Playing For Real – Xband Gaming Modem (1994)

I was a PC gamer during the majority of the 16-bit-era, and missed out on some of the more monumental Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis titles until later in life when they were considered retro classics.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, while I was BBS’g and Prodigy’g and The Sierra Networking the 16-bit console world was getting connected in its own way with third-party peripheral services like the Xband Gaming Modem.

The Xband modem does what it sounds like it would do – connects heretofore ‘offline’ consoles to a centralized system that connects players with other gamers to play multiplayer titles together.  By some wizardry, games that offered versus play could be made to allow for a Player 2 that was not on the couch but instead somewhere else in the local area.

There were other features too – an email system, a messaging setup for ‘smack talk’, things like that – but it’s all derivative of the gaming experience.  The price was pretty reasonable, too – $19.99 for the modem itself, $9.95 a month for unlimited service.

 

It unfortunately still has that ’90s marketing stink of over-extreme-coolness when trying to sell this thing to consumers.  Check this video out for a good illustration of that, where the first half is a straightforward sell to the industry (that even still tries to be a little ‘cooler’ than it needs to be) and the second half is the consumer facing ad. So edgy. So extreme.

 

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You Want A Banana? – Donkey Kong Country Exposed (1994)

If you were a Nintendo Power subscriber in 1994 you might have come home from school to find a VHS sitting in your mailbox.  Donkey Kong Country Exposed was a 15-ish minute promotional video about the making of the upcoming (revolutionary) Donkey Kong Country title for the Super Nintendo, and it’s everything that was wrong about Nintendo’s brand positioning in the 1990s all in one short film.

Here’s the thing about Nintendo: Nintendo isn’t “cool”.  Nintendo’s fun, and that’s what makes them cool.  It took about a decade of trying to out-cool SEGA, Turbografx, and later Sony and Microsoft, for them to realize that and it’s both delightful and painful to see the cringeworthy missteps of that journey. Like Donkey Kong Country Exposed, in which a Rad Dude is tasked with travelling to Nintendo’s U.S. headquarters and interviewing the team behind the new game.

In the span of fifteen minutes the Rad Dude meets the development manager, the product development manager, the story writer, the music director, game testers, and a bunch of developers. Each give their spiel about the things that make the new title great and it’s all pretty stock superlative stuff, but woven throughout is this layer of ‘edgy’ that simultaneously contextualizes the game’s breakthroughs while it also sort of dismisses them. Donkey Kong is not an edgy franchise, and there’s really no reason for it to want to be. 

There’s also a running joke about how all of the dev team eats bananas. Get it?

Here’s Rad Dude during the music director’s earnest rundown of their CD-release effort.  WHILE HE IS TALKING. Even the music director gets shook!

The thing is, I get why they did this. Like I mentioned before, the competition was headed in this direction and this, more or less, was how games were marketed in this era. With other Nintendo franchises like, say, Metroid or Castlevania this might have been easier to digest but it’s really flagrantly counterproductive with something like Donkey Kong, a franchise that’s meant to appeal to literally anyone.  I’m glad Nintendo got the confidence to believe in the fun of their IP later on in its history, but I’m also thankful we’ve got this snapshot of a moment in time where they were still figuring this out.

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Let’s Get Warty – Battletoads (1990s)

Despite being an awesome yet punishingly difficult NES game (and later SNES, Genesis, and more), Battletoads always had the stink of a late-to-the-party reaction to the runaway success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Teenagers turn into green animals who fight to save the day from weird-looking enemies.  There were a few points of differentiation that would probably hold up in recess-court: they were amphibians, not reptiles, and instead of a specialty weapon they could sort of morph into whatever tool they wanted to use. The humor was a little bit cruder, the characters were a little less cool, and the rogues’ gallery was way undersized, but the biggest disconnect between the two franchises was one of tone.  The story of the Battletoads didn’t feel relatable, unique, or even terribly interesting. It’s the premise of Turtles meets the adventure of Mario meets the difficulty of Contra and all mixed together and diluted with water into a bland ’90s property.

