Tag Archives: arcade

To shmup legend IKD, a very HB

Today is a holiday for fans of shoot-’em-ups worldwide: It’s Tsuneki Ikeda’s birthday!

For over a decade after Taito released Space Invaders in 1978, shoot-’em-ups dominated the arcade scene. Every company worth their salt at least dabbled in the genre, and it wasn’t unusual for one to have multiple series going at the same time. People simply had to have their shmups: Heavy hitters like Capcom, Konami, Data East, and of course Taito inundated the market with one after another, and even then there was room for smaller outfits like NMK and Video System to carve out a niche for themselves as well. Toaplan, who fit into the latter category, were notable not only for the sheer volume of their output—rolling out shmup after shmup for years—but their consistent quality. In this fast-paced environment, many of their games made a strong enough impression to earn console ports and even direct sequels.

Unfortunately, the ’90s brought rapid changes to the genre landscape, with the mighty shmup ousted by a glut of beat-’em-ups and fighting games chasing the success of Final Fight and Street Fighter II, respectively. Toaplan, who had made their name doing one thing very well, struggled to adapt…and this is where our man Ikeda enters the picture. Joining Toaplan in 1992, he contributed programming to two of their final shmups, V・V (pronounced “Vee Five”) and Batsugun, before the company folded in ’94. But the spirit of shooting games was too strong to die with Toaplan, and that same year, Ikeda co-founded one of four new developers who arose to carry on its legacy. There was Raizing, who produced the long-running Mahō Daisakusen series (culminating in the cult classic Dimahoo); Takumi, who made Mars Matrix and the Giga Wing series under the auspices of Capcom; Gazelle, an existing company who made Air Gallet once ex-Toaplan staff joined; and Ikeda came up with a little company called Cave.

Dodonpachi can display up to 245 enemy bullets on the screen at a time. Yes, of course they counted!

While Raizing developed many of their games on the same hardware used by Toaplan in their later years—and Capcom let Takumi play on the boogie board that was the CP System II—Ikeda spent his first year at Cave working on a new framework that would run the games they’d make for the rest of the ’90s: the CAVE 68000. (Being family and all, the Air Gallet team at Gazelle used Cave’s board before merging ranks with them entirely.) For Cave’s debut performance, 1995’s Donpachi, Ikeda entered a dual role he would keep for years to come, serving as both a programmer and a designer. Drawing upon his experiences as both a developer and a shmup fan from way back, he set out to guide the player’s experience right down the line between brutal challenge and intense excitement. With this goal in mind, he meticulously orchestrated the patterns of enemies that would assault the player—and yes, the waves of bullets that showered over them.

More than anything, Ikeda simply desired to keep on making the games that Toaplan might have if they were still around, but that all changed in 1996, when Raizing released a little shmup called Battle Garegga. This game demonstrated what at the time was considered an irresponsible lack of restraint when it came to coating the screen in bullets, and here Ikeda realized his new calling. In 1997, Cave released Dodonpachi in direct answer to Battle Garegga, lowering the helpless player into what would become known as “bullet hell.”

In their heyday, shmups enticed casual players as well as die-hards with their escalating production values. Then Final Fight and Street Fighter II lured the public away from spaceships and war machines with vivid human characters. The advent of bullet hell helped restore shmups to mainstream attention with an obvious visual hook: “Just look at all those bullets!” In turn, it emphasized the underlying mechanical hook that had always been there: the simple, visceral thrill of weaving your way through death on all sides. As the harbinger of a new sub-genre, Dodonpachi became a massive success, and Ikeda dreamed of leading a shooting revolution that would return shmups to their former glory.

Ultimately, shmups couldn’t get out from under the stigma surrounding their imposing difficulty, so they remained in a niche, much to Ikeda’s chagrin. But the faithful, whose high-level technical play had constantly moved developers to increase the games’ challenge in the first place, flocked to Cave as their saviors. And Ikeda, who went on to meet their demands time and again, became lauded as the genre’s devoted steward and the architect of a new age—affectionately referred to as “IKD.”

Cave has finally begun to slow down in recent years, but Ikeda remains in high esteem, as evinced by the birthday wishes flooding Cave’s Twitter today. And although he’s twenty years older now than when he made Dodonpachi, he can look back on two decades spent keeping a dream alive.

