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Monday, December 12, 2016

Obscusion B-Side: Majesco's Mortem & It's Forgotten Treasures

A bit of a sudden & unplanned piece here, but it's like Frank Sinatra said, "That's life." Being a Jersey-born & raised young man (wait, I'm 30 now... Oh, god, I'm old!), I have always had a bit of a soft spot for any notable (to my interests) company that operated out of New Jersey, and today came news that the Garden State has lost another one. Well, okay, the company I'm talking about didn't die, but it is leaving the game industry, and for me that's just as sad.

The many logos of Majesco, including the short lived indie label Midnight City.

Established the same year I was born (1986), Majesco Sales (later Majesco Entertainment) was an Edison-based video game company that initially started out acting only as a distributor, helping re-release games like Aladdin & The Jungle Book on the Game Gear, before inking a deal with Sega in 1998. Said deal made Majesco the company in charge of the last life of the Genesis, which brought about the third & final model of the system known as the Genesis (Model) 3; the final officially licensed game for the Genesis, Frogger, was in fact published by Majesco. The company also re-released the Game Gear, plus a few games (like the two I mentioned earlier), around the same time before going into traditional game publishing with the advent of the new millennium. The company also tried its hand at development & porting through its Pipe Dream Interactive studio (named because of what everyone thought its chances would be), but after a short attempt in the mid-00s at being a major publisher, the company remained relatively low key & often on the verge of being taken off of the New York Stock Exchange.

Today, though, that all comes to an end, though not how most would assume a company leaves the gaming industry. Instead of going out of business, Majesco has instead merged with (i.e. fully purchased) PolarityTE, a company developing tissue regeneration technology. Along with taking the Polarity name, Majesco has announced a complete exit from the gaming industry, though what that means for the company's existing catalog of games & licenses remains unknown. While Majesco never became a major name in video games, though, there were a lot of really cool games that came from the company, & with it's "death" now announced & official I want to shortly celebrate what we as gamers got from this company.

First & foremost, Majesco was behind (to varying extents) a lot of titles that are now considered cult-classics. Games like Phantom Dust, Psychonauts, & the Bloodrayne series were all introduced to people through Majesco, and while Bloodrayne has been sullied by a bunch of Uwe Boll movies & a third, digital-only game that was okay but nowhere near as fun as the first two, both Phantom Dust & Psychonauts are still celebrated to this day. In fact, Phantom Dust has a complete remaster planned for release on Xbox One & PC next year, while Psychonauts finally has a sequel in development! Majesco was also the main publisher for some notable franchises during some points in the 00s, like Bomberman, Worms, & even Guilty Gear, which is surprising & awesome. Majesco was also the company that gave a little German indie developer called Shin'en a chance when it developed a shooter on the GBA called Iridion 3D, which was the followed up by the excellent Iridion II on GBA, & the awesome Nanostray games on the DS. Today, Shin'en is one of the best indies out there, with outstanding games like Nano Assault Neo & Fast Racing Neo; those Germans wouldn't be where they are now if Majesco didn't take a shining to them.

Now there are some obvious games to talk about from Majesco's history, like the ambitious Advent Rising (which is best played now on PC with the giant Advent Revising fan patch), the infamously terrible Drake of the 99 Dragons, the hilariously busted Jaws Unleashed, the casual hit Cooking Mama series, the joint efforts with celebrated developers like Away: Shuffle Dungeon (Artoon & Mistwalker) & Major Minor's Majestic March (NaNaOn-Sha), the excellent Monster Tale, & absolute cult hits like Double Dragon Neon & the remake of A Boy & His Blob (both developed by WayForward), but what I want to do here is put the focus towards six games in particular that Majesco published, yet I feel aren't given their proper due respect.

One of Majesco's earliest publishing deals was with British developer Rage Software, letting the last of the developer's games see international release before it went defunct in 2003. While there are fans for games like Gun Metal & Totaled! on the Xbox, though, what I think is the best game to come from this partnership is PC game Mobile Forces from 2002. A first-person shooter with a focus on vehicles, Mobile Forces is a story-less collection of stages & play modes where Team Blue fought Team Red; being a sad little hermit I never played online. Still, MF is just that fun to play that I'm perfectly fine playing with just the AI. The various vehicles are all really cool to drive & definitely add some new ways to play, the various play modes (Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Safecracker, etc.) are an excellent way to keep things fresh, the stages are the perfect size to emphasize vehicle use, & the game just has a flow & feel to it that never gets old. Sure, the weapons are unbalanced like crazy (the Machine Gun/Rocket Launcher combo will usually be enough) & the AI can range from idiotic to insanely cheap, but it's just so much fun that I don't care. Not just that, but there was (& maybe still is) a strong modding community for Mobile Forces, which resulted in all sorts of new stages to download & add in. Hell, the original development team even finished up an extra stage (a space shuttle station) & an entire play mode (the racing-focused Mental Race) for free download after Rage shut down, and both are some of the best the game offers. It's presently available for DRM-free download over at GOG for just $5.99, & since this latest way to play it is not through Majesco (it's Blue Moon Red Owl, instead), this game will remain available & is well worth the purchase; I think people still play online to this day.

