Games begin a long love affair with pizza, controversy dominates the 80s, bad ports and more in history this month.

10 Years Ago This Month: May 2007

FM2

May had little in the way of significant new releases, meaning leading the pack was Forza Motorsport 2 on XBox 360. Turn 10’s racing sim would get real traction by its third installment, but Forza 2 built on what made the first popular on the original XBox and expanded features to take advantage of new hardware. Chief among those was the increased penetration of XBox Live, and a more powerful livery creator that led to intricate custom cars being shared with other players.

Elsewhere in Microsoft land, twin disasters were new on the scene in the form of Windows (sigh) Vista and Games (sigh) for Windows Live. Vista would be panned and GWL would die a quick death, but at this point something was at least being seen to be done. Halo 2 would be brought to the PC and while welcome, was still a three year old game by now. Meanwhile Shadowrun was the first, and one of very few, games to offer cross platform multiplayer matchmaking between PC and XBox 360.

Cross platform play was a nice idea, but in Shadowrun’s class based first person shooting, meant that mouse and keyboard PC players had an innate advantage off the bat. More troubling was the fact that the rad cyberpunk RPG world of Shadowrun, beloved by pen and paper fans and by players of strong SNES and Mega Drive interpretations, was boiled down to a class based multiplayer FPS. It wouldn’t take long for the player count to dwindle.

If you had a PS3, you were out of luck in terms of new games of any import this month. You could potentially have found your way into the Beta for PlayStation Home though. Grrreeeaaattt. Prompted by Second Life still being deemed somewhat relevant, Home was a place for player created avatars to wander around and chat to one another, as well as decorate home spaces and watch and play interactive adverts. It was rubbish.

20 Years Ago This Month: May 1997

64dd

With the last entrant into the console wars only just having launched in all major territories, it seemed early to be talking about what was next. Still, that’s where we found ourselves in May 1997.

Sega was in a dire state at this point. While the Saturn was faring well enough in Japan, it was flopping hard in western territories. A lack of software that properly took advantage of the system’s complicated architecture was a prime reason for this, as well as the dominance of PlayStation in both America and Europe. Marketing was poor as well, partly due to incredibly poor communication between Sega of America and Sega of Japan. Already rumours circulated, thanks to leaked information from the American offices, that Saturn would cease production at the end of 1997 in the west. Games meanwhile were only being scheduled for release to meet that timeline, with very little on the slate for 1998.

So what was next for Sega? Deals with big players in the PC space seemed to be heading places. Sega were already friendly with 3DFX, who helped create a quad based 3D accelerator for PC that enabled ports of Saturn and arcade Model 2 based games. It seemed SoA were working to secure 3DFX technology for a new system that was code named Black Belt. Microsoft was also on Sega’s list of contacts, as it seemed they would be on board to create the core of the new system’s operating system.

Nintendo was in second place in the console race, but that still meant struggling against Sony. Their choice of proprietary cartridges over CDs for the N64 was damaging to punters that wanted CG cutscenes and CD capacity and developers that didn’t want to pay exorbitant license and manufacturing costs. The 64DD was a bid to meet halfway, and new details about the system came out this month.

The expansion, which followed on from the Famicom Disk System, was to double the N64 onboard RAM to 8MB, while running on a special floppy disk format. ‘Special’ in that, yes, it was proprietary, the floppies themselves encased in a hard plastic shell unique to the system. Spec wise, 64DD was a mixed bag, offering read and writability (good) but with a 64 Meg capacity (bad, at a tenth of what a CD could hold, and ultimately not far off what the biggest capacity N64 carts would hold by the end of the system’s life. The machine would also allow internet access for web browsing and potential downloadable content (good, and forward thinking) but thanks to the way the floppies would be read, couldn’t stream data like CD audio (bad). All told, the hardware was approaching a salable state in 1997… In theory at least.

N64 still had a small games library, especially in Europe, having only reached launch in March. FIFA 64 was not going to justify any hardware purchases though. Being based on the dreadful FIFA ’97 wasn’t going to help this football release, but things only got worse when, with game modes like indoor soccer being removed, and the only addition being a picture in picture mode that sent frame rates crashing, the N64 release was decidedly worse than its CD bigger brother.

MDK looked a bit bleak, but was darkly comic fun.

MDK looked a bit bleak, but was darkly comic fun.

On PlayStation, Rage Racer hit western shelves after getting a Japanese release the prior December. After the half step of Ride Racer Revolution, Rage took the darker and more realistic visual tone of Rave Racer (the arcade game that formed Rage’s base) and implemented a broader career based structure, as you earned money to spend on cars across five classes.

Finally, Shiny Software of Earthworm Jim fame gave us their first 3D offering in MDK for PC. As the title suggested (the acronym stood for Murder, Death, Kill) this was a somewhat tongue in cheek third person shooter with a lot of personality. A fast flowing and fun shooter, the game was also one of the first to show gamers the joy of sniper rifles, as your view switched to a first person perspective to zoom in on creatures far away.

30 Years Ago This Month: May 1987

zillion

The Master System and Mark 3 got some love this month in the form of Sega’s Zillion. This was quite the ambitious title, and not just for its non linear design based around finding pass codes and abilities on a base and was seemingly informed by Impossible Mission and Metroid. Zillion was one of the first games conceived around ideas for a multimedia franchise. Many games had been based on toy lines and anime by this point, but Zillion was to launch alongside an animated series in Japan, as well as a toy line that included the gun that was prominently featured on the game cover and attract screen. The Zillion gun even informed the design of the Sega’s light gun for their 8 bit hardware. Zillion was a decent game, but on a format that was struggling outside of Europe, and few were drawn into the anime.

Barbaric

Barbaric

Arguably, that toy gun may have run into trouble on release in Europe. The West German government was fairly aggressive when it came to blocking video games from release, a policy that would continue over the ensuing decades even after reunification with the east and the end of the Cold War. Government policy was especially worried about violent media or anything that might recall Nazism and the German role in World War 2. This would famously cause Wolfenstein 3D to be radically altered, and Contra to be renamed Probotector in the west (it was fine to shoot people to death f the people were robots!). This month Microprose were running into difficulty as submarine sim Silent Service was banned in West Germany. The German government’s stance was that the game glorified war, prompting appeals from Microprose, and a new conversation about censorship when it came to interactive media.

Barbarian would also be banned in West Germany, but was controversial in the UK for other reasons. Palace Software’s sword based C64 fighting game was violent, for sure, with heads being chopped off left and right. Protests however chose to focus on the game’s marketing and cover art, featuring a titular barbarian figure (who famously would go on to become Wolf on the UK’s version of Gladiators in the early ’90s) and an extremely scantily clad page 3 model Maria Whittaker.

Sex being far more dangerous to the youth than violence of course, Barbarian found more coverage in mainstream news than the fabric hiding Whittaker’s chestal area. Palace enjoyed the publicity of course, and the game would become the publisher’s biggest selling title.

40 Years Ago This Month: May 1977

Nolan Bushnell was a busy man in 1977. While Atari’s arcade business was still going strong, Bushnell was also tasked with helping a home console reach the market later in the summer. He’d also open a restaurant that grew into a chain in May. Chuck E Cheeze’s Pizza Time Theater was a family restaurant that would prominently feature an animatronic mouse mascot, and Atari arcade games to keep kids entertained.
Bushnell would hand her day to day running of the restaurant business in 1981, but, as simply Chuck E Cheeze, his restaurant brand would ultimately outlive Atari itself.

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Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)