Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Have an Episode? Don't Mind if I Do!

I just finished playing through Tales of Monkey Island, Chapter 1: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, released on WiiWare this week, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The puzzles, characters, humor, and sensibility feel right -- having recently replayed the original, there's nothing jarring about Telltale's new game, produced under license from LucasArts. It feels like an extension of the series, an homage for the fans, and a very playable adventure in its own right.

There are differences, of course -- the 3-D look is quite different from any of the earlier games, even the 3-D Escape From Monkey Island, and the character designs and some of the voice cast are also different from those in the Special Edition version of the original Secret of Monkey Island recently released by LucasArts. The sense of humor is a bit more "adult" than the LucasArts games, too -- there are a few subtly risque references which surprised me, though nothing beyond a PG rating. And there are times when the game nods a little too much to its predecessors -- although, as a fan, I appreciate most of those moments, especially a certain reference to the original game's designer, Ron Gilbert.

There are some technical compromises born of the game's PC and WiiWare target -- the graphics are a little too complex for the Wii at times, leading to jerky frame rates and audio stutter when there's a lot happening, and space constraints lead to reuse of some concepts and lines a bit more than I'd like. But considering that the original 1990 game shipped on a handful of floppy disks, the 40 MB WiiWare limit is comparably luxurious, and even with full voice acting the copious dialogue never seems trimmed for the sake of space; the graphics seem to suffer more, with some seriously low-resolution textures in closeups. But this is an adventure game; there are no moments where the technical hiccups interfere with play, and while I wish the game ran more smoothly, it runs well enough. (And I found no major bugs as was the case with the first episode of Telltale's earlier WiiWare series, Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, which would lock up in widescreen mode at one specific point in the game.)

Telltale's approach to this series' story takes a different tack from their earlier episodic releases. While Sam & Max Season 1 has some recurring elements and a bit of a plot throughline, the episodes are meant to be playable in any order, and Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures are structured the same way. Tales of Monkey Island takes a cue from the original games' structure -- this first chapter is just the first part of a larger story, with a cliffhanger ending. It's an interesting experiment, and it works very well for storytelling. But the serial focus makes it less likely that people will buy a random episode, or jump in later on if they haven't picked up the first game. The all-or-nothing implications may affect sales, and I'll be interested to see how it plays out. Still, it's Monkey Island, a series with many, many fans, so I suspect Telltale has nothing to worry about.

The whole episodic approach to adventure gaming has really grown on me, courtesy of Telltale Games' dedication to it and ability to maintain a regular release schedule. I like this model a lot - ten bucks for an episode that I can play and enjoy over a few pleasant evenings, then look forward to the next chapter in a month or so. I used to pay 50 dollars a pop for the latest adventure from LucasArts and Sierra back in the day, which would run maybe 10-15 hours; I generally felt the investment was worth it, but when I was finished it was always a wait of a year or more for a sequel. Adventure games are not very replayable in the short term; while it's always nice to go back and revisit a favorite title later on, the experience is story-driven and therefore finite. And I have less free time now than I did in my high school and college days. So bite-sized chunks that can be savored in under a week work very well for me.

I am currently very much looking forward to the further adventures of Wallace & Gromit and more Tales of Monkey Island. W&G are currently running a bit late on XBLA, as their first adventure was released on May 27th and it's now been two months of waiting, but the games have been on schedule for the PC so I'm sure they're just hung up in Microsoft's release queue for the moment. And I look forward to seeing what Telltale tackles next -- they're in the enviable position of competing with themselves for my adventuring attention, and they deserve the success. They've taken a chance and revived a genre long considered moribund, simply by rebalancing development budgets and content pricing for the Internet age, and other companies are taking notice. Even LucasArts, who exited the market in 2000, is getting back into the act. Woo-hoo!

Monday, July 27, 2009

The LoadDown - 07/27/2009

Some really great stuff, and some mediocre stuff. But not a bad week.

WiiWare -- Three titles, including the new TellTale/Lucasarts adventure I've been eagerly anticipating and will surely be writing more about: Tales of Monkey Island: Chapter 1, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal. In addition, there's a fairly substantial platformer titled The Three Musketeers: One for All!, which is inspired by the classic Dumas novel and might be worth a look. There's also HB Arcade Cards, an inexpensive collection of card games that (yet again) cries out for but lacks online play.

Virtual Console -- No nada nunca, of late, it seems. More time for me to work on Phantasy Star II on XBLA, I guess, to satisfy my retro cravings.

DSiWare -- Sudoku Student, an entry/beginner-level Sudoku game with tutorials for the brand-new. Not a bad idea, but Sudoku is readily available in many, many, MANY forms.

XBLA -- last week saw the release of 'Splosion Man, which is really, really great. I'm only 11 levels in, out of 50, but it's a fantastic old-school platformer -- it's all about timing and placing your explosive jumps. The game also has a really nice cartoon sense of humor -- the main character is full of personality, with a lot of variety in his animation, the enemies are similarly fun to watch, and the level designs are inventive, kinetic and challenging. The game design feels very fresh but classic at the same time -- dynamic camera zooming and 2.5D rendering aside, it could have been approximated on the NES.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Achievements in Design

As the XBox 360 achievement system has matured, it's become clear that designing worthwhile achievements is a challenge in and of itself. (The same applies to any game with a goal-oriented trophy or medal system, of course, but as Microsoft requires that all released games support its achievement system, the 360 library provides the richest set of examples.)

