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by Mike Schiller

10 Jul 2008


If you’ve looked at the PopMatters front page recently, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the recent (and ongoing) set of features dealing with the world of secondhand books.  If you haven’t seen them, go look at them, because each and every one of them thus far is an interesting, absorbing look into either an individual store or the culture of the used bookstore in general.

Squeee!  Pitfall!  Perhaps my first video game love.

Squeee!  Pitfall!  Perhaps my first
video game love.

Perhaps because of the increasing age of the average gamer, or perhaps simply because there are enough different games out there to support it, we are starting to see a similar sort of phenomenon in video games—that is, more and more of the so-called “mom ‘n pop” stores that deal in games are bringing in lots of business dealing in vintage.

Being based in Buffalo, I didn’t really see this happening until recently—not until the last couple of weeks did I even realize that a shop dealing in vintage games even existed in this city, given that most of the web hotspots for locating such things (the Cheap Ass Gamer forums, the AtariAge forums, and so on) seem to leave a gaping hole where Buffalo should be in terms of shops in which to buy my old Nintendo / Dreamcast / Genesis / etc. games.  As such, any travel to another town is an immediate excuse to look up the possible vintage gaming destinations.  A trip to Columbus this past month revealed a number of potential hotspots, most notably a place called “BuyBacks”.

Now, BuyBacks isn’t your typical mom ‘n pop shop; at least one of their locations looks more like a competitor to Best Buy from the outside than anything else, though the Ohio State location was at least commingling with the rest of the shops in town.  Even so…wow, is it a rush to have an alternative to the GameStop / GameCrazy block that I’m used to. 

This makes me happy in unquantifiable sorts of ways.

This makes me happy in unquantifiable sorts of ways.

I popped in to a few other shops in Columbus, and came back with a treasure trove of stuff…Metal Gear Solid for the PS1, Qix Neo for the PS1, Sneak King for the Xbox (hey, it was $1.99 and I didn’t even have to give my money to Burger King), Faxanadu for the NES…it felt like everything I’d been missing in Buffalo.  There’s something beautifully tactile about walking into a vintage games shop and being able to see what’s there; there’s a certain smell in the air when there’s that much beat-up plastic in the room.  Sure, I could get pretty much everything on eBay or Craigslist or even used on Amazon, but online browsing tends to be so search-based that who’s to say I wouldn’t miss out on some little secret treasure?  Did I even know that Qix Neo existed?  Goodness no.  Would I ever have remembered the joy of Faxanadu if I didn’t see it on a shelf between Ice Hockey and Gotcha!?  Not likely.

Vintage shops are where we can indulge in a minor case of arrested development and recapture the joy of walking into the toy store and seeing, say, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link up there on the shelf in all its golden glory.  Even better, Zelda II won’t even cost you $69.99 (+ tax!) anymore.

Vintage gaming also invites us to remember a time whenbox art had something in common with Harlequin novels.

Vintage gaming also invites us to
remember a time when box art had something
in common with Harlequin romance novels.

Vintage game shops will likely never approach the notoriety or the popularity of the best secondhand book stores, if only because unlike a book, the appeal of a vintage game is limited to a shrinking few who might have a console that can still play the game.  There just aren’t all that many people floating around who have working Intellivision systems anymore, meaning that a store that chooses to stock Intellivision games is severely limiting the number of people who might have any interest in buying something off that section of not-all-that-cheap shelf space.  The only time you see a similar issue with books is through language disparities; the truth is, most people who frequent a bookstore will at least be able to read almost anything on that bookstore’s shelves.  The same can’t be said for the game shop.

Still, more and more aging gamers (such as myself) are finding joy in playing, in the most pure way possible, the games of their youth, and discovering games that they may have missed all those years ago.

Retrogaming fans might want to check out the excellent newsletters at Retrogaming Times Monthly for some good reading that’ll bring you back.  Or, you could join The Brainy Gamer’s newly established (and highly informal) Vintage Game Club, if you actually want to participate in the discussion.  Me, I’m off to scratch the itch at a Buffalo-based shop that copious Googling eventually uncovered.  Hopefully, it’s worth the search.

by Mike Schiller

2 Jul 2008


Did you hear?  Did you?  Chrono Trigger is coming out for the Nintendo DS.  Chrono Trigger!

Of course, anyone who has witnessed Square Enix’s recent track record when it comes to re-releasing their old RPGs and still happens to be surprised by this isn’t really paying attention.  Chrono Trigger, which gained the majority of its notoriety as a classic RPG for the Super Nintendo, has already been re-released once, as part of Final Fantasy Chronicles for the original PlayStation, complete with a few bonus cutscenes created for the purpose of giving the included games a reason to live on the PlayStation.

