Monday, June 29, 2009

The LoadDown - 06/29/2009

Another multi-release week on the Wii Shop Channel.

For DSiWare, Hudson is releasing Sudoku Master, a simple Sudoku game with 150 puzzles. Nothing groundbreaking, but very appropriate to the platform.

For WiiWare, we get Reel Fishing Challenge, yet another fishing game, and Silver Star Reversi, an inexpensive Reversi game, unfortunately with no online play. The deepest and most interesting title this week is Hudson's Water Warfare, a family-friendly 8-player online deathmatch game substituting water-based weapons for the usual FPS arsenal; there's also a player-vs.-bot offline mode for practice. None of these games is more than 800 points, so it appears Nintendo may be experimenting with the price point in these recessionary times.

On the Virtual Console, we get Fantasy Zone II, the little-seen Sega Master System sequel to the classic original. I'm a sucker for the Fantasy Zone series, mostly on account of the music, so I will probably check this one out.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Snapshots From Abroad

Sorry for the lack of updates recently -- I am taking a vacation with family and am on the lookout for videogame-related items to share, but my Internet access has been unexpectedly limited on the road so far.

It's interesting to realize how specifically our interests affect how we view the world. The sights I have chosen to document in my travels bear this out, I'm sure.

The first thing I discovered was one of the last viable bastions of the old-fashioned arcade -- airports! The St. Paul-Minneapolis airport has at least two arcades, Lucky Lindy's and Aurora Borealis. No ticket machines or family atmospheres here, just a room to the side stuffed with as many cabinets as the space can accommodate. Our stopover was brief so I only had time to snap a few quick pics at Lucky Lindy's. I was pleased to see they had the Namco Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga Class of 1981 reissue, and several recent pinball machines, as well as Sega's OutRun 2, sequel to the classic 80's coin-op. The Aurora Borealis was in a larger space, dominated by Guitar Hero Arcade, a game I did not know existed prior to seeing it there. Konami may have failed to see the potential of their Guitar Freaks coin-op guitar game early on, but they've teamed up with Activision to bring the hit home game back to the arcade.

In Vancouver, we turned out to be spending the night across the street from the Canadian Electronic Arts studio, where EA has developed titles including EA Sports Active and Need for Speed Undercover. There's always something Oz-like for me about realizing these places actually exist in physical space.

Plus, my ever-understanding wife bought me a new pair of Super Mario Brothers pajamas for the trip. No photo, you'll be happy to know, but it did happen. And as a related item, I spotted this great window display at the Choco boutique in Juneau, Alaska.

I am SUCH the geek.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Gai Flame

Another PC Engine import I acquired recently is Masaya's Gai Flame, a fairly straightforward military strategy game starring giant robots and futuristic jets and tanks. This one is playable without knowledge of Japanese, given a little trial and error to figure out which menu items do what; there's no real story presented, other than the obvious something-is-at-stake-so-let's-fight-it-out-with-mechs scenario.

The game starts with a macro-level view of the world, with multiple six-square battlefields defined, each containing space for 3 player units and 3 enemy units. The player and CPU each deploy 9 units (from a larger inventory) at the start of the game.

Units can be moved from battlefield to battlefield -- when a battlefield contains player AND enemy units, the game shifts into a close-up of the local terrain, where individual units enter into combat.

In this mode, player units can be moved about and used to attack enemy units -- the display is not hex-based, but the movement squares are offset in alternate rows to produce a similar effect, with movement and attack distance factoring in. As far as I can tell there is no "surround effect" boosting defense or attack power, but placed units constrain the other side's movement and can be positioned to concentrate cumulative firepower and keep damaged enemy units from fleeing.

Whenever a battle takes place, the screen is overlaid by a brief animated display of the combat. Oddly, only one side does damage in each battle -- the other just sits there and takes it. And the turn model eludes me -- sometimes each side gets two turns in a row, sometimes just one.

If one side wipes the other out, the game returns to the world view. The battlefield retains its previous state, so new units can be brought in to take on or reinforce existing units already in place in that area. There doesn't seem to be any way to repair damaged units, although I may be losing something in the translation.

That seems to be about it. The AI can be outflanked pretty easily once you get a feel for it -- it tends to gang up on whatever's handy, ignoring more powerful units in favor of attacking what it can most easily hit. So you can sacrifice a low-powered unit to distract it, then swoop in and hit it from all sides.

Gai Flame is not a great strategy game, but it's better than the other one in my PC Engine collection, Gulclight TDF 2, a mech vs. kaiju (giant monster) strategy game that's simple and slow-moving. The only PC Engine strategy game to hit the US back in the 8-bit era was Nectaris, released here as Military Madness. I thoroughly enjoyed the original and the Playstation sequel, and I'm looking forward to the remake due soon on WiiWare, XBLA and PSN.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Oddities: T&C Surf Designs

Another odd licensed NES game, Town & Country Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage was published by the toy company LJN based on characters from the popular Town & Country t-shirt line, like Thrilla Gorilla. It was a fairly early NES release, and I remember picking it up around the time third-party games were starting to join Nintendo's own titles on the shelves, as the system grew in popularity and I began to realize my original plan of gradually buying all the NES releases was not going to work out.

I also remember being disappointed in the game, in part because it was repetitive and difficult for the wrong reasons, in part because LJN chose to feature concept screen shots on the back of the box that were NOT representative of the actual gameplay. In this case, the box depicted a 2-player mode which was not actually available in the game, and enemy characters that also failed to appear in the final game's obstacle course-style design. It was not the game I was promised, and I don't think I ever bought another LJN game, at least not new at retail. I seem to remember a news story about a kid filing a lawsuit over LJN's Major League Baseball for false advertising -- promising league tracking or some other feature that mysteriously went missing between prototype and release.

