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THE ARCHIVE 2011-2015

Arcade Games That Time Forgot: Strength & Skill

This article originally appeared on GamePro.com.

Arcade Games That Time Forgot is a feature about weird, brilliant, kooky, terrible, or just interesting arcade games. Why just arcade games? Because while arcades gave us plenty of amazing games that are now classic franchises, it wasn't unlike the PC market, where any ol' group of people could make and distribute them, and with that sort of freedom, crazy ideas had a better chance of making it through. And for better or worse, quite a few did.

Strength & Skill (Sun Electronics, 1984)

Some games become so popular, there's no avoiding the reality that they'll be ripped off. In the '80s, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., and many others established whole genres of games that didn't end up too different from one another. Konami's Track & Field was also a popular arcade game, but didn't spawn nearly as many rip-offs as those other heavy-hitters. Maybe because Track & Field was a recipe for destruction: the constant slapping of the action buttons in order to do anything in that game could destroy a cabinet's control panel in a matter of weeks -- maybe, provided the game was popular enough.

One of the few games that really took the spirit of Track & Field and ran with it was Sun Electronics'/Sunsoft's Strength & Skill (or its more amusing Japanese name, "The Guinness," due to the loose ties to the Guinness Book of World Records.). On the surface, it's pretty much the same game: you play a lithe man in shorts and a jersey trying to qualify in a series of events, all requiring you to mash on two action buttons to maintain speed and power... or, er, strength and skill.

The difference, though, is that the events are increasingly absurd. It starts with Log Sawing, where you must slice off a wheel of a log as fast as possible, then it's on to Pile Driving, where you must pound smaller logs into the ground. Then, a sprint up a steep hill, a ring toss over the gap of a canyon onto a small branch at the other side, plate spinning, skateboarding, and so on.

Really, it's nice that Strength & Skill doesn't take itself seriously. Its makers could have stayed with the less-crazy events, but instead included old-timey TV variety show events like the plate spinning and ring tossing. There are cute little details in some of the events, too, as strategically-placed animals can net you extra points if you manage to hit them: If you accidentally pound the ground in Pile Driving, a mole pops up. If you then hit the mole, you get 3,000 points. OK, maybe that's more cruel than cute.

 

Though it's mostly unchanged from Konami's game, one thing Strength & Skill adds to Track & Field's formula is a joystick. In addition to pounding on two buttons (which is what Track & Field only had), you also had to move your athlete in order to direct his saw, properly throw rings, or walk around keeping the spinning plates up. But those two buttons are still there, and still need to be pressed rapidly. To account for this, you gain power faster in S&S, since you'll have to have only one of your hands dedicated to the buttons. And with both hands occupied, it cuts down on cheating (if you're playing it on an actual cabinet, that is).

That doesn't mean the game is easy. You can get the hang of Log Sawing and Pile Driving fairly quickly, but the ring toss requires certain timing, and you'll probably start cursing more often once you reach plate spinning, because your guy isn't moving nearly as fast enough, and you need to keep seven plates spinning just to qualify. Like Track & Field, this is a game designed to get at least two coins out of you before you finally leave the machine.

But is it any good? As mentioned, the amount of games directly inspired by Track & Field was slim, though many games tested your stamina in other ways, like Arm Champs. Despite the change of pace, Strength & Skill falls into the same trap as Track & Field: either you dedicate yourself to finishing it and never play it again, or you give up early and never play it again. There are punishing games, and then there are punishing games.

Arcade Games That Time Forgot: The Great Ragtime Show

This article originally appeared on GamePro.com.

Arcade Games That Time Forgot is a feature about weird, brilliant, kooky, terrible, or just interesting arcade games. Why just arcade games? Because while arcades gave us plenty of amazing games that are now classic franchises, it wasn't unlike the PC market, where any ol' group of people could make and distribute them, and with that sort of freedom, crazy ideas had a better chance of making it through. And for better or worse, quite a few did.

