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FGC #582 Game & Watch Gallery

Let's watch some gamesThe best way to preserve your past is to literally own your past.

The Nintendo Game & Watch is technology that is fairly unique for this blog: the first Game & Watch was released before I was even born. While I have always considered myself blessed to be a games preservationist that has grown alongside the gaming medium, Game & Watch arguably belongs to Generation X with its initial release in 1980. Premiering with titles that I am doing my best not to describe as “primitive as a Flintstone”, the Game & Watch initially showcased games like Ball, Flagman, Vermin, and Judge. These pocket-sized devices all played one game per unit, and featured not only time-keeping functionality, but upwards of two game modes. Were these titles basic? Yes, of course. But could they be fun? Absolutely! If nothing else, they beat playing with your calculator on a train ride, so further Game & Watch titles were consistently released straight through 1986. At about that point, the Gameboy was preparing to take over the portable market, so new Game & Watch models became limited, and new titles for the “system” began to dribble out at a slower pace. But, for a time, Game & Watch ruled the roost, and Nintendo “the toy company” established itself in this new “videogame market” that may or may not have been recovering from an apocalyptic alien invasion (that is currently buried in New Mexico).

In short, if you are considering the whole of the history of videogames, you have to remember the Game & Watch. The Nintendo Entertainment System may have defined the home console for a generation, but just a few years before that box (and its dastardly robot) graced our shores, we were already playing with power, one Game & Watch at a time. And, while the “limited to one game” thing was saddening, this also encouraged an awful lot of wonderful mutations across the line. This was the first we saw buttons that increased or decreased in number according to a game. This was the first we saw the iconic crosspad. This is the first we saw “dual screen” gameplay, in both horizontal and vertical formats. Game & Watch is the first place we saw Luigi.

Boxes!And that latter point is pretty damn relevant, because when was the last time you heard about Mario’s other jobs with his brother? Nobody questioned when Mario claimed he was a doctor, because we were already used to his construction, bottling, and cement factory jobs…

A Mario Bros. where two brothers prove their plumbing credentials through flipping over turtles and crabs is the Mario Bros. everyone always remembers, but Game & Watch Mario Bros. was released four months before its arcade brother. It was a horizontal dual screen Game & Watch title, and saw Mario and Luigi (again, appearing in a game for the first time) working at some manner of delivery plant (is that a thing?). Both of the brothers (each clearly labeled by their respective joypads as “Mario” and “Luigi”) must work in tandem to pass something (boxes? cakes? bottles?) along and into a waiting delivery truck. There are not any “tricks or traps” to speak of, but the intermediary conveyer belt is a harsh mistress, and likely to break more than a few whatsits if the brothers (or your thumbs) don’t move fast enough. There are no monsters here, though, so this is a wholly mundane adventure focusing on what must be Mario & Luigi’s summer jobs. And speaking of jobs, this particular Game & Watch model eventually earned sponsorships from some businesses like Pokka (a Japanese food company) and Campari (an Italian liqueur producer). So Mario does know what alcohol is!

But if you are getting your historical information from Nintendo, Mario’s wine knowledge has been… let’s say obfuscated.

The new styleGame & Watch Mario Bros. has not been completely forgotten by Nintendo, but it has been diluted in modern incarnations. Mario Bros. appeared in both Game & Watch Gallery 3 for the Nintendo Gameboy, and Game & Watch Gallery 4 for the Gameboy Advance. Unfortunately, there was basically no way for modern (“modern” being “made after 1984”) systems to emulate the hugely horizontal play area of the original Game & Watch, so everything was compressed to fit a squarer playing area. And, obviously, Mario & Luigi now work at a simple package delivery company, so the impressionable players could never have an inkling that the super brothers were ever transporting wine. And the “modern” reimagining? Well, now we’ve got a cake factory in the works (not even a cement factory?), Wario is a delivery driver (that should not be allowed), and Bowser occasionally stops by to muck up the conveyer belts (dude does not have anything better to do today). In both the GBC and GBA versions, it is a much prettier and a more modern, palatable experience… but it isn’t remotely the same. The basic elements of Mario Bros. are there, but everything from the sunny graphics to the aspect ratio feels like an entirely different animal. For the first appearance of the most famous player two in all of gaming, Game & Watch Mario Bros. is preserved about as well as a sandwich bag filled with ranch dressing (honey, I know you hate to throw out food, but we have a perfectly good bottle of the stuff right there on door).

And don’t even get me started on Game & Watch The Legend of Zelda!

Rescue the laundry!But let’s not imagine we live in a world where Game & Watch and its contributions are completely ignored. Why, there’s Mr. Game & Watch right there, starring in one of Nintendo’s most popular franchises. And his “package attack” move echoes exact animations from Game & Watch Mario Bros. Same for his down taunt, which recalls the exasperated sitting of the brothers when completing a level. And we just got a Super Mario Bros. 35th Anniversary Edition Game & Watch! It didn’t actually include Game & Watch Mario Bros., but it definitely included… uh… Ball, apparently! And Super Mario Bros.! Everybody likes Super Mario Bros. better anyway! What’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that whole likability thing with a healthy mix of hardware versus profitability. Would people rather play Super Mario Bros. or Game & Watch Mario Bros.? Well, considering the Game & Watch collection was a modest hit, while Super Mario Bros. is a game that is continually released on every system ever produced by Nintendo (and with a few weird mutations, too), it seems pretty obvious that more people are interested in seeing the brothers when they are a little more super. And that is convenient, because Super Mario Bros. can be perfectly (or at least reasonably) emulated to practically any device with a screen, whereas the wine factory (I am sticking to this for you, Campari) requires two side-by-side screens for a perfect experience. And Nintendo has decided to drop this whole “dual screen” thing as of the retirement of the 3DS and WiiU, so official Nintendo hardware is out of the question. Could some other company, maybe one without as many valid revenue streams as Nintendo, carry this burden? Some “lesser” hardware manufacturer would be happy to reissue a few Mario games. An Evercade for the Game & Watch? I know I would be down for such a boutique item.

