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November 2010

Donkey Kong Country Returns Soundtrack Contains Nostalgic Joy

Donkey Kong and Diddy KongThose of us who played 1994's Donkey Kong Country for the Super NES again and again and again have the game's catchy soundtrack embedded in our brains (particularly if we scored 101% completion).  Heck, I liked the game's music so much that I even bought the three disc Donkey Kong Country trilogy soundtrack CD from Nintendo Power back in the day.  I've downloaded my fair share of OverClocked Remix albums that spotlight the series.  This music takes up space in my brain and runs in my blood.  With that in mind, you can imagine how happy I was to fire up Nintendo's new Wii title, Donkey Kong Country Returns, and hear this familiar song on the title screen:

Likewise, heading into the game's first level made me smile all over again thanks to this modernized take on the classic "DK Island Swing":

These aren't the only returning songs from the old days, of course.  Play far enough into the game and you'll hear the familiar themes of the mine cart levels, the famed underwater "Aquatic Ambiance", and a few other fun surprises.  Yes, it's a great time to be a Donkey Kong Country fan.

Free To Rome

Assassin's Creed: BrotherhoodThe Rome of Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood for the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360 is big.  Really big.  It's so big that it has a network of fast travel tunnels to expedite crossing from one side to the other in the same way that Assassin's Creed II featured fast travel stations to zip between cities.  As I guide assassin Ezio Auditore around the city and its rooftops, I have to marvel at what the development team has accomplished here and I understand why we were given one more outing with Ezio instead of moving ahead to Assassin's Creed III and some other genetic memory protagonist.  The Italian Renaissance is a fascinating setting for a game like Assassin's Creed.  Science and technology began to rise, rational thought and critical thinking evolved, and creativity was valued in certain circles.  It's no wonder that the time period is back for an encore.

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Nine Things We Needed Right Away

Nintendo 3DSThe video game industry has ways of making you want anything and everything just as soon as humanly possible (if not sooner), but throughout the history of the medium, a few special products stand out.  Many publishers and hardware producers have us right where they want us; they know that all they have to do is announce the right game or console at the right time with the right set of words and they have us hook, line, and sinker.  Over at Games Are Evil, Lucas DeWoody takes a look back (and slightly forward) at nine instances in which the gaming industry dangled a new toy in front of an eager audience and proclaimed "Gotcha!".  Products up for grabs include the original Game Boy, Sega's first Sonic the Hedgehog adventure for the Genesis, Nintendo's changing of the game with both Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario 64, and the upcoming Nintendo 3DS.

Technical miracles are getting harder to come by. Now we rely on controller gimmicks to make people look twice. Leave it to the 3DS to make us look three times. While the consumer electronic industry spins around in circles trying to come up with a standardized format for 3D movies and television, Nintendo finally decided that the world had enough flat screened video games and made the jump to 3D on their own. It’ll be years before the 3D television format war sorts itself out, so the only rational means of bringing 3D to the public is on proprietary portable screens. Fortunately, Nintendo still has the ability to flex those engineering muscles when it comes to pushing technical boundaries – something they hadn’t done since GameCube. Before E3, 3D seemed like a gimmick to hard sell new 3D in the middle of the HD generation. Now it’s clear that 3D, more so than movies, television, or anything else, is truly the future of video games.

It's a solid list, but I'd like to add a few suggestions of my own.  The coming of Super Mario Galaxy was a force to be reckoned with, as was its sequel.  Likewise, the announcement of a handheld Super Mario 64 DS with additional playable characters and new stages kept my mind spinning after it was revealed.  Similar things could be said for New Super Mario Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. Wii.  Come to think of it, I'm just going to toss every major Super Mario game on to my own personal list of these kinds of things and call it a day.

The Secrets Behind Super Mario All-Stars

Super Mario All-StarsWith the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System in full swing, Nintendo is about to release the new Wii version of Super Mario All-Stars in North America at a budget price with a little history book and soundtrack CD.  With the new release comes a new installment of the always interesting Iwata Asks discussion/interview series, and of course this time the focus is on the compilation.  Part 1 focuses on the music of the Mario series as composer Koji Kondo takes us track by track through the Mario musical collection.  This bit about the overworld theme from Super Mario Bros. 2 really caught my attention:

Kondo: Yes. What we called Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan was a direct continuation to the original Super Mario Bros., but in America it was a remake of Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic. When we decided to release it in America as Super Mario Bros. 2, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)—as the Famicom is called overseas—didn't have the Disk System's new sound source, so...

