Whoa, hey, wow

1229 backers, 56,728 dollars. That’s kind of amazing. You are all kind of amazing.

When Bob and Ray and I first started discussing the details of this Kickstarter venture a couple of months ago, we speculated how much we could reasonably expect to raise. We generally agreed we might be able to drum up something like $40-45K in an ideal universe where everything is perfect. Yet here we are in our deeply imperfect universe having totally blown past that goal. Sure, we didn’t quite make it to the book or expanded website or multi-year commitment goals, but no matter: Some of those things we’re likely to do anyway. And we have plenty of things to keep us busy in the meantime….

Now that the excitement has happened and we have to deal with the fallout of this success, we need to take stock of how much of a commitment we’re in for and come up with a timeline. We need to:

  • Record 26 podcasts and 26 mini-episodes;
  • Send out backer emails to figure out who’s going to be on our show and what topics we’re committed to;
  • Sort out which two events we’ll be appearing at (we’ve already committed to the Seattle Retro Expo in July);
  • Record and produce 26 videos;
  • Assemble mini-books, shirts, buttons, artwork, create DVDs, bake some cookies, and mail it all;
  • Sort out the logistics of two charity livestreams;
  • And probably some other stuff, too.

I can think of worse reasons to have a long to-do list than “people like us and want to support our work.”

Finally, we also need to round up recording equipment and finish incorporating as a proper business. Actually, I’ll let you in on something we’ve been keeping under wraps: If things work out as we hope, we’ll be establishing Retronauts as a non-profit organization (one focused on promoting the arts), not a standard commercial venture. One of my dearest dreams has been to properly enshrine the history of video games somehow. I’ve been pushing for years to make that happen under the auspices of my various employers, but I could never make a compelling enough business case to convince anyone. And they’re probably right: $56K isn’t enough to sustain a corporate venture. But it is more than enough for a handful of people to develop a passion project, and in the coming year we hope to be turning Retronauts into far more than a podcast.

All of this is still in the “nebulous cloud of ideas floating around in our heads” phase of things, because it’s all kind of new — an idea made possible as a side effect of this Kickstarter campaign. And there’s no guarantee the government will grant us NPO status at all. All of this could fall through horribly. But I hope not. We have an opportunity here to take the Charlie Brown of gaming podcasts and spin it into the Guggenheim of video games, and that’s surely a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

So… wish us luck. And, of course, even if none of these grand dreams come to pass, we’ll still be doing the podcast and fulfilling other Kickstarter commitments. It’s nice to look beyond the basics, though, don’t you think?

My First Time: DuckTales

In the My First Time series, we tearfully confess the shameful gaps in our personal gaming heritage. No one’s perfect, and there are only so many hours in the day — we can’t play everything. Here, we try to fill in the holes by spending time with the ones that got away.

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DuckTales (NES, Capcom)

I’m not really sure how I’ve missed out on DuckTales all these years. Widely regarded as an NES classic, with visual design by Keiji “Mega Man” Inafune and one of the most beloved tunes ever to see the light of day in the 8-bit era, DuckTales seems like one of those games everyone has played and everyone loves… except me. I guess I was just a little too old to care about the Disney Afternoon by the time this one rolled around — not to mention that I had been left deeply unimpressed with its apparent (but not really) predecessor, Mickey Mousecapade. So, today marked my very first session with this soon-to-be-remade adventure.

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I went into DuckTales knowing, basically, three things:

  1. Pogo stick
  2. Cane golf
  3. OMG the moon theme

And, as such, my first few minutes with the game proved to be shockingly frustrating. Despite his much-vaunted skills, Scrooge lacks direct, easily accessible offensive capabilities. You can’t simply jump on an enemy’s head the way Mario does, as you’ll take damage when you land. And simply tapping the action button doesn’t cause him to swing his cane, either. It’s a surprising design choice, but I assume it has something to do with the limitations of the license. Scrooge isn’t a combat-oriented kind of character, and Disney imposes massive restrictions on the use and presentation of its characters. Most likely the entire game was built around what Scrooge wasn’t allowed to do.

With a little experimentation, though, I started to figure things out. I realize that in the olden days, I would have spent 15 minutes poring over the manual during the car ride home and therefore would have gone into the game fully equipped with the knowledge to properly wield the power of McDuck, so I don’t hold the slightly unintuitive offensive mechanics against the game. It was crafted with the expectation that players would have been able to read the instructions first, not fumble around with a vaporous digital file divorced of its proper context (shh, don’t tell). Fair enough.

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Scrooge’s primary mode of attack is to leap with his cane leading. Not unlike like Link’s downward stab in Zelda II, but it’s slightly more complicated in this case. You can’t simply press down as you jump to pull this off as you do in Zelda II; you have to hold down and the attack button as you jump. It’s a curiously complex control scheme for an NES game, especially given how limited Scrooge’s available actions are.

