Tag Archives: virtual console

Virtual Console: Quality over quantity this week

The curious late-life trickle of Nintendo 64 titles arriving on Wii U continues this week with yet another worthwhile release that probably would have fared a lot better if it weren’t being overshadowed by Switch’s imminent arrival: Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber. It’s the only VC release today, but it’s such a meaty game that it would seem a little churlish to complain.

OB64, of course, hails from developer Quest — though not designer Yasumi Matsuno, as it post-dates his departure for Square to head up the Final Fantasy Tactics project. Despite his absence, it nevertheless feels like a true extension of the series: It boasts a complex story, with equally intricate systems lurking beneath a seemingly simple interface. As one of the very few role-playing games released for Nintendo 64, it commands a pretty penny these days, which makes its Wii U release a welcome sight. (It previously appeared on Wii Virtual Console, so while I haven’t checked to confirm, I’m fairly certain you should get a hefty discount if you own the older release and transferred your account to the newer console.)

Nintendo hasn’t given us any information on Switch accounts or Virtual Console, so who knows if this game will show up on the new console or if you’ll be able to transfer your Wii U license? In any case, it’s one worth playing, and owning it on Wii U is a lot easier on your pocketbook than hunting it down on eBay would be.

Oh, and conveniently enough, we discussed Ogre Battle briefly a few years back in Retronauts episode 16. So please have a listen as you prepare to FIGHT IT OUT.

Let us cling together as we discuss Yasumi Matsuno in Episode 16

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Virtual Console: (Culture) Brain dump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Virtual Console: Peak speed

Another Nintendo 64 release for Wii U Virtual Console this week: F-Zero X. This is getting to be a trend!

I admit it feels kind of weird to be writing about Wii U when we’re just a few hours from Nintendo’s Switch debut stream. But hey, lame ducks need love, too.

Nintendo seems to recognize it, too — more than a third of the Nintendo 64 games available on Wii U Virtual Console have been published within the past two months. Gotta get ’em out while there’s still a chance, I suppose; we don’t know much about Switch quite yet, but it definitely looks as though we shouldn’t expect any kind of continuity of software from Wii U to Switch. What that means for Virtual Console is anyone’s guess… but I’ll be pretty annoyed if they expect me to pony up full price for these games again.

Anyway, if this must be Wii U’s final burst of life we’re experiencing, at least it’s going out well. While I could take or leave some of the recent N64 titles to have shown up of late (Mario Party 2, I’m looking at you), I can’t really take issue with F-Zero X. It’s arguably the pinnacle of the series. And even if you don’t agree with that claim, at least we can recognize that it feels like the first proper realization of the F-Zero concept.

The original Super NES game was fun, for sure, and it made an impressive demonstration of the console’s shiny new tech. But it only offered a single-player experience against a handful of clone racers, and there was only so much those flat Mode 7 backgrounds could do to replicate a sprawling futuristic race track. The game’s designers pulled off some impressive fakery, but ultimately elements like the parts where you had to “jump” over “gaps” in the track fell short of the designers’ goals… much the same way that I always seem to fall short of the goal whenever I get to those track gaps.

By going full-polygonal, F-Zero X could present players with even more challenging tracks in a far more convincing fashion. Racing has always been one of the few genres to truly, objectively, universally benefit from advancements in hardware technology, and F-Zero X offers a perfect demonstration of that principle in action. F-Zero was fast, but it felt shallow and somewhat unconvincing; F-Zero X was even faster, while at the same time being far more immersive than its predecessor.

I won’t lie; I’ve never made it very far in F-Zero X. The racing action moves at an insanely fast clip, and unusually a for a first-party Nintendo production, it offers no apologies for its bracing difficulty level. I sometimes wonder if that’s why F-Zero has vanished from the map these past 10 years or so. “Unrepentantly challenging” is something Nintendo doesn’t really do any more, preferring instead a more accessible and forgiving approach to game design; yet challenge defines F-Zero at the genetic level. Perhaps the contradiction there accounts for why we haven’t seen an F-Zero since the advent of the kinder, gentler Wii and DS age of Nintendo… and, who knows? Maybe today’s Virtual Console release presages something to be announced tonight.

