Mighty Gunvolt: The quest for identity

The fifth annual BitSummit was held in Kyoto over the weekend, and just one announcement to arise from the Japanese indie game festival was a new game from the 2D action veterans at Inti Creates. Mighty Gunvolt Burst is the sequel to Mighty Gunvolt, the quasi-8-bit counterpart to 2014’s Azure Striker Gunvolt.

The original Mighty Gunvolt was revealed just a week ahead of Azure Striker Gunvolt‘s release, not as a stand-alone game but as a free download bundled with the latter game during its first month out. At the time, Inti Creates advertised it as a “thank you gift” to supporters of Gunvolt. Giving away an all-new game in its entirety—even a brief one with lo-fi graphics—seemed tremendously, even suspiciously generous, and a few months later, Inti Creates announced that it would receive both a major update and a second release as a paid product unto itself, plus new stages and bosses in the form of DLC. In retrospect, it adds up that Mighty Gunvolt was always headed for this state and Inti Creates simply saw an opportunity to push out an early, incomplete version as an incentive to boost Azure Striker Gunvolt‘s day one sales.

That would explain why Mighty Gunvolt came out in the manner it did, but why the game exists remains a bit unclear. Featuring the titular Gunvolt, Beck from Comcept’s Mighty No. 9, and Eroko from the Japan-exclusive Gal☆Gun series, it appears to be a celebration of all things Inti Creates—an indulgence rarely afforded by contract developers with a catalogue scattered across various self-interested publishers. Then again, Beck’s presence and the “Mighty” name framed it more specifically as an early promotion for Mighty No. 9, which was believed at the time to be a few months from release. Azure Striker Gunvolt and Mighty No. 9 share a common ancestor in Capcom’s Mega Man games—some of which Inti Creates also developed—so they combine well in what plays out like an obvious pastiche of that series. But since Eroko is co-starring, you can’t simply sum this up as a Mega Man/Gunvolt/Mighty No. 9 mash-up—nor is there quite enough of Inti Creates’ history on display to really qualify Mighty Gunvolt as all-inclusive crossover on the order of Super Smash Bros. or Project X Zone. (You certainly can’t have an Inti Creates tribute without so much as a shout out to Speed Power Gunbike.) What we end up with is two things that go together and one that doesn’t. It just feels like a smattering of stuff.

Perhaps it’s telling, then, that Eroko is off the team for Mighty Gunvolt Burst. Reducing the lineup to Gunvolt and Beck may seem like a step backward, but it’s a move that’s sure to lend Burst a tighter focus and a clearer reason for being. Now it just has to contend with the new problem that arises from giving Beck a greater share of the spotlight: the catastrophic amounts of anti-hype emanating from Mighty No. 9.

Mighty No. 9 followed Mighty Gunvolt not by a few months but, after multiple delays, the better part of two years. It is probably safe to say it is not well-liked on the whole. The missteps made by developer Comcept were so numerous I couldn’t even recount them all here—nor do I probably need to, as the whole fiasco has welcomed no shortage of hot takes and postmortems examining what went wrong. Suffice to say Comcept explored the full range of public opinion over the course of three years, parlaying a wildly successful crowd-funding campaign into a slow-motion train wreck leading up to release. Their reputation was so thoroughly tarnished by the end that it probably didn’t even matter much what the final product was like: Everyone was poised to hate it. Some went in still clinging to hopes that the promised game would be worth the PR nightmare, but even they found it in need of an extra layer of polish at best and a ground-up reinvention at worst.

Less than a year out, the bitterness surrounding Mighty No. 9 is still fresh in the public’s memory, and although most of the blame was laid on Comcept, Inti Creates has caught flak as well. Even having served as a secondary co-developer has diminished their standing in the eyes of some once-ardent fans, so at first glance, it’s baffling that they’re associating Mighty No. 9‘s setting and characters so strongly with Mighty Gunvolt Burst. While the first Mighty Gunvolt borrowed various concepts from Azure Striker Gunvolt, Burst looks for all the world like a reimagining of Mighty No. 9, including all eight of its main bosses. Surely no one involved with Comcept’s game has been lucky enough not to know how poorly it was received, so why risk rekindling that negativity? Perhaps this is Inti Creates looking to clear its name—to go all-in with Mighty No. 9, give it that ground-up reinvention it needs, and show how much better it could have been if only they had been at the wheel. Comcept, for their part, reportedly licensed the use of its characters free of charge, so maybe they think they’ll benefit as well if Inti Creates can get people thinking fondly of Beck and his world again. It’s definitely one tall order, so it’ll be exciting to see if they can pull it off.

