Tag Archives: nintendo

Retro(ish)nauts: A look at three NEW Famicom releases

A little something different for Good Nintentions NES Works Gaiden this week: It’s a look at a Japanese release per usual — three Japanese releases, in fact — but these are not classic games. They run on Famicom hardware, yes, but all three have shipped within the past year. The third title in this episode shipped this month, in fact! I had to make room for it at the last minute, because the episode was already in production when my copy arrived

8Bit Music Power, Kira Kira Star Night DX, and the shiny new 8Bit Music Power Final all have their quirks, but that’s mostly to do with production issues. Rather than re-flash existing NES donor ROMs the way most publishers who produce posthumous carts do, Columbus Circle seems to have fabricated their own, and the results are rather dubious. While these carts theoretically run on original hardware, there seem to be even odds of the games either running without an issue, simply not working, or frying your hardware. The latter outcome hasn’t been corroborated, but I’m willing to believe it after my own experiences. Fortunately, the Analogue Nt Mini works great — which is not an inexpensive solution, admittedly, but I’ve come to regard the Mini as an essential piece of gaming hardware. So it’s nice that it can handle these quirky carts

That being said, however, if you ever do have the means to play them (or let them play, as the case may be), I highly recommend all three. As you can see in the video, only one of these is a proper game, but all three are really lovingly assembled and feature some spectacular music. In fact, you can look forward to hearing more of 8Bit Music Power Final on the next episode of Retronauts Radio.

Anyway, please give the video a look, and let’s hope that we’ll see more releases of similar ambition and quality (build notwithstanding) for NES and Famicom in the future.

2 Comments

Filed under Video Chronicles

We really need a Nintendo Switch tate mode grip attachment

One of the most interesting things to emerge from Nintendo’s complex multi-modal hardware design for the Switch is the fact that it’s the first game system since Bandai’s WonderSwan in 1999 to support a vertical screen orientation right out of the box. Yes, I know, pedants: The DS had “book” mode, but only one developer was insane enough to try and use that for an action game (Team Ninja with their ambitious but kinda disastrous Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword). With Switch, though, you can simply disconnect the Joycons from the core unit, place the core sideways on a stand, and play with a rotated screen — an arrangement that would require prodigious effort with other consoles.

This, of course, has its practical limitations. You can’t easily use vertical mode when the Switch is docked, since the system feeds out to a television in that mode. This of course introduces the same issue involved with any other system, i.e. you don’t really want to turn a 60″ flatscreen television sideways unless you’ve had a pivoting mount installed at great expense specifically for that purpose. And it’s not as though a lot of Switch games use vertical mode. But it’s a great option for classic arcade games that originally shipped with vertical monitors, and as we all know, Switch is quickly becoming a favorite destination for publishers to stow their classic games and compilations.

Case in point: Yesterday Bandai Namco announced a new Namco Museum anthology specifically for Switch, due out this summer. While you’ll find some of the usual suspects on this compilation, such as Pac-Man, it also contains some unexpected inclusions: Splatterhouse, for one, and the more or less forgotten arcade version of Rolling Thunder 2 (which I don’t believe the company has ever included on any compilation to date). It also includes the option to use vertical — or tate, if you prefer — mode for the games that originally ran on vertical arcade monitors. Galaga, for one.

That’s rad, but it does raise the issue that the system’s vertical orientation only really makes sense when you set the core screen on a stand and use a detached controller. Games of the type packed in with Namco Museum seem like a natural fit to the system’s default handheld mode, yet there’s no way to treat the system as a handheld while using the screen in tate mode. So this is my earnest request to peripheral manufacturers: Please, dudes and ladies, someone out there needs to create a third-party Switch grip that will allow us to use the system in vertical mode while still holding it as a compact, self-contained handheld device. Some sort of snap-on cradle to enclose the screen and slide the Joycons into seems like a pretty simple and inexpensive thing to create; ideally the cradle would include wired connections to allow the Joycons to physically plug into the console, but it would also work just fine if it simply had a pair of rails to slide the Joycons into and let the controller dongles connect wirelessly, as Koizumi intended.

Can I get a “hell yeah” from the choir?

I doubt this peripheral would see a ton of use, but I also suspect we’ll be seeing enough classics with tate mode support to make it worth many people’s while. Heck, someone with more confidence in CAD software than I have could probably bang out of these out with a 3D printer in the space of an afternoon. So anyway: You, the peripheral makers of the universe, may have this idea for free. All I ask is that you send one along for a Retronauts review once you’ve created it.

