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December 9, 2006

'Might Have Been' - BloodStorm

From the publishers of Golden Tee Golf.[“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 Strata's BloodStorm, released for the arcade in 1994 .]

Killer Instincts

If games are judged by the company they keep, Mortal Kombat might well be the worst in history. Midway’s gruesome, hokey 1992 homage to Enter the Dragon was merely an average fighting game, but the waves of imitators fueled by its success include some of the most fascinatingly awful titles of their decade: Kasumi Ninja, Survival Arts, Way of the Warrior, Primal Rage, Shadow: War of Succession, and the mercifully unreleased Tattoo Assassins. Here you’ll find Strata’s BloodStorm.

While BloodStorm owes its very existence to Mortal Kombat, its direct sire was Strata’s first attempt at an arcade fighter, Time Killers. Perhaps the most detested Mortal knock-off, Time Killers built terrible hand-drawn art and barely-there gameplay around the novelty of cutting off an opponent’s limbs during a fight and, if the game was in a good mood, decapitating your enemy as well.

Defying all standards of taste, Time Killers was a modest success. So Strata moved on to BloodStorm, reasoning that if a shamelessly brutal game turned profits, their next arcade game should be even more violent.

Well, that's always nice.'Violence Fight' was taken

And violent it was. Very violent. Ridiculously violent. Before BloodStorm’s title screen can even show up, we’re made to watch an assassin sneak up on an emperor and eviscerate him in graphic detail, providing that “old man dies horribly” hook so lacking in other arcade games of the day. We’re given the game’s backstory moments later: a harsh, post-apocalyptic world is hovering on the brink of war after the demise of the grand high emperor, and the only way to preserve any semblance of peace is to hold a tournament to decide the next ruler.

While it’s a slightly better idea than Time Killers’ insane setup of warriors from across time fighting death itself, BloodStorm’s cast isn’t much of an improvement. Resembling superheroes from a mediocre early-‘90s comic, the would-be rulers include an ice-powered nobleman named Freon, his fire-themed nemesis Hellhound, the emperor’s own wind-wielding daughter Tempest (so much for absolute primogeniture), the murderously environmentalist earth spirit Tremor, a radioactive masked mutant called Fallout, two cyborgs known as Talon and Razor, and Mirage, an amazon desert queen who uses men like cattle in more ways than one. And she lives in the "Obsel" desert. Obsel. Very funny.

No matter their origins, all of the fighters can cut off opponents’ arms and heads throughout any match, littering stages with still-twitching limbs and copious amounts of blood. Mortal Kombat creators Ed Boon and John Tobias refrained from showing disembowelment in their game’s celebrated fatalities, but BloodStorm drew no such lines. Each character has a “sunder” move, which rips foes in half and leaves them wallowing in their own entrails. That doesn’t stop them from fighting, though, as it’s possible to win a match even without arms or legs.

'Sit there all you like, but you cannot long evade my shoulder-mounted pleasure device.'Loveless

BloodStorm’s carnage overshadowed its gameplay, and for a good reason. Strata improved greatly on Time Killers by giving Blood Storm a five-button array straight out of Mortal Kombat and a wide variety of moves performed with the simple motions of Street Fighter II, but the fighting itself is basic and sloppy. Uppercuts are emphasized over everything else, and the combo system is rudimentary at best.

Nor is the game much to look at. The character sprite art is slapdash in both scope and detail, while primitive computer rendering is mixed into the backgrounds. Even if the rest of it looked passable in 1994, there’s no explanation or excuse for the final boss, Nekron, who seems to have been thrown together from several different ugly character models.

Yet beneath the mediocre game mechanics and the pulsating mounds of viscera, BloodStorm has a handful of promising ideas. Foremost among them is the ability to gain powers from defeated warriors. Most of the transferable moves are unique in their effects, and there’s some appeal in decking out a fighter with a laser eye, grenades, and a fiery mid-air flip attack. Built-up skills can be saved through another unique touch for fighting games: BloodStorm's password system, which let players store high-powered characters on an arcade machine from day to day, so long as arcade managers didn't unplug the units at night.

Another sliver of credit should go to BloodStorm’s attempt at interactive fighting stages. Most of the levels have some amusing gimmick to them, whether it’s a wall of lethal spikes in a dungeon or a background catwalk to which players can jump. Most often, the scenery merely provides new ways to kill a foe, but a few levels lead to the game’s numerous hidden characters. Taking yet another cue from Mortal Kombat, BloodStorm stocked itself with secret fighters, all of whom were obvious palette-swaps and slight redesigns of the main characters. The best (or worst) is an overpowered foe with a cloud of ever-flowing blood where his head should be. He's probably the game’s mascot.

CONTROVERSIAL!Buried Garbage

If the game’s secrets weren’t very interesting, Strata tried to make up for it through pure quantity. BloodStorm’s stocked with more codes than any of its contemporaries (with the possible exception of Tattoo Assassins), and, true to form, most of them are crude jokes calculated to upset watchful parents. After each fight, players can input any number of button-and-joystick combinations to trigger some special effect.

A few of the results jump to new stages or change characters, but most of them figure into the game’s “taunt” system, which displays all sorts of middle-school putdowns or in-jokes. Included are jabs at Mortal Kombat (“Who cares where Goro is?”), plugs for Electronic Gaming Monthly (“You don’t know shit about this game…Go buy EGM.”) and a message for U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, who’d only recently begun his campaign against violent games at the time of BloodStorm’s release. Lieberman even shows up, along with the game’s staff, as a hidden “bighead” fighter.

This led to the most shocking thing about BloodStorm: no one cared. For all of the game’s spurts of gore and desperate grabs for controversy, it failed to stir up any real fuss. Politicians and parents had little chance to notice the game, as it didn’t catch the attention of impressionable young arcade-goers in the first place. Mortal Kombat II was still at its peak, and few were interested in playing a more cartoonish version of what was, at a glance, the exact same game. Six months after its summer 1994 debut, BloodStorm was hard to find in the standard arcade.

Mirage lives in the Obsel Desert. Obsel. Figure it out.Turnabout

In fact, the only controversy BloodStorm caused had nothing to do with the game itself. An early ad for the arcade release featured Daniel Pesina, the motion-capture actor for Johnny Cage in Mortal Kombat I and II, gleefully abandoning his own game in favor of the totally in-your-face style of BloodStorm. Midway promptly cut ties with Pesina, and Johnny Cage was nowhere to be seen when Mortal Kombat III arrived.

With its minor damage done, BloodStorm was never heard from again, aside from supposed Saturn and PlayStation ports that were later quietly killed. Strata, meanwhile, went on to make the Street Fighter: The Movie arcade game. And then they went out of business.

Would BloodStorm have been a decent fighter without the excess violence? Probably not. A version of the game with the graphic elements removed (known as “The Storm”) still doesn’t impress, and its few decent ideas have found new life in better places. Yet even if BloodStorm fully deserves to be remembered as a trashy, unintentionally hilarious Mortal Kombat rip-off, its moments of inspiration and myriad secrets make it one of the best trashy, unintentionally hilarious Mortal Kombat rip-offs. An empty victory, but a game like BloodStorm has to take what it can get.

[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]

2007 Independent Games Festival Finalists Announced

- The info is up on the official IGF website, and I'll be commenting individually on each category over time, but here we go:

"We're delighted to announce Main Competition finalists for the 2007 Independent Games Festival, from an amazing field of 141 entries this year. Nominations are led by Bit Blot's dreamlike, innovatively controlled 2D underwater adventure title Aquaria, which garnered 4 nominations, including one for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize.

Other Grand Prize nominees included Queasy Games' cleverly designed abstract shoot-em-up, Everyday Shooter, which grabbed 3 nominations in total - nominees for the top prize were rounded out by Peter Stock's intelligently complex physics puzzle game Armadillo Run, Three Rings' Wild West indie strategy MMO Bang! Howdy, and Naked Sky's Xbox Live Arcade action-puzzler RoboBlitz.

Other notable IGF finalists grabbing nominations for design-related innovation include DigiPen-constructed first-person shooter set in a world of blocks (which act as both terrain and weapons!), Toblo, as well as NABI Software's extremely original turn-based ragdoll fighting game Toribash. Elsewhere, Best Web Browser Game finalists include Amanita Design's beautifully drawn adventure title Samorost 2, Visual Art finalists also have a plethora of highlights, including The Behemoth's Xbox Live Arcade title Castle Crashers.

Finally, the Excellence In Audio category includes Skinflake's Racing Pitch, in which the player uses a microphone to imitate a car engine in order to power his on-screen vehicle, and Technical Excellence also has a multitude of stand-outs, including Cryptic Sea's physics puzzler Blast Miner and EvStream's multiplayer space title Armada Online.

The full list of finalists for the IGF Main Competition, all of whom will be showing their games at the IGF Pavilion during Game Developers Conference in March 2007, are as follows:

Seumas McNally Grand Prize: Aquaria - Bit Blot; Armadillo Run - Peter Stock; Bang! Howdy - Three Rings Design; RoboBlitz - Naked Sky Entertainment; Everyday Shooter - Queasy Games.
Best Web Browser Game: Bubble Islands - dot-invasion; Gamma Bros - Pixeljam; Samorost 2 - Amanita Design.
Design Innovation Award: Armadillo Run - Peter Stock; Aquaria - Bit Blot ; Everyday Shooter - Queasy Games; Toblo - Digipen Institute of Technology; Toribash - NABI Software.
Excellence In Visual Art: Castle Crashers - The Behemoth; Golf? - Luke Hetherington Company; Aquaria - Bit Blot; RoboBlitz - Naked Sky Entertainment; Samorost 2 - Amanita Design.
Excellence In Audio: Bone: The Great Cow Race - Telltale Games; Everyday Shooter - Queasy Games; FizzBall - Grubby Games; Aquaria - Bit Blot; Racing Pitch - Skinflake.
Technical Excellence: Arcane Legions: The Rising Shadow - Slitherine Software; Armada Online - EvStream; Bang! Howdy - Three Rings Design; Blast Miner - Cryptic Sea; Bugs Of War - NinjaBee.

The winners of each of these categories, including an Audience Award for which every finalist is eligible, will be announced at the IGF Awards ceremony on the evening of Wednesday, March 7th 2007 at Game Developers Conference, when more than $50,000 in cash prizes will be given away.

(There are also two impending announcements about the rest of the 2007 IGF finalists - IGF Modding finalists will be announced on December 18th, and the IGF Student finalists on January 4th, 2007.)"

GameSetPics: Pinball Hall Of Fame Vol.1: 'The Pinball Circus'

Well, as promised, I did manage to make it to The Pinball Hall Of Fame in Las Vegas today, and there were indeed an embarrassment of riches on display there. I highly recommend anyone who's in Vegas and has a few minutes to venture off strip to go there, and stay there for a long time!

I didn't have quite as long as I might have liked, but I'll be presenting some highlights in three pieces, starting with a bit of a mindblowing discovery.

As you can see, The Pinball Hall Of Fame is operating barebones, and with one overarching reason for existing - presenting as many playable classic and recent pinball games as possible - even if it's hidden in a semi-anonymous strip mall without any particular lighting or signage. But the contents... oh my.

Here's one of the rows of classic '50s and '60s pins closest to the door, but you'll note something that looks like an arcade machine at the end of the row. Well, it's not an arcade machine, as such - it's a very special pinball machine, named 'The Pinball Circus'.

This is a 1993 Midway/Williams title which is just incredibly rare: "Prototype machine for new pinball machine design. Steve Kordek stated at Expo 2005 that there were two units made: he owns one of them, and the other one is in Germany."

A head-on picture of the pinball machine, which is a multi-level pintable jammed into an oversized arcade machine body. It even includes a dot matrix display, along with some neat toys (an elephant which grabs the ball of the playfield to raise it even higher), and a spinner - in total there are actually 4 or 5 separate levels and 6+ flippers, as far as I recall.

Slightly closer up - you can see some of the details, including the clown's head which is the top playfield of all, and actually includes two mini flippers - you have to smash the clown's teeth down and get the ball through them in order to score high. Despite the crazy verticality of the game, it actually plays surprisingly well, and it's smooth, enjoyable going to keep going further and further up the playfield during the course of a game.

Finally, here are the notes from Tim Arnold of the Pinball Hall Of Fame, as stickered to the machine, so you can get an idea of what the game is and how it got here. Some highlights: the game was "100% ready to go into production", and "...putting one of the 2 machines on test in a Chicago location, reports came back that it earned no more than the standard size-shape pinballs of that time, Indiana Jones & Star Trek (Both great games, and a tuff act to follow!)"

What happened next? "German distributor Nova said they would not pay an extra $1,000 [per machine] for this larger, more complicated machine, so Williams parked the machines in a back room in the factory & never built any more." Fortunately: "Because of Pinball Hall Of Fame's unique status as a legitimate museum, WMS Electronics, Larry Demar and Steve Kordek came together and put this one-of-a-kind machine here, where it can be enjoyed for all!"

So, there we go - and that's just the start of the goodness. The next two instalments will check out some of my personal favorite machines and quirky stars of the Pinball Hall Of Fame, from Rocky & Bullwinkle through Safe Cracker and beyond, and some of the design highlights of the museum, showing off some of the gorgeous backdrops and other art from this unparalleled collection. More soon!

