I've probably listened to hundreds of hours of video game podcasts over the last few years, exploring in depth this nerdy microverse. While there's a glut of gaming podcasts in existence, most of them are horrifyingly indistinguishable from one another: usually it's a gaggle of milquetoast bros continuously asking one another, "So, whatchya been playing?" while interspersing their conversation with odious, verbalised meme humour. ("Hey, guys: what if Link was a girl? Hurr hurr." "Shut up and take my money! Hurr Hurr.") It's enough to makes the heart of any judicious listener grieve.
There are, however, a few mighty oaks in this forest of dipshits, a precious handful of podcasts that represent a unique point of view on gaming. And these are five of those special ones that really do warrant your subscription.
Broadcasting from their offices in Shibuya, Tokyo, 8-4 Play is the podcast of a team of American video game localisers living in Japan. You've probably played some of the Japanese games they've translated for English-speaking/reading audiences: Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Dragon's Dogma, various Tales RPGs – the list is long.
"We bill it as 'the only podcast about Japan and games and Japanese games'," 8-4 executive director Mark MacDonald (Twitter) tells me over Skype. "Much of which is not true, but that's our mission statement."
One of the most compelling aspects about 8-4 Play is the insight it provides not only into the localisation process itself, which invariably seeps into the show, but also the experience of American video game expats working in the heart of Tokyo. In addition to conversations about Nintendo's future or the latest Final Fantasy, you may also hear about a ma-and-pa shop in Tokyo's otaku neighbourhood Akihabara where you can have your 3DS modded, or the verdict on an opening night visit to a Sailor Moon-themed restaurant.
"That is one of the bits [of] consistent feedback," MacDonald says. "People really do enjoy the glimpse of life here in Japan."
CANE AND RINSE
On the slightly more academic end of the spectrum is Cane and Rinse, whose hosts are mainly scattered around the UK. The show takes one video game per episode and dissects it like a science-class frog. The games chosen are usually at least a few years old in the hopes of lending some equanimity to the proceedings, after the hype or backlash that a game might have been cloaked in no longer wields any real power. Recent episodes have covered the Silent Hill series, Spelunky, Diddy Kong Racing and System Shock 2.
Cane and Rinse applies exactly the same analytical structure each episode to avoid meandering down blind alleys. The hosts first discuss the development history of the game, their own individual experiences with it at the time of release, and then they pick the game apart by all its individual components: music, gameplay, story and so forth. They always save their personal feelings about the game for the end.
"We wanted to get forensic with it," host Leon Cox (Twitter) tells me in his smooth, made-for-radio voice.
"The key thing about our manifesto," he elaborates, "is that we try to avoid hype, we try to avoid giving our opinions as if they are facts and we try to take each game on its own merits – not base it on its platform or its file size or its advertising budget or its development budget or its age. We just talk about the experience they give us."
THE INDOOR KIDS
Co-hosted by comedy producer and writer Emily V. Gordon (Twitter) alongside her husband, stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani, and (usually) recorded in Los Angeles, The Indoor Kids may have the loosey-goosey "Whatchya Been Playin'" structure so heavily pooh-poohed above, but it distinguishes itself primarily through the infusion of intriguing weekly guests.
These guests are as likely to come from the entertainment industry as they are from the world of video games, and you end up learning a lot about them because Nanjiani habitually asks about their earliest experiences with video games in addition to what they are playing now. Folks like Community creator Dan Harmon will come on to talk about an infatuation with Minecraft, or omnipresent video game voice actor Troy Baker will describe what it was like acting in games like The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite. Some of The Indoor Kids shows are recorded in front of live audiences. While video games were the original focus, the show has been increasingly open to discussing other aspects of nerd culture.
"It's a celebration of all the things that keep you from being outdoors, enjoying the sunshine and playing sports," Gordon tells me over the phone, going on to specifically mention an interest in comics, books, movies, and TV shows. She says The Indoor Kids is ultimately about the "passion we have for the things that we consume".
I couldn't help but ask if it ever felt odd professionally cracking wise into a mic with one's significant other each week. "It weirdly kind of elevates our relationship. I recommend that all married couples do podcasts together."
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If you can't suss it out from the name, Retronauts is "a podcast focused on classic video games". Originally part of the now deceased 1Up.com, Retronauts is presently untethered from any anchor and spends its episodes devoted to chronicling the history of retro games, with recent episodes, for example, covering the Bonk series and Nintendo's original 3D "portable", the Virtual Boy.
I ask co-host Jeremy Parish (Twitter) whether they ever worry about running out of retro games to cover. "The thing is, as people create current games," he tells me, "they are creating future retro games."
Parish speaks of something akin to a floating timeline, saying that they've loosely set the "cut-off line" to be considered retro at ten years. Which means that every year new retro games are inducted into the club, so to speak.
Like Cane and Rinse, the boutique nature of the show allows for the creation of evergreen episodes that don't lose value with time, and you can find yourself delving into the Retronauts back catalogue in search of a pixelated fix during the wait between new instalments.
Idle Thumbs is hosted by a crew of San Francisco developers, formerly of such studios as Telltale Games and Double Fine. Recently, Polygon senior reviewer Danielle Riendeau also joined the show. Idle Thumbs offers some of the most consistently articulate conversation on video games you are likely to find. Admittedly, the focus is usually on indie titles, as that seems to be what most of those involved are personally interested in, but the addition of Riendeau has brought a wider variety of games to the table for discussion.
Over the phone, I ask co-host Chris Remo (Twitter) what his motivations are for doing the podcast. One reason, he tells me, is that presenting thoughts on games to other developers or journalists immediately subjects those opinions to alternative perspectives.
"I think for all of us, doing the podcast is a way to keep our critical faculties about games sharp. I'm definitely a better game developer and a better creative person generally for being on Idle Thumbs. It absolutely forces me to look at games in a broader way than I would otherwise have."
Of course, great gaming podcasts don't begin and end with the five highlighted here. Additionally, the great preserver that is the internet is home to brilliant productions that, alas, are no more, such as the on-location journalism and surreal, musical editing of A Life Well Wasted, as well as The Brainy Gamer Podcast and Chet and Jon's Reassuringly Finite Gaming Playlist. They failed to rage hard enough against the dying of the light, but are worth a listen even after they're gone. Now, over to you – feel free to share your own favourite podcasts below, because we just might check them out, if we're not doing so on the regular already.
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