Introducing Kids to Retrogaming

My kids are getting to the age where they enjoy video games. While the primary console that they game on is the Wii or WiiU, I do school them in the ways of retro gaming. It wasn't something that I forced on them, I let them discover it organically. The game room didn't mean a whole lot to them when they were really young, but as they became more perceptive, they would ask about the games on the shelves. The colorful boxes and cartoonish covers drew them in. Mario, Sonic, Mega Man, Duck Tales, and others still have the same visual appeal as they did thirty years ago.

The Wii was the first console that they became familiar with, and Wii Sports bowling was their first game. When I first showed them the 8 and 16 bit systems, their concept of controlling was to motion the controller up, down, left, right, and every which way. This took a while to diffuse, but every now and then there's some body sways during a long jump in Super Mario Bros., or Sonic.

Once I started showing them retro games, I was reminded of how hard old NES games are for kids today. Back when we were kids it seemed like we had fewer distractions and more time to put into fewer endeavors. As such we continued over and over again until we mastered the nuances of Mario's run and jump physics, Sonic's wonky acceleration from stand still, and Simon Belmont's committed jump arc. We learned patience because we only had a few games. This leads me to be pretty selective about the games I introduce to my kids, as they don't have the same controller skills that we did. I showed them games that didn't require twitch reflexes (Contra, Mega Man) or complicated move sets (Street Fighter 2 and the like). Platformers, beat'em ups, puzzle games, and light gun games seem to fit the bill.

Sometimes we'll play in the basement on original consoles my main setup if we have a decent amount of time. Other times if we have ten or fifteen minutes to burn we'll play on a Raspberry Pi in the living room. My daughter doesn't have a preference, and for the game she's playing it doesn't really matter. As long as she's having fun, that's what matters.

So far, my youngest daughter is the most interested in retro gaming. Her current favorites include

Super Mario Bros. series
This is a staple. These are less forgiving than the Wii or WiiU versions, but colorful and appealing all the same. The musics is infectious, embedded in your subconscious after a few plays. While there is some tight controls necessary for mastery, anyone can pick up and play, and that was the idea. Accelerating before a long jump is still hard for them to pull off, but that comes with practice.

There's a primal simplicity in shooting and dodging across one plane of movement. It is a perfect beginner's shoot'em up, as the rules are obvious after playing for ten seconds. Progress is simply a matter of how far you can make it.

Dr. Mario
Puzzle games are great for problem solving, and possibly more addictive than the typical game. I consider this to be the best original puzzle game on the NES, and I showed my kids why.

Duck Hunt
The zapper is the easiest controller for kids to use. Difficulty can be increased simply by standing farther back from the TV. Every kid should experience the laughing dog.

Castle of Illusion
Although Micky Mouse may not have the monopoly on childhood affections that it once did, this is a very nice looking game that holds up today. The pace is very appropriate for kids, and the animations are still entertaining.

Sonic The Hedgehog
Sonic is colorful and fast. The freed animal friends are cute and plentiful. The controls are simple. Aside from the occasional lesson in momentum here and there, the game is literally a blast (except for the out-of-character Marble zone).

TMNT The Hyperstone Heist
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle games from the '90s are as kid friendly as they come. The ninja action is frantic as you can button mash your way through the game. As with all beat'em ups, cooperative play is king.

Golden Axe
A little bit more serious than Hyperstone Heist, Golden Axe is just as easy for a kid to learn. The magic action is cool to use, and the medieval setting is a change of pace from the overtly juvenile games listed so far.

Streets of Rage 2
I wasn't sure how my daughter would take to this one, but once she saw Blaze on the character select screen there was no turning back. Maybe I should have felt bad about introducing her to a game where you beat people up on the streets, but it didn't seem to sink in. It's a bit dicier as you can injure each other, but its training for Double Dragon I suppose.

Donkey Kong Coutry
Rare's 16-bit system life extender is a marvel of programming, and is still an impressive feat. Being able to play as Diddy or Kong enhances the experience. Rideable helper animals add to the fun, and figuring out how to platform to the extra lives and bonus letters complete the experience. This one can get difficult with some precision timing for jumps.

Bomberman '93
The Bomberman games are some of the original party games, encouraging friend-on-friend mayhem well before Smash Bros. My girls aren't too keen on playing battle mode, but they do enjoy the single player campaign. The music can get a little irritating, as the loop is a little short.

