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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Retronauts episode 85: The golden days of Activision

Hi everyone, I’ve landed in Tokyo and settled in for the night after being awake for about 26 hours straight. Please forgive me if I keep this entry short and to the point, because at this point I’m not entirely certainly I’m not hallucinating everything.

This week’s episode looks back to 1979 and the birth of Activision, a company that had a profound impact on the business of video games. Without Activision, the industry would look very, very different. A perfect storm of great timing, strong financial backing, and top-flight programming and game design came together in the form of this company to prove that third-party publishing could be a viable and valuable video game business model. Steve Lin and Jaz Rignall join us to chronicle the circumstances that led to Activision’s creation, the games they produced, and the great successes they had until their business model began to fizzle… which is to say, this show covers Activision until it became Mediagenic. (For more on that, I highly recommend the Activision/Infocom/Mediagenic retrospectives at The Digitial Antiquarian — they were enormously valuable as we planned this podcast!)

Steve Lin and Jaz Rignall join Jeremy and Bob again to look back at one of the most important game creators of all time: Activision, the company that established the concept of third parties.

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

As for musical interludes this time… well, there wasn’t really much I could pull in terms of music from Activision’s Atari 2600 era. Instead, I looked to the late ’80s for some tasty FM synth tunes. This episode’s music selections come from Shanghai, Shanghai II: The Dragon’s Eye, and Ghostbusters for Genesis. Enjoy!

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Oops, an unannounced Gintendo

Yesterday afternoon we recorded the first episode of Retronauts East, which I desperately hope turns out well — there’s a lot of fine-tuning that needs to happen with our recording setup, so the sound quality could turn out to be kind of awful. I guess we’ll find out! Once we wrapped the recording session, I decided to celebrate the show’s eastward expansion by launching an impromptu and unannounced Gintendo live stream of Castlevania:

Incredibly enough, it went remarkably well. Shockingly well, actually. I aced the two big sticking-point battles on my first go (skip ahead to 16:30 if you want to see the most impressive showing I’ve ever put up versus Frankenstein’s Monster and Igor). Then… the second half of the stream consists of my nerve breaking and me failing abysmally against Dracula’s stage and the final battle, over and over again. It was a pretty solid first half, though! I guess you could blame the gin (Reisetbauer Blue, if you’re curious).

Anyway, it’s here if you’d like to watch it.

I head out of town for a week on Sunday, so I won’t be able to host a normal Gintendo while I’m abroad. Although… I guess there’s technically nothing stopping me from taking along, say, the Retro USB AVS? And an Elgato device? And maybe picking up some random retro Famicom games and playing them? Hmm. If nothing else, I might try and stream a stroll through Akihabara or something, assuming it won’t devastate my international data plan. And I definitely will be posting all throughout next week on my game-shopping and developer-interviewing exploits in Tokyo, so you can at least look forward to that.

(Promo art by Rusty Shackles)

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Come see us live at: Midwest Gaming Classic!

As you know! Part of our Patreon commitment to you, the patrons of the Retronauts podcast, is that we will attend three classic gaming events per year and present a panel in front of a live studio audience. We have officially locked down our first such event for 2017, and it will be, once again, the Midwest Gaming Classic. We had a great time at MGC 2016 and figured, “Why not go again?”

See, here we were last year, bookending our special guests:

(Photo swiped from Dylan Cornelius)

So, if you happen to be attending MGC this year (that’s April 7-9 in Milwaukee, WI), be sure to sit in for our panel. I believe we’ll be presenting on Saturday afternoon. Bob and I will be there, along with two completely different special guests whose identities we’ll announce soon. I guess I could announce them now, but where’s the mystery in that, I ask ya?

Anyway, please look forward to it. We hope to see you there. Details to follow!

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Making the sausage, part 2

Well, this is it! Beginning today, Retronauts is my life, basically. Bob will continue to be an essential half of the show, of course, but now it’s on me to turn everything around it into a legitimate business. So why don’t we kick off this now-daily website by pulling back the curtain a little more? Transparency in media, of a sort.

