Might Have Been: Trax


Most of us know all about Kirby. He’s the puffy pink hero of a popular Nintendo series. He’s a smiling, rotund creature who swallows foes and gains their powers. He’s a fixture of excellent games, stuffed toys, and comic strips about how it’s subtly disturbing that he’s eating his equally cute enemies.

The insatiable, adorable monster first appeared in 1992 with Kirby’s Dream Land, the creation of HAL Laboratory and Masahiro Sakurai. It’s a breezy, bouncing side-scroller littered with cartoonish effects and whimsical details. It made Kirby a star, though it wasn’t Hal’s first attempt at spherical heroes. The Adventure of Lolo series preceded it, of course, but less well known is a shooter that arrived just a year before Kirby’s debut.


Trax is a brave little creation, attempting a fast-paced overhead shooter on the Game Boy of all places. Nintendo’s handheld may be a wonder of late-1980s engineering, but its small screen wasn’t friendly to the speed and visual complexity that a traditional shoot-’em-up needed. In appearances, however, Trax plays it simple: you pilot a round proto-Kirby of a tank with equally round wheels, spew round bullets, and hover through stages of frequently round enemies. Your craft fires in eight directions, with one button launching shots while other rotates the turret. It sounds far too ambitious for a compact Game Boy outing.

Yet Trax holds together. The controls are never as smooth as a simple dual-joystick setup would be, but the game paces everything well enough to give you a fighting chance. It moves at a fair clip, with minimal flickering and seemingly intentional slowdown, and Hal packed it with all sorts of elaborate sights. Level bosses fill the screen, homing missiles circle and sputter, and bombs explode into smoke clouds and tiny Looney Tunes stars that we’d later see in Kirby’s Dream Land. Your tank, commandeered from the enemy in the prologue, even recoils with each shell fired.


No grim shooter, Trax is quick to reveal its cartoon overtones. Just about everything can be destroyed, from supply trucks to boulders to presumably evacuated neighborhoods. Your tank’s turret spins around dazedly just before it explodes. Each level offers a mid-boss as well as a climactic tilt, and they include a bumbling knight, a giant version of your own tiny tank, a telescoping-limbed mechanical clown, a googly-eyed dragon worthy of Dr. Wily, and a final boss who looks like a cross between Mario and Mutoid Man from Smash TV.

The Saga of Seaspray

I buy just one or two Transformers a year. It isn’t easy. Hasbro’s modern toys are little plastic torpedoes locked on to the nostalgia nodes of every kid who dug Transformers in the 1980s or 1990s. Countless new Autobots and Decepticons are modern takes on older characters, delivering the poseable, cartoon-accurate action figures we always wanted. That’s a tough poison to resist.

I try to abstain, but a few toys make it past my defenses. The most recent one is Seaspray, a Transformers: Titan Returns incarnation of the hovercraft-bot best known for talking like he was permanently underwater. Or drunk. Or both.


The updated Seaspray follows a design similar to his 1985 version, changing from a slightly tubby robot to a compact hovercraft. The current version has much more articulation, of course, and I like how his enormous feet could suit a clown, a water skiier, or a drowned mobster. I could see his many moving parts getting weak after a few dozen transformations, but then I’m no longer a ten-year-old kid who treats every toy like a stage from Wrecking Crew.


Seaspray also looks fine as a hovership, though I note one little shortcoming: his old ‘80s version had wheels on the bottom, and this new one does not. I know that most hovercraft don’t have wheels, but nor do most hovercraft turn into alien robots. All things considered, it’s a good little toy.

Yet there’s another reason I bought it, and it’s the same reason that Seaspray is one of my favorite Transformers.

Seven Perfect Halloween Arcade Games


Arcade games are unappreciated Halloween decorations. True, they’re harder to arrange than plastic severed zombie feet or cheap, potentially toxic spider webbing, but I maintain that they’re worth the trouble. Whether you run MAME on a laptop or actually have a basement full of original cabinets, nothing sets apart a Halloween gathering or mood table like some appropriate old arcade games.

Why old arcade games? A few reasons. They’re easy to grasp, they’re often visually striking, and they display generous game footage when no one’s playing. That’s the beauty of it: even if they go untouched, these games look great just running in the background, as fitting as Addams Family episodes or every Sleepaway Camp movie.

I picked seven lesser-known examples of Halloween-friendly arcade games. Ghosts ‘N Goblins, Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, and Splatterhouse are the first-round choices of just about everyone, so I don’t need to extoll them here. I also left out anything that requires a light gun or other proprietary hardware to truly appreciate. House of the Dead isn’t the same without big plastic Wicked City revolvers, Crypt Killer loses something without a massive shotgun to pump, and a full Golly! Ghost array is probably beyond the price range of the average Halloween shindig. I went after games easy to appreciate in any form.


DARK ADVENTURE
Released: 1987
Aka: Devil World

It’s tempting to stick Gauntlet in your arcade lineup and be done with it. After all, Gauntlet is a reliably entertaining race through top-viewed dungeons. Yet there’s a more seasonal alternative available: Dark Adventure, Konami’s unabashed 1989 knock-off of the Gauntlet ideal. Three players control two archeologists and an unlucky reporter in a realm of mazes full of skeletons and minotaurs and…well, evil rats. Yet mundane rodents are forgivable when the first stage has giant mud swordgolems chasing you.



While you’re at it, throw in the Japanese version of the game, Devil World. No mere language swap, it differs a great deal: only two players can join, but the characters get projectile weapons instead of melee attacks, power-ups are more complex, and the expanded arsenal includes a rocket launcher that beautifully demolishes everything. You won’t find that in off-the-shelf Gauntlet.



