Tag Archives: 3ds

Mighty Gunvolt: The quest for identity

The fifth annual BitSummit was held in Kyoto over the weekend, and just one announcement to arise from the Japanese indie game festival was a new game from the 2D action veterans at Inti Creates. Mighty Gunvolt Burst is the sequel to Mighty Gunvolt, the quasi-8-bit counterpart to 2014’s Azure Striker Gunvolt.

The original Mighty Gunvolt was revealed just a week ahead of Azure Striker Gunvolt‘s release, not as a stand-alone game but as a free download bundled with the latter game during its first month out. At the time, Inti Creates advertised it as a “thank you gift” to supporters of Gunvolt. Giving away an all-new game in its entirety—even a brief one with lo-fi graphics—seemed tremendously, even suspiciously generous, and a few months later, Inti Creates announced that it would receive both a major update and a second release as a paid product unto itself, plus new stages and bosses in the form of DLC. In retrospect, it adds up that Mighty Gunvolt was always headed for this state and Inti Creates simply saw an opportunity to push out an early, incomplete version as an incentive to boost Azure Striker Gunvolt‘s day one sales.

That would explain why Mighty Gunvolt came out in the manner it did, but why the game exists remains a bit unclear. Featuring the titular Gunvolt, Beck from Comcept’s Mighty No. 9, and Eroko from the Japan-exclusive Gal☆Gun series, it appears to be a celebration of all things Inti Creates—an indulgence rarely afforded by contract developers with a catalogue scattered across various self-interested publishers. Then again, Beck’s presence and the “Mighty” name framed it more specifically as an early promotion for Mighty No. 9, which was believed at the time to be a few months from release. Azure Striker Gunvolt and Mighty No. 9 share a common ancestor in Capcom’s Mega Man games—some of which Inti Creates also developed—so they combine well in what plays out like an obvious pastiche of that series. But since Eroko is co-starring, you can’t simply sum this up as a Mega Man/Gunvolt/Mighty No. 9 mash-up—nor is there quite enough of Inti Creates’ history on display to really qualify Mighty Gunvolt as all-inclusive crossover on the order of Super Smash Bros. or Project X Zone. (You certainly can’t have an Inti Creates tribute without so much as a shout out to Speed Power Gunbike.) What we end up with is two things that go together and one that doesn’t. It just feels like a smattering of stuff.

Perhaps it’s telling, then, that Eroko is off the team for Mighty Gunvolt Burst. Reducing the lineup to Gunvolt and Beck may seem like a step backward, but it’s a move that’s sure to lend Burst a tighter focus and a clearer reason for being. Now it just has to contend with the new problem that arises from giving Beck a greater share of the spotlight: the catastrophic amounts of anti-hype emanating from Mighty No. 9.

Mighty No. 9 followed Mighty Gunvolt not by a few months but, after multiple delays, the better part of two years. It is probably safe to say it is not well-liked on the whole. The missteps made by developer Comcept were so numerous I couldn’t even recount them all here—nor do I probably need to, as the whole fiasco has welcomed no shortage of hot takes and postmortems examining what went wrong. Suffice to say Comcept explored the full range of public opinion over the course of three years, parlaying a wildly successful crowd-funding campaign into a slow-motion train wreck leading up to release. Their reputation was so thoroughly tarnished by the end that it probably didn’t even matter much what the final product was like: Everyone was poised to hate it. Some went in still clinging to hopes that the promised game would be worth the PR nightmare, but even they found it in need of an extra layer of polish at best and a ground-up reinvention at worst.