Yet after playing around with the game, I think Capcom made the correct choice in adding such complexity to Scrooge’s basic skill. Because the pogo-jump is so powerful, being able to whip it out effortlessly would make the game too easy. Not only does the pogo attack defeat all but a handful of foes with a single attack, it also allows Scrooge to leap about twice as high as his standard jump does, covering far more ground in the process. On top of that, it cracks open treasure chests and certain kinds of rock as well. If you could do all of that without a second thought, DuckTales would become almost laughable in its easiness.

Instead, the pogo leap requires some consideration. You can’t simply go bounding around without a care, because hazards lurk all around: Spikes ceilings, respawning aerial foes, loose-packed snow that’ll trap you briefly, and more. By creating these pogo-oriented hazards and requiring players to press a slightly complex combination of buttons in order to go on the offensive, DuckTales becomes a game of skill and finesse that belies its seemingly simple cartoon-based nature. This is good stuff.

But really, the game didn’t click for me until I started roaming through the interconnected and somewhat nonlinear caverns of the Amazon and backtracked to a space I had previously bypassed. There, I encountered a tall grey statue that begged me to leap on top of it but was too high for Scrooge to reach even with his pogo bounce. So I pushed against a nearby barrel that looked for all the world like a Mega Man E-tank (except orange) and noticed Scrooge changed his posture. A tap of the attack button and he whacked the barrel, which went sliding toward the statue. Not only did this allow me to reach the statue’s upper edge (thereby giving me a path to a hidden treasure chamber by bouncing into the scoreboard and traveling “over” the playable space), it also revealed the intricate nature of the alternate McDuck attack.

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Again, Disney probably didn’t want Capcom to turn Scrooge’s cane into a weapon in and of itself, so you can’t simply wander around smacking things with his walking stick. Instead, you can only shift into attack position by pressing against a static object. This causes Scrooge to rear up into a striking position, and pressing the button once he changes posture causes him to whack the object (jarring him silly if it’s non-interactive scenery, but more often than not launching a brick or revealing hidden treasure). Flying bricks and rocks make very handy and very deadly projectiles, but as with the pogo jump, the added complexity of the action forces you to think about how you use it. You can’t just whip it out. There’s a certain time investment required for each of these actions that sets it apart from simple arcade twitch action.

But then, DuckTales isn’t really an arcade game. It seems like it at first glance, but the play mechanics require a more methodical touch. On top of that, the seemingly straightforward levels contain myriad secrets that you can only uncover through experimentation and exploration. If I were to peg DuckTales as belonging to any one particular genre or school of game design, I’d put it in the same family as early 8-bit PC and console games that revolve around blind luck and trial-and-error to discover essential items hidden invisibly in obscure locations…but DuckTales is far friendlier and more playable.

What sets DuckTales apart from NES predecessors like Milon’s Secret Castle or even The Goonies (not to mention countless MSX- and C64-based antecedents) is the solidity of its design. Crafted by classic Capcom at the peak of their 8-bit glory, it controls perfectly despite its intricate interface, and the hidden elements feel neither arbitrary nor unfair. You can finish the game by blundering through without grace… but take the time to master the controls and figure out where the secrets lie, and you start to reveal a game that’s far better and far deeper than anyone had any right to expect from an NES game based on an afternoon cartoon.

In summary: A really nicely made game featuring some sophisticated design choices. I’m looking forward to seeing what WayForward does with their remake.

Screenshots courtesy of HG101

Where do we go now?

At this point, I can’t imagine our Kickstarter won’t reach its next stretch goal of $52,000. We still have nearly a third of the Kickstarter campaign to go, and we’re less than $4,000 away. That tier, as mentioned, will pay airfare and accommodations for the three of us to attend three different conventions or shows somewhere in the U.S. and — convention organizers willing — present a live panel to you. Provided you are at the show. And, if not, we’ll have to record and publish them in our new, forthcoming podcast RSS feed instead.

With the 52K mark so close at hand, we need to start thinking about our convention plans for the year. Retronauts has been a presence at PAX and PAX East for an alarming number of years now, and it would make sense for us to maintain that tradition… but is that too easy an answer? We know classic gaming conventions happen all around the country, and even events like New York Comic-Con may not be specifically tied to games but certainly have video game connections. I think we’re all quite open to new ideas and opportunities.

So, we put the question to you, readers and followers: Which three conventions would you like to see us attend in 2013/14? Which cities should we drop classic gaming knowledge bombs on? We make no promises — and who knows, maybe we won’t quite make it to 52K after all, so it could end up being moot — but we have our fingers crossed and our minds open.

