Wayning Interests

Random thoughts on and of the modern age

Tag: video games

WISDOM

shinobi-arcade

One of my favourite arcade games is Sega’s 1987 ninja hack-em-up Shinobi. You are Joe Musashi, a modern day ninja who runs a school…of ninja. One day, you find your students kidnapped by terrorists – a terrifying act indeed. Really, whoever kidnapped students from a ninja school must be extremely hardcore, but that thought doesn’t occur to you as you hit the streets to find your pupils armed only with your wits, your hands, your feet, uh, your throwing stars and your sword. Think it’s gonna be easy? Think again. The controls are tight, the music is fantastic, and the atmosphere is unparalleled.

shinobi arcade

Shinobi, arcade version.

One of the first encounters I had with this simple-in-concept-yet-amazing-in-execution game was years ago at a friend’s house. It was a far cry from the dingy arcades that had given birth to the game – a carefully housekept early 90s lounge room. “Don’t put your drinks down without coasters,” his mother warned as we excitedly ran from the kitchen to the lounge room with our cordial. He’d said he had something to show me, and since those ominous words are a lot more innocent when you’re a kid, I was excited.

In those days and in the income bracket my friends and I found ourselves born into, it was rare to have more than one TV in the house. Sometimes, if you were lucky, there’d be an ‘outside TV’; an older model often sporting wood paneling, a multitude of dials, and UHF. Laugh now, but those dials were integral to building upper arm strength. These TVs were invariably found in ‘games rooms’, ‘dens’, or any other secondary lounging space. Occupying the family TV for the frivolity of video games was seen as a major suburban faux pas, and would usually result in a clip ’round the ears or a slap if requests to do so weren’t submitted through the proper channels.

The greatest fear of the TV overlords seemed to be that “you’ll break the TV with that nonsense”, an observation painfully lacking in insight. Being able to play video games, especially on ‘the good TV’, was a powerful incentive for kids to learn the ins and outs of any model of television. Break it, parents? Why would we do that? Then we wouldn’t be able to play the games! The same logic applies to VHS players, but that’s another story.

My friend had turned 6 not so long before, and either from his parents following his strict instructions or from a hipper uncle or aunt, he’d received Shinobi for his Sega Master System.

Shinobi had been released for the system in 1988, and its violent blend of gritty street politics and daring rescue was more than enough to extinguish any desire for the day-glo bowl-cutted world of Alex Kidd (video games were supposed to be an escape from reality. Although that said, Sega soon produced Alex Kidd in Shinobi World, a game that appears to have reached into the future, read this criticism of Alex Kidd and then gone back to address those concerns). After a game had been on the shelf for two years, it was likely to be discounted, which is more than likely the reason my friend had received Shinobi for his birthday instead of a more recent release.

shinobi-cover

One look at the box was enough to know this game meant business. His eyes bore into you. They don’t implore to you save the kids, as do Michael Jackson’s on the cover of Moonwalker – they expect you’ve already saved them, and should only dare to meet his eyes if you’ve done so. If not, those shuriken just might be for you. The box provides you with everything you need. He’s Shinobi. You are Shinobi. GO NINJA GO!

shinobi-sms

Shinobi, Sega Master System version

Once the Sega had been powered up and Shinobi  was dominating our senses, the lounge room – with its Nick Scali leather lounges, myriad coasters for sloppily poured drinks, tacky Copperart flourishes and smelling strongly of Glen 20 – brutally made way for the gloomy, crate-filled back alleys and sinister docks which provided the backdrop for the action. Super Mario Bros. had nothing on this. It felt real, like I could have left the house that moment and headed for the nearest harbour and uncovered a secret ninja base, and if the game hadn’t been so compelling, I might have.

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Sega Master System

At the start of the second act of Stage 1, the game threw a curveball at us. “Who’s that?” I asked my shuriken-throwing friend, who had been selfless and kind enough to “show” me the game without me having to play it. “I dunno, maybe it’s his wife,” he said distractedly, as if answering the simple, even rhetorical question could result in his in-game death.

But who was that? Why would the game, which in the first level had been completely bereft of any kind of posters, suddenly get all arty? Who was the woman they’d chosen to feature so prominently? There was no way you could miss her, even though she didn’t add anything to the gameplay itself. My friend died so many times on that stage she became burned into our retinas. By the end of the afternoon we’d taken to calling her Madonna, as that seemed to fit the bill. Later, as my mother drove me home and away from any method of playing Shinobi, I had a sneaking suspicion we were wrong.

