Category Archives: Retrogaming News

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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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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Reminder: You should join us live at Midwest Gaming Classic

Yes, that’s right: Next weekend (April 8, to be precise) Bob and I will be setting up camp at Midwest Gaming Classic in Milwaukee to present our first live Retronauts panel of the year. Last year, we waxed eloquent about the Sega Master System with the help of some SEGA experts; this time around, we’ve rounded up two local Splatterhouse experts in order to talk about, yes, Splatterhouse. Caitlin Oliver and Kevin Bunch will be joining us to discuss the history of the series, its sequels and offshoots, and hopefully explain what allure the franchise possesses to entice them to go toe-to-toe to defend the arcade game’s all-time high-score record.

The talk will take place next Saturday at 3 p.m. And we’re hoping to host a meet-up later in the evening at the event’s bar, so please join us for that! If it happens!

On the much less expert side of things, I’ll also be taking the dilettante approach to Splatterhouse in a Gintendo stream tomorrow afternoon. (It’s Friday, it’s OK to start up with the gin a little early.) Specifically, I’ll be trying out Splatterhouse 2 for Genesis, because I need to stream more frequently from SEGA systems, and then moving along to the copy of Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti I picked up during my last trip to Japan. I can’t promise I will play well, but at least I will make groaner puns on the fly and talk about alcohol…?

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Well, it’s practically retro, anyway: Radiant Historia getting a remake

Does something really constitute a “retro” game if it was released in 2010? Probably not, but for the purposes of this site, I feel like Atlus’ Radiant Historia comes close enough in spirit to the classics that we probably could have talked about it back when it was a fresh, new release. Certainly the game felt dated when it rolled off the assembly line, with its humble sprite-based graphics and dishwater-dull color palette. And its overall concept and combat system felt like some bastard child of the Chrono/Xeno family, what with its time-traveling shenanigans and quirky battle mechanics that revolved around positional manipulation of enemies. It was, in short, old before its time.

Perhaps because of its decidedly uninspiring visual style, or perhaps because its host platform (Nintendo DS) had been rendered effectively moribund in the U.S. at that point by the one-two punch of piracy and smartphone gaming, Radiant Historia went largely overlooked. And it definitely didn’t help that just a few months later Square Enix released the Tactics Ogre remake for PSP, which featured a similar timeline-rewinding element to the one in Radiant Historia but put it to far better use (and, alas, was simply a better game than Radiant Historia all around). Nevertheless, despite slotting comfortably into B-tier status and not quite qualifying as an overlooked masterpiece, Radiant Historia was an interesting game that definitely deserved more love than it received from a cold and uncaring world… and now that opportunity has emerged with news of a remake called Radiant Historia Chronicles for 3DS.

According to Weekly Famitsu magazine, Chronicles will be a comprehensive overhaul of the game, adding in a new scenario, voice acting, and potentially some 3D graphics (it’s kinda hard to tell from the smudgy Famitsu scan that I’ve seen circulating social media). It sounds an awful lot like Atlus’ other DS-to-3DS conversion, Devil Survivor: Overclocked, though I’m holding out hope they’ll make more comprehensive improvements and do some rejiggering with the game’s time-shifting mechanic. I liked the concept behind Radiant Historia‘s core premise — the protagonist had to prevent a wartime disaster, and his own death, by leaping backward in time and exploring alternate outcomes — but the execution left something to be desired. There was a lot of time-leaping, mostly affecting incremental changes to the timeline. That meant that the overall flow of the game amounted to making minor tweaks to the story, replaying a section to look for minor changes to dialogue and outcomes, then repeating. And for a game about time travel and outcomes, its narrative had a weirdly linear structure. After a while, it got to a point where even the scenario writer was like, “Yeah, whatever,” and would just cut to the chase with an overlay of narrative text that functioned as an ellipsis.

In short, if any game deserved a do-over, it would be the one that centered around do-overs but didn’t quite turn out the way it was meant to. So this remake’s existence seems wholly appropriate… though I do worry that we’re going to see a “But history refused to change,” ending screen for this one, too. It’s repeating a fundamental mistake that Atlus made the first time around: Launching on a Nintendo handheld in its sunset days. Despite Nintendo’s marketing messages*, I’m pretty sure the core audience for games like this has largely begun to migrate from 3DS to Switch. As much as I’d like to keep seeing games like this and Fire Emblem make their way to the U.S., I worry they’ll completely flop if they do. It could be that I’m just projecting, though. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger 3DS supporter than I’ve been, but I haven’t touched the thing in a month. It would take something truly spectacular to drag me back at this point, like Etrian Odyssey V or Dragon Quest XI. I don’t know if a Radiant Historia remake has the gravity to pull me back into the past.