Acclaim later acquired LJN, presumably whipped their ethics policies into shape, and released a sequel, Town & Country II: Thrilla's Surfari, which I haven't played but no doubt is why I remember that character's name and have forgotten all of the others.

We won't be seeing a sequel, remake or Virtual Console release for this one, at least not any time soon. In the late 80's, according to cartoonist and creator Steve Nazar, T&C split into two companies -- one retaining the T&C name and clothing operations, the other snagging the rights to market the cartoon characters independently. Guess which one is still in business? That's right -- people are still buying the surf wear, but the characters have fallen into disuse. They never had compelling personalities to begin with, and without the T&C connection and constant free apparel exposure, they lost whatever hipness they were perceived to have in the freewheeling 1980's.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The LoadDown - 06/22/2009

Nintendo's Wii and DS Shop channels offer quite a few new releases for U.S. gamers today. I haven't been covering DSiWare, as I don't own a DSi, but as of now I'll start listing titles at least, just in case anyone is foolishly depending on ME for their downloadable gaming news. So this week we're looking at five, count 'em, five new games.

On WiiWare, there's the party brain-training game Drill Sergeant Mindstrong, puzzle game port (from the DS) NEVES Plus, and Family Mini Golf. These all look potentially interesting and seem reasonably priced, but I know very little about them and advance buzz has been minimal. There's no indication of Wii MotionPlus support in the golf game, so it's going to seem dated already, especially because Mini Golf is all about the putting, something MP improves greatly. The upcoming budget retail title Kidz Sports - Crazy Mini Golf is promising MotionPlus support, so it's worth a wait-and-see.

On DSiWare, there's an actual game this week after too many calculators and clock thingamajigs -- it's Art Style: BOXLIFE, a corporate origami puzzle game.

On the Virtual Console, we get a surprise: SimEarth for the Turbografx-CD. I always thought this was a Western title, and that the rights might be hopelessly muddied after the Maxis/EA merger, but it appears HudsonSoft as the publisher was able to work it all out. I have an original copy that I have not yet gotten around to playing, so I'm passing on the VC edition, but if you're into SimCity this follow-up is worth trying.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wolfenstein Wrapup

As of this evening, I have finished the XBLA edition of id's 1992 classic, Wolfenstein 3D, with all 12 of the possible achievements in hand.

This was not a particularly difficult feat -- playing through the entire game on the 'Bring 'Em On' difficulty level covers most of them. Getting the rest requires searching at least one level thoroughly enough to collect all the treasures and kill all the enemies, and surviving a single level on the highest 'I Am Death Incarnate' difficulty level (which is not nearly as tough as DOOM's 'Nightmare' difficulty level.)

What slowly dawned on me as I played through the XBLA game was that I have actually never played THIS version of Wolfenstein before. I goofed around with the demo version on the PC, back in the day, of course, but my first serious playtime with it was on the Atari Jaguar. The Jaguar version featured different level maps and different bosses -- it was clearly the Wolfenstein 3D engine, but the map data was significantly different. Enemy sprites were higher-resolution, based on the Macintosh version, and additional weapons were available, like flamethrowers and rockets, that are nowhere to be found in the original. A more recent encounter with Wolfenstein came on the Game Boy Advance, but I never really tried to beat that version of the game -- it was cool to see it running well on a handheld, and it was a cheap discount bin game when I picked it up, but the GBA wasn't an ideal platform for an FPS.

So the XBLA version has been a double treat for me -- as it turned out I got to experience 55 levels that were new to me. There are actually 60 levels, with one secret tenth level hidden in each episode -- I only found my way to Level 10 while playing episode 5, so I still haven't seen ALL there is to see. But the achievements provided an excuse to play the game one more time, I've had fun, and now I'm ready to move on to (or return to) something else.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Oddities: Poltergeist

The TRS-80 Color Computer I owned once upon a time was an oddball in the 8-bit computer market, especially early on when Radio Shack was not actively encouraging third-party software development. So a lot of my gaming experiences in the mid-1980's were fairly unique.

One of the strangest games to hit the CoCo was an officially licensed Poltergeist cartridge, based on the now-classic Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg horror movie. This was not a port from any other system, as far as I know; there were games by the same name on the Commodore 64 and Spectrum ZX81, a little Google research indicates, but they were not based on the movie in any licensed sense. So this title was original and exclusive to the Color Computer, with the famous "They're here!" poster art on the cover, licensed by MGM directly to Tandy Corporation, Radio Shack's parent company. That said, it might have benefited from a bigger, cross-platform design and development budget.

The game consisted of three levels, loosely based on the movie. In the first section, the player had to run around a city block map, avoiding traffic and stopping by buildings to collect the various objects needed to rescue Carol Anne. The second level challenged the player to walk up a foreboding staircase, Frogger-style, avoiding evil spirits moving back and forth on each progressively narrower step, to reach the top. The third level depicted demonic figures rising out of "The Light", displayed as a vortex, which the player had to shoot, except SOMETIMES the figure was not a demon, but Carol Anne. Shooting Carol Anne immediately ended the game unhappily; shooting the demon multiple times as the speed increased was required to rescue her, earning a "This house is clean" message onscreen and ending the game on a positive note.

The CoCo's intensely analog, 4096-position joystick was not well-suited to action games, but I played this one quite a bit back in the day, to the point that the cartridge's door spring gave out and would not spring back into place when it was removed from the computer. The graphics were very, very simple, but it made good use of the CoCo's difficult-to-work-with sound capabilities to produce noisy, eerie background audio, and the gameplay was varied and fairly challenging, enough to merit several playthroughs after I mastered it.

