The Land Before DLC: Toy Commander

Toy Commander is one of the Dreamcast's best games in my opinion. Not only is it an original take on the traditional 3D shooter in that you fly toy aircraft and drive ground units around a fully realised 3D house (toys which are actually being played with by a kid - the titular Toy Commander), but it really is an enjoyable experience. Missions are well balanced and varied in design, and on top of all that it has a great sense of humour. Oh, and it looks bloody fantastic even by today's standards. Yes, No Cliche really did pull a rabbit out of the hat when they put Toy Commander out as a launch title. It looked like something that was truly next-gen and played a mean game as well. Sadly, Toy Commander never recieved a true sequel and it remains a game that was born and died on the Dreamcast; the semi-sequel Toy Racer was little more than a mini game and was only playable online anyway, so those of us who either couldn't afford the dial-up tariff or simply weren't allowed to hog the only phone line in the house to play online games (like me!) missed out on the full experience. 
Interestingly though, and the reason for this post, is that Toy Commander received some interesting pseudo DLC (that's Downloadable Content, EA fans) in the years following its release. I say 'pseudo,' because it wasn't really DLC at all, and didn't even require the original game to play...but it's another way in which the Dreamcast was well ahead of it's time. The 'DLC' I'm referring to is in fact the special 'add-on' demo levels that were released exclusively on the Dream On demo disks that came with the Official Dreamcast Magazine in the UK and US. One of these was a special single-level Christmas-themed demo (titled Christmas Surprise) in which you played as a rocket-pack enabled Santa whom, with the help of a fighter plane and a heavily armed Jeep, was tasked with tracking down errant presents and returning them to their rightful place under the Christmas tree.
The second such exclusive demo, called Summer Special, was released on Dream On volume 11 in the UK and featured a brand new stage in which players were given the task of clearing a beach of rubbish, sharks and cockroaches so Barbie and Ken ( and Jenny for obvious reasons) could go skinny dipping without the worry of either having their heads chewed off or cutting their plastic feet on shards of glass...presumably left in the jacuzzi by the 8-year-old Toy Commander's alcoholic dad. It's a fun level and allows full exploration of another section of the house the main game is set within, and you can either take to the sky in a bi-plane and just blow the hell out of everything with biro-lid missiles, or you can play a slightly more tactical game by using the truck to transport the rubbish to the trash compactor in the kitchen. Which is located behind a mini bar, adding further fuel to the theory that the Toy Commander's dad likes a bit of a drink. Either that, or the Commander himself has been at the brandy...which would explain all these outlandish war games with his matchbox toys. The other variant on the Toy Commander formula included on Dream On 11 in a race around the house with toy cars, but this is pretty forgettable due to the twitchy controls...and is clearly the original blueprint for the later (and yet aforementioned) Toy Racer.
While these single level demos are quite short lived in practice, they do a great job of showing off the mechanics and visual splendour of the full game. But more than that, they are a fantastic glimpse of what was to come in the future. Extra content for titles we already own is a relatively normal part of gaming nowadays - all of the major franchises have multiple extra mission packs and levels released as DLC on an almost weekly basis; and while these demo missions are hardly comparable, it shows that Dreamcast developers were looking at the bigger picture. The Dreamcast was by no means the first system to offer this kind of content (even the SNES offered true DLC, with the likes of F-Zero 2), but I can't help but imagine how far this could have gone, and if the Dreamcast had managed to weather the onslaught of the PS2 and the cold shoulder of EA...and the broadband adapter had been a mainstream add-on given a proper release; we might have seen new maps and skins for Quake 3 Arena, new tracks for Daytona and even extra characters for Soul Calibur. As it is, these Toy Commander missions serve merely as a taster of what could - and should - have been.

