Transitions: The Launch Games/End Games Blog

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 Oct 8th 2010 at 02:51:11 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under launch games, launch game, end game, Ridge Racer, racing, PS2

This is the second part of a five part series looking at those titles in the Ridge Racer series of games that have been launch titles.  Part 1 covered the first Ridge Racer game, for the PS1.  This entry covers Ridge Racer V for the PS2.


The first Ridge Racer was arguably the highlight of the PS1 launch, being the only game featured as a launch title in all three major regions.  It was also the only arcade-style racer released at that system's launch, and so for many it had helped to define Sony's first console from the very start as the place to go for arcade quality titles.  Certainly Sony had high hopes that Ridge Racer V would live up to this legacy.

When the PS2 launched ten years ago this month (October 2000 in the USA), the gaming landscape was markedly different from what it had been when Sony's PS1 hit stores five years prior.  The second golden age of the arcade (the mid 90s) had ended, arcade style racing games were losing market share to driving simulation games such as Gran Turismo, and gamers had become accustomed to graphically polished and in-depth experiences from the racing genre.  They had also become accustomed to choice, as there were probably a dozen racing franchises in active production at the turn of the millennium.  Fortunately for Namco, Ridge Racer Type 4 had been quite successful and so hopes were high for Ridge Racer V.  Nonetheless, V certainly had to contend with a different context than its PS1 launch game predecessor.  How did it fare?  As a launch title, it is significant for several reasons:

Ridge Racer V


It was the only traditional racing game at the PS2 launch.  The PS2 launch had no shortage of opportunities for gamers to drive fast .  On launch day, Smuggler's Run, Wild Wild Racing, Midnight Club: Street Racing, and Moto GP offered racing fans a wide selection of titles that could address their need for speed,  but only Ridge Racer V offered the option to drive a racing car around a traditional track in an arcade style racer. This seems like it was probably a deliberate choice by Sony, as they did this with the first Ridge Racer game at the PS1 launch and would repeat this model with the PS3 launch.

It was a return to the series' roots. In an often criticized move, Ridge Racer V stripped away many of the additions the series had seen over the years in terms of gameplay, car selection, customization, and other more simulation style racing enhancements.  The main track is similar to the one featured in Ridge Racer 1, and all the tracks are quite similar to one another.  The main gameplay mode is a Grand Prix mode for trophies, but there are only a few interesting rewards for doing well.  In other words, it is very much like the first Ridge Racer. 



Ridge Racer Type 4 shipped as a special edition with this Namco JogCon force feedback controller.  The controller could also be used in Ridge Racer V.

It was a showcase for PS2 graphics...but not in a good way.   Graphically, Ridge Racer V is a competent title and arguably looked better than the previous entries in the series with the possible exception of Type 4.  The tracks have more shading, lighting is better implemented, some nice spark effects are used, and the menus are slick.   But, the game features lots of flickering and aliasing problems (or "jaggies") which were a major concern at the PS2's launch.  One argument that some Dreamcast owners made was that their games featured a smoother look than those on the PS2, and Ridge Racer V was a common punching bag for these criticisms. 


An example of the "jaggies" found throughout the game.

It was really hard. Well, at least I thought so.  I can do pretty well in most of the Ridge Racer games without running into many problems until the latest levels.  Not so with V.  I've struggled with this game from some of the very earliest stages - in part because of the looser steering, in part because of some of the issues with graphics, but mostly because of the cheap AI and unresponsive controls.  It isn't that I can't drive the cars, but there often seems to be a disconnect between what I want the car to do and what it actually does.  This is certainly one of the more punishing games from the PS1 launch.

It failed to showcase many of the PS2's best features.  The audio CD-swapping trick, the unlocakables, and the mini-game features found in the original Ridge Racer all showcased the capabilities of the PS1.  There is nothing about Ridge Racer V which suggested the PS2 was a machine that could do new things or do old things better.  Part of the reason the PS2 sold well out of the gate was because it was a DVD player and because DVD-based games could hold much more information.  Ridge Racer V shipped on CD and didn't really feature very much content compared to some of the earlier CD-based titles in the series.  Furthermore, it didn't provide surround sound, use the new ports found on the system, or really push the hardware the way that some of the other launch titles did. 


It would be the only PS2 Ridge Racer game.  Perhaps all you need to know about Ridge Racer V's ability to hook people on the PS2 or get them interested in future racing games comes from this fact.  Whereas the PS1 had seen four Ridge Racer titles in five years, the PS2 turns ten this year with only one Ridge Racer game to its credit. 

In retrospect, even though Ridge Racer V offered a fully fledged arcade racing experience, it seemed like a rushed and incomplete project that failed to distinguish itself amongst the PS2 launch lineup the way that the first game in the series had on Sony's first console.  In future installments, we'll explore whether or not the series' other launch titles addressed these shortcomings.



