Monthly Archives: February 2017

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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I’ll be streaming Zelda for tonight’s Gintendo!

Yes, Zelda is this week’s big topic. That and Switch, but at the moment most people only care about Switch because of Zelda. Sadly, though, Nintendo won’t let us stream the new one, so in lieu of Breath of the Wild I will instead be streaming the Zelda that will serve as a subject for this week’s Retronauts recording marathon: Link’s Awakening.

(I was going to stream Power Blade today, but we’ll save that for some other time. There are many more streams to come!)

The magic will happen this afternoon at 5 p.m. ET, which is (rumor has it) 2 p.m. PT. You can enjoy the madness on my YouTube channel, per usual.

Will I reach the Wind Fish? (Spoilers: Not even close.)

This will, of course, be the final Gintendo for February! I’ll be out of town for the following week for Game Developers Conference and the aforementioned Retronauts recording weekend, but I’ll hit the ground running once I return. Thanks as always for your support of Retronauts video endeavors… and don’t forget that there’s a Final Fantasy IV episode of the show online and ready for your enjoyment if you support the podcast, too.

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Retronauts Episode 88: Yoshi Games

Following his debut in 1990’s Super Mario World, Yoshi quickly evolved from a glorified power-up to a star that could carry games with his name alone. And in the character’s nearly 30 years of existence, Yoshi-based experiences have taken many forms–including one that stands as possibly the greatest platformer of all time. On this episode of Retronauts, join Bob Mackey, Jeremy Parish, Ray Barnholt, and Henry Gilbert as the crew tries to pin down Yoshi’s appeal and whether or not we should worry that he suddenly grew opposable thumbs.

Libsyn (1:38:29 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)

Musical Selections

  • 21:11 – “BGM 03” Yoshi
  • 30:16 – “Action Type A” Yoshi’s Cookie
  • 047:30 – “Love is in the Air” Yoshi’s Story
  • 1:01:46 – “Athletic (DS Remic)” Yoshi Touch & Go
  • 1:11:46 – “Wildlands” Yoshi’s Island DS
  • 1:28:37 – “Knotty Knotty Windmill” Yoshi’s Woolly World
  • 1:36:06 – “The End” Yoshi’s Cookie

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Summoning more listener feedback, this time about MANLY games

As we close in on our next Retronauts recording marathon weekend, I’d like to collect your thoughts on my third and final episode topic. (In case you missed it, I’m also soliciting feedback on Final Fantasy V and Link’s Awakening… although boy howdy, we have no shortage of novel-length missives about those two topics already.) This third subject may be a bit more abstruse than its companion episodes, as has become our Retronauts focus mission — that is, maintaining a mix of both crowd-pleasing and abstract topics. I’m calling this final episode “BRO-totypes.”

If that name seems a little too dated for your tastes, you can make it a bit more current and go instead with “Intoxicating Masculinity.”

In short: The theme of this episode is to explore the sudden appearance of over-muscled beefcake dudes and tall, lanky gunmen in video games circa 1986-1990. Why did they suddenly become so popular with the near-simultaneous arrival of things like Rastan Saga, Golden Axe, and Castlevania? Why did manly action shift from hitting things with short-range objects (Rygar) to shooting them with guns (Vice: Project Doom) over the course of the latter ’80s?

In short, we’ll be talking about this:

Not this:

Any platform is relevant, and any game from 1985-1990 that eschews cartoonish cuteness in favor of a more serious sensibility (even if it’s over-the-top and cartoonish in a different way) is worth discussing. Share your favorite Manly Games of the late ’80s, or feel free to speculate on the nature of that sudden trend in gaming or its long-term influences! Write in to jparish [at] retronauts.com sometime in the next few days… and be sure to flex in a mirror at least once while composing your email.

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Speaking of Zelda: Mail call

The internet’s all abuzz with everyone’s thoughts on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, including this very site. But I have a secret to share with you: I’ve been unfaithful. I’ve been spending my time with two different Zelda games.

