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 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:

Links:

Retronauts Pocket Episode 8: Jaws & Friday the 13th

Retronauts Pocket 8

Hello, boils and ghouls — It’s Bob again with my third episode in a row. (Hopefully you’re not getting sick of me by this point.) Retronauts Pocket episode 8 comes to you courtesy of David Shuff, who suggested Jaws for the NES as a possible topic, then — for the sake of filling a half-hour — agreed to let us talk about Friday the 13th as well. Now, these two typically make every “Worst NES Games Ever” list, and while there’s plenty of room for improvement, both Friday the 13th and Jaws contain some great (and distinctly Japanese) design ideas that would have made for much better experiences if the cruel taskmasters at LJN gave their hired guns more time to work with. That said, due to its topic and timing, Pocket 8 became our accidental Halloween episode, helped into creation by Brett Elston and Chris Antista (of the Laser  Time podcast network), who you heard on last week’s show. Enjoy, and for extra spookiness, be sure to listen to this one in the abandoned summer camp or moonlit pumpkin patch of your choice.

Libsyn (33:43 | MP3 | 24.6 MB) | SoundCloud

This episode’s description:

“In the late ’80s, Lewis J. Norman had a dream: delivering children awful video game adaptations of movies way out of their age range. But are these 8-bit monsters really just misunderstood? Join Bob Mackey, Ray Barnholt, and special guests Brett Elston and Chris Antista as they uncover the dark truths of Jaws and Friday the 13th for the NES, and brave the horrors of mechanical sharks and machete-wielding goalies.”

About the musical selections: Both Jaws and Friday the 13th contain about two minutes of music apiece, so I’m not going to bother listing my choices here. And the closing song is “Angela’s Theme” by Frankie Vinci from the 1983 movie Sleepaway Camp. Happy?

Retronauts Pocket Episode 5: The Media vs. NintendoMania

Retronauts Pocket 5 cover

Libsyn (36:38 | MP3 | 25.3 MB | SoundCloud)

Hey, it’s another episode of Retronauts Pocket! And this time around, we decided to take a look at the always-misinformed media’s reaction to late ’80s NintendoMania. What is this mysterious grey box from Japan, and how can we free our children from its pixellated tentacles?  Modern media giants Bill O’ Reilly and John Stossel asked these questions 25 years ago, and we recommend you check out their respective segments before digging into our own discussion:

Inside Edition (1988)

20/20 – “Nuts for Nintendo”

“Video Mania” (1991)

This episode’s description:

“In what could be the most John Stossel-heavy Retronauts episode of all time (we hope), your favorite classic gaming buddies and special guest Henry Gilbert (of GamesRadar) take a look at how the media reacted to Nintendo conquering a generation of children in the late ’80s. Sit back, relax, and get ready to hear middle-aged adults growing progressively crankier about how kids can’t stop playing those damned vidya games.”

This episode’s outro music:

“Super Mario Bros.” arranged by Motoi Sakuraba for Famicom 20th Anniversary Arrange Sound Tracks

Thanks again to Henry Gilbert, and be sure to check out his work on GamesRadar and the Laser Time Network!

Retronauts Pocket Episode 3: NES Accessories

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We know that the games are what makes retro game appreciation, but for many of us, it wasn’t entirely the games that made an impression, but what we played them with. After all, monstrosities like R.O.B. and the Power Glove became much-discussed parts of NES history, though relatively few people actually owned them. On that note, this episode of Retronauts Pocket touches on NES accessories, with a focus on controllers or other direct-input peripherals such as the NES Advantage, NES Max, Power Pad, Acclaim’s wireless controllers, and several more. Of course, we couldn’t talk about everything (it’s Retronauts Pocket, after all), but hopefully we helped jog your memory a little. Thanks for listening, and look forward to more accessory episodes when I take the helm again.

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Links to pertinent TV commercials:

Retronauts Pocket Episode 2: Captain N: The Game Master

Retronauts Pocket 2
If you were born between 1975 and 1985, there’s no doubt Captain N: The Game Master once stood as the foundation of your Saturday morning cartoon and cereal orgy. Coming into creation at the end of a very long and dark period for television animation, this cheaply animated, glorified Nintendo commercial kept a nation of kids glued to their sets, if only for the chance to see their favorite characters as more than just fuzzy blobs of pixels. On this installment — which echoes some of our Movie Month episodes of the past — we sat down to talk about Captain N’s first episode, “Kevin in Videoland,” which is only a quick Google search away. But since you’re nice, I’ll embed it below:

We’ve talked about Captain N before on Retronauts, but only in the superficial way that everyone does — because it’s not as if this show merits serious analysis in any way. But I wanted to examine Captain N as both an artifact of animation history, and a marketing tool for Nintendo, all while avoiding the same jokes that have been circulating for 20 years (okay, we make about three of them). Anyhow, I’d love to use my mini-episodes to take a look at more media like this, so please share your thoughts in the comments section!

Libsyn (39:43 | MP3 | 27.4 MB) | SoundCloud | YouTube (coming soon)

This episode’s breakdown:

Supplemental content:

I’ve also noticed we’ve recently received a ton of a reviews on iTunes, which bumped us up into the “New and Notable” section of Games & Hobbies podcasts — thanks to anyone who contributed. If you haven’t, please consider taking a few minutes to leave your own review. We’d really love for more people to hear about the show, and this is the best way to do it outside of buying a Retronauts blimp.

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