Monthly Archives: July 2015

Virtual Boy Turns 20

Virtual-Boy-Eyes

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Virtual Boy launch.  Largely regarded as an embarrassing negative mark on Nintendo’s otherwise sterling history, I think I may be one of the very few people who have fond memories of the machine.  When the Virtual Boy came out, I would bring it up to my peers and all they would express was disinterest because of the black and red color palette.  But I felt differently.  I had already developed my lifelong interests in computers and science fiction, and “virtual reality” combined these topics with video games, which obviously I’m incredibly passionate about.  Consequently, I viewed the Virtual Boy with steadfast and naive optimism, despite the naysayers.

Of course, the system launched at an absurd price ($199.99), and I was a grade schooler, so there was no way I was going to be able to afford one.  Perhaps I mercifully dodged a bullet, since the system lasted for such a short while and had such a small library of games that it would have been a waste of $200.  Like most people, I got my hands on the Virtual Boy after its discontinuation.  I forget the exact price I bought mine at, but I know it was going for ~$40 at the time.  When I saw that price tag in the store, my heart jumped in disbelief and I blew all the money I had saved up to acquire the console.  I don’t regret the purchase at all, since I had a great time with it for a decent while.

A mere 14 games were released in the United States for the system with a few more being Japan exclusive.  All I’ve ever played for the machine are Mario’s Tennis (the pack-in) and Galactic Pinball, both I recall being a lot of fun.  To be honest it doesn’t seem like a lack of quality games was the Virtual Boy’s problem.  I’ve heard good things about many of the other games in the library, like Mario Clash and Teleroboxer.  The Wario Land title for the system, imaginatively called Virtual Boy Wario Land, is generally considered to be the best game in the platform’s library.  And I’ve even heard testimony from more than a few people who consider it to be the best in the Wario Land series.  That’s high praise considering how amazing the rest of the Wario Land games are.

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While the name “Virtual Boy” obviously draws a connection to Game Boy and implies a portable system, it’s only portable to a limited extent, since the headset requires a hard surface for the stand.  You can’t really play in the bed or on an airplane.  Instead, the real draw of the Virtual Boy was meant to be the stereoscopic 3D images it was able to produce.  The technology is actually quite interesting.  There aren’t actual screens inside the Virtual Boy per se.  Rather, for each eye there is a vertical line of LED pixels whose reflection is rastered across the player’s view to create the image.  The rastering is achieved by a series of mechanical oscillating mirrors.  Yes, that’s right, the display is created by moving parts!  But while it’s a cool technology, it also had one severe drawback.  Many people believe that the red on black graphics were responsible for the notorious headaches that the system could induce, but actually it’s more likely that these headaches were predominately the result of the way the image was created by the rastering effect.

There’s just something about the Virtual Boy that I’ve always found cool.  I think the engineer side of me always finds it fascinating to see inventive uses of limited and less advanced technology, which is also the reason I’ve always liked Game Boy.  That’s something I really miss in today’s world.  When I carry around a computer in my pocket that has a faster processor and is continuously connected to the internet at a higher speed than my PC had at the turn of the century, it’s become a lot harder to be wowed by new technology.  But beyond admiration of the underlying hardware, I find it also appeals deeply to my attraction to the offbeat, and with its distinctive red and black graphics and 3D head mounted display, Virtual Boy is undeniably a peculiar part of gaming history.  And the Virtual Boy packaging and promotional art makes it feel digital and alien in a way that conjures up a 90s nostalgia blast of what we all thought the cyber-future would be like at that time.

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Unfortunately, I have no idea where my Virtual Boy is.  I think it got tossed out during a move.  When I heard about the machine’s birthday, I briefly entertained the idea of snagging a new one off eBay.  But I feel it may be best to leave my Virtual Boy experience to my fond recollections.  I have no idea how I would react to the device today.  I fear it would be like how I feel about the Game Boy Color.  I don’t think I ever had a problem with that handheld “back in the day,” but now, I find I have a low tolerance for the dimness of the screen and mostly play my GB games on my 101-model SP.  I think I would probably have a similar response to the VB, where the harsh reality of the machine would collide with memories of my naive youthful experience which hadn’t yet been spoiled by the mobile technology of 2015.