But I often wonder whose idea it was, on a platform with almost NO licensed games of any sort at the time, to base an official game on Poltergeist. Was the license cheap, or awarded to Tandy as part of some obscure patent or copyright suit? We may never know. Spooky!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Early 3-D memories

The first "3-D" games I remember well were Atari's Night Driver, both in the arcade and on the 2600, and Radio Shack's Skiing, for the TRS-80 Color Computer.

Both games were very simple -- the 3-D effect was depicted using fenceposts or poles marking the outlines of the path. There was no lighting, shading, or environmental detail. Night Driver was played on a flat surface, with realistic curves but one glaring limitation -- the reason you were driving at night was that it was possible to render blocky white fenceposts against a black background; any other scenery was out of the question at the time. Skiing used more detailed flagpoles to mark the path and employed a nifty clipping effect to render horizontally-edged hills, but the snowy background was solid white, again to keep the level of detail manageable.

These early 3-D efforts were under serious constraints -- there were no polygons, and both were essentially 2-D games rendered from a 3-D perspective using a limited 2 or 4-color palette. The behind-the-scenes math went largely into creating an illusion of 3-D streaming from the background out of the screen; there was no way for the view to change perspectives, but there was tricky math and some data involved in presenting the curves and hills on display.

True 3-D came along (for me) with Atari's Battlezone and Star Wars arcade games, and Argonaut's Starglider on the Atari ST. (Yes, I missed out on Red Baron and Elite at the time.) These were vector-style games, with simple 3-D models rendered as clean lines against a black background. There were environments, rendered simply as matrices of dots and other shapes; no filled polygons yet, but the 3D-to-2D math was working properly and fast enough to render real-time animation to the flat plane of the screen. The player could travel, turn, and explore a world that felt remarkably solid, no matter how schematic its rending. These games were the true forerunners of today's 3-D -- there was no hardware-assisted filling, texturing or lighting, but the world was truly constructed in three dimensions.

Of course, lots of 3-D games fall somewhere in between complete fakery and true math-based virtual worlds. Space Harrier has a little bit of 3-D awareness to position objects in its game world, but renders that world using scaled sprites and color-cycling tricks. Sierra's King's Quest used height-based masking techniques to allow characters to walk behind and in front of 2-D scenery. Wolfenstein 3D is a 2D design rendered in 3D, with boxes rather than true polygons, and no lighting, but it has texturing and priority handling down pat, thanks to an innovative and speedy "ray-casting" technique. Early Playstation and N-64 games had texturing and lighting and true polygons, but often resorted to using 2-D sprites where more detail was desired and polygons could not be spared (see Twisted Metal's vehicle and course decorations, or Mario Kart 64's entire vehicles).

Lest I lose my retro street cred, let me reiterate that what matters, ultimately, is the game -- an illusion of 3-D that works is just as much fun as true 3-D. But there's a whole history to the technology involved, and now that 3-D is well and truly the standard, it's fun to look back at the techniques and cheats employed before we got here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wii MotionPlus Reactions

Okay, I've spent a few hours with Wii Motion Plus now.

Basic impression: It rocks!

Physically, it adds about an inch-and-a-half to the length of the Wiimote, and comes with an extended version of the "condom" jacket that's not meant to be removed. It has a locking switch to keep it firmly in place, and a pass-through so you don't have to remove it to use the Nunchuk or the Classic Controller or any other add-ons that may come along. Changing batteries and resynching the controller is a bit of a pain now, as you have to disconnect the Motion Plus and ease the hind-end of the controller out of the jacket, threading the wrist strap partway through so it can move, but it's not much worse than dealing with the old jacket by itself.

First, the bad news: this enhancement is not the be-all and end-all of motion control. The Wiimote still doesn't have a clear picture of where it actually is in 3-D space. Programmers still have to rely on a combination of noisy sensor inputs -- the existing IR camera, angle sensors, and accelerometers, plus the new gyroscope -- and draw mathematical inferences to figure out what the player is doing. The additional gyro information is very useful, but without occasional recalibration it can get a mistaken idea of the world; to get the best precision, the system needs a reliable point of reference every so often. This is visible in Tiger Woods 10's Disc Golf mode, where you have to point at the screen to pick up your disc before every throw (the main golf game seems quite content to use gravity to calibrate your golf swing, so it's not strictly necessary.) The MotionPlus apparently recalibrates itself regularly when held still, so if you're fidgety it may not work as well as it would otherwise. So the console is still perceiving the human interface rather dimly.

The good news: The Wiimote now has a MUCH clearer picture of how it is oriented and what your hand is doing, which combined with an approximate sense of your arm's motion seems to do a pretty good job overall. The control feels like it's 1:1 -- it's not quite, obviously, as there's a little bit of lag in the process of reading and interpreting the sensors, then displaying the image, dealing with the notorious HDTV lag. And any game can impose dimensional constraints for its own purposes, inhibiting the player's freedom. But it's a damn fine illusion.

Within Tiger Woods, I can say the following: Disc Golf works just the way you'd want it to, taking your throw's angle, velocity, and release point realistically into account. Swinging at a golf ball feels great (even if the onscreen golfer has better posture and form than I actually do, and never actually MISSES the ball), and putting FINALLY works naturally in a Wii golf game. You can tap it in, you can draw and fade naturally, you can overshoot the hole, and you never feel like the Wiimote missed a step -- when you screw up, you screw up fair and square. It's the Wii golf game I've been waiting for ever since Wii Sports golf, which was fun despite its limitaitons. This game just plain works, and it feels just right.

