My influences: Phantasy Star

I was only in 8th grade when I first heard about this new role-playing game called Phantasy Star for Sega’s fledgling 8-bit console. While I already had great experiences with the Master System, playing an RPG that I truly loved on one was something I hadn’t done up to that point.

20140630_miracle_warriorsYes, I had both Ys: The Vanished Omens and Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord, but neither of those really clicked with me, so I figured I’d always be playing the best the genre had to offer on the Apple side of things, with classic series like Ultima, Wizardry, and The Bard’s Tale.

The more I read about Phantasy Star, though, the more excited I got about playing it. When the day came that it finally hit stores, I would be in for one heck of a case of sticker shock: its price at Toys R Us was $69.99!  Seventy bucks back in 1988, when most games were around $39.99 or less. There was no way my mom would go for it. I didn’t do any chores, which meant no allowance, and thus no disposable income for “important” purchases like this. I was at an impasse, and wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to play it.

20140630_ysAs fate would have it, though, our family was set to take one of our annual trips to Las Vegas. My dad loved playing craps, and my mom loved the slot machines, so Vegas was always high on their vacation destination list, and it was a relatively quick and convenient drive from Southern California where I grew up.

Although I was still way too young to gamble and hated cigarette smoke, I always loved walking through casinos, especially hearing the satisfying sound of quarters and silver dollars clunking down loudly into those metal coin trays. This was back when you still had to put coins in them and physically pull a handle!


Mr. Do! (1982)

My destination of choice was, unsurprisingly, the midway arcade at Circus Circus. While other casinos had a few videogames to amuse the youngsters, nobody brought it like this place. It’s funny to think back on how my parents would just leave me and my sister — who was only 9 or 10 at the time — alone there. She would go off and play the carnival games, which she was very good at, while I hung out in their giant arcade.

The first machine I would go to was always Mr. Do!, even though it was an older game. I loved the graphics, music, and gameplay, which owed a lot to Namco’s Dig Dug, but I preferred its pacing. As a Robotech fanatic, I also loved Capcom’s Hyper Dyne Side Arms, but I was rather terrible at it. I remember the copyright screen saying something about it being illegal to play Side Arms outside of Japan, so that added to its allure.

It was during that trip to Vegas that I devised a plan to buy Phantasy Star on my own. I would try to spend as little money as possible playing arcade games and stockpile the quarters I got from my mom throughout the trip, and hopefully have enough by the time we went home to make the purchase.

I’m not entirely sure how I did it, but by the time we left for California, I had about $90 in quarters! I must have done a lot of game-watching that trip, which probably explains why when I start up games at home for the first time, I’ll sit there and patiently wait to see if anything happens after the title screen appears. You never know if there’s a second intro sequence behind it.

Anyway, it was a matter of a day or two of returning home that I wanted to make my way back to Toys R Us, but how was I going to buy it without my mom finding out how expensive it was? There was a mall close by, and on one of the days she had to go, I went along with her. When we got there, I said I wanted to walk over to Toys R Us to buy a game with my leftover money from Vegas. She thankfully agreed and off I went! The entire time, I thought I was going to get caught, but I made it, bought the game, and threw the receipt away as soon as I stepped outside. I hightailed it back to the mall, found my mom, and I’m sure I annoyed her with my impatience to get back home.

I think I read the manual twice in the 2 miles that separated the mall and home, and I’m fairly certain I sprinted inside before she even shut off the ignition to start playing.


From the moment I turned on my Master System, I knew this was going to be something different. What immediately stood out for me was Alis, Phantasy Star‘s main protagonist. Her design was distinct, strong, and attractive. The title screen music was also instantly memorable, conveying a spirited sense of adventure. I couldn’t wait to start.

20140630_phantasy_star_alisFor its time, Phantasy Star begins rather violently and tragically, with the execution of Alis’ brother Nero at the hands of the local tyrant Lassic. The graphics during this intro sequence are beautifully drawn, and it does a really good job of quickly establishing motives and goals. I’ve never been the biggest fan of overly long intro sequences, and although by today’s standards this intro is very brief, it leaves the player clearly knowing what needs to be done next.

The overworld graphics are decent, but I think they’re slightly disappointing and a bit too simplistic, even back when the game was new. However, it became obvious quickly where most of the art budget went for this game: dungeons and battles.


Anxiety in a box.

First of all, the dungeons. My jaw hit the floor the first time I entered one! Not only are they done in a first-person perspective similar to the classic Apple RPGs mentioned earlier, but they are rendered in vibrant colors and animate smoothly as you walk through them. Even turning corners are fully animated. This was a big deal back in 1988, when most dungeon-crawling games had no walking animation except for The Bard’s Tale, and even then, it was limited to towns and weren’t full-screen like these. HERE is an example of what they look like, accompanied by the game’s equally ominous music.

The dungeons remain one of my favorite aspects of Phantasy Star, and I had a lot of fun mapping all of them on graph paper. Opening chests was stressful since many of them are laced with explosive traps that startled me the first time it happened. With these first-person dungeons being such a good memory of mine, you’d think I’d be all over the Etrian Odyssey games from Atlus, but as of this writing, I have yet to play one. Someday, I’m sure.


Then there are the battles, which are another graphical highlight. Enemies are large, have animated attacks, and are set against colorful backdrops that reflect the environment you’re currently in, whether that be a grassy field, dark forest, or a sandy beach. Some even have background animations, such as the coast where water laps up against the shore.

I remember the battles having excellent, gravelly sound effects, hit and spell animations brought these conflicts to life, and enemies were not easy to defeat. In fact, your first battle can easily end you if you’re not careful, which is in stark contrast to the easier RPGs of today.


Phantasy Star II (1990)

Again, having detailed features like these in an ’80s RPG was unheard of at the time, and even the Genesis sequel that followed in 1990 had arguably worse dungeon and battle graphics than its Master System predecessor. I know I was shocked in a bad way when the meticulously drawn battles of Phantasy Star were replaced with a boring grid.