To my mind, achievements have two primary goals -- to reward the casual player for completing the game at all, and to reward the hardcore player for spending intense time with the game and seeing everything it has to offer. Earning ALL the points on most games is a challenge, and well-designed achievements provide worthy targets AND a tangible sense of accomplishment for the player.

Achievements should be fun to strive for in and of themselves, of course, and the game itself needs to have a certain level of quality, or trying to satisfy its demands becomes a pointless slog. A good game is made better by achievements that are challenging and interesting, but aren't required for a basic runthrough. GTA IV does a nice job in this area -- there are achievements that come with steady progress, achievements that will occur for many players in the normal course of activities, and achievements that serve as a kind of extended play within the game world. As an example of the latter, there's an achievement tied to blowing up a certain number of cars within a time limit -- not likely to occur in the course of normal events, but certainly possible within the game's framework. Doing it requires rounding up some number of vehicles, piling them together, avoiding serious police attention while doing so, and then blowing the whole mess up. It's an achievement that works in gameplay terms, and at the same time it's something cool that you might not bother to do without that achievement carrot dangling in front of your nose. Conversely, bad games often have lame achievements, like "Play this game for 10 hours" when it barely deserves 10 minutes, or insurmountable goals that prove unrealistic for most players "in the field."

Scaling the point values is another challenge. The harder a goal is to achieve, the more points it should be worth, but while Microsoft provides high-level guidelines (200 total points for an XBLA download game, 1000 for a retail game) there's no prescribed way to scale across the whole library. This leads to unfortunate situations like Rapala Fishing Frenzy, which offers only 9 achievements totaling 1000 points -- completing the easy tournament, which doesn't take more than an hour or two, yields a whopping 100 points, while earning 100 points in most other games is a considerably more significant accomplishment. There's also a built-in disparity between XBLA games and retail games, as some XBLA games are full-length titles, but remain limited to 200 achievement points; methinks the price of the game factors in somewhere in Microsoft's math.

The achievement system is also subject to promotional conflicts of interest. At their best, such goals are still fun, as is the case with many games that encourage XBox Live Gold membership subscription by including online play-only achievements, or the Wolfenstein 3D achievements that also unlock upgrade points for the upcoming retail sequel. But some downloadable games provide an overly easy achievement early in trial version gameplay, as a hook to encourage purchase, with little thought for the bigger picture. Space Giraffe is an offender here, as that easy achievement is still the ONLY one I've managed to accomplish, and the others remain way out of reach of my feeble skills. And some games go too far in the other direction, like the free Doritos advergame Dash of Destruction, which hands out its 200 achievement points like they were, well, corn chips.

Of course, we're still not really ACHIEVING anything at all, really, other than nudging our Gamerscore up for our XBLA friends to see. But I'm a fan -- achievements have many times encouraged me to get the most out of a game, and when it's a game I enjoy, I'm always up for another crack at that next elusive goal.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

No More Local Heroes

One of the biggest differences between gaming then and now is that today the market is seriously global. Of course, not all games get released in all territories, and titles sometimes arrive in censored/amped-up versions targeted to whatever the publisher believes are regional tastes. But when it comes to gaming platforms and hotly anticipated blockbuster titles, North America, Europe and Japan are generally all on the same page. Super Mario Galaxy? Resident Evil 5? Every gamer, everywhere, knows about these titles.

This was definitely NOT the case back in the early 80's. Video and computer games as a concept were everywhere, but the markets were very fragmented and almost completely local.

In the US, Atari, Mattel and Coleco dominated home videogaming, with Magnavox keeping things interesting, and the 8-bit Apple II, Atari 400/800 and Commodore 64 were the home gaming computers of choice. Games were generally expensive, as ROM cartridges were not cheap to physically manufacture and disk-based computer games were ambitious in scope and (relatively speaking) budget, aimed at a still-small hobbyist market.

Meanwhile, in the UK, 8-bit computers dominated, led by the Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum, with the Acorn, BBC, and Amstrad machines also in the mix. Games were distributed primarily on tape, often at cheap mass-market prices, making expensive consoles and cartridges less appealing. Many big UK hits like Head Over Heels, Manic Miner, Elite and Jetpac were virtually unknown in the US.

The rest of Europe tended to follow the UK's lead, but there were unique regional computers like the Finnish Sarola Fellow, and regional preferences -- the Amstrad line did much better in France than elsewhere, for example.

Japan was more arcade-oriented, augmented by a variety of home computers supporting the MSX standard, where series like Konami's Castlevania, Snatcher and Metal Gear first appeared, years before they would be seen in the US. Nintendo's Game & Watch dedicated LCD game series was very popular, establishing the appeal of portable gaming long before it was technically feasible. But console gaming hadn't really taken off yet -- Nintendo's Famicom would pave the way in the East, patterned after the US Colecovision to some degree.

