Monday, May 30, 2011

A Gamer Looks at Thirty 「30歳になったゲーマー」

Today is a big day: my 30th birthday.  Measured in console years, I'm about 480 years old.  That's saying something, I guess.  I've watched the industry grow and expand since the beginning of the NES era, (1983 in Japan and 1985 in the US) and it has been quite a ride.  Gaming has moved from motion-sensing Power Gloves to... motion sensing Wii Remotes.  Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As gaming has aged, series that have shown staying power have begun to get well-deserved recognition.  Even relative newcomers such as 戦国無双 (Samurai Warriors), released in 2004, and 戦国Basara (Sengoku Basara), released in 2005, have begun to count anniversaries.  Being born in 1981 makes me older than most of these storied franchises.  Counting from their original release dates in their respective regions, I predate Pokémon by 15 years; Soul Calibur (then Soul Edge) by 14 years; The King of Fighters and Warcraft by 13 years; Doom by 12 years; Kirby by 11 years; Sonic The Hedgehog, Fatal Fury, and Lemmings by 10 years; Fire Emblem and Wing Commander by 9 years; Sim City and Populous by 8 years; Pool of Radiance (the first licensed Dungeons & Dragons computer game) by 7 years; Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, and Mega Man by 6 years; Kid Icarus, Metroid, Castlevania, Dragon Warrior, and The Legend of Zelda by 5 years; Gradius and Super Mario by 4 years; Punch Out!! and Tetris by 3 years; Dragon's Lair and 信長の野望 (Nobunaga's Ambition) by 2 years; and BurgerTime by 1 year.  On the other side of the coin, I have a few elders: Pac-Man was born one year before me, and Space Invaders three years before me.  Even those two elder franchises are both still going strong, and I can but tip my hat to all of them they celebrate each 5-year milestone in their lives.

So, what of 1981?  There is one major franchise that saw its birth in that year: Donkey Kong.  The big ape, and, by extension, his yet-to-be-Super nemesis Mario, then named Jumpman (Nintendo counts Mario's anniversaries from 1985, when Super Mario Bros. was released, however), first hit arcades that year.  Another well-known release?  Frogger.  So, I share my birth year with a barrel-throwing simian, a freeway-crossing frog, and a carpenter-turned-plumber.  Not a bad year, really.

Thirty years later, I've played countless games and have read even more books about games. I've gone to concerts and events, sometimes rubbed elbows with some big names, and have even finally become a small part of the industry that I so love.

What will the future bring to Videoland?  Who knows?  I can say this much, though: as long as our princess is in another castle, as long as the soul still burns, as long as robots fight for everlasting peace, and as long as another quest will start from here, Videoland will always be an exciting place.

And I, for one, am happy to call it home.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lemmings 「レミングズ」

In 1991, the Scottish developer DMA design, which would later change its name and go on to create the notorious Grand Theft Auto series, released a software title on the Amiga that would create a whole new dimension of puzzle game.

Lemmings came about almost by accident, or so the story goes: the staff of DMA design was working on creating little men to be victims of the title character of another title in development, Walker.  The challenge in development was to animate a character using only an 8 x 8 square.  When the rather violent demonstration was completed, someone noticed that there could be a game in the hapless little creatures.  Thus, lemmings were born.

Mindlessly following the landscape in front of them, the adorable little green-haired lemmings enter a stage in droves, and it is the player's task to make the little guys reach the exit.  To get there, lemmings can be assigned one of eight tasks: Climber, Floater, Bomber, Blocker, Builder, Basher, Miner, and Digger.  Some of these allow a single lemming to traverse an obstacle, others allow lemmings to redirect one another, others allow lemmings to build bridges or dig holes, and still others cause them to self-destruct.  The violent spirit of the original demo lives on not only in the lemming's tendency to explode, but also in the myriad of ways that they can get themselves killed between the entrance and exit.  Traps, falls, holes, and water are just a few of the things that can cause the lemming population to plummet.

Lemmings made a huge splash on the Amiga and PC, but the game stayed largely under my radar until March of 1992, when Sunsoft's SNES version of the game was featured in Nintendo Power magazine.  I remember reading the review over and over again, particularly because the pictures were so cute.  Lemmings showed up again in Volume 37, this time earning a place on the cover in honor of the NES release.  The puzzling title looked interesting, but while I read the reviews several times, I hardly expected to actually play it..

That changed, however, when I went to a new middle school in 1993.  The school was just in the process of upgrading from a pair of old Apple IIc machines, and got a few brain-intensive titles on its new Macintosh computers.

Among these were Lemmings and its expansion, Oh No! More Lemmings.  Within days, the entire school was hooked.  Students would crowd around the machines at recess as kids struggled to find solutions to the various levels.  For abstract thinking and problem-solving, the game couldn't be beat.
What's more, the characters were cute and lovable, and the cardboard box of the game got passed around from student to student as the kids spent time looking at everything that was going on.  The music, too, was catching.  There were a few unique melodies, but many more were borrowed from folk songs and classical music, such as She'll be Comin' Round the Mountain, London Bridge is Falling Down and Orpheus in the Underworld.  I know a lot of people who, even today, hear one of those pieces and say, "That just reminds me of Lemmings."  Poor Offenbach. 

Furthermore, as Sonic The Hedgehog 3 had done for the echidna, Lemmings had students wondering just what, exactly, a lemming was.  Having been assigned to teach a student workshop to students in lower grades, I knew an opportunity when I saw one.  I researched the little arctic rodents, created a few activities, and announced that my workshop would be on lemmings.  The class was booked solid in days.

Around the same time, we received Lemmings from a neighbor and close friend.  The little disk, however, proved to be temperamental, and I never got it to work on my DOS computer.  The manual, however, with its colorful comic, became a treasure.

One of the students in my grade at the time, who remains a close friend today, often invited me to spend time at his house.  When we would get together, he would sometimes rent an Super Nintendo game from the local video store, and we would play it together.  His decision to rent Lemmings one day gave me my first chance to try the game's hectic 2-player mode, in which players compete to direct the little lemmings to their own exits.  The game can quickly devolve into a lemming massacre as each player tries to sabotage his opponent.  The 2-player mode was sadly missing from the IBM-compatible version of the game, but it was great fun.

In the end, however, I played little of the original Lemmings while I was in middle school.  Where my attention was devoted was to the sequel.

When I was a sixth-grader for the second time, I quickly befriended a student who was in the same grade as I.  We played a number of games together, and he introduced me to many that I had never seen before.  One of the best of thse was Lemmings 2: The Tribes.

Lemmings 2 took the original Lemmings formula and greatly expanded it.  The goal was still to guide the little lemmings from Point A to Point B, but instead of 8 skills, there were now a whopping 61 (though only 8 were available on any given level).  There were still digging and building skills, but there were new skills like running, jumping, and firing a bazooka.  The mouse cursor became more important, too.  Certain skills, such as the flying SuperLem or the grappling-hook-firing roper, would aim for the cursor, while a new button allowed the cursor to turn into a fan and blow around certain wind-related lemmings, such as the twister and a lemming wearing Icarus wings.