Bust-A-Move '99
Another puzzle game that is easy to learn and hard to master, Bust a Move draws kids in with their Bubble Bobble avatars. Its a subtle lesson in geometry, without the protractors or crying. My daughter's favorite stage is any one where you have the pointer dots (surprise). The music is as catchy as anything you have ever heard.

Crash Bandicoot
Sony's first system mascot would have been a success on any generation's consoles. The character design is colorful and fun, and game mechanics are universal in that early 3D way. The simplicity of gameplay makes this kid accessible immediately.

With the benefit of hindsight, all of the games that my girls play are vetted by me, directly (I'll recommend) or indirectly (they find one on the shelf). The coolest part of all of this is that we have another thing that we enjoy doing together.
So what are some games that you think they should tackle next?

Review: FX-Unit Yuki for the PC Engine Super CD

Modern retro-inspired games are becoming more prevalent these days, with titles like Shovel Night, Sonic Mania, and Retro City Rampage leading the way. Most are independent developers, with crowdfunding or Kicker campains funding the projects.
FX-Unit Yuki, formerly known through its Kickstarter campain as the Henshin Engine, was recently released, and I had the opportunity to buy one from Sarumaru himself at the Midwest Gaming Classic in Milwaukee. I had played the demo last year in the Turbofest room, so I was excited to see the final release.

The game is a 2D action platformer for the PC-Engine Super CD system, or Turbo CD, since the system is not region locked for CD games. Dreamcast and Genesis ports are also in development.

The story is presented in several cut scenes in-between stages. The protagonist, Yuki, is a game tester that gets digitized in a virtual game world. The story and quest begins there. A rival character is eventually introduced, which brings some additional interest to the storyline.

The gameplay is what you expect from 2D platformer from the era that it is inspired by. Yuki has a slash attach reminiscent of Hiryu's from Strider.  Controls are tight, although hit detection could be better. Her jump is fairly responsive, and controllable mid-air. New abilities are learned throughout, such as a charge shot, slide, double jump, and so on.

The art style is a clean and bright anime style, with impressive overall quality. I am not a huge fan of anime, but this is as impressive as I've seen. There is high correlation between sprite design and the drawn anime, so there is no question as to which sprite is which character. The amount of detail in the sprites and backgrounds is impressive, capably standing amongst the best of the era.

The Stage design rather simple, with a few tricky platforms here and there. The platforming evolves as skills are acquired, and the learning curve is fairly steady. For veterans of Mega Man and the Mario games, the platforming is not the central challenge. Common enemies throughout each level present challenges due to difficult angle of attacks (think ravens in Ninja Gaiden, or Medusa heads in Castlevania). I died many times arrogantly assuming I had them figured out.

The stages are themed after familiar retro game stages. Stage 1 appears to be an homage to the Wonder Boy/Adventure Island games. Stage 2 recalls the Cotton series, flying broomstick and all. Stage 3 is based on the 8-bit Castlevania games, and so on.

The bosses are decently large, and present a healthy yet manageable challenge. I got frustrated with the 3rd stage boss, and had to take a hiatus from the game. That thing can go to hell.

The music in this game is outstanding, seriously. It is very rhythmic and catchy, and the retro-inspired motifs match the stage action and theme. It incorporates a blend of guitars, keyboards, and light techno. You haven't heard 16-bit game music this good since the Gate/Lords of Thunder series.

Overall, I strongly recommend FX-Unit Yuki for fans of action platformers. It stands heads and shoulders above the usual homebrew games, and a testament to what is possible with competent game design and a sincere love of retro games.

Sega Saturn Variants

Console variations are nothing new. Most consoles have redesigns over time as a console matures. Initially, the primary reasons for this were improvements in technology, improved efficiency, and in general, cost savings. The NES, SNES, Master System, Genesis, Sega CD, PSone, Wii, PS2, PS3, PS4, XBox 360, etc.,  all had revisions for these reasons.

Then you have variations not due to efficiency, but cosmetics. The N64 and Gamecube had several color variants in the late '90's and early 2000's. At first I thought this was a strange notion. Game consoles were expensive, how could people "collect" them. Then I realized: a company had to make several production runs of a console during its lifespan, why not vary the colors? It is only now, in today's retro gaming collection scene, where collecting consoles is feasible, after prices on old systems have fallen. People would not be collecting several variants of PS4's today, but they might ten years from now.