Octo!But it ain’t gonna happen. Nintendo holds an iron grip on any and all legal ownership of Mario, Luigi, and the Game & Watch. It would not be as profitable to focus on “perfect” Game & Watch preservation as it would be to steer those resources into other departments, but, by the same token, there is no way Nintendo is going to let someone else profit from technology made by Nintendo nearly 40 years ago. The original creator of Game & Watch died nearly 25 years ago (!), but Nintendo is going to own that hardware lock, stock, and barrel until the day you die. And if you are under the mistaken impression that Nintendo would be cool with some modern modding, go ahead and ask anyone that listed a video on youtube about how to hack the latest Game & Watch release. Oh, wait, you can’t, because Nintendo copyright claimed all of them out of existence. Want to do anything you want with that fifty dollar doodad you got for Christmas? Not on Nintendo’s (game &) watch, buddy!

But this is the future for nearly all intellectual property out there. Nintendo will own Game & Watch for the next hundred years, and there is absolutely no reason they would ever have to loosen their grip on the IP. And, with that in mind, they control how Game & Watch content exists for the rest of time. You want to play the original game? No, no you don’t. You want to play with silly, beepy Mr. Game & Watch, and exchange tales of his “references” with your friends. You don’t want to remember when Nintendo was proudly peddling liquor sponsorships to get a foothold, you want to remember when the Nintendo Entertainment System defined gaming. There was never a “desperate” Mario that had to beg for your attention. There has only ever been a complete, genre-defining Mario.

History is what you make of it. And if you own your history, so much the better. For you.

FGC #582 Game & Watch Gallery

  • ToadholeSystem: Technically ROB chose the Gallery for Gameboy, but I did a lot of focusing on the Gameboy Color enhanced Game & Watch Gallery 3. Also tossed in some Gameboy Advance Game & Watch Gallery 4 action, too. I have a lot of random Game & Watch Galleries scattered about the place.
  • Number of players: You can link cable all of these games, right? If you can’t, I’m still going to claim they are two players, because you can at least do some boxing in Game & Watch Gallery 4. It counts!
  • Can’t you just be happy with the fact that there are four Gameboy games that preserve Game & Watch titles? Well, yes, that is good, but the last Game & Watch Gameboy title was released in 2002, with the more digital versions only seeing release as recently as 2008. While Game & Watch games are technically available in some ways (you can grab the GBA version on WiiU as of 2016), it sure seems the birth of Nintendo gaming is going to stay locked away in a vault.
  • So you’re saying a new Game & Watch line will be released seven seconds after publishing this article? Yes, that seems to be how it works.
  • Favorite Game & Watch game (collection based): Octopus is part of Game & Watch Gallery 1, and I appreciate how that game has always been as “simple” as other G&W games, but contains an awful lot of strategy. Or maybe I just like matching wits with an octopus. Whatever! You want the spiritual ancestor to practically every videogame I have ever enjoyed, though, just check out Octopus.
  • Love that little guyFavorite Game & Watch game (modern revision): Game & Watch Gallery 4 went harder than it had to with its remixed graphics, and I appreciate that Donkey Kong Jr. got one final showcase before he was retired seemingly forever. That little dude always needed a few more starring roles, and Gogglebob.com does not officially recognize Donkey Kong (of Donkey Kong Country) as Junior’s grownup incarnation. And further proof Mario once had a mean streak!
  • Favorite Game & Watch game (that we will never see again): Mickey Mouse had his own Game & Watch game. Like another children’s star, it was a game involving our hero grabbing eggs from chickens. Minnie was responsible for watch/alarm duties. And we will never see it again, because I cannot imagine the legal quagmire that would result from both companies even addressing the issue. This never happened, guys!
  • Goggle Bob Fact: Game & Watch Mario Bros. is one of the first videogames I ever played, as my cousin had that Game & Watch, and I successfully begged my parents to let me try it. I am moderately certain Toddler Goggle Bob did not immediately break the thing… but my memory from that time may be a little hazy.
  • Did you know? The Nintendo DS title Personal Trainer: Cooking, which is little more than a dedicated cookbook that is somehow not Cooking Mama, included Game & Watch Chef as a hidden feature. Chef… is not a game that is going to make you a better cook.
  • Save 'em!Would I play again: I like revisiting the infant stages of the Mario we know today. I would totally be down with all of these titles being ported to the Switch, as they work very well for dealing with random boredom. Other than that, though? Well, sometimes it is nice to know something is being preserved, but maybe I could play something else…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… What Did I Do to Deserve This, My Lord? 2 for the Sony PSP! Oh, what I have done to deserve this, my ROB? Nothing? It’s actually a good game? Okay, great. Then please look forward to it!

