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November 25, 2006

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': The Lost Art of the Newsletter

['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.]

It's post-Thanksgiving in the US and I'm sure everyone's still feeling too sick to move, so I thought I'd spend this weekend with less text for you to read and more pictures for you to look at.

This week I want to talk about newsletters, a concept that's likely completely alien to people who began their game careers anytime after the SNES. During the classic era, and especially during the NES years, free newsletters were a common way for third-party software makers to build a mailing list and advertise directly to consumers. The Nintendo Fun Club News started out as a newsletter in 1986 before ballooning into Nintendo Power two years later, and Atari Age is one that still attracts big bucks whenever issues appear on eBay.

Lesser coveted are the NES-era company newsletters, of which there were approximately a billion. Nearly all the top NES licensees (and quite a few of the smaller ones) had some form of newsletter, ranging from low-budget to what amounted to mini-versions of Nintendo Power. Let's take a look at a few I have in the file cabinet...

[Click through for more.]


Acclaim's newsletter is an example of a mini-Nintendo Power. This issue covers pretty much everything Acclaim put out in 1989, including Kwirk, Knight Rider, and those dinky little LCD handheld games. There are screenshot-maps of Double Dragon II and profiles of super players like "Iron Mike Arkin" and "Jenn -- Mistress of the Games" and everything.


Taxan's is similar in style, but instead of being stapled together, it actually unfolds into a full poster packed with game info, screenshots, and articles. Particularly notable in this issue is "Notes from the Gamemaster," a behind-the-scenes look at game development. Who's the Gamemaster? None other than Nintendo and Microsoft game designer Ken Lobb, as it turns out -- it seems he got his start as a product manager for Taxan:

"My main job is to work on new product development. I work with the programmers to make games that I feel are the best. I also design game concepts. For example, I came up with the idea for Low G Man...Anyway, I got this job because I know a lot about games. I've been playing arcade and home games for ten years. I own just about every game system ever made, and just about all the games for each, and I've beaten them all!"

Ken Lobb vs. Lucas Barton in a Super Mario Bros. 3 shootout -- who would win?


Sunsoft Game Time News is probably best known for the Blaster Master comic it ran from 1989 to 1990, complete with a storyline that suggested Jason was fighting a "mutant Mafia" and appears to have been drawn by someone during study hall. Later issues, sadly, are far less counter-cultural, featuring editorials from CEO Joe Robbins and selling videotapes of people beating all the levels in Lemmings.


Here are two newsletters for the more cerebral among you -- first, FCI's Screen Play, basically a four-page strategy guide for The Bard's Tale complete with gred maps and the whole bit.


Even more brainy is ASCII News, which came out around the time the company was flogging Wizardry to no end in the US. This issue has two whole pages on Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, complete with a monster gallery and character profiles sent in by fans. Sheesh! Go outside, guys!

natsume1.jpg   natsume2.jpg

Finally, I thought I would share the two issues of Natsume's newsletter I own in their entirely, because they're just so darn endearing (and they're also a single page each). The first issue in December 1990 appears to have been done with geoPublisher on the Commodore 64, which I heartly approve of.

natsume3.jpg   natsume4.jpg

And moving ahead a couple years, we have the Office Cat talking about how awesome Pocky & Rocky is. Awww! I wish Natsume still put out a newsletter today!

[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.]

Medal Of Honor, From Renderware To Unreal Engine

- One of the more surprising stories I've written on Gamasutra over the previous few months was the news, purposefully released late on a Friday in August, that Electronic Arts was licensing Unreal Engine 3 for "several next-generation titles that are currently under development."

As I wrote at the time: "The brief announcement states that EA "employs a variety of engines, tools and technologies to best serve the needs of each game and development team", but raises interesting issues regarding the Criterion-authored Renderware engine, purchased by EA in 2004 alongside the Burnout developer, and its intended global EA rollout."

Immediately subsequent to that, analyst PJ McNealy put out a research note claiming that the new next-gen Medal Of Honor title, named Medal Of Honor: Airborne and in development at Electronic Arts Los Angeles, had switched to UE3, though EA apparently wasn't commenting on specific games at the time.

Well, preparing a news story for Gama earlier this week, I spotted that, on Gnomon Online's instructor page, Bil Leeman - [EDIT: VFX Animator, thanks commenter!], EA Los Angeles, is working on MoH: Airborne and is teaching... Unreal Editor 3. Aha! And actually, a little Googling later, it turns out that a late October GameSpot preview of the game confirms: "The team at EA LA is using a "heavily modified" version of Unreal Engine 3 to create Airborne."

Now, why is this a big deal? Well, in the February 2006 issue of Game Informer magazine, which had the big unveiling of MoH: Airborne, commented at the time (sorry for scan linkage): "This was our first glimpse of Medal Of Honor Airborne - a video combining running interactive game software and target footage exhibiting Renderware on the PlayStation 3."

So it definitely seems like (and please correct me if you know otherwise!) the Medal Of Honor next-gen team had to change engines midstream when Renderware didn't come up to scratch for developing a AAA-wannabe World War II FPS. Given that EA or Criterion doesn't really seem to have a flagship next-gen title demonstrating Renderware, it may be that the engine team is significantly behind UE3's technology curve - further cementing Unreal's position as leading next-gen game engine.

It's going be interesting, frankly, to see whether EA ever mentions the Renderware name in public again with regard to it being a core company strength - I'm betting not, even if elements of the engine end up getting used in some internal technology. Indeed, the recent EA press reelease touting their PS3 titles mentions the 'bleeding-edge Frostbite game engine' for Battlefield: Bad Company, but doesn't even reference Renderware for Criterion's Burnout 5, which is obviously using upgraded elements of that engine.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't a complete disaster overall for EA, but it shows the difficulty of implementing a company-wide game engine when your game genres are so diverse, and a lot of the tech used for current-gen is already heavily entwined within existing game engines. And for Medal Of Honor: Airborne (and possibly other games that were significantly in development with Renderware before being switched to UE3), it may be a big deal simply because it's horrendously tricky to change your entire technology base after you start core development.

As EA's John Buchanan commented at TGS 2005, when it was revealed that Electronic Arts Los Angeles was on 'the cutting edge' of the RenderWare implementation: "For the most part, the understanding is that we want to get ready to innovate and experiment, and in order to do that, we need to stop wasting time by re-inventing a rendering or animation engine." Well, woops - but in some ways the switching of Medal Of Honor to UE3 can be seen as vindication of that statement - just not using an engine that's actually owned by EA. Ouch.

Minna No... Curling?

- Over at knowledgable import store NCSX, they have a write-up of a pretty funny Japanese DS title - the newly released Minna No Curling, which takes the ice-based precision sport kicking and screaming onto Nintendo's handheld.

NCSX handily explains: "The "sport" of Curling may be compared to bowling but instead of a ball and nine pins, the thrower shoves a flat-bottomed stone across a field of ice towards the vicinity of a target. Once thrown, teammates vigorously brush the path in front of the stone to guide it into the house. The intention is to affect the movement and spin of the stone by polishing the ice so that the stone glides into the intended area. Virtual curling follows the basic procedures of real curling and NDS gamers get to control everything from the launch of the stone to the brushing of the ice."

Oh, and apparently: "The Japan Curling Association gave their stamp of approval to the game." Seems like the Japanese sometimes make games on _very_ niche sports (see: a marathon running game for the PS2 - though it's possible that the latter is a bit more popular in Japan, just as track and field sports seem significantly more popular in the UK than in the United States.)

[And as an aside - NCSX have a plethora of pictures for the Dreamcast watch, which is already out of stock at the shop, and for which it's explained: "A silver-colored DC console shell houses the timepiece with a lid that flips upwards by pressing the "eject" button on the lower left side of the console." Pure decadence!]

GameSetCompetition: Sumo Omni Winner!

- We finally got round to perusing the entrants for the deluxe Sumo Omni beanbag chair competition, in what proved to be one of our most popular contests ever (almost 100 entries!), and we now have our randomly picked winner.

So congrats to Jonathan Brodsky, who wins what looks like a very comfortable bean bag indeed - we're officially jealous! Thanks again to the folks at Sumo Lounge for giving it away, too. For those who couldn't get it, here's the answer:

Q: "Which popular '80s Epyx video game had you manipulating a much smaller bean bag to score points?"
A: California Games

But I'm sure you all knew that, right? Again, felicitations to our winner, and look out for another GSW competition in the very near future, hopefully once again featuring something that you actually care about winning, like this time around!

November 24, 2006

Zizzle's Pinball Sizzle Further Bedizzled

- Running at GameDaily.biz, but possibly reprinted from The Hollywood Reporter (not sure!), John Gaudiosi catches up with new pinball company Zizzle, who we've previously profiled here at GSW.

It's explained: "Unlike the $2,000-plus arcade pinball machines which can always be purchased for the home, Zizzle has created a pair of $300 stand-up pinball machines that feature the Hollywood license, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and the comic book superheroes and villains of Marvel Comics. Both three-quarters sized pinball games were designed by John Popadiuk, Jr., who made some of the most famous pinball machines from Williams over the years. They stand at 4 1/2 feet tall and assemble in minutes."

What's more: "Marc Rosenberg, Chief Marketing Officer and co-founder of Zizzle, along with Roger Shifman, creator of Furby, said more pinball machines are on the way. "We're working on a new pinball game based on Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, which will be available in time for next summer's film," said Rosenberg. "Since we announced these first two games, we've been inundated with Hollywood requests to create pinball games tied to film properties."" What price a slightly more complicated Addams Family replica, hmm?

[Wow - also, Zizzle makes Zoundz, which seems entirely trippy: "Zoundz creates a fusion of self-composed music with an accompanying light show. With it, users can create musical light shows never seen before. They can create their own riffs by placing one of Zoundz pawns on an interactive “hot spot” on the sound board."]

