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February 3, 2007

Is This The Last 2006 Gaming Retrospective?

- The answer is, of course, probably not, but I felt like The New Gamer's 2006 Retrospective article may actually be the last one that GSW links - since it's February 2007, and all!

There are a couple of interesting parts, too - like D. Riley picking Okami as his most disappointing moment of 2006: "Okami was an excellent fifteen to twenty hour Zelda-type adventure game. Unfortunately, it was a fifteen hour game that someone decided to stretch it to over twice that length and the results were nigh-on disastrous. After a while the obviously palette swapped enemies and overly long fetch quests were bound to get one anyone's nerves."

Or indeed, G. Turner being most surprised by: "Hands down, Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime. What appeared at first to be a generic spin-off turned out to be a nicely conceived, albeit simplistic, action-adventure game. It didn't serve up anything new but, what it did, it did with glee and fun. The ship battles were especially amusing, and the puns actually made me laugh." All very readable, this, so go read it.

Resident Evil 4 - Sekrits In Demo Versions?

- Randomly via the Lost Levels forums, I happened upon a pretty amazing guide to the Resident Evil 4 trial editions, over at the super-indepth 'The Horror Is Alive' RE fansite.

It's explained: "Shortly before the release of Resident Evil 4 in the United States fans were shocked to learn certain retailers were receiving stock of a very peculiar disc. Available only to those who pre-ordered, it was titled "Resident Evil 4 Preview Disc". Given away at most Gamestops and EB Games in the states, most of the stock was left unclaimed and therefore it was decided to simply give the disc away to anyone who wanted one."

He continues: "Less known, is the Resident Evil 4 Demo which was shipped to your home after purchasing the Resident Evil 2 pack, Pure Evil. More uncommon is the Nintendo Kiosk demo's which also contained Resident Evil 4 demos. So how many demos are known, and are any of them different? This article hopes to answer those questions." And so it does, over a grand total of 28 pages (!), with an insane amount of in-depth info - the site's other features also have some very cool otaku-like details, include several translations of Japanese-only RE backstory.

The most interesting thing by far is that the trial versions have been hacked, most notably to reveal removed 'Heat, Light, and Slow' effects that were left over from the semi-scrapped and adapted Resident Evil 3.5, which also included scenes in an airship, according to debug info - plenty more info about earlier RE4 versions on the Wikipedia page, for those not in the know.

Lost Planet's Composer Talks Long-Term Goals

- This is actually from a few weeks back, but I just stumbled across it, so - Music 4 Games has a neat interview with Lost Planet composer Jamie Christopherson, who has also written music for game projects such as Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth (EA Games) and Lineage II: The Chaotic Chronicle (NCSoft).

Interestingly, Christopherson reveals that Lost Planet (oo, looks like the official blog has a new Jun Takeuchi interview) really was a long-term project for Capcom, probably explaining why it looks so darn pretty: "This game had the longest production cycle of any project that I have ever worked on. From the initial meeting with the producers until the release of the game it will have been almost three years! That being said, I worked on the project in multiple phases, with long breaks in between each phase. The plot did change a lot in that time frame, as the Capcom team constantly revised the way the story developed."

Also interesting is discussion on collaboration: "This project was the second time I’ve worked with Capcom, following a successful collaboration on Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams. They are truly a wonderful and easy company to work with. While they do have a great interpreter in house for our email communications, sometimes it can be difficult to figure out exactly what kind of music they wanted from text only. That can often be the case with any producer or director, foreign or not. I definitely prefer to meet directly with the person in charge of making music decisions whenever possible. Fortunately, Capcom flew out here to our studios in Hollywood at the start of every phase of music production to meet and discuss any questions that I had regarding the music to be written."

Amazing Gamers With Disabilities

- Over at 1UP, they recently posted a nicely done feature on gamers with disabilities, with plenty of good stories about how gamers make do, often in entertaining and heartwarming ways (aw).

For example, Jonathan Sondergold, who is significantly hearing impaired "...has worn hearing aids for most of his life, which have allowed him to tune into the soundtracks and sound effects in certain games, particularly those of low pitch. To accent his Final Fantasy X experience, his brothers hooked up his PlayStation 2 to a subwoofer and surround-sound speakers. "The Thundaga spell was my favorite after that," he says. "It scared the s*** out of the dog.""

But the dog may once again have more calming sounds! "In 2006, Sondergold received a cochlear implant, which stimulates the auditory nerve and sends signals to the brain to identify sounds (as opposed to a regular hearing aid, which simply amplifies sounds). He's getting his fill of the everyday sounds of life he's missed out on, including in-game voices. "I can hear everything now. It's a little dizzying."" This is the kind of game-related feature that all major game sites should be smart enough to run.

[And while we're talking about 1UP, we might as well point out that the new Retro Roundup is up, and it includes a crushing indictment of Mario Kart 64 and a piteous plea for someone to re-release Cannon Dancer on a retro service. We can identify with both, and thus have linked it.]

February 2, 2007

Want The Back Cover To Monkey Island 2? Sure!

- We at Game Developer may or may not be plotting something Steve Purcell-related for the March 2007 cover, but before we get into that, we spotted that World Of Monkey Island is linking to an eBay auction for the original Monkey Island 2 box back cover, and oh my, it's rather gorgeous.

The WoMI folks comment: "I've always loved the box art for the original games and it is a real treat to see it in full without text and screenshots covering parts of it. I'm just wondering, is the skeleton holding the frame included? Check out the auction to make a bid and see more close-up images of the illustration."

Purcell himself explains: "Much of the image was cropped on the printed box to accommodate the package text so there is more to the image than has been seen before (including the fetching mermaid who's being devoured by a sea serpent)... LucasArts owns the copyright to the image so you can't reproduce it for sale but the opportunity to own a piece of the painted art from the classic era of LucasArts Adventure Games is rare." Indeed it is, but bidding starts at $995, so those used to buying cheap posters of game art may need to step up their bidding.

Oddworld's Lanning Talks Game-Movie Mashup

- There's another nice piece at Edge Online dealing with the current plans of Oddworld Inhabitants' Lorne Lanning, now that his money hat has been revoked, and there's all kinds of things worth poking in there.

Particular, there are his claims on Stranger's Wrath, his final game project before jumping into the murky waters of CG movie with follow-up game with the forthcoming Citizen Siege: "There were no marketing dollars behind Stranger’s Wrath – and that was a business decision on behalf of EA – that choice sealed the sales. It still sold over half a million units, but people don’t buy $50 entertainment products if they don’t know what they are. And they didn’t have an opportunity to know about Stranger’s Wrath; so what that told us was that we need to swim in bigger ponds."

He rages: "We don’t want to invest three years of our life to just have a publisher abandon our title. If our game’s not on all the right platforms, or if a publisher neglects their half of the deal, are you just going to keep on living by the business practices of the industry? And our answer was: ‘No, we’re better than that.’" Let's see how the crazy world of movie production treats Oddworld and friends, huh?

ATEI Show Discovers Our Arcade Future

- Digging through a backlog of links, I don't think any blogs really spotted that Eurogamer has a really nice write-up of the ATEI 2007 arcade show in London, discussing "the UK's annual 'slot-machine' show held at Earl's Court".

There's some great stuff in here, too: "Manic Panic Crush, a Point Blank styled mini-game marathon has clearly looked to the DS for its inspiration. Boasting a 50-inch touch-screen (just think about the implications of that for a moment...) the game requires one or two players to use the 'Magic Wand' peripheral (essentially a big rubber sucker) to whack and swipe the screen in order to clear simple levels and bosses. Again, this is the kind of remarkable technology is simply not affordable/suitable for use in the home yet and, despite the basic gameplay, it signposted what might be possible in a few years' time."

Also, and YAY: "The final surprise of the show was Namco's Mario Kart Arcade GP2. The bright, primary-coloured cabinet houses four screens and kart seats and boasts as its dubious but proudly proclaimed USP: live play-by-play commentary which, according to the blurb, "makes the game intense". As well as featuring all the usual suspect characters the game introduces an incongruous-looking Mamechi "fresh from planet Tamagotchi", new courses and, controversially to long-time series fans, loads and loads of new items." Hadn't seen that anywhere either.

[UPDATE: Commenter 'fuse' has a really nice set of ATEI pictures up on his Flickr account, too, for those wanting to see a few more pics of the games, which also included the v.odd "2 Spicy" gun game and House Of The Dead 4 Special.]

COLUMN: 'Arcade Obscurities' - Namco's Dancing Eyes

Dancing Eyes by Namco[Arcade Obscurities is a bi-weekly column by Solvalou.com's Arttu Ylärakkola, probing some of the most interesting and obscure arcade games yet to be covered in the geek gaming press, thanks to Arttu's JAMMA board collection, and our insatiable quest for knowledge. This third column looks at Namco's odd/creepy 1996 3D puzzle action title Dancing Eyes.]

We all know the stereotypical perception of females in most video games. It gets even more embarrassing when dealing with games that contain women only to attract a bigger crowd: just think about all the zillions of "sexy" mahjongg games or "erotic" Qix clones.

