Introducing Unsung Game Creators

I always like unearthing obscure things here. I don’t think I’m trying to show off to anyone; that would require this site to have readers. It’s more that I enjoy learning new things, and I feel the need to validate that by writing about them. 

 

That’s the impetus behind Unsung Game Creators, a new YouTube series from me and my friend Joel (who doesn’t have a site). It’s all about lesser-known developers and the threads running through their games, and I hope that being on YouTube will get it some attention. Yes, it’s a subject with limited appeal, but amid those ten thousand other video channels, you’re not going to stand out with a profanity-laced playthrough of the Captain Planet NES game. 

 

 

So have a look at the first episode of Unsung Game Creators, which covers the Capcom-esque creations of Ukiyotei. We have many more installments planned, and everyone's free to suggest a subject or two! Not even that Captain Planet game is off the table.

Valkyrie Anatomia: A Post-Mortem

Valkyrie Profile sequels have terrible luck. Consider Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, an inventive RPG promptly overshadowed by bigger RPG names when it poked its head up back in 2006. Consider Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, a beautifully depressing strategy-RPG that appeared on the Nintendo DS precisely when the platform had strategy-RPGs to spare. And in this age of rampant cheap and short-lived games for phones and tablets, Valkyrie Profile’s only real presence is a cheap and short-lived game for…well, you get the idea.



Not that Valkyrie Anatomia: The Origin did badly for itself. Launched in 2016, it lasted some four years, and the English language release from Wonder Planet endured for over a year before Square Enix announced the worldwide shutdown of the game, effective August 31. For a mobile title based on an RPG series with a strictly cult following, that’s a firm success.

But how did Anatomia rank beside other Valkyrie Profiles? It makes no secret that it’s a prequel, with a confused and reserved (and unsatisfactorily armored) Lenneth Valkyrie called into the service of an Odin decidedly young and still sporting both of his eyes. Flanked by shapeshifting raven-kids Huginn and Muginn, Lenneth stalks the mortal realm in search of brave and gifted warriors to join Odin’s Einherjar ranks upon death. At least that final bit is easy to understand; it’s what valkyries do, you know.



Valkyrie Profile 2 messed around with alternate dimensions and secret identities, and Anatomia supercharges the whole concept. The overlying tale flits from one mysterious character and hidden agenda to another, mixing Norse myth with its own concepts and even bringing out the Rhinemaidens that Wagner possibly invented. Old worlds die, new ones are born, and it all vaguely connects to the Valkyrie Profile games we’ve seen before.

The central storyline rings the familiar chime of a war between gods and humans, though the RPG clich├ęs is inverted: here the gods are sympathetic and distant while the humans who challenge are corrupt and petty. It all leads to a climax with a few novel twists among the predictable ones, but the first chapter trails off to made room for a second chapter—one that the writers scrambled to finish in the game's final month. The dialogue also does the story few favors; it’s adequate most of the time, but the typos and bland turns of phrase hardly suit a game about Norse mythology and celestial apocalypse.



At least the game delivers on the valkyrie front. Lenneth alone has several alternate forms, and she and her sisters are joined by new celestial warriors with each story arc. By the end I almost expected every character, human or otherwise, to have some valkyrie variant, each available only through a random pull with a .0005 percent chance of giving you anything good. This is a mobile game, after all.

It's fortunate that Valkyrie Anatomia returns to the greatest strength of the series: the individual tales of the Einherjar. As in the original Valkyrie Profile, Lenneth watches as mortals tread toward deaths of varying noble or tragic tones, taking in their mistakes, their sins, their vanities, their joys, and, most of all, their reasons for dying. At their finest, Valkyrie Profile games chronicle gods struggling to understand humans one sad story at a time, and Anatomia is replete with those.

In Defense of NES Strider

One truly lost element of the game industry is the fascinating divide between arcade titles and their console descendants. Prior to the mid-1990s, home consoles rarely hosted arcade games in their full glory; instead they were visually compromised, shrunken down, and otherwise altered to fit a less powerful home system. In some intriguing cases, developers reimagined arcade games entirely, creating Nintendo Entertainment System versions of Rygar, Bionic Commando, and Ninja Gaiden that were more complex and superior to their arcade originals.


Many of us mistook Strider for one of these examples back in 1989. The arcade Strider and the NES Strider were radically different games, seemingly sharing only the idea of an international ninja hero named Hiryu.

The truth was more elaborate: Capcom and the manga outfit Moto Kikaku conceived Strider as a three-part project. The arcade Strider went off on its own under the guidance of designer of Koichi Yotsui, but the Strider Hiryu manga and the NES game follow much the same story and aesthetics.