December 8, 2006

COLUMN: 'Cinema Pixeldiso' – Tron

['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a bi-weekly column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that spotlights movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with an emphasis on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week looks a true classic in every sense of the word...]

Last time we looked at two films that asked what would happen if video game characters came into our world. Well this time, the opposite takes place...

TRON

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/tron1.jpg

Tron is quite simply the grand daddy of all video game movies. It was the very first film to feature video games in any capacity whatsoever, but more importantly, it came at a time when the general public had no idea what video games were about; the medium was still in its infancy at the time, and that made a huge impact.

The abstract (translation: primitive) nature of video game concepts, along with their visuals and sounds at that point, coupled with the state of technology as a whole, in relation to people's perception of it (the idea of computers being part of everyone's day to day lives was just starting to sink into society's minds), helped to create an environment that spawned a movie like Tron, as well as allow its various messages to be so highly effective.

[Click through for more.]

The REAL Matrix

Whereas plots featuring technology going haywire is rather passé, back then it was still quite fresh. This is why its goofy by today's standards allegory between man, machine, and God worked, and still kinda does today. If you really think about it, Tron is more or less the same exact film as the Matrix. Tron is the real Matrix, and a much better one to be honest. The acting is superior, the special effects and concepts are far more imaginative, it doesn't try so hard to act cool and edgy, and it doesn't have to rip from Hong Kong cinema (instead it unintentionally emulates expressionist avant-guard European cinema... more on this later), to name just a few examples. Both have a fairly slim story, but again, Tron has historical context on its side. But this isn't about why the Matrix is so horrible and overrated, though it is about why Tron is so criminally underrated...

The film primarily takes place in the digitized world, and tries to illustrate what goes on inside our computers, on the other side of the screen. You've got programs running around like people, basically tiny, neon-covered versions of their "real life" counterparts, the ones that created them. And unfortunately, much like in the real world, most are slaves to "the man", which in the world of Tron is the Master Control Program, or the MCP, who goes around sucking up hapless programs and either assimilating them into himself to become more powerful, or pitting them against themselves in the "game grid".

We learn that the these computer people have their own religion, that those who are oppressed hold out hope that divine intervention would come and help them show the light, that being the ones who made them and everything else. They call their gods "Users". Which leads to such brilliant philosophical questions, such as "If I don't have a user, who wrote me?" Wow, deep stuff. And of course, the MCP doesn't like such crazy beliefs (i.e. religion) clogging the system, hence another facet of its intention behind domination.

Yeah, its pretty hokey story, but its rather easy to ignore all that when you've got such lush visuals feast before one's eyes. The film is simply beautiful. The special effects were groundbreaking for its time, then since then, its aged... like fine wine. The combination of actors in stupid-looking outfits, shot in black and white, with neon colors added on top, and placed in airbrushed and/or computer generation backdrops gives the movie the feeling that it's some early 80s pop album come to life, mixed with some early German impressionist film. But more on that a bit later.

Computer People

The details of the plot concerns a disgruntled programmer, Flynn, who created a number of video games that another person stole and tool credit for, which then became smash successes, allowing said underhanded individual to shoot straight to the top of the company. Flynn naturally is pissed, hence why he attempts to find proof that he was the original author by hacking into the company's computer systems, that being the MCP in real life, but is ultimately unsuccessful. The aforementioned corporate monkey, Dillinger, now the senior executive vice president, and who basically runs Encom, with the aid of its super advanced computer system (in the digitized word, Dillinger is Sark, the MCP's main lackey and the film's primary bad guy, and in reality, the MCP also really pulls all the strings) is pissed by this attempt, and gives a few folks in his employment whom he doesn't like some grief.

This includes Allan, the fresh-faced programmer working on a security program called Tron (which is also established early on is a possible threat to the MCP), as well as Lora and Gibbs, the cute female researcher and the not so cute old guy that's the token "I remember the good old days before the MCP ran things, when it was just a simple chess program" voice of the story, both of whom are working on a matter transference laser (more on that in a bit). With the heat on, Lora decides to warn Flynn that Dillinger is onto to him, so they go to a video game arcade that he runs, which happens to feature Space Paranoids, as well as a number of other games that Flynn created but never got proper credit for.

One has to assume that this is perhaps a reference to Nolan Bushnell, a well known video game creator who in real life was run out of his own company (Atari), but would later still manage to make money off his creations and former employer (Warner Communications, which Bushnell had sold Atari to) via arcades that he owned and operated (Chuck E. Cheese). And of course, when we meet Flynn in his arcade, he's playing his own game, and about to top the high score yet again, establishing firmly that he's a video game God (with plenty of pretty ladies looking on and quite excited by such virtual feats of manliness).

Upon hearing Flynn's reasons for wanting to infiltrate the system, Alan and Lora decide to help by breaking into the Encom facilities to allow Flynn to do his hacking on-site. Fate leads Flynn to the lab where Lora and Gibbs were working on their laser, which the MCP uses to zap and transport Flynn into his backyard, the computer world, where he becomes one of its own.

Dazed and confused, Flynn is immediately forced to participate in various feats of strength in the game grid along with assorted other programs that were swept up by the MCP. Its total life or de-resolution (you don't just die in this world, you get erased). It's here that he meets two fellow captured collections of ones and zeros: Tron (Allan's alter ego, of course) and another fresh faced program who used to work for an insurance company named Ram. Cute name eh? The film constantly name drops various techie words and terms, all stuff that sounded fancy and impressive at the time, but which now comes off as simply "quaint", though it never becomes annoying, thankfully.

Anyway, both Sark and the MCP hates Tron the most, primarily because he stands for the "silly beliefs" that they try so hard to drive out of the minds of those that they capture and force to join their ranks, that being the idea of a higher power, or Users. And of course, those who claim to hate a belief, and wishes only to crush it and say it is false, are always secretly afraid, such as when the MCP tells him that one of the new boys that was snatched up is basically God, so now's your chance to kill him!

In The Game

Flynn manages to do rather well on the game grid, thanks to his leet game playing skills from the real world. Then him, Tron, and Ram are all sent to the light cycle grid, which is perhaps the scene that the is most famous, and for good reason. It's pretty exciting to watch. And it more than anything does a brilliant job of emulating what being in the middle of a video game.

They heroic trio manage to escape, but while on route to an I/O tower so Tron can communicate to his user ("Allen-1"), they get ambushed and both Flynn and Ram are seemingly killed, forcing Tron to go on by himself. Thankfully both have not been erased, and Flynn is only dazed, though Ram is badly wounded, so they both take refuge in an abandoned den, which is actually the cockpit of a busted old recognizer, the ships that all the bad guys use. Which Flynn is able to piece together, since he's really a God after-all, but even he can't save Ram who fades away, literally, in a scene that is perhaps the most awkward of the whole movie. Mainly because you have one guy comforting another guy whose life is slowly slipping away... oh and they're all wearing goofy outfits that emanates blue neon too.

Meanwhile Tron catches up with his girlfriend Yuri (who's Lora's alter-ego naturally, and btw, Allan and Yori are bf/gf in real life as well) and she helps him get to the tower, which is more or less a place of worship, one that had gone to crap in the MCP regulated world (which is run by a wise old "priest", Dumont, aka Gibbs in the computer world). There Tron talks with Allen and gets the info he needs to take down the MCP.

Elsewhere Flynn tries to fly the damaged recognizer the best he can, with the help of a floating electronic... "bit" for a lack of a better term, that just flies around and saying only "yes" or "no" (which was the only real way to "talk" with computers back then). It’s actually quite reminiscent of Navi, the little floating fairy from Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, but less helpful and even more annoying, if that can be believed. So it's not much help, and since even Flynn's Godlike skills from the arcade can't help with a busted ride, they crash into the town square (you can tell the director was going for a Mos Eisley feel, like LOTS of sci-fi directors were trying at the time).

Eventually he runs into Tron and Yuri on some air ship that they hijacked in an attempt to escape a hot pursuit from Sark's goons. Again, another scene that highlights the wonderful art direction of the film; the barren electronic landscapes are simply a joy to watch, and totally contrary, conceptually and execution-wise, to most modern attempts at creating a wild, weird world. Its like an old video game that manages to create a compelling and believable world with just a few elements.

The God-Like

At a point there's some technical difficulties, but Flynn taps into his God-like powers, followed by his revelation to the others that he's a User, that is met with a certain degree of apathy, which again has oodles of subtext for anyone wanting to dig deep. Then the same thing as before happens: the party is crashed, and this time it is assumed that Tron is dead. Flynn and Yuri are captured and forced to stay on Sark's ship as it sinks (well, erased actually), while Sark heads over to the MCP with the latest band of captured electronic souls that are to be incorporated into it (mostly older programs, including Dumont).

Tron manages to hitch a ride on Sark's ship (the MCP's "introduction" btw is one of the most visually and aurally exciting moments of the entire film), and then they have their long await confrontation. Tron is able to take out Sark, but like all good final bosses, he comes back, bigger (literally in this case) and badder than before. And while this goes down, Flynn pilots the "de-rezed" ship (he was able to save himself and Yuri from getting erased since. again, he's a high power) toward the MCP in an effort to create an opportunity for Tron to make the decisive blow. Does he succeed? Well.... when was the last time a video game didn't have a happy ending?

Final Score...

Tron works because it exudes two things: first atmosphere. The combination of sight and sounds work amazingly well. The entire world, from top to bottom is so well fleshed out, so cohesive that they honestly put modern attempts at science fiction and fantasy to shame. Yeah, the look is clearly the eighties, but the art direction, special effects, and everything else is just so tight and spot on (though having an appreciation for the eighties aesthetic only enhances the material). As for how it all sounds, Wendy Carlos' soundtrack is simply breathtaking (it's worth pointing out that Carlos was a pioneer in the realm of using electronic music in film scores, and was also behind Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and The Shining to name a few). As are the sound effects and ambient noises. Its like nothing you've ever heard, even today.

But both those elements are heightened by the second thing the film is dripping with: innocence. I already mentioned how fresh and new the source material was, in conjunction with the perception of technology in general at the time, making the film work for viewers, but the same holds true with the filmmakers, whose imagination had an open range to run around. Granted, video games have only been around for about 30 years or so, but anyone who has to think about composing a video game world for a film is unfortunately going to be saddled many years of established ideas and cliched. Stuff that we are all familiar with, and almost unavoidable.

Thankfully, the makers of Tron had no such mental blocks in the way, hence why to a certain degree, the movie ended up influencing how games were viewed, even made afterwards (much of this took place in the early 80s and did not go as far as it might have... perhaps the crash of the video game market might be a reason).

The bottom line is that if you at all enjoy video games, then you must see Tron. Period. Never mind the goofy costumes and wacky visuals and crazy music, (which again, is only getting better in age). In fact, embrace it. Since we should all embrace our past.

FYI...

The special edition 20th anniversary DVD release a few years back is perhaps the best way to see the movie. Aside from a very nice print and re-mastered music, there's a bonus disc with a slew of extra features, including a deleted "sex scene" between Tron and Yuri.

Also, a sequel to the movie was planned, but was never actually made. Instead, much of the work went towards a video game, Tron 2.0 which came out for the PC and Xbox a few years back. Its a decent FPS that Tron fans should try to check out.

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]

BloodSpell Machinima Spatters To An End

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/bloodspell.jpg We've run stuff on the Bloodspell machinima before, but now, they're done! Here's the note from Hugh Hancock: "We are proud to announce that today we have released the final episode of 'BloodSpell', our independent, animated, serialised fantasy feature film."

"Using Machinima technology and the Neverwinter Nights computer game, we were able to create an entire fantasy feature film for a total budget of under £10,000! We've been featured on CNN, in The Guardian, on Suicide Girls, on the BBC, and hundreds of other places. We've had - well, we haven't tallied up yet, but it's a lot of views."

"And, most importantly, we've managed to tell an independent, adult-targetted fantasy story, as a film, without having to drag millions of dollars out of some funding body, and release it for free download under Creative Commons. We're very pleased with the results - I hope you'll enjoy them too. You can now download the entire series."

"And please do let me know what you think, either by email or at this website. Finally, as I mentioned, we've on a micro-budget, which means our marketing budget basically pays for me and some coffee! So, we'd be really grateful if you could help us spread the word of the series in any and all ways." We just did!

GameSetPics: Las Vegas Arcade Trawl, Pt.1

Thanks to Brian over at Kotaku for some analysis of the recent GSW announcement that we're scaling back a bit. Also - thanks for all your kind comments on what GSW means to you - we really appreciate it. I think the point of the change is that I now feel like I can post when I want, rather than feel obligated to post X times per day. But I also think that, despite the fact I aspire to a Takahashi-like Zen statesmanship to my prose, I have a natural tendency toward the quirky and alternative which is basically not bypass-able.

Hence the fact that, though I'm in Las Vegas through Sunday on a little mini-holiday, I'm still posting pics of weird arcade machines from the Luxor's 'Games Of The Gods' arcade. I will never learn!

In this case, it's just me showing that practicing on the Xbox 360 Live Arcade version of Frogger really _has_ made me slightly better at the real arcade version. However, next to me was a regular arcadegoer racking up a _spectacular_ score on Galaga - he was up to 250,000 by the time I left, and the high score on the machine was 999,980, which I presume was also his, so... I felt a little humbled.

