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The popularity of the Atari 2600 and the success of Activision as the system's first third-party publisher opened the floodgates for other third-parties to saturate the market in the early 1980s. If you're even vaguely familiar with the 2600, you've probably heard of Imagic. Companies like Parker Brothers, Coleco, Mattel, and Sega also made games for the venerable platform. Then there was Data Age, a California firm started by a group of venture capitalists that has largely been forgotten by history.
First impressions are very important, and Data Age made a lousy one with their initial lineup of titles. Sssnake in particular, a banal Centipede clone, is generally considered one of the worst games on the 2600. Data Age got better over time, though: Journey Escape, based around the band Journey, is merely boring, the shooter Bermuda Triangle is good, and Frankenstein's Monster is knocking on the door of greatness.
Frankenstein's Monster is basically a combination of the multi-level platforming of Donkey Kong and the creature dodging and obstacle hopping of Pitfall!. The object is to build a wall around the monster before he's brought to life and goes on a rampage. To do that, you must make your way past ghosts, spiders, and trap doors, down to the dungeon of Dr. Frankenstein's castle.
The dungeon is where you'll find a stone for your wall, but you'll have to cross a pool of acid and moving platforms to get it. Then you must go back to the top of the castle and run through a swarm of vampire bats before leaving the stone at its final destination.
With each round trip, the task becomes more treacherous, all the while the monster grows in power. There is a time limit, so use trap doors to your advantage. You lose points, but you save precious seconds. Succeed and watch the monster fade into oblivion; fail and watch the rampage unfold.
Fun and varied gameplay, a clear goal and ending, a nice game over sequence — Frankenstein's Monster has a lot going for it. It might even be, to use an overused term, a "hidden gem." Unfortunately, neither Franky nor big licenses like Journey were enough to turn the tide. Data Age filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 1983. (One article suggests Frankenstein's Monster didn't make it to store shelves as a result.)
At this time, we do not know the names of the people who actually developed Data Age's games. One name that comes up with any connection to development is J. Ray Dettling, a science fiction writer who wrote the backstories. He supposedly also designed the games, or at least some of them, and in one interview says he worked on graphics and sound effects on their last few games including Frankenstein's Monster.
According to Activision Anthology (2600 compilation) producer Ken Love, who was trying to put together an Anthology of games by other third-parties, all the games were done by three Chinese programmers — in the US. Hong Kong records show that a company called Data Age Far East Limited existed during this timeframe, but that could have just been related to manufacturing, if it's related at all.
Shooters, shmups — whatever you want to call them, they were everywhere in the early 1990s, and the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis was a shoot-em-up powerhouse. The Super Famicom/Super NES was not, or at least that's the reputation it had.
Games like D-Force (Dimension Force in Japan) from publisher Asmik (the one with the pink dinosaur as the mascot) didn't help dispel that notion. It's about as generic as it gets on the "Snezz." To make up for that, developer Cream added a heaping helping of Mode 7, as any good early SNES game would.
You see, every other stage is an "exploration" stage during which you can switch between altitudes. Other games like Blade Eagle for the Master System and Vertical Force for the Virtual Boy tried this, but in those only your ship moved. Here, the entire background zooms in and out. It MIGHT have been cool back then, but it's cheesy now.
These so-called exploration stages have other problems. It's sometimes hard to tell what's background decoration and what can hurt you if you fly into it. It's also possible to fly into enemies above you (that you can't see) as you raise your altitude.
When you lose all your choppers, you spin out of control. Well, the background spins and you crash while an annoying whirring noise loops. That gets obnoxious after the 5th or 10th time.
While I only learned of Cream's involvement in the development of this game from someone's resume, it fits in with some of their other games. Not only is it rather sterile, it's a bit clunky as well. The collision detection is off, and enemies — especially bosses and mid-bosses — bounce and zoom around a lot. Sometimes there's just too much going on on-screen, which causes that customary SNES slowdown.
Months earlier, Asmik released a shooter for the Japanese Mega Drive called Verytex, developed by Opera House. One thing it has that D-Force doesn't is some great sound work by Hitoshi Sakimoto, Masaharu Iwata, and Yoshio "JKL" Furukawa.
Verytex is bland in its own right, but it's much more enjoyable than D-Force in every way. I thought maybe the excellent music was clouding my judgment, so I muted it — nope, still better.
Some other differences include a choice of three main weapons you can pick up along the way, instead of just powering up your base weapon. You also have the ability to use bombs, which would have been very helpful in D-Force.
Then there are the similarities. In both games, you have a main weapon and homing missiles. Both games have mid-bosses, and they're both "paint-by-numbers" vertical shooters. That may not sound like much, but the more I compare the two, the more similar they feel on some molecular level, despite different developers.
