The 'Shroom:Issue 64/A History of Video Games
- “History is full of fantastic and important stories. These stories have the powers to spellbind audiences, even audiences of difficult seventh graders. These same stories… are directly relevant to our present society. Yet [students] sleep through the classes that present it.”
- —James W. Loewen, historian and author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.
Hello everyone, it’s Toad85 yet again. It’s July. It’s sunny over here, and there’s not a cloud in the sky. Perfect weather to swim, hike, play baseball, or sit on my butt and write a ‘Shroom article. This is another edition of “A History of Video Games”.
Now this time, I’m going to do something a little different. This issue is about five different little stories, instead of one overarching one. Yeah, five little stories about five interesting video games from the NES’s era; the ones I find the most interesting.
So let’s not waste any time, let’s get reading!
Part 6.1: Two games, or not two games
That is the question.
If you couldn’t tell yet, Super Mario Bros. was a huge success. Gamers around the world were ready to lap up anything Nintendo had to offer, and demand was super-high for a sequel. Nintendo thought it would be a no-brainer: make a good sequel, promote it it worldwide, and watch the cash roll in like tumbleweeds on a windy day.
Super Mario Bros. 2 was released in Japan in 1986, just a year after the original. It ran the same engine as the original, and looked very much like it, but it wasn’t a carbon copy. The graphics were slightly tweaked; there were now 13 worlds to explore, including the infamous “secret worlds”; new items and enemies were added.
The most drastic change was definitely in the difficulty. Good lord, this game is demanding. Wind blows from out of nowhere, powerups can kill you, invisible blocks knock you into pits, and enemies are difficult to circumvent. Needless to say, Howard Lincoln felt that the game’s absurd difficulty wouldn’t attract American audiences.
In another castle, Shigeru Miyamoto was busy designing a new platformer to celebrate Fuji Television’s Dream Factory Festival in 1987. What he came up with was a solid title named Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic (Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic for you English-speaking folks). In the game, two little kids are kidnapped by a book, and the mascots of the festival (Imajin, Lina, Mama, and Papa) had to rescue them. Who the kids are and why they were kidnapped were irrelevant, it’s an effing awesome game.
Doki Doki Panic was a relatively obscure game, so it didn’t put up record sales figures. But it sold well enough to capture the attention of Nintendo of America. Howard Lincoln came up with the idea of selling Doki Doki Panic as Super Mario Bros. 2 for America and Europe, since the “real” Super Mario Bros. 2 wasn’t going to export.
Lincoln’s team quickly made aesthetic changes to the game. Imajin became Mario, Lina converted into Peach, Mama ironically became Luigi, and Papa was transformed into Toad. To access a special zone, you had to drop a potion, rather than a lamp. Masks became mushrooms, characters can run, Phantos became much more menacing, the plotline was heavily altered, et cetera. The European/American Super Mario Bros. 2 was released on October 9th, 1988.
Granted, there was some backlash once the international crowd discovered that there was another version of Super Mario Bros. 2 that they would never get to play until 2007, but overall the game was received well. In total, 2 million copies were sold; that made it the third-best selling NES game at the time. Elements from the game, like Birdo, Bob-Ombs, and Luigi’s high jumping ability would later become staples of the series. Wart, the main villain, wouldn’t come back but did have a cameo in Link’s Awakening under the name Mamu.
Super Mario Bros. 2 may not have started out as a Mario game, but it’s effect on the series is evident in almost every Mario game made since.
Part 6.2: How many thunderbolts does it take to get to the eyeball center of a Yellow Devil?
The world may never know.
In 1987, Capcom was looking to expand into the home video game market. They had previously had some hits with arcade titles like 1942 and Gunsmoke, but by the late 1980s, the console market had far surpassed the arcade market. In order to keep working on new games and survive as a popular company, Capcom had to join the NES’s gallery of developers, and it took more than just porting these two. They needed something original to top it off.
