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November 18, 2006

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 11/18/06

['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.]

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Wow! A mammoth ferret for a mammoth two weeks in game magging! No less than fourteen mags came out alongside the PS3/Wii launches, and I reviewed all of 'em...except a little more tersely than usual, because I just got back from a trip to Austin and am still a little groggy.

Click below to find out about the three mags that got a full redesign this week, as well as which mag had a Zelda review and which gave two whole pages to coverage of The Red Star!

Electronic Gaming Monthly December 2006 (Podcast)

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Cover: Halo 3

This is the first issue of EGM's big redesign, complete with new logo (although the polybags on newsstands still have the old logo for some reason).

As I surmised a few weeks back, the "EGM" abbreviation takes center stage on the cover, with the wordy and unexciting "Electronic Gaming Monthly" relegated to subtitle status. The blocky pixel font is now EGM's typeface of choice for section titles and such, but the rest of the redesigned is quite a bit less square -- instead, it's whiter, curvier, and a bit simpler. In fact, its closest cousin in design is probably Xbox Nation, the late Ziff mag that was the first to receive a full visual treatment from notable British import and Ziff game-group creative manager Simon Cox.

The basic magazine layout is still the same, with "Press Start" (an informal collection of news, previews, and general-interest game articles) up front, reviews and Seanbaby in the rear, and the big exclusive preview or preview feature in the middle. The one refinement that sticks out the most is a streamlining of Press Start, with all the old tiny departments (like Overheard and the news bits that used to run along the bottom of the page) now taking up a vertical column that takes up a third of most pages in the section. This makes Press Start seem like more of a real section, complete with its own voice and writing style, and less of the mishmash of random stuff that it was criticized for being before.

Otherwise, however, the redesign seems largely a cosmetic one. All the basic sections are still there, including Hsu & Chan and the crossword in the back, and the reviews are in the exact same format as before. The new art style, however, makes EGM seem a great deal different -- a bit more, I don't know, refined, friendly, professional-looking, instead of the pseudo-Maxim look it had going before. I was anticipating more, but still, I approve heartily. (The main complaint so far: The "rewards" that games receive in the reviews section are inconspicuous and harder to notice than before. You have to leaf through the pages carefully to find out what Game of the Month is.)

Next-gen watch: EGM got their hands on no PS3 titles and only one Wii launch piece (Super Monkey Ball), which they didn't like very much. Guitar Hero II and Bully (which gets one 10 from a hyper-excited Robert Ashley) tie for GOTM.

Games for Windows: The Official Magazine December 2006 (Podcast)

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Cover: Dragon Age

While EGM has sadly lost its infamous title font (with the crazy curly "T"), the new Games for Windows has gained a truly amazing one for its own. Imagine a font that's largely square, yet laughably curvy and all over the place, and that's the new GFW title typeface. You can see it on the cover, and I think you'll agree that it truly does portend a new era for computer games media. A curvy one.

Although EIC Jeff Green said earlier that GFW would not be that radically different a magazine from CGW, I was surprised to find it far more redesigned than EGM was, the opposite of what I was expecting. "Start" now reads a lot more like EGM's own Press Start -- it's where all the quick previews, dev interviews, and the ever-famous Freeloader section go. The cover stories/features (this month, for Dragon Age) largely look the same, but you can see evidence of trying to lighten up the look of the design a bit, similar to EGM's new XBN-ization.

Reviews, meanwhile, have been completely redone. Again. Just a few months after CGW experimented with shuttling number ratings and turning the reviews section into a sort of one-man roundtable discussion (an approach I adored dearly), GFW is now back to ratin' stuff out of 10 like everyone else. The editors make it a point to say that 5/10 is truly the average score, just like EGM does, and the reviews section actually looks a whole ton like EGM's now designwise.

Overall I'm much impressed. I'm sad that the reviews are back to "normal," but otherwise the new design looks superb and really helps the mag stand out against the competition, something I think may have been a problem in the past. I look forward to great things, and in a 4-page advertorial in the back, Peter More agrees: "I think you'll really like what the [GFW] team has in store for you. It's a beautiful, informative, and irreverent publication worthy of its heritage."

Irate CGW... er GFW letter-writer of the month: "As a Russian-American whose family was directly affected by Stalin's purges, frankly I find Stalin's inclusion as a leader [in Civilization IV] to be patently offensive..."

Official PlayStation Magazine December 2006 (Podcast)

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Cover: Resistance: Fall of Man

Boy, nothing like the announcement of the folding of your magazine to make the current issue seem moot, huh? It's doubly a shame because even OPM redesigned this month -- and its new title font (seen in boldface with "resistance" and "IT'S HERE" on the cover) is the looniest of all!

Nearly every section of OPM gets a graphical retouch, and as with EGM and GFW, the result is a much whiter, curvier, and more refined Euro-style design. Back when I worked at 1up, we used to call this sort of redesign "Simonization," since it always seemed to happen after Simon Cox got his hands on it. Again, it looks superb, although it isn't such a major leap in design compared to Ziff's other two mags since OPM, well, they've always been out there visually, you know?

The disc: Has .hack//G.U., the new Bionicle game, and that's about it for new stuff I reckon.

Rather amusingly: This issue seems to symbolize all the challenges mags face with timeliness. First off, Tokyo Game Show coverage which is way late. Second off, a big feature interview with Tomonobu Itagaki right before he got sued for sexual harrassment. And, indeed, news of the mag folding before I even got the issue. Ah well.

PSM Holiday 2006 (Podcast)

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Cover: BlackSite: Area 51 (haven't seen the newsstand edition yet to see if it's different)

Finally, on to some mags that didn't completely revamp themselves! Things are the same as always in PSM-land, and that means big-arse preview features on Stranglehold and the new Area 51 game. Guitar Hero II wins top adulation in the reviews section, and a basic sort of launch guide occupies the midsection.

Paradox: If this PSM is only 96 pages long, then why does it feel so much thicker? Simple! That's because there's an enormous 32-page "Guide to Wireless Gaming" sponsored by Cingular -- yes, those infamous paid-for wireless gaming guides that used to be all over the Ziff Davis mags. There's one in this month's PC Gamer, too, where it's just as out of place as it was in Computer Gaming World.

PC Gamer Holiday 2006 (Podcast)

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Cover: Windows... yawn... Vista

Hold on -- is this the cover of PC Gamer, or PC Magazine? I suppose the editors figured a big fat Windows logo would sell the mag better than some unidentifiable art from Titan Quest or Assassin's Creed, and to be honest, they're probably right. Nine pages in the middle of the mag go over how Microsoft is going to transform your PC real soon now, although I have the impression that the majority of this stuff was already covered a few months back when PC Gamer last looked at the Games for Windows movement.

Play December 2006

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Cover: Sonic the Hedgehog

Ohhh, if only more hardcore gamers cared about Sonic these days -- they'd undoubtedly eat up this month's Play cover feature / review, which kicks off with a centerfold-style vertical pinup of the guy runnin' atcha and continues on with a whole mess of screens, character art, and Dave Halverson massaging a platformer in the way that only he can.

Only in Play: Will you find a full-page review of the new SpongeBob Squarepants game. And also a full page on Xyanide. And two on The Red Star, which goes ignored in all this month's other mags. The only other mag who'd do that is XBN, assuming they were still around.

By the way: Rocket is Halverson's newest mag, a "pop-culture multi-media magazine" devoted to games, anime, movies, and you know, whatever else the kids like these days. It debuts in January and there's a full-page ad showing the first cover in this month's Play.

Nintendo Power December 2006 and January 2007

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Cover: Wiiiiiiiiiiiiii and Zelda: Twilight Princess

I got my January NP in the mail just a few days following the December one. I don't know if this was deliberate or not, but the result almost seems like Nintendo's putting out a double-issue of NP to celebrate the Wii launch, then taking a break for Christmas 'cos nothing's really happening afterwards for a while. December has an enormous Wii game preview feature, of course, which goes over the console's menu system and everything. January, on the other hand, reviews 'em all, including Zelda, Wii Sports, Rayman, even Splinter Cell for chrissakes. Hell, there's even a strategy for Twilight Princess, and the 4 pages of Eiji Aonuma interview will be enough to make any Nbot squeal.

All told, when it comes to Wii, NP is schooling all the other mags with their early January issue. It's just like the old NES/SNES days!

GamePro December 2006

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Cover: Zelda: Twilight Princess or Guitar Hero II (Level 2 edition)

If it weren't for Nintendo deciding to send my January issue a month early, GamePro would've been the only mag with much Twilight Princess coverage this month. It's GamePro-y, but still a lot of fun to read -- you really can't do much wrong with the Zelda art this time around, although it's kinda a drag to see the cover's just the standard GamePro "take some character art and do a Photoshop glow effect around it" stuff they've been doing for five years now.

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GamePro also has these two launch guides out this month, both featuring a bunch of previews and some Best Buy coupons. You should be able to find both of these at Best Buy stores right now; one's also being packed with every newsstand GamePro.

Tips & Tricks December 2006

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Cover: Guitar Hero II

The next gen hasn't hit T&T yet, but Guitar Hero II sure has! Not much else to say about this month's issue, except that I heard Bill Kunkel is doing some work for T&T these days, so is a Game Doctor re-re-re-re-return in the cards soon?

Hardcore Gamer December 2006

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Cover: PlayStation 3

You know, Hardcore Gamer's covers have been looking damn stylish lately. This one probably won't stick out in the newsstand much, but for a Sony-bot it's almost like porn.

This issue contains features on MUGEN and the Bit Generation GBA titles. The copy I bought is also defective, or something -- it contains two copies of pages 34 through 50, one in the correct place and another wedged between pages 66 and 67. Crazy!

Game Developer November 2006

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Cover: Prey

With all the excitement right now, GD gets shunted to the end. Sorry, Simon! The cover's very nice!

[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.]

Gamasutra Weekly Round-Up, Nov. 18th

- Ahoy - time for another round-up of the more interesting Gamasutra columns and news for this week (or at least, the GSW-worthy ones!), and there are some smart things to check out, hopefully:

- 'Playing Catch-Up' this week talked to Greg Johnson, co-creator of the ToeJam & Earl series, and has some excellent stuff on early influences: "It was during [a UCSD] course that Johnson encountered the game that would inspire ToeJam & Earl more than anything else - Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold’s 1980 randomised dungeon crawler Rogue. “I ran across it during a programming course at UCSD,” he recalls. “I stayed up many a night until 3 or 4am in the morning trying to get deeper into the dungeon. That was a great game. There were certain things about the mechanics that I just loved.”"

- We tracked down Ubisoft's Tony Van, who helms the Petz franchise nowadays, and got him to chat about the virtual pet series' resurrection, among others, why they rawk more than Nintendo's version: "Nintendogs is a high quality product, and Nintendo has done a great job of raising awareness of their game and setting the bar for a quality pet sim. That said, you can't get Nintendogs on PC, PS2, or even GBA. Nor can you play Nintencats, Nintenhorses or Nintenhamsters at this time. And our DS games offer experiences that Nintendogs doesn't, so anyone who is tired of Nintendogs can check out Dogz or Catz DS and see what it has to offer."

- A podcast transcript talking to The Behemoth's John Baez has some good bits about how indie indie is, exactly: "There was a lot of acrimony in some of the game development forums, just because they claimed we weren't an independent game developer. And the problem is that a lot of people who are saying that have second jobs and have health insurance. They didn't quit their jobs to make their game."

