Going Down the Nintendo 2DS Rabbit Hole

Today’s announcement of Nintendo’s new, entry level handheld the 2DS left me excited but also pondering what could come in the future. While I applaud the idea of creating a version of the 3DS that will let more cash-strapped gamers in on the fun, what I wish Nintendo would do next is follow in the footsteps of a competitor; Neo Geo.

The Neo Geo X is essentially a portable Neo Geo with games downloaded to SD cards. The handheld itself looks sort of like a marriage between a PSP and an iPhone, but the charging dock (for the Neo Geo X Gold models, anyway) is a recreation of the original Neo Geo that opens like a clam shell for you to insert the device. For fans of the original, the Neo Geo X is an excellent nod to the original while simultaneously pushing the brand into the future. What I’d like to see Nintendo do is make their own version of this wonderful little time machine.

Think of the endless possibilities if Nintendo began making recreations of their old handhelds. Take the basic form factor of the original handhelds and incorporate modern features like internal memory, back lit screens, and rechargeable batteries. Collectors and fans would love to get their hands on reproductions of these old classics and be able to download dozens of titles to them. A wifi-enabled Game Boy with a 32-gig SD card? Yes, please!

I’m not suggesting eliminate the Virtual Console, of course. I love that the service brings so many different games together onto one device along with new titles and I never want to see that go away. What I’m positing is that Nintendo’s name and back catalog is so strong that they could easily branch out and reach a more niche audience within the gaming community.

It’s not that consumers have never embraced this sort of idea before, after all. Pass through any Walmart or Target during the holiday season and you’ll see replicas of Colecos and Ataris pre-loaded with games; there’s even an excellent reproduction of the SEGA Genesis available! The videogame industry is so old at this point that there are legions of fans from different generations who love to relive the games of their youth, so why not appease Nintendo fans the same way?

While I believe keeping the form factor the same is essential to drawing in fans (and keeping things fun!), the inclusion of modern amenities like wifi and rechargeable batteries is equally integral in order to keep things accessible for new and old fans. Being able to download games directly into these devices would keep costs low for Nintendo and open the doors for games that wouldn’t have a shot of seeing re-release otherwise. A move like this could both please older fans and bring attention to games that might otherwise go ignored sitting in silence within the walls of the eShop.

Some might say this isn’t the most practical move for a videogame company to make, but for Nintendo it would be child’s play. The Game Boy continues to have massive brand-recognition and would be the perfect launching pad to make something like this happen. Here’s hoping that Nintendo can one day bring its own version of the Neo Geo X to the marketplace!

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Retro(spective) 10-Kirby’s Dream Land

Kirby came to be because videogames were just becoming too challenging. Nintendo wanted to craft a game that would cater to new players, with an easier level of difficulty and a focus on fun. Enter HAL Laboratory and designer Masahiro Sakurai, the fine people responsible for the Kirby we know and love today. Though Kirby might have started life on the Game Boy, he’s become a massively influential Nintendo character and continues to blaze trails with original, unique gamesKirby‘s Dream Land might be a little different from Kirby’s later adventures, but it’s still a solid title that helped define the character and established the basics of the series’ gameplay.

Kirby began life as the blissful character Popopo in the concept for a game called Twinkle Popo. While not terribly different in looks from what would become KDL, Nintendo decided to modify the name and elements of its gameplay to better suit their vision for the title. Kirby’s simplicity is well-known, but he is also apparently quite drawn to music. The developers included Kirby’s dancing at the end of each stage as a way of demonstrating this. In fact, Sakurai was so adamant about showing this aspect of Kirby’s personality that they fought system memory limits to make it happen!