Where is Little Mac?

FGC #562 Q*Bert

No colorLet’s look at the evolution of gaming/Q*Bert over the years.

In 1982, gaming was just taking its first, tentative steps towards Gaming as we know it. Pac-Man and Pong had blazed the trail with their joystick/wheely thing controls, but now we were seeing new and innovative ways to play. Kangaroo, for instance, was a game that was very similar to the likes of Donkey Kong, but added an all-important offensive action to its heroine’s repertoire. Kangaroo could punch out monkeys and apples alike, and one could argue this simple act was the start of “videogame violence” for years to come (sorry, dead monkeys, you gotta start somewhere). And speaking of offensive options, Dig Dug first started digging in ’82, and he had the ability to “pump up” his opponents until they popped. This had the dual purpose of inspiring a generation of bizarre fetishes and featuring a hero that always had the ability to turn the tables on his opponents. Unlike Pac-Man or Mario that had to rely on sporadically distributed powerups, Taizo the Digger was hunted and hunter all in one. This would become the norm for practically all of gaming to come.

But if one game presciently granted a glimpse of gaming of the future, it was Pitfall. Nearly four decades ago, Pitfall Harry explored a large world of tricks, traps, and treasure. Harry had much to do in his (certainly not Mayan) adventure, and, while his moveset was limited, it was contextually sensitive to all sorts of challenges. Harry didn’t simply jump over opponents, he leapt to swing across vines, or hopped over the heads of gators. Pitfall was a revelation for everything its protagonist (and by extension, the player) could do, even if this was still the era of extremely blocky dudes puttering around monochrome backgrounds.

Lookin' GoodAnd 1982 also saw the release of Q*Bert. Q*Bert only need move from block to block in a generally diagonal manner. He changes block colors simply by touching blocks, and his only “offensive option” is baiting a malevolent snake into a bottomless pit. Q*Bert does not have a bonus jump, “punch”, or other abilities. Q*Bert simply hops.

Ten years later, in 1992, the face of gaming had irrevocably changed. The arcade gave way to the domination of the console, and now Sega and Nintendo were battling it out. But there was the Personal Computer, too! Wolfenstein 3D had just been released, and the whole of the FPS genre was just starting to congeal into Doom (to be released the next year). For some, the “3-D” nature of first person shooters promised to be what “the future of gaming” was always expected to be: fully immersive fighting (through the legions of Hell/nazis, apparently).

But away from the monitor and back at the television, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was pushing the boundaries of the genre that had become known as platforming. Sonic could run, jump, and dash; but he did it at speeds that could not have even been imagined ten years prior. And this latest Sonic allowed for two player simultaneous play! Just like in those competitive fighting games that had been making the scene! And Mortal Kombat was the most prominent “new fighter” of ’92. Now there was a radical shift in gaming! Kangaroo might have punched out a monkey, but, for better or worse, she never tore the head off of an opponent. And look at all those buttons! “Punch” is a thing of the past: Sub-Zero had a variety of punches, kicks, and fireballs (well, snowballs) at his disposal. You didn’t just need an instruction manual for your average fighting game, you needed a strategy guide (thanks, Nintendo Power!).

Good bless QBertBut while we’re considering strategy, let us also consider Super Mario Kart. Mario had cameoed in a sports title here or there over the years (he got really good at Golf, apparently), but he mostly just starred in his own adventures that involved running and jumping. Super Mario Kart was a great success as a fun racing game, but it also showcased how a videogame mascot could shift all their normal “verbs”, but still be unmistakably that familiar mascot. Mushrooms can make you super tall, or they can give you a speed boost. Turtle shells can become projectiles divorced from their turtles. And anyone that has ever played any Mario Kart knows the difference between a Starman that allows you to mow down goombas and one that allows you to speed to the finish line. Mario Kart showed that even the most rigidly defined mascot could be anything, and paved the way for the Sonic Racing or unprecedented crossovers of today.

And then there was Q*Bert for Gameboy, and Q*Bert 3 for Super Nintendo, both released in 1992. Q*Bert only need move from block to block in a generally diagonal manner. He changes block colors simply by touching blocks, and his only “offensive option” is baiting a malevolent snake into a bottomless pit. Q*Bert does not have a bonus jump, six punch buttons, or other abilities. Q*Bert simply hops. Sometimes there are a variety of new colors and backgrounds, though. You know, at least on the system that has color.

Let’s hop forward seven years. By the time 1999 rolled around, the “mascot wars” of the previous console generation had concluded, and newcomer Sony was riding high with the Playstation and the serious, cinematic Final Fantasy franchise. This was the year we were finally going to see the sequel to Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy: Whatever, and it pushed the boundaries for what was expected of the JRPG genre. Have you ever heard of Triple Triad? Guardian Forces? Dog Missiles? If you haven’t, don’t worry about it, it was all only around for one game, but it did establish that you could have complicated battle systems that were only relevant for one title. Fight, magic, item wasn’t the only fish in the sea, anymore, let’s get ready to get some gambits up in here!