I'm really excited to see what's coming up for this technology, because it can fix a number of scenarios where the current Wii technology is fun but clearly faking it to some degree. I would love to see Samba de Amigo redone, because while it kind of works as-is, you really have to learn how to conform to its expectations -- it's not nearly as natural as the height-sensing Dreamcast maracas were, and the Wii edition's angle-based approach would benefit greatly from MotionPlus. I would love to see a proper sword-fighting game, and it sounds like there are a few of those in the works, including Red Steel 2 and an over-the-horizon Legend of Zelda. I would be pleased to see a new WarioWare or Cooking Mama game with MotionPlus support, because the controls on these titles' events occasionally feel approximate at best.

I think motion control is still in its infancy. Just like early sound films, when everything was suddenly a musical, videogames still have to figure out how to use this technology most effectively -- the plethora of lame Wii "party games" can be blamed on the appeal AND the limitations of the current technology. I think MotionPlus will help reduce the "waggle" effect, because programmers should no longer have to rely on "Hey, it's moving! I'm not sure what it's doing, but it's moving!" as an all-purpose cue. Confusion between upward and downward movements should become a thing of the past, more intricate hand motions should be reliably picked up, and more information about what the player is actually doing can only help.

I will be interested to see what happens with Microsoft's Project Natal and Sony's wand controller -- what they have shown so far is still pretty simplistic in its approach. But there's plenty of room for experimentation and competition as technology and related game design matures, and I look forward to further exploration of this new frontier in gaming. Nintendo took the big chance on motion control, and it's been a successful experiment -- but we still have a long way to go before it fulfills its promise. Wii MotionPlus is a big step in the right direction.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The LoadDown - 06/15/2009

My Wii should be back online this evening if Nintendo's repair tracking system is to be believed. I will be spending whatever time I can spare tonight playing Tiger Woods 10, but when I'm ready for a change of pace there are some interesting new titles on the wire.

I will be unable to resist this week's Virtual Console release -- finally, it's Sega's Space Harrier on the Virtual Console Arcade! I managed to avoid the Genesis pseudo-sequel Space Harrier II and the Master System version of the original, because the scaling hardware that made the arcade game work so well was never emulated very successfully on contemporary consoles. I have enjoyed the GameBoy Advance port on Sega's Arcade Classics release, and the PS2 Sega Ages version is an interesting update. But the original coin-op arcade game is a must-have for me; the music has been stuck in my head for decades, and the game's headlong rush into action has always been a personal pleasure. I got to play the sit-down, motorized edition at Funspot last summer; this won't be quite the same, and at 800 points it's a little pricier than other VC Arcade releases to date, but it's also a few years newer technology-wise than the first round of VCA games. Glad to see another arcade game hitting the Wii Shop Channel.

It's a big week on WiiWare with three releases, although I'm not at present planning to acquire any of them -- Eduardo the Samurai Toaster, Rainbow Islands: Towering Adventure!, and Let's CATCH. Eduardo has an interesting Flash-cartoonish art style, that's all I know about it. I want to play Bubble Bobble Plus! before I tackle the new version of its series-mate. And Let's CATCH doesn't interest me at the moment.

I'm still working my way through Wolfenstein 3D on XBLA -- just two more episodes to go and I should have all the achievements.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Retired from the Console Wars

The console wars have always driven a lot of Internet discussion, but from this blog's perspective, they really shouldn't matter, and they don't to me personally. I find the perspective of dedicated fanboys entertaining, but I can't really buy into that kind of flamethrowing narrow-mindedness anymore.

When I was a kid, of course, the situation was different. I remember typing up a long justification to myself in the late 70's (there being no Internet forum on which to share it) as to why the TRS-80 Model I was a better deal than the Apple II, and realizing some years later that maybe price isn't everything. At the same time, I wouldn't give up my unique experiences gaming and programming on the Trash-80 for anything, and in the long run I got to work and play with the Apple II as well, so I can't say I regret making the more cost-effective decision at that time. I committed to a long succession of also-rans over the years -- the TRS-80 Color Computer, the Mattel Intellivision, the Atari ST, the TurboGrafx-16, the Atari Jaguar -- and I loved every one of them.

But eventually I realized that making a deep personal commitment to any one computer or console was driven by emotion and economics more than anything else. Not that there aren't good reasons to favor one console over another in terms of play time and fun factor and focus on building a game library -- but your enjoyment really all comes down to that console's library. When you find yourself insisting that your chosen system is the best anyone could ever want, and feel that nothing good could ever be said about the console(s) you didn't select, you're really proclaiming your insecurity about possibly being wrong, especially when the system you're promoting is clearly not what you're making it out to be. It's a typical mindset for adolescents, but there's a point where we should all acquire some critical thinking skills and outgrow it.

And so I am glad I can finally say I've retired from the console wars. Being older and employed with disposable income helps a lot. As adult gamers, we don't have to make our choices quite so permanently, or make them at all. If we choose the wrong system when it's new and exciting, we can always switch gears later on and catch up with years of excellent games on the platform we've stupidly ignored. And we needn't limit ourselves to any one console -- as serious gamers, we ultimately spend more on our game collections than on the hardware that runs them. Economically speaking, any platform with a sufficient quantity of great games is therefore worth owning.

This isn't to say that I don't have personal favorites in each generation. As much as I enjoy the XBox 360 and PS2, I just play great games on those systems; my affection remains devoted to the Dreamcast and the Wii. I recognize the personal emotional element there -- I have been playing Sega and Nintendo games since the 1980's, and see them as true game companies, whereas Sony and Microsoft are consumer electronics conglomerates with an interest in the market. If they didn't have such great libraries, I wouldn't be interested, whereas if Atari decided to enter the breach once more with a new console, I would shake my head, roll my eyes, cross my fingers, and pull out my wallet.

