Retronauts Micro 59: The return of Atari’s SwordQuest

Confession time: I had a dual motive in mind when I invited Chris Sims of War Rocket Ajax and The ISB to join us for the most recent episode of Retronauts. One, he knows a lot about Batman, making him a perfect foil for our Batman-centric episode. But also, he’s the cowriter of Dynamite Comics’ upcoming SwordQuest series. With issue Zero due out in a couple of weeks, now seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore one of the most fascinating game stories of the Atari 2600 era.

I don’t want to spoil the plot of this episode, but Atari intended for SwordQuest to comprise four separate games — episode gaming in the Bronze Age of the medium! — with incredibly valuable prizes attached to a complex set of puzzles tied to each game and its accompanying comic book. But, as has been the case with pretty much all episodic games not published by Telltale, the SwordQuest saga didn’t quite come to fruition… though in this case I’m gonna go ahead and say that wasn’t Atari’s fault. Or at the very least, that it was their fault for fomenting the circumstances that led to SwordQuest fizzling out, but that they really did have admirable intentions with this project.

In any case, the four-game SwordQuest series ultimately pooped out at three entries, and no one really knows what happened to the fabulous prizes that were created and promoted but never handed out. And that, in fact, is the real SwordQuest saga now; Chris’ comic project isn’t a continuation of the in-game story, but an exploration of the story around the games. It definitely sounds worth looking at, and I’m not just saying that because one of the writers was cool enough to join us for this episode.

Episode description: Jeremy and Benj discuss the history of Atari’s fascinating, extravagant, and incomplete SwordQuest series with (literally!) one of the authors of the game’s new comeback: Comics scribe Chris Sims.

MP3, 24.9 MB | 50:27
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As for music this time around… well, SwordQuest (being at Atari 2600 release) didn’t really have music to speak of, so I couldn’t pillage the game for interstitial tunes. But a chronicle is kind of like a quest, right? So I threw in some spacey jams from Hawkwind’s Chronicles of the Black Sword (which is about a totally different fantasy saga, namely Elric of Melnibone — but who’s counting?). Ah well, whatever. Enjoy.

Note: Sorry about the lack of an embedded stream in this post. Our host changed the layout of their pages sometime in the past few days and their embed option appears to have vanished! We’re looking into it.

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The Game Boys of summer

No, don’t worry, no Don Henley here. Just a video about a portable baseball title for this week’s Game Boy Works:

This is yet another one of those “little chubby dudes take the field” baseball titles. In fact, this is the “little chubby dudes take the field” title: Famista, as in Family Stadium, also known as R.B.I. Baseball. While pretty heavily based on the design of Nintendo’s NES Baseball, the Famista series quickly eclipsed its source material in terms of both sequels and endurance. All those sequels rarely made their way west, though; for example, this was the first of three (I think) Famista games for Game Boy, but it was the only one to reach the U.S. As it turns out, Americans don’t seem to gravitate to short, waddling blobs when it comes to sports games.

Something I didn’t mention in the episode is that this release was published in the U.S. by Bandai, who would of course eventually merge with developer Namco. By no means was this unusual, though. In the early days of the Game Boy, Namco and Nintendo were still somewhat on the outs after their conflict over Famicom licensing, and Namco didn’t have much of a home publishing presence in the U.S. Tengen picked up a lot of Namco NES releases to publish unofficially in the States, thanks to the two companies’ mutual connection to Atari, but Bandai snagged quite a few for official licensed production as well. However, this is the first time we’ve seen the Namco/Bandai partnership in action on Game Boy. And the last, so far as I can find! So please enjoy this tiny taste of our corporate future in the form of a so-so baseball game.

Episode description: The Game Boy gets its third baseball title, unsurprisingly making the so-called “thinking man’s sport” also the most prolific “gaming boy’s sport” as well. You may know this franchise better as R.B.I. Baseball, but since that particular bit of branding had become associated with unlicensed provocateurs attempting to undermine Nintendo’s lock on the U.S. market, publisher Bandai unsurprisingly went with a different title.

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Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap | The Retronauts review

Remaking a beloved classic forces developers to grapple with their own pixellated version of the Ship of Theseus paradox: How heavily can a game be altered while remaining fundamentally the same work? What parts should be altered? To what degree should those modifications be allowed to reshape the underlying work?

