Default Game of the Year: Blaster Master Zero II

It’s tradition to spend December summing up your favorite releases of the year, and that leaves me in a bind. This was a very busy year for me, and I finished only one video game that actually came out in 2019.

However, that means something in itself. The fact that I found time to play through a game in an otherwise hectic twelve months is a high compliment, and Blaster Master Zero II deserves it.

Inti Creates’ Blaster Master Zero lovingly remade the original Blaster Master, an NES almost-classic in which players control a human hero named Jason both on foot and within his wheeled tank of a vehicle, Sophia. Zero took the best ideas of from its originator and reworked them with excellent level design, substantially better controls, and a refreshingly lack of enemies the Sophia couldn’t hit. It made the most of Blaster Master’s odd premise, sending Jason to rescue his pet frog Fred and meet up with Eve, an apparently biological android woman who originated in the Worlds of Power novel for Blaster Master (no kidding). Together they defeated a mutant-alien warlord and, provided you unlocked the real endgame, everything turned out fine.

The introduction of Blaster Master Zero II tells us otherwise. Eve was infected by a mutant strain during the final battle of the first game, and now she, Jason, and, of course, Fred are off on an interplanetary quest to find a cure. Now modified for space travel, their Sophia tank carries them between worlds, with Eve steadily weakened by the alien virus. It’s already overhauled her design from the original game, making her more gruesome in her appearance and more pandering in her figure. We’ll return to this point.

Trials of Mana on Trial

I’ve waited over twenty years to properly play Trials of Mana. I probably shouldn’t have. The Japanese version, Seiken Densetsu 3, came out in 1995, and it was fan-translated once emulation permitted such things. Sure, I tried to play it. I’d start up the game every few years, but I’d inevitably drift away after an hour or two. It’s only after Seiken Densetsu 3 was officially localized, dubbed Trials of Mana, and released in the new Collection of Mana that I’m digging into it. It’s strange how committed you can be once you pay money for something.

Do I like Trials of Mana? Well, yes. I do. I think.

You see, I suspect that my affection for Trials of Mana is nothing more than my fondness for an age gone by. Secret of Mana is a high-ranking favorite of mine, and as its successor Trials offers a similar tale of colorful heroes on a quest through a fantasy realm teeming with magic, evil, and adorable rabbit blobs called Rabites. It’s precisely the sort of game I loved as a kid: a big, gorgeous Super NES RPG that I could obsess over for months.

I never had the chance to properly obsess, though. I pored over magazine spreads that couldn’t decide whether to call the game Seiken Densetsu 3 or Secret of Mana 2, and I wrote letters begging Squaresoft to bring the game to North America, but there would be no such release. A dozen or so impressive RPGs arrived late in the Super NES lifespan and never left Japan, yet Seiken Dense—sorry, Trials of Mana—was the one I wanted most. Even though I never played it then, just wanting it is a fond memory. Nostalgia is at its most powerful when it is unearned.

After all of this, Trials of Mana isn’t the masterpiece my younger self envisioned. It’s hardly terrible, but it doesn’t rate among Square-made Super NES standouts like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV through VI, or even Secret of Mana. To be fair, I suspected this even back in 1996, when Nick Rox of GameFan called Trials of Mana “one of the ten best SNES games of all time” in the December 1995 issue and then, the very next month, admitted that the game got “unimaginably tedious.”

Arcade of My Youth: Wright-Patterson

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is famous for two things. It has the world's largest air force museum, and it has Hangar 18, the now-ordinary storage facility that supposedly housed aliens from the Roswell crash in 1947. In fact, Wright-Patt is rarely mentioned beyond those points. Oh well. There are worse ways for a military base to make a name for itself.

I remember Wright-Patt for other reasons, though. My father worked there after we returned from Germany in 1991, so I recall going along to the base exchange, the commissary, and, of course, the tiny arcade.

