Monthly Archives: February 2017

A chance to reconsider Crash, maybe

Yesterday Activision announced that their HD remaster of the PlayStation Crash Bandicoot trilogy — newly dubbed the N. Sane Trilogy, because without a name what kind of gravitas could a trilogy possibly have? — will arrive June 30, almost exactly a year after its announcement at last year’s Sony E3 press conference. Now that I’m over the cognitive dissonance of Activision publishing Crash (when I was a lad, that was a Sony franchise, thank you very much), I find myself looking forward to the N. Sane Trilogy.

I am not, to be honest, a fan of Crash… which is precisely why I’m eager to try the new HD reissue. I don’t feel I really gave the Crash games a fair shake back in the day. The original game was part of the late 1996 wave of first-party publishers attempting to take platform action games into 3D, along with Super Mario 64 from Nintendo and NiGHTs: Into Dreams from SEGA. I was on the outs with Nintendo consoles at the time and starting to develop an appreciation for the PlayStation vision, so I should have been the target audience for Naughty Dog’s platformers… but they didn’t do it for me at all. Super Mario 64 was so grand, so impressive, that the other publishers’ respective forays into that space left me cold.

I don’t think that’s unreasonable, in the context of the times. Super Mario 64 felt like the future, a fully open 3D platform game that not only pulled the genre into a new dimension, quite literally, but also did it with style and refinement. Yeah, there would be better 3D platformers, but Nintendo got so much right with Mario 64. By comparison, Crash’s linear into-the-screen design felt like playing, say, S.T.U.N. Runner compared to Mario 64‘s DOOM.

At the time, there was also a suffocating sense within the media and the tiny little online gaming community that existed in 1996 that game design was a one-way journey: Progress or nothing. If a game didn’t shatter the bounds of technology and design, it wasn’t worth your time. S.T.U.N. Runner ceased to be fun once DOOM came into being, and Super Mario 64 mooted any game that restricted action to a mere two axes. This, of course, is nonsense, but it would be a few years before I became dislodged from that way of thinking and found a happy medium between that mindset and its “hardcore” USENET opposite, which posited that the value of a given game was directly proportionate to its age.

Now that I’m older and wise enough to recognize that a game can be great without pushing any particular envelopes, I want to go back and reconsider Crash. Maybe I was wrong about it, and there’s something great there despite being relatively less ambitious than Super Mario 64. Then again, maybe not — big first-party games cause a certain degree of blindness among the first-party faithful (hence the popularity of Smash Bros.…), so maybe Crash‘s adulating fans are simply suffering from an overdose of Kool-Aid. Either way, I’m eager to see for myself.

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Virtual Console: Quality over quantity this week

The curious late-life trickle of Nintendo 64 titles arriving on Wii U continues this week with yet another worthwhile release that probably would have fared a lot better if it weren’t being overshadowed by Switch’s imminent arrival: Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber. It’s the only VC release today, but it’s such a meaty game that it would seem a little churlish to complain.

OB64, of course, hails from developer Quest — though not designer Yasumi Matsuno, as it post-dates his departure for Square to head up the Final Fantasy Tactics project. Despite his absence, it nevertheless feels like a true extension of the series: It boasts a complex story, with equally intricate systems lurking beneath a seemingly simple interface. As one of the very few role-playing games released for Nintendo 64, it commands a pretty penny these days, which makes its Wii U release a welcome sight. (It previously appeared on Wii Virtual Console, so while I haven’t checked to confirm, I’m fairly certain you should get a hefty discount if you own the older release and transferred your account to the newer console.)

Nintendo hasn’t given us any information on Switch accounts or Virtual Console, so who knows if this game will show up on the new console or if you’ll be able to transfer your Wii U license? In any case, it’s one worth playing, and owning it on Wii U is a lot easier on your pocketbook than hunting it down on eBay would be.

Oh, and conveniently enough, we discussed Ogre Battle briefly a few years back in Retronauts episode 16. So please have a listen as you prepare to FIGHT IT OUT.

