Retro Gaming

Actively Retro

It’s been semi-scandalous ’round some parts that Nintendo has yet to reveal or talk about the future of its Virtual Console service for the Switch. Virtual Console, as anyone reading this blog probably knows, is the fancy brand name Nintendo came up with ten years ago for the downloadable emulated versions of classic games from their vast library, spanning 30+ years. Every Nintendo console aside from the Virtual Boy, the GameCube, the Wii U, and the 3DS has been represented in some form on the Virtual Console, which over time grew to include games from the early SEGA consoles and the NEC TurboGrafx 16. Virtual Console was a huge selling point in the history of the Wii, and slightly less of a selling point on the 3DS, and petered out on the Wii U by the end.. though, frankly, what didn’t?

The general assumption is that Virtual Console is going to eventually show up on the Switch, and that may be the case… but it may not. Nintendo just recently announced more details about their online service, launching in 2018, and as part of that service select Nintendo classics will be made available to subscribers, all with added online functionality. These “Classic” games are not technically part of Virtual Console; VC has always been straight emulations of game code, with some very few exceptions (the Virtual Console version of Duck Hunt, for example, needed to be reworked; the game as programmed worked only on old CRT televisions.)

The longer we go without hearing about the Virtual Console, the more dubious I am that it’s ever going to show up. I don’t believe Nintendo will every stop trying to make money off of its enormous library of past hits, but I wonder if they feel they’ve carried the a’la carte method of charging $5 for Super Mario Bros. 2, again, as far as it can go.

Irregardless of what happens with the VC, one of the fascinating early trends of the Switch is just how anachronistic this brand new style of gaming platform is. In a time where gaming is a global, online experience, and companies like SONY are running towards isolated VR experiences, Nintendo’s Switch doubles-down on the one thing nobody else offers: console-quality local multiplayer on-the-go. Nintendo is betting that people still like playing games together on the same screen in the same room, and so far that bet appears to be paying off. It’s a new-idea system offering a throwback experience, and it works.

An inadvertent (or maybe conscious) side effect of this is that the Switch lends itself to a throwback experience, and the indie developers who are fleshing out the early days of the Switch library between major Nintendo releases have cooked up some decidedly throwback pieces of software to go with it. The result: even with the Virtual Console nowhere to be found, the Switch feels like a paean to the golden era of gaming.

Consider some of the early Switch titles: right on launch day, if you managed to look past Breath of the Wild for a few minutes, you’d see Fast RMX, an ode to F-Zero if every there’d been one, I Am Setsuna, a Secret of Mana-esque RPG from Square/Enix’s Tokyo RPG Factory, the Shovel Knight trilogy of games AKA the best NES games never made, and Bomberman, of all things. The old-skool hits went right on rolling thanks to Hamster Corporation, who have been drip-feeding us ports of classic Neo-Geo games since week 2 of Switch’s lifespan; Metal Slug and King of Fighters are just two of the all-time greats that have found new life on Switch.

Further on we saw the release of Graceful Explosion Machine, which plays a lot like an R-Type/Stinger homage, a Wonder Boy Master System remake, freaking Tetris, the NBA Jam/NBA Street reminiscent NBA Playgrounds, and, of course, Street Fighter 2. Mix in with that all-time classic franchises Mario Kart and Minecraft, and then glance down the road and see a new 16-bit style Sonic game, a cover version of 2D Castlevania games going by the name of Bloodstained, the Nintendo-hard 8-bit-ish platform 1,001 Spikes, and the critically acclaimed love song to Metroid, Axiom Verge.

The list grows, and will continue to grow. Retro gaming is not a new trend, of course, and the Switch is far from the only place where you can get your retro fix. There is a perfect storm going on with the Switch, though: a brand-new console pushed out the door arguably two or three quarters too soon (Wii U was dead and Nintendo wasn’t about to put Breath of the Wild on a kaput system) from a company still trying to rebuild trust with AAA 3rd party developers has led to Nintendo adopting a strategy of finding quality indie developers who came of age on the NES and SNES and are making cheaper games reminiscent of the ones they loved when they started gaming.

E3 is next week. Front and center will be Nintendo’s own retro showcase, the Mario 64-inspired Super Mario Odyssey. It remains to be seen, however, if the Virtual Console will finally make its Switch debut on the E3 stage. Even if it doesn’t, and you find yourself hankering for a retro gaming fix? Don’t worry; the Switch has got you covered.

It would also be nice to hear what Retro is up to.

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High NEScores

Nostalgia is big business in music. It’s why the Rolling Stones can still sell out stadiums, why “Beatles Cover Band” is a profitable occupation, and it’s why Cheap Trick is still on tour.

Remember Cheap Trick?

Music sticks with us as we grow older, and a song from our youth is one of the few forces in the universe that can, ever so briefly, turn back the hands of time and make us feel young again.

Now: I didn’t really like pop music as a kid. It wasn’t a hipster thing; I just didn’t have much taste. On the other hand, I’ve seen The Symphony of the Goddesses at Madison Square Garden and scored a production I directed of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with remixes of old Final Fantasy tunes hand-picked off of OC Remix. Why did I do those things?

Because old-skool 8-bit NES soundtracks were fresh as hell. Here’s the ten best.

