Transitions: The Launch Games/End Games Blog

Posted on Jul 23rd 2013 at 10:51:06 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under launch game, Sega 32X, Star Wars, Doom, Sega Visions

We have dissected a number of console launches thus far in the Transitions Blog, but thus far each one has been for what could probably be considered a "successful" console.  For the first time then, in this entry, we will be examining a console that, by most measures, was considered a failure: the Sega 32X.

The 32X, of course, is not even a "proper" console in the traditional sense as it is technically an add-on like the Sega CD before it or like other peripherals before and since which have been tied to a primary system (the Atari Supercharger, Nintendo 64DD, etc.). Nonetheless, it has its own library of games, was marketed and sold much like a system, and has a distinct set of features that distinguish it from other pieces of gaming hardware.

The 32X, to many, represents the first tragic misstep in the long-running decline of Sega. Confusingly marketed as something of a stop-gap enhancement for the Sega Genesis prior to the release of the Sega Saturn, the console was seen by many to be over priced and under-powered. Released in November of 1994, a little less than a month after the release of the Sega Saturn in Japan and a little less than a year from that system's U.S. launch, it was almost destined to have a short life from the start.

The sordid tale of the 32X has been covered many times on many other gaming websites, so this entry will attempt to do something a little different and specifically examine the official build-up and launch of the console.  Even if gamers and analysts were skeptical of the systems prospects from the start, it is still interesting to think about how Sega tried to market and launch the 32X in and against this context.

The Launch Buildup

Like other consoles of its era, much of the buildup and hyping for the console occurred in the pages of gaming magazines. If you could sell the product well to readers in the pages of EGM or GamePro, you had a real shot to get them into the store on launch day. Sega of America had the most control of this message in the pages of Sega Visions, which they used to promote the 32X for several issues before its debut. Here's how they did that:

April/May 1994 Issue

Poor NBA Jam gets booted off the front page for a "Late Breaking News Blast!" about what the article would refer to as the "Genesis Super 32X." The article itself, despite its prominence on the cover, is a mere single page in the issue. On that page, readers learn interesting tidbits like "Sega has over 30 games in development and expects 60 will be released in the first year" and that the system, despite using "2x32-bit chips" that allow an arcade experience, will cost less than $150. Sega Visions promised its readers a "complete rundown" on the system and a "sneak peak" at its games in the next issue.

June/July 1994 Issue

Far from the "complete rundown" that the previous issue promised, readers were greeted with two whole pages of information on the 32X in the June/July issue of Sega Visions. There's actually less information here on the whole, though some games are listed and the $149 price point is reiterated as well as the promise of "30 games" in development by Sega. In terms of buildup, there's not much new here to see other than the picture of the console.

August/September 1994 Issue

Four months out from launch, this is the first issue to really provide any kind of detail on the console. 20+ third-party publishers are listed as working on games for the system and screenshots and blurbs appear for several titles.  In addition to the sub-$150 price point, interesting promises include "you're gonna have a large selection of hot titles to choose from" and "by the end of the year you could be playing arcade-perfect versions of mind-blowing games like Virtua Racing Deluxe, Star Wars Arcade, or Cyberbrawl. Or any one of the other totally sensational Genesis 32X games available at launch." Most impressive is the claim that "As a matter of fact, 60 new games will ship by the first of next year." Here the hype train is starting to leave the station and go off the rails...

October/November 1994 Issue

Doom takes front and center here, and in the issue published before the 32X's release, Sega Visions offers some substantial information on the cover game, an ample amount of screen shots of the 32X in action, and pictures of 36 Great Holes, Star Wars Arcade, Virtua Racing Deluxe, Metal Head, and Super Motocross. Perhaps the overload of images was meant to take away from this little detail: the system would now cost $159, not $149 as prominently suggested previously.

The boast of "an estimated 60 titles" to be released in the first year is a bit of a retraction of the earlier claim, and the five games previewed  are listed as games that "should be ready when the system ships in November."  Anyone paying close attention to the shifting language in the coverage from issue to issue should have noticed that things were starting to look shaky for the viability of the system even before launch.

December 1994/January 1995 Issue

Hitting the holiday season, the 32X launched in November 1994 in the US and Europe and in December in Japan (a few weeks after the Saturn's launch there).  Instead of highlighting the system in the issue that likely would have been arriving in Visions subscribers' mailboxes around the time of the 32X's release, the staff of the magazine relegated 32X coverage to sneak peaks of four games, two of which were already released. Importantly, the 32X was the only Sega system to not feature any reviews, so subscribers were left with only hopeful previews to give them impressions of the quality of the games that had already been talked up in the previous issue. Gone entirely from this issue are boasts of the system's price or upcoming library. It seems, at the most crucial moment for promoting the system, Sega Visions itself pulled back to focus on late-era Genesis and Sega CD titles.  With the already-out-in-Japan Saturn hanging over Sega of America, Visions' 32X coverage would continue to be sporadic in subsequent issues of the magazine throughout the system's short life.

At least it had the benefit of the vintage Sega adcopy.

The Launch
When the 32X hit stores in the US in mid-November 1994, here's a sense of how it looked

It was cheaper than the CD-I, 3DO, or Saturn but it was more expensive than the Genesis or the Super Nintendo.  This is a best guess.  Taking a look at this old Canadian Sears Wishbook from 1994 (where the 32X isn't even listed) and knowing that Canadian prices were usually a few more dollars than their US equivalents, you can see that the Genesis and SNES were selling for $150 and $160 CAD, respectively. Given that the US price for the 32X was $160, it stands to reason that the Canadian price would have been closer to $175 or so, making it no small investment at launch. Perhaps to compensate, the 32X did offer $10 rebate coupons towards future game purchases.

It was up against some tough competition. The 32X launched in the same month as the critical and commercial success Donkey Kong Country and NBA Jam: Tournament Edition and a month after Sonic and Knuckles, Super Punch Out, and Final Fantasy III. It launched a week before the Atari Jaguar and, as mentioned, a month after the Saturn had already been released in Japan. It was selling Doom after Doom II had already been released for PCs.  It was a confusing system, with a small library, released in an overly-crowded video game market.

It only featured two launch games. Despite the boasts found in Sega Visions, when the system actually hit store shelves it did so only with two titles: Doom and Star Wars: Arcade. In terms of the IP selection, these are two solid launch games that made a lot of sense in 1994 when both Star Wars and Doom were still extremely popular franchises that were guaranteed to garner sales. Earlier that year, for example, the acclaimed Super Star Wars series on the SNES had concluded its run with the release of Return of the Jedi.  Today, both Doom and Star Wars Arcade continue to be held in (relative) high regard as some of the stronger titles for the 32X, with especially the latter showing off its technical capabilities more than many other titles would ever do. Still, though launching with two games had happened before (e.g. the Master System) and would happen again (e.g. the Nintendo 64), it seemed an especially dangerous proposition for a console that was positioned as a stop gap measure and, in the buildup to launch, had promised much more from the start.

Today, it seems obvious that Sega was promising more than they could deliver. We of course now know much more about the history of this era, the feuds between Sega of America and Sega of Japan, the botched Neptune, etc.  but none of that was common knowledge to a consumer standing in the aisle of a video game department in November of 1994.  Sega didn't do enough to convincingly promote the console in its own magazine, sent it out with a small set of games into a crowded market, and ultimately gave it a launch that set it up for the failure it would become.

In the end, retailers famously had to cut the system price to $19.99 to clear it out.  Less than 40 games would ever be made for the system, many of which were only slightly enhanced ports of existing 16-bit titles. In a future installment we'll look at some of the end of console life 32X games, which saw its final release just 14 short months after its launch.

Posted on Jul 4th 2013 at 11:40:22 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under launch game

Happy 4th of July, long-suffering readers of the Transitions Blog! Today we will be exploring a PS2 launch game that is apropos for the American Day of Independence: FantaVision. Let's dig in...

Aside from being an especially interesting launch day choice for Sony, FantaVision is an unusual game in its own right. The basic premise of the game is to catch fireworks flares as they ascend, match them in groupings based on color, and detonate them to create a fireworks display that chains into other flares.  In each level, you must do this well enough so that time doesn't expire. Racking up points and chains will carry you on to the next level.  It is unquestionably a unique puzzle game, one that would still standout against the deluge of puzzle games released in the age of smartphone gaming. In my experience, it is also quite challenging. But why was this a launch game?

