Tag Archives: switch

Mighty Gunvolt: The quest for identity

The fifth annual BitSummit was held in Kyoto over the weekend, and just one announcement to arise from the Japanese indie game festival was a new game from the 2D action veterans at Inti Creates. Mighty Gunvolt Burst is the sequel to Mighty Gunvolt, the quasi-8-bit counterpart to 2014’s Azure Striker Gunvolt.

The original Mighty Gunvolt was revealed just a week ahead of Azure Striker Gunvolt‘s release, not as a stand-alone game but as a free download bundled with the latter game during its first month out. At the time, Inti Creates advertised it as a “thank you gift” to supporters of Gunvolt. Giving away an all-new game in its entirety—even a brief one with lo-fi graphics—seemed tremendously, even suspiciously generous, and a few months later, Inti Creates announced that it would receive both a major update and a second release as a paid product unto itself, plus new stages and bosses in the form of DLC. In retrospect, it adds up that Mighty Gunvolt was always headed for this state and Inti Creates simply saw an opportunity to push out an early, incomplete version as an incentive to boost Azure Striker Gunvolt‘s day one sales.

That would explain why Mighty Gunvolt came out in the manner it did, but why the game exists remains a bit unclear. Featuring the titular Gunvolt, Beck from Comcept’s Mighty No. 9, and Eroko from the Japan-exclusive Gal☆Gun series, it appears to be a celebration of all things Inti Creates—an indulgence rarely afforded by contract developers with a catalogue scattered across various self-interested publishers. Then again, Beck’s presence and the “Mighty” name framed it more specifically as an early promotion for Mighty No. 9, which was believed at the time to be a few months from release. Azure Striker Gunvolt and Mighty No. 9 share a common ancestor in Capcom’s Mega Man games—some of which Inti Creates also developed—so they combine well in what plays out like an obvious pastiche of that series. But since Eroko is co-starring, you can’t simply sum this up as a Mega Man/Gunvolt/Mighty No. 9 mash-up—nor is there quite enough of Inti Creates’ history on display to really qualify Mighty Gunvolt as all-inclusive crossover on the order of Super Smash Bros. or Project X Zone. (You certainly can’t have an Inti Creates tribute without so much as a shout out to Speed Power Gunbike.) What we end up with is two things that go together and one that doesn’t. It just feels like a smattering of stuff.

Perhaps it’s telling, then, that Eroko is off the team for Mighty Gunvolt Burst. Reducing the lineup to Gunvolt and Beck may seem like a step backward, but it’s a move that’s sure to lend Burst a tighter focus and a clearer reason for being. Now it just has to contend with the new problem that arises from giving Beck a greater share of the spotlight: the catastrophic amounts of anti-hype emanating from Mighty No. 9.

Mighty No. 9 followed Mighty Gunvolt not by a few months but, after multiple delays, the better part of two years. It is probably safe to say it is not well-liked on the whole. The missteps made by developer Comcept were so numerous I couldn’t even recount them all here—nor do I probably need to, as the whole fiasco has welcomed no shortage of hot takes and postmortems examining what went wrong. Suffice to say Comcept explored the full range of public opinion over the course of three years, parlaying a wildly successful crowd-funding campaign into a slow-motion train wreck leading up to release. Their reputation was so thoroughly tarnished by the end that it probably didn’t even matter much what the final product was like: Everyone was poised to hate it. Some went in still clinging to hopes that the promised game would be worth the PR nightmare, but even they found it in need of an extra layer of polish at best and a ground-up reinvention at worst.