Though I guess that’s kind of the game’s entire point, so who knows?

*”No, guys, Switch is a console, not a handheld! Honest! Please keep buying 3DS!”

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Switch is already ascending to its destiny as a retrogaming haven

First there were Neo•Geo games and Blaster Master Zero; now there’s this:

There’s still no word on what Nintendo plans to do in terms of Virtual Console for Switch, if anything, but clearly third parties have no intention of sitting around and waiting for plans to solidify. And so we have the Seiken Densetsu Collection. And by “we” I mean “Japan, anyway.”

Yesterday Square Enix’s official Mana franchise Twitter account teased a brief and masterful video clip of people playing Secret of Mana, which wasn’t particularly remarkable until the camera pulled out and — BAM! — they were playing on Switch. Rather than let the question of, “Is this real?” linger in the air forever like a bad smell, the company went ahead and announced a collection of the first three Mana games this morning. And all was well, except for the uncertainty surrounding a possible localization.

I think it’s pretty reasonable to hope this makes its way west as a Mana Collection (or some such). The lack of a proper, official English-language version of Seiken Densetsu 3, the gorgeous 16-bit sequel to Secret of Mana, has always been one of those sources of simmering resentment for RPG fans; the game likely wasn’t localized because of the difficulty involved in squeezing a less-efficient English script into a huge, jam-packed ROM, which already sat at the upper limits of the system’s practical size restrictions (and therefore would have been ridiculously expensive here). Every once in a while Square Enix kindles a spark of hope that we’ll finally get a belated English conversion of the game, such as when they teased Heroes of Mana as a sequel to SD3. And yet here we are more than 20 years later, and no official U.S. release of SD3.

This seems like the ultimate test. If we don’t get this Mana compilation, we’re never getting SD3 in English from Square Enix and will have to settle for paying people to flash SNES ROMs of the (groundbreaking and quite excellent) fan translation for us instead. I kinda feel like letting this languish in Japan would amount to leaving money on the table, but what do I’m know? I’m a bozo who would have Square Enix localize every single unsellable SaGa game, so it’s just as well I’m not making any of these decisions for the company.

There’s more than just coulda-woulda-shoulda with this collection, though. The simple fact is that Mana perfectly embodies the appeal and potential of the Switch. While the first Mana game (Final Fantasy Legend for Game Boy) lacked multiplayer hooks, both Secret of Mana and SD3 featured drop-in-drop-out cooperative action-RPG adventuring for up to three people at once. A system designed to make that possible anywhere is a perfect place to repackage these classics — especially if this serves as a trial balloon to see whether or not there might be interest in a new Mana game. And also, I get the impression Switch is pretty heavily targeted toward old and nostalgic gamer types, so this hits that core demographic, too.

Of course, if the collection doesn’t come west, the Switch does lack any sort of region locks, so we can always just import it. Hopefully it won’t come to that. Playing these games without English language wouldn’t be the ideal for these games; it’s certainly possible to bumble through, but SD3 in particular relies heavily on the nuance of its characters and their allegiances. In any case, I’ll be camping out at Square Enix’s front door every day until they finally relent and announce an American localization.

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April 18 will be an aging gamer’s smorgasbord of delight

It really sucks about tax day being April 17th this year, but apparently the games industry is determined to heal those IRS-inflicted sorrows by giving all of us old video game types a lot to look forward to the following day. April 18th is now confirmed to include no less than three excellent-looking reworkings of classic games. It’s kind of an embarrassment of riches, if we’re being completely honest here.

Here’s what we aging nerds can look forward to:

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap

We’ve known about this one for a while, to the point that we produced an entire episode about the series last year. I finally had a chance to go hands-on with The Dragon’s Trap at Game Developers Conference a couple of weeks ago, and the only word I can really think to use to describe it is “legit.” You hear the term “labor of love” tossed around a lot; this game truly embodies the concept. It came into being because programmer Omar Cornut invested years into deconstructing the code for the original SEGA Master System game as a hobbyist, and eventually that evolved into a proper top-to-bottom remake.

