Tag Archives: working designs

FGC #598 Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble III

Bubs n BobsThe release of the TurboGrafx-16 Mini offered me my first opportunity to play Castlevania: Rondo of Blood on something approaching “original” hardware. I had conquered Richter’s Big Adventure through emulation before (on the Wii and PSP), but I never completed the quest holding an actual approximation of a TG16 controller. And you know what confused me?

Take control

Damn, this thing got no buttons. That is practically a Nintendo Entertainment System Funpad for Babies™! This was the controller meant to steer Rondo of Blood? The game that is the direct prequel to one of the greatest games of all time? Which appeared on a system with a controller that contained, like, so many buttons and an eventual analogue stick or two? And all Richter had to beat back the forces of evil was little more than A & B? No, that cannot be right. A game that was a contemporary of Mortal Kombat 2, Mega Man X, and Secret of Mana surely could not be so limited by a controller and remain fun.

And then I used that same TurboGrafx-16 Mini to play Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble III. And now two buttons being loads of fun makes perfect sense.

Bubble Bobble has always been one of the most low-key best games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It is one of those unique-to-the-era experiences wherein game designers were not quite sure how to bridge the gap from arcade to home console parameters, and, what the hey, let’s just have a fun game with mostly contained levels and an overarching plot/theme that does eventually see a finish line. Bubble Bobble may have been experienced one non-scrolling screen at a time, but it had a variety of level configurations (hundo or so), interesting monsters, and a two-player simultaneous mode that could make enemies into friends and friends into enemies. Complete with a built-in hard mode and an excuse to call your neighbor over for bubbling times, Bubble Bobble had everything you could ever ask for in 1988 (or so).

Umbrella power!Unfortunately, not everything about Bubble Bobble was perfect. Bubble Bobble technically has precise controls, but sometimes getting your chosen dinosaur to do exactly what you want is a bit finicky. Who among us has not been trapped behind a wall, and forced to suss out the exact button combination to get Bub to properly bounce on a series of bubbles? Or been surprised at the relative difficulty of finding the correct way to pop a trapped opponent? Or finally reached the final boss, and then been downright confused at what you were supposed to do with that potion? Bubble Bobble is a great game, but we take for granted how much of its gameplay was predicated on knowing exactly what to do in any given situation. Granted, the same could be said for many games, but Bubble Bobble was one that could have used a little more tweaking to be immediately understandable.

And tweaks did occur in time for Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble III. Rainbow Islands (effectively Bubble Bobble 2) had a variety of… let’s call them… “innovative” gameplay elements that… may or may not have worked. Parasol Stars wisely decided to drop the meteorological-based play of Rainbow Islands and give the (now human) Bub and Bob a pair of parasols to better simulate classic Bubble Bobble gameplay. In much the same way a monster was once stunned by a bubble, now an umbrella can paralyze an opponent on contact, and then they can be pushed, thrown, or just eliminated at will. And you are going to want to use that push command plenty, because there are other monsters that are about “4 times your mass” size, and they can only be conquered by using smaller monsters as projectiles. Or maybe you could use those actual projectiles laying around…

Stay dampAs much as any other part of its progenitor title, Parasol Stars seems to distinctly build on the finale of Bubble Bobble. Now every “world” has a boss, and every boss is encountered in the same room as a potion that will grant magical powers to your parasol. No mere umbrella is going to vanquish Super Tom-kun, so the elements of water, fire, lightning, and star (it’s an element!) are going to have to help out. And, while you can simply launch little “bubbles” of these elements at your foes, you do have the option of “charging” and multiplying their power into a massive, unique attack. Fire lights the floor ablaze! Water creates a flood! Star makes stars (but, like, more stars)! And, considering these elemental potions create gameplay that is closer to Mega Man than anything involving bubbles popping, you can more easily focus on the task at hand. No need to figure out a boss pattern and how the hell your offense is going to work! These may be familiar elemental attacks at work, but the upgrade from Bubble Bobble to Parasol Stars has never been so obvious.