Kenta Cho's Titanion Hustles Into View

- Ta to The2Bears for spotting that PC dojin/freeware shooter guru Kenta Cho has debuted his latest game, Titanion, and it looks rather peachy.

It's explained: "Titanion is a little like Galaga, with the enemies quickly flying around and into the screen in different waves. It has a nice twist, though. In Galaga your own ship could be captured, and if you got it back you added to your firepower."

What's more: "In Titanion you are the one with the capture beam, and captured ships add to your firepower (a little like in Tumiki Fighters). Graphics and sound are classic ABA, meaning abstract and very stylish. Stop reading and get the game, it’s another great offering." Quick, go download!

The Bluffer's Guide To Xbox Games

- Another site that I took my eye off, re: excellent features, is Eurogamer, who seem to be doing a few more in-depth pieces in addition to their customarily feisty reviews, and a recent gem is 'The Bluffer's Guide to Xbox Cult Classics'.

Kristan Reed cannily notes in the intro: "'Cult Classic' is such a dirty term. People's association with them normally extends to something really obscure that a few beardy hardcore followers insist is the Best Thing Ever, but is usually a bit too quirky, too left-field and simply not accessible to the mainstream for very solid reasons. What it should mean is 'here's a bunch of stuff that didn't sell for one reason or another, but, trust us, it's really really good.'"

Looks like a lot of the obvious stuff is jammed into Page 1, but scrolling later on, it's nice to see kind words for Battle Engine Aquila: "A gloriously chaotic mech warfare game on the Xbox that limped onto the market in early 2003. Our Rob was a big supporter of this one, and still has nice things to say about it almost four years on, especially the bits about how well it renders scenes of massed battle."

Also - something I like about Eurogamer is that it feels like their editors are long-running and knowledgable enough to contextualize games. A lot of other game reviewing or commenting sometimes feels like it's checklisted against a null background, as opposed to a rich tapestry of titles with which comparisons can be made. Does anyone know what I'm going on about here? Oh well.

[Bonus link: our boy Rossignol has a Eurogamer-hosted account of his trip to Iceland to the 2006 EVE Online Fanfest, which "hosted five hundred gamers and at least half a dozen bored-looking girlfriends in a splendid Eve-draped convention centre." Sounds delightful!]

DMCA Exemption For Game Archiving Renewed

- Thanks to Raph Koster for pointing out something I hadn't spotted - that the U.S. Copyright Office has again ruled on DMCA exemptions, and that classic games are getting an exemption once again.

The exact phrasing of the exemption (and there's still a separate one for dongles, too), is: "Computer programs and video games distributed in formats that have become obsolete and that require the original media or hardware as a condition of access, when circumvention is accomplished for the purpose of preservation or archival reproduction of published digital works by a library or archive."

However, as I commented in Raph's post: "The exemption is only good for libraries and archives - it doesn’t apply to your regular man on the street, I’m afraid. I helped author the original DMCA exemption (which was granted 3 years ago) with the Internet Archive in the hopes that it would help libraries make good archives of games, but many ‘dark archiving’ and redistribution problems remain, so it’s a bit rough."

The sad thing about going to the trouble of making exact digital copies of old games, of course, is that you can still only show one digital copy of that game for each physical copy you have (no redistribution is allowed). Since the game is likely to be in copyright for another 70+ years, you need to have a physical location such as a museum to show the games, unless your official archival institution wants to be shoveling your backup ROMs onto an inaccessible server for the next few decades.

If you add these facts to the reality that a lot of old software is really difficult to make exact copies of (the Software Preservation Society did some spectacular work on this, but their lead tech guy is working at Sony on PlayStation 3 now, so I'm guessing he has less time than he used to!), then you get to a tricky situation. Some institutions like Stanford University are archiving physical copies of games, to some degree, and I feel like the Computer History Museum is another good place to start - but they have much rarer mainframe/punchcard system software to worry about as well.

Anyhow , to conclude - I tried to get into this conundrum a little (both at the Internet Archive and heading up the IGDA's Software Preservation SIG for a bit), but it ends up being painstaking work on the digital preservation front that feels very intangible.

So... I think someone needs to set up a proper, permanent real-life Video Game Museum, like the Experience Music Project - ideally funded by someone very rich and understanding in a Paul Allen style (ping me if you're just that person!). Then there would be a physical base to start the digital archiving to make sure things don't get lost in the mists of time, ensuring that classic early games are preserved properly in both physical and digital forms. That's one way to do it, anyhow. But will it ever happen?

[UPDATE: JVM at Curmudgeon Gamer has an aggrieved post on this exact subject, headlined 'Abandonware *still* not legal, people', and he sums up the issues better than I, I think. Please take note and correct, Joystiq, Aeropause, and everyone who has run confused posts on this recently.]

GDC Shows Haiku Winners, Geek Of The Week

- Our colleagues at the Game Developers Conference have been doing some amusingly unconventional promo, starting with the recent haiku contest, and apparently, they've found a winner.

The winning entry was submitted by Jesse Schell of Carnegie Mellon / Schell Games, and is apparently:

T-Shirts and piercings
Scruffy glazed insomniacs
At last I am home!

A couple of my favorites from the 'honorable mentions', though:

Hello Golden Gate!
Despite your grandeur I miss
Original Joe’s.

Bright-shirted CA
You stopped me from getting lunch
Where is room J3?

A lot of the responses are agreeably grouchy, and still reprinted, too - which is why it's kinda fun, because the grouchiness is an important part of being a developer and turning up to GDC.

[Oh, and the GDC chaps started a Geek Of The Week post, too, headed by 1st Playable Productions' Jeb Havens, who comments of his fave games in a geekmungous style: "M.U.L.E. -- with The Incredible Machine and its descendents (Armadillo Run, etc.) at a close second." Some fun choices.]

November 23, 2006

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Yasumi Matsuno

[In its twenty years of publication the Weekly Famitsu has given out only six perfect review scores. It should be noted that two of the six, Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII, are the work of Yasumi Matsuno, an under recognized master of game design This week's 'Game Collector's Melancholy' column looks at Matsuno's history in the game biz, highlighting each of his major games.]

The Final Fantasy?

plain6.jpgFinal Fantasy XII was a long time coming. Five grueling years of production had left the development team fractured and depleted. Halfway through, Yasumi Matsuno, the game’s director and writer was forced to step down from his duties because of alleged poor health. There were rumors of internal strife at SquareEnix and in 2005 Matsuno left the company for good. Things did not look promising for Final Fantasy XII...

The March of the Black Queen

Matsuno’s first major work was Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, developed for the Quest Corporation. Joining Matsuno on Ogre Battle were music composer Hitoshi Sakamoto and character designer Akihiko Yoshida, who would remain constant partners with Matsuno throughout his career. Released in Japan on the Super Famicom in 1993, Ogre Battle was a hybrid of turn-based and real-time strategy that was unusual for the complexity of its game play and story. Set in a high fantasy world of wizards and dragons the game followed the rise of a young knight who becomes an emperor. Along the way he must make a great number of practical and moral choices while micromanaging a growing army and ruling over a conquered population. All of these choices have consequences down the line and it is this aspect of the game’s design that seems to most define Matsuno’s aesthetic.

Enix brought the game to America in 1995 but in limited quantities, making it quite difficult to find. Expect to pay at least $50. In 1997 Atlus re-released the game as Ogre Battle: Limited Edition for the Playstation. The conversion was handled by Artdink who put some extra effort into upgrading the graphics although not so much that it could considered a remake. This version sells for as much as $60 and comes with memory card stickers and a fold-out chart.

[Click through for more of Matsuno's major titles.]

Let Us Cling Together

Matsuno followed Ogre Battle in 1995 with a sequel called Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. This time he dropped the strategic real-time elements and went with a turn by turn tactical game which played out on a lovingly detailed 2D isometric battlefield. The game pioneered many of the design elements that have made the genre what it is today and anyone who enjoys Nippon Ichi’s games will feel right at home with Tactics Ogre.

Although the Super Famicom version never made it to America, Atlus published Tactics Ogre for the Playstation in 1997. The conversion was again done by Artdink; however, unlike Ogre Battle: Limited Edition, it is a straight port with no enhancements. As with many of Atlus’ esoteric releases the value on Tactics Ogre has skyrocketed, leaving collectors with little choice but to go online and pay out $85 or more.

Final Fantasy Tactics

fft-1.jpgAfter finishing Tactics Ogre, Matsuno and the core of his development team left Quest and joined Squaresoft. There they set to work on Final Fantasy Tactics, a game that would refine the ideas first put forth in rough form by Tactics Ogre. Matsuno put particular emphasis on the story line of Tactics, creating a dense (some might say incomprehensible) narrative of conspiracy and betrayal. Accompanying the complicated story was a deep game system that took the idea of Jobs from earlier Final Fantasy games and ran with it, resulting in a mind-boggling number character classes and abilities that could be mastered. Because the game is composed of a number of complex, interconnected systems it encourages players of a certain mindset to work out elaborate game-breaking strategies. Surprisingly, the out-of-print strategy guide is now selling for around $30, which is more than the game itself is worth.

Tactics was released in America in early 1998 only a few months after Final Fantasy VII. It was considered somewhat art-house and sold in far fewer numbers compared with the blockbuster Final Fantasy VII. After fading from retail Tactics’ reputation and value grew. Responding to the demand, Square arranged to have Tactics re-released in 2001 as a budget priced Greatest Hits even though it had not sold the initial 200,000 copies required to qualify. Now Tactics can easily be found for about $25 or about $10 more for the first non-Greatest Hits print run.