Like a lot of kids who were just getting in to the whole “video games” thing in a big way during the time of the SNES, I simply didn’t notice Chrono Trigger amidst a sea of Final Fantasy games; my time with the SNES was limited as I didn’t own one, and the only RPGs that I ever played at my friends’ houses were variations on the Final Fantasy name (II/IV, III/VI, Secret of Mana and so on).  Phantasy Star was my drug of choice, RPG-wise, and Chrono Trigger barely registered a tick on my still developing hype meter.

As such, despite the fact that Square Enix might just be releasing another port for the sake of a quick buck at the hands of a ravenous fan base (most recently exemplified by The Brainy Gamer’s assembly of his RPG class syllabus and the drooling posts from some of the major blogs), I’m pretty excited about this, as it’s the first time I’m seeing Chrono Trigger during a time in which I’m actually likely to care (the PlayStation re-release came and went while I was transitioning from Nintendo 64 to PS2, unfortunately).

My question, then, is this:  What makes Chrono Trigger better than, say, Final Fantasy IV?  Or VII, for that matter?  Why should I play Chrono Trigger ahead of more advanced fare developed specifically for the DS, like the Pokémon games or Atlus’ Rondo of Swords?  It’s obviously an influential and beloved game, but why?  Or would it be better, at this point, to be surprised?

by Mike Schiller

22 Apr 2008


The time is right.  The time is now.

Please, Cliff Johnson, won’t you release A Fool and His Money?

Hell yeah Speedball was awesome.

Hell yeah Speedball was awesome.

Once upon a time, I bought an Amiga from a friend of mine for $300.  It seemed like an incredible deal at the time, given that he threw in something like 60 games for the thing, including some impressive technology show-off type games like Dragon’s Lair and Speedball.  Damn, I loved me some Speedball.  What I was coming to realize was that computers could do things that consoles at the time could only dream of, and the possibilities intrigued me.

Of course, finding out that I had to go to a specialty store to buy my Amiga games was kind of a buzzkill.

Regardless, one of the first games I ever came home with from that very store was The Fool’s Errand, which I mostly bought because its cover said it won some kind of award and my dad thought it looked good (and because it was one of the only new-ish games at the time that my Amiga, maxed out at a piddly 512K of RAM, could handle).  It turned out to be one of those games.

by Mike Schiller

1 Apr 2008


For a good portion of the ‘80s and ‘90s, a major (major!) part of developing for the home console market was wrapped up in translations of arcade games.  This is an art that has slowly dwindled over the course of the last decade, as arcades have slowly but surely dwindled in popularity.

For an arcade port to succeed, it must do at least one of two things: It can either be incredibly faithful to the original, à la the console translations of Street Fighter II, which may not have been quite as powerfully in a graphical sense as their arcade counterparts, but actually managed to retain the spirit, the tight control, and the full set of characters and moves from the coin-op.  To a point, the Mortal Kombat ports were the same way (at least, the ones that retained the blood), and if you go back to the Atari 2600, Asteroids, Defender, and even Pong were games that were faithfully reproduced to varying extents, but it was truly their similarity to their arcade counterparts that led to their high amounts of commercial success.

In certain cases, however, a strict port of the arcade experience just won’t cut it—Gyruss, one of the more underappreciated NES experiences, is one of those cases.  For one thing, the arcade version of Gyruss had been around for a solid five years before the Nintendo version was released.  A port had even been released for the 2600 some four years before the NES version.  The fact that it was even a candidate for a port is a testament to just how popular the Famicom/NES was at that point in its life, as publishers scrounged up just about any property they had lying around to put out on the uberpopular system.  Given its already well established history, then, it made sense that a new version, five years late to the party, would have to be souped up a bit to appeal to an audience that may well already have tried three versions of the thing.

For those who have never seen it or heard of it, Gyruss is a “tube shooter”—think Tempest, or Space Giraffe if you’re a Jeff Minter fan.  Basically, you have a 360-degree range of motion, as you fly around in strict circles shooting at whatever shows up.  The enemies in Gyruss appear in Galaga-like patterns, swirling onto the screen before taking their spots in the distant center.  The point of a tube shooter like Gyruss is that it’s a way to give the player a three-dimensional combat experience using sprites; theoretically, objects closer to the outer circumference of the screen are “closer” to the player, while those in the center are further away.  It’s a play mechanic that takes some getting used to as you acquaint yourself to the perspective.