Wright Patt’s arcade was barely even a room. It was more of an alcove with a dozen cabinets inside, situated near the vending machines. I’d go as often as I could, regularly sacrificing Saturday morning cartoons so I could tag along with my father. While he shopped, I’d spend an hour or two in this little gallery of arcade games.

Solitude was part of the appeal. In the early hours of most Saturday mornings I was the only one at the arcade. There was no one around to hog Super Baseball 2020 or beat me at Fighters History Dynamite, no one to make too much noise over a game of Raiden, and, most importantly, no one to recognize me from school and therefore remind me how miserable I was during the rest of the week. Wright-Patt’s arcade wasn’t the biggest or best that I’d ever visited, but for an hour or two each week it was the only one that was all mine.

A lot of arcade games came through Wright-Patt’s little nook, but I’ll narrow it down to three that I remember vividly and haven’t yet discussed too much here.

I always went for RPGs as a kid, whether it was the latest Final Fantasy or some lesser curiosity like Dragon View. It was a matter of economics. I bought only two or three full-priced games a year, and an RPG was all but guaranteed to last me three months. Even if it was a bland three months of Traysia or Breath of Fire, that was a surer bet than even the finest action game or fighter on the market. Perhaps it was often a case of picking the Golden Corral buffet over a five-star restaurant, but I wanted my money’s worth.

I also liked the pace of RPGs. I could explore. I could take my time. I could wander a village where half the residents said the same thing, or spend hours fighting monsters in the hills. RPGs offered a lot of freedom, and I rarely saw the same thing in arcade games.

That’s why I liked Cadash so much. It’s a side-scroller with cheap demises and a time limit, but it’s trimmed with RPG devices, from the pacing townsfolk and their awkwardly translated hints to the weapon shops and minor plot threads. The Wright-Patt arcade had only one Cadash machine, so I never saw the game in its LAN-linked four-player glory, but I always liked seeing how far I could get on a few quarters. At most, I could make it past the second boss and learn that a village girl marked for sacrifice was really a mermaid—a technically topless mermaid, the likes of which my at-home RPGs could never dare depict.

So Cadash was my go-to for many Wright-Patt arcade mornings. I liked all of the four playable characters, but I most often picked the Priest—or rather, the Priestess—just to mess with every villager who greeted the player as “BRAVE MAN.” It felt like I was outsmarting the game, or at least turning the king into being a subtly sexist jerk. Yeah, he’s been waiting for a brave man to arrive, but he figures he has to take what he can get.

It’s strange that I never got into the home versions of Cadash. The Genesis port removed the two best characters (that’d be the priest and the ninja), and the much better TurboGrafx-16 version slipped my notice until it was madly expensive. I had other RPGs to play at home, after all, and while Cadash clearly had substance, I couldn’t be sure it would occupy me all the way to Christmas or my birthday. For the arcade, though, it was perfect. It was nice enough to kill me slowly.

A Collection Cover Competition

Square Enix’s recently localized Collection of Mana is notable on several fronts. It’s a solid if unadorned presentation of the first three Mana games. It’s an encapsulation of the straightforward, colorful fairy tale action-RPG approach that enchanted fans of the series before Square experimented too much and lost that ideal mixture. And it’s the first time we have Trials of Mana, aka Seiken Densetsu 3, officially in English.

Yet these are trivialities next to Collection of Mana’s most important feature: its cover has all the characters hanging out with each other.

Really. It’s a charming spread where the main casts of Adventures of Mana, Secret of Mana, and Trials of Mana all cavort, where Sumo rides a chocobo beside Randi and Kevin, and where Primm and Angel advise Fuji on proper garland placement. Even the rabites are enjoying it, and they’re relegated to humble monsters in the actual games.

I’m not jesting entirely. This sort of jovial, series-spanning artwork of characters interacting is always welcome, particularly when it’s for older games that never had crossovers. It's always nice to see video-game characters enjoying themselves outside of their violent routines, as though they really are little people living in the game cartridge, just like you thought when you were three years old. Artwork like this keeps that innocent and all but extinct notion alive.

