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July 14, 2007

Opinion: Xbox Live Arcade Vs. PlayStation Network - The E3 Showdown?

There were so many game announcements this week at E3 that you might have gone a little dizzy, but one of the things that GSW tends to get especially interested in are the smaller, sometimes indie-r downloadable games - both for Xbox Live Arcade on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation Network for the PS3.

So what info sneaked out there for E3, and which line-up is looking more enticing from the PSN to the XBLA? [Disclaimer: I'm still the Chairman of the IGF, but I love all parties equally here.] Here's a quick round-up for the E3 shellshocked:

- Xbox Live Arcade - Thanks to XBLArcade.com for keeping up in fine style and listing the XBLA titles shown by Microsoft during their E3 press conference - there's also a YouTube version of the video available.

That full countdown: "Bomberman Live!, Undertow [pictured], Sonic the Hedgehog, WarWorld, Sensible World of Soccer, Hexic 2, Geon, Wing Commander: Arena, Every Extend Extra Extreme, Feeding Frenzy 2: Shipwreck Showdown, Track & Field, Golden Axe, Spyglass Board Games, Space Giraffe, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, Word Puzzle, Marathon: Durandal, Poker Smash, Switchball, Tetris Splash, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, Boku Sudoku." Now, that's obviously not everything out there or in development, but it's a not insignificant 22 games, many of which are keenly awaited.

Advantages? There are plenty of genuine indie titles sprinkled in there, some even self-published by the developer (let's have more of that if at all possible!) There's a large amount of titles and some really wonderful diversity in genres (puzzle, retro, shooter) that get relatively short shrift in the console retail market right now.

Disadvantages? There aren't that many 'experimental' or very out-there new IPs out there - not many of the games would really be considered to be super-innovative, because they're very much built to connect with existing genres and markets. Now, I don't think that's _totally_ fair, and I'll probably be buying the majority of these XBLA games (wallet, ouch), but I hope people can see what I mean, abstractly.

- PlayStation Network: Obviously, some higher-profile titles such as Wipeout HD, Warhawk, and SOCOM Confrontation are due out on download for PS3 this year as well. But Gamasutra's own Brandon Boyer did a nice little round-up post on the vaguely 'indie-r', more bite-sized titles, pointing out: "Various yet unannounced PlayStation Network downloadable titles have recently been revealed, including the Pontifex-esque Elefunk [pictured], a racing title in Q-Games's Pixel Junk series, the IGF award winning Everyday Shooter, and more."

Poking around, I found that QJ.net has the best round-up with screenshots and press details on the 8 smaller titles announced - including Part 1 (with Blast Factor: Advanced Research, Nucleus, Pixel Junk, and Super Stardust HD) and Part 2 (with Everyday Shooter, Go! Sports Ski, High Velocity Bowling, and PAIN.)

Advantages? There are certainly some more mundane titles, from bowling to skiing, but there are some handpicked nuggets of innovation, obviously partly funded by Sony (Everyday Shooter, PAIN, Elefunk), which spark a good bit of excitement. And though the games do fit into existing genres, in some cases, they seem a little more diverse than XBLA's in terms of exploring little-seen corners - particularly the physics games (including LittleBigPlanet, too). This is because Sony is funding them and assuming some or most of the risk - with a particular wish to show off the PS3 hardware.

Disadvantages? Almost all these exhibited titles are first-party or 'second-party', there aren't that many of them, and it looks like the third-party titles are still being given the runaround in terms of publicity and ease of appearance on PSN. And that's a major shame - Sony needs to get its external submissions and publicity infrastructure in place for PSN games it's not so closely associated with. And fast.


Well, in pure dollar amounts, I'm pretty sure I'll personally be spending much more on Xbox Live Arcade than on PlayStation Network over the next 6 months or so. But equal amounts of my most-awaited digital download titles, as announced at E3, are on PlayStation 3 compared to Xbox 360 - and that's a little bit of a surprise, even to me.

