World Class Baseball (Turbografx-16)

World Class Baseball for Turbografx-16

World Class Baseball
Hudson Soft for Turbografx-16 – Sports – 1989 – Rating: 5/10

World Class Baseball was released as part of the Turbografx-16 launch lineup in August of 1989. NEC and Hudson Soft chose wisely to attract buyers at the dawn of the 16-bit era. Sports titles have always been consistent sellers for home videogames, and baseball is immensely popular in Japan. As it so happens, Sega offered their own baseball entry for their Genesis launch, also in August, dubbed Tommy Lasorda Baseball; both titles are strikingly similar, and fans of either system will enjoy defending team over its heated rival.

Unfortunately….yeah, you saw this coming, didn’t you? There always has to be a downside when we’re talking about sports games “B.E,” which, of course, means “Before Electronic Arts.” It’s no real surprise to gamers that EA muscled in and dominated every sport practically from day one. The dirty little secret for this is quite simple: most sports videogames before 1990 were not very good.

You would expect baseball to be the one sport done right, since its popularity in Japan and America would mean no shortage of titles. The growing pains, as well as the technological limitations, that hampered other sports like football, soccer, basketball, and hockey, could be overcome here. Also, baseball has always just been easier to render on the classic games systems, going back to the early days of Atari and Intellivision. Software developers should have more experience with this sport by the end of the 1980s.

Which brings us to World Class Baseball on the Turbografx. To its credit, this was a decent, presentable little game for 1989, and the bright colors and catchy synth music proved an attractive draw for the new system. But it ultimately suffers from the same problems that hurt all video baseball games of the period. Maybe that’s why I’m just as fine with the ancient Home Run on Atari 2600 as anything else. Home Run captured only the abstract, bare essence of the sport, but it was fast, competitive and extremely playable. World Class Baseball does not possess those qualities. It runs sluggishly, painfully slow. S-L-O-W.

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Altered Beast (Sega Genesis)

Altered Beast for Sega Genesis

Altered Beast
Sega for Genesis – Action – 1989 – Rating: 3/10

Altered Beast was actually a good arcade game, one of a whole pack of great Sega arcade hits during the mid- to late-1980s. Its angle was slightly unique: you play as a pair of dead soldiers resurrected by Zeus, who commands you to rescue his kidnapped daughter (because every videogame in the ’80s involved rescuing kidnapped girls). In your quest, you are empowered with glowing spheres that mutate you from Scrawny Zombie Loser to Steroid Freak to Mutant Animal Superhero. This is very screwy theology, but it resulted in a very enjoyable experience on afternoons after school.

This was one of Sega’s very first Mega Drive titles, released in 1988 in Japan, and released in 1989 as the pack-in titles for Sega Genesis. It was practically the textbook definition of a lazy pack-in videogame: barely serviceable, lazily executed, short and basic and all too simple. It’s a decent showcase for the new system’s powers, with large character sprites and digitized speech samples. But not really. Its only real function was to force you out to the mall in search of more videogames.

What’s wrong with Genesis Altered Beast? It’s a lousy, half-hearted conversion of the arcade. The graphics kinda look right, except the colors are flat and overly dithered, the animation is lacking, the difficulty severely clipped. Beyond that, the gameplay is extremely basic, with auto-scrolling, two-tiered landscapes that somehow manage to move too slowly, yet end far too soon. I swear these levels are less than two minutes long. When your character changes into his animal form, you sit up and notice because, hey, now this game is gonna be really cool. But then the stage ends five or ten seconds later and the boss appears, a complete pushover who is dispatched in mere seconds. The main villain appears, steals your steroid spheres, and you’re back to playing as the scrawny stringbean again. What a rip.

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The Legend of Zelda (NES)

The Legend of Zelda for NES

The Legend of Zelda
Nintendo for NES – Adventure – 1986 – Rating: 10/10

I.

Back in 2009, when I was finally successful in scoring a Nintendo Wii, one of the first videogames I purchased was The Legend of Zelda on Virtual Console. I hadn’t played it extensively since my early college days, thanks to my then-girlfriend who was a massively devoted fan. Since then, I skipped out on Nintendo’s reissue cartridge on Gameboy Advance, and only dabbled on rare occasions on FCE Ultra, the homebrew computer emulator.

