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January 6, 2007

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Wild Guns

With Becky.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This edition looks at Natsume's Wild Guns, released for the SNES in 1994 .]

The third-person “shooting gallery” game is a lost art. In fact, it was barely an art at all. It was just a misleading name given to the genre of action-shooters born when TAD Corporation's Cabal hit arcades in 1988. It wasn’t a particularly long-lived trend, most likely because every title that followed, from SNK’s Nam 1975 to Seibu Kaihatsu’s Dynamite Duke to Konami’s G.I. Joe, did little to enhance Cabal’s central idea of characters who ran across a limited foreground while dodging enemy attacks and shooting everything in front of them.

When Street Fighter II and its adjoining hordes of fighting games took over arcades in the ‘90s, the Cabal-inspired shooter and its routine play mechanics were mercilessly squashed. They lingered on through a few little-seen releases (including Nix’s surprisingly fun Pirates), but the dream essentially died with Wild Guns, a 1994 Super NES game from Natsume.

Annie's slightly maniacal grin suggests that she's on the verge of snapping completely and killing everything in her path. Clint's expression suggests that he's realized this.Just to watch it die

Natsume, while perpetually overshadowed by Konami and Capcom, built up a solid reputation during the NES era through action games like Shadow of the Ninja, S.C.A.T. and Shatterhand. Their break came in 1993, when they landed a major cult hit with Pocky and Rocky, a vastly improved Super NES port of an older Taito arcade shooter. Natsume followed it up with Pocky and Rocky 2 the next year and then, perhaps overestimating the demand for shooters, took a chance on the entirely original Wild Guns.

Pocky and Rocky 2 drew as much attention as the first, but Wild Guns was largely forgotten a month or so after its release. It had the lower-than-average production run common to Natsume releases and limited distribution through Tommo (even today, it’s tough to find a copy that isn't clearly a former rental) but there was something more basic behind its quick fade: no one really cared about shooting-gallery games during the mid-'90s, not when they had Mortal Kombat II, Donkey Kong Country, and a vast lineup of Atari Jaguar titles.

At most, Wild Guns had some praise from critics, who recognized it as an excellent game. Presumably inspired by Cabal’s sequel, the Western-themed Blood Brothers, a five-person team of Natsume programmers envisioned Wild Guns as an unpretentious tribute to the myths of the American Old West, albeit an Old West full of towering robots, futuristic tanks, flying androids, and other high-tech embellishments. In another stagecoach-era echo, the tale itself concerns the revenge-driven Annie, a gunfighter whose family was murdered by a massive criminal empire called the Kid Gang, and her only ally, the less attached Clint. They play much the same, and differ only in aesthetics. Clint pays tribute to you-know-who by wearing sensible desert clothes, while Annie wears a revealing dress, a floppy hat and a smile entirely too perky for someone who’s just seen her loved ones slaughtered.

How the South remembers the War of Northern Aggression.Like Harvest Moon, but with gutshot bank robbers

True to its genre, Wild Guns has Clint and Annie dashing to and fro before many different backdrops, including mines, railroads, the streets and bars of Carson City, and, of course, the enormous mechanical fortress of the Kid Gang’s mustachioed leader (whose name actually appears to be “Kid.”). The enemies range from generic thugs to an impressive variety of robotic creatures, and there’s an equal mix in the weaponry for Clint and Annie, who can use shotguns, grenade launchers, assault rifles, Gauss guns, a high-powered vulcan gun, a humorously ineffective "P. Shooter," and even an enemy-immobilizing lasso. Far more flexible than the typical shooting-game heroes, the pair can also double-jump, narrowly sidestep gunfire, and even toss back enemy-hurled explosives.

Wild Guns has its limits, of course. It’s an arcade game in design, if not in platform, and mowing your way through its six stages and two bonus levels doesn’t take all that long, especially not in the two-player mode. It also lacks the trackball-based control used by Cabal and other shooting-gallery games, and Clint and Annie are hampered by the fact that they can’t move while firing, the inevitable result of the SNES controller having only one directional pad.

Yet Wild Guns is rarely frustrating in its challenges, and it’s often fun just to play with the game’s smaller details, as everything from whiskey bottles to ceiling tiles can be shot. The soundtrack and visual style are both solid, and while Wild Guns never quite explains its setting, it doesn’t have to excuse the appeal of controlling a blond, manga-eyed Annie Oakley as she guns down horse-mounted bandits and Mad Max desert buggies racing beside a massive armored train.

Clint breaks the fourth wall to remind players that the point of the game is, in some capacity, to avoid bullets.Into the sunset

Unlike the other titles I’ve backhandedly complimented in this little chronicle of failures, Wild Guns fell short through no fault of its own. It’s a well-made action game that simply came too late and at too busy a time, when not even the best Cabal-style game could resurrect a buried genre.

At least there’s a nice ending to it all. In 2000, the shooting gallery game was brought back for one brilliant moment with Treasure’s Sin and Punishment on the Nintendo 64, and other games from the field have since been rediscovered through emulation. Wild Guns itself is now an underground favorite among 16-bit action games and stands as one of the rarer first-rate SNES titles. Despite its initial obscurity, it’s come into its own as a collectible classic, and an enjoyable reminder of how much potential yet remains down its path.

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

Ziff Davis Game Division, Up For Sale

- I was just chatting to a fellow journalist about this just now, and realized that though it's well known in the biz community, it hasn't filtered down to the game website level - as Paidcontent.org mentioned last week and I've heard off the record elsewhere, Ziff Davis is more actively entertaining offers for each of its three main magazine/websites divisions, including the Ziff Davis Game Group, home of EGM, Games For Windows magazine, and the 1UP.com network.

Ziff has previously disclosed back in July 2006 that "...the Company has retained Evercore Partners and Lehman Brothers as its financial advisors to assist it in exploring strategic alternatives to maximize investor value, including the possible sale of some or all of the Company's groups" - there were reports on that fact back then, but not much else has been discussed in public since.

In fact, it appears that active sale attempts for the Ziff Game Group are in progress, with PaidContent commenting just last week: "It has been tough going for the tech publisher, with the print books sucking blood out of the company. Lehman is pushing the digital assets of the two divisions [including the Game Group], according to our sources. " (1UP isn't split out from the other properties in the Game Group in Ziff's financials, but the most recent results revealed a loss of $0.5 million for the quarter on revenues of $9 million for the entire Game Group - admittedly not in the Xmas quarter, which will probably do much better for them.)

- As I alluded to in a recent post on game magazine circulations, I do personally feel like Ziff might have closed Official PlayStation Magazine a little earlier than they might otherwise have done, in order to make the Game Group more attractive to potential purchasers, who obviously care most about 1UP. Which makes sense, because in most cases (prestige low-circulation magazines such as Edge notwithstanding), circs and revenues in consumer print are only going to trickle down over the next few years.

I don't see this turn of events as a particularly tragic for those who love good game journalism, anyhow. Personally, I find 1UP by far the most interesting of the major consumer game portals in terms of editorial interest and quality (with the possible exception of Eurogamer, mind you, but I'm a transplanted Brit, so that hardly helps my thinking!). I'm pretty sure that if 1UP and friends do end up somewhere else, they'll be encouraged to keep doing what they're doing.

As for suitors - I've certainly not heard anything, but large media companies would presumably be targets for Lehman, given that MTV and AOL (to name but two!) have been making purchases in the game website arena of late (GameTrailers, GameDaily, etc). Of course, this could be the kind of thing that rolls on for many more months without any actual action, too.

But given the lack of OPM revenue and the fact that the other divisions of Ziff (originally founded as a pulp/hobbyist magazine publisher in the '20s, lest we forget!) are being actively sold too, I would imagine we'd see something happen in the next 3-6 months. Watch this space?

Ultima Online, Sewing Kits, Fish Swearing!

- Via Zen Of Design, there's a fun post by Dan Rubenfield [EDIT: Who is apparently an MMO veteran now working at SCEE in London - PS3 MMO rumors, anyone?] about Ultima Online and, well, 'Time to Cock”'. He comments: "I worked on UO for around 4+ years for my career (started right after pre-alpha through ship, then came back for a stint for Renaissance), and to this day I’m amazed by the memories and shared history it inspires."

Specifically: "A friend of mine(Jeff Freeman) who I worked with for many years had a term he used called “Time to Cock”. It’s the amount of time it takes players to use a feature to make a giant cock in the world. In UO, one of the first thing I saw players doing was writing F*CK in giant letters using Fish."

More hilarity: "Hell, I remember when we had a bug with sewing kits where if you tried to use it on a non-sewable object, it deleted the target, not the kit. We logged into the beta and saw most of the dynamic objects in the world missing. And a solitary player comes running by, screaming, closely followed by another player. and then he must’ve caught him, and POP… The running player was gone… Deleted by the jackass with the sewing kit." Man, MMO bugs are the absolute best.

Treasure's Xbox 360 Shooter Future

- Delighted to note that 1UP has conjured up an interview with Treasure president Masato Maegawa, talking to the long-time indie Japanese console dev about their new projects.

He chats a little about the Xbox 360 game that the developer is creating - publisher as yet unknown, but might be Microsoft - and when asked if it's a topdown shooter, confirms: "Yeah. We'll use really great 3D graphics but it will retain the 2D gameplay people love." Maegawa also comments: "We're definitely thinking of this being a retail title. We actually want to do something else for Live Arcade, too. Personally, I'm really interested in Live Arcade, and I really want to do something for it - but it depends on whether it'll make sense to do another completely original project just for that."

Talking about the possibility of Sin & Punishment on Virtual Console, yum: "Ah yes, it was on the Virtual Console list that Nintendo released a while back. They are planning to put it out on VC at some point, but it's probably going to be a while still. It's really up to Nintendo in terms of how they want to stagger things out - they could probably put 1,000 games on there tomorrow if they wanted, but obviously they don't want to do that."

SNES Moving Target Simulator Go Boom

- Co-worker Frank from Lost Levels was kind enough to point out a very interesting pair of eBay auctions, for the MACS Multipurpose Combat Simulator cartridge for Super Nintendo.

