Virtual Console: Pokémon Snap and the Wii U’s most tragic missed opportunity

Yesterday, Nintendo published a single Virtual Console game for the U.S.: Pokémon Snap. A Nintendo 64 release on Wii U, Pokémon Snap happens to be one of those games that’s so entertaining and beloved that it seems downright churlish to complain about the fact that Virtual Console releases have slowed to a trickle versus a decade ago. Sure, it’s just one game this week — but that game is Pokémon Snap. Right?

OK, I’ll cop to it: I don’t really care that much about Pokémon Snap. I didn’t really cotton to the Pokémon series in general until it hit DS — largely because the series demands a platform that allows you to set it down and suspend your action at any time by simply closing the lid — so Snap predates my involvement with the games by several years. However, I also recognize that a lot of people love Snap, to the point that it almost certainly holds the title of “most popular Pokémon spinoff ever.”

It’s a charming little game, really. It’s essentially a rail-based shooter… well, no, it’s literally a rail-based shooter. The game consists of riding along a rail in a safari mine cart or something, but because you’re “shooting” at adorable and highly merchandisable little pocket monsters you shoot with a camera rather than a gun. The challenge then becomes not to kill things as efficiently as possible but rather to capture the most interesting, most unusual, and best-framed pictures of pokémon that you can. The idea wasn’t invented whole-cloth here; it had precedent in a quirky import-only PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 game called Gekisha Boy, which involved the same photo challenge concept as Snap but with rubbery hand-drawn 2D sprites and a decidedly tawdry sense of humor that definitely didn’t make its way over to PokémonSnap, however, turned the whole thing into an immersive virtual safari, so by no means was it some callow Gekisha Boy ripoff. It had its own vibe, its own appeal — yes, even beyond the inclusion of Nintendo’s collectable little creatures.

It sold like gangbusters, and it’s held on to fans’ affections for the better part of two decades. Yet, somehow, they never quite got around to following up on Pokémon Snap. Despite the sheer number of games to have shipped in the past 20 years bearing the Pokémon name, none of them have borne the name Pokémon Snap 2.

According to an interview conducted within the past couple of years — apologies that I can’t seem to find the link to it — the stewards of Pokémon have plainly stated that they don’t want to create a direct sequel to Snap, because they don’t want to simply retread the same material. I personally find that claim a little fishy, given how many indistinguishable sequels they’ve made to Pokémon Ranger and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, but whatever. The thing is, they didn’t have to create a same-y sequel; the Wii U absolutely begs to have its own custom-made Snap follow-up. The game practically designs itself: Stick to the same on-rails movement, but incorporate the Wii U Game Pad’s gyro sensor to create more of an augmented-reality experience for peering around and aiming the camera. This seems like even more of a no-brainer now that we have Pokémon Go to demonstrate just how gloriously Pokémon and AR work together, and it’s honestly bewildering (even for someone like me, who doesn’t particularly care about Snap) that it was Go rather than a Snap sequel that took the franchise into the AR space.

Instead, we simply have the original Snap on Wii U now. I suppose that’s fine and all, but it comes off as a something of a taunt — a reminder of the conceptually perfect sequel they never got around to creating. So go ahead and download the original for that nostalgic dopamine hit you so desperately need, if you must. But don’t think too hard about how incredible a Pokémon Snap for Switch would be. The more you want it, the less likely you are to ever see it happen. You can’t spell “Nintendo games” without “n-e-g,” after all.

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Live stream [archived]: Donkey Kong ’94 (the Game Boy one)

Update: The stream has ended and you can watch the archived version below! Thanks to all who joined in.

Last week’s Gintendo trial stream seems to have gone over quite well, so I’m going to try another test flight this evening. Several people didn’t like the fact that I had my streaming software set to mute the game audio whenever I spoke, so this time around I’ll see how it goes when I adjust the broadcast to keep the game action audible beneath my mutterings.

