Dino Land: Token Prehistoric Pinball

Telenet Japan has a good reputation if you know where to look. Aided by developer Wolfteam and its American publishing arm Renovation, Telenet dug out a fine little niche on the Sega Genesis in the early 1990s. Much like mid-tier anime OVAs rented from Blockbuster, Telenet’s action titles were flashes of an intense, bizarre realm beyond the conventions of the early 1990s. If they weren’t consistently well-crafted, games like Valis, Gaiares, Final Zone, Sol Deace, El Viento, Granada, and Arcus Odyssey were stylish and engaging enough to earn cult followings and, once the game-collector scene mutated beyond all control, command high prices. 

Dino Land isn’t among the upper tier of Telenet and Wolfteam fare in reputation or inflated eBay auctions. It’s a pinball game stocked with little dinosaurs, a far cry from the intergalactic wars and boomerang-slinging Peruvian sorceresses of other Renovation releases. For a while in 1992, however, it was the perfect game. 


It’s a cute enough treatment of pinball, with prehistoric levels crawling with dinosaurs and their equally fearsome relatives. As in Alien Crush and Devil’s Crush, players send a ball flying across a unorthodox multi-level board, defeating little enemies and triggering secrets.  

The actual ball, however, is a coiled-up Mesozoic armadillo named Dino-Bunz, and he’s out to rescue his pink girlfriend, Meeshell. If you land in the right spot, Bunz will unroll himself and march off into a boss fight, also played out in pinball form. And while most of the game occurs in the main jungle board, triggering its slot machine in the right way can warp Bunz to undersea or aerial pinball fields with bosses of their own.



It's too bad that Dino Land doesn’t do enough with its little creatures. The multiple stages and bosses are an interesting conceit, but the general flow of the game grows monotonous while too much of the scenery is only briefly charming. Compared to the spidery xenomorphs of Alien Crush or the monstrous imagery of Devil’s Crush, Dino Land seems bland in both looks and music. It’s actually more fun to watch the little protagonist scuttle around the board and high-score screen than it is to play the pinball. 


Even the dinosaurs aren’t varied enough. You’ll see a giant sauropod and some assorted genetic carnivores, but there’s nary a Triceratops, a Stegosaurus, or a Velociraptor to be seen. Bunz, Meeshell, and their non-combatant friend Malchi are all of an indeterminate arma-dino species, though they’re similar enough that I can declare them honorary Ankylosaurs.  

Yet there's more to Dino Land than a mere pinball simulator.

Unsung Game Creators: Takeru, Part 2

The second half of Unsung Game Creators’ Takeru feature is now up! While the first part was modestly hopeful in chronicling the developer’s side-scrolling action games Cocoron and Little Samson, the conclusion delves into the legacy of Nostalgia 1907, an adventure game that brazenly ignored just about every popular trend of its era. It’s a fascinating title for that reason as well as its own ambitions, but as we see, it wasn’t what the market really wanted.

We capped off the video by pointing out a unique thing about Takeru: they didn’t develop any licensed games. Just about every smaller developer, from Treasure to Wayfoward, funded their future cult classics by taking on projects based on movies, cartoons, and anything else that might have turned the heads of casual customers.

I won’t say that this was Takeru’s only mistake and that they should have canceled Little Samson and farmed out their esteemed ex-Capcom talent to making video-game versions of whatever TV shows or films looked at them twice. After all, they could have picked up Stunt Dawgs or A Far Off Place just as easily as a Jurassic Park deal. And perhaps Takeru just wasn’t around long enough to land any licenses.

As always, we’re thankful for every like, view, comment, and subscription we get—and for the patience subscribers showed during the long delay for this video. We’ll tackle some shorter subjects next, and they’re not quite as depressing as this one!

Metal Warriors: A Clinking, Clanking, Clandestine Classic

Metal Warriors walked a difficult path. Fresh off the cult favorite Zombies Ate My Neighbors, developers Dean Sharpe and Mike Ebert conceived Metal Warriors as their homage to mecha anime like Mobile Suit Gundam and Armored Trooper Votoms. LucasArts greenlit the idea, and the project went through bug-testing and development with surprising ease.

