Monthly Archives: January 2017

Ping pong, like love, is a battlefield

One really great thing about Game Boy World: Finding strange obscurities that intersect with things I love. Example for today: Battle Ping Pong.

Have you ever heard of Battle Ping Pong before today? I’m going to go ahead and say, “No, you haven’t.” This one was pretty tough to track down (not quite as hard as Hong Kong, since a search on eBay for “Game Boy” “Hong Kong” nets you a lot of Asia-region releases and bootlegs, but still tough), because evidently most people haven’t heard of it — even in Japan. It was worth it, though! It’s one of the very first games created by developer Quest, one of my absolute favorite game studios of yore. Quest created Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, and their key personnel has had a hand in the likes of Final Fantasy XII and Crimson Shroud. Quest is awesome. Well, was awesome. R.I.P., Quest.

Battle Ping Pong isn’t really all that awesome, though. This was clearly put together in the “walk before you can run” phase for the studio, and it’s pretty interesting as a curio. But it’s actually kind of crummy as a table tennis sim. It feels weird to use the words “Quest” and “crummy” together in the same mental breath, but, well, sometimes that’s how it goes.

Fortunately the next Game Boy World episode covers a game that, I hope, will bring us out of the doldrums of import obscurity. Please look forward to it in a few weeks.

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Gaming loses another giant: Remembering Masaya Nakamura

The Associated Press reported today that Masaya Nakamura has passed away. This isn’t really one of those shocking, out-of-nowhere passings; Nakamura had reached the ripe old age of 91 and seems to have lived a full and successful life.

If you don’t recognize Nakamura’s name immediately, don’t feel too bad about that; he was an executive, not a designer, and few people in that line of work tend to see a lot of recognition among consumers. He had held an honorary position for years, long since having retired from the day-to-day management of his company. But, you will definitely have heard of the company he established: Nakamura Amusement Corporation, or Namco for short.

Nakamura founded Namco in the ’50s, during the same fertile period of Japanese post-war reconstruction that gave us SEGA. Even if you didn’t recognize Nakamura’s name right away, you’ve probably heard the sincerely inspiring story behind Namco’s creation. The company began as a handful of electric kids’ rides on the roof of a department store, for which Nakamura himself provided maintenance and upkeep. From that humble beginning, he built a massive arcade empire, eventually getting into the creation of arcade games rather than merely their distribution. It was a natural fit, and Namco’s distribution network meant their games had an easy in to arcades.

Still, none of that would have amounted to much if not for the fact that Namco produced some of the absolute greatest games of the golden age of arcades. Nakamura didn’t design the games himself, but he nevertheless spent time with each one before release, making sure it was up to standards through exhaustive personal play testing. Compare that to Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi, who prided himself on never having played a video game. Both men ran incredibly successful game businesses — it’s not hard to imagine that Namco could have become a first-party giant if they had gone the sam route as Nintendo and produced their own console in the early ’80s — but they approached their respective businesses from completely different directions.

Maybe it’s not surprising, in that light, to know that Nakamura and Yamauchi butted heads for a while. Namco had supported Nintendo’s Family Computer pretty much straight out of the gates, porting their arcade classics to the system as one of Nintendo’s first third-party publishers. Pac-ManGalagaMappy, and Tower of Druaga were just a few of the arcade best-sellers that became Famicom best-sellers; in fact, I believe Druaga did even better on consoles than in coin-op form due to its decidedly RPG-esque nature. As Nintendo’s console matured, the company began to tighten restrictions on third parties — including its die-hards. Nakamura reportedly felt ill-used as a result; it wasn’t hard to make the argument that Famicom owed much of its success to the high-quality hits Namco brought to the console, and Japanese business revolves greatly around relationships. For Nintendo to treat such a trusted partner the same as middling latecomers like, say, Bothtec or Towa Chiki… well, that flew in the face of protocol (something Yamauchi was known to do when it suited him).

So, Namco unabashedly pushed back, scaling down their Famicom production and going all-in on NEC’s PC Engine instead. Nakamura also played a key role in the establishment of Atari subsidiary Tengen, which went rogue in the U.S. and published classic games — many from Namco — without a license.

So Nakamura was a pretty cool guy who helped usher essential masterpieces to market and wasn’t afraid to go his own way. A true great of the games industry, and a rare gem of an executive who regarded his company’s creations with a personal passion and commitment to quality.

To honor Nakamura in my own small way, I’ll be streaming some Namco games tomorrow afternoon at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT. I’ll start with Rolling Thunder and move on from there. I can’t remember which Namco games I have in my library at the moment, so it’ll be a potluck of sorts. Join me and be surprised!