But that’s not all, folks! Despite Bub & Bob seemingly only requiring the limited general offensiveness of OG Bubble Bobble, there is a lot more to these magical parasols than meets the eye. You can find elemental bubbles in normal stages, for instance, and effortlessly balance these balls to charge up floods ‘n fires. And you can fire the bolts in multiple directions, just like launching monsters all over the place. And navigating these stages is a breeze, too, as you can ride the breeze with those umbrellas. Float leisurely down for an enemy ambush. And all you have to do is hold a button a little longer! Bub and/or Bob have got a myriad of options, and you can control it all with two buttons!

Only two buttons. Because that is all you’ve got.

Not the stars you need1991 was a fun year for buttons. This was a few months after the release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. This was the very same year that Link needed every last tool in his arsenal to go back to the past. Battletoads proved amphibians needed a lot more than two buttons for eclectic gameplay. And, dang, this was the year that Street Fighter 2 premiered in arcades. Remember Street Fighter 2? Six “action buttons” and to do anything fun, you still had to memorize special motions? Or at least hammer that jab button? And it’s not like the same year’s Fatal Fury was any better!

And amidst all this, here is Parasol Stars, just quietly featuring two infinitely controllable characters bopping around thanks to two buttons.

Not every game needs every button. Mario has proven for years that he seems to steer best in 2-D with 2-buttons. Sonic has only ever needed one button. Your average JRPG or strategy game needs little more than what you would find on a mouse. Whether you are venturing into the Cave of Monsters or traipsing across the Castlevania countryside, you do not need that many buttons. A few easy to remember, intuitive button combinations (Hold A to float, press Forward+B to throw, etc), and you will be set for an entire adventure. The TurboGrafx-16 proved this time and time again, and Parasol Stars is a shining example of two buttons being absolutely all you need.

I, II, and an umbrella? That is the perfect equation for the finale of a fantastic story.

FGC #598 Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble III

  • ToothySystem: This game saw more systems than you think… just mostly in other countries. But there was no arcade version! TurboGrafx-16, though, definitely. It seems other releases, like the NES version, stuck to Europe. Did we see the Atari ST or Gameboy ports?
  • Number of players: Two player simultaneous, because this game is great.
  • Port-O-Call: Working Designs was responsible for the TG-16 American localization. This is good, as the game does not contain much text, and I am moderately certain they did not pump up all boss health to unhealthy levels. There was also supposed to be a Commodore 64 version, but an irate spouse destroyed the production files during a bitter divorce. No, I am not kidding.
  • Story Time: The canon explanation of what is happening here is that some nefarious force is sucking the color out of various planets, and visiting these spots and beating their bosses is restoring the universe to its former glory. … Except you only ever see the black and white worlds on the map screen, and color is instantly restored the minute you stop by any given planet. So it seems more like this monochromatic curse is just, ya know, a level select graphic flourish.
  • An end: You must collect three precious star cards (or whatever) to gain a key that unlocks the final two “worlds”. There is nothing over the course of the game that indicates that those collectible “miracles” will do anything but clear out some enemies, so I want to say I would be pretty damn pissed if I went through the whole game in 1991 and was granted some ambiguous “try again” message. That said, the infamous “bad end” is kind of an expected thing in this franchise…
  • ToastySnack Time: Bub and Bob can collect piles of food just in their first level, and much, much more over the course of their whole adventure. Is a residual side effect of the Bubble Bobble curse a bottomless stomach, or are they hoarding provisions for their entire planet? Whatever the case, score a fridge somewhere, kiddies, all of those watermelon slices are going to spoil.
  • Horse Puncher: This is another game wherein you routinely fight unicorns. I need to keep track of how often this happens.
  • Did you know? The boss fight theme for this game is straight up Kaoma’s Lambada. This was something of a copyright issue then and now, but nothing compared to how the previous Bubble Bobble game, Rainbow Islands, heisted (Somewhere) Over the Rainbow. Such a thing was possible back in the early 90s! Nowadays, we can’t even preserve the Neon Genesis Evangelion end credits…
  • Would I play again: I bought the TG-16 Mini for Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, but Parasol Stars is easily the best “hidden gem” on the system. I will play this game again, if only because I will need something to test a second controller. Does that add up to four buttons?

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… SaGa Frontier for the Playstation! Or maybe SaGa Frontier Remastered for the Playstation 4! Whatever works! We’re gonna spark some skills either way! Please look forward to it!

END?

