Japan

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As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I grew up as a military brat. As a result, my family relocated numerous times during my youth. Shortly after starting my 4th grade year, my family moved to Okinawa, Japan.

Living in Japan was one of the most defining experiences of my life. I still remember the shock of exiting the doorway of the climate controlled airplane after a 22 hour flight and stepping into the humid sub-tropical air for the first time. It was was like a slap in the face. It was just like walking into a steamy sauna, only with the smell of salt water and foreign foliage in the air.

The jet lag had really taken a toll on me, and I found myself unable to sleep in the hotel room that first day. So, I flipped on the TV only to find three channels. One English speaking station operated by the US government and two local Japanese channels. Watching Japanese television for the first time was a wake up call like I’ve never had… A cheesy samurai soap opera, followed by a children’s show featuring an octopus farting into a Jello mold made one thing abundantly clear; I was now in a completely different world.

3772349310_7b9de77e47 A bottle of Sake featuring the corpse of a venomous Habu snake in the bottle

Living inside the confines of a military base in a foreign country can be a bit deceiving. Inside the barbed wire fence, you could almost believe you never left the normalcy of the USA. But step outside, and there’s no question… things are very different. One of the first things I learned to enjoy about Okinawa was the food. You can’t take five steps without encountering some kind of noodle dish. They are everywhere. Cold noodles, hot noodles, sweet, spicy, savory – you name it. Over my three-year stay in Japan, I became quite fond of the various flavors the orient had to offer. It’s an obsession that lasts to this day.

The first time you taste something like Miso, or some other foreign spice or sauce, it can be a little off-putting. But once you break thru the defensive concept of “I’m not used to this”, you might just surprise yourself! There’s often a whole world of good food out there that you never knew existed..

One thing I will say about the Japanese people, they certainly like their candy. Japanese snacks and confectioneries are like no other. The variety of flavors seems endless. For example, over here in the US, we have three flavors of Kit Kats. Milk Chocolate, Dark Chocolate, and White Chocolate. That’s it. In Japan, that’s not the case. Over there, on the shelf of any random convenience store, you might find Kit Kats in such exotic flavors as: Wasabi, Orange, Banana, Cheese, Sweet Potato, Basked Potato, Key Lime, Green Tea, etc.

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In the short three years I lived there, I was never able to get a firm grasp on the Japanese language.  But I did have many encounters with local kids my age. One thing that we both understood, regardless of our language barrier were video games. The Nintendo Entertainment System, or as it was called in the Japan, the “Famicom”, was extremely popular with the youth in Japan at the time.The two system shared a number of titles as well. This gave both American kids and Japanese kids a common interest. Games like Mario and Zelda didn’t rely heavily on words, so there was no real need to to be concerned with a language barrier when playing one of these games with local who couldn’t speak English. Occasionally,  a Japanese friend would lend me a Famicom game to take home and play. However, the shape of Famicom carts were different than those made for the NES. This initially led to a compatibility problem. But, thanks to the thriving Asian black market, there was an easy solution… Meet the “HoneyBee”:

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This beautiful piece of engineering made it possible to fit a Famicom game into a standard North American NES. Oh, the fun times that were had thanks to this little devil.

But Japanese video games were not the only media that kids like myself enjoyed. The longer I lived there, the more I became absorbed with Japanese pop-culture. I viewed anime and crazy game shows, I read manga, I collected wacky Japanese pencils, I listened to local pop music. There’s so much I could write about when it comes to my experiences in Okinawa. And perhaps I will do so in future posts. For now, let this serve an introduction into my obsession all things Japan.

I consider myself to be a “Japanophile” of the most distinguished degree. Just don’t call me a “weeaboo”…

The Nintendo Era

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The world of gaming changed forever in October of 1985. That is the month that the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in North America.

I still remember getting mine. It was Christmas morning, at my grandmother’s house. I tore the wrapping paper from the corner and my eyes caught sight of the golden Nintendo Seal. I knew immediately what it was before the rest of the paper was even off the box. I had stared at the NES boxes on the shelf at Toys ‘R Us long enough that even a little peek of what lie underneath the wrapping gave it away.