I began playing, expecting only an hour or so of light, nostalgic fun. A couple days later, I had to pry myself away from my Wii Remote. I don’t remember if I ate or slept that weekend, one of those sort of weekends. I came away with two surprising insights: the original Legend of Zelda still rocked, and Nintendo really let their series fall into mediocrity over the years. This I did not expect.

For the longest time, I was convinced there was something wrong with me because I stopped enjoying the Zelda series. The Wind Waker struck me as needlessly cartoonish and dumb. Twilight Princess struck me as too bloated and drawn out (although it was clearly reaching back to Ocarina of Time after the Gamecube fan backlash had kicked in the doors). Phantom Hourglass felt infantile and endlessly boring. Heck, even Majora’s Mask, a quirky title I ought to champion, bored me to tears. Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword were, frankly, enormously stupid.

Surely, something had to be wrong. I loved the early Zelda’s up to 1998’s Ocarina, which is just about the greatest videogame ever made. The games weren’t bad, and Nintendo at least continued to try new ideas within its increasingly stale formula. Something was off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But once I reconnected with the original 1986 Zelda, everything snapped into focus. I understood exactly where Nintendo went wrong.

The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s most iconic videogames. It is nearly as influential as Super Mario Brothers, and can be thought of as its cousin. Both games inhabit a similar obsession with parallel worlds, one on the surface, the other hidden away in the corners of the screen and packed with surprises. Both built upon the genre innovations of recent years to create something new. And their feet were equally grounded in classic arcade games.

So what happened to the Zelda franchise? Nintendo took the “Action” out of “Action-RPG.” Like most videogame developers, they became obsessed with being perceived as “artists,” “rock stars” or “movie directors.” They became obsessed with mainstream cultural acceptance, apart from the negative stereotype of computer programming nerds. They became obsessed with predictable, simple “puzzles” at the expense of action. They became obsessed with “stories” and “characters,” even though hardly anyone possessed any talent or skill for it (mostly aping bad Hollywood blockbuster movie cliches). “Arcade videogames” became associated with everything these creators sought to avoid.

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Super Metroid (Super NES)

Super Metroid for Super NES

Super Metroid
Nintendo for Super NES – Adventure – 1994 – Rating: 10/10

Name the best videogame ever made for the Super NES. For some, it’s Super Mario World or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Others, Super Mario Kart or Sim City. A number will point to Street Fighter 2 Turbo, Final Fantasy 3 or Chrono Trigger. And a lot of you will insist that it’s really Super Metroid.

The Metroid fans are probably correct. This might very well be the Super Nintendo’s finest hour.

I think some part of the mystique about Super Metroid is the fact that the game remained alone, without any sequels or follow-ups, for so many years. While Mario and Zelda and the rest continued with newer games on the Super NES and Nintendo 64, Metroid held back, alone in its own little world. It really wasn’t until 2002, eight years later, that a new installment finally arrived, and even then, gamers were surprised to discover a 3D shooter that was closer to Quake or Powerslave then their beloved Metroid.

In the meantime, Konami completely reinvents its old Castlevania franchise by aping the gameplay structure of Super Metroid. Nintendo’s forgotten classic was becoming a legend, influencing others. Goodness knows Konami sure loved that game, enough to shamelessly steal from it for every 2D Castlevania game ever since.

Oh, yeah, sure, Nintendo eventually figured things out, and returned to their roots with a pair of Metroid titles on the Game Boy Advance. But let’s be honest here: those games weren’t as good. The first one, Metroid Fusion, made a mess of everything with a virus infestation that turns Samus Aran into a mutant. The second, Metroid: Zero Mission was better, but, again, it just felt like a dumbed-down kiddie version of the 1994 masterpiece. Remember those Atari 2600 games that had the child-friendly mode with the teddy bear icon? Yeah, that’s exactly what Zero Mission was all about, a Metroid that coddles you and holds you by the hand, when not stumbling into Hayao Miyazaki’s Ohmus.