FGC #501 Alundra

Dream about a better lifeLet’s take a look at Alundra, the most compellingly anarchist game on the Playstation

Alundra is a 1997/98 adventure jaunt originally released on the Playstation (1). It is a generally fondly remembered title, as it’s basically the 32-bit sequel to A Link to the Past that many fans wanted, but were so cruelly denied by a certain 3-D boy with a woodwind. This is a game featuring enigmatic dungeons and dangerous foes, but it also not so subtly evokes some fairly iconic moments and items from a game released years earlier. The line between “familiar”, “homage”, and “outright plagiarism” has never been as thin as when you grab an ice wand from a mini, hidden dungeon to storm a northern volcano to take down a gigantic dragon boss. But that’s not a bad thing! Whether you’re calling it the spiritual sequel to Zelda or Landstalker (reminder: 50% of Zelda games released before ’97 involved significant amounts of jumping), Alundra is still an excellent game in its own right. These dungeons really are innovative, and Alundra deliberately sticks to its guns without delving into half-baked minigames like a lot of other games from the era. This is pure adventure gameplay from start to finish, and, considering this is a robust Playstation title, this really could be the “traditional Zelda game” that could satisfy fans for a console generation.

But that’s only half of why Alundra is so fondly remembered. Alundra is a title with a unique twist: Alundra can enter people’s dreams, and apparently everyone is dreaming about complicated dungeons filled with monsters. Thus, Alundra’s mystical hook allows for a number of exceptional areas that wouldn’t otherwise appear in this world’s vaguely tropical setting. Yes, of course we’re dealing with a videogame where an ice dungeon can be next to a fire dungeon with little to no explanation, but it’s fun when the prerequisite “four elementals” dungeon is the result of a nightmare attempting to accommodate a victim with multiple personality disorder. We’re still a few years away from full-blown Psychonauts territory, but Alundra does know how to separate its set pieces from the established obstacles of the era.

And, while innovative excuses for excellent gameplay are what established Alundra as one of the best games for the Playstation, there’s one important part of Alundra that seems to be all but forgotten: Alundra is emotionally brutal.

Yay jumpingNo one is claiming Alundra is the first videogame to include death. Alundra came hot on the heels of the likes of Final Fantasy 4, one of many games where half the playable cast is heroically killed across the adventure (they get better). And Alundra technically competed on its own system against a title featuring one of the most well-known deaths in all of gaming (I am, of course, referring to the death of the Lost Vikings franchise). Alundra was released when gaming (or its audience) was starting to find its way to some kind of emotional maturity, and that inevitably meant that fewer heroes were being “sent to another dimension” and were actually starting to feel the cold embrace of death. Alundra sees his hometown (well, “hometown”) burn. Supporting, helpful townsfolk die. Alundra’s beloved old man mentor is killed. People die, you have to deal with it, and that’s all pretty par for the course. People die, but you’ll save the world in the end. Same as it ever was.

But Alundra finds new ways to pervert traditional expectations so these deaths have an impact. Early in the adventure, Alundra is tasked with entering the dream of one critically injured miner so he can then save another trio of miners trapped in a monkey-based avalanche. Of course the critically injured miner dies, but he died imparting important information to dear Alunda. He’s going to venture right into that mine, and find… oh, one of the miners died. Another one, too? And when you find the final miner, it turns out he’s likely been dead since before this adventure started. His corpse is bloated and waterlogged. It… ain’t pretty. So congratulations, Alundra, you ventured into the mines and saved exactly no one. Death and despair are your only reward. And it won’t be the last time that happens! Alundra will venture through two entire dungeons searching for the mystical macguffins of his chosen quest, and on two separate occasions he’ll be informed that the villains beat him to the punch, and, geez, why did you even try, dude?

It is, to say the least, a little demoralizing.