As time went on and technologies changed, the smaller players dropped out and consumer electronics giants moved in. Consolidations and bankruptices hit hardware makers and software publishers hard in the US during the mid-1980's videogame crash, shrinking the pool dramatically. Later, as games outgrew their novelty phase and more players became interested, the industry matured. Today, as game budgets have grown substantially and it's become harder to compete in the hardware race, the market seems to support two or three viable global consoles at any given time, plus the IBM PC standard which waxes and wanes as a gaming platform but never really dies out (but may be replaced by browser-based gaming as time goes on). Modern games are expensive to develop, so they have to have global appeal, and global marketing.

Fortunately, there's still room for small, independent games on the Web and on the downloadable side of the market -- and now that we're all running on the same hardware, we have more opportunities to sample what's been happening across the pond.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The LoadDown - 07/20/2009

Rounding up the downloadables... the day is coming when ALL games will be downloadable, I can feel it in my bones.

WiiWare -- Three titles this week, biggest among them Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a Darklord, which is kind of a tower-construction-and-defense dark side counterpart to My Life as a King. I like the look of it, and it appears the gameplay offers more variety and participation than its predecessor, which got old after a while. Also we have the card-rules/matrix-based, Battle Poker, which might be fun if you have several friends handy, as there's no online play, and the spot-the-differences-between-two-similar-photos exercise, 5 Spots Party, in case you miss the Sunday paper.

DSiWare -- Another one-- Art Style: ZENGAGE, a sliding-tile logic puzzle game.

Virtual Console -- Nothing this week. Zip. Zero. Sigh. Might give me a chance to catch up on some other games, though.

XBLA -- Three games this past week, most prominently The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, about which I have already rhapsodized at length. Madballs in Babo: Invasion throws the aging ugly-bouncy-ball character license at the existing Babo series on PC, and Tour de France 2009: The Official Game lets you manage a team of bicycle racers, without really doing any racing yourself.

Also, it's an "open beta," so this is hardly news, but I re-upped for XBLA Gold membership over the weekend and have been enjoying 1 vs. 100 online. There are some server, game over and new game joining issues at present, and I have seen a few questions repeated already, but it's pretty nicely done and should be as rocking as TV-licensed trivia games can get after they get the bugs worked out.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Real World Fake

Over the years, improving technology has enabled a greater degree of realism in videogames, particularly in game settings. Whereas early games were set in generic "golf course," "baseball stadium" or "city" environments, modern games often model real-world locations.

I realized how far this trend has progressed recently when I saw and immediately recognized a painting of the Miami beachfront. I've never been to Miami, and I can't recall seeing any similar images (though I'm sure I've seen the Miami Vice credits sequence once or twice.) But having played Scarface: The World is Yours and GTA III: Vice City, both of which are set in a fictionalized 80's Miami, the setting was familiar -- I had "been there" in a virtual sense, exploring the neighborhood for several hours while harassing the virtual citizens. Other sandbox and racing games have done the same for New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and London, among others, sometimes with a period flair to boot, as in EA's The Godfather titles.

I'm not suggesting that these games have modeled real-world cities in the way, say, Google Earth does. The layout and landmarks are recognizable, but individual hotels, businesses and homes are not modeled with any degree of accuracy. And the game world is edited for entertainment purposes -- stretches of similar terrain are compressed, false shortcuts introduced, buildings and boundaries established that don't exist in reality. Still, these games give the player a convincing sense of place through art design and map layout, coupled with the power of interactive experience to burn the approximated geography into one's memory. It's an illusion, but it works.

Sports games have come much closer to true realism, as it's easier to model a smaller, well-documented environment than it is to model Los Angeles. These types of games do not generally have a fantasy component, either, so realism is an appropriate and desirable design goal. The Rapala series of fishing tournament games models famous sport fishing lakes, modern baseball games reproduce each team's unique home stadium, and golf games license famous courses, reproducing their slopes, contours, traps and foliage with enough fidelity to feel realistic, at least in game terms.

I don't see this trend ending any time soon -- the investments being made today to model real-world environments will continue to pay off in the future, and as storage space and memory continue to increase, game worlds will improve until they're detailed enough to make further investment unwise. I've blogged before about human characters, and how difficult it is to make them seem real; environments are a different matter, and I look forward to more such armchair travel in the future.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Unsung Heroes: Steve Bjork

The hardcore are more likely than most to recognize the "big names" of the early video and computer gaming era -- people like Rob Fulop, David Crane, Carol Shaw, Dan Gorlin, Eugene Jarvis, Jeff Minter, Scott Adams, Nasir Gabelli, Roberta Williams, Steve Meretzky... the list goes on. These designer-programmer-producers made a splash in the pioneering days, when a lone designer or a small team could think up, program, and even market a game largely on his/her own. Today, they are respected for their innovative ideas, their unique styles, or their ability to squeeze performance and gameplay out of the primitive hardware of the time.

One gentleman that never got much broader recognition is Mr. Steve Bjork, who did a lot of programming for the TRS-80 Color Computer at Datasoft back in the day. I met him once at a RAINBOWFest show in Chicago, and remember him as a portly, affable gentleman who was willing to share his technical insights in person, though he couldn't often be bothered to write them up for publication. He was fairly prolific, too -- I played several of his games myself on the CoCo -- and he later moved on to console programming in the 8- and 16-bit era.

