Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pulse Line Cart Bonus! Fun with Photo Effects!

Bonus appendix to my previous post: Playing with the "effects" function of my photo editor!!

All are variations of this photo:

Finally Some Pulse Line Carts

A couple months ago I picked up Donkey Kong Jr. Math. Hardly an epic game or one that I really wanted to play with, but it did complete one subset of my Famicom collection: the pulse line carts.
I love the pulse line carts. So simple, so perfect. They really remind one of just how long the Famicom was around. I mean, they were still making games for the thing as late as 1994 - the same year the Playstation came out. And Nintendo was still making new Famicom consoles as late as 2003 - well after the PS2 and Game Cube had been released.

But the design of the pulse line carts looks more like something from the Atari 2600 or Colecovision era in North America. Which, of course, makes complete sense because these ARE something from the Atari 2600/ Colecovision era. These were all released between 1983 and 1984 - well before the NES made its American debut and wiped out the last of the pre- crash game consoles still on the market. A lot of these games were, in fact, also released on those earlier consoles as well, and none of them (except Devil World - sort of) feature the scrolling element that made the Famicom/NES so distinct from its predecessors. These are creatures from a different era.

Anyway, I've been quite impressed by some of the photos other people have taken of them, like Bryan at the Gay Gamer's and "anonymous" here (edit: that photo was taken by Kendra) and I've been wanting to put some photos of mine up as well. So here they are. Pulse line carts at various locations in my apartment.

On the steps to my loft:
The hand-rails muck up the photo a bit, though at least they keep me from falling down:
On top of a Famicom box and Family Basic:
On top of my curtain rails:
On a side table with a potted plant:
Mario Bros. and Tennis soaking up some rays:
I love the fact that the combination of all the carts has the perfect balance of color. They look good just stacked up:
I do sort of wish they had made either more or less of them than fourteen. Fourteen is an awkward number to deal with when arranging stuff for photos. You've got limited options. You can put them in two columns of seven, but that makes it hard to see the ones in the back clearly:
Or one long row of fourteen, but that creates an unreasonably narrow photo:
Or four rows of three with this extra row of two looking very conspicuous at the top:
Fifteen would have been better. Anyway, other than that they are aces.
Gotta love that angle.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why the Famicom Has Aged Well Part 1: Imagination

This is a new series in which I explore some random concepts that answer the basic question "why has the Famicom aged well?"

Today's concept: imagination.

I begin by drawing your attention to the different types of label art that grace the covers of a few Famicom games.

Jaleco carts like Ninja Ja Ja Maru Kun here usually had a cartoon like illustration on the label (and box):
Nintendo carts like F-1 Race also went that route:
Sometimes they would go with an actual photo, like Mike Tyson here:
Atari games like Millipede usually had paintings:
Tecmo also used a lot of paintings, like with Super Star Force here:
These are just a few examples. You'll notice the one thing these all have in common: None of the images on the game labels or boxes are in any way an accurate representation of what the game itself looks like. They are all a very idealized version that is more the maker's way of saying "this is what we would have made the game look like if we had the technological ability to do so. But we don't, so the game isn't going to look anything like this when you actually play it."

So far as I can tell, the only Famicom game maker that was really up-front about what the games looked like was Namco, which usually incorporated images from the game itself into the label art, like with Battle City here:
Or Skykid:
Even Namco had to add some cartoon versions of their characters to spice up the cart though.

Jaleco also put an image of the actual game on its carts, but hid it on the back:
Anyway, what does all of this have to do with the Famicom aging well?

You'll notice that today's games generally don't have this striking contrast between the images on the cover art and what the games themselves look like. They just don't have to: the graphics in the game actually look good enough to put on the game's cover.

When I was a kid, I used to hate that. I wanted games to look like the cover art, but had to suffice with the 8-bit graphics and limited memory of those games.

In retrospect though, the disjuncture between the ideal (the cover art) and the reality (the actual game's graphics) created the perfect space for one's imagination to work.

Let me demonstrate what I mean with Gradius here:
The image is quite resonating. Lots of bad guy space ships are attacking and you have to fight them. In terms of the story, this is basically all the game-makers told us. There is a brief blurb on the back of the box which more or less says the same thing - giving the name "Bacterian" to the enemy - and that is it.

As for the rest of the story, it was more or less open to your imagination. You can infer a few things from playing the game itself - the types of weapons the enemy have, how many there are etc. But the actual story - why the Bacterians are attacking, who they are, where they are from, what they are like, etc - was up to you.

Most recent games in similar genres (if I may generalize) are not very good at this. The technology allows the game-maker's imagination to be fully realized. Everything is presented in minute detail. Elaborate story-lines play out. Massive worlds to explore are provided. Basically everything that I wanted to have in a game when I was a kid is there.

This is, of course, great. But it does alter the relationship between the game player and the game. New games leave precious little to the imagination. Everything is there, more or less spoon-fed to your brain. The more the technology allows the game-maker's imagination to be fully realized, the less room it leaves the player's imagination to run free.

Gradius probably isn't the best example here as it did have a rudimentary storyline, though most of that was developed not in the original game but in later versions. Simpler games like Millipede or Galaga probably illustrate the point better. Or Arkanoid - which has a delightful storyline that makes absolutely no sense in relation to the way the game is played (a spaceship that acts as a ping pong paddle in a life-and-death struggle with aliens? Only on the Famicom.)

