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February 2012

And All That Jazz

Jazz JackrabbitBefore Epic Games became a household development name in the Microsoft Xbox 360 era with its Gears of War titles, the company hit it big in PC development with cartoonish side-scrolling titles that march straight in the other direction from Marcus Fenix and friends.  The most memorable of Epic's output from that time has to be the Jazz Jackrabbit series in which the eponymous hero fights the forces of the evil Devan Shell and his turtle army in order to rescue the lovely Eva Earlong.  Spanning two major releases, two shareware special holiday editions, one expansion pack, and a poor attempt to reboot the franchise for the Game Boy Advance, Jazz Jackrabbit is worth exploring.  Hardcore Gaming 101 takes you down the rabbit hole.

In early 1994, the Sonic the Hedehog series was a worldwide phenomenon, especially with its recently released third game. Even before then, pretty much every major game company was making their own Sonic rip-off for every console at the time, some with more success than others. But the one system that never had its own Sonic-style game was the PC. Sure, there were a lot of great side-scrollers at the time, such as Duke Nukem, but nothing that could match up to the speed of Sega's series.

That was when Epic Megagames, who had previously created DOS hits like Epic Pinball and Jill of the Jungle, started work on the first attempt to make a high-speed platformer for the PC. Their attempt was Jazz Jackrabbit, and while it couldn't really stand up to the games it was inspired by, it ended up becoming a pretty big hit on the PC, and for good reason.

The evil turtle terrorist Devan Shell has kidnapped the princess of the planet Carrotus, and starts trying to conquer the rest of the galaxy, as well. It's up to the rabbit mercenary Jazz Jackrabbit to travel the galaxy, destroy Devan's forces, and eventually rescue the princess. Not really the most creative plot, but it sure beats an environmental message. The manual includes a small comic explaining the plot, where it admits that yes, it is completely and utterly ripping off Sonic the Hedgehog. At least they're honest.

I always enjoyed the shareware episodes of Jazz back in the old days and while I did want to buy the full game, I could never find it for sale anywhere.  Such a shame.  Jazz's opening theme song is just as catchy as anything that Nintendo or Sega were creating at the time, and while many of the Jazz titles did copy/imitate wholesale from Epic's console competition, the series still managed to find its own path.  A planned Jazz Jackrabbit 3 (a 3D platformer) wasn't meant to be, and now that Epic has found massive success with Gears of War, I don't see a Jazz revival waiting in the wings.  That's a lost opportunity if I've ever seen one.

Search For These Lost Gaming Gems

UniracersRetro gaming is all the rage in this era of digital distribution, but while famous games such as Super Mario Bros., Mega Man 2, and Sonic the Hedgehog have popped up in several places in different forms once again, there are some video games that are doomed to remain in the vault for complicated copyright or licensing issues.  GamesRadar offers up a list of ten games worth your time that are hard to find and explains why you'll probably never see fun titles such as Uniracers ever again.

Before Rockstar North was known primarily for the Grand Theft Auto series, it went by another name: DMA Design. It was already making awesome games, though. Uniracers, for example, is by far the best side-scrolling racing and stunt game featuring unicycles ever to be released for the Super Nintendo.  The game already feels pretty fast, but doing tricks in midair gives you a speed boost if you land them, so you’re constantly encouraged to flip like a madman (or madunicycle). This can get really tricky when the tracks are throwing you crazy loops and constantly changing which direction you’re supposed to be going. You could play split-screen with a second player or even set up an eight-player tournament, making it a fast and fun party game.

So why aren’t we still playing Uniracers every day? Because back in 1987, Pixar released a four-minute-long short film called Red’s Dream, which starred an autonomous, computer-generated unicycle. Apparently this gave Pixar the idea that any later appearance of a rider-less CG unicycle was stealing its concept, and it sued DMA Design shortly after Uniracers was released. Unfortunately, the court sided with Pixar, forcing Nintendo to stop production on copies of the game and ensuring we’ll never see it again. So next time you’re thanking John Lasseter for directing Toy Story, take a moment to curse him for indirectly taking Uniracers out of the world.