But as there were a handful of worthwhile games for the machine, I would like to see Nintendo do a Virtual Boy Virtual Console for 3DS.  To be honest, there were good games for the machine, but they were more hindered by the hardware than enhanced by it.  Most of them would have been just as good, if not better, on the Game Boy or Super Nintendo.  Considering they’re doing arguably odder things with Virtual Console (such as DS and GBA on the Wii U of all things), I’m surprised they haven’t already done it.  Probably they just don’t think there’s any interest.  Or maybe they want the machine to be utterly forgotten as it was a huge embarrassment for them.  (It still stands as Nintendo’s only flat-out flop in the console market.)  Regardless, I do think a lot of gamers would be thrilled to get a second chance at the Virtual Boy’s library, especially Wario Land.

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Thank You, Mr. Iwata.

HAL

Since the news broke on Sunday, the deeply saddening loss of Mr. Iwata has had a huge effect on a great many gamers, as seen from the many posts from those wishing to pay their respects to his legacy (many from authors far more eloquent than I).  While there’s little I can add to the great words that have already been spoken in his honor, I feel I still owe my peace.  I don’t really consider myself a Nintendo fanboy, but if you were to go through all my blog posts, you might think differently.  After all, I’ve written a lot about Nintendo games.  But that’s because after I play a game, I only write about it if I feel like I have something interesting to say, and I almost always have something to say about Nintendo’s work.  One thing you can never criticize them for is not knowing how to make greatly inspired and uniquely imaginative games.  Despite their game design being incredibly influential, they are an utterly unique company amongst big game publishers.  Much of that is directly attributable to the deeply-held principles that Mr. Iwata’s leadership and guidance maintained at the company.

Under his leadership, Nintendo was a shrewd business, but it was never a cynical one.  It was fiercely guided by a fundamental philosophy and faith that gaming was meant to bring joy and wonderment into people’s lives.  In accordance with these principles, they took risks to bring us new gaming experiences, some of which paid off big for them as a business and some of which didn’t.  But that’s how risks work, and Mr. Iwata realized that merely following the status quo of their competitors would certainly lead to the company’s stagnation and decline.  Perhaps most importantly, during his tenure as president, Nintendo always had respect for its fans, customers, and its own legacy and eschewed the classless practices that have become popular amongst its peers, because they see gaming as a unique source of fun in our lives and not a shallow means to manipulate human consumer psychology.

And while he’s most well-known as a business leader, I’m grateful that his past as a talented programmer is being given more attention.  Gamers are often familiar with directors, artists, and composers, but the contributions of programmers are usually more “under-the-hood” and go less appreciated.  Even after becoming the president of HAL Laboratories in 1993, it seems like he was still in the trenches as a programmer and used his expertise to bring many beleaguered projects to fruition.  My favorite story is how he cleaned up the code for Pokemon Gold+Silver so that Game Freak could fit its full plans for Johto onto the cartridge.  But not only that, he made room for the Kanto region as well!  Such a wonderful surprise that was, and it was all made possible because of his hard work and talent.

But the biggest loss that he will leave in our lives, I think, comes from his theatricality.  The man put himself out there with Iwata Asks and Nintendo Direct to become the face of the company.   He brought us many precious unheard developer stories from within Nintendo itself.  Despite what you might expect from such a reserved business man, he put on a show like none other in gaming, to get us enthusiastic for Nintendo. Look at all the grandiose stage conferences at E3 2015 and compare it to the wonderful puppet show they put on this year.  It shows that he wanted the company to build a closer relationship with its customers that went beyond merely shovelling out over-produced trailers that do little to represent new games.  He wanted gamers to be excited for Nintendo as fans, not as consumers.  This motivation went beyond his appearances and can also be seen in Nintendo’s other fan-focused content such as Treehouse Live and the Nintendo World Championship.  It is a great way to do business, and I hope they continue Nintendo Direct and these other events, even though it won’t be the same without his presence.