The game featured this time around will fall into my Game Boy specialty wheel house: Nothing less than Donkey Kong ’94. I’ve been capturing footage for the Donkey Kong NES retrospective episode of Good Nintentions, and this process has reminded me how danged great the Game Boy remake/sequel/reinvention was. Seriously, it’s exceptional. So! I’ll spend an hour farting around with it tonight, maybe make some progress, who knows.

The stream will go live at 5:30 p.m. ET (that’s 2:30 p.m. PT and Super Gol-danged Late GMT) on my YouTube channel. Or, you know, you could just watch it here.

This is, of course, a Gintendo stream. Tonight’s drink will be a gin and tonic made with Cardinal American Dry gin, which is distilled here in North Carolina — like the saying goes, “Think globally, drink locally.” Or something like that. And if you enjoy this follow-up test stream and would like to help make it a regular, weekly affair, it’s the next funding goal for the Retronauts Video Chronicles campaign. (There’s less than $200 to go before I commit myself to streaming once or twice a week.)

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Let’s dissect Symphony of the Night

I know we’ve hit the “turn retronauts.com into a daily blog” Patreon tier, but I hope it’s OK if — as with our other plans and ambitions for expansion — it doesn’t take full effect until February. It takes a while to ramp up into these seismic life changes, you know? Also, I’m still with USgamer until the end of the month, so I kinda feel obligated to make that my main focus for now.

HANDILY! The piece I published at USG today should be of great interest to Retronauts readers, since it involves a game we’ve covered here on the podcast (more than once, I’d say): Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. (That’s a link to the column, by the way.)

This article is actually the first in what I intend to be an ongoing weekly column for USG, something I’ll continue writing after I depart from the site. I’ll be tackling a different game each month, and examining its different aspects across a series of four or five posts. Something kind of tells me that I won’t be able to explore some games in proper depth with just four entries, so there may be some spillover here as well. I intend to alternate classic and current games from month to month; I’m tackling Symphony for January, but next month I’ll be exploring The Last Guardian. Later this year I’ll delve into Final Fantasy VIIMass Effect: Andromeda (unless it turns out to be terrible), and who knows what else. I’ll be sure to cross-link the classics from here.

Canny observers may recognize this as an offshoot of my old Anatomy of Games series; less canny observers will have realized this connection since I mentioned it in the column prelude. I sort of lost the plot with Anatomy of Games and put the site to rest, but I’m hoping this format will keep things brisk and more interestingly generalized while still interestingly analytical. Anyway, I hope you enjoy, and I will be over here in stunned disbelief that it’s somehow been 20 years since I had my PlayStation modded so I could import and play a little game called Gekka no Nocturne….

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Panzer Dragoon soundtrack review

I have four more weeks left in my run with USgamer before I go solo and try in earnest to turn this podcast and site into something capable of providing me with a living (or else admitting failure and going into, I dunno, real estate or something). Think of the next 20 work days as a sort of, I dunno, farewell tour. And I’ve kicked it off the only way I know how: By writing about something extremely esoteric and extremely retro in nature. Namely, Data Discs’s recent release of the Panzer Dragoon soundtrack as a double 45rpm vinyl LP set. Because why not go all in when I’m on the way out?

It’s a fantastic release, even by the admittedly high standards of Data Discs. I played through Panzer Dragoon a very, very long time ago, but for whatever reason its music never stuck with me. Going back now and listening to it in this context, I love what I hear. It’s very… well, I can’t think of any other way to describe it except “very ’90s.” But in a good way! Not a bad, cheesy way. There are passages here that remind me of Mega Man Legends —  this one synthesizer hit with a multilayered sound I can’t really describe that both games use — as well as tracks that feel like they served as the basis for huge chunks of the Skies of Arcadia soundtrack, too. But it works most of all as a great collection of music in its own right.

Altogether, the Panzer Dragoon soundtrack feels nostalgic in a way completely different from chiptunes and Super NES or Genesis music. It’s good stuff and I strongly recommend it to anyone who’s into great game music and ever listens to vinyl. But hey, don’t take my word for it; take my word for it.