Next weekend we’ll be recording a deep-dive episode on one of the greatest, and in my opinion most unfairly overlooked, entries in the Zelda franchise: Link’s Awakening for Game Boy. I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish my replay of the game by then, but I’ve really been enjoying this revisit for the first time in nearly 20 years (since the Game Boy Color remake).

I know Link’s Awakening has plenty of die-hard fans out there, so we’d like to hear from you folks. We’ll try and read your missives on-air. Well, if you hate Link’s Awakening, you can also write. But I can’t promise your opinions won’t be loudly booed by some of the passionate fans of the game slated to put in an appearance on that episode….

Anyway, you know the drill: Shoot me an email no later than Friday March 3 to jparish [at] retronauts.com. Share your thoughts, whether they’re gushing or merely extremely positive. (Or, OK, even if they’re super grouchy.) Thanks!

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Breath of the Wild restores a long-lost sense of uncertainty to Zelda

One of biggest through lines in Nintendo’s promotional hype for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has concerned its connection to the original Legend of Zelda, which debuted in the U.S. almost exactly 30 years ago. That’s a spiritual connection, mind you; the new game looks nothing like the primitive pixels of the NES classic, and if the story shares a direct link (or, perhaps, Link) to the older adventure, Nintendo’s keeping it under wraps.

I’m always a little leery of publishers making too much noise about how a new release gets back to a franchise’s roots. Generally it creates a too-obsequious air of apology for the direction of a franchise, throwing a lot of hard-working contributors’ hard work under a bus. And while it’s not unheard of for a long-running series to go off the rails and somehow right itself again further down the road, it doesn’t happen as often as one might wish.

The back-to-the-roots approach can work, but it demands a tricky balance. Sometimes developers take an overly literal approach, as with, say, Mega Man 9 — which I love, don’t get me wrong. But I do think Capcom could have taken Mega Man back to his roots without actually turning back game and graphical design two decades. And sometimes you have the Tomb Raider series, which has its ups and downs but (despite its overlords’ promises to return to the spirit of the original game with every sequel to come along since Tomb Raider III) never quite seems to recapture the sense of isolation and grandeur that made the very first Tomb Raider so captivating.

So, I’ve taken a cautious, if hopeful, approach to managing my Breath of the Wild expectations since playing it (and coming away deeply impressed) back at E3 last summer. Would Nintendo really get back to the spirit of the NES, or would this be another example of game creators promising to go back to a long-ago, cherished standard without quite grasping what it was its fans really loved about the older game in the first place?

Surprisingly, so far, the answer is: Yes, they got it.

I say “so far” because I haven’t even hit the 10-hour mark in the game. For that matter, I haven’t even left the opening area, which demands players complete a set of minor challenges spread across a fairly expansive area that nevertheless appears to comprise only a tiny fraction of this version of Hyrule. I mean, I could have moved along by now, but I’m more interested in testing the limits of what I can accomplish straight away. These early hours have already given me confidence that Nintendo really is looking back to the oldest Zelda here by deliberately breaking from the Link to the Past formula that has been the foundation of nearly every sequel beginning with Ocarina of Time.

A Link to the Past set a lot of standards for the Zelda games, but the greatest of these was in the way it locked down the dungeon-and-tool formula. In each sequential dungeon, Link would acquire a new tool or weapon to allow him to overcome specific obstacles throughout the game, with that dungeon serving as a sort of training course. Nintendo designed each labyrinth as a spatial puzzle that could only be solved by mastering the tool within, with the dungeon boss serving as the final exam of sorts. For instance, you needed to collect the Hookshot in order to traverse gaps in the dungeon that contained the Hookshot, and then you had to defeat the boss at the end of the gauntlet by using the Hookshot to reveal its weak point. It was a deft, thoughtful approach to game design… and after being reiterated in half a dozen different sequels, it’s become stale and predictable.

In the opening hours of Breath of the Wild, I’ve already acquired what appears to be the bulk of the main gadgets I’ll be using throughout the adventure. This is not a case of sequence-breaking; you literally can’t move beyond the opening area until you round them all up. And while you acquire each one in a purpose-built dungeon, those dungeons are small and simple — smaller than any story dungeon in any 3D Zelda to date. I don’t know how the dungeons and shrines in later portions of the game will work, precisely, but it could be that the 1:1 ratio of gadgets and dungeons won’t be the case with this game. More likely you’ll need to complete each shrine or lair by combining and applying your permanent tool set in increasingly complex ways.

