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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Obscusion B-Side: Jumping the Gun on Unreleased Video Game Reviews

Though I don't work in the journalism industry, it is what my Bachelor's Degree is about, and I can understand the concept of deadlines & the like. This applies to video game journalism as well, especially back in the days when magazines were still king. Gaming magazines like GamePro, GMR, Game Informer, Electronic Gaming Monthly, GameFan, & many others were (or still are) monthly publications, and the writers & editors for those publications had to make sure that specific articles, previews, reviews, & whatnot were ready to go for each new issue. Unfortunately, the fact that the magazines were only released once a month meant that there was always time for things to change after publication happened. Granted, the magazines were all generally good at keeping things timely & most games did come out as planned, but sometimes games just get cancelled, and sometimes it's at the last possible moment. Therefore, let's take a look at four times when gaming magazines wound up "jumping the gun" & actually reviewed video games that never truly saw release, at least in North America.

Why only four? Because I don't want to simply get everything I've archived out of the way immediately, that's why.

Early on in the North American life of the Sega Genesis there was a publisher named Sage's Creation that released a scant eight titles from 1990-1992. Since then, people have surmised that the company was simply a way for Japanese publisher Hot-B to release Genesis games in North America, as Hot-B USA was already a licensed Nintendo publisher (similar to how Konami had Ultra Games & Atari had Tengen). Overall, Sage's Creation didn't really release anything of real merit (Insector X & Devilish are probably the most notable games), but the company had one (seemingly) final game in the works for release. Originally titled Blue Almanac in Japan, Star Odyssey was a sci-fi JRPG in the style of Sega's Phantasy Star games, complete with a story that spanned multiple planets, each with it's own different environment style. Sage's Creation was seemingly all set to release the 1991 Mega Drive RPG on the Genesis sometime in mid-1992, but the company's dissolution put an end to that, likely due to Hot-B's own eventual bankruptcy in Japan the following year. Interestingly enough, Hot-B USA would wind up surviving over a decade after its parent company's death, with its final release being Graffiti Kingdom for the PS2 in 2005, which itself was already five years after its prior releases (2000's Runabout 2 on PS1 & Black Bass with Hank Parker on PC).

That sure didn't stop Sega Visions magazine from publishing a short review in its May & June 1992 issue (officially titled "Issue 1 Volume 8"... words mean nothing). Effectively Sega's short-lived equivalent to Nintendo Power magazine, Sega Visions articles were not anything noteworthy for those who wanted any sort of real critiquing, and the same was true for its Star Odyssey review. While the individual category ratings ranged from ~61-80, the short two-paragraph blurb was really nothing more than a written advertisement for the game, minus one bit about it not looking quite as graphically good as the Phantasy Star games. Still, this one review (plus the two ads Sage's put out) was enough proof of the localization's existence, though no prototype of the translation ever got leaked online.

The lack of a leak, though, was because of Super Fighter Team, which made a name for itself by properly licensing some Chinese Mega Drive RPGs for international release in the 00s, as SFT acquired the only known prototype back in 2007 & would finally give Hot-B's RPG the release it was meant to have in 2011 using the intended localized name, exactly ten years after the initial Blue Alamnac release. Notable for being the first time a company officially licensed a retro game from a Japanese company (in this case Starfish SD, which spawned from the remains of Hot-B), Star Odyssey is now available both via a physical Sega Genesis cartridge from SFT's website as well as for Windows & Mac OSX as part of the RPG Trifecta Pack, alongside Beggar Prince & Legend of Wukong (the aforementioned Chinese RPGs). SFT even gave the game a brand new translation, as Sage's Creation's work was "extremely poor", though since they worked off of a prototype it's likely it wasn't a final translation to start with.

Please note that this will be the only time that a review that jumped the gun back in the day was eventually followed up on with reviews of the officially-licensed release that would happen two decades later. Unreleased games don't tend to get this lucky, sadly.