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Go go go! It’s… Mach Rider

Today’s a Tuesday, which means it’s (1) the day Bison visits Chun-Li’s village and (2) the day a new episode of Good Nintentions Retronauts Video Chronicles goes live. This time around, it’s a look at Mach Rider for NES:

Like Donkey Kong Jr. Math, Mach Rider exists in a state of quantum actual-release-date flux. Nintendo says it launched one date (Oct. 1985); every other source from the time says it launched considerably later (anywhere from March to August 1986). So, I’ve grouped it with Math as a provisional 1986 release and called it a day.

For the most part, this video focuses on the game’s design and how its racing tech (and uncredited development staff) appears to tie it to an older Famicom game that never shipped in the U.S.: F1 Race, which like Mach Rider was co-developed by HAL. Everything I’ve come up with is, unfortunately, speculative, but it’s not difficult to connect the dots and see how one game might have served as the foundation for the other, given the common staff, similar tech, and seemingly U.S.-oriented aesthetics and design of this game.

As for Mach Rider itself, it’s decent enough. I’ve never been able to find much to love about it myself, but I came into it later. I imagine it was probably a heck of a showcase for the console’s capabilities back in 1986. The game moves fast when you’re in 4th gear… maybe too fast. The lack of any actual scaling technology in the NES hardware means that obstacles on the road become extremely hazardous due to positional ambiguity. It becomes difficult to judge how far away objects are from you and where on the road they actually lie, laterally speaking. It feels kind of shabby to criticize the game, though — this was an early NES game running on bare hardware with no cartridge enhancements, and while it’s certainly no Out Run, it’s an impressive example of what the most accomplished NES programmers could achieve without add-on aids. That it’s ultimately only so-so as a game puts it in good company with far less spectacular-looking releases of the era; at least this one has visual pizzazz going for it.

And a brazen Rush reference. That counts for a lot, in my book.

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Retronauts Episode 82: Bubble Bobble & friends

A few months ago, we summoned Ray Barnholt into the studio to help us sort out the mad entanglement of games and names and remakes and reissues and branding confusion that is Wonder Boy. Or Adventure Island. Or The Dynastic Hero. Whatever — take your pick. It’s all the same thing.

Well, we all survived the experience without our brains exploding all Scanners-style, so we have courageously reconvened in the studio to take on the next big messy project: Taito’s Bubble Bobble.

Of course, we’re giving away the plot right there, to a certain degree. This is Taito‘s Bubble Bobble, which automatically makes it less baffling than Wonder Boy and Adventure Island, whose name and lineage splits right there at day one depending on which company’s adaptation of the concept you’re talking about. Bubble Bobble is Taito’s baby (which means it’s been Square Enix’s baby for the past decade), so it at least has a sort of internal consistency going for it. That being said, this sprawling franchise of loosely connected platform games has suffered its share of overlapping titles and contradictory names, so there’s plenty to keep track of… and plenty of opportunity for your poor host (me) to screw something up.

This episode spans a wide gamut of games: Bubble Bobble, Parasol Stars, Rainbow Islands, Bubble Memories, The New Zealand Story, Liquid Kids, Don Doko Don, Bubble Symphony, a host of remakes, a bunch of games that claim to be Bubble Bobble 2, and a bunch more that I can’t remember off the top of my head. Honestly, it would probably be less trouble for you to just give it a listen:

The original Power Trio — Bob, Ray, and Jeremy — follow up their recent look at Wonder Boy to take on the next needlessly convoluted franchise: Taito’s Bubble Bobble (et al.). Confusion guaranteed for all!

Libsyn (1:59:16 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)

And we didn’t even get into the Puzzle Bobble games… that’ll be next week. And eventually we’ll get a Falcom expert into the studio to go over the Dragon Slayer franchise with us and bring an end to this trilogy of nonsense.