The problem came in getting the game to market. LucasArts initially struck a publishing deal with Nintendo, who discarded the game and countless other Super NES titles as new systems emerged in early 1995. Konami scooped it up for a mid-1995 release, but the production run was a mere 50,000 copies, and it was soon lost in the utter chaos of a year where multiple new consoles launched and the established ones saw their strongest libraries ever.



Metal Warriors inevitably provoked comparisons to Cybernator and the rest of the Assault Suits series. They’re both tales of robot warfare wages in space and on the earth, with semi-realistic mecha that clank and lumber just as much as they jet around with rocket packs or swing beam sabers (or lightsabers, as we can probably call them without fear of LucasArts suing themselves). Metal Warriors casts its player-named character, Stone by default, as the linchpin in a struggle against the dictator Venkar Amon and his Dark Axis Forces. No benevolent leader would name his army the Axis, so there’s plenty of fearsome opposition in the enemy mecha and their pilots.

Yet Metal Warriors shrugs away all ripoff accusations. In an interview from the second Untold History of Japanese Game Creators, Sharpe and Ebert reveal that they were inspired more by Blaster Master and the freedom it gave players in letting them exit a vehicle at will. Metal Warriors does the same, and Stone can eject from any mecha at any time, equipped only with a jetpack and a dinky firearm that damages only other tiny, robot-less humans. It turns Metal Warriors into less of a straightforward action game and more of a giant puzzle, as you’re driven to leave your protective mock-Gundanium frame several times in each stage. Or you can just see how far you can survive in puny pilot form. True freedom is often suicidal.



The designers didn’t stick to routine robots, either. Artist Harrison Fong devised an inventive roster of half a dozen different mecha. The Nitro and the Havoc are standard humanoid types, rushing and jetting and firing much like an Assault Suits machine, but it’s hard to find stock anime equivalents for the rest of the lineup. There’s Prometheus, a plodding bipedal tank that makes up for its slow pace and lack of jumping by sporting a flamethrower, mines, a shield, and cannons that let player control just when a shell fragments. There’s the Ballistic, which moves by rolling into a ball, charging up and smashing into things, though it can only fire when stationary. There’s the Drache, a flying ship with a dive attacks and eight-way gunfire. And there’s the Spider, which does the best it can by crawling on any surface and immobilizing enemies. It’s okay, Spider. You’re still an essential part of the game. 

Dynamite Düx and the Lost Sega Mascot

The history of Sega mascots is rather short for a company with such a voluminous catalog. Sega’s first attempts at company spokes-things appeared mostly in game manuals instead of the games themselves, as the rabbit-like Dr Asobin and the blandly human Dr. Games traded places. Sega then toyed with Fantasy Zone’s faceless ship Opa-Opa before giving the vaguely simian Alex Kidd an iconic slot almost by default. In 1991, however, Sega concocted Sonic the Hedgehog and never bothered with another mascot. 

But what other characters could have filled that role? Which Sega game had the makings of a mascot if Sonic had never existed? I can think of one: Dynamite Düx.



An obscure Sega title today but a modest success back in 1988, Dynamite Düx appeared during the heyday of the side-scrolling brawler, or “beat ‘em up,” popularized by Double Dragon. As the genre favored, things start with a woman’s abduction. Lucy, the owner of two large and partly dressed ducks, is kidnapped by an enchanter, and her pets take up arms to rescue her.

The typical brawler of the era had players controlling vigilantes and bashing around a street gang, but Dynamite Düx roams more freely. Heroes Bin and Pin face ranks of comical animals, including Bullwinkle-like moose heads and goggle-eyed soldier hounds, but their arsenal is suitable for any Contra or Metal Slug. Bombs, flamethrowers, machine guns, and rocket launchers all can be picked up and fired, and the game allows its heroes a little more range than the humanoid crime-fighters of other belt-scrollers. You're not limited to attacking just from the side, and that helps a lot in the crowded battles.



