This week in Retronauts, we go (Captain) Commando

We’ve had a string of NES-themed episodes based on backer requests lately, but this will be the last of them (at least for a while): A look into the NES years of Capcom.

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I have more to say about this topic (courtesy of a separate backer request), so I won’t belabor the details now. But basically, Capcom started out as an arcade developer with an internal division dedicated to creating Famicom/NES ports of their coin-op titles. In time, though, the home console division took on a life of its own, creating some of the finest original (and semi-original) titles of the 8-bit era.

Or at the official episode description says:

By our powers combined! (With the backing of Larry Froncek.) We delve into Capcom’s NES years, also known as the point at which a fledgling arcade developer became a world-class console powerhouse.

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The music this episode all comes from various Mega Man games, because, hey.

Retronauts Pocket Episode 15: Destiny of an Emperor

Retronauts 15 Pocket cover

Usually if I come into a Retronauts episode with knowledge of a game nobody has heard of, it’s about some obscure Japanese PlayStation game or whatever else was under the dart I threw at my ROM list in 2002. I did not entirely expect that to happen with this week’s topic, Capcom’s Destiny of an Emperor. It was a 1990 Capcom NES release, and I knew it wasn’t an oft-metioned classic, but among the four of us on the show and topic-submitter Steven Sztuk, Steve and I were the only ones who had a memory of it. Go figure.
But that’s part of the fun, and luckily, Destiny of an Emperor is an interesting game! Last week’s guest Gary Butterfield rejoins us for this chat about the game, where I go over its basic features — it’s an RPG based on a manga based on the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” novel, and uses some very familiar old JRPG tropes that are applied, one way or another, to a game about amassing troops and fighting endless wars. It’s adorable, really, and worth checking out. Enjoy the show.

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Retronauts Volume III Episode 15: Retro Compilations

Retronauts 15 cover
As I left the studio after recording this episode, I remarked that I always seem to do the episodes where there’s about 9,000 different examples to discuss. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment — both in trying to tackle the volume, and getting the feedback that always starts with “They forgot…” Well then, pardon me as I gorge on the history of retro game compilations.

My interest in multi-title old game packs is surprisingly strong, thanks to products like Microsoft Arcade and the original Namco Museum series (which we mention on the show, of course). A part of me enjoys seeing what companies will re-release next, though these days, I’m left wanting more bonus content; something that more clearly curates material instead of dumping it. Namco Musuem used to do this well, but now? Eh, as long as the menu works, right? Of course, as a proponent of game preservation, I can’t always expect corporate entities to go digging in the back room if it’s not going to help make money, but I still think all these gatekeepers of classic content could stand to have a little more pride in what got them here. Nevertheless, some compilations have interesting-slash-amusing stories behind them, like the Sega Smash Pack series. And then there’s just the fact that Japan’s M2 does amazing emulation work. It’s an admittedly light topic for Retronauts, but I think that’s a plus — a little meta, what with discussing the history of collections of history, but easygoing.

Our fourth chair this week is the affable Gary Butterfield from Watch Out for Fireballs, lending a reasoned voice to the discussion. He’ll be back next week for Pocket, as well. Listen, enjoy, and keep in mind that as I left the studio, I came up with a handful of other compilations I could’ve mentioned.

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This episode’s breakdown:

  • 00:00 | Introductions
  • 04:58 | Beginnings: Golden Oldies, Microsoft Arcade
  • 12:01 | Music: Namco Museum Vol. 5: Museum
  • 12:38 | Activision, Mario, Sega Smash Pack series
  • 30:32 | Music: Namco Museum Vol. 1: Museum
  • 31:02 | Intellivision Lives, Sonic Jam, Namco Museum series, other PlayStation import collections
  • 59:04 | Music: Namco Museum Essentials: Menu
  • 59:47 | Attack of the NES games, other GBA collections
  • 1:11:10 | Capcom Classics Collection
  • 1:14:26 | Sega Ages series
  • 1:20:20 | More recent compilations (Sega, Capcom, SNK, Vectrex, etc.)
  • 1:24:17 | NES Remix and the future of compilations
  • 1:32:27 | Plugs and outro (Music: Namco Museum Essentials: Credits)

My First Time: DuckTales

In the My First Time series, we tearfully confess the shameful gaps in our personal gaming heritage. No one’s perfect, and there are only so many hours in the day — we can’t play everything. Here, we try to fill in the holes by spending time with the ones that got away.

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DuckTales (NES, Capcom)

I’m not really sure how I’ve missed out on DuckTales all these years. Widely regarded as an NES classic, with visual design by Keiji “Mega Man” Inafune and one of the most beloved tunes ever to see the light of day in the 8-bit era, DuckTales seems like one of those games everyone has played and everyone loves… except me. I guess I was just a little too old to care about the Disney Afternoon by the time this one rolled around — not to mention that I had been left deeply unimpressed with its apparent (but not really) predecessor, Mickey Mousecapade. So, today marked my very first session with this soon-to-be-remade adventure.

