Monday, April 24, 2023

Obscusion B-List: Portable Games Ported to Non-Portable Hardware

Prior to the launch of the Nintendo Switch in early 2017 it was the general consensus that, by and large, video game consoles were separated by the divide of "home console" & "handheld console". This was mainly enforced by the simple fact that handhelds were consistently less powerful than their home counterparts & sometimes aimed to deliver different gameplay experiences, due to the general difference between playing on a stationary screen like a TV or monitor & playing while on the go. Aside from the rare exception of a console (or at least an accessory) that blurred the line between home & handheld, this was an undeniable truth that meant that you'd never see a portable game ported to a home console; maybe a remake once in a blue moon meant to take advantage of the change in console type, but not a direct port. However, things started changing once the new millennium started, as handhelds became more comparable in power to consoles (even if still a generation behind, or so), which in turn started resulting in handhelds being capable of experiences more & more like what could be found on home consoles.

Therefore, let's go over some handheld games that later saw home console release, though I will be enforcing some rules. First, nothing that got ported to the Switch (or at least had the Switch be one of its first porting homes), because its nature as a hybrid console kind of dilutes the entire point of this concept. Second, the home console must be notably different from the handheld in terms of hardware, so no Game Gear-to-Master System picks (like the various Brazil-only ports), as those are essentially the same hardware, minus the GG having a much larger color palette (& stereo sound... and a Start button); in other words, it's kind of cheating. Finally, no PSP-to-PS2 picks due to the simple fact that there are so many examples I could do an entire Obscusion B-Side about that subject.

Founded on August 27, 1999, Artoon was a studio created by Naoto Oshima, who had previously worked at Sega for over a decade prior, having helped co-create Sonic the Hedgehog with Yuji Naka & Hirokazu Yasuhara, and also directed classics like Nights into Dreams, Sonic CD, & Burning Rangers; his final game at Sega was working on the original Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast, which came out in Japan in 1998. The first game developed by Artoon was Pinobee no Daibouken/Pinobee's Big Adventure (a.k.a "Quest of Heart") for the GBA, which worked off of the experience of Oshima & his staff of ex-Sega crew by being a mascot-style platformer, in this case playing as the titular robot bee that heads out to save his "Grandpa" creator. Published by Hudson, with Activision handling international release as Pinobee: Wings of Adventure, the game managed to be a "Day 1" launch title for the GBA in all three major regions (Japan, North America, & Europe), and though it received mixed reviews (it is a bit of a weird little game, admittedly), it still did well enough to receive a Japan-only sequel (Pinobee & Phoebee) for the GBA & it established Artoon as a sustainable studio that would go on to make the likes of Blink: The Time Sweeper (& its sequel), Yoshi Topsy-Turvy, & even assist Mistwalker in developing Blue Dragon, Away: Shuffle Dungeon, & The Last Story. Artoon would then be fully absorbed into AQ Interactive on April 28, 2011, alongside Cavia & feelplus, before AQ itself would be merged with Marvelous Entertainment & Livewire later that same year; Naoto Oshima would co-found Arzest in mid-2010, where he still works at today as president.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Obscusion B-Side: DNA, Robots, Viruses, & Space: Genki's History of First-Person Shooters

When it comes to the various genres in video games, part of the appeal is seeing how different regions of the world interpret them. For example, "J(apanese) RPG" vs. "W(estern) RPG", "Euro-Platformers", & the like are examples where the region helps differentiate the style, feel, & even look of certain genres; yes, they are also used by some in a derogatory fashion, but they are still useful descriptors. However, there are some genres that (for the most part) tend to be defined by one specific region, and a perfect example of that would the FPS, or First-Person Shooter. While the idea of playing games from a first-person perspective (& doing some sort of shooting) had existed since the 70s & 80s, the FPS as we know it today didn't really become fully formed until the early 90s, with the evolution of id Software's games, from 1991's Hovertank 3D to Catacomb 3-D later that same year to 1992's Wolfenstein 3D ("The Grandaddy") to finally 1993's Doom ("The Father"). After the release of those last two, but especially after Doom, an entire genre of "clones" emerged that followed in their footsteps & is still one of the most popular to this very day. However, a common link between the wide majority of them is that FPS-es tend to come from "Western" regions, i.e. North America or Europe (most often the former), while a region like Japan (or Asia, in general) is generally looked as being uncaring for the genre, as a whole. While that is true to an extent, it's not as though Japan hasn't given developing FPS-es a go over the decades, but it is interesting that while the genre got its start on PCs in the West, Japan's earliest FPS-es first were released on consoles... and one company was behind that initial push.

Founded on October 16, 1990 by ex-Sega employees, Genki Co., Ltd. (literally using the kanji that means "healthy/energetic/fit" for its name) got its start developing the occasional original game (like the duo of Devilish & Bad Omen for the Game Gear & Sega Genesis), porting over other companies games to consoles (like the Super Famicom version of SNK's King of the Monsters for Takara), or working with other developers in supporting roles (like helping out with Micronet's A/X-101 for the Sega CD). In 1994 the studio would develop Burning Soldier for the 3DO, an FMV game that played like an on-rails shooter (a common direction Japanese devs tended to utilize FMV in the 80s & 90s), and I personally think that it's one of the more enjoyable & solid takes on the concept. Two people behind that title, director Manami Kuroda & engineer Tomoharu Kimura, would then team up again as planner & designer (plus Kuroda writing the scenario) for their next game, one that would wind up being (arguably) Japan's first "true" first-person shooter, at least on consoles: Kileak the Blood. Released in Japan on January 27, 1995 for the then-new Sony Playstation that came out just over a month prior, the game would beat Sega's foray into the genre, Metal Head for the 32X, by just a month or so, & would even be one of the launch titles for the PlayStation for both North America (where it was renamed Kileak: The DNA Imperative) & Europe (where it kept the original title), where it both beat FPS/platformer hybrid Jumping Flash! by Exact to the punch & launched alongside it (depending on the region), respectively. While Sony Computer Entertainment handled publishing in North America & Europe, in Japan it was published by Sony Music Entertainment Japan.

