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February 17, 2007

'Might Have Been' - Ehrgeiz

No huge Russian women in this one. Sorry.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Squaresoft and Dream Factory's Ehrgeiz, released for the arcade in 1998 and the PlayStation in 1999.]

It all started so well for Dream Factory. Even the developer’s existence made waves, as it was big news back in 1996 when some talented designers left Sega and Namco to make a fighting game for Squaresoft, and it was bigger news still when that game, Tobal No. 1, hit the PlayStation with a demo of what was then Japan’s most-wanted game: Final Fantasy VII. And there Dream Factory’s problems started.

While Tobal No. 1 has a number of ideas that are still unique today, it’s always been a plodding, straightforward game, and the Final Fantasy VII demo overshadowed it terribly in both Japan and the U.S. Tobal No. 2 went solo a year later and improved everything about the original, but translation problems and the first Tobal’s low profile kept it from coming to North America, and only importers would acclaim it, perhaps to an undeserved degree. The next year, Dream Factory abandoned Tobal entirely and tried a different sort of fighting game.

The little numbers are helpful if you're one of the many, many people who plays fighting games for high scores.God bless Square's reckless funding

Ehrgeiz was indeed different, even in its earliest stages. Tobal had been released by Squaresoft, Ehrgeiz was published through a Namco-Square partnership. Tobal was built for the PlayStation, Ehrgeiz went to arcades first. Tobal had goofy characters designed by Dragon Quest and Dragon Ball’s Akira Toriyama, while Ehrgeiz had a more angular assortment of fighters drawn by Final Fantasy VII’s Tetsuya Nomura, back when polygon limitations kept him from putting belts on everything.

Apparently Nomura’s take on the Tekken games, the cast of Ehrgeiz includes a Japanese wrestler with a Moe Howard haircut, a Korean film star with a rocket launcher in his leg, a cyborg ninja, a surprisingly well-groomed girl raised by wolves, and other characters boring enough to join Virtua Fighter. The only interesting fighters are the ones that pay tribute to classic manga: Ken “Godhand” Mishima borrows his hidden arm-gun from the hero of Buichi Terasawa’s Cobra, while Yoko’s an Interpol version of the yoyo-wielding schoolgirl detective from Shinji Wada’s Sukeban Deka.

As a limited, short-lived release in arcades, Ehrgeiz got attention only on account of two hidden characters: Cloud Strife and Tifa Lockhart from Final Fantasy VII, which could do no wrong in 1998. Dream Factory, apparently realizing that the game should’ve been a Final Fantasy fighter all along, made sure that the PlayStation port of Ehrgeiz tripled its FFVII roster, adding ninja girl Yuffie Kisaragi, morose gunman Vincent Valentine, soon-to-be-iconic villain Sephiroth, and future Crisis Core mainstay Zack. And so Ehrgeiz’s PlayStation debut was noticed by two camps: the relentless Final Fantasy contingent and fighting fans stung over Tobal 2 staying in Japan.

Character design: Sigmund Freud.The lack of Cid is a crime against taste

No one got what they wanted. Of course, those buying the game to play Final Fantasy VII Fighting All-Stars found a selection of six beloved characters (seven, if you count Django’s alternate color as Red XIII), but it’s fan service at its most superficial. While the characters look sharper than they did in their native game, the FFVII lineup doesn’t get much in the way of personality: like the rest of Ehrgeiz’s cast, they don’t have dialogue, win quotes, or even relevant endings. Nowadays, even mediocre Final Fantasy VII spin-offs sell, but it wasn't quite the same in 1999.

Tobal fans, meanwhile, were put off by the game’s reckless disregard for convention. Tobal 2 stands as a complex, methodical fighter, but Ehrgeiz broke free of all that. In it, players can circle each other in close quarters by holding down a button, or, upon releasing it, dash around the fighting arena, jumping from tier to tier while shooting fireballs, missiles or spiked yo-yos. Matches are chaotic, near-random melees, with fighters rolling, dodging, countering, leaping, flip-kicking, and throwing three different levels of punches or kicks.

It’s simply too much for any balanced fighting game to handle, and Ehrgeiz doesn’t even offer that pretense. The complex fighting mechanics are often outdone by a strategy of rushing around and pelting an opponent with jump attacks, and if you try to play it slow and strategic, you’ll find that blocking and countering blows comes far more easier to the computer-controlled characters than you. As if to even things out, the AI is rock-stupid in other respects, and it’s entirely possible to win by using the same attack over and over. I suggest Cloud’s low-level kicks.

You can actually replicate this scene in the new WWE wrestling games.Welcome to the Power Stone War

With Ehrgeiz, Dream Factory was caught between worlds. It’s far too loose to be competitive, but it’s not quite a success as a free-roaming 3-D fighter. Games like Capcom’s Power Stone and Koei’s Destrega later polished up the ideas that Ehrgeiz tested, leaving Dream Factory’s effort too confined and sparse. Even its most interesting ideas are underused; the highlight may be the game’s final battle, a bizarre fight that actually rolls the game credits while you’re required to break a box, grab a sword, and then slay the monstrosity that’s attacking you. Ehrgeiz is just an unpainted prototype of better things to come.

Still, there’s something strangely fun about the whole mess. Few fighters offer the sheer weight of options that Ehrgeiz has during a battle, where you’re free to attempt either a short-range, Tobal-like fight or a crazed, running battle that takes up the whole screen. It’s enjoyable, shallow stuff, like an unpredictable street brawl in comparison to the measured sparring of just about every proper 3-D fighter ever made.

Instead of re-working Ehrgeiz’s main attraction for the PlayStation port, Dream Factory crammed it with extras. Most of the mini-games, including a mundane race and seafront obstacle course, are half-finished and useful only in showing how a Squaresoft-made version of Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball might have turned out. The only interesting diversions are a rip-off of the classic tile-matching Lights Out puzzle game and an elaborate dungeon-hack subgame that is, in all fairness, impressive for a mere bonus.

Tifa's model apparently consists of three basketballs and four sticks, which is entirely accurate.Empty factories

If Ehrgeiz had potential, Dream Factory never had the chance to see it through. Their next project, The Bouncer, was a vapid, widely panned PlayStation 2 near-launch title, and a bit of an embarrassment for Square. Perhaps that was why Dream Factory turned to other publishers after that, making Crimson Tears for Capcom, two UFC fighters for Crave, and, most recently, a game based on the anime Fighting Beauty Wulong. A few DF members split off in 2003, formed Dream Publishing, and made the all-fronts Xbox disaster Kakuto Chojin, which was recalled for its controversial use of Muslim chants. And that’s the most recognition Dream Factory’s seen in the last five years.

Ehrgeiz, however, seems to have fared a little better. Its throwaway Final Fantasy loans have made it slightly collectible among shorter-run PlayStation games, and while a lot of fighting fans regard it as the malformed, chained-in-the-basement cousin of the allegedly majesticTobal 2, Ehrgeiz has its moments for those who don’t take their games quite as seriously. It’s an experiment: half-fun, half-flawed, and all a suggestion that Dream Factory was a little too far ahead of the times.

[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]

G Love And Special Sourcing

-Kyle Orland's latest 'Media Coverage' column over at GameDaily covers the concept of sourcing in video game journalism, and does a good job of rounding up some of the complexities that I've also been musing about in recent weeks/months.

Here's some vital points, with (apologies) some quotes from me once again: "When essentially similar information is being reported on numerous sites, figuring out which version to link to can be tricky. Gamasutra's Simon Carless says his writers "make a serious attempt to work out who actually broke the story... if it's original reporting. More to the point, we go back to the original press release or statement if that exists so as to work from primary evidence." Failing to perform this due diligence can lead to problems, and Carless pointed out in a GameSetWatch post on a questionably-sourced Joystiq post that turned into a public gaffe."

Orland continues: "Even when the correct credit is given, the person who originated a story is not always the one who ends up getting the benefit from it. Carless notes that web users would often rather read a two-paragraph weblog summary of a ten-page interview than the interview itself. "There's often little incentive to click through to that external site, yet the external site conducted the interview or originally reported the fact," he said. Game|Life's Kohler summed up the frustration involved with this misplaced crediting. "When people link to my stuff, but they link to Joystiq's coverage of it or whatever, well, that pisses me off," he said." Food for thought, eh?

Player One Talks To Square Vet Ted Woolsey

- I was chatting to the folks at the Player One Podcast, who had pinged me about a recent podcast of theirs that talked to Square veteran Ted Woolsey about his Final Fantasy translation work, and I encouraged them to make a transcript as well - so they did, yay.

The full interview transcript is pretty interesting, especially for Final Fantasy nerds, and Woolsey reveals that there were no common text files to localize back in the tim of FFIII, youch: "I think there were about 1,300 pages of text and it wasn't contiguous. It was broken into pieces. People who were scenario writers would just take a chunk of scenario and dump it in. They would put in the code-in/code-out piece or headers there and they didn't care where it was. They just stuck it in a file and balanced it so it all fit in the different pieces."