One of the legends that surrounds KDL is the origin of Kirby’s signature pink hue. There are a couple of rumors floating around as to why Kirby is colored the way he is, but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer. One version of the story is that when the game was being localized for the US, marketers at Nintendo of America didn’t know what color Kirby was supposed to be. They’d apparently only seen black and white game footage and determined that white must be the character’s color; thus the white Kirby on the game’s box! The other version of the story is that white was a compromise because Shigeru Miyamoto and Sakurai couldn’t agree on what color the character should be. Miyomoto wanted Kirby yellow, while Sakurai wanted pink. Perhaps the yellow Kirby in Kirby and the Amazing Mirror was Sakurai’s way of smoothing things over with Miyamoto when pink won out?

KDL is a 2D platformer and is littered with enemies who prefer meandering as opposed to actively trying to assault Kirby. The docile nature of the game’s foes keeps the pressure off by letting players take their time learning Kirby’s abilities. Not that there were too many moves to learn, as Kirby was limited to inhaling/exhaling bad guys and flying in his debut. Not having copy abilities might seem detrimental, but KDL is surprisingly engaging despite this omission. The simplified combat let’s the player focus on breezing through levels and taking in the game’s charming cast of characters.

What a cast it is, as KDL introduced quite a few mainstays that are still causing trouble today. The iconic Whispy Woods is the first stage’s boss, and the adorable Waddle Dees and Doos came bumbling into the spotlight, too. Most important of all, though, has to be uber-series villain King Dedede. The final fight with Dedede is probably one of the most iconic boss battles on the Game Boy, with he and Kirby duking it out on a boxing ring. It was the perfect introduction to their rivalry and a heck of a way to end a fun game.

KDL has the best music of any game in the series. The tunes are catchy, vibrant, and perfectly accentuate each stage. There’s a whimsical quality to the music in Kirby’s games these days, but nothing comes close to this first game’s soundtrack. I really wish Nintendo would go back to the sort of sound that KDL has, as it’s pleasant but not overly “kiddy”. I’d recommend the game purely for people to hear the music, frankly!

KDL is a wonderful game that has effortlessly withstood the passing of time. New players will enjoy being able to tackle a platformer without blistering difficulty while seasoned players will have fun scouring for secrets and blasting through stages. The game’s monochrome graphics are charming, the soundtrack is catchy, and the whole experience will help you understand just why Kirby was so quickly embraced by fans everywhere. KDL is thankfully widely available these days. If you can find a copy to play on an old Game Boy… more power to you. Go check out Kirby’s origins; it’s perfect to play sitting under a tree as summer fades!

Released 1992. Developed by HAL Laboratory, published by Nintendo.

Kirby’s Dream Land is available on the Game Boy. It is also available via download from the 3DS eShop and is included as part of Kirby’s 20th Anniversary Dream Collection on the Wii.

Retro(spective) 9-Klonoa: Door to Phantomile

Klonoa: Door to Phantomile didn’t start out as a Klonoa game. When series creator Hideo Yoshizawa of Namco began work on this quirky PlayStation title, it was intended to have a licensed character as the lead. In a twist of fate similar to Nintendo’s Donkey Kong arcade game, the departure of the licensed properties and characters yielded a more enjoyable title than what might have been. Klonoa may not have the pedigree of Sonic or Super Mario, but it’s a solid franchise that continues to yield fun, though niche, adventures.

Yoshizawa’s marching orders from the brass at Namco were simple; they wanted a new action game. In the world post-Super Mario 64, developers had become 3D obsessed, foregoing traditional 2D games nearly en masse following Nintendo’s revolution. Yoshizawa was happy to oblige his bosses, but had no intentions of conforming to the trend of the day. 3D games were too complicated to him, as they made attacking enemies and navigating the game world more difficult than in a 2D game. Yoshizawa did want to make a game that incorporated 3D, but in a different way, a sort of “2.5D” that would mix elements of both perspectives. Thus was born the concept of Klonoa’s gameplay, a title that would allow for 2D movement in a 3D world.