And in the end, I still think this is what Microsoft is missing in its XBLA line-up - the ability to step up and fund some riskier, more abstract games for digital download - the 'fl0w' effect, if you will. Right now, Microsoft is only self-developing and significantly funding its own XBLA titles through Carbonated Games for hardware/Xbox Live feature showcasing, and I'm not sure that's quite the right move. (Some earlier indie XBLA titles had low-profile flecks of Microsoft funding in them, but if they're doing it now, they're being even quieter about it than before.)

In fact, there are plenty of amazing games out there whose creators just can't afford to develop it for console. While third-party publishers are stepping up to bridge the gap, it's more often the case that publishers are snapping up near-complete titles for XBLA which have less risk in the genre (see: Switchball), rather than those titles that take a bit of a conceptual leap and require more work to be brought to console (see: Everyday Shooter).

Or, of course, Microsoft, you can wait for the market to bring you those more innovative titles - but don't be surprised if Sony (and Nintendo?) nick them all first - the indie game market on consoles may just be starting to get competitive, in terms of exclusivity.

The Return Of The Return Of Consolevania

- The rather fun Subatomic Brainfreeze was kind enough to point out that the boys at game 'TV' show Consolevania are back in down with the first part of their third season - we've covered them before with their indie special.

As enthusiastic blogger David Cabrera explains: "If you don't know what is, that's okay. There is time for you to learn. Consolevania is very simply the best internet/TV series ever to revolve around videogames. A typical Consolevania episode is an erratic mix of offbeat, rambling, and charmingly enthusastic game reviews and goofy videogame sketch comedy, brought to us by a gang of lovable Scots."

Aha, and some examples, too: "Whether the boys are challenging game developers to a friendly fistfight, pimping consoles, or simply overencumbered, they never, ever fail to make me smile like a jackass. This show is good for you, good for your health. Now that you've seen some it, you no longer have an excuse. You are now a regular Consolevania viewer. Deal?" They are, in fact, a lot of fun. So go look.

GameSetQ: Game Developer Postmortem Angles?

- Over at Joe Ludwig's ProgrammerJoe.com, he makes some interesting comments about Game Developer magazine's postmortems, in which he dissects some of the frequently-listed complaints in our magazine's monthly game analyses.

Ludwig specifically says: "The trouble is that there are so many disciplines at work on a game that the top 5 bullet points are never specific enough to actually benefit anyone. It’s all well and good to say that you should have a well-scoped schedule with plenty of time for iteration and tools, but actually pulling that off is much more difficult. The postmortems never go into specifics on HOW because they are only 5 pages long."

There have, in the past, been some postmortems focusing on subsets of the whole game - Jamie Fristrom wrote one on Spider-Man 2's web-swinging effects, for one. But we tend to find that a lot of games don't have a particular 'special' feature like that to hang the entire postmortem on.

Plus, I've found that postmortems such as Alex Seropian on Stubbs The Zombie do end up focusing in on unique facets of development, despite being a generalized postmortem - in that case, the relatively pioneering development structure the team used, and how well it worked out.

So... what should we do? Should we ask creators to focus on, say, just the code of a particular game, or the art? Or do you folks enjoy the more wide-ranging postmortems as it? Comments welcome - specifically on the best ways to focus postmortems, if you think that's the right way to go.

July 13, 2007

How Many Roguelikes? Why Subgenres Rock

- So, Rogue Temple continues to do a sterling job of rounding up the dungeon crawler (as also illuminated by our very own John H. here at GSW), and there's a couple of new posts worth checking.

Firstly, there are some amazing stats on Roguelikes - with when and how often they are updated. Among other things, there's the following in the original post: "It seems last year's low number was a bit of an anomoly as things have perked up this year with 66 roguelikes being updated in the last year." Wow - if just this tiny genre has over 60 active projects, it further shows the massive size of the gaming zooniverse.

Also, the blog points to a nice, comprehensive article called 'Rogue Like Treasure', and counting down the entire history of the genre from a basic but helpful point of view - in case you were wondering what the whole hardcore-ish fuss was about?

Ubisoft's DeLoura To Forge Edugaming Path

- Worth pointing out, since he's somewhat of a friend to GSW and the CMP Game Group alike - Mark DeLoura has announced his departure from Ubisoft, where he was a technical director at their SF studio, and it looks like he's going to start concentrating on a pretty interesting and relevant niche in gaming.