The truly remarkable thing about The Dragon’s Trap is that it plays exactly like the original version. Everything from the physics to the semi-open world layout are completely identical to the Master System version, to the point that you can toggle between the new graphics and old at the press of a button… not unlike with the Halo anniversary remakes. Make no mistake, though, it’s not simply the old version running under emulation, because toggling to original 8-bit graphics still allows you to play with widescreen visuals rather than constraining the action to 4:3 proportions. Cornut has rebuilt the original game code for modern platforms (including Switch, which you’d better believe will be my platform of choice for this one), transplanting an 8-bit classic into a new format with absolute fidelity.

I’m equally impressed by the new visuals, which have a fluid European art style and really bring the world and characters to life. If you’re like me, you tend to be wary when the terms “European art style” and “challenging platformer” collide, because the former element tends to wreak havoc on the integrity of the latter. Think games like Rayman which, while lovely, prioritize animation cycles over responsiveness. That’s fine in a meticulous Prince of Persia-style game, but Wonder Boy is vintage SEGA: Fast, unforgiving, and already tremendously challenging by default. Happily, The Dragon’s Trap manages to balance its lovely visuals and its unrelenting-but-fair difficulty level by causing animation to act as a secondary consideration to controls. Actions cancel character movements here, whereas many platformers featuring lush animation force you to sit through a movement cycle before responding to player inputs. And hit boxes are tuned to be forgiving where the new illustrations don’t perfectly line up with the original sprites; for example, Wonder Boy’s lion-man transformation now drags his massive claymore behind him rather than holding it upright ahead of him, but the greatly expanded character sprite is no more vulnerable than the original bitmap version, and he swings the blade with the same effective speed and arc as before.

On top of all that, Cornut made use of some unused dummy data in the original code to add in a few new challenges. You can generate a password for your progress in the remake, input it into the Master System version, advance the game, then bring an updated code from the Master System game back into the remake. And since the reward item for discovering the new secrets is tied to data that was tracked by but unused in the original game, you won’t lose the remake’s bonus item even if you play for a while in the 8-bit game. It’s a minor detail, sure, but it really speaks to the lengths that Cornut and LizardCube have explored in order to preserve the integrity of the original game while making it more palatable to contemporary audiences.

Full Throttle Remastered

I admit I don’t know this one as well as Wonder Boy; Full Throttle was one of the last hand-animated LucasArts point-and-click adventure games, and I picked it up back in the day. Alas, I never made much progress; the burly biker theme didn’t do much for me, despite the quality of the writing. I definitely will give the game a second chance now that it’s been prettified (and moved to consoles), though. Full Throttle Remastered foregoes the obvious remake approach by not converting the original game’s lovely, low-rez, Disney-esque drawings into clunky 3D but rather recreating them in high-resolution 2D. The use of bold, varied line weights keeps the newly reworked animation from looking like Flash animation — think Archer versus Homestar Runner. Pretty classy! As much as a game about a heavy metal biker dude can be classy, anyway.

The Disney Afternoon Collection

And finally, one that’s not a remake at all but rather a compilation. Bringing together six Capcom NES games — DuckTales 1 & 2, Rescue Rangers 1 & 2, Darkwing Duck, and TaleSpin — the Disney Afternoon Collection comes from Digital Eclipse and occasional Retronauts guest Frank Cifaldi. This is the same combination that brought us the excellent Mega Man Legacy Collection a couple of years ago, and one would assume it runs on the same NES interpreter engine as the previous compilation. I think it’s safe to expect the minor hiccups that affected the Legacy Collection to have been sorted out for this new release.

I know this compilation was something everyone involved in the Legacy Collection had hinted at wanting to create, but given the precious attitude Disney has towards its properties I really didn’t expect it to happen. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see a whopping six Disney classics contained in a single package. This, of course, is not the full catalog of Capcom/Disney games for NES, but as the title indicates, these six come from television properties rather than films or Disney real estate concepts. (And, let’s be realistic: These were the good Capcom/Disney games.) In any case, it very helpfully contains the two most ridiculously overpriced Capcom/Disney collector’s pieces, DuckTales 2 and Rescue Rangers 2, both of which command eBay prices that will make your toes curl and wallet shrivel… even as bare cartridges.

