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Ever Oasis producer Koichi Ishii on building on (and standing apart from) Secret of Mana

The 3DS keeps chugging along despite the looming shadow of Nintendo Switch: The little handheld that wouldn’t say die. Nintendo’s latest release for the platform arrives tomorrow: Ever Oasis, an action RPG developed by Grezzo.

Grezzo has been one of Nintendo’s most faithful partners for the 3DS era, though their name doesn’t get as much play as an independent publisher like Level-5, Atlus, or Square Enix. However, chances are quite good you’ve played at least one of the studio’s collaborations with Nintendo, as they’ve had a hand in multiple 3DS Zelda games. Not only the remakes of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, but also the original work Tri Force Heroes.

Grezzo and Zelda has always struck me as a perfect creative love connection, given that Grezzo’s president is none other than Koichi Ishii. Formerly of Squaresoft and Square Enix, Ishii oversaw a variety of projects at his former studio. While many of those games are quite highly regarded — for example, Final Fantasy — Ishii is almost certainly best-known for being the director of the first few Seiken Densetsu/Mana games. Of all the action RPGs to bite Zelda‘s style, the early Mana titles always felt the most fully realized (even if they had a tendency to stumble beneath the weight of the naked creative and technical ambition Ishii’s teams invested into them). Combining action-oriented combat with role-playing mechanics like turn-based attack limitations and proper skill and experience systems, the Mana series eschewed Zelda’s puzzle-dungeon design in favor of a more systems-driven approach. And it was very good.

Ever Oasis sees Ishii stepping away from Zelda and looking back to his own creative roots. When I demoed Ever Oasis a couple of months ago, my first impression was that it felt like Ishii’s attempt to recapture some of the Mana series’ glory with a new adventure that draws heavily on those games’ mechanics and vibe. You’re out to restore life to a desert world with the help of a water spirit — nature’s power and its elemental avatars being a trademark theme of Mana — which you accomplish by action-driven combat with a pair of A.I. companions. After spending more time with the adventure, however, I realize that’s not an entirely fair view of the game. While those elements certainly play a large part in Ever Oasis, the overall flow of the game feels more like a world-building simulator combined with an action game. It’s not exactly ActRaiser, but certainly you’ll find a touch of that spirit here as you recruit villagers to help build your oasis town and win the affection of your citizens by performing various tasks for them (both mundane and heroic). While the game has some frustrating flaws — it’s ponderously slow to get going, and the interface feels bizarrely clunky coming from someone who has the Mana series’ brilliant ring menu concept in his c.v. — it merits a look for anyone interested in a game that toes the line between multiple genres.

But what creative debt does Ever Oasis truly owe to Mana? Ishii was kind enough to field some questions and shed a little light on how his new adventure game came to be.

Retronauts: Ever Oasis feels in many ways like an evolution of the concepts you helped establish in the Mana series. Given our focus on the history of games, I hope you’ll allow me to explore that line of questions for a bit. So, first, what can you tell about how Ever Oasis builds on your previous work as a creator?

Koichi Ishii: This world goes in a different direction than the past ones, but the building process was the same.

When looking back on my career, Final Fantasy inherits from its predecessor, whereas in the Mana series, we changed the world every time. We were striving to create a real-time RPG like: Command RPG <- Mana Series -> Action>. I guess it’s more of a “transformation” than an “evolution”. This time rather than focusing on the party strategies, we aimed for a party action battle that’s beginner-friendly by making it easy to switch between characters. We also wanted the players to feel how much the characters have matured throughout the course of this game.

R: What initially inspired you to begin designing action RPGs?

KI: We thought real-time combat would make the battles feel more realistic as well as convey the tension of the battle better than menu-based combat. We felt that the former is superior to the latter, so that’s why we started designing RPGs with real-time combat. Real-time combat also offers more variety with each encounter, and introduces new types of strategies, like character positioning.

R: Unlike most action RPGs of the 8- and 16-bit eras, yours felt more like true RPGs, with multi-character parties and experience/leveling mechanics. What inspired you to explore that specific interpretation of the genre?

KI: As much I love a perfect hero with no flaws, I feel that weaknesses and flaws make the character seem more human and make it easier for players to relate to the character. When you try to think of ways to make up for such shortcomings, you realize how amazing it is to have friends on your side. Working together and sharing the same goals and beliefs with others is difficult to do in rea life. You can’t maintain a good relationship without having compassion for others.