DIEAnd that’s great! Well, it’s not great for Alundra or the player, but it is wonderful for setting the basic mood of desperation and sadness that permeates the events of Alundra. Alundra first encounters this dismal little hamlet when its citizenry is simply experiencing rotten dreams, but those issues seem to escalate rapidly to “deadly nightmares” and eventual “wholesale destruction”. Things are bad, and the player’s own inability to effectively curtail the horror reinforces the hopelessness of Alundra’s lot in life. By the end of the game, literally everyone you have ever saved from a bad dream is dead, save a pair of twin children who were used as a magical monkey massacre gate. And did we talk about those dreams? It’s not just a gameplay conceit: nearly everyone seems to be dreaming of “dungeons”, and when was the last time you encountered a pleasant dungeon? Want to know what I dreamed about last night? We were at my mother’s house, and for some reason one of her cats was able to talk, and the cat was really weirdly racist. It kept saying that Koreans could always be distracted by a game of chess. It was disconcerting, and I woke up troubled by whatever my subconscious is doing. But I didn’t dream about a gigantic eyeball monster surrounded by spikes and lava. That’s what everyone in Alundra is stuck with, and that is going to lead to a lot of restless nights.

MONKEY!But this all pales to the general perversion of prophecy in Alundra. Sybill is a character that imparts her visionary dreams to Alundra and the player. And we all know how this one goes, right? She predicts something is going to happen, and, because this is a videogame, that thing eventually happens, despite everything you do to prevent it. It is how videogame prophecies work. It is how prophecies work in all of fiction. So you’re shown a vision of a man sacrificing himself so your buddy will then create a powerful magical sword. It’s sad, someone is going to die, but at least you’ll get the Master Sword that can defeat Ganon. Guys, act surprised when it happens, that way we won’t have to scream “spoilers” at a little prophetess.

And then someone kills the prophetess, because of course that happens.

And then someone saves the guy that is supposed to die. Okay, that was unexpected, but…

Oh, and then someone kills the dude that was supposed to forge the evil-busting sword. And the pattern of him making useful items for you after every villager’s death is broken because he’s super dead. His funeral was really long, and he isn’t coming back.

Sorry, player, no awesome new sword for you, because everybody is dead. Nothing you could do. Nothing you can ever do. Loser.

So what do you do? As is often the answer, you beat the shit out of god.

Except, if you follow the details of this story, you realize god isn’t so much god in this story. He’s the ruling class.

It's a pipeAlundra has a fairly robust mythological backstory for a game featuring a gigantic gorilla that can only travel by twirling its fists. In short, Alundra’s world used to have a collection of colossi as its gods, but they wound up fighting over the honor of being the one god among gods, and, yada yada yada, they’re all dead. And, what’s more, by the time they had finished fighting, all of humanity had forgotten they were useful gods anyway, so their whole conflict was kind of a wash. Enter Melzas, the antagonist of this tale, a creature that came from beyond the stars and thought he could give this whole “become as gods” thing a shot. He granted wonderful dreams to the local royalty, and managed to get the population on board with building shrines and statues in his honor. This worked out really well until about five years ago, when Melzas slipped up and the king somehow found out he was worshipping a malevolent alien. All of the churches and alters dedicated to Melzas were smashed, and poor ol’ Melly had to manipulate his remaining followers from the shadows. He didn’t want to wind up like those poor giants that came before, so he hatched a plan to scare the locals into praying to him. This worked for a time, but then Alundra, a dude that could stomp out these scary dreams, showed up. This meant Melzas had to upgrade the horrors being visited upon the townsfolk, and that eventually led to a pretty healthy body count. By the time Alundra has to storm Melzas’s sunken castle, the whole of the world as Alundra knows it has turned against their god, and they have chosen Alundra as their new protector and “hero”.

Wet DreamAnd, while that seems to be a pretty typical JRPG finale (time to fight god again), something very important happens here: it’s not just the hero fighting, it’s the people rebelling. When this story begins, everyone is worshipping Melzas as a god, because that is what they have always done, and they believe Melzas has their best interest at heart. Over the course of the adventure, the people find that Melzas would gladly sacrifice as many people as it takes to maintain his power. Sorry, children, grandma has to die, because Melzas thinks it is in Melzas’s best interest. This happens over and over again: death and destruction, and their god does nothing. When it’s revealed that this “god” is responsible, it’s almost a relief for his pitiable “followers”. He wasn’t helping them because he was the cause of their woes. All the misery visited upon everyone (Alundra and the player included!) was thanks to one despot that keeps claiming he’s going to make Inoa great again, but never does. The only one that was actually helping was Alundra! Let’s help Alundra! Let’s give him all of our prayers! Because the guy we were following sucks.

And then Alundra wins! Good times forever! And maybe… anarchy?

