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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Obscusion B-List: Video Game Publishers' Last Stands

The video game industry, like any form of entertainment, can be absolutely cutthroat & ruthless. If products just continue to sell less & less, then the company behind them will eventually just die out. For video games that means the publishers that put games out on store shelves, and there is a theoretical graveyard filled with the corpses of video game publishers that eventually died. For every Nintendo, Sega, Electronic Arts, Activision, & Capcom, there's been a Sage's Creation, Kaneko, Vic Tokai, Treco, Big Fun Games, Acclaim, Seismic, DreamWorks (no relation to the movie studio), Majesco, & Data East that once existed but have since either simply left the game industry to survive or outright died out, never to be seen again. But on rare occasion there were game companies that seemingly died, only to make one last stand & try again years later. Still, they wound up dying for salvation, with dedication. They took no capitulation, but faced annihilation. They looked for gamer commendation & reincarnation, and I want to give them the last rites they were denied. So let's don our sabatons & take a look at six game publishers that made one last stand when it looked as if there was nothing left from them!

First up on this list is a company that, for all intents & purposes, was likely never going to make it past the 90s, no matter what, and it all comes down to the name it operated under. Founded in 1990 & operating out of Salt Lake City, Utah, Electro Brain had a name (& logo) that simply screamed that it was a product of a new decade, but at the same time instantly dated itself for the future. Still, the publisher does have some relevance to an anime & manga-focused blog like this, as they got their start with anime-based games like Fist of the North Star: 10 Big Brawls for the King of the Universe! for the Game Boy & Puss 'N Boots: Pero's Great Adventure for the NES, and it would start off by bringing over games developed in Japan, like Dead Heat Scramble, Trax (both for the Game Boy), & the SNES version of Raiden Trad; they even did a Japanese release or two themselves, like for Super Kick Boxing, a.k.a. Best of the Best: Championship Karate on the SNES. Eventually, Electro Brain would move on to publishing games by Western developers, like Imagineering's Ghoul School & Sculptured Software's Stanley: The Search for Dr. Livingston (both on the NES), before hitting 1994. Late that year saw Electro Brain release Vortex on the SNES, a Super FX chip-powered game developed by Star Fox's Argonaut Software. Following that release, Electro Brain just up & disappeared, with no releases from them for 1995.

In fact, Electro Brain went quiet for four whole years, before suddenly coming back from out of nowhere with new games in 1998. By this point, the next generation of consoles had debuted, & the Utah publisher went with the Nintendo 64. In October, Electro Brain released Dual Heroes, a 3D fighting game developed by Produce (The 7th Saga, Brain Lord) that featured character designs by Keita Amemiya (Zeiram, Garo), & the following December saw the release of Star Soldier: Vanishing Earth, the latest entry in the eponymous shoot-em-up franchise. Neither game really became celebrated pieces of the console's catalog, the former is actually generally considered one of the very worst on the system (though Star Soldier is decent enough), and Electro Brain would only manage to get one last game out, late-1999's Bomberman Quest on the Game Boy (which has enhanced graphics on the Game Boy Color), before truly dying out come the end of the millennium. Quite honestly, I have no idea how exactly Electro Brain managed to survive for nearly half a decade without any new releases, and it's easy to see that this company's "last stand" was only possible because of what was likely a package deal with Hudson Soft. Still, the company managed to give it a final try, & at least they managed to get more than one title out; that's more than what I'll be able to say for some other entries in this list.

Founded back in 1975 as a company that published tabloids about real estate, Enix Corporation would eventually become one of the most prestigious video game companies in Japan, primarily through its Dragon Quest series of RPGs. Eventually, the company decided to start publishing games in North America itself, after Nintendo handled the original Dragon Quest (then called Dragon Warrior due to copyright issues) outside of Japan. Enix America Corporation came about in 1990, handling the releases of titles like Dragon Warrior II-IV, both ActRaiser games, & E.V.O: Search for Eden, but the offshoot wouldn't have a long life. In 1995, the bigwigs in Japan decided to ax off the North American division, due to low sales, with its last two games being 1995's Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen & King Arthur & the Knights of Justice, both for the SNES. The latter was actually Enix America's first & only North American exclusive, showing that the people running the company likely had bigger intentions that they sadly couldn't follow through on. For the next few years, Enix's games essentially stayed exclusive to Japan, with the only exception being Tenchi Souzou/The Creation of Heaven & Earth, which saw release in Europe by Nintendo in late 1996 under the name Terranigma for the SNES.

