Category Archives: Retrogaming News

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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An unfinished Atari 2600 series finds a conclusion… in comic form?

An incomplete Atari 2600 series is finally reaching its end in the Year of Our Lord 2017. In the form of a comic book. Stranger things have certainly happened in the world of licensing… but not by much.

Episodic game franchises go unfinished more often than not. (Ask Gabe Newell about Half Life 2: Episode 3 sometime, he loves that question.) It’s a grim reality of the business, and it’s one whose precedent was set more than three decades ago, way back on the Atari 2600.

In 1982, Atari published a game called Earthworld, which served as the embarkation point for a tetralogy called SwordQuest. It was a madly ambitious concept of a series: A set of top-down action-RPGs featuring a variety of mini-games and challenges, reminiscent in some ways of the Tron arcade game. And upon completing the games and gathering all the clues hidden within, players could submit their solution to Atari to compete for valuable prizes (including a solid gold talisman and a chalice made of gold, platinum, and precious stones).

The second game, Fireworld, shipped in 1983. You know what also happened for Atari 2600 in 1983? The whole bottom fell out of the console market, Atari’s stocks crashed, and parent company Warner Communications split the company into two parts and sold them off like damaged goods. The third SwordQuest title, Waterworld (no relation), was only available through Club Atari. That game’s prize was never distributed, and the fourth entry in the series — to be called Airworld, obviously — never shipped in any form.

And that should have been the end of the game’s legacy, right then and there. It hasn’t even done much as a cautionary tale against the folly of episodic games (but no doubt we’ll be seeing SiN episodes two through nine any day now). Truly, a forgotten corner of gaming. But no: As it turns out, Dynamite Entertainment has picked up the rights to SwordQuest and will be launching it as an ongoing comic book series beginning in May. It’s a strange property for anyone to pick up from the dusty annals of video game history, but it does make a certain kind of sense; the original games shipped with packed-in comics to lend context to the decidedly abstract on-screen action.

Plus, the initial pitch sounds intriguing. Rather than being a straight adaptation of the SwordQuest plot (which was remarkably expansive for 2600 games), the SwordQuest comic series will evidently take on more of a metatextual flavor by concerning itself with the adventures of a normal kid on a mission to complete the SwordQuest games.

The creative team behind SwordQuest knows from metatext, too: Co-writer Chris Sims wrote Marvel’s too-brief X-Men ’92 series, which managed to be amusingly (rather than annoyingly) self-referential, and artist Scott Kowalchuk did a stint on Batman ’66, which did a brilliant job of recapturing the same tongue-in-cheek straight-man vibe as the old TV series. So despite the improbability of this entire venture, it’s probably going to turn out to be pretty good. At the very least, it seems likely to offer a more meaningful fictional takes on classic video games than a certain soon-to-be-a-major-Hollywood-picture novel…

As it happens, Sims is based here in North Carolina and has graciously consented to sit in for an episode of Retronauts East. You can look forward to that — along with the zero-issue debut of the comic — in a few months.

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A chance to reconsider Crash, maybe

Yesterday Activision announced that their HD remaster of the PlayStation Crash Bandicoot trilogy — newly dubbed the N. Sane Trilogy, because without a name what kind of gravitas could a trilogy possibly have? — will arrive June 30, almost exactly a year after its announcement at last year’s Sony E3 press conference. Now that I’m over the cognitive dissonance of Activision publishing Crash (when I was a lad, that was a Sony franchise, thank you very much), I find myself looking forward to the N. Sane Trilogy.

I am not, to be honest, a fan of Crash… which is precisely why I’m eager to try the new HD reissue. I don’t feel I really gave the Crash games a fair shake back in the day. The original game was part of the late 1996 wave of first-party publishers attempting to take platform action games into 3D, along with Super Mario 64 from Nintendo and NiGHTs: Into Dreams from SEGA. I was on the outs with Nintendo consoles at the time and starting to develop an appreciation for the PlayStation vision, so I should have been the target audience for Naughty Dog’s platformers… but they didn’t do it for me at all. Super Mario 64 was so grand, so impressive, that the other publishers’ respective forays into that space left me cold.

I don’t think that’s unreasonable, in the context of the times. Super Mario 64 felt like the future, a fully open 3D platform game that not only pulled the genre into a new dimension, quite literally, but also did it with style and refinement. Yeah, there would be better 3D platformers, but Nintendo got so much right with Mario 64. By comparison, Crash’s linear into-the-screen design felt like playing, say, S.T.U.N. Runner compared to Mario 64‘s DOOM.