Less than a year out, the bitterness surrounding Mighty No. 9 is still fresh in the public’s memory, and although most of the blame was laid on Comcept, Inti Creates has caught flak as well. Even having served as a secondary co-developer has diminished their standing in the eyes of some once-ardent fans, so at first glance, it’s baffling that they’re associating Mighty No. 9‘s setting and characters so strongly with Mighty Gunvolt Burst. While the first Mighty Gunvolt borrowed various concepts from Azure Striker Gunvolt, Burst looks for all the world like a reimagining of Mighty No. 9, including all eight of its main bosses. Surely no one involved with Comcept’s game has been lucky enough not to know how poorly it was received, so why risk rekindling that negativity? Perhaps this is Inti Creates looking to clear its name—to go all-in with Mighty No. 9, give it that ground-up reinvention it needs, and show how much better it could have been if only they had been at the wheel. Comcept, for their part, reportedly licensed the use of its characters free of charge, so maybe they think they’ll benefit as well if Inti Creates can get people thinking fondly of Beck and his world again. It’s definitely one tall order, so it’ll be exciting to see if they can pull it off.


Filed under Retrogaming News

Fire Emblem reaches into the past to give the series a fresh new feel with Shadows of Valentia

I very nearly embarrassed myself with my take on Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. If I hadn’t realized a few days ago that the latest 3DS entry in Nintendo and Intelligent Systems’ strategy RPG franchise is a remake of an old Famicom game, I might have waxed rhapsodic about how it offers a “welcome burst of inspiration” or “finally helps add some interesting new innovation” to the series’ formula. As it turns out, though, the “innovation” that makes Valentia so appealing was in fact laid down 25 years ago in the original version of the game: Fire Emblem Gaiden.

In fairness, it would have been an easy mistake to make. Fire Emblem Gaiden, also referred to by many fans as Fire Emblem II, has languished in Japan until now. Nintendo didn’t begin localizing Fire Emblem titles until the Game Boy Advance/GameCube era, so unless you deliberately went looking for information on that 8-bit sequel, you could just as easily assume Valentia was simply the latest new work in the franchise. You could also be forgiven for simply assuming the cumbersome subtitle is a series trademark, coming so soon after last year’s Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright/Revelation/Conquest. However, “Echoes” will seemingly serve as Nintendo’s branding for Fire Emblem remakes. This comes more than a decade late for their series’ first remake, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for Game Boy Advance, alas — though in terms of scope and effort, Valentia absolutely shames Shadow Dragon. [Correction: Shadow Dragon was released on DS — Jeremy]

If you remember Shadow Dragon, that remake simply brought the original Fire Emblem for Famicom up to approximately Game Boy Advance standards. It boasted nicer, more detailed visuals and more elaborate text than the older version, but otherwise, it felt pretty similar to the 8-bit release. Valentia, on the other hand, brings an older to the standards of the original 3DS Fire Emblem titles — and then takes it a step further. The combat engine comes straight from Fates: You shuffle your little strategy pawns as 2D sprites around a slightly tilted battlefield, and once a combat encounter commences the camera zooms in and blurs to a cinematic 3D sequence in which your characters’ actions play out against a foe.

This time, however, the 3D view serves an expanded role. It’s not just about looking pretty; once you claim certain map areas from the foe, you’re allowed to venture into that building or dungeon. Rather than play out as a static screen with actions determined by menu, these dungeon-dives feel more like a traditional RPG. Your hero or heroine ventures into the dungeon on foot, with the camera following behind them. You can hunt for treasures, smash up destructible objects in the environment, and even take on foes. Encounters with the enemy are initiated by making physical contact with them (and you can strike as you collide during exploration in order to gain initiative), and they play out as standard Fire Emblem battles.

You don’t often see this mix of classic RPG exploration and tactical combat. It calls back to older RPGs like SSI’s Dungeons & Dragons: Pools of Radiance or the first few Arc the Lad games for PlayStation, and for me it makes Valentia the most engaging Fire Emblem I’ve played to date. The constant stream of drawn-out engagements that comprise a strategy RPG can feel like a real drudge after a while; at the same time, it’s difficult to leaven things with lightweight battles, because they feel like an inconsequential waste of time. The free-roaming exploration sequences — limited as they may be here — creates just the right kind of palette-cleanser between major engagements to keep Valentia from becoming monotonous. The battles you face in most of the dungeons are inconsequential, feeling more like random filler battles in a standard console RPG than meaty tactical encounters… but in the context of exploration scenes that play like something out of a standard console RPG, they work perfectly.