The NES came with a copy of Super Mario Bros., but I also received a copy of Metroid that year. Metroid sat on the shelf for a few weeks, however. I was completely hooked on SMB… I clearly remember sitting in front of the TV for the next two days playing Mario almost non-stop. It was snowing outside and much too cold to go out and play (thankfully), so I had a convenient excuse.

As time went on, my game collection grew and grew. I had most of the classic titles:

SMB, Kid Icarus, Zelda, Mike Tyson’s Punchout, Mega Man, Contra, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, Double Dragon, Skate or Die…  You name it. And what I didn’t own, I rented from the video store.

At one point, I subscribed to the official Nintendo magazine: The Nintendo Fun Club Newsletter.

The first issue I received featured the newly released Mike Tyson’s Punchout. The next issue was the intro for The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. The following one featured some hockey game, I don’t recall which. There were no further issues of the newsletter, because that next month, it was changed into the magazine we all know and love: Nintendo Power.

The first issue of Nintendo Power was a real jaw-dropper. On the cover, they premiered Super Mario Bros. 2. Seeing those words in print, virtually caused time to stop.

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I was a total fanboy, as were most of my fellow third-grade classmates. Not only did we collect games, but we had various controllers, the NES MAX, the NES Advantage… years later I was even the owner of the notorious Power Glove. If it wasn’t accessories we were buying, it was literature. Hint guides and code books were all the rage. Our school book fair sold them in droves. It was easy money for publishers.

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But even the mighty fall to some extent. Nintendo has had many competitors since the NES debuted in the 80’s. I think it’s fair to say that as time has gone by, Nintendo has lost a bit of their audience to competitors like Sony and Microsoft. These days, Nintendo seems to focus more on casual and family gaming, leaving them as a bit of a niche taste. Perhaps this will change with the release of the new console the Wii U, who knows. But I will say this, I still don’t think that any future console will ever cause the revolution that the original NES started. I would probably not be a gamer if it wasn’t for this big grey toaster.

Keep puffing on those carts.

About Me

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I’ve now made a few posts about the games that make me tick and why I find video games so appealing. This post is going to serve as a more formal introduction. First, let’s talk a bit about my moniker (and the name of this blog itself): Retro Sensei

“Retro” refers to my love of old school gaming. But of course I don’t limit myself, nor the content of this site to games of the past. I have a love of video games both old and new, but I do think it’s important for any gamer to “know their roots” so to speak. Not to mention, as a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I suffer from frequent bouts of nostalgia – all of which I plan to share with the readers of this blog.

The “Sensei” part? Well, this is a bit more complicated. As an older gamer who loves to share my passion for retro games, I suppose you could consider this blog my way of teaching these youngsters about the games of yesteryear. On top of that, I actually spent several years as a child living in the country of Japan. My time there, gave me a deep appreciation and love for Japanese culture. So… RetroSensei.

Originally, I ran this blog under the name of “8bitwizard”  (So yes, you’re reading an edited post).

I conceived the 8bit Wizard name a few years ago when posting on some old video game newsgroups back in the early days of the Internet. The name came to mind again when I decided to create a blog. I knew I wanted to make a blog with a strong focus on video games, but occasionally I like to ramble about other topics that interest me. Most of which are subjects that would also appeal to the geek-culture that seems to have blossomed with the advent of the Internet. In a nutshell, I decided it was time to change the name when I moved the blog to its own domain. Apparently, there’s a webcomic called 8-bit Wizard. (even if it only has one issue..)

Now, to get a bit personal. As I’ve said before, as of 2012, I’m a 33 year old adult, but I’m obviously still nothing more than a big kid who wears the skin of responsibility quite comfortably.  I was the only child in a military household. This means that every three years or so, my father would be reassigned to a different location and my family had to move. Moving so often makes it a bit difficult to make friends. Not only are you always confronted with new people, but there’s the whole social awkwardness of being in a strange place and not knowing how things work in a new school, etc. Often times, due to variances in education standards from state to state, you find yourself playing catch up or sometimes you’ll move to a new school and you’ll actually be further ahead and BORED TO DEATH!

