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July 28, 2007

Why You Should Subscribe To The Stinger Report!

- My delightful colleague Brandon Sheffield has been known to extol this person's moustache virtues over at Insert Credit, but just wanted to mention that enjoyably wacky UK journo/consultant Kevin Williams now offers his The Stringer Report arcade trade newsletter for free - and here's a couple of reasons why you should subscribe immediately, if not sooner.

Firstly, we recently covered new arcade game Target Toss Pro, and Stinger notes in his latest Report: "Seen at ASI'07 the product was in uncharted waters regarding UK let alone European acceptance. [Incredible Technologies] had been advised that the connotations of the original name 'Target Toss Pro: Bags' may have different means in the UK... The Oxford English Dictionary has ‘tosser’ – defined as a term of contempt or abuse for a person; a ‘jerk’, established in 1977, and so resident in most European obscenity-checker email blockers." HAH.

The other comment in the Report which (slightly unintentionally) made me 'lol' was the following: "The Japanese factories were also represented by SEGA Amusement Europe, with a UK production cabinet of '2 Spicy' (LindBergh Red) - looking nearly identical to the Asian original cabinet aside from stronger cash box protection."

Those polite Japanese are a lot less likely to, uhm, try to pry open arcade machines, aren't they? Anyhow, The Stinger Report (previously subscription only) is much more relevant to arcade biz types, but it's good to see arcade coverage from the trade end.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 7/28/07

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One of the more hum'rous editorial mistakes in recent memory arrived last week in the August issue of Play magazine, where the table-of-contents page inadvertently uses the exact same artwork (in the exact same configuration) as the advertisement right next to it. Den-chan is just as confused about it as I am.

A question that's often thrown around magazine circles is how aware the editorial department is of the advertising that's placed in each issue of the title they work on. The answer is a firm, unequivocal "it depends." Namely, it depends on the magazine in question, the way the publisher and editor-in-chief run it, and so on. In my particular case,

I'm dimly aware of the advertisers for the issue of Newtype USA I'm working on, but that's not because I'm actively searching for that info -- it's because we deal with generally the same advertisers month in and month out, so I can predict what stuff they'll be advertising each month with relative ease. That knowledge has never influenced what I write about in the mag itself, because I'm an ethical professional with a responsibility to my readers, and furthermore we're located too far away from all the game publishers to go to any of their junkets.

So how did a gaffe like this get into Play? I'm not too sure, to be honest. Any number of things could've happened -- maybe the ad was a really, really late addition and no one thought to check where it was located. But it's just a small, amusing thing in what's otherwise a superb issue, so hopefully no one at Play will be too angry at me for pointing it out.

But that's not the top story in this roundup -- not when there's eleven new US magazines to catch up on this time around. Click on for the complete spread!

Official Xbox Magazine September 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: Grand Theft Auto IV

The big news coming out of Future this month (besides scoring this absolutely lovely cover image): OXM is putting up a fee-based digital edition, complete with "exclusive demos," on Xbox Live Marketplace, as Simon wrote about earlier. I personally have mixed feelings about the idea, even though I haven't seen anything they have in store quite yet -- I'm quite excited at the idea of OXM editors in video segments doing cool stuff just like the pseudo-"lifestyle" shows all the big websites do nowadays, but I worry that it'll be a hard sell to many gamers bitter about the whole "You have to pay for demos" thing. (The top demo this month is Beautiful Katamari, by the way, which is pretty darn hot.)

Moving on to the magazine, the front's mostly occupied by a preview feature, with Fallout 3 taking point and games like Endwar and Burnout Paradise following. The GTAIV feature is a bit nicer than GI's of several months back, if only because the art's so lovely. (The text also gives peeks into the single-player missions, which -- shock -- involve a lot of driving around and shooting people. The "My Game Sucked" coverline refers to Randy Pitchford's back-page column, where he discusses the financial truth behind movie-license games and revealed his involvement in a certain 007 game.

And that's the mag, really. Future's Cell Play supplement takes up 16 pages in the middle of the book (as it does in the rest of Future's titles this month), and... well, having good game mags go down to 100 pages is disappointing enough, but then having 16 of those pages taken up by something that nobody bought the magazine to read is kind of hard to swallow. I mean it, I'm crying my eyes out as I play Katamari here.

PSM September 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: Grand Theft Auto IV

Pretty much the same GTAIV feature in PSM (with different screens) along with new looks at Beowulf and Condemned 2, as well as a funny EGM-style two-page piece on a psychiatrist who uses GTA as part of therapy for child patients.

But the big feature here is devoted to the magazine's 10th anniversary. I have a near-neurotic weakness for anniversary features (I still think GamePro's 200th issue was one of their shining moments), but this one isn't the best I've seen -- the brunt of it is on the history of the PlayStation, not PSM itself. And some of that history's kind of suspect, suggesting that the PC Engine and Mega CD existed in 1986 and misspelling the company name Philips in the text even though Philips' logo is on the same page. GamePro's retrospective was cool because it was packed with little in-jokey tidbits from the magazine's history...not to make unfair comparisons or anything, but.

Play August 2007

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Cover: Blue Dragon

Play's cover art is the same used by Game Informer a few months back, but I'll forgive them because (puts on "I'M AN ELITE INSIDER" cap) there isn't a great deal of hand-drawn art to work with on this title from Microsoft's end. The review/feature goes on for nine pages and includes a Sakaguchi interview, and together it's really just Play at its best -- smart and fannishly devoted. (Dave Halverson writing a two-page preview of Looney Tunes: Acme Arsenal and giving Ratatouille an 8.0 review later on is also Play at its best. In my opinion, anyway.)

Other highlights include the crossfire between Nick Rox and Casey Loe over Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass and the sheer volume of interviews this issue -- it seems like nearly every major preview this time around includes a lengthy dev talk. That's the sort of thing I like to see.

Game Informer August 2007

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After stringing several blockbuster covers together in a row, GI turns it down a notch with Prototype, a game so far away from release that I guess this screenshot on the cover (which is aggressively brown and features the hero's left leg clipping a bit into the prone soldier) was the best among a very small pool of art. The feature inside's quite a lot nicer, though, kind of reading like a "pre-mortem" (as opposed to Game Developer's postmortems) as it explains Radical Entertainment's pedigree, the freedom allowed to them for Prototype, and what they intend to do with it. I frequently pick on GI's cover features for being too vague and filler-y, but here the writer did the smart thing by making the text as much about the guys behind the game as the game itself.

(The second feature, on Darksiders, is similar in style except devoted to a title which frankly doesn't seem quite as interesting. I always appreciate coverage of non-license non-sequels, though.)

Games for Windows: The Official Magazine August 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: Gears of War

I didn't notice the box on the upper-right corner of the cover 'til now and it's had me LOL'ing for the past half minute. Bravo.

It seems like a while since GFW crept into my mailbox, and I'm glad to see it back, 'cos plainly they're giving their best on every single page. (OK, minus the Microsoft advertising section in the back. But nobody's perfect.) Features up front include bits on Fallout 3, Line Rider, Call of Duty 4's multiplayer, and video games as used in assorted medical research, and an awesome (if, sadly, completely fabricated) Seanbaby interview with an actor who made his career in FMV games. It's followed up by further bits on the World Series of Video Games, an interview with Brian Fargo (founder of Interplay), and the yearly installment of CGW/GFW's Hall of Fame, into which four new games (Dungeon Keeper, Dune II, GTAIII, Maniac Mansion) and one dev (Peter Molyneux) get inducted.

In short, a bloody ton of neat content. And we haven't even gotten to the cover feature yet, which is 14 pages of bloody screenshots and Cliffy -- two great tastes that go great together. Or the hilarious Shadowrun review. (It seems like Game Mag Weaseling favorite Sean Molloy gets to review all the bad games this issue, which makes them doubly great to read.) Or Tom and Bruce competing against each other in Peggle and Solitaire. Man, I love GFW.

PC Gamer September 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: Space Siege

I think this is the first time a game mag's dared to put a developer's face on the cover since Computer Games did it with Sid Meier's Railroads! -- and we all know what happened to Computer Games, don't we? It's arguably well-deserved, though, since Supreme Commander was (and is) an obsession for the PC marketplace for more than a little while, and PC Gamer spends eight pages talking with Chris Taylor and trying to figure why this action RPG he's working on will be quite nice.

