« October 1, 2006 - October 7, 2006 | Main | October 15, 2006 - October 21, 2006 »

October 14, 2006

My Hindu Shooter

hindsh.jpg.jpg It's still sad that The Escapist doesn't get more linkage (from us, too!) for their readable, intelligent journalism, so nice to see that, via Dubious Quality, we spotted a new Allen Varney article called 'My Hindu Shooter', and telling a pretty spectacular story.

Briefly, it's about a "pacifist first-person shooter I designed in 2000-2001 to teach Hindu principles of non-violence using the Unreal Engine", and he explains: "This Hindu non-shooter was conceived and produced entirely by - nobody ever believes this part - recent graduates of the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. Yes, really."

Craziness: "In early 2000, a gaggle of upscale white American 20-somethings with fresh MUM animation and graphics degrees thought it would be fun to create a computer game based on Hindu teachings. Funded by the young heir to a chain of furniture stores, who scraped by on a parental allowance of half a million dollars a year, they licensed Epic Games' hotly anticipated Unreal Warfare engine - six months' allowance right there - and set to work." Lots more info if you click through, and a great story.

'Game Mag Weaseling': Old Mags, New Mags

['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]

cgw1.jpg   lxblkgdeot.jpg

A number of enthralling things are happening in the mag business this week. Even better, it's all good news.

First off, get your favorite download manager ready -- you've got a lot of reading ahead of you. To commemorate the final issue of Computer Gaming World before it changes names to Games For Windows: The Official Magazine, Ziff Davis has graciously put up full PDF versions of the first 100 issues of CGW, as well as cover scans of the 168 that followed afterward.

For fans of old game mags, this is like manna from heaven. CGW's first 100 issues (which ran from November 1981 to November 1992) are a treasure trove of history -- each one covers Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari games with pretty much the same depth as modern CGW, which is amazing when you realize the games they cover are usually no more than 48k in size. The earlier issues also have columns on game design theory from some of the most well-known figures in game history, including Chris Crawford, Richard Garriott, Jon Freeman, Danielle Bunten, and more. All this, of course, written in that classic, dense CGW style that made some call it the "New England Journal of Medicine of video games."

These aren't just any old cheapo scans, either. These PDFs are the result of a project by Stephane Racle over at the Computer Gaming World Museum, and the care that he's given to the files is utterly exemplary. Stephane collated scans (I contributed one issue myself, though I forgot what number), scanned a bunch himself, and OCRed all 7438 pages, producing an index that lets you look of anything you please within the first 100 issues (or, at least, you will be able to once he puts the index up on his site). Every PDF includes bookmarks to each article in the mag, and Stephane even included internal links in the table of contents and on every "Continued on page XX" blurb, which is a godsend in the early issues where articles jumped all over the place.

Tracking down copies of these early CGW issues (most of which were printed only in the four figures) is an enormous challenge for any collector, but Stephane's scanning project -- and Ziff and the CGW staff supporting him -- has provided an enormously helpful resource for anyone interested in the '80s computer scene. I'll be using these scans extensively in future columns here, definitely.

(By the way, that final issue of CGW arrived at my mailbox today. It's superb, but I'll go into more detail on that next week.)

egmhalo3vl6.jpg

CGW isn't the only Ziff mag undergoing renovations for the December issue. Electronic Gaming Monthly is undergoing a major redesign of their own, the first one since 2002, and it's also set to debut next month. You can see some of the mockup covers EGM's design team has going in the picture above, which was posted on 1UP as part of something related.

Although these mockups are almost certainly not final, it's interesting to note that while the mag's official title won't change, the initials "EGM" may form the most noticeable part of the logo from now on. I can think of two reasons for this: (a) most readers call the magazine "EGM" anyway, and (b) the name "Electronic Gaming Monthly" is incredibly fuddy-duddy. It doesn't tell you very much about the mag's content, it's too long, and it sounds very old-fashioned (like "Popular Mechanics") in an industry that's always about slicing away at the cutting edge. Besides, the term "elecronic games" passed out of common usage twenty years ago.

The only disadvantage to this is that the word "game" wouldn't be as prevalent in the main logo any longer. This is the sort of thing that puts sales and circulation departments into a bit of a funk, because they may fear that consumers will pick up the magazine at the rack, be unable to figure out what the mag is about, and put it back down without a second thought.

If the new EGM logo winds up being like these mockups, then, it'll be Ziff Davis betting that the buzz a radical new look for the cover will offset any confusion that may occur. Now I'm excited to see how the new mag looks from the inside.

Romero Releases Quake Map Source

nape.jpg Via PlanetQuake, we note that John Romero's blog has released the original source files to Quake's maps, due to birthday reasons!

The Rom explains: "Since it's Quake 1's tenth anniversary this year (starting June 22nd) I thought I'd dig up and release all of Quake's original map sources. For all these years the only possible way to glean any information from Quake's internal format was from BSP deconstruction programs - but those had problems with tons of brushes generated from insane BSP splits. So finally, here are the originals with the dust blown off of them, shined-up and zipped up. Have fun, mappers!"

Yay, so everyone can now hack about with the original Quake maps (previously, the source code was released, but the full game has not been). I wonder if Id knows and approves of this new map release - though obviously, you still can't play the full game with it, it's just great for modding hilarity.

Still, The Rom is as The Rom does - and as one of his many fans notes in the comments: "You're my #1 mr Romero! Please make Quake abandonware for an extra kick in the community. (Most ppl already has the original game anyway) hug from Portugal!" I want a kick in the community!

On 'The Naked Gamer' - Casual Variety!

nape.jpg Casual site GameZebo continues to quietly publish some of the most entertaining editorials around, and the latest is named 'The Naked Gamer', and discusses the primal urges behind casual games.

It's explained: "Casual games appeal to those base instincts that all humans share and the stimuli to which all humans gravitate - the instinct to explore and investigate our world. There's more psychology going here than in any other form of digital entertainment. Our curiosity is stimulated by the basic game mechanic; which in the old days we used to call the kernel of gameplay. The kernel of gameplay is the very core of the game experience. The falling jewels in JewelQuest, the chain of shiny rolling spheres of Luxor."

What's more: "This basic action piques our interest and pulls us in, while color, texture, light, sound, elements of jeopardy and perceived danger, systems of rewards and patterns of recognition hold us and compel us to explore further. We're getting very basic here, but the point is that the gamer is won or lost quickly based on some fairly primitive perceptions and drives." Column author Vinny Carrella then references 'The Naked Ape' by Desmond Morris to good effect - it's relevant erudition, and always welcome!

S'Not Video Game Darts Without Sid Waddell

darts.jpg It's worth monitoring the GamesPress feed on GI.biz for some of the choicest, often UK-centric obscuro press releases, and one of these would be Oxygen Interactive's announcement of voiceover talent for its PS2 darts game.

Here's the official website for the PDC World Championship Darts game (probably not to get a U.S. release!), and it's explained: "Scheduled for release at Christmas, Oxygen Interactive is pleased to announce, that the 'Voices of Darts', Sid Waddell and scorer, Russ Bray will provide the game's commentary."

Sid Waddell in particular is the, uhh, Madden of the darts world, if you will, and has an official website which includes some of his famous/witty sayings: " Steve Beaton. He’s not A-donis, he’s THE Donis". Or: "That was like throwing three pickled onions into a thimble." Or, indeed: "He looks about as happy as a penguin in a microwave." Now I want to move back to England and watch darts, darnit!

October 13, 2006

GameSetEbay: Game & Watch, Game Boy Advance Hoarding

gw10.jpg You know, trawling eBay continues to throw up some pretty amazing stuff, and here's the latest -a mint box of 10 Donkey Kong Game & Watches from 1983, pristine and untouched for almost 25 years - and currently going for about $1,500.

This is pretty scary: "I am offering for sale the Holy Grail if you will of my collection. 10 DONKEY KONG Jr. with serial - numbers matching and still in manufacture box. I bought this box complete in 1983 and have stored it in a sealed foot locker ever since. No moisture, excessive heat or even worse human hands have touched these games in 23 years. I actually almost forgot about this sealed box."

What's more: "I am obsessive about matching serial numbers and made sure any multiples of games were bought in order from Nintendo and not one by one at some Gaming Shop. These 10 Donkey Kong Jr. games are serial numbers 21828697 through 21828706."

While we're on completist and Nintendo (though I think this a bit less exciting), there's a big compilation of rare GBAs for UKP1500, including Donkey Kong, Pikachu, and various other limited editions, and inexplicably coming with a free copy of SNES Super International Cricket. Is that the Holy Grail, or just a lame add-on?

