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The Technology Behind Nintendo’s Consoles: 1983-1996

Nintendo has released a bevy of interesting, innovative, and imaginative consoles over the years. The tech behind them deserves a deep dive.



[UPDATE: A previous version of this article misrepresented the developers of the 6502 and 65816. They were both developed by Ricoh. Goomba Stomp regrets the error.]

In recent years, Nintendo has been known more for the eccentricity of its hardware more than anything else. From the Wii’s motion controls, to the Wii U’s dual-screen gameplay, and the Switch’s portability, many analyses have focused on the physical design of Nintendo’s hardware while ignoring the systems’ most critical underpinnings: its architectural design. While Sony and Microsoft have been locked in a fierce war over console specifications for the past three generations–pitting each others’ machines in an ever-evolving battle for supremacy–Nintendo has focused on the software.

That’s a shame, though. As the progenitor of the modern games industry and a talented hardware manufacturer, Nintendo deserves a closer look at technology behind their consoles and what makes them unique. In part one of a three part series, we dive deep into Nintendo’s design choices for their first three major consoles: the NES, SNES, and Nintendo 64. 

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES): The E-cycled Titan

Released as the Famicom (Family Computer) in Japan, the NES was, by no means, a technical powerhouse. Powered by the legendary, but aging, Ricoh 6502 (also known by its chip ID, the 2A03) clocked at 1.79MHz (1.66 MHz PAL), which had powered systems from the Atari 2600 to the Commodore 64, the NES utilized an aging chipset to accomplish Nintendo’s core goal with the system: creating a faithful home console port of the arcade hit, Donkey Kong. It also succeeded in attracting the talents of a young programmer, Satoru Iwata, one of Japan’s few programmers to have extensive experience with the 6502.


The core Ricoh 6502 accomplished this, and more, by creating a bevy of interesting and creative games that peaked with 1985’s Super Mario Bros. However, Nintendo wasn’t finished there. The NES’ flexible design, enhanced by a dual ROM chipset and expandability through more expensive cartridges, allowed the NES to tackle much bigger, and more intense games. Arguably the peak of NES graphical design came near the end of the NES’ lifespan when a young developer, Masahiro Sakurai, released Kirby’s Adventure, weighing in at a whopping six megabits (750 kilobytes) and pushed the aging console to its limits.

[The Ricoh 6502] also succeeded in attracting the talents of a young programmer, Satoru Iwata…

For all its potential, the NES had some critical limits. A relatively slow processor and hard sprite limit of eight meant that some game genres (such as shmups–Summer Carnival ‘92 Recca notwithstanding) were very difficult to pull off without slowdown. Color, sound, and controller limitations all held back what was capable on Nintendo’s first successful console. Despite its limitations, however, the NES dominated the marketplace, selling over sixty-two million units worldwide and shipping over half-a-billion units in software sales, taking Nintendo to the top of the games industry in the process. For a console that leveraged such outdated technology, the NES’s impact was incredible catapulting Nintendo to the heights of its popularity. 

Super Nintendo Entertainment System* (SNES): The Aging Prizefighter

Despite riding on the NES’ popularity, the SNES nevertheless marked a notable jump in performance from the aging NES. Packing sixty-four times the work RAM and a 16 bit custom Ricoh 65C816 (also known by its chip ID, the 5A22) clocked at 21.47727 MHz (21.28137 PAL), the SNES provided a much needed boost for game developers. Suddenly, genres that had struggled on the NES, like shmups and RPGs, were no longer held back by hardware limitations and saw an incredible boost in gameplay quality. Even other genres like platformers, which had ran fine on the NES, saw an enormous increase in visual fidelity, allowing for parallax scrolling and more impressive sprite work among other features. 

Facing off against its biggest competitor, the Sega Genesis, in the “console wars” of the 1990s, the SNES’ major advantage didn’t come from graphics, but from its sound.