Words that come to mind when I think of Super Metroid: dark, moody, mysterious. This is just about the heaviest game Nintendo ever made — “heavy” in that late 1960s, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple sense. The whole enterprise just breathes in a thick, misty atmosphere, this strange alien landscape, this mishmash of different cultures. This world that Samus Aran finds herself in, this is a world with a history. You can almost trace that history as you progress through the game, spotting the places where some poor fool vainly tried to civilize the place. You can see the corpses for yourself to see how that turned out.

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Baseball Stars 2 (Neo-Geo)

Baseball Stars 2 for Neo-Geo

Baseball Stars 2
SNK for Neo-Geo – Sports – 1992 – Rating: 8/10

Baseball Stars 2 is one of the signature Neo-Geo titles. It perfectly captures the rebel vibe SNK was going after when they launched their arcade/home system: flashy, brash, over-confident, and irreverent. It also happens to play a very good game of baseball.

There have been a million baseball videogames during the 1980s and 1990s, and to be perfectly honest, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between any of ’em. Most are serviceable, some are quite good, and they’re nearly all identical. The batter-pitcher view is always the same, as is the control scheme and play mechanics. Aside from a small handful of exceptions — the masterpiece that is World Series Baseball 98 on Sega Saturn always comes to mind — video baseball is a predictable, safe, and slightly stale genre of electronic games.

What Baseball Stars 2 has in spades is attitude. All of the baseball players are mutated steroid freaks, carrying powered-up bats that may as well be tree trunks. Pumping fists, breaking the bat over the knee, aggressive machismo, dramatic diving for the ball — this is almost like a cartoon spoof of sports games. What’s interesting is that SNK’s previous games in the series (two previous Baseball Stars titles appeared on the NES and Neo-Geo) were playing it straight. Isn’t that weird? Perhaps they just needed an over-the-top sports game on Neo-Geo. The system mascot was a rabid pit bull, after all.

My favorite moment in the game is when you bean the batter with a fast pitch. He gets knocked down, then rushes the mound, and punches the pitcher clean on the jaw. I don’t know why I always laugh when that happens. The closeup shot makes me laugh. I only wish the pitcher could fight back, instead of taking it on the jaw. The best part is that your pitcher becomes crippled after getting punched out; his pitches become slow and wobbly. Hah!

Other than all that, what is there to say? It’s arcade baseball. The gameplay is the same as nearly every other baseball videogame, the controls are fast and fluid, the graphics are vivid, brash, supremely detailed in that early ’90s arcade style. There are no leagues or seasons or playoffs, just a single match between two teams of rage-fueled steroid freaks. This game is best for short bursts of dumb fun, and especially good for showing off the 16-bit graphics of the Neo-Geo. I don’t know if that sort of thing can impress teenagers in the 21st Century, but if they have any sense, it should. It was really awesome back in 1991. Everything was awesome in 1991.

Bonk’s Adventure (Turbografx-16)

Bonk’s Adventure for Turbografx-16

Bonk’s Adventure
Red Entertainment, A.I and Atlus for Turbografx-16 – Action – 1990 – Rating: 7/10

Let’s just get this out of the way:
Bonk’s Adventure isn’t in the same league as Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog. Those are the giants, the premier “A” list. Bonk is a very solid and entertaining side-scrolling videogame. It inhabits a lot of charm and humor. It’s certainly a must-have for Turbografx fans. But it belongs squarely on the “B” list.

I think you’ll get into trouble if you expect Bonk to perform as a “killer app” mascot title. You can become overwhelmed by the hype, just as so many cartoon mascots were overwhelmed. You expect perfection from Bonk, Acro, Zero, Ristar, Socket, Sparkster, Mr. Nutz, Jazz Jackrabbit, Boogerman, or any number of characters who crowded the 16-bit scene. And when they reveal themselves to be less than perfect, flawed, or the dreaded “good, not great,” all hell breaks loose. The gamers throw fits, the prozines stick up their noses, and, well, this is how we end up in a world where the only viable videogame hero is an armored, steroid-fueled space marine.

So there’s a strong case to be made for the virtue of “good but not great.”

