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FGC #572 Night Trap

It's a trapThe sooner you internalize this simple fact, the happier you will be: Nobody knows what they are doing.

Let’s talk about the game so bad, it nearly destroyed everything. Let’s talk about Night Trap.

It is reasonable to assume you have heard of Night Trap. But do you know what the game actually is? It is interactive fiction! It is a playable movie! It is a game that ostensibly tries to be a “videogame” (as opposed to, like, one of those “games” you can play with a DVD remote), but features real, human actors. Night Trap has “graphics” on par with your average Marvel movie, which was practically unheard of at the time. In fact, “practically” nothing, Night Trap was approved for production in 1986, and filmed (with the intention of being released shortly) in 1987.

1987! That was the same year as Castlevania: Simon’s Quest, R-Type (1), and Final Fantasy (1)! Can you imagine a videogame having such amazing fidelity in 1987! And it isn’t Dragon’s Lair! This could have revolutionized gaming as we know it!

Heavy emphasis on the “could have” there, though. Years before the release of Night Trap, a murderer’s row of people that were ostensibly successful in the western videogame development world of the 80’s (Nolan Bushnell! Even my beloved videogame-shunning wife knows that name!), gathered together to create what would be this infamous title. Within this group, Tom Zito produced a device by the name of the NEMO. NEMO (considered so valuable, its acronym literally stood for Never Ever Mention Outside) could use VHS technology to create “movie-based” gaming through playing four video tracks. This technology was used to sculpt a proof-of-concept prototype, Scene of the Crime, which clearly displayed how one could enjoy a “murder mystery” type game. Clue was a fruitful property, right? Well, someone at Hasbro agreed, and NEMO was on its way to powering Night Trap.

What else is on?It is probably worth noting at this point that the brilliant minds that had previously been responsible for videogames as we know them maybe did not have a great idea of what people wanted from videogames. I have written about this phenomenon before, but the first twenty years of gaming were practically defined by people realizing that something would be a cool idea for a videogame (detective work!) and then just completely blowing it with an execution that was about as fun as watching an adorable puppy choking on your math homework (passively watching monitors for maybe something to happen!). The same generation of genius programmers that brought us the likes of Asteroids and Pitfall settled on the “gameplay” of Scene of the Crime being little more than meticulously watching a movie. Nobody wants to hold a controller in their hands and quietly wait for something to maybe happen. But Scene of the Crime, excellent tech demo or not, is just that, and Night Trap would not be much better. You may have been responsible for the whole of gaming in the 80’s, guys, but that didn’t mean you had a damn clue what would make a fun videogame.

And speaking of people that did not know what would work, let’s get back to Hasbro. Hasbro was ready to fund the production of Night Trap (one of the first videogames to include live actors, “movie” directors, and a director of photography that would go on to shoot Forrest Gump), but there were a few notes. Unfortunately, Hasbro was a toy company, so they were downright afraid of any lawsuits that may arise from violence that could be copied by an impressionable child. So the “vampires” intended to be Night Trap’s antagonists weren’t allowed to actually draw blood, and they had to use some manner of grabby-arm trash collector to ensnare their victims. This meant everything slid precipitously into the “goofy” category. Additionally, Hasbro eventually learned of the cost of producing the NEMO system game console that would actually play Night Trap (MSRP in 2021 dollars? About $630), and decided that, grabby vampires or not, Night Trap was literally not worth it. Hasbro purchased and funded the NEMO and its attendant games, but dropped ‘em like a hot potato(head).

Kind of a small dungeonAnd Hasbro in the 80’s really did know toys! They produced Jem (of the Holograms, natch) who once outsold Barbie. They won a lawsuit that allowed them to sell Transformers, or Go-Bots, or something that was a robot that could turn into probably not a robot. They purchased a children’s furniture company, and improved its profitability from millions to billions. And Hasbro was right on the cusp of being responsible for Barney the Dinosaur of Infinite Love/Money. This was a Hasbro that was hugely successful and poised to become the number one toy company in the known universe.

Yet, they could not foresee that new technology would be costly. Nor could they foresee that vampires using zoo-equipment might have unanticipated legal consequence. Brilliant toy company, stupid videogame producer.

But, like a vampire hobbling through the suburbs, Night Trap would not die. Rob Fulop, one of Night Trap’s designers, would call it a day at this point, and go on to be responsible for Petz. But Tom Zito purchased the rights to the NEMO games, and eventually founded his own company in an effort to make an appeal to Sony and its forthcoming Super NES CD-ROM system. That was a dead end and a half, so Zito migrated over to the only decent CD-based platform in town, Sega and its Sega CD.

So, six years after being conceived and five years after being filmed, Night Trap was finally released for the Sega CD in 1992. And, at this point in time, it was only a spectacular failure.

Get 'emHasbro may have been divorced from the project, but their changes remained. A game that was once supposed to feature ninja gradually morphed into something that included vampires, and now neutered vampires were scampering about. But it would be disingenuous to simply blame Hasbro for this debacle. Those ninja were replaced with vampires in the first place because it was determined that too much darkness would play poorly on modern television screens. So a game that was initially designed to be cloaked in shadow had to step out into the harsh light of poor illumination. What’s more, the one interactive bit of Night Trap, that the player could activate traps that would eject or otherwise harm the villains of the piece, necessitated some extremely awkward behavior from the stuntmen playing these malcontents. So our Draculas had to be reduced to “henchmen” that skulked along like Renfields that had been forsaking the blood for far too much hooch. And, as one might expect, those “real live actors” involved in the filming of Night Trap had no real idea what they were doing. To be clear, they were likely consummate professionals, but this was a new medium, and its not like a director can direct when they do not even have a full picture of what the final product is going to be. In short, Night Trap was a mess, and practically every corner of it exuded b-movie shlock.