Let us cling together as we discuss Yasumi Matsuno in Episode 16

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Listener mail call time again: Final Fantasy V

Friends, we’re a mere two weeks out from our next Retronauts recording session weekend (we have to do them more frequently now that we’re committed to producing more episodes, you see). As with our previous sessions, I’d like to call for some listener mail to be read aloud on the show, time permitting.

The first of our March recording sessions will continue our Final Fantasy deep-dive series with the fifth game in the franchise, sneakily known by the name Final Fantasy V. This was the second one with the amazing and flexible revamped Job System, and the first to skip a U.S. release on its original platform only to show up in a later console generation. It’s also the one to have inspired the Four Job Fiesta charity fundraiser series.

There’s a lot to say about this game! So, whether you discovered it as a 16-bit import game, checked it out in Final Fantasy Anthology on PlayStation, grabbed it on Game Boy Advance, or found it through some other means (we won’t ask), drop me an email at jparish [at] retronauts-dot-com. (You can respond via comments here or Twitter if you like, but, spoiler alert: I only pull up email-based comments during recording.)

Thanks, and look forward to a few more calls to action over the coming week!

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Gintendo returns with Japanese gin and Japanese mystery games

I had hoped to stream some Gintendo videos from abroad as I traveled through Japan last week collecting interviews for Retronauts, but that didn’t happen; between jet lag, a packed schedule, and the last lingering bits of a cold, I simply wasn’t able to. Don’t worry, though, because I’m going to make up for the disruption with style. Beginning tomorrow, I will be hosting frequent Gintendo streams featuring the games I picked up while in Tokyo (mostly per Patron request).

I’ll kick things off tomorrow at 5 p.m. ET (2 p.m. PT) with a mystery stream:

I will be playing whatever this strange Game Boy cartridge contains. This is a Nintendo Power cartridge, which has nothing to do with the American magazine — rather, it’s a blank rewritable cart that you could take to a convenience store kiosk and load up with inexpensive games. The service has long since become defunct, so carts like this one exist as relics of sort, containing whatever games the last owner happened to have downloaded. There are a couple of pretty cool games on this one, according to the label, so hopefully it still works when I plug it in tomorrow. Join me tomorrow to enjoy the surprise.

Also new for this stream: I picked up the legendary Super Game Boy Commander controller for use with Game Boy World (and related streams). The controller I’ve been using has been a standard Super Famicom controller, which I picked up last time I was in Japan. It was naturally in much better condition than any vintage Super NES controller you’re likely to find here in the U.S… but the controller cable is so short that it’s difficult to use with my office setup. The Commander has a nice lengthy cable, and it’s specifically laid out for use with Game Boy software, so that should be a nice upgrade.

And finally, the gin for the evening will be the very first gin ever distilled in Japan (so far as my research can determine): The Kyoto Distillery’s Ki no Bi (as in “the beauty of seasons,” not as in Obi-wan Kenobi). It debuted back in October, and obviously, I had to acquire a bottle for Gintendo purposes. Big thanks to Retronauts friend Kyle McLain for helping me to track it down!

You can watch the stream Thursday afternoon here or on the YouTube channel.

http://www.youtube.com/c/JeremyParish/live

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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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Episode 86: Retronauts Radio for February 2017

Welcome to the second monthly Retronauts Radio! Last month’s trial episode went over quite marvelously, so it’s back for a return engagement and will become a regular feature unless there’s some sort of angry mass uprising against it.

I appreciate all the feedback that came in after the trial episode. For the most part, it really seems like everyone enjoyed the show. There were no real complaints of, “This is terrible and I hate it,” only minor suggestions for improvements that were balanced out by an equal number of people indicating their satisfaction with that particular aspect of the show as it was. As such, I’ve made only the most modest of tweaks to the format this time around.