He explained on his blog: "I left Ubisoft about two weeks ago to pursue a long-held interest of mine. I've always wanted to work on marrying together game design methodology and technology with education. As an industry, we have become so good at creating compelling experiences for people, even experiences so entertaining that people become addicted to them. What I've always wondered is, why we can't we use those same techniques to create fun educational experiences for people?"

DeLoura is someone to watch, since he previously worked five years at Nintendo of America, and five years at Sony Computer Entertainment America - as head of developer relations. He was also editor-in-chief of our very own Game Developer magazine, and comments of his new challenge: "If I as a game developer can create a fun experience that motivates someone to spend hour after hour learning how to operate inside the world I have created, why can't I use those same techniques to create a fun experience that motivates someone to spend hour after hour learning, say, Spanish?" A worthy concept!

GameSetNetwork: E3's Splendiforous Fruits

- Though I do happen to be out of the country right now, my compadres at Gamasutra are doing an awesome job of covering the E3 Media Summit, including a whole bunch of in-person reports. Here's a few neat and random ones to seize upon:

- Nintendo's ineffable Shigeru Miyamoto had a small group Q&A earlier today, and we sat in. Funniest/scariest comment, on the Wii Balance Board peripheral? "[Miyamoto] mentioned that the Balance Board may need to be redesigned for America, if focus-testing dictates. “We’re certainly thinking about making it American-size for America,” he offered. “We may need to super-size it. We’ve been focus-testing Reggie!”"

- Wideload's Alex Seropian mentioned that he's developing an Xbox Live Arcade game, in addition to the Gamecock-published political party game (!) Hail To The Chimp - explaining: "We have twenty people now. We actually have two teams - one’s doing Hail to the Chimp, which is the Stubbs team with a couple more people of it, and we have a real small team doing games for digital download."

- Nintendo's Eiji Aonuma was also discussing his work on Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, and to that end: "Gamasutra inquired as to whether he would be translating off directorial work for the long-term, sticking with his producer role, and if he was interested in working on properties above and beyond Zelda. “This time I worked really closely with the director of the game,” said Aonuma, “and I feel I could work in that capacity, but it depends on how the title progresses.” As to the second point, he stated “I’d love to work on a new title, as original games have been a constant theme for me.”"

- Appropriate silliness to end, and I admit this is my 'tabloid' headline, 'Gamecock's Wilson Ticketed For Chicken Mask Infraction'. According to people 'on the ground': ""The guy asked me what I was doing," said Wilson. "I said I'm driving, what do you think? I actually got stopped twice, and I got a ticket the second time because they thought I had disobeyed the other cop - but he never told me to take the mask off.""

Obviously, we have a whole bunch more high-end interviews from E3 that we'll be spooling out over the next few weeks, after all the insanity has died down. And hurrah to that!

July 12, 2007

Arcadia Counts Down Japan's Top Arcade Titles

- The Japanese arcade game scene continues to be fascinating, even if it's basically not reproducable outside that territory, and Arcade Renaissance has grabbed the latest Arcadia Magazine-compiled arcade game charts from Japan - most interesting.

As they note: "The following rankings are separated between the top 10 generic cabinets and the top 10 dedicated cabinets" - ie machines that you just put new JAMMA boards in, or those which have very custom controls and livery and therefore require a standalone arcade machine - and it's fascinating to see Arc System Works' 2D fighter Guilty Gear XX Accent Core atop the generic charts.

Also notable near the top of the generics - 2D fighter Melty Blood Act Cadenza Version B2, which was, after all, originally based on amateur dojin software. Heh, and Mah-jongg Fight Club 5 ("The first rule of....") is atop the dedicated charts, followed by so many Bemani titles that your eyes might bleed.

[Incidentally, I once spoke to a representative of Arcadia Magazine publisher Enterbrain and randomly enquired about the possibility of licensing the mag for the West. She just about fell off of her chair in amusement, given the VERY selective nature of the mag! However, I wonder if selected 'official' books based on Enterbrain arcade guides might go down well with the super-hardcore?]