'Music De Jeux': On Overlooked Arrangements

[Music De Jeux (literally 'music of games' in mangled French!) is a new column from Henry Cao which looks at the history, present, and future of video game music from a multitude of angles - some of them interesting! Here's his first scribblings.]

Game music has come a long way since the beeps and bloops we first heard on our original Nintendo’s. But outside of the countless Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy soundtracks, there doesn’t seem to be any other arranged albums worth listening to. Of course, this isn’t really the case.

As with regular music, you’ll have to wade through a sea of unmemorable albums to find one actually worth listening to - these are the overlooked Japanese soundtracks that take the original game's musical concept and run with it. And what better way to kick off the birth of a new column than to highlight just a few of these? (There probably are better ways, but meh.)

[Click through for full reviews of the neglected, including Langrisser II, King Of Fighters 99, and Arc The Lad arrangement albums .]

Langrisser II Original Game Music
(Details and song excerpts are available at RPGFan Soundtracks)

langrisser2_cover.jpgThe history of Langrisser is a long one. This long-running series has never been released Stateside save for the original (which was renamed “Warsong” and released for Genesis). Langrisser II for Genesis has since been translated by fans in the emulation community, and the superior-yet-easier remake for the Super Famicom partially translated. The gameplay can best be described as Fire Emblem meets Advance Wars, and subsequent releases soon followed, as well as compilations (Langrisser I & II and Langrisser IV & V for Playstation), ports (Langrisser III for PS2), and spin-offs (Langrisser Millennium for Dreamcast).

Rumors of more Stateside releases grew when Working Designs announced that it would be releasing Langrisser’s sister series, Growlanser, in the US. After many delays, Growlanser Generations was finally released for PS2, but Working Designs closed down soon after that. With no signs of a domestic release in the near future, fans of the series can only look to their fellow fans in hopes for another English Langrisser title.

It’s especially a shame when the music is so good. Composed by Noriyuki Iwadare of Grandia and Lunar fame, this soundtrack is unsurprisingly outstanding. What is surprising, though, is that this isn’t the original soundtrack despite what the title claims, and is actually an album of well-arranged synth-rock. From the very first track, this album perfectly captures the desperate-but-never-relenting mood of the game’s storyline with its quick and upbeat tempo, and the character theme songs really fit the images of their respective characters, particularly of the villains’. The less stellar tracks can be found near the middle of the album and aren’t too bad – at least not worst than the game’s – but I was disappointed by one or two tracks which actually sounded worse (in terms of composition, not fidelity) than the ones found in the Super Famicom version (I’m looking at you, Leon’s theme).

The cover of the album is illustrated by acclaimed, uh…pinup artist Satoshi Urushihara. The back is even more interesting because it’s a little more risqué and features the tracklist in both English and German, but not Japanese. I guess they came for the pictures.

King of Fighters '99 Arrange Sound Trax
(Information and tracklisting available at Chudah's Corner.)

kof99_front.jpg

King of Fighter and Street Fighter fans can argue which series is better until they’re blue in the face, but this album is one of the better ones among both series. The only caveat, of course, is that no two tracks sound alike. King of Fighters ’99 Arrange Sound Trax covers a wide range of genres including electronica, jazz, and hard rock; what’s even more amazing is that most of it doesn’t suck. Just how many albums can say that?

More surprising is the fact that each track stands on its own without feeling disjointed – you don’t even have to like the games to like the music. You don’t need to know the characters, their backgrounds, or the laughably absurd storylines to appreciate the tunes because - like all good music - the tunes will offer a glimmer of insight as to what kind of story the characters tell. Yet, at the same time, this soundtrack easily revokes memories of the KOF universe if you already are familiar with the series.

Take fan-favorite “Esaka [Acid Mix]”, for instance. This rendition will instantly be recognized by the most casual of KOF fans as the theme of Japan Team, specifically of series protagonist Kyo Kusanagi. This track is harder than previous versions and matches Kyo’s rough-around-the-edges demeanor in addition to his new, flashier makeover for this installment of the series. Likewise, “176th Street” captures the personality of the brash and confident Hungry Wolf, Terry Bogard. The track starts off with a few piano notes followed by saxophones going back and forth in a steady and upbeat rhythm, slowing down enough so that both piano and saxophone are playing concurrently (the latter of which holds the melody), and finally ending as quietly as it had started.

The SNK sound team really outdid themselves here, and whether you’re a fan of the series or not, this excellent album should not be missed. Unless you plain just don’t like good music. Then, uh… there’s always radio.

Genso Suikoden Celtic Collection 2
(Information and tracklisting is available at Chudah's Corner.)

suikoden2_celtic.jpg

Genso Suikoden II is a lot like your typical Final Fantasy, except the graphics suck and the game itself is good. I kid, I kid (or am I?) – the game is good, the music is great (an understatement), this album is whatever’s beyond great, and I’m pretty sure this sentence came just centimeters shy of being run-on (I have no doubt that the grammar and punctuation are a little awkward). Words can’t describe how much I love this album (apparently not as much as parentheses!), but I’ll sure as hell try.

The Celtic Collection reflects Suikoden’s more melancholic moments. It consists of three albums - this one arguably the best. The range of instruments featured in this album read like a who’s who list of instruments no one’s ever taken seriously - the recorder, harp, tin whistle, accordion – but it takes only a short while to dismiss this notion completely. The album opens with “Time of Calmness” – a soft, somber piece that suddenly breaks into full swing two minutes and makes you want to rise up and dance à la Riverdance. The next track “Chant” is nicely done and similar in composition to the first, only it comes alive a minute sooner with violins blasting away, and the recorders answering back. It ends gently with whispering vocal chants and harp plucks. Harmonizing vocals are then again featured prominently on the fifth track, “Mysterious Forest”, and help to provide the calm and ambient mood of the piece.

The most stunning track is “Forgotten Days”, hands down. This piece literally makes me just sit down and retrospect on my own life - I know of very few musical compositions that have the power to do that. It opens with a measure or two of acoustic guitar, and is then shortly accompanied by a lone tin whistle. This continues for about 26 seconds; before you even realize it, the accordion sneaks in with a few long notes and melts in completely. The piece nears to an end with the trio getting softer and softer until the music can no longer be heard, like a memory fading away.

“Touching Theme” follows and, despite the weird name, is one of the more uplifting pieces of the album. This mood is further brought into realization with the next piece, “Ending March”, which resonates a feeling that nothing can ever go wrong with its soothing vocals. I was surprised by the next piece, “Green Gravestone” since its beginning sounded almost as sorrowful as “Forgotten Days”, but halfway through the piece, the accordion is played in such a manner that makes you believe that it’s a living creature – fully embodied, breathing, and talking. “Eternal Empire” concludes the album and features a mixture of vocals, keyboard, harp, and recorder. Similar to “Ending March”, the vocals here play a prominent part in setting the tone, and wraps up the album satisfyingly.

Arc the Lad Piano Album
(Details and song excerpts are avaialble at RPGFan Soundtracks.)

vrch5005_front.jpg

Arc the Lad Piano Album has the distinction of having not only an Engrish-y title and a bland album cover, but more exceptional music than it has any right to have considering that the original soundtrack was fairly lackluster. It’s only once in a blue moon that I find an album I could listen to in its entirety without skipping a track. Clocking in at just under an hour, this album is made up of twelve tracks you can’t miss if you’re a fan of piano music.

The opening piece, “Theme of Arc the Lad”, which has been featured in every Arc the Lad game in one variation or another, translates well enough into piano, but is a little on the short side. The next track, “Arc” reminds me why I love piano music in the first place with its rich variance of dynamics and composition, accented with light staccato notes in the background in the latter half of the piece. “Way to the Earth” is another beautiful piece, albeit, slower and mellower. Most of the piece is played in the traditional manner of containing both a melody and harmony, but at about 3’47”, both hands take turns playing the melody for a few measures, providing for a nice contrast to the rest of the piece.

If I had to choose my least favorite piece of the album, it would be the next one, “Battle with the Four Generals”, because it doesn’t vary much in composition and is even a bit repetitive, and the piece itself has a very different tone when compared to others on the album. “Elk”, however, is a piece that proves that it doesn’t need to be played perfectly to be enjoyable. The pianist sounds a bit stilted at times here. This track is the shortest and most repetitive one on the album, but you won’t mind when the melody is this catchy and addictive.

