The bizarre, thirsty world of Ultra Box magazine

Introduction

I think my exploration of PC Engine samplers is coming to an end after this. After going through all the Hyper Catalog CDs I decided to try the Ultra Box series. About halfway through I questioned why I thought this was a good idea for a review/gallery type thing. This series is just so... well, bizarre and thirsty. I'm struggling with how to describe them without sounding all snarky.

When I say "bizarre" I mean it as "involving incongruous or unexpected elements". I realize there are cultural differences at play and things I find a little odd are totally normal to a teen in 1990s Japan. When these CDs were published we still thought Joe Camel ads were OK in the US so who am I to talk? There is something very disjointed about the content in these though. The Hyper Catalog discs had a clear presentation style. These are more like a bag of total randomness.

As for "thirsty"... I'm using the 21st century definition, not the 1990s one. A good portion of these CDs are dedicated to pick-up games or pixelated idol images. Again, I know there are cultural differences here. I can imagine some rough US equivalent, I hear there was an unlicensed Hawaiian model thing for the TurboGrafx-16 CD. It's not that American teens in the 1990s didn't want to look at 16-bit women. I think things like this didn't exist because of a small number of hyper-prude pearl-clutchers. I'm not personally into dating games but there's no reason they shouldn't be available for people who enjoy them.

A lot of effort went into these for sure. It would take me approximately 10 years to develop just one of these. Producing a CD magazine like this for a 1990s console is a dream project of mine. Maybe I should be doing that instead of writing this. Too late now I guess.

On the topic of effort... if this seems like a low-effort article it kind of is. Like I said, I ran out of steam about halfway through it. I have something larger and more interesting (to me at least) planned next (unless I change my mind). Until then, I hope you enjoy this little piece of filler.


Ultra Box 1

Let's dive right into the first Ultra Box

Alright, let's dive right into the first Ultra Box. I've heard that people's opinions of abstract art is a reliable predictor of their political beliefs. In my limited experience, I've found that in the US a person's opinion of roundabouts is the most reliable predictor of their political beliefs.


The menu is a rotating can thing

The menu is a rotating can thing. The first option is help let's try it out.


Help

This is much nicer-looking than the controller test ROM I created for the Sega Genesis. I feel like a total fraud now. The other 5 Ultra Boxes also have this screen.


Dinosaur menu

The next menu item is a broken-hearted dinosaur. I have no idea what this could be.


Compatibility tester

Huh, OK, it's a zodiac compatibility tester. Obviously there is no greater measure of romantic compatibility than what months you were born in.


Compatibility tester results

Here are the results using the signs for me and my wife. In real life I'm a little taller and don't own those pants. Otherwise this seems accurate.


Idol menu

The next menu option is "idol". I have an approximate idea where this is headed.


Choosing Banana

I'm going with "Banana".


Banana

I was hoping for a dancing banana here but fine, whatever. Great job with the digital scanning and image conversion at least. That had to be a nightmare to create.


Banana will be turning 50 in a couple of years

Banana will be turning 50 in a couple of years. I don't have the energy to Google "Banana idol" to see what she's up to today. Let's just say she's the vice president of marketing for a mid-sized company now.


New game menu

Let's move on to the "new game" menu.


I wish I had a Trapper Keeper with art in this style

I wish I had a Trapper Keeper with art in this style. I don't mean like back when I was in school. I would like to walk around with that at the office.


Behind the scenes

Our hostess, let's call her "blueberry", takes us behind the scenes to a developer's office. That chair, oh man, that chair is going to be so painful after a couple hours. I dig the rest of the setup though.


Coming soon

Magical Dinosaur Tour is coming soon. And back to the chair for a minute.. game companies are known for making people work absurd hours.. Japanese companies are known for making people work absurd hours.. combine the two and that developer is spending 18-20 hours a day in an uncomfortable chair. They probably messed-up their back for life to give us Magical Dinosaur Tour. Let that sink in for a while.


Vic menu

There's a reoccurring character appropriately named Victor on these who stars in mini-games. Let's check out the first one..


It's a little endless-scrolling fighting-ish game

It's a little endless-scrolling fighting-ish game. Not bad, borderline kind of fun. With a little work this could be about equal to My Hero on the Master System.


Jockey menu

Now for the jockey menu. I hope that dude is wearing pants.


Jockey game story

In the beginning our hero was a pizza delivery guy.


Jockey game

Then some horse racing happened.