- Jim Rossignol's latest 'Blogged Out' column has some interesting feedback on whether the developers of Bully do, indeed, have significant social responsibilities, and Jim suggests: "Perhaps I’m on the wrong track – after all we do want games development to be more intelligent and less exploitative on sensation and controversy – but I feel that more accountability on the part of developers only ends up inhibiting inspiration."

- We chatted to IGF entrant Keith Nemitz about his fantasy RPG Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!, who "describes the game as “a teenage fantasy set in the 1920s” that “uses a virtual board game metaphor” and allows players to “scour their intolerant hometown with brazen hi-jinx”" - Keith is an interesting developer, and it's good to see him entering the IGF again.

Inside 3D Monster Maze For The ZX81

- Over at Armchair Arcade, Matt Barton has been digging into '3D Monster Maze' for the Sinclair ZX81, one of the pioneering home computer video games, and subject to an Edge Magazine 'making-of' article earlier this year.

As Barton notes: "Of all the things you might expect to find running on a ZX81 in 1981, a real time, first-person, 3D maze game would probably be somewhere near "impossible" on your list. Yet, that's exactly what Malcolm Evans was able to pull off--basically in his spare time, as little more than a diversion for himself. Nevertheless, Evans' tinkering became one of the most celebrated games for the ZX81 and a forerunner of the modern first-person game."

The piece concludes: "The game has managed to retain a huge cult following to this very day. A remake of the game can be found on the NGS website." If you want to look up the original ROM, too, Barton recommends "...an emulator called Eighty One, which worked flawlessly in XP."

Making The South Park WoW Episode!

- Cool - the ever-smart Machinima.com has an in-depth interview with the South Park animators on how they made the recent World Of Warcraft episode of the long-running, scabrous cartoon series.

A bunch of the footage was filmed in-world thanks to extensive Blizzard co-operation, of course, and the animators explain: "We didn't have to set up our own server. Blizzard was kind enough to let us use the alpha server for their upcoming Burning Crusade expansion, so not only did we have a fairly controlled environment, we also got a sneak peek at the new goodies!"

As for how easy machinima in the game engine ended up being, they grin: "It was different for us to tackle the 3D animation shots versus the traditional 2D animation stuff that we do. It took three full weeks of production to produce the WOW episode and it takes us six day normally to put a South Park episode on the air. It is much easier to produce South Park style animation than the Machinima animation. Although if you gave us some time to figure it out, I'm sure we could. We have the fastest crew in Hollywood." [Via In-Between.]

MTV Invades Austin, Harvey Smith Breaks Stuff

- We already mentioned why MTV Gamer's Week probably doesn't suck like you thought, and Stephen Totilo's blog now points out ways to easily see a bunch of the _good_ video content screened this week.

As he explains: "Yesterday we ran the first half of my tour of the Austin gaming scene, half of that written for MTVNews.com and the other half airing on MTV and at MTVNews.com. I could write a long post about how strongly I felt about telling the story of an American city rich in gaming culture. Or I could just point out that the video piece has Harvey Smith smashing a light fixture with a scooter and Richard Garriott rapping. Do I really need to say more?"

There are actually a mess of extra updates on Totilo's personal site, directly linking you to written and video coverage of all the neater content to come out of MTV's game coverage this week - which naturally emanated from his direction, and included the aforementioned "TV exclusive that features interviews with the [gold] farmers in China and a look inside the so-called [MMO] sweatshops?" Neat.

November 17, 2006

Brooker Likes Games, A Whole Lot

- Via the Guardian Gamesblog, they've pointed out Charlie Brooker's column for the UK Guardian on why games rock, a fun endorsement for our beloved medium from a fairly well-known UK newspaper columnist and meedja type.

Now, those who remember Brooker's past will recall that his rise to semi-notoriety was via a longish stint on Future's PC Zone, before he wrote Nathan Barley with uber-cult UK comedian Chris Morris (oh, and also said in his Guardian column regarding the U.S. President: "John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley, Jr. - where are you now that we need you?")

So there are probably no Secret Service investigations regarding this new column, but it is an endearingly blunt rave aimed at the kind of skeptics who probably read, uhm, the Guardian: "Apparently it's OK to be a sports buff , a movie buff , or a food buff ... but being a games buff still somehow offends society. People prepared to conduct tedious 15-hour analytical conversations about football or Kieslowski or the best place to find balsamic vinegar will have the audacity to call you a nerd for mentioning anything more obscure than Grand Theft Auto. Well, fuck your snobbery. Games are brilliant."

Guitar Hero Mobile Rawks Out, No?

- So we did a brief Gamasutra report on Game Developers Conference Mobile 2007, which will be held in San Francisco in March 2007, and "will bring together publishers, traditional platform game developers, handset manufacturers, aggregators, and operators to discuss the opportunities, challenges and viability in the space."

Thus: "Representatives from companies such as Sony Pictures Digital, Microsoft, I-Play, Digital Chocolate, GameEvil, Mofactor, G3 Studios, RealNetworks, Nvidia, ATI, Qualcomm, ARM Ltd., Texas Instruments, Ericcson, and Motorola" - all pretty normal.

But the big, somewhat unnoticed news seems to be a GDC mobile lecture called 'Guitar Hero Mobile: A Blockbuster Comes to the Little Screen', revealing cellphone SKUs for Harmonix's smash hit rhythm game.

Yep, apparently cellphone developer SONiVOX is bringing Guitar Hero to your mobile phone, and apparently the lecture "discusses how issues were dealt with in order to maximize the Guitar Hero experience for mobile handsets, such as synchronizing user input with rhythmic consideration and addressing how to create and maintain the multiple business relationships necessary to obtain licensing." But when, pray, is the game due?

Want A Wii? Watch Out For Wiinjuries!

- Oddly enough, there really haven't been enough good humor articles related to the next-gen console launches, but 1UP singlehandedly redeems that with their Wiinjuries: Getting Hurt Playing Nintendo pictorial guide, from the inestimable Scott Sharkey.

It's explained; "The Wii comes with about seventeen pages of warnings about using the Wiimote without the wrist strap. The thing actually includes a sensor that can tell when you're not using it properly, electronically alerting Nintendo H.Q. whenever you're breaching the warranty. Trust me, they can and will exercise their legal right to release the wards binding Hiroshi Yamauchi into retirement so he can go to your house, judo-chop the top of your head off and feast upon your living brain."

Yet: "We know gamers. Ain't nobody going to remember to slip that goofy strap around their wrist. Hell, you'll make fun of any pansy friends who actually do use the thing. As a public service we've taken it upon ourselves to explore all the dangerous possibilities of improper Wii-mote use. At least three interns lost their lives making this feature, but if we can scare even a single gamer into Wiiing responsibly it'll be worth their sacrifice." We hear that Gama news guy Jason Dobson has thrown his Wii-mote into the chandelier already, so the resulting pictorials on the 1UP piece make a _lot_ of sense (except, uhh, a few!)

IF Comp Winners For 2006 Announced

- So, I was going to post about the winners of the 2006 IF Comp for text adventures, and then Grand Text Auto did a nice brief summary post, so I'm going to excerpt that instead - thanks, guys.

They explain: "The results are in, and Emily Short’s Floatpoint takes top honors at the 2006 Interactive Fiction Competition. The Primrose Path by Nolan Bonvouloir and The Elysium Enigma by Eric Eve placed second and third. Congratulations to these authors and to the others who finished games, entered them, and placed in the Comp. Another person who deserves thanks and congratulations is Stephen Granade, who has been running the Comp since 1999. All the games are still available for download, of course."

There are also heaps of reviews of the interactive fiction titles linked from the GTA post. The entries this year notably included Jason 'Loonyboi' Bergman's 'Game Producer', in which "...you're a game producer (surprisingly enough) and you've got N hours to whip the other people at your company into shape to get the game to go gold" - which is what Jason does in real life! Tres droll.

XOC Introduces Us To The NES Paul

- So you may recall previous discussions about XOC, the rather wonderful U.S. based video game cover version guy whose 'SMW' Super Mario World cover album is perhaps the best of its kind, like, ever.

Well, now, according to his official website, he's gone and built the NES Paul guitar, and he has step by step pics of making the NES-body guitar on his site - first noting of a _really big knife_: "I really had to use this knife. The jigsaw cut through the body of the guitar fine, but when it hit the plastic of the NES, it kept bouncing off. "

He also explains of the sacrificial console: "This is my original Nintendo from when I was ten years old. Awwww", and he ends by also noting: "Nintendo was kind enough to include various holes for the input jack." Hey, that's clever - and sure to spawn lots more ridiculous console guitars, since we've had a Genesis one before, right? How about a Virtual Boy one? I dare you! [Via Alistair. Also, XOC has the '100 shirts' project, which is fun.]

November 16, 2006

GSW Impressions: Gunpey For PSP, DS

So, we're starting up a new occasional feature on GSW - we will, every now and again, be presenting our impressions of voguish new video games - in this case, Q Entertainment and Namco Bandai's Gunpey both for the PSP and for the DS.

Why would we ever add our cacophonous voices to the multitude of game reviews already out there? Well, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we're not really reviewing, so much as just saying what we think of games that interest us and which may not be top of everyone's reviewing heap (which is why you'll see all four Q Entertainment titles released this month be discussed in due course!) And secondly - we're going to skip the whole 'marks out of 10' thing, and just say stuff. Like this.

Introduction

So, Gunpey. Firstly, and I think most people have spotted this by now, but Gunpey is named after Game Boy inventor Gunpei Yokoi, since his firm both developed the game and hardware for Bandai's Wonderswan handheld after his tragic death in 1997. These new versions of the abstract puzzle game are made by Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Q Entertainment, since they have a close relationship with Bandai.

Trusted Q producer Reo Yonaga helmed the titles, and Mizuguchi himself explained the reasoning behind doing the game in a recent Gamasutra interview: "Gunpey is a really primitive, nice game. It’s not gorgeous, in terms of visual and sound, but Gunpey has a really good principle. It’s like the bone of a human body. A very strong bone. And we had the idea that if we remade Gunpey with good music and visual effects, it would be pretty fun. So we asked Bandai – ok, let’s remake Gunpey with new graphics."

Gunpey For PSP

Well, since it's developed by the folks who brought us Lumines, as you'd expect, Gunpey for PSP feels a lot like that title, except retrofitted to receive that mellifluous line-based Gunpey gameplay. So, we get smooth Japanese techno as the aural background, plenty of abstract eagles flying around and odd vector-ish shapes, well-designed menus, and a plain stylish experience.

However, in some ways, the game feels like a slightly straitjacketed version of Lumines, because of the simplistic controls (you're arranging lines horizontally across the playfield, but you can only swap single blocks vertically). I ended up liking this in an odd fashion, because the game starts building up a sort of mindlessly compulsive Bejeweled vibe. But in the end, since you're always flapping to stop the puzzle pieces reach the top of the screen, and have to keep rearranging multiple times to slide blocks back down, there's just a bit too much busy work in here. (This is mainly fixed by the control scheme on the DS, which we'll get to presently.)

If you add that to the fact that the amount of modes in the game isn't that better than the (somewhat lacking) original Lumines, bar some minor innovations like the 10x10 playfield, well... I love the audiovisuals, but it doesn't _quite_ work for me. I don't go as far as the lovely Ed Lewis at IGN, who eruditely claims: "The gameplay is so slow and boring and who cares about seeing a crapping dog?" But Gunpey for PSP just ends up as mildly diversionary, sadly.