In a RPG, each character has a role and together they overcome challenges by utilizing each character’s skill. We’ve always wanted to make the character’s feelings easily imaginable to the player even if it’s not being obviously portrayed. In the original Final Fantasy, we had the characters fall down to their knees when their HP got low. We hoped that action would convey that the character wants to save his friends. We think battles and relationships amongst the characters will vary depending on what characters are selected to form the party.

R: While Grezzo has worked on several action RPGs, those have been Zelda games created in partnership with Nintendo. In your opinion, what sets Ever Oasis apart from your previous projects with Nintendo?

KI: What’s unique about this game is that oasis management and the adventure cycle which run on opposing systems are firmly tied in with the world. It also creatively brings together Nintendo’s quality and Square’s flavor.

We hope the audience can find how we utilized our experience working on Zelda and also feel that this is definitely my work based on what I’ve done in past titles.

R: When the Mana series debuted, it was unusual to see A.I. companion characters in games like this. What kind of challenges have you had to overcome through the years as you created increasingly sophisticated computer-controlled ally characters?

KI: A.I. has evolved dramatically in recent games. In order to improve the precision of A.I., a fast hardware processing speed is required. For the Mana series, we had to be creative with the bare minimum, but it’s always hard to determine if each character is fulfilling their role. Ever Oasis centers on the characters you control. We try to keep it balanced, so players don’t feel stressed from switching characters around.

R: Did you consider incorporating a multiplayer element? 

KI: We did like the idea of a multiplayer element, but first and foremost, we wanted to focus on determining the basic game cycle and bringing the play experience to life. A multiplayer element was incorporated into Secret of Mana, but this was under the assumption that friends, siblings and family members would be playing together. The time you have to play with family and friends as a child isn’t a large chunk of time. That “time” turns into precious memories. So, that’s why we incorporated this feature. We would love to incorporate a multiplayer element if we ever got to make another game.

R: Ever Oasis strikes me as a heavily systems-based game: Day/night, questing, town-building and more. How do you make such complex design accessible to new players?

KI: The world within the game exists because of the relationships among various elements, and these elements also help bring the world to life. That’s how we’ve been seeing it since the original Final Fantasy. The planet is formed from the elements: Fire, earth, water and wind. Because of that, there are crystals, and the creatures and objects on the planet exhibit those characteristics. Thus, a correlation is established. By having all that go through the system, it turns into a game experience.

In Ever Oasis, the repeat of Interest -> Action -> Result will allow players to gradually experience the world and hopefully they’ll eventually feel that this is how it’s supposed to be.

R: It’s unusual to see this sort of open-world action game on a portable system like 3DS. What advantages and disadvantages have you encountered while working with this software/hardware combination?

KI: Rather than a general open-world concept, I think we felt more strongly about making it feel like you’re walking inside a diorama. By being able to see the world from your standpoint, you can even see the soil layers. We wanted the players to be able to have fun imagining how the terrain and structures were formed in the desert, so that’s why we made it like this.

R: What would you describe as your driving creative vision for Ever Oasis?

KI: Most likely because I have yet to find a convincing solution for creating a digital fantasy world. I was determined to make that kind of world back with Final Fantasy XI. First there is only the basic foundation of a world that the creator made. By having users enter this world, circulation begins and the economy starts running. Also, population density changes as various user purposes intertwine with one another.

I feel that my motivation is to “create an ever-changing world within the rules of the land.”

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Retronauts episode 104: Chronicling metroidvania

This week’s episode treads somewhat familiar territory, though we approach it from a different direction than usual. We’ve explored the Metroid series in fairly exhaustive detail, and we’ve also covered most of the Castlevania series. But what of their babies? What of — yes — metroidvania?

As this is a genre near and dear to the hearts of the Retronauts East crew, we’ve spelunked back into the ancient past to explore and discuss the very beginnings of the genre… games that paved the way for exploratory action-RPG platforming, even if they didn’t quite manage to realize the concept themselves. This is a podcast about games like Zork and Montezuma’s Revenge, not about Symphony of the Night (despite certain people’s best efforts to derail the conversation to being about that vaunted work!). In fact, we went into such detail on these games that we only made it halfway through the intended list of works I put together in advance. Guess that means there’ll have to be a part two…

…besides, we recorded this before Nintendo announced their Metroid II remake, so obviously there’s much more to say on the topic now.