And, oh yeah, the gameplay was frustrating, obtuse, and demanded a lot more dedication than Night Trap should have ever required. Do you know what color code is required at Minute 4 in the bedroom? No? Well get ready to watch someone die, stupid!

Actually, watching someone die repeatedly might make an impact on an impressionable player… Huh, I wonder if anyone else noticed that? Anyone like, you know, the entire United States Senate.

NERDS!Night Trap saw release in 1992, and it is cited as one of the chief reasons we had the 1993 Congressional Hearings on Videogames. Night Trap and its tremendously more popular cousin, Mortal Kombat, were cited as the primary motivating factors in this series of hearings, but, make no mistake, videogames had been a popular scapegoat for years. In 1982, Surgeon General Koop claimed that videogames could be affecting children’s health, as apparently Pac-Mania had infected the general populace. And, as Hasbro was well aware, this was the era when “won’t someone please think of the children” escalated to the point that you could barely have a dude in furry underwear bully a skeleton without someone shouting about kids hitting each other with homemade nunchucks. And, as we all know, once you involve the welfare of children, you know there are predators that are perfectly happy to profit off that fear, whether that be through actual profits or an eternal campaign bullet point.

In the fullness of time? These congressional hearings did have a good outcome: the creation of a ratings system for videogames. Considering the same had existed for movies for years, this was an excellent innovation for a medium that was still in its fledgling stages. But beyond that? This whole hearing was nonsense from top to bottom. The likes of Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl were obviously punching down on a medium that did not yet have the clout to resist such a slanderous public hearing, and certain companies took the occasion to hurl accusations at their most prominent competitors. Howard Lincoln says Sega hurts kids that Nintendon’t. Yes, there were probably some genuinely concerned people involved in these hearings that frequently showcased clips of “videogame violence”, but it seems like the biggest names in gaming and politics were mostly just there to advance their own agendas (and Captain Kangaroo, too, who had reasons known only to him).

She's basically dancingAnd this was and continues to be terrible. Ever hear about Seduction of the Innocent? It was a book published by a psychologist in 1954, and it eventually led to Congress launching an inquiry that neutered the comics industry for decades. In short, Fredric Wertham called Batman gay (not an exaggeration, true believers), and that snowballed into the giants of the comics industry corralling guidelines into a path that incidentally promoted the very comics that those industry giants were selling. And if you weren’t one of those giants? If you were publishing horror and/or horny material? Sorry, you are out of business. Literally! And this meant that the Western comic book medium became regarded as the domain of children for (apparently) the rest of time. Want to see what an American “manga market” could look like? Too bad! We had Seduction of the Innocent and a bunch of gold-diggers pushing their own superheroes forward, and now all we get is Iron Man, Iron Man: Civil War, and Iron Man: First Sip.

And it could have happened to videogames, too! Actually, it absolutely did. Thanks to ESRB regulations and conservative retailers, videogames were not sold in many brick and mortar stores if they ranked as an “Adults Only” title. And considering that physical stores were all that existed for a long time, we didn’t see anything that could even prod at that AO rating until three console generations later. And while no one is exactly lamenting a lack of Senran Kagura on the Super Nintendo, it is hard to say if something like the entire Suda51 or Yoko Taro oeuvre would have been allowed in the wake of 1990s videogame panic. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, gaming needs more voices in its chorus, and we would be missing out on some very distinct tones if we universally outlawed android butts.

But that was the sad reality of videogames for decades. All thanks to a pack of opportunistic senators. All thanks to some very imprudent videogame directing. All thanks to very fearful toy manufacturers. All thanks to some ill-advised hardware consideration. Going back years, damage was done to the videogame medium for decades, all thanks to a series of ostensible pillars in their respective fields making the wrong choices.

Love this guyAnd what can we learn from this? Well, at every step in the process no one really did anything objectively wrong. Wanting to drop brutal ninja for fantastic vampires is not wrong. Wanting to protect children from the horrors of violence is not wrong. Wanting to revolutionize gaming in new and exciting ways is not wrong. But the end result? Night Trap scarred gaming for decades, but it was the men (I’m going to go ahead and assume it was mostly men here) in charge that made the repeated decisions to somehow make this product and its legacy worse and worse. No one did anything wrong, but they made the wrongest decisions possible. And, as a result, Night Trap became a game so bad, it nearly destroyed everything in its wake.