The world of the lemmings, known as Lemming Island, now had twelve tribes, whose differences were purely cosmetic.  There were the original Classic lemmings, the Medieval lemmings, the prehistoric Cave lemmings, the Egyptian lemmings, the Sports lemmings, the Outdoor lemmings, the Space lemmings, the blue-hued Polar lemmings, the ninja-like Shadow lemmings, the Circus lemmings, the tanned Beach Bum lemmings, and the red-haired Highland lemmings.  Each tribe had its own theme music, which often followed the trend of the original game and borrowed its melodies from traditional sources.  The Highland lemmings, for example, had The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond, while the Polar lemmings had a medley of Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the Space lemmings had—what else—At the Beautiful Blue Danube.  The story of the game was an endearing one in which the twelve tribes sought to bring together their pieces of a magical talisman, which could power a flying ark that would carry them from their doomed land.  The story of the game was told in a richly illustrated storybook, appropriately entitled The Story of The 12 Tribes of Lemming Island ...or the Day Jimmy McLemming Wished He'd Stayed in Bed.

After reading the storybook, I immediately went out to Kay Bee Toys and bought my own copy of the game, on 5.25" disks.  Much to my dismay, I found no storybook inside my box: it appeared that the book was a limited-edition bonus.  I had good friends, however: when I later bemoaned my not getting a storybook of my own, my friend generously offered me his.
I feel bad that he gave me his only copy of the book, but I am extremely thankful.  I love that book and have read it many times; I still own and read it today.

My friends quickly became enamored of Lemmings 2, mostly because of the myriad ways that the lemmings could meet with disaster.  Playing the game with friends was difficult, however, mostly because only one person could control the mouse at a time.  Even if you could plan a perfect route to the exit, success often required pixel-perfect timing, while failure would put great stretches of time to waste.  Not the best for groups.  I put some effort into playing the game on my own, too, of course, though I must admit that I had little success.  I spent most of my time mucking around in practice mode, since finishing the actual stages with minimal casualties sorely taxed my patience.  Time went on, and I soon lost the ability to use 5.25" disks.  When that happened, I returned to the toy store and bought the game on 3.5" disks, though the advent of Windows 95 was soon to make Lemmings 2 all but impossible to play.

In the meantime, however, there was a third Lemmings game, Lemmings Chronicles (All New World of Lemmings in the UK), which landed on computers in 1994.

This game I bought immediately.  And loved.

The game's graphics were much improved, with a more detailed close-up view of the action allowing much more expression on the part of the adorable lemmings.  The music was excellent, though my old computer refused to play Redbook audio, and so it was quite some time before I got to know what just how good the music was.  Furthermore, the gameplay was completely different from that of the previous two games.  The Classic, Egyptian, and Shadow tribes were trying to establish themselves in their new home, and now individual lemmings had to collect tools from the landscape before they could be used.  Bricks, shovels, bombs, grenades, parasols, suction cups, and life preservers all made appearances, and well as hadoken-like fireballs that existed to defend lemmings from the new threat of monsters.  Individual lemmings were a bit brighter this time around, too, and could be instructed to block one another, jump, and even turn around.  The inclusion of these skills allowed for a little finer control, as did the fact that lemmings now took actions when they walked into a given block, rather than at the very pixel at which they were commanded.  Planning and multitasking, however, were still massive challenges.

Overall, Lemmings Chronicles fit my playing style perfectly, and I played the game more than any other Lemmings title.  I also bought the game's well-written strategy guide, which I used little for level-clearing advice and enjoyed mostly for the abundance of flavor text.  My friends also enjoyed watching and playing the game, as the slightly more forgiving timing and placement techniques made it easier for an observer to communicate an idea to the player, and for the player to execute that idea, then had been the case in the previous Lemmings games.  The more detailed graphics were also a draw to group play.  One of my friends became particularly enamored of one of the monsters, the Lemme Fatale, which would cause other lemmings to become lovestruck and haplessly follow it around until they gave up and killed themselves.  The Lemmings series certainly had an odd sense of humor.  Still, that was part of the series's charm, and I loved it.  I played the game nearly to completion.  When I had only a few levels left in each tribe, however, we got a new computer.  Lemmings Chronicles, sadly, did not work on our Windows 95 machine, and I had to leave my charges tantalizingly close to freedom.

Lemmings 3D (3D Lemmings in non-American territories) was slightly friendlier to newer computers, though not by much.  I bought the game, but did not find it very absorbing.  While this new offering quite literally added a new dimension to gameplay, I found the focus on camera management distracting.  I'm sure that many people enjoyed the title, but it seemed to me that the game was better when it was in simple 2-D.  Also, the fact that the lemmings skill set had reverted to the original eight skills (plus a new turner, who redirected lemmings by ninety degrees) was a turn-off to me, as I had really come to know lemmings through the 61 skills of Lemmings 2.  Furthermore, the rich story that had developed through Lemmings 2 and Lemmings Chronicles had been completely abandoned.  I loved the universe that had come to surround the Lemmings world (remember the storybook?) and was sad to see it abandoned.

Lemmings 3D sticks in my mind not for the gameplay itself, but for a bizarre cheat code.  I guess the programmers became irritated with saving lemmings at some point, because they put in a code that could be typed into the game during play: "rasputin".  Typing in that word would turn the cursor into a crosshairs, and now clicking on a lemming would kill it messily, complete with shotgun sound effect.  Tasteless, but good for a cheap thrill, and something that I always happily showed off to my lemming-literate friends.

It seems that shooting was becoming increasingly popular with the publishers, since the next title, Lemmings Paintball, involved little more than paint-filled gunfire.  Sporting an isometric viewpoint, the game involved few puzzles, focusing instead on riding platforms, shooting lemmings, and capturing flags.  Past the title screen, the game didn't feel like a Lemmings game at all—the little green-haired characters could have just as easily been replaced by rabbits or people or little ducks.  I found the controls unwieldy and soon abandoned the title.

I do not regret buying Lemmings Paintball, however: it came packed with a wonderful bonus: Lemmings and Oh No! More Lemmings for Windows 95.  I finally had the chance to play the original titles!  Though I had been reared on the variety of Lemmings 2, I quickly came to appreciate just how fiendish puzzles could be when built around eight simple skills.  My progress through the game, however, was continually frustrated by the title's unwillingness to cooperate with my various computers.  For the most part, bugs were limited to sound and music not working properly, but the irritation that those errors caused me compounded the difficulty of the game, and I always found it hard to keep moving.
At around the same time, I got Lemmings for the Nintendo Game Boy.  It was great to have the freedom to play Lemmings on the go, but... well, it had been difficult enough to give commands to lemmings on a color computer screen with a mouse!  Now I had a miniscule grayscale LCD display and a control pad.  I actually did quite well for myself, considering the circumstances, and I enjoyed the game quite a bit, though I never made it very far.