This might be a stretch, but could those structural similarities be because of a common client? Both games appear to have been done for or through a company called ISCO, which is even mentioned in Verytex's ending credits. D-Force has little in the way of credits, but there is someone from ISCO given special thanks, and we've made several connections between Cream and ISCO. As far as we can tell, this company ISCO usually subcontracted to other companies, but I feel like they may have commissioned these games, rather than the publisher, and then sold them to Asmik, similar to what happened with Wurm for the NES. (See our Shouichi Yoshikawa interview.) However, that's purely speculation on my part.
Videos by "Vysethedetermined2" and "10min Gameplay" on YouTube
We're pleased to announce that Tower of Druaga and Dragon Buster had a baby and its name is Zombie Hunter.
In this Famicom title, you control a warrior wearing golden armor, trying to find a key to move on to the next area. Sound familiar? And just like Dragon Buster, it's a side-view, weapon-swinging action game where you periodically stop to battle enemies (which are apparently all zombies). Also, most of the bosses are dragons.
More RPG elements have been added to the mix such as experience points and leveling up. Victorious battles also earn you treasure chests filled with gold, which you can use in shops hidden throughout the game. Chests may also contain items such as armor, food, medicine, new weapons, and the key to the next level. Hopefully the enemies drop enough items because this is a tough game. Grinding is recommended.
Despite the fact most of the game takes place in an underground labyrinth, the levels aren't very mazelike at all. You're given the choice of two paths at the start and that's it. Unlike Dragon Buster, the stages only scroll left and right.
Zombie Hunter's resemblance to those Namco classics isn't much of a surprise, considering it was the brainchild of programmer Fukashi Omorita, a former employee at the venerable game maker. In fact, he worked on the Famicom version of Tower of Druaga and several other conversions. He later programmed Itadaki Street for the Famicom and a Monopoly game for the Super Famicom produced by Shigesato Itoi, then joined Chunsoft, where he was involved with some visual novels and Torneko no Daibouken games.
Other people worked on the game, of course — Omorita mentions on his site a graphic designer named Suda, who died several years later at a young age. The development company Lenar was brought in to do background graphics, music, and the voice synthesis you hear on occasion. Lenar was run by Junichi Mizutari, an acquaintance of Omorita's from Namco.
Zombie Hunter was published by a company called Hi-Score Media Work, which was also responsible for a game magazine. They were sued by Enix after they ran a spoiler article on Dragon Quest II, and that may have been the start of their downfall. They went on to release an English dictionary for the MSX (which Omorita worked on) as well as Faria, a Famicom RPG from Game Arts and something called Colon. They also appear to be behind the much-maligned PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 shooter Deep Blue, which was published by Pack-In-Video (which distributed Faria).
An MSX2 version of Zombie Hunter was also released which loses the voice samples and has choppier scrolling. The credits are the same as the Famicom version except for the addition of one programmer. It's unclear if Omorita actually worked on it as he doesn't talk about it on his site.
Activision planned a stateside NES release called Zombie Master, but that was canceled. If you must play Zombie Hunter, seek out the English translation by KingMike.
Post updated July 3, 2022
We now have "official" evidence of certain developers' involvement in certain Sega 8- and 16-bit games. But first, here's some background on the case that produced it:
In October 1993, Atari Corp.1 filed a lawsuit against Sega of America alleging infringement of a 1984 patent involving "horizontal scrolling on a video display."2 The Tramiel family company sought a preliminary injunction that would have halted the manufacture, use, and sale of Genesis and Game Gear hardware and software.
The court found that the harm caused to Sega, retailers, developers, and peripheral manufacturers by this injunction would have likely outweighed whatever harm had been done to Atari, so the motion was denied. Nevertheless, a settlement was reached in September 1994 between both parties — Sega would acquire $40 million worth of stock in Atari and would also pay Atari $50 million for a license to use over 70 patents issued between 1977 and 1984. The companies agreed to cross-license up to five games per year through 2001. They also agreed to drop all claims against each other.
For the cash-strapped Atari Corp., this infusion of money was very important and likely helped enable deals with Williams, Acclaim, and EA and other projects that were in the hopper in 1995. Unfortunately, Atari president and CEO Sam Tramiel later had a heart attack, which prompted his father Jack to take back the reins of the company.3 Jack felt it was safer to tie up with JTS, a manufacturer of hard drives — a "brown box commodity" that required little marketing — than to continue piddling away money on video games and the Jaguar, which sold so poorly.4 Atari entered a reverse merger with JTS on July 30, 1996.
Ultimately, no Sega games ever made it to the Jaguar, but Atari did show interest. Sega sent a list of games available for licensing and, as you'll see in the memos posted below, eventually did approve a few. There was some speculation in the press that Virtua Fighter and Daytona could turn up on the Jag, but these were apparently off the table. Instead, Atari received a catalog of 8- and 16-bit games that also didn't include Sonic or Ecco. The list also notes if royalties would be owed to or need to be negotiated with a third party, usually outside developers, many of which are covered on this site.