Vagrant Story

bgs-2.jpgIn many ways Final Fantasy Tactics was the apex of the genre and some might argue that subsequent tactical RPGs have just been variations on its themes. Perhaps sensing this, Matsuno to decided to leave tactical play behind and instead looked to the dungeon-crawl for inspiration. The resulting game, Vagrant Story, turned out to be a radical reinvention of an old-fashioned genre. Packed to the brim with intricate game systems, Vagrant Story is a tinkerer’s dream, providing many hours of methodical play. Always the thinking-person’s fantasist, Matsuno again crafted a deliciously convoluted story of intrigue and deception in which the main character, Ashley Riot, comes across as a sort of medieval Solid Snake. The game is further enhanced in English by translator Alexander O. Smith’s elevated, literary tone.

Despite great reviews, Vagrant Story was a hard sell and most game buyers passed it by in 2000. Even now it only fetches about $25, making it an easy acquisition for collectors.

Person of Lordly Caliber

Even though Matsuno had left for Squaresoft, Quest continued the Ogre Battle series, creating Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber for the Nintendo 64 in 1999 and Ogre Battle: Legend of the Zenobian Prince for the Neo-Geo Pocket Color in 2000. Of the two, Atlus picked up Ogre Battle 64 to publish for America in 2000. It is a fine game in its own right, with a smart story and gorgeous 2D art. Those of you who still have a Nintendo 64 tucked away in the closet should make the effort to dust it off and acquire Ogre Battle 64 which can be found for around $45. Quest also made Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis for the Game Boy Advance which was published by Atlus in 2002. The Knight of Lodis is considered alongside Matsuno’s own Final Fantasy Tactics Advance to be one of the best tactical RPGs for the hand-held system. Now out of print, it sells for around $30. In an interesting twist, SquareEnix bought out Quest in 2002.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

ffta_img2.jpgMatsuno went small with his next game, returning to the style he invented with Tactics Ogre. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance had a bright, simple graphic style and a much lighter tone than his previous work. His penchant for layered systems was scaled back as well, making for a game well suited to the on-the-go play of the Game Boy Advance. Although no longer available new, used copies should still be easy to find for around $20.

Two Aspirin Please

Of course Final Fantasy XII is out in America now and everyone pretty much agrees that it is a triumph. Still, as I play it I feel a little sad. The game carries the unmistakable trace of Matsuno and with that comes a weird mix of emotions. Something that was once small and private has become huge and popular.

In the fall of 1998 I was obsessed with two games. One was the wargame Advanced Squad Leader and the other was Final Fantasy Tactics. They were incredibly complicated and I remember making the mistake of playing them both in one day. I started in the early afternoon with ASL, squaring off against a friend who was much better at it than myself. Soon my squads were all Broken or KIA and the defense of Velikiye Luki was in ruins. I felt frustrated and dumb. Making it worse, my opponent had the annoying habit of exploiting every little detail of the rules to his advantage even though he knew that I was still struggling with the basics.

Back at home in the evening, I turned to Final Fantasy Tactics. Again I was tormented by failure. Those cute little enemy characters would chain saw through my hapless party as I fumbled around, trying to come up with a coherent strategy. Archers would charge for an attack only to be sliced down by the computer before they could get a shot off. As my Black Mages chanted their incantations, the game’s ruthless AI unerringly triangulated in and eliminated them. By the end of the night I had developed a ferocious headache, my neurons turning to spun glass by the sheer exertion of thinking. I can’t help but wonder if Yasumi Matsuno fell victim to a similar condition, his nerves frayed and exhausted by the complexity of his own vision.

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

Images: (C) 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved

Mount Lucinda Green’s Equestrian Challenge!

- Since it's Thanksgiving, we thought we'd give thanks for PS2 equestrian titles - in this case, the North America release of Lucinda Green's Equestrian Challenge, which "delivers a true-to-life experience of the sport as well as the simulation of raising and training your own horse", apparently.

For some reason, it feels like small publishers used to be dissuaded from releasing this type of game on PS2 in the States because of SCEA's stricter approval policy - or maybe that's just in my mind. Either way, apparently: "Lucinda Green, known for winning the Badminton Horse Trials a record six times, offers her sage wisdom as a rider in this family-friendly game to help guide players through horse trials at the most prestigious international equestrian events, such as the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event."

What's more: "Players train under the tutelage of Lucinda at a beautiful country estate where they will learn the fundamentals of the equine art, which includes lessons on how to improve the mental and physical state of a horse and the rudimentary of dressage, cross country, and show jumping." Oo, beautiful country estate! Wait, this title isn't aimed at me, is it?

GameSetEbay: Silent Hill DVDs, Tekken... Laserdiscs?

- Haunting eBay on the verge of the holiday, I came across a couple of auctions that will likely interest GameSetWatch viewers - one for its surprisingly high price, and the other for its exceptional obscurity (and, actually, its surprisingly low price right now).

Firstly, we have the 'Silent Hill Lost Memories' DVD, which is currently going for over $160 with about 6 hours still left to go on the auction. There's a really nice review of the 2003 disc over at Monsters At Play which explains: "The disc is divided into 7 main sections, each of which explores a different aspect of the Silent Hill universe" - there are lots of obscure trailers and the full soundtracks to each of the first 3 Silent Hill games, too. Looks like this is getting pretty tricky to find!

In addition, there's a Tekken gameplay laserdisc from 1995 elsewhere on eBay, something I've never seen before. The seller notes: "A rare 1995 laserdisc from Japan produced by Namco with gameplay strategies, special moves, and character profiles for the first Tekken game. Of course all the dialogue is in Japanese, but this is very fun to watch and runs for about 70 minutes. As a bonus to the winning bidder, I will throw in a DVD-R with all of the contents of this laserdisc (so you can watch it on your DVD player)." And it's at just $5 right now - Tekken fans, go for it!

Wii Will Round Up Virtual Console Games, No?

- Meh, the whole world linked to it already, but Jeremy Parish's Virtual Console round-up over at 1UP.com is most excellent, and worth reading.

Ze Parish explains: "Yeah, so there are only fourteen titles current available on VC. That's not so many. The good news, of course, is that this is an issue that should resolve itself in time, as Nintendo has promised to release a dozen different titles every month. Until then, you have this handy reference guide to let you know what's worth your hard-earned Wii Points."

One title in particular that the guide may have persuaded me to pick up is Solomon's Key, of which it's opined: "An obscure Tecmo title? Well, whatever; Solomon's Key is actually pretty good, despite its atrocious graphics and annoying sound effects. Consisting of dozens of rooms, each of which is a devious puzzle, it's unflinchingly difficult and surprisingly compelling. And the VC's suspend feature means you can take a break when things start to get frustrating and jump back in once your temper has cooled."

COLUMN: 'A Life In Obscurity' - Sega Genesis Collection

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Our buddy Jiji ran out of stuff to post for his 'Compilation Catalog' column, so we're calling it 'A Life In Obscurity', and he'll alternate random D3 musings with compilation round-ups and other odd reviews, semi-regularly. Only on GSW! Because only we're crazy enough!]

cover scanOn the eve of the retro-bonanza promised by Nintendo's Virtual Console, Sega of America released another in a long line of retro compilations for modern consoles. This time, Sega Genesis Collection brings together titles from throughout the 16-bit console's life, with no particular series as its theme. Digital Eclipse, the western game industry's favorite studio for retro emulation, produced this package, and the development team shares most of its members with the team responsble for the excellent Capcom Classics Collection Remixed (PSP).

Mmm, Shiny Interface!

Sega Genesis Collection has a rather shiny interface that's very similar to the Capcom packs, and it includes a similar variety of game tips and trivia. There's a nice variety of unlockable bonus material here, including video interviews with Sega development staff and several of Sega's arcade games (Zaxxon, Zektor, Altered Beast, Tac/Scan, and Future Spy).

Many of the twenty-eight titles present here have shown up in previous retro compilations, and indeed, some have made multiple showings already. But there are some interesting inclusions here that are worth some attention. The arcade version of Altered Beast, never seen on consoles until now, is quite a bit more attractive and playable than the hoary old Genesis version. But let's face it: Altered Beast was never a particularly good game.

Gain... Virtua?

Gain Ground is a refreshingly tactical single-screen shooter that has the player controlling warriors from various time periods and settings, past, present and future, and rescuing hostages. Rescuees join your team and contribute their unique talents, and captured allies can be regained if you're skillful. Alex Kidd is an interesting glimpse into what Sega's character-mascot strategy was like before the abandoned the character for the more internationally-appealing Sonic. Golden Axe III was never released outside of Japan before its appearance in this package, but unfortunately it's not quite up to the level of the previous two games.

A few of the games in the package seem to be here simply as a gesture to players who suffered through them on the original console - or to pad out the title count. The completely-2D version of Virtua Fighter 2 is somewhat competent in its own right, but it's such a silly port of the original that it's hardly relevant now. Super Thunder Blade shares the same fate: who wants to play a choppy, substandard port of a 1987 arcade game? The shape-changing platformer Kid Chameleon still somehow manages to have fans, but now more than ever it's easy to see how wholly derivative of Mario it is. And Ecco Jr.? Dreary edutainment, ahoy!

Go, Gimli!Technical Pluses, Minuses

Video is mostly respectably emulated, but Digital Eclipse's usual lack of any support for these games' native resolution has once again left this writer in the lurch. They did include an option for progressive-scan, though, which will marginally help these games' appearance on HD sets. As they are, in 480i, they look swimmy, indefinite, and flickery.

Sound emulation doesn't fare much better. The music seems to be streamed off the disc to save on CPU usage, but this has caused oddities like the music in Sonic 1 and 2 not speeding up when it should. Plus, there are glitches here and there with music starting or stopping in the wrong place. Sound effects sound fine in some games and dreadful in others, but there's a general cast of inaccuracy over the whole package that will grate on you if you've played any of these games recently.

Exciting Conclusion!

Sega Genesis Collection comes off as being mostly unnecessary. Fans of Sonic and Ristar probably already own those games in previous compilations. Bonanza Bros. was in better form in Sega Classics Collection. Even Phantasy Star fans would be best advised to hold off and wait for Sega's import-only Phantasy Star Collection, as the often-pricey games have been graced with some of the most grievous sound problems in the collection. The rest of the games often go for under five dollars apiece on the used market and are more enjoyable in their original format. It's hard to recommend this collection if you're interested in it for any reason other than a quick romp down memory lane.