Turns out Woolsey is working up at Real in Seattle nowadays, and has been for a number of years, and he's "...intensely looking at a lot of the platforms in Asia and thinking about how we can bring some of the more community and multiplayer features and platform features from those types of gaming experience into North America and into the casual game space. That's my focus right now. I'm the General Manager of the Online Game Initiative here. We're looking at a lot of things right now." Most interesting.

[UPDATE: Just randomly remembered that Frank did a Playing Catch-Up with Woolsey a couple of years back for Gamasutra, including this neeto tidbit about post-Square times: " Initially, Woolsey was looking at obtaining a license for Ed Roth’s Rat Fink for a racing adventure. “Great character,” he said, “but hard to pull off the necessary detail on the PlayStation, which the team was targeting.”"]

We See Farther - A History Of Electronic Arts

- Another example of a GSW columnist stepping up and doing something rather wonderful for big sister site Gamasutra, our Game Collector's Melancholy columnist J.Fleming has just debuted the sumptuous 'We See Farther - A History Of Electronic Arts' feature for the site.

Lavishly illustrated by Gama features editor FrankC, and featuring interviews both with Trip Hawkins (we ran the outtakes on GSW a few days back) and current EVP Frank Gibeau, the feature was apparently so well-received that EA's HR department has already contacted us about using it to educate new hires about the history of the company - and it's not a puff piece in the slightest. Neat!

Needing to quote one bit in particular, this was the paragraph that tickled our Group Director Kathy Schoback, and it deals with EA's reaction to the post-Atari crash years of the mid-'80s: ""I made a conscious decision to ignore Atari and to focus on the next generation of technology," Hawkins said. "We had to operate like the Fremen of Dune, recycling our own saliva to live in the desert, to survive. We had to rebuild the industry brick by brick over a period of years."" Mm, recycling saliva!

GameTap Gets More Sekrit Games, Upgrade

- The nice folks at the unofficial internal GameTap design blog Angled Whiteboards have just posted lots of details on the new GameTap client software, which seems to add some interesting usability tweaks to the 'all you can eat' PC download service, which is actually getting quite slick nowadays.

One example: "My Favorites becomes My Playlists - now you have the ability to create your own playlists on the fly. Add games to one or more lists and name them whatever you like. Use the new and improved Heart icon on the Infocard or in My GameTap/Playlists." Also, there's another sekrit game: "You know the drill: hit the Search ring, enter in “Skyranger” and get to playing some X-COM: UFO Defense [ahead of its official GameTap release]."

[In other updates, the Feb. 8th GameTap game updates included the semi-cult PC horror title Nocturne, alongside Silent Hill 3, also: "Paddle Fighter is another one of those mysterious Japanese Sega online games [also released on weird U.S. Mega CD compilations?] (à la Pyramid Magic)." And the Feb. 15th update includes Myst Online going live and Sim City Classic (yay!). The content licensing guys are really putting a lot of effort in, I must say.]

February 16, 2007

COLUMN: 'Arcade Obscurities' - Mitchell's Gamshara

gamshara1.jpg[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 fourth column looks at Puzzloop and Pang creator Mitchell's 2002 single-screen shooter Gamshara.]

One of the most underrated and underexploited shmup-subgenres is the Cabal-type shooter. For those people who have not played the 1988 TAD Corporation classic, you get Cabal when you take your normal 2D on-rails-shooter, remove the scrolling, and change the perspective from a first-person to a third-person perspective, moving the camera behind the player.

The above details allow the games to implement their main source of enjoyment: the combination of a visible player character and static scenery. By moving your player horizontally, you can hide behind parts of the scenery and only get exposed when you decide to attack. When you are visible and firing towards the enemies, a crosshair can be freely moved around the screen to attack while you stand still firing at the enemies, totally Rambo-style. Indeed, most of the lives are lost by "trying to shoot just one more enemy" before ducking behind cover. However, a certain aggressiveness is required, as the covers crumble when they receive damage, so you have a kind of time limit in which to shoot all the enemies from one level. Without any sort of safe spots, getting hit by dozens of incoming bullets is very, very easy.

gamshara1.jpgThe Cabal Of Cabal Clones

The ramboish Cabal was followed by Wild West -themed Blood Bros in 1990. Surprisingly, those two seem to be the only good examples of their genre: there have been other quite similar games, but none of them provide the raw simple playability of the aformentioned titles. Two examples: Konami's 1988 into-the-screen -scrolling Devastators was chunky and unplayable, Sega's 1999 Charge 'N' Blast featured nice polygonal graphics, but got very negative reviews almost everywhere.

That's where Mitchell Corporation's Gamshara comes in: it's from 2002, but still sticks to the same basic formula as the old non-scrolling 2D titles, and that is the exact reason why it is better than many of its conterparts. The gameplay itself could have easily been implemented identically 20 years earlier, but Namco's System 10 hardware spices it with smooth hi-res 2d with very nice transparency and lighting effects.

gamshara1.jpgDamn Those Greedy Warloads!

It's the year 1500 in Gamshara, and the land is in turmoil because "greedy warloads" (that's what the game says) "shed bood onto the land to extend their wealth and power". However, one of these "warloads" sends his samurai ninjas, Saika Magoichi and Hotary to end the bloodbath. Saika is powerful but slow, Hotary is speedy but has weaker weaponry. What this boils down to is lots of Cabal-like shooting - either hundreds of footsoldiers, horsemen, ancient tanks and ninjas in gliders or screen-filling bosses: fortresses with endless of gun turrets, mechanical dragon/submarine hybrids, or other historically inaccurate adversaries.

To make the task a bit easier, in addition to firing with A-button, you can avoid the enemies by jumping (B-button) or powering up the "Gamshara mode" by pressing the C-button: Gamshara mode grants you much-enhanced weaponry for a limited time - very useful against big swarms of enemies or to deliver the finishing blow to an end-of-level nasty.

gamshara1.jpgLong And Short Of It

Chaining multiple kills gives you more points and also the ability to use a powerful blast that can be only launched after a long enough period of continuous firing: as you move the crosshair instead of yourself when firing, quick judgement is often required to decide wether to safely duck for cover or to keep firing against a large enemy in order to deliver the big punch.

So what's the verdict? Well, Gamshara is not as good as it could be. I have very few ideas how to improve the game, but for some reason the original Cabal is simply just more fun to play. Maybe it's Cabal's surgically precise evasion roll versus Gamshara's fiddly bullet evading jump. Or the way you're just quickly whisked to another level in Gamshara, instead seeing the next level on the horizon in Cabal.

Cabal has lots of place to hide behind, Gamshara hardly has any - so maybe it's underutilization of safe spots? I don't know, but what I know is that Gamshara gets points for doing its small part in reviving a dead genre. It's not a complete success, but like a, say, Tetris-clone, it is impossible for this one to completely fail to entertain.

Greg Costikyan Talks His Manifesto

- Over at the Merc News, Dean Takahashi has an interview with Manifesto Games' Greg Costikyan which is notable for a couple of reasons - which I will now attempt to highlight.

Firstly, Costikyan not afraid to give props to some (semi)-competitors: "Valve’s Steam has been helpful in exposing many indie games to a broader market. Garage Games has been preaching a similar message for years, and the availability of its Torque engine at low cast has been a great boon to independent developers. Game Tunnel–a review site that specializes in independently developed games–is also great."

Secondly, he's honest enough to admit where Manifesto's bottom line is right now: "We’ve achieved a modest level of sales, and the curve is on an upward path, but we’re very aware that we have a long way to go.... We have revenue; we’re still operating in the red, however." He does note, however: "Yes, I’m out prospecting for capital at the moment." And good luck to him.

Retro Art, Preying On Nintendo's Past Daily

- The guys at the slightly cheesily named UrbanRetroLifestyle.com have posted a link to a new art print by Van Beater, 'titled Crappy Cat NES Tank.'

It's explained: "Crappy Cat is a character by Van Beater, and this NES Tank complete with a light gun cannon is a perfect war machine for all gaming geeks." Neat. But elsewhere on UrbanRetroLifeStyle, I also spotted a very videogame-ish artist showcase from Marshall Alexander.

He comments: "I work as a graphic designer in The Netherlands. In my spare time I do illustration as a counterbalance for the more corporate briefs at work. My art is heavily inspired by the retro toys, videogames and movies I grew up with. I either make up my own toys (like the Retrobot pinball table) or draw existing toys and sometimes slightly modify them." The 'Nosy Neighbors' Game & Watch fake is pretty cute - more pics on his portfolio site.

Playing Catch-Up With Jon 'Head Over Heels' Ritman

- Another of Alistair Wallis' Gamasutra columns that's awfully GSW-suitable, this week's Playing Catch-Up talks to classic '80s UK developer Jon Ritman about the games he's made over the past 25 years or so.