So yes, in this sense, Breath of the Wild really does feel like a reversion to the original Zelda. You acquired a number of tools and upgrades in the dungeons there, as well, but in only a handful of cases did you actually need the item in question in order to reach and defeat the boss. And even then, you’d usually need a treasure from a previous area of the game in order to complete a task, e.g. the bow from Level-1 in order to beat Level-6’s boss, Gohma.

Nintendo experimented with breaking from the Link to the Past cycle with the most recent single-player Zelda, which somewhat ironically was the direct sequel to A Link to the Past: 2013’s A Link Between Worlds. There, you could simply run out and rent (or buy) the tools you needed; the challenge became managing your finances and knowing which tools were needed for each given dungeon. Worlds didn’t suffer for separating tool acquisition from dungeon solutions, and I suspect now that it was something of a dry run for what Nintendo hoped to do with Breath of the Wild.

If the Zelda games were finally extricating themselves from the very classic but very familiar rut into which they had worn themselves, Breath of the Wild would deserve praise. But Nintendo has reached back to the franchise’s origins in an even more meaningful way: They’ve given players the freedom to go about the quest however they like.

Make no mistake: Breath of the Wild still has a certain linear path of quest progression to observe. As I said, the task of moving beyond the isolated plateau on which the adventure begins requires you to complete several shrines… but once you’ve cleared the first one, you’re allowed to tackle them in any order. Now, you’re likely to complete them in a particular general sequence simply as a matter of expediency, as two of the shrines sit in areas covered with frost. This time out, Link has to be mindful of the temperature of his surroundings; stray too long into the cold and you will freeze to death. But you don’t need any special quest item to venture into the frozen wastes — you just need to know how to prepare food and potions, and have an eye for the botanicals and fauna that will result in warming recipes to temporarily insulate Link from the elements. So if you really want, you can head to the shrines in frigid areas first.

This freedom begins literally the moment you set foot outside the cave in which Link awakens after his hundred-year sleep. The game gives you several prompts to nudge you in the proper direction to get the story rolling right away. Once Link surveys his surroundings, the camera swings around to a mysterious old man keeping vigil near Link’s Shrine of Resurrection… but nothing is forcing you to speak to him right away. In fact, you can ignore the old man until you run out of things to do (which is quite a lot, and can allow you to stock up on some pretty useful collectibles and weapons).

A couple of minutes after you spot the old man, Link hears a disembodied voice and gets a waypoint marker on his in-game map. The action freezes as this plays out, and my first thought as this transpired was that the game was going to railroad me back to the main quest and constantly hound me with a bossy voice, a la Navi/Midna/Fi. But this turns out not to be the case at all. Once the waypoint appears, you’re free to go back about your business and do as you please. And the voice rarely intrudes, content to allow you to take the quest at your own pace.

It’s a pleasant surprise in a series that has demonstrated an almost pathological need to hold players by the hand for the past 20 years, but producer Eiji Aonuma has said that he’s spent a lot of time taking notes from open-world games, mostly produced outside Japan. Perhaps those games’ willingness to sit back and allow players to do as they will helped Nintendo’s designers to realize, at last, that people who play video games really do have the deductive reasoning to sort things out for themselves and don’t need or want to be constantly nagged back onto the critical path.

So just how much freedom does Breath of the Wild give you from the outset? Well, I’ve put together a slightly goofy dramatic recreation here of my initial experience with the game (pardon the pantomime). This is footage from a single session from the beginning of the game, slightly edited for time, and it simulates my initial reaction to being given obvious and obtrusive guidance… as well as the disastrous nonsense I got up to after I decided to blow it off.

