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December 2, 2006

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 12/2/06

['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.]

Welcome to Mag Roundup. This update includes the last few mags of 2006, and luckily for me there aren't too many -- just GI, OXM, and a couple of specials.

Future Publishing recently released two more specials to newsstands, both cheat compilations (one for Xbox and the other for Sony systems) and both largely filled with recycled content. I'll be saving these for the next update -- I've got a kind man sending them to me in the mail, which is great for me because frankly, I'm sick of paying $10 a pop for Future's recycled-content "specials," and I'm the Magweasel for chrissakes. (Though I must admit, the cover design on their specials is consistently neat. That PS3 launch guide a couple months back really sticks out on the stands.)

Anyway, click below to find out about the four new mags released in the past two weeks.

Game Informer December 2006

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Cover: Army dude

I have to admit: In my eyes, this is a pretty straightforward issue of GI, especially compared to the world-beating issues routinely coming out of Minnesota for the past few months. It's not really the editors' fault, though -- this being the holiday issue, they're obliged to fill up the pages with things like holiday guides and console launch info, which comes at the expense of much of the thought-provoking industry pieces of issues past. (One exception: Two separate pieces that debate how useful Microsoft's lead with the Xbox 360 will be to them in the long run, and indeed how long it may even exist.)

The cover feature: Is on GRAW 2, aka the sequel to the one thing that really dazzled for the 360's launch. You get 10 pages of coverage on this title, which (to an eye untrained as myself) seems like a pretty by-the-numbers sort of follow-up.

Reviews: GI's reviews section is a little special this month because, as seen on the cover, they got the rights to review -- or, at least, assign scores to -- seven PS3 titles, something other mags waited on. Lots of love is given to Resistance, lots of hate heaped upon Mobile Suit Gundam: Crossfire (so bad it didn't even earn a coverline), and Ridge Racer 7 earns surprisingly respectable scores.

GI Spy: The magazine business's silliest page features everything from Ludacris to Goichi Suda to Shaquille O'Neal next to king of all PR guys Rob Fleischer, who (if GI is to be believed) is now called "Bobz" Fleischer. Damn, I've been out of the business too long.

Official Xbox Magazine Holiday 2006 (Podcast)

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Cover: Army dude

EGM got the big blowout preview feature for Gears of War a couple months back, and now OXM gets the first print review. And what a review it is! In classic Future style, it's eight pages, packed with sidebars (and a full-body shot of Cliffy looking longingly away from the camera), and takes a game which is darn boring in screenshots and makes you seriously excited for it.

Speaking of reviews: They occupy over half the magazine, this Xmas being a busy one for everyone's favorite American...er Mexican-made console. 14 games are scored this month, including Arcade stuff and the Burger King titles, and there's another exclusive review (Rainbow Six Vegas) lurking in there too.

The requisite holiday guide: Has an opening illustration by a guy whose signature I can't quite make out, but whose name might as well be "Not quite the Penny Arcade dudes, but pretty close!".

The disc: Is headlined by rasslin' and mostly goes downhill from there, although you've still got NFS Carbon, Sonic, and the world-beating Fuzion Frenzy 2. I think it's safe to say that original-Xbox content is well and truly done for by this point.

Videogame Buyers' Guide Holiday 2006

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I was wondering whether it'd come out or not this year, but here it is -- EGM's yearly buyers guides have been a perennial of the newsstand ever since 1989 (before EGM technically even launched, in fact), and it's arguably the best of the lot, although this reward EGM wins pretty much by default since none of the content in their specials is recycled from other mags.

This year's buyers guide doesn't have any by-lines, but if I had to guess I'd say it was penned by the usual gang of Ziff freelancers, along with the folks at Modojo.com (which editor John Davison calls out by name in his welcome blurb).

This guide borrows most of its design from the new, streamlined EGM, and it's about what you'd expect inside, covering the Wii, PS3, 360, PC, PS2, Xbox, GameCube, DS, PSP, and mobile stuff and mostly giving straight capsule reviews, with the occasional "Games to Avoid" page to cover stuff like Barnyard and the aforementioned PS3 Gundam. Ziff has apparently realized that it's mostly clueless gift-buying parents who pick up these guides, so they've geared the game selection with an eye toward non-M-rated stuff.

Very straightforward, but as Davison puts it: "If you're a hardcore gamer, a holiday buyers' guide in print isn't going to tell you something you don't already know. However, we hope that those of you who don't know the difference between a Metal Gear and a Guilty Gear, or those of you that can't comprehend how there can possibly be 12 'Final' Fantasys, might appreciate some quick and easy lists of the best games to buy right now."

Code Vault Winter 2007

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I'm not exactly sure how frequently Code Vault is released these days. The last issue I saw was marked Spring 2006, yet had a "Display Until Aug. 28, 2006" notice on the cover, so it can't be too often.

Anyway, like the last few CVs, this issue is wholly recycled content, either from Brady Games strategy guides or GamePro's archives of cheat codes. Saints Row, Okami, Destroy All Humans! 2, World of Warcraft, FFVII DOC, Valkyrie Profile 2, and Xenosaga 3 all have strategy features, but I'm really not sure what the point is of having these features if they only include a part of the guide. This is especially silly with the Xenosaga feature, which seems to just include five pages randomly from the middle of the book's walkthrough and doesn't even include any form of title or introductory passage. Is it that useful to print a strategy guide for Act 6, and only Act 6, of Okami either?

All told, Code Vault is hitting new levels of uselessness here and I'd write about how sad I am that the mag's monthly run failed four years ago, but you've heard all that before.

[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.]

1UP, GamesRadar, GameDaily, GamePro - The Smackdown?

- We're not going to get too hardcore into this [EDIT: Oh, wait, we did!], but figured, since we just got a triumphant new stats release from the Ziff folks, that we'd look into their claim: "The 1UP Network, Ziff Davis's set of gaming properties, has just set a new traffic record on the last day of November: 13 million unique monthly visitors online (not counting print or podcasts)", and work out (*assume The Prisoner tone*): 'Who is Number Three?'

What we're trying to work out is who the #3 video game website is in North America - at various times in the past 18 months, and citing Media Metrix reports, their own stats, and perhaps the scryings of Luke Smith with a tea-towel over his head, all of GameDaily, GamesRadar, and 1UP have claimed to be third. (As can easily be seen, GameSpot and IGN way overpower the other sites in terms of Alexa rank, even more obviously so in terms of page views.)

To analyze all this, we're using Alexa.com stats, which rely on people installing the Alexa toolbar and then surfing around - actually, the handy Alexaholic third-party widget which makes comparisons/smoothing easier. For Alexa stats overall, it's possible that certain areas of the world are less well-represented or over-represented - but I think it does a good job for North America, as recently demonstrated by a post on the official Alexa blog.

What we're really looking at here is 1UP.com itself vs. the other sites - the new press release reveals: "1UP.com alone has set its own record with 4 million monthly uniques -- that means we've nearly doubled our traffic every year for the past three years! GameVideos.com has grown rapidly since its May 2006 release: it's now at over 700,000 monthly uniques. That's remarkable organic growth for a 6-month-old site. MyCheats.com, launched September 2006, is growing even faster: it's just a few thousand away from tipping 400,000. And of course FileFront.com, our monster download site, continues to do some very heavy lifting, with 7.7 million uniques this month."

So the 1UP Network (including all the other sites) is definitely #3, as far as I can see - not least due to FileFront. But you may remember a GameSetWatch post from last April in which GamesRadar.com boasted that it "debuted as the fifth largest site in the category, measuring 2,602,354 unique visitors", something which was " substantially higher than IDG Entertainment, UGO Games and Ziff Davis’ 1UP Network" - this was according to Media Metrix.

I personally don't have access to the latest Media Metrix stats - but Alexa is significantly more transparent, in any case, and here's the latest 'Page Views' graph, tracked over the last 12 months, for Ziff's 1UP.com, Future's GamesRadar.com (plus its traffic feeder site CheatPlanet.com), GameDaily.com (now owned by AOL), and IDG's GamePro.com/Games.net, which aggregate together for Alexa purposes.

To round things out, here's the 'reach' graph - probably closest to a unique visitor comparison, and here's the overall Alexa rank, which, it should be noted, uses a non-linear vertical axis, so telescopes everyone together a bit.

The conclusion? 1UP.com really _did_ surge ahead in November, clearly into the #3 spot of game content sites who do reviews etc, likely due to the fever over the console launches. However, it appears that GamesRadar (who I would peg as #4 of the game content sites) has not majorly increased page views and reach over the original CheatPlanet stats, and both GameDaily (#5) and GamePro (#6) only saw a small bump around the console launches. A 3-year look at reach shows the overarching trends a little more clearly - 1UP is up, GamesRadar/Cheatplanet are honestly down a little bit from CheatPlanet's semi-mystifying, presumably search engine-impelled heights, GameDaily is making a minor move, and GamePro/Games.net is kinda... hanging out.

[Finally, for those wondering how the major game blogs are coming through, here's Joystiq, Kotaku, and 1UP compared over the previous 2 years with regard to page views, with some smoothing on - the reach graph also shows that the blogs are coming through pretty swiftly. Most importantly, all 3 of the sites show a telltale hint of vibrancy - peaks around E3 and console launches, showing that people are actually going to them for breaking news. Which is, y'know, important.]

[EDIT: Someone from GameSpy pinged me to ask why I wasn't ranking them as #3. Well, yeah, I did kinda leave GameSpy out, mainly because I consider them part of IGN for business purposes, and therefore part of the top 2. But in point of fact, they're technically correct - the site runs with a different editorial team, and if you rank them up, they're number 3, not 1UP.

However, I note that, according to their traffic details, a bunch of the 'PlanetX' community sites also factor into their traffic ranking, including Planet Elder Scrolls, Planet Quake, and even Classic Gaming, so that's kinda sorta munging in some content I don't consider to be part of GameSpy to their stats.]