Otherwise, this issue of PC Gamer is pretty utilitarian, especially with its helpful look at all the game-download services available on the net right now. The mag also has an extensive number of columns in the back these days, similar to Edge in style -- Richard Garriott still leads the pack by far, but Brett Todd's monthly modding column also has a lot of neato-keen stuff to digest.

Game Developer Game Career Guide Fall 2007

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Game Developer's annual career guide is on newsstands right now, and as always, it's quite nice if you have any interest in the subject -- basically reading like a typical Game Developer issue, except without any of the mind-bending programming or graphical topics. Highlights include articles on average salaries and how helpful being a modder is in the job search, as well as a "day in the life" type piece that chronicles the average workday for a lead programmer, art director, and designer/writer. (The programmer's the only one who seems to get home at a decent hour. I know who I'm gonna be when I grow up.)

The mag's advertising is just as alluring in places, featuring pieces from what seems like 500 different game schools and academies, including a particularly ugly one for DeVry. Hey, Houston Community College has an associate degree in gaming for artists and programmers! Screw this writing BS! I'm outta here!

Nintendo Power September 2007

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Cover: Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

I haven't heard anything further on Nintendo Power's future since Perrin revealed the title would be sold, come to think of it. Ex-OPM staffer Giancaro Varanini left NP not long after the news hit, but it seems like the rest of the gang is still there and still truckin' -- and, of course, there's no mention of any shenanigans in the magazine itself.

This issue is strong as always, if not all that unique. The features on Metroid and Smash Bros. Brawl are nice and informative, but it's the developer profile of Koji Igarashi (along with the humorous art in the Raging Rabbids 2 first look) that you'll remember in the long run.

Hardcore Gamer August 2007

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Cover: Stranglehold

HGM continues to be HGM, with lots of full-page GameFan-style previews and super text-heavy features (this time on Stranglehold, football games, and the recent Codemasters gamers' day).

I should probably note ('cos I haven't yet) that Gamecock Media has a regular column in Hardcore Gamer where the Cock himself (presumably) discusses the vagaries of launching an independent publisher what you, the reader, can do to keep them afloat. It reads kind of like advertising most months, but it still has its occasional moments.

Beckett Massive Online Gamer August/September 2007

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Cover: Sword of the New World

Beckett MOG has a ton of advertising this month. It's like every ongoing MMO and MMO accessory outfit (including the two-bit Korean free-to-play-but-you-gotta-pay-for-anything-useful MMORPGs) decided to place ads in the mag all at once. There's even a strategy guide for something called Tales of Pirates that I'm pretty sure was paid for, since the art design is different and it's printed on different paper stock from the rest of the magazine. If all these ads were paid for, then Beckett MOG had a pretty good month, I'd say. (If only MASSIVE/MMO Games coulda survived until it had this sort of support...)

Contentwise, it's the same as always -- long strategy bits on Sword of the New World, the LOTR expansion, and WOW, along with wordy interviews with the Warhammer and Lineage II guys. For the most part, interesting only if you've already got a vested involvement with the game(s) in question.

Beckett Spotlight: Sports Video Gamer

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Look at this! It's a one-off special obviously targeted at the 2 million or so Americans who line up at the store to buy Madden every year and then purchase nothing else until the next one comes out.

This issue doesn't seem to be sponsored by EA in any way, but it covers nothing but Madden, NCAA, and other EA titles for all of its 84 pages. And lord, does it cover it! There's interviews with the NCAA and Madden coverboys, several previews of Madden '08, a look back at the Madden jinx and EA Trax from past years, several pages of NFL players commenting on the game, tournament coverage, stats, strategies by team... it just goes on and on, and for gamers hungry for info but lacking the Internet, I can see the allure in a mag like this.

For the more hardcore among us, this mag is mainly a source of humor, best personified in a photo where a copy of Beckett Sports Video Gamer is poorly Photoshopped into the hands of the Titans' Paul Williams.

[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.]

Gamestar Mechanic To Steampunk Up Learning

- Terribly late on this one, but Clickable Culture's Tony Walsh has a good post explaining the upcoming Gamestar Mechanic, "...a game designed to teach game design skills within a steampunk-inspired game world", and notable because it's funded by the giant MacArthur charitable foundation as part of a larger five-year, $50 million digital media and learning initiative.

As Walsh explains: "Aimed at young people, the project is a collaboration between Gamelab (New York) and the Games, Learning, and Society Group (University of Wisconsin-Madison). Project leads include James Paul Gee (author, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy), as well as Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (authors, Rules of Play)."

There's now an awesome directory of Gamestar Mechanic-related posts on the MacArthur Foundation site, including (the pictured) Katie Salen overviewing the entire concept, explaining: "Gamestar Mechanic is a different kind of massively multiplayer online game experience. Players do not just take part in a game that was made for them. Instead, they create their own games to play and share, all within a larger MMO experience. The core audience is junior high school and high school students, a demographic proven to be captivated by online media creation." Really looking forward to this.

July 27, 2007

Escaping The Game Review Nightmare

- Really enjoy the pointed posts on Dan Amrich (ex-GamePro, current Official Xbox Magazine)'s Bunnyears.net blog, and the latest discusses The Escapist's recent game journalism issue, which I also found a little enduringly whiny in some parts - though overall thought-provoking, which can only be a good thing?.

It discusses the ever-sharp of tongue Penny Arcade savaging a GamesRadar review, a review assigned by Amrich, who suggests: "If there’s one problem out there I don’t feel I can fix, it’s the audience misinterpreting the nature of the medium. Reviews are not telling you what to think; they’re giving you what you need to think for yourself. It’s why city buses don’t run the Indy 500, folks: They were built for an extremely different purpose."

And how did Penny Arcade's Mike Krahulik make his grievous error? "By his own admission, Mike hasn’t built up that relationship with any reviewer or outlet, let alone GamesRadar or Cameron as an individual writer…and he’s not reading the review for consumer purchasing “buy/no buy” advice. He’s reading the review for personal validation. He already bought the game; the review he read after buying it isn’t something he agrees with, so it’s wrong." By jove, I think the cove has a point! Or does he?

GameSetNetwork: Go Naked With Elite Beats

- Aha, a spare moment, and so let's take a proper look at a few of the articles posted on GameSetWatch's sister sites over the past few days - from the normal to the Naked Brothers Band. Henceforth, onward:

- We've linked to JC Barnett's now sadly defunct Japanmanship blog a good few times on GSW, so I'm delighted to say we've run the 'Working In Japanese Game Development: The Facts' feature on Gamasutra yesterday, and as we explain, "...pseudonymous Japan-based game creator JC Barnett looks at exactly how Western developers can enter Japanese game development, with tips on how to apply, visas, savings, language prerequisites, and more."

- Our education site Game Career Guide recently put up a piece called 'Rhythm Games: Simplicity and Mass Appeal', which does a decent job of running down the genre, from Guitar Hero through Ouendan and many more - though as comments on a Sexy Videogameland post note, it skirts the original Bemani title, Beatmania. Those self same comments also remind me of a post on Elite Beat Agents and emotion that I will make... soon!

- Over at WorldsInMotion.biz, our Game Developer Research-affiliated online worlds blog run by Leigh Alexander, the Online World Atlas has now expanding significantly, with some new entries including one on Nickelodeon's Nicktropolis and Disney's Toontown, both much more potent and relevant to the game biz than you might think. Or maybe you do think they're important, in which case... good!

- Oh, and worth mentioning too is the Total Pro Golf 2 indie postmortem on Gamasutra - as we commented: "Smaller indie developers are creating more and more intriguing games, and in this Gamasutra postmortem, we learn about the creation of Wolverine Studios' sim-heavy Total Pro Golf 2 for PC, discussing both the triumphs and pitfalls faced by creator Gary Gorski while creating the community-aided title." It's a neat, ultraniche game, too.

GameSetPics: European Follies, The Final Countdown

So there was a Part 1, a Part 2 , and logically enough, Part 3, and now, rather a long time after I made it back to the States, it's time to present a final look at some of the odd and/or cool and/or fun European video games I encountered in the wilds of British (and Finnish!) retail. As follows:

The Atari-published PSP mini-game title Hot Pixel has been out in Europe for a while, and is coming to the States in September - but apparently with not nearly such a nice pixel-art cover as the Euro version, judging by the current Amazon.com box art. Eurogamer say that it's "...almost precisely Wario Ware, but without quite so much wit or charm" - but I'm still interested.


