Monday, July 8, 2013

Shuffling with Nintendo's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ~Technodrome Edition~

 'It's impossible.' 'That water level haunted me for many years.' 'The controls are terrible.' 

Ask anyone who drudged through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Nintendo and those are the common responses. When I was 7 years old, watching my brother and dad play, tirelessly try to get past that fated death hallway and fail. I watch them seemingly endlessly fall into the riptides of Area 3's sewers, fighting through pesky jumping idiots who throw banana boomerangs over spike beds, avoiding those zombified foot soldiers who multiply into thousands and finally, inside the belly of the beast known as The Technodrome.

For many, many years, I gave up hope ever succeeding in it myself. Until that day in June 2013.

It took me nearly 20 years to beat the game. I was sitting on my bed, playing the now defunct Virtual Console release, heart-pounding in coats of cold sweat, my buddy on the floor half-paying attention to a milestone of my life. I worked the game over enough to make it through what I call the "death hallway" of the final area inside the Technodrome. With all of my Turtles mostly depleted from outrunning lasers of the randomly spawned groups of highly-lethal, jet-packed soldiers of Shredder's lair, I was only seconds from the big bad Shredder without The Genie.

The "Laser Soldier" must be one of the underexposed, most unrelenting, masochistic bastards in all of video game history. 

For those who've never made it far enough to see these guys, they plague the final stage of the game exclusively and stand in the way of game completion like no other enemy in the game. These oddly-grey-and-blue shaded menaces will slowly hover onto the screen, too often with just enough altitude to clip your head and inflict a block and a half of damage. Even if you duck under them, they'll fire a sluggishly dooming laser your way. 

Their behavior and appearance within the stage is almost unpredictably frightening. Sometimes, they'll come at you, surrounding in numbers. Sometimes, if you duck, they'll back off the screen and fall victim to getting eaten up by those often pesky ram limitations games had back then. 

If you jump at them firing weapons, sometimes they react and go away. Since they usually come at you in pairs, they aren't afraid to follow you. Before you know it, you've got four of them on screen, flanking your every exit until they swallow all your vitality and beat you hard. You don't know unfair until you've encountered them. 

Still complaining about that puny water level? HA HA HA.

So how're you supposed to kill these guys? I've now beaten the game a good ten times, and not all the time can it be done because of these vicious foes. Basically, you need a good arsenal of weaponry for each Turtle and manipulate the game best you can. Been collecting mounds of scrolls throughout the game? Well, they won't really help you here too much like they've been before. If you did scour the under realms of Area 5 and stock heavy on boomerangs, you might have a chance, if not a better one.

Once you reach the part of the narrowing of this longest hallway in the game, you're practically home free. The game will have you rinse and repeat a methodical, almost robotic repetition for your own survival. Since the hall is just tall enough to walk through, the soldiers won't be able to hover over you, so all the action is right in front of you. Like magic, if you simply duck and keep on the attacks, the soldiers will simply back off as if you've slipped them a swift Jedi mind trick. 

Whether or not this is what you're supposed to do, I know of no other way to get through this madness.

When it's all over you're pitted against the big, bad Shredder. That's right, the spiked-gauntlet, and samurai-masked man responsible for all this rushing around, kidnapping and trashing your Turtle lair! 

And what you're greeted with is the easiest damn boss fight in any game ever made. 

If you've got boomerangs or Don, simply stand on the edge of the lower raised platform and attack. Don't even move. Just stand there. Shredder will bounce back after a Bo attack and won't be able to repel a flurry of boomerangs before corroding into a flaming pile. Even if he fires his one-hit death anti-mutation gun, it'll fly over your head like the bad joke this fight is.

Maybe this is the final kiss off for a brutal gaming experience, most specifically that hallway. I'll take it!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Most Dubious Capcom Ports "X-Men Vs. Street Fighter for Playstation"

As with our previous installment, The Most Dubious Capcom Ports glazes over a history of Capcom's most questionable ports. This time around, we're here to look at X-Men Vs. Street Fighter released on Sony Playstation. Wait a minute. Just hold on...