One game that I did play quite a bit of, however, was the PC demo of Adventures of Lomax, a lemming-themed platforming title.  As with Lemmings Paintball, the game had little in common with Lemmings, and featured a medieval lemming using a magic cap to fight off an aggressor known as Evil Ed.  Lemming skills did make occasional appearances, however, which is more than could be said for Lemmings Paintball.  The game was colorful, fun, and extremely well-animated.  I played it mostly as a diversion, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Eventually, in 2000, Psygnosis released another Lemmings title: Lemmings Revolution.  The game used hardware acceleration that frustrated my poor ancient Compaq computer, but it still worked—usually.  Under more modern computers, however, colors quickly became corrupted, which I found to be a huge irritation.  In the end, the game seemed to me to be little more than the original Lemmings wrapped around a cylinder, and so I found little incentive to leap through technical hurdles in order to play that particular title.

So, why all the obsession with Lemmings, if I spent so little time playing most of the games?  Well, for one, brilliant titles like the first three Lemmings games (particularly the original Lemmings) deserve notice and admiration.  Also, the little characters and the story surrounding them for those first several titles was engaging and endearing.  Where Lemmings really became a boon for me, however, was in my imagination.  A lot of the time that I spent playing Lemmings was spent away from a computer.

Perhaps I should explain.

Having ADHD means a lot of things, but two things in particular that come of the disorder are an exceptionally active imagination and a distinct lack of patience.  I dislike waiting now, but when I was younger, being put in a situation where I had to wait quietly was excruciating.  My savior was my imagination.  Under the right circumstances, I could become lost in my own world and time would pass very quickly.  This was, however, easiest for me to accomplish if I had freedom to move about or if I had paper to draw on.  Without either of those, I was in trouble.
One day, however, while waiting for my mother after church, I found myself staring up into the rafters, as I had often done as a little child.  This time, however, a strange thought occurred to me.  What if, I thought, picking a spot near one wall, lemmings came in here, and had to get out over there?  Suddenly, a new game was born.  I spent so much time working out a solution for the quandary I had placed my imaginary lemmings into, and then playing that solution in my mind (I needed more blockers than I had anticipated, and found that the lemmings hit their head in one place where I had thought they'd be able to build) that an entire hour passed without my noticing.
Lemmings fans, try it sometime when you have to be patient for a while.  Pick two places within your field of vision, one for the lemmings to come in from and one for them to get out of, decide on a scale, and then work out a way to get a tide of lemmings from point A to point B with only the original eight skills.  I'm confident that you'll find it quite engrossing.  Remember too, by the way, that lemmings cannot burrow through metal.  If you feel like it, you could even bend the rules a bit and decide that the environment might not be rigid and unmoving—something might happen if too many lemmings attempt to climb that bell pull, for example.
This game became a favorite mental exercise for me when I had to sit still and wait for long periods of time, and I still play it on occasion.  Waiting rooms, theaters before the show started, airport terminals, train stations, bus stops—all were particularly good locales for lemmings expeditions.  Car rides, however, don't work as well: the rushing guardrails that speed by outside the window are much more suitable for one of Sonic's speed.

Years went by, and while Lemmings continued to play in my mind, the series seemed to be all but forgotten by publishers.  In Japan, I found that Lemmings was similarly little-known, though it had once been very popular.  I got 3D Lemmings for the Playstation and Lemmings for the SNES, but had little motivation to play the former and little time to play the latter.  I also acquired the Lemmings strategy guide, written for the Japanese SNES version, which was a very fun read.

A good friend of mine during my last year and a half in Japan, a fellow teacher, talked occasionally of Lemmings, as he had a demo of the newest installment on his Playstation 3.  His dream was to see a Lemmings title on the Nintendo Wii or the Nintendo DS.  Pointer controls or touch screen controls would be perfect for a Lemmings title, he said, and I could only agree.  However, I soon realized that there was little hope for such a release.  Psygnosis, publisher of the first several Lemmings games, was acquired by Sony in 1993, and now the entire Lemmings franchise belongs to Sony Comptuer Entertainment Europe.  Will a pointer-friendly Lemmings title ever appear again?  I don't know, but I'm hopeful.

And so, here I am back in the US, still playing Lemmings.  Amazon's extended reach recently allowed me to get the original Lemmings Compendium, which is full of information, and the two UK-published Lemmings Adventure Gamebooks, which are fun stories and are packed with illustrations.  The Windows 95 version of Lemmings finally agrees with my system, putting Lemmings and Oh No! More Lemmings at my fingertips.  Best of all, with the magic of DosBox and a little technical tweaking, I can once again play Lemmings 2: The Tribes and Lemmings Chronicles.  Perhaps now, 20 years after Lemmings was published, I will finally be able to lead my little green-haired friends to freedom.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sonic The Hedgehog (Part 2: 1993-1996) 「ソニック・ザ・ヘッジホッグ」(其の弐:1993年~1996年)

I was not doing well in my public middle school.  I got excellent grades and got along well with my teachers, but was something of an odd duck and was mercilessly tormented by my classmates.  My life at home was also at its rockiest, and so I found little stability in my life outside of video games.  Perhaps my being bullied was part of the reason I was so fond of Tails: I empathized with the fox's being teased for being different.  I had not yet found someone or something to inspire me to believe in myself as Sonic had done for Tails, and so I floundered.  Things hit a nadir in the middle of my sixth-grade year, and the teachers intervened on my behalf.  After that, things began to improve at school: I found a circle of friends who stood by me and I began to integrate myself a little more into the class.  My mother, however, perhaps fearing that my situation was unstable or maybe just wanting to give me a brand new start, decided that it would be a good idea to send me to a small private school for a while, and to repeat sixth grade at the same time.

It turned out to be a very good decision.  My life remained rocky, but my new education exposed me to new ways of learning, gave me an appreciation of nature and history, and allowed me to spend more time in Salem, Massachusetts, my favorite city in the United States.

Where does Sonic fit into all this?  Well, I changed schools in September 1993: the same month that the Sonic animated shows hit the airwaves in the United States.  Even though I didn't have a Sega Genesis and disliked the company for its opposition of Nintendo, my fondness of Sonic was unmatched.  I collected Sonic merchandise like crazy, particularly the Sonic board game and the Sonic 2 Tiger Handheld LCD game.  My Sonic T-shirt was one of my most prized possessions, and the VCR timer was programmed to record The Adventures of Sonic The Hedgehog every weekday.