In my recent E3 round-up, I pointed out the two varieties of Buzz games finally coming to the States later this year, but as you can see, the UK already has four of them shelved very prominently in this GAME store. Actually, as the Wikipedia page explains, there's six been released already, and they're encompassing both quiz games (for the adults) and party games (for the kids). Awesome stuff, SCEE.


Nothing too out of the ordinary here, but for Magweasel fans and those wondering what game mags look like in the UK, they're still shelved prominently in many game stores, they're mainly distributed news-stand style (as opposed to the States, where more are done via often cheap subscriptions), and they've got ridiculous amounts of packed-in freebies up the wazoo. Of course, the economics are better if you can charge UKP10 ($20) for a special issue, like Edge recently did for their '100 Best Games' - but then, you have to compete with 8 zillion other puffed-up tree extracts which sell marginally decreasing amounts.


A, just a quick word on this Sega soccer sim, 'Let's Make A Soccer Team', which I think is cute because it's clearly never coming out in the States, and the title is, I believe, a literal-ish translation of the longstanding Japanese game's name. Of course, sports sims are much more popular in general in Europe, and especially soccer sims, thanks to Championship Manager, but they don't seem to have adapted too well to the rise of the console generation - diminishing returns, perhaps?


The absolute piece de resistance of the trip, I snapped this picture in Helsinki, where eating reindeer is common, it's awfully expensive for American travelers (damn you, dollar!), and a good time was had by all. This is Singstar Legendat, the Finnish-specific version of Singstar Legends, and the MobyGames profile for the game notes handily: "In Finland, this Singstar game has a different tracklisting than the regular one and half of the songs are Finnish ones, which have international hits amongst them as well, such as HIM, Rasmus and Lordi." Dude, Lordi - I even found Lordi vanilla cola on our Finnish jaunt, so you know they're 'big'. And hereby ends our European lesson.

July 26, 2007

When Gaming Headlines Go Bad - Reuters Edition

- Was flicking through Google News this morning, as many fellow journos do, I'm sure, and I saw a really interesting headline - a Reuters article saying 'Microsoft cuts Xbox 360 price to $179 in US' - look, here's a screenshot if you don't believe me.

Anyhow, as you may know, the price cut was actually for the Xbox 360's add-on HD-DVD player - and with those five free movies, too, it's actually kinda tempting. But anyhow, I just thought it was interesting that in a rush to put something up, even the mighty Reuters can goof and get the headline majorly wrong.

More interestingly, in the days of RSS, it's somewhat difficult to remove the erroneous headline from Google News, even if you can change it on your own site. (Does someone different write the headline to the actual story for some of these news agency pieces? Seem to remember something odd along those lines.)

Anyhow, the original article that the headline links to has actually been removed altogether, except for a headline that prominently notes 'CORRECTED' next to it. But there's a new article posted which fixes the headline to the somewhat more correct: 'Microsoft cuts Xbox DVD player to $179'. Hurray! But imagine if the X360 really had gone down to $179? Blimey. [Pic courtesy Reuters.]

The Aberrant Gamer: 'Sympathy for the Devil'

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media. NOTE: This week's column analyzes a game's plot from beginning to end; be advised it contains spoilers for those who've never played it.]

After last week’s look at symbolism in Silent Hill 2, a lot of feedback asked AG to look similarly at other Silent Hill games, and the most popular request was AG’s take on Silent Hill 4. It’s my pleasure to oblige— please keep the requests coming!

Silent Hill 4: The Room is generally considered the least popular of the series among fans. Let’s consider why this should (and shouldn’t) be the case—and, of course, we’ll visit all the deliciously twisted elements of aberrant psychology that make the Silent Hill series so compelling.

The town of Silent Hill is almost a character in and of itself in each game in the series. It advances to enshroud each protagonist—always an individual on the point of emotional crisis—in a sort of Biblical purgatory, a transient, flexible reality that calls them to account for past sins. And yet, throughout the course of the series it becomes evident that the town is more than a mirror for others; it’s got its own native history, the dark tale of a morbid cult whose disciples abused children, performed occult rituals, and disregarded the fabric of reality. We learn a little more about the over-arching story of the mysterious town in each game, and perhaps no greater quantity of history is revealed in any previous game than in Silent Hill 4.

That can only be a good thing, right?

The use of location as its own living, breathing entity is one of the series’ biggest charms, to be sure. But Silent Hill 4 introduces a new living location—the titular room, Apartment 302, belonging to one Henry Townshend, chained from the inside and from which he cannot escape, even through the windows. Though apartments feature prominently in the previous Silent Hill games, the game’s primary setting is instead the town of South Ashfield. Henry has, however, visited Silent Hill before, as is demonstrated by some rather artistic photos he’s taken and hung on his wall.

One identifying factor of Silent Hill is that it doesn’t seem that one can ever merely visit that place. Those who stumble into it by accident are often compelled back—as experienced by Harry, James, and Heather from the previous three games—when it’s time to account for the past or to play their role in the disrupted reality created by Silent Hill’s cult. The town also demonstrates that its reach extends beyond its own bounds; the summons of Limbo reached James via Mary’s ghostly letter, while in Heather’s experience the depersonalization and disruption of Silent Hill came initially to her own stomping grounds, as if it had followed her from her first experiences there.

-This makes the sight of the Silent Hill photos, and the revelation at the opening of Silent Hill 4 that Henry Townshend has visited the fatal site especially chilling. In fact, the presence of the images in the protagonist’s home (by proxy, the player’s “home”) feels like an invasion of ghosts, a rather delicious portent of future danger.

The exploration of that room is the player’s first act in the life of Henry Townshend; armed only with the knowledge that it’s his room and he can’t get out, the peaceable environment feels strangely surreal. We search the room for clues to Henry’s identity—what is his dark secret, what’s his hidden sin? But we find precious few.

One weakness in Silent Hill 4 is that Henry isn’t really the story’s protagonist; he acts as the vehicle for another sinner’s account, that of the murderer Walter Sullivan. And the “protagonist” of the story is not the infamous town of Silent Hill, but Henry’s own Room 302, once the childhood home of Sullivan and now, in his demented mind, the avatar of his estranged mother. As the unfortunate inhabitant of Room 302, Henry is almost an innocent bystander, a voiceless observer to the horror that unfolds.

This is not in and of itself such a bad device, although the purgatory-allegory feel of the previous games make it reasonable for us to expect we’ll get to trace the mysteries of another new protagonist’s madness, and somewhat disappointing for us not to. In fact, the use of the room—one’s own home, and initially one’s only safe refuge as the inexplicable horror begins steadily encroaching—is a stroke of brilliance. It’s always frightening to see Silent Hill transform, to trace the parallels between something that was tolerable by light and horrific when the dread sets in; Silent Hill 3 accomplishes this particularly well, as there are several stages of transition therein and some are deliciously severe. But to see the same gradual toxicity beginning to overwhelm our own home, to see that the horrors on the other side of the quietly moaning bathroom hole that Henry uses to travel between the worlds can follow him inside.

The disembodied ghouls that pull themselves through the walls of Henry’s bedroom, or the grim and fetid relics that hide and threaten in the corners of the living room make the sense of invasion particularly acute. Silent Hill features some theme of rather disruptive pure violation in each game—the robbery of Harry Mason’s daughter from him, the abuse of Alessa, the rape themes of Silent Hill 2, the impregnation of an unaware Heather, for example, and this stealing of your safe place by the fingers of Hell is one of the most arresting experiences in survival horror.

Similarly, in the previous Silent Hill games, the protagonist is also a violator—James’ prior bad acts, or Heather’s rage and vengefulness, for example. Here, Silent Hill 4 stays delightfully on-point. Trapped in the Room, Henry’s only connection to the world outside are the glimpses he can get of others’ business through his back windows, or in a rather pleasing turn of voyeurism, of his pretty neighbor Eileen’s bedroom through a hole in his wall.

Henry always seems vaguely disoriented, dazed. He’s locked in his room for days before the proper story begins, and treats it as a minor, if perplexing inconvenience. When he begins being haunted by the gruesome visions of murders that we later learn are part of Walter’s planned “21 Sacraments” ritual aimed at resurrecting his mother through the Room, it’s rather easy to believe that it’s Henry obliviously committing these acts—shy, unassuming, and trapped in unreality by day, a vicious killer by night.