For all it’s technical wizardry, the SNES suffered from what games historian Dominic Arsenault calls a “decentralized architecture.” Following in the footsteps of famed Nintendo developer Gunpei Yokoi’s motto of “lateral thinking with seasoned technology,” SNES designer Masayuki Uemura focused on surrounding the relatively weak 65C816 with powerful components that “cluttered and complicated the programming process.” Similarly, Nintendo’s claims of 21 MHz represented a best-case scenario. Most of the time, the SNES operated at “an effective operating speed […of…] 1.79 to 3.58 MHz.” Such a slow CPU (at least when compared to the available options on the market at the time), meant that developers needed to harness all of the SNES’ various “specialized components” in order to produce quality games. 

Facing off against its biggest competitor, the Sega Genesis, in the “console wars” of the 1990s, the SNES’ major advantage didn’t come from graphics, but from its sound. Rocking a custom Sony audio chip (designed by none other than the legendary Ken Kutaragi) as one of its central components, the SNES allowed composers to create much more varied soundtracks than the comparably stunted NES. Games like Chrono Trigger, Donkey Kong Country, Final Fantasy VI (III in the United States), F-Zero, and Super Mario World pushed the SNES’ sound chip hard, and it showed. 


Like the NES, the SNES’ adaptability was one of its greatest strengths. Add-on technology like the DSP-1 (PilotWings and Super Mario Kart), SA-1 (Super Mario RPG and Kirby Super Star), CX4 (Mega Man X2), and a myriad of others, augmented the system in ways not possible before, allowing for experiences that were faster and better looking than on the base console. Still, Nintendo pushed for more. While the SNES’ Mode 7 allowed for backgrounds to be manipulated, stretched, and flipped around in order to simulate a 3D environment, but the base SNES was still incapable of true 3D gameplay. Nintendo wanted to change that. 

To address it, Nintendo assigned the development of a SNES add-on chip to Argonaut Software, an upstart British programming team, to develop a 3D capable chip for the SNES, after seeing their spectacular work on the Game Boy game X. The result was the Super FX Chip, an incredible piece of engineering that introduced groundbreaking polygonal 3D gameplay for the first time on a Nintendo console. Both the Super FX chip, used in the original Star Fox (Starwing in PAL regions), and its successor, the Super FX 2, used in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island and Doom, were powerful chips that came too late in the SNES’ life to make a substantial difference. By that time, Nintendo was already competing against the Sony Playstation, a revolutionary new system capable of much more complex 3D output than what the SNES could muster.

The SNES, ultimately, would prove to be a financial success, just like the NES before it, selling 49 million consoles and 379 million software units before being discontinued in 2003. While some, like Arsenault, see it as the beginning of the end of Nintendo’s iron grip over the gaming industry, others see it as the apex of Nintendo’s creative genius, a golden age of game design, and the perfection of sprite-based graphics. 

*All citations, unless otherwise noted, are from Dominic Arsenault’s Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware: The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Platform Studies) published by The MIT Press. You can find it here.

Nintendo 64 (N64): The Crippled Giant

That would change with the next generation, with the ever-divisive Nintendo 64. As the company’s first 64 bit, 3D focused console, the N64 took Silicon Graphics impressive MIPS architecture and introduced it to the world of video games. Operating its 64 bit NEC VR4300 CPU at 93.75 MHz and its famed Reality Coprocessor at 62.5 MHz, the N64 allowed for impressive 3D rendering that theoretically allowed the console to outperform Sony’s nearly two-year-old PlayStation.

Some of the N64’s hardware gave it an advantage over the competition. Built in trilinear mipmapping allowed for cleaner textures than the competing PS1 and Saturn, edge-based anti-aliasing paved the way for today’s FXAA and MLAA equivalents, real-time lighting was revolutionary, and its fully-programmable GPU allowed some developers to harness its true potential through tweaking microcode. Similarly developers on the N64 pioneered several techniques still in use in modern, 3D game design, including level of detail scaling, clipping, large environmental textures, and advanced texture streaming. Indeed, for developers talented (and stubborn) enough to work with the N64, great things could be achieved.