Dodonpachi and Ketsui Death Label images courtesy of Hardcore Gaming 101

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When Puyo Puyo went head-to-head-to-head-to-head

After touching on the origins of Puyo Puyo last week, let’s trace the history of one of the most prominently advertised features in the latest release, Puyo Puyo Tetris. The main hook, of course, is the titular coupling of Puyo Puyo with the classic Soviet mind game. While both are puzzle games where you drop pieces into a well, they feel very different and of course comprise different working parts. You might not even guess they could be mashed up in a way that works, but Sega took advantage of the fleeting opportunity that is any deal with The Tetris Company to thoroughly explore the possibilities before them. So you can play Tetris against someone playing Puyo Puyo, crushing the Garbage Puyos sent your way with Tetriminoes; or you can play a mode where you continuously switch between the two styles every time a timer runs out, while maintaining the same well of pieces; or you can go all-in and effectively play both games at once, using Puyos and Tetriminoes alike to clear both lines and colored groups of pieces. It certainly makes for a novel experience…but we’re here to talk about old things, not novelty. Fortunately, it just so happens that another feature of Puyo Puyo Tetris, while implied to be novel, in fact has a secret origin stretching nearly to the beginning of the series. I speak of course of the “frantic four-player” emblazoned on the game’s logo.

Puyo Puyo introduced four-player way back in the second arcade game, 1994’s Puyo Puyo Tsū, but the form factor left something to be desired. The game screen only accommodated two players’ wells, so two cabinets needed to be linked to get up to four, making it hard to appreciate the big picture. This was less than ideal even in the advanced environment of arcades, so most of the game’s home ports abandoned any hope of carrying over the feature. Hooking up two systems to two TVs probably wouldn’t even have been too much to ask at the height of Japan’s Puyo Puyo mania, but the technology simply wasn’t there. Some of the only ports to even attempt to recreate the experience were the humble portable versions, where players could link two Game Boys or Game Gears via a link cable and play a simulated “four-player” match with two computer-controlled opponents. (The Game Gear version is on the Japanese Virtual Console on 3DS, and the wizards at M2 even engineered the system link to work wirelessly, allowing you to experience this bizarre cludge on modern hardware…if by some chance you want to.) Some computer versions also supported four-player, introducing the world to Puyo LAN parties.

But the only console version to try its hand was the Super Famicom release, naturally dubbed Super Puyo Puyo Tsū. Sega’s home port enjoyed nearly perfect accuracy to the original thanks to the close resemblance between the Mega Drive and their System C2 arcade hardware, and the PC Engine version flaunted its CD capacity with full voice acting for the skits that run through the game’s story mode. The Super Famicom version couldn’t match up to these feats, but it did have the benefit of being made by Compile, the game’s original developer, who made up the difference with a number of exclusive modes, including the return of four-player.

This came with its share of technical hurdles, of course. Without some way to link Super Famicoms, all four players needed to share one system, requiring a peripheral like Hudson’s Super Multitap to connect enough controllers. Not only that, but without two displays, four players also needed to share the same screen. The Super Famicom’s 256-by-224-pixel resolution already meant the game’s layout had to be narrowed down from versions on hardware with 320-wide displays, so how could it possibly fit four wells on the screen at once? Compile’s solution turned out to be the same method used to get Puyo Puyo on handhelds: In addition to moving things around, shrink the graphics themselves. The Puyos, which are normally 16-by-16 objects, got quartered to single 8-by-8 sprites—the most basic unit of graphics for practical use. With this, everything just barely squeezed into place.

Tetris, for its part, introduced four-player in Super Tetris 3, another Japan-exclusive Super Famicom release. Funny ol’ world.

This version proved popular enough for Compile to follow it up with an improved rerelease, called Super Puyo Puyo Tsū Remix. After that, though, only a few Puyo Puyo games included four-player, usually coming on systems with four built-in controller ports, like the N64, Dreamcast, and GameCube—or in the form of the GBA game, which in Japan was proudly named after the mode itself: Minna de Puyo Puyo. If you go looking for older titles in the series, you definitely have to hunt to find one that allows Puyo Puyo en masse. But things have since turned around, and it’s practically become a series standard here in the age of wireless communication, sometimes allowing for as many as eight players.