Other games of interest on the list include perennial fan favorites such as Mega Man Legends and EarthBound.  The stunning thing about all of this is that most of the games in the spotlight here have been rereleased in Japan where apparently copyright laws are weaker, lawyers are smarter, or sales expectations are more realistic.  Mega Man Legends and EarthBound have both been brought back there in recent years (for the Sony PlayStation Portable and Game Boy Advance respectively), as has NiGHTS: Into Dreams (as a PlayStation 2 port).  None of those saw the light of day elsewhere.  If that's not a shameable offense, then it really should be.

Fans Finance Next Double Fine Adventure Game

Double FineAre you a fan of The Secret of Monkey Island?  How about Maniac MansionDay of the Tentacle?  Would you like to see a new adventure game crafted in the same style as those classics by the same top talent who created them all in the first place?  Fans of Tim Schafer should take note, as the duo are working on a new PC game in the familar point-and-click style at Double Fine Productions.  The intriguing part (if you aren't intrigued already) is that the team is using crowd-sourced financing hub Kickstarter to fund the project.  What we have here is a game from a famous major developer funded by fans. 

Big games cost big money. Even something as "simple" as an Xbox LIVE Arcade title can cost upwards of two or three million dollars. For disc-based games, it can be over ten times that amount. To finance the production, promotion, and distribution of these massive undertakings, companies like Double Fine have to rely on external sources like publishers, investment firms, or loans. And while they fulfill an important role in the process, their involvement also comes with significant strings attached that can pull the game in the wrong directions or even cancel its production altogether. Thankfully, viable alternatives have emerged and gained momentum in recent years.

Crowd-sourced fundraising sites like Kickstarter have been an incredible boon to the independent development community. They democratize the process by allowing consumers to support the games they want to see developed and give the developers the freedom to experiment, take risks, and design without anyone else compromising their vision. It's the kind of creative luxury that most major, established studios simply can't afford. At least, not until now.

There are tiers of rewards for different donations ($15 gets you a copy of the game on Steam when it releases in October, for instance).  Double Fine needs to raise $400,000 over the next thirty-three days in order for the game to start development, so you'd better hurry if you want to... oh, wait, sorry; after less than a day of collecting donations, the goal has already been met.  From here on, any additional donations will go towards making the game even better and porting it to other platforms.  I think this is a fascinating project and I'd love to see other developers follow with this model.  Fans have offered to kick in money to fund highly demanded sequels before (the sad tale of Mega Man Legends 3 comes to mind), but I can understand why the old guard of development and publishing may shy away from pursuing the Kickstarter model.  Allowing fans to preorder a game early enough in the process to actively fund development changes so much about the traditional way today's games are made.  Hopefully we see more of this in the future.  I know I'd kick in money to see Aero the Acro-Bat 3, Mega Man X9, or Plok 2 happen if the development teams' hearts were in the project.

Whatever Happened To The Rare Of Tomorrow?

RareMicrosoft swooping in to buy Nintendo's prized secret weapon, developer Rare, for an awful lot of money seems like it happened a lifetime ago now.  Part of that has to do with the passage of time, sure, but I bet that for most of us who remember the company's fantastic Super NES and Nintendo 64 catalog, that feeling comes from the lack of stellar Rare releases since the company joined the world of the Xbox.  Just what happened over there in Twycross that stifled the creative environment that the company enjoyed in the 1990s?  Who killed Rare?  Eurogamer presents and intriguing and interesting answer to that very question.  It all begins with a bonsai tree.

Through a locked gate, down a winding path and by a still pond a few miles outside of the leafy village of Twycross, England, a bonsai tree stands. It was a gift given to Rare by Shigeru Miyamoto, the most famous game designer in the world, as a thank-you for the game developer's critical and commercial success in creating games for Nintendo, the most famous game maker in the world.

For Rare's staff arriving to work at 8:30 sharp each morning, it has served as a reminder of the company's heritage, of who they are, of how lucky they are to be a part of something so admired, so rare. An unassuming trophy of past glories, it's also an inspiration for future goals, a symbol carefully cultivated to weather trends, transcend fashions; rooted, a gnarly resolution.

On 20th of September 2002, Microsoft paid $375 million for this bonsai tree and all that it symbolised: creative excellence, technical mastery, innovation, originality, soul and the precious fingerprints of Nintendo. The fledgling Microsoft Game Studios, desperate to acquire world-class talent that could help establish its game console, saw in that tree everything it desired to become.

