Monday, 09 July 2007
There's little about the revered Mario Bros. franchise that hasn't been covered to death on the Internet and elsewhere. It seems like every conceivable facet of the series' history has been documented, catalogued, and recorded in everything from books and magazines to TV documentaries. Ask anyone under the age of thirty to sum up the story of Mario and friends and you'll likely hear the same response: a groundbreaking arcade game, a stupendously successful console debut, and a multitude of sequels, spinoffs and Saturday morning cartoons. And up until a short while ago, that was it.
...Until now. Lo and behold, the vast chasm of darkness and deceit that is the Internet has coughed up one of the most well-kept secrets in all of gaming. As it turns out, despite what you've been told since the tender age of five and contrary to Nintendo's steadfast claims to the contrary, the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 -- the game that would eventually appear on U.S. shores as "The Lost Levels" -- was not the first followup to Nintendo's legendary platformer. That honour, believe it or not, goes to an obscure Japanese PC-8801 game that has been lost to the winds of time these many years, excised from the official Mario cannon and forgotten by all but the most hardcore Nintendo loyalists. Prepare your eyes for a shocker, boys and girls. Here, exclusive to the Retro-Playback blog, is a tantalizing look at one of the gaming industry's long-lost stepchildren.
Released in 1986 by veteran developers Hudson Soft, Super Mario Bros. Special was designed for the Japanese-only NEC PC-8801 computer and became the first officially licensed Super Mario Bros. game following the release of the original. That's right, before NES gamers the world over would guide Mario et al through levels ripped from Doki Doki Panic or take to the skies with myriad powerups in Super Mario Bros. 3, a few lucky Japanese gamers could be seen huddled in their living rooms, eyes no doubt glued to their fuzzy computer monitors, busily navigating the twists and turns of what has proven to be one of Mario's most bizarre adventures.
You once again take the reigns as everyone's favourite portly plumber and guide him through a set series of levels, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. The levels have all been redesigned from scratch and, while the basic gameplay mechanics remain intact -- you still flatten enemies and break apart blocks by jumping, after all -- the pipes are placed differently, enemies pop up in unexpected locations, and even the coin blocks are seemingly strewn about the terrain with little resemblance to the original. To add to the bizarre nature of the game, the 2-player mode has been scrapped and the other Mario brother is nowhere to be found. (Poor Luigi...He wouldn't get his own game for another six years, and even then it would seriously suck balls.)
Purists will be happy to hear that the series' trademark tunes are still present, though the music isn't nearly as catchy when it's played by a three-year-old with a Fisher Price "My First Piano." To that end, the graphics are also a step down from Special's NES predecessor, with a noticeably smaller colour palette and stiffer animation. The computer's limited capabilities also don't allow the game to "scroll" like SMB for the Nintendo Entertainment System did, so an endlessly annoying flip-screen system is used whenever Mario walks off screen (a gameplay mechanic that also has the unfortunate side-effect of causing Koopa shells to bounce back towards Mario for no goddamned reason.)
Determined to **** around with the original game engine to the point of near ludicrousness, Hudson Soft has also thrown in several new enemies, items and powerups that'll have you doing double-takes. Wait, was that a flaming barrel from Donkey Kong I just saw? Yes it was. Whoa, did I just see a pair of Fighter Flies from the original arcade Mario Bros.? Yes you did. Holy shit, did I really just pick up a powerup shaped like a...Honeybee? Trippy, I know.
The many in-game oddities, neat as they may be, do little to mask the ugly truth though: Super Mario Bros. Special looks and plays like garbage, and there's little doubt as to why it's never been re-released or even acknowledged by the Big N. It flat out sucks. Perhaps that's a bit harsh for a twenty-year-old Japanese computer game, but I call it the way I see it, folks. Even so, it's an interesting blip on the Nintendo radar, and there's just something fascinating about a followup to perhaps the most beloved and influential platform game of all time that completely eschews every bit of its predecessor's level design. What's the deal, Hudson Soft? The original SMB wasn't deserving of a quality port? Thought you could do a better job than Japanese Jesus himself, Shigeru Miyamoto? Tsk, tsk.