(For the sake of thoroughness, here's the full list of Genesis games included: Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, Altered Beast, Comix Zone, Golden Axe I-III, Phantasy Star II-IV, Sonic the Hedgehog 1 & 2, Ecco 1, 2, and Jr., Ristar, Columns, Virtua Fighter 2, Shadow Dancer, Shinobi III, Super Thunder Blade, Bonanza Bros., Decap Attack, Kid Chameleon, Sword of Vermilion, and Vectorman 1 & 2.)

November 22, 2006

GameTunnel Drills Into November's Best Indies

- Those smarties at GameTunnel are at it again, presenting their review of the Top 10 independent games for November 2006, and it's helpful as always!

As they explain: "This month we renamed the article from the 'Monthly Round-Up' to 'The 10 Independent Games of the Month' as we decided to put the games in an ordered list! (Pretty brilliant eh? Not everyone can arrange a list of games by their score!) Twelve indie titles were considered including the 'cool vehicles' strategy game Naked War, the RPG in 30 minutes FastCrawl and the rag-doll physics 'fighting' simulator Toribash."

I guess it's giving it away a leetle, but the Pickford Bros' Naked War wins out as Game Of The Month, with Brian Clair from TotalGaming.net commenting: "Naked War is an unusual release for a number of reasons and I could probably write a full review for it if I had space. For starters, it’s pretty much a PBEM online multiplayer game. While you can play on a single PC, Naked Wars was clearly designed with online in mind and does a great job at making it painless." I wonder if it's XBLA-able?

GSW Impressions: Every Extend Extra, Lumines II For PSP

The threatened GameSetWatch game impressions mini-feature has returned, and this time, we're sizing up the other two Q Entertainment games released this holiday season, after checking out Gunpey for the PSP and DS last time round. This iteration, our steely, synaestastic (not a word!) gaze falls upon Every Extend Extra and Lumines II for the PSP, both published by Buena Vista in the States as part of a multi-title deal with Tetsuya Mizuguchi's company.

Every Extend Extra (PSP)

Every Extend Extra is my kind of game, just like Jeff Minter is my kind of indie developer and Mutant Storm Reloaded is my favorite XBLA game of all time. Hopefully, that's a good frame of reference for you - if you're a fan of psychedelic, abstract shooters that verge on the frenetic, then the game, which is based on Omega's free-to-download PC dojin title, is probably your cup of tea.

Of course, EEE isn't quite a shooter - it's more of a 'detonator', in that the gameplay revolves around exploding your ship in the correct place to set off chain reactions among the objects drifting around on screen. (Omega's original site calls it: 'Suicidal explodion' game with new feelings. Blow up self to involve enemies!') It's a smart, original idea, and once your eyes decipher exactly what's going on in any given level, it plays out intuitively and very enjoyably.

Why is it fun? Well, the game feels so natural, and then there's the fact that the gameplay revolves around maximizing your score by keeping the countdown as high as possible while still blowing up things (you can also pick up add-ons which usher enemies onscreen faster, making your potential chain reactions even more vicious), before a diverse, generally good-looking boss fight kicks in.

Mind you, a couple of EEE caveats - I had terrible trouble beating the first boss when starting out, because the game requires you to hit him at the end of a 12-hit reaction, all the while dodging some pretty intense cover fire that he's laying down. And there are a number of effects onscreen which you don't get killed by, like the first boss' floodlights, but can confuse your synapses. Plus, you can lose either by running out of time on the boss or running out of ships through bad flying, even though you blow up your ships regularly and they regenerate - which takes a while to get your head round.

So - I guess what I'm saying is that Every Extend Extra is a little bit complicated, and there's a lot to take in. But when you've worked everything out and 'get it', and you can breeze past the first boss, there's a number of fun modes to play through, a branching level path to encourage replay, and a whole lot of depth to the gameplay. It's not for everyone, but if you tend toward Tempest or the hardcore shooter, you owe it to yourself to check this out - I'd put it in my Top 5 PSP games released thus far. [PS - why wasn't Omega credited for 'original game design' in the credits, Q Entertainment guys? Or did I miss his credit?]

Lumines II (PSP)

I'm presuming that most/all of you have played Q's signature puzzle game in one form or another - whether it be the original PSP version, the actually rather good, if horribly mismarketed Xbox 360 SKU, or in any number of PC clones. [It's definitely one of the more cunning puzzle games of the last 10 years, in my book.]

Well, Lumines II for the PSP is the original Lumines, with plenty of extra modes and levels, and some Western pop stars wandering into the mix alongside Mizuguchi's normal motley collection of Japanese techno chancers. And... that's basically that. The gameplay is still stellar (minus some overactive backgrounds interfering with your puzzling from time to time, and brief pauses between skins). And really, you can probably gauge how much you will appreciate Gwen Stefani and the Black-Eyed Peas (and, OK, Beck and The Chemical Brothers) rubbing up on your puzzle action.

Personally, my dear, I don't give a damn - and you will probably work out if you loved the original enough to buy essentially the same game with some new levels and music. Oh, and there's a Sequencer Mode, much like in Gunpey DS, which gives you the ability to program 8 bars of music from scratch, including drums, synths, and so on. It's an entertaining diversion, but I think I mildly prefer Gunpey DS' version, which has a little less complexity in places, but backing tracks with chords in them to spice things up and that alluring touchscreen to mess with.

For me, then, Lumines II is a worthwhile purchase, especially if you don't have the original on the PSP and you're looking for some longlasting puzzle action. But Every Extend Extra is the game that cultish types who hang around on GameSetWatch will still be raving about in 5 years time, and for that alone, you should probably look it out to work out what the heck they're going on about.

Wii Will Romance The Ladies

- In times of console launch, you must rely on UK Resistance to get you through, and yet again, they calm our shattered nerves with a look at how UK women's magazines are tackling the Wii.

Well, it's actually an advertorial in Glamour magazine, but nonethless, it includes such genius elements as '5 reasons why ever girl needs a Wii', with #5 being: 'Forget a designer sofa, this is the only accessory a girl needs'. If we didn't know better, we'd swear that Zorg wrote this himself.

Also, commenter 'RoboSel' claims: "I was talking to my sister yesterday about games and I said have you seen the Nintendo Wii? She replied by saying "isn't that the new game thing for girls?" That's done it for me!" So there you have it - the Internet has spoken.

[Oh, and if you're not reading the UK Resistance spinoff gadget blog, Idiot Toys, you really should be. Looks like they stopped updating the insanely twisted My Animal Crossing blog. Still, we just found The Beppin Legacy, which is apparently about an attempt to create the Fourth Reich in Animal Crossing, and is apparently 'loosely affiliated' with UKR - there's evidence indicating that Zorg is a Beppin collaborator, if you dig deep enough. So we're waiting for the inevitable post-Beppin treason trials.]

B Intruders, In The Hizz-ouse!

- To be honest, there are so many great free PC indie titles being released nowadays that we just can't keep up - we leave that to folks like the Independent Gaming blog, or for shmups, to Posty at Shoot The Core, who has pointed out a great-looking new shooter, B Intruders.

It's downloadable from the B Games site, and Posty explains: "While described as a Space Invaders clone, BI goes a little beyond that - I'd throw in a dash of Centipede also, as I've encountered a snake that drops below invader level and worms through your path."

It's also noted: "The gameplay is much faster paced than your typical Invaders clone, and collecting bonuses fill a meter, storing up for a massive point addition when full. At the outset of the game, players are able to choose the starting planet from levels previously unlocked. Control is via mouse only." The same developers created the also freely downloadable Lethal Judgment 3, which has got high marks from Indy Gamer and other outlets.

Racing Games: Doing It Right!

- The crazed groupblog of Gamasutra news guy Jason Dobson, eToychest, has a fun story called 'Do’s and Don’ts: A Gamer’s Perspective: Racing Games' just posted - and... it's got a lot of do's and don'ts in it!

First, there's some whines: "DON’T implement absurd computer AI. This includes both forced stupidity and rubberbanding, both of which are annoying. As an example, the recent Test Drive Unlimited – otherwise a gem – suffers in that the NPC racing AI is far too conservative for it to challenge the player."

Then, there's the controversial: "DO include realistic visible steering-wheel turning and inertia in the cockpit view, if possible. Players absolutely love this. Seeing the driver realistically shift gears or at least turn the steering wheel proportional to the player’s input is worth including. In fact, anything to be done to make the cockpit view more realistic is a welcome addition." I think I completely disagree with this - but then, I love Ridge Racer's ridiculous artificiality.

November 21, 2006

Why Virtual Console Does Emulation Right

- For a geeky but dead-on blog post about why the Wii Virtual Console's emulation is a cut above the rest, you can't do much better than Ben '222b' Turner's in-depth analysis of the matter, as posted on his LiveJournal.

Turner notes of Sim City for the SNES, as emulated on the Wii: "Suffice it to say that, assuming you're on a regular TV (not HD), the game looks 100% exactly like it would on a real SNES. Perhaps better, if you're using the Component cable and haven't seen RGB. This is an achievement that very few recent commercially emulated games can claim."

Wait, and he explains why, too! "Most developers choose to present old, low-res games in a high-res interlaced graphics mode which makes the images appear swimmy, blurry, and sometimes blocky. Basically, 480i sucks for old games. This is not dissimilar to presenting a classic movie in the wrong aspect ratio. An essential, if often overlooked, quality of the original presentation is lost." There's also lots of detail on the widescreen problem.

[Oh, and elsewhere, Racketboy has some overarching impressions of the service, for which two TurboGrafx games are now available, thank the Lord - though someone said the emulation might not be quite as spot on for it. Hopefully they're horribly wrong!]