Jockey game choice

After the race there are important life choices to make. Again, the scanning and image conversion are very good. I really can't imagine how long that process took in 1991.


JJB menu

Next is the JJB menu. For lack of a better description, this is the miscellaneous section of the CD.


JJB

There are several sub-sections, I thought about doing a gallery with all of them but decided to move on.


Excited teacher

In one of the options there's a teacher who is very excited about your work. I have never once triggered this reaction in anybody


Catalog menu

Similar to the Hyper Catalog CDs, there is a database of software included on each of these.


Game description

In this iteration the game descriptions in the database overlay idol pictures. Alright, let's move on to..


Bathtub menu

I have a bad feeling about this.


Peeking game

So this is a mini-game where you have to get the meter maxed out and then you see an image that I'm not posting.


Bombtown Story menu

Now for my favorite thing on this CD - an interactive animation called Bombtown Story.


Bombtown Story

The title screen sets the tone and period well.


Bombtown Story choice

The artwork is very good in this. This looks better than most game cut-scenes. I don't mean 1991 cut-scenes either. This artwork is better than many current-gen games I've recently played.


UB 64 menu

This isn't long but there are a few choices to make along the way.


UB 64

Now we'll move on to the UB 64 menu.


Peg game

This is like one of those peg games where you try to clear all tiles by hopping. I know how terrible that description is. It's like one of those games they have on every table at Cracker Barrel. I have not been to a Cracker Barrel in 5-6 years but I assume they never change.


English tutorial menu

And now for something that I thought was an English tutorial. It kind of is, and it kind of isn't.


English tutorial intro screen

Here's the intro, you are playing as the steampunk bowtie man.


Thirsty questions

You then approach a random woman on the street and start a dialog. It doesn't take long to enter creeper territory.


Tourist dialog

This is totally implausible. An actual native New Yorker would have described the various things your character should go do to himself. They should have made her from Minneapolis.


Map Menu

Last up on this disc is the map menu.


Train station

There are some more digital photo conversions. Thinking about it some more.. it probably took 5 or so minutes to scan the image (assuming they aren't using an image from a digital art collection). Whatever code they wrote to re-scale the image, extract the palette, and covert to a format usable by the PC Engine.. that I'm guessing took 30-60 minutes to run per image. I wrote a thing to do this for the Genesis and it runs in about a nanosecond on modern hardware. If I had to make that work on a 1991 computer I don't even know where I'd begin. I think memory would be the biggest constraint. Bravo to whoever figured this out.



Ultra Box 2

Ultra Box 2 title

Moving on to the second installment in this series. There are six total and I'm beginning to regret starting this. These are fun to explore, it's trying write interesting observations that's tough for me.


Cusuto menu

There's an interactive comic called Cusuto that starts on this CD and continues through the fifth. The last CD has a recap of the series.


Cusuto

The artwork is again excellent for this era.


Mission menu

Mission.. this sounds promising.


Dress-up game

And it's a dress-up game. That's your mission, dressing-up schoolgirls. This has probably been ported to the Switch and is currently on sale for 19¢.


Victor on motorcycle menu

The Victor mascot is back and has a motorcycle.


Motorcycle game

The controls take some getting used to but this isn't bad. This could be turned into a full game.


Mini-game menu

The next menu takes us to another game.


Stack game

You play against the computer and are trying to knock all the stacks down to one item.


JJB menu (2)

The JJB section is back. I now realize that guy is a crossover of Indiana Jones and Sloth from Goonies.


Dungeon Master shirt

I've decided it's now my life's goal to find one of these t-shirts.


Date menu

Yeah, this is going to be what it sounds like.


Date options

Hi, sorry but I'm already spoken for. Also you're all way too young for me. OK, we were all born in the same year probably but you get what I mean.


Wrestling menu

I don't know what's going on here but I can't wait to find out.


Wrestlers

Nice. So we have a Hulk Hogan knock-off, Andre the Giant, Stan "The Lariat" Hansen, Giant Baba, not sure, and Abdullah the Butcher. I'm choosing Stan "The Lariat" Hansen who is one of my favorite wrestlers of all time. That is not a joke at all.


Wrestling scene

After that some stuff happens that I can't explain.


Catalog menu (2)

So then is this dog the official catalog mascot?


New catalog interface

There's a new look for the catalog in this CD. I think Hyper Catalog did it a little better but it's not a bad interface.