The NES version of Strider is often painted as the inferior cousin of the Strider we saw in arcades and on the Sega Genesis. Yotsui’s take on the idea is one of constant spectacle: battles with giant robot gorillas, airship raids, anti-gravity rooms, and melodramatically voiced intermissions. How could a mere 8-bit NES game compete with that?




I’ll tell you how: pure style. The title screen for NES Strider immediately crackles and pulses, launching into an introduction to the Striders, “the toughest group of people,” and perhaps driving younger players of the era to look up “instigation” in the dictionary. A lengthy title tune (which was supposed to have lyrics in the Japanese version) accompanies Hiryu and his compatriots Kain and Sheena as they blow up helicopters, heft flamethrowers, and dash through a starswept void.

It doesn’t have the screen-filling creatures of its arcade relative, but the NES Strider’s storyline has a better excuse for traveling the globe. Matic, vice director of the Strider organization, orders steel-nerved Hiryu to find and execute his former comrade Kain. Hiryu, perhaps haunted by having to kill his own elite Strider sister not so long ago, spares Kain and treks from country to country: the stormy cities of Kazakh, the jungles of Africa, the…well, the high-tech underground of Los Angeles. I’m sure it actually exists.


It’s one futuristic jaunt after another, and each new location sheds some light on the mysterious Zain project. Never given to long cutscenes, Strider builds its tension with brief and measured revelations: data disks reveal bits of the storyline, and short conversations lead to bleak and murderous ends.

There’s another reason many disparage the NES version of Strider. It seems to play handily at the first go. Hiryu can slash with ease, and enemies hound him with fair persistence. Yet the bumps emerge soon: Hiryu’s springing leaps are unreliable, and he tends to snag on obstacles. The game has a choppy pace, with awkward screen scrolling, graphical glitches, and frequent flickering. Those attempting to play Strider on an NES emulator should be cautioned not to adjust their settings: that’s just how the game runs.

Final Fantasy VII Remake: The Shocking Truth

The recently landed Final Fantasy VII Remake is bold in its lack of scope. Rather than reimagining the whole of the original Final Fantasy VII, the first Remake game expands the first few hours of it, spent entirely in the urban confines of Midgar. It presents an engrossingly detailed version of the city, bringing new dimension to both the characters and their world as the player spends an entire full-length RPG in one city. By setting its sights so low, the new Final Fantasy VII somehow feels grander than ever.

Much of this time in Midgar sets up the prime conflict of Final Fantasy VII Remake: the nefarious Shinra Corporation drains mako energy from the planet, depleting the world’s natural vivacity and creating a cruelly unequal society. The lower classes reside literally beneath the more fortunate elites, with Midgar’s structural plates dividing the city into lavish upper levels and the impoverished ground-dwellers. Protagonist Cloud Strife finds himself in the revolutionary outfit Avalanche, driven to terrorism in their efforts to unravel Shinra’s environmental and economic tyranny. It all seems a simple struggle, with the player guiding Cloud in his defense of the oppressed underclasses.

Yet are Midgar’s alleged slum-dwellers really poor? Thanks to Final Fantasy VII Remake’s painstaking visual recast, we at last can see the truth.



Upon arriving in the Sector 7 Slums, Cloud drifts to the Seventh Heaven bar to reconnect with his childhood friend Tifa. Here we spy the first of many clues about just how well-off Midgar’s lowest neighborhood actually is. The bar has a television, a presumably robust supply of alcohol, a jukebox, a dartboard, and not one but two pinball machines! Avalanche leader Barret goes on ceaselessly about the injustices of Shinra, and Tifa sides with him. Yet if they’re so oppressed, why haven’t they sold these pinball machines to better their situation? 




Other signs appear when Tifa shows Cloud to his apartment. While he’s just arrived and has no visible luggage, Cloud finds the room already furnished. Even a brief look around reveals some perfectly good tables, a few plastic containers, several books, a relatively unrusted toolbox, and two bottles of indeterminate toiletry product on the sink. The sink even has a mirror! And all this Cloud gets for free in what we're told is the worst district of Midgar!

And that's hardly the end of the revelations about this supposedly bleak and squalid place.


Confession: My First Video Game Crush

Who was your first video-game crush? It’s okay to admit that you had one. The self-loathing nerd mindset, popular online some fifteen years back, will make you pretend that you are above such things and, indeed, were above such things even when you were a hormonal adolescent or an innocently enamored child.

Well, that’s no longer a problem. Today’s Internet is stocked with adults openly confessing and exploring their current crushes on fictional characters, and most of them seem all the healthier for it. So don’t be afraid.

In fact, my first crush on a video game character is embarrassing only because it’s obscure. A lot of young geeks found their first infatuation with popular characters like Samus Aran, Chun Li, Ryu and/or Ken, Lara Croft, and Terry Bogard. Mine was well off that radar.