It's a really nice piece, and here's a couple of choice bits: "On the day that Ritman handed the master copy of Match Day to Ward, he was offered a copy of Ultimate Play The Game’s isometric adventure Knight Lore, which was due for release by the publisher a few days later. “He told me I had to take a look,” says Ritman. “I did that night, and my jaw hit the floor. It was what I had always wanted: Disney cartoon quality that you could play.”" Then followed Batman and one of my all-time favorite games, Head Over Heels, of course.

Also: "When Ultimate Play The Game - by that time known as Rare - began advertising for new staff, Ritman approached them and found that they had been playing his games as much as he had been playing theirs. He started work with the company on an independent basis, and began working on their GLAM development tool-kit, along with Guy Stevens... Ritman reveals that there were a number of arcade games that he also worked on with the company, though all remain unreleased. “I think my style of game play is more suited to the long haul rather than the quick fix required in an arcade game,” he muses." Damn, how do we get hold of those games?

Now We Have Games, Whither Toys?

- I know we talk about video games, like, all the time, but there's an interesting new CNet article asking: 'Has the toy industry screeched to a halt?', which is worth looking at for GSW readers.

Why so? It'd be this intro: "Some of the biggest attractions at the Toy Fair, which ran from Sunday through Wednesday at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, were Legos, action figures, Nerf guns, Barbie dolls, Klutz books, K-Nex building sets, and Transformers--all things that most twentysomethings and thirtysomethings would undoubtedly recognize from their younger years. Sure, some of the plastic pistols now have laser-sight features, and most of the action figures can talk, but these toys would still be far more recognizable to a child of the 1980s or '90s (or even '70s) than a Wii would be to a gamer who knew only the Super Nintendo system, or an iPod would be to a Walkman listener."

So what? "In short, the toy world seems to be evolving at a noticeably slower pace than the rest of this rapidly changing 21st-century world. And it raised the question for this reporter: is this a sign of healthy stability in the toy industry, or a sign that it may be losing ground to video games and the Internet?" An interesting question - how should the physical game biz act to keep up with the video game biz?

February 15, 2007

GI: Agetec Brings Cookie & Cream To DS

- Doesn't look like there's been an official announcement about this yet, but the latest March 2007 issue of Game Informer magazine reveals that Agetec is bringing classic PS2 collabo-platformer The Adventures of Cookie & Cream to the Nintendo DS, in a version simply called 'Cookie & Cream'.

GI explains of the DS conversion and update: "On one screen you'll move and platform your way through eight worlds and many stages, while the touch screen is used simultaneously to clear obstacles, solve puzzles, and defeat the bosses that get in your way." And co-op will still be possible via Wi-Fi, with 9 extra mini-games bundled into the whole dealio. (The image in this news story is from the PS2 version, but there are a couple of DS screenshots in the mag.)

[It's also notable and even surprising how many other major announcements got tied to this month's Game Informer street date - the cover is Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, which just got announced, of course, and it looks like the folks at Gamecock also timed their announcement to the Game Informer publishing schedule. One forgets how influential paper-magazines can be sometimes - esp. those with 2 million+ circulations!]

Timsplosion Saturates Insert Credit x 80,000

- There are some things that should never be. There are others that should not exist, but do anyway, contravening laws of time and space and brevity. One of those things is 'the insertcredit.com fukubukuro 2006: GAME OF THE YEAR EDITION', a (wait for it!) 80,000 word article by the indefatigable Tim Rogers on life, the universe, and gaming in 2006.

It's explained of this monstrosity: "Expect very long reviews of at least three major games, and maybe a giant, rambling, world-changing essay of sorts." And really, the 'keynote address' starts with the following sentence: "So, I've finally jumped on the bandwagon and masturbated using the Rez Trance Vibrator." This phrase (and the resulting explanation) will probably polarize the audience suitably, I would imagine!

Posting this, I was reminded of Michael Zenke's recent article for The Escapist, and a question I answered that was left out of the final article. Specifically, Zenke asked: "The July Esquire article about the 'Lester Bangs of Videogames' prompted a storm of discussion both on and off the internet about the role of game journalism. What, if anything, did you take away from the fallout of that article?"

My reply: "If you look, carefully, at what Lester Bangs meant at the time, I think you'll find that the Lester Bangs of today's game writing is still Tim Rogers. He's the only person who is disruptive and iconoclastic enough. I'm not necessarily saying that this is good - but it's true." So there you go - I'm not saying that Tim will necessarily be as famous in retrospect as Bangs, but I'm saying - oh, you know what I'm saying, I just said it.

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Carnage Heart

['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 Carnage Heart, a high point for strategy games and a key title for Playstation collectors.]

artdink_logo.jpgArtdink has a reputation as an unusual game developer with an aggressively creative streak. Most famous here in America for creating the bewildering “non-games” Aquanaut’s Holiday and Tail of the Sun, Artdink is also responsible for the No One Can Stop Mr. Domino puzzler, and the A-Train urban development sim. Less well known is Carnage Heart, one of the most unique strategy games ever offered for a home console.

Over Kill

tsuki_kage.jpgCarnage Heart was designed by Masaki Iizuka with mecha designs by artist and kit modeler Kow Yokoyama. It was firmly rooted in the ‘realistic robots’ tradition of Japanese sci-fi and featured mechs fighting corporate battles across the moons of Jupiter. Packaged with two dense manuals and a separate tutorial disc, Carnage Heart was not a game that one could just pick up and start playing.

You begin by designing your combat units called Over Kill Engines, choosing their body type, engine size, armaments, and other accessories. This part is fairly generic and familiar to anyone who has spent time with Armored Core. Once a design is settled on, you also have to put it into mass production which involves managing factory assembly lines while making sure income levels stay in the black. There are also opportunities to do business with various trans-national corporations, buying technology, funding research, and engaging in a bit of industrial espionage.

If... Then...

europa.jpgSo far, all of this sounds interesting but not radically different from many other strategy/economic sim games. What really makes Carnage Heart distinctive is that you have no direct control over your Over Kill Engines when they enter combat. Instead, during the design phase you must preprogram the combat behavior of your Over Kill Engine. This is done by laying out modules of set commands on a grid and linking them together in a flow chart of “IF... THEN...” statements. A simple example would be IF enemy detected within 100 meters THEN fire main weapon.

Of course, success in the game requires much more subtle strategies. There is a wide variety of modules to work with, including the ability for OKEs to communicate with each other, enabling complex, coordinated attacks. Once you become familiar with Carnage Heart’s programming language much of the pleasure of the game comes from working out clever OKE programs. It is a remarkable and creative experience to able to “play” the game while sitting at a table with pencil and paper, writing new programs to try out.

Black Coffee

ch_cover.jpgFirst published for Japan in 1995, Carnage Heart was brought to the U.S. in 1997 by Sony Computer Entertainment in an ambitious attempt to push the boundaries of console video games. Unfortunately, the game’s indirect and rigorously intellectual style of play was a hard sell to an audience more accustomed to fast action and glossy visuals. Spare, complex, and difficult, Carnage Heart was like a cup of hot, black coffee that few had the taste for.

Although Carnage Heart quickly vanished without a trace in America, the game enjoyed an extended life in Japan. In 1997 Artdink brought out a revised version of Carnage Heart called Carnage Heart EZ (Easy Zapping). A full sequel followed in 1998 titled Zeus Carnage Heart Second for both Playstation and Windows. In 1999, Artdink brought out Zeus II Carnage Heart and sponsored national Carnage Heart competitions in Japan to promote the game. The series lay dormant for several years until Carnage Heart Portable for the Sony PSP was recently published in Japan by Genki in the fall of 2006.

Resources for English speaking Carnage Heart enthusiasts are scarce. In the spring of ‘97 Sony began publishing its Playstation Underground CD magazine. Included in Volume 1, Issue 1 was a Carnage Heart demo along with a set of OKE designs from Artdink that could be downloaded on to a memory card. Issues of Playstation Underground show up from time to time for auction but generally do not sell for much.

Sometimes the most interesting games in a collection are not necessarily the most expensive ones. Carnage Heart can be found with relative ease for around $20, making it a painless acquisition for those wanting to add some depth to their collection.

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

Images: (C) Artdink/SCEI/Kow Yokoyama All Rights Reserved

Why Partnernet Is A PR Nightmare For Microsoft

- Prompted by the recent reports about Ikaruga coming to Xbox Live Arcade - formally written up by both Eurogamer and by Computer & Video Games, I thought I'd write a brief post on Partnernet and why it's just a bit of a horror for, well, anyone releasing games for XBLA and hoping to keep them under wraps.

The way it works is this - all Xbox 360 debug kits have a Dashboard executable on them, and on that, you can set yourself up with a Xbox Live account under a name of your choice (the 'Partnernet' version of Xbox Live runs completely separately to the release version), and then go online to check out and test games and add-ons. We have a debug Xbox 360 in the Game Developer/Gamasutra office, and many other members of the press have them, but the contents of the Partnernet download area is NDA-ed - you're not allowed to discuss it. So we're not.

One of the problems for Xbox 360 developers is that, if they want to test downloading for something (say, add-on map packs for retail games, or XBLA games themselves), then they need to put it on Partnernet using their game name. At which point, because Microsoft currently has no screening across this debug network, all the other developers and press people in the world can also download that file - even if they allegedly can't discuss it.