What ultimately makes Breath of the Wild feel like such a change of pace for the Zelda series — almost like a spiritual reboot — is not that it offers an open world, or that you have the sort of freedom that comes with an open world, or that it contains a huge number of undocumented systems (like recipes and temperature), or any other single element. It’s that it does all of these things at once. Nintendo probably could have put out two or three Zelda games featuring one or two of these changes in incremental amounts, but by taking the time to create a game that does all of them at once, they’ve created something that — at least here at the start — feels like a massive and much-needed leap into modernity.

The most impressive connection Breath of the Wild has to its 30-year-old ancestor is that it improbably recaptures that game’s sense of the unexpected. The original Zelda was like nothing we’d ever seen in 1987, and by definition it’s practically impossible for a sequel to reproduce that sensation. What made Zelda amazing in the early days is that for its first decade of existence, the series alway brought you something new and unexpected. Zelda II was somehow a side-scrolling action game as well as an RPG. A Link to the Past existed as this intricate puzzle box of a game whose convolutions somehow spanned two dimensions of time and space. Link’s Awakening gave us a Super NES-sized adventure on Game Boy, while adding in Mario elements. And Ocarina of Time reinvented A Link to the Past as a game that spanned decades and whose added unique, dimension was the third dimension.

Breath of the Wild has hit me with an urge to explore and discover, to figure out what possibilities await, that I haven’t experienced so profoundly since Ocarina of Time. Yes, a lot of the concepts here come straight from open-world action games we’ve all played over the past decade; but here, those elements have been framed within the workings of the Zelda series. Breath of the Wild moves and sounds like Zelda, which means it’s far more polished in its movements and interactions than your average Elder Scrolls adventure (which, again, I love, but the phrase “Bethesda jank” exists for a reason). And its structure already demonstrates a certain thoughtfulness characteristic of the series. In short, it’s a modern sandbox action RPG, but crafted with the world-class care we’ve come to expect from this franchise.

It would be easy for this Zelda to fall flat on its face, to feel like some wannabe attempting to bite off the most successful games of the generation. So far, though, it hasn’t. And fair enough: Zelda basically created this style of game, and it’s only reasonable to think it should be able to reclaim a place and make a mark on the genre on its own terms.

And perhaps most importantly, Breath of the Wild gives the impression that its open design and many systems have purpose. I half-expected the need to forage for resources (including replacements for Link’s oh-so-fragile weapons) would be a drag, but it, too, gives a the impression of purposefulness. I think carefully about each and every arrow I loose at an enemy, because I don’t know how soon I’ll be able to replace it. And thorough exploration is its own reward. Take as an example my proudest free-roaming accomplishment yet: Stumbling upon a den of bokoblins, including a moblin chief, living in a massive skull-shape cave. My first encounter with them went poorly to the point of fatality… but eventually, I stumbled upon a cache of fire arrows elsewhere on the plateau. With those in hand, I returned and detonated the explosive barrels (yes, they even exist in Zelda) inside the cave, instantly clearing out all but the moblin. The wounded chief rushed me, and I had to defeat it in melee combat. This was hardly a gimme: The flames I sparked ignited his spiked wooden club, upgrading a single successful blow from it from “painful” to “instantly fatal.” But I dodged, persevered, and survived. It was even more exhilarating than the moment in the video above in which I crept up silently to steal a bokoblin’s discarded weapon only to have the bad guy hear me at the last second and snatch his weapon away a split second before I could grab it myself.

These little moments have happened throughout the time with the game so far, and while you can definitely see the video game logic and limits working beneath it all, Breath of the Wild might actually combine freedom and dynamic systems as well as Metal Gear Solid V. If my time so far have been a true preview of the experiences that lie ahead once I get on with the plot and descend from the Great Plateau, Breath of the Wild should be 100 or so hours of pure pleasure in the style of the original Zelda, but with modern scope and style. That sounds like the greatest link to the past I could hope to ask for, really.

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Switch upholds two key Nintendo legacies: Portability and compromise

Nintendo’s Switch has been my platonic ideal for a console from the first rumor: A high-end portable console with the option to play it on a television. It is, quite simply, what the Wii U should have been from the start, and I began daydreaming aloud about how much the Wii U could have been so much better if it had taken the form of a console/handheld hybrid along the lines of what Switch turned out to be. It took nearly five years, but my hybrid daydream has become Nintendo’s critical business reality. I don’t know how well this ambitious little system will do for the company, but after using it under real-world circumstances for a few days, I can say it’s certainly doing a lot for me.