The ending seems to imply that Alundra defeated Melzas, returned to the village for a little wine, women, and song, and then headed out to do the typical hero adventurer thing. Other dungeons to conquer, other villages to save, talk to you guys later. Is there a replacement god for Melzas? Nope. Every remotely divine being in the area has already been slain. The demons are dead, but the gods are, too. And good riddance! Melzas and every other wannabe god in this story caused nothing but unhappiness or relied entirely on Alundra. God is dead, Alundra killed him, and we’re all going to be better off without him.

Big dudeWhat did this ruler ever do for his people? Nothing. And no one is anxious to hire another god to see the same thing happen again. Alundra is the last man standing that received any prayers, and he’s blown this popsicle stand. What does this village have left? Who is in control of their lives now?

No gods, no masters, only Alundra.

FGC #501 Alundra

  • System: Playstation and Playstation 3 (through PSN). I’m not sure what it would require, but somebody please go ahead and get this on the Switch.
  • Number of players: Alundra is number one!
  • Say something mean: Alundra’s overworld is expansive and just plain fun to explore, but it reminds me a bit too much of Link’s Awakening… and not in a good way. It is a royal pain to have to switch your weapons and items every three seconds because you encounter four different, continually respawning obstacles on your way to the west, and I would be much happier with something approaching a “ring menu” or L/R weapon switching or… something. Exploring the world is fun! But could we maybe not have to juggle between fire rod and mace every seven seconds?
  • You don't know how hard it was to pull this offMagic Hour: Alunda can use magic! … But you only ever attain a maximum of four charges, so it’s kind of useless. And your magic points are displayed as a collection of miniature, rotating crystals, which I can assure you distract my wandering eyes at all times. I keep expecting a quartet of tiny Light Warriors to invade my HUD!
  • Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: First of all, you can’t tell me Meia, the only other dreamwalker in this world, wasn’t designed as Alundra’s player two. Those two have sprites that are way too similar for a pair of wannabe lovers. Beyond that, Meia is done dirty by the plot, as exactly when you discover that she has a tragic backstory involving religious persecution and more than a little stake-burning, she becomes super-duper useless, and never does anything ever again save offer advice like “fight bad dreams” or whatever. She was just getting interesting! And now she’s forced to stand around in town with all the other doomed villagers and pray to Alundra? Lame! Give her the leading role in Alundra 2! She’s so much more interesting than the main elf.
  • For the sequel: Which reminds me, there is no Alundra 2. Never been such an animal on this earth. More of a cryptid, really.
  • Back to Work: This is another Working Designs localization, so expect enemies to take way too much damage, and more than a few “translations” that maybe weren’t there in the original text. A few highlights include…

    Hey stupid

    The occasional hurtful insult…

    He's dead now

    Hurtful insults toward extremely specific individuals…

    Blaze it

    And opinions on whether or not Alundra should, as the kids say, blaze it. Thanks, Vic!

  • Goggle Bob Fact: My raw, unbridled hatred for ice-block pushing in puzzle-esque games stems from this very title. I want to say the Ice Manor is the first area that all but required a teenage Goggle Bob to hang out on Gamefaqs begging for tips straight from the non-pros. The age of strategy guides was over… Or at least online resources were a lot cheaper.
  • Did you know? The best weapon in Alundra is the Legend Sword, which technically has a little over triple the attack power of the next best weapon. The catch? You can only obtain it through dying and “quick restarting” sixteen times. It’s the “you suck, here’s the assist block” of 1997. But when you consider how much HP some of these bosses have, well…
  • Would I play again: This is a great game that is long and strong and down to get the gameplay on. I will play it again within my lifetime… it just might not be immediately. The last dungeon is a bit too time consuming for me to jump right back in again.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Day Dreamin’ Davey for the NES! Wow, ROB, that’s some surprisingly effective dream synergy between titles. You get an extra pork roll as a treat, and we get a NES game that has been all but forgotten. Please look forward to it!

Toasty

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 #016 Lunar Silver Star Harmony

Mia has got it going onGather ‘round children, and listen to an old man tell a tale of a bygone age.