It’s a disappointment to learn that, uncharacteristic for the game’s usual format, Henry’s a largely innocent party—as if we as players are intended to invest in a guy who essentially moved into the wrong apartment at the wrong time. The potential was there, and the shift of focus away from Silent Hill’s stable core—making the player an accuser rather than an accused, an executioner instead of the condemned—just doesn’t work.

-It should be noticed that in its pure horror elements, though, Silent Hill 4 excels, perhaps in areas where the other Silent Hill games sometimes felt irrelevant or disjointed. The cursed ghosts of Walter’s victims who dangle like corpses in the air, bearing the scars of their execution, are enormously frightening, as is the fact that they can’t really be defeated—on top of that, one must get quite near them to immobilize them. The locations are vividly gory, as is the subtle and chronic unraveling of Eileen into a mad juvenile, whimpering into the dark as the numbers that spell her end are scrawled into the flesh of her back. Of particular note is the way that the game’s puzzles were always quite directly connected to its story and action, something that wasn’t always the case in earlier games. While the palette of symbolism in previous Silent Hill games was usually tied, even if abstractly, to the protagonist’s hidden journey (like James being asked to select the innocent from a group of criminals sentenced to hang), the fact that Silent Hill 4’s puzzle imagery always directly correlates to the situation adds a certain nerve-wracking immediacy—even if it comes at the expense of the suspended-reality surrealism that characterizes the previous games more faithfully.

And the puzzles and symbols of Silent Hill 4 ring the knell of Walter’s truths, not Henry’s—if Silent Hill’s relegation to weakest in the series had to be decided by one element, that would have to be it.

Is the thing we enjoy most about the Silent Hill games, then, the chance to be sinners? Is it the accounting for crimes that inspires loyalty to this series, or is it the committing of them? Or is it our sympathy for the devil, our empathy for the traumatized and damned?

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Destructoid, Paste, Gamasutra and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]

OXM Digital To Vault Onto Xbox Live

- So, we at GSW just got delivered the September 2007 issue of Future's Official Xbox Magazine, and sure, there's a Beautiful Katamari demo on the cover-disc, but the big, major, extremely significant news is in Francesca Reyes' Letter From The Editor for the month.

Remember when our own Kevin Gifford suggested that Nintendo Power get its own Wii Channel? Well, that hasn't happened for the Wii, but Reyes reveals something rather similar for the Xbox 360: "Sometime late this month (July) we're kicking off a project on Xbox Live Marketplace called OXM Digital... Think of it as a digital digest of our mag, but with lots of exclusive interactive content, including gamer pics, themes, videos, galleries... stuff we can't do in print."

But there's more, and I suspect this bit will be the most interesting and controversial element: "And yes, OXM Digital also sports exclusive demos. Yes, demos." Reyes goes on: "Its cost? A pithy 200 Microsoft Points ($2.50)." There's lots more info about it from Senior Editor Dan Amrich in an Xbox.com forum post (scroll down), and he explains of the concept that there will be exclusive demos alongside the videos, themes, gamer pictures, etc:

"If you're a disc person, you get your disc as you always have, and the demo in question will be on there. If you are a Marketplace person, you get your download. It's whichever version works better for you, but you don't have to miss out when we get exclusive demos like Katamari Damacy or Eternal Sonata or whatever. (Corporate hat on: I cannot confirm any specific demos that will appear in OXM Digital at this time. OXMD #1 is close to release but not there yet.)"

[In the mag, Reyes goes on to explain what the OXM Digital deal means for print subscribers: "But as a reader of OXM, you're already paying money for the magazine and the disc, right? Well fear not: You'll still receive all those demos we run on OXM Digital on the disc. So if you're not on Live or choose not to use your MS Points on OXM Digital (though the suits upstairs will probably kill me for saying that) we'll still take care of you with the OXM disc."]

So what of this? I quite like the idea of having more 'exclusive' gamer pictures, etc - I've been using the Beautiful Katamari one that I unlocked off a previous OXM disc for a little while now. And compiling Future's professionally done videos, themes, and screenshot galleries for a not gigantic fee all seems reasonably sensible.

But I'm pretty sure the concept of exclusive retail game demos which even Xbox Live Gold members have to pay for - despite the fact that they're online somewhere - is going to cause a fair bit of ruckus. Still, it depends - if they were demos of titles that you wouldn't see in the U.S. otherwise (which OXM has done before with the Zegapain games) - or maybe even XNA titles (I seem to remember Sony did a similar limited-distribution thing with Yaroze games on discs in the past) then it might be more palatable - just hypothesizing here, though!

[UPDATE: The inevitable NeoGAF thread about this is actually rather positive, and Ryan from OXM pops in as well, noting: "Anyway, glad to hear most of you guys are optimistic about this. Yes, we'll have exclusive demos attached to OXMD (whether they or timed or not will be sorted out on a case-by-case basis, but odds are they'll be timed exclusives just as they've been on the OXM disc), but we're actually pretty excited about the "magazine" content as well. It's got embedded HD video on every page (in HD), themes and gamer pics for download, etc."

He adds: "In fact, my favorite part of issue #1 is the video version of our July issue's Gears of War "Epic Journey" feature, where we accompanied and filmed the Nightmare Armor Studios guys as they drove to Epic to surprise Mark Rein, CliffyB, and co. with the first replica Gears armor. If/when you download it after it goes up, that feature will be the kind of thing we'll be aiming for on a regular basis."]

July 25, 2007

GameSetNetwork: Mechner's The Prince Of Los Angeles

- Oop, this week has been hectic and I'm missing all kinds of chances to link other good stuff on Gamasutra, and Worlds In Motion, and Games On Deck, and all the other CMP Game Group sites, but here's one I wanted to do quickly - the interview with Prince Of Persia creator Jordan Mechner that we ran today on Gamasutra.

Mechner is quite fully immersed in Hollywood now, working on a Prince Of Persia movie with Jerry Bruckheimer, and he has some really interesting views on writing: "I think writing is really more of a collaborative effort, too, than what people get credit for, especially in Hollywood. The bigger question is: what is the story? What's the world of the movie, or the game? The writer's most important job -- more important than writing and choosing words and scene description -- is to provide the vision of what the thing is. It's a rare project in video games where the writer is the person who provides that vision of what this game is: why is this going to be fun to play? What's the player's experience going to be? What's the universe?"

He adds: "I think on games, the writer's role on a particular project can really vary from being almost like the old silent film writers. In silent films, they thought the writer's job was to write the words that go on the title cards. The job of actually deciding what happens in the movie was not done by the writer. It was done by the director, or the actors." So what - game writers are the Keystone Kops?

Indigo Prophecy - Where Gameplay Meets Story

- Those wacky folks at Grand Text Auto have been discussing the narrative in Indigo Prophecy, talking rather cogently about "...the relationship between gameplay and story" - there's also a second post with even more considered discussion and feedback on narrative.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin talks about David Cage's ideas in creating the intriguingly cult title: "Cage’s goals might be considered a less-risky version of the “interactive drama” vision that guides Façade: the gameplay can change the story in significant ways, but the system ensures the story retains an essential shape and pacing. In other words, the story becomes playable, rather than something that happens between moments of play."

And the end of the second post, he suggests: "The designers may want to create a moody, mysterious experience; a chaotic, free-for-all experience; an open, exploratory experience; or a tense, action-packed experience. In any case, what the game makes playable should be the elements that contribute to such an experience. The opening of Indigo Prophecy was largely like this. I await the story-focused game that continues as strongly as IP started." Thoughts?

Alex Handy Sez: 'Whither The Game Beta?'

- [The fifth in a ragged series of 'Alex Handy Sez' missives, in which the former Game Developer editor and current Gamasutra contributor riffs on something or other, focuses on the evolution of Beta versions of video games.]

For game collectors, the skies are only getting brighter. But for us journalists and some lucky collectors, there is a potentially collectible item that poses us with a quandary: What of the betas?

Let me lay the ground work here. The NES collectible market is exploding. The Atari market already proved that prototype cartridges and unreleased games are the biggest bread winners for hardcore collectors such as Frank and myself. This is understandable, as unreleased games are only around in small quantities. Smaller quantity, higher demand. Higher demand, higher prices.

