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Monday, September 11, 2023

Obscusion B-Side: Prowling the Official Atari Jaguar Catalog: 1995 (Part 3)

"With the Jag now having actual major competition on the North America market in the form of the Sega Saturn, even with the console experiencing its own rough (& unintended) start, Atari needs more games like this bunch if it wants any chance at being able to stand next to Sega & Sony (as well as Nintendo, though its next console it still a year away) as a legitimate competitor, even if only to a limited extent."

It's July of 1995, and the North American video game market is in a bit of flux. While the Sega Genesis & Super Nintendo are still strong sellers, with the SNES on the verge of finally surpassing the Genesis in yearly sales come the Holiday season (for a multitude of reasons), Sega of America's early launch of the 32-bit Saturn (a decision forced by Sega of Japan, though it was due to SoA's own financial mistakes costing the entire company dearly) hasn't really managed to make much of any impact because of a slow & staggered roll-out nationwide, alongside a slow trickle of new releases due to the surprise launch screwing over SoA's development & publishing partners' initial plans; meanwhile, the Sony PlayStation is still set for a September launch. This gives the Atari Jaguar a little bit of a theoretical opportunity, but in the two months following our last title covered (Super Burnout) there will only be five games released for the Jag. For comparison, even the 3DO saw nine games during that same time period, nearly twice as many, and that console wasn't doing too much better by mid-1995. Still, the prior five games covered last time were all good games, with some even being great games, so let's see if the Jag can continue that momentum right up until the launch of the PlayStation.

Something that the Jaguar has had a bit of a dearth of are puzzle games, with launch title Evolution: Dino Dudes (a.k.a. The Humans) being the sole example of the genre on the console up to this point, and even then that was more of a puzzle-platformer. In terms of "pure" puzzle games there would only be two released on the Jag, with the first one being FlipOut!, released on July 7, just two days after Super Burnout; it'd also receive an MS-DOS port in 1996, but only in Europe. One of the very first games ever developed by Gorilla Systems, a studio that would be known mainly for developing licensed IP titles (Barbie, Disney, etc.) & porting games to other hardware, FlipOut! is a tile-matching puzzle game that actually saw video game journalist Michael Price from Electronic Gaming Monthly work as a tester on the game, playing prototype builds & giving feedback & suggestions that he felt would help improve the game, which he'd later admit was developed on a low budget. Interestingly enough, Atari didn't actually publicly reveal FlipOut! until E3, just two months prior to release, so one has to wonder if the game was simply developed in secret until it was ready... or if Atari Coporation simply decided to toss it out ASAP just so there'd be two new games for the Jag in July, as the next game wouldn't come out until August. Guess there's only one way to find out...

Monday, September 4, 2023

Obscusion B-Side: It's All About the Ataris, Baby... The Companies, Not the Punk Rock Band

There are only so many words in any language, so it's only natural that people only have so many words to name a company that they start up with, & it's not surprising to come across two different companies with effectively the same name from the same industry, so much so that calling them by a shorthand can lead to confusion. When it comes to video games there are plenty of examples of that. For example, we have Access Games (Deadly Premonition) vs. Access Software (Tex Murphy), Sonic Team (Sonic the Hedgehog) vs. Sonic! Software Planning (Shining Force), Climax Entertainment (Runabout) vs. Climax Studios (Rocket Knight [2010]), Gremlin Graphics/Interactive (Top Gear) vs. Gremlin Industries (Head On), MileStone Inc. (Chaos Field) vs. Milestone s.r.l. (MotoGP), Monolith Productions (Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor/War) vs. Monolith Soft (Xeno Series), & Piranha Bytes (ELEX) vs. Piranha Games (MechWarrior 5), among many others; hell, this can even apply to a single letter, as seen with Q Entertainment (Lumines) vs. Q-Games (PixelJunk Series)!

In other instances, though, two different companies can have the same name because the trademark itself was sold off. For example, T&E Soft changed its name to D Wonderland Inc. in 2002, only to then sell the "T&E Soft" trademark to another company in 2005, which eventually resulted in a completely different studio called T&E Soft that existed between 2008 & 2013, followed by D4 Enterprise acquiring the rights to both the T&E Soft name & all of its games and IP in 2019, all while D Wonderland Inc. (the "original" T&E Soft, now Daikokuya Global Holding Co., Ltd.) continued to operate & is still around to this very day. However, when it comes to the "same name game" in the video game industry, there's only one undisputed king of confusion: Atari.

The Japanese word "当たり/atari" can be translated into many words, but for our context comes from Go, a Chinese board game dating back to at least sometime in the mid 6th century BCE & wouldn't actually be brought over to Japan until sometime in the 7th century CE. In terms of Go, "atari" is the point where at least one of a player's stones is in risk of being captured by their opponent's next move, similar to a "check" in Chess; however, unlike a check, verbally calling an atari is considered inappropriate for anyone beyond beginners. Still, the word "atari" itself has a nice ring to it and when Nolan Bushnell realized that he couldn't incorporate the word "syzygy" for his company in California while getting the arcade game Pong ready for release, as it was already being used by another company, he went with a term from his favorite board game Go as the name of his company on June 27, 1972. Unbeknownst to Bushnell, though, would be the future that the name "Atari" would have, one in which eight different companies related to gaming or technology in general (nine, if you take Japan's phonetic history with "r" & "l" into consideration) would have the name "Atari" in some way over the course of the next 50+ years, most of which trying to keep the name & legacy of his company alive to some fashion. So let's make sure everything's in "check" as we go over the wild & sometimes confusing history of "Atari".