The cartoon pilot is proof of this;  even with TMNT writer David Wise on board it’s an uninspired cash grab.  This sort of effort may have had a better chance in the ’80s when there was more of an appetite for any show related a product regardless of quality, but the market was saturated with this sort of thing by the ’90s. The pilot aired during Thanksgiving weekend in 1992 and, despite Gamepro magazine’s assertations, never turned into an actual series. There are inspired moments to be found in the pilot, but you’ve really got to be looking for them. It aired as a “special”, the chance to see the origin story of these heroes from the video game, the story of how three unpopular nerds transformed into three somehow-already-named gigantic toads with superpowers.

It starts (after an annoying surf-rock intro song) with Professor T. Bird and Princess Angelica under pursuit by the Dark Queen. The Dark Queen’s command center is one of those unintentional inspirations, a set barely detailed, lazy in its way but still beautiful in its minimalism and color design.

Anyway. Cut to Earth, where three extremely unlikable and exaggerated stereotypes find themselves in trouble with the Principal and are forced by the Principal to never hang out with each other.  That’s a thing?

Back to space where the Professor and the Princess retrieve a serum that turns those who drink it into Battletoads, a race sworn to protect the royal bloodline.  The Dark Queen and her minions descend upon them, the Professor pulls some science, and they escape to Earth.

They run into the unlikeable kids, and the Professor basically tricks them into taking the serum. They don’t know they’re (permanently) turning into giant toads.  This is a major violation of the teens’ rights, a glaring infraction that calls into question whether the Professor and Princess are truly “the good guys”, but the cartoon raises a minor kerfuffle about it and quickly moves on. The Dark Queen shows up and the Battletoads are called upon to protect the Princess.


Let me be clear: up to this point the cartoon has been awful.  In whatever world exists where this story needs to be told, the events up to this point have been more or less necessary.  Everything past this is just hot garbage –  senseless battle scenes with props that don’t actually do the damage that they’re doing , enemies that appear out of appliances, and a hot pink convertible that serves as a spaceship.

Oh, and there’s also a final attack from the Dark Queen herself that involves a sawtoothed spaceship that cuts into a mall. Soooo California.

The Battletoads defeat the Queen (this time), and the day is saved. The kids redeem themselves in the eyes of the Principal, and everyone is ultimately okay with the permanence of the body morph that the teens have been put through without their consent. And that’s Battletoads! Tune in next week.

Except not. It wasn’t picked up. Are you surprised?

But, like I said, the games are good.  Go to those to get your Zitz, Pimple, and Rash fix.  Ugh. That’s your counterpunch to Renaissance artists’ names?

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The Angry Red Planet – Total Recall (NES) (1991)

I’m  always only ever an inch away from starting a Total Recall blog.  For better or worse, it’s probably my favorite movie of all time.  There’s a surprising amount of stuff to unpack with Total Recall too – the would-be Cronenberg treatment, the Piers Anthony novelization that took severe liberties with the story, the spin-off TV series that’s more of a Blade Runner continuation than anything having to do with Mars and Recall, and of course the 2012 remake that I thought was more fun than expected but turned out to be bereft of any of the charm of the world of the original. We’re looking at the NES game today, though, a game that is everything that’s great and terrible about the NES landscape of the early ’90s.

The game follows the trajectory of the movie, more or less. It does a better job than Piers Anthony’s version, at least.  You start out at the point where Quaid’s already visited Recall and the world is beginning to turn on him.  The first order of business? Go to a movie theater where, no lie, Total Recall is playing. Strike one!

The gameplay’s a side-scroller with severely dialed up artificial difficulty.  I don’t know what it is about this specific dystopia but either the thugs on your tail have spent a lot of time training attack dogs or there’s a rabies situation that’s out of control.  The graphics are really beautiful – prettier than they need to be.

Moving through the city, you return to your apartment only to fight your “wife” Lori.  Richter’s on your tail as you head into the subway, triggering the iconic security checkpoint on your way there. The game really makes a meal of the subway level, with Quaid needing to climb up onto the top of subway cars to fight these thugs. And their dogs.

You go to the factory where you have to kill some (non-canon) hoboes and dodge some Mario-esque obstacles…to get a tip on how to get to Mars more quickly next time.

Once you’re on Mars the game avoids a chance to let you live through the epic “Two Weeks” sequence and you’re just running through the spaceport on a high alert security situation.  Once through the spaceport you’re in Bennie’s cab (presumably) in a Combat-esque top-down mobile shooter.  The change in gameplay is impressive and refreshing, and then you’re back to the punishing platformer once you hit Venusville.

