Retro/Classic Feed

How Did Zelda: Link's Awakening Do That?

The Legend of Zelda: Link's AwakeningNintendo's Game Boy is remembered a simplistic handheld gaming system, but its real legacy is that it could accomplish so many amazing technical feats despite being so simple.  The platform came a long way from the basics of 1989's Super Mario Land.  Even by 1993, for instance, the hardware was running games far more complex than even Nintendo itself imagined.  While a traditional-for-the-time Legend of Zelda adventure was at one time considered off the table, eventually the developers were able to coax such an experience from the Game Boy which led to The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening.  The game would be updated for the Game Boy Color in 1998 which is where we join this interesting technical analysis behind the game's special effects.  How did the developers squeeze so much out of so little?

The original Game Boy was first released in 1989, and has quite basic capabilities. The graphic primitives are based on tiles, background and sprites. Tiles are 8x8 bitmaps, arranged into the grid of a large scrollable background.  This grid is very rigid: that’s 8x8 for you, and nothing else. Fortunately, sprites are objects that can move with smaller increments, positioned over the background.  Note that there is no “direct drawing” mode of some sort: you can’t draw individual pixels on the Game Boy screen, it has to be part of a 8x8 tile.  This severely limits the drawing possibilities. Any advanced effects will have to use complex workarounds.  To understand, let’s have a look at the introduction sea sequence. We’re going to strip it of all special effects, and only use background scrolling, tiles and sprites.

It's always fascinating to get a look "under the hood" of a video game, especially one as beloved as Link's Awakening.  What we took for granted as fluidly moving a character around a screen or watching a ship crash against stormy waves at sea actually has a lot of work behind it to make it function properly.  There will be more installments in this series at the KZONE website and I encourage you to continue reading along as more are published.  I know I will.

The Ins And Outs (But Mostly Ins) Of Game Boy Cartridges

TetrisThere's something special about holding a Nintendo Game Boy game pak in your hand.  What felt like large square coasters in my childhood hand now feel like small crackers in my adult hand, but they have and still feel like the sensation of fun about to happen.  What's really inside those cartridges?  What does the fun look like in its purest physical form?  Fyrius is engaged in a photography project that catalogs the interior of popular Game Boy cartridges split open for all to see.  Marvel and gawk at the chips, batteries, and circuit boards that combine to bring us beloved favorites like Tetris, Super Mario Land, and Bionic Commando!  It's portable power in the palm of your hand.

Gameboy cartridges

(via Reddit)

How Long Does It Take For Zelda To Begin?

The Legend of ZeldaNintendo's beloved The Legend of Zelda series has a knack for roping players into its ever-expanding mythos of faeries, gorons, moblins, and zoras, but it seems that with each new sequel, players are forced to have their hands held for a prolonged period of time before the adventure actually begins.  What once started out as simply "It's dangerous to go alone!  Take this." before tossing Link to the wolves has turned into a tradition of hour-long tutorials and lots of expository dialogue ending with something along the lines of "Would you like me to repeat all of that?  → Yes No"  Matthew Martin over at Cult Of Whatever has crunched the numbers to determine just how long these tutorials have become and which games are the worst offenders.

Whereas the N64 game transitioned you from tutorial to first dungeon very naturally (you get your sword and shield and then enter the Tree, easy-peasy), Wind Waker’s first action sequence takes place, not in a dungeon, but in a forest, as you attempt to rescue Tetra from Ganon’s minions. That action sequence is first teased, when you look through the telescope your sister gets your for your birthday, but even the tease doesn’t come until after seventeen minutes of running around town “learning the basics.” After you know what you have to do (adventure!) you still have to go to the sword master (tutorial!) and “fight him” (that is, you have to learn how to do all the various sword strikes, even if you’ve played the game fifty times before). Once you’ve done that, finally, you can head off on the adventure. It’s fun the first time, but after a few more times it can be very tiring indeed.