Now, you don't actually see many of these, so I figured it was worth a picture due to the _classic_ game name - Sammy's Atomiswave-powered street racing title, 'Faster Than Speed'. For those wanting to poke around more with the Atomiswave hardware (which is destined to be perhaps even cultier and obscure than the Neo Geo!), then the System16 entry for the game also lists all the other titles using the hardware. (Though I don't think it got a full release, I played Atomiswave puzzle title 'Sushi Bar' at some arcade show, for example, and it was rather awesome.)

Anyhow, 'Faster Than Speed'! Even my wife was rolling around chortling and suggesting other titles such as 'Louder Than Sound', so bad game naming derision is pretty much universal, I conclude.

Finally, a brand new U.S.-produced gun game in 2006? And not from Eugene Jarvis? Blimey, yes, it's Aliens Extermination from Global VR. I'm afraid to say that this particular machine had some heinous hardware issues - the entire game background was missing, maybe due to graphics card glitching. So the aliens were visible, but to be honest, it seemed a little iffy anyhow, with much shooting of small weapon power-up icons, and lots of similar jump-close alien behavior. Maybe the technical issues weren't doing it any favors, though.

[Incidentally, Las Vegas isn't spectacular for arcades, to be honest - the Luxor's arcade, which is one of the largest, didn't really have many new titles, and was practically deserted. But I will be checking out GameWorks at some point during the trip, just in case they have any beetle trading games or even Psy Phi (I wish!), and will likely get to the Pinball Hall Of Fame at some point.]

MMOG Nation: Citizen Spotlight on Tobold's MMORPG Blog

['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column shines a spotlight on the prolific poster at Tobold's MMORPG Blog.]

ToboldThere are bloggers ... and then there are bloggers. Tobold, of Tobold's MMORPG Blog, is witty, intelligent, and shockingly prolific. He's been playing World of Warcraft (WoW) since the game released in the EU, and by now he's commented on almost every aspect of the game you can imagine. Raiding, Guilds, DKP, class balance, economics ... he's interested in everything, and by proxy manages to make even the driest class-related issues seem interesting.

Today I have for you an aeration of the Tobold Blog. I've gone through, stirred up the soil, and have for you today just a small portion of the peaty goodness that this particular site has to offer. Tobold was also kind enough to answer an emailed set of interview questions, and he offers us an insight into the mind that drives his implacable blogging machine. Read on for a look at a blog, a blogger, and World of Warcraft's most readable player.

I Hear They Have Videogames In Europe

Tobold was kind enough to respond to my canned questions, to give you some insight into the man behind the site. We went with an emailed interview for this because of the time difference between the U.S. and Europe. Many thanks again to you, sir, for your time and assistance in preparing this article.

Michael: Tobold's MMORPG blog is primarily, it seems, a focus for your gaming-related thoughts. What prompted you to start it? Was it a specific event, or just a general need to get your ideas out there? Once you'd begun, what kept you blogging?

Tobold: I started writing my gaming-related thoughts long before the blog, on message boards for whatever game I was playing at the moment. That approach had two problems: Ownership and archiving. Due to not having ownership of the forum I was writing on, critical articles I wrote about the game risked being locked or deleted. And most of what I wrote then hasn't been archived anywhere, and even finding my own old articles turned out to be impossible. Having my own blog solved both of these problems. I started the blog small, posting not so frequently. Then at some point I installed a counter to see whether somebody was actually reading what I wrote. To my surprise it turned out that I got a lot more hits than I would have thought, which motivated me to write more. Then I added the ability to comment, and the high quality of the feedback I get keeps me blogging. Just have a look at the official World of Warcraft forums to see why I prefer to blog and discuss on my own site.

Michael: Do you mind if I ask what your dayjob is? Do you have any hobbies outside of gaming? You've mentioned that you're married ... what does she think of your site?

Tobold: Lets just say that my dayjob is scientist, without going into details. Besides gaming I'm interested in history and economics. My wife does play World of Warcraft, and knows that I'm blogging, but she isn't very interested in discussing games, and doesn't read my site.

Michael: What got you 'into' the massive genre in the first place? What was your first MMOG?

Tobold: I've been playing pen and paper role-playing games, mostly D&D, since a quarter of a century now. I've been playing computer RPGs since the original Bard's Tale, and online since LPMUD. Getting into MMORPGs was just a logical next step. My first MMORPG was Ultima Online, but I quickly drifted into the more game-like Everquest, which I played for nearly 2 years.

Michael: How many games have you played? What would you say has been your favorite?

Tobold: I lost count. I have played at least a dozen different MMORPGs, covering all the major games, and a couple of minor ones. There were only two games which I played for more than 1 year, the original Everquest and now World of Warcraft, so I guess that makes those two my favorites. But many of the other games had individual features, like gathering resources in Star Wars Galaxies, the puzzles in Puzzle Pirates, or building your own camp in A Tale in the Desert, which I found superior to what EQ or WoW had to offer. My perfect game would be a mix of the best features of many different games.

Michael: What is it about the Massive gaming experience that's kept you coming back? People, guilds, raiding, something else?

Tobold: People is certainly a big part of it. Coming from D&D, the concept of adventuring in a group is very natural to me. I do participate in guilds and raids, but generally prefer the small group adventuring, and the smaller, family-like guilds. The other thing that keeps me coming back, and keeps me moving to the next game, is the huge amount of content these massive games have. I also like to play console RPGs, like Final Fantasy, but you can finish these in 60 hours. MMORPG are so much bigger than that.

Michael: What would you say your 'proudest' moment from a Massive game might be? The moment you'll tell your grandkids about. :)

Tobold: For me playing a MMORPG is an eternal series of small proud moments. You set yourself a small goal, work towards it, and achieve it. That might take as little as half an hour, or as much as several months. But the experience for me is more important than the achievement. The proudest achievement was probably when my troll warrior in World of Warcraft hit level 60, because after years and years of playing MMORPGs that was the first time I hit the level cap in any game. But my friar performing a marriage ceremony in the cathedral of Camelot in DAoC, in front of a huge crowd, was my proudest role-playing moment.

Michael: Out of what I'm sure could be many less happy moments, what would you say was the most memorable bad experience you've had in a MMOG?

Tobold: Nearly all of my memorable bad experiences in MMOGs were guild dramas. The most memorable bad experience, which I am the least proud of, was in Dark Age of Camelot. I had founded my own guild, put a lot of work into it, and ended up being overwhelmed by all the big and small problems between guild members. People looked up to me and expected me to sort out their problems, and I was unable to do so. That marriage I mentioned above ended with the girl's DAoC-playing father deleting her character, because he didn't want her flirting online with the boy. How do you fix that as a guild master? I ended up being so stressed out that I ran away and quit the game.

Michael: There certainly seem to be a lot of Massive games on the horizon. Which one are you most excited about? Why?

Tobold: In my heart I'm most excited about Lord of the Rings Online, because walking on Middle Earth is a dream. My brain tells me that Warhammer Age of Reckoning is more likely to actually be a good game, taking the best features of WoW and adding a better PvP system based on the DAoC experience.

Michael: Is there anything you'd like to say to Tobold's MMORPG Blog readers?

Tobold: I'm still in awe of how many of them there are. As I said, it is their visible appreciation and feedback that keeps me going. So I'd like to ask my readers to keep up the high level of comment and discussion.

The Game, And How To Play It

What makes reading Tobold's blog so interesting is that he's really well and truly gotten up inside the working parts of World of Warcraft. He's focused his writing talent and considerable intellect on the subject to an astonishing degree, and the result is a running commentary, since the game's launch, of everything right and wrong with Blizzard's baby. His first WoW Journal entry was on February 11th of last year. Since then, in addition to tracking his actual play, he's made observations on almost every system in the game. Economics, quests (whether hidden or not), tradeskills, and the talent system have all gotten careful looks from his watchful eye. He's also made some more humorous observations, like his future-sent satire of the 'EQ Classic' servers:

"Critics claim that the nostalgia servers are just a cheap way for Blizzard to regain customers that have been leaving World of Warcraft in droves. Subscription numbers are down to 10 million players, just half of what is was during the peak days of WoW. The recently released '10th anniversary' expansion didn't sell as well as expected."

All throughout his journal, Tobold makes an effort to include us in his journey, and offers helpful hints on what worked and what didn't. Occasionally, he takes some time to point out specific strategies, as in his guide to grinding XP. He also uses the instructive format as a kind of 'preview', in his guide to jewelcrafting in the upcoming Burning Crusade expansion. An entry that I found particularly interesting was a blunt look at how to blog; he touches on what drives him to make something like 12 posts a week.

"My secret is that I mainly write for myself. *Not* thinking of what your readers expect helps a lot when blogging. A blog is as much a diary as it is a public document. As soon as you start worrying about meeting a certain writing standard, or having to cover a certain subject, writing block sets in. There are millions of blogs out there which get a lot less hits than this one not because their authors write any worse than I do, but because they don't write enough."

Dragon Kills and Herding Cats

One of the most interesting elements of following Tobold's journey through Azeroth has been seeing the evolution of 'Tobold the Raider'. While he began his game somewhere in the murky realm of 'casual' gaming, Somewhere along the line he stepped past into the dark waters of raiding. It probably had something to do with copious raid invites. He plays a priest on two servers, and as we already know, you don't screw with the healers. Even as he was raiding more often, Tobold still argued for casual content. Eventually, though, the a raider has to raid. Raiding with skill, and recognizing raiding skill were additional areas to consider. DKP systems and if they could ever be fair also went under Tobold's microscope, as he tried to coax the truth out of WoW. Like many raiders I know, he eventually began wondering why he was doing what he was doing, and came to the conclusion that sometime raiding just isn't fun:

"My Horde guild on a 40-man raid is by necessity very concentrated on the job. There isn't much talk in the raid channel. Teamspeak is dominated by commands like "Go dps now!". The sheer size of the group makes chatting difficult, be it typed or voiced. And as we like to go fast and the main tank is permanently pulling, everybody is too busy holding aggro, dealing damage, or healing, to have much time for idle banter anyway. Blackwing Lair of course had some discussion on tactics, but Molten Core is just routine farming, with no surprises. Raiding with my Horde guild is a very serious affair."

As a social gentleman, Tobold also explored the world of guilds. Unfortunately, in wondering what makes a good guild, he inadvertently explored the guild lifecycle firsthand.: Management. Drama. Death.

"I found my guild had a bizarre leadership structure, with a secret "officers club" of people thinking they were still running things, in spite of having left WoW, or having switched to [another guild]. And obviously the name-calling from them was pretty hurtful. I'm sure I hurt these guys as well, with my comments, but you know my writing style, it might be acidic, but I don't generally use swear words as a means to get my point across ... I transfered the GM title ... sent him the contents of the guild bank, and quit the guild with all my characters. That was hard, because I do like the people that are actually in the guild, I'm just at odds with some of those who left, or rather didn't really leave."

Taking it All In

As useful as his guides are, and as insightful as his examination of Warcraft is, some of the most interesting posts he has made explore the Massive genre in the broader sense. As a veteran Massive player, he's been around the block with arcane gameplay, and has come away with a healthy understanding of the fundamentals. His series on the changes in the genre was especially well done.

When I think of 'classic' Tobold, though, I always imagine posts that try to seek answers to questions. The exploration of issues like the sameness of MMOGs, what a level really is, and if games have to end is what makes Tobold's site a daily stop on my internet tour. After all, why do we play if not for a form of self-enlightenment?

"There is content with more entertainment value, and there is content with less entertainment value, but for me it isn't necessarily the highest reward that has the most entertainment value. The important thing for me is to be able to interact with the content in a meaningful way. I'm totally happy with my Onyxia raid last weekend, because I got to experience all three phases of the combat several times, and I feel I now "have done" Onyxia. I don't give a damn that I didn't kill her, that I didn't get some epic item from her, and I'm not really interested in going there repeatedly to try it again and again until I do ... The day I think that I have seen all the accessible content in WoW, and only the repetitive way to Naxxramas and beyond remains, I will just quit the game and buy myself some other form of entertainment."

Tobold's site is a rare find on the internet: a one-man band with the volume of a full orchestra. He is a consistent, measured, and intelligent voice in the wilderness of endless prattle, and it's hard not to admire a man who makes blogging look so easy. There's far more than enough of his writing to go around; I hope you take the time to take even a taste of this most fascinating of commentators.

[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. ]

December 7, 2006

Lost Planet Art Director, Ze Blog Goodness!

- Capcom is taking the concept of official blogging seriously - hence Brian Dunn's neat multi-part interview with Lost Planet Art Director Takahiro Kawano and Director Kenji Oguro.

There's tonnes of exclusive art and insight, but Kawano's pick for favorite game art direction is interesting: "One I really admire is Square’s “Vagrant Story,” the PS1 game [as recently mentioned on GSW]. I think they focused on the visuals and the art for that game more than any other game I’ve seen. The visuals in that game are all very manga-like. The whole game looks like a series of illustrations. It’s all very consistent, with no flashy colors. Big, popular titles tend to use a lot of bright, flashy colors. But this game had a great look to it, like the art director had a vision for the game and didn’t compromise just to flash it up. It makes me a little jealous."