While it appears hardware limitations were the only thing holding this feature back, one could argue the more aren’t necessarily the merrier. At its core, Puyo Puyo is a head-to-head affair, where strategic play means reading your opponent, identifying the combos they’re planning, setting up escape routes to mitigate incoming Garbage Puyos, and determining not only the right move but the right time to make it. Keeping all that in your head at once demands some high-level concentration, and that’s when you only have one opponent to worry about; adding two more could run up against the human brain’s capacity for processing information. As such, Puyo for four or more ends up less considered and more chaotic, sliding over into “party game” territory…but that’s not such a bad thing. Again we find there’s more than one way to enjoy a game, and it turns out Puyo Puyo is a great time whether you’re out to crush the competition or just messing around with friends. It’s the same “Why not?” approach that sees Sega dropping Tetris into the mix, and by the same token, it works.

Super Puyo Puyo Tsū image courtesy of RVGFanatic. Super Tetris 3 image courtesy of Hard Drop

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Monster Land and the pleasure of tension

As I recounted yesterday, Wonder Boy in Monster Land runs hot and cold with its enticing RPG Lite mechanics belied by unmistakable arcade difficulty. But I’m here today to tell you there is life after being thrown from the final stage straight back to the title screen. In fact, this is where the game’s simplistic veneer begins to give way, revealing a textured bag of tricks the player can use to stack their odds in a rematch with the dreaded Round 11.

The first step on road to victory is raising funds, and this is where some outside information comes in handy. You’ll already have found many spots throughout the game where standing or jumping causes coins or money bags to materialize, and it pays to poke around and locate as many of these as possible. However, if these invisible fonts of wealth weren’t arcane enough, Monster Land layers an even more obscure secret right on top of them. By taking damage from an enemy, using a sub-weapon, or—and this is real—rapidly wiggling left and right the instant the money appears, its value will increase dramatically. Unassisted drops typically have values in the single digits, while drops manipulated in any of the described fashions will always come in between sixty and seventy. The technique demands precision, but pulling it off even part of the time will give you a major advantage.

The benefit is so crucial that it’s almost unfair of Westone to have hidden it so well, but it’s really another influence of the arcade scene of its day, where players needed to pool their knowledge to puzzle out how to reveal the treasure chest on any given floor in The Tower of Druaga or unlock better endings in Rainbow Islands. Fortunately, the Sega Vintage Collection release of Monster Land makes up for the loss of that cultural context by explaining these mechanics up-front in the digital manual. Developer M2, in all their wisdom, even let you map a button with the sole function of wiggling at inhuman speed. This is why they’re the best in the business.

The Sphinx is second only to the last boss in difficulty, but you don’t need to fight it at all if you heard the gossip at the pyramid bar.

With this knowledge in hand, you’ll have plenty of money; you just need to hold on to it. And the best way to do that, of course, is not to die. That’s easier said than done, but just as dying the first time sets you on a downward spiral of poverty and defeat, having enough cash to buy boots and a shield at the earliest opportunity goes a long way toward keeping ahead of the curve. Treating the entire game as a one-credit affair also reveals a system where meeting certain score thresholds earns boosts to your maximum HP. Like gold, your score is reset when you die and continue, so you could spend an entire credit-feeding session unaware that you can add to your hearts at all. In fact, you can augment your initial quintet of hearts with up to five more, potentially doubling your odds of survival by the end of the game.

These windfalls afford greater margins of error in which you can practice basic skills like precision movement and positioning, and you’ll wonder how you ever traded so many hits with enemies once you can reliably plant yourself outside their range and stab them with the very tip of your sword. (Aggressively wiggling at coins also has a way of helping you get a handle on your momentum.) Your mind will also be freed up to devise schemes to wring even more leverage out of the game, like dropping  a few gold on a bar drink just so the minimal HP recovery will reset the hourglass, or checking in to a hospital with nearly full health for a score bonus that’ll bring you that much closer to your next heart.

