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Retronauts episode #103: A game music primer

Since moving over to a weekly schedule, the Retronauts podcast has been tackling classic game music reviews once a month. We sort of jumped headlong into this venture without really stopping to explain some of the basics of collecting and listening to classic music, though. With this latest episode, we’ve tried to remedy that oversight by bringing aboard pro-level music enthusiast/collector/blogger James Eldred of the sites Lost Turntable and Mostly Retro to go over some of the essential basics of getting your retro game jam on… regardless of the size of your budget or the depth of your enthusiasm. From free listens to high-cost hi-fis, this episode breaks down the fundamentals of collecting or simply enjoying retrogame music in the modern age. Think of this as a companion piece to the high-fidelty classic gaming episode, but with a specific focus on music.

As a backup feature, I’ve also included an in-depth look at two recent music LP releases: Ship to Shore’s Darius and DataDiscs’s absolutely stunning Gunstar Heroes double vinyl set. Both are worth looking into for fans of game history and music, but I’d go so far as to call Gunstar Heroes essential.

MP3, 49.3 MB | 1:40:07
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Episode description: Game music expert James Eldred shares some helpful advice on finding and building a collection of classic soundtracks. Plus: In-depth with Ship To Shore’s Darius and the DataDiscs Gunstar Heroes set.

Music in this episode comes from the two featured soundtrack releases (Darius and Gunstar Heroes). They’re direct vinyl rips, even… albeit highly compressed and normalized and downsampled in order to fit podcast requirements, so that doesn’t matter at all. Also, James asked me to note that the Ship to Shore Darius LP release does not contain arranged versions… an understandable mix-up, given that he’s basically been doing a Darius soundtrack kegstand recently. Drunk on Zuntata.

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Retronauts hits Episode 100 again, but this time it’s not the end

Well, we finally did it. We survived long enough to reach episode 100.

Well, OK; the original run of Retronauts hit episode 100, too. But I always think of that series as having only made it to 99, because 99 was where I decided to call it quits. The show never recovered from the 1UPocalypse at the beginning of 2009, the day that Hearst Publishing and UGO decided to acquire 1UP and the Ziff-Davis games magazine group and promptly lay off 2/3s of the people who made those properties worth reading and listening to. Since Retronauts was built on a foundation of having free access to several dozen veteran games journalists whom I could easily pull into the studio for an hour to jaw about their favorite classic games, the layoffs meant 2/3s of our resources were taken from us on that bitter January day. Several other people tried their hand at hosting in the wake of those cuts, but they also found the show too difficult to pull together for long as well.

And so, the original Retronauts episode 100 existed only as a final footnote to the show — less a proper episode and more of a chance for the regulars to get together and reminisce for a bit. And it didn’t even go the way it was supposed to, because several of the intended participants weren’t able to make the session! All in all, a fitting and honestly somewhat bleak end to the original run, after which it was relaunched into a call-in show (bad idea) and eventually resuscitated by Bob (good idea).

This episode 100, on the other hand, is not an ending, and it doesn’t represent a final statement before a cataclysmic format change borne of desperation. No, this episode only ties a bow on one thing, and that is an outstanding obligation from our Kickstarter campaign. We finally managed to get together with our final “cohost an episode” level backer to record the episode he paid for. (And the remainder of our lingering Kickstarter incentive obligations will be wrapped up just as soon as I’m done with my current BitSummit/recording weekend trip. Expect an update next week!) Getting together with Daniel seemed a fitting capper for the first 100 episodes of the crowd-funded and independent era of Retronauts, but in this case the “capper” is simply a number, nothing literal. Bob’s already uploaded episode 101 to Patreon, and by the end of this weekend’s recording session we’ll have more than a dozen episodes in the can for future release. Ain’t no gettin’ offa this train we’re on, friends.

MP3, 27.9 MB | 51:23
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Oh, and there is one other thing: The cover art this week is a taste of our new site design and branding artwork, which will be making its full debut very soon.

So no, episode 100 is not the end this time around. It’s almost, I dunno, a new beginning. So thank you for your support these past 100 episodes, and we hope you’ll stick with us for the next 100. (And beyond that, really, but we don’t want to come off as greedy.)

Episode description: For our 100th full episode since our crowdfunded relaunch, we complete a long-overdue Kickstarter obligation by inviting backer Daniel Hawks to join us in a discussion of the early days and notable landmarks of CD-ROM gaming.