Then, in 1999, Enix decided to give North American distribution another try, establishing Enix America, Inc. & putting Paul Handelman, who worked for the original American division, in charge as President. This "last stand" started off strong with a localization of PlayStation RPG Star Ocean: The Second Story, which was co-published with Sony Computer Entertainment America; a similar deal would happen with Dragon Warrior Monsters on the Game Boy (Color) with Eidos in 2000. The new Enix America would go on to release classics like Dragon Warrior VII on the PS1, Dragon Warrior I-III on the GBC, & the original Valkyrie Profile, as well as less known fare like Bust-A-Groove 2, Torneko: The Last Hope, & both versions of Dragon Warrior Monsters 2. 2002 would mark the end of Enix's last stand as a North American publisher, though, as after the releases of Grandia Xtreme & Robot Alchemic Drive on the PS2 (literally just weeks after the latter's release), it was announced that Enix & rival publisher Square would merge together, with Enix being the surviving company. This resulted in Enix America being effectively put on ice, and when the resulting Square-Enix came about on April 1, 2003, this "last stand" came to an end. Honestly, though, I'm not sure if Enix America's second chance would have lasted much longer without the merger happening, though, as Enix Japan itself was hurting to some extent & needed the merger to offset its own woes. Without the merger, I'm sure Enix America would have simply been killed off again within another year, but that's business for ya. Even today, more people think of the Square side of Square-Enix, even though the Enix side was the "winner" of the battle of Japanese RPG giants.

(For trivia's sake, though, the last game released by Enix, in general, was Dragon Quest Monsters: Caravan Heart for the Game Boy Advance, which came out just days before Square-Enix became official.)

Wait, is that seriously what "Hot-B" stood for? Okay then...

Established in 1983, Japanese game company Hot-B got its start developing & releasing computer games for the FM-7 & Sharp X1 under the GAMu label (pronounced "Geemu", as in "game"). With releases like In the Psychic City & Kaleidoscope, the company helped establish science fiction as a viable genre for gaming in Japan. In 1987 they moved on to console releases, & in 1989 established a North American division, Hot-B USA. For the next few years, the American offshoot would release more niche products, like Shingen the Ruler & The Black Bass, on the NES & SNES, while Genesis titles like Insector X, Crack Down, & Devilish were released under Sage's Creation, a separate company/label similar to Ultra Games, Flying Edge, & Tengen. For the most part, everything worked about what you'd expect, but then something interesting happened... Hot-B went bankrupt in 1993. In Japan, some of the people from Hot-B went on to found Starfish (now Starfish-SD), while Sage's Creation would also go the way of the dodo, taking planned release Star Odyssey with it; luckily, that game would see official release 20 years later by Super Fighter Team. What is most curious, though, is that Hot-B USA didn't get pulled into the grave with its parent company. What's even odder is that the American division had two different "last stands", if you want to be technical.

With the Japanese originator dying in 1993, Hot-B USA managed to get one single SNES game, Bassin's Black Bass with Hank Parker, out in late 1994. Following that, the company went silent, only to reappear three years later in 1997 with Big Bass World Championship on the PS1. Now, to be fair, Hot-B USA mainly just released five more Black Bass games from 1997-2000 on the PS1, Game Boy, & PC, but there were three non-fishing titles, as well. 1999 had Beatdown on the PC, 2000 had Runabout 2 on the PS1, & 2001 had Soccer America: International Cup on the PS2. After those games, though, Hot-B USA went silent once again, and it seemed like the company was down for the count this time; no shame in outliving your parent company for eight years, after all. Then, completely out of nowhere, Hot-B USA came back one final time. Alongside a move in California office space, from San Francisco to Burlingame, the company decided to put out what was likely its most ambitious release ever. The first game in Taito's short-lived Rakugaki Oukoku series of action RPGs that let you draw your own characters, weapons, items, & whatnot saw release in North America in 2003 under the name Magic Pengel: The Quest for Color by Agetec, but the sequel would see release "over there" in 2005 under the directly translated name of Graffiti Kingdom. If anything, I guess those who still worked at Hot-B USA, which somehow pulled an Electro Brain & existed for almost half a decade without any new products, decided that if they were only going to get one more game released, then it might as well be a doozy compared to what they usually did. Following Graffiti Kingdom, Hot-B USA would truly die, and in the end the American offshoot managed to outlive its parent company by 12 years.

You know what, I think Hot-B USA deserves a posthumous slow clap, like the one in Cool Runnings, because that company just kept fighting to survive, even when all looked hopeless. That's an inspirational story, if I ever heard one.