It's explained: " The front of the cart has a sticker that says "MACS Multipurpose Arcade Combat Simulator version 1.1e copyright 1993 Sculptured Software, Inc. .. These were [produced for the Super Nintendo] for use in training the United States Military Shooting Specialist and to improve their accuracy rate. You can find out more about this by a Gamer's Graveyard link."

And yes, one major part of the kit is missing: "This auction is for this cartridge only. To operate the cartridge you would need the gun which is a modified M16 machine gun made by Nintendo and issued to the military for use with this cartridge. I only have 1 gun and I am not ready to sell it just yet, so this auction is for this cartridge only." Pretty wacky stuff.

January 5, 2007

COLUMN: 'Cinema Pixeldiso' – Gamers

['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a bi-weekly column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s selection is an independent feature that examines the lives of a couple of role-playing geeks.]

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/gamersthemovie1.jpg

Previously on Cinema Pixeldiso, we examined the tale of a player who achieved greatness due to his dedication to the game, and by complete surprise. This time it's five players, just as dedicated, and who actually seek greatness, in the movie Gamers.

Also, this particular entry is a bit different from our previous ones. The focus isn't on video games, but RPG, the pen and paper types. But since players from both camps share much in common, we figured it was worth the spotlight. Plus it's another independent movie, and those always deserve the extra attention, and its a straight-forward comedy, so the laughs its gets are supposed to be intentional. Though whether it gets all the laughs it aspires to generate is an entirely subjective manner...

Gamers

Told in a Spinal Tap-mocumentary style that we're all well familiar with, the film takes a look at five diehard RPG players who've been playing DND (Demons, Nymphs & Dragons, a play on Dungeons & Dragons for the those who are completely unfamiliar with the genre) for over fifty hours ever week for the past 23 years, non-stop. The movie catches up with as they set to shatter the world record for most hours played, which is set at 74,568.

You've got Paul, the ringleader of the group that talks to deaf people on the phone for a living, Gordon, a professional cable access camera person, Fernando, who collects horse semen by milking, and Kevin, a singer/songwriter that creates personalized children's songs, and is also the Dungeon Lord (a.k.a. the Dungeon Master from D&D, obviously).

All four have been playing together since high school, and each one is a total loser, an idea that is cemented via one on one interviews in the beginning. With the exception of Fernando, they all still live with parents, make around $20,000 a year or less, and are seeing no one. Fernando on the other hand has an on-again/off-again girlfriend whom he lives with that's an actress and who he's constantly accusing of cheating (which is why he doesn't believe he's the father of her soon to be born child). So he's just as much a loser, just in a different way. There was also a fifth regular, Johnny, but he was the volatile type that got arrested when he blew up at an elderly couple that apparently cut in front of him at the DMV.

Replacing him is Reese, the pizza delivery guy that brought sustenance to the gamers, and who begged so much to join in that the rest eventually broke down and accepted him. Of the five, he's easily the most pathetic, as well as the most interesting character from the entire story. Aside from being the kind of runt that even the other nerds feel secure to pick on (primarily Kevin, who's rather vicious about it), he's a wretched player. But what defines him the most is the devastation he has over the loss of "Farrah", a beloved character of his that recently died, which also translates to absolute hatred for Kevin, whom he places her death squarely on (aside from the fact that he gets picked on by him religiously).

Where the Laughs Begin And End

One scene has him leaving angry message after angry message on Kevin's machine, and anyone that's witnessed an angry nerd, the ones that are real weiners, completely loose it in real life will be well familiar with such a comedy of horrors. Later when he's asked why he enjoys DnD so much, Reese replies with: "For me, I'm like a young Bruce Wayne. Before he becomes Batman. However, my journey is to find the perfect game. Now, I've been to every Renaissance fair, and I've performed in battles in front of crowds of 12... to 16 people. I speak fluent Vulcan. I'm a God at Pokemon. And I'm not trying to brag, but my name is feared in the Might & Magic circles, still. And what I can do with pogs... shit.... it is just wicked sick. But there is something about DnD. I dunno, I love the game. Its perfect."

Again, its a comedy, and everyone's simply a caricature of real diehard gamers that's played up for laughs. Some character traits are clearly exaggerated for the sake of laughs, but a few facets are not too far from real life, which is where the movie shines. But it greatly depends if one has real world familiarity with folks that act such as insane about games (and not just role playing ones). Though where it falters is when it often tries too hard for laughs. The humor is fairly lowbrow at times, which in itself isn't necessarily horrible. At its best, Gamers feels like an old National Lampoon flick from the 80s. But at its worst, it feels like a National Lampoon film from the past couple of years. Or even worse, like a really long, drawn out Mad TV sketch. Which might explain why the audience is treated to the following scenes:

- Kevin, who again sings personalized children's songs by repeating the child's name in the title, having to do one with the name Dick, so he talks about how the girls like him, and.... well, you get the rest.

- A flashback of Fernando, who's originally from Argentina, illustrating how he learned English mostly by playing the game, with him awkwardly hitting on a girl with bad RPG puns.

- A pissed off Reese rubbing beef jerky into his groin (a favorite snack of Kevin's) right before a game.

- One gay man dressed up as Ronald McDonald enjoying sexual favors from a second Ronald, and honking a clown horn in approval.

- Another flashback of Reese, making out with a woman, and getting lactated on.

- Kevin again, who's a diehard Dungeon Master, to such a degree that he wears an outfit for each game, so we see him pick up a specially designed garment that's created to mark the record breaking session, which happens to look just like a KKK robe (and designed by a black woman, 'LOL'). This sets up his eventual confrontation with an angry black midget, but Gordon is assaulted instead, who is called John Rocker and then spun around.

Oh, And Remember...

Gordon by the way, is also wearing a jacket that says Rocker on the back as a part of another joke, but its nowhere near as bad as the filmmaker's attempt to cash-in on the notoriety of a racist ball player that hasn't been relevant since 2000. Oh, and there's a series of flashbacks featuring Paul, regarding his even longer-standing no cursing streak, which he didn't even break even when he caught his girlfriend cheating on him with the tribal person that Paul had supporting with funds over the years via mail and that had come to visit.

Something else the film is chock full of is 80s television and movie stars. You have John Heard and Beverly D'Angelo as Gordon's parents, William Kat (you know, the Greatest American Hero) as Reese's boss, and even Kelly LeBrock! Remember, the "hot chick" from Weird Science?

Back to the story: it would seem that destiny is unattainable due to constant complications and detours, enough to make some want to throw in the towel, but Paul simply won't have any of it. And it becomes clear that Paul's level of obsession is not shared by everyone else. Does the big game get played? Maybe. Is a valuable lesson learned by all? Yes, or at least the film tries to tell one. Again, the filmmaker's attempt at getting cheap laughs somewhat bogs things down near the end; even the character of Kevin who was pretty interesting in the beginning just ends up spouting tiresome gay jokes (which is again, much like what a real annoying gamer dork does in real life, but I digress).

Some subtlty all throughout would have been appreciated, since there are moments of it all throughout. There's a small running game that involves Fernando's love of Predator that pays off just wonderfully for example. But in the end, things kind feels off-track; the much-anticipated record breaking game session goes in a blink of an eye, and the whole thing just almost abruptly ends.

Final Score

So how's the movie? It's okay. A decent indie flick that again tries too hard for some laughs. Real gamers will be able to appreciate some of the nuances, but they'll also feel that many opportunities were lost. At the very least its not too mean spirited, which might have been the case in the hands of a larger studio trying to do the same thing.

Also, one doesn't necessarily have to be that versed with the subject matter to enjoy the film, and accessibility is something that virtually all game related movies have a difficult time dealing with. Maybe that's why the filmmakers didn't want to go that far? Perhaps. It would have been nice if they had stuck their necks out a bit further, at maybe the expense of some laughs. Then again, it nice that there was no need to pander to the audience by going overboard with the game references, though there just wasn't enough "game" in Gamers.

On a side-note, the movie was a true labor of love, shot in only six days. Quite the achievement, all things considered. And you can tell that all parties involved very much enjoyed themselves (and one can find even more evidence of such good feelings vial the supplementary bits on the DVD). But ultimately, and this is a common fault with independent features primarily, a good time behind the camera does not necessarily translate to a good time in front of it. Nonetheless, to purchase a copy of the movie, you can head on over to official site.

[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.]

2007 Experimental Gameplay Workshop Seeks Elves

- Some more info to pass on, this time from former Game Developer magazine code columnist and Braid creator Jon Blow, who writes: "We've just put up the new Call for Participation for the Experimental Gameplay Workshop 2007."

He further explains: "The Experimental Gameplay Workshop is a concentrated mini-conference that happens yearly at the Game Developers Conference [this March in San Francisco]. If you're working on an innovative / experimental / original game, we encourage you to check out the web site and submit your work. Also, please forward this announcement to other game designers -- in the past, we've gotten in touch with some very interesting projects solely by word of mouth, and those projects went on to get good exposure at the conference."

I'm hoping that posting on GameSetWatch isn't overdoing the 'word of mouth' thing, heh, but I know good designers out there read the blog, so read and submit if you think you're doing something interesting and different. The 'Success Stories and Influences' page really shows that the EGW, which is a smart and sometimes hyper-experimental mini-conf that goes beyond some of the more fully fleshed-out IGF/Independent Games Summit ideas, is making a difference. After all, with Katamari Damacy, Rag Doll Kung Fu, and Eye Toy Anti-Grav all being helped out in some major way from appearing at the EGW, it must be doing something right!

Pass The Paddles Tackles Left Behind

- Aha, got a neat email from the LA Weekly's Joshuah Bearman, who notes: "Just wanted to alert people to some coverage of [Christian PC RTS] Left Behind: Eternal Forces in Pass the Paddles, the LA Weekly/Voice's video game column. In addition to parsing the false theology of the Rapture, I point out that the leftie critics are just as hypocritical."

An excerpt: "...The Rev. Tim Simpson, who heads the Christian Alliance for Progress in Jacksonville, Florida, has publicly said the many theological shortcomings of Left Behind are "antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ." True enough, but so are most video games. In this case, the axiomatic hypocrisy of the religious right, usually first out of the gate to denounce violence in games but staunchly defending Left Behind, is surely matched by that of a group called Campaign to Defend the Constitution, a group asking that the video game be removed from store shelves."