They also talk about using physical mecha-models to help visualize the game's mechs: "Nowadays in Hollywood it’s pretty standard practice to make a real-life model of something before turning it into CG. When you make it a real object, it’s all there in front of you. You can see it from every angle. So I wanted to do this with Lost Planet. Plus, I haven’t heard of a lot of other Japanese game companies doing it yet, either. It was about mid-way through the development cycle that the producer suggested this to me, and at the time we had already finished creating the 3D models for 3 of the Vital Suits. So we didn’t worry about those three, and only made figures out of the remaining Vital Suits. Still, the process worked very well."

Ricky Gervais Goes Nanners On Gamezors

- John Gaudiosi, who nabs a lot of neat interviews on the film/game crossover, has been talking to Ricky Gervais about his Scarface game voiceover over at Wired News, and Gervais is typically witty and scathing - which is nice.

Firstly, Gervais explores his clear game skills: "I've spent five minutes bumping into a wall with Gran Turismo. This is what a baby I am. I still have the same exploratory skills of a toddler. So I'm driving around, and if I'm not winning, I go, "I wonder if I can mow those people down. I wonder if you can go behind that mountain?" And of course you can't."

Secondly, he explains exactly what he brought to the Scarface game: "There are only so many ways you can say, "Put the fucking gun down!" It was funny and we played with it a little bit. I think I did a good job. I mean I stick out like a sore thumb. There are all of these core people, and then a little fat bloke with an English accent will pop up. And they go, "Where'd he come from, what's he doing there?""

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - M.U.S.H.A. - Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor

['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we slot M.U.S.H.A. into the Ono-Sendai deck.]

2.07.jpgTexas Radio

Washed out of school, kicking around the Sprawl, trying to live some teenage daydream of drop-tuned guitars and burned out amps. Reading Gibson’s Neuromancer and studying Survival Research Lab videos for secret strategies. Side one of SY’s Sister playing over and over. Smoke the color of rust and smelling of kerosene. A hit of Vasopressin to clear the haze.

Kid Afrika drops by the apartment to show off his new Sega Genesis. These are high grade chips, straight from Chiba City, he says. The vented black plastic, with its ports and expansion slots, looks like pre-war surplus. Here, boot this up, he says handing me a cart. It’s called M.U.S.H.A. - Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor.

Phantasmal Noh

3.10.jpgWelcome to the Retinal Circus. Gekiga sim-stim sets the scene with techno-shred-trash in stereo. M.U.S.H.A. comes on fast, swarming with metal demons and bio-mechanical ghosts. The pace is hard-edged and demanding. You versus the universe and it’s raining shit. Embedded symbols from Noh drama cross-band with sci-fi mecha as the hand-crafted, parallax-scrolling landscape erupts in a frenzy of destruction.

Shooter Heaven

5.11.jpgM.U.S.H.A. was developed in Japan by Compile and published for America in 1990 by Seismic Software. Look for it online and expect to pay around $35 for a complete copy with its box and manual. Pay a lot less if it’s just the loose cartridge.

In its nineteen year history Compile developed a wide variety of software. It was perhaps most famous for creating the puzzle game Puyo Puyo (better known as Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine in America) but the company was also behind some fantastic shoot’em ups as well. Titles like Zanac, Aleste, Blazing Lazers, and M.U.S.H.A. helped define the vertical scrolling shooter genre of the late eighties and early nineties.

Unfortunately, when the 32-bit generation came along, the shooter began to fall into disfavor. While developers stayed true to the formalized patterns of shooter design, critics lost patience with a genre that appeared played out and irrelevant. The games were pushed to the margins, little discussed and indifferently marketed to an increasingly niche audience. In recent years Treasure’s Ikaruga received a lot of notice and new shooter games continue to pop up every now and then, but most people pass them by. Compile itself closed shop in 2002. Fans dream of a revival but shooters remain a ritualized form, difficult to get into and all but closed to casual gamers. And maybe that’s the way it should be.

Slot M.U.S.H.A. into the deck. If the A.I.’s on Straylight dream, it probably looks like this. Shooter Heaven.

[Jeffrey Fleming is a Bay Area book dealer and writer. More of his writing on video games can be found at Tales of the Future.]

GameSetCompetition: Win A Roboreptile!

- Clearly, GameSetWatch is becoming known as the place where 'the cool kids' hang out - why else would we be given the chance to give away a Roboreptile, which appears to be a crazed death-dealing dinosaur robot toy which is proudly described to be "As seen on the Ellen DeGeneres Show!"?

The Wikipedia page for the Roboreptile explains handily: "Following its success with the overwhelmingly popular Roboraptor is Wow Wee Toy's Roboreptile robot dinosaur. Unveiled at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, it is a smaller, faster and vastly more agile robot dinosaur. It was inspired by the Australian frilled lizard, being able to rear on its hindlegs and attack."

Oh yeah, and they're MAKING us put a hilariously semi-badly designed graphic on the site so you can click through and play a slightly Nanaca Crash-styled, vaguely clunky Flash game featuring Roboraptor. But you know, anything to get you guys a robot dinosaur - so here goes:

-

God, I hate the term 'addicting'. It's not even a proper word! Anyhow, my favorite bit of Roboreptile's extensive and lethal functionality is this feature: "Hood accessory fits over its face to help you subdue it during aggressive moods." I'm gonna try that with the Gamasutra co-editors when they next get rowdy! (Also, I think Wow Wee should show more sensitivity towards the situation in the Middle East.)

Anyhow, to win Wow Wee's Roboreptile, which is winging its way to the GameSetWatch offices right now as we speak (hope it doesn't break out of its shipping package!), you need to answer the following:

"Which '80s arcade game stars an ape in a football helmet, and features fire-breathing lizards popping out of eggs as one of the enemies?"

A little more difficult this time! Please send your answers to editors@gamesetwatch.com any time before Wednesday, December 13th at 12 noon PST. There will be one winner randomly picked from the correct answers, the judges' decision is final, and that's that. Have fun!

December 6, 2006

GameSetLinkDump: December 6th, 2006

- Even though GSW won't be link city, going forward, I still have time to do brief-ish Delicious-style links when I go trawl my RSS feeds, and right now is such a time.

So, in the best traditions of linktrawlers, Hi-ho, Silver, awaaaaay:

- Nancy Drew-Tastic: Adventure Classic Gaming has added a Nancy Drew: The Creature of Kapu Cave review - just about the only graphic adventure series still alive and kicking!

- Headcrabs And Boomsticks: Hey, I didn't know there was a headcrab hat, now! Thanks, Valve, and Alice - it fits in nicely with a Pac-Man hat, if you have one of those.

- Recipes, Gangsters, Portable Dancefests: There's a new DS recipe collection out in Japan, for those "anxious to test the Banana Cupcake and Coconut Parfait" - oh Nintendo, you're soooo maaaainstream. Also - Yakuza 2 is out already? Wow. And Pump It Up Portable - how odd!

- Ugh, Autoplay Videos: Sorry Stephen Totilo, the new MTV site is so obnoxious that I can't even link to it directly any more, but here's a link to a link to his statement about Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam and race and stuff. Weird.

- Wired Editor Loves Ashlee Simpson: We never linked to Part 2 of the Jenkins Vs. Kohler interview - so here it is. There's yet more Inis love in here, too - I think that Kohler is a spy for them. Though not a very good one, obviously. Agents are...!

- I Want Your (Tiny Car) Soul: GameSpy reviews Pocket Racers for PSP, which is terrible (1 star out of 5!) but, and we forgot this, has the following plot: "You and your friends were the life of the party until a mysterious Soul Reaver showed up and turned you into tiny cars. The stakes are high -- race for your life and save the lives of your friends or lose your soul forever." WOW!

- PK-ing, Game Art-ing: Videoludica has two excellent new features - an odd essay on PK-ing and the Chinese game market, and an interview with game-related artist Damiano Colacito. Erudition!

- It's No Sack Er Ee Fice?: Kieron Gillen says nice things about Shiny's semi-forgotten Sacrifice: "Sacrifice reminds me exactly how good, how imaginative, how brilliant it’s possible for a videogame to be and it’s clear that no-one’s going to spend serious money on making a game like it ever again."

- From ARGs to Dreamcasts: I almost forgot the site I actually run! The Gamasutra goodness from today includes Elan Lee talking about his storied history in ARGs, as well as Dan Loosen at the GOAT Store talking about why Dreamcast indie game development is rad - yes, seriously, and there's also a fun interview with Blimey! Games' Ian Bell on how "the time is right for a “race sim Halo.”"

[UPDATE - I remembered how I used to do these to make them more readable with regard to bolding and headlines - and made it so!]

GDC, From A Game Journo's Perspective

- So earlier, GSW and Gama's colleagues at the Game Developers Conference sent out a fresh newsletter which detailed some of the changes for GDC 2007, taking place next March at the Moscone Center in beautiful San Frandisco.

Part of the newsletter was info on Dave Perry's game design lecture picks for the show, and there's an amusing map of the new GDC floor layout included in there, complete with wacky annotations in pencil and 'boss monster' signs.

Well, of course, Wired News' Chris Kohler had to flip things round, and posted 'Game Developers Conference From a Journalist's Point of View', which apparently consists of a gigantic blur, all flowing around free alcohol and David Jaffe. And of course, those two things never, ever, ever come into close proximity with each other, so no streams will be crossed in March with regard to the twain. Yay!

[Also, GDC is starting up Geek Of The Week again, which is an ancient tradition in which game developers come forward and admit that they are goofy, in the direct context of GDC-ization. If you're a developer, and goofy, go sign up for it!]

GameSetExclusive Impressions: Platypus, Luxor For PSP

- Well, since I've been badgering them for retail copies, looks like I'll be one of the first people online to talk about MumboJumbo's first two PSP titles, 2D claymation side-scrolling shooter (!) Platypus and ball-matching 2D puzzler Luxor, both of which just debuted for Sony's handheld at a $30 price point.

MumboJumbo is best known nowadays for its PC casual games such as the aforementioned Luxor, of course, so this is an interesting experiment for them - I think we have a Gamasutra interview coming up in which they talk about it a little. Unfortunately, given the rapid saturation of the PSP market, I'm not sure they will see that much traction from these games, but since their costs are low, hopefully they'll keep making interesting indie titles for the PlayStation Portable - because both of these games are worth checking out for their own reasons.

Firstly, let's talk about Platypus - which started as a PC indie downloadable game, and has made a pretty decent, extended translation to the PSP. I can find a press release for the game's debut, but there aren't any PSP-specific screenshots online that I can see. In any case, the game looks basically like the PC version, which is to say, featuring lots of cute claymation sprites, great background parallax, some slightly plain special effects, and six long worlds with fair and playable shooter gameplay.

[ADDENDUM: Mike Arkin pops up in the comments to mention: "I run the MumboJumbo LA studio (formerly Zono) that developed both of these games. That said, I just wanted to clarify that Platypus wasn't converted by Idigicon, but in fact was converted to the PSP by MumboJumbo." I originally had it as iDigicon (the controversial rights-owners, since their logo is on the game and the box), so this is now fixed!]

Overall, it definitely feels a little barebones, but oddly, what I like about it is that it feels tuned for Western audiences - it's not excessively hardcore, it's easy to play through gradually, and it has intelligent and easy to grab powerups. It's that rarest of things, an accessible PSP shooter - and with the hardcore starved for new shmups and us half-assed shooter players looking for something pleasant, it's definitely an entertaining diversion. But, as I said - a bit barebones. It does have a Survival Mode, though!

One piece of _extreme_ oddness, though - the game's soundtrack is provided by C64Audio.com, and includes remixes of C64 tracks like Wizball, Parallax, Comic Bakery, and Sanxion from Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, and others. I'm sure Hubbard and Galway gave their permission, but how about the makers of the original games? Do they even need to? Heck, Comic Bakery was a Konami arcade machine first. I'm not trying to get anyone in trouble, here, but the concept of a new game having a soundtrack made up of remixes of old, completely unrelated games by diffferent companies is... a bit boggling?

[ADDENDUM: There's a thread on the IndieGamer forums from the original Platypus creator, Anthony Flack, where it's revealed that he seems to have signed away the rights to the original game for a pittance, which is unfortunate - there was also some claims that he wasn't credited, but a commenter mentions that his name is cited in the manual, if not the game. The same IndieGamer thread also has impressions from original creator Flack on the conversion, which are pretty interesting.]

- As for Luxor: The Wrath Of Set, MumboJumbo's flagship casual game has made a magnificent conversion to the PSP, with the new SKU developed by the company itself. In fact, it's such an apposite adaptation that it's probably one of my top 5 PSP games to date, and it has me wishing that more of the best casual game firms could do console versions of their top games (something that's coming soon, I guess, with Diner Dash making an appearance in 2007!)

Sure, Luxor is descended from Zuma, which is descended from PuzzLoop (shoot the balls to match them up and make them disappear!) But interestingly, the second two of these use rotating controls, which I personally find pretty fiddly with D-pad or PSP analog-style controls. So it turns out that Luxor's incremental innovation, which is to put your ball shooter on a horizontal axis, much like a Break-out/Arkanoid pad, is very easy to use with the PSP's handheld controls.

Quite apart from that, the presentation - music, artwork, level stylings - are all excellent, and there are multiple difficulty levels alongside both 'Endless' and 'Story'-style modes - not quite the large amount of modes available in something like Lumines II, but plenty enough to keep you engaged for a good while.

