Virtual Chronicles: Is this real life?

I write this with the greatest reluctance for fear that by drawing attention to the phenomenon I will shatter whatever gossamer thread of magic binds it to our grey reality, but: Nintendo has finally started to do this whole Virtual Console thing right. At least for the past couple of weeks. And it only took six and a half years to get here.

I know this is a fleeting moment that can’t possibly last, so I urge you to savor it while you can.

In the past two weeks, between 3DS and Wii U Virtual Console, we’ve seen two Zelda games, all three 16-bit Kirbys, the sublime Mega Man X, and (alas) the NES port of Ghosts ‘N Goblins. This of course explains why it has to be fleeting: Top-flight old games exist in finite quantities. At some point, much like fossil fuels, we’ll run out of this nonrenewable resource.

130530-gng

I’m never going to beat this game, and I’m OK with that.

Really, though, the truly encouraging part about all of this isn’t the fact that Nintendo is dumping a bunch of great games on us all at once rather than doling them out over the course of six or seven months as they would have done over the past few years. No, it’s the sale model they’re using.

Now, you can certainly argue that they’re charging entirely too much for a lot of these games — they’ve kept the Wii VC pricing model, despite the fact that since the Wii debuted the entire model of digital distribution pricing has fundamentally shifted downward in response to things like Steam sales, Humble Bundles, and mobile phone/free-to-play software in general. Then again, as excited as people are getting over MMX and the Zelda Oracles games, you can argue that they don’t need to race to the bottom. After all, demand drives price, and Nintendo has ownership or stewardship of a lot of games people demand.

Despite their adherence to the dreamy utopia of 2006 digital distribution prices, though, Nintendo is flinching ever-so-slightly by putting together its own take on sale bundles with week-long buy-one-get-one-half-price package deals. Last week, this manifested in the form of giving customers who bought two of the Kirby games the third one for free; this week, Ghosts ‘N Goblins is half-off if you buy Mega Man X. (It doesn’t work the other way around, unfortunately — that whole “equal or lesser price” restriction happens with digital distribution just like it does at the grocery store.) Edit: Actually, it does work the other way around. But who’s going to think to buy G’nG first when Mega Man X is on offer, too?

Baby steps, perhaps, but nice to see regardless, especially as it potentially portends a few things. One, if Nintendo wants to keep it up — admittedly, there’s no guarantee of this — they need to release at least two games per sale in order to be able to offer one at a discount. Secondly, they’ve even been kind enough to extend this offer to people who have transferred their Wii VC licenses over to Wii U, meaning that instead of paying a dollar to download G’nG, we only have to pay 50 cents. It’s easy to be sarcastic about that, but honestly it’s such a pittance they could have easily just shrugged and said, “You guys are getting a break already,” and I don’t think anyone would have felt cheated; they didn’t, though, which was downright decent of them.

Third, and most importantly, this week’s sale extends to third-party software, meaning there’s some slim hope of seeing more sales like this once Nintendo’s well of first-party hits has run dry. Assuming any third parties besides Sega and Capcom (the two port whores, ever eager to peddle their archives on any and every platform available) are still on-board with the whole Virtual Console thing, of course. Let’s say they are, though. What would be the ideal third-party Virtual Console bundles? A 3-for-2 on both the 8- and 16-bit Castlevanias comes immediately to mind (especially since Bloodlines still hasn’t made it to VC in any form), but I’d also be down with a Sonic 3/Sonic & Knuckles twofer, a Tecmo three-pack featuring Mighty Bomb Jack, Tecmo Bowl, and NES Rygar (which, again, never made it to VC). At the pipe dream level, a Secret of Mana/Secret of Evermore combo pack would be great (heck, slap a fan translation of Seiken Densetsu 3 in there for good measure). Or how about extending the sales to 3DS eShop and bundling all three Final Fantasy Legends together?

No, no, wait, I’ve got it. Since they’ve announced Game Boy Advance for Wii U Virtual Console, they should roll up EarthBound with an official dump of the EarthBound Zero ROM and the unreleased official translation of Mother 3 (come on, you know it exists somewhere). Yep.

That’s the magic of this whole thing: Even when Nintendo gets it right, we’re all spoiled and demanding enough to ruin the occasion for ourselves with our unrealistic expectations. So much for savoring the moment.