The last few tracks are the weakest, but all are excellent pieces nonetheless. The last piece, “To Tomorrow”, takes exception and is as good as the ones found in the first half of the track. More delicate and gentler in tone, the track aptly fits its title and gives the sense that a tomorrow is always promised, forevermore. I’m hard-pressed to name a piece more suitable to conclude an album.

Uru Live's Messianic Comeback Documented

uru.jpg Over at GameSpot parent CNet News, Daniel Terdiman continues to do some excellent work on the game biz, especially in the MMO/virtual world space, and a recent piece has him documenting the return of Cyan's Uru Live, the MMO-ish offshot of the Myst series which was defunct, and is now returning via GameTap

Here are some choice excerpts: "That "Uru Live" has life at all is probably surprising to some. The game had a strong fan base before it was shut down during beta on Feb. 9, 2004 due to a lack of financial resources. Left with no official place to play the game, many players stayed together in an unsupported freeware version of the game called "Until Uru" made available by its developer, Cyan Worlds."

Uru gamer Eleri Hamilton (her game name) comments: "I think it's something the gaming industry in general should take note of. Here was this game that was killed by a large publisher (and) that the fans kept the torch burning (for) two years until GameTap picked it up. I think what GameTap is planning, with reaching out to the smaller game companies that don't match up to the big publisher bottom lines, is going to shake up the industry."

An interesting perspective, and I guess we'll see what happens - one thing I _would_ like to point too, though, is Andrew Plotkin's series of articles about Uru, which excellently documented the slightly broken but fascinating genesis of the title.

Adult Swim Goes All Kinds Of Indie

aswimm.jpg Our mates at Playthrough.net have spotted a felicitous thing - Turner's Adult Swim division (previous sponsors of the IGF, even!) have announced they're seeking indie game pitches, with a few to having an Adult Swim indie game nexus that isn't just show spinoffs.

The site explains: "Adult Swim will be a home for independent games. We know that there are talented artists and programmers looking for someone to pay them to do what they do best: make fun games. We’re open to pitches for any game you want to show us, but we’re looking for a unique tone and good game play. We’re not here to dictate that tone, but we’ll know if it’s not there."

They continue: "Take chances with atmosphere and character; try new things with interface and game play. We want weird, funny, fast-paced, stupid, thought-provoking, twitchy, epic, ironic or violent — whatever you can think up. The only pitches we don’t want are kiddy and unoriginal. We also do not want show-based pitches. The more unusual the better." What with this and GameTap and stuff like the Cartoon Network MMO, Turner are just kicking all kinds of cool game ass recently.

Darkwatch Halloween Costumes, Thank God!

darkwa.jpg Oh my, this is well worth repeating: "High Moon Studios, part of Sierra Entertainment, today announced an upcoming line of high quality costumes based on the hit Vampire-Western video game, Darkwatch."

Lucky us! "Designed and manufactured by California Costume Collections, Inc., the costume line features clothing and accessories recreating the horror themed Western era wardrobe worn by the game’s half-vampire gunslinger hero, Jericho Cross. Darkwatch is the first video game property licensed by California Costume Collections, a maker and distributor of high-end costumes and wardrobe accessories. Darkwatch costumes and accessories are available in adult and child sizes at major party retailers including Party City and Spencer Gifts." Here's a link to the costume in question, heh.

So says the press release (here's an online mirror): “Darkwatch is an original property with a rich universe that, as we have seen, instantly resonates with pop culture savants,” said Chris Ulm, chief design officer, High Moon Studios. “We love the fact that we can now let fans of the game reconnect with that universe by becoming Jericho Cross, as well as introduce a new audience to the unique look and feel that set it apart as a video game property. In a sense, everybody should feel good about the prospect of having thousands of Darkwatch agents roaming the streets on Halloween night.” Do people really care THAT much about Darkwatch? Sorry to ask it, High Moon, I like you!

October 12, 2006

COLUMN: 'The Gentleman Nerd' - Why I Love... Ticket to Ride: Märklin

[The Gentleman Nerd is a weekly column written by Jason McMaster and is dedicated to the more discerning tastes of the refined dork. Due to Jason's extreme nature, most of his columns will be subtitled 'Why I Love...' or 'Why I Hate...' - in case you were wondering.]

Ticket to RideYou know all that stuff I usually write about? All that stuff about the drinking and debauchery. I think I found a cure for that. There's this one company that is pretty popular in the board game world - I've talked about them before - called Days of Wonder. They make kid-friendly games that the whole family can enjoy, and I frankly find that disturbing. Memoir '44, one of their games I've mentioned before, is at least about our finest hour, but the one I'm going to discuss today is just too damned happy. I'm referring to Ticket to Ride: Märklin.

I think the first warning sign, other than the fact that the game is about taking trains, is that the player who goes first is chosen by either who is the youngest or who owns the most Märklin trains. I don't know about you guys, but model trains and hard drinking don't usually mix. Then again, who am I to talk?

Even though Ticket to Ride is about trains, building train routes and, well, liking trains, it's a pretty good time. The way the game works is that each player has a set amount of trains in their color and three passengers. These items are used to make lines between cities in, depending on the version, the U.S., Germany or Europe(in Märklin's case it's Germany). Every time you make a line, you are allowed to place a passenger on one of the two cities you connected. This passenger, on one of your turns, can travel the line you've created (or jump on other people's lines via "ticket" cards that you can draw) and pick up cargo for extra points. These passengers can only be used once each, so it’s wise to not go crazy with them right at the beginning.

In Ticket to Ride, you score points by building train routes. The length of your train determines how many points you get when you complete it - the longer the better. At the beginning of the game, every player draws four route cards and has to keep at least two. These routes give you extra points if you complete them, but they're also much more complex than just completing a line between two cities. There are always multiple stops when the route cards are involved.

Ticket to RideTo place trains on a line in the first place, you need to have cards. The way this works is that every player is dealt four cards from the deck at the beginning of the game and then the next five on top are flipped over face up so you can see them. For the rest of the game, players can choose to draw two cards from the deck, the face up cards, or a combination of the two. The face-up cards are replenished immediately, so there's a little bit of luck and gambling in it. Do you want to draw blind or do you see something you need on the table?

Each line on the board has a color, and these colors correspond to card choices with the exception of gray which is wild card; you can use any color card, as long as you make sure it's all that color, to claim the line. The card part of the game is fairly reminiscent of UNO in that there are wild cards can be used to represent any color, and also wild card +4s out there which act as four cards for the purpose of creating lines.

The game ends when one player gets down to his last trains. After that, everyone else is allowed to take one more turn before calculating points. The points that have been counted up are then added to by people's route completions. Of course, the player with the most points wins. That's how the game goes.

Now, usually this column would be full of me talking about all manner of skullduggery and murder, but I just couldn't manage to muscle it up this time. I really like the game, but it's just so… wholesome. For the most part, I only play games that involve killing, otherworldly beings, dungeons or all three, but it's nice to play something that's not so dour from time to time. Hell, I guess it doesn't hurt to not get drunk and angry every now and then.

This is a game that I plan to play with my kids one day.

Ticket to RideI usually like to have three game pictures per column, but I came up a little short this time. Here's a bonus picture of my current collection as of Sunday. My wife saw me looking at this and asked me why I just didn't go stand in front of the shelf and stare at it instead. That's a pretty good question. I guess I'll go stare at my games now.

[Jason McMaster is a freelance writer who has written for Gamasutra, GameSpy and several other publications. He’s currently working on a few small projects and updating his blog, Lamethrower, as often as he can.]

Column Shenanigans, Call For Crazies!

gsg.jpg Well, I finally got around to rearranging the GameSetWatch columns on the sidebar, since quite a few of them have either gone or hiatus, come to an end, or started up again - but all for good, fuzzy, not litigation-related reasons!

For example, Mathew Kumar has stopped wandering around Second Life, for his own sanity of mind - though he may do another column for us sometime. In addition, RedWolf finished up his game ads column, and DannyC has basically put Bastards Of 32-Bit on hiatus while he does a little more work for us on Gamasutra.

We've phased in a few new neat columns, though - including Matt Hawkins' excellent 'Cinema Pixeldiso', on video game-related movies, and Andrew Smale has started 'Keyboard Bashing' to look at classic PC games, which is neeto. In addition, Jason McMaster's 'The Gentleman Nerd' boardgaming column continues apace, as does John Harris' @Play Rogue-like column, and I think we have at least one other column starting soon to run alongside our other regulars (teh Weasel, teh Zenke, teh boys!)