However, when examining such a "genre" more carefully, one can find some that are actually very playable, some that are just plain offensive, and some that are out-there weird. Yes, weird in the way that makes you wonder how on earth such projects ever got greenlighted by a sane company. A prime example of a game like that is Namco's Dancing Eyes.

Dancing Eyes, Shrinking Clothes?

Dancing Eyes by Namco In Dancing Eyes you are a mouse in a grid-like landscape. When moving around the landscape's gridlines, you can (by pressing a button) eat away the lines. If you succeed in eating all the lines around one or multiple grid sections, that part of the landscape disappears. Eat enough and you complete the level, and can choose the next one from two presented choices. Your only problem is that there are various nasties that try to catch you. But fortunately pick-ups are available which give you special abilities, such as faster movement or weapons which you can use to eliminate your enemies.

What makes Dancing Eyes weird is that in most levels, the landscape which you try to destroy is clothing! There's nothing too weird (remember that we're talking about Japan-only video games here) about undressing 3D models of big-eyed Japanese girls, but after a stage or two you start to unconver such things as cows, male bodybuilders, sweaty salarymen. Unsurprisingly, the game lets you freely rotate the camera around while the undressed person/animal/whatever poses for you once the level has been completed.

Exactly The Novelty Effect!

Is Dancing Eyes a good game? No, but it's a perfect example of the kind of Japanese arcade weirdness that gets giggles from anyone who's ever seen the game. It's a road to insanity, as you start a new game, and while your mouse eats away a teenager's army wear in Level 1, you think it as a completely normal video game activity.

Then again, your comparison point is probably: "That cow with the enormous udders in Level 5's barrel was weird". Don't get me wrong - I am not moralizing: it's just that Dancing Eyes goes far beyond the weirdness of a normal T&A puzzle game.

So - Dancing Eyes, released in 1996, runs on Namco's PlayStation 1-like System 11 hardware. The game's not available for any console format, but don't despair if you don't have an arcade cabinet set-up: you can buy an action figure instead!

Your DS Is Now A... Guitar?

- The handy blog of New York-based import game retailer NCSX has added info on Plato's Hiite Utaeru DS Guitar M-06 for DS, which is, semi-unbelievably, "the strangest axe ever in the annals of guitar technology."

It's explained: "With 16 chords to use at any time from a library of 120, users may strum out a song relatively easily if you're familiar with basic guitar playing. We were able to play the Main Riff I for "Fast Car" by Tracy Chapman and "Torn" from Natalie Imbruglia this morning by following guitar tabs found on the web. In addition to its function as a guitar, the software also includes a library of 20 songs and a listening-then-repeating exercise."

The NCSX game notes have lots more detail, explaining: "On the touch screen, a thick crop of vertical lines represent the guitar string. It's pasted against a black background so that the focus is the line itself. To play, strum the line with your touch pen or finger and you'll hear a twang. Change chords with the D-pad by moving it in the direction of the chords shown on the top screen and the tone of the twang changes every time you move the D-pad to another chord." This is wild.

February 1, 2007

Bring Your Pinatas To The Slaughterhouse

- Yeah, there's a vague Iron Maiden reference in this post's title, but Raph Koster, one would imagine, isn't a Bruce Dickinson fan - he is, however, slightly disturbed by Viva Pinata, which is a touch more interesting than being obsessed by Lord Iffy Boatrace or whatever.

Anyhow, Koster comments: "The interesting thing about Viva Pinata to me is that it isn’t what you think it is. It looks like yet another take on the whole pet thing — virtual critters, only this time you have a garden to keep them in. But it’s nothing nearly so innocuous. No, you see, Viva Pinata is actually a game about animal husbandry in the “raise ‘em and kill ‘em for food” sense, and all of the cute little hats you can buy for them and amusing nicknames you can give them are just ways to tug at your heartstrings in the moment before you casually put them to death."

You know, when I raved about the game a few weeks back, I didn't notice the slightly macabre elements of the title - but Koster does, referencing chef Gordon Ramsay's decision "to raise turkeys in his backyard, with his kids tending them, specifically so they could be slaughtered for Christmas dinner and served up to those self-same kids, as well as all the patrons in the TV show’s restaurant", and commenting: "My daughter cried when her first beloved pinata pet was eaten by a predator — sorry, made sick and sour by Dastardos — but she got over it. Fast."

His conclusion? "So here are my kids replicating [Ramsay's animal-slaughtering] with virtual candy-and-papier-mache . And to some degree, it makes me nervous about getting them a dog. After all, what’s the big deal? We can always order another one." He's not really that worried, but ends: "Sometimes I wish it carried a bit more of the stink of the slaughterhouse, and a little less jaunty music and colorful pastel artwork." You know what? Ech!

AGS Adventure Award Nominees Announced

- The most excellent Adventure Games website has pointed out an important announcement: "After an initial round of open nominations, the nominees for the 2006 AGS Awards were announced today. The AGS Awards honor the best (and worst) games created with the popular Adventure Game Studio engine in a given year."

The story continues: "This year is an interesting one for the awards, because for the first time multiple high-profile commercial games, including Al Emmo and The Lost Dutchman's Mine, The Shivah, The Blackwell Legacy and Super Jazz Man, are competing against the Underground games that have made up the nominees in years past."

It's notable that there _have_ been more AGS games in the news this year - good news for all! The story continues: "Although several of the commercial entries did well, the bigger winner today was Reactor 09 by Bernhard 'Bernie' Politsch, which (appropriately enough) took nine nominations."

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Shadow Hearts

['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we take a look at the work of Sacnoth/Nautilus, creators of the Shadow Hearts series.]


koudelka.jpgShadow Heart’s developer Sacnoth got its start in 1997 when a group of Squaresoft employees split off to form their own studio. Headed by Hiroki Kikuta, the music composer for the Secret of Mana series, Sacnoth had an ambitious goal of reinventing RPGs and moving them beyond stale genre conventions. Their first effort was Koudelka for the Playstation, published by SNK for America in 1999.

The game opens with a movie of a lonely rider crossing a darkened moor. A haunting viola strain plays as the empty landscape is scoured by wind and rain. The cloaked rider eventually arrives at the crumbling ruins of an abandoned monastery that is right out of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. The opening FMV sets a tone so perfect, so drenched in atmosphere and mystery, that the ensuing game play comes as an abrupt shock, falling far short of one’s initial expectations.

On the surface, Koudelka looked like an ornately rendered survival horror game, a sort of gothic Resident Evil, except with turn-based combat and lots of RPG style stat management. Set in 19th century Wales, Koudelka’s narrative was literate, with mature characters voiced by some excellent acting talent. Unfortunately, two steps into the game you were faced with a combat system that was so wrong that it completely undermined everything else that the developer got right. A typical engagement could take up to ten minutes to complete, with probably half of that time just maneuvering your character into a position to fight. Once combat was done, the encounter rate was so high that after taking two more steps you were in it again. A full description of how not fun Koudelka was could take up an entire essay so let me just emphasize that the game was tedious in the extreme.

And yet, there was something about Koudelka that made it difficult to dismiss as just another crap game. Yes it was bad, but it was tragically bad in way that hinted at the possibility of greatness. Masochists may want to seek it out, but please don’t pay more than $25.


faselei.jpgSacnoth also developed a mech strategy game for the Neo Geo Pocket Color that had the unfortunate luck of being released just as SNK was going bankrupt in 2000. Barely making it on to the UK market before SNK pulled its inventory from the shelves, Faselei! never saw a US release. However, in 2003 the Neo Geo Pocket Color was rereleased in America as a value priced package called Pocket Color Arcade that included a varying selection of six games, one of which was the English version of Faselei!. The Pocket plus six games package seems to be gone now but loose Faselei! cartridges can be easily acquired for around $15. I imagine that a boxed UK version must sell for significantly more although I could not find one.

Shadow Hearts

shadow_hearts.jpgAfter the collapse of SNK, the pachinko and casino game manufacturer Aruze Entertainment acquired Sacnoth and Hiroki Kikuta left the company. Leadership passed to Matsuzo Itakura and Sacnoth began work on a Playstation 2 follow-up to Koudelka called Shadow Hearts. Released in the US in 2001 by Midway, Shadow Hearts was an improvement over its predecessor in every way.

While not a direct sequel, the story of Shadow Hearts was related to Koudelka and shared characters and settings. Taking place in China and Europe shortly before World War One, Shadow Hearts told a story of powerful warlocks summoning godlike entities from beyond time and space in an effort to control the world with only a spirited band of ragtag adventurers to stand in the way. The fast paced game swung wildly between the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft and the exuberant goofiness of Big Trouble in Little China. Although Shadow Hearts could not be read as a history lesson, its 20th century setting and awareness of history was a refreshing change for RPGs. The game’s acknowledgment of Imperial Japan’s abuses in China was also notable, particularly coming from a Japanese developer.