Kileak would only be the start of Genki's multi-year venture in the FPS genre, though, resulting in four games released across 1995 & 1996 (or 1997 & 1998, in other regions). So let's take a look at these four titles & see how some of Japan's earliest "Doom clones" hold up, all these decades later.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Obscusion B-Side: Zzyzx vs. Zyzzyx Road: This Road Might Be Big Enough for Both of Us... *cue Jimmy Barnes screaming*

In 1944, radio televangelist Curtis Howe Springer & his fiancĂ©e Helen filed a mining claim on an 8 mi x 3 mi piece of land in the Mojave Desert, which contained the remains of an 1860 Army post & an abandoned railroad. Springer, the (self-proclaimed) "last of the old-time medicine men" & Methodist minister (though in reality was neither a licensed doctor nor an ordained minister), decided to rename the California land from Soda Springs to Zzyzx (pronounced "Zy-ziks", & not to be confused with Xyzzy), a nonsense word that Springer claimed was the last word in the English language, & declared that the health spa he built on it would be "the last word" in health. Much like the "King of Quacks" himself, though, the claim to Zzyzx, CA was dubious, at best, & in 1974 the federal government found Springer guilty of squatting on federal land (among other things related to his fake health remedies) & was evicted; after serving a short time in prison, Springer moved to Las Vegas, where he'd later die in 1985. In 1976, the Bureau of Land Management & California State University agreed to cooperatively manage Zzyzx, establishing the CSU Desert Studies Center in it, which is still in operation to this very day; today, Zzyzx is part of the Mojave National Preserve.

In order to reach Zzyzx, get on Interstate 15 & take Exit 239 to Zzyzx Road, a 4.5-mile paved/dirt road that leads to the abandoned-Army-post-turned-spa-turned-research-center; the sign is apparently a bit of a landmark for those driving between Los Angeles & Las Vegas. What's the point of this bizarrely-worded history? Well, with a name like that, it's only natural that there'd be people who would tell stories taking place in (or at least named after) the United States Board on Geographic Names' lexicographically greatest place name (i.e. it's the very last one, alphabetically); special props to 1982 arcade game Zzyzzyxx, if only for taking the zany name to an even crazier extreme.

In particular for this piece are a pair of films with almost exactly the same name that came out in the exact same month & year as each other, had extremely similar budgets, are nearly the same length, & are both in the "thriller" genre. Up first was Zzyzx, also known as Burned in some places, which saw release on February 4, 2006. Produced by on a budget of just $1,000,000 & filmed in just nine days, this 80-minute movie directed & produced by Richard Halpern (W.M.D., Suburban Nightmare) & starring Kenny Johnson (Det. Curtis Lemansky in The Shield), Ryan Fox, & Robyn Cohen (Anne-Marie Sakowitz in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) would go on to receive a little bit of praise in the few reviews given for it, especially considering its indie status. This includes apparently winning Best Picture at the Miami Film & Music Festival & First Runner Up at the final Nashville Fylmz Film Festival in 2007. Three weeks later a film titled Zyzzyx Road, also known as Dead Ahead: Zyzzyx Road in some places (like the back cover of the DVD), would see release in a theater on February 25, 2006. If I had to guess, the seemingly misspelled title was likely a mistake confusing the road with a genus of sand wasp (Halpern's film apparently also had this spelling initially, but managed to fix it before release), that name actually predating Springer's gibberish by seven years! Produced by Zyzzyx LLC on a budget of $1,200,000 & filmed in just 20 days, this 86 minute movie directed, written, & produced by John Penney (Return of the Living Dead III, Hellgate) & starring Leo Grillo (who was also co-producer), Katherine Heigl (Dr. Izzie Stevens in Grey's Anatomy), & the late Tom Sizemore (who actually got arrested during filming for failing drug tests during probation, but was allowed to finish his scenes) would go on to achieve notoriety for one reason alone: Its box office.

No, I didn't mistype when I wrote that "Zyzzyx Road would see release in a theater", because it only saw release in the (now shuttered) Highland Park Village Theater in Dallas, Texas for nine days, where it only managed to earn $30 in total from six patrons; in reality, it only actually earned $20, as two tickets were later refunded due to them being bought by the film's makeup artist & a friend. The reason for the limited theatrical release was because of a requirement by the Screen Actors Guild, and when it finally saw international release on DVD it managed to earn ~$368,000. Ironically enough, Zyzzyx Road wouldn't even manage to hold on to its "Lowest-Grossing Film of All Time" moniker, as 2011 comedy The Worst Movie Ever! would actually dethrone it, earning just $11 from literally one patron during its two-day run in the (former) Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles. Personally, I'm amazed neither film went with the ultimate gimmick & tried getting a special one-night screening at the Desert Studies Center in Zzyzx, CA itself; sure, it's an absurd idea, but these are both films literally named after a nonsense word coined by a notorious 20th century huckster.

So, considering it's April Fool's Day, let's pit Zzyzx & Zyzzyx Road against each other & see which one comes out on top!