Unfortunately, flaws in the N64’s design crippled its potential. With only 4 KB of texture memory, developers were forced (at least until late in the hardware’s lifetime), to make “serious concessions in texture design.” They faced either smearing small textures across large surfaces or using Gouraud shading to make up for the console’s insane limitations. While this was a decent workaround, it resulted in a notably cartoony look that didn’t match up to the “more realistic look of competing PlayStation games.” Additionally, a flaw in hardware design made the Reality Coprocessor, the N64’s GPU, go through the CPU to access memory, an inefficient design decision that crippled the N64’s polygonal output to a tenth of what was theoretically possible.


Nintendo’s decision to adopt cartridges, however, was perhaps the biggest blow to the N64’s technical prowess. Frightened by piracy, Nintendo stuck with the cartridge, a storage medium whose range of 4-64 MB left much to be desired when compared to Sony’s 650 MB CD. Where PlayStation games like Final Fantasy VII had entire FMV cutscenes spread across multiple disks, N64 games had to settle for real-time cutscenes instead. While cartridges were much faster at loading, the vast disparity in storage capacity coupled with increased cost made cartridges yet another roadblock for the N64’s popularity. 

for developers talented (and stubborn) enough to work with the N64, great things could be achieved.

Despite its many successes, the N64 failed to capture the magic of either the NES or SNES, selling 32 million consoles to the PlayStation’s 102 million. It sent Nintendo home empty-handed, rewarding Sony’s innovation and consumer communication and punishing Nintendo’s stubborn reticence. After spending most of the late 90s in a desperate attempt to catch up with Sony, Nintendo decided that it had to take a few chances and compete with Sony directly on power…

Be sure to check out the second part of this series where we discuss the technical history behind both the GameCube and Wii.


The Technology Behind Nintendo’s Consoles: 2001-2007

The Technology Behind Nintendo’s Consoles: 2012 – Present

Although a gamer since before I can remember, there is not a better definition of me than these three words: Christian, moderate, and learner. I am steadfast in my Faith, my Beliefs, and in my Opinions, but I am always willing to hear the other side of the discussion. I love Nintendo, History, and the NBA. Currently a PhD Student at Liberty University.

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‘Castlevania Bloodlines’: The Official Sega Genesis Sequel to Bram Stoker’s Hit Novel, Dracula



Castlevania Bloodlines

Castlevania isn’t a dialogue-heavy series by any means, but it’s still home to one of gaming’s most compelling narratives. Equipped with only their ancestral weapon, the legendary Vampire Killer, descendants of the Belmont clan face off against Count Dracula every 100 years like clockwork (give or take). His resurrection is inevitable. Just as good will always triumph over evil, evil will rise again. Castlevania was about the cyclical nature of good and evil long before Dracula mused about the nature of humanity in Symphony of the Night. Castlevania chronicled the Belmont family’s centuries-long struggle to keep Count Dracula at bay, game after game. Of course, he wasn’t the Count Dracula– more a representation of evil– but that was as much a given as a Belmont rising up to wield Vampire Killer. Then Castlevania Bloodlines happened. 

Released in 1995 exclusively for the Sega Genesis, Bloodlines may have looked like any other Castlevania game, but it marked a series of eclectic firsts for the franchise. Gone are the Belmonts and the game neither takes place inside of or involves getting to Dracula’s Castle. Bloodlines is even titled Vampire Killer in Japan, creating a bigger divide between it and previous entries, but that hardly compares to Bloodlines’ strangest contribution to the series: making Bram Stoker’s Dracula canon. 

The nature of how Dracula fits into the Castlevania mythos isn’t as plain and simple as just taking the book as writ as canon, but it fits much cleaner than one would expect. Although Bloodlines may lift elements from the novel with its own embellishments, its changes are ultimately inconsequential. Quincey Morris doesn’t have a son in the novel, but he’s the only major character alongside Dracula not to keep a journal, keeping his background relatively obscured. Quincey also doesn’t sport his signature bowie knife in Bloodlines’ backstory, finishing Dracula off with a stake (instead of the Vampire Killer for whatever reason.) 

