Ever Oasis producer Koichi Ishii on building on (and standing apart from) Secret of Mana

The 3DS keeps chugging along despite the looming shadow of Nintendo Switch: The little handheld that wouldn’t say die. Nintendo’s latest release for the platform arrives tomorrow: Ever Oasis, an action RPG developed by Grezzo.

Grezzo has been one of Nintendo’s most faithful partners for the 3DS era, though their name doesn’t get as much play as an independent publisher like Level-5, Atlus, or Square Enix. However, chances are quite good you’ve played at least one of the studio’s collaborations with Nintendo, as they’ve had a hand in multiple 3DS Zelda games. Not only the remakes of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, but also the original work Tri Force Heroes.

Grezzo and Zelda has always struck me as a perfect creative love connection, given that Grezzo’s president is none other than Koichi Ishii. Formerly of Squaresoft and Square Enix, Ishii oversaw a variety of projects at his former studio. While many of those games are quite highly regarded — for example, Final Fantasy — Ishii is almost certainly best-known for being the director of the first few Seiken Densetsu/Mana games. Of all the action RPGs to bite Zelda‘s style, the early Mana titles always felt the most fully realized (even if they had a tendency to stumble beneath the weight of the naked creative and technical ambition Ishii’s teams invested into them). Combining action-oriented combat with role-playing mechanics like turn-based attack limitations and proper skill and experience systems, the Mana series eschewed Zelda’s puzzle-dungeon design in favor of a more systems-driven approach. And it was very good.

Ever Oasis sees Ishii stepping away from Zelda and looking back to his own creative roots. When I demoed Ever Oasis a couple of months ago, my first impression was that it felt like Ishii’s attempt to recapture some of the Mana series’ glory with a new adventure that draws heavily on those games’ mechanics and vibe. You’re out to restore life to a desert world with the help of a water spirit — nature’s power and its elemental avatars being a trademark theme of Mana — which you accomplish by action-driven combat with a pair of A.I. companions. After spending more time with the adventure, however, I realize that’s not an entirely fair view of the game. While those elements certainly play a large part in Ever Oasis, the overall flow of the game feels more like a world-building simulator combined with an action game. It’s not exactly ActRaiser, but certainly you’ll find a touch of that spirit here as you recruit villagers to help build your oasis town and win the affection of your citizens by performing various tasks for them (both mundane and heroic). While the game has some frustrating flaws — it’s ponderously slow to get going, and the interface feels bizarrely clunky coming from someone who has the Mana series’ brilliant ring menu concept in his c.v. — it merits a look for anyone interested in a game that toes the line between multiple genres.

But what creative debt does Ever Oasis truly owe to Mana? Ishii was kind enough to field some questions and shed a little light on how his new adventure game came to be.

Retronauts: Ever Oasis feels in many ways like an evolution of the concepts you helped establish in the Mana series. Given our focus on the history of games, I hope you’ll allow me to explore that line of questions for a bit. So, first, what can you tell about how Ever Oasis builds on your previous work as a creator?

Koichi Ishii: This world goes in a different direction than the past ones, but the building process was the same.

When looking back on my career, Final Fantasy inherits from its predecessor, whereas in the Mana series, we changed the world every time. We were striving to create a real-time RPG like: Command RPG <- Mana Series -> Action>. I guess it’s more of a “transformation” than an “evolution”. This time rather than focusing on the party strategies, we aimed for a party action battle that’s beginner-friendly by making it easy to switch between characters. We also wanted the players to feel how much the characters have matured throughout the course of this game.

R: What initially inspired you to begin designing action RPGs?

KI: We thought real-time combat would make the battles feel more realistic as well as convey the tension of the battle better than menu-based combat. We felt that the former is superior to the latter, so that’s why we started designing RPGs with real-time combat. Real-time combat also offers more variety with each encounter, and introduces new types of strategies, like character positioning.

R: Unlike most action RPGs of the 8- and 16-bit eras, yours felt more like true RPGs, with multi-character parties and experience/leveling mechanics. What inspired you to explore that specific interpretation of the genre?

KI: As much I love a perfect hero with no flaws, I feel that weaknesses and flaws make the character seem more human and make it easier for players to relate to the character. When you try to think of ways to make up for such shortcomings, you realize how amazing it is to have friends on your side. Working together and sharing the same goals and beliefs with others is difficult to do in rea life. You can’t maintain a good relationship without having compassion for others.

In a RPG, each character has a role and together they overcome challenges by utilizing each character’s skill. We’ve always wanted to make the character’s feelings easily imaginable to the player even if it’s not being obviously portrayed. In the original Final Fantasy, we had the characters fall down to their knees when their HP got low. We hoped that action would convey that the character wants to save his friends. We think battles and relationships amongst the characters will vary depending on what characters are selected to form the party.

R: While Grezzo has worked on several action RPGs, those have been Zelda games created in partnership with Nintendo. In your opinion, what sets Ever Oasis apart from your previous projects with Nintendo?

KI: What’s unique about this game is that oasis management and the adventure cycle which run on opposing systems are firmly tied in with the world. It also creatively brings together Nintendo’s quality and Square’s flavor.