Graphically, the game was attractive without being showy, using three dimensional polygon characters and moving them around lavishly rendered two dimensional backgrounds. Character designs by Miyako Kato were large, vibrant and well animated. Adding to the game’s feverish spook house mood were some extremely surreal monsters to fight against. During combat, the special effects were vivid bursts of light and color. The soundtrack by Yoshitaka Hirota and Yasunori Mitsuda was excellent, sometimes rocking and sometimes delicate, but never boring.

Looking at it over someone’s shoulder, Shadow Hearts might have appeared to be a pretty standard issue RPG. However, with controller in hand, it was quickly apparent that something fresh and exciting was going on. First and foremost Shadow Hearts was a game to be played; something that many other RPGs forget. It is in play that this game really shines.

The Judgment Ring

judgement_ring.jpgAll three of the Shadow Hearts games feature a game mechanic called the Judgment Ring that comes into play during the turn based combat but extends to other areas of the game as well. Any action that you may take, such as striking an enemy, casting a spell, or using an item requires a spin of the Judgment Ring. This involves making a series of timed button presses as a cursor swings quickly around the ring like the hand of a clock. The speed of the cursor can vary as well as the number and spacing of the button presses. As your technique improves it is possible to effect more favorable outcomes by hitting the button at precise moments. This simple mechanic creates a situation in which even the most minor interaction requires attention and skill.

Combat is no longer the drudge work that many RPGs make it out to be, instead becoming a fast paced and exciting challenge. Although the Shadow Hearts games are not overly difficult, the Judgment Ring brings an element of risk to every encounter. If your mind wanders during combat and you begin to fumble, a low level monster can easily eat your lunch. Even the frequently dry book keeping tasks of purchasing items and upgrading equipment are enlivened by the Judgment Ring as you angle for discounts and prizes. Nailing a perfect swing on the Judgment Ring brings a great feeling of satisfaction, knowing that you have succeeded because of skill, rather than luck.

Although out-of-print, Shadow Hearts was relatively easy to find but lately that has changed. Now online appears to be the best place to search for it with auctions closing around $40 and sometimes as high as $60.

Shadow Hearts: Covenant

sh_covenant.jpgSacnoth changed its name to Nautilus for the next game in the Shadow Hearts series. Titled Shadow Hearts: Covenant, the game was released by Midway in 2004 for America. In Covenant the supernatural action moved forward, taking place in Europe during World War One, with the mad monk Rasputin playing the villain. The game’s visuals were given an overhaul, moving to a fully real-time 3D presentation, but the core game play remained intact with the Judgment Ring continuing to bring pulse-quickening thrills.

Covenant is also out-of-print but still easy to find at about $25.

Shadow Hearts From the New World

sh_new_world.jpgIn 2006, XSEED Games published Nautilus’ third Shadow Hearts game for America called Shadow Hearts From the New World. Set in 1929 North America, New World features a bizarre cast of characters, including a bowling ninja, a drunken feline movie star, and a vampire who crash lands a flying saucer in Roswell. Enthusiastically silly, New World is a brightly lit vacation from the series’ dark undercurrent that seems to take nothing too serious except having fun. Once more, the Judgment Ring provides a solid foundation of game play.

Shadow Hearts From the New World is still available new for $38.

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

Grand Theft Auto Bike Stunt Vert Attack

- Originally spotted over on swirling cauldron of iniquity NeoGAF, there's a rather fine Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas bike/motorbike stunt video up on YouTube - and blimey, those guys can ride.

All of the stunts are pretty ridiculous, but the one that takes the biscuit starts at about 1.18, and sees a motorbike charging off the entrypoint to a bridge and straight through the air, to make a pinpoint landing on an, uhm, boat in the middle of the harbor. I see other YouTube vids from these folks, too - The Getaway 2, for one, which has an awesome motorbike dismount trick at about 1.20.

Looks like GTAStunting's videos are a great starting point for 50+ crazed GTA stunt videos - go explore at your leisure (my fave - Interlocked at 5.09 for some kind of gymnastic motorbike buildingside dismount!) Still, my favorite comment on the first YouTube vid, though: "I'm a motorcycle (sportbike) rider and I feel totally disconnected from this stuff. The real thing is much better and, perhaps hard to believe but true, much more spectacular and engaging." Just in case you thought the two were related, or anything?

2007 Independent Games Summit - Passes Sold Out!

- So, you remember that 2007 Independent Games Summit thing that I'm helping to organize at GDC? Well, if you go look at the 2007 IGS homepage, you'll find that the 2-day conf (being held on March 5th-6th at the Moscone Center in SF) is now full - and this after doubling room size, yikes!

As is noted in the updated session description: "NOTE: This event is now SOLD OUT - no more tickets are available for it. Independent Games Summit Classic/Expo Pass holders should arrive early for seating for the sessions, since seats will be first-come, first-served." FYI!

In other words, if you're a Giga/VIP Pass holder for GDC or press, you're also allowed to attend, but we're going to try to make sure that everyone who specifically bought tickets for the Independent Games Summit, or indicated that they were attending on their reg form, gets in first - mainly by encouraging them to turn up early. So be smart and don't be late, eh?

A reminder of the content again: "Featuring lectures, postmortems and roundtables from some of the most notable independent game creators around, including many of the Independent Games Festival finalists for this year, the 2007 Independent Games Summit seeks to highlight the brightest and the best of indie development." We're going to touch on everything from PC distro via places like Manifesto Games, through Xbox Live Arcade and even PS3 E-Distribution - though we've not yet managed to get a Nintendo representative confirmed - hopefully there's still time for them to come through! Anyhow, even for those who can't make it, we're hoping to have lots of session write-ups for Gamasutra's coverage, so don't worry too much if you didn't register in time, aw.

January 31, 2007

Left Behind Closes Barn Door, Post-Rapture

- We've posted a few times about the Christian PC RTS Left Behind, and for some reason, some folks from maker Left Behind Games have chosen a November 2005 GSW post (in which we said nothing rude about the game!) to paste a slightly aggrieved message, which goes something like this.

"This statement is posted from an employee of Left Behind Games on behalf of Troy Lyndon, our Chief Executive Officer. There has been in incredible amount of MISINFORMATION published in the media and in online blogs here and elsewhere.

Pacifist Christians and other groups are taking the game material out of context to support their own causes. There is NO “killing in the name of God” and NO “convert or die”. There are NO “negative portrayals of Muslims” and there are NO “points for killing”.

Please play the game demo for yourself (to at least level 5 of 40) to get an accurate perspective, or listen to what CREDIBLE unbiased experts are saying after reviewing the game at www.leftbehindgames.com/pages/controversy.htm. Then, we’d love to hear your feedback as an informed player. The reality is that we’re receiving reports everyday of how this game is positively affecting lives by all who play it. Thank you for taking the time to be a responsible blogger."

Oh wait, I guess they pasted it on all of our blog posts about the game, even those semi-defending it. Also, apparently: "Many of the technical issues these reviewers experienced were with a non-updated version of the game." Is one of the 'technical issues' that the game is no good? Cos that's what the reviewers seem to be saying, Left Behind folks. And why don't you people be responsible blog responders and reply in the context of the original post, ahem?

XBLA Goodness Includes Chowdown From Eets

- You may have already spotted the news over at Gamasutra, but "representatives from Microsoft have released information on ten of the Xbox Live Arcade titles set to hit the service in 2007", and several notable indie titles are buried in there.

In particular, we previously hinted at the possibility of Eets: Chowdown for XBLA, and it looks like it's made it - there's a special page about it on Eets' site, with the folks commenting: "We’ve completely revamped the control scheme to work smoothly with the controller (in fact some of us even prefer it to the mouse), it’s presented in HD glory, it’s got new items, new levels, new action-game, new special effects, new scoring system… the works."

With Metanet also working with Klei to bring N to Xbox Live Arcade, with "a number of enhancements as well, including a level editor that will allow players to make and exchange their own levels", it's looking like XBLA should be great fun for indie lovers in 2007.

Daemon Offers Sex, Weapons, Power, Gaming References?

- An interesting phenomenon recently has been book publishers trying to pitch/sell books via the game press - and here's the latest one, for hacker novel 'Daemon'. Here's the blurb I got: "Somewhere there's a computer program scanning the web - searching for one man's obituary. Only then will it activate. . . and begin to tear civilization apart. That's the premise of 'Daemon', a new techno-thriller by Leinad Zeraus."

Game relevance? "A serious gamer himself and veteran IT consultant to Fortune 1000 companies, Zeraus has written a book as technically accurate as it is terrifying. Daemon is a fast-paced, gripping novel, that's already being stocked at the MIT University bookstore. Since you're an opinion-maker in the gamer community, I'd like to send you a free review copy of Daemon."

Wait, what relevance? "Daemon is about all the things gamers love: Action, MMOG’s, hacking, sex, weapons, power, and the dark crawlspaces beneath the modern world." You're right, I do actually like most of these!