Kind of makes you wonder what would happen if these people were in charge of something actually important

FGC #572 Night Trap

  • System: Despite objections from 1990s Nintendo, Night Trap is now available for the Nintendo Switch. Amazing! It is also available for the Sega CD, Sega CD/32X (long story), 3DO (such a cursed system), and, eventually, the Playstation 4/Vita (also significantly cursed).
  • Number of players: No way you could play this with anyone else. Ever.
  • Port-o-Call: The Sega CD is a bit of a… let’s say the graphics took a hit. Not all recordings are created equal. Or at a resolution above 10 x 10 pixels. But the 32X version is a significant improvement. And the modern versions actually look like the game is supposed to look. That said, it’s all the same terrible game, so don’t get too excited.
  • What us even happening?Let’s talk about the plot: A lot can be said for how the gameplay is terrible, and the acting is horrendous. But one thing that is often overlooked is that, whether it’s because the writing has to account for multiple characters that may or may not be kidnapped, or simply because no one knew what they were doing, the ostensible protagonists are wholly forgettable. You are supposed to be saving lives here! And the only character that even seems worthy of having a name is the secret vampire ham-man! Everybody else is just horrible, and that is likely a contributing factor in Night Trap being about as fondly remembered as polio.
  • So, did you beat it? Naw. Went ahead and watched a “full” run through on youtube, but there is no way I am going to take the time to carefully map out exactly where “I” have to be when. The whole thing is just exhausting for the payoff of having watched a complete movie.
  • For the Sequel: Everything about Night Trap/Scene of the Crime would eventually “work” in other games. Scene of the Crime’s concept of detective work would eventually be adapted into the hugely entertaining Phoenix Wright franchise by finding the right level of interface for solving a murder, and the basic gameplay of Night Trap would later work as the Five Nights at Freddy’s series. So, in other words, what the NEMO needed was more whacky lawyers/animatronics.
  • Did you know? The other game that was supposed to launch with the Hasbro NEMO? Sewer Shark. Now there’s a system seller for the ages!
  • Would I play again: Not for all the wannabe vampires in Castlevania. This game is a bear in every conceivable way. And not a cuddly bear! One of those bears that leaves you generally dissatisfied with your current organ count.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bowser’s Fury! Or Furry! It’s one of those! Please look forward to it!

It's out of control
Any version that doesn’t include a Genesis controller is not real.

FGC #570 Final Fight

Let's wrastleI think I’ve figured out how Final Fight has influenced the characters of Final Fight. Here are my findings:

First of all, Final Fight, in at least one form, is 100% canon in the Capcom universe. This presents an issue: which version of Final Fight is meant to be canon? And, if one version is canon, then what is the deal with all these other Final Fight games? After all, we’ve got Final Fight 2, Final Fight 3, that one ridiculous Final Fight fighting games with the zombie, and absolutely no other Final Fight franchise games ever again. The point? There is a Final Fight timeline. There are actual sequels to Final Fight. But Final Fight in its original form mutates across different systems and (possibly) timelines. What is going on here?

For the answers, we shall work backwards from Final Fight’s first prominent canon appearance elsewhere: Street Fighter Alpha. The Street Fighter universe has been surprisingly stable over the years (give or take Jimmy Nash in other media), so it is safe to assume anything established in Street Fighter is consistent canon. And who are some Final Fight characters to appear as playable in Street Fighter? Guy! And his frenemy, Rolento! And who doesn’t appear in the Super Nintendo version of Final Fight? Guy! And his frenemy, Rolento! Now, you could theoretically claim that this proves nothing. Why? Well, Guy and Rolento both had a stake in Final Fight 2, so their rivalry could have conceivably been founded not during the Metro City incident, but amidst the globetrotting of Final Fight’s second adventure. However, Cody shows up in Street Fighter Alpha 3, and his change in demeanor is outright stated to be a result of Metro City shenanigans, and he did not make an appearance in Final Fight 2. So Rolento’s familiarity with Final Fight’s chief protagonist only has one explanation: Final Fight: Arcade is the true story of Final Fight.

Glad we have a straight answer there.

This only happens in one versionSo Final Fight: Arcade is how it all happened. Where does that leave Final Fight SNES, though? This is a Final Fight title, but it is missing the Factory Stage, Rolento (the Factory Boss), and, most glaringly of all, Guy. One can forgive a lack of a two player mode for not impacting the canon, but two whole characters missing? And not even mentioned? What happened there?

The answer is simple: Final Fight SNES is Cody’s memory of how Final Fight happened.

It all makes sense: Cody is established in the arcade version as something of a hotheaded rival to the cool, collected Guy. And, during the ending, Guy kicks the crap out of Cody, because… uh… Guy was having a rough day? Something like that. So how would Cody take that loss? He would write Guy out of the story! “Yes, I rescued my girlfriend, Jessica. Well, I guess her father, Mayor Mike Haggar helped, too. But, you know, I was in charge. The mayor listens to me and these dukes,” Cody states as he takes a moment to kiss his fists. “Guy? Oh, that wannabe ninja dude? Yeah, I mean, he and I spar sometimes, but I don’t remember him helping out at all. Yeah, don’t remember that guy at all. Get it? Guy? Because his name is… Oh, whatever, you wouldn’t understand.” This also accounts for Poison’s change in gender, as Cody would never admit to being smacked around by a woman, even if she was a highly capable Mad Gear member. And as for Rolento and the factory? Cody knew what he was doing when he omitted Guy, so he wanted to avoid blowing the whole story with something as fantastic as fighting through a flaming factory on the way to stomping a militia leader. Cody can embellish how much meat he eats out of barrels, but nobody is going to buy the fact that he could soak a grenade or two without it being his final fight.

