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Showing posts with label Sega AM2. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sega AM2. Show all posts

Retrospective: Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1

When is a football game not actually a football game? When it's Virtua Striker, of course! The Dreamcast iteration of Virtua Striker 2 was initially released in Japan in 1999, under the slightly odd moniker of Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1; a title which you'd be forgiven for mistaking as a Windows update patch. This comparison isn't actually as outlandish as you might think though, when you consider that previous Model 3 arcade based versions of Virtua Striker 2 were bequeathed with similarly date specific nomenclature - Virtua Striker 2 was previously delivered to arcades in ver '98, ver '99 and ver 2000 before ver 2000.1 finally made its way into homes as part of the Dreamcast library.

Naturally, that this Sega AM2 developed soccer title has a numerical suffix hints that it is indeed a sequel, and not only that; for if you were to be even more inclined to combine inquisitive cognition and the human ability to conceive of future tenses (even though we are technically going into the past, here), then you'd also be totally correct to hypothesise that it is also simultaneously a prequel. Basically, what that absolute nonsense means in a nutshell is that there was a prequel (Virtua Striker) released in arcades 1994; and two sequels in the form of Virtua Striker 3 released on Nintendo Gamecube and in arcades in 2002; and Virtua Striker 4 released exclusively as a coin-op in 2004.

Now we've covered the potted history of Virtua Striker releases in very abridged form, let's get down to brass tacks. Cast your mind back to when you first started reading this badly constructed article and you'll recall that I rather brazenly announced that Virtua Striker is not a football game. And that's because it's not. Rather, it is football in the most arcadey format you're ever likely to see...which kinda makes sense given the actual arcade cabinet based origins of the series. Apologies if the constantly backpedaling mess of contradictory meandering is confusing the whole situation here, but I've had a long day and I just need to write something. Anything. And it's turned out to be this. Sorry.

Designed to be played in short sessions, easy on the eye and spectacular almost to a fault, the Virtua Striker games are divisive in the extreme...and Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1 for Dreamcast does nothing to upset this particular apple cart. Indeed, I think I'm well within my rights to pompously declare Virtua Striker the Marmite of football games - you'll either absolutely loathe it; or you'll think it is the best thing since sliced bread (and then try to spread it on said staple before ravenously devouring it, you contemptible monster).

I remember when games magazines of yore would show screens of Virtua Striker, sometimes even going as far as to state that a Sega Saturn port was in production. I would gaze longingly at those chunky-legged polygonal footballers contorted into impossible shapes while toe-poking sharp-edged footballs into bulging nets, and dream of them someday adorning my beloved Saturn. Alas, that dream never became reality, and so my first real taste of Virtua Striker's flavour of footy came when Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1 burst onto the PAL Dreamcast in 2000. 

Feverishly I loaded the GD into my console and was instantly mesmerised by opening cinematics of highly detailed footballers lining up for Sega-ised anthems in cathedral-like stadia. Footballing nirvana was a mere button press away. The hype was real, Virtua Striker 2 was finally in my living room and memories of ISS '98 on the Nintendo 64 were ready to be overwritten with the barnstorming return to glory of the mighty Sega. And then the game started and I almost cried. With sadness, that is.

Before I go on, I want to remind you that I'm writing this from memory - I was a teenager who had heard about how amazing Virtua Striker was, had never played it but been a fully paid up passenger on the hype train since the first time I saw the amazing screenshots of Virtua Striker 2 in magazines. And now here it was, finally being pumped into my eyeballs via the power of a Tatung CRT television (with full on mahogany surround and Fastext, I might add)...and yet I was heartbroken. Why? Because - and to be blunt - it played like absolute arse crack.

I was expecting something like ISS 64 but with CGI graphics; instead I was playing a computerised version of Subbuteo with a cloth pitch that hadn't been ironed properly so the ball never made it over the creases to the intended destination. Virtua Striker 2, here, in all it's amazing looking glory...but with no commentary, no changeable camera angles, about two buttons and a stupid 'swooshing' noise every time you attempt to tackle. Idiotic AI teammates, hardly any teams to actually play as, a daft time limit on matches, no half times, and no substitutions. I hated it. I hated what I was witnessing. How could they have gotten something that looked so right, so awfully and harrowingly wrong...?

Shenmusings of Ryobots, Niaowu, and Shenmue III's Uncertain Legacy

Ryo Hazuki is an android, right? I’ve suspected it for a while but after finishing Shenmue III recently, I'm going all in on the Ryobot theory. It explains too much not to be canon.

Ryo has always been a bizarrely stilted and stoic character, of course. That much isn’t news. Yet after accompanying him for every waking minute across three games – games which depict the painstaking minutiae of everything from longshore crate logistics to the mid-‘80s weather record of the Kanagawa Prefecture – Ryo still has not pooped.

In fairness, few protagonists in fiction are forthcoming about their physiological functions. But, unlike Ryo, they at least behave in ways that can be reasonably interpreted as human-like. Meanwhile, Ryo acts less like a person and more like an emotionally unavailable animatronic, programmed in the languages of kung fu and non sequiturs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to knock him. The technology behind Ryobot was very impressive for 1987.

Oh, and did I mention the shared consciousness between Ryo and his friend, Shenhua? She is also an android, probably, in addition to being the unwitting mascot of a junk food brand for some reason.