We hope the audience can find how we utilized our experience working on Zelda and also feel that this is definitely my work based on what I’ve done in past titles.

R: When the Mana series debuted, it was unusual to see A.I. companion characters in games like this. What kind of challenges have you had to overcome through the years as you created increasingly sophisticated computer-controlled ally characters?

KI: A.I. has evolved dramatically in recent games. In order to improve the precision of A.I., a fast hardware processing speed is required. For the Mana series, we had to be creative with the bare minimum, but it’s always hard to determine if each character is fulfilling their role. Ever Oasis centers on the characters you control. We try to keep it balanced, so players don’t feel stressed from switching characters around.

R: Did you consider incorporating a multiplayer element? 

KI: We did like the idea of a multiplayer element, but first and foremost, we wanted to focus on determining the basic game cycle and bringing the play experience to life. A multiplayer element was incorporated into Secret of Mana, but this was under the assumption that friends, siblings and family members would be playing together. The time you have to play with family and friends as a child isn’t a large chunk of time. That “time” turns into precious memories. So, that’s why we incorporated this feature. We would love to incorporate a multiplayer element if we ever got to make another game.

R: Ever Oasis strikes me as a heavily systems-based game: Day/night, questing, town-building and more. How do you make such complex design accessible to new players?

KI: The world within the game exists because of the relationships among various elements, and these elements also help bring the world to life. That’s how we’ve been seeing it since the original Final Fantasy. The planet is formed from the elements: Fire, earth, water and wind. Because of that, there are crystals, and the creatures and objects on the planet exhibit those characteristics. Thus, a correlation is established. By having all that go through the system, it turns into a game experience.

In Ever Oasis, the repeat of Interest -> Action -> Result will allow players to gradually experience the world and hopefully they’ll eventually feel that this is how it’s supposed to be.

R: It’s unusual to see this sort of open-world action game on a portable system like 3DS. What advantages and disadvantages have you encountered while working with this software/hardware combination?

KI: Rather than a general open-world concept, I think we felt more strongly about making it feel like you’re walking inside a diorama. By being able to see the world from your standpoint, you can even see the soil layers. We wanted the players to be able to have fun imagining how the terrain and structures were formed in the desert, so that’s why we made it like this.

R: What would you describe as your driving creative vision for Ever Oasis?

KI: Most likely because I have yet to find a convincing solution for creating a digital fantasy world. I was determined to make that kind of world back with Final Fantasy XI. First there is only the basic foundation of a world that the creator made. By having users enter this world, circulation begins and the economy starts running. Also, population density changes as various user purposes intertwine with one another.

I feel that my motivation is to “create an ever-changing world within the rules of the land.”

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Sega Forever launches today with F2P classics to your mobile! And the results are unfortunate.

A few weeks ago, I wildly (with tongue somewhat in cheek) speculated as to just what SEGA had in mind with the Sega Forever service, and what they meant when they said that they were going to bring some of their old IP’s back. Now though, we finally have concrete news about it: Sega Forever is, as was largely expected, a mobile games service that will feature classic games for download and play. However, it is not a subscription-based service, as was speculated — instead, the games on Sega Forever are available to download for the cost of absolutely nothing, albeit with ad support. Said ad support can be turned off for the cost of £2 ($2.50). The service launches on June 22nd (that’s today!) with 5 classic Sega Mega Drive games. Do check out the fantastic and so very ’90s trailer here, and see how many classic Sega sound effects you can spot in it:

What do we know then? Sega have stated that they intend to cover just about all of their main systems with the service, and it will feature games from the SG-1000, Master System, Mega Drive, Saturn and Dreamcast. The inclusion of the Saturn is somewhat interesting considering how infamously difficult it has been for Saturn games to be accurately emulated anywhere, but Sega have stated that while the older systems will be handled through emulation, Saturn and Dreamcast games on the service will be direct ports. The games on the service will be augmented with modern features such as cloud saving, leaderboards and controller support, along with the ability to play games offline — whether you’re playing the ad-supported version or not.

Here’s how a game’s page is going to look. I only wish it were more like the old Sega Channel.

So, what about the games? Sega have said that they intend to release new games onto the service every two weeks, and that they’re kicking off with five of the best Mega Drive and/or Sega Genesis games around. These games will join up with Crazy Taxi, which was released onto mobile in May and follows the same free-to-play model as the Sega Forever games. As it is, I have been able to give the games a quick onceover on my phone — so I can give you some thoughts on the quality of the emulation and so forth. I have played the games using a Samsung Galaxy S7, with the regular touchscreen controls, using the ad-supported versions.

The original Sonic has been plucked from obscurity to take its place at Sega Forever’s masthead.