The opening months of the school year ticked by.  Sonic CD was released to much fanfare, as was Sonic Spinball, a surreal pinball-like adventure which I found interesting but had little opportunity to play.  The pinball game was unusual in that it attempted a tie-in with the American cartoon series, since many of the unique characters in the cartoons and comic books appeared in the stages and bonus rounds.  Tails had little presence, however, and so my interest in the game was limited compared to Sonic 2.

Around this time, my school had a field trip.  My unusual little middle school followed a brilliant one-room schoolhouse style, and so children ranging from kindergarten to the eighth grade had regular exposure to one another.  The student sitting next to me on the bus, my partner for that day, was a quiet fourth-grade boy.  As the bus pulled away from the school and headed down the city streets, we attempted to establish a rapport with one another in that uncertain way that kids sometimes have when shoved together for the first time.
"What's your favorite TV show?" came the question.
I hesitated.  In public middle school, my near-obsession with video games had alienated me from my classmates.  Somewhat uncertainly, I muttered, "It's a bit embarrassing.  Sonic The Hedgehog."
The boy next to me immediately brightened.  "Sonic's my favorite, too!"  Then he paused.  "Why's that embarrassing?"
I didn't have an answer.

We talked animatedly for the duration of the field trip.  By the end of the day, my new school didn't seem so scary.

A few weeks later, we had another trip, and as luck would have it, the same boy was a part of my group for the day.  We also had a little third-grade girl with us, and lo-and-behold, she was also a huge fan of Sonic.

We had a great day.  The trip was to the salt marshes, and we walked around, sketching pictures and writing notes.  At the end of the afternoon, we walked with one of the other guides clear to the other end of the marsh and watched as he collected the samples.  We had a great experience, but the teachers were understandably unhappy with us for wandering so far afield.

On the bus ride home, I rested my head against the window, with the fourth-grade boy asleep on my shoulder, and the third-grader, in turn, asleep on his.  That bus ride remains in my memory as one of the most peaceful, contented, secure moments of my middle school life.

Now, a budding friendship between a third-grade girl and a sixth-grade boy, no matter how innocent, is the kind of thing that is sure to make some parents nervous.  That friendship didn't survive through the end of 1993.  The fourth-grade boy, on the other hand, became a fast friend.

1994 came, and with it one of the greatest games to ever hit the Sega Genesis: Sonic The Hedgehog 3Sonic 3 was colorful, fast, and a great improvement over its predecessor.  It also introduced the character of Knuckles The Echidna, Sonic's red-hued rival who would later become his trusted friend.  The hype surrounding the release of the game was substantial, and there was a massive movement among my schoolmates to determine just what an echidna was.  Why an egg-laying spiny anteater was chosen as Sonic's rival, nobody can say, but the character inspired an entire student-taught workshop at school.  How's that for games being educational?

In the opening months of middle school, I made another friend, a fellow sixth-grader.  We played a myriad of games together, not the least of which was Sonic 3.

The play style of Sonic 3 suited me wonderfully.  The graphics were bright and crisp, and the game contained a save feature, which was a very welcome addition, as we could start the game one day and continue it another.  The play control was tight and responsive.  And the music!  The music was phenomenal.  Each act within a zone had its own theme, and all of the themes were spectacularly catchy.  The level design was also gorgeous: even the very first Angel Island Zone, which went from lush jungle to blazing firestorm, was an impactful addition.  The special stages, which were cleverly hidden within the Zones and had to be completed in order to get chaos emeralds, were much more suited to my playing style than Sonic 2's ring-filled half-pipes.

Sonic had also gained some moves, particularly the ability to create in instantaneous shield in mid-air in order to protect himself from harm, and the ability to use special abilities when equipped with shields of fire, water, and electricity.  The electric shield was particularly fun: it attracted rings, items that helped Sonic survive damage.

And, finally, Tails could fly.  Not only could he fly, but he could carry Sonic!  This brilliant play mechanic gave true value to the second-player role.  I, naturally, insisted on using Tails.  The freedom to fly!  The ability to lift Sonic out of trouble!  We played that game quite a bit, though the farthest we ever made it in one playthrough was the Carnival Night Zone--we got stuck on top of a moving drum because it never occurred to us that alternating up and down on the control pad would increase the magnitude of its movement range.

My birthday came around that May, and I had a small party with my four best friends.  While three of them argued over who could have a turn playing Extra Innings on the SNES, my fourth-grade friend and I chatted on the den couch.  As a birthday present that year, he presented me with a simple slim envelope.  Inside it was a hand-drawn card containing Spunky of the cartoon Rocko's Modern Life, and a postcard announcing that he had given me a year's subscription to the Sonic The Hedgehog comic book.

Not being an ardent fan of the comics, the gift went underappreciated at first..  However, when Sonic comics continued to arrive in my mailbox month after month, I came to love that gift.  It was like having my love for Sonic rekindled every month.  There was a short delay before the subscription finished being processed, of course, and so my year's subscription extended into the following August, making it seem much longer than it actually was.  My final issue was the comic's 25th outing, a Sonic CD tie-in featuring above-average art and a nicely-presented silver cover.  Not a bad way to round out the subscription.

In the meantime, Sonic & Knuckles had been released.  I had a few abortive opportunities to play it, but as Tails did not make an appearance running alongside Sonic in the game, there was little room for two-player play.  While Knuckles was available to play and featured clever climbing and gliding skills, that mode suffered for reasons similar to Sonic's  I did not realize until much later that the game was not just a sequel to Sonic 3, it was intended to be played as the second half of the game.  Full functionality could be attained by inserting Sonic 3 into the lock-in slot at the top of the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge, which would allow the full story to be played with any of the three main characters—and also with Sonic and Tails as a team.  The fact that the locked-on version was the true game was poorly documented in the instruction manual, however, and so it did not occur to my friend or I to play through the game in locked-on format.

Sadly, neither the fourth-grader nor the sixth-grader stayed at my little private school through graduation.  The friend whom I had befriended on that field trip kept in sporadic touch for some time, and we managed to continue our tradition of winter sledding for a while, but we gradually grew apart.  I miss them intensely.

Only shortly after losing touch with those friends, I was at another acquaintance's house, browsing through his pile of comics.  The Sonic cartoons had finished, and I had not been engrossed in a Sonic title since Sonic 3.  Lo and behold, I found a pile of Sonic titles in amongst the comics.
I browsed through them and was thrilled to find a solo Tails adventure, which was to launch a three-issue miniseries for the little fox.

I read the content of the issue and was horrified.  The story involved Tails falling in love with a female fox, who turned out to be a robot created by Dr. Robotnik.  Tails finished the story by crying at the robot something very much like "You robbed me of my innocence!"
Well, I wasn't having that.  Tails is an eight-year-old.  You may recall that my deep fondness of Tails is due largely to his being an youthfully innocent character, and I could not accept the comic series's throwing that out the window.  Miserably, I put the comic down.  I did not know that the Archie comic series had become to take on a life of its own, and thought that everything in it was Sega canon.  I was already unhappy with Sega and had no Sonic game on hand to engage me; the abrupt change in Tails's personality was enough to alienate me from the series altogether.  I kept all of my Sonic merchandise, but made little effort to get more of it.