For the games industry of the 70's and 80's, prototypes came in the form of big cabinets with no marquees, bare circuit boards with handwritten notes, and blank cartridges with crude nametags. Therefore, it's easy ascertain the veracity of a proposed historical artifact. Sure, I could go down to the ACCRC and pull out some old circuit-board and write "Radarscope" on it, then pawn it off on an idiot on eBay. But if any of these items comes to Sotheby's in 2084, a historian trained in the ways of Electronics could easily tell if the pin-outs were properly aligned for the equipment of the day, or if the chips are all correct, or if the cartridge has the right handwriting on it.

Point is, fakes are easier to spot in the the prototype and beta market of the early videogame period. And I have yet to see anyone offering up floppies and claiming they contain beta code for Super Mario Brothers. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Although, as Lost Levels points out, there are certainly bootleg NES carts semi-masquerading as Betas nowadays, boo!]

But in the 90's, we begin to get into a tricky spot for the beta/prototype market. With the advent of the laser-read-disc systems, we're seeing 0-barrier-to-entry fraud potential. Instead of having to construct a crude NES game from assembly then loading it onto dummy hardware, Playstation fraudsters could easily burn something onto a blank CD, then scrawl "jumpingflash release candidate 1" on it.

Fraud, however, is not my key bugaboo for the post cartridge beta/prototype/unreleased market. It is the overall effect that such potential illegitimacy has on the market for beta software as collectible. Uncertainty aside, we're now in an era when the collectability of pre-release software rapidly descends to zero due to the artifact being basically nothing but bits.

I bring all of this up because I have, in my possession, some juicy betas of years past. Working at games magazines means you'll get a hold of preview builds. Sometimes the companies want them back. Sometimes they don't. You can't sell them on eBay before, during, or immediately after the game comes on sale, as that is illegal, and most companies claim ownership of the discs in perpetuity. So you hold onto them, thinking that some day, it will be something similar to an animation cell, or a prop from a famous movie.

So what happens in the Xbox Live era? When all these systems are offering games up as a subscription service, like GameTap, what then? Are betas done for? Will anyone burn this stuff to discs any more?

And this says nothing about the actual market for the hardware on which games were built. Many years ago, working at the ACCRC (A computer recycling Center), I had the misfortune of condemning an SGI workstation to death. This workstation had come in from Electronic Arts, where, I was told, it had been used to do some of the art work for the Road Rash series. Now, that computer has been recycled. Good for the environment. But what would it have been worth at auction in 50 years?

What does the future collectible market hold for these items? Was the Dreamcast the last collectable Beta-viable platform? Is the physical entity the collectable, or is the code a part of it? What about the hardware? If so, then is there any point to archiving historic game code, or historic machines? And, my god, man! Where would we put it all!?

July 24, 2007

America's Army, The... Arcade Machine?

- Arcade Renaissance has passed along the interesting news that U.S. Government-sponsored shooter America's Army is now getting an arcade version, as part of a partnership with arcade game publisher Global VR.

According to the official press release: "Working hand-in-hand with U.S. Army Subject Matter Experts and with the full cooperation of units of the U.S. Army, the coin-operated AMERICA'S ARMY is a realistic and engaging game centered on exciting training exercises, and includes a significant amount of authentic Army videos and other information designed to immerse the player in the Army culture."

Looks like the Unreal Engine-utilizing game is probably an enhanced/tweaked lightgun-using version of the PC title, and the game's producer Mike Kruse comments: “AMERICA'S ARMY is an arcade style training game based on actual Army training exercises designed to challenge Soldiers to hone their skills. Players are rewarded for teamwork, proper use of the Rules of Engagement, accuracy, and target identification... Being a veteran myself, I can honestly report that AMERICA'S ARMY is a highly authentic depiction of Army training exercises and the Army's unique organizational culture…down to the drill sergeant who is constantly by your side to bring out the best performance from each player.” SIR YES SIR!

De La Pena Exposes Those Pesky Code Monkeys

- Over at the Kevin Smith-funded pop culture site Quick Stop Entertainment, I spotted a fun interview with Adam De La Pena discussing his G4 animated series Code Monkeys, as previously discussed on GSW.

Actually, that last GameSetWatch post even provoked a comment from Schadenfreude Interactive's Karsden, who insisted: "Note to Hollywood: We at Schadenfreude Interactive would like to get our own television show. I would like to be played by Rutger Hauer, although he is perhaps a little old." Which is possibly funnier than the interview, but not to derail things too badly...

Anyhow, I haven't watched Code Monkeys, and the Gamasutra piece on it saw our own Jane Pinckard highly not impressed with the promotion blurb, but De La Pena does at least seem like a game geek in the piece, which is endearing:

"Dave Jaffe couldn’t have been nicer. Dave literally said, “Oh, I think I have time on Saturday…I don’t know if I can do it Saturday…” The last e-mail he sent me was, “I think I’ll be in town on Saturday.” I was just working on Saturday with my friend and he just shows up and says, “Want to record now?” Uh, yeah, great, thanks for coming…Steve Wozniak was relatively easy, the Red Vs. Blue guys…they’ve been great. I mean, we’re going to have a lot of other guest stars but those are the real guest stars for us. We’re more about going after the video game designers than we are going after Molly Ringwald." Can anyone report on the quality of the show?

@Play: 'A Journey to Table Mountain, Part 1'

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

Last time, we showed some scenes from the SNES Torneko Mysterious Dungeon. The screenshots came from multiple games, but I think they illustrated what the game is like nicely. This time we're going to do the same thing with Shiren the Wanderer, the second Mysterious Dungeon game, and still a high point of the series. But this isn't a pieced-together narrative from multiple games. Everything you are about to see happened in one game, and a long one at that. Think of it as being like Let's Play, but with more death!

Actually, as an experiment I started a new file and started playing from scratch to see how far I could get. I didn't have the benefit of upgraded towns, or the "helpers" you can eventually earn. I didn't have the benefit of Staves of Bufoo, an extremely useful item that not only instakills arbitrary foes but turns it into meat you can gain special powers from. And most importantly, I didn't have the use of the equipment from my cleared game; when you win, you get to keep the things you won with, making the next game much easier if you choose to use them.

For this game, I started over from turn one. I nipped by the cafe in the starting town to pick up my free Big Rice Ball, then went and did the first Fei's Problem (more on those in a later column) and got a very useful Todo Shield +2. Then I started the real game.

For the record, this isn't the first time I've tried doing something like this. Over a decade ago, playing around with the computer game Nethack, I decided to make a website devoted to the game that, using screenshots (laboriously acquired using the Alt-Print Screen key and Microsoft Paint) and Microsoft Publisher (for compositing the images together), would be kind of a visual journey through the Dungeons of Doom.

The result was, I won. It was my first victory at Nethack, too.

While I didn't win this game of Shiren the Wanderer, I did get quite far. The very act of recording one's progress through a game is apt to make one a much more careful player, and thus enable better play than usual.

Anyway, on to the game....


Torneko/Taloon is not actually very hard, the deaths I had last time notwithstanding. But Shiren now, it can be quite a challenge.

It's also a much more interesting game. While both games take inspiration, of course, from Rogue, Shiren also steals a few features from Nethack. Its got sealed rooms like Nethack's vaults, it's got in-dungeon shops that work a lot like Nethack's (down to calling guards after you if you're caught stealing), it's got an analogue for Nethack's pets in the form of the helper characters you can acquire, it has Scrolls of Genocide. It even has Blank Scrolls that you can write (and Genocide is an excellent choice in writing one).

In general, good items are better in Shiren than Torneko/Taloon, and there are a lot more of them, but the monsters and traps are likewise much more challenging and numerous. Shiren also has special levels, like occasional big rooms and set challenges, and other simularities. It is also the first Mysterious Dungeon game to have a boss, the beginning of the series' slide into the increasing RPG normality that dilutes later installments of the series, although this one at least can be taken care of instantly by a suitably ingenious player.


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Here we are at level one. Like in Torneko, you don't begin with anything you didn't obtain in the starter town. Until you complete the main quest, you can get one free Big Rice Ball by talking to the chef in the tavern, and one free miscellaneous object by completing one of Fei's Problems. This time, the item turned out to be a Todo Shield +2, pretty good as far as defense goes, and provides perfect defense against thieves. This is one of the better objects in the game, and getting this is just about the only advantage to starting with an empty file, for it seems that the first Fei's Problem always gives this as the prize.