It’s messy and short and in need of more memorable bosses, but Dynamite Düx shines with the cartoon nonsense that video games handled so well back then. It’s an neat little hybrid: an early 1980s arcade game in concept, but constantly showing off the large characters and memorable sights that would define arcade classics from the era of Strider and Ghouls 'N Ghosts

Little Things: Totally Rad

 

If anyone tells you that story doesn’t matter to a video game, you’ll find the perfect counterargument in an NES side-scroller called Totally Rad. Jaleco’s American branch took a bland Famicom title named Magic John and remodeled its plot into a parody of the early ‘90s surfer-dude patois that everyone mocked and imitated at some point in between the first two Bill & Ted movies and Wayne’s World. The revamped dialogue turns a standard-issue game into a gnarly, badical, most righteous zeitgeist fragment, and it’s the only reason anyone really remembers Totally Rad.


Jaleco of America knew what they had with Totally Rad, and they knew it needed to stand out in some way besides gameplay. That’s because Totally Rad just coasts through the concept of a side-scrolling action title of the NES era. It’s a perfect example of Jaleco’s proclivity for merely adequate games and developer Aicom's varying levels of quality. Protagonist Jake has a chargeable shot and magic spells that range from healing to shapeshifting, but the level design is mediocre, the scenery unremarkable, and the gameplay itself just a little too sluggish. It’s perhaps worth a play through if you’re exploring every Mega Man game and imitation thereof, but you could just as easily watch the tubular cutscenes or page through the faithful instructions.


Yet there’s one more thing that I like about Totally Rad. One very minor thing. 
 

Might Have Been: World Beach Volley

[Might Have Been tracks the failures of promising games, characters, and companies. This installment looks at World Beach Volley, released for the Game Boy in 1991.] 

Cute sports games often go unappreciated. Most sports titles may strive for realistic takes on baseball, soccer, football, ice hockey, curling, field hockey, bowling, water hockey, snooker, cricket, dino hockey, and every other type of pastime, but credit must go to the developers who went the opposite direction and turned a popular sport into a simplified cavalcade of big-headed characters and approachable gameplay. It’s still a viable field today, but it was especially prolific on the Game Boy, where basic hardware inspired—or perhaps demanded—more abstract appearances. That’s where you’ll find Graphic Research’s World Beach Volley.



Straightforward in its presentation, World Beach Volley offers a player two-on-two matches with adjustable rules about points and court-swapping. Controls are handled well with two buttons for serving, spiking, and blocking. It’s all similar to Technos Japan’s excellent Super Spike V’Ball, though perhaps not as aggressive with its fierce spikes. 
 
Two players can take part via a link cable, but it’s not so bad to be stuck with computer-controlled opponents and partners. The AI actually proves helpful here, as it can spike and block instead of just setting up your character for a move. This also results in your teammate getting in your way at times, but that's the price of an independent thinker.


Shunning any real-world rules about gender-based leagues, World Beach Volley offers an international tournament where men and women compete side by side. You’re given a spread of six countries with four players apiece, complete with delightful names and specialties. What’s more American than a blonde spiker named Liftty and her “strong attack through block” or the “Big Fighter” Bill? Or perhaps you’d prefer the Russian player named Rossyan or Lie and her “Chinese Hope,” whatever that means? 

Lufia and the Fortress of Doom's Grand Opening

I did not own Lufia and the Fortress of Doom as a kid, but my cousins did. Each summer they’d bring it along when the family gathered at grandma’s house, and each summer I’d play the first few hours of the game. By the next summer my save file would be gone, long since overwritten by my cousins or one of their friends. I didn’t mind, because this meant that I got to play the game’s introduction all over again.

In Lufia and the Fortress of Doom, Neverland Company and writer/director Masahide Miyata made a bold move for a Super NES RPG from 1993: they opened with its final battle—or a final battle, at least.



It begins with an ominous crawl across a floating isle, the home of four godlike beings of destruction called Sinistrals. Four brave mortals, led by a warrior named Maxim, rise to face this threat, and we’re taken right to their climactic journey through the isle. Tales of ancient heroes are very common in a fantasy RPG, but instead of simply telling us how things went, Lufia and the Fortress of Doom lets us play it out entirely.