25 Comments

Filed under Retrogaming News

Retronauts Micro 58: Zelda Treasure Jingle Quiz

Hey everyone, this Micro episode is a little late this week; we both spent all day on airplanes en route to Midwest Gaming Classic. Thanks for bearing with us, and enjoy the show.

Episode description: Since we’ve all got Breath of the Wild on the brain, why not celebrate The Legend of Zelda’s most unsung musical moments? On this episode of Retronauts Micro, join Bob Mackey, Chris Antista, Henry Gilbert, and Brett Elston as the crew assembles to put their knowledge of Zelda’s famous “doo doo doo DOOOO” ditty to the test. You know the one we’re talking about.

MP3, 13.5 MB | 28:09
Direct download
Retronauts on iTunes
Retronauts at PodcastOne

This episode’s sponsors include: BarkBox, Audible, and Casper Mattresses

4 Comments

Filed under Retronauts Micro

Weirdo shooter Gumshoe represented an end and a beginning for the NES

This week’s Video Chronicles project casts its gaze back to what may well be the most unconventional light gun game ever to appear on NES: Gumshoe.

I really love this game in principle, although I am super terrible at it. It’s such an odd and unusual concept for a Zapper title: An attempt to marry side-scrolling platform game design with a shooting gallery. It almost works, but for its absolutely brutal difficulty level. A little kindness (like, say, removing instant deaths and giving poor Mr. Stevenson a few hit points to soak up unhappy collisions) would have gone a long way. Maybe someday I’ll make it past the first stage… but more likely I’ll go to my grave never having seen level two in the flesh. Alas!

This does bring us, at last, to the end of the NES launch rollout in America, which Nintendo staggered across two phases (October 1985 and June 1986). From here on out, Nintendo will no longer be the only publisher on NES games. And, as denoted by Gumshoe, not every game going forward will necessarily have appeared in Japan first. Unlike the first 25 games for Good Nintentions, Gumshoe never had a Japanese release. Things are a-changin’ in NES land.

But before we get to the arrival of NES third party releases, I think Game Boy World is feeling a little lonely…

3 Comments

Filed under Video Chronicles

The story of Balloon Fight

When I started up the Good Nintentions project, there were a few specific games I had in mind to write about. I knew that for every Stack-Up or Urban Champion I had to slog through, there would be highlights like Super Mario Bros. as well. And today, we come to one of the classics I was most excited to write about: Balloon Fight.

I never owned Balloon Fight back in the day, but it was one I borrowed from that obligatory friend everyone had — the one who seemed to have an infinite budget for getting all the best stuff that the rest of us could only gaze upon in envy but was always really cool about it. I didn’t really enjoy it that much at the time… which isn’t to say I disliked it, and in fact I really dug Balloon Trip mode. But this was 1988 we’re talking about, and I had already savored the pleasures of Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario Bros. It was kind of tough to go back to a single-screen arcade-style experience, especially when I’d played its inspiration (Joust) to death back when it was a current arcade release.

Over time, though, I gradually began to appreciate Balloon Fight more. It’s a Joust clone, yes, undeniably so. But I realized that, heretical as it may be to say, Balloon Fight is the better game. The two-hit balloon mechanic grants a bit more mercy to the player that comes as something of a necessity, since your characters appear larger on the screen, meaning the action can become quite crowded in a hurry. The level designs change, which keeps things varied, and the later stages can become quite unpredictable thanks to the inclusion of elements like spinners that send anyone who collides with them flying off in different directions. And, of course, that Balloon Trip music.

Even though this video clocks in a bit shorter than many retrospectives for much lesser games, there is no less love invested into this one. I even managed to convince my wife to play it with me for the co-op footage, and while she doesn’t play many games, so really seemed to enjoy this one (and we made it quite a ways into the game in her second time through). In short, it’s basically just a great game.

1 Comment

Filed under Video Chronicles

Breath of the Wild restores a long-lost sense of uncertainty to Zelda

One of biggest through lines in Nintendo’s promotional hype for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has concerned its connection to the original Legend of Zelda, which debuted in the U.S. almost exactly 30 years ago. That’s a spiritual connection, mind you; the new game looks nothing like the primitive pixels of the NES classic, and if the story shares a direct link (or, perhaps, Link) to the older adventure, Nintendo’s keeping it under wraps.