At the time, there was also a suffocating sense within the media and the tiny little online gaming community that existed in 1996 that game design was a one-way journey: Progress or nothing. If a game didn’t shatter the bounds of technology and design, it wasn’t worth your time. S.T.U.N. Runner ceased to be fun once DOOM came into being, and Super Mario 64 mooted any game that restricted action to a mere two axes. This, of course, is nonsense, but it would be a few years before I became dislodged from that way of thinking and found a happy medium between that mindset and its “hardcore” USENET opposite, which posited that the value of a given game was directly proportionate to its age.

Now that I’m older and wise enough to recognize that a game can be great without pushing any particular envelopes, I want to go back and reconsider Crash. Maybe I was wrong about it, and there’s something great there despite being relatively less ambitious than Super Mario 64. Then again, maybe not — big first-party games cause a certain degree of blindness among the first-party faithful (hence the popularity of Smash Bros.…), so maybe Crash‘s adulating fans are simply suffering from an overdose of Kool-Aid. Either way, I’m eager to see for myself.

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Episode 86: Retronauts Radio for February 2017

Welcome to the second monthly Retronauts Radio! Last month’s trial episode went over quite marvelously, so it’s back for a return engagement and will become a regular feature unless there’s some sort of angry mass uprising against it.

I appreciate all the feedback that came in after the trial episode. For the most part, it really seems like everyone enjoyed the show. There were no real complaints of, “This is terrible and I hate it,” only minor suggestions for improvements that were balanced out by an equal number of people indicating their satisfaction with that particular aspect of the show as it was. As such, I’ve made only the most modest of tweaks to the format this time around.

First, I’ve tried to splice in a greater number of tracks for variety while giving each track more time to breathe. Hopefully you’ll find the balance between play time and monologue works more to your liking.

Secondly, I have made an effort to cover an equal mix of music releases that are available for pay and for free. This is not an ad or a paid sponsored podcast or anything, so I’m not obligated to cover any particular release. Instead, I hope to highlight recent retro game music releases for both collectors (in this case, the vinyl issues of Revenge of Shinobi and Castlevania II) as well as music available for free or for a modest fee (the Etrian Odyssey remixes, SEGA’s Spotify dump, and ZODIAC). My hope is that each episode will highlight something that will appeal to everyone, regardless of their tastes and budget.

Our second Retronauts Radio looks at notable retro-themed game music releases for February: Castlevania II, a Final Fantasy Tactics tribute, Revenge of Shinobi, Etrian Odyssey remixes, and a ton of SEGA jams! Art by Jon Stachewicz.

Libsyn (1:41:34, 70.8 MB) | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)

Here’s the time breakdown of the episode, and where you can find the included tunes for your own enjoyment.

  • 0:00:25: Introduction
  • 0:01:40: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest [available via Mondo]
  • 0:11:22: SEGA on Spotify [freely available for streaming via Spotify]
    • 0:11:42: Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure
    • 0:12:32: Out Run
    • 0:17:39: Jet Set Radio
    • 0:19:38: Sonic Rush
    • 0:21:18: Rhythm Thief redux
  • 0:24:40: Revenge of Shinobi [available via Data Discs, $]
  • 0:34:01: Etrian Odyssey FM synth remixes [freely available via Yuzo Koshiro’s Twitter account]
  • 0:39:24: ZODIAC: Final Fantasy Remixed [available for purchase via Materia Collective or on Spotify]
  • 0:56:49: Skies of Arcadia [freely available for streaming via Spotify]
  • 1:07:05: Outro — Sonic Rush

So: I hope you enjoy this second Retronauts Radio episode. Please feel free to ping me on Twitter (or wherever) over the next couple of weeks to let me know about interesting new releases that would be relevant to next month’s episode. Thank you!

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Virtual Console: (Culture) Brain dump

Today was one of those rare days when Nintendo put not one, not two, but three Wii U Virtual Console games up for download at once. That’s unusual in itself, but what makes this especially strange is that all three were NES games that have never before appeared on Virtual Console. With only a handful of exceptions, such as EarthBound Beginnings, NES Virtual Console games on Wii U have been retreads of games that previously showed up on Wii and/or 3DS. The new Wii U material has largely focused on Game Boy Advance and DS titles, with the vast majority of NES and Super NES games putting in repeat appearances. Getting three never-before-VC’d games at once is pretty wild.