10. Blaster Master (Composer: Naoki Kodaka) – If you played Blaster Master as a kid, and you drive, you’ve either hummed the opening warm-up riff that accompanied Sophia 3rd’s initial blast-off into Level 1 while turning your car’s ignition key, or you’re lying. Sunsoft games back in the day were known for having tricked out soundtracks, and Blaster Master had the best of them. The first half of the game had stronger music than the second half, it’s true… but since the game was freaking impossible (SHUT UP IT WAS) that’s all anyone ever heard, so it worked out.

9. Super Mario Bros. (Composer: Koji Kondo– Millions of thirty and forty-somethings around the world can hum every single piece of music from Super Mario Bros., and not just because Nintendo has re-released the game on pretty much every console they’ve made since. Crafted by legendary in-house composer Koji Kondo, the score to Super Mario Bros. might well be the perfect video game score: catchy and loopable without being annoying (except maybe the castle levels), and better in MIDI form than when played by a full orchestra (although a jazz trio can do wonders with it.) Why so low on this list, then? Maybe it’s repetition; I’ve heard it so often over the years it just doesn’t seem special anymore. Probably, though, because it’s so utilitarian: it’s more practical than it is beautiful. Still, why every 2D Mario game doesn’t use the original 1-1 music for its opening level is beyond me.

8. Punch-Out!! (Composers: Yukio Kaneoka, Akito NakatsukaKenji Yamamoto) – Recently on Nintendo Voice Chat, IGN’s excellent Nintendo podcast, in a discussion about (what else) Breath of the Wild, the show’s hosts mentioned a moment in the game’s wonderful score they particularly enjoyed: when the player defeats a Stone Talus, the mini-boss’ battle theme quickly shifts into a victory motif that incorporates the explosion of the enemy into the score itself. The crew on NVC rightly pointed out that this is no mean feat to accomplish. What they didn’t mention is that it’s a trick that appeared prominently in a Nintendo-published title thirty years earlier: Punch-Out!! Punch-Out!!‘s score is simple: a title theme, a fight theme, a jogging theme, and other bits of incidental music. They’re all great ditties in their own right, but when the game’s hero, Little Mac, gets knocked down by one of his towering opponents, the game’s soundtrack shifts seamlessly into a distress-inducing knockout theme, and by the way, it does the same with a much more hopeful piece of music when Mac knocks down one of said opponents. Punch-Out!!: beating Breath of the Wild to the punch by three decades.

7. Mother (Composers: Keiichi Suzuki, Hirokazu Tanaka) – Here are the genres of music you can find represented on the 8-bit soundtrack of the RPG classic Mother: Rockabilly, Jazz, Gothic, Gothic Funk, New Age, Metal, Industrial, Orchestral, Electronica, Bubblegum, Pop, Alt-Rock, Avant-garde, Japanese traditional, Blues, Medieval, Easy-listening contemporary, Ethereal, Ambient, Novelty, R&B, and Baroque. Here, just listen to all of them.

6. Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link (Composer: Akito Nakatsuka)The Legend of Zelda introduced the Zelda series main theme, composed by Koji Kondo, and it is one of the most iconic and enduring pieces of video game music ever written. That first game also included one or two other tunes that were mostly forgettable; its dungeon theme, though iconic in its own right, is one of the most grating pieces of video game music ever created. But Zelda 2, the much-reviled red headed stepchild of the Legend of Zelda franchise, has a score that begins with a warbling, ethereal title tune and transitions into an overworld track inspired by the franchise’s main theme. Along the course of your adventure you’ll be introduced to the excellent pieces of original music that accompany overworld combat, spelunking, town visits, and the game’s final dungeon. Best of all, in the game’s first six palaces, the player is treated to the track that eventually became everyone’s favorite Smash Bros song. Zelda 2 may not have been a better game than The Legend of Zelda… okay, it definitely wasn’t… but in terms of music, the sequel has it all over its older brother.

5. Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest (Composers: Kenichi Matsubara, Satoe Terashima, Kouji Murata) – We could arguably put the whole Castlevania series on this list, but as great as “Vampire Killer” from Castlevania and “Beginning” from Castlevania 3 are, the all-around strongest score in the franchise’s early days is from the most all-around inscrutable game of the entire series, the you-can’t-beat-this-without-a-guide-but-go-ahead-and-keep-trying Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. One of the first major adventure games to introduce a day-to-night enemy cycle, Simon’s Quest had two distinct overworld themes based on time of day and enemy toughness: “Bloody Tears” and “Monster Dance”. The best track in the game, for my money, is “Dwelling of Doom“, the tune that plays in each of the game’s dungeons. So while you may not… okay, will not… be able to beat Simon’s Quest without a walkthrough, at least it’ll sound terrific underneath your screams of frustrated rage.

4. Mega Man 2 (Composer: Takashi Tateishi) – There’s 50 games under the Mega Man brand, so it’s kind of a shame that the best game in the entire franchise was the second one. What IS nice is that the series’ best game has one of the NES’ best scores. Mega Man 2 opens with a musical preamble and scroll up a building to a helmet-less Mega Man, followed by a transition into the game’s driving title theme, a bit of cinematic flair that is dirt simple by today’s video game industry standards but that in 1989 blew my twelve year-old mind. The eight robot master stages and the boss fight theme are all also standouts of MIDI, but the real bookend to the excellent opening track is “Dr. Wily’s Castle“, the first of two tracks that are used as the background music for, well, Dr. Wily’s castle. If you’re interested, at least twenty hard guitar covers of that one are on iTunes right this second. Enjoy!

