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Ground Kontrol: To Funland

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I have recently returned from a much needed retreat. We trekked halfway across the continent of North America to visit the fabled land of Portland, Oregon. Its good to be home, but at the same time I wish I did not have to leave so quickly. I got the chance to visit two arcades on my trip, some nice places to game that are severely lacking where I live! Close to where I stayed is a fairly big tourist town near the beach, and there’s a pizza place that has a big arcade attached to it. Sounds just like the pizza place on the corner we all grew up with doesn’t it? The difference is that this one had a lot of cabinets, with a lot of newer games! The second one is the already well known location in downtown Portland, Ground Kontrol.

Funland

http://www.funlandseaside.com/

The first arcade is called Funland, and its attached to a Fultano’s Pizza. They claim to have been around since the 1929, which would likely make them one of the oldest, continuously operating arcades in the entire United States, probably high in the running for North America as a whole. This makes this arcade a bit of a relic, but there is a distinct lack of video games actually from the 80s or earlier here. The earliest game I saw was a Galaga/Ms. Pac Man combo cocktail. Other than that the oldest game was Street Fighter II. This place is the definition of the modern arcade, gone are the money changing machines where you pop a bill in and get a bunch of quarters in return. Instead you load your money onto a card, and then swipe the card through a reader at every machine.

There are a lot of machines to enjoy in Funland, with multiple rooms to peruse and explore. The back room is where all the fun lies. Pinheads might feel a bit left out as there are only four tables at this place, and they’re all newer Stern games. I did enjoy the Tron table though. There are plenty of light gun and racing games here at this location, and there are a lot of cabinets hailing from the mid-late 90s to enjoy and get nostalgic over.

The problem during my visit is that many machines were out of order, even some that were turned on said “Out of Order” on the card scanner. They have 3 full Daytona USA units on the floor, but every one of them was out of order! There was a Sega Super GT next to it, and even that one only had one half of the machine turned on and in working order. The big attraction here was getting to play these brand spanking new arcade games, Time Crisis 5 and the 2 Star Wars Battle Pods they had here are so new that they haven’t had time to get all arcade sticky!

Ground Kontrol

http://groundkontrol.com/

Those looking for a nostalgic arcade trip will highly enjoy Ground Kontrol. You’ll pop quarters into machines all night here, both arcade machines and pinball tables! There are some newer Stern tables here as well, but the selection is dominated by classics from Williams, Bally, along with a handful of other companies like Sega. The arcade games include many classics that you’ll just have to pop a few quarters in, even a fully stocked Playchoice-10 is available. I visited this location with our very own member, Nupoile! He even brought his wife along for the ride.

Keep in mind that there are adults consuming alcohol at this location, and there is some stickiness as a result. That’s about the only downside to the experience I had there. I was going to play Nightcrawler in X-men and having a big puddle of sticky goop right next to my joystick was not the best. Smash TV’s movement stick was almost dead as well, but that was the only technical issue I experienced there. Everything else worked well and there was plenty of choice on both the lower floor, and upstairs.

Downstairs is all arcade, all day. There’s a bar down there as well. We’re all here for arcade first so we’re going to leave our glass in the convenient cupholders attached to nearly every machine in the entire building, right? There is plenty from the old school here, but not much from the new. More old school arcade cabinets are found upstairs, but they’re not quite the star of the show there. Expect to hear some people trying to form full 6 player X-men groups, along with teams of Simpsons and Turtles in Time players! Four player Blitz is a must have, and both arcades delivered that fix. Nothing beats elbow dropping your opponent after throwing him to the ground.

Upstairs is as close as you can get to the Heavenly Gates if you’re a pinhead. Classic pinball tables line the walls on the second floor, with a couple of newer Stern’s poking their head in as well. There were plenty of excellent games on the floor. A few favorites here include Scared Stiff (two multiballs on my first blind play!), The Addams Family, Theater of Magic, South Park and Tales of the Arabian Nights. Of course like any good arcade their selection of games on the floor changes from time to time as well.