All three titles, as it happens, hail from the same developer and publisher: Culture Brain. You may remember Culture Brain from my having mentioned them in pejorative terms in our look at crummy boom-era Famicom developers. You may also recall that Frank Cifaldi stood up for them. And, in fairness, I was really just salty because my most recent Culture Brain experience had been the absolutely execrable Ninja Boy for Game Boy:

And maybe that wasn’t fair, because there was definitely more to Culture Brain’s output than that one game. You wouldn’t know it from today’s Virtual Console launches, though. Two of today’s three releases are directly related to Ninja Boy. Kung-Fu Heroes, known as Super Chinese in Japan, kicked off the series, and the Game Boy title covered above was practically a low-grade port of that release (Super Chinese Land in Japan). Little Ninja Bros. is its sequel, Super Chinese 2. Now, I’m told that later games in the Super Chinese/Little Ninja Boy franchise were a lot better than the terrible impression its Game Boy entry left me with, but I’m loathe to take the chance. I suppose I must, however… for science.

I’m more fascinated by Culture Brain’s late entry into the Virtual Console scene. The company made its debut last summer, marking the first time a new publisher had pushed out anything for VC in years. Four years, maybe? Virtual Console in the post-Wii era has been a dwindling marketplace occupied entirely by Nintendo and about half a dozen publishers (Capcom, Jaleco, Natsume, Konami, Hamster, and a few others). It’s really weird to see new blood enter the marketplace… especially such a minor blip of a company. When was the last time you even heard Culture Brain mentioned, outside of that Famicom boom episode a few months back? I’ve heard that publishers and games only appear on Virtual Console when Nintendo actively seeks them out, which (if true) means that of all the game makers in the world, Nintendo decided to go after a minor Japanese publisher whose last new releases happened during the Nintendo 64 era. It’s weird, man.

(Today’s third game was Flying Warriors, an ambitious, multi-format, sentai-inspired brawling action game. It’s a little rough in places, but it sure beats Ninja Boy.)

On the plus side, this does mean we’ll probably eventually get to Culture Brain’s crown jewel, the innovative and memorable RPG/adventure/action game Magic of Scheherazade. Well, maybe. There’s a pretty solid chance Virtual Console for Wii U will die instantly once Switch launches a few weeks from now and we’ll have to start over from scratch. Ah, the wonders of Virtual Console.

Speaking of Virtual Console, I have penned a piece for USgamer that lays out what little we know about the service’s plans for the upcoming Switch console, and what we’d ideally like to see. I may have used this week’s games as an example of what not to do, but in fairness, that didn’t have anything to do with Culture Brain; it was all about the gawdawful NES emulation on Wii U.

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Retronauts Episode 83: A trial run for “Retronauts Radio”

A bit of an experimental episode today as part of our incipient full-episodes-every-week initiative. I’m calling it “Retronauts Radio,” and that should give a pretty good indication of what you’re in for here. It’s all music, all the time.

Rather than take the same shape as previous music-centered episodes of Retronauts, however, this isn’t a themed “mix tape” or study of a single composer or company’s output. Instead, I’ve taken a more timely approach: A look at notable classic game music releases over the past month or so. This time around, that works out to be a mix of some recent game music LPs, some online-only remixes, and some classic game re-releases or remakes with tunes worth highlighting. I’d like to make this a monthly feature, drawing attention to notable recent soundtracks once a month or so. For logistical reasons, Retronauts hasn’t dealt much with timeliness since we moved to Kickstarter, but the shift to a weekly schedule and my full-time commitment to the project makes that kind of mindset a lot more feasible now, and this seems like a nice way to approach it. Time-sensitive, yet still timeless. Because when is great music not worth a listen?

If this goes over well, it’ll become a regular feature, a part of our standard monthly mix of episodes. (If not, well, back to the drawing board.) I can see where there’s room for some fine-tuning now that this episode is assembled. We’ve received plenty of positive feedback from early-access Patrons already; it sounds like most people would prefer longer samples of music, and it probably wouldn’t hurt for me to bring a second voice into the mix. I will definitely take those suggestions into consideration, along with any others you’d care to leave in the comments section below.

While we usually post Retronauts episodes in mono to keep file sizes down, I went ahead and made this one stereo. Hope that’s cool. I went to the trouble of ripping several hours’ worth of music from vinyl to include this episode and thought you might appreciate as much fidelity as an MP3 can offer.