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Retronauts hits Episode 100 again, but this time it’s not the end

Well, we finally did it. We survived long enough to reach episode 100.

Well, OK; the original run of Retronauts hit episode 100, too. But I always think of that series as having only made it to 99, because 99 was where I decided to call it quits. The show never recovered from the 1UPocalypse at the beginning of 2009, the day that Hearst Publishing and UGO decided to acquire 1UP and the Ziff-Davis games magazine group and promptly lay off 2/3s of the people who made those properties worth reading and listening to. Since Retronauts was built on a foundation of having free access to several dozen veteran games journalists whom I could easily pull into the studio for an hour to jaw about their favorite classic games, the layoffs meant 2/3s of our resources were taken from us on that bitter January day. Several other people tried their hand at hosting in the wake of those cuts, but they also found the show too difficult to pull together for long as well.

And so, the original Retronauts episode 100 existed only as a final footnote to the show — less a proper episode and more of a chance for the regulars to get together and reminisce for a bit. And it didn’t even go the way it was supposed to, because several of the intended participants weren’t able to make the session! All in all, a fitting and honestly somewhat bleak end to the original run, after which it was relaunched into a call-in show (bad idea) and eventually resuscitated by Bob (good idea).

This episode 100, on the other hand, is not an ending, and it doesn’t represent a final statement before a cataclysmic format change borne of desperation. No, this episode only ties a bow on one thing, and that is an outstanding obligation from our Kickstarter campaign. We finally managed to get together with our final “cohost an episode” level backer to record the episode he paid for. (And the remainder of our lingering Kickstarter incentive obligations will be wrapped up just as soon as I’m done with my current BitSummit/recording weekend trip. Expect an update next week!) Getting together with Daniel seemed a fitting capper for the first 100 episodes of the crowd-funded and independent era of Retronauts, but in this case the “capper” is simply a number, nothing literal. Bob’s already uploaded episode 101 to Patreon, and by the end of this weekend’s recording session we’ll have more than a dozen episodes in the can for future release. Ain’t no gettin’ offa this train we’re on, friends.

MP3, 27.9 MB | 51:23
Direct download
Retronauts on iTunes
Retronauts at PodcastOne

Oh, and there is one other thing: The cover art this week is a taste of our new site design and branding artwork, which will be making its full debut very soon.

So no, episode 100 is not the end this time around. It’s almost, I dunno, a new beginning. So thank you for your support these past 100 episodes, and we hope you’ll stick with us for the next 100. (And beyond that, really, but we don’t want to come off as greedy.)

Episode description: For our 100th full episode since our crowdfunded relaunch, we complete a long-overdue Kickstarter obligation by inviting backer Daniel Hawks to join us in a discussion of the early days and notable landmarks of CD-ROM gaming.

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After over 20 years and 25 games, is the original Worms still fun?

Yes, it is.

After a much needed quiet week following the release of that hour-long Duke Nukem Forever documentary, the Kim Justice channel is once again on the move today with a little video that’s all about Worms — specifically the very first Worms game, made at the request of a patron who most certainly adores the series. Worms is undoubtedly very successful as far as British video game series — indeed, it’s one of the last from the Amiga that’s still standing today, despite coming so late in the computer’s life (development on the game was started on the Amiga, although strangely this version came out last — not arriving until December 1995). It is also undoubtedly a big contributor to Team 17’s continued existence as one of the longest lived independent studios in the game.