I had a dream. A literal dream. It was 1997. Somewhere in it, I saw the box art for X-Men Vs. Street Fighter in what I later interpreted as a longer, U.S.-style Sega Saturn case. I'd never played the game beforehand, but I had seen plenty of it in gaming magazines like GamePro and even GameFan. It was on my mind, so much, I had a dream about even before I really played it. Now, I wasn't much of an X-Men fan nor much of a Marvel comics follower but I did know is that fusing Street Fighter with another popular franchise was enough to capture my interest. It prompted me to explore and ask, when was this game coming home to the consoles? For one, the arcade scene in Connecticut, around the 90's was grim. If I wanted to go, it meant roughly $5 down and a ride to a few towns over to play games, followed by having somebody pick me up. I made it there once a week, if lucky, and cherished every moment of coin-op privilege and perfection. 

I'm not gonna rant about how today's kids with realistic graphics, online play and the fly-by-night Madden gamer can't relate to that. Arcade perfection is now at home, available on the fly, so it's no longer a dream (for the most part), it's a thing of the past and it makes it it a lot less exciting. Whether it was playing Mortal Kombat 3 with no load times, all the characters sound clips and rich, high-res sprites not found in the Playstation version or fawning over Super Street Fighter II and all the animations and sprite downsizing it was given on the 16-bit consoles, coin-op perfection was a dream that was edging closer with the advent of X-Men Vs. Street Fighter... for Sega Saturn?
By late 1997, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter made it's way home to the Sega Saturn. Well, I'd always known Saturn processed sprites a little better than the Playstation, probably making up for how much it lost out to the Super NES graphically almost every port. But it only released in Japan, with a special peripheral no one else got. Namely, the 4MB RAM cartridge, a glorious skeletal blue add-on cartridge designed by Capcom which gave the Saturn speed-like steroids of the arcade counterpart. Only on the Saturn, only in Japan. This forced many to import it, including myself seeing as the Saturn was on it's way out by late '97 and with no plans to export this technology anywhere outside Japan. 

Without the 4MB RAM extra, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter would have a tremendously hard time operating on the current generation of game consoles. This is what we learned by playing the vastly inferior Playstation port which came three months later. As the development team knew on the Saturn version, a game like this needs that extra RAM. It's like someone told the Playstation team, 'don't do it, you know it'll be horrible! It can't handle the power!' But they did it anyway.

Maybe you've seen the game in action. Doesn't look too bad, maybe. The game is still playable, right? Well try and imagine the arcade or Saturn versions --  swiss-cheesed and left out overnight and you've got the spoiled Sony Playstation port. 

All you have left is disappointment and depravity. And the crossover aspect that made the game what it is and pioneered the Capcom crossover versus games? Gone. That's right, you can't switch your players mid-battle. And zero load times that had been wiped from the Saturn version? Gone. Now, you'll be greeted with constipation at every turn with load screens after one another. Fluid, seamless framerate? Gone. Too often a slowdown-ridden mess. That second character you chose on the select screen? Well you'll have to die and then you play after a short loading sequence. Just awful, a butchered experience that never should have been. Why not develop like technology for the Playstation version?


Now Loading...

Now Loading...


What's even worse is that the Playstation version was called X-Men Vs. Street Fighter EX Edition in Japan. It's a damn good thing someone at Capcom USA had the sense to remove it because there's nothing EX about it. When you think "EX", you probably think Street Fighter EX, the 2.5 D fighter.  Or maybe EX really means extra or additional content. Nope. All it really means is EX-decent features. Like an ex-girlfriend, or ex-roommate it's EX-good. EX-Crossover. EX-zero load times. EX-well, you get it. Nothing good ever really comes after the prefix "EX" and it's no EXception here. Why did you even bother with his shoddy port? Sad thing is, the Saturn version came first in Japan, and the Playstation version was built up to disappoint. In the U.S., it's all we ever saw so it was our only version. No wonder everyone forgot about X-Men Vs. Street Fighter and its next Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter.

Assuming "EX" means extra, what's so "EX" about this game? To compensate for the lobotomized version that this is, the developers threw in three extra modes: Battle, Survival and Training. Really? This is supposed to make up for all those lost minutes loading? I feel like I'm playing Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 on the Saturn. 