GameSetCompetition: Sumo Omni Reminder

- Just a quick reminder that, thanks to the folks at 'urban lounge gear' firm Sumo, we've got a deluxe Sumo Omni beanbag chair in a color of your choice to give away - and the deadline for entering is tomorrow!

To win a Sumo Omni beanbag chair, which is "made from space age rip-proof nylon and filled with top quality Sumo Beads", apparently (I'm still excited by the concept of 'space age nylon'), you will need to answer the following question:

"Which popular '80s Epyx video game had you manipulating a much smaller bean bag to score points?"

Please send your answers to [email protected] any time before Wednesday, November 22nd at 12 noon PST. There will be one winner randomly picked from the correct answers, the judges' decision is final, and that's that. Have fun!

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Gundammit

['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 addresses the misconception about the quality of Gundam games in light of the recent PlayStation 3 launch]

amuroray_crying.jpgI had planned on talking about a developer called Sandlot for this edition of 'Roboto-chan!' but events have transpired that encourage me to postpone the aforementioned retrospective and cover a more recent matter that has come to light (though I promise to cover Sandlot in the next column).

One of the PlayStation 3’s launch games, that of Gundam: Target in Sight, has drawn a fair amount of flak for being, well, rubbish. This criticism is wholly justified however but the consequent reasoning that all Gundam action games are rubbish is fallacious at best.

Like all licensed games, Gundam has had a chequered history in regards to gaming quality. There are some truly appalling entries into the gaming canon but there are also some equally fantastic entries too, it’s just unfortunate that the former receive more attention than the latter. As such, I think it’s only fair that the good Gundam games get their chance in the sun.

More after the jump...

Gundam: The Blue Destiny Trilogy (Saturn)

blue_destiny.jpgThis was a game actually released in three separate chapters and it covered the story of one frontline GM mobile suit pilot by the name of Yu Kajima. Unlike the Gundam games before it, the Blue Destiny games had the player start out with a underpowered mobile suit, rather than an eponymous Gundam. Taking down a Zeonic mobile suit was a tricky task and got progressively harder with each chapter of the game (even though the player got access to increasingly more powerful mobile suits, finally including a Gundam). In having the player partake in a more personal take on the horrific One Year War, it grounded the whole game. Not to mention having it play purely in the first person through a claustrophobic cockpit view, added a palpable tension to the proceedings (something that playing as the almost invincible Amuro Ray previously failed to accomplish).

In terms of gameplay, the game functioned around fixed lock-ons that allowed the player to orbit a target. Combat was also split into distanced and melee accordingly. Despite being in an underpowered unit initially, the game moved at a fast pace and required the player to be pretty nimble on their mechanical feet. In edition to the fast paced combat the player also had two wingmen that aided them throughout each mission, though the game lacked the means to give them orders. Unfortunately, this never got a Western release (though bizarrely the manga did) but the Blue Destiny games and especially the iconically azure mecha have received a fair amount of usage elsewhere (both in game and toy form).

Gundam: Rise from the Ashes (Dreamcast)

rise_ashes.jpgTo all intents and purposes this was a gaming sequel to the Blue Destiny games. The player headed the White Dingo mobile suit platoon and had the difficult task in participating in the liberation of Australia from Zeonic occupying forces.

Much like in Blue Destiny, the player controlled an underpowered frontline mobile suit from a gritty first person cockpit view. The big addition to Rise from the Ashes though was the ability to directly control your two wingmen and give them very specific orders.

The tactical platter available was immense and added a whole new dimension to the game. Using your wingmen to flush out a mobile suit and leaving it open for you to snipe it at a comfortable range made the game more engaging and cerebral. This is not to say that the combat wasn’t as fast and responsive as the Blue Destiny iterations before it but the additional strategic focus rounded the game off beautifully.

This actually got an American release but with it only being one chapter, rather than three, made the game a bit shortlived in terms of content (it also criminally lacked any kind of multiplayer, a sin indeed for an online console). There was a Japanese only Premium Disc released, where you squared off against the White Base mobile suit team, but it was a token reprieve than anything truly substantial.

Gundam: Lost War Chronicles (PlayStation 2)

gundam_senki.jpgOn the PlayStation 2’s release, Bandai released a Gundam game that tediously had you play as Amuro Ray and re-enact the narrative from the original TV series and movies. It was slow, clumsy to control and really rather dull. However, upon completing the game extra levels were unlocked that had the player traverse a much larger and more complex environment. Entitled Tactics Battle it was clear that this was the game that the team originally wanted to make.

A few years later Lost War Chronicles was released, lo and behold it was very much a faster and more responsive version of the previous game but was entirely based around that extra Tactics Battle mode. In addition, the player also now had two wingmen which, you guessed it, could be tactically deployed for that strategic ass kicking touch.

This also came packaged with an optional cockpit view as well as a massive roster of playable mobile suits, including those from the Blue Destiny trilogy and Rise from the Ashes. The increased game speed also massively helped the game however and made the combat consequently more visceral. Unfortunately, certain elements were simplified in regards to the controlling of the wingmen (they only had three preset commands).

Again, Lost War Chronicles only received a Japanese release (yet the manga got published abroad). The big bonus over the previous two games though was that it featured an expansive multiplayer mode, including co-operative missions. There’s quite a nice boxset of this game for those that have the perseverance to track it down.

Gundam: Zeonic Front (PlayStation 2)

zeonic_front.jpgUnlike the previous games before it, Zeonic Front approached the One Year War conflict from the opposite side; that of the Principality of Zeon and their brutal attempt for independence.

Despite the shift in perspective the other major change was that both you and your enemies could be despatched with great ease. Meaning the tactical control had to be expanded quite a bit.

The game solved this by having three teams of three mobile suits each that could be programmed to undertake a mission with military precision. The tactical control of Zeonic Front surpasses the previous games quite substantially. Prior to each mission you have to set up routes for subordinates to follow whilst completing their objectives unscathed.

It’s a unique experience to face Amuro Ray in his RX-78-2 Gundam and have him obliterate your team mates whilst coldly counting his kills, leaving you standing there to be eventually capped in the back of the head with a lone beam rifle shot. Naturally, when I finally managed to take him out with all my subordinates alive, I pretty much punched the air with joy.

Zeonic Front was a harder game than those that went before it but richer for the refined strategy demanded on the part of the player. Thankfully, this received an American release and can be acquired with relative ease.

Gundam: One Year War (PlayStation 2)

gundam_oneyearwar.jpgOne of the final Gundam games released on the PlayStation 2 and undertaken by Namco before the Bandai merger, One Year War was a game that ran counter to the belief that taking on the mantle of Amuro Ray was bad for gameplay. Initially given the moniker of Project Pegasus, it was meant to conglomerate the entirety of the original Gundam TV series and movies into one game. Bear in mind that Bandai had to release two separate games to cover the story properly, namely separating land and space combat. One Year War used a beautifully fluid and simple control setup to combine them both effortlessly. It was also one of the most visually impressive Gundam games with some wonderful effects to display the whole enigmatic Newtype state of mind.

This is one of the few, probably only, Gundam games that work in terms of re-creating the original Gundam narrative without being clumsy and slow. The controls massively help this by emulating an FPS for the dual analogue usage. There’s also a subtle lock-on implemented as well, which gently snaps to a target once the cursor is passed over it.

It’s a strange feeling to try and explain but coupled with the animation, the controls really feel like how a mobile suit should move. As such, One Year War is a joy to play and feels very natural. There are a few bizarre on-rails first person sequences admittedly but the mobile suit combat more than makes up for this.

Typically, One Year War only received a Japanese release and there’s no word on whether the Project Pegasus team will do any more Gundam games (despite the game receiving multiple awards and selling well).

...and the list goes on

Whilst I’ve only mentioned five games here, there are many others that are as good. The recent Gundam SEED arcade games (and their subsequent ports), courtesy of Capcom, are particularly accomplished (though their earlier Gundam games haven’t been great). Not to mention the amazing Senjou no Kizuna arcade game that actually has you sit in a panoramic cockpit is rather impressive.

The point to understand about Gundam games on the whole is that they are wish fulfillment for those who want to immerse themselves in that setting. If you hate the anime the games are spawned from, then you will miss out on a lot of what they have to offer. Though, this can be equally said for any license based game.

There are real Gundam gaming clunkers around however, with Target in Sight being one of them. That being said all is not lost for the next generation of Gundam gaming; Operation Troy on the Xbox 360 looks to be utterly fantastic.

[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.]

So You Wanna Be An Indie Developer?

- Now here's an interesting proposition: "At 4pm GMT ish today, a hand-picked collection of game developers simultaneously blogged their thoughts on the current state of the Independent games industry", writes Gibbage indie game creator Dan Marshall - and his own post on the matter has links to all the posts discussing it.

He further explains: "The "So you want to be a Indie Developer?" project features articles of advice on the reality of making your own games from every corner of the sector; from those currently risking everything by going full-time Indie to established industry leaders such as DEFCON's Introversion via unmitigated nonsense like Lemmy and Binky."

Also excellent is advice from Democracy/Kudos' Cliffski, who comments, among other gems: "Ideas ARE worth something. In fact they are worth a lot. Common armchair-pundit wisdom is that "an idea isnt worth anything, its the implementation that matters", but I disagree. Take a look at the current 'casual' and 'indie' game markets. Lots and lots and lots of clones. An original game DOES sell better than a simple clone, all other things remaining equal. The thing is, you have to really believe in your idea, stick to your guns, and still turn out a good (as well as original) game. The great news is, that if your game is original, there is virtually ZERO competition."

Railroad Tycoon Steams Into The 'Free' Pile

- Look what 2K Games sent us - it's good news: "Today 2K has released the original Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon for FREE! Travel back in time to 1990 to see how Sid created an innovative new gameplay experience that has evolved into this month's release of Sid Meier's Railroads! for the PC."