I don't mind going alone, but just let me go!  These increasingly long tutorials are part of the reason why the Zelda games are starting to fall off of my radar.  I want to play them, but I also know that I don't want to sit through a long learning experience to teach me that rupees are worth money and that it's possible to throw pots.  I've known these series conventions for thirty years!  There really should be a way for seasoned players to bypass all of the instruction or, better yet, shape the experience so that all of the up-front training isn't necessary.

I've bought the modern remakes of Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess intent on replaying them all, but whenever I look at the cartridge or disc, I think of that seemingly endless exposition and put it back on the shelf.  I don't have hours upon hours at a time to dedicate to these games anymore.  Often I am looking for a quick hit of action which is why when I get the itch to replay a Zelda game, I turn to the original Nintendo Entertainment System titles or the Game Boy titles which kick Link off on a journey basically right away.  I'm so glad that the upcoming The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild promises to follow in those old structural footsteps.  I want to swing swords at monsters, not herd goats or go fishing right at the start.

Would you like me to repeat all of that?

→ Yes

Nintendo Power Loved Mario Paint

Mario PaintNintendo Power magazine had a knack for pushing upcoming video games that its mothership company, Nintendo itself, wanted to be overwhelming critical and sales successes.  One of the titles that enjoyed the extra coverage boost was 1992's Mario Paint for the Super NES which took the cover of Volume 39 of the magazine and sported eight pages of coverage which explained the point of the "game" (more a creativity tool than a proper game, really), how to control it with the new mouse controller, the best way to use stamps, the wonders of the Undo Dog, a basic animation primer, introduction to music composition, and much more.  Fan site has the Mario Paint coverage from that issue for you to see.  Marvel at the era when video game enthusiasts had to be taught the concepts behind of frames of animation.  Today we see that same target demographic vehemently arguing over how many frames per second a game outputs with such values measured down to the decimal.  These truly were simpler times.

Relive Nintendo History With The Nintendo Power Archive

Nintendo PowerUPDATE: The magazine archive has been deleted.  Lawyers strike again.

Like every Nintendo console-owning kid in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a subscription to Nintendo's in-house review/strategy/propaganda publication, Nintendo Power.  I came onboard the magazine with Issue 5 in March 1989  (Ninja Gaiden on the cover!) and for over ten years I read each issue cover to cover multiple times to  guide me through the games I owned, help me choose the games I wanted, and help me look like a gaming superstar on the playground with secret codes and tips.  I purged my collection when I left home after graduating high school, but the memories live on at which earlier this year quietly put up a scanned collection of the first 143 issues which will take you from the days when Super Mario Bros. 2 was taking North America by storm though the launch of Super Mario World past the dawn of Super Mario 64 into the heady days of Super Mario Advance's impending arrival for the Game Boy Advance in 2001.  Seeing each cover again after all these years takes me back to specific moments in my life: laying in the family recliner and tracing a path through the maps for Mega Man 3 in Issue 20, reading Issue 50 while waiting for a haircut, reading Issue 61 in the backseat of the car...  I intended to list a few "greatest hits" issues as recommended reading, but as I browsed the collection I found myself marking down each and every issue, so let me just say to pick a magazine and start reading.  You really can't go wrong.

Mini-Review: Sonic Gems Collection

Sonic Gems Collection

This review was originally published at on September 5, 2005.

Several years ago Sega stuffed the best that Sonic the Hedgehog has to offer into the compilation title Sonic Mega Collection. The title sold well enough on the Nintendo GameCube to prompt the release of a Plus version for other platforms, but one highly demanded title of days-gone-by eluded both iterations: Sonic the Hedgehog CD. Fans clamored long enough and loud enough that Sega has finally brought Sonic CD back to the store shelves along with several other seldom-seen Sonic titles with Sonic Gems Collection.  Considering that Sonic Gems Collection is a compilation disc, it would be inappropriate (and unfair) to review the collection taken as a whole. Instead the parts that make up the sum must be showcased separately, highlighting the bright spots and briefly dwelling on the disappointments.