And most of the time, they don't, but after a recent podcast cited on NeoGAF mentioned that Ikaruga was playable on Partnernet, apparently both Tom Bramwell at Eurogamer and Andy Robinson at C&VG booted up their debugs to check, and then ran stories about it. I sorta thought that... wasn't allowed? They seem to have got away with it, but C&VG had a story about JetPac Refuelled removed, also citing Partnernet - presumably taken down because Rare reads C&VG and Treasure doesn't.

Anyhow, there are even shadowier figures who I'm guessing got X360 debugs as part of Microsoft's community outreach, but see no need to honor NDAs - DaKing240 from Xbox360Achievements.org has recently been posting lists of new games as they arrive on Partnernet, which I'm sure is not what Microsoft would want when some are unfinished and many are unconfirmed.

What I'd like to see is a press-facing part of Partnernet where preview builds of games can be uploaded with full knowledge of developers, thus enabling announced games to get officially previewed and appreciated - while cutting out this nonsense about developers not knowing that 'confused' press will leak info on their Xbox 360 game. I strongly suspect it's stopping some developers from uploading and perhaps even testing stuff over Partnernet, esp. for unannounced games, and that's a shame. [Obviously, the reason no change has been made yet is that Partnernet is not architected that way. Still...]

UK Video Game Site Charts - On The Money?

- UK retail biz site MCV has posted a list of Media Metrix/ComScore 'unique user data' for UK game and entertaiment sites in January 2007 which is pretty interesting, but I think, all kinds of off the mark.

The figures, which aren't often made public, were sent out by IGN, and claim: "Media Metrix/ComScore’s full list of unique users of games and entertainment sites in January reads:

1 IGN Entertainment 4.1m
2 IGN Entertainment - Games 3.2m
3 Gamespot.co.uk 2.7m
4 IGN.com 2.5m
5 Gamesradar.com 997,000
6 MSN Movies - UK 980,000
7 Rottentomatoes.com 886,000
8 IGN.COM Home Page 627,000
9 Hollywood.com 534,000
10 Yahoo! UK & Ireland Movies 516,000
11 Ifilm.com 455,000
12 Eurogamer.net 225,000
13 Computerandvideogames.com 165,000
14 Totalvideogames.com 93,000."

Now, obviously, there's no way to use Alexa.com to prove or disprove this, because Alexa doesn't do any geotargeting, so you can't separate out the UK users of any given site from its North American and other worldwide users. But I will say that if Eurogamer's ABC-audited stats for November 2006 had more than 1.31 million unique users visiting the site, then it hardly seems credible that they've shrunk by a factor of 6 for January when you discount international traffic.

This is hardly an apples for apples comparison - ABC Electronic, as far as I understand it, actually surveys the site traffic directly: "ABCE certifies figures based on census measurements which reflect total site activity, rather than simple ratings or sample-based research." Whereas Media Metrix uses much more of a TV ratings approach, with certain consumers signed up to be guinea pigs for the service.

In any case, I'm not saying that Media Metrix/Comscore is empirically wrong at all times - it is, after all, used by a lot of people, and isn't a million miles away from the method that Alexa uses. But I don't see why the 'census' approach should be taken for websites, when you can just plug into the site itself and count how many visits and page views there are. This would eliminate all of the controversy also at work in the U.S., where fights occasionally break out over who's #3 in the Media Metrix ratings, and spurious sites like CheatPlanet have hovered high up lists in the past.

Anyhow, this isn't particularly a 'rah rah Eurogamer' post - some of the other stats (particularly Computerandvideogames.com) seem pretty off too. As a parting thought - here's the worldwide difference between Eurogamer and GamesRadar ratings in Alexa as of right now, and it just doesn't seem to compare to the discrepancy in the Media Metrix scores, unless relatively many more continental Europeans and Americans than UK residents read Eurogamer.

[UPDATE - 02/19/07 - A keen-eyed friend points out that Alexa has now added country-specific rankings to its listings, meaning you can see exactly where sites are ranked in terms of relative placing - if not absolute numbers. It has Eurogamer as #3 overall of the major game sites based on UK stats, and GameSpot and IGN neck and neck at the top - with GameSpot currently just ahead. So there you go - drastically different from the ComScore results.]

February 14, 2007

Vday Present? You Need 161 Joysticks!

- My occasional eBay trawling finds some classic auctions, and this must be one of the weirdest for a long time - a collection of 161 joysticks for Amiga, Atari, Commodore, and probably some other systems, too. I'm not sure if it's an industrial design lesson or just OCD at work, but here they are!

Starting bid is $999, but hey: "Shipping to Europe will be around $300... Shipping to USA/CANADA etc. will be around $400. They are all in very good condition and most of them should work. Add these beauties to your collection or start one yourself. There are joysticks in all the boxes." Thank God for that!

[While we're talking about Joysticks - Matt Hawkins was devastated to find out that Destructoid reviewed the '80s movie Joysticks ahead of him for his Cinema Pixeldiso column for GSW. Curse you, Destructoidies! We will get you back with an even more obscure movie review soon.]

Ill Clan Signs Up With Electric Sheep

- On occasion, I may be a little dismissive of the whole Second Life thing, but I will say that it's producing a burgeoning trade in 'virtual world artisans', and old school machinima veterans The Ill Clan are the latest people to benefit.

As the press release says "ILL Clan Inc., creator of award-winning real-time animation and a pioneer of the machinima (machine+cinema) process, has joined The Electric Sheep Company, the leading creator of virtual world content... ILL Clan Inc. will become the machinima division of The Electric Sheep Company. It will work with the company's growing portfolio of brand-name clients to produce machinima from virtual worlds such as Second Life for re-broadcast, promotions, events and entertainment."

We've previously covered The ILL Clan, who are about as oldschool as they come, having been doing machinima since somewhere around the Quake I era, and Electric Sheep's machinima portfolio showcases what the two companies have been doing to date: "During the Super Bowl XLI pre-game show, CBS aired this machinima promo, produced by ESC, for the hit sitcom Two and a Half Men." Wacky, but ultimately kinda fun.

AGS Awards. Zeebys Get Winners

- So, a couple of neat niche awards that it's worth pointing to, since not many other people will, we're afraid. Firstly, we've previously covered the AGS Awards for adventure games, and Gnome has now pointed out the winners of the awards for this year.

There are all kinds of interesting awards for previously GSW-referenced adventure titles, for example: "Best Innovation: What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed by Vince Xii... AGS Lifetime Achievement Award: Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games... Best Game Created with AGS: Trilby's Note by Yahtzee of Fully Ramblomatic" - check out Gnome's write-up for ridiculously exhaustive links to all finalists.

Also just announced - the first ever Zeebies, for casual games, as done by Gamezebo and the Casual Games Association - and the winners are now formally announced on the website. Best game went to GameHouse's Super Collapse 3, but other notable awards include Bookworm Adventures from PopCap (one of the most interesting casual games of the year) for Best Game Design.

Rainbow Islands Goes... Hurdy Gurdy?

- Now, I knew that a new version of Rainbow Islands was coming out for PSP - it's coming out in Europe in a couple of weeks, for one - but a new NCSX post reveals the true oddness of the packaging/story for the Japanese version, called 'New Rainbow Islands: Hurdy Gurdy Daibouken!'

As NCSX explains: "Bubby and Bobby don decidedly South American garb and wield instruments in a new game of Rainbow throwing proportions... Across the Rainbow Islands worlds, creatures are being changed into other guises while a record company executive peers at the carnage through binoculars." Uhm, WHAT?

I'm not really sure what weird ethnic stereotypes the developers are going after here, since the hurdy gurdy is almost a Eastern European instrument - it's all a bit It's A Small World! There's also some odd gameplay going on:

"A pseudo 3D stage design where foreground, midground, and background may be traveled between by hopping on a moving platform that shuttles between the depths... Due to the concept of three distinct "levels" in every stage, enemies that appear in the midground can't be attacked if you're standing in the foreground although they might appear very close."

February 13, 2007

NewGrounds Blasts Best Of Jan Flash Games

- One of the most interesting and vital Flash-related movie and game sites is NewGrounds.com, also well-known for harboring some of the reprobates at The Behemoth behind Castle Crashers, and a 'best of January post' runs down some really interesting community-made Flash games.

The top game of the month, as it turns out, is the distinctly sinister Pandemic, which is "...is a game where you get to evolve you own biological virus and wipe out mankind!" A bit like the biological version of DefCon, essentially. There's so much raw experimental gameplay coming out of scenes like this - which I find exciting.

Also looking cool is Seven Deadly Sins, a British Flash adventure in which: "Mild mannered Ed has been challenged to depart from his mild English ways and commit the seven deadly sins. Enter the quiet English town of Gorpsdale and use your skill, guile and ingenuity to find suitable ways of breaking each sin."