Anyhow, I found it most interesting of all that the lead quote praising the book was from 'Tom Leonard - Lead AI Programmer, Half-Life 2 (Valve Software)', who said: “Daemon is a thought-provoking novel that presents real technologies in a new and terrible light. It's a hard book to put down.” Yes, game developers are now cooler than authors for recommending books.

The Frowny, Disoriented Face Of Gizmondo + BONUS HILARITY

- Thanks to Marc-André Caron from Ubisoft Montreal for pointing to Stefan Eriksson's appearance in Business 2.0's '101 Dumbest Moments In Business'.

Really, the article itself is a rehash of what we already know ("After leading videogame-console startup Gizmondo to nearly $400 million in losses and a bankruptcy filing, edgy entrepreneur Stefan Eriksson wrecks his $1 million Ferrari Enzo in a crash in Malibu in February... Eriksson pleads no contest to embezzlement and drunk driving charges and is sentenced to three years in jail"), but that picture is... kinda priceless. It's the orange jumpsuit that does it?

Meanwhile, I was looking for extra 'flavor' for this article, and OH MY GOD, it's Gizmondo's ridiculous street-scene exhibit space, which I remember walking through at E3 2005, I think? Anyhow, original cost was $2 million (ouch!), and it's now selling for just $110,000. This really would be the ultimate Gizmondo collectible, wouldn't it?

January 30, 2007

GameTunnel Licks FizzBall Right Into February

- The inestimable Russell Carroll pointed out that we'd forgotten to run anything on Game Tunnel's Top 10 Downloadable Games for January, so now we're linking to it, come hell or high water.

The 'gorgeous' opening blurb explains: "January starts the year off with not one, not two, but three Gold Award winners! Independent, Casual, and Downloadable games seem to be getting better all the time, and this month's round-up starts the new year off right with PopCap's RPG meets word game Bookworm Adventures, Cryptic Sea's explosive puzzler Blast Miner and the return of Grubby Games' ever popular Professor Fizzwizzle in FizzBall. It's 10 games you may not have heard about...but should definitely check out." Of course, we've heard of them, but we're smartypants.

Overall, Mike Hommel is suitably happy about IGF finalist and excellent Game Of The Month, Fizzball: "Hey, it's what I wanted! A breakout game that actually does something new! I won't say what it's a cross between, because the other round-uppers will. Also, at long last, somebody has borrowed the Gravitron from Breakquest! Only it's in reverse, in the form of fans." Fizzball is well worth checking out, if you haven't already.

GDC 2007 - Last Chance Saloon For Early Reg!

- Hello campers! Just wanted to point this one out - not quite so much through rampant self-promotion, but more through a 'don't forget' type of logic. As we mentioned on Gamasutra earlier, the early reg. deadline for the 2007 Game Developers Conference (run by my compatriots in the CMP Game Group!) is fast approaching, so you have til the end of Wednesday, January 31st to register at significantly reduced rates.

So, and I quote massively here: "This year's GDC is confirmed as having two major keynotes, featuring Sony's Phil Harrison, the President of Worldwide Studios for the PS3 creator, on "Game 3.0: Developing and Creating for the 3rd Age of Video Games", and Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto making a rare Western appearance to talk about "A Creative Vision" and Nintendo's plans.

Some of the highlights of the main conference itself, which runs from Wednesday March 7th to Friday March 9th, include recently announced lectures from Warren Spector on 'The Future Of Storytelling', talks on Alan Wake's tools, the physics in MotorStorm, and making The Sims for Wii.

Other top talks still include Tsutomu Kouno presenting a postmortem of LocoRoco, Castlevania's Koji 'Iga' Igarashi discussing the 'Light and Darkness of 2D Gaming', and Id boss Todd Hollenshead talking on games and the piracy problem, as well as Ubisoft producer Jade Raymond on Assassin's Creed, Rare discussing Viva Pinata's unique graphics shaders, and Elite Beat Agents' Keiichi Yano on making the cult DS title. Also featured are lectures by Killer 7's Goichi 'Suda51' Suda, Lionhead's Peter Molyneux, and a rare postmortem of Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII.

Special events and other highlights at GDC 2007 (which is created by the CMP Game Group, as is Gamasutra) include the Game Developers Choice Awards on the Wednesday night, two separate expo floors including a multitude of game-related companies and international pavilions, as well as the Independent Games Festival Pavilion, the Suite Night event, and many associated events.

Also noted on the GDC schedule at a glance are the subconferences running on the Monday and Tuesday of GDC week, including GDC Mobile (featuring a keynote from Digital Chocolate's Trip Hawkins), the Serious Games Summit GDC (with a keynote from Square Enix's Ichiro Otobe), as well as the Casual Games Summit and the new Independent Games Summit (sporting a keynote featuring Llamasoft's Jeff Minter).

Further information on new lectures and existing highlights is available on the GDC news weblog, and the GDC pass options page has full information on pass prices and savings before January 31st." So there!

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Aces High

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers the Another Century's Episode games.]

amuro_nu_ace2.jpgThose of you may remember my low-down of the Armored Core series and a nod to the developer, that of From Software, who created it. As of 2005 From Software have branched into more licensed gaming fare and whilst that may sound like terrifyingly bad news, they’ve approached the task with similar otaku fervour and created a whole new franchise that epitomises their nerd-like stranglehold on all things mecha.

More after the jump…

getter_robo_promo1.jpgLots of people around these parts know about Banpresto’s seminal strategical wonder that is the Super Robot Wars series. As the title implies, the game covers covers “super robots” rather than “real robots”. The difference between the two is an important one in terms of how mecha are classified as a whole.

Super robots are pretty much responsible for the genesis of modern Japanese mecha culture. Almost indestructible pieces of machinery, they can summon immense power capable of drop kicking planets and are piloted by almost feral teenage boys with thick unkempt hair. The structure of the narrative that often frames these fearful robots is that of strength through immense adversity and an almost indomitable sense of honour.

The drawback with supers is that they lack a more tempered human sincerity in terms of the setting that surrounds them. Towards the late seventies, the super robot template had been pretty much saturated. Many were getting sick and tired of the total lack of realism and more importantly the blatant glorification of apocalyptic warfare.

gundam_promo1.jpgCirca 1979 Gundam entered the public view and the real robot was born. One of the reasons Gundam and it’s real robot ilk have been so successful is down to complex characterisation, a more believable narrative and most iconic of all; robots that actually get destroyed. Real robots are fragile, very fragile indeed. So the complex tapestry of neurotic war-hating characters fighting for their very survival makes for compelling storytelling.

Banpresto nailed the super robot in terms of gameplay but repeatedly failed when they branched into the realm of real robots. In 1995 SEGA created the first Virtual On game, very much inspired by the lateral approach to real robot dogfighting it managed to capture the sense of piloting a potent yet fragile mecha. Banpresto, along with many others, decided to outright copy Virtual On’s vectored based combat mechanics and released Real Robots Final Attack at the beginning of 1998 on the original PlayStation.

voot_tem_surf1.jpgIt bombed, horrifically in fact. This wasn’t helped by Virtual On Oratorio Tangram’s then imminent Dreamcast port released in the same year, showing up the derivation even further. In all fairness, Banpresto were onto something but it took them another 7 years to cotton on to that.

Cue Hideo Kojima’s desire to enter the mechanical fray with the Zone of the Enders games. Again, very heavily “inspired” by SEGA’s Virtual On it managed to offer something a bit more coherent despite having a broken implementation of linking melee and distanced combat (something that Virtual On’s fixed length dashes originally negated).

What probably caught Banpresto’s attention in regards to ZOE was Konami’s fevered attempt at hyping the series further by creating anime tie-ins to the games. The real robot had come of age in games; it was now producing anime as a consequence of its success.

All the while From Software were producing successively successful iterations of its Armored Core franchise. Shortly after the release of Armored Core Ninebreaker, From Software announced an alliance with Banpresto where the latter would act as a publisher to the former’s development of a real robot action game featuring mecha from close to 15 years of anime.

Another Century’s Episode (PlayStation 2)

ace_cover.jpgReleased at the beginning of 2005, the first Another Century’s Episode (or just ACE) featured real robots from 9 different series and movies (including some of From Software’s and Banpresto’s own back catalogue). The gameplay was comparable to that of Konami’s ZOE but greater emphasis on a more rigid boost system and consequently a more ballistic approach to weapons fire.

Now, this may sound more akin to Virtual On but it’s considerably more subtle than that. Virtual On was based around fixed length dashes that offered homing attacks if the player fired a weapon mid-dash. The dashes also could be linked together to position the player in range for melee attacks.

ACE approached dashes as a very fast but of a much longer duration. In addition, the player had less control in terms of the turning circle, due to the increased acceleration. This meant you had to boost at the correct angle to allow your shots to connect. It also links ranged and melee combat in a far more efficient manner compared to that of ZOE, due to the player’s focus on achieving a stable firing solution in relation to their target.

ace_nu_gameplay.jpgIn many ways it’s a subtle change over Virtual On’s initial implementation and more akin to the anime combat that inspired SEGA’s real robot franchise in the first place. In many ways, ACE picked up the gameplay torch from Virtual On. Interpreting the rigid, almost digital, dash system in an analogue form.

