December has always been a favorite month of mine, mostly because I was a spoiled only child growing up. My parents made sure that gifts with my name on them were piled to the ceiling every Christmas Day, and for that I am eternally grateful.
I loved and cherished every Christmas with my family. But, of course, some gifts stand out from the rest in a particular year. Over this month, I am going to post about some of the best videogame-related gifts that I received for Christmas over the past 23 years.
The first one comes from Christmas 1995.
Man, I hadn't even been in Kindergarten for a year. It's hard to look back on this with any sort of clarity. From what I can remember, I recall getting a ton of Batman Forever action figures. I think my parents might have got me the whole line. Either way, I was showered with Batman variations, and I loved every minute of it. For some reason, I loved the wacky variations on the main characters that every 90s toy line seemed to have. Screw The Riddler or Two-Face. I wanted Hydrogen-Flame Batman and Neon Rolodex Robin. The gaudier the colors, the better.
I was kind of an idiot, even by five-year-old standards.
The crown jewel of all of it, however, was a little game for the Super Nintendo called Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island.
Ooooh. Look at that masterpiece of Super FX art.
Yoshi's Island (the Super Mario World 2 title was just for marketing purposes, really) was released in October 1995 for the Super Nintendo. It was one of the later releases for the console, and it is also one of the few SNES games that used the Super FX 2 chip. The original Super FX chip was used to make rudimentary 3D graphics, like in Star Fox or Stunt Race FX. Yoshi's Island used the power in that chip to make amazing 2D art.
Seriously, this game looks like it could make a great Sega Saturn or early Playstation 1 game. It's a cut above the standard 16-bit visuals.
The plot is as follows: Baby Mario and Baby Luigi are separated as they are being delivered by a stork. Luigi is in the hands of Bowser Jr., but Mario was glossed over and he falls into the care of a tribe of Yoshis. These Yoshis vow to carry Baby Mario to reunite him with his brother, across every kind of climate possible on one island. It's a giant mess of platforming, egg-throwing, and secret-finding that is essentially flawless.
Green Yoshi always starts a world. Once you finish that, Mario is passed to the Red Yoshi. Then light blue, then Yellow, which is a mid-boss level that takes place in a small castle. After that, it's Purple Yoshi, then Brown Yoshi, then pink, then dark blue, which is the main boss of that particular world. After each world boss is finished, the cycle repeats at the next world, going through to world 8.
This game was hyped to hell and back on its release, and with good reason: This game is effing fantastic. Yoshi's Island is probably my favorite SNES game next to Kirby Super Star, and the memory of getting this game for Christmas makes it all the more awesome.
Make no mistake. I played the hell out of this game. My parents made sure to hook up my Super Nintendo to our big-screen television in the living room (a rear-projection TV, if I'm not mistaken), so I could experience the game in the best way possible. December 25th, 1995 was mostly spent with me glued to the television and my SNES controller glued to my hands. I spent weeks afterwards playing it after school, trying to beat the tougher levels without help from my mom (who never got too far, anyway). World 4-4 is still a choke point for me to this day. Friggin' lava.
I still own the very copy that I got for Christmas. It resides in my shelf with all of my other SNES games. I usually make an attempt to re-play it every year, and it completely holds up each time.
As for my Batman action figures from the same Christmas? If you go to Acme Comics in Longwood, FL, there may be a few left. Infared Batman isn't exactly in high demand.
I still find it amazing that I can connect my Xbox 360 to the internet and play a game with someone whom I have never met, nor will I ever meet again. It still freaks me out to know that I have a library of Xbox Live Arcade games that I do not have boxes for. Without a physical library, it's hard to remember that I bought games like Castle Crashers, or Mega Man 9.
I think part of the reason that I don't consciously remember that I own digitally-owned goods is that some day, I won't own any of those games anymore.
Authentication servers get shut down. Games are de-listed from the Xbox Live Arcade. Sure, I've got the game saved on my hard drive, but what if my 360 hard drive breaks in five years? What about the stuff I have paid for?