I mean, honestly, looking at those, you’d think the Master System screenshot was from the newer game. In that sense, I always felt like Phantasy Star II was a rushed sequel. I didn’t think the soundtrack was as good, and even though it was now on the 16-bit Genesis console, it didn’t feel like a substantial upgrade to its 8-bit older sibling. This made the original game feel even more special to me.

Even though I was one of the very few kids at school who had a Master System, games like Phantasy Star made it worth every penny. It’s a game that not only got me completely hooked on console RPGs, but stands as one of the best early examples of a development team putting their all into making sure their game made an unforgettable impression on players. It’s rough around the edges by today’s standards, but it will always remain one of my all-time favorites from the 8-bit era.


Backlog Blitz: The games of May 2014


I stopped the bleeding (somewhat) in May. I bought 7 games and finished 6, so I was pretty happy about that. June is not looking pretty by any stretch of the imagination though — 9 bought and 2 finished with only 3 days left this month! — but I’ll hopefully be able to squeeze in one or two more before the year’s half over. Do or do not, there is no try, right? Anyway, the format, like before, is Game Title (Platform, Purchase Price, Play Time).

Games purchased (-7, $108.25 spent):

  1. 20140627_ghg_child_of_light_wallpaperChild of Light (PC, $12.00)
    Developed with the UbiArt Framework engine, I’ve been looking forward to this RPG ever since I first saw it. Getting around to actually playing it is proving to be a bit challenging, but it’s one of those games I know will be a wonderful experience, and wanted to make sure I bought it at launch.
  2. Tales of Symphonia Chronicles (PS3, $10.00)
    Sony had a good 50% off sale on PSN this month, and since I read that the original Tales of Symphonia was one of the better ones in the series, I picked this up. I haven’t played or finished a Tales game since Tales of Destiny on the original PlayStation, so I’m sure I’m in for a surprise!
  3. Sonic Hits Collection (PC, $7.50)
    Normally $30, I couldn’t pass up this nice discount on the Humble Store. It includes more Sonic games than you can shake a stick at: Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, Sonic 3 and Knuckles, Sonic 3D Blast, Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Adventure 2: Battle,  Sonic Adventure DX, Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed: Metal Sonic & Outrun DLC, Sonic CD, Sonic Generations, Sonic Generations – Casino Nights DLC, Sonic Spinball, Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – Episode 1, and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – Episode 2. Whew!
  4. Saints Row IV (PC, $10.00)
    Another 75% off title during May’s Humble Store sale. I never did get around to picking this up when it first came out — perhaps I was still feeling bitter about THQ’s demise — but I still have friends at Volition, so this one’s for them. If I remember right, IV was originally supposed to be DLC for Saints Row: The Third, so I’m curious to see how it holds up as a standalone product.
  5. 20140627_ghg_rogue_legacyRogue Legacy (PC, $3.75)
    75% off seems to be the sweet spot for me and most digital PC games. I remember my friends talking about this one last year, and I finally got around to buying it. It looks like just the kind of game I’m going to love and sink many, many hours into. Crazy-good animation and good, tight controls.
  6. The Humble Bundle: PC & Android 10 (PC/Android, $5.00)
    Another solid bundle to help build up my Steam and mobile gaming library. Good games, good cause. This one includes: Breach & Clear, Draw a Stickman: EPIC, Fieldrunners, Fieldrunners 2, Frozen Synapse, Galcon Fusion, Galcon Legends, Ittle Dew, METAL SLUG 3, Skulls of the Shogun, and Symphony.
  7. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U, $60.00)
    I don’t buy too many games full-price at retail, but in this case, I couldn’t help it. I started playing it immediately, and it’s easily the best Mario Kart game since the original SNES version, particularly after my disappointment with Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS. I still have a lot to do and unlock in the game, but it’s been so much fun, and getting the free game (I selected Pikmin 3) was a very generous 2-for-1 gesture by Nintendo.

Games finished (+6, $83.00 value):

  1. Persona 4 Golden (Vita, $40.00, 60 hrs.)
    This was the main reason — perhaps the only reason — why I originally wanted a Vita. I loved
    Persona 3 Portable on the PSP, and wanted to play its sequel in handheld form. I had some problems with it, even starting over on the easiest difficulty, and it still took a very long time to finish. I think these games are just a bit too long for their own good, but they’re still a lot of fun with great style, music, and gameplay. Overall: B+ (Review Link)
  2. 20140627_ghg_tearaway_wallpaperTearaway (Vita, $40.00, 10 hrs.)
    I’m about to throw in the towel for the second time on
    LittleBigPlanet because of its awful controls, but Media Molecule got that part right with Tearaway. The camera isn’t very good when it needs to be, but the total experience is just beautiful and very original. It’s my favorite game on the Vita. Overall: A (Review Link)
  3. Monument Valley (Android, Free, 2 hrs.)
    Criminally short, but a totally essential game on mobile. Wonderful use of color, an atmosphere that will remind you of
    Journey on the PS3, and mind-bending design all combine to deliver one of the best games I’ve played this year on Android. Overall: A- (Review Link)
  4. The Room Two (Android, $3.00, 5 hrs.)
    The Room was a fantastic game, and its sequel is at least its equal, doing some things better and some things worse. I liked that it’s bigger, scarier, and of the same high quality that made the first game so memorable. However, making the game bigger means you have to move around more and get out of that zen-like dive into these puzzles that was so darn cool in the original. This makes puzzles more elaborate, but in a way, less intimate. Overall: A- (Review Link)
  5. 20140627_ghg_castle_of_illusion_1990Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse 1990 (PS3, Free, 3 hrs.)
    Just as good as I remember from the Sega Genesis days. Inspired animation, a classic soundtrack, and lots of gameplay variety. The game is short, and the controls feel a little too rigid, but at least they’re accurate. Overall: B+ (Review Link)
  6. Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse 2013 (PS3, Free, 3 hrs.)
    They had the right idea with this one, and I think in the hands of a better developer, it could have been something truly special, proudly standing next to the original. It has nice art, music, and level design, but the atrocious controls, lousy hit detection, and mediocre performance make it an average experience at best. Overall: C (Review Link)

A -1 finish overall for the month, and I ended up $25.25 in the hole, which isn’t too bad. If I just had to pick one or two games to recommend to my readers, it’d be Tearaway and Monument Valley, two very unique gaming experiences that you won’t soon forget.