MP3, 51.8 MB | 1:52:48
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Episode description: Benj Edwards and Chris Sims join Jeremy for what was intended to be a quick overview of 8-bit games that helped define non-linear platforming but ultimately gets bogged down in exploring side paths… as in any metroidvania worth its salt, really.

This episode’s tunes come from a variety of early NES exploratory platformers: Rygar, Legacy of the Wizard, and maybe a few others that slip my mind at the moment. In any case, it’s a big, sprawling, mess of an episode, and in my opinion that works in its favor. So give it a listen, eh?

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Disney Afternoon Collection: The Retronauts review

The announcement of Mega Man Legacy Collection 2 yesterday reminded that I’ve never quite understood the enormous amount of hate gamers directed at the first Legacy Collection a couple of years ago. Featuring six games for a tidy price — a fact specifically highlighted by the 3DS version, whose physical release clocked in at $10 less than buying the six included titles a la carte on Virtual Console — it made for a pretty respectable deal. On top of that, the Legacy Collection offered hands-down the best and most faithful rendition of those six games that has been available in a commercial product since the original carts; the only productions that even came close were those PlayStation remakes in Japan, which sold for $30 apiece and were reprogrammed rather than emulated. Despite a few small glitches here and there, the Legacy Collection absolutely blew away previous offerings, from the deeply flawed Mega Man Anniversary Collection to Nintendo’s own Virtual Console. Given the historic stature of those games and their glaring lack of a proper reissue for so many years, the Legacy Collection should have been embraced with open arms. Instead, it was greeted with anger, intense criticism, and general hatred.As far as I can tell, all that rage had very little to do with the Legacy Collection itself, or with the quality of the product. Instead, it appears to have resulted from resentment at Capcom’s apparent abandonment of the Mega Man franchise in the wake of Keiji Inafune’s departure from the company, combined with a desire for games not already available via Virtual Console. The Legacy Collection‘s announcement was greeted with anger, with every minor flaw in the collection inflated by the internet collective to crisis-level disaster.

My suspicions about hangups surrounding the Legacy Collection look to have been corroborated by its new follow-up, The Disney Afternoon Collection. Featuring the same technology (interpreted NES games) from the same developer (Digital Eclipse) and publisher (Capcom), the Afternoon Collection has been received with almost universal enthusiasm. The biggest complaint I’ve seen directed toward it has been a lot of perfectly understandable confusion about the collection’s failure to appear on a single Nintendo platform despite having its roots on Nintendo Entertainment System. Otherwise, though, it’s been more or less glowing reviews all the way down.

And rightly so. The Afternoon Collection is an excellent compilation of some pretty good games. The games feel spot-on, with no significant visual or audio errors that I can spot. The action has a crisp, lag-free sensation. You also get a pretty healthy little museum of archival art and trivia as part of the deal. (My favorite nugget: The unused DuckTales illustration that was clearly penned by Inafune, who got his start in the biz creating the packaging and manual illustrations for the Famicom Mega Man games.)

The Afternoon Collection includes a few improvements over the Legacy Collection. Digital Eclipse appears to have cleaned up the handful of glitches that showed up in the previous anthology. You also get a handful of presentation options, including borders, true-pixel scaling, and even fake scanlines (which can help break up the chunky-pixel visuals on a huge screen). Even more welcome: They’ve integrated a brilliant rewind feature that comes in handy during some of the games’ more hateful sequences. I mean, yes, these are Disney creations and are entirely kid friendly, but they’re still 8-bit action games… so you do occasionally come across moments that make you feel like the designers had some sort of deep grudge against you personally. The mine cart sequences in DuckTales in particular benefit from this emulator-like rewind option, as do the bosses in Darkwing Duck. But I stress the word option; if you hold to a purist perspective (or are one of those snobs who uses the phrase git good without irony), you don’t have to make use of the rewind.