The next time you arrive in Round 11, you’ll be so decked out that you probably wouldn’t mind if you had to lose your remaining gold and points to a continue—but again, it’s all or nothing from here on out. While you may recall from The Dragon’s Trap‘s prologue that the castle is a maze, that incarnation is a mere reenactment, made to recall the basic concept while being short and simple enough to serve as the first area of a new game. The real thing, on the other hand, is as arduous an ordeal as you’d expect from an arcade game’s final challenge. Leaving a screen via the wrong exit will warp you to an earlier position with no sense of structural logic, so your only guide is that the path forward is usually the trickiest one to reach. The reaching itself can be an endeavor as well, whether it requires defeating enemies that spawn sequentially on opposite ends of a hall or quickly leaping back and forth between a pair of alternately rising platforms.

While you’re piecing all this together, of course, the hourglass continues counting down, slowly but surely sapping your hearts and heralding the Game Over of no return. There is a bell item that chimes when you’re on the right track, but it can only be acquired by talking to all the right people throughout the game and foregoing a ruby that can cut the final boss’s life in half. As unfriendly as the labyrinth is, the dragon at the end of it is hard to kill even at partial strength, much less without that gem. The choice is not easy, and playing this game now, staring down the very real possibility of all your carefully laid plans ending in another trip back to square one, no one could blame you for taking the ruby and looking up a map online.

I should also note you can save and load your progress with impunity in the Sega Vintage release—a temptation I resisted until the first time I made it to Round 11 in peak condition. I admit it: I was so pleased with my progress and balked at the thought of doing it all over again if I died in the final stage. And died I did. Now empowered by the clemency of retro rereleases, I simply loaded my save to try again. My second attempt went about as well as the first, but the third time was the charm. I beat the game…but I didn’t really feel like I’d won. I’d nearly gone the distance on Monster Land‘s own terms, and I knew merely watching the credits roll couldn’t be as exhilarating as sealing the deal in one beautiful, unbroken assault on the dragon’s castle. Far from feeling done, I couldn’t wait to start over from Round 1. Half an hour later, I beat the game again. First try—didn’t even need to use the life medicine I got in Round 10. And though I was back where I’d just been, watching the same credits roll, the feeling couldn’t have been more different.

This, at last, is Monster Land‘s greatest strength, perfectly encapsulating how our experiences with games can be transformed simply by altering our approach to them. First you learn to keep moving because the game demands it, and you might figure that’s what it’s about. When moving by itself proves insufficient, you gradually learn to make strategic considerations and identify the opportunities provided to you. Once you’re at this level, you can focus on honing your skills, and only when you’ve mastered them can you finally put together a winning run. (And somewhere along the way, you learn to wiggle.) Each layer you uncover requires your mindset to evolve and adapt, and it rewards you with an ever-increasing sense of accomplishment. Save-scumming may get you to the end, but you might not look back on what you beat as anything more than a pleasant diversion. However, should you engage and appreciate everything it has to offer, you just might remember Wonder Boy in Monster Land as one of the most satisfying times you’ve ever spent with a game.

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How “Wonder Boy 2” became genre soup

Released in 1986, Westone’s Wonder Boy might be the quintessential arcade platformer. Even a casual observer would note its breezy sensibility, its single path forward, its sense of forward momentum—its “arcade feel.” But what all these boil down to is an intimate connection to the economics of arcade games. To wit: “Time is money.” We know from interviews with industry veterans that arcade developers designed their games with a certain rule of thumb in mind: On average, players should drop a hundred-yen coin into the machine every three minutes. This was easily gauged early on, as games didn’t allow for downtime at all: There’s nowhere to run from the encroaching aliens in Space Invaders, and aside from some inherently brief intermissions and flashes of invincibility, Pac-Man keeps the player under constant threat of being hunted down by monsters. But as games evolved into more granular experiences, they began to allow the player more control over their pace. With this came the potential to lengthen that all-important wait for the next coin, so developers realized the need for measures ensuring the player would always be either in danger or in the process of moving somewhere dangerous.

Bosses in Gradius games abruptly explode if fights drag on too long, not to reward or even admonish the player but simply to get the screen scrolling again, hopefully to somewhere they might be better at dying. Some games track an invisible timer that spawns a hard-to-dodge hazard when time’s up, such as the infamous Baron von Blubba in Bubble Bobble or the fatal mist that slowly but inexorably creeps up behind the player in Splatterhouse. Many others settled for the less organic but easily understood tactic of imposing a hard limit on the player’s time and throwing it up on the screen. This was the approach Westone used for Wonder Boy, but they took it further by making the timer a distinctly prominent part of the display, depicted as a gauge so the player can watch as the color drains out of it. And it depletes quickly—far more quickly than you can complete even a single stage—demanding you gather fruit to bump it back up. This constant tug-of-war against entropy proves to be a major focus of Wonder Boy‘s design, as important as beating enemies and leaping hazards as you charge ever to the right, eyes peeled for the next melon.