I’m always a little leery of publishers making too much noise about how a new release gets back to a franchise’s roots. Generally it creates a too-obsequious air of apology for the direction of a franchise, throwing a lot of hard-working contributors’ hard work under a bus. And while it’s not unheard of for a long-running series to go off the rails and somehow right itself again further down the road, it doesn’t happen as often as one might wish.

The back-to-the-roots approach can work, but it demands a tricky balance. Sometimes developers take an overly literal approach, as with, say, Mega Man 9 — which I love, don’t get me wrong. But I do think Capcom could have taken Mega Man back to his roots without actually turning back game and graphical design two decades. And sometimes you have the Tomb Raider series, which has its ups and downs but (despite its overlords’ promises to return to the spirit of the original game with every sequel to come along since Tomb Raider III) never quite seems to recapture the sense of isolation and grandeur that made the very first Tomb Raider so captivating.

So, I’ve taken a cautious, if hopeful, approach to managing my Breath of the Wild expectations since playing it (and coming away deeply impressed) back at E3 last summer. Would Nintendo really get back to the spirit of the NES, or would this be another example of game creators promising to go back to a long-ago, cherished standard without quite grasping what it was its fans really loved about the older game in the first place?

Surprisingly, so far, the answer is: Yes, they got it.

I say “so far” because I haven’t even hit the 10-hour mark in the game. For that matter, I haven’t even left the opening area, which demands players complete a set of minor challenges spread across a fairly expansive area that nevertheless appears to comprise only a tiny fraction of this version of Hyrule. I mean, I could have moved along by now, but I’m more interested in testing the limits of what I can accomplish straight away. These early hours have already given me confidence that Nintendo really is looking back to the oldest Zelda here by deliberately breaking from the Link to the Past formula that has been the foundation of nearly every sequel beginning with Ocarina of Time.

A Link to the Past set a lot of standards for the Zelda games, but the greatest of these was in the way it locked down the dungeon-and-tool formula. In each sequential dungeon, Link would acquire a new tool or weapon to allow him to overcome specific obstacles throughout the game, with that dungeon serving as a sort of training course. Nintendo designed each labyrinth as a spatial puzzle that could only be solved by mastering the tool within, with the dungeon boss serving as the final exam of sorts. For instance, you needed to collect the Hookshot in order to traverse gaps in the dungeon that contained the Hookshot, and then you had to defeat the boss at the end of the gauntlet by using the Hookshot to reveal its weak point. It was a deft, thoughtful approach to game design… and after being reiterated in half a dozen different sequels, it’s become stale and predictable.

In the opening hours of Breath of the Wild, I’ve already acquired what appears to be the bulk of the main gadgets I’ll be using throughout the adventure. This is not a case of sequence-breaking; you literally can’t move beyond the opening area until you round them all up. And while you acquire each one in a purpose-built dungeon, those dungeons are small and simple — smaller than any story dungeon in any 3D Zelda to date. I don’t know how the dungeons and shrines in later portions of the game will work, precisely, but it could be that the 1:1 ratio of gadgets and dungeons won’t be the case with this game. More likely you’ll need to complete each shrine or lair by combining and applying your permanent tool set in increasingly complex ways.

So yes, in this sense, Breath of the Wild really does feel like a reversion to the original Zelda. You acquired a number of tools and upgrades in the dungeons there, as well, but in only a handful of cases did you actually need the item in question in order to reach and defeat the boss. And even then, you’d usually need a treasure from a previous area of the game in order to complete a task, e.g. the bow from Level-1 in order to beat Level-6’s boss, Gohma.

Nintendo experimented with breaking from the Link to the Past cycle with the most recent single-player Zelda, which somewhat ironically was the direct sequel to A Link to the Past: 2013’s A Link Between Worlds. There, you could simply run out and rent (or buy) the tools you needed; the challenge became managing your finances and knowing which tools were needed for each given dungeon. Worlds didn’t suffer for separating tool acquisition from dungeon solutions, and I suspect now that it was something of a dry run for what Nintendo hoped to do with Breath of the Wild.

If the Zelda games were finally extricating themselves from the very classic but very familiar rut into which they had worn themselves, Breath of the Wild would deserve praise. But Nintendo has reached back to the franchise’s origins in an even more meaningful way: They’ve given players the freedom to go about the quest however they like.