FantaVision showcased the PS2's graphics capabilities.  FantaVision started life as a tech demo rather than a full-fledged game, and so from the outset It was meant to emphasize some of the PlayStation 2's new capabilities. The game's lighting effects, the detail in the cityscapes, the smoothness of the camera - these may all seem very basic today, and even rudimentary by the standards set in games that would appear shortly thereafter in the PlayStation 2's lifespan - but the ability of the game to "pop" (pun intended) was likely the main reason that it was included in the launch library.

It was the only puzzle game available at launch. The PS2 saw plenty of action, sports, and fighting games when it hit US shores in October of 2000, but FantaVision was the only game to offer the kind of intensity that only the puzzle genre can deliver. Pure speculation: Sony may have been testing the waters for interest in puzzle games on the PS2, as the amount of puzzle games released for the PS1 had fallen off sharply in the years before the PS2s launch and, it would turn out, the PS2 had a relatively small amount of games in the genre even by the end of its run.

In contrast to the Japanese original, the US version of the game featured a two player mode.

FantaVision is an early example of Sony promoting an "indie" game.Over the past 5-6 years, Sony has developed a strong reputation for fostering in-house "independent" game development and promoting unique, innovative, projects that come from small teams.  Many people cite PS2 games like those from Team Ico or from someone like Suda 51, but FantaVision has that similar kind of "homemade feel" that comes across in everything from the wacky FMV intro screens to the tutorials to the credits. It is early evidence of a long-term push towards more niche titles from Sony, even if it is really the only game from the PS2 launch lineup to illustrate this. Also of note is that it is the only U.S. launch title actually published by SCEE.

The game has very unique FMV videos interspersed throughout.

It was doomed by poor reviews. If reviews are to be believed, FantaVision was a game no one was looking for/asking for in late 2000., for example, started their review with this:

In the hustle and bustle of the massive PS2 launch, with its high power sports, action, and fighting games, Sony's little fireworks puzzler FantaVision is sure to get swept under the rug real quick. Not because it's a bad game, and not because it's a puzzle title, although that doesn't help, but for two other major reasons. First, it's an unknown quantity (What the hell is FantaVision, anyway?) that can't be easily identified when glancing at the box; and second, it uses so little of the PS2's polygon pushing power that it doesn't really usher in the next generation of games with a whole lot of gusto.

GameSpot, meanwhile, was only a bit more encouraging at the end of its review:

Fantavision neither revolutionizes nor damages the genre, it simply comes out somewhere in between. The advantage of being the first puzzle title on the PS2, combined with the game's eye candy and two-player mode, definitely works in the game's favor. In the end, Fantavision is little more than a pleasantly entertaining puzzle game.

Famitsu only gave the game a 31/40, and it was largely seen as a launch day mistake by Sony. 

An interesting side note: Despite low interest in the USA, FantaVision saw a sequel of sorts in Japan (it was largely just an inclusion of the NTSC-U two player mode), but never saw any further success in the USA. While it may not have been the belle of the launch ball in 2000, I think most gamers would feel it is well worth checking out in 2013, especially on Independence Day! It is a fascinating launch title that has aged very well.

Posted on Jan 9th 2013 at 03:11:22 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under launch game, end games, soccer, football, FIFA, PS1

I was quite happy to recently pick up FIFA Soccer 2005 for the PS1 for only about $9, which is about a third or so of what the game often goes for on eBay.  My primary interest in the game is that was the final game released in North America (and some other parts of the world) for the Sony Playstation.  As I am someone who likes focusing on games from both ends of the life of a console, I thought the purchase of this game would be an interesting opportunity to compare a game from a console's introduction - FIFA Soccer '96 [SLUS-00038]  - to a game from its end - FIFA Soccer 2005 [SLUS-01585].

FIFA Soccer '96 was not a PS1 launch game, but it definitely falls into the system's "launch window" as it released less than three weeks after the system's North American debut. By contrast, FIFA Soccer 2005 was one of less than a dozen games released in North America in all of 2004, most of which were other perennial sports titles (Madden, MLB, etc.).  FIFA 2005's October 2004 release was the last for the system in most of the Western Hemisphere.

Looking at the two games side by side provides an interesting window into how much had changed for Sony, EA, and the games industry in the lifespan of the Playstation 1.

There are a few very apparent differences before you even turn the games on, and they multiply as you get going...

Packaging and Labeling: FIFA Soccer '96 shipped in the clear, hard plastic longbox cases that characterized games for the first year or so on Sony's first gaming machine. FIFA 2005 shipped in the standard clear jewelcase.  The front of the box of '96 features the old "K-A" rating system, the 2005 game is ESRB rated "E for Everyone".  The difference in the quality of the graphic art production between the two is also quite stark - "By Extended Play Productions" is shooting out of the head of the featured player on the '96 version, the choppy/boxy artwork looks ill-conceived, and the randomly placed FIFA and "Virtual Stadium" labels really looks like someone's first foray into Photoshop.  By contrast, FIFA 2005 incorporates labels nicely, blends artistic elements and photos more naturally, and fits in with the standardized EA design that marked their games for a very long time. It is clear that they had learned a lot about attractive design in the period between covers...

1995 release on the left, 2004 release on the right.

The Back of the Box: Perhaps even more interesting than the front of each box is the back, where more important differences exist between what advertised in each game.  Most strikingly, the 2005 version places the Spanish description of features above the English description, indicating EA had discovered a large Spanish-speaking audience for the game in the years since the series' PS1 debut. There is no Spanish at all on the back of the FIFA Soccer '96 box.  The FIFA Soccer '96 box prominently emphasizes the motion capture technology that went into realizing inclusion of "all the moves of real soccer" as well as the move to "Real 3-D!", "high-res gameplay", "CD quality sound effects encoded by Dolby Surround Sound", "unlimited camera angles", and other aspects that assured potential buyers that they were purchasing a game that took full advantage of new, expensive hardware. By contrast, the only mention of aesthetics on the FIFA 2005 box is a line about "unrivaled player animations".   There are also some interesting differences in features: '96 boasts a feature of 3,800 players, 2005 boasts 6,000.  FFA '96 mentions capabilities for saving and for one to eight player gameplay without indicating how these features must be utilized.  FIFA 2005 explains via a long-ago standardized PS1 feature key that the game supports up to eight players via multi-tap, that the game needed 1-3 blocks of a memory card, and that it offered vibration and analog support (neither of which was an option for a game in 1995). 

Pre-Game: Upon booting up, FIFA '96 starts with several long FMV demo videos emphasizing the updated graphics and sound capabilities of a soccer game on the PS1.  After several minutes of this FMV, it switches to footage of gameplay between the US and Brazil, and  then repeats.  To get out of the loop and into the main menus you have to hit Start (though you are never prompted to do so).  I can imagine this running in attract mode at an Ames kiosk or some such, which I am sure was the plan. By contrast, FIFA 2005 goes straight to a splash screen prompting you to hit start to begin (while licensed music - also missing from the '96 version - plays in the background).  If you hit nothing for about a minute, random demo mode matches begin playing for several minutes at a time. For practicality I prefer the no-nonsense approach of the 2005 game, but there was clearly something special about the over the top intro videos in the early PS1 titles.

The in-game menus from '96 and 2005.

Pre-Game, Part 2 Once you are in the main game menus, the 2005 version of the game shows lots of expected improvement over the '96 entry. The Playstation controller buttons are prominently featured on each screen so you know what to do, the menu options (including team  and career management options) are expanded considerably, there are rankings for each team featured on the team selection screen (this was only seen in the post-selection, match loading screens on '96), there are uniform choices that can be made, team info and lineups can be viewed/adjusted and are then automatically previewed before the match, and the "broadcast-like" presentation going into the game is quite remarkable.  Other little interesting curiosities include the standard "X to select" in 2005 (it was "O" in '96, which threw me for a loop initially), the close relationship between the in-game menu and out-game menus in the latter version (which separated a lot of functions), and the prominence of "EA Sports" over any/all other logos and brands affiliated with the game (The "Virtual Stadium" was a big highlight of the post-menu intro to the '96 game, for example).