I wouldn't call him an innovative designer -- his output consisted mostly of adaptations and conversions from other platforms -- but he was a talented programmer who worked in a variety of genres. My earliest encounters with his work were the unlicensed Popcorn (a straight take on Atari's Avalanche, which also inspired Activision's Kaboom!) and Clowns & Balloons (Exidy's Circus.) Later I played his conversion of Datasoft's illustrated adventure Sands of Egypt and his official conversion of Sega's Zaxxon, which was very smooth and impressive, blowing Elite Software's unlicensed (and terribly named) Zaksund out of the water. Bjork also handled Color Computer conversions of Activision's Pitfall II, EA's One on One, Midway's Rampage, and many other popular titles, although even then he continued to dabble in "original" games like Ghana Bwana (inspired by Congo Bongo.)

To appreciate Bjork's work, you have to understand that the Color Computer had one thing going for it -- Motorola's spiffy 6809E processor -- and many counts against it, especially when it came to gaming. The joystick had luxurious analog sensitivity but was not self-centering, and the "chiclet" keyboard wasn't very responsive. There was no sprite or music hardware provided to simplify graphics and audio programming, meaning precious CPU cycles had to be consumed to do everything a game required. The graphics capabilities were limited, with a "hidden" 4-color black background mode that Radio Shack never officially supported, as it was unpredictable whether the palette would boot up as black-red-blue-white or black-blue-red-white. Even the speedy microprocessor was a bit of a disadvantage from a publishing perspective, as it made conversion from contemporary 6502-based platforms like the Apple II, Commodore 64 and Atari 400/800 tricky.

So what I appreciated about Mr. Bjork's work is that he made a serious effort to work around the CoCo's hardware limitations, while many other game programmers just accepted the rough edges. He cared about things like aligning his frame updates with the vertical blanking interrupt and spending precious memory on page-flipping, avoiding the rampant flickering common to CoCo games. He found ways to make sound effects work without visibly interrupting the animation, another jarring flaw in too many titles. He made it possible for some fairly sophisticated designs to cross the border into my backwater gaming territory growing up, and I doubt too many other programmers could have managed it, or would have bothered to try.

Steve Bjork never got a lot of press back in the day, and I have no idea what made him so loyal to the platform, but without his dedicated efforts Color Computer users would have missed out on a number of worthwhile games. And he stuck with the CoCo even past the point where it could have been (I imagine) even remotely commercially viable to code for it.

Thanks for the good times, Steve.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Return to Monkey Island

Yesterday, LucasArts did what many hoped for but few expected at this late date -- they have re-released Ron Gilbert's classic graphic adventure, The Secret of Monkey Island, as a Special Edition for downloadable play on the PC and XBox 360. It's a large game for a download -- over 500 MB, entirely CD-worthy -- but LucasArts feels digital distribution is the best channel for reviving the adventure genre, and my instant-gratification-seeking self heartily agrees.

I have played the original game through several times since its release in 1990, and I am thoroughly enjoying yet another pass on the XBox (with achievements!) The new version features HD artwork and full voice acting -- the original game came out just before CD-ROM and sound cards blossomed, and a "talkie" version was never produced back in the day. (A CD version did come out, with updated 256-color VGA graphics, but it only used Redbook audio for music -- without reliable sound card standards, there was no way to fit the game's copious dialogue onto a CD-ROM.)

I'm not in love with the new HD artwork -- the backgrounds are very faithful to the original, with some nice new graphical flourishes, but the character designs are a little odd. I wish they had gotten Steve Purcell to update the original designs, as they have lost some of the appealing cartoonishness they had before. The 16-color 320x200 EGA original was, of course, an approximation of the intended look -- the new game allows revisiting of the old style at will, which is a nice feature for comparison -- but the new, lushly hi-res graphics don't really feel like lost detail has been restored. Instead, the graphics feel painted-over by someone with a visibly different sensibility; Guybrush has an odd high forehead and strange hair, LeChuck is a little too grounded in reality, and Elaine seems slimmer and less capable-looking than she used to. The animation isn't bad, but it's not as expressively rubbery as it used to be, even though in most cases, the new art is a direct overlay on the old. Same limited frame rate, but with less personality, somehow. I loved Purcell's cover painting for the original game, and I am disappointed that the remake didn't bring that style into the game itself.

Fortunately, the new voice acting is solid all around. When I first played the game with a college buddy, we found ourselves voicing all of the characters aloud as we played. The game's dialogue is so funny and well written that it's impossible to resist getting one's pirate on. And for the most part, the new soundtrack works really, really well. New, different inflections have been added where appropriate -- for example, in the game's famous insult swordfighting sequences, Guybrush delivers his responses with verve when correct, and with hopeful insecurity when they are not. So far, I have only been disappointed to hear that "I'm shakin', I'm shakin!'" lacks the Welcome Back, Kotter overtones of my own interpretation. And the soundtrack has been enhanced in other ways -- the music has been freshly re-recorded, sounding even better than the old CD release, and new ambient sound effects keep the world audibly alive.