[I will also note in passing the epic Epic Flash movie mash-up Queers Of War, which is incredibly sophomoric and some might even say homophobic (others would say couched in heavy irony), and "...also attracted a threatening letter from Epic's legal representation, although the threat was withdrawn after a chat with the VERY COOL people at Epic." It's nothing if not interesting.]

How Sega Can Save Sonic? Is It Too Late?

- Over at 1UP, Mr. Parish has the obvious article that nonetheless it is necessary to write: 'How Sega Can Save Sonic The Hedgehog', and the intro starts as the piece means to go on:

"Remember the glory days of Sonic the Hedgehog? Once upon a time, he stood face to face with the likes of Bonk and Pac-Man and Mario himself, sneering sarcastically across the battle lines of the 16-bit console wars to remind Super NES owners that their system of choice might have a totally killer sound chip, but dang, was it slow... Those halcyon times, alas, are long gone. Sonic is still a pretty big name, and his adventures make good money for developer Sonic Team and publisher Sega. But these days the little blue guy is way past his prime, as proven by his new outing on Xbox 360 and PS3."

But, but, but, what can be done? "It's not too late for Sonic, though. We still want to love Sega's hyperactive hedgehog, and while our affection becomes more strained with each new, unplayable sequel, we're a forgiving bunch. We've come up with a simple four-step plan to help Sonic speed his way back into our hearts. Please, Sega, before it's too late." Needless to say, the fixes include less Lacey Chabert.

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Lost Warriors

['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 an overlooked game from the mid-nineties.]

mw1.jpgWhat with the general populace savouring the bug blasting wonders of Lost Planet, it seems worthwhile covering a game from 1995 that bears striking similarities to Capcom’s latest opus.

The game was Metal Warriors on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and it was pretty damn amazing for its time too but due to the then recent release of Sony’s first PlayStation console it somewhat fell under the radar.

More after the jump…

Era of the Assault Suits

leynos_cover_genesis1.jpgIt’s worth prefacing Metal Warriors in the context of its peers at that time; namely Assault Suits Valken. Valken was a pseudo-sequel to Assault Suits Leynos released on the Genesis and it furthered the series quite considerably in gameplay terms. The player controlled a large mecha, by the name of an assault suit, through complex winding environments. Released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System towards the end of 1992, it offered sizeable and rich environments for the player to explore coupled with some exceedingly focused horizontal shmup action (as a quick heads up; Valken was recently ported to the PlayStation 2 but it's best to be avoided).

The assault suit was a rather agile piece of hardware too, it could skim at high speed across a flat surface as well as boost though to a limited extent through the air. Each of its weapons could be upgraded as well, though this was a somewhat arduous affair due to the piecemeal nature of where the power-ups were located. It was also, like Leynos before it, a hard game. The assault suit had a finite amount of armor and whilst it was certainly nimble on its feet the player was encouraged to be less rash with enemy encounters and actually use some forethought in terms of progression.

valken_cover_snes1.jpgValken was released abroad as Cybernator (with a few disappointing edits) in 1993. It garnered quite the following and consequently was one of the main games that helped foster mecha gaming outside of Japan.

In the same year Konami published a LucasArts developed game by the name of Zombies Ate My Neighbors. Two of the main development staff for this eclectic isometric action game were Mike Ebert and Deane Sharpe. They subsequently used the Zombies engine and fashioned possibly one of the finest horizontal scrolling shmups ever created.

Mecha Ate My Neighbors

Metal Warriors was published in 1995 by Konami, confusing fans of Valken that it was some kind of sequel. It received little to no marketing (mainly due to the emergence of Sony’s PlayStation console). This was and remains a great pity. Whilst Valken approached mecha gaming as a very linear and focused type of game, Metal Warriors took a step back and actually offered something that was ironically more Japanese in terms of approach.

For one Metal Warriors lacked a HUD. This is any game, especially a shmup, would normally be tantamount to a complete catstrophe of design. Yet, the genre was so implicit by 1995 the removal of the HUD actually worked to the game’s advantage. The reason behind this is because Metal Warriors afforded something to the player that Valken did not.

mw5.jpgFor those that watch a lot of mecha anime, you’ll know that the mecha themselves are meant as ciphers for the pilots. The pilots are the focal point of the narrative. Metal Warriors approached this from a gameplay point of view by having the player exit their mecha and find another one (this is also something Lost Planet heavily uses with their implementation of Vital Suits). The level design of Metal Warriors was subsequently quite labyrinthine. With the player having to find their way around large levels with tiny corridors tucked away meant for the equally tiny pilot to traverse and activate switches for various doors. Not to mention that many of the levels had hidden areas where the more exotic mecha were tucked away. As such, the level design was layered in a way that Valken just didn't offer, a huge and complex HUD (a la Valken) would have got in the way of that.

Metal Warriors was set across a total of nine very large levels (technically speaking the eighth stage was an unlock, so to many the game may have only appeared to have eight levels). Each of the levels became increasingly complex, with the second level climaxing in the player having to exit their mecha and storm a battleship as the tiny pilot. The plot centered around the evil forces of Dark Axis led by the suitably maniacal Venkar Amon (he even sported a monacle and those are only worn by evil robo-dictators) and their megalomaniacal grip on Earth. This mirrored the events in Valken more than a little too closely in all honesty, where the main evil force was simply known as Axis. Interestingly, Valken seemingly lifted most of its story from Char's Counterattack anyway (where Axis was the large asteroid that Char wished to drop on Earth).

Metal Multiplayer

mw2.jpgThere were a total of six mecha for the player to pilot. You started off with the Nitro, which was a fairly well balanced mecha. Unlike the assault suit, the Nitro could fly quite freely and deposit energy shields whilst airborne. It also offered the more generic beam sabres and guns. The Havoc was much more like the assault suit due to its strength in ground based combat, in some ways it was also quite similar to the Gouf from Gundam due to its melee weapon resembling the Gouf’s mecha whip. Then came the mighty Prometheus, this was a very slow but extremely powerful mecha that sported multiple weapons (the flame thrower being my favourite due to its ability to cause "massive damage"), the Prometheus also bore many similarities to the bulky destroids in Macross. After these three came the slightly more exotic mecha, with the Spider being particularly interesting due to its cloaking device and the ability to crawl across any surface. The Ballistic was also another odd mecha, which was a large ball that had could become stationary gun platform. Finally, there was the Drache. This was very similar to the Rafflesia in Gundam F-91 and was able to stay permanently airborne, it also could dive bomb targets to cause, you guessed it, "massive damage". Each of these mecha could also pick up external weapon packs that would attach via hard points. Many of these added considerable amounts of firepower to the proceedings but once used they had a finite amount of time before they ran out. The high poqered rockets also aided level exploration because it allowed the player to literally blast holes through walls and enter previously hidden areas. My personal favourite was the gravity reversal powerup, mainly because it allowed the player to do some pretty interesting maneuvers mid-air.

mw8.jpgThese six mecha afforded an immense variety to the levels and how the player approached them. Though these six mecha really came into their own in multiplayer. Bear in mind though, that Valken and Leynos hadn't offered any kind of multiplayer not to mention that you only had one type of assault suit to choose from. Metal Warriors had six mecha and the ability for the player to exit their mecha and find another. Versus matches were rather raucous as a result, with friends dumbfounded by the cheeky use of other mecha and very twitchy pilot encounters (the pilot carried a handgun, so you could fight one on one without mecha if you so wished, something that happened quite a lot when you had a rather cowardly opponent who liked to switch units mid battle).

Warriors End

In some ways, it's a sad tale that Metal Warriors never really received the recognition it so sorely deserved. Arguably, it was a more intricate and involving game and captured elements from mecha anime that Valken and Leynos didn't even try to. Yet, even today, Masaya's mecha shmups get adulation poured upon them and Lost Planet's multiple Vital Suits are heralded as some kind of second coming. The exclusion of Metal Warriors in such company is subsequently an unfortunate one. However, what with the advent of downloadable gaming in the shape of Xbox Live Arcade and the Wii's Virtual Console, it seems fitting that Metal Warriors be unearthed and shared amongst the gaming throng.

[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.]

Arcade Documentaries? Lots Of 'Em!

- Jason Scott, who is himself making a documentary about oldskool arcades, has made a handy post compiling info about arcade documentaries, explaining: "I figure I'll occasionally pepper this weblog with thoughts on arcades, events or likewise, related to either my documentary or the idea in general. I expect, actually, to do this a lot. But right now, I wanted to mention the other arcade documentaries you can see shortly, instead of waiting the years for my own."

He particularl notes: "There are five that I am currently aware of. Three have broken loose from the madhouse and are running around the world's yard, while two others are locked in the basement, screaming about the bugs. (I'm not counting my own in this tally.)" Then he lists them, including the GSW-blogged-about King Of King - apparently we are 'loving'!

His last comment is particularly notable, though: "And I guess the last film, Bang the Machine, is technically finished and out... but good luck finding out where to see it! I'll leave that one as an exercise to the reader. I repeat what I said just this past Monday about films with no firm plans on how to make money from them: RELEASE IT OR GIVE IT AWAY." This is true - I've been waiting for Bang the Machine to be released in some communicable form for an age.