This change of pacing would be a welcome innovation — the next step forward in Fire Emblem‘s evolution — if not for one critical fact: The dungeon exploration element comes directly from Fire Emblem Gaiden. While the 3D perspective is new for 3DS, the idea of breaking away from the map-by-map campaign for a bit of light dungeon-crawling was what made Fire Emblem Gaiden Fire Emblem Gaiden. It was something of an experiment, a creative side story excursion (as denoted by the title), and it ultimately proved to be an evolutionary dead-end; to my knowledge, no other Fire Emblem title has incorporated a similar mechanic. Even here, it’s somewhat diminished from the original game; Fire Emblem Gaiden allowed you to explore towns in a similar fashion, while in Valentia you navigate those areas through a bog-standard strategy RPG menu system, jumping from scene to scene.

All of this complements a solid core game. Valentia tells the story of two childhood friends thrust into opposition with one another by the tides of war and duty. Once you play through the two introductory chapters, which serve to set up protagonist Alm and Celica’s respective stories, the main game sees you playing out both hero and heroines’ campaigns simultaneously. You can switch freely between both characters, advancing each story as you see fit — and there are just enough dynamic events on the map (such as mercenary teams appearing to reinforce the enemy army at critical junctures) that you have to switch up your approach from time to time to put out fires or staunch the flow of bad guys.

The free movement sequences in Valentia never last long enough to overstay their welcome, and I have to wonder why developer Intelligent Systems dropped the concept in later games. They really do add a lot to the Fire Emblem formula, and I have to hope that positive reception to Echoes will inspire IS to consider revisiting the concept in future releases.

I also appreciate the fact that IS has taken inspiration here from another incredible strategy RPG remake: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for PSP. Specifically, Echoes incorporates that game’s rewind feature to allow you to undo a botched action. As in TO, this feature is absolutely optional; and here it’s far more limited, with the number of actions you can rewind strictly set per battle and parceled out based on the number of supplemental items you can locate. But given the (optional) presence of permadeath in Fire Emblem, the ability to step back two or three moves can keep the game from feeling like a huge waste of time. You’re definitely going to reset the game when the random number generator breaks unfairly and, for example, you lose a beloved character forever because you whiff twice on an action with an 80% success rate while the enemy lands a critical riposte despite less-than-even odds of even landing a blow. The rewind saves you the trouble of having to start all over again — but you can’t abuse it, and you can completely ignore it if you find it cheapens the game’s tension.

One other nice thing about Valentia — and this is admittedly a personal preference — is the fact that its retro roots tone down the party-chat dynamic. The most recent games in the series have nearly gone full-on dating simulation, with an increasing emphasis on character romances and marriage. Valentia feels a lot more buttoned-down than the other 3DS entries in the series, with the character-pairing mechanics taking on a far more limited scope than in Awakenings and Fates. Only specific characters — those with established interpersonal relationships — can build their affinity for one another by performing supporting actions, and those connections reach their max level without the marriage-as-resolution culmination that has become the standard. While some of the character dialogue certainly has undertones (and even overtones) of flirtation, hinting alternately at both mixed- and same-sex attraction, Valentia (at least so far as I’ve seen) stops short of the mai-waifu trend that’s come to define the franchise.

Of course, there’s plenty I haven’t seen of Valentia yet. I’m a long way from beating the game, and then there’s the game’s extensive downloadable content (which somewhat infamously costs more than the game itself). So who knows what shenanigans lie ahead? The important thing is that I actually feel motivated to find out — a new sensation for me when it comes to Fire Emblem. I respect the series and have enjoyed dabbling in the more recent releases, but the games have never truly grabbed me until now. And really, Valentia just goes to show what Retronauts is all about: The importance of looking to history for inspiration. Sometimes, the best and most refreshing ideas in games are the ones that have been laying around right under our noses, forgotten, for years and years.