Still, once you do that, the thing’s a blast.  HRdK0rE shmup players won’t have too much trouble with it, as it’s probably one of the easiest shooters the NES has to offer, but those just looking for a good time blasting away some spaceships will find much to enjoy.

Thanks to the arcade version’s re-release via the Xbox Live Arcade, I was able to see just how much of the game had changed from the original arcade version.  Perhaps most notable are the boss fights—the Nintendo version has bosses that must be tackled before reaching each of the planets of the solar system, bosses that range from stupefyingly easy to oddly random and frustrating.  Thankfully, there’s another new addition to the NES Gyruss arsenal, that being the use of super shot bomb things that do a heck of a lot more damage than your typical pea-shooter.  There are a few other subtle changes like the order of the stages and the types of sprites used, but mostly, it’s the bosses that set this game apart.

It doesn’t seem like much of a change, really, but it actually does enhance the sense of accomplishment one gets from beating these levels and making it to the various planets.  Being able to modify the control scheme is nice, too, and even a little bit ahead of its time.

The NES Gyruss, sadly, has not yet made its way to the Wii’s Virtual Console service, and it’s a shame, as there’s certainly an audience for this sort of game; heck, non-popularity hasn’t stopped them from putting out a metric ton of Turbografx-16 shmups.  As such, hidden treasures like Gyruss are why God invented Ebay, and why any connoiseur of retro games needs an actual console in their living room.  Gyruss will never get your heart pounding with snazzy graphics or anything approximating true innovation (even for its time), but as far as don’t-blink arcade-style shooter experiences go, it’s one of the best the old-school has to offer.

by Mike Schiller

26 Mar 2008


As gamers get older, their focus changes.  Gaming becomes a little bit less about competition, about winning at all costs, and a little bit more about the joy of being able to play at all.  Gaming is one of the few things that we can bring with us from childhood that happens to be a little bit socially acceptable—heck, Guitar Hero and Rock Band are becoming staples of the bar scene, cutting into karaoke nights everywhere, and the recent popularity of casual and multiplayer gaming is upping the emphasis of the social aspects of gaming.

As a part of that set, I’m all for the recent rash of retro-gaming that has graced the console and portable set of late.  Arcade ports?  For it.  Atari 2600 remakes?  I’m cool with that.  Sega Genesis compilations?  Yep.  The Wii Virtual Console?  I’m addicted.  As much as we love finding new ways to be drawn into our televisions with controllers in our palms, it’s almost as exciting to be reminded of what made gaming an interest/hobby in the first place.

After playing ROM CHECK FAIL, the latest offering from the up-and-coming indie developer known only as Farbs, I may not need to be reminded for a while.

The experience that comes most readily to mind when playing ROM CHECK FAIL is that of A Clockwork Orange, specifically the scene in which he is sitting with those metal things prying his eyes open, as he watches violent scene after violent scene, supposedly on his way to being cured of an addiction to violence.  ROM CHECK FAIL is like that, except that instead of violence, we get retro hit after retro hit, and instead of being forced to stare, we simply cannot turn away.

If you played video games at all in the ‘80s, there’s a good chance that on some level, conscious or unconscious, you will recognize every single thing in this game.  What makes it interesting is that you have never seen the juxtapositions of those things the way that they’re presented here.  By pulling sprites and tiles from the classic games we recognize, we are presented with something familiar but not; say, we could have Mario jumping on the ghosts of Gauntlet.  Pac-Man could be chomping on space invaders after turning them into blue ghosts with a power pellet, and he could be doing it in a level straight out of Bomberman.

No matter which control scheme you start with, however, don’t get used to it.  It’ll change in a matter of seconds.  This is what makes ROM CHECK FAIL so disorienting—every character you remember is saddled with all of the advantages and limitations you remember, but once you get used to the scheme behind whatever character you’re playing as, you need to adjust to a new one.  No sooner are you used to driving as the Spy Hunter car and shooting straight up than you turn into Mario, fall to whatever platform is directly underneath you, and accidentally jump into whatever it was you were shooting at.  It’s maddening, in the best possible way.

It’s so worth it once you get to the end, though.

Pictures cannot do this game justice.  The YouTube vid below is not even close to an accurate depiction of the maniacal action that the game offers.  You really have to play it.  It’s free, and it’s fun as hell, if not all that hard once you get the hang of it.  Give it a go, and you might not need to scratch that retro itch again for a long, long time.

Thanks go out to the IndieGames.com Blog for this one.

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