The use of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic image in Shinobi is a curious, but unforgettable choice. Perhaps they were seeking to tie the game into reality, or perhaps they just admired her visage. It certainly lends the game’s atmosphere a more realistic feel, and there’s something unsettling about the clash of 50s-60s iconography and 80s aesthetic it causes. Perhaps the Japanese developers saw Monroe as the epitome of American glamour, and the juxtaposition of that against the burned-out action scenes that provide Shinobi‘s backdrops was an artistic statement that proved irresistible. Maybe there’s a definitive explanation out there, but knowing that would take some of the magic out of it, don’t you think?

Shinobi was released on many platforms. According to Wikipedia, no less than 10 ports of the original arcade game have been released since November, 1987. All of these have featured the Marilyn stage, and all of them have interpreted the original in different ways. Let’s take a look.

Arcade

Arcade

The original, and perhaps the most understated. The arcade game’s first level features posters (albeit of ninjas), making Marilyn less surprising when she turns up. But still, why? Eagle eyed readers might notice that her beauty spot has shifted to the middle of her forehead in the bottom right picture.

Sega Master System

Sega Master System

My first exposure to this phenomenon, the Sega Master System jacks up the bright colours but remains a relatively faithful version of the original. Her beauty spot stays still this time, so it’s got that going for it.

Nintendo Entertainment System

Nintendo Entertainment System

Despite being a Sega game, an unlicensed version of Shinobi found its way to the competition. Accordingly, they’ve changed the source picture of Marilyn, making her look more like the Mulligrubs host than ever before. Those eyes…they’re just demonic.

PC Engine

PC Engine

Electronics giant NEC had a go at the whole video games thing in the late 80s-early 90s, and Shinobi was there. Marilyn doesn’t seem to approve, as her smile has vanished. Her face looks as if she had previously been smiling at someone who’d then started making lewd gestures, or perhaps she’s reacting to the imminent crotch damage that bloke in front of the crate’s about to take. Closest to the arcade, though.

Atari ST

Atari ST

Atari’s heyday was far behind it by the late 80s, when Shinobi appeared on its home computer, the ST. Immediately you’ll notice it’s a different picture – Marilyn is now winking at the player…or perhaps the programmer. A lot of lonely nights spent staring at a screen would go into ports like these, and a winking Marilyn Monroe isn’t the worst thing you could spend that time looking at. Bafflingly, the programmers didn’t seem to have much faith in the recognisability of Monroe’s likeness (and in the case of my friend and I, they were right), so they’ve helpfully added a little caption filling us in. All in all they put more effort into her picture than they did into that bad guy’s face. Some like it hot, indeed.

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This looks horrendous. The Amstrad CPC should have been able to do a bit better than this, which has again used another picture of Marilyn. They’ve respected her pop-culture icon status a bit more than Atari, as her first name is all that’s necessary as a caption. Then again, the entire game features that Shinobi caption in the bottom centre, and I don’t think he’s quite reached the same legendary status as MM.

Screen shot 2013-05-29 at 2.44.38 PM

I’m sorry for trashing the Amstrad version, I really am. The designers here have chosen to accentuate Marilyn beyond even the player sprite, which blends into the background just like the villains. So despite not being able to see your guy and play the game properly, you can still get a fix of Marilyn’s smiling face, which is different yet again. She looks a bit like she’s laughing at the player’s poor performance, which her inclusion is causing. Fair shake, Marilyn.

Screen shot 2013-05-29 at 2.45.09 PM

Here they appear to have harkened back to the arcade original, despite the resolution being much worse. They’ve even gone so far as to replicate her beauty spot moving to her forehead in the last picture; nice attention to detail there.

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Yikes. The IBM-PC version sees Faye Dunaway filling in for Marilyn. I don’t blame her for looking away either, I don’t think I could look at that action for very long.

Wii/XBLA

Wii/XBLA

Sadly, licensing issues have led to Marilyn’s removal for the Wii and Xbox Live Arcade versions of the game. Couldn’t they have worked this out? How was it okay for the vintage versions of the game? Does this ruin the atmosphere? Ordinarily I’d say no, but they were too lazy to replace her with even the existing in-game ‘NINJA!’ posters you find most other places in the game. C’mon guys, I’ve paid my points. Transport me.