Go QBert!This was also a time when gaming was getting more serious… but “serious” as more of a teenager’s definition. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater allowed a “real human” avatar to perform intricate skateboarding tricks in a universe that apparently had unlimited and instant healthcare. Silent Hill allowed a player to explore the depths of the human psyche in a world that was going to be complete in a few years with the introduction of a certain pyramid headed fellow that really knew how to swing around half a pair of scissors. Or maybe you just wanted to be the Driver, and cruise around realistic (enough) cities? In a way, these games were just as big on the fantasy as Mario (no, you cannot drive a car into a building in reality and continue to have a good time), but they were a lot more “real” than anything Pitfall Harry ever did.

And if you wanted some fantasy, don’t worry, you still had the likes of Ape Escape or Donkey Kong 64 to hold you over. DK64 saw the collectathon at its most… collecty, and showcased all the different ways Kongs can run, jump, and shoot on their way to an ultimate goal of wringing out 12,000,000 (monotonous) hours of gameplay. And Ape Escape was no simple monkey game, it was a sneak and capture event closer to Metal Gear than Donkey Kong. Even visually “childish” games in 1999 weren’t so simple.

And then there was Q*Bert for Playstation. Q*Bert only need move from block to block in a generally diagonal manner. He changes block colors simply by touching blocks, and his only “offensive option” is baiting a malevolent snake into a bottomless pit. Q*Bert does not have a bonus jump, “punch”, or other abilities. Q*Bert simply hops. This time there was an adventure mode, but that was just an excuse to stick cinema scenes on either side of a world. Everything else was just Q*Bert hops.

BERT!The following five years allowed for a number of innovations in gaming. In 2004 we saw Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was the first Grand Theft Auto to feature extensive customization to its grand, open world. It also had planes, bazookas, and the opportunity for your C.J. to cosplay as The Notorious B.I.G. for the entire adventure. It is arguable that this Grand Theft Auto went too far into the whacky territory after its sequels eventually tried to rein everything back in with sad Russians in GTA4 and sad dads in GTA5, but the Saints Row franchise carried that whacky football straight to the end zone. Gaming had started goofy, become serious, and then migrated back to goofy all over again.

And speaking of marginally goofy, this was the year we saw Fable, which touted a rich morality system and a story that was different every time you played it. Did that actually happen? Well, not really, but it did seemingly start the trend of games that bet their whole asses on save baby/eat baby morality. It was no longer enough to run, jump, and punch; now you had to determine whether or not you were doing all those things while simultaneously becoming Mecha Hitler. Or Mecha Mother Theresa? You’ve got choices!

But on the simpler side of things, there was Katamari Damacy. This straightforward little game featured a protagonist that could only roll around a ball, but that ball could grow from the size of a paperclip to roughly the girth of a galaxy. And, more importantly than the gameplay, it was released for a whole $20, kickstarting the (now standard) belief that not every videogame had to be a AAA, 40 hour feature. Before internet connections fully graduated from 56K, Katamari Damacy showed us a glimpse of the future of downloadable titles.

Eat it!And speaking of downloadable, this year also saw an official Flash (RIP) version of Q*Bert. In a game that would be ported to “real” Windows a year later, Q*Bert only need move from block to block in a generally diagonal manner. He changes block colors simply by touching blocks, and his only “offensive option” is baiting a malevolent snake into a bottomless pit. Q*Bert does not have a bonus jump, “punch”, or other abilities. Q*Bert simply hops. At least this Q*venture was free.

Now we fast-forward a decade to 2014. What innovations did this year hold for gaming? Well, we wound up skipping the exact year for a lot of big’uns from this epoch, so we’re left with staring straight at Dark Souls 2. Did you ever hear about Dark Souls? It’s the Dark Souls of Bloodborne games. Love it or hate it, Dark Souls impacted gaming in more ways than we will ever admit, arguably revitalizing the general gameplay of the rogue-like and encouraging increasing your own personal gaming skills while marginally leveling up your chosen hero. In a similar manner, this was the year we saw Bayonetta 2, a shining example of the likewise “hardcore” stylish action genre. Gaming could be slow and methodical or fast and elegant, but, in both cases, it was a little more complicated than guiding a puck through a maze.

And if you still wanted the mascots of yore, don’t worry, they were represented, too. If you wanted to see everybody fight everybody, Super Smash Bros 4 WiiU/3DS was released in 2014. Smash Bros was always a shining example of videogame protagonists leaving their usual genre and sailing into something completely different (Star Fox left his ship!), but Smash 4 would eventually grow and mutate to be a veritable yearbook of every character that had ever mattered in gaming (sorry, Geno, you don’t matter). And if you wanted something new from “cartoony” characters, this was also the year that Shovel Knight proved Kickstarting retro platformers was wholly viable, and could have amazing, enduring results. Come to think of it, Shovel Knight was partially inspired by Dark Souls, too…

CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTERBut there was one game released that year that was not inspired by Dark Souls. Q*Bert Rebooted, seemingly rebooted to promote an Adam Sandler vehicle, was a game where Q*Bert only need move from block to block in a generally diagonal manner. He changes block colors simply by touching blocks, and his only “offensive option” is baiting a malevolent snake into a bottomless pit. Q*Bert does not have a bonus jump, shovel, or other abilities. Q*Bert simply hops. He also hopped to nearly every platform available, so this one is still downloadable on modern consoles.