Filed under Game Analysis

Miitopia: A requiem for Nintendo’s abandoned masterstroke, Street Pass

When the New 2DS XL ships at the end of July, it’ll appear side-by-side with a pair of new games Nintendo announced last year and has only now given us a chance to try out: Hey, Pikmin! and Miitopia. I’m still not sure what I think of Hey, Pikmin!, which takes the exploratory 3D world of Pikmin and turns it into a sort of puzzle platformer — it seems solid, but so did last year’s incredibly disappointing Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash at first glance.

Whatever my ambivalence about this Pikmin spinoff, though, I can say with certainty that Miitopia is right down my alley. Produced by the same team as Tomodachi Life, it feels in every respect like a culmination of Nintendo’s 10-year ongoing experiment with Mii avatars and the gamification of system-level social features. And with the Switch maintaining Miis but dropping 3DS’s addictive Street Pass and Miiverse features, Miitopia (perhaps unintentionally) serves as something of a swan song as well.

I can understand the why of Switch’s abandonment of Street Pass. Much as I love that feature of 3DS — by far, my single most played entry in the system’s Activity Log is Street Pass Games — the system’s constant passive wireless polling did ugly things to the 3DS’s battery life while in sleep mode. A 3DS with Street Pass running needs to be charged every couple of days, even if you don’t actively play it; meanwhile, I can let Switch sit unused for a week (yes, that’s right: I’m capable of going a full week without playing Zelda) and its charge level will still be above the halfway mark when you wake it. I appreciate not having to babysit the system and keep it plugged in at all hours; but even so, I can’t shake the sensation that something precious has been lost as well.

Miitopia doesn’t somehow bring those abandoned social features to Switch, but it does at least use the aging 3DS as a reminder of how weird and entertaining Nintendo’s Mii-based projects have been. I was hooked on them from day one. I filled out my Wii’s Mii plaza with maximum friend codes the first weekend the system was on the market and watched with fascination as the passive online Mii-swapping feature sent so many avatars to my console that it would sometimes sit seemingly dead for 10-15 minutes at a time, nearly overheating as it processed all the new additions to the plaza. Eventually, once I had several thousand Miis in my system, I had to shut off sharing for fear that I was going to give the poor console a literal meltdown.

There’s not really much of Wii’s shallow Mii world on display in Miitopia, though; instead, it draws on the refined and expanded additions that debuted on the 3DS. Miitopia takes the Find Mii mode of 3DS’s Street Pass Games and turns it into a fully fleshed-out role-playing experience. In a lot of ways, it appears to be an intersection of three distinct 3DS releases: Besides Find Mii, it also shows considerable influence from Tomodachi Life (unsurprisingly, given that the same team worked on Miitopia), with a heavy dash of Genius Sonority’s RPG trilogy The Denpa Men. Those Denpa Men similarities may be coincidental: Nintendo reps couldn’t confirm whether or not Genius Sonority had any involvement in Miitopia. It could simply be that the Miitopia team drew on the same influences as The Denpa Men‘s creators, several of whom worked on the original versions of Dragon Quest VI and VII. You can also play those Dragon Quest games on 3DS, by the way, so whatever the actual lineage of Miitopia, it’s very much a sort of culmination of many of the best things about the platform.

I’ve spent way too much time over the past six years playing Street Pass Games; I took Tomodachi Life a little too personally; and I enjoyed the Denpa Men games for what they were (inexpensive, lightweight RPGs). So Miitopia hits all the right notes for me.

And if Miitopia turns out to be Nintendo’s last big, internal, first-party project for 3DS, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more fitting denoument for the platform.