1995 release on the left, 2004 release on the right.

Gameplay: The casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that these two games are running on completely different systems.  The player models in the '96 version of the game are about half the size of those found in the 2005 edition, the amount of spoken play-by-play  is vastly improved in the 2005 version (as is its level of nuance and diversity), and the general look of the game is just dramatically improved. The latter version features instant replays, lacks some of the cheesy-if-charming goal celebration animations found in the '96 game, and is entirely devoid of any FMV of actual soccer.  More importantly, it controls beautifully with the analog controller, has many additional gameplay components that enhance both realism and fun (e.g. smart directional passing), and is just a joy to play even in 2013. That's not to say that the '96 entry is bad - it is in fact very good compared to the myriad 16-bit soccer titles that preceded it and the game does indeed represent some of the significant "leap" that it so prominently advertised on its box. That said, you still can have fun with either today, which more than anything is probably a tribute to the consistent quality of EA Sports' FIFA teams.

1995 release on the left, 2004 release on the right.

None of what I've noted is especially surprising, perhaps. The 2005 version of the game had the benefit of nine years of precedence on the hardware as well as several years of industry innovation into yet another console generation.  However, it is interesting to me to see exactly how far a single company was able to push a console over a very long period of time, how the marketing of the game itself has shifted significantly, and how much fun each game still is on its own merits, despite being so drastically different. Hopefully you found it interesting, too.

Posted on Oct 3rd 2012 at 12:20:11 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Pinball, launch games

The following was written up early last summer for appearance on another site that ultimately didn't run it. So I'm posting it here...

When I was in my early teenage years, the arcades were experiencing what would be their final hurrah before entering into a sad and ongoing fifteen year decline of increasingly shuttered mall stores, vacated boardwalk buildings, and empty pizza parlors.  In many ways, however, the pinball arcade had already gone through this transition while the arcade itself was yet thriving.  When I was a kid, most arcade hideouts had long ago tossed Pin-Bot and Space Shuttle machines to make room for more Mortal Kombat, Tekken, or NBA Jam cabinets.  Pinball Wizard was not an anthem for my generation (I guess we had Guile's Theme, instead) and pinball was starting to be seen as a poor investment for arcade owners. As a kid, I didn't care.  Pinball was something that I'd play to bide my time if all the video game machines were already taken.  As an adult, however, I now lament the lost opportunity to spend more time with these masterful creations.

Pinball Arcade, published by FarSight Studios, offers a salve of sorts to my feelings of regret. FarSight previously published the excellent Pinball Hall of Fame titles which featured classic tables from pinball companies Gottlieb and Williams, each of which were painstakingly and lovingly recreated in video game form for a wide variety of consoles. Pinball Arcade takes that basic concept - detail-focused recreations of classic tables (complete with spot-on physics) - and offers it in the form of an PSN/XBLA/iOS title.  This entry represents not only their best work to date, but it is also perhaps the best pinball video game to ever grace a console.

On consoles, the game comes with four tables at an initial offering price of $10.  Those tables are Theater of Magic, Black Hole, Ripley's Believe it or Not!, and Tales of the Arabian Nights.  These are all heavy hitters in the pinball machine  market: Theater, Ripley's, and Tales regularly command $5,000+ to purchase a machine on eBay or at conventions, and Black Hole will likely cost you at least a couple of grand.  No video game can give you quite the same feeling as you would get playing the original, but I find it much easier to drop $10 for an excellent facsimile of that experience that to drop $20,000 for the real thing. Having played a wide variety of pinball video games in the past and having played three of the actual tables that are included in this collection, I can say that I've never played a title that feels closer to reality than Pinball Arcade.

There are a number of things that Pinball Arcade does right.  For one, it offers online leaderboards that allow you to compare your scores with those of your friends and with others from around the world.  I have been surprised by how much I have enjoyed this feature of the game, as it really delivers a sense of mutual competition that is reminiscent of the actual arcade experience.  For another, it offers extremely easy to understand breakdowns of table goals, how to score, what spinners and lights mean what, etc.  It seems a small thing for a pinball game, but the writer for the brief tutorial paragraphs deserves a bonus: those short blurbs of explanation are extremely succinct and informative without being condescending.  The game offers a number of incentives for playing often and improving your skills: each table has a set of table goals and harder wizard goals which you can try and achieve (successful completion of which will net you trophies or achievements on PSN and XBLA, respectively), and finishing all of the goals will allow you to play tables with tilt turned off.  Each tables menu also has a section detailing the history of the table and offers scans of the original flyers for you to pour over.

Oh, and those who purchase the PS3 version get the Vita version for free, so that's a nice bonus as well. The Vita version, while taking a slight drop in the visuals, performs extremely well and is my preferred platform for the game. You can't go wrong with any version, though.

FarSight has indicated that more tables will be continue to be released as DLC at about $2.50 per table.  So far these tables have included "Monster Bash," "Bride of Pin-Bot", "Medieval Madness," "Funhouse," and "Cirqus Voltaire" with promises of "Attack from Mars, "Star Trek The Next Generation" and "Twilight Zone" coming soon (and, again, almost all of these are extremely expensive machines on the pinball market).  They have also built into their game the opportunity for tournament and challenge play with the addition of future tables, which should make leaderboard chasing even more exciting.

Whether you are a grizzled veteran of the pinball craze in arcades, a video gamer who has ever enjoyed any video pinball title in the past, or just a person who likes games that motivate you to improve your score, youll find a lot to love in Pinball Arcade. It might not give you the exact sensation of feeling all the bumpers and becoming part of the machine, but you can still work out those crazy flipper fingers (on shoulder buttons) while pursuing your own (virtual) pinball crown.

Posted on Jun 3rd 2012 at 06:01:14 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under E3, Podcast

This blog entry is basically just a shameless plug for The Racketboy Podcast (which I co-host) to let the folks here know that I will be covering E3 throughout this week via Twitter and then with a big wrap-up show on Sunday night/Monday morning posted to

I don't think that any of the RFGen 'casts are heading out there, and since I know that folks here in general share a lot of the same interests (and many of the same members), I thought there might be interest.  I hope you'll consider checking us out for a unique angle on this year's E3. 

Twitter feed:!/racketboypodcst

I'll be sure to update this blog with a regular launch game/end game entry later this month!

Posted on Feb 22nd 2012 at 11:38:46 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Vita, launch games, system launch, PlayStation

This week marks the North American release of the PlayStation Vita, Sony's second handheld gaming device and the follow-up to the PlayStation Portable.  As a PSP enthusiast, the Vita has me quite excited; in fact the Vita is the first system of any kind I am picking up on release day in over a decade (the PS2 was the last time I had a system from day one).  Since I also happen to run a blog that focuses, in part,  on system launches (I've previously chronicled the launch of the Game Boy Advance, the NES, the SNES, and the VCS), I figured it would  make sense to share my thoughts on the Vita's debut.

There are several interesting considerations when analyzing the Vita launch: the machine itself, the launch lineup, and its place in the current gaming landscape.

The Hardware
The Specs. As was the case with the PSP before it, the Vita comes onto the market as the most impressive handheld gaming device ever created.  It has a blazing quad core processor (vs. the 3DS' dual core), the ability to push 33 million polygons a second (vs. the 3DS' 15.3 million), a relatively small 512MB of RAM (vs. the 3DS' even more paltry 128MB), a beautiful 5 OLED screen with 221 pixels per inch (vs. the iPhone's superior 320ppi retina display), and a host of ways to connect the device to wireless networks, computers, the PS3, etc.  The unit is backwards compatible with PS1 classics and PSP games downloaded from PSN.  The price point of $250 for the base system, considering what you are getting, is quite impressive.  It would seem that Sony is probably selling these at a loss, which follows their standard model.

The Features.  Easily the most maligned design choice of the original PSP was the absence of a second analog stick, forcing many genres to abandon the platform altogether or to be adopted with hit-or-miss work-arounds. The most obvious addition to the Vita is the inclusion of a second analog stick, an addition that places it more comfortably in the hands of gamers who prefer a dualstick or a 360 control pad.  In addition, the rear touch pad on the Vita allows for both interesting gameplay mechanics as well as way to incorporate L2 and R2 buttons (via touch) into the unit.  Like most handheld devices made in the past several years, it also sports a pair of cameras, a touch screen, and a gyroscope, all of which further expand the potential to do lots of different things with the Vita.  Battery life over time is yet to be determined, but 3-5 hours of gameplay at a time seems to be typical for most users so far and is pretty close to what you can get with a 3DS or with more resource-intensive iOS or Android games. 