One of the difficulties of covering Worms as a series isn’t the sheer amount of games, it’s that most of the games are pretty damn similar. They’re all very casual games based off of an artillery game formula that’s as old as the creation of computer games itself, although really came to prominence with Wendell Hicken’s DOS game Scorched Earth in 1991. Talking of which, one of the highlights of this video was playing Scorched Tanks — a great Amiga version of the classic that came out on an Amiga Power coverdisk back in the day, featuring all of the original’s customisation and what feels like 100 different weapons…definitely worth checking out. And so is the original Worms, if you haven’t played it in a while — one of the good things about the similarity of Worms games is that you can go to almost any of the “good” games in the series and have fun because they all follow the same formula of bazookas, grenades, high-pitched voices and exploding sheep.

Ah, Worms. The only game where the Royal Family can call up an airstrike on their rivals in a world made of spaghetti.

The video also touches a few more bases such as The Director’s Cut, a rare Amiga-only update of the original that actually introduces a lot of the most famous weapons and mechanics from later games — everything from Holy Hand Grenades to backflipping actually come from this obscure 1997 game, which makes it feel something like an Amiga version of Worms 2. This video also reminded me of the “multiplayer wars”, which happened at around the same time as the more famous bit wars —  at a time when games loved to lay claim to as big a multiplayer number as possible, Worms claimed 16 through hotseating. A team could consist of four players, each assigned to a single worm! But hey, why stop there — why not assign 2 players to 1 worm? Or 4? I think they undersold it somewhat. Of course, you’ve got to fit all of these people in the room so it might get a tad uncomfortable in there…just having 1 player to a team’s usually fine.  There’s more in the video but obviously that shouldn’t be spoiled — hopefully you enjoy it on this fine Monday morning! Do feel free to leave your memories of the time your brother gave you a dead arm after a jammy bazooka shot took out half of his team in the comments.

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Listener mail call: Breath of the Wild

Another day, another call for mailbag material for next weekend’s recording session.

We’re going to try something a little different from usual next time by focusing an entire episode on a new release. During the run-up to launch, Nintendo made a lot of noise about how The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild marked a return to the franchise’s roots. Well, did it? That’s the question we intend to tackle with an upcoming episode.

We’d like for you to weigh in as well by submitting an email to me with your thoughts on the subject within the next few days. Send a line to jparish -at- retronauts -dot- com with the subject line “Breath of the Wild mailbag” with your thoughts. Please keep it to around 200 words max, and please avoid spoiling the endgame — there are a lot of people (including myself) who have yet to finish this absolutely enormous adventure. Thank you!

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Live from Midwest Gaming Classic, it’s Retronauts Micro

Several times a year, Bob and I descend upon some unexpecting city and talk for an hour about old video games. Last month, our unwitting target was Milwaukee, where we spoke at Midwest Gaming Classic. This year, we decided to focus on Splatterhouse — and not by coincidence. Not one but two world-class Splatterhouse players attend MGC each year: Caitlin Oliver and Kevin Bunch, both of whom have competed for (and repeatedly held) the official high-score records for Splatterhouse in the arcade and on TurboGrafx-16, respectively. You don’t get much more “expert” than that without going directly to the developers.

MP3, 27.9 MB | 51:23
Direct download
Retronauts on iTunes
Retronauts at PodcastOne

Given that this is a live recording, of course, the audio quality is pretty noisy. But there’s some great info about the games in here, so it’s definitely worth your time.

Episode description: Live from a very noisy Milwaukee stage, Jeremy and Bob are joined by Splatterhouse experts and world record holders Caitlin Oliver and Kevin Bunch to contemplate the complete history of Namco’s gross-out brawler franchise.

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Kim recommends…Lionheart (Amiga, 1993)

The Amiga was, during its time, particularly well known for its demoscene — one side of this was, of course, the hacking of lots of Amiga games and all of that good old piracy stuff, but plenty of talent went into the “cracktros” that usually accompanied said games, not to mention the graphical demos that these teams would create on their own, using the Miggy’s graphical hardware to create some definite magic. There are lots of different stories from the demoscene world of software whizkids doing their thing, and occasionally taking their talent and applying it to games — one group of demoscene kids known as The Silents went on to become Digital Illusions CE, made their name with the likes of Pinball Illusions on the Amiga, and gradually became one of the world’s biggest video game developers as EA DICE. Another ex-demoscene group, Thalion, weren’t quite as fortunate — but before their demise, they left us with several classic games, chief among which is the frankly staggering Lionheart.