To illustrate, let’s compare the Collection of Mana cover to other recent game compilations.

Monsters of Time

Time isn’t the enemy it once was in video games. Modern titles might rank and penalize players based on how long it takes to clear a stage, but rarely is a timer a lethal obstacle. Indeed, many spacious big-budget games revel in their lack of any such constraints, proud of the way players can spend hours wandering a desolate canyon or mapping a particular fetid stretch of dungeon.

Games weren’t always so forgiving. Any sensibly designed arcade draw of the 1980s or 1990s had to keep players moving and, preferably, dying and paying for another go. A timer, often situated next to your score, was just as much an enemy as a robot dinosaur or leering street punk. Console games often adopted this idea without question, and even an pleasant stroll through Super Mario Bros. 3 would be deadly if the timer ran down.

Many games were content to unceremoniously kill player’s avatar when an on-screen timer ran out, but others went beyond that. It wasn’t enough that time elapsed; it also summoned a monster, invincible and relentless, to slay you and remind you that merciless game design waits for no one.

The original Rygar has a limited following, to put it charitably. It’s very much a typical arcade side-scroller from 1986: repetitive, punishing, and stingy in its payoff. Today it’s remembered mostly for inspiring a largely different and much more interesting NES version.

Rygar‘s first outing is intriguing only in those small, strange details that popped up in 1980s arcade games. Developers often tossed in whatever random sights they wanted, creating an atmosphere vaguely tantalizing in its random and limited decor. Rygar has hints of that in its odd introductory text that mentions 4.5 billions years of “dominators,” in its unexplained lion-man end boss, and in the way each level ends with symbols ranging from idols to crosses. It’s all likely just chosen for effect, but it feels like it should mean something, as though Rygar was secretly bankrolled by a bizarre cult.

Another effective touch appears when players let the timer tick down to nothing. An intense strain takes over the soundtrack, and then THIS shows up.

An angry mist-demon floats across the screen, and it’s impossible to slay unless Rygar reaches the level’s end. It’s probably the most imposing sight in the game; most of the creatures are only slightly larger than Rygar himself, but this giant cloud of temporal fury is an unexpected horror, even if it now looks like something from a cartoon about the evils of pollution.

Both the NES Rygar and the PlayStation 2 revamp have much more inventive monsters, and both are much better games. But they’re rarely as abrupt in their surprises as that hellish miasma.

Aleste Branch: Super Hyped Amor

I was all set to discuss how I dislike the fact that many intriguing modern games merely echo older ones. A lot of my most-wanted list is filled by either spiritual successors or full-bore remakes of established titles, whether it’s the Contra overtures of Blazing Chrome or the new Link’s Awakening recast of my favorite Zelda game. While I’m glad to see classic visions return one way or the other, I was prepared to argue that sequels and remodels are never as exciting as the prospect of a new and fully original creation.

But then Aleste Branch comes along and makes me a liar.

M2 announced Aleste Branch last year and dropped a few details earlier this month, so all we have is a title, some art of series heroine Ellinor (aka Terri), and a model of her ship. So why am I twitching with unironic glee at each new shred of information they release?

Well, Compile’s old Aleste line is my pick for the most consistently amazing series of old-fashioned shooters. It’s a loose-knit collection that includes both official Aleste games and tangents like Spriggan, Gun Nac, Zanac, and The Guardian Legend. Heck, you could even throw in Golvellius. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s even a vaguely shooter-like game from Compile, it’s an honorary Aleste.

All of these shooters, Alestes or not, share excellent underlying aesthetics. They’re quick and intense, with cunning enemy placement and a healthy variation in obstacles and foes. They’re also generous with power-ups, so you’re never far from grabbing a new weapon or recovering from defeat. And while Aleste games favor standard mecha and spaceship designs, they’ll flavor things with striking music and the occasional weird surprise. The best examples lie in MUSHA, a tour-de-force of everything I could possibly want in a shooter.