Thank you, Mr. Iwata, for brightening our hobby and for helping to bring so many great and fun gaming memories with family and friends into our lives.

I bought a Dreamcast.

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Every now and then, about once a year or so, a little monkey jumps on my back and compels me to splurge a little bit on retro gaming stuff.  This year it happened that I finally bought a Dreamcast after having wanted one since the glorious date of 9/9/99.  I don’t really know what finally made me decide to go in on one.  Part of it was the excitement everyone seems to have over Shenmue 3.  Part of it was also that I was perusing Gamestop’s new “vintage” gaming selection out of curiosity, and I came to the realization that secondhand Dreamcast stuff wasn’t that expensive.  Oddly enough, I’m not getting into Shenmue yet (it’s too expensive right now), and I didn’t buy from Gamestop (I used ebay).

Sega was always gaming’s greatest underdog, always defiantly standing against titans like Nintendo and Playstation.  It’s amazing that they stayed in the hardware business for as long as they did.  Their machines were never able to achieve the worldwide mindshare that their competitors had.  Genesis was probably the most successful thing they ever had, managing to run neck-and-neck with the Super Nintendo outside of Japan.  It’s impressive to me that they were able to stay in hardware for as long as they did.  Sega was known for its bold but spuriously logical business decisions that usually turned into embarrassing failures (32x, Saturn launch, etc.).  I suspect that their long stubbornness to go third party was actually just another decision born out of bad business acumen, but one that actually ended up being great for gamers.

Dreamcast always strikes me as a deeply beloved machine.  Dreamcast was the Sega underdog’s swan song, and I think that’s what contributes to its mystique.  I find that even those who are consummate Playstation or Nintendo fans often express a fairly high respect for the platform, something they don’t show for the Genesis, Saturn, or Game Gear (and certainly not Master System).  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it was just a way more competently managed product than Saturn.

In North America, it graced us for little over a year before discontinuation.  But that was surprisingly enough time to amass a fairly respectable library, both in quantity and quality.  That can partly be thanked to being out a year earlier in Japan, but it still amuses me to compare it to modern consoles which were relatively light on releases in their launch year.  Getting a game out the door and onto shelves was very different back then, I suppose.  It does mean, though, that despite its short lifespan, it’s worthwhile to go back to for retro-game fans.

And now, here is my shame: until this recent purchase, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Dreamcast in person, much less played one.  I really wanted to get into Dreamcast at its launch, but I was just shy of the age where I could start earning income for myself.  And with the PSX library still being so hot, I didn’t even bother trying to justify such a purchase to my parents.  Nonetheless, I hung onto every bit of preview and review coverage I could find online for the Dreamcast and am left with this weird vicarious nostalgia for the system.  The Dreamcast and its games just struck me as intensely cool in a way that Playstation wasn’t, even though I loved the PSX and its amazing library to death.

So fast forward nearly 16 years later, I now have a taste of that for which I so long pined.  The system itself is relatively simple.  The front-end user interface for managing save files, settings, and audio CDs is very sleek and functional with its simple sky blue background.  To be honest, I never liked the PS2’s front end with the dark, abstract environments that it used as a background decoration.  It just seemed depressing and desolate to me.  The springy Dreamcast logo is way better than the weird cubes jutting up from beneath the dark blue cloud that the PS2 greeted gamers with.  But this is all merely cosmetic, and unlike modern gaming machines, no one’s really going to spend a lot of time using the front-end.

The controller is another thing.  I don’t really feel strong emotions for it one way or the other.  I find it interesting that it has fewer buttons than either the PSX or N64 pads.  Fewer buttons means its more difficult to pull off complex game systems, but, so far, I haven’t run into any games where I feel that more buttons would help.  Honestly, (console) game design at the time probably didn’t favor overly-complex control schemes.  Meanwhile, most modern games seem to map an action to every button on the controller and map further actions beyond that to specific button combinations.