Ground Kontrol is a must visit location if you find yourself in the Portland, Oregon area. If you’re a fan of arcade video and pinball games you find a nice corner to relax in here, and plenty of beer to quench your thirst. Unlike most bars and restaurants I visited in the area this one had few beers on tap in comparison, but more in line with what I’m used to. Everywhere seemed to have at least two dozen beers on tap, while Ground Kontrol was getting by with six, the red ale I tried was quite delicious.

Psychotic Reviews: Gungriffon

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In the middle years of the 1990s every company that had not already done so built a 3D engine to enter the new world of gaming. With 3D arcade games wowing audiences worldwide it was natural that everybody would be excited to see this new dimension come home on the next generation of home consoles. Gungriffon started off as one such project at Game Arts, starting its development with the vague working title 3D Polygon. The game released exclusively on Sega’s Saturn worldwide in 1996. The game’s events take place in 2015 (what???); so when you play it, make sure the right side wins this mech war!

Gungriffon is a game that would feel right at home as an upright cabinet in an arcade. It really has that feel to it. It is a mech combat game, with a fairly limited set of controls built around the Saturn’s controller. This actually helps the game keep a simple design while still giving the player tools to easily navigate the levels. There are only six levels in the game, and each one is essentially a box you can openly move around in. Most of them will last less than ten or fifteen minutes.

[b]Why did Star Wars Battle Pod have closed levels instead of a big box to fly around in?[/b]

This game is a popular import. It requires little Japanese, and the only text you have to worry about is a mission briefing before each level. The first batches of levels just involve you killing every enemy in the level, but the objectives of later levels varies from destroying a specific target, to protecting your allies. This could confuse those who opt into a cheaper Japanese copy and wonder why they keep failing some of the levels.

By virtue of being a mech combat game the controls do take some getting used to, but once you do its quite easy to maneuver and make your way from one end of a stage to the other in a much smaller amount of time than you’ll think. The music in the game is excellent, and I found myself just relaxing at the mission select screen for a few minutes between every stage. Gungriffon goes for a more realistic atmosphere when you’re on the ground stomping around and blowing up enemy tanks, transports, air support, and mechs! You hear a lot of radio chatter and the sounds of your mech whirring as it walks like the giant robot it is.

This game does have some of the best 3D on the Saturn, with all enemy designs being clear and detailed for its time. It even looks better and runs smoother on the Saturn than the Mechwarrior ports to the Playstation! Game Arts always manages to pull the most out of the systems they work for, and its quite surprising to see this run so smoothly on a Saturn. A common thread I’ve noticed in games for the system is that there are small areas in games that just weren’t fully optimized, and slowdown occurs as a result. I never encountered any slowdown in Gungriffon, and its more detailed than some 2D Saturn games I’ve played that have this slowdown problem!

If you’re looking for a great game to add to your Saturn collection then consider Gungriffon, its a joy to play and is not too pricy. North American copies are around $25 right now, with import copies from Japan running around half of that after shipping. Gungriffon is easy to pick up and play in short or long bursts, and it may help to satisfy an itch to fire up the Saturn if you’re not in a fighting game mood.

Composer Compendium: Motoi Sakuraba Part 2: Man of Many Series

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After finishing work on Beyond the Beyond, Camelot continued working with Sega on more Shining games for their ill fated Saturn console. Camelot gaining their independence is a unique story from Sega’s history, they’re the only internal Sega studio that gained independence, not even AM 2 could pull that off. Camelot, and Sakuraba, finished work on Shining The Holy Ark and Sega released it worldwide in 1996. Camelot followed this with an epic three part series, all under the Shining Force III name. Only the first part in this trilogy was released outside of Japan, since the Saturn just didn’t have the audience for continued support by the time the games started releasing.

Camelot’s independence let them continue developing games for other consoles, and they started work on Everybody’s Golf (Hot Shots Golf in North America). Future games in this series would not be developed by Camelot, as they received an offer they couldn’t refuse. Future Camelot golf games would be for Nintendo starting with Mario Golf for the Nintendo 64. Nintendo was interested in branching out into other sports as well, and Camelot was also signed on to make Mario Tennis. Since Shining Force went into dormancy after the trilogy of Shining Force III, Camelot was not making a role playing game of any kind, and that’s how they became known in the first place! Nintendo published two handheld RPGs from Camelot for their Game Boy Advance, Golden Sun, and Golden Sun: The Lost Age.

