Robotic Gaming Monthly - PAX, Gamescom, and Sad Signs O' The Times

By Kyle LeClair in Video Games
Tuesday, September 2, 2014 at 6:00 am

And now, time for the Retro Gaming Mag Spotlight! This month we take a look at the December 1999 issue of Gamers' Republic, meaning we have now jumped from the innocent times of the beginning of the '90s to the end of the '90s, when everyone in America was running around and trying to stock up on canned goods and toilet paper because they were convinced computers were going to destroy the world.

And as for Gamers' Republic...Ah, Dave Halverson, I loves ya. You and all three of your magazines - <>GameFan (and its relaunch), Gamers' Republic, and Play (the American mag, not the British Playstation mag with the same name) - have had quite the impact on me over the years, thanks to your passion for focusing on more lesser-known and hardcore fare, especially with imported Japanese games. I'd almost go so far to say you'd be an idol, were it not for the fact that...well, honestly, most of the stories about Dave aren't exactly the greatest. For one, he apparently tended to run into money troubles with his publications more often than not. Second, opinions on him seem to range from being a nice guy to being a real dick. Third, there's the fact that while Dave definitely knew how to create a magazine that looked fantastic and focused on relatively smaller but no less worthy video games that deserved more coverage, Dave's actual reviews and writings, particularly during the Play era) were rather...eh, optimistic and enthusiastic, for better or for worse. And quite worse, at times.

Insanely worse, even.

It probably doesn't help that Dave has seemingly dropped off the face of the earth after early 2013 (here's hoping this lures him out), but I still love Dave for everything he believed in and his goal of bringing hardcore gaming coverage to the masses, even despite all his issues such as gushing over new IPs and smaller games, coverage that can feel a little too excessive at times, the issues with making deadlines, laziness, potentially sloppy writing, constant money issues...wait, hold a second...was I secretly Dave Halverson all along??? Oh my god...

As for actually talking about Gamers' Republic, it was a result of Halverson leaving GameFan in 1997 due to internal conflicts, and starting his own mag again that was supposedly a bit more mainstream. GR launched in the Summer of 1998, but folded in 2001 after 36 issues due to - surprise! - money issues. As such, information on GR is a bit more scarce compared to the long-running GameFan and Play. Still, I remember it as an enjoyable read from my youth...then again, I also enjoyed the music of Smash Mouth and Kid Rock around this time as well. Anyhow...

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Well, appropriately enough for a hardcore gaming mag from around this time, the cover is devoted to a Dreamcast game, with the console having just recently launched in America. Alas, that game here is D2, one of the more forgettable Dreamcast titles. You can probably spot at least six games on this cover more worthy of a main feature, but again, it fits Dave's philosophy of rooting for the underdog, and given how the original D was fairly well-received back in the day, this wasn't too far-fetched. But we'll get to that later...

- We begin with an editorial from Dave himself celebrating the then-ongoing status of video games making their first grand steps into more mainstream culture, and how expansion such as this will eventually lead to your favorite games receiving bigger budgets...which turned out to be true, except nowadays we can actually complain that a game is over-budgeted. He also commented about how these developments could lead to more and more average people getting into gaming, which sadly proved a bit too true once the Wii/iPhone games came along and we all too late learned the negative side of "casual" gaming. Dave ends by still promising to continue coverage on the little guys even as gaming goes more and more mainstream, even if still means the occasional Pokemon article or celebrity interview. He also jokes that this means no wrestling games on the cover...and while I can't find the proof, I am almost positive he put a wrestling game on the cover two issues later.