Toot toot! "The 15MB Railroad Tycoon download includes the full game, manual, reference cards, etc." The press release actually says that the game is available at the official 2K Games site [EDIT: And it is now! Thanks for the update, MattC!] In addition, it's available at Playfuls.com with no wait to download right now.

As for the title itself, the MobyGames page for the classic explains: "The game is essentially a bird's-eye-view real-time strategy game with aspects of building and stock market manipulation. Each fiscal period is 2-years, which corresponds to 1-day of track time. Build different sizes of stations to take care of different local needs, create trains that switch consists at different stations and maximize throughput. Upgrade/retire/modify trains as times change. The faster the trains arrive, the more money they earn. Multiple options will keep you busy as each game is different."

November 20, 2006

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Polarium Advance

["Beyond Tetris" is a new column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This second installment looks at a puzzle game that just hit American shelves, Polarium Advance.]

This month, while most gamers are focused on the generation gap, North America will finally see a brilliant puzzle game. Polarium Advance has been brought to America by Atlus, several months after a European release and over a year since the game was first released in Japan as Tsuukin Hitofude. It is a puzzle game spawned in the ashes of a "puzzle" game, and it should be celebrated by all right-thinking lovers of mental challenges.

Behind Tetris

Polarium's Challenge ModePerhaps you can tell from the title of my column (and from the italicized, square-bracketed introduction to this article, and perhaps even from the obtuse opening paragraph of this article) that I have a bone to pick with Tetris. I agree that it's a fine game, a fun game, a successful game, but it's not really a puzzle game. That is, it's not a game about solving puzzles with careful thought; it's a game of quick reflexes and abstract strategy. But despite my personal semantic quibbles, Tetris defined the "puzzle game" genre, and consequently inspired legions of potential successors.

One such aspirant was Polarium, from the Japanese developer Mitchell. It had simple graphics. It featured falling blocks that had to be cleared in lines. It was even released at the launch of a Nintendo handheld system, the DS. And Polarium was designed to showcase the DS's brand-spanking innovative touchscreen—to clear lines, you had to draw a path over the lines that appeared on the screen.

But the problem with Polarium's "Challenge Mode" was that it was terrible—not merely from a puzzling standpoint, but from a gaming standpoint. The lines that had to be cleared fell in huge screen-clogging chunks, and simple mistakes with the stylus were extremely difficult to correct. Instead of evoking Tetris's exhilarating addiction, Polarium only inspired frustration.

Lucky for Mitchell, they had included a "Puzzle Mode" with Polarium. This was undoubtedly inspired by the similar mode from another top-tier puzzle game, Tetris Attack (or Panel de Pon or Pokemon Puzzle League, etc.). Puzzle Mode was small at only 100 levels (Tetris Attack had 120), but it was definitely a better fit for the line-drawing concpets that Mitchell was introducing.

[Click through for more!]

Beyond Tetris

Polarium's Puzzle ModePolarium's puzzles have such a simple concept that it still surprises me that it hadn't been seen before. You must draw a path from over a field of black and white tiles. When you're done, the game flips the polarity of any tiles on your path; black tiles become white, and white tiles become black. If, after the flipping, a row of tiles are all the same color, they disappear. If all the rows disappear in one stroke, victory is yours.

Theoretically, you could win by making a path that includes all of the tiles of one color or the other. In these simplistic levels, Polarium shows its roots in visit-every-space-once challenges like the centuries-old Knight's Tour (which is recorded as early as the ninth century) and the more recent Full House puzzles of Erich Friedman. But you can't even make it through the tutorial before this strategy falls apart. Polarium is filled with dead-end paths and stranded tiles. To survive, you have to start making decisions: This row is going to be all black, but the next row is going to be all white. Then white again, and then black three times.

Polarium has a lot of decisions to make. In addition to choosing the polarity of each row, you have to figure out on your own where you're going to start and where you're going to end. Sometimes it doesn't matter, but some puzzles can only be solved with the correct start and finish points. Many of the puzzles have several alternate solutions, but the game doesn't bother judging or ranking your puzzle solutions. All of this freedom to makes the puzzles fairly accessible, and all but the ten most difficult of Polarium's puzzles fall in a moderate amount of time.

Beyond Polarium

Hurdles and multi-tiles in Polarium AdvanceFor Polarium Advance (which is for the Gameboy Advance, not the DS), Mitchell abandoned all of the Tetris trappings and focused on pure puzzling. The sequel has 365 puzzles—one for every day of the year—in a wider range of difficulty. The order of the puzzles is semi-random, but they are shuffled to generally increase in difficulty throughout the "year." So there aren't just more puzzles, there are more puzzles that make you stop, think, and possibly take a break and before you finish them. In preparing for this article, I was able to burn through Polarium's Puzzle Mode with few interruptions. Polarium Advance has been fighting me back, hard.

The increased difficulty is made possible, in part, by the three tiles that have been introduced to the mix: hurdles (which cannot be crossed), muliti-tiles (which will become whatever color the row needs to be), and solid tiles (which are rather too complicated to explain in this article). By default, a Polarium puzzle is a rectangle of black and white tiles surrounded by an outer frame that can be made part of your path without consequence. But all three of these new tiles let the designer change the layout. The outer frame can be completely or partially eliminated with hurdles, and instead, free spaces can be made on the inside of the puzzle with multi-tiles. With a wider range of layouts, even medium-difficulty become more interesting.

And to maximize the value of each puzzle, Polarium Advance adds extra conditions to each puzzle. After beating a level in the same do-as-thou-wilt manner as Polarium, you can revisit the puzzle with new objectives: your path must start and end at specific points, and it cannot be longer than a certain number of steps. The designers have gone to great lengths to find unusual paths whenever possible. An easy puzzle can become a bear when you're required to start and end in unhelpful positions. Solving the puzzle once is usually a huge help, but there are still times when the revisit seems like a whole new scenario.

Beyond Polarium Advance

A Polarium (DS) puzzle designed by Daniel Whiteman, from Puzzle PolariDespite being a very simple idea, Polarium hasn't seen very much cloning, especially compared to something like Sokoban. Polarium puzzles seem like they'd fit right into the abstract logic puzzles of publishers like Nikoli, but they still exist only on computers. (This may be due to the plethora of possible solutions so many Polarium puzzles have.) And although both games feature a level editor, the most prominent English repository for these puzzles, Puzzle Polari, has been dormant for some time.

In an interview with Insert Credit, Roy Ozaki, Mitchell's president, said, "We will take care of [Polarium]. Personally, I think [Polarium] has potential." Looking at Polarium Advance, it's hard to argue with either of those statements. Polarium does have great potential, and Mitchell has definitely nurtured it with their latest game. But hopefully, it's now time for puzzlers to take care of Polarium and help bring out its potential.

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

Special Report: Wii Loves NY

[Regular GSW columnist Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins spent all of this past Satuday night, and early Sunday morning, at Nintendo's Will launch spectacular in the heart of New York City, Times Square, to provide the following special report on perhaps one of the most successful console launches in history.]

I arrived in Times Square around 8:40pm-ish, forty minutes late for the official kick-off for the midnight countdown for Nintendo's Wii (would have been sooner, but the subways in New York City, especially on a weekend evening, are often frustratingly flakey) and as I approached the Toys R Us, which was the official site for the system’s launch, I was expecting a long line of diehard gamers all waiting for the opportunity to be the very first to take Nintendo's latest little wonder machine home. And that's precisely what I got, but a whole lot more.

[Click through for LOTS more - jeez, Matt, this must be the biggest Wii launch report EVER!]

It was immediately apparent in the first 15 seconds that the proceedings was not going to be the same as Sony's PlayStation 3 launch event from just two days prior. Granted there was also a huge throng of people (though Nintendo's would bring together far more when all was said and done), but that was pretty much it. One key difference was the people themselves. Sony's event had brought together 400 "lucky" gamers, many of whom seemed rather gruff and surly, perhaps because they were all exhausted from waiting in line for many cold and wet hours, even days. Quite a few seemed to have a slight chip on their shoulders, as if they had something to prove, either to others or themselves, for going through such hurdles (the ordeals involved for anyone wanting a PS3, given all the nonsense relating to the oncoming shortage for example, had clearly left their mark). Others obviously wanted to get it all over with so they could just go home and not play their new hot toy, but just put it on eBay and turn a profit.

But not the Nintendo crowd. You could just tell that everyone wanted to be there, and was actually having a great time. People in line were very talkative and friendly, and many were quite proud to show their Nintendo colors (their legion of diehard devotees are often the brunt of messageboards like NeoGAF, but such vocal displays of affection was a breath of fresh air, again when compared to Sony's gathering, which had a strong layer of tension throughout).

And if people weren't chatting, they were just sitting around, enjoying wireless play sessions of assorted DS games (though you had a few PSPs sprinkled about).

Some folks choose to pass the time with games that were not of the video variety, but card or board games. I was half expecting someone to have the Nintendo-themed Monopoly, but alas, no dice.

Nintendo themselves also did an exemplary job of keeping the masses happy, by passing out assorted freebies such as shirts and caps, which helped to keep everyone nice and warm.

They also had folks riding around in Segways with Wiis attached and parked them at assorted spots of the very long line for keeping folks entertained. And that there is another key word, entertained. People playing the system seemed genuinely enthralled by the experience... whereas the looks on most folks' faces at the PS3 event as they tried out assorted launch titles had a definite "oh, so that's it?" expression to them.

The curly-haired kid to the right in the second pictures is Michael. While he played Wii games throughout the evening, his parents were stationed in line, lounging in camping chairs, with either a book or a coffee in hands. I spoke with Michael's mother Leah and she told me that the next day, which was technically a few hours away, was his 13th birthday, with the Wii being his present. When I asked her what she thought of the whole scene, she admitted to be pleasantly surprised, and did mention some hesitation with the idea of waiting in a long line all evening for a video game system, simply because of all the headlines that came from the PS3 lines.