Jenkins Vs. Kohler - The Grudge Match

- Over at his blog, MIT's Henry Jenkins has interviewed Wired News' Chris Kohler about all things Japanese video game-related, after reading Kohler's book Power Up.

There's all sorts of interesting stuff in here, but here's what I'll quote from Kohler - something about Ouendan and Elite Beat Agents: "What's interesting to note is that although certain Ouendan fans were angry that Nintendo was "Americanizing" the game, that's not really what happened. Yes, iNiS went back and re-tooled the game for Western audiences, but if you look at the final product it's still very much a crazy, manga-styled presentation that's going to appeal most strongly to the kind of gamer who reads manga, plays Katamari Damacy, etc. It's only "Westernized" enough to remove the sort of "cultural odor" that would prevent it from doing well in the US, not the things that made it appealing in the first place." Yum, cultural odor!

Kohler adds: "That's something I also get into in Power-Up as it pertains to Donkey Kong. The breakout Japanese video game (at least in the context that I explored in the book, that of the development of games as a storytelling medium) was designed for America. Miyamoto was told that the US branch of Nintendo was in trouble, and could he please make a game that would succeed in America. Who knows what kind of story and characters he would have come up with if his primary intent was to appeal to his fellow Japanese?"

It's Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, Jim

- Over at LJ, Roushimsx has been talking about the Star Trek: 25th Anniversary game, and it's a handy guide to a sometimes forgotten title.

It's noted: "In 1992, missing the [date of the actual] anniversary, we got Interplay's Star Trek 25th Anniversary for PC, Mac, and Amiga. Unlike Ultra's crummy NES game, it was a point and click adventure game AND a bridge simulator. A year later, they released a CD-ROM version featuring a new intro, full speech for every line of dialog (with the original actors playing themselves!), and an extended final mission."

What's it like? "It's a great adventure game with lots of replayability, marred by SNK-boss syndrome at the very end. The disk version is easy as pie to get online (don't forget to configure the sound before you start playing unless you like PC Speaker blips and bloops) and the CD-ROM version is like $10-$20 on eBay if you want to play the talkie version. While it may be possible to get it running in WinXP, just run DOSbox like a real (wo?)man and play it proper."

Retro Round-Up Rounds Up Retro

- Great to see, over at 1UP, that they've started a 'Retro Roundup' for the latest classic gaming news, thanks to teh Parish - it's nice to have a good regular column for this kind of 'retro on next-gen' goodness.

As it's explained: "Each week, we'll offer you a quick synopsis of new Virtual Console and Xbox Live Arcade releases, an even quicker glance at individual retail (re)releases, and a look ahead at the next episode of our classic gaming podcast, Retronauts. So read on, and grab your wallet -- there's some good stuff out this week, whether you're a violent space jockey or a gentle granola-munching hippie."

The Wii Virtual Console's latest line-up is reviewed, for starters: "The Turbografx-16 had a reputation for being home to a whole lot of great shoot-em-ups, and Super Star Soldier is exactly why. It's a classic example of the type -- which means it's incredibly challenging, blazingly fast, and somehow throws more crap at you than you'd expect the hardware to be able to handle... since it's so fast, you don't really notice Virtual Console's sub-par TG16 graphical emulation. The only real drawback is the sound quality, which is embarrassingly weak."

December 1, 2006

Lost Planet Secret-ified, ARG-ified?

- Over at ARGNet, they've got a small article on a possible Lost Planet ARG, with spooky clues hidden in trailers for the much-awaited Xbox 360 title from Capcom.

It's noted: "Those that watched the first trailers on the Xbox Live Marketplace saw “111” and “neovenusconstruction.com” flash toward the end, leading them to rush off in search of the next I Love Bees... These intrepid explorers have been rewarded with the discovery of several slick-looking websites that all share the goal of colonizing new planets (including, in the future, EDN 3 - where Lost Planet is set)."

What's more: "In fact, it has been hinted on the Capcom boards that players have all the information needed to advance the game, so things could start to happen very quickly if they can discover what clues they are missing. Maybe you could be the one to stumble upon that one little bit of information that can blow the game wide open, so what are you waiting for?" My head hurts!

Getting Persuasive With Bacteria Salad

- Hey, a note from Ian Bogost. What does he say? "My studio Persuasive Games has released Bacteria Salad, the latest game in the ongoing Arcade Wire series of newsgames, published by Addicting Games and Shockwave.com."

What's up there, then? "Harvest mass amounts of cheap produce and sell it for as much profit as possible. But watch out for floods, animal waste, and agroterrorists or your greens might turn, uh - brown — and your customers will suffer. Strategize over the question of which is safer, small family farms or big industrial ones. Is it possible to run large agribusiness safely? The game is completely scatological, so watch out."

Ew, that's kinda gross and a bit Fast Food Nation-like, or something. We've previously covered other newsgames like 'Oil God' from Bogost, who (disclaimer!), also writes columns for one of the sites I help run, Serious Games Source.

Lamenting The Memory Card

- Over at The New Gamer, G.Turner has been discussing the state of the memory card, noting: "I'm the sole member of The New Gamer whom hasn't purchased a next-generation console (not for a lack of wanting or effort, that's for sure), and as such I've been spending the bulk of my console time with the sole current-generation games machine that still has slight murmurs of life: the PS2."

Turner laments: "And as I keep trying to draw out its life, the more space I try to wring out of my two PS2 memory cards, which requires ever increasing amounts of maintenance, compromise and frustration than ever before... My beef isn't so much with the memory card as it is with the lazy developers. I've had it up to here with games that don't bother to check 'memory slot B' for previous saves or extra space, and I'm especially sick of games that don't even bother to allow you to access a card again, just in case, you know, you've had to swap a card from slot B to slot A."

He concludes: "At least the infernal cards appear to be on their way out, and with them goes the frustration of juggling limited card space. However, it does rather seem that, with the embracing of hard drives, we're swapping one storage device for another, and that in a matter of years I'll be muttering profanities under my breath while hot-swapping hard-drives, but that day is not today." But won't we look fondly and dearly on memory cards in just a few short years? Haw.

The Dreamcast Refuses To Die, Jim

- As The Dreamcast Junkyard is very happy to point out, Sega's last piece of hardware will never quite die, it seems : "Even with the next-generation of gaming lumps of plastic looming over us and our wallets, the Dreamcast is, at least in Japan and in the homebrew scene, digging itself out of its grave now and then for the odd new game every few months."

So there's a nice round-up of stuff, including official Japanese DC release Trigger Heart Exelica, due out in Feb. 2007: "Like any good 'shump' as some people like to call them, Trigger Heart has a unique feature (Read: gimmick) that separates it from other shumps, and in this one's case it's the ability to grab enemy ships (even the ones 50 times bigger than you) with what looks like a tractor beam, swing them about then toss them at other enemies."

Also, it's delightful to see homebrew DC title Age Of The Beast mentioned: "This is Senile Team's follow up to the excellent Beats of Rage, improving on everything that game gave us while also using completely original graphics which are looking stunning!" Hey, and Destructoid interviewed them recently, so that's neat too.

Decline Of Sierra... Avenged?

- I was reading Fortune Magazine on the train the other day (yes, seriously) and happened upon the news that Walter Forbes, the former chairman of Cendant, was convicted at his third criminal trial of conspiracy in the accounting fraud dating back to the late '90s. All well and good - but what's it got to do with games?

Well, you will note that "Forbes was accused of overstating income by $252 million at CUC International, the company that merged with HFS in 1997 to create Cendant", and in Frank Cifaldi's 'Playing Catch-Up' with Sierra's Ken Williams, the Sierra founder explains that he sold the company to CUC International in 1996, and that "... even early on, there were signs of trouble; broken promises and the like. "At the time, I passed it off as them having 'told me what I wanted to hear, to get the deal done.' Now, I understand that these were not honorable gentleman.""

In fact, an IGN PC report from 1998 notes of the company: "Restated earnings show large loss, not gain, for 1997; internal report suggests fraud reached Sierra." Now, this clearly wasn't the only reason for some of Sierra's problems, as the Wikipedia page shows its complex history - indeed, Vivendi is now making a bigger play of revitalizing the Sierra name for publishing and online gaming. But the company's vibrant internal development certainly took a hit during this time, so old school adventure fans may be interested to note one of the instigators finally brought to justice.

November 30, 2006

Rooster Teeth Make Upset Footballer Feel Better!

- Damion Schubert over at Zen Of Design has linked up a hilarious chain of events involving a TV ad that the Rooster Teeth folks (of Red Vs. Blue machinima fame) did for Madden on the PS3, and then some extremely wack fallout that followed it. We'll have Schubert explain things:

"1. The Red vs. Blue team makes a commercial for Madden, which shows a digitized Dallas Clark, tight end for the Indianapolis Colts, getting decleated repeatedly, and in slow motion.

2. Dallas Clark reports to the local media that it’s humiliating, and that guys in the locker room are razzing him for it.

3. The Red vs. Blue team apologizes and offers a Director’s Cut, in which Dallas Clark is portrayed as a minor god."

As Schubert says: "I swear, I love living in the digital age." We completely agree. Also, those Rooster Teeth folks are pretty funny, even when it's humor about football. Surprising!

MMOG Nation: The Future of Ryzom

['MMOG Nation' is (trying to be) a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column is about the recent announcement of Nevrax's receivership, and the possibility of an open source MMOG.]

RyzomYou may have heard of the game Ryzom before, but it was probably just in passing. Primarily popular in its home nation of France, the unique fantasy game never really caught on in the U.S. or other traditional MMOG markets because it's just ... so French.

People who pay attention to the Massive genre will most likely have heard of Ryzom because of the recent Ryzom Ring expansion. For the first time, developers invited players behind the desk, and gave them the tools to make their own adventures within the context of the game. It was a great idea, and drew a lot of attention.