As with the Legacy Collection, the Afternoon Collection will contain a huge array of supplemental materials, such as promotional art and development sketches. It’ll also include some custom-made challenges for the more obsessive fans to tackle. About the only downside to the collection I see is the widely lamented lack of a Switch version, which isn’t terribly surprising. I can’t imagine the Disney license came cheap or easy, and Nintendo systems are very much in a transitional state right now; Capcom probably didn’t want to risk committing to a new console. Now that Switch has seemingly proved its appeal (having already moved 1.5 million units worldwide, which has prompted Nintendo to double its production numbers for the coming year; there’ll be more Switches produced in the next year than Wii U systems that were ever made), I would be pretty shocked if Capcom didn’t announce a belated version for that system as well. I mean, it just makes sense… which I realize isn’t always quite how business works, but I suppose we’ll see.

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No Virtual Console for Switch yet, but it’s full of old games anyway

With today’s weekly Nintendo eShop update push, the Switch’s library will pretty much consist of 50% old games by volume. This, despite the fact that Nintendo hasn’t said boo about Virtual Console. (Today’s sole Virtual Console release is Bomberman 64 for Wii U, which costs about 1/5 the price of Bomberman R and is, by all accounts, a lot more fun.)

Branding aside, though, Switch will be receiving a ridiculous number of Neo•Geo classics (and also some less-beloved Neo•Geo games) as part of SNK’s Arcade Classic Archives series. To wit:

  • Nam-1975
  • The King of Fighters ’98
  • Waku Waku 7
  • Metal Slug 3
  • World Heroes Perfect
  • Shock Troopers

Add to the list the not-technically-old-but-sure-as-heck-feels-it Blaster Master Zero by Inti Creates and friends, you have… well, if nothing else, you have some justification for my having mentally adopted Switch as the official current console of Retronauts. (There are plenty of great classics on PlayStation 4, of course, but if you put the two consoles into a centrifuge and spun them out, you’re going to get a much higher proportion of old stuff on Switch.)

There is, of course, the looming question of whether or not the emulation on these Neo•Geo games is any good. I suppose we’ll find out soon, though the images on Nintendo’s press site look a little iffy. The other looming question is, what precisely does the Arcade Classic Archives mean for Virtual Console? Some have speculated that ACA‘s quick launch means Nintendo will be abandoning the Virtual Console concept altogether, though I think it’s more likely a sign that whatever form VC takes on Switch, it’ll be limited again to Nintendo’s own consoles the way it was on Wii U. (Aside from those late TurboGrafx-16 arrivals, that is.) Every indication has been that Nintendo doesn’t exactly fall over itself to accommodate third-party platform holders on VC these days — the salad days of Wii VC long having come to an end — so even if there were a possibility of seeing Neo•Geo games on VC, it’s probably a lot less trouble in the end for SNK to simply handle its own games independently… especially since ACA already exists on PlayStation 4, making for relatively simple conversions, one hopes.

For the moment, my heart is set primarily on Blaster Master Zero, but I gotta say the hastily localized promo copy for the ACA releases on Nintendo’s press site has done much to pique my interest. I mean, look at this:

Beautiful. The true Neo•Geo experience.

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Spike Chunsoft makes a bid for America with blasts from the past

As the games industry continues its polar drift into blockbuster-chasing goliaths and tiny independent startups, one interesting trend has emerged: Mid-sized Japanese publishers gaining a foothold in the U.S. market through localization partners and eventually gaining the confidence to go out on their own. Nippon Ichi seems to have kicked off the trend more than a decade ago after the Atlus-localized Disgaea proved to be a far greater success than anyone could have expected, giving them the courage to strike out and establish their own U.S. branch, NIS America. NIS America then provided a launch pad for Idea Factory, whose Neptunia games have somehow proved popular enough to inspire the formation of Idea Factory International.

Last night at a press event adjacent to Game Developers Conference 2017 in San Francisco, Spike Chunsoft threw its hat into the ring as the latest entrant into this modest arena — somewhat literally, and the company’s biggest release announcement was the revival of a series that has long been regarded by many as the definitive take on video wrestling, Fire Pro Wrestling.

It’s a fitting nod to history by Spike Chunsoft, a company with plenty of history itself. Its two component entities, Spike and Chunsoft, merged five years ago but had been around for decades before that. Fire Pro comes from the Spike side, which acquired the franchise in 2000 from Human Entertainment. The series helped launch Suda51’s career, but its roots go back even further: Its lead creator was the late Masato Masuda, who at a very young and prodigious age helped design Nintendo’s popular Pro Wrestling for NES. Meanwhile, Chunsoft was founded by another prodigy, Koichi Nakamura, who parlayed his victory with an Enix-sponsored game design contest in the early ’80s into his own development studio, which then went on to do much of the programming and design work on the first five Dragon Quest games and their spinoff franchise Mystery Dungeon. This is a company with history.