Gunpey For DS

However, Gunpey for DS, which goes for a completely different 'space Western' cartoony visual style, makes use of the DS touch screen in pretty helpful ways (looks like this uses elements from the Meteos game engine, just as Gunpey for PSP uses Lumines' codebase). This means a lot of the line-switching scrabble you end up doing one by one on the PSP can be accomplished with a simple stylus sweep on the DS - very good!

In addition, there's a Story Mode for Gunpey DS which helps too, since you get to square up against opponents who you can use special attacks on (or vice versa!) if you get rid of enough blocks at once. Twin the intuitive gameplay with the charming (almost Capcom late CPS-2 quality!) artwork, plus extra modes including Double Screen (similar to the 10x10 for the PSP) and you have a winner here. Even if one of the characters _is_ called 'Nick The Hacker from Haxxor'.

But it's the bonus 'Sound Box' mode, which we actually previously referenced on GSW in its Japanese 'Pico Pico Machine' incarnation - click to there if you want to see a video of it in action - which is the most awesome, giving you a programmable music synthesizer as an add-on to the game. Now sure, it's a _bit_ limited in some annoying ways (it just needed more save slots and the ability to make your custom sounds into backing tracks to make it infinitely more expansive). But it's a complete blast to mess around with using the touchscreen, and you can genuinely program your own melodies/rhythms and switch between them in real-time.

And if you add that to the intuitive and fun gameplay of Gunpey DS, then this is absolutely the SKU to pick, as long as you don't get turned off by the cute-ass cartoon visuals. In fact, I'd ever go so far to say that I've enjoyed it more than Meteos - which is a fiendishly clever puzzler, but doesn't seem to have much natural 'flow' for me. Your mileage may vary, mind you.

[On this note, James Mielke's review of the two games at 1UP has many more pertinent details, for those interested in more info - and his own blog page even points out a Gunpey DS 'Sound Box' & Kaoss Pad video that some hardcore Japanese fan has recorded, showing you really can make 'proper' music with it.]

Uncle Monsterface Gets Wii Guitar Hero Remix Fun

- You may recall that we recently linked to Uncle Monsterface, the 'sock puppet rock and roll extravaganza' band who are relasing a Wii album to coincide with the system's launch.

Well, they mailed us again to reveal some very cool remixes from some friends in the game biz: "In support of the soon to be released "fanboy album of rock", some of our friends at Harmonix (you know the guys that make Guitar Hero) did some rocktastic remixes for us!"

Thus: "inter:sect's remix of Lobster Building (inter-sect.net) and Izzy Maxwell's "Hump Everything" remix of Underground Mutant Prairie Dogs from Hell (izzymaxwell.com) will only be available for the remaining days until the release of NINTENDODE and The Wii!" Also extra points for trying to link the unlinkable: "Now, we here at Monsterface Inc. realize that GUITAR HERO isn't for any of Nintendo's fine platforms or systems. But the fact of the matter is that GUITAR HERO, like the NINTENDO Wii, embraces a notion of fun and inclusive gaming - games made to get people standing up and rocking out and having fun - together, even (perhaps while in the same room!). "

Also, their disclaimer in their press release is fun: "And once again, HARMONIX, RED OCTANE, KONAMI, NINTENDO, Rupert Murdoch, The NRA, The Justice League - none of these companies have prepared or approved or licensed or produced any of what we are doing here. Just to be absolutely clear..." Hey guys, you forgot Activision!

[Oh, and apparently, if you're in New York for the Wii launch at the Nintendo Store, the Monsterface guys reveal: "We'll be the guys with the giant monster handing out the cool "Nintendode: songs for the big N" promo cards." And getting carted off by security?]

MMOG Nation: Citizen Spotlight on VirginWorlds

VirginWorlds ['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column is a look at the site VirginWorlds, and the man behind the keyboard, Brent.]

The last Citizen Spotlight focused on a commentator who put his most cynical foot forward. (His left, I think.) Today, I'm going to introduce you to a gent who is more BBC commentator than Keith Olbermann. The VirginWorlds blog, podcast, and newsfeed is an all-in-one package offering MMOG fans everything they need to stay informed on the latest the genre has to offer.

I had the pleasure of talking with Brent, the one-man show behind Virginworlds. He had some very thoughtful, lengthy responses to my simple questions. This look behind the scenes is accompanied by my two-cent tour of the site. I'll highlight the best blog entries, feature commentaries, and podcasts the site has to offer, for your browsing enjoyment. Read on, and find yourself exposed to more MMOG-related edification than an average Thursday warrants.

A World of Virgins? Where?

Michael: Okay! If you're ready I'm ready. How you doing? How was your weekend? :)
Brent: The weekend was what is usually is, a flurry of action to complete a podcast.

Michael: How much time do you put into a podcast?
Brent: It varies, but not counting the actual collection of the news items, I tend to put in about 6 to 8 hours on each one. About half of that is in assembling the show notes and the other half is recording and post production. The actual recording is the quickest part. I've done them as fast as 3 or 4 hours but that is rare.

Michael: Do you just try to keep a running list during the week of interesting news? Or do you do it all the day of?
Brent: The nice thing is that by Friday when i start compiling show notes, I already have entered about 15-20 news items of note on the website, so I use my own site to compile the podcast-hit list. I just open up the news page, scroll down to the previous Sunday and start opening everything that looks like a possible podcast story. From that I assemble some rather detailed show notes that I work from. So, mostly I do the podcast all in one shot, but the news items themselves are already collected in short 30 minutes segments during the course of the week. I tend to write the show notes, sleep on them and do the podcast in the early morning so that I have a fresh head (and a rough voice unfortunately.) Interestingly enough, I get more love for those mid-week reviews and specials than the regular shows, probably just because people come to expect the regular show so they like a like something extra and out of the ordinary on those mid-week surprises.

Michael: Are you looking to do more of that in the future? Hopefully get a few more dev folks in front of a mike?
Brent: Yes, I do want to bring more people from the industry onto the show, and at this point, I'm relatively certain I could talk some of them into it, but honestly, scheduling can be hard (as you surely know) and seeing as I do this in any moments I can spare, it is somewhat hard to commit to tracking down people and working around the schedules of others.

Michael: Mind if I ask what your dayjob is?
Brent: Ah, the way I feed myself... I work in the information security field, so I'm at a computer by day as well, but my job is less and less technically focused every day, which is nice, because I can enjoy the tech on my own terms such as running my servers, writing code for the site and so forth. Technology 'work' is much more fun when you aren't doing it for someone else. But I still have to deal with it every day, for now. I was a developer for 6 years prior to moving over to security and at some point I decided that I was tired of writing other people's code, or more importantly, building products I didn't care much about.

Michael: What's your social life outside of games like? :) Married, girlfriend? Gerbils? :)
Brent: I'm married, have been for 7 years. Happily. And last August (2005) just a month or so before VirginWorlds.com launched we welcomed a baby girl. It has indeed been a busy year as you can imagine. Now I'm juggling a podcast mic in one hand and a toddler in the other.

Michael: Why do you keep doing it, with that kind of time crunch?
Brent: Luckily my wife is both super-wife and super-mom. I'm not sure who she takes care of more, me or the girl. Why do I keep doing it? Good question with several answers. First is the reason I sort of joke about on the 'About" page on the site where I say, "Meanwhile, a career in the IT business grew up in the cracks in the sidewalk, threatening to suck all the fun out of computers. In a desperate attempt to preserve his gamer-self, Brent started VirginWorlds." There is some definite truth to that. But it isn't the whole story. Second, is perhaps the the second biggest reason: All my 'gamer' friends got married and had kids as well, but unlike like me, they decided to hang up the gaming and move on to other things. But I didn't want to quit gaming. I like it too much, and more importantly I didn't want to quit talking about gaming. We (my friends and I ) used to meet for lunch and talk about games from the second we sat down until we left. Emails about the games and ideas flew back and forth all day. It was great. And then all that stopped. But I wanted to keep talking to other gamers about games, so that's what I'm doing I guess. BUT, the third reason that I keep doing it is the most important. Those previous two are the reasons I started. The reason I keep doing it, is because I know that there are a ton of people out there waiting for me to do it, meaning write a post, or release a podcast. I've noticed that solitary goals that I have had over the years tend to fall by the wayside in favor of things that other people are expecting me to do. And now, I have a huge amount of people waiting for me to do stuff. It is extremely motivating. THAT is the main reason I keep doing it.

Michael: On that note, what kind of response has the VirginWorlds Podcast received? How many folks listen, what kind of feedback do you get, etc?
Brent: Very positive. At this time there are about 1300 listeners each week. I get about 20-30 emails from people every week. Some ask questions, some thank me for the show, and some have ideas for me. The thing that has shocked me most about the feedback I get is the consistency. The 55 iTunes reviews that have been posted all echo similar themes and the listeners have latched onto some qualities that I never noticed until they started pointing them out. It is very enlightening and luckily, the feedback is positive as well. :)

Michael: Good deal. Do you mind sharing what listeners see as the best qualities of the show?
Brent: Sure. It seems that the listeners of the VirginWorlds podcsast consists of people who are looking for raw information and commentary that is more lucid than what is presented by the vast majority of the gaming podcasts currently available. I never set out to tell jokes or make a statement. I just wanted to tell people what is up in the MMO world and drop in my thoughts along the way. Time and time again the listeners make comments about my even handed treatment of the material. To be honest, that was surprising at first. I DO have opinions and I do speak them, but they seem to appreciate the fact that I'm not coming off too 'fanboi'. I also get plenty of positive comments regarding my treatment of the English language. I'm not throwing down expletives every 5 seconds. Seems like a minor detail, but many moms and dads out there appreciate it. Additionally, people seem to like the raw data and I guess there is a ton of it.

Michael: What would you say your favorite show has been?
Brent: My favorite shows are the ones that Brenden, the occasional co-host, appears on. Brenden and I have never met. We live across the country from each other and have only been acquainted via IM and Skype for maybe 4 months now, and yet our common interest and compatible, yet not similar, personalities seems to bring a ton of extra life to the show. Brenden runs a very long running web comic and podcast at Falcontwin.com. He once linked a news article from VirginWorlds on his site and I noted a bunch of hits flowing in so I went and took a look and checked out his comic and his podcast. A month or so later he contacted me on IM and asked about my podcast equipment. And there began the MMO news and commentary duo that you occasionally hear. Interestingly enough, more than a few people have assumed we've known each other for years and record sitting in the same room. We have not and do not, but I think that is an indicator of a pretty good fit when it comes to doing the show.

Michael: What was your first MMOG?
Brent: Let's just say that MUDs fueled the fire, okay? I started playing a MUD called 3K (Three Kingdoms) in 1993 and it blew my mind. And then I saw Merridian 59 sometime around the spring of 1997, pretty sure it was then. That was an interesting experience, because my friends and I had been pondering the possibilities of such a thing since 1995. We played a bit of it and decided that the internet and computers in general were not quite ready for the graphical MUD yet. I put that away and went back to screwing around in MUD for awhile. Diablo came and went. And then, I fell into that deep dark pit called EverQuest.

Michael: How many games, then, have you played? MUDs and MMOGs.
Brent: A played a handful of MUDs seriously or semi-seriously. I know I had at least a couple MUD characters that were around the 50 day old mark, which seemed like a big deal in 1995. With MMOGs, I've played quite a few, but as you know, they demand heavy attention so when I really get into one, I tend to stick for awhile. EverQuest is of course the one that got the biggest chunk of time. I recently checked and found I have characters that total up to over 400 days old in EQ. Pretty ridiculous. After EQ I played EQ2, Lineage 2, CoH/CoV, World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies, Guild Wars, Auto Assault, Dugeons and Dragons Online, Saga of Ryzom, Eve Online, and a slew of the recent betas and ports from the east. Some which I cannot mention at this time. In the near future, Brenden and I are going to return to the roots and get some time in Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, and maybe Asheron's Call too. Some of those I still play. Some I played briefly. And some I was totally absorbed by.

