Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Episode 021: Neo Retro Games

Welcome to The Diad Presents!

This week we are going back in time all the way to the future. It's a 10-track-stravaganza!

The show can be downloaded here,

or streamed here:

Here is the link to the YouTube video I referenced on the show:

And the track list below:

# - Game - Track - System - Composer
1 - Shovel Knight - Strike the Earth! (Plains of Passage) - PC - virt
2 - La-Mulana - Curse of Iron Pipe / Spring Sky - PC - Houryu Samejima
3 - Retro City Rampage - Half Steppin’ - PC - Freaky DNA
4 - Retro City Rampage - Battaglia Dietro La Cascata B - PC - Norrin Radd
5 - Retro City Rampage - Not Nate - PC - virt
6 - Spark the Electric Jester - Smog City Sewers - PC - Michael Staple
7 - Alwa’s Awakening - Forsaken Valley - PC - Robert Kreese
8 - Alwa’s Awakening - Vicar (Boss) - PC - Prof. Sakamoto
9 - Pixel Noir - Bare Knuckle Bruisin’ - PC - Kunal Majmudar
10 - Timespinner - "Desolate Lake (“Timespinner early tracks - Desolate Lake”)" - PC - Jeff Ball


  1. Man, so many good tracks! I gotta say, I have not been a fan of virt, particularly because of his work on Shovel Knight. It's so relentlessly energetic that it becomes fatiguing to listen to.

    So I'm glad you played "Not Nate" from RCR. That track is SO good! It's beautiful music, and it's paced better than anything I heard from the Shovel Knight OST.

    I liked the switchup of playing a lot of tracks. I hope you get something from Cave Story next time around!

    1. Hey ND,

      Glad you found something to enjoy in virt's repertoire. I think you make a very valid criticism. Of course, part of the frantic energy has to do with the type of game. I can understand that the Mega Man style of running and shooting requires a steady stream of high energy tracks. His Shantae stuff, for example, is less... incessant.

      I talked to Alan about Cave Story, actually. And in fact, Cave Story is one of the few Neo Retro games I have actually played. But, as I said on the episode, I stumbled across a treasure trove of VGM riches.

      Also, stay tuned next week... Something in store that I know you will appreciate.

    2. Oh, and specifically, I love the super groovy disco of "file select" from Shantae and the Pirate's Curse.

  2. I'll check it out. Listening to the episode again, that whole RCR block is just too sick. The first track gets me in that circa '92 NYC hip-hop B-spot. Possibly to find its way into a VGM Karaoke near you. The second track feels like the loving offspring of a Castlevania level and a Capcom cutscene. And I've already mentioned the last good!

    Well, I always look forward to Wednesdays because of your show, but your plug has me even more excited. Can't wait!

    1. Please do it! I have been meaning to ask you to send me the mp3 of your last hot fire trackzz.

      And 100% agree re: Castlevania/Capcom. The full, original song is a very different feeling, but I think my brain latched on to that Castlevania vibe. I much prefer part B.

      In the same interview I referenced, virt explains that the "Not Nate" track is an ode to Nate Dogg. I think that really comes through.

  3. I have a number of thoughts on this topic, as I know enough about sound design to get myself into trouble, and I spent a lot of time for a period of several years researching and collecting freeware indie games, many of which had a retro aesthetic. I have a big chunk of hard drive space full of titles, and played through quite a lot of them.
    I used to catalog some of my best finds on the racketboy website, and here are links to the relevant threads that I once maintained:

    Free Browser Games:

    Free PC Games:

    Doujin Games:

    1. This is a "save for a weekend or other time when I don't have obligations, haha, no really, maybe someday I can really explore this" type situation. This looks pretty awesome.

  4. OK, so my thoughts... First, a correction. Lagrange Point uses the VRC7 chip and Castlevania III and Shovel Knight use the VRC6 chip. They are very different chips, despite the similar names. The VRC7 adds 6 channels of FM synthesis, which means it makes the NES sound a lot more like a Sega Genesis, or more accurately (because it is 8-bit), like the japanese version of the Sega Master System, the Sega Mark III, which had a built-in Yamaha YM2413 FM synthesis chip.
    The VRC6 on the other hand, added two more pulse wave channels and a sawtooth channel. These are all Programmable Sound Generator (PSG) channels, not Frequency Modulation (FM) channels. Basically, that means they generate tones by playing a single high frequency oscillation. You get different timbres by choosing whether you want the oscillator to generate a triangle shaped wave (which looks a bit like this: VVVVV), a sawtooth shaped wave (which looks a bit like the bottom half of this: kkkkkk), or a pulse wave (which looks a bit like this: _--_--_--). Side note, you can change the width of the pulse by altering the duty cycle. When the widths are equal, a pulse wave can be called a square wave, but people misuse this term all the time and say "square" when they mean "pulse" wave.

    FM synthesis basically takes at least two high frequency oscillators like that and smashes them together, which results in a new tone with added harmonics (and thus results in more complex wave forms). As a sound designer, you alter the speed of the oscillators and you get different effects as they smash together. FM is a lot more flexible, but it's also a lot easier to generate awful tones too. Some Sega composers just stuck to the PSG channels on the Sega Genesis and didn't even attempt to use the FM channels. In the right hands though, FM becomes amazing (see Yuzo Koshiro's work in Streets of Rage 1, 2, and 3).

    Lagrange Point is the only Famicom game to ever use the VRC7 for music. It's a quirky weird bit of video game history. The game cost gamers almost twice as much as a standard game in its day because of the added VRC7 chip, and so it was a risky (and possibly even stupid) business venture. It's definitely memorable though, since it is a one-of-a-kind. If you ever want your Famicom to sound like a totally different machine, that is the game to buy. The soundtrack is pretty great, though there are better FM productions on Sega consoles. It's such an improbable game to have ever been made though, I kind of love it just for that reason.