And Q*Bert returned for the most recent time in 2019 for iOS. Do we need to review the gaming breakthroughs of such a recent year? Fire Emblem: Three Houses and its perfect blend of chess and dating simulation? Super Mario Maker 2 and its ability to grant the player full creative control over familiar gameplay? Untitled Goose Game and its goose? Whatever the hell happens in Sekiro? (I gather it is a photography simulator.) 2019 was an amazing year for gaming where we not only had all this, but also Q*Bert. And what did Q*Bert do? He moved from block to block in a generally diagonal manner. He changed blocks colors. He baited a snake into a pit. Q*Bert only knows hops.

He was Q*Bert. He is Q*Bert. The face of gaming may irrevocably change, but Q*Bert is Q*Bert forever.

@!#?

FGC #562 Q*Bert

  • Go lil buddySystem: I’m pretty sure the lil’ Bert appeared on nearly every console system, give or take a few outliers. Playstation 2? Sega Genesis? And I’m pretty sure he wasn’t on Atari Lynx, either. Other than that, there’s probably some Q*Bert in some form on your preferred console.
  • Number of players: One Q*Bert, but two people can take turns if they are so inclined.
  • Don’t make a sound: Q*Bert’s claim to fame has always been the bizarre recordings that approximate the sound an orange monster man might make when brained with a purple marble. Unfortunately, playing Q*Bert in the year 2021 just reminds me that I never want to hear from a belligerent orange creature ever again.
  • Hey, what about Q*Bert’s Qubes: The only Q*Bert to truly mix up traditional Q*Bert gameplay was… not all that different. It basically just added the idea of “rotating” cubes according to the direction Q*Bert hops (as opposed to one simple, all-purpose tap), and added a handful of new enemies (there may have been a crab). Other than that, the way it “separated” the blocks made the game a lot more difficult to visually parse, and there’s probably a reason this Q*title is generally forgotten and ignored.
  • Did you know? Q*Bert for Playstation started with a cinema scene based in Q*Bert’s blocky little world. Weird thing? His weirdass universe looks a lot like modern Minecraft. Did Steve colonize Q*World? Is that the secret origin of the franchise?
  • Would I play again: Q*Bert is great for a whole five minutes before you remember it’s just goddamned Q*Bert. I will probably waste those five minutes again in the future.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Wallachia Reign of Dracula! Or did ROB actually choose Bloodstained: Classic Mode? Actually, it’s both! We’re going to have a double header next! Please look forward to it!

GO FOR IT!

FGC #540 Avenging Spirit

Avenging Spirit is a game that is best known for the differences in its regional box art. In Japan, there was Phantasm, and it looked like this:

Can you feel the spirit?

Whereas when it was time to sell “Avenging Spirit” to Americans, we saw a box that looked like this:

USA! USA!

And this is definitely a case of intending the book to be judged by its cover, as, give or take a translation, we’ve got the exact same game in both cases. There is no greater emphasis on tommy guns in Avenging Spirit, and the exact same goofy ghost of Phantasm is the star of both versions. Avenging Spirit attempted to gain notoriety in American arcades before the release of its home version, so the good folks at Jaleco’s marketing department thought they could goose sales by focusing on mobsters and vengeance rather than anime ghosts.

And that probably would have worked… if an American company hadn’t used the exact same concept in 1940.

Avenging Spirit is a platforming action game. Fundamentally, it is little more than Mega Man. You run. You jump. You generally have the ability to shoot. There is a boss at the end of every stage, and they run the gamut from whack-a-mole snakes to Dr. Wily’s signature pod’s second cousin twice removed. Some stages are predominantly vertical, some are extremely horizontal, and they all have way too many spikes. Hey! Don’t blame the game! Blame the quarters! But if you are looking for a little extra, rare (for the time) challenge, you can collect three hidden keys hidden randomly across the worlds of Avenging Spirit. Find them all, and you’ll earn the “good ending” wherein you successfully rescue a kidnapped damsel. Miss even a single key, and your hero will celebrate the destruction of the enemy’s base by solemnly fading into nothingness. That’s the life of a spirit for ya!

Oh yeah, guess we have to address that whole avenging spirit angle.

Spirited awayThe hook for Avenging Spirit is pretty great. Your protagonist is a ghost. That means you can fly around the screen at will, opponents can’t hurt (or presumably even see) you, and you’re free to do whatever. Only caveat? Every moment you’re an unprotected spirit, you are losing health. That’s no good! But there is a solution: you can possess your opponents, and use their bodies however you like. And, let’s be clear here, with the exception of bosses, you can possess absolutely any “monster” stalking these levels. And all of your possible victims are varied and distinct! There are kung-fu ladies with crazy agility but lousy stamina, gangsters loaded to the bear with weaponry, Rambo for some reason, a yogi mystic that can kick and fly (!), and even a few dragon people and robots. You’ve got options upon options! And, since your chosen meat shield is probably going to expire pretty quickly anyway, you’ll be hopping from body to body often throughout the adventure. It’s basically a high-stakes version of Kirby’s Adventure where you try out a new skin suit anytime you get bored. … And is that more or less creepy than your average cannibalism-based platformer?