DARKSTALKERS
Released: 1994-1997
Aka: Vampire, Vampire Hunter, Vampire Savior
Also On: PlayStation, Saturn, Dreamcast, PS3, Xbox 360

I’ll have you know that this list was not an convoluted excuse to push the Darkstalkers games. Yet I will admit that I cheated here. Underrated as it is, Darkstalkers is still popular enough to see recent reissues, and Capcom can’t make a Marvel crossover fighting game without including succubus antiheroine Morrigan at the very least. Even so, Darkstalkers escapes a lot of people when it comes to Halloween-appropriate games, and that is a bitter shame.



In fact, I will count the Darkstalkers line as the best thing to play on Halloween. It’s a great series of fighting games stocked with wonderfully animated monsters, from a karate werewolf to a mercenary Red Riding Hood to a vampire lord who transforms every character on the roster into a biteable young maiden. And that barely scratches the surface.

I recommend either Night Warriors or Darkstalkers 3, both of which are impressive and approachable even for casual players who haven’t touched a fighting game since trying Mortal Kombat at a deli in 1993. Some of the more risque Darkstalkers characters might not sit well at an all-ages party, but just remember that Felicia, the technically naked catgirl, is intended as a “cute” character. She’s not supposed to be sexy. It says so right in some official artbook that I can’t locate at the moment.

Mission One Start

Last month brought the first trailer for Spielberg’s Ready Player One movie, based on Ernest Cline’s book about a virtual-reality treasure hunt in a dystopian future. This prompted me to finally read Ready Player One, and it convinced me that the future of profitable literature is all about nostalgia: pure, vacuous, unreflective nostalgia that namechecks as many childhood fascinations as print allows.

Well, I want a piece of that. I’m now at work on a science fiction novel called Mission One Start, and I know it’s bound for the best-seller lists. Here’s a sample.

 

I always liked Critical Mass Eisley. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of clubs across the OMNIWAY based on the Cantina from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, but this one went beyond rote imitation. The layout echoed an alien version of the classic sitcom Cheers, and tonight a Skeksis from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal tended bar, wearing mirrored cyberpunk shades while mixing a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here they knew the difference between a Trandoshan and a Gorn.

Even the patrons were a more eclectic mix. As I grabbed a Romulan Ale, I ducked around a winter-camo Robocop, a gaggle of teenage girls dressed as the Bangles in Voltron pilot outfits, and an impressively well-rendered Destro from G.I. Joe wearing Ghostbuster gear. It was great.

I slipped behind a table styled like the monster checkerboard from the Millennium Falcon and tapped my line open.

“You sure she’ll be here?” I asked.

“Totally,” Rhodel said in my ear. “The Minicons may be weird, but they always follow through. Besides, they need our passcodes, and we need their access.”

“I think I see her.”

She wove through the crowd like a ninja about to kidnap the president. Her avatar was a slim, sharp-featured woman with long red hair and just an adorable hint of anime around the eyes. She wore a Dune stillsuit that glowed with subtle crimson highlights, topped off with a visor and yellow trenchcoat right off Jubilee from the X-Men.

“Quit gawking and talk to her, man!” Rhodel piped up through my ear. I’d forgotten that he had a link to my visuals. “And don’t get caught up talking about that awful Dune movie.”

“You’re not supposed to be listening in,” I said. “That was part of their agreement. And Lynch’s Dune is great.”

“Oh, come on. That blithering, blundering mess destroys everything good about the—“

I cut the link before Rhodel could finish.

She was right in front of me, and even cuter up close.

“You’re Gawainterceptor, aren’t you?” she asked. “Nice name. Are you looking for the Holy Grail or Shadow the mercenary?”

I struggled for a reply. She’d caught my nods to both the Arthurian knight and the dog from Final Fantasy VI…or Final Fantasy III, as it had been known when it released on the Super NES in 1994.

“Uh, you can call me Wain,” I blurted. In an attempt to save face, I staggered my words to imitate an obscure Final Fantasy VI line: “And…who…might…you…be?”

“I am Elaine of the planet E-Square,” she said, and a wave of blue ran down her hair. She had an on-the-fly avatar editor as well, probably one a lot more expensive than my Belarusian knockoff.

“Well, then let me hop into my Flintlock,” I replied, picking up her reference to Xexex, the 1991 arcade shooter from Konami.

“So you’re looking for the Fifth Abyss?” She cocked her head to the side, a grin worthy of Ally Sheedy in St. Elmo’s Fire on her lips.

“I’m looking for a lot of things,” I said.

Including a girlfriend like you, I thought.

“Then follow me.” She grinned. “If you can keep up.”

With that, she turned and delicately threaded the crowd on her way to the door. I leapt from the table and followed.

She stepped out into the busy Nexus Prime street and flashed me a smile. Then she morphed.

I’d seen avatar-editors before, but never one so smooth. Her human shape dissolved into pixels and reformed as a sleek motorcycle that I instantly recognized as the titular bike from the Street Hawk TV series.

Her new vehicle incarnation sped off down the street, dodging everyone in its path. I frantically primed my own avatar editor and switched, perhaps less gracefully than she had, into another motorcycle. On a whim, I picked the Condor from the M.A.S.K. toy line.

We tore through the streets like two Tron light cycles, leaving behind neon contrails and indignantly scattered players who probably hadn’t seen Krull even a dozen times. She made a game of it, whipping around corners and slowing just enough in straightaways for me to almost catch her. I somehow managed to keep on her trail like a Gradius homing missile, ready to switch to the Condor’s helicopter mode if she took to the skies.