The Media. One questionable design decision Sony has made with the Vita is the lack of substantial on-board storage memory.  Instead, users are required to purchase a separate proprietary flash card (between 4GB and 32GB) if they want to store PSN downloads, media, or game data.  Sony also will continue to publish games at retail, abandoning the UMDs used for the PSP for flash cards that are similar to (but smaller than) what is produced for the DS/3DS.  That means that most users will have two cards -  a game card and a memory card - in their system at any given time.  Sony is also pushing digital distribution of all Vita games for users who want an experience closer to what was available on the PSPGo, Sony's less popular UMD drive-less version of the PSP.

The Launch Lineup

The U.S. launch of the PS Vita includes a pretty strong selection of games from different genres, and at 24 titles, features about 25% more games than the PSPs launch seven years ago (by comparison the 3DS launch featured about 18 games and the DS launch featured only 6 games).  A few things stand out about the launch lineup:

Racing Heaven. Even though the Vita is the first PlayStation system of any kind to launch in the US without a Ridge Racer title available on launch day, there are five racing games available for the system at launch ranging from futuristic racers (Wipeout 2048), to Kart Racers (ModNation Racers and Ben 10: Galactic Racing), to more standard racing fare (F1 2011 and Asphalt: Injection).  Racers are traditionally good at showing off system horsepower, and most of these titles have features which are only possible on the Vita (ModNation's use of the rear pad for design, Wipeout's cross-platform play, etc.).  If you are at all a fan of racing games, odds are there's something for you in the Vita's launch.

Lack of games that benefit from the second stick.  One surprising component of the Vita launch is that the vast majority of the games are in genres where the second analog stick -  one of the Vita's major selling points - is rarely used. Uncharted and the PSN-only downloadable game Super Stardust Delta are the most obvious second-stick required games, but the majority of the games available at launch could have worked with the inputs available on the original PSP.  There are no FPSs and only a few games that would require the second stick to navigate the camera (e.g. Touch My Katamari).

Target Audience?  Given Sony's past emphasis on attracting a different demographic than those who play on Nintendo's handhelds, it is surprising that there are only three M rated games at launch (Ninja Gaiden, Shinobido 2, and Army Corps of Hell).  Furthermore, there's an abundance of 2D titles (BlazBlu: Continuum Shift Extend, Marvel vs Capcom 3, Lumines Electronic Symphony, Rayman Origins), a few games aimed at children (Ben 10 and, arguably, ModNation Racers and Little Deviants), no first person shooters, only one RPG (Dungeon Hunter: Alliance), and no sports titles from the four big leagues in the USA (NHL, NFL, NBA, or MLB).  Many of these games are currently in the pipeline, but so far the Vita hasn't done much to differentiate itself as a platform to attract those audiences that blindly throw down $60 on any iteration of Madden, Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, or other "core" franchises.

Spin-Off and Port City.  Though the Vita lacks a lot of the big name franchises at launch, it does feature a lot of familiar titles.  Only 3-4 games are representative of new IPs (the PSP only had two at launch), with the rest of the launch library representing a port of a preexisting game or a new entry in a previously established series.  This is probably a safe bet for Sony, as new consoles need to have familiar names associated with them.  Still, it is a strategy that could backfire given the PSP's (perhaps undeserved) reputation amongst many gamers as a home for titles that were (sometimes inferior) ports and for less impressive entries in existing series. 

The Vita's Place

The hacking question.  Undoubtedly the PSP's life was shortened and sales were hurt by rampant piracy.  But, on the other hand, the ability of the machine to emulate a wide range of retro consoles and to play those pirated games certainly contributed to hardware sales.  I personally have little interest in playing pirated Vita games, but the prospect of playing PS2, GameCube, or Dreamcast games on the device via emulation and homebrew was enough to make me drop some extra dough on the largest memory card for the system.  As with any console, it is only a matter of time before hackers figure out how to do some interesting things on the Vita (some have already posted some exciting video clips of early work), and the thought of playing virtually every console game from pre-2005 on one handheld device is a tantalizing prospect.

Do Smartphones = Death?  A frequent point raised by the media at the launch of the 3DS last year and with the Vita this year is the question about whether or not there's still a market for handheld gaming devices given the widespread adoption of smartphones with excellent touch-screen gaming capabilities.  The argument goes something like this: "The Vita has to compete against not only Nintendo, but also against Apple and Android devices.  Many quality games can be had for free or $1-$5, take up minimal storage, and are stored remotely for download as needed.  In addition, smartphones can handle a lot of other tasks (web surfing, GPS navigating, etc.). Given that an iPhone can do so many things well, why do we need an additional device that does one thing better?"  These questions have some merit, and the answers remain to be seen, but it is hard to imagine Sony sees the Vita as a direct competitor to any of these devices or to the 3DS (which, incidentally, has now moved over 5 million units).  The PSP was certainly financially successful for Sony despite not eclipsing Nintendo in the handheld market, so is it unreasonable to expect that the Vita can be successful without being as successful as its competitors?  The question, for me, is less about whether or not the Vita can surpass or stay close to the sales of the 3DS or smartphones manufacturers, but whether or not it can carve out enough of a niche for itself to have a successful run in its own right.

Is anyone else picking up a Vita this week/month?  Are you enthused or bored by the launch lineup and by the potential of the system? Is handheld gaming on its way out? Share your thoughts below!

Posted on Feb 13th 2012 at 11:35:48 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under blog post recovery

Glad to see RFGen back up and running!  Thanks to the whole crew for working so hard to bring back the site!

If you're like me, you lost a few recent blog posts in the restoration to a December 2011 backup, and I thought I'd share with you how you MIGHT be able to get them back.

Step 1.  Open Firefox (you can probably use Chrome, IE, etc. - but the instructions here are with Firefox)

Step 2. Search Google for the titles/topics of your recent posts and/or of your blog itself.  Use your best Google-fu to locate your missing entries in Google's listings.

Step 3 (**the most important step**). Hover your mouse over the Google result for your entry until a double arrow appears to the right of the listing.  Hover over the arrow until an image of the RFGen site appears to the right of the arrow (it may or may not look like your missing entry).  Click on the "cached" link above that image.  The page you get to should look something like this.

Step 4.  Select the text and images from your entry with your mouse, and then right click to "View Selection Source".  Copy the source code that pops up in the little window.

Step 5. Open the RFGen blog entry creation  tool, retype your title/tags, and paste the source code into the "News Body" Field.  Preview and then publish your post!

Potential Additional Step 1. If you have highlighted words in your entry (carried over from Google's cached results), you will need to undo the formatting.  I found it easiest to use the "replace" function of my word processor to make these adjustments to the source code, then I copied/pasted the fixed code back into the "News Body" Field.

Potential Additional Step 2.  You can also copy the source code of the comments from the cached version of the page and post them (as one comment) in the comment field of your revised entry.

Good luck to everyone in bringing back their content.  Ask below or shoot me a pm/email, and I will be glad to help you if you get stuck!

Posted on Feb 13th 2012 at 06:07:32 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under PSP, end games

So I have not published a post to this blog that was actually on topic since the joint entry by noiseredux and I back in June about the GBA launch , and hopefully I can get back to some more blogging about launch games and end games this year...

One entry I am planning on writing is on the U.S. launch of the PlayStation Vita, which I am excited about and have preordered along with a few games.  One phenomenon that hasnt really been explored in the blog, however, is what happens with a systems library when it is about to be replaced.  That is the focus of this entry.

The Sony PSP has had an odd life.  It has certainly been the most successful handheld of all time that was not made by Nintendo, and it was about as big of a success in its native Japan as it was a flop here in the United States.  In the U.S., many pointed to the relative ease of piracy as the undoing of the system, as newly released games could be easily downloaded and played by anyone with minimal know-how and a web connection.  It also earned a bad reputation for controls, since the large majority of Western genre games that were promoted in the U.S. traditionally relied on the use of two analog sticks on consoles (one for movement and one for the camera), and thus developers had to create workarounds of varying success on the PSP hardware.