GameSetQ: Game Developer Research Asks For Game Outsourcing Facts

- So, as you might have guessed, outsourcing of asset creation for the game industry is starting to become a big deal - when I visited Shanghai in 2006, it was pretty startling to see the significant amount of art assets for games already being created there.

But how far has it gone, and how much will outsourcing expand in the game biz? At Game Developer Research, we're working with Chinese research specialist Niko Partners to complete a research paper about Chinese outsourcing - and we'll do our own wider survey in 2008, most likely.

We're not advocating for outsourcing one way or the other, incidentally - just documenting. And we need your help, if you work at a game developer and are involved with outsourced asset/code creation as an executive. As we explain:

"If eligible as an executive looking at/carrying out outsourcing, you are invited to take five minutes to complete the 2007 Game Development Outsourcing in China Survey. The information you provide is critical to the market research being collected on China as a resource for the outsourced development of games."

"This survey is anonymous in that none of the information presented will be associated with any individuals or companies. The data will be used in a market research study authored by Niko Partners in association with Game Developers Research to track the growth of outsourced development of games in China."

"In appreciation of your time and effort, your name will be entered into a drawing to win a complimentary Classic Pass to the 2008 Game Developers Conference (February 18-22, 2008 in San Francisco - Approximate Value = $995) when we receive your completed survey."

The Aberrant Gamer: 'Yume Miru Kusuri: Falling in Love with Crazy Girls'

[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media. Hentai gaming, fantasy fanfics, twisted psychology and notes from the dark side—we'll expose, discuss and enjoy the delicious underbelly of our beloved gaming universe.]

-As we’ve discussed before, the click-through, plot-branched story game is the most common format in the genre; you could almost think of many H-games more as interactive novels than games. Verbose and prosaic, it almost seems counter-intuitive to make the player sit through all that story, when one would assume that what they really want is to get to the “good stuff.”

Designers of these games seem to be aware of this, and so the plot devices that most normally appear tend to be cheap and easy shortcuts; the games need characters on the verge of revelation, with sex as the catalyst to catharsis. In so drawing them, designers kill two birds with one stone—they don’t have to make players wait too long, and they can draw depth of emotion in the story (or at least, so endeavor) at the same time.

As a result, the “troubled teen” is a conventional archetype. These novella-like H-games regularly feature young girls with emotional problems or deep-seated issues. Sensibly, from the standpoint of creating an erotic game, they’re prone to dangerous, impulsive or inexplicable behavior—like having wild relations with a boy they hardly know, conveniently enough. Sometimes, the girl characters are outright mentally unstable, straddling the line between salvation and madness.

You, of course, are the one who must rescue them. Indeed, should you reject their advances, the fragile things’ very lives could be on your hands.

In Yume Miru Kusuri (Peach Princess, 2006), you’re a high school boy (who, like all of the other game characters, is implausibly “20 years old”) navigating the complex nature of the feminine through relationships with girls in class. The setting is strongly established—the art, done by the fantastic Kiyotaka Haimura, is exceptional, and as an appreciated deviation from the usual harsh synthesizer headache, the music is rather nice, too. Plenty of sunsets over cityscapes and schoolrooms washed in watercolor, and the characters look refreshingly lovely, too.

The school-focused environment is a familiar H-game setting. Often, this is a logical matter of near-fetishism—young babes, pleated skirts and sexual curiosity, of course—but Yume Miru Kusuri’s unique in that it takes a step outside the two-dimensional, to make the entire high school experience pivotal to the story.

-Also unusual about Yume Miru Kusuri is the fact that, to achieve positive endings, you essentially have to choose one girl relatively early in the game to take the journey with. This is a pleasantly uncommon departure from the usual buffet-style storyline; Yume Miru Kusuri actually features three distinct plot threads surrounding each of the story’s leading ladies. While there is a significant expository portion in the game during which Kouhei, the protagonist, has the opportunity to familiarize himself to some extent with each one, the game will actually end without so much as a credit roll if you don’t eventually start demonstrating a preference.

Distinct characterization, beautiful, nostalgic art, and high school relationships with gravely troubled girls in a story especially prosaic even for its genre—the setting’s ripe for an afterschool special, in both the ironic and literal senses of the term.