But lest you think you’re some random ghost that just decided to fight criminal organizations one day, there is a dedicated story/excuse for Avenging Spirit, too. The eponymous spirit technically starts this adventure as an average boy wandering around with his average girlfriend. But! Oh no! Disaster strikes when a murder of mobsters gun down our hero and kidnap his dear girlfriend. But all is not lost! Turns out your girlfriend’s dad was researching ghost energy, and Dr. Spengler is going to bring you back to un-life for the express purpose of rescuing his daughter. So you are the avenging spirit, off to save the day and (hopefully) save your best gal along the way.

And if that plot sounds remarkably familiar, it is because it is nearly exactly the original origin story of DC Comic’s The Spectre.

GangstaIn 1940, Jerry Siegel, one of the creators of Superman, premiered The Spectre in More Fun Comics #52. Spectre’s origin was practically already relayed in this article: Jim Corrigan was on his way to his fiancée’s engagement party (I’m no marriagologist, but wouldn’t that be his party, too?), when he was stopped by mobsters that killed him and fitted him with the ol’ cement shoes (or maybe a barrel). Jimmy would have been left to rot on the floor of the bay, but a mysterious, potentially omnipotent entity revives Jim Corrigan with the express purpose of avenging his own murder. Corrigan is revived as The Spectre, a vaguely superheroic apparition that wastes no time in saving his fiancée from those same thugs that led to his own end. Undead James decides to break off the engagement (apparently being a ghost-man is not as sexy as Patrick Swayze would lead you to believe), but he does continue living his “life” as The Spectre, avenging spirit.

But, while there may be similarities, there are more than a few differences between our featured phantasms. Our videogame avenging spirit, for instance, is fueled by science and a grieving father, whereas his comic book counterpart has pretty consistently been on a mission from capital-G God. Yes, that’s right, there is a divine god of the universe in the DC Comics universe, and his primary focus seems to be reanimating dudes so they can menace mobsters. What’s more, there is a drastic difference in power sets between the two specters. Possession is the reason for the season for Avenging Spirit, but The Spectre started his tenure by using godly power to visit divine punishment upon his foes. In short, Avenging Spirit is a weak ghost in need of a host to so much as throw a kick, while The Spectre has enough power to fight the anti-creator of the universe (the history of the DC universe is as eclectic as it is mind-boggling). In short, these two ghost-men may have similar origins, but their afterlives went in wildly different directions.

And maybe that’s the difference between Eastern and Western fantasies.

It's the invisible manLook, you can slap a mobster on the cover of Avenging Spirit. You can even claim that art is relevant, as the spirit is out for vengeance, and he absolutely can possess a criminal wielding a gun. This is technically something that happens in Avenging Spirit. However, the circumstances of it happening is not what is being displayed on that box. That picture is a mobster that is closer to Scarface, a villain mad with power both real and imagined, and firing wildly at any perceived threat that comes his way. That is patently not what happens in Avenging Spirit. If you possess a mobster in Avenging Spirit, you are doing it to stave off an incremental death that is constantly stalking your digital avatar. You have a “real world” powerful weapon, but your gun barely puts a dent in those robots reprising with missiles. You’re the archetypical “bad guy”, but you’re also just plain a bad guy at jumping. There’s nothing empowering about being an avenging spirit. We’ve got a fun game here, but odds are good you’re going to see the continue screen more than a few times across your quest. And you’ll probably miss a few keys, see the bad ending, and watch your hero fade unfulfilled into the afterlife. Meanwhile, The Spectre does not dissipate into some Heaven-based reward. The Spectre friggen’ turns his opponents into helpless candles, and then sticks them on some kid’s birthday cake. The Spectre of DC Comics is a living tommy gun, and he’s got the unlimited bullets of God on his side.

Many bodies availableSo good try, Jaleco, you correctly identified that Americans would rather see a spirit of vengeance with unlimited power than the friendly ghost that appeared in Japan. The Spectre has been a marginally successful hero for the last 80 years of DC Comics (I’m pretty sure he’s more popular than Animal Man), while Avenging Spirit barely survived long enough to see a 3DS rerelease. Unfortunately, Avenging Spirit did not offer the ghost power-trip that Americans desire, so it is remembered as little more than a meme on these shores. Yes, Americans want guns and mobsters, but, more than that, we want power, and Avenging Spirit is about as powerful as a faint fart.

… And if anyone at DC Comics wants to create a videogame featuring The Spectre rampaging through a city like Godzilla, go ahead and give me a call. I’ve got some concept documents around here somewhere…

