Category Archives: Video Chronicles

Chubby Cherub reconsidered, kinda

The game Chubby Cherub, when it bobs to the surface of the collective conscious at all, tends to be treated as one of those NES games that makes a nice, easy target for a few softball jokes, and little more. I mean, come on: It stars a fat, naked angel eating candy and avoiding dogs. I suppose any concept can make for a great game, but it’s an early third-party release for NES, so the chances of it having turned out well were pretty nil. I don’t remember if Seanbaby ever made fun of Chubby Cherub… but if he didn’t, that just underscores how unremarkable it is. It would have been perfect fodder for his pioneering “let’s insult slipshod NES software” work in the ’90s.

Personally, my only memories of the game involve being annoyed at its omnipresence on that fateful summer of 1988 as I scoured the country in a desperate search for Castlevania, not realizing Castlevania was (1.) temporarily out of print and (2.) about to get a new manufacturing run. When what you really want is gothic horror but all you can find are candy-obsessed flying babies, it’s hard to hold a kind thought in your heart about the flying babies.

Anyway, going into this week’s video project armed with nothing but an awareness of the fact that Chubby Cherub is widely reviled and hails from the same developer/publisher combo as last week’s M.U.S.C.L.E. Tag Team Match, I was pleasantly surprised that it’s merely a mediocre game rather than an aggressively terrible one. The action moves at a sluggish pace and the overall design feels lopsided and unfair, but it’s not without a bit of merit. Like the video says, I could see kids back in the day having an OK time with this one — and indeed, several commenters have confirmed that they did, indeed, have a not-entirely-painful experience playing this game when they were young. Plus, if nothing else, I had an excuse to talk about vintage anime thanks to the game’s origins.

Speaking of which, I considered throwing these snapshots I took in Nakano last week of vintage Obake no Q Taro merchandise into the video:

Those are some hefty prices for a few chunks of painted plastic. They don’t begin to compare to the outlandish premium prices attached to Chubby Cherub, though. The cartridge is trending toward $100, and complete copies have been selling in the $500-1500 range of late. That’s a lot of money to pay for a game that maybe isn’t terrible but definitely isn’t great.

And on that note, thanks once again to Steve Lin for lending me his boxed copy of the game for documentation!

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The sad day that third parties arrived on NES

For the next few weeks, Retronauts Video Chronicles will be mired in October 1986. Although U.S. release dates from the 8- and 16-bit eras have proven to be depressingly vague — we can pin releases to the month, and not always accurately, but precise days are out of the question — whichever day in October 1986 saw the American debut of third-party publishers for NES will live in infamy. Until we somehow can narrow that event down to a specific date, though, I’m afraid we simply have to indict the whole month.

Third parties, of course, have proven through the years to be essential to the success and survival of any platform. With the NES, though, that wasn’t a given. The biggest precedents Nintendo had to go by were the terrible impact unregulated third-party releases had on Atari, and the wildly variable quality of Famicom third-party titles in Japan — not exactly the most encouraging standards to work against. Nevertheless, the company decided not to shut down third-party releases for NES but rather to wrangle absolute control over them. It was a bold and daring concept… not entirely without precedent, but certainly something that had never been attempted at the scale and scope Nintendo aspired to.

Obviously, it worked out pretty well for them. Nintendo is still around today, and the concepts they laid down for third parties continue to serve as the standard for an entire industry. Love it or hate it, licensing under watchful first-party supervision is a fact of video game life these days.

That said, you certainly would not have expected Nintendo and its licensing scheme to have made it this far based on its debut releases. Those first four games to hit the market in the U.S. without the familiar Black Box branding were not good… well, there’s one exception to that, but yeah. Bad times all around. Here’s the first of them, if we’re going by original Japanese release dates: M.U.S.C.L.E. Tag Team Match by TOSE and Bandai. It’s based on the toy line by the same name (and the manga that inspired it), and this game is very much the M.U.S.C.L.E. to Black Box Pro Wrestling‘s G.I. Joe: Simple, primitive, and clumsy. The analogy does break down along the way, I admit. M.U.S.C.L.E. toys possess a certain charm and appeal that the game lacks.

Things would get better from here, but really — not an inspiring proof of concept.

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Yo Capcom, bring on the “Disney Afternoon for Game Boy Collection”

I’ve been working on a review of The Disney Afternoon Collection. It should be up sometime this week; I’d been wanting to hold off on posting until I’d had a chance to put this video together:

And now that I have, I feel like a hold a slightly more informed perspective with which to judge the Collection. Well, OK, not really. This is a mere footnote, not some essential magnifying lens.