In case you've got twenty minutes to blow and normal routines like walking the dog, gardening, and appreciating the beauty of nature's many wonders are lost on you, then you might want to check out this ready-to-play PC-8801 emulator. It comes bundled with your very own copy of the SMBS ROM and, fittingly enough, is just about the worse collection of junk code currently available for download. Still, it'll get the job done well enough, and being able to navigate Special's many obstacles is an experience everyone should appreciate at least once. And as an added bonus, after you're done, it'll make a nice addition to your Recycle Bin. Woot!
Sunday, 08 July 2007
Ever wondered what it would look like to see Mace Windu stand up in the Jedi Council and bust a cap into Yoda's little green ass? How about seeing buck-naked Barbie dolls invade Naboo? Or a remix of the original Star Wars, Quentin Tarantino-style?
Well, your exhaustive search is over. Straight from the muddy waters of the 'Net comes a collection of short films made by Evan Mather that spoof just about every aspect of the classic franchise starring a horde of Kenner Star Wars figures from the 70s and 80s. These movies are not only hilarious and irreverent, they're well-made, quick to download...And favourites of mine since 1999. Enjoy!
George Lucas' classic space opera meets the expletive-laden speak and over-the-top violence of Quentin Tarantino. A mini masterpiece.
Lando's got his work cut out for him as the King of Monsters wreaks havoc upon cloud city, all to the beat of a pulsating disco soundtrack.
Qui-Gon Jinn goes through a midlife crisis, calling into question issues of identity, consumerism and purpose. The coolest thing around way back when Quicktime 4 was the shiz.
For more of Evan Mather's Star Wars videos, including such titles as Kung-Fu Kenobi's Big Adventure and Les Pantless Menace, click here to check out his video library.
Monday, 25 June 2007
Originally posted on March 12th, 2006
The Crash Test Dummies first appeared in a series of public service announcements jointly produced by the Ad Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration beginning in the late '80s. The commercials featured two dummies named Vince and Larry who actively demonstrated what could happen when a person did not wear a seatbelt during an auto accident. Unlike humans, who die or become crippled in real crashes, Vince and Larry dusted themselves off after each collision and cracked macabre jokes about each other's condition -- one would chuckle at the sight of his partner's leg falling from its socket, the other would point and laugh at the ghoulish burn marks and skid scrapes covering his pal's mug. Spooky stuff, indeed. The ads were reportedly so successful that by 1994, seat belt usage had increased from 21% to 73%, saving an estimated 75,000 lives and preventing more than 1.5 million moderate to critical injuries.
It wasn't long before someone realized these mascots could not only save lives but become bankable commercial products as well. In a short period of time, a veritable avalanche of merchandise -- from plush dolls and bumper stickers to board games and T-shirts -- flooded the market. Tyco began manufacturing "Incredible Crash Dummies" toys in 1991, minus Vince and Larry, who were scrapped from the line due to legal issues with the U.S. government. Over the next few years, the franchise grew exponentially as a computer-animated cartoon pilot was produced, a plethora of vehicles and playsets were added to the toyline, the main dummies received new "Pro-Tek" uniforms and video games for all the main platforms hit the shelves.
With names like Dash, Dent, Skid the Kid and Spare Tire, these little dummies were without a doubt some of the most original and outright bizarre figures ever produced. Borrowing a page from other popular toylines of the day such as G. I. Joe and TMNT, each figure came packaged with a variety of accessories, his own distinct function and a cute little backstory. However, unlike many other toys on the market at the time, the Crash Test Dummies' claim to fame wasn't a Saturday morning cartoon or thirty-three thousand different figure variations. No, the Dummies rose to prominence in an overcrowded toy market because of one simple design feature, and one design feature alone: they broke apart. Literally. Buy a figure, shove it into a plastic vehicle, throw it against a wall, and watch the ensuing chaos as tiny plastic limbs go flying everywhere.
Thanks to rubber straps that could hold an unsuspecting dummy captive, the Crash Plane was probably the most deadly and destructive of all the vehicles produced for the line. Aside from the death-straps, a mysterious internal mechanism also caused both wings to fall off when the craft's nose was pushed, so throwing it with full force against the garage door often proved irresistible. In keeping with this general theme, the Crash 'n Dash Chopper later came complete with a side-seat that could be removed at will, meaning you could roll the bike across the carpet at full speed and then unleash the helpless passenger to roll to his fiery death. Or, at least, into some strategically-placed LEGOs.