The Great Ragtime Show (Data East, 1992)

To start, I thought I'd go with a game that's definitely odd, but isn't bad enough to be laughable: The Great Ragtime Show, an unfortunately forgotten shoot-em-up from Data East. Forgotten perhaps because its name is as out-of-place as calling Crash Bandicoot "Uproarious Animal Revue."

Yes, Great Ragtime Show (also known as Boogie Wings) is, despite the title, not really about a great ragtime show; tap dancing and jolly piano licks will not be in your face. However, its style is very much inspired by the adventure serials of the silent film days, with a bit of a steampunk aesthetic, too -- you're meant to be fighting an army of enemies who have mastered manufacturing walking assault robots and such.

Beyond that, it's a very inspired shooter. You start off flying a biplane that has a hook attached to it, carrying a spiked ball and swinging freely as you fly around. When you let go of the ball, the free-flying hook can grab onto almost anything in the game that isn't bolted down -- trucks, tanks, enemy soldiers, what have you. You can't do much except let go of the things you grab and fling them across the screen, but it does help kill enemies nonetheless.

Your plane can't last forever, and if you're a beginning player, you'll inevitably get shot down. But that's where the brilliance comes in: You keep playing as the pilot, who bails out and continues the assault on foot with nothing but his pea shooter of a pistol. And though you may have lost a plane, you can quickly gain a motorcycle, horse, miniature tank, or car with a missile on it.

Great Ragtime Show comes from a time when shoot-em-ups were just about to become full-on "bullet hell" games, so it relies on background spectacle more than projectile mayhem, and it's all the better for it. An early stage has you speeding by a Ferris wheel that's gone loose and tumbles through town, and another takes place in a town celebrating Christmas (including evil Santa-bots) which then transitions into a baseball stadium for some reason. It's a bunch of amazing scenes every other second, something that I feel is lacking in today's action games.

But really, as much as I can describe The Great Ragtime Show to you; as much as I can tell you it doesn't deserve to be forgotten in the annals of history, it boils down to the fact that you really have to play it. Or at worst, watch a YouTube clip:

Omega Four Point Oh

After being squeezed out of 1UP, beginning SCROLL, getting a full-time gig at GamePro, and most recently, the news of Hudson probably-maybe canceling their 3DS projects, I thought now would be a good time to talk about something I'd been wanting to for quite a while; a particular episode in my career that wasn't as revolutionary in the long run as this long-winded post will make it sound, but it did kick my butt in a sense. It's the only review I've felt regret about, but probably not entirely in the way you think.

That would be my January '08 review of Omega Five, the Xbox Live Arcade shooter from Hudson. A few years prior, I had developed a renewed appreciation for arcade shoot-em-ups. I always loved the classics, like Gradius and Blazing Lazers, but I used to think the late-'90s rise of the "bullet hell" style was practically pornographic in nature; a twisted sort of puzzle game that had lost its way. Eventually, I simply realized that this is where the genre is now, and really, the games aren't any less enjoyable. Shooters still represent good, clean, simple fun that had endured since the invention of video games themselves. They may go a little overboard with repetition, but still offer the best bursts of fun in a pinch.

But anyway -- Omega Five. I was intrigued when it was announced, for sure. Hudson and Natsume, two old favorites of mine, putting out a great-looking XBLA shooter that was from the Holy Land of Nippon through-and-through!? But then I saw and tried the game months before it came out at a Hudson press event, and didn't like it. When it finally came out and I took the review, I got to spend more time with it. I still didn't like it, and wrote a negative review with a 4.0 (now "D") rating, sort of expecting to be just one of a few reviewers from the other mainstream sites who felt the same.

What I did not expect was that I'd be the only person on the planet who didn't like Omega Five. Everybody downloading it was loving it, other reviews were praising it, and their ratings were barely dipping under the average. Throw in a link to my review, and you have a perfectly balanced shitstorm.