I had a rough go of it as a kid. I was skinny, a bit awkward, and I usually talked different from everyone else. (Born in New England but lived in placed like Arkansas and Louisiana). I was always the “nerd” that everyone picked on. I was never good at sports, I had nothing in common with most of the other kids, you get the picture. So I retreated to safe confines of my bedroom where countless worlds awaited me thanks to both my large library of books and my NES.

I finally broke free of my nerd label as a teenager. I became interested in music and taught myself to play the guitar. Around the age of 14, I put away my games and focused my attention on starting a band. Playing rock music helped me build confidence to the point where I learned how to develop my social skills and overcame all the nonsense that plagued my early childhood. Over the years, I learned how to take care of myself and not to be pushed around. Regardless, I never forgot where I came from and I’ve made it a personal goal never to be like the bullies that once harassed me.

I got married in my early twenties and shortly after, my interest in video games returned. My wife and I bought a Playstation 2 and a Gamecube. I slowly started to rebuild my library and catch up on all the great games I missed over the years. That brings us to now. I worked a fulltime job, raise my family, and pursue a variety of interests. But my love of games remains.

As tempting as it is to claim that this is going to be a retro-gaming blog, I can’t really promise that. I’m also going to be talking about newer games. Actually, I’ll pretty much be posting about anything that interests me. Movies, comics, novels, whatever. Another large focus of this blog will probably be my video game interactions with my kids. My oldest son is eight, and his interest in games is at an all time high. If nothing else, I hope this site will make a nice bank of memories for them to look back on. But in the meantime, I hope anyone who stumbles across it has fun. If nothing else, this blog is a diary of sorts for whatever nerdy passion consumes me at the moment. Please feel free to participate and comment.

Retro Flashback: Super Mario Bros.

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, my love for gaming went mainstream on the Chrismas morning I unwrapped my first Nintendo Entertainment System. I received two games that morning, Super Mario Bros. and Metroid.

Anyone who owned an NES in the 80’s and 90’s had a copy of Super Mario. It came with virtually every NES sold. As such, it was an instant ice-breaker for kids my age. It didn’t matter who you were, you knew how to play SMB. You could sit down next to another kid, even if you’ve never met before, and there was an instant bond

Everything about SMB was fascinating to a young kid such as myself. Chicken turtles, man-eating plants, smiling clouds, a plumber that can “spit” fireballs. It was just mind blowing at the time. There was nothing else like it.

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When I look back now, I can really appreciate just how much of a game-changer this title was. The wizards at Nintendo exhibited sheer genius. Not only in design, but also in marketing. I read once that sometime in the late 90’s, a poll was conducted and it found that more children worldwide recognized Mario than recognized Mickey Mouse. I believe it. The marketing machine was in full swing as a result of it’s popularity: There were cartoons, breakfast cereals, toys, etc. Not only did this game spawn a plethora of sequels, but it has been re-released over and over. (I personally have bought this game no less than 5 times).

I have owned this title on the NES, I bought the enhanced remake (Super Mario All Stars) for the SNES, I purchased it again for the Gameboy Color, again on the Wii virtual console, and yet again, with the Wii Mario Anniversary edition. Nintendo got my money time and time again, all on one single game.

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When my oldest son approached at the age of four and said, “Daddy, I think I would like try playing one of your video games now.” The first thing I grabbed for him was Super Mario.

Here’s to a classic title that has truly withstood the test of time. I plan to introduce a segment in the blog where I play through old classics and offer a “Retro Review”. I imagine that this title may be the first. Stay Tuned!

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A Night of Retro-Gaming

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After making my inital post, my curiosity was nudged a bit regarding the availability of old classic titles on modern systems. A while back I purchased the classic Gauntlet from the Xbox Live Arcade, so I knew that such titles were available. Interestingly enough, Gauntlet and other Midway titles seem to have been pulled from Xbox Live, but I did manage to find a few good classics for sale.