A year later, producer Ryuichi Nishizawa found himself in a mindset that couldn’t have less to do with arcade games. Much like Yuji Horii, he was obsessed with the seminal computer RPG Wizardry. But while Horii had no trouble transitioning from graphic adventures into Dragon Quest, Nishizawa was burdened by his previous success. Everyone expected a sequel to Wonder Boy. Ultimately, his solution was to take the first game’s trademark urge to move and mash it up with an RPG’s exploration, resource management, NPCs, and character growth. The Frankenstein child that resulted was Wonder Boy in Monster Land.

Even the display is influenced by RPGs of the day, with a screen-sized HUD divided into discrete little sections for your stats and equipment while the action unfolds in a window.

You won’t find much fruit in Monster Land, but you will find money that can be spent in shops for boots, shields, and armor. As you upgrade your equipment, you can run faster, jump higher, block projectiles, and sustain more damage. Temporary buffs appear as gauntlets for offense, helmets for defense, and winged boots to make great flying leaps. You can duck into bars and listen to gossip in the form of boss strategies and directions to otherwise unindicated secrets. You’ll knock on invisible doors, outsmart the Sphinx, use an array of magical sub-weapons, and even embark on a game-spanning side-quest for an item of unrivaled power. But throughout it all, true to Monster Land‘s heritage, you will always be under the gun to press on as fast as you can.

Shops close forever after you make a purchase, visit them twice, or idle inside for maybe twenty seconds. Aside from the shop screen, there are no menus. Your sub-weapons can’t be selected; they just pile on top of each other in one big stack in the order you picked them up. And most pressing of all, the timer from Wonder Boy is back, now in the form of an implacable hourglass. When the sands run out, you’ll lose one heart from a row  of only five, and then the thing flips over and starts counting down to the next heart. Recovering HP by any means (including completing a stage) will also reset the timer, but aside from that, the sand can only be restored by touching a rare hourglass item.

As you’re pressured to advance, your first trip through Monster Land will likely be a comedy of errors where you dash past opportunities to improve your condition and rush headlong into enemies due to your slightly slippery movement. When you inevitably die, you can keep your progress as long as you insert another credit, but you lose your gold. This leads to a vicious cycle where you lack the funds to buy equipment, die because you’re sorely underdressed, lose your gold…and repeat. Swords don’t cost a thing, but they’re all guarded by optional bosses, and you’ll reach a point where these become practically unwinnable without the right gear. With enough determination, though, it is possible to bumble through the game in this sorry state—right up until the Round 11, the final stage. When you die here, you’ll line up the next credit as you’ve done many times before…only to find yourself looking at the title screen.

Yes, in the harshest reminder that it’s an arcade game first and foremost, Monster Land cuts off the ability to continue once you approach the end, ruling out even a cynical “pay to win” option. It’s a shot in the gut if you’re not expecting it, but this is a short enough game that you can keep most of it in your head at once. Once the shock wears off, you may find yourself thinking back over every wrong turn and how much better things could have gone—formulating an all-encompassing plan of attack. And the trip back to Round 1 may not be the cruel joke it appears to be, for it’s here, in the runback, where Monster Land really starts to shine.

Come back tomorrow for what I promise will be my last time writing about Wonder Boy and/or Monster World…for a while. And I swear I’ll tell you about the wiggling.

 

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There awaits only more Monster World

Last month, French developer LizardCube released their beauteous remake of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap remake, a painstaking ode to a classic game which had gone largely overlooked solely for being trapped on the wrong hardware. Now any fan of retro platformers, action RPGs, and/or Metroidvanias owes it to themselves to put console allegiances aside and spend a few hours getting lost in the dense forests, arid wastes, winding caverns, and deep blue sea of Monster World. Then again, being the on-the-ball Retronaut you are, maybe you’ve already completed Bocke’s journey to regain his human form and found yourself yearning for more. If that’s the case, you should look no further than the assortment of Monster World games Sega brought to PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii back in 2012.