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Shovel Knight Goes To Japan

Shovel KnightThe localization industry is a fascinating business.  There's more to bringing a video game from one country to another than just running the text through Google Translate and then knocking off early for bowling and cheese fries.  It's not enough to translate the script; localizers must tweak and tune all kinds of game elements to better fit the target market.  Sometimes that means rewriting dialogue to change cultural references.  Sometimes that involves altering graphical elements or sound effects to fit into a culture's frame of reference.  Sometimes it even means that the developers had a little more time to work on the base game and can improve aspects of it that they felt still needed improvement.  Today's modern games have the benefit of decades of localization best practices and history to fall back on, but during the Nintendo Entertainment System era, localizers did sort of just outright translate the script (often poorly!) and call it a day.  Yacht Club Games recently brought its NES love letter Shovel Knight to Japan which meant that they needed to localize the game for that market.  They split the difference between the modern and the 8-bit era with their process resulting in a Nintendo Famicom-type version of the game that is professionally altered, but keeps the 8-bit era localization effort intact.  Check out how far they went with localization studio 8-4 to get it just right.

So when we went about localizing Shovel Knight, we wanted to recreate some of the fun differences you might find between regions. We even went through the process of trying to “reverse” localize it. That meant to us, asking what features Shovel Knight would have had if it started out as a Japanese game. We had a few rules in all our changes though: 1) We wanted the gameplay to remain consistent 2) We didn’t want any significant change that made you feel like you missed out by not playing the original version 3) We didn’t want to do something that was traditionally considered bad localization. To us that meant, no typos or bad English, and nothing that would diminish the quality of the game. We also didn’t want to change too much! In the end, we wanted create a great localization by today’s standards. But we had to add a little fun! So we made a few subtle changes here and there that we think really made a big difference!

Now that there's so much information out there about classic NES games and their Famicom counterparts, it's easy to see that, for instance, Nintendo was able to animate the water on the overworld map in the Japanese version of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link while it's static in the international versions.  Likewise, Shovel Knight's Japanese version has animated grass.  Just like when I learned about the Zelda II water, I found myself thinking "No fair!  Japan has a better version!".  That's how authentic this localization process is and I commend Yacht Club Games and 8-4 for their dedication to the craft.  Of course, unlike the differences between Zelda II in which the international version has extra bosses, improved music, and other cosmetic upgrades compared to the Japanese original (so overall I did experience the best version of the game when I first played it), in the end I think that the differences in Shovel Knight do not detract from either version of the game.  It doesn't feel like anything is missing that would notably impact the game which really is the right way to go about things.  They really did follow their own rules.  Bowling and cheese fries all around!

The Rise And Fall Of Sega's Vectorman

Vectorman 2The one thing I always think of first when I recall the Nintendo versus Sega console wars of the 1990s is that whatever one company did first, the other would follow up with their own version soon after.  Nintendo Super Scope?  Sega Menacer.  Super FX chip in StarfoxSVP chip in Virtua Racing.  Pre-rendered graphical style for Donkey Kong Country?  Pre-rendered graphical style for Vectorman.  While Donkey Kong Country went on to spawn two direct sequels during the 16-bit era, a Game Boy side series, and so much more over the years up through Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the Wii U in 2014, Sega's answer to the gorilla in the room went on to star in a single sequel in the Genesis era and then a couple of aborted relaunches.  Hardcore Gaming 101 has the story of Vectorman's rise and fall.

