An enticing look into Konami’s past

The Good Nintentions Gaiden series has — fittingly, but not deliberately — evolved into a running set of episodes about curios from the Japanese side of the NES era. This week we see this effect in action again with a fascinating Konami import title from the Famicom Disk System, Arumana no Kiseki.

This is one of those games whose story I’d love to hear. It so shamelessly rips off Indiana Jones, and specifically Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, that you really have to wonder if it was meant to be a properly licensed game. Konami already had a Spielberg property in hand — The Goonies — and the company produced several other licensed Famicom titles around this time, including Osamu Tezuka’s Hi no Tori and King Kong. But I was unable to find any firm details behind its history, so who knows…?

I’d also like to have included more footage of the game, but I couldn’t get beyond level three. I reached a point where I became trapped in a sort of canyon, where a spiked ball power-up respawned infinitely. I know the spiked ball is supposed to be able to break through walls, but I was unable to find a destructible wall before running out of continues. There are a lot of things I miss about the NES era, but unintuitive game design and frustrating mechanics ain’t part of that.

Also, now seems like a good time to mention that this video series is about to get a new name. Good Nintentions was a solid dad joke — I literally took it from a joke my father made when I was a kid — but as these video projects become a more serious endeavor under the Retronauts banner, both I and some of our prospective business partners feel it makes more sense to unify the different series. Thus projects like Good Nintentions, Game Boy World, and Mode Seven will now be the Works series: That is, “Game Boy Works”, “Nintendo Works”, “SNES Works”, and so forth. I love the Game Boy World name and would have been happy to use “World” as a brand of sorts, but the oldest Nintendo fansite on the Internet is called NES World, and it seemed a little gauche to swipe their name — that’s why I went with Good Nintentions rather than NES World in the first place

I’ve settled on Works for two reasons. One, because “Game Boy Works” has the same appealing, euphonic flow as “Game Boy World”; and two, because the name functions on a several practical levels. They’re video deep-dives into the workings of these creative works. And they’re comprehensive looks at those systems’ respective libraries, which is to say… the works.

And the new name will arrive at a good time for Good Nintentions (or rather, NES Works) in particular, since we’ve just finished with the NES launch library and are now moving along to subsequent and third-party releases. There’s a visual change in the library as we move away from the all-Black Box look, and a change in development ethos, so it feels like a natural break point.

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Retronauts Episode 93: Castlevania goes portable (Igavania edition)

Another week, another episode about Castlevania.

(Nah, just kidding, I’m limiting myself to one per year. But I will be resuming my Gintendo Castlevania marathon soon…)

This episode sees our favorite Castlevania fanatic (Shane Bettenhausen) return to the Retronauts flock to share the good news of portable Castlevania games. In summary, this episode touches on six games:

  • Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (GBA, 2001)
  • Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (GBA, 2002)
  • Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA, 2003)
  • Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (Nintendo DS, 2005)
  • Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (Nintendo DS, 2006)
  • Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Nintendo DS, 2008)

Though honestly I could easily manage a full episode deep-dive on at least half of them.

Did you notice the depressing part of this episode? That’s right: Only one of these games fails to pass our 10-year cutoff mark for being deemed “retro.” When Bloodstained arrives next year (presumably), it’s gonna be a one-decade celebration since the last good and proper Castlevania release. Man.

These games are synonymous for me with an incredibly important period of my life. I imported Circle of the Moon and a GBA right before I moved away from the place I’d lived for more than 20 years to attempt to start a new life. I imported Harmony of Dissonance with the negligible cash I had after that attempt failed. When I picked up Aria of Sorrow, it became a much-needed ray of light in a dark time in my life, right before I landed a job in the games press. And the DS trilogy became landmark moments in my advancement in the press: Importing Dawn of Sorrow gave my wild-eyed claims that the DS wasn’t all bad some heft; Portrait of Ruin gave me a thrilling opportunity to get my hands on a game months before its release thanks to my insider connections; and Order of Ecclesia arrived at the point at which I’d been around long enough that I was happy to defer reviews of games in beloved series to other people because I’d already had my say about those franchises and didn’t want to crowd out alternate perspectives.

