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March 31, 2007

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

['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]

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From the best to the worst, this week's GMW is all about the game mag scene in the United Kingdom, which has taken a beating in recent years but still outclasses the US in terms of sheer quantity. Read on and discover what's worth throwing out the big bucks for and what's got to be avoided at all costs...

Future Publishing

Still the largest game mag publisher in the UK, Future has a zilion titles that cover every possible game platform. In many cases, thanks to assorted buyouts and audience retainment, they have more than one mag for some platforms -- one "official" title, and another unofficial one. In the past, the main difference between official and unofficial was a game demo disc, but with the PlayStation and Nintendo "official" titles now lacking a regular disc, the main demarcation now seems to be style and design. The "official" mags have a clean, adult-oriented, Edge-type design, while the unofficial ones are more hardcore-oriented and packed with info, humorous writing, and flashy extras like strategy guides and game trailer DVDs. And candy. Yes, candy.

Most Future UK titles are unavailable in US bookstores, with a couple exceptions:

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Edge is certainly the most prestigious title coming from the UK right now, and a good 22% of its circulation (7638 out of 35,145 copies in the second half of 2006) is sold outside of Britain. It's also an anomaly in that, given current exchange rates, it's actually cheaper to buy (either off the newsstand or via the new US subscription offer) in America than Britain by a good buck or two per issue.

In the modern marketplace, Edge's position has shifted subtly from "magazine written for adults" to "magazine written for gamers who like to sit down and really read something". In that mission they succeed fabulously, with even the most mundane previews and reviews written with immaculate detail and engaging copy. There's nothing lazy about any aspect of its creation, and if you have $75, then a subscription is a very, very hot idea. (Edge also generates a great deal of Internet talk for its more controversial reviews -- they're never going to live down their 6/10 rating for Gunstar Heroes where they complained about the lack of "hidden levels".)

Edge has published three FILE compilations of past content; special issues like that come out around once every two or three months.

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PC Gamer is much, much different from its US counterpart, and I'd buy it more often if it weren't so expensive. The difference can be described thus: PC Gamer US is about itself, but PC Gamer UK is about its readers. Packed with a double-sided DVD full of game crap, PC Gamer is packed with the sort of industry features and just-screwing-around articles you're more likely to see in Games For Windows here, and both the design and writing is much friendlier to people who don't eat, sleep and breathe PC games. It's little wonder that PCGUS has been cribbing one or two filler pieces from PCGUK in recent issues. Can we trade mags, guys?

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PSW's main draw is its DVD (lots and lots of game trailers) and an allegedly "independent" approach to PS3 games, but really, this is the archetype of the modern Britmag: previews that try to be opinionated but aren't; reviews that ramble on for way too long; and not much else. It's not a bad read, but it's also not much of an improvement over any online site.

Other Future titles: (takes deep breath) CheatStation, GamesMaster, N Gamer, Nintendo The Official Magazine, PlayStation 2 Official Magazine UK, PlayStation Official Magazine UK, Xbox 360: The Official Xbox Magazine, PC Zone, PSM3, Xbox World 360.

Similar to the situation of Official PlayStation [One] Magazine in the UK, Future published both an official Xbox and and official 360 magazine for a while; the original-Xbox title folded in late '06 (I think). PlayStation Official Magazine UK is also a different mag from PS2:OMUK; the former concentrates on PS3 news and does not include any disc, while PS2:OMUK will presumably include a disc filled with old demos until it winds down.

They say N:TOM and PC Zone are good, but I haven't seen a recent copy. GamesMaster is the only aggressively young-targeted game mag left in the UK, unless you count the strategy rags.

Imagine Publishing

Imagine's the 2nd-biggest game mag publisher in the UK almost by default. It got started in '05, formed by two ex-executives of defunct rival Paragon Publishing, and got a boost the following year when it bought up the assets of similarly defunct publisher Highbury Entertainment. It now publishes 18 mags, 8 of which are games related, and nearly all of them make apperances on US shelves.

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Arguably, Retro Gamer is Imagine's most visible title in the US, since it fulfills a niche that doesn't have anything covering it here. The content is heavily UK-oriented and occasionally marred by lazy copy-editing and boring news articles, but it's still a great read, especially the far-reaching historical overviews written by Britmag-veteran Stuart Campbell, a man who knows his stuff.

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GamesTM is Edge's top rival (some would say ripoff); its basic gimmick is its 160 pages of editorial copy a month, as well as an extensive monthly retro-gaming section of its own. The review/preview bits aren't as interesting as Edge, however, although a promised redesign may change things in the future. Worth a browse through, at least.

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n-Revolution is Imagine's Nintendo mag, and it's surprisingly good. Packed with two mini-mags every month (one devoted to the DS, the other devoted yet again to retro coverage -- Imagine loves writing about old games), the contents are surprisingly close to Nintendo Power in style -- long previews, surprising amounts of inside access, and a generally fun feel throughout.

X360 is one Imagine's Highbury purchases; they also publish a separate mag called just 360, which must be endlessly confusing to consumers. 360 is positioned as the "hardcore coverage" mag, while X360 is "written for the more serious gamer who will appreciate the Xbox 360's digital hub and multimedia status," according to Imagine's webpage. In practice, this seems to mean DVD reviews and a pack-in disc with game trailers and the occasional humorous game voiceover. I wonder how different from 360 it really is?

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Finally, some quick history. Next 3 has just been redesigned and renamed to PSU3: PlayStation 3 Unlimited; it's Imagine's PS mag and one that's highly tech and nerd-oriented. Go>Play is a PSP mag, and this is the last issue, although it allegedly lives on as a website. The most noteworthy thing about it is arguably is exhaustive coverage of homebrew stuff, including reviews of old pirated games running on emulators.

Other mags

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Unlike the olden days of...uh...2004, there are very few game mag publishers left in the UK besides the "big two" of Future and Imagine. In fact, these two titles are the only ones I'm aware of.

PURE (the sole product of Evolve Publishing) used to be a PSP mag, but they've expanded to the PS3. This hasn't done much to separate it from the pack yet, though, since I have trouble telling the difference between this mag and PSW.

Finally, 360 Gamer (the sole product of Uncooked Media, although there's an ad for PURE in here so I think the two outfits are related somehow) is the worst game mag in the Commonwealth. Seriously, the design's nice, but the content gives the Beckett titles a run for their money in their race for the bottom of the barrel. Released every three weeks in the UK, the mag's text reads almost exactly like IGN's, right down to the shameless story padding and nonexistent copy editing ("collide" is misspelled as "collie" at one point in the cover feature to highly humorous effect). I feel like a total idiot for buying it, and I hope you don't make the same mistake.

Conclusion

Subscribe to Edge. Buy Retro Gamer. If you're rich, buy PC Gamer UK. Maybe take a glance or two at n-Revolution and GamesTM. Don't worry much about the others.

[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.]

Where Rockstar Went... Wrong?

- I'm aware that the whole world has gone Grand Theft Auto IV crazy, but just wanted to make sure everyone found this David Kushner-written piece for Wired on 'The Road to Ruin: How Grand Theft Auto Hit the Skids'.

It's been referred in a couple of places (such as Planet Grand Theft Auto) that the article is a 'hit piece' against the company. And while I don't think that's entirely true, I didn't find this piece very satisfying - despite the smart guys who helped put it together. The reason? Rockstar's insane levels of secrecy. The only interviews with the co-founders are from 2002-ish, and I would say that Wired were pretty unsuccessful at finding anyone with any insight into the inner workings of the company.

Obviously, with Take-Two getting taken over by activist shareholders this week, the entire future of Rockstar as a division could be in the balance. But with the insane amount of hype around GTA IV, can anyone afford to mess with the Housers?

[And what - no mention of David Jones in the piece? For me, though he left before the height of the franchise, he's just as key to Rockstar's success by perfecting the initial GTA gameplay, to go alongside the Housers' keenly refined (and sometimes slightly 'overcrafted', for me) sense of brand and style.]

COLUMN: 'Cinema Pixeldiso' – High Score

['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a semi-regular column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s selection is a documentary that chronicles a world record attempt.]

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This is the story of man vs machine. The machine in question is the arcade classic Missile Command, and the man is Bill Carlton, an average run-of-the-mill kind of guy.

High Score

Its perhaps safe to say that when most people hear about some expert game player, or at least someone who is obsessed with video games, they immediately make assumptions: among other traits, this person more than likely has zero friends, let alone a girlfriend, is perhaps unemployed, has poor hygiene, and maybe even "talks funny". But not Bill. He has a decent job, friends, even a girlfriend, who may not understand Bill's obsession but is nonetheless supportive.

He's not some ball of angst like many diehard gamers but instead a rather charming, laid-back, and even genuinely funny guy. So as we follow along his quest to attain the record for highest score ever, instead of wincing whenever Bill hits a stumbling block, we, the viewers are actually sympathetic and even hopeful for his success. Though its Bill's apparent normalcy that makes his obsession all the more intriguing and perplexing, since one must ask: what's a normal guy like that doing stuff like this?

Man On A Mission

As a kid, Bill was given advice from the resident expert game-playing adult, or 'the neighborhood kids' god' as he is described, and that is to be as good as him, all one needs to do is excel at just one thing, whatever that might be, and then apply that same passion to anything else. And Bill applied this advice and it worked for him, though he was a bit of a late bloomer; it wasn't until the games that he wanted to be great at as a kid had become "classics", some fifteen years later, that Bill made his mark. In an interview with a local retro arcade operator, we learn that Bill first gained attention when he noticed by the end of each day, someone had set the highest possible score for Asteroids before the numbers would roll over.

Bill's first attempt at getting the highest score in a game, with Asteroids, is what put him on the map, at least among others who are obsessed with breaking such records, many of which were established years ago, when classic arcade games were still contemporary. The previous high score took one person eighty hours to achieve, and Bill in 2003 was on his way to replicate and surpass such a feat, but at the twenty seven hour mark the machine died on him. And this unfortunate technical mishap would set the tone for Bill's story throughout the film. Not once is there any doubt, from either Bill himself, his friends, his girlfriend, or even the experts that Bill is capable of setting the high score for Missile Command. The only thing anyone worries about is if the machine will hold up.