That said, I realize my tastes and expectations in games probably don’t line up with those of the average game enthusiast. My biggest video game project over the past few years has been lining up as many vintage systems as possible to output perfect video output for high-definition recording: Not really your average gaming obsession. The question, then, is how well will a console that appears to have been custom-built to appeal to my tastes fare with the general gaming public? And perhaps more importantly, can it transcend the gaming public to the larger market the way Wii did? Nintendo certainly seems to be banking on that hope, and I absolutely see potential for crossover appeal here, but Switch presents a far more complicated concept of a system for people to deal with. Wii’s hook — shake a funky remote control at the screen and your little man swings a tennis racket — was simple and obvious. Switch’s crossover design hinges on complexity. You open the box and are confronted by the core system (a button-free screen that resembles a fatter Kindle Fire)… and a dock… and two controller add-ons… and two optional strap dongles for the controller bits… and a different optional dongle for the controller bits. If Switch is meant to be Wii-come-lately, it feels as though Nintendo skipped right over the “simple charm” phase of that system and directly to the “where did all these accessories come from?” portion of its life cycle.

This isn’t a review of the console; those aren’t allowed until next week, and anyway it would be impossible for me to properly review a console when many of its fundamental functions have yet to be unlocked through the day-one system update. Rather, I’d like to make two observations about Switch after having spent a few days of quality time with the new console.

The first comes straight from the heart: Whatever Nintendo may say about Switch’s place in its lineup, this feels far more like an evolution of the company’s portable legacy than of its consoles. In point of fact, it’s a union of the two, and honestly is probably long overdue. But, Nintendo wants to hedge its bets, so it’s been promoting Switch as a successor to Wii U, hoping to allow it to exist in parallel to the 3DS. This makes a good deal of sense on one level: The 3DS overcame its rough start to become an extraordinarily popular system and currently has an enormous install base, especially among younger players. The Wii U… did not. Rather than wipe both off the slate with a system that can easily replace both, Nintendo’s promoting Switch as its new home console, while the 3DS (and, it should be said, the 2DS) soldiers on.

We saw this a decade ago with the Game Boy and DS, and Switch’s dual-function nature as a part-time console at least allows a more graceful bit of hemming and hawing than those unconvincing claims about the DS being a “third pillar” to complement the successful Game Boy Advance and the catastrophic GameCube. Like the DS, the Switch feels more closely aligned with the handheld line… but once again, it’s the console lineup that needs triage. So, sure, Switch is a console, not a portable. But you can bet that if it lives up to Nintendo’s hopes, it’ll suddenly become the new 3DS as well. And if not, that ongoing 3DS lineup gives them an opportunity for a face-saving reversal.

But make no mistake: Whatever the corporate messaging, Switch excels as a handheld system. It’s a portable first and foremost, and it’s fantastic in that regard. It really does feel in every way like a proper successor to its great-grandfather Game Boy and weird “uncle” Lynx (yeah, Lynx isn’t really related, but he and great-grandpa go way back):

Never mind that it’s the biggest handheld Nintendo has ever produced; it packs a respectable amount of power into its solid frame. It offers pretty much all the modern tech niceties: Bluetooth, wi-fi, and a reasonably capacious battery (it’s good for four-plus hours of solid play with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which I suspect drains a good deal more power than something like 1-2 Switch). The six-inch screen looks great, with respectable pixel density and vivid colors and brightness. And it uses industry-standard tech, a welcome change from Nintendo’s usual reliance on proprietary components: You can charge the unit with an off-the-shelf USB-C cable, and it accepts regular Micro SD cards — no overpriced Vita memory cards here. The one element of truly proprietary tech comes in the form of the game carts, which amount to tiny cards about the same size as Vita cards, albeit slightly thicker.