3. Final Fantasy (Composer: Nobuo Uematsu) – If there’s a video game composer whose legend rivals that of Koji Kondo, it is doubtlessly Nobuo Uematsu, the man behind three decades of music for the granddaddy of all RPG series: Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy was the 8-bit swords and sorcery game of J.R.R. Tolkien’s or George R.R. Martin’s dreams, and the score includes multiple compositions and themes that would become evergreen editions to the Final Fantasy franchise. Fantastic mood-setting fantasy music accompanies overworld travel, combat, dungeon crawling, and town visits, but the game’s soundtrack truly makes its mark in the piece that would become synonymous with Final Fantasy itself. (Not the “Chocobo Theme”; those giant chickens didn’t show up until Final Fantasy II.) The greatest high fantasy game to grace the NES does not open with a fanfare and crash of thunder, but with the crystalline and meditative “Prelude“, an almost reverential piece of music that belies the grandeur and scope of the adventure it precedes.

2. Double Dragon (Composer: Kazunaka Yamane) – This might be cheating. Double Dragon was an arcade hit that was then ported over to seemingly every home video game console of the day, and then continued being ported to the video game consoles of every other day. Point being, the score to Double Dragon is arguably not a NES score. Like the game itself, the music for the arcade was re-orchestrated (so far as MIDI files can be re-orchestrated) to fit the technical specifications of the NES. But… Double Dragon‘s soundtrack is one knockout blow after another (heh heh), the perfect beat-’em-up, chopsocky, 1980’s B-grade Kung Fu movie soundtrack. Faux-“Oriental” motifs mix with wailing synthetic guitar riffs in what might be the single must crunchable video game soundtrack you can shred on with your hair metal tribute band. I don’t know if I’ve used any of those terms properly, but check this out if you want an example of just how righteous the Double Dragon soundtrack can be.

1. Metroid (Composer: Hirokazu Tanaka) – If it were somehow possible to convert claustrophobia, depression, and loneliness into musical notes, the resulting composition would probably sound a lot like the Metroid soundtrack. While until this point in popular culture sci-fi adventure came packaged alongside pulsing electronica, Star Wars-style orchestral accompaniment, or the ominous humming of the 1950’s take on the genre, Metroid (partially due to technical limitations) took a different approach: using music to constantly remind players that they were lost deep within the caverns of an alien world and likely would not get out alive. The game greeted players with a discordant, droning title theme interspersed with high-pitched alien-sounding chimes, and opened up with the one up-tempo action cue it would offer. That track, “Brinstar”, was a fake-out, for the further the player guided heroine Samus Aran into the depths of Zebes, the grimmer and more hopeless the soundtrack became. Even the tune that greeted Samus in the chambers that hid weapons upgrade seemed to be singing, “You. Will. Soon. Die… This. Will. Not. Help. Much.” You know what? Here’s the entire Metroid soundtrack. You can have a listen, but be sure to have your therapist on speed dial.

0. Silver Surfer (Composer: Tim Follin, Geoff Follin) – I’mma credit my man Johnny Womack of the pop culture/video game/pro rasslin’ podcast Happy Hour with Johnny & the Duce for reminding me of this gem. The thing about Silver Surfer is that it’s not a particularly bad game. It’s just not a particular good one, either. It’s completely forgettable, not to mention balls-out impossible. But. BUT. Listen to this soundtrack. It’s well known among the small circles who know such things that the soundtrack to Silver Surfer for the NES is apeshit banana-pants. Although it is admittedly on the short side, music this good shouldn’t be doomed to live alongside a game this mediocre. I mean, could the NES even MAKE sounds like this? Was that a thing it could do? Maybe Silver Surfer was so “meh” because they used all of the game’s memory to record the unbelievable epicness that is its soundtrack for all of history to enjoy.

Or maybe Silver Surfer is a terrible character who doesn’t deserve a game better than this. Still, seriously: listen to this soundtrack, and prepare to have your face melted.

(Cover image original link.)

Majora-ly Conflicted

Do you like fetch quests, backtracking, and rehashed resources? If so, have I got the Zelda game for you!

Okay, that’s a bit unfair. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the 6th installment in the Zelda series, is well-regarded as one of the many high points in the franchise’s history, appearing on many Top 10 and Top 5 Zelda lists, earning praise for its dark, apocalyptic story and spins on the formula established in Ocarina of Time.

I recently returned to Majora’s Mask for the first time since its initial release for the Nintendo 64 back in 2000. I finally played through the remade Majora’s Mask 3D for the Nintendo 3DS, and my experience left me of two minds. Truth told, my memory of playing Majora’s Mask was fuzzy, nowhere near as prevalent as my memory of the landmark Ocarina of Time. And while Majora’s Mask was a technological step up from Ocarina (back in the day it required the N64’s RAM expansion pack due to updates to the Ocarina engine) and the game played with some very advanced themes and complex world design, Majora’s Mask is nevertheless a fundamentally flawed game… though one peppered with greatness. Let’s ping-pong back and forth between the bad and the good, shall we?

The Bad: A Three Day Cycle

The central design element of Majora’s Mask is its three-day cycle. The game takes place in the land of Termina, where three days after Link’s mysterious arrival an extinction-level event is going to occur; namely, the land’s ghastly, grinning moon is being pulled from orbit by the Majora’s Mask-wearing Skull Kid (the weird guy in the woods in Ocarina of Time who challenged Link to a flute-off). At the end of the first three days of the game, Link confronts Skull Kid only to find he’s not powerful enough to defeat him yet. So, using his Ocarina of Time, Link turns the clock back three days, returning to the moment he arrived in Termina and giving himself another three day window in which to figure out how to defeat Skull Kid.