The original ACE had its faults though. Melee combat had to be initiated on the same level of the target you were attacking and the game speed was a little on the slow side, which effected the overall responsivity of the combat.

Regardless of these faults, ACE was a successful release for both Banpresto and From Software. So successful in fact that many of the anime series featured in the game were given new leases of life, with Metal Armor Dragonar’s subsequent releases of a DVD boxset and several artbooks being a notable example. Now realising that they were onto something, Banpresto decided to commission yet another game.

Another Century’s Episode 2 (PlayStation 2)

ace2_cover1.jpgThis was released the following year and despite appearing to have the schedule of a very hasty sequel, ACE2 was a considerable improvement over the previous game. Addressing the two main faults of the original, the game made allowances for initiating a melee attack from a greater distance regardless of whether the player was level with their target and the game speed went a bit, well, bonkers.

In addition, the game’s scope was far greater. In that, the mission roster was far larger and there was a very potent levelling up system in place. In the previous game you only levelled up abilities at the expense of others, ACE2 instead offered a far more linear progression of upgrades, which produced some interesting consequences in game.

As you played through, you would invariably come up against mecha from series that were actually of a higher level than you, which meant that you were at a disadvantage pretty much all round (attacking the GP-02 up close early on in the game is a bit suicidal because Gato can counter pretty much most attacks you throw at him). Consequently, you could return to said missions once you had ubered up a favourite mecha and kick much ass. This was unlike the previous game due to enemy hero mecha being treated as outright bosses, so they were always tougher than you were.

ace2_dragonar_gameplay.jpgThe HUD also got a considerable re-working, mainly due to the addition of a larger menu of attacks per mecha and the presence of "combination attacks". These were linked to chaining enemy kills, which consequently maxed out your combination attack meter. If you had one or two wingmen then you could initiate a powerful attack that would do "massive damage". A nice touch with this was that certain pairings of mecha produced wholly different animation sequences for the attacks. Admittedly, the attack itself produced the same damage but the effort that went into the eyecandy was appreciated by this particular gamer.

There is one major fault ACE2 suffers from though, is that it is almost too focused on combat. The original had very varied mission objectives that were a more cerebral affair in terms of how you approach them (in that protecting a palace during a political speech but without being seen by the press helicopters, because death robots make for bad PR). Many of the missions in ACE2 are full on combat with little else, admittedly the respective series' narrative is framed more competently (with lovely cel shaded renditions of the pilots) but from a pure gameplay point of view ACE2 did err on the side of being a tad repetitive.

This may sound somewhat damning but considering the wealth of work in other places within the game, the repetition can be oddly satisfying and the huge roster of mecha to choose from does add further diversity to the omnipresent combat

High fiving for the win...

Much like Super Robot Wars the main allure of ACE is to have mecha from disparate series high five their way to victory. As such, knowing where each of the mecha come from often helps in appreciating the game more. This is not to say the game can't stand on its own merits but that it was always meant to be subservient to the various anime licenses the game almost tearfully champions.

In all fairness, the series is a young one, barely even two years old, so it may seem a bit presumptuous to be covering it now. That being said if Armored Core and Super Robot Wars are anything to go by, the fact that the two ACE games currently available really hit the mark in terms of gameplay it's safe to say that this tie-in series will be around for a long time. Considering From Software's unique insight into making robots explode, I have absolutely no problem with that.

[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.]

Inside The Becherova Game - Cheers!

- Some info on this has already surfaced on TIGSource and IndyGamer, but the Tomus Files weblog has posted a summary of the Becherovka Games 2006 winners - an indie PC game competition organized by the Czech herbal liquor, of course!

The folks at Tomus Files, who evidently help judge the competition, have a neat blog post summarizing 'must-play games' from the history of the competition, such as 2005 winner Space Merchants: Conquerors ("Elite-like space sim game with trading and fights and RPG elements.")

Or, indeed, there's Space Becherovka ("Absolutely great, absolutely funny adventure game. Parody on Star Wars, Space Odyssey, Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy and many other sci-fi classics..."), or even Becherov ("Overall winner in 2004. Looks like GTA 2, plays like GTA series. You may not act that evil there, but it's still very funny.") I'm guessing most of these are Czech-language only, but it's still interesting to look, right? Please comment if you find English-friendly highlights.

Gordon Rennie On Game Writing, Och Aye?

- Brian Baglow of Indoctrimat pinged me with a neat item on his ScottishGames blog: "I've just posted an interview with Gordon Rennie, noted comics author and the BAFTA nominated writer behind Rebellion's Rogue Trooper game. It touches on comics, games, writing in games and why so much of it sucks."

And it's fun reading! Here's Rennie on his introduction to game scripts: "Someone at Lost Boys Games - now Guerrilla - really liked this nasty future war comic strip called Glimmer Rats that I'd written, and tracked me down on the interweb thingy to ask me if I was interested in working on the script for Killzone, which was still in early development then. That experience ended slightly unhappily - I was one of the thousands crushed beneath the wheels of the Killzone juggernaut as it slowly inched its way along the road to completion - but I did get to hang out in Amsterdam, meet Rutger Hauer and get a peek behind the curtain at the surprisingly half-arsed way some games are put together."

He also talks about his perfect game licenses - a lot of which revolve around the rich 2000AD universe, handily owned by Rebellion, of course: "Sticking close to home, I think there's a lot of IP potential in the 2000AD stable of characters. Rebellion's initial Dredd game was a misfire, but Rogue Trooper benifited from the learning curve on Dredd - hiring a professional writer being part of that curve, and paid off by getting them a Best Screenplay BAFTA nomination - and from having more love and attention lavished on it."

He concludes of the 200AD experience: "Classic series like Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock, ABC Warriors, Robohunter and perhaps more recent ones like Nicolai Dante and Sinister-Dexter could all make great games, having distinct, visually-interesting lead characters and an immense amount of backstory and strongly-realised fictional universe concepts to draw on." Heartily agreed.

January 29, 2007

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Lights Out

["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment looks at the classic handheld puzzle game Lights Out.]

The most recent edition of Lights Out, published by Hasbro The best puzzles hide great complexity in simple packages, but Lights Out turned out to have more surprises than I bargained for. I thought I'd write a bit about the handhelds, write a bit about the puzzle appearing in videogames, and be done with it. When I sat down to do the research, though, I discovered that the small game was tied up in some big things like linear algebra, patent law, and the collectors of rare mechanical games.

Lights Up

Lights Out was first produced by Tiger Electronics in 1995 (Tiger was bought by Hasbro in 1998). It was a very simple device with a simple puzzle. You were given a 5x5 grid of buttons, each of which concealed an LED. Some buttons were lit, and others were not. The goal, as one might expect, was to turn all the lights out. But every time you pressed a button, you wouldn't just toggle on or off that one button, you would toggle the buttons above it, below it, and to its sides. If you pressed a button that wasn't on an edge, it would create a pattern like a cross or plus sign. Every button had undesired consequences, and going from a given pattern to lights out became difficult. The game contained a set of fifty patterns of increasing difficulty, and another set of one thousand solvable patterns.

Tiger developed several version over the years. There was Mini Lights Out, which used a 4x4 grid. Lights Out Deluxe had a 6x6 grid, and had puzzles where the buttons you were allowed to press were limited. On the Lights Out Cube, the edges weren't boundaries, so the cross pattern applied everywhere (sometimes wrapping to an adjacent face). Lights Out 2000 added a third state to each button (that is, instead of going from off to on to off, you cycled through off to red to green to off). Lights Out even appeared as an actual, honest-to-goodness, console-based videogame. In 1997, Tiger released the Game.Com to compete with the Gameboy, Lights Out was available as a pack-in for the system.

A screenshot of Sigil of Binding, by John Paul Walton, a reskinning of Mini Lights OutUnsurprisingly, Lights Out became a quick hit among puzzle fans. And since puzzle fans make puzzle games, it didn't take long before imitations appeared in videogames. Clones and solvers hit the web quickly, and they continue to be popular. Sigil of Binding, a popular entrant into the first Jay Is Games Game Design Competition, is simply Mini Lights Out with a new skin. Lights Out was also incorporated as a puzzle in puzzle-oriented adventure games; one of its most recent appearances was as the green wall in Mystery of Time and Space. By 1998, the interactive fiction Usenet groups considered it a cliché and encouraged authors to avoid it. In fact, it became a puzzle standard so quickly, I stopped noticing it years and years ago. And when doing the research, I was surprised that such an old chestnut had only surfaced twelve years ago. I should have expected that the truth would lay much farther back.