Music from this episode comes from various Bubble Bobble games. Especially that theme. You know the one… or you will, once it’s drilled its way forever into your brain after its frequent appearance here.

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Listener mail solicitation time

Hello, everyone, and happy new year. I hope!

As you’ll hear in this week’s episode of the podcast (which goes live tomorrow), I’d like to integrate a listener mail segment into my episodes of Retronauts going forward. Bob has done a few mailbag roundups as full episodes, and I don’t see any need for that to change! However, I would like to get a little of that action on the shows I host as well. The way we used to do, back a very long time ago, at 1UP.

The next episode I will be recording will be the prototype episode for Retronauts East, and that should be happening within the next week or so. The topic at hand for this session: The TI-99/4A personal computer. Of course, I have already recorded a Micro episode on the TI-99/4A:

But this time we’ll be going into much greater depth on the subject, as befits a 90-minute episode versus one that tops out at 10. And, as I’ve mentioned, we’d like to field your questions on the topic! So please, shoot me an email at jparish [at] retronauts [dot] com sometime this week and we’ll do our best to read your thoughts (and answer your questions, when relevant). Thanks!

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Time for Bob’s Obligatory “Best Games of 2016” List!

Hey, all: Bob here. I’ve been cataloging my favorite games of the year on this very Internet since around 2008 or so, and, because Tumblr isn’t the best place for text-heavy posts, I figured the Retronauts blog would make a good home for 2016’s list. (The other lists have been lost to time and 1UP’s utter disappearance, but you can check out 2014’s here and 2015’s here.)

Now, since I’ve already blurbed about plenty of these for my job at Fandom, I’m going to keep my write-ups somewhat short. If anything, this list exists to remind me how I chose to spend 1000-or-so hours of free time in the waking nightmare we called 2016.

That said, I’m happy to present my favorite 10 games of this year, listed in an extremely loose least-good-to-most-good order that’s tainted with my personal biases. Enjoy!

10. Dragon Quest Builders

On the surface, Dragon Quest Builders looks like the most cynical video game concept on earth. Thankfully, its attempts to fit the anything-goes world of Minecraft into the rewarding restrictions of Japanese game design resulted in a highly addictive and worthwhile experience. Granted, it did let me lose a vital key and essentially made 20 hours of play pointless, but the scars have healed over the past few months and I’m now able to look back on my time with DQB fondly. (And I may even start a new game in 2017.)

9. Dark Souls III

Dark Souls has lost a tiny bit of its luster since it bowled us over way back in 2011, but III isn’t a huge step down for From Software—especially when you consider they’ve been working on massive RPGs back-to-back for nearly a decade. This one may not be my favorite of the series, but it brings a lot of new stuff to the table, and looks absolutely gorgeous after finally breaking free from the restraints of last-gen hardware. Bloodborne kinda spoiled me with its more interesting world and Lovecraftian overtones, but Dark Souls III is still Dark Souls. And I like Dark Souls a whole bunch.

My USgamer review

8. Rhythm Heaven Megamix

Plenty of folks probably missed its digital-only 3DS release, but Rhythm Heaven Megamix amounts to the best take on the series to date. Megamix presents the Rhythm Heaven you know and love, all while eliminating the unnecessary tedium and frustration that made the previous entries less whimsical and welcoming than they aspired to be. Sure, more new songs would have been nice, but it’s still pretty cool to have this ideal version of Rhythm Heaven on my 3DS at all times.

My USgamer review

7. Monster Hunter Generations

Monster Hunter has essentially been tinkering with the same basic formula for over a decade, and Generations makes for the smartest iteration yet. From its big, huge changes, to the countless granular ones only apparent to series veterans, Generations sets out to be the most approachable take on the series yet—all while keeping the impressive complexity that still pushes most folks away. By the end of 2016, I played more Generations than any other Monster Hunter game to date, and that’s really saying something.