She rounded a bend and led me into MechAlley, a long avenue lined with statues of anime robots. Her avatar pixel-flickered again, turning into a small robotic creature, and she disappeared somewhere in between Giant Gorg and GoShogun.

I skidded to a halt and scanned the wide stretch of mecha effigies. It took me a minute to spy a tiny hole in the wall right between the feet of Gunbuster, the title robot from a six-part anime series by Hideaki Anno, the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Rolling toward the tiny entrance, I switched my avatar to the first small thing I could think of: a hamster. I slipped into the hole and found myself in a winding labyrinth that glowed green and black, like the primitive polygons of an early 3-D video game.

It led through so many turns I lost track of how far I’d come, but eventually I emerged into a small room where every surface was black glass. She was waiting at its center.

The tiny room was shielded, I realized. If this was an ambush, no one in the OMNIWAY could hear me, much less help me. At least I had a better look at her new avatar. She was a Ro-Bear Berbil, a mechanical koala creature from the classic Thundercats cartoon.

“We can talk here,” she said. “Most of the dark zones got deleted, but this one’s too small for Nextek to notice.”

“And here I thought you were taking me to see Lion-O and Cheetara.”

That made her smile.

“Nice rodent avatar,” she said. “But what’s with the getup?”

I glanced down. I’d given my avatar a robe festooned with glittering hearts.

“This?” I asked. “I’m Greg ‘the Hamster’ Valentine.”

She laughed at my invoking the old-school WWF wrestler. Then her avatar shifted to a pattern of pink and black stripes.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll be Brutus ‘The Berbil’ Beefcake.”

And then I knew for certain. I was in love.

A Remake of Mana


I sure like Secret of Mana. That’s why I wrote three separate entries about it a few months ago. And now I’m compelled to write one more, because there’s a remake on the horizon.

Square Enix’s Secret of Mana recast was inevitable. The original Seiken Densetsu (which, of course, we knew here as Final Fantasy Adventure) got a recent Vita and mobile-device remake under the domestic name Adventures of Mana, so the second game in the series needs a turn. After a decade or so of Mana games that fell short, Square Enix returned to what worked best. I’d say that it’s craven nostalgia mining, but I’d also have to say that the first two Mana games are the best of the whole line.




This new Secret of Mana recreates the old game with polygon graphics, remixed music, and new gameplay features. The new look is a little primitive by modern 3-D standards, perhaps because the game has to fit on the Vita’s handheld hardware as well as the PlayStation 4 and Steam. Even so, that shot of Randi, Primm, and Popoi riding Flammie is a freeze-frame of adorable perfection.

Less welcome is the voice acting that pops up in the trailer. It’s not terrible. I just question its necessity. Secret of Mana thrives on its speed, its smooth pace, its refusal to over-explain or lengthily dramatize. Grafting voice-overs to the lines only makes them drag.



It’s also not clear how gameplay might shift in this revised Secret of Mana. It adds a corner map and presumably fixes the original game’s hit detection and the confused AI routines of the player’s companions, but it’ll maintain local multiplayer for up to three people. It also seems to stick to the original game’s perspective and layouts. Adventures of Mana sticks noticeably close to the Game Boy edition in its level layouts and general flow. Will this Secret of Mana remake do the same?


Bounty Arms: The Demo in Full

If you’ve followed this website for a while, you likely noticed my obsession with an unreleased game called Bounty Arms. Data West announced it for the first round of PlayStation games in 1995, and it brought a novel idea. The game’s two anime heroines wander overhead-view stages, much like the protagonists of Mercs or Outzone or dozens of similar shooters. Instead of standard-issue firearms, however, they wield telescoping Relic Arms that serve as whips, grappling hooks, and all-destroying flamethrowers.

Alas, this promising title vanished from sight around the middle of 1995, with Data West moving on to another game and subsequently retreating from the industry. A scrap of Bounty Arms made its way to the public, though.



Demo Demo PlayStation, a Japan-only line of discs meant primarily for kiosks, includes a Bounty Arms preview video on its fourth volume and a playable half-stage on its fifth. The demo’s very limited: protagonists Rei Misazaki and Chris Prenaculutaoraroato (which is how I’ll translate her last name for the time being) don’t take damage at all, and the game reboots once they destroy the mid-stage boss. Yet the graphics for the entire first stage appear to be in the demo, and I always hoped that someone would figure out how to play the entire level.

Well, someone did! Tumblr user Human of Mi-Com Age ran the demo alongside Cheat Engine and tricked the game into letting you play the whole first stage, including a clash with the electricity-spewing robotic serpent boss. I’ll let Human’s brilliant post detail the actual method. It’s a relatively easy hack once you figure out Cheat Engine, and I pulled it off despite having no programming knowledge beyond remembering some passwords for the NES version of Strider.

To sum it up, the mid-boss won’t appear when its value is disabled, and this allows Chris and Rei to march beyond the usual cutoff point. From there, the rest of the first level of Bounty Arms is yours to explore.



There are no grand secrets beyond, I admit. The game just throws denser waves of the same enemies Chris and Rei faced in the level’s first leg, and since our heroines are invincible we’re left to imagine how difficult it all might be in finished form. Even so, some new and interesting sights await.