DuckTales for Game Boy is, in broad strokes, the same game as the NES release that serves as the crown jewel of the Collection. Look at the details, however, and it’s more of a remix: Same overall goals, same control scheme, same enemies and challenges and general flow, but with all the individual pieces of each stage shuffled around. The game moves a little more slowly and its physical locales are somewhat more compact, and weirdly enough this all works in its favor. DuckTales on Game Boy works (at least, aside from the awful mine cart physics, which are bad on NES and intolerable on GB to the point of nearly breaking the game), and it offers a rare example of an NES game adapted to the diminutive handheld without needless compromise. It’s not perfect, but it gets a lot of things right that many, many other developers fumbled back in the day.

It’s a different enough game, and bodes well for Capcom’s other NES-to-Game Boy Disney conversions, that I’d really like to see a follow-up Afternoon Collection focused strictly on those ports. I doubt Capcom would ever go to the trouble of licensing those releases for reissue; we’re far more likely to see a compilation of their other Disney titles. But a boy can dream, right?

Anyway, DuckTales was a welcome point of light in my efforts to chronicle the Game Boy library. I’ll be taking a break from Game Boy Works for a couple of months in order to wrap up NES Works 1986 and put together the corresponding print edition compilation, but there are some interesting releases on tap once we get back to handhelds.

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Game Boy Works: A (side) pocket full of miracles

I have to admit, the past few episodes of Game Boy Works were not quite as painful as I had expected. I don’t like sports, sports don’t like me… and yet, tackling games about skateboarding, baseball, wrestling, and now pool all in a row somehow didn’t destroy me. It helps that there was just enough weirdness in there to keep things interesting — I mean, that Skate or Die game was downright bizarre. I can’t say I’m sad to be moving along to other subjects now, however. I think there’s maybe a single sports release among the next dozen Game Boy Works titles, and honestly I could go for a few mundane puzzlers right about now.

That said, Side Pocket was a pretty decent way to wrap this blitz of jocularity. It’s a nice, low-key game with chill music and probably the best physics programming I’ve seen on Game Boy.

Honestly, playing this just a few months after reviewing Yakuza 0 shows how little billiards games have evolved over the decades. Of course, pool in Yakuza 0 was a minigame, not the entire work (as it is here) — but even so, those modern-day gambling side contests really demonstrate what a great job Data East did of translating pool into video form way back in 1986. There’s not really that much more you can do with pool beyond what Side Pocket presents. Also, the conjunction of Yakuza 0 and Side Pocket in my life demonstrates that I am just as lousy at the 1986 version of the sport as I am its 2017 rendition, but that’s neither here nor there.

Reviewing Side Pocket for Game Boy makes me pine for a modern portable update to the series. I know Data East doesn’t really exist anymore, its properties having been absorbed by G-Mode, and all those classic Data East franchises exist now as nothing more than archival material to be churned through and reissued with no real thought to evolution. But still… a modern Side Pocket for, say, Switch would be pretty great. Especially since you could set up impromptu multiplayer contests as demonstrated by Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

Ah well; at least you can download this version of the game for 3DS Virtual Console. That’s not quite the dream fulfilled, but it’ll do the trick in a pinch.

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Retro(ish)nauts: A look at three NEW Famicom releases

A little something different for Good Nintentions NES Works Gaiden this week: It’s a look at a Japanese release per usual — three Japanese releases, in fact — but these are not classic games. They run on Famicom hardware, yes, but all three have shipped within the past year. The third title in this episode shipped this month, in fact! I had to make room for it at the last minute, because the episode was already in production when my copy arrived

8Bit Music Power, Kira Kira Star Night DX, and the shiny new 8Bit Music Power Final all have their quirks, but that’s mostly to do with production issues. Rather than re-flash existing NES donor ROMs the way most publishers who produce posthumous carts do, Columbus Circle seems to have fabricated their own, and the results are rather dubious. While these carts theoretically run on original hardware, there seem to be even odds of the games either running without an issue, simply not working, or frying your hardware. The latter outcome hasn’t been corroborated, but I’m willing to believe it after my own experiences. Fortunately, the Analogue Nt Mini works great — which is not an inexpensive solution, admittedly, but I’ve come to regard the Mini as an essential piece of gaming hardware. So it’s nice that it can handle these quirky carts

That being said, however, if you ever do have the means to play them (or let them play, as the case may be), I highly recommend all three. As you can see in the video, only one of these is a proper game, but all three are really lovingly assembled and feature some spectacular music. In fact, you can look forward to hearing more of 8Bit Music Power Final on the next episode of Retronauts Radio.

Anyway, please give the video a look, and let’s hope that we’ll see more releases of similar ambition and quality (build notwithstanding) for NES and Famicom in the future.

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The Game Boys of summer

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

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

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

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

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It’s Skate or Die on Game Boy… Works?

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

See? Ultimately, it’s business as usual.

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

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

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An enticing look into Konami’s past

The Good Nintentions Gaiden series has — fittingly, but not deliberately — evolved into a running set of episodes about curios from the Japanese side of the NES era. This week we see this effect in action again with a fascinating Konami import title from the Famicom Disk System, Arumana no Kiseki.