Bonk’s Adventure has a number of qualities I enjoy. First and foremost are the character designs, which are inventive, crazy, zany, irreverent, and just plain goofy. When you beat the final boss, King Drool (a lumbering green dinosaur with a big shiny crown on his head), you are rewarded with a complete character roll call, and it’s a trip. A dinosaur with glasses? A swaying green cactus with google eyes? A hatchet-wielding dino with a round bone head..or is that a mask? I’m never sure. He looks like one of the Pac-Man ghosts. Whatever. He’s fun, whoever he is.

Bonk himself is quite the character, a cave boy with an enormous Charlie Brown head that he uses as a weapon. He climbs walls and trees by chomping with his enormous teeth. And he has a junkie’s addiction to meat, which drives him into a rage, smashing through everything in sight. His many facial expressions are a hoot. He’s definitely having a lot of fun.

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Sonic 3 & Knuckles (Sega Genesis)

Sonic 3 & Knuckles for Sega Genesis

Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Sonic Team for Sega – Action – Sega Genesis – 1994

First comes invention, then refinement, and then finally perfection.

Sonic 3 & Knuckles represents Sega at its absolute peak, at a time when they defined cool. The blue hedgehog was largely responsible for that, wrestling half the videogame market away from Nintendo and spawning an unending stream of mascot games. And like any rock star, the time came for the big, epic statement; that definitive work that captures all the themes and summarizes its era, its Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, its Dark Side of the Moon.

Perhaps it is unusual that I define Sonic in rock ‘n roll terms, but there’s no denying the pop appeal the character generated. Also, the first four Sonic titles — 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog, 1992’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2, 1993’s Sonic CD, and 1994’s Sonic 3 & Knuckles — remind me of The Ramones’ first four albums, which for all intents and purposes defined punk rock. These four titles redefined videogames with speed, invention, and a sense of attitude.

The first Sonic the Hedgehog started at full bore but spend most of its time stuck in mid-tempo. Sonic 2 focused on the speed, but the worlds were still not large enough; it was all over too fast. Yuji Naka and his team were still working to find that ideal balance between barreling speed and intricate level design. In S3K, they finally found that perfect balance, without sacrificing either element. If anything, this Sonic seems even faster, if that were possible.

The enormous size of the game worlds allow for some truly amazing speed runs, torpedoing through loops, twists, turns. There are eruptions of water, deep, pummeling vertical drops, snowboarding down mountains, elevator cars run amok, runaway spinning tops. One of my favorite moments are the “racetrack timers” in the Death Egg Zone, which grab Sonic and hurl him in chaotic loops through open space. It’s completely gratuitous, of course, but a terrific rush (and clearly predicts NiGHTS: Into Dreams).

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Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)

Super Mario 64 for Nintendo 64

Super Mario 64
Nintendo for Nintendo 64 -Action – 1996 – Rating: 10/10

Super Mario 64 is a videogame of moments. It’s a journey of endless surprises and discoveries, thrills big and small, where something interesting always lies behind the next turn. It is a pioneering title that revels in its novelty, gleefully reinventing the medium in its own image. Next Generation magazine famously proclaimed it “the greatest videogame ever made,” and everybody who played believed it in their bones. Twenty years later, the case can still be made.

Here are sixty-four great reasons to love Super Mario 64:

Super Mario 64 is the first true 3D polygon “open world” videogame. Nothing like this had ever been seen before, only imagined in such movies as Disney’s Tron. For a generation raised on Atari and NES, this feels like Dorothy walking into a Technicolor Oz. The fusion of free-roaming camera and analog control for fully three-dimensional movement, along any direction or plane, is truly revolutionary and opens the door for the modern era of polygon videogame worlds.

The goal is never about “winning” but exploring. You only need to acquire 70 out of 120 stars to defeat Bowser and reach the ending. This idea reaches back to the original Super Mario Brothers and Super Mario World, which enable you to warp ahead to Bowser’s final castle. For Shigeru Miyamoto, it’s always about the journey, never the destination.

Non-linear gameplay: the freedom to find stars, roam around the Princess’ mysterious castle, and visiting worlds in virtually any order. You can play this game six different ways before breakfast and never repeat yourself. Take that, Crash Bandicoot.