Early on in the documentary, we see Bill happily unload a freshly purchased, vintage Missile Command unit, and not too long afterwards he's already flexing his skills. Watching him play with complete confidence and joy is like watching a musical virtuoso take a dusty old violin that's been ignored and neglected, and in just a matter of moments, breathe new life into it, making the machine hum like it has never hummed before. Unfortunately, after a few rounds (one must assume that he's lasted longer than most other mortal players), the machine resets itself.

It’s discovered that some of the connections on the motherboard are loose and dusty, and after an adjustment, things appear to be in fine working order. But that's thing; that machine, like all other classic games, was made many years ago. They were never intended to withstand marathon sessions to begin with, so to ask of it over two decades later is a tall order. As the obligatory Twin Galaxies rep (the folks that oversee all the records of gaming's past) that appears in the documentary explains, there are a host of technical issues that can pop up that can cause the machine to die and reset itself, and all of which are just uncontrollable factors that one most face when doing a marathon run. A few hours later, Bill gets about 3.5 million points from his second game; it is estimated that he will need approximately 54-56 hours to break the 80.3 million point record. Bill's personal best is 29.7, which is the 10th highest in the books (and Bill actually fell asleep while setting it, so one has to wonder if it could have been more).

As for the top record, it was set by over 25 years ago, and remains one of the longest held records to date.

You've Got Either Video Games, Alcohol, or Drugs

The machine continues to reset itself in subsequent practice sessions, and without explanation. A few weeks before the record attempt, the game is moved to the site where history will presumably go down, Galaxy Games, a small game store located in a nearby city in Bill's home-state of Oregon, which also happens to be one of the few places for kids in the sleepy little town. Not long into his first on-site trial marathon run, the first of many to build up his endurance, the machine again resets itself. After this, as well as every other time it happened, Bill would simply go outside for some fresh air and a quick smoke, then went back to play the game till it couldn't handle it anymore.

The documentary isn't particularly action packed or eventful (though it does become suspenseful as things progress) - it's just a nice leisurely look at one man with a goal, and all the trials and tribulations involved in achieving it. As silly as it sounds, playing a video game nonstop is rather demanding, both mentally and physically, requiring quite a deal of conditioning, which Bill is able to deal with via the aid of his "ninja list", as well as resolve, which Bill also exhibits.

He's quite confident that the task at hand is more than achievable, and because potential problems are more or less out of his hands, instead of getting all worked up over nothing, Bill plays it calm and cool. One wonders why others on the cusp of making history can't act the same. One nice moment is when Bill ponders what he'll do once he finally breaks the record: celebrate or just keep playing and set the bar even higher (enough to scare anyone else away from ever trying). As he says, "No one ever made history being a big puss."

We also get to hear from the people that inhabit Bill's world, like the pair of teens playing EverQuest in the back of the store during his first midnight run, that attest to how boring it can be. "You've Got Either Video Games, Alcohol, or Drugs" explains one of the them, and he choose video games, even though he confesses that Everquest was itself a pretty boring game in which you just did the same thing over and over again. Another interesting casual observer is some guy that's just a customer to the store, someone who used to play Missile Command back in the day as a kid, and wasn't too bad at it. He now has kids, and can't keep up with what they play. Bill and him go head to head, and this person actually provides a decent challenge. Through this we see the embers of his youth aflame once more in his eyes and words.

We even get to meet Victor Ali, the boy, who is now a man, that set the record in the first place, so basically wishes anyone luck that's crazy enough to stay up 80 plus hours to demolish some crazy, youthful record. There's even a brief chat with the crazy kid who's not a regular guy who still holds the record that Bill is gunning for.

After a new board has been installed, Bill makes his record attempt. Everything starts out well... Bill is in good sprits, as expected at that point. Near the five million point, Alison, Bill's girlfriend shows up, and what other world records can one think of in which the record breaker can chit-chat and brag to their lady while they're in an attempt? She of course thinks its "crazy" but is still supportive nonetheless.

At the around four hours and forty-four minutes, Bill has almost 7.3 million points, and he tells that he's looking about about another todays "if everything goes fine... otherwise we're looking at another ten minutes if things don't go fine."

Ten Minutes Later...

The machine reset itself, at the 8.6 million mark. Is Bill angry? Sad? No. Just calm, cool, and collected. So the scene is not particularity heart-breaking. Bill is mostly not surprised, because "its what happens every-time." So he is disappointed, even though its not too obvious. Yet he tries his best to keep things in perspective, and even look at the positives, such as how not having to worrying about going to bathroom in some "nasty" game room for that weekend.

Two months later, another board is ordered and installed and another attempt is scheduled. At this point, Bill is more confident in the machine and more nervous about something going wrong on his end, such as making a stupid mistake in the game early on, or getting diarrhea. And on Friday, May 28th, 2005, we watch Bill's third attempt - "and I want it to be the last" - as he says a few hours beforehand. Does he succeed?

I won't say, partly for obvious spoiler issues, but partly because it's just not important. Those who are curious can find out what the end result is if they wish, but the movie isn't about whether he gets the high score, but the journey towards it. And Bill's journey is something we've all have gone through, or aspire to, or maybe even currently are in the middle of. Not to give too much away, but the ending is bittersweet. In the end, Bill's tale is like anyone else's. It's about believing in yourself (or fooling yourself, depending on your cynical point of view), and following your passions, no matter how silly they might be.

Final Score

High Score is a fantastic addition to the growing ranks of video game documentaries, which includes the recently screened at Sundance Chasing Ghosts and The King Of Kong, as well as the recently featured in this column 8 Bit. High Score is short, and sweet, and well worth catching if you ever get the chance. The movie is shown here and there, so keep an eye out at the official homepage and hope that it plays near you someday.

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

Rogers Hits The Action Button, Minds Dissolve

- First there was Insert Credit, which is still going, of course, and then the forums sheared off in a 'giant glacier falling into the sea' stylee and formed SelectButton, and now, it seems, Tim Rogers and some like-minded folkses have set up ActionButton.net.

The site, it appears, is "...a kind of web-log website thing about videogames. Our mission is basically to review videogames. Our reviews, between 800 and 1200 words in length each, can and will employ wordplay trickery and sometimes actual, absolute anger." Sounds fair enough to me.

Obviously, hanging out close to RogersSpace(TM) means that there will be disgruntled people trying to poke holes in this effort - to which I would say, check out Eric-Jon Waugh's Donkey Kong 3 review - "It’s been said that each of us only has one tune to play; all we ever do is change the way we play it. It’s also been said that Donkey Kong and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s tune originates in his personal hobbies, filtered through a love of Japanese and Western fairy tales. The Legend of Zelda has its roots in the fields and caves behind Miyamoto’s childhood home. Pikmin comes from Miyamoto’s garden. And Donkey Kong 3 is based on the premise that it is fun to spray DDT up a gorilla’s asshole. While being attacked by bees."

Or, if you will, peruse Tim's review of Crackdown: "Jumping and bouncing and shooting. Oddly colored sky. Really weighty vehicle physics. Industrial, angry, mediocre soundtrack that, if little else, communicates the feeling of two or three pounds of cocaine sprinting through your futuristic bloodstream as you hurtle toward the next guy the boss says needs to stop living right now. The game’s got atmosphere, and it loves it."

Bottom line - this is great writing, even through the self-conscious metacommentary which tends to characterize Rogers and some of his compatriots. But that's what makes it readable, for me - context and a little lightness of tone. Imagine if video game reviews weren't something you had to read through in order to work out if you wanted to spend your money on a game? That'd be ActionButton, then - and only a very few other sites out there manage that.

GameSetLinks: Wizards, Irving Berlin, Grimoires

- Ah yes, a little something for the weekend, Sir? In the form of these slightly insane left-over GSW-worth links, of course. Some of the most important of which are as follows:

- MTV's Stephen Totilo and Newsweek's N'Gai Croal have discovered the art of conversation, and seem determined to make us suffer for it. Hence the 'me-vs.-n'gai: The "God of War II" debate - Endless Gaming Conversation' article, as it's charmingly called on Stephen's own site. As he notes: "Below you will find the entire exchange N'Gai Croal and I had about "God of War II" over the past month and published over the past week. It runs a mere 12,329 words." Turns out it's fun and readable, though, like those Tom Vs. Bruce articles from CGW or other suitably charismatic double-acts. I look forward to them conspiring to drop a piano down some stairs next.

- Do you remember the video game poetry book 'Blue Wizard Is About To Die' from Seth 'Fingers' Flynn Barkan? Well, it was released a couple of years back, and it turns out it's really good. Anyhow, I just found out why he's called 'Fingers' - here's Barkan playing 'How Deep Is the Ocean (How High Is the Sky)' by Irving Berlin on YouTube, very creditably. Again, like the Marc Laidlaw post the other day, this is just someone somewhat involved in games doing something else cool, so to hell with ya, I'm linking it. [Via Frank.]

- GamesOnDeck editor Mathew Kumar also hoity-toits around at the Torontoist (ugh, too many vowels!), and he's pointed out some kind of crazy Nintendo Canada painted-Wii competition. "So, with the Wii on everyone’s lips but in almost noone’s shopping carts (what with it selling out the minute new stock arrives) your best bet to get your hands on one might be Nintendo’s new sweepstakes The Art of Wii. Held in conjunction with Magic Pony, you can win one of six unique hand-painted Nintendo Wiis, with the first four decorated by Gary Taxali, Hoi-An Tang, punk group illScarlett and (our favourite, possibly because it’s the most video-gamey) Arnold Tsang of Udon Entertainment."

