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January 20, 2007

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': The Bluffer's Guide to Famitsu

famitsu1.jpg

I just realized that I have an entire bookshelf in my magazine/ferret room (plus part of another) devoted to nothing but Japanese-language magazines, but I have yet to write about any of them. I figured I'd put a stop to that this week and write up the history of Famitsu, Japan's most prestigious console-game rag, as well as give you a quick look of its very first issue back in 1986.

Famitsu is a shortening of "Famicom Tsushin", or (as it called itself in English) "Famicom Journal". It actually began in March 1985 not as a magazine, but a column within LOGiN, a title published by ASCII that specialized in computer-games coverage. (LOGiN is still published monthly in Japan by current Famitsu owner Enterbrain, making it the oldest Japanese-language game mag still in existence.)

The first issue of Famicom Tsushin (dated June 20) hit Japanese newsstands on June 6, 1986, arriving smack-dab in the middle of the country's massive obsession with Nintendo's Family Computer, Japan's NES. It started as a biweekly publication, switching to weekly in 1991 and officially shortening its name to "Famitsu" in 1995, long after the Famicom passed out of the marketplace. (The mag called itself Famitsu for most of its existence, but the new name didn't become official until this point.)

Famitsu is still the largest game mag in Japan, although its claimed circulation has dropped mightily -- from 800,000 in 2000 to 500,000 today, although in a marketplace dominated by newsstand sales, the number of copies actually sold is undoubtedly much lower. It's the only game mag routinely on sale in newsstands and train-station kiosks in Japan, and its name is so trusted that Famitsu's editors have written game-industry articles in the past for national newspapers in Japan. This prestige is mainly thanks to a revolutionary (for its time) page structure and its weekly sales rankings -- Famitsu was the first mag in Japan to attempt to estimate actual product sales instead of simply giving a general game ranking. (Just like with NPD sales figures, there is some controversy that Famitsu's figures underreport Nintendo game sales, since important Nintendo outlets like Amazon and Toys R Us aren't inculded in their tabulation.)

Being the number-one mag in Japan has naturally made Famitsu an enormous influence on magazines elsewhere in the world -- most famously in its multi-writer "cross review" system, which was borrowed wholescale by EGM starting with issue 2 and remains that mag's trademark. Like with EGM, Famitsu's reviews generate all manner of controversy on an almost weekly basis, but the stakes are even greater with Famitsu, because its reviews are said to have a major impact on game sales -- much more than any US mag could hope for. Here are a couple of game-review incidents from 2006 alone:

- Famitsu's reviewers gave a straight 40 score (10-10-10-10) to Final Fantasy XII, only the sixth perfect score in the mag's history and something that many Japanese forum nerds cried foul against. They weren't the only one, either. Hikaru Ijuin, a Japanese radio broadcaster who writes a column for Famitsu and used to host their TV show, even commented about it publicly on his radio show: "No matter how generous you want to be, this can't possibly be a perfect-score game. All I can think is that something's screwed up with the Cross Review system. Me, I could be as nice as I possibly can and maybe I can give it an 8." Ijuin later tempered his statement by reminding himself that he's a game dork and probably not FF12's target audience, but

- In the September 1, 2006 issue, one of the reviewers for horror/adventure game Ayakashibito criticized a section of the game's play system that didn't actually exist. In response to this, developer Propellor wrote on its staff weblog that "we don't mind being told straight up that the game's not fun -- just don't try to back up that logic with points that don't exist in realisty."

Still, the review system has helped relatively no-name games become massive hits, so it's not all that bad. (Example: Capcom's Resident Evil had almost zero ad push in Japan before Famitsu gave it a total score of 38.)

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Anyway, the cover of the first issue of Famicom Tsushin features a guy named BASIC-kun (who had a four-panel comic inside) going "Whoooa! This is exciting!" There's also a special number printed on the bottom right corner; if my number matches the set they printed in issue 2, then I could one of 10,000 prizes -- 2000 game carts and 8000 bits of Famitsu-themed merchandise. That must've been a fun contest to organize.

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Here we have the first Top 30, with numerical figures based on numbers provided by only five stores (three in Tokyo, two in Osaka). Top this time around is Gegege no Kitaro: Yokai Daimakyo, which got rebranded to Ninja Kid in the US. Super Mario Bros. is number two even though it's been eight months since its Japanese release.

On the right is the USA news page. Famitsu actually had a US correspondent (a guy named Tom Randolph who also contributed to LOGiN) way back in 1986, putting it way ahead of rags like EGM and GameFan who did the same thing the other way around. The textbox on the bottom actually covers the test-marketing Nintendo did for the NES in New York late 1985, which is more than any English-language publication did as far as I can tell.

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And wahey, it's the magazine's first review, this one for The Legend of Zelda. The Cross Review didn't debut for another dozen or so issues, so instead we have these long-form reviews combined with a smattering of ratings (based off some kind of crazy weather-themed system) from four writers. As you can see from the pix, the Famitsu of the time was completely unafraid to spoil endings -- something that got it in hot water with Enix one issue later when it published a strategy guide to Dragon Quest that took the player all the way to the end.

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Most of this issue, however, is much more boring -- filled with combination intro feature/strategy guides for the games of the day. Here's one for Super Mario Bros. 2 (the Japanese one, that is). On the right is an arcade-game strategy Q&A column co-written by Satoshi Tajiri (that's his portrait on the upper-left of the page), who later became much more famous creating games like Pokemon and now doesn't have to write copy for a living the way schlubs like me do. Sniff.

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

GameSetSisters: From XNA To Patents

- Every now and again, there are some GSW-relevant articles on our big sister B2B site Gamasutra - and _its_ sister sites (we have Serious Games Source for 'serious games' and Game Career Guide for students/education, lest we forget!) Thus, I will pass them on to you:

- In particular, Alistair Wallis popped up over at Game Career Guide and put together "a comprehensive overview of Microsoft's XNA for PC and Xbox 360, including a summary of the best XNA resources online and multiple interviews with Microsoft staffers and XNA creators." Interesting to see what people are actually making for XNA - Rocket Commander is great-looking.

- Over at Gamasutra, we posted two lawyers' looks at 'The Ten Most Important Game Patents' yesterday - which lists a number of hardware and software patents related to the game space, from the original Pong patent through slightly more 'suspect' stuff such as the Crazy Taxi or Dynasty Warriors patents (and yes, there are some!) As we comment: "While patents are still a controversial subject in the game industry, we still think it's important that Gamasutra covers them. "

- At Serious Games Source, we have a new Gonzalo Frasca column, 'Playing with Fire: When Advergaming Backfires' - discussing an Intel advergame from 2004 that "...was infected by a far more interesting form of glitch -a cultural bug- one that only affects serious games. The actual problem was that the IT Game was not compatible with 50 percent of the player population. Believe it or not, this work environment simulator would not allow players to hire any female employees." Oops.

- Finally, this week's 'Playing Catch-Up' column at Gamasutra talks to Gex creator Lyle Hall about his history in the game biz, and he reveals: "The game was designed by Hall to “to take advantage of both the graphics prowess and the CD audio capabilities” of the 3DO, and was, at first, packed-in with the console. “The bar was set to make the best platform game ever and put the coolest character I could come up with in it,” he explains. “I wanted the character to be able to break the 2D plane, literally jump onto the background and play in a different dimension so to speak. And he had to talk, like he knew he was inside the game and could entertain you with commentary along the way.”"

Kochalka's PlayStation 3 Interface Problems

- If in doubt - we run a random story that cartoonist, musician, game weirdo James Kochalka mails us - only this one doesn't have an accompanying illustration of Zelda with some Cool Ranch Doritos, which is most disappointing. But it does have something PS3 related, so we forgive him! Here goes:

"Here's a link to the official theme song [.MP3 link] to the SuperF*ckers comic book by James Kochalka. It's got one awesome gaming-related line, "Our dicks are stuck in the Playstation 3"." Uhh... right! Here's the lyrics:

"SuperF*ckers (Theme Song)
© 2005 James Kochalka

We're always in our clubhouse getting high
SuperF*ckers!
Everybody wishes we would die
SuperF*ckers!

Here we come, like a bomb,
everybody run and hide.

Our dicks are stuck in the Playstation 3
SuperF*ckers!
Everybody wishes they could be
SuperF*ckers!

Here we come, like a bomb,
Everybody f*ckin' run and hide."

Kochalka ends by explaining, handily: "Of course I wrote it about a year before the Playstation 3 actually came out, so there was no way to predict the lackluster response that the Playstation 3 has actually received. I think that just makes the song funnier now, though." I don't know, I'm not really sure Phil Harrison is laughing?

MMOG Nation: If It's January It Must Be Time To Burn The Crusade

Box!['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column looks back and forward via the lens of World of Warcraft's new Burning Crusade expansion. Why aren't you playing right now?]

Since its 2004 release, World of Warcraft (WoW) has been the MMOG. Everyone either wants to play it, is playing it, or has played it. At this point, for good or for ill, WoW is the Massive gaming standard against which all other titles are measured. Last year marked the game's second anniversary, and Blizzard has marked the occasion by finally releasing the much-anticipated Burning Crusade (BC) expansion.

It raises the level cap from 60 to 70, and introduces an entire new extra-Azerothian realm which players can now sink their content-starved teeth into. 'The Outlands' not only expands the surface area of the game (by some 15-20 percent), it introduces hundreds upon hundreds of new quests, monsters, dungeons ... and all of it was unleashed on the world this past Tuesday.

Today I'm going to take a brief look at what this launch means for the game, and for Blizzard. I'm going to look at some reactions to the launch, and I'm going to look ahead a bit to theorize on what the future might hold for the 8 Million strong Massively Multiplayer Monster. I know this is kind of light material, but hey ... I've got to ding 62.

It Took You Two Years To Set This Thing on Fire?

Even if the expansion wasn't any good, Burning Crusade would be an important moment for WoW and its players simply because it took so darn long to be released. Blizzard's incredibly high standards for quality have ensured that the road to expansion was a long one, but not a barren one. Despite not putting out an expansion proper, the game has been anything but a closed system since launch.

Refining classes, releasing content on an almost monthly basis, world events, PvP contests ... World of Warcraft has been in motion since the first week of retail. In comparison, Everquest had two expansions the year after it was released, with an average of one expansion every six months every year thereafter. In that game content is mostly released in those large dollops, making expansions almost a requirement. By providing more frequent content updates, Blizzard has eased the wait for high-end gamers wanting the next big thing.