The Nippon Electric Company was founded back in 1899 & dealt with telephones & switches for that time; in fact, Japan's battery switchboards were produced by the company. In 1983 the company shortened its name to simply NEC, a couple of years after it launched the PC-88 & PC-98 home computer models, which would become popular gaming computers. A few years later, in 1987, NEC moved into the home console market by licensing the Hucard game storage tech from Hudson Soft to create the PC-Engine, which would then see international release starting in 1989 as the TurboGrafx-16. While the PC-Engine became a notable success in Japan, even beating out Nintendo & Sega at one point early on, the TG-16 had a much harder time internationally.  Anyway, to help out with game production, NEC opened a new division named NEC Avenue that was strictly for the video game side of things, while in 1991 NEC & Hudson's North American divisions created Turbo Technologies, Inc. to help give the TG-16 more of a focused release strategy; that being said, though, NEC did still release the occasional game on its own. In the end, though, both the PC-Engine & TG-16 got discontinued in 1994, & with that NEC effectively closed down its American games division, even closing shop for TTI. The last games to see release by NEC/TTI in North America included Magical Chase (the final American Hucard release), The Dynastic Hero, Godzilla, & (finally) the Turbo-CD version of Bonk 3: Bonk's Big Adventure. NEC would still exist in America, but not in the video game industry.

In Japan, however, the opposite was true. NEC would produce a successor console, the PC-FX, which would summarily bomb & never see international release, while NEC Avenue would be re-branded in 1995 as NEC Interchannel. From this point on, NEC's games would pretty much stay exclusive to Japan, though UFO Interactive got its start by bringing over two of NEC's early Dreamcast games (Seventh Cross Evolution & Industrial Spy: Operational Espionage), but in 2003 gamers were given a shock when it looked like NEC would be opening up a new North American games division. In reality, though, this was Interchannel essentially releasing video games in North America on its own, headed up by Clint Kurahashi (formerly of Capcom), Norman Evangelista (formerly of 3DO) & Nelson Chiu (formerly of Sega); there was likely an American office, but the games listed a Tokyo address on the back covers. Sadly, though, this "last stand" from Japan wouldn't last beyond the very year it started, as the NEC logo would only be blazoned across a paltry two games. First up, on April 17, was Tube Slider on the GameCube, an F-Zero-styled racing game by ND Cube that wound up only seeing release in North America, while the second, on December 4, was Culdcept on the PlayStation 2, which was a localization of Culdcept Second Expansion (an enhanced port of the Dreamcast original) & the very first time that series would see an English release. There was also word of NEC looking into localizing Ys I & II Eternal Story for PS2, but that SCEA turned down the proposal. The reason why NEC's return to gaming was so short-lived, though, was likely due to the fact that the company would sell off Interchannel in 2004 to Index Corporation, removing the NEC name from the company's name & ending the tech giant's time in gaming in general. In 2007, Gung Ho Online Entertainment bought Interchannel's gaming assets from Index, & on September 5, 2013 Interchannel itself came to an end. In the end, NEC's return to gaming in North America was seemingly more of a novelty than a full-fledged return to form, but it was kind of neat to see those three blue letters appear on a couple of games one last time.

Okay, this one is pretty much a cheat, as it really wasn't a "last stand", but there's no way I can ignore a bizarre return as infamous as this. Established back in 1970 by Jack Friedman, LJN Toys (named after the reverse initials of Friedman's old boss, Norman J. Lewis) got its start making toys, usually based on licensed properties, as well as battery-operated water guns. In 1985 the company was purchased by MCA, and two years later LJN expanded into video game publishing, but like its various toys worked with licensed properties; in fact, LJN was one of the first companies to release games officially licensed by the MLB & NFL. Contrary to popular belief, though, LJN didn't develop a single video game, but rather contracted out work to various development studios, like Atlus (The Karate Kid, Friday the 13th), Westone Bit Entertainment (Jaws), Beam Software (Back to the Future, The Punisher), & even Rare (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Amazing Spider-Man). Even with studios like those, though, the actual quality of LJN's video games, to put it lightly, tended to be low, but there was a gem or two. After a controversy revolving around toy guns made by LJN's Entertech division resulted in plunging profits, though, MCA would sell LJN off to Acclaim Entertainment in 1990, where the toy division would be closed down & it simply became one of the game publisher's extra labels. Under Acclaim, the LJN rainbow logo would be reserved for Nintendo systems, while Flying Edge would be for Sega's hardware, and was seen on games like Beetlejuice, Wolverine, various games based on the WWF, True Lies, & Spider-Man & Venom: Maximum Carnage. Acclaim would put an end to LJN (& Flying Edge) in 1995, instead just utilizing its own logo for everything, & the last games at the time to feature the LJN logo were Warlock on the SNES & NFL Quarterback Club II for the Game Boy, though 1996's Cutthroat Island does state in the copyright upon booting that it was "Published by LJN". After 25 years, it looked as though LJN had finally been put to pasture, leaving behind a legacy of shame.