Apparently, though, that attention was too little too late. The game's developer, Nevrax, is now in receivership, and the future of the game is in doubt. While the press release mentioned 'another company' that could take on the task of running the game, there's a much more intriguing possibility in the works. The Free Ryzom Campaign has undertaken an almost unimaginable task: They're going to try to buy the game and give it to the open source community. Today I'm going to talk a little bit about the project, explore the possibilities of what they're proposing, and ponder what this could mean for the future of Massive gaming.

The FRC

The Free Ryzom Campaign (FRC) is made up of "a group of former Nevrax employees, members of the NeL community, people who enjoy playing Ryzom, people who enjoy playing MMORGs in general and people who advocate the use of 'Free Software'." Their goal, the open-sourcing of a Massively Multiplayer game, is unprecedented within the genre. These games are mind-bendingly expensive to make, and the idea of a community-sponsored title being created with the quality that Ryzom offers is (sadly) laughable. It's not unprecedented in software as a whole, though. The 3D rendering software Blender was taken open-source last year, after a fund-raising drive spearheaded by dedicated community members. The product is now doing quite successfully, with a loyal following and a vibrant community.

And, in theory, the same is possible with Ryzom. If enough money can be raised, the code, the art ... everything associated with the game will become open sourced. That term is a very loaded one, but it's sufficient to say that it means many people will be able to look at the game's code and will be able to contribute ideas and new code to the project. In the short term this would mean that bugs would get greater attention (many hands), game balance would be a more collaborative process, and network code could be considered by more people (ideally, some of whom are experts in the subject). In the long term, this could mean the beginning of a game that is truly dynamic.

With the Ryzom Ring toolset available to everyone, players and interested third parties could create zones and scenarios, which could then be integrated into the actual game by Ryzom's keepers. Given the lack of a financial stake in the game, the game's minders could execute truly game-shaking events, wiping out cities and changing the face of the game; in-game events retail games could never dream of attempting might be your average Saturday night in an open source Ryzom.

Going for Broke

The problem here is that a Massive game is nothing like a stand-alone piece of rendering software. Not only is the price of the project considerably more, but there are number of other elements to take into account as well. Simply looking at the price could be enough to stop people in their tracks. The FRC is hoping to raise 100,000 € ... and I'm going to hazard a guess that that is something like a 'down payment' on the game, and not a final pricetag. Beyond the cost of the software, Massive games require serious hardware to run them. With an open source game there's no true need for a central set of closed servers; the game could be run off of some spare hardware and the gameworld only shared with your close friends. Just the same, it will probably be in the FRC's best interests to keep some standard hardware running, and that can get very expensive very quickly.

The final (and perhaps stickiest) issue is the element of player privacy. The goings-on of your average player may not raise eyebrows, but some people take Massive games very seriously, and use them for many of the same things other folks use the 'real' world for. A retail game's disinterested overseers have only good reasons to ignore most of what goes on in their game, as long as it doesn't effect game balance or harm another player. With an open sourced game run by enthusiasts, what's to stop the internet from seeing logs of your cybersex encounters posted from here to the horizon, with your real name attached?

I am, of course, exaggerating. The open source Ryzom minders will have just as many reasons for ignoring such activities as the retail agents do. Just the same, privacy is just one of the elements to keep in mind when considering this concept. Exploring the realm of an open source virtual world is intriguing, to be sure, and in many ways I feel that it is entirely inevitable. Even if only by virtue of numbers, there are so many projects along the lines of a small-scall Massive game being started and abandoned nowadays, eventually one of them will become highly popular and fulfill the dream of a game that's by the players and for the players. While I'm hopeful for the possibilities I've listed above, it's hard to see that such a state will become the norm for the genre. These titles are phenomenally expensive to develop ... and that's if you want to make a crap game. Making a truly great game takes not only money to develop, but money to maintain, and that's where I see the real problems arising for an open source MMOG.

Every MMOG dies. Not every MMOG truly lives.

Just the same, it's fascinating to think what might be possible in a future with an open source Massive title. The strange and wonderful world of Second Life would be left quickly behind, as players grab the true reins of power in a virtual realm. Pure PvP, with real permadeath, would undoubtedly finally get its day in the sun. Players more interested in peaceful pursuits might be able to adapt concepts from games like A Tale in the Desert and Puzzle Pirates into the beauty of Ryzom's graphics.

Overbearingly large dungeons, long and involved stories, real humor, real tragedy, and (of course) sexual content could be incorporated into traditional fantasy gaming. Even beyond that, 'serious' pursuits would have plenty of uses for an open source project of this nature. The project could be put to use for planning out cities, traffic flow patterns, and architectural innovations. A server software properly implemented with code for physics could serve as a collaborative environment for science students to perform impossible experiments. Perhaps most simply, distance learning would be a simple matter, as students assemble and navigate in a completely intuitive software environment.

The real question, of course, is if they can pull it off. I don't want to pass judgement, and I certainly hope for the best, but the odds would seem to be stacked against them. As always, commercial interests will likely reign, and Nevrax will attempt to salvage as much as they can from the situation. It's intriguing, though, to think of what this concept may mean when paired with a recent ruling by the Librarian of Congress. Among the six new exemptions approved by James H. Billington, the right for gamers to use abandonware is most encouraging. Perhaps, a decade or more from now, fallen titles like Asheron's Call 2 or Earth and Beyond may become exempt under this concept, and players who remember what was will be able to recreate the days of yore on their own personal servers.

By the same token, I'd love to see well-developed but killed-in-the-cradle games released to open source communities by benevolent companies. The one that I'm specifically thinking of is Mythica, the norse fantasy title Microsoft purged when it decided it was no longer interested in MMOGs a few years ago. I'm not planning on holding my breath, but it's a nice thing to think about.

Really, what the possibility of an open source Ryzom represents is freedom. Freedom to try the untried, to tread where commercial games wouldn't want to tread and play in new and different ways. Only time will tell whether the FRC manages to pull this off. Here and now it's great to be able to look off at the horizon and imagine what will be, with the concept of an open source MMOG firing the imagination all the way.

[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. ]

GameProFamily Piles On The Fictional Kids

- We covered this briefly on Gama last week, but GamePro just put out a new press release, keying off the just-released Video Game Report Card to urge parents to read GameProFamily.com.

As explained by MediaPost: "The centerpiece of the site is a multi-author blog featuring a "simulated family unit," with "mother" and "father" characters to offer perspectives on whether particular games are appropriate for children. The site also features a child character to advocate on behalf of the game."

Now, at the root of this (a family-related info site about games) there's certainly some good ideas - after all, GamerDad has been doing a great job on this subject for a while now. But there's a number of weird/odd things about the site, but conceptually and in execution, that the IDG folks really need to have a think about.

For one, although the 'Dad' rating is provided by longtime IDG-er and father Wes Nihei, and the 'Mom' rating by newly recruited mother Ellen Mulholland, but there's actually a 'Kids Pitch', which is apparently fictional and consists of the kid trying to persuade you (the reader?) to let him play the game, no matter what its rating is.

So for example, for Scarface, the best-selling and decidely M-rated game, the parents are clear (and actually kinda judgmental about even allowing violence in M-rated games, I think): "If don't want your child learning vicariously how to build a drug empire and experiencing violence as power, don't buy this game."

But the 'Kids Pitch' is as follows: "This game is based on that cool movie I saw on TV where you are this Latin guy who takes over a city. There are a lot of different activities to do, and you can drive cars and pilot boats, too. The game takes place in the 80's, and it's really fun to see the style and hear the sound of the times from 20 years ago. Scarface is like the gangster movie it's based on, but I think it looks really fun to try to rise to the top like Tony Montana." Guys - this is creepy! And what is a kid of indeterminate age doing watching Scarface on TV?

On that very subject, how old is the kid in question? Gama co-editor Brandon Boyer says: "Not a day over 10, judging by the header image". But, you know - I would have very different advice based on whether a child was 7, 11, or 15, for example - and the guide just seems to be 'for children'.

As an example, the comments for Tony Hawk's Project 8 explain that, even though there are "a few over-the-top moments like human bowling and the crude joke here and there", it's green light rated as 'Safe For Kids' by GamePro, despite being T rated for: "Strong Language , Suggestive Themes , Mild Violence", with an ESRB rating suggesting it's "content suitable for persons ages 13 and older".

So, i call shenanigans. I know GameProFamily can't just duplicate ESRB advice, but I don't see what useful information it's providing in the slightest - in fact, it seems to be downright insulting about games that _aren't rated for kids_ at the top end, and overly forgiving of T-style games (or not, depending on whether the fictional kid is 7 or 15!) in the middle. More thought on this process, please.

Want Wii Or PS3? Forget It, Play Game Wave!

- Nobody else is running with this story - and we don't know why! Here goes with the official PR release we got: "Newscasts have covered it, newspapers have written about it and photo desks have gone ga-ga over the big PS3 and Wii line-ups at local retailers. But, what about the other readily available alternatives that provide equal game value and come with a lower price tag?"

Where? Who? Why? "Take ZAPiT Games’ GAME WAVE for example. A new DVD entertainment system that interacts with up to six color-coded remote controls and allows for a big group to play together and against each other – all within the same room and at the same time. The GAME WAVE is the next-generation DVD board game experience – it combines the DVD technology and the richness of multimedia components with the traditional board game principle. Each player gets a remote (zapper) and no more waiting for their turns."

"The new twist on this DVD entertainment system is that families and friends actually come together, share a few laughs and INTERACT with each other. It restores the social dimension of video games. Game titles are stimulating to the brain – everything from trivia titles to word games that provide up to 25 hours of non-repeat fun each. And the price tag? A mere $99 for the console and $25 for the titles…and the GAME WAVE is also a regular DVD player." Yep, the future of gaming is color-coded TV remote controls - and don't you forget it!

Weird Worlds Gets Weirder, Moddier

- Wow, we really haven't done a post about Weird Worlds in a little while - so it's good to see that innovative PC indie 'short game', which really does go about things in a very individualistic way, get a new upgrade.