It was the spring of 1991, and I was at a neighbor kid’s birthday party. Said kid was the lucky sort whose parents liked video games a lot and bought a new one every week, so plenty of other children showed up. Several new games appeared at the party, and one of them was Super Spike V’Ball. We started a match, and the referee appeared in a little portrait.


“Oh,” said one of the other kids present. “She’s the ref…”

 “She’s BEAUTIFUL,” I’m afraid I blurted out.

A brief and humiliating silence followed. The other kid had just been uncertain about the referee’s role in this, which made my response all the stranger. Fortunately, everyone was either confused or polite enough to ignore what I’d just said, and we went back to figuring out Super Spike V’Ball’s serving mechanics.


Little Things: Casino Kid and Casino Games


I’ve recently come to appreciate casino video games. For a long time I considered them routine, disposable pieces of a game system’s library, and I paid them about as much attention as the NES version of Pictionary. As with all games, however, it’s a matter of just how much effort a developer applies, and some developers of casino titles went far beyond the basics.


Sofel’s Casino Kid is a good example. It’s a straightforward selection of gambling diversions, but it progresses with an RPG-like overhead view as the title hero roams a casino. In between blackjack and poker matches, the player can talk to the various dealers, waitresses, and assorted patrons. Instead of just scrolling up a text box, the game cuts to a separate screen of our protagonist grinning cockily at the conversation.

Most of the encounters in Casino Kid are terse and slightly odd. My favorite comes from this waitress.


Some of the women working at the casino say “I’m pretty!” for no apparent reason, but this green-haired waitress takes it a step further. She’s telling the Kid that she thinks she’s pretty, as though she’s spent the morning mulling over her self-worth and concluded that she doesn’t need others to validate her appearance. She may be wearing a Playboy bunny costume in a casino, but she’s not looking for anyone, not even a blond smirksome video-game hero, to bolster her confidence. She thinks she’s pretty, and that’s all that matters.

Other chats paint a less stable portrait of the staff. In fact, one waitress is openly upset.


Overlooked Licenses of the NES Era

Just about anything could become a game on the Nintendo Entertainment System. By the early 1990s the NES dominated the console market, and every remotely popular film or TV show was a ripe prospect, from Star Wars and Duck Tales to older, stranger choices like Fester’s Quest and The Adventures of Gilligan’s Island. Of course, such games made no secret of these licenses, their covers and box copy proclaiming their ties to Gremlins 2 or Wheel of Fortune or Hudson Hawk.

Yet you’ll also find my favorite vein of licensed NES games: the ones based on things so obscure that most of us weren’t aware of them. We assumed we were playing games just as original as Super Mario Bros. or Ninja Gaiden, and we didn’t learn the truth behind the licenses until years down the road.

BARKER BILL’S TRICK SHOOTING
(Nintendo, 1989)
Nintendo seldom bothered with games drawn from movies or TV shows. There was no point, not when Mario was bigger than Mickey Mouse by 1989. Granted, they could’ve licensed nearly anything; countless companies would’ve been eager to have the game industry’s most powerful force backing a tie-in for a movie or comic or TV series. And so, with the wide vista of the entertainment industry pretty much theirs for the taking, Nintendo chose…an obscure 1950s cartoon mascot called Barker Bill.


Barker Bill’s Cartoon Show was a collection of black-and-white shorts hosted by a mustachioed ringmaster, and it’s remembered mostly for pioneering afternoon cartoons for children from 1953 to 1955. Barker Bill had a TV show and a short-lived comic strip, but his star fell a good three decades before the NES even launched in North America.

Nintendo didn’t put their best squad on Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting, but it’s not a terrible game. Bill and his assistant Tricksie (who appears to be invented just for the NES) are pleasantly animated hosts of a gallery of targets, and the title screen even has them stage a trick shot and then run for their lives when the logo crashes down. There’s also a dog that pops up throughout the levels, snickering at missed shots and cementing the game as a spiritual follow-up to Duck Hunt.


Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting is obscure even among NES games designed to use the Zapper light-gun, and it leaves behind a mystery. Why did Nintendo license Barker Bill of all things? Was it a childhood favorite of someone high up in the company’s American branch? Was Barker Bill one of those TV shows with an unexpectedly huge following in Japan, like Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races? Barker Bill was never released in Japan, so I’d guess not.


For that matter, was Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting even a licensed game? Only Nintendo’s copyright appears on the game’s box and title screen, inviting speculation that Nintendo just invented this particular Barker Bill by convergent evolution and that no one cared enough to mount a lawsuit. Or perhaps Barker Bill was in the public domain by the 1980s and no one cared enough to fight Nintendo over him.