We find Maxim and his allies already at the heart of the Sinistrals' inner sanctum. With finely tense music and eerily vacant halls, the castle evokes a final stage so well a casual viewer might glance and assume that this is, in fact, the big finale of a 40-hour RPG and not an opening in media res. 

As befitting a final dungeon, heroes Maxim, Selan, Artea, and Guy are all high in levels and outfitted with powerful weapons and magic, and it’s hard for them to lose against the monsters that pop up throughout the fortress. You might notice, however, that those monsters pop up very often. Remember that.

The Sinistrals await at the center of this citadel, and Maxim’s party tackles all four of them. Each is a screen-filling creature that’s a little harder to beat than the grunt-level monsters, though you’d have to make a real effort for them to defeat you. Aside from that, however, they feel like end bosses. They even disintegrate dramatically, just like a proper chief villain should.

Lost Anime: Metal Hazard Mugen

The anime industry was in chaos around 2007.  American publishers were ailing after years of releasing too many mediocre series in outdated methods, stores were deluged with unwanted DVDs, and Japanese licensors still sought exorbitant licensing fees for those same mediocrities. It’s no surprise that some anime projects vanished entirely in this bubble of fragile companies and unsustainable ideas. One of them was Metal Hazard Mugen, a series that made the remarkable move of telling people to stay away from it. 

 


That’s the first impression the Metal Hazard Mugen flyer gives us, anyway, with its taglines of “Let Me Alone!” and “Don’t pry into our affairs!” At the Tokyo Anime Fair of 2007, Wedge Holdings promoted Mugen along with the CGI action flick Cat Blue Dynamite and a cuddly kids show called Kuma3. Cat Blue Dynamite came out online while Kuma3 apparently aired on Japanese TV, but Metal Hazard Mugen never surfaced. 

Reading the rest of the sell-sheet reveals that the taglines aren’t reverse psychology as much as they're trying to evoke the show’s bitter young hero and insular alien planet. Metal Hazard Mugen unfolds on a distant world where humans are the unwanted colonizers, and a mercenary and wealthy-family scion named Jin “Sigma” Katsuragi has discovered a talent for harmonizing with mecha. One of these, the Mugen X-OE, is a particularly powerful transforming car-robot, and it seems to be very, very important that its engine doesn’t stall, lest the pilot lose his raison d'etre. Maybe he's just late for work. 

The awkward text raises a number of questions. We’re told that humankind’s “remembrance of our homeland, Planet Earth, is lost” a mere paragraph before we learn how our protagonist ranked in an intelligence test back on that supposedly lost Earth. Sentences cut off at random, leaving us to ponder unexplained terms like “Delft Apparition” and “MM interface.” It’s almost confusing enough to be a Yoshiyuki Tomino series.  



Beyond the odd phrasing, though, Metal Hazard Mugen looks to be the most generic anime series you could find in 2007. It presents a hodgepodge of ugly character designs, posed statically around equally stiff GC images of robot combat and linked by unmemorable jargon. There’s little to sell the series apart from a name or two in the credits: Toru Nozaki had some pull from scripting or co-creating Sunrise shows like Argento Soma, Flag, and Gasaraki, and Junichi “Beecraft” Akutsu is an experienced Gundam designer. It's strange that there’s no director listed, but perhaps the project was just that early.

Did Metal Hazard Mugen have any potential? It’s possible that Nozaki might have thrown a curveball or two, as he did with Garasaki’s drift into spiritualism and anti-American politics, and the Mugen robot itself, presumably a Beecraft design, isn’t a bad take on a transforming motorbike mecha. And, uh…well, the blond, blue-clad character’s design isn’t completely awful.  

The greatest flattery for Metal Hazard Mugen is that it doesn’t look that much worse than some of the drivel that actually made it to the market. At this point anime studios had cranked out drab mecha and science fiction series from Cybuster to Pilot Candidate to Starship Operators to Innocent Venus, and American publishers were still buying them. One can’t blame Wedge Holdings for thinking that Metal Hazard Mugen deserved to clog up a shelf at Suncoast with volumes two, three, and five of its overpriced DVD releases.  