There’s not a whole lot to say here other than my god, it’s beautiful.

When I talk about Amiga graphics, “parallax scrolling” is likely to be the first thing that comes to your mind — the art of differently-scrolling planes is something that the system was pretty good at, as evidenced in the main by Psygnosis’s Shadow of the Beast. Naturally parallax scrolling could get overused — it soon stopped being impressive after a while, and there were plenty of egregious examples where parallax frankly just got in the way of the actual game. Lionheart, however, even after years of parallax-based fun before it, is the definitive example of how well it works on the Amiga — it manages to do the whole “every screen is a Roger Dean prog rock album cover” schtick even better than Beast does, and I’d struggle to find a game on the Amiga that, on the whole, is prettier than Lionheart. For the game’s artist, Henk Nieborg, this would be the title that made his name — you can also find his work on the likes of Flink, The Adventures of Lomax and the Shantae series.

Even better than the art, however, is the fact that Thalion matched it up with excellent gameplay. Lionheart is a very playable hack ‘n’ slash title — it’s fun to deal with the various creepy-crawlies and otherworldly behemoths the game throws at you. There’s enough variation to keep things moving, and as opposed to a more straightforward game like Shadow of the Beast you’re allowed to explore somewhat without things going wrong. One of the big problems with a lot of parallax-heavy games was the significant lack of gameplay that ended up being associated with them, but Lionheart showed that you didn’t need to sacrifice good gameplay for pretty pictures, and that they could co-exist comfortably.

Someone should re-release Lionheart, only with songs by Yes being the entire soundtrack. It’d definitely work.

Lionheart’s developers, Thalion, were all about creating games that, technically, were right on the bleeding edge for both the Amiga and the Atari ST — the majority of their games were all graphically excellent, and that was often married with very good gameplay. Alas, good sales often seemed to elude them — as one of the smaller games studios around, they often found their sales damaged greatly by the sheer prevalence of piracy in the Amiga scene. Lionheart was their attempt to see if making such graphically strong action games on the Amiga was still commercially viable — and despite excellent reviews, the sales showed that it weren’t. Thalion ultimately closed their doors in 1994, preserving their work on the UK computers for all time — Lionheart is perhaps the most accessible and greatest example of the legacy that they left behind, and one of the strongest Amiga exclusive titles out there to boot.

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Fans continue to make Mega Man for those who cannot

This Saturday, a massive, months-long collaboration between Mega Man fans will culminate in the reveal of Make a Good Mega Man Level 2, a fan game where each stage has been contributed by a different creator. At this point, it’s safe to call such projects a tradition in fan game circles, stretching back at least to 2010’s Super RMN Bros., which saw the RPG Maker community stabbing at the framework of Mario’s 2D outings in a prescient precursor to Nintendo’s own Super Mario Maker. By now, fans are no stranger to the twin joys of enjoying our friends’ work and sharing our own as we collectively explore our creative potential. Capcom showed some interest in the concept even earlier, with the level editor included in Mega Man: Powered Up and the cancelled Mega Man Universe, although fans drew more inspiration from their own previous efforts than any official outreach when they came together for the first Make a Good Mega Man Level.

Barely released a year ago, MaGMML was developed piece by piece by members of Sprites INC and Talkhaus from January to May of 2016, ultimately boasting twenty stages from twenty amateur level designers. Rather than modifying the ROMs of the official Mega Man games, the stages were created using a fan-made engine compatible with YoYo Games’ popular GameMaker software, tailored with a robust suite of tools to recreate the appearance and overall feel of an authentic Mega Man game. Of course, it also has the capacity to add custom graphics and music, so the results are sure to range from faithful iterations on the source material to willfully detached flights of indie fancy. The definition of a “good Mega Man level” is, after all, completely subjective, so contributors are free to approach the project as a challenge to measure up to the series’ most carefully crafted level design or an opportunity to run amok with someone else’s toys—or anything in between.