Admirably, Spike Chunsoft seems perfectly content to be, well, itself as it makes its entrée into the U.S. Fire Pro Wrestling World definitely has plenty of potential for appeal here, with its rock-solid wrestling action and incredibly deep customization options (its build-a-wrestler mode contains thousands of body parts and moves for players to combine into either highly imaginative or suspiciously familiar grapplers, such as the Donald Trump and Barack Obama proxies the devs demoed with at the press event). At the same time, it’s definitely not pandering to the American obsession with technical proficiency; the screenshot above is from an actual game that will be released here in the Year of Our Lord 2017, and it appears to have been constructed of PlayStation 2 assets with one of those Eagle or SAI filters you see built into most emulators. Cutting-edge this ain’t, but wrestling fans will vouch for the fact that Fire Pro‘s actual game mechanics offer sufficient depth to make up for its visual shortcomings.

Spike Chunsoft also announced a Steam, PlayStation 4, and Vita release of The Nonary Games, which collects of DS visual puzzle novel 9-9-9 (largely rebuilt from the ground up here to work on a single HD screen instead of two low-rez screens) and its sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward. There’s a bit of baby-stepping in the company’s push toward independence here, as the console versions of The Nonary Games are being published in the U.S. by long-time partner Aksys (who also published last year’s roguelike par excellence Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate). By far the company’s most intriguing announcement, however, was a U.S. localization of a critically beloved Wii sound novel called 428. Going under the name Shibuya Scramble in the U.S. (a reference the famous multi-way crosswalk outside of Shibuya Station in Tokyo, where most of the story takes place), the game earned rave reviews in Japan a decade ago and is in many way could be regarded the inspiration for the Zero Escape games whose international success has emboldened Spike Chunsoft to fly solo in the West.

It’s a fascinating choice for localization, since the game lacks the Saw-inspired fantasy setting of 9-9-9 and its sequels. Instead, it consists largely of live-action footage of Japanese actors and has a look about it redolent of a low-budget film from the ’90s. On the other hand, Shibuya Scramble also offers a multi-branch story for several different characters, with split timelines that allow players to jump around the narrative at will and explore the outcomes of their actions on another character’s take. It sounds incredibly complex and should make for a profound localization challenge, but it also looks equally intriguing. Producer Dave Kracker promises that although some of the playable characters never directly interact, their stories all impact one another’s in surprising ways. Since Shibuya Scramble lacks the puzzle elements of its progeny, the entire effort centers on the storytelling component of the game.

It’s an unusual lineup for a company to lean on for its big push into the U.S. market, but if nothing else it certainly defines Spike Chunsoft as a defiantly unique publisher… and one with pride in its classic heritage. Which of course makes it A-OK in the Retronauts books.

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Blaster Master Zero looks way better than it has any right to

Yesterday, Nintendo hosted an event to show off a bunch of upcoming Switch games from independent studios, and I do mean a bunch. I wasn’t there to see it, since they had to go and show off their lineup before I made my way to Game Developers Conference. It’s a shame, because I kind of feel like this lineup was specifically constructed with my tastes and interests in mind.

One game in particular has especially caught my eye: Blaster Master Zero from Inti Creates. Just gaze upon this majesty:

Zero isn’t news, precisely; it was announced for 3DS and Wii U last year. This is the first time I’ve seen this much footage of it in a single spot, however, and the fact that it’s not only coming to Switch but will be doing so next week definitely qualifies as a Rad Development.

I admit to having been pretty unenthused about Zero until seeing this trailer. There have been quite a few attempts to re-bottle the lightning that was the original Blaster Master, and none of them have ever quite worked out. Inti Creates certainly has the chops to put together a game like this — the name Blaster Master Zero hints at the studio’s breakout title, Mega Man Zero — but the question is, do they get what made Blaster Master work?

It’s hard to say until I actually play the game (which will happen next week apparently!?), but everything in this trailer suggests they’ve sorted all their ducks into proper rows. The only real question is, will the returning top-down sections include the original game’s power-drain mechanic, wherein you lose offensive strength along with health any time you take damage? Honestly, that was one of the must punitive game design choices I’ve ever witnessed and turns the original Blaster Master into a brutal, borderline-unfair slog. It’s one of the very few NES games I owned back in the day but never managed to complete, ultimately sputtering out a couple of times against the second form of the final boss before abandoning all hope for the rest of eternity. Battletoads? Crushed it. Dracula’s Curse? Beat it with all three companions and Trevor solo. Every Mega Man? Cake. Life Force? One-life wins. Ninja Gaiden? Blasted through without a single continue. But Blaster Master… man, screw that game.