It's explained: "Besides dozens of new things, tweaks and fixes --including many new features and commands for modders-- the Weird Worlds v1.2 upgrade adds another rare "main quest" (there are three main quests possible now) featuring a new disgusting alien race with challenging (and cool) new ship types. It also adds a powerful new Urluquai capital ship to the game."

But also (and I love niche mods, so this is great!): "Of special note to modders: For information about modding Weird Worlds, including the v1.2 changes and new commands, visit the The Modmaker's Guide to the Galaxy website. It's just been updated and all of the Weird Worlds modmaking goodness is there, including complete tutorials, example downloads and forum links."

Inside GameTap's UI Design

- Knowing my predilection for things GameTap, I got a nice note from the folks behind 'Angled Whiteboards', described as "a blog about designing GameTap and all the fun stuff we uncover along the way."

It also came with a brief explanation from 'xamount', the chap in question: "My fellow UX designer and I just started up a non-Turner-sponsored, unofficial blog about designing GameTap called Angled Whiteboards. The main content centers around our design process, but we throw in the random gaming and other related stuff along the way."

There's some cool stuff about usability in here, from discussions on how to design a 'Challenge' screen for the service, all the way to how GameTap's IM functionality was integrated - all with actual design pictures from actual whiteboards. This seems selfless rather than promotional, and so for sharing such knowledge, GSW salutes thee!

November 29, 2006

What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed

- I just had to include a small post about a new surreal freeware graphic adventure, as cannily spotted over at IndyGamer, because, well, it's called 'What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed'.

If that isn't the best game name this year, I'll eat my jaunty pirate hat. It uses two halves of the screen to display different points of view all the way through the game, and the official page for the game reveals: "Unique dual story gameplay... Multiple Endings... English and Japanese Language... Loads of graphical effects... Gods, aliens, samurai, and Charlton Heston." Oo, Heston!

Another extremely neat thing: 'Add your name to the online Hall of Completion': so after you managed to complete the game, you can enter your name onto the website. Only a grand total of 5 people, including one-time GSW columnist Dessgeega, have managed it so far, so you'd better get cracking, eh?

JVL's Retro Takes Arcade Gaming To The '50s

- Groovy, baby! RetroBlast! has a handy post up pointing to the announcement of the JVL Retro countertop, which brings the arcade game community back to the future!

The RetroBlast guys note: "The design of this unit is really something else and when I say it's retro, I mean that in a late 30's early 40's sort of way. This thing would have been retro when most of us were still watching the Dukes of Hazzard on Saturday night." Wow, that really takes us back (not very far!)

Apparently: "While the styling is superbly classic, the innards are all business. The unit sports a 17" LCD monitor and multicolor perimeter lighting with 145 games available. The unit can also be used with the Touch Tunes service for your jukebox needs." And most importantly, it plays PuzzLoop/Zuma clones!

Inside The Burgerman-Extended Game On! Exhibit

- We've previously run items on the Game On video game exhibition, which has been everywhere from San Joe to Chicago and Seattle in recent months, and has now wended its way back to the Science Museum in London.

We've shown lots of pictures of this before, but the new version has some great new wall friezes from Jon Burgerman, whom we've previously covered his European-exclusive add-on tracks for PSP game Wipeout Pure - and blogger GagaMan has a big gallery of pics from the exhibit.

He noted of the exhibit: "There was more that just button bashing and joystick wiggling to be had, though. There was also artwork all other the place, with the star of the show being all these wall paintings by an illustrator who goes by the name of Jon Bugerman, including a loooong video game history time line.Also featured were pieces of original artwork by the creators of Mario and Sonic, cels and production art from Don Bluth's Dragon's lair, and concept art from the likes of Monkey Island, Jak + Daxter and the Sims." It's on 'til Feb. 25th 2007 in the UK, so go peep it if you get a chance! [Via The Dreamcast Junkyard.]

Dungeon Master Gets Some Much-Warranted Love

- Matt Barton at Armchair Arcade seems to be somewhat on my wavelength, and in his latest post, he deconstructs FTL's awesome dungeon crawler, 'Dungeon Master', which was "released in 1987 for the Atari ST and a year later for the Amiga."

Firstly, Barton notes: "One thing I can definitely say about Dungeon Master is that it remains quite playable even in 2006. This is one of those rare titles that can really get its hooks into you. At first, the game is only just interesting enough to keep you playing for a few more minutes--the old, "just a bit more, then I'll go do something else" vibe. However, once you start leveling up and getting a feel for how the game works, you're in the for the long haul."

Barton concludes: "In the end, what's so impressive about Dungeon Master is what's relatively unimpressive about the many CRPGs that follow it--they've barely innovated on the paradigm set by FTL in 1987! Indeed, I've seen plenty of modern games fall short of the standard set by Dungeon Master (Ruins of Myth Drannor, anyone?). Although it's not without its flaws, a CRPG designer could do worse than to carefully study FTL's interface." The game was, and is awesome.

The Best Worst Ads Returns Returns

- We may or may not have linked the first two of these, but damn it, we're linking the third one, too - 1UP's latest feature is 'The Best Worst Ads Part 2', subtitled 'The Ads Fight Back From The Grave', and this time takes on PC game mag horrors.

It's explained, handily: "There's always a little guilt that goes along with digging up really awful adverts and poking fun at them. There are just so many, and they're all so ridiculous. It's not even shooting fish in a barrel. It's like dynamiting frogs in a Dixie cup. Thankfully, when they're bloodsucking frogs that want our money, it's not hard to make way for that animal torturing twelve year old who lives in all of us."

What's more: "Where our first installment focused on EGM ads of the late 80s, and our second installment on EGM ads of the early 90s, this time we raided the Games For Windows vaults for late 90s issues of Ye Olde Computar Gaminge Wyrld. The result? Even more insanity." Yes, all life, including Daikatana, is here.

November 28, 2006

The Escapist Takes On Microsoft, Survives

- Hey, look, it's another issue of the sometimes neglected, always lovable The Escapist Magazine, and this time, it's all about Microsoft - so we must relate what they state below:

"When Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft in 1975, they spawned what would become the leading manufacturer and developer of PC-based software in the world. Along with developing operating systems and productivity software, Microsoft has steadily moved to the forefront of both PC and console gaming. The Escapist dives inside the belly of the beast and comes out with Issue 73: “Microsoft: the Xmen.”"

What's in it? "Russ Pitts outlines Microsoft’s purchasing power and the footprint they are leaving on gaming in “From Borg to Boss: Gaming with Microsoft.” Contributor Dean Takahashi highlights how great timing and market positioning is benefiting the Xbox 360 in “Turning the Table: Microsoft’s Second Chance Console.” In “Number of the Beast: FASA, Microsoft, and ARGs,” Shannon Drake chronicles Jordan Weisman’s journey in the gaming industry. Spanner explores Microsoft’s use of psychologists in game development in “The Perception Engineers.” And Mur Lafferty informs us of how Microsoft is blogging “ex machina” in “I Have No Mouth and I Must Blog.”" Seems pretty interesting to us.

IGDA's ARG White Paper Published

- Over at Clickable Culture, Tony is kind enough to point out that: "The International Game Developers Association's special-interest group on ARGs has published its first white paper about the Alternate Reality game-form, after 8 months of work and hundreds of revisions."

From the paper: "The ARG industry is consistently producing multi-million-dollar games for tens of thousands of players at a time, and generating interest across the entertainment, broadcast, and advertising industries... Although new to many people, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are still far short of achieving their full potential, each new wave of games bringing major new innovations and increased understanding of what works and what doesn't."

ARGs continue to be a fascinating hybrid of real-life, websites, and interactive games of various kinds - although some people like hearing about them just as much as participating in them - not that this is bad? (Pictured: EDOC Laundry's recent appearance on CSI, a sure sign of buzz!)

Snack Dash... The Hedgehog!

- Thanks to GSW columnist JamesD for pointing us to an interesting Flash 'serious game' that's also just a little bit of a rip-off of a famous Sega title - but hey, since it teaches you to eat healthily at school, it must be OK, right?

James says (hope he doesn't mind the quote!): "[The game is] Snack Dash, brought to you by the UK's Department for Education and Skills. It's basically Sonic the Hedgehog (down to the minute details - you can spin while running, and you drop collected items just like Sonic) coupled with Metal Slug 3's fat mode - eat too much and you can't run anymore unless you do pushups."

He also notes sagely: "It makes a nice followup to the Gamasutra article on ripping off Japan [here's the GSW follow-up on that!], but given the high profile of the franchise it seems pretty foolish. Plays pretty well for Flash, though!" That it does! Seems a little odd that the developers went to all that trouble and didn't try to vary the gameplay really at all - I guess that's one way to get guaranteed playability, though?

Do You F.E.A.R. I.K.E.A.?

- The rather fun game theorist Matteo Bittanti has been experimenting with PlanetWide Media's Comic Book Creator - a wacky application that allows you to create 'gamics' - comics using video game screenshots, basically.

Bittanti reveals: "For my first experiments, I decided to cut-and-paste various popular artifacts. "F.E.A.R. I.K.E.A." (Download FearIkea.pdf) combines the fetish for IKEA's catalog with Monolith's awesome FPS. "CRASH" (Download crash.pdf) is what happens when you play too much Burnout while reading JG Ballard's stories; "WAR/GAMES" is about the ideology of games (Download WarAndGames.pdf), while "SIM-BAUDRILLARD" (Download SimBaudrillard.pdf) is about... well, you get the drift, right?" We particularly like F.E.A.R. I.K.E.A., but Sim Baudrillard (pictured!) is also spicy.

[A side note - Comic Book Creator, uhh, creator PlanetWide Media recently renamed to avoid any video game mention in their name at all - I'm guessing their previously announced MMOs have pretty much officially crashed and burned. Shame - an extreme sports MMO kinda sounded like a good idea. Kinda. Also, we have a printout from a RYL Hollywood party (which we didn't go to!) here in the Gama offices with Pauly Shore holding up a RYL retail box. Yeah, it's that kinda company.]