And really, the core system isn’t much larger than a 3DS XL. Take off the Joy Con controller bits and the tablet-like core is maybe half an inch larger on the X and Y axes and quite a bit thinner on the Z.

Which isn’t to say it’s quite as portable as the 3DS. The XL is already a chunky little guy that doesn’t fit comfortably into most pockets, and Switch is even bigger. It’s just enough larger to make it unlikely to fit into your 3DS XL carrying cases, or as the saying goes, “Just different enough to make you mad.” I can just barely slide an uncovered 3DS into the inner breast pocket of a sport coat or blazer (because I dress like an adult but don’t live like one), or even the outer side patch pockets. That doesn’t work for Switch, especially since (1) its screen isn’t protected by the DS family’s clamshell closure and (2) you still have to fuss with the Joy Cons. Switch really demands a bespoke carrying solution, because no one’s going to believe you can really fit it into a pocket (despite what television would have you believe).

With the Joy Cons connected, which is how you’ll be transporting the system most of the time, the Switch core unit dwarfs the original Game Boy. The one everyone calls the “brick” because it’s so huge.

In fact, as a self-contained handheld system, Switch’s lateral dimensions are almost identical to those of the Atari Lynx. The original Lynx, not the smaller revised model I have photographed here. That said, despite its width, this is no Lynx.

This is a far thinner device than any Lynx model, or in fact just about any portable Nintendo has ever produced either, outside of the 2DS. Part of me wonders if that might also have something to do with Nintendo’s reluctance to peddle Switch as a 3DS family replacement: Besides not having dual screens (just one huge touch screen), it also feels a lot less likely to withstand the ravages of being used by the under-15 set. It’s not a flimsy system by any means — it has a dense, solid feel in the hands, and potential weak points like the Joy Con rails are constructed from metals and other durable materials. But I wouldn’t call it rugged by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not difficult to imagine Nintendo eventually releasing a kid-friendlier version of Switch should it eventually ascend to become the 3DS’s successor as well, but for now, it feels more like a grown-up’s system.

This brings me to my second thought about Switch so far: Besides upholding Nintendo’s portable legacy, it also maintains the company’s tradition of compromise.

Compromise has always been a critical component of Nintendo’s hardware strategy. The Game Boy’s innards were a joke (based on ’70s tech, with a blurry four-color screen) compared to those of Atari’s Lynx (one of the most impressive sprite-pushing devices ever made, with a vivid backlit full-color screen). And Game Boy triumphed, because its crummy hardware made it cheap, compact, and battery-friendly. People laughed at Wii because it was “two GameCube duct-taped together,” but that was the entire point: It couldn’t produce high-definition visuals, true, but it was cheap and accessible and sold better than any console in history besides PlayStation 2.

Likewise, Switch is all about compromise as well. Detractors point out the fact that it uses a generation-old mobile chipset and basically amounts to a new version of the Nvidia Shield. All of this is true, but I’m sure Nintendo went with this specific tech configuration because it was more energy-efficient and kept the price of the core system down. Which is something they really need to focus on, because Switch accessories are insanely expensive — and seem to be fairly vital as well.

The biggest compromises Switch makes aren’t a matter of horsepower or battery juice, though. On those fronts, it seems to be perfectly decent. I don’t think anyone expects Nintendo to lead the charge in terms of raw technological capabilities, so the fact that Switch can’t compete toe-to-toe with PlayStation 4 Pro doesn’t really hurt when you take into account the fact that, unlike PS4, you can play Switch on an airplane tray.

Rather, my biggest frustrations with Switch so far result from its ergonomics. As a fanatic for handheld systems, I find Switch to be very nearly the greatest handheld system I’ve ever used… except for all the tiny ways in which I wish its interface options were just a little bit different.

My complaints ultimately arise from the complexity of the system I mentioned earlier. Nintendo has essentially created a console that answers every possible use case you could imagine. A standard console, a portable system, a portable system you can set up on a table and play with friends, a system whose add-on controller components can work in tandem or as a pair of separate devices for two players. It’s pretty fantastic, really, and fairly gutsy as a concept. But the system does trip over itself from time to time as it stretches to accommodate all these configurations.