I love these games, and it has taken an act of will for me to power through editing and posting this episode instead of just nipping off to play through them some more.

Episode description: Castlevania superfan Shane Bettenhausen joins Bob and Jeremy to discuss the next set of vampire-slaying classics to go under the retrospective lens: The series’ six “Igavania” entries for Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS.

MP3, 52.0 MB | 1:48:28
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This week’s music selections come, naturally, from the games in question. Each discussion of individual titles is accompanied by some of that’s game’s best tunes. Composers include Michiru Yamane, Yuzo Koshiro, and more.

Finally, the big change for the show this week is the addition of in-show advertisements. It’s a new experience for us, but we’re big fans of paying our bills! So a big thank-you to this episode’s sponsors: BarkBox, Audible, and Casper Mattresses.

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Reminder: You should join us live at Midwest Gaming Classic

Yes, that’s right: Next weekend (April 8, to be precise) Bob and I will be setting up camp at Midwest Gaming Classic in Milwaukee to present our first live Retronauts panel of the year. Last year, we waxed eloquent about the Sega Master System with the help of some SEGA experts; this time around, we’ve rounded up two local Splatterhouse experts in order to talk about, yes, Splatterhouse. Caitlin Oliver and Kevin Bunch will be joining us to discuss the history of the series, its sequels and offshoots, and hopefully explain what allure the franchise possesses to entice them to go toe-to-toe to defend the arcade game’s all-time high-score record.

The talk will take place next Saturday at 3 p.m. And we’re hoping to host a meet-up later in the evening at the event’s bar, so please join us for that! If it happens!

On the much less expert side of things, I’ll also be taking the dilettante approach to Splatterhouse in a Gintendo stream tomorrow afternoon. (It’s Friday, it’s OK to start up with the gin a little early.) Specifically, I’ll be trying out Splatterhouse 2 for Genesis, because I need to stream more frequently from SEGA systems, and then moving along to the copy of Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti I picked up during my last trip to Japan. I can’t promise I will play well, but at least I will make groaner puns on the fly and talk about alcohol…?

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Would not a Bomberman by any other name smell just as, uh… bomby?

Game Boy World has been dormant for a couple of months, but it’s not dead — I’ve just been largely preoccupied by getting Retronauts off the ground and have been leaning on my familiarity with the material covered in Good Nintentions for a while. But off we go again, with the 83rd episode of Game Boy World, which sees a very familiar character masquerading as a Van Halen reference:

It’s a Bomberman game, or at least an incredibly close spinoff. Atomic Punk, aka Bomber Kid in Japan or Dynablaster in Europe (where Bomberman suffered through years of similar rebranding efforts to the ones he experienced here), hails from the decade span in which most Bomberman games to escape Japan ended up being renamed in the west — sometimes under the auspices of different publishers, despite Hudson having a presence as outside Japan. Atomic Punk was actually published here by Hudson, so it doesn’t even have that excuse going for it. According to a YouTube comment by someone from the On the Stick podcast, Irem distributed an arcade version of Bomberman under the name Atomic Punk in the U.S. around the same time that this shipped in the U.S., so it would seem Hudson actually deferred to another company’s naming convention for one of its own most popular characters. Geez, dudes. Have some backbone.

Anyway, this episode seems pretty timely since it arrives just a few weeks after the launch of a brand-new Bomberman game — and a portable one at that! Game Boy World 83 tidily ties in with the hottest new gaming system on the market. And so does the ouroboros of video game history bear down ever harder on its own tail.

And a huge thank-you to Armen Ashekian for lending me his packaged copy of the game to photograph. Enough Bomberman nerds have caught wind of this one’s origins to send the complete game’s price through the roof. I’m always grateful to people who can spare me the expense of ponying up eBay prices for hard-to-find complete-in-box games for an hour of photography and scanning. The real treasure… was lending.

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Retronauts Episode 92: Celebrity Games

Episode description:
Though video games were considered the domain of nerds until fairly recently, this stigma certainly didn’t stop celebrities from attaching their names to all manner of misguided interactive experiences. On this episode of Retronauts, join Bob Mackey, Jeremy Parish, Henry Gilbert, and Chris Antista as the crew takes a tour of the many celebrity-based that baffled them over the past three decades. If you’ve been waiting decades for someone–anyone–to talk about Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball, this is the podcast for you.

