SECRET LIVES - January 1999
|If you want a picture of
Sega, Nintendo and Sony's ideal future, imagine a Customs officer's jackboot
stamping on a grey importer's face forever.
Even as the rest of the world rushes towards a true global market, videogame publishers are investing more and more effort into enforcing territorial protection of software in an attempt to stop anyone from ever playing a game which wasn't actually produced within their own country's borders. Which seems puzzling at first, until you examine the world videogame market a little more closely, and notice that, just like in real life, there's a videogames Third World as well. While Japan (for the purposes of this analogy, the First World) leads the way in technological advancement and the West (the Second World) lags a year or so behind, there's a whole huge chunk of the world that's still playing with the SNES, the Mega Drive, the NES and even the C64 and Spectrum. In Eastern Europe and, to a lesser extent, South America, the Playstation, Saturn and N64 are still literally the next generation, and hence there's still money to be made out of what we regard as dead formats.
"So what has this to do with me, or a forward-looking publication like Edge, come to that?", you might well be asking at this point. And the answer is "very little". However, tight territorial control of software is one of the primary factors which has brought about the appearance of a relatively new phenomenon in the world of games - a rarity market.
It's not at all uncommon to see games these days being released in "Special Edition", "Director's Cut" or "Collector's" versions (usually nothing more "special" than an excuse to charge you a tenner for a nasty t-shirt and plastic keyring). Yet paradoxically, few things are actually less "collectable" than those released with that specific purpose in mind. As any music, book or comic buff will tell you, the true collectables are the one-offs - the EMI version of the Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen, the Beach Boys' never-released "Smile" album, the first print run of "Watchmen" or even the few copies of 80s videogames magazine Crash which went out to subscribers featuring a venomous satire on a rival magazine, before the rival got wind of it and had the magazine injuncted, withdrawn from sale and republished with the offending pages crudely torn out.
The nature of the videogames market has meant that true collectables like these are far fewer than in other areas of culture. Because if a game doesn't make it onto cartridge or CD, or is only released in small numbers in a foreign country with a territorial protection chip, ordinary gamers have no way of playing it even if they were to somehow come by a copy. At least, they didn't until now.
With the advent of emulation, suddenly the entire global history of videogames is available to anyone who wants it. Rather than being tied up in the physical medium, games have been once more reduced to their most basic component - raw computer code. Now that anyone can have the equivalent of tens of thousands of pounds worth of development kit accessible to them for the price of a download, even fragments of game code that have been abandoned and hidden away uselessly in developers' cupboards for years can come to life, providing a unique glimpse into the creation of a game.
Or, if you will, a look into the secret lives of all your favourite game characters. Come with Edge now, as we meet a few of the long-lost relatives of today's stars - the games nobody wanted you to play, but which are now standing blinking in the sunlight and waiting to show you what (if anything) you were missing all those years. Clearly, these games are technically still protected by copyright (mostly), so Edge can't tell you precisely where to find them. But they're all out there. If you want to be an archaeologist, sometimes you have to do a little digging.
MARIO BIKE (SNES)
No-one from Nintendo would confirm or deny the pedigree of this extremely professional-looking hybrid of Super Mario Kart and vintage NES title Excitebike, so Edge is unable to definitively state whether this is a genuine lost Nintendo classic or simply an extremely impressive piece of home-grown hack work. The game's unfinished state (you have to sit and watch title screens and demo modes for almost five minutes before you can actually play) seem to suggest the former, though, as does the high quality of the graphics and sound. And when you finally get to it, the gameplay lives up to the bloodline - slick and well-balanced, with many features lifted straight out of SMK. As Nintendo diversify the Mario brand out into fighting games, party board games and such like, it may well be that this represents a first abortive step away from the platform formula, but whether it's the spiritual forebear of Smash Brothers and Mario Party or not, it's a lovely little curiosity, and one which you'd have been extremely unlikely ever to get a glimpse of without the miracle of emulation.
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 4 (Mega Drive)
The elastic band has made unsurprisingly few significant appearances in video games. Off the top of Edge's head, we can only come up with the old Atari Asteroids-derivative coin-op Space Duel, Denton Designs' future sport Bounces on the Spectrum, and the odd Amiga/ST puzzle game of Newtonian physics, E-Motion, so it was a bit of a turn-up to discover that the planned fourth game in Sega's flagship Sonic series was intended to feature the player controlling both Sonic and his old pal Tails simultaneously, the two characters being connected with the traditional paper-binding stationery item. Sonic 4 (which exists as a very early leaked alpha version playable on all the major MD emulators) is otherwise a pretty traditional Sonic game of high-speed platforming, but the elastic factor renders it extraordinarily chaotic and confusing, with the characters hurtling and ricocheting around the screen like a set of rubber nunchakas attached to the end of a yo-yo wielded by a blind-drunk Jackie Chan during an epileptic fit. Presumably, Sega realised very quickly that this would baffle the living heck out of your average Sonic fan, and abandoned the project in order to concentrate fully on making a really big screw-up of the imminent Saturn launch.