Street Fighter II was such a phenomenon, even Sega of Japan made tepid attempts at cashing in. There was the arcade game Burning Rival, which is neither well-liked nor well-remembered. On the Master System and Game Gear, there was Masters of Combat/Buster Fight (developed by SIMS), which had a Dhalsim-like character with stretching arms and legs. Then there's this unreleased Mega CD/Sega CD game from 1994.
Burning Fists received little press and was quietly cancelled. Nevertheless, it was supposedly 80% complete, and there were two protoypes that eventually fell into the hands of Good Deal Games, which polished them up for a 2006 release.
So what do you get at 80% complete? Well, you get to choose from a motley but unmemorable cast of characters including a Japanese martial arts guy (the Ryu of the group), a Russian boxer with blue skin (the Blanka of the group, I guess), an overweight US Army guy, and a female wrestler.
The game itself, which is compatible with the six-button controller, is pretty unremarkable. You have various punches, kicks, and moves, you can block, and you can throw your opponent, but there's just nothing here that makes it stand out from other fighting games.
Most of the stages are fairly mundane as well, but a couple have nice flourishes. For example, the Daytona stage has a race car in the background that speeds off when the match is finished. A couple of the locales are interesting; I can't think of too many fighting games with an Iraq stage.
The AI was apparently beefed up for the GDG release, according to this article, but the notes on the disc say this was "canned." Either way, it's anemic most of the time. In many instances, you can spam a single attack.
What don't you get at 80% complete? Despite Good Deal Games' efforts, you don't get a bug-free game. On rare occasion, your opponent will stop moving.
And be careful not to press the start button after you win a round, or you'll activate a different bug — or perhaps it's a leftover debugging feature. The game will freeze, and you'll have to advance frames by pressing start until the word "FIGHT" forms in the next round.
One of the stages is missing: Denmark. There is no final boss battle, though you see his intro at the end of the game. You also don't get endings for each individual character; apparently these didn't work right and can't be seen in-game, but they are included as a bonus video on the disc.
There isn't even a consistent game name. The title screen says Force Striker, but other parts say Burning Fists, hence the conjoined name on the GDG release. According to Goodbye Soft, a book of unreleased MD/MCD/32X games, previous titles were Hustle Muscle and Real Fighters. (If you watch those individual endings, you'll see the characters all become "Real Fighters" after beating the boss.)
If you dig around the disc, you'll find the name of developer KAZe. Known more for pinball games like Last Gladiators on the Saturn, this would be KAZe's earliest known title for any Sega system. The company would not do another fighter until the Kamen Rider games for the PlayStation several years later. A 2ch post from 2007 backs up KAZe's involvement and says former Namco sound designer Norio Nakagata was the producer.
Speaking of sound, one of Burning Fists' strong points is the music, which seems like rejected tracks from Last Gladiators (not a bad thing). I went so far as to ask Last Gladiators composer and frequent KAZe collaborator Yusuke Takahama if he was involved; he confirmed it. ("Yes, I think I was in charge, but I do not know if the game was released.")
Overall, Burning Fists: Force Striker is a standard fighting game with glimmers of potential. It would have been decent if it was finished, but it probably would have never been a big hit.
Running on Sega's top-of-the-line Model 2 hardware, Virtua Fighter 2 was a remarkable feat of graphics and gameplay when it was released in arcades. Even the Saturn version seemed incredible at the time, but it took a lot of work to get it running at a high frame rate, and it was still not arcade perfect. Surely bringing VF2 to the Genesis would be an impossible task. That didn't stop them from trying.
Unsurprisingly, the graphics are the greatest and most obvious difference in this 16-bit version, now entirely 2D. The character animation is a little choppy, but the effect on gameplay is minimal. It still controls like you would expect a Virtua Fighter game to control.
The music has been competently converted, marred only by the overall tinniness of the audio. The voice samples, meanwhile, bring back memories of Fighters Megamix on the game.com. On second thought, they're not quite that bad, but they are scratchy.
Invariably in such translations, some content is going to get cut. Gone are the new characters from the arcade version, Shun Di and Lion, and some of the backgrounds. Some voices and moves are also missing.
It would be easy to dismiss this game as shovelware; however, consider that it was put together by a fairly extensive team in Japan (the only place where this version wasn't originally released). The programming and some of the graphics were done by Gai Brain, which developed a number of Takara's SNK ports including the great Game Gear version of Fatal Fury Special. Cotton maker Success was also involved with the graphics. Data East was involved in a production and direction capacity. Prolific audio company Cube worked on the sound.
Even Satoshi Nakai, who designed the enemies in Wings of Wor and Resident Evil – Code: Veronica among many other things, toiled away on this game. As he said in The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Volume 2, "I have painful memories of banging out pixels while drenched with sweat from the hot summer weather." And he just worked on Jacky.
On its own, Virtua Fighter 2 is not bad; you couldn't expect much better on the Genesis. It's just not better than any other version and was/is completely unnecessary. It's a novelty — a novelty they insist on including in every Genesis compilation and plug & play device ever made.
Video by "AoFparson" on YouTube