But I would also own the market leader. Today, I recognize the strengths of the XBox 360, which are very different from those of the Wii, and am glad to have the opportunity to play anything worthwhile that comes along on either system. The PS3 isn't on my must-buy list yet, but that will probably change someday when its game library matures a bit more, it comes down in price a bit, and I replace my big-screen HDTV circa 2000 with something LCD or plasma-based that A) doesn't have to be manually converged every so often and B) has an HDMI input, making the Blu-Ray capability more attractive.

Right now I'm playing the 360 a lot, because my Wii is off being repaired, Wallace & Gromit episode 1 came out on XBLA, and Wolfenstein 3D and GTA IV have sucked me back in. But I will probably pick up EA's Tiger Woods 10 bundled with the new Wii Motion Plus add-on this weekend, so I am prepared to experience the next level of motion control when my console returns next week. I have been putting off buying a full-scale golf game for the Wii, even though every year I give Tiger Woods a close look, because as simplistic as Wii Sports golf is, it works pretty well with the Wii controller (putting aside). This year, improved motion-tracking technology looks to finally fulfill much of the Wii's promise, and I can't wait to give it a try.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I just realized I didn't fire up any videogames at all yesterday. That's pretty rare!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The 3-D Startle

I was reminded of this the other night while playing Wolfenstein 3D on XBLA. If I'm playing a 3-D, exploratory sort of video game, even an FPS, I tend to take my time -- I like to check every nook and cranny for goodies and enemies, and those end-of-level par time comparisons are way out of my normal playing style's league.

I lead myself to believe that I am being very thorough and aware of my surroundings, but every so often something sneaks up on me. And when I turn back to what my mental map indicates should be an empty area, and there's some nasty entity attacking as I turn, I jump. I panic and retreat for a moment before my finger finds the fire button again, and after the skirmish is over, my heart is going a mile a minute.

My wife is also usually laughing at my weird, apparently unmotivated spasm -- the game sounds no different to her, nor is she in the same mental space I am occupying. So she sees the same enemy I'm seeing onscreen, but she is no more surprised by it than by any other enemy I run into. To her, I'm inexplicably terrified of the umpteenth Cacodemon I've seen on this level.

What's interesting is that this reaction can happen in any sort of context, as long as I don't expect the surprise. Playing Dungeon Master in primitive, square-dancing 3-D on the Atari ST was capable of eliciting it, and just the other night Wolfenstein 3D did it to me. It even happens when I'm playing these kinds of games on a handheld -- even though the screen is only a few inches across, it still draws my head into its artificial environment enough to startle me when the unexpected happens. So it's a mental phenomenon, surely -- it's "virtual reality" in its true sense, where my consciousness is fooled enough to respond naturally and reflexively to a sudden threat. It only lasts a split-second, but it's real enough to qualify.

This happens less often with newer games, where enemies have audible signatures as they move about in the surround sound space, but I can still be tricked into rushing into an area I think I've already cleaned out because it LOOKS like an area I've already cleaned out, complete with planted corpses. I open the familiar-looking door, and am met with a horde of enemies. With any luck, I have the presence of mind to shut the door. Or fire back. Or run until my wits are gathered.

It's fun! But as I get older I may have to watch this sort of thing. Who knows what kind of cardiac effect a sudden Nazi guard in my face will cause when I'm 75?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Emotion in Videogames

Videogames are so engaging in so many ways, yet they remain emotionally stunted. Even though Ken Kutaragi referred to the PS2's main processor as the "Emotion Engine," it was just another videogame console.

Games can appeal to our animal need to plan ahead, manage resources, survive, and strive for goals. They're great at stimulating the fight-or-flight instinct, and generating a sense of satisfaction and excitement in completing a difficult objective. And they can appeal to our sense of aesthetics with film-like emotional impact -- the right audiovisual atmosphere can generate uneasiness or fear, often used to great effect in horror games. A good game score puts us into a martial or relaxed frame of mind, and well-timed use of dynamic changes in music can lead us smoothly along the emotional path a game's designer has planned for us.

But games, as involving as they can be, are not very good at eliciting the "higher emotions," for lack of a better term. They don't handle love or friendship very well, for example, and it's telling that the best example I can personally come up with dates back 25 years. So let's start there. I definitely felt something when...

(*** 1983 SPOILER ALERT ***)
... Floyd the robot nobly sacrificed himself in Infocom's Planetfall.
(*** /SPOILER ***

I actually wept, I'm not embarrassed to admit. I had spent many hours in the company of Floyd, working through puzzles while he kept himself endearingly occupied nearby. I wouldn't say I really got to KNOW him, but I definitely formed a bond with his character during the game. And when I realized he would not be with me at the very end of the journey, that his story ended before mine did, and in the manner that it did, I was bereft in a very real way.

Why does this not occur more often? Well, the text-adventure format had a huge advantage in this regard -- the image in my head was real in a way that an illustration on the screen could not be. I had a very definite mental image of Floyd, goofing around, tagging along, providing comic relief; my brain filled in the gaps that the technology could not. So when he "died," it was also very vivid and real. Graphics, as amazing as they can be, can never equal what the brain can do with an evocative chunk of text, at least where emotions are concerned.

For instance, Valve's Half-Life 2 kills off human characters I have gotten to know -- I have stood with them on elevators and fought at their sides, all from a real-time, first-person perspective. But they're obviously animated figures, with canned dialogue and scripted behaviors -- I can appreciate them as characters in a story, but they don't feel like real people to me. I may be shocked when such a simulacrum dies, in terms of plot development, but I don't really feel sad about their passing, because they're obviously not real.