It wouldn't be until the mid-00s when consoles finally reached a notable parity with what personal computers of the time were capable of, but that sure didn't stop developers & publishers from trying their hardest to port over the occasional PC game to console during the 90s. Admittedly, though, if there was one PC game from the mid-90s that would have made a more-than-decent conversion to console, it would be Gearheads. Developed by Philips Media & R/GC Interactive for the PC & Mac, the game was a versus strategy game where two players (or one player against the CPU) would select form a variety of wind-up toys with the goal of getting 21 of them across a playing field & into the opposition's side. The strategy came from the fact that the player's only direct control was in how much each toy would get wound up & which spot it would get launched from; afterwards, each toy followed its own path. Some toys were all about moving straight, others would zig zag, and there was even a toy that wound up dead toys on the field, or you could use dead toys to act as makeshift barriers. Though I only ever played it via an old PC Gamer Demo Disc (Disc 2.3 from April 1996, to be exact), it was a fun little game, so it only made sense that Philips would try to release it on consoles.

Said chosen consoles were the Philips CD-i (obviously) & the Super Nintendo, but in the end neither port ever actually came out; in fact, I can't find any definitive proof of a CD-i port even being in the works. Personally, I only ever heard of an SNES port when GamePro reviewed it back in December 1996 via Issue 99, which touted a November 1996 release. Though the review by "Air Hendrix" (GamePro always used shared pseudonyms) gave the four categories a range of scores from 2.5-3.5, he was generally positive about the game, with the only gripes being lackluster sound effects & a downright moronic AI for single player; as a two-player game, though, he was very positive about it. Quite honestly, I can't think of a reason as to why Gearheads on the SNES never came to be, since Philips Media would continue releasing games for the CD-i (& occasionally PC) up through 1998, before the Dutch tech giant would leave the gaming industry for good. If GamePro's review is any indication, Gearheads was more or less ready for release, yet no rom of the console port has ever surfaced, so we may never know just how well it held up against the PC original.

As much as Microsoft's Xbox line of consoles more or less fails completely in the Land of the Rising Sun, there are still some notable Japan-exclusives to be found. Admittedly, this applies a bit more to the 360, which wound up becoming the de facto home for many shoot-em-ups for its generation, but the original Xbox still wound up with a cool roster of games that never saw light outside of Japan. Stuff like MagatamaDouble S.T.E.A.L. The Second Clash (the sequel to Wreckless: The Yakuza Missions), Rent-A-Hero No. 1 (we'll get to that one another time), & the "So American that it Couldn't Have Possibly Been Released in America" Metal Wolf Chaos are pretty much the most notable of them all, but one more to add to that list was Dinosaur Hunting ~Ushinawareta Daichi/The Lost Earth~, the last game developed by Scarab before the studio changed its name to feelplus. The game had you hunting after newly-discovered dinosaurs in the Guiana Highlands that somehow survived extinction, with the focus being on non-lethally capturing them. In turn, the game required the player to synthesize specific tranquilizer darts by finding out info about each dino. Yes, you would have to search carcasses & even investigate dino poop, making it an even more hardcore version of Monster Hunter (two years prior to the first game, to boot!).

While the game was published by Microsoft in Japan in Fall of 2003, Metro3D planned to give Dinosaur Hunting a North American release the following Spring, even showing off the cover art online & getting an ESRB rating of "T", but said release never happened. However, the release was so close to happening that my GamePro scan above is far from the only American review to get published. In fact. GameFAQs alone lists Game Informer, Play Magazine, Official Xbox Magazine, XBN, & BonusStage as also having published reviews, with all but XBN giving respectably positive scores. The GamePro review by "Bones" from Issue 188 in May of 2004, in particular, praised the game's strategic element, "thundering" sounds, & "attractive" visuals, though the repetitive nature of combat that can be punishing if you mess up during a long mission was brought up as a possible turn off.