Posted on Sep 2nd 2010 at 02:32:07 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under gaming history, launch game, end game, longbox games, FMV, 3D, 2D

I mentioned in the premiere post for this blog that I will be focusing on the games released at the beginning and end of a system's life.  And while I have a lot of interest in the games on either end of that spectrum, part of my motivation for the "Transitions" title of the blog stems from an interest I have in major shifts in gaming history.


Even though home consoles have only been around for 30+ years, there have already been several important and defining moments in gaming history where significant sea changes occurred, altering how consumers view games.  For example, the video game crash in the early 1980s taught developers the importance of releasing a quality product and signaled that consumers were becoming more discerning when making their purchase decisions.  A recent major transition for the industry would be the development of downloadable games on home consoles.  That change has so far resulted in a renaissance in indie development, bigger rewards and less risk for the introduction of innovative gameplay, and a number of other ongoing shifts in how we choose games.

There is one transitory period in gaming history which, for me, has always been the most interesting: the period between (approximately) 1993-1996

Several interesting things happened at this time:

1) Developers began to market games for adults instead of for children.
Research concludes that todays average gamer is in their early-mid 30s, which is where I personally fit on the demographic scale.  15 years ago, many of us were making the transition from childhood to adulthood, and as we were going through those awkward late teenage years, gaming was going through its own growing pains.  Recognizing that 14-18 year olds might be outgrowing cute mascots and cartoony sprites, developers started shooting for more realism in games, introduced mature themes, emphasized cinematic presentation, and included more sex, violence, and other "adult" elements.


2) A revolution in graphics and gameplay took place.
In this period, many companies moved from making 2D games to making early 3D games and/or Full Motion Video titles.  Cheaper and more powerful hardware meant that game designers could introduce players to gameworlds that were simply not possible in 2D.  Many of these early 3D titles were clunky, had infuriating cameras, imprecise controls, and were easily surpassed by superior games in the late 90s.  That didn't stop consumers from buying them anyway, and well done 3D titles such as Virtua Fighter and Wipeout spawned franchises that continue to this day.  For all its faults, Full Motion Video served a purpose in making designers consider cinematography, storytelling, and basic things like lighting and sound in ways that they hadn't previously.  The legacy of these innovations is clearly seen in contemporary gaming.

3) Between October 1992 and September 1996 at least twenty consoles or add-ons were released.
The Sega CD, The Atari Jaguar, The Sega 32X, the 3DO, the Playstation, the Saturn, the Virtual Boy, the PC-FX, The Amiga CD32, the FM Towns Marty, the Apple Bandai Pippin, the Atari Jaguar CD, the Casio Loopy, the R-Zone, the Pioneer Laser Active, the Playdia, the Neo Geo CD and CDZ, the Supervision, the Mega Duck, the Nintendo Stellaview and still others were all published in roughly four years.  This is a staggering amount of new technology flooding the game market, and it is remarkable that only Sony really managed to steal a major piece of Nintendo and Sega's dominance from earlier in the decade.  (Also of note: during this period the NES saw its final release in Wario's Woods.) While many of these systems have deservedly stayed obscure, the sheer number of consoles and handhelds put to market suggests there was a belief that the games industry was a place where companies could make a lot of money.  While there had been previous periods in gaming history with a variety of competing consoles, this period's only close competitor for the sheer number of choices available would be the very early proliferation of standalone Pong machines. 


4.) 16-bit platforms saw some of their strongest releases.
The transition period wasn't just about the introduction of new consoles and technologies, but was also about many of the best games from the dedicated 2D consoles from the early 90s.  About 2/3 of gamerankings.com's best Genesis/SNES titles were published in this period when 2D level design, gameplay, chip music, and sprite work really reached a state of the art.  While many gamers were looking towards the possibilities offered by upcoming hardware, developers were perfecting their craft on older machines.


There were, of course, other important developments during this period: the growth of used game sales/retail stores, the revival of and then retreat from the arcades, the development of a comprehensive rating system (the ESRB was established in 1994), the shift from cartridge to disc format, and other changes that help make this perhaps the most interesting period in gaming history.

Because of the rich history offered in this transitory period , I have made it a point to collect many of the games from this era.  Towards that end, a few years ago I completed a Sega 32X library and recently finished off a PS1 longbox set.  I have more Jaguar games than I need, and have played my share titles for systems like the 3DO and the Neo Geo CD. 


I occasionally get asked about why I would collect games that are often rudimentary, painful to play, lacking in production value, and generally inferior to the great 2D games that came before or the better 3D games that came later.  My answer is always that understanding something about those transitory periods, the awkward moments in gaming history, undeniably gives you a better appreciation for the best games and the history of the industry as a whole.  Coupled with my own recollections about how I grew up as gaming was growing up, these titles are an interesting reminder of my own transitions in life.

