Of 2023: The Retro Report

It turns out that spending the retrospective year-end season by traveling around absurdly congested foreign countries is a really good way to make none of it feel like it matters. Even back in the Fall I was wondering what I’d have to say about my year in gaming before our trip around South Korea and Japan completely obliterated my memory. But I’m glad I stuck with it and started this post because that very act has helped rekindle my memories of 2023 and get me back in that year-end recap spirit.

It’s funny, I keep lists of what I’ve played and listened to each year but I never look back on these things and go “ah yes, now I see it… [Insert Revelation Here]”. Maybe the only thing I can say after all these years is that even I can’t predict what I’ll enjoy, or be turned off by, or re-discover and get back into. I live life how I listen to music, by hitting Play All: Random and letting happenstance bring new things to my attention or unexpectedly reignite an old passion.

Maybe that is my revelation because looking back at 2023 I can only say that it was another year of meandering through games from modern consoles, to PC, to retro emulation stuff. Let’s take a look at the final category:

Although I still don’t have a rock solid way of tracking the time spent, I’m certain that I put more hours, days, weeks into retro gaming in 2023 than any year past. And from where I’m writing this very post I can say that 2024 is shaping up to be even more retro-centric!

By my best estimates, playtime was pretty well balanced between the modern PlayStation Plus Extra catalog and a handful of retro games early in the year. I forget how it happened but I was reminded about Deep Fear on the Saturn yet again and realized I no longer owned the game, having foolishly sold it off somewhere back in the 90s. After eBay solved that problem I happily played through the highly-anime-tinged undersea Survival Horror adventure for the first time in 25 years! It was as great and unintentionally hilarious as I remembered.

In April we went to see the Dungeons & Dragons movie and it briefly relit my interest in fantasy role-playing so of course I fired up a bunch of versions of Eye of the Beholder from the 90s. I didn’t complete any of them but in the end I think the SNES version wins out despite the improved sights and sounds of the Sega CD release. I then played a whole bunch of different versions of Tetris and somehow dove into the Genesis release of Batman: Revenge of the Joker, being stopped by a repetitive-stress-injury inducing boss fight.

Flashpoint Frontend, Deep Fear, Popeye no Eigo Asobi

April is also the month that we cemented our intentions for the year-end Asia trip by purchasing plane tickets and reserving AirBnB’s. That’s when I decided to start learning Japanese and naturally wanted to find a retro game to help me practice. Enter: Popeye no Eigo Asobi, and in particular a fan translation patch from 2004. Those early days of learning animal names with the cast of Popeye weren’t really that helpful but it’s so quaint and wholesome thinking back on it now!

Next up was finally diving into the Flashpoint project, a frontend that allows you to browse tens of thousands of games and animations built on deprecated web platforms like Flash and Java. I was never huge into webgames but it was great to revisit some favorites that I thought I’d never be able to see again. In June I had started my way through a long-anticipated English translation of Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere but that got put aside for the greater good of overall home emulation.

Arcada Pequeno 2.0: The Tiny Emulator Box
See, I like to have a separate computer just for retro stuff. It feels more like a dedicated console than if I just close out my browser window and fire up RetroArch. I’d built a decent setup in 2020 but the computer was getting to be underpowered and there was no room left to add storage. After feeling overwhelmed by all the options on PCPartPicker I did my usual thing and went looking for a one-and-done solution and decided on the Beelink SER5. Thus began the Second Age of Fiddling. Even with much of the data in place from my old build there were still weeks of fiddling and nitpicking over shaders and bezels and controller profiles and endlessly cleaning up metadata and boxart images. It was well into July before I was spending more time playing than fiddling, but aside from my time with Starfield I pretty much played everything else for the rest of the year on this thing and I couldn’t be happier!