My USgamer review

6. Stardew Valley

I used to be a big fan of Harvest Moon, despite the fact that it’s kind of been floundering for the past decade. Instead of sticking with one formula and continually refining it—as Natsume did from the series’ debut to the GBA’s Friends of Mineral Town—every new year brings a reinvention of the Harvest Moon wheel, with the promise of “it’ll be good this time, we swear!” Meanwhile, Stardew Valley came out of nowhere in 2016, greatly expanded on the Friends of Mineral Town experience, and ended up being so addictive I forcibly put it on hold so I could actually play other stuff. Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons still soldier on, but they’re going to have to try a lot harder if they ever want to dethrone this indie upstart.

My USgamer write-up

5. The Last Guardian

We’ve seen a handful of games enter development hell, only to come out the other side a total wreck. *cough*Too Human*cough* But, miraculously, Sony gave The Last Guardian all the time it needed to come into being as a fantastic game. With AAA releases only becoming more homogenized and safe since 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus, director Fumito Ueda’s choices have struck some as more baffling than idiosyncratic in 2016. But if you accept frustration as a natural part of the experience, The Last Guardian does the impossible by getting you to love a collection of polygons and AI routines as if it were a real animal. And yes, it will make you cry—but not for the lousy, manipulative reasons most games do.

My Fandom review (powered by Wikia)

4. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice

Phoenix Wright games are basically Bob Mackey catnip, but they’re not all at the same level of quality. But, after 10 years of trying to find its way, Spirit of Justice finally puts the Ace Attorney series on the right track. Really, Spirit of Justice amounts to Apollo Justice Part Two, as it mainly devotes itself to tying up many (but not all) of the loose ends left lingering at the end of his original 2008 game. Still, Spirit of Justice follows the tradition of 2013’s Dual Destinies by being an ensemble piece. Every character gets a chance to shine, and the writers know when to pull back from fan service just before it gets annoying. Legal reasons may prevent us from seeing the Ace Attorney/Phoenix Wright crossovers, but these core sequels put out by the series’ “b team” have finally recaptured the original trilogy’s magic.

My USgamer review
My USgamer review of the DLC

3. Final Fantasy XV

Full disclosure: I never thought I’d end up liking Final Fantasy XV, and I was pretty sure it’d end up being pretty bad. As of this writing, though, I’m currently 70 hours in and only on chapter 3, so you could say I had a change of heart. What really makes Final Fantasy XV sing for me are the smart restrictions placed on its massive open world: unlike most games of this type, you can’t just go anywhere and do everything whenever you want. The result is a highly addictive loop that has you making the absolute most of your in-game day to reap the experience-multiplying rewards by sunset. I can’t tell you much about the characters and story, but my god could I just dick around in this game forever.

2. Overwatch

I’ve been trying to find something to hit that multiplayer sweet spot since I stopped playing Left 4 Dead 2 regularly, and Overwatch has finally done it. (Even though it’s a completely different type of game.) Kudos to Blizzard for bucking conventional wisdom, since their smart choices have made Overwatch the multiplayer game of the year—and for several more to come. There’s no single-player campaign to mess with, and no characters, weapons, or abilities to unlock: Simply start the game, and it gives you a multiplayer toy box, with all the action figures available from the start. Whenever I want some quick, no-bullshit fun, I turn immediately to Overwatch. And I don’t think that’ll change anytime soon.

1. Hitman

I didn’t really play the Hitman series before, so I had no idea this soft reboot would rank up there as my game of the year. But here we are. Though some had reservations about its episodic nature, Hitman’s emphasis on replaying levels made this distribution method ideal. Each scenario provides a fairly large and incredibly dense “murder sandbox” of sorts, with plenty of opportunities to explore, items to find, and increasingly ingenious and absurd assassination methods to discover. Each time you replay a level, you get to know it and the schedules of its residents a little better, making it all the more rewarding—unlocking costumes, weapons, items, and new starting locations certainly helps, too. All in All, Hitman amounts to a rich, rewarding, and hilarious experience that emphasizes experimentation in a way that makes it absurdly replayable. I honestly can’t recommend it enough.