A Long History

The most recent version of Merlin, a predecessor to Lights Out, now published by Milton BradleyThough Tiger received a patent for Lights Out, they were not the first to produce this type of puzzle. Merlin, produced by Parker Brothers in 1978, played several games on its lit electronic keypad, including "Magic Square." It was similar to Lights Out, but it was smaller (only 3x3) and different buttons had different effects. The corner buttons toggled the 2x2 square in that corner, the edge buttons toggled the three squares on that side, and only the center button toggled values in the familiar cross shape. Moreover, the goal of Magic Square wasn't to turn all the lights out (or on), the goal was to create a specific pattern: lighting up all squares except the center. The pattern may seem odd, but some puzzlers might remember Magic Square's appearance in The 7th Guest as the coffin puzzle. And Magic Square may be even older than that. Google's puzzlesmith Wei-Hwa Huang suggests that it appeared on mainframe computers under the name "Enigma."

But perhaps you're looking for a more direct predecessor, a puzzle that uses the distinctive cross pattern in its puzzles. If so, you need only look to the Vulcan XL-25, first exhibited in London in 1983. This handheld device features the same 5x5 grid that reacts in the same way, creating toggling squares in a cross shape. The only difference between the two is that the XL-25 asked you to turn all the lights on, instead of turning all the lights off. Moreover, it allowed the user to switch from "cross" mode to "knight mode." Knight mode was a variant where pressing a button toggled that square and any square that was one knight's move away. The Hungarian patent, by the way, isn't mentioned by Tiger (Merlin was).

And that's not all. In a post to rec.puzzles, Gary Watson claims to have come up with a close variant in the mid '80s, which he implemented in Basic and called Flip. So, leaving aside the question of whether or not the Lights Out patent is remotely enforceable, where do all these puzzles keep coming from?

Enter the Matrix

The green wall from Mystery of Time and Space by Jan Albartus: a Lights Out puzzle into an adventureThe answer to that question probably comes from the same place as the simplest solutions to Lights Out: math. If you (like me) know a little bit about matrices, it's pretty easy to see how Lights Out can be considered a binary matrix, with lit squares as ones and unlit squares as zeroes. If you know a little more about matrices (unlike me), then you'll be able to find the solution to a level using linear algebra. In fact, there are several journal articles detailing methods for creating the best solutions, and asking questions about general cases. Lights Out even merits its own page at MathWorld.

Jaap Scherphuis maintains a massive site detailing the specifics and and mathematics of many mechanical puzzles. His information on Lights Out and its variants include how to find the maximal solution to every type. He also has a very large page on the mathematics of Lights Out, which explains how the maximal solutions and the methods for finding them were developed. It's not for the layperson, but it contains lots of information including an abbreviation bibliography on the subject.

One of those articles is by Klaus Sutner, building on an earlier paper that's important to thinking about Lights Out. At the time, he was writing about the Merlin Magic Square, but to discuss it, he proposed something called the "Sigma+ Game." The Sigma+ Game is played on a directed graph of any shape. See, Lights Out can be thought of as a directed graph where every square is a node that points to every node that is adjacent to it. And in the Sigma+ Game, like Lights Out, picking a node changes the state of the chosen node and every node it points to. Sigma+ is the metagame of which Lights Out, Magic Square, and the XL-25's knight game are merely specific cases. And when the realm of Lights Out puzzles is expanded to include the Sigma+ game, things get pretty weird.

A Full Spectrum of Variants

The rare Game Jugo, a mechanical variant of Lights Out prized by collectorsDavid Singmaster's copious notes on recreational mathematics includes a section on "Binary Button Games." In addition to the grid-based games I've already mentioned, there are several unusual Lights Out variants that work with nonstandard directed graphs as in the Sigma+ Game. For example, there's the entirely non-electronic predecessor to Lights Out: Game Jugo, or the Jugo Flower. This was apparently made in Japan, and is one of the most sought-after mechanical puzzles in the world. Reportedly, only seven were made. In Jugo, when you manually flip one petal of the flower, four other petals rotate with you. It's the same puzzle as Lights Out, in a totally different presentation. The Orbik is also noncomputerized puzzle around a circle, but in Orbik, each node can be in one of four states. And if you're wild about having extra states, there's always Rubik's Clock, an incredibly complicated puzzle where each of fourteen clocks (and four duplicates) can be in any of twelve states.

These kinds of variants are now a bit more common in adventure and puzzle games. The cross of Lights Out has become too recognizable, so creators are looking for something a bit trickier. For example, the Mystery of Time and Space, in addition to having a blatant Lights Out puzzle, has another, more subtle variant later on. In the colorful level 14 puzzle shown below, there are six tiles with four states, and each tile affects a different set of tiles. This variant was also common in Cliff Johnson's 3 in Three. Still more complicated variants appear in Deadly Roooms of Death, like the "Eight Gates of Bill," where switches don't merely toggle; some will always open a gate, and some will always close it.

A Lights Out variant from level 14 of Mystery of Time and Space by Jan AlbartusAnd yet, the simplicity of the Lights Out has remained constant. When Milton Bradley rereleased Merlin in 2004, it changed the Magic Square game so that it toggled squares like Lights Out. And while seasoned puzzlers may find it to be a bit overused, it's still a satisfying puzzle, no matter how many times its solved.

[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.]

Eerie Horror Fest Tries Spooky Game Contest?

- Following the example of Slamdance, which has obviously had a whole bunch of fallout from the controversy over its judging/deselection choices, looks like another film festival is trying to jump on the gamefest bandwagon - albeit from a horror and sci-fi angle: "Horror and Science Fiction gamers and developers have something to howl about now that the Eerie Horror Film Festival has added a game competition to their annual search for dark themed films and screenplays from around the world."

What ho? "Established in order to encourage the development and growth of horror, science fiction and mystery themes within the gaming industry, the Eerie Horror Film Festival is proud to be one of the first of its kind to offer such an opportunity to game designers, developers and conceptual artists. Amateurs and pros alike can enter the competition though some categories, like “Game Concept”, “Character Development” and “Environment Design” require no knowledge of game development what so ever.... Original scripts, artwork, drawings, descriptions of characters, as well as fully functional games, will be accepted into the competition this season."

It's revealed of the game competition for the fourth Annual Eerie Horror Film Festival, which takes place at the Erie Playhouse in Erie, Pennsylvania, October 10 – 14, 2007, and offers five days of independent films, special celebrity guests and thousands of attendees: "Awards will be offered to the winners in several categories and will be judged on originality, concept, detail and entertainment value.... The competition is open to an international audience with a special discount for students ages 10 – 17. Deadline for the Video Game Competition is September 1, 2007." Limiting entries to horror and sci-fi is a little bit odd, but who knows - it might be genretastic fun?

Opinion: If Forbes Says IGN's Growth 'Flaccid', Where Now For Game Sites?

- Via PaidContent, I note there's a Forbes cover feature on 'Murdoch 2.0', discussing the various website-related purchases for Fox, and headed: "MySpace was just the start. Rupert Murdoch and his lieutenants are betting big on the Internet."

However, the business magazine takes a close look at the stats for game (and tech and moves and 'babes', nowadays) site IGN, and doesn't like what it sees: "Murdoch paid $650 million, even more than MySpace, for ign, a collection of Web sites aimed at the electronic lad-mag set. It has underperformed; the number of unique visitors has grown a flaccid 21% over the last 14 months. In the race to exploit the Internet before it ravages his media empire, Murdoch and his lieutenant, Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin, have moved faster than their competitors--which also makes it easy to stumble."

A little further on, there's some attempted justification for the sluggishness: "Chernin says the company expected the site's numbers to dip as gamers stopped buying titles for their Xboxes and Sony PlayStation 2s, while saving up for the next generation of machines." I mapped IGN, major competitor GameSpot, and a few of Fox's other sites using Alexaholic, to give you a vague idea of what's going on.

Personally, I don't think the console transition is a major excuse for sluggish traffic - advertising, maybe, but not so much traffic. The problem may be that IGN's userbase is so relatively large already that it's difficult to jump up massively unless your users are, say, doing all your social networking through the site - which isn't the case for IGN, though both it and GameSpot are clearly trying to add more and more 'Web 2.0' features to increase stickiness.

As a comparison, major blogs like Joystiq and Kotaku are surging up despite the console transition, but are starting much lower. But then, MySpace is doing that surging on the high end. So, I'm not sure $650 million was really remotely a good deal for buying IGN, given that the company had lost money all the way through to its late 2005 purchase, which saw Fox pick it up with "...an accumulated deficit of $23.3 million."

It's going to be interesting to see GameSpot's financial results (or more accurately, parent company CNET's), which will be filed later today, as another comparison point - the most recently available results had the company overall making a loss, though it's possible that GameSpot itself turns a modest profit. Sometimes I think that one of the odd things about the high-end game sites is that big companies like Ziff Davis and Future are rushing from relatively profitable (but tanking!) consumer print and straight into the web, but to where? MTV's sites like GameTrailers have a similar issue from a web perspective. Their role models at IGN/CNet are hardly coining it in, bloated with staff and complex multimedia operations as they are - and they rarely stand out editorially (with some exceptions, particularly in GameSpot News).