Better yet, most of the Aleste line premiered on home consoles instead of in arcades, so the thoughtful stage design challenges the player without the need to extract another quarter every five minutes. Nor do you have to worry about putting up with screen borders or rotating your TV for that authentic vertical-shooter experience, both common issues in arcade ports. Aleste makes the most of any hardware it favors–even the tiny-screen Game Gear outings are great.

Compile was remarkably prolific in the early 1990s, and Aleste titles popped up everywhere, often with new Americanized names like Power Strike and Space Mega Force. Yet this time of bounty couldn’t last for Aleste, or shooters in general. The public grew weary of game after game about piloting a lone ship against an alien fleet, even when those games were as impressive as MUSHA and Robo Aleste. Compile drifted toward the broad appeal of their Puyo Puyo series, and their shooter staff splintered. Ex-Compile developers worked on cult favorites like Battle Garegga and Dimahoo, but they just weren’t the same as a true Aleste.

It’s been far, far too long since we’ve had a new Aleste game, and I think it’s in capable hands. M2 is best known these days for porting older games with exceptional flair, but they’re just as gifted when they’re making new material, as they did with Rebirth versions of Contra, Gradius, and Castlevania.

M2 is just the right group to put together an Aleste that will do justice to the proud names of Moo Niitani and Jemini Hirono. And then the shooter shall rise again. We shall witness revivals of every classic from Axelay and Battle Mania to Wings of Wor and Hotdog Storm. We shall bask in the fluorescent gleam of store shelves dominated by Truxton and Cyber Core sequels. And we shall magically turn into ten-year-olds with no responsibilities or problems that an afternoon of Grind Stormer can’t repair.

Really? No, of course not. I just want Aleste Branch to get a domestic release. I’m even willing to go against my better judgment and fight through the hordes of true fans and filthy scalpers to get a physical copy from some exploitative limited-edition publisher. It’s no mere nostalgia hit for me. The Aleste games are still paragons of the whole shooter ethos, and for me that’s every bit as exciting as a brand-new idea.

I just hope Ellinor/Terri has kicked her smack habit.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: A Salute to Tora and Shogun

Many worlds collided in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game for the NES. It saw the Turtles at the height of their popularity in 1990, and the game perfectly embodies their most marketable personae in a decent beat-up-‘em, like Double Dragon with Foot Soldiers instead of street punks and dominatrices. It also found Nintendo at a similar apex, as the NES library enjoyed its most prodigious year, stretching from Super Mario Bros. 3 to Crystalis to StarTropics before the Sega Genesis ruined that delightful monopoly.

Just about any NES game was important to the children of 1990, but a Ninja Turtles game, and a good one at that, verged on a religious experience. And the game even threw in a coupon for a free Pizza Hut personal pan pizza. It was a marvel of efficiency when it came to shoving cartoons, video games, and junk food into the gullets of American youth.

Yet after the game ended and the free pizza was devoured, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game didn’t enjoy a very influential legacy. Perhaps that’s because it’s notably by-the-book, following both its arcade roots and overall Turtle canon right down to the quips that the turtles spout when they fall into manholes.

Three embellishments stand out, however. One is a curious skateboarding woman who I’ve written about before, though she’s merely unexplained background decor. The other two are bosses invented just for the NES game: intergalactic bounty hunters named Tora and Shogun.

No mere throwaways, Tora and Shogun each received an entire personalized stage. Tora shows up early on, as a Krang-supplied weather device plunges New York into a wintry apocalypse. The Turtles slash through a stage of snowball-tossing Foot Soldiers and missile-firing snowmen, and Tora waits at the end.

Tora’s just a polar bear in a leather jacket, but he’s true to the Ninja Turtle aesthetic of weird animal mutants. What he lacks in laser guns or mohawks, he makes up in pure brutality by hucking giant ice boulders at the Turtles and smacking them across the screen if they’re dumb enough to face him head-on.