Miraculously, it must have done well enough because Capcom played the broken CD all over again with the release of another outstanding 4MB-propelled Saturn version of Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter and yet another horribly, butchered port on the Playstation. To its marginal credit, the sequel played a little smoother, but still lacks the soul of the arcade and Saturn versions.

By 1999, Marvel Vs. Capcom released on the Sega Dreamcast as an arcade perfect port. No RAM carts needed here, and no Saturn version. But wait, you guessed it right. As a last ditch effort, Capcom had yet another "EX Edition" Playstation version on the way. So they can release three Playstation "EX Editions" and not another Saturn version?  This had to of been some kind of joke. What were they thinking?!

Here's to reassuring you the next chapter of Most Dubious Capcom Ports won't be so bad.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Most Dubious Capcom Ports "Street Fighter Alpha 2 for Super Nintendo"

If there's one thing gamers know about Capcom, it's the love of the game. Capcom has been one of the most beloved developers by 1980s and 90's gamers alongside Konami and Nintendo. Most notably, franchises like Mega Man, Street Fighter, Resident Evil and everything in between spawned from these have kept fans coming back, and back and back again. So if you grew up in the 90's, you also know by now when Capcom makes a successful game series, there's a likely going to be as many as three more revisions coming right after that, followed by an avalanche of ports for virtually every current and yesteryear console to play them on.

Most notorious for this is the Street Fighter II series. Capcom made sure just about every single console got a version of the game. Not even counting the ports, we have the first spin-off, a worthy add-on Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, which enabled alternate color palettes and playable Shadaloo bosses. The home version Street Fighter II Turbo emulated this for the Super Nintendo. Then came Super Street Fighter II, bringing 'New Challengers' and redesigned art, Super Street Fighter II Turbo invites Akuma, the birth of the 'SUPER' combo and more alternate color schemes and lastly a Game Boy Advance port Super Street Fighter II Turbo Revival which introduces all-new art and a slew of things to help compensate for the handheld's shortcomings. At the time, every Street Fighter (and that Alpha) port for Game Boy was dismal, so this game marked the uptick.

 When some of the games came home, like on the Sega Genesis, we get Street Fighter II: Special Champion Edition, which was really just the Genesis version of Nintendo's Turbo and the arcade's Champion Edition. Most recently, they did it with Street Fighter IV. Super Street Fighter IV and then Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition. Arcade Edition? The game was designed and even debuted on PS3 and XBox 360! 

But it's accepted. It's tradition for Capcom to milk us, the franchises and the fans will keep buying every single Street Fighter Alpha port that comes our way. They know it. We all roll our eyes, but we love it because we just can't enough of that Street Fighter action. Like an irregular heartbeat, Capcom has strangely ported versions of games to dead or dying consoles for whatever reason, marking the company with a known history of questionable or dubious ports.

In this episode, we're going to look at Street Fighter Alpha 2 on the Super Nintendo. 

Street Fighter Alpha 2
Super Nintendo / November 1996
It's late 1996. Sega's Saturn had come out a few years earlier and wasn't doing too well in the North American market, butting heads and often getting stomped by Sony's Playstation. Factor in Nintendo having just released their 64-bit console to limited quantity, nearly impossible to find in stores, just in time for Christmas season. It was also the month Capcom released the Super Nintendo port of Street Fighter Alpha 2, which had just released on the Saturn and Playstation weeks prior. Wait, what? Two excellent, arcade apparent ports on the current generation CD-based consoles and then a Super Nintendo version? I remember it all too well, if you weren't busy being blown away by Super Mario 64 or scrambling to find an N64, you were likely playing or hoping for something else on Playstation, maybe Saturn. Nobody was thinking about the Super Nintendo much anymore: a console that was practically on its way out the door with maybe a few more planned games coming in the next couple months. But it was over, the SNES was finished, shadowed by a trio of newcomers.

Turns out the Super Nintendo port really isn't bad -- but not at all that great either. It won't take you long to realize this game just doesn't belong here -- and why it was ever developed. One of the most notorious aspects of the port is that of its inheritance of the worst aspects from it's Saturn and Playstation versions: LOADING TIME. Yes, loading on a Super Nintendo cartridge. Have we ever seen this before? And what's so hefty about what's going on here that requires loading? Castlevania IV, one of the console's most impressive graphical showcases doesn't have it. Star Fox and Stunt Racer FX which had that faux-polygon processing FX Chip, which pushed the graphical capabilities of the console far beyond what a 16-bit console was doing at the time doesn't have it. But this sprite-based versus fighter that we've seen done before hiccups aplenty before your eyes!