And Final Fight Guy? You could probably claim that that is the story from Guy’s perspective, wherein Guy omits Cody in response to hearing Cody’s version of events. But Guy apparently gives Cody a pass on helping for “being in Japan” during the events of Final Fight…

Nobody buys this

There is not a single person that knows Cody that would believe that dirtbag street punk would ever visit Japan, left alone leave Metro City for any reason other than hearing the McRib is back a few towns over. Cody is the exact kind of vagrant that bums around his hometown forever and spends the rest of his days complaining about his knee arthritis kicking up when it rains. Nobody believes Cody has a passport. Nobody believes Final Fight Guy right from Guy’s first words.

Is it hot in here?And speaking of testimony, Final Fight One, the Final Fight version that appeared on Gameboy Advance, allowed “new” Cody and Guy to be playable characters. After punching enough dudes, you can select not only Guy, Cody, and Haggar, but also Street Fighter Alpha’s Guy, and Street Fighter Alpha 3’s Cody. This means you can play as Cody in his 2nd evolution: a down on his luck convict wearing his prison stripes. Given the dialogue spoken during Final Fight One (and, yes, this is the one [non-mighty] Final Fight version where the characters actually talk past the opening), the “future” characters are revisiting their own memories of Final Fight as their older selves. So why would that be happening? The answer lies with “Prison Cody”: this is one of Cody’s many parole hearings, and Cody and Guy are both testifying about how Cody is an upstanding citizen (that punches hundreds of other citizens). Future Cody even admits that he does not remember the factory area (because he took a shortcut), but goes with the story because he wants to show accurate parity with Guy. Everybody on the same page? Great! Maybe Cody will be back on the streets and… fighting? Again? No, probably best to keep this malcontent locked up.

But, as we all know, Cody is eventually released in the Final Fight/Street Fighter canon. By Street Fighter 5, Cody is not only a free man, he is also the new mayor of Metro City. And, for that significant rehabilitation, we must thank the power of cartoons.

Mighty Final Fight is the greatest deviation from the other Final Fight releases. At first glance, this NES game may appear as a simple “demake” conversion of Final Fight, similar to how many SNES/NES games were “shrunk” to fit the parameters of a Gameboy cart. But upon actually playing Mighty Final Fight, you’ll find this is much more than a “chibi” graphical switch. Your characters level up! The stages/backgrounds are totally different! Certain bosses return for fresh rematches! There is some kind of weird dialogue! The final boss is a cyborg now!

Going down?Actually, let’s focus on Belger. In the original Final Fight story, he is a “legitimate businessman” kingpin of crime that has kidnapped Jessica because he wants to extort the mayor. In Mighty Final Fight? Belger is a cyborg “beast” that kidnaps Jessica because he has a crush on her. He’s practically Bowser! And does that make Cody into Mario? Maybe! And what else is missing from Mighty Final Fight? Edi E., the corrupt cop that previously stalked around Metro City. With the removal of a “morally gray” police officer and his favorite sidearm, Mighty Final Fight becomes a lot more kid-friendly. Right down to Mike Haggar getting a “whacky” hammer to swing at his foes (oh, there’s the Mario of the group), everything about Mighty Final Fight seems to be made to appeal to younger kids not yet old enough for the “real” violence of Final Fight.

So it’s pretty obvious what happened here: Mighty Final Fight is the “animated series” version of Final Fight. It is the adaption of Final Fight made for children. And considering who might have a reason to create to such a thing (and an entire city’s budget to do so), one can presume Mayor Haggar himself produced and oversaw the creation of Mighty Final Fight. How do you get a whole new generation of Metro City youths to grow up to be fine, upstanding citizens who do not join the Mad Gears? Indoctrination! Hagger is good! Mad Gears are bad/silly! The mayor is always going to help you out, children, he just has to escape from Abigail’s deadly kisses right now!

And did it work? Well, as previously mentioned, Cody becomes Mayor of Metro City by Street Fighter 5. He has traded in his prison stripes for a fancy suit. And what else has Cody dropped? He lost his previous “throw a rock” fireball…

I almost had 'em

And picked up the Tornado Sweep ability…

This is justice

Which was Cody’s special attack in Mighty Final Fight.

World's strongest dude

Yes, you guessed it, Cody watched a cartoon version of his Final Fight adventures while in prison so much, he not only learned how to be a better man, he also internalized an entirely new special move. Mighty Final Fight influenced the youth of Metro City and Cody Travers.

Final Fight may have a lot of versions, but at least some of them are doing some good for the community.