The three females of the game are each compelling and strange from Kouhei’s initial distance from them, capturing the filter of mystery through which teenage boys view all beautiful girls. Eventually, Kouhei’s involvement with whichever one the player’s choices indicate becomes inextricable, and he gets closer to the demons driving them.

-Mizuki Kirimiya is the beautiful, regal student council President, admired from afar by many students. When Kouhei’s singled out by Kirimiya to help out with the student council’s workload, however, he gradually comes to learn that perhaps her admirable façade is exactly that—an untruth, a cover for deep insecurity and downright dangerous manipulative behavior. Then, there’s Aeka Shiraki, a fragile little thing who’s picked on in class, but never stops smiling—even when Kouhei comes to know just how severe the abuse she endures really is, coupled with the instability of her home life, and the gravity those emotional wounds bring to bear on the girl’s well-being. Finally, the bizarre “Cat Sidhe Nekoko,” a strange girl who eats out of the garbage and believes she’s a fairy. Is she a mental patient, a drug addict, or is it actually possible she’s the displaced denizen of an imaginary world?

Though the game isn’t exactly sparing in the sex scenes despite the bulky, involved story, what’s most unusual is the encouragement of monogamy and the relationship that sexual interaction with these girls actually maintains to the protagonist’s emotional involvement with them. It doesn’t attempt to be a straight-up love story, like many games do—and somehow seems less superficial for that fact. These characters all have serious problems, and the game doesn’t trivialize that.

-If played with the optimal choices, each girl will have the opportunity to learn about herself and reverse her beeline for tragedy, through Kouhei’s love and support—and, of course, through the miraculous healing power of sex with him. After all, Yume Miru Kusuri may be somewhat unconventional, but it’s still an H-game. But at the same time, the game doesn’t take the common but deprecating step of endowing your protagonist—generally an ordinary line-drawing of a horny guy—with some kind of undeserved omnipotence. Kouhei’s an H-game hero with a conscience and a spirit, as he wrestles with the ways in which his involvement with these girls might affect his relationship to his peer group and his place in a family he’s never quite felt he belonged.

In that way, Yume Miru Kusuri is a journey of growth both for Kouhei and his female partner, tapping into age-appropriate pain and fears. Age-appropriate, but often unusually severe—expect Kouhei to end up in the hospital more than once. Still, despite raging hormones (which are actually an occasional source of conflict for Kouhei) and plenty of gratuitous CG too salve them, the game actually manages to pull off a one-girl, emotionally grounded story and treat it with a measure of respect. Y’know—kind of like a real relationship.

Monogamy and emotional connection—in an H-game? Who’d have thought?

[Special thanks to JList for providing us the game for review in this column—you can download a playable demo or purchase Yume Miru Kusuri at their site, as well as check out additional art, sound files, wallpaper and a movie of the game.]

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

July 11, 2007

Everyday Shooter Signed By Sony, Springs To PSN

- Now this is worth picking out of the E3 insanity - N'Gai Croal has the scoop that Jon Mak's IGF multi-award winning Everyday Shooter has been picked up by Sony for the PlayStation 3, and a Playstation Network release later in 2007.

Croal also has an email interview with Mak which is plenty of fun - hardly hyping PS3's tech on its own terms, for one: "The technology in EveryDay Shooter is old. The collision systems are based on algorithms from the 90s, and the graphics/sound technology is based on techniques from years ago. But those technologies/techniques are still incredibly powerful/expressive!"

Anyhow, it's probably not an understatement to say that the Independent Games Festival is one of the reasons why Everyday Shooter became relatively well-known, and I've chatted to Jon quite a bit about the game and his game making, so it's wonderful to see it picked up for a big stage. 1080p and widescreen, to boot!

[Oh, and also IGF-related - Australian newspaper The Age did an IGF-related article recently, coinciding with the ACMI show, and while I'm not sure the writer is totally on board with today's admittedly hardcore-ish indie scene, he's reassuringly Kent Brockman-like - 'This reporter remembers when...' etc, and that's pretty fun.]