Monroe’s appearance in Shinobi has even inspired a complete exhibition by artist Ashley Anderson, who believes the initial instance was a tribute to Andy Warhol. Anderson has used a variety of the different Marilyns found above to create a series of modern works. A 60s icon’s insertion into an 80s arcade game corresponds to the theory that there’s a 20 year gap for mass nostalgia, which is why in the 90s we saw a lot of 70s stuff, and why we’ve only recently pulled ourselves out of that horrible 80s revival. Perhaps a game came out in the last few years with a Shinobi poster up on one of its walls? Sadly we’re a lot more litigious than back then, so I doubt it. Whatever the reason for or meaning of her inclusion, it can’t be argued that Marilyn Monroe’s Shinobi cameo isn’t visually arresting or strikingly original. After all, you don’t see James Dean in Sonic the Hedgehog.

A big thanks to Hardcore Gaming 101 for the pics of the various Marilyns.

HIS EVER CHANGING MOODS

Can I talk about Game Boy for a minute?

In 1990, my dad brought home an Amstrad 386 PC complete with the shareware version of Commander Keen. As the tired saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and I certainly got inventive learning how to use DOS to get further games happening. When you’re 5, necessity is playing video games, especially if you’ve never had the chance before.

Imagine my shock and awe the following year when my friend Con came over with his GAME BOY. A Game Boy? Here, in my house?! In a fit of embarrassment I felt like hiding the little LCD basketball game I’d bought for myself with birthday cash months earlier. Sure, I could shoot hoops when the stars aligned and the tiny battery decided to work, but this dude had a Game Boy. It took FOUR batteries. Oh, the shame.

As starstruck as I was to have Nintendo’s portable device in my house (in my house), I wasn’t unfamiliar with Game Boys. As video games began their rise to power throughout the late 80s and early 90s, comics were on the decline. In a desperate cash-grab, advertising space in comics was overly available to the up and coming video game market, so plenty of NES and Game Boy ads wound up in my face as I read TMNT Adventures or Legends of the Dark Knight. Many big movies of the time received Game Boy adaptations, and those ubiquitous Ninja Turtles were certainly available on the go. The ads in comics served to make the Game Boy seem like an escape route for kids from the humdrum of life. If you didn’t want to endure a trip to Grandma’s place, you’d take your Game Boy (or your Tiger handheld LCD game) and raise some hell.

My world changed as Con played Super Mario Land in front of me. In the face of such…complete, personal and portable entertainment, I was able to gloss over the little things like the piss-yellow screen, the fact that the games weren’t in colour like Commander Keen, and a friend who seemed to get off on bringing stuff to the house of someone who didn’t have said stuff and boasting about it. This was real, and it was in my house. I had to act quickly.

The big difference between a Game Boy and the Tiger handheld series is that a Game Boy isn’t tied to just one game. If you, as did I, had Tiger’s Batman Returns, every time you turned it on you could expect the same epic struggle against the Penguin and Catwoman. It never changed, and it never could (but hey, Batman Returns isn’t on Game Boy). The background was fixed, and the LCD sprites did the rest, but even they were fixed to predetermined spots on the screen. The Game Boy was completely different: each game came on a cartridge, allowing it to be anything you wanted it to be. Feel like playing a puzzle game? Pop Tetris in. Got a hankering for some bare knuckle brawling? Slap in Double Dragon. Have you just been to the arcade, and want that experience on the street outside, on the corner up the road from your house, or even in your bedroom, up in your face? Insert NBA Jam, and keep your coins in your pocket.

When the Game Boy was released in 1989, the black and yellow graphics and minimalist sound actually helped to service the system’s first and most enduring game: Tetris. That Russian puzzle game with the unforgettable theme song and an infectious gameplay design, Tetris sold countless Game Boys in the first few years of the platform’s life. The early games haven’t all held up as well – the bland-by-name bland-by-nature Tennis and Super Mario Land both seem archaic – but Tetris still retains its pick-up-and-play addictiveness. It didn’t need colour or stereoscopic 3D to work; it just worked. As impressed as I was by Super Mario Land that Autumn day in 1991, Tetris was the one that truly stuck with me.