Mario’s vast acrobatic moves, designed perfectly for playing and goofing around. His whoops and cheers always put a smile on my face. He’s so happy when he performs a somersault or a triple jump. Many wonderful animations: Mario mumbling in his sleep, wobbling when in low health, shivering when in the cold.

The Title Screen: tugging on Mario’s face. You spent hours playing around with this. Admit it.

Wasting half an hour every day doing cannonballs into the castle pond. I’ll rescue the Princess when I damn well feel like it. I’m not buying her “kidnapped” stories any more. And if I go through with this, I expect a more of a reward than a “cake” and a peck on the nose. Until then…outta the way, pool time!

Finding that 1-UP mushroom inside one of the trees in the castle courtyard. Is there a reason for doing this? No, not really. You’re just playing around and having fun.

Sliding down the bannisters inside the castle. Why do I do this? Because I can.

The way Mario gets kicked out of the paintings when he loses a life always deserves a chuckle. Oof! Mama mia!

Riding down The Princess’ Secret Slide on your belly. Why Nintendo never created a full racing game from these mini-stages, I’ll never know. And that goes double for the manta ray course in Super Mario Galaxy.

Moments where you need to crawl slowly across narrow platforms or past sleeping piranha plants, instead of racing by at top speed.

Racing a giant (and friendly) Koopa the Quick to the top of Bob-omb Battlefield. You run across hills, over ledges, past a large Chain Chomp who tries to eat you, past waves of enormous bowling balls, and over ramps and ledges.

Mario falling and getting stuck in the snow. If you dive head-first, you be buried head-first. Nice.

If you butt-stomp the pole that’s attached to Gate-Chomp’s chain, you set him loose, knocking down iron bars that contain a star.

The giant underwater drop-off in Jolly Roger Bay that hides a sunken pirate ship and large red eel.

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Super Mario Brothers (NES)

Super Mario Brothers for NES

Nintendo for NES – Action – 1985 – Rating: 10/10

There once was a time, from 1985-1990, where you could easily argue that Super Mario Brothers was the greatest videogame ever made. Even today, one could make the case for this game, or certainly one of its later sequels like Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World or Super Mario 64. Whichever one you choose, the end result is the same: we’ve been living in Mario’s world for over 30 years.

There were 2D action games before Super Mario: the 1979 arcade title, Apple Panic, which spawned a whole host of imitators, from Minor 2049er to Lode Runner; David Crane’s Pitfall and its even more ambitious sequel, Pitfall 2, often called the father of the genre; Montezuma’s Revenge, which hit on the Atari 800 and spread everywhere; Namco’s Pac-Land, which ditched the classic Pac-Man mazes for a cartoon side-scrolling world; Coleco’s Smurf Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle, the standout title on Colecovision. Heck, I even remember a little game on the Atari 800 called Snokie, a side-scrolling title where you run-and-jump over rocks, ledges, moving iceberg platforms, and dodging falling ice.

The genre of videogames that came to called platformers was still in its infancy. Super Mario didn’t invent it. But they did raise it to the next level. They took the basic elements, added several crucial innovations, and transformed it into something revolutionary. It’s very much the videogame equivalent to Miles Davis’ 1970 masterpiece Bitches Brew, which ushered in the age of jazz fusion, or The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which ushered in the modern rock era.

Super Mario Brothers closed the door on the “golden age” of arcade videogames, the age of single-screen high score contests and simple Atari cartridges, and opened the door to a new age of epic journeys. Arcade videogames were now literally, with a definitive goal, a definitive beginning and end. Yes, Mario, your Princess is in another castle, but unlike the girl in Donkey Kong, this time you’ll actually get her back. And, yeah, she’s kinda jerking you around with Bowser, but that’s an issue for another time.

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Atari 7800 Controllers, or You Bastards Have Broken My Hands

Atari 7800 ProSystem with joystick controller

One of these days, I’ll have to find someone respectable who can explain to me why Atari’s videogame controllers were so terrible. I can’t even think about one without my hands suddenly cramping up, almost like some phantom pain from a distant trauma.