Review: Elgato Game Capture HD

Up until last month, I was snapping most gaming screenshots with my phone and camera. They got me by, and even though some systems let you take screenshots natively — like the Vita, PC, or through the Wii U web browser — I needed a better solution. Ever try to take an action shot in a game when you have to think about pressing another key or button combo? Talk about inefficient and unnatural. Plus, if you have to pause a game to take a picture with a camera, most pause screen overlays make it impossible.

20140626_ghg_gchdSo, after doing a considerable amount of research, my 40th birthday gift to myself was an Elgato Game Capture HD. I’d been considering a PlayStation 4 as well, but in the interest of improving the blog and creating richer media content, I decided on the smaller — and cheaper — piece of hardware.

I wrote last month about its packaging, contents, and first impressions here, but to quickly summarize, it’s all of high quality. The packaging feels premium, which is a welcome bonus in this day and age of cheap blister packs. The device itself is compact and light (smaller than a Roku and about the size of a Nintendo 64 cartridge), with clearly marked input and output ports, and non-slip rubber feet.

My favorite feature is that it requires no external power, which will save you from potentially having to free up an electrical outlet. I definitely appreciate this, since using this device requires at least 2 additional cables.

20140626_ghg_viewhdIf you plan on using this device with a console that has High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) — such as a PlayStation 3 — you will either have to use the clunky PlayStation cable that is included with the Game Capture HD, or purchase an inexpensive HDMI splitter like this one. While the PlayStation cable works, setting it up is tedious. I decided to go with the splitter, and I highly recommend that method. Keep in mind that the splitter is powered, so you will need an additional outlet plus one extra HDMI cable to go from the splitter to the Game Capture HD.

Setup beyond that is a snap. Simply plug in your input and output HDMI cables, and run the included USB cable from the Game Capture HD to your computer. No physical software is included, so just head to Elgato’s website, download, install, update your firmware if needed, and you’re done.


Elgato’s software is very easy to use, and it has yet to crash on me once. The Game Capture HD is automatically detected, and after making a few quick selections, you’re ready to start capturing video and taking screenshots. Since I’m using HDMI for all of my consoles, I leave it on the “PlayStation 4” profile setting.

The Game Capture HD supports many different resolutions, from 240i all the way up to 1080p. Old consoles require Elgato’s Analog Video Adapter (sold separately) or the Component Adapter, which is included. Since all of my old consoles are in storage, I have not tried capturing with non-HDMI sources yet, but I will update this review when I do.

One slight disappointment is that 1080p can only be recorded at a maximum of 30fps. If you want 60fps capture, you have to drop your output signal to a maximum of 720p. Captures done in 720p 60fps still look great though, and it’s my preferred way to go if I need video that most accurately represents the performance of 60fps source material, such as Mario Kart 8, Bayonetta, or Wipeout HD.

In terms of final output quality, I’m very pleased with the results! The following capture was taken at 1080p and uploaded to YouTube at 720p. I think it looks great and retains excellent overall image detail and smoothness:

To check out how crisp and smooth its 720p 60fps videos look like, Right-Click & Save this link: MKV (82MB).

Another thing to keep in mind is that because everything is hardware-encoded on the fly, there is a delay of about 2 seconds between what you see on your TV and what you see on your PC. Because of this, it’s nearly impossible to play games solely in the capture software’s window, which is unfortunate. Instead, you’ll want to have either a picture-in-picture or side-by-side setup so that you can play on one screen and monitor your capture on the other.

If you only have a single display without this functionality, you’ll want to get everything set up in the capture software prior to starting, and then use the software’s keyboard shortcuts to toggle recording.

GHG is currently on a limited 1Mbps upstream connection, so I was not able to test out the Game Capture HD’s live streaming capabilities. I will update this review when I am back on a sufficiently fast internet service.


Click for 1920×1080 screen capture (H.264 compression).

For screenshots, I like using 1080p, but this brings up another small issue in that all videos are automatically H.264/MPEG-4 encoded. This inherently adds some compression artifacting and image degradation. This doesn’t matter as much for video, but if you need screenshots of the highest quality, this may not be the best device for you. They’re still good and totally usable, but they have a softer look that nitpickers like myself can’t help but notice.

I posted a few more sample screenshots here, and as you can see, certain content does fare better than others.


The Elgato software’s editing capabilities are OK, but they’re far from robust. I would recommend using a more fully featured editing program such as CyberLink PowerDirector to make things easier on yourself. In a pinch, however, the included editor will get the very basics done. It’s also easy to spit out screenshots from your videos, particularly if you don’t already have the excellent PC capture solution FRAPS.

For a street price of about $150, the Elgato Game Capture HD represents a great value for what is a very powerful and well-designed video recorder. It’s attractive, easy to configure, the software is stable and intuitive, and it will accept virtually any video format, old and new. Although it has some shortcomings in terms of raw image quality, the 1080p 30fps cap, and the encoder lag, it still comes highly recommended.

Overall: A-


GHG’s YouTube Channel

Uh-oh, we have to watch and listen to him now?

No, not quite yet, but I’ve been thinking about it. See, I’ve never been all that comfortable in front of the camera, and I’d say, oh, I don’t know… all of the video interviews I’ve ever done have been borderline disastrous.