- That grumpy Grassroots Gamemaster guy posted something called 'Dead Game Designers Society'. I do like his point a bit more this time, since it's about games making you care: "Why? Why make the game? And therefore, why play it? Why playing it will make you feel alive! Unless you ask why - and ask that not within the confined context of gaming, but out in the open context of human experience... Unless you ask why, and speak on those terms, you won't have a goddamn clue how to make anything fun. How to make it really compelling."

- This is really a bit biz-like for GSW, but I like linking to Paul Hyman's Hollywood Reporter pieces, so there. This time, he's talking about the rise of outsourcing in video game art, and this quote is probably the choicest, from Foundation9's Craig Rundels: "It can cost me maybe $7,000 to get a high-end character created domestically or $5,500 in Russia. But, if I go to China, it runs me closer to $4,000 without sacrificing quality. That's per character. And many video games have lots of characters in them." Scary? Mebbe.

- The adorably tiny NIS America just had their E3-replacing press event, and lo and behold, they announced a bunch of new import RPG-style games, including Grim Grimoire for June, Dragoneer's Aria for July, and Soul Nomad & The World Eaters (great name!) for August. I was going to try to work out what the hell each of those was, but Shacknews' Chris Remo did a great job of it already, so go check his comments. He also notes: "A company executive strongly hinted that Nippon Ichi is moving into Wii and Nintendo DS development." Goodie.

March 30, 2007

VMC Game Labs' Pixel, Vega - Saving The Day!

- Ye gods, look what Frank IM-ed to me just now: "Showcasing the vibrant world of game testing, VMC Game Labs launches a new Web comic today that puts games testers in the starring role."

So, this is all about good QA practices, right? Well... "Pixel and Vega, a pair of fictional, futuristic game testers from VMC Game Labs, are transported into a three-part series, VMC Game Labs: Rules of Engagement, which premieres online [.PDF link] this week."

What do you get, then? Well, medieval knights being pursued by Ethernet cables, ridiculously proportioned smokin' game tester babes in cyberpunk outfits, and an almost Liefield-ian sense of attention to detail, complete with some wacky virtual world NPC conversations and evil bug-infested trolls to tickle your fancy in the finale. I'm not sure this would actually make me want to use VMC for TRC testing on my console game, which is one of the things they do - but it certainly makes me want to point at them, and I guess that was the point of this particular insanity?

[UPDATE: Commenter CPinard suggests: "I'd wager that the comic is to recruit, not to get companies to contract with them" - good point, I hadn't thought of that - and then points to an interesting messageboard thread that has attracted kinds of vitriol from workers. Fun!]

Arcade Flyer Archives To Go Novelty Crazy

- Got an email note from the ArcadeFlyers.com folks, who are doing a sterling job: "After seven years of cataloging coin-op video game flyers, The Arcade Flyer Archive (TAFA) is pleased to announce the imminent launch of two new flyer archives... in May 2007."

Really? Wossat? "The pinball flyer archive will include electromechanical, solid state, bingo, video pinball and pinball redemption. The arcade and amusement game flyer archive will include an even wider assortment of game types, including pitch n' bat, rifle, bowler, novelty, driver, wall, 16mm film and other electromechanical and novelty coin-op equipment. The three flyer archives will be independently catalogued."

What's more: "To support this effort, The Arcade Flyer Archive recently purchased over 10,000 coin-op flyers from Tim Ferrante, former owner and publisher of GameRoom magazine. These paper assets will provide the core collection for the new archives as well as keep the video game flyer archive growing steadily. In order to help fund the expansion of TAFA's operations, original duplicates of flyers will eventually be sold on eBay under the seller name 'Dphower'."

This is totally good news for preserving digital copies of important paper documents and ephemera like this - and ArcadeFlyers has been busy on the regular arcade stuff recently - for example an awesome Atari Game Booth flyer from 1978, and totally cute stuff like this Bonk's Adventure flyer from Western distributor Kaneko.

Exclusive: Anecdotes From The Megatree

- Some of you may recall that I'm a bit of a Manic Miner/Jet Set Willy fan - read that essay for a bit of Matthew Smith context if you're hazy on that particular niche of '80s psychedelic platforming wonder.

So it was great when I was chatting via email (about another topic) to Westwood Studios/EA veteran Steve Wetherill the other day, and checked out his softography to realize that yes, he worked on both Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy for the Amstrad CPC, before becoming a key figure at Odin Computer Graphics of Nodes Of Yesod fame. Yes, 'fame', stop looking at me weird over there.

Anyhow, nowadays Steve has his own little mobile game company, Uztek Games, who did EA Air Hockey for cellphones (which I believe I've played and enjoyed, actually) - and also owns and operates a vineyard, so there. But he was kind enough to give me some recollections on interacting with Matthew Smith and his experiences alongside Matthew on the fabled 'lost' Miner Willy game, 'The Megatree', as follows:

"My very first job in the games biz was as a programmer @ Software Projects - that would have been in 1984. My first project, working with another coder called Derrick Rowson, was to port [Manic Miner] to the Amstrad CPC. This was the first "in house" conversion of MM that SP had done. I did see Matthew from time to time, but JSW shipped at around the time I started @ SP, so Matthew was in "burnt out" mode.

In any case, Matthew lived in Birkenhead and the SP office was in Woolton in Liverpool, and Matthew worked from his house, so he did not have regular cause to be in the office. It's strange too why we were not given access to the Manic Miner source code. We disassembled the Spectrum version to create the Amstrad version.

After MM, Derrick & I ported [Jet Set Willy]. Again, no source code was forthcoming (and I know this because it took forever to get the stairs/ramps to work the same way as the Speccy version). We went a little crazy with the JSW port though, and we ended up more than doubling the number of rooms. In effect, we were the very first JSW modders (though, we also wrote most the game from scratch too since we had no source code). I left SP to go to Odin once JSW for the Amstrad was done, but the canny folks @ SP saw an opportunity, and so Derrick then ported the Amstrad game back to the Spectrum where it was released as Jet Set Willy 2 - that game is basically identical to the Amstrad version we'd made. Here are some comments I made on the topic of JSW2 last year.

Matthew used to go to some of the same drinking spots as I did (I was living in Birkenhead while I worked @ SP) and I remember Matthew showing up at least once to the Birkenhead rock club "Stairways" wearing his toga, so the toga thing is definitely true.

When the powers that be @ SP (Alan & Tommy) decided that a new Willy game was needed, they setup Matthew, Marc Dawson (C64 coder - now Marc Wilding running Illusions in the Czech republic) and Stuart Fotheringham (artist) in my house (the house where I lived - it actually belonged to Software Projects) on Holt Road in Birkenhead so that they could develop "The Megatree" away from "distractions". Matthew was to design, Marc was to code, Stoo to do the art. I'd leave for work each morning, and various members of the team would be in the house, planning the game.

I'd return in the evening and various members of the team would be @ the house .. planning the game. And so it went on for a couple of months until it became clear that nothing was really happening. I do remember a demo of some little trees dancing around a big tree, or something of that nature. I don't think there was ever anything really playable. It is a long time ago though. :)"

[EDITOR'S NOTE: There's lots more info on The Megatree at GTW64, including disc images, for what it's worth, backing up Steve's recollections nicely.]

Nick Hornby, You Have Your Own Casual Game!

- Now here's a kinda unmissable pitch for a game: "Sortasoft today announced the immediate availability of their new [PC] action/puzzle game Retro Records. See what it takes to run a record store in the era of iPods and digital downloads!" Yep, it's totally a Nick Hornby casual game simulator, circa High Fidelity.

Here's the exact blurb: "In Retro Records, you have inherited a disorderly record store and must rummage through classic vinyl albums to prepare them for sale. Retro Records blends simple and addictive gameplay with indie record store aesthetics. As players collect more albums, they unlock turntables, gold and platinum records, and other upgrades. Players also get to take a breather once in a while and test their memory in bonus rounds. It's fast paced analog action with a funky soundtrack to groove to...just don't break too many records!"

What's more: "Retro Records features over 200 classic jazz, rock, hip hop, reggae, country, classical, techno and disco records. With the help of Oliver, the record store clerk, players can collect over 20 unique rare records to show off on their store shelves. If you want to personalize your store, Customize Albums mode allows you to add any of your own favorite classic albums [using Amazon.com and a Listmania account!]."

Anyhow, there's a free demo of Retro Records available, but I caught up with Sortasoft's indie creator Joshua DeBonis, and asked him a couple of slightly flippant questions about it:

Q: Are you hoping that the Nick Hornby-style obsessive record collectors will play this game?

A: Sure I am, but I'm not trying to specifically target that crowd. Everybody loves music, so I'm aiming for a wide audience! People who grew up with records are nostalgic about them, and the younger post-vinyl crowd is intrigued.

Q: 2. Are you one yourself?

A: I love music, and I do have a modest record collection, but I'm certainly not obsessive. I just buy records that I want to listen to. If anything, I'm the opposite. Usually I just leave my albums lying around in complete disarray. Every couple of months I have to spend a few hours putting everything back in the correct jackets. This "activity" was definitely a major inspiration for the game.

Q: What's the top 3 favorite stupidly collectible records that you own?

A: I only own one stupidly collectible record, and your audience should appreciate this... which is a 7" of De La Soul featuring Parappa the Rapper doing "I Gotta Believe".

So my other two are just a couple of my favorite records. You can find both of these in the game.

Go by Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon has been a huge influence on me musically (as a tenor saxophonist). I've studied this record inside and out, and at least at one time I could play along with the entire thing note for note.

Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
Aside from being wonderful to listen to, this was the first record I ever bought. It also reminds me of my older brother who introduced me to Pink Floyd.

Q: 4. A lot of casual games seem to be female-aimed nowadays, yours is... the inverse! How come?

A: I just make games that I personally want to play. However I've found that women seem to enjoy Retro Records as much as men. My girlfriend loves the game, or at least she did until I made her playtest it for the 400th time.