I primarily collect older games. The main draw for my love of older games is definitely nostalgia, but there's something about the finite nature of an old game cartridge. You have a game, and you can play it forever. A copy of Super Mario World will always work on your Super Nintendo, without any extra authentication or online passes. You can still play the original Mega Man, provided that your NES can still draw power.
Ever try playing Marble Blast Ultra? Good luck. It was de-listed from the Xbox Live Arcade a few years ago. The same thing happened with Marvel: Ultimate Alliance downloadable content. Tons of Rock Band songs are getting removed due to licensing rights expiring.
To me, it really seems like game companies are not putting any focus on long-term use for their products. It's always just here and now, and that really needs to change. I'd like to look at my PS4 games 15 years from now and still be able to play Killzone: Shadow Fall without anything going wrong.
Unfortunately, I don't think that will be possible.
Bullet-Proof Software is an interesting company. On the surface, it seems like this was just a random, obscure company that made a lot of stuff in the heyday of the NES and Super Nintendo that didn't stick around past the Nintendo 64. There's a bit of truth to that, and I'll get to it later in this post.
Bullet-Proof Software was initially founded in Japan, like a lot of game companies have traditionally been. In case you haven't noticed, it's kind of a "thing."
Their initial output were, apparently, RPGs for the MSX and PC-88, two home computers that never left Japan. I don't own either, and I highly, HIGHLY doubt that I will ever do so without some act of God occurring and allowing a MSX and a copy of BPS's "Black Onyx" to materialize at my local Play N Trade. Fingers crossed.
My familiarity with Bullet-Proof Software comes from their releases on the NES, SNES, and Game Boy. They really hit it big in the 1990s.
"How is that?" You ask? One word: Tetris.
"From Russia With Fun" indeed, my friends.
Tetris is a pretty obscure game that- Okay. I'm not even going to try to be witty and ironic with Tetris. Especially since I mentioned Tetris' crazy legal background in my Spectrum Holobyte retrospective. Retrospectrumve... Holobyte...
My previous post. That one.
Anyway, Tetris was a landmark of a game not only due to the game being instrumental in the rise of the puzzle game genre, but also due to the fact that it was a game made in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The sheer fact that it made it out of the country is a miracle. Sure, the Cold War had ended a couple of years after Tetris got out, but who knows what sort of impact the game would have had if it didn't.
As hard as it is to believe today, this game was unique in 1989. I'd like to guess that getting people to try Tetris back in 1989 was akin to convincing someone to try a glass of Campari.
There we go. Tetris is a bittersweet herbal liqueur. Nintendo's first-party publishing, as well as Bullet-Proof Software's development of the Game Boy and NES ports of the game, was the crisp, refreshing soda that made Tetris the amazing experience it was.
Nowadays, Tetris is everywhere. Everyone's heard of it. Go and play this one, if only because finding the Spectrum Holobyte version on the PC is probably not going to happen any time soon. This one's probably better, anyway.
I always seem to get hungry when I play this game. Just taking a stab in the dark, here, but I think that it's because of all of the delicious goddamn cookies in this game. Seriously. So many cookies. Cookies for days.
I wonder if this game was called "Yoshi's Biscuit" in PAL territories?
Ooh, "Yoshi's Biscuit", that's a good name for a rock band. I'm saving that one.
Yoshi's Cookie is a puzzle game where you have to flip around rows and columns of cookies in order to get a continuous pattern of the same cookie going from left to right or up to down. There are a ton of different cookies to match up, and on higher levels it's hard to get things perfect because just ONE SINGLE COOKIE that isn't like the rest on the grid means that your perfectly-planned combo isn't going to work. It's a weird game to explain. Just know that it's one of those puzzle games that is very easy to learn, but it has the incredible potential for painful difficulty at the higher levels of play.