"FIGHT!" Err, rather, just wait a second or two.
While the game itself plays fairly well despite the usual missing animations, the music particularly, took a beating in translation. While the adaptations of the arcade music were done very well for many Capcom games on the Super NES, especially Final Fight and Street Fighter II Turbo, the same wasn't done here and the result is quite awful. Compare the music from the arcade's CPS board or even the later cleanly studio arranged music from the 32-bit versions against the SNES. Not pretty. 

Turns out the reasoning behind it and the load times was a special SDD-1 chip used to heavily compress 32-bit data onto a 16-bit console. The result is something of an experimental rarity: only two games including Alpha 2 ever used it, both in the last months of the console's life. I'd like to say it had relevance in advancing the Super Nintendo's capabilities, but it did not and likely wasn't fine tuned enough and just too late. By the time it released, the poor SNES (and SNES Jr.) was practically on clearance.

With a retail price of around $60, I have to believe many weren't going to chose this one over the CD ports, and only the desperate who weren't getting a Playstation that year were about to settle for this. At this juncture, for a cartridge, why not just develop an N64 version? Capcom has been very loyal to its fans on fading consoles, likely to command market share because that's the only reason that comes of this oddball port. But developing games near the end of a console's life isn't foreign. They did it with the NES, releasing as many as four games in 1994 long after most other companies jumped ship to develop for the bigger, better deal. Today, those last few NES Capcom games are worth around $100, fodder for collector's.

Though I rented the SNES port of Alpha 2 in its heyday purely out of curiosity, I tossed it aside and popped in my Saturn version, which I contend to be one of the best revisions of the game, outside the later released direct arcade ports on the Street Fighter Collection and Alpha Anthology. This port was quickly ushered to the bargain bins, where I finally bought one for $20 out of pity, opportunism and fanboyism. I never had any intention of playing it, so it's been sitting sealed on my shelf ever since. To make matters worse, Capcom attempted to squeeze everything they didn't make out of this one by releasing it on the Wii's Virtual Console.

Stay tuned for the next episode, where I'll explore another Capcom fighter in our series of Most Dubious Capcom Ports.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Game Music Review "Burning Soldier"

I've never owned a 3DO. 

When I was growing up during the 16-bit wars, my attention hardly diverted to any of those CD-based consoles I never ended up giving the chance to collect dust. Whether it was the cramped section at the end of the aisle at Toys 'R' Us for Turbo Graphix-16 (and later CD add-on), or the ho-hum library for SEGA CD, the 3DO only had my attention for its close-to-perfect port of Super Street Fighter II Turbo, which was exclusive to the home consoles in 1994. You could have it on the PC-CD, but my predated Windows '95 didn't run it all too well and wasn't as seamless. 

So I never played nor heard of Burning Soldier until recently. One of the perks of the CD era was the ability for sound designers to use high-quality synthesizers and real instruments beyond a standard of samples, soundboards and chiptunes (which gave way to the most memorable game soundtracks to this day). Though many discs could just be popped into a CD player, this one got a release in late 1994, with a few bonuses not found in the game.

Genki's Haruhiko Nishioka composed and performed most (if not all) of the game's music, which is mostly synth-programmed, electric guitar-driven riffs throughout the handful of space-blasting shlock sound effects and lousy voice acting. Sounds appropriate for this game, right? Well, Burning Soldier ends up doubling as more of a demo tape of imitated, iconic guitarists who must've inspired Nishioka's compositions. And there's a plethora of styles here some of which are just puzzling to hear in an action-shooter. 

Laser Shuffle mixes synthesizers against a jazz percussion-and-bass loop while he riffs and tears through it, but specifically Listening Sky is something of a Pat Metheny-meets-GRP mash-up, a jazz-fusion tune that almost sounds too relaxing for a shooting rampage. I swear I can hear Jeff Beck-inspired licks on Perfect Area and a little Eric Johnson with Joe Satriani on Hop Up. There's some synth-horn backing on Sprite Night and rich bluesy signature on Dark Hole, which really could have done without the cheesy "Hey!" and "Ogh!" samples. I mean, if you know your fusion-rock-jazz guitarists, there's enough to enjoy on here albeit uninspired shlock rock.