So, all in all, it feels like a good start for MumboJumbo on PSP. I'd really love to see them stretch onto DS with some of these titles, too - although Mitchell has already done PuzzLoop on DS as Magnetica, so some of those bases are covered in terms of the broad genre. In the mean time, I'm left wondering whether being 'different' on PSP is actually a good thing - are more PSP users going to be PS2-style consumers who want sports games and movie licenses, leaving these puzzle and niche shooter titles entirely out in the cold? Time (and units shipped) will tell.

GameSetWatch - The Future Of The Future

- A couple of words on GameSetWatch, then. I think I've tried to back away and otherwise re-arrange the concept of what GSW means to myself and CMP a couple of times. But now, as you may have spotted, it's finally happened - we're posting less material as of earlier this week, but what we do post is more personal/targeted, and in more detail.

Briefly, here's why. When I started GameSetWatch back in late 2005, Joystiq and Kotaku were really the only games in town, as far as full-featured blogs go. They cover everything - from breaking PlayStation 3 news to wacky Japanese commercials - and they're getting increasingly good at that, with swelling staff numbers. Not only that, but I consider both Destructoid and Wired's Game|Life to be worthy adversaries for the 'comprehensive blog' crown, and they've really come to prominence and relevance in the last year or so. There are a lot of fish in the sea now.

So, I was definitely flirting with the concept of expanding GameSetWatch into a fully featured, super-competitive blog - and in fact, we've previously used columnists and news writers who now write for some of the major blogs. But in the end, the CMP Game Group is much more of a B2B, industry publication, and consumer isn't totally in our blood (or business model!) right now.

And you know, I think that GSW works best with highly targeted columns from our very kind contributors, and more in-depth commentary, game analyses, and other shenanigans from me, including info about what cool stuff I'm doing with my 'day job' - rather than 'OMG, here's a cool eBay auction!', or other crazed linktrawling. And as for reporting the mainstream OMG PS3 news - we cover all that on Gamasutra in more canonical form, anyhow. So that's always felt a bit pointless.

This doesn't mean that GSW won't morph in the future, but what I'm hoping to do is to sorta stick to a Merc News game-blog level of posting - erudition, but in slight moderation, rather than racing to trawl Bloglines so I can frantically post 4 or 5 new mini-posts to get us through tomorrow. Or that's the plan, Stan!

[Addendum: This shift is obviously somewhat related to my workload overseeing Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra, and the IGF/Independent Games Summit, since GDC is coming up, and I have some new responsibilities to grow some fresh Game Group products, too - which I will be mentioning here when they are ready for primetime, since there's some danger that you may think they are cool.

Oh, and on another note, our spam filter is acting up again, so I'm manually approving comments for a bit. So if you comment here or elsewhere and it doesn't appear on the post for a little bit - don't worry, I'll get to it in due course!]

December 5, 2006

GSW Report: Blip Festival 2006, Part 2

[Here's the second part of the report into NYC's amazing Blip Festival for video game-ish chiptunes, as written up by Brian 'Click-Stick' Liloia - many thanks to both him and Matt Hawkins (who wrote the first part, and collated both!) for the great coverage, and to Nullsleep, Bitshifter, and everyone else who put together the fest in the first place.]

Seriously, though. It feels like chiptunes just got a major up in prominence, legitimacy, and respectability with the recent Blip Festival, a massive four day event with over 30 international chiptune artists blasting low tech bleeps and blurps against the walls of 15 Nassau Street in New York City. Never before has it felt so good to be a fan of low tech music. This was a hugely satisfying event in every sense of the word, and I’m incredibly happy for the folks involved in the festival for making it such a big success.

When all was said and done, after four days of nearly 24 hours total of incredible music, I didn’t want to even leave the place. I almost shed a tear when the final act wrapped. (Ok, I won’t overdo it beyond that..)

But anyway, let’s talk a bit about Friday and Saturday nights…

PHOTO: Phillip Torrone

Friday’s show forecasted the overall trend of Blip Festival, which meant that each night was to be progressively more crowded than the next. (Though, Sunday seemed about on par with Saturday, I think.)

The night started off strongly with a heart-thumping set by Rabato, one of many artists I have never heard previous to the fest. I can still feel his ‘Simachip’ beating against my body. His was the addictively dance-y style that sticks with you after the GameBoys have all been powered down, and he definitely left an impression with me. Continuing Rabato’s flow of high energy, Quarta330 delivered more crushing tunes with a similar big beat style. I know I’ll be looking to download some of his stuff in the near future. Breaking up the previous two heavy duty performances, Pepino, a quirky duo consisting of one Spanish native and his accompanying Japanese-born female vocalist, dished out pop-y charm, singing in English, Japanese, and Spanish. They were a real treat, and definitely broke up the night nicely with their light-hearted vocals and sweet, yet still very danceable melodies. Bonus points for tambourine banging.

Following them was another original act by Mark DeNardo, mixing acoustic guitar in with traditional GameBoy-style chip sounds. He reminded me of David Sugar of the UK, but still… that’s only because he too adapts an acoustic guitar into his music. It’s amazing how different the two are despite that similarity. (David Sugar did not actually play at BF, though.) Coova, a female performer from Japan settled the crowd down with some soothing, mellow, and smoothly paced sounds. But the pace quickly ramped up when Bit Shifter hit the stage and threw the crowd into a manic frenzy with massive, bassy beats typical of his hard-hitting chiptunes. Bit Shifter has always been a pleasure to watch with his addictive fist-pumping energy. He never really fails to deliver, and this time was no exception.

Next up was Herbert Weixelbaum, who remains a bit vague in my memory, probably because he was right before Random, one of my favorite strictly GameBoy-using artists, who delivered an extraordinary set of songs, putting the crowd into yet another wildfire. By the time he was through, the crowd was so riled up that Random played an extra song, and awesomely enough, it happened to be one of my favorites of his. Hell of a way to end the night.

Overall, Friday was a brilliant and exhaustingly good time, but only a sliver of the insanity that would go down on Saturday.

Saturday saw a massive influx of audience members, and the place was literally jammed with people. (When Matt and I later spoke with nullsleep on Sunday, he told us that 500 tickets were sold for that night - cripes on toast!) I was very excited to see people there that had no previous exposure to chiptunes. Many people got right into it, dancing their hearts away, while a few seemed simply intrigued by what was going on, and perhaps even confused. But, the crowd was a sure sign that the fairly heavy promotion did some good.

The night started off with a screening of Super Mario Movie, a hacked version of an actual Super Mario Bros. cart. It was quirky, but cool to see in action.

PHOTO: Phillip Torrone

The Depreciation Guild started the music ball rolling, and was probably a nice ease-in-er for all the chiptune newbians with their melodic guitar riffing overlaid on chip sounds. These guys had a very unique vibe, much more akin to rock than the more familiar dance-style chiptune flavors.

However, Aonami hit the stage afterwards and unleashed some very major, heavy duty hardcore-ish breakbeat style chip sounds. I don’t really know what you might call it, but it was definitely heavy. He was way different compared to when I last saw him a year ago (or probably longer ago than that by now) at the original Tank location on 42nd Street. All the while, he screamed and grunted in the mic, but unfortunately his yelling wasn’t audible because of mic problems. I really felt bad for him for expelling all that energy without the crowd being able to hear it… But, still a fun watch. Fun guy.

Massive, lurking, and hugely Swedish Covox was up next, and proved to be a big delight. I saw him at the same time as Aonami last year, and I was anxiously awaiting him again this time around. He’s so tall and lanky, and just watching him move around the stage is fun in itself, but his music is really top-notch, too. He whipped out classics like Summer Fruit Dance Party, and newer goodies like Jet Alone, which I was hugely excited to hear live. Overall, awesome stuff. And you gotta love his commentary in-between songs about the US and New York being “home of the disco gays”.

Next up was Bud Melvin, a banjo-toting chiptuner. (As if playing music off a GameBoy wasn’t weird enough, this guy goes and adds a banjo to the mix… what the hell.) He was definitely a riot and a fun listen. Entertaining for sure.

PHOTO: Phillip Torrone

Up next was Nullsleep (who somehow earned the title of Fucking Nullsleep for the evening, it seems), who of course delivered some crowd pleasers. As expected, he whipped out the traditional PC keyboard for the old classic song whose title of course totally escapes me now that I have to remember it. He surprised the crowd when he played a brand new Kraftwek cover, complete with funky robotic vocals. Again, Nullsleep is always a pleasure to watch and he never really fails to pack a wallop.

After Nullsleep came Hally, who again, I have never heard before, but delivered an amazing set. This guy was great, really. Epic dance-y stuff here, but very original and fresh. During his set, he demoed off the work of another artist on what I think was an MSX (I couldn’t understand exactly what he explained) that proved to be popular. Definitely another highlight of the evening. I’m gonna need to find his music online, too.

At this point, I think the crowd was way worn down, as about half the audience must have drifted out of the venue. And no surprise, since it must have been about 1:30 a.m. by this time. TouchBoy hit the stage and kept energy high for the remaining crowd with more big beats. I myself was fairly exhausted at this point and had to sit down towards the end of his set, unfortunately.

Finally, Kplecraft ended the night with more very original work featuring two members playing some kind of jazz saxophone-thingy and some hand drums (can you tell I’m not down with music terminology?) on top of chip sounds. Again, very original stuff here. I just wish I wasn’t so wiped out so that I could appreciate it a bit more, but it was exciting nonetheless.

Hell of a show, that Blip Festival. The entire fest felt like an unending high, with incredible and addictive energy on display throughout all four evenings. The whole thing was extremely well planned, and it was definitely sad to see it wrap. Let’s hope for an even bigger event next year.

Amazing work, guys and gals.

2006's Biggest Quantum Leap In Gaming?

-Over at the site that we actually run while we secretly steal away to post on GSW, Gamasutra, we've opened a new poll for the 'Quantum Leap' award for 2006. What that? Well, read on, and you'll find out!

"Following the successes of the the first 'Quantum Leap' award, for the FPS, the the second, for the RPG, and the third, for storytelling, Gamasutra readers are invited to participate in this poll, which will pick the games that have advanced the state of the art in 2006.

Your pick for the award can be in any genre (from text adventure through action title to RPG or sim and beyond) and for any platform. But it must have been released in North America from January 1st, 2006 to date, and should be the single game that you think has advanced the video game genre the most - rather than more polished but more incremental milestones in gaming.

(Please give some detail as to exactly why your voted game in question is 2006's biggest Quantum Leap in gaming. You can use MetaCritic search or GameRankings search to remind you of some of the top games or to check their eligibility, if you're stuck for choice.)

Thus, the question, which can be answered at the official Question Of The Week page until December 12th, is: "Which video game has made the biggest 'quantum leap' in 2006, in terms of innovation and advancing the state of the art of the industry?"

As with the previous questions, the best responses will be compiled into an article to be published on the site, and users can either respond publically, with their name and company specifically cited, or anonymize their answers if they wish."

GSW Report: Blip Festival 2006, Part 1

[We've previously discussed the pretty darn amazing-looking, video game-ish chiptune-tastic Blip Festival in NYC, and thanks to reportage from Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins, plus Brian 'Click-Stick' Liloia, we present a gigantic report on the festival itself, full of pics - watch for part 2 from Brian coming soon, this is Matt's half.]

This past Thursday was the opening night of the very first Blip Festival, perhaps the biggest, and baddest, assemblage of chiptunes musicians ever to grace a single stage anywhere in the world. As expected, it all went down at The Tank, which has become the home for Game Boy music in the Big Apple.

And this time around, the Tank offered a proper stage. The non-profit outfit that offers a space for all forms of art and artists in NYC has always provided excellent chiptune shows, but their venues have never been one might hope for. But given how small and financially strapped the organization is (hence they hopping around town) one can’t complain. Oh, and the fact that they have the guts to get behind as something as insane as the Blip Fest, on top of their monthly chiptunes offerings, has to be respected. But there were absolutely no complaints this around; my literally dropped when I saw the stage and gigantic pixel light wall in the background. Very nice… And the sound would prove to be just as fantastic. Damn near perfect even.

NIGHT 1

My first stop was the merch table. Jeremiah, aka Nullsleep, aka the brains behind the entire fest, and his girlfriend were running things, with a bunch of mini CD-Rs by various artists from the fest. Though the centerpiece was the brand new 50th release by the 8bit peoples label, represented as a double CD release (with even more songs available on the web). Oh, and some nifty shirts too.

PHOTO: Phillip Torrone

A little past eight, the first performer hit the stage, and it was virt, whom many know and love. And as expected, his set was melodic, jazzy, and pretty rocking. For this evening, he primarily stuck with an electric guitar hooked up to a keyboard, hooked up to an old PowerBook G3 (at times we had one hand on the strings, another on the keyboard keys… has to be seen to believed). His music could be best described as sounding very much like the soundtrack to the first NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game (it was his fave growing up, and its impact is quite evidentl), with some obvious bits of Castlevania here and there. One of the quotes of night had to be near the end of his set when someone yelled out “Play ten more songs!!!”