So why was the North American release cancelled? Well, Metro3D's American division wound up filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 19, 2004, after defaulting on loans totaling millions of dollars... That sucks. While the European division wound up continuing as a part of Green Solutions Limited (parent company of the infamous Data Design Interactive), any & all upcoming releases from Metro3D in America got axed, and that included a localization of Xbox shooter Dennou Taisen DroneZ & the sequel to the cult-classic Dreamcast game Armada. Metro3D's final American release was a PS1 port of Cinemaware's 1987 Amiga game based on The Three Stooges in early 2004; not the best final release, admittedly, but sometimes these things can't be controlled.

I jumped ahead for the third entry, admittedly, but that's simply because I just have to end this list with one of the most infamous video game reviews that jumped the gun. In 1998, Valve Corporation set the PC gaming world on fire with Half-Life, which helped push the first-person shooter genre from the "Doom clones" of old to a more cinematic & engrossing style. Obviously, following Gearbox Software's Opposing Force expansion in 1999, console ports were going to eventually happen, but the PlayStation, Nintendo 64, & Sega Saturn were in no way capable of handling this game. Once the Dreamcast & PlayStation 2 had arrived, though, work truly got started. Gearbox would handle the PS2 port & develop a second expansion, Blue Shift, specifically for the Dreamcast version, while the Dreamcast port itself was the sole product of the now-defunct Captivation Digital Laboratories. Unfortunately, Sierra eventually decided to ax the Dreamcast port due to "changing market conditions", i.e. Sega's last console was going the way of the dodo, but it really did hold off on making this decision final. So final, in fact, that both North America & Europe received exclusive published reviews for the port, though the reviews would be wildly different in terms of publication dates.

Europe's review came from DC-UK in December of 2000, which was the initially-planned release date, & gave it a 9 out of 10 via a massive six-page review. In reality, though, Sierra continually delayed the game until finally planning for a mid-2001 release. To go with that, GamePro got the exclusive North American review scoop, putting out a full-page review in Issue 153 from June 2001. The review written by "Dan Elektro" was completely effusive, giving it almost a perfect run of 5.0 ratings, only the somewhat convoluted gamepad controls cost it that precious 0.5, praising the improved visuals over the PC original (which would added to the PC version as a graphics pack) & the excellence of the "exclusive" Blue Shift expansion (in reality, by this point it was already confirmed that the PC would also get this). Much like the Dinosaur Hunting review above, GamePro stated that Half-Life for Dreamcast was "Available now" in the review, but sadly Sierra decided otherwise. Later in 2001, the PS2 port would be released, complete with its own exclusive co-op scenario titled Decay, giving the game it's only officially-released console port.

Still, just imagine if GamePro did give Half-Life on Dreamcast a perfect score... That would have been insanely awkward.

Years later, though, the Dreamcast port of Half-Life would be leaked online, though the finality of this version can be debated. While the entire game (both campaigns) is fully playable (it's actually how I played through the game for the first time), it's filled with a heavily unstable frame rate, ungainly long load times, & a pretty broken save system where the file size increases (seemingly exponentially) the further you are in a chapter, i.e. it's only a couple of blocks at the start & almost needing an entire VMU near the end. Obviously, this leak was not of the final "gold" version, if one had even existed, but I doubt the frame rate & load times would've been fixed to any great degree. Overall, it's still a neat port, but we may never know just how it actually turned out.
You know, it must feel really awkward for all of the involved parties (writers, publishers, developers, etc.) when a video game has to get cancelled, but without being able to put a stop to an incoming review that's going to get published. Granted, this hasn't been as much of a problem ever since the internet really took hold & effectively replaced physical gaming magazines, as it's easier to put a stop to a digital review on a website compared to a magazine's publishing schedule, but it was still something that could always happen back in the day. To be fair, moments like these were relatively rare, though GamePro seemed to be the most likely culprit for some reason, but they are interesting reminders of an era of gaming journalism that's mostly gone, at least to the extent that it used to be.

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