Better Never than Late: Parasite Eve 2

I can’t seem to figure it out, but nothing gives me a craving for bad games more than being sick and couchbound — which may explain why this past weekend I consciously paid six whole dollars for the PSN version of Parasite Eve 2, a game most people don’t even remember, and an unlucky few try to forget. (I’m guessing some nearsighted grandmas must have picked this up for little Billy in lieu of the similar-sounding Resident Evil 2.) To be fair, this purchase had a little inspiration behind it; I recently burned through the first Parasite Eve for the sake of a forthcoming Joystiq article, so asking “What’s up with that sequel?” seemed perfectly reasonable and not at all a sign of significant brain damage. Based on me simply being aware of the game back in 2000, I knew it had a mediocre reputation, but not really the specifics.

Ten hours of Parasite Eve 2 later, and I have more specifics than I’ll ever need.


Boy howdy, Square sure loved that phony opera synth.

Admittedly, making fun of bad video games is kind of old hat on the Internet, (and I’ll keep doing it as long as it brings in the mini-bucks) but playing flops of the past can often be educational to classic gaming dorks like me. For one, bad games tend to rip off elements of successful games from their respective eras, so something like Parasite Eve 2 acts as a strange 32-bit sampler. With the gift of hindsight, it can be interesting to look at a mess of mechanics and pick apart the ones that felt dated then, the ones in vogue at the time, and the ones that would eventually be refined into something much more modern. Coming at the very end of the PlayStation’s lifespan, Parasite Eve 2 represents the last gasps of some especially painful design ideas smashed up against the contemporary notion of accessibility (though in a nascent form). The result? A mess of a game that’s better to read about than to play for yourself.

In retrospect, it’s kind of surprising that Parasite Eve 2 took the form that it did; I’m not entirely sure of the original game’s popularity, but Square’s first “cinematic RPG” (their words) felt like an attempt to lure in gamers who wanted the graphics of Final Fantasy VII, but not the stodgy, menu-based RPG game play. But where the first game felt like a light RPG with some survival horror trappings, Parasite Eve 2 does just the opposite; it’s essentially a bad Resident Evil game — one that happens to be directed by a staff member who worked on that very series (the scenario writer from the first game, to be exact). A strange move, even discounting Parasite Eve’s status as a game that tried to meet RPG and survival horror fans halfway. Take note that by 2000, our brief love affair with survival horror had faded significantly, and even the previous year’s Resident Evil 3: Nemesis — a perfectly fine game — felt dated and even constrained by the technology.

To it’s credit, Parasite Eve 2 features a few novel ideas to cut down on the pain typically brought on by Resident Evil titles; Aya gains both EXP and BP from fighting enemies, which can be traded in for new  skills, weapons, and items. The in-game map shows which areas contain monsters — which you can easily run from, mind you — and a GPS item makes shooting at off-screen foes (one of the worst parts of survival horror) somewhat effortless. And though Parasite Eve 2 plays some lip service to item conservation, Aya’s never far from a bottomless ammo bucket. Obviously, the director recognized some of the common complaints about Resident Evil, and tried to address them as best as he could. So it’s more than a little strange that he would add one of that series’ biggest issues to another that entered the world free of — say it with me, now — TANK CONTROLS.

I defended tank controls during their brief period of relevance, but now that I know better, I’ll say this: there’s simply no reason for tank controls to exist after the invention of analog sticks — which I know weren’t mandatory for PlayStation games, outside of Ape Escape. With Resident Evil, I understand its wonky controls as a product of their time, and the means of input available to the developers; in other words, “It’s 1995, how do we make this character move through a 3D world using only a gamepad?” Playing a 2000 game with tank controls feels considerably strange, especially since Aya Brea got around those old pre-rendered environments just fine with a more intuitive control system two years prior.

Some of the concessions implemented to make the game easier give you a little more breathing room than your typical Resident Evil, but all of that goes out the window when the later chunk of the game forsakes any notion of balance by throwing enemies in your path that both take and absorb way too much damage. And the few boss fights of Parasite Eve 2 don’t quite know what to do with the game’s clumsy controls; most of them involve continuously running from some kind of attack before it can hit you, which is easier said than done when Aya gets snagged on corners and turns around slower than most battleship.