For only 400 points apiece, I snagged copies of both Asteroids/Asteroids Deluxe and Centipede/Millipede. The download comes with the titles both in their classic versions as well as new and enhanced graphics. However, aside from the visual changes, the games remain untouched.

It goes without saying that old coin-op style games are much more difficult than most modern day titles. This degree of difficulty was a big turn off for my eight-year-old son. Although, he did find the base simplicity of each game to be a bit appealing.

It’s a safe bet that these classics are not going get much playtime from him, the world of gaming has changed a great deal, and titles such as these are just not on the radar of most younger gamers these days. In reality, they are technically even “before my time”. But I must admit, there is still something magical about them. I was up until 2:00am playing Asteroids the other night, despite not making it past the third or fourth wave.

If you haven’t already guessed, I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I remember playing an arcade table Asteroids machine back during summer camp of my 3rd grade/4th grade year. Now, I could just find a similar version of Pitfall or Moon Patrol.

What I’m Playing : Spring 2012

Flash forward from my last post. I’m now thirty-three, married, and a father of two. I’m still a gamer but a lot has changed since my Atari and NES years. Games are now high definition, online, and with advent of the 3DS and VR, even three-dimensional.  In the coming posts, I plan to wax nostalgic a bit more, but first I want to take a moment to detail what I’m playing now.

At any given moment, I break my gaming down into three categories: Console, PC, and MMO. I am the proud owner of all three current gen consoles, and despite it’s lack of power, I often find myself drawn to the Wii. Nintendo has a way dishing out some of the most strangely-appealing titles. This is true of their first-party offerings as well as their third-party releases. My most recent Wii purchase, and the console title I’m currently playing is the infamous Xenoblade Chroniclesxenobladechronicles_NAbox-5B1-5D

Xenoblade is a title that almost didn’t see a release in North America. It’s a Japanese-style RPG that Nintendo of America felt would have hard time finding a market with western audiences. I find this a bit amusing. To me, it seems Japanese pop-culture is huge with the age 8-30 demographic these days. When Nintendo announced the title would not be coming the US, the backlash was much louder than expected. An online movement known as Operation Rainfall was launched in attempt to bring Xenoblade and two other nixed titles to the US. Needless to say, as far as Xenoblade was concerned, Op Rainfall was a success. As a direct result of demand, Xenoblade Chronicles was released in the US as a Gamestop exclusive title in April of 2012.

I’ll do a complete write-up of the game once I have completed it. For now, I’ll say that I am thoroughly impressed. I am a big fan of JRPGs and this one does not disappoint.

On the PC front, I’m currently riding the Diablo III bandwagon.

The original Diablo was on of the first PC game titles that I purchased with my own money back in the day. It is a classic dungeon crawl (which I LOVE) with an overhead view. A combo that’s rarely done right. Diablo III has been twelve years in the making and I must say it was worth the wait. I purchased it solely for the single player content, but like many others, found myself sucked in to playing online with friends.

My only complaint is that the game is dependant on connectivity with Blizzard’s servers, even in single player mode. Which, since launch, have been up and down. This has been less than convenient for me. Luckily, over the last few days, things seem to have stabilized quite a bit.

Finally, in the MMO world, my currently subscription is the infamous Final Fantasy XIV.

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Let me preface this by saying I am a die hard Final Fantasy fan. This is a fact that I’m sure will come to light as this blog continues to develop. Perhaps that explains why I’ve stuck with this game through thick and thin. Anyone familiar with the title will no doubt be aware of it’s tumultuous history. Upon release, the game was a total flop. It was rushed to market, plagued with UI and server problems, and little to no in-game content.  Not long after it’s release, the development team was sacked and replaced. The new executive producer conducted a massive evaluation and deemed the current game largely un-fixable. The solution, rebuild the game from scratch.