HP Lovecast

As well as playing, collecting, discussing and writing about games in all of their guises (both retro and current), I also enjoy a good book. Granted, my most recent book purchases have been books about games: The History of Nintendo 1889-1980 by Florent Gorges and Masters of Doom by David Kushner, but I also enjoy reading the works of another author: HP Lovecraft. Lovecraft's most famous creation is arguably the whole Cthulu mythos, and the fear and dread that is encapsulated by that entire sub-genre hinges on the unnerving threat of inter-dimensional beings that possess ageless knowledge beyond human comprehension; and a running theme that being privy to this level of all-knowing consciousness would lead the frail human mind to total breakdown and madness. Personally, I much prefer Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Colour Out of Space to The Call of Cthulu, but that's just my personal preference.

There aren't many mainstream film adaptations of Lovecraft's work (although a Guillermo del Toro adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness is never too far from the rumour mill door), and even fewer console games based on his books. There was The Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth for the original Xbox...but there are few other console titles I can think of that specifically reference Lovecraftian horror and the particular brand of ancient, eldritch terror associated with his novels. There is one game on the Dreamcast however, that whilst not being truly based on a Lovecraft tale, takes lots of cues and plot points from his canon. There are interdimensional monsters, ancient other-worldly horrors, tales of madness and an overwhelming sense of dread that permeates every location - a dread that cannot be pinned on one particular source. That game is Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare.
Developed by DarkWorks and published by Infogrammes in 2001, Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare (or Alone In The Dark 4, as some prefer to call it) is a 3rd person survival horror adventure in a similar vein to the first three Resident Evil games - you control a polygonal character who can move freely around in pre-rendered locations viewed through a static camera. In the case of AITD4, these locations are set on the mysterious Shadow Island, a small craggy enclave jutting from the sea off the coast of Massachusetts. The plot of the adventure is key to my love of The New Nightmare as it has the hallmarks of a great detective story with paranormal and Lovecraftian undertones: set in 2001, you play as either Edward Carnby or Aline Cedrac and travel to Shadow Island to investigate the death of Carnby's friend and partner Charles Fiske. At the time of his untimely and unexplained death, Fiske was investigating the existence of three ancient stone tablets said to be located on the island, and Carnby and Aline make it their mission to find out the significance of the tablets, and find Fiske's killer.

Of course, things get a little bit more complicated when the plane they are travelling in is sabotaged by creatures unknown and the protagonists are forced to bail out. Naturally, they are separated and this is where the game begins - you can choose to play as either Carnby or Aline, and they each start from a different location on Shadow Island, each with a different set of initial equipment items and with a different style of game. Their paths cross on multiple occasions throughout the game, and they do stay in contact throughout via two-way radio. Rather than simply represent 'easy' or 'hard' styles of play, as in the original Resident Evil, both characters games differ significantly in terms of gameplay - Carnby's game is more of a shooter, while Aline's adventure focuses more on puzzle solving. That's not to say there is no gunplay at all in Aline's game, but if you want all-out shooting, then Carnby's the best character to go for initially.

"The enigmas of the adventure are so incorporated with the story that if you reveal the story, you reveal the game."
- Antoine Villette, DarkWorks CEO speaking to EDGE Magazine, Feb 2000
The torch is your best friend
While I have mentioned Resident Evil and drawn comparisons several times, to compare the two is a little inaccurate. The survival horror genre in the style illustrated here was pretty much invented by Alone In the Dark, and all Resident Evil did was run with the original premise (and arguably Capcom's series improved it, too), but the two franchises cannot truly be correlated - in my opinion - because one game is more about blasting zombies to bits with ever more powerful weaponry and trying to stay alive, while the other is much more interested in the mystery of the plot; you aren't really told anything about what is going on, where the creatures that are stalking the island are coming from...what they are, even. It is only through reading manuscripts and diaries that you start to piece together the years of research and almost obsessive devotion to an ancient mystery that has lead to the summoning of Alone In The Dark's antagonists. While the same is true of Resident Evil to a point, there is less emphasis placed on the back story and more on the notion of finding more bullets because zombies are coming to eat your face.