I promised myself earlier this year that I would face my fears. One of those is the paralyzing anxiety I experience when it comes to horror films and games. And how’s that going? Well, let’s just say I haven’t gotten more than 30 minutes into Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and I don’t know if that’s going to change anytime soon.

20140625_yt_textSo with that not-so-successful venture still fresh in my mind, I figured now would be the right time to step into the unforgiving — but totally fascinating — world of YouTube. I’ve been fine in the past speaking in front of large groups at work, but there’s something about that camera being right in your face.

Maybe it’s the permanence, or the fact that I’m just not used to seeing myself on video. With a blog, you have a protective shield of words and pictures around you, but with video, it’s all out there. It’s no longer just about the content, but equally about the talking head delivering it.

Even though that all does sound a bit terrifying, I’m really looking forward to giving it a shot! I think it’ll be a lot of fun, and perhaps I’ll discover a side of myself I never knew existed.

I just set up GHG’s YouTube page today. You can find and subscribe to it here:

I’ll do my best to keep it updated regularly with content, although the blog will remain my primary focus. And with any luck, I’ll still have time left over to actually play some games.


Review: DuckTales (NES, 1989)

Oh, the licensed videogame. They have a notoriously bad reputation — especially those aimed at the younger crowd — and even though I won’t deny there are a lot of terrible ones out there, I think there are just as many great ones. Really, the same can be said for non-licensed games and how many stinkers have been produced. It’s very easy to get caught up in the negativity, but I’d rather focus on the positives: those games that elevate the very things they’re based on.


One such game is Disney’s DuckTales, developed by Capcom, and released on the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1989. It’s considered one of the best NES games by many players, and 2013’s DuckTales: Remastered from WayForward Technologies is proof of its lasting popularity. It’s also — if the internet is correct — one of the earliest examples of a licensed Disney console title, at least from the NES forward.

It sets the bar pretty high from the get-go. The colorful title screen featuring Scrooge McDuck is attractive and is accompanied by the series’ iconic theme song. I just love that 8-bit sound! Capcom was at the top of their game that year, with the wildly popular Mega Man 2 having been released a few months prior, as well as the criminally underrated Willow. DuckTales shares more than a few similarities to the Mega Man series, particularly with its open structure and some would say, its difficulty.


This isn’t Ghosts’n Goblins or Battletoads hard, but don’t let the Disney license fool you: DuckTales can be a challenging game. It requires good coordination and practice, especially to master its signature move: Uncle Scrooge’s Pogo-jump. To do it, you jump in the air, press down + attack, and continue to hold them after the first successful bounce. After that, you can just hold down the attack button and pogo around. It’s fun and powerful — it’s the only way to reach many of the game’s ledges — but you can’t control the height of your bounce, certain enemies are immune to it, and getting too close to ledges will cancel it out. This adds a new layer of complexity and strategy to navigating levels, and it’s one of DuckTales‘ defining features. It’s also the primary way to uncover hidden treasures throughout, of which there are many.

Speaking of Scrooge’s cane, it’s not just for bouncing around. It’s a rather cool and context-sensitive weapon that you can use to hit environmental items to more easily take care of enemies. Swinging at canisters and rocks will send them flying across the screen, keeping you out of harm’s way. You can face those enemies head-on, but you’ll quickly learn of more creative ways to get around them. This encourages the player to experiment with their surroundings. You can also swing at bigger objects to uncover even more goodies; if they contain nothing, Scrooge’s head will humorously shake from the impact.


When you begin, three hits will end you, and you will get hit. Enemy placement is very thoughtful though, and those looking to quickly run through to get to the end won’t make it far. Level checkpoints are sparse, lives are limited, recovery time is short, and there is a timer working against you. I don’t like that timer, even though it’s a generous one. Stages can (and should!) be thoroughly searched, but I think time limits can really discourage exploration in games. To be fair, once you learn your way around, completing stages can be done quickly and you do get a money bonus at the end. However, I was still happy to hear that this was taken out of the Remastered version.

The bosses themselves are a bit of a disappointment. They’re small, and most players will only have trouble with one or two of them. The rest display simple patterns that only take a few seconds to figure out and overcome. In fact, I found several of the game’s standard enemies to be more troublesome than the bosses.


Graphically, DuckTales looks great. Scrooge is animated well, and small details, like how his top hat briefly pops off of his head when he… ducks, are wonderful touches. At times, he’ll walk behind foreground elements, which is always a cool detail that creates a convincing sense of depth. You’ll also briefly run into various characters from the cartoon, including Huey, Dewey, Louie, Webby, and Launchpad McQuack.

The music is an often-cited high point of DuckTales, and it has good reason to be. “The Moon”, easily one of the most recognizable songs from the NES era, is up there with “Dr. Wily’s Castle” from Capcom’s own Mega Man 2 in the “How many times has it been covered on YouTube?” department. It’s an inspired song, and always ranks high on videogame music lists. Another standout track is “The Himalayas”, which perfectly matches the tone of the game.


DuckTales is short, but Capcom packed in a lot of content within its 5 stages. There’s some cheap recycling going on — you’ll revisit one area not just once, but twice — but overall, the game provides a good amount of variety within its branching levels. There are lots of hidden areas, and it even has three different endings, depending on how good or bad you do.

It’ll definitely take you several playthroughs to extract everything there is out of DuckTales, and even after that, you’ll likely come back for more. This is a unique, fun platformer that proudly does its license justice.

  • Graphics & Presentation: B
    Sprites are drawn well, the backgrounds have good detail, and enemies are decently animated. Character cameos included for series fans.
  • Music & Sound Effects: A
    DuckTales‘ soundtrack is great, with lots of similarities to Mega Man‘s style. Sound effects are typical of the 8-bit era, and get the job done.
  • Gameplay & Controls: B+
    Tight, precise controls make this a very enjoyable experience, and the nonlinear level design is very good. The Pogo-jump has an initially steep learning curve, which could frustrate some players, but it’s fun and unique.
  • Value: B
    There are only 5 stages, which is short even by 8-bit standards. However, there are lots of things to find, and only diligent players will get the game’s best ending.