The game itself? Golly, Cap'n, it's The Secret of Monkey Island! It's a classic point-and-click adventure, funny and smart and silly in the best LucasArts tradition. There's only one way to die, and you have to be deliberate about it (there's an XBLA achievement tied to it, actually) and there are no dead ends -- the design is fair and forgiving and never too obtuse. And it remains one of the funniest games I have ever played. It's a pleasure to be experiencing it again; I plan to finish before TellTale's completely new Tales of Monkey Island episodic series hits the Wii and gives me five more monthly jolts of Threepwood goodness.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Difficulty of It

There's always talk among hardcore and retro gamers about how games nowadays are much easier than they used to be. And in many ways, that's clearly true -- quick reflexes, learning to perform exactly the way the game wants you to, are a big part of older action games. Today's games are more story-oriented, less twitch-based, and the audience is MUCH, much larger. So design philosophies have changed accordingly, toning down the difficulty so more players can experience more of the game.

But there are also reasons old games were tough that I'm glad to see going by the wayside. Older games usually lacked niceties like save features, meaning that if you want to finish, say, Rygar or Blaster Master on the NES, you'd better be prepared to play all day. The game designs were less forgiving as well -- for instance, most older adventure games allowed plenty of room for the player to screw up irrevocably by picking up, leaving behind, or misusing an item. AI enemy behavior was rudimentary, with a "crank up the firepower/stamina on the bots" approach that proved more frustrating than challenging. And heaven help you if a game was moderately complex and you misplaced the manual.

I think games today take greater pains to entertain, and moreover, not to waste the player's time. It's easier to save before heading into a dangerous situation, or even rely on a handy autosave that kicks in whenever you accomplish something meaningful. Designers have learned how to guide the player through the game world, allowing for a sense of discovery without the frustration of getting lost in a maze of identical passages. AI still struggles to achieve its promise, but online play makes human opponents readily available -- they can be very tough, too, but it's usually a fair fight.

So, yeah, games are easier than they used to be. And I'm definitely older than I used to be. My skills are not what they once were, and I want to experience as many games as possible before I pass on. So every hour spent not retracing my steps is appreciated.

Those who still appreciate a really tough game can find goals that will put up a good fight. For example, there's an XBLA Smash TV achievement calling for the player to finish the game without using a single continue -- for most people, myself included, that's just too crazy to even contemplate. But everyone can finish the game using the generous continue system and see everything it has to offer. That's not a bad thing in my book.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Oddities: Izzy's Quest for the Olympic Rings

Licensed games are usually ephemeral in their appeal -- too often they are slapdash efforts, rushed to market to cash in on the property while it's still hot.

A case can be made for Izzy's Quest for the Olympic Rings as a minor exception to the rule. It was a late 16-bit era entry featuring the cartoon mascot character of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The Izzy character was originally named Whatizit when debuted at the 1992 Olympics closing ceremonies, but it was renamed "Izzy" and its design rounded and softened before the 1996 games, probably to appeal more to children. The videogame apparently began development shortly after the character was introduced, with later revisions as the character evolved, as the title sequence bears copyright notices from 1992, 1993, AND 1995.

The game is a platformer, a bit of an oddity in itself, as most Olympics-based games tend to feature actual Olympic events. Instead of playing any sort of sport, Izzy makes its way around traditional levels, climbing from the bottom to the top, bouncing on enemies and collecting Olympic-themed items like torches and medals.

The extra development time was not wasted, as Izzy's Quest has a nice, rubbery cartoon personality, with colorful graphics and fluid animation. It's not quite in the league of Earthworm Jim or Aladdin, but it looks very nice and would have been an impressive game had it appeared at the time of the Genesis' launch in 1989. By 1995, of course, the Saturn and Playstation were out, and this title's release on the Genesis and SNES benefited from a lifespan's worth of programming experience and technical insight.

(Is that Shrek over there?)

Unfortunately, the game isn't so great from a design perspective. Levels are loose and open, with lots of places to fall and climb that don't necessarily lead anywhere interesting, and the only objective in most levels is to make it to the end of the level without losing whatever collectibles Izzy has picked up. And the spotted eggs that crop up almost everywhere Izzy jumps are not fun -- sometimes they contain a minor collectible, sometimes they contain an explosion that's large enough to damage Izzy even from what seems like a safe distance.

There are "power-ups" that turn Izzy into other types of characters -- a little helicopter, a baseball player, a swordsman -- but they wear off too quickly in most cases to be much fun. At least there's some variety in the bonus rounds -- here, Izzy is a rocketship and must zoom from the bottom to the top, picking up collecti...

...hmmm? Whazzat? Oh, yeah, and avoiding enemies!

So... not a terrible game, but not a great one either. Like most licensed titles, its lifespan was constrained by the source property. When the 1996 Olympic games were over, it was Game Over for Izzy as well.

Calm down, dude. Goes with the territory.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The LoadDown - 07/13/2009

Well, Tales of Monkey Island did not make it to WiiWare today, despite rumors of its imminent arrival (it debuted on the PC last week). It's disappointing, but with the remake of the original Secret of Monkey Island coming to XBLA later this week, I'll live.