FGC #570 Final Fight

  • System: The Super Nintendo version is most ingrained in my mind, but it is also the worst. Go play the Sega CD edition! Or the arcade! Or the weird-ass Gameboy Advance version! And Mighty Final Fight for the NES is its own animal that I really should be covering separately, but I only have so much time.
  • Number of players: A good version of Final Fight has two, but it is not unusual to only see one.
  • Love you, AbbyLet’s Talk about Mighty Final Fight for a second: This is one of the few beat ‘em up games where it feels like the level up system is justified, as it doesn’t completely break the difficulty of the game depending on your level (it mostly just gives you extra health and a fireball). This, almost by default, makes Mighty Final Fight one of the best beat ‘em ups out there, and certainly top two for the NES (see also Project, The Manhattan). And the final boss is a cyborg gangster, which is better than some dork imitating a disability while tossing off crossbow bolts.
  • Favorite Final Fighter: Mayor Haggar is how I learned to stop worrying and love the piledriver.
  • Forever Friends: Guy and Cody have appeared in Street Fighter Alpha and Street Fighter 4. Cody returned again for Street Fighter 5 (with Lucia and Abigail!). And Mike Haggar has been showing up in the Versus franchise. But the Final Fight trio never appeared in a playable incarnation in the same videogame ever again. Well, unless you count Final Fight Revenge, which no one does, least of all its participants.
  • Have fun!What’s in a name: In addition to Poison’s identity issues, the SNES/GBA versions rename Damnd and Sodom (to Thrasher and Katana, respectively). I understand having to think of the children when seeing a name that sounds an awful lot like “damned”, but Sodom is biblical, people! You religious people love the Bible, right? Leave the poor Japanophile be. And he was named for a German thrash metal band, anyway…
  • Did you know: Katana/Sodom is the only boss in Final Fight that doesn’t call for reinforcements. I guess this means he’s honorable?
  • Would I play again: I am occasionally nostalgic enough to replay Final Fight. I don’t usually last past the subway, but I’m pretty sure Damnd will never be able to enjoy a hamburger again.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Shock Troopers for the Neo Geo! That’s shocking! And maybe trooping! Please look forward to whatever that means!

OH MY GOD

FGC #478 Popful Mail

I have no idea what this name meansSonic the Hedgehog: The Movie is a success. It has reviewed generally well across the board, made a Master Emerald’s ransom worth of money, and, in ten years’ time, people will remember it more fondly than Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. While you could chalk this success up to any number of factors (I always say you can’t discount the unending charisma of Lee Majdoub), the internet at large has decided to take credit for this one. See, the original trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog featured a very toothy, un-Sonic looking hedgehog homunculus. This infuriated The Internet, and, in its anger, it slashed its mighty tentacles across the landscape, forever sundering the gulf between studio and creation. In the aftermath, Paramount and Sega had no choice: they had to rebuild the cinematic hedgehog, and produce an all-new cut of Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie. Thus, months later, we were presented with the new hedgehog, and all was right with the world. And now that Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie is a success, the fanbase that “made them change” has claimed any and all rights to this victory. And why don’t those crazy executives just listen to the fans all the time, ya know?

And you want to hear the kicker? This isn’t the first time that happened. This isn’t even the first time this happened with fans, executive meddling, and Sonic the Hedgehog.

In order to understand this little story, you have to understand the early 90’s. This was the heyday of Sonic the Hedgehog, when a mascot with attitude would inevitably be successful, whether you added that trademark arrogance to a t-shirt wearing cat or a particularly acrobatic bat. However, while begloved anthro animals were riding high in the sky, anime as a whole was still exotic “Japanimation”. Yes, it seems weird now to separate Japanese created cartoon creatures like Sonic from the very concept of anime (particularly after Sonic Adventure), but these were the heady days of Sonic’s birth. Anime was often disguised when it hopped across the pond, and our Journeys to the Wests suddenly became Whomp ‘Ems. Gotta go fastAny and all anime-based media, like games starring Goku or Sailor Moon, never made it to our shores, and when something was too anime to ignore, it was heavily modified, and promoted as more Dungeons and Dragons than Record of Lodoss War. So it would only make sense if someone were to, say, drop the anime trappings from a game and replaced it with that hedgehog fellar all the kids are talking about.

And that was how, in 1993, one issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly mentioned a new game might premiere at the May Toy Fair. That game? Sister Sonic.

EGM’s Gaming Gossip section in its Issue #47 (with, naturally, Mortal Kombat on the cover) makes mention of a Donkey Kong follow-up for the Super Famicom CD, the Atari “mystery machine” codenamed Jaguar, and “a new spin on the Sonic saga called Sister Sonic… apparently an RPG starring Sonic’s lost sis”. That’s all Quartermann wrote about Sister Sonic, and EGM wouldn’t mention exactly what happened to the good sister until after another twelve issues (and it was Electronic Gaming Monthly, so that was.. if I’m doing my math right… sixteen years later?). While covering a level select code, it is mentioned (almost in passing) that the Sister Sonic project was scrapped, and now what was going to be modified to be Sister Sonic would be… Popful Mail! Hey! That’s today’s game!

What happened? Well, according to that same article (/oblique mention) in Issue #59, the original plan to mutate Popful Mail into Sister Sonic was dropped when word of this “localization” leaked, and fans of both franchises agreed to inundate Sega with requests for the real Popful Mail, and not some heavily modified localization. What does that mean? Well, obviously, the Sonic fans did it again! Or… the Mail fans? Whatever! Fans beat back those terrible producers in 1993! Hooray for our side!

Not an egg!Unfortunately, the only confirmation we ever had that this even happened seems to be from the pages of EGM (and mostly from a section literally called “Gaming Gossip”). This is a shame not only for historical accuracy reasons, but also because I would give my prized Battletoads-honed gaming skills just for a chance to see what the hell Sister Sonic was supposed to look like.