Other than these tweaks, though, the only thing the Afternoon Collection really offers over Legacy Collection is the fact that you can’t otherwise buy the six games compiled here without shelling out for the original NES carts… the cheapest of which costs about as much as the entire Afternoon Collection, and the most expensive of which runs several hundred dollars. The Disney connection has prevented these NES games from appearing on archival releases or services until now, due to rights issues and licensing costs; this release amends that. It’s pretty unusual to see vintage games based on major licenses reissued years later, and the Afternoon Collection is genuinely special in that regard.

This new collection is on par, quality-wise, with the Mega Man anthology — a good thing, despite some internet grumbling that would suggest otherwise. And on a personal level, The Disney Afternoon Collection has provided me an opportunity for me to become acquainted with games I have only passing familiarity with. The only one of the titles gathered here that I played during the NES era was the original Rescue Rangers, which did a reasonable job of providing cooperative action filler for me and my best NES-loving friend until the next Contra sequel arrived. Since I lack a personal connection to the material here, it became more of a historical artifact for me (as opposed to the warm journey into nostalgia that the Mega Man set was).

For fans who cut their teeth on these classics, the Afternoon Collection does them justice. For others like me, who who never played some of the deeper cuts in Capcom’s Disney/NES library, it’s instead a great opportunity to get to know them better. These games have a certain universal quality to them; despite being the products of different development teams, they all hail from Capcom during the company’s time at the top of the NES third-party heap. Visually, musically, and mechanically, NES owners could bank on the certainty that the Capcom name guaranteed a certain unflagging standard of production excellence. These games bear that out… well, mostly.

DuckTales is by far the best-known title on this compilation. Not only was it tied to the biggest of Disney’s afternoon cartoons — big enough to inspire its own motion picture adaptation! — it’s also the one game here to ever have been remade beyond the 8-bit era (courtesy of WayForward Technologies). While DuckTales Remastered demonstrated an enormous amount of love and respect for the source material and its property, it always felt like WayForward got a little lost in their own fandom for the originals. Remastered wandered into the weeds to become bogged down with entirely too many intrusive cut scenes. Yes, it’s marvelous that the original cartoon cast recorded new dialogue for the game, but all that mandatory voiced text disrupted the flow of what should be a zippy, fast-paced platformer. Revisiting the no-frills NES version serves as a gentle reminder that a snappy vintage action game definitely works best when the pacing isn’t all jacked up by excessive conversation.

Another reason people love DuckTales for NES so much: Its unique play mechanics. It wouldn’t make sense for elderly Scrooge McDuck to be the violent brawling type or to run around with a gun, so instead the game turns his cane into a sort of pogo stick to allow him to take out enemies by hopping on their heads. Sure, there’s a bit of Super Mario Bros. to that concept, but the inherent springiness of Scrooge’s cane gives DuckTales a personality all its own; you bound around the screen, bopping enemies, safely passing over dangerous surfaces, revealing hidden treasures, and extending the range of Scrooge’s leaps with strategic bounces off bad guys. And while Scrooge does have the ability to swing his cane like a golf club, this has no use as a direct attack against monsters; it’s strictly used for whacking inanimate objects… though some of those objects can be smacked into projectile status in a pinch.

It’s a fun if sometimes unforgiving game, filled with fan service and classic cartoon and comic references. The game’s structure is unique, too: You can freely select from a number of different stages in any order, with only a handful of gates to progression within, and your ultimate goal is not simply to beat the game but rather to do so with the greatest possible amount of treasure in Scrooge’s vault. After all, it wouldn’t do for Scrooge to save the world. No, he’s all about avarice and grasping wealth, and DuckTales holds true to that characterization.

Its sequel — 1992’s DuckTales 2 — offers more of the same in general, but it also includes some improvements. It looks nicer, as you’d expect for a game produced several years later, but at the same time it simplifies the original’s slightly clunky pogo-cane control scheme. This makes for an even breezier play experience, elevating memorable action game design to near-perfection. Unlike the first DuckTales, the sequel has never been remade, and its late release and relative scarcity versus the original (which launched at the NES’s peak rather than in its twilight era) make it an awfully pricey pick-up nowadays. Having it available on an inexpensive collection like this is a real boon for NES and Disney fans alike.

The Rescue Rangers duology demonstrates a similar relationship between the two games: The second one refines the ideas and presentation of the first, but it doesn’t really change up the concept. Which is fine, really. Nintendo pretty much nailed it right out of the gate.