It's all they can do, of course, with staff and shareholders to support. But the web - I just don't think - is a medium that supports you throwing resources at it like that from a stumbling start. The ridiculous efficiency of sites such as Joystiq (whose entire editorial staff of 10+ costs about as much as 2 employees from a major site), and the careful organic growth of sites like Eurogamer is a far smarter approach than people who are trying to wade in at the deep end.

All this scrabbling desperation to scale rapidly toward sites that, themselves, just don't stand out that much editorially or financially? There must be another way. It's just odd - but maybe someone can build a better model by throwing the right assets as the problem, and as the Net continues to scale... this post could look really dumb in 5 years, eh? Perhaps the Dirty Digger will be laughing at me by then.

GameSetLinks: The Overray Of The Sunday

- Looks like it's Sunday night, and I have a whole bunch of completely random links to hand out, some of which you may even be interested in:

- Fun-Motion has been clever enough to point out Flash game Double Wires, and Matthew Wegner explains it's "...a small Flash game by d_of_i, a Japanese developer best known for his Falling Sands game (as well as Cat Sledding and some other physics games and experiments). Despite its small scope and limited production value, I think Double Wires does some things very well."

- Brandon has been doing some really fun updates at Insert Credit recently, and I had to motion at an edible retro treat: "Can't get enough NES chocolate? Didn't win the cart? That same fellow mailed me to say he has a new product up, though this one's a bit more mass-produced. This time it's a NES controller-shaped chocolate bar, of which he has 50 for $15 each." Only the auction already ended, and only 1 was bought? DOH!

- Posty at Shoot The Core has done a brief PC dojin shooter-related update to note that Freams / sectionS "have released the full version of Overray for download, again on Vector. It's nice to see doujin developers continue to support older games and share them when their time in the sun has passed." Oh wait, The2Bears has pictures, too, and it looks great in a side-scrolling Gradius/R-Type-y fashion.

- I already knew about the PSP version of Sid Meier's Pirates!, but the QT3 folks have been kind enough to notice that it's only $19.99 at EB Games - only one review so far, but the Xbox version was lots of fun, so it should be similar japes. Personally, I'm looking forward to Sid Meier's Penguins!

- A random and very justified complaint from a GSW confidant. Hey, Capcom, why didn't you proofread Phoenix Wright: Justice For All for DS properly? Our anonyfriend notes of the icky typos: "The worst one I remember was a dialogue window that said: "Hmm, where there any other clues you could gleam from this piece of evidence?" But also: "This is the only place that the snow has been trounced upon." And: "For someone who's father was just murdered, she seems awfully perky..." Uhm, YUCK.

- Over at Wired News' Game|Life blog, Chris Baker has mentioned the Mindcandy Amiga DVD, something which I have been remiss in doing (partly cos it's only a little bit game-related!) "I'm really happy that a collective of crackers and geeks have transferred some of the most amazing Amiga demos to DVD. The Mindcandy disc features 30 great examples of chiptune techno and lo-res 3D grafx that transport me back to the olden days... this disc also has a documentary about a demo festival in Germany from as recently as 2003, plus commentary tracks on each demo from geek luminaries like GameSetWatch guru and pal of the WiredGameblog Simon Carless." I really wish I'd done more commentaries (ran out of time!), but the disc is awesome, and game folks like Remedy (Max Payne) and Io Interactive (Hitman) cut their teeth on these kind of demos, so buy the disc and check them out if you have a chance.

Inside Neversoft's Lost Game - Ghost Rider!

-This is quite fortuitous timing, given that the new Ghost Rider movie and the 2K Games-published game based on it are just about to debut, but the PlayStation Museum site has unearthed an unreleased Neversoft beta of an earlier Ghost Rider game - as a 2D sidescroller! - from way back in 1995.

It's explained of the game, which was in development from the Tony Hawk/Gun creator early in its history, and to be published (oddly enough) by Crystal Dynamics: "Ghost Rider never reached alpha stage. A demo was created to showcase the 3D environment engine, lighting effects, algorithmically generated fire routine, algorithmically generated chain mechanic, and the developer's ability to capture the mood and feel of the licensed character. Ghost Rider was to use the Skeleton Warriors engine."

The results: "The PlayStation Museum was fortunate enough to play the exclusive demo of Ghost Rider [yes, there's a YouTube video]. We are very impressed to say the least. The chain mechanics are truly amazing. The chain swings and whips with fluid motion and with ease. Being able to swing to higher levels was easy. The Ghost Rider's flaming skull is amazing. It will increase in flame with more power and the fire effect is breath taking. The gameplay feels similar to Castlevania which is a plus. It is a travesty that Crystal Dynamics didn't pursue the game."

January 28, 2007

On The Wisdom Of (Some) EB Employees

- [Tom Kim heads up the Gamasutra podcast for our sister site, and every now and again sends out group emails such as this one, which we thought was worth reprinting here. Again, Tom and GSW aren't saying that all U.S. game retail employees suck. But it looks like these guys kinda, uh, did.]

This ever happen to you?

I mean, We've all seen gaming retail employees lampooned in Penny-Arcade. And every gamer seems to have heard a story about know-nothing store managers. But to date, my experience with most of them have been pretty good. Many of them seemed to know their product, and most have treated me with politeness and decency. In fact, the two store managers at this location, Mark and Monica treated me very well. Alas, they have since left for better paying jobs and have been replaced by these chuckleheads. I don't know... It's enough to make all of the apocryphal stories seem true.


P.S. Some background: The following is very close to how things really went down. I haven't substantially changed anything. In hindsight, it is pretty funny. But when I walked out of the store, I was pretty upset. Enough to vent to my wife about it for 10 minutes. Gah! The only reason I was hanging around for that long was because my wife and I were going out to dinner, and she agreed to meet me at the EB beforehand. Otherwise, I would've been out of there pretty quickly... As you'll see, things were pretty uncomfortable.

---------- The Wisdom of EB Employees: A Play in One Act ----------

Players: Me, EB Manager, EB Lackey
Time: Around 6:30pm on a Tuesday evening
Place: A strip-mall Electronics Boutique somewhere north of Chicago

(SFX: Electronic *ding* as door opens)

EB Manager: Welcome to EB. I can help you with anything you want, except getting a Wii. We don't have any so don't even bother asking. (Note: I kid you not -- this was the greeting I got when walking in the door.)

Me: I'm good. I already got one.

EB Manager: You did? Where'd you get it?

Me: Here. I pre-ordered for launch. Actually, I was able to get four of them.

EB Manager: (Conspiratorially) eBay?

Me: No. I had my wife pre-order one at another store. And I got another couple from a friend.

EB Manager: Did you eBay those?

Me: No. I kept one for myself and a friend of mine got the other one. And I sold one at cost to the 1UP network for their holiday giveaway, and the other to the Evil Avatar online community for their holiday giveaway.

EB Manager: Where?

Me: Have you heard of 1UP.com? It's a big gaming news website... And Evil Avatar is a pretty established gaming community site.

EB Manger: Nope.

Me: (Walking up to the counter to look at their new inventory.) That's cool.

EB Lackey: Can I help you find anything?

Me: Yeah. I'm looking for Hotel Dusk. It's a DS title.

EB Lackey: (Blank stare -- doesn't even check the shelf.) What?

EB Manager: Never heard of it. What was it called, again?

Me: Hotel Dusk. It's a point-and-click adventure for the DS. It should have come out yesterday. But I wouldn't be surprised if you're sold out.

EB Manager: (Gives me a funny look.) Are you sure that's what it's called?

(I spot some empty display packages of Hotel Dusk sitting on a shelf right below the front counter)

Me: (Picking up a preview package and holding it up to the manager) Pretty sure.

EB Manager: (Now displeased with me -- doesn't even bother to turn around and check the shelves) No. We don't.

Me: Can you check your inventory?

EB Manager: (turns head to monitor without typing anything on the keyboard) No. We don't.

Me: Okayyy... Thanks. I'm gonna look around a little bit.

(EB employees ignore me. I wander over to the used games section. Meanwhile, another customer walks in.)

EB Manager: Welcome to EB. I can help you with anything you want, except getting a Wii. We don't have any so don't even bother asking.

Customer: Can you tell me when you're getting more?

EB Manager: I don't know. Can I help you find anything else?

Customer: When does Halo 3 come out?

EB Manager: This summer, I think. But if you pre-order Crackdown, you get a Halo 3 demo with it.

Me: (Turning to customer.) You don't actually get a demo. You can get a chance to enter the Halo 3 multi-player beta test. Still, there's no guarantee you'll get on the beta list. You just get an invitation to register.

EB Manager: You sure? The box says that it comes with a Halo 3 demo.

Me: I'm pretty sure.

EB Manager: (Checks the display box.) Yeah, you're right.

Customer: (Addressing the question to me.) Can you play that on Xbox?

Me: Halo 3 is only for the 360. Do you own a 360?

Customer: No. I got Xbox 1.

EB Manager: You should pick up a 360. Especially if you like Halo. It's backwards compatible, so you can play all of your Xbox games on it.

Me: Uh, not all of them. But it'll definitely play Halo and Halo 2.