(I kinda doubt it, though.)

Image sources: IGN.com and NeoGAF.com

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Virtual Console: Pokémon Snap and the Wii U’s most tragic missed opportunity

Yesterday, Nintendo published a single Virtual Console game for the U.S.: Pokémon Snap. A Nintendo 64 release on Wii U, Pokémon Snap happens to be one of those games that’s so entertaining and beloved that it seems downright churlish to complain about the fact that Virtual Console releases have slowed to a trickle versus a decade ago. Sure, it’s just one game this week — but that game is Pokémon Snap. Right?

OK, I’ll cop to it: I don’t really care that much about Pokémon Snap. I didn’t really cotton to the Pokémon series in general until it hit DS — largely because the series demands a platform that allows you to set it down and suspend your action at any time by simply closing the lid — so Snap predates my involvement with the games by several years. However, I also recognize that a lot of people love Snap, to the point that it almost certainly holds the title of “most popular Pokémon spinoff ever.”

It’s a charming little game, really. It’s essentially a rail-based shooter… well, no, it’s literally a rail-based shooter. The game consists of riding along a rail in a safari mine cart or something, but because you’re “shooting” at adorable and highly merchandisable little pocket monsters you shoot with a camera rather than a gun. The challenge then becomes not to kill things as efficiently as possible but rather to capture the most interesting, most unusual, and best-framed pictures of pokémon that you can. The idea wasn’t invented whole-cloth here; it had precedent in a quirky import-only PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 game called Gekisha Boy, which involved the same photo challenge concept as Snap but with rubbery hand-drawn 2D sprites and a decidedly tawdry sense of humor that definitely didn’t make its way over to PokémonSnap, however, turned the whole thing into an immersive virtual safari, so by no means was it some callow Gekisha Boy ripoff. It had its own vibe, its own appeal — yes, even beyond the inclusion of Nintendo’s collectable little creatures.

It sold like gangbusters, and it’s held on to fans’ affections for the better part of two decades. Yet, somehow, they never quite got around to following up on Pokémon Snap. Despite the sheer number of games to have shipped in the past 20 years bearing the Pokémon name, none of them have borne the name Pokémon Snap 2.

According to an interview conducted within the past couple of years — apologies that I can’t seem to find the link to it — the stewards of Pokémon have plainly stated that they don’t want to create a direct sequel to Snap, because they don’t want to simply retread the same material. I personally find that claim a little fishy, given how many indistinguishable sequels they’ve made to Pokémon Ranger and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, but whatever. The thing is, they didn’t have to create a same-y sequel; the Wii U absolutely begs to have its own custom-made Snap follow-up. The game practically designs itself: Stick to the same on-rails movement, but incorporate the Wii U Game Pad’s gyro sensor to create more of an augmented-reality experience for peering around and aiming the camera. This seems like even more of a no-brainer now that we have Pokémon Go to demonstrate just how gloriously Pokémon and AR work together, and it’s honestly bewildering (even for someone like me, who doesn’t particularly care about Snap) that it was Go rather than a Snap sequel that took the franchise into the AR space.

Instead, we simply have the original Snap on Wii U now. I suppose that’s fine and all, but it comes off as a something of a taunt — a reminder of the conceptually perfect sequel they never got around to creating. So go ahead and download the original for that nostalgic dopamine hit you so desperately need, if you must. But don’t think too hard about how incredible a Pokémon Snap for Switch would be. The more you want it, the less likely you are to ever see it happen. You can’t spell “Nintendo games” without “n-e-g,” after all.

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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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Virtual Chronicles: Is this real life?