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The game looks very similar to Torneko on the face of it. There's the same overlay map, the same colored dots, and the same status bar at the top of the screen. The only major difference on the face of it is the graphics. Shiren contains outdoor levels that are sometimes strikingly beautiful. At the very least they mix up the levels a lot more than Torneko's rectangular rooms.


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Found a Katana! Not a bad weapon, although there certainly are better. Unfortunately, the best weapons are named ambiguously to English speakers. In classic roguelikes you can assume that a "two-handed sword" is going to be a very strong weapon, but here you have to guess at how strong a Dokanuki is supposed to be.


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An Identify Scroll, eh? Well I found a bracer some time back (this game's version of rings), let's see what it is....


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Oh my.

Some time back, when I wrote about Pokemon Mystery Dungeon (a distant descendent of this very game), I believe I noted there was an item that told you the location of all monsters and items on the level all the time, and that it was absurdly useful. Well, it is, and it's almost as useful in Shiren the Wanderer, enough that by finding one this early, my chances of winning have gone up considerably.

In Rogue, this ability is only available as an instant effect or as a short-term ability. Nethack characters can only get a limited version of this unless they are blind or are wearing an amulet of ESP. So by including a ring-type item that provides this ability permanently, this is one way that Shiren is easier than those games.

Why is this ability so useful? You'll find out next time, but for now note that this is why the map in all the screenshots to come have all the item and monster locations marked.


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Gamara is watching to see what happens. In both Torneko and Shiren, this is what the game says when a thief monster fails its steal check. And because I'm wearing a Todo Shield, they will always say this.

It is generally the case in roguelikes that thief monsters leave good loot, and Shiren is not an exception. The trade-off is that Todo Shields are relatively weak, but mine's +2 enchantment makes up even for this.


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Life Herbs increase your maximum HP by 5.

Roguelikes that trace their lineage through Hack generally retain the special ability of the healing potions in Rogue. If you drink one when you are at full hit points, you gain maximum HP. Shiren does this too, but it also contains an item that specifically increases maximum hit points.

Note that neither Torneko nor Shiren scramble herb or scroll identifications in the basic game, so finding a Life Scroll is essentially finding five free hit points lying on the dungeon floor. There is no danger from finding a bad item because they're all known at the start. The 99-level super dungeon after the main game, Fei's Final Problem, does scramble them.


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Sorry for the digression, but... look at those graphics! Hard to believe this is randomly generated, isn't it? We've come a long way from Torneko's plain stone rectangles! Not that there aren't a lot of those in Shiren the Wanderer as well, but for now let's enjoy the sights while we can.


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I'm in the second town, located after level 4, and in the guaranteed shop there. Unlike towns in Nethack or ADOM, Shiren's towns are perfectly safe unless the player does something to piss someone off.

Let's take a look at this shop for a second. There's a single door, a shopkeeper standing by it, a bunch of things on the floor.... Yep, if this isn't enough to convince you that the Shiren guys played a lot of Nethack then you're a lost cause. Only Nethack, and games directly inspired by Nethack, do shops this way.

There are a lot of advantages to doing this. To buy or sell something, one just picks it up or drops it, then talks to the shopkeeper. It makes theft not the business of a die roll but a logic puzzle: how do I get the stuff out the door when the shopkeeper blocks the way when I pick something up, and how do I survive the guards that appear when I make it out?

There's also a couple of other people in this shop. The guy to Shiren's right is one of the helper characters who may join in the journey if their requirements are met. This is my first play on this file and it takes several games to finish his storyline, so he won't be coming along this time. (I don't like him anyway.)


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Another thing some towns have is a smithy who'll improve your weapon by one plus for a fee.

One possible strategy for building a nice weapon is to play through to the third town, having the weapon improved as the two smithies to be found along the way, then use whatever means can be found to have the weapon sent back to the warehouse in the first town, where the player can pick it up at the start of his next game. He can then take it through again and get it improved two more levels, and repeat.

In practice this is risky however, since there are some tough levels in the early game, and there's always the chance a means of sending the weapon back won't be found in time.


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FIELD RAIDER

It would be wrong to assume Shiren is just a copy of Nethack; there are plenty of cool new things to amaze and confound players! Field Raiders are one such thing. A Field Raider, when he's not concentrating on beating you to a pulp, has a second mission in life: to roam the dungeon finding all items and turning them into weeds.

What is a weed good for? Not much! If you eat one it's got pitiful worth as food, and that's it. It's best to not carelessly drop things on levels Field Raiders appear on! As time passes on the level Field Raiders will eventually get to all the treasure, so it's a good idea to loot these levels quickly... just one reason that Far-sight Bracer will come in handy.


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KIMEN-MUSHA and GHOST MUSHA

Another of the monsters that appears around this part of the game are the samurai-like Kimen-Musha. As far as monsters go they're fairly uninteresting, right up to the moment they're killed, for three turns later they reappear, coming back to life as Ghost Musha, and then the trouble begins.

First, I must explain about one of Shiren the Wanderer's coolest, and deadliest, features. Nearly all the monster types exist, not as individual species, but as ranks in a monster hierarchy. Torneko had monsters that could gain experience levels, but this happened but rarely. In Shiren the Wanderer, a monster that gains a level doesn't become numerically stronger, it promotes into a monster of the next higher rank.

Nethack has something like this; a monster that drinks a potion of Gain Level can promote to another form (so a hill orc can become an orc captain), but that's relatively uncommon. In Shiren, any time a monster kills anything, it promotes. For the most part monsters are trying to kill you, not each other, and when you die it doesn't matter what happens next. But sometimes monsters kill each other by accident, or kill one of your allies, and for most species even one promotion's difference is enough to produce a deadly opponent.

There are other ways for monsters to promote too, and that's where Ghost Musha come in. They don't attack the player, but run and find other monsters. When found, they "possess" it, which in game terms means the monster promotes. The only way to prevent this to exit the level or kill the ghost first. Ghost Musha only have four hit points, but they constantly try to flee, weapon do only hit for one point of damage, and they frequently teleport before they can be killed.


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It's a pot! Many items in Shiren have analogues from Rogue and Nethack, but pots are the game's great innovation. Nothing like pots exists in anything other than the Mysterious Dungeon games, and other roguelikes could do well to copy them for a change.

Pots are a kind of random container. Like herbs, scrolls and bracers, there are lots of kinds of pots, and each has some effect upon the items put into it. For example, the Strengthening Pot increases the plus of equipment placed inside. But there are also bad pots; the Bottomless Pot destroys items put into it. Like the other kinds of items, the uses of pots can be figured out through deduction or the use of an Identify Scroll.

Most pots store items inside, but don't allow you to remove them easily. To get the contents, Shiren must throw the pot against a wall, causing it to shatter and spill its contents onto the dungeon floor, and all pots have limited uses.

There are also a few special types. Holding Pots have no special effect, but you can put stuff in and take stuff out freely, and so are a way around the 20 space inventory limit. Back Pots don't hold items, but if "pushed," heal the player.


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The first step towards figuring out a pot's use is to look in. Pots never come with items hidden inside, but some pots say "Back" if you peer into them, which could mean it's a super-nice Back pot. This one says Nothing's Inside, so I know it's not that kind.


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Hmm, a Ghost Musha got to another of his Musha friends and promoted it into a Hannya-Musha. Not only are they much more fearsome than Kimen-Musha, but if it gets promoted again it'll make a Shogun, which could easily wipe me out.


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Fortunately I have a Dragon Herb, this game's version of Torneko's Blaze Herbs, to take care of it quickly. The defeated opponent is still a Musha though, so it'll leave another ghost. Time to head for the next level perhaps....


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I found another kind of pot, and looking inside this one shows it to contain Backs. If it's a Back Pot I'm in luck, but if it really is one of those I don't want to waste any of its healings. Let's save it for later.


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PEETAN

A Ghost Musha on this level found a Peetan, turning it into a Fleeing Peetan....


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...and then another found it, promoting it into a Flying Peetan. This is actually probably the best monster in the area the ghosts could have possessed. Peetans are pacifistic and never attack the player, choosing instead to run away. They're good at running, for they are double-speed monsters, but if I do manage to slay one it's not bad experience, and they always leave food behind.


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MINION OF DEATH

That egg-like thing in the screenshot is a Peetan by the way, but of more interest is the cloaked, scythe-wielding monster in front of it, a Minion of Death.