Less than a year out, the bitterness surrounding Mighty No. 9 is still fresh in the public’s memory, and although most of the blame was laid on Comcept, Inti Creates has caught flak as well. Even having served as a secondary co-developer has diminished their standing in the eyes of some once-ardent fans, so at first glance, it’s baffling that they’re associating Mighty No. 9‘s setting and characters so strongly with Mighty Gunvolt Burst. While the first Mighty Gunvolt borrowed various concepts from Azure Striker Gunvolt, Burst looks for all the world like a reimagining of Mighty No. 9, including all eight of its main bosses. Surely no one involved with Comcept’s game has been lucky enough not to know how poorly it was received, so why risk rekindling that negativity? Perhaps this is Inti Creates looking to clear its name—to go all-in with Mighty No. 9, give it that ground-up reinvention it needs, and show how much better it could have been if only they had been at the wheel. Comcept, for their part, reportedly licensed the use of its characters free of charge, so maybe they think they’ll benefit as well if Inti Creates can get people thinking fondly of Beck and his world again. It’s definitely one tall order, so it’ll be exciting to see if they can pull it off.

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Listener mail call: The Mana series

Hi everyone, we’ll be recording a huge pile of episodes in a couple of weeks, and per usual, I want you to share your thoughts on the topics we’ll be covering during our next session for possible inclusion during the show. The first episode I’ll be hosting will be a reprise of a very long-ago episode we once put together on the Mana series, aka Seiken Densetsu. At this point, pretty much the entirety of the series now counts as retro, so it promises to be a somewhat different take than the one we recorded, like, a billion years ago. Or maybe it was 10 years. Anyway, it’s been a while. Time for a refresher — especially with the Seiken Densetsu Collection for Switch in the works (and hopefully slated for U.S. release, eventually).

As usual, I will be collecting all emails that you send to me at jparish -at- retronauts -dot- com for potential inclusion in our upcoming Mana episode. But for that to happen, of course, you need to write up your thoughts on the games. I recommend keeping your missive to less than 200 words, because that’s pretty much the most we ever read of letters. Save your energy!

Relevant to this episode: Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3, Legend of Mana, Children of Mana, Heroes of Mana, Dawn of Mana, and World of Mana. Secret of Evermore, however, is not relevant. That’s gonna be its own Micro episode someday, baby.

On a related note, I will be sharing my first-ever proper experience with the third game in the series — Seiken Densetsu 3live on-stream tomorrow morning. I had originally planned to stream this evening, but life got in the way. That’s OK, though; this gives me an excuse to come up with a pre-happy-hour companion stream series to Gintendo: Famicoffee. Because there is no way in heck I’m sipping cocktails at 7:30 a.m., and sometimes ya just wanna stream games in the morning, you know?

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Mario Kart 8 Deluxe: The Retronauts review

I didn’t really play much of Mario Kart 8 in its first run on Wii U. Much as I liked the Wii U console — that poor, benighted thing — sandwiching the joyless mundanity of Mario Kart Wii between the excellence of Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart 7 helped turn the series irrevocably into a portable experience for me. And while Mario Kart 8 proved to be every bit the equal of its immediate predecessor, if not better, its being on Wii U meant I had to play it on a television. Alas, Nintendo, I just can’t go back.

As it turns out, my reticence worked out for the best: I was, it turns out, simply saving myself for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Not only does the Switch’s “remastered” version compile the entirety of the Wii U’s original release and downloadable updates into a single package (along with some new content), it does so in that all-important portable format.

Yes, I know: Technically, Switch isn’t a “handheld” system. Nintendo has gone to great pains to present Switch as the Wii U’s successor to the console market, leaving ample room for 3DS as its portable offering — not surprisingly, given the remarkable 3DS lineup they’ve laid out for the remainder of 2017. And Switch’s on-the-go fluidity remains its strongest feature. It feels capable if somewhat underpowered as a console, but its makes for an extraordinary portable device.

I’m not sure if you could reasonably call Mario Kart 8 Deluxe the Switch’s killer app when (1.) Switch also has Breath of the Wild and (2.) MK8D is ultimately a marginally tweaked version of a game that launched four years ago. Technicalities aside, though, what MK8D offers is an intoxicating glimpse of the play experiences capable with Nintendo’s new handheld. Console. Handheld-console hybrid. Whatever.

Docked, MK8D doesn’t really do much to sell itself. That’s how I first experienced it at Nintendo’s pre-launch event back in January, and it didn’t do much for me then. If you skipped owning a Wii U, sure, you finally have a chance to play the excellent latest entry in this long-running racing series. And if, like me, you never bothered with the Wii U version’s extensive DLC offerings, it’s pretty nice to have all those extras available and unlocked from the start.