Years passed.

I did not continue to read the Sonic comics, which may have been a very good thing as the comics continued to get progressively darker and more serious.  With all due respect to the comic's legion of fans, I was personally much happier with the upbeat, lighthearted early issues, before the publication began to run wild with characters, storylines, and alternate universes.

I did, however, pick up Sonic CD and the Sonic & Knuckles Collection after they were released for the PC.  I had a lingering fondness for Tails, and so gave little attention to Sonic CD apart from watching the opening movie, but I did play through the combined Sonic 3 & Knuckles adventure, the way the game was meant to be played.

Rather than play as Sonic and have Tails tag along, I decided on this venture to play as Tails alone.  I was rewarded with the discovery that in this extended game, Tails also had a super transformation.  After gathering all seven of the Chaos Emeralds, and then gathering all seven of the Super Emeralds, the little fox could jump up, pose in mid-air, and begin flashing.  In this form, Tails was invincible, faster than before, and surrounded by a flock of super Flicky birds that would attack enemies.  The Flicky birds, by the way, were among the enemies captured by Robotnik, but had originally come from a previous game, the appropriately-named Flicky, which predated Sonic by several years.

Apart from that one game, however, I had little exposure to Sonic.  The Sega Genesis became choked with peripherals before finally giving way to the Sega Saturn and then the Dreamcast.  Each system had its share of Sonic games, but I had read bad reviews about several of them and eventually stopped paying attention.

College came.  My freshman-year roommates were not big video gamers, though one of them had a PC demo of the competition mode from Sonic 3, which he played incessantly.  I thought it interesting, but when I mentioned the game he said that he knew nothing of it, so I gave it little thought in the long run.

As 2001 began, Sega announced that they were exiting the console market.  I felt a grim satisfaction, and surprisingly a sense of pity, in that they were no longer competition for Nintendo, but at the time was more concerned about Sony, which had broken into the market and had all but taken it over.

Sega was out, and I noticed with some irony and more than a little interest that Sega would be producing games for Nintendo.  It was a nice turn of events, and I was happy that the two companies, once fierce rivals, had decided to cooperate.

I was intrigued, but not excited.  I had not been engaged by a new Sonic title in many years, and I paid little attention to news of new titles.

I thought that my Sonic fandom had finished running its course, and that I had long since laid it to rest.

But then, when I least expected it, the spring of 2002 came along: and brought with it a Sonic Boom.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sonic The Hedgehog (Part 1: 1991-1993) 「ソニック・ザ・ヘッジホッグ」(其の壱:1991年~1993年)

It was late evening at the small community airport where my mother and I were waiting for my father to return from his flight.  I was left waiting on a little bench, lounging in the tepid spring evening, reading a new copy of Electronic Gaming Monthly, which Mother very occasionally purchased for me at newsstands.

I flipped through the pages idly and suddenly came upon a two page spread.


It said just that, "BOOM".  Big pink, italic letters.  Running in front of the word was a large blue hedgehog with spikes.

That was the first news I had of Sonic The Hedgehog, the character with whom I have enjoyed perhaps the most intense, chaotic relationship of any in video games.  Fitting for the collector of the Chaos Emeralds.

I showed the magazine spread to my mother.

"Look at this," I said.  "I want this."
"But honey, it's on the Sega Genesis.  You don't have a Sega Genesis.  I'm NOT buying you a Sega."
"I don't WANT a Sega," I said.  Then, as now, I was a loyal Nintendo fan, and I did not like Sega for their aggressive attacking of Nintendo.  "I just want Sonic.  I want to keep watching him."

I had just turned ten.

Eventually, June 23, 1991 rolled around, and Sonic The Hedgehog saw its release to much fanfare.

It was not long before I had the opportunity to play the game for myself.  Our neighborhood had another family with two boys; they were close friends of my brother and I since before I could remember.  In my eyes, that family had everything: they had a Nintendo Entertainment System early on, they had a Sega Master System... and they also got a Sega Genesis shortly after it was released.

So, naturally, they got Sonic The Hedgehog.

Even at first glance, Sonic The Hedgehog was a very impressive game.  The speed was a draw, to be sure, but the game was also colorful and well-designed.  The blue hedgehog, created by 大島直人 (Naoto Ooshima) during an in-house design competition at Sega, was on the fast track to becoming the company's official mascot—ousting hapless Alex Kidd, the pointy-eared boy who was previously in line to represent the company.

The game was fun; it looked good, played well, and had plenty of secrets.  What really got me, however, was the music.  The tunes in Sonic The Hedgehog struck me as being a cut above the usual fare, particularly on the Sega Genesis.  As I would learn later, the man behind the game's music was no ordinary composer.  中村正人 (Masato Nakamura), who wrote the music for the first two Sonic games on the Sega Genesis, is a member of the Japanese music group Dreams Come True, which is still active in Japan today.

As is often the case, the music held me.  I found myself loitering in the Marble Zone just to hear the stage's melody.  It's good that the music was so spectacular: had it not been, I may not have become so attached to Sonic.  The game's frequent booby traps and the fact that you could die instantly by being crushed, along with the fact that it was very difficult to control Sonic accurately while he was running, made it hard for me to get involved in a game that I didn't own.

Nonetheless, the game had its charm.  Sonic The Hedgehog is a brilliant character, and I quickly became fond of him.  I even began to buy Sega magazines so that I could read about him (including a strange origins comic in Sega Force).

Sonic also had a phenomenal nemesis in Dr. Robotnik (now known as Dr. Eggman, his Japanese name), a rotund scientist, modeled as a parody of Theodore Roosevelt.  Not having made the cut as the game's hero, Robotnik was made to play the role of antagonist, something that he has done exceedingly well for nearly twenty years.  The good doctor and his various schemes to rule the world have gotten progressively more complex as the series has evolved, and his tendency to even occasionally ally himself with Sonic for a greater cause has made him one of the most versatile villians in video gaming, perhaps second only to the king of all nemeses, the great King Koopa himself.

One winter afternoon, after playing Sonic The Hedgehog at one acquaintance's house, I arrived home to find that the snowy day had left its mark upon the land.  The snow was piled high, and on top of it was a layer of ice, strong enough to stand on.  I stayed outside for hours, sliding around on my feet on that ice, pretending that I was Sonic in the Spring Yard Zone.  I was on the lawn until well after dark.  Snowy winters remind me of many things, but, even now, a heavy snow topped with a sheet of ice always reminds me very strongly of Sonic The Hedgehog.
And no, by the way, my capitalization of "The" is not an error: As the story goes, when Sega registered Sonic as a trademark, they found that his name was not copyrightable.  Unless, that is, they registered his whole name as "Sonic The Hedgehog", with "The" as part of the character's middle name.  Many later additions to the cast followed the same pattern, with one notable exception.

