Category Archives: Video Chronicles

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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The story of Balloon Fight

When I started up the Good Nintentions project, there were a few specific games I had in mind to write about. I knew that for every Stack-Up or Urban Champion I had to slog through, there would be highlights like Super Mario Bros. as well. And today, we come to one of the classics I was most excited to write about: Balloon Fight.

I never owned Balloon Fight back in the day, but it was one I borrowed from that obligatory friend everyone had — the one who seemed to have an infinite budget for getting all the best stuff that the rest of us could only gaze upon in envy but was always really cool about it. I didn’t really enjoy it that much at the time… which isn’t to say I disliked it, and in fact I really dug Balloon Trip mode. But this was 1988 we’re talking about, and I had already savored the pleasures of Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario Bros. It was kind of tough to go back to a single-screen arcade-style experience, especially when I’d played its inspiration (Joust) to death back when it was a current arcade release.

Over time, though, I gradually began to appreciate Balloon Fight more. It’s a Joust clone, yes, undeniably so. But I realized that, heretical as it may be to say, Balloon Fight is the better game. The two-hit balloon mechanic grants a bit more mercy to the player that comes as something of a necessity, since your characters appear larger on the screen, meaning the action can become quite crowded in a hurry. The level designs change, which keeps things varied, and the later stages can become quite unpredictable thanks to the inclusion of elements like spinners that send anyone who collides with them flying off in different directions. And, of course, that Balloon Trip music.

Even though this video clocks in a bit shorter than many retrospectives for much lesser games, there is no less love invested into this one. I even managed to convince my wife to play it with me for the co-op footage, and while she doesn’t play many games, so really seemed to enjoy this one (and we made it quite a ways into the game in her second time through). In short, it’s basically just a great game.

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A farewell to Kong

Over the past few weeks, Good Nintentions has featured two different Donkey Kong titles for NES. Well, hold on to your heinie, because this week’s Retronauts Video Chronicles brings us a third installment in the adventures of Donkey Kong. If you can believe it, this one is called Donkey Kong 3. And it is the final Donkey Kong game for NES, aside from a repackaging of the first two games into a single combo cart to keep them in circulation once Nintendo took the Black Box series out of circulation.

That’s right — Donkey Kong 3 didn’t even get crammed into the Kong multicart. That maybe should tell you everything you need to know about where this one exists in corporate canon.

I actually think Donkey Kong 3 is pretty fun. I also recognize that it’s not all that great; besides the inexplicable setting and genre switch, which do nothing for the property, the mechanics are just a shade too complicated for their own good. The game throws a lot of stuff at you all at once, but without enough visual variety to make it work. I’m thinking particularly of the beetles, which are about the same size and color as standard enemies but behave differently, always lurking at the edges of the screen and always in your peripheral vision.

Anyway… it’s a little bit of a mess as video games go, and that speaks to the underlying difficulty of the entire concept of Kong himself (or should that be “kongcept”?). His rival would go on to have the longest and most fruitful career in gaming, but it wouldn’t be until 20 years after the original debut of Donkey Kong 3 that Nintendo would finally figure out what do to with Kong. No, not Donkey Kong Country; those were fine, but they didn’t really suit the character. It was the offbeat GameCube-era stuff like Jungle Climber and Jungle Beat that really spoke to the unconventional nature of Kong, and I’d love to see Nintendo do more like that on Switch. I mean, seriously, the Joy Cons are just begging to be used for a Jungle Beat sequel….

Anyway, enjoy the video. Next week, I bring you abject suffering.

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Mario Bros. reconsidered

For this week’s Video Chronicles feature, I found myself taking a long, hard look at a familiar game — a too-familiar game, I should say — and reevaluating it. I’m old enough to remember playing Mario Bros. in arcades when it was brand new… and I also remember when Super Mario Bros. came along and suddenly made a perfectly entertaining arcade platformer feel like a terrible dinosaur. I’ve noticed a general sense of dismissal among Nintendo fans when it comes to the original Mario Bros., and the way it’s showed up as a bonus add-on in something like a dozen different Mario titles in the past 30 years hasn’t really done much to warm players to it. It can be difficult to care about a game when it’s treated as a sort of half-baked bonus, you know?

But taken on its own terms, Mario Bros. is still pretty fun. It’s a lot more primitive than Super Mario Bros., sure, but its stiff controls and jump physics somehow feel a lot more refined than those in games that Nintendo produced afterwards, e.g. Ice Climber, a similar co-op platformer whose physics were scientifically based on subatomic particles of pure anti-fun. On Famicom, Mario Bros. arrived a good two years before its sequel, but on NES we actually received after. Or at the same time, if you weren’t one of the cool kids who picked up an NES at its test launch in 1985. Still, that’s pretty rough treatment for a game that deserved a chance to shine on its own merits!

Anyway, find a friend and play some cooperative(-ish)  Mario Bros. You might be surprised by how good it is. Unless you’re one of the few faithful who never lost sight of its appeal, in which case: Well done, you.

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Celebrate Valentine’s with gaming’s original couple (almost)

This week’s Video Chronicles feature couldn’t have been timed more fittingly, although I admit the scheduling was nothing more than a coincidence: Popeye for NES, wherein a mumbling spinach junkie attempts to rescue his lady love from the burliest of competing suitors. If things had gone as originally intended, though, this game might have been something completely different; Donkey Kong would have been a Popeye game, making Popeye and Olive Oyl gaming’s original romantic couple… and also meaning Mario would never have existed. Now there’s an alternate timeline worth contemplating.

Playing Popeye for this production gave me a better appreciation of the game. I’ve always considered it a lesser work by Nintendo, but it’s better than I’d originally given it credit for. Not a timeless great, certainly, but decently ambitious.

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Donkey Kong Jr. arrives fashionably late to Good Nintentions

Tuesday is normally Video Chronicles Day, but this week I’m on Japan time. Which means… this should have been up on Monday, not Thursday. Well, I’m also on jet lag time, as well as really nasty cold time. So… just forgive me this one scheduling glitch.

My hope is that you’ll find the quality of the content justifies the delay:

We’re just about through the NES debuts of all of Famicom’s launch-day titles, and also just about through the NES Donkey Kong trilogy. While this is all pretty well-trodden territory, you’ll be pining for the delightful excellence of the Donkey Kong series once we hit Urban Champion. Mark my words.

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