Popful Mail is not a game that plays like a Sonic title. Popful Mail seems most like The Adventure of Link (well, it’s really like Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, but no one played that), as it is a 2-D action game with towns, dungeons, and upgrades. The world map is little more than a course selection screen, but other gameplay elements, like healing in town or hording gold for fun and profit, is all about that adventure game lifestyle. And, while Mail starts with a stubby little sword like some kind of Hylian, she quickly distinguishes herself by upgrading to throwing weapons. And she has allies! We’ve got a little Castlevania 3 in here, as there are different party members that are always available for quick switching and slightly different movement mechanics. Mail’s adventures are a little aggravating for the rote repetition required in some dungeons (if you see a door that requires a key, you’re in for a bad time), but it’s a generally fun 2-D exploratory action-adventure. Oh! And the bosses pretty neat, too!

… But they ain’t no Eggman.

Magic!Popful Mail doesn’t run. If Popful Mail so much as saunters at an increased pace, she quickly loses half of her health to a skeleton monster. She’s got health, not rings, and it depletes far too quickly. She lives in a swords and sorcery fantasy world, not some loop-de-loop planet lousy with flickies. There is the occasional golem or sentient puppet, but there is not a badnik to be found. And, while Miss Popful Mail does seem to possess that general “spunky heroine” mentality that was popular in early 90s anime (I’d say she stole her whole shtick from Lina Inverse, but that would imply Mail and Lina could be recognized as wholly separate characters), she isn’t even on the same attitude echelon that Sonic achieved with the simple wave of a finger.

Is Popful Mail’s distinctive setting and gameplay a bad thing? Of course not. Players were hungry for 2-D RPG-ish titles in the early 90’s, and that genre is still only seen in a rare Wonderboy or two today. But does it put Popful Mail in a good position to be “Sonic’s Sister”. Absolutely not. If we’re going to say Popful Mail stayed Popful Mail thanks to complaints from the fans, then chalk this one up as another win for gamers. It’s impossible to imagine what Sister Sonic would even look like, left alone…

Blooby

… Okay, maybe that’s a start. But Popful Mail is still nobody’s sister!

FGC #478 Popful Mail

  • System: Sega CD in America, but also the Super Famicom and the PC-8800 in Japan. But what does that matter? How many people could possibly live in Japan? Like… six?
  • Number of Players: One player at a time, but three selectable adventurers.
  • Back to Work: Working Designs ultimately was responsible for Popful Mail’s translation. This means there are a number of Western cultural references that have aged about as well as the concept of Sonic’s Sister. And, just because WD was vaguely sadistic, the difficulty was bumped up with enemies being stronger and Mail taking way too much damage. So, ya know, thanks for that. Also, thanks for…
  • Language, people: It’s funny/sad to remember how far colloquialisms have progressed since the 90’s.
    This is not cool, guys

    Remember, kids, this was supposed to be an all-ages title for the pre-teen Sonic fans. Just imagine that passing standards today (well, except as a specially designated “gamer word”).
  • But the fact that a prime villain is named “Nuts Cracker” doesn’t bother you? Nuts are supposed to be cracked. He’s like some kind of wee puppet man. What’s the problem there?
  • Happy Little Critters: There might be some Sonic-adjacent beings in this universe, as Gaos are blue and loosely spherical. On the other hand, they’re born of the typical “anime whatsit” creature mold, but aren’t nearly as distinctive as a moogle or cabbit. But at least they’re hopelessly addicted to nicotine!
  • Dem BonesFavorite Boss: Boney Rubbler is a skeleton riding a skeleton horse, and sometimes said skeleton horse splits in two. It is possibly the most interesting thing that happened on the Sega CD this side of Night Trap.
  • Did you know? Like practically everything in Japan, Popful Mail wound up with a manga and a half a dozen drama CDs. But poor Mail didn’t get an official anime. Apparently a pilot was developed, but it was never picked up for a full series. And, considering that pilot sees Mail and the gang being pulled into “the real world”… well, actually, it was probably ahead of its time. Sarcastic elf girl from another world!
  • Would I play again: Popful Mail is conceptually fun, but it is an absolute bear to make any progress with the Working Designs-mandated difficulty changes. I don’t think I’ll be trying Sister Sonic again any time soon.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse for the Nintendo Entertainment System! What a horrible ancestor to have a curse. Please look forward to it!

No smoking!

FGC #451 Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side

ETERNAL!They tried. They damn well tried.

Mortal Kombat (1) was released for the Sega Genesis on Mortal Monday, September 13, 1993. It was, by all accounts, a wildly successful launch for a game that had been haunting arcades for nearly an entire year. What’s more, thanks to the likes of the “blood code” and the lack of censorship on the console, the Sega Genesis version was considered by many to be the “real” way to play Mortal Kombat at home. This was in stark contrast to the release of Street Fighter 2, which had seen amazing success on the SNES a year earlier, but hit the Sega Genesis like a flopping pile of assorted expired organs. And, two months later, we saw Eternal Champions, the unusual offspring of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.

Now, we would hate to disparage Mortal Kombat during Mortal Kombat Week (“week”), but let’s be real here: Mortal Kombat’s initial character variety sucks. By Mortal Kombat 2, we were fighting knife mutants and Oddjobs, but our virgin foray into the world of Elder Gods and dragon men pretty much included one interesting four-armed monster fighting a bunch of dudes in marginally themed gym clothes. The motion capture graphics were revolutionary at the time, but “a pair of sunglasses” does not interesting character design make. On the other hand, you have Street Fighter, which had bright, colorful goblin people fighting stretchy yogis, sumo wrestlers, and at least one Spaniard Ninja. Even when similar fighters are involved, no one is going to mistake Ryu for Sagat. Johnny Cage and Liu Kang, meanwhile, might seem a tad similar. Sub-Zero and Scorpion being clones are a bit of an extreme case, but they also comprise 28% of the playable roster.