As a handheld gaming device, Switch is big — like I said, as large in two of its dimensions as Atari’s infamously enormous Lynx was. But it’s much thinner than Lynx, and as a result of that thinness, it’s not entirely comfortable in the hands. As you can see in the 3DS comparison image above, the Joy Cons have a bit of a hand grip molded into their backsides, but not really enough to compensate for the fact that you’re holding a fairly hefty and fairly large rectangle of metal, glass, and plastic. It’s not that the system is heavy enough to become fatiguing, exactly; I just find my hands becoming cramped in a way I’m not used to with portables, since its weight is spread across a larger area and needs to be held differently than a 3DS or Vita.

I’m also very much not in love with the button layout of the Joy Cons. Because Nintendo has designed them to function as paired controllers or a pair of controllers, they’re forced to work across two axes. The left Joy Con doesn’t have a D-pad, because those digital inputs need to double as separate buttons when the Joy Con is used alone. And the right Joy Con isn’t symmetrical with the left, because it also needs to work as a miniature stand-alone controller. It’s a little uncomfortable to use as a solo controller due to the centered placement of the analog stick relative to that of the left Joy Con. And I keep getting tripped up by the fact that the analog and digital controls aren’t mirrored across the system; it’s pretty unusual for a controller to put the digital buttons below the analog stick on one side and above the stick on the other, and nearly 20 years of gaming muscle memory have me fumbling for the right stick whenever I need to adjust the camera in Zelda.

I do appreciate the versatility of control options for Switch, though. When my hands cramp from holding the system for too long, I can pop out the kickstand and attach the Joy Cons to the included controller base to use the system as a miniature TV. You can also use the Joy Cons on their own, reminiscent of the Wii’s remote-and-nunchuk configuration… though I find that my issues with the non-mirrored stick are heightened by this arrangement for some reason. Still, it really is the most versatile portable system ever made, and I’m looking forward to my cross-country flight next week for our upcoming Retronauts recording weekend. Breath of the Wild at 36,000 feet is nothing to sneeze at.

I’m sure many of my interface complaints — especially about the lack of a D-pad — would be made immaterial with the Switch Pro controller, but my review kit didn’t include one of those. So for now, I’m simply getting by with the standard controls. Which is fine for now, since the only game I have to work with is Zelda, which doesn’t require the use of a D-pad. But once the eShop opens and I want to download retro-style releases like Shovel Knight or The Binding of Isaac, I’m definitely going to have to pick up a Pro controller.

Despite these small criticisms, though, I really have fallen quite in love with Switch. As an avowed portable gaming enthusiast and historian, the fact that Nintendo has put together a sleek, adaptable handheld console that exceeds the power of its most recent traditional console is quite alright by me. No game system is perfect, and you always need to be willing to put up with some minor inconveniences in trade for your ideal experience. Switch’s small complaints aren’t completely trivial, but I can put up with them for what could prove to be the greatest portable system ever. Even if Nintendo isn’t really calling it that. The TV hookup is just a bonus, for me.

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Enjoy Bomberman’s most obscure outing with an afternoon live stream

I will once again be taking to the virtual airwaves this afternoon for another Gintendo livestream, this time at 5 p.m. ET (2 p.m. PT). I’ll be playing another pick-up from my trip to Japan, generously donated to the cause by Eric Klein of Kyde and Eric. It’s a little thing called “SameGame.”

That’s sah-meh gah-meh, not same game.

I discovered SameGame the same way I did Puzzle Bobble: By way of a shareware Mac-based ripoff on my university newspaper’s production computers. The real game is much more interesting than that simple clone, though.

Hudson’s SameGame only ever shipped in Japan, for Super Famicom. It came in an unusually oversized cartridge… yet it looks curiously reminiscent of something else. Specifically, if you’re familiar with the Japanese version of the Super Game Boy, it looks almost exactly identical to that cartridge.