Luckily for them, a young artist name Keiji Inafune had just joined the team. The twenty-two year old Inafune was looking to become an illustrator, and Capcom seemed to him like a good way to get started.
Inafune quickly began working as a graphic designer on Capcom’s next hit arcade game, a little thing known today as Street Fighter. Capcom was impressed with Inafune’s work, and he was reassigned to a new project: come up with a new game for the NES.
Seems easy, right? I mean, for a guy as talented as Inafune, coming up with an idea should be a snap. But then you had to factor in that he had to personally design the characters, items, logos, boxart, and even the instruction booklet. Not to mention that he had to turn all of this to pixel form when coding the game.
Inafune, inspired by anime like Speed Racer from his childhood, began drafting a robot character named “Mighty Kid” that would combat other robots. He was to be blue, since there were more blues on the NES’s color palette than any other color. Inafune noticed that several protagonists for NES games lacked good detail, and so making the character blue could allow him to stretch the NES’s limitations. Inafune would later change the character’s name to “Knuckle Man”, and then “Rock Man” in his final draft.
Any sales chart of the NES can easily tell you that the most popular games of the 80’s were sidescrolling platformers, and Rock Man was no different. However, it did have a very noticeable twist on the gameplay. First off, almost all of the stages are available from the start; this differentiated it from games like Super Mario Bros. , where each level had to be beaten one at a time. Second, boss battles were reworked with the addition of a “rock-paper-scissors” element. Each boss is weak to another, and Rock Man had to use each boss’s weakness correctly to do the most damage. Sure, you can rough it out with the Mega Buster for a while, but if you really wanted to do some serious destruction, you might want to use the power-ups.
Rock Man’s name was a double entendre; it referred not only to the aforementioned “rock-paper-scissors” battles, but also to Inafune’s love of rock-and-roll. Inafune believed that if the game had good music, gamers would want to play it. And boy, did he deliver. Youtube some scraps and take a listen for yourself.
With all these twists developed into the game, Rock Man (known outside Japan as Mega Man) was released in December of 1987 to critical acclaim. This was not helped, though, by absolutely abominable cover art. In the game, Rock Man is a bright, cheery little kid garbed in blue with a cute arm cannon that can blow you head off. On the U.S. box art, though, Mega Man is a middle-aged man with a slanted face, ugly yellow garb, and a strange-looking pistol.
What really contributed to Rock Man’s success was word-of-mouth advertising. At the time, Capcom had a very small advertising budget, and chose not to waste it on console titles. Instead, those that bought the game and liked it told about it to their friends, who then bought it themselves. So word-of-mouth advertising is like advertising without having to pay for advertising.
Unfortunately, Rock Man, while it gathered great critical acclaim, was not the hit Capcom was expecting. However, Inafune convinced Capcom to give him a second shot with the series, and Rock Man 2 was released on December 24, 1988 in Japan. This time, Inafune got it right: the game was both loved by critics and the populous alike. The rest is history: Mega Man and his descendents would go on to star in hundreds of games, becoming the most profitable series Capcom had ever produced.
It’s seven. The answer’s obviously seven.
Part 6.3: Is this the real life?
Or is this Final Fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, there’s no escape from reality
In 1987, a minuscule developer named Squaresoft was undergoing a huge depression. Squaresoft, or Square for short, made games for the NES, but couldn’t compete on a large market with bigger companies like Capcom. In order to survive, they literally had to craft a hit game that would top or near-top the charts.
So what do they do? They decide to take one last shot to make it big; a “final” attempt for their “fantasy”, if you will. Square turned to Hironobu Sakaguchi, their head designer, to pump out the best darn RPG their low budget could muster. Square then created an “A-team” for the game; among them, artist Yoshitaka Amano was to produce the artwork for the game, freelance programmer Nasir Gebelli was to concoct the game’s engine and sprites, and anime director Kenji Terada was to write the plot. Sakaguchi, while a talented developer, was planning to pack his bags and leave the gaming industry if this game failed.