Shogun gets his turn a few levels later. Perhaps his name should be “THE Shogun,” but manuals say otherwise. His hideout is all paper screens and tatami mats, complete with leaping ninja-bots, laser scorpions, and tiger artwork that comes to life. Well, robotic life. Keeping with the Turtles cartoon’s flailing efforts to skirt real violence, all of the non-boss enemies are machines.

As the level-topper, Shogun wastes no time in deploying his gimmick: his head detaches and floats around the screen while his body attacks with a naginata. It leaves players little room to dodge, and the head is either invincible or very difficult to hit. Once you’ve wailed on the Shogun’s body enough, he explodes, leaving behind a lower mechanical skeleton and effectively mooning the player. Really.

That’s it for Tora and Shogun. They appeared in no other official Ninja Turtles fiction; not the comics, not the live-action movies, and not even the long-running cartoon. Such absences are explained, of course, by the fact that they never became action figures in the first place.

And yet that’s strange in itself. The Ninja Turtles toy line ran out of good ideas by 1992 and grew more and more ridiculous, putting the Turtles in everything from military gear to Star Trek outfits, but it somehow wasn’t desperate enough to put together Tora and Shogun figures. I assume it was a matter of licensing, because when you’re peddling Z-list mutants like a Dalmatian firefighter and a moose Canadian Mountie, a polar bear with a weather weapon will fly off the pegs.

They would’ve fit perfectly, too. Give Tora a freeze-ray (let’s call it an “Icicle Gun”) and some boulders to toss, and he’s as much a hot seller as Muckman or Scumbug. Shogun might not have many accessories beyond his samurai weapons, but he’d get attention with a removable spring-loaded head—one that would be lost by 90 percent of all kids who owned the toy. Thus we would see decapitated Shoguns in flea-market bins across the nation and costly eBay squabbles over complete figures. What a fine legacy that would be.

One more thing: remember when I said that Tora and Shogun never made any more official appearances? Well, you’ll see them in TMNT: Rescue-Palooza, a fan-made reimagining of the older games that includes over 60 playable characters, from April’s newsroom cronies to Aska from Tournament Fighters to the suspiciously underutilized Ace Duck. Tora and Shogun might’ve missed a prime merchandizing boat and remained obscure in the memories of countless young Turtles fans, but they’re still good for a boss fight or two.

Five Fascinating Fighting Game Stories

If you hang around certain people long enough, you’ll hear them say that fighting games aren’t about storylines. Oh, they have plots and characters, of course, but they don’t need them. Fighters live or die by their gameplay, their competitive intricacies, and their embodiment of the basic human desire to punch something. After all, the crowds at fighting game tournaments aren’t massing because they’re heavily intrigued by Tekken’s ongoing subplot about Kuma the bear being in love with Xiaoyu’s pet panda.

Well, I don't agree. More than any other genre, fighting games are all about characters. It's the characters who introduce the game, the characters who must be immediately appealing in their designs, and the characters who invite players to learn and master their favorites. And when you’ve spent hours perfecting controller gymnastics and analyzing combo attacks, it’s hard to NOT care a little about Scorpion getting revenge on Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat, Sakura all but admitting she wants to have Ryu’s children in Street Fighter V, and whether or not every Samurai Shodown game since the second is a prequel just because Nakoruru is still alive.

I can’t resist that. I do my best to dig into the mechanics and head-to-hear furor of fighting games, but the truth is that I'm much more into their ongoing character arcs. If a new Power Instinct game appeared tomorrow, my first question would be “Does it resolve Angela and Sahad’s rumored romance?”

Yes, I care about those dumb fighting-game stories, and I’ll prove it by picking five arcs in which I’m far too invested.