Overall: B+


Artist Spotlight: Crystal Ferguson

Last week I unveiled GHG’s new banner art, which has received a lot of positive response! As excited as I am about the site’s new look, I’m even more excited to introduce you to the artist behind it: Crystal Ferguson. Crystal and I worked together at THQ Phoenix’s Quality Assurance (QA) department several years ago, so I was very happy to have this opportunity to work with her again. She was also kind enough to spare some time for an interview, which was fun and insightful.

Gray-Haired Gamer: Thanks for being able to do this interview today! The banner turned out terrific, by the way. Before we dive in, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Crystal Ferguson: Sure! I’m a freelance artist and stay-at-home mom. I live here in Phoenix with my husband and two children. I enjoy cooking, crafting, and sleeping! If there are any pop culture conventions in Phoenix, I’m usually there attending or exhibiting my work.

20140623_crystal_merpunks_2GHG: I enjoy sleeping too. Maybe a little too much. How long have you been drawing?

Ferguson: I’ve been drawing since I can remember, which was when I was about 2 years old. I was obsessed with drawing mermaids, thanks to Disney’s The Little Mermaid. The only pets I had were fish at the time, so I imagined being one, and I swam a lot.

GHG: Besides mermaids, what other subjects do you like to draw?

Ferguson: I like to draw people, but it’s always good exercise to draw everything, such as inanimate objects, organic subjects, and background elements. I’d like to improve on my backgrounds, because for me it’s a challenge to visualize angles and a character’s surroundings.

GHG: That’s definitely sound advice. What traditional and digital tools do you use for your art?

Ferguson: I traditionally start with pencils to get a rough sketch going, and then ink and color with Prismacolor and Copic markers. If I’m doing something digitally, I use Photoshop and a Wacom tablet. I recently got into Manga Studio 5, which I really enjoy using now.

GHG: I’ve never heard of Manga Studio, but I’ll have to take a look. So, what inspires your art and how do those elements make their way into your work?

Ferguson: I’m very much inspired by other artists. Recently, I’ve been following visual development artists for animation studios such as Victoria Ying, Claire Keane, and Brittney Lee. They have a movement in their drawings that I try to imitate, while keeping my own style. They launched a Kickstarter last fall and blew their original goal out of the water.

GHG: Wow, good stuff! Any recent projects of your own we should know about?


Ferguson: Yes! I’m working on an all-ages comic about steampunk mermaids called Merpunks. It’s about three mermaids who start a private detective agency, and after meeting a scientist/inventor, they use gadgets powered by steam to help solve different crimes. At first they’re small, petty crimes, but there is an overarching story that leads them to a bigger, more serious situation affecting both land and sea. My husband Joshua is the writer of the series and I provide the art.

I’ve wanted to make a comic since first being introduced to Sailor Moon. I read the manga and that’s what got me into storytelling through drawing, and it’s what really made me want to get into animation as well. I had drawn a few stories, but never publicized any of them.

After college, I was hoping to finally get something out there. I asked my husband to write a short story, but it turned into an entire series! There aren’t a lot of comics about mermaids, and the Victorian-era fashion of the steampunk genre seemed like an interesting mix.

We’ve been promoting Merpunks at conventions since Saboten 2013, and Issue #0 was released earlier this year. The next convention we’ll be at is Anime Expo in Los Angeles, so please stop by and say hello if you see us! We plan on having Issue #1 out by Saboten 2014 at the end of August.

GHG: I tried drawing a comic in high school and didn’t even make it past the first few panels. It’s harder than it looks! Switching gears a bit, can you tell us a little bit about your videogame industry experience?

Ferguson: Yes, I graduated with a degree in Media Arts and Animation, and then landed a job at THQ as a QA Tester. Although I was hoping it would lead to an art position at either a game or animation studio, I really enjoyed being part of that team, so I stayed there for about 4 years off and on. I met some really great people and have even had the opportunity to work with some of them outside of QA. If the opportunity came along, I would love to go back! The potlucks, white elephants, and contests made it fun.

GHG: I’m feeling all nostalgic now. What are some of your favorite games?

Ferguson: I like Pokemon, Donkey Kong Country and Kingdom Hearts.

GHG: I just started playing through my first Pokemon game this weekend (Pokemon X). Gotta catch ’em all, right? Are you playing anything right now?

Ferguson: I started playing Disney Infinity with my daughter, and she is just loving Elsa! She keeps freezing me when we team up. I usually play on my 3DS because it’s portable, and have Kirby: Triple Deluxe in there right now. My husband is more of a gamer, so I usually watch him play. He’s playing Shin Megami Tensei IV, Bravely Default, Final Fantasy XIV and Infamous: Second Son.

GHG: Have to admit, I’m a little jealous of your PS4. Anyway, did you want to say hi to anyone and/or promote any other works?

Ferguson: Please visit and Like my Merpunks page on Facebook! Also check out James Perry II’s manga, Orange Crows. Crystallis Navigator is a game I worked on with Elisha Miller, another ex-THQer. I’m available for commissioned work as well, so readers can contact me via the Merpunks Facebook page if they’re interested.

GHG: Well, that’s all the questions I have. Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, and best wishes to you for a successful Merpunks Issue #1 launch!

Ferguson: Thank you so much for that and for featuring my art!


Interplay, late 1996: Packing my bags for PD

(Previous entries in this series can be found here.)


The 17922 Fitch building today, Interplay’s original home.