It’s an all-music episode of Retronauts as Jeremy looks at recent classic game soundtrack releases of note. Includes looks at Panzer Dragoon, symphonic Final Fantasy, Castlevania: Dracula X, and more!

Libsyn (1:08:16, 99.6 MB) | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)

This is where I typically give a quick mention to the music in the current episode, but since this episode is all music, let me break it down for you a little more thoroughly. I’ve also included links to online store fronts where you can procure these albums for yourself, should you so desire. We’re not getting a kickback here or anything — we just love sharing great game tunes. Enjoy!

  • 0:00 | Intro [just me talkin’]
  • 2:45 | Zuntata: Taito Sound Team | Taito Classics Vol. 1Night Striker [Ship to Shore Media]
  • 3:32 | Panzer Dragoon [Data Discs]
  • 23:55 | Final Symphony [Laced Records]
  • 42:05 | Scarlet Moon Christmas Album [Scarlet Moon Productions]
  • 48:35 | Metroid Resynthesized [Luminist]
  • 52:57 | Wild Guns Reloaded [PlayStation Network]
  • 55:13 | Castlevania Dracula X [Virtual Console]
  • 1:01:16 | Retro pick of the month: Double Dragon for NES [Virtual Console]
  • 1:07:38 | Zuntata: Taito Sound Team | Taito Classics Vol. 1Elevator Action Returns [Ship to Shore Media]

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Further into the labyrinth of music

My favorite time-waster these days — in between prepping for upcoming recording sessions, reviewing upcoming games (yes, I still do that), and writing cool Castlevania think pieces for USgamer (new entry today! go read it!) — continues to be picking away at Etrian Odyssey Untold, the 3DS remake of the (gasp) 10-year-old first-person dungeon-crawler RPG for Nintendo DS. I played through the remake back when it first came out, but between my save file’s deletion and the fact that we will be recording an Etrian Odyssey Retronauts episode at some point this year, I feel totally justified in retreading familiar territory for the third time.

Of course, the thing I keep finding myself gushing about the most as I replay Etrian Odyssey is, naturally, the music. Currently, I’m in the second stratum, which means I’ve been listening to a lot of this tune:

It’s lovely, right? I admit I’m growing a little weary of it, though. Not that there’s anything wrong with the composition, mind you, but Etrian Odyssey starts to sprawl in the second stratum. You unlock several — admittedly optional — rather grueling side quests in this portion of the game, including one that requires you to spend five in-game days on a single floor of the dungeon. Even though Untold takes considerable pains to make this less burdensome than it was in the original, it’s still a heck of a chore. I’m starting to feel a little bit of shellshock whenever I hear this stratum’s theme.

I guess it’s a sign of how much I love this game, and how great Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack for it was, that I want to share a tune even when I’ve heard it so much lately that it kind of makes me want to barf at the moment.

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Panzer Dragoon soundtrack review

I have four more weeks left in my run with USgamer before I go solo and try in earnest to turn this podcast and site into something capable of providing me with a living (or else admitting failure and going into, I dunno, real estate or something). Think of the next 20 work days as a sort of, I dunno, farewell tour. And I’ve kicked it off the only way I know how: By writing about something extremely esoteric and extremely retro in nature. Namely, Data Discs’s recent release of the Panzer Dragoon soundtrack as a double 45rpm vinyl LP set. Because why not go all in when I’m on the way out?

It’s a fantastic release, even by the admittedly high standards of Data Discs. I played through Panzer Dragoon a very, very long time ago, but for whatever reason its music never stuck with me. Going back now and listening to it in this context, I love what I hear. It’s very… well, I can’t think of any other way to describe it except “very ’90s.” But in a good way! Not a bad, cheesy way. There are passages here that remind me of Mega Man Legends —  this one synthesizer hit with a multilayered sound I can’t really describe that both games use — as well as tracks that feel like they served as the basis for huge chunks of the Skies of Arcadia soundtrack, too. But it works most of all as a great collection of music in its own right.

Altogether, the Panzer Dragoon soundtrack feels nostalgic in a way completely different from chiptunes and Super NES or Genesis music. It’s good stuff and I strongly recommend it to anyone who’s into great game music and ever listens to vinyl. But hey, don’t take my word for it; take my word for it.

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Virtual Console: The lesser greats

Yesterday Nintendo pushed two pretty major games for Virtual Console — entries in both the Mario Kart and Castlevania series. Franchises popular enough that you kind of have to take a step back and exclaim, “Wait, how were these not already on VC?” Perhaps the answer lies in a curious coincidence: Both of these games have the questionable distinction of hovering down in the lowest rankings of their respective series.

