This week’s Video Chronicles feature couldn’t have been timed more fittingly, although I admit the scheduling was nothing more than a coincidence: Popeye for NES, wherein a mumbling spinach junkie attempts to rescue his lady love from the burliest of competing suitors. If things had gone as originally intended, though, this game might have been something completely different; Donkey Kong would have been a Popeye game, making Popeye and Olive Oyl gaming’s original romantic couple… and also meaning Mario would never have existed. Now there’s an alternate timeline worth contemplating.
Playing Popeye for this production gave me a better appreciation of the game. I’ve always considered it a lesser work by Nintendo, but it’s better than I’d originally given it credit for. Not a timeless great, certainly, but decently ambitious.
Tuesday is normally Video Chronicles Day, but this week I’m on Japan time. Which means… this should have been up on Monday, not Thursday. Well, I’m also on jet lag time, as well as really nasty cold time. So… just forgive me this one scheduling glitch.
My hope is that you’ll find the quality of the content justifies the delay:
We’re just about through the NES debuts of all of Famicom’s launch-day titles, and also just about through the NES Donkey Kong trilogy. While this is all pretty well-trodden territory, you’ll be pining for the delightful excellence of the Donkey Kong series once we hit Urban Champion. Mark my words.
Another week, another video… specifically, another video about Donkey Kong.
Might as well get used to it. Good Nintentions is about to hit a thick patch of Nintendo arcade classics, including two more Donkey Kong games, Mario’s first solo outing (which is, of course, a Donkey Kong spinoff), and Popeye, which is what Shigeru Miyamoto originally wanted Donkey Kong to be. That big ape cast a big shadow over Nintendo’s early console days.
I appreciate the fact that this video has sparked comment debate over which home version of Donkey Kong was best — Nintendo’s NES game looked most faithful, but plenty of people will vouch for other platforms where the game included all levels, animations, and music. Of course, Nintendo could easily put this debate to rest by releasing an official version of the arcade game that isn’t locked inside a grindingly tedious 3D platformer, or by making Donkey Kong Original Edition widely available. Wouldn’t that be swell?
The ongoing absence of a proper release of such a pivotal title remains pretty baffling. Knowing Nintendo, they’re going to make Original Edition one of their “free” sample titles for the Switch’s subscriber service, which ceases to be freely playable after one month, but not actually offer the game for sale. That would be awful, but somehow perfectly in keeping with the way things have been going for the archival travails of Donkey Kong.
In the course of my chronological console library video projects, there are certain Big Ones: Games that carry considerable weight, whether that’s historic or merely psychological. This week’s Good Nintentions tackles a game that possesses both kinds of weight: The original Donkey Kong.
This video is ostensibly about the NES version of the game, but in practice I barely even touch on that adaptation. There’s a great deal to be said about Donkey Kong, and I tried to say as much as I could here. The NES version analysis will have to wait until next week’s episode, I’m afraid.
I’ve written quite a lot about Donkey Kong over the years, and I’m perfectly happy to make this video retrospective a sort of final statement on the subject. It probably won’t be, but it could be, is what I’m saying. Anyway, please enjoy.
Today’s a Tuesday, which means it’s (1) the day Bison visits Chun-Li’s village and (2) the day a new episode of
Good Nintentions Retronauts Video Chronicles goes live. This time around, it’s a look at Mach Rider for NES:
Like Donkey Kong Jr. Math, Mach Rider exists in a state of quantum actual-release-date flux. Nintendo says it launched one date (Oct. 1985); every other source from the time says it launched considerably later (anywhere from March to August 1986). So, I’ve grouped it with Math as a provisional 1986 release and called it a day.
For the most part, this video focuses on the game’s design and how its racing tech (and uncredited development staff) appears to tie it to an older Famicom game that never shipped in the U.S.: F1 Race, which like Mach Rider was co-developed by HAL. Everything I’ve come up with is, unfortunately, speculative, but it’s not difficult to connect the dots and see how one game might have served as the foundation for the other, given the common staff, similar tech, and seemingly U.S.-oriented aesthetics and design of this game.