Reminder: NYC Geeks, Blip Out To The Blip Festival

- When it was originally announced, we ran a frenzied little news post on it, but there's no time like the present to re-remind you - New York City's Blip Festival, a celebration of chiptunes and retro bleep game-style music, is on Thursday, November 30 through Sunday, December 3.

The schedule for BlipFest is up on the official site, and the audio/visual line-ups looks unparalleled in the history of chiptunes - go visit 8BitPeoples for free downloads from a bunch of the musicians attending, if you haven't already. Wow, and Neil Voss, he of Tetrisphere N64 soundtrack cult fame, is doing a super-rare live set. You really should attend the event if you're anywhere near NY, for the love of all that is holy.

In addition, the Village Voice has just written up a preview of the event, explaining it rather neatly for the neophyte: "As cute as the source material may be, the music itself manages to transcend retrograde kitsch. Using custom-designed cartridges and programs to work the outdated sound cards and interfaces for all they're worth, these musicians graft chunky blocks of melody and low-tech programmed percussion onto recognizable songforms, effecting a diversity most wouldn't think possible with the gear's spare palette. [Performers range from] from Bubblyfish's moody melodies to Raboto's acid-techno-inspired Game Boy squelches or the propulsive melodic bounce of Nullsleep."

November 27, 2006

Strawberry Shortcake's Dance Dance Revolution!

- Forget about the Wii selling 8 billion thousand, here's the important news for the day - Konami and Majesco have released a Strawberry Shortcake Dance Dance Revolution 'TV game', allowing crazy people to plug a DDR mat straight into a TV for dancing happy fun.

It's explained: "Shipping after the recently released Strawberry Shortcake The Sweet Dreams Movie, the new DDR product leverages the current popularity and high awareness of the Strawberry Shortcake property. As a Plug'N'Play product, Strawberry Shortcake Dance Dance Revolution plugs directly into a television set without a game console, delivering a fun, interactive experience on a custom Strawberry Shortcake dance pad."

But that's not all: "Featured characters include Strawberry Shortcake, Blueberry Muffin, Raspberry Torte, Lemon Meringue and Rainbow Sherbet dancing along with themed music such as "Straw-Buh-Buh-Buh-Buh-Berry Shortcake" and nine other songs." I'm wondering how Penny Arcade are going to feel about this, and grinning in anticipation!

COLUMN: Green And Black Attack - Donkey Kong '94

dk0.gif['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 lionize Nintendo's winning reimagining of an arcade classic, 1994's Donkey Kong.]

If you've been keeping one horrified eye on Sega's latest Sonic the Hedgehog cash teat, you might have noticed the increasingly rubbery hero dashing around with a new girlfriend... a very human new girlfriend. While this isn't the first time interspecies lust has turned up in a platform game, it's a lot more consensual than Shigeru Miyamoto's 1981 design debut Donkey Kong, which saw Mario launch his gaming career and lo\ose his girlfriend to a big ape. Donkey Kong 94 is a Game Boy remake of that game... for a few levels at least.

Monkey Magic

Chances are that even if you've only ever heard of Donkey Kong, you've got a great idea how the original arcade cabinet played: man loves woman, his pet ape gets envious and abducts her to a building site, man has to jump over a barrage of industrial debris in order to spank that chimp and win back the hand of his lady love. The game shows its age today, with stiff controls, a mere four screens of gameplay and punishing mechanics (even the tiniest of falls will break Mario like a cheap pencil), but Miyamoto's knack for instilling child-like glee shines through in every pixel and resonates with the every note of the excellently warbly sound track.

In a developing market inured to context-free shooting marathons, the game broke considerable amounts of new ground in terms of narrative and characterization, and will be shamelessly mined for its concepts until the sun expands and burns up the Earth like a big blue match head. That won't happen for billions of years!

[Clcik through for more!]

dk1.gifDonkey Kong had been ported before - to the Famicom, to most pre-NES game consoles in the West and to literally every microcomputer format under the sun - but Donkey Kong 94 (or Donkey Kong GB, whatever your poison) is a different kind of port, and quite an important game in its own right. Developed immediately prior to the seminal Super Mario 64, DK 94 was sort of a 2D testbed for Mario's new 3D moves like the triple jump (performed here with a handstand and ending in a gymnastic pose) and the backflip (performed by reversing direction mid-run and hitting jump).

These moves make Mario a lot more endearing than the invincible, anodyne Super Mario of the Mushroom Kingdom games - indeed, this is a full-on throwback to his original identity as a working-class hero from Brooklyn. He did day labour to get by and dates an ordinary girl named Pauline. The game shines light on just how insufferable some of Mario's more fantastic friends are, without getting grim and gritty doing it.

I Wil Sue Ape Escape

Mario's more vulnerable, too - he can survive longer falls than his arcade counterpart, but depending on the height he falls from he'll either be forced to commando roll, get knocked out or land on his head and kill himself, each backed up with its own expressive little animation. There are more ways for him to die than ever before - fried to a crisp (Mario turns black before sprouting a halo), crushed (Mario floats to the ground, flattened to the thickness of paper) or picked up and beaten against the floor by Donkey Kong (pretty self explanatory). These are all handled really well and are the antithesis to Bubsy the Bobcat and his ilk's forced demises. Mario is the underdog, pushing his frail, tubby body to the limit in the name of love. I like this guy a lot better than the bumbling goof who hangs out with monarchy.

dk2.gifIf all that Nintendo had updated was Mario's skill set, this would simply be a more forgiving port of a venerable arcade game. Herein lies Miyamoto's genius - after aping arcade Donkey Kong to the best of the system's abilities for the four original levels, the game spins the concept on it's head and unfolds into something entirely new - a massive puzzle/platform hybrid taking in around 100 levels set over nine different locales.

Donkey Kong carries Pauline off through the streets of NYC, through Egypt, to the polar ice cap, across an aeroplane and more, before a final showdown looms at his giant supervillain tower of doom, resplendent with a carved image of his own monkey head. Mario trails tantalizingly close behind him at every step of the way, showcased in neat little Pac-Man Theatre-style cinemas that bridge every boss fight and the preceding level. In a cool Miyamoto touch, these demonstrate the skills you'll need to clear the next batch of stages, slowly building up the player's skill set without becoming overbearing.

Dunston Checks In

Standard levels don't follow the Donkey Kong standard, although people looking for something closer to the arcade game will find the boss stages reward enough to soldier through them (they follow every three standard levels and comprise the entirety of the last area). Instead, Mario has to clear small puzzles with very little scrolling involved. Some elements are borrowed from Super Mario Brothers USA (a.k.a. Super Mario Brothers 2, nee Doki Doki Panic) - Donkey Kong is hiding behind a lock, and Mario has to carry a key to it. Herein hangs a dynamic strong enough to sustain an entire game. Some enemies can be picked up and thrown, and some objects can be turned into projectiles, although this becomes less common as the game progresses.

dk3.gifLevel design is strong, and some levels will really stump you. A key feature is Mario's minor "editing" power over the gameworld: touching specific icons pauses the action and brings up a cursor, letting you place ladders, temporary platforms and springs. These don't last forever, and timing becomes ever more crucial the closer you move towards the end game. Other factors like switches, conveyor belts and destructible walls are slowly introduced, as well as environmental elements like wind.

One level might require you to drop the key on a belt and rush between switches to guide it to the next accessible area, complicated by a timer that respawns the key back to the start if left abandoned for too long, while another sees Mario leaping from a fatal height and having to hit edit panels in the right sequence to create the equipment that allows him to survive. Another still requires him to dodge a hail of fire from gun batteries as he rushes to get the key. It's really prime Nintendo stuff, where planning and platforming dexterity walk hand in hand. Later jungle levels incorporate strong elements of Donkey Kong Junior, although Donkey Kong 3's gameplay mechanic of "continuous application of bugspray to [Donkey Kong's] bottom" is criminally excluded (thanks for the awesome quote, Wikipedia).

Guerillas In Tha Mist

Visually the game is amazingly coherent. The graphics walk a fine line between detail (traditionally something that lead to blurry LCD messes on the system) and tiny Game Boy design.The result is something that recalls the goofy charm of the old Game and Watch backgrounds and characters while still going easy on the eyestrain. Better yet, the game was fully integrated with Nintendo's Super Game Boy converter, allowing it to be played on the SNES with a border simulating the original Donkey Kong bezel and an improved palette. The depth of the title makes it ideal to be played in this way, while the short levels and measured save points make it an equally ideal handheld title. Music design is mostly taken from the original arcade machine's spot effects and metronomic beat, though some select later levels feature surprisingly pumping C64 style chiptunes.

dk4.gifThis game is something really, really special - a well crafted and comprehensive experience with a lot of heart, certainly one of the greatest games available for the system. Nintendo attempted to revisit the franchise recently with a Game Boy Advance sequel, Mario vs Donkey Kong (after an abortive first attempt, a port by the name of Donkey Kong Plus that was intended to be connected to the Gamecube for designing new levels), but fouled up much of what made the game appealing and special by implementing ugly pre-rendered graphics. DS sequel Mario vs Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis moves even further away from the core gameplay, becoming a Lemmings-styled puzzle title. If you want the authentic experience, pick up something Game Boy compatible and grab the original - you'll thank me for it later.

[James Edwards is endlessly frustrated by the diagonal barrels and has no website to speak of. He currently writes "Green And Black Attack"for Game Set Watch and not much else.]

Stair Dismount's Live Action Tribute

- OK, bear with me on this one, because there's a train of thought going on. I was checking out the awesome Racing Pitch, where you control a car by making vrooming noises into your PC's microphone (!) for the IGF - this be the starting point.

Then I realized that the guys at Skinflake (mainly Jetro Lauha with friends, I think!) made Racing Pitch, but also did the awesome Stair Dismount, which was one of the first games to make ragdolling figures an integral part of the gameplay - and heck, is still one of the only ones. (I hope the Jackass game does something like that!)