Assuming Inti Creates doesn’t go hardcore on this one (the prospects of which don’t fill me with optimism; the original Mega Man Zero‘s cyber-elf and ranking system beats out even Blaster Master‘s power drain mechanic for cruelty), this could be the game to finally give us the Blaster Master follow-up we’ve deserved for nearly 30 years. And I couldn’t be happier about that. Despite my frustration at never finishing the game, I found Blaster Master really fascinating; it even inspired me to create my own trading card series, MUTANTS, which was basically a bunch of weird monsters you’d have fought in the game… and also some dad jokes, decades before my time (incl. “Mario Poppins” and “Rambozo”). Seeing Blaster Master given what appears to be a proper treatment all these years later warms my heart.

Zero seems to take the elements of Blaster Master and recreate them in a bigger, more ridiculously bold fashion without succumbing to aesthetic mismatch. The game looks too good to have run on NES hardware, but Inti are pros and don’t do that awful thing you see in a lot of retro-inspired software in which you have NES-caliber elements combined with out-of-place high-resolution visual components. Instead, they’ve gone with a decidedly PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 look here: Better color depth and sprite detail than NES, but not quite at a Genesis or Super NES level. The color choices and heavy black outlining absolutely nail the PC Engine “look,” and aside from the smoothness of the animation, number of interactive elements being thrown around, and the widescreen layout, this really looks like a Blaster Master game you might have played on TurboGrafx circa 1991 right before NEC gave up on America.

Anyway, you can bet your sweet bippy there’ll be a review of the game here sometime soon. The game debuts on Switch next Thursday, March 9.

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Switch upholds two key Nintendo legacies: Portability and compromise

Nintendo’s Switch has been my platonic ideal for a console from the first rumor: A high-end portable console with the option to play it on a television. It is, quite simply, what the Wii U should have been from the start, and I began daydreaming aloud about how much the Wii U could have been so much better if it had taken the form of a console/handheld hybrid along the lines of what Switch turned out to be. It took nearly five years, but my hybrid daydream has become Nintendo’s critical business reality. I don’t know how well this ambitious little system will do for the company, but after using it under real-world circumstances for a few days, I can say it’s certainly doing a lot for me.

That said, I realize my tastes and expectations in games probably don’t line up with those of the average game enthusiast. My biggest video game project over the past few years has been lining up as many vintage systems as possible to output perfect video output for high-definition recording: Not really your average gaming obsession. The question, then, is how well will a console that appears to have been custom-built to appeal to my tastes fare with the general gaming public? And perhaps more importantly, can it transcend the gaming public to the larger market the way Wii did? Nintendo certainly seems to be banking on that hope, and I absolutely see potential for crossover appeal here, but Switch presents a far more complicated concept of a system for people to deal with. Wii’s hook — shake a funky remote control at the screen and your little man swings a tennis racket — was simple and obvious. Switch’s crossover design hinges on complexity. You open the box and are confronted by the core system (a button-free screen that resembles a fatter Kindle Fire)… and a dock… and two controller add-ons… and two optional strap dongles for the controller bits… and a different optional dongle for the controller bits. If Switch is meant to be Wii-come-lately, it feels as though Nintendo skipped right over the “simple charm” phase of that system and directly to the “where did all these accessories come from?” portion of its life cycle.

This isn’t a review of the console; those aren’t allowed until next week, and anyway it would be impossible for me to properly review a console when many of its fundamental functions have yet to be unlocked through the day-one system update. Rather, I’d like to make two observations about Switch after having spent a few days of quality time with the new console.

The first comes straight from the heart: Whatever Nintendo may say about Switch’s place in its lineup, this feels far more like an evolution of the company’s portable legacy than of its consoles. In point of fact, it’s a union of the two, and honestly is probably long overdue. But, Nintendo wants to hedge its bets, so it’s been promoting Switch as a successor to Wii U, hoping to allow it to exist in parallel to the 3DS. This makes a good deal of sense on one level: The 3DS overcame its rough start to become an extraordinarily popular system and currently has an enormous install base, especially among younger players. The Wii U… did not. Rather than wipe both off the slate with a system that can easily replace both, Nintendo’s promoting Switch as its new home console, while the 3DS (and, it should be said, the 2DS) soldiers on.