As for Mach Rider itself, it’s decent enough. I’ve never been able to find much to love about it myself, but I came into it later. I imagine it was probably a heck of a showcase for the console’s capabilities back in 1986. The game moves fast when you’re in 4th gear… maybe too fast. The lack of any actual scaling technology in the NES hardware means that obstacles on the road become extremely hazardous due to positional ambiguity. It becomes difficult to judge how far away objects are from you and where on the road they actually lie, laterally speaking. It feels kind of shabby to criticize the game, though — this was an early NES game running on bare hardware with no cartridge enhancements, and while it’s certainly no Out Run, it’s an impressive example of what the most accomplished NES programmers could achieve without add-on aids. That it’s ultimately only so-so as a game puts it in good company with far less spectacular-looking releases of the era; at least this one has visual pizzazz going for it.
And a brazen Rush reference. That counts for a lot, in my book.
I’m not sure that anyone has ever used the terms “Donkey Kong Jr. Math” and “platonic ideal” in the same sentence before, but we like to do things differently around here. DK Jr. Math, as I mentioned a few posts down, was the subject of this week’s Good Nintentions video:
…and, while there’s not really all that much to celebrate about the game itself, this coverage really does embody the essence of what I’ve been working toward with projects like Good Nintentions and Game Boy World. By no means is this the first video anyone has ever produced about the game, nor even the first video that consists of more than just ranty swearing about how terrible it is. That part isn’t particularly unique.
Nah, it’s all the other stuff that comes along with the video that makes it (in my opinion) worthwhile: The post at the Good Nintentions site that contains a revised version of the video script, direct feed screenshots, and — happily — lots of photos of the game’s packaging. Since the complete physical edition of DK Jr. Math now sells for as much as $1500 — almost double the $800 it was selling for when I began accumulating material for Good Nintentions two years ago! — this is a pretty hard-to-come by set. Having it documented this way at least provides a decent record of the game and its packaging materials, courtesy of generous collector/friend of Retronauts Steven Lin, who very trustingly lent his copy to me to be photographed. Eventually, high-resolution versions of all of this photography will go into another Good Nintentions book, and there’s something about print that makes material like this real. A permanent record, I suppose.
And that’s really what I’m after with these documentary projects: To get as much material as possible into a single place as comprehensively as I can. I’ve been doing the best I can in my spare time, but now that Retronauts and the documentary video ventures are becoming a primary concern, I’m excited about what we’ll be able to accomplish. I just hope we’ll be able to track down the box to Fish Dude one of these days…
The one down side is that every time I hit a sort of goal or target, I realize there’s even more that can be done. For instance: Since documenting the box for DK Jr. Math, I’ve gotten my hands on a much nicer camera and invested some Patreon money into a rather pricey but incredibly worth-it high-speed macro lens — a combo that does much better justice to these artifacts. But now I feel like I need to do a bunch of reshoots. It never ends.
As foretold by the prophets — or rather, profits — you can expect daily blog postings here at retronauts.com going forward. Let’s go!
The first episode of Good Nintentions 1986 goes live shortly, which is something that merits a mention here now that (1) Good Nintentions falls under the Retronauts banner and (2) we’ve cleared the “daily blog post” Patreon goal. (Please forgive my shameless promotion of this link now that it determines my livelihood.)
Good Nintentions 1986 kicks off with, sadly, a look at the misbegotten Donkey Kong Jr. Math. As usual, I’ve tried to set this season apart from the others with a distinct YouTube thumbnail. (Yes, I realize that for maximum YouTube popularity my thumbnails should feature a photo of myself, screaming with rage or looking otherwise stupefied about the topic in question.)
Since Good Nintentions 1986 will culminate with the release of the NES’s first worthwhile third-party release, I wanted the thumbnail theme to reflect that climactic journey. And since that game in question was Konami’s Gradius, I decided to echo Konami’s iconic NES box art:
And finally, because the heart of a graphic designer still beats within my chest from time to time, I’ve used ITC’s Eras for the thumbnail font, reflecting the typography Konami used inside its NES manuals. No, shut up, you’re a nerd.
Honestly, those boxes still look great. The silver overlay with that distinctive gradient stripe — I’m not really sure how else to describe it! — would work just as well as a branding scheme today as it did in the ’80s (even if the use of actual hand-painted art pegs this as a work of a bygone era). Ah, if only Konami still made video games…