Wolf Team kept themselves busy with a follow up to their first game in the Tales series. Since Tales of Phantasia released so late in the Super Famicom’s life they would move on to Sony’s Playstation. Tales of Destiny was released in Japan in 1997, and was the first in the series to be localized for international release. Tales of Destiny’s North American release came the following year, sales were lukewarm overseas, but not bad enough to discourage all future localization efforts. The series was a hit in Japan from its first release, so the series quickly became Namco’s flagship RPG series. Tales of Eternia followed Destiny, and in an odd move it was renamed to Tales of Destiny II for its North American release. An actual Tales of Destiny 2 was Wolfteam’s next release on the Playstation 2, which was not localized for a Western release, likely to avoid further confusion. Instead, Westerners got to play Tales of Symphonia for Nintendo’s Gamecube, which was more marketable as the first 3D release in the series. By this point the name change from Wolfteam to Namco Tales Studio has happened.

On the third arm of this history are the releases of tri-Ace. Star Ocean was also a successful release, even if it came after Tales of Phantasia and was also for the Super Famicom. As a smaller company tri-Ace was mostly limited to this first series. Like many other companies that stayed with Super Famicom to the end they made the seamless transition to the Playstation for their next generation, and Star Ocean: The Second Story would follow up the first game, but would be the first in the series localized for Western release. For this series the name was not changed, leaving many shoppers to ponder, “Where is the first Star Ocean?” while they looked at the display. The company would branch out and release the classic Valkyrie Profile the following year. tri-Crescendo was spun off from tri-Ace during Valkyrie Profile’s development, and they would handle sound for most tri-Ace games afterwards, and branch out into their own game development. This only continued to branch Sakuraba’s work out even further in the industry.

Like many other developers tri-Ace would move onto the Playstation 2, where Star Ocean: Till the End of Time released in 2003. By now Sakuraba was established as one of the great composers in Japan, but internationally may have been less easily recognized. His work spans many series, for many systems, but a lot of his early work is buried on systems that are largely considered failures in the West. This third Star Ocean game was quite popular on its release, and is one of the easiest RPGs to find for the PS2, so this, and the first two Golden Sun games, are likely a few of his first mass market exposures to the West outside of Camelot’s Mario sports games.

Composer Compendium: Motoi Sakuraba Part 1: A Pack of Wolves

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RPG fans have likely heard much more of this composer than they have realized. The stars aligned rather early in Motoi Sakuraba’s composing career, letting him become one of the most respected Japanese composers of all time, but one seldom discussed when compared to a few of his peers. Progressive rock has always been a massive influence on Sakuraba, and he was in a few bands of this style before he started composing for video games. He started his career by joining two other composers, Masaaki Uno and Yasunori Shiono at a small, but talented developer called Wolf Team. At first Wolf Team made games for popular Japanese PC systems of the time, namely the X68000. The company made games of many different genres, and were known for making high quality games, and well done ports.

Sakuraba started work in 1989, and some of his work appeared in the same year in the games Zan: Kagerou no Toki, Arcus II: Silent Symphony, and Arcusyu. The following year saw some of Wolf Team’s first games leave Japan. This was because Wolf Team’s majority holder of the time, Telenet Japan, opened up Renovation and began publishing many of their titles for North American release on Sega’s Genesis and its CD add on in later years. Granada was the first of these with Sakuraba’s work, followed by Final Zone and Sol-Feace the same year. Sol-Feace was his second solo soundtrack, Zan: Yasha Enbukyuoku is the first one, while all other games so far were at least dual efforts.

Afterwards he started to work solo more often than not. Some more of Wolf Team’s games got released in North America in 1991, a trilogy of games starting with Earnest Evans released, as did its first follow up El Viento. El Viento’s release oddly came first, since it was a simple region port and translation, while Earnest Evans was completely downgraded from a Mega-CD game to something that could fit on a Genesis cartridge. The third game in this series is called Annet Futatabi, and stayed in Japan. Arcus Odyssey also made the trek across the Pacific this year.