Honestly, its difficult to analyze the controller, because I feel that I’m spoiled by modern gamepads which have become highly evolved.  I’m quite fond of the Dual Shock 4 for its ergonomics and the tactility and precision of its buttons/sticks.  I use it not just for PS4, but also extensively on the PC.  The Dreamcast controller feels like a cheap third-party controller, in contrast.  Of course to be fair, I should be comparing it to its contemporaries, but it’s been so long since I’ve used the PSX controller that I don’t remember it that well.  And I wasn’t really an N64 gamer.  The analog stick feels okay to me, tight enough for the games that were coming out at the time, but it probably would be terrible for modern games where more precision is needed.  Also, there’s only one stick!  The PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube all had 2, and 2 is really necessary for advanced 3D gaming (one to control movement, one to control camera).  Assuming it didn’t die so early, I’ve always wondered how Dreamcast would have stacked up against the competition in terms of multiplatform releases for the rest of the generation.  I can’t imagine it would have ever been the preferred machine for multiplatform games.

The VMU is a neat addition, but I find that it’s used by hardly anything.  It’s been great for Code Veronica, though, where it displays your health without the need to go into the menu.  As far as I can tell, the battery is dead in mine, so I haven’t been able to try it out as a portable game machine yet.

The d-pad is a bit of a point of contention for me.  It’s an okay d-pad, I guess.  Not as abysmal as the 360 pad.  Again, it’s been so long since I’ve played on an original PSX pad, so I’m not sure how it compares, but the DC pad has the problem that a lot of lower quality d-pads have where it registers diagonals way too easily.  You can have your thumb touching only the up-direction, but if you’re pressing it off center, then it will register a diagonal.  I think it’s given me an appreciation of why people hate tank controls in old survival horror games.  I played RE1-3 on PSP and never had trouble with these controls.  But the PSP has an excellent d-pad.  In Code Veronica, on the other hand, I’ve often had the problem of veering off-course (usually straight into a zombie’s face) when I’m trying to run in a straight line.

Here are the games I’ve gotten so far on Dreamcast:

Code Veronica:  I’ve given all the mainline Resident Evil games a go except for Code Veronica and Zero, so this is a big hole in my gaming experience.  At first I thought it was going for something a little different than the standard Resident Evil formula, but it’s really the same formula just expanded over what feels like a much larger area than the mansion or the police station.  In some ways it’s a better sequel to 1 and 2 than 3 is, but I don’t think it does anything as innovative as what 3 did with Nemesis.  I’ll maybe write more on this game after I’ve beaten it.

Time Stalkers:  This is a cool dungeon crawler that caught my eye while browsing ebay.  Doesn’t seem like it’s one of those games that a lot of people talk about while remembering the Dreamcast, for whatever reason.

Hydro Thunder:  I am a glutton for arcade racers and a huge fan of Hydro Thunder Hurricane on XBLA.  Honestly, I didn’t realize that Hurricane hewed so close to being a more advanced remake of this game than a sequel.  It’s kind of hard to play, consequently, as Hurricane just does what this game is doing so much better.  All it does is make me want to break out the 360 to play Hurricane again.

Vigilante 8: Second Offense:  I’m a huge fan of Twisted Metal, but I’ve never really tried the Vigilante 8 series.  I thought this would be a good opportunity to do that.

Zombie Revenge:  As I mentioned, for someone with no Dreamcast experience, I’m oddly aware of most of its library due to the preview coverage I read at the time.  But I don’t remember Zombie Revenge at all, and only heard about it after recently listening to the Dreamcast episode of Retronauts.  I was looking at House of the Dead 2 originally, but realized the light gun wouldn’t work on my HDTV, so I went with this spin-off instead.

Blue Stinger:  This is a very unusual survival horror game that was recommended by one of my favorite YouTubers, Derek Alexander.  Seems like a bit of an odd game, from the same team that made the infamous IllBleed.  Looking forward to playing it.

Noticeably, there’s no Sonic Adventure on this list.  I’ve played the Steam version of SA a bit and realize that, while it was amazing at the time, it’s aged incredibly poorly.  SA 1 and 2 still seem like quintessential Dreamcast games though, so I may give them a go sometime later.  I hope to write a few more posts about the above games as soon as I’ve played through them.