It is true that Alone In The Dark features a mansion, but for me the comparisons to Resident Evil should really end there. There are other mechanics at play in DarkWorks' game that give it an individuality that should be recognised - the use of light and darkness is a massive part of the combat system and you are encouraged to use your torch to beat back the creatures stalking you from the shadows. Likewise, most of the weaponry employs ammunition that will create flashes of light (magnesium bullets, anyone?) as a means of lethality. This also bleeds into the control method which enables you to freely move and also shine your torch around simultaneously. It can be a little cumbersome on a Dreamcast joypad that simply didn't have dual analogue sticks, but it's a nice idea nonetheless. As you can appreciate with the style of game, you do encounter the usual stock puzzles such as locks that need to be opened with combinations that you'll find in old notebooks, and ornaments that need to be pushed around to open hidden doors, but there are also some nice scare tactics used - for instance when creatures flash in and out of existence in time with cracks of lightning and thunder, and the sound design is masterful - lots of howling wind and echoing footsteps on floorboards.

"There have always been movies in the horror genre and there will always be horror games. Fear is one of the most powerful emotions you can feel. There is love and fear - and what else is there?"
- Guillaume Gouraud, DarkWorks Art Director speaking to EDGE Magazine, Feb 2000 
Some of the locations are stunningly rendered
You can probably tell that I really hold Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare in fairly high regard, and yes - I do. There are better survival horror games on the Dreamcast sure, but there is no other game that captures the essence of Lovecraftian horror in the same way. Games like Shadowman, Code Veronica and Soul Reaver are all fine games, but none of them capture true eldritch terror in the same way as DarkWorks' effort does...and for all the flaws the game has, the storyline and the atmosphere are areas in which The New Nightmare does everything right.

Kojiroh’s Female!?

One of my favourite characters from any fighting game ever made is Kojiroh Sanada, the Shinsengumi captain who was tasked with taking down the crazed Shikyoh in The Last Blade. I mean, that guy just radiated cool in everything he did in that game and, as well as being a great all-round choice for the novice player, had enough depth in move-set to be useful at the high end too. Looking back, I think my allegiance to him paid off too, as when my friends and I used to play I normally ended up with a half-decent win ratio.
Kojiroh's nemesis Shikyoh, the crazed ex-member of the Shinsengumi.
I mean, seriously, why wouldn't you choose the lethal, expert swordsman who was trained in the most prestigious sword school of Japan? A guy who, legend has it, was based on Saitō Hajime, the real life Samurai warrior who rose to prominence during the numerous wars of Japan’s Bakumatsu period. A warrior who, in that most beautiful of SNK fighters, can finish you at anytime with a single sword strike. Exactly! You’d have to be pretty mental not to. As such, Kojiroh has always been my man in the series, with the nearly-as-awesome Setsuna my second.
Kojiroh is a great all-round fighter, balancing good offence and defence.
Therefore, upon seeing the same character in the awesome sequel The Last Blade 2 on Dreamcast a few years later, it was a no-brainer that I would simply graduate along with him. It didn’t take long either for me to fall back into the groove, wielding that razor-sharp katana with deadly precision. And there things remained for years.

Until about a week ago.
Every time I see The Last Blade 2 in action its animation seems even better.
That’s because a week ago I was abruptly informed by an associate that despite my man being named Kojiroh Sanada, looking like Kojiroh Sanada and sounding like Kojiroh Sanada in The Last Blade 2, that character ain't Kojiroh Sanada. No, apparently its his sister Kaori Sanada, dressed as Kojiroh who - by the time of the second game - has now died. When I first heard this I thought the guy was just plain wrong, however after consulting the almighty Internet, he was proved correct and years of my thinking was obliterated in one fell swoop.

What’s the point of this post? Nothing really, asides from the fact that, after some serious consideration, I now think Kojiroh Sanada is even cooler as a woman than a man.

Sorry Setsuna, you’ll always be second best.
I don't know who is scarier, Setsuna or his owl.

N.b. Seriously, have you seen Setsuna? Even if you did manage beat him somehow in real life then that devil owl of his would be sure to take your eyes out in no time.  