Bearman continues: " It may seem sinister (or ingenious, depending on your perspective) to embed millennial religious war into a goal-oriented interactive experience, but it¹s just a game. No one is going to ponder eternal salvation from clicking an icon of hands clasped in prayer. For the same reason that Doom did not create any sociopaths, Left Behind will not flood the ranks of Christian warriors." The interesting thing here, of course, is whether the controversy will create major sales for what is, by all accounts, a pretty awful game.

Way Of The Rodent Gives Proper Game Award Leather

- Unfortunately it got a bit mangled in its GamesPress to Gamesindustry.biz conversion, but Way Of The Rodent has a really fun press release about its 'Rodent Awards 2006 – Big Night Out!', which will be taking place on January 25th "downstairs in a London boozer", and sounds like one of the more meaningful game awards, like, ever.

The WOTR website has full details on some of the bizarro categories, which include 'Most difficult moment in a videogame to explain to the missus' ("Dead Rising - Gay Cowboy Outfit; Xbox Live - Playing RR at 5AM across continents; We Love Katamari: Rolling around and that; Loco Roco - All of it"), and 'Best polygon in a supporting wall' ("Big chunk of random road - PGR3; Big fucking Rocks - Gears of War; Weak-spot Indicator - Shadow of the Colossus; The space between the ball and the headers' head - FIFA2007 (360 version)").

There are also some overall Game Of The Year contenders, which I'm delighted to see includes Ridge Racer 6 (this is a European award, before you cry foul!) "For perfectly balanced challenge and longevity of appeal" - I still believe this is one of the most under-rated 360 titles, alongside Amped 3. Another very interesting nomination by the Rodent folks - Criterion's Black "For taking FPS back to the arcade". Hurrah for alternatives, hey?

January 4, 2007

2007 IGF Student Showcase Winners Announced

- Phew, _just_ finished the final judging and calculations to work out the 2007 Independent Games Festival Student Showcase winners - the best 10 student games submitted this year, and here are the results for your delectation. Go check all the games out, because a lot of them are very neat, and a lot are free to download (pictured: the delightfully wacky Opera Slinger):

"We're delighted to reveal the ten 2007 IGF Student Showcase winners, each picked from the 102 excellent student entries submitted this year. And the Student Showcase winners are (in alphabetical order):

- TU Wien's paper cut-out 2D rotation-based title ...And Yet It Moves.
- Koln International School Of Design's extremely Gilliam-esque Flash soccer mini-game pastiche Ball Of Bastards.
- DigiPen's ingenious action-oriented cartoon strategy game Base Invaders.
- Stanford University's touchscreen and voice-controlled multiplayer abstract strategic romp Euclidean Crisis.
- DigiPen's 2D innovative color-absorbing platform action title Gelatin Joe.
- Guildhall at SMU's stylized vertical shooter meets puzzle game Invalid Tangram.
- Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy's interactive singing game vs. action title Opera Slinger.
- SungKyunKwan University's extremely original puzzle-sliding platform game Rooms.
- Hogeschool van de Kunsten, Utrecht's city color-painting roll-around extravaganza The Blob.
- DigiPen's clever 3D block-manipulating shooter Toblo.

Thanks to all entrants! All of these finalist titles have won a travel stipend of $500 to help them attend GDC in San Francisco this March, where they will show their game on the IGF Pavilion, and one of them will be awarded a Best Student Game prize of $2500 at the IGF Awards on the evening of March 7th."

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Package Fetishism

['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. Now that the holidays are over and all the gift paper is recycled, let’s take a moment to consider the box.]

Tsumi Ge-mu or “Stacked Game” is a wonderful Japanese term for a game that is initially purchased with enthusiasm but once home is left unplayed, added to an ever-increasing stack of games that the obsessive collector will never have time to actually play. It is frequently associated with vague feelings of dissatisfaction and guilt. A useful method for counteracting these feelings is to take pleasure in video games as objects and enjoy the artistry of their packaging. Don’t be ashamed of package fetishism, embrace it.

Infocom

suspended.jpgInteractive Fiction was, at one time, a very popular computer game genre. In the early 80’s, as the personal computer revolution was taking off, IF represented the cutting edge of game design. Although free of graphics and sound, Interactive Fiction stirred people’s imagination in a way that was completely new, unlike any entertainment media before.

One of the innovators in IF was company called Infocom. Founded in 1979, its first product was the famous Zork adventure game. It was a hit and over the next six years Infocom produced more than thirty successful text adventures. As the decade wore on, the company’s fortunes took a downturn as consumers became increasingly drawn to games featuring colorful visuals and action. Activision purchased Infocom in 1986 and unsuccessfully tried to redirect it toward producing graphic adventures. By 1989 the market had moved on and Activision shut Infocom down.

However, in those early years Infocom did some amazing work and their stories were satisfyingly complex, challenging, and irreverent. In addition to the Zork titles, other outstanding games included A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Lurking Horror, along with many others. Infocom games were unique in that they were packaged in elaborate boxes that included a multitude of supplemental material. Called “feelies”, the supplements ranged from maps, journals, newspapers, cards, stickers, and buttons, to glow-in-the-dark rocks and scratch-n-sniff cards. The feelies also served as copy-protection by requiring players to look up information that could only be found in the supplements.

Diskette Dreams

The era of the 3.5 inch diskette was a Renaissance age for extravagantly wasteful software packaging. In the 90's, Big Box retail had not yet become the primary distribution channel for computer games. Most were sold by small specialty shops and publishers scrambled for customer’s attention by packaging their games inside increasingly creative and bizarre box configurations.

marathon2.jpgSpectre VR by Velocity and Comanche by Nova Logic came in strange, origami fold boxes that were as mysterious to look at as they were to figure out how to open. The Macintosh versions of Bungie’s Marathon series were also packaged in complex, non-euclidean boxes. The Marathon Trilogy Box that was released in 1997 was cleverly designed so that the two halves of the box slid open like an airlock to reveal the disks and art book inside.

Wargames were usually packaged behind somber covers but came loaded with dense manuals. Atomic Games’ V for Victory series, published by Three-Sixty Pacific included thick books, filled with carefully researched military history. I don’t think I ever really got around to playing Harpoon (also published by Three-Sixty Pacific) but I spent many hours studying the manuals.

ultima.jpgPerhaps inspired by Infocom, fantasy games often included extra materials to enhance verisimilitude. Richard Garriott’s first games were sold in zip-lock bags but he soon moved up to a premium presentation and even remade older games to meet his high standards. Garriott understood more than most the relationship that develops between a player and an RPG and he served his audience with deluxe packaging that included detailed manuals, cloth maps, metal coins, and talismans.

Working Designs

Console games have always had very standardized packaging but there have been a few exceptions over the years. Nintendo’s gold cartridge Zelda for the NES let consumers know that they were buying something special. When Nintendo published Earthbound for the SNES in 1995, they included a strategy guide and packaged it in a large book case box.

One company that truly understood the game collector’s package fetishism was Working Designs. Founded by Victor Ireland in 1986, Working Designs was an independent publisher that focused solely on localizing Japanese games for the American console market. Over the years they published games for the TurboGrafx-16, Sega CD, Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation, and Playstation 2. The titles they picked for localization were usually quirky, anime-flavored RPGs that were colorful and distinctive. Working Designs became known for a translation style that often took liberties with the source material, imbuing the dry, Japanese text with a goofy sense of humor and American pop culture references.

growlanser.jpgNever prolific, Working Designs took its time with each release, often producing enhanced versions of games whose American packaging exceeded the original Japanese. Much effort went into creating color manuals that were printed on heavy card stock with foil stamped covers and several games came with fold out maps and stickers. Their Playstation releases of Lunar, Lunar 2, and Arc the Lad came in boxes with hardcover manuals, maps, soundtrack CDs, and making-of movies, and a variety of other curios. Working Designs’ final release was Growlanser Generations for the Playstation 2. Published in 2003, the game came in two versions. One priced at regular retail, and the other a deluxe boxed edition that included a soundtrack CD, playing cards, jewelry, and a watch.

Fetish

Games are like books. I know I’ll never be able to read them all. Sometimes it’s enough to just take them down from the shelf and run my finger along the spine or feel the embossed texture of the title. Smell the gloss on the jacket. Maybe read a page or two. Sometimes. That’s enough.

[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.]

Games For Windows - Free Subscription Offer!

- Just a quick update, since Jason over at Ziff Davis has sent over "a very short-run free subscription offer for Games for Windows: The Official Magazine -- it only runs until January 8th." Which I pass on to you, the GSW reader!

He explains: "Games for Windows: The Official Magazine is the new name for the former Computer Gaming World. It's created by the same completely independent editorial staff, led by Jeff Green, with the same great features, plus some new bonus stuff now that we're the official magazine of PC gaming."

Our paper-mag crazy Kevin Gifford recently reviewed the January 2007 issue, commenting that it was: "A pretty run-of-the-mill issue, one that's remarkably close in content to PC Gamer's February issue with all the same previews and hardware coverage. The main highlights are in Extend, with Tom playing Bruce in DEFCON and Jeff Green returning to his roots with a reinstall of EverQuest 1." But he palpably liked it, and all of us would like it more for free, so go get it!

[UPDATE: Jason @ Ziff writes: "A clarification on this Games for Windows: The Official Magazine free offer -- as soon as you hit "submit" on the first page, you're automatically signed up for a free year of Games for Windows: The Official Magazine with whatever address you entered. It redirects you to SOE's page, but your magazine subscription is already set at that point." But THEN he writes: "Looks like this offer is ending early, taken down in the next few minutes." So it may be done at this point!]

Derek Smart, Ascending To The Stars!

- Over at sister site Gamasutra, they've put up a serious, sensible interview with Derek Smart, in which the Battlecruiser 3000AD and Universal Combat creator, whose Wikipedia entry is locked, if that helps you understand, says some fun things about his plans for Xbox Live space flight.

He has a fun rant about _his_ perspective on indie development, too: "Well, getting publishers to sign a PC-only title is like pulling teeth. With no anesthesia. With your ex mother-in-law yelling "....you can dooooooo iiiiiiiit" through a bull horn. In other words, it is horrendous. Signing is one thing. Getting paid is clearly another matter. Developers signing these days have to pray that they actually see a dime. It has become a toss up."