Monday, August 21, 2023

Obscusion B-Side: Frames, ARKs, Presidents, & HOUNDs: A Look at FromSoftware's Un-Armored Cores

Founded on November 1, 1986 by Naotoshi Zin, Tokyo-based FromSoftware initially made its name as a developer of various business applications for mainframe computers, as well as agricultural applications like managing pig feeding. By the end of the early 90s "FromSoft" decided to transition over to game development, and eventually would "debut" with the release of King's Field for the PS1 on December 16, 1994. After two sequels to King's Field over the next two years (which were the two that saw release outside of Japan, albeit with altered numbering), FromSoftware would debut its fourth video game, Armored Core for the PS1, on July 10, 1997, with a sequel (Project Phantasma) coming out later that December. This would mark the start of FromSoftware's most successful & iconic series for the longest time, so much so that from 1997 to 2006 there was literally at least one Armored Core game released per year, with 2004 even seeing three released! It wouldn't be until Hidetaka Miyazaki truly made his mark with Demon's Souls on PS3 in 2009 that FromSoft had something that would actually surpass Armored Core, resulting in a stretch of time from 2014 to 2022 where the studio would make almost nothing but "Soulsbourne" games, i.e. titles made in the same (or at least very similar) vein as that of Demon's Souls; games of this type not made by FromSoftware are called "Soulslikes". The only exceptions would be a 3DS port of a 2010 Monster Hunter spin-off PSP game in 2015 & a PS VR adventure/horror game in 2018, though Soulsbourne games would still see release those same years.

However, and this is something that has often been lost on people over the past decade, there was so much more to FromSoftware than just Soulsbourne, Armored Core, & even King's Field.

Which one of these got an actual model kit?
Hint: Not the one you're likely thinking of!

Prior to Soulsbourne games making FromSoftware synonymous with dark fantasy (though the studio had always been known for that, since its very first game), the studio was actually more known as a studio that specialized in giant robots. In fact, FromSoft was so synonymous with mecha that it would also be hired to develop games based on other companies' IPs, namely Sunrise's Gundam Unicorn, Capcom's Steel Battalion (though the less said about that Kinect-only game, the better), & most notably Banpresto's crossover series Another Century's Episode/A.C.E. (though the less said about the PS3 game, the better). All that being said, though, it wasn't just Armored Core games & licensed IP titles that FromSoftware developed when it came to mecha, as there are four standalone games involving giant robots that came out in Japan between mid-1999 & mid-2006, i.e. Demon's Souls was only just barely starting development by the last one. Two of them (later three) would see international release, but most notably all of them came from different staff within FromSoftware, with very little carryover beyond some producers & music/sound staff member Kota Hoshino (who's still with FromSoft to this very day, but hasn't composed music for games since 2013), showing a remarkable amount of variety in style, tone, & execution within a shared overall concept of "giant robots". So, to mark FromSoftware's return to mecha with the release of Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon, let's take a look at what can be best described as the studio's "Un-Armored Cores".

Monday, August 14, 2023

Television Spectaculars Across the Grand Line! A Look at the Original Four One Piece TV Specials

While they're still done on rare occasion to this day, the concept of the "TV special" has certainly lost the luster it once had. In an age where streaming is king & traditional TV slowly loses more & more relevance with time, the traditional TV special has more or less been replaced by what's now called "event television", which prioritizes being aired live so as to more entice people to tune in, whereas the normal TV special was, more often than not, pre-recorded. Now while "event television" can't really be possible for anime by its very nature, the idea of producing anime TV specials has also become less & less prevalent with time. For example, the Lupin the 3rd franchise was, for the longest time, known primarily for its yearly anime TV specials, as from 1989 to 2013 there was one every single year, but in the decade since 2013 there have only been three, due to TMS deciding to instead return to producing new Lupin TV series "Parts", which works much better with today's focus on weekly simulcasting.