Dream Art

Can games be art? I’d like to say that it’s an age old question, but to say that would make me a complete liar as games are not an ‘age old’ medium. I guess computers, which is essentially what games consoles are at their core, could be described as ‘age old,’ but as usual I’m side tracking myself in a quagmire of completely irrelevant horse crap before I’ve even started to get to the point.

Can games be art? Well, I suppose they can. How is an amazing and emotionally-charged still image rendered on canvas with oil paints any different to a similarly powerful image created on a screen with polygons and pixels? Without getting too bogged down in my own half-cooked philosophizing, there are many, many examples of games and art in a traditional sense crossing over – just take a look at pixel art or bead art in the physical sense, and games like Okami in the gaming sense. But what about gaming hardware? What about the physical machines that we as gamers, all employ as tools to enjoy our favourite pastime? Can consoles themselves be considered as pieces of industrial design art? I’d like to say that yes they can. There are some really good-looking games machines, controllers and removable media out there and they have all undergone a complex system of internal design before being finalised and released to the public. Some games machines do look better than others and their physical forms have cemented themselves in the minds of many gamers, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

Everyone knows what a Sony PlayStation looks like for example (if you don't, then apologies - there's one just up there). Likewise with a Sega Mega Drive. The designs of those systems have embedded themselves in popular culture. On the flip side, the Atari Jaguar with a CD unit on top is often referred to as looking like a toilet, regardless of the fact that the Jaguar base system (minus the CD drive) is one of the better-looking games consoles from the past. Why am I rambling about all this though? Well, I’ve created a nice piece of art myself. Dreamcast art, in fact. Dream art. Hmm. Not sure if that works…but look here, me laddo:

These are images of my tiny Dreamcast in an egg that I got off eBay a few years ago. I did a post about it here. It’s been sat in a box in a cupboard for a while and only the other day did I think to myself – why don’t I do something with it?! So I did. I went down to Wilkinson and bought a deep picture frame – this one, in fact:

And then I pillaged a bit of promotional guff from one of my NTSC-J DC games; in this case it was a square flyer out of the Virtua Fighter 3tb box. I then combined the items together as if I was a regular Jill Valentine and came up with this rather lovely piece of post-modern, neo-classical, baroque, brutalist awesomeness:

Same size as the Mona Lisa. True story.
I was toying with the idea of putting a little light in the top of the frame and having it lit up, but for now it looks just great on the mantelpiece. And there it shall stay until I can afford to have a full-size bronze statue of myself constructed and erected instead.

Confidential Mission

The name's Gibson, Howard Gibson and he's on a mission, a Confidential Mission. This hasn't quite got the right ring to it, but take one look at the cover art of the Sega Dreamcast game Confidential Mission and it just screams James Bond 007 at you; the slick black suit and bow tie, the silenced pistol, the pretty girl, the one-eyed antagonist and his chief henchman. Maybe this game would have been more popular if it had been tied to Ian Fleming's famous spy.

Originally an arcade release in 2000, this port came to the Dreamcast a year after that, but never really gained the acclaim or success of its predecessors, Virtua Cop and House of the Dead. The story follows Howard Gibson and his partner Jean Clifford, agents for CMF who are thrown into action to save the world, as predictably the bad guys have done something devious and nasty. This time they have stolen a satellite and plan to use it to destroy CMF and try to take over the world. This reminds me of a certain mouse called The Brain and his trusty sidekick, Pinky.

Cartoon mice aside though, this game is much the same as other light-gun shooters: kill or be killed - simple really. You and your cohort will be tasked with saving CMF and defeating the bad guys, and along the way you'll play through various scenarios, like the museum and train, during which you will encounter dangerous foes and end of level bosses. Make sure you make use of pickups and special weapons to aid you in your fight.

The only downside is really my fault and that's because I had to play this game on a poxy little 14" screen. I can't help but think that my experience would have been magnified tenfold if I'd have played on a screen with a bigger surface area. Confidential Mission is definitely worth a play and to enhance your experience make sure you use the Dreamcast Gun. Get a friend round as well as a shared gaming experience is always a better one, but if you have no friends or they are out of town and you have the urge to play, knock on your neighbour's door and invite them round for some fun and games.