Sonic the Hedgehog — Well, there’s not an awful lot to say is there? It’s the original Sonic, the 1991 game that put the Mega Drive on the map unlike any other, and chances are fairly good that you’ve probably played it before. Indeed, you may well have played it on mobile before — it’s already available on both iOS and Android. While some may balk at seeing it released on mobile again…well, it’s Sonic. It sort of has to be here. Sega know the consequences of launching something without Sonic on it only too well.  Thoughts: This is Christian Whitehead’s 2013 port of the game — you may have played this exact version before…if you haven’t, then it’s excellent. The framerate is perfect, Sonic looks great in widescreen, the music’s exact, there’s options to play as Tails and Knuckles, and the touchscreen controls aren’t bad at all…it’s a legitimately superb port and worth playing. If all the other games follow this example, then we’re laughing! (Spoiler: They do not.)

Altered Beast — Naturally the first few games are all going to be quite famous, and Sega’s almighty ancient Greek beat-’em-up, a game that existed purely so it could be ported to the Mega Drive as a launch title in 1989, is one of the first up to the plate. It’s not exactly the most exciting game ever or anything, but those speech samples, rippling muscles and magnificent beasts provide a big hit of nostalgia, especially for anyone who bought a Mega Drive before Sonic came along. Thoughts: Sadly, this isn’t by Christian Whitehead — this is the emulation kicking in. The first major disappointment is that the framerate is cut in half…30 fps. It just doesn’t feel right at all. The sound of Altered Beast is mostly there, although the drum channel does drop out a lot. Being a rather simplistic game, the touchscreen controls aren’t a big issue with this one. Not bad, but hardly good.

Those who played Phantasy Star II probably have a blue battle grid forever burned into their eyes.

Phantasy Star II — This classic was arguably the most advanced console game around when it arrived in 1989. Predating the American release of Dragon Warrior on the NES by a few months, PS II (as well as the earlier original SMS game) was one of the first proper tastes of the JRPG that the West got, along with being a famous JRPG in which a main character snuffed it. It is also infamously challenging, lengthy, and labyrinthine — if you play this on your mobile, you’ll be at it for a while. Thoughts: Being a JRPG, the 30 fps framerate and controls aren’t a big issue here. What is an issue however, is the woeful sound — seriously, the high notes are so distorted that they’re kind of painful to listen to. Seeing as Phantasy Star II has an excellent soundtrack, that’s a real shame.

Kid Chameleon — a 1992 platformer from the Western Sega Technical Institute featuring a cool kid named Casey who gets sucked in to a virtual reality Arcade game and has to don a whole load of masks in order to beat the levels and rescue all the other poor suckers who are trapped in there. Kid Chameleon wasn’t a massive success or anything when it came out, but time has been kind to it — it’s been re-released often, and now has a pretty solid reputation as a good platformer. The biggest issue with it is that it’s very long, hard, and has no save features whatsoever…thank heaven for cloud saving, then! Thoughts: I didn’t notice any major sound problems, but that’s as good as I can say. A precise momentum-based platformer like this is murder with these awful touchscreen controls — they’re unresponsive, clunky, and the C button is so close to the programs button that half the time I end up pausing the game. And of course, it’s 30 fps. Not good at all.

Comix Zone is one of the only games where you can tear off a part of the screen’s background and chuck it at people.

Comix Zone — Another Western gem from STI, Comix Zone is pretty much the definition of a cult classic on the Mega Drive — in fact the game comes up so much that we can probably just call it a classic now. Sketch Turner gets pulled into his own comic book by Mortus, his own antagonist, and from there proceeds to defeat his own baddies with many a punch, a kick, and the help of his pet rat Roadkill. A brilliantly presented and very strong game that was hurt at the time due to its late release in 1995, and one that’s a welcome sight on the new service. Thoughts: …Oh dear. Leaving aside that you really need a 6-button controller for this game, the touchscreen controls make this virtually unplayable — half the time you accidentally hold the diagonal and put Sketch in his ready kick animation, making movement a chore. Fighting is somehow worse, and jumping? Ugh. The sound is also awful — everything seems to be severely downtuned. And it’s 30 fps. Awful in every way.

And so, there you go — the first batch of games for Sega Forever! And…well, I am dismayed by what I’ve seen here. Sonic 1 is great, but then we already knew that — the emulation on the other games is quite simply not good enough. In fact, it’s AT Games-quality, made even worse by the touchscreen controls…if you have a controller then maybe you’ll have a better time, but you still have to contend with the poor framerate and sound, not to mention the adverts — they aren’t present in the games themselves, but they still do irritate and frankly it’s not worth paying the extra money to get rid of them. According to some, Sega are using a Unity-based emulator for these games, and it’s simply not right — especially when there are better unofficial examples out there such as MD.emu. It’s a shame to see some of Sega’s classics treated this way, it really is…perhaps the direct ports from newer systems will be better, although I wonder if there’s anything that we won’t have seen before amongst them. On the whole? Not a good showing — if this is to go anywhere, then Sega really need to improve the quality of this emulation for the older titles.

If there are any old Sega classics that you would like to play again on your mobile, feel free to let us know in the comments below.


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Hyperkin take it back to 1977 with their latest RetroN

Having written about the Ataribox yesterday, it’s only fair that the other upcoming machine with an Atari connection gets a writeup too. Last week Hyperkin announced that they plan to release the RetroN 77 this coming winter — it’s a new, reimagined VCS that promises to play Atari games in glorious 1080p through HDMI. While the shape is somewhat different to 2600’s of old, it is similar to Hyperkin’s more recent RetroN products and still has that classic VCS look – it’s black, it’s got the faux-vented style on the top, and it’s obviously got some wood because why on earth would you ever release something based on Atari without wood?