Make no mistake: Breath of the Wild still has a certain linear path of quest progression to observe. As I said, the task of moving beyond the isolated plateau on which the adventure begins requires you to complete several shrines… but once you’ve cleared the first one, you’re allowed to tackle them in any order. Now, you’re likely to complete them in a particular general sequence simply as a matter of expediency, as two of the shrines sit in areas covered with frost. This time out, Link has to be mindful of the temperature of his surroundings; stray too long into the cold and you will freeze to death. But you don’t need any special quest item to venture into the frozen wastes — you just need to know how to prepare food and potions, and have an eye for the botanicals and fauna that will result in warming recipes to temporarily insulate Link from the elements. So if you really want, you can head to the shrines in frigid areas first.

This freedom begins literally the moment you set foot outside the cave in which Link awakens after his hundred-year sleep. The game gives you several prompts to nudge you in the proper direction to get the story rolling right away. Once Link surveys his surroundings, the camera swings around to a mysterious old man keeping vigil near Link’s Shrine of Resurrection… but nothing is forcing you to speak to him right away. In fact, you can ignore the old man until you run out of things to do (which is quite a lot, and can allow you to stock up on some pretty useful collectibles and weapons).

A couple of minutes after you spot the old man, Link hears a disembodied voice and gets a waypoint marker on his in-game map. The action freezes as this plays out, and my first thought as this transpired was that the game was going to railroad me back to the main quest and constantly hound me with a bossy voice, a la Navi/Midna/Fi. But this turns out not to be the case at all. Once the waypoint appears, you’re free to go back about your business and do as you please. And the voice rarely intrudes, content to allow you to take the quest at your own pace.

It’s a pleasant surprise in a series that has demonstrated an almost pathological need to hold players by the hand for the past 20 years, but producer Eiji Aonuma has said that he’s spent a lot of time taking notes from open-world games, mostly produced outside Japan. Perhaps those games’ willingness to sit back and allow players to do as they will helped Nintendo’s designers to realize, at last, that people who play video games really do have the deductive reasoning to sort things out for themselves and don’t need or want to be constantly nagged back onto the critical path.

So just how much freedom does Breath of the Wild give you from the outset? Well, I’ve put together a slightly goofy dramatic recreation here of my initial experience with the game (pardon the pantomime). This is footage from a single session from the beginning of the game, slightly edited for time, and it simulates my initial reaction to being given obvious and obtrusive guidance… as well as the disastrous nonsense I got up to after I decided to blow it off.

What ultimately makes Breath of the Wild feel like such a change of pace for the Zelda series — almost like a spiritual reboot — is not that it offers an open world, or that you have the sort of freedom that comes with an open world, or that it contains a huge number of undocumented systems (like recipes and temperature), or any other single element. It’s that it does all of these things at once. Nintendo probably could have put out two or three Zelda games featuring one or two of these changes in incremental amounts, but by taking the time to create a game that does all of them at once, they’ve created something that — at least here at the start — feels like a massive and much-needed leap into modernity.

The most impressive connection Breath of the Wild has to its 30-year-old ancestor is that it improbably recaptures that game’s sense of the unexpected. The original Zelda was like nothing we’d ever seen in 1987, and by definition it’s practically impossible for a sequel to reproduce that sensation. What made Zelda amazing in the early days is that for its first decade of existence, the series alway brought you something new and unexpected. Zelda II was somehow a side-scrolling action game as well as an RPG. A Link to the Past existed as this intricate puzzle box of a game whose convolutions somehow spanned two dimensions of time and space. Link’s Awakening gave us a Super NES-sized adventure on Game Boy, while adding in Mario elements. And Ocarina of Time reinvented A Link to the Past as a game that spanned decades and whose added unique, dimension was the third dimension.

Breath of the Wild has hit me with an urge to explore and discover, to figure out what possibilities await, that I haven’t experienced so profoundly since Ocarina of Time. Yes, a lot of the concepts here come straight from open-world action games we’ve all played over the past decade; but here, those elements have been framed within the workings of the Zelda series. Breath of the Wild moves and sounds like Zelda, which means it’s far more polished in its movements and interactions than your average Elder Scrolls adventure (which, again, I love, but the phrase “Bethesda jank” exists for a reason). And its structure already demonstrates a certain thoughtfulness characteristic of the series. In short, it’s a modern sandbox action RPG, but crafted with the world-class care we’ve come to expect from this franchise.