Backtracking also begins to rear its ugly head a few hours into the game because, hey, those pre-rendered backgrounds don’t come cheap! While the first Parasite Eve had Aya jumping around to real locations in new York, part two limits her adventure to a dusty desert town, and the caverns and (in another Resident Evil touch) laboratories that sit beneath it. The initial town of Dryfield has its charms, but the following sections involve a lot of samey corridors (no doubt to save on development costs) that tend to repopulate themselves with enemies after any minor plot point. Compared to the ruined cities of Resident Evils 2 and 3, Parasite Eve 2′s backdrop doesn’t have much life to it, and rarely reflects the fact that horrible monsters can be found around every corner.

The character of Aya Brea also changed for the worse in Parasite Eve 2 — what little character existed, anyone. While playing through the first game, I couldn’t help but notice that Aya had been portrayed pretty respectably, almost as if Square created her as a response to Lara Croft’s grotesque form and the mania surrounding it. Parasite Eve’s Aya dresses somewhat conservatively (t-shirt, leather jacket, and jeans), and always takes charge in any given situation — often, where men cannot.

In comparison, Parasite Eve 2 throws Aya into an outfit nearly as shameful as Jill Valentine’s tube top/mini-skirt combo from Resident Evil 3 (which also seemed to be a response to Tomb Raider), and while the game doesn’t add or detract much from her barely there personality, it makes various attempts to objectify her in ways the original game did not. For instance, even though it doesn’t come until roughly the halfway point, we do get a PG-13 shower scene that I remember seeing screenshots of in magazines at the time — clearly, Square wanted its fans to know that Aya was back and sexier than ever. That said, let us never discuss her Barely Legal makeover in The Third Birthday, because JESUS are you kidding me.

Truth be told, I didn’t actually finish Parasite Eve 2, though the game’s certainly “finished” enough for me. Having made it to one terrible final boss and struggling through a wretched fight that boiled down to a battle of attrition, I died on said boss’ final form… a sassy little creature with the capability of taking away all of your oh-so-important healing spells with an unblockable attack. And, since dying to this second boss meant going all the way back to a pre-fight save (oh, hello 20th century gaming), I didn’t have the patience to try it more than once. And that brings us to this blog post, which I’m writing in a vain attempt to justify my time wasted with Parasite Eve 2… with even more wasted time.

Listen: let’s just all pretend this was educational, and you can go ahead and make fun of me in the comments.

It’s time for Virtual Chronicles

Retronauts has a long history of being very grumpy about Virtual Console and other classic game rerelease platforms. We have, shall we say, a philosophical disagreement with Nintendo (and other platform holders) about how game history should be preserved and commoditized. They say “slow-feed a la carte drip at premium prices,” we say “exhaustive catalog similar to iTunes.”

Some traditions are worth keeping alive, which is why I’m kicking off Virtual Chronicles: An ongoing look at Virtual Console, PSN, Good Old Games, and whatever other means by which companies try to sell us old games yet again. In light of Nintendo’s recent addition of VC to the Wii U system, it all seems almost relevant again.

Honestly, while I’m not crazy about the glacial pace at which the Wii U VC is already proceeding, I do think the new system is probably the most interesting thing to happen to reissued games in a long time. Yes, games are distorted and fuzzy on the GamePad’s screen; yes, it’s infuriating that all the VC games we bought on Wii have to be played through the Wii emulation shell rather than as native apps until they show up on the Wii U shop. Nevertheless, I’m all in favor of the Wii U Virtual Console… and I really hope the system bucks its downward momentum and manages to stick around long enough to deliver on its potential.

Wii U’s game changer, not surprisingly, is the Miiverse integration that comes part and parcel of every game that launches on the system, including VC releases. You might even be able to convince me that Miiverse integration makes the agonizing trickle of VC rereleases worth the wait.