Following E3 in May of that same year, a handpicked team of Testers and I were making our final preparations to move out of Interplay’s Fitch building in Irvine, California to a temporary spot in what was only known to us as the Alton building. It was a couple miles down the street, and housed the OEM division that we were moving to. It also contained several development teams, which were still a nebulous, mysterious group of people that sat in dark offices lit only by the glow of their monitors and the occasional lava lamp.

I remember several of my coworkers from QA telling me that I was the luckiest person in the world to be moving away, having open access to the developers there. However, all I kept thinking about were my friends back at Fitch, and how I’d miss all of our daily banter.

Instant messaging was still in its infancy, so most communication was done through good old-fashioned land lines, pagers, and of course email. Interplay used the DOS version of cc:Mail, so if you were testing PC software — which was primarily DOS-based back then — you couldn’t check your email. Very few, if any of us in QA had dual monitors or more than one PC at our desks. This was long before the days of thin LCD monitors too, so just fitting more than a single screen on your desk was a challenge. There was always buzz around the department whenever someone would get a nice, new Sony Trinitron monitor, and that buzz would usually be tinged with more than a touch of jealousy. Me, I never liked them because of the aperture grille damping wires that I could never un-see.


Interplay’s interim digs in mid-1996 at 2121 Alton Pkwy.

Anyway, that summer we were off to the Alton building’s OEM division, a team that worked with developers and hardware manufacturers to create customized game software — usually demos that would show off specific features, such as hardware mipmapping and bilinear filtering on 3D accelerated video cards.

The four of us sat together in a long, skinny office where we started off testing many different versions of Parallax Software’s Descent. It got pretty mind-numbing after a short while, so we would often break up the monotony with sessions of Quake, which were a blast! One of my coworkers also discovered that playing Descent to the Chemical Brothers’ album Exit Planet Dust (especially the three “Beats” tracks) made it an almost transcendental experience. If you ever get the chance to try it out yourself, I highly recommend it.

Around that same time, I had posted something Final Fantasy VII-related on Interplay’s internal message board. I don’t remember what it was about, but it must have been controversial, because I almost immediately got an angry response from someone in Product Development (PD) ripping me a new one. I was like, “Who the hell does this guy think he is?” We sent a few emails back and forth to smooth things over, and before long, it became clear that I had a lot in common with this guy. Turns out he would become one of my best friends, educate me in the ways of import gaming culture, introduce me to the classic works of Hayao Miyazaki, and be a groomsman in my wedding twelve years later. He would also provide an “escape” for me of sorts from OEM later that year.

It’s important to note again that I was still very new to being a team manager of any kind. There wasn’t any training, so you had to somewhat fly by the seat of your pants, emulate other Leads who you thought were doing it the right way, and hopefully ask a lot of questions. I didn’t do a whole lot of the latter, only because I had this notion in my head that asking too many questions would make me look like I didn’t know what I was doing.  That’s the problem, though: I didn’t! Plus, I was young and thought I knew it all. These are such common mistakes for new managers, and they really bit me in the ass over the next few years.


Interplay’s new home in 1996 at 16815 Von Karman Ave.

We had since moved from our temporary spot in the Alton building to our new “campus” around the corner on Von Karman Ave. It wasn’t Microsoft or Google huge, but going from the cramped spaces we were all used to into three large buildings was a big deal for us. Plus, parking! There was never enough parking at the original Fitch building, and we would constantly hear people over the intercom asking double-parkers to move so that other employees could leave for lunch.

The Computer Dealers’ Exhibition (COMDEX) in Las Vegas — which I’ll talk about more specifically in another post — came and went that November, and we were all flying pretty high from it. However, one day the part of my brain that controls egotistical idiocy must have been on vacation. I had walked into my office after lunch to find another coworker lounging in my chair waiting to speak with me. Something about that really rubbed me the wrong way, and after he left, I thought I’d complain about it vehemently via IM with a friend of mine.

Little did I know that the guy who I was insulting saw everything I wrote. He had to do some work from my friend’s PC, and he saw everything as I sent it. It’s one of those moments that drains the blood out of you, and I sat frozen at my desk for the remainder of the afternoon. I was expecting that at any minute my boss would walk in and tell me to get out. I was expecting it and it was deserved. But it didn’t happen.

I did a lot of thinking that night and throughout the next couple days as well. I wondered if I should let it blow over, since nothing had come of it. Instead, I psyched myself up and went into my coworker’s office to apologize. You can’t take back words, but you can certainly ensure that it doesn’t happen again. We ended up having a really good conversation about our friendship, working relationship, and various frustrations we’d had that year. What I did was a horrible thing, and it was probably the most important lesson I learned early on: If something’s making you mad, walk away from it until you calm down, because nine times out of ten, you’ll end up doing something you regret.

I’d hit rock-bottom in other ways too. Simultaneously that year, a small group of us had been working directly with Interplay’s team overseas in Japan trying to secure and localize a number of console games. Attempt after attempt, and nothing ever materialized, which was frustrating. It exposed me to the process of pursuing licenses, and how difficult — sometimes impossible — it could be.


Quintet/Enix’s beautiful Tenchi Sozo / Terranigma (1995).

We pursued everything: Sakura Wars, Langrisser, Hermie Hopperhead, Tenchi Sozo / Terranigma, Keio Yugekitai, Tokimeki Memorial, you name it. 2010 was the first time Sakura Wars appeared in the US, if that says anything about the difficulties surrounding that one. I really thought we were going to be the next Working Designs, only bigger. Looking back, the market really worked against us: Sony didn’t want 2D games on the PlayStation, the Super Nintendo was old news, and the Saturn was more or less dead in the water here in the US. Focusing on import game localization wasn’t high on anyone’s priority list except ours, so with nothing to show for it but research material — namely some import games and a stack of Famitsu Weekly magazines — we pulled the plug and called it quits.