There’s no mention of Jonathan Harker, Mina, or Abraham Van Helsing– and Dracula’s motives aren’t at all in-line with his novel counterpart’s– but Konami’s references to the novel make it clear that audiences are intended to consider the novel canon even if the details don’t quite match up. It seems a strange choice, especially for a franchise that was pushing its tenth anniversary by the time Bloodlines released in 1995, but it’s not a totally random decision on Konami’s part. Much like how Super Castlevania IV’s tonal maturity gave it a greater layer of depth, Bloodlines thrives off its connection to Bram Stoker’s Dracula

If there’s one immediate benefit to tying Dracula to Castlevania: Bloodlines, it’s grounding the latter in some semblance of reality. Set in 1917, Vampire Killer was the most modern Castlevania to date– not just at its release, but until Aria of Sorrow was released in 2003. The games were never period pieces, but they were set far enough in the past where literal Universal Monsters wouldn’t keep the series from staying narratively grounded. More importantly, the series’ settings were always consistently gothic, creating a unique sense of style around Dracula himself rather than the time period. 

Bloodlines opts for a wildly different approach altogether when it comes to setting, doubling down on the series’ historical elements while keeping Super Castlevania IV’s darker tone intact. Dracula feels a part of the world, rather than the world of Castlevania feeling a part of Dracula. At the same time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula helps ground the very minimal plot by giving John and Eric’s trek across Europe greater scope. John and Eric even have a personal stake in the plot, having witnessed Quincey’s death. It’s all window dressing, but Bloodlines’ assimilation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula gives the series some narrative legitimacy to rub shoulders with its high quality gameplay. 

The connections to Bram Stoker’s Dracula are admittedly loose, but they’re loose enough to work in the game’s benefit. Dracula is structured as an epistolary novel with chapters divided in letters, journal entries, articles, and logs. The story is told coherently, but this approach often results in the point of view & setting changing. While uncertainly a direct reference to the novel, Bloodlines similarly allows players to switch between John & Eric whenever they use a continue on Easy mode, and each stage takes place in a different country rather than just Transylvania. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula may give Bloodlines its foundation, but it’s that globetrotting that gives the game its identity. Stage 1 opens in Romania, the ruins of Dracula’s Castle left to time after his previous defeat. Where other games would immediately transition into the depths of Castle Dracula, Bloodlines’ Stage 2 instead takes players to the lost city of Atlantis in Greece, while Stage 3 involves scaling the Leaning Tower of Pisa in order to slay a demon at the top. There’s a grandiosity to the stage design simply not present in previous entries. Not just in terms of scope, but in actual structure. 

Only six stages long, Bloodlines is the shortest of the mainline Castlevania games, but it makes up for its lack of length with longer stages overall. The main story falls on the shorter side, but the stage to stage pacing ensures that Bloodlines neither outstays its welcome or goes too soon. While a Stage 7 may have done the game some good, Bloodlines’ six stages offer some of the tightest action-platforming in the franchise. Enemies are by no means infrequent, and Bloodlines requires players to understand both John & Eric’s unique platforming skills by Stage 3, outright preventing progress should players fail to adapt.

John’s unique platforming ability will be familiar to all those who played Super Castlevania IV as, predictably, he can use the Vampire Killer to hang. This time around, however, John can whip onto just about any ceiling. Eric, on the other hand, has a charged jump that thrusts him into the air when released. Eric’s jump ignores platforms entirely, allowing him a degree of verticality Castlevania typically doesn’t give to players. Stage 3 even features a room that’s a bottomless pit for Eric, but easy platforming for John thanks to its whip. Subsequently, there’s a room where John can’t make progress due to the ceiling, but Eric can jump right through.

John and Eric’s abilities are natural extensions & evolutions of Simon’s from Super CV IV, just split between the both of them, but it’s also worth noting how Bloodlines’ more involved platforming helps to further flesh out Castlevania’s world. Bram Stoker’s Dracula coupled with the European setting did more for the series’ world-building at the time than any of its predecessors, save for Rondo of Blood. It’s not often that a video game series absorbs a literary classic into its main plot, but Castlevania handles it surprisingly well. 