The game itself is decked out in graphics inspired by Super Mario World, as that was the most recent "regular" Mario game out at the time. Hell, some of the level backgrounds are taken straight from SMW. Oddly enough, this game didn't initially have anything to do with Mario or Yoshi. It was originally a simple prototype called "Hermetica" that was neat enough for Nintendo to allow Bullet-Proof Software to use Mario-related imagery in the game. Also, the SNES version of Yoshi's Cookie happens to be the "home" port of the game, which a lot of people seem to have trouble understanding, despite it being a Spring 1993 release. The NES version is still quite a fun version, though it lacks a lot of the extra modes that the SNES one has.
Nintendo never marketed Yoshi's Cookie baked goods. That, my friends, is a goddamn travesty. There was cashmoney to be made there.
Oh, hey. Look at that. One of four FPS games on the SNES.
(The first-person segments in Lawnmower Man don't count)
Faceball 2000 is a neat little game. As stated earlier, Faceball is a first-person shooter on the SNES. That sounds weird, I know. Even weirder is the fact that Faceball is really just an updated release of an Atari ST game, MIDI-Maze. MIDI Maze is a networked FPS. On the Atari ST.
I know, right? Technolomogy, you so crazy!
Instead of doing the traditional FPS things, like killing Nazis and shooting hellspawn with a shotgun that is inversely proportional to the size of the protagonist's junk, you control a floating, sentient smiley-face. Your objective? Shoot the other floating, smiling geometric objects before they shoot you first. They're kind of a bunch of jerks.
Gameplay takes place in a boxed maze area, and each level is a little bit different than the last. The SNES version isn't exactly the best thing ever, though. The draw distance is pitiful even for SNES standards, and you're not exactly going to be getting smooth framerates when tons of things are happening at once. If only this were a Super-FX game, or if BPS was around to do a N64 version...
True to the spirit of the original MIDI Maze, Faceball 2000 for the Game Boy has four-player multiplayer capability. All you need is a 4-player Multitap, three more Game Boy Link Cables (sold separately, of course.) and three other friends who were willing to cough up $40 for copies of Faceball 2000 for the Game Boy. I've always wanted to see if this was any fun to do, but I haven't been willing or able to get people to care enough to try it out.
So. What happened to Bullet-Proof Software?
They were effectively gone by 1996. At least, their name was. The company changed their name in '96, to Blue Planet Software. I'm unsure as to why this occurred, but I'd really like to find out if it was due to the fact that their games weren't actually bullet-proof. Some dumbass probably bought up a ton of unsold copies of Michael Andretti's Indy Car Challenge, made a suit of body armor out of them, and tried to be a hero during a bank robbery.
That probably didn't happen, but it would be a pretty interesting story to tell people if it did.
Hey, at least they didn't have to get rid of any company signage that had just the company's initials on it.
I'm a bit of a fan of what most people call "retro" games. I don't entirely like the term "retro" because, when referring to video games, it encompasses a staggering amount of games and consoles. As a rule of thumb, it's best to consider anything made before the launch of the Playstation 2 "retro."
That rule may not apply in the coming years, however, with the launch of the Xbox One and the Playstation 4.
There are a ton of companies that haven't had a presence on modern game consoles for one reason or another. Most of these companies have had financial issues, or a change in corporate direction. So many more are cast into the void as a result of corporate mergers.†
As unfortunate as it is to say, Spectrum Holobyte was one of those companies.
Spectrum Holobyte was founded circa 1982-83 in Alameda, California. Most of their games were games that they developed for home computers of the era, but later in their life they switched much of their focus to the Super Nintendo and the Game Boy. In fact, my personal favorite game from SH, WordTris, is a puzzle game that most people played on either the SNES or Game Boy (if anyone else has played it at all...)
They had a knack for doing licensed properties, as could be seen with their numerous Star Trek: The Next Generation games. They also managed to release games based on incredibly weird properties, such as Flight of The Intruder. I actually own a boxed copy of the Amiga version of FotI. Amiga games always had a bad habit of including ridiculously-long instruction manuals and copy protection code sheets, but Flight of The Intruder has the rest beat. It includes a copy of the novel the game was based on. No doubt that you'd need it to beat the copy protection in-game (My Amiga is currently in storage, so I can't quite find out right now).