At any rate, the thing I'm getting at is this: the human mind likes mystery. The technological limitations of the Famicom (and other early consoles) left a lot of stuff unexplained and graphically unrealized. This forced the player to use their imagination a lot.
The label art teased you, made you wonder what the world in which the game was set was like. The game's graphics weren't good enough to really satisfy your curiosity, so you'd try to fill in the blanks yourself. If you know a bit about human psychology, you know that this type of activity can be quite stimulating and pleasant - in fact it is the sort of thing that your brain does subconsciously all the time. The fact that early games didn't really develop the storylines and hadn't discovered the "cut scene" yet contributed to that.

Playing a Famicom game is kind of like looking at the world through the eyes of a five year old. Everything is shrouded in mystery. You don't know why mushrooms are floating around, just that if you jump on one, its a good thing. You are extremely limited in your ability to move about the world you are in, but those limitations make the world seem so much bigger and more intriguing.

Playing a PS2 game (I don't have any consoles more recent than that) is more like looking at the world through the eyes of an adult. You can move about freely, go wherever you want. You know why the mushrooms are floating around because it is explained in the voluminous back-story the game has given you. The limitations are gone, but ironically this makes the world seem smaller and less intriguing.

This isn't to say that new games are bad and Famicom games are good. Also I should stress (before I get it in the comments) that a lot of newer gen games are great at making gamers use their imaginations - but they usually do that in a different way than the Famicom, which more or less did it by accident.

What I am saying is that Famicom games - by virtue of their technological backwardness - offer something quite different from current generation games in terms of imagination. Having this distinctive feature gives the Famicom a certain appeal that, I believe, has allowed it to age well in comparison with later consoles that were more technologically advanced (the Super Famicom, N64 and so on). Graphics and storylines in games on those consoles were much more advanced than games on the Famicom. At the time they were released, this made those games much more popular. Unfortunately in the long run it also made them much more similar to the current gen games, with which they are often compared (unfavorably). The crude graphics of the Famicom games, on the other hand, sets them apart. This, in a weird way, may be one of the reasons the Famicom has aged well.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fukuoka Famicom Shops V: Don Quixote and Village Vanguard

Four posts in four days, I am on a roll. That ends today, because I've got stuff to do on the weekend. Fun ride while it lasted though.

Today's post is the next installment in my series on Fukuoka's Famicom shops. I cover two different stores today: Don Quixote and Village Vanguard.

I put these two shops into one post because they have something in common. Neither one is a game shop, nor is either one a used goods shop. Don Quixote is a major retailer with hundreds of locations across Japan which sells everything from groceries to plasma TVs. Village Vanguard is also a major chain, but it mostly deals in novelty items.

What they have in common (apart from being major chains) is that they both stock Famiclones. And, as an adjunct to their Famiclone display, they both stock Famicom games that people can pick up with the Famiclone.

Lets have a look. First stop: Don Quixote.

Don Quixote is a crowded shop with narrow aisles:
Its got some bargains - orange juice for example is much cheaper here than most places.

Famicom bargains are, however, in short supply here.

The Famiclone they sell is the "Next II":
I'm not sure if its any good.
They have a nice display with a TV loudly airing the music for Jaleco's Moero Pro Yakyu, which I find kind of pleasant:They also have this very interesting "FC Portable" which allows you to play Famicom games on a handheld device:It looks neat in the picture, but I suspect its a piece of crap. It doesn't have a rechargeable battery pack either so you have to buy a bunch of batteries seperately.

Anyway, Don Quixote's price for its Famiclone is quite reasonable. Their Famicom games, on the other hand:
498 yen per game. That wouldn't be too bad a price if they had some decent games in there, but they don't. I looked. They are all "commons" that usually go for 100 - 300 yen at most shops. Some of these are fun games - I particularly like Exerion - but they are quite overpriced.

So I just go there for orange juice, not for Famicom games.

Next stop: Village Vanguard.

I love Village Vanguard. Their stores are really fun to explore, with aisle upon aisle of nothing but tacky novelty items. I do a lot of gift shopping there.

They've got the staples, like rubber chickens and women in bikinis:
Gumball machines and masks of Matsuko Deluxe (a transvestite celebrity who is on all the variety shows here):
Mannequins under disco balls:
Funky trading cards:
And statues of famous celebrities:
Like Don Quixote, they also have Famiclones in stock, for roughly the same price:
And next to that, a basket full of Famicom games (apologies for the blurry pic):
These were on sale for 525 yen each, roughly the same price as Don Quixote. The big difference though was that there were a few games in there which were actually worth 525 yen. I found Adventure Island and Donkey Kong in this basket, which usually go for at least that much in most game shops. So I give Village Vanguard's Famicom selection higher marks than Don Quixote's, though I never buy Famicom stuff there either.

Instead, I walked out with a pack of ALF cards:
"Catting Practice"! Oh, that guy kills me:
200 yen well spent.

When I started off this series I intended to compare prices of 6 games at the various shops, but I've found that most shops didn't have enough of those games to make that type of comparison worthwhile.

I will make this observation on these two shops though. They are major chains which don't buy used stuff from people off the street (which is how every other Famicom shop gets their stock). I find this interesting. It means they procure their stock of games from some distributor. I kind of wonder how that works. I mean, it seems there is actually a centralized wholesale market for used Famicom games out there. I wonder if the distributor just buys huge lots off of Yahoo Auction and then parcels them out to these retailers or something. Its kind of interesting.

Well, interesting to those of us Famicom collectors who study economic organization in their "day jobs" anyway:)