The year was 1993, a halcyon age, when a fresh faced Bill Clinton took the oval office, booting out a terrible Bush that we would never hear from again. Raymond Burr had left this mortal coil, but Kenny G’s Breathless was keeping us all in high spirits. And a little film called Jurassic Park made big waves at the box office with its door opening raptors and lawyer devouring lizards.

But all was not well on the homefront. The console wars raged on, and, in an effort to put Nintendo in its place, Sega had released the Sega CD, the first CD based video game system that anybody cared about. There may have been over games or systems based on CD technology, but they were too Bluthian, or too likely to eat an octorok. The Sega CD had reigned supreme for its format so far, and we’d still have a full year before the Playstation would bring us CD bliss in the form of… I guess Jumping Flash? It all kinda blends together… Er-hem. It was then that Sega CD, with the aid of Game Arts and Working Designs, brought us Lunar: The Silver Star, a JRPG that was packed to the breaking point with action, humor, and, most importantly, anime.

Yes, there was a time when “anime” was a selling point! Well before the age of flashing fluorescent loli panties, there was a time when “anime” was considered the most mature medium available stateside. After all, we had imported such high brow programming as Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z. There were rumors that these programs were even more mature in their native Land of the Rising Sun. Sailor Moon featured a couple of villains emphasizing the “couple” aspect in America, but in Japan, this hetero couple was much more homo, because that kind of thing was allowed in children’s programming art over there. And Dragon Ball Z? We were stuck with a sanitized version, people actually DIED in Japan! Can you even imagine it? Japan allowed such weighty topics as same sex relationships and death in its shows, while all we were stuck with was Bonkers (totally nuts!). And if you were really lucky, maybe you had an older sibling who got a copy of… don’t let your parents hear I told you about this… Akira. The subtitles might distract you from the gorgeous art and horrifying story of a teenage boy dealing with gangs and giant stuffed animals. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s got nothing on Tetsuo.

Unfortunately, Sega CD may have held the CD universe captive, but it failed to captivate a good number of consumers. If you were lucky enough to have a Sega CD and Lunar, good for you! The rest of us, though, had to wallow with our Super Mario All-Stars and Secret of Mana and Kirby’s Adventure. Oh, the horror, the horror. Lunar would forever be a fleeting dream born of the pages of Gamepro.

So much attitudeBut the dream would come true: six years later, Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete was released on the Sony Playstation. First of all, congratulations Lunar, and welcome to a system that, by this time, everyone and their granny owned. I think my cat had a Playstation around then (he was looking forward to Umjammer Lammy). And another point in Lunar’s favor? Anime fever had reached a boiling point. No more was anime just something that lurked around 6 AM on Sunday morning or some Sci-Fi channel showcase, no, now the likes of shows like Pokémon (and Digimon!) and programming blocks like Toonami (err… maybe just Toonami… but it was important!) had legitimized anime like we’d never envisioned. Now even your racist uncle had stopped saying “japanimation” and was looking forward to the next Gundam movie. In a few short years, we’d be watching Cowboy Bebop, and postulating where this unbelievable medium could go next.

At this time, against all odds, anime had not penetrated video games to the point one might expect from a Japan dominated medium. Yes, there were games that featured anime cutscenes or anime inspired art assets, but, by and large, the advent of the 3-D age and Final Fantasy 7 breaking all records forever had inspired a polygonal universe that may have had big eyes and small mouths, but they were blocky and not… drawn. By contrast, Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete was gorgeous.

Well, at least in its cutscenes.

HIGH FIDELITYLunar’s moment to moment graphics was fairly lacking. Seriously, half the towns and dungeons in Lunar could have existed on the Super NES, and we’re not talking Chrono Trigger here, we’re talking Final Fantasy 4. The battle sprites were diminutive and barely animated, and even horrible, rotten, no-good Beyond the Beyond had done its best to pull in some hardcore graphics for its battles. But the cutscenes! Wow! There was some stunning animation and at least passable voice acting (which, admittedly, was a boon at the time), and even out of the battles, the writing was a sort of “best of anime”. Bear with me here, but there was a time when things like battling gods, silver-haired betrayers, and “hot springs” were new and novel, as opposed to “just what happens, every single time”. And, setting aside all the controversy and nonsense since, the localization was excellent, and, yeah, I was a teenager at the time, so maybe I could tolerate a Beavis and Butthead reference or seven. I’m a big fan of “play video games for the game and not the story”, but there was a long forgotten age when the craft of these stories seemed worth the price of admission alone.