Although MaGMML is poised as a contest with each stage submitted for review by a panel of judges, the organizer, SnoruntPyro, has emphasized there is no quality control imposed on people’s contributions. Every single stage, good or bad, makes it into the compiled game, where they’re sorted into tiers: The judging just determines where they land in the hierarchy. Like Super RMN Bros. and its ilk, the game features a hub world from which each stage is accessed, tying the disparate stages into a (nominally) coherent experience that can be played from start to finish. The Mega Man series has enough bosses to its name that every stage could be punctuated with a duel against one of the Blue Bomber’s classic foes, but boss fights are instead reserved for the end of sets of stages—and while they may feature some familiar faces, they come as heavily remixed as the stages themselves.

Only your weapons are truly recycled, having been democratically selected from the official games by the community. All eight of them (plus mobility tools like Rush Jet) are available from the beginning of the game—a dramatic break from tradition to be sure, as a major part of Mega Man‘s focus has always lay with building your arsenal as you conquer each stage. On the other hand, this decision grants the player even greater freedom to tackle the game in the order they choose, lending an easygoing sensibility to what is ultimately a knowingly overwrought tribute rather than a serious attempt at blending in with Capcom’s NES canon.

Make a Good Mega Man Level 2 entered planning last September, only a few months after the first one wrapped, and is now ready to be revealed to the world. The concept is unchanged, but the scope has increased dramatically, comprising no fewer than eighty-one submissions—more than four times what the original contest received. Even Stephen DiDuro, designer of indie darling Freedom Planet, has gotten in on the action. The idea clearly has legs, and we can only hope it doesn’t get so big that Capcom slaps it with a cease-and-desist order. Then again, there is precedent for Capcom treating fan games with unusual clemency—even going so far as to publish Seow Zong Hui’s Street Fighter X Mega Man as a legitimate release back in 2012—so hopefully these eighty-one labors of love will remain free to be shared with the world.

As with last year’s installment, Make a Good Mega Man Level 2 will be formally revealed by way of a pre-release livestream on Twitch. The date is set for May 20—again, this Saturday—so even if it’s not of professional quality across the board, enjoy this feeling of looking forward to a new Mega Man game. Goodness knows it’s a rare pleasure these days.

GameMaker screenshot courtesy of ACESpark

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The ZX Spectrum Next meddles with the primal forces of nature and cooks an egg

No.

 

This isn’t right.

 

Not at all.

 

You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Olifiers. And you will atone.

What we have here is the ZX Spectrum Next (which has been talked about previously at Retronauts towers) showing off the benefits of its new, larger FPGA — which it reached thanks to achieving its first stretch goal. Because of this, they’ve been able to add some more functionality to the system…part of that being the ability to play with (or emulate accurately) a SID music chip. The SID is, of course, the chip that was used in the Commodore 64 to make some of the best game music of the decade — created by Robert Yannes, it was a technical marvel that still baffles people somewhat today, considering that most other computers at the time (including the Spectrum 48k) possessed little more than a single-channel beeper in terms of sound. The Spectrum 128k upgraded its sound to an AY chip — the same sort of thing you get in a Game Boy — but still, the SID was the undisputed champion in the world of ’80s computer sound.

Even though I myself belong more to the Spectrum crowd than the C64 crowd, hearing a ZX Spectrum playing SID tunes so effectively is almost wrong, as if the streams have just been crossed. Of course, it is just a cool little bit of functionality and emulation — the Spectrum Next folk are not busy cannibalising old C64’s and cutting out their SID chips in order to stick them into the Spectrum Next (something that actually can happen to C64’s that you buy on Ebay due to the chip’s value as a synthesizer), but the feeling this brings is strange, as if someone managed to get a Mega Drive cartridge to run on a Super Nintendo. We truly are in an odd dimension.

