Tag Archives: super nes

Columbus Circle rescues a lost soul from digital Purgatory

Japan-based Columbus Circle is mostly a seller of clone consoles and accessories for ancient hardware, but their greatest claim to keeping gaming’s history alive is the trio of brand-new Famicom games they’ve released over the last year. Yesterday, they announced their intention to continue on this track by publishing NCS’s Kaizō Chōjin Shubibinman Zero (sometimes spelled Schbibinman Zero). But unlike 8Bit Music Power and its ilk, this isn’t an all-new game: NCS, under their Masaya brand, originally released it for the Super Famicom in 1997. But it’s not a reproduction of the game’s initial print run, either. In fact, Shubibinman Zero has never had a physical release at all until now, originally debuting as a download title for Nintendo’s Satellaview service.

If you’re reading this, your knowledge of the Satellaview is probably passing at best; it did, after all, comprise a lot of moving parts and never see release outside Japan. The heart of it was a Super Famicom peripheral supported from 1995 to 2000 in a joint venture between Nintendo and radio company St.GIGA. St.GIGA would broadcast data for games and even digital magazines from their satellite servers, which the Satellaview unit would then download into a Memory Pack slotted into a custom Super Famicom cartridge, not unlike the Super Game Boy. The distribution model was comparable to Sega’s Sega Channel and also recalled the Disk Writer kiosks Nintendo had previously placed in stores throughout Japan, where players could download Famicom Disk System games to rewritable media. But the crucial difference with the Satellaview was that you could pull games out of thin air from the comfort of your own home… Just imagine!

Some Satellaview games were designed around a concept called SoundLink, where a game could only be played during a specific time slot each week, throughout which it would be accompanied by music and voice acting streamed live over satellite radio. The logistics of this made for a bit of a disjointed experience, with the player’s time limited by the length of the performance, but it was a fascinating experiment in relating the medium of games to the shared experience of tuning in to a weekly TV show.

In addition to the main Satellaview interface cartridge, some Satellaview-compatible games were released as slotted cartridges unto themselves, using the Memory Pack to download additional content such as new stages and modes. Nintendo is known for staying behind the curve technologically, but here they were doing DLC in 1995!

As you might begin to suspect, though, all these extra features have since made the Satellaview a game preservationist’s nightmare. All the modern anxieties surrounding the lifespan of digital games locked down to proprietary systems have already come to pass here, and then some. Many games survive in emulation thanks to their ROMs being dumped, but this still leaves out the content that was never in the ROM in the first place. More ephemeral aspects of the experience, such as the broadcast music and voice acting, only endure if someone in Japan thought to make a VHS recording back in the ’90s.

Shubibinman Zero, for better or worse, didn’t explore the Satellaview’s more esoteric possibilities. But like many downloadable games, it did come built-in with a limited number of uses, similar to demos on Wii U and 3DS. Once these games were booted up a certain number of times, they would be rendered inoperable until the player re-downloaded them, and Shubibinman Zero was only available in four scattered months between 1997 and ’98. After that, any Memory Pack loaded with it had its days numbered, effectively making emulation the only sound solution…until now.

As for the game itself? It’s a two-player co-op beat-’em-up platformer, the culmination of a series that steadily evolved from the late ’80s through the mid-’90s. (The second game was localized as Shockman for the TurboGrafx-16.) It’s a bit tonally ambiguous, never quite deciding if it’s a parody of the outlandish costumes and plots of the tokusatsu genre (even the title is a joke: Chōjin sounds like the Japanese word for “superhuman” but is written with the kanji for feudal Japan’s merchant class) or merely a cute but straightforward example of it. But the confusion seems to be part of the joke to some extent, as the cutesy aesthetic occasionally gets juxtaposed with the kind of gruesome visuals found in more hardcore NCS games like Gynoug. Zero, for its part, tends toward the more lighthearted side.

Shubibinman Zero bears a copyright date of 1994 on its title screen, implying it was initially slated for a cartridge release before getting cancelled and resurrected years later for a limited run on Satellaview. No one could ever have guessed it would circle back to its original format after so many years, but that’s precisely the miracle Columbus Circle is working here. Come June 30, anyone will be able to own an official hard copy with its own cartridge, box, and all. Even if it’s unlikely to change anyone’s life, it’s nice to know it’s finally come home—no strings attached.

Satellaview image courtesy of Muband

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Episode 89: Final Fantasy IV, plus some big news

Hello! Welcome to a new week… and, as it happens, something of a new beginning here at Retronauts. What I mean is, Retronauts is now part of the PodcastOne network. Yes: As part of our move toward making this show and site proper and profitable, I’m afraid we’ve gone legit.