What ended up happening, then, was that the PSP largely failed to reach the core demographic of gamers in the U.S.  Instead, it became a haven for niche, older-style games and Japanese ports.  It became the platform with definitive versions of games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Final Fantasy IV.  It became the platform with a lot of content-packed special editions by RPG powerhouses like Atlus and NIS, and it became a great place to pick up retro compilations. It catered to an audience that traditionally purchased its games (collectors), and gamers that were just at home with a D-pad as with a pair of analog sticks.  So while the PSP had some amazing graphical showcase titles such as the God of War games and Resistance: Retribution, it is the more niche titles like Half Minute Hero and Prinny that make the platform an interesting one for collectors and will give the PSP staying power as a portable worth keeping around and accumulating titles on for years to come.

Which brings me to my central point: right now is the time to build your PSP library. I have spent some time over the holidays collecting titles that I missed out on or had sitting in my want list for several years, and the rock-bottom prices have been quite startling.  Recently released games like Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together, Knights in the Nightmare, and Parasite Eve: The Third Birthday can frequently be found for under $10 new at GameStop and Amazon.  Complete used copies of games from the first few years of the PSP's life are regularly found from $3-$7 a piece right now (both online and offline), and even the priciest domestic games rarely see price points over $20-$30.  In the past few weeks I picked up about 25 PSP games, including three Special Editions of some well-received RPGs, and have spent barely $200 in total.  People are dumping their libraries in preparation for the Vita and stores are clearing out UMDs to make more room for better selling titles; as a result this is the prime time for collectors to be picking over the spoils, as PSP games generally didnt sell very well, were produced in limited numbers, and had a small following.  If I had to guess, I'd say that most PSP games will be, in general, more expensive in another year or two than they are right now.  Strike while the iron is hot!


Posted on Feb 13th 2012 at 06:00:36 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Total Eclipse, launch games, Playstation

Looking across the PlayStation launch library, there are a number of games which, to this day, continue to ring familiar. NBA Jam Tournament Edition, Rayman, Ridge Racer, The Raiden Project- all of these games are part of ongoing franchises.  Even launch games like Battle Arena Toshinden and ESPN Extreme spawned a number of sequels, and are familiar to most gamers.  However, there were also some more obscure launch titles, one of which is the subject of this entry: Total Eclipse Turbo.

Total Eclipse Turbo is the PlayStation's version of Total Eclipse for the 3DO, a game which had been released almost a year and a half earlier for the that system (which was already starting to die by the time the PlayStation was released).  The PlayStation version added a password feature and sped up the gameplay (thus the "Turbo"), and can be considered the superior version of the game.  The game is an on-rails, 3D space shooter that shares some gameplay characteristics with something like Panzer Dragoon (but without lock-on).  There was a Saturn exclusive sequel named Solar Eclipse.  As a launch game, it is significant for several reasons...

Yes, the cover art is the same on the inside as on the outside.

This was the only 3D flying game at launch. Though the PlayStation's early days would eventually be dominated by titles like Air Combat and Warhawk, both of which used polygons to allow players to move around in space like never before, Total Eclipse Turbo is the only launch game to feature this style of graphics (albeit on very flexible rails).  The engine actually uses a combination of 2D and 3D graphics to an excellent overall effect, and the experience is ultimately faster and more arcade-like than any of the aforementioned titles.  Total Eclipse Turbo ends up feeling like a 3D shmup of sorts, and is the only launch game that probably didn't really fit into a traditional genre category. (The closest gameplay one may have found previously would have been in something like Star Wars: Rebel Assault or StarFox)

There is evidence that the game was rushed to meet launch.  Other than the very slight additions to the game over the original 3DO version that were mentioned in the intro above, there are two other things suggest that Crystal Dynamics rushed this to the PlayStation in order to make the launch.  For one, theres a discrepancy between the names of each level in the instruction manual and those in the game itself.  For example, the manual lists the title of level 2 to be "Omega Nebula"  whereas the game itself calls this level "Magma Prime."  Second, it feels rushed because the game features a very basic and bland menu (something that was typical of many early PS1 games), which is difficult to navigate and unintuitive.  If the developers spent any resources working on new presentation elements for the PlayStation, they were minimal.

Same level, different names!

Total Eclipse Turbo shouldn't be overlooked as just another clunky FMV-filled game from the early PS1 days.  It features a fast and consistent framerate, forgiving gameplay and ample continues, and decent production including what, for the time, was well-done CGI and a non-typical game soundtrack.   Compared to most other launch titles, the game has faded into obscurity a bit, and it obviously didn't become the powerhouse franchise that Crystal Dynamics probably had hoped for.  Still, if you were standing in a store on August 30, 1995 trying to pick out a game to go with your new PlayStation, you could have done much worse.

"The more you kill, the better you feel!" Brilliant marketing!

Posted on Jun 15th 2011 at 05:39:33 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Game Boy Advance, GBA, Launch Games

Welcome to a special co-production of the Transitions Blog and Game Boy Player Land. We teamed up to investigate the launch of the Game Boy Advance, a system which was released ten years ago this week in North America and went on to sell over 80 million units worldwide over the next decade. 

For gamers that can walk into a GameStop in 2011 and still buy GBA carts, it is hard to imagine that there was ever a time when the Game Boy Advance would have seemed like a risky proposition with an uncertain future.  When the system launched in June of 2001 (March in Japan), there were legitimate questions about the viability of 2D handheld gaming in an era that was championing 3D.  To put it in perspective, the GBA launched a year after the release of the PlayStation 2, almost two years after the release of the Dreamcast (which had just been dropped in North America by Sega in January)  and just six months ahead of Nintendo's own GameCube console.  Financially successful 2D games had been all but eradicated by the previous generation of console hardware, and the Game Boy's slumping sales coupled with poor international showings from the Wonderswan and Neo Geo Pocket Color pointed to an uncertain future for handhelds.  So when Nintendo introduced a unit that offered the functionality of a portable Super Nintendo, there was some apprehension in the air. 

So, let's consider what it would have been like to stand inside your local retailer of choice at midnight on June 11, 2001.  What would you see? What would you be thinking? You probably knew to bring two AA batteries with you to start playing, but what might you bring home to play?

Part 1: The Games

At launch, Game Boy Advance games sold for between $29.95 and $39.95 each, and the lineup of seventeen titles in North America was more than what had been seen before for any handheld launch in history.  The titles spanned a wide swath of new and old IPs:

Army Men Advance   As the millennium turned, there was a successful run of games in the Army Men series across several consoles.  So when the GBA launched in 2001, it was perhaps no surprise that the series made an early debut on the handheld.  While the isometric game is lacking in many aesthetic areas such as graphics and sound (especially compared to later games in the same series on the GBA), it stands out in the launch library as the only completely new title that allowed the played to run around and fire a gun (Earthworm Jim was a port).  Players could revisit levels of their choice using a password system, and those who struggled through the more technically impressive later levels were rewarded with a congratulations screen at the end of the game (which, incidentally, could be accessed from the main menu).

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon - There's a good argument to be had that this was probably the most anticipated launch game for the GBA, and by most counts it did not disappoint as it was probably the best reviewed launch title for the system.  As the first 2D Castlevania game since 1997s Symphony of the Night on the PlayStation and Saturn, the game delivers all the Metroidvania action you could crave along with the kind of distinctive artistic style that has marked the best entries in the series.  Though the game was a bit dark (and thus more difficult to see on the launch model GBA compared to later models), it offered a showcase for the abilities of the system, an intriguing story, gameplay with depth, and battery backup!

Chu Chu Rocket - There was something dirty about placing a cartridge bearing the Sega logo into a piece of Nintendo hardware in 2001, but any unease associated with that once-unholy pairing was soon erased by starting up this gem of a game.  Like most puzzle games, ChuChu Rocket is probably most at home on a portable console.  While the GBA version doesn't feature quite the same level of polish as the Dreamcast version (released just a few months before in the US), there are enough added features (such as multiplayer support from one cart and 2500 user-created levels) to more than make up for any loss in visuals or sound.  Given that it was the only true puzzle game at launch (why the GBA didnt launch with a Tetris title still confounds), this was a great release day choice.