End menu

And now we're at the end (obviously).


English credits

The credits in this CD are in English and they go for a while - confirming that no matter how odd these are they were a lot of work.



Ultra Box 3

Ultra Box 3 menu

The third CD has a much more subdued title screen.


Cusuto Episode II menu

The second installment of Cusuto is the first menu item.


Cusuto Episode II

Some intrigue as a new character enters to kick off the story.


Making of Dorayaki Quest menu

The next menu takes us to the Making of Dorayaki Quest.


Making of Dorayaki Quest title

Now at first I thought it was about the making of an actual game but that's not the case.


Making of Dorayaki Quest

It's really an interactive fiction about a game developer. This could have started as a Famicom game maybe.


Princess of PC Engine menu

I have an idea where this menu might lead, let's see..


Princess of PC Engine

Nope, I was wrong. It's a catalog of female characters in PC Engine games.


Lilia

You select a character and get some information about them.


Ys ad

I wondered if these images were used with permission then I saw the game ad and assumed they were.

Speaking of thirsty game developers.. what happened to Falcom? If you spend 5 minutes on this page you can tell I'm a long-time fan of theirs. I'm posting this around the time they're publishing the fifth and possibly final installment in the Trails of Cold Steel/Sen no Kiseki series in Japan. Yes, I know it's not officially called that and please don't send a correction. Anyway, based on the previews it appears to be a game centered around ogling young women in swimsuits that might incidentally contain some RPG elements. I'm beginning to worry they might have hit their creative peak with Trails in the Sky SC or Ys VIII. The Zelda series got back on track after Skyward Sword so I'll remain hopeful.


3rd Victor game menu

It's time for the next Victor mascot game.


3rd Victor game title

This is the most PC Engine CD title screen of all time.


3rd Victor game

This time he's in a shooter. It's not mechanically all that different than the game in the first CD.


Reverse menu

Now another game called Reverse3.


Reverse game

This is a game you probably wrote in a computer science class in college. It's been a while but I'm sure I did. You have to get all the squares to be the same color. When you select a square you flip the color of all non-diagonal adjacent squares.


Club UB menu

Club UB is next.


Club UB title

I guess they want you to think this is who you will meet in Club UB? Somehow I'm skeptical.


The women of Club UB

Oh, and she has some friends too.


Another wrestling menu

There is another wrestling-themed thing in this CD.


More wrestlers

It's a different roster of wrestlers now. Hulk Hogan, Giant Baba, Abdullah the Butcher, and Stan "The Lariat" Hansen appear to be sticking around. As for the new additions.. I only recognize The Great Muta. Look, I'm not one of those wrestling nerds that gets into New Japan. The top left might be Shinya Hashimoto or Riki Choshu. The center one is possibly based on Masa Saito. The right center one, no clue. The bottom left character I believe is currently performing for Hoodslam.


Wrestling train crossover thing

Instead of whatever sumo-like thing they were doing last time, this time they're on a train.


Dance menu

Sigh.. OK, let's do this.


Dancing

The animated version is much thirstier.


Catalog menu (3)

Let's please move on to the catalog.


3rd catalog

There's another UI change, it's still OK.


Beer menu

I would definitely hang out with these two.


Japanese credits

This time the credits are in Japanese which really makes more sense anyway.



Ultra Box 4

Ultra Box 4 menu

Ultra Box 4 starts with a re-designed menu.


Cusuto Episode III

Cusuto is back for their third episode.


Club UB menu (4)

Let's see what Club UB has to offer this time.


Boat

Alright, going on a little journey to start. This is promising.


It's another dating type game

Ah, it's another dating-type thing.


Game Soft menu

Now let's look at game previews, a section that has returned.


L-Dis title

This is a step up from the last time, we are going right into a title screen.


L-Dis intro

From there it's the game intro.


Sports menu

Next is the sports menu, this is a new section.


Jumprope

This goes to a jumprope game. It's not Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball but it's a little thirsty nonetheless.


Head conscious menu

Head Conscious sounds like a self-help book.


Strategy game

It's really a strategy game so the name is fitting.


Psychic menu

The next menu is called Psychic but I don't think that's the word they were going for.


Hunting game or whatever

Instead there this sort of proto Big Buck Hunter game.


Gag Land menu

Now let's pay a visit to Gag Land. There are two possible ways this can go.


I don't get it

I don't get the joke.


Art menu

Up next is fan art.