These undead beasties pack a mean punch for this phase of the game, and they move at double-speed. They don't fight at double-speed, which is good, but their movement rate means I can't just flee from it; it'll use its free move to catch up to me, then strike immediately. Escaping one require magical means, so it's usually best to kill it if possible. If one gets promoted via Ghost Musha, the resulting monster gets two moves and attacks, so I should slay it before that can happen.


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Summit Town is the third town of the game out of five, and is home to the most involved side quests, but we're not here for the tour.


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Summit Town doesn't get a shop until one of its side quests has been completed, which won't be for many games, but it does have a smithy.


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It also has a warehouse, a place where items left remain between trips. I've got a good amount of junk lying around my pocket, so I might as well drop some of it off to pave the way for later runs. It is the nature of roguelikes that items in abundance one game will be hard to come by the next, so this way I can help to dull the sharp edges of the random number generator.


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SKELETON MAGE

Back in the dungeon, here is one of the more interesting enemies to be found in the game. Skeleton Mages come with a magical ranged attack. The effect is random, usually bad, but one of the possible results speeds the player up for a fair number of turns. It's nothing that can be relied upon, but it is not unknown for a dire situation to suddenly turn survivable because of one of those capricious zaps.


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Here's one of those side quests I've mentioned about. Sometimes a little girl shows up in these levels asking to be taken back to her family. If the player agrees she becomes an ally, which is not all that different from Nethack's pets, but this one doesn't attack enemies. She's stronger than she looks, but not really all that survivable. While the monsters frequently won't attack her unless they have to to get to me, if they do attack and kill her they'll get promoted and probably have me for dessert. But it is nice to have what amounts to a mobile wall following me around.


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Ah, a Holding Pot! Good thing to, my pockets were getting a bit cramped.


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A Nagamaki... is this better than my +2 Katana? I think I remember that it is, but not tremendously so. I switch to it in a little bit.


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Why shopkeepers set up in the dungeon I don't know. They must have picked up that strategy from Mr. Asidonhopo's Money-Making Seminar. ("You will become rich within 40,000 turns or double your zorkmids back!")


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Dungeon shops are an important source of items, actually. Rare goods appear in them much more often than in the main dungeon, and sometimes they stock very nice things indeed, like this Battle Counter shield....


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...or, they might have mimic-like Ndubas. ("I'm not sure why Mr. Asidonhopo said I needed to have disguised monsters among my inventory, but he's the one with the fortune in gold pieces.")


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The pot he has in stock also contains backs! To my recollection, there are only two back-containing pots in the game, so one of them must be that potent source of healing, a Back Pot. It isn't very expensive either, so lucky for me!


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The Heaven Scroll is the game's analogue for Torneko's Bikill Scroll, and Rogue's scroll of enchant weapon. This one will go towards boosting my Nagamaki.


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Another Todo Shield. Given the rising crime rate in the dungeon I think the shopkeeper should be wearing this instead of selling it.


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Yes it's okay, let me pass!


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A blank scroll is one of Shiren the Wanderer's most prized finds. In Nethack you need a magic marker to write scrolls, here you just need the paper! Can you guess what this one's going to become?


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I knew you could. Actually you can write any eight letters onto the scroll, but only certain combinations will work. They are helpfully listed in the Info text for each scroll. By the way, dessgeega notes that the scribe function was one of the most troublesome things to implement for the patch authors, since it meant they had more work to do than just translate text strings....


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The "Todo" in the Todo Shield stands for Thieftodo, one of those annoying item stealers I mentioned before. Of course, with that shield they are unable to even touch me, and they become essentially free items if I can catch and kill them.


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This was a bit of a worrisome moment, a promoted Minion of Death a single space away could mean a rapid demise, but the girl is stronger than you'd think. She takes that 14 points of damage like a trooper. Remember: a level one Shiren only has 15 hit points.


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Sometimes a defeated Skeleton Mage leaves his staff behind, but they aren't really that useful since the same flaw that sometimes hastes Shiren will sometimes work in favor of your monstrous opponents.


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DARK OWL
These are fun opponents. They aren't difficult to kill, but as long as they're alive the room is dark. By the way, notice how I can see that Peetan in the corner, behind the message window? That's because of my Far-sight Bracer. It doesn't just affect the map, it also reveals enemies in dark areas if they're close enough to be on-screen.


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KID TANK
There were a few tough opponents earlier that I neglected to mention. In the big outdoor areas there were the annoying Monster Daikons who sometimes throw herbs that leave the player slowed, and Monster Nigiri Beasts who can turn your possessions into Rice Balls (sometimes an affliction it's good to have). And then there were the Bowyas, archers who can attack from a distance.

Funny thing about Bowyas. When they shoot, they pay no heed to monsters in the line of fire, and so they are by far the monsters most likely to get promoted. Noticing this, the developers gave them far more promotion ranks than any other monster in the game! Most monsters have three forms, but Bowyas have six or seven, each far more deadly than the last. The Kid Tank, pictured here in its natural habitat, is just the second.

Kid Tanks are double-movement monsters, but they still only get one attack, and they have no special vision ability, so the usual way to handle them is to retreat to a corridor where they can only fire when adjacent to you, so at least they can be hit back.

Promoted Kid Tanks quickly ascend the ladder to godhood. The next rank shoots cannonballs every other turn that inflict 20 points of splash damage, and the next rank above that can fire every turn. Monsters are not immune to the cannonball explosions, so promotion is rapid at that point unless measures are taken. The highest rank, Obstinate Tank, is among the deadliest monsters in the whole game, including those that are only generated in the secret super dungeon. But none of these forms is able to see more than one space in darkness, so if you can flee into a corridor escape just may be possible.


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PUMKOREPKIN
Another ghost monster, these guys move randomly sometimes, but that's made up for by their ability to pass through walls. If one is in a wall yet adjacent to you he can attack but you can't hit back!


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A Crisis Scroll is like Shiren's version of a Get Out Of Jail Free card. When you read it, you are completely healed and all adjacent monsters are put to sleep. They also fix many status problems in the process! They are the closest thing in the game to Nethack's universal panacea, the amulet of life saving.


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DEBUTA
This charming orc-like monster has only one special quality. He can throw rocks at the player from a distance, even if he's not in a straight line. The rocks don't hurt much, but the range is surprisingly large and they can wear you down if you don't get up to him and askS0173 him to stop with your sword.


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Ah, a Bigroom Scroll.
Remember what I said before, that Shiren contains the occasional Big Room level? They're not just random. You can make one by reading these items, the result being that all the walls on the level are destroyed. This can be great when cornered, but one should then immediately head for the exit, because with no corridors around to hide in Shiren will get overwhelmed fast.

I hear that, if one is used on a level containing a shop, the result is that the shopkeeper will run to the stairs so he can block them in case you pick up his stuff....


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HEALER RABBIT
Oh, how I hate these bunnies. By themselves they're pretty harmless, but if one finds a strong monster to fixate upon he can make it almost unbeatable, spending his turns on healing him. If one doesn't have a way to kill the rabbit or take out the dangerous monster in one turn it's best to flee.


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Maximum hit points isn't the only malleable statistic in Shiren the Wanderer. Expansion Seeds increase your stomach size by 10%! If you eat a Rice Ball while already full, you'll receive a more modest gullet increase.


That's it for part one. Next time we'll descend deeper and slay gazes, chickens and minotaurs, find out just why that Far-sight Bracer is so useful, and we'll see a sure-fire way to steal from shops. Won't that be fun....

And finally, this is the 25th installment of @Play. I've been going at this for a year now! I haven't quite run out of things to talk about either, we still have the Seven Day Roguelike project to cover, Shiren the Wanderer's "super dungeon" and the hilariously clever way to beat it, the "Fei's Problems" section of that game, probably a handful more Nethack and ADOM columns to go... and lest I forget, I still haven't touched upon the last major roguelike, Angband, nor taken hard looks at the forgotten roguelikes at the Roguelike Restoration Project.

I challenge any of you to say this much about first-person shooters... no wait, scratch that, I'd better not.

July 23, 2007

TIGSource Finds Indie Goodness In Slaps, Real Lives

- While I attempt to select pearls from swine across the entire gamut of gaming, Derek and his compadres at The Independent Gaming Source are still doing a formidable job for solely indie games, and there's a couple of new games they've pointed out that I'm particularly taken by.

Firstly, there's info on 'Rose And Camelia', a Japanese doujin title of some craziness - as pointed out: "What can I say about Rose and Camelia other than that it’s a girl-slapping game from the creators of La Mulana!... I love how insanely creepy and awesome your opponents get as you get further. The general theme / atmosphere of this one is spot on." Awesome.