It would be easy for this Zelda to fall flat on its face, to feel like some wannabe attempting to bite off the most successful games of the generation. So far, though, it hasn’t. And fair enough: Zelda basically created this style of game, and it’s only reasonable to think it should be able to reclaim a place and make a mark on the genre on its own terms.

And perhaps most importantly, Breath of the Wild gives the impression that its open design and many systems have purpose. I half-expected the need to forage for resources (including replacements for Link’s oh-so-fragile weapons) would be a drag, but it, too, gives a the impression of purposefulness. I think carefully about each and every arrow I loose at an enemy, because I don’t know how soon I’ll be able to replace it. And thorough exploration is its own reward. Take as an example my proudest free-roaming accomplishment yet: Stumbling upon a den of bokoblins, including a moblin chief, living in a massive skull-shape cave. My first encounter with them went poorly to the point of fatality… but eventually, I stumbled upon a cache of fire arrows elsewhere on the plateau. With those in hand, I returned and detonated the explosive barrels (yes, they even exist in Zelda) inside the cave, instantly clearing out all but the moblin. The wounded chief rushed me, and I had to defeat it in melee combat. This was hardly a gimme: The flames I sparked ignited his spiked wooden club, upgrading a single successful blow from it from “painful” to “instantly fatal.” But I dodged, persevered, and survived. It was even more exhilarating than the moment in the video above in which I crept up silently to steal a bokoblin’s discarded weapon only to have the bad guy hear me at the last second and snatch his weapon away a split second before I could grab it myself.

These little moments have happened throughout the time with the game so far, and while you can definitely see the video game logic and limits working beneath it all, Breath of the Wild might actually combine freedom and dynamic systems as well as Metal Gear Solid V. If my time so far have been a true preview of the experiences that lie ahead once I get on with the plot and descend from the Great Plateau, Breath of the Wild should be 100 or so hours of pure pleasure in the style of the original Zelda, but with modern scope and style. That sounds like the greatest link to the past I could hope to ask for, really.

20 Comments

Filed under Game Analysis

Switch upholds two key Nintendo legacies: Portability and compromise

Nintendo’s Switch has been my platonic ideal for a console from the first rumor: A high-end portable console with the option to play it on a television. It is, quite simply, what the Wii U should have been from the start, and I began daydreaming aloud about how much the Wii U could have been so much better if it had taken the form of a console/handheld hybrid along the lines of what Switch turned out to be. It took nearly five years, but my hybrid daydream has become Nintendo’s critical business reality. I don’t know how well this ambitious little system will do for the company, but after using it under real-world circumstances for a few days, I can say it’s certainly doing a lot for me.

That said, I realize my tastes and expectations in games probably don’t line up with those of the average game enthusiast. My biggest video game project over the past few years has been lining up as many vintage systems as possible to output perfect video output for high-definition recording: Not really your average gaming obsession. The question, then, is how well will a console that appears to have been custom-built to appeal to my tastes fare with the general gaming public? And perhaps more importantly, can it transcend the gaming public to the larger market the way Wii did? Nintendo certainly seems to be banking on that hope, and I absolutely see potential for crossover appeal here, but Switch presents a far more complicated concept of a system for people to deal with. Wii’s hook — shake a funky remote control at the screen and your little man swings a tennis racket — was simple and obvious. Switch’s crossover design hinges on complexity. You open the box and are confronted by the core system (a button-free screen that resembles a fatter Kindle Fire)… and a dock… and two controller add-ons… and two optional strap dongles for the controller bits… and a different optional dongle for the controller bits. If Switch is meant to be Wii-come-lately, it feels as though Nintendo skipped right over the “simple charm” phase of that system and directly to the “where did all these accessories come from?” portion of its life cycle.

This isn’t a review of the console; those aren’t allowed until next week, and anyway it would be impossible for me to properly review a console when many of its fundamental functions have yet to be unlocked through the day-one system update. Rather, I’d like to make two observations about Switch after having spent a few days of quality time with the new console.

