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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
Direct download
Retronauts on iTunes
Retronauts at PodcastOne

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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Thank you + video feed

First, you’ll be downright chuffed to know that this week’s early access episode (wherein Bob and Ray and I discuss the mysteries of Bubble Bobble canon) is now available through Patreon.

Secondly, I’m chuffed to say that, thanks to a surge of Yuletide enthusiasm and generosity, we crossed over our “weekly full episode” tier last night. Over the coming month, leading up to February’s big change, we’ll be developing our new publishing plan, which includes the new monthly chapter of the show, Retronauts East. Tentatively, the East show will feature Benj Edwards of vintagecomputing.com and Ben Elgin, both of whom will bring a welcome dose of knowledge regarding classic computers, Atari games, and other bits of retrogame trivia that Bob and myself (who are largely, though not exclusively, Japanese console-centric in terms of our interests) have typically been a bit weak on. I’m excited about this new addition to the family! I will definitely need to pick some extra recording gear before we can start producing the new show, though.

Of course, this does mean that Retronauts Micro will be vanishing… unless we manage to hit our next funding goal, at which point it will resume its biweekly schedule. So, to recap, we’ve gone from two full and two Micro episodes per month to four full episodes, and our next stop will be four full episodes and two Micro. Hopefully we’ll get there soon.

I’ve also added a new link to the banner across the top of the site: an iTunes feed for Retronauts Chronicles videos. I always post my video projects several days early for video backers, but the iTunes feed also gets updates a day or two ahead of the videos going public via YouTube. This week’s early video on iTunes concerns Pilotwings for Super NES; next week will probably be Mach Rider, or maybe a prototype long-form retrospective on the SEGA Master System (monthly long-form videos being the next video Patreon goal, you see).

Yeah, we’re doing the hard sell here…. but hopefully the content makes it go down smooth.

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Retronauts Micro #053: Donkey Kong’s Day in Court

For this week’s Retronauts Micro episode, I’ve formally visited a topic that’s popped up on the show from time to time, but which we’ve never discussed in any real depth. It’s been pretty well documented over the past decade that Donkey Kong — the arcade version, that is — was co-created by a third party, and this knowledge has led to speculation that the original coin-op game never shows up as an archived release due to this legal dispute.

While no new information has actually emerged since the Game Developers Research Institute posted its write-up of the situation about five or six years ago, with this episode I’ve attempted to put together a “what we know” synopsis that contextualizes the few hard facts that have emerged with some valuable context… including Nintendo’s reliance on outside contractors in its early video game days, and the uncertainty of copyright law as concerned game code back at the time of Donkey Kong‘s debut. Hopefully you’ll find it enlightening — and if not, well, you can look forward to next week’s episode, wherein we have an actually listenable conversation about Sonic the Hedgehog. For once.

Episode description: Enjoy this delightful yarn about the legal wrangling over the matter of Donkey Kong’s true parents. Is Shigeru Miyamoto really his dad? And who has custody over this simian tyke, anyway?

Libsyn (14:42 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)

Remember that this rad show is made possible by a communal cash infusion through Patreon! (We’re not greedy, we’re just game journalists who can’t afford to create a high-grade cross-country podcast out of pocket.)

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Gravity is rad, and reversed, in the latest Retronauts Micro

Heigh ho everybody, and welcome once again to the Retronauts show! We’ve got a real corker this wee— aw, OK, it’s just another off-week Micro episode. On the plus side, I’ve decided to ditch my boring one-man-show approach to Micros and bring other people into the conversation, which should be a relief to everyone. To kick things off this week, we have Sam Claiborn from IGN in the studio to enthuse over classic NES mech platformer Metal Storm for a few minutes with me.

Metal Storm is one of those games that plays better in person than it does via audio — it’s a brief and fairly simple game, and its appeal comes from the way it pushes the NES hardware, and from the way its mechanics turn a straightforward five-stage platform shooter into a dense, nail-biting challenge. The game’s central premise (you can invert gravity while in mid-air) demands a higher standard of level design than the usual NES fare, and every screen of Metal Storm stands out as a sort of inventive action puzzle… without being an actual puzzle game. Trust me, I’ve seen a lot of those in my Game Boy adventures, and this ain’t one.