Michael: Okay...so you've played all these games, would you have one that you consider 'your favorite'?
Brent: It is one of those "first kiss" scenarios. EverQuest has the best memories for me and though I doubt I'll drop everything and go back to that full time, it will always be one of the game experiences (experiences being the key word there) that I'll compare all others against.

Michael: So, you've played a lot of massive games, and you've generally avoided single-player experiences. What about the MMOG genre has kept you coming back? The people, guilds, raiding?
Brent: It certainly isn't the raiding. The people is a big part of it, but my play style most closely resembles the 'explorer'. I love the sheer size of the worlds and the fact that they're all new and all put together to entertain us. They are truly virgin worlds. I love the complexities of play that other games don't have. I love the coordination with all the other players. I love the fact that the fun doesn't end in 10 hours. But remember what I said earlier about showing up because other people are expecting you to? That is a huge part of it. When I turn off Tomb Raider, Lara doesn't care when I come back. But when I log out of a MMOG, my friends and guildmates do wonder that. Add on the fact that they keep leveling and exploring without me. I need to get online and see what is going on. It isn't so different from dropping by the corner pub to see what the regulars are doing. (I'm singing the Cheers theme song now.)

Michael: Hard one for you: What would you say is your proudest moment from a Massive game? "The one you'll be telling the grandkids about."
Brent: I'd like to say it was whooping Vindi, or raiding MC, or something grand like that, but it is quite the opposite. One of my best friends and I used to 2 and 3 box in EQ all the time. It worked well for grouping because we didn't need to assemble a ton of people. If we had a ton, great, but if we didn't, we'd still get stuff done with a full party of 6, even if it wsa just the two us logged into the server at 5AM. It also made for a very nice command group when raiding because we knew each other's play styles very well, and in that single group we had all the stuff a solid EQ party or raid command team needed. Tank, healer, puller, crowd control, slower, etc. So one day, we decided that we were going to head out to the Temple of Veeshan, and take down some dragons in the Halls of Testing. Back in the day this was a serious high end raid zone, but at this point, it was mostly vacant because all the serious raiders were in the Planes of Power. We got it into our heads that we could probably take down the huge dragons with a single party operated by just the two of us. We tried again and again. I bet we spent 5 or 6 hours pulling, fighting, wiping, rezzing, pulling, fighting, wiping... But we were so close. Each time we'd get closer and closer. 53%, 42%, 37%, 22%, 17%! Here is why this is so odd as a proudest moment. We never won. We just kept trying again and again and laughing the whole time as we got closer and closer. We'd have never done it if any of the other guildmates had been there, because we wouldn't want to inconvenience them, but since it was just the two of us, we didn't care. We just kept refining it. Finally, we went to bed. Then, the next morning, the day we actually had a raid in ToV scheduled, we got up and went back. But it was early morning and only ONE other guild member showed up. A beastlord. So we're standing there with our "raid" party of 7. And guess what? We took down dragon after dragon after dragon with those 7. Sure it was slow going, but guess which three guild members got a ton of well earned drops that morning. That is the scenario that came to mind first when you asked that question. One of my best MMOG memories.

Michael: On the flip side (and I know there are lots to sort from here) what was your absolute worst experience in a Massive game?
Brent: Aside from every WoW and Lineage pickup group? The things that have been bad enough to actually carry over and disappoint me even outside of the game have been those scenarios where I've seen guilds full of people who were fantastic friends ripped apart by silly issues around loot and raiding. A bad night of raiding or a string of character deaths or a bad encounter with farmers can be shrugged off, but when I see a tightly knit group of people break up in dramatic explosions it is the worst. I often wonder how digital loot and raid progression issues can cause seemingly unbreakable guild-loyalty to vanish overnight. I've never been able to truly depart a great guild. I've had non-dramatic detours, but I always end up going back to the welcoming arms of 'the family'. I don't understand why more people can't be like that. I'm not perfect. I get frustrated with things too, but where good virtual-friends are concerned, I try to treat them as good RL-friends. I wish more people would remember that there are indeed real people behind those avatars.

Michael: Okay, so, there are (all of a sudden, it seems) a lot of MMOGs on the far horizon. What is the unreleased MMOG you're looking forward to the most?
Brent: You would think I'd have a great answer for that since I get asked the question practically every day. In the distant future, I am really looking forward to Star Trek Online. I'm not positive I'll love it, but I think there is a chance. Perpetual seems to be going in the right direction. In the near future, I want to fall in love with Vanguard, but I'm not sure that I will. Every word that Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler say gets a resounding "YES" from me. It is like they are reading my mind. But, I worry about the delivery. I worry about the design. I worry about my video card blowing up. And lastly, I look forward to whatever is is CCP decides to do next. Their merger with White Wolf that was announced this past week left a million gamers drooling in anticipation, me included. I think that some of the best game play and innovation continues to come from the small studios. They're fueled by passion and great ideas instead of gazillion dollar art budgets. The names that come to mind first are Dusktreaders from Granite Games (which may be overshadowed now by the CCP/White Wolf thing) and whatever Stray Bullet studios decides to do next. Let's hope they can stay afloat. I was very bummed to see another promising small studio go away recently when Tulga was dissolved.

Michael: Any hobbies outside of gaming?
Brent: One serious one. I'm a guitar player in a local metal band. Been playing for about 17 years and have been with the same group of guys for about 9 years now. Another example of a low drama "guild". We are putting the finishing touches on our first full length CD right now. Very exciting.
Michael: Ever played Guitar Hero? :)
Brent: I haven't. No consoles in this house. And honestly, when I can go down to the studio and unleash on a real guitar, why would I, right?

Michael: Is there anything you'd like to say to Virginworld listeners/readers?
Brent: What can I say aside from "thanks"? I've been extremely surprised at the response from the listeners and readers, as well as the other podcasters and bloggers. I never really expected anyone to visit, and listen, but they have, and that is great. When I started blogging I looked at people like Foton, Ethic, and AggroMe (among others) and was extremely impressed. When they linked me I was blown away. Now I see bloggers and podcasters coming up behind me who are inspired by what I've done, like I was with those before me. It is extremely exciting to see and it keeps me motivated. Those rewards are all we get in this line of dabbling, and believe me, they're more than enough to keep me doing this for a long time to come.

Michael: Thank you so much, Brent, for the time you've given me tonight. Especially with a little-more-than-one-year-old in the house. :)
Brent: Sir, it has been very enjoyable and a great honor.


The Words of the World

While VirginWorlds has primarily become a news reporting organ, Brent has occasionally sallied forth with some longer form commentary pieces. A piece from last December looked at Instancing from a Player's Perspective. It explains the pros and cons of the technology, and provides a bevy of links to commentary from other websites. That preference for providing references is a watchword around VirginWorlds, with Brent usually thoughtfully providing information for even the most casual of readers. His ongoing series called "What Makes Us Go Ding?", though, is almost reference-less; it's a very personal look at what Brent feels are the reasons we play these things. Part 1 looks at the newness of experiences we MMOGers crave, Part 2 covers exploration, Part 3 covers questing and the hero complex, and Part 4 covers the insidious attraction of community. Interesting and personal looks at the hook in every MMOG player's mouth.

The Snark of the World

Of course, VirginWorlds is also a blog, and Brent can be just as snarky as the next guy when he wants to be. Witness his 'WoW Haiku' ("azeroth grows stale / expansion still a figment / eve online installs") and DDO Haiku ("Clumsy interface / Click click click click click click click / Fifty wasted bucks"). Brent's been especially hard on World of Warcraft, hitting it with complaints about the patcher, lamentations about the boredom of WoW podcasters, and even statements that WoW just isn't that special. "It has the right marketing, the right look, the right depth, and the right competition and all have allowed it to be the success it is. It probably IS the most complete, fun, and accessible MMO available today. Blizzard has done a fine job, they have executed well and deserve credit, but on the other hand, WoW isn't special."

Despite all that, Brent has an unreserved enthusiasm for the genre that comes through very clearly in his less formal commentary. Where I and others are more likely to focus on what we're not enjoying about the games out there, Brent's appreciation for exploring new virtual worlds is like a cool drink of water for the angry MMOG Blog circle. For example, earlier this year he decided it was an oversight that he'd never played Star Wars Galaxies. While he wasn't blown away by SWG, it was very interesting to see someone completely new to the game comment on its post-NGE state. Brent's a big fan of EVE Online, and his enthusiastic coverage of EVE TV during the PvP battles earlier this year aided greatly in my enjoyment of the beautiful explosions onscreen. Likewise, his first experience at AGC made even an industry-event cynic like me smile. "I return to the show floor where I meet Brian 'Psychochild' Green from Near Death Studios. Blackguard records a VirginWorlds promo for me. The MOGArmy interviews... me?"

The posts Brent has written for the site that make me smile the most involve good old Everquest. It's got to be a standard in MMOGdom by now: you can take the gamer out of the game, but you can't take the game out of the gamer. Your first MMOG always stays with you, no matter where you find yourself /camping out on a day-to-day basis. Two particularly enjoyable posts on EQ and its successor have Brent proclaiming EQ Live the best MMOG ever, and the Revival of Everquest 2. "They've polished and finished their game. Today, EQ2 is what it should have been at launch. It has a strong and positive community team with a great new podcast. Our video cards have caught up with the future-proofed graphics. Trade skilling has been revamped numerous times, all for the better. The world size has been expanded and great diversity and falvor has been added in the well received expansions. The class progression was removed. Soloing ability was enhanced."

The Voice of the World

The most notable element of the VirginWorlds site is the weekly Sunday podcast Brent has put out, come rain or come shine, since March of this year. Like this past weekend's 'cast, each of these 20-40 minute audio tracks lays out the news from the Massively Multiplayer genre for the past week. The average podcast covers between 8-16 games, touching on any titles with noteworthy news for the week. Each news clip is delivered without commentary. The goal of the service is to provide information, not convey Brent's personal opinion. That, combined with his attention to some smaller titles, makes the VirginWorlds podcast an ideal stand-in for genre fans uninspired by yet another RSS feed.

He's also had the opportunity to switch up the format on occasion, offering additional commentary and information outside of the usual weekly news. He's had a few interviews, including one with Dusktreaders designer Erik Hyrkas, and the gents from EVE TV. He's occasionally done game reviews, such as his hard look at Ryzom, and his first-hand look at the dungeon experience in DDO.

With some 40 podcasts behind him, Brent has recently begun opening up the format of the show with some new elements. In October he and fellow occasional commentator Brenden opened up a compressed can of conversation by declaring a top ten of MMOGs in two parts. To give you some idea of the conversation sparked by their choices, World of Warcraft was only number 6. VirginWorlds listeners have also begun to accompany Brent on driving outings, in mid-weekly editions of the show meant to offer a more casual look at games and a chance to deal with reader mail.

By playing 'straight man' to the court jesters around him, Brent and the VirginWorlds podcast offer something hard to find in a world of self-made 'journalists': clarity and impartiality. He's also got pretty good taste in games, which helps a great deal. If you need any more proof, a final link and a heads up for the next Citizen Spotlight: A recommendation from Brent for Tobold's MMORPG Blog. Look for an exploration of Tobold's site, and an interview with the man behind the keyboard in two weeks.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]

Trouble In Super Macho World?