Iwata: By new sound source, you mean the Disk System's sound source that had one sound, where the waveform could be freely defined.

Kondo: Right. I could use four sounds at once with the Disk System, but couldn't on the NES, so when we remade the game, I had to be creative in order to compensate. Then we remade that game as Mario USA...

Iwata: First you remade the Disk System's Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic and sold it as Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES in America. Then you remade Mario 2 for the Famicom in Japan and released it as Mario USA. It's a little complicated. (laughs)

Kondo: The Famicom had something called delta modulation that allowed percussion sampling. All alone it sounded bad, but when I used it for percussion in Mario USA, the result was a somewhat rich and pretty sound.

Iwata: There's quite a big difference between three and four sounds. I bet you really threw yourself into it so no one could say it sounded dull.

Kondo: Yeah, I did.

Iwata: The Famicom didn't allow many options when it came to sound quality. But by adjusting how often the square wave appeared and how often it didn't, and switching frequently, you could generate a variety of sound qualities. I was doing sound programming back then. I remember devising various ways to create sound.

Kondo: Oh, that's right. (laughs) It was fun back then to try things out and see what you can do.

Wait a minute!  One of my favorite Super Mario tunes is different in its original Disk System incarnation and I'm just finding out about this now?  Well, now I have to hear the other version of the song.

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Weekly Poll: Downtime Means Playtime

Weekly Poll for 11-15-2010There's not much love for the midnight opening just to pick up a video game.  To be honest, I've never understood the appeal.  By the time I'd go down to the store and wait in line to buy the game, I'd have to get home and go to sleep in order to go to work the next day.  I'd have no time to play it in the middle of the night!  I have a near-fanatical love for many different games, but I cannot think of a single one that I'd stand in line at midnight to pick up when I could get it on my own schedule the following day (assuming a confirmed reserved copy, of course).  Something very special and exclusive would have to be in the box for me to take the midnight plunge.  Then again, most of my games come via FedEx, UPS, or traditional mail these days, so I hardly make it out to the store at all as it is.  My, the times are a'changing.

Moving on, with the holiday season about to descend upon us, I figure that it's worth asking about your gaming habits.  Do you plan to spend more or less time playing video games this year compared to previous years?  Or will you play about the same?  Let's hear your thoughts (and your schedule).

Larry And Balki For Sega Master System

Perfect Strangers

Had Perfect Strangers for Sega Master System been a real game back in the 1980s, I would have found a way to play it.  What, you thought it was real?  Well, of course not, don't be ridiculous!  It's a Photoshopped parody from Kotaku, of course.  The theme involves creating crappy Master System covers for modern games, and although this Larry Appleton and Balki Bartokomous cover created by ralphtm broke the rules, I'll give it a pass though because it's downright awesome.  Now we are so happy, we do the Dance of Joy!

Press The Buttons - Episode 3: 8-bittastic Retrostravaganza

PTB Episode 2.1

Matthew Green and Robert AlsbrookOn this episode of the Press The Buttons show we decided to reach back to the 1980s and discuss that period of time when the Nintendo Entertainment System ruled video gaming.  Join us as we talk about where we came from in a gaming sense and banter about some of our favorite 8-bit video games before we take a run through a review of the classic River City Ransom.  And say, what do you think is in that mysterious hovering question block floating strangely overhead?  Catch this week's episode over at or embedded here at PTB to find out.  We'll see you back in two weeks for our holiday gift guide special! 

Desmond Vs The Intersect

Intersect flashI'm well on my way into Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood for the Sony PlayStation 3 (also available for Microsoft Xbox 360) and have been enjoying it just as much as the previous game in the series.  While I love leaping around Rome as the dashing Ezio Auditore, I also like the little interludes with Desmond Miles.  I wasn't quite sure why I was enjoying those short sections at first, however.  Desmond is merely an assassin in training, more or less, and he spends most of his time whining about his fate.  He's not the most likeable character in the Assassin's Creed world.  The more I thought about it though, the more I came to understand why I enjoyed Desmond's tale.  I enjoy it because I watch it on NBC every Monday night where it's a show called Chuck.  Do you not see the similarity?  Strap into the Animus and let me guide you through the sequence...