Then I remembered there was some demo-scene video pastiche-ing Stair Dismount, but using real life people, and I found it on Google Video, so now I am showing it to you. The 'demo' for Assembly last year is called "Porrasturvat for Stairstation 360 Live Revolution", and it gets a bit samey, but the concept is rather marvellous - I also like that the credits reveal the 'correct' angles and forces to recreate the falls in the game, haw.

SPAG - Still Rootin' For Adventure Games!

- Blimey, poking around the Internet somewhere, I found SPAG, aka the Society for the Promotion Of Adventure Games, which is "...an informative e-zine designed primarily to keep the gaming public aware of text adventures and other types of interactive narrative available today. Most of the space is devoted to reviews."

This rocks because Issue 1 was released all the way back in 1994, and Issue 46 was published just last month - now that's devotion to the text adventure cause! Color ourselves impressed.

The latest issue, by way of example, reviews indie text adventure Attack Of The Yeti Robot Zombies, of which it's opined: " Right from the title we know the game doesn't take itself very seriously. The premise never gets any deeper than that; the setting is cartoonish; there's not much to the story, either. So while I was engaged with the technical challenge of getting through in a single play, I never felt that the stakes were very high if I failed."

@ Play: Hack Hacks

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.]

/dev/null's annual Nethack tournament is, as I type this, winding its way towards concluding another successful year. While there have not been a good many surprises this time out (Christian "marvin" Bressler has already won Best of 13 again), there has been a fairly substantial surprise in the game itself.

One of the things that Nethack makes possible, and /dev/null takes advantage of in their contests, is for game administrators to provide customized games for their players. The level description files that Nethack uses to generate levels are separate from the game executable, and can be compiled separately from the main game without even invalidating old saves. The source code itself is also open, freely available on nethack.org, which over the years has made possible Nethack's handful of variants, including Slash'EM. One might think that a game in which all its secrets are laid bare in the source code would provide no surprises for a player, and it is true that the source itself is the primary Nethack spoiler, but since the source is not always easy to read, and much of the game is randomly generated anyway, this doesn't tend to ruin the game. (In fact, if anything, only spoiled players ever seem to win at Nethack....)

So what /dev/null has done is implement a "challenge," a patch to the game that is added each year to the source of their version of the game to mix the game up for long-time players. (There is an option to play without it as well.) This was begun last year, with an appropriately far-reaching mood set by asking players to go over to popular webgame Kingdom of Loathing, which includes a special theme area as an homage to Nethack, and complete a quest there. This year's challenge is entirely in-game, adding new monsters and items and a special procedure to be undergone concerning them.

[Click through for more.]

Nethack patches are fairly numerous in general. Angband, Nethack's primary competitor for the position of most popular roguelike, is also open-source but its patchableness, combined with the relatively easy-to-understand code, has steered starry-eyed modders more towards the creation of new variants than just adding stuff to the core game. Nethack, on the other hand, has a notoriously twisty codebase with all kinds of gotchas waiting to pounce upon a untutored programmer, making the creation of full-fledged variants quite difficult for players without an encyclopedic knowledge of both the source and the C programming language, and its play has more unique character than Angband's anyway, so most patch authors content themselves with adding a minor feature or two.

Many of these patches can be obtained from the Nethack Patch Database, a website that catalogues and makes these source patches available for download. Compiling them into the game can be an adventure to itself, especially with some patches that have not been updated since older versions, but for those stout of heart enough to see them through their compilation are rewarded with some fairly radical changes to the play.

Among the the more promising patches out there, are:

Color Alchemy

A relatively recent addition to Nethack's formidable feature set is alchemy, which is implemented in the game by dipping one potion into another. It used to be that the result from such a combination was completely random, with a good chance of an explosion. More recently, a system has been implemented by which particular kinds of potions mixed into others would tend to make the same result. For example, mixing Healing and Gain Energy together yields Extra Healing.

The details of Nethack's alchemy system, as many other aspects of the game, can be learned at the Nethack Wiki, but that doesn't concern us at the moment. Color Alchemy discards that system entirely and replaces it with quite a nifty little idea: that mixing potions should produce results depending on the colors of the input potions more than their types.

Under the Color Alchemy patch, if you mix a potion of a red hue with a yellow one, the result will be orange. To elaborate: if you mix a potion type whose description is a red color with a potion type whose description is yellow, you will get out of it a potion whose description is orange.

This is a fairly ingenious change to the game. Under the old system, once you know what certain potions are, you can fairly consistently create certain other potions, but those mixtures do not change between games, and some of these potions, such as Full Healing and Gain Level, are highly desired. Since potion descriptions are randomized at the start of the game, playing with the Color Alchemy patch means entirely different combinations on every play. One game may have highly useful potion mixture combinations, another may have all valuable types combine to make crappy ones. It is possible for extremely useful mixtures to result from this, like two common potions mixing to produce Gain Level, but in the end the results balance out, since it would be fairly unlikely to happen, the player will have to have learned what the potions are to get real use out of this which implies the player has survived the early game, and in the long run level gain creates problems as it solves others, so it is a fairly well-thought-out change to the game.

Further, there is something intrinsically Nethackish about using a logical aspect of potion descriptions as the basis for mixing them. In a game where players can rustproof armor by reading a scroll of Enchant Armor while confused, color-based potion mixing fits right in. Because of this, this patch is considered by some to have a good chance of being incorporated into the next version of the game... but the ways of the Devteam are mysterious, and one can never speak for sure as to what they plan to do with the game in the next version.


Enhanced Artifacts

For all its wonders, there are also a fair number of head-scratching things about Nethack. One of the most scalp-tingling of these is the game's collection of practically-useless artifacts.

A Nethack artifact, to explain once more, is an unique, named object that carries special properties above the typical example of its class. Most of them are weapons, and some are quite nice to have in your hands. Many games have been won by players wielding the likes of Greyswandir or Excalibur. However, there are at least as many "useless" artifacts in the game, which few knowledgeable players would bother carrying around. Most of these are in a category termed the "Banes," a number of artifact weapons that grant attack bonuses against one class of monster and nothing else. Against monsters that are not dragons, Dragonbane is no different from an ordinary longsword. For a weapon of such superlative quality that only one of it exists in the world, this is something of a letdown.

Even this would not be so bad if the actual bonus was something so tremendous that it could, say, slay monsters of its class with a single blow, but this is not the case. One might think that a weapon whose specialty was the destruction of a particular species would at least be so powerful against it that it would be the obvious choice in such an encounter, but even against dragons, Dragonbane is nothing to write home about. Neither is Trollsbane all that useful against trolls, nor Werebane against lycanthropes, nor Ogresmasher against ogres. Bane longsword weapons, in particular, are outclassed against any foe by the headliners in that weapon category: Frost Brand, Excalibur, and Fire Brand. Even Vorpal Blade, which has a 5% chance of beheading foes but otherwise has a pitiful bonus, is better than Dragonbane. Further, most Banes can be made obsolete by a single blessed scroll of genocide, which may be rare but are far from unique.

What the Enhanced Artifacts patch does is take some of the less useful of these weapons and add extra powers to them. This usually takes the form of extra damage (especially in the case of Vorpal Blade and the Tsurugi of Muramasa), but the Bane weapons in particular have been focused on, granting them a substantial boost in to-hit and damage against their enemy races and giving them powers in addition to their normal weaponly function. Trollsbane grants regeneration and prevents trolls from coming back from the dead (again and again, dammit), while Dragonbane grants reflection, eliminating all threat from dragon breath and wand attacks at once.

The essence of game design is to provide the player interesting decisions to make, but a decision in which there are choices that are obviously good or bad is not a real decision. No player who knows what he is doing will choose Trollsbane over Frost Brand. Ultimately, what the Enhanced Artifacts patch really does is remove a little of the surety behind that decision, and that makes for a stronger game.

Biodiversity

Nethack is a game known for the size of its bestiary. It contains hundreds of vicious foes, most of them with far more, um, personality than that of a garden-variety RPG. Nethack has monsters that quickly kill those unwise in dealing with them (giant eels), monsters that drain experience levels (vampires), monsters that cause amnesia (mind flayers), monsters whose corpses can be used as weapons themselves (cockatrices), monsters who can provide special armor (dragons), monsters who steal money (leprechauns) and items (nymphs), and even monsters who, properly approached, can help the player (succubi/incubi and nurses), and that's just scratching the surface.

But the thing about variety is, it never seems like there is quite enough of it. Even with all its wonders, there eventually comes a time in most players' hacking careers that the basic catalog of monsters begins to seem kind of boring. This is one of the primary reasons people play Slash'EM, the Nethack variant most likely to cause insanity: while Nethack merely appears to go overboard in every respect, Slash'EM truly does so.

But there is perhaps a middle ground between "considerably" and "absurdly" loaded with monsters, and that ground may well be occupied by the Biodiversity patch, which adds a number of new foes to the game, including one that fixes shoes, one that disintegrates objects with a touch, and even one that changes mazes. In a game that contains Keystone Kops (and used to have the Three Stooges) this may not seem like a big deal, but at least most of the added foes fall into the "monster has special unique powers" category, instead of the "monster has hit dice, three attacks and fire resistance" one, like, say, every monster in Angband.


Grudge

One of the older modifications for the current version of the game is the Grudge Patch, which takes one of Nethack's central features, the core concept behind pets and rings of conflict, the idea that monsters can sometimes hit other monsters instead of the player, and runs with it. Simply, Grudge gives certain monsters a greater priority in their lives than killing that particular @-symbol who happens to be traipsing through the maze at that moment. All you people who sat and thought unkind things about a game in which elves happily attack the player alongside orcs, your nerdly objection has been heard!


Pet Ranged Attack

The thing that most people know about Nethack, if they know anything about it at all, is that players begin with a pet, a little dog or a kitten (or sometimes, in recent versions, a pony). This pet will often not last long in the dungeon, but that's okay as a canny player can acquire a new one, can in fact build an army of loyal lackeys to tackle the dungeon for him.