Also in 1991, Sega’s Game Gear was released. This new system made a big deal of its one clear advantage over the Game Boy: it was in colour. This turned out not to make a lick of difference in the retail war between the systems. Whereas the Game Boy needed four AA batteries to run for around 12 hours, the Game Gear needed six AAs to run for four hours. Although they’ve fallen by the wayside today, back then batteries weren’t cheap, especially to a kid with no income. The Game Boy wasn’t in colour, sure, but we knew why. The Game Gear also had ports of popular console titles like Sonic the Hedgehog, and tried to maintain a kind of x-treme image, but again no one seemed to care. The new system’s pack-in game was Columns, a puzzle game with Tetris-style aspirations, but it felt like a me-too effort at the time. I still couldn’t tell you how to play Columns, whereas Tetris is indelible. The only thing the Game Gear had going for it was its then-mindblowing TV adaptor. As a kid, to see a handheld videogame system able to be used as a TV was about the best thing ever, and the only thing I can remember about the Game Gear’s brief ad campaign.

I finally got my big grey brick for Christmas in 1994. It came with Tetris, Super Mario Land and Alien 3. By some strange coincidence, several friends received Game Boys that same Christmas, and we all got Super Mario Land. The Game Boy was everything I’d hoped for for three years and more: it wasn’t like the computer where you had to c:\games\ckeen\keen.exe or install things or pay attention to system specs to make sure Doom would run. You just popped in the cartridge and played. And you didn’t need to wait for someone to get off the computer because they were printing or doing work – it was yours. I could go into my room, sit directly under a decent light source, and get my game on.

As the batteries were about to die, as they would so often do during Alien 3, the graphics would suddenly fade out. This meant you didn’t have long, so you’d have to turn the sound off and crank up the contrast to get it playable again. When the batteries finally got replaced, you’d turn the Game Boy on again to find the screen completely dark because the contrast was still all the way up. While we’re on the topic, Alien 3 devoured many batteries in addition to being a kids game based on an M-rated movie. That was one hard game. I finished Super Mario Land about two weeks after Christmas, and Tetris cannot be finished…but Alien 3, a game which teases its end-game right near the start of play, was near impossible, and when you’ve exhausted all the games available to you, it’s time to branch out.

Luckily, by 1995 the Game Boy’s library was enormous. None of the competitors – the Game Gear, Atari’s Lynx, the endless onslaught of Tiger handhelds – had made a dent in the Game Boy’s market share. It was to portable gaming what the Walkman was to portable music – synonymous. This made the older games quite cheap, especially to kids with little money. When you don’t have disposable income, your choice of game matters, and the games you do get, you play. Spiderman 2 might be another nearly impossible game, but dammit, I played it. I tried to get my money’s worth out of it. My own collection was never huge, but thanks to generous friends, our combined collection was pretty respectable and always readily available. We’d trade all the time, and for months at a time. I once lent Mortal Kombat 3 to a friend for his Mortal Kombats 1 and 2 because, in his words, “one plus two equals three” (in this case it was untrue, as MKII was the best of the Game Boy MKs, but I was happy to let him go on thinking that). But while video shop rentals were common for the Mega Drives and Super Nintendos, only one shop in my area rented Game Boy games. I thank them now for allowing me to play Batman, Ghostbusters II and Navy SEALs (not so much that one), because they had the guts to pimp out Game Boy games at a time when no one else dared. Was it because they were presumed easier to steal or lose? The system’s user base was a lot larger than any of the home systems, so it wasn’t because the video shops loved money.

Despite its technical limitations, the Game Boy continued to receive what were to us kids amazing ports of big name titles. We were shocked when in 1995 Street Fighter II made it to the Boy, amazed when Killer Instinct got a port, and absolutely flattened when the much-hyped graphical powerhouse Donkey Kong Country received a cut-down, yet still impressive, version we could take anywhere.

For me, a massive part of the Game Boy’s appeal, even in those later years, was that I could take it anywhere. There was something so great about spending a Saturday afternoon in a friend’s backyard, so far from TVs or arcades, but still able to play The King of Fighters ’96. Huge franchises, be it video games or the latest film releases, could be a part of a trip to the countryside or a night in your room, grounded. You weren’t tied to the TV in order to play these games, you really could take it anywhere. Car trips, once so deathly boring, were suddenly a great opportunity for me to destroy the Death Star or get a perfect 300 game in World Bowling (still working on that one). Even at night, when the Game Boy couldn’t be seen, attachable lights were available to do the impossible – make games playable past your bedtime. The Game Boy, so versatile, able to be absolutely anything you wanted it to be depending on your mood, was a real symbol of individuality.