Klonoa himself has an interesting origin, as he’s the result of multiple bids around the office to design the lead for Yoshizawa’s new game. While I suppose that’s not totally uncommon, it is worth noting that a passing comment about Klonoa’s appearance from a member of the sales team nearly upended the game’s development. They suggested that because Klonoa has big, floppy ears, he should be able to fly. Yoshizawa immediately dismissed the notion, as the game would go from being about “action” and instead become about “flying”; he’d have to change the entire structure of the game! Still, the notion wouldn’t release itself from his mind, as he felt if the sales team member thought Klonoa should fly because of the way his ears looked, everyone would start expecting it. In a self-imposed state of paranoia, Yoshizawa decided that rather than fly, Klonoa would be able to flutter and cover small distances. This happy medium meant expectations would be met without breaking level designs. Talk about being detail oriented!

The game itself is stuffed with charisma, as Klonoa has a cute cast and a fairly emotional story. I will say that the cinema scenes and characters do border on being overly cutesy, which might turn off some of you out there. Klonoa does offer you the chance to skip through cutscenes, which is nice because it would be a real shame to miss out on all the excellent gameplay just because you hate Huepow. Passing on the cinema scenes might leave you with gaps in the story, but you can take in the game all the same without it (you cold, evil person). Regardless, I recommend you sit back and enjoy the drama, because it pays off in the end! (Seriously, you might tear up-members of the development team did).

Klonoa is reminiscent of Crash Bandicoot in that it doesn’t offer traditional 3D gameplay. You navigate the world from left to right on a 2D plane, but the world is rendered in 3D and thus allows you to also move into the screen by scrolling the environment in differentdirections. Essentially, you maneuver Klonoa along twisting pathways that will shift your perspective and create some very interesting tests of direction. Klonoa‘s other gameplay hook comes in the form of how you interact with enemies. Yoshizawa wanted to make a title where the player captured enemies and used them to his advantage. To achieve this, Klonoa is able to snag enemies using his special ring and then either fling them for offense or use them to initiate a double-jump. The mechanics are immensely satisfying and result in some very clever puzzles that require you to determine the best way to utilize the baddies you encounter. Klonoa can fling enemies into the sky, the ground, left, right, and even into or out of the screen! This range of motion made for some interesting exploration, as certain secrets would float inconspicuously in front of your face if you weren’t paying attention.Klonoa’s unique controls are both intuitive and fun, and demonstrated that there was still plenty to mine from 2D action games.

Klonoa was actually remade for the Wii quite faithfully back in 2009. The graphics have been substantially upscaled and reworked on the Wii, and subtle tweaks to Klonoa’s movements make the game a relatively smoother experience. I recommend giving it a try if you don’t feel like tracking down the original or downloading it from the PSN. Klonoa is the result of Namco letting Yoshizawa follow his gut and make a game that innovated rather than conform. It’s as engaging today as it was back in 1998, so be sure to give this overlooked series a shot!

Released 1998. Developed and published by Namco.

Klonoa: Door to Phantomile is available on the PlayStation. It is also available via download on the PSN. A remake of the game was released on the Wii in 2009 and is simply titled Klonoa.

Coping With Videogame ADD

I’d been aware of the problem for a while now, but the severity of it didn’t hit me until I started flipping through the Activity Log (a piece of internal software that monitors your playtime) on my 3DS. Sonic the Hedgehog 2, 0:01, Donkey Kong, 0:01, NES Open Golf, 0:01, PICROSS e2, 0:02, and so on for a number of titles as I scrolled from the bottom upwards. What my 3DS’ Activity Log revealed was what I’ve known for a while. I have videogame ADD.

As someone who has sat and played through hundreds of games, read dozens of books, and read hundreds of comics, I know that I’m more than capable of sitting still and paying attention. I mean, I sit and write blogs on a regular basis, so Cave Story should be no problem! What I’ve come to believe is that the root of my problem is this new, digital age we’re living in.