One series that has an interesting history with TV specials, though, would most certainly be the juggernaut known as One Piece, based on the Shonen Jump manga by Eiichiro Oda. What most people might know of is the time from 2012 to 2018, as Toei produced nine One Piece TV specials during that time for Fuji TV's Premium Saturday time slot (literally one or two per year), either acting as recaps of iconic story arcs with brand new animation (Episode of East Blue, Episode of Nami, Episode of Skypeia, etc.), original stories meant to fill in gaps that the manga never covered (3D2Y, Adventure of Nebulandia, Episode of Luffy), or to simply promote an upcoming movie (Heart of Gold). However, these TV specials were actually the second batch for the series after a seven-year hiatus, because from 2000 to 2005 Toei had produced four other One Piece TV specials, and while those later ones from the 2010s mostly got licensed by FUNimation & officially released in English, that original TV special tetralogy has remained exclusive to Japan to this very day, though they were all fansubbed at the time; SP5 to 7 were also never licensed, admittedly. In comparison, even the older One Piece movies that never saw release in North America (i.e. Movies 1-7 & 9) at least eventually saw sub-only DVD releases in the UK in 2014! However, despite never being licensed, these TV specials do have official English titles either via data books released by Viz or simply via Toei Animation itself, and I'll be using those for this overview. The last time I actually covered One Piece here was way back in 2012, when I reviewed the 1998 anime pilot produced by Production I.G., but it can be argued that these first four TV specials are even more obscure & forgotten today than Defeat the Pirate Ganzack! is, especially since that pilot was acknowledged in Japan while promoting 2022's One Piece Film: Red, as both were directed by Goro Taniguchi. Are these old TV specials lost treasures worthy of the future Pirate King, or have they become the One Piece anime's own meta equivalent of the Blank Century for good reason?

Monday, August 7, 2023

Obscusion B-List: 4:3-Only Wii Games That Resisted Widescreen

When it comes to imagery, one of the most important things to consider, from a compositional perspective, is aspect ratio. This determines the height & width of an image & makes all the difference in how something is framed within said image. When it comes to moving pictures, whether that be film, television, or gaming, aspect ratio has played a major role in helping define them. For example, up until 1953 theatrical film used a slightly rectangular 1.375:1 aspect ratio, but once television (& it's ~1.333 aspect ratio, a.k.a. "4:3") started becoming more prominent & popular Hollywood studios decided to start filming in wider aspect ratios, eventually finding 1.85:1 (a "widescreen" aspect ratio) to be the most common standard. This was mainly because it offered an experience that 4:3 TVs couldn't properly replicate without either utilizing letterboxing (so as to offer the full image, though now smaller) or "pan & scan" (which artificially added camera "movement", so as to maintain proper attention). Though first sold as early as 1993, widescreen TVs wouldn't really become more widely available until the mid-to-late 00s, & today the idea of "aspect ratio" is mostly moot, as the standard 16:9 or 16:10 ratios that TVs & monitors come in now are compatible with most widescreen presentations (though there will be some letterboxing for the wilder ratios, like CinemaScope). In fact, watching anything 4:3 on modern screens requires pillarboxing to accommodate things, to some people's dismay (but, please, don't ever stretch the image!).

But how did all of this affect gaming?

While there was the rare game now & then that offered a widescreen option, usually by way of either letterboxing (though some faked this by just cropping the image) or anamorphic widescreen, 4:3 "standard definition" (or 3:4, for "tate mode" games, like many shooters) was the domain of video gaming until the launch of the Xbox 360 in 2005, followed by the launch of the PlayStation 3 in 2006. Both of these consoles were designed to be played in "high definition" (i.e. 720p, 1080i, & 1080p), which by their nature were (generally) 16:9 widescreen resolutions, and while there were some games released on those consoles that offered 4:3 display options (most notably the Halo & Gears of War games, even all the way into 2013!), every single game released on these consoles were developed with 16:9 (or, at least, widescreen) in mind. However, also released in late 2006 was Nintendo's then newest console, the Wii, a console that didn't support HD at all & only topped out at 480p resolution, i.e. 4:3. Despite this, most games released on Wii (&, to no surprise, the Wii itself) did offer anamorphic widescreen support, and there are even some Wii games that are actually widescreen-only & will force letterboxing on a 4:3 display. However, there are also Wii games that, shockingly enough, were designed to only ever display in 4:3, and this was something that most people didn't even realize was a thing until the console's successor, the Wii U. At first the Wii U would simply display all Wii games in widescreen, but an early update regarding "Wii Mode" actually made the console force pillarboxing for 4:3-only games. To be fair, there were some reports about 4:3-only games as early as the Wii's launch in 2006, but the Wii itself actually didn't force pillarboxing (to my knowledge, at least), so most people wound up unknowingly stretching the image if they were using widescreen TVs & didn't adjust the screen manually.

Eventually, a Github user named Gingerbeardman created a complete database of every single Wii game (both physical & digital) that only displayed in 4:3 using the Dolphin emulator & vWii, and after removing things like duplicate listings, Virtual Console, & auto-generated INI files, I collected the list into an easier to read Excel format for myself. In the end, the Wii wound up with a total of around 513 games that are 4:3-only (or ~31.28% of the entire catalog), 399 released physically & 114 released digitally via WiiWare. To be fair, I don't think the list is 100% accurate, as there are a handful of games I know aren't 4:3-only but are on this list, but I think that's within the margin of error, considering where the info was sourced from. What's most surprising, though, is that games of this ilk continued to be made all the way until the Wii U's launch in 2012, a good number of years after widescreen TVs had become standardized & 4:3 was already a bygone relic. So let's take a look at what I feel are the most notable, interesting, or simply weird instances of Wii games that are 4:3-only and see how Nintendo's surprisingly mainstream success of a console was also the last holdout for standard definition gaming.