Blade Strangers and Stranger Places

What was the biggest surprise of E3? Metroid Prime 4 and a Metroid II remake? A PlayStation 4 revamp of Shadow of the Colossus? Microsoft actually calling a system the Xbox One X? All were unexpected, but nothing caught me off guard like Blade Strangers. A PS4/PC/Switch fighting game that nabs its roster from Code of Princess, Umihara Kawase, and Cave Story? I’d sooner have bet on Sony announcing another Hermie Hopperhead.

Blade Strangers isn’t so farfetched a crossover when you look behind the scenes. It’s the work of Studio Saizensen, a developer with a hand in both in the brawler Code of Princess and the puzzle platformer Umihara Kawase, while Cave Story, an indie marvel ever since 2004, has a link through publisher Nicalis. Apparently in an early state, the game could use more animation frames and background detail. Even so, the characters have a vibrant look thanks to a 3-D engine that imitates hand-drawn animation.



As with any fighting game, it’s the cast that intrigues me. Umihara Kawase’s eponymous heroine and Cave Story’s android Curly Brace are unorthodox picks for a fighting game, though they’re both suited to the genre; Kawase has a grappling line and giant fish at her command, while Curly has a machine gun and, presumably, other Cave Story power-ups. However, Blade Strangers leans heavily on Code of Princess. Early footage of the game includes protagonist Solange, thief Alie, and the powerhouse Master T (the mace-packing nun Helga and masked swordsman Liongate are apparently in there as well). That accounts for half of the game’s ten character-selection icons.

There are two reasons for such favoritism. Code of Princess has a wide selection of playable characters, including a magic pharaoh cat and a zombie sorceress, from which a fighting game might choose. Code of Princess also has Solange, who wears more armor on her elbows than she does on her entire torso. Not kidding.

Little Things: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance


Final Fantasy Tactics Advance often rates low among those who canonize the original Final Fantasy Tactics. The Game Boy Advance outing skews much younger, discarding possible stories of doomed nobles and dark secrets in favor of a lighter tale about misfit kids warped to a magical realm full of colorful creatures and too-perfect wish fulfillment. That’s not an unpardonable drawback, but Final Fantasy Tactics Advance doesn’t fill enough of its plotline. For a game that lasts over 30 hours, there’s scant attention to the story. The battles, meanwhile, burden a good combat system with laws that randomly bar the player from using certain commands. It’s a passively fun strategy-RPG that just makes a few bad choices and doesn’t try hard enough.

I really like the look of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, though. The sprite-work is remarkably detailed, giving the creatures of the world of Ivalice charming style. I’m even more impressed by the game’s prologue, which shows hero Marche and his friends Ritz and Mewt having a bad day at school and wandering home through their mundane, semi-modern town.


We see fantasy realms so often in sprite-based RPGs, but rarely do we find realistic worlds rendered in the same fashion. I appreciate all the small and unnecessary touches that Tactics Advance’s developers put into this conventional scene. Instead of a vacant street, we get a snowy boulevard with trash cans, café signs, and a car that might be a classic model or merely a current design in this city of appealingly vague time and place.


Best of all is the room Marche shares with his brother, Doned. It’s worth going over inch by inch, just to pick out everything: the skateboard leaning on the wall, the pop-singer calendar, the pennant and shelved soccer ball by the closet, the steaming kettle on the tiny stove, and what appears to be a trophy above one of the beds. Most of all, I like that television. It sits there like a three-eyed tomato bunny robot.

Of course, there’s a silly personal reason for my praise. These details bring back memories of my family’s late-1980s stay in Germany. I never found myself transported to a mystical realm of lizard mages and Moogle knights, but I’d see all sorts of old and unconventionally shaped European electronics paired with more modern things. Hook up a boxy NES to that TV, and you’d have a good piece of my childhood.

A Letter of Mana

I didn’t intend for this to be a Secret of Mana month, but the series bobbed to the surface with Square Enix’s newly launched Switch collection of the first three titles. It brings back childhood memories of questing through Final Fantasy Adventure (aka Seiken Densetsu) on the Game Boy, sitting entranced by Secret of Mana (aka Seiken Densetsu 2) on the Super NES, and then watching in frustration and despair as Square never translated Seiken Densetsu 3.



Yes, it’s happening again. Seiken Densetsu Collection is Japan-only as far as anyone knows, as Square Enix has announced no plans to localize it. This would be a good opportunity to fatten up the Switch library and finally bring over an English version of Seiken Densetsu 3, but their silence says a lot.

You might contend that Seiken Densetsu 3 isn’t worth the trouble. I disagree. True, its lineup of six selectable characters fragments the story, and the gameplay exacerbates a lot of Secret of Mana’s annoyances: unconvincing hit detection, cheap bosses, and so forth. But it’s a gorgeous game with that undeniable 16-bit Squaresoft grandeur to it. I don’t like it nearly as much as Secret of Mana, but I’d like to play an officially translated version of Seiken Densetsu 3 on the Switch.

So I’ll do what I did back in 1995: I’ll write Square Enix a letter.




Well, that’s my letter. It might be just as ineffective as all my letters were back in 1995, but I like to recall a time when I honestly believed that I’d sway a company into localizing a complex and potentially unprofitable game for the dwindling Super NES market just because I’d put something into an envelope and mailed it.

You were delusional, younger me, but you were earnest. I owe to you to write a letter about Seiken Densetsu 3 once again.

And if Square Enix does nothing, I probably owe it to you to play through the fan-translated version that I periodically start and never finish.

Secret of Mana: The Villainous Unknown

The Cutting Room Floor finds many things deleted from games: never-seen animation, unused backgrounds, extended music, and other stuff absent during play but still present in the code. My favorite sort of discovery? Full-fledged characters who were cut from a game.