Like Find Mii, Miitopia presents players with an RPG based around Mii avatars they create or encounter. In this case, the premise has to do with an evil villain (who is also drawn from your Mii Plaza) stealing everyone’s faces — that is, the distinctive, personalized aspect of Miis. So it’s kind of insidious and kind of nonthreatening at once, a very lighthearted RPG with stakes about as big as you can reasonably ask for what amount to little thimble-shaped effigies of your friends. And, as in Find Mii, you venture forth with the help of other Mii avatars to take on the bad guy by journeying from one map point to the next. There’s no free roaming on the overworld here, simply point-to-point automated walks during which you encounter randomized bad guys. These walks, incidentally, may remind you of the diorama presentation style of Bravely Default and Theatrhythm Final Fantasy… two other notable 3DS exclusives.

Where Miitopia begins to differ from Find Mii is in the particulars of your quest. For one thing, this is not a bite-sized experience designed to motivate you to acquire Street Pass tags. Rather than setting forth with whichever strangers you’ve come into contact with via Street Pass, you instead create a hero and begin developing a permanent party, one recruit at a time. Mii pals aren’t meant to be disposable here; each party member has his or her own class, personality, stats, and equipment, and you build them up the same as you would in any other RPG. The demo I played topped out at a full party of four, but the sequences between combat excursions — which hearken closely to Tomodachi Life — suggest you may be able to create a larger guild and set out with different groups of four at a time.

Actually, it’s worth explaining the non-combat sequences, since they have a significant bearing on character growth and the skills and equipment you carry into battle. Between adventures, your party rests at an inn. These sequences are depicted through a cutaway, dollhouse view that allow you to designate different team members as roommates, which allows them to bond. There was a bit of snickering at the press demo as effigies of two male Nintendo executives hung out together in a hotel room and little hearts appeared above their heads, but we’re all grown-ups here. The more time two party members spend together in their off hours (regardless of their gender), the more likely they are to help out one another in a pinch.

There’s a heavy element of automation in Miitopia‘s combat; again, Tomodachi Life producer Yoshio Sakamoto’s team is probably drawing on classic Dragon Quest influences. Your party members will frequently unleash buffs and heal spells without being prompted… and as always seems to be the case with AI-enhanced companions, those palliative effects may come at times you’d rather they didn’t, squandering magic points by healing characters who can still afford to soak up a couple more attacks. Players also have a certain degree of control over healing thanks to the oddly named “sprinkles” mechanic: You can pause combat at any time to perform a free action (that is, not tied to a character turn) wherein you wave what appears to be magical salt shakers over party members. This allows you to heal them, revive them, buff them and more regardless of turn order or MP — though your “sprinkles” have a limited stock and can only be replenished when sleeping at an inn.

Inns also allow you to invest cash in better gear for your team. In keeping with the simplified style of the game, you don’t pick equipment from a shop but rather simply purchase the armor or weapons your party members daydream of upgrading to. And you can serve the party food that you acquire along your adventure route, with different meals granting permanent buffs to different statistics. Each Mii has his or her own tastes in food, and you receive more experience toward stat gains by feeding your characters according to their tastes. Like in Metal Gear Solid 3, you know, which also showed up on 3DS…

Despite the game’s high of simplification, Miitopia doesn’t feel brain-dead. Every quest is crammed with goofy little interactions between your party members, and the presence of more character classes than party member slots forces you to strategize. Just like in the original Final Fantasy… which, incidentally, got a 3DS remake in Japan. On top of that, combat doesn’t simply let you breeze through; its stripped-down style and heavy degree of automation for you to remain on your toes, since things can go badly for the inattentive. Kind of reminds of Legend of Legacy in that regard… you know, the 3DS RPG from a few years ago.

In other words, Miitopia brings together a whole lot of different ideas from the 3DS’s rich library of RPGs, social games, and life sims into a single unified work. It seems perfectly geared toward the younger audience that Nintendo wants to entice with the New 2DS XL… but I have a feeling I’m not the only old-timer who will probably end up playing it as well thanks to its ability to hit on so many different greatest-hits moments for the platform. In a lot of ways, it feels like the realization of all the interesting little diversions of Street Pass: 10 years of experiments distilled into a proper RPG. Not a bad sendoff — if indeed this does turn out to be the system’s sendoff.