Sometimes there are functional reasons to buy a variation of a console that you already own.

  • The first wave of "fat" PS3's were backwards compatible with PS2 games, so the demand for a functioning unit is decently high. Add to that the failure rate of the older hardware, and you have an increasingly rare variant of PS3s. 
  • The 1-chip Super Nintendo revisions are known to output sharper image quality that the previous versions, convincing some retro gamers to seek them out. 
  • Early versions of the Gamecube had a digital video out port as well a multi-video out. This is a moot point however, unless you have the rare component cables that actually make use of the port.
  • The "Core Grafx" PC-Engine has composite video out, which was an improvement over the original PC-Engine which only had RF output.
  • The first wave of Sega original model-1Genesis had no TMSS message at startup, instead booting straight to the Sega logo.
  • and many others...

This post is about the Sega Saturn Variants. There aren't as many as the N64, nor are they as colorful, but I wanted to share anyway. There is almost no functional difference between any of these variants, but they are region locked. This is easily overcome by using a region bypass card such as an Action Replay cart.

The North American Model 1
My first Saturn was the North American model-1. It sports smaller, oval buttons for power and reset, and has a cd-access LED light. There is a glossy faceplate that surrounds the buttons, which is absent in later models. I bought it in 2008 off of eBay. Unfortunately, I sold it a few years back for no real reason, other than I was shedding some duplicate consoles. I regret that, as this one was special to me. It was the console that I cut my teeth on playing all of the import Japanese shoot'em ups on. The North American model 1 controllers were an ergonomic nightmare, with odd depressions in the d-pad, and unnecessarily large form factor.

The North American Model 2
The model 2 is recognizable by its larger, round power and reset buttons. The cd-access light is gone, but there is a new Sega logo on the front face, which looks nice when the console is tucked in an entertainment center. The model 2 came with a redesigned controller. Actually, it was the original controller design that came with the earlier Japanese model 1. This was a smart move, as this is one of the best controllers ever made for 2D gaming. The 3D analog controller was released around the same time, and feels really good, despite it looking huge and unwieldy. The analog stick was primitive, with a strong return to center and somewhat forced dead zone. This doesn't matter to me as I play primarily 2D games with the d-pad anyway.

The Japanese model 1

The Saturn launched in Japan first, and sported a grey/blue color scheme. I'm not crazy about the shade of grey, but I like how the blue pops on both the console itself and the controller. This controller is the same design that would later come packaged with North American model 2 consoles, except in black.

Japanese model 2

The Japanese model 2 was white, which looks really awesome if clean. Most of these suffer the same fate as early Super Nintendos, having yellow discoloration due to the Bromination in the plastic. Mine isn't too badly colored. A matching 3D controller was also released in this color.

Japanese "Skeleton" model 2
The last official model to be released was the Japanese "Skeleton" model, which is transparent. It has "This is cool" emblazoned across the cd lid, and they're right. Sadly, no 3D controller was released in this color scheme.

The Derby Stallion model 2 (photo courtesy of
The rare Derby Stallion model 2 was released as a promotion for the game of the same name. It is a lighter transparent color than the skeleton Saturn. I don't own one, and I don't anticipate shelling out the kind of cash that this would go for nowadays. Still, its cool to know that it exists.

The Japanese Sonic Saturn model 2 (photo courtesy of
The Sonic Saturn was released only in Japanese Toys R' Us stores. It is also exceedingly rare. If I saw one I'd be tempted, but the price is most likely prohibitive.

Since Sega had licensed other manufacturers to make their own versions of the Saturn in Japan, there are even more versions available. Being Japanese exclusives, these are rare and would have to be imported. Companies such as Hitachi, Victor, and Samsung all had their own versions. Again, functionality is essentially the same across all variants.

Well, I just wanted to share my Saturn console collection. There's no real deep message or point to this post. Thanks for making it all the way through! I don't think that I will collect variations of other systems. I'm not the biggest N64 fan, so that's not happening, and I hear there are a lot of XBox 360 variations, but I'm not a fan of that console either (I don't even have one). The Saturn is special to me, so I guess that's why I favor it over the others.