Box!Thankfully, for both Blizzard and WoW gamers, Burning Crusade appears to be good. Very good. Not only does the obvious quality of the art and quest design mean that WoW will be a fresh experience for gamers again, but the direction this expansion is moving the game says volumes about Blizzard's intentions for current game concepts. Here are some current game elements that are expanded in BC:

  • The Integration of PvP with PvE - One of the things that was a pleasant surprise once I began exploring the new zones was the 'PvP bonus' I seemed to be getting everywhere. All of the Outlands zones, it seems, has its own micro-war going on. Hellfire Peninsula offers a trio of captureable landmarks, for example, while the Zangermarsh has more of a CTF motif. This tightening of the integration between questing/PvE and Player vs. Player combat is a great idea, with overtones similar to what is likely to be offered by Warhammer Online. I think the ideas are great over there too, and hopefully we'll continue to see more of this in future WoW offerings.
  • Smaller Raids - Thank the maker, right? Instead of you and 39 of your (not-so) closest friends, we'll only have to put up with 24 other yahoos in the quest for epic lootz. Level 70 raiders make for much heavier hitters, and the fact that Blizzard is tuning for that in their new offerings is tremendous. Raid instances will also now have 'heroic' options that will make raiding even tougher ... and net even phatter loot. This seems to be a common thread through everything in Outlands: faster, tighter, more fun experiences. 2 hour raids instead of 4, 5 and 10 mans the norm, with 25 needed for the biggest tasks.
  • Alliance And Horde Uniting - At the same time we're beating each other over the head in the zone-related PvP quests, we're interacting in new and (hopefully) peaceful ways as well. Both factions have a lot of quests in common in the Outlands, and as a result we're questing right on top of each other in a lot of areas. In the (awe-inspiring) city of Shattrath, the factions are disallowed from attacking each other. Alliance races may be buying or selling to Horde merchants in the refugee villages of the Undercity, while Horde players might align themselves with the Dranei members of the Aldar faction. It's the first time that Blizzard has even thematically began moving the two mighty factions together, and it speaks of a time in the future (possibly) when players will able to do more than just emote at each other.
  • Many Factions And Reachable Epics - Even moreso than back on Azeroth, who you befriend in the Outlands matters a great deal. Every mob and quest, it seems, earns you a higher reputation with one faction or decreases your import with another. From a world perspective this is invigorating; as a player it's fascinating to see the interplay between these new and sometimes arcane layers of society that are already in place. What's even more invigorating is the material benefits of allying with these factions. The BC expansion introduces a myriad of new outlets for purchasable epic gear. From what I've seen, some of the items obtainable by becoming friendly with High Hold or the Scryers is on par with what is being pulled from the dungeon instances. As with the revamped PvP offerings from the last patch, these raid-less epics are a godsend for those looking for emo-free high end gear.
  • Outdoing Art - With graphics-intensive titles like Vanguard and Age of Conan on the way, World of Warcraft might have begun to look a bit dated. In response, Blizzard has more than 'kicked things' by a notch. They've outdone themselves in almost every way possible. From the techno-beauty of the Dranei architecture, to the floating towers of the Blood Elf zone, to the alien mystery of the Outlands, every new element to the game outshines what we've previously seen from Blizz's tireless artists. It may not push your machine as hard as the new games will, but Burning Crusade has proven that WoW can still wow with modern titles.

It's also important to quickly point out the importance of the game's overall stability. Many people (including myself) were convinced that BC was going to result in horrendous wait-times and crashed servers. I can happily say I was wrong about that. I personally have had almost no problems whatsoever. Certainly, I've had the occasional queue, but it was much better than I expected. Your mileage will vary by which server you are on, of course, but the general buzz seems to be overwhelmingly positive. There hasn't been a backlash against an unprepared Blizzard, because this time they were actually ready for us. It's great to see, and definitely worth pointing out, the difference that two years can make for a product's stability.

You Can't Please Everybody

Box!

I'm not the only one playing, of course. I don't have a monopoly on opinion. Other folks have opinions different from my own ...

Brandon Reinhart -


Blizzard shows a clear understanding of how to reward the player's expectations with new content. Example 1: I'm a new Draenei and I won't get a mount until level 40. Blizzard hands me a quest at level 12 that lets me ride a mount for 15 minutes. A super freaking fast mount. That was very popular with the nubs, by the way. I was a _king_ for 15 minutes.

Kill Ten Rats' Oz -


We’re having some slight techincal issues … There’s quite a few, many of which will cause the much questioned lack of digital download question to be thrown around a lot in the next few months. From the issues of upgrade keys that don’t work, to their patcher having to repatch 3 patches back and then sticking at 72%.

Tobold -


In the waiting time I did one dungeon trip with some guild mates, to the Hellfire Furnace. Yeah, I know, that is actually the second of the Hellfire dungeons, and not the first. But we did allright, with no deaths. Perfect party mix, my priest, a druid, a warrior, a mage, and a warlock. The mage + warlock combo is perfect crowd control in a dungeon full of orc warlocks, because you can sheep the orc and banish the demon. First mob dropped a paladin libram, and of course on the first day of BC in a Horde group we didn't have a level 60 paladin yet.

Foton -


Me, I’m still level 60, not even sniffing 61 yet. I remember clearly now, why I hate leveling so much. I want to enjoy the journey, like so many around me, but I won’t until it’s over. I’ve always been more of a destination kind of player, and, I’m not sure if that’s just me or if that’s how past games trained me. One thing I do know for sure, if I can’t get that cello music out of my head, I may be level 60 forever. In a Warcraft guild full of ex-EverQuest players, that’s a bootable offense.

Gamers With Jobs -


One might imagine that negating two years of work for long-time World of Warcraft players in the span of an evening might alienate hardcore players, but instead most have reacted with a lust for vaulting the bar, which was so quickly raised so high. Instead of jealousy there is giddiness as the anticipation and enthusiasm for new content, new skills and new equipment vastly outweighs any sense of futility. With so much to look forward to in Draenor, Blizzard makes it very hard to feel any regret for the lands, creatures and equipment you leave behind.

Kill Ten Rats' Ethic -


We created Blood Elves, one male and one female. We spent some time laughing at the odd hair styles and default clothing. We logged in and while busy, it was not nearly as crowded as I thought it would be in the newbie area. The running, jumping and fighting animations all seemed weird to us. The way they stand looks unnatural to us. Perhaps it was just because it was new, but we really were turned off by the whole thing. Looking around, some of the scenery seemed less polished than we had grown to expect from Blizzard. I’m not saying it was crappy, but it certainly seemed below the standards Blizzard had set.

Timothy Burke @ Terra Nova -


A few of the extremely powerful bind-on-equip green items I've gotten can be equipped by level 57 characters. I would think that these would now command premium prices on the Auction House once things settle down in a bit as they will allow a level 57 character to dominate the pre-Outland quests and so on that they must complete. Any portal mage could probably open portals 24/7 to the capital cities back in Azeroth and make huge amounts of money.

I Call Dibs on the Stuffed Murloc Head

With all this 'newness' now inserted into what has become a somewhat venerable title, it's exciting to start thinking ahead again to what the future might hold for World of Warcraft. As always, Blizz is holding its cards pretty close to its chest when it comes to future plans, and there's not much that anyone knows for sure. Here are some educated guesses about what we might see in the distant future for WoW:

    Box!
  • Housing - This one, at least, we know for sure is coming at some point in the future. Jeff Kaplan admitted as much: it's not a question of 'if' but 'when' Player Housing makes it into the game. (It's semi-been there since launch; go look for the gated-off instance portal in Stormwind some time.) The reason it's not out yet is, again, the extremely high level of quality Blizzard demands from its products. They want housing to be amazing and fun before they'll release it. Given the release of jewelcutting with the BC expansion, it's possible we could see a new crafting skill to deal entirely with housing items. At the very least, we're sure to see the ability to take trophies from momentous kills, and perhaps the chance to show off our impressive loot in our homes. What will be interesting to see is whether WoW can elevate housing from a simple pleasant distraction to something with impact on your game experience.
  • Guild Bennies - I haven't heard anything about this specific, but it seems incredible that Blizzard isn't considering offering more support for guilds. A tabard and a chat channel are nice and all, but compared with the red carpet guilds get in EverQuest 2 it's somewhat stingy. If housing goes in, we're sure to see guild housing, but to be honest I hope WoW cribs fairly liberally from EverQuest's playbook. "Levels" for Guilds, special guild-only items, discounts for gear for higher level guilds; I look forward to the day that big-headed guildies can put up by displaying their coat of arms on the walls of Stormwind ... or whatever.
  • Heroes - So-called 'hero' classes have been talked about in the background ever since WoW was in the development stage. The addition of new classes has fallen by the wayside as Blizzard moves to refine the already existing content and playstyles. This is a good thing, to be sure, but the day will almost certainly come when we see new classes introduced to the game. The original plan to provide high level alternative advancements may be re-implimented at level 70, if the developers are leery of raising the level cap again any time soon.
  • Zone Rehashing - Again, not something I've heard specifically mentioned, but something that I hope is at least in the background in San Diego. Now that WoW has begun to expand beyond its original borders, it will be interesting to see what Blizzard does to keep the original areas of the game 'fresh' for players. Whether that means including new content into old zones, reworking the art for a given area, or even closing off sections of the world, keeping Azeroth a 'living world' will ensure interested players. One change I'd love to see sometime down the line would be the introduction of proper home cities for the gnomes and trolls. Gnomeragon isn't one of the better dungeons in the game anyway.
  • Expansion - Blizzard has said they're now resolved to produce one expansion a year. Assuming that Burning Crusade is their expansion for 2007, hopefully around this time next year we'll be talking about whatever new content they're aiming to introduce in bulk. In all likelihood they'll be announcing the new expansion sometime soon, to give us all a year to wonder and speculate about what they're going to do. My hope is that the next expansion will be the one we've all been expecting since the Warcraft III days: Northrend. As much as I like the Outlands, I hope that expanding Azeroth proper is the company's next priority, and the undead-ruled frozen land to the north would be the logical place to go next.

The Burning Crusade has only just begun. Despite the very public arrival of a level 70 character, most characters are probably only 61 or 62 after a week of casual play. Developers interviewed about the leveling curve expected it would take most people around a month to two months to reach level 70. Between now and then we'll see a return to pick up groups for non-raiding content, plenty of fellow questers in the field, and a general sense of camaraderie as the grind commences. It's like the launch of WoW all over again, only this time people generally know what they're doing. In a month or so everyone will be back at the level cap, exploring the high-end dungeons and griping about loot.

This time around, they'll be doing it in a much more relaxed setting and with much cooler gear. After that, it's just a matter of making sure that the content keeps rolling for Azeroth and the Outlands. That, at least, is one area we don't have to worry about. Blizzard has proven that they know what needs doing, and the result is a constantly fresh World of Warcraft experience. This newest chapter in the incredibly popular game's life can only be the start to bigger and better things, and it's a rush to be able to participate. Here's hoping the next expansion can capture as much of the 'Blizzard magic'.

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

Chasing Ghosts Brings Arcade To Sundance

- We're all about the video game documentaries (and Matt Hawkins has been tasked with checking out some more for his 'Cinema Pixeldiso' GSW column), so were delighted when RetroBlast! pointed out that retro game doc 'Chasing Ghosts' is debuting at next week's Sundance Film Festival.

A blurb at Unofficially Sundance explains: "The last place you'd expect to find the video-game capital of the world is Ottumwa, Iowa--but in 1982, this tiny town's Twin Galaxies arcade served as the shining beacon of pixilated pop culture, attracting the best of the best in the highly competitive world of arcade video gaming... Culminating with the nationally televised 1982 Video Game World Championships, director Lincoln Ruchti takes us on a wild ride through the lives of the first arcade celebrities."