Sonic was popular in Japan, but his reception in the United States was far beyond anything that Sega had expected.  And, accordingly, the second game was developed by a Japanese team located stateside.  The major addition in Sonic The Hedgehog 2 completely captured my attention: a little orange fox named Miles "Tails" Prower.  Nickamed "Tails" due to his having two of them, the little fox followed Sonic wherever he went, tagging along through all of the game's levels.  Tails' real name, Miles, almost didn't make the cut for inclusion in the game: as the story goes, Tails' designer, Yasushi Yamaguchi, was adamant about naming his creation "Miles", but the producer wasn't having it.  Dismissed and overruled, the designer (who was also in charge of backgrounds), snuck Miles' name into the backdrops of various levels. Once the insertion was discovered, it was too late to have the stages redone, and so a compromise was made.  Miles Prower would retain his given name, but would be given the nickname of "Tails".  The in-game messages in Sonic 2 even features both names, which can be toggled between by imputting a little-known code on the title screen (↑↑↑↓↓↓↑).
Personally, I'm happy that Miles retained his name; it adds to the little fox's charm.  And charm is something that he has plenty of.  The little guy's dogged determination and open admiration of Sonic, as well as his cute expressions, made him a very popular character.  The fox's popularity was particularly welcome in Japan; Sega implied in the Sonic Mega Collection that Tails's presence helped the series's popularity with Japanese audiences.

Tails stands alongside a small handful of other characters such as Pit, Rock, Kirby, and the Boy and his Blob as a prime example of idealism and innocence as a winning character type.  Tails quickly became my favorite Sonic character (as well as one of my favorite characters, period), and remained so even as the roster of Sonic characters spun out of control.

In the United States, Sonic's popularity, already high after the first game, exploded after the second title's release.  Suddenly, there were Sonic shirts and board games, Sonic comics and cartoons.  The latter two products are particularly notable: as the Sonic character roster at the time consisted of little more than Sonic, Tails, and Dr. Robotnik, Archie and DiC took it upon themselves to add a number of other characters to the mix.  The resultant cast took on a life of its own, particularly in the Comic series which continues even now.  The two animated programs gave American audiences the chance to hear Sonic and company speak.  The shows cast voice talent like Jaleel White, Christine Cavanaugh, and Kath Soucie, so they were well done indeed.  My favorite aspect of the shows was the fact that Tails was voiced by a boy, rather than by a woman, which I felt lent some genuineness to the character.

Of the two cartoon shows, the more serious Saturday morning offering proved to be the most popular, but I was much more fond of the brighter weekday fare.  This was not only because I could never seem to find the Saturday show in the listings, but also because the weekday production featured Tails in a much more prominent role, even if that role was generally to be pulled out of tough situations by Sonic.  Tails's relative helplessness was probably due to the stateside press materials' initially listing the fox's age as four-and-a-half (in Japan, Tails has been eight years old since his conception).

While Sonic 2 made its mark on the media, I had few opportunities to play the actual game.  My first hands-on experience with Sonic 2 was at a party my mother brought me to; it was held in a lovely white house on a cul-de-sac.  Though I cannot recall whose house it was or what the party was for, I do know that they had a Sega Genesis in the basement, with Sonic 2 plugged in and running.

Sonic 2 took everything that the first game was and improved upon it—it's no wonder that the game has become a benchmark title for the series.  The music was, once again, top notch; the graphics were gorgeous, particularly in the Aquatic Ruin Zone and Casino Night Zone, and, most notably, Sonic now had Tails to follow him around.  One of the best things about the game was that Tails could be controlled by a second player, allowing two people to play the game together.  I, naturally, always insisted on holding the second controller.  When I play the game myself, it's always a toss-up between playing Tails alone or simply having him tag along after Sonic, since having the fox go solo also became an option.  Playing as Sonic had its definite advantage, however: in Sonic 2, collecting all seven of the game's hidden chaos emeralds not only allowed the player to see the game's good ending, it also allowed Sonic to transform into Super Sonic, a Super-Saiyan-style floating yellow powerhouse.  I never had the opportunity to play the game enough to reach that point, however.

Even so, I leapt at the opportunity to buy the book to the game, Sega's Official Player's Guide to Sonic The Hedgehog 1&2.  Published by Sega itself, the guide features walkthroughs to Sonic 1 & 2 on both the Sega Genesis and on the Game Gear, essentially covering four games at once.  It even opens with the first story of the Archie Comics series, shows a frame-by-frame transformation sequence for Super Sonic near the end (how I originally discovered Super Sonic, by the way), and ends with a catalog of Sonic Goods, complete with order form.  The guide has somehow survived years of close reading intact, and I treasured it even when I could not play any of the games it featured.

One other treasured item that I managed to get my hands on was a Sonic The Hedgehog doll.  I kept that stuffed animal in my bed long after I gave up on the others.  It's true that a middle school boy sleeping with a stuffed animal is unusual, but I didn't care.  This was Sonic, after all.

In the times that I did have the chance to actually play Sonic 2, for the most part I contented myself with Tails, following along after Sonic and helping to grab rings and fight enemies.  The fox was fun to use, but while he would chase Sonic down after losing track of him by spinning his tails like a propeller, there was no way to manually make him fly.  That, however, was soon to change.

The Sega Game Gear was an ill-fated portable system.  Bulky, heavy, battery-hungry, and expensive, the machine was too unwieldy to justify its having a color display and decent processing power.  It did, however, have its share of decent games.  I never owned a Game Gear, nor did I want one.  My friend, however, did have one, and he was good enough to lend me the system along with Sonic Chaos for one evening.  Sonic Chaos was known as Sonic & Tails in Japan, and the name is appropriate: the game gives the little fox a good deal of attention.  Fun, but difficult to control, Sonic & Tails was nonetheless notable for one reason: it was the first game in which the player could direct Tails to fly.  I wasn't about to pass that up; and I played the game from start to finish with Tails in the one evening that the Game Gear stayed at my house.

In between Sonic 2 and Sonic Chaos, however, there was Sonic CD.  As I did not own a Sega Genesis, never mind a Sega CD, I had precious little opportunity to play the game.  The same friend who owned the Game Gear and the Genesis also had the Sega CD accessory, however, so I did get some exposure to the title.  The game was fun, and Spencer Nilsen's music was excellent, but without Tails to run around with Sonic, it felt a little lonely. (I feel the same way about most recent Sonic titles, by the way.  Where's Tails?)
Furthermore, the game was much more fun to play than to watch, which made its single-player gameplay less than ideal for time with friends.  What I did love about the game, however, was its animated opening sequence, which had actions scenes that struck my as far more engaging than anything that the American animated cartoons had offered.  Sonic's design was simultaneously sleek and cute, as well.  To top it all off, Spencer Nilsen's Sonic Boom was a spectacular piece of music.  I drove my friend crazy with all my requests for him to put the game in just so that I could watch the opening.