It’s fitting that Castlevania Bloodlines is titled Vampire Killer in Japan. At its core, Vampire Killer is a recontextualization of Castlevania. The story is still framed through the Belmonts’ struggle against Dracula, but the scope is wider, extending mediums in the process. Vampire Killer is about the legacy of the Vampire Killer and the vampire killers whose fates are sealed by the whip. Symphony of the Night may be a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood, but Bloodlines set the stage for Symphony to tell a traditional and intimate story.

More important than anything, though, Castlevania taking Bram Stoker’s Dracula and making it a part of its canon is just so outlandish that it makes perfect sense. The series that regularly featured Universal Monsters as bosses was never going to ignore the novel forever. That Bloodlines uses the novel tactfully and in a game where its presence is appropriate– intentional or otherwise– weirdly elevates Castlevania as a franchise. Castlevania isn’t just a Dracula story, it’s the Dracula story. And of all the games to make that declaration with, Bloodlines is a damn good choice. 

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XO19: Top 10 Best Announcements of the Show

Xbox just had their best XO presentation ever, and it wasn’t even close. Here’s a rundown of the best announcements from XO19.




Microsoft had a lot to prove going into its fifth annual XO showcase. Console launches are on the horizon, cloud competitor Google Stadia is about to ship to early adopters, and Game Pass subscribers are as hungry as ever for new additions to the lineup. Then there’s the fact that XO has always been looked down upon by the gaming community in general as a lackluster, padded presentation.

All of that changed with XO19. This was, by far, the best XO in the event’s history. In fact, it featured more shocking reveals and genuinely impressive announcements than a good deal of Microsoft’s recent E3 press conferences. From new IP reveals, to first-time looks at gameplay, to a couple “I never would’ve believed you a week ago” shockers, it’s clear that Xbox stepped up its game from years past. Here’s our list of the best announcements of the show.

10. Everwild Reveal

It’s not too often that we get to experience a new IP from Rare. Their last attempt, Sea of Thieves, was a fully multiplayer, always-online affair that gradually garnered a cult following thanks to some of the best community engagement and most consistent content updates in the industry.

We don’t know what type of game Everwild is yet, but it’s certainly oozing that same colorful, ambient charm that made players fall in love with Sea of Thieves all those years ago. Seeing as how we only got a cinematic teaser, though, it might be quite some time before we’re running around these gorgeous environments.

9. ID@Xbox Lineup

The ID@Xbox team has pulled it off again. Despite being stuck with an almost insultingly poor time slot in the presentation, several of the indies shown off in this short montage rivaled some of the show’s AAA spotlights. It had everything from high-profile indies like Streets of Rage 4, Touhou Luna Nights, and the Yacht Club Games-published Cyber Shadow, to more modest beauties like SkateBIRD, Haven, Cris Tales, and she dreams elsewhere.

The best part? All of these are launching on Game Pass day and date. The worst part? No actual dates were announced for anything shown. Regardless, it’s encouraging that so many high quality indies are continuing to come to Xbox (and that relationships with Devolver Digital and Yacht Club are rock-solid).

8. West of Dead Reveal/Open Beta


Raw Fury has one of the better eyes in the indie publishing scene. Gems like GoNNER, Dandara, and Bad North have all released under their watch, and West of Dead might be their best acquisition yet. It’s a heavily-stylized twin stick shooter that switches things up by making tactical cover a core part of the experience.

The trailer hinted at roguelike elements being present, and the ever-popular procedurally generated levels should significantly up replayability. How it plays, however, remains to be seen…unless you have an Xbox, in which case you can play the exclusive open beta now before the full game comes to all platforms next year.

7. Halo Reach Release Date


The Master Chief Collection has long been the one golden goose that endlessly eludes those outside of the Xbox ecosystem. Earlier this year, though, Microsoft made waves when it announced that it was bringing the entire collection over to PC. Reach is the first step in that process, and it’s finally making its way to both PC and Xbox One as part of the MCC on December 3rd.

It’s just a date, but the fact that so many new players get to experience one of Halo‘s most beloved outings at last easily made it one of the highlights of the night.