OK. The point of this write up is not to espouse the incontrovertible theory that Ryo is a semi-sentient robot, even if it is also that. Back when it came out in November 2019, I had put about a dozen or so hours into Shenmue III before dropping off of it. After leaving him in stasis at Hotel Niaowu for a full calendar year, I recently (and finally!) caught up on Ryo’s journey to date. I also realized we hadn’t yet discussed the game in-depth on the Junkyard since its release. With all that, I’m really here to work out my thoughts on Shenmue III in hopes of making some sense of its place in the series’ legacy. But first let’s take a step back, and into the shoes it hoped to fill…

As for many fans, the first two Shenmue games were formative for my interest in gaming. For a medium where kinetic action and instant gratification shaped the bedrock of most gaming experiences, it was oddly refreshing – if jarring – to play something with such love for mundanity and contempt for players’ impatience. Ironically, it was my own impatience that led me to buy the Japanese version of the original Shenmue, several months before its western release. I couldn't say why; I didn't even speak Japanese. Hell, I was barely pulling a passing grade in English class.

Yet, even then, my 14-year-old mind was blown by Shenmue’s unabashed indulgence in the ordinary. I was taken aback by its audacity to let me knock on neighbors’ doors, chug orange Fanta*, and stalk an entire community of busy folks for no other reason than because I could. When the events of Shenmue II set Ryo loose to explore Hong Kong, seeing it all scale to a bustling, urban setting was revelatory all on its own. Shenmue I and II’s detailed and lively locales immersed me in their astonishing sense of place and community. They felt like genuinely bustling locations that could believably exist without me. They also challenged any assumptions that video games always had to be, well, game-like. Through its novel approach to worldbuilding and interactivity, Shenmue invited me to inhabit its worlds – not only as a player – but as a resident and visitor.



* Vending machines in the Japanese version of Shenmue were stocked with licensed Coca-Cola products rather than our beloved “Jet Cola” and “Frunda” off-brands (also, was Bell Wood a person, or...?)

Yu Suzuki and AM2’s magnum opuses offered a remarkably ambitious and unorthodox vision for what video games could be and how players could engage with their spaces. In bankrolling their vision, Sega rebuked all conventional wisdom that big budget games ought to be marketable and fiscally viable. Shenmue I and II were neither – or at least not either enough – and Sega paid a steep price. Beyond failing to recoup its massive development and marketing costs; beyond its eventual retreat from the hardware market; Sega presented a perennial Exhibit A for the downsides of risks to an increasingly risk-adverse games industry.

After that, it seemed unfathomable that we would ever return to Shenmue’s amazingly ambitious, immersive, and bustling world. Nearly two decades later, we still haven’t.

Shenmusings of Dobuita, Community, and the Friends We Stalked Along the Way

In better times, my neighborhood reminds me of Dobuita, the vibrant business district setting of Sega and AM2’s pedestrian stalking simulator, Shenmue. It bustles with life as people pack the restaurants, bars, shops, parks, arcades, and the streets in between. I can take a quick jaunt down the road and be surrounded by patrons, workers, shop owners, cooks, bartenders, barbers, and even sailors (well, commercial fishermen, actually). These folks are more than cursory non-player characters. They are my neighbors. They are my friends. They are the very fabric of my community.

But for now, they are gone.
These days, walking through my neighborhood feels like I’m in a typical late '90s video game town. Clusters of buildings line the street but the developers were unable to render more than a handful of NPCs to populate it.

Taking a step back: My heart goes out to everyone struggling through this uncertain and challenging time. If there’s a silver lining, it might be that we’re fortunate to have a hobby like video games to help bide our time as our non-virtual world lies in stasis.

It also helps that gaming is a uniquely personal medium. Through our interaction and immersion, games invite us to co-author a broad range of experiences which we can enjoy on a multitude of levels. Games can bring welcome moments of reprieve and distraction. We can find comfort in their escapism and nostalgia. Whether from across the couch or the internet, we can share experiences with old friends and make new friends of strangers. Beyond that, games can challenge us – and not only in terms of precision, reflexes, or strategy. They can push us to expand our understanding, grow our perspectives, and stretch our imaginations through memorable experiences that we carry with us long after we’ve put down the controller.
In its own way, this situation is a unique opportunity to slow down and consider what is most important to us, whether that's friends, family, community, altruism…and video games, of course. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on my time with gaming, what I appreciate most about the hobby, and what I really want out of it going forward. I’ve also thought about the games that significantly shaped how I engage with the medium. In that sense, I can’t help but keep coming back to the Dreamcast’s library.

Nostalgic attachment aside, Sega’s swansong console simultaneously defined and challenged my perceptions of video games. Although the Dreamcast initially drew me in on its promise of more-than-faithful arcade conversions and the triumphant return of a blue childhood icon, it ultimately forged its legacy by striving to redefine gaming’s future more than rehash its past. It showed me how games can be more unique, interesting, and meaningful experiences well beyond their fun factor and replay value. Through its culture of unbounded creativity, the Dreamcast was refreshingly unorthodox and innovative in ways the industry rarely allows.

In some ways, the Dreamcast was as much an art collective as it was a consumer product. Nowhere was this clearer than in the unchecked (and frankly, fiscally reckless) authority Sega gave its development studios and publishing partners to create whatever the hell they wanted for its wacky white box. In that spirit, this essay could've been about any one of the Dreamcast’s unabashedly inventive works: Rez, or Jet Set Radio, or L.O.L.: Lack of Love, or the VMU, or Illbleed, or Maken X, or Chu Chu Rocket, or D2, or Roommania #203, or Seaman, or Samba de Amigo’s maracas, or…you get the idea.

But this is about Shenmue, because of course it is.