FGC #540 Avenging Spirit

  • System: Gameboy for the home version, arcade for the most colorful version. It was also released on the 3DS Virtual Console in 2011, which seems almost impossible.
  • Number of players: One on the Gameboy, two in the arcade. It is two player alternating, though, which unfortunately negates the joy of two ghosts fighting over possession of one body.
  • Favorite Opponent/Ally: There are these wizard looking dudes that can shoot lightning, and that’s really all I need. The yogis rank second, because they’re terrible at bosses, but the gift of flight is always the bee’s knees.
  • Wildly different graphicsPort-o-Call: The arcade version is lush and colorful, but it is also a dedicated quarter killer. You can’t even de-possess a dude without throwing yourself into suicide. That said, the Gameboy version plays better and seems to be more balanced for actually finishing the game, but the graphics seem more… abstract. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just a matter of the arcade version displaying what things are supposed to look like (yes, that is a dinosaur man walking around) fills in more than a few blanks on the Gameboy version.
  • An end: If you find all the keys, you not only rescue your girlfriend, you possess her as the “final” possession in the game. So you fight the end boss with the overwhelming power of love! And then the ending is… a little weird. Our avenging spirit completely dies, but at least he got to… be his girlfriend for a while? That sounds awkward.
  • Did you know? Okay, yes, DC Comics’ Deadman is closer in powerset to our featured Avenging Spirit. But even he routinely possesses the likes of Batman and Superman, and “I get to be Superman for a little bit, but even more quippy” is its own kind of power fantasy.
  • Would I play again: Why not? This is a fun, unique game, and there really isn’t anything like it out there in its era or this one. I’m not certain Geist ever actually existed, and it’s not like you see Mario possessing his opponents with some manner of magical hat or something.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Splatterhouse! We’re going to splat this and that! Please look forward to it!

Avenge this

FGC #531 Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3

It's getting squishyThey don’t make anti-heroes like they used to.

Literally.

Today’s game is Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. After premiering in Super Mario Land 2 as the main antagonist and only man with the raw chutzpah to steal an entire land out from under Mario’s moustache, Wario returned for his own adventure in the direct sequel. This is fairly significant, because, in almost all other cases with Nintendo characters, it takes forever for prominent villains to get their own adventures. And that’s assuming it ever happens at all! Ganon(dorf) wasn’t playable in a “real” Zelda game until Hyrule Warriors, and the canonicity of that one is dubious at best. Bowser similarly is usually only allowed to costar in spin-off titles, and King Dedede is only ever granted a turn as the hero when his wee nemesis is taking a nap. Other mascot villains don’t fare much better, as our favorite mad scientists didn’t see playable appearances until much later in their careers (Dr. Wily is, of course, represented by his creations in this example. Dude does not want to leave his hoverpod). The opposite numbers for our favorite heroes back in the 90’s were rarely controlled by the player, which was a huge shame, as everybody wants to be the villain. Wario being a playable character so soon after his introduction was unheard of in its time, and it is still a rarity today. Final Fantasy 7 Remake didn’t involve a single playable Sephiroth!

But Wario made the scene in his first “heroic” appearance. Wario wasn’t on a quest to save the princess or liberate some foreign land: he just wanted housing! Wario was homeless after Mario kicked him out of his ill-gotten estate (and what does Mario need a castle for anyway? He’s always away! He’s probably listing it on AirBnB as we speak), so Wario turned his eye to a group of pirates so he could steal their castle. Never mind that the pirates had apparently heisted a building-sized golden statue (!) that Peach had commissioned (!!!), Wario was is in it for the possibility of having a roof over his head. That’s a sympathetic quest, right? A man just wants his own sanctuary, and if a billion little round guys with spears are standing between him and his goals, that’s on them. Wario might not end up with Captain Syrup’s castle in the end (mostly because it exploded), but he does collect a hefty helping of coin over the course of the quest, so he buys his own castle/shack/planet (variable ending!) off a genie. Happy ending for everybody! Wario might be a “bad guy”, but his goals are not so much bad, just a little self-serving. It’s the American dream!

But if you think for even one second that Wario is at all a good guy, well, take a look at this malcontent:

It's Wario time

Wario is established as his own man in a variety of ways. He has Mario’s mad ups, but he also has a downward “butt stomp” that was new for the gamers of 1994. His “fire” isn’t a flower that launches balls, but a dragon hat that functions like a flamethrower. Garlic, not mushrooms, will cause Wario to become super, and his most iconic powerup turns him into something approaching a raging bull. And, whether he’s part bovine or not, Wario doesn’t run, he smashes with a forward shoulder. Wario’s Wario Land appearance is an expert case in modifying “normal” gameplay to still be extremely similar, but just different enough to establish the new protagonist as his own man. When Nintendo did the same again for Princess Peach’s solo outing, the addition of magical umbrella emotions to the Mario formula felt clunky and “gimmicky”, but Wario was a slam dunk right from the starting gate (I am working on understanding sports metaphors).

But none of that matters, because look at this bitch:

It's Wario time

Wario moves and looks like a… well… asshole. Wario is designed to quite literally walk around like he owns the place. Lesser monsters bounce off of him, blocks tremble in his presence, and the ground literally quakes at the force of his unruly ass. Through it all, Wario perpetually gazes out at the player as if to say, “Hey, I’m gonna wreck some shit. Wanna come along?” And that’s the thing: Wario doesn’t say anything. Wario is just as mute as Mario was in his previous adventures, and, long before anyone ever heard about how it was “Wario time”, Wario had to showcase his boundless personality through mime and pixels. The game starts with Wario menacing a pirate duck, and, before the player even smacks start, Wario is out and proud about the fact that he’s a gigantic jerk. Even if you missed Super Mario Land 2, this nimrod with elf shoes establishes himself inside of the opening seconds without so much as uttering a “Hello, stupids”.

And Wario isn’t alone! The pixel pioneers of the 90’s were apparently experts at establishing “this is your protagonist, but he is not a good guy.” It seems like there is a dearth of antiheroes on the pre-FMV consoles, but when you do have a bad guy in a starring role, they’re established pretty damn quick. Want to see another famous walking animation on the Gameboy?