I’m always intrigued by the idea of a hero or villain yanked from a storyline and lurking bitterly in the ones and zeroes. Secret of Mana has a fascinating case.

Secret of Mana lost a great deal of its original outline when it came from the never-released Super NES CD system to the humbler Super NES, and there’s plenty to uncover in the code. Messing around reveals some character poses never glimpsed during gameplay, and there’s one entire villain who doesn’t appear in the game.


Well, the standing theory is that he or she is a villain, at least. The unused character appears among the graphics for Secret of Mana’s familiar antagonists, so it’s fair to assume that this was a servant of the Empire or the sorcerer Thanatos. That, and the obscuring white robes and headdress don’t evoke a good guy. Faceless characters look less human and are therefore less sympathetic, after all.

But where would this deleted figure have appeared? The most logical choice is the ruins south of Pandora, where brainwashed townsfolk and masked cultists gather. The hooded villain would fit right in there, perhaps in a boss battle where it lifted its hands to summon one monster after another.


Of course, this leads to the most likely explanation, and it’s a killjoy: Robesy McHood is just a disguise for Thanatos himself. He first appears to the heroes at the ruins, and while he doesn’t fight them directly, it’s possible that he was to appear in this surreptitious, white-swaddled form before revealing himself. Which means this isn’t a real secret character after all.


Sifting through the Secret of Mana code also reveals the above character, a guard apparently meant for a castle or fort that never came to be. He’s not as interesting as a faceless cult leader, but I do like how he resembles Pete from Disney cartoons not a little.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I like to think that the white-clad villain is a discrete character, and not Thanatos. And if that’s true, the unknown cult leader at least deserves a name. What sort of apt Secret of Mana title fits best? I’d go with something like “Paltus” or “Sidonak,” but I know you’ll all submit better suggestions in the comments!

Secret of Mana's Sloppy Miracle

Why is Secret of Mana such a tough act to follow? It ranks among the best adventures on the Super NES, and no subsequent Mana game matched its reputation; not the directionless, world-building Legend of Mana, not the combat-heavy prequel Dawn of Mana, and not even the directly descended Seiken Densetsu 3 (which would’ve been Secret of Mana 2 over here). Anyone tasked with making a new Mana has a mountain of nostalgic player expectations to climb.

Some contend that Secret of Mana is just a lucky game, not a good one. It arrived in 1993, right when American kids had few options for grand epics on par with The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy, and Secret of Mana mixed together the two. Certain critics point to the game’s limited character arcs, its missing content, and its manifold glitches. They dwell too heavily and too cynically on what Secret of Mana might have been, no matter how little they actually know about a game that never was.



Here’s what we do know: Square intended Secret of Mana for Nintendo and Sony’s Super NES CD-ROM system. When said system failed to appear, the game switched to the plain cartridge-based Super NES and changed accordingly. Director Koichi Ishii stated that it lost about 40 percent of its planned content, and writer/producer Hiromichi Tanaka’s initial storyline switched out “darker” tones for a more lighthearted plot.

Cut corners appear throughout the Secret of Mana that Square released to the world. Characters are noticeably shallow in motivations, some later dungeons are far too simple, and programming gaps and slowdown suggest a game crammed onto a system that could barely handle it.

Secret of Mana is slapdash in both scope and story. There’s no question of that. Yet it’s a fabulous meridian of an action-RPG, with a grandiose saga on one side and a fairy tale on the other. And that’s all because it’s a mess.

Our story treads expected ground. An unassuming orphan boy (officially called Randi, though we didn’t know that for years) tumbles down a waterfall, pulls a sword from a stone, and launches himself into world-spanning heroism. Driven to restore the mystical force known as Mana, he joins up with a rebellious warrior girl (either Purim or Primm, depending on how you phoneticize) and an impudent, poofy-haired sprite (Popoi). Together they meet dwarves, mushroom people , white dragons, beleaguered royalty, bizarre cults, mysteriously youthful Mana attendants, and Santa Claus himself. Their clear foe is a ruthless empire backed by a body-switching sorcerer who wants to revive a dormant superweapon known as the Mana Fortress.



Clichés lurk at every turn, but Secret of Mana eludes them by never slowing down long enough to notice. The game breezes from one quest to the next, and in doing so it preserves the initial fascination of each moment. You’ll see Primm vowing to rescue her boyfriend Dyluck from the empire’s clutches, and in the next beat you’ll recover a Mana Seed from the Scorpion Army, a cadre of thieves who bumbled right off the Time Bokan cels. Secret of Mana’s creators trimmed their original story, and translator Ted Woolsey believes that the script slimmed down even more for the English version. The uncompromised tale might dig deeper, but it would also deny Secret of Mana that all-important briskness. Scenes would last longer, and familiar sights would shed their charm.

Five Games I Own For Stupid Reasons

I try to be picky about the video games I own. This means that I still have over a hundred of them, of course. Most I keep because they’re personal favorites or stuff that I haven’t fully played yet. A few games, however, stick around on thinner justification. And here they are, posed with appropriately disdainful toys.





ALSHARK (Sega CD)
I last went to Japan back in 2007, and I prowled the retro-game stores relentlessly. Nearly all of them were filled with Japanese systems and games, naturally, but I stumbled into a small Akihabara spot that stocked American toys and video games.