Then came September of 1993.  Sonic The Hedgehog had just landed on the airwaves, and I had just landed in the middle of a new school.  Though I did not play much of the early Sonic games, the hedgehog was about to become a centerpiece of my life.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Kid Icarus 「光神話:パルテナの鏡」

What better way to start my blog than with my favorite game of all time?

I had seen a number of games in the arcades and on PCs growing up, and I had even had a brief glimpse at Super Mario Brothers (complete with a 15-second turn at the controls), but I had not yet become totally enthralled by in any of them.

When I was very young, I knew only a few families who owned a Nintendo Entertainment System.  One of those families was my aunt's.  My older cousin was always on the cutting-edge of electronic gaming, and he and his sister got an NES shortly after it was released.
I had seen the Atari 2600, but the large gray box that was transmitting Super Mario Brothers into the television looked to be a cut above everything else.  Though I had only had a brief exposure to Mario, I wasted no time reading the game manual—something that would become a life-long passion of mine—and the plumber and his games would soon become a fixture in my gaming life.  But more on Mario and manuals later.

The game that matters now is the second one that I ever saw on the NES; the first one that I really had the freedom to sit down and play.
On that day, the NES was in the younger cousin's room; she had appropriated it to play her new game, which she showed me.
The box alone was enough to impress my five-year-old mind: it was silver.  Across the front, under a pixelated cover illustration, were the words, "Kid Icarus".

The power went on, and the screen read "PUSH START BUTTON" on a black background.  The first tinkling notes of the title melody were enough to hook me before the title screen ever even scrolled up.  Music is one of the fastest ways to my heart, and the music in Kid Icarus, composed by one 田中 宏和 (Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka), remains some of my favorite music to ever grace a video game.

"You can play for as long as you like," my cousin said, as she pressed Start and moved the cursor to "CONTINUE".  "See if you can take care of this level that I'm stuck on."  She handed me the controller and left the room.

The game started, and a little angel appeared on a field of clouds.
He was charming.  I tried pushing the buttons, and was rewarded with a little "chirp" sound as the angel fired an arrow from his bow.
I jumped up onto the first cloud, ducked under an approaching monster, and promptly fell through the cloud to my doom.  A little melody played, and the screen read, "I'M FINISHED!"

Okay.  This game was hard.
3-3: My first exposure to Kid Icarus

I eventually managed to clamber up the few clouds, only to be immediately faced with a series of
small round green platforms.  Each was about as wide as the angel himself, and the poor thing seemed to have a lot of trouble getting his footing on them.  The floating blue blob-like creatures that would continuously swoop down to attack him weren't helping.

After about fifteen minutes or so of "I'M FINISHED!", a curious head popped into the room, and my brother joined me.  As he tried his hand at Kid Icarus, I took a look at the game's instruction booklet.

Manuals simply aren't made like they used to me.  The Kid Icarus manual is lavishly illustrated, with several pages devoted to the story and a large collection of hints and tips.  I learned that the little angel's name was Pit, and that he was trying to save the goddess Palutena from the wicked Medusa.

The quality of that manual sealed the deal for me—the game became, then and forever after, my absolute favorite.

Still, it was hard.  I would later learn that the stage that my brother and I were having such difficulty with was the third stage of Sky World.  It was the final linear vertically-scrolling stage of the game, and was therefore designed to be the most difficult.  When we finally gave up and started the game from the beginning, my brother and I found the going much easier.  Still, it would be a long time before either of us could reach the exit of the first stage.  While we were able to climb a quite a ways up the stage on that first day, our progress was ultimately thwarted by a creature whom we thought resembled as an asthmatic grandmother, who, upon seeing Pit, would race around in hysterics, calling out little swooping creatures to do away with him.  Upon referencing the manual, we found that the asthmatic grandmother was in fact the Grim Reaper, and that the swarms of miniatures he summoned to harass poor Pit were his Reapettes (yes, the Reapettes).  Perhaps it is due to this initial exposure, but I have forever after found images of the Reaper to be more charming than frightening, even in Castlevania.

That day, because I loved to draw so much, my aunt gave me a little notebook full of blank pages.  My cousin, a talented artist, filled the first several pages with pictures of the Kid Icarus characters.  I still have that notebook, its pages now filled with a child's rambling thoughts and doodles.
Though it would be a long time before I would have the privilege of owning the game myself, my cousin was good enough to lend me Kid Icarus after we got our own NES.  And, much later, she also did me the kindness of giving me the instruction manual.  The manual remains, tattered after multiple readthroughs, on a shelf in my room, alongside the many others in my collection.

My mother was quick to recognize an opportunity when she saw one, and one day, while I was waiting in the school media center after school, reading Zero to Zillion for about the zillionth time while my mother finished up work, Mother brought me over to a bookshelf in the third-graders' section.  She pulled a book off of the shelf, turned to a page in the middle, and showed it to me.  There was a big illustration of a boy with wings, soaring up near the sun.
"Josh," she said, "this is the story that Kid Icarus comes from."
She had my attention.  I snatched the book from her.  Even as a six-year-old, I had little trouble reading the story of Daedalus and his ill-fated son Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and melted the wax wings his father had given him.  I finished pored over the tale, then threw the book down.  Icarus died?  I couldn't believe it.  I was unused to unhappy endings, and even a song like "Puff the Magic Dragon" was unbearable to me.  Nonetheless, I was enthralled.  I had read my first Greek Myth, and I wanted to know the rest of the world that would go along with it.
It was a few years later that Mother brought me home a book from the book fair: D'AULAIRES' BOOK OF GREEK MYTHS.  As a third-grader, I read that book cover to cover, over and over again.  I memorized it.
See, video games are good for your mind.
I still have the book, its pages barely held together with tape.  I had fallen in love with Greek Myths, though it would be many years before I fully appreciated why I found them so appealing.

I played that game endlessly, navigating the levels, uncovering secrets, and seeing the screen "I'M FINISHED" appear over and over again.  Kid Icarus has become so familiar to me that playing it now is like visiting an old friend.  I still know the layouts of the levels; even the labyrinthine fortress at 3-4, with its wickedly-placed eggplant wizards, no longer fazes me.
I've read everywhere that the game is one of the most difficult ever released on the NES.  I suppose that it was for me too, once.  But now, when I want to relax for a few hours, I simply put the game in and play it from start to finish.  Seeing "I'M FINISHED" has become a rare anomaly rather than a matter of course.

I also managed to get my hands on the Game Boy sequel, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters.  The game was very nostalgic for me, and I played it quite a bit on my friend's Super Game Boy, but it is much easier than its NES counterpart, and therefore not quite as compelling.  The manual and music, however, are top-notch.