In other Speccy Next-related news, the system has already managed to secure itself a big name character — one that may be familiar to anyone who grew up in the era. Dizzy is an egg with hands and feet, and the ability to roll around all over the place collecting objects, solving puzzles and saving his kinfolk from evil wizards — he was one of the most popular characters around back in the UK computer days with several big games under his belt, although there’s a chance that Americans may know him from Fantastic Dizzy, which did come out for both the NES and the Mega Drive/Genesis. It has been announced by the creators of the series, Philip and Andrew Oliver (better known as The Oliver Twins), that a brand new Dizzy game directed by themselves and made by a team that remade Crystal Kingdom Dizzy — one of the more maligned entries in the Dizzy canon — will be released onto the ZX Spectrum Next, not for two pounds nor for three pounds, but for free as a way of commemorating the success of the project. After several false starts and failed Kickstarters, said new game will be the first official Dizzy title in 25 years, ending a pretty long wait.  Speaking of the project, there are four days left to run on the Next’s Kickstarter, and it stands at over half a million pounds — if you fancy sticking your two’pennorth in, then don’t hesitate to do so.

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To shmup legend IKD, a very HB

Today is a holiday for fans of shoot-’em-ups worldwide: It’s Tsuneki Ikeda’s birthday!

For over a decade after Taito released Space Invaders in 1978, shoot-’em-ups dominated the arcade scene. Every company worth their salt at least dabbled in the genre, and it wasn’t unusual for one to have multiple series going at the same time. People simply had to have their shmups: Heavy hitters like Capcom, Konami, Data East, and of course Taito inundated the market with one after another, and even then there was room for smaller outfits like NMK and Video System to carve out a niche for themselves as well. Toaplan, who fit into the latter category, were notable not only for the sheer volume of their output—rolling out shmup after shmup for years—but their consistent quality. In this fast-paced environment, many of their games made a strong enough impression to earn console ports and even direct sequels.

Unfortunately, the ’90s brought rapid changes to the genre landscape, with the mighty shmup ousted by a glut of beat-’em-ups and fighting games chasing the success of Final Fight and Street Fighter II, respectively. Toaplan, who had made their name doing one thing very well, struggled to adapt…and this is where our man Ikeda enters the picture. Joining Toaplan in 1992, he contributed programming to two of their final shmups, V・V (pronounced “Vee Five”) and Batsugun, before the company folded in ’94. But the spirit of shooting games was too strong to die with Toaplan, and that same year, Ikeda co-founded one of four new developers who arose to carry on its legacy. There was Raizing, who produced the long-running Mahō Daisakusen series (culminating in the cult classic Dimahoo); Takumi, who made Mars Matrix and the Giga Wing series under the auspices of Capcom; Gazelle, an existing company who made Air Gallet once ex-Toaplan staff joined; and Ikeda came up with a little company called Cave.

Dodonpachi can display up to 245 enemy bullets on the screen at a time. Yes, of course they counted!

While Raizing developed many of their games on the same hardware used by Toaplan in their later years—and Capcom let Takumi play on the boogie board that was the CP System II—Ikeda spent his first year at Cave working on a new framework that would run the games they’d make for the rest of the ’90s: the CAVE 68000. (Being family and all, the Air Gallet team at Gazelle used Cave’s board before merging ranks with them entirely.) For Cave’s debut performance, 1995’s Donpachi, Ikeda entered a dual role he would keep for years to come, serving as both a programmer and a designer. Drawing upon his experiences as both a developer and a shmup fan from way back, he set out to guide the player’s experience right down the line between brutal challenge and intense excitement. With this goal in mind, he meticulously orchestrated the patterns of enemies that would assault the player—and yes, the waves of bullets that showered over them.

More than anything, Ikeda simply desired to keep on making the games that Toaplan might have if they were still around, but that all changed in 1996, when Raizing released a little shmup called Battle Garegga. This game demonstrated what at the time was considered an irresponsible lack of restraint when it came to coating the screen in bullets, and here Ikeda realized his new calling. In 1997, Cave released Dodonpachi in direct answer to Battle Garegga, lowering the helpless player into what would become known as “bullet hell.”

In their heyday, shmups enticed casual players as well as die-hards with their escalating production values. Then Final Fight and Street Fighter II lured the public away from spaceships and war machines with vivid human characters. The advent of bullet hell helped restore shmups to mainstream attention with an obvious visual hook: “Just look at all those bullets!” In turn, it emphasized the underlying mechanical hook that had always been there: the simple, visceral thrill of weaving your way through death on all sides. As the harbinger of a new sub-genre, Dodonpachi became a massive success, and Ikeda dreamed of leading a shooting revolution that would return shmups to their former glory.