Here's what's going on in the downloadable world since my last update:

WiiWare -- THREE games today, again, all reasonably priced. Bit Boy!! is an action game with an interesting retro theme -- as you progress, the graphics progress from 4-bit to 128-bit, though the gameplay stays pretty much the same, which sounds like an inherent limitation to me. Incoming! is a simple pointer-based tank command/combat game -- not a true Real-Time Strategy game, it's not nearly that deep, but might be fun for a bit. Ant Nation (from Konami) appears to be more substantial, as you breed and train a colony of ants to take over neighboring territories.

Virtual Console -- TWO games for a pleasant change from the recent trickle, and they're both import titles. Pulseman is a Genesis/Mega Drive platformer that looks great but never saw retail here (though it was ephemerally playable via the Sega Channel downloadable cable system back in the day.) Secret Command actually DID come out here on the Sega Master System, reworked into Rambo, but this European version neatly avoids any licensing messiness.

DSiWare gets just one game, Brain Challenge, which has already been out on WiiWare for a while and appears to be no match for the plethora of such games already out for the DS. But there it is, if anyone's interested -- it does appear to be fairly full-featured by DSiWare standards, but it's a crowded genre already.

XBLA -- Just one new game arrived on Microsoft's service last week, but EA clearly underestimated its impact: Battlefield 1943. The online servers were being hammered, and there was some other weirdness as well -- the game temporarily shot up to a 90,000 point price tag, then became an XBox Live Gold member exclusive temporarily. It's yet another online multiplayer FPS set in World War II -- not really an unmet need on the 360, and it might be best to wait until some of the technical glitches get worked out.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Coin-Op Bootlegs

Back in the heyday of the coin-op arcade game, pirates had to put significantly more effort into ripping off game companies than they do today, when home consoles rule the market. It wasn't just a matter of pirating media -- these guys had to build cabinets, controllers and circuit boards, burn ROM chips, and modify the games ever-so-slightly to make their product "unique." More on that in a bit.

Copyright protection for electronic game software was a new horizon at the time, poorly defined from a legal standpoint, and even the biggest hits had fairly short life cycles, so the pirates managed to get away with it for a while. They pumped their bootleg games into the same distribution channels as the legitimate originals, and appear to have been fairly successful, especially when demand for big hits couldn't be met with original machines.

What's interesting is that as far as I know none of them counterfeited the original machines directly -- they all seem to have tweaked the game software and titles a little bit, perhaps in an effort to avoid prosecution. Unlike the unlicensed home conversions that abounded at the time, these were not even new, similar efforts -- these were modified copies of the original arcade ROMs, with new bytes poked in where necessary to achieve a modicum of distinction. But they never put TOO much effort into the changes -- usually they shuffled the color palette a bit, and modified the title screen, leaving the gameplay and sound effects more or less intact. Sometimes the pirate versions were sold as conversion kits, so arcade operators could turn a dying Galaxian arcade cabinet into a bootleg Pac-Man machine, for example.

I only encountered a few such games growing up. One was Crazy Kong Part II, a bootleg of Donkey Kong credited to "Eagle" with the levels in a different order. The other was Frog, which was Frogger with a different, garish color palette and a title screen that lazily replaced three of the letters in the original title with frog sprites. But I'm sure there were many more out there -- magazines at the time reported that Donkey Kong was so heavily pirated that Nintendo offered its own reward for information on the illegal manufacture and sale of such clones.

The pirates didn't ultimately contribute much to the industry* beyond their hilariously futile attempts to disguise their efforts. They were eventually pushed out of the market by the mid-80's videogame industry crash, quality issues, consumer awareness, and encryption of arcade ROMs in later years.

Still, I have fond memories of the piratey days of yore, and have played a few meta-quasi-legal pirate arcade games on MAME for nostalgia's sake. There's part of me that wishes I could go to GameStop and find a weird-looking "Legend of Zleda: Twilight Prince!!" or "Grand Theft Otto V," just for fun.

* One notable exception was Crazy Otto, an unauthorized Pac-Man modification kit designed to freshen up the existing game. Its "underground" designers went on to create Ms. Pac-Man at Midway's request -- Namco later adopted the game as its own, but it was born of the US distributor's need for a hasty sequel.

Friday, July 10, 2009

This Was a Triumph: Portal

If you haven't played Valve's 3-D puzzle adventure, Portal, from a few years back, you really must. It's available in The Orange Box at retail, or via download on Steam, XBLA, and probably elsewhere.

I have been replaying parts of it lately, working towards a few XBox 360 achievements I missed my first few times through, and I am thoroughly enjoying it yet again. The physics, the atmosphere, the storyline and its sense of humor are top-notch.

What I really love about it is that it's one of the few 3-D games that realizes that "realism" need not be the end-game. It has a trippy core concept -- the Portal Gun that allows the player to, for example, punch a hole in a wall somewhere, punch a hole in the floor somewhere else, then fall through the hole here and come flying out of the wall there. It breaks all the traditional rules of 3-D gaming, because it's impossible -- and yet it feels completely real.