PHOTO: Matthew Hawkins

The crowd was pretty decent for the first night. A good turn out, especially for a Thursday evening. Aside from friends, I saw a lot of familiar faces, many of them chiptune diehards that come out to each and every show. There was also this gang of crazy rave-type kids, just dancing around, flailing their arms and shit. Like all rave-type kids, they were fun to watch… at first. Then they got kinda annoying, but hey, shows bring out those types of folks. I recall seeing early on that one had a almost bottle of Jim Beam, hence all the energy.

Back to the show… next was Receptors, who used various Game Boys (an old Brick Boy, a GBA SP, even a Game Boy Micro) to drive his beats, and some sort of voice modulator for the singing. Most of its was trance-y stuff, which I’m not normally into, but the Nanoloop songs in the middle at the end were simply superb. I had no idea the GB could produce such ambient sounds.

PHOTO: Matthew Hawkins

Third up was another NYC fave, Glomag, and another Game Boy guy. Once again, the guy delivered the goods, that being a nice mix of semi-trancy and very dancy originals and covers, all with his usual cool, casual, and sometimes joke-cracking self.

PHOTO: Becky Stern

Fourth up was Starpause, a guy I had never heard of before. His tunes, also via Game Boy, were hard and heavy… very dancehall, almost reggae-like… and believe it or not, quite sexy. If you ever want to have hot sex with a girl (or guy) to chiptunes music, Starpause is the guy you need to have qued up. The performance itself is hard to describe… the guy just exuded energy, raw, and once again, quite sexual. But the set was particularly enjoyable simply because it was obvious that Starpause himself was having the time of his life. He was also the very first recipient of Josh, aka Bit Shifter’s nervous “Umm… dude, you’re awesome and all, but we’ve got like three hundred other bands behind you” look from the side of the stage.

PHOTO: Matthew Hawkins

It was also around this time that the ravers were starting to make their presence be known. I had been up front for virt and Receptors and watched them make their way to the front. For Glomag and Starpause, I stepped back a bit, to avoid the flailing arms (I’m pretty sure they weren’t just drunk, but if they weren’t also on ecstasy then… wow). But for the next guy up, x|k, I simply had to be close to the stage.

One of the guys had a video camera, who then turned and asked if I could tape the performance for him. He wanted to dance and didn’t want to be burdened with handling a camera. At this point, I was already annoyed by his friends, but he seemed the nicest one of the them all, plus when he went “I’m gonna YouTube it tomorrow!” I figured, well, it would be nice for the rest of the world to see what they were missing, so I agreed. He even let me take a few swigs off his beer, which was nice (even though it was Budweiser).

x|k was simply insane. And his loud and crazy hard techno/trance set, driven by the Midines, a device of his own creation (its basically a modified NES cartridge that enables MIDI controls of the system’s sound chip, which has been used by many chiptunes world round) simply tore the roof open.

PHOTO: Irene Kaoru

Unfortunately for myself, I really couldn’t enjoy the performance since I was playing camera man… which in itself wasn’t so bad, but the same guy who asked me was so out of control with his “dancing” that he ended up punching me in the nuts about five times (not hard, just grazing, but still). Not to mention all the times him and his cronies stomped on my feet, again accidental, but still highly annoying, or how he fell on me, which knocked me over, but thankfully people caught me. I was so fucking pissed that I felt like smashing his camera to bits, but didn’t. Instead, after the performance, I handed the camera back to him and gave him a sarcastic “gee, that was fucking enjoyable” snarky response. Afterwards, while grabbing some fresh air, the dude tried to apologize, and even offered to let me punch him the nuts, but instead I just brushed him off to talk with virt, in an attempt to look all cool. Cuz there’s nuthin cooler than acting like king shit of f*ck mountain when you’ve got important business things to talk with a chiptunes maestro, like asking if he’s ever seen Turkish Star Trek.

Next was Goto80, one of the folks that I was most psyched about checking out the festival for. And the man from Sweden did not disappoint; Gotto80’s style and sounds are all over the map, and pushed the Commodore 64 sound chip to its breathtaking limits. The man is responsible for “Fantasy”, perhaps the greatest chiptune song ever, which is about a girl falling in love with her computer, and who professes her mad lust for the machine by asking it to be inside of her, literally. So I was happy when Goto80 was closing up his set and asked the audience for a request, Nullsleep yelled out “FANTASY!!!” But since he was by himself, Goto80 had to do the female part himself, which totally added a different flavor to the song. Totally awesome nonetheless.

The 7th act up was Tugboat, who accompanies his own beeps and boops (composed beforehand on a NES I believe… could be wrong) with live drumming. Virtually every song is strung together, in a medley fashion, which means zero pauses between songs, which there were plenty of. There were originals and a few covers here there, with my fave being Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy. The guy is a nonstop ball of energy, the kind that makes you rock, but every couple minutes or so, you just have to stop and look at the guy to go “wow”. Though the best part might have been before the music started, when he got “interrupted by a phone call from his parents, who basically sounded like the parents do in the Charlie Brown cartoons except, you know, chiptune-y.

PHOTO: Irene Kaoru

The last act for the night, who hit the stage near 1 was Chibi-Tech. I had never heard of the guy, and the only thing information I had on the guy was via the Blip Fest’s website which described him as “a mysterious Filipino-American from California out on a mission: to turn the Nintendo Entertainment System into a singing superstar! “ The guy was an absolute trip; he actually didn’t “play” any of his music; it simply ran off of his iBook, while he just stood there and “danced” around the stage, occasionally lip-synching the lyrics to his songs, which was completely unintelligible. He also addressed the crowd a few times, and again, I had no fucking idea what he was talking about. But that was part of the charm. He even jumped up and down and basically acted like a totally lovable goofball. I heard that he was supposed to perform in a dress (apparently he’s a big-time Cosplayer), but his hair and make-up guy couldn’t make it, so that plan was scrapped. Bummer.

Night one ended with the mysterious voice that introduced all the acts throughout the fest saying “Only 25 more sets to go!”

NIGHT 4

PHOTO: Matthew Hawkins

As mentioned previously, I couldn’t make the second or third nights due to personal commitments. When I arrived at the Tank early Sunday evening, I caught up with Brian and he gave me the low-down on what I had missed (I already knew that Hally was the big hit of the previous night). I also heard that the place was insanely packed; Jeremiah would tell me that they sold 500 tickets that night alone, though the place never had that many people in in at any single time. When I asked what the crowd was like, there were apparently a lot of fresh faces, mostly hipsters, perhaps drawn in by the various media coverage leading up to the event, primarily from the Village Voice and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. When I asked Brian what they thought of it, primarily if they seemed to dig what they saw and heard, he mentioned that many of them were totally confused, with a definite “WTF” look on their faces. But apparently a few from the main influx liked what they heard and decided to stick till the end of the night, which was nice.

And when I arrived, things did feel a bit different. Instead of just the diehards, one’s who had been there since night one, I saw some new faces, mostly hipsters. Lots of cute hipster girls really. And lots, and lots of bloggers.

I also asked Jeremiah about the show itself, the planning and all that jazz. I had first heard about the Blip Fest in early August, on our way to Otakon, but it was still just some crazy idea (hence why he asked me not to say anything). I simply figured that he had been working on it from that point on ever since, but in reality, things only started to move in early September, just three months ago. But things then moved very fast. Much like his previous crazy ideas, such as the world tour that him and Josh embarked on just earlier in the year, the plan was to ask each and every great chip musician to come to NYC for the event, but due to an extremely restrictive budget (translation: none), every performer would have to pay for their own airfare and accommodations. The most that could be promised would be $50-$100, and it was hoped that performers would come for the love of performing. And as evidenced by awe-inspiring line-up, hope paid off, with people lining up for the chance to be part of the show. And thankfully, the healthy ticket sales not only ensured a far healthier pay-off for each artist, but ensured that there would be a Blip Fest 2007.

When I asked if there was any possible way to top this year’s show, Jeremiah gave that same sly smile that I’ve grown used to and replied with “yes”, he does indeed have an idea, which he claimed no one had previously thought of before, and that if him and Josh could pull it off, it would be simply epic. And given their track record, there is no doubt that Jeremiah can make chiptune history once again.

I had also heard from the previous night that Bud Melvin was pretty amazing too, who accompanied his chip compositions with a banjo (and also had a pretty awesome beard). Anyway, onto that evening’s show…

First man up was Saitone, who’s apparently one of the very first indie chiptune artists to hail from Japan. His opener was a great kick-off to the evening, which played around with the Game Boy power on chime. The set was a great mix of jazzy, dancy techno that just got more and more intense as he went on, culminating in an absolutely mind-blowlingly awesome pair of Namco remixes, featuring Xevious and Dig Dug (I’m sorry, but I am a total bitch when it comes to Xevious remixes).

PHOTO: Brian Liloia

Next was another act from the east Portalenz. The only way I can describe them would be to imagine a pair of out of control Japanese punk kids, thrashing about on stage, in midst of either of ecstasy and/or a heart attack, with a Game Boy crazy glued to their hands, which happened to also be hot-wired into their brains. They were totally nuts.

PHOTO: Brian Liloia

Third up was Jeroen Tel, hailing from the Netherlands. The only thing I knew about this guy was that he was the guy who created the music to the Sega arcade classic Afterburner, which meant I liked him before I even heard any of his music. And by the end, I had a new object of a bro-mance. The guy was simply amazing, simply put. His entire set was just one non-stop killer Euro dance cut after another, much of which sounded like a Commodore 64 chip trying to best to create Genesis music (parts of it was VERY Yuzo Koshiro-ish), and succeeding brilliantly. I swear, I could have listened to his stuff all night long.

PHOTO: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

Next was perhaps the headliner for the entire fest, the one group everyone had been waiting for, and a major reason why, all of a sudden, the place was overflowing with tons of cute girls: YMCK, the pop darlings of the chiptunes world. Their entire act was very Japanese, which I guess is hardly surprising since they are from Japan after-all, but still… it was all very elegant, very formal, yet still very lighthearted and charming, with that patented ultra bubbly/happy/shiny esthetic that everyone knows and loves from the land of Hello Kitty. Basically, one guy plays music with a keyboard attached to a Famicom, as does another girl with the same set-up, both dressed in very sharp black suits, with white shirts and red ties, while a girl dressed in an outfit with the same white and red (Famicom themed) dress who looks straight out of an anime does the lead vocals and dances around, looking insanely cute and stuff.

PHOTO: Brian Liloia

Listening to their wonderfully poppy melodies is one thing, but their live act elevates the music to a whole different level; each song has an accompanying bit of animation, which is insanely cute and awesome.

PHOTO: Matthew Hawkins

At one point, they interrupted the music to present a special message from a friend from outer space. The friend ended up being Darth Vader, and on screen was an image from some old NES game, with a cheesy NES rendition of the Vader theme (and even cheesier NES driven Vader breathing sound effects). He didn’t really do anything but just stand there, and yet it was still so amazing. Never before have I ever been to a rock concert, chiptune or not, in which I heard more audible “awwww”s.

PHOTO: Brian Liloia

The next act was another hometown favorite, Bubblyfish. I’ve seen her perform a few times now, and each performance has been radically different from each other, even though her tools (she’s another Game Boy-er) is more or less the same each time. This might be due to the nature of her highly improvisational performance methodology.

PHOTO: Brian Liloia

It was during her set that I decided to use the bathroom. I was afraid that once YMCK had exited the stage, so would a majority of the crowd, but many had decided to stick around for the rest of the show thankfully (though a few of the ultra cutesey girls did leave… you know, it being a school night and all). While standing in line to use the facilities, I ended up striking a conversation with a guy from Texas. He was with Element Labs, which was the group that had provided the fest with the ultra hawt pixel backdrop. Apparently it had shipped via the back of a truck from Texas, specifically for the show, and it would be heading back the very next day. Anyway, really nice guy.

Performer number 6 was Neil Voss, who was provided the the suave, rock star contingency for the fest. His set I guess could be best described as 80’s power rock, or something in that vein. Voss is most known for his work in Tetrisphere and The New Tetris, and anyone that’s played those fame will agree that they probably feature the absolute best soundtracks ever to be heard coming from an N64. Voss apparently used to play live on a regular basis but stopped a few years ago for whatever reason (he also looked pretty frustrated by the end… I believe he was having some technical problems with the vocals). But the crowd loved him (especially the ladies) and unbeknownst to him, played the role of the rock star hear throb that doesn’t want to be one with total perfection.

PHOTO: Brian Liloia

Lucky number 7 that evening was Tristan Perich, who’s another hard guy to pin down. Part avant guard rock star, part inventor, Tristan’s also drums to pre-composed chip songs. But the reason why he calls his music one-bit is because all the sounds are produced from a very striped down chip-set of his own creation that looks like a bunch of random bits glued inside a CD jewel case. Yet another energetic set, from the guy that loves his crowd, so much so that half way through he insisted on playing in the thick of them, by bringing his entire drum set down with him.