Filed under Game Analysis

What the 2DS means for the future (and past) of Nintendo’s portable lineup

If there’s one thing I’ve learned to love about Nintendo over the past decade and a half in which I’ve covered them professionally, it’s the company’s ability to take the action everyone least expects. Their unpredictability helps an increasingly conservative industry remain lively — which might seem strange, given that you’d be hard-pressed to name a major video game maker more conservative than Nintendo. It’s just that they have their own idiosyncratic definition of “conservatism.”

Case in point: The New 2DS XL. On its surface, this newly revealed addition to the 3DS family might seem utterly daft. Nintendo launched a brand-new console/handheld hybrid, the Switch, a mere two months ago. The Switch is selling like gangbusters in much the same way that the Wii U — and, for that matter, the original 3DS before its early emergency price drop — did not. And right around the time the New 2DS XL announcement hit the wires, the company admitted that it has discontinued production of its insanely popular and eagerly sought Classic NES Edition mini-console.

The New 2DS XL seems counterintuitive in light of all these other factors. Why not beef up production of the mini-console and focus on software development for the hot new system? But no: Instead, they’ve asked us all to turn our attention to the sixth hardware iteration of a six-year-old platform. And after giving it some thought, and going hands-on with the new hardware revision and its two launch titles (Hey! Pikmin and Miitopia), I’m willing to concede that maybe it’s a pretty smart plan, despite everything.

No, I’ll never really understand why they underproduced the NES Classic and killed it in its infancy. And I definitely find the company’s support for two incompatible portable systems to be more frustrating than not. But the 2DS XL carries forward a well-established Nintendo business trend — long-term support for successful systems — while clearly staking out the 3DS platform family as the definitive kiddie alternative to the grown-up Switch. This is the case here moreso than with any other platform in the company’s history.

The idea of portable systems as being for younger players has, of course, been built into the format from the start. They called it Game Boy, after all. Yet even from the start, Nintendo marketed the Game Boy to older consumers as well:

So despite brand names and derisive reputations, handhelds haven’t been exclusively for kids. Portables have always existed as a sort of split market, like most game systems, with appeal for players of all age… at least until the end of a system’s life, at which point the deprecated systems become the hand-me-down to the kid sister or young nephew while the older player moves along to chase the next-generation thing. The hand-me-down practice has always been built into the format, but for the first time, the New 2DS XL truly makes it a business model. This new, stripped-down 3DS iteration is the exact opposite of how Nintendo has sent its previous handhelds into the sunset, if you want to be honest. The Game Boy family went into retirement not with a kiddie device, but rather with the sleek, delicate, adult-oriented Game Boy Micro. Meanwhile, the impossibly successful DS line wound down with the DSi XL, an adult-sized system whose biggest feature was the integration of the online eShop… a digital market place that required the use of (a grown-up’s) credit card.

By comparison, the New 2DS XL is absolutely geared toward kids — late elementary and middle school, with the inexpensive original 2DS remaining in the lineup as the choice for younger players. Per its name, the new model drops the platform’s original 3D screen while carrying forward the improved internal power and more flexible interface options (such as the right thumbstick) of the New 3DS. This means that two of the three 3DS family models that will be available at retail after July 28 — the 2DS, the New 2DS XL, and the New 3DS XL — will be limited to 2D viewing. (The company makes no mention of the rarely seen “standard” New 3DS, suggesting it’s officially dead and done.) Not coincidentally, 3D screens and young, developing eyeballs have long been considered a risky combination; dropping the feature not only cuts down on manufacturing costs, it also saves parents the trouble of having to lock out their kids from activating the 3DS slider.