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I went into DuckTales knowing, basically, three things:

  1. Pogo stick
  2. Cane golf
  3. OMG the moon theme

And, as such, my first few minutes with the game proved to be shockingly frustrating. Despite his much-vaunted skills, Scrooge lacks direct, easily accessible offensive capabilities. You can’t simply jump on an enemy’s head the way Mario does, as you’ll take damage when you land. And simply tapping the action button doesn’t cause him to swing his cane, either. It’s a surprising design choice, but I assume it has something to do with the limitations of the license. Scrooge isn’t a combat-oriented kind of character, and Disney imposes massive restrictions on the use and presentation of its characters. Most likely the entire game was built around what Scrooge wasn’t allowed to do.

With a little experimentation, though, I started to figure things out. I realize that in the olden days, I would have spent 15 minutes poring over the manual during the car ride home and therefore would have gone into the game fully equipped with the knowledge to properly wield the power of McDuck, so I don’t hold the slightly unintuitive offensive mechanics against the game. It was crafted with the expectation that players would have been able to read the instructions first, not fumble around with a vaporous digital file divorced of its proper context (shh, don’t tell). Fair enough.

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Scrooge’s primary mode of attack is to leap with his cane leading. Not unlike like Link’s downward stab in Zelda II, but it’s slightly more complicated in this case. You can’t simply press down as you jump to pull this off as you do in Zelda II; you have to hold down and the attack button as you jump. It’s a curiously complex control scheme for an NES game, especially given how limited Scrooge’s available actions are.

Yet after playing around with the game, I think Capcom made the correct choice in adding such complexity to Scrooge’s basic skill. Because the pogo-jump is so powerful, being able to whip it out effortlessly would make the game too easy. Not only does the pogo attack defeat all but a handful of foes with a single attack, it also allows Scrooge to leap about twice as high as his standard jump does, covering far more ground in the process. On top of that, it cracks open treasure chests and certain kinds of rock as well. If you could do all of that without a second thought, DuckTales would become almost laughable in its easiness.

Instead, the pogo leap requires some consideration. You can’t simply go bounding around without a care, because hazards lurk all around: Spikes ceilings, respawning aerial foes, loose-packed snow that’ll trap you briefly, and more. By creating these pogo-oriented hazards and requiring players to press a slightly complex combination of buttons in order to go on the offensive, DuckTales becomes a game of skill and finesse that belies its seemingly simple cartoon-based nature. This is good stuff.

But really, the game didn’t click for me until I started roaming through the interconnected and somewhat nonlinear caverns of the Amazon and backtracked to a space I had previously bypassed. There, I encountered a tall grey statue that begged me to leap on top of it but was too high for Scrooge to reach even with his pogo bounce. So I pushed against a nearby barrel that looked for all the world like a Mega Man E-tank (except orange) and noticed Scrooge changed his posture. A tap of the attack button and he whacked the barrel, which went sliding toward the statue. Not only did this allow me to reach the statue’s upper edge (thereby giving me a path to a hidden treasure chamber by bouncing into the scoreboard and traveling “over” the playable space), it also revealed the intricate nature of the alternate McDuck attack.

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Again, Disney probably didn’t want Capcom to turn Scrooge’s cane into a weapon in and of itself, so you can’t simply wander around smacking things with his walking stick. Instead, you can only shift into attack position by pressing against a static object. This causes Scrooge to rear up into a striking position, and pressing the button once he changes posture causes him to whack the object (jarring him silly if it’s non-interactive scenery, but more often than not launching a brick or revealing hidden treasure). Flying bricks and rocks make very handy and very deadly projectiles, but as with the pogo jump, the added complexity of the action forces you to think about how you use it. You can’t just whip it out. There’s a certain time investment required for each of these actions that sets it apart from simple arcade twitch action.

But then, DuckTales isn’t really an arcade game. It seems like it at first glance, but the play mechanics require a more methodical touch. On top of that, the seemingly straightforward levels contain myriad secrets that you can only uncover through experimentation and exploration. If I were to peg DuckTales as belonging to any one particular genre or school of game design, I’d put it in the same family as early 8-bit PC and console games that revolve around blind luck and trial-and-error to discover essential items hidden invisibly in obscure locations…but DuckTales is far friendlier and more playable.

What sets DuckTales apart from NES predecessors like Milon’s Secret Castle or even The Goonies (not to mention countless MSX- and C64-based antecedents) is the solidity of its design. Crafted by classic Capcom at the peak of their 8-bit glory, it controls perfectly despite its intricate interface, and the hidden elements feel neither arbitrary nor unfair. You can finish the game by blundering through without grace… but take the time to master the controls and figure out where the secrets lie, and you start to reveal a game that’s far better and far deeper than anyone had any right to expect from an NES game based on an afternoon cartoon.

In summary: A really nicely made game featuring some sophisticated design choices. I’m looking forward to seeing what WayForward does with their remake.

Screenshots courtesy of HG101