Based on the cartoon by the same name, Rescue Rangers and it sequel star Disney’s two chipmunk characters (Chip and Dale, no relationship to the exotic dancers) in an adventure scaled to their diminutive height. As always, there’s a certain charm about playing as little characters in a gigantic world; the platforming hazards here involve things like water taps, kitchen range burners, science lab flasks, and library books. Sure, you’re doing the same things you would in any platformer — running, jumping over obstacles, chucking projectiles at enemies — but the change in visual context adds a welcome twist of novelty.

However, what really sells the Rescue Rangers titles, both then and now, is their cooperative play. As a solo experience, the games are perfectly decent; play with a friend, however, and the games gain far more substance and depth. Everything about the game (including managing on-screen space, sharing the limited number of projectile weapons on a given screen, and strategizing the acquisition of collectibles) becomes either a point of collaboration or a point of contention between the two players. Playing Rescue Rangers cooperatively is by far the best thing the Afternoon Collection has to offer… which, again, makes Capcom’s decision not to bring the compilation to Switch all the more baffling, given the fundamental nature of the platform.

Then there’s Darkwing Duck, the one game on this collection I really need to spend more time with. It’s probably the most substantially Capcom-like title compiled here, sending out major Bionic Commando and Mega Man vibes. It looks and sounds better than any other Disney Afternoon title, and it has a compact platform-shooter feel. Unfortunately, it also has a really off-putting mechanic that causes the protagonist to cling to any horizontal surface he comes into contact with when he jumps — it’s like the overhead bars in Contra III, except that you have no control over when and how you stick to them. It happens automatically.  As with the pogo mechanic in DuckTales, it forces players to rethink their expectations and reset their gaming instincts. I still haven’t quite made the adjustment… but, since I own the game now thanks to this compilation, I can certainly afford to take the time to do so.

The one genuine dud on this collection comes in the form of TailSpin, a shoot-em-up based on an odd cartoon spinoff of The Jungle Book, which saw Baloo the Bear trade in his Mother Nature’s recipes in favor of a cargo plane. Capcom built its business on shooters, but this one badly misses the mark thanks to its reliance on a strange and cumbersome central mechanic: Though the action scrolls forward (generally either to the right or downward) automatically, you can reverse it by performing a 180º and turning your plane upside down.

The concept of a horizontal shooter with specifically directional controls was very much a Capcom concept in the ’80s. See Section Z, Forgotten Worlds, or even certain sequences in U.N. Squadron. TailSpin feels very much like an attempt to build on that legacy, but the gimmick in place here (which often sees Baloo flying upside-down) combined with the slightly awkward shooting controls which see you firing at an angle which you change altitude (think Time Pilot rather than Gradius) and you have the formula for failure. I’d like to call this a misunderstood classic, but in fact it’s simply a mess.

I can’t really hold this one misstep against the Afternoon Collection, though; despite its mediocrity, TailSpin feels like a required inclusion in order to fulfill the package’s mandate of collecting all the Capcom-developed games based on Disney’s afternoon cartoon lineup from the ’80s. It’s no fault of this particular omnibus that one of those games didn’t turn out well. And you’re still left with five other games ranging from good to excellent, all reproduced with great accuracy and a respectable number of features and bonuses.

Arriving with the Mega Man Legacy Collection fresh in memory, Capcom’s Disney Afternoon Collection genuinely feels like at least one corporation is starting to get this whole “preserving game history” thing right. Pulling together multiple high-quality games that aren’t otherwise easily available to purchase or play into a single, thoughtfully curated release supplemented with archival material and some welcome quality-of-life features like scanlines and rewinding… it hits a sweet spot of quality versus value, in my opinion. Hopefully this is simply the beginning of a much larger initiative to treat classic games as though they have actual value and merit… though the news that the upcoming second Mega Man collection won’t be developed by Digital Eclipse does raise cause for concern. Capcom perfectly lined up its pieces and players in place here; hopefully the change in developers doesn’t mean they’re starting over from zero again. But even if it turns out to be a fluke, a mere flirtation with a better way of looking at gaming’s past, at least we have the Afternoon Collection.