The three day cycle is well-implemented, and it’s initially fun to watch Termina’s inhabitants move through their final three days exactly the same each and every time you travel back to Day One. Although the trip back resets the world, Link has many markers that stay consistent: he loses all of his exhaustible items in his inventory but the rest remain, as well as all of the hearts he’s acquired and the various masks he’s obtained (more on them in a bit). Still, the world resetting leads to unavoidable repetition. You will find yourself tackling the game’s four dungeons more than once, and if you don’t clear a dungeon within the constraints of the three day cycle? Sorry, you have to start all over; hope you like finding keys and fighting mini-bosses again. Not only that, but defeating the various dungeon bosses results in environmental changes in the overworld that are necessary in order to clear many of the game’s multitude of side quests, and you’ll find yourself trekking back to the swamp dungeon or mountain dungeon more than once after clearing them in order to re-battle the boss so you can re-decontaminate the swamp or bring about spring, again. Thankfully…

The Good: Boss Battles

Majora’s Mask has some of the best boss battles in the entire franchise, and the remake for the Nintendo 3DS only improves upon them via both mechanical and aesthetic upgrades. Each of the four dungeon bosses now share a graphical commonality that connects them in the game’s narrative: do enough damage to them and you will expose a giant Eye of Majora which must be defeated in order to finish the job. Each fight makes use of one of the transformative masks Link acquires through the game, masks that turn him into a wooden Deku Scrub, a rock-eating Goron, a speed swimming Zora, and a stomping giant. Each form has their own unique fighting style and their respective bosses have been designed to be susceptible to the move-set of the mask, resulting in end-of-dungeon clashes that demand strategies unique from the standard Zelda combat system of guard, hack, arrow, slash. The mechanical bull at the end of the second dungeon, Goht, is a Top 5 Zelda boss battle, requiring you to roll at high speed alongside him as a Goron and cannonball into him off of ramps. The dungeon bosses are so great, it’s a shame that…

The Bad: The Final Boss

… the final battle against the cursed Majora’s Mask itself is so anti-climactic.

To clarify: the battle is only anti-climactic if you’ve found every mask in the game and exchanged them for the Fierce Deity mask, a mask that turns Link into a literal god, a towering, tattooed superhero who can shoot lasers from his sword. I’ve never actually fought Majora’s Mask as plain old Link, so perhaps Link vs. Majora’s Mask is a battle worthy of a Zelda endgame. But as the Fierce Deity? The fight is over in just several button-spamming seconds. And most players had that Fierce Deity mask, because one of the best parts of the game was…

The Good: The Masks

… collecting all of the masks. In a franchise where far too many treasure chests are chock full of nearly useless rupees and Heart Container pieces, Majora’s Mask features the best collectibles in all of Zelda: 24 unique masks, each of which Link can wear, and each of which carry their own unique ability or effect. Some just trigger new branches of dialogue trees, but aside from the fully transformative Deku, Goron, and Zora disguises, a handful of the masks carry with them such near-game breaking uses as: making Link invisible to enemies, acting as a detector and magnet for the collectible Stray Fairies in each dungeon, or doubling Link’s running speed. Yes, the speed-granting Bunny Hood meant most players fought their way through Majora’s Mask with a hero who almost always wore cute bunny ears, but those bunny ears were vitally important, because…

The Bad: Fetch Quests

… you’ll find yourself running all over and around Termina, as a good 50% of Majora’s gameplay is focused on the side quests and errands Link runs for the people of Termina. And, look: if you’re someone who loves the part of Zelda games where you interact with all the weirdo Hylians, bully for you. You’re gonna love this game. That just happens to be my LEAST favorite part of the franchise, and I admittedly found those sections of Majora’s Mask to be in-Termina-ble. (Heh-heh.) Fortunately, the character interactions outside of the combat portion of Majora’s Mask are strengthened by…

The Good: The Story

… the game’s cataclysmic tale of loss and acceptance. The entire game works as a metaphor for death and the grief process. It’s almost Braid-like (pre-Braid), interacting with the citizenry of a world on the brink of destruction. Some of the strongest atmosphere in the Zelda franchise is built into the story of Majora’s Mask: the pastoral pleasantness of Termina on Day One turns dreary with Day Two’s rains and then positively foreboding as the sky turns blood red and the horror-movie grimace of the moon looms down on Day Three. Even the music of Termina’s capital, Clocktown, changes over the course of the three days from chippy and busy to atonal and frenetic. Same tune, different urgency. Hey, the apocalypse makes for some good fiction; always has, always will. Unfortunately…

The Bad: The Story

… this is not Link’s story. He is a stranger in a strange land, an observer as much as anything else to Termina’s tale, and he is in a constant loop of solving other people’s problems. Storytelling 101: make sure your audience is invested in the journey of the hero. In Majora’s Mask, though, Link really has no real personal journey or story arc. He only wants to get back to Hyrule so he can continue searching for his lost fairy, Navi, and the only way he can do that is by jostling awake the possessed Skull Kid… and even THAT storyline is barely worth engaging with. But: if the story isn’t about the hero and is instead about the world around him, then at least…

