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System Shock (Part I): Revisiting the Mega-CD
One of the common questions on the DP Forums seems to be "Why do you collect for (fill in obscure/common system of choice)?". In the case of the Mega-CD, for me it's a chance to study more closely what should have been a great phase in gaming history. Instead, it was a time of excessive over and under hyping and consumer confusion in the US, thanks to some bad marketing decisions by both Sega and its main rival at the time (in terms of CD-ROM format games), NEC/TTI. This month, we'll look at some Sega titles that never made it out here, from the potential hits to a few games that probably never would have sold at all. For those of you who've never seen or have considered picking up a Mega-CD or Sega CD, I've sprinkled references to a few US titles here and there so you can look them up at your leisure.
While the PC-Engine/Turbo Grafx was the first home console to have a CD-ROM peripheral as an optional feature (later combined into the better-looking Turbo Duo), NEC/TTI never fully capitalized on their early entry into the US marketplace. There were dozens upon dozens of titles that were never released here, and Sega came along almost two years later and spent millions more on advertising to make their add-on a household word. Unfortunately, many of the better and more unusual Sega titles also stayed in Japan, and the truly hardcore gamers were forced to import games, convertors and/or systems from a number of mail order retailers. However you may feel about the Turbo Grafx situation, history shows that Sega went the extra mile into mediocrity by producing, publishing, and promoting too many FMV-based titles instead of localizing the better imports. Many of these (with the same amount of hype spent on the FMV titles) would have had more lasting value as far better overall gaming experiences.
On a personal note, I was originally swept up under the "You STILL don't own a Sega CD?!" hype killwheel at first, but my first experiences with the unit were less than impressive (Sewer Shark and Microcosm were the first two I played, if you need to know). Around this time, Mega Drive/Genesis developers were producing some incredible cartridge titles that (except for the music) were just as or more impressive than what was on those shiny new CDs. Even when I saw a great cinema off a Sega CD disc, games like Treasure's Gunstar Heroes, Gau's Ex-Ranza (Ranger-X), Scavenger's Red Zone and many others kept my attention much longer than a few pretty (non-playable) pictures. I finally gave in and made the closeout bin plunge around late 1994 or early '95, when the Sega CD was more than dead as a money maker for Sega.
Not too long after, I picked up a few used Japanese Mega-CD titles at a used record shop. The owner had just bought a shoebox of CDs from a regular customer going back to Japan, and he thought the 3 games on the bottom were "cartoon soundtracks", to use his words. I ended up buying them (for about 3 bucks each) and sitting on copies of Funky Horror Band, Panic, and Cyborg 009 for about 6 years until I finally got a Japanese MCD add-on. Yes, I'm crazy...but I'm also quite patient. FYI: while the best (and most foolproof) way to play these games is with an import Mega Drive and MCD or MCD 2 attachment, there are convertor carts available as well. US Sega CD RAM cartridges will work perfectly on a Japanese MD/MCD setup, just remember that as the US cart has no notch for the lock on the original MD system, you'll have to push the power switch a tiny bit harder.
Some of you can (and will) correctly state that some non-Japanese developers who produced their own Sega CD titles were paving the way for future successes, and you'll get no argument from me on that fact. Foe example, without Core's early 3D work (Battlecorps, Heimdall, AH-3 Thunderstrike, and Soul Star to name a few), we'd probably not have Lara Croft to make leap off a cliff into a spike pit, and Psygnosis grew from a their first CD game with no gameplay whatsoever (Microcosm) to its stunning and highly replayable Playstation titles like Wipeout and Colony Wars. Interestingly enough, the muchly hyped at the time US based developers like Digital Pictures and Rocket Science are no longer in existence, while Working Designs (with its lovingly produced ports of a number of classic Mega-CD imports) is still going strong.