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Retronauts Episode 102: The Legend of Zelda – Link’s Awakening

We didn’t deliberately time this episode to launch at the same time as the new season of Twin Peaks, but I’m always willing to embrace a happy accident. No classic game could be a better companion for the return of David Lynch’s surreal television masterpiece than Link’s Awakening: The Zelda game whose creators were specifically inspired by the show’s dreamlike atmosphere to create a trippy game whose entire world was — spoilers! — nothing but a dream. One dreamed by a giant fish. Sleeping in an egg at the top of a mountain. Because why not?

Regulars Kat Bailey and Henry Gilbert join us this week to reflect on this odd duck in the Zelda universe. It’s not as revolutionary a work as the likes of A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time; not as divisive as Zelda II; not as workmanlike as many other Zelda sequels. It brought the ideas of A Link to the Past forward and took the series into a portable format — and, I suspect, for the former reason it tends to be regarded as somewhat derivative, while for the latter reason it tends to be dismissed as a frivolity (anti-handheld snobbery is real!). Its plotline has no bearing on the larger Zelda universe, taking place entirely in a self-contained space that, it turns out in the end, doesn’t even really exist.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of love for Link’s Awakening out in the world, as this episode neatly demonstrates. We received a lot of letters from you guys (and gals) about the game. It has a special something about it, I think. It’s not the most popular or best-selling entry in the series, and Nintendo themselves tend to give it short shrift… but those who gave it their time fell in love with it and carry that affection to this day. Anyway, give the episode a listen and check out the original game (available on 3DS eShop for a few bucks!) if you haven’t played it before.

MP3, 53.5 MB | 1:39:57
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Episode description: Jeremy and Bob wax rhapsodic with Henry Gilbert and Kat Bailey as they harmonize to sing the praises of the first portable Zelda: The iconoclastic and frequently surreal Link’s Awakening.

 

Music in this episode comes from Link’s Awakening, of course. It’s a game whose entire premise revolves around performing a song. It has great music.

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Let’s revisit the TI-99/4A with Retronauts Micro 62

You may recall that once, a long, long time ago, we launched a biweekly podcast called Retronauts Micro. And if you think back to that dim and distant time, you might remember that we kicked the whole thing off with a look at a fairly obscure ’80s personal computer from Texas Instruments known as the TI-99/4A. I even put together a video version of that episode!

But these days, Retronauts Micro has changed. It’s bigger. More expansive. And they’re no longer just me or Bob yammering by ourselves into a mic for 10 minutes. Honestly, we probably ought to go back to calling them “Retronauts Pocket” the way we did during our Kickstarter run, but that would probably be more confusing than explanatory.

Anyway. The point is, now that Retronauts Micro isn’t so micro, we’ll probably be revisiting some of those early topics to give them a more thorough treatment. Example: This week’s Micro, wherein the Retronauts East crew gathers together to talk about the TI-99/4A for 50 minutes rather than 10.

MP3, 25.9 MB | 52:29
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Episode description: We circle back to the original Retronauts Micro topic to do it proper justice. Ben, Benj, and Jeremy tackle the TI99/4A: Its history, its games, and… well, that’s about it.

Consider the original TI micro a sort of appetizer for this, the main course. I am pretty sure that this episode covers the topic exhaustively, so I can’t imagine this won’t be our final word on TI’s home computer project! Now, their calculator games, on the other hand… that could make for an interesting episode someday.

And don’t forget to check out Kirin’s Retro Closet, where Ben has been posting visual supplements to our episodes!

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Retronauts Episode 99: More game music. More! More!

This week brings another episode of Retronauts Radio. You should know the drill by now. Lots of music, lots of musing about that music. With this latest episode, I’ve highlighted four different works.

  • Snatcher (LP, Ship to Shore): Definitely the highlight of this episode — it comprises about half the total running time.
  • BRA*BRA | Final Fantasy Brass de Bravo 3 (CD or MP3, iTunes): A collection of Final Fantasy soundtrack covers, loosely affiliated by the inclusion of brass instruments across a huge variety of styles. Not that the world needs yet another Final Fantasy cover set, but some of these are pretty fresh.
  • HuCard Disc in Taito Vol. 1 (CD, CDJapan): A collection of classic Taito music… but not the original Zuntata arcade performances. Instead, these are taken from the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 ports of the games. Some of it is quite good, some… less good.
  • Switched On: A Link to the Past (MP3, Bandcamp): Another entry in the expanding field of retro analog synthesizer covers of beloved classic game music.