The moment you launch the game, it offers four dozen tracks, each playable in five different difficulty levels (including mirror mode), with enough characters to choose among to inspire envy among Capcom’s “Vs.” fighters. The DLC material included here contains some reused vintage content, of course; about half the tracks you can play on are legacy remasters from older games, spanning from the Super NES original to the dreaded Mario Kart Wii. (Turns out the Wii tracks are pretty fun when divorced from the game itself.) And you could easily cull about half the character lineup and never miss them. Does anybody really want to play as Metal Mario or Pink Gold Peach? But, on the other hand, you can also choose from a decent selection of non-Mario characters, which breathes some new life into the lineup. Some are new to this version — Splatoon‘s Inklings, for example — while others showed up as DLC add-ons to MK8. Of them all, I think Isabelle from Animal Crossing may be my new favorite Mario Kart racer, if only because she spouts her in-race taunts entirely in Animal Crossing gibberish.

The new, non-Mario material goes a long way toward freshening up the MK8D package, especially when it comes to courses. We’ve been racing through Ghost Houses, Bowser’s Castles, Luigi Speedways, and Rainbow Roads for 25 years now. And while it’s amusing to have a Yoshi-themed race track in which the speedway is shaped in the outline of the baby-voiced dino itself, I find myself drawn far more to the opportunity to cruise through, say, Hyrule (at least on something faster that a grumpy pony). It helps that these excursions beyond the Mushroom Kingdom demonstrate some of the liveliest attention-to-detail MK8D offers, such as the way the F-Zero course’s “damage zones” create drag on your kart or the fact that your coin indicator icon is temporarily replaced by a bag of bells for the duration of the Animal Crossing track.

Great as all of these details may be, though, none of this really gets to the heart of what makes MK8D so momentous: Its flexibility. It’s the first major release for Switch that takes full advantage of the system’s dynamic nature. Bomberman was fine, Snipperclips was amusing, and 1-2-Switch made for a decent icebreaker, but with MK8D we have a Switch title with near-universal appeal, a ridiculous amount of content, and substantial mechanics — and it’s been heavily revamped to allow players to enjoy competitive racing under an enormous variety of circumstances.

Fundamentally, Mario Kart games haven’t changed all that much since the Super NES original. Still, a few key moments in the series’ history stand out. Mario Kart 64‘s addition of proper 3D geometry to course designs allowed for more complex track designs and the wild unpredictability that comes in uneven race surfaces. Mario Kart DS added proper online multiplayer. And now, this: The freedom to play with others, anywhere, at a moment’s notice.

MK8D shines brightest when you play with others, and Nintendo has added in a huge number of multiplayer format options. That’s true in terms of content — the Battle Mode this time around is excellent — but more importantly, it affects how you play as well. Console-based Mario Karts have always allowed split-screen multiplayer and, more recently, online racing as well; portable Mario Kart games have always included local competitive play, along with online support beginning with Mario Kart DS. MK8D incorporates all of those options, too. But then it ups the ante. In addition to both handheld and docked wireless play, splitscreen docked play, and multi-system local wireless play, you can also play splitscreen on the handheld itself by disconnecting the controllers and using them for impromptu head-to-head racing.

Of course, this has been Switch’s sales pitch all along. But it’s one thing to watch stylish 20-somethings grinning through a manicured promotional video and quite something else to prop up a Switch on a kitchen counter, hand the Joycons to a couple of kids, and let them get to racing against one another with a single, self-contained game system. And while it’s not the 100% frictionless experience Nintendo’s demo reel would suggest, it’s nevertheless quick, easy, and completely engrossing.

I could play MK8D and weigh in on it with the perspective of a seasoned adult, but I found far more value in putting it to the test by letting my young nephews and cousins give it a go over the weekend. What I found was that, yes, the game and system both were instant hits with a gaggle of kids who until then had been aware of Switch but had little real interest in it.