Earthworm Jim - If you have played the SNES port of this classic 2D platformer, youve essentially played the GBA version.  Everything about the game (down to the lack of a save feature) is included here, and that's pretty much it.  It is impressive that this was the only SNES game ported directly to the GBA at launch, as it may have been fairly easier for lots of publishers to get started on the system with one of their older classics.  Thats what Shiny did here, and it helps to round out the launch with a little bit of familiarity.

F-Zero: Maximum Velocity - Other than a Mario title, this was the only first party game Nintendo had ready for the GBA launch.  Like Earthworm Jim and Pitfall, F-Zero felt like a 16-bit console port (even though it isn't a straight port) and helped establish the idea of the system as a portable Super Nintendo.  That means that your feelings about this game will closely mirror those of the SNES original, as the control and difficulty closely match that title.  The graphics actually look a bit nicer, though, and having something so fast on a small screen was a bit dizzying at the time. 

Fire Pro Wrestling  This long-running series had already published almost thirty entries in the series before the Game Boy Advance launch, and so its inclusion in the launch library didn't come as a real surprise.  This edition of the game featured many of the things that have made the series great  the ability to create your own wrestlers, a deep roster of available players, a smart grappling engine, and enough production quality to make it seem like a polished release. Since there was no other realistic fighting game at launch for the GBA (Ready 2 Rumble doesn't count) and no sports games aside from racers and Tony Hawk, a wrestling title probably looked alluring to a wide variety of consumers looking to scratch their competitive itch on launch day.

GT Advance -  Gamers in 2001 may have had to do a double take when they threw GT Advance into their GBA.  The combination of mode-7 style graphics and some excellent shading work really make the game pop off the screen.  The pseudo-3D effect is really quite something, and the selection of cars, colors, and other customization options meant that this game was an innovation in handheld racers upon its release.  The password system (instead of a battery save) is a real pain in the ass, though  it would have been nice to just use a battery backup.  Nonetheless, the controls feel very good, the amount of racing that you can do is impressive, and this was one of the few launch titles to feature link play capability.  Give that the only other racing options at the GBA launch were an F-Zero game (futuristic) and Konami Krazy Racers (kart racing), this would have been a strong choice for someone looking for something more realistic.

Iridion 3D -The 16-bit era had been regarded by many as the heyday of the shmup, so you could forgive gamers who picked up Iridion 3D while looking to find a GBA launch title that might deliver on the rich history of SNES games like Axelay or Phalanx.  Unlike the excellent sequel, however, the original Iridion game is a 3D corridor shooter that has more in common with the Genesis' Galaxy Force than it does with any of the great 2D shooters of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The graphics and sound are certainly passable in that they showed off what the GBA could do, but the core gameplay is quite boring and pretty frustrating.

 Konami Krazy Racers - If you've ever wondered who would win in a race between Goeman and the Octopus from the Parodius games, then Krazy Racers is for you. Although Mario Kart Super Circuit had been announced at launch, Konami beat Nintendo to the punch. This charming little Super Mario Kart clone is actually a blast for fans of the SNES classic kart racer and borrows heavily from it. Everything from terrain to coins and Mode 7 scrolling is present. However Konami enthusiasts will love all the fan-service with appearances from beloved franchise characters, music and even the Twinbee! bells returning as power-ups.

 Namco Museum - No system would be complete without Namco repackaging a handful of ROM's from their pool of classics. This GBA collection is decent but underwhelming, and certainly not a launch game that showed off what the GBA system could do. While gamers could rejoice to have such nice portable renditions of Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man, Pole Position and Dig-Dug, it must have also been disappointing considering the small collection of games offered. The lack of a battery feature to save high scores would just kick retro-enthusiasts while they were down.

 Pinobee: Wings Of Adventure - A prime example that lush, colorful graphics do not make a great game. Pinobee is actually pretty sub-standard platforming fare. The controls are awful and the levels, though gorgeous are extremely boring to actually play through. There's not a whole lot of challenge or even reward to motivate you to play through the game. Though certainly a fine tech-demo, Pinobee perhaps should have not made it to the launch lineup.

 Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure - Based on the SNES game of the same title, this platformer looks nice but really doesn't play all that great. Not only does it commit the cardinal sin of making B the jump button but it also goes overboard with stage design that's all style over substance. Its as if there was so much intention to show off what the GBA was capable of graphically that often the flow of a level is confusing -- you can pass in front of one tree, but another that looks just like it proves to be a roadblock. Ultimately its a frustrating game in a rather long series of letdowns.

 Rayman Advance - Whereas the GBA was touted as a portable SNES pretty much out the gate, Rayman Advance was one the few launch games that argued it could actually be a lot more than that -- in this case a portable PlayStation. This port of Rayman is absolutely gorgeous. More importantly, it plays remarkably well and may have been the best platformer available upon the GBA's launch.

 Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2 - For an arcade style boxing game Ready 2 Rumble is surely a bit of a fun. It looks impressive for such an early GBA game using scrolling to give a slight feel of 3D movement in the ring. It also uses some nice voice samples to add a touch of realism to the sprites as well. However the controls are also quite laggy, which can lead to frustrating gameplay as punches are often thrown after a bit of delay which makes strategizing rather hard. Its not quite game-breaking, but its awful close and can often lead to resorting to button-mashing out of frustration.

Super Dodge Ball Advance - This port of the classic Kunio-kun sports title is bittersweet. While it retains the fantastic gameplay of the original -- mixing a bit of brawling in with everyone's favorite Phys. Ed. pastime -- for some reason the developers, Million decided to complete re-design the Kunio-kun appearance of the sprites. Certainly this won't sit well with fans of the long-running series of games, but the upside is that it's still as fun to play today as it was at launch.

 Super Mario Advance - Though its no surprise that a new Nintendo system would launch with a Mario platformer, it is odd that a remake of a rather infamous black sheep would be one of them. Super Mario Advance is just that, a somewhat upgraded version of the NES Super Mario Bros. 2, which adds in the welcome addition of a save feature but also adds in a lot of infuriatingly horrible voice samples as well. If you can get past the voices though (or at least play with the volume turned off) then its still a pretty decent take on the game and features some very bright, colorful sprite work which was especially welcome on the original GBA's overly dark screen. Perhaps Nintendo figured it would use the GBA launch to give players a chance to reevaluate this oft-overlooked sequel.

 Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2 - The first Pro Skater game was released on the Game Boy Color, but didn't resemble the console versions at all. Instead it was a horribly stripped down mess that couldn't even redeem itself as a decent Skate Or Die clone. So when Activision rolled out the sequel on the GBA it was amazing to see how well they had captured the PlayStation/Dreamcast versions of the game. Pro Skater is presented in an isometric view that works beautifully on the handhelds small screen. And though obviously there are omissions to the graphical detail and soundtrack, the game really plays excellently. The same game engine would later be used to bring the cult-classic Jet Grind Radio to the GBA as well.

Part 2: The System

The system launched for $99.99 in North America, $10 more than the original Game Boy fetched upon its release in 1989. 

Hardware: The system had some interesting similarities and differences to both the Game Boy/Game Boy Color systems and to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System that had launched a decade prior.  The most obvious change was the number of buttons.  The GBA introduced SNES-style shoulder buttons that had not been there on the original line of Game Boys, though Nintendo decided to stick with only two primary buttons on the unit's face (the X and Y buttons wouldn't make their debut on a Nintendo handheld until the DS).  The most damaging similarity to the GB was a screen that lacked any backlighting, meaning that gamers needed to shell out for worm lights and the like for any nighttime gaming plans.  Luckily the system only needed 2 AA batteries to run, and could last for as many as 15 hours under the right conditions.

Furthermore, even though the GBA was actually a 32-bit system, most launch games shared more in common (from a technical standpoint) with Nintendo's 16-bit console.  This was good, as most games looked remarkably improved over even the most technically impressive GBC titles, but also contributed to a misconception about the system that it was only able to do SNES-level graphics, a view that dogged the handheld for its whole life.  To combat this, Nintendo stamped "32-bit" prominently on many of the retail boxes, hoping to convince consumers that they were getting high-end graphics in a handheld for a bargain price.