MP3, 53.7 MB | 1:51:24
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In other words, some great stuff this month, and some acquired tastes. Next month, I’ll look at some actual Zuntata arcade jams, another Konami adventure, and… who knows what else?

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Yo Capcom, bring on the “Disney Afternoon for Game Boy Collection”

I’ve been working on a review of The Disney Afternoon Collection. It should be up sometime this week; I’d been wanting to hold off on posting until I’d had a chance to put this video together:

And now that I have, I feel like a hold a slightly more informed perspective with which to judge the Collection. Well, OK, not really. This is a mere footnote, not some essential magnifying lens.

DuckTales for Game Boy is, in broad strokes, the same game as the NES release that serves as the crown jewel of the Collection. Look at the details, however, and it’s more of a remix: Same overall goals, same control scheme, same enemies and challenges and general flow, but with all the individual pieces of each stage shuffled around. The game moves a little more slowly and its physical locales are somewhat more compact, and weirdly enough this all works in its favor. DuckTales on Game Boy works (at least, aside from the awful mine cart physics, which are bad on NES and intolerable on GB to the point of nearly breaking the game), and it offers a rare example of an NES game adapted to the diminutive handheld without needless compromise. It’s not perfect, but it gets a lot of things right that many, many other developers fumbled back in the day.

It’s a different enough game, and bodes well for Capcom’s other NES-to-Game Boy Disney conversions, that I’d really like to see a follow-up Afternoon Collection focused strictly on those ports. I doubt Capcom would ever go to the trouble of licensing those releases for reissue; we’re far more likely to see a compilation of their other Disney titles. But a boy can dream, right?

Anyway, DuckTales was a welcome point of light in my efforts to chronicle the Game Boy library. I’ll be taking a break from Game Boy Works for a couple of months in order to wrap up NES Works 1986 and put together the corresponding print edition compilation, but there are some interesting releases on tap once we get back to handhelds.

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Retronauts Episode 98: Mac Gaming in the ’80s

The very first episode of Retronauts East explored the PC gaming side of things with a look at the platform that kicked off computer games in earnest: The Apple II. This week, Ben and Benj and I have reconvened for a follow-up. That’s right, we’re talking about the next major Apple gaming platform, the Mac.

Although most people think of Mac gaming as a contradiction in terms, there were enough unique games — and enough games that introduced revolutionary play concepts — that we had to break this study of the Mac platform into two halves! This time around, we spend nearly two hours examining Mac games of the ’80s; at some point in the future, we’ll hit the ’90s. And there really is a critical and meaning distinction between the two. Up until the launch of System 7 in 1991, almost all Mac games were designed to be compatible with the basic Mac platform: High-resolution (for the time) black-and-white screens. Color was a nicety, and usually not even an option, throughout the ’80s. The arrival of universal color systems and CD-ROM systems would bring massive change to the Mac in its second decade of existence. This episode, however, centers entirely on the unique gaming ecosystem that existed on Mac from 1984-1990.

Episode description: Retronauts East’s journey through the history of Apple-based gaming continues with an in-depth look at the unique world of monochrome Mac gaming. Ben Elgin, Benj Edwards, and Jeremy Parish discuss the miracle of the mouse and the hotness of HyperCard.

MP3, 53.7 MB | 1:51:24
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Notes on music: There wasn’t really any music to speak of in the Mac games we covered this time around, so I jumped ahead to the ’90s and pulled some incidental tunes from one of the future works we mentioned a couple of times in passing: Myst. And for the cover art, I decided to eschew my usual watercolors because, well, Mac was monochrome — and not just monochrome, but one-bit black-and-white. I managed to hit most of the big games we discussed this episode: Alice Through the Looking Glass, Scarab of Ra, Stunt Copter, Shadowgate, Shufflepuck Cafe, Shanghai, and even Dark Castle.