That was also another reoccurring attitude and sentiment; everyone waiting for a Wii simply did not want to be associated with those who had waiting for a PS3. Which not only meant avoiding getting into fisticuffs over a video game system, but also not selling their new acquisition once they got it.

Every single person I asked said that they wanted to play their Wiis, period. And almost every single person, save one, did not have a PS3, nor were they interested in one, at least at its current price tag. The consensus was that there were no games of interest at all, save Metal Gear Solid 4, which as everyone knows is quite a while away. When asked what games they all wanted, the response was loud and clear: Zelda.

Though here's a guy who had no idea what to get. His name is Joe and here he is surfing the web looking for information on what games are coming and what to get. Joe told me that he hasn't had a video game system since the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and that video games haven't really interested him since, but the Wii offered something new and exciting, something worth taking the plunge for. And aside from the sheer number of people waiting in line that evening (which I'll touch upon in just a few) was the cross-section of the people waiting in it. Aside from the diehard gamers, a very sizeable portion were "casual" game players, those who at the very least you wouldn't expect to be there, waiting in line outside in the cold for a game system.

Many seemed to have been bored or scared away from gaming and Nintendo's new system appeared to be the olive branch to bring them back to the fold. Also of note was the variety of age: from young kids (as you already saw with Michael and his friends) to folks in their 40s. This is a strong contrast to Sony's event which only had folks in their 20s, with only one child spotted in the entire time, along with a few older folks in their 50s who obviously looked bored and eager to get the hell out and deliver the goods to whomever benefactor had paid for them to pick up their PS3s. On a side note: when I caught up with Joe later, he told me that everyone in line wanted to let him check their MySpace messages.

Back to the length of the line, it was long. Very long.

I knew it would be long beforehand (a friend of mine who knew I was going to be writing this report had text messaged me the night prior, around 1 in the morning, to say that there was already 75 waiting in line), but I wasn't expecting the scene that was laid out. The line began at TRU's front door, which is the corner of Broadway and 44th street, when up the side of the store, and the ones next to it, turned at 45th street, then went to and turned south on 6th, then turned back onto 44th.

According to various folks, the line had begun forming around Monday, with about a hundred of so bodies by that Saturday afternoon. Then a massive influx developed in the late afternoon. For those who had been there since day one, some of them developed a system to ensure that if anyone had to leave the line, for say a bathroom break, they would be ensured a slot when they returned. It was also developed to avoid line-cutters and the such. The system was simply people putting numbers on the back of their hands, with someone keeping a detail record of who had which number.

At five, TRU and Nintendo began to set their own plans into motion, which meant creating their own designated waiting area for people. And that also meant some of those who had been in line lost their place, which naturally upset them. But practically all bad feeling were wiped away, primarily fears of not being able to get a system, when white wristbands were given out to those in line that would guarantee a system. And the number of bands given out was 3,000. Perhaps more than anything, it was the fact that Nintendo had more than enough stock on hand (4,000 systems in total; 3,000 for the line-waiters and 1,000 left-over for pre-orders and late comers) that helped to set the laid-back, stress free tone of the entire evening. On another side note, it was funny hearing all the rumored numbers of systems that would be on-hand from line-waiters, which ranged from just 83 to 9,000. And at one point, even it was even said that Shigeru Miyamoto would make a surprise appearance.

On-top of all the good feelings, Nintendo also provided various folks on pogo-stilt legs running about, and doing somersaults, as well as a stage on the side of the store with assorted musical acts to lend to a real street-fair atmosphere to the proceedings.

You also had guys with LCD monitors strapped to their backs giving out information. Everyone on staff was exceptionally friendly and helpful. Again, a 180 to the Sony event, in which everyone working was both clueless as to what was going on and visibly exhausted, even annoyed with everything.

The line was either filled with happy folks, or attracting them, such this past summer's internet sensation, and host of GameLife, Andrew.

Even Spider-Man made an appearance.

There was only one cosplayer that I spotted at the TRU line. Her name was Rachel.

Here's two fairly normal guys...

... Nothing special, right? Well, immediately after this picture was taken, the guy on the right spotted a bunch of club girls walking down the street, and here's guessing that girls finally took precedence over video games, because he tried to hop the barricade to go after to them, but got a foot caught and almost broke his nose on the pavement. And unfortunately, the picture of the aftermath didn't come out well at all.

Near the end of the line was Sumayya, a design major at the School of Visual Arts, who created a bunch of buttons and even seat cushions for fellow Wii-fanatics to sit on.

So who happened to be at the very head of the line? Isaiah, aka Triforce, one of the figureheads of the local gamers association known as Empire Arcadia. Anyone who's familiar with the hardcore gaming scene in the Big Apple is no stranger to Triforce and his gang, all of whom were right behind him in line, so it was no surprise really to see him there.

Though I did have to point out the fact that it did seem a tiny bit suspect that he was at the head of the line, and enjoying all the attention that comes with it (he was constantly surrounded my reports and cameras) and at the same time also the star of a brand new reality show on MTV that focuses on gamers... and how the MTV offices are literally across the street, but his reputation would not be questioned, and assured me that he had been waiting since the previous Thursday, well over a week (yikes). When asked what what it meant to be the first person to get a Wii, he went on for over a minute with a rather rambling, and incoherent, response about "giving gamers a voice" and "to help unify the gamers and the game creators." And for anyone who knows the guy can attest that Triforce more than lived up to his reputation.

As previously mentioned, everyone couldn't have been in higher sprits, but it wasn't till an hour before midnight when the anticipation reached a fever pitch. An hour previously the last armband was given out and the final off the street folks were still being let in. More and more drunken party girls from the back-seat of cabs could be hear screaming "Hey, what are you all waiting for? .... A Wii-what? .... A video game system? .... No seriously, what are you waiting for?" At 11:30, some VJ from MTV hit the stage to talk with some folks waiting in line, including two kids and their mother who had been waiting since earlier in the week. The kids were the real gamers of the household, but the mom was clearly the most animated and excited.

Then the president of Nintendo of America, Reggie Fils-Aime went out and was warmly greeted by the crowd. Much like a spiritual leader, or the head of some cult, albeit one consisting of mostly harmless gamer geeks, Reggie gave a short speech that encapsulated what the Wii was all about and all that jazz, which got folks even more pumped and primed for zero hour.

And once Reggie exited the stage, those "extreme" stilt walkers from before went back on stage, hoppin' and a boppin'.

Meanwhile, myself and rest of the press folks followed Reggie into the store. Among all the other representatives for EGM, New York Times, ABC News, and assorted Japanese television crew members were two high school kids reporting on the behalf of their school newspaper. Both were totally bouncing off the walls with excitement to be there, and they were a lot of fun to talk with, until they started to cause such a ruckus, I had the feeling that they would get kicked out of the store, and get me dragged out with them.

Soon we were all downstairs in the video game department, and eventually Triforce made his appearance again, this time at a cash register, with Reggie on the other side to help ring him up.

Then it finally began. The Wii was finally on sale. The flood gates were open and soon groups of about twenty of so people at a time were let down to finally grab their systems.

Numerous cash registers were open throughout the floor, and more kept opening up, one after another.

And once again, there was plenty of Wiis to go around. All throughout were huge bins filled with games and accessories...

... and as soon anything began to become depleted, fresh stock was immediately introduced.

Most folks grabbed one system and a copy of Zelda, though some decided to take advantage of the situation and get one of two of everything.

The energy and excitement that filled the store is simply hard to describe. It felt like a bunch of kids in a candy store, all feverish running around, not because they couldn't find anything, since again there was plenty of everything, but simply due to some gamer's high. Everyone had waiting for that moment, and this was it. Though again, Nintendo and TRU really went the extra mile by having the entire process highly streamlined. As soon as people got off the escalators, they were greeted by TRU employees who had in their hands games and controllers, much like the hot dog vendors at Yankee Stadium.

One last example of the high spirits of everyone is courtesy of Anastasia, a college student from Florida who came up for the launch.

Overall, everyone went away a happy shopper. With the exception of those who wanted component cables, since none were on-hand. For those people, pissed is perhaps putting it lightly.

Here's what the line looked liked around 2 in the morning. There were still thousands of people in line, but things were moving at a fair pace, which was good enough for them. Again, just knowing that a system was waiting for them is good enough.

Afterwards I decided to stop by the Nintendo World Store, which is just a few blocks away from Times Square and TRU to see what the scene was over there. There was another fairly lengthy line... not as long the one at TRU, but substantial nonetheless.

Though the vibe was totally different; it didn't feel like some big party at the other location, but then again, it was far later and it had also gotten much chillier. Hence why most folks were bundled up or passed out.

But they still showed their fandom when possible.

Meanwhile, more than few were also up and about, and simply psyched for what was to come.

And there were even two different Links on-hand.

Even Mario and Luigi were in the crowd.

But the mood was definitely somber. A few in line called themselves the "true" Nintendo fans, because they had been waiting there at the official store instead of hanging out where all the noise was. Many were confused why Nintendo would choose a Toys R Us to be the launch epicenter when they have their own dedicated store just a few blocks away, and I myself felt the same way, til the scale of the TRU event sunk in and it was made apparent that the same thing simply could not have been done in a retail outfit many times smaller. Still. the folks who had initially pre-ordered at the Nintendo World Store were then left frustrated and even torn; some wished they had just gone and bought their system at TRU, especially after they discovered that it was so relatively easy.

As the hours crawled towards 6am, which was the time set for the system to go on sale for pre-sales, and 8am for everyone else, the energy levels began to rise, as did the length of the line believe it or not. But things began to resemble the aforementioned Sony event; most folks were totally confused as to what was going to happen. It was expected at a certain point that the lines would be split, but there were no Nintendo Store representatives to be found anywhere. At around 4 in the morning, a small gathering of folks began to form near the store's entrance, and those who had been waiting patiently nearby all that time (actually, the guys dressed like Mario and Luigi) were afraid that they would have to take a back seat once doors were open. Again, much of the anxiety came from the fact that no one knew how many systems the store had.