- Over at Serious Games Source, which is the sister site to GameSetWatch that deals with games for training, education, and other cultural shenanigans, Gonzalo Frasca has posted a piece discussing the questionable gameplay themes in Super Princess Peach for the Nintendo DS.

The piece does a good job of explaining how the game's arguably sexist concepts were toned down for the West (as previously discussed on GSW), but my favorite bit is an afterword: "On an incidental note, I would like to mention that a few months after Super Princess Peach was released, Nintendo launched another Mario platform game for the Nintendo DS: New Super Mario Bros. This game featured new superpowers for Mario, too. Rather than using his emotions, Mario was able to shift sizes, from tiny to enormous."

Frasca notes: "I never thought about this until I wrote this article but Nintendo’s choice of female and male superpowers for both games in nothing short of hilarious. One game defines women as emotionally unstable while the other one presents boys as being obsessed with their size. Why is Mario so worried about how big he can be? Who is he trying to impress? Has Luigi been recently dating somebody?" This line of questioning could go far!

GameSetCompetition: Win A Sumo Omni!

- Time for our new GameSetCompetition, and thanks to the folks at 'urban lounge gear' firm Sumo, we've got a deluxe Sumo Omni beanbag chair in a color of your choice to give away.

Looks like Sumo have been targeting blogs in general (and specifically gaming blogs, since gamers seem to enjoy lounging and playing games!) to help advertise their product, judging by the voluminous press (hey, the guys at Flash game portal NewGrounds are chilling in them, hah), but rather than doing a slightly out-of-place 'review' and keeping the chair for ourselves, we figured we'd give it away to one of you directly.

So, to win a Sumo Omni beanbag chair, which is "made from space age rip-proof nylon and filled with top quality Sumo Beads", apparently (gotta love the space age nylon!), you will need to answer the following question:

"Which popular '80s Epyx video game had you manipulating a much smaller bean bag to score points?"

Please send your answers to editors@gamesetwatch.com any time before Wednesday, November 22nd at 12 noon PST. There will be one winner randomly picked from the correct answers, the judges' decision is final, and that's that. Have fun!

November 15, 2006

Space Quest Co-Creator's ADD-Flecked Take On The Biz

- The 'Adventure Classic Gaming' site has done an excellent interview with Space Quest co-creator Scott Murphy, with plenty of both insight and vitriol levelled at the unraveling of Siera.

Murphy, who claims he hasn't really given interviews before due to his Attention Deficit Disorder, rages: "The bitterness I posses is at what Sierra and Ken Williams had become as they became more and more successful, and how the Space Quest 6 abortion came about after broken promises and the just plain fucking over I got from the people I’d worked so incredibly hard for. The more successful each game became, the worse they treated us and the less they wanted to pay us."

As for the future of adventure gaming? Murphy is brutally honest, but perhaps essentially correct: "I’ve never given it a thought since I know that world has come and gone. Adventure games have cult status. Companies don’t have interest in the kind of money cult work might bring." Mind you, there's TellTale's Sam & Max, right? Never surrender! [Via Indygamer.]

Whine, Whine, Gank, Whine

- We're pretty much Lore Sjoberg fans over here (he of Brunching Shuttlecocks fame), so were delighted to see a humor article about MMO forums posted at Wired News, as part of his alt.text column.

His intro is pretty much spot on: "If you play an online game that you enjoy, there's one surefire way to spoil the experience: read the forums on the official site. There you will find a vast underworld of lost souls keening their misery onto your screen. A game you thought was entertaining, well-balanced and attractive will be torn apart before your very eyes and pronounced lacking in every conceivable way."

Example - a 'magical realist': "Doesn't understand what a "game" is. Constantly makes arguments based on what would be "realistic," even if the game is set in a fantasy world run by wizards and pixies... Sample Quote: "You can't tell me a Mondlagarian Tiger Warrior is stronger than a Swamp Troll. That just doesn't make sense!"" Most fun.

Zelda CD-I Charity Auction - Spread The Word

- Here's something you won't find...well anywhere! [EDITOR'S NOTE: Except on Insert Credit, from where this is crossposted to help spread the word - ta GSW co-editor chap Brandon!]

It's a charity auction [for the BBC's Children In Need charity] put up by devin shockwell of the blackmoon project. Blackmoon is a CD-i enthusiast site, and as such, this Zelda auction is related to that. To boil it down, the auction focuses on two Zelda games that were released for the CD-i; Zelda - The Wand of Gamelon, and Link - The Faces of Evil. The games, frankly, weren't that hot. But the art was very nice.

What devin has done is he's professionally printed out unique, original versions of the art, with story and whatnot associated, and nice frames. These are signed by the original artist, rob dunlavey, and come with a letter from him, detailing some of his work on the project. You can check out quite a bit of the art from the games in rob's computer games section.

The auction also comes with every CD-i game rob had a hand in: Alice in Wonderland, Sargon Chess, Laser Lords, Mutant Rampage, Zelda - The Wand of Gamelon, and Link - The Faces of Evil

What's more, it comes with the Retro Gamer magazine that covered the Zelda CD-i games, signed by the authors, and all of the proceeds go to charity. Check the auction itself on eBay UK for super detailed info - beware, only 4 days left, as I dragged on this a bit! The print is size A4 by the way - not super huge, but hey, it's for charity! Who are you to complain!? [Original post by Brandon.]

XBLA-Only Xbox 360 Leaderboard? Good Idea!

- Some of you may have spotted (via my frequent XBLA references) that I'm a little bit addicted to Xbox Live Arcade on the Xbox 360, possibly over and above the $60 retail games, so it's no surprise that I've added myself to the XBLArcade.com weekly Xbox Live Arcade points leaderboard.

It's a neat idea, which unfortunately isn't supported directly on the MyGamerCard site (where you have to go sign up for the XBLArcade leaderboard, in order for the XBLArcade site admins to extrapolate your Xbox Live Arcade-only points status) - but hey, any way it works, right?

In fact, I'm #49 out of 57 (gamertag = Simoniker) when the chart takes into account _all_ games played, not just Xbox Live Arcade games, but I rise all the way to #36 out of 57 when the Xbox Live Arcade-only version of the chart is calculated. This shows that I have an above average slant to playing those cute downloadable games, even within the group of people who've signed up for the XBLA-specific chart, but I'm still hardly competitive, hah. Wow, that was all a bit confusing - but I hope you get the gist.

Aw, Greggman's Tokyopia Wedding Game Rocks

- So, Gregg 'Greggman' Tavares has been a developer at Sony of Japan (most recently working on LocoRoco!) for quite a while now - with a long history including stints at Naughty Dog in the States, and he's updated his personal site to discuss an awesome custom wedding video game that he created for some friends.

He explains: "The wedding was to be in April 2006. Our group has had a little bit of a history of, um...., interesting birthday presents and so we got this idea that it would be really cool to surprise David and Elly with their very own video game on their wedding day. Something that could be presented at their wedding reception."

So what happened? "Ultimately we decided on making a bunch of simple mini games in the spirit of Wario Ware. We brainstormed a bunch of simple game ideas including many raunchy ones that we thought maybe we'd have to save for a special party without the relatives although in the end we made just one version with relatively safe themes." All of the mini-games are explained, from 'Protect The Sausage' to 'Put the Ring On', all personalized, and it's just an awesome idea - someone should go into business doing this! [Via The-Inbetween.]

November 14, 2006

U.S. Game Magazines - How's The Circulation Curve?

- Now, I'm sure a number of you have spotted the news that Ziff Davis is closing Official PlayStation Magazine in North America after the January 2007 issue - a sad state of affairs, due to the fact that the magazine "no longer fits its strategic vision" - and likely declining subscriptions, too.

I wonder also if it's because Ziff is reducing its reliance on print (even at the expense of lowered revenues) to make the Game Group a more attractive acquisition prospect - but that's neither here nor there.

What _is_ interesting, however, is that the Audit Bureau Of Circulations numbers for game magazines in the U.S. never tend to get reported widely, unlike the UK versions of the ABC, where they tend to get quite some press. I did actually find a list of Future's Jan-Jun 2006 US ABCs [.PDF link] somewhere on their site, so it got me thinking - what's the current state of circulations, and how is it trending?

The latest data (Jan-Jun 2006) is available on the ABC site, if you look closely enough. But we wouldn't have easy access to historical data, except for a 2004 Electronic Gaming Business story archived on FindArticles.com, and somewhat ironically named 'Magazines Hold Their Own In an Interactive Age', which lists several specific ABCs from 2003 and 2004.

So we're going to do a little list for each magazine with paid circulation specific figures from Jan-Jun 2006, Jan-Jun 2004, Jan-Jun 2003 - and if anyone can get us Jan-Jun 2005, that would be even better - ping us if you have access. (Also worth noting: since the Jul-Dec figures include the holiday season, they are often slightly higher, and average the yearly circ out a bit higher.) Here we go:

Official PlayStation Magazine (Ziff Davis)
Jan-Jun 2003: 283,827
Jan-Jun 2004: 264,432
Jan-Jun 2006: 252,267 (plus another 46,129 unpaid)

PSM (Future)
Jan-Jun 2003: 403,617
Jan-Jun 2004: 400,318
Jan-Jun 2006: 305,951

[So both magazines are taking a significant circulation dive, but with the cost of the license and official disc manufacturing, looks like Ziff have decided it's not worth it to continue. Interestingly, PSM has declined by the largest percentage since Jan-Jun 2003, though.]

PC Gamer (Future)
Jan-Jun 2003: 300,271
Jan-Jun 2004: 304,110
Jan-Jun 2006: 250,147

Computer Gaming World (Ziff Davis)
Jan-Jun 2003: 260,012
Jan-Jun 2004: 202,359
Jan-Jun 2006: 216,484

[Though I'm guessing that Computing Gaming World picked up a bit in the second half of 2004 and into 2005 before starting to decline again, its recent rebranding as Games For Windows is explained by the fact that it's currently running significantly under 2003 subscription levels. Mind you, so is PC Gamer, despite pulling ahead in 2004, and still holding an overall lead.]

Game Informer (GameStop)
Jan-Jun 2003: 1,095,841
Jan-Jun 2004: 1,647,350
Jan-Jun 2006: 1,994,488

Electronic Gaming Monthly (Ziff Davis)
Jan-Jun 2003: 505,569
Jan-Jun 2004: 514,058
Jan-Jun 2006: 594,393

GamePro (IDG)
Jan-Jun 2003: 554,335
Jan-Jun 2004: 480,021
Jan-Jun 2006: N/A

[In the multiformat realm, there's some interesting results. Game Informer's gigantic surge in subscriptions from its GameStop loyalty card bundling has got it out in front, and there it seems likely to stay - it's an impressive #31 on the Top 100 U.S. magazines by subscription numbers for Jan-June 2006. EGM has also been holding its own and even creeping up, whereas GamePro was dipping as early as 2004, and I can't find any ABC results past Jan-Jun 2004, which may or may not be ominous.]

Official Xbox Magazine (Future)
Jan-Jun 2003: 344,731
Jan-Jun 2004: 406,176
Jan-Jun 2006: 425,243

Tips 'N Tricks (Larry Flynt Publications)
Jan-Jun 2003: 145,925
Jan-Jun 2004:146,566
Jan-Jun 2006: N/A

[Mopping up the other ABC-audited publications in the field, Official Xbox Magazine has been doing extremely well, even after the Xbox 360 launch. This is at least somewhat to do with its often excellent cover-disc, but I do wonder how well it will perform now that most Xbox 360 demos are available online? We'll see. Meanwhile, Tips 'N Tricks, from the ever-wondrous Larry Flynt, is hanging on in there, but doesn't seem to have any recent ABCs, which make us wonder whether it's having notable circ declines. But maybe it isn't, we can't tell!]