Wide Compatibility:   One of the major selling points for the system was that it would support all previous Game Boy and Game Boy Color cartridges.  Furthermore, like the Game Boy before it, the GBA would continue to be a region free console.  These two decisions effectively extended the library of games available for the system into the thousands. The system even offered options for screen stretching and color palette swapping via the use of L&R buttons.  In many ways, it was like the GBA has a built-in Super Game Boy.

Connectivity:  Like the Game Boy series before it, GBA units were able to connect to one another for multiplayer gaming, something that titles like Chu Chu Rocket took advantage of from the get go.  In addition, they launched with the promise of future connectivity with the Nintendo GameCube, something that was instituted very well for several of the games in that system's life. 

Part 3: The Launch

As mentioned above, there was some trepidation in the air over the launch of the GBA. 

Audience:  Much of the press covering the launch emphasized the unit's appeal to children  it was seen by much of the mainstream media as a purchase that parents would be asked to make.  For example, USA Today held a focus group of young kids to review the consoles the week before the system's US launch.  The article emphasized that

The latest version of the most successful game system ever, the $100 Advance (in stores Monday) wowed our testers, ages 9 to 13 and all Game Boy veterans, with a combination of compelling games and realistic graphics.

The next day The Washington Post explained that
Parents concerned about what all these games might cost them -- or kids worrying about how to stretch their own allowances -- do get one break with the GBA. Not only can gamers link up to four handhelds with an optional Link Cable, they can also share certain games with friends with only one cartridge on hand.

At a time when console games had clearly broken through to an older audience (after a half decade of struggling to do so), handheld gaming was still largely considered by mainstream media coverage to be toys for kids to play with on car rides in the back seat.  In some ways, over its lifetime the GBA would work to change that perception, but at launch the designation of "toy" was very much a real problem for Nintendo.

Ads: Nintendo ran a series of bizarre ads in 2001 promoting the GBA, some of which can be seen here:

These artistic ads, featuring CGI and high end production, certainly oversold the capabilities of the GBA.  However, they also gave it a certain "cool factor" for older gamers, as these ads weren't aimed at the young children suggested by the press coverage above: they were aimed at older teens and young adults.  The unit itself was only featured briefly in these spots, as was any footage of actual gameplay.  Instead, Nintendo was selling an image of the company and of the handheld that looked to break from its more traditional image and, perhaps, to blend better with the marketing that existed for its console contemporaries.

Availability: Reports in the days after launch suggested that the unit was selling out at many locations, and any fears about its initial success were quickly dashed when the unit passed the one million units sold mark by July of 2001 (by contrast, the 3DS took more than three months to hit that milestone).

We hope you've enjoyed this retrospective on the GBA launch but there's certainly more to be said...Were you there on launch day? What did you pick up and why?  What else do you remember about the system's marketing and sales? Speak up and share your stories in the comments below!

Posted on May 18th 2011 at 12:31:07 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Frogger, Genesis, SNES, Frogger, Majesco, Hasbro

Ah, the 16-bit era.  The two major systems in North America during those years were home to amazing shmups, RPGs, platformers, fighters and pretty much every other genre.  What title would finally hold the honor of closing out the retail market?  What magnum opus could serve as the cross-platform release to end the glory days of 2D gaming?  The answer, surprisingly, was Frogger.

Frogger, of course, had been a hit when it launched in arcades in 1981. In the years afterward, it would be ported to every computer and home console imaginable.  According to Wikipedia, for example, there are over 20 Frogger clones for the ZX Spectrum alone.  There was certainly not a frothing demand for a Frogger game when Majesco and Hasbro collaborated to bring the game to the Genesis and SNES in 1998, but that is exactly what they did.  By most counts, Frogger was the final retail release for both of these systems.

The Genesis and SNES versions, respectively

The two games are actually quite different in terms of graphics and playability.  The Genesis port of Frogger is widely hailed as one of the best ports the game has ever seen, and though it fails to really take advantage of the Genesis hardware, it is extremely faithful to the arcade version.  It offers no high score tables, no difficulty settings or other options, but it is nonetheless Frogger.

My copy of this game shows how cheap the Genesis packaging had become by the end of the Genesis lifespan.  Long gone, of course, were the clamshell cases...but this is even cheaper than the slide out cardboard games from the latter half of the Genesis run.  Theres also a lot of red border and text surrounding the box art, something which detracts significantly from the look of the packaging.  From the pictures available of the SNES box (I dont have a copy), it looks like there is a little more uniformity with the rest of the library.

Even Frogger himself looks depressed by this shoddy port

The SNES box art may have been the best part about that release of the game, as not only are the updated graphics a travesty for the eyes, but the control and sound are a mess as well.  It seems that the folks at Majesco wanted to make a different version of the game for each console  but it is hard to imagine what they were thinking with the SNES port. 

As an interesting footnote, Frogger received a near-simultaneous release on the PlayStation and PC as these 16-bit versions.  These versions place Frogger in 3D perspective and offer a lot of interesting additions to the game.  The PS1 port is especially worth a look, if you are a fan of Frogger (it even spawned a sequel).

Posted on Apr 30th 2011 at 07:50:38 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Collection

***We interrupt the normal Transitions Blog to bring you this shameless collection boasting thread***

I shot some shoddy video of my collection with my iPhone and thought I'd share them with the readers here at RFGen.  I also took a ton of pictures to post to a thread in the collection section of the forums and have included a few of them below to give you a taste.  Follow this link to see the rest, since you probably can't make out a ton of titles from the video alone.

Anyway, I have tried to make this something of an annual practice to document everything, so expect another one of these in a year or so.  I know there are plenty of folks here with much bigger collections than mine, but I am pretty happy with the size and scope of my own collection currently.  Enjoy the video and photos and feel free to ask any questions!


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

PICTURES (many many more  here).

***We now return you to your regularly scheduled coverage of Launch Games and End Games***

Posted on Mar 4th 2011 at 03:41:15 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Triggerheart Exelica, End Game, Dreamcast, Shmups, Classic Gaming

It has been some time since I last covered an end game on the blog, and when I did it was a Dreamcast shmup.  Here we go again...

As a 2007 release, Triggerheart Exelica was one of the last games that Sega itself released for the Dreamcast in Japan, where the system outlived its U.S. counterpart by almost five years (the last U.S. Release by Sega was NHL 2K2).  So how does this near-final final shmup stack up to the rest of the excellent Dreamcast shmup library?

As an end game it is notable for several reasons

Multiple release formats.   As was the case for several of the late Dreamcast releases, there was a Sega Direct limited edition version of the game which included a small art booklet, a phone card, a poster, and a soundtrack.  In addition to that version, there was another Limited Edition version which included the soundtrack, and a Standard Edition featuring just the game.  All of these releases came in a DVD-sized case, as was typical of these very late Dreamcast titles.  As you might expect, each of these releases continues to demand a premium on eBay, with the rare Sega Direct version usually fetching over $200.

The Sega Direct, Limited, and Standard releases of the game

It has a good gimmick.  Some of the best shmups have a gameplay gimmick  Ikaruga's color-based gameplay, Gaiares' TOZ, and Gradius' power up system are all classic examples.  Triggerheart's gimmick is the anchor shot, which allows you to grab enemies, use them as a shield, and spin around and throw them.  This adds an almost wrestling-esque feel to the game at points and gives it a ton of replay value as you can try to figure out new ways to string together chains or best address the rougher sections of the game.   

Its aesthetics elements aren't state of the art.  There are many earlier, better looking shmups on the Dreamcast.  Late system releases can be very hit and miss - sometimes they take advantage of all the development tricks learned on the games released previously and try to squeeze the most out of a system (e.g. Under Defeat for the Dreamcast), other times they are produced as budget titles and look cheap (e.g. the PS1's Shooter series of games).  Triggerheart Exelica falls somewhere in the middle: it looks and sounds fine, but it isn't anything special.  As it was Warashi's first (and only) outing on the Dreamcast, they may not have had much experience porting their arcade games to the hardware.  In any case, the game doesn't stand out as either a budget title or a carefully polished high point for the system.

All in all  Triggerheart Exelica is a fun game and a necessary addition to any shmup fans Dreamcast collection.  Its status as a late system release gives it more of a reputation than it probably deserves, but it is a great game nonetheless.