MP3, 48.9 MB | 1:46:48
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Retronauts Micro 57: A Blaster Master retrospective and Blaster Master Zero review

A game review? On Retronauts? It’s more likely than you think. In fact, there’s one right here.

But this is not your typical game review — it’s a game review that takes the form of a podcast, and the review itself has in turn been commingled with a retrospective. My hope is that it’s a review format you could only experience here in the one, the only… Retronauts.

Is it a good review format, though? Or one that you only find here because it’s a ridiculous concept and no one else would ever bother. I leave that as an exercise to you, the listener, to determine.

So, yes. Episode 57 of Retronauts Micro is a two-part affair: First, a retrospective of the original Blaster Master, including some handy context to help explain why the game had such impact and remains so well-liked, and a loose rundown of its sequels. The second part (after the obligatory ad break) delves specifically into the new Inti Creates remake, Blaster Master Zero. My goal here was to create a chunk of game commentary that upholds the Retronauts goal of tying present to past, while also taking advantage of the fact that this venture is, ultimately, about the podcast.

It’s about 30 minutes long in total, so it goes into pretty considerable detail without (hopefully) wearing thin its welcome with your ears. So please have a listen!

Episode description: It’s a different application for the Retronauts Micro format this week as Jeremy uses the show to present a review of the newly released Blaster Master Zero alongside a series retrospective.

MP3, 14.6 MB | 31:46
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And that wraps it up for me for a little while. You’ll be glad to know Bob’s back on duty next week with a look at celebrity video games, and he’ll be handling the next Micro as well (two weeks from now). So you can enjoy a bit of a respite from my monotone drone…

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Well, it’s practically retro, anyway: Radiant Historia getting a remake

Does something really constitute a “retro” game if it was released in 2010? Probably not, but for the purposes of this site, I feel like Atlus’ Radiant Historia comes close enough in spirit to the classics that we probably could have talked about it back when it was a fresh, new release. Certainly the game felt dated when it rolled off the assembly line, with its humble sprite-based graphics and dishwater-dull color palette. And its overall concept and combat system felt like some bastard child of the Chrono/Xeno family, what with its time-traveling shenanigans and quirky battle mechanics that revolved around positional manipulation of enemies. It was, in short, old before its time.

Perhaps because of its decidedly uninspiring visual style, or perhaps because its host platform (Nintendo DS) had been rendered effectively moribund in the U.S. at that point by the one-two punch of piracy and smartphone gaming, Radiant Historia went largely overlooked. And it definitely didn’t help that just a few months later Square Enix released the Tactics Ogre remake for PSP, which featured a similar timeline-rewinding element to the one in Radiant Historia but put it to far better use (and, alas, was simply a better game than Radiant Historia all around). Nevertheless, despite slotting comfortably into B-tier status and not quite qualifying as an overlooked masterpiece, Radiant Historia was an interesting game that definitely deserved more love than it received from a cold and uncaring world… and now that opportunity has emerged with news of a remake called Radiant Historia Chronicles for 3DS.

According to Weekly Famitsu magazine, Chronicles will be a comprehensive overhaul of the game, adding in a new scenario, voice acting, and potentially some 3D graphics (it’s kinda hard to tell from the smudgy Famitsu scan that I’ve seen circulating social media). It sounds an awful lot like Atlus’ other DS-to-3DS conversion, Devil Survivor: Overclocked, though I’m holding out hope they’ll make more comprehensive improvements and do some rejiggering with the game’s time-shifting mechanic. I liked the concept behind Radiant Historia‘s core premise — the protagonist had to prevent a wartime disaster, and his own death, by leaping backward in time and exploring alternate outcomes — but the execution left something to be desired. There was a lot of time-leaping, mostly affecting incremental changes to the timeline. That meant that the overall flow of the game amounted to making minor tweaks to the story, replaying a section to look for minor changes to dialogue and outcomes, then repeating. And for a game about time travel and outcomes, its narrative had a weirdly linear structure. After a while, it got to a point where even the scenario writer was like, “Yeah, whatever,” and would just cut to the chase with an overlay of narrative text that functioned as an ellipsis.