Let’s talk about the video plan

Can you believe the Kickstarter venture is creeping steadily toward quadrupling our initial goal? We’re all a little taken aback — in a good way, of course. We’ve been thinking about ways to expand this venture beyond just a podcast and website, and we have some very interesting and exciting things in the works that we hope to be able to talk about before the Kickstarter campaign ends. But for now, let’s talk about the most ambiguous piece of the plan that we’ve made public so far: Video.

We haven’t really said much about our intentions for video besides “We’re going to do some video stuff and you can contribute money to help pin down the topics.” Not surprisingly, those goals haven’t proven to be nearly as popular as the podcast topics, and I think that’s because the podcast is a known quantity whereas video… isn’t. You guys know what you’re getting with the podcast. We’ve done something like 160 of them to date… though our goal is to make the new episodes more like very early or very recent shows, and hopefully not like the Sonic call-in episode. Though that was magical in its own way.

But video… we’ve tried a lot of things with video, and nothing’s quite stuck. For the most part, that’s been a result of us lacking the tools and resources to do what we want. With the Kickstarter earnings we’re collecting, though, that shouldn’t be a problem this time around. We can buy the equipment and software we need for quality video production, and we can even afford to work with video pros to compensate for our own video incompetence. So the question is no longer “What can we do?” but rather “What do we want to do?”

Truth be told, we’re still pinning down some of the specifics of our video plan, but we have a pretty good idea of where we’re going. It’s not entirely unlike our podcast plan, which is to say the three of us will be sharing duties. Podcast hosting will be a revolving responsibility, with each of us planning/hosting/editing one episode and then sitting in as second/third chairs for the next two. We’ll each be handling our respective hosting duties the best we see fit, meaning that the tone and style of the show will likely vary somewhat from episode to episode even though the three of us will serve as the constants for each episode.

Similarly, we’re aiming to publish a different video (by which we mean a produced video, not livestreams, which will be something else entirely) every other week, and our planning/hosting/production duties will rotate from episode to episode (with a total of 26 or 27 episodes). I suspect there’ll be greater differences in the videos than in the podcasts, though, as each of us has different ambitions and interests for this particular medium.

  • Bob: Wants to produce a series of videos looking at the work of specific game directors.
  • Jeremy: Wants to go back and take another crack at Retronauts: Bonus Stage.
  • Ray: Wants to create a series called “Games on the Floor,” conversations about classic games recalling the days of sitting around on the living room floor in front of the TV.

Different folks, different strokes, but each and every one should be a lot of fun. We hope!

Onward and Upward!

We’ve just snuck past the halfway point of the Retronauts Kickstarter campaign, and while donations have slowed to a much less ludicrous frequency, we’re currently approaching the $45,000 mark, with nearly 1000 backers showing their love for our little podcast. With less than two weeks to go, we think it’s more than possible to make our $52,000 stretch goal and take our show on the road — so we’ve made a few adjustments to existing tiers, and added a new one to entice lovers of physical goodies. (You know who you are.)

Check out our Kickstarter page, and you may notice that it’s now much more affordable to commission a retrospective article or original video. That’s right; getting a chunk of text devoted to the game of your choice is now just a mere $130, while a video project with the same focus now costs only $160 to sponsor. If you know of some strange, obscure, or off-the-wall game you’d like to see receive the Retronauts treatment, let us know with your generous donation.

We’re also proud to announce a brand-new $140 tier brought to you by the great folks at Fangamer. Donators who invest their money in this extremely limited tier will get to chooseone of these amazing Fangamer prize packages, and — like anyone who donates to a $100-and-higher tier — they’ll also take home the Retronauts button/sticker, DVD, and t-shirt at no additional cost. If you’d like to reap the most physical rewards, this is the tier for you. But you’ll have to act fast.

As we’ve said, things have slowed down a bit since the initial burst of excitement, but we’ve still been working hard behind the scenes to ensure that all the pieces fall into place. Thanks again for your support, and please spread the word if you can!

Generation wars

The Pokémon Company teased some kind of huge new Pokémon X/Y-related news that would be hitting the Internet this weekend. And, it turns out….

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….it’s just a new version of mainstay character Mew. I have no opinion about this one way or another, but I can guarantee that if you visit the Pokémon forums somewhere like Something Awful or Reddit, you are gonna see so much anger about how this critter is destroying the legacy of [Mew/Mewtwo/the franchise/gaming/pop culture/human civilization]. In my experience, the single most important thing about Pokémon’s fan community is the way that it crystallizes the resentment and hostility inherent in the relationship between different generations of gamers. Folks who look back to their childhood and the crazy number of hours they invested into Pokémon Blue/Red 15 years ago generally hold fast to the conviction that only the first 151 pokémon have designs worth a damn; a deeply bitter rift exists between them and younger fans who are open to the more recent generations.

Am I correct in thinking this clash exists elsewhere among fans of other games? It’s just more veiled than with the Pokémon fanbase…?