The eye of it was GAF, as it usually is. The review went up the same day the game did, so as people were getting high off the game in the forum's Omega Five thread, they were rudely startled once my review showed up. Immediately, the accusations, insults, and thoughts on game journalism flooded in. Including the inarguable fact that because it was a negative review, it was therefore terribly-written (that one's always a favorite). Now, I wasn't a total newbie at this job, and I knew people on the internet are generally not nice, but still, when you're in the moment; when the signal-to-noise ratio is so imbalanced against you, it doesn't matter if you started writing reviews last week or for 15 years. To some degree, you're going to feel your world crumbling. I was enemy of the state for a day, but I just had to let it go. And I have -- but for a moment, I wanted to say a couple of things about the review.

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First: It definitely could have been written better. Thinking 1UP's audience was bigger than it was/is, I aimed the text towards a more general audience; the folks who didn't care about shooters that weren't Geometry Wars. But, oops, this was 1UP, a place with a solid history of great interviews with Japanese game makers, and other respectable coverage about Japanese game stuff that people visited and loved us for. For god's sake, it's what I loved them for. Instead, the tone of the review was excessively acidic. Normally, I'd say being harsh with one's words is acceptable for a review of what the writer thinks is a bad game, but with Omega Five I cranked it up to where it simply overshadowed whatever I thought was good about the game (there were things), and in turn, it irked people way more than it should have, based simply on attitude. Both the opening and closing paragraphs didn't help, as that's what most people scrolled down to first (or quoted in the forum posts).

But the second thing I have to say is that, regardless of the text, I have no qualms about the rating and core criticisms I gave the game. Those criticisms were A) the characters were too big, and B) the bullets interfered too much with the background. Well, what's "too much," you ask? Any shooter is going to have a curtain of bullets jetting toward the player at any given moment, right? That's the point, right? Right, but, that stuff is usually thought about very carefully. I didn't catch that with Omega Five; if anything, it seemed to me like the designers were trying too hard (or not enough) to balance the bullet volume with the character sizes, and I quickly reached points in the levels where I simply lost track of what I was doing, and the damn thing just got going. I can't say that about my time with, say, Deathsmiles, another horizontal shooter on 360, because Deathsmiles hardly has that problem when I play it. Deathsmiles was made by people who know how to make shooters.

And I like to think that I understand shooters, then and now. Probably not in all the ways that everybody else understands them (I'm not the 1cc type, so, sorry if that's all that matters to you), but I've played, and played, and reviewed, and reviewed tons of games over the years in a variety of genres, so I think I've earned the belief to know what works for me, and what usually works for a game of a certain type, and consider what may work for someone else. Maybe I'll treat a game a little worse or a little better than the other guy, and maybe I'll make a kneejerk reaction to something before it's out (y'know, like everybody), but when it comes to putting nose to grindstone, I'm always fair. Fair enough to take a game as it is; fair enough to compare, contrast, and contextualize, and fair enough to reserve some optimism if I'm disappointed. Yes, really -- I honestly could not wait for the 3DS Omega Five, and hopefully it still pops up.

Like I said, I was no stranger to assholes on the internet, and in GAF and GAF's spin-offs' cases, several of those people are so devoted to their shtick that it's no wonder they go kamikaze in response to the tiniest pinprick of opposition. And if I learned anything (hoo boy), it was that I should just be myself. Mindfully targeting an audience is one thing, but when you're so far off the target of another -- one that you yourself identify with -- the backfire is deafening and destructive. Yeah, no shit.

As much as the jerky responses made me upset at the time, nothing terrible occurred as a result of the review. No one gave me a talking-to. Hudson did not complain (as far as I know). I kept my job, for a couple years anyway. In fact, it was a few months later when Hudson brought by Takahashi Meijin, and I got to have fun with him, and generally end up with a good experience and a perfectly normal relationship with the company. Yes, a happy ending -- because, really, Omega Five was an XBLA shooter with an impact on video game history as strong as a raindrop. I'm glad you liked it, but I didn't, and maybe we can find something else to agree on. Oh yeah, well... three months later, I gave Ikaruga an A, and no one said jack about it, me, or Omega Five. At least one side had their expectations met that time.