Splatoon is a cool video game.

Despite what often seems like its best efforts to the contrary, Nintendo’s Wii U now finds itself as one of the most appealing online gaming platforms out there through the combination of Mario Kart 8, Smash Bros., and, now, Splatoon.  It’s unsurprising that Mario Kart and Smash have fared as well as they have, but Splatoon was an unknown quantity, and I’m happy that I’ve seen so many great reviews in the WordPress community.  I think Splatoon may be the most important game Nintendo has released in a long time.  It comes from a relatively young team that seem like they understand what people want out of gaming today but also know how to make something “Nintendo fun”.  This is a huge contrast with the more established creators in the company who tend to work more on slowly evolving the games from the company’s revolutionary glory days.

Splatoon has a lot of the hooks of a modern competitive action game.  It has a progression system with earned credits that can be used to buy new weapons and gear that convey various perks.  It has a range of weapon types with each weapon type boasting a number of slightly different variations, and there are a number of special abilities.  But for some reason, to me, Splatoon feels far more streamlined than other online shooters.  I think it’s because the game is so focused.  The matches take place on relatively condensed map sizes with small teams of four.  The goal of each match is really simple and that’s to paint the most area of the map with your team’s color.  The game is so focused on this objective that violence against the other team feels almost incidental.  I don’t really feel that I’m seeking out the other team to fight, so much as conflict occurs when we cross paths trying to strategically reclaim territory on the map.  It makes for a very different, more “sport-like” experience to me than the typical bombastic online shooter.

With the focus being less on head-on confrontation, I think Splatoon is a little more accessible to new players.  I don’t really shy away from online shooters, but I know that I usually have to undergo a learning period before the game starts to click with me.  With Splatoon, on the other hand, I found it an immediately comfortable experience.  It’s relatively simple, but it manages to take its simplicity and spin it into a well-rounded and interesting competition.  And that doesn’t make it a game that is always easy.  I’m still at level 8, but even now, as I get paired up against more experienced players, I’m still constantly being surprised by the new tricks and tactics that are being used against me.  The competitors are getting harder, but it seems more like it’s because they understand the nuances of the maps, weapons, and special abilities better, rather than just having better gear than me.  When I get completely stomped by another player, I’ve found it easy to understand how they got the upper-hand, and, consequently, I’m learning new things at a fairly rapid pace.

The single-player is pretty good, although a bit on the easy side for my tastes.  I’ve heard many people describe it as a Mario Galaxy kind of experience, and, to some extent, this is true.  The levels are composed of platforms that are suspended in free-space, and when you clear out one set of platforms, you rocket over to the next set in a way that is reminiscent of how Mario rockets between planets.  But that’s about as far as the comparison goes.  The game really doesn’t have the same level of imagination or as carefully-crafted stages as Galaxy.  I thought it was an alright campaign, but clearly the game’s big draw is the online component, and I’m not sure I would recommend it for those looking for just single-player.  The bosses, however, were a particular highlight for me.

Nintendo, as a whole, gets a lot of criticism for relying too heavily on iterating through the same big name series each generation.  I often find myself agreeing with this point.  As creators, they definitely are now focused more on evolution rather than revolution.  But every once in a while, they’re still inclined to unleash something completely new, and if we’re lucky, they won’t just cram it into existing brands that are namely Mario, Pokemon, or Kirby.  While playing Splatoon, it pains me to admit that I had a sudden epiphany as to how tired I’ve become of Mario.  He and the Mushroom Kingdom crew are in so many series that it’s just good to have a break from them.  And as much as I love Mario RPGs and am excited for Paper Jam, I couldn’t help but give a futile chuckle when I saw there were going to be two Marios in the next one.  As if Mario wasn’t saturated enough that we now need a game with two versions of each Mario character.  Ultimately, with over a million copies already sold, I hope Splatoon makes them realize that they don’t need the old standbys to create something that is Nintendo fun, and that it can be commercially successful and reinvigorate gamers’ waning passion for Nintendo as well.

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