We saw this a decade ago with the Game Boy and DS, and Switch’s dual-function nature as a part-time console at least allows a more graceful bit of hemming and hawing than those unconvincing claims about the DS being a “third pillar” to complement the successful Game Boy Advance and the catastrophic GameCube. Like the DS, the Switch feels more closely aligned with the handheld line… but once again, it’s the console lineup that needs triage. So, sure, Switch is a console, not a portable. But you can bet that if it lives up to Nintendo’s hopes, it’ll suddenly become the new 3DS as well. And if not, that ongoing 3DS lineup gives them an opportunity for a face-saving reversal.

But make no mistake: Whatever the corporate messaging, Switch excels as a handheld system. It’s a portable first and foremost, and it’s fantastic in that regard. It really does feel in every way like a proper successor to its great-grandfather Game Boy and weird “uncle” Lynx (yeah, Lynx isn’t really related, but he and great-grandpa go way back):

Never mind that it’s the biggest handheld Nintendo has ever produced; it packs a respectable amount of power into its solid frame. It offers pretty much all the modern tech niceties: Bluetooth, wi-fi, and a reasonably capacious battery (it’s good for four-plus hours of solid play with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which I suspect drains a good deal more power than something like 1-2 Switch). The six-inch screen looks great, with respectable pixel density and vivid colors and brightness. And it uses industry-standard tech, a welcome change from Nintendo’s usual reliance on proprietary components: You can charge the unit with an off-the-shelf USB-C cable, and it accepts regular Micro SD cards — no overpriced Vita memory cards here. The one element of truly proprietary tech comes in the form of the game carts, which amount to tiny cards about the same size as Vita cards, albeit slightly thicker.

And really, the core system isn’t much larger than a 3DS XL. Take off the Joy Con controller bits and the tablet-like core is maybe half an inch larger on the X and Y axes and quite a bit thinner on the Z.

Which isn’t to say it’s quite as portable as the 3DS. The XL is already a chunky little guy that doesn’t fit comfortably into most pockets, and Switch is even bigger. It’s just enough larger to make it unlikely to fit into your 3DS XL carrying cases, or as the saying goes, “Just different enough to make you mad.” I can just barely slide an uncovered 3DS into the inner breast pocket of a sport coat or blazer (because I dress like an adult but don’t live like one), or even the outer side patch pockets. That doesn’t work for Switch, especially since (1) its screen isn’t protected by the DS family’s clamshell closure and (2) you still have to fuss with the Joy Cons. Switch really demands a bespoke carrying solution, because no one’s going to believe you can really fit it into a pocket (despite what television would have you believe).

With the Joy Cons connected, which is how you’ll be transporting the system most of the time, the Switch core unit dwarfs the original Game Boy. The one everyone calls the “brick” because it’s so huge.

In fact, as a self-contained handheld system, Switch’s lateral dimensions are almost identical to those of the Atari Lynx. The original Lynx, not the smaller revised model I have photographed here. That said, despite its width, this is no Lynx.

This is a far thinner device than any Lynx model, or in fact just about any portable Nintendo has ever produced either, outside of the 2DS. Part of me wonders if that might also have something to do with Nintendo’s reluctance to peddle Switch as a 3DS family replacement: Besides not having dual screens (just one huge touch screen), it also feels a lot less likely to withstand the ravages of being used by the under-15 set. It’s not a flimsy system by any means — it has a dense, solid feel in the hands, and potential weak points like the Joy Con rails are constructed from metals and other durable materials. But I wouldn’t call it rugged by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not difficult to imagine Nintendo eventually releasing a kid-friendlier version of Switch should it eventually ascend to become the 3DS’s successor as well, but for now, it feels more like a grown-up’s system.

This brings me to my second thought about Switch so far: Besides upholding Nintendo’s portable legacy, it also maintains the company’s tradition of compromise.

Compromise has always been a critical component of Nintendo’s hardware strategy. The Game Boy’s innards were a joke (based on ’70s tech, with a blurry four-color screen) compared to those of Atari’s Lynx (one of the most impressive sprite-pushing devices ever made, with a vivid backlit full-color screen). And Game Boy triumphed, because its crummy hardware made it cheap, compact, and battery-friendly. People laughed at Wii because it was “two GameCube duct-taped together,” but that was the entire point: It couldn’t produce high-definition visuals, true, but it was cheap and accessible and sold better than any console in history besides PlayStation 2.