Make it to the Last Resort and you’re instantly thrust into the area behind the Last Resort, the mutant catacombs where Bennie sells you out.  There are also skeletons that come to life and boulders that drop down on you to artificially create more peril.  The boss battle is Bennie, though, which is great.

With Bennie down you’re at the artifact – skipping any sort of threat to Venusville/Mars in general, any sort of taunt by Cohaagen, any elevation of the stakes whatsoever. You fight through armed guards (which existed in the movie) and jet-pack troopers (which did not) as the artifact goes haywire around you.  You finally get to the control center where you fight a really, really, cheap Cohaagen that jumps like crazy, and save Mars which was apparently in trouble but you’d never know it from the game.

And that’s it.  No justice for Richter. No Thumbelina. No Kuato. No Melina AT ALL.  Instead you get a platformer that did more than it needed to yet didn’t manage to do enough. It’s not a good game.  It’s more punishing than it deserves to be, the bosses are lazy, the music is repetitive, and several elements just don’t make any sense. But at the end of it all it’s a chance to spend more time in the world of Total Recall, and that’s all it was ever intended to do.  That’s all that 12-year-old me wanted, and all that any kid who was a fan of the movie wanted.  Quality was secondary to license for a lot of 90s-era NES titles and, while the acceptability of that fact would quickly change in the SNES and N64 eras, we weren’t quite there yet.  For the time being, we (I) were still in that ’80s mode of anything related to the license being a valid way to spend time.

I’d hit the game on the use of “I’ll Be Back”, but Quaid actually says it in the movie so that’s more on Arnold for double-dipping. Still, unacceptable.

Here’s a playthrough.

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Mario Teaches Typing/Mario Teaches Typing 2 (1991-1996)

THIS is how you license Mario out.

Those who lived through the ’90s may remember the glut of typing tutorial programs that filled software store shelves.  Mavis Beacon ruled the roost with her legion of titles for all skill levels, but there was plenty of room for any company who had a half-cute character in their roster to ante up with a title of their own.  So in a way, the landscape was similar to the ‘electronic card/board game’ arena that we looked at last week; all it takes is the right skin to make a title sell.  Mario’s entry into the typing game….game…is a pretty remarkable pair of titles that again go way beyond what was necessary, and the result is a very unique experience.  Remarkable and unique, but I can’t really say good.

Mario Teaches Typing was developed by Interplay and published by Nintendo itself in 1992. Charles Martinet wasn’t on board yet to provide the definitive voice of Mario, so Mario’s voice is deeper with a more insulting Italian accent. Unlike Mario’s Game Gallery, Mario Teaches Typing has an actual storyline: Mario and Luigi find a magical typewriter that has the ability to destroy Bowser’s castle if the spell is typed correctly. Unfortunately, Mario’s an awful typist.  The typewriter then explodes into three pieces (?) and the point of the game is to complete three objective levels (that involve typing) to assemble the typewriter and then use your newfound typing ability to destroy Bowser’s castle.  It’s important to note that Bowser has done nothing wrong in this game. Peach and the rest of the Mushroom Kingdom are fine, as far as we know. So this is just a pre-emptive strike.

The three levels are what you’d expect from a side-scrolling Mario game in the visual sense, but in order to progress and succeed you need to type the prompted text and numbers correctly. Once that’s completed, the typewriter is assembled and Mario bangs out a flawless line of text that summons a block to fall on Bowser’s castle.

And the game ends on the best shot of Mario and Luigi I’ve ever seen.

Pretty unique, right? Well, Interplay one-upped themselves in 1996 with Mario Teaches Typing 2, a sequel that replicates the premise of the original and adds a fresh layer of polish, the inclusion of Peach and Toad, calls in Charles Martinet to voice, and introduces a terrifying disembodied Mario head.

The storyline’s mostly the same; Mario and Luigi find magic typewriter, Mario stinks at typing, typewriter explodes, they go through challenges and win the day. The plot’s a little more involved – there are a bunch of Koopa henchmen, the castle swallows Mario and Luigi and they’re forced to escape, stuff like that – and a lot of that deeper story is told via cutscene, which is a really nice touch and speaks to the ‘more than necessary’ approach to developing this game.

And, like I said, the day is saved, this time with a huge typewriter crashing into Bowser’s castle. Who did nothing wrong. But seriously, this disembodied head.

Here’s a playthrough of Mario Teaches Typing 2.

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