What a fitting way to end 2016. “Wow, new Mario Kart and Castlevania on VC! Awesome …oh, wait.

Now, I wouldn’t put either Mario Kart 64 or Castlevania: Dracula X at the absolute bottom of their franchises. Not when Mario Kart Wii exists. And truth be told, there may actually be no real bottom against which to calibrate the worst of the Castlevania franchise. The series has given us some truly legendary classics, but it turns out that making a good, authentic-feeling Castlevania game is a very difficult task which only a few designers have properly grasped through the years; Dracula X sits more in the middle in terms of actual quality than wallowing in the stygian depths of the series’ worst entries.

Au contraire. There’s actually quite a bit of fun to be had with either of these games, if you can overlook their faults and put yourself in the proper mindset. That being said, it’s not too hard to understand why these two tend to be regarded as lesser entries of their beloved series.

Mario Kart 64 (N64 for Wii U)

I won’t lie, I played a lot of Mario Kart 64 back when it first came out. I was in college, working as editor-in-chief of the university newspaper, and during one particularly grueling period where I struggled to actually leave the newspaper office long enough to go to classes or sleep, Mario Kart 64 kept me and my staff sane. I was pretty impressed by the game’s technical leaps over the original Super Mario Kart, which always felt sort of slow and flat to me. After a fairly mundane starter track, MK64 began throwing in bumpy and sloped surfaces. By the time I reached Wario’s personal course, which appeared to be a muddy, turbulent BMX track that the kart krew had dickishly taken over to ruin with their weighty racers, I was sold. I mastered every track at every speed, and then I raced for the gold on the reverse tracks.

(And once that was done, I sold Mario Kart and my N64 in exchange for a PlayStation, though that wasn’t an issue with the game but rather with the fact that it was the last N64 release I could see ahead for the rest of 1997 that looked particularly interesting to me.)

As much time as I spent with Mario Kart 64, I have a hard time getting back into it these days. The tracks, which seemed so exciting and lively 20 years ago, now stretch on too long and overstay their welcome. Rainbow Road is the worst offender by far, but frankly more courses drag on than not. And of course, there’s the infamous rubberband A.I., a long-running Mario Kart issue that’s never gone away but was very nearly at its absolute worst here. (The absolute worst was, of course, in Mario Kart Wii.) Between its relatively meager selection of racers, lack of kart kustomization, bloated tracks, and cheap CPU tactics, Mario Kart 64 feels like… well, it feels like a lot of games from this era: An awkward first step into 3D that would be overshadowed by subsequent works created by more practiced and confident hands once the training wheels were off.

Castlevania: Dracula X (Super NES for New 3DS)

Dracula X for Super NES has taken flak from the very beginning because of what it’s not: Namely, it’s not Dracula X: Rondo of Blood for PC Engine CD-ROM. I remember magazine articles at the time of its debut (I think EGM, maybe, and almost definitely Game Fan) ripping Dracula X a new one because it wasn’t the “same” as the original. I wouldn’t discover import gaming for another couple of years — I had my PlayStation modded to play the Japanese release of this game’s sequel, as it would happen — so I had no idea what they were talking about.

But I still found myself disappointed by what Dracula X wasn’t: Namely, a proper follow-up to Super Castlevania IV. History has proven Castlevania‘s first 16-bit outing to be little more than an aberration, a creative hiccup in the timestream, but the game had a huge impact on me and I sincerely expected it to be the model for future entries in the Castlevania franchise. So after waiting four years for a follow-up, only to get a game that felt like a throwback to NES-era design, I was bummed.

Neither of these criticisms are, to my mind, entirely fair. It would take more than a decade for Rondo of Blood to come to the U.S., so I can certainly understand the irritation that this mutant variant caused among avid importers, but realistically I don’t think a Super NES cart had the space to handle all the crazy stuff that makes Rondo so amazing. No, the best reason to find Dracula X frustrating is that it is in fact a deeply frustrating game, as I discovered live on the air earlier this year when I made my first serious attempt at playing through it (rather than sort of farting around with it as I’d done over the past god-knows-how-many years).