This does mean you’ll soon be hearing ads in your podcasts, but the tradeoff is that the show will have much greater visibility and reach. We’ll also have more resources available to us as we go forward — financially, of course, but also in terms of facilities on occasion. This is a huge step for the show, and both Bob and I are excited (and a bit nervous) about it, but we definitely agree the benefits will make up for any hiccups we encounter along the way.

And yes, there’ll be hiccups. Since we’ve switched to a new backend and a new feed, it make take a little while longer than usual for iTunes to refresh the show this week. Thankfully you can download the episode directly from PodcastOne if you’re experiencing any troubles, or simply listen to the embedded version in this post. My hope is that any service interruptions prove to be strictly temporary.

Also, PodCastOne places back catalog episodes of their shows behind a paywall. That’s not how we’ve traditionally operated, so we’ve asked them to make the full back catalog free for a couple of months so listeners aren’t suddenly cut off from our older episodes. Those will eventually be pay-gated as is our host’s standard policy, but we’d like to ease into that and give you advance warning.

It’s also worth mentioning that this move doesn’t affect anything with Patreon! Retronauts supporters will continue to enjoy episodes a week ahead of the public feed, along with the usual plethora of goodies.

So that’s the logistical stuff, but what about the fun stuff? Namely, what’s the deal with this week’s episode?

Well, friends, this week’s episode happens to be the second in our ongoing Final Fantasy game-by-game deep dive. We kinda skipped over Final Fantasy II and III, because they’re a bit tough to love these days, and today dig right into the series’ first 16-bit outing: Final Fantasy IV for Super NES.

You know FFIV; you love FFIV; you probably don’t need much preamble about FFIV. Besides, this episode spans nearly two full hours of conversation about FFIV, so I can just let it do the heavy lifting here.

Description: We continue our Final Fantasy deep-dive series by… doing like Square did back in the day and jumping ahead from FFI to FFIV. Chris Kohler and Kat Bailey join to share their thoughts on this most influential of 16-bit role-playing games.

MP3, 56.3 MB | 1:57:19 | Direct download
Retronauts on iTunes | Retronauts at PodcastOne

Music in this episode naturally comes from Final Fantasy IV for Super NES, but also from the game’s arranged album Celtic Moon. (You can buy both albums on iTunes, and presumably on other download services as well.)

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Enjoy Bomberman’s most obscure outing with an afternoon live stream

I will once again be taking to the virtual airwaves this afternoon for another Gintendo livestream, this time at 5 p.m. ET (2 p.m. PT). I’ll be playing another pick-up from my trip to Japan, generously donated to the cause by Eric Klein of Kyde and Eric. It’s a little thing called “SameGame.”

That’s sah-meh gah-meh, not same game.

I discovered SameGame the same way I did Puzzle Bobble: By way of a shareware Mac-based ripoff on my university newspaper’s production computers. The real game is much more interesting than that simple clone, though.

Hudson’s SameGame only ever shipped in Japan, for Super Famicom. It came in an unusually oversized cartridge… yet it looks curiously reminiscent of something else. Specifically, if you’re familiar with the Japanese version of the Super Game Boy, it looks almost exactly identical to that cartridge.

And for good reason: Like Super Game Boy, SameGame is a cart within a cart. You can plug expansion packs into the top slot to switch up game elements. By default, it shipped with a Hudson mascot pack, and apparently this standard combo is not particularly in demand — overpriced Akihabara game shop Super Potato was selling this entire setup for a mere ¥180. That’s about a buck-fifty. They did have a couple of expansion packs as well, but those were selling for around $20 apiece… so I decided to go with just the basic pack, thank you very much. Apparently all the expansions really do is allow you to switch graphic to different tile sets, which is not really worth the premium. Besides, the default pak contains Bomberman and Bonk, so they kinda gave away the premium set…

I haven’t been able to find much concrete documentation for SameGame in English, so I have no idea how many jumper paks Hudson created, or what characters and properties they contained. I do know that SameGame was somehow able to connect to Nintendo’s Japan-only Super Famicom online service via the Satellaview, which I think allowed you to upload rankings to a leaderboard.

So, it’s a pretty neat 16-bit curio. It’s also not really that much of a game, so my guess is that I’ll play this for a while and then switch to something more exciting midway through the stream. I have no idea what that’ll be, but I’ll fish something fun out of my fairly respectable Super NES/Super Famicom collection to make it worth your while.

As always, you can witness the stream live and in person on my YouTube channel, or you can watch it later via the stream archive. See you there!

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Virtual Console: The lesser greats

Yesterday Nintendo pushed two pretty major games for Virtual Console — entries in both the Mario Kart and Castlevania series. Franchises popular enough that you kind of have to take a step back and exclaim, “Wait, how were these not already on VC?” Perhaps the answer lies in a curious coincidence: Both of these games have the questionable distinction of hovering down in the lowest rankings of their respective series.

