Interview: NZ Retro Magazine’ s Karl “After” Burnett

Former NZ TV actor Karl Burnett has long had a love of retro video games – he was introduced to Invaders on the Fountain Force 2 machine when he was a child – so he decided to publish New Zealand’s only print magazine dedicated to retro video gaming. The first issue was printed this month and I caught up with Karl “After” Burnett to talk about the process of creating a print magazine and what he thinks is the greatest retro game of all time.

Tell me about your video game background. You mentioned you were an avid reader of Computer and Video Games magazine back in the day (as an owner of a ZX Spectrum I pored over Crash! Magazine) but what was the console/games machine that sparked the video game interest for you? Was there a specific video game that just blew your mind?

It was when I got home one day, possibly from school or kindy, when I heard blips and beeps coming from the lounge. The door was shut and dad led the way, saying “do you know what that is?” I replied “video games”. To this day I don’t know how I knew that as Invaders, the game that my sister was playing on that brand new Fountain Force 2, was the first game I’d ever seen.

How did that interest develop over the years? Have you always had a fondness for “retro” games specifically or have you delved into modern games but always been drawn back to the old-skool gaming experience?

I always kept up with modern gaming. Until the Xbox360 I had owned every console of every generation. I wasn’t blown away by that generation as developers were taking far fewer risks with creativity. There were very few games that I wanted to play. I did love Grand Theft Auto V.

After that I got an Xbox One and again, there’s not a heap of stuff I like playing. I picked up GT7 recently for the PS4 Pro and I’m enjoying that (apart from the weird mobile game aspects etc) but I also picked up Elden Ring and it’s just too complicated for my old brain. I’m not a fan of crafting or messing about in inventories – leveling up and that sort of thing. I know it’s an RPG but those elements have all snuck into action games these days. I just prefer the purity and simplicity of retro games – I mean, gathering crap to make a spear that’s just going to break isn’t fun in my book. Tomb Raider really annoyed me with all that stuff. Even Transformers Devastation, as good as it was, had weapon crafting. Why!?!

What was the catalyst to create NZ Retro magazine? What was the light bulb moment that prompted you to go “Yeah, I want to publish a magazine about retro video games”?

I was writing for the UK magazine Sega Powered and I really enjoyed it. I’d toyed with the idea of creating a magazine a couple of times in the past. One was a new car magazine named The Wheel Deal, which I thankfully decided to put online instead, and the other was a retro gaming magazine that just never happened. So I decided to finally give it a go.

Walk me through the process. You’ve got a background in writing but was producing the magazine a more monumental task than you anticipated? Did you ever get to the point of asking yourself “What the hell am I doing?” and go back to whatever it was you were doing before?

I had a pretty good idea what to expect, from working full time in magazine publishing in the past. I’d done plenty of design work as a game developer, so I knew I could make it look semi decent too. There were some hurdles on the last day caused by my lack of knowledge on the printing side but nothing major until after I’d shipped issue one and the printer closed its doors.

When did you decide Kickstarter was the way to go to fund the magazine? Were you surprised at the support you received or did you think there was enough love for retro games that it was a sure thing?

I’d actually funded the first couple of issues myself. The Kickstarter was to help with the next couple of issues – I hadn’t done a great job of selling advertising! I was blown away by the amount of support. I thought there’s be enough people to sustain it but it was good to know I was right!

Launching a new magazine in the current climate was a big risk for you (I see printer Ovato has closed due to paper shortages etc). Was that at the forefront of your mind during the whole process? 

I didn’t actually see it as much of a risk, more a last chance. I’d pulled out of university as I realised halfway through my degree that programming computers is only fun if it’s done for fun. I decided I didn’t want to be a coder and I’d quit a great job to go and study. There were no suitable jobs around and I really wanted to be writing again, so I thought I might as well give it a go. I knew  that niche magazines were taking off around the world – especially retro gaming ones – and there were none in New Zealand so I filled the void. A lot of people in various Facebook retro groups I belong to voiced that they wanted it, too.

What are you most happy about with the magazine? The foreword by Julian “Jaz” RIgnall? The poster art by Trevor “Smila” Storey? The fact that you actually got the magazine out and to supporters?

Jaz was pretty much the biggest influence on my writing and I doubt I’d be doing this if it wasn’t for his work back in the day. So yeah, having him in the mag was awesome. Trevor’s art is great too – he’ll be doing plenty more for NZ Retro. But the be great thing was the magazine itself. It turned out really well. There are a few small things I’ve changed since but over all I’m really proud of it.

What does the future hold for NZ Retro magazine? Are we likely to see any love in future issues for classics like Westworld’s Blade Runner or Lucasarts masterpieces like like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle?

I LOVE point and click adventures. They were the story driven games of their time. I suppose some did have crafting, though! And inventories! How ironic. I’ll definitely cover them as I get better and faster at making the magazine as those types of games take a lot of time to play for review.

What is the greatest retro game of all time?

Tempest 2000 on Atari Jaguar or Need For Speed on 3DO. The greatest game ever made in my opinion is GTAV.