What Vectorman lacks in consistent difficulty and compact level design, it more than makes up for in its presentation, which is where all of BlueSky Studios' offerings shine the brightest. Proclaiming that the SNES is graphically superior to the Genesis may be a tired cliché nowadays, but it's an undeniable fact that most titles of the time looked better on Nintendo's 16-bit console than they did on the competition and that Donkey Kong Country deserves praise for stuffing all of its then-high-tech graphics and timeless soundtrack in a single 32-meg cartridge with no special chips inside despite its bland gameplay (which the sequels greatly improved upon). In comparison, Sega's console had a much paltrier VDP/PPU and less access to large ROM sizes, but its lightning-fast and easy-to-program-for Motorola 68000 processor could easily trump Nintendo's choice of CPU (the unique, yet terribly slow Ricoh 5A22) in every aspect imaginable if in the hands of a talented programmer, and this is what makes Vectorman's unique graphical style look good up to this day.

By the way, do you know Vectorman's dirty little secret?  It doesn't use vector graphics at all.  That doesn't stop it from looking impressive on Sega's 16-bit hardware though.  It was the unique visuals that first drew me into wanting to play the game.  When I was in high school in the mid-to-late 1990s, a friend had the game and we spent too many weekend afternoons trying to clear the second level.  We were absolutely terrible at it; poor Vectorman may as well as been a magnet for incoming enemy fire.

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Power Button - Episode 211: Pokémon Go And New NES Classic Console Bring The Joy

Power ButtonIt's been a big week for Nintendo fans who like excitement thanks to the arrival of the Pokémon Go mobile sensation and the announcement of a new small classic Nintendo Entertainment System packed with HDMI output and thirty of the best games that the NES era had to offer.  We're talk about both of these on this week's Power Button, so join us for a conversation that spans from Pikachu to Punch-Out!!, Meowth to Metroid, and Zubat to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.   Download this week's episode directly from PTB, listen with the player below, find us on Stitcher, subscribe via iTunes, toss this RSS feed into your podcast aggregation software of choice, and be sure to catch up on past episodes if you're joining us late. Remember that you can reach us via , you can leave a message on the Power Button hotline by calling (720) 722-2781, and you can even follow us on Twitter at @PressTheButtons and @GrundyTheMan, or for just podcast updates, @ThePowerButton.

Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition FAQ

NES Classic Edition

Today's announcement that the Nintendo Entertainment System is coming back to stores as the NES Classic Edition mini-console featuring a wired classic NES controller and thirty games built right into its internal memory has sparked a lot of excitement online as gaming fans cheered and prepared to preorder.  However, I've also seen plenty of questions pop up on social media about the news and while I'm not a Nintendo spokesperson, I am a long-time customer and consumer of the company's products, so perhaps I can be of help when it comes to answering these queries.  Allow me to condense the questions down to the basic generalized sentiments I've seen all day today and respond with my thoughts.

Q: What is this NES Classic thing?  Are they making new NES consoles?  I have all the old cartridges in my attic.

The NES Classic Edition is a small, new version of the Nintendo Entertainment System that physically resembles the old NES from 1985, but sports a smaller form factor.  It features thirty games such as Super Mario Bros. 3 and Mega Man 2 built into its memory, so there isn't a cartridge slot on this console.  It only plays those thirty games, but they are some of the best games in the console's library.

Q: So how do I play Duck Hunt without my old Zapper light gun?

Duck Hunt isn't one of the thirty games, so you won't be playing it at all on a NES Classic Edition.  Besides, the old Zapper and today's modern HDTVs don't work well together at all.  See, when the trigger on the Zapper is pressed, the game causes the entire screen to become black for one frame. Then, on the next frame, all valid targets that are on screen are drawn all white as the rest of the screen remains black. The Zapper detects this change from low light to bright light, and determines if any of the targets are in the zapper's hit zone. If a target is hit, the game determines which one was hit based on the duration of the flash, as each target flashes for a different duration. After all target areas have been illuminated, the game returns to drawing graphics as usual. The whole process is almost imperceptible to the human eye, although one can notice a slight "flashing" of the image. Although the Zapper just detects light, it can only be used on CRT displays. It will not work on LCDs, plasma displays or other flat panel displays due to display lag.  Moreover, the NES Classic Edition uses special controller ports like those found on the Wii remote, so your old Zapper wouldn't plug into it anyway.

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