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Live from Midwest Gaming Classic, it’s Retronauts Micro

Several times a year, Bob and I descend upon some unexpecting city and talk for an hour about old video games. Last month, our unwitting target was Milwaukee, where we spoke at Midwest Gaming Classic. This year, we decided to focus on Splatterhouse — and not by coincidence. Not one but two world-class Splatterhouse players attend MGC each year: Caitlin Oliver and Kevin Bunch, both of whom have competed for (and repeatedly held) the official high-score records for Splatterhouse in the arcade and on TurboGrafx-16, respectively. You don’t get much more “expert” than that without going directly to the developers.

MP3, 27.9 MB | 51:23
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Given that this is a live recording, of course, the audio quality is pretty noisy. But there’s some great info about the games in here, so it’s definitely worth your time.

Episode description: Live from a very noisy Milwaukee stage, Jeremy and Bob are joined by Splatterhouse experts and world record holders Caitlin Oliver and Kevin Bunch to contemplate the complete history of Namco’s gross-out brawler franchise.

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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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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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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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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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Retronauts Episode 91: A survey of SEGA’s arcade work, 1980-85

It’s Monday morning, and you know what that means. Yeah, it’s time for another Retronauts episode.

Specifically, it’s time for another Retronauts East episode. Ben and Benj join me once again in my still-in-development home studio to sit and jaw for a couple of hours about a rarely explored video game topic: SEGA’s arcade games.

“But wait,” you say. “SEGA is a beloved arcade game creator and always has been! Its arcade hits are a known quantity!” And that is true indeed. However, we’re not really looking to the company’s hits; we’re digging further into its past, to the coin-op titles SEGA produced before the ones you know and love. Specifically, we’re focused on their 1980-85 lineup.

 

As you can see from the art above, we certainly do touch on some fairly famous games: Congo Bongo, Zaxxon, Pengo, and of course Space Harrier. They’re the exceptions. For the most part, SEGA’s output in the first half of the ’80s remains fairly obscure; their work from 1986 and on is far better known here in the U.S. SEGA does a better job of preserving and republishing its later games, allowing the likes of Flashgal and Super Locomotive to vanish into the realms of the unknown and unavailable-through-legitimate-means.

This unfortunately makes for a slightly dicey episode at the beginning. We’ve all played some of these games, but certainly not all of them, and a lot of what defines them is the arcade experience. Sure, you can emulate Pro Monaco GP or Zoom 909, but an emulator doesn’t include the funky LED readouts and gauges next to the screen. Stick with it, though, and you’ll find that the conversation comes into focus as we move into SEGA’s prime days. (We also concoct some pretty decent on-the-fly theories about why SEGA’s arcade output improved so significantly around 1985 or so.)

Despite some audio bugs we’re still trying to iron out of the Retronauts East setup, and the fact that we’re taking the Retronauts name seriously by exploring somewhat unfamiliar territory here, it’s a pretty solid episode overall. And a long one, coming in at more than two hours in length! We had actually planned to take this conversation up through 1987 but literally ran out of time. But that’s OK. That just gives us an excuse to reconvene again in a few months and explore SEGA’s work in the latter half of the ’80s.

Episode description: Ben Elgin and Benj Edwards reconvene with Jeremy to explore the first half of SEGA’s arcade output. Like the games we’re discussing, the episode starts off a bit shaky, but everything is awesome by 1985. Pengo! Zaxxon! Space Harrier! Hang On! And more!

MP3, 56.8 MB | 2:03:59
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Music in this episode comes from Space Harrier (except where noted in the show), because honestly there wasn’t really all that much music worth noting in SEGA’s output from this era. That’s just a sign of the times, though. Once arcade games got to 1985 or so, their soundtracks improved exponentially. Our next SEGA arcade episode will have the opposite problem: There’ll be so much incredible music to pick from we won’t know where to begin…

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Retronauts episode 85: The golden days of Activision

Hi everyone, I’ve landed in Tokyo and settled in for the night after being awake for about 26 hours straight. Please forgive me if I keep this entry short and to the point, because at this point I’m not entirely certainly I’m not hallucinating everything.

This week’s episode looks back to 1979 and the birth of Activision, a company that had a profound impact on the business of video games. Without Activision, the industry would look very, very different. A perfect storm of great timing, strong financial backing, and top-flight programming and game design came together in the form of this company to prove that third-party publishing could be a viable and valuable video game business model. Steve Lin and Jaz Rignall join us to chronicle the circumstances that led to Activision’s creation, the games they produced, and the great successes they had until their business model began to fizzle… which is to say, this show covers Activision until it became Mediagenic. (For more on that, I highly recommend the Activision/Infocom/Mediagenic retrospectives at The Digitial Antiquarian — they were enormously valuable as we planned this podcast!)

Steve Lin and Jaz Rignall join Jeremy and Bob again to look back at one of the most important game creators of all time: Activision, the company that established the concept of third parties.