10 years later and Bill Gates is yet to plant a bonsai tree in Rare's once-fertile grounds.

In that time Rare's critical and commercial success has tumbled, the studio's games struggling to live up to their creator's name. Two years after the acquisition, Chris and Tim Stamper, the brothers who founded the company in 1982, departed into "exploring new opportunities" obscurity. Faithful fans became disillusioned while, apart form a couple of notable exceptions, the developer's new, scattershot directions have failed to inspire loyalty or passion in the next generation of players and the next again.

What went wrong? And who - or perhaps what - is to blame?

When I read about the sale a decade ago, I immediately had a sinking feeling that a clash of corporate cultures and the lack of Nintendo's guiding hand would leave Microsoft holding the bag, as it were.  The developer that once brought us imaginative characters like Diddy Kong, Joanna Dark, and Banjo as well as innovative uses of technology has instead been reduced to cranking out lackluster Kinect titles and other material that the core Xbox 360 audience hasn't really seemed to have requested.  Ten years ago I had assumed that Microsoft would gut Rare, take the aspects of the company that it wanted for its other enterprises, and then sell or outright close what was the left.  Considering that the video game industry is one that loves to swallow up studios and dismantle them, I am genuinely impressed that Microsoft has kept Rare around even if it is a shell of its former self. 

UMDs Truly Are Finished As PlayStation Vita Looms

UMDSony is about to launch its new PlayStation Vita in North America.  While there are plenty of original games for the handheld system on the way, it's understandable that Vita owners will also want to play beloved older PlayStation Portable games that are available on the PlayStation Store.  What if your PSP collection is mostly comprised of the old so-last-generation UMD discs?  In Japan, Sony has offered the UMD Passport program in which PSP owners can register their UMDs with the PlayStation Network and then download the verified game for a small fee that's less of a cost than outright buying the game itself in downloadable format.  When can we expect the passport service to become available in North America?  According to Kotaku, likely never.

Sony has told Kotaku that there will not be a North American version of the UMD Passport program, which would allow PlayStation Vita users to transfer their PSP discs to the upcoming handheld.  Unless Sony changes its mind or announces some sort of alternative option, North American PSP owners will have no way to play their UMDs on the Vita, though they will be able to access any PSP games they purchased digitally.

While I hate to hear this, I'm not exactly surprised.  We ran into this same issue when the PSP Go launched, after all, and if I had to guess, I bet the reasoning behind this decision has to do with the used gaming market.  While plenty of people would dig out their old UMDs to link them up to PSN, many more new Vita owners would dash out to GameStop and pick up armloads of cheap used UMDs, thereby depriving Sony and its publishing partners of perceived deserved revenue.  There's money on the table in this situation and Sony isn't about to let any of it get away (particularly in the era of online passes).

Zero Takes Mega Man X3 By Storm

ZeroCapcom's Mega Man X series grew throughout the 1990s to allow for more playable characters. While the first two games in the series only gave us Mega Man X himself as the sole controllable protagonist, the third installment finally let players take X's partner in Maverick hunting, Zero, for little test drives. Zero could be summoned once per stage, but could not fight any of the game's sub-bosses (save one) or Mavericks, could not pass through more than one-third of any given stage, could not access any of X's special upgrades, and only had one life. If a player accidentally dropped Zero onto a bed of spikes three seconds after calling for him in the second stage of the game, then he was out for the remainder of the adventure. Playing as Zero was pretty awesome in Mega Man X3, but the many limitations placed on him were not. Later games in the series brought Zero in as a spotlight hero with all of the powers and abilities granted to X himself.  Now thanks to a hack for the Super NES version of X3 from Justin3009, it's possible to let Zero spread his metaphorical wings, shatter Capcom's handcuffs, and tackle the game from start to finish without the usual restrictions. Here's some of what you can expect in this alteration:

  • Play as Zero anytime except areas where he's unavailable such as the introduction stage.
  • Zero is able to use sub-weapons.
  • Zero is able to air-dash.
  • Zero can scroll through sub-weapons with any method.
  • Zero is able to gather Heart Tanks, Energy Tanks and Ride Armor chips. He's able to fill sub-weapons and energy tanks while also able to use them.
  • Zero can use Ride Armors.
  • Slightly updated dialogue to reflect both characters being playable.
  • Zero can use Capsule upgrades to a certain extent.
  • Zero has 4 more health pieces than X.
  • Zero has new animations for charged Triad Thunder, Ray Shot & Gravity Well.  There's a new damage animation when you've obtained the armor capsule.
  • X and Zero are swapped during events. If you're Zero, X will appear, vice versa. If Zero is destroyed for the ending then Doppler will take his place.
  • Energy Tanks work like [Mega Man Zero]. If you're full health during a sub-tank use, it will stop healing.
  • The game remembers who you played as last after you've beaten a level or died.
  • Character select on Stage Select screen.  The Giant "X" at top center is the character select.  Buster noise for X and a Sabre noise for Zero.
  • Golden Armor is savable.

I love seeing creative fans tinker with classic games to make them new all over again.  The more talented ROM hackers have some intriguing ideas and it's great to see them come to life.  I've long since seen everything that Mega Man X3 has to offer, but being able to go back to a game that I know very well and find a new set of challenges really is a breath of fresh air.  Emulation is the only way to play this hack and of course it isn't endorsed by Capcom, but it's still a worthwhile undertaking.  Take a look at Zero in action and tell me that you wouldn't kick Capcom a few dollars if this version of the game turned up in an official capacity on the download service of your choice.

(image via The Mega Man Network)

Weeky Poll: The Real Ottsel

Weekly Poll for 1-30-2012The majority of you are happy with Capcom's decision to include the bad box art version of Mega Man in the upcoming Street Fighter X Tekken.  After some thought, I've come to the conclusion that I'm alright with it as well.  The traditional classic Mega Man does not fit the Street Fighter style, and while he appeared alongside Ryu, Chun-Li, and other World Warriors in the Marvel vs Capcom titles, appearing in a solid Street Fighter brand title just wouldn't fit.  If we have to have Mega Man in a Street Fighter game, then this is probably the best way for him to join the crowd.  Sony's guest star Cole MacGrath from inFamous is a perfect match and needs no additional redesigns or tweaks.  As for Namco's inclusion of Pac-Man as a playable character... well, that's a topic for another day.

Moving on, word came from Naughty Dog this week that the company was considering a realistic reboot of its Jak and Daxter property before settling on The Last of Us.  Would you have any interest in versions of Jak and Daxter that lived in a realistic world and played things relatively straight?  Or is it a good thing that the company left well enough alone and allowed the characters to go on with their animated adventures?  Let's hear your thoughts.

Jak And Daxter Were Almost Realistically Rebooted

Jak And DaxterBefore developer Naughty Dog began focusing on its upcoming Sony PlayStation 3 title The Last of Us, the company explored the idea of returning to its big PlayStation 2 series, Jak and Daxter, and updating it for the modern era.  While the franchise was certainly successful in the past decade, Naughty Dog stepped away from it when the PlayStation 3 era began in order to focus on new challenges (such as creating the Uncharted series).  Other developers have since been tasked with creating new Jak titles for the PlayStation Portable, but the company that started it all nearly circled back to the franchise following work on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.  The reworked Jak and Daxter concept shared little with its more well-known incarnations, however, as Naughty Dog tried to give the series a realitstic reboot.  Game Informer has the story.

Naughty Dog wanted to find a way to apply elements from Uncharted 2’s award-winning game design to Jak and Daxter. The team experimented with implementing Uncharted-style narrative techniques and rendering Jak and Daxter in the same realistic style seen in the company’s gorgeous PS3 games. According to Wells, the new project would be a departure from slapstick, comic book-tone of previous games. But before full-blown work could begin on the game Naughty Dog would have to create new, more realistic versions of the titular heroes.

The lighthearted Daxter proved to make the transition from wacky hijinks to a more grounded experience particularly difficult.  “There’s a lot of baggage that comes with Daxter,” says The Last of Us director Bruce Straley. “If he’s not lighthearted and slapsticky and fun then he’s not Daxter to the fans. We were thinking what if he’s mute? What if he’s this? We had all these ideas that made Daxter interesting, but then we’re still trying to be creative within that box of ‘I have this rodent on my shoulder.’”