The Good: The World

… the world is a fun place to explore. Termina is more compact than Ocarina‘s Hyrule, but it’s teeming with life. The enemies in Termina Field and its surrounding provinces are more varied than in Ocarina‘s Hyrule Field, and there are separate, populated enclaves of Gorons, Zoras, Dekus, and the undead that are well-conceived and well-written. Termina is, thankfully, an interesting place to visit. Unfortunately…

The Bad: Rehashed Game Elements

… if you’ve played Ocarina of Time (and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?) you may feel as though you’ve been there before. Majora’s Mask was quick-developed in a very un-Nintendo style. It served as an experiment by the Big N to see if they could turn out new games in their favorite franchises in short order, using elements designed for earlier games. So the citizenry of Termina look suspiciously (read: exactly) like the citizenry or Hyrule, for the most part, and the same could be said of many of the enemies you find in Termina’s underworld and overworld alike. Still, the dungeon designs are all-new and mostly great, and tweaks to the gameplay, namely the mask transformations and time travel, go a long way to differentiate Majora’s from Ocarina, graphical similarities aside. Which means, as you’d expect…

The Good: It’s Still Zelda

Majora’s Mask is still a more than representative entry into maybe the most storied franchise in gaming history. There is too much good in Majora’s for even its most hardened critic (me, likely) to call it a bad game; a game that spins-off lots of what worked in the all-time classic Ocarina of Time must be doing something right, after all. So even though I found myself going back and forth between annoyed and elated as I played through Majora’s Mask for the second (and probably last) time in my life, if you’ve never played it before you probably should.

After all, it’s still The Legend of Zelda.

The Metroid Dilemma

I’ll start with this: Super Metroid is one of my all-time favorite games. It’s part of the “Trifecta of Perfection” from the SNES days along with Super Mario World and A Link to the Past. I’m not alone in my opinion. Metroid is a fan-favorite Nintendo franchise, and a big part of the appeal of the original game came from the sparse nature of its world and soundtrack, both held back by the hardware limitations of the original NES. It was a sprawling open-world adventure before that was even a thing.

Mario and Link and Samus Aran: they were the original Nintendo Big 3. Samus, though, has arguably since been overtaken in Nintendo’s hierarchy of characters by the likes of Pikachu and Kirby, two later-era Nintendo megastars whose franchises get new titles far more frequently than does that of Metroid‘s femme fatale. The last Metroid game was the poorly-received Metroid: Other M for the Wii in 2010. Prior to that, in 2009, the remastered Metroid Prime Trilogy was released for the Wii, but the last really well-regarded Metroid title in new release was Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, also for the Wii… in 2007. That’s right, almost a full ten years ago.

While it appears Wii U will come and go without every being graced by the Metroid franchise, the latest game in the series is due out this August on the Nintendo 3DS. It’s a multiplayer shooter game called Metroid Prime: Federation Force, far from the traditional isolated adventure style of gameplay the franchise is known for, and let’s just say Metroid fans are… less than enthused. Calls for its cancellation, petitions against it, accusations of ruined childhoods… you know, all the usual responses when superfans unite against a product. Never mind that Federation Force is being produced by Kensuke Tanabe, who produced every other installment of the much-beloved Metroid Prime series. Never mind that Tanabe-san has been quoted repeatedly as saying this is the Metroid game he’s been wanting to make for awhile. Never mind that the developers behind the title are the generally well-regarded Next Level Games (who made one of my favorite 3DS games, Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon). Fans are aghast: this is NOT the Metroid game for which they’ve been clamoring.

And they have a point. While new Zelda and Mario and Kirby games, spin-offs or otherwise, seem to pop up every year, Metroid is the tree from which the fruit is rarely offered. Nine years between proper installments of a cornerstone franchise (remember, nobody counts Other M as a “proper” installment) is a long time. So what’s the problem, Nintendo? Why are you hating so hard on Metroid?

The answer is probably easier than you’d think: Metroid games are big, sprawling, graphically demanding adventure titles that take time, resources, and money to make, and the truth of the matter is they just don’t sell that well. The best selling Metroid of all time is Metroid Prime, which moved approximately 2.82 million units*, making it and the original Metroid the only games in the series to break 2 million units sold. 2 million units is nothing to sneeze at, of course, but what does it say that the three series entries released on the Wii (Other M, Metroid Prime 3, and Metroid Prime Trilogy) cleared 1.63, 1.11, and .65 million units, respectively, on a console that sold over 100 million units? That is a woeful attach rate (the percentage of owners of an individual console who own a particular piece of software for said console.)

Now compare this to a few other Nintendo big-money franchises. The Legend of Zelda series saw only one game in its entire franchise history come in below 3 million units moved: Four Swords, which only moved about .65 million units. The next lowest series sales figure was Skyward Sword at 3.31 million units, and most Zelda titles have averaged between 4 and 8 million units moved.

Then there’s Super Mario Kart, a franchise that at its worst moved 5.47 million units (Mario Kart: Super Circuit on the GBA) and at its best moved a whopping 32.01 million units (Mario Kart Wii). Do you WANT to talk about Pokemon, which moves 10 million units per game without even trying? Or Super Mario Bros., well over 200 million sales and climbing?

So why is Metroid the weak link? Why hasn’t it struck the same chord as so many of Nintendo’s venerable IPs? At the very least, Super Metroid, Metroid: Zero Mission, and Metroid Prime could arguably be on the list of anyone’s all time greatest games; hell, the series has even spawned its own genre, the Metroidvania, a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania used to describe a game that apes both series’ format of back-and-forth dungeon crawling in search of items to overcome obstacles and allow further progression.