This is one of those games whose story I’d love to hear. It so shamelessly rips off Indiana Jones, and specifically Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, that you really have to wonder if it was meant to be a properly licensed game. Konami already had a Spielberg property in hand — The Goonies — and the company produced several other licensed Famicom titles around this time, including Osamu Tezuka’s Hi no Tori and King Kong. But I was unable to find any firm details behind its history, so who knows…?

I’d also like to have included more footage of the game, but I couldn’t get beyond level three. I reached a point where I became trapped in a sort of canyon, where a spiked ball power-up respawned infinitely. I know the spiked ball is supposed to be able to break through walls, but I was unable to find a destructible wall before running out of continues. There are a lot of things I miss about the NES era, but unintuitive game design and frustrating mechanics ain’t part of that.

Also, now seems like a good time to mention that this video series is about to get a new name. Good Nintentions was a solid dad joke — I literally took it from a joke my father made when I was a kid — but as these video projects become a more serious endeavor under the Retronauts banner, both I and some of our prospective business partners feel it makes more sense to unify the different series. Thus projects like Good Nintentions, Game Boy World, and Mode Seven will now be the Works series: That is, “Game Boy Works”, “Nintendo Works”, “SNES Works”, and so forth. I love the Game Boy World name and would have been happy to use “World” as a brand of sorts, but the oldest Nintendo fansite on the Internet is called NES World, and it seemed a little gauche to swipe their name — that’s why I went with Good Nintentions rather than NES World in the first place

I’ve settled on Works for two reasons. One, because “Game Boy Works” has the same appealing, euphonic flow as “Game Boy World”; and two, because the name functions on a several practical levels. They’re video deep-dives into the workings of these creative works. And they’re comprehensive looks at those systems’ respective libraries, which is to say… the works.

And the new name will arrive at a good time for Good Nintentions (or rather, NES Works) in particular, since we’ve just finished with the NES launch library and are now moving along to subsequent and third-party releases. There’s a visual change in the library as we move away from the all-Black Box look, and a change in development ethos, so it feels like a natural break point.

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Would not a Bomberman by any other name smell just as, uh… bomby?

Game Boy World has been dormant for a couple of months, but it’s not dead — I’ve just been largely preoccupied by getting Retronauts off the ground and have been leaning on my familiarity with the material covered in Good Nintentions for a while. But off we go again, with the 83rd episode of Game Boy World, which sees a very familiar character masquerading as a Van Halen reference:

It’s a Bomberman game, or at least an incredibly close spinoff. Atomic Punk, aka Bomber Kid in Japan or Dynablaster in Europe (where Bomberman suffered through years of similar rebranding efforts to the ones he experienced here), hails from the decade span in which most Bomberman games to escape Japan ended up being renamed in the west — sometimes under the auspices of different publishers, despite Hudson having a presence as outside Japan. Atomic Punk was actually published here by Hudson, so it doesn’t even have that excuse going for it. According to a YouTube comment by someone from the On the Stick podcast, Irem distributed an arcade version of Bomberman under the name Atomic Punk in the U.S. around the same time that this shipped in the U.S., so it would seem Hudson actually deferred to another company’s naming convention for one of its own most popular characters. Geez, dudes. Have some backbone.

Anyway, this episode seems pretty timely since it arrives just a few weeks after the launch of a brand-new Bomberman game — and a portable one at that! Game Boy World 83 tidily ties in with the hottest new gaming system on the market. And so does the ouroboros of video game history bear down ever harder on its own tail.

And a huge thank-you to Armen Ashekian for lending me his packaged copy of the game to photograph. Enough Bomberman nerds have caught wind of this one’s origins to send the complete game’s price through the roof. I’m always grateful to people who can spare me the expense of ponying up eBay prices for hard-to-find complete-in-box games for an hour of photography and scanning. The real treasure… was lending.

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Weirdo shooter Gumshoe represented an end and a beginning for the NES

This week’s Video Chronicles project casts its gaze back to what may well be the most unconventional light gun game ever to appear on NES: Gumshoe.

I really love this game in principle, although I am super terrible at it. It’s such an odd and unusual concept for a Zapper title: An attempt to marry side-scrolling platform game design with a shooting gallery. It almost works, but for its absolutely brutal difficulty level. A little kindness (like, say, removing instant deaths and giving poor Mr. Stevenson a few hit points to soak up unhappy collisions) would have gone a long way. Maybe someday I’ll make it past the first stage… but more likely I’ll go to my grave never having seen level two in the flesh. Alas!

This does bring us, at last, to the end of the NES launch rollout in America, which Nintendo staggered across two phases (October 1985 and June 1986). From here on out, Nintendo will no longer be the only publisher on NES games. And, as denoted by Gumshoe, not every game going forward will necessarily have appeared in Japan first. Unlike the first 25 games for Good Nintentions, Gumshoe never had a Japanese release. Things are a-changin’ in NES land.

But before we get to the arrival of NES third party releases, I think Game Boy World is feeling a little lonely…

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