And the effect is tremendously well-implemented -- you can see yourself if you put the holes in the right place, you can carry or drop objects through them, and you can fall or run through an infinite series of complementary portals if you so desire. I have been listening to the in-game developer commentary and am learning what a tremendous amount of work it took to pull this off -- it's doubly impressive for its transparency.

It's also accessible even to my aging gamerskilz -- it's not a long game, and the puzzles are challenging but not frustrating at the default difficulty level (though the Advanced versions of several maps are significantly tougher. 4 down, 2 to go to close out that set of achievements!)

Plus, it ends with a marvelous Jonathan Coulton song sung by the game's omnipresent AI voice -- it's catchy, it's smart, it's very funny and it's infinitely memorable. Every time I think about the game and its world I start singing it to myself. Usually out loud.

Best. Ending. Reward. Ever.

But play it for the sheer joy of the game, too.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thrifty Gaming

In these recessionary times, it can seem an extravagance to spend 50 or 60 bucks on a brand new retail game. The nice thing about being an older gamer is that there are plenty of worthwhile games we never had a chance to play back in the day when they were the state of the art. And if we've kept our old systems around, old games can sometimes be found dirt cheap at garage sales, flea markets and thrift stores.

They may not be THE classic games whose reputation and rarity has made them highly collectible. And one usually has to sift through a lot of obsolete sports titles -- as the fundamental rules of gameplay have not really changed much over the years, but the technology and rosters have, EA NHL '95 and the like are a dime a dozen. Sports gamers tend to go for the latest and greatest, and nostalgia aside there isn't really a compelling reason to go back to most vintage titles.

Anyway, I was reminded of the value of shopping around and keeping an open mind yesterday evening when we stopped by a local thrift store while questing for set and prop items for an upcoming play. The game bins and CD racks had quite a few games on hand, for a variety of platforms. Maybe 20% of them were non-sports titles, and most were complete with box/case, media and manual; physical condition appears solid, although I haven't tested them out yet. I managed to pick up:

Genesis - Izzy's Quest for the Olympic Rings

Philips CD-I - Video Speedway (curiosity value)

Playstation - Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain (re-release in CD case), Builder's Block (odd Taito/Jaleco puzzler), Crash Bandicoot: Warped, Armored Core, Namco Museum Volume 3 (later release emphasizing Ms. Pac-Man and Dig Dug after discs 2, 4, and 5 bombed)

Dreamcast - World Series Baseball 2K2 (a sports game, yes, but I don't own a modern baseball game and I don't find a lot of Dreamcast titles in the wild; the copy of Virtua Tennis I also spotted there was missing the game disc)

NES - Infiltrator (no box, but the manual is present)

9 games worth trying out, at least. Grand total at the checkout?



Monday, July 6, 2009

Oddities: Michael Jackson's Moonwalker

This one has been on my to-blog list for a while, but Mr. Jackson's recent passing has given it relevance, something this blog generally strives to avoid. Based on the odd 1988 "movie," really a collection of music video-style segments, Sega reportedly worked closely with Michael Jackson to bring his unique persona to videogames.

I quote: "HOOOOOO!"

The game sends Michael out to battle evil in his Smooth Criminal costume; to Sega and Jackson's mutual credit, this is clearly not a generic action platformer with new graphics slapped onto it. For example, Mr. Jackson does not employ any violent weapons -- while his enemies have guns, he ducks to avoid their bullets, throws his hat Oddjob style, and dances his enemies to death. This sounds silly, and it is completely ludicrous, but it somehow feels right -- while the sprites are on the tiny side, and the backgrounds simple and repetitive, the animation is impressively varied and smooth. Clearly a lot of effort and cartridge space was put into capturing Jackson's dance moves. The Thriller level is a particular favorite of mine, and the Smooth Criminal dances are nicely handled as well.

The music is nicely rendered given the limited capabilities of the Sega Genesis; Jackson's infectious pop hooks come through loud and clear. Unfortunately, the game is also infected by Mr. Jackson's trademark weirdness. For instance, Bubbles the chimp shows up to ride around on his shoulder, and makes a strangely ambivalent cameo on the Game Over screen, boogeying and clapping like a demented monkey whether the player chooses to quit or continue.

And then there's this... the reason it's hard to play this game today without feeling complicit in all manner of yuck. The ultimate object of Michael's quest is to find all of the young, blonde, male children hiding in each level. He fends off pretty dance hall girls, slamming them into walls before ignoring their advances, and breaks through all manner of obstacles to find the children's hiding places. Sometimes they're just sitting out in the open, crying uncontrollably as they see Michael Jackson approach.

He's supposed to be rescuing them, of course. But when Michael touches each boy, he shouts "Michael!" before jumping and running away to safety; it's supposed to be a squeal of delight, but it's very hard to hear it that way with contemporary ears.

Still, seeing the video Michael's defeated body turn into a ball of light and zip offscreen, only to return after a fade out, restored and vibrant, one can't help wishing that the boy who never grew up never had to. No one wants to be defeated.