Sega’s CD add on saw some support for ports of older Laserdisc based arcade games, the type that have QTE patterns and had high quality animation. The high point of this genre is considered to be Dragon’s Lair, but there were many examples of Japanese arcade developers that used the style in the mid-80s. Wolf Team ported Time Gal, Road Blaster (as Road Avenger), and Ninja Hayate (as Revenge of the Ninja) with Sakuraba doing the new arrangements for the first two, and sound effects for the last. Only Time Gal and Road Avenger were released by Renovation in North America.

After this Renovation’s efforts in North America waned, and Wolf Team started work on an ambitious new game, a role playing game. This is essentially the end of Wolf Team, as Telenet signed a contract with Namco to show the game with a label from a publisher that could pull in more sales both domestically and overseas. This game ended up releasing as Tales of Phantasia. With Wolf Team splintered it opened up new contacts for Sakuraba. Camelot Software Planning was released from Sega in 1995, and quickly managed to release Beyond the Beyond for the Playstation, they also hired one of Wolf Team’s former composers, who had glowing reviews for her old coworkers. So Sakuraba composed all of Beyond the Beyond.

Most of old Wolf Team proper founded a company called tri-Ace, and invited Sakuraba along to compose their new RPG, Star Ocean. It is through all of these contacts that Sakuraba branched out and became the main compositional force behind many classic franchises, with the Tales series being a current rising force in the Western Markets.

Psychotic Reviews: Virtua Cop

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Help Wanted: Those who prefer to shoot first and ask questions later. Virtua City is looking to hire special detectives for missions that require fast trigger fingers. Recruits will be highly trained and put in great peril as they tackle the most dangerous missions to clean this city’s dirty streets. Are you man enough to be a hero? Play as special detectives Michael Hardy and James Cools and take on a huge job that will clean the streets of futuristic, man-made Virtua City.

Again we travel to the lonely lands of Sega’s oft forgotten home console, the Saturn. Virtua Cop started its life in the arcade and upon release became the latest in a long string of hits by Sega Amusement Machine Research and Development Department 2, or AM 2, in 1994. Virtua Cop is a genre defining game, as it broke new ground for on-rail light gun shooters by allowing far more interactivity with the enemies, based on where they are struck by a bullet. Different animations and scores come out for hitting different parts of the bodies of Virtua City’s criminal scum. The graphics are also full, 3-D polygons, which is obviously what Yu Suzuki and crew used after the massive success of Virtua Fighter a year earlier.

Virtua Cop became the primary influence for light gun shooters after its release. Sega would use the game as the backbone for The House of the Dead, Namco came out with its long running Time Crisis series, and even Goldeneye’s aiming on N64 is basically Virtua Cop, admittedly so by the developers. This success is likely a result of the jump to 3-D, which made Virtua Cop feel much more modern than even the best 2-D, arcade light gun shooters that came out just a few years earlier. The extra interactivity adds a layer that makes the game feel fresh even though its based on patterns and memorization to get through the levels. The levels are the basic style of Sega’s arcade level design of the time, with a Beginner, Medium, and Expert stage.

Many shortcomings for the Saturn are well known, but one thing that AM 2 nailed were the console ports of their own arcade games. When other teams were struggling to make use of the unique and confusing arrangement of the Saturn’s hardware, AM 2’s arcade ports were all games that are now staples of the modern Saturn collector’s library. Surprisingly, all these arcade ports are some of the most common and affordable games for the Saturn in all regions where it was released! Despite the less than stellar success of the Saturn outside of Japan, the arcade scene itself was experiencing a revival in North America at the time Virtua Cop released. Street Fighter II’s success got a new generation, myself included, to visit the arcades that had defined cutting edge game design and technology for almost 20 years. The remaining Western arcade developers took advantage of this revival to limp their way into the 21st century, while the Japanese developers flourished as a result of a stronger showing in what is only one of many markets for them.

Playing the game and hearing the soundtrack again caused memories of sights and sounds of the mid 90’s to come flooding back. During this time, I started visiting my local arcades weekly until both of them closed their doors in the early 2000’s. Part of my revived sensation comes from the fact that Virtua Cop, enjoyed with the Saturn’s Stunner light gun, feels so authentic to the original arcade experience. The soundtrack is a giant dose of 90’s nostalgia, and fits the pacing of each stage perfectly. The action is wonderfully framed, and all the different enemy spawns and shooting timers make use of different reaction speeds and player instincts. The Saturn release has many different difficulties to select from, so you can play around and find the one that gives you the perfect challenge. Like all arcade games, practice makes perfect!