Australians Give Good Game, Apparently

- Got a random PR email, as often happens, but hey, it's about a video game TV show that's streamable online, even if it is a bit 'yoof' and Australian: "Good Game, the show by gamers for gamers, returns to ABC2 on Tuesday 27 March at 8.30pm and [in freely streamable form] to ABC Online... Hosted by Junglist (Jeremy Ray) and new presenter Bajo (Steven O'Donnell), Good Game will continue to bring gamers the latest in news and events, top gaming tips, reviews and interviews. "

Actually, this doesn't sound so bad: "In the first episode, Good Game meets a true gaming God, Supreme Commander's Chris Taylor, one of the few game developers who gets his name on the front of the box. In the wake of the Australian launch of the PS3, the team reviews the launch title, Resistance: Fall of Man, and meets its creator Ted Price."

In addition: "Good Game also takes an in-depth look at the meteoric rise of the Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG). With some games boasting player numbers larger than many small countries and with at least eight new MMO's due for release in 2007, Good Game looks at why these games are so popular and the impact they are having on the rest of the gaming community." So there you go. They have streamable video segments from the previous series, too - and even if it's just on Aussie digital TV - hey, it's on TV!

March 29, 2007

Easter Eggs, Adventure, And VR Frippery

- Here's a new Gamasutra article which is very GSW-worthy - a 'Playing Catch Up' column featuring Adventure creator Warren Robinett, who made the first video game 'easter egg', of course - and also founded educational game firm The Learning Company, which I didn't know.

Anyhow, there's some good stuff in here: "Adventure... capitalized on the console’s success enormously well. By the end of the decade, there were around 1.8 million Atari 2600 owners, and 1 million of them were playing Robinett’s game. However, despite the incredible sales—at $25 each, no less—its creator was still on a salary of $22,000 a year, and soon decided to leave the company...

“I was tired of working, and Atari management didn't value the 2600 designers,” he says. “Boy were they stupid, because the designers all quit and started competing companies.” Years later, he notes with some enthusiasm, the company “came crashing down, like a whale dropped from a 747 at 30,000 feet”."

Later on, post game biz for Robinett, boy, there was some craziness: "In 1991, Robinett was talking with Stan Williams—a college and grad school friend who was, at the time, a chemistry professor at UCLA—in regards to a Scanning-Tunneling Microscope that had been developed by Williams and his grad students. Together, they decided that the idea of connecting the microscope to Robinett’s VR system would be “interesting”. The resulting invention was the Nanomanipulator, a VR interface that allows its user to “see, touch, and manipulate individual macromolecules”. The machine was implemented later on by Russ Taylor as a PhD thesis, who still runs the project." Nice!

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Shadowrun

['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week let’s datajack the Matrix and see what we can find on Shadowrun.]

srcover4th.jpgVideo games and role playing have always been close allies. Just as Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson attempted to extend Tolkien’s world into pencil and paper games, programmers have labored to model the ritual theater of tabletop role playing sessions in software. Personal computer RPGs have seen a steady path of development over the years, from the early days of Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth to the latest visual dream in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. However, in the West, console RPG efforts have been largely abandoned, surrendered to the Japanese, whose role playing aesthetics follow distinctly divergent lines. For an early snapshot of this evolution consider the three video games based on the Shadowrun license.

Shadowrun began life in 1989 as a set of tabletop role playing rules published by the FASA Corporation. The world of Shadowrun was weird mix of fantasy and sci-fi in which Tolkien-esque characters such as elves, orks, and dragons were given a serrated edge by dropping them into a near future, tech noir landscape. Magic existed alongside neural implants as “deckers” and shamanists hacked into computer networks to battle sinister transnational corporations. Life was cheap in Shadowrun and death often came quickly, whether it was by tempered steel, a 9mm Hydra-Shok, or a bolt of summoned lightning. Avoiding a potentially goofy and derivative premise, the Shadowrun game was elevated by the fevered intensity of its vicious world.

FASA was always adept at licensing its properties (in fact, the original company currently exists only as licensing rights manager, leaving the publishing and distribution of its properties to other companies) and soon enhanced the Shadowrun brand with tie-in novels and a series of unique video games, each produced by a different developer.

Brain Burnt

srsnescover.jpgThe first Shadowrun video game was created by the Australian developer Beam Software (who later changed its name to Melbourne House) and published by Data East in 1993 for SNES. The game followed amnesiac Jake Armitage, recently deceased but resurrected thanks to late 21st century medical technology, as he struggled to find his killers before they could finish the job. It was surprisingly faithful to the source material’s dark and amoral setting, particularly considering Nintendo’s strict approval process. The city of Seattle was portrayed in the game as a sort of Bosnian War era Sarajevo with hidden snipers raining death on scurrying refugees and teeming black markets where almost anything could be had for a price.

Shadowrun for the SNES is well worth seeking out and can be found with a little searching complete with manual and folded poster for around $35. As with most SNES games, loose cartridges are very easy to find but do not pay more than $10.

Geeked

srsegacover.jpgIn 1994 the Genesis received a Shadowrun game published by Sega. Developed by BlueSky Software, the game followed the exploits of a shadowrunner named Joshua as he unraveled the mystery of his brother’s death. While there was a interesting narrative to follow, BlueSky allowed players a tremendous amount of freedom within the game to explore and develop their character as they saw fit. There was a multitude of jobs to take on, from data hacker to meat shield, and variety of criminal gangs to associate with or run from. The game world was large and exploring its numerous nooks and crannies provided a great sense of accomplishment.

A key title for Genesis collectors, look to pay around $25 for a complete version of Shadowrun. A loose cartridge should not be worth more than $8.

Shinu

srmegacdcover.jpgSeveral years later, Japan received their own Shadowrun game, this time for the fading Mega CD. Published by Compile in 1996, the Mega CD version of Shadowrun was created by Group SNE, a Japanese developer with deep tabletop role playing game credentials. In the late 80’s the company had helped to kick start the Nippon gaming scene with their Sword World rule books and later created the much beloved Record of Lodoss War. Adapting the material to fit Japanese tastes, Group SNE’s Shadowrun went in a very different direction from the previous Western designed games. For their version, the developer created a complex point-and-click adventure with lush, anime graphics. While the previous two Shadowrun games handled combat in real-time, Shadowrun for the Mega CD employed a turn-based tactical system in the style of Shining Force or Arc the Lad with combat results decided by animated rolling dice.

Unfortunately for importers, Shadowrun for the Mega CD is heavy with text and those without fairly high level Japanese language skills will have a hard time progressing through the game. Still, if you must have it, search online and expect to pay about $65.

Although the FASA Corporation has ceased operation as a game publisher, Shadowrun lives on. The tabletop rules are now in their 4th edition and are being published by FanPro . Roc (an imprint of New American Library, which is part of the Penguin Group) is also publishing a new set of tie-in novels. Microsoft owns FASA Interactive (now called FASA Studio) and is currently preparing a multiplayer, first-person shooter set in the Shadowrun universe for the Xbox 360 and Vista to be released later this year.

Further Reading: Playing Catch Up: Shadowrun’s Paul Kid interview by Alistair Wallis, Gamasutra, November 2, 2006

Images: (C) 2001-2006 WizKids Inc./Fantasy Productions All Rights Reserved

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

Uemura - Sega's Hidden Game Design Power?

- Over at the Daily Yomiuri, there's a cute little profile of Sega game designer Hiroshi Uemura, who, of course, "...gave birth to two mega-hit children's card-based video games, "Mushiking: The King of Beetles" for boys, and "Love and Berry Dress up and Dance!" for girls."

When I was last in Tokyo last September, these CCG-based arcade machines were _everywhere_, and there was even Love & Berry dress-up for little girls at Sega's Joypolis - and the numbers on just the arcade versions alone bear this out: ""Mushiking" has sold 420 million cards since January 2003. "Love and Berry," which substitutes fashion competitions for bug battles, has sold 240 million cards since October 2004."

There's some cute commentary on how the game was designed, too: "Uemura says the goal in designing the games was to let children and parents enjoy playing together. It was a concept adapted from past mistakes. Before "Mushiking," a cutting-edge attraction designed by the team frightened an elderly person and grandchild at a theme park. "Mushiking" was born out of reflection on that failure. Uemura said the game allows adults to use their intuition to help children with the games. "For example, when playing "Love and Berry," parents can advise children by saying, "You don't wear jeans at dance parties,' and by doing so, parents can enjoy communicating with children."" Yeah, no jeans!

The Game Boy Sound Comparison, Definitive-Like

- You know there are lots of different Game Boy models, of course. But do you know how their sound output varies over the multiple different DS and Game Boy SKUs? Chiptune musician Herbert Weixelbaum does, and he's created a massive, newly updated page profiling the different noises each GB makes.

He explains of this pretty cool analysis: "not only do the different game boy models sound different, if you have a look at the waveforms, you can see, that these already look very different (thin sound - thin waveform). i recorded the pulse instrument, envelope: A8, wave: pulse width 50% (square), with a pitch of C3 (which is great C, in musical terms)."

Weixelbaum's conclusion? "things like "retro feel" might or might not be of importance to you, but it is a pretty objective judgment, that the original game boy (or the original with the pro sound mod) has the best sound, while the game boy advance sp2 has the best display. if you want to use a gba program, like nanoloop 2.0, the ds lite has the best sound and display." [Via the rockin' vorc.org.]

March 28, 2007

The 'Flow' Of Pac-Man, Tetris Explained?

- An interesting piece over at our education sister site Game Career Guide today, dealing with the idea of creating a visual language flow for video games, with a view to understanding them better.

Author Paolo Taje explains in the intro: "My analysis... rests upon a decomposition of fundamental gameplay elements and a subsequent reconstruction within an ordered structure founded on layers. The ultimate aim of this process is to understand how game tokens, dynamics and player psychology are linked together." It's particularly intriguing when he applies it to Pac-Man and Tetris.