And for good reason: Like Super Game Boy, SameGame is a cart within a cart. You can plug expansion packs into the top slot to switch up game elements. By default, it shipped with a Hudson mascot pack, and apparently this standard combo is not particularly in demand — overpriced Akihabara game shop Super Potato was selling this entire setup for a mere ¥180. That’s about a buck-fifty. They did have a couple of expansion packs as well, but those were selling for around $20 apiece… so I decided to go with just the basic pack, thank you very much. Apparently all the expansions really do is allow you to switch graphic to different tile sets, which is not really worth the premium. Besides, the default pak contains Bomberman and Bonk, so they kinda gave away the premium set…

I haven’t been able to find much concrete documentation for SameGame in English, so I have no idea how many jumper paks Hudson created, or what characters and properties they contained. I do know that SameGame was somehow able to connect to Nintendo’s Japan-only Super Famicom online service via the Satellaview, which I think allowed you to upload rankings to a leaderboard.

So, it’s a pretty neat 16-bit curio. It’s also not really that much of a game, so my guess is that I’ll play this for a while and then switch to something more exciting midway through the stream. I have no idea what that’ll be, but I’ll fish something fun out of my fairly respectable Super NES/Super Famicom collection to make it worth your while.

As always, you can witness the stream live and in person on my YouTube channel, or you can watch it later via the stream archive. See you there!

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An unfinished Atari 2600 series finds a conclusion… in comic form?

An incomplete Atari 2600 series is finally reaching its end in the Year of Our Lord 2017. In the form of a comic book. Stranger things have certainly happened in the world of licensing… but not by much.

Episodic game franchises go unfinished more often than not. (Ask Gabe Newell about Half Life 2: Episode 3 sometime, he loves that question.) It’s a grim reality of the business, and it’s one whose precedent was set more than three decades ago, way back on the Atari 2600.

In 1982, Atari published a game called Earthworld, which served as the embarkation point for a tetralogy called SwordQuest. It was a madly ambitious concept of a series: A set of top-down action-RPGs featuring a variety of mini-games and challenges, reminiscent in some ways of the Tron arcade game. And upon completing the games and gathering all the clues hidden within, players could submit their solution to Atari to compete for valuable prizes (including a solid gold talisman and a chalice made of gold, platinum, and precious stones).

The second game, Fireworld, shipped in 1983. You know what also happened for Atari 2600 in 1983? The whole bottom fell out of the console market, Atari’s stocks crashed, and parent company Warner Communications split the company into two parts and sold them off like damaged goods. The third SwordQuest title, Waterworld (no relation), was only available through Club Atari. That game’s prize was never distributed, and the fourth entry in the series — to be called Airworld, obviously — never shipped in any form.

And that should have been the end of the game’s legacy, right then and there. It hasn’t even done much as a cautionary tale against the folly of episodic games (but no doubt we’ll be seeing SiN episodes two through nine any day now). Truly, a forgotten corner of gaming. But no: As it turns out, Dynamite Entertainment has picked up the rights to SwordQuest and will be launching it as an ongoing comic book series beginning in May. It’s a strange property for anyone to pick up from the dusty annals of video game history, but it does make a certain kind of sense; the original games shipped with packed-in comics to lend context to the decidedly abstract on-screen action.

Plus, the initial pitch sounds intriguing. Rather than being a straight adaptation of the SwordQuest plot (which was remarkably expansive for 2600 games), the SwordQuest comic series will evidently take on more of a metatextual flavor by concerning itself with the adventures of a normal kid on a mission to complete the SwordQuest games.

The creative team behind SwordQuest knows from metatext, too: Co-writer Chris Sims wrote Marvel’s too-brief X-Men ’92 series, which managed to be amusingly (rather than annoyingly) self-referential, and artist Scott Kowalchuk did a stint on Batman ’66, which did a brilliant job of recapturing the same tongue-in-cheek straight-man vibe as the old TV series. So despite the improbability of this entire venture, it’s probably going to turn out to be pretty good. At the very least, it seems likely to offer a more meaningful fictional takes on classic video games than a certain soon-to-be-a-major-Hollywood-picture novel…

As it happens, Sims is based here in North Carolina and has graciously consented to sit in for an episode of Retronauts East. You can look forward to that — along with the zero-issue debut of the comic — in a few months.

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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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