The biggest downside to Metal Storm is that you’re not going to be able to find a cartridge-only copy of the game for less than $100 unless you get really lucky. It’ll never show up on a download service, either, because publisher Irem ditched gaming altogether and, last I’d read, had delisted all its games from PSN and Virtual Console. This is why classic video game is so darned stupid most of the time.

Download Links

Libsyn (13:02, 9.4 MB) | MP3 Download | SoundCloud

Thanks to Sam for dropping by, and I’ll be playing the game on a live stream later this week via USgamer. So you can check it out that way if you’re curious about Metal Storm but too lazy (or scrupulous!) to emulate it.

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HAL

EPSON MFP image

Oh dog dang it, I knew I forgot something yesterday. Hello! Here is the latest Retronauts, being posted here on the blog. I was so busy trying to get the advance episode prepped I totally overlooked our public-facing side. I am a monster.

Anyway, the nice thing about Retronauts is that it’s not really timely per se, so this episode will be every bit as valid and relevant today as it was yesterday. This week’s show is a follow-up to the PlayStation anniversary episode from last summer… the one where we learned of Satoru Iwata’s passing in the middle of the recording session and promised to circle back to HAL, the studio he helped build, helped save, and which helped him become Nintendo’s president for the company’s most successful and profitable run in its history.

Joining us this week, we have regular contributors Henry Gilbert of the Laser Time Podcast Network and Christian Nutt of Gamasutra. They know stuff.

Download Links

Libsyn (1:26:01) | MP3 Download | SoundCloud

Episode Description

Jeremy, Bob, Henry Gilbert, and Christian Nutt convene to look back at the history of HAL Laboratory in tribute to the late Satoru Iwata.

Enjoy the episode! Even though it’s late!

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EMERGENCY ORDER: Retronauts Vol. IV Episode 56

micro 29 cover

Like the video games industry itself, the Retronauts podcast is in a period in which new content is hard to come by as we instead favor sequels and remakes. Take this episode as case-in-point: We’re revisiting the Metroid series from way, way, way back in the early 1UP days. Our old friend Jose Otero joins us for this journey into the past… which was recorded long in the past, actually. Back before E3. We’re not entirely sure why it’s taken so long to get this show posted, but it’s fine! All that’s happened with Metroid since then is the announcement of a spinoff that made people terribly, terribly angry. And that’s not what this episode is about. This one’s about positivity and happiness. So enjoy, a pray for a true peace in space.

Download Links

Libsyn (1:40:42 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud | Subscribe on iTunes! Support us on Patreon!)

Episode Description

Jeremy, Bob, and IGN’s Jose Otero revisit a subject dear to their hearts: Nintendo’s Metroid series. It’s the only Metroid podcast in 2015 that does’t complain about Federation Force! (Because it was recorded before E3.)

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The latest Retronauts Micro arrives in two delicious flavors…

…audio flavor, and video flavor.

micro 27 cover

Q*Bert is such an abstract, visual game, it would seem sort of ridiculous not to include images while discussing it, right? So, for this week’s Retronauts Micro, I’ve upgraded the mini-podcast to a mini-video as well.

Though of course, the audio version remains for you purists in the audience.

Moving forward, I hope to produce video versions of all my Micro episodes. Bob seems to have a good thing going with his mixtape episodes, so I imagine those will remain audio-only, but my own productions tend to be less inspired. Thus, I’m fancying them up with visuals. If I have time (ha!) I’d also like to go back and rework my older Micro episodes into videos as well.

Download Links

Libsyn (8:34 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud )

Episode Description

Journey back in time to 1982 and the sassiest mascot character ever to cuss up an arcade: Q*Bert. And if this episode seems a bit brief, well, be sure to check out the video version on retronauts.com or usgamer.net!

The music in this week’s audio version comes from Q*Bert 3. It’s not very good music—it’s actually kind of annoying!—but what can ya do?

As a reminder, the Retronauts project is made possible through Patreon! I also have posted some of the original podcast cover illustrations up for sale, if you’d like to give someone the gift of slightly amateurish video game watercolors this holiday.

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