A pet is a monster that fights for, rather than against, the player. But there are more differences than that. Pets can steal from shops, provide hints as to what is safe to eat, and help identify cursed objects. Pets can also grow hungry over time, which untamed monsters do not, and the player is punished, sometimes harshly, for not treating his minions with the proper respect.

Many Nethack patches, as we have seen, get their inspiration from fixing some of what are perceived as the more lacking aspects of the game. One can't help but think each of them occurred because the patch author once had a game in which he was bitten by the lack of the expected behavior. The oversight the Pet Ranged Attack patch corrects is the fact that, when a monster becomes tamed by the player, it seems to suddenly forget how to fire missile weapons, use its breath weapons or cast magic. The great majority of Nethack's non-human monsters can be tamed, but this situational memory condition makes some of the most powerful of the lot, liches and dragons in particular, tragically ineffectual once they start working for the player.

When playing a game with the Pet Ranged Attack patch applied, pets will attempt to use distance attacks, including beam-attacks like rays and breath, against the player's foes. They will even make an effort not to harm the player with these blasts. However, since ray attacks may carom off walls and sometimes take random bounces, one should keep in mind that having a pet Black Dragon while not having a reflective shield, amulet or suit of armor is a recipe for disaster.

New Bigrooms, New Castles, New Medusa Lairs, New Sokoban Levels

Bigrooms occur on a certain range of levels, relatively early in the dungeon, and are, as the name implies, made of one gigantic room without things like sight barriers or corridors to impede the monsters from merrily sidling up next to you and whacking you to the extend of their joyous monster heart's desire. Nethack Bigrooms are implemented as semi-hardcoded levels with predefined layouts and some randomized aspects, such as monster types and stair locations. When one appears (only in a small percentage of games), it is chosen from one of a number of pre-made layouts, but they are all generally wide-open and easy to get surrounded in.

The Castle appears fairly deep underground, and mark the transition between the Dungeons of Doom and Gehennom, the two major halves of the game. Like Bigrooms, it is semi-hard-coded, although there is only one main Castle layout in basic Nethack. It always contains a drawbridge, pits leading to the next level instead of stairs, and a certain very powerful aid to the player's quest. It also has many particularly tough monsters, and it serves as the last major trial before the player can seriously undertake the search for the Amulet of Yendor.

The Medusa level is a few floors up from the Castle, and since it is mostly flooded the player usually needs a means of crossing water to proceed. There are two potential layouts to the Medusa level, but both of them have the gal herself standing on the downstairs, and special measures must be taken to prevent turning into a statue at the mere sight of her.

Sokoban is a dungeon branch relatively early in the game, accessed from a second set of up stairs found shortly after the Oracle level. Unlike most branches it leads up, not down, and always contains four levels. Sokoban levels are a bit less random than most, and contain a pre-written arrangement of boulders and pits. The level also has special rules patterned after its namesake game, which prevent boulders from being pushed diagonally, or getting past a pit unless it has been filled. Sokoban's layouts, consisting as they are of traditional box-pushing puzzles, are all pre-written, and each floor, of ascending difficulty, is chosen from one of two alternatives when it is first entered.

As for the patches themselves? They simply increase the number of possible layouts for these levels. The Sokoban patch is interesting since it adds 19 more possible puzzles to the 8 included in the game. The Castle patch adds variety to a level that formerly had fairly little, since in vanilla Nethack there is only one Castle layout.


Heck²

Excluding branches, there are three major sections of Nethack's dungeon. The one most players are familiar with is the Dungeons of Doom, which goes from the surface down to the Castle. Above the upstairs are the Planes, which make up the endgame and can only be accessed once the player has the Amulet of Yendor. After the Dungeons and before the Planes is Gehennom, which goes from the Valley of the Dead down to the bottom-most level, where the Amulet is kept.

The Dungeons of Doom are composed of rooms and connecting passages drawn between them. Gehennom, in contrast, is made up of a good number of mazes, with the occasional special level thrown in.

These mazes comprise that many consider to be the most boring portion of the game. A player who has reached them has probably cleared the Castle so he is not likely to be overwhelmed by monsters at this point, and the demons that infest Gehennom, while strong, are not much stronger than some of the monsters the player has likely already faced, like xorns and liches. Notably, most of the demon lords and princes in Gehennom are relative pushovers for an even slightly-prepared player. There is still the Wizard of Yendor to contend with, but it's some time before he shows up.

Meanwhile, as I said, most of these levels are mazes, and it usually takes much longer to explore a maze than a complex of rooms, while being less interesting to explore. There are no special rooms in the mazes, nor any altars, fountains or sinks. The stairs down might be two spaces away from the entrance, or they might be clear on the other side of the level. Along the way there is the usual mix of increasingly-pathetic monsters to slay, which becomes more and more just a formality as the player continues into the depths.

I explained a month ago that it is possible to teleport down many levels at once if the player is suitably prepared, yet the player cannot really skip the mazes: once the Amulet is obtained the player must escape with it, and player-initiated level teleport does not work while it is carried. It must be brought, from the lowest level, all the way back up to the top of the dungeon on foot, with the occasional random teleport down a few floors just to be frustrating, so a smart player has planned for this by mapping out all the levels ahead of time. This makes the formerly-useless scrolls of magic mapping nearly essential on the way back out of the dungeon. It also makes for a fairly tedious experience, as all those mazes do not have much variety to recommend them.

A number of patches have been created to address this perceived failing of the game. Slash'EM handles it by cutting out the mazes almost entirely, increasing the size of the main dungeon and making Gehennom more of a collection of special levels than a huge maze. It also gives all the unique demons their own special level, including rarely-seen special guest star Demogorgon, the deadliest monster in the game. The Lethe patch makes Gehennom more perilous by introducing rivers of amnesia-inducing water, as well as throwing in more special levels, many of them populated with a selection of Lovecraftian monsters.

Heck²'s solution to the problem is not to make Gehennom shorter, but to make it more interesting by throwing more special levels in to the mix. It comprises 42 special levels that can replace a substantial portion of Genhennom's random mazes. Some of the random possibilities include special levels for the guest demons, but there are plenty of other interesting possibilities, such as a one containing a small coven of amnesia-causing mind flayers, and a maze made up of Nethack's least-known terrain type, iron bars, which can be seen through but not passed.


While Nethack is open source, its official maintainers are not promiscuous about the contributions they accept. For all out patch inclusiveness there is Slash'EM, a game that contains automatic weapons (as in, machine guns), lightsabers, doppelgangers and vampires as a player races, special character abilities (some of which, it must be said, are incredibly geeky, like the Monk's Final Fantasy VI-inspired direction inputs to execute special moves) a load of new character classes and a couple additional legs to the main quest, among other additions. While it is at times disappointing that the Devteam seems to have become fairly conservative, not to mention slow, concerning the things they add to the game, for players who wish more there is always Slash'EM. And for those who would like to retain at least a few of their sanity points, there is the world of user-made patches.

November 26, 2006

Gamasutra Weekly Round-Up, Nov. 26th

- Once again, seems like a good opportunity to peruse interesting Gamasutra columns and news for this week (with a bonus feature link added, this time!). So let's do that, eh, since Gama is the big brother site we actually run to make a living and suchlike?

- Q&A: Nurve's LaMothe On The Hydra Console: "Nurve Networks has announced the Hydra Game Console, a multi-processor DIY 'edutainment platform' that plays classic game clones and is designed for budding console coders to program directly onto - we talk to Nurve's Andre LaMothe about this enterprising new educational console." This is wacky stuff!

- Playing Catch Up: Night Trap's Rob Fulop: "Today's Playing Catch-Up column talks to Imagic co-founder and co-creator of the infamous '90s FMV title Night Trap, Rob Fulop, who suggests that the controversy over the title "had nothing to do with the actual game, it was simply politics"." Hey, this got linked on GamePolitics, that was cool!

- FBI, NCSoft Close Down Unauthorized Lineage II Servers: "FBI agents, working in conjunction with officials from MMO firm NCsoft, have closed down L2Extreme, a free website alleged to be providing "fraudulent service" by running unauthorized Lineage II servers. [UPDATE: Comments added from the FBI agent assigned to the case.]" As people at work will attest, I was very excited to talk to the FBI this week - possibly too excited. I did promise him that I wouldn't print his phone number, though.

- Converging: An Interview With Henry Jenkins: "In this extensive Gamasutra interview, we talk with MIT professor and author Henry Jenkins on the 'games as art' debate, Second Life's contribution to participatory culture, and how games are like bits of fur and silk in our desk drawers." Gonna link this cos it debuted on Thanksgiving, so you'd better not have missed it!

There's also a bunch of other fun stuff, particularly in the Gamasutra features, but just go poke around a bit, we know you round here, we won't give you the hard sell!

Why Are There No Prestige Games?

- Over on his blog, Manifesto Games' Greg Costikyan has a very interesting post called 'Why Are There No Prestige Games?', which raises a number of questions - which I will now ramble upon at length.

After referencing games like Clover Studios' Okami and Doublefine's Psychonauts, Costikyan references alleged comparisons in the film and book industries, and concludes: "Wouldn't we all--the industry and gamers alike--be better served by businesses which understand that, sure, the bottom line is the end game--but that there are multiple routes to the goal, and that sales alone are not the sole measure of a game's value?"

A couple of comments on this. Firstly, as I mention in the comments, Psychonauts ended up costing a pretty spectacular $14 million, which makes it the equivalent of a big-budget action flick at current-gen prices. But more to the point - I don't think it was pegged as a 'prestige' project, and nor was Okami. They're simply games that aspired to make money, didn't, and ended up having creative leanings that make them beloved at a later date. And that's true of a lot of cinematic classics, too.

More to the point, I don't think that publishers necessarily derive corporate goodwill from releasing games that may not be entirely commercial, at this point - people differentiate the developer from the publishing entity. So in pure hard profit terms, I just don't think the concept of 'prestige titles' exists. Companies have to plan to make a profit on each game they make.