When Game Journalists Don't Finish Games

- Over at GameDaily.biz, Kyle 'Mr. New-Skool Media Coverage' Orland has posted a column about game journalists playing games, with the fun headline: "Game journalists discuss the biggest gaps in their game-playing portfolios, and why they aren't as important as you might think."

Alert GSW readers will notice a confession from me hanging out in the article: "Many journalists that responded to my inquiry found they just didn't have the time to really get into certain epic games. CMP's Simon Carless lamented that he'd probably "have to take a holiday" to put aside his current pile of games and finally get through Twilight Princess. GameDaily's Robert Workman is waiting for "a lazy summer day" to finally give Oblivion another go."

Anyhow, I found this a fun article (even if I _was_ mentioned), and it seems to have taken the Media Coverage columns in a more positive, well-constructed way, after the former anonymous columnist, much given to snarkiness and complaints about X being broken (where X was pretty much anything you can mention) has now left for whinging pastures new. Now, back to cat manipulation in Zelda!

February 12, 2007

Email Subject Line Of The Year!

- Specifically, this would be: 'Alex Seropian's Wideload and Mike Wilson's Gamecock', and yes, I got this as a
possibly un-ironic email subject this morning, since: "Wideload has partnered with Mike Wilson’s new venture Gamecock to publish their next game, Hail to the Chimp." Well, I _think_ it was lacking irony - here's the Gama story on Gamecock for those who haven't seen.

Quoting further, if you care about the ensuring story (and we do, it's a political-themed animal party game, for Gawd's sake!): "Hail to the Chimp is a party game where players battle one another to become the new leader of the Animal Kingdom. Players use the game’s unique team-up mechanic, balancing cooperation with competition, to claw their way to victory. The game supports up to four players on one console or online, bringing Wideload's trademark blend of action and comedy to gamers of all ages."

"“We're as happy as a hippo in a henhouse to be a key part of Gamecock's launch,” said Wideload founder and CEO Alexander Seropian. "We're working hard to craft an original, fun game, and retaining ownership of the IP is a huge benefit of this partnership. The Gamecock guys have a stellar record in publishing games and treating developers right, and are poised to give the video game business a much-needed kick in the pants."

All kinds of other tragic puns to be had here - but it's great to see some lighthearted original IP announcements out there from the G.O.D. veterans now at Gamecock - and Stubbs The Zombie creator Seropian and friends, of course.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Theseus and the Minotaur / Mummy Maze

["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 multi-state maze Theseus and the Minotaur.]

Theseus and the Minotaur is a puzzle that has been trememndously popular across the internet. Like other popular puzzles, many people are unaware of its origins. But unlike many of the puzzles I've been writing about, the history of this particular maze is pretty well documented, from its creation by Robert Abbott as a pencil-and-paper maze, through its first appearance on the web, all the way up to its current incarnations as PopCap's Mummy Maze.

Logical Mazes

A set of possible moves in Robert Abbott's Theseus and the Minotaur, taken from the 1994 Games and PuzzlesRobert Abbott is the inventor of a particular type of maze called, variably, "mazes with rules," "logic mazes," and "multi-state mazes." The first one appeared in Martin Gardner's Scientific American column in 1962. What makes the mazes different from what you would generally find in a children's activity book is that there are any number of rules that apply to the puzzle. In a common maze, you have to simply move spatially from one point to another. In a logic maze, there are rules that restrict or modify how you move. For example, in The Farmer Goes to Market, the maze published in Scientific American forty-five years ago, there are arrows that limit which way you can move, and you are not allowed to make a U-turn. As a result, the location isn't the only thing that matters in the maze, you also have to keep track of a particular state of the game: which direction you just came from.

Over the years, Abbott refined the idea of these mazes. For example, in the Alice Mazes, (taken from his 1990 book Mad Mazes), you can see the state quite clearly. As you move through the maze, the definition "d=1" will change, indicating how many spaces each move is permitted to be. In the Sliding Door Maze (from the later SuperMazes), the state of the maze is incorporated into the maze; the doors that open and close define how you can move. What's most important about these puzzles from a puzzling perspective is that when a maze has multiple states, a relatively simple layout can be incredibly complex. If you don't believe me, you should take a look at Ed Pegg, Jr.'s "Multi-State Mazes" article at MAA Online. It shows a state diagram for a simplified version of The Farmer Goes to Market, and you can see how quickly a simple maze becomes a difficult one. (The article also has a fantastic list of interactive and static multi-state mazes that I adivse you to try.)

One day, while playing the 1980 arcade game Berzerk, Abbott imagined a maze where the solver would have to avoid a robotic opponent. To make the maze a puzzle, rather than an action game, Abbott made the process turn based. The player would move, then the robot would move. "It's like I took a frenzied video game and slowed it down to one thousandth of its normal speed," said Abbott in his notes. Combining the as-the-crow-flies pathfinding of Berzerk's robots with the speed and invincibility of robot gang leader Evil Otto, Abbot had what would become "Theseus and the Minotaur" in Mad Mazes. For every step you (Theseus) took, the Minotaur would move two spaces toward you (preferring to move horizontally before veritcally). With a framing story about a robotically programmed monster, a paper grid, and movable markers for Theseus and the Minotaur, the puzzle took six weeks to design.

Raised from the Dead

Puzzle 15 in Toby Nelson's Theseus and the Minotaur applet, hosted by Robert AbbottWhen Abbott moved online and started his own website in 1998, he asked another puzzler, Oriel Maxime, to turn the pencil-and-paper puzzle into an interactive one. It started picking up steam after getting spotted on rec.puzzles. The puzzle was much easier to solve translated into an actual computer game. Ed Pegg, Jr. noted that the maze typically took a week to solve on paper, but the internet puzzlers were finishing it off much quicker.

Then about a year later, a young programmer named Toby Nelson wrote his own Java version of Theseus and the Minotaur, but this time, he added fourteen more puzzles. Nelson had designed a program to generate mazes randomly, then it refines the best ones by testing various mutations. The puzzles are then ranked according to measures like solution length and the number of false paths. (A similar program, designed by James W. Stephens, provides the basis for the many wonderful puzzles at PuzzleBeast.) This new set of puzzles was generally easier than Abbott's original, though each still required several small leaps of logic. Nelson's first thirteen puzzles provided a steady ramp of difficulty for solvers before they reached Abbott's original. And Nelson added a final puzzle. Called The Dread Maze Fifteen, it was far more complex than Abbott's.

In an interview with Puzzle Monster, Abbott considered the pluses and minuses of computer versions of his mazes. "One advantage of programs is they make sure you follow the rules. A disadvantage of programs is you can avoid any thinking by just fiddling with the controls until you chance upon the solution." But it was the fiddling that made the mazes so popular. Instead of soberly thinking through the rules of the puzzle, players could quickly learn by doing. Trying random false leads rarely provided an answer, but it occasioinally provided insight into how the puzzle worked, leading a player closer to the solution. The puzzle had become a game, and friends passed the link along in chatrooms, newsgroups, and mailing lists whether or not they could complete all fifteen puzzles.

Raiding the Tomb

An early level in PopCap's Mummy Maze DeluxeIn 2002, PopCap Games put out a Java clone of Theseus and the Minotaur called Mummy Maze, followed by the downloadable Mummy Maze Deluxe. The game gave the puzzle a graphical update (no more dots and lines). It replaced Theseus with an explorer in an Egyptian tomb and replaced the Minotaur with a mummy. It also added new content. There are scorpions that think like mummies, but can only move one space per turn. There are red mummies and red scopions who will move vertically before they move horizontally. There can be multiple enemies in a maze; forcing two of them run into each other will cause one enemey to dispatch the other. There are also changes to the environment: traps can be stepped on by monsters, but not you, and key spaces will open and close gates (much like Abbott's Sliding Door Maze).

Mummy Maze Deluxe boasts thousands of mazes. It's tempting to accuse PopCap of sacrificing quality for quantity, but I don't think it's true. There are still several wonderfully difficult rooms (and I can't think of any truly terrible ones), but overall, the puzzles are just okay. It's not uncommon for a long string of puzzles to be relatively simple once you're used to the logic, or for added elements to have no use at all. But most importantly, I don't believe that any of that is actually a design flaw. Mummy Maze, like all of PopCap's oeuvre, is a casual game. The puzzles in Mummy Maze aren't meant to send you deep into thought; they're meant to be a pleasantly stimulating pastime. You solve a few mazes, you get the puzzling itch out of your system, and you go back to doing actual work on your PC (or Palm or phone or whatever platform you're playing on). And you know that there will be plenty more mazes the next time you need a quick break.