Likewise, Switch is all about compromise as well. Detractors point out the fact that it uses a generation-old mobile chipset and basically amounts to a new version of the Nvidia Shield. All of this is true, but I’m sure Nintendo went with this specific tech configuration because it was more energy-efficient and kept the price of the core system down. Which is something they really need to focus on, because Switch accessories are insanely expensive — and seem to be fairly vital as well.

The biggest compromises Switch makes aren’t a matter of horsepower or battery juice, though. On those fronts, it seems to be perfectly decent. I don’t think anyone expects Nintendo to lead the charge in terms of raw technological capabilities, so the fact that Switch can’t compete toe-to-toe with PlayStation 4 Pro doesn’t really hurt when you take into account the fact that, unlike PS4, you can play Switch on an airplane tray.

Rather, my biggest frustrations with Switch so far result from its ergonomics. As a fanatic for handheld systems, I find Switch to be very nearly the greatest handheld system I’ve ever used… except for all the tiny ways in which I wish its interface options were just a little bit different.

My complaints ultimately arise from the complexity of the system I mentioned earlier. Nintendo has essentially created a console that answers every possible use case you could imagine. A standard console, a portable system, a portable system you can set up on a table and play with friends, a system whose add-on controller components can work in tandem or as a pair of separate devices for two players. It’s pretty fantastic, really, and fairly gutsy as a concept. But the system does trip over itself from time to time as it stretches to accommodate all these configurations.

As a handheld gaming device, Switch is big — like I said, as large in two of its dimensions as Atari’s infamously enormous Lynx was. But it’s much thinner than Lynx, and as a result of that thinness, it’s not entirely comfortable in the hands. As you can see in the 3DS comparison image above, the Joy Cons have a bit of a hand grip molded into their backsides, but not really enough to compensate for the fact that you’re holding a fairly hefty and fairly large rectangle of metal, glass, and plastic. It’s not that the system is heavy enough to become fatiguing, exactly; I just find my hands becoming cramped in a way I’m not used to with portables, since its weight is spread across a larger area and needs to be held differently than a 3DS or Vita.

I’m also very much not in love with the button layout of the Joy Cons. Because Nintendo has designed them to function as paired controllers or a pair of controllers, they’re forced to work across two axes. The left Joy Con doesn’t have a D-pad, because those digital inputs need to double as separate buttons when the Joy Con is used alone. And the right Joy Con isn’t symmetrical with the left, because it also needs to work as a miniature stand-alone controller. It’s a little uncomfortable to use as a solo controller due to the centered placement of the analog stick relative to that of the left Joy Con. And I keep getting tripped up by the fact that the analog and digital controls aren’t mirrored across the system; it’s pretty unusual for a controller to put the digital buttons below the analog stick on one side and above the stick on the other, and nearly 20 years of gaming muscle memory have me fumbling for the right stick whenever I need to adjust the camera in Zelda.

I do appreciate the versatility of control options for Switch, though. When my hands cramp from holding the system for too long, I can pop out the kickstand and attach the Joy Cons to the included controller base to use the system as a miniature TV. You can also use the Joy Cons on their own, reminiscent of the Wii’s remote-and-nunchuk configuration… though I find that my issues with the non-mirrored stick are heightened by this arrangement for some reason. Still, it really is the most versatile portable system ever made, and I’m looking forward to my cross-country flight next week for our upcoming Retronauts recording weekend. Breath of the Wild at 36,000 feet is nothing to sneeze at.

I’m sure many of my interface complaints — especially about the lack of a D-pad — would be made immaterial with the Switch Pro controller, but my review kit didn’t include one of those. So for now, I’m simply getting by with the standard controls. Which is fine for now, since the only game I have to work with is Zelda, which doesn’t require the use of a D-pad. But once the eShop opens and I want to download retro-style releases like Shovel Knight or The Binding of Isaac, I’m definitely going to have to pick up a Pro controller.

Despite these small criticisms, though, I really have fallen quite in love with Switch. As an avowed portable gaming enthusiast and historian, the fact that Nintendo has put together a sleek, adaptable handheld console that exceeds the power of its most recent traditional console is quite alright by me. No game system is perfect, and you always need to be willing to put up with some minor inconveniences in trade for your ideal experience. Switch’s small complaints aren’t completely trivial, but I can put up with them for what could prove to be the greatest portable system ever. Even if Nintendo isn’t really calling it that. The TV hookup is just a bonus, for me.

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