Ported by the masters at M2, the titles number three in all: Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy in Monster World, and Monster World IV. Looking past the localized titles that only exacerbate this series’ confusing lineage, what you have here are in fact Monster World I, III, and IV. (Though in fact, the arcade version of Monster Land is titled as such even in Japan. For whatever reason, the Japanese Sega Master System version was renamed Monster World, and the series continued from there.) The Dragon’s Trap, which is Monster World II, was unfortunately passed over at the time, perhaps owing to the fact that only the downsized Game Gear version had been released in Japanese before; the Master System version was exclusive to America and Europe. But with this year’s remake, which includes the game in its original form, the entire Monster World series is now available to play in one modern format or another. (But not, mind you, the entire Wonder Boy series… Westone must have been on some kind of mission to make a line of games this mystifying.) Whether you’re a new recruit or you carried Westone’s torch all these years, there’s never been a better time to plunge into this world of side-scrolling role-playing and funny animal people.

Same.

Monster World IV is the easiest to recommend, boasting a fluid move set, fleshed-out dungeon puzzles, a heartwarming story, a setting that evolves over time, adorable animations, and a stunning use of color that you’d never guess was brushing up against the limits of the Genesis hardware. All that said, it’s also the least similar to every other game in the series—a brave new world unto itself, but maybe not the first thing to reach for if you’re just after a fundamental Monster World experience. Wonder Boy in Monster World is a more workmanlike installment that plays out a bit like a “greatest hits” compilation of the series up to that point. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but it’s definitely best to play in order of release. Come to it before its predecessors, and its many homages will fly right over your head; go back to it after the clean break that is Monster World IV, and you’ll probably find yourself disappointed by its relative lack of ambition.

If you’re fresh off The Dragon’s Trap, I would instead point you to its direct predecessor: Wonder Boy in Monster Land. For one thing, The Dragon’s Trap begins shortly before the end of Monster Land, with our hero facing down a robotic dragon at the heart of an impossible maze, and you might be wondering how he got into that predicament in the first place. For another, well…Monster Land might actually be the secret best game in the series. Compared to a latter-day 16-bit effort like Monster World IV, it may appear simplistic at first—archaic, even—but there’s a lot going on under its hood. There’s so much, in fact, that I started talking about it and soon realized I couldn’t stop. So come back tomorrow for part two, where I’ll explain at length how Monster Land‘s various moving parts combine to instill the player with a sense of tension and accomplishment rarely found in games. For now, I’ll leave you with this hint: it involves wiggling. A lot of wiggling.

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Retronauts Micro #053: Donkey Kong’s Day in Court

For this week’s Retronauts Micro episode, I’ve formally visited a topic that’s popped up on the show from time to time, but which we’ve never discussed in any real depth. It’s been pretty well documented over the past decade that Donkey Kong — the arcade version, that is — was co-created by a third party, and this knowledge has led to speculation that the original coin-op game never shows up as an archived release due to this legal dispute.

While no new information has actually emerged since the Game Developers Research Institute posted its write-up of the situation about five or six years ago, with this episode I’ve attempted to put together a “what we know” synopsis that contextualizes the few hard facts that have emerged with some valuable context… including Nintendo’s reliance on outside contractors in its early video game days, and the uncertainty of copyright law as concerned game code back at the time of Donkey Kong‘s debut. Hopefully you’ll find it enlightening — and if not, well, you can look forward to next week’s episode, wherein we have an actually listenable conversation about Sonic the Hedgehog. For once.

Episode description: Enjoy this delightful yarn about the legal wrangling over the matter of Donkey Kong’s true parents. Is Shigeru Miyamoto really his dad? And who has custody over this simian tyke, anyway?

Libsyn (14:42 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)

Remember that this rad show is made possible by a communal cash infusion through Patreon! (We’re not greedy, we’re just game journalists who can’t afford to create a high-grade cross-country podcast out of pocket.)