The RetroBlast! report references a CNet article on the doc, and I also spotted an IndieWire interview with the director that's pretty interesting: "Finding 12 guys from a 1982 LIFE magazine spread was just about as hard as you'd expect. The Internet was a huge resource. We created spreadsheets of possible names and phone numbers for the players and started dialing."

January 19, 2007

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Shenanigans & Errata

I AM ERRATAThis is Tablesaw, popping in on a non-Monday to clear up some mistakes and changes regarding my most recent Beyond Tetris articles.

First, in Part I of my MIT Mystery Hunt article, I mentioned the definitive article about the Hunt: "The Great Annual MIT Mystery Hunt," from the July 1991 issue of Games Magazine. I also talked about the author of that article, how he had run the Hunt in 1988, and how this year he was on Dr. Awkward, the winning team.

Unfortunately, instead of correctly identifying that person as Eric Albert, I incorrectly identified him as Eric Berlin, a different member of Dr. Awkward. Fearless editor Simon Carless made some quick deletions to preserve my integrity, but since I've known both of these Erics over the past few years, my chagrin goes beyond a mere revision. They are talented puzzlers, and I've enjoyed my time with them both, and I have no excuse for my mental typo other than a lack of sleep.

Second, one week after it was featured in the article on Deadly Rooms of Death, and on the same day that article was noted by the DROD forum, my record for the room in "Halph Has a Bad Day" was beaten. A player with the handle Rabscuttle bested my solution of 48 moves by turning in his own 47-move demo on January 8. The original entry has been modified to reflect this. I wanted to make special mention of it because I discussed the room and the record in particular; I do not intend to make further updates about people being better than me at DROD.

Rabscuttle's accomplishment is appropriate, though. In the article, I also included a screenshot of a room I hold the record for in "King Dugan's Dungeon." The previous record for that room had been held by Rabscuttle, and I had beaten it by a single move.

Finally, not an erratum but an important addendum: there will be an official release of an easy DROD hold called "Smitemastery 101." Intended as a version of DROD suitable for kids, "Smitemastery 101" will likely also be a good opportunity for older puzzle gamers who want a more gentle introduction to the game. It will be released as a Smitemaster's Selection, which means it will available with a CaravelNet subscription for a limited time, and it will be available for individual purchase thereafter.

I am still recovering from the Hunt and preparing for the GameSetWatch synopsis, so Part II of the article should appear shortly. I now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

The Fall And Fall Of The Gaijin Dev

- We're certainly still fans of the Japanmanship blog, described as 'the unremarkable life of a videogame developer in Japan', and a recent post discusses the lack of Western developers in the Japanese game market.

Blogger JC Barnett notes ruefully: "When it comes to the number of Western development staff, artists, planners, coders, musicians, etc. there are no exact figures but from experience I’d say we are few, very few. I’m not terribly well connected, but I have a few ears spread around the industry. There are a few companies with their own foreign worker, some even have more. But what’s worse is that every so often a few of us just raise our hands, admit defeat and move back home or onwards to another country. We’re maybe not a dying breed, but we’re certainly coughing up blood."

Most interestingly, he explains why this might be: "Though the games made in Japan seem to have this exotic aura of excellence, the reality of working here is, thanks to scaremongering blogs like mine and others, not a secret anymore. Or rather, most of the interested people already had a pretty good idea about it, but it’s always a little daunting to have it confirmed from the inside. Bad pay [see pictured graph!], bad hours, bad working practices; the Japanese industry has an image problem. You can’t attract good staff if you aren’t offering an attractive deal."

COLUMN: 'Arcade Obscurities' - Namco's Tenkomori Shooting

Tenkomori Shooting[Arcade Obscurities is a bi-weekly column by Solvalou.com's Arttu Ylärakkola, probing some of the most interesting and obscure arcade games yet to be covered in the geek gaming press, thanks to Arttu's JAMMA board collection, and our insatiable quest for knowledge. This second column does an awesome job of describing Namco's relatively obscure 1998 game 'Tenkomori Shooting'.]

What would David Attenborough say if he found out that monkeys rescue their offspring, who've been kidnapped by an overweight sorceress, by scoring points in miniature shoot 'em up video games? Don't know if that's scientifically accurate, but that's what happens in Namco's Tenkomori Shooting.

There's lots of minigame collections, but Tenkomori is squarely aimed at the shooter crowd: absolutely every and each one of the games available contains shooting and/or bombing in some form or another. The majority of the games are original, but included is also some classics - and the great thing here is that when the classics are referenced, they are exact duplicates of the originals, and not some watered-down 3D remakes.

When you start the game, you can select one of three difficulty levels. The more difficult level you choose, the more options you have when it comes to choosing the first minigame, and the more minigames you have to succesfully complete to reach the topmost level of the sorceress' tower where the final fight (no pun intended) takes place.

Each minigame requires the player to shoot or bomb certain number of targets in very limited (only a few seconds!) time. Fail, and your monkey alter-ego loses some health. Succeed, and our monkey hero climbs to a new level of the tower, where you can select from four new randomly selected mini-games. Well, actually only three new games are available, as you can always select the just-completed game again. The idea is that the more times you select a certain game, the more difficult it will be.

Tenkomori Shooting runs on Namco's System 12 hardware and utilizes it extensively. While the classic games look very basic, some of the 3D sections look absolutely awesome. Unfortunately for console gamers, Tenkomori Shooting is a Japan-only arcade exclusive. A rare English version exists, but it seems that it was never released to the public.

Anything else? Oh, the minigames! Well, here goes - end-boss levels not included - in no particular order:

One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames

1. A giant bug is causing general chaos and chasing your battle helicopter. Shoot the bug in the mouth and avoid its beam and bullet pattern attacks.

2. Dig Dug! Bouncing Pookas try to squash you - shoot them with your gun to inflate them but watch out: the bigger the Pookas, the more difficult it is to avoid them.

3. Your cherub must shoot apples of the correct color and avoid the wrong ones. Your wrong color is the correct one for the second player, and vice versa. More difficult than it sounds!

4. Shoot everything that moves, but concentrate on collecting medals that the enemies carry. Feels like a 2D Raizing shooter, only faster.

5. Shoot down a big mothership by breaking all its weaponry, one by one.

One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames

6. Protect your precious rice bags from crows, but make sure you don't get crapped on.

7. Simple mathematical equations are displayed, and you have to first figure out the answer and then shoot at the bouncing balloon which contains the correct answer at the same time.

8. Shoot invading UFOs with your rocket launcher. In order to get enough points, shoot UFOs that are close together, to get big chain explosions that take out multiple enemies in one go.

9. Use your spray can to kill all giant cockroaches. Make sure you don't miss the ones who decide to scuttle under the furniture.

10. Blast all cells, but avoid the bullet swarms they shoot at you. The colorful graphics remind me of Nichibutsu's shooters, particularly Armed Formation Z.

One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames

11. Shoot all totem poles. This is difficult, as they fire swarms of bullets at you, and just when you thought it couldn't get any more difficult, they start trying to catch you with their super elastic tongues!

12. This one is like a manic version of 1942. Shoot as many WWII planes as possible.

13. Shoot your hearts at the lady singer, but avoid shooting the male waitresses (who, when shot, rip out their clothes and run to you with hearts in their eyes), Elvis impersonators and the dogs (dodge them to keep your pants unsoiled!).

14. You have couple of bullets to shoot a shogun - only problem is that he's protected by his bodyguards. Try to slip one bullet thru a gap between the guards, or wait for the second player to accidentally shoot one of them to make the shogun easier to hit.

15. Your boss in the sushi shop asks you for a type of sushi which you must shoot in the moving converyor belts.

One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames

16. Galaga! This is an exact replica of the bonus stages of Galaga. Luckily you have the dual ship power-up from the start.

17. You're a volcano - a video game first? Build up pressure by making circular motion with your stick (stop snickering!) and press fire to launch smouldering boulders at the swarm of UFOs that fly above you.

18. Avoid the busy traffic while simultaneously throwing bombs at the Waaru building until it collapses. Waaru, the PayPal of Tenkomori Shooting?

19. Aim at the slowly moving aircraft and attempt to shoot as many of them down with the few missiles you've got. In order to succeed, getting big combos is a must.

20. Shoot down three battleships, at the same time making sure that the smaller popcorn enemies don't get you.

One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames One of the minigames

21. Xevious! Shooting down the Andor Genesis mothership might have been difficult in the original arcade game - in this version it's even more difficult: you have all the same enemies but only couple of seconds to do it!

22. Shoot the many tanks that pour out the the enemy base. Maybe it's the helicopter, but this feels like Twin Cobra 2.

23. Tasty insects gather on the plants that grow around your pond. You, as a fish, must first spit on the insects so that they fall into the water. Then eat them before they float off the screen. Very difficult!

24. Destroy the tank, avoiding its weaponry. This game plays, looks and feels exactly like the games in the Raiden Fighters / Gun Dogs series.

25. The screen is filling with flying bugs. Avoid them with your biplane and when you think you can't handle it any longer, press a button to drop a screen-clearing bomb. Drop it too soon, and you don't kill enough bugs. Don't drop it soon enough and you collide with a bug. A very simplistic game, but in my opinion the best of the bunch!

Can you go wrong with such variety?
No, you can't!

GameSetTrip: A Random GameStop PS3/Wii Experience

- Firstly, a disclaimer - any GSW editor's individual experience at a game store is obviously not precisely symptomatic of the situation throughout North America. But nonetheless, figured you might want to hear about the hardware availability at a certain major Bay Area game store branch that I visited this evening.

This particular store is located in a major mall, and the fact that there was a paper notice with 'We have PS3s' on it pasted to the open front door of the store clued me in to one important fact - they had PlayStation 3 consoles! In fact, they had two of them left. I couldn't get the kind clerk behind the counter to discuss exactly when this latest shipment (which I believe was of 3 PS3s) had come in, but he did reveal that the previous PS3 shipment, which arrived last week, took a total of about four days to completely sell out.

As a comparison, this particular GameStop (there, I said it!) had precisely zero Nintendo Wii-s in stock, and more than one person asked for a Wii in the quarter of an hour or so I was in the store (though, to be fair, there was also one phone query about the PS3.) I then asked how long the previous Wii shipment (which I think had also arrived the previous week?) had taken to sell out. While I was openly wondering if it took days or hours for the Will hardware to disappear again into the hands of hungry consumers, the clerk grinned and simply said: 'Minutes!'

So there you have it - more anecdotal evidence that the PlayStation 3 is a little slow to sell through when it gets to stores - IMHO at least partially because of the marginally eye-watering $599 price for the 60gb model that most retail stores are selling.

Even though GameStop offers $100 toward trade-in if you swap your PlayStation 2 and some extras at the time of purchase, this is the second time that I've avoided buying a PS3 when GameStop/EB has actually had one in stock - and I'm the EIC of a game magazine/website. And it's really the price (and the amount of unplayed X360/Wii games I have) which is personally holding me up - though we have a work PS3 to keep me ticking over.

So, a question to GSW readers - if you saw a PS3 in stock at a game store, the next time you walk in, would you buy one? And if not, why not? (Having said all this, I'll probably get my PS2 packed up and trade up to a PS3 some time in the next couple of months, likely when MotorStorm and downloadable Tekken 5 debut in the States.)