The Dreamcast Premiere Press Kit

I was looking around on eBay a few weeks ago and stumbled across a rather unusual article from the Dreamcast's history. There were no bids and only a couple of days left, so I stuck a cheeky bid of a few pounds on said item. As the timer counted down, I thought I was going to score a massive win and acquire a piece of memorabilia I had personally never heard of before. I was wrong. Within the last few minutes, the bids came in thick and fast and even though I threw caution to the wind and put a whopping £35 on such a frivolous item...the auction ended at almost £60! What is this mystery object?  This:

The Dreamcast Premiere Press Kit. From the blurb in the auction and from the text shown in the photos I have cunningly deduced that the Premiere set comprised of a music CD, a booklet detailing Dreamcast peripherals and upcoming games, and also a copy of Dream On 3. The set appears to have been given away to members of the gaming press to celebrate a year since the Dreamcast's UK launch, and is a really nice-looking little curio. Alas, there were collectors out there with deeper pockets than mine - which isn't hard, to be honest - and it would have been cool to actually own this item and do a proper feature on it...but cest la vie.

Shenmue In HD Remake Shocker! (Sort Of)

OK, so the chances are you've already seen this by now as it's pretty much a day old, but images have surfaced online of a fan-made HD remake of Shenmue. I'm not going to say a great deal because I'm honestly not that bothered about Shenmue. It is a vastly overrated game in my opinion and while I thoroughly appreciate the scope of the story and the graphical splendour of the franchise, I just think its almost mythical status has gotten a little bit out of hand. Every two minutes there's some new 'Save Shenmue' guff doing the rounds on the social media networks...and I really have my doubts as to whether the majority of the people supporting these campaigns have even played the original games...or if they just have extremely thick rose-tinted spectacles on. Anyway, I'm going to stop there before I cause a schism in the DCJY readership - I know there are plenty of people out there who genuinely love the games; but for me they are nothing if not a lesson in tedium. And that's fine...because everyone is entitled to an opinion, right?

Regardless - my humble opinion shouldn't detract from the hard work that has clearly gone into dragging the original Shenmue right up to date in the graphics department, and here are some rather lovely-looking images images courtesy of Korean Shenmue fan Ncoonkid:

For further info, be sure to check out RetroCollect's article here, SEGAbits' piece here, and CVG's feature here.

Welcome To Warp Zone!

I appreciate that a lot of people who either follow me (@Tomleecee) or the Junkyard's main account (@SEGAJunkyard) on Twitter will have already seen this, and likewise for those of you who have done the right thing and 'liked' the DCJY on Facebook; but I thought it was only right that I dedicate a full-blown post to here to my recently customised Dreamcast. The job was done by a very talented modding outfit called Warp Zone, and their usual console of choice is the Nintendo Entertainment System:

I, however decided to try my luck and ask if they could do a custom job on a Dreamcast. I didn't want much - just a nice blue shade on a console shell and a matching pad. Nowt fancy -  I'm an advocate of the old 'less is more' mantra. They accepted my challenge and so I dismantled a rather disgusting-looking yellow Dreamcast, put it in a bin-bag full of empty gin bottles and sent it off to the dudes at Warp Zone.

Less than a week later, they sent me these images:

And some time later...this arrived (well, the shells did - I had to employ my 'engineering' skills to re-assemble the console and the joypad)...

Frankly, it looks awesome. I even took it to Revival 2014 to display (see above), and was offered hard cash for it by a member of the public. Naturally, I turned him down but I can totally see why - I can't praise the finish enough...this system looks like it was always meant to be electric blue. I've toyed with the idea of changing the orange LED for a blue one to match the paintwork, but I think the orange original actually works better due to the contrast.

If you'd like to have your Dreamcast 'seen to' in the most positive way, visit Warp Zone's website and drop them an email. Prices are very reasonable, and you won't regret giving your tired-looking console a fresh new look. You can also find them on Facebook here, and while you're there - give us a 'like' too, you barsteward!