(Chaos Code)
The original Chaos Code almost gets it right. It lacks a decent online mode and other refinements one expects from a modern fighting game, but it has some intriguing characters, including a hulking chef, twins who function as a single combatant, and a manga author who changes cosplay with each combo attack. My personal favorites, however, are two special operatives: one has a cyborg arm, and the other has a body pillow with an anime girl on it.

Hikaru looks a lot like a typical fighting-game hero, apart from the anime-girl pillow he drags with him to every match in Chaos Code. In one of his story-mode endings, he’s congratulated by a fellow agent who asks him out for drinks and perhaps more. Hikaru’s on the verge of accepting until he remembers that a new otaku-bait video game is out, and he invites his co-worker along. She declines, apparently being unfamiliar with the phrase “fixer-upper.”

Chaos Code’s first expansion, New Sign of Catastrophe, tells us more. Hikaru’s co-worker is named Lupinus, and she’s a fully playable character with a cybernetic arm and a less cautious crush on Hikaru. By the end of the game, she's dragging him along on shopping trips.

There's no lack of nerd-fantasy fulfillment in modern fiction, but I enjoy the simple clash of Hikaru's brazen nerdery and Lupinus' more conventional tastes. As it turns out, she wasn't repulsed by his geek fixations. She’s just insecure about her robotic limb and, of course, her figure, because fighting games have told us that all women everywhere worry about their cup sizes to the point where it's a  recognized disorder in the DSM-5.

And where will the long-in-development Chaos Code 2 take this? Will Hikaru get over his anime-wife fixations while Lupinus gets over her clich├ęd hang-ups? I suspect that I’m not alone in hoping for more of this subplot, since developer FK Digital's early promo art for the game shows Lupinus and Hikaru in formal wear.

See? They know where that Chaos Code bread is buttered.

Bounty Arms: The Famitsu Spread

Let’s take yet another look at Bounty Arms. We here at the Bounty Arms Preservation Society (tax-exempt status pending) are dedicated to researching, archiving, and presenting all known information about this canceled PlayStation game from 1995. That may seem oddly narrow and of potential interest to very few, but we’re all busy and can’t very well devote ourselves to cataloging every unreleased game that ever got past a napkin doodle.

Our most recent discovery is a preview of Bounty Arms from the February 10, 1995 issue of Famitsu. This is likely all the magazine ever ran about Bounty Arms; the game disappeared after missing its April release date in Japan and for months afterward persisted only in those nebulous TBA sections of release schedules. Moreover, 1995 was a remarkably busy year, and Famitsu covered every video-game platform. Bounty Arms merited a few pages in early PlayStation-centric publications simply for existing, but in Famitsu it had to fight for space in between Virtua Fighter 2 comics, lengthy Chrono Trigger features, and 3DO ads with Albert Einstein.

It’s no surprise, then, that Famitsu’s preview is a mere quarter-page. It offers the barest introduction to Bounty Arms; we’re told that it’s an overhead-view action game, it’s developed and published by Data West, and its heroines use extending mechanized Relic Arms as grappling hooks, whips, and huge flamethrowers. The preview doesn’t mention the main characters by name, nor are there any screenshots showing Rei Misazaki and Chris, whose last name we still haven’t properly translated. Here it is if you care to try.

The screenshots show little that we at the Bounty Arms Preservation Society have not uncovered previously. Every image we have of the game shows one of two stages: the initial jungle level (available entirely in the demo) and an industrial factory of some kind. We see both in the Famitsu preview. Composer Yasuhito Saito estimates that Bounty Arms was 60 percent complete when it was canceled, which may well mean that game had four or five stages.

One thing stands out, though. The factory stage has large metal frames appearing over the characters, as shown in the screenshot above. The tiny startburst in the Famitsu preview appears to show Chris standing ON the metal frame. Was the entire stage multi-layered, like…uh, Vertical Force for the Virtual Boy? That would add a lot to Bounty Arms’ otherwise straightforward arcade formula and compensate for it being only a few levels long.