Anyhow, if you'd like to take a hack at writing a GameSetWatch column, then just contact us - we'd like columns on the subject of pretty much anything (even the stuff people just stopped doing!) Also, anyone who's a cartoonist and writes about funny game stuff should also pop their head up, since the lovely Persona is unfortunately stopping doing his thing with us next week, AW. We miss him already.

Cosmic remuneration for any column will be in the form of loving glances and occasional hand holding, because as I've mentioned before, this is more editor blog than commercial enterprise, thanks to our lack of OMG360 posts and resultant mounds of cash. But hey, it's fun, right?

Massive Magazine, Poked Around Some More

massive1.jpg On reading TomChick's paean to the newly launched Massive Magazine over at QT3, I thought I should chip in with my own impressions of the mag, which I recently got a copy of - and basically, it's wonderful.

I believe our very own Kevin Gifford has already weighed in on the quarterly publication, which is created by the people behind Computer Games Magazine, which has quite possibly the best quality writing of any U.S. video game print magazine in any case. Although Massive's quarterly schedule means it has to be a little, uhm, 'circumspect' in terms of any timely coverage, it's a great-looking mag with a good quality demo DVD in the first issue.

I also noticed, like Kevin, that the latest issue of CGM has an IGE ad on the back cover and the first issue of Massive Magazine doesn't - odd, huh? :) And I think most of the 'celebrity' editorials in Massive were really readable - particularly Brad McQuaid's and Richard Garriott's (justifying why Tabula Rasa is now 'different') - though Raph Koster's was a little meander-y for my tastes. Also, it was fun to see the WoW design team pick the worst item in the game - apparently 'Shadowstrike' ("It's often dubbed Vendorstrike, because it's sold to a vendor.")

So, overall, one of the most readable magazines around - if anyone has a chance of making a difference in the print space at this stage, it's Massive - so we wish 'em luck! It's just a shame all video game fans hang out online so much, as compared to other demographics who don't, and therefore still buy a lot more magazines (housekeeping, custom cars, etc). No way round that, unless we gank all their PCs?

GameTap Adds Sam & Max TV Show, Strategy Action

gtap.jpg Some more fun stuff for 'all you can eat' subscription PC gaming/watching service GameTap that we got, in a couple of separate press releases, so here goes. Firstly: "Beginning this Thursday, October 12, episodes of the original “Sam & Max” animated series will be airing exclusively on GameTap."

This is neat (it's ahead of the October 17 debut of the Telltale Sam 'N Max game's first episode, of course): "Originally premiering in 1997 on Fox Kids, the series introduced the six foot dog and his manic rabbity-thing companion, who go about fighting crime, protecting the general public from the forces of evil and causing general mayhem with their unique brand of humor, to national TV audiences. Each week, GameTap will be adding an episode of this timeless cartoon series to GameTap TV, making it “must-stream” broadband TV alongside the more than 400 pieces of original programming currently available as part of the monthly subscription."

Alsooo, this week seems to be RTS/strategy week on GameTap itself, and some pretty neat games have been added, including: "Command & Conquer... Command & Conquer Red Alert.. Age of Sail II: Privateer's Bounty... Sid Meier's Gettysburg!... The Settlers III... Nam - 1975." Well, OK, that last one isn't very strategy-like, but it is a very early Neo Geo title that you can play multiplayer over GameTap, so have at it.

Bushnell's uWink Games Into Existence

uwinkit.jpg There's just no getting around how adorably old-man-crazy Nolan 'Atari/Chuck E Cheese' Bushnell is, and thus we got a press release that "announces that the first uWink restaurant will open Monday, October 16th, in Woodland Hills, California", featuring his latest spin on the video gaming diner.

As the PR explains: "uWink is an entirely new restaurant concept that combines food, drinks, and media -- inviting guests to eat, drink and engage at the same time, from their tables via touch screens." At one point, I thought there were going to be honest-to-goodness robots all over the place, but seems like this info page on the uWink site explains most of the goodness, as does the press on the uWink blog.

The LA Daily News piece cited there explains it best: "Customers order food and drink on touch-screen computers built into their tables. Diners who want extra cheese on their pizza or a sandwich sans mustard can modify their order via the computer, which also makes cocktail recommendations based on a personality quiz... While waiting for meals, customers can play games on the table computers. The games are not free, but diners earn credits as their tab rises. If folks just want to play games, rates vary between $4 and $8 an hour."

October 11, 2006

Project Sylpheed's X360 Japan Space Blast, Exposed

sylp.jpg Happening to check out the excellent Game-Science for the first time in a while, I noted they have a informative review of Project Sylpheed for Xbox 360, a Japanese-only (for now?) space shooter which looks very pretty.

As Jonnyram explains: "Square Enix’s first original title on the Xbox 360 is a collaboration between Game Arts, Seta and anima inc. Game Arts originally came up with the Silpheed concept back in the 80s on 8-bit home computers in Japan, Seta joined in development since the Mega CD release, and this time anima inc. has come on board to provide further polish to the game."

Conclusions? "The overall feel of the game is very cinematic, making my original comparison to Ace Combat feel more valid. anima inc. boasts more than one hour of CG animation in the game; rather impressive for a shooter and certainly this contributes to the overall feel of the game. The constant little cutscenes really help the story to blend with the action sequences. The character design, though somewhat generic, is pleasing enough on the eye and the sum of all the parts is a rather positive production." Looking forward to someone (Squenix?) putting this out in the West.

Physics Toys Are Gaming It Up Again

lineri.jpg The physics game blog Fun Motion hath returned with a little look at some neat physics toys, including Line Rider, which everyone seems pretty jazzed about recently.

It's explained: "Line Rider is a great Flash-based physics toy by “~lsk”. You paint down lines, which define the collision, and then launch a guy on a sled. People have done some amazing things with it (try a YouTube search for “line rider”)."

What's more: "Line Rider is available for free on deviantart. There are two versions available: the web version, and a download version (better framerate, particularly if you’re running Firefox)." Also listed on the page are MIT Sketching and Working Model 2D - also pretty interesting. Yay physics!

2007 IGF Modding Competition Reminder Fun

startrekv.jpg This is very GSW-relevant as well, so I'm just going to paste from what me and Brandon Boyer wrote on Gamasutra:

"The organizers of the 2007 Independent Games Festival are reminding possible entrants that the final entry deadline for its second IGF Mod Competition is October 13, 2006 at 11:59pm PDT, for mod creators wanting to enter their best mods created in any game - from Thief to Half-Life 2 to Oblivion to The Sims and beyond.

Anyone who has made a major update to their mod in the last year is eligible to enter, and winners in the four initial categories: Best Singleplayer FPS Mod, Best Multiplayer FPS Mod, Best RPG Mod, and Best 'Other' Mod will all see awards of $500 each. Each will be a finalist for an overall 'Best Mod' award, which will take home a $5000 prize at the Independent Games Festival Awards next year.

Initial mod winners will be announced in January 2007, and the winners will be invited to show their games at the IGF Pavilion during Game Developers Conference, held in San Francisco in March 2007, where the final IGF Awards will be announced and the ultimate 'Best Mod' winner revealed.

The main 2007 IGF Competition has once again seen a record 141 entries vying for attention, kudos, and the $20,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize, and a high-quality turn-out is expected for this year's Mod Competition, whose winners last year included Half-Life 2 mod Dystopia, Neverwinter Nights mod Rose Of Eternity: Chapter 1, Unreal Tournament 2004 mod Path Of Vengeance, and Doom 3 mod Last Man Standing.

Those interested in learning further can visit the IGF's submission site for more guidelines and specifics about the competition." Yay.

Lost Levels Explores Star Trek V

startrekv.jpg GSW co-editor and Gamasutra editor FrankC is still keepin' on with Lost Levels, exploring games that never were - or at least, never were unleashed on the public, and the mysterious Doctor Zero has caught up with Star Trek V for the NES for the latest iteration.

It's revealed: "The Star Trek V game for the NES is mostly a side scrolling platformer in four parts. The third part is different from the others in that it involves piloting the Enterprise in a space-shooter style game play. Each part is relatively short, and aside from a completely obtuse way to solve opening a door in part 2, the game takes maybe a couple hours to play from start to finish - assuming you don't die repeatedly. This is the biggest problem with this game – there's just not much to it."

How about the climactic ending? "At last we come to the final stage of the game – the confrontation between God and Kirk. This stage returns to the side-scroller game play... The enemies, excitingly enough, consist entirely of rocks. Lots of rocks. Hooray. Also, the level ends in a huge climactic battle between Kirk and a poison warning label. I guess Bandai thought it made some kind of sense that God is a huge flaming skull." I was always convinced God was a huge flaming skull, myself.