Second Life: When 10 Hours Ain't Enough

- I had some thoughts on this too, but MMO veteran Damion Schubert beat me to the bunch with his post on Second Life: 'When 10 Hours Is Not Enough To Appreciate True Awesomeness', specifically referencing Wagner James Au's GigaGamez article backlashing against the backlash.

Schubert explains: "For a while, the Second Life backlash was going so strong that I was considering, albeit briefly, actually whipping out a couple of posts in defense of the Linden Labs boys and sticking up for them, just to be contrarian. But to be honest, I can only take so much of the fanbois who keep trying to explain, in patronizing terms, that we simply don’t get the vision of Second Life. I get it. I read Snowcrash. Second Life is no Snowcrash. Second Life is a marvelous experiment with some real potential behind it, but it has severe issues holding it back in both design and technology, and until it actually addresses them, it will never even get into the same ballpark with its own hype."

He particularly seizes on complaints that Second Life criticizers haven't played the game long enough: "That’s right - 10 hours is not enough time to make an honest assessment of the Second Life experience. By comparison, my games rack is full of games that didn’t survive an HOUR of playtime. Electronic Arts (and most other companies) force their designers to obsess over the first FIVE MINUTES of gameplay, because most games don’t even survive THAT. Okay, someone reviewing the game should probably give it a tad more time than than but… 10 hours - not enough!"

Schubert's conclusion: "I personally played it for about 5 hours, most of which was a bewildering struggle with the interface, and a desperate attempt to find any player created content that wasn’t broken, partially textured, furry in theme, or so whimsical it was clearly an inside joke to its creator... I’m a professional game designer. I work in this space for a living. I have a vested interest in finding this information. I failed miserably. What makes you think that Joe Sixpack will make even half the effort?"

For what it's worth, GameSetWatch deliberately paid a game journalist to check out Second Life from the in-world game perspective, and what he found was interesting, but ultimately didn't keep him around.

In fact, I noticed a recent blog post from the journo in question, Mathew Kumar, which reveals: "It is amusing to me that I haven’t logged in once since finishing my Letters from the Metaverse column for GameSetWatch... I guess I find this funny because despite all the hype, as far as I can see, Second Life hasn’t made any of the improvements that are required for it to sustain the interest (I’m sure that 90% of the “residents” logged in a few times, got bored and left) or even give me the urge to log back in." So - not case closed, but I think it's a valid viewpoint.

January 18, 2007

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Shin Megami Tensei

persona.jpg['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. Recently IGN’s Best of 2006 feature listed Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army as a runner-up in the “Best Game Nobody Played” category. As collectors know, the games “Nobody Played” typically become the games “Everybody Wishes They Could Find”.]

Shin Megami Tensei

The Shin Megami Tensei series got its start back in 1987 with a Japanese RPG called Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei, which could be translated as “Digital Devil Story: Goddess Reincarnation”. Based on a series of novels by Aya Nishitani, the game was first published by NAMCO for the MSX computer and later that year for Nintendo’s Famicom. A sequel followed and then Atlus took over publishing the series. Subsequent games added the word Shin to the title, which is read in Japanese as “true/genuine” but is also homonymous with “new”. In the years since, Atlus has made Shin Megami Tensei a cornerstone of their business, releasing a bewildering assortment of remakes, sequels, side stories and spin-offs. However, only a handful of these games have received English language releases.

Persona

persona.jpgAmerica got its first taste of the Shin Megami Tensei series in 1996 when Atlus brought Persona over. One of the Playstation’s early RPGs, Persona was unusual for its contemporary, urban setting that was far removed from the fantasy worlds that most other RPGs inhabited. Its “dungeons” were shopping malls and schools that were explored from a first person perspective. Persona’s “world map” was a middle-class Tokyo neighborhood, complete with crosswalks and subways.

In other respects, Persona stuck close to well-established RPG conventions. It had a party of intrepid adventurers, magic, swords, monsters, and a lot of turn-based combat. Fighting was enlivened by the ability to parley with enemies in order to wheedle items from them or avoid combat altogether and characters had the ability to transform into powerful “Persona” entities. Despite its unique presentation, Persona was a slow and somewhat tedious game that involved a great deal of stat management. Some described it as a good game for budding, young CPAs. Persona was also marginalized by a sloppy translation and odd changes to its content made by Atlus in an awkward effort to make the game more appealing to a Western audience. Persona is not too difficult to find as most who have it find it fairly easy to let go of. Expect to pay about $40.

Persona 2: Eternal Punishment

persona2.jpgReleased in 2000, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was a much more successful game (at least artistically) than its predecessor. Although the translation remained a little dodgy and its graphics were well behind the curve for a game arriving at the end of the Playstation’s life span, Person 2: Eternal Punishment was a complex and mysterious RPG, filled with interesting characters and a distinctly grown-up story.

Eternal Punishment was actually the second part of a two game series, the first being Persona 2: Innocent Sin which was never released outside of Japan. However, it stood well on its own and was packed with enough content to keep players busy for many, many hours. Once again set in a modern, slightly sci-fi, urban environment, Person 2 turned a darker shade with serial killers, demons, and a satanic mega-corporation lurking behind a veneer of steel and glass, air-conditioned normality. Persona 2 was also noteworthy for featuring as its main characters adults with jobs and responsibilities. Perhaps the long-running success of the Shin Megami Tensei series can be attributed to a willingness to grow along with its audience.

Persona 2 came with a second disc that featured an animated trailer for the game and a short video interview with producer Cozy Okada and illustrator Kazuma Kaneko. This is one is also relatively easy to acquire at $40.

Nocturne

nocturne.jpgLongtime Shin Megami Tensei producer Cozy Okada left Atlus in 2003 to form a new studio called GAIA (creators of the upcoming Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner for PSP). However, before leaving he oversaw the development of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne for the Playstation 2.

At first glance Nocturne was a little underwhelming. The cell-shaded graphics were well-crafted but subtle. The story seemed vague with few characters to interact with. The combat was frequent and punishing. After spending a couple of hours wandering through Nocturne’s lonely hallways many asked themselves “Is this all there is?”

Well, yes and no. Nocturne was an esoteric game that discouraged casual players but could be very rewarding for the initiate who was willing to invest the time to understand all of its intricacies. The game was a bit of throw back to an earlier age when RPGs were exacting dungeon crawls rather than elaborate interactive novels. Progress through Nocturne was dependent on one’s ability to navigate convoluted mazes as well as understand the combat system and exploit enemy weaknesses. Conversing with demons assumed a new importance as they could be recruited into the party and combined with one another to create exotic, new creatures.

The game was released in America as Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne in 2004 and includes additional “Director’s Cut” material as well as a CD soundtrack. Now out-of-print, Nocturne sells for around $60.

Digital Devil Saga

ddsbox.jpgDigital Devil Saga found the Shin Megami Tensei series moving back to firmer narrative ground with a somber sci-fi tale. Set in a grim, post-apocalyptic landscape laced with imagery from the Vedic Hymns, Digital Devil Saga had a look that was unlike any other RPG. The combat system from Nocturne was reused although demon recruitment was no longer an aspect of play. Instead, characters could transform into demons themselves and devour enemies.

Digital Devil Saga was an ambitious, two part game with the first volume released in 2005. It came in a slightly higher priced deluxe box that would hold the second DDS when it was released later that year. DDS I included a CD soundtrack but DDS II came with a soundtrack only as a pre-order bonus. Fortunately, Atlus still has extra copies of DDS II’s soundtrack and it can be ordered separately from their web site. The Digital Devil Saga deluxe box is no longer available and sells online for around $60. DDS II can still be acquired new.

Devil Summoner

summoner.jpgThe latest Shin Megami Tensei game is the currently available Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army which was released late in 2006. This time the setting is Taisho era (around 1932) Tokyo and Atlus put a lot of effort into depicting that uncertain period in Japan’s history when traditional culture was being swept aside in favor of rapidly advancing modernism. Despite its realistic backdrop, Devil Summoner is a fairly breezy game with a much more forgiving difficulty level. Combat is played out as a fast paced hack ‘n slash with most engagements over in a manner of seconds. Demons can be captured for use in battle or combined together in a system very similar to the one in Nocturne.

Spin-Offs

The Shin Megami Tensei franchise is very broad and encompasses many spin-offs that have only a tenuous connection to the main series. Over the years Atlus has made a few of these available in America.

Beginning in 1995, even before the release of Persona, Atlus brought over Jack Bros., a little known action game for Nintendo’s Virtual Boy and in 1999 they published Revelations: The Demon Slayer for the Game Boy Color. Revelations was part of a fantasy themed Shin Megami Tensei series called Last Bible in Japan. Also, in 2003 Atlus released two games for the Game Boy Advance called Demi Kids: Light version and Demi Kids: Dark version. These were monster collecting RPGs intended for younger players.

Although Maken X for the Dreamcast was not specifically part of the Shin Megami Tensei universe, it had much of the same look and feel. Published by Sega in 1999, Maken X was an interesting first person melee game that was hampered by a dreadful localization and frustrating game play. However, it is worth owning for Kazuma Kaneko’s decadent and bizarre character designs which seem to reference the fashions of both haute couture and S&M dungeons. It is easily obtained for about $10.

[Jeffrey Fleming is an East Bay writer. To read more, please visit Tales of the Future.]

Images: (C) 1996-2006 Atlus All Rights Reserved

Wii Developers - Do Not Simulate?

- Jane McGonigal of 4orty 2wo Entertainment/ARG 'fame' has a very interesting post on Nintendo's Wii on her blog, urging to game developers of all creeds and Cheeto-consumption levels : "I want to suggest that we ought NOT to be talking about the wonders of Wii in terms of "simulation.""

But to what is she referring? "Consider the latest issue of Game Developer Magazine [PLUG: available online as a free sample, go subscribe if you like it - ithangyou!]. There's a great post-mortem of a Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam skating game for the Wii console. In general, a really excellent read. But I was troubled by part of the article, in which the developer (Toby Schadt) discuss why the Wii is so great and how the game sought to take advantage of the new controller."

She then references Schadt's comment that "That's why the Wii is so compelling--the way you control your character in a game is a more realistic analog to what you would do in the real world, as opposed to pressing buttons", before suggesting: "I certainly get that the Wii controller is way more fun and cool because it's not just pushing abstract combinations of buttons. But you know what? I think it's way more fun and cool because MOVING VIGOROUSLY--shaking, waving, pumping, pointing, and so on--is more fun than pressing buttons."

Her conclusion: "Indeed, the fact that there is a real, live, embodied performance happening when a player engages the Wii games creates the kind of gameplay legibility that enables "non-gamers" to get in the game, and that creates a setting where you can really cheer on other players... So when you play Wii games, are you simulating? Or are you REALLY playing and performing? I say the Wii does not simulate. The Wii is real." This is a subtle but interesting point.

Super Famicom Obscure Review Guide Get

- Time to switch gears back to geek collectors (the life blood of GSW, of course), and Jiji kindly pointed out the Super Nintendo obscure game review site RVGFanatic.com, newly unleashed upon the Internet.