What a fitting way to end 2016. “Wow, new Mario Kart and Castlevania on VC! Awesome …oh, wait.

Now, I wouldn’t put either Mario Kart 64 or Castlevania: Dracula X at the absolute bottom of their franchises. Not when Mario Kart Wii exists. And truth be told, there may actually be no real bottom against which to calibrate the worst of the Castlevania franchise. The series has given us some truly legendary classics, but it turns out that making a good, authentic-feeling Castlevania game is a very difficult task which only a few designers have properly grasped through the years; Dracula X sits more in the middle in terms of actual quality than wallowing in the stygian depths of the series’ worst entries.

Au contraire. There’s actually quite a bit of fun to be had with either of these games, if you can overlook their faults and put yourself in the proper mindset. That being said, it’s not too hard to understand why these two tend to be regarded as lesser entries of their beloved series.

Mario Kart 64 (N64 for Wii U)

I won’t lie, I played a lot of Mario Kart 64 back when it first came out. I was in college, working as editor-in-chief of the university newspaper, and during one particularly grueling period where I struggled to actually leave the newspaper office long enough to go to classes or sleep, Mario Kart 64 kept me and my staff sane. I was pretty impressed by the game’s technical leaps over the original Super Mario Kart, which always felt sort of slow and flat to me. After a fairly mundane starter track, MK64 began throwing in bumpy and sloped surfaces. By the time I reached Wario’s personal course, which appeared to be a muddy, turbulent BMX track that the kart krew had dickishly taken over to ruin with their weighty racers, I was sold. I mastered every track at every speed, and then I raced for the gold on the reverse tracks.

(And once that was done, I sold Mario Kart and my N64 in exchange for a PlayStation, though that wasn’t an issue with the game but rather with the fact that it was the last N64 release I could see ahead for the rest of 1997 that looked particularly interesting to me.)

As much time as I spent with Mario Kart 64, I have a hard time getting back into it these days. The tracks, which seemed so exciting and lively 20 years ago, now stretch on too long and overstay their welcome. Rainbow Road is the worst offender by far, but frankly more courses drag on than not. And of course, there’s the infamous rubberband A.I., a long-running Mario Kart issue that’s never gone away but was very nearly at its absolute worst here. (The absolute worst was, of course, in Mario Kart Wii.) Between its relatively meager selection of racers, lack of kart kustomization, bloated tracks, and cheap CPU tactics, Mario Kart 64 feels like… well, it feels like a lot of games from this era: An awkward first step into 3D that would be overshadowed by subsequent works created by more practiced and confident hands once the training wheels were off.

Castlevania: Dracula X (Super NES for New 3DS)

Dracula X for Super NES has taken flak from the very beginning because of what it’s not: Namely, it’s not Dracula X: Rondo of Blood for PC Engine CD-ROM. I remember magazine articles at the time of its debut (I think EGM, maybe, and almost definitely Game Fan) ripping Dracula X a new one because it wasn’t the “same” as the original. I wouldn’t discover import gaming for another couple of years — I had my PlayStation modded to play the Japanese release of this game’s sequel, as it would happen — so I had no idea what they were talking about.

But I still found myself disappointed by what Dracula X wasn’t: Namely, a proper follow-up to Super Castlevania IV. History has proven Castlevania‘s first 16-bit outing to be little more than an aberration, a creative hiccup in the timestream, but the game had a huge impact on me and I sincerely expected it to be the model for future entries in the Castlevania franchise. So after waiting four years for a follow-up, only to get a game that felt like a throwback to NES-era design, I was bummed.

Neither of these criticisms are, to my mind, entirely fair. It would take more than a decade for Rondo of Blood to come to the U.S., so I can certainly understand the irritation that this mutant variant caused among avid importers, but realistically I don’t think a Super NES cart had the space to handle all the crazy stuff that makes Rondo so amazing. No, the best reason to find Dracula X frustrating is that it is in fact a deeply frustrating game, as I discovered live on the air earlier this year when I made my first serious attempt at playing through it (rather than sort of farting around with it as I’d done over the past god-knows-how-many years).

There’s some real jerk-league stuff in here, with tons of enemies whose placement, patterns, or speed exceed what the player’s controls are equipped to handle without absolute memorization. This, in my opinion, violates a fundamental principle of classic-style Castlevania, which demands that the game world and its hazards be crafted around the protagonist’s limitations — pushing the limits, but never breaking them. When Classicvania violates this rule, as with the falling-block climb in the Alucard route of Dracula’s Curse, it does so at its own peril. Dracula X does this constantly as a matter of routine. And that is why it’s not a particularly great Castlevania entry. Wonderful music, though.

So here I am, rounding out the year by using Retronauts to complain about Virtual Console. No matter how dark 2016 seemed, I hope you can take comfort in the fact that some things will never change.

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