Posted on Feb 6th 2011 at 02:02:32 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Street Fighter The Movie, Launch Games, Playstation, Street Fighter, Classic Gaming

Here we have a perfect postmodern product, the kind of thing that made Baudrillard's head spin and which will make future generations look back on our culture with painful embarrassment.  This is a game based on a movie that is based on a game that is a sequel.  The inspiration for this game, Street Fighter II, was a beautiful and innovative arcade giant. The film, on the other hand, was a widely panned and campy take on everything that made the game interesting.  Where would the game stand?  Would it improve on the lowly film, or would it drag the Street Fighter name further down?

It would be easy to understand if early adopters for game consoles were leery of the Street Fighter name, as the previous launch title in the series largely failed to deliver the goods.   Nonetheless, on the day the PS1 launched in September 1995, early adopters who were interested in bringing home a fighting game (at a time when fighting games were still all the rage in the arcade) were presented with a choice of two titles: the new IP Battle Arena Toshinden providing a 3D graphics engine or the newest release in the wildly successful Street Fighter series: Street Fighter: The Movie.  Neither had seen an arcade release (although a different SF:TM game was released in arcades a few months earlier), so the new buyer had to rely on word of mouth, what they could learn from their past experiences, and what they discern from the boxes themselves.

So, if you were standing at a Babbage's or EB on that fateful day in September of 1995 with the two fighting games in front of you, what did you see?  For one, you saw Van Damme's giant fucking head:


On Street Fighter: The Movie you also saw a few additional important pieces of information on the cover.  You saw the boast of "DIGITIZED GRAPHICS FROM THE HIT MOVIE!"  You saw two names that were giants in the arcade industry in Capcom and Akklaim.  Turning the box over, you saw that the back cover was filled with content:  five in game screen shots, 14 pictures of the digitized fighters ("including Jean Claude Van Damme!"), and no less than 15 exclamation marks.  The whole thing appears to be a beautiful and/or unholy marriage of Mortal Kombat graphics, Street Fighter mechanics, and celebrity worship.  By contrast, on the Battle Arena Toshinden cover you see some awkwardly drawn, generic looking Japanese fighting characters, a handful of less than flattering screenshots of the game, and a description that does its best to make the launch title sound like the most generic fighting game of the era (and only seven exclamation marks).  So, if you had to go on the box art in front of you on launch day, you probably made a decision that you would come to regret: you probably took home Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game.

As a launch title, Street Fighter: The Movie is notable for several reasons:

It offered plenty of FMV.  It is important to remember that the PlayStation launched only a short time after FMV was the newest innovation in gaming, and if there's one thing Street Fighter: The Movie had going for it, it was copious amounts of FMV, both from the film and original to the game itself. This is especially prominent in the main story mode of the game in which you must play as Guile (Van Damme) and beat opponents on your way to M. Bison and the most obscenely gut-punching end game music video you've seen today:

Interesting trivia? This is actually the second music video affiliated with Street Fighter: The Movie.  The other? A video starring Street Fighter: The Movie actors, MC Hammer, and Deion Fucking Sanders .  Really. (CAUTION: the gut punch is even stronger from this video, as it manages to distill almost everything horrible about pop culture in 1994 into its purest form.)

"Hey! Kylie Minogue is in my PlayStation!"

It looked good when paused. Ok, this is debatable, but the game does feature passable digital capture work for the main characters, close approximations of the movie settings as backgrounds, and  reasonable effects for at least some of the various special moves.  If you were used to playing stuff like the Genesis port of Primal Rage or the SNES version of Mortal Kombat 3, then the look of the game (while paused) was quite impressive and showed off some of the potential of the PlayStation as a system.  When you unpaused, however...

The game was jerky, stuttered frequently, and controlled horribly.  A good fighting game must be fluid, and Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game's biggest flaw is that it is not a fun fighter.  It is randomly fast or slow, it isn't especially good at recognizing inputs for special moves, and the action of pressing a button isn't quite 1:1 with the movement on the screen, as it must be.  Even if you really liked Street Fighter: The Movie or really liked Capcom games, this title managed to kick you in the balls either way.  Built on the SSF2T engine, control shouldn't have been a problem (in theory).  I guess when you introduce motion-captured graphics into a 2D engine, problems result.

This picture of pissy Bison is courtesy of the excellent write up on the film and games @ RetroJunk!!!

The game didn't end the PlayStation's life immediately.  Bad launch games can hurt a system's pedigree from the start, and by the time the PlayStation came along the Saturn had already built an impressive roster of 2D and 3D fighting games (including its own launch title: Virtua Fighter).   The fact that a rushed, buggy, misguided game like Street Fighter: The Movie didn't kill the system's chances with fighting game fans is probably due to the fact that it had already been released on the Saturn and, presumably, been as widely panned as the film itself.  Maybe good-hearted Babbage's employees guided new PlayStation owners towards the superior Battle Arena Toshinden, maybe they urged them to wait for the upcoming Street Fighter Alpha (released about three months later), or perhaps they suggested that proof of the PS1's arcade chops could be found in games like Ridge Racer instead.

Street Fighter: The Movie must be regarded as one of the worst launch games for any system ever, and certainly the worst fighting game available for any launch.  As Van Damme's Guile asked Raul Julia's Bison in the film based on the game: "What happened to the purity of unarmed combat?!!!!"

Posted on Dec 24th 2010 at 09:39:50 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Launch Games, launch game, PCE, TurboGrafx 16, Street Fighter, CD, Classic Gaming

In 1988, NEC released the $400 PCE-CD (or TurboGrafx-CD, in North America) without any included titles.  Buyers needed to drop an additional hefty sum to actually play some games on the thing, and many probably opted for the premiere title in a series that would go on to be one of the most loved of all time.

If Fighting Street was any indication, CD-based systems and the Street Fighter series should have been dead in the water. 

Fighting Street is a particularly bad example of the one on one fighting genre prior to their golden age period in the arcades of the early 1990s.  Though the game included some of the same features that would go on to help define its sequels, the basic core components - gameplay, graphics, and sound - are all extremely rough compared to what would be accomplished just a few years later.   Even when considered in context, the game was a mess.

As a launch game for the first CD-based console, there are several things worth pointing out:

The game included "high quality" CD-audio.  One of the most marketable features of CDs was their ability to include higher quality music than would be possible with sound chips.  Superior audio fidelity was driving CD sales in the music industry, and held promise for the gaming industry as well.  Fighting Street does feature sound that is marginally better than most of the PCE's Hu-Card based games, but as it is emulating the soundtrack from an arcade machine, there is not the huge jump that some might expect.  Of course the CD format would also become known in gaming for introducing voice acting.  Voice acting is also included here, in a way.  There is one recorded voice.  Win or lose, a poorly recorded Japanese voice SLOWLY speaks the English words you see on the screen. Every time.  You will hear this voice about every two minutes, which means that after an hour you have listened to it 30 times.  Give a listen here around 2 minutes and again around 3:55. 

The game actually had bearable loading times.  One thing that plagued many later CD systems such as the Sega CD and 3DO were atrocious loading times.  Even the fighters on SNK's Neo Geo CD suffered from long loads.  Not so with Fighting Street.  While the game does have some loading (usually to cue up the spoken voice), there's no waiting for more than 5 seconds or so between screens.

The game should have been packaged with a six button controller.   The arcade version of the game used two buttons, and the intensity of a punch or kick was based on how long you held down the button.  That set up was translated to the PCE-CD, but it just doesn't work as well as a 6-button set up might.  In addition,  the standard d-pad is poorly suited to this kind of game.  I personally found myself fighting the controls more than my opponent, which is never something that bodes well for a game in this genre.

There was no ability to save.  Feature-wise, this was one of the biggest surprises of the game.  The PCE-CD had the ability to save game data on internal RAM, something that even later CD systems often neglected.  The ability to save progress, high scores, settings, or other features could have highlighted this strength of the system.  Opportunity lost.

The game was not good. I've made it a point to try and not do much in the way of reviews in this blog, instead focusing on specific novel features of the games I've addressed.  For this game though, I feel I can make an exception: avoid paying any money for this.  The bad controls and irritating sound are features that - while bad separately - really ruin the game when experienced together.  It is a small miracle that the PCE-CD went on to have some of the best games of the era, and that Street Fighter would go on to the success it found. There's little here to promote the CD medium over carts/cards, and even less to encourage people to play fighters on the PCE-CD.

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