The Game Design Kiss Of Death

- Turns out Kyle Gabler and his buddies at 2D Boy, whom we've previously covered here on GSW, have birthed a blog, and there's a new post, 'The Game Design Kiss of Death (or, I hurt you because I love you)', which takes a smart look at art and games.

Gabler laments: "Here’s the problem: I’ve noticed it’s really hard to create a subjectively judged project like a game or music or whatever of high quality if I actually care about it. If I don’t care at all, it’s really easy. What a cruel joke." So sure, it's somewhat about 'writer's block', here.

But it's also about getting so close to something that you have no idea whether it's any good or not. Gabler ends: "What small easy thing can I change to totally change but not change the game so I can play it again for the first time with a fresh perspective? I think I might know of one solution, and it’s the only one I’ve found so I sure hope it works: DISTRACTION." Fun, interesting post - but is he right? [Via Kloonigames]

GameSetPics: British Gaming 'Gems', Pt. 3

Following on from Part 2 and Part 1, it's time to present a little more randomness from the British video game retail scene - where there are plenty of interesting oddities (and indeed, high quality games!) that you don't get to see in North America. Here goes:

Though it finally got released in North America in late 2006, with two iterations of the series now available, the Singstar franchise has been blasting Europe and Australia since 2004, with eight PS2 versions thus far. It definitely works a lot better for the post-pub crowd, mind you, and even the U.S. tracklist feels a bit Anglophile (probably one of the reasons it hasn't stood out), but it's a shame we didn't get more iterations outside Europe. (There are even regional variations within Europe, btw!)

Nintendo's Touch! Generations brand, showcasing its top casual and 'mainstream' focused titles, "..was launched in Europe on June 9, 2006 with the release of Dr. Kawashima's Brain Training: How Old Is Your Brain?", according to Wikipedia. The brand is mentioned but not really pushed THAT hard in the States, so I thought it was fascinating to see, in HMV in South London, an entire Touch! Generations-branded rack of games.

While here, I have discovered something quite wonderful - a number of the British-specific UMDs are actually Region 0, which means they will play on American PSPs. Sure, UMDs are hardly 'cool', but Series 1 of surreally awesome The Mighty Boosh definitely is, and HMV were clearing out the double-disc UMD for UKP5 ($10), so I picked one up for myself and fellow Gama editor Brandon Boyer. They also have League Of Gentlemen Series 1 and various other Brit shows (even a little Doctor Who!) on UMD. So obscurists, feast now.

Fun! I think we'll have one more of these before I run out of pictures - and depending on whether there's any fun game stores in Finland, there may even be more, tragically.

July 10, 2007

Washington Post Explores Video Game Junkets

- This is actually from last week (hey, holidays!), but it's well worth checking out - a Washington Post article called 'An Inside Play To Sway Video Gamers', which looks again at the issues of who pays their way to video game editor days, and so on.

Some key passages: "In his career as a game reviewer, [PC Jeux reviewer] Ghislain Masson has been to Russia twice, and once to Chernobyl for a promotion of a computer game set in that area's nuclear meltdown zone. His other junkets include trips to India paid for by Microsoft and a five-day extravaganza in Las Vegas funded by Midway." The recent Bethesda press day for Fallout 3 was also referenced, with writer Mike Musgrove noting: "Although a few attendees paid their own way, most did not." So... what does this mean?

I've been pretty defensive about this in the past, and I think I still am - the actuality of people's writing is not affected by this, but perhaps the fact that journos actually turn up means that the content is featured a little more prominently? There was at least one example of this after the Fallout 3 preview, I felt. Yet I didn't feel any of the coverage itself was biased - just the fact that it occurred. Is that crossing the line?

But a favorite recent GSW-posted comment on the freebies issue that I wholeheartedly agree with came from Jim Rossignol, who comments: "I don't know about press trips, but I'd argue that most games journalists don't get enough free games. As Gillen routinely points out (being both a music and games journalist) if you're a music reviewer every label worth its turntable is going to be sending you their promo materials. Ludicrously, it's often a struggle to get anything at all out of games PRs. I recently worked full time on PC Gamer UK and tried to get hold of a bunch of games from different publishers for a wide-ranging test feature, and less than half of the PRs I contacted bothered to send out the games they represented. I routinely buy games because it's less hassle then trying to get PRs to send them to me."