Let's fight!Eternal Champions seemed to take a page from Street Fighter’s book rather than Mortal Kombat. Eternal Champions employed Ernie Chan, a Filipino-American comics artist, who worked with the Buscema brothers back in the ‘70’s. Before working with Sega, Chan was known for being an artist at DC Comics (Ghosts, House of Mystery, Detective Comics) and Marvel (Conan the Barbarian, Doctor Strange). Considering Chan was responsible for a healthy number of comic book covers for a full two years at DC Comics, he knew a thing or two about dynamic characters punching each other as hard as possible (the 1970s was before comic book characters decided to just stand around and philosophize at each other for six consecutive trades). It seems only natural that he would be responsible for designing some interesting punch mans, and, let me tell you, we got some remarkable fighters here.

The base concept of Eternal Champions is that the titular (kinda) Eternal Champion has plucked a series of heroes from their respective timelines, and granted them the potential prize of avoiding their otherwise inevitable deaths. Arguably, this could lead to a number of “stock” characters, as different timelines lead naturally to different archetypes, and we can certainly forgive a knight from ancient times or a “future man” from 21XX. But, against all odds, we have a pretty diverse cast in Eternal Champions. We do have a stock caveman, and Xavier Pendragon seems like a typical wizard hailing from Salem, but we also have Shadow Yamato (hm?), a modern corporate assassin that wouldn’t be out of place in Shadowrun. Trident is Atlantean, but basically a merman. RAX is a cyborg built for Teleroboxer, and Midknight is a bio engineer who kinda sorta turned himself into a vampire. And Jetta Maxx is a 19th century circus performer that attacks with all the agility you would expect from an acrobat. Why aren’t there more tumblers in fighting games? That seems like a natural fit!

HUG!None of the fighters in Eternal Champions are exactly setting the world on fire, but there is no way you’d mistake Larcen the 1920’s PI/cat burgler for Blade, the futuristic bounty hunter. And, whether it’s an accident of the “complicated” concept of time travel being involved, or because someone genuinely wanted to create a new Eternal Champions universe, but these fighters all have in-depth, fascinating backstories to accompany their stimulating visual designs. As a prerequisite for the plot, we immediately must learn how each fighter died (which allows for some always fun dramatic irony), why they were targeted for death (the premise of entire half hours of Law & Order), and why, had they lived, they would have made the world a better place. Additionally, this setup encourages the creation of cultures old and new (of course someone has to explain how the “future” works, but even Ancient Atlantis has some ‘splainin’ to do about its fish people), and, since this is a fighting game, it’s important to explain the whys of some of these special moves. Yes, ninja use ninja stars, but why exactly does Larcen have a grappling hook? There’s a reason for that!

Which reminds me: these exciting, distinct fighters work well for not only for biography screen attract modes, but also for actually being fighters. This is another situation where, unlike Mortal Kombat, if a character has a trident for a hand, they’re not going to throw the exact same punch as the robot dude. In fact, every fighter has a defined fighting style, and, while it does seem a little odd that the vampire scientist is trained in Jeet Kune Do, it does mean that every character feels distinct in more ways than simply a special move. And, of course, the special moves are their own kind of distinct, and not just a fireball and a jumping uppercut spread out among the cast. In short, the eternal champions collectively offer a unique experience for a time when the fighting genre was flooded with monotonous knock-offs.

TIME KILL(ERS)But there is one place where Eternal Champions differed from Street Fighter: it had fatalities. Or, to be more precise, the game had “stage fatalities” in the form of “Overkills”: make sure your opponent lands on a particular spot when their health is low, and the background will do your work for you. If you’re in prehistoric times, you’re about to see someone devoured by a dinosaur. Meanwhile, if you’re hanging in the early 20th Century, get ready for a drive-by. The 60’s naturally contain napalm, and the far-flung future of 2345 AD is wall-to-wall robots. It’s entirely possible you could complete Eternal Champions without once seeing an Overkill, though, so it seems like the whole feature was an afterthought. Mortal Kombat was likely an influence, but a fighter being zapped into oblivion by a neon sign (can that actually happen?) wasn’t exactly the point of Eternal Champions. It’s all about the character variety, we don’t need gorefests to sell our Sega cartridges.

Or maybe we do, because the Sega CD exclusive sequel/upgrade, Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side dialed the gore up to eleven.

To be clear, Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side is not the kind of fighting game sequel that completely eschewed former graphics and gameplay for something completely different (Battle Arena Toshinden was fond of that move). This is much more the Super Turbo to Eternal Champions’ Champion Edition. More characters were added to the cast (and a great many of them were “joke characters”, like Hooter, a mundane owl with a taste for rats and vengeance), the special move system was rejiggered, and the same overarching plot returned with a marginal twist. The Eternal Champion has gathered his warriors once again to fight for a chance to live (and I guess nobody won the last one), but now there are a few new entrants, and the nefarious Dark Champion is hatching an evil plan to be the hardest-to-unlock character in the history of fighting games (just use the cheat code). Superficially, this Eternal Champions is just the obvious and expected fighting game upgrade that would barely necessitate a season pass in today’s market.