If you frequent America’s retro-game stores and convention booths, you’ll notice that they mark up just about anything from Japan. Well, this Akihabara shop did the same for Western games. A Jaguar? That’s about $300. Hey, if you wanted to buy Atari’s little-loved final console and happened to be in Japan, this might have been your best bet.

The store also had a bin of common imported games for ten times what you’d pay at any American flea market. Yes, Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt for the NES can be found in one out of three attics across the United States, but in Japan it’s a $40 rarity.





After seeing this spread, I had to buy something from the store. I wasn’t about to pay import fees on Zero Tolerance or Cybercop, but the shop also sold Japanese games. I fished a copy of Alshark for the Mega CD out of a clearance bin. It’s a space-opera RPG from Right Stuff, and that hit two, perhaps three, of my obsessions at the time. Even if it didn’t have the back insert, I thought it was a good deal for a hundred yen.

The shop owner further won me over by reminding me that Alshark was intended for Japanese systems. I liked that. When I visited Japan on school trips in the late 1990s, almost every store clerk would politely mention that a game was in Japanese or meant to run on a Japanese console, and I would smile and nod, knowing full well how to circumvent region lockouts. By 2007, foreign game collectors were so routine a sight in Akihabara’s stores that no clerk bothered pointing out that a copy of Burning Rangers was the Japanese version.

Whenever I see this battered copy of Alshark, I remember that store, its unnecessary cautions, and its Atari Jaguar.



AMAZING PENGUIN (Game Boy)
I have a weakness for penguins and old Game Boy cartridges. I need no reason for liking penguins, and I can rationalize my affection for handheld game cartridges. They’re tiny marvels, evoking the childhood fascination over just how an entire Zelda quest or Contra shootout could fit into a little plastic Triscuit.

On a trip to a retro shop called Game Zone in New Jersey, I really wanted to buy something but had little money to spare. Fortunately, the store maintains a rack of Game Boy games for a few bucks each, and I flipped through them until one called out to me: Amazing Penguin. It’s an enjoyable puzzle game where a penguin evades little creatures to fill in sections of a map. While too primitive in looks to charm us like Pengo, Amazing Penguin sates both my fondness for penguins and my desire to own at least one old Game Boy game.

I have another reason for keeping Amazing Penguin. It’s a Natsume release, and a few of Natsume’s Game Boy offerings, including Tail Gator and Ninja Gaiden Shadow, are worth decent money these days. If the tuber-based Spud’s Adventure and Amazing Tater can be Game Boy gold, why not a game about penguins? They deserve it more.



KEITH COURAGE IN ALPHA ZONES (TurboGrafx-16)
It’s tempting to defend Keith Courage and his Alpha Zones. On first play, it seems like a solid side-scroller that varies between bland kid-hero stages and speedy mecha-suit levels with cooler monsters and catchier, Rygar-esque music. Heck, it’s based on the anime series Mashin Hero Wataru, and anime tie-in games can get much worse than this.

Perhaps, you might think, people deride Keith Courage not because it’s a lousy game, but because it was the unimpressive pack-in for the TurboGrafx-16. Instead of giving system owners a free R-Type or The Legendary Axe, NEC and Hudson chose Keith Courage and looked downright primitive next to the Sega Genesis and its flashy, ridiculous Altered Beast showcase.

After a few stages, however, it’s easy to see that Keith Courage is mediocre. Levels simply repeat their ideas with nastier jumps and different enemy hues, and getting new weapons becomes a matter of tediously jabbing flying coin-cats over and over. Sorry, Keith Courage. There is no redemption for you.

So why I do I have it? Because it’s among the few TurboGrafx-16 games that isn’t preposterously expensive. Besides, any old cartridge-based systems seems incomplete without a side-scrolling game. The Super NES has Mario, the Genesis has Sonic, and the TurboGrafx, though it might not deserve it, has Keith Courage.



POKER PLUS (Atari 2600)

I could say that I’ve played every game I own, but there’s one exception. A friend and I give each other absurd games or related merchandise each Christmas, and one year his gift was Poker Plus for the Atari 2600. I don’t have the system, as Atari’s reign was before my time and I have no space for another console—not even if the 5200 has a good version of Pengo.

Until I can borrow an Atari 2600, I must make due with YouTube videos of Poker Plus. It seems like an acceptable Atari simulation of various casino card games, but it would have completely baffled me as a child. Perhaps that’s what I like about it. Today, it takes a convoluted game made entirely of Japanese text to truly perplex me. I like to remember an age when anything with numbers seemed as forebodingly grown-up as tax forms and NYPD Blue.



SUPER PUZZLE FIGHTER II TURBO (PlayStation)

There’s nothing wrong with owning Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. It’s a fantastic puzzle title still unmatched in its vicious two-player matches. Yet I have the HD Remix version on the PlayStation 3 (complete with obnoxiously loud menu music), and it adds new features and levels.

But I prefer the older version. There are a few options that HD Remix lacks, such as taunts and music that speeds up in the final moments of a match. More importantly, I like the old sprites. They capture the affectionate little details of the characters better, from Dan grinning in delusion to Morrigan nervously fondling her wings on the brink of defeat. The HD characters are too smooth, looking more like Flash cartoons than the work of Capcom’s sprite animators at the top of their game.



Hmmm. Maybe that’s not such a stupid reason after all.

In Defense of Mighty No. 9

Mighty No. 9 was among the most detested video games of 2016, deservingly or not. It began as an earnest attempt at a Mega Man revival from producer Keiji Inafune, who had guided the series for much of his time at Capcom.