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Retronauts Vol. III Episode 12: Wrestlenauts

Retronauts 12 cover

I think the first time I became aware of pro wrestling was through games — specifically, the first issue of Nintendo Power I received, which had a feature on WWF Wrestlemania for the NES. Having no idea who anybody was in the game, I thus had no real interest in wrestling, and pretty much ignored it throughout my childhood, never quite getting it. But I came to realize there was real passion for the sport since it was televised, by people as smart and nerdy as I am, plus nearly 30 years of video games to fuel that passion. And that’s pretty much the focus of this week’s episode, requested by backer Alex “krae_man” Forsyth — who, if you were ever on the 1UP message boards during the Retronauts heyday, probably saw his demands for a “Wrestlenauts” episode. Well, Kickstarter can make dreams happen on either side, and I guess it works out that this is releasing close to Christmas.

Joining us are Dave Rudden and returning guest Henry Gilbert, both from Laser Time and their associated wrestling show Cheap Popcast; and Michael Donahoe, whom you may remember from EGM and 1UP (and respective podcasts). All three are experienced wrestling nerds who played most of the games that were released on this side of the world, and more, and as I guide everybody through a chronology of wrestling games, I more or less leave it to these guys when it comes to discussing them in greater detail.

Sure, there’s the typical going-down-the-list treatment, but we really get rolling once we get to Fire Pro Wrestling, the premier Japanese-made series filled with customization and realistic fighting system, and the 3D/polygonal era, when the developer formerly known as AKI made some of the best (and best-remembered) licensed wrestling games of all time. Those are times when Japanese developers were honing their skills and making the best wrestling games, becoming a sort of latent golden age for the genre. There’s plenty more to be said about certain arcade games, too, like Midway’s Wrestlemania game with the real digitized wrestlers, and as we reach the present day, some talk about where the genre could be going, perhaps always being led by the WWE and developer Yuke’s.

Maybe this won’t be the most relatable episode of Retronauts — even for me it isn’t, on the whole. But again, it’s filled with information and enthusiasm, and no matter what your interest in wrestling is (if you get lost by any jargon, don’t forget this handy glossary), it’s still pretty fun to hear people who really know what they’re talking about share their expertise on games that can rise above the much-maligned sport they’re based on. Don’t shy away from this one!

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This episode’s breakdown:

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Retronauts Volume III Episode 9: Konami Arcade Beat-Em-Ups

Retronauts 9 cover

I’m Ray, I’m hosting Retronauts again, and this week we talk about the arcade beat-em-ups of Konami, a topic requested by listener and Kickstarter backer Steven Martin.

Like several other companies in the late ’80s, the Double Dragon-inspired “belt scroll” beat-em-up became a staple of the arcade, and Konami was no exception. They started a little rough at first, but by the early ’90s, they went pretty much full-on with beat-’em-ups for a few years, and mostly maintained high-quality throughout — from oft-remembered licesnsed games like The Simpsons and X-Men to original productions that they somehow found time to make, like Violent Storm and Metamorphic Force. We go over all those games and more, and though it’s hard to say a whole lot about games that aren’t completely different from one another, we do, as usual, get to dip into some nostalgia related to some of them.

Polygon’s Matt Leone rejoins us after talking about arcade racers a few weeks ago. As stated before, Matt knows his stuff about arcade games, and so it was kind of half-coincidence to have him on again when this topic came up.

As a side note, since Jeremy had to up and leave us for the eastern part of the US, he joins us through Skype. He did record himself and I spliced him in, though it’s still not ideal — nevertheless, I’m aware of any hiccups you might notice, and we’re already thinking of how to work it out the next time this happens. On the bright side, you still get Jeremy on Retronauts. (Also, Jeremy’s talk of Konami’s arcade flyers inspired him to write a history of sorts for USgamer.)

Thanks once more to Steve, and I hope to start tackling more backer requests in the future. Though next week on Retronauts Pocket, I just had to talk about accessories again.

Enjoy the show.

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This episode’s breakdown:

01:03 | Introductions & Konami’s original arcade brawlers: Crime Fighters, Sunset Riders, Metamorphic Force, and more
18:42 | Music from Crime Fighters
19:01 | Konami’s licensed beat-em-ups: Aliens, TMNT, Simpsons, and more
40:12 | Music from X-Men
40:42 | More licensed games: Bucky O’Hare, Moo Mesa, etc.
59:08 | Wrap-up!