But graphics alone aren't the issue. The Turing Test is tough to pass, and may never be passed. And without that leap forward, game characters are still just game characters. Even Planetfall was only creating a pet-like bond between a human being and a cute, dedicated virtual creation. Floyd was great, but he was not a human being; he was just there, and I enjoyed having him around. But there wasn't any conversation or deep interaction involved. I doubt it would have worked had designer Steve Meretzky put a person in that role -- the illusion of reality would have been too hard to maintain.

And so maybe I'm looking for something that's not really possible. Human beings are infinitely variable and unpredictable. Computers can be random and richly data-driven, but that's not the same thing. And game designs can be rewarding and surprising and involving in many ways, but they can't present us with a character we're going to fall in love with. Even more limited A.I. has not matured as quickly as everyone predicted twenty years ago -- there's a reason online multiplayer has become a standard feature in high-end games: computer opponents just aren't as much fun as other human beings. When running around and shooting at enemies without getting stuck behind a rock remains a challenge, convincing conversation and empathy are not even on the horizon.

Still, I look forward to that pioneering game that climbs over the wall and is able to engage the head, the hands, and the heart. I may not see it in my lifetime, and it may not ever happen. But I keep looking just the same.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The LoadDown - 06/08/2009

My Wii is in the shop this week, fixing a glitchy graphics card, so I will not get to sample any of this week's downloadables first-hand. But I can still offer a few Monday thoughts on the new stuff.

The Virtual Console adds yet another Koei strategy game for the SNES -- odd that after the initial release of Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV: Wall of Fire way back in early 2007, we saw NOTHING for a long while, and then three of Koei's titles have hit the VC this year. This week it's Genghis Khan II: Clan of the Gray Wolf -- a game I must confess does not ring a bell AT ALL with me. Which probably means I will check it out in more detail at some point, as the best thing about the VC sometimes is getting to play worthwhile titles I completely missed.

The big one on WiiWare this week is Swords & Soldiers, a cartoony but fairly sophisticated real-time strategy (RTS) game. Reviews and advance buzz have been very positive, so I plan to check this one out when my Wii is back up and running. PC-style RTS titles usually don't port well to consoles, so the fact this one is designed for console visuals and controls bodes well.

Also on WiiWare this week, Fish 'em All, which offers a weird pseudo-fishing action game where the object is to catch jumping fish in a NET, rather than, y'know, actually fishing. The press release pushes its "coin-op flavor" and "excitement of the great arcade classics," which seems to be a way of saying "this design is really limited and dated, so we hope it feels like an old-fashioned arcade game, even though it's not." Not on my to-play list.

Back to XBLA, where I have finished Wallace & Gromit: Fright of the Bumblebees once and am working through it again to catch a few missed achievements, between levels of Wolfenstein 3D.

Oddities: Captain Novolin

Advergaming usually produces poor results -- from Chase the Chuckwagon on the Atari 2600 to Dash of Destruction on XBLA, these games are primarily designed to deliver a marketing message, and gameplay usually takes a backseat.

Captain Novolin from 1992 is no different, except that it purports to deliver a dose of diabetes education to children, while at the same time promoting Novolin, a human insulin product from Novo Nordisk. It's a straightforward scrolling brawler -- blue-suited, shades-sporting Captain Novolin strolls across the screen, fighting or avoiding an army of sugary temptations and monitoring his blood sugar (really!)

Sculptured Software did the competent SNES coding, but it's a pretty poor game overall. The pedagogical aspect appears sound from a layman's perspective -- the game is customizable with a code from your doctor, presumably to calibrate it to your individual blood sugar sensitivities, which is kind of neat, and before the action gets underway you have to select your proper insulin dosage and read some advice from digitized/painted models posing as doctors about managing your diabetes.

Then the gameplay begins, and the trouble starts. It proves surprisingly difficult, if only because in addition to avoiding the oversized enemy sprites and their screen-filling attack paths, you also have to avoid excess consumption of your standard diabetes management foods like orange juice, toast and bananas, which place themselves a little too conveniently into your path. Picking up every "power up" onscreen proves a tough habit to break, and it's easy to overdo it and send Captain Novolin into diabetic shock, represented onscreen by dizziness followed by a face-first collapse onto the sidewalk.

Unfortunately, the good Captain has no extraordinary abilities beyond jumping nearly the height of the screen, which makes him rather ill-suited for his line of work as a superhero. The game also takes place in a weird world dominated by diabetes awareness -- Captain Novolin's mission is to rescue the mayor from an invasion of alien sugary foods led by an evil leader named Blubberman, and the mayor only has 48 hours' worth of insulin and medication for his diabetes on hand. It's well-meaning, but the positive message the game is meant to put across gets compromised by poor execution. I'd be surprised if any young diabetes patient ever did stick with this one long enough to rescue the mayor.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Wolfenstein Then and Now

Wolfenstein 3D resurfaced on XBox Live Arcade this week, and it got me to thinking about its history. Most everyone has played id's seminal 3-D first-person shooter -- released in 1992, it was primitive in many ways, but it was also great fun to play and laid the technical and financial foundation for DOOM, a game that arguably spawned twin industries -- the FPS genre that drives the hardcore market as we know it, and the dedicated graphics card industry that helped gaming move beyond what a PC could render under its own power and made today's 3-D feasible.

I have played Wolfenstein on the PC, the Atari Jaguar, the GameBoy Advance, and the GP32X (a neat little Linux-based handheld that deserves a couple of blog entries on its own). There was also a bowdlerized version on the SNES, and Wisdom Tree's bizarre Super Noah's Ark 3-D that used the same engine. And I am now enjoying it once more on XBLA -- at 400 Microsoft points, it's US$5 well spent. It's a classic -- simplistic and repetitive by today's standards, but still fun to dig out and play through now and then.