First, I’ve tried to splice in a greater number of tracks for variety while giving each track more time to breathe. Hopefully you’ll find the balance between play time and monologue works more to your liking.

Secondly, I have made an effort to cover an equal mix of music releases that are available for pay and for free. This is not an ad or a paid sponsored podcast or anything, so I’m not obligated to cover any particular release. Instead, I hope to highlight recent retro game music releases for both collectors (in this case, the vinyl issues of Revenge of Shinobi and Castlevania II) as well as music available for free or for a modest fee (the Etrian Odyssey remixes, SEGA’s Spotify dump, and ZODIAC). My hope is that each episode will highlight something that will appeal to everyone, regardless of their tastes and budget.

Our second Retronauts Radio looks at notable retro-themed game music releases for February: Castlevania II, a Final Fantasy Tactics tribute, Revenge of Shinobi, Etrian Odyssey remixes, and a ton of SEGA jams! Art by Jon Stachewicz.

Libsyn (1:41:34, 70.8 MB) | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)

Here’s the time breakdown of the episode, and where you can find the included tunes for your own enjoyment.

  • 0:00:25: Introduction
  • 0:01:40: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest [available via Mondo]
  • 0:11:22: SEGA on Spotify [freely available for streaming via Spotify]
    • 0:11:42: Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure
    • 0:12:32: Out Run
    • 0:17:39: Jet Set Radio
    • 0:19:38: Sonic Rush
    • 0:21:18: Rhythm Thief redux
  • 0:24:40: Revenge of Shinobi [available via Data Discs, $]
  • 0:34:01: Etrian Odyssey FM synth remixes [freely available via Yuzo Koshiro’s Twitter account]
  • 0:39:24: ZODIAC: Final Fantasy Remixed [available for purchase via Materia Collective or on Spotify]
  • 0:56:49: Skies of Arcadia [freely available for streaming via Spotify]
  • 1:07:05: Outro — Sonic Rush

So: I hope you enjoy this second Retronauts Radio episode. Please feel free to ping me on Twitter (or wherever) over the next couple of weeks to let me know about interesting new releases that would be relevant to next month’s episode. Thank you!

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Racing time

I’ve conducted a few developer and composer interviews while I’ve been here in Tokyo; it was actually kind of the point of my coming here. You can expect to see those in in full here on the site in the near-term — probably next month, is my guess.

There was no common thread in the who of my appointments, but I did notice a common thread in our conversations. Yesterday, I met with two very talented women who used for work with Capcom, Junko Tamiya (left) and Harumi Fujita (right). (I’m the one in the middle, just so there’s no confusion.) Both of them composed music for Bionic Commando — Fujita the arcade themes, Tamiya the NES adaptations and original music — so naturally I was interested in chatting with them.

We had an interesting and fairly lengthy conversation on a variety of topics, but afterwards Ms. Fujita laughed and said she wanted to ask me some questions about video game history. They both admitted they had to wrack their brains a bit to remember specifics of games they worked on 30 years ago, which is understandable — they experience games not as finished products like we do, but as nebulous works-in-progress that don’t necessarily connect to the stories we see on the consumer side. For example, they each worked on different versions of Strider (NES and Arcade), but while they remembered that the Famicom version of Strider for NES never shipped, they had never heard about the manga that was supposedly a key part of the game’s planned multimedia blitz.

What made Ms. Fujita’s confession particularly striking was that Yuzo Koshiro had actually predicted that exact thing a few days prior. I asked him a lot of questions about his work outside of being a composer, which he rarely is interviewed about, and he had to give his responses some serious thought. The interview turned out great, but he warned me afterwards that the other composers I’d be interviewing would probably have an equally tough time answering my questions. “It’s been a long time,” he admitted, “and I’ve forgotten a lot of the details of things that happened back then. They probably will find it difficult, too.”