Maybe Metroid just isn’t popular enough in Japan. Maybe it’s too weird, its face-masked hero to impersonal, its titular creatures to creepy. Maybe it’s too daunting for the neophyte gamer. After all, Metroid on the NES offered no map through its maze of corridors and no save functionality a’la The Legend of Zelda; perhaps this curtailed the series catching fire like Link’s original open world adventure (which featured both maps and game saving) or like Mario’s much simpler NES pack-in offer.

Whatever the reason, when you factor in the struggling (and poorly trending) sales of the Metroid franchise, you start to realize the dilemma that Nintendo is in. While Metroid games are flagship titles demanded by the company’s hardest-core fans, the line seem to be drawn there, as sales figures indicate there are very few crossover gamers playing Metroid. So it makes sense, almost, that the company would be trying something new with Metroid Prime: Federation Force, turning this entry into the franchise into a multiplayer shooter/adventure title with bite-sized micro-stages. This is, of course, the antithesis of what Metroid has always been, so while the vociferous overreaction to the MP:FF reveal two E3’s ago was (and remains) silly, it’s going to be interesting to see if the game can, on the very popular Nintendo 3DS console, hit some respectable sales figures. If no, then Nintendo will have to go back to the drawing board and come up with some new tactic as they continue in their attempts to solve the Metroid dilemma.

*All sales figures courtesy of VGChartz.com.

Legends of Cannon Fodder: Phanto

“Legends of Cannon Fodder” is an ongoing series of articles that sing the praises of non-boss enemies (no mini-bosses, either!) who are nevertheless memorable foes that provide engaging conflicts. Which makes them the opposite of cannon fodder, I suppose… but I like the name so I’m sticking with it.

It is dark in the pharaoh’s tomb. You step into the secret chamber hidden beneath a clay pot and find what you are looking for: a key. You reach towards the key, but hesitate. Hanging about the pot are three red-and-white masks, featureless save a sinister, demonic smile. You shake your head: your imagination is simply getting the better of you. But when you bend over and pick up the key, the chamber shakes. One of the masks begins to vibrate, and then… it looks at you. With a cackle, it dive-bombs towards you; you just barely manage to duck in time. The race is on. Your blood pumping, you leap out of the jar and scurry once more through the depths of the tomb, the grinning monster on your heels, screaming towards you again and again from all directions as you search frantically for the locked door that will take the key and end this nightmare…

That is what we call a dramatization, but I’mma be honest with you: that’s what it felt like every time 11 year-old me had to pick up a key in Super Mario Bros. 2. I’ve written about SMB2 before, and it is very possibly the game I have spent the most total hours playing over the course of my life. Over all of those hours, nothing was so stressful as finding a locked door, searching for and picking up the key to that door, and then running back to the door while dodging the red and white hellspawn the SMB2 instruction manual called Phanto.

Gaming obstacles, by design, are conquerable. Video games are supposed to feed the gratification centers in our brains with little *Pings!* each time we get past that which stands between we, the gamer, and our goal: save the princess, save the kingdom, destroy the giant bubble-spewing toad man… whatever. A game’s protagonist goes through a miniature dramatic arc with each goomba they stomp or moblin they skewer: conflict, resolution, repeat; conflict, resolution, repeat; etc., etc.

Phanto, though, is different. He is the direct descendent of Evil Otto, the “Time’s UP!” smiley face of doom that came hunting for a taking-too-long-to-destroy-all-the-robots Player One in the Atari-age classic Berzerk! Like Otto, Phanto’s smile is the harbinger of unstoppable doom. If most video game enemies are antagonists to be conquered, Phanto is one to be endured and escaped. He’s not Darth Vader, he’s the twister from Twister (only with a better backstory.)

I had my Phanto avoidance skills down to an art. I don’t know if I was an overly anxious kid or what, but I didn’t want to see him, ever. He only showed up when you were actually carrying they key, so I, as I’m sure everyone else did, repeatedly picked up the key and threw the key, picked up the key and threw the key, pick up, throw, pick up, throw… all the way to the locked door, a move which keeps Phanto zipping on-screen and quickly off-screen, on-screen and off-screen, a poorly rehearsed actor who keeps jumping his cue. Forget the bomb-throwing mouse or the cross dressing bird. Phanto was my nemesis, my Sub-Con nightmare.*

But can you blame me? Trying to figure out which of the masks hanging around the key is going to come to life, the shaking awakening, the swooping, the face stuck halfway between clown and demon… I haven’t played Super Mario Bros. 2 in years, but the next time I do, I can guarantee I’ll be right back to my Phanto dodging ways.

And loving every second of it.

* That’s a pun, cuz Super Mario Bros. 2 was all a dream. Remember? Remember? And Sub-Con was the name of the dream world you were saving. Remember? I’ve ruined it.

Final Fantasy Disease: A Modern-Day Plague

In a recent interview with 4Gamer, Hajime Tabata, director of the upcoming Final Fantasy XV for PlayStation 4, introduced the concept of what he refers to as “Final Fantasy disease.” He says, “It refers to people… who can’t imagine anything other than their own view of Final Fantasy.”

He was, largely, talking to those within Square-Enix, the company that produces the (Final Fantasy series) who can’t imagine a Final Fantasy game that isn’t what they personally imagine a Final Fantasy game should be. It’s a term, though, that can be readily applied to series fans, as well. (It can be applied to fans of anything, really, but let’s stick to Final Fantasy.) And reading Tabata-san’s definition of the disease, it’s easy for me to self-diagnosis: I have it.

Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II and III (U.S. numbering), Final Fantasy Adventure, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, The Final Fantasy Legend… I was a huge fan of the Final Fantasy series on the NES, Game Boy, and SNES, back when I actually had the time and patience to sink into an epic RPG. What I imagine Final Fantasy to be (super-deformed sword and sorcery characters performing specific skills within a job system, in a story that usually has something to do with crystals and lets you ride around on the ostrich-chickens called chocobos and an airship) has led me to often refer to Final Fantasy IX, considered a series throwback game at the time of its release for the original PlayStation, as the last TRUE Final Fantasy game… at least until the Bravely Default series began on the 3DS.

Reading Tabata-san’s interview and quotes, though, I may have to rethink my stance: series do have to modernize, after all, and the original Final Fantasy formula probably isn’t in-depth enough to appeal to today’s RPG player. So, with no preparation of any sort, I’m going to watch some YouTube videos of gameplay from the Final Fantasy series proper beyond IX and decide, based on just that footage and without playing any of the games at all for even a little bit, if each of these games truly IS a true Final Fantasy game, using a True Final Fantasy Rating scale of 1-5, where 5 is “Super True and 1 is “What the FF is this?”

I might also read some Wikipedia entries.

Final Fantasy X – An extreme sports star is summoned to the future to throw basketballs at monsters. Experience points are replace by something called “sphere grids”, there’s no world map or job system, and the game progresses in a largely linear fashion. Still, there’s chocobos and airships and summons, a menu-based swords-and-sorcery combat system, not to mention awkwardly localized dialogue. True Final Fantasy rating: 4

Final Fantasy XI – An MMORPG that focuses more on individual missions than an overarching story. Players all prep themselves with dozens of spells before running up to and hacking at a monster en-masse, creating a disorganized scrum of chaos where it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on. Sure, it includes chocobos, airships, and has a job system, but why Final Fantasy decided to become World of Warcraft is anyone’s guess. True Final Fantasy Rating: 2

Final Fantasy XII – A solo-player adventure with a very Final Fantasy story about warring kingdoms and magic-driven technology and the magical element known as magicite and airships. Gone is the franchise’s turn-based battle system, replaced by a faster in-real-time, right-in-the-overworld, AI-controls-whoever-you’re-not system… a necessity of series modernization, I suppose, but not the Final Fantasy I know and love, and which also means that the battle music and the victory anthem are no more. No job system, but you can obtain licenses to perform certain tasks. If this were a Zelda game, a fishing license would no doubt be among the most coveted. True Final Fantasy Rating: 3

Final Fantasy XIII Final Fantasy plots generally draw from one of two story templates: Global Nuclear War or Tale of Two Cities; Final Fantasy XIII‘s story draws from the latter. Enemies again appear on the world map and can be avoided, but contact with them sends you to a battle screen where an Active Time Battle plays out. Eidolons are summoned and the player draws skills from a limited version of the classic job system. The leveling up is done through some form of crystal management, and crystals are always a good look for Final Fantasy. True Final Fantasy Rating: 4

Final Fantasy XIV – Did the world really need the Final Fantasy version of EverQuest? True Final Fantasy Rating: 1

I’m not going to include Final Fantasy XV on the list as it has yet to be released, but gameplay details are already plentiful and it seems a lot more like Final Fantasy XII than it does Final Fantasy XIII. Only with a car.

So, all right, Final Fantasy IX WASN’T the last “true” Final Fantasy game. X and XIII also fit the bill, or at least come close. Although, honestly? If you want to play the last TRUE true Final Fantasy, you’re going to have to choose between Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III (U.S. numbering).

Final Fantasy disease: there is no cure.

 

You Gotta Earn It

Nintendo is getting into the movie business.

It comes as no surprise that Nintendo is crafting plans to get their characters onto the silver screen. In a console generation where their Wii U has been badly outpaced by Sony’s PlayStation 4, Nintendo’s biggest asset, arguably, are their characters. Exhibit A: the amiibo craze, little plastic character statues, supposedly part of the “toys-to-life” genre that includes Skylanders and Disney Infinity. Nintendo initially couldn’t stock amiibo fast enough to meet demand, and it wasn’t because the figurines unlocked any great features in their games; they barely do anything at all, really. Amiibo flew off the shelves because people wanted Mario, Link, and Marth from Fire Emblem sitting on their desks at home, work, or school.

Now, this foray into movies is doubly interesting when you bring this question into the equation: what’s the big trend in the movie biz nowadays, the one that sends executive hearts all aflutter, visions of dollar signs dancing in their head? Why, it’s nothing more than two small, simple words: Shared. Universe.

The monumental success that Disney/Marvel has had with their cinematic shared universe of superheroes and villains has left most of the other major movie studios racing to set up their own: Warner Brothers is desperate to get its DC shared universe rolling (not to mention a Harry Potter shared universe), Universal tried to get a shared universe going with its classic monster characters, and Sony even talked about creating a Ghostbusters shared universe for a time after their dreams of a Spider-Man shared universe faded away with the DOA Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s not all lollipops and rainbows trying to recreate the alchemy Marvel Studios has managed to spin, probably because nobody wants to take the same first step Marvel took: gambling on standalone big-budget films for lesser known (at the time) heroes like Iron Man and Thor… honestly, who was dying for a Thor movie? In doing so, though, Marvel EARNED their shared universe by putting out five quality solo films before breathing life into Marvel’s The Avengers, their big superhero mash-up. (Truth told, the fact that they for legal reasons COULDN’T use their biggest characters, Spider-Man and the X-Men, was probably as much as a factor as any that led to that first Iron Man movie.) These other studios would like to skip the “earning” part and go straight to reaping Avengers-sized profits. That’s not how it works, thank you very much, as WB/DC is finding out in their increasingly short-sighted attempts to jumpstart a Justice League saga.