The first comes straight from the heart: Whatever Nintendo may say about Switch’s place in its lineup, this feels far more like an evolution of the company’s portable legacy than of its consoles. In point of fact, it’s a union of the two, and honestly is probably long overdue. But, Nintendo wants to hedge its bets, so it’s been promoting Switch as a successor to Wii U, hoping to allow it to exist in parallel to the 3DS. This makes a good deal of sense on one level: The 3DS overcame its rough start to become an extraordinarily popular system and currently has an enormous install base, especially among younger players. The Wii U… did not. Rather than wipe both off the slate with a system that can easily replace both, Nintendo’s promoting Switch as its new home console, while the 3DS (and, it should be said, the 2DS) soldiers on.

We saw this a decade ago with the Game Boy and DS, and Switch’s dual-function nature as a part-time console at least allows a more graceful bit of hemming and hawing than those unconvincing claims about the DS being a “third pillar” to complement the successful Game Boy Advance and the catastrophic GameCube. Like the DS, the Switch feels more closely aligned with the handheld line… but once again, it’s the console lineup that needs triage. So, sure, Switch is a console, not a portable. But you can bet that if it lives up to Nintendo’s hopes, it’ll suddenly become the new 3DS as well. And if not, that ongoing 3DS lineup gives them an opportunity for a face-saving reversal.

But make no mistake: Whatever the corporate messaging, Switch excels as a handheld system. It’s a portable first and foremost, and it’s fantastic in that regard. It really does feel in every way like a proper successor to its great-grandfather Game Boy and weird “uncle” Lynx (yeah, Lynx isn’t really related, but he and great-grandpa go way back):

Never mind that it’s the biggest handheld Nintendo has ever produced; it packs a respectable amount of power into its solid frame. It offers pretty much all the modern tech niceties: Bluetooth, wi-fi, and a reasonably capacious battery (it’s good for four-plus hours of solid play with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which I suspect drains a good deal more power than something like 1-2 Switch). The six-inch screen looks great, with respectable pixel density and vivid colors and brightness. And it uses industry-standard tech, a welcome change from Nintendo’s usual reliance on proprietary components: You can charge the unit with an off-the-shelf USB-C cable, and it accepts regular Micro SD cards — no overpriced Vita memory cards here. The one element of truly proprietary tech comes in the form of the game carts, which amount to tiny cards about the same size as Vita cards, albeit slightly thicker.

And really, the core system isn’t much larger than a 3DS XL. Take off the Joy Con controller bits and the tablet-like core is maybe half an inch larger on the X and Y axes and quite a bit thinner on the Z.

Which isn’t to say it’s quite as portable as the 3DS. The XL is already a chunky little guy that doesn’t fit comfortably into most pockets, and Switch is even bigger. It’s just enough larger to make it unlikely to fit into your 3DS XL carrying cases, or as the saying goes, “Just different enough to make you mad.” I can just barely slide an uncovered 3DS into the inner breast pocket of a sport coat or blazer (because I dress like an adult but don’t live like one), or even the outer side patch pockets. That doesn’t work for Switch, especially since (1) its screen isn’t protected by the DS family’s clamshell closure and (2) you still have to fuss with the Joy Cons. Switch really demands a bespoke carrying solution, because no one’s going to believe you can really fit it into a pocket (despite what television would have you believe).

With the Joy Cons connected, which is how you’ll be transporting the system most of the time, the Switch core unit dwarfs the original Game Boy. The one everyone calls the “brick” because it’s so huge.

In fact, as a self-contained handheld system, Switch’s lateral dimensions are almost identical to those of the Atari Lynx. The original Lynx, not the smaller revised model I have photographed here. That said, despite its width, this is no Lynx.

This is a far thinner device than any Lynx model, or in fact just about any portable Nintendo has ever produced either, outside of the 2DS. Part of me wonders if that might also have something to do with Nintendo’s reluctance to peddle Switch as a 3DS family replacement: Besides not having dual screens (just one huge touch screen), it also feels a lot less likely to withstand the ravages of being used by the under-15 set. It’s not a flimsy system by any means — it has a dense, solid feel in the hands, and potential weak points like the Joy Con rails are constructed from metals and other durable materials. But I wouldn’t call it rugged by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not difficult to imagine Nintendo eventually releasing a kid-friendlier version of Switch should it eventually ascend to become the 3DS’s successor as well, but for now, it feels more like a grown-up’s system.

This brings me to my second thought about Switch so far: Besides upholding Nintendo’s portable legacy, it also maintains the company’s tradition of compromise.