Case in point: the joystick for the Atari 7800. This was just a mess. I really don’t know what to think about it. It was clearly a part of the original system design from 1984, during which the crumbling Atari still looked to its own heritage for inspiration. It had to be obvious by then that the nigh-indestructible Atari 2600 joysticks were stiff as a board and hard on the hands. Not that I mean to complain, because they mostly served me well way back then. They were just really, really stiff, like they needed a can or two of oil or hard liquor.

In any case, Atari was looking for a new style, something more ergonomic in mind. Their first real gamble was the controller for the Atari 5200, their successor to the throne. It was certainly easier to hold in the palm of your hand, yes, but the flimsy controls were a disaster. Hmm, now that I think about it, this was the design mojo of the early 1980s. For some reason, everyone wanted videogame controllers that vaguely resembled bulky telephones. Intellivision is a perfect example; it could only play videogames like a bumbling buffoon. It was the George W. Bush of game controllers. The Colecovision controller design was slightly more sober, but stiff as a board. Your hands still cramped up, and there’s still an odd obsession with numeric keypads.

The Atari 5200 controller frustrated the life out of everyone, by making its joystick out of a pair of analog controllers. It was strange, bizarre. It was also designed to break within the first ten minutes. Perhaps this was the design goal all along. The suits knew they had a stinker on their hands; the jig was up, and the videogame fad had peaked. Sooner or later, the kids would be old enough to start smoking and chasing skirts. So maybe all the guilty parties just grabbed the bong for one more monster hit, coughed out a long sigh, and said skip it, let the dumb kids break their hands. Their loss.

Which brings us back to the Atari 7800. It’s a better design than its peers, if only because the stick actually works and nothing falls apart. It’s still painful on the fingers, like some sort of CIA torture device, and will almost certainly result in full-blown arthritis one day.

So I don’t like the 7800 controller very much. It’s no shocker, and no loss, since the system was buried alive, dug out, reburied again, and then dug out again by the same group of owners who bought the remains of the old Atari in the mid-eighties. They were an interesting bunch, the Jack Tramiel family. They were the villains the videogame-loving geek squad loved to hate, no question of that. But they had class. They had drama. Say what you will about their management. They had the survival instinct of feral rats, which means in the post-psychedelic hippie era of videogames, they were the most fun. They knew how to fight and survive.

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I’d Still Rather Play NFL2K1 on Sega Dreamcast

NFL 2K1 on Sega Dreamcast

My brother came home this week with a Microsoft XBox, the original one, as he had promised for many months. Included with the system were several hit videogames: Knights of the Old Republic, Madden NFL ’97, and the star of the show, NFL 2K5.

You know something? I’d still rather play NFL 2K1 on the Sega Dreamcast. Is there something wrong with me?

I’ve skipped out the entire 2K series since Dreamcast died, which is a shame because it’s always been my favorite football franchise. I even loved the original NFL 2K enough to consider it the best football game ever made, despite the fact that the running game was completely, hopelessly nonexistent. It was nearly impossible to ever gain more than a couple yards before crashing into a wall of linebackers. But so many of the intangibles — hecklers in the stands, referee conferences, snow on the field, the astonishing animation (one television reporter in 1999 famously quipped that these videogames were starting to resemble acid trips), and the acerbic play-by-play commentary — all of these built into the best football experience I’d ever enjoyed.

The following year, NFL 2K1 fell upon us like a hurricane. Unlike the tepid approach EA takes with its Madden franchise, Visual Concepts radically retooled and improved the game. The running game was working, and it worked spectacularly. The TV commentators still rambled on endlessly, dragging us into their arguments. Online play was available for the first time. Passing was a great improvement, introducing the ability to lead passes in any direction. The animation was even more detailed and intricate, putting Madden to shame. And the most beloved feature of NFL 2K1? Late hits.

This was something that was done ages ago on Genesis Madden, and is probably the most shameless fun you can have with the game. You have to remember to turn off the penalties that apply, and just start knocking heads. You hit another player after a play ends, you laugh, you shout out, “It never gets old!” It’s really the perfect stress reliever.

You can even make a drinking game out of it. The goal is to strike down the football player that the camera has focused on, after the play. It’s so unbelievably funny to see a closeup of some star player, strutting after making that long catch, getting nailed from behind. Does the camera even follow him when he goes down? Hah! Another shot!