Smart continues: "God help you if you need publisher funding to do a PC game. Or any game for that matter. As far as the industry is concerned, it’s evolve or die. No two ways about it. So, we're evolving because death is clearly not an option." Indeed, always evolve!

Links And Blogs And Crediting And Controversy

- Over at Luke Smith's 1UP blog, he's got a new post called 'Standards, Ethics and Manners Among Newsblogs', which addresses the ever-fragrant issue of crediting 'scoops' and other news-related info.

This is in reference to 1UP's 'Rare founders leaving' scoop, which was a genuine exclusive - Smith notes, after referencing those who _did_ credit 1UP: "In their coverage of the Rare exodus, IGN does neither. Writer Daemon Hatfield neglects the existence of the 1UP piece in his story, instead pointing out the sales figures for Viva Pinata twice and offering no comment from Microsoft, despite the IGN's story appearance almost a full 24 hours after the initial report was filed."

His conclusion? "Attribution is a professional courtesy, it's the equivalent of a polite nod even though someone "beat you to the punch." Here at 1UP News, our editorial policy will continue to strive to give credit where credit is due. An inability to do that turns us into just another dinosaur trying to climb out of the Internet's tar pit." I won't add anything to his post, other than the fact that crediting for exclusives is only fair.

Oh My Stars, Jet Set Willy Online Is Out

- Like it says in the title, I had no idea that, as part of The Way Of The Rodent's Xmas update, the much-vaunted Jet Set Willy Online has been released.

It's explained: "I did this for a laugh, a bunch of images imagining a real world in which Jet Set Willy went on-line. In which Jet Set Willy went multiplayer. I though it was funny. But then I thought 'actually, no, it stupid and daft and crackers' and that's when I realised that it really ought to be real."

"And guess what? It damn-well is - yep, we've made Jet Set Willy: Online. You can play it with mates. They can be in other rooms while you do that. In other houses in fact. Other continents if you're some sort of crazy internationalist." This is previously covered on GSW, and completely unofficial, but it still rocks.

January 3, 2007

What's Up In Game Academia? Aha!

- Just wanted to give a shout out to Gamasutra and GSW sister site Game Career Guide, which is edited by the inestimable Beth Dillon, since she just posted 'This Semester in Game Academia', which is a great round-up of the new courses, happenings, and shenanigans in game education over the last few months.

Beth notes in her intro: "The end of Fall semester is met with holidays and an opportunity to reflect on progress made and times ahead. From vocational game education to game studies, Fall 2006 has certainly been eventful, filled with conferences and courses, contests and scholarships, and overall growth of game industry recognition in academia. With such a fluster of activity, it's no wonder Gamasutra Podcast ran a Game Education Roundtable. The discussion included input about the state of game education from DigiPen's Claude Comair, Parsons School of Design's Katie Salen, Dr. Peter Raad from the Guildhall at SMU, USC's Tracy Fullerton, and more."

[Also notable on the site: the Game Career Guide features have, uhh, featured a few neat articles of recent for those who are either students or looking to get into the game industry, including a Student Postmortem for Carnegie Mellon's Beowulf's Barroom Brawl - yoiks!]

Sonic Sprites Zoom Out In Hyperspeed

- Over at his NFG Games site, the always geeked out NeoGeoman (is that what his parents named him?) has posted an excellent history of Sonic The Hedgehog sprites, all 8 zillion of them.

Of course, he already did Mario sprites in a similar way, so this latest article is not a massive surprise. "Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog didn't go through as many evolutionary stages as Nintendo's Mario. Fewer Sonic games were released than Mario games, over a shorter timespan, and they were - at least in the 2D era - confined to two consoles."

He continues: "Sega's MegaDrive (Genesis) was where the blue rodent got his start, but in a move unusual in the games industry almost all of the Sonic games were ported backwards to Sega's Master System console, a generation of hardware older than the MegaDrive. This move is not surprising when you consider Sega's massive following in Brazil, Europe and Australia where, even as late as 2003, the Master System was seeing new releases." [Via IC, where Mr. NFG is a co-editor! Also, see some neat Japanese game videos.]

Virtual On, The Hardcore Way

- More goodness over at Hardcore Gaming 101, which has an excellent precis of the Virtual On series, complete with rundowns of each of the titles in Sega's twin stick mecha franchise.

It's revealed: "Back in the mid-90's and the days of arcade cabinets, Virtual On was one of Japan's hottest games. Perhaps inspired by the fantasies woven by Yoshiyuki Tomino's excellent storytelling anime Mobile Suit Gundam (the first series, not that Gundam Seed nonsense or what-have-you), Virtual On took players into an engaging control scheme and mind blazing experience as they battled it out in lighting-quick mech battles. It was a cult-classic too, and people willing to forgive its minor shortcomings had a blast, although not everyone got to experience it, as the arcade renditions were somewhat pricey and weren't widely distributed in America. The whole series was created by Sega AM3, who were later renamed Hitmaker by the time they release the final game, Virtual On Marz."

"It was a wonderful time for us gamers, especially those who lived and breathed the arcade scene. Of the most mind-blowing gems from Sega, we got Virtua Fighter, Virtua Cop, and of course, Virtual On. Virtual Fighter had the punches, the kicks, and the throws. Virtua Cop had the shooting. Virtual On had robots - awesome robots designed by veteran mecha designer Hajime Katoki (who worked on various Gundam outings) that blew each other up and delivered a whole lot of bang for your buck. And really, who could ask for more?" Lots more good info if you click through!

The Rise Of The 'Promogame'?

- Over at GSW sister site Serious Games Source, the ever-interesting Ian Bogost has posted an article called 'Promogames, Another Kind of Advertising Game', looking at the recently released Burger King Xbox games and the history of such japery.

He notes: "In the past several years, advergaming has partly ceded its role as darling of the advertising and games world to brand/product placement, which inserts static representations of companies or products into games (think of the Pizza Hut in Crazy Taxi, and to dynamic in-game advertising, which uses internet-delivery to insert billboard-style ads directly into commercial video games. Burger King themselves have participated in the former strategy, adding the King as a trainer in EA’s Fight Night Round 3."

Bogost then attempts to define his new phrase: "I give the name promogames to video games whose primary purpose is to promote the purchase of a product or service secondary or incidental to the game itself. These Burger King games work by giving gamers a reason to buy Burger King hamburgers, not by telling gamers why they should buy those burgers over other burgers, or over fried chicken. While advergames promote the company, promogames offer an incentive to consume the company’s goods independent of the game’s representational properties." Aha!

January 2, 2007

Feature: The Gospel According To Matthew Smith

- The second of my unreleased pieces that's been hanging around on my hard drive for a few months now, this piece on the amazing nooks and crannies of Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner fandom was originally produced for 'Transmissions From Imaginary Places', Jim Rossignol and Kieron Gillen's anthology of game writing for O'Reilly.

Unfortunately, due to editor changes and general shenanigans, the book ended up getting cancelled even after it had been solicited, so my piece got sadly orphaned. Tim Edwards over at PC Gamer UK saw it and asked me to do a couple of pages on my favorite JSW/MM mods, which was duly published in Issue 165 (September 2006) in the following form [PDF link] - reproduced with PCG's permission, thanks!

But the original piece was much longer and more detailed, so I've decided to reprint it here. It basically discusses the history of Matthew Smith, legendary early Spectrum programmer, and the amazing efforts of the JSW/MM modding scene in re-imagining his games, particularly focusing on Andrew Broad, whose efforts to create new games out of Smith's ancient masterpiece are just insanely weird and cool.

[Also, having grown up with Smith's games, and being allowed to be a little more informal for the book, I think this piece has a little more 'soul' in it than some of my more reporterly meanderings. Which is good.]

The Gospel According To Matthew Smith
by Simon Carless

--

'As it is written in Col 3: Row 4 - "No-one shall enter the Kingdom of God except by way of the Banyan Tree."'
- AutismUK, comp.sys.sinclair, November 15th 1997

--

- Forget what you think you know about the creator of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy and his legacy. Sure, Matthew Smith is one of the most cultlike figures in the history of video games, with his borderline psychedelic mid-'80s Sinclair ZX Spectrum platformers still beloved today in Europe, Furry Freak Brothers references to the fore. But it's not only about him. It's also about what happened when he left. When Matthew was gone, departed for years in the wilderness, the Syd Barrett effect kicked in. And, from conspiracy theories to magical proteges, nobody would ever be the same.

Togas And Motorcycles

But wait - let's step back for a second. While Manic Miner and its sequel Jet Set Willy are known and adored by Nick Hornby-esque UK game geeks, we're aware that to non-Europeans, all this magenta and cyan Spectrum nonsense can confuse mightily. So, where did this all start?

The hero of this piece, Manic Miner, is a platform game made by the 17-year-old London-born, Liverpool-dwelling Matthew Smith, released in 1983 by British software publisher Bug-Byte for the ZX Spectrum, and re-released that same year by Software Projects. It consists of twenty bright, carefully defined single screens to traverse and grab objects from, operating under an 'air supply'-based time limit. Each screen plays out a little like Shigeru Miyamoto-designed arcade classic Donkey Kong (indeed, there's a 'Miner Willy meets the Kong Beast' screen partway through your odyssey.)

Manic Miner features a loopy plot about long-lost robots mining the interior of the Earth - technically, it was pretty darn good for 1983, and it ended up being officially converted to a number of other computers, including the BBC Micro and the Commodore 64. But most of all, it was inventive in terms of gameplay mechanisms, cunning in the precisely plotted routes needed to navigate through levels, and had wonderfully borderline-surreal visuals ('Eugene's Lair', a tribute to fellow programmer Eugene Evans, featured a giant 'Eugene' smiley-face sprite, flapping-seat toilet enemies, and oddly warped cube pick-ups). It's the stuff cults are made of.

Jet Set Willy, however, was a whole other kettle of fish.