I write this with the greatest reluctance for fear that by drawing attention to the phenomenon I will shatter whatever gossamer thread of magic binds it to our grey reality, but: Nintendo has finally started to do this whole Virtual Console thing right. At least for the past couple of weeks. And it only took six and a half years to get here.

I know this is a fleeting moment that can’t possibly last, so I urge you to savor it while you can.

In the past two weeks, between 3DS and Wii U Virtual Console, we’ve seen two Zelda games, all three 16-bit Kirbys, the sublime Mega Man X, and (alas) the NES port of Ghosts ‘N Goblins. This of course explains why it has to be fleeting: Top-flight old games exist in finite quantities. At some point, much like fossil fuels, we’ll run out of this nonrenewable resource.

130530-gng

I’m never going to beat this game, and I’m OK with that.

Really, though, the truly encouraging part about all of this isn’t the fact that Nintendo is dumping a bunch of great games on us all at once rather than doling them out over the course of six or seven months as they would have done over the past few years. No, it’s the sale model they’re using.

Now, you can certainly argue that they’re charging entirely too much for a lot of these games — they’ve kept the Wii VC pricing model, despite the fact that since the Wii debuted the entire model of digital distribution pricing has fundamentally shifted downward in response to things like Steam sales, Humble Bundles, and mobile phone/free-to-play software in general. Then again, as excited as people are getting over MMX and the Zelda Oracles games, you can argue that they don’t need to race to the bottom. After all, demand drives price, and Nintendo has ownership or stewardship of a lot of games people demand.

Despite their adherence to the dreamy utopia of 2006 digital distribution prices, though, Nintendo is flinching ever-so-slightly by putting together its own take on sale bundles with week-long buy-one-get-one-half-price package deals. Last week, this manifested in the form of giving customers who bought two of the Kirby games the third one for free; this week, Ghosts ‘N Goblins is half-off if you buy Mega Man X. (It doesn’t work the other way around, unfortunately — that whole “equal or lesser price” restriction happens with digital distribution just like it does at the grocery store.) Edit: Actually, it does work the other way around. But who’s going to think to buy G’nG first when Mega Man X is on offer, too?

Baby steps, perhaps, but nice to see regardless, especially as it potentially portends a few things. One, if Nintendo wants to keep it up — admittedly, there’s no guarantee of this — they need to release at least two games per sale in order to be able to offer one at a discount. Secondly, they’ve even been kind enough to extend this offer to people who have transferred their Wii VC licenses over to Wii U, meaning that instead of paying a dollar to download G’nG, we only have to pay 50 cents. It’s easy to be sarcastic about that, but honestly it’s such a pittance they could have easily just shrugged and said, “You guys are getting a break already,” and I don’t think anyone would have felt cheated; they didn’t, though, which was downright decent of them.

Third, and most importantly, this week’s sale extends to third-party software, meaning there’s some slim hope of seeing more sales like this once Nintendo’s well of first-party hits has run dry. Assuming any third parties besides Sega and Capcom (the two port whores, ever eager to peddle their archives on any and every platform available) are still on-board with the whole Virtual Console thing, of course. Let’s say they are, though. What would be the ideal third-party Virtual Console bundles? A 3-for-2 on both the 8- and 16-bit Castlevanias comes immediately to mind (especially since Bloodlines still hasn’t made it to VC in any form), but I’d also be down with a Sonic 3/Sonic & Knuckles twofer, a Tecmo three-pack featuring Mighty Bomb Jack, Tecmo Bowl, and NES Rygar (which, again, never made it to VC). At the pipe dream level, a Secret of Mana/Secret of Evermore combo pack would be great (heck, slap a fan translation of Seiken Densetsu 3 in there for good measure). Or how about extending the sales to 3DS eShop and bundling all three Final Fantasy Legends together?