Spectrum Holobyte had a ton of games under its belt before folding into the Hasbro Interactive umbrella in 1998. Here's a few of my favorites:
To many, Falcon is THE flight simulator game. Sure, it's basic and simply getting the game started and being engaged is very much a task in patience on the part of the player (It's a "realistic" flight sim, and load times on the Amiga version are painful). This game is one of those games that has been ported to everything it can possibly be ported to. The standout ports are probably the Sega Master System version (Known as F-16 Fighting Falcon, a game that came out on one of the "Sega Cards." That's another show...) and Falcon for the NEC TurboGrafx-16. With the poor sales of the TG-16 in general, it's not too hard to guess how the sales of the TG-16 version of Falcon were. This game may have not aged too gracefully, but it rightfully deserves a place in history for being a very well-known and influential flight sim game.
Iron Helix. Fun stuff. I picked this game up at a thrift store for $1 a few months back. Was it worth it? Most definitely.
Iron Helix is a FMV-based survival horror game set on a spaceship where a security robot has mistakenly killed all of the people on the ship and may or may not be trying to start a war. You control a robot from a remote position, and you muse navigate the ship, gather DNA samples of the dead crew members to unlock sections of the ship, and eventually prevent an all-out war with an alien race that you're already on rough terms to begin with. It's very System Shock in the way it presents things, but the immersion is on a whole different level since you're not controlling the robot, but a person controlling the robot remotely. That is meta as hell. This game is worth some sort of look, if you ever find a copy at a Salvation Army like I did.
Here we go. Wordtris. My personal favorite of Spectrum Holobyte's releases.
Like anything with the -tris suffix, you can bet that this game is a falling block puzzler. This was kind of a huge thing back in the early 1990s, when Nintendo got exclusive rights to the home console versions of Tetris and the puzzle genre gained immense footing in the marketplace. What a lot of people don't know is that Spectrum Holobyte's version of Tetris was the first version of the game that was released in the United States, years ahead of Nintendo's release of the "original" Tetris.
Spectrum Holobyte was clearly no stranger to Tetris-likes (they even published a bunch of Alexey Pajitnov's other games, like Wildsnake, Hatris and Welltris, but, once again, that's another story for another time). Wordtris deviates from the Tetris formula in that it is a falling block puzzler, but the blocks are all squares with individual letters printed on them.
Basically, Wordtris is Scrabble and Tetris put together. And it's fantastic. You get more points for the more words you can spell with what you are given, and spelling a particular word (shown at the bottom of the screen) will net you bonus points and a clear playfield, free of unwanted letters cluttering things up.
Wordtris is absolutely addicting, like any good game with -tris in the name. Go and play it. It's not too expensive to pick up for the Game Boy, and the SNES version won't entirely break your bank, either.
Maybe I'll revisit more Spectrum Holobyte games in the future. I just wanted to touch upon a couple of my favorites. It also helped that the three I chose were on-hand at the time of writing.
Within the past five years or so, there has been a gigantic surge in companies paying tribute to their past in every way possible: You've got companies like Capcom doing Ducktales: Remastered, which is basically a love letter to the fans of the original game. Capcom also recently announced a new entry into the Strider series, which looks to be taking cues from Metroidvania games.
Hell, Nintendo is making a ton of cash on games that are more or less straight re-releases, be it with their Virtual Console offerings (Earthbound, hell yeah!) or their 3D updates of Starfox 64 and Zelda: Ocarina Of Time.
As awesome as these re-releases are, sometimes you just need to play a classic game on the original console.
Emulators are great (especially for capturing footage of games that happen to be on handhelds with nigh-opaque screens), but they're not the real thing. They never will be.
Sure, emulators are playing the same games as the consoles did, but there is something magical about playing Super Mario World on my original console that my dad got me as a birthday gift over 20 years ago.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It's comforting, and it allows us to think back to a time where things didn't seem complicated, or depressing. It's our own little happy place. And that's not a bad thing at all.