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Jay Leno Could Have Been A PlayStation Exclusive

Jay LenoIt seems like just yesterday that we watched the very public break-up between Conan O'Brien and NBC over The Tonight Show, and you may recall that back in April we learned that Microsoft had been courting Conan to bring his brand of humor to Xbox Live as exclusive programming.  As it turns out, Microsoft wasn't the only console manufacturer / online service provider to reach out to a talk show host.  Back in 2008 before Conan took over on The Tonight Show and before NBC came up with the "comedy at ten o'clock" idea that would become the maligned The Jay Leno Show, once-and-future Tonight host Jay Leno was looking to pack up move elsewhere at the end of his Tonight run.  ABC and Fox were interested in picking him up to compete with NBC, as was, surprisingly, Sony.  Bill Carter's recently released The War for Late Night chronicles the behind-the-scenes story of the Leno/Conan/NBC shake-up.  Here's a bit of the book that explains how Sony had hoped to lock Leno into the Sony fold (PlayStation brand included):

Even as he leaned toward ABC and away from Fox, another possibility floated Jay's way.  Sony Pictures Television was looking for a big syndicated late-night franchise to match what it had in the daytime hours with Oprah, with whom the company had a distribution deal.  Sony laid a goody-laden package under Jay's nose: the biggest payday in late night, more than $40 million a year; ownership of his own show and a companion twelve thirty show (the match of Letterman's deal with CBS); and a landmark new studio on Sony's Culver City low.  "When he walks on the lot, there'll be a Yellow Brick Road to the Jay Leno Theater," said one Sony executive, adding that it would become "the centerpiece of the Sony lot."

Sony was even dangling connections to Sony's music division — if Jay broke new artists on the show he might get cut in on a percentage of their sales.  The company promised to think of ways to associated Jay with its PlayStation franchise, maybe promotions in the products, something to help Jay reach the young men obsessed with video games.

I think we can all agree that Jay Leno as a PlayStation figurehead, pitchman, or representative would never have worked.  Leno's comedy is aimed at a much older demographic than "young men obsessed with video games", and much more of the PlayStation audience sides with Team Coco over Leno.  What would Leno have done for the brand, anyway?  Would he have appeared in PlayStation commercials?  Pitched the products on the air?  Would he have taken on the Kevin Butler role?  Maybe hosted Qore?  How about a promotional tie-in with a hot racing simulator: Jay Leno's Gran Turismo?  No, I don't believe that such a deal would have worked well for anyone in the end.

A History Of Video Game Packaging

Donkey Kong CountrySpeaking of video game packaging, here's a feature from GamesRadar that seeks to chronicle the evolution of the boxes and cases that house our favorite (and not so favorite) titles.  Spanning from the Atari 2600 to the Sony PlayStation 3 and most game consoles and handhelds in between (minus Nintendo's Virtual Boy, *ahem*), this exhaustive article looks at how packaging styles have evolved over the years from the "do whatever you want, third parties" 8-bit years to the "maybe we should have some brand identity" 16-bit era into the "do as we say" edict of the twenty-first century.  No little detail is overlooked.  I never thought that packaging could be so interesting or, dare I say, nostalgic.  Here's a piece of the article in which the original Sony PlayStation cases are picked apart:

Today, most of us remember original PlayStation games in CD-standard jewel cases. Did you know there were actually three different boxes before jewel case, each weirder than the last?  The launch-era games came in the same tall plastic cases as Sega CD and Saturn – possibly the first time rival consoles used the exact same packaging. The inside was pretty bare, and only housed the disc and the manual.  Just a couple of months later, the cases switched to black plastic, with ridges along the spine and even artwork in the case interior. Resident Evil, for example, has art of a busted-up lab.   Next came one of the worst cases ever – still tall, but cardboard and plastic mixed together and nothing on the inside to keep the manual from flopping around. The interior art was also missing, and they were a huge pain in the ass to keep open.  Furthermore, the new cases replaced the spine ridges with pictures of spine ridges. Resident Evil has the actual ridges, while Street Fighter Alpha shipped in the new, bafflingly ugly and useless new case.  Finally, about a year after release, Sony dropped all the weird packaging and moved to jewel cases, including thicker multi-disc cases for RPGs like Final Fantasy VII.  The PSX was the last console to drastically alter its packaging. In one year Sony had four types of boxes on the shelf, which had to be a nightmare for retailers and us at home trying to keep all this shit organized – but hey, at least they all kept the PlayStation logo in the same place, as was done with Sega CD and Saturn.

Personally, my favorite packaging has to be that of the Super NES.  There's something about the wide rectangle format (the letterbox box, if you will) that I find appealing.  The cartridge inside gave the package a respectable weight, too.  There was nothing better at birthday or holiday time than picking up a wrapped present and knowing immediately that a video game of some sort was inside.  Today's modern cases are easier to ship, stack, and sort, but I do miss the old cardboard sometimes.