Admittedly, the next game isn't exactly a great game, but sometimes a single play mode more than makes up for it. Now defunct British developer Blade Interactive mainly stuck to two types of titles, racing games & pool/billiards/snooker games. Therefore, it's no surprise that my next "forgotten treasure" is Blade's 2003 PS2 racing game G-Surfers, released in North America as HSX: HyperSonic.Extreme. On it's own, HSX is really just a futuristic racing game in the vein of F-Zero or WipeOut (minus the weapons), though its sense of speed was good & it was definitely fun enough to play through the campaign. Since it was initially released at a low $9.99 you can't blame it for too much, but what really makes HSX go from "decent" to "worth playing" is the Track Editor. First, it's insanely easy to use, as you can literally just hold X to lay down track & then move the analog stick to direct how the course turns & pitches (i.e. you can go directly up & down). After that you can add in loops, create jumps, & even twist things around so that you can race upside-down or even sideways; it's just that insanely intuitive, to the point where even TrackMania feels complicated. Second, & coolest of all, is that you can choose any place in the world to make your course. Sure, the land generator is rather simple (it's a completely uninhabited Earth here), but the game does seem to have the topography of the planet saved in its data. Yes, it's basic, but you can go to the coordinates of the Grand Canyon, for example, & it will be a series of canyons that you can race through, which I did back in the day. One could argue that HyperSonic.Extreme is a better track making game than a racing game, but the fact of the matter is that it's still super-cheap to this day, so find out for yourself.

This next choice really goes against the critical reception it received at the time, but I really think the reviewers got it wrong with 2007's Kengo: Legend of the 9 (Kengo Zero in Japan) for the Xbox 360. Developed by Genki, the last entry in the Kengo series (& only the second to see release in North America) follows nine historical swordsmen from various eras of Japanese history, like Miyamoto Musashi, Sasaki Kojirou, Sakamoto Ryoma, Itou Ittosai, & Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi, & focuses more on slow-paced & methodic swordsplay rather than simply going crazy with a sword. Reviews of the time mainly bashed this game, focusing on the seemingly lackluster graphics & the tricky swordfighting that they felt was unintuitive. Admittedly, I've only played so much of Kengo Zero, mainly because it's not exactly a pick up & play game by any means, but every time I picked it up I felt the potential to be found. What I can vouch for, though, is that one of my friends absolutely loved this game when he decided to really dive into it. To my knowledge, he went through all of the characters' storylines, likely unlocked the hidden tenth character, & just fell in love with the methodical gameplay that emphasized smart combat over simple aggression & attrition. Kengo in general is the spiritual successor to Square's Bushido Blade series, as developer Light Weight worked with Genki on the first Kengo, and I think the sheer love & admiration for the former tends to result in people expecting that game out of Genki's series, but regardless of all of that I think Kengo (Zero): Legend of the 9, though obviously niche as all hell, is worth a spot in the Xbox 360 collection of any gamer who likes more realistic sword-based games.

Data East went out of business in 2003, after a failed attempt at selling negative ion generators (yes, seriously), but the company wound up having a respectable legacy that I think is only really being given the credit it deserves rather recently. Back in late 2009, though, people were mostly dumbfounded when Majesco announced that it was working with G-Mode (a mobile game company that bought the rights to many Data East games) & G1M2 to release a game collection on the Wii titled Data East Arcade Classics in 2010. Personally, though, seeing the likes of Joe & Mac (a.k.a. Caveman Ninja), Magical Drop III, BurgerTime, Bad Dudes vs. DragonNinja, & Crude Buster (a.k.a. Two Crude Dudes) in a single collection, alongside another 10 arcade games, was just awesome, & the final product that came out was an excellent collection of seemingly arcade-perfect emulations (supposedly some sounds were slightly off in some games), all for only $20! Sure, Data East wasn't exactly the most original developer in the world, but it was a studio that knew how to make great hidden gems, and I desperately wished for a second collection from Majesco; I even reviewed it & made a wishlist back on my old YouTube channel. It would have been outstanding to see games like The Cliffhanger: Edward Randy, Karate Champ, Act Fancer: Cybernetic Hyper Weapon, Trio the Punch, Boogie Wings, Road Blaster & Cobra Command, or even Tattoo Assassins on a second collection, but it never came to be; at least Fighters History Dynamite & Spinmaster eventually saw release on the Wii Virtual Console. In retrospect, I think Majesco was a little too ahead of the curve when it came to giving Data East the respect it deserved, as it's only been within the past few years that the company's catalog been given proper attention & love, and that's reflected in the asking price the Wii collection now has. If you're lucky you might be able to find a used copy at a GameStop for $24.99, already more than it was new, but otherwise you're now looking at a minimum price of at least $60. With the insanely fun Neo Geo game Windjammers being announced for release on PS4 recently (though that game now belongs to Paon, which was formed by ex-Data East employees), I think we can now give Majesco proper respect for reminding everyone of how cool Data East was back in the day.