Not fair... for DeathBut that Dark Champion does make an impact on the fatalities of EC:CotD. The Dark Champion can be summoned for a match ending “cinekill”, which will banish your opponent to a pre-recorded FMV hell where they will endure a death based on their greatest fear. Some of these videos are goofy (at least one character is crushed with a “I’m not touching you” finger motion), but the majority are either significantly gory (the cyborg has his limbs torn off in a rather unpleasant fashion) or pure nightmare fuel (I’m not the only one that has a fear of melting into some manner of fleshy liquid, am I?). And if you think the increased gore is relegated to cutscenes, don’t worry, there are also now “Vendettas” that allow you to use a special move toward the end of the match that will be a little more special than usual. They, again, run a realism gamut (which is more likely to make an impact: a character turning into a giant bug or one just whipping out a shotgun for a headshot?), but the end result of most Vendettas is a literal bloody pulp tossed around the arena. And the stage fatalities really earned their “Overkill” moniker, as some are excessive to the point of parody. “The Pit” of EC:CotD is not one, not two, but three pits in one! And, don’t worry, you get to watch as a 16-bit human body churns through three different buzzsaws. Street Fighter has different models for every character’s skeleton thanks to Blanka’s shocking attacks, but EC:CotD goes the extra mile by modeling individual organs that are primed to leak out of those skeletons. Yummy!

And why all the gore? Well, obviously because someone wanted Eternal Champions to be popular.

That's why he's the champMortal Kombat hit the Genesis in 1993, Eternal Champions saw its sequel released in 1995. In those intervening years, Mortal Kombat continued to be a juggernaut, particularly on the Sega Genesis. Street Fighter may have proven to be a lasting victor, but the sales numbers all touted Mortal Kombat as the champion of the system. Eternal Champions wanted a piece of that pie so badly. Sega did everything it could to promote EC, from country-wide, EGM-sponsored tournaments to a 7-11 slurpee promotion, but it couldn’t touch the genuine appeal of the game with the angry skeleton and the kung-fu dude. Eternal Champions never had a hold of the arcade appeal, tried to pump up the blood to compensate, and still got nowhere. An excellently crafted fighting game, and it’s still relegated to the discount bin of history.

Oh, and what finally killed Eternal Champions? Why was there never a third title? Well, there was supposed to be a Saturn version to wrap everything up, but Sega of Japan decided that Sega had too many fighting games (two), Eternal Champions was stealing too much attention from Virtua Fighter, and the eternal champions had to be retired. Sorry, guys, but there’s only room for one fighting game in this company.

Sorry, Eternal Champions. We know you tried everything, but it just wasn’t enough.

FGC #451 Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side

  • System: Sega CD for Challenge, but just regular Sega Genesis for just regular Eternal Champions. The new Sega Genesis Mini Classic Console is also available, but go ahead and grab the 6-button controller for that one.
  • Number of players: Up to and including two.
  • Favorite Character: Dr. Mitchell Midleton Knight has become the bio-engineered vampire monster Midknight! … Okay, he’s just Spider-Man’s Morbius, but… wait a tick. RAX is Cyborg, Shadow is Elektra, Trident is Aquaman, Blade is named friggen’ Blade… maybe these characters aren’t all that original…
  • Send in the Clowns: This happened.
    AHHHHHHH

    I’m never playing this again.
  • So 90’s it’s Grody: Want to know how to determine this game came out in 1995? Well, there’s a hidden fighter simply known as “The Senator” who exists as a parody of the controversy surrounding violent videogames. And he fights in front of an ersatz McDonalds surrounded by security, an obvious sendup of Bill Clinton’s love of jogging to burger joints. And Senator’s fatality is transforming into an uzi-wielding berserk postal clerk. And they claim memes were invented by the internet!
  • Failure State: Okay, maybe the reason Eternal Champions never became popular was because it was impossible to beat. The final boss is the Eternal Champion, and he’s got eight different “forms”, and they all have to be fought and defeated over the course of two rounds. And if you lose two rounds, there are no continues, you’re just booted back to your original timeline as a Bad End. So win eight continuous fights, or die. And Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side introduced another, meaner Eternal Champion after the first one, so good luck winning sixteen continuous fights.
  • Favorite Ending: Shadow Yamoto is a corporate ninja saboteur… and her ending sees her entering witness protection and making the world a better place by testifying against her former employer. It’s not exactly the most action packed finale for a ninja, but it does feel pretty right.
  • An End: Also, Crispy the Chicken’s ending involves losing his fortune in the 90’s financial crisis and then selling his eggs for booz money. This is a very dark game.
  • VIDEOGAME VIOLENCEDid you know? In further support of the Eternal Champions Expanded Universe, there were two spin-off titles released. Chicago Syndicate was a Game Gear title that was fairly Shinobi-esque and featured Larcen cleaning up Chicago in a bright green trench coat (the ‘20’s were a different time). And then there was X-Perts for the Sega Genesis, a light beat ‘em up presenting Shadow and her previously unseen team of X-Men wannabes. Both games are… not worth exploring.
  • Would I play again: If I’m in the mood for a distinctly 16-bit fighting game, I’ll choose Eternal Champions. Of course, that mood rarely happens…

What’s next? We’re going to kill some time with a game with the exact same plot all over again. Please look forward to it!