What do you consider to be the most interesting period in gaming history?





Posted on Aug 11th 2010 at 01:04:40 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under end game, end games, launch games, last hope, dreamcast, neo geo, shmups

Although homebrew console games are a phenomenon that have been with gaming for decades, the relatively recent popularity of emulators and the web itself have created a rich environment for an ongoing renaissance in self-made games. Almost every classic game system has enjoyed an assortment of wonderful homebrew games over the past decade, including those that have seen official releases in formats original to the systems that they are created for.  Since this blog attempts to chronicle games released both at a system's launch and a system's end (and beyond), these games are a natural fit.


Last Hope is an especially interesting candidate, as it is not only a "last" game for one particular console, but for three.  Developed in 2006 by NG:DEV.TEAM for the Neo Geo, Neo Geo CD, and Dreamcast, Last Hope is a horizontal-scrolling shooter that borrows obvious inspiration from games like IREM's R-Type and Aicom's Pulstar.  More polished and better produced then a majority of homebrew games, NG.DEV.TEAM's game was generally well-regarded by consumers and reviewers alike.  Furthermore, the most common complaints about the game (the difficulty, the tough-to-discern appearance of various objects, etc.) were addressed in an updated 2007 release for the Dreamcast entitled Last Hope: Pink Bulllets.

One of the most impressive feats of this release is that NG:DEV.TEAM made an effort to mimic the standard packaging for each of the ports of the game. This adds to the overall sense of high production quality found in the game itself, and rounds out the full package nicely.  Because the AES carts were prohibitively expensive to produce, only 60 were made and sold, for around $700 each.  Because of the rarity, prices for the game have gone upwards of $1000+ in the time since.  The Neo Geo and Dreamcast versions were available for closer to $30-$50 each, depending on whether the standard or limited edition (with a soundtrack) was purchased.  All versions of the game were region free, so they could be played on any system.

Here you can see what each version looked like (sorry for the watermarks, but I don't have my own copies of these.)


The Neo Geo AES cart, box, and manual


The Neo Geo CD case, disc, and manual


The Dreamcast case, art, and manual


The version I own is the aforementioned Pink Bullets update for the Dreamcast.  For this release, NG:DEV.TEAM opted to go with a pink DVD-style case instead of a standard jewelcase.  I can't say I am a big fan of the redesigned packaging since I like my Dreamcast games all to look the same on the shelf, but the general quality of the paper, printing, etc. is still high.


The inside of the Pink Bullets edition of the game

As an "end game," there are several things worth noting about Last Hope:

The old-school look and feel.  Since the game was designed for the Neo Geo and then ported to the Dreamcast, the game retains the style and appearance of other shooters from the early 90s.  What that means is that the Neo Geo ports are some of the better looking shmups available for the system while the Dreamcast port is one of the least visually impressive shooters available for that console.  The game also plays like those other "tactical" shmups that inspired it: it is a tough game that will leave even veteran gamers muttering obscenities at the screen.



The soundtrack. One aspect of the game that received almost universal acclaim was the soundtrack by composer Rafael Dyll.  Full of creatively employed, sweeping synthesizers and strings, the game is a joy to listen to.  Since the Dreamcast version was published on a CD-ROM instead of a GD-ROM, it can be listened to on a CD player.  Dyll has since gone on to produce the excellent soundtracks for both Soldner-X games.


Dreamcast features are listed on the back of the box

The extra touches for the Dreamcast.  Since I only have the Pink Bullets edition, I can't comment on how well the game takes advantage of the tech available on the Neo Geo systems.  What I can comment on is the ways in which the game includes features that highlight the strength of the Dreamcast.  For one, the game includes VMU support as some graphics are displayed on the screen and scores can be saved.  It also supports the use of a VGA box, something that wasn't true for all DC games. Perhaps most importantly, the game provides support for a Dreamcast arcade stick should the player wish to use one.  I found that the standard DC controller worked well as you could use the L and R triggers to rotate the pod on the outside of the ship clockwise or counterclockwise, something that feels awkward on an arcade stick but natural on the DC controller.


The Dreamcast manual

Last Hope is not ever going to be mistaken for one of the greatest shooters ever, but it is one of the best post-system life-cycle shooters I have come across thus far.  It seems that NG:DEV.TEAM is dedicated to producing high quality work and the success behind a release like this will help keep the Neo Geo and Dreamcast viable as platforms to receive new games.  And while it is technically a homebrew game,  it is presented very much like a licensed title.  For me, those little touches make a big difference.

The team that created Last Hope have gone on to produce other post-life cycle games (they recently released another AES cart).  Here's hoping that we see another Dreamcast port!



                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
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