--

'There were rumours that Matthew Smith was a figment of the Liverpool computing mass psyche, or merely a clever code name for a Tandy computer. There were rumours that Matthew Smith didn't really exist, and that if he did, then Jet Set Willy didn't and wouldn't.'
CRASH - ZX Spectrum magazine, May 1984

--

Dr. Jones Will Never Believe This!

- It's interesting that even Matthew Smith's first game started the oddest rumors about what or who he actually was.The next would only fire the rumor mill, especially given the borderline psychedelic leanings of Manic Miner. Released in early 1984 for the ZX Spectrum, after an extremely long (by early '80s standards) development period of 8 or 9 months, Jet Set Willy's plot starts with Miner Willy basking in the lap of luxury, thanks to the riches gained from his previous game. However, after one particularly frenzied party at his deluxe mansion, his housekeeper Maria puts her foot down, and Willy must collect all the items the partygoers have discarded, before finally making it to bed. The game's manual helpfully explains: "You should manage O.K., though you will probably find some loonies have been up on the roof and I would check down the road and on the beach if I was you. Good luck and don't worry, all you can lose in this game is sleep."

And you will, indeed, likely lose sleep, since there's no way to save your game, and the items are strewn across 60 fiendish, interconnected rooms, each of which has a unique name and skewed style. From the infamous 'The Banyan Tree', with its evilly embedded tree enemies and ground saw, through the very battlement-like 'On The Battlements', all the way to the rope-tastic Pitfall-like gigaswing of 'We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg', there's an almost unprecedented diversity of beautifully designed room layouts to explore. The average player would have to practice again and again just to get past certain tricky combinations of rooms, meaning that Spectrum owners were continually commiserating with each other over, say, their inability to complete 'The Tool Shed' without losing a life.

Actually, the aforementioned 'We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg' was infamous for another reason too - the 'Attic Bug'. If you'd visited 'The Attic' in the original, unpatched version of the game for the Spectrum, and then entered that room or others such as 'The Kitchen', you would lose all of your lives immediately. This was actually due to incorrect sprite data, and, combined with a couple of other bugs (unreachable items, incorrectly placed wall blocks), the original release of the game was impossible to complete. Fortunately, publisher Software Projects released four official POKEs (inputtable 'hacks' that changed data in the Spectrum's memory) that made the game finishable. But - an epic game that's so hard that it's not actually possible to complete? A little more window dressing to add to the legend.

--

'Isn't [Jet Set Willy] a bit like a waking nightmare?... Most of the game was planned under the influence of alcohol and written under the influence of other noxious substances.... I s'pose there's not much sex in JSW. Maria's a bit on the stocky side and as for Esmerelda, she just zaps you when you go to touch her. Originally you were going to have to take her to bed - and then she'd kill you.'
- Matthew Smith, Your Sinclair, February 1986

--

There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop...

- And then, as if by magic, after two of the most important games in the history of the ZX Spectrum, created more or less entirely singlehandedly, the mysterious Matthew Smith just disappeared. Gone. Or so the legend goes. In fact, it wasn't quite as easy as that - it never is. But the fact is that, although titles such as an expanded Jet Set Willy II appeared in the market, Smith never again released a retail game.

He came close, though. But the Smith-penned follow-up title to Jet Set Willy, called The Megatree, presumably continuing Miner Willy's tumultuous story, never actually made it to market. The closest we will now get to seeing the in-development portions of that game, which may or may not be related to another possible sequel named Miner Willy Meets The Taxman, is what was revealed by now-defunct UK game magazine Retro Gamer, which bought a number of the original source discs in an eBay auction in 2004.

After that, there was the amazingly monikered Attack of the Mutant Zombie Flesh-Eating Chickens from Mars (Starring Zappo the Dog), which nearly came to fruition back in 1987, and even had full-page advertisements in the UK's Crash! ZX Spectrum magazine, but never actually surfaced at retail - though a later release named Star Paws was vaguely based on a game being developed in parallel to it. A mock-up version of the game packaging for 'Attack...' was infamously found in a charity shop in Merseyside in the late '90s - but no cassette with the finished game on it, alas. And after the non-release of that particular game, Matthew Smith really did vanish from view. And the legend of the Manic Miner creator grew even further.

Now, we do actually have an ending to this part of the story. Since Smith finally made a partial re-appearance into public view in the last couple of years, we actually know where he went. In an interview at the Screenplay festival in Nottingham, England in early 2005, Smith explained that he simply quit the video game industry in 1988 to pursue factory work. He explained: "I worked for food-processing factories, I've been on production lines like laying bunches of flowers for supermarkets." After that, it was away to Holland to a commune in 1995, where he lived until he was deported back to England in the late '90s for failing to keep his residency papers in order. After that, he got a website and eventually, people found him again - the prodigal returning to the fold, the geeks eager to embrace him.

But while Matthew Smith was away, in the wilderness, he needed someone to carry on his work for him. And his fans came out to play...

--

'Hey! My dentist is called Matthew Smith and he hums "Hall of the Mountain King" as he does my molars!!'
- Dave T God, comp.sys.sinclair, June 25 1996.

--

Broad Strokes

- If you want to talk about the world of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy modding - creating new art out of Matthew Smith's old art - then sure, there are plenty of proponents. But there's only one Andrew Broad. Now a 30-year-old programmer and researcher with a PhD in Computer Science from Manchester University, he was making entirely new games out of Manic Miner and building his Manic Miner Screen Editor starting way back in 1991, before the Internet (and in particular, his manicminerandjetsetwilly Yahoo! Group) united the modding community into a glorious whole. And, if you look at the top five most audacious, complex, odd, and thematically diverse Matthew Smith-based re-imaginings of the past 10 years, then Andrew probably created at least four of them.

It's not necessarily one specific part of Andrew Broad's new games that shock, though. No, it's a combination of strangely diverse parts. Since each original Manic Miner adaptation can only be twenty single, non-scrollable screens in length, it turns into a wonderful opportunity for an evocative triptych. Firstly, it's the theming. When games are modded, you can generally expect a certain range of subjects - the inevitable superhero character models, or perhaps a scatalogically inclined hack with the main characters replaced with pixelated genitalia. Hilarious.

But Broad starts - _starts_, mind you, with a perfectly precise re-imagining of Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' for Manic Miner, released in 2000 - complete with screen names mirroring the book's chapters, such as 'Riddles in the Dark' and 'An Unexpected Party', of which it's explained: "You begin in Bilbo Baggins's hobbit hole, on the night when the dwarves descend on him (thirteen of them in the book, but Manic Miner only allows four)." The Jet Set Willy embroidering of 'The Lord Of The Rings' is even more spectacular, as Broad explains: "My idea was that The Lord of the Rings would map quite nicely to Jet Set Willy as the former has 62 chapters and the latter has 64 rooms [including 4 unused rooms in the original], so there is a room for each chapter in the book, plus a bonus room..."

And indeed, we have an intricately imagined standalone room named after each chapter of the books, and Broad hacked the innards of the Jet Set Willy engine with help from the community so that you can play different Lord Of The Rings characters in different rooms, from Frodo through Gandalf to Aragorn. He even riffs wittily on the 'Master Bedroom' in the original Jet Set Willy, with Frodo meeting the Eye of Sauron (substituting for Willy's housekeeper Maria) in a bonus room - if you've collected all 256 items, then the Eye will disappear, and you can throw yourself delightedly into the fire of Mount Doom to complete the game.

Buddha, Party, Truman

- And from there, well, it gets weirder, but somehow more satisfying. How about a Manic Miner game based on 'The Buddha Of Suburbia' - not Hanif Kureishi's Whitbread Award-winning novel, but David Bowie's soundtrack album for the BBC Television adaptation of the book? Broad does that in his early work 'Manic Miner: The Buddha Of Suburbia', which includes ten screens named after songs from the soundtrack. He even changes the title screen and in-game music to merrily beep Bowie's music, and designs the modded title to sport suitable enemies, including kneeling, floating Buddhists.

However, 'Manic Miner: The Buddha Of Suburbia' isn't afraid to include other diverse elements, however, including 'Screen for Monica Seles', which includes knives as well as rackets and balls, and, according to Broad, "was written in 1994, after the Stabbing (30th April 1993) and before the Comeback (29th July 1995)", symbolizing his since-realized desire for tennis champion Seles to return to her sport. This illustrates Broad's diverse loves, which include, in his own words, "personal experiences, dreams, television, computers, tennis (particularly that of Monica Seles), religion... and music - particularly the works of David Bowie", which punctuate his next few deeply strange releases. In fact, both of Broad's titles in his time-traveling Kari Krišníková series, 'We Pretty' and 'Goodnite Luddite', reference these continuing focuses - the fiendishly complex 'Goodnite Luddite', which exploits many technical tricks never before acted upon before in a Jet Set Willy title, "is set in the distant future, when Selesianity (the worship of Monica Seles) is an established religion", something the author has been known to wax lyrical about outside his video game adaptations.

Broad followed this up with a Manic Miner mod, 'Ma jolie', which he describes in his release notes as: "The hardest MM/JSW game ever written, and the hardest that I ever intend to write!" It includes, among other things, a tribute to the kids' TV show Teletubbies, an attempted autostereogram ("those patterns of seemingly random dots in which you can see a hidden 3D image", as Broad explains), and a single room called 'Semi-Perilous Light' that he suggests will take even the most expert players at least 2 hours of continuous retrying to complete, and is almost certainly the most tricky Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy room ever created.

Next up was a long-awaited trip back to the main Willy mythos with the two-part 'Party Willy', which was released in "the year of Jet Set Willy's china anniversary", and has a deliciously invented plot which involves guiding Willy home after a drunken night out for the first half of the game, following which "Willy is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder which makes him agoraphobic". In the indoor-only Part 2, you must seek absolution for Willy's sins so that he can marry Maria in The Chapel, and his long-suffering housekeeper will let him consummate their marriage. Rooms include a spoof on David Lynch's 'Mulholland Drive', featuring Maria, Esmerelda, and Kari Krišníková, a tribute to British children's novelist Enid Blyton, and a room themed around Itchy & Scratchy creator Chester J. Lampwick, whom Broad says "reminds me very much of Matthew Smith in the way that he invented something great, but was screwed by an unscrupulous company and disappeared for many years." At least one of the other rooms in 'Party Willy' expands the Smith mythos, with 'Tulips in Amsterdam' referring to the rumors that the original Jet Set Willy creator was planting flowers in Holland during his time incognito.