Of course no toyline is really complete without a few villains to spice up the playtime action. Torturing little dummies is fun and all, but what really determines the success of a franchise is whether the enemies are cool enough to make things interesting. The Ninja Turtles had Shredder, G.I. Joe had Cobra, and the Crash Dummies had, tada, the Junkbots. Led by the nefarious Junkman and his evil minions Jack Hammer, Piston Head and Sideswipe, the Junkbots made a habit of terrorizing their crash dummy counterparts by carrying out such dastardly deeds as sabotage, kidnapping, and the worst offence of all, neglecting to separate their recyclables.
Modeled to look as if they'd been pieced together from odd scraps of junkyard garbage, the Junkbots were pretty damn bad-ass for a toyline aimed at five year olds, and, truth be told, given the choice of throwing it down with a mutated warthog or a six-foot-tall mountain of scrap metal and carburators, the choice is pretty obvious -- a warthog I know I can kill with a well-aimed shotgun blast to the face.
Of course, while the figures were designed to be broken apart and put back together over and over again, in reality a Crash Dummy figure only had a life expectancy of about one or two good years. After that, the figures' internal springs would undoubtedly become damaged, oftentimes irrevocably, rendering the poor little chaps useless and putting a damper on an otherwise remarkable toyline. This fundamental design flaw probably had something to do with the line's ultimate demise some years later. A brief revival in 2004 saw the release of new crash dummy figures under the Hot Wheels brand, but further attempts to relaunch the franchise have apparently met with failure. Bummer, too -- these little dudes were some of the most original toys ever produced.
Saturday, 23 June 2007
Originally posted on July 2nd, 2006
Although admittedly tame by today's standards, Midway's Mortal Kombat singlehandedly created a frenzy in the video game world back in the early '90s -- and, thanks to the miracle of inquisitive retrospect, it's pretty easy to see why. Although our current videogame zeitgeist actively encourages us to indulge in the darker, bloodier side of human nature, back in 1992 things were considerably different. Gamers were used to seeing arcade games full of cute, cuddly characters and family-friendly gameplay; smashing windows in Paperboy and smacking opposing players in Rival Schools was about as controversial as arcades got back in the '80s. It's no surprise, then, that a one-on-one fighting game featuring gallons of blood spewing to and fro and characters meeting their demise in the worst of ways (by electrocution, impalement, and even the occasional cremation) would be cause for concern. For thousands (perhaps even millions) of concerned parents around the world, the sight of dismembered corpses and charred bodies shining out in arcades across the country could mean only one thing...
The world was coming to an end.
And most disturbing of all, kids could get front-row seats to the apocalypse for a mere 25¢. Well, that was the impression, anyway. It's a sad fact that both scientists and analysts have long sought to blame our pop culture for many of society's ills, and by the early 90s the time had come for our beloved video games to face the chopping block. Comic books were thought to be the root of all evil back in the 40s and 50s, as evidenced by Fredric Wertham's ludicrous (and unintentionally hilarious) book Seduction of the Innocent, in which the author attempts to blame comics for the rash of juvenile delinquency, crime, and other social troubles. Likewise, the advent of increasingly gritty disaster and action movies made the film industry an easy target during the 70s and 80s. So by the time fighting games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat began making the rounds in arcades across the country, it was disturbingly apparent that would-be do-gooders (including some high-ranking US politicians, of all people) would soon be aiming their sights at a new target, one that had gone without a regulated rating system for nearly twenty years.
Still, despite all the hubbub the game evoked and its infamous status on the pop culture spectrum, the original Mortal Kombat isn't nearly as gruesome as you remember. Aside from an almost cartoon-like splattering of blood and a few inventive finishing moves (ranging from the cool to the downright absurd), the game is at its core a simplistic fighting game featuring a few neat concepts -- a sort of dumbed-down version of Street Fighter II aimed at attracting and pleasing a different type of gamer, one who believes complex controls and in-depth gameplay should take a back seat to flashy graphics and mature content.