In short, if any game deserved a do-over, it would be the one that centered around do-overs but didn’t quite turn out the way it was meant to. So this remake’s existence seems wholly appropriate… though I do worry that we’re going to see a “But history refused to change,” ending screen for this one, too. It’s repeating a fundamental mistake that Atlus made the first time around: Launching on a Nintendo handheld in its sunset days. Despite Nintendo’s marketing messages*, I’m pretty sure the core audience for games like this has largely begun to migrate from 3DS to Switch. As much as I’d like to keep seeing games like this and Fire Emblem make their way to the U.S., I worry they’ll completely flop if they do. It could be that I’m just projecting, though. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger 3DS supporter than I’ve been, but I haven’t touched the thing in a month. It would take something truly spectacular to drag me back at this point, like Etrian Odyssey V or Dragon Quest XI. I don’t know if a Radiant Historia remake has the gravity to pull me back into the past.

Though I guess that’s kind of the game’s entire point, so who knows?

*”No, guys, Switch is a console, not a handheld! Honest! Please keep buying 3DS!”

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Weirdo shooter Gumshoe represented an end and a beginning for the NES

This week’s Video Chronicles project casts its gaze back to what may well be the most unconventional light gun game ever to appear on NES: Gumshoe.

I really love this game in principle, although I am super terrible at it. It’s such an odd and unusual concept for a Zapper title: An attempt to marry side-scrolling platform game design with a shooting gallery. It almost works, but for its absolutely brutal difficulty level. A little kindness (like, say, removing instant deaths and giving poor Mr. Stevenson a few hit points to soak up unhappy collisions) would have gone a long way. Maybe someday I’ll make it past the first stage… but more likely I’ll go to my grave never having seen level two in the flesh. Alas!

This does bring us, at last, to the end of the NES launch rollout in America, which Nintendo staggered across two phases (October 1985 and June 1986). From here on out, Nintendo will no longer be the only publisher on NES games. And, as denoted by Gumshoe, not every game going forward will necessarily have appeared in Japan first. Unlike the first 25 games for Good Nintentions, Gumshoe never had a Japanese release. Things are a-changin’ in NES land.

But before we get to the arrival of NES third party releases, I think Game Boy World is feeling a little lonely…

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Switch is already ascending to its destiny as a retrogaming haven

First there were Neo•Geo games and Blaster Master Zero; now there’s this:

There’s still no word on what Nintendo plans to do in terms of Virtual Console for Switch, if anything, but clearly third parties have no intention of sitting around and waiting for plans to solidify. And so we have the Seiken Densetsu Collection. And by “we” I mean “Japan, anyway.”

Yesterday Square Enix’s official Mana franchise Twitter account teased a brief and masterful video clip of people playing Secret of Mana, which wasn’t particularly remarkable until the camera pulled out and — BAM! — they were playing on Switch. Rather than let the question of, “Is this real?” linger in the air forever like a bad smell, the company went ahead and announced a collection of the first three Mana games this morning. And all was well, except for the uncertainty surrounding a possible localization.

I think it’s pretty reasonable to hope this makes its way west as a Mana Collection (or some such). The lack of a proper, official English-language version of Seiken Densetsu 3, the gorgeous 16-bit sequel to Secret of Mana, has always been one of those sources of simmering resentment for RPG fans; the game likely wasn’t localized because of the difficulty involved in squeezing a less-efficient English script into a huge, jam-packed ROM, which already sat at the upper limits of the system’s practical size restrictions (and therefore would have been ridiculously expensive here). Every once in a while Square Enix kindles a spark of hope that we’ll finally get a belated English conversion of the game, such as when they teased Heroes of Mana as a sequel to SD3. And yet here we are more than 20 years later, and no official U.S. release of SD3.