Ultimately, shmups couldn’t get out from under the stigma surrounding their imposing difficulty, so they remained in a niche, much to Ikeda’s chagrin. But the faithful, whose high-level technical play had constantly moved developers to increase the games’ challenge in the first place, flocked to Cave as their saviors. And Ikeda, who went on to meet their demands time and again, became lauded as the genre’s devoted steward and the architect of a new age—affectionately referred to as “IKD.”

Cave has finally begun to slow down in recent years, but Ikeda remains in high esteem, as evinced by the birthday wishes flooding Cave’s Twitter today. And although he’s twenty years older now than when he made Dodonpachi, he can look back on two decades spent keeping a dream alive.

Dodonpachi and Ketsui Death Label images courtesy of Hardcore Gaming 101

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Fire Emblem reaches into the past to give the series a fresh new feel with Shadows of Valentia

I very nearly embarrassed myself with my take on Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. If I hadn’t realized a few days ago that the latest 3DS entry in Nintendo and Intelligent Systems’ strategy RPG franchise is a remake of an old Famicom game, I might have waxed rhapsodic about how it offers a “welcome burst of inspiration” or “finally helps add some interesting new innovation” to the series’ formula. As it turns out, though, the “innovation” that makes Valentia so appealing was in fact laid down 25 years ago in the original version of the game: Fire Emblem Gaiden.

In fairness, it would have been an easy mistake to make. Fire Emblem Gaiden, also referred to by many fans as Fire Emblem II, has languished in Japan until now. Nintendo didn’t begin localizing Fire Emblem titles until the Game Boy Advance/GameCube era, so unless you deliberately went looking for information on that 8-bit sequel, you could just as easily assume Valentia was simply the latest new work in the franchise. You could also be forgiven for simply assuming the cumbersome subtitle is a series trademark, coming so soon after last year’s Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright/Revelation/Conquest. However, “Echoes” will seemingly serve as Nintendo’s branding for Fire Emblem remakes. This comes more than a decade late for their series’ first remake, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for Game Boy Advance, alas — though in terms of scope and effort, Valentia absolutely shames Shadow Dragon. [Correction: Shadow Dragon was released on DS — Jeremy]

If you remember Shadow Dragon, that remake simply brought the original Fire Emblem for Famicom up to approximately Game Boy Advance standards. It boasted nicer, more detailed visuals and more elaborate text than the older version, but otherwise, it felt pretty similar to the 8-bit release. Valentia, on the other hand, brings an older to the standards of the original 3DS Fire Emblem titles — and then takes it a step further. The combat engine comes straight from Fates: You shuffle your little strategy pawns as 2D sprites around a slightly tilted battlefield, and once a combat encounter commences the camera zooms in and blurs to a cinematic 3D sequence in which your characters’ actions play out against a foe.

This time, however, the 3D view serves an expanded role. It’s not just about looking pretty; once you claim certain map areas from the foe, you’re allowed to venture into that building or dungeon. Rather than play out as a static screen with actions determined by menu, these dungeon-dives feel more like a traditional RPG. Your hero or heroine ventures into the dungeon on foot, with the camera following behind them. You can hunt for treasures, smash up destructible objects in the environment, and even take on foes. Encounters with the enemy are initiated by making physical contact with them (and you can strike as you collide during exploration in order to gain initiative), and they play out as standard Fire Emblem battles.

You don’t often see this mix of classic RPG exploration and tactical combat. It calls back to older RPGs like SSI’s Dungeons & Dragons: Pools of Radiance or the first few Arc the Lad games for PlayStation, and for me it makes Valentia the most engaging Fire Emblem I’ve played to date. The constant stream of drawn-out engagements that comprise a strategy RPG can feel like a real drudge after a while; at the same time, it’s difficult to leaven things with lightweight battles, because they feel like an inconsequential waste of time. The free-roaming exploration sequences — limited as they may be here — creates just the right kind of palette-cleanser between major engagements to keep Valentia from becoming monotonous. The battles you face in most of the dungeons are inconsequential, feeling more like random filler battles in a standard console RPG than meaty tactical encounters… but in the context of exploration scenes that play like something out of a standard console RPG, they work perfectly.