Mighty Morphin' Power Boards

Last weekend was amazing. Really, really amazing. For several reasons. The first - and most important - was that it was Revival Events' self-titled Revival 2014, a massive retro-gaming event held at Dunstall Park racecourse in Wolverhampton. I was there as part of the RetroCollect team, running loads of gaming challenges and just generally chatting to gamers and acting the fool. Another reason it was amazing was that I got to meet, chat with and actually touch the flowing hair of John Romero:
The photographer wasn't happy with the focus
In case you're unfamiliar with what the genius behind Doom looks like, that's him on the right. Not the grinning fool on the left - that's me. To be fair I was grinning like that because Mr Romero had just whispered the secret to his flowing mane into my ear, and as you can see this was greatly received as my hairline is receding faster than the Norfolk coastline. He also signed my boxed copy of Doom for the Atari Jaguar, so there was that too. But let's get back to the reason you're here: I also bought a Dreamcast. Yes, another Dreamcast. but unlike all of the others I now have clogging the entrance to my bathroom, this one is different. It came in a box...with an orange swirl:

Yes, I bought my first NTSC-J system for the bargain price of £50 from a trader called Sore Thumb Retro Games. And to say its in great condition is an understatement. The console has no signs of yellowing at all, and has all of the documentation including the Dream Passport (sealed) and manuals. Naturally, being a Japanese system the plug adapter ends with two prongs and simply will not fit in a UK power socket. And even if it could, the power coming out of the wall would likely travel down the wire, into the console and instantly transform the immaculate white box of fun into a large ball of flame, simultaneously causing untold collateral damage to any curtains, throw cushions and random empty beer tins in the vicinity. And in my gaff, there's always a high probability that empty beer tins could also be hidden inside the throw cushions, so the damage bill - in this hypothetical situation - could easily be triple that caused inside your average residential shit-hole. In order to prevent the aforementioned cataclysm, I employed the services of one of these things in order to play on my newly purchased NTSC-J machine:

That's a converter thingy. You put the foreign plug in one side and the UK three-pronged side into the wall socket, and by some kind of magical process no doubt involving a tiny wizard living inside the device, the horrid nasty UK electricity transforms into Japanese Dreamcast-friendly power! See - magic! So anyway, I played the DC for a bit, mucked around with the menu and changed the language to English and marvelled at Sega Rally 2 running a bit quicker...and then I went to do some other menial task that life dictated I must do. It was probably the washing up or be honest I've totally forgotten. Actually, it could have been folding some towels up. Or was it some ironing? Fuck it - I can't remember.

Anyway, I totally forgot (there's a theme here) that I'd left the Dreamcast plugged in to the step-down transformer. It wasn't until a few days later that I went to turn on the Dreamcast again that I discovered it would not turn on. I was pretty stumped until I deduced that leaving the transformer plugged into the mains must have damaged it in some way - indeed, the smell of burning wizard flesh coming from the vents on the side of the thing added weight to my hypothesis. So there I was, left with a Japanese Dreamcast and a dead step-down transformer. I looked on eBay for another one, but being a bit strapped for cash having spent all my money buying the secret ingredients to concoct John Romero's Magical Hair Serum™, I decided that I would investigate an alternative remedy to getting my NTSC system up and running again. I took to Twitter and asked the question - is it possible to put a UK power board inside a Japanese or US Dreamcast in order to use a standard UK plug with it, thus negating the need for a converter. Amongst others, The Gagaman himself answered my call - the answer was a resounding "yes!"

Knowing I had a load of spare PAL Dreamcast bits knocking about, I decided to give it a go - putting a UK power board into an NTSC Dreamcast. Here's how I got on:

And there it is! An NTSC-J Dreamcast happily humming away with a UK plug adapter attached to it, with nary a step-down converter in sight. It's a really easy operation to carry out providing you have the parts handy, and I've also kept the original board and plug in the box just in case I ever move to Japan and feel the need to take a native console back there with me.

I'm off to apply some of my hair serum now. If I end up looking like a Cacodemon, I'll be writing a strongly-worded email to my old pal John.