6. Grounded Reveal


Who woulda thought? Fresh off releasing one of the best RPGs in years with The Outer Worlds, Obsidian decided to show off a passion project from one of its smaller teams: Grounded. The premise? Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Survival Edition.

Players take control of kids the size of ants as they fight off actual bugs, cook, craft armor and weapon upgrades, and build shelter to survive in the wilderness of someone’s backyard. As silly as it sounds and looks, and as unexpected a project it is for Obsidian to undertake, it genuinely looks rather promising. The cheerful color palette is a welcome contrast to the dark, brooding aesthetic so many other survival games have adopted. There are plenty of details left to be uncovered, but if early impressions are anything to go by, this is one to keep on your radar early next year.

5. Age of Empires IV Gameplay Reveal


Age of Empires is one of the most esteemed strategy franchises in history. Despite having this beloved IP in their back pocket, however, Microsoft hasn’t published a new mainline game in the series since 2005. Age of Empires IV was originally announced over two years ago, and after buttering everyone up with the release of Age of Empires II Definitive Edition that afternoon, the first glimpse of gameplay was finally shown at XO19.

Simply put, the game looks gorgeous. Every building is full of detail and the countryside looks surprisingly lush and picturesque. Witnessing hundreds of units charging down the valley towards the stronghold in the trailer was mind-blowing as an old-school fan. They didn’t show off any innovations or moment-to-moment gameplay, but it’s looking more and more like the future of the franchise is safe in Relic’s hands.

4. Final Fantasy Blowout


Xbox’s success in Japanese markets has become something of a running joke over the years. Though inroads were clearly made with Bandai Namco, many more Japanese publishers won’t go within a mile of the platform. Possibly through working with Square Enix’s western division to put the latest Tomb Raider and Just Cause entries on board, it looks like the main branch has finally decided to give Xbox players a chance.

Starting this holiday, Game Pass subscribers will gradually get every single-player Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VII. More shocking still, The Verge reported that the Xbox team is working to get the massively popular MMO Final Fantasy XIV over as well. The sheer value of having every post-Super Nintendo Final Fantasy game included in Game Pass (even XV) is ridiculous. It remains to be seen what the rollout cadence of these ten titles will look like, but considering how long each of these are, one per month wouldn’t shock or disappoint.

3. The Reign of Project xCloud

With Stadia launching just next week, Microsoft had been surprisingly quiet on their cloud gaming front up to this point. The service had gone into preview for those lucky enough to get in and, by most accounts, it had been fairly well-received. The real question came down to what Xbox was going to do to make itself stand out from its competition.

The bombs dropped here felt like the equivalent to the thrashing Sony gave to Microsoft back at E3 2013. Microsoft shadow dropped 40+ new games into Preview for players to test (for free) including Devil May Cry 5, Tekken 7, Bloodstained, and Ace Combat 7. Even better, xCloud will support third-party controllers including the DUALSHOCK 4 and will finally show up on Windows 10 PCs in 2020.

Perhaps the most damning announcement, however, is that xCloud will be integrated with Game Pass starting next year. Only having to pay for a Game Pass subscription to access 100+ games and play them in the cloud (including Halo, Forza, The Outer Worlds, and all those Final Fantasy titles) makes xCloud a far better value than Stadia right out of the gate. If this didn’t force Google to adjust its strategy, we might be looking at a very short cloud gaming war.

2. Square Sharing the Kingdom Hearts Love

Kingdom Hearts 3 releasing on Xbox One was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand, players who had left the PlayStation ecosystem after playing the first games had a chance to see the arc’s conclusion. On the other hand, new players had no options for going back and experiencing the series’ roots.

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5+2.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue finally coming to Xbox next year is a godsend for younger players and new players alike. More important, however, is the tearing down of those over 15+ years old exclusivity walls. Just like with many of the Final Fantasys, the main Kingdom Hearts games had been married to PlayStation systems for years. This shift at Square is an exciting one, and it bodes particularly well for the next generation of Xbox hardware.