The RPG game, named Final Fantasy (see pun I made before for reason why), was about a team of four Light Warriors; either monks, black mages, white mages, red mages, thieves, or fighters, your choice. Also, there are these four crystals or whatever that represent the classical (read: unscientific) elements. Two centuries ago, a hurricane sunk a shrine that served as the center of an ocean-based civilization, and the water crystal goes all dark. This causes the earth and fire crystals to eventually go dark too, and the world turns into the ending of Mother 3; world destroyed, cataclysm everywhere, but everyone’s fine. In the present, these four heroes have found each of the four crystals and have to reignite them by defeating the four Fiends to bring the world back into balance.
Yeah, it’s a lot better than your basic excuse plot.
On December 18, 1987, Final Fantasy was released in Japan. And let me tell you, audiences didn’t know what to make of it. The game was so advanced, it so stretched the NES’s limitations that onlookers were mesmerized. Luckily, the game impressed enough consumers to make it the then second-best selling RPG for the NES; enough to keep the company well afloat. It was sold worldwide too, but RPGs didn’t sit well with action-filled American tastes, and not enough cartridges were produced for the PAL markets to really make a difference.
Square followed their impressive first run with Final Fantasy II. And then Final Fantasy III. And then Final Fantasy IV. And so on. Each installment only further cemented Square as the definitive RPG maker. Even after they started losing money in 2003, and had to merge with Enix, Square still remained top of the RPG world, and Final Fantasy that genre’s benchmark for perfection.
doggammit now i can’t get bohemian rhapsody out of my head
Part 6.4: ↑↑↓↓←→←→
Almost as long as there has been gaming, there has been cheating. Gamers have always tried to get farther in the game while doing less work. The earliest cheat I could find was in the game Adventure for the Atari 2600; if you did a series of actions just right, you could witness easter egg credits.
Cheat codes back then were used primarily for the developers’ ease. Before releasing a game, a group of testers had to review every little detail, every microscopic crack, to see if there were bugs. In order to do this, they had to test areas and skills that were outside the normal player’s capabilities. These kinds of cheats were usually level-warping or invincibility cheats. Because, really, who wants to need to fight off enemies when you have to test hundreds of other mechanics? These codes were eventually either directly or accidentally leaked to the public for Pete Rose wannabes to use freely.
During the arcade days of gaming, there was a company named Konami. It was fairly successful, but its games were notorious for being pitilessly hard. When the NES came out, they (like Capcom) decided to make it big in the home market by porting Gradius, a sidescrolling space shooter, to the NES. However, they actually made the game harder than it was in the arcade booth. The game’s creator, Kazuhisha Hashimoto, couldn’t even beat his own game. If they were going to test this game, they had to implement some way to counteract its difficulty.
Hashimoto got the idea to create a code to help him out. The code would give him 30 lives, instead of just the standard five. This, he thought, would be enough lives to get through the game without getting a game over screen. The game was successfully tested, and was released in 1985 to moderate success.
In 1988, Konami made a port of an arcade game called Contra. But they made the same mistake twice: it was far too hard to test at first. The Gradius code was easily implemented, and the game was successfully debugged.
But then someone at Konami got an idea. He or she decided to release the Gradius code to the public, for whatever reason. Maybe he/she thought the game would be too hard for the public. Maybe he/she thought it would be a good Easter egg for the upcoming Nintendo Power magazine to report on. For whatever reason, Konami willingly revealed the secret to their code.
Long story short, the code went viral. Across the world, consumers would try the code and get 30 extra lives, something only developers were meant to do. The cheat code quickly caught on, and other NES games began to see the power of the hidden cheat code. And today, we have whole websites devoted to just listing every cheat code they can find.
Well, I’m going way too long in this article and I’ll miss the deadline if I don’t end it right now, so hold on for next issue!
I’m Toad85, your resident gaming historian, and that’s the way it was.
…any way the wind blows…