Fan art

Yup, that's fan art. Better than I can draw.


Last menu

Let's power through the last three sections.


Space creature fan art

Some kind of space creature, probably from a game I don't recognize.


Cusuto fan art

Some Cusuto fan art, also better than I could do.


Letter or something

And last up are some closing thoughts from the editor.



Ultra Box 5

Cusuto 4 menu

The 5th CD changes the menu again, I think this is my favorite format for it.


Cusuto 4

Cusuto 4 does not take place on Earth, or maybe that was previously explained.


Club UB (5)

By this point I think I know what to expect from Club UB.


At the beach

Yup, expectations met.


Tororo menu

Tororo.. this sounds interesting.


Tororo

It's another interactive fiction game. Translating all of these would be one of the most thankless ROM hacks of all time.


Interactive comics menu

Interactive Comics.. as opposed to the many interactive stories in these discs.


Interactive comics

It seems more like you're choosing a character's story to follow if I understand this correctly (I probably don't).


Game Soft menu (5)

Last time the Game Soft menu had a game trailer, let's see what they do this time.


1991 catalog

Straight into the catalog.. although I really like this title screen.


Sports menu (5)

After the last Sports section I again have a good idea what to expect.


Hurdles game

OK, it's a little different. There's a hurdles game that isn't deep but isn't bad either.


Dasaiyas menu

The Dasaiyas menu is next.


This must be Dasaiyas

And it's a little shooter that I was completely terrible at.


Art gallery UB menu

The art gallery section is now large, they must have received a good number of submissions by this point.


Art gallery UB menu

The title screen is a mushroom trip for sure.


Lilia fan art

There are many images but I'll just post this Ys fan art because I'm all predicable like that.


UB information menu

Last stop on this CD is information.


Club UB information

Subscribing at this point would be a bad idea since this series is about to run its course.



Ultra Box 6

Jangken and Fairies menu

The final installment of Ultra Box is also the one I find most interesting. They kept the menu from Ultra Box 5 which I think was a good choice.


Jangken and Fairies intro

The first thing is Jangken & Fairies. I expected this to be another interactive fiction game.


Jangken and Fairies town

Instead it's a decent RPG for something included on a game magazine. This part is a little 8-bit looking but it's already past my design skills.


Jangken and Fairies overworld

There's an overworld that looks like it could be large.


Jangken and Fairies fight

As with any other RPG of this era, there are an absurd number of random battles.


Alice in Flagland menu

Alice in Flagland has to be a mistranslation.


Alice in Flagland title

They needed a warning before this title screen.


Alice in Flagland intro

This is another interactive story with graphics that remind me of The Manhole.


Alice in Flagland exploring

Here's the first choice in this game. This is good overall, I can't find any evidence it was released as a full game on any system which is too bad.


Lecture menu

I'm kind of dreading the search engine indexing possibilities with this one.


Talking to the king

I guess the king thinks it's time you found a wife, what with you being the ripe age of 6 and everything.


Another dating game or whatever

It looks like another pick-up game.


Dokidoki Driveland menu

Moving on to Dokidoki Driveland.


Dokidoki Driveland title

What else would you expect at this point?


Dokidoki Driveland

The driving itself is OK, about the same as the motorcycle racer a few CDs ago.


Cusuto Special!

Cusuto Special! is a recap of the previous episodes.


1992 catalog title

So let's just move on to the catalog, with the same look as the last installment.


1992 catalog browse

The searching is a little weird this time.


1992 catalog pictures

This is one way to browse it too.


Art Gallery menu (6)

Time for another art gallery, this one is really large so I'll just show a couple fun ones.


Onion guy with knife

Finally, art that is at my drawing level.


Sonic fan art on the PC Engine

Sonic on a PC Engine game!


Ultra Box fan art

This could make for a good title screen if there was a 7th issue.


Ys fan art

Of course I'm posting the Ys fan art, of course I am.


UB Information (6)

Our journey through these CDs is coming to an end now. I'm kind of relieved.


Letter from the editor

A final letter from the editor. This issue is dated 1992 and the PC Engine CD still had 2 more good years ahead of it. The Hyper Catalog series went until summer 1994 which is about the longest Ultra Box could have theoretically lasted too.

Alright, I'm officially out of things to say about these. Really I was about 30 comments ago. As I mentioned before, my next article will likely be something with more substance. It could equally be something with even less. We'll found out next time.



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