Starting with RPGs, which, while it could be argued that the expense of proper localization made them less attractive from a purely financial standpoint, the pure fact is US gamers missed out on a lot of excellent titles. Some of them you've probably never played or heard of: 3x3 Eyes, Sin-Megamitensei, Illusion City, Shadowrun, Fhey Area, Arcus I-II-III, Aisle Lord, Cosmic Fantasy Stories Alshark, and Death Bringer. There were also strategy based RPGs like Record Of Lodoss War and The Heroic Legend of Arslan, both great games derived from some very well-known anime/manga. Mega Schwartzchild, a version of the solid PC-Engine space combat simulation Super Schwartzchild, was one of those games that would have probably appealed to gamers weaned on PC space sims. An interesting note here is that some of these titles contained subject matter geared toward older players (at least in terms of ESRB content ratings), and would have possibly made the unit more attractive toward that segment of the marketplace.
In particular, Shadowrun stands out as a great example of a well-known US license that sticks true to yet goes beyond the source material (and shows that the MCD could do more besides some decent PC-Engine ports). Compile took the original FASA idea and ran with it by placing the action in a bleak futuristic Tokyo setting, and their game gave both better-known console versions of the game a run for their money. It's not an easy game to get into however. There's a ton of Japanese text, and the battles are odd strategic based affairs with dice tumbling in one corner. But it's definitely worth the effort if you're looking for an example of a game that would have done well here if it were translated. Oh yes, there's a reason that Sega's Funky Horror Band was never released stateside, if you're curious. Other than some of the colorful cinemas and goofy music, the game is fairly dull to look at and a chore to play through, thanks to some really slow moving dialogue boxes.
As far as Adventure games go, US audiences did get a few titles like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Curse of Monkey Island. The first game was a dull pack-in game that somehow ended up getting a sequel, while the second was a decent PC port plagued with long loading times. In Japan, text and anime-based adventure games often become hits, and the Mega-CD there ended up with gems and oddities that were most likely deemed "too Japanese" for US audiences by Sega of America. Games like Urusei Yatsura, Aya, Nostalgia 1907, The Laughing Salesman, Mahou no Shojo Silky Lip, Ranma 1/2, Yumimi Mix, and Detonator Orgun among others, and like some of the RPGs above, most of these titles were based on popular anime and/or manga of the time.
Perhaps due to licensing issues or content, these and other adventure games were never localized for US audiences. On the other hand, many of the US-made FMV adventure games didn't exactly fly off store shelves after they were reviewed in game magazines. As I said above, the focus in America was mainly on FMV-based interactive movies, and if you're new to the system, most of these should be fairly easy to find. The most popular (and expensive) Mega-CD adventure game seems to be Konami's Snatcher, which saw a very limited US release toward the end of the Sega CD's lifespan. To date, the game has appeared on at least 5 Japanese consoles, yet despite rabid interest in the game, Konami has yet to give it (or the much better "sequel", Policenauts) an official worldwide (re)release.
Historical Simulation or Strategy titles focusing on Japan (and China's) great ancient battles aren't translated as often as they should be, and none of the ones created for the Mega-CD were released here on the format. Koei did three games: Sangokushi III, Nobunaga no Yabou: Haoden, and Aoki Ookamitoshiroki Meshika Genchou Hishi, which turned up on cartridge format for Mega Drive and Super Famicom/SNES owners. One famous entry in the genre was Game Arts' Tenkafubu, one of the first MCD games to be released. The game used live-action footage in an impressive (for the time) opening sequence, the deep, challenging gameplay rivaled any of the Koei games, and the music score stood out as an excellent work on its own. About a year later, Wolfteam's Tenbu Mega CD Special was released with an even more impressive live action intro and cinemas and complex gameplay that was also quite well thought out. If I'm not mistaken, the footage in both games was taken from historical drama shows popular in Japan at the time (sort of like Westerns here, in a way). All of these games require a pretty high knowledge of Japanese in order to play them, or large quantities of beer and a thirsty group of Japanese friends willing to spend time with you translating stuff.