Finally, Andrew topped it all off with 'Manic Miner: Neighbours - Allana Truman', a tribute to a female, Star Trek-loving character from the popular Australian soap opera 'Neighbours'. Broad explains, in a version of the game that mirrors the soap opera plot, and presumably updates classical myth: "In this game, you play Lance Wilkinson. You have to perform seven labours to win Allana, and then solve the rest of the plot so that you and Allana can go to America." Thus, each room is themed around some aspect of the Neighbours soap opera story arc, with Lance forced to retrieve master tapes of classic American sci-fi shows and convert them to video, make a low-budget sci-fi movie, and finally raise enough money to leave the country with his love - all in cleverly converted Manic Miner form. The final challenge in 'Manic Miner: Neighbours - Allana Truman' involves Lance searching for thier lost plane tickets and getting to the exit portal graphic for the room - a taxi that's taking them away from Ramsay Street forever. This is almost certainly the only game mod ever based on a soap opera plotline - and further illustrates Broad's marvellously tangled mind.

--

'Last year when I was in a small town outside Tulsa I called into a Burger King and there, SHOCK, was Elvis serving burgers and whistling 'Blue Suede Shoes'. I immediately told Elvis that I knew it was him! He admitted the truth and agreed to show me around.

Matthew Smith was working on the fries. He was very bitter that no-one ever mentioned 'Birds & Bees' and concentrated on Manic Miner (Elvis told me he'd go a bit wobbley [sic] if you hummed any tune from Fiddler in the Roof, so I had to refrain.)'
- James Rowan, comp.sys.sinclair, Jun 25 1996

--

A Cast Of Millions...

- Broad and his Neighbors-themed shenanigans aren't the only talented Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy modder around, of course, though he may be the oddest. Some of the top picks from the current mod scene from fan Daniel Gromann (aka 'Jet Set Danny') include Fabian Alvarez, aka Adban De Corcy, who has produced games including the delightful 'Willy's Afterlife', in which Willy is skeletal and Maria's equivalent is Uriel the Archangel, as well as Herve Ast's relatively new, stylish game Jet Set Willy in Paris. In addition, particularly cited is the pioneer Richard Hallas, whose mid-'80s work 'Join the Jet-Set!' was a partial catalyst (alongside friend Adam Britton's games) for the re-appearance of the modding scene in the late '90s.

But Gromann mentions Andrew Broad first, commenting of his incredibly detailed work: "I have spent many frustrating but delightful hours struggling with [Broad's games], and learned a lot about the features (including the so-called quirky ones) of the game engine in the process." The trailblazing Andrew Hallas, on his homepage, also mentions that Broad has designed "numerous impressively-designed JSW games which present virtually insurmountable difficulties for the player". Not only do Broad's games present a near-obsessive level of detail, many of them are almost too difficult for even the hardcore players to deal with, on top of the frighteningly, obtusely specific subject matter.

When Broad is asked about this, he freely admits that he loves playing with Matthew Smith's mistakes and quirks of the engine he created, something that puts his level of pure expertise even further above his fellow Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy modders, commenting: "What makes these games particularly attractive to me is that there are many quirks in the game-engines, such as the way that if you jump through an isolated wall-block at the correct angle, you go slap through the floor below! I love discovering these quirky features, finding unintended loopholes in games, and deliberately exploiting them in my own games."

Welcome To The Future

But that isn't all - how many other modders do you know who have lists of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy mods they're going to make in 2016? Andrew Broad does that. He explains via email, modestly: "The previews on my website are my main way of keeping track of them. I like to release at least one game a year, on a date that marks the anniversary of something special." For example, referencing his original plans to make Jet Set Willy game mods for each of C.S. Lewis's classic seven-book series comprising The Chronicles of Narnia, Broad comments on his webpage: "I'm still trying to decide which seven years to release them. I might use 2010-2016 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the books, or possibly 2007-2013." (Since then, he's changed his mind, aiming for a 128-room conglomeration of the best parts of the books, to be possibly published "some time in the late '00s.")

Other plans include 'Manic Miner: Outside', based on David Bowie's 1995 concept album, and 'Jet Set Toy', which would have a plot based on a dream Broad had in 1992 in which: "Willy goes on holiday with Maria and Esmerelda to a remote island off the UK, and stumbles across a terrifying secret..." Other vague concepts include the PG Wodehouse-based 'Jet Set Willy: Blandings Castle', 'Manic Miner: Masquerade', based on Kit Williams' enchanting early '80s illustrated puzzle book, and even 'Jet Set Willy: The Bible' (in which Christ's resurrection and ascension to heaven "would correspond to Willy running to the toilet at the end of the game, with Maria corresponding to the rock that barred the tomb.")

The Golden Path

- What makes Andrew Broad, in particular, alongside the few and the proud Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy modders, quite so enamored of a pair of games that, after all, launched in 1983 and 1984? If you consider what the majority of other 'mod scene' mini-communities are built around, with the exception of a few of the dedicated fellows over at Atari Age who are doing basic modding of Atari 2600 games, Manic Miner is by far the earliest, simplest video game still being worked on in earnest. Why do people even care any more?

Andrew Broad has a theory for why people are still playing: "Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy have exquisite game mechanics. There's an elegant simplicity to the controls... You know exactly how far you can walk to the edge of a platform without falling off, and the pixel-based collision-detection for guardians means you get to weave your way through them at close range." This loving description comes as close as possible to explaining why people adore playing the games, no matter whether they're playing the seminal Matthew Smith original or a gloriously odd Andrew Broad embellishment. There is no uncertainty in the way that the cheekily pixelated Miner Willy behaves. It's all about precision, and precision plus thematic inspiration equals enlightenment.

That the minor implementation mistakes of a toga-wearing 17 year old boy genius should be discovered, exploited, and turned into fiendish game features by a spectacularly focused PhD computer scientist over 20 years later is somewhat of a miracle. That the son should share the logical leaps and the pinpoint eye for detail of the father is even more of a miracle - Andrew Broad is creating derivative works, from the same skewed mental state as the original creator, that live up to the original, a rarity in this fading, badly photocopied society.

Ask any Elvis fan whether he wishes that the King was watching, from afar, and he will likely agree. Perhaps Matthew Smith returned from the wilderness so that he could watch his legacy live on in the eyes of others. Or perhaps he just returned because his work permit ran out. But Andrew Broad cares, and his gang of motley modders care, and in this era of the long tail, there is always, but always, somebody who cares. Fame is fickle, but great art lives on forever. Especially when it involves lavatories with flapping seats and Selesianity.

--

'There is not enough land. True communists are people who live in communes, villages, tribes. I'd like to live like that, but always with the communications we've got. There should be an end to cities. Cities should have walls around them to keep the city in.'
- Matthew Smith, Sinclair User, December 1984.

--

[Many thanks to Andrew Broad, Daniel Gromann, Retrogamer, RedKeyRedDoor, the 'Where Is Matthew Smith?' website, and all others who helped in the making of this article.]

McGonigal's Move To The Future

- Over at CNet News, Daniel Terdiman has an interesting interview with 42 Entertainment's Jane McGonigal, talking about her previous and new ARG projects.

As for what she's up to next: "I'm collaborating with the Institute for the Future, which creates forecasts about future society based on their research into signal phenomena and emerging trends now. They have a project where they create "artifacts from the future"--the future everyday objects that you might use or encounter in daily life... I'm going to be creating playable experiences that you can try now to emulate the things we'll be doing in the future." Sounds... clever!

Also asked the somewhat wacky question: 'Is Nintendo's Wii good for democracy?', she suggests: "What I like about the Wii is that it appeals to nongamers. And so it's increasing the pool of people who interact with game systems, giving them a pleasurable and positive experience of interacting with a video game machine. Why is this good for democracy? Well, such participation is really satisfying. You see your impact immediately in the games." [Jane's blog also points out a new Contra Costa Times profile.]

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Brothers in Arms

['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 investigates a fascinating Gundam arcade game]

senjou_gameplay1.jpgI had planned on doing a “best of 2006” list, much like the rest of the online throng. Yet, whilst on holiday in Japan, I feel compelled to cover something more pertinent. We all know that the Japanese arcade scene is still moderately thriving and suitably extreme in terms of hardware. However, some of the more interesting and unique arcade games often lack coverage.

One of these is the recently released Gundam Senjou no Kizuna. It’s a fascinating game purely off the back of its insane cabinet, which features a panoramic display (that you literally sit in), two joysticks and two pedals.

Immersion is a word oft misused in describing games but Senjou no Kizuna really fulfils that description in ways that traditional games simply don’t.

More after the jump…

IMGP1285.JPGEvery single Gundam themed game since time immemorial has tried to capture the sense of the player actually piloting a mobile suit, or at the very least savouring the Gundam mythos first hand. These games are purely fuelled by that player urge that they too can be a Newtype pilot like Amuro Ray and pretty much kick mechanical ass across multiple lagrange points in cis lunar space.

Senjou no Kizuna approaches this desire by offering the player the chance to literally sit inside a mobile suit cockpit and use nearly identical controls to that of the original anime. The left pedal affords you a decent jump, the right a lateral boost in whatever direction you choose. The sticks control movement and the triggers the weapons. Movement and weapon usage is akin to an analogue Virtual On basically, in that you have to acquire your target manually.

The objective of each match is to shoot and kill the opposite side, be it Federation or Zeon, and this is represented in an overal team point loss (indicated as a vertical health bar on the left hand side of the screen). Attacking the enemy team's base and successfully destroying results in a massive loss of points for the enemy.

This brings me onto one of the more arcade throwbacks the game's design has. In short, killing anything with any of the playable mobile suits is a very tricky task. Not because the skill of the players are in any way ninja but because weapon damage is close to nothing. The reason behind this is down to the arcade's need to take money from punters, giving a discernable means of victory runs counter to the business model the game works under.