On Game Developers Conference's Fuuuture

gdcee.jpg Over at The Hollywood Reporter, the most excellent Paul Hyman has written a feature on the future of the Game Developers Conference - which, yes, is owned by the CMP Game Group, which also runs this site, but we have minds of our own, etc.

Anyhow, Dave Perry, who's on the GDC Advisory Board, has some interesting views on why E3 went bye-bye: "E3 had become a jack of all trades and a master of none," observes GDC's Perry. "The show had been very, very good as a promotional thing because it was the one show where you'd have every magazine in the world attend. But then the exhibitors started filtering out the blog writers and the smaller Web sites and fan sites. Only pre-approved people with appointments got to see, say, 'King Kong,' in a little theater in the back. And you only got to see the Wii controller if you stood on line for three hours. So the promotional aspect of the show sort of died."

I'm also quoted in there talking about the IGF, which I'm not objective about because it's my baby, but hey. Also, there's this: "Still, observes Dan Hsu, editor-in-chief of "Electronic Gaming Monthly," whether GDC will be able to resist becoming another E3 remains to be seen. "The trick will be for the organizers to keep it as low-key and quiet a conference as it's been in the past."" Well, it's sorta a low-key frenzied, actually, but I think those people who sit over the other side of the office can get it right and keep GDC the right side of mahhvellous. We'll see, huh?

October 10, 2006

Indian Xbox 360 Commercial Is Rather Wonderful

indix.jpg Over at Playthrough.net, they're raving about the new Indian Xbox 360 commercial, and since we're way behind 'the times', we picked it up there and we dig it, too.

As they explain: "Several weeks ago, Microsoft launched their Xbox 360 console in India and though the price is outrageous in relation to India’s GDP, their marketing campaign is accessible to everyone, even me! Featuring Akshay Kumar and Yuvraj Singh, everything about this commercial is great."

The Playthrough-ers grin: "The cinematography is beautiful, with exaggerated colors to match the exaggerated people running, jumping and er, stretching around the “homeland”. It sure beats the Austrian and German ads, which have to be the dryest, most boring ads I’ve seen." Still, YouTube digs up some pretty bizarre German X360 stuff - oh, Microsoft, you're so cool.

COLUMN: 'Parallax Memories' – Ghouls, Ghosts, and Goblins

SuperFami Box['Parallax Memories' is a regular column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins series - and was coincidentally submitted at the same time as the GnG-related GameSetCompetition!]

Ghosts ‘n Goblins or Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, it doesn’t really matter what you call the game (if you can even remember which version has which names): GnG seem to hate you so much you will probably respond with curses and thrown controllers. After recently receiving a copy of Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins I figured it would be best to make sure I was still up to snuff on the older versions of the game. In an attempt to kill two birds with one stone I thought I would turn my skill test into something useful here, even if it does include an 8bit game.

The first game in the Ghosts ‘n Goblins lineage was released in 1985 for the arcade. In Japanese the game carried the title of Makaimura which means “Demon Village World.” (All subsequent games carried a modifier to this: “Dai” meaning great, “Chō” meaning ultimate, and “Goku” meaning extreme. Most likely this makes it easier to talk about with your friends and cuts down on confusion in Japan.) The main character is Sir Arthur whose love, the princess Prin-Prin, was stolen from him (which oddly enough happens while having a picnic with her in his boxer-briefs). He now must go into the Ghoul Realm and save her.

Juxtaposition is one of the keys of the game. Light hearted humor mixed with demonic and satanic themes. Strict gameplay mixed with random enemy spawning. Boxers under a coat of armor. The game really sticks it too you with mixed messages, and one of the things I set out to find is why I keep playing these games and enjoy them so.

[Click through for more.]

NESGnG.gifReady Go

Ghosts ‘n Goblins is one of the few series which spans over twenty years, and is also one of the few that I still own the first copy I bought of all the games in the series, so this project wasn’t the most complicated of undertakings. Also a recent issue of Play Magazine listed Ghosts ‘n Goblins as the number one 8bit platformer: my renewed interest in the series was ultimately piqued.

The NES version was first on my list, and is easily the hardest of the bunch. Arthur is most limited in his movements and skill set. A jump is a commitment; you hit the button and can no longer change what you wanted to do mid-air. This results in many blind leaps into enemies, underestimated distances over pits of death, and general frustration. Many of the stronger enemies will require multiple hits with your weapon, often at ranges that are too close in which to kill them in time.

Noting that this game predates the first Castlevania by a year, it is interesting to see so many similarities. A lot of them are the more frustrating quirks of the series. Taking a ladder commits you to it, and you can’t get off it at any point in time without fully completing an ascent or, descent which is how stairs are handled in Castlevania. As stated before, once you jump you can’t go back, a characteristic shared between both Simon and Arthur. There are also quite a few enemies in GnG which are similar to the Castlevania series staple, the Medusa head. And yet, while there are so many similarities, the games come across completely differently. Even Tokuro Fujiwara, lead designer for all of the GnG games said; "I'm not really familiar with the Castlevania series as I have not played any of the games. I would have to say there is no connection if you play any of the games I made."

Ghosts ‘n Goblins reminds me of a joke my wife recently told me. It was also a question on her test: “Which is better, dyspareunia, or none at all?” The game is a pretty painful experience, but overall very wonderful, especially after the initial burn. This is probably a good point to mention that I can’t beat the NES version. There are two levels that I have to use the level select password to pass, and I’ll leave it up to your imagination which they are. On top of that, I can’t properly complete any of the games. Fully completing a GnG game requires you not only to finish the game once, but then to get sent back to the beginning at a higher difficulty level, with vague instructions on how to get to the “true end boss.” Being that the game involves a princess telling you this, I get to relate the game to Mario (ok, not really, but Super Mario Bros. was released only one short week after the initial release of GnG. So I’m not saying one stole the idea from the other).

ghoulsgenesis.gifThe first game took me two sittings to complete as I haven’t really touched it since I first got the last copy at a Toys ‘R Us way back when. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is the second game in the series and the one that I have spent the most time with. Up until just the other day I had never actually finished the game without cheating. This time, though, I completed the first round in just under an hour, after not playing it in so long. The GnG games train you over and over again how it wants to be played. While the enemies will randomly spawn at certain locations, the game throws so much at you that every action and distance is burned into your muscle memory, no matter how random. Even more than a decade later the game was still with me in an intimate and familiar way.

What separates Ghouls ‘n Ghosts from Ghosts ‘n Goblins is that you can now throw your weapon up and down. Jumping is still the same commitment, but now the amount of freedom you have is increased allowing for just that many more options in which to deal with situations. The attitude, story, and enemies all return to tell a parallel tale inside of a very similar game. Overall the game was easier, but not easy, and apparently that wasn’t good enough for Capcom.

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was released three years after Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, and at the time was only available on the SNES. Unlike the first two games in the series, Super did not start as an arcade game, and wasn’t ported to dozens of smaller or niche computer systems. I did not have a Super NES at the time and had to wait a little while to play the game, as I imagine others did as well. When I finally did get a chance to play it I despised it.

Aimed throwing is now gone from the series only to be replaced with a double jump. For as many platform games that have double jumping, never has it felt so ridiculous. The double jump allows for you to now adjust yourself, or even correct yourself midair. The animation itself even shows Arthur pump his legs and pitch himself slightly more in the direction of your choice. It does go well with the juxtaposition of the game and creates heavy risk and reward situations, but I stil wasn’t looking forward to this part of my research.

SuperGnG.jpgThe game grew on me. Slowly I got more and more used to it. Super GnG lends itself well to the double jump mechanic, as does Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to the ability to throw up or down. But the game is more difficult. I can’t say if it is because of the mechanic or just the level design, but Capcom decided to bring it back to a more challenging state. To be honest, I never previously gave Super a fair shot, and I am glad that I now have as it is a very rewarding, as well as epic, game.

I also borrowed the Gameboy Advance version of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts for the occasion. It is a fairly satisfactory port of the game, yet the screen is cropped and the sound also takes a hit. The interesting aspect is the added Arrange Mode where levels from the first and second game have been added for you to play through with the double jumping Arthur. Unfortunately you have to be very, very skilled at the game to see a lot of these levels, leaving me without a good impression of how they work.

Congratulation! The Story is Happy End.

When I started playing Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts I spent over 60 lives attempting to complete level 1-1. Yes, the very first half of the introductory level. I started out playing by myself with my wife reading in the same room. Eventually we started to trade off after each set of lives. Death after death led to cursing of the most vulgar kind by myself, while my wife insisted that the game was just “stupid.” Yet she kept picking up the controller after my three deaths, as did I after hers. This got me thinking about quite a few things related to the series, most of all what had compelled me to keep playing these games, and why do I still enjoyed them.