But even more than that, it feels like a system for younger players. After spending a couple of hours with a pre-release model at a Nintendo demo event (disclosure: My travel and overnight accommodations were covered by the company), I can’t deny this is a device designed for younger hands, despite being fairly large as portables go. While the hardware is almost exactly the same size as the New 3DS XL, it’s a much lighter device. It doesn’t feel flimsy, per se, but compared to its 3D-capable equivalent — to say nothing of the weighty, rock-solid Switch! — the New 2DS XL has a decidedly airy, even toylike feel to it.

This is further reinforced by the materials Nintendo used for the shell. The plastic has a somewhat matte quality to it, unlike the slicker plastics used for most New 3DS XL iterations. The upper shell has been designed with a subtle satin-finish pinstripe effect, but the base of the console — which is to say, the part that players hold — has a grippier friction about it… perfect for preventing it from sliding from clumsy young hands. And in the event it does slip, the upper screen now has a durable bumper around its edges. That turquoise plastic rim isn’t simply visual trim; it’s made of a different (and seemingly more shock-absorbent) plastic.

The system’s interior has been subtly changed as well. The screens appear to be unchanged in size from the New 3DS XL, but the whole thing is now slightly streamlined and flattened. The lower screen is no longer housed in a slightly raised bezel but instead recessed into the body of the system, with the Home button moved from directly below the screen to its lower left side.

And then there’s the upper screen, which has a completely different appearance from the older model. The entire upper panel interior now looks like nothing so much as a smartphone, with the protective glossy plastic expanded beyond the bounds of the screen to encompass the entire upper half of the device. The speakers, which formerly sat on either side of the upper screen, are now discreetly tucked out of sight. I doubt the smartphone resemblance came about by accident; mobile gaming has been the 3DS family’s biggest existential threat from the start, and kids know iPhones. Of course, this system doesn’t offer a touch interface on its upper screen (something I’ve watched younger players struggle to come to terms with with other 3DS models), but the visual similarity to the format that has become most kids’ default gaming device can’t hurt.

A number of external elements of the New 2DS XL body have been streamlined from its 3D counterpart as well. Many of the small protrusions and other low-relief details have been flattened out to create the lowest profile possible. This is especially noticeable in the stylus: It sits flush in a small inset detail next to the headphone jack, so unobtrusive I had to turn the system over several times in order to find it. Likewise, the cartridge slot is now covered by a small flap, right next to the Micro SD card slot. In other words, no more unscrewing and disassembling the system in order to add internal memory.

Overall, the effect is kid-friendly without quite leaping full-body into “cheap toy” status.

All in all, this adds up to make the New 2DS XL a completely baffling announcement that makes perfect sense. Well, not perfect, exactly. There’s still the risk of Nintendo’s two handhelds — by which I mean 2DS/3DS and Switch — cannibalizing one another in the long run. And while the 2DS/3DS family have a remarkable number of interesting games on the way for a system that probably should be dead by now (especially if Atlus ever gets around to announcing localizations for some of its RPGs), I’m not sure that the youth market is necessarily clamoring for a Pikmin spinoff. On the other hand, I think it’s pretty safe at this point to assume a new Pokémon game will hit 3DS this fall, rather than the franchise leaping immediately to Switch as fans have been wishfully predicting. On the contrary, given the staggering success of Pokémon Sun & Moon Versions last fall, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the New 2DS XL is ultimately a way to refresh the platform and keep interest up long enough for Game Freak to put together one final 3DS Pokémon entry to carry Nintendo to a green (not red) 2017 holiday quarter.

Unless the New 2DS XL sparks a massive surge in sales for the platform — a Game Boy-like second wind, which seems unlikely — this does strike me as the last hoorah for the 3DS family. Nintendo clearly has its future pegged on Switch, for which it has Wii-scale aspirations; the 3DS now is simply easy money, a steady source of reliable income thanks to the 60-million-plus systems out in the wild. Its role now is to do as the Game Boy family did while Nintendo was kicking off the DS: Keep the numbers up until the new console can stand on its own.