WorldsInMotion.biz Pokes At Trion World, Entropia

- Our newly launched, Game Developer Research-run online worlds blog WorldsInMotion.biz is exploring some interesting ground with its interview with Trion World's Lars Buttler, as the firm raises $30 million from investors including Time Warner, Universal, and Bertelsmann.

Buttler's working with Jon Van Caneghem of Might & Magic fame on this, and one mystery has been exactly what Trion World's products will be - online world, game, in between? He spills the beans some more, though, explaining: "Every channel is a large-scale gameworld. Some of the channels we built completely in-house, and others, we just publish what third parties have built. It's the classic Electronic Arts or Activision model applied to a completely different experience."

In addition, it's noted: "Buttler says the product on the very first channel-- what he likens to a television pilot-- is already built, will be announced by the end of this year, and available to the consumer by next year. He's hesitant to provide too many early details, but allows that, "at its core, it will be a large-scale game. But it will be a large-scale game that has a tremendous amount of elements of social networks, and it will be a game that will evolve almost like a TV show evolves."" Sounds... still a little vague, but interesting?

[In addition, the site has been expanding its Online World Atlas by looking at Entropia Universe (pictured), a distinctly in-depth world with some pretty hardcore users: "When I got ready to leave, my mentor asked where I was living. I replied and asked in kind for the same info, wondering if my focused knight custodian was interested in making friends at last. Turns out he needed to know my time zone, so that he could know when to expect me back. I gave him my best estimate; "I'll be here another 7 or 8 hours," he told me."]

Can Real-Time Feedback Improve The Text Adventure?

- At his Game Tycoon blog, David Edery has been mulling the possible evolution of the text parser, with particular reference to some recent stunt/experimental applications that use text input for interactive purposes.

Edery notes: "Those of you who played text-input adventure games back in the day (King’s Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, etc) will recall how fun it could be to test the limits of the game designer’s imagination by experimenting with language commands. It was thrilling when you tried something “unusual” or “outrageous” (in your mind) and yet the game responded appropriately."

He continues: "But text-input has returned in the form of viral marketing gimmicks like the Subservient Chicken campaign, and in IM bots like Spleak, which capture the imagination in part by encouraging users to test the limits of the designer’s vision and resources via text input", asking: "What does this teach us about how language processing can be reabsorbed back into the world of games?"

So - how about it? Is this the way back for text adventures, or an evolution of the genre? For one, Edery suggests: "Today, you can monitor user queries, capture the most common (unhandled) queries and create new content on the fly to address them." Where would we go from here?

July 9, 2007

@Play: Taloon's Mystery Dungeon, In Great Detail

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

Here is Taloon, making his way through the first level of the Mystery Dungeon. His objective is the Happiness Box around level 27. Let's follow him along for a while, shall we?

[Note: As far as @Play columns go, this one, which deals with a playthrough of the SNES prototype Roguelike dungeon crawler Taloon's Mystery Dungeon, is unusually long and graphics intensive, but I think it gives a good sense of the kind of strategy needed in a game like this.]

First off, take notice of the blue silhouette overlayed on the screen. This is the automap. It can be turned on and off from the menus.

Since only a very small portion of the dungeon will fit on one screen, this provides an alternative to being able to see the whole layout in Rogue. Monsters that are in Taloon's range of sight, even if they don't appear on the main screen, show up as red dots. Items are blue dots, and the stairs to the next level appear as a tiny blue box.

Next, see the light-colored circle around our hero? That is the range of his vision. As you can see, walls and corridors are visible beyond that range, but monsters are only visible if they're within that circle. Here Taloon is in a dark corridor and you can only see a single space around, but in a room the circle expands to the edges of its walls.

At the top of the screen is the status line. "1 Fl" is the dungeon level he's on, "Lv 1" is his experience level, then there's his hit points displayed both as a number and a life bar, and finally the gold he's carrying. In this game, as in Rogue, money is just a score. Nothing can be purchased with it.

There's some other status info as well, including "Belly," which is how full Taloon's stomach is, and "Strength," which is actually physical strength. Those show up on another status window that appears when Taloon stands still, or when the player opens up the action menu. We'll see those soon enough.

Here you can see a room. A slime, eternal mascot of the Dragon Quest games, is over to the left. Notice how you can also see it on the map as a red dot?

Killing it was enough to get Taloon to level 2. His maximum hit points went up to 22. Like in other roguelikes, and like D&D, the number of maximum hit points gained is random. He got seven this time, which isn't bad.

Here's what he's carrying. There can be up to two pages of stuff. The Big Bread is starting rations, enough to fill his stomach to capacity once. The Identify scroll and Bronze Shield +2 were found laying around. Equipping the shield was a risk, since it could have had a minus instead of a plus, and be cursed. I could have read the scroll to find out if was cursed before wearing it, but that would have used up the scroll. Generally, it is better to use Identify scrolls on magic items than equipment unless the player has a surplus of them. And among items, it's usually better to identify rings first, followed by wands. So far, herbs (the game's analogue for potions) and scrolls are not randomly scrambled in the game. Once the player escapes with the Happiness Box, further forays into the dungeon will have more items scrambled.

This is actually from a different game, since I died soon after that last pic. Notice that Taloon's maximum hit points are different. Here, we're on dungeon level 2. Entering a new level is always a bit of a risk because there could be a difficult monster right by the stairs, so it's usually good to be free of any easily-solvable conditions before going down. Notice also that Taloon is carrying a sword here. He found a Gold Sword +1 elsewhere on level 1. While it isn't a terribly good weapon, it is worth some extra score if brought back to the surface, and it is rustproof.

By later on the same level, I've found these things. Having a shield and sword at this point is pretty nice. Unlike Rogue, Taloon begins the game with no equipment. Until he finds something on the floor, he must rely on his fists for weapons, and his comical pinstriped shirt for protection.

The other stuff he's carrying is mostly useful. The best is the Bang scroll, which does moderate damage to all enemies in the room. If it's used in a corridor, it'll only harm enemies in the eight spaces around him. The Muddle herb is better thrown than consumed; that way, it'll confuse the enemy instead of Taloon. (Confusion here, as in other roguelikes, translates to moving randomly most of the time and not being able to control what you attack.) The Eyedrop herb cures bad eyesight, but that's a fairly rare condition. Finally the Eavesdrop scroll shows the locations of all monsters on the automap until the player leaves the level. It doesn't reveal which monsters they are; the player will have to figure that out for himself, or go to them and see.

A bit later still. Now I'm on level 3, and luckily the stairs to 4 are in the same room.

Here is the dilemma. I could dive, going to the next level right away. I'd save lots of food this way, and have no risk of dying here, but I'd miss out on the treasure and experience. Some of the treasure on this floor could be food.

Each roguelike has a different level of food rarity. The Mysterious Dungeon games tend to lean towards Rogue's "hard" scarcity, meaning, it's important to conserve food because the only reliable way to get more is to explore more rooms. The player must explore to find more food, but he'll be doing some exploration regardless. Does one dive when he can, or go out of his way to check every room? What I do is explore complete levels unless approaching starvation, in which case I dive. If you are carrying a goal item like the Happiness Box, all normal food consumption stops!

I've gotten to experience level 4 by now, and I encounter my first Magician.

Magicians are a troublesome enemy in this game. If they're in melee range, they could either attack for a bit of damage, but not really much, or they could put Taloon to sleep. That would be very bad.

If Taloon is put to sleep he'll be stuck until he wakes up naturally. Most of the time, the Magician will have killed him by then. Magicians are like the Ice Monsters, or Floating Eyes, of this game: they seem harmless at first, but they can prove fatal.

On the other hand, Magicians are the first type of monster in the game that could drop random items when killed, and are worth 12 experience points each. They're often generated asleep, and compared to other monsters are fairly difficult to wake up. If you can kill one from a distance they are worth it in the early game, but it is a very bad idea to fight one in melee, even if you're of a high level.

On level 5 I finally eat that bread I