The impromptu multiplayer setup isn’t without its minor snags, of course. The Joycons don’t slide as freely off the system’s core as Nintendo would like them to, and the wrist strap attachments are always a hassle to attach and remove. And even with the attachments, the Joycons are much too cramped for extended play sessions for all but the youngest of players. On top of that, the Switch’s screen itself seems pretty tiny when you’re playing at a distance greater than holding the screen directly in front of your face; arguments nearly broke out every time one of the kids tried to surreptitiously nudge the screen closer to them. But after the initial two minutes of setup (and once I laid down the law about placing the screen in between players, to be fair to everyone), MK8D remained in active use for the rest of the night. We started off with standard races, but once the younger kids with the shorter attention spans wandered off to find other amusements, the two older teens switched over to battle mode for the remainder of the evening.

It’s not difficult to imagine extending this use case to dozens of other games on Switch. Instant-match fighting games? Infuriating New Super Mario Switch multiplayer sessions? Cooperative Contra III on Virtual Console? Sign me up, for all the above.

Due to its necessary technological restrictions, handheld gaming has always felt like a format that lags a generation behind the cutting edge of console play. Switch doesn’t change that — while Microsoft and Sony are delving into 4K visuals in an attempt to remain competitive with personal computers, Nintendo’s new system doesn’t even output 1080p on a consistent basis. In handheld mode, though, MK8D‘s small-screen 720p resolution looks sharper than the game did on Wii U. And above all, MK8D delivers an experience you can enjoy anywhere, anytime, with anyone. For perhaps the first time, handheld gaming (even if the company’s marketing doesn’t refer to it necessarily as such) doesn’t feel so far behind consoles. Switch may not have the horsepower of PS4 Pro, but it breaks handheld gaming away from the one-to-one system-to-player ratio that’s always been one of the format’s greatest drawbacks and allows for an impromptu session of console-caliber gaming with almost no friction.

Granted, this potential has always been there, ever since Nintendo first showed off the Switch. It’s just that MK8D is the first release to feel like it truly makes good on it. Zelda may have been the system-seller, but MK8D demonstrates why Switch might actually live up to all those Wii-sized sales aspirations and predictions. If the kids’ reactions to my weekend play sessions are any indication, a head-to-head countertop Mario Kart race is the kind of game experience that makes true believers out of skeptics. As a game, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe perfects a long-running series; as an experience, it defines a new standard for how multiplayer portable games should work.

Not bad for warmed-over material.

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Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap | The Retronauts review

Remaking a beloved classic forces developers to grapple with their own pixellated version of the Ship of Theseus paradox: How heavily can a game be altered while remaining fundamentally the same work? What parts should be altered? To what degree should those modifications be allowed to reshape the underlying work?

LizardCube’s new remake of SEGA Master System metroidvania Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap is one of the rare instances in which the developers were able to sidestep this question altogether right at the outset. This remake began as a programming exercise for an enthusiastic fan (Omar Cornut) who wanted to dissect the tech behind the game and rebuild it for new systems. Rather than taking broad liberties with this new rendition of The Dragon’s Trap, Cornut prioritized fidelity first and foremost. This is a remake in the most literal sense: Not a reimagining, but rather a genuine recreation of the 8-bit work from the ground up.

Much as with Saber and 343i’s Halo Anniversary Editions, The Dragon’s Trap gives players a visually upgraded overlay that sits atop the original game, modified to run on new hardware and containing a handful of bonus secrets, but ultimately unchanged. The world layout, the physics, the enemy movements: They’re all the same as they were way back in 1989 on Master System. In fact, as with the aforementioned Halo remakes, The Dragon’s Trap allows players freely toggle between the new look and the original game sprites with the press of a button. The 8-bit visualizer mode isn’t simply the original Master System game running under emulation, either; the graphics have been modified to fill the widescreen layout of modern devices like Nintendo Switch (the version I’ve been playing) or PlayStation 4.

It’s a stunning exercise in digital archaeology, the programming equivalent of unearthing a dinosaur fossil and reassembling it perfectly… then allowing viewers to observe it as either a bare skeleton or with a detailed new skin. It almost seems excessive, but in the best way possible. How many remakes allow you to take a password into the original version of the game to play for a while, then seamlessly carry the progress you made there back into the new rendition?