I keep playing the games because I know that when you beat a level, or just a small section, that you have learned how to do it and are, for a lack of better words, a master of your environment. Now, I don’t compete for scores or record super-plays of myself, and my wife isn’t much good at games that require a lot of skill. Yet we both beat the game (or rather the first loop) because of something which compelled us to proceed when all odds were stacked against us. This is because the game is a giant carrot at the end of a stick. It is constantly, at the beginning of every life, showing you both how far you have made it and how far you are from the end on a map. Because you respawn from the beginning of a level or section you know that when you have completed it, you did the whole section, you didn’t just get lucky. These things are the carrot, and occasionally, if you run fast enough and try hard enough to get a small taste, it tastes good.

gngmap.gif

Tokuro Fujiwara states that “[The gameplay] requires experience and making decisions on the fly which will inevitably help players improve their skills over time.” This is exactly what every game in the series does, and specifically what the first level of them all trains you to do in preparation for later levels. In the first game, in order to get to the second respawn point you need to defeat a Red Devil which requires you to have experience with combat, and also to make a jump onto and off of a moving platform over a pit of instant death. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts requires you to use your up-attack on a tree of buzzards or you will perish by their multitude after passing under them. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts requires not only very precise double jumping, but also careful timing of it, to get to the second half of the first level. It was because I hadn’t improved my skills enough, and I wouldn’t be ready for anything more difficult than a well timed jump with no enemies around, that it took me over 60 lives to beat the first part of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts.

GnG doesn’t hate you at all. In actuality it gives you exactly as much respect as the games expect in return. No situation is insurmountable or impossible; in fact it is always the opposite once you have properly trained. With the recent PSP release of Ultimate Ghosts ‘N Goblins people have wondered if, because you return from the dead on the spot, rather than at a respawn point, the series has perhaps lost its edge, or is no longer respecting the player. The short answer is: no, it hasn’t. But that’s a story for another day in the not-too-distant future at another site.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter (which just had a new issue released!), an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]

To The StarGamer - And Beyond!

stargamer.jpg Not quite sure where I stumbled upon this, but I'm really enjoying Stargamer.net, a new niche genre site set up specifically "to cover space games" of various kinds - "partly through a shared love of games featuring space ships, but mostly because we had a few spare days with little else to do but bemoan the lack of a decent space gaming portal."

They're reporting on stuff that not many other people are spotting, either - like info on forthcoming Russian space title Tarr Chronicles: Sign of Ghosts - "a first and third-person space combat game in development that tells the story of the Battlestar Talestra (no relation to Galactica), which after guarding some scientists on a routine security patrol, seems to have found itself far from home thanks to a busted hyperdrive."

There's also wackiness describing an EVE Online mod for Homeworld 2 - someone got their RTS in my MMO! Also neat - a surprisingly well-constructed database of space games with screenshots, links, and even info on popular mods stuck in there somewhere - clearly, any site with an entry for Sinistar Unleashed is going places.

Parappa Visits McDonalds, Yum!

mcpar.jpg Another completely random find on eBay - GSW has noticed a Hong Kong seller who is trying to flog 'Parappa the Rapper 2 McDonald Special Edition' for PS2 - which is actually a special fast-food themed demo disc!

There's a bit more info in an old GameSpot article: "Sony and McDonald's have teamed up to release the Happy Disc, a PlayStation 2 demo that contains one-level versions of Ape Escape 2001 and PaRappa the Rapper 2. Ape Escape is already on Japanese shelves, but PaRappa 2 isn't scheduled for release until August 30, so this is the first time we've seen the game in action."

What's more: "The demo level takes place in a McDonald's, with PaRappa and a burger-flipping ghost trading rhymes about cutting lettuce, toasting buns, and the wonderful world of condiments, among other things." The first level in the final Parappa 2 is set in 'Beard Burgers', not in Ronald's wonderful emporium, so I wonder - does this demo have McDonald's logos inserted? Is there anything else different, if so? Perhaps someone could buy it and find out. [UPDATE: A couple of people we know, including the inevitable Kohler, own this, and reckon it's just got McDonald's logos in the first stage of the game with no other lyric or other changes.]

(BONUS: A scary McDonald's Japan commercial on GoogleTube from the same era which advertises Happy Meal-style game toys, including Parappa.)

GameSetCompetition: Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins!

ghostngob.jpg Well, thanks to regular GameSetWatch buddies Capcom (other companies - give stuff away with us too!), it's time for another exciting GameSetCompetition - better late than never!. This time it's involving PSP ulti-cult (!) craziness Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins, a title that's seen some intriguingly contrasting reviews of late, hah.

In any case, the official website has plenty more info, as does the Wikipedia page, which notes: "Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins is the first game in the series to employ 3D graphics, while maintaining much of the 2D gameplay mechanics of the earlier games. It also marks the return of the series' project head, Tokuro Fujiwara. The game still follows the classic scenario of a heroic knight battling with demons, but includes a large amount of changes."

Anyhow, we have 3 copies of the game to give away, rawk. Here's the question:

"What slightly insane, pig and pink hair-inclusive PlayStation platform game series did Tokuro Fujiwara mastermind after leaving Capcom and before returning to captain the latest Ghosts 'N Goblins title?"

Please send your answers to editors@gamesetwatch.com any time before Monday, October 16th at 12 noon PST. There will be three winners randomly picked from the correct answers, the judges' decision is final, and that's that. Have fun!

October 9, 2006

Spore And The Long Zoom

spore.gif Oops, a little behind the curve on this one, but hey, it's worth running anyhow - the New York Times has a great profile of Will Wright and the construction of 'Spore', and it's written by 'Everything Bad is MARVELLOUS For You' author Steven Johnson, yay.

It's got a cute intro, too: "You can catch glimpses of the long zoom in special-effects sequences, but to understand the connections between those different scales, to understand our place in the universe of the very large and the very small, you have to take another way in. To date, books and documentaries have done the best job of making the long zoom meaningful to mass audiences... but a decade or two from now, when we look back at this period, it is more likely that the work that will fix the long zoom in the popular imagination will be neither a movie nor a book nor anything associated with the cultural products that dominated the 20th century. It will be a computer game."

Step forward the ever-adorable Spore, and there's even some edugaming lust in there somewhere: "It occurred to me as I wandered through the halls of the Spore offices that a troubled school system could probably do far worse than to devote an entire, say, fourth-grade year to playing Spore. The kids would get a valuable perspective on their universe; they would learn technical skills and exercise their imaginations at the same time; they would learn about the responsibility that comes from creating independent life. And no doubt you would have to drag them out of the classrooms at the end of the day." Let's go back to school!

COLUMN: 'Keyboard Bashing' - Platforming on the PC: A Brief History

Commander Keen in: Goodbye, Galaxy!['Keyboard Bashing' is a new GameSetWatch column by Tales of a Scorched Earth's Andrew Smale which discusses the history, present and future of PC gaming.]

Before Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, before Unreal, another war was being waged between the future champions of the first person shooter. Both in their infancy, id software and Epic MegaGames were contributing to another burgeoning genre on the PC: the side scrolling platformer. Games largely remembered as trifling attempts at making the hobby accessible, they are no less important in the evolution of PC gaming.

The growing popularity of Super Mario Bros. and the home console saw PC gaming play catch up in the early 1990s. id Software's Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons arrived on the shareware scene in 1990, and was probably my first exposure to that form of software distribution. Publishers would issue the first "chapter" or "episode" on diskette, which would often be shared throughout the BBS scene. It was perfectly legal - the intent was to get the game into the hands of as many people as possible, and if they liked it enough, they could purchase the remaining episodes and see the rest of the game. You could almost call shareware the predecessor to the newly fashionable episodic content and digital distribution.

Commander Keen in The Armageddon MachineWhile Pharaoh's Tomb (1990) slightly predated Commander Keen as an Apogee published title, the disparity between the two platformers was incredible. Incidentally, George Broussard, the current figurehead behind 3D Realms and the Duke Nukem Forever project was the man responsible for that title. With Commander Keen id Software created a revolutionary smooth scrolling engine with only EGA graphics; the former seemed absolutely ancient in comparison.