IMGP1284.JPGSo whilst the machine is guzzling your 500 yen coins there is another major incentive the game throws at you. To even play the game you need a pilot card. These are 300 yen a piece and are dispensed via the machine you see on the left. After each battle and depending on your success, you'll be award points that will eventually level your pilot up. Once this happens you are instructed by the voice of a nice Japanese woman to insert your card in the pilot terminal. If you're lucky, you'll get a new mobile suit but even the more powerful suits also come with a catch; if you die your team loses more health. So you have to be confident in your piloting skills before you commit to the cockpit.

The game's also got one other major aspect to it; it's online. Every single machine is networked across the whole of Japan. So whilst I maybe be playing in an arcade in Nagoya, my teamates and enemies could be as far away as Hokkaido or Okinawa. In a cool move by Banpresto, the pilot terminal also dons a nice plasma screen showing a live camera of a random online match.

It goes without saying that this is a popular game. Considering the cost of these cabinets, most arcades have four or more and they seem glad with the purchase. I even saw multiple couples look inside the cabinet and ending up buying pilot cards for use at a later date (the queues are quite long at the weekend you see).

Senjou no Kizuna has also birthed a new One Year War era mobile suit, that of the GM Striker. This has gone the gameplay rounds recently, being featured in the light-gun game Spirits of Zeon and the steaming turd that is Target in Sight. Bandai have also released a High Grade Universal Century kit of the speedy beast.

orbs01-1.jpgThe story behind the cabinet is an interesting one though. Back in 2001, Namco were in the process of making a sequel to the classic Starbalde. Entitled "Starblade: Operation Blue Planet" it was going to boast a new panoramic cabinet by the name of O.R.B.S. (which stands for Over Reality Booster System, another acronym too far). The game never made it out of the prototyping stage, despite cruising a few trade shows, and considering the subsequent merger with Bandai, a Gundam arcade game using the same technology (now called P.O.D., short for Panoramic Optical Display which is much better) was a given.

In light of the eclectic cabinet and controls, there's little chance Senjou no Kizuna will receive a console based port. Though this is by no means a matter to get disheartened over. Without the cabinet the game just wouldn't be the same, it wouldn't feel right. In any case, what with Gundam Musou on the way keeping Senjou no Kizuna in the arcades would be a good idea. After all, when any Musou game hits the Japanese shelves a veritable swarm of gaming locusts descends upon them. Couple that with the massive popularity of the Gundam franchise and a suitably themed Musou game will end up being a tad epic. Anyway, for the brief time I had with Senjou no Kizuna I was enraptured and felt that, finally, the Gundam universe hade been adequately given gameplay form.

[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.]

GameTunnel Picks Its Indie Winners For 2006

- Good to see that GameTunnel has its final Top 10 Indie Games Of The Year article posted online - and their entire 'Game Of The Year' article series is also available for checking out, of course.

There's some nice intro text, too: "While a few Independent games have gained increased mainstream exposure over the last couple of years through Xbox Live Arcade and Steam, the majority remain undetected, awaiting discovery by the gaming world. Creating off-beat, original, and carefully crafted games is the heritage of Independent Game developers, and the Top 10 Independent Games of 2006 does its ancestry proud."

One of the interesting and cool things about the awards is that, barring a couple of games, there's very little overlap with the IGF finalists this year - though a bunch of the Top 10 games from GameTunnel were pretty close to being IGF finalists, as I recall. It just goes to show the large variety of indie games out there - and actually makes me feel even better that all the constituent parts of the indie sphere, from the IGF through Slamdance to GameTunnel, all seem to highlight different 'flavors' of games nowadays, showing the huge diversity of good material out there.

January 1, 2007

Introducing The Top XBLA Games Of 2006

- It was originally posted at MajorNelson.com, but ILoveXBLA has done an handy XBLA-specific extracted version - the top Xbox 360 Live Arcade downloads for 2006 have been revealed, alongside and info on the top simultaneously played XBLA games when it comes to online-enabled gameplay.

Actually, it's somewhat of an interesting Top 5 - being Uno, Street Fighter II, Geometry Wars Evolved, Marble Blast Ultra and Pac-Man in that order. I'm a little surprised at the high ranking of Street Fighter II, given the amount of press about its problematic multiplayer lag issues before it debuted, but the final product seems reasonably strong - though whenever I played online I get thrashed, but I guess that's my own issue rather than technical problems, haw.

What's slightly disappointing, perhaps, is the relative lack of original IP games in the Top 10 - though this may partly be because some of the games have only had a couple of months to accumulate sales. Nice to see titles like Cloning Clyde, Small Arms, and Lumines Live sneaking into the Top 20, nonetheless. What would be interesting would be to see the Top 20 titles by revenue, of course - since a lot of those XBLA arcade titles (pictured: Smash TV) are $5, and more of the original indie titles are $10 or more. But it's nice of Microsoft to share this much, since they don't have to (and God knows Nintendo and Sony probably won't.)

Zizzle's Pirates Pinball Gets New Year Reduction

- Aha, I was just checking out recent comments, and a recent entry on 'pinball for the home' company Zizzle reveals a new comment from 'Goblet Man' on a good deal for the pinball.

He comments: "I bought a Pirates of the Caribbean pinball machine from Best Buy in their post-Xmas sale(s). For less than $200 it is fun. I [could] spend a lot more money but this provides some real pinball action and I have money left for the beer." Indeed, BestBuy.com has the machine for $199.99 with free shipping, which ain't too bad considering it used to retail for at least $350.

I've seen some indications online that Costco has offered it for $200, too - the pin "is designed by Star Wars Episode 1 and Theater Of Magic pin designer John Popadiuk", and doesn't have the sophistication of a full table, but is pretty neat otherwise. Mind you, check the Amazon reviews for a good idea of the two schools of thought - some dig it, and some really hate it.

The Lost Room Searches For Power-Ups

- Delighted to see Raina Lee, over at VH1 Game Break, using her 'You Only Live Twice' column to discuss the recent Sci-Fi miniseries 'The Lost Room', which she describes as "the most game-y non-game thing I've seen recently" - and which I personally was a major fan of.

She comments in general of games seeping into culture: "From movies with do-overs, the multiple lives, and puzzle-solving, to music with game samples, to high art that looks like 8-bit screen shots, it seems like everything non-game is starting to feel like games. It's probably no coincidence then that the vid kids who grew up gaming are now writers, producers and filmmakers, making cultural products that reflect their adventure platform logic -- creating plot points around finding items and power ups."

Lee concludes of the Peter Krause-starring 6-hour miniseries: "Secret Rooms? Healing and regeneration? The fate of the world? Mega TV hit "Lost" has some of these game elements also, though "The Lost Room" is more literal in its gamey-ness. Needless to say, "The Lost Room" is recommended for anyone who understands what it's like to run around different worlds, searching every cranny for that darned one key." Amen.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Deadly Rooms of Death

["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 collection of the best puzzle game of all time: Deadly Rooms of Death.]

One of the most difficult rooms in DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold, by Erik Hermansen.This is the story of a puzzle game with the unlikeliest name ever: Deadly Rooms of Death.

You are Beethro Budkin, dungeon exterminator extraordinaire, and you take up one square of a grid. You have a "really big sword," which takes up one of the eight squares of the grid adjacent to you. You are tasked with removing the vermin that has infested the grid-arranged dungeons beneath the castle of King Dugan. Once there, you meet a horde of monsters closing in on you: roaches, spiders, wraithwings (bats), goblins, golems, snakes, and other terrible beasts that defy simple categorization. Your goal is simple: kill everything and move on. You can see it all from overhead, and the whole thing looks a bit like Gauntlet. A garden-variety hack-and-slash is imminent, swinging your sword as quickly as possible while weathering hits from the host that will slowly chip away at your life force.

Except that there is no life bar, the moment a single creature reaches you, you're dead. And, more curiously, the horde isn't attacking. They're just waiting for you to move.

DROD is turn-based. Every turn, you may take one step or rotate your sword one square. Then, all of the monsters can make one move. And their moves are predictable: a roach will always take the most direct route to you, even if that means getting itself stuck behind a wall. A goblin will always avoid your sword and try to attack from behind. A wraithwing will always stay a safe distance away from you, until it can find a friend with which to gang up on you. And they'll all wait while you figure out how best to kill them before they kill you.

The frantic button pushing of Diablo or Gauntlet is gone. The random layouts and capricious behaviors of NetHack are stipped away. All that's left beneath the dungeon-crawl veneer is the most inventive pure puzzle-solving computer game ever written.

Ten Years of Smiting

The cover of the Webfoot Technologies release of Deadly Rooms of Death, scanned by 'Phweengee'Deadly Rooms of Death was written by Erik Hermansen, who began playing with the concept in 1991. An early version called Swordplay was coded into Visual Basic and uploaded to BBSes in 1993. The game was actually released by Webfoot Technologies in 1997, but unfortunately, it was one of the last 2-D games published by Webfoot. After low sales, the company pulled support for the game as part of an attempt to rebrand as a 3-D company. Still, the game continued to gain followers while it appeared on the abadonware site Home of the Underdogs, where it was inducted into the Hall of Belated Fame.

In 2000, Hermansen got permission from Webfoot to rewrite the game from scratch using in open-source model. In 2002, with the help of several programmers including Mike Rimer, Caravel DROD was released. It was a duplicate of the original with a few additions, like progress-saving checkpoints. Fifty-one weeks later, a new version had a more significant upgrade; DROD: Architect's Edition offered the game's first level editor.

Before 2003, fans who'd completed the entire game were struggling to keep the challenge in the game. The members of the DROD egroups list, and later the DROD Forums, began posing challenges to make solving the existing rooms harder. "Complete the room without turning turning your sword," read the first one; "Let the room fill with roaches . . . BEFORE you kill your first roach," read another. Starting during the beta of DROD:AE, the community began putting together rooms and levels (organized into packages called "holds"). Built by the hardcore and distributed to the hardcore, the new levels explored obscure strategies and quirks of the game.

While the community was expanding the scope of DROD, Hermansen and Rimer worked on the long-awaited sequel. Hermansen had planned to write one in 1998 (he got sidetracked playing Age of Empires), but the time was finally ripe. After drafting help from some of the best minds from the creators (architects) and solvers (delvers) of the online community, Hermansen's Caravel Games finally released DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold in the spring of 2005. The game featured new monsters, new level components, and a new scripting system that allowed for a comical story to play out amid the puzzles.