There’s some real jerk-league stuff in here, with tons of enemies whose placement, patterns, or speed exceed what the player’s controls are equipped to handle without absolute memorization. This, in my opinion, violates a fundamental principle of classic-style Castlevania, which demands that the game world and its hazards be crafted around the protagonist’s limitations — pushing the limits, but never breaking them. When Classicvania violates this rule, as with the falling-block climb in the Alucard route of Dracula’s Curse, it does so at its own peril. Dracula X does this constantly as a matter of routine. And that is why it’s not a particularly great Castlevania entry. Wonderful music, though.

So here I am, rounding out the year by using Retronauts to complain about Virtual Console. No matter how dark 2016 seemed, I hope you can take comfort in the fact that some things will never change.

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Double Dragon IV: Pretty uninspiring, but hardly surprising

Arc System Works has announced its next attempt to make back its investment in the Technos catalog. This time, they’re creating a game that isn’t based on the Kunio-kun series: It’s Double Dragon IV, coming to Steam and PlayStation 4, uh… next month?

It looks OK, I suppose. Honestly, it’s not doing much for me, and that probably has everything to do with the style they’ve adopted for the game:

It seems as though they’ve essentially taken the sprites from Double Dragon II: The Revenge and souped up the whole thing to look like a bastardized Flash-based fake NES game. Some elements look like they could work out, especially the elaborate combat combos (provided the collision detection turns out to be more robust in practice than it appears to be in this trailer). The rest, though — yikes. I’m not much of a fan of the flimsy background visuals, which try to look like NES tech without bothering to behave like NES tech. In fairness, few developers outside of Yacht Club and Inti Creates make any real effort in that respect, but the existence of Mega Man 9 and Shovel Knight have raised the bar and make it a lot harder to get away with things like this. I’m also disappointed that the only new sprite they’ve added to the mix appears to a kunoichi. Who, naturally, runs around with a bare midriff. It’s 2016, baby. Pandering is back in.

The overall creative choice Arc System Works has taken here strikes me as a pretty strange one, if not precisely inexplicable. Double Dragon was more an arcade phenomenon than a console one, but while the NES games were definitely outliers, they probably sold better than any other version of the games. Technos overhauled the games pretty substantially for NES, especially the first one, and the 8-bit console sprites lack the peculiar visual style that helped make the arcade versions so striking. Again, though, this direction shouldn’t come as a complete surprise; Arc System Works acquired the Technos catalog from Million sometime in 2015, and they’ve been mining the Kunio-kun brand with this sort of half-authentic NES style since then. It makes sense from a logistics standpoint that they’d do the same with Double Dragon, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel like the ideal representation to take for the franchise. Kunio-kun going faux-NES makes sense in the same way that Mega Man 9 turning back the tides of history to Mega Man 2 did: Crash ’N the Boys and River City Ransom were peak Kunio. But I don’t think many people (at least those with extensive knowledge of the series) would try to advance the idea that Double Dragon hit its pinnacle on NES. All respect to Technos for retooling the games to work within the limits of the NES (and Game Boy), but those adaptations were not the true meaning of Bimmy Lee.

For my money, I’d rather have seen them build on Million’s GBA conversion of the original arcade game. Double Dragon Advance was top-grade material! I’d link to my old 1UP.com review if 1UP.com hadn’t vanished off the face of the internet, taking with it 10 years of my writing. Suffice it to say that Double Dragon Advance managed to capture the style, mechanics, and quirks of the arcade original while adding in plenty of new material and refinements. A new game in that style would be pretty remarkable. I’ve already seen my share of NES ROM hacks called “Double Dragon IV“; just because this one is licensed doesn’t mean it necessarily anything worthwhile to offer.

There are only two saving graces, so far as I can see. First, Arc System Works’ recently released River City Rumble for 3DS is said to be excellent. And secondly, despite it being a popular name for Double Dragon ROM hacks, I respect that they’ve decided to spackle in the gaps here by calling this Double Dragon IV. It’s always been incredibly weird that the franchise skipped from Double Dragon III: The Rosetta Stone to Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls with no real explanation of what happened to the entry in between. Those who deeply care about series canon (all five of them) have been forced to treat, I dunno, Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team as the series’ fourth entry. Now we can go back to pretending that game never happened. However misbegotten Double Dragon IV may or may not turn out to be, it can’t possibly be as much of a mess as the Battletoads crossover.

Or the live-action movie, for that matter. Come to think of it, Double Dragon III was pretty terrible, too, and Double Dragon V was a below-average Neo•Geo fighting game masquerading as a sequel. I suppose I can see why Arc System Works would return to the well of the second NES game: It was just about the last time Double Dragon was actually any good.

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