My USgamer review of Episode 1
My Usgamer review of Episode 2
My USgamer review of Episode 3
My USgamer review of Episode 4

Games That Didn’t Make the Cut

Since I write about video games for a living, I don’t have time for everything, so I thought I’d mention a few conspicuous omissions below my top ten list. I really wanted to play through Dragon Quest VII after suffering through the PlayStation version 15 years ago, but I only started it literally yesterday. Other RPGs I couldn’t find time to play or finish: Bravely Default, Tokyo Mirage Sessions, Darkest Dungeon, and Fire Emblem Fates—thankfully I only purchased two of these! Deus Ex: Mankind Divided also seemed pretty cool, as did Doom and Hyper Light Drifter. Sadly, not many indie games stood out to me this year, but I will always remember how The Witness sent me on a long tour of Puzzle Hell I will remember for the rest of my life. (Despite my best efforts.)

I guess there’s no other place to put this, so I’ll also add that I finally played through The Evil Within and really loved it despite a whole bunch of bullshit difficulty spikes and unfair deaths. Something pushed me to the end, though, and while I enjoyed The Evil Within, it’s not something I could possibly recommend.

That’s all from me this year. Take care of yourselves, and get ready for a whole new year of Retronauts stuff! …We’ve got some work to do.

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Stream complete: G.I. Joe features in the Gintendo test run [Archived]

The next funding goal for the Retronauts Video Chronicles will be weekly live streams — and not just live streams, but the “Gintendo” streams I’ve been threatening to produce for the past few months. You guys thought it was a Twitter joke, but I meant it! The idea should, hopefully, be somewhat self-explanatory: I play a classic game and sip a libation of some sort. (Not necessarily gin, though that’s definitely my preferred substance to abuse.)

We haven’t quite hit that mark yet, but it’s only about $150/mo. away and I feel pretty confident that the rad people of the internet will make it happen. So tonight will be a test run in a number of respects. I’ve never used YouTube for streaming before, nor have I streamed anything since rearranging my office setup last month. I figure the Friday evening of a holiday weekend is probably the best possible time to attempt to try a dry run for something so fraught with technical concerns and learning curves.

The stream is now archived here:

But please be patient, as this will definitely be a “working out the kinks” kind of stream.

  • Tonight’s game of choice will be G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, developed by Kid and published by Taxan for NES.
  • Tonight’s beverage of choice will be a negroni made with Barr Hill honey gin. (Equal parts gin, Carpano Antica vermouth, and Campari, shaken with ice and enjoyed up.)

I will share whatever knowledge I have for both as I enjoy them together. Assuming setup complications don’t get the best of me, that is. Please watch and play along… or drink along… or both… or neither. Really, the choice is yours.

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Virtual Console: The lesser greats

Yesterday Nintendo pushed two pretty major games for Virtual Console — entries in both the Mario Kart and Castlevania series. Franchises popular enough that you kind of have to take a step back and exclaim, “Wait, how were these not already on VC?” Perhaps the answer lies in a curious coincidence: Both of these games have the questionable distinction of hovering down in the lowest rankings of their respective series.

What a fitting way to end 2016. “Wow, new Mario Kart and Castlevania on VC! Awesome …oh, wait.

Now, I wouldn’t put either Mario Kart 64 or Castlevania: Dracula X at the absolute bottom of their franchises. Not when Mario Kart Wii exists. And truth be told, there may actually be no real bottom against which to calibrate the worst of the Castlevania franchise. The series has given us some truly legendary classics, but it turns out that making a good, authentic-feeling Castlevania game is a very difficult task which only a few designers have properly grasped through the years; Dracula X sits more in the middle in terms of actual quality than wallowing in the stygian depths of the series’ worst entries.

Au contraire. There’s actually quite a bit of fun to be had with either of these games, if you can overlook their faults and put yourself in the proper mindset. That being said, it’s not too hard to understand why these two tend to be regarded as lesser entries of their beloved series.