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Retronauts Episode 84: Wii

It’s hard to believe, but the Wii celebrated its tenth birthday last year, putting it within our extremely loose definition of “retro.” And thankfully, it’s a topic worthy of the Retronauts treatment. Not only does the Wii amount to Nintendo’s biggest success, it’s also unlikely any subsequent system will ever sell more than this underpowered little box that made our motion-control dreams come true… when we still had them. On this episode of Retronauts, join Bob Mackey, Jeremy Parish, Brett Elston, and Mikel Reparaz as the crew looks back on a not-too-distant past full of Wiis and waggle.

Libsyn (1:31:53 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)

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Weekend Gintendo: Let’s kill some actual Nazis [archived!]

It’s been a pretty hectic weekend between the Lunar New Year and what appears to have been the second of 208 planned weekly protests by millions of anti-Trump demonstrators. Also, somewhere in there, an Analogue Nt Mini showed up on my doorstep, and I’ve been eager to put it through its paces. So I figure, why not combine two very important things — playing video games and a stiff drink to take the edge off — with a Sunday afternoon Gintendo stream?

And friends, I can’t think of a more appropriate game to play this weekend than Bionic Commando ’99.

Bionic Commando… ’99?” you ask, perplexed. Yes, ’99 — it’s Bionic Commando for NES, except this version was patched by Chris Covell (back in the year 1999, hence the name) to restore all the content cut in translation from Japanese to English. Nintendo of America shied away from controversy of any sort in the NES days, which means religious symbols and unpleasant political relics alike had to be modified or scrubbed for U.S. release. The Japanese title of Bionic Commando translated to Top Secret: The Resurrection of Hitler, and an image of ol’ pencil-stache himself glowered over the packaging art as the protagonist gave Fourth Reich soldiers, decked out in full brownshirt regalia, an iron boot to the face.

In America, however, all references to Nazis were edited to “Badds,” and Hitler became “Master-D.” Chris Covell’s patch simply changes back the references and restores certain Nazi imagery, including swastikas, to leave no doubt whatsoever about whom you’re killing. In an era where we have actual Nazis showing up in the national news skulking around under euphemistic terms like “alt-right,” I can think of no more fitting game to play than a game mod that revolves around the premise of calling Nazis by their real name.

So please, join me this afternoon at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT as I messily explode Hitler’s skull.

Today’s featured gin will be Greenhook Greensmiths’ American Dry, which is distilled in Brooklyn — literally a few miles down the road from JFK International Airport, the site of this weekend’s most fervent pro-immigration protests. And I’ll be playing on an Analogue Nt Mini, a clone of the Japanese NES hardware designed in Seattle. In short, this stream will be celebrating America, inside and out.

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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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Live streaming tonight: Zelda II for Gintendo

The Gintendo series achieved its funding goal a few days ago, and that means I will be streaming videos now, every week. While imbibing juniper-infused liquors.

To kick off the Gintendo series proper, I’ve decided to go with a game that recently celebrated its 30th anniversary: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. You know, I don’t think I saw a single retrospective or tribute to the game’s 30th anniversary, which seems a little odd given the attention we all lavished on the original Zelda‘s birthday a year ago. You can attribute that to the fact that its anniversary fell on the weekend that Nintendo was running its global Switch preview events, which basically crowded out other Nintendo-related topics in the hearts of nerds everywhere. Or… perhaps less kindly, you could attribute it to the fact that Zelda II is the least-beloved of all entries in the main series. I will remain neutral on this matter and let you make the judgment yourself.

In any case, I’ll be streaming the game for an hour this afternoon, beginning at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT:

I do not promise to complete the game, or even to do particularly well at it. I’ve finished it a few times over the years — once when I was young and nimble-fingered, and more recently with 3DS Virtual Console save states — but this game involves a lot of tough combat and unforgiving design. I’ll give it my best, though!

And because this is Gintendo, I’ll be talking about the bottle I just opened: No. 209 Cabernet Reserve, an intriguing gin by a San Francisco-based distiller that spent part of its life aging in cabernet sauvignon barrels and has taken on a rich amber color (and, one assumes, a bit of a wine flavor). Join me for a journey of discovery through Hyrule, and through my cups.

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Do the Donkey Kong, again

Another week, another video… specifically, another video about Donkey Kong.

Might as well get used to it. Good Nintentions is about to hit a thick patch of Nintendo arcade classics, including two more Donkey Kong games, Mario’s first solo outing (which is, of course, a Donkey Kong spinoff), and Popeye, which is what Shigeru Miyamoto originally wanted Donkey Kong to be. That big ape cast a big shadow over Nintendo’s early console days.