LizardCube’s new remake of SEGA Master System metroidvania Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap is one of the rare instances in which the developers were able to sidestep this question altogether right at the outset. This remake began as a programming exercise for an enthusiastic fan (Omar Cornut) who wanted to dissect the tech behind the game and rebuild it for new systems. Rather than taking broad liberties with this new rendition of The Dragon’s Trap, Cornut prioritized fidelity first and foremost. This is a remake in the most literal sense: Not a reimagining, but rather a genuine recreation of the 8-bit work from the ground up.

Much as with Saber and 343i’s Halo Anniversary Editions, The Dragon’s Trap gives players a visually upgraded overlay that sits atop the original game, modified to run on new hardware and containing a handful of bonus secrets, but ultimately unchanged. The world layout, the physics, the enemy movements: They’re all the same as they were way back in 1989 on Master System. In fact, as with the aforementioned Halo remakes, The Dragon’s Trap allows players freely toggle between the new look and the original game sprites with the press of a button. The 8-bit visualizer mode isn’t simply the original Master System game running under emulation, either; the graphics have been modified to fill the widescreen layout of modern devices like Nintendo Switch (the version I’ve been playing) or PlayStation 4.

It’s a stunning exercise in digital archaeology, the programming equivalent of unearthing a dinosaur fossil and reassembling it perfectly… then allowing viewers to observe it as either a bare skeleton or with a detailed new skin. It almost seems excessive, but in the best way possible. How many remakes allow you to take a password into the original version of the game to play for a while, then seamlessly carry the progress you made there back into the new rendition?

This scrupulous fidelity to the source material comes with both benefits and drawbacks, of course — the developers’ pixel paradox in action. On the plus side (and this is an enormous plus), it means the extravagant new visuals don’t compromise playability. The Dragon’s Trap looks absolutely gorgeous, with elaborate, stylish, and above all fluid animation fleshing out the game’s sprawling world. Purists can opt to play with the original bitmaps, garish color palettes and all, but I can’t see why anyone would. The remake looks as good as any other 2D platformer I’ve ever seen, and possibly better.

But LizardCube’s core design philosophy — that is, change none of the game’s substance — neatly sidesteps the biggest issue that normally arises when a game looks this nice. Beautifully animated games tend to prioritize animation above responsiveness, an issue you’re especially likely to experience in other hand-drawn games of European origins. Think Rayman: Games that look great and move with visual grace, but which insist on playing out a full animation cycle on-screen before responding to player inputs. Because The Dragon’s Trap is ultimately running on a reconstructed 8-bit framework, it moves like an 8-bit game. When you tap the controls in a given direction, your character immediately moves in that direction. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment on display here (in a release that sets several technical standards for future classic remakes) is the way in which the characters still manage to animate fluidly within those limitations. There’s a whole lot of in-betweening work that plays out between the stilted animation cycles of the Master System original, and each of your protagonist’s five incarnations manages to pull off a variety of moves without ever breaking the illusion. It’s truly extraordinary, all the more so for the impression that every frame of every character and bad guy was drawn individually rather than relying on Flash-style “puppet” animation that many other best-of-class 2D developers (e.g. Vanillaware, WayForward, or Klei) sometimes use as shortcuts.

Taking such a faithful approach does present its share of problems, though, and The Dragon’s Trap unfortunately falls afoul of the biggest of them: Namely, by holding so faithfully to a game from nearly 30 years ago, LizardCube chose to forego any opportunities to refine it.

Now, some may hold to the idea that new developers have no business monkeying around with someone else’s classic, that the point of a remake like this is simply to reproduce the source material, warts and all. I disagree. Game design has come a long way in 30 years; back when Westone first created Wonder Boy III, developers were still tinkering with fundamental concepts of balance and fairness. To their credit, this game feels far less punishing than other contemporary nonlinear games. Wonder Boy (or Girl — one of the more thoughtful cosmetic elements of this remake is the option to chose your protagonist’s gender) can soak up quite a bit of damage from foes. If you venture into an area and find yourself hopelessly outclassed by the bad guys there, you shouldn’t be in that area just yet.

That said, the original game still had its share of minor frustrations. The physics can feel a little odd for those accustomed to the elegant jump mechanics of other games, and there are a few places (especially late in the game) where enemy placement feels needlessly punishing. The world desperately needs a few reverse shortcuts, too. Every area has a door to warp players back to the main village that serves as the game’s hub, but you need to trek the whole way on foot when you want to venture out to the hinterlands. If you lose to a boss, you can look forward to slogging your way back from the start. Likewise, the one shop that sells precious life potions is a good five-minute jaunt through a mouse-sized maze, even for a powered-up hero. You’ll get to know that route quite well, since you have to bumble through it any time you want to restock your potions.