Delays ensued, of course, and holes appeared with them. It was soon apparent that the final Mighty No. 9 wouldn’t look nearly as sharp as the Kickstarter mock-ups, and Inafune constantly got ahead of himself. He pitched a Mighty No. 9 animated series as well as two separate Kickstarters for Red Ash, a resuscitation of the Mega Man Legends sub-series. All of this came before Mighty No. 9 even arrived.


When Mighty No. 9 finally appeared, many pointed and laughed at a mediocre side-scroller. Technical hiccups abounded, trailers were terrible, the cutscenes looked amateurish, and the level design mostly rated somewhere between the humdrum Mega Man 6 and Mega Man X5. It's not the worst thing ever inflicted on Mega Man by a long shot, and it can be fun in that standard-issue Mega Man way. Yet it's a crippling disappointment for anyone who threw decent money at the Kickstarter and hoped for Mega Man's second coming.

There is, however, one part of Mighty No. 9 that I really like: the way it treats the bosses.

The Mystery Game Exposed, Sorta

Well, it’s time to reveal what’s inside that curious, label-free Sega Genesis game I picked up at the flea market. About a dozen people put in their guesses across this site and various forums, suggesting everything from classics like M.U.S.H.A. and Castlevania Bloodlines to the nightmare of Revolution X.

The bad news: the game would not play. No amount of cleaning seemed to help it, and so it robbed me of the chance to uncover the mystery by plugging it into my Genesis, showing it on my TV, and getting mocked for the aspect ratio and improper resolution.

Fortunately, there are other ways of identifying a game. I’ll just open up the cartridge and check the MPR code.


There we go. And the mystery game is…

Flea Market Watch: The Mystery Game

If there’s one thing I miss about my hometown of Dayton, it’s the flea markets. At least three decent ones lie within pleasant driving distance of the city, and I always enjoyed checking them out on the weekends. But then I moved to a stretch of New York where finding a flea market requires a daunting trip to New Jersey, Long Island, or the upstate wilderness. Poor me.

Last weekend sent me up to the Dutchess Marketplace in Fishkill, and it was worth the hour-long drive. It’s hardly the biggest flea market I’ve seen, but it has a decent outdoor rummage-sale area and a spread of fancier indoor booths. Of course, flea-market parlance defines “fancier” as “merchandise actually in bins instead of just strewn across the cold concrete” but both can lead to good deals.

I’m not as adept of a bargain hunter as, say, Dinosaur Dracula and The Sexy Armpit are on their flea market forays, but I think I did well for myself. I bought only video games this time, and the current state of game collecting is so overinflated that it’s a bargain to walk away with anything notable for under ten dollars. And I spent nine.


BEETLE ADVENTURE RACING 
Cost: $5

I can’t say this was a huge steal, as five bucks hovers not far below the eBay standard. It is, however, one of the best racing games on the Nintendo 64. It’s also a solid substitute for Mario Kart 64, which I hope to one day nab below the ridiculous going rate. There are millions of Mario Kart 64s around, after all.

So Beetle Adventure Racing is a good buy with its colorful tracks and four-player mode. It’d been on my mind ever since someone uncovered the lost April 1999 issue of GameFan magazine. This isn’t the first generation of GameFan (1992-1997), mind you. It’s from the second generation of GameFan (1998-2000), which changed its tone and only carried over a few of the staff. What did GameFan think of Beetle Adventure Racing? Most of the reviewers liked it, but…


Man, I sure hated the second generation of GameFan. Moving on...

Trouble Shooter Travails and Game Collecting

Buying old video games is ridiculous in this day and age. It wasn’t so long ago that cheap, unwanted cartridges littered garage sales, thrift shops, and any retro-game store brave enough to exist. Yet video games fell into the deep and inescapable swamp of being collectible, and anything less common than a Sega Genesis sports title spiked in price. Ten years back, NES games like Metal Storm and Kick Master might have sat in flea markets bin with a “$5 EACH OR THREE FOR $12” sign protruding from rows of obsolete plastic. Today they’re considered bargains if they stay under a hundred bucks for just the bare cartridge. And if you want the box and instructions, I have some bad news for you.

I considered myself lucky, however. I collected old games in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Goodwill sold NES cartridges for two bucks apiece and people would throw 32X systems in the garbage when Electronic Boutique refused to take them. I sold most of my library when prices reached absurd levels, and I told myself that I’d done well and stayed sensible. I’d never paid more than $100 for a game, provided I didn't adjust old RPGs for inflation. More importantly, I got everything I wanted before the collecting scene turned psychotic.

Well, almost everything.

Trouble Shooter, aka Battle Mania, is one of my favorite series, if two games constitute a series. I’ve written about their appeal several times before, how their mix of solid side-view shooting and stylish comedy captures everything I like about silly ’80s anime. I bought the original Trouble Shooter when it was cheap, but I never could bring myself to pick up its Japan-only sequel, Battle Mania Daiginjou.


I wanted Daiginjou ever since a 1993 issue of EGM introduced it as Trouble Shooter 2 in a sexist writeup, but it was too expensive. By the time I started collecting games, Daiginjou went for over $150 on eBay, and I refused to spend that much on a single Genesis title (not even if I could call it a Mega Drive title, since it was from Japan). Of course, that was fifteen years ago, and like every other game more popular than Cyberball, it more than tripled in price. Buying Battle Mania Daiginjou is even dumber today than it was back in 2003.

So I bought it.

Ghost in the Live-Action Shell

I was prepared. The live-action Ghost in the Shell movie had middling reviews, irksome casting, and many other signs of mediocrity. I went to see it anyway.