    It is really cool that there is an NSF for Shovel Knight's soundtrack. I have it, though it's hard to find now. There are dead links out there, but a little use of the Internet Wayback Machine will help bring them back to life (just sayin'). I get Utopia Nemo's criticism of the soundtrack, but I still love it for its purist vision, even if it is a dense listen that forgets to breathe. By using the VRC6, he gets at something the NES could technically be capable of, but it feels just a little more advanced. The graphics do some similar things and I think there are some detailed and fascinating articles about that on Gamasutra somewhere. It's like what you remember, just a little bit more evolved, and I love that. The gameplay is also spot on. To me, Shovel Knight is the perfect retro game.

    As for the Castlevania III soundtrack, there is this great mashup of both the NES version and the Famicom version with the VRC6 that was made by Kirby Pufocia. This is my preferred way of listening to the soundtrack now. You can get it at bandcamp:

    1. The Mark III didn’t have built-in FM. It had an add-on module. The western-style Master System was re-released in Japan(similar to what happened with Transformers, except for the popularity) with the name Master System, and THAT version had the FM capability built in. I think.

    2. I remember the first time I saw a Japanese Master System commercial. My brain froze for a while while trying to figure out what I was watching, since I also understood the Mark III to be the Japanese MS.

      Lagrange Point is a wonderfully weird thing. I also like listening to the FDS music for the same reasons.

    3. Hi JT!

      I’ll try to go through and respond to the points in order here.

      First, I realized my mistake re: VRC6/7 after-the-fact, but other than offering an unprompted correction in a future episode™, there isn’t a great way to set the record straight. I had planned to do a VRC6 episode later on and I was going to make amends then. BUT NOW MY SHAME IS LAID BARE.

      That being said, I really like your very simple and straightforward explanation. It looks like you are currently time traveling in Diad land, but once you get to a more current episode you will hear that I have an idea to do a “sound basics” kind of episode. Talking about sample rates, and steps, and wave shapes, etc. I will leave it to the professionals to do the heavy lifting, and probably offer only color commentary.

      I’ll be interested to hear your comments if you make it to the episode where I talk about the Namco 163 sound hardware.

      I do have the Shovel Knight NSF sitting on my laptop, so long live Virt! I find myself more setting oddly stringent rules when it pertains to sound in neo retro games, but the graphics get a bit of a pass. I love sticking to the aesthetic, but going above and beyond. Your description is a better one then what I’ve just offered, but I think we are on the same page. I wonder if it is because even the slightest change to the NES sound (an extra channel for instance) is immediately recognizable, whereas more people weren’t aware of the graphical limitations. Sure they might recognize the palate is limited, but not in the sense that Mega Man is 2 sprites working separately with a background image, or whatever.

      I will be checking that Castlevania link out.

      I love the detailed response JT, thanks for taking the time out to write so thoughtfully. Between you and Utopia Nemo I feel like I can only communicate in caveman grunts by comparison!


  5. Also, on this topic of retro/neo-retro/whatever, I think the word "retro" best describes it when you actually look at the definition (i.e. "imitative of a style, fashion, or design from the recent past"). Gamers have just been using the word "retro" to mean "past" for so long (and thus misusing the term), that it now requires clarification if you mean retro as old or retro as in new things that mimic old things. Whatever. Language is weird.

    As for the first game to use this retro/neo-retro aesthetic, I would say that it's really hard to draw any clear line. La Mulana (2005) is pre-dated by Cave Story (2004) if we want to talk about indie platformers that remain popular today (both of which have been revamped a little). But when you get into Japanese doujin games, you can go much earlier than that. ChoRenSha68K is a popular vertical shmup done in a retro style that was released in 1995. This game still remains popular today in the shmup scene because it never stopped kicking ass. There is also the whole Touhou series, which has dozens of games and spinoffs, starting with a 1996 release. The American shareware scene in the '90s was also really vibrant and many games back then were also based on simpler graphics and earlier game design. And depending on how you want to define things, ever since PC games started having graphics and moved beyond the text-based limitations of games like Zork, there have still continued to be text-based games for decades. Now people mostly use a utility called Torn to make their text adventures, which is easy enough to use that the text-based game scene still hasn't died out.

    That being said, the virtual stores that started to sell indie titles through the Xbox360, Wii, and PS3 really helped give the indie scene a shot in the arm. Starting with titles like Braid, World of Goo, Flower, Fez, La Mulana, and Cave Story... as we crossed from the 200Xs to the 201Xs, the nostalgia fueled market for 8-bit games really skyrocketed.
    Anyway, I'm going to stop typing now as I have already typed too much. Shh. Zip it JT.

    Great tunes! Love the music! ^__^

    1. Man, I think I totally wrote off Cave Story because I have it inextricably linked in my mind to my 3DS. But yes, if it came out in 2004 I think it might be what I would consider the first “neo retro” game. I think that little bit of separation is what makes it “retro” – particularly when using the correct definition.

      ChoRenSha68k I have heard of (you’ll hear some down the line), but since it came out in 1995, I think of it more as a contemporary release. That might not be exactly fair though.

      I haven’t heard of Torn. Is it realted to the MUCK MUD MOOSH MOO family of text games?

      As for freeware and shareware PC games, that is something I hadn’t really delved into. For some reason all I can think of right now is Slick Willy, the parodic Bill Clinton game. I mean, I know I had a lot more, but yes, you are absolutely right, these games probably have a much closer link or feel to older games.

      Glad you are digging the music!