We did get a number of great (and not so great) Action games, but the ones that didn't make the cut are definitely worth looking up. Wolfteam did cartridge and CD versions of Sol-Feace and Earnest Evans, but only the former arrived here in both formats (the cartridge version of the latter game was retitled Sol-Deace, just so you wouldn't try to stick it in the CD tray). Here's some Earnest Evans trivia: the CD version of the game features a cameo by the lead character from another Wolfteam game (Annet from El Viento, which got a Mega-CD sequel that never appeared here called Anett Futatabi). Wolfteam also did a port of Takara's Devastator, a so-so shooter with loads of grainy anime sequences and annoying regenerating enemies. Telenet/Riot released a game based on the ancient anime series Cyborg 009, and when I finally got a chance to play it, I was a bit put off by the stiff control and relatively bland animation sequences. That is, until I saw a few episodes of the show on tape- now the game is a bit more respected (yet still an acquired taste). Finally, Micronet's Heavy Nova and Nichibutsu's F1 Circus both got the CD/cart treatment, and two games were never more differently represented. The mech fighter was the same on CD (except for the cinemas and music), while the racer went from a tricky to control top down viewpoint (cartridge) to a simulated 3D point of view with a better sense of speed and added features (CD). Speaking of Sports games, there weren't all that many memorable ones released for the Mega-CD. Other than a few Super League baseball titles, a solid version of Koei's Winning Post horse racing simulation, and (although it's more of a unique RPG), you have to count Captain Tsubasa if you're a fan of the anime (and soccer in general).
On the Arcade front, there were a few cuts made in the US version of Sega's port of Capcom's Final Fight CD, notably in regard to what some women were wearing (or not wearing). Speaking of cuts (and back to Wolfteam for a second), owners of the import version of Time Gal got an unexpected treat not in a hidden shot of a topless heroine thanking you for playing. From what I gather, you have to beat the game on the hardest level, not beat something hard, you perverts. Moving on, Taito did ports of its arcade hits Night Striker and Ninja Warriors which have reached some sort of legendary status among a few collectors. Although once you actually get a chance to play these two games, you'll wonder just what the fuss was all about. One is a big mass of stuttering, nearly hard to recognize pixels on any TV larger than 9 inches, and the other suffers from poor animation and terrible color usage (there's a Super Famicom/SNES version of Ninja Warriors that holds up much better). At least the Zuntata soundtrack (in both original and arranged mixes) in Night Striker makes it a worthwhile purchase, if you're a fan of their game music.
Two of the more unusual Mega-CD games (and among the hardest to find) are the Sega Games Can discs, and yes, the games come packed in a red (Vol. 1) or blue (Vol. 2) metal can. I have Volume 1, which features an interesting selection of games unreleased in any other format (with one exception). Sega's fun sleeper Flicky shows up here (think Mappy, but with birds to rescue), while Paddle Fighter is an air hockey game featuring timed matches, a too small playfield, and goals that expand to impossible to defend sizes. Hyper Marbles is an overhead demolition derby with players trying to knock each other (and the CPU drones) into electrified walls and other hazards. Pyramid Magic is an old-school throwback to games like Lode Runner or Solomon's Key, and is quite a brain buster after a few stages. The most interesting game on the disc is Phantasy Star II Text Adventure, which is actually four separate character specific mini-quests (order up some sushi and sake, and call up those Japanese friends again for this one). I'm currently on the hunt for a copy of the harder to find Volume 2, and I'll report back here with its contents once one comes into my possession.
One other thing that makes these games so much fun to collect is that many of them are also soundtracks, and some discs are have complete dialogue tracks. Half the fun of popping a Mega-CD game into any console, PC, or CD player is hearing some excellent (and sometimes not-so excellent) music coming from your speakers. Just skip Track 1 (which contains the game data), and you're all set for aural bliss. On that note, we'll close up shop for this month. I hope you enjoyed this month's column- as usual, I haven't a clue as to what to write about in the next one. Perhaps I'll dive into my PC-Engine collection and let you know just what you've been missing, and how the system could have kept up to or even surpassed Sega and Nintendo here. As usual, your input is always a good thing for my output...
A new "Did YOU Know?" can be foundhere around the 24th of every month!
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