The RetroN 77, in all of its glory.

As with all RetroN products, there’s little mystery as to what the 77 is designed to do — it’s something that you can play your old carts on using a modern television. This is certainly quite handy for anyone who wants to play their old Atari games, but doesn’t have an old CRT kicking around as hooking up an old Atari to a modern TV can be…well, troublesome to say the least — especially if you’re not into modding or you don’t have something like a VCR that can convert RF into composite. Of course, playing an Atari game in HD will provide a different and certainly much clearer experience to the one that you would have had back in the day — the graphics will be improved, but perhaps not authentic for some…it’s not clear yet as to what filters, if any, that Hyperkin will be offering in order to emulate that hazy, scanlined experience.

Hyperkin have stated that they intend to emulate as many features of the old Atari as they can — original controllers are compatible (USB options are also available for modern controllers), and they’ve said that more esoteric aspects of the Atari such as “cartridge tilting” will also be available on the RetroN 77. What is less clear so far is how they’re going to do the emulation — will it be a more standard ARM-based emulator job that simply takes the ROM from the inserted cart, or will the RetroN 77 use a hardware-based FPGA solution? That’s not clear. It is also not yet known if the machine will be compatible with some of the homebrew offerings for the VCS that have been made in recent years — it’ll assuredly play Adventure, but can it play Halo? That remains to be seen.

It’s not the best Pac-Man, but you can’t underestimate the nostalgic power this has.

Hyperkin have estimated that the machine will sell for around $80, so it will perhaps be more in line with their usual products — while purists may well notice inaccuracies in the emulation, it’s a very good option for the more casual retro gamer who wants the physical gratification of playing their old Atari carts and who doesn’t want a Raspberry Pi setup or to be stuck with the built-in selection that the Flashback line offers. Considering that we do not know exactly what the Ataribox will do yet either, there is at least clarity about the RetroN 77’s aims — and it’s nice to see the 40th anniversary of the console that really got things going be marked in such a way with these new systems.




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Arkanoid vs Space Invaders is the block-breaking puzzle shoot-’em-up you never knew you wanted

Atari created Breakout in 1976 as a single-player counterpart to Pong, giving one player a formation of blocks to destroy with their ball and paddle in lieu of a human opponent. Like many primitive game concepts—including Pong itself—it went on to be widely imitated, cloned, and ported to every platform under the sun, including a number of dedicated plug-and-play consoles in the late ’70s. But the arcade scene eventually moved on to bigger thrills, and Breakout had the odd distinction of already being old hat by the golden age of the mid-’80s. So Taito had a flash of brilliance when they revisited it ten years later with 1986’s Arkanoid, updating the game in the visual language of vertical shoot-’em-ups, which was then the genre of the day. Each stage of Arkanoid presented a unique layout incorporating wrinkles such as indestructible gold blocks and enemies that would obstruct the ball’s path, providing new challenges in addition to the simple trick of aiming the ball and not letting it fall. To help out with this, the player could augment the paddle—technically a conveniently paddle-shaped spaceship called the Vaus—with a variety of power-ups, including increasing the Vaus’s length, adding lasers that let it shoot out blocks directly, and allowing it to “catch” the ball before firing it again from a desired position. Taito even included a perfunctory story and a final boss in the form of the malicious Moai head, Doh.

Arkanoid proved a great success in modernizing Breakout, garnering its own share of imitators and even a line of sequels. However, each new game ultimately amounted to an iteration on the same idea, offering only new stages and new power-ups in the best of cases. There’s nothing wrong with more Arkanoid, of course, but it’s amazing that it never saw any significant evolution…until now, that is. Arkanoid vs Space Invaders is Taito’s first real attempt at branching out from the original game’s framework and exploring the possibilities beyond it.

Put simply, Arkanoid vs Space Invaders goes back to the original idea of infusing Breakout with shoot-’em-up sensibilities and takes it several steps further with a little help from Space Invaders, Taito’s 1978 classic that kicked off the genre in the first place. Rather than advance down the screen as in their own game, the Invaders hang out at a fixed altitude and rain all manner of projectiles on the Vaus. The Vaus, for once, is without a ball of its own, so it “attacks” by reflecting the Invaders’ shots back up at them. Each stage is timed, and the only way to fail is to run out of time before eliminating all your targets: Letting enemy fire slip past the Vaus costs nothing but your combo and the opportunity to turn it to your advantage. Reflecting fire also fills up a gauge on the sides of the screen; when full, you enter Attack Mode, where you can aim one shot anywhere you like. While reflected shots disappear when they hit an enemy, a block, or the top of the screen, the Attack Mode volley behaves much like the ball from Arkanoid, carrying on clear through Invaders and persisting after bouncing off blocks and the backboard, only disappearing when you drop it or the gauge runs out.