BUBBLE BOBBLE 2 (Playstation, Saturn)
The Bubble Bobble series is an incredibly tangled mess of titles - at least three entirely different games have borne the name "Bubble Bobble 2", including Rainbow Islands and a curious Game Boy effort with the gameplay of Bubble Bobble, but set on the graphics and screen layouts of Parasol Stars. This Bubble Bobble 2 is in fact a conversion of a 1994 coin-op which was also known in arcades as Bubble Symphony, and which plays very similarly to original Bubble Bobble, with the additions of power-ups, alternative routes and jazzed-up graphics. The Saturn version was released in Japan (under the Symphony title), but the PS version - slated for release by Virgin - got caught up in a series of legal entanglements over who actually owned the rights, and the title was canned at a 98%-complete stage in development. The last beta, however (which was actually reviewed by some UK magazines) leaked out, and thanks to its relatively small size (50MB) was instantly spread around on the "warez" underground, from where it can be played on the new PS emulators. (Although it's a terrible PAL conversion, and the real thing can now be played through the coin-op emulator Raine anyway.)
MANIC MINER (N64)
Practically since the day the N64 was released, it's been accompanied by a series of legally-dodgy devices like the Doctor V64, which enable games to be loaded into the console via a CD or a PC's hard drive. While in many people's eyes such devices exist mainly - if not solely - for the purposes of software piracy, they can in fact also be used as a cheap development kit (a couple of hundred quid as opposed to the several thousand the real thing would set you back - even if Nintendo were prepared to sell you one, which they almost certainly wouldn't be). Indeed, as the industry constantly frets over where the next generation of programmers is going to come from in the face of the lack of affordable home coding platforms like the Spectrum and Amiga, these devices provide one of the few viable entry points into console game writing. (N64 emulators still use too many tricks and workarounds to get games running for them to be of much use as a reliable development tool.) N64 Manic Miner came to life in just that way. It's actually a port-over of a "modernised" PC version of the game (there's a whole sub-culture of coders respraying old Speccy games in this way, but that's another story altogether), with more colourful graphics and much-improved music, but the gameplay and patterns are identical to the original down to the last pixel. And if you don't get a certain perverse thrill out of playing a pixel-perfect rendition of Manic Miner on an N64, Edge suspects you're a bit weird.
MORTAL KOMBAT (Spectrum)
While the pace of technological advancement in the Videogames First and Second Worlds grows faster with every passing year, there are other parts of the planet for which, in videogames terms, it's still 1985. One such area is Russia, where a rebadged version of the 17-year-old ZX Spectrum is still a popular games platform. The astonishingly faithful Spectrum version of 16-bit classic Prince Of Persia originated here, and the latest unlikely candidate for the colour-clash treatment is Midway's blood-soaked coin-op. The project isn't quite complete, but the beta version available from the many popular Speccy websites showcases an implausibly impressive rendition of the arcade original, with all the characters and moves intact. An added bonus is that, unlike the console games featured here, you can play Mortal Kombat on your real Speccy without any additional hardware - simply dump the file out through your PC's soundcard onto an audio tape, and it'll load up like a normal Spectrum game.
SUPER 3D NOAH'S ARK (SNES)
Religious videogaming was a genre that never really caught on, but that it didn't certainly wasn't the fault of games like Super 3D Noah's Ark. Using what looks very much like the Wolfenstein 3D engine, SNA3D sees you trying to ensure the Creationist safety of the world's animals by pacifying them with food (fired from a catapult, slightly ill-manneredly) until they fall into a peaceful and contented snooze. (Aw.) Oddly, this particular ark seems to have considerably more than two of everything, so you have to fairly peg it around the beautifully-realised wooden boat sending the furry critters off to Dreamland before, presumably, picking out the best breeding pair and heaving the rest overboard while they innocently slumber. (This crucial element of the Biblical procedure being oddly glossed over.) Super 3D Noah's Ark is the kind of game that you'd never see get a release in Britain if you lived to be 250, but can now play regardless thanks to the efforts of emulator coders. Truly, God really does work in extraordinarily mysterious ways.