I was also terribly bored with my OEM Test Lead job, often wishing that I had stayed in QA where there was not only more variety, but I also really missed the more casual and fun atmosphere. At the same time I wondered what it would be like working in PD, even though I didn’t know what was really involved. It seemed cool, though, and since I still wanted to make games, I figured the timing was right.

At the tail end of 1996, I contacted my friend — the same guy who didn’t have kind words for me on the topic of Final Fantasy — to see if there was anything available. To my surprise, there was an open Line Producer position for an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons PC game! What’s a Line Producer? Who knows, but it sounded like a dream, so I accepted without question.

So, in early 1997, I packed up my things and moved over to the building next door. There was no application, no interview, no nothing. Basically, I got an email from the Producer saying, “See you on Monday!” What a different industry it was back then.  It would be a move that proved to be highly rewarding and educational, but would also make me feel like an ignoramus among geniuses for that entire year on what was a very, very troubled project: Descent to Undermountain.



Re-Review: NES Remix (Wii U eShop)


I gave NES Remix a B- earlier this year, after losing interest in it rather quickly. When I bought it, I was expecting it to be similar to the WarioWare series, with quick, bite-sized challenges of increasing difficulty. In a way, that’s exactly what I got. However, instead of just a well-timed button press here or a tilt of the GBA there, these challenges required more effort and patience. In other words, you have to be good at these games. Did I really want to be devoting valuable time to games like Balloon Fight and Wrecking Crew, after not really caring about them in the ’80s? Those opposing forces really conflicted me, and before I knew it, I was getting frustrated trying to relearn these old 8-bit games.

But as I’ve learned time and time again, stepping away from games can often bring me back with a more open mind. After spending more time with it, digging deeper into its many challenges, my appreciation for it has definitely grown.  While I still think that the game selection itself runs the entire quality gamut from poor to excellent, what the developer Indieszero has put together here is really quite impressive.

It’d be easy to say that they just wrapped a NES emulator inside another game engine, but when you stop and think about what it took to make all of this function the way it does, it’s pretty amazing.


As a sidenote, I think one of the best features of the Wii U is the Miiverse, with its individual game communities, excellent player interaction, and what was introduced first in Super Mario 3D World: stamps.  NES Remix‘s implementation is cool in that you not only earn stamps and can use them in Miiverse posts, but they are displayed to other users, including best times and star ratings. Some of the scores I’ve seen from other players have been very impressive, as is the artwork I’ve seen. There are some incredibly talented artists out there, and I love discovering them.

My meager attempt — like the one pictured here — is just a tiny example of how you can blend hand-drawn pictures with stamps. It’s a lot of fun, the community seems to do a good job of policing itself, and the Wii U GamePad works surprisingly well for drawing.


I still have a considerable ways to go before I get 3 stars on everything, but even at this relatively late point in the game, I keep running into little fun surprises. For example, you can buy the old games featured in NES Remix on the eShop. That’s not the cool part, though. What’s cool is they created this fun Legend of Zelda-themed screen before taking you to the store. It’s a great touch that they didn’t really need to put in there, but they did anyway.

NES Remix also does a really good job of rolling out new content and challenges to the player constantly. Every time I think I’ve unlocked the last game, a new one pops up, or more Remix stages appear, and there are surprises beyond that. I loved the way Turn 10 did this in Forza Motorsport 4, and it’s just as effective and rewarding here.


I also like that there are embedded curve balls thrown into the Remix stages, so just when you think you know what you’re going to have to do, you’re asked to do things that you’ve probably never done in these games.  Those moments are the most memorable, like the one above where Luigi not only has to get through one of Donkey Kong‘s stages that has been flipped horizontally, but then make it all the way back to the beginning. Some of the other stages seem borderline unfair at times, but you can tell that the designers had a blast coming up with all sorts of ways to really mess with our decades-old muscle memory.

In closing, this has been my go-to game for the past week. Whenever I have a few minutes, I’ll immediately turn this on and collect several more stars. It’s great being able to do everything from the GamePad too; this is precisely the type of title that’s perfectly suited for it. Although I still can’t get over how bad the controls are in games like Ice Climber, Urban Champion, and the original Mario Bros. (non-Super), this is still a great compilation that will make you look at the NES era in entirely new ways.

  • Graphics & Presentation: B+
    Classic sprites with subtle touches in the Remix stages, like drop shadows that add depth. Nice interface, good Miiverse integration, and a terrific loading screen give it a polished feel.
  • Music & Sound Effects: B
    Clean, crisp audio, plus some new music and interface sound effects. You’ll likely get very tired of hearing the Miss and Game Over sounds, though.
  • Gameplay & Controls: B+
    The games are preserved here and play just like you remember. They also control just like they did in the ’80s, which is to say that some are good and some are bad. Lots of content rewards throughout keep things fresh.
  • Value: A+
    $15 seems steep, but there are over 200 challenges to complete, and they will keep you busy for a long time, especially if you go for the perfect rainbows. Good Miiverse integration keeps you chasing those high scores.

Overall: B+



Backlog Blitz: The games of April 2014


I slipped in April. What can I say, there were some good sales! April was also the month I created GHG, so that ate significantly into my game playing time. I would make up for it in May, but June’s not looking great so far. Anyway, the format, like previous entries, is Game Title (Platform, Purchase Price, Play Time).