Perhaps we’ve made too much of this single image, but these are the discussions that keep the Bounty Arms Preservation Society going. They’re also the reason why the Bounty Arms Preservation Society has exactly one member.

Little Things: Super Baseball 2020

I’m pretty sure that Super Baseball 2020 is my favorite sports game. That’s probably because I’m not really into sports games on the whole. I have nothing against the genre, but I suspect that a prescient part of my young mind knew I was too fixated on video games—and so it decided to at least ignore sports games and spare my future self a scrap of obsession. It couldn’t keep me from getting into Super Baseball 2020, which served as both an early Neo Geo showcase and a woefully optimistic prediction of the future.

Conceived for quick arcade satisfaction, Super Baseball 2020 presents a high-tech stadium where heavily armored men, revealingly armored women, and seemingly headless, tank-tread robots play a slightly modified version of the sport. Landmines appear, home runs only count when hit straight behind center field, and you’re free to upgrade your human and mechanized players alike. Everything is kept light and arcade-friendly; team customization is limited, and with only six clubs per league there’s not much variety to playing an entire season. The original Neo Geo version doesn’t even have a boss. It fell to other console ports to add a new, pennant-game team with players named after prominent members of the Nazi party. That means something.

I started playing Super Baseball 2020 for silly reasons. I was a dopey pre-teen loaded with hormones, and I was fascinated when GamePro ran a shot of Super Baseball 2020’s women players and openly asked if the game was “Too sexy, too sexist?” I just had to find out the answer for myself.

Yet I’ve grown to enjoy Super Baseball 2020 legitimately over the years. Each time I revisit it, I appreciate something else: the sleek designs of the Cyber Egg stadium, the way the players spin and flip when they make a fantastic catch, the little concession stand shown only when a foul ball wanders back into the glass-shielded bleachers, the way the robot umpires repeatedly warn you that NOW they’ll set the cracker mines, and the way a game’s MVP gets a Class A Citizenship or a robot bodyguard, which implies that this game’s vision of 2020 is hardly a utopia.

One neat little detail arises when the players leap or dive to catch a ball. The game switches to a brief close-up of the man or woman or robot, and the scaling sprites were a real technical feat back in the early 1990s. These cutaways also boost a team’s funds, letting you buy more power-ups. They let you see that the robots actually have eyes on top of their heads. And of course, they showcase a female player’s cleavage. Like I said, I started playing this game for silly reasons.

Even now, however, I’m impressed by these scenes. The developers went through the trouble of creating different views: one for jumping, one for diving straight-on, and a third just for diving diagonally. Granted, the diagonal catch is just a slightly altered version of the head-on view, but I was astounded at the time that the game paid such close attention.

This seems archaic now, but in 1993 these details were the eye-catching hallmarks of an arcade spectacle that no console (except, of course, the actual Neo Geo home system) could replicate. I picked the Super NES version of Super Baseball 2020 as my big Christmas gift that year, and the first thing I noticed was that the diving catches were static images. The Super NES port did a fair job of mimicking the Neo Geo original, but it also made me realize how important the small stuff was.

SNK went on to craft gorgeous sprite art on the Neo Geo, perhaps peaking around 2000 with sights like that fiery backdrop from The Last Blade 2 and the inching Ohmu bugs from Metal Slug 3. Yet it was Super Baseball 2020 that first impressed me and sold me on a Neo Geo.

Well, I shouldn’t say that it sold me, since the Neo Geo cost $600 in the 1990s (or a cool thousand once adjusted for inflation) and that was beyond the reach of a kid who needed three years of good grades and begging to get a basic Nintendo. That made me want one all the more, of course.

A Neo Geo isn’t quite as expensive these days, but I’m afraid nothing is cheap in this age of game collectors who’ll outspend the Pentagon’s annual operating budget on a sealed copy of Boogerman. If I ever manage to convince myself to acquire a Neo Geo, however, at least I know what game I’ll get first.