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Retronauts Volume III Episode 6: Arcade Racing Games

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Ray here. Lots of different games tickle my fancy, but one of my bigger loves is the arcade racer. It’s a genre that’s seen many big hits — namely Daytona USA and Ridge Racer — but there’s plenty of exciting games that came before and after those rivals. And fortunately for us, these kinds of racing games are ubiquitous enough that all of us on the show had some experience with them. Joining us this week is fellow 1UP alum and current Polygon editor Matt Leone, who lends his arcade knowledge and trivia to this talk of the racing genre.

We go back and forth between Japanese and Western racing games, exploring the strides being made on either side for more than 40 years. Not only do we talk about individual games, but we also take a moment or two or talk about where they might be going. The old-school arcade game design sense of making things hard and quarter-sucking as possible has slowly morphed into games that encourage players to enjoy the spectacle and not get too down about failing. American developers like Raw Thrills embrace that with their Fast & The Furious series, though in Japan, the genre seems to be fading away quickly — or at least becoming nothing but Initial D games.

As I mention near the top of the show, the racing genre has a dense, dense history, and we couldn’t mention every single game that was interesting. Because of that, we briefly talk about some and just plum forgot about others (for example, why did I not think of Sonic & All-Stars Racing?). This includes a lot of notable ports of those games, too — but my excuse is that we stick to the arcades where possible. So expect it, listen to it, and love it.

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Find us on the iTunes Store and leave a nice review!

This episode’s breakdown:

  • 0:46 | Introductions & the earliest years of arcade racing games
  • 11:31 | Music: Pole Position cartoon theme
  • 12:01 | The later ’80s and into the ’90s (Virtua Racing)
  • 30:05 | Music: Virtua Racing selection theme
  • 30:34 | Some ’80s stragglers
  • 34:46 | Music: RoadBlasters theme
  • 35:11 | The mid ’90s (Daytona USA, Ridge Racer)
  • 48:07 | Music: Daytona USA “Let’s Go Away” on piano
  • 48:39 | The rise of the West in the late ’90s (Cruis’n USA)
  • 57:04 | Music: Cruis’n World title theme
  • 57:35 | Into the 21st century
  • 1:17:07 | Closing

NEXT WEEK: Pocket explores another system’s range of accessories.

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Retronauts Volume III Episode 3: Ninja Gaiden

Retronauts 3 cover art

Hi, it’s Ray. I was bemused that after so many episodes of Retronauts on so many different topics, we never took time to dive into Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden series. It was one of the best-remembered series of the NES days, and not only did it codify a big part of games (it was arguably the first console action game to incorporate cut-scenes), it owes a bit to its contemporaries, namely Castlevania. And that’s just one of the talking points we go over in this episode.

My intent was to touch on all of the “retro” Ninja Gaiden games, as they’re not just the NES trilogy most people remember. There was the original arcade game, the Game Boy title, some notable ports, and as you’ll find out, a whole other Sega-borne series that Tecmo licensed out. We also talk about some Ninja Gaiden-related media and merchandise. However, we don’t talk much about Tecmo’s rebooted Ninja Gaiden series — though some of you may have been kids when it got started, we weren’t, and why were you allowed to play M-rated games, anyway?!

Direct download (MP3) | SoundCloudRSS
Find us on the iTunes Store and leave a nice review!

This episode’s breakdown:

  • 0:46 | Digital download discussion (Game Gear VC releases & Final Fantasy VII on Steam)
  • 12:25 | Ninja Gaiden (Arcade)
  • 24:00 | Ninja Gaiden (NES)
  • 39:31 | Ninja Gaiden II (NES)
  • 50:24 | Ninja Gaiden III (NES)
  • 56:39 | Ninja Gaiden Shadow (GB)
  • 1:01:26 | Ninja Gaiden Trilogy (SNES)
  • 1:05:48 | Ninja Gaiden (Game Gear)
  • 1:10:44 | Ninja Gaiden (Master System)
  • 1:14:21 | Ninja Gaiden (Mega Drive)
  • 1:18:19 | Ninja Gaiden anime & Worlds of Power novel
  • 1:24:24 | Haggleman 3
  • 1:27:55 | Closing

And this link to the Game Player’s Gametape will make sense as you listen.

NEXT WEEK: I take on Pocket with another lesser-discussed subject on the show.

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