Of course, you’d think the ultra-hot Classic NES Edition would have been a big help in that regard, too. But it just wouldn’t be Nintendo if you could make sense of it all.


Filed under Game Analysis

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
Direct download
Retronauts on iTunes
Retronauts at PodcastOne

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…


Filed under Retronauts Micro

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!”


Filed under Retrogaming News

Blaster Master Zero looks way better than it has any right to

Yesterday, Nintendo hosted an event to show off a bunch of upcoming Switch games from independent studios, and I do mean a bunch. I wasn’t there to see it, since they had to go and show off their lineup before I made my way to Game Developers Conference. It’s a shame, because I kind of feel like this lineup was specifically constructed with my tastes and interests in mind.

One game in particular has especially caught my eye: Blaster Master Zero from Inti Creates. Just gaze upon this majesty:

Zero isn’t news, precisely; it was announced for 3DS and Wii U last year. This is the first time I’ve seen this much footage of it in a single spot, however, and the fact that it’s not only coming to Switch but will be doing so next week definitely qualifies as a Rad Development.

I admit to having been pretty unenthused about Zero until seeing this trailer. There have been quite a few attempts to re-bottle the lightning that was the original Blaster Master, and none of them have ever quite worked out. Inti Creates certainly has the chops to put together a game like this — the name Blaster Master Zero hints at the studio’s breakout title, Mega Man Zero — but the question is, do they get what made Blaster Master work?

It’s hard to say until I actually play the game (which will happen next week apparently!?), but everything in this trailer suggests they’ve sorted all their ducks into proper rows. The only real question is, will the returning top-down sections include the original game’s power-drain mechanic, wherein you lose offensive strength along with health any time you take damage? Honestly, that was one of the must punitive game design choices I’ve ever witnessed and turns the original Blaster Master into a brutal, borderline-unfair slog. It’s one of the very few NES games I owned back in the day but never managed to complete, ultimately sputtering out a couple of times against the second form of the final boss before abandoning all hope for the rest of eternity. Battletoads? Crushed it. Dracula’s Curse? Beat it with all three companions and Trevor solo. Every Mega Man? Cake. Life Force? One-life wins. Ninja Gaiden? Blasted through without a single continue. But Blaster Master… man, screw that game.

Assuming Inti Creates doesn’t go hardcore on this one (the prospects of which don’t fill me with optimism; the original Mega Man Zero‘s cyber-elf and ranking system beats out even Blaster Master‘s power drain mechanic for cruelty), this could be the game to finally give us the Blaster Master follow-up we’ve deserved for nearly 30 years. And I couldn’t be happier about that. Despite my frustration at never finishing the game, I found Blaster Master really fascinating; it even inspired me to create my own trading card series, MUTANTS, which was basically a bunch of weird monsters you’d have fought in the game… and also some dad jokes, decades before my time (incl. “Mario Poppins” and “Rambozo”). Seeing Blaster Master given what appears to be a proper treatment all these years later warms my heart.

Zero seems to take the elements of Blaster Master and recreate them in a bigger, more ridiculously bold fashion without succumbing to aesthetic mismatch. The game looks too good to have run on NES hardware, but Inti are pros and don’t do that awful thing you see in a lot of retro-inspired software in which you have NES-caliber elements combined with out-of-place high-resolution visual components. Instead, they’ve gone with a decidedly PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 look here: Better color depth and sprite detail than NES, but not quite at a Genesis or Super NES level. The color choices and heavy black outlining absolutely nail the PC Engine “look,” and aside from the smoothness of the animation, number of interactive elements being thrown around, and the widescreen layout, this really looks like a Blaster Master game you might have played on TurboGrafx circa 1991 right before NEC gave up on America.

Anyway, you can bet your sweet bippy there’ll be a review of the game here sometime soon. The game debuts on Switch next Thursday, March 9.


Filed under Retrogaming News

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.


Filed under Retrogaming News