“It started feeling like a compromise,” says [creative director for The Last of Us, Neil] Druckmann. “The more we tried to make Jak and Daxter like we wanted to, it didn’t feel like things were matching up. We have folders and folders filled with scrapped ideas.”

It sounds to me as if Naughty Dog has creatively moved on from Jak and Daxter, and while the company may want to revisit the series, if they're not interested in carrying on the franchise in a style welcomed and expected by the fans, then there's really not much of a point in doing so.  Imagine if the circumstances were reversed and Uncharted became a light-hearted animated romp, for instance.  While reinvention can bring wonderful new ideas to the table, dismantling key elements that make a famous game so beloved doesn't really do anyone any favors.  I'm very glad that Naughty Dog recognized that and decided to create something completely new instead.  After all, the last time someone tried to change a famous and top-selling animated-style fantasy world into something realistic, the result was this.

Dead Resident Evil For Game Boy Color Resurrected

Resident EvilWith all of the Resident Evil games scheduled to release this year, why not add one more to the stack?  While the original Resident Evil scored big on the Sony PlayStation, Capcom had interest in taking the property to other platforms.  We've seen remakes and ports of the game for the Sega Saturn, Windows, Nintendo GameCube, and more, but one iteration of the game that was lost in the shuffle is the Game Boy Color.  Created by HotGen, this scaled-down version of the PS1 classic reached the 90% complete point before Capcom shelved the project.  The dead game has been reanimated now, however, thanks to an anonymous collector and a bunch of Resident Evil fans that all kicked in the money needed to pay the collector's price.  Two near-complete versions of the GBC game are now floating around out there in the murky digital underground.  Take a look at the game in action if emulation isn't your style:

Judging the game based on appearances, I think Capcom made the correct decision to terminate development.  This version of Resident Evil comes across as more of a "because we can" indie art project more than an actual Capcom-sponsored production.  Turning PS1 and Nintendo 64 games of the era into Game Boy Color titles was something of a fad at the time (consider the handheld versions of Metal Gear Solid and Perfect Dark, for instance) and the end results were never pretty.  While I'm glad to see a little lost piece of Resident Evil history resurface, I don't think we missed out on anything major when this project was cancelled.

Power Button Presents Kombo Breaker - Episode 19: Glenn Gamble of Terminal Reality and Ghostbusters

Power Button Presents Kombo BreakerIf you listened to Episode 75 of Power Button (and, really, you should have), then you heard Brad Hilderbrand mention that he'd been to a THQ press event several years ago.  As luck would have it, he talked about that experience on a classic episode of Kombo Breaker, so it seemed only proper to bring back Episode 19 which originally aired on March 13, 2009 so you can hear Brad talk about his experience with the Legends of Wrestlemania event.  That's just the prelude to the main topic for this episode, however.  When Ghostbusters: The Video Game was in development at Terminal Reality, we used our mighty Kombo clout to bring the company's Glenn Gamble on to the show several times to answer all of our burning questions about the then-upcoming game.  This is Glenn's first appearance with us and, naturally, I had a lot of geeky Ghostbusters questions for him.  You'll hear all about what Dan Aykroyd thinks of the upgraded design of the iconic proton pack, which quips Bill Murray brought to reprising the role of Peter Venkman, why the librarian ghost from the opening scenes of the original film returned, and much more.  Mixed in there is some discussion about Tomb Raider: Underworld, Call of Duty: World at War, and Halo Wars.  It's a busy episode!  We had fun recording it back in the old days.  We hope that you enjoy listening to it now just as much.  Download this week's episode directly from PTB, listen with the player below, or subscribe via iTunes, and be sure to catch up on past episodes if you're joining us late. Remember that you can reach all three of us via , you can leave a message on the Power Button hotline by calling (720) 722-2781, and you can even follow all of us on Twitter at @PressTheButtons, @aubradley84, and @JoeyDavidson or for just podcast updates, @ThePowerButton.

Power Button Presents Kombo Breaker - Episode 19: Glenn Gamble of Terminal Reality and Ghostbusters