The soundtrack's real gem is the surprise waiting for you as the ending theme (though thrown as the disc's first track): a completely WTF soulful vocal from Robbie Danzie with Summer Leads The Way. This track was recorded for the game. For a space-shooting, guitar-riffin', extravaganza...

...What the...?

Though the 6-minute track is cheese to the max having absolutely nothing to do with the game, dubiously it plays in the credits at the end. It's well-performed easy-listener's pop at that; smooth and groovy (weeeearrow!). I guess this is how they did it in the '90s, kind of like that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm saxy ending, and later Rika Muranaka's Metal Gear Solid jazz ballads.

Oh, and the bonuses. The disc features two "arrange versions" of the opening and ending themes. Except, they're actually not arranged -- just barely retooled. Opener True Run has a re-recorded guitar solo in the middle while the ending theme Summer Leads The Way adds 100% more to the lady-gettin' soupiness with a smooth, alto saxophone by Euphoria's Mitsuru Kanekuni. It really punches the original out of the ring, don't know why it wasn't in the game's version. Still don't even know what this song is doing in this game in the first place.

The CD, released by Polydor, is known to be very rare these days, outpricing the game itself. Burning Solider ends up being an average soundtrack while fun at times is mostly forgettable except for the ending vocal; which aforementioned, could only be graced through this release.

SHUFFLER'S SCORE: 5.5  / 10.0

01 Summer Leads The Way (Ending)
02 True Run (Opening) 

03 Jungle Space 
04 Theme of Strike Fighter 
05 Laser Shuffle 
06 Winning Fire 
07 Listening Sky 
08 Perfect Area
09 Hop Up
10 Sprite Night 

11 Dark Hole
12 Dark Moon
13 Power Hold
14 Rising Soldier
15 Good Luck Fighter
16 True Run (
Arrange Version)
17 Summer Leads The Way (Arrange Version)  

Additional notes: Euphoria is a Japanese jazz-fusion group, which released three albums in the late 1980's, early 1990's. Album cover provided by Jodo Kast.

"Burning Soldier" (CD release) is long out-of-print. Please contact me

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Ys...onemitsu: The Music of Dawn of Ys

Ryo Yonemitsu is considered a remixing marvel. 

Deep within the underground gaming community, his arranging style crossed with his guitar prowess are unmatched and very much badass. He's also sort of a mythical being; only one photo of him exists and his phantasmic presence recently popped back into the game music having arranged four tracks on 2007's Wild Arms Music The Best: Rocking Heart after a long "hiatus" that isn't cheeseturd vocals from Konami's endless voluminous Tokimemo series. 

It all started when he was commissioned to arrange Yuzo Koshiro's Ys series, but most specifically, was giving headway on the PC Engine versions of (known in the U.S. as Turbo Graphix-16) The Ys series. Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys, which was one of a few versions of Ys IV ever released, was among the most noteworthy games his arrangements gained attention. Though this game never made it outside Japan on the North American Turbo Graphix-16, a later released Ys IV: Mask of the Sun, an alternate "realty" version of the game was ported to other consoles including the Super Famicom and later Playstation 2, making its eventual way to North America. 

Still, the original PC Engine Dawn of Y's still remains unreleased outside Japan and on any other console for that matter. In a way, it's a one-of-a-kind gaming experience that requires that very console to experience.

Yonemitsu fans point to three released volumes of musical material released as his focal point of iconic brilliance. King Records released these three volumes known as Perfect Collection Ys IV, based on the PC Engine musics, explored a collection of mostly special arrange versions which were actually re-tooled from the Ys series. If you've never played the PC Engine original of Ys IV, you may not know that those discs were in fact all arrange versions from that game and other Ys titles. Because Yonemitsu's music was never released as is on disc, the source material can actually be found on said discs as redbook audio -- and the results are a pretty sweet revelation for Yonemitsu fans who've tirelessly warn the discs out over the years not knowing of these original cuts. 

Ys IV The Dawn of Ys for the PC Engine