The site is filled with really nice quality reviews of obscure SNES games, such as 'King Of Demons'/Mayjuuou, which "could be described as "Castlevania with a gun" or "Resident Evil meets Castlevania"", and I've certainly never heard of. Alternatively, one of my personal favorite SNES titles, The Firemen, is also represented: "a 1-player top-down action game where you navigate a top high-rise fire fighter through the burning Metrotech building."

There's also in-depth (possibly excessively in-depth!) collection stories, such as a 9-month saga to get some Super Play magazines: "January 17, 2006 is the official comeback date for yours truly. And so I began actively pursuing a complete Super Play set from that day forth. The following journey I took is simply unbelievable. I always had confidence I would one day own Super Play, but I had no idea it'd be anything like this...." It's practically a Viking Saga!

Pikkle Goes Inside CyWorld

- A completely random find, this - I was checking into what David 'DC' Collier, one of the GDC Mobile Game Innovation Hunt presenters, is up to - he's a mobile game expert who used to work at Namco and presents a World Mobile Games Tour most years at GDC.

Well, his company, Pikkle, seem to be doing some wacky mobile phone Flash portal stuff in Japan called Charajam, but separately of that, I found an excellent description of Korean social networking game/site CyWorld on the Pikkle Wiki (!) - well worth sharing, as it's part of Collier's research into social gaming.

As the intro explains: "Korea's CyWorld is like an SNS + personal home page builder + Flickr all in one. It's also the 17th most popular site in the world and 20% of the Korean population is registered on it. It also makes tons of money by selling avatar add-ons and accessories... I have been following it for awhile, but it was hard to decipher as a foreigner. Luckily my friend Charles Forman moved to Korea and soon became a celebrity on CyWorld, creating media-art for the front page. I talked to him about the service..."

Forman engagingly explains: "You know how in high school you'd see the most popular kid walk by.. you’d think “hey what does that guy have that I don’t?” and then you'd realize.. Ah yes: clear skin, cheerleader girlfriend, sports car. Now the playing field is level and youre out to get a large piece of that infinite social real estate! Cyworld is an ongoing community of Koreans measuring their popularity and constantly advertising who they are."

While it's not explicitly a game, it does have RPG-style stats for how famous, kind, and erotic (!) you are, and there's a very game-like room that you can outfit to show people your, uhm, l33t style:

"The owner of the minihompi designs that all themself. Its basically like a visual expression of how you feel through making a comic about it. There is a mini room designer application. You have a collection of things you can place on your miniroom. You buy these things for real money." I know Cyworld has been around for ages - but this is the first good English-language explanation I've seen, and therefore, I'm passing it along to you folks.

January 17, 2007

Xbox Live Arcade Crazed Frenziness Carnage!

- There really _is_ a lot of Xbox 360 Live Arcade-related news swilling around today, so maybe it'd be best to lay them all out on the table at once, and poke them a bit to see if they're still moving:

- XBLArcade.com has spotted that " the German version of the ESRB, the USK, has just rated a game for the 360 called 'EETs Chowdown'... could this be the first signs that [neat indie puzzle game] Eets could be making it's way to XBLA like many have asked for?" I'm gonna hazard a guess of 'Yes' - and it's nice to see the game, which was one of the most worthy titles not to make the IGF finals this year, getting an XBLA conversion.

- We've got a postmortem of Naked Sky's Roboblitz for XBLA up on Gamasutra today, huzzah - here's the blurb: " Among the first games to utilize Epic's Unreal Engine 3, Naked Sky's RoboBlitz squeezed a great deal into 50mb for its Xbox Live Arcade release. In this Gamasutra postmortem, we learn firsthand the joys and pitfalls of the self-funded indie team's first title."

- Some amusing chap on NeoGAF spotted that today's XBLA release, PopCap's Heavy Weapon, is rated E10+ but includes the content descriptor 'Tobacco Reference' - smokin'! Which led me to check the ESRB website to see which other games had the warning - mainly those louche Europeans (SingStar: Rocks!, Cold War), and also Ratchet & Clank clone Ruff Trigger - The Vanocore Conspiracy, and even more bizarrely, Disney DVD Game World: Disney Dogs Edition. I bet that's Cruella De Vil's fault!

- Electronic Arts have announced a new XBLA title, 'Boom Boom Rocket', produced with Geometry Wars creator Bizarre Creations, and also on Gama, we have a chat with EA's Chip Lange about EA's plans for the service. The game itself sounds neat, too: "In Boom Boom Rocket, players both solo and multiplayer are made to trigger rockets to the rhythm of the game's soundtrack... Different colored rockets are mapped to different buttons of the Xbox 360's controller." Looking forward to it.

PS3 Oblivion Seeing Double To Counteract Blu-Ray

- Having just got the newest February 2007 issue of EGM (you guys should subscribe and keep print alive, it's wholesome and woody!), perhaps the most interesting tidbit is hidden in the middle of a story about Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD. Specifically, it comes from Todd Howard, talking about the PlayStation 3 version of Oblivion.

Howard notes: "Drive speed matters more to me [than capacity], and Blu-ray is slower", with EGM revealing that "the PS3 Oblivion team compensated for the slower drive by duplicating data across the Blu-ray disc, making it faster to find and load."

Well, I say ugh - that sounds like a terrible kludge to have to do. What happens if you don't have your pieces of data correctly sync-ed and one of them is an old version of an object/piece of code and one is a newer version? Unless this was well-dealt with, it could lead to some nasty issues, I'd imagine.

OK, so apart from you wags who are now proclaiming: 'So _that's_ what the Blu-ray's extra disc capacity is used for!', it's worth mentioning that Oblivion for PS3 has now been pushed out to March 2007, even though it was officially going to be a launch title until November 8th or so of last year - that is to say, very close to the PS3 launch date.

Not sure if this was unfortunate planning on Bethesda's part or technical difficulties, but I noticed a bunch of two-page adverts for Oblivion, specifically mentioning the PS3 version, in the holiday issues of Official PlayStation Magazine and EGM - so I'm guessing that marketing was booked before the game was pushed back. Ouch. Still, I imagine that the final product will be up to scratch.

[UPDATE: A perceptive comment from 'Marvin' is worth reprinting: "You'd automate the duplication at the image creation stage to avoid any stale data problems. People have done this on other platforms before for the same reasons - particularly the PSP, with its horrible UMD seek times. However, it does rather negate the whole increased storage capacity advantage."]

The Blackwell Legacy, Revealed?

- Since we seem to be turning GSW into the 'PC indie adventure game Watch', I don't see why I shouldn't mention that Dave 'The Shivah' Gilbert released his new AGS game, The Blackwell Legacy just before Xmas, and I haven't seen much game blog press for it.

The Shivah itself is in Wired Magazine this month, actually, but The Blackwell Legacy also looks intriguing, "the first case in a miniseries of games that stars a medium named Rosangela Blackwell and her spirit guide Joey Mallone."

Unfortunately, there's no playable demo yet (looks like it'll be along in a few days!), but the game itself is a quite reasonable $14.99, and there's already a Gameboomers review of it which highlights some of the interestingly dark themes of the game (suicide, for one), and comments: "All in all, I found the game to start rather slowly but become much more enjoyable after a short while. The attention to detail is noteworthy. I thought it an unusually compelling psychological study for an independent game to undertake, and I’ll certainly be looking forward to more from this talented developer."

'Beyond 3DO': Jag vs 3DO: Life After Death?

MonsterManorplus3DO.jpg

[This week's Beyond 3DO column is a look into the modern 32-bit homebrew mines. Not the swanky, well lit Sega and Sony mines, resplendent with running hot can cold water and matching water feature. Oh no - these are the dank, dark, dismal mines of the Atari Jaguar and the 3DO Multiplayer, where the Motorola and Arm dwarves mine - perhaps too deep?]

“He hoped and prayed that there wasn't an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn't an afterlife.” – Douglas Adams.

I often wonder - do the likes of Trip Hawkins or Sam Tramiel put the name of their long forgotten consoles into Google from time-to-time, just to see? Do they grimace or grin? Do they care? Do they suffer the same pangs of nostalgia – the memories – the same love that we do?

The 3DO multiplayer and the Atari Jaguar have been dead twice as long as they were alive – yet a handful of e-Necromancers keep the spirits of these long since gone consoles alive. In the dark places on the web, past the Xbox 360 groups, beneath the PS3 and the Wii - the fans of early 32bit generation hardware keep these machines alive.

So what support, some 10 years on, do these consoles enjoy?

Let us start with the Atari Jaguar's afterlife. In fairness, this has been more prosperous than its actual life. It’s living the games console equivalent of heaven, packed with saucy scantily clad female angels, fluffy clouds and a free bar. So, where to begin? Well the first thing you notice about the Jaguar is how well it is supported online. The forums aren’t easy to find - however, the Atari Age network acts as a central hub for all things Atari. Fair enough. But the Atari Jaguar forums really confound me – there are still people on there chatting. Chatting about the Atari Jaguar. Incredible.

Fine. I admit it. Atari has a rich history, sure, but the Jaguar was not its proudest moment - surely? It was a closed system with a proprietary architecture. It had very very few games. It was a cartridge-based system. It had no I/O to speak of. Face it, they can't have sold more than half a dozen worldwide. Hey - Atari fans - it was the Jaguar that sent Atari "Chapter 11" - that and bad management. It’s difficult to imagine anything much could have be done with it, especially now that even Atari (not the re-branded software publisher we see today, but the old Atari) has stacked all the chairs on top of the tables and turned all the lights out.

So, assuming the Jaguar forums are not full of Rev. Johanasson Blithe-s from Nigeria, trying to offload $1 million or endless Viagra adverts, the questions begs – what the hell do they talk about? After gabbing on about Tempest 2000 and Alien vs Predator, the conversation must have ran dry after 14 years?

Prepare yourself for a shock. There is homebrew hardware and software, and commercial hardware and software still being released for the Atari Jaguar. Yes, that’s today, in 2007. Yes – you heard me right. Yes - my flabber was ghasted too …and that’s a lot of ghasting. It’s not a steady trickle either – it’s a bloody flood.

So assuming you want to run some Atari homebrew, you are going to have to prep your Jaguar to do so first, right? So how do you get homebrew running on a 15 year old cartridge based games console? As it turns out, there are plenty of ways. The cheapest most effect way for you and I, at the moment is the BJL Chip. This stands for 'Behind Jaggy Lines' – you will need to open the Jaguar, solder in a chip and know what you are doing. Oh, and perhaps even flash your own EPROM chip. I studied computer science at University and I’ve been a geek all my life. Still, I baulk at the very idea of doing this, but I’m reliably informed that it is easy and relatively cheap.

It is sort of tempting. This kind of thing can be more fun than actually playing some of games out there – especially when considering Jag's back catalogue of games – but I can understand the fear others may have.

If you do bite the bullet, this modification will open access to a world of homebrew for the Jaguar. Your PC, assuming it is old enough because of such things as parallel port speeds and the like, will be able to talk to your Jaguar via a cable, allowing you to upload, download and execute homebrew straight to the Jaguar's RAM.

Other alternatives, for those terrified of the smell of solder, can be via an Atari ST, Mega ST, TT or Falcon. With these you can use Jag server to do much the same thing - or if you are really lucky, you could use the Alpine development kit

Other means of getting homebrew working is by the moderately hard to come by Jaguar CD-ROM and an Encryption bypass cartridge, both of which are expensive and rare - but homebrew can be run from CD. Occasionally discs get distributed without the need for bypassing the encryption, but the need for the elusive CD-ROM remains the same.

For those of a nervous disposition, or less of a geek disposition, or a financially restricted disposition, I would recommend you wait for the JagCF. Coming in ’07, the Jaguar Compact Flash cartridge to be used with the optional USB Catnip cable will remove the caveats, and bring Jaguar Homebrew as close to the mainstream as it is ever likely to get. You will simply copy the homebrew game or application to the CF card using a standard PC and then plug it into the Jaguar. Hopefully it will be easy, painless and risk free.

Also in 2007, new homebrew games are to be released, targeted at the JagCF. Project Apocalypse and Seaplane are shoot ‘em ups for the Jaguar due to be released in 2007, and even a port of Another World has been promised. Because obviously, for the talented, porting Atari ST games to the Jaguar is, I hesitate because you know what? It’s not, but I’m going to say it anyway – “straightforward”.

You can also buy new stuff for Jaguar. That’s right. ‘Buy’. Proper cartridges, not homebrew, not made in a shed - well not obviously made in a shed, anyway - proper-proper games, proper hardware, with a manual and stickers and everything. And you buy them using money. Not trading for shells or high res pictures of Carrie Fisher in a gold bikini, or other esoteric geek items. 'Buy'. From a commercial business. Insane? Perhaps. There are those still releasing commercial hardware and software for the Jag. Yes – it’s true.

JaguarsMultitap.jpg

Local lad, well local to me in Cambridge, UK, anyway, has released a Multitapfor the Jaguar! There are other hardware vendors releasing a Rotary Controller for the Jaguar – so you can enjoy Tempest in the way the Minter always wanted, or Worms the way Team 17 envisaged. This is the tip of the iceberg.

…and of course, there are games still being released. Battlesphere, now something of a holy grail for Jaguar owners, was released in February 2000. So what, you cry? Graphics equivalent to a second generation PSX game? 32 player options? And the game play is said to be equal to Tempest 2000? Isn’t that tantamount to Atarian blasphemy?

Telegames and Songbird Productions sell shrinkwrapped games for the Jaguar online, releasing games that were still in production when the Jaguar was alive. Songbird released a game called “Protector”, for which the owner of this garage based company did 20% of the coding. He also designed the cartridge, took the order, stuck the stamp on the box and popped it in the post – and also has a full time job and family!

The icing on the cake is E-JagFest and JagFest UK. This is where a few like minded souls gather together to play games and indulge in their favourite hobby. Jagfest UK ’07 is promising the only Jaguar VR Headset in the world as the star attraction.

Now - It would be easy for a chap like me to pour scorn on this, and I probably will at some point ,but surely this is equivalent to a Morris Dancing Club or the Real Ale society. But... hmmm. Hell, I might even go to Jagfest UK just to see that VR headset. Damn - stupid - geek impulses. I'd organise a 3DOFest for the same day as the Jagfest, if I could stomach all the pointing, staring, laughing and verbal abuse. From the wife. ...Yeah - I will just go to JagFest UK.

As the facts stand, then: the Atari Jaguar is alive and kicking.

…so what of Trip's mighty machine: the 3DO?

3DOSonic.jpg

You know, even summoning the mighty powers of 3DO fanboyism – the 3DO’s life after death is far from the glamour the Atari machine enjoys. If the Jag enjoys heaven to the max, the 3DO has got a job there cleaning urinals. With its own toothbrush.

...but it's still there, clinging onto digital heaven for all it's worth. And it's all thanks to one group of people, namely... the Russians.

You see - the 3DO still enjoys popularity in certain parts of the world. The reason being that it is, all things being relative, an exotic system. Exotic in Russia, where it was upon release hideously expensive, and exotic in South America, where it wasn't released at all. And other parts of the world too - but a quick scan of Google, and the number of 3DO websites in both Russian and Brazilian is formidable.

The hub of 3DO homebrew development of any kind hinges on the guys over at Freedo. Their Russiandeveloped emulator is streets ahead of the Virtual Jaguar emulator or Project Tempest Jaguar emulator. In terms of compatibility. In the fact it works. And the fact it is still being developed for. Also it has played host to the first and only 3DO Homebrew work. Although considerably less homebrew is available for the 3DO - it does exist.

OK. It may only be a Sonic sprite running down a street, and it has no interactivity whatsoever, it does suggest that homebrew on the 3DO is possible and means the 3DO ain’t quite dead yet. More impressive when you learn that this homebrew was developed without the aid of an SDK or an official developer's kit. So - although the 3DO's vital signs have something of Elvis Presley about them, 3DO homebrew may still be alive.

The homebrew hardware side is equally ambitious, if somewhat undersubscribed. Mnemonic - the user handle for the Russian chap responsible for the first ever 3DO homebrew - also offers a guide on how to build a 3DO to PSX pad converter – ideal if you find the 3DO pad inadequate. Sadly, it's in Russian.

The only other hardware device is also on a promise – the ability to connect an IDE drive to a 3DO multiplayer. Details are sketchy, but the developers over at Freedo have promised that if I, that’s me, 3DO kid, can drum up 100 pre-orders, I get one free. So – what are you waiting for? Chop-chop. 3DO Kid likes free add-ons for his stuff.

Joking aside - this device might bring Linux to the 3DO and other utilities. Fitting a hard drive to enough 3DO machines, for the right price, might breath life back into the 3DO ARM architecture yet. We can but hope. There are also rumors of an SDK to allow homebrew development for the 3DO, again from the Freedo chaps. It's at that acorn stage for the 3DO. Or perhaps the 3DO is truly dead? Dammit, not while Cell flows through 3DOkid's veins, its not.

The developers.

I pinged an email over to an independent Jaguar hardware developer based in my home town of Cambridge - a company called SgM Electrosoft - and asked - why keep developing for the Atari Jaguar?

The answer was simple: He had been a fan of Atari since the early arcade days and the days of the VCS 2600. He also believes the Jaguar is a good system. He says he saw people at Jagfest UK playing Worms (Yes, worms on a Jag!?) passing the controller around and thought he could make an elegant solution to fix that. He then did. Frankly – that’s amazing. He also wishes to continue supporting the Jaguar.

Asked what he would develop with unlimited resources the answer was simple. A VR Headset. He also talked of a lightgun. It’s difficult not to get enthusiastic – a lottery win and I’d happily hand over the money for a VR headset or a lightgun to be developed for the Jaguar – I really would. But this chap isn’t the only one. There is a small army of homebrew hardware developers laboring away in the Atari hardware mines.

But there is a problem. Money. It costs to make this stuff, yet some people don’t seem to appreciate this. Charge too much and people won’t buy it. Charge too little and you won’t cover your costs. It is perhaps the way of the world – still, it would be nice if something could be done.

The ambitions of the Freedo guys are well documented on their forum: A Dreamcast port, an Xbox port, a Freedo hardware machine – that’s right, Freedo running on dedicated Freedo hardware. Close your mouth. But again money and time stands between these guys and their ambitious dreams. Perhaps someone could support these homebrew developers? They could provide a pool of cash and marketing. It would be a hot bed of recruitment potential if nothing else. Someone to offer a gentle nod of approval to these guys that keep the original 32-bit dream alive.

The only conclusion.

The 3DO gets a bit of a kicking in the homebrew department. The Jaguar is truly king of the two, but in my honest opinion, all the 3DO needs is support.

Which brings me on to my final topic: an unholy alliance. Devin from the CDi Interactive network and yours truly, 3DO Kid, famed for the last truly great 3DO blogs, have formed an alliance – in part to defeat the evil Atarians, in part to start a online forum. It's something like the AtariAge site and the Jagware site combined?

The new 3DO Zero forum includes general 3DO related chit-chat, information and 3DO-related chin wagging, and a private forum for anyone with esoteric 3DO curios, ARM, Oprah or Cell programming experience, or something to share. “Join us”, or bow to a world with a blood red fountain.

…Trip? Trip? Are you there…?

So - Round 3 in this epic battle of 32-bit hardware goes to the Jaguar. Bugger.

Jaguar: 2. 3DO: 1.

Wazap, New Video Game Search Engine? Hang On!

- The current glut of Web 2.0-related funding for 'social media' and aggregator sites of many and ridiculous kinds hasn't extended too far into the video game biz, thus far - and that's probably good, because the last thing we need is VCs targeting the game biz with dubiously overoptimistic aspirations of Google-size greatness. However, game search engine Wazap has just announced a $7.9 million round of funding, presumably by dangling some choice game industry demographics in front of investors.

According to the WebProNews report: "Wazap is scheduled to launch in the United States in February... Vertical and niche searches are becoming all the rage, and with the video game industry ripe for takeoff in 2007, the timing for a U.S. launch of the gaming search engine couldn't be better." Hmm... you know what, I'm going to call shenanigans on this one, and here's why.

Firstly, as you guys may remember, Ziff Davis launched Gazerk last E3 - a branded game search engine with the might of editorial sites like 1UP behind it. That went just about nowhere, I'm afraid - interestingly, I just found a discussion of Gazerk and Wazap on the Search Engine Lowdown website. This doesn't augur well for Wazap, which has no such editorial sites to drive eyeballs.

And more to the point, check out this Alexa graph showing the major Wazap sites - as can be seen, it's Wazap.jp which is driving most of the traffic, and a visit to a game page on Wazap.jp reveals a site (running since 2001 or so!) that has little to do with search engines - it's much more of a GameFAQs-style site, with messageboards, cheats, and release info for each game. It's a really nice site, but 'search engine'? Nope.

However, Wazap.de, the much newer site (here's a results page for Children Of Mana) is much closer to a 'gaming search engine', with vanilla web results alongside eBay/retail store purchase links, etc. This is presumably what Wazap is intending to roll out in the States - and honestly, I don't see it making much of a splash.

So, the Search Engine Lowdown site raves: "According to eMarketer, 40% of American adults play video games (35% female, 45% male). When those percentages are converted into sheer numbers and sales, that is a staggering market to enter." No, no, no - this is missing the point. When I want to search for info about video games, I use Google. When it's about video game news, I use Google News (for formal reports) and Technorati (for less formal reports).

So, in conclusion - VC funders need to think more carefully about what they're supporting. For me (and, I believe, most people) - here's absolutely nothing specific about games that would make we want to remember to switch to a game-only search engine. Would I switch to a dog-specific search engine when looking for info about my dachshund? Nope.

What Wazap needs is its Japanese site (which is smart, but has pretty much nothing to do with the horribly buzzwordy 'search') rolled out over all territories, and it needs to have done that back in, uhm, 2000 or so in order to have built up a significant community, which is the one thing money can't buy. Still, I don't imagine venture money extends to funding time reversal just yet?

January 16, 2007

Confessions Of A 30-Year-Old Gamer

- This one has been floating around for a bit, but is worth linking - Time Magazine's Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates has a piece up called 'Confessions of a 30-Year-Old Gamer', in which he talks about his MMO semi-addiction in pretty bald terms.

I'm not sure labeling himself simply as a 'gamer' is fair to gamers as a whole - this is specifically MMO addiction, as opposed to playing Tetris on the way home - but his MMO experiences are stark, of course: "I retreated to my old haven of video games and purchased Everquest, the forerunner to WoW. The dude at the counter rang me up and laughed as he said "Picking up Evercrack, I see." I didn't fully get the joke until two years later."

Oh? "By then I was playing the game 16 hours a day. I'd gained 30 pounds. I didn't have a job. The end came one weekend when I played a marathon session, which I only interrupted for trips to Dunkin' Donuts. I quit, lost the weight, and put my life back in order." However, he does make a good and fair point in there: "What I came to understand was that WoW was not necessarily an escape, but a surrogate for a community that is harder and harder to find in the real world." So, not a hatchet job, at all - but bald and thought-provoking. It may just be the headline that bothers me? [Via T-I.]

Graffiti's GBA Obscurities Unmasked

- Fellow Game Developer magazine editor Brandon Sheffield has gone update-crazy with Insert Credit over the long holiday weekend, and his most notable update deals with the two original IP Game Boy Advance titles recently released by slightly odd new U.S. publisher Graffiti Entertainment.

I knew about one of them: "Mazes of Fate is a first person dungeon game from argentina of all places (Sabrasa), and seems to have very deep systems, branching paths, and a lot of gameplay time (if you're into that - I prefer shorter games). "

But I was not aware of the other: "Next there's Back to Stone (French in origin, pictured here). It's a 3/4 view action RPG along the linds of LandStalker (sort of kind of). There aren't a whole lot of impressions of it around the internet, so here are some from comic-kaze of the sngp forums: "Great concept, and the first bits reminded me of great oblique angled 2D games. It has a promising combat system and a lot of puzzles mostly involving beating up enemies and turning them to blocks of stone and then knocking the stones around to get them to land on special tiles to unlock keys."" Ta, Brandon!

Aussie Video Game Sitcom Pilot? Why, Yes!

- Thanks to Thuyen Nguyen for passing on the following neatness: "I've made a sit-com pilot about a games company. Shot in Melbourne, it's a cross between The IT Crowd and The Office." It's called 'Work & Play', and it's available for viewing on Revver.

Thuyen comments: "I wouldn't say it's a professional production, but it definitely isn't two guys in front of a webcam either. Perhaps of note, it was shot at IR Gurus, who made Heroes of the Pacific, and the upcoming Heatseeker. So even if the video doesn't tickle your fancy, you can treat it as a pseudo studio tour :)" He adds: "Please note that this is a personal production, and not commissioned by IR Gurus in any way."

Well, it certainly does feel a bit IT Crowd-y, and it's obviously a little bit low-budget, but it's fun to wander through, if only to see what a series set at a video game developer might be like.

Talking of which, did you guys spot that a new animated show called Code Monkeys has been announced for G4, and will "tell the stories of old-school game coders Dave and Jerry, whose wacky, surreal adventures are told through Super Nintendo style videogame art." Also, can I plug the video game developer murder mystery graphic novel I started a couple of years back, but will probably never finish? I can? Excellent.

International House Of Mojo's LucasArt-y Year In Review

- I keep stumbling into interesting niche fansite 2006 best-ofs way after 2007 has started, but there's no reason not to mention them here - in this case, the LucasArts super-duper-hardcore at International House Of Mojo's 2006 Year In Review round-up, which is tres entertaining.

Really, it's notable if you have any idea who Bad Brain Entertainment are, and work out who can be bothered to do a cartoon featuring their CEO as The Office's David Brent - here's a hint to why adventure fans may be so motivated, by the way.

There's also a slightly hilarious second page in which the writer insists that Double Fine should start making episodic games, but Telltale should stop making episodic games (no, really!), before it ends up in an honest to goodness 'best of' list, and Sam & Max 2 gets best game of the year from the assorted adventure game zombies. Anyhow, there's something curiously evangelical about the LucasArts sect, and I think I've been brainwashed. Threeeepwooooood! Threeeeepwoooood!

January 15, 2007

Brian Eno Doing Generative Music For Spore

- Reports to this effect have been floating around for a while (ever since the joint Brian Eno/Will Wright lecture for the Long Now foundation last year), but a recent Berlin lecture by ambient music maestro Eno, written up at WWMNA, seems to have confirmed that Eno is curating the Spore soundtrack, a very neat revelation.

The write-up of the Berlin lecture explains: "Generativity plays a role in many fields now, with gaming being no exception. Also built around this notion and probably one of the currently most eagerly awaited games is Will Wright's Spore, for which Brian Eno, as he revealed, will be making the soundtrack! He was asked to do it, because the designers wanted sound that is just a procedural as the game itself, instead of the loops which are tied to certain stages or areas which we are used to experience in games."

What's more, Eno "...went on to demonstrate a simple software called "The Shuffler" which he uses to create fragments for the soundtrack of Spore and which even with a simple combination of samples possibly would never create the same composition twice within a lifetime." So basically, it's a bit like Koan Pro only crazily wired into a game? Of course, one might ask what Eno is doing if the music is infinitely different every time, but I guess he's the... DJ? [Via The-Inbetween.]

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Gattai and Henkei

['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 gives a brief rundown of two main design features that have been responsible for the enduring success of Japanese mecha.]

garland_henkei1.jpgThere are two facets of the mecha pop-cultural mythos that are synonymous with it being pant wettingly awesome. They’ve spawned toys that have caused riots due to their subsequent demand and more importantly forged tenets of mecha design that survive until this day.

These are the respective abilities of combination (gattai) and transformation (henkei). In game playing terms these abilities are also something of note, though we have yet to see Japanese gaming truly catch up in terms of useable functionality.

More after the jump…

In 1972 Go Nagai penned what would be one of the first super robots, it was Mazinger Z and it utilised the now famed rocket punch attack and also had a detachable cockpit. Following on from this modular approach, Nagai went onto create an equally important series that of Getter Robo in 1974.

gattai_kanji.jpgGetter Robo was important because it actually featured three fighter planes that combined into three different robots. This was the first “gattai” sequence in anime and despite both Nagai and the animators fudging the sequence (as in having the respective parts grow and morph in a rather organic manner) it started the ball rolling nonetheless.

It wasn’t long at all until the eponymous Raideen undertook the first ever “henkei” by transforming into the fearfully fast God Bird. The transformation differed from the gattai due to the Raideen not needing any further parts to change, but merely performed a set of movements that utilised the innate abilities of the mecha.

raideen_main1.jpgTechnically speaking though, most gattai sequences involve a fair bit of henkei. Take Combattler V for example, each of its five component parts need to perform a mild form of henkei in order to successfully complete the overall gattai. This is also true for almost every gattai sequence in anime and manga history.

Amongst fans this often causes fierce and suitably wild-eyed debate, in that gattai and henkei are actually the same ability. In some instances this is partially true but on the whole the abilities are disparate. Simply because the henkei used in gattai are partial ones and not full on functional mode changes (unlike the Raideen’s God Bird for instance).

Both of these abilities have impressive though obviously problematic gameplay implementations. In terms of direct control, mecha that have different functional modes are an inherent headache. In the case of SEGA’s moderately recent Macross game on the PlayStation 2, the engine was based of the Aero Dancing series.

henkei_kanji.jpgSo whilst the flight control was superb for the multi-mode variable fighters, with subtle and refined control expected from a flight simulator, upon transformation the engine had to compensate in a rather clumsy manner for the other two modes of GERWALK and battroid.

Battroid was given a very rigid lock-on system, that whilst serviceable was incredibly overt and lacked the finer precison of the fighter. Whereas GERWALK was simply a mess, with neither fighter or battroid controls having priority leaving the player to muddle through.

The depressing thing is that SEGA’s Macross game is actually one of the better entries into the mecha gaming pantheon and at least attempted to cover the henkei in moderately useable gameplay form (you honestly don't want to know about the VF-X games).

dancouga1_main.jpgThe more common approach is to either create mecha with similar abilities between their respective modes or to take away player control almost entirely. In the case of the former, the Capcom beat-em-up, Choukou Senki Kikaioh features a gattai themed mecha piloted by two boisterous boys, called the Twinzam V it flicks quickly between the modes performing the gattai in lightning fast time. Whilst the gattai has occurred it wasn’t a controlled manoeuvre merely one that was triggered.

The latter case is that of the Super Robot Wars games where mecha like the Dancouga combine beyond the reach of the player but reward them nonetheless with a heroic pose for the camera followed by the brief though impressive act of raw mechanical carnage.

Few games nail henkei let alone gattai sequences, even those with a robust anime license acting as a helpful guide. This is not to say that it’s impossible but the fault doesn’t lie with game developers so much the fact that Go Nagai et al faked the abilities so as to maximise their visual impact.

This is something that was belied by the various toys released that were unable to accurately mimic their animated counterparts. Gaming suffers a similar affliction due to the nature of game engines being built upon real world variables.

Admittedly, there are games that are forced to look at these abilities as a whole such as From Software’s Another Century’s Episode franchise and even the ill-fated Gun Metal approached henkei in a similar manner (though with the latter creating your own mecha does afford a greater amount of freedom in building the engine, however without suitably iconic design it doesn’t always pay off, something that Battle Engine Aquila subsequently verified).

Eventually, gaming will catch up and accurately reproduce anime-esque henkei and gattai sequences in full blown form but until that day we shall have to entertain ourselves by simply shouting Change Getter...a lot.

[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.]

FPS Server Graphs Show Xmas Effect, Steam's Snowcrash

- Semi-via the neeto Steam Review, I spotted a Brazilian site named 'Online Gaming Zeitgeist', which is particularly handy because it uses GameSpy's online server list for many popular PC FPSes to create graphs over time of game popularity - revealing plenty of interesting trends!

Though it doesn't try to be canonical (and there are plenty of caveats involved from just using GameSpy's lists!), there's an interesting post about 'The Christmas Effect' which reveals of the holiday PC game gift-giving bonanza: "The first thing to notice is that Battlefield 2142 was the obvious winner this Christmas. While it still doesn’t have the popularity of games such as Half-life 1, Half-life 2 and even its older brother Battlefield 2, the holiday season has given it a second breath and the chance to revert what was a sharp drop in its number of online players." There are still more Battlefield 2 players, mind you.

Also fascinating - a graph on 'The Day Steam Stopped', showing the massive and obvious effects on Half-Life game playing for a storm-related outage, and a trends preview for 2007, which had a smart 'big question': "Will there be enough fans of online, vehicular-based mayhem to pay off the investment made by [Unreal Tournament 2007]’s and [Enemy Territory: Quake Wars]’ developers? Will they crush Battlefield, be crushed, or just split the player base? Hard to say by now, but should be an interesting thing to watch."

Compile Heart Blasts Rogue Remake For PS2

- Well, this is news that should really be left for JohnH's regular '@Play' GSW on the subject, but since he's not posting again til next weekend, I'd better to it for him - a NeoGAF thread reveals that a Japanese remake of Rogue for the PlayStation 2 has been announced, blimey!

The always slightly grumpy Duckroll (who can read the Japanese!), comments in the thread: "This is being published by Compile Heart [here's an Insert Credit post on them - as commenters note: "They are a descendant of legendary developer Compile. Moo Niitani, creator of Puyo Puyo, works there. Right now they are developing an original puzzle game for arcade and Wii."].... It is being developed by Plophet, a tiny developer best known for the D3 published Simple series games The Maze and The Dungeon RPG. The only light at the end of the tunnel is that the "supervisor" is the Japanese guy that originally translated Rogue and all support docs into Japanese." Informative, if glass half-empty!

Anyhow, the game is called Rogue Hearts Dungeon, and there's a Game Watch Japanese-language piece with lots more pics - here's the Wikipedia page for Rogue for those wondering about its history. I wonder how the copyright/licensing worked in this case, if at all? Also, some hyper-niche publisher should pick this up for the States, hah.

Official U.S. Xbox Magazine's Cover-Disc Bonuses - Neat!

- Just went and picked up the February 2007 issue of Official Xbox Magazine at GameStop this weekend - mainly because myself and Alistair Wallis helped them out by doing a mini-feature on game engines (from Unreal through Source and beyond!), but I was also struck by the redeeming features of their cover-disc this month.

Since most Xbox 360 demos are freely downloadable from Xbox Live, it's obviously a much harder sell to get people to buy a magazine with an included disc (which reminds me - if you're going to, subscribe online instead of buying it from stores - it's $24.95 for a year's subscription but $9.95 on newsstands for each issue!), but I noted a couple of smart things about this latest issue that are worth pointing out.

Firstly, there are two Oblivion add-ons which normally cost Xbox Live Marketplace Points, freely available on the Feb disc - Wizard's Tower (150 points) and Thieves Den (150 points) - so that's $3.75 of content just there, if I've done my math right. I believe this is the first time they've done this, and honestly, they should try to do it every disc - I know there have been exclusive wallpaper and gamer icons before, though - Xbox.com has a great fan-made list of all the OXM coverdiscs and their content, alongside an insanely detailed OXM reviews/contents thread.

Also - and possibly cooler - there have been two or three Japan-only Xbox 360 demos on the OXM cover-discs. Obviously, they're actually in, uhm, Japanese, but it's definitely neat to get a look at these easily (though you do have to 'unlock' them by playing the other demos, which is either enticing or annoying, depending on who you talk to). The ones I spotted so far were Zegapain XOR, which was on the Issue 62 coverdisc, Tenchu Senran, on the Issue 65 coverdisc, and finally, Zegapain NOT, which is on this latest Issue 67 coverdisc. This latter title is a Namco Bandai and Cavia mech title with some pretty nice graphics and reasonably fun, though rather twitchy shooter gameplay - somewhat in the Z.O.E. style?

[Also, there are obviously attempts to have some demos be exclusive to Official Xbox Magazine - but I'm not sure how well that works, since there's no reason not to have them on Xbox Live too. OXM ran into this problem before Xmas, when Rainbow 6 Las Vegas was allegedly delayed from appearing on XBL in the U.S. so it would debut in the magazine first. No idea if that's true, but even the idea ends up harboring ill will in today's connected world, I'm afraid.]

January 14, 2007

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - The MIT Mystery Hunt (Part I)

- ["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. Today is the beginning of a two-part article on one of the most grueling puzzle marathons available, the MIT Mystery Hunt.]

In 1980, a graduate student at the Masschusetts Institute of Technology named Brad Schaefer hid a valuable coin on the campus of his Boston college and wrote a few devious riddles leading to its location on a sheet of paper. Since then, the IAP Mystery Hunt has grown in size scope and importance; and while the puzzles were once bound on paper, the growing intricacies of the puzzles have turned the game into something increasingly dependent on computers.

Today, the Mystery Hunt has some unusual traditions. Puzzles are distinct, and lead to an answer that is a word or a phrase. Then, all of the answers in a round feed into another puzzle called a metapuzzle. Completing these metapuzzles help a team progress through the Hunt until they can find the location of a "coin," which has recently been anything from a small disk to a snowglobe. And Mystery Hunt puzzles tend to have very unusual twists to them. Something that appears to be a crossword might be something totally different. The unsual text introducing a puzzle (called "flavor text") can hold critical, if abstract, clues. And sometimes, you just need to know the MIT campus.

This article is going to be a little weird. When this Part I goes live, the Hunt will be over. But right now, as I write it, I'm in the headquarters of the team running the Hunt. In 2006, my Hunt team, The Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight, won the Hunt and consequently was awarded the duty of running the 2007 Hunt. Since that time, we've been frantically planning the game and writing the puzzles, and now thirty-eight teams and hundreds of players are finding their way through our maze of enigmas.

To maintain secrecy, I cannot reveal much about the meat of the 2007 Hunt at this time, so I'll be writing more about it later this week, when I return from Boston. You can look at the address of the current hunt, but I can't guarantee that there'll be anything there. It could be all of the puzzles from the 2007 Hunt, it could be none of them. But in the meantime, I'm going to talk a bit about Hunts past with an eye, of course, toward videogames

Going Online
Back in 1988, about sixty people arrived in Lobby 7 to grab photocopied packets - a much smaller event. On Friday, the lobby was filled to brimming with players (with hundreds more still in respective team headquarters) who received a handout with no puzzles, just URLs, usernames, passwords, and e-mail addresses. The hunt is being staffed by about a dozen people, with ten laptops and a server.

The computers have proliferated for many reasons. Foremost is the monumental effect that search engines have had on the discovery of trivia. Back in 1980, a puzzle was made difficult by checking all the related books out of the MIT library. Obviously, that's no longer an option. Since the proliferation of Google (and its predecessors like Alta Vista) and other repositories of trivia like Wikipedia, it's become more common to see trivia puzzles about identifying pictures or music instead of answering written questions.

More importantly, bringing the puzzles online have created an opportunity for more complex organization. In 2003, the Hunt took on a theme of The Matrix. In addition to normal time-released rounds, teams could "take the red pill" that would unlock an entirely new "world" of puzzles outside of the Matrix. These Reality puzzles were ironically patterened after a text adventure maze. In this complicated web of twisty puzzles (all different), a team could only progress to a new puzzle when they had solved a puzzle adjacent to it on the web. This kind of node-based distribution has become a standard, and requires solvers to have logins and passwords and organizers to have complex databases and servers.

Games Within Games
Though programming and electrical engineering have been common subjects for Hunt puzzles, videogames usually take a back seat. The notable exception has been Infocom text adventures, which have appeared at least twice. Certainly, videogames like Mario's Picross, which are common as pencil-and-paper puzzles, have made several appearances. The 2004 and 2006 Hunts, written by somewhat younger teams, had more videogames, like in this Dance Dance Revolution puzzle, an Angband puzzle, and this general videogame puzzle.

Playing videogames is actually more common. In 2001, one "puzzle" was just a command to have someone visit headquarters. Once there, teams had to beat Adventure on the Atari 2600 to receive their answer. But most often, teams will devise their own games for teams to play. Web-based mazes are common; very little is still available from the 1996 Hunt but this Godel Escher Bach–themed maze is. And there are lots of applets which are, of course, harder than your average web-based Java games, since they are specificall designed for the Hunt. This maze from the 2003 Hunt follows some unusual rules, and this maze from 2005 is far too large to actually be played through. Other games make solvers play through more difficult variations of very common games, as in Pentris and Feel Your Way.

Getting Up to Date

The last seven years of Mystery Hunts are available online in their entirety, along with partial records of the twenty years previous. There are more videogame puzzles waiting to be discovered, and there are hundreds of other challenges to be found. Most importantly, perhaps, the last seven years of puzzles all have answers available, so if you aren't used to these types of puzzles or don't have the time to solve them completely, you can still get a sense of the elegance and ingenuity behind them.

And finally, an update, I'm finishing Part I on Sunday morning, and I can announce that the first team to find the coin was Dr. Awkward, though other teams have followed close behind. I'll be writing about the whole experience soon, so keep reading Game Set Watch until then!

RPGFan Gets JRPG Crazy, Picks 2006's Best

- Another good site that lacks an RSS feed is RPGFan, and thus I just spotted (a little late, perhaps!) that the Japanese RPG-centric site has its 2006 Game Of The Year Awards online, with some interesting perspectives.

The best overall RPG of the year, according to the folks there? Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, of course, for which it's explained: "How dazzlingly unexpected! While most of you out there were expecting either this game or Twilight Princess to snag this award, the long development cycle and change of pace for Final Fantasy XII left many gamers waiting in trepidation. Luckily, the new team delivers completely."

There's also a slightly hidden page of editor picks, for which the most relatively unexpected pick is Lost Magic for the DS: "I know what you're thinking: "how did some short, dinky DS game end up on a top five list?" Let me spell it out for you. This RTS/RPG hybrid made better use of the DS's capabilities than any other RPG on the handheld to date."

Belle's Beauty Boutique Goes For Girls

- Over at casual site Gamezebo, they have a review of Belle's Beauty Boutique, a game where the eponymous hero "...gets to run her very own beauty parlor and do her best to satisfy the demands of the assorted customers who walk through the door."

As the reviewer notes: "Like other Diner Dash-inspired games, Belle's Beauty Boutique challenges players to keep customers happy by making sure they receive the services they ask for. This involves seating customers in the appropriate chairs depending on whether they ask for a wash, cut, blow dry, manicure or dye job, and then cleaning the station afterwards if they've left a mess behind."

I found the game interesting both because it shows how super-influential Diner Dash has been, and also because of comments made at Wonderland Blog on it by Alice: "Ultimately though, I can't help but lament the existence of these types of games. I was always the stalwart supporter of just better marketing, as there are (IMO) enough games out there that girls would love, if they just knew about them or understood that they weren't just for army-loving chaps. If girls do get games specifically targeted to them (as they will), if there's a broad and neverending supply of Games For Girls, I worry that their diet of gaming may end up being sugar and spice all the way."

Retro Round-Up Pokes At Dungeon Explorer

- We present a handy pointer to the latest 'Retro Roundup' over at 1UP.com, which is definitely the best explanation of all that console retro goodness released every week - and we applaud it!

As well as Jumping Flash for PSP and Ms. Pac-Man for XBLA, also profiled is Dungeon Explorer for the PC Engine/Turbografx 16, for which it's explained:

"There are two factors that might get in the way of your enjoyment of Dungeon Explorer: One, its graphics look awful on Virtual Console due to the Wii's inexplicably sub-standard video output quality for TG16 games. We're not sure if this is a Nintendo problem or a Hudson problem, but either way someone needs a stern talking-to. And two, Dungeon Explorer is not made for solo play. It's a Gauntlet-like medieval shooter with characters who have D&D-level hit points."

Toasty continues: "It's pretty unforgiving, and a single-player game can end rather abruptly. But with a friend? Dungeon Explorer is almost kind of magical. And with four friends (it supports five players) it's so magical the David Copperfield starts getting envious. It's not for everyone, but as a quick, stupid party game it sure beats another lame Mario Party sequel."



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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