At the venerated Dinkytown Pizza Hut, we played Sega Dreamcast every weekend night until daybreak. NFL 2K1 was the champion bar none. There were always six or seven games lined up before the thing was even hooked up to the televisions. Beer, soda, bread sticks, pizza, all flowed freely. I have countless memories of team breakdowns and legendary comebacks, of haunting ghost sounds from the back of the kitchen, and grudges that never end. And, of course, a hundred late hits per game. Hah!

My favorite comeback was this one spectacular 4th Quarter finish with Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. I was completely drunk, couldn’t even see the television screen unless I squinted with one eye. Even then I never really saw what was happening. It was all blurs and blobs. I still managed to win that one in the closing seconds. Hah! What a game.

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Astronomy Domine: The Greatest Trip in the Galaxy

Super Mario Galaxy for Nintendo Wii

I.

Every day I take the bus from the Mall of America to downtown Minneapolis and back. I have some time to roam around the lousy place (I really hate shopping malls) before my bus home arrives. Imagine my surprise, then, when I wandered into the game stores this week and discovered Super Mario Galaxy running on the Nintendo Wii kiosk.

Yay! Time flies fast. Suddenly, we’re only two weeks away from the game’s release, currently set at November 11. And by coincidence, I have a payday around that time, with lots of disposable income to throw around. This is going to be very hard to resist.

I expect many others will share my sentiments. The Wii has retained a high demand since its release a year ago, but many of us are still holding out, still waiting for Nintendo to really show us what this little cream-colored box can do. Well, folks, Super Mario Galaxy is it. I mean, this is it, the real deal, the killer app. This game is going to sell like hotcakes.

Up till now, Nintendo seemed to earn its success on the cheap. They sold enough Wii consoles to become the market leader over Microsoft and Sony, but it never really felt earned. You purchased a Wii as an investment, on the potential for what may come down the wire, instead of what was here now. Not there were a lack of great games, as Wii Sports can attest. It’s a hit with whole populations who either wrote off videogames, or were never interested in them in the first place. And I don’t think anyone really appreciates that just yet.

But Nintendo still needed that killer app, that landmark classic that sets the new standard, raises the bar for games, and hurls the gauntlet down against the competitors. Halo was one such game. So was The Sims, or Tetris, or Sonic the Hedgehog. The most famous of them all was Mario, the cartoon plumber that singlehandedly made Nintendo a household name. Super Mario Brothers did it for the NES, Super Mario World did it for the Super NES, and Super Mario 64 did it for Nintendo 64.

Super Mario Sunshine failed to become Gamecube’s great megahit, and for this disappointment the game was dismissed as a failure, a setback. Either gamers expected Mario to revolutionize everything yet again, something grand and new and previously unimagined; or they wanted something safe, another Mario 64 to relive the glory days of 1996. But Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of Mario, would have none of it. He was busily burning through his experimental phase. His Achtung Baby/Zooropa/Pop phase, if you will. He and his creative cabal of wizards feverishly rescinded and reinvented every classic videogame in their library. The new Mario was completely different. The new Zelda was completely different. The new Metroid was completely different. The psychedelic influence took a warped, unpredictable turn. Luigi’s Mansion. Pikmin. Animal Crossing. These were strange oddballs, weird little games. If they didn’t connect with the gaming public, too bad. Their loss.

The Gamecube is widely regarded as a failure, and it cemented (for a time) Nintendo’s reputation as has-beens (a reputation with its roots in the 16-bit and 32-bit wars). Then videogame retro nostalgia kicked in. Then Nintendo DS happened. Then Nintendo Wii happened. Everyone finally realized that Nintendo was back at the top, but the truth is that they never really left. They just needed to wander around a little, in search of some much-needed creativity to share with the rest of us. Bob Dylan did just that. U2 did just that. It’s just the way of things.

And somewhere along the way, Sony lost their minds. How else to explain the Playstation 3, the biggest and greatest testament to hubris and absurdity the videogame industry had ever seen? Sony was as close to achieving permanent dominance as anyone could hope. The Playstation brand WAS videogames. They were untouchable. And then some executive decided that it wasn’t enough for us to throw out our old games consoles and buy new ones. We had to throw our DVD libraries away and repurchase the deluxe, Blu-Ray versions.