Unfortunately, people like to take advantage of this.
Right now, all of those kids who grew up in Nintendo's golden age are just leaving school and getting into the "real world." The oldest of them have probably settled down right now. A lot of them probably gave up their old video games in garage sales or they traded them in at a game store to pay for something expensive. After months and years of working towards a degree or towards a promotion, those childhood memories of all of the stuff that we gave up or gave away start to creep back into our minds. It's inevitable.
Picture it, if you will: After a particularly grueling Friday at the office, answering phone calls that never seem to end, you're looking to spend time with a video game that you absolutely love. What better way to kick back and unwind from the personal hell that is your life than with a few hours of Mega Man X2?
"Hell yeah!" says your sub-conscience, "Mega Man X2 was amazing! A real product of its' time! Nothing like it!"
Indeed, my friend.
You know that your SNES is still locked away in your closet. After a dusting and some TLC, your console will be up and running. Only one fairly important problem: Your mom and dad made you trade in your SNES games so you could buy a PS2 and a copy of Smuggler's Run.
eBay's pretty much your only choice for SNES games.
So, you rush to your computer, which you can barely see because your eyes don't want to see another goddamn computer screen for the rest of the weekend. As you type in "SNES Mega Man X2" or something similar, you're stunned to find that you're gonna have to cough up some serious dough to relive your childhood.†
There are a bunch of games on the Sega Game Gear that were originally made for the Sega Master System. It makes a lot of sense, since the Game Gear's technical specs were nearly identical to the Master System. They're similar enough that, with a Master System converter, you can actually play SMS games on the Game Gear.
So with both game libraries, you have a bit of overlap. Some games were ported to the Game Gear, others were actually ported to the Master System in territories that the Master System enjoyed success in, which consisted primarily of Brazil and most of Europe.
Ninja Gaiden is a game that seems to be a double-dipper at first, as there is a Ninja Gaiden on the Master System. This isn't the case, though. The Game Gear version of Ninja Gaiden is completely different from its Master System counterpart. In fact, as far as I know, it's completely unique to the console.
The title screen is standard Game Gear fare. Of course, the real fun begins when you press start.
If you're looking for a crazy-hard, throw-your-handheld-at-the-wall kind of experience, look elsewhere. This version of Ninja Gaiden is downright tame compared to the other versions of the game. For the record, the Atari Lynx version is a port of the arcade game, and the Game Boy version is "Ninja Gaiden Shadow", a completely different game. But that's another show.
The background in this level is fairly sparse, but other levels do have more detail in them. The sprites are clear and distinct, and it's not hard to tell where you are. Unlike a game like Sonic 2, Ryu moves slow enough to not be a pain in the ass to see on a Game Gear's screen. This level does have an issue with the enemy ninjas blending in with the ground, but it's not a huge issue.
You face a boss at the end of each level. This particular boss was a little confusing at first, since he's only vulnerable in a certain position and hitting him when he isn't in that position won't do anything. On top of that, this guy will DESTROY your health if you let him touch you, and by the time you can get off of him he's already taken out a huge chunk of your health.
Needless to say, this guy wrecked me at first. If you die, you have to start at the beginning of the level. That's the only real "hard" aspect of this game. It's not even that much of a setback, since the levels themselves are straightforward and not hard to get through at all.
Oooh, a cutscene! Once you defeat the boss, you actually get a little scene that serves as the transition to the next level of the game. This is a bit of a rarity in the Game Gear library. Actual plot? In my Ninja Gaiden?
This is totally not Shinobi. Honest.
Check out that background, too. It definitely works better than the previous level.
Ninja Gaiden is an okay game. It's nothing to write home about. I'd suggest checking out this game if you're looking to carve up some people who probably deserve to be carved up.
Ninja Gaiden is a series that is known for being very difficult. The fact that this game isn't makes it somewhat of a black sheep in the Ninja Gaiden family. It's certainly do-able in one run if you're careful enough and you know how to deal with the bosses. It's a far cry from the crazyness of the NES games.