Taje explains of his Russian puzzle game deconstruction: "The rules of Tetris create a network of dynamics, properties and goals in the main (left) sector. First of all, you can Move your blocks in one dimension (left or right) and Rotate them by 90 degrees. Their fall can be described as a Time Limit in placing them; Play Area has instead an upper Space Limit. The foremost dynamic is Match, i.e. to position and wedge blocks, which results in Destroying one or more lines. Depending on game state, the player's goal changes from impulse to Survive, when the play area is almost full, to wish to Destroy All blocks, when the play area is filled up only halfway or less." Is this useful? I'm wondering - it could be!

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Nemesis Factor

["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's unfortunately delayed installment looks at an overlooked handheld game: Nemesis Factor.]

Hasbro's Nemesis Factor, from its now defunct websiteIt has been a staple of the adventure game since Zork. It burst into the public consciousness in Myst. It has been recreated countless times across the internet in room-escaping Flash games. It has many forms; it has no name; it is The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press.

The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press has opened doors, revealed clues, and even turned on other Machines of Unknown Purposes with Buttons You Can Also Press. Sometimes, it has no purpose other to be solved, for points or bragging rights. But for whatever reason, the buttons must be pressed, in the right order, at the right times, without making a mistake, in order to succeed.

Perhaps you have wondered what you would do if you were confronted by The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press in real life, a physical Machine with Buttons You Can Press using your fingers instead of with a mouse or keyboard.

wonder no more. The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press exists, and its name is Nemesis Factor.

Prime Factorization

Nemesis Factor was produced by Hasbro (the producers of Lights Out) in 2001. (In a blog post on the game, Ken Jennings seems to think that it was released in 1981, but that's wildly incorrect.) Like all Machines of Unknown Purposes with Buttons You Can Press, it has a fairly straightforward interface. There are five colored buttons: red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. (At least, that's what they're supposed to be. I find that the green and blue look more like blue and violet, respectively.) The buttons light up, and you must light all five of them. The game is divided into 100 levels, each with one puzzle. Ostensibly, the goal for each is the same—light all the buttons—but in each level, the methods change drastically. Up to four people can save their progress, though each player has to play separately.

The first few levels only require pressing the buttons. They're very simple, and plenty of the initial patterns will be familiar to adventure-gamers. After five puzzles, the game introduces the speaker, and the game begins to speak before and after your button presses. By providing limited feedback to your actions, the game really starts to feel like a portable graphic adventure: you figure out what the buttons do, you put them in order, you press the buttons.

But unlike most adventure games, Nemesis Factor keeps ramping up the difficulty. Not only does the speaker provide increasingly baroque prompts and responses, the game soon reveals that it has more ways to receive input than you expect. Pretty soon, even mostly straightforward puzzles require quickly sorting through several different possibilities. And the final levels, even the ones that don't use all of the tricks of the device, are incredibly difficult to tease out.

The game includes a scoring system, which is mostly annoying (you get docked if you press too many buttons trying to solve a level), and a hint system which is excellent. Though I advise working through the game without resorting to it, if you get painfully stuck (or if you're trying to get through most of the game on a deadline), each level can provide two clues, which are pretty good at nudging you to the right place.

Meme Factor

Despite embodying such a common videogame puzzle trope, Nemesis Factor hasn't made much of an impact. It was awarded Best Puzzle in the 2003 Games 100, but it's not clear why it wasn't listed the year before. The puzzle disappeared from shelves pretty soon after. I remember seeing it in the stores at the time, but just looking at the box, it was hard to imagine the kind of deep challenges that the game actually offered. I imagine most people had the same reaction, and the game went largely unnoticed. I didn't hear any word of mouth until after it was out of stores.

Unlike most of the games I write about, there are no clones of Nemesis Factor, and no way to play the game online. If you want to solve these puzzles, your only hope is to grab one off eBay. For goodness' sake, I haven't even seen straight rip-offs. The unusual interface of the original machine makes a complete duplicate unlikely, but with the number of Machines of Unknown Purposes with Buttons You Can Press growing ever larger in videogames, one would expect that someone would have tried to steal from Nemesis Factor. Of course, I don't want to encourage plagiarism, but at the very least, the Flash programmers of the world could look at how these puzzles work. They're marvelous, and they offer insight into the possibilities of The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press, which lay far beyond matching colors and playing a melodies you heard elsewhere.

The team behind Nemesis Factor isn't listed anywhere on the Web (other than a few mentions of respected puzzle constructer Dave Tuller), but hopefully they will bring some sort of sequel to the world. Or perhaps someone, anyone else, will be inspired to bring the Nemesis flavor to The machine of unknown Purpose with Buttons You can Press. If the legions of escape-the-room games are any indication, we're ready for Nemesis Factor II. Think about the playful surprises of recent DS adventure games, and imagine what they could be in the hands of truly inspired—and truly devious—puzzle desginers.

[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. Other than his work as the copy chief for The Gamer's Quarter, he finds his job unsatisfying and is open to career-change suggestions.]

On10 Explores Emotiv, Penny Arcade, Vid-Style

- Apparently I haven't been keeping up with Microsoft's blog outreach, since I just spotted On10.net, a video-heavy tech and gaming blog that's funded by the Redmond giant (wait, do I get to point out my favorite Microsoft-related typo here?), and they have a number of pretty interesting videos from GDC 2007, just posted over the last few days.

I particularly wanted to point out the video showcasing Emotiv's brain-based control system, explained slightly breathlessly by Tina Wood: "Emotiv's technology is based upon interpreting the electrical activity in the human brain via EEG that looks below the individually unique outer cortex to deeper regions of the brain." It is VERY neat, though - and this is the first decent video I've seen of it.

There's also a piece chatting to the Penny Arcade folks about their Hothead-developed episodic game, and something talking to Gentle Giant Studios about their neat 3D scanning, motion capture, etc. I find the lack of clear 'this is Microsoft-funded' labeling a teensy bit meh, but the content is interesting, so hey - go poke at it. [Since I set this ready to post, they added an Xbox 360 Elite video, which is probably making them a lot more noticed, though!]

Tales Of Tales: Games Ain't The Only Interactive Art

- Following a recent GSW entry about the Tale of Tales guys (of Endless Forest and now The Path fame), I've been exchanging a few emails with them, and they pointed out 'Interactivity wants to be free', an interesting recent TofT blog post.

They actually quibble with Rod Humble's 'The Marriage', recognizing its positives, but arguing in part: "Interactivity is capable of so much more than games. New media artists like Lia and Dextro have been working with this for years. And while they share a formal language with Rod Humble to some extent, the work of these internationally renowned artists provokes a lot more rich and diverse emotions."

The critique continues: "Not that I am advocating any kind of puritanism in art. I don’t think laying bare the very concepts of art and limiting art to its very core is a good idea. The computer gives us a an unprecented array of media that we can all use simultaneously to express things in the most sensuous and spectacular ways ever imagined. Why limit ourselves with this wealth at our disposal?"

[Actually, one of the things I've been wrestling with is whether festivals such as the IGF should do a better job of recognizing the most experimental pieces of interactivity (such as The Endless Forest) which are not necessarily good games in a conventional playable sense, but say something or provoke emotional responses. See the Realtime Art Manifesto for more on this - it's important, I think.]

Wait, A.... Turn-Based Halo? Fakery!

- Those Halo.bungie.org guys find some awesome stuff sometimes - in this case a turn-based Halo mock-up machinima movie that is all kinds of silly stupid Final Fantasy aping dumbness, in a nice way.

They note: "RVideo found a fantastic video posted on the HaloGrid forums (yep, they're back) - it was done by the the guys over at Chaos Films, and it emulates a standard turn-based RPG using the Halo engine."

The HBO folks are mirroring the WMP9 version - 28.4 mb, as well as hosting their own QuickTime version - 29.8 mb. They continue: "This movie is hilarious - really well done. If you've ever played RPGs, you'll immediately connect. If you haven't, it's STILL pretty darned funny - just be glad XBL isn't like this! Can't wait for parts 2 and 3 (I'm hoping we can get higher-quality versions of all of them, from here on in)." Wow, neeto!

March 27, 2007

March GameTunnel Indie Panel Dissects Sam & Max

- Hoo hoo, it's time for the 'Indie Game Review Panel [March Edition]' over at rather smart indie game site GameTunnel, and this month, they ask: "If a dog and rabbit-like creature were trying to kill the President should you stop them? Is becoming President in an election-sim game really "winning?""

As a direct result of this, Sam & Max: Lincoln Must Die gets joint Game Of The Month, with Russ Carroll commenting: "This episode has some great government-al humor mixed with the puzzle randomness that makes most people shake their heads at puzzle games. Sam & Max certainly are worth the low entry price. Essentially you are getting 3 hours of fun for a bit more than a movie. Oh and did I mention the musical number-esque song done in ragtime style?"

But it shares it with Loonyland 2, which I had never heard of, and sounds really interesting - Brian Clair comments: "Loonyland 2 is another great RPG that made it into this month’s roundup. Unlike Geneforge 4, which is geared more towards hardcore role-players, Loonyland 2 takes aim at the RPG-lite crowd. There’s more action than reading in this release, but that doesn’t detract from the gameplay at all. You’ll control your avatar through a variety of quests as you fight off toys gone mad in a number of areas. As you dispatch the enemies, you’ll gain experience and go up in levels as with any RPG." Go poke it!

A Little Dwarf Fortress Love Never Hurt Anyone

- We actually covered love for PC title Dwarf Fortress before, but I thought it was cool that Toybane has been claiming that the title is the future of games, presenting "...a level of immersion unparalleled in gaming; an almost complete, dynamic world; and created an emotional connection with its characters with absolutely no graphics at all."

Why does Dwarf Fortress matter? The Toybane folks rave: "Whenever was there a game that named close to every landmark above ground and below, populated it with thousands of creatures that each lived persistent lives, created a multi-civilized world history complete with back story, had dynamic weather with fronts and humidity, used a multi-currency economic system, and presented a rich ecosystem of seasons and wildlife?"