Back to the games, I had to benchmark the new setup with some of my favorites like Wave Race 64, Rally Cross, and ESPN eXtreme Games, all of which I finished once again in the process. I discovered some intriguing new titles I want to get back to like Darxide on 32X and Back to Stone on Game Boy Advance. I spent a solid couple of weeks setting up Clone Hero to incorporate both Rock Band guitars and the funky split-button Guitar Hero Live guitar. And I finally dove into several GameCube titles like Wave Race: Blue Storm (confirming that it is still inferior to 64), Dakar 2, a great little racer with some proto-open-world thrills, a lengthy bout with Ribbit King, though I still haven’t finished it, and even some online multiplayer in Kirby Air Ride and Mario Kart: Double Dash.

One of my favorites from the Summer season was finally diving into the Military Madness series. It’s one of those titles I’ve seen forever but never tried out myself, and for good reason! My strategic intellect was completely crushed by the cheating Computer opponents but I was nevertheless entertained by the pixelart tanks and planes blowing each other up on the surface of the moon.

Million Dollar sports car, run amok across Hawaii streets, who could this maniac be? … Karen!?

Later I revisited the pinnacle of the Need for Speed series in Hot Pursuit 2. This was the last entry before The Fast and the Furious blasted street racing, nitrous, and tuner culture all over the video game landscape in the early 2000’s. As a final hurrah of classic Need for Speed style it still satisfies with absurd speeds, clever new cop mechanics, a great variety of sports cars, and a vintage Electronica/Rap-Rock soundtrack (that is tragically thin and I had to shut off after about an hour).

Moving into the Fall I unintentionally continued working on the Electronic Arts catalog by playing through the first three SSX titles on PlayStation 2. The slayboarding action, style, and soundtracks are top notch throughout, and revisiting them made clear why no other downhill racer has ever come close to being this much fun.

Sticking with PlayStation 2, I then moved onto Castlevania: Curse of Darkness, the 2005 entry that wound up being the backstory of season two of the Netflix series and a game that I always meant to finish. Well, I finished it, and though it was stiff and a bit cookie-cutter in its repetitive environments, I still hold that it’s the best “weird” Castlevania from the Igarashi era to be made in 3D. Naturally, Michiru Yamane’s stellar soundtrack goes a long way towards ingratiating itself despite the complaints.

Quick sidebar on Game Boy
I configured three different emulator options depending on if you want to play a game on the original handheld, with Game Boy Color palettes, or on the Super Game Boy running through a SNES. In the process I finally completed my childhood favorite, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, and discovered the surprising mix of golf and platforming in The Simpsons: Itchy & Scratchy in Miniature Golf Madness.

Another dark spot from my past that I lit up late in the year is the original Armored Core. I had started it back when it was new but traded it in towards something else, probably Twisted Metal 2. Coming to it now, in the wake of Armored Core VI and especially after a decade of Souls games, I can appreciate it on so many different levels. Superficially, there’s even a faction mentioned in the game that is named Dark Soul but several of From Soft’s trademark design elements (read: Gotcha! You Died!) are on display as well. I don’t think I’ll be playing through the entire series before I finally pick up AC6 but I would like to give one or two of the sequels a shot.

I did it for the Deep Lore

That brings us to December and right up to our trip to South Korea and Japan. Despite being totally terrible at Dr. Mario gameplay I found myself running through Dr. Mario 64, unexpectedly playing as Wario and squaring off against Mad Scienstein who I’d never actually heard of before! I am still terrible at Dr. Mario but save states and rewinds saved my butt.

Finally, I got back on the car kick and ran through two championships in Beetle Adventure Racing and three playthroughs of the original Twisted Metal. I wanted to start into Twisted Metal 2 but it was time to pack up and fly off to Asia and so that ends my year of retro gaming for 2023.

I didn’t feel so positive as I started thinking about 2023 in the wee hours of the morning as we were jetting off to Korea. It all felt so long ago and so unimportant in those last two hectic weeks of the year. But looking back as I worked on this post (and the others from this week), I’m happy to have had at least one revelation: that I played and enjoyed a wider array of games from every decade than any year so far!

Of 2023
The Platform Report
The Most Played, Listened, and Seen
The Retro Report

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