I appreciate the fact that this video has sparked comment debate over which home version of Donkey Kong was best — Nintendo’s NES game looked most faithful, but plenty of people will vouch for other platforms where the game included all levels, animations, and music. Of course, Nintendo could easily put this debate to rest by releasing an official version of the arcade game that isn’t locked inside a grindingly tedious 3D platformer, or by making Donkey Kong Original Edition widely available. Wouldn’t that be swell?

The ongoing absence of a proper release of such a pivotal title remains pretty baffling. Knowing Nintendo, they’re going to make Original Edition one of their “free” sample titles for the Switch’s subscriber service, which ceases to be freely playable after one month, but not actually offer the game for sale. That would be awful, but somehow perfectly in keeping with the way things have been going for the archival travails of Donkey Kong.

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Retronauts Micro 055: Bart vs. the Space Mutants

When The Simpsons took off like a rocket in its first few years, it was only a matter of time before someone scooped up the video game rights. And that “someone” in this case turned out to be Acclaim, those notable purveyors of trash that introduced the concept of “buyer’s remorse” to generations of gamers. On this special Talking Simpsons crossover episode of Retronauts, join Bob Mackey, Henry Gilbert, and Chris Antista as the crew thoroughly explores Bart vs. the Space Mutants, the strangely ambitious but all-around bad production that taught us all to be forever suspicious of Simpsons games.

Libsyn (46:38 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)


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Making the sausage, day 1

I woke up at an ungodly hour this morning (4 a.m. east coast time) to fly to San Francisco (meaning I woke up at 1 a.m. for my target destination) for the next Retronauts recording weekend. We’ve talked about the recording process in oblique terms, but I don’t know that we’ve ever really laid down the full details of what goes into a Retronauts weekend. Well, here ya go.

When we first Kickstarted Retronauts — almost four years ago, frighteningly enough — Bob and Ray and I all lived here in the San Francisco bay area. Everything about the show was predicated on this fact, really. We were going to record some fun video features for the Kickstarter DVD, get together every couple of weeks to record podcast, and basically take it easy. This lasted about… two months from the debut episode, I think? We launched at the beginning of July 2013, and by the end of August I had been evicted from the apartment where my wife had been living in since 2005. San Francisco has very expensive housing and very good rent control, which means in 2013 we were paying barely more in rent than she had been paying in 2005. And to find a place anywhere close in size and quality to what we had been paying would have cost at least twice as much in 2013… so she and I moved across the country. It was a good life change, but one that was detrimental to Retronauts. Trying to lead a conversation with a room full of people from 2500 miles away on a laggy Skype connection does not make for good radio, as we discovered the hard way.

So, now I fly to SF every few months to record batches of podcasts with Bob and whomever we can coax into the studio for a few hours at a time. It’s a big request. The studio isn’t ventilated or air conditioned. People only join us out of the kindness of their hearts.

The recording process happens differently for me and for Bob, but it begins more or less the same for both of us: We figure out the topics we want to tackle, reach out to prospective guests, and begin assembling notes for everyone. These notes used to be cursory but now can run for several pages per episode and take many hours to compile. This is because Bob and I both have what you call “Type-A personalities.”

When it comes to the weekend itself, it always begins with me waking up well before sunrise to catch a flight to San Francisco. Usually this happens on the Friday before taping, but in this case… man, I don’t know what kind of chaos is going to grip the nation tomorrow. I figured I’d play it safe and fly the day before the inauguration… especially since I had a connection at Washington Dulles. There’s nothing particularly exciting about this aspect of the trip, really. I get on a plane, bleary-eyed and exhausted, spend six hours in the air half-asleep, and emerge in sunny San Francisco at the end of it. I trek out to my hotel, or else crash with a friend to save money, and proceed to spend the rest of the day working and putting together the last of my notes. I tend to stay in the North Beach area, which means lots of coffee and good pizza.

There’s a place called Golden Boy just down the block from where I’m staying — apparently no relation to the pervy anime Golden Boy! — that sells amazing Sicilian-style pies. It ain’t real pizza unless you can stick your finger into the crust up to the first knuckle. That sounds pervy, actually. Hmm.

Anyway, that… is how a recording weekend starts.

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One final mail call

I hop on a plane to San Francisco very, very early tomorrow morning for a weekend jam-packed with Retronauts stuff. Our first podcast recording session of 2017, for one… which also is our first podcast recording session of the newly independent Retronauts venture. This is very exciting, obviously.

I’ve already called for listener mail on two of my topics — portable Castlevania and Final Fantasy IV — and now here’s the solicitation for one final episode. Sunday afternoon, we’ll be talking about Activision. The early days of Activision! Say, 1979 through 1986. The Atari 2600, Intellivision, and Commodore 64 years.

So if you have any fond memories of those games — ya know, stuff like Pitfall! and Ghostbusters — give me a shout at jparish [at] retronauts [dot] com. By, say, Saturday. We cool? Cool.

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