No, no, wait, I’ve got it. Since they’ve announced Game Boy Advance for Wii U Virtual Console, they should roll up EarthBound with an official dump of the EarthBound Zero ROM and the unreleased official translation of Mother 3 (come on, you know it exists somewhere). Yep.

That’s the magic of this whole thing: Even when Nintendo gets it right, we’re all spoiled and demanding enough to ruin the occasion for ourselves with our unrealistic expectations. So much for savoring the moment.

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It’s time for Virtual Chronicles

Retronauts has a long history of being very grumpy about Virtual Console and other classic game rerelease platforms. We have, shall we say, a philosophical disagreement with Nintendo (and other platform holders) about how game history should be preserved and commoditized. They say “slow-feed a la carte drip at premium prices,” we say “exhaustive catalog similar to iTunes.”

Some traditions are worth keeping alive, which is why I’m kicking off Virtual Chronicles: An ongoing look at Virtual Console, PSN, Good Old Games, and whatever other means by which companies try to sell us old games yet again. In light of Nintendo’s recent addition of VC to the Wii U system, it all seems almost relevant again.

Honestly, while I’m not crazy about the glacial pace at which the Wii U VC is already proceeding, I do think the new system is probably the most interesting thing to happen to reissued games in a long time. Yes, games are distorted and fuzzy on the GamePad’s screen; yes, it’s infuriating that all the VC games we bought on Wii have to be played through the Wii emulation shell rather than as native apps until they show up on the Wii U shop. Nevertheless, I’m all in favor of the Wii U Virtual Console… and I really hope the system bucks its downward momentum and manages to stick around long enough to deliver on its potential.

Wii U’s game changer, not surprisingly, is the Miiverse integration that comes part and parcel of every game that launches on the system, including VC releases. You might even be able to convince me that Miiverse integration makes the agonizing trickle of VC rereleases worth the wait.

Sure, Miiverse is basically just an integrated message board built into the system… but that’s OK. The addition of Miiverse to these games suddenly makes them social in a way that even Let’s Plays can’t accomplish: Videos are a broadcast, but Miiverse creates a conversation. People get to brag about their accomplishments, lament the tough parts, show off their scores, gush about their favorite parts, show off weird glitches, and more. For people like me, who take any excuse to draw dumb doodles, it provides a welcome excuse to do precisely that —

megaman1-cutman megaman1-elecman megaman1-bombman megaman1-gutsman megaman1-iceman

— which has helped turn my umpteenth playthrough of Mega Man into a different experience than I’ve ever had with the game. Anything that can freshen up a game you’ve been playing for 25 years and know inside and out has to be doing something right.

Of course, you can do these things on any forum, but the fact that this feature is integrated into each game and allows instant screenshot posts makes Miiverse by far the most convenient and most centralized format for this kind of socialization. I also find the level of haughty arrogance on Miiverse to be considerably lower than on most classic gaming-oriented social venues; people are goofing around and sharing their amusement with very little pretense, and it’s a nice change of pace from the usual Internet snark.

It’s a shame people are being slammed for using Miiverse the way it’s intended by people who apparently have forgotten that we all start our gaming careers as fairly clueless individuals. Gaming communities have evolved over the years from small knots of kids sharing secrets in the school yard or after church (or whatever) into a decentralized network of tuned-in players. Where some laugh mockingly at the “Y KANT METROID CRAWL” meme, I think it’s fantastic. I remember being baffled by games occasionally (e.g. the completely undocumented second menu of adventure scene items you need to access to complete The Goonies II) and back in the day hitting that kind of wall meant you’d have to cool your heels for months or hope you got lucky and stumble into an answer. Now, you can simply suck up your pride and ask for help from people who are playing the game alongside you. I can think of plenty of times Miiverse would have come in handy during the 8- and 16-bit era….

Plus, “Y KANT METROID CRAWL” prompted me to give the album Y KAN’T TORI READ for the first time in 15 years, and you know? Some of those songs are pretty good. So consider this a double victory for Miiverse.

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