Yet there was no publisher to rescue Metal Hazard Mugen. As far as I can tell, it never aired, and I can’t even find a trailer for it. It’s even hard to find evidence that it was ever announced; the most prominent news comes from a Turkish site’s snippet about Wedge Holdings announcing the series along with Kuma3 and Velvet Under World. The latter was a vanity project from actor Takehito Koyasu that only got as far as a trailer and some music albums. I’m not sure if Metal Hazard Mugen even reached that stage.  

It’s possible that some pilot footage was cobbled together for the lone screenshot that survives online, but I doubt things went beyond that. Animation tends to cost more to produce than a live-action show, and no one would bankroll all of Metal Hazard Mugen’s 26 planned episodes without some guaranteed TV deal. Even so, I can’t fully dismiss the possibility that Metal Hazard Mugen was completed and aired on some obscure satellite station, possibly with full English voicework. Strangers discoveries have arisen among obscure anime.  

Perhaps Metal Hazard Mugen didn't fail simply on its own merits. If Radix Planning is the same company as Radix Ace Entertainment, they went out of business in 2006. Wedge Holdings still exists, but they’ve apparently given up on getting a piece of the anime market. I'm sure they'll love it if everybody pesters them about a certain anime series canceled almost fifteen years ago.  

Metal Hazard Mugen stirs no interest today. No one will mourn it as they might Five Killers or some other promising canceled anime of the bubble era, and that’s a fitting legacy. Mugen presents nothing but a mediocre front, and in doing that it embodies everything forgettable about the global anime boom. But hey, it was thoughtful enough to tell us that it just wanted to be left alone.  

Review: GG Aleste 3

Compile’s Aleste series stayed silent for much too long. It includes some of the best shooters ever made, but it drifted away in the 1990s thanks to Puyo Puyo and Compile's general fracturing. It wasn’t until recently that M2, masters of reviving old games, got the rights to Aleste and announced the all-new Aleste Branch as well as a Switch and PlayStation 4 collection of four older Alestes from the Sega Master System and Game Gear. And then M2 gave the Aleste Collection a brand new game with GG Aleste 3: Last Messiah, designed as an actual Game Gear title running on precise system specs. Because M2 is insane. 

In fact, GG Aleste 3 seems engineered to make you think you’re also a little insane. From the moment it shows Luna Waizen (or Lluna Wizn, as the manual has it) suiting up and joining the proud family of Aleste spacefighter pilots, everything about GG Aleste 3 is calibrated to the Game Gear’s pixels and display size. It gnaws at your sense of time and leads you to believe for a moment that the year is 1994 and you’ve imported a title for the recently obsolete Game Gear just because of a brief, enthusiastic review in the back pages of Diehard GameFan or Sega Power. That’s how faithful M2 was in creating a new Compile shooter.



But what makes a Compile shooter, anyway? For starters, it ignores a lot of genre standards. The 2-D shooter was largely a creature of arcades back in its day, when the likes of R-Type and Raiden drove sales by making players memorize the way through repeatedly deadly stages. That tendency continues today, where the whole point of most shooters seems to rest not in beating the game, but in replaying it, mastering the scoring system, and learning everything so well you can finish it without using any continues (which are often unlimited and penalty-free). And while there's nothing wrong with that, it’s a shame that this focus on high scores and one-credit exhibition occludes the other ways a shooter can engage us. 

Compile never had that problem. Their shooters were made for home computers and consoles, and so they never had to compromise their design for the sake of getting another quarter in the machine. If typical shooters were sometimes too short and too stingy with their power-ups, Compile’s offerings emerged as lengthy, measured challenges with plenty of space to experiment. 



And that’s what GG Aleste 3 brings back. Luna’s ship has the usual Aleste weapons: a direct laser, a reverse-aimed fireball, a revolving shield, arcing fire bombs, crescent homing shots, and diagonal firing. GG Aleste 3’s arsenal isn’t novel, but it embraces another tradition: an Aleste game never leaves the player without power-ups for long. Red booster ovals and weapon icons drift into the screen every few seconds, letting you enhance your basic shots and switch sub-attacks very easily. Most important of all, grabbing any power-ups makes you immune to any bullets for just a moment.