MEGA MAN 7, 8, 9, X2 (SNES)
The Mega Man (aka Rockman) series is huge everywhere else in the world, but the European market has never really taken to the little blue chap's platform adventures. Capcom have recently launched a major Mega Man offensive, with a whole clutch of games for the Playstation (a 2D platformer, a 3D semi-RPG, and even a Mario Kart wannabe), but traditionalists will be entranced by these old-style SNES games, peaking with Mega Man 9 which was released (in Japan only) as recently as last year. To be honest, all the games are pretty much the same (and for that matter, essentially the same as the original Mega Man titles on the NES, or any of the several Game Boy titles which made it out in Europe) - simplistic but unusually tricky platforms-and-shooting efforts featuring the variably-talented cohorts of the evil Dr Wily and their robot minions - but Capcom have refined the style to perfection over the 12-year course of the series, and there are people who would argue that Mega Man 9 represents the evolutionary pinnacle of the old-fashioned classic 2D platform game. Completely insanely wrong people, mind you, but people nonetheless.
KART FIGHTERS (NES)
Contrary to popular belief, Smash Brothers isn't actually the first fighting game to star a classic stable of Nintendo game characters. Kart Fighters collected - as you might expect - the racers from Super Mario Kart and put them in an NES beat-'em-up styled after Street Fighter 2, complete with Dragon Punches, fireball attacks and all your favourite SF2 moves. Never released on a cartridge, an air of mystery surrounds Kart Fighters. Suspiciously high quality for a home-made hack game, well-placed rumours persist that KF was originally intended as an official Nintendo release which would serve as a farewell to the NES market, until the company's bosses decided that they'd rather not see family-orientated characters like Mario and Luigi punching each other's lights out and pulled the project at the last minute. Whether or not any of this is true (and once again, we couldn't get anyone at the Big N to either confirm or deny the tale), you can now knock seven bells out of the little fellow any time you like armed with nothing more offensive than an NES emulator.
FASTER, HARDER, MORE CHALLENGING Q*BERT (Arcade)
One of a highly exclusive club of coin-ops which never made it into arcades (other members include Joust 2 - now playable as part of GT's Arcade's Greatest Hits series - and the near-mythical Marble Madness 2, of which only two prototypes are said to exist anywhere in the world), FHMC Q*Bert was a follow-up to the hugely popular original starring the foul-mouthed, big-nosed pyramid painter, featuring gameplay more or less identical to the first game only Faster, Harder and More Challenging. Obviously. Q*Bert's 15 minutes expired before the coin-op could make it into arcades, though, and it remained locked away in the vaults of videogame legend until the advent of MAME, whereupon original author Warren Davis released the game's code into the public domain with his blessing. Emulation fans the world over marvelled at the strikingly-literal title, the almost totally-unchanged gameplay and graphics and the extraordinarily brutal difficulty level, and moved swiftly on. (For the full unexpurgated version of the FHMC Q*Bert story, visit the author's website at http://www.coinop.org/features/qbstory.html)
The various legal shenanigans surrounding Tetris are well-documented, and look set to get even more convoluted with The Tetris Company's recent announcement that it intends to crack down on the thousands of unofficial public domain and shareware versions of the game which have been created by amateur programmers since the legendary puzzle game's debut. The most celebrated case, though, was the one which saw Atari offshoot Tengen forced to withdraw and destroy the entire stock of its excellent NES version of the game, in favour of Nintendo's own inferior realisation. (Which, in fairness, at least had a less bizarre control system, Tengen having inexplicably opted to rotate blocks with Up and Down on the D-pad and drop them to the bottom with the fire button, presumably making the decision during a design meeting somewhere in Amsterdam.) Now, however, you can play Tengen Tetris and thumb your nose fearlessly at the bloodsucking parasites that are corporate lawyers in the privacy of your own home, and no-one will ever know.
RES-Q (Mega Drive)
The only genuine British rarity here, Res-Q was a Mega Drive game from Psygnosis which was overtaken by developments in the MD scene (or rather, the total lack of them, as the platform's economic viability collapsed almost overnight thanks to the advent of the Playstation) before it got as far as any shop shelves. Allegedly a little disgruntled at all their hard work being wasted, programmers Tempest Software released the code to the emulation community with their blessing. It's not difficult to understand Psygnosis' thinking - while slickly executed, the game is a fairly ponderous underground-exploring mission that really belongs on an Amiga or Atari ST, and its chances of being a hit with the Mega Drive audience would have to be counted as very slim indeed. Such is the problem of producing cartridge games, of course - it's too expensive just to stick something out and see how it does, even if you've just spent 18 months and a couple of hundred thousand quid developing it, just it time to see the console go down the toilet. Suddenly, 100 million potential Russian Spectrum owners seem like an attractive market...