The Saturday before last was recording day no. 1 for our most recent recording sessions, which should provide us with enough standard Retronauts episodes to keep things going through the end of March. Agenda for the day: Portable Castlevania games, Wii’s 10th anniversary, Final Fantasy IV.

Normally we begin recording at at noon, but for this session we had to start a few hours early due to an unavoidable afternoon scheduling conflict. That means both Bob and I had to head downtown from our respective origin points at about 8:30. That honestly probably worked out just as well, as it turned out to be a somewhat chaotic day due to the Women’s March. We record in studio-like space in San Francisco’s South of Market (SOMA) area, and both of us come in from the north. SOMA is separated from the north half of the city by Market Street, which runs from the Embarcadero in the inner bay halfway through the city to Twin Peaks. Market Street is a popular venue for big events like parades and protests… such as the Women’s March.

Bob lives in Berkeley, while I ventured out from San Francisco’s North Beach district. Depending on traffic, it can actually take a lot longer for me to make it downtown from an area due north of the studio than for Bob to make it in from another city on the other side of the bay. I decided to walk the two miles downtown to the studio to avoid traffic problems… though it turned out the marching and protests hadn’t begun that early in the day, so I needn’t have been so cautious. Bob took a very early cab in from Berkeley to account for potential traffic troubles and ended up sitting around in the studio for nearly an hour killing time before I made my way there for recording. Ah well.

We had plenty of time to set up the studio proper, at least. Setup isn’t too difficult; as you can see, it’s rather, uh, makeshift. Also, this is a pretty accurate view of the studio’s size.

We’ve referenced the Retronauts “vault” from time to time, and it’s not a euphemism. We literally record in a former bank vault. It’s kind of a weird situation, but: It’s an available space for weekend recordings, doesn’t cost too much, and affords us decent privacy. Usually. We did have to interrupt one episode this time because some random jackass wandering through the building evidently saw the “do not disturb” notice on the closed vault door and decided, “Wow, I should check that out.” Aside from witless snoopers and some occasional noise-bleed from events that sometimes take place in the shared workspace on Saturdays, though, it serves us well.

The main drawback to the studio is that it lacks air conditioning or ventilation. That’s good because it means we never have to worry about the oscillating hum of an HVAC system showing up on our recordings. But it’s bad because that tiny space gets warm and stale with up to four people and a bunch of computers crowded into it, especially since the building we use is located in one of San Francisco’s rare warm and sunny zones. We have to break once and hour or so to prevent dying, basically. And we’ve long since learned to bring special guests in at the beginning of the day; when Ron Gilbert sat in a while back, he arrived at the end of a long, warm day of recording and seemed less than enthusiastic about the lingering funk of the studio space. (Then again, maybe he was just trying to live up to his “Grumpy Gamer” nom de plume to avoid disappointing his fans.)

You may have noticed that our recording studio consists of sawhorses with a temporary table set across the top. That is correct. We pride Retronauts on being a professional-sounding show produced with professional quality, but this is definitely a case of the show itself being a proverbial “face for radio.” Speaking of faces for radio…

Clockwise from front: Me, Bob, Shane Bettenhausen. Talkin’ about Castlevania games, naturally.

We block out two hours for each recording session. Of course, our episodes typically clock in at 80-90 minutes; the rest of that time block goes into fine-tuning the setup, taking oxygen/potty breaks, and pauses for on-the-spot research when an unanticipated question pops up and we can’t answer it off the top of our heads. We always try to wrap 10-15 minutes early so that we can greet (and allow building access for) our revolving cast of guests for each subsequent episode, though that doesn’t always work out as planned — sometimes we record right up until the end of the block and leave our next guest standing around in front of a building in a somewhat bedraggled part of the city.

Thankfully, these session went smoothly and Bob was able to leave in time to make his next appointment. I had dinner with one of our guests and then walked the two miles back to North Beach in the rain — not really an ideal way to get home, but it was actually faster to walk since the entire city was in a state of gridlock. For some weird reason…

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Ping pong, like love, is a battlefield

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

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

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

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

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Gaming loses another giant: Remembering Masaya Nakamura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Retronauts Episode 84: Wii

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

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

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