At first, your goal in any stage is to take out the Invaders, with blocks merely getting between you and them. As you progress, though, some stages make the blocks your objective, with infinitely respawning Invaders providing a reliable supply of ammo. Further in still are stages that task you with destroying specific targets called Cores. The layouts are more puzzle-like than ever before and sprinkle in new mechanics along the way, such as bombs that destroy everything on a line when struck, switches that render golden blocks and Invaders vulnerable, and conveyor belt fields that alter the trajectory of any shots that pass through them. The blocks themselves also become more rambunctious, wandering around the screen in confounding formations that demand you carefully aim your shots. To this end, the Vaus is no longer limited to horizontal movement; you can position it anywhere within the bottom quarter of the screen, allowing for an unprecedented degree of variation on where you can send each shot. The touch controls work brilliantly here, with a nuanced analog feel hearkening to Arkanoid‘s dial control in the arcade.

As with any good puzzle game, all the above-mentioned factors gradually begin to intersect and overlap in increasingly complicated configurations. Fortunately, advancing through the game also unlocks a cavalcade of Taito characters whom you can call to the Vaus’s aid, from all-stars like Lufia and Bubble Bobble‘s dragons to more obscure faces like Zac from PuLiRuLa and Nico from Spica Adventure. (Someone on the game’s staff evidently has a thing for Psychic Force, as no fewer than four representatives from Taito’s fighting game series made the cut.) Replacing traditional power-ups, each character has a special skill that can be activated for a limited time after collecting an icon from a downed block or Invader. These include speeding up your shots, filling the Attack Mode gauge more quickly, refilling the timer when you reflect fire (a skill appropriately held by Reika from Time Gal), preventing the Attack Mode gauge from depleting, and the disorienting but potentially game-breaking ability to steer your shots manually. A skill that adds a homing feature to your shots can be indispensable in stages where Invaders are your target, whereas stages with blocks that need breaking may benefit from a skill that lets your Attack Mode shot punch through multiple blocks without bouncing off. Meanwhile, skills that focus on increasing your firepower tend to come in handy during boss fights. Over the course of the game, identifying the right skill for any given job becomes just as critical to success as aiming and deflecting. Then again, calling down Great Thing from Darius (a huge battleship shaped like a sperm whale, if you don’t know) to annihilate your foes is a pleasure unto itself.

Arkanoid vs Space Invaders was originally released in September 2015 as a Japan-exclusive free-to-play game for Naver Corporation’s Line app, where it was discontinued after a year before being relaunched worldwide as a standalone app last month. While it looks and plays the same now as it did then, its structure has been thoroughly redesigned, jettisoning the gacha pulls, arduous grinding, and gross incentivization of microtransactions that typify mobile games at their absolute worst. The game now offers a wealth of content, including 150 stages, two difficulty modes, and an endless score attack mode, all for a flat four dollars. While many of the nickel-and-dime perks from the F2P version remain in the game, they’re now either unlocked naturally or can be bought with an in-game currency accrued simply by playing well.

In its original incarnation, this game might have been mourned as a missed opportunity, so it’s a great thing indeed that Taito acknowledged its potential and made the effort to rethink its execution. As 2008’s Space Invaders Extreme was to Space Invaders, Arkanoid vs Space Invaders represents a truly transformative reinvention of a concept with timeless appeal. At long last, Arkanoid has received the worthy successor it always deserved—and also like Space Invaders Extreme, it only took thirty years.


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Hide the children: It’s NES Works Gaiden #07

A few months ago, I received a patron request to create a video on a “controversial topic.” So I thought to myself, “Alright, I should do something on that sketchy corner of the NES rental section they used to have at Hastings.” I’d cover the Panesian trilogy, perhaps, and some other less blatantly objectionable material, like Menace Beach by Wisdom.

As I began sourcing ROM files for the episode — because there is no possible way I could afford to shell out the roughly $2500 it would cost to acquire those four games for a video that would stall out at 2500 views — I was surprised to discover that one of the critical pieces didn’t seem to exist online in any form. Menace Beach saw release in Japan under the name Miss Peach World courtesy of Hacker International (who also released the Panesian games in Japan, because it’s a small world after all)… but I couldn’t find that ROM anywhere. A few delicate inquiries confirmed that it’s never been publicly dumped or released — not for any respect of copyright or good taste, because you can find ROMs for plenty of other Hacker-published games (some of which contain content in much worse taste). I guess the game’s obscurity, rarity, and cost have prevented it from making its way online.

Then I recalled seeing a tweet by Retronauts ally and Video Game History Foundation cofounder Steve Lin in which he tweeted a photo of the game, complete in box, which he had picked up for a remarkably reasonable price during his last trip to Japan. So, thanks to Steve, this video project slowly evolved from being a roundup of smutty NES bootleg games into a piece laser-focused on a single weird variant of Menace Beach/Sunday Funday. I didn’t really discover any new information about the game, but I am 100% positive that I’ve created the only HD footage of the game that exists on the internet. Maybe even in the world, for the moment! To be honest, that’s really not the claim to fame I was seeking in life, but I guess we take what we can get.