Some companies just have to earn a living, which is likely why Artech Studios operated for as long as it did (1982-2011) on Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, & Trivial Pursuit adaptations for the PC & console. Occasionally, though, Artech was able to make the games that its employees wanted, with the most bizarre & awesome being Raze's Hell from 2005 on the Xbox. Essentially the company poking fun at the kind of family-friendly fare that it mostly developed, the game has you play as the last remnant of his tribe after a kingdom of Teletubby-esque creatures become militaristic & bent on world domination. It's awesome that Majesco found the sick & twisted appeal in such a concept, especially since this was a profanity-laden, blood-filled, M-rated game, & became the publisher. Sure, Raze's Hell has its rough spots, & it gets ludicrously difficult at times, but there's just a visceral joy in seeing such cute & cuddly parodies get eviscerated into bloody gibs, decapitated by headshots, & just killed in as gory of a fashion as possible. Even better, the game supported local co-op for the main campaign (which even then was sadly starting to die out), alongside competitive local & system link play, plus online versus play (which can now only be accessed via "other methods"). Majesco even gave Raze's Hell a second chance a few years later by re-releasing it digitally on the Xbox 360 in late-2008 as an Xbox Original, since it was a game that could be played (well enough) on the successor console. Sadly now, though, Raze's Hell is a game in which both of the companies that made its release possible are now gone, so who knows where the rights to it are located now; it may never see another release, so get it while you can. Luckily, you can still grab the physical disc for at least $20, while the digital version is still currently available on the Xbox Marketplace for only $9.99.

Finally, we have one of my favorite Majesco games of all time, no lie. When Microsoft first tried to make an impact on the Japanese market with the Xbox, it worked with developers to make exclusive games that it would then publish. Eventually, though, two games wound up being planned for North American release by Microsoft but were cancelled; Majesco would then come in & make a deal to bring them over. The more well known & loved game of the pair is Phantom Dust, which I brought up earlier, but what came first is a game that I love for all of its dedication to being nothing but fun, 2003's Maximum Chase. Developed by Genki, which is also known for its racing games (like Wangan Midnight & the Tokyo Xtreme Racer series), Maximum Chase is a love letter to crazy, car chase-focused action movies like Cannonball Run, Smokey & the Bandit, & (inadvertently) The Fast & the Furious. Starring an off-duty LAPD officer who winds up getting involved with a woman who holds the secret to an evil mastermind's plan to hold the city hostage, the game features ten stages that alternate between two styles of gameplay. Every odd-numbered stage is a chase sequence where you have to go from start to finish without getting destroyed by the environment or the numerous cars that chase after you, with the focus on getting through the stage as stylish & Hollywood-esque as possible, as you'll see a replay of how you did after finishing, complete with all sorts of camera angles; don't skip, though, as important story information is told during these replays. Even-numbered stages act like a rail shooter, where you have to fend off enemy cars with various guns before fighting off a boos; there's no light-gun support, but the game honestly is made with the controller in mind. Sure, it's not a deep story with complex gameplay, but Maximum Chase is just way too fun to ignore. Complete with live-action cutscenes, usually in front of a greenscreen background & with the already American actors being voiced over by other actors, the game knows what it is & it is nothing but cheesy glory.

I could easily say more about Maximum Chase, but maybe I should just finally review this game one day. Anyway, you can still get the game for super cheap, with Amazon even selling new (old-stock) copies for only $10.
Majesco Entertainment may not go down in the annals of video game history as a truly memorable company, but there's tons of gold to be found in the ruins of a company that is, admittedly, going into a business that can hopefully only lead to better things for people. Tissue regeneration technology is no joke, & I wish PolarityTE the best in its non-gaming endeavors.

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