- So we truly start with the news, with the lead being...a celebrity interview. Ah, now I see why the reassurance earlier. The interview in this case is with then-popular (and still-kinda-popular) alternative rock band 311, and their opinions on the Sega Dreamcast (or bassist P-Nut's opinions, at least). There are two notable questions that actually pop up, though: One, GR actually brings up the topic of mainstream music being used in more and more video games. While this wasn't entirely new, it is worth noting that that this was just a couple of months after the first Tony Hawk's Pro Skater game was released, a series which eventually popularized the use of licensed soundtracks in video games. Mind, you the question seems to deal more with popular musicians composing soundtracks for video games (and we'll get to that soon), but it's still noteworthy in my book.

The second was a question about their thoughts on this whole "MP3" thing, since Napster was just getting into swing around this time. P-Nut actually approved of it because it allowed more musicians to receive more exposure and reach wider audiences, envisioning a future where you can just stay at home and pay a dollar for the latest hit song. Well dang, point to you for predicting the future, P-Nut.

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- Speaking of which, we also happen to have the odd Pokemon article...and I mean odd, because believe it or not, Pokemon was actually subject to the wrath of moral guardians back in its relative infancy. In this case, parents were in an uproar over the fact that the Pokemon TCG was promoting illegal gambling. How? Well, premium cards are randomly inserted into packs of Pokemon cards and the odds of finding them are 1 in 33, therefore trying to find a premium card is illegal gambling, DUH. I mean, you could say this about ANY trading card set that had premium cards, foil cards, and the like...and they apparently have, because the parents brought up similar lawsuits against other trading cards supposedly promoting gambling as well. Nintendo pointed out the obvious fact that none of those cases were successful, and thus another group of parents concerned with blaming the media for their kids behavior instead of their own damn parenting rightfully gets struck down again.

- Trying to promote the Dreamcast even further with more pics of celebrities enjoying it (and trust me, most hardcore gamers back then wouldn't fault them), we also get a bit about Sega's Mobile Assault promotional tour tagging along with the Family Values tour, featuring the likes of Primus, Filter, and Limp Bizkit. Sadly, guess which band was pictured enjoying the Dreamcast. We also get additional bits about a promotional green Nintendo 64 complete with Donkey Kong 64 and the Ram Pak mentioned earlier, and some woes concerning Shenmue being delayed until next year, along with its $40 million-plus budget (which when adjusted for inflation, would still be kind of ludicrous today). Sadly, this story would not have a happy ending...just a cliffhanger ending.

- On to the lists of the top games at the time, and leading the pack among the biggest-selling console games was Final Fantasy VIII, with VII notably still in the Top 10 for PlayStation games as well. I should also note that this is the period where there seemed to be a bit of a JRPG boom in gaming, as Final Fantasy VII's hype and subsequent massive success (along with Diablo and Fallout earlier providing initial bangs) suddenly opened the door for more imported RPGs to try their luck stateside. Elsewhere in sales, Pokemon and its spin-offs were still the most dominant force in gaming overall across the board, and Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun was the number-one PC game, somewhat appropriately.

Interestingly, the list of GR's Top Ten games of the month was actually eight Top Ten lists from eight individual staff members, giving us a little more variety. Though T. Stratton's list always struck me as odd...I mean, the others all included older games they were still into/revisiting here and there on their lists as well, Stratton decided to go with the 1983 arcade game Major Havoc as his number one game at the moment, in kind of a stark contrast to the others. Also, he included the NES adaptation of Jeopardy! for some reason. Was he just kind of the odd duck on staff?...

- Now to the main story, a look at the then-upcoming survival horror game for the Dreamcast, D2. It was kind of a stark contrast to the original D, which was a more puzzle-based horror game as opposed to this (which has no relation to the original), which involved the main character being caught in plane crash that left her and other survivors stranded in a snowy wilderness while under attack from sci-fi monsters mutating humans. If your first thought was "The Thing rip-off", series creator Kenji Eno was prepared for that in an interview, saying that he actually does like John Carpenter and American cinema, and that yeah, maybe he was influenced by the '82 classic. He also notes the sharp contrast between the two, and makes it clear that the overall goal here was to create a powerful, moving atmosphere. Which he ended up succeeding at, as many critics praised D2's story, graphics, and atmosphere indeed...but unfortunately said that the actual gameplay was dull and repetitive. Unsurprisingly, no more D games were made afterwards, although games where gameplay took a backseat to graphics, cinematics and story still survive to this day.