Anyway, yeah, this video is slightly unsafe for work due to the presence of 8-bit lady-nipples. Hacker International made their version of Menace Beach a bit saucier than the original, so exercise caution if someone uptight or particularly impressionable happens to be standing over your shoulder while you’re watching this. It’s all pretty harmless, but we are a puritanical people, ya know?

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What can realistically be expected from the Ataribox?

The news of Atari’s brand new console, the Ataribox, came out last week during E3 — I briefly mentioned it during my E3 round-up, but it’s obviously worthy of more detailed coverage. I mean, it’s a new console by Atari! The originators! Them folks who did the Pong machines, the heavy sixer 2600’s with all the wood panelling, and all of that good stuff — it doesn’t get much more retro than that. Anyway, this bit of news has had certain sections of the gaming media speculating wildly about just what Atari have planned — so here, let’s look at what the likely plans are. First off, check out the little reveal teaser below:

There’s little that can be gleamed from this trailer — all we really know is that wood panelling is involved. Further questioning of Frederic Chesnais, Atari’s current Chairman and CEO, has revealed little more except that the console has apparently been “years in the making” and is based on “PC architecture” — the company are very much keeping their cards close to their chest on this, and they’re certainly willing to let people imagine that Atari are suddenly about to mount a big push on the market with a console that’s competing with the likes of the Switch, PS4 and what have you — even if that’s extremely unlikely. Going by the current happenings around Atari, we can probably deduce the following about the Ataribox:

Huh-huh-huh, huh-huh-huh. Wood. Huh-huh-huh.

It’ll likely be a retro machine of sorts. As much as it’s fun to fantasise about Atari being at the forefront of games again…come on — unless they’ve found a billion dollars under a mattress (not unlikely considering Atari’s history) it’s probably not going to happen. But as the NES Classic Edition has shown, there’s an appetite for the new machine that plays old — more than that, people wil pay for a quality-made machine with all the games they love, that’s authentic and easily playable on modern TV’s. While Atari may have put their name to lesser machines like this in the past, their intentions here seem to go a touch beyond the cheapo ATGames-made Atari Flashbacks of old — indeed, the Ataribox will have competition from Hyperkin in the form of the RetroN 77,  a reimagined VCS that will play your old carts in glorious 1080p through HDMI. However, that’s not to say retro is 100% their only aim here — considering where Atari’s interests lie today, it’s not beyond the Ataribox to feature their newer mobile games or some sort of Android-based online jobbie.

The latest in a long and glorious line, Frederic Chesnais is Atari’s current El Jefe.

As should be obvious, Atari Inc. are not what they once were. They’re not even what they once were when they originally weren’t what they were — the glory days of Bushnell, Crane, Kaplan, Warshaw and Whitehead are long gone, as are the Tramiel-led ’90s, or the ’00s Bonnell years. However, they are not in a bad place now. Since Chesnais bought the company after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013, the Atari name has been taken in some new directions — they’re very active in the mobile and online casino areas, and have made bank through modern updates of their old classics like Centipede and Breakout, sellable IP’s like RollerCoaster Tycoon, and a partnership with online social casino gaming company FlowPlay. As a result of this, Atari as a company are apparently profitable now, for the first time in a long time. Even if it’s not the sort of money they used to make, this business upswing has resulted in Chesnais (who has been part of Atari since 2001) looking once again towards the hardware market.

Atari being advertised in a big new blockbuster film? Sure. It’s 2017, after all.

Do not underestimate the Blade Runner connection. No film ever really did product placement quite like the original Blade Runner — huge electronic billboards featuring real companies dominated the skylines of Los Angeles in 2019, and Atari was one of them. The new film, Blade Runner 2049, will feature Atari again — the company’s logo is right there in the trailer, flanking a car riding down a road. Atari, alongside Pan Am, were the two companies hit hardest by the so-called “Blade Runner curse”, in which companies either went bust or experienced downturns after being featured in the original (even Coca-Cola were affected)…still, they’ll be in Blade Runner again, meaning someone at Warner Bros. saw fit to go to Atari and make a deal. And what better way to capitalise on that exposure, probably the most that the Atari name has had in years, than with a new console (mostly) featuring the classics of old?

Missile Command. One of the greats…will it be on the Ataribox? Bloody well should be.

Lastly, what can be gleamed from Chesnais’s statements? Not a whole lot, really. “Years in the making” can just mean that, well, some of the games on the new machine have been out for years — decades, perhaps. Being based on “PC architecture” could obviously mean a modern console, but it could also mean an ARM-based emulator box. With Atari still releasing new games, some have speculated that the Ataribox could be a machine akin to the Ouya — a sort of hybrid with an Android architecture that’s based on downloadable games, old and new. Even if that is the case though, the old games will be the selling point. And sure, games like Pitfall, Yar’s Revenge and Kaboom, assuming they feature, are really freaking old — it’s not likely to be a success on the level of the NES Mini. Still, a bigger market is there for a machine like this now than there was in the time of the Flashbacks — of that there’s no doubt. And as just about everyone has mentioned, this is the first Atari console since 1993 — seeing that beautiful logo again sure is a welcome nostalgia trip.