Hi Score Girl: Horrible Atmosphere

Hey! Do you like video games? To be specific, do you like arcade games from the 1980s and 1990s? Do you like mastering them and spouting trivia about them to the point where you ignore everything else? Do we have a show for you!

Meet Haruo Yaguchi, the protagonist of Hi Score Girl. He’s exceptionally good at arcade games, and he’s growing up smack dab in the middle of the Street Fighter II craze of the early 1990s. One fateful encounter at an arcade pits him against Akira Ono, a girl from his school and an unsuspected arcade game prodigy. The two of them forge a contentious friendship around arcade games, somewhat impaired by Akira being well-off, graceful, and exceptionally popular at school despite the fact that she never says anything. At all. Stifled by her rich-girl life, she interacts with Haruo through glares, physical violence, and, of course, video games. Her only display of emotion comes when she moves to America and bids Haruo goodbye.

The narrative then moves forward a few years and makes the bold, stunning move of introducing a prominent female character who actually speaks. Really! She forms complete sentences and everything! Her name is Koharu Hidaka and she’s a bookish classmate of Haruo, who’s now in middle school and still so obsessed with games that he’ll spend hours playing the latest Street Fighter update outside of the shop owned by Koharu’s family. This is all the reason she needs to fall for him, and soon she’s doing her best to learn all about these video games Haruo enjoys. And then Akira comes back.

Hi Score Girl‘s true conflict begins here, as two girls fight over a boy who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Haruo is bratty, self-absorbed, vaguely sadistic, relentlessly fixated on games, and, even after he matures, quite boring. His only notable skills lie in playing games and rattling off details about them like a Wikipedia entry in need of editing. It’s hard to imagine what either girl sees in him, though Akira is almost as horrible. She’s admired by everyone at school even though she never talks to or even smiles at them, and she has no personality traits beyond lashing out violently, getting scared of games like Splatterhouse and Space Gun (because she’s still a GIRL, haw haw), and showing our wretched protagonist the occasional hint of affection. Koharu is slightly more sympathetic, simply because she possesses recognizable emotions, thoughts, and the willingness to communicate them.

Status Check: 2019

So what was I up to in 2018? Well, I did a few reviews and guest-hosted my old column several times at Anime News Network. My geek highlight of the year, however, came when I got the chance to write about Angel Cop for Discotek’s new release of the series.

Angel Cop, as you may know, has a late-stage plot revelation about an international Jewish conspiracy being the force behind terrorist attacks and savage psychic assassins. It’s bizarre, offensive, and sadly reflective of how easy it was to get away with anti-Semitism in Japanese media during the early 1990s. I wrote an essay covering this for the new Blu-Ray and DVD, expanding on some ideas I mentioned in an entry here. It’s not unlike how modern reissues of racist old Bugs Bunny cartoons include some explanation of the historical context.

I also interviewed John Wolskel, the scriptwriter for the dubs of Angel Cop, Cyber City Oedo 808, and many over foul-mouthed Manga UK adaptations that we’ll never stop quoting. It was great to hear from someone who had a hand in these old dubs, and it’s pretty clear that Wolskel and the rest of the crew had fun giving these anime series the hyper-profane revamps that partly ensured their immortality.

I’d really like to do more work like this. For one thing, it’s fascinating to put something like Angel Cop in a broader vein; it might be all gore and swearing and Jew-hating, but I think its unconcealed frustration offers a revealing look at the fortunes of the anime industry and perhaps the broader reaction to the end of Japan’s bubble economy. You can learn a lot from looking through someone’s trash.

On a more selfish stratum, I like the satisfaction of working on a tangible product, even if it’s just for DVD extras. I haven’t seen any of my work in physical media since my magazine gig a decade ago, and while I sure appreciate the malleable, correctable nature of online writing, there’s a nice sense of permanence about holding something that involved you. Centuries after the Internet has evaporated and the earth is a lifeless husk, alien excavators may siphon my essay from a miraculously intact Blu-Ray and know just a little more about Angel Cop.