[UPDATE: A commenter asks about Nintendo Power, which I didn't list because it's never been ABC-audited - or at least not recently, as far as I can see. However, our wonderful Kevin 'Magweasel' Gifford notes: "Nintendo Power's circulation is not audited by ABC. Its guaranteed subscription rate base at the end of 2005 was 435,000."]

Ubisoft, Nivea Make Beautiful, Smeary Music Together

- OK, finally time for some news that isn't about us - in fact, it's about Ubisoft and Nvidia... no, wait, Ubisoft and, uhm, Nivea - under the excellent press release headline: "NIVEA FOR MEN Partners With Ubisoft to Integrate Products Into Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Double Agent(TM)'.

It's explained: "The video game industry has gained significant momentum over the past few decades. When games like Nintendo's Duck Hunt® and Mario Brothers® were first introduced to the small screen they captured the attention of young boys and occupied them through their teen years. Now, these boys have grown up yet haven't neglected their adolescent hobby. Men are now rushing home from work to spend the remainder of their evenings with a cold drink and a bag of chips to sit in front of the TV so that they can play video games." Yeah, stupid men and their cold non-alcoholic drinks!

In any case: "NIVEA FOR MEN, the #1 men's skin care line in the mass market, has partnered with Philips Norelco Cool Skin Razor to integrate product placements into Ubisoft's video game, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Double Agent(TM)." But we thought Sam Fisher was all stubble-y?

In addition: "NIVEA FOR MEN products appear at different stages throughout the game and have been seamlessly integrated into the video game environments. In addition to product placements and billboards, NIVEA FOR MEN and Norelco wanted to get more deeply involved with the game play experience. When double agent Sam Fisher travels through the streets of New York City, a billboard advertisement leads players to a co-branded Web site that provides game tips, www.thegoodside.com." Oh boy.

The Escapist Talks Game Journalism, Innit?

- Over at The Escapist, Slashdot Games editor and sometime GSW columnist Michael Zenke has contributed an article named 'Game Journalists on Game Journalism', and it includes luminaries such as GameSpot's Greg Kasavin and Joystiq's Chris Grant, alongside a bunch of idiots from Game Developer and Gamasutra (myself, Brandon Sheffield, Frank Cifaldi) talking the state of game journalism.

I like Frank's reply on what it means to be a game journalist: "I think the more important question here is what it means to be a journalist; the "game" part is secondary, it's merely a specialized form. Ideally, a journalist is someone who is able to acquire facts, compile them and then present them to the reader in a clear, definitive, objective way. The role of a journalist is to relay information; the role of a good journalist is to make this information interesting without showing personal bias (or, in many cases, hiding it really damned well)"

Also fun is Kotaku's Brian Crecente on blogging: "In general, I think blogging scares print publications. But I do think that the gaming press is more able to quickly respond to that threat by changing their writing and reporting style, something I believe we've already started to see." OMG blogs FTW! Lots more food for thought in here.

IGF Student Showcase Entrants Revealed

-News from the Independent Games Festival - we've now put up a list of the 102 Student Showcase entries for this year, and there looks to be a wide array of high-quality student titles on view again (just as in previous years, when games such as Cloud and Narbacular Drop were prominent!) Go pick some favorites and tell us about them!

The IGF finalist announcement for the Student Showcase will be on January 4th, 2007 - and before then, the Main Competition finalists will be unveiled on December 9th, 2006, and the Mod Competition finalists on December 18th, 2006. In between now and then, we'll also be making some announcements about key lectures, roundtables, and keynotes at the 2007 Independent Games Summit, also to be held at GDC next March, so watch out for that.

Also, we just rounded up _all_ the Gamasutra interviews with IGF Main Competition entrants - so we're gonna add it here too. We've talked to the makers of Gibbage, Gamma Bros, Prime Time: Maths Adventure, Eets, Plasma Pong, SpaceStationSim, Minions Of Mirth, Everyday Shooter, Sim Tractor, Kudos, Aquaria, Golf?, Virtual Villagers, New Star Soccer 3, Armadillo Run, Motorama, and Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble! - click on each game name to read the interview.


Postal Gets, *Sigh*, Fudge Pack

- You know, we don't need to comment, we just need to link to the press release and boggle: "Santa Claus may ponder whether you've been Good or Bad, but Running With Scissors (RWS) CEO Vince Desi doesn't care if you were naughty or nice – he wants everybody to share in some POSTAL Holiday Fudge. "What would Christmas be without Fudge?" he asked rhetorically."

"Fortunately, POSTAL fans and newcomers to the infamous franchise won't have to contemplate such a dire fate. RWS has just released the POSTAL FUDGE PACK, a special edition of the series that brings gamers the entire POSTAL saga, from the original 1997 game to the multiplayer-optional POSTAL 2: SHARE THE PAIN and the climactic POSTAL 2: APOCALYPSE WEEKEND."

Waut, and you even get... Postal mods, too? "But this is the gift that keeps on giving. The POSTAL FUDGE PACK also contains the soon to be legendary fan conversion, ETERNAL DAMNATION as well as the fan mod -A WEEK IN PARADISE, which melds POSTAL 2 action and APOCALYPSE WEEKEND weaponry for seven days you'll never forget." And sorry about the graphic.

Blitz On Dizzy, Wii Downloadable Games, The King

- We don't generally link to Gamasutra features, but when it's an interview with Blitz's Philip Oliver that reveals what's up with that lovable platform mascot Dizzy, we just _have_ to. (Oh, and he talks about Blitz's promotional Burger King games too, hence the pic!)

Oliver explains of the classic '80s platform egg: "The problem with Dizzy is the IP is owned by Codemasters, and we can’t do anything without their permission, and every time we ask for their permission, they say no! So we can’t do anything. And every time they ask us, and they don’t ask us that often, we sort of feel like saying ‘no,’just to be sorry for. But we signed a deal with them just a bit ago for some mobile phone stuff, so maybe that’ll happen."

There's also a hint on full-fledged downloadable games for the Wii, which I reckon will be around sometime in mid-2007: "We want to be a major developer of downloadable games, not just for Xbox Live Arcade, but for the Sony system and the Nintendo system... [when asked about new third-party Wii downloadable games]: I believe that on the other line is a conference call between the person at Nintendo and the head of our arcade division, right now."

November 13, 2006

Skatefall Creator Turns His Hand To Sampla

- We just got a note from artist and game designer John Freeborn, since we were one of the starting points for the information train (choo choo!) on his excellent (and previously GSW-mentioned) skateboarding vs. Pitfall Flash game, Skatefall, and he reveals: "I got a new game." But what is it?

Well: "Take name that tune, reverse it – name the song that sampled the song. And you have Sampla." Hah, neat - this is a bit more quizlike than actual interactive video game-like, but go check it out, anyhow.

What's more, Freeborn notes: "Some are hard, some are easy. V1 features 35 tracks, 10 are selected at random each time you play. There is a scoreboard, so you can show and prove your skills." Wow, so expect lots of George Clinton and early funk being sampled by lots of Snoop and De La Soul, among many other things - this really is a big geekout.

Going WayForward With Justice League Heroes: The Flash

- We've been looking around a bit for those interesting games that get a bit 'lost' at this time of year, due to the volume of game releases, and we think we might have found one - Justice League Heroes: The Flash for GBA, as recently reviewed positively over at GameSpot, and a retro side-scrolling beat 'em up blast from the past.

Now, this is a GBA-exclusive version of a multi-platform title, but it's done by the awesome guys at WayForward, who have been responsible for games such as Shantae and the odd/cool Sigma Star Saga, and whom we have previously mentioned on GSW.

Here's the blurb, explaining the waybackness of WayForward's concept for the (likely simple, but still likely fun!) title, which got 7.9 from GameSpot and 8.9 from the public GameSpot reviewers: "WayForward Technologies, the game's developer, has put together a beat-'em-up game that is along the lines of such classics as Double Dragon or Streets of Rage. The only difference is that the combat and atmosphere are heavily influenced by the Justice League universe."

What's more: "The settings are Keystone City, Gotham City, the Amazon, and Metropolis. And each level is populated with its own collection of robots and henchmen that are ripped from the pages of DC comics." Oo, fanboy drool. Has anyone played it yet?

GameSetCompetition: Gears Of War Winners

- So, the time is here - we're giving away 3 copies of Gears Of War for the Xbox 360, thanks to Microsoft and our new God, Lord Clifford of Blesznisk-town, Epicland. (OK, well maybe not God, but certainly FPS figurehead.)

So, without further ado, the winners of one copy of Gears Of War each are: Jason C. Barr (hey man, I really liked The Crow!), John Guerrero (love your skateboard prowess!), and Scott McGowan (nope, I got nuthin'!)

So, for those who couldn't work out the answer, here's the full info:

Q: "What mammal costume is CliffyB pictured wearing in the pic accompanying his recent Game Developer magazine interview?"
A: A bunny suit! (here's the photographic evidence, btw.)

Look out for some more GSW giveaways soon - we actually have two lined up and ready to go, and one of them is very comfortable indeed, so we'll be starting that one a little later this week.

COLUMN: 'Green and Black Attack' – Batman

Batman! Batman! Batman!['Green and Black Attack' is a new regular column by James Edwards taking a reflective look at Nintendo's original portable workhorse, the Game Boy. This week, we tenderly probe Sunsoft's shrunken take on the caped crusader in 1990's Batman.]

There are three simple rules to "doing" Batman: he wears a cape and cowl, he clads young wards in emerald swimming trunks and he never, ever uses a gun. Ever. The first is vital to preserve his mystique, the second a matter of personal taste. The third was imposed on the character by his real-life owners DC Comics in the forties, part of a campaign to clean up their new golden goose for easier mass-market consumption, and later justified in the text as a psychological aversion to the weapons which forever robbed young Bruce Wayne of his parents and his innocence.

Keep Bustin'

Nobody told this to Sunsoft, because the Game Boy rendition of Batman is strapped from pointy ear to booted toe with some of the very finest 8-bit firearm archetypes the system could muster: he has one that fires straight ahead, the one that oscillates up and down really quickly, the big powerful one and the one that returns like a boomerangl. You'll know what to expect if you've played Contra or any other suitably generic 8-bit platform shooter. This weird little quirk is accentuated by the teeny little six-pixel glock Batman's well-designed sprite totes at all times. Either post-1940 DC Comics are barred from Japan, or nobody at Sunsoft cared about getting the character of Batman right. It doesn't matter.

Batman! Batman! Batman!.gifV-V-V-Vicky Vale

Batman is a game which transcends its license (specifically Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster) to become one of the choicest picks of the early Game Boy lineup. Sunsoft ignored the movie's (mostly) non-fatal takedowns and gothic stylings in favour of a well-tuned Mario World clone with added guns, killer robots and jetpack-wearing hoodlums. It almost feels like Batman was dropped into a pre-existing game to make a quick buck... almost.