Supplemental links: I want to throw out links to two works worth checking out for further reading. First is The Digital Antiquarian’s retrospective on Cliff Johnson’s The Fool’s Errand, which covers the game with depth we couldn’t even begin to approach in podcast first. Second, I highly recommend Revolution in the Valley by Andy Herzfield, a fascinating first-person account of the creation of the Macintosh. I’d really hoped to re-read the book to refresh my memory on some of the finer points of the system’s birth before the show, but I ended up sinking all my time into exploring the games themselves… which are the more important consideration for this particular podcast, yeah?

Finally, big thanks to Benj for his wonderfully ridiculous mailbag theme. I thought he was joking, but nope…

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Game Boy Works: A (side) pocket full of miracles

I have to admit, the past few episodes of Game Boy Works were not quite as painful as I had expected. I don’t like sports, sports don’t like me… and yet, tackling games about skateboarding, baseball, wrestling, and now pool all in a row somehow didn’t destroy me. It helps that there was just enough weirdness in there to keep things interesting — I mean, that Skate or Die game was downright bizarre. I can’t say I’m sad to be moving along to other subjects now, however. I think there’s maybe a single sports release among the next dozen Game Boy Works titles, and honestly I could go for a few mundane puzzlers right about now.

That said, Side Pocket was a pretty decent way to wrap this blitz of jocularity. It’s a nice, low-key game with chill music and probably the best physics programming I’ve seen on Game Boy.

Honestly, playing this just a few months after reviewing Yakuza 0 shows how little billiards games have evolved over the decades. Of course, pool in Yakuza 0 was a minigame, not the entire work (as it is here) — but even so, those modern-day gambling side contests really demonstrate what a great job Data East did of translating pool into video form way back in 1986. There’s not really that much more you can do with pool beyond what Side Pocket presents. Also, the conjunction of Yakuza 0 and Side Pocket in my life demonstrates that I am just as lousy at the 1986 version of the sport as I am its 2017 rendition, but that’s neither here nor there.

Reviewing Side Pocket for Game Boy makes me pine for a modern portable update to the series. I know Data East doesn’t really exist anymore, its properties having been absorbed by G-Mode, and all those classic Data East franchises exist now as nothing more than archival material to be churned through and reissued with no real thought to evolution. But still… a modern Side Pocket for, say, Switch would be pretty great. Especially since you could set up impromptu multiplayer contests as demonstrated by Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

Ah well; at least you can download this version of the game for 3DS Virtual Console. That’s not quite the dream fulfilled, but it’ll do the trick in a pinch.

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Retronauts episode 97: BRO-totypes

So, here’s a different kind of episode than usual. I’ve been worried about this one since we recorded it; I planned this topic specifically around some casual conversations I remember having with Frank Cifaldi back when we both worked at 1UP, lo those many years ago, and he was to be our guest of honor here. Unfortunately, some last-minute scheduling complications prevented him from making the session, which means we had to wing it. The outcome wasn’t quite what I had in mind… but nevertheless, it turned out quite well with just myself, Bob, and returning guest Steve Lin. Honestly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this episode as I assembled it.

The title of this episode, I realize, probably seems a bit opaque. (I debated between “BRO-totypes” and “Intoxicating Masculinity.”) But the point really is quite straightforward: A discussion of the trend of musclebound, macho characters in video games throughout the ’80s, and the influence those early era game aesthetics and sensibilities continue to exert on the medium today. This episode is less about the games themselves and more about the cultural and historical trends that shaped them — and our own conclusions seems to be in accordance with the comments submitted in our mailbag section. So if nothing else, at least we’re all on the same page here.

Episode description: Steve Lin joins Jeremy and Bob to discuss that most primal of video game forces: Manly video games about manly men. We explore the pop social forces behind the rise of rugged 8-bit heroes, and how those beefy classics shaped modern game sensibilities.

MP3, 48.2 MB | 1:40:08
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Retronauts on iTunes
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A note on this episode’s music: This week’s tunes come from several games we mentioned during the show: Rygar, Rastan Saga, Shatterhand, Kabuki Quantum Fighter, and VICE: Project Doom.

As for this week’s cover art — a stunning portrait of Conan — that comes to us courtesy of listener Billy Norrby, who actually studied under one of the influential painters we mentioned here: None other than Boris Vallejo himself. Check out Billy’s site (be warned that it’s a tiny bit NSFW) and, I dunno, maybe commission him to paint the cover of your next novel.

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