The credits screen from Mummy Maze DeluxePerhaps the most notable thing about Mummy Maze is that PopCap, who's been criticized for its clones in the past, belatedly licensed the game from Abbott. According to Ed Pegg, Jr., "PopCap inadvertantly copied the idea for their game Mummy Maze. Soon after realizing their error, the PopCap company apologized to Robert, paid him, and now are giving him credit." I considered probing deeper into this legal mystery, but since everyone seems happy, I thought it best to let sleeping dogs lie. Still, I sometimes wonder why Abbott gets his name in the loading screen while the creators of other cloned games are left anonymous. Was it because the puzzle was created by an individual? Or because the puzzle was first devised in a published book, rather than as a computer game?

Regardless, it's fantastic that he gets the credit he deserves and that he fights so hard to protect. In fact, part of the reason that it was so easy to find information about the puzzle is because of Abbott's own efforts to publicize its history (and his role in it). Instead of searching deep into the shadowy past to figure out who wrote what and where the inspiration from, Abbott works hard to keep the story and the challenge of Theseus and the Minotaur alive for anyone to enjoy.

[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.]

Anyone Can Play Cave Story?

-Big hat tip to TIGSource for this one, but they spotted that the LJ Cave Story journal has revealed: "On the official Radiohead blog, guitarist Jonny Greenwood shows a screenshot of Doukutsu and provides download links, calling the game a 'work of art'."

The LJ chatter replying to this bombshell is fun: "I wonder if Pixel knows who Radiohead are?"... " Unfortunately, he says he hasn't on his BBS, although other readers were amazed at the news." Also, if you're a complete Pixel (Cave Story creator) geek, looks like some folks translated a manga that he put up on his site.

As an aside, I must say that dojin creators always seem pretty uninterested in getting their games released on other platforms, which is a big shame - though Variant Interactive are still allegedly making a PSP version of Cave Story - but Variant's site is just ridiculously overblown for what is basically a tiny firm, and our previous skepticism over them is not abated, considering they haven't updated their .plan files on the site for a whole year.

Why Online Multiplayer Isn't That Important

- Over at GameTunnel, site editor Russell Carroll has posted a neat editorial called 'Why Online Multiplayer Isn't That Important', which he starts by stating, simply: "Sure, online multiplayer is nice, but I think it's a feature that is a bit over-rated. "

Why so, Mr. Carroll? "James Smith, the developer of Ricochet, Big Kahuna Reef and several other games you should have played, said that "Online Multiplayer is something that seems like a great idea until you have it." Multiplayer gaming is awesome, don't get me wrong, but I don't think that online multiplayer modes are all that great. Unless I'm playing in the same room as the person I'm playing against, I lose the emotional and physical connection that makes multiplayer games fun."

Moreover, he stresses: "It's like going to a party where you drink and dance by yourself in your living room, and connect to everyone else through headsets, video cameras and HD TVs. No matter how you look at it, the end result is a lame party." I find online multiplayer a bit iffy sometimes, too, just because of the level of random asshattery out there - but I guess that's a whole other kettle of opponents? [Pic - PA.]

Bubble Islands Trickles To The Surface

- If you've been participating in the IGF Audience Award over at GameSpot, you might have spotted this already, but Best Web Game finalist Bubble Islands is now available for free play, and JayIsGames has a neat review of the title, too.

One of the reasons I like Bubble Islands is that it's one of those faux-Japanese European games (g'day, Apidya!), heh, but as JayIsGames notes, it's incredibly slick and very addictive, too: "Flash-based and completely free, Bubble Islands is fun, cute and loaded with enough content to rival similar commercial games."

[And while we're here, one of my personal favorite Student Showcase winners from the IGF this year is web-playable game Rooms, and JayIsGames also reveals: "Kim JongHwa has just uploaded an update (v1.25) to his captivating puzzle game, Rooms. This latest update fixes the "bus bug" in level 13 once and for all, and it also includes a new password feature that allows you to start the game from any previously completed level." Go check it, if you haven't.]

February 11, 2007

GameSetLinks: Green Monster Gonna Get Us!

- Well, it's definitely Sunday, so time to round up a few miscellaneous links that aren't quite big enough to get their own post on GSW. But they're still cute, so here they are:

- Over at the Gamasutra jobs section this week, I noticed that the recently announced Green Monster Games, as founded by Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, has the cutest logo - the least vicious teeth-baring 'Green Monster' I've ever seen. Of course, the company is partly named after the left field wall at Fenway Park, which is pretty neat too. Looks like something a bit Mario-y, no?

- Japanmanship has a really fun post about the Wii weather channel, most specifically: "There is an island in the Pacific, south of Port Vila, called Erromango; it's the southern-most province of Vanuatu and formerly known as Martyr's." But the odd translation has it as "Ero-manga island", and: "For the benefit of those who don't speak Japanese "ero manga" is the term used for "erotic manga", those pervy comic books depicting big-eyed characters in a variety of sinful, lewd and obscene acts." Oh dear.

- There's more friction between MMO bloggers and Second Life defender Wagner James Au again, with Iron Realms' Matt Mihaly blasting Mr. Au on his recent article, which claimed of a strip club in SL: "Entirely non-erotic are the furniture, the money, most of the textures, all the construction materials of the building, the fixtures, and more. Seen this way, maybe 10% of this location depicts commercial content that is unambiguously sexual." Mihaly howls: "In fact, maybe that XXX movie you and your girlfriend rented last weekend shouldn’t be considered a sexual movie at all! I mean, think of the paint on the walls, and the carpet, not to mention the bed itself. None of that is sexual!" And then the flaming starts.

- I wuz just talking about classic arcade locations, and RetroBlast! points to a new LA Times article discussing the official opening of Miss T's Barcade in Los Angeles. Looks like it has classic arcade and pinball action, too: "If Barcade feels more like a rec room than a licensed establishment, well, that's part of its charm. After three beers and several games of Punch Out!, it's easy to pretend you're in a friend's basement, stealing beers from his dad's fridge while playing Piston Hurricane." More of these please!

- Another good 1UP feature from last week was 'Game Hunters: NYC', and darned if it's not handy - I've shopped in a few of these places: "New York's infrastructure is built to cater to a throng. The number of stores selling videogames in the city is enormous, so if you're looking for games here you're bound to trip over a couple you didn't know existed. Some of these shops might even contain a few rare baubles at discount prices -- it all depends on the day."

- Just slipping this one in at the last minute, but - look what happens when you employ an _actual journalist_ to blog, as opposed to a bunch of part-time editors who are helping out after work or between classes at school or whatever. You get Chris Kohler's excellent interview with Harmonix at Wired's Game|Life blog, that's what. You know content is king? Well, context is king, too, and Kohler gets it. And if all blogs were like this, I wouldn't be complaining about them.

Braid, Vaguely Demystified? Blimey

- Over at the Arthouse Games blog (which I just realized is written by Cultivation creator Jason Rohrer), there's an extremely in-depth article reviewing Jon Blow's IGF winning title Braid, and (though there are spoilers, beware!) it goes some way toward explaining why the game is so interesting.

As Rohrer notes: "Braid won the award for Innovation in Game Design at the 2006 IGF, but no demo was posted. Braid was discussed at the 2006 Experimental Gameplay Workshop, but no demo was posted. Braid was entered into the 2007 IGF and Slamdance festivals, and still no demo was posted." But fortunately, Rohrer has got hold of a demo, and exposes a lot - some might say too much.

I'm a little concerned that Braid will get overhyped - as can be seen by the all-out grudge match going on on the Indygamer post about this review, but Rohrer's opinion:

"Braid has the potential to change the way you think about reality. It will certainly change the way you think about video games. In this preview, I will explain why it has this power, using detailed examples from the game. However, part of the game's interest lies in its surprise factor: there is great joy to be had in discovering just how clever this game is for yourself. In fact, I am glad that I never read a preview of this game before I was lucky enough to play it myself." So... don't click through! Or just read a bit of it, that's what I did.

Wheaton Talks Decline Of The Arcade

- It's wandered around the blogosphere already, but over at the basically SFW bit of the often NSFW SuicideGirls, Wil Wheaton has an excellent post on the decline of arcades in the U.S..

He starts: "Though my family started with the Odyssey2 before moving to the Atari 2600 and Atari 400... much of my gaming took place in various arcades, or local businesses — pizza parlors, drug stores, bowling alleys, liquor stores and even a head shop — and they played such an important role in my life, I still have all kinds of very clear and powerful memories associated with certain games and the places I played them. It's good that I do, because arcades in America are vanishing like rainforests."

I'm not sure I was in quite the same era as Wheaton, but I like his emo clown sweater-wearing style: "But in the back of my mind, and on long lonely drives where a melancholy saxophone solo seemed to come out of nowhere to accompany me, I'd think about Tron, and Star Castle, and Mr. Do! and Zaxxon. I'd hear the jukebox playing Journey and Judas Priest and Asia and Van Halen. I'd smell the waffle cones and feel the quarters heavily banging against my thigh as they weighed down the pocket of my two-toned corduroy OP shorts, and I wouldn't miss the games as much as I'd miss the places where I played them."

Giants: Citizen Kabuto - A Retrospective

- Some more newly added material to PC Gamer UK's website, a look back at Planet Moon's Giants: Citizen Kabuto, thanks to Jim Rossignol, apparently.