PHOTO: Brian Liloia

The 8th and final act for the evening, as well as the last act of the fest were the kids that are alright, Anamanaguchi. I guess you could say that Pete, the band’s front guy, and I have become friends, ever since I was able to grab a Wii for him the night the system launched. He even thanked me on stage, which was nice. To start off their set, he asked the audience for an early 90’s theme song to cover, and I yelled out Twin Peaks, and a lot of folks around me were in total agreement. Pete said that Twin Peaks did indeed have a great theme, but Growing Pains’ was better, which they immediately began to play. I’m pretty sure Pete didn’t hear my demands that I wanted the Wii back. Anyway, their set was the perfect closer to an amazing event: pure, unbridled indie rock fused with unstoppable NES beats. They totally rocked the crowd and also had a massive contingency of cute girls going nuts for them as well. And good for them, they’re nice guys, and every rock band needs groupies (btw, sorry for beating the cute girls angle to death, but trust me, after going to chiptunes shows for about three years now, its nice to see the opposite sex there at the end of the night, instead of a bunch of sweaty gamer/music dorks… no offense guys).

PHOTO: Brian Liloia

And yeah… that was it. Blip Fest 2006. It came, it saw, it beeped. Very loudly.

PHOTO: Phillip Torrone

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': An ode to Sandlot

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers the rise of cult developer Sandlot and their unique viewpoint on mecha gaming]

sandlot_logo.jpgAs promised, here’s my low-down of a rather wonderful Japanese games developer by the name of Sandlot. Officially formed in March of 2001, they approached the genre of mecha gaming with quite literally a new perspective.

In 1953 a budding manga artist, by the name of Mitsuteru Yokoyama, penned a series that would be responsible for laying the foundations of a pop-cultural phenomenon that has now lasted over half a century. The series involved a young boy remote controlling a giant robot by the name of Tetsujin 28-go (translated as Iron Man 28 and released abroad as Gigantor). This focus of the boy controlling a huge mecha from ground level was clearly an inspirational one in the case of Sandlot’s genesis.

For almost all but one of Sandlot’s games they have a very similar gameplay implementation in regards to the player viewpoint, that of a boy on the ground looking up at an immense mechanical behemoth (or at the very least a discernable sense of scale to the gaming proceedings).

It’s also interesting to note that this mechanical inspiration has consequently spawned a more successful series of games.

More after the jump…

Remote Control Dandy (PlayStation)

rcd_ps1.jpgTechnically this was made pre-Sandlot, in 1999, for the now defunct Human. The game was based around the player controlling a large mecha limb by limb from a fixed viewpoint on the ground. As a consequence, the player toggled between their human player and the mecha (allowing the former to get a better viewpoint on the resultant robotic carnage).

It's worth explaining here what controlling a mecha limb by limb actually entails. The shoulder buttons represent the left and right leg respectively. In that pressing L1 and R1 sequentially makes the mecha walk by moving it's left leg forward followed by its right leg. Conversely L2 and R2 make your mecha walk backwards. In the case of Dandy, arms are controlled via the face buttons Circle and Square respectively. Taking out a target requires the player to basically punch the crap out of it.

Due to the limitations of the original PlayStation pad, the game only let you control one thing at a time. In that, you had to toggle control between the mecha and the human viewpoint. This meant the human protagonist's job was to get the best vantage point on the situation so that the mecha could tackle their target with greater clarity and ease. Understandably, the learning curve for the controls was pretty steep but surprisingly tactile nonetheless.

Dandy was the first game ever to try something like this in terms of mecha gaming and it worked really well. This was never released outside of Japan though and is only really recommended to the hardier brand of importers, well those that don't mind PlayStation era graphics at least.

Tekkouki Mikazuki: Trial Edition (PlayStation 2)

mikazuki_tv.jpgTo tie in with a 6 part live action mini series based around the majestic Mikazuki, this game was released with the first pressing of the original soundtrack and is quite hard to get now (to put it mildly).

The show told the story of Kazeo, a young boy whose life was saved by the appearance of a giant robot called Mikazuki during a monster attack. When it was discovered that Kazeo had the unique ability to pilot the robot in battle, he became a member of the AIT team. AIT was dedicated to protecting the Earth from Idea-Monsters (Idom). These creatures were the manifestations of people's thoughts, and often appeared in unthreatening (even humorous) forms before transforming into vicious monsters.

This was very similar to Remote Control Dandy in terms of its gameplay approach but more simplified in terms of limb control and attacks. Though, more importantly, this was the tech that Sandlot prototyped for use on their other PlayStation 2 games.

Gigantic Drive (PlayStation 2)

giganticdrive_cover.jpgThe first official Sandlot game and the one that got released abroad as Robotic Alchemic Drive. To all intents and purposes, this was Remote Control Dandy deluxe. The game focused on controlling each limb of your mecha from a fixed viewpoint, much like Dandy. The tech that had been prototyped on Mikazuki was taken further with Gigantic Drive. In addition to your bog standard skyscraper sized mecha, two of three available robots actually transformed too (one into huge tank and the other a futuristic war plane).

The biggest change over Dandy and Mikazuki was that the arms for each of the mecha were controlled via the left and right anologue sticks respectively. This resulted in the game really feeling like a mechanical puppet show; not to mention mastering punches, jabs and uppercuts was a more demanding affair than simply pressing a single button (a la Dandy).

Gigantic Drive also introduced the ability to have the human characters attack one another, rather than just getting stepped on by their mechanical avatars. This produced some interesting instances where finding the other player in multiplayer meant securing an easier win (after all if you took them out with a well placed grenade they wouldn’t be able to control their mecha).

I, personally, have many fond memories associated with this game. When I was living in Japan, local kids used to come over and play games. Gigantic Drive consequently got lots of versus playtime and several vocal victory dances (by the kids, not me).

The Chikyuu Boueigun (PlayStation 2)

chikyuu_cover.jpgFor those not familiar with Japanese publishers D3, they’re one of the main forces in budget gaming in Japan. Releasing games for around 2,000 yen a pop they offer affordable gaming to the casual masses.

D3 approached Sandlot off the back of Gigantic Drive to make a game with the same engine. What D3 got was a game where the player controlled a tiny human protagonist taking on vertically endowed aliens. In English, you tore giant alien ants a new one with rocket launchers in a massive destructible environment.

Admittedly, this wasn’t a mecha game per se (though it did feature a mecha Godzilla clone and huge alien tripods) but The Chikyuu Boueigun wouldn’t have been created without Sandlot’s previous mecha gaming outings. In many ways, their fascination with the scale of mecha and the mythos surrounding them crystallised a new and vastly satisfying third person action game.

In addition to the gun toting action, the player could also mount a nippy (but vulnerable) air bike, a tank and a helicopter (though the latter was notoriously tricky to handle). If that weren't enough, each of the game's single player missions could be played in two player co-operative multiplayer. For the price, the game was an unbelievable gem and it sold well as a consequence.

The Chikyuu Boueigun was released abroad as Monster Attack and garnered quite a following, to the point that several sequels have been spawned (though more of that later).

Tetsujin 28-go (PlayStation 2)

tetsujin28go_cover.jpgFollowing on from the success of The Chikyuu Boueigun, Bandai approached Sandlot with a chance to create a game to tie-in into the new Tetsujin 28-go re-make.

In many ways, having Sandlot make a game that started the mecha genre in Japan and more pertinently Sandlot’s focus on scale centric gameplay was almost prophetic.

The game was great though; similar to Gigantic Drive in approach but with a simplified set of controls for the arms (you only used the Dual Shock 2’s face buttons rather than the anologue sticks, which was more akin to Dandy than Gigantic Drive) but this produced a more focused and rhythmic pace to the combat. Something the smaller scale mecha were more suited towards.

The game also made more of an effort to model flight for each of the mecha. In addition, it was possible to have the mecha pick up their human controllers and negate the need to find the best viewpoint for the action. Tetsujin 28-go also offered some pretty raucous four player versus action.

Unfortunately, this never made it outside of Japan (despite the re-animated TV series making it abroad). Though the more poignant aspect of this game's release was that Mitsuteru Yokoyama died earlier in the year, never getting to see his formative work in gameplay form.

The Chikyuu Boueigun 2 (PlayStation 2)

chikyuu2_cover.jpgDespite the success of Tetsujin 28-go, Sandlot once again returned to the world of giant alien ants and huge alien motherships. In many ways the sequel was literally twice the size of the first game.

You now had two playable characters; the default vehicularly capable man and a new aerially competent woman. The game also sported nearly triple the number of missions from the previous game. Considering that this was a budget title, the amount of top notch gaming available puts many full-blown productions to shame (plus it started out in London, with giant aliens crawling all over the Houses of Parliament, which clearly makes it amazing).

Again, whilst technically not a mecha game (though it did feature more mechanical alien vessels this time around) the game clearly came from a honed understanding of how scale in mecha gaming is so important in relation to how the action is portrayed (as in suitably epic).

Some of the missions in the game were immense in scope and whilst the framerate often went on the fritz, the sheer immense undertaking was mightily impressive fun.

This also received a limited Western release, under the moniker of the Global Defence Force, and garnered an even greater following than the previous game.

Chousoujou Mecha MG (Nintendo DS)

mechamg_cover.jpgUp and till this game, Sandlot had focused on producing epic scale in gaming form. Considering the technical limitations of the Nintendo DS in this department, Sandlot turned their attention towards the platform’s unique touchscreen control setup.

In many ways, Mecha MG is a brave title. Instead of having the player on ground level looking up at a huge robot as well as having to reposition themselves for the best vantage point, they are instead placed directly behind their mecha but afforded a more complex control system on the touchscreen. To make matters more varied, each of the 100 mecha in the game sport totally different controls and gameplay attributes.

Unlike their previous games, where controlling a weighty mecha is meant to feel cumbersome, the controls in Mecha MG leave a little to be desired. In that, having multiple points of control clustered in close proximity with one another can often produce undesirable consequences (as in accidentally transforming your mecha into a roadster rather than swinging its arms). Admittedly, as with all games, this is part of the learning curve but in the case of the Remote Control Dandy lineage the deliberate movements made the game more tactical and afforded greater clarity to the controls, Mecha MG’s controls are subsequently more immediate and a little messy in contrast (to begin with at least).

This is not to say that Mecha MG isn’t a huge amount of fun and unlocking various new mecha and getting to play around with them is a huge draw (after all you want to know what crazy whacked out control system the game will throw at you next).

At present, this has only been given a Japanese release though with the Nintendo DS’ global success and the public’s desire for quirky titles, Mecha MG may get a Western release sometime soon.

Remote Control Dandy SF (PlayStation 2)

rcdsf_cover.jpgMeant as a sequel to the original Remote Control Dandy on the PlayStation, SF took the premise further by possibly having the most complex control system ever attempted on the Dual Shock 2.

Much like the original game, the player controls a large mecha limb by limb from ground level. The main difference over the games before it is that SF allows the player to control both the mecha and human commander simultaneously.

In that, you can move your viewpoint at the same time as moving each limb of your mecha. It takes a little getting used to but once mastered in makes the previous games feel quite constricted.

The reason I haven’t included this in the timeline above, is that technically it may not be a Sandlot game. True, it bears the same name as proto-Sandlot’s flagship game as well as many of the hallmarks of Sandlot’s scale based control. Yet, the game’s credits lack a mention of the company and more tellingly Sandlot’s online portfolio does not list SF at all.

Whether or not Sandlot worked on SF, it’s an excellent game that evolves Sandlot’s various opuses to the point it felt as though it should have always been thus. Plus, the name alone denotes a heritage that needs to be acknowledged.

Again, SF lacked a Western release. This obviously being a shame because the mecha design by Kow Yokoyama and the retro-stylings of the game’s visuals are pretty damn impressive, not to mention the fluidity of the gameplay.

…time to put that robot to bed

What with another Chikyuu Boueigun game around the corner (now on the Xbox 360 no less) and a Chikyuu Boeigun strategy game already out, Sandlot clearly have grown out of their mechanical pastures for the time being. Mecha MG showed that the company could tackle different design approaches with their vibrant mecha based enthusiasm, so with any luck we may see a similar effort on the Wii (with whacked out controls to match).

Whilst you often hear then term "sandbox" in regards to gaming, Sandlot's approach is arguably the Japanese equivalent. Huge destructible environments for the player to roam within (either with a mecha by their side or just with a trusty rocket launcher).

The interesting thing about Sandlot is that their unique approach to mecha gaming has had knock-on effects to the design of other genres, most notably that of action games, and there was me thinking that mecha could only destroy things.

[Ollie Barder is a freelance journalist who's written for The Guardian, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and contributed to Japanese mecha artbooks. He lives at home with an ever growing collection of Japanese die-cast robot toys and a very understanding wife.]

December 4, 2006

Anatomy Of A Goof - Xbox '360' Sales Down!

- I will try to be relatively polite, but one of the reasons that the 'new era' of blogs annoys me sometimes is this Joystiq story on 'Xbox 360 sales below expectations' - or more specifically, the way in which it was dumped onto _the_ major game blog unfactchecked and then retracted in a half-assed manner.

So, the linked story itself is from the Smarthouse News site in Australia, and explains that: "Microsoft shares have declined after it was revealed that worldwide sales of Xbox are not hitting their estimated targets... Bloomberg.co.uk is reporting that sales of the Xbox in the USA trailed Analysts expectations by 33%, for the month of November." OK, fair enough - maybe someone got hold of Thursday's NPD numbers early?

However, you may note that, due to some comments, Joystiq has updated: "Update: Apparently this is a false story that has been circulating the web chain-letter style. Let's wait until the official NPD numbers come out and add them to the weekly Japanese numbers." Ugh... 'this is a false story' as a phrase abdicates the Joystiq folks of _any_ necessity to factcheck, don't you think? Let's see where this story originally came from.