Secondly, we have info on the decidedly different 'Real Lives', which is "...a “life simulator” that puts you in the shoes of someone, somewhere in the world. Who you are, where you’re born, and to who are based on real life statistics, as well as the random events that may happen to you." Derek adds: "The game, as simple as it is, is incredibly compelling, and very sobering. In my first game, I was quite fortunate, having been born in a middle class family in Slovakia. I died at age 61 of rheumatoid arthritis as a well-to-do police captain with three healthy daughters."

[Oh, and just to prove how buzzworthy indie gaming is getting - there's a Yahoo! article on indie games that was actually the lead story on the front page of Yahoo.com on Sunday - both tipsters and my wife spotted that one, so thanks to, uhh, both of them!]

Sirlin's Playing To Win, Reading For Free

- We've previously printed an extract from game designer David Sirlin's excellent (and just slightly surreal) self help/competitive gaming book 'Playing To Win' on Gamasutra, so it's great to see that he's now made the entire thing available for free, according to a post on his site.

Sirlin explains: "It might be a good idea to link to the Playing to Win Index in the beginner section of whatever gaming community you're a part of. I know how tiring it can be to say all that stuff over and over to new (or old!) players, which is why I wrote it down in the first place." And the psychological and motivational threads in the book are indeed very well expressed for those wanting to get very good at a particular game, sport, or part or life.

Still, as he also notes: "Yes, it's all free. If you find it helpful or interesting, I hope you'll either leave a donation and/or buy a physical copy of the book, too. Writing a book--even a short one--is hard and time-consuming. If you got any value out of it and you take that extra step to support my efforts we'll call it a fair trade and it will give me some encouragement to write another book." Will that one be about Playing To Lose? [Via tipster and IC both at once!]

Chronicle Books To Chronicle (!) Mega Man, Street Fighter

- Happened to be reading the Chronicle Books blog today, and noticed a new post discussing their planned collaboration with Capcom to do detail histories of the Street Fighter and Mega Man franchises in book form in Fall 2008 - neat!

These folks also put out the 'I Am 8-Bit' book, and as assistant editor Matt Robinson explains: "It just so happens that both the Mega Man and Street Fighter franchises celebrated their twentieth anniversaries in 2007, so we’re publishing a compact “complete history” of each in Fall 2008. From napkin-scrawled idea to production to million-selling success, both series’ histories will be told in extreme detail in original text and interviews with the developers, animators, and other industry folks. We’re going to pack in tons of art, too–early concept stuff as well as memorable character sprites."

He adds: "My favorite part may be the package itself, though–these are going to be paperbacks, but they’ll come in a [pictured] partial slipcase that looks like an original Nintendo cartridge sleeve. When I first saw the sample book concept pictured here, I felt like I was transported back to 1989!" Haha, pretty neat - though obviously a bit more relevant for Mega Man than for Street Fighter, which really started in the arcade. Still, I'm sure they will work that out - and it's good to see more book publishers getting excited about games.

July 22, 2007

Little Computer People - The EP, Not The Game!

- Nope, not the classic David Crane co-designed game that preceded The Sims - rather, it's The New Gamer checking out Anthony Rother's chiptune/electro EP called 'Little Computer People - The Remixes', and it's notable because of the retro computer visual content on the disc - which they've handily put up on YouTube.

As G.Turner notes of what's exciting: "It's definitely not the videos that come with the package, as they're slightly hokey (as you can see below – especially the Rother remix, although it's one of the better executed 'video remixes' I've seen). No, what I appreciate more than [this] is the Commodore 64-specific demo included on the disc."

Mm? "The demo is based on chiptune artisan Tero's contribution, the aptly named 'Tero's C64 Remix', and it serves mostly as a self-promotional piece for Rother's Psi49Net label, flashing the latest catalogue titles [YouTube link] and contact details to Tero's beat. And while the scaled and rotated pixel art that accompanies it is mildly pointless, it's still a much more imaginative effort than just slapping a few flyers and stickers into the CD case!"

[Oh, and this new 'Chiptunesday' effort by The New Gamer, which promises to "...take a look at a piece of music that's derived at least portions of its sound from video games" every Tuesday, has also covered the Game Boy-composed Klangstabil EP called 'Sprite Storage Format'. Neat.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Me And My Pamphlet

['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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In the picture above, you can see all 12 issues EGM published in 1994 (left) compared to the magazine's twelve 2006 issues (right; multi-cover variations omitted). You can just ignore that pizza box in the background, if you don't mind.

In pretty much every net discussion on game mags, the first thing someone always mentions is "EGM used to be 400 pages! Now it's a pamphlet!" I think it'd be useful to explain why, since the answer's a lot more complex than "mags aren't popular anymore. (In fact, EGM's circulation today is about double what it was when it produced its largest-size issues in 1994-95, to say nothing of Game Informer.)

One of the many problems facing game mags these days -- and, by extension, tech-oriented mags in general -- is advertising. Namely, not much of it. As a very general rule, magazines need advertising to survive far more than they need readership. Companies try to bolster the readership of their magazines (via cheap subscriptions, free bonuses, distribution to dentists' waiting rooms, and so forth) mainly so they can attract advertisers.

Having lots of readers is a good thing, of course, but when you factor in all the postage and printing costs (and, if you're an "official" magazine, licensing fees) on top of editors' salaries and all that, the $14.95 you're paying for a subscription probably isn't covering the actual cost of getting those 12 issues to your mailbox.

However, advertisers have become more and more aware over the past decade that there's way more audience on the net than off it. That's where their ad money's been going, at a consistently accelerating rate -- across all industries, online advertising is an industry that grosses over $17 billion a year these days. The result? Game magazines get fewer advertisements, which means they have to cut out pages from each issues, which means fewer pages of content.

Game mags in the US used to consistently average over 160 pages. Four years ago, that average fell to 120. Now? All the game-mag issues dated August 2007 are 100 pages except for Game Informer, which manages 112 thanks to some non-endemic advertising form Honda and Old Spice. (This, despite the fact that the price of many mags has gone up by a dollar even as they lost 20 pages.)

The problem's even worse with vanilla computer mags, which lack the dedicated, hardcore, and (most important) money-spending readership most game mags enjoy. That's partly why PC Magazine lost 38.8% of its ad pages between March '06 and March '07, one of several issues that prompted long-time EIC Jim Louderback to step down a few days back. If you're some crazy software or hardware startup, there's not much point in advertising in PC -- it's much easier to build up buzz online and capitalize on that instead of paying out X thousand dollars in the hope that someone doesn't flip right past you.

The other problem? Arguably it's the post office. They keep on raising rates! It's terrible! So magazine publishers respond by using lighter paper -- and lighter paper is smaller, thinner paper. I mentioned this last week, but EGM (among other mags) doesn't use anywhere near the quality of paper stock their 1994 issues featured, and that's a major reason why magazines seem thin nowadays -- even if EGM was 400 pages today, the mag would still be thinner than a 400-page issue from ten years ago.

That, in a nutshell, is why mags seem like pamphlets nowadays. It's also part of the reason why launching a new game mag right now seems like such a ludicrous idea. Umm... straining to end this column on a positive note... hmm, hmm, hmm...

[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.]

Kokoromi Gets Experimental, Canadian, Profiled

- Last year, we covered the Canadian collective called Kokoromi, which put on a neat experimental gamefest during the Montreal Game Summit last year - the games are viewable and mainly downloadable at their GAMMA page.

Anyhow, my esteemed CMP Game Group co-worker Jane Pinckard has pointed out, on her Game Girl Advance weblog, that Kokoromi is profiled in This Magazine this month - it's noted in the piece: "Interested participants are mostly people who work for the big developers but crave a more creative outlet. The group aims to help people develop their talents outside the nine-to-five world."

And, as Jane explains: "What I love about Kokoromi is that they explore the notion that games can be used to make art - that they are a medium for self-expression; and by that I don't mean projects like the excellent iam8bit, in which games are evoked in the service of more traditional visual arts; I mean that the gameplay itself is treated as a potential artform - that interactivity is key to the experience." Indeed - wonder if there's something coming up for Montreal this year? [UPDATE: Kokoromi's 'Fish' says in the comments: "gamma256 coming late November! details coming soon."]



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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