This scrupulous fidelity to the source material comes with both benefits and drawbacks, of course — the developers’ pixel paradox in action. On the plus side (and this is an enormous plus), it means the extravagant new visuals don’t compromise playability. The Dragon’s Trap looks absolutely gorgeous, with elaborate, stylish, and above all fluid animation fleshing out the game’s sprawling world. Purists can opt to play with the original bitmaps, garish color palettes and all, but I can’t see why anyone would. The remake looks as good as any other 2D platformer I’ve ever seen, and possibly better.

But LizardCube’s core design philosophy — that is, change none of the game’s substance — neatly sidesteps the biggest issue that normally arises when a game looks this nice. Beautifully animated games tend to prioritize animation above responsiveness, an issue you’re especially likely to experience in other hand-drawn games of European origins. Think Rayman: Games that look great and move with visual grace, but which insist on playing out a full animation cycle on-screen before responding to player inputs. Because The Dragon’s Trap is ultimately running on a reconstructed 8-bit framework, it moves like an 8-bit game. When you tap the controls in a given direction, your character immediately moves in that direction. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment on display here (in a release that sets several technical standards for future classic remakes) is the way in which the characters still manage to animate fluidly within those limitations. There’s a whole lot of in-betweening work that plays out between the stilted animation cycles of the Master System original, and each of your protagonist’s five incarnations manages to pull off a variety of moves without ever breaking the illusion. It’s truly extraordinary, all the more so for the impression that every frame of every character and bad guy was drawn individually rather than relying on Flash-style “puppet” animation that many other best-of-class 2D developers (e.g. Vanillaware, WayForward, or Klei) sometimes use as shortcuts.

Taking such a faithful approach does present its share of problems, though, and The Dragon’s Trap unfortunately falls afoul of the biggest of them: Namely, by holding so faithfully to a game from nearly 30 years ago, LizardCube chose to forego any opportunities to refine it.

Now, some may hold to the idea that new developers have no business monkeying around with someone else’s classic, that the point of a remake like this is simply to reproduce the source material, warts and all. I disagree. Game design has come a long way in 30 years; back when Westone first created Wonder Boy III, developers were still tinkering with fundamental concepts of balance and fairness. To their credit, this game feels far less punishing than other contemporary nonlinear games. Wonder Boy (or Girl — one of the more thoughtful cosmetic elements of this remake is the option to chose your protagonist’s gender) can soak up quite a bit of damage from foes. If you venture into an area and find yourself hopelessly outclassed by the bad guys there, you shouldn’t be in that area just yet.

That said, the original game still had its share of minor frustrations. The physics can feel a little odd for those accustomed to the elegant jump mechanics of other games, and there are a few places (especially late in the game) where enemy placement feels needlessly punishing. The world desperately needs a few reverse shortcuts, too. Every area has a door to warp players back to the main village that serves as the game’s hub, but you need to trek the whole way on foot when you want to venture out to the hinterlands. If you lose to a boss, you can look forward to slogging your way back from the start. Likewise, the one shop that sells precious life potions is a good five-minute jaunt through a mouse-sized maze, even for a powered-up hero. You’ll get to know that route quite well, since you have to bumble through it any time you want to restock your potions.

It’s a testament, then, to the excellence of the original game that it still plays well in 2017 despite these quality-of-life issues. The third chapter in the sprawling Wonder Boy series (along with the other Wonder Boy III, Monster Lair — yes, it’s confusing, but we’ve sorted it out for you in podcast form) built on the rudimentary action RPG elements that appeared in 1987’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Where Monster World had the brisk pacing and simplistic structure required for a game originating in arcades, though, Wonder Boy III appeared strictly on consoles and could afford to indulge in fully non-linear design. It’s packed with secrets, equipment, and pathways that you may spot right off but can only explore once you’ve acquired the appropriate power.