Which, of course, is why I want to talk to everyone I can, while I still can. My hope is that Retronauts will afford me the freedom to do more developer and composer interviews. I want for us to inquire about and write down these stories while we still can. I think about all the important game creators I will never be able to interview — the Doug Smiths, the Satoru Iwatas, the Jerry Lawsons — and the reality of the fact that these games happened 25, 30, even 40 years ago suddenly feels less like fun trivia that gives everyone an excuse to write an anniversary feature and more like a ticking clock.

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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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The most interesting thing in Yuzo Koshiro’s office

Pretty much any game development studio (or publisher, or localization company) has somewhere in the public-facing portion of its offices a showcase of their projects. Depending on the company in question, this showcase may consist of a single shelf, or it can span an entire wall.

Today I was fortunate enough to interview legendary game composer Yuzo Koshiro for a second time, meeting up with him at the headquarters of his development studio Ancient. Ancient’s obligatory showcase boasts an impressive assortment of CDs (containing Koshiro’s work through the years) and a variety of games (some of which Ancient developed, and most of which Koshiro composed for). Nothing too surprising there, though my eyes did light up at the sight of The Scheme tucked away on the bottom shelf — I’d never heard of that particular work until putting together last week’s Game Boy World episode, but it caught my attention for being a PC88-based proto-Metroidvania action game. And now, here it was, in the flesh: The first game Koshiro composed for after leaving Nihon Falcom in the late ’80s.

That wasn’t the most unusual thing in Ancient’s display case, though. This was:

It’s a tape cassette case whose label claimed to contain a game… for Windows 7, 8, and 10. This was something to puzzle over while waiting for Koshiro to arrive at the interview — what could this possibly be? What kind of modern Windows software could you possibly store on a tape cassette!?

As it turns out, none whatsoever. In Koshiro’s words, this is a “small joke”: A mock-up for a physical release of a game released to Steam last year under the name of Cosmic Cavern 3671. Koshiro’s friend produced it, and he himself composed the music for it. Cavern is actually a remake of an old Japanese PC game called Chitei Saidai no Sakusen, which you can read about at Hardcore Gaming 101; despite debuting in 1980, it bears an uncanny resemblance to 1982’s Dig Dug. To commemorate the recent Steam remake for Ancient’s display case, Koshiro says a friend of his put together a fake cassette tape of the game, with a label designed to resemble what an MZ-80 tape release would look like in this day and age. It’s a pretty interesting little bit of video game ephemera!

(Of course, you can expect more about my meeting Koshiro in the coming weeks.)

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Farewell, my Conker buyin’

The retro gaming’ collector’s bubble has definitely gone global. Prices on classic games around Tokyo have gone way up since the last time I was here, back in Sept. 2015. I’m seeing retro titles that have doubled in price, some that have even tripled. So much for Japan as a last bastion for cheap, interesting, classic gaming finds…!

Of all the outlandish price explosions I’ve seen in the brief time I’ve been in Japan, though, none compares to the skyrocketing costs of game music CDs. It makes me feel a lot better about the relatively small amount of money I’ve sunk into game vinyl over the past year. Check out these CDs, which you wouldn’t think would be particularly spendy:

The yen-to-dollar exchange rate currently stands at 112:1, meaning that Donkey Kong Country 2 CD is selling for slightly more than $1400. No, I didn’t forget a decimal point. That is fourteen-hundred American dollars. These four CDs here are the costliest game music collections I saw today at the Nakano Broadway mall (which contains about half a dozen shops that sell retrogames and related goods), and they all have one thing in common: They’re all for Rare-developed games. Given the correlation between scarcity and price on collector’s goods, you have wonder if perhaps someone misunderstood these “Rare CDs” as “rare CDs” and priced them accordingly. Or it could just be that someone really likes David Wise. A lot. I mean, yeah, he’s great, but…

Anyway, the completely bonkers pricing on vintage games in my old cart-pilfering haunts means this is going to be a marvelously inexpensive trip to Japan. Most interesting games have priced themselves beyond the limits of what I consider reasonable, at least here in Tokyo.

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