Customer: You got any 360s?

EB Manager: Yes. We have the Core Version, which doesn't come with a hard drive and the deluxe version. I'd recommend you go with the deluxe one. You can download hi-def TV shows and movies on it.

Customer: Does it come with BluRay?

EB Manager: You can play HD-DVD on it.

Me: Um, to do that, you have to buy a separate player that plugs into the 360. The stock console will play standard def DVDs, but not HD. Though, like he said, you can download HD programming.

Customer: (Addressing me again.) How much is that?

Me: I think the HD-DVD add-on runs a couple hundred bucks.

Customer: What's the difference between the Core and the deluxe?

Me: Well, essentially he's right. The Core Version costs $299. It doesn't come with a hard drive. For another hundred bucks, you can get the Standard Edition which includes a wireless controller, an Xbox Live headset, an ethernet cable, and a component video cable. Along with the 20GB hard drive. You can buy all of the same stuff separately, but if you plan on eventually buying all of that anyway, you'll save some if you get the Standard Edition. If you're gonna buy a 360, I'd get the Standard Edition. The hard drive is important if you want to download content and some Xbox Live Arcade games. Do you have an HDTV?

Customer: No, but I'm gonna get one soon. You seem to know a lot about this stuff.

Me: I used to make games. I also do some work for a gaming news website. You ever heard of Gamasutra?

Customer: No.

Me: Gamasutra is more about the business of making games. If you're interested in the game industry, you should check it out.

Customer: Thanks, man. I'll check it out. (Leaves the store -- without a 360.)

EB Manager: What's that website again?

Me: Gamasutra.com. I also produce their podcast.

EB Manager: Never heard of it. No sir.

(Phone rings.)

EB Lackey: Thank you for calling EB Games where you can buy, sell and trade used games. This is Jeff. Can I help you?

(Listens for a while.)

EB Employee #2: (Looks puzzled.) What do you mean? (Listens some more. Covers phone receiver and turns to Manager.) This guy wants to know if there are any Wii games that don't require "line-of-sight."

EB Manager: (Gestures for employee to hand over the phone.) Hi. This is Mike. Can I help you?

(Listens for a while.) Well, there are some Wii games that don't require that you point at the screen. Some of the games just work by sensing the movement of the controller.

(Listens.) Uh, like some of the driving games, like Excite Truck. And some mini games on Super Monkey Ball and Rayman.

(Listens.) You want to have four Wiis in the same room?

EB Lackey: Why the heck would he need four Wiis? (Manager ignores him.)

EB Manager: I think you can do that. But you might want to pick up a PS3 instead. You can have up to seven wireless controllers all on the same console.

(Listens.) Yes, the PS3 has wireless controllers. And they're motion-sensitive, exactly like the Wii.

(Listens.) Yes sir. They work just like the Wii. And, you can download full games on the PS3 if you have Internet. They have, like 10 on there already. Plus old classic games like Crash Bandicoot. The PS3'll also play all of the Sony games going all the way back to original PlayStation one.

(Listens.) Yes. You can download them right now. You just need Internet.

(Listens.) Okay. Thanks. And I'll definitely be switching my dentist to you.

(Listens.) Yeah, I got a dentist, but I'm gonna be switching to sign up with you, man! (Gives "thumbs up" sign to me and Lackey.) Okay. Bye.

Me: A dentist's office? That's a cool idea.

EB Manager: Yeah. He wants to let his patients play Wii or PS3 in his waiting room or even during procedures.

Me: That's cool. But it probably wouldn't be possible for them to play the Wii while undergoing a procedure. Plus, you might want to tell him if he comes in that you'll still need line-of-site to operate the console's interface. Not to mention in-game menus. Also, for the cost of one PS3 and one game, he can pick up close to three Wiis, each with Wii Sports included. And the Wii games would probably suit a family-based practice better.

EB Manager: Uh, yeah.

EB Lackey: You used to program games?

Me: A little bit. But I worked as a producer and designer, so I didn't do a ton of programming. Mostly, I managed the artists and programmers making the game.

EB Manager: What games did you work on?

Me: Uh, some licensed-property tie-ins to some Disney movies, and a few other titles you probably haven't heard of...

EB Manager: (Chuckles and crosses arms.) Disney games? So you didn't work on PlayStation?

Me: Uh, no. But I used to help Bungie out with their marketing and advertising before they moved to Seattle.

EB Manager: Who?

Me: Bungie Software. They make Halo.

EB Manager: I thought Microsoft made Halo.

Me: Bungie's the developer. They're a first-party dev for Microsoft.

EB Manager: What?

Me: Never mind. You're right. Microsoft made Halo.

(EB Manager gives me the "stink eye." By now, I'm thinking, plans be damned. I don't want to wait in the store any longer.)

Me: (Dial my wife on my mobile phone.) Hey there. They don't have the game I'm looking for. Can you meet me at BestBuy? Yes? Great! See you there. Love you, too.

(As I'm leaving the store.) Okay. Thanks guys.

(The two employees completely ignore me.)

Virt's FX3 - Imaginary Game Soundtrack Of The Year?

- We've previously posted about Jake 'Virt' Kaufman, a game soundtrack composer and longtime .MOD scene geek whose work "spans all kinds of randomness, from the excellent Shantae for GBC through Legend Of Kay for PS2 and The OC and Lumines for mobile."

Anyhow, a perusal of his blog reveals that he has released his 'FX3' album for free, and it's downloadable at 8BitPeoples.com, which explains: "A young boy trapped between warring nations stumbles through a time rift, and upon a terrible conspiracy spanning generations! He finds safety in the warm embrace of a tall, handsome vampire who helps him return home and shows him how to love again. But is there anything left of his world? virt answers this question, returning to his absurdly detailed progressive NES sound for a long-awaited 8bitpeoples debut."

Anyhow, if you like freewheeling, absurdly virtuoso NES-style rawk-outs - and who doesn't - then I would highly recommend grabbing FX3. (And - just so people don't accuse me of nepotism - yep, I released FX1 and FX2 on my own Monotonik net.label, also for free and Creative Commons-licensed. But fortunately, whichever way you slice it, Jake's output is just plain great, so I don't have to feel too bashful about the 8BitPeoples folks putting this one out (with my blessing) on 8BP. Yay.)

Blackwell Legacy Demo, Manifesto's Adventure Picks

- You may recall that we recently wrote about Dave 'The Shivah' Gilbert's new AGS game, The Blackwell Legacy, and now Gnome's Lair has pointed out that there's now a demo available for the game.

The title is also one of those featured prominently at Greg Costikyan's Manifesto Games indie game website, where it has its own page, and is referenced in a recent Manifesto blog post named 'Focus On: Adventure Games', which is a good overview of the genre as represented at the site.

Costikyan also has a good capsule review of The Blackwell Legacy: "It's got better graphics and takes a little longer to complete than The Shivah, but has the same excellent voice acting, and a stronger dollop of humor. We don't expect it to sell as well, since the subject--a medium with a ghost sidekick out of a Damon Runyon story who helps ghosts come to peace with their deaths and "move on" to the next world--doesn't have the same easy promotional hook. Which is too bad, as this is an excellent game, the kind of thing that any fan of the Monkey Island series or Grim Fandango will enjoy (though it's much shorter than those games)."

What's Your Donkey Kong Naming Theory?

- Slightly bonkers Japanese-based blogger Marxy has just updated his Neomarxisme site with some additional explanation on the naming of Donkey Kong, based on Japanese cultural knowledge and all kinds of alternative thinking.

He starts by fixing the broken: "Before the internet could assume its fundamental duties of myth-busting and old-wives-tale-wrastlin', there was a rumor going around that Nintendo meant to call the gorilla from landmark game Donkey Kong "Monkey Kong," but the "M" got changed into a "D" along the way." Or that Miyamoto "found the word "donkey" in a (completely worthless) dictionary as a synonym for "dumb."" But no: "Snopes debunks the stuffing out of both theories and explains that Miyamoto picked "Kong" from "King Kong" (but not King Kong, legally speaking) and "Donkey" to "convey a sense of stubbornness.""

But Marxy goes further: " I also seem to remember quotes from Nintendo that they wanted to make the character a ridiculous and laughable version of King Kong. So, what word acts as an antonym to the grace and divine providence represented by a king? A donkey makes sense looking back onto the problem, but why pick a donkey out of all the second-class creatures that could possibly denote the opposite of a king?"

Apparently: "In Japan, almost everyone is familiar with the old story - "The King's Got Donkey Ears" (王様の耳はロバの耳)- which comes from an unnecessary add-on to the King Midas "everything I touch turns to gold" myth. A god gives King Midas donkey ears to visually mark the king's idiocy, only his hairdresser knows... The name of this myth perfectly sets up the "King - Donkey" binary. The King gets goofy looking donkey ears until he starts acting with a little more class. So if you are going to make an opposite of King Kong, what do you name the guy? Donkey Kong." I have no idea if this is on the money, but it's fun thinking.

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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