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- Moving to previews in general, the first one that stood out to me was for Messiah, which was finally due to be released then in a few months after about four years in development. The action game was about a cherubic angel named Bob sent down to a futuristic Earth by God to essentially clean up all the sin and filth by possessing various humans to help get the job done. Considering that designer David Perry (and his company Shiny Entertainment) had become a darling amongst gaming critics thanks his recent streak of hit original gaming IPs such as Earthworm Jim, MDK, and Wild 9 (to a lesser extent), hopes were high, but the four-year delay left people skeptical. In the end, Messiah was still well-received by critics, but very obviously was not the revolution they were hoping for. Also notable? It had a soundtrack by the industrial band Fear Factory, who even released it as a compilation album, tying back to the mention of popular musicians in gaming.

- Perhaps not coincidentally, the preview immediately after Messiah was for MDK2, the sequel to the previously-mentioned sci-fi action hit that was also pegged as a potential hit the Dreamcast needed. At the very least, it ended up being a critical hit, but this came not from the hands of Shiny, but rather this relatively new company called BioWare. It looked pretty cool to Dave back then, but I guess we still had reason to be skeptical. I mean sure, BioWare had gained massive praise with this Baldur's Gate medieval RPG thingy, but what would they know about delivering a successful action-packed sci-fi adventure?

- Next comes an interview with Red Company, the folks behind (among other things) the Bonk games, the then-recently-released JRPG Thousand Arms, and the Sakura Wars RPG games, a series which I'm still positive Sega gets hate mail over for only having localized one game in them so far. Though all I can think about is a set of screenshots from Super Tempo (a Saturn platformer released only in Japan), with a message to developers saying to take a note of this "2D" thing and use it a hell of a lot more often. My original thoughts back then? Take that bit, blow it up, and put it on billboards outside every major gaming company. Still can't say it's a bad thought these days.

- Review time! Notably jumping to the head of the class was Crash Team Racing with a straight "A" grade, which is both a product of its time as both a participant in the whole kart racing craze gaming was also going through back then and also as a reminder that the Crash Bandicoot games used to be massive, popular, acclaimed pieces of work, and that Crash himself was a huge pop culture figure...and then the '90s ended, Naughty Dog left the series, the rest went downhill. And while it might be easy to dismiss it as a cash-in on the whole kart racing fad, any game critic will easily tell you that CTR rose way above the rest of the licensed kart racer cash-ins, easily deserved this kind of praise, and yes, even rivaled the Mario Kart games out at the time. Alas, poor Crash...

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- Donkey Kong 64 comes next, scoring an A-minus and again representing a current trend at the time: the "collect-a-thon" platformer that Rare themselves popularized with the Banjo-Kazooie games. DK64 was also well-received at the time as well, but the general opinion of it today is that while it's still a good game, it has definitely not stood the test of time. A large part of that is because the game tended to maybe place a little too much emphasis on collecting things to progress. Hell, the reviewer here even points out the game's one flaw being that it actually might have too much to explore. Not to mention...um, other parts of the game that haven't held up as well.

- So remember what I said earlier about Dave Halverson being too enthusiastic and generous with his reviews? Well, most gaming critics would tell you that Earthworm Jim 3D was an over-delayed, mediocre mess that sadly followed the trend of once-successful 2D platformer stars failing to make the jump to 3D. Dave, however, gave the game an A-minus. Yeah, not the brightest move. Maybe he just wanted the game's development to have a happy ending because, well, who wouldn't want that? But alas, he tends to come off as more of a madman here. Jim sadly never recovered from this mess, but I hear that the developer behind Interplay handed things off to - Rockstar Games - eventually recovered and went on to achieve some modest success.