1. Yakuza Finally Goes Multi-Console

It seems like Phil Spencer’s trips to Japan finally paid off. In what was arguably the most shocking announcement of XO19 (right next to Kingdom Hearts), it was revealed that SEGA is taking the Yakuza series multi-console at last. Not only are Yakuza 0 and Kiwami 1+2 coming to Xbox, but all three are going to Game Pass next year as well.

Does this mean support from Japanese studios will increase across the board? Of course not. But getting big names like Bandai Namco, Square Enix, and SEGA on board is nothing if not encouraging. Xbox is clearly pulling out all the stops to ensure a diverse suite of third-party support come Scarlett’s launch next year, and it’s the healthiest the platform has looked in a very long time.

Honorable Mentions:

Bleeding Edge Release Date

KartRider Drift Reveal/Closed Beta Announcement

Last Stop Reveal

Wasteland 3 Release Date

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‘Garden Story’ First Impressions: The Coziest of Adventures

Long-awaited Twitter darling Garden Story just released its first demo. Here’s what we learned after playing through it twice.



garden story

Following the unfortunate (but understandable) delay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s been a distinct lack of chill, aesthetic games to fill the void. Garden Story’s charming environmental art and animation have earned it a dedicated social media following, but it wasn’t until Picogram released a demo just a couple of days ago that anyone with a Steam account could actually experience the game for themselves. So, just how fun is this wholesome little RPG?

Setting the Scene

Garden Story’s demo centers around the newly-appointed village guardian Concord (a grape) and their first steps in rebuilding Autumn Town, a community ravaged by a sinister force known as “the Rot.” Chatting with villagers reveals a bit of insight into the situation at hand; it’s soon clear just how much the other townsfolk need the player’s support.

There are several clear parallels to old-school Legend of Zelda titles here, but Garden Story manages to set itself apart rather quickly. For one, this isn’t a solo adventure; the player sets out with Rana (a frog) and Fuji (a tomato) on a friendly quest to be as helpful to the surrounding community as possible. Seeing friends around and watching cute scripted cutscenes between the crew does a great job of instilling a sense of camaraderie and friendship.

In another pleasant twist, everything here is themed around building rather than destroying. Instead of traditional swords and bows, Concord repurposes his dowsing rod and scavenging pick into makeshift weapons. The combat itself calls to mind Stardew Valley; simple, minimal, and clearly not the main focus. There’s a pesky stamina bar that restricts the number of times Concord can attack and how far they can run, frequently forcing players to pause between barrages. In this way, encounters often come off as more of a necessary evil in Concord’s town rehabilitation journey than a main attraction.

Rebuilding a Community

So, how does one go about aiding the town? The method highlighted in the demo was by attending to a quest board with three different types of requests: Threat (combat), Repair (exploration), and Want (gathering). Each is accompanied by a task that plays an integral part in keeping Autumn Town safe and in good working order (e.g. clearing out Rot, finding sewer access so new resources can flow into town, and so on).

Aside from fulfilling requests, there are a few interesting hooks to incentivize hitting every shiny thing you come across regardless. The more different types of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into Garden Story’s world and history. Then, in another parallel to Stardew Valley, any leftover resources can be sold in the pursuit of buying tool upgrades.

While the full game will feature four locations to explore and tend to, there was still plenty to do in Autumn Town itself by the end of the demo. Rana mentioned that villagers will post new requests daily, and the demo even featured a mini side quest (called “favors”) that led me to obtain a brand-new tool. Between daily requests, favor fulfillment, and dungeons spread across four different regions, it’s looking like there will be a good bit of content here for those who really want to hang around Garden Story’s world for as long as possible.

Ambient Appeal

Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, Picogram’s latest is already delivering on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.

In fact, it’s the sound design in particular that gives Garden Story such an intimate feel. From the sound of a page-turning when entering and exiting buildings to the gentle gurgles of a bubbling brook in the forest, it’s clear that composer Grahm Nesbitt poured a ton of love into making this one feel just right. Here’s hoping the full game more than delivers on all the potential shown here.

Garden Story is slated to release in Spring of 2020 and is available to wishlist on Steam.

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