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia. It’s all the work of Quintet, a talented studio that made innovative, thoughtful action-RPGs during the Super NES era and then drifted off into puzzling obscurity. Their current Schrodinger status is one of the biggest mysteries in the game industry.
Playing Terranigma makes its creators’ vanishing all the sadder. It’s an action-RPG that sends its hero Ark from a warped hollow earth to the newborn world above, and it succeeds as much as a melancholic saga of chaos and renewal as it does a fun little game in the overhead-view tradition of Zelda, Crystalis, and Secret of Mana. It's the work of a developer at the top of their craft, and its late-stage Super NES graphics and music ably evoke the fragile wonder of creation and the inevitable loss that all change brings. I’d call it the best Super Famicom game never released in North America, a shortsight not even amended in this era of Virtual Console reissues.
Enough people want Terranigma to make it very expensive today, but you can land the Japanese version for much less. It’s easily the best find among these four games, and the cartridge is in surprisingly good shape. I halfway suspect that the seller pegged Tenchi Souzou as the centerpiece, the prize in a box of old cereal, and padded out the auction with three weather-beaten cartridges serving as a mound of stale Cookie Crisp. I don’t care, of course, because a Super Famicom grab-bag was precisely what I wanted.
Better yet, this Tenchi Souzou cartridge has old save files! It’s always great to encounter someone’s record. The rise of CD and DVD media obviated the need for saved games, but you’ll see them still on the 3DS, the DS, and just about any old cartridge RPG. Whenever they appear, you’re given the task of deducing the former owners’ personalities and value systems based on nothing more than how long they played and what they named their characters. This culminates in you deciding which file to delete to make room for your own. Propriety suggests that you bump off the one with the shortest playtime, but I see to it that any save with a name like “SHITMAN” or “BUTTZ” is first for the chop. The only exception is Final Fantasy V, where Buttz is an acceptable transliteration of the main character's name.
At least two players enjoyed this Tenchi Souzou cartridge before me. MIX made it all the way to the game’s bizarre pseudo-historical China, while Tsunami only lasted a few hours and took Ark to the planet’s surface. Even so, Tsunami was a better player than I. It took me 45 minutes to make it past the first tower.
Will I keep it? Yes, of course. This was the Super Famicom game I wanted most, and if I came back from Japan with Tenchi Souzou alone, I’d call it a good haul. Besides, MIX and Tsunami left me a challenge, and I don't want to disappoint them.