That all changed in the year 2000, when the infamous rainbow logo came back from the dead for a single, solitary game. Released that Summer in Europe & North America, the cover for Spirit of Speed 1937 for the Dreamcast (a port of the 1999 PC game) shell-shocked gamers of the 80s & 90s by daring to sport those infamous three letters & six half-circled colors. Upon booting via VGA, players would see the LJN logo in the sharpest & most vivid form it would ever be seen by human eyes, almost as if it was mocking those who may have celebrated its seeming death. What in the world was Acclaim thinking by bringing back LJN for one "last stand"? Obviously, no official answer was ever given, but the most common solution is that Acclaim knew how bad Spirit of Speed 1937 was, so much so that it didn't even want its own logo blazoned on the cover; since LJN had such an infamous reputation for poor quality, it was a perfect fit for the game. Granted, this game is not good in any way, so it is also the most logical answer, and that's made all the more likely when you consider that the Japanese release in the Spring of 2001 showcased the Acclaim logo alongside co-publisher Taito; LJN never published anything in Japan, so it'd make no sense to use the logo there. Like I said at the start, this isn't really an example of a "last stand", since this was more than likely just Acclaim taking advantage of an old, dead brand, but it's still worth bringing up here, I feel.

That being said, there is still a chance for LJN to one day make a true blue "last stand", because in 2014, following the death of Acclaim, CollectorVision Games acquired the LJN brand & logo... Because everything is nostalgic nowadays.

Starting up back in 1973 as an amateur radio shop, Hudson Soft would eventually move on to making computer products before making video games. Though initially focusing on quantity over quality, the company would switch to fewer, better games & become the first third-party developer for Nintendo's Famicom, hitting pay dirt with Lode Runner in 1984. After seeing more success as the years went on, Hudson Soft branched out & established a North American division in 1988 called Hudson Soft USA. Alongside the iconic likes of Bomberman & Adventure Island games, the American division would also be responsible for the localizations of NES games like Jackie Chan's Action Kung-Fu, Xexyz, Milon's Secret Castle, & Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom, and when the TurboGrafx-16 saw release in North America Hudson USA was right there alongside NEC with titles like Bonk's Adventure, Neutopia, & Air Zonk. Sadly, sales likely started stalling, & when combined with the TG-16 quickly becoming a distant third place in the console market it was obvious that Hudson Soft had to eventually kill of its Western offshoot. That fate would come in late 1995, when Hudson Soft USA wound up having to sell off the rights to some as-yet-unreleased games to Acclaim, and then close down shortly afterwards. The last games to be released from Hudson Soft USA were likes of The Space Adventure on the Sega CD (based on Buichi Terasawa's manga Cobra), as well as Hagane: The Final Conflict & SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron on the SNES.

Unlike NEC, though, the loss of an American division didn't hamper Hudson's games from seeing international release, with the reigns being taken by companies like Majesco, the previously mentioned Electro Brain, & (especially) Konami, which had become the largest shareholder in 2001, after Hudson went on the stock market, before eventually becoming majority shareholder & parent company in 2005. Before Konami became the new overlord, though, Hudson Soft decided to hold one "last stand" in the Western market & established Hudson Entertainment in North America. While the offshoot technically debuted in 2003, it was initially only for mobile market, but in 2007 Hudson Entertainment moved into the console market, resulting in video game covers featuring the old Hudson bee logo in North America for the first time in 12 years. With distribution assistance from Konami, Hudson Entertainment actually had a very strong presence on the Nintendo Wii, with both physical releases like the Kororinpa games, Wing Island, & the Deca Sports series, as well as tons of digital releases on both the Wii Virtual Console & WiiWare. This was all alongside releases on the PSP (like Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of Ancient Arts), PS3 (Bomberman Ultra), & plenty of mobile support, too. Unfortunately, Konami's control over Hudson Soft was an ever-growing presence, & in early 2011 Hudson became a wholly own subsidiary. This resulted in the dissolution of Hudson Entertainment at the same time, with its last physical releases looking to be Beyblade: Metal Fusion - Battle Fortress & Lost in Shadow on the Wii, with the latter looking to be the only physical release to come out in early 2011. Now there are a couple of North American releases that look to be credited to Hudson Soft later in 2011, like Deca Sports Extreme on the 3DS & Elemental Monster Online Card Game on the PS3, but these were after Konami fully absorbed Hudson, using it only the logo for brand recognition. Sadly, Konami would retire Hudson Soft completely only a year later in 2012, and today that bee is sadly nothing more than a nostalgic memory.
For the most part, companies live & die in rather simplistic fashion. They either survive by consistently keeping profits up, or they die out, never to be seen again. Every now & then, though, you get fringe exceptions like the ones I just described, which managed to gather enough time, money, & effort to make one last stand & prove their worth in the industry they're a part of. Whether it's by somehow recovering from hibernation, like with Electro Brain or Hot-B USA, being a second attempt from a larger parent company, like with Enix, NEC, or Hudson Soft, or seemingly being a way to avoid name association, like with LJN, these last stands are notable in their rarity, and deserve recognition & remembrance.

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