It's all on the interesting side, but here's the happy conclusion: "Giants, along with its contemporary, Sacrifice, mark out a particular time in gaming. They are some of those artefacts of human culture that make you sit up and think about how good it is simply to make weird shit that no one has seen before. Because of this exuberance, the deliberate iconoclasm, and crazily amalgamated concepts, Giants stands out as a kind of living monument to creativity."

[Also just added, and what I was originally going to make this post about before Slashdot got to it ahead of me - 'A Critical Hit', on "How Dungeon & Dragons shaped the modern videogame", an excellent Kieron Gillen feature which talks to a bunch of major developers, from Harvey Smith to Raphael Colantonio, about the influence of D&D on them.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 2/10/07

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


What you're looking at here is the completion of something of a Holy Grail for myself -- a full run of the first incarnation of Game Player's magazine. I wound up spending $25 to get the final issue I needed to finish this run, but it was worth every penny to me, since finding pretty much any individual issue in this run seems to be nearly impossible these days.

For those unfamiliar, Game Players began in 1989 as a multiplatform magazine and lasted until 1991, when publisher Signal Research went bankrupt. It was resurrected in 1993 once Future Publishing bought Signal's assets, and continued unabated until 1998, renaming itself to Ultra Game Players and finally Game Buyer before folding. The 1993-96 run of Game Players is well known for its off-the-wall humor (there's even a fan site for it), but the original 1989-91 version was damn hard to find on newsstands even back in the day.

Far outsold by its sister publication Game Player's Strategy Guide to Nintendo Games, the frugally-designed, cheap-looking title tended to toil in the shadow of flashier mags like GamePro and Nintendo Power. Hell, even I never bought it back then, although Strategy Guide was a must-read for me every month. Now, though, I've finally managed to collect all 28 issues of the original run -- and in this picture, I've also included my cherished copy of Game Player's Sports for Kids, an athletics mag from the same publisher that comes complete with a profile of 13-year-old Tiger Woods. (If anyone knows how many issues of that mag there are, let me know.)

Enough bragging, though -- there are mounds of new U.S. magazines to cover this time around, so click on to see them all...

GamePro February 2007

gp-0703.jpg   gpl2-0703.jpg

Cover: Wii win!

All right, it's time to look back to my "If I Ran GamePro" column and see how many of my wishes came true. Let's have a look:

1. Drop the old-school GamePro stuff. Well, good news: they got rid of Protips! I repeat, they got rid of Protips! Oh, how joyful I am as I dance upon the Protips' grave, hopefully vandalizing it a bit before I leave! Editor personas are still there, sadly, but there's a revised rating system that drops the graphics, sound, and control scores in favor of a single "Fun Factor" rating out of 5.

2. Knock off all that text. This they did to some extent, most notably in the "Opening Shots" section that takes up the first five pages of the mag. Similar to OXM's opening spread (as well as similar photo spreads in ESPN The Magazine and other sports rags), this is simply a section of enormous game screenshots with small captions identifying them and adding a witty comment or two. (The "Parting Shot" on the final page is the same thing, but for only one game -- in this issue, a somewhat blurry pic from Half-Life 2 Episode 2.)

3. Get a good designer. GP's design has improved a fair bit, although it's still recognizable as GP. The reviews section looks a lot like EGM's now, complete with an opening spread introducing the reviewers and the month's top-rated game. Smaller reviews are now written up as long columns, similar to the late Official PlayStation Magazine, and the rest of the mag finally succeeds in looking clean and clear without seeming unfinished, like GP was before.

The only obvious mistake I saw in the design is in a feature spread on online services that, at first glance, seems to mix up the labels on Xbox Live and Wii's Shopping Channel. (I also think there's still too much text and not enough illustration in the previews, though. This isn't Edge.)

4. Give the editors some personality. The opening news section (retitled "Spawn Point") now opts for quickie humor pieces and introductions to obscure little bits of game trivia instead of boring old news coverage. Static (the rumor section that used to be written by Dan Amrich) is back and mostly filled with snarky running commentary; fun to read. There's a "Hub" section in the back with reader letters and interactive stuff from the gamepro.com forum audience. Overall, about as vast an improvement you'll get as long as personas are around.

5. Keep on skewing younger. Well, GamePro is now back to writing original strategy guides... partly, anyway. There's a useless 3-page bit on Lost Planet from Brady Games, but the original one on Gears of War has a guide to chimera classes and the seven most grueling parts of the game, which is far more helpful. Otherwise, not much of an effort has been made to target any particular audience.

Overall, the redesign is a marked improvement all around, but ultimately, it still feels like GamePro up to now, which I'm not sure is the sort of reinvention I was hoping for. I'm hoping that the redesign and new interactivity with the website does help to attract readers, though -- I'm noticing a distressing amount of ads for in-house products in this already thin 100-page mag.

Electronic Gaming Monthly March 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: PS3 under fire

The pattern for EGM covers post-redesign is starting to become clear -- the past three issues have featured extremely clear, almost barren covers, none of which focus on a particular game. This month's cover seems to get some influence from old Next Generation mags, but I think it's a misstep -- there's too much text and it's not immediately obvious what the cover subject is to the casual browser. (It also features, front and center, the exact same PS3 stock photo as the January cover two months ago. Lazy, is what I call that.)

If the cover isn't memorable, though, the feature it touts inside is. EGM's interview with SCEA head Jack Tretton goes on for nine pages, making it longer than even NextGen's infamous talk with a demented, possibly drunk Sam Tramiel of Atari in 1995. The PS3 is in nowhere near the type of trouble the Jaguar was, but then again, Tretton does a much better job than Tramiel did with staying realistic, making for an absolutely superb text-based feature -- something refreshing to see in EGM.

This, combined with the revenge of "Child's Play" (this time, six ladies aged 74 to 86 trying out the Wii) and long pieces on viral marketers, the continued success of Pokemon and the way video games work their way into the minds of designers, make this one of the most readable EGMs in a while. Best part: absolutely no enormous, boring, page-eating preview features. Huzza!

By the way, the Pokemon feature includes an interview with Lawrence Neves of Pokemon USA -- who, in another life, was known as Scary Larry at GamePro. Scary in EGM! What a traitor!

Nintendo Power March 2007


Cover: Sonic and the Secret Rings

The poster (which has about a million Rabbids on it) makes NP worth buying all by itself this month, although the rest of the issue is pretty standard. The other main highlight: "Better Gaming Through Science," a downright weird 6-page feature that covers a boring middle-schooler's rise to gaming stardom through liberal application of the Wii. It's highly reminiscent to the head-scratching features of the Japanese-writer-era of NP, and I think everyone should read it.

Official Xbox Magazine March 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: Guitar Hero II

OXM reverts to classic Euro-style OXM-ness by packing in tons of random features (30 reasons why '07 is awesome for the 360, what we'd like to see in Gears 2, 20-minute hacks to improve your console) to cover the usual slow period for the Xbox between Christmas and...well, next Christmas. OXM's been really turning it up on the original features lately, and that can only be a good thing for a magazine.

The disc is highlighted by College Hoops 2K7 (zzz) and, making a special guest appearance from XBL Arcade, various demos, including Contra.

PSM March 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: Saints Row

Man, remember back when a rap dude on a game-mag cover was almost as cliche as an army dude? PSM brings back the glory days of '03 with their coverage of PS3 Sainta Row, now immortalized in my mind thanks to the YouTube "Buggy Saints Row" musical tribute.

The rest of the mag is packed with way-too-long previews and dev interviews, and overall it's the exact opposite of OXM's original-feature goodness. Everything in this mag is already on IGN...or, at least, it seems that way.

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


Cover: Army dude

GFW is its usual superbness, starting up with a bit on how Europe is the real hot scene for PC games these days and continuing with an interview with Bill Roper where they ask WTF is up with him these days. It's a surprisingly review-laden issue, too, and the Tom vs. Bruce this month (covering Imperialism II, a boring-looking European strategy game) is the best in a while.

Computer Games March 2007


Cover: Universe at War

Man, I wish I was reading Massive -- all these pages of previews really don't excite me very much. The Mad Lib sidebar is back again, though, this time covering reviews ("Worst of all, the voice acting is , and the dialogue the off a ").

Play February 2007


Cover: Overlord

A Codemasters-published title gets its first game-mag cover since, well, approximately ever with Overlord, a crazy action RPG with a sense of humor. The brunt of the issue is devoted to Play's 2006 game awards, which feature what's likely the most leering art of Lightning McQueen I've ever seen in my life. Rock on, Play.

Tips & Tricks March 2007


Cover: Lost Planet

Your basic T&T issue here, albeit with yet another new column -- this one covering game music, although it's not what you'd expect (half of it is devoted to the hip-hop stars who provided tracks to the 2K7 sports games).

Beckett Massive Online Gamer February/March 2007


Cover: C'mon, it's never gonna be anything besides WoW, who're we kidding here

More boring Beckett stuff here, though I will say that they do make a good effort to put in as many interviews as possible.

[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.]

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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