It’s a testament, then, to the excellence of the original game that it still plays well in 2017 despite these quality-of-life issues. The third chapter in the sprawling Wonder Boy series (along with the other Wonder Boy III, Monster Lair — yes, it’s confusing, but we’ve sorted it out for you in podcast form) built on the rudimentary action RPG elements that appeared in 1987’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Where Monster World had the brisk pacing and simplistic structure required for a game originating in arcades, though, Wonder Boy III appeared strictly on consoles and could afford to indulge in fully non-linear design. It’s packed with secrets, equipment, and pathways that you may spot right off but can only explore once you’ve acquired the appropriate power.

Those powers helped make the game so interesting. The journey begins at the finale of the previous game, with the final boss encounter working as a sort of prologue; once you defeat the last game’s boss, Wonder Boy is cursed to become a monster. With each new boss you destroy, you’re cursed anew to become a different creature: A lizard, a mouse, a fishman, etc. Each form has both advantages and drawbacks. The mouse, for example, has absolutely awful attack range, but can slip through tiny passages and climb certain walls. In time, you gain the ability to swap between your cursed forms at certain key locations, and learning when and how to make the most of each curse becomes a huge part of completing the game.

Original developers Westone put together one of the most advanced and interesting action RPGs of the ’80s, one that could stand toe-to-toe with hits such as Zelda II and would go on to exert some very obvious influence on the likes of Castlevania: Symphony of the NightShantae and Little Samson. Its problem was one of obscurity. Wonder Boy III appeared on multiple systems back in the day, but they were all the least popular platforms of each category: Master System, TurboGrafx-16, Game Gear. Hopefully the fact that this visually stunning (and still quite entertaining!) remake is showing up on the most popular platforms of the era — PlayStation and Steam, as well as being one of the first notable releases for Switch — will allow this 8-bit masterpiece to finally receive the acclaim it’s due.

The remake’s changes are literally skin deep… but what a great-looking skin they’ve created. And that skin been fitted over a game that didn’t really need much corrective surgery in the first place. I wouldn’t have complained about a few minor gameplay refinements, especially options to make navigating back to conquered areas less time-consuming, but I can’t fault LizardCube for creating a brilliantly, beautifully faithful take on this 8-bit classic.

Verdict: Highly recommended

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap
Developer: LizardCube | Publisher: DotEmu
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Steam, Switch, Xbox One
Release date: April 18, 2017

This review was based on software provided by the publisher for review purposes.

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Episode 95: Face it, you’ve got Batmania bad!

For this week’s Retronauts — Retronauts East — I invited the internet’s greatest Batman expert onto this show to discuss, well, Batman. Or rather, Batman games. Chris Sims of War Rocket Ajax and The ISB (and the upcoming SwordQuest comic) stopped by for this episode to help shed some light on a corner of video games that Retronauts has touched on in passing, but never with quite this much depth.

The original plan for this episode was to cover the entire span of Batman-based classic games from 1986-2005, but we ended up going into so much detail on the context surrounding the games — especially the character’s pop culture resurgence and rehabilitation throughout the ’80s — that we barely made it past Batman Returns. And that is OK! I do wish I had known we’d only be covering half the games I assembled notes for; I’d have gone for depth rather than breadth and really drilled down into the titles we did end up discussing. But there’s a lot of great and informative conversation about the Batman franchise (thanks to Chris) that helps to better define the games. It’s a good mix.

The games we tackle in particular this time around are: Batman (ZX Spectrum), The Caped Crusader, Batman (the movie games), Return of the Joker, Batman Returns (move games, again), and Batman: The Animated Series.

Episode description: Renowned Batmanologist and comics scribe Chris Sims joins Jeremy and Benj to explore the lore of early Batman games and how they fit into the evolution of the character’s franchise.

MP3, 48.8 MB | 1:45:28
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This episode’s music comes from a variety of Batman games: SunSoft’s NES and Game Boy movie adaptations, Return of the Joker for NES, and the SEGA CD game — whose soundtrack, I fear, I unfairly maligned. After giving the SEGA CD soundtrack a closer listen, I owe Spencer Nilsen an apology. There’s some corny butt-rock at work there for sure, yeah, but also some pretty great composition (if decidedly of a ’90s vintage, soundwise).

Finally, a big thanks to this episode’s sponsors: BarkBox, Audible, Dell, and Casper Mattresses.