Instead of a bleepy Batdance, players are treated to Sunsoft composer Naoki Kotaka's famous brand of futuristic chiptunage: absolutely nobody could touch Sunsoft for soundtracks on the NES, even Nintendo, and the same holds true on their handheld offspring. Everything is rendered in a lovely clean and minimalist art style which owes more than just a tip of the hat to Gunpei Yoko's early products for the system with Nintendo R+D 1. Rather than bog the GB's processor down with more detail than it could handle (a mistake made by many a later title), Batman sticks to the system's strengths, providing a miniaturized experience that relies more on gameplay than graphic muscle. Some slight "wow" factor is provided by a neat little effect which flips the screen end over end at the start of each level - call me a spud, but it still impresses me today, especially given the limitations of the system.

If you're gonna go, go with a smile

In most stages you'll have to make it through a simple left-to-right obstacle course to the exit, but sometimes you'll be placed in the Batwing for a dose of simple left-to-right SHMUPing (just like world 4-4 of Mario Land) and the penultimate level is a good old-fashioned auto-scroller, which spikes the difficulty. While Sunsoft don't do justice to Batman's... justice, lurking on high is fully represented - each level has an arrangement of destructible blocks across the top which often allow Batman to proceed without fighting Joker's generic minions and androids. Sometimes you'll happen across darker tiles: these can be shot to reveal icons that can either boost Batman or degrade his weapon power, calling for judicious shooting. Every now and again you'll be treated to a cutscene: Joker's birth in a vat of acid has suitably creepy animation.

Batman! Batman! Batman!.gifPurple Rain

If I had two criticisms of Batman, they'd be that the game is far too short, and that the difficulty spike right at the end skews the challenge far too unevenly, as Bat-Bat has to deal with crushing after crushing before facing off against the dinky little Joker for a final showdown. Here, the Joker is a bullet-spewing maniac, and your bat-fate rests on as much luck as skill.

While most console lineups look better as coding knowledge progresses, the Game Boy often struggled to keep up during its extended lifespan, seeming shakier, jerkier and more infirm. Thankfully, early titles like Batman are absolute gems of game design that still hold up well today - just be sure to limit your use of the far too generous (unlimited, in fact!) continue feature and gag your inner comics fanboy before you turn the power on - that guy lets you have no fun at all. Now that I have played Batman, I can forgive Sunsoft for Aero the Acrobat.

[James Edwards is an unproven young force in the field of video game writing, brimming with youthful vigor. GameSetWatch is the first stop in growing his legend.]

Ghosts 'N Goblins Gets Hardcore Speed Run

- Every now and again, we remember to check back in at the Speed Demos Archive to see what those crazy speed runner types have been up to, and this time, there's a super-crazed Ghosts 'N Goblins NES run - completed in 22 minutes and 56 seconds - to admire.

As the runner Daniel 'Kareshi' Brown explains: "I don't think there will ever be a "perfect" run of this game. I think the best you can do is build up a good set of techniques that can efficiently get you through any situation. The monsters can't be counted on to behave exactly the same way from attempt to attempt, so I'd say a good one-fourth of this run is improvised (especially in the second round.)"

You can tell Brown has played this game to death, too, with comments like: "This is an interesting spot. About half the time, Sir Arthur will get hit as he approaches the Snake Dragon, only there is no enemy or projectile in view. He just gets hit by the air and loses his armor (or his life, if he was armorless.) I've found that jumping at that particular spot reduces (but does not eliminate) your risk of "phantom damage.""

November 12, 2006

@ Play: An View of the Field

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

This time out we are going to cover the state of the roguelike genre today, covering as many of the most notable games as we can at one time. I'm restricting this column to a fairly conservative definition of roguelike (I'm not even going to touch upon Mysterious Dungeon here), so surely, this won't take too long. How many can there be?

There are the "big three" games, the ones with their own Usenet groups that still have decent traffic, which are Nethack, Angband and ADOM, and their variants. Then there are up-and-comers Dungeon Crawl and Dwarf Fortress, the older games Larn and Omega, and the lost roguelikes that are finally beginning to emerge from obscurity. These are by no means all of the roguelike games there are to see, but this does include many of the more interesting ones.

There's a lot of ground to cover so let's get started!

nethack-8.gifNethack
Nethack I've mentioned a fair bit in prior columns. It is the most popular roguelike of them all, and has been for some years now. The logic of its world defies belief: a player can take a potion, dip it into a fountain to dilute it into water, then drop it on a co-aligned altar and pray to turn it into holy water. Then he can dip another item into that potion to bless it, or instead dip a pile of other potions of water into it at once to make lots more holy water in a single go. Or, instead of diluting a potion, he could throw it at a monster to attack it with its vapor, mix it with other potions, or dip other items into it. Rumor has it the player can even drink them.

Nethack is an open-source game, and because of this there has arisen a number of outside source forks, or variants, over the years. Most of the time they die out rapidly, such as with Nethack--, or the "Japanized" versions JNethack(do not ask about its new character class) and Nethack Brass, or the insufferably geeky Nethack: The Next Generation, but sometimes they turn out to have staying power. The foremost Nethack variant is Slash'EM, a frightening game that contains many more things than Nethack, which was derived from the earlier variant Slash. There is also a thriving community of Nethack patch authors, some of their work almost counts as variants in themselves, and some of them in the past have had their additions to the game incorporated into the core release by the Devteam, which is about as close to immortality you can get in the roguelike sphere without actually writing one from scratch.

angband-8.gifAngband
Angband has long been Nethack's primary competition, almost like a nemesis. Nethack was derived from Hack, which was originally something of a clone of Rogue, while Angband traces is lineage back through Moria, another early roguelike of only slightly lesser antiquity. While Nethack's focus is on strategic power acquisition, item discovery, and overcoming varied situations (not all of which involve monsters), what Angband is mostly about is killing. It has less game flexibility, but ultimately a deeper tactical game than Nethack. Angband probably has more monsters and individual items than Nethack (and some of its variants definitely do), but they also do not tend to be as interesting. Angband is a much larger game in terms of raw acreage, with its hundred levels each several screens in size, but since it lacks Nethack's tremendous depth of play there is generally less a player can do at any given moment. Angband is understood by many to be less dependent upon spoilers in order to play it well, and indeed its awesome "monster memory" feature allows players to generate their own personal spoilers as they play, taking automatic notes on monster hit points, attacks and resistances that can be kept between games.

While Angband's item discovery is but a shadow of Nethack's, or even Rogue's, it does take one of Rogue's features to heart far more than Nethack does. One of the more heart-stopping occasions in Rogue is when the player stumbles upon a zoo, a single room containing far more than the usual allotment of both monsters and treasure. A good zoo can make a player's game, but is likely to break it first. While Nethack has zoos, and several other themed monster lairs besides, they are nothing like Angband's vaults, large rooms secreted away from the main system of tunnels that contain extremely dangerous monsters and unique foes. Vaults have high probability of containing artifacts, the most potent objects in the game, but challenging the monsters for them is not a matter to be taken lightly.

While Nethack has a handful of variants it is still generally understood that the original is still the "real" game. Meanwhile, some of Angband's variants, called "'Bands" due to their propensity to change the first syllable of their parent game's name, are almost as popular as the original. There are dozens of versions of Angband out there, including versions with Lovecraftian monsters, versions with joke monsters, versions with randomized artifacts, and even versions with an overworld map to explore and multiple dungeons to find on it. The most popular Angband variant as of this writing is Troubles of Middle Earth (aka ToME), which has all of these things and more.

Cats vs Dogs, Joel vs Mike, Nethack vs Angband
The quickest instructive way I can think of to illustrate the differences between these two games is to describe how they handle shops.

In Angband, a shop is a place on the surface level. Although the shop's walls take up a good amount of space on the town map, the contents of that space do not matter to the game. When the player walks into its entryway he is given a menu listing its contents. He can pick objects to buy off of that menu, haggle over prices, and sell stuff he's found in the dungeon. Shops have a limited inventory--never anything truly powerful--but are restocked periodically, so the player can often use them to make up for basic deficiencies in his equipment.

In Nethack, a shop is a room in the dungeon. Like any other room, it has a door and walls. Unlike those other rooms, it has a shopkeeper standing at the door, and the shop's inventory litters most of the floor. Anything on the ground in the shop is considered to belong to the shopkeeper, and if the player picks something up he is told its price. If the player is carrying unpaid objects, the shopkeeper stands in front of the doorway until it is either dropped or paid for. To sell things the player simply drops an item, but the sale price can vary depending on the gold in the merchant's pocket.

Players can steal from shops in Nethack, but instead of it being pass/fail based off a roll of virtual dice, what players must do is figure out how to get objects out of the room past the shopkeeper. Most means of doing this will call the Keystone Kops out after the player (I am not kidding about that). It will also make the shopkeeper angry, and they are formidable opponents to all but high-level characters, but ultimately they are still monsters just like any other, and by killing a shopkeeper the player can freely loot the store's inventory and any money the poor guy was carrying. Shops can stock almost any item in the game, but on the other hand there are not many guaranteed shops, and they never restock with goods other than what the player sells to them, so they are less of a fall-back source of basic supplies and more of an additional source of random treasure, albeit one with strings attached.

adom-8.gifADOM
The third major roguelike, ADOM, is a bit of a departure from the others. For one thing, it has no ancestor game. While the lines of Nethack and Angband are known and storied, ADOM was created outright by its author, Thomas Biskup. He was obviously inspired by other roguelikes, but it also has features that are new and unique.

While Nethack and Angband are both open source games, and thus ultimately have no secrets from the eyes of a determined-enough player, ADOM's source is closed. (Thomas Biskup continues to maintain that he will one day produce a commercialized, graphical version of the game, but it has been a while since he first said that.) Because it's closed source there are also no variants of ADOM floating around, a state which has doomed a number of other once-famous roguelikes to obscurity.

ADOM has aspects of Angband in play, but it more obviously takes after Nethack in its features. It has Nethack's variety of environment and monster, but includes Angband's level-dependent item creation, and it has a monster memory. There is also a fair bit more of the traditional RPG in ADOM, as the game has a more overt, percentage-based skill system, a great variety in races and classes, and a good number of quests. Some of ADOM's ideas are quite nifty and inventive (anyone who's played around will cellular automata will recognize the growth pattern of dungeon plants) but there is also a sense of unevenness there, perhaps unavoidably so, due to the game being the product of but one mind. ADOM is also known for having the player undergo periodic mutations as time passes and the effects of chaos prevalent in the world warp his body. Some of the mutations are actually helpful, but some are incredibly harsh. A player who mutates too much will lose the game, giving ADOM a harsh time limit, although the pendulum is a bit further away from the player's neck than in Rogue.

ADOM's quest structure means that players effectively have an itinerary while playing, a set of places they either have to go at certain times/levels or else miss out on meeting/helping/killing various people. Alignment is also very important, in that it can change depending on a player's actions, and it determines which quests he can perform. The game also has a good number of objects that must be collected from its various dungeons in order to win the game (or Really Win the game, or Really REALLY Win the game -- there are multiple tiered "endings"). These may sound like good ideas at first, but they lead to cases where the player does not know what options are available to him, or what he needs to do next, unless he is already spoiled. While ADOM's game world is ultimately not as deep as Nethack, things like this make its players at least as reliant upon spoilers as that game's, yet there are far fewer to be found for ADOM than Nethack, which makes it a difficult game to improve at.