Well, the starting point is clearly Google News - where a search for 'Bob Austrian', the named analyst in the piece, reveals a Play.tm story from December 2nd. The Smarthouse News guys simply plagiarized the first couple of paragraphs of that story (yes, plagiarized - check out the missing apostrophe and odd capitalization on 'Analysts'), adding some Australian-relevant comments as the article descends into registration-only land.

Eh, so some minor plagiarism, all 'well and good' - but the original Play.tm story, if you look closely, is very clearly dated 'saturday, 14th dec 2002', and refers to the original Xbox. Play.tm is the new name for UK site Ferrago, which has been around for a good few years, and looking at Google News further reveals that their RSS feed has gone a little lunatic, and is dumping a lot of old stories up in addition to newer ones - for example, a story on the Atari 'TV game', also from December 2002.

So how did it get from there to Joystiq? Well, Gaming-Age Forums regular 'sonycowboy', who is normally a pretty smart guy, picked it up off Google News and posted it on the rabid GAF, and I'll bet my bottom dollar that Joystiq poster Justin Murray saw it on GAF, then just went ahead and dumped it straight onto the site without any further checking. And that, my friends, is where the problem lies.

If you're posting to the most-read game blog around, shouldn't you at least go check Bloomberg.co.uk and make sure you can find the story? That requires a minimum of effort. There are plenty of other giveaways here if you're on top of things - Michael Pachter's NPD preview released this morning clearly says that it's "arriving ahead of the actual NPD results, which will likely debut after market close on Thursday, December 7", and I've personally never heard of Bob Austrian, the cited analyst. (The last Banc Of America analyst related to games that we cited on Gamasutra was Gary Cooper, much to Chris Kohler's amusement.)

In effect, however, this is a minor wrinkle compared to the horrors of Digg, which make me screw up my fists and bawl like a little baby every time I peruse the tabloid-slanted headlines that shoot up to the main page. For example, as I look at the Digg gaming page now, I see 'USA Legalizes Abandonware', which is _explicitly not true_, and I should know, because I co-authored the original DMCA exemption.

There's even 'PlayStation 4 in 2010, Sony Execs Say', which is also an untrue headline - even the actual story itself (from the idiot Xbox story reprinters Smarthouse again, but not plagiarized this time!), notes: "A PS4 will be launched by Sony but not until at least 2010 claims the Vice President of Technology for Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Paul Holman".

But it offers no specific quote to back this up, and indeed seems to have major trouble with quotations, punctuation, and spelling mistakes throughout - and that's been picked up by GamePro and even Engadget, despite the shockingly inexact nature of the source article. If "To say that there will be no PS4 because of a management change is a bit far fetched" is a confirmation of a PlayStation 4, then my powers of logic must be deserting me this evening. And that, my friends, is why Internet journalism sucks in '06. Time to go get a beer!

2007 Independent Games Summit Line-Up Announced

- Though the first official announcement (which will include the 'mysterious' keynote speaker!) is a couple of weeks away, we've posted a preliminary version of the 2007 Independent Games Summit schedule up on the GDC site, with lotsa info about the CMP-organized summit, which takes place on Monday and Tuesday, March 5th and 6th 2007 during the tutorial daysGDC in San Fran.

(The Summit is semi-tied to the 2007 Independent Games Festival, which is open Wednesday March 7th through Friday March 9th, also at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, and will have a Pavilion with playable versions of lots of this year's best indie games (announcement on IGF Main Competition finalists will be this Saturday, watch out for it!), as well as the glittering IGF Awards on the Wednesday evening of GDC.)

Not quite everything is locked down (keynote announcement and some other specific lectures and panel info to follow, and some of the lecture descriptions are preliminary!), but we're trying to make it as constructive and relevant as possible for indies. There's too much to mention here, but for starters, I like the look of the Innovation in Indie Games panel with Kyle Gabler, Experimental Gameplay Workshop; Jenova Chen, ThatGameCompany (fl0w); Jon Mak, Queasy Games (Everyday Shooter); Jon Blow, Number-None (Braid) with moderator Steve Swink, Flashbang Studios.

There's also Eric Zimmerman of Gamelab (Diner Dash) talking about 'The Casual Cash Cow', Daniel James (Puzzle Pirates, Bang! Howdy) on the indie MMO, John Baez of The Behemoth (Alien Hominid, Castle Crashers) on business smarts in 'The Indie MBA', plus postmortems of titles including XBLA fave Small Arms, Telltale's episodic titles like Sam & Max, and on the student end of things, Narbacular Drop's shift to become Valve's puzzle FPS Portal. Also a talk on Cloud, and indie retail, and platform gatekeepers for major console/PC types, and an ending uber-indie talk with representatives from Introversion and Manifesto Games - it's gonna be a blast, and thanks to Matt Wegner and Steve Swink for helping me to put the line-up together.

[One note - if you want to go, I would recommend signing up earlier, because we have a room capacity and people with some of the larger GDC passes can also sign up to attend, so I want to make sure the actual indies who intend to attend can sign up before cut-off, if we have to stop registration for capacity reasons.]

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Mario's Picross

["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment looks at a fondly remembered reincarnation of a pencil puzzle: Mario's Picross.]

Computers get into everything, even puzzles that seem more suited to the page. Crosswords, cryptograms, word scrambles, acrostics, and all manner of pencil-and-paper–based have been implemented on computers. Usually, these puzzles only appeal to the kind of people (like me) who are already fans of the static puzzles. But occasionally, a print puzzle makes a flying leap into videogames, and very occasionally, that game can be considered "hardcore." Mario's Picross is one such puzzle game.

Mario's Picross is Nintendo's version of a puzzle that goes by many names. It was independently invented in 1988 by both Non Ishida, who called hers "Window Art Puzzles," and Tetsuya Nishio, who called his "Oekaki-Logic." When James Dalgety brought Ishida's puzzles to the Sunday Telegraph in the United Kingdom in 1990, he renamed them "Nonograms." The Telegraph later changed the name again, to "Griddlers." As other publishers across the world started printing their own versions, more names were born for the same puzzle: Edel, Pic-a-Pix, Tsunami, and others. But when the puzzle was brought to the U.S. (and to me) by Games Magazine, it was called Paint by Numbers.

[Click through for more.]

Every Man a George Boole

An example of a paint by numbers puzzle being solved, by Juraj SimlicThe answer to any Paint by Numbers puzzle is a picture in the squares of a grid. But when you start the puzzle, the grid is blank. On the margins of that grid are lines of numbers for each row and column. Each number represents a string of filled-in squares in that particular row or column. More than one number means those strings are broken up by at least one white square. By working back and forth between the rows and the columns, you determine precisely which squares must be filled in to make that pixelated picture.

Wikipedia's page on Paint by Numbers currently has a very good guide on how PBN solving techniques work, though many people prefer to learn the basics on their own. Wikipedia also provided the animation shown with this article (Juraj Simlac created it and made it available under the GNU Free Documentation License). Even if the logic of the puzzle is confounding at the moment, you can see, watching the animation, the appeal of Paint by Numbers. Like a jigsaw puzzle, you start with pieces that mean nothing, and slowly you build to something beautiful (or, in some less elegant puzzles, something sort of recognizable). Unlike crossword or sudoku grids, there's a satisfaction that's greater than merely knowing that you filled everything right. There's actually a finished product.

Picrossing Over

A completed level of Mario's PicrossIn 1995, Nintendo decided to capitalize on the popularity of Paint by Numbers in Japan by moving the puzzle onto the Gameboy. Mario's Picross had hundreds of puzzles and one very popular license. But even if I'd known then about the game, I probably would have turned my nose up at it. The grids are small at 15x15 (Games had been printing puzzles four times that size for a while), and for the majority of Mario's Picross, you are penalized for filling in a square that isn't part of the solution. If you're a person (like me) who tends to go one pixel over a few times too often, the time limit becomes a frustration more than a challenge.

In the U.S., the game was passed over by most mainstream gamers and puzzle fans. Though Japan saw the Picross series continue on the Gameboy, the SNES, and the Satellaview, the series stalled in America. And yet, it became something of a cult classic. It's not necessarily a well-organized cult. Picross fans don't seem to be very aware of each other, and they usually don't realize that Paint by Numbers puzzles exist beyond the sheltering shadow of Mario's bountiful moustache. But whenever I meet a fan, they're bursting with excitement to tell me about their favorite game that "no one else has heard of."

The World Wide Grid


A GSW puzzle designed by Tony Delgado, shown at the Paint by Numbers Homepage
But Picross is not the only videogame version of Paint by Numbers. The Paint by Numbers Homepage was started by Mitsuhima Kajitani in 1998, and despite a change in servers and URLs, it's still going strong with the same elegant Java interface. The puzzles are all provided by users; and for the occasion of this article, I added the Game Set Watch–themed grid shown here. (It's currently pending approval in the "Storage Room," but it's still solvable). For those who want frills, Griddlers.Net has a more complicated applet, but it features full-color puzzles in a wider variety of shapes and sizes.

For the Picross fans who don't want to sully their hands with PC puzzlers, there's still good news. Paint by Numbers puzzles can be imported on the region-free Nintendo DS under other names, like "Illust Logic" and "Oekaki Logic." And Nintendo is itself reviving the Picross brand in Japan—Mario no Super Picross will appear on the Wii Virtual Console this month, and Picross DS comes out in January.

And if worse comes to worst, there's always paper and pencil.

[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. He also works as the copy chief of The Gamer's Quarter.]

Insomnia.ac Pokes At More Japanese Arcade Tests

- We've linked 'em before, but their RSS feed is busted, so we didn't realize they were updating - Insomnia.ac has a bunch more Japanese arcade test reports and arcade game summing-ups, many of which are pretty interesting.

For example, there's a review of Hokuto No Ken, aka Fist Of The North Star, the latest game from Guilty Gear creators Arc System Works: "Hokuto no Ken is in the end a decent fighter, which could have been much better with a bit more effort, and even great with more of a commitment on the part of the developer. Its problems are many, yes, but they are not fundamental, and they are easy enough to fix -- what's important is that the core game is solid."

Also, this is the first English review of Mushihime-Tama I've seen, the puzzler from Cave: "However, though this is a typically meticulously-crafted Cave sequel, using the "bigger, harder, evolved" approach that the company is known for (see Donpachi series), I can't say I prefer it over the original game. Even with all the numerous changes and additions, I'd still take Uo Poko over this any day."

December 3, 2006

Don't Step On My Space Giraffe!

- Our love for Jeff Minter knows (taking traditional human emotions into account, at least) no bounds, so it's great to see a new 1UP interview with him, accompanied by a couple of new videos of his XBLA game Space Giraffe in action.

The2Bears also picked up on Yak's announcement on his own forums for the 2 vids, where Minter himself notes: "“Naive” shows play through the tutorial level on the basic “Eyes of Allard” tutorial level geometry. I don’t play for points here, I play to show how one might play the tutorial on the first play through. The simple geometry makes it easy to see what’s going on."

Honestly, Eyes Of Allard? Those must be all extreme sports gaga, or something! As for the other vid: "“Rinsin” shows me playing the same Tutorial Level data, but over three different geometries that are a lot less plain than the Eyes of Allard stuff, and also using techniques to boost my Bonus Multiplier and rinse the levels of points. Unfortunately I don’t rinse it as well as I might have since I lose a life in the last level."

GameSetYouTube: Unreleased Game Bonanza!

- Via, I think, the AssemblerGames forums, I stumbled across a set of YouTube videos of unreleased games that includes a bunch of interesting, rare titles.

The videos are actually part of the Unseen 64 website, which has a pretty decent collection of screenshots of unreleased games, even though some of the text is in Italian. But the videos themselves bear a second glance too, since they include things like a video of Dee Dee Planet for the Dreamcast, which I very vaguely remember hearing about.

A creator interview from Shift Magazine explains of the 'dori dock'-designed game: "This 'Dee Dee PLANET' is a kind of shooting game which shoots using a parabola, and is pastoral rather than speedy. It has a mathematical clearness by controlling the parabola with only two parameters - angle and shooting power. We set up a totally different theme apart from the offensiveness of other shooting games."

It's a fascinating rarity - but there's plenty of other stuff like Gold Star Mountain for Gamecube, an unreleased From Software game, also neato in the extreme - go poke around?

Mega64 Disses Spike, Rolls Out Ico

- It's been a few months since we covered the Mega64 guys, and apparently, according to their news page, they've been up to all kinds of stuff since we took our eye off the ball.

Firstly, they note: "Our second SpikeTV VGA ad has been released! It's called "Vote," and you can click here to watch it (as well as the bizarre behind the scenes video!)" If you like seeing old people confused in supermarket parking lots, then this may be the ad for you. The first ad for the Spike Awards is also fun, because it admits (in semi-jest) that the awards don't have the best rep, and it has someone being horribly burned by a wizard.

If you scroll down further, there are some more promo videos that were done for Ubisoft, and they've finally posted the full version of the Ico skit from the Mega64 Version 2 DVD, which all those who are fans of Fumito Ueda-related lunacy should also check out at the earliest opportunity. I'm still a fanboy for these idiots - long may they keep it up!



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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