With resources like the eShop, PSN, and XBox Live, there are thousands of games at the tips of consumers’ fingers. Throw in the plethora of mobile games across tablets and smartphones, and the options multiply exponentially. It’s staggering just how many games a person can have on a single device these days. My 3DS alone has upwards of 60-70 downloaded titles stuffed into the various folders on its desktop. While these digital marketplaces are incredible outlets for classic games and smaller titles that would languish as physical releases, it’s splintering my ability to ingest and enjoy each and every title.

Being torn between Super Mario Land 2 and Attack of the Friday Monsters! is a bit of a first world problem, of course, but honestly, as a videogame enthusiast it really does suck. It’s sort of like suffering through a pixelated version of buffet syndrome; the wealth of options becomes more constricting than freeing because there’s too much to choose from. There is a plus side to my little conundrum, though; conservation.

With each new Pokemon game that comes out, I buy both versions at launch. Part of me is just being a collector, but the other part is looking forward to beating one version and saving the other for some unspecified point in the future. I love knowing that I have a great game to fall back on later when the mood strikes me; it’s like an electronic safety net. With the frustration of great variety comes the luxury of being able to focus on the games I really want to play and saving others for later. Maybe I was quick to judge my gaming ADD as a problem!

All kidding/positives aside, the main negative of my situation is bouncing between games really kills the rhythm of each one. Videogames,not unlike books or movies, are meant to be enjoyed as a singular experience. Spielberg didn’t intend for Schindler’s List to be viewed in pieces along with Seinfeld re-runs, nor did Dumas intend for you to split reading duties between The Count of Monte Cristo and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. While I don’t think every game is necessarily expecting this sort of investment of a person’s time and attention, I do think that some titles require dedication to see it through in order to fully appreciate the creators’ intent. Honestly, there’s no way to properly appreciate a game like BioShock if its being played intermittently between play sessions of Angry Birds Star Wars and Pokemon White 2.

This whole situation makes me think of the dying art of album listening. With things like iTunes out in the world, a lot of people now simply download a single song as opposed to entire albums. It would be impossible to appreciate the intricacies of an album like Soundgarden’s Superunknown if all you hear is Fell On Black Days. The artists sort their music into a specific order with the intention of the listener hearing the songs the way they want them to. A lot of radio stations will play Green Day’s Jaded and Brain Stew together because there’s no real gap between them on the album, for example. Without taking in an album as a whole, the finer details are ultimately lost. The same is true, to me, for videogames.

So while the idea of gaming ADD might be unique to myself, I have the feeling some other people might suffer from it, too. To them I say, never fear, because there’s always a way. I tend to play games in accordance with the level of anticipation I have before release and/or what genre it is. In order to tackle the troubles I’ve been experiencing, I try to stick with the genre I’m most in the mood for and play any neglected games that match it. RPG time? Then pull out Mario & Luigi and have at it, and so on. No matter what, though, I think we should all take the time to play our games to completion and walk away with whatever we were supposed to feel from them. With that, I’m finally going to go see how Sonic Adventure ends!

Retro(spective) 8-Banjo-Kazooie

Did you know Banjo-Kazooie began as a dream? Actually, that’s not totally accurate;Banjo-Kazooie began as codename (or Project) Dream. It was 1995 and Rare’s newest title was set to be a very ambitious SNES game starring a boy named Edison battling the evil pirate Captain Blackeye. Quite a difference from the seminal work starring a bear and his bird pal. B-K lives fondly in the memories of Nintendo 64 fans due to its lush graphics, lovable characters, and impeccable play control.

Rare and its co-founders the Stamper brothers were hard at work on their next title, the aforementioned Project Dream. Development was proceeding smoothly, but it was clear that this time around the SNES’s limitations weren’t going to be overcome. A switch to the N64 was in order, Nintendo’s new, shiny console that was packed with power. With the move complete, Tim Stamper noted that Edison just wasn’t cutting it as a lead and suggested switching to an animal character. Nestled amongst some of Dream‘s side characters was a bear…. and the rest is history.