Those powers helped make the game so interesting. The journey begins at the finale of the previous game, with the final boss encounter working as a sort of prologue; once you defeat the last game’s boss, Wonder Boy is cursed to become a monster. With each new boss you destroy, you’re cursed anew to become a different creature: A lizard, a mouse, a fishman, etc. Each form has both advantages and drawbacks. The mouse, for example, has absolutely awful attack range, but can slip through tiny passages and climb certain walls. In time, you gain the ability to swap between your cursed forms at certain key locations, and learning when and how to make the most of each curse becomes a huge part of completing the game.

Original developers Westone put together one of the most advanced and interesting action RPGs of the ’80s, one that could stand toe-to-toe with hits such as Zelda II and would go on to exert some very obvious influence on the likes of Castlevania: Symphony of the NightShantae and Little Samson. Its problem was one of obscurity. Wonder Boy III appeared on multiple systems back in the day, but they were all the least popular platforms of each category: Master System, TurboGrafx-16, Game Gear. Hopefully the fact that this visually stunning (and still quite entertaining!) remake is showing up on the most popular platforms of the era — PlayStation and Steam, as well as being one of the first notable releases for Switch — will allow this 8-bit masterpiece to finally receive the acclaim it’s due.

The remake’s changes are literally skin deep… but what a great-looking skin they’ve created. And that skin been fitted over a game that didn’t really need much corrective surgery in the first place. I wouldn’t have complained about a few minor gameplay refinements, especially options to make navigating back to conquered areas less time-consuming, but I can’t fault LizardCube for creating a brilliantly, beautifully faithful take on this 8-bit classic.

Verdict: Highly recommended

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap
Developer: LizardCube | Publisher: DotEmu
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Steam, Switch, Xbox One
Release date: April 18, 2017

This review was based on software provided by the publisher for review purposes.

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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.

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Retronauts Micro 57: A Blaster Master retrospective and Blaster Master Zero review

A game review? On Retronauts? It’s more likely than you think. In fact, there’s one right here.

But this is not your typical game review — it’s a game review that takes the form of a podcast, and the review itself has in turn been commingled with a retrospective. My hope is that it’s a review format you could only experience here in the one, the only… Retronauts.

Is it a good review format, though? Or one that you only find here because it’s a ridiculous concept and no one else would ever bother. I leave that as an exercise to you, the listener, to determine.

So, yes. Episode 57 of Retronauts Micro is a two-part affair: First, a retrospective of the original Blaster Master, including some handy context to help explain why the game had such impact and remains so well-liked, and a loose rundown of its sequels. The second part (after the obligatory ad break) delves specifically into the new Inti Creates remake, Blaster Master Zero. My goal here was to create a chunk of game commentary that upholds the Retronauts goal of tying present to past, while also taking advantage of the fact that this venture is, ultimately, about the podcast.

It’s about 30 minutes long in total, so it goes into pretty considerable detail without (hopefully) wearing thin its welcome with your ears. So please have a listen!

Episode description: It’s a different application for the Retronauts Micro format this week as Jeremy uses the show to present a review of the newly released Blaster Master Zero alongside a series retrospective.

MP3, 14.6 MB | 31:46
Direct download
Retronauts on iTunes
Retronauts at PodcastOne

And that wraps it up for me for a little while. You’ll be glad to know Bob’s back on duty next week with a look at celebrity video games, and he’ll be handling the next Micro as well (two weeks from now). So you can enjoy a bit of a respite from my monotone drone…

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Switch is already ascending to its destiny as a retrogaming haven

First there were Neo•Geo games and Blaster Master Zero; now there’s this:

There’s still no word on what Nintendo plans to do in terms of Virtual Console for Switch, if anything, but clearly third parties have no intention of sitting around and waiting for plans to solidify. And so we have the Seiken Densetsu Collection. And by “we” I mean “Japan, anyway.”

Yesterday Square Enix’s official Mana franchise Twitter account teased a brief and masterful video clip of people playing Secret of Mana, which wasn’t particularly remarkable until the camera pulled out and — BAM! — they were playing on Switch. Rather than let the question of, “Is this real?” linger in the air forever like a bad smell, the company went ahead and announced a collection of the first three Mana games this morning. And all was well, except for the uncertainty surrounding a possible localization.