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We really need a Nintendo Switch tate mode grip attachment

One of the most interesting things to emerge from Nintendo’s complex multi-modal hardware design for the Switch is the fact that it’s the first game system since Bandai’s WonderSwan in 1999 to support a vertical screen orientation right out of the box. Yes, I know, pedants: The DS had “book” mode, but only one developer was insane enough to try and use that for an action game (Team Ninja with their ambitious but kinda disastrous Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword). With Switch, though, you can simply disconnect the Joycons from the core unit, place the core sideways on a stand, and play with a rotated screen — an arrangement that would require prodigious effort with other consoles.

This, of course, has its practical limitations. You can’t easily use vertical mode when the Switch is docked, since the system feeds out to a television in that mode. This of course introduces the same issue involved with any other system, i.e. you don’t really want to turn a 60″ flatscreen television sideways unless you’ve had a pivoting mount installed at great expense specifically for that purpose. And it’s not as though a lot of Switch games use vertical mode. But it’s a great option for classic arcade games that originally shipped with vertical monitors, and as we all know, Switch is quickly becoming a favorite destination for publishers to stow their classic games and compilations.

Case in point: Yesterday Bandai Namco announced a new Namco Museum anthology specifically for Switch, due out this summer. While you’ll find some of the usual suspects on this compilation, such as Pac-Man, it also contains some unexpected inclusions: Splatterhouse, for one, and the more or less forgotten arcade version of Rolling Thunder 2 (which I don’t believe the company has ever included on any compilation to date). It also includes the option to use vertical — or tate, if you prefer — mode for the games that originally ran on vertical arcade monitors. Galaga, for one.

That’s rad, but it does raise the issue that the system’s vertical orientation only really makes sense when you set the core screen on a stand and use a detached controller. Games of the type packed in with Namco Museum seem like a natural fit to the system’s default handheld mode, yet there’s no way to treat the system as a handheld while using the screen in tate mode. So this is my earnest request to peripheral manufacturers: Please, dudes and ladies, someone out there needs to create a third-party Switch grip that will allow us to use the system in vertical mode while still holding it as a compact, self-contained handheld device. Some sort of snap-on cradle to enclose the screen and slide the Joycons into seems like a pretty simple and inexpensive thing to create; ideally the cradle would include wired connections to allow the Joycons to physically plug into the console, but it would also work just fine if it simply had a pair of rails to slide the Joycons into and let the controller dongles connect wirelessly, as Koizumi intended.

Can I get a “hell yeah” from the choir?

I doubt this peripheral would see a ton of use, but I also suspect we’ll be seeing enough classics with tate mode support to make it worth many people’s while. Heck, someone with more confidence in CAD software than I have could probably bang out of these out with a 3D printer in the space of an afternoon. So anyway: You, the peripheral makers of the universe, may have this idea for free. All I ask is that you send one along for a Retronauts review once you’ve created it.

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Alundra is 20 danged years old

Yesterday, a classic action RPG designed by Sony and Matrix turned 20 — interestingly, just two days ahead of the 25th anniversary of the U.S. release of the game it shamelessly imitated. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past debuted 25 years ago tomorrow in America (April 13, 1992), and its greatest and most fascinating clone appeared in Japan just shy of five years later (April 11, 1997): Alundra.

I love Alundra, though I admittedly haven’t played it since it was a first-run feature. Who knows, maybe my opinion would change with two decades of hindsight. But at the time, it played like the follow-up to A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening that I dearly wanted but no one else was making. I was as excited as anyone for Ocarina of Time, but even then it was clear that game would play pretty differently from the 2D Zelda games. Alundra fell into the same category for me as Symphony of the Night: The kind of experience the entire industry was eager to move away from, but which I still wanted to exist. Technical progress doesn’t mean having to slash and burn everything that’s come before, and I hated the frustrating universal media consensus at the time which demanded all games had to abandon any visual vestige of the past in order to be acceptable.

It wasn’t just a media consensus, come to that. Sony, who by mid-1997 had already taken a strong lead in the console race, had an infamous policy of disallowing 2D games on PlayStation. It wasn’t absolute law, but certainly bitmap-based graphics were frowned upon and expected to take a seat at the kids’ table. Alundra, being a Sony-published game in Japan, seemed doomed to face the same unhappy fate as other first-party “relics” like Arc the Lad. That is to say, denied a visa into the U.S. I distinctly recall reading a massive import preview blowout on Alundra in (I think) GameFan magazine which made it clear that this game was a rad adventure in the style of Zelda, and also doomed never to come to America. For the moment, this restriction didn’t burn too badly, because I was in the midst of experiencing my very first import game (the aforementioned Symphony of the Night), but still the thought that such a fantastic-looking entry in an underserved genre I deeply loved would be dangled beyond my reach… it chafed.