The transformation of Dream‘s bland bear into Banjo was well-received by upper management, but the game wasn’t going to be ready in time for the ’97 holiday season. Rare decided to insert Diddy Kong Racing in its stead, but feature Banjo as a playable character-which actually makes that game his first appearance! Rare’s goal with Banjo-Kazooie was to make a 3D platformer from the mold of Nintendo’s Super Mario 64. Not a humble ambition, as SM64 was and still is one of the most influential (and fun) games of all time. Despite some cynical chatter about SM64 and B-K being too similar, Rare carried on confidant that the end product would easily differentiate itself. The DKR stall was necessary to give B-K the polish it needed to stand even in the same room as Mario. Thankfully, their strategy paid off.

B-K is the embodiment of Rare’s creative and technical brilliance. You absolutely can’t talk about B-K without paying tribute to its graphics. Where most N64 games’ graphics have not aged gracefully, B-K is so beautiful that it withstood a HD upgrade on the XBox 360. B-K‘s world is fully-realized, with a charming aesthetic that mimics the vibrancy and life of a Pixar film. Droplets make ripples, textures are intricate and smooth, and the characters practically breath. Like a Pixar film, though, the pretty images are just a veneer for what lies underneath.

Many 3D platformers fail because they can’t sell a sense of immersion; B-K does not have that problem. While the graphics are a big part of that, the other half of the magic comes from the witty writing. Crude, irreverent, and sometimes goofy, the cast is essential to the experience and will suck anyone who plays it right into the adventure. B-K has as perfect a marriage between its graphics and writing as the Uncharted games. By the time you reach the end, you’ll find yourself invested in seeing things through just to squeeze another cutscene out of the game.

As we all know, a great story is no substitute for poor gameplay, but Rare was kind enough to pull out all the stops in that department. I mentioned that SM64 and B-K share some similarities, and one of them is gameplay. However, Banjo separates himself from Mario in several key ways. Where Mario’s moveset conveys athleticism and speed, Banjo’s is more about nuance and aiding with puzzle-solving. B-K gradually introduces the bear/bird duo’s moves and abilities, as each is used to solve specific puzzles or tackle particular aspects of the environment in a level. Banjo moves at a methodical trot, discovering new paths and secrets with each unlocked skill. It’s really rather Metroid-esque, with the player needing to use new abilities to backtrack to formerly-unreachable areas.

One of the biggest legacies of B-K is also the strangest; the infamous Stop ‘N’ Swop feature. This alone is not only a blog unto itself, but literally is a website’s worth of debate and speculation. In brief; Rare created a feature called Stop ‘N’ Swop that was supposed to be used with B-K‘s sequel, Banjo-Tooie. Players would go to the Stop ‘N ‘Swop screen inB-K, “stop”  to take out the cartridge from the system while it was still on and then “swop” (get it?) in B-T to unlock hidden features in that game. This process involved the N64’s internal memory and a smattering of tech-talk that makes my brain hurt, but it seemed like a really cool idea. Sadly, Rare ultimately had to scrap it due to some hardware revisions and a couple of other factors.

Since Stop ‘N’ Swop ended up being unused, it might seem strange that so many people know about it. Nintendo Power and a few other magazines are actually to blame, as they published legit, in-game codes that let players unlock and access the eggs, ice key, and even menu screen that would have facilitated the feature. Stop ‘N’ Swop and its associatedconspiracies theories can be found in full on the Rare Witch Project (therwp.com), a lovely little site devoted to all things hidden within the lines of coding in Rare games. It’s a cool site that both Rare fans and code fiends will have a lot of fun with. Did you know that apparently there’s some coding for the ice key in Donkey Kong 64? Your mind just got blown, didn’t it? Hahaha.