But we all tend to forget about the TRUE classic game, Silas Warner's original Castle Wolfenstein, published by MUSE Software in 1981 for the Apple II. I remember playing the game on a friend's computer in high school -- it featured Warner's impressive new technology allowing playback of digitized speech at a very low sample rate, and the stealth-based gameplay was innovative. Nerves were thoroughly wracked as your prisoner-of-war character waited around the corner for a chance to shoot or sneak by a Nazi guard, and their low-fidelity cries of "Achtung!" or "SS!" were always a cause for panic. The need to search bodies and difficult-to-unlock chests for always-dwindling supplies kept a sense of desperation alive, and it was a real challenge to escape the castle successfully on higher difficulty levels.

The game was resolutely 2-D, as the technology at the time was not up to full-screen refreshes -- it was a "flip-screen" game, much like Berzerk, where exiting one room would display the next room with the player at the opposite side of the screen. Sprites were flickery when they moved, and color was very limited per the Apple II's pseudo-color hi-res approach. But the levels were laid out with thought and cunning -- no random mazes here, and the drama of the story was enhanced by its simplicity: stay alive, steal the plans, and escape the castle.

The original Castle Wolfenstein was only ported to other 8-bit computers, never to consoles as far as I know. But its influence is still apparent today. As the videogame industry matured the stealth genre it pioneered fell into temporary disuse, with only Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear series on the MSX and NES carrying the torch into the late 1980's, but that series in turn led to a major revival in the 3-D era. Wolfenstein 3D borrowed its setting, though not its gameplay -- but it kept the name alive and a new 3-D series entry is reportedly in the offing.

I'll sign off with another Wolfenstein 3D recollection -- when guards are shot, they sometimes exclaim Mein lieben! But back in the day a good friend of mine persistently misheard it as: I'm leavin'!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Pizza and Pixels

In the late 1970's, before videogaming took off enough to make dedicated arcades viable, and way before home videogaming's strides forced dedicates arcades to devolve into ticket-dispensing Skee-ball parlors, my primary access to coin-op arcade games was at our local Pizza Hut. The restaurant never had more than one game on hand at a time, but as the years passed, I dropped in a quarter and grabbed the greasy controls of quite a few classics:

Circus -- bounce the clown off a trampolene to pop the balloons; inspired by Breakout, and copied ad infinitum in the early days, most notably as Circus Atari on the 2600 and Datasoft's Clowns & Balloons for 8-bit computers. Funnier than Breakout, as it was easy to imagine the white-pixel clown splatting onto the ground in a bloody mess when you missed.

Space Invaders -- Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Voooo-PPSSSHHH. Voooo-PPPPSHHHH. The first time the targets shot back. Simple but addictive.

Donkey Kong -- Oh, man, I loved this game. Shigeru Miyamoto made a stunning debut with this one, repurposing Nintendo's failed Radarscope cabinets into something great. Brilliant (for the time) animation and a sympathetic hero then known only as Jumpman make this a must-play, then and now.

Jungle King -- Taito's original version with the bootleg Tarzan yell and leopard-skinned hero, before it was renamed Jungle Hunt following a lawsuit from the Burroughs estate. Even after the main character donned a pith helmet and white linens, the game was simple but fun, and its multiple playfields were impressive at the time. Home versions were also decent, with the Atari 5200 being a favorite of mine.

Tapper -- if memory serves, this one started out as the Budweiser edition and was later converted to Root Beer Tapper. Always fun, and the graphics were impressively high-resolution at the time -- no home version really captured its look adequately.

Timber -- the Tapper machine converted again, to a competitive lumber-cutting game using the same graphics hardware and engine.

Okay, I stand corrected -- a bunch of classics, and Timber. I don't recall what came after that, probably because I was off to college and rarely visited my hometown Pizza Hut again after that. But when I chance to visit one nowadays, the smell of burnt oil and spilled Pepsi always makes me glance near the door to see which cabinet is buzzing and beeping there, waiting to open my eyes wide with something new.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Adventure International Store

One of my fondest memories of the early days of computer gaming was visiting the Adventure International store in the Orlando, Florida area.

Inspired by the classic Crowther/Woods Adventure, Scott Adams had created an innovative interpreter-based text adventure system, enabling his original designs like Adventureland to be compiled and played across multiple platforms -- including limited 16K, tape-based systems like the TRS-80 Model I. In the early 1980's he parlayed his success into a major software publishing company, bringing a variety of interactive fiction, puzzle and arcade titles to the 8-bit systems of the day, notably the Apple II, Atari 400/800, TRS-80 and Commodore 64. His adventures remain classics today, and the company had a few hits in other genres, like the classic Preppie! (a Frogger-inspired game poking fun at the prep school stereotype popular at the time).

Even more impressive, Adventure International had a physical storefront you could actually visit. This was a real treat for me in my middle-school years -- even moreso than going to Walt Disney World on the same trip. The store had a variety of computers running the company's games, and they were all hanging right there on the wall for purchase -- old school style, in polyethylene bags with printed color inserts, instruction sheets and cassette or disk media. It was sensory overload in the early days of the industry when mail-order was the norm, and you never actually SAW games until you owned a copy; there were no dedicated game stores as there are today.

I remember seeing the array of titles on offer and wishing I had a little more discretionary income on hand, and far more time to hang out in the store, but I did pick up a copy of Pirate Adventure (second in Adams' series) and my brother got a replacement copy of the Special Sampler introductory game he had ordered, as we had been having problems getting the cassette tape to load (the new tape also had issues when we got home, and it turned out to be a volume adjustment solution in the end -- ah, those were the days!)