As it turned out, Alundra really did suffer the same fate as Arc the Lad: It was picked up for U.S. release by Working Designs. The company did a solid job with the localization — aside from the spacey surfer dude Bonaire, who felt increasingly out of place and inappropriate as the game’s plot grew darker and darker, it largely eschewed Working Designs’s trademark approach to localization (e.g. throw out most of the original text and cram in a ton of jokes). You can probably attribute that to the fact that Alundra simply wasn’t as slight as most of the RPGs WD tended to localize; it came wrapped in a pretty intense storyline. The eponymous hero had the ability to enter people’s dreams, but even as he did so an evil force was also stealing into those dreams and murdering the dreamer. By the end of the game, a whole lot of people are dead or emotionally devastated. There’s not a lot of room for levity.

Working Designs also didn’t apply their usual dramatic rebalancing to the game’s difficulty, either. While they made a few tweaks, they felt smart and welcome. For example, they made the final boss hit harder while reducing the amount of damage he could withstanding, which resulted in a shorter, more intense fight. Alundra has a reputation for being a seriously difficult game, with some tough battles and brain-bending puzzles, but that wasn’t my experience. It’s one of those games that simply clicked with me for whatever reason, and I sailed through it… even the notoriously complicated sliding-block puzzles in the ice palace.

Funnily enough, I didn’t actually buy the game at launch despite my enthusiasm for it. I somehow won a copy from IGN in a contest they had right before the game shipped… and then, months later, I still hadn’t received my copy. (Now that I’ve worked in the press, I can definitely see how that happened; no hard feelings.) I wrote one of the editors an email, and he promptly called me, apologized, and promised to get the game sent out ASAP. He was true to his word! Within a week, I had the game and the PlayStation console that was also part of the contest, along with a few random trinkets and (inexplicably) a military grade beef stew meal-ready-to-eat. So whenever I think about Alundra, I think about… army rations.

You know, 20 years later, there still aren’t very many people making high-grade 2D Zelda clones. I should probably revisit Alundra.

Images courtesy of VG Museum

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It’s Skate or Die on Game Boy… Works?

With this week’s video chronicles installment, we begin our transition from the wild west frontier days of similarly inspired but dissimilarly treated video projects to the grand unifying vision of… WORKS. In case you missed my explanation last week (and clearly quite people did, if YouTube comments are anything to go by), here’s the deal: As part of the general movement of Retronauts into something respectable (nay, viable), we’re rebranding these video projects and their accompanying books from the hodgepodge of “Good Nintentions,” “Game Boy World,” “Mode Seven” and so on to a single multi-facet venture: Works. Game Boy Works, NES Works, etc. It has no impact on the content of these videos, just the intro/outro, the title typography, and the naming.

See? Ultimately, it’s business as usual.

I have to say, though, Skate or Die: Bad ’N Rad was not at all what I was expecting. I fiddled around with the original Skate or Die as a kid and expected more of the same: A sort of freeform skateboard simulator. This was not the case at all. Rather than presenting a portable adaptation of Electronic Arts’ popular skating game, Konami created something entirely new from the ground up, with the only real connection between the two being the top-down stages (which bear a loose resemblance to the stage select portion of EA’s game — but even then, the stage select in Skate or Die used absolute “tank” controls whereas the top-down portions here use relative inputs).

It’s a strange creative choice, to be honest. Surely there would have been less work involved in, and more money to be gleaned from, a faithful adaptation? And yet, here’s this. There’s a vague, hard-to-pin-down element of New Orleans aesthetic here that makes this feel like some bizarre hybrid of skateboard and The Adventures of Bayou Billy, and it makes me wonder whether Konami already had a kooky skateboarding platformer in the works and decided to take take advantage of the Skate or Die license by slapping it on an unrelated game? But then again, they held the Skate or Die licensed for a couple of years before Bad ’N Rad arrived, and the development on this game couldn’t possibly have taken more than nine or 10 months to complete. So, man, I don’t know what the story is here. I just know it’s a strange and interesting game, and I wish it had turned out better than it ultimately did.

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Retronauts Episode 94: Classics new and old on Retronauts Radio

Another week, another episode about Castlevania. I guess I lied last week when I said I’d be limiting Retronauts to a single Castlevania episode per year!