At around 5:45am, various store employees began to go down the line and give out info. The line would not be split, and instead those with pre-orders would simply be pulled from the line. When people heard this news, along with word how that there would only be three registers open, all they could do was groan. And everyone began to note that things were operating in a similar fashion as to when Miyamoto visited the store a couple of months ago: extremely disorganized. Again, it kinda began to feel like Sony all over.

But a few minutes after 6, the doors finally opened and the first sales were rung.

When I asked one proud new owner of a Wii if he was going to sleep or play games first, he responded with "Play games of course... plus we're also going to pop the cork and celebrate with some champagne!"

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. Plus he has a regular GSW article, Cinema Pixeldiso, which covers video game related films. Matt also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]

Fun-Motion Wades Around In The Ichor

- Ey up, Matthew Wegner has updated his uber-fun physics blog Fun Motion again, it's time to link it the hell up, isn't it? This time, he reviews Soylent Software's title Ichor, and it looks rather clever.

As Mr. Wegner explains of the free PC title: "Ichor is an experimental physics game by Soylent Software. The developer’s concise description of the game does an excellent job, so I’ll just paste that: 'Ichor is an action game based in fluid dynamics. Each player floats around the screen, trying to engulf his opponent with his own color.'"

There's attached video, and it's added: "The beauty of Ichor is the simplicity of its structure. It immediately becomes obvious that if you touch the other color, you lose, and the goal is to cause opponents to touch your color. Basic movement keys represent the totality of the player input (mouse for single player, keyboard for two-player duels). It’s a very straightforward setup." But OW OW, 'Be warned–the developer recommends a 3Ghz machine or faster" to play it!

On Rule Of Rose's Italian Melodrama

- Matteo Bittanti, who is from Italy, and therefore knows a thing or two about it, has written an excellent long-form discussion of the controversy surrounding Rule Of Rose's European release, as recently covered by Gamasutra and a number of other sites.

Bittanti starts by noting: "Crusades against videogame, especially in technophobic Italy, are as common as rain in November. However, this particular case is fascinating because it is the result of a series of media industry abuses, crass incompetence, and moral panics." Interestingly, this story made it all the way to the front page of The Times in the UK, though, a pretty well-respected paper.

He then sketches European distributor 505 Game Street's alleged attempts to find an 'angle' to sell the PS2 game (which has not, I suspect, sold that well for Atlus in the States) around Europe, noting its hiring of a firm called Media Hook, and explaining: "The philosophy of Media Hook, as described in the company's website, is to create "hooks", stories that media will find interesting." In fact, Bittanti suggests that a major Italian news story headlined "He who buries the little girl wins" may be in some way a bid for publicity partly arranged by the firm.

In any case, however it got into the press: "Panorama's cover story prompted the Italian government to launch a parliamentary discussion on videogames. On November 14 2006 - with unusual alacrity for Italian standards - the members of the Italian parliament gathered to discuss the creation of an independent committee that will evaluate the content of videogames. None of the politicians seemed aware of the existence of the PEGI initiative." For me, this is the key here - there are already pan-European game ratings standards, and the game is rated 18+ - so isn't this a tad witch-hunt-y, yet again?

[Now, you may remember Gamasutra ran a creator interview earlier this year which was, indeed, headlined 'Why Rule of Rose May Be 2006's Most Controversial Game'. But it wasn't the violence, rather the hints at underage sexual feelings that we thought were particularly likely to raise eyebrows. But maybe we're part of the media frenzy too, eh?]

Get Fugu, See Lyuboila Petrolova, Oil Baroness

- Poking around by clicking through on some of GSW's Google Adwords, we came across the Chinese mobile phone distributor Fugu Mobile, whose _awesomely named_ 'Lyiboila Petrolova, Oil Baroness' is available for free on the GameJump page.

Really, how can we resist a title explained as follows: "The anarchy following the breakup of the Soviet Union led to the rise of some unlikely oligarchs. The most unlikely of them all LUYBOILA PETROLOVA, a former porn star turned Oil Baroness with oil fields from the Balkans to Siberia. Help her consolidate her empire by connecting pipelines from her fields to oil hungry countries across the world."? And yes, you must "Lay the pipeline from the Tarim Basin to oil hungry China", for example!

Actually, a bunch of Fugu Mobile's games are highly wacky, including Press 5 Murder, where you skewer Simon Cowell, Paris Hilton, Tom Cruise, and Michael Jackson to a dartboard.

There are also some _really_ interesting choices of war settings, presumably due to a Chinese developer's different world view, including Battleline Okinawa, in which you're shooting down Japanese kamikaze pilots, Battle For The River Kwai, and The Infiltrator, where you must infiltrate a "50 mega-watt nuclear reactor" in North Korea and blow it up.

November 19, 2006

GameSetQ: Which Virtual Console Games Did/Will You Buy?

- Since I presume a bunch of you are now in the possession of Nintendo's Wii, I figured it was time to ask about your Virtual Console download choices - both what you have picked and what you will pick.

So far, me and my wife have grabbed Wario's Woods for the NES ($5 - we were big fans of the SNES version, but the NES version has the same gameplay, so no harm, no foul), and Sim City for the SNES ($8 - it's just a wonderful, meandering romp through urban planning, and the SNES version is just about the best for joypad-based play.)

But how about you guys? What did you buy so far from the launch titles, or what will you buy when you get your Wii (or manage to connect to the store - we hear it's a bit overloaded at times)? And how about the forthcoming announced games - what are you excited about there? Personally, I'm looking forward to the sublime Pilotwings on SNES, Mario Kart 64 on the Nintendo 64, and of course, Duck Hunt on the NES as long as it uses the Wii-mote. Please commence the feedback!

Why Developers Want Critical Analysis

- Over at his personal blog, Ubisoft's Splinter Cell design guru Clint Hocking has been discussing 'the game community's failure provide critical analysis of [games]', and brings up some interesting points.

Referencing Ian Bogost's recent Bully critique on Serious Games Source, he notes, among other things, that "critical analysis ultimately protects us from censorship", also adding: "Our responses to attacks on a game like Bully - indeed, even our simple reviews of it, are increasingly 'framed in the language and issues of the public debate'. Shouldn't it be the other way around?"

But Hocking's final and overarching point is that "critical analysis of our games improves our ability to make games", and he feels it's just not happening right now in game reviews, concluding: "I would pay a thousand dollars cash to overhear two developers who played the shit out of my game tear it apart over beers in a bar. I am reasonably confident that I would make that thousand back ten times over with what I would learn from such an event." Extremely interesting.

Video Games Grab Our Hearts, Hands, Faces

- Hm, I may be a bit tardy on this one, but UK journo/photographer Jon Jordan (who also writes a weekly column on the Europe game biz for Gamasutra) has been getting lots of attention, even from ze mythical BoingBoing, for his Flickr gallery of gamer hands, all joystick-ing or otherwise portable-ing in charmingly different ways.

As well as being an excellent writer, Jon has officially photographed GDC Europe on more than one occasion (causing me anguish when I find out he can't write stuff cos he's taking pictures of stuff!), and I also note his photos from the Gamecity 06 event are up and very neat-looking - hey, there's Edge's Margaret Robertson hiding behind a glass of water, as Edge editors do quite a lot. His GDC '06 pics are nice, too. [via Pocket Gamer.]

[All of this finally brings me round to linking Phillip Toledano's pictures of gamer faces, which are also rather telling - really, all this points out that a lot of game-related photos are kinda useless, and photojournalism and game journalism need to get a bit closer together.]

Episodic? Schmepisodic, The New Gamer Claims

- Those hombres at The New Gamer (specifically G.Turner) are back with a piece called 'Why We Should Want Episodic Games', and it has some genuine insight.

Something Turner dings developers for is simply completeness: "I don't want to kick episodic games to the curb quite yet as, apart from perhaps Majestic, no episodic effort has yet to even complete an entire run yet. With the number of 'stalled' efforts sadly piling up (SiN, Bone both being recent efforts lacking any official future), it's sad to think that the potential is being squandered."

He continues: "But, if developers can't provide bite-sized games with some frequency and flexibility, why bother with announcing a six-episode game that'll just get cut short? Why not release it as a compromised, fifteen hour game so we can at least play some of the intended vision?"

This is very interesting because it speaks to the problems of how damn long it takes to make games, and also the flipside of one of the supposed advantages of episodic games - that you can just stop making 'em if they're not successful. But what of the customer then?

Second Life's Town Hall, Clickably Explained

- Tony Walsh at Clickable Culture can always be relied upon to update us on Second Life's goings-on (albeit sometimes with a pretty cynical bent!), and his latest post rounds up a Linden Lab town hall meeting regarding the hypetastic virtual world.

The 'CopyBot controversy' comes up, since people are starting to clone each other's items, and apparently: "Rosedale said that Linden Lab has "no connection" to the LibSL project that spawned CopyBot, adding that the company neither endorses or rejects the project. "The idea of preventing reverse engineering is absurd," he said. "It’s been easily done, and legal restrictions across national boundaries don’t work.""

Also notable: "Rosedale said that Second Life's "central architecture" is having trouble scaling to meet the virtual world's population increase. "There are 75k people in Second Life each day, and 100 Lindens," he said (concurrent usage oscillates between about 6k and 15k at this time)."

[Apart from all the hype, it's the tech in Second Life I have the biggest problem with (my few stints in the world have mainly involved sitting around waiting for textures and meshes to load), so I'm imagining that a good close look is being given to it - maybe coming from a game background, I'm spoiled, though, and I do understand that the freedom given in the game makes it difficult to cache or otherwise optimize the world.]

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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