He's a real Firebrand

Firebrand is not a friendly dude, and his jaunty little walk is the signature of a demon that is going to burn down your village. Firebrand is saving his kingdom right now, but if you need a princess kidnaped later, he’ll swoop in when he gets a chance.

And, at the risk of sounding like a nostalgic old man, you just don’t see that kind of instant character formation anymore.

Back in the day, you knew when you were dealing with an anti-hero. What do Wario and Firebrand have in common? They were both enemies first! If you stood in opposition to a brave knight or plumber, you knew you were on Team Bad Guy. Nowadays? Who bloody knows what makes a bad guy. Kratos has a kill count that is literally the population of Ancient Greece (complete with gods!), but his most recent adventure portrays him in a very forgiving light. The criminal stars of Grand Theft Auto participate in the same carnage as your average Lego title, but Trevor has terrible hair, so he’s probably the worst. And it’s telling that at least one franchise was able to hide the fact that you were playing as the main villain all along, the player just didn’t notice due to being so numb to the average amount of slaying inherent to the genre (I’m talking about this game/franchise, for the record). It’s difficult in your average modern videogame to tell whether you’re a playing the part of a vaguely homicidal hero or a villain with a heart of gold. All these heroes and villains are just so good at murdering…

That's one big birdAnd, by and large, this is by design. One way or another, the saintly protagonist of one game is supposed to look like the secret maniac of another tale for all sorts of reasons. Is this a game where the ultimate revelation is that you were the bad guy all along? Or how about you were supposed to be bad, but the plot has proven you were in the right, and it was society that was bad? Or is it just because market research has told us that mostly white guys with dark hair buy videogames? Whatever the root cause, our heroes have become indistinguishable from our antiheroes, and the only thing you can really count on is that the more villainous among us at least are going to make surly comments after encounters.

But is that all we have now? One-liners that are more or less cutting depending on the darkness of the character involved? Even the good guys have goatees, so we can’t judge someone by malevolent facial hair. Gone are the days when a walk would tell you everything you needed to know; you have to complete a 40 hour adventure just to figure out if your protagonist was on the side of the angels or the devils. And don’t even get me started on whether or not the slightest drip of moral ambiguity is going to cause a flood of youtube explanation videos that will list all the ways you’ve been wrong all along. The real villain was the player all along? Gosh, you don’t say. Throw another plank of switcheroo wood on the pile, Shamus, this lumber will keep us warm for another seven winters.

Wario does not know uncertainty. Wario does not have a greater, more benevolent motive. Wario is an asshole. He looks like an asshole. He moves like an asshole. There is no debate: Wario is an asshole, and that’s all he needs to be.

Give us more modern characters like old school Wario. Give us more amusing, unambiguous assholes.

FGC #531 Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3

  • System: Gameboy. This one came back on the 3DS Virtual Console, and is well worth a look if that thing is still around.
  • Don't get stabbedNumber of players: Wario needs only his pith helmet on his quest for riches.
  • Big Bad Wario: I want to say Wario Land was the first 2-D platforming game where I was allowed to bump into a weaponless opponent without suffering terrible consequences. Mario can’t so much as get within spitting distance of a goomba without losing his powerups, but Wario bumps around bad(der) guys with ease. Unless Wario is hit by the pointy end of something (which, granted, happens a lot), he is practically invincible compared to his “good” counterpart.
  • Favorite Powerup: Give me Jet Wario or give me death. Incidentally, I was very saddened when I first grabbed a fire hat after having a jet hat, and it didn’t transform into a flying-dragon hat. That was only in the Virtual Boy game! And I liked that!
  • Bizarro World: It’s interesting to compare the map of Wario Land to Super Mario World to see how many similarities there are. Inexplicable giant dome-hills are always nice, and there’s a prerequisite Forest of Illusion waiting before the final areas, too. I wonder if this was an effort to further affirm that Wario, right down to his very “land”, is a funhouse mirror version of Mario… Or if there just weren’t that many great ideas for world maps back in the 90’s. It could go either way.
  • So, did you beat it? Not only did I beat the game, but I apparently earned Wario his own planet. I guess you only have to have all the treasures and clear about 10,000 gold to get the highest reward. And that’s not too hard when you get lucky with the “double your money” chance game after every boss fight. … Or use save states to always get the best result. Yes, I’m cheating, but it’s what Wario would have wanted.
  • Winner!Did you know? Apparently there is an unused scene in the game data for Bobo, the giant vulture boss that rules the roost of the SS Teacup. It seems to showcase Bobo sitting in the woods… and that’s about it. Was Bobo supposed to be more involved in the plot? Was he the big bird of the island that initially appeared to be the main antagonist, but was then replaced by Captain Syrup? Was this the inspiration for Captain Toad’s arch nemesis? The world may never know.
  • Would I play again: This is an excellent game, and possibly one of the best Gameboy games. That said, the Virtual Boy sequel and Wario Land 4 does this basic gameplay better, and the later Wario Gameboy titles are revolutionary in new and exciting ways. Wario Land is great for a long car ride in 1990, but it has been surpassed by its sequels in every way. I’m glad for having playing Wario Land again, but it’s unlikely to happen again while other Warios are around.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Crazy Taxi for the Sega Dreamcast! Let’s go for a wild ride! Please look forward to it!

Does this explain lousy AI?