THE INFOCOM COLLECTION (Game Boy)
The classic series of text adventures including Zork, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Planetfall, which dates all the way back to the Apple II in 1980, is now public-domain material, which has resulted in people inflicting all manner of strange indignities on it. Strangest of all, though, is this series of Game Boy ports. Text input is achieved by the astoundingly laborious construction of words and phrases letter-by-letter using the D-pad (leading to some quite stratospheric displays of "parser rage" when the game insists on you typing out an entire sentence like "UNLOCK THE DOOR WITH THE SQUARE KEY AND OPEN IT AND GO NORTH"), and while the Game Boy at least remembers previously-typed instructions so you can scroll back through the list every time you want to repeat something you've already done, you still have to wonder in awe and fear at the obvious gibbering insanity that drove some wild-eyed nutter to convert an entire series of text adventures to a hand-held games console.
F-ZERO 2 (SNES)
Ever since the days of the NES, Nintendo systems in particular have been victim to enterprising hackers breaking into cartridge games (using the time's equivalent of the Doctor V64) and producing their own versions of popular titles. Usually, this meant nothing more involved than fiddling around with graphics to give Mario a big afro or turn him into a busty naked woman, but occasionally the hackers would go so far as to create a whole new series of levels for the game. F-Zero 2 (as far as Edge is able to ascertain) is an example of this comparatively rare phenomenon, being effectively a data disk of new tracks (and some new background graphics) for the legendary racer. The drawback, of course, was that the new tracks were accessible only to the tiny proportion of people who owned the copying devices used to create the hack in the first place. It's tempting to believe, though, that this is exactly the kind of thing Nintendo had in mind when they conceived the ill-fated 64DD, a peripheral that would theoretically have opened up such creative opportunities to every N64 owner. At least it might have stopped them buying copying machines, anyway...
VIRTUA FIGHTER 2 (MD)
Apart from the Mega Man titles, this is the only game here to have actually seen the inside of a shop anywhere in the world. The Mega Drive might have dropped down dead in Europe in 1994, but the huge installed user bases kept its life support machine switched on overseas as late as 1996, when Sega had a bash at cashing in on the massive success of Virtua Fighter with this 2D incarnation of the sequel. Unlike the Game Gear version, which was related to VF in name only, it's a surprisingly effective translation of the real thing (which, after all, actually plays in 2D anyway), with almost all the characters, moves and locations intact. The problem, in as much as there is one, is that putting Virtua Fighter in 2D tends to rather expose its weaknesses as a beat-'em-up when competing with conventional 2D fighters like Street Fighter 2 on their own territory. Still, this is an impressive piece of work in anyone's book, and it sold so few copies that your chances of ever coming across a "real" one are tiny, so emulate away.
DUKE NUKEM 3D (MD)
In the dying days of the 16-bit consoles, the first-person shooter was something of a Holy Grail. The SNES actually managed a fairly respectable last hurrah for its dedicated fans, with first a port of iD's groundbreaking, genre-spawning Wolfenstein 3D, and then an impressively faithful, Super-FX-assisted conversion of the mighty Doom. Mega Drive owners weren't so lucky, with nothing much more impressive than Accolade's fun but technically primitive Zero Tolerance to carry the flag for them (not that you'd have been able to see much of the flag through the tiny letterboxed screen barely a quarter of the screen in height). It comes as quite a shock, then, to see how different things //might// have been, in the shape of Duke Nukem 3D. Related only passingly to the PC original, Mega Drive Duke is nevertheless a technical tour-de-force, shifting a glorious full-screen display around at lightning speed. (In fact, it's //so// fast that it renders the game astonishingly tough at even the easiest difficulty setting.) The only compromise comes in the form of the fairly heavy graphical distortion of enemies when you get close to them, but it isn't bad enough to render them unrecognisable, and much of the distinctive Duke atmosphere survives. Looking at this, it's difficult to believe that the old MD wouldn't have been capable of a pretty decent stab at Doom, if it had only lived long enough to find out.
FUTURE SECRET LIVES
There are currently two major "lost" games out there somewhere in the games industry. Controversial beat-'em-up Thrill Kill has been bizarrely suppressed by new owners Electronic Arts - not only have they decided not to publish the game themselves, but the giant company has also announced that it won't be selling the game to anyone else, effectively electing itself the moral guardian of the entire gamesplaying public. In a similar vein, Sensible Software's Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'Roll eventually destroyed the famous developer, being deemed too "adult" to attract a publisher despite having over 4 years of work locked up in it. It seems inconceivable that there aren't copies of these titles knocking around somewhere, in an unlocked drawer at a publisher's office or the odd unreturned preview disc at a games mag. Keep watching the skies.
Virtua Fighter 2
Duke Nukem 3D