Now I do not wish to opine about the age-old feud between SF II and Mortal Kombat; my opinion on the matter was shaped many years ago and no amount of prodding by Kombat elitists will sway my views. That being said, MK does undeniably possess a good dose of charm and a unique niche all its own. It's difficult to say whether or not I'd like the game as much had it not become the veritable poster child for all forms of media that cater to our more aggressive instincts, but that's a discussion best left for another day. In any event, despite parents' insistence concerning the matter, nearly all attempts to ban or censor the game were met with derision from both fans of the game and of the genre. Case in point: when it came time for Nintendo to port the successful brawler to its Super NES, the industry juggernaut feared backlash from concerned parents and consequently replaced the blood in the game with -- get this -- sweat. The Japanese version of the cart even went so far as to censor the infamous 'Fatalities' by dimming the entire screen black and white whenever one was executed. The lesson to be learned? Playing Mortal Kombat without the violence is like eating a hotdog without slopping loads and loads of mustard on top -- I mean, you can do it, but why would you want to?
On that note, those who attacked the game for its violent content seemed oblivious to the fact that targeting media in such a manner, in the mother of all ironic twists, nearly always produces greater public interest in the property, thereby directly sabotaging efforts to prohibit its release or distribution. Case in point: thanks to the intense controversy generated by all the protesting, the sights and sounds of MK have become the stuff of legend. The sinister curved dragon logo, which has since become synonymous with the property; the infamous character roster, including a pair of menacing ninjas by the name of Sub-Zero and Scorpion; the elusive and gruesome 'Fatalities' that always manage to incite roars of approval from onlookers; and even the announcer's constant cries of "Excellent!" and "Finish Him!" have a certain immense aura about them. If ever there was a game whose success could be attributed solely to presentation, then Mortal Kombat is it. And really, what's wrong with that?
All things considered, there's really no denying the power of MK's hardcore visuals and eerie premise, and its impact on the game industry is incontrovertible, if not solely for the fact that it forced game makers and publishers to take a stand in regards to violence in their products and ushered in a new era for videogames in general. Thanks in part to Mortal Kombat and its sequels, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) was formed and concerned parents everywhere could finally breath a collective sigh of relief. Well, that was the idea, anyway. Unfortunately, video game violence continues to be a hot-button issue among adults -- whenever talk of global thermonuclear war becomes a bit too worrisome.
Sunday, 17 June 2007
A visit to the local bowling alley a short while ago left my friend and I depressed in a profound way. We've all seen ourselves in dingy, run-down arcades, right? You know the kind -- where half the machines don't work and the ones that do inevitably break down after only a few quarters are pumped in? Where all the fun and wonder of arcade games can't help but get sucked into a vortex of slimy $4.00 pizza slices and long expired vending machines that border on the near criminal? Where pitiful electronic cries from long-abused, 15-year-old arcade speakers are matched only by the high pitched squealings of underpaid teenagers as they mop up the puke stains left over from a kids' birthday party gone wrong?
Of course we have. But the sorry state of affairs at this particular bowling alley, where the floor made a funny squeaking sound and the girl working at the counter seemed a pay cut away from suicide, made me realize that the abuse and neglect of classic arcade machines should be outlawed. Amid the devastation, I counted roughly half the machines were either not working properly or completely non-functional. Only one side of the Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 console was up to snuff, the Ms. Pac-Man cabinet was suffering from some serious screen problems, the Air Hockey table could only manage to register one player's score and not the other's and, to top it all off, the management had apparently taken a run-down Super Street Fighter II cabinet (complete with a glut of dirt, grime and cigarette burns) and hardwired it to play Marvel vs. Capcom. Ugh...
So I began dreaming about my ideal arcade -- a magical place where all the machines work, the lights are appropriately dimmed and Def Leppard's Hysteria gets constant airtime over the loudspeaker. And as for arcades, well, there would only be room for the best of the best:
Street Fighter II: The World Warrior
Street Fighter II: Champion Edition
Street Fighter II: Turbo
Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers
Super Street Fighter II Turbo
Mortal Kombat II
Mortal Kombat 3
Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3
Terminator II: Judgment Day
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
TMNT: Turtles in Time
Lucky and Wild
So, what arcade games would you find in your ideal arcade room? Would you go for the tried-and-tested classics or opt for newfangled technical beasts with polygon counts in the millions? Street Fighter II or Tekken? Pac-Man or House of the Dead? Discuss.RELATED POSTS