After Pit's Game Boy excursion, I waited anxiously for another title to be announced.  Pit was huge, after all: Kid Icarus had regularly placed in the Top 5 games on the Nintendo Fun Club list, Pit (as Kid Icarus) had become a character on the Captain N: The Game Master animated television show, and Pit even appeared in the cartoon's Valiant Comics adaptation (figured out yet where my blog's title comes from, by the way?).
Apparently, I was not alone—it seems that the little flightless angel's fans are legion.  People petitioned Nintendo for a sequel, and Nintendo of America continuously voiced support for our cause.  I was among the eager fans, of course—a drawing of mine, "Pit: Forgotten Angel" was even featured for a few months on Nintendo of America's home page.
We waited, but as the years went by, no new installment appeared.

When Smash Brothers was announced for Nintendo 64, I thought hopefully that Pit may appear, but the angel was noticeably absent.
Then, there was Smash Brothers Melee, for the Nintendo Gamecube.  With its huge roster of characters, and even the Ice Climbers joining the roster, I was absolutely certain, beyond any doubt, that Pit would make an appearance.  And yet, as I unlocked each secret character, I became more and more nervous.  Certainly, Pit had to be included in the game.  Where was he?
When I unlocked the final secret character and Pit had still not appeared, I was devastated.  Not only that: I was angry.  Why was Dr. Mario given a role and not Pit?  The angel's exclusion was the one big black mark on what I consider to be an otherwise outstanding game.
Pit was not playable, but the angel did appear as a trophy, and I think that at least 90 hours on that game's internal play clock comes from my simply staring longingly at a three-dimensional Pit.

I did not understand why the fans' pleas for Pit were being so largely ignored until I went to live in Japan.  Pit is not completely unknown there (his 8-bit adventure was re-released on the Game Boy Advance, and is the first Japanese video game that I bought), but the poor angel is nearly so.  Pit's Japanese excursion, named 「光神話:パルテナの鏡」(Myth of Light: Palutena's Mirror), did not enjoy the success of its sister game, Metroid, and largely fell off of Japan's radar.  The Game Boy game never saw Japanese shores.  Few Japanese gamers even know who Pit is.

But even while living in Japan, I did not give up hope.  Perhaps someday, I thought, Pit would return.

And then, the teaser trailer for Smash Brothers X (known to American gamers as Smash Brothers Brawl) was released.

When I saw the trailer, I shouted so loudly that the neighbors dropped by to see if I was all right.

I was.

Pit had come back to me.
I was so excited that I even called home to share the news (my mother, bless her soul, appreciated just how happy I was).  Pit had returned, and he looked outstanding.  The designers had done a brilliant job with him.  I began to follow the news for Smash Brothers X obsessively.  Not only was Pit back, but he had a prominent part in the game's adventure mode, "The Sub-Space Emissary", as well.  Every day, new news was released, and 桜井 政博 (Masahiro Sakurai, the man behind Smash Brothers) fed fans a continuous stream of information.  It was the best job of promoting a game that I have ever seen—but more on Smash Brothers another time.  We're talking about Pit, after all.

What was most interesting to me was that Pit's presence had to be explained to the Japanese audience, as many people didn't know who he was.  Mr. Sakurai detailed Pit's prior adventures in an interview for a Japanese gaming magazine, and went on to add that the angel's presence in Smash Brothers X was due to his overwhelming popularity with American fans (THANK YOU!).  So that fans could understand where the angel had come from, Nintendo even included a demo of Kid Icarus in the "Masterpieces" section of the game.  I love that demo; my friends are always amazed to see me clear the first stage before the time limit ends.

Pit was presented extremely well in his Smash Brothers excursion.  He was well-designed, his Japanese voice acting was excellent, and he even randomly groaned 「ヤラレチャッタ」 ("yararechatta") when defeated.  Why is that so special?  Well, that 「ヤラレチャッタ」 was the original text that was displayed when Pit was defeated in his 8-bit days.  Yes, that's right: 「ヤラレチャッタ」 is "I'M FINISHED!"
Sadly, I'm pretty sure that the quote was translated as "I'm done for!" in the English release of the game, thus completely ruining the reference.

I was happy beyond words to see that Pit had returned for Smash Brothers X on the Wii, so you can imagine my elation when Nintendo announced that Pit would be getting his own game on the Nintendo 3DS.  I found out about that one at school, when a fellow employee called me over after surfing the Internet in the teachers' room.  (Bad, yes.  Uncommon, no).
He had wanted to show me Skyward Sword, the new Zelda offering, but his news was completely lost to me when I saw the logo for 「新・光神話:パルテナの鏡」 —yes, that's Kid Icarus: Uprising.
The music, the graphics, the art, the character design: everything looks to be exactly as I had hoped for.  How could Nintendo have done such a perfect job, I wondered?  The answer appears to be the game's director: Masahiro Sakurai.  I get the impression that his taste in games is closely aligned with mine (he is the man behind Kirby, after all).
Have you seen that teaser poster, in which Pit is about to fly out of a door into a golden land above the clouds?  I was flying about that high for the rest of the day.

I had hoped to get that game in Japanese before I left Japan, but alas, it was not to be.  Still, Kid Icarus: Uprising remains the game on the horizon that I am most looking forward to owning.  I will, at least, have to order the Japanese strategy guide—Japan does its guides extremely well.

In the meantime, there are other games to play, other challenges to be overcome.  I will probably keep playing games forever, since I seem to be a natural at them.  My friends always ask me how I got to be so good at games.
The answer is simple.  I had good training.

I cut my teeth on stage 3-3 of Kid Icarus, after all.

START 「スタート」

With my other blog, Gaijin at Home, in full swing, people may have been wondering what my life was like before I left for Japan.
Well, there were family and friends; there was studying and music and acting.  But mostly, there were games.

I have been an unabashed gamer ever since I laid eyes on my first arcade game, Pole Position, in the hotel arcade during my first trip to Tokyo—when I was three years old.  And, yes, I remember the title of the game (I have since confirmed it with photographs).

That how my memory works: things are integrated in my mind, so that when I remember an event, I also remember what I was thinking about at the time or what else was going on in my life then.  And, for the most part, those things are games.

And so, I give you the flip-side of that quirk of memory: a blog about the games that I have played, and how they have become a part of my identity.

I suppose that this goes without saying, but the reflections on this page are not intended to be objective reviews of the games mentioned.  Quite the opposite: these entries are completely subjective, my recollections of games as they relate to my own experience.  My memories and my experiences may be quite different from yours (I hope they are!), so keep that in mind as you read.

Finally, a note:
As is also the case with Gaijin at Home, this site makes liberal use of Japanese characters.  If you cannot see the text below, you will need to adjust your browser before viewing this site.