Step by Step

A room from King Dugan's Dungeon, as seen in DROD: Architect's Edition; the current record for this room is held by TablesawDROD has been named the best puzzle game of all time a few times. It has the highest rating of any puzzle game at the Home of the Underdogs (specifically, DROD: AE is number 1, and Journey to Rooted Hold is part of a six-way tie for second). In the "Math Games" column of the Mathematics Association of America, Ed Pegg, Jr. (who also runs the fantastic puzzle site MathPuzzle.com), gave it the same honor. And I've been calling it the same for years myself.

What I find most fascinating about the game (and why I rank it above games like Cliff Johnson's), is that it is entirely impossible for the puzzle to appear off of a computer. While it's possible to encode pencil-and-paper puzzles into DROD, the complicated rooms that involve hundreds of independent creatures just can't be replicated anywhere else.

And the game isn't merely turn-based; it's completely devoid of any randomness. Entering the same set of actions in a room will always provide the same outcome (barring minor changes to monster behavior that sometimes occur during major upgrades). While macro-level strategies are usually necessary to best a large horde of creatures, there is always at least one solution, a single string of commands, that will beat the room. In fact, these "strings" are the basis for the demos that can be recorded in the game, then replayed to examine mistakes or show off techniques and victories.

The Best of the Best

A room from 'Halph Has a Bad Day' by 'Eytan Zweig'; the current record is held by Rabscuttle and was formerly held by TablesawAnd with Journey to Rooted Hold and the opening of CaravelNet, players were finally able to compare demos and solutions directly by uploading them to a central server. Suddenly, hardcore fans of the game had a new challenge: beat each room in the minimum number of moves.

Earning the #1 score for a room takes extreme ingenuity and dedication. It demands extensive foresight and knowledge of monster behavior. It requires speed, so that nobody else finds the best answer before you do. And it takes near-perfect typing skills. Although most rooms in DROD now have checkpoints, they rarely fall on the optimal path, and a #1 demo may have to avoid them to save time.

I currently hold the #1 rank on six puzzles, and they represent my most triumphant moments of accidental ingenuity. In the Smitemaster's Selection hold "Halph Has a Bad Day," I struggled for quite a while trying to beat the room shown to the right. The golems waiting to swarm me turn into impassable walls when they are killed, and I kept finding myself trapped in the top part of the room. When I was done, I was surprised to see that my solution was ten moves shorter than the previous best. The previous solution had been simpler (I really should have seen it myself), but my very nonobvious solution was much faster.

[Note: One week after this article was published, my record for this room in "Halph Has a Bad Day" was beaten. This lends credence to the next sentence . . .]

It's not easy becoming #1, and it's sometimes more difficult staying #1; there's always somebody looking to take your throne. According to the CaravelNet records, there are fifty-two rooms where I used to hold the top spot, only to have my crown snatched away by someone more dedicated. Most of those used-to-be #1s were scored playing through new or lesser-known rooms before better players got around to them, but some of them were my bestest best efforts, which other players still were able to best.

It can be frustrating for a beginner, but the CaravelNet scoring system is lenient. If nothing else, just completing a room earns a point to the global ranking. And even if you can't be the best, being anywhere in the top 8 earns bonus points. And the best way to increase your rank is to just keep exploring the game.

Delving Deeper

A room from 'Perfection' by Larry MurkSince Journey to Rooted Hold, there have been several holds released. Most notably, Hermansen and his team have singled out a few user-created holds as "Smitemaster's Selections." These are some of the best holds available, and they get a special polish (including story and voice-overs) before they're made available for download by CaravelNet members and for sale on CD. These expansion packs are generally very difficult. Larry Murk's "Perfection" features rooms with time limits and restrictions that demand optimization.

And Hermansen is preparing a new release for 2007; DROD: The City Beneath is 91.3% complete at the time of writing (according to the forum's Progress Bar). I considered holding off on writing about DROD until then, but Hermansen's recent thoughts about the game suggested I should focus on the previous releases:

"The City Beneath is almost arrogant in its attitude toward the DROD newcomer. Unlike King Dugan's Dungeon or Journey to Rooted Hold, it wasn't designed as an entrypoint to learning the game. Sure, we try to go easy on the player in early levels. And there are tutorials interspersed throughout the game to catch up rookies on previously-introduced game elements. But the general advice given to the new DROD player will be to start from one of the two earlier games. "You wanna play the game? Or you wanna play the game right?"

Will there ever be a beginner-friendly DROD release? I don't know, but with two such games already available (one of them free), it shouldn't be a problem getting up to speed with the cutting edge of difficulty. So, for now, if you haven't already, take the time to acquaint yourself with the game. You'll be glad you had a head start when you start losing productivity time to this wondeful game.

[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.]

About GameSetWatch - The Full Skinny

- GameSetWatch is an alt.video game weblog created and run by the staff of the CMP Game Group's Webby award-winning Gamasutra.com and the Maggie award-winning Game Developer magazine, with help from a variety of contributors and correspondents.

EDITOR: Simon Carless, who is currently the Publisher of both Game Developer and Gamasutra, as well as the Chairman of the Independent Games Festival and organizer of the Independent Games Summit at GDC.

CONTRIBUTORS: Brandon Sheffield, Kevin Gifford, John Harris, J. Fleming, Matthew Hawkins, Leigh Alexander, Christopher Bruso, and various other friends of GSW.

CONTACT US: You can contact GameSetWatch with interesting news stories, offers to write a column, oddities, and other submissions of your choice at the following email and snail-mail addresses:

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THE FINAL WORD: GameSetWatch believes that if you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything. We're committed to finding and exposing excellence in video games and game writing, whether it be in the indie, mainstream, or other more esoteric sectors. Join us on that journey, won't you?

December 31, 2006

Happy New Retro Round-Up, Innit?

- It's the week after Christmas (and indeed, very nearly the New Year!), but Jeremy 'Toastyfrog' Parish does not lie fallow, and he's done a new Retro Round-Up article over at 1UP with the latest Wii/X360/PS3+PSP retro goodness.

By far the best bit is the 'review' of the PS3-downloadable PS1 version of MediEvil for PSP (phew!): "Sony... what the hell are you doing? You implement this PS1-on-PSP scheme, and then use it to release a bunch of PlayStation games that have already seen improved sequels on PSP. Do you really think gamers are that eager to spend and hour or two downloading games they could just as easily pick up in an upgraded form for a few dollars more? In this case, the offender is a perfectly decent game called MediEvil, which plays not unlike a slower-paced 3D version of Ghosts 'N Goblins."

Toasty's conclusion: "So here's our offer, Sony. You start giving us downloads for games that we can't already play on PSP and we start encouraging people to use your service. Six bucks is a great price, and once you improve download speeds and stop forcing us to use PS3 as a conduit, it'll be truly magnificent. But please, make the game selections worthwhile, alright? Alright."

Kongregating The Best Web Games, Now

- We've previously covered the intriguing Kongregate indie web game portal, but we spotted that they have sign-ups open to the public right now.

As you can see on Kongregate's news page, they've been organizing weekly Flash game competitions with cash prizes, the most recent of which was won by IGF finalist Gamma Bros, and "contest winners are now determined by user ratings" - which is really the point of the site, which is trying to apply Web 2.0 paradigms to Flash gaming goodness.

It's pretty nice to have ratings, chart, similar games, and the actual Flash game all playable on the same screen (though with my monitor resolution, some of the games are a bit tiny!), and while sites like NewGrounds already do this type of thing pretty well, I find Kongregate more easily browsable and slicker, in terms of pure game content. You have to register to play, right now at least, but it's well worth a look.

GP32's Quest For Awful Games - Continued!

- Wandering around onto GP32X.com, to check out what's up with the GP2X, the latest iteration of GamePark's slightly wacky open-source handheld - and there's a GP2X Crap Games Competition just started!

It's explained, simply enough: "The premise of this competition is as simple as its potential entrants - you must make the worst game you can within the time you've been given."

And the current amazing entrants include: "The object of CarCounter2007 is to actually count the number of cars that pass. Each level is 8 hours long... Gameplay gets worse as each car that passes stops at the flags (I think they’re flags?) to release an ear-piercing beeping noise, which continues for around five seconds. Following the honking, the car passes, and the player must wait another six seconds for it to start all over again."

Also, there's Walking Simulator Extreme: "You play a (quite well-rendered, with a shadow and a full walk cycle - in this competition?) guy in a blue top and jeans who is enjoying a walk through a desert that actually appears to be flat (so maybe he's traversing a large picture of a desert, I don't know), with mountains in the background." It only gets better from there! Lots more info at the GP32X thread on the subject.

[This isn't the first intentional awful-game combo for GP32 - there was apparently a crap games competition from #gp32dev for the original GP32 back in 2005, including spectacular stuff like 'Pigeon killer' ("Right, it seems that some bloke with a big moustache isn't too keen on pigeons so he throws sticks at them, whilst listening to some of the most appalling music I've even heard in a computer game.")]

Playing With Fire Gets New Manifesto

- Over at Greg Costikyan's Manifesto Games website, he's revealed that the indie portal's first exclusive game will be 'Playing With Fire', a "...highly unusual platform puzzle game in which you play a giant ball of fire--and burn things down."

Costik explains: "Play With Fire was developed in an unusual way; [creator Chris] Bateman's company, International Hobo is based in the UK, but owns a development studio, Fantasy Labs Entertainment in India. Many of the game's more than 100 levels were created by people who responded when Bateman asked for submissions on his blog. So the development of Play With Fire was distributed not only across the Internet, but also across the globe."

Bateman has an entry on his blog celebrating the game going master (it was originally listed as a PS2 title to be released by Midas, too - but I don't see that mentioned anywhere?), commenting: "The basic principle has held: we’ve developed on a very low budget. Now all that remains is to see if there is a niche market out there looking for something a little bit different, something that could never be a mass market success, something which endeavours to be original."

He continues: "My biggest concern is our rather high minimum spec. We may be at the mercy of players more interested in the latest glossy FPS than an oddball game like this one." We'll try to post when it goes live - check Bateman's historical posts for more info on the thoughts that went into the design of the game.



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