The result was a $600 games console that also pushed a new home video format nobody wanted. Sony’s response was just like Tom Friedman’s attitude toward Iraq: “Suck on this.” No, thanks. I don’t quite feel like taking out a second mortgage on my home to play the same videogames and watch the same movies. I’m already doing fine by that, thank you very much.

Sony expected the kind of blind loyalty you only find in totalitarian nation states and organized religions. Hell, they’ve already got the massive monolith. Now hurry up and evolve, you stupid apes. What a load. Now instead of playing God, Sony is scrambling to fend off open rebellion from their stockholders, and the continuing desertion by videogames’ software developers. The knives are out and there’s blood in the water. You know how this story ends.

And in the midst of all this rides Nintendo, freshly minted the hero and savior of videogames. Just like one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Here comes Mario to defeat Richard III and bring peace to the Mushroom Kingdom.

Continue reading “Astronomy Domine: The Greatest Trip in the Galaxy”

Sonic Jam 1997 Print Ad

Print advertisement for Sonic Jam on Sega Saturn

If Sega was famous for anything in the 1990s, it was their advertising campaigns, which portrayed them as teenage rebels against the stodgy, old-fashioned children of the Nintendo era. It was enormously successful for the Sega Genesis, thanks to blockbuster hits like Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage and EA Sports. The Saturn era, however, proved to be far more turbulent and difficult, as the company lost their “cool” mojo to new rival Sony, whose Playstation became a global success.

Sega managed to regain their footing late in the Saturn era, circa 1997, with confident advertising campaigns that hailed back to the Genesis glory days. Nobody ever understood the logic behind the mid-90s “alternative” bent of those early Saturn commercials, which were far too arty and abstract to make any sense (it certainly never helped that the first wave of Saturn games were notoriously glitchy, and combined with the system’s May 1995 launch, all but destroyed the console’s reputation).

This print ad for Sonic Jam is an example of one of the better attempts. The layouts are professional and clean, communicating its message clearly, but without the dopey teenage humor that plagued the latter 16-bit era. The Genesis teenagers are now Saturn college students, and Sega finally managed to understand that. I suspect Sega’s new CEO Bernie Stolar was responsible for this change, hiring new advertising agencies to refocus their aim. Stolar has been portrayed as a cartoon super-villain by the Sega diehards all these years, the scapegoat for Saturn’s failures. By 1997, the Saturn was all but finished in the United States, and there was damned near nothing Stolar and his people could do about it. Radiant Silvergun and X-Men vs Street Fighter wouldn’t have changed squat.

Anyway, this is a good ad, like all the latter Saturn print ads. Once again, Sega of America was being dealt a poor hand with the lack of any proper Sonic the Hedgehog title, but there wasn’t anything they could do about it. Sonic Jam was as good as things were going to get — a suicidal move in the post-Super Mario 64 landscape.

Sonic Jam is an excellent greatest-hits package, although the conspicuous lack of Sonic CD was, and remains, a glaring omission. I still cannot understand why Sega left out one of their finest classics. I also cannot understand why the 3D “Sonic World” — a fully 3D polygon stage featuring Sonic in his native environment, jumping on platforms, wading through rivers, and grabbing elusive gold rings — was never expanded into a full-size videogame. Sonic Team had limited resources, of course, which were already stretched thin with NiGHTS: Into Dreams and Burning Rangers (and the bonus stages in the otherwise forgettable Sonic 3D World, which they are credited for creating). Frankly, they should have moved Burning Rangers to the Dreamcast and given us Sonic on the Saturn. This 3D world is terrific, and if it were only expanded just a little, if only a few enemies were placed here and there, if only we were given a side dish instead of a full meal…if only, if only.

Sonic Jam is left as the great “what if” of its era. Sega clearly understood that they seriously dropped the ball by leaving their mascot off the system, leaving Sonic in the hands of the American STI crew, who famously bungled through the Sonic Xtreme project (it had some promising ideas, but don’t kid yourself, it would have been a terrible videogame if released). But that’s Sega for ya. It’s a miracle they were ever successful in the first place.