The LoadDown - 07/06/2009

Since this has become a recurring feature, I'm trying to get its format nailed down to something consistent. I'm going to start covering the PREVIOUS week's XBLA releases here, rather than doing two download posts a week or covering them only in passing. And instead of speculating about which games I might be purchasing, I'll just talk about what I am actually playing in this vein. So without further ado...

WiiWare gets three titles this week. BIT.TRIP CORE is another retro-inspired psychedelic rhythm/action game from the BIT.TRIP.BEAT folks. Taito continues its remake series with BUST-A-MOVE Plus!, yet another update of the venerable action puzzler also known as Puzzle Bobble. And Neko Entertainment, makers of the middling Cocoto games, delivers Heracles Chariot Racing; better on WiiWare than cluttering the discount shelves at Best Buy, I imagine.

Virtual Console continues at a trickle, with this week's release being Epyx's classic California Games in its original Commodore 64 incarnation. It was very popular back in the day and might still be worth a play for nostalgia's sake; in my opinion, its casual flavor has held up better than linemates Summer Games and Winter Games, both of which have been superseded by more sophisticated equivalents in later years.

DSiWare gets Art Style: BASE 10, a math-based puzzler, and Asphalt 4: Elite Racing, which appears to be a decent racer with some neat online photo features.

XBLA last week got SNK's 2-D Neo-Geo classic The King of Fighters '98 Ultimate Match, a decent game but not as revered as the previous week's Garou: Mark of the Wolves. And a top-selling XBLA title gets a followup with Worms 2: Armageddon (which semantically speaking appears to be titled as a sequel to XBLA's Worms, and just happens to share a subtitle with the original Worms Armageddon.) Always a great series, especially with online play.

At the moment, I am playing Sega's Phantasy Star II, which came out on XBLA a few weeks ago -- I have played it before, but never gotten into it seriously. Once again, achievements prove a sufficiently enticing carrot.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What the heck is a GP2X?

While I have been on vacation, with my idle time generally spent sleeping or riding in some sort of conveyance, it seems, I haven't been able to do much gaming. But for those few moments when we had time to kill, we brought our Nintendo DS along, as well as our GamePark GP2X portable. I've mentioned it before in this blog, but I'm sure a lot of people are still asking: What the heck is a GP2X? So it's high time I talked about it in a little more detail.

The GP2X is a Korean-made handheld gaming system available on a mail-order import basis. I first learned about it from a UK magazine, Retro Gamer, and ordered one back in 2006. It runs Linux, which is its great hidden strength as it makes development and porting existing software straightforward. The system's design makes it a natural for emulation -- its 320x240 resolution maps pretty cleanly to most vintage systems and VGA-era PC games, and it has enough power to emulate consoles from the 2-D era quite nicely, usually in the 30-60 frames-per-second range. It has four buttons, a joystick, and enough other buttons to allow use in either portrait or landscape orientation, making vintage arcade games a pleasure to play.

There aren't many commercial games for it, but it runs emulators for just about every popular system and game engine, and there are ports of some great homebrew titles, including Cave Story. I have used it for several years to play DOOM, The Secret of Monkey Island, retro arcade titles via MAME, and many of my favorite console games from the pre-Playstation era. (Yes, the emulators are in a legal gray zone, requiring ROM files, but I do own licensed copies of the games I play this way. Engines like the ScummVM player for LucasArts and other adventures work directly with the original data files, copied over from the PC media to the GP2x SD card, with some options for compressing the audio content.) I have used it to acquaint myself with some 8-bit era titles that were popular in the UK but never made a splash here, like Codemasters' Dizzy series, and to play vintage game music files. It can also be used to play MP3 files and various obscure video formats.

But it's not a mainstream system by any means -- it's a hacker's platform, requiring a fair amount of configuration and moving files around to get them where various tools expect to find them, often with the barest of freeware documentation to go on. The wealth of software available is balanced by the difficulties of getting all the pieces together to make things work properly -- to get DOOM going, for example, one has to install a Linux freeware music program to render the background music, rename the target .WAD file to the expected name the engine looks for, and accept that save games "named" without a keyboard must end up as "BBYYYXXX" and so forth, using the available controller buttons. Other impracticalities abound -- for example, I have an Infocom Z-code engine for it that runs from the Linux command shell, but starting and playing Zork without a proper keyboard, entering characters one by one by selecting them with the controller, is so tedious as to be strictly a novelty. But for the games that work properly and naturally, mostly action-based games with minimal keyboard input, I have found the the GP2X a worthwhile investment of money and time.

The GP2X was itself a followup to an earlier system called the GP32, and it appears I completely missed out on an upgrade -- my model is now known as the GP2X F100, and an F200 model with touch-screen came out sometime in the past few years. And there is already a more powerful followup on the market called the GP2X Wiz, which provides a few additional control options with dual cross-pads. It also appears to have substantially more commercial software support, at least from lesser-known Asian publishers; I don't expect to see Konami or Capcom supporting it any time soon. So I don't think I'm in any hurry to pick it up, as the old model meets my needs pretty well, but I'm glad to see it's been successful enough to merit a sequel. It's no competition for Nintendo or Sony, but its existence makes my gaming life a little richer on the go.