This is what we refer to as the Pre-Xenogears Era, incidentally.

Unfortunately, the good times couldn’t last forever. Anime took a turn for the… bad… somewhere along the line. It’s not the lolis or panty shots or incest or whatever else is being turned into an image macro as we speak, it’s more or less that anime has become a nonstop parade of the exact same tropes, over and over into infinity. And the worst part is that the medium seems to celebrate this routine, if the narrator excitedly announcing the next episode involving a hot spring is anything to go by. Oh, gosh, I wonder if these two female characters are going to get into a battle over breast size!

Ghaleon is such a scorned mageIt was into this world that Lunar Silver Star Harmony was released in 2010, eleven years after its predecessor, and it flopped harder than Land of the Lost. First of all, yeah, it was released on the PSP, a losing proposition to begin with, and at the end of the PSP’s lifespan to boot, which, really, why bother? Then again, Lunar kind of seems drawn to failing systems (there was a Saturn version in Japan), so maybe that’s just par for the course. I guess we were just never meant to have a Lunar game on the DS (I guess we were just never meant to have a Lunar game on the DS, we clear on that?). But, dire system aside, an anime inspired JRPG “now” happens about every seventeen seconds, and half of those games are a minefield, as, without some research, you don’t know if you’re buying a game that’s any good or just a dating sim with a battle system duct taped on (and I’m being generous with that description). Lunar Silver Star Harmony was doomed practically from birth, bromide trading cards or no.

It’s a shame, too, as Lunar Silver Star Harmony is easily the best version of the game. The cutscenes of the PSX version are retained, but the remaining graphics are completely fresh, so now battles and towns and “sprites” all look like they’re out of game that was designed slightly later than 1992. The battle system even acquired some additional nuances and “super moves” that dramatically increase the utility of certain elf girls. And you can (briefly) play as the original legendary four heroes! It’s everything I dreamed of when I played the game back in ’99.

But, even though our parties desire it, it will never be 1999 again. Anime has settled into the same position as our dumb western television, 98% crap and 2% something actually worth seeing, and the idea of an “anime game” setting the world on fire is just as ludicrous as a licensed Hannibal 3DS game being worth our time. Sometimes games get better, but the world around them gets worse. I guess that’s why we’ll all have to move to the moon…

FGC #16 Lunar Silver Star Harmony

  • System: Lunar is the Triple Goddess of video games. Lunar Silver Star for Sega CD is the crone, the origin, but too old and feeble for anyone to look at her. Lunar Silver Star Complete for Playstation is the mother, the one everyone imagines and looks for and is generally well remembered. And Lunar Silver Star Harmony for the PSP is the maiden, because ain’t nobody has touched that one.
  • Number of Players: One across the board. Come to think of it, kinda surprised they didn’t try for some weird wireless mode on Lunar Silver Star Harmony like every other PSP game.
  • Hammer TimeFavorite character: Either Kyle or Jessica, as they’re kind of a duo. Jessica might win just a little bit for being a violent white mage, but Kyle is such an… idiot that he’s hard not to like.
  • Not Ghaleon? No, not Ghaleon… Magic Emperor Ghaleon!
  • Complete release history of Lunar Silver Star and you’re not even going to mention its randomly remade sequel? Nah. Probably because Working Designs decided to release that game, to my recollection, well after the sun turned into a blackhole and destroyed all of humanity, I often think of Lunar Eternal Blue as entirely its own entity. Though I still have and occasionally wear the medallion that came with that game, as I am an incredible nerd.
  • Did you know? I want to say this is the first game I ever played with a “Rememberizer”, which, in game, is just a shortcut to rewatching all of the cutscenes at your leisure. This was a revelation in the days of tiny memory cards and a complete lack of youtubes. That… seems really absurd now.
  • Would I play again? Man, what’s a guy got to do to make a game come out on the Vita download service? Portable is definitely the way to go with this game, and I’d be all about it if it didn’t require busting out the ol’ PSP. It makes the weirdest grinding noises!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Dick Tracy for the NES. Get ready, gumshoe, we’re gonna dust some knuckles! Or something! Please look forward to it!