It has been almost two years since the title’s release, and the long awaited version 2.0 is just around the corner. I must admit, even my faith in the title was shaken in the early days. But many fixes and refinements have been put in place and today the game has made a complete 180. I’m excited to see what the future holds with the 2.0 release.

On a side note, I’ve kept and “in-character” blog since the games release which can be found here:

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In closing, as this blog continues to develop it will be host to both nostalgic memories of my retro gaming years, as well my experiences with the latest and greatest titles. As my sons get older and begin diving into gaming, it is my intention to use that interest as a way to bond and spend time with them. That is truly the main purpose of this blog.

Coin-Op Origins

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In my 33 years I’ve been many things. I’ve been a husband, a father, a student, a banker, an insurance agent, a pizza delivery guy, I’ve even flirted with being a rock star. As the years have gone by, I’ve worn many labels and enjoyed just as many hobbies. A lot of these interests have come and gone over time. But one thing has remained constant since I was a young kid: I’ve been a gamer.

I remember the first time I played a video game. I had to be no more than six years old. I was with my parents at the local Pizza Hut when I turned around to find myself face-to-face with a giant, glowing Centipede machine. The controls were simple; roll a big red ball, press the button as fast as you could, and try to shoot the centipede in a field filled with mushrooms.

I was enthralled. It was fantastic. There were blinking lights, beeps and bloops, bright colors – it was sheer magic! The machine was adorned with the painting of a menacing cartoon centipede poised to strike at some unknown victim… From that first quarter down the coin slot, I was hooked.

It wasn’t too long after that I encountered other arcade machines; Asteroids, Galaxian, Pac-Man, Q-bert, Frogger, Donkey Kong. I found all of them to be interesting to some extent. But nothing had tickled my fancy quite like the first time I saw that Centipede machine.

Although I can’t claim to remember, I’m pretty sure I begged my parents to eat out at Pizza Hut every night just so I could play Centipede. Eventually, I assume they figured they could save some money by finding a way for me to play it at home, and for Christmas that year, I got an Atari 2600. Complete with a Centipede cart.

The Atari version did not satisfy me the same way the arcade machine did. The Atari 2600 was not as powerful as most arcade cabinets. The graphics were much less colorful. Comparing art of the Atari version of Pac-Man to the arcade machine will make that clear in an instant. Regardless, for the next couple of years the Atari 2600 was what I gamed on. I had all the classics: Pitfall, Moon Patrol, Donkey Kong, Asteroids, all of which suffered in quality compared to their arcade counterparts. I’ve included two pictures below as an example:

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Moon Patrol Arcade Version

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Moon Patrol Atari 2600 Version

Just not the same is it?

For a year or more, I was content in my little bubble of watered-down Atari games.It wasn’t until one fateful trip to the local 7-Eleven with my father that I realized there was something better. It was there, Slurpee in hand, that I first laid eyes on a Super Mario Bros. arcade machine. Everything from the graphics to the sound were revolutionary. My dad handed me a quarter and I plunged head-first into the Mushroom Kingdom. Of course, I was clueless. I didn’t make it past the first Goomba. I had no idea you were supposed to jump over it, or better yet, on it.

I recall going to school the next day and telling my friends about it.  “He had a a mustache. You could REALLY see that he had a mustache! It looked almost as good as a cartoon!” I was completely obsessed with it. I remember drawing pictures of Mario and Koopa Turtles on notebook paper and cutting them out like paper dolls and acting out scenes I had seen from the game. I mean, I had that Mario Fever bad.

One day I was in Toys R Us, and I saw a “Mario Brothers” game for the 2600. Not understanding this was actually a different game, I let out a squeal unmatched to this day. Imagine my disappointment when I got it home only to realize it was not as “super” as Super Mario Bros. Even worse, it was another terrible Atari port.

My fever was cured that coming Christmas with the gift of a Nintendo Entertainment System by my grandmother. From the first day I pushed that SMB cart into that beautiful gray toaster and pressed the power button, I was marked as a gamer for life.