Sure, Miiverse is basically just an integrated message board built into the system… but that’s OK. The addition of Miiverse to these games suddenly makes them social in a way that even Let’s Plays can’t accomplish: Videos are a broadcast, but Miiverse creates a conversation. People get to brag about their accomplishments, lament the tough parts, show off their scores, gush about their favorite parts, show off weird glitches, and more. For people like me, who take any excuse to draw dumb doodles, it provides a welcome excuse to do precisely that –

megaman1-cutman megaman1-elecman megaman1-bombman megaman1-gutsman megaman1-iceman

– which has helped turn my umpteenth playthrough of Mega Man into a different experience than I’ve ever had with the game. Anything that can freshen up a game you’ve been playing for 25 years and know inside and out has to be doing something right.

Of course, you can do these things on any forum, but the fact that this feature is integrated into each game and allows instant screenshot posts makes Miiverse by far the most convenient and most centralized format for this kind of socialization. I also find the level of haughty arrogance on Miiverse to be considerably lower than on most classic gaming-oriented social venues; people are goofing around and sharing their amusement with very little pretense, and it’s a nice change of pace from the usual Internet snark.

It’s a shame people are being slammed for using Miiverse the way it’s intended by people who apparently have forgotten that we all start our gaming careers as fairly clueless individuals. Gaming communities have evolved over the years from small knots of kids sharing secrets in the school yard or after church (or whatever) into a decentralized network of tuned-in players. Where some laugh mockingly at the “Y KANT METROID CRAWL” meme, I think it’s fantastic. I remember being baffled by games occasionally (e.g. the completely undocumented second menu of adventure scene items you need to access to complete The Goonies II) and back in the day hitting that kind of wall meant you’d have to cool your heels for months or hope you got lucky and stumble into an answer. Now, you can simply suck up your pride and ask for help from people who are playing the game alongside you. I can think of plenty of times Miiverse would have come in handy during the 8- and 16-bit era….

Plus, “Y KANT METROID CRAWL” prompted me to give the album Y KAN’T TORI READ for the first time in 15 years, and you know? Some of those songs are pretty good. So consider this a double victory for Miiverse.

All quiet on the retro front

Hi everyone, remember us? Retronauts.com has been fairly quiet for a while, and that’s down to me. I’ve kind of made the site my baby, mainly because of my compulsive blogging addiction, and I’ve been fairly occupied of late: I quit my job, went on a honeymoon for a week and a half without a computer (or any interest in doing anything even remotely work-like), and started a new job. But now I’m back on the Retronauts case, and with that accomplished I do believe that (1) you’ll be seeing more content here and (2) all our initial Kickstarter backer emails have been sent out to anyone who bought into a content-request level (episode theme, artwork, that sort of thing). So, we’re making progress!

We expect to have our first episode live early in June. The dull, thudding impact of E3 shortly thereafter will almost certainly be something of a disruption, but we’ll quite likely circumvent that by recording an episode from the show, hopefully allowing us to bring in some industry friends to participate. Exciting!

Expect to hear more from us soon.

What have we been up to?

So far, two weeks have passed since the end of our Kickstarter campaign, and, after dealing with the many hassles that come with transferring a very large sum of money from one bank account to another, we’re slowly but surely assembling the various parts of the new Retronauts podcast. Turns out that without the backing of a major website, working out the supplies, logistics, and locations involved in podcast recording can take much longer than you’d think — but we’re all doing our best to devote time from our hectic lives to ensure the Retronauts machine will run smoothly, and with very little maintenance. We thank you for your patience!

Over the past few weeks, we’ve already contacted some of you about your rewards; if you donated to any of the tiers that include non-material prizes like podcast and video topics, no doubt you’ve already received an e-mail. (And if not, check your spam folder!) We’re still sorting through the various issues involved with making and shipping lots of very cool merchandise, and since our friends at FanGamer are doing us a major favor by offering to help, it’s not our place to start lighting fires under butts. That said, we’re all very confident that our physical goodies will be amazing, so just know they’ll be worth the wait.

In the absence of any podcast content, we’re going to try to do some weekly livestreams on our Twitch.tv page to fill the gap. In fact, today (May 6) from 6:00-8:00pm PDT, I’ll (your pal Bob) be streaming some classic SNES games, while chatting with viewers in our Twitch.tv audience. We’ll most likely be using our Twitter page to announce and take requests for any upcoming livestreams, so please follow us there if you haven’t!

That’s all for now. You know where to find us if you have any questions!

- Bob