This change of pacing would be a welcome innovation — the next step forward in Fire Emblem‘s evolution — if not for one critical fact: The dungeon exploration element comes directly from Fire Emblem Gaiden. While the 3D perspective is new for 3DS, the idea of breaking away from the map-by-map campaign for a bit of light dungeon-crawling was what made Fire Emblem Gaiden Fire Emblem Gaiden. It was something of an experiment, a creative side story excursion (as denoted by the title), and it ultimately proved to be an evolutionary dead-end; to my knowledge, no other Fire Emblem title has incorporated a similar mechanic. Even here, it’s somewhat diminished from the original game; Fire Emblem Gaiden allowed you to explore towns in a similar fashion, while in Valentia you navigate those areas through a bog-standard strategy RPG menu system, jumping from scene to scene.

All of this complements a solid core game. Valentia tells the story of two childhood friends thrust into opposition with one another by the tides of war and duty. Once you play through the two introductory chapters, which serve to set up protagonist Alm and Celica’s respective stories, the main game sees you playing out both hero and heroines’ campaigns simultaneously. You can switch freely between both characters, advancing each story as you see fit — and there are just enough dynamic events on the map (such as mercenary teams appearing to reinforce the enemy army at critical junctures) that you have to switch up your approach from time to time to put out fires or staunch the flow of bad guys.

The free movement sequences in Valentia never last long enough to overstay their welcome, and I have to wonder why developer Intelligent Systems dropped the concept in later games. They really do add a lot to the Fire Emblem formula, and I have to hope that positive reception to Echoes will inspire IS to consider revisiting the concept in future releases.

I also appreciate the fact that IS has taken inspiration here from another incredible strategy RPG remake: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for PSP. Specifically, Echoes incorporates that game’s rewind feature to allow you to undo a botched action. As in TO, this feature is absolutely optional; and here it’s far more limited, with the number of actions you can rewind strictly set per battle and parceled out based on the number of supplemental items you can locate. But given the (optional) presence of permadeath in Fire Emblem, the ability to step back two or three moves can keep the game from feeling like a huge waste of time. You’re definitely going to reset the game when the random number generator breaks unfairly and, for example, you lose a beloved character forever because you whiff twice on an action with an 80% success rate while the enemy lands a critical riposte despite less-than-even odds of even landing a blow. The rewind saves you the trouble of having to start all over again — but you can’t abuse it, and you can completely ignore it if you find it cheapens the game’s tension.

One other nice thing about Valentia — and this is admittedly a personal preference — is the fact that its retro roots tone down the party-chat dynamic. The most recent games in the series have nearly gone full-on dating simulation, with an increasing emphasis on character romances and marriage. Valentia feels a lot more buttoned-down than the other 3DS entries in the series, with the character-pairing mechanics taking on a far more limited scope than in Awakenings and Fates. Only specific characters — those with established interpersonal relationships — can build their affinity for one another by performing supporting actions, and those connections reach their max level without the marriage-as-resolution culmination that has become the standard. While some of the character dialogue certainly has undertones (and even overtones) of flirtation, hinting alternately at both mixed- and same-sex attraction, Valentia (at least so far as I’ve seen) stops short of the mai-waifu trend that’s come to define the franchise.

Of course, there’s plenty I haven’t seen of Valentia yet. I’m a long way from beating the game, and then there’s the game’s extensive downloadable content (which somewhat infamously costs more than the game itself). So who knows what shenanigans lie ahead? The important thing is that I actually feel motivated to find out — a new sensation for me when it comes to Fire Emblem. I respect the series and have enjoyed dabbling in the more recent releases, but the games have never truly grabbed me until now. And really, Valentia just goes to show what Retronauts is all about: The importance of looking to history for inspiration. Sometimes, the best and most refreshing ideas in games are the ones that have been laying around right under our noses, forgotten, for years and years.

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