Standing up, shooting bad guys, and having to fire off screen, all with the non-stop action of enemies popping up in front of you, makes Virtua Cop stand out as one of the arcade classics of the mid 90’s. If you don’t want to haul around an arcade cabinet, then owning the Saturn port is a fine consolation. Another port was released on the PC a year after the Saturn release, but this version only has mouse support. Another version was also released by Tiger for its R-Zone.

Psychotic Reviews: Steambot Chronicles

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Steambot Chronicles; or Ponkotsu Roman Daikatsugeki: Bumpy Trot as it was originally named in Japan is a Playstation 2 game developed by Irem and published by themselves in Japan, Atlus in North America, and 505 Gamestreet in a few countries in Europe. There is also a spin off on PSP named Steambot Chronicles: Battle Tournament. An odd tie in a puzzle game on PS2 and PSP named Blokus Portable: Steambot Championship, and being one of only four games published by Majesco on the PSP in the USA. A quick look at the back of the case shows the game being marketed as an open world RPG, and that is correct in a way. The game starts off as linear as any other RPG that’s been made and then opens up. Its similar to the opening dungeon in the Elder Scrolls, only dragged on much longer. In this long opening sequence you’ll visit all three of the main towns, many of the back areas, and explore most of the world anyway, by the time its completely opened up. Once an area is open then it may be visited at any time afterwards, and money can be hoarded this way.

There are times where the story in the game essentially halts and time will not pass no matter how many times you run in and out of any city (this is how time passes in this world). You can dig up all the big fossils on this very day if you desire to make a massive amount of money. I did, then I lost it all on the stock market. No, I lied there. But, there is a stock market in this game. Your very actions in sidequests can even open more companies on the stock exchange! Other pieces of optional content can help and boost the price of other companies, so you can commit the most sinister crime of insider trading thanks to these options.

Let’s rewind back to the beginning. You wake up as an amnesiac survivor of a shipwreck, a girl named Coriander runs over to basically save your life. The main character can only barely remember his name when he wakes up, and shows signs of obvious brain trauma. Coriander goes by the nickname of Connie for the game, and Vanilla’s full name is Vanilla R. Beans. The rest of the main cast occupies many other necessary spices for any aspiring chef’s spice rack. Vanilla takes a tossed out, junky Trotmobile, basically an early mech shaped like a classic car. Connie is the lead singer of the biggest band in all the land, the Garland Globetrotters, and you can join! There are many options of musical instruments in the game, and each one is its own rhythm game, with some being offshoots of others.

These instruments range in difficulty, and I found mastering the harmonica you start with to be one of the more difficult ones myself. You can run around and play some pianos that are around the cities, and perform solo or with somebody on the street to make some pocket change. Being in the city does not advance time, so other than the story concerts you can play outside for an hour of real time and save up some stock options, or more instruments, or clothes, maybe some furniture to jazz up your fancy urban suite. Maybe that crazy painter Pablo has some nice paintings to decorate your walls. Don’t forget to add food to your shopping list either, or else you’ll starve to death! Or, more likely, you’ll at least lose the ability to run before you remember to feed Vanilla!

Back to the music I can’t help but feel that the audio was woefully underfunded for a task this grand. I went through the game thinking and feeling that the instruments were all synthed, when it turns out they were all done in a studio! There is a wealth of music for this game, but its spread out just like its world is. There are areas that are dead silent in the game, and the cities all have repetitive and looped music. It does change depending on what time of day of it, but that left the countryside feeling empty. But, the lack of music made those lone treks across the desert feel that much more lonely. Why didn’t the trotmobiles have a built in radio? There’s a suggestion for Steambot 2!

This game has a lot of options for what basically amounted to a lower budget RPG from a company that was a far cry from its glory days in the arcade. Steambot suffers from intense slowdown in various parts of the world, which were technical issues that likely needed more time to be ironed out. Despite the world being open most of the paths between the cities are funnels, so any slowdown on these screens is experienced every time you run through these areas. It can be annoying, especially when you’re locked in combat with a more dangerous Trotmobile.