The Retro Game Challenge 2 Fan Translation

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The beginning of February was fun -- besides starting SCROLL, romhacker xvirus of Orenji Translations revealed, at virtually the same time, that he had cracked the surface of Game Center CX: Arino no Chousenjou 2, the sequel to Retro Game Challenge, and put out feelers for people who can help get the game translated (as "Retro Game Challenge 2," of course!). Knowing not to look this gift horse in the mouth, I've volunteered my services in editing the translation, to help turn this into more of a "localization." If you know and love Retro Game Challenge, you'll understand that the sequel deserves that treatment. Today, a web page for the translation went up to serve as an announcement, although there isn't a ton to look at yet.

GCCX2 was released in Japan in the same month as Retro Game Challenge was in America, but as you may know, RGC didn't hit publisher XSEED's sales targets, and the company understandably didn't pursue an English version of GCCX2, which prevented lots of people from experiencing a wholly-improved sequel with a bunch of great new games-within-games, from the platformer Demon Returns to the flashy shooter GunDuel. (For a refresher course, you can go back and look at my series of blogs on GCCX2 on 1UP -- the link goes to the final entry, which links to the previous ones.)

But for me, and I think many others on the outside, the fulcrum of this translation project will be "Kacho wa Meitantei," the text-heavy detective adventure that's packed with cameos of folks from the GCCX TV show, not to mention a few related in-jokes buried within. Even without those, it's more "gaijin-proof" than anything in either RGC, and a dealbreaker for anyone who wanted to import GCCX2 (which I find ridiculous, but I digress).

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The whole project has just barely started, so there are plenty of unanswered questions at this point, and none of us can guarantee when you can see the finished product. But hey, nobody seemed to complain when the Mother 3 patch finally came out. One or two factors can raise hope, though. Design-wise, there isn't much in GCCX2 that's structurally different from RGC, other than the new games, of course -- it looks the same, but better. And with many elements already established in XSEED's localization, including names, logos, and so on, this can (potentially) maintain a focus on the brand-new stuff.

I know a lot of fan translations peter out or start gaining on Duke Nukem before they're finally done, and I've observed plenty of that since I was a snot-nosed shit in the early days of the "emu scene." But this is totally a passion project, from my end if no one else's, so if it gets to a point where it's just me and xvirus, well, I might just have to roll up my sleeves further. Who knows! Just allow yourself a shred of optimism and let us roll. Speaking of passion projects, this undertaking shouldn't impact SCROLL too much. In fact, wouldn't it be nice if it could compliment the translation at some point?

バイ、ハドソン

A short time after Konami took full ownership of Hudson (they already had a majority stake, so that shouldn't have been too surprising), their US branch, Hudson Entertainment, has been shuttered. Hudson Entertainment wasn't exactly an upper-crust publisher -- Hudson as a whole kind of stagnated compared to their heyday in the 8- and 16-bit eras -- but in any business where you're a product of a parent company, you play the hand you're dealt. And they were crazy enough to bring Takahashi Meijin across the ocean -- twice! H.E. was ostensibly just a marketing vessel, but they were the driving force behind the passable Bomberman Live series, the Military Madness revival, and published non-Japanese casual stuff like Rooms and the console version of Diner Dash. (Maybe they should have ported that Obama game.)

It's difficult to not have a soft spot for Hudson, even when they really fumble. It's almost... human, for lack of a better term. They made some great 2D games, and hardware, for that matter -- not just the PC Engine/TurboGrafx, but some iconic accessories, as well. (What, you can't appreciate a good controller?)

As for Konami, the natural assumption is they'll handle the publishing of Hudson's games from here on out, which wouldn't be news to anyone -- they've published several Hudson games in the US already. Konami has also been more focused (somewhat unsettingly) on casual/family games, so adding stuff like Deca Sports to their stable might show some promise from a business angle.

While I love Hudson's retro stuff, I also have some favorite present-day Hudson games, both self-published and not: If you have a chance, I recommend checking out Kororinpa: Marble Mania and Marble Saga, Lost in Shadow, and Tetris Party Deluxe. And I even got some enjoyment out of the Dungeon Explorer reboot (on DS at least), Onslaught and Rengoku II, but with those, I'm sure your mileage may vary, and wildly. At best, just buy every TG game on Virtual Console.