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Retronauts episode 104: Chronicling metroidvania

This week’s episode treads somewhat familiar territory, though we approach it from a different direction than usual. We’ve explored the Metroid series in fairly exhaustive detail, and we’ve also covered most of the Castlevania series. But what of their babies? What of — yes — metroidvania?

As this is a genre near and dear to the hearts of the Retronauts East crew, we’ve spelunked back into the ancient past to explore and discuss the very beginnings of the genre… games that paved the way for exploratory action-RPG platforming, even if they didn’t quite manage to realize the concept themselves. This is a podcast about games like Zork and Montezuma’s Revenge, not about Symphony of the Night (despite certain people’s best efforts to derail the conversation to being about that vaunted work!). In fact, we went into such detail on these games that we only made it halfway through the intended list of works I put together in advance. Guess that means there’ll have to be a part two…

…besides, we recorded this before Nintendo announced their Metroid II remake, so obviously there’s much more to say on the topic now.

MP3, 51.8 MB | 1:52:48
Direct download
Retronauts on iTunes
Retronauts at PodcastOne

Episode description: Benj Edwards and Chris Sims join Jeremy for what was intended to be a quick overview of 8-bit games that helped define non-linear platforming but ultimately gets bogged down in exploring side paths… as in any metroidvania worth its salt, really.

This episode’s tunes come from a variety of early NES exploratory platformers: Rygar, Legacy of the Wizard, and maybe a few others that slip my mind at the moment. In any case, it’s a big, sprawling, mess of an episode, and in my opinion that works in its favor. So give it a listen, eh?


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The part in FFVIII where things get REALLY out of hand

In the words of Luke Harper, “It’s Monday. You know what that means.” it means it’s time for another Final Fantasy VIII video! There’s only one more left after this one, but this video includes some of the more extreme segments of the game — it’s the part where Squall and company go to the moon and back with a possessed girl for company, who just so happens to wake up as we get close to the other sorceress that the main evil sorceress wants to get in touch with! As ever, the video is available just here if you want to take a look.

Even in a genre where you should suspend your disbelief fairly often, the whole moon section of Final Fantasy VIII does stretch things out quite a bit. I mean, the sight of a big teardrop full of monsters descending from the moon directly onto the planet itself is just too much — how does that work? Again, this is a part of FFVIII’s M.O in that it goes to big lengths to justify those basic things in JRPG’s that are always there like monsters, but if anything it just makes them seem even more out there. One other thing that I ponder is why all these disparate monsters work together anyways — do they ever fight each other? We never see it if they do, although we do see it in Blue Dragon — an old 360 game that I’ve been playing recently. It’s a wonder that more RPG’s don’t explore that, and a surprise that the very analytical FFVIII doesn’t.

And of course, there’s lots of other silliness — Ultimecia’s plan to actually get to the moon is quite out there and based on nothing but luck if you think about it, it’s amazing how Squall and Rinoa stumble upon a spaceship out there at random, and…well, there’s Laguna’s plan to sort out this whole mess by going through compressed time and so on. At least the last one is somewhat in character. That’s all in the video, of course — along with a bunch of gameplay too, as the monsters finally caught up with my party at the end of Disc 3…FFVIII is infamous in that it’s final stages can be a bit of a stopper to people who do things like say, rely on GF’s through the whole game (god, that’d add 10 hours onto the playtime easy) — this video shows how to get around all that, along with analysing characters and wondering why half of them have nothing whatsoever to do now.

Well, didn’t you? Or were you too busy smoking drugs behind the rocketbike sheds? Get out of my control room, ya bum.

There’s all of that, and…hey, there’s the “Eyes on Me” scene too! Which is at least something good in the midst of all the space age stuff, although your mileage may vary depending on how much you dig the corny song. Perhaps a good question would be to ask where “Eyes on Me” ranks compared to other cheesy vocal songs from such games — is it better than “I Am The Wind” from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night but worse than “Can’t Say Goodbye to Yesterday” from MGS2? Perhaps that’s a question that you can hammer out in the comments below! Anyway, next Monday we’ll be finishing this whole thing off, and talking about a couple of popular theories too — so don’t forget to tune in for that. In the meantime, enjoy the vid.

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Retronauts Micro 63: The Simpsons Arcade

Episode description: On this very special episode synergistically (but not cynically) engineered to help launch the brand-new Talking Simpsons Patreon campaign, we take a look at what many people consider the best Simpsons game in the 25 years we’ve had them: Konami’s arcade masterpiece. With its gorgeous graphics, fun Easter eggs, and surprising faithfulness to the source material, this colorful brawler wowed us back in the day, and continues to wow us in the present. Join host Bob Mackey and guests Henry Gilbert and Chris Antista as the crew tries to pin down what makes The Simpsons Arcade so amazing.

MP3, 27.3 MB | 59:34
Direct download
Retronauts on iTunes
Retronauts at PodcastOne

And if you missed the link in the description, be sure to check out the new Talking Simpsons Patreon campaign! We have nearly 20 Patreon-exclusive podcast episodes waiting for anyone who signs up today, and plenty of big plans for the future. Thanks in advance!