Two other roguelikes that deserve an honorable mention here:

dungeoncrawl-8.gif(Linley's) Dungeon Crawl is a relative newcomer to the field, being "only" eleven years old at this point, and it continues to see development. It seems to stick a smidgen closer to Rogue in its design than the likes of Nethack, but it also has a good number of classes and races to try out. With the pace of ADOM's development slowing as of late, there is a chance that Crawl could soon usurp its spot in the big three. Dungeon Crawl is exceptionally difficult even by roguelike standards, with players hounded by hordes of foes almost from the first turn, so a fair amount of persistence and/or luck seems to be necessary to get a game beyond the first levels.

dwarffortress-8.gifDungeon Crawl is relatively new, but overnight indie gaming success Dwarf Fortress is an infant by comparison. Most of the attention paid to DW focuses (rightfully) on its interesting Fortress Mode, but it also contains an Adventurer Mode that is nominally a roguelike. Games from both modes take place in the same randomly generated world, created on the program's first run, and it's possible to have an adventurer explore a player fortress, and visit kingdoms which fortresses know only through trade and diplomacy. Further, in the event a Fortress game is lost, the map is saved and made available for play in a Reclaim Fortress mode, which also has roguelike similarities. While these modes are interesting, they do not have the varied item discovery play of Rogue and its kin. Some players may not even notice the game has a built-in roguelike, since a saved fortress game in progress bars access to Adventurer Mode for that world, and fortresses can take a long time to play through to conclusion.

Some other games:

Larn* and ULarn make up another roguelike branch that hasn't seen too much development lately. They were notable for having a time limit, a bit of a harder one than Rogue's food requirement. They are also notable for containing seriously powerful weapons, like the appropriately-named Lance of Death. The game Omega is of moderate age for a roguelike, and was the first roguelike to contain a significant "overworld," a landscape outside of the dungeons. The science-fiction game Alphaman appears to be a true roguelike (it has item discovery), and an interesting sense of humor, but I do not know much else about it.

There exists a Usenet group, rec.games.roguelike.misc, that is devoted to miscellaneous roguelikes that do not have their own group. In the days before ADOM got its own listing it was commonly discussed there, and Dungeon Crawl is a frequent source of conversation now. Also discussed there are a number of new roguelikes, many of which having gotten their start as part of the 7-Day Roguelike Project. Some of these games are quite ingenious twists on the roguelike theme, among them ChessRogue (the foes are enemy pieces and after capturing enough of them the player's king gains new types of moves) and Letter Hunt (where the letter monsters actually are letters, and are to be used to spell words).

Finally, but significantly, there are the lost roguelikes, games that were not open sourced during their heyday and were too tied to one or another operating system to be run on modern machines. In particular this includes the major Rogue variants, Super Rogue, UltraRogue, XRogue and Advanced Rogue, which are only now being recovered from obscurity by the noble efforts of the Roguelike Restoration Project.

* Note 1: the DOS download link on this page, and some of the other links, do not work. Note 2: according to this page, the author of Larn passed away some time ago. That's how old roguelikes are as a class of computer game: developer mortality has begun to take its toll.

Comments Disabled, Apologies To Recent Commenters

- [UPDATE - We turned comments back on again - ping us if you comment and it doesn't appear straight away.]

When we have to co-opt the image of the plumber which Bloglines puts up when they're having technical difficulties, you might be able to work out that we're having some issues. And so we are, in the realm of comment spam.

Firstly, apologies to commenters over the past 3-4 days - most of your comments disappeared into our spam filter, because the sheer amount of spam we're been getting recently has thrown our spam software (the excellent Akismet) for a bit of a loop. I just went through and manually found and pushed live as many of those 'lost' comments as I could - sorry if I didn't catch yours.

Actually, the machine that GameSetWatch is hosted on has crashed a couple of times recently due to comment spam volumes, so for now, we're turning comments off until our technical guys can take a look and decide what to do next. (You may have noticed that sites like Joystiq and Kotaku have pretty highly customized comment systems nowadays, due to this problem, and while we're not quite in their league of popularity, the spambots care not.) We'll work it out, though, and keep reading and enjoying happy linkage in the mean time!

Lovechess? Get NSFW Demo!

- We've previously discussed the rather wacky PC title Lovechess: Age Of Egypt, and now the creators mailed us to mention that the NSFW chess vs. sex title has a demonstration version.

They explain: "We just released a demo version of Lovechess : Age of Egypt, the free demo
can be downloaded from Gamershell.com (please check Lovechess.nl for additional download locations)."

Lest we forget, the Dutch PC title goes a little something like this: "With its combination of erotica and chess, LoveChess was the first erotic game that showed sexual action in a stylish, humorous and light-hearted way. Now, this unique concept got even better with the release of Lovechess : Age of Egypt." Who buys this? Please 'fess up if you have.

The New Statesman Drills Down On Games

- UK blog Rotational has linked to a 24-page supplement in the UK magazine the New Statesman that deals with the culture of video games - and quite fine it is, too.

The full PDF supplement talks about a bunch of neat topics, with Alice 'WonderlandBlog' Taylor talking about women and gaming, and an article about downloadable games (highlighting Miniclip.com), plus a bunch of other pieces - looks like it has a link to Nottingham Trent University and the GameCity festival in some way?

Sure, this is all for a slightly general interest audience, but it's well-written. The conclusion? "The UK video games industry is one of our creative strengths; it is the largest market for computer and video games in Europe and the third largest in the world, a position we need to consolidate." Go Go Brits! [The other New Statesman pictured, btw.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': 15 Years of Not Winning The Ultimate Gaming Rig

['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.]

ugr01.jpg   ugr21.jpg

Don't tell me you don't recognize the above two advertisements, or at least the basic style of them. They have been running in US game mags for 15 years now, with almost the same ad copy even, and they're such an ingrained part of many readers' psyches that the question "Does anyone actually win any of this stuff?" must have been asked rhetorically to no one in particular thousands of times across the country over the years.

Yes, it's the seemingly continuous contest to win the Ultimate Gaming Rig -- either all the current consoles plus games, a "tricked out gaming computer," or a giant-arse TV with all manner of media hardware attached to it. The contests, held by Oregon-based Baindramage Inc. (AKA Pandemonium Promotions Inc. AKA Puzzle Me Inc. AKA Rattlebrain Inc.), have run uninterrupted since debuting in the August 1991 issue of GamePro, save for a lull in 2001-3 due to a reported bankruptcy.

The basic idea, amply explained in the latest ad (found in the 2006 Tips & Tricks Video Game Codebook), is this: You solve the ridiculously simple Mystery Word Grid in the ad and sent it off with your entry fees to join the contest. You then receive four more puzzles of only slightly increased difficulty (and must pay to submit each one), then one final tiebreaker to determine your score and the ultimate winner. (It's not mentioned in the ad, but everyone who completes the final tiebreaker round wins a free magazine subscription -- though, considering you'll be out at least $12 by that point, it may be a more economical use of time to just buy that subscription yourself.)

The big question, then: Does anyone really win in the end? Answer: Yes, I'd imagine so. Otherwise, as contest director Rick Lund is quick to point out when you email him, the company would not be in business. However, two important little niggles prevent the great majority of people from winning. One, Baindramage can't take responsibility if you receive a round of puzzles after the entry deadline's already passed, and if the Internet is any indication, this happens all the time with this contest (though Lund offers refunds in this case). Second, the final tiebreaker puzzle is much harder than the previous rounds, requiring you to use your own words and fit them into a much larger grid of clues.

It may be for these reasons that the majority of game magazines stopped printing Ultimate Gaming Rig ads after 2000. I had heard from fellow editors that reader complaints led to ads being refused, but I never talked with a magazine sales rep about it personally, so I can't confirm that. However, it is true that pretty much the only mag you'll find their contests nowadays is in Tips & Tricks' semi-annual codebooks. Shame, really. Mag ads these days...they're so, well, non-manipulative, you know?

For the sake of research and nostalgia, I've collected and scanned in all the Ultimate Gaming Rig ads I could find. You can browse through them at your leisure by clicking below. (NOTE: I could have sworn that I saw a largely identical Japanese-language version of this ad in a Famicom Tsushin from 1993-4, but after two hours of leafing through my collection, I couldn't find it again. If this rings a bell with anyone, let me know.)

[Click through for more!]

- Version 1 (1991). The video contest includes a Genesis, TG16, Super Famicom, and Neo Geo AES. The media-rig contest has graphic equalizers and dual-cassette players! The game on the 40-inch monitor is Sinistron for the TG16.

- Version 2 (1992). A Super Scope 6 has been doctored into the ad to represent the American Super NES.

- Version 3 (spring 1993). The video contest now includes the Sega CD, Menacer, and TurboDuo instead of TG16. There is a different screenshot from Sinistron on the TV.

- Version 4 (winter 1993). A much nicer photo with all the accessory boxes in full view. A 3DO is also in the contest but not pictured, and the media rig now includes a laserdisc player. The TurboDuo has dropped out, but Sinistron's still alive and well on the TV!

- Version 5 (summer 1994). The 3DO has now replaced the Neo Geo as well.

- Version 6 (winter 1994). The media rig's grown a satellite dish, and the Jaguar's been added to the video contest.

- Version 7 (summer 1995). The introduction of the PC contest, featuring a Pentium-90! The video contest's grown a 32X, and Sinistron's finally been replaced with Atari's Aliens vs. Predator.

- Version 8 (winter 1995). Welcome to the next generation! All the old detritus is brushed out of the video-game contest to make way for the Saturn, PSX, Virtual Boy, and the new Goldstar 3DO. The computer's been upgraded to a P133, too.

- Version 9 (summer 1996). Another PC upgrade (I guess they overclocked the PC a little!).

- Version 10 (winter 1996). The Jaguar's gone and in its place is a fake Nintendo 64 box. I feel stupid for not recognizing the game on the 40-inch monitor. The PC's gotten a few updates all around (including Windows 95).

- Version 11 (summer 1997). The Virtual Boy is gone, replaced with a Game Boy Pocket and some joysticks and stuff. The PC's slimmed down a little and gets some more RAM and such. Magazine subscription notice. The monitor is now 60 inches.

- Version 12 (winter 1997). Yet another PC upgrade. They do a good job keeping up with the times. The contest moves from Minnesota to Oregon.

- Version 13 (spring 1998). Nothing new in the contest itself, but they updated the screenshot to Tomb Raider.

- Version 14 (summer 1998). Bit of a crazy design variant here, but the basic prizes are the same. The screenshot went from Tomb Raider to Tomb Raider III. Pandemonium Inc. becomes Puzzle Me Inc.

- Version 15 (winter 1998). PC upgrade, and whoa, now there's a Dreamcast and a DVD player!

- Version 16 (summer 1999). PC upgrade!

- Version 17 (winter 1999). PC upgrade!

- Version 18 (spring 2000). The PlayStation 2 is in! PC upgrade, and the TV's changed channels to a preprodution image of Syphon Filter (I think). The contest also gets around to removing the Saturn box from the photo even though it hasn't been offered in a year and a half.

- Version 19 (2004). After a long hiatus, the contest strikes back with a full upgrade all around and a pretty hard-to-identify shot from Halo (Master Chief in the waaaaay background). Puzzle Me Inc. becomes Rattlebrain Inc.

- Version 20 (2005). The PSP replaces the PS2, but no Xbox 360, funnily enough. A much more recognizable image of Halo 2 comes on TV. Rattlebrain Inc. becomes Baindramage Inc.

- Version 21 (2006). The most recent contest has the entire next-gen lineup (complete with Gears of War on the TV), a new 72-inch TV, and finally -- finally -- some nice entertainment-center shelving to stack all those bonus prizes on. Whew. The contest finally launches on the web. Note how the introductory Mystery Word Grid hasn't changed in eight years.

[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.]



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