I still have copies of some old Adventure International catalogs around for nostalgia's sake, and I have replayed several of the original 12 games over the years. I actually got to correspond with Mr. Adams several years ago after tracking him down online. After the industry crash, his company folded and he took a regular programming job.

One like mine, I imagine, a path I might not have taken had I not gotten hooked on games back in the early days and wondered how they do that stuff. I was "paper carrier of the month" once, a dubious honor, and they printed a little standard-form profile of me in the newspaper including my "most admired person." While the other kids tended to list sports heroes or TV stars, I listed Scott Adams. And he's definitely still in that club.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Monkey Island News!

E3 is going on, which means there's far more interesting news than I can keep up with, and far better venues to keep up with it than my little old blog can provide. But there's one piece of news that I just have to share less than 24 hours after I learned about it. (That's cracklin' fast journalism by my sorry standards!)

After nearly a decade of silence, forcing me to replay LucasArts' classic The Secret of Monkey Island adventure games repeatedly whenever the mood strikes, Guybrush Threepwood is returning to action, courtesy of LucasArts and Telltale Games.

There are actually TWO projects coming -- first, LucasArts is remaking the original for XBox Live Arcade, with HD graphics, voice acting and presumably some other technical improvements. It's a classic, brilliantly written and cleverly structured, and well deserving of a modern-day rerelease with a side helping of achievements.

Even better, Telltale Games (increasingly my favorite modern-day publisher) has arranged a licensing deal with LucasArts and will be releasing a brand new 5-episode Tales of Monkey Island series for PC and WiiWare. Several core members of the old LucasArts team are on hand, and Telltale's earned a sterling reputation for funny, high-quality episodic adventuring with their efforts starring Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit, and the Homestar Runner gang. I am confident they have the mindset and skills to do the property justice.

Best of all, the first episode debuts in July already, right after I wrap up a bunch of projects and have a little time to play. No long waits for this mighty pirate!

Monday, June 1, 2009

The LoadDown - 06/01/2009

This is pleasant -- TWO games I'm interested in on the Wii downloadable schedule today.

First, the Virtual Console has Boulder Dash for the Commodore 64 -- a classic kinetic puzzle game that I've only really played on the Atari ST (and that was, if memory serves, a homebrew game in the same style.) The game was a huge hit back in the day and saw several sequels and many, many ports -- for 500 points, I won't be able to pass this one up when I'm in a puzzling mood.

On WiiWare, we have two games this week. Texas Hold'em Tournament is from Digital Leisure, the people who own the Dragon's Lair franchise but have been branching out into small, casual games of late. There was an online-play bug in the European release, since patched, so I expect it's also fixed for its NA release.

I'm not really a poker fan, so the REALLY big one on WiiWare for me this week is Final Fantasy IV: The After Years. It's the first of what appears to be a 9-episode series, but as it's not labeled "Episode I" in the title, it's possible the additional chapters will be handled as downloadable content, or will have different subtitles. Square-Enix has retained the style of the 16-bit Final Fantasy II (US)/IV (Japan) in this direct neo-sequel, although it's not slavishly retro -- fonts are high-resolution, and there may be other differences as well. I've been itching to play a classic-style JRPG, though, and I think this will fill the bill nicely. Pricing may be a concern, as this initial package is 800 points and there's no word yet on the cost of future episodes -- but I recall paying $70 or $80 new for FFII on an SNES cartridge back in 1991, so this is in the same ballpark 18 years later, even without adjusting for inflation. Having the episodes spread out over time will probably make the total bill easier to swallow, as well. And I suspect Square-Enix knows this all too well.

Over the weekend, I played through the trial version of Wallace & Gromit: Fright of the Bumblebees on XBLA -- it's very nicely done and high on my list to buy. So many good downloadable games released these past few weeks, so little time! But it's a nice problem to have, even though the only thing I expect to have time to "play" this week is Malvolio in a production of Twelfth Night that opens Thursday. Once in a while it's good to put down the controller and step outside.

The Illusion of Accomplishment

I love videogames, but sometimes I have to step back and look at my hobby with a critical eye. Games are great fun to play, but it's fun to eat ice cream and watch movies and jump up and down on trampolines, and I don't find myself devoting hours per week to such pursuits.

What I think sucks me in is that games provide an illusory sense of accomplishment. There's a risk-reward cycle and a sense of progress in most games that satisfies the human need to be productive. We're not fighting for our survival anymore, most of us, and even though there's no REAL work getting done, games satisfy the desire to accomplishment SOMETHING, anything, as long as it feels suitably important. Microsoft's insidious XBox achievement point system capitalizes on this exactly -- does it mean anything at all that I have earned 30 gamerpoints by eating 4 monsters in a row playing Ms. Pac-Man? No -- at least, it means nothing in the real world and precious little to anyone but other gamers. But I invested the time necessary to accomplish that feat, because it was there and it seemed feasible. And I felt suitably rewarded when that little project was done. But it didn't help me pay any bills or get the grass cut.

There is an upside to this, I imagine. Hypothesis: Kids who grow up playing, and being successful at, games would seem likely to believe that persistence and practice and hard work pay off. That there's a reward at the end of the toughest road, and that the easy way out is generally the least interesting. I have no evidence to support this idea, but anecdotally, most of the gamers I know are intelligent, successful, productive, interesting people. Okay, they're on the nerdy side, perhaps, but no one would accuse them of being shiftless, boring or stupid.

And so perhaps the illusion of achievement fosters, or at least appeals to, something very human and very positive. Something that eggs our lizard brains on toward mastery of our selves and the world around us.

Now I have to go figure out how to blow up ten cars in ten seconds in GTA IV. Surely that will come in handy someday.