As ever, I will recommend the original version on the N64 as the ideal way to experience B-K. If going retro is not your cup of tea, then feel free to download the excellent HD re-release on the XBox 360. The 360 version is not only faithful to the original, but prettier and easier to find. Still, either one is going to rock your senses. B-K might be a dormant franchise these days, but it was a revolutionary experience on the N64 that pushed the hardware and the platforming genre to new heights. Go play B-K and find out what legions of diehards are still raving about today!

Released 1998. Developed by Rare, published by Nintendo.

Banjo-Kazooie is available on the Nintendo 64. A HD remake was released for the XBox 360 and is available for download via XBox Live.

Retro(spective) 7-Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Anyone who’s played a Game Boy Advance or DS Castlevania game would find themselves at home with the 1997 PlayStation classic Symphony of the Night. Ever hear the term “Metroidvania”? You can thank Konami producer Koji Igarashi for helping co-create the concept for SotN. Up until its PlayStation debut, the series was known for intense, linear 2D platforming. SotN maintained the core combat and setting of Castlevania, but threw linearity out the window in favor of a sprawling, open world. Inspired by Nintendo’s Metroid games, the abilities you unlock as you progress through the game allow you to explore parts of the environment that were previously inaccessible. Like peanut butter and jelly, the marriage of Metroid and Castelvania was a match made in heaven and would forever alter the series.

Merging types of gameplay wasn’t the only trick up Igarashi and company’s sleeves. SotN gets a lot of praise for embracing Samus’s style of exploration, but what it also did was take ques from the very first Castlevania sequel, Simon’s Quest. The RPG elements from Castlevania II were (fittingly) resurrected in SotN, including buying items and the use of EXP to level up your character. Alucard can be equipped with an array of weapons and items to maximize his abilities. Combat is further tweaked with the inclusion of spells and familiars, elements that follow your character and assist during battles. You might be thinking this all sounds like overkill, but Igarashi and his team did an exceptional job of implementing these changes without cluttering the gameplay. SotN gradually introduces each facet of its gameplay and never leaves the player floundering.

If you just want to analyze SotN as a pure Castlevania game, there’s a lot to love. The music by composer Michiru Yamane spans multiple genres and is simply awesome. This game also introduced fans to the beautiful art of Ayami Kojima, whose design work perfectly transitioned the series into the 32-bit era and beyond. Let’s not forget about the main hero, Alucard. While Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse was Alucard’s first appearance, this game really thrust him into the spotlight and made him a beloved part of Castlevania lore. Graphically, Konami pumped out some great sprites using the PlayStation’s hardware. Enemies and environments are large, detailed, varied, and among some of the best in the series. In an era where most game series were transitioning into 3D (Castlevania included!), SotN clung to its 2D roots and delivered some breathtaking visuals.

SotN sadly didn’t muster the sales it deserved, but its legacy has inspired a number of sequels and re-releases. The three Game Boy Advance and three DS Castlevania titles are all formed from the mold of SotN (some might argue a couple of those games give SotN a run for its money) and are all the better for it. The PSP game Castelvania: The Dracula X Chronicles includes SotN as an unlockable (yes, that’s a heck of an unlockable, haha) and it also saw re-release on PSN and XBLA. You really can’t go wrong with any of the versions out there, but I’d say play the PSN download for the most authentic experience. SotN is a great game and well worth your time. If you enjoyed games like Order of Ecclesia or Circle of the Moon, you’re going to love Symphony of the Night.

Released 1997. Developed by Konami, published by Sony.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is available on PlayStation, PSN, XBLA, and PSP.

Changes Afoot

Happy Sunday, Retro(readers). I’ve been tinkering around with my blog here and have created two pages for your convenience. Retro(active) houses the various pieces of writing I make that aren’t Retro(spective), which in turn are housed on the Retro(archive) page. Please feel free to peruse both if you’re looking for particular pieces, or just don’t feel like scrolling for a year on the Home page.