I think it’s pretty reasonable to hope this makes its way west as a Mana Collection (or some such). The lack of a proper, official English-language version of Seiken Densetsu 3, the gorgeous 16-bit sequel to Secret of Mana, has always been one of those sources of simmering resentment for RPG fans; the game likely wasn’t localized because of the difficulty involved in squeezing a less-efficient English script into a huge, jam-packed ROM, which already sat at the upper limits of the system’s practical size restrictions (and therefore would have been ridiculously expensive here). Every once in a while Square Enix kindles a spark of hope that we’ll finally get a belated English conversion of the game, such as when they teased Heroes of Mana as a sequel to SD3. And yet here we are more than 20 years later, and no official U.S. release of SD3.

This seems like the ultimate test. If we don’t get this Mana compilation, we’re never getting SD3 in English from Square Enix and will have to settle for paying people to flash SNES ROMs of the (groundbreaking and quite excellent) fan translation for us instead. I kinda feel like letting this languish in Japan would amount to leaving money on the table, but what do I’m know? I’m a bozo who would have Square Enix localize every single unsellable SaGa game, so it’s just as well I’m not making any of these decisions for the company.

There’s more than just coulda-woulda-shoulda with this collection, though. The simple fact is that Mana perfectly embodies the appeal and potential of the Switch. While the first Mana game (Final Fantasy Legend for Game Boy) lacked multiplayer hooks, both Secret of Mana and SD3 featured drop-in-drop-out cooperative action-RPG adventuring for up to three people at once. A system designed to make that possible anywhere is a perfect place to repackage these classics — especially if this serves as a trial balloon to see whether or not there might be interest in a new Mana game. And also, I get the impression Switch is pretty heavily targeted toward old and nostalgic gamer types, so this hits that core demographic, too.

Of course, if the collection doesn’t come west, the Switch does lack any sort of region locks, so we can always just import it. Hopefully it won’t come to that. Playing these games without English language wouldn’t be the ideal for these games; it’s certainly possible to bumble through, but SD3 in particular relies heavily on the nuance of its characters and their allegiances. In any case, I’ll be camping out at Square Enix’s front door every day until they finally relent and announce an American localization.

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No Virtual Console for Switch yet, but it’s full of old games anyway

With today’s weekly Nintendo eShop update push, the Switch’s library will pretty much consist of 50% old games by volume. This, despite the fact that Nintendo hasn’t said boo about Virtual Console. (Today’s sole Virtual Console release is Bomberman 64 for Wii U, which costs about 1/5 the price of Bomberman R and is, by all accounts, a lot more fun.)

Branding aside, though, Switch will be receiving a ridiculous number of Neo•Geo classics (and also some less-beloved Neo•Geo games) as part of SNK’s Arcade Classic Archives series. To wit:

  • Nam-1975
  • The King of Fighters ’98
  • Waku Waku 7
  • Metal Slug 3
  • World Heroes Perfect
  • Shock Troopers

Add to the list the not-technically-old-but-sure-as-heck-feels-it Blaster Master Zero by Inti Creates and friends, you have… well, if nothing else, you have some justification for my having mentally adopted Switch as the official current console of Retronauts. (There are plenty of great classics on PlayStation 4, of course, but if you put the two consoles into a centrifuge and spun them out, you’re going to get a much higher proportion of old stuff on Switch.)

There is, of course, the looming question of whether or not the emulation on these Neo•Geo games is any good. I suppose we’ll find out soon, though the images on Nintendo’s press site look a little iffy. The other looming question is, what precisely does the Arcade Classic Archives mean for Virtual Console? Some have speculated that ACA‘s quick launch means Nintendo will be abandoning the Virtual Console concept altogether, though I think it’s more likely a sign that whatever form VC takes on Switch, it’ll be limited again to Nintendo’s own consoles the way it was on Wii U. (Aside from those late TurboGrafx-16 arrivals, that is.) Every indication has been that Nintendo doesn’t exactly fall over itself to accommodate third-party platform holders on VC these days — the salad days of Wii VC long having come to an end — so even if there were a possibility of seeing Neo•Geo games on VC, it’s probably a lot less trouble in the end for SNK to simply handle its own games independently… especially since ACA already exists on PlayStation 4, making for relatively simple conversions, one hopes.