This seems like the ultimate test. If we don’t get this Mana compilation, we’re never getting SD3 in English from Square Enix and will have to settle for paying people to flash SNES ROMs of the (groundbreaking and quite excellent) fan translation for us instead. I kinda feel like letting this languish in Japan would amount to leaving money on the table, but what do I’m know? I’m a bozo who would have Square Enix localize every single unsellable SaGa game, so it’s just as well I’m not making any of these decisions for the company.

There’s more than just coulda-woulda-shoulda with this collection, though. The simple fact is that Mana perfectly embodies the appeal and potential of the Switch. While the first Mana game (Final Fantasy Legend for Game Boy) lacked multiplayer hooks, both Secret of Mana and SD3 featured drop-in-drop-out cooperative action-RPG adventuring for up to three people at once. A system designed to make that possible anywhere is a perfect place to repackage these classics — especially if this serves as a trial balloon to see whether or not there might be interest in a new Mana game. And also, I get the impression Switch is pretty heavily targeted toward old and nostalgic gamer types, so this hits that core demographic, too.

Of course, if the collection doesn’t come west, the Switch does lack any sort of region locks, so we can always just import it. Hopefully it won’t come to that. Playing these games without English language wouldn’t be the ideal for these games; it’s certainly possible to bumble through, but SD3 in particular relies heavily on the nuance of its characters and their allegiances. In any case, I’ll be camping out at Square Enix’s front door every day until they finally relent and announce an American localization.

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Retronauts Episode 91: A survey of SEGA’s arcade work, 1980-85

It’s Monday morning, and you know what that means. Yeah, it’s time for another Retronauts episode.

Specifically, it’s time for another Retronauts East episode. Ben and Benj join me once again in my still-in-development home studio to sit and jaw for a couple of hours about a rarely explored video game topic: SEGA’s arcade games.

“But wait,” you say. “SEGA is a beloved arcade game creator and always has been! Its arcade hits are a known quantity!” And that is true indeed. However, we’re not really looking to the company’s hits; we’re digging further into its past, to the coin-op titles SEGA produced before the ones you know and love. Specifically, we’re focused on their 1980-85 lineup.

 

As you can see from the art above, we certainly do touch on some fairly famous games: Congo Bongo, Zaxxon, Pengo, and of course Space Harrier. They’re the exceptions. For the most part, SEGA’s output in the first half of the ’80s remains fairly obscure; their work from 1986 and on is far better known here in the U.S. SEGA does a better job of preserving and republishing its later games, allowing the likes of Flashgal and Super Locomotive to vanish into the realms of the unknown and unavailable-through-legitimate-means.

This unfortunately makes for a slightly dicey episode at the beginning. We’ve all played some of these games, but certainly not all of them, and a lot of what defines them is the arcade experience. Sure, you can emulate Pro Monaco GP or Zoom 909, but an emulator doesn’t include the funky LED readouts and gauges next to the screen. Stick with it, though, and you’ll find that the conversation comes into focus as we move into SEGA’s prime days. (We also concoct some pretty decent on-the-fly theories about why SEGA’s arcade output improved so significantly around 1985 or so.)

Despite some audio bugs we’re still trying to iron out of the Retronauts East setup, and the fact that we’re taking the Retronauts name seriously by exploring somewhat unfamiliar territory here, it’s a pretty solid episode overall. And a long one, coming in at more than two hours in length! We had actually planned to take this conversation up through 1987 but literally ran out of time. But that’s OK. That just gives us an excuse to reconvene again in a few months and explore SEGA’s work in the latter half of the ’80s.

Episode description: Ben Elgin and Benj Edwards reconvene with Jeremy to explore the first half of SEGA’s arcade output. Like the games we’re discussing, the episode starts off a bit shaky, but everything is awesome by 1985. Pengo! Zaxxon! Space Harrier! Hang On! And more!

MP3, 56.8 MB | 2:03:59
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Music in this episode comes from Space Harrier (except where noted in the show), because honestly there wasn’t really all that much music worth noting in SEGA’s output from this era. That’s just a sign of the times, though. Once arcade games got to 1985 or so, their soundtracks improved exponentially. Our next SEGA arcade episode will have the opposite problem: There’ll be so much incredible music to pick from we won’t know where to begin…

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