Disclaimer: I was a backer of the first issue of NZ Retro and it’s a bloody fine magazine. If you’d like to find out more about NZ Retro, you can visit its webstore at http://www.nzretro.com or subscribe to future issues via Patreon: patreon.com/nzretro

Video Wednesday

Note: This was originally planned to be uploaded last night but thanks to some numpty digging through a cable in Sydney, Australia, it impacted on internet in New Zealand, meaning it took hours and hours for the video to actually upload. Things were sorted at 3.30am this morning, apparently.

I’m never going to be a popular YouTuber or Twitch streamer. I’m too old for that sort of thing. I’m an old man, don’t you know?

I don’t have the skills like this young whippersnappers to show-off my gaming chops live to an audience around the world (my ageing old man reflexes means I’d embarrass myself more than anything)  and I don’t have the confidence (or time) to devote to a channel full-time (I have a mortgage to pay off and a trip to Canada with my family later this year to fund).

I’m up with the times, though, and despite having a background in print and online writing, I can foot it with the young players by posting some of my gaming footage on this blog from what I hope will become a regular feature.

The footage will be either console or PC, depending on the game, and it’ll either be something that I’m reviewing at the time or just a game that I’m playing. At the moment I’m making my way through Yakuza 0 (while also playing Yakuza 6: The Song of Life)  but some of the fight finishing moves just lend themselves to videos.

So without further ado, here is a couple of short (ish) videos of Yakuza 0, some hours in where hero Kazuma Kiryu has to take the fight to some enemy yakuza. Enjoy.

Let me know what you think of the video. Is this something you’d be keen to see more of?

NB: I’ll look at posting some Yakuza 6 footage, as well as some of me playing pirate in Rare’s Sea of Thieves (despite not really being a multiplayer gamer and if I can actually find something interesting to do). I’m also hopeful of playing the next God of War game so I’ll definitely post footage of that. If you want me to, of course, dear reader).

Yakuza: Heaps of cools stuff in a small area

This blog post is inspired by the great video that Jim Sterling did recently titled Yakuza’s Open World is the Biggest and Bestest. I felt myself nodding to everything he said so I thought I’d jot down my thoughts on the Yakuza series

The PlayStation 4-only Yakuza series’ Kamurocho district – loosely based on the city of Tokyo’s red-light district  Shinjuku  – might be small in size but it’s so densely packed with content that it puts to shame some of video games’ big, open world adventures.

I was first introduced to the action adventure  Yakuza series with Yakuza 2 on the PlayStation 2 and I was instantly captured by the craziness of the game world and the rich, deep narrative centred around main character, rising Yakuza (japanese gangster)  Kazuma Kiryu.

I love the Yakuza series’ open-world exploration mixed with almost over-the-top combat – Kiryu can switch between four fighting styles – but I think for me much of the charm comes from the Japanese audio with english subtitles and sheer craziness. Kiryu is voiced by Japanese actor Takada Kuroda (the original Yakuza had an english voice over actor but I can imagine the game would lose some of its charm) and the voice acting is just full of passion and really adds to the atmosphere.

Years passed and Yakuza fell to the wayside. I played games (a lot of games)  but  in the back of my mind, Yakuza was always there, waiting for me to come back. Last year, I decided it was time to get back into Yakuza and bought Yakuza Kiwami, and on booting it up, I instantly felt like I was home in a gaming world that I was familiar with. A few weeks ago, I bought Yakuza Zero, which takes the story back to the 1980s when Kiryu was a young, up-and-coming Yakuza.

Yakuza’s Kamurocho might be tiny compared to GTA’s Liberty City or Assassin’s Creed’s Egypt, but there’s so much content packed in that small collection of streets that I’m not sure I can go back to an open-world game that takes ages to traverse and has side quests that are just there to extend the lifespan of the game. I’ve visited Japan and visited the famed Akihibara district and Yakuza’s Japan felt familiar and warming, with  locations that seemed like they belonged in the world:  karaoke clubs, bars, noodle joints, convenience stores – and even a Sega arcade.

Yakuza’s side quests also feel as if they belong in the narrative, often quirky, light-hearted diversions from the main story. As he explores Kamurocho, Kiryu might have to pretend he’s a movie producer helping out two film crew workers who have found themselves in a spot of trouble, take a famous fighter around a few restaurants to show him a good time, or chase a variety of hooligans who stole a recently released video game from a small boy.

Even the people Kiryu interacts with have names that will bring a smile to your face: Man with Big Head,  Mr Shakedown (a giant of a man who fights Kiryu then steals his money), Bearded Homeless Man, (wait for it) Hatted Homeless Man and Mystery Man. You save your game at phone boxes, too, you can buy noodles from convenience stores, you can sing karaoke, you can race slot cars. The amount of stuff to do in a tiny world map is incredible. Just incredible.

I’m making my way through Yakuza 0 in anticipation for Yakuza 6, which was released in Japan in December, but is only coming to Western audiences next month. I’ll be trying my darndest to get it completed before I tackle the latest adventure of Kiryu.

Tragically, the Yakuza series hasn’t captured the attention of Western games like I think it should have. I think it’s probably been overlooked by a lot of Western gamers and that’s a shame. It’s a series that has a strong narrative with a likeable main character but not one that has been promoted heavily in our part of the world.

Have you got any games that you just adore but aren’t as popular as you think they should be?