Technical issues aside this is a fulfilling game that had a lush and vibrant world for its time. The setting is one that feels like a politically fractured area in the early 20th century. Steambot’s enemy design around human piloted Trotmobiles makes this game feel almost nothing like a traditional RPG, and more like a fun experiment courtesy of Irem’s creative team. Irem themselves bowed out of video game development after the Fukushima disaster since their only major title at that point was Disaster Report. Today they focus on their amusement machine market, they’re a big name in the powerful Japanese gambling market. There was early teasing of a sequel to this game in the year following its release, but Steambot 2 was officially cancelled in 2011.

Some of the developers from Irem formed a company called Granzella in the aftermath of the closure of Irem’s video game team. Granzella bought most of the rights, and is known to be continuing work on the Disaster Report series, and a Steambot 2 has been teased as well.

They made a real trotmobile!

They made a real Trotmobile!

Psychotic Reviews: Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

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One of my favorite series on the original DS was Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Each game was serious and completely whimsical at the same time. The characters are over the top and blown out of proportion in some cases, which only serve to make the courtroom scenes incredibly memorable as all of these personalities clash. The mystery element meant that the full picture of what happened was never entirely clear to the player until the trial and the investigations leading up to the courtroom scenes slowly reveal the whole story, or could also go down the rabbit hole at times. Its really a perfect blend of point and click puzzle adventure games with the narrative style of a visual novel, making the series stand out as the sum of its parts.

In contrast I’ve only played the first game in the Professor Layton series. I enjoy the game but can never sit down and play it for too long in any one sitting. Its really a gauntlet of puzzles. There are some point and click elements involved in this game as well, but they mainly serve as a way to find hint coins and hidden puzzles. The game is more of a slow burner compared to the Ace Attorney series, which will mix in dramatic courtroom scenes with the slower investigation to mix the pacing up.

These two series in terms of gameplay actually make sense putting together, and when I first heard about the crossover I was rather excited since I knew of Layton at the time and am a massive Ace Attorney fan. Despite only playing the first Layton game I was impressed by this game! The Ace Attorney style investigations mixed well with Layton style exploration and puzzle solving. It never felt like the gauntlet of Layton’s puzzles was getting to be too much of a grind since there is plenty more to enjoy and move through in the game.

In terms of story the world and area feel much more inspired by Layton. There is a village filled with magic where witches are burned after being found guilty at a trial. Professor Layton, Luke, Phoenix Wright, and Maya Fey all find themselves brought to this village. As Phoenix you play through a witch trial and work to get the first exoneration of a witch in the village’s memory! This case introduces a unique twist to the system of cross examination that was standard throughout the Ace Attorney series. In the courtroom scenes the witness testimony is all done at once, the witnesses line up and Phoenix cross examines them one after the other. This does allow the witnesses to collaborate with their stories and add in information that fills in any holes on the fly. This style feels stacked against you. No wonder there were so many guilty verdicts in a row before Nick and Maya showed up here!

After the two pairs meet up the overall goal of the game becomes to uncover the secret of the village and keep working to get rid of this stigma against witches. After all, magic shouldn’t exist in our rational, modern world of science right? This games does a fantastic job of leading you along through the story, with twists and turns helping to guide you. The drama of the courtroom spills out into the streets and these strangers soon become well known for their alien idea of ‘logic’. That’s right, this village has not been enlightened to the basic Western ideas of Greek logic.

Once again Capcom shows that they are the complete master of the crossover, but they had plenty of help from Level-5. Both companies worked together to add the elements from their respective games, and then to polish it up and make it presentable for the player. As a result of this the game is incredibly strong. If you’re interested in either series you’ll be pleased with the results here since Layton is more of the same and Phoenix has a nice change to make this game feel like a unique entry to the Ace Attorney series. Despite their differences the characters work well, but I feel like Layton himself solves these major puzzles because of hazy and unexplained reasons. This difference could be a result of Phoenix taking details in one at a time since everything in his series is evidence based, and only one piece is usually relevant at any one time. If you have a 3DS and are looking for a story based adventure jam packed with fun and wit, check this game out!

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