For the moment, my heart is set primarily on Blaster Master Zero, but I gotta say the hastily localized promo copy for the ACA releases on Nintendo’s press site has done much to pique my interest. I mean, look at this:

Beautiful. The true Neo•Geo experience.

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Blaster Master Zero looks way better than it has any right to

Yesterday, Nintendo hosted an event to show off a bunch of upcoming Switch games from independent studios, and I do mean a bunch. I wasn’t there to see it, since they had to go and show off their lineup before I made my way to Game Developers Conference. It’s a shame, because I kind of feel like this lineup was specifically constructed with my tastes and interests in mind.

One game in particular has especially caught my eye: Blaster Master Zero from Inti Creates. Just gaze upon this majesty:

Zero isn’t news, precisely; it was announced for 3DS and Wii U last year. This is the first time I’ve seen this much footage of it in a single spot, however, and the fact that it’s not only coming to Switch but will be doing so next week definitely qualifies as a Rad Development.

I admit to having been pretty unenthused about Zero until seeing this trailer. There have been quite a few attempts to re-bottle the lightning that was the original Blaster Master, and none of them have ever quite worked out. Inti Creates certainly has the chops to put together a game like this — the name Blaster Master Zero hints at the studio’s breakout title, Mega Man Zero — but the question is, do they get what made Blaster Master work?

It’s hard to say until I actually play the game (which will happen next week apparently!?), but everything in this trailer suggests they’ve sorted all their ducks into proper rows. The only real question is, will the returning top-down sections include the original game’s power-drain mechanic, wherein you lose offensive strength along with health any time you take damage? Honestly, that was one of the must punitive game design choices I’ve ever witnessed and turns the original Blaster Master into a brutal, borderline-unfair slog. It’s one of the very few NES games I owned back in the day but never managed to complete, ultimately sputtering out a couple of times against the second form of the final boss before abandoning all hope for the rest of eternity. Battletoads? Crushed it. Dracula’s Curse? Beat it with all three companions and Trevor solo. Every Mega Man? Cake. Life Force? One-life wins. Ninja Gaiden? Blasted through without a single continue. But Blaster Master… man, screw that game.

Assuming Inti Creates doesn’t go hardcore on this one (the prospects of which don’t fill me with optimism; the original Mega Man Zero‘s cyber-elf and ranking system beats out even Blaster Master‘s power drain mechanic for cruelty), this could be the game to finally give us the Blaster Master follow-up we’ve deserved for nearly 30 years. And I couldn’t be happier about that. Despite my frustration at never finishing the game, I found Blaster Master really fascinating; it even inspired me to create my own trading card series, MUTANTS, which was basically a bunch of weird monsters you’d have fought in the game… and also some dad jokes, decades before my time (incl. “Mario Poppins” and “Rambozo”). Seeing Blaster Master given what appears to be a proper treatment all these years later warms my heart.

Zero seems to take the elements of Blaster Master and recreate them in a bigger, more ridiculously bold fashion without succumbing to aesthetic mismatch. The game looks too good to have run on NES hardware, but Inti are pros and don’t do that awful thing you see in a lot of retro-inspired software in which you have NES-caliber elements combined with out-of-place high-resolution visual components. Instead, they’ve gone with a decidedly PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 look here: Better color depth and sprite detail than NES, but not quite at a Genesis or Super NES level. The color choices and heavy black outlining absolutely nail the PC Engine “look,” and aside from the smoothness of the animation, number of interactive elements being thrown around, and the widescreen layout, this really looks like a Blaster Master game you might have played on TurboGrafx circa 1991 right before NEC gave up on America.

Anyway, you can bet your sweet bippy there’ll be a review of the game here sometime soon. The game debuts on Switch next Thursday, March 9.

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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.

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