Games purchased (-6, $29.75 spent):

  1. 20140619_hb9The Humble Bundle: PC & Android 9 (PC/Android, $4.00)
    Another month, another Humble Bundle (or in April’s case, two!). This goes against the entire point of the Backlog Blitz, since this only adds a lot of new games to my ever-growing pile of shame — many of which I’ll probably never play — but they’re hard to resist. This one included the following 9 games: Bridge Constructor, Broken Sword 2: The Smoking Mirror, Kingdom Rush, Knights of Pen & Paper +1 Edition, Ravensword: Shadowlands, Savant – Ascent, Syder Arcade, The Shivah, and Type:Rider.
  2. Batman: Arkham Origins & Season Pass (PC, $15.00)
    I told myself that I’d wait until this dropped in price (I bought Arkham Asylum and Arkham City both at $7.50 each), but I was on a Batman binge at the time, so I decided to be impulsive and bought the bundle on eBay. I knew the Mr. Freeze-focused Cold, Cold Heart DLC would be coming soon, and I didn’t want to miss out on that.
  3. Syberia Collection (PC, $3.75)
    This is another pair of games that I didn’t play when they were originally released back in 2002 and 2004. However, I’ve heard they’re good — particularly the first one. Usually $20 on Steam, at over 80% off, it was a no-brainer.
  4. The Humble Mobile Bundle 5 (Android, $5.00)
    Even though this bundle had a number of games that I already owned, it still offered up some excellent ones. I was pleasantly surprised to see the relatively new and high-profile The Room Two included as part of this bundle. I had purchased it already on Google Play back in February, but hey, I might as well have it again. Makes perfect sense, right? This bundle included the following 9 games: Aralon: Sword and Shadow, Bag It!, Carcassonne, Enviro-Bear 2010, Paper Monsters, R-Type, R-Type II, The Cave, and The Room Two.
  5. 20140619_tokyo_jungleTokyo Jungle (PS3, $1.00)
    Sony ran a terrific flash sale in April, and this game, which normally sells for $15, was available for just a buck! I admittedly don’t know much about it, but it seems like everyone who plays it falls in love with its bizarre originality, so I couldn’t pass this up. Not at such a low price.
  6. Super Stardust HD (PS3, $1.00)
    This is an early PSN game that I never bought. I remember briefly trying the demo, liking it, but for whatever reason, I didn’t purchase it. As part of the same flash sale that Tokyo Jungle was part of, I immediately picked it up, and like most everything else on this list, I hope to get to it soon.

Games finished (+2, $15.00 value):

  1. 20140619_batman_originsBatman: Arkham Origins (PC, $10.00, 35 hrs.)
    After finishing this, I’m not really sure why it gets so much hate. Other PC players talk about bugs that completely broke the game, but I didn’t run into any. Maybe I was just lucky. I thought this was a very good game, with a sinister Joker and one of the better portrayals I’ve seen of Bane. I was also very happy to see Barbara Gordon in this, and can’t wait to see more of her in Arkham Knight. Yes, it feels very similar to Arkham City, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Overall: A- (Review Link)
  2. Batman: Arkham Origins: Cold, Cold Heart DLC (PC, $5.00, 5 hrs.)
    The Arkham Origins Season Pass had been much maligned leading up to this DLC release. I’m not a fan of the Season Pass idea to begin with, and I can see how anyone would get frustrated with the meager, uninspired offerings many of them bring to the table. However, when good single-player content is part of it, that can make a huge difference. I really enjoyed this, as it adds enough to justify it being DLC vs. something they just held back. Overall: B+ (Review Link)

A -4 finish for the month wasn’t so hot, but I was happy about the games I bought and played. It’s been an interesting challenge writing this blog and keeping up with all the games that are out there. I’m still trying to find the right balance.


New artwork for GHG!

Last week, I announced that there would be some changes coming soon to GHG. Well, today I’m very excited to reveal a couple things that I’ve been working on behind the scenes:



First up is a new banner for the site drawn by Crystal Ferguson, who I worked with at THQ in Phoenix. I always knew I wanted custom artwork for the blog, and I had a very simple vision in my head of me sitting in a room playing old videogames. That’s not really that far off from reality.

Originally, it was just going to be me in front of a TV with a window and posters on the wall. Then I got it in my head that I wanted to have a puppy version of our Rottweiler in the picture sitting with me, which I think turned out great! She doesn’t get to chew on bones in real life, though.

I also got a late EarthBound cameo added to the upper-right. It was originally supposed to be the aforementioned window, but I thought a pennant featuring Mr. Saturn would be cooler. The more gaming goods, the better!

Even though it’s a relatively small detail, Crystal and I went back and forth the most on the TV screen itself. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to show on there, but I thought some type of platformer — my favorite genre — would be the most appropriate.

I didn’t want it to be straight-up Super Mario, so we ended up with what you see there. I think it reads nicely and my face does look like I’m ready to jump and grab those coins!

In the end, it was cool seeing how she took my idea and came up with something that’s fun to look at, capturing my original vision and more. One of my favorite things is how she drew my hands on the controller, since I have so much trouble getting arms and fingers to look right in my own art.



Next up is my new avatar, which another friend and former THQ coworker of mine, Laura Carberg, put together. Although I had originally approached her to work on another banner, I realized that I was going to need an avatar not just for the blog, but for the various social media sites that I post GHG content to.

With that in mind, I believe my only specification was that it be a likeness of me holding a controller or handheld. She came back with several ideas — which were all very cool — including one of me juggling a bunch of different game controllers in the air. However, I kept coming back to this one, so away we went.

I quickly realized that the more realistic an image is of you, the more fussy you can get!

What you see above is very close to what her original image looked like. At one point, though, I wondered what I’d look like with bigger, more Disney-style eyes. While they were less squinty and read better — especially when the picture was scaled down — it didn’t really look like me anymore. So, I changed my mind and we went back to the original.

For those who know me from the world outside of the internet, I think you’ll agree that this really does look like me!

We went back and forth a few times on some other very small details; things that nobody but me would notice, but she was fun to work with and had good instincts about what my sometimes vague requests meant. I was always pleasantly surprised with the results and think it turned out great.


It doesn’t end with the pictures above, though. In the coming weeks, I’ll be featuring interviews with the artists, as well as revealing a few other projects that are in the pipeline.

It feels terrific to be collaborating with my former teammates again, and I’d love to keep that going. Please contact me if you’d like to be part of the fun — I would love to feature as much talent here as possible!