The game starred a boy who built a spaceship out of old soup cans and spare parts in his garage, only to be marooned on Mars after crash landing to defend himself against the evil Vorticons and save the Earth. Wearing his brother's football helmet and wielding his trademark pogo stick, Commander Keen would find himself in two sequels: Goodbye, Galaxy! and Aliens Ate My Babysitter. It is rumoured that John Carmack's engine for Commander Keen was originally created to port Super Mario Bros. 3 to the PC; after the demo was rejected by Nintendo they created their own character and a series that would be PC platforming's most recognizable. It would also become the springboard for one of PC gaming's most influential developers.

The Venerable Duke NukemApogee Software's Crystal Caves would follow one year later, along with the start of another landmark PC gaming franchise: Duke Nukem. While he wasn't the wisecracking character made famous by Duke Nukem 3D (1995), the faster paced shoot 'em up gameplay had more in common with Turrican than Super Mario Bros. It was a big change from the jumping puzzles that were the core of Keen's gameplay.

This was simply the beginning of Apogee's foray into the side-scrolling platformer: numerous titles and their sequels would be making their way to BBS and store shelves, most of the "new" franchises such as Secret Agent (1992) simply being clones of previous efforts that used the same engine. Nevertheless, the PC platforming rush of the early 1990s saw the introduction of conventions of the first person shooter: Secret Agent was the first game I remember having to backtrack with colored keys in order to open their corresponding doors to advance through the level.

Apogee may have been the first to capitalize on this growing genre, but competition wasn't far behind. Epic MegaGames (they would drop the "Mega" in 1999 before the release of Unreal Tournament) released Jill of the Jungle in 1992, which contained its fair share of digs at contemporaries Duke Nukem and Commander Keen in a bit of friendly rivalry. While the game provided moderate recognition for Epic, it didn't achieve the same success as the Commander Keen series. Xargon was released a year later, and though it featured improved visuals over Jill of the Jungle, it suffered the same fate of being overshadowed by Apogee and id Software's established franchises. But this was about to change.

Jazz Jackrabbit tries to liven up the genreJazz Jackrabbit (1994) showed some originality within the PC platforming genre at a time when success was often followed with the reuse of engines and similar gameplay. The game's anthropomorphic characters and sense of urgency in the gameplay were evidently influenced by a certain blue hedgehog. The game featured the various planet-spanning adventures of a gun-toting green rabbit, on a quest to save his girlfriend from an evil turtle. If comparisons can be made between id and Epic and their console counterparts, Epic's Jazz Jackrabbit was to Commander Keen what Sonic the Hedgehog was to Mario. The game introduced a much brighter palette, and a level of speed and "edginess" to the character that reinvigorated the PC platforming genre, if only for a short while. An excellent sequel followed in 1998 (and will likely end up in its own column here), but by then Epic had released Unreal, and the battle for 3D engine supremacy had begun in earnest. Jazz Jackrabbit 3, a rumored sequel that was to take the leap into 3D, was subsequently cancelled after poor sales of its predecessor.

So what happened to Apogee Software? In 1994 the prolific publisher of shareware split into 3D Realms and Pinball Wizards for branding purposes, the latter label being used for one pinball title in the late 1990s only to fade into obscurity. It's safe to say that Apogee's only lasting legacy is 3D Realms and the Duke Nukem brand, as id Software and their early titles published by Apogee have clearly become a separate entity in the minds of PC gamers.

Like many gaming classics better served by nostalgia, Commander Keen was brought into console gaming's modern era on the Gameboy Color in 2001. Doing away with the expansive levels and free-roaming gameplay of Goodbye Galaxy!/Aliens Ate My Babysitter, this adventure took a more conventional approach, and simply adapted the Keen character to console gaming's platform conventions. Similarly, Jazz Jackrabbit appeared on the Gameboy Advance in 2002, only to have the character reshaped into some kind of spacefaring mercenary inspired by a well-known science fiction landmark. Both games may have been officially licensed products, but did little to maintain what made the original games so unique: originally inspired by console gaming, but still distinctly a PC gaming experience. In those early days of PC gaming, creating a recognizable and successful franchise was just as easy as copying someone else's. I wish I could say the same for PC gaming today.

The Act Moves Out To Arcades

theact.jpg We've previously covered the distinctly quirky arcade machine 'The Act' from Cecropia, and Armchair Arcade has now spotted its public release, and I'd love to hear from any GSW readers who can go check it out in its Boston test locations.

It's explained: "A company called Cecropia has finally come out of stealth/start-up mode and been getting a lot of press lately about their first "experimental" game, "The Act", identified as an interactive comedic film experience. What seems to make this a bit different from the usual indie developer spin on things is that the company was started in conjunction with a bunch of former Disney animators, giving the experience legitimate visual impact, while the gameplay is designed around a simple knob to manipulate the emotions, personality and actions of the player's avatar."

But wait, for Boston-ites, here where you can check it: "The Act is installed at locations including: --Our House West at 1277 Commonwealth Avenue, Allston --TC's Lounge at One Haviland Street, Boston --Boston Bowl at 820 Morrissey Boulevard, Boston --T's Pub at 973 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston --Lanes & Games at 195 Concord Turnpike, Cambridge." Surely we have some Harvard professors who want to go play?

On MMO Boards As Savage Satire

starwars1.jpg The ever-vigilant Lum at Broken Toys has pointed to some Star Wars Galaxies-related grumpiness on the official messageboards, and it's fanboy froth all the way.

As is pointed out: "SWG Creative Director Chris Cao unloaded with both barrels on the SWG boards re: the topic of, well, the SWG boards. The money paragraph: 'Roughly 80% of the people who play SWG never read these boards. We know this from our own internal metrics and it poses an interesting question. Are we talking to people who play the game or posters who play the boards?'"

Scott further grins: "The boards predictably exploded in a fury of paradoxes, with players yelling “Hear! Hear! Don’t listen to Those Other Guys!” among the assuredly expected retorts of “I’d play your game if it wasn’t more boring than this message board.”" So what's to be done - no messageboards for tea?

October 8, 2006

Fish Tycoon's Personnel Downgrade, Game Upgrade

ftyc.jpg There aren't many interviews with game developers that talk honestly about developer downsizing, but GameZebo's 'Hook, Line and Sinking: How Fish Tycoon Became a One Man Show' is one of these very articles.

It's explained: "Much like the hero of their smash game [Fish Tycoon], Last Day of Work's CEO and lead designer Arthur Humphrey soon found himself with too many mouths to feed and not enough to show for it. The result was a mass downsizing of the operation, and a future casual gaming smash placed squarely on one man's shoulders."

So what's for the future? "A sequel to the game is inevitable, Humphrey has already started to consider new features like additional fish customization and how to implement more of a community aspect into further iterations. LDW has begun to grow again too as they've released more titles, but they're more cautious, more business savvy than before."

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling’: Mag Roundup 10/7/06

['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]

denaa.jpg

The rush of autumn special issues seems to have abated a bit, so I'd like to start out by showcasing a couple things that caught my eye. First off, Retro Volume 2 may be found at some newsstands right now. A compilation of the Retro sections from the past few years of British magazine gamesTM, this is 260 pages' worth of full-color classic game coverage, from Sonic and Shadow of the Beast to interviews with all sorts of old UK game folks. It costs thirty dollars in the US (!) but is still quite a nice volume to have by the bedside.

Second off, could whoever it is who keeps on sending me issues of Ferrets magazine stop, please? Yes, I know I subscribed to it, but that subscription should have run out 10 months ago. I don't want to dress up Dena in a foppish winter cap, for Chrissakes! Arrgh! Why do my subscriptions to mags I don't like never run out, yet my subscriptions to mags I sincerely want to subscribe to take over half a year to get processed? Someone needs to do a scathing expose' of some sort, I swear...

Regardless, coming right up is coverage of the six US game mags that crossed my desk over the past two weeks. Read on, please. [Click through for more.]

MASSIVE Magazine Issue 1

massive1.jpg

Cover: What's next for the MMOs of today and tomorrow

MASSIVE is a quarterly title from Strategy Plus, publishers of Computer Games magazine, and as such it can be summed up pretty quickly: It's a mag about MMOs done in the style of CGM. This is absolutely a good thing, especially when compared to the relatively amateurish efforts of Beckett Massive Online Gamer.