Having said that, though, I think that services such as Xbox Live Arcade present a great opportunity, on the much lower end of the development budget, to make 'prestige' and riskier projects. Right now it appears pretty easy to sell 50,000 copies of a new $10 game on Xbox Live Arcade, which is about $250,000 going back to the developer. So if you can spend less than that on the game, and perhaps also release it on PC, then there's a definite opportunity - but right now, only for 3 or 4 person developers. But as the big aggregators grow for indie games (and they will!), we've got plenty to look forward to.

Hopefully the PS3 and Wii download services will work the same way, in time, as well as some bigger PC aggregators for non-casual or borderline-casual titles - and I honestly believe that we're entering a golden age of indiedom this way, not by big publishers trying to derive some kind of overall halo from funding loss-leading 'prestige' titles. (Even the arthouse divisions of major movie studios tend to make money by having a very few breakout hits and overall low development costs, as I understand it. Major console titles like Psychonauts and Okami are just too complex and expensive to work under that model.)

GameSetScans: Marvel's Marvel-ous Early '90s Video Games

[I recently got an Epson scanner, and you'll see a random collection of paper-based ephemera (much of it not game related!) on my personal Pop Cult Scan Fun weblog. But I'll be reposting the game-related stuff here, and here's another example.]

There's morer new potential scans to put up soon - they're piling up on top of my scanner as we speak - but here's something fun from a 1993 issue of Marvel in-house promo comic Marvel Age which relates to both comics and video games.

Specifically, it's a two page article about how Marvel's comic book characters were flowing freely (often without much quality control!) onto the Sega Genesis, Nintendo Game Boy and SNES, and even the Sega Game Gear back in the early '90s - but it starts off with pre-release info on Capcom's 'Punisher/Nick Fury coin-op video game' for arcades.

    

There's a couple of interesting points for extreme video game geeks here - not least that the CPS2 title was eventually released as The Punisher, even though it still has Nick Fury in it too - presumably the name was changed to focus on the one, more famous character. You can also see the full, larger version of the Henry Flint art used for the arcade machine's header title art.

On the second page, there's discussion of the "rapidly expanding CD-ROM field", with pictures from The Amazing Spider-Man Vs. The Kingpin for Sega CD, which was indeed released: "The game also added two new levels, extra combat moves, the ability to collect reproductions of famous Spider-Man comic books issues, and an original musical score by the Mr. Big rock band." Woo!

There's also mention of an Acclaim version of Spider-Man for the Game Boy (which may be 'Invasion Of The Spider-Slayers on the Wikipedia list, I think?), and the U.S. Gold iteration of The Incredible Hulk for the Genesis - both of which were typically mundane cartridge-based superhero titles, I'm afraid. Still, The Punisher is pretty good!

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Wurm

Disclaimer: the pink dinosaur is Asmik's mascot and does not appear in Wurm. So don't get your hopes up.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Asmik and Sofel's Wurm, released in 1991 for the Nintendo Entertainment System.]

Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth belongs to that oft-ignored subset of NES games that try to be several different things at once. There’s a reason this field is oft-ignored: from The Adventures of Bayou Billy to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, most multi-genre NES titles are tepid and clumsy. But that didn't stop Wurm from trying.

In the purest sense, Wurm began with Vic Tokai’s Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode. A 1988 NES adaptation of Takao Saito’s manga, Golgo 13 mixed side-scrolling action with first-person shooting and several other play styles in a decidedly awkward manner (indeed, the game’s now remembered mostly for slipping a sex scene past Nintendo’s censors). The following year, two Vic Tokai developers, Hiroshi Kazama and Shouichi Yoshikawa, declined to work on the next Golgo title, The Mafat Conspiracy, and instead turned to a lesser-known publisher called Sofel. There, they set to work on a genre-mixing game that was entirely their own. Wurm was that game.

[Click through for more!]

In their attempt at something original, Kazama and Yoshikawa came up with an odd mix of 1950s pulp science fiction, 1970s anime shows, and the hollow-earth theories of scientist and possible lunatic Marshall B. Gardner. In Wurm’s near-future scenario, four VZR drilling machines and their crews have vanished while on expeditions beneath the Earth’s crust, leaving only the VZR-5 and its captain, a willful, green-haired woman with the unflattering name of Moby, to search for them. While her father and numerous friends are among the missing, Moby stays true to her vacuous anime-heroine inspiration by fretting the most about her fiancé, a lost VZR crewman with the even less flattering name of Ziggy. She also dresses like the original Metroid's Samus Aran, minus the armor.

I still think it's better than Gradius. Less Sniping, More Drilling

Much like Golgo 13, each of Wurm’s five chapters spans several different genres. Most common are the shooter stages, which shuttle the VZR-5 (and later, the VZR-4) through horizontally-scrolling areas and the occasional vertical challenge. Both involve fairly repetitive enemies and scenery, but there’s a steady progression in the weapons the VZR-5 can use and the forms it can take. And even though players are often at the mercy of the ship’s constantly depleting power gauge and over-sensitive controls, the shooter levels remain the game’s least irritating segments, as well as its least memorable ones.

After the initial shooter stage, the game reveals its oddest attempt at a new form of gameplay: first-person levels that pit the VZR-5 against a boss and its various attacks. The hit detection bizarrely grows less accurate as objects get closer, and in order to destroy the enemy for good, the game demands that players tread through a disjointed series of conversations with Moby’s allies, most of whom offer useless statements to the effect of “Let’s blow him away.” It’s a promising idea snatched from graphic adventure games, but Wurm does little with it.

At least let us use the Zapper here, Wurm.Journey to the Center of Tedium

Yet the game doesn’t truly fall flat until Moby leaves the VZR-5 to explore. Strutting around in her battle-ready leotard, she navigates blandly designed subterranean mazes with only a blaster and kicks at her disposal. The enemies she faces are just as limited, with one type of vaguely apelike soldier making up most of the opposition. And there aren’t very many foes, at that; half of each side-scrolling action stage consists of Moby prancing through empty caverns. Wurm might’ve overcome the mediocrity elsewhere if it had enjoyable action-platform sequences (as Sammy’s Vice: Project Doom did). Instead, they’re the worst part of the game.

In fact, much of Wurm is just sloppy. The hit detection is awkward, boss sprites and backgrounds are reused, the characters lack detail (and faces), and the game’s hazy prologue only shows up if the title screen’s left running for nearly a minute. Even the dialogue has puzzling errors, as shown by a second-chapter boss battle in which the crew confuses a rock monster’s “navel” with his eye. It’s hardly what one would expect from a game that took two years to develop, or one that actually includes a credit for “game balance.”

Well, I'm afraid he'll never play guitar again.Throwbacks best buried

Nor does Wurm’s plot elevate it. The game’s setting and convoluted history of vast civilizations inside the Earth sets it apart from basic NES action themes, but the story sequences, like an old-fashioned Japanese superhero show, dully repeat the same scenes over and over. Each chapter shows Moby and her helmsman Dan exchanging random lines about energy readings and cave sectors, prompting Moby to give an order, head out of the ship to investigate, and then pine for Ziggy. On that note, Ziggy’s fate is the only real surprise in Wurm’s later chapters, and it overshadows an abrupt final battle that leads only to an all-text pacifist diatribe against war—specifically, a nuclear war that took place inside the earth thousands of years ago.

Still, there’s an oddly compelling quality to Wurm. Even when it’s spewing dull levels and ridiculous narrative twists, the game gives off an ominous undertone, making one curious to see just where it’ll go next, even if it’s just another cavern full of boring mazes and awkward conversations. And while Moby’s a shallow lead by any modern measure, she’s smarter and more aggressive than the other heroines of her day. There's also an unexpectedly nice 8-bit soundtrack by Dota Ando, who’d later work on Battle Arena Toshinden and Guilty Gear X.

Moby, unlike Samus, doesn't need armor. Or dignity. Cover Stories

Few would appreciate Wurm’s limited appeal. Its unique approach won some admiration from Nintendo Power, which hailed it as “one to watch out for” in a mid-1990 preview, but the game wouldn’t hit until over a year later, right in the middle of the North American launch of the Super NES. Had it arrived a few months earlier, Nintendo Power might’ve even granted it a cover, as the magazine resorted to fronting largely unknown titles like Power Blade and Metal Storm during the pre-SNES doldrums.

In November of 1991, though, no one really noticed Wurm when Asmik, the game’s North American publisher, gave it a rather quiet release, with cover art that resembled a hair-metal album more than an anime-themed exploration of a deceased scientist’s insane theory. The game sold slightly better in Japan, where it was known as Chitei Senkou Vazolder (or “Vazolder: The Underground Battle Space”), but never merited a sequel. The staff moved on, and Yoshikawa worked on several Bonk games, including a canceled Nintendo 64 title.

It’s easy to see Wurm as a disappointing mess that's mocked in both Japan and the West, but it’s just as evident that the game had potential in its unorthodox style and atmosphere. And even with its numerous failings, Wurm still has fans. Yoshikawa might be the most devoted of them, having set up a bilingual website that covers the game’s storyline and history. It’s a fitting tribute for a game that was perhaps loved more by its creators than the vast majority of its audience.

Squishy, Physic-y Starfishy Approaches!

- Physics game blog Fun-Motion has collared its latest physics game victim and it's student title Squishy The Starfish, described as "a 2D side-scrolling environmental puzzle game."

However, it's noted (and this is something I feel of a lot of physics-based games, actually!): "While Squishy the Starfish does bring a nice twist to the genre with the five-armed starfish treatment, a swinging physics game is nothing new. The real test of a swinging game lies in the controls, though. It’s dangerous territory as a designer; the line between “novel” and “frustrating” is awfully thin. Squishy does a good job addressing some of the problems of a multi-rope swinging mechanic with its mouse-only controls."

A conclusion? In this case: "Squishy is a solid implementation of a slick concept for a physics game. It’s a little unpolished, probably due to the time constraints of being a student project, but it’s a great student project. Hell, I’d hire them."



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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