As with all of the episodes I personally produce, this week’s cover art is by Nick Daniel. Check out his Twitter, or patronize his Patreon!


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Mario & Luigi and going back to basics

Nintendo has dropped some major bombshells at this year’s E3, but one story that’s threatened to creep under the radar is the announcement of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, the latest installment in the Mario & Luigi series of RPGs. It makes sense in a way, as it’s a bit of a rerun—updating Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, the series’ 2003 debut, in what appears to be as staid a manner as possible. The graphics and audio have been completely redone, and I spotted some convenient changes to the interface using the 3DS’s touch screen, but other than that, we seem to be looking at a shot-for-shot remake. Nintendo didn’t even see fit to bestow this release with a more evocative title, emphasizing that it’s essentially the same game from fourteen years ago in a new guise. That does leave room for the “Bowser’s Minions” part, but that refers to a new mode with gameplay cleanly divorced from both Superstar Saga and the series in general, eschewing turn-based RPG battles for bite-sized RTS stages and roster management.

To be fair, Minion Quest: The Search for Bowser seems well-made for what it is: New content added to rereleases tends to be predicated on recycling, remixing, and generally stretching out the use of existing assets as far as possible, so it’s admirable that Nintendo and original developer AlphaDream have put in the effort to create something truly new. The other pitfall in creating add-on content is that even if it’s well-designed, it ends up being over the player can sink their teeth into it, but Nintendo claims Minion Quest is a lengthy experience with robust mechanics and a story that runs parallel to that of the main game, following Bowser’s army of Goombas, Koopa Troopas, et al. as they strive to put themselves back together and reunite with their king following the explosive events of Superstar Saga‘s prologue.

Most of Nintendo’s coverage has focused on the addition of Minion Quest, and what we’ve seen of Superstar Saga hasn’t looked far removed at all from its original form. If anything, the new visuals, which use the same style as the other Mario & Luigi games on 3DS, come off as a bit less charming than the old GBA graphics. From the beginning, the series has used 3D models as the basis for its character sprites, which at first were flattened out and touched up for an end result that could pass as suspiciously fluid pixel art. When the games jumped from DS to 3DS, though, AlphaDream threw out the thick black outlines and bright, cartoony colors in favor of softer edges and more intense shadows, so characters and enemies began to look much closer to their 3D source material. Now they can even apply detailed real-time lighting effects to the sprites, lending them an even greater sense of volume, but these technical achievements come at the cost of obscuring once-simple imagery and diluting the specific appeal of 2D art.

Aside from appearances, if this version does turn out to be as rote a remake as it seems, it’ll be a shame if Nintendo wastes this opportunity to restore some of the original game’s unused content, which included cameos from characters such as Olimar, Fox McCloud, and Samus. But if nothing else, the revised audio should easily trounce the GBA’s heavily compressed excuse for sound and finally sample Yōko Shimomura’s jaunty compositions at a bit rate they deserve. Personally, I can’t wait to listen to Popple’s theme with unprecedented clarity.

Perhaps the relative lack of hype for another Mario & Luigi can ultimately be blamed on series fatigue. While the series once stood confident as the first and last word on Mario RPGs on handhelds, that sense of identity and purpose has waned as the Paper Mario games have muscled in on the portable scene. With each successive title, the series’ focus (or lack thereof) has also drifted more and more toward mini-games and other gimmicks in the pursuit of variety, if not some perceived need to justify its continued existence. Admittedly, even Minion Quest feels like it still hasn’t let go of that urge. In light of these misgivings, though, now might actually be the perfect time to return to the series’ roots.

I probably should have been sick of Fawful by the time he rose to main villain status in the third game, but I could still read his zany malapropisms all day.

To this day, Superstar Saga remains an impressive achievement, ingeniously designed around the GBA’s limited interface in such a way that the player can easily attack and defend with two characters, simultaneously, with just two face buttons—one for each of them. In battle, Mario and Luigi can team up for “Bros. Attacks” that play out as a kind of elaborate choreography, requiring each of them to hit their cues in real time in order to pile damage onto enemies; by default, these guide the player with on-screen prompts and generous windows for input, but with practice, you can switch these off for a dramatic increase in power (if, that is, you manage to land the attack), turning combat into a hectic, high-stakes rhythm game. In the field, the brothers can join in “Bros. Moves” that allow them to traverse areas in various ways, from helicoptering across pits as a human totem pole to driving Luigi into the ground with Mario’s hammer so he can burrow around like Bugs Bunny. These techniques add both a puzzle element and an appropriately Mario-esque level of platforming to your exploration of the Beanbean Kingdom.

Superstar Saga has a lot going on, but its design is tempered by a clarity of vision and focused through a strong sense of confidence. Far from overwhelming, it cultivates a breezy atmosphere which carries over to an upbeat soundtrack and a comedy of a story, all adding up to a remarkably fun experience. The Mario & Luigi series has had its ups and downs, but if there’s any entry worth repeating verbatim, this is certainly the one. Perhaps it’s for the best that the new content is being served on the side, and left as-is, Superstar Saga can serve as a renewed example for future endeavors in simple brilliance.


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