A lot of the ground they cover is the same (ooh, here are some new expansions coming up, ah, here are some new MMOs coming up), but the rest of the mag is filled with stuff that'd actually be interesting to read for a genre fan. There are CGM-style editorials by all sorts of well-known MMO folks -- Richard Garriott, Brad McQuaid, Raph Koster (SOE's chief creative officer), Richard A. Bartle (co-creator of the first MUD), and so on. There's the usual features on guild wrangling and the history of MMOs (which I think Beckett did in its first issue as well), but the layout, design, and writing make them less work and more fun to get through. Another feature's on gold farmers, which approaches the subject from a bit more genial perspective than PC Gamer did this month -- one sidebar tells the story of a WOW guild who recruited a Chinese farmer for shits 'n giggles and actually found it a culturally enriching experience (until he got fired). Maybe it's factually informative (so was Beckett), but it's also fun to read, and that's the most important thing in a print magazine.

The other standout: Is a feature giving the play-by-play on a system crash that happened on EverQuest II last year and almost wiped out the entirety of users' character data. I didn't hear about because I'm not an MMO person, but the article is both superbly written and something I'm amazed SOE would allow coverage of.

Speaking of SOE: They have a disc in this issue with trials for five of their games, trailers, and a bunch of other junk. Despite that and the wide page size, the newsstand price is still only $5.99.

Conspicuously missing: An advertisement from king-of-all-gold-farmers IGE.com, which has been resident on Computer Games' back cover for a good couple years now. It may have to do with all the support MASSIVE has received from the game publishers themselves, and it may also have to do with writer Mark Wallace discussing the company fully in the gold-farmer feature: "For some games, so much currency flows through the site that players who don't use it find themselves at a distinct disadvantage, since it's far easier at this point to acquire gold on IGE than by actually playing the games."

Computer Games November 2006

cgm-0611.jpg

Cover: Lord of the Rings Online

Sometimes I wonder if the folks at Computer Games are too shy to actually let anyone else have a look at their magazine. I didn't realize it until it was too late, but I totally missed the October 2006 issue simply because it did not arrive at any bookstore in Houston. OK, OK, perhaps that's my fault for not having a subscription, but I do have a subscription -- in fact, I paid for it five months ago, and I still haven't seen an issue out of it.

Regardless: I'm glad I found November, because as usual it's full of unique features. Accompanying the eight pages on Turbine's ring-y MMO is four more written by "Tolkien scholar" Daniel Greenberg about why there haven't been very many good Lord of the Rings games, despite many, many attempts. There's a bit on GenCon as it rapidly stops being about board games, as well as two more on online protests and army-themed games which aren't quite as original but still nicely done.

Official PlayStation Magazine November 2006 (Podcast)

opm-0611.jpg

Cover: The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

The OPM podcast has been hinting at the identity of this cover for a little while, but now that it's out, we find that it's the hot-sclusive unveiling of PS3 Oblivion (not to mention a separate, Oblivion-themed PSP dungeon hack). Indeed it looks lovely, and it's nice to see OPM take the high road and not take every opportunity to pick on the Xbox 360 version. Just some of the opportunities.

Interviews: This time around we've got Atsushi Inaba of Clover Studio and Alex Ward of Criterion. Inaba comes off as a laid-back surfer dude stickin' it to the man while making whatever kind of game he wants, while Ward's piece is a lot more interestin' -- while freely admitting that he hates getting interviewed, he still opens up enough to spill out his entire early career in video games, from manning Acclaim UK's phone line to laying out ceiling tiles for a living.

The disc: The highlight this month is probably the Guitar Hero II demo, even though it's hard to imagine enjoying it much if you don't own the controller. Other top hits include demos of Need for Speed Carbon and The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, as well as movies of...well, a bunch of random stuff, mostly, of which .hack//G.U. is probably the most fascinating.

Scarface watch: I can't help but make special note of the Scarface reviews so far because there seems to be no middle ground with this title. Print-mag reviewers have so far either loathed it (OXM, PSM, Play) or loved it (Game Informer). For OPM, Robert Coffey is overall positive, writing that the game's a lot more limited than at first glance but still a ton of fun.

NIntendo Power November 2006

np-0611.jpg

Cover: Pokémon Mystery Dungeon

I suppose you can't help but go back to the old standbys now and again when you're Nintendo Power. This cover (the twelfth fully devoted to a Pokémon game in NP's history) proves it well -- even though the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games have been out for weeks and there's a new console launch to hype up, the cover's devoted to a long, deep, and very Nintendo Power-like strategy guide for the newest Pokémon games, the sort that would be right at home in the very first issues of NP. Some covers just sell themselves, after all.

There's also: A bit on Wii Madden which, good heavens, now that I look at how the assorted movements, you'd have to be Baryshnikov to play this well.

Tips & Tricks November 2006

tt-0611.jpg

Cover: Destroy All Humans! 2

For someone who may, perhaps, not be in such a desperate need for tips or tricks, this issue is interesting just for all the cool stuff it points out to the reader. First off, Volume 2 of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show is out now. Lord, there's another DVD I'll buy but never quite get around to watching. Second off, Vampire Hunter D (PS1) is quite cool. There's a page on it in this issue (part of the "Animation Station" column), and it reminded me of exactly how superb the graphics are, even though the game was from Jaleco, a name not exactly synonymous with high production values.

Finally, Collector's Closet this month showcases the "Krybor Demon", one of the three silver-painted dinosaur-airplane hybrids that decorate the completely outrageous boxart of Demon Attack (2600). The figure (still owned by game coder Rob Fulop) is a little dinged up, but is still in great condition, even sporting painted toenails that weren't visible in the original cover art. Fancy.

Also: Make a note of the two-page interview with Michael Madsen, on the eve of the Reservoir Dogs video game. It sounds like he's pretty good buds with Uwe Boll -- maybe because he finally got to pay a sort-of hero in the BloodRayne movie, instead of all the bad guy roles he usually winds up with.

Game Developer October 2006

gd-0611.jpg

Cover: Top 20 Publishers

This issue marks the fourth annual top-20 feature for the magazine. Number one is EA, as it has been every year so far, and Nintendo (shooting up thanks mainly to all the great DS games they've made this year) and Activision round out the top three. Buena Vista Games and NCsoft are the only newcomers to the list over last year, with Codemasters leaving the top 20 to make room for them.

These rankings are based on six measures: annual turnover, number of releases, average review score, "quality of producers" (based on a survey of developers), reliability of milestone payments, and quality of staff pay/perks.

The postmortem this month: Is on Titan Quest, which (judging by the "What Went Wrong" section) I can't help but wonder where they got the money from to complete it, it ran into so many delays. Good work, men.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]

Unemployed Ninjas Wandering To The DS

izunaa.gif Ta to Jiji and GoNintendo for pointing out info on a new Atlus dungeon hack for the DS debuting in the States early next year, so we figured we'd pass on.

It's explained: "DerrickDS was doing some hunting when he came across a title called Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja. The title was due to be released from Atlus. Having never heard of the title, he got in touch with Atlus, who gave him this response."

Which was: “Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, I know not much about. It’s a random-dungeon-crawling RPG with a wacky/silly sense of humor. Tons and tons of items and combat, in the vein of the Mysterious Dungeon series. Another 1Q ‘07 shipper. Right now, we don’t have a detailed description just yet, but I will know more in the next month.” There's some earlier info on the Success-developed version on GoNintendo.

The Top Five Comfort Games?

bout03.jpg Over at The New Gamer, they have a fun list of the 'Top 5 Comfort Games', for which the inestimable G.Turner notes: "Like food, games can provide comfort in a time of need - be it a need for something familiar or just a quick pick-me-up after a particularly distressing day. Here's a list of my current favorite stick-to-your-ribs games."

The top tip? "Burnout 3 allows me to experience a perfect storm of visual and aural noise. It's not just the engrossing Road Rage mode, which pits opponents against each other in a shunt-vs-shunt auto-porn fest, but the custom soundtrack which rivets me. I grind fenders to the tune of Jim Thirlwell (I prefer driving to his classic 'Pussywhipped' remix of Front 242's 'Religion', Asche ('Riding On The Atomic I.C.E.' is always a lark), Haujobb (nothing's better than the 'High Frequency' remix of 'Dream Aid') and even Sleater-Kinney ('Entertain' is surprisingly fun to crash to) and more."

Also noted: "Call me crazy, but I actually prefer playing this with the Dreamcast controller instead of the maracas. Of course, that might be because we've never been able to get our maracas to work properly, but hey, I feel I can better reach "the zone" and be a more precise maraca champion without them." Also, there's a new Drunksaling column on TNG, huzzah.



If you enjoy reading GameSetWatch.com, you might also want to check out these UBM TechWeb Game Network sites:

Gamasutra (the 'art and business of games'.)

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

Finger Gaming (news, reviews, and analysis on iPhone and iPod Touch games.)

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

Worlds In Motion (discussing the business of online worlds.)


Copyright © UBM TechWeb