Compromise has always been a critical component of Nintendo’s hardware strategy. The Game Boy’s innards were a joke (based on ’70s tech, with a blurry four-color screen) compared to those of Atari’s Lynx (one of the most impressive sprite-pushing devices ever made, with a vivid backlit full-color screen). And Game Boy triumphed, because its crummy hardware made it cheap, compact, and battery-friendly. People laughed at Wii because it was “two GameCube duct-taped together,” but that was the entire point: It couldn’t produce high-definition visuals, true, but it was cheap and accessible and sold better than any console in history besides PlayStation 2.

Likewise, Switch is all about compromise as well. Detractors point out the fact that it uses a generation-old mobile chipset and basically amounts to a new version of the Nvidia Shield. All of this is true, but I’m sure Nintendo went with this specific tech configuration because it was more energy-efficient and kept the price of the core system down. Which is something they really need to focus on, because Switch accessories are insanely expensive — and seem to be fairly vital as well.

The biggest compromises Switch makes aren’t a matter of horsepower or battery juice, though. On those fronts, it seems to be perfectly decent. I don’t think anyone expects Nintendo to lead the charge in terms of raw technological capabilities, so the fact that Switch can’t compete toe-to-toe with PlayStation 4 Pro doesn’t really hurt when you take into account the fact that, unlike PS4, you can play Switch on an airplane tray.

Rather, my biggest frustrations with Switch so far result from its ergonomics. As a fanatic for handheld systems, I find Switch to be very nearly the greatest handheld system I’ve ever used… except for all the tiny ways in which I wish its interface options were just a little bit different.

My complaints ultimately arise from the complexity of the system I mentioned earlier. Nintendo has essentially created a console that answers every possible use case you could imagine. A standard console, a portable system, a portable system you can set up on a table and play with friends, a system whose add-on controller components can work in tandem or as a pair of separate devices for two players. It’s pretty fantastic, really, and fairly gutsy as a concept. But the system does trip over itself from time to time as it stretches to accommodate all these configurations.

As a handheld gaming device, Switch is big — like I said, as large in two of its dimensions as Atari’s infamously enormous Lynx was. But it’s much thinner than Lynx, and as a result of that thinness, it’s not entirely comfortable in the hands. As you can see in the 3DS comparison image above, the Joy Cons have a bit of a hand grip molded into their backsides, but not really enough to compensate for the fact that you’re holding a fairly hefty and fairly large rectangle of metal, glass, and plastic. It’s not that the system is heavy enough to become fatiguing, exactly; I just find my hands becoming cramped in a way I’m not used to with portables, since its weight is spread across a larger area and needs to be held differently than a 3DS or Vita.

I’m also very much not in love with the button layout of the Joy Cons. Because Nintendo has designed them to function as paired controllers or a pair of controllers, they’re forced to work across two axes. The left Joy Con doesn’t have a D-pad, because those digital inputs need to double as separate buttons when the Joy Con is used alone. And the right Joy Con isn’t symmetrical with the left, because it also needs to work as a miniature stand-alone controller. It’s a little uncomfortable to use as a solo controller due to the centered placement of the analog stick relative to that of the left Joy Con. And I keep getting tripped up by the fact that the analog and digital controls aren’t mirrored across the system; it’s pretty unusual for a controller to put the digital buttons below the analog stick on one side and above the stick on the other, and nearly 20 years of gaming muscle memory have me fumbling for the right stick whenever I need to adjust the camera in Zelda.

I do appreciate the versatility of control options for Switch, though. When my hands cramp from holding the system for too long, I can pop out the kickstand and attach the Joy Cons to the included controller base to use the system as a miniature TV. You can also use the Joy Cons on their own, reminiscent of the Wii’s remote-and-nunchuk configuration… though I find that my issues with the non-mirrored stick are heightened by this arrangement for some reason. Still, it really is the most versatile portable system ever made, and I’m looking forward to my cross-country flight next week for our upcoming Retronauts recording weekend. Breath of the Wild at 36,000 feet is nothing to sneeze at.

I’m sure many of my interface complaints — especially about the lack of a D-pad — would be made immaterial with the Switch Pro controller, but my review kit didn’t include one of those. So for now, I’m simply getting by with the standard controls. Which is fine for now, since the only game I have to work with is Zelda, which doesn’t require the use of a D-pad. But once the eShop opens and I want to download retro-style releases like Shovel Knight or The Binding of Isaac, I’m definitely going to have to pick up a Pro controller.