Libsyn (1:41:34, 70.8 MB) | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)

As for musical interludes this time… well, there wasn’t really much I could pull in terms of music from Activision’s Atari 2600 era. Instead, I looked to the late ’80s for some tasty FM synth tunes. This episode’s music selections come from Shanghai, Shanghai II: The Dragon’s Eye, and Ghostbusters for Genesis. Enjoy!

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Podcast: Bust-A-Move, Puzzle Bobble, or whatever you wanna call it

It’s the epic conclusion to last week’s amazing episode! Eh, well, OK, maybe I’m fudging things a bit. But I did promise after last week’s talk of Bubble Bobble that I’d follow up with a piece on sequel Puzzle Bobble, and by cracky that’s exactly what we have here. Of course, most of our listeners are based in the U.S., so you probably know this series by its inexplicable localized title, “Bust-A-Move.”

Whatever you want to call it, however, it’s good stuff. A real, weapons-grade, match-three kind of affair. It has only the most tenuous connection to Bubble Bobble, of course, which means you might occasionally come across an adaptation in which developer/publisher Taito has replaced Bub and Bob with, say, the cast of the Azumanga Daioh anime.

Or, more likely, you’ll come across shameless ripoffs in which outside developers have (without shame or apology) replaced Bub and Bob with completely unrelated characters and made a fat stack of cash by stealing Taito’s work. Such as Snood, the extraordinarily ugly clone that served as my introduction to the series thanks to the magic of Macintosh shareware.

What a world.

Even if you’ve never played legitimate Bust-A-Move or Puzzle Bobble releases, odds are pretty good that you have experienced the series’ concept in some form. Colored orbs advance toward the bottom of the screen, and you have only a pivoting launcher anchored at the center-bottom of the play field with which to fling bubbles back into the screen in an attempt to clear the encroaching threat by creating color matches. A pretty mundane description, perhaps, but the game is so terribly addicting.

Having survived the Bubble Bobble episode, Jeremy mops up the franchise with a look at its most popular (or at least most imitated) branch: The iconic color-match puzzler Bust-A-Move… more sensibly known as “Puzzle Bobble.”

Libsyn (14:39 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)

Much this week comes from a panoply of Puzzle Bobble sequels. Yes, I realize it’s annoyingly upbeat, but that’s what I had to work with. When life gives you lemons, create saccharine lemon desserts. Don’t worry, next week’s episode will include much better music.

This week also marks my return to creating episode cover art after nearly a year away. You’ll be happy to know Nick Daniel will still be illustrating Bob’s episodes, though, so those of you who prefer his more vivid digital compositions to my washed-out watercolors aren’t totally out of luck.

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Retronauts Episode 82: Bubble Bobble & friends

A few months ago, we summoned Ray Barnholt into the studio to help us sort out the mad entanglement of games and names and remakes and reissues and branding confusion that is Wonder Boy. Or Adventure Island. Or The Dynastic Hero. Whatever — take your pick. It’s all the same thing.

Well, we all survived the experience without our brains exploding all Scanners-style, so we have courageously reconvened in the studio to take on the next big messy project: Taito’s Bubble Bobble.

Of course, we’re giving away the plot right there, to a certain degree. This is Taito‘s Bubble Bobble, which automatically makes it less baffling than Wonder Boy and Adventure Island, whose name and lineage splits right there at day one depending on which company’s adaptation of the concept you’re talking about. Bubble Bobble is Taito’s baby (which means it’s been Square Enix’s baby for the past decade), so it at least has a sort of internal consistency going for it. That being said, this sprawling franchise of loosely connected platform games has suffered its share of overlapping titles and contradictory names, so there’s plenty to keep track of… and plenty of opportunity for your poor host (me) to screw something up.

This episode spans a wide gamut of games: Bubble Bobble, Parasol Stars, Rainbow Islands, Bubble Memories, The New Zealand Story, Liquid Kids, Don Doko Don, Bubble Symphony, a host of remakes, a bunch of games that claim to be Bubble Bobble 2, and a bunch more that I can’t remember off the top of my head. Honestly, it would probably be less trouble for you to just give it a listen:

The original Power Trio — Bob, Ray, and Jeremy — follow up their recent look at Wonder Boy to take on the next needlessly convoluted franchise: Taito’s Bubble Bobble (et al.). Confusion guaranteed for all!

Libsyn (1:59:16 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)

And we didn’t even get into the Puzzle Bobble games… that’ll be next week. And eventually we’ll get a Falcom expert into the studio to go over the Dragon Slayer franchise with us and bring an end to this trilogy of nonsense.

Music from this episode comes from various Bubble Bobble games. Especially that theme. You know the one… or you will, once it’s drilled its way forever into your brain after its frequent appearance here.

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