Mario Kart 64 (N64 for Wii U)

I won’t lie, I played a lot of Mario Kart 64 back when it first came out. I was in college, working as editor-in-chief of the university newspaper, and during one particularly grueling period where I struggled to actually leave the newspaper office long enough to go to classes or sleep, Mario Kart 64 kept me and my staff sane. I was pretty impressed by the game’s technical leaps over the original Super Mario Kart, which always felt sort of slow and flat to me. After a fairly mundane starter track, MK64 began throwing in bumpy and sloped surfaces. By the time I reached Wario’s personal course, which appeared to be a muddy, turbulent BMX track that the kart krew had dickishly taken over to ruin with their weighty racers, I was sold. I mastered every track at every speed, and then I raced for the gold on the reverse tracks.

(And once that was done, I sold Mario Kart and my N64 in exchange for a PlayStation, though that wasn’t an issue with the game but rather with the fact that it was the last N64 release I could see ahead for the rest of 1997 that looked particularly interesting to me.)

As much time as I spent with Mario Kart 64, I have a hard time getting back into it these days. The tracks, which seemed so exciting and lively 20 years ago, now stretch on too long and overstay their welcome. Rainbow Road is the worst offender by far, but frankly more courses drag on than not. And of course, there’s the infamous rubberband A.I., a long-running Mario Kart issue that’s never gone away but was very nearly at its absolute worst here. (The absolute worst was, of course, in Mario Kart Wii.) Between its relatively meager selection of racers, lack of kart kustomization, bloated tracks, and cheap CPU tactics, Mario Kart 64 feels like… well, it feels like a lot of games from this era: An awkward first step into 3D that would be overshadowed by subsequent works created by more practiced and confident hands once the training wheels were off.

Castlevania: Dracula X (Super NES for New 3DS)

Dracula X for Super NES has taken flak from the very beginning because of what it’s not: Namely, it’s not Dracula X: Rondo of Blood for PC Engine CD-ROM. I remember magazine articles at the time of its debut (I think EGM, maybe, and almost definitely Game Fan) ripping Dracula X a new one because it wasn’t the “same” as the original. I wouldn’t discover import gaming for another couple of years — I had my PlayStation modded to play the Japanese release of this game’s sequel, as it would happen — so I had no idea what they were talking about.

But I still found myself disappointed by what Dracula X wasn’t: Namely, a proper follow-up to Super Castlevania IV. History has proven Castlevania‘s first 16-bit outing to be little more than an aberration, a creative hiccup in the timestream, but the game had a huge impact on me and I sincerely expected it to be the model for future entries in the Castlevania franchise. So after waiting four years for a follow-up, only to get a game that felt like a throwback to NES-era design, I was bummed.

Neither of these criticisms are, to my mind, entirely fair. It would take more than a decade for Rondo of Blood to come to the U.S., so I can certainly understand the irritation that this mutant variant caused among avid importers, but realistically I don’t think a Super NES cart had the space to handle all the crazy stuff that makes Rondo so amazing. No, the best reason to find Dracula X frustrating is that it is in fact a deeply frustrating game, as I discovered live on the air earlier this year when I made my first serious attempt at playing through it (rather than sort of farting around with it as I’d done over the past god-knows-how-many years).

There’s some real jerk-league stuff in here, with tons of enemies whose placement, patterns, or speed exceed what the player’s controls are equipped to handle without absolute memorization. This, in my opinion, violates a fundamental principle of classic-style Castlevania, which demands that the game world and its hazards be crafted around the protagonist’s limitations — pushing the limits, but never breaking them. When Classicvania violates this rule, as with the falling-block climb in the Alucard route of Dracula’s Curse, it does so at its own peril. Dracula X does this constantly as a matter of routine. And that is why it’s not a particularly great Castlevania entry. Wonderful music, though.

So here I am, rounding out the year by using Retronauts to complain about Virtual Console. No matter how dark 2016 seemed, I hope you can take comfort in the fact that some things will never change.

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