By 1997 though, the limitations had become that much more apparent, and the novelty was wearing off. You can only defeat Shredder so many times, and the really old games were getting old. It seemed like 1998 could have spelled the end for the little Boy who could…until the release of Pokemon. Thanks to that one game, the next generation’s Tetris on the exact same hardware, the Game Boy lived on through its first colour iteration Game Boy Colour, the next gene technical leap Game Boy Advance, and all the subsequent variations thereof. 2005’s Game Boy Micro was the last system released to carry the Game Boy name, and today, the system’s legacy is carried by the Nintendo DS family. These later systems are all amazing, but none feel as special in this era of phones that can do just about anything. I’m pretty sure the iPhone can play the entire Game Boy library and can probably do it without breaking a sweat. But it’s just not the same, and for me, nothing ever will be. That big grey brick of many moods really did allow me to play with portable power.

Now, if you’ll indulge me, there’s no better way to get the best feel for the Game Boy’s versatility and entertainment value than by watching the below video, but to heighten the experience, mute the volume and play the song in the second video while you watch. Game over.

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE


Far from being seen as the revolutionary step forward for videogames that was Sega’s Virtua Fighter (1993), Namco’s Tekken (1994) appeared as the flashier alternative to those who found VF‘s measured pace and extreme realism off-putting. Tekken was closer in spirit to the action found in Capcom’s Street Fighter II, and featured an entirely different control scheme to Virtua Fighter‘s – a four button setup, with one button assigned to each limb. The character models weren’t as blocky as Virtua Fighter‘s, and the characters were a much more eclectic mix than those found in Sega’s game. Iconic imagery – Paul’s skyscraper haircut, King’s jaguar wrestling mask, Yoshimitsu – flew in the face of VF‘s careful repackaging of familiar archetypes. Interestingly, the most radical addition to the VF cast, Siba, had been cut prior to the game’s release. An Arabian fighter swathed in robes and sporting a huge sword may seem like a classic stereotype, but compared to Akira, the gi-sporting, headbanded Ryu-knock who replaced him, Siba seems outrageous. Tekken took the archetypes, like the wandering martial artist looking for the true fight, and gave them a darker, more sinister spin; the wandering vagabond became a bitter, cowlicked revenger, the strongman became a mohawked robot, the primary female action hero became a villainous assassin. The fighting was full of special moves and unrealistic, over the top feats, in stark contrast to Virtua Fighter’s focus on realistic combat and real-life martial arts styles.

The Tekken cast.

Perhaps the only area in which Tekken strove for realism was the background stages. As far back as the first Street Fighter (1987), visually impressive hand drawn backgrounds had become a staple of fighting games, and they were often based on real landmarks – SF1 features Mount Rushmore, for instance. But Street Fighter II had featured colourful backgrounds specifically tied to each fighter, each featuring theme music which subliminally served to strengthen the appeal and individuality of each of the characters. It worked – you’d encounter wild jungle beasts in Brazil and boxers in Vegas. Mortal Kombat (1992) featured a series of backdrops taken from its impressively realised backstory – the setting started off as a mysterious, Eastern-flavoured island, and as the game progressed, the fighting took place in front of increasingly menacing scenery. The game’s third stage features a visual teaser of the game’s penultimate boss character, and while the first stage sees you fighting in front of passive monks; by the end you’re battling for the tournament’s grandmaster, who patronisingly applauds the winner of the bout.

Mount Rushmore, Street Fighter (1987)

The essentially story-less Virtua Fighter featured none of this, instead showcasing a variety of pretty, yet generic areas in which to mix it up. It was clear that minimal attention had been paid to the backgrounds, and fair enough too – the fully realised 3D characters were what you were there to see, and making them fight was a close second. Tekken took a different path, setting each of its fights in a different location around the world, promoting the idea that it was a world fighting tournament, and that its competitors were from all over the globe. Unlike Street Fighter, the fighters weren’t tied to their specific countries (but this would change in Tekken 2 [1995]). Instead, the stages would cycle through randomly, but each featured their name at the bottom left of the screen, so as to add to the feeling that you were kicking a dude’s ass on a beach in Fiji instead of in the furthest reaches of a dank arcade on the wrong side of town. Also unlike Street Fighter, the backgrounds weren’t hand drawn; the designers used the considerable technology powering Tekken to create backgrounds that were considered at the time to be ‘photorealistic’.

Really?

Let’s today take a look at those backgrounds and see how they compare to their real life counterparts.

WINDERMERE

VENEZIA

SZECHWAN

MONUMENT VALLEY

CHIBA MARINE STADIUM


KYOTO


KING GEORGE ISLAND

FIJI

CHICAGO

ANGKOR WAT

ACROPOLIS