Of course, this isn’t really a Castlevania episode. It’s Retronauts Radio number four, and it just so happens that this month’s musical highlight comes in the form of a Castlevania III double-LP album. I cannot tell you how much I adore this new release — it’s a far cry in terms of quality from Mondo’s disappointing first Castlevania vinyl release. Each disc contains a different version of the music (one NES, one Famicom), and the source files are not the existing CD issue of the Japanese soundtrack… which is to say, no sound effects and weird foley elements. I highly recommend it.

The other selections for this month include:

Everything we covered with this month’s Radio installment is stellar, so I hope you’ll forgive the indulgent length of this episode. In addition to highlighting great recent music releases by way of tune samples, the fourth Retronauts Radio involves a lot of back-and-forth conversation about the games and soundtracks between myself and this episode’s guest: Jack Menhorn of Boss Key Productions. Jack works with video game audio for a living, so he brings a genuine expert perspective to the discussion.

Everything this month is also a vinyl release, something I prefer to avoid with Retronauts Radio. I know that only a minority of listeners collect game vinyl, and I don’t want anyone to feel like this show has a high buy-in cost. It just so happened that this month involved a huge amount of great classic game music arriving on vinyl. Don’t worry, though: Next month will include only one LP-exclusive selection, along with a couple of new CD releases, a new (!) Famicom cartridge release, and BraveWave’s upcoming Ninja Gaiden remaster (which will arrive in multiple formats)

Episode description: Boss Key Studios audio expert Jack Menhorn joins Jeremy for an in-depth discussion of the latest new releases of retro- and retro-style game soundtracks: Mondo’s Contra III and Castlevania III, Brave Wave’s Shovel Knight, and DataDiscs’ Galaxy Force II!

MP3, 52.0 MB | 1:53:17
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This week’s music selections are… well, I kind of feel like this one kind of speaks for itself. If you’re interested in picking up any of the soundtracks from this month, the links are all above. And if you’re curious to play the games from which the music comes, you can pick up: Castlevania III and Contra III on Virtual Console, Shovel Knight on any current platform you can name, and both Galaxy Force II and Thunder Blade as excellent 3D Classics remakes on Nintendo 3DS.

Finally, thanks again to this episode’s sponsors: BarkBox, Audible, Dell, and Casper Mattresses.

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Retronauts Micro 58: Zelda Treasure Jingle Quiz

Hey everyone, this Micro episode is a little late this week; we both spent all day on airplanes en route to Midwest Gaming Classic. Thanks for bearing with us, and enjoy the show.

Episode description: Since we’ve all got Breath of the Wild on the brain, why not celebrate The Legend of Zelda’s most unsung musical moments? On this episode of Retronauts Micro, join Bob Mackey, Chris Antista, Henry Gilbert, and Brett Elston as the crew assembles to put their knowledge of Zelda’s famous “doo doo doo DOOOO” ditty to the test. You know the one we’re talking about.

MP3, 13.5 MB | 28:09
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This episode’s sponsors include: BarkBox, Audible, and Casper Mattresses

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A look at that rarest of treats: A classy ROM hack

For this week’s Gintendo stream I finally spent some time with something I’ve been meaning to try out for quite a while, ever since it was released at the beginning of the year: A ROM hack total conversion of the original NES Metroid called Metroid: Rogue Dawn. It turned out to be quite good, with the kind of flow I like in an exploratory game. I don’t know if it was fun to watch, but I spent a lot of time searching for paths forward and accidentally going back the way I had originally come through alternate means before finally stumbling across the proper route. From the hour I’ve played, Rogue Dawn seems designed in a way that almost frustrates but then rewards thoughtful play with a satisfying resolution. I dig it.

I managed to make it just far enough into the hack to finally reach the part that took it beyond a simply facelift and reshuffling of the original game: At the end of the stream, I found an item that adds a new wall-jump mechanic that reminds me a bit of the one in Strider and, natch, Super Metroid. Though it’s much easier to pull off here.

I have been told the final area of the game degenerates into fiddly ROM hack expert-play nonsense, which is a shame, but I’m still intrigued enough by what I’ve played to want to find out for myself. Probably not on a stream, though. As lost as I ended up becoming in this game, I can only assume it’s going to get a lot worse further in, and constantly jabbering about what I’m doing is not really the key to successful concentration in a sprawling video game world. Nevertheless, a pretty solid ROM hack — much better than the innumerable low-quality hacks of yesteryear. Maybe give it a shot for yourself, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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