In fact, they reference the recent Gamasutra interview with Warren Spector, in which he commented, in characteristically grumpy fashion, that developers should: “Stop building movie sets and make a world we can interact with instead.” Wait, so Dwarf Fortress is the ultimate manifestation of this, despite being ASCII-based? Please feel free to agree or not.

Kavinsky Gets Inspired By Gizmondo Crash

- Apparently, knowing how transfixed I am by the whole Gizmondo Ferrari crash thing I am, the Universe is conspiring to help me find media reference to it - this time in the form of Kavinsky's new '1986' EP, a music release on Air's Record Makers label that I grabbed from Emusic.

In fact, there's a page on ClickGroove where you can hear the 'Flashback' track, which has some very familiar audio in it - a creepy Knight Rider-style groove, over which you can hear voiceover discussing "...a car that's virtually sliced in half on the PCH". Specifically a Ferrari, of course - apparently Kavinsky has been sampling news dialog from the Gizmondo crash for his new release.

Anyhow, there's also an earlier video for 'Testarossa' from Kavinsky: "KAVINSKY-"Testarossa autodrive "from "Teddy boy" ep (Record makers-2006) Directed by Jonas&François for "75" production &Anthony Thouzet", which I would say also has some vague Gizmondo inspiration in it, what with crashed Ferraris and ambulances - although I don't remember Stefan Eriksson being as Miami Vice as this, so perhaps it's just an oblique reference. Still - awesome-o.

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Shooting the Core

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers the frequent Western misinterpretation of what mecha games set out to achieve.]

ac4_ss_rank_small.jpgNow with the release of Armored Core 4 abroad, reviews and forum discussion are a mixed bag. The main problem is down to a misinterpretation of what mecha games set out to achieve and consequently offer in terms of gameplay. Fallacious comparisons are often made to other types of gaming genre as a means of categorising the quality of whatever mecha game is currently under the spotlight. So, I think it’s time for a little cultural clarification…

On the whole, the Halo series of games are something that elicits a series of responses from people. On the one hand the singleplayer level design and narrative are criminally poor, especially after Bungie’s Marathon games, and on the other the controls and multiplayer are sublime. Almost everyone now thinks that all console FPS games should utilise a similar configuration, this is also true for most third person orientated action games too.

ac4_promo3.jpgIn terms of the evolution of gameplay this approach to acknowledging a superior means of control, as a means of improving other games, is a shrewd and insightful one. Well, for the most part. If, for instance, the focus of the game is the complexity of the controls so as to emulate the experience of piloting a monstrously large robot then a Halo-esque set of controls will miss the point of what the game is trying to achieve (try to imagine Steel Battalion without the controller).

Naturally, if a game goes out of its way to force a deep and complex set of controls upon the player it often puts most gamers backs up. With the advent of the blogosphere and a general increase in the potency of the vox populi, a game that seemingly runs in the face of (Western) opinion is going to get itself into trouble at some point or another.

ac4_promo_1.jpgArmored Core as a series of games, outside of Japan at least, has always had a tough time of wooing the journalistic throng and punters alike. On the one hand you have the people who think the game is clumsy and difficult to control and then you have, well, ninjas who take to the games like mechanical ducks to water.

From a Western perspective, Armored Core is a third person action game that has restrictive environments, hideously complex customisation and counter-intuitive controls. Alternatively, in Japan at least, the games are thought to be very focused in terms of their level design, contain comprehensive customisation and very thorough controls.

The emphasis in games such as Armored Core is empowering the player through their own effort and understanding of how the game works and how it should be played. The environments are meant to be boxed in to denote a level of futility to the player’s progression. After all it’s very common in anime series to have the protagonist strategically set-up by the enemy and have them survive overwhelming odds. This approach to having a limited environment and forcing the player to commit to a difficult encounter is the gaming equivalent of what occurs in an anime narrative.

ac4_promo_6.jpgSubsequently, the player is expected to learn how to build a suitably potent mecha and how to get the most out of it during combat, after all that's what anime protagonists have to go through so why shouldn't the player as well? The onus is entirely on you and the rush upon enduring a monstrous battle against overwhelming odds is palpable, well if you actually put the effort in to get to that point.

Much in the same way that God Hand received mixed responses for having seemingly clumsy controls and odd camera angles, few people sat back and tried to examine what was trying to be achieved. In the same vein, games such as Virtual On and Armored Core are rife with what can only initially appear as utterly bizarre design choices.

To look at, a game such as Virtual On is a third person shmup. When actually it's a vectored based combat game with a heavy emphasis on strategy. Look at the controls, Virtual On uses two sticks with two buttons each. Why this configuration? What is it trying to achieve?

Well, firstly it's not trying to purposefully irritate anyone. The twinstick setup has two purposes, one functional and one pop-cultural. The latter is to offer a vague approximation of mobile suit control from the Zeta Gundam era, whereas the former is to allow a fast response to enemy weapons fire and more precise control of your virtuaroid (something that the Saturn and Dreamcast ports proved with the limited control via their respective pads).

ac4_promo_5.jpgArmored Core 4 is no different in its approach to mecha made polygonal flesh. It's trying to encompass the control of a very complex piece of a machinery and offering enough player input to give the sense that, yes, you are an ass kicking pilot. However, it doesn't just give that control away without the expectation that the player will work at it.

You see, games like Armored Core and Virtual On aren't made for people who want maximum gaming empowerment for zero effort. In addition, they aren't meant to be played without the understanding of their pop-cultural context (much in the same way Lego Star Wars loses much of its charm if you neither like or care about Lego or Star Wars). Mecha games are made for people who like mecha and want to pilot the damn things, mainly because as you've probably noticed they don't exist yet.

In the same way that I am not a Greek god, a cyborg super soldier or a spy. Games offer those virtual opportunities but for me to misinterpret, in a gaming context, a Greek god as a cyborg super soldier who should be spying is a bit bloody stupid. There are reasons that Armored Core has survived over a decade, it might be worth re-examining as to why.

[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.]

Il Corriere Della Sera On The PS3's Soccer Snafu

- This is kinda just a sideline to the current PlayStation 3 launch kerfuffle, but I'm fascinated by the provincial European reaction to the launch - and Matteo Bittanti has a good round-up of the Italian issues - which, it turns out, revolve almost entirely around video game soccer!

The titanically large, important Italian newspaper Il Corriere Della Sera has apparently weighed in as follows: "Italy's best selling national newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, published a story about a frustrated PS3 buyer (also, a journalist) who decided to immediately sell the console after realizing that it would not run Pro Evolution Soccer 6 and Fifa 2007 (both currently available on the PS2)."

He continues: "Titled "Ieri ho comprato la PS3. Oggi la rivendo" (= "Yesterday I bought a PS3. Today, I'm selling it") the story is interesting because this consumer's disappointment is apparently shared by thousands of other players: in a country where electronic gaming and soccer games are synonomous, a long term lack of compatibility with PES6 (aka Winning Eleven in the US and Japan) and FIFA07 would be considered simply unacceptable." Apparently it's being addressed (maybe!), but let's not forget what apps are killer apps outside the States, mm?

March 26, 2007

Bastards, San Andreas Transfix PC Gamer UK

- Had a wander back to C&VG's subsite for PC Gamer UK, which is so Flash-infested that it makes my PC overspin (hurrah!), but a couple more neat mag features have been reprinted - notably 'How To Be A Complete Bastard'.

This particular piece of 'fun' is John Walker's take on how to be really nasty in online games - apparently for fun and/or profit, and starts with the grinning intro: "Griefers are much maligned. Condemned as the playground bullies of the online world, they are in fact masters of innovation.... These are the anarchists of gaming, taking the ingredients they're given and making a cake no one was expecting. Jealous? You should be. So why not begin your career of adding imagination to multiplayer gaming today?" Or, you know, they're horrid and should be ignored, guys.

Also worth checking - a piece on GTA: San Andreas, which is odd and well written: " But this is not art imitating life, or even the foreign policy of a superpower somewhere near Canada, say, because GTA's overwhelming mechanisms of cause and effect mean these guys are shooting for a good reason. That alone is cause enough to spend your hours there, and damn the grim early days in the ghetto. All you need is a relaxed attitude, time dribbling near-endlessly from your hands and a love for the streets. Oh yeah, and maybe a jetpack."

Metal Slug's Wonder Festival Model Kit, Yum

- Over at Metal Slug fansite (yay!) Metal Slug DB, there's a new post pointing out a completely awesome (EDIT: un?)official Metal Slug model kit, as showcased recently in Japan.

It's explained: "Wonder Festival, which is an exihibition held in Japan that gathers around figure and model kit enthusiasts and dealers, recently held their Winter 2007 exposition... Among the tens of thousands of figures lying around on top of the tables was the Metal Slug resin kit (assembly and painting required) molded and packaged by Alchemist 9000."

Also, I love the petulant fanboy rest of the post: "Luckily (for me), I've managed to acquire two of these things. They didn't come cheap, however, although I do suspect that these will be pretty damned rare and nearly impossible to find in the future.... Unfortunately, those are all of the photos you will see of the resin kit. Nearly all of the media's attention in the exposition were gathered around semi-naked figures of anime girls, so the top five photos are, presumably, the only ones taken of the Metal Slug resin kit during the exposition. (As for my own two kits, I'm not even going to bother opening these, and will instead salt them away. So don't be expecting me to put up any pictures of them.)" Haw! [Via Neo-Geo.com.]

Bring On The 2007 Golden Tee World Champs

- The retro crazies at RetroBlast! have just put up a post pointing out that the 2007 Golden Tee World Championship began on Sunday in the Tilted Kilt pub at the Rio Casino in Las Vegas - there's an older press release on Coin-Op Today with the full details.

Actually, people consistently ignore the Golden Tee golf series, despite the fact that it's probably the most financially successful video game series in North American arcades over the last 10 years - so it's nice to see a little pointing out. Over at the Incredible Technologies forums for the game, there's some allegedly live coverage unfolding, though not much has started up yet.