Why? I’m highly susceptible to Ghost in the Shells. Mamoru Oshii’s movies and Masamune Shirow’s manga loomed large over my time as a teenage anime nerd, and only a small speck of my fondness for them stems from nostalgia. That speck would be the afternoon back in 1996 when I checked all over town for the original Ghost in the Shell film and eventually found a shelf full of it at Media Play, which had apparently looted every other video store. I miss Media Play.

On its own merits, the original Ghost in the Shell became a film I return to over and over like a kid rewatching Disney movies. It’s on my list of old reliables, right there with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Watership Down, Mad Max: Fury Road, Dune, and, uh, Jason X. I’ll explain that last one someday.

So I was unafraid of wasting money and two hours on a potentially bad movie. It wouldn’t change the Ghost in the Shells that I liked, and it probably wouldn’t be the nadir of the whole series.


And I can say this much: the 2017 live-action film isn’t the most aggressively bad part of Ghost in the Shell history. Yet it could be the blandest. That might be worse.

The Curious Case of the PlayStation

You can judge a game system by how much unnecessary merchandise it inspires. The good ol’ NES had a market nearly to itself in the late 1980s, so companies swamped it with accessories: dust covers, rolling TV carts, turbo switches, eighteen different brands of cleaning kit, and even locks so concerned parents could control their Nintendo-addicted children. In contrast, you won’t find a great deal of third-party knickknacks for the Sega Saturn, the Atari Jaguar, or even the TurboGrafx-16.

The original Sony PlayStation was an obvious success by 1996, and ancillary goods appeared rapidly. Extension cables, boomerang-shaped controllers, and unreliable high-capacity memory cards weren’t necessary, but I found one specialized item helpful: a PlayStation game carrying case.

CD cases are commonplace even today, as the format slips into the digital ether, yet most of them are mere wallets that hold otherwise naked discs. In the 1990s, it was easier to find transporters that let you haul CDs still inside their jewel cases. Sure, they were bulky and held about 30 discs at their largest, but even the 15-CD models offered extra protection for your complete discographies of The Shaggs, New Radicals, Ursa Major, One Dove, The Pulsars, Young Marble Giants, Operation Ivy, The Grays, Leviathan, 4 Non Blondes, Kak, The La’s, David and David, Mother Love Bone, and The Sex Pistols.


That’s the idea behind the PlayStation game carrier from Smart Pouch, which assumed that consumers would be more concerned about damage to $50 game discs than any scuffs incurred by that Spacehog album no one ever played past the first track.

Outwardly, the case sports a nondescript design, affixing the PlayStation logo to a pattern commonly seen on metal floors and pickup truck mats. It’s largely the same product as a tote for regular music CDs, but there’s one key difference inside.

Blaster Master: All About Eve

Comeback attempts are a big part of Blaster Master. Sunsoft’s original game is a near-classic of the NES library for two things: mixing side-view gameplay with overhead on-foot stages, and having a storyline wherein teenager Jason follows his pet frog down a hole and ends up driving a high-tech combat tank in a world of hostile mutants. That's how most remember it, too. No matter how many sequels or remakes Sunsoft attempts, Blaster Master always comes back to the frog.


The series returns yet again with Blaster Master Zero this week. It remakes the original game with new visual flourishes and gameplay, overseen by the throwback specialists at Inti Creates (Mega Man 9 and 10, Azure Striker Gunvolt). The trailer makes sure to exhibit catchy revamped music, sharp graphics, and my favorite part of Blaster Master: a mysterious woman named Eve.

To tell the truth, it’s not Eve herself that I like so much. It’s the way Sunsoft adopted her from the Worlds of Power book based on Blaster Master.

Altered Banner

Yes, the site has a new header image. I stuck with a simple one for years on end, but I grew jealous of other sites with big, fancy logos that proclaim their nerdery outright. The new spread comes from the artist known as Bratwurst, so please check out his Tumblr and badger him into updating it.

This won’t be the only change to the website. You may see some advertisements here in the near future. I know they can grate, but this site needs to pay for its own keep. While it’s currently running for free on Blogger, I still buy hosting for the domain and server, and I’d like to move things back to a more independent platform. I don’t miss the days of coding everything in HTML and having no comments section, but I do miss having a website that stood on its own.

Anyway, new banner. It’s full of things I’ve written about over the years. Even the two human figures pay tribute to my favorite action-RPGs in their hairstyles, and my hat goes off to anyone who can pick out the references. I left a lot of the characters represented there up to Bratwurst, though Rygarfield’s inclusion is all my fault.

Of course, the banner evokes Altered Beast, Sega’s silly 1989 Greek-werewolf action game, more than anything. This may make me a hypocrite and poseur, because I’m not a huge fan of Altered Beast.


I like the aesthetic of the ruins and all, but I’ve never had a strong connection to Altered Beast. I grew up a Nintendo kid who didn’t go nuts for any Sega series beyond Panzer Dragoon and Phantasy Star, and I didn’t get a Genesis until the mid-1990s. That was well after Sonic had replaced Altered Beast as the system’s pack-in game and everyone had forgotten about it.

By the time I played it, Altered Beast was just an old curiosity, worth playing just to snicker at the grotesque monsters and the homoerotic bellows of “Power Up” as the centurion hero bulks up into an Athenian lycanthrope. If you asked me to name my favorite Sega games, Altered Beast would be way down there below Arrow Flash but probably above the version of Fighter Vipers that doesn’t have Pepsiman.

But if I’m going to borrow Altered Beast’s aesthetic, I should find its best side.