And now into this scrum wades Nintendo. And what is that they have in their hip pocket? Why, is that a shared universe? Why, yes! Yes, it is! You, of course, may know it by its other name.

Super Smash Bros.

In this age of Civil Wars and Heroes V Heroes, Nintendo came early to the party of pitting their famous champions against each other in a this-makes-no-sense-but-who-cares fighting franchise. Remember those early commercials for Smash Bros. 64? Actors dressed in Nintendo mascot costumes, frolicking together through fields before turning on each other, Fight Club style? It was a ridiculous idea, as insane a spin on sumo wrestling as Pokemon is on cock-fighting, but it somehow worked. The Wii version of the game even included a single-player campaign that was more or less a massive Avengers-style story piece using Captain Falcon and Kirby in place of Hawkeye and Ant-Man.

It also just so happens that Smash is the sort of game that could only have been made by Nintendo.

There’s a lot about the PS4’s success that Nintendo would surely love to learn the secrets of, but the one thing Nintendo still holds over Sony (and Microsoft as well) are its characters. Sony tried its version of Smash Bros. a few years back, calling their shared-universe fighting game PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, throwing characters who had appeared in games for the various PlayStation consoles into a bottle and shaking it. Though well-reviewed, Battle Royale ended up selling less than a million copies. No Smash Bros. game has ever sold less than 4.8 million copies, and that one was on the Wii U, a console with only 10 million units out in the wild. The trouble for Sony is that their characters, even the ones that starred in great, classic games, just don’t have anywhere near the charm and appeal of Nintendo’s stable. Charm and appeal don’t just come out of nowhere, mind you. It took Nintendo many years and many sequels to get their characters shared universe-ready.

The line-up for that first Smash Bros. game in 1999 started with Mario and Donkey Kong, two of the three biggest characters in the history of video games (the third, Pac-Man, would make his way to the battle for Smash for 3DS/Wii U), and Pikachu, the yellow centerpiece of a then red-hot Pokemon phenomenon. From there the baton was passed to Zelda’s Link and Metroid’s Samus Aran, two of the standard-bearers from the early NES days who, along with Mario and his also-in-Smash brother Luigi, had starred in a litany of sequels, almost all of which were better than their already impressive predecessors. (Taste is subjective, but there’s no denying: nine times out of ten, Nintendo hits it out of the park with Super Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games.) By the time you reached the more esoteric characters on the roster, like Ness and Jigglypuff, the table had been set with the protagonists of well-known game after well-known game.

Sony, on the other hand, led their All-Stars line-up with the unappealing (Sweet Tooth, psychotic clown of the Twisted Metal vehicular combat franchise), the obscure (Fat Princess, from Fat Princess), the untested (the fighter roster included characters from Starhawk and Gravity Rush, two non-franchise games that were released mere months before Battle Royale), and the downright reviled (Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2, among the most hated lead characters in gaming history.) Sure, PaRappa the Rapper of early 90’s fame was a fairly well-known face, but it didn’t help when the character’s creator went on record to say he wasn’t thrilled that PaRappa was being featured in such a violent combat game. On top of it all, Sony couldn’t get Solid Snake and Cloud Strife, two of the faces that helped define the PlayStation brand, for Battle Royale. (You’d have to assume they asked. Why on Earth wouldn’t they?) Instead, Konami and Square-Enix, the studios that hold the rights to Metal Gear and Final Fantasy, respectively, would license the characters out to Nintendo for the Smash Bros. series, with Snake appearing in Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii and Cloud in Smash Bros. for 3DS/Wii U. This, even though Snake hadn’t been in a new game on a Nintendo console in years and Cloud never had been at all! Aside from those two defecting Sony cornerstones, a trio of iconic PlayStation characters were inexplicably missing from the Battle Royale roster: Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and Lara Croft. Along with Cloud and Snake, those characters ARE the early PlayStation brand. In retrospect, how in the world could anyone have thought that a mascot brawler that DIDN’T include the company’s most popular mascots was a good idea? Imagine if Microsoft made an X-Box mascot brawler and didn’t include Master Chief. What’s even the point?

PS4 is white-hot right now, and Nintendo is looking forward, putting the poorly-performing Wii U behind them and pinning their prospects on a foray into mobile gaming and their forthcoming NX platform. So when it comes to the console wars, Sony clearly doesn’t have much to hang their head about these days. As both a movie studio and games publisher, though, between Spider-Man and those scuttled Ghostbusters plans and PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, they don’t seem to have much of a clue about how to craft a fictional shared universe. Take notes, guys: you can’t just shove the Rhino, the Vulture, and the Black Cat into the same movie with no pretext and expect audiences to buy into it, no more than you can tell people to get excited over Sack Boy, Sly Cooper, and Nariko in the same game without first laying the necessary groundwork. You can’t just force a shared universe to happen.

You gotta earn it.