Despite these small criticisms, though, I really have fallen quite in love with Switch. As an avowed portable gaming enthusiast and historian, the fact that Nintendo has put together a sleek, adaptable handheld console that exceeds the power of its most recent traditional console is quite alright by me. No game system is perfect, and you always need to be willing to put up with some minor inconveniences in trade for your ideal experience. Switch’s small complaints aren’t completely trivial, but I can put up with them for what could prove to be the greatest portable system ever. Even if Nintendo isn’t really calling it that. The TV hookup is just a bonus, for me.

27 Comments

Filed under Retrogaming News

Celebrate Valentine’s with gaming’s original couple (almost)

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Video, Video Chronicles

Donkey Kong Jr. arrives fashionably late to Good Nintentions

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.

Comments Off on Donkey Kong Jr. arrives fashionably late to Good Nintentions

Filed under Video, Video Chronicles

Virtual Console: (Culture) Brain dump

Today was one of those rare days when Nintendo put not one, not two, but three Wii U Virtual Console games up for download at once. That’s unusual in itself, but what makes this especially strange is that all three were NES games that have never before appeared on Virtual Console. With only a handful of exceptions, such as EarthBound Beginnings, NES Virtual Console games on Wii U have been retreads of games that previously showed up on Wii and/or 3DS. The new Wii U material has largely focused on Game Boy Advance and DS titles, with the vast majority of NES and Super NES games putting in repeat appearances. Getting three never-before-VC’d games at once is pretty wild.

All three titles, as it happens, hail from the same developer and publisher: Culture Brain. You may remember Culture Brain from my having mentioned them in pejorative terms in our look at crummy boom-era Famicom developers. You may also recall that Frank Cifaldi stood up for them. And, in fairness, I was really just salty because my most recent Culture Brain experience had been the absolutely execrable Ninja Boy for Game Boy:

And maybe that wasn’t fair, because there was definitely more to Culture Brain’s output than that one game. You wouldn’t know it from today’s Virtual Console launches, though. Two of today’s three releases are directly related to Ninja Boy. Kung-Fu Heroes, known as Super Chinese in Japan, kicked off the series, and the Game Boy title covered above was practically a low-grade port of that release (Super Chinese Land in Japan). Little Ninja Bros. is its sequel, Super Chinese 2. Now, I’m told that later games in the Super Chinese/Little Ninja Boy franchise were a lot better than the terrible impression its Game Boy entry left me with, but I’m loathe to take the chance. I suppose I must, however… for science.

I’m more fascinated by Culture Brain’s late entry into the Virtual Console scene. The company made its debut last summer, marking the first time a new publisher had pushed out anything for VC in years. Four years, maybe? Virtual Console in the post-Wii era has been a dwindling marketplace occupied entirely by Nintendo and about half a dozen publishers (Capcom, Jaleco, Natsume, Konami, Hamster, and a few others). It’s really weird to see new blood enter the marketplace… especially such a minor blip of a company. When was the last time you even heard Culture Brain mentioned, outside of that Famicom boom episode a few months back? I’ve heard that publishers and games only appear on Virtual Console when Nintendo actively seeks them out, which (if true) means that of all the game makers in the world, Nintendo decided to go after a minor Japanese publisher whose last new releases happened during the Nintendo 64 era. It’s weird, man.

(Today’s third game was Flying Warriors, an ambitious, multi-format, sentai-inspired brawling action game. It’s a little rough in places, but it sure beats Ninja Boy.)

On the plus side, this does mean we’ll probably eventually get to Culture Brain’s crown jewel, the innovative and memorable RPG/adventure/action game Magic of Scheherazade. Well, maybe. There’s a pretty solid chance Virtual Console for Wii U will die instantly once Switch launches a few weeks from now and we’ll have to start over from scratch. Ah, the wonders of Virtual Console.

Speaking of Virtual Console, I have penned a piece for USgamer that lays out what little we know about the service’s plans for the upcoming Switch console, and what we’d ideally like to see. I may have used this week’s games as an example of what not to do, but in fairness, that didn’t have anything to do with Culture Brain; it was all about the gawdawful NES emulation on Wii U.

5 Comments

Filed under Retrogaming News, Virtual Chronicles