- Now, seeing as how we're at the halfway point of a parade of praise involving six back-to-back reviews all involving games that got at least an A-minus (well, it was the Holiday gaming season), let's just sum them up quickly: We have Resident Evil 3, known for deploying one of gaming's most iconic monsters; Spyro 2: Ripto's Rage, a continued success for a fellow PlayStation platformer who would sadly meet the same fate as Crash (then play second fiddle in his own comeback that gave birth to the future bane of parents' wallets everywhere); and Rocket: Robot on Wheels, an underrated Nintendo 64 platformer that was truly a masterpiece of the genre that clearly deserved more love, and I am totally not saying this just because the developers would later create the Sly Cooper games (though seriously, the general consensus now is that yeah, it was underrated and deserved more). We also have Vandal Hearts II later on, but by this point I'm too exhausted from A's to think of anything clever to say about it.

- We do get some little reviews and previews for portable games afterwards, reminding us that the Neo Geo Pocket Color was a thing that existed. Most critics were indeed incredibly fond of the games released for it, and it definitely does come across as an underrated bit of hardware that was a worthy rival to the Game Boy. Unfortunately, Nintendo kind of had an 800-pound gorilla in their corner - or rather, a thirteen-pound electric mouse - so there's kind of a reason we aren't all playing Neo Geo Pocket XLs these days instead.

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- Next comes an in-depth look at that year's Tokyo Game Show, where a looming PlayStation 2 was drawing record crowds and making Sega sweat bullets. Though it does seem weird in retrospect that Sony once thought Square Enix's The Bouncer would end up being a killer app. Don't remember The Bouncer? Yeah, exactly my point. The rest is eight pages long and doesn't cover anything out of the ordinary (did I mention they really liked to cover Japanese games?), so moving on...

- We get some coverage of import games now, because we clearly just didn't have enough, but quite notable is a review for Robbit Mon Dieu, the third game in the Jumping Flash! series seen reviewed here before in Game Players, and thus helping prove that it kicked ass until the end...even if this entry never made it over to our shores. We also get a first look at Berserk for the Dreamcast, described here as "the bloodiest video game ever devised." Dawwww, that almost seems quaint these days!

- And now we get anime reviews, because there was a pretty big overlap between hardcore gamers and anime fans at the time. Now, I am in no way an anime expert, and aside from Cowboy Bebop, I am pretty unfamiliar with these titles and their general reputations, so best to possibly skip most of this. Although I did actually see this Princess Mononoke film they gave a perfect score to, thought it was pretty neat, and yes, I will stop feigning ignorance as a joke now.

- We also get a section taking a look at action figures and toys as well (again, overlap), which this month serves to highlight that yes, even back then Japan was fetishizing the hell out of famous movie monsters.

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- A little movie section gives us a review of a kung fu film called Dance of Death that I sadly know nothing about, the news that Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton would be recording a song for the soundtrack to the first Pokemon film (and ended up getting overshadowed by a Norwegian duo), and that a movie adaptation of the PC shooter Redneck Rampage was underway, because with the expansion of gaming into the mainstream came every single game with even the remotest of popularity being rumored to have an eventual film...another trend that still hasn't stopped.

- Finally, we get an interview with legendary guitarist and David Bowie collaborator Reeves Gabrels concerning his work on the soundtrack for the then-just-released Omikron: The Nomad Soul (which also involved Bowie on the soundtrack and even had cameos from him in the game), again tying into the increase of famous musicians and game soundtracks. Now if only it were for a better game...

...And after a brief reader mail section, that does it for this particular issue. As usual, a big thanks to Retromags for making the archiving of these gone-but-not-forgotten gaming mags possible. Make sure to give them your support, even check out the full issue featured this month right here if you want, god bless 'em! Next up, time to delve into some of the best the twin beasts known as Gamescom and PAX had to offer this month!


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