Anyhow, as RetroBlast! handily explains: "To be held over the next two days, the championship will pit a 16-man international squad against a 16-man American team. The international team consists of teams from South Africa, the U.K., Australia and Canada. During the previous 4 tournaments the Americans have prevailed 3 times with the World Team winning their only World Championship Cup in 2004... The prize money totals over $57,000, so it looks to be a heated competition!" I played Golden Tee's networked arcade version on Saturday night at a bar in San Jose, actually - but didn't score too well, thanks to inadequate trackball technique. Oh well.

Halo 3 - A Legend In The Making

- Turns out that official Bungie homebase Bungie.net posts some neat features from time to time, and a newly posted one is a look at the packaging construction for the super-deluxe version of Halo 3 for Xbox 360, in an article called 'A Legend in the Making'.

As explained in the intro: "As you know by now, Halo 3 will come in three flavors later this year, ranging from the standard game, to the super deluxe "Legendary Edition." The Legendary Edition comes packaged with a collectible Spartan helmet, two bonus discs and an exclusive cinematic storyboard booklet. I’ve seen the final helmet first hand I can honestly say it's totally awesome. The end product is the result of all the blood, sweat and tears that so many people have poured into this project over the past two years (yes, you read that right, this project started over two years ago!)." Blimey - there's lots of pics of factory workers toiling on 'legendary construction' tasks, too.

Microsoft's Craig Carlson explains of his work on the v. swish helmet: "I first got involved in this in an all day, Saturday planning meeting here in Redmond in June of 2005. We looked at wax-resin, cast-resin and injection molding as design and manufacturing solutions before settling on injection molding. The next challenge was RFQ’ing this and finding suppliers with both the capacity required as well as the capability. It still amazes me that we ended up using our largest Keyboard supplier, but since I launched 8 keyboard and desktop products with them while working in MS PC Hardware, I was convinced that they gave us the best chance for success in the end." [Via halo.bungie.org.]

LSD For PS1 Boggles Minds, Innit?

- The IC messageboard insurgents at SelectButton (more specifically, Mechanori!) have made a fascinating post on obscure Japanese PlayStation 1 game 'LSD', "...a recreation of dreams written down in a staff member's dream journal."

It's explained: "There is no goal in LSD. You can walk in four directions, you can look behind you with the L1 or R1 buttons, you can strafe with the L2 and R2 buttons, and you can look up with the triangle button. There's no "jump" or "use" button; you're purely an observer in the world of LSD." Niftily abstract.

And how does it look? "The game is composed of large, linked rooms or stages. Some are fairly coherent (a green field, a boat dock, a city of old Japanese architecture). Some are pretty absurd (a park of miniature buildings, a wasteland of bizarre architecture and bright colors). Sometimes they're littered with animals and moving clouds. Other times, they're completely still."

[There's a good Wikipedia page devoted to the game, but little other info about it online - this is the kind of title that screams out for Long Tail-style resurrection via PlayStation 3 or PSP E-Distribution, even if only a few thousand people would grab it. I just don't think Sony has it in mind to get this comprehensive just yet, though, especially not with import titles.]

March 25, 2007

Takahashi, Digg Skew, And Kotaku

- I'm not really saying that uber-blog Kotaku is the only outlet that's ever done this, but I'm going to have to talk you all through this one, and I'm hoping for some further understanding of the sloppiness of Digg, 'citizen journalism', and over-sensationalizing on the Net.

We're starting with Dean Takahashi's new piece on the Xbox 360 Elite, which he debuted yesterday on his San Jose Mercury News blog. Though this isn't the crux of the problem, there's even an interesting twist on this part - I believe that Dean originally posted this with 'Exclusive' in the title (see the blog URL), but changed it after some commenter complaints, such as from 'David': "Sorry, but how is this “exclusive?'’ Game Informer and Engadget both reported this days ago with the same type of anonymous sourcing."

Takahashi's comments in response to David are fair: "You are correct that Game Informer and Engadget have reported this, and I should have mentioned them. Engadget in particular has a lot of detail. We’ve added our own independent sourcing and analysis, including the detail on the chip cost reduction schedule that no one has talked about." I guess - Dean is a smart guy, but this piece does feel a bit weak, considering I have a copy of Game Informer in my hands also announcing the Elite. But still - it includes a couple more details, and the Xbox 360 Elite is a bit more official now. So fair enough.

Anyhow, the next thing that happens is that Brian Crecente posts about Dean's comments on Kotaku - basically with a link and an extra paragraph of commentary: "I suspect that this new model will hit in April, with official word coming as early as next week. I also wouldn't be surprised that if consumer interest shifted to the newer model, that Microsoft drops the price on their current models by this holiday season." Don't have a big issue with this - people may click through to Dean, Kotaku is in part (like GSW!) a linklog after all, etc.

But here's the bit that gets my goat. A certain 'Bippy101' submitted Kotaku's version of the story to Digg, with a simply incorrect version of the story: 'Xbox 360 Elite with IPTV announcement coming next week... The new Xbox 360 Elite will be announced next week with a bigger harddrive, smaller chip, HDMI and IPTV.' This factually worded statement is not true - Brian has posited that the announcement might be next week - and indeed it might, but he's not even citing sources at this point. And the IPTV bit is kinda not Elite-specific.

What's doubly unfortunate is that the specific 'Digg It' button for this dodgily worded story has been embedded in the Kotaku story to help promote the hits further. C'mon, Kotaku-ites - what about reporting a story that someone else has reported (with one extra paragraph of commentary!) gives you the right to try to get a front page Digg for it? I consider that pretty iffy.

Now, I don't know who 'Bippy101' is - guess he could be someone completely random. But judging by the user's Digg history, I'm presuming that it's a single or composite Gawker Media staffer - and interestingly, most of its submitted stories make it to the front page, presumably exactly because they are embedded in Kotaku stories after they are submitted. (Not saying it's a secret, just extrapolating.)

Actually, most of the time, these Bippy101 frontpaged stories are original Kotaku reporting - such as the 'Reign Over Me' movie interview. But there are some other ones in there which I honestly would feel guilty about submitting to Digg - like the Gears Of War movie announcement, which is just a paragraph and a link to Variety. You can absolutely submit things from your own outlet to Digg - we also do it from time to time - but IMHO, it should be your own original reporting, otherwise the dilution of information just discourages first-hand reporting.

If these rules aren't held to, what happens? Let's take a look at the 'recently frontpaged' list on Digg game news to find out. I'm not saying that all of these are submitted by the site themselves - we've had a couple of frontpage Diggs that were re-reported stories, put forward by third parties, but up there right now are things like a QJ.net piece that's just summarizing Gizmodo, a fake official confirmation for Katamari Damacy Wii, or YouNewb summarizing a GameSpot piece. I could go on - and you may recall that I have before. But I firmly believe that major sites should be leading the way, and this is a bit of a mis-step, This is _THE_ new frontline for journalism and journalistic ethics, and I'm surprised more people aren't talking about it and thinking about it.

The Right To Baer Games

- Over at sister site Gamasutra, Benj Edwards (himself a former GSW columnist) has written up 'The Right to Baer Games - An Interview with Ralph Baer, the Father of Video Games', one of the more deliciously cranky interviews we've collectively run in a while.

Talking about developing the first game hardware in the '60s (ahead of the Magnavox Odyssey, which debuted in 1972), Baer explained: ""Quit screwing around with that." That was the question that was asked by my boss, who was the executive VP for quite a few years. I was asked that question many times: "Are you still screwing around with that stuff, Baer?" And I'd smile and say nothing, right?"

Considering Baer's patents are probably a key part of his lasting fame/success, he's quite dismissive of the whole patent process, too: "...You look at the patents, and three out of four are garbage. Especially since it's so easy to do patent searches on the web; it's very easy. You look at that stuff: one piece of crap after another. How the hell did that ever get in there and clog up the system to where stuff that should have really been handled in an expeditious manner didn't make it through the damn office for three years or even longer? That's problem number one."

Localization, Story, And Characterization

- At 1UP, Nadia Oxford has written an new in-depth feature named 'Tragicomic', which deals with lots of things, but most of them orbiting around a central point: "Is it possible that we might someday get our fill of good stories through games instead of novels?"

Basically, I think this piece is about how to get stories working better in games, thus the intro: "A polished, edited novel is a story in one its purest forms. By comparison, the stories in videogames tend to be overly dramatic, full of clichés, and plagued with plot holes. The difference in quality can be pinned on several factors, including localization, cultural differences between Japan and America, and the need to balance story and gameplay.... But that doesn't mean game stories are unable to draw in players. Nor do game scripts with original ideas, characters, and careful localization go amiss."

It interviews one or two great people, too: "John Zakour is a humor and science-fiction writer brought on by Frogware to localize 80 Days, a PC adaptation of the famous Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days. "I took a lot of humor from my old novels and put it in the game," Zakour says. "Some people loved it and called it the funniest game of all time. Others hated it. It's really difficult to take dialog in translated English and make it funny while being constrained by what the characters are doing. Still, I love the challenge."" Scattered, but intriguing.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 3/24/07

['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]

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Oh, there are just so many magazines!

This installment of Mag Roundup is absolutely enormous, thanks to a sudden spate of strategy specials. It's also quite an important one, since it marks the closing of one magazine (MMO Games, formerly MASSIVE) and the launch of a new one (Beckett's eSports).

I recently went crazy with my credit card and bought all the Britmags I could find locally, so you can look forward to me tackling the British game-mag industry next week. For now, though, let's have a look at all the US game mags on the newsstand right now...

MMO Games Issue #1.03

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Cover: Hellgate: London

MMO Games, as hinted at earlier, is the new name of MASSIVE Magazine. Editor Steve Bauman makes an oblique reference to lawyers in his opening piece, but doesn't get into specifics -- specifics that may be hard to track down now that mag owner TheGlobe.com has closed down the division. (Certainly, there's at least two game-industry companies I can think of named "Massive" that would have a case against them if TheGlobe didn't ask for permission first.)

With the new name, there's also a new website for the mag listed at mmogamesmag.com; however, that URL doesn't actually go anywhere, despite the fact TheGlobe registered it back in January. The renaming seemed to be done in a major rush overall, considering there's still a house ad for MASSIVE (touting issue 2, no less) inside this issue.

Getting back to the content, though, the most interesting part of MMO Games' first and last issue is its theme: money. There's 28 pages devoted to where to camp, what to trade, and how to kill your afternoons and evenings in all manner of different MMOs, along with a few bits of development commentary at the far end of the mag discussing currency's role in online games. Sounds interesting at first, but read it, and you quickly realize it's a glorified 28-page strategy guide, which isn't the most engaging thing ever (not to mention likely out of date in many areas, given the way MMOs and their populations evolve). The rest of the mag is mostly taken up by your typical mag-style previews, which is a disappointment.

I think MASSIVE #2 will remain my favorite issue of this magazine's short run, but I'll still bemoan its loss, because for just a little while there, it was doing something many magazines weren't doing -- less nitty-gritty game coverage and more lifestyle or scene-type stuff. It's a direction that print will have to devote itself more and more fully to in the future, since that's one of its main advantages over the Internet.

Beckett eSports April/May 2007

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Cover: Mr. Dave Walsh (sponsored by Red Bull)

One mag down, another mag up! Yes, Beckett Media (which now publishes more ongoing game mags than Ziff Davis, can you believe that?) is blazing the stands this month with eGames, a new bimonthly made in cooperation with pro-gamer site GotFrag that strives to be "the #1 source for competitive video gaming."

The structure of eSports is pretty loose. The 78-page mag is mostly filled with profiles of people and teams, including Dave Walsh (who's so good at Halo 2 that Red Bull gives him 10 cases of energy drinks a month) and Complexity, a team of Counter-Strike journeymen. Six major cyber-gaming leagues (yes, there are (over) six of them) have their own columns going over qualifiers and upcoming tournaments, and there's also coverage of one-offs like the Madden Challenge held during the NFL Pro Bowl. A multi-page overview of DirectX 10 and a news/rumors/humor section in the back round the whole package out.

The thing I'm struck by thumbing through eGames is how damn nerdy we all look. I mean, seriously. Every picture of a pro gamer in this mag makes me want to do the "NERRRRRRRRRRDDS!" shout from that classic of movie-dom, Revenge of the Nerds. Your typical game mag this definitely ain't; unless you really like pictures of pale, twig-like white guys in their early 20s, you'll be interested in the text and interviews and coverage and stuff. But, on the same token, if you're looking for that sort of thing, you'd be getting it right now on the GotFrag site anyway, right?

Which leads me to kind of wonder what the raison d'être for the eSports mag is in the first place. But ah well, the text (despite being written at a fanzine level) is kinda interesting, so...

Nintendo Power May 2007

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Cover: Pokémon Diamond/Pearl (Dialga/Palkia covers)

Hooray, I'm getting NPs super-early again! And once again, NP is the only magazine which really is worth it for the "exclusives" -- not that their preview coverage is all that exclusive, but it's often the case that you hear about obscure Nintendo-console-exclusive releases here, both first and in the most extensive fashion anywhere besides IGN Wii.

This month's NP kicks it on the interview front as well, featuring a roundtable discussion with the four main folks behind Diamond/Pearl (including Ken Sugimori, the man who devised and drew the first 251 Pokémon pretty much by himself). The interview cavalcade continues with Randy Pitchford (Brothers in Arms: Double Time), the Super Paper Mario guys, and Shingo Mukaitoge (Dewy), but that's not even the main highlight here -- that's reserved for the 4-page feature on cooking games titled "Now You're Cooking with Power" and featuring staff writer Chris Hoffman in a photo-sequence that's nothing short of hilarious. And there's a two-page strategy guide on Kid Icarus. Sheesh. Nintendo fans are so spoiled, they are.

Game Informer April 2007

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Cover: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Once again, the first third of GI is must-read material and the rest is must-look-at-the-screenshots material. Doug Lowenstein gets an "exit interview" in the news section that's a remarkable read ("In 20 years we will have a president that will have grown up playing Grand Theft Auto. That's inevitable"). There's a roundtable of four developers (Cliffy, Lord British, Todd Howard, and Cory Barlog (God of War II)) about the future of games as art which is similarly stimulating. Kudo Tsunoda, general manager of EA Chicago and generally the most sane man working for that company, gets two pages. Interviews, interviews, interviews! I love it!

After the news and before the reviews, we have hot-sclusive looks at Uncharted (I preferred "Untitled Naughty Dog Project" myself), Spider-Man 3, and Saboteur, along with their annual Game Infarcer joke-mag. Uncharted is actually a neat preview 'cos the art designers put some serious effort into it, offering up sequences of animation-describing photos and other bits of game-developer nerd trivia that's neat to look at. The rest is kinda run-of-the-mill, and I almost wish Game Infarcer could've eaten up more space because I'd rather read more of that than another couple spreads of boring previews. My opinion, anyway.

Play April 2007

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Cover: BioShock

Play's gettin' a little lean at 84 pages, but the contents are quite nice -- a long piece on BioShock that's well-rewarded by how much info they're giving out on the game these days, a roundup of racing games featuring more of that Dany Orizio "guess which game I'm from" original art, and six pages on Gamecock and other new "indie" publishers. No room for much else, though, besides the usual reviews/previews.

Hardcore Gamer April 2007

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Cover: Heist

This issue has a feature on "Ports Gone Wrong" -- those misfits of the past (the PC Mega Man, for example) that shock and amaze with their ineptitude. It's a great idea for a feature, even though it could use some better research. When covering the PC-8801 port of Super Mario Bros, it's mention that "this game is so unplayable, Mario dies in the demo" -- but he dies in one of the NES version's demos, too. Yeah! I outnerded you!

Otherwise, you know what to expect from HCG by now -- tons of art and color all over the place, helping you forgive any transgressions the text may make.

Official Xbox Magazine April 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: GRAW 2

The biggest news with OXM may be with the disc. In a move to make the disc worth looking for even with XBL downloads duplicating a lot of its big-name content, there's now an episodic game of sorts called OXM Universe that uses your OXM Points (unlocked by playing demo-disc games and watching videos) as in-game "credits." A space exploration/strategy thingie of sorts, Universe is a neat little timewaster, I think -- even though they had to reset everyone's OXM Points to launch it.

Universe (which will run every issue and end "no later than" Holiday '07) is accompanied by a GRAW Chapter 2 download and demos of GRAW 2, Crackdown, and...wait for it...New Rally-X. Ooh! Ah yes, and the magazine: It's a pretty normal isue, with a look at XNA indie games being the main highlight if you aren't after previews/reviews.

PSM March 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: Ninja Gaiden Sigma

I have to say, it's all right if there's a subscription card here or there in the mag I read, but PSM just seems to be packed with little interruptions and annoyances this month. First up, the 8-page cell phone guide, also in OXM. Second up, a giant fold-out God of War II advertorial which includes an interview with Barlog (also seen in GI). Third up, this full-page Full Sail ad printed on thick stock so the mag always opens up right to it. Arrgh.

Ignoring these for the moment, I'd say the most "hey, neato" moment for me this month was opening up the reviews section and seeing Sonic the Hedgehog get about 75 words, if that. And a 2.0 score. Justin Cheng, you are a harsh mistress.

Tips & Tricks April 2007

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Cover: Some lovely ladies (and Izuna)

Funny thing I just noticed -- the greatest chunk of Tips & Tricks' contents is now taken up not by tips, or tricks, but by all the columns and departments they now print. "Departments" (including a new one on World of Warcraft) occupies 32 pages, codes 22, strategy guides 15, and previews eight. This really suggests to me that they oughta consider a name change already -- I love most of the departments, but no one's gonna notice them if they're scared off by the "Tips & Tricks" title. (Well, I notice them, but...)

Moving on, the top feature this month is on game schools, and it's actually kinda similar to the game-school advertorials Famitsu runs around three times a year in Japan -- it covers every school, shows off some example art, and contains a few quotes from each school's rep discussing potential students' concerns. Top department highlights include a female-guitarist showdown in Guitar Hero II, a review of the Captain N DVD set, and a really neat (and incredibly, surprisingly exhaustive) overview of all the toys Nintendo produced during the 1960s and '70s. Seriously, you'll spend 10 minutes just poring over that spread and seeing all the random junk Nintendo produced 40 years ago. It's nuts.

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Mag publishers went strategy-guide crazy this month. Here's Tips & Tricks Spring '07 Video-Game Codebook and the spring 2007 issue of Code Vault, both of which are mostly straight strategy and reference. The T&T Codebook has an "exclusive" preview of Spider-Man 3, but so did every other mag this month -- and Code Vault is still all excerpts from Brady strategy guides, which ain't too useful.

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Future's two new specials are Xbox 360 Gear Guide and PC Gamer Ultimate Strategy Guide, and while they aren't all original content (stuff is borrowed from Maximum PC, Games Radar, the UK edition of PC Gamer, you name it), they're both put together in a package that's fun to sit down and read. This was especially surprising for me wtih the PC Gamer special -- it's dotted with all manner of neat sidetracks, from a how-to on putting a zombie dude in Oblivion to a blow-by-blow guide on forging a World of Warcraft character to level 60 in one week.

Strategy guides are nice and all, but in the age of GameFAQs, the thing has to be fun to read in addition to useful if you expect folks to shell out for it. Future definitely succeeded here.

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Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention Game Developer March 2007, another fat issue laden with glossy GDC-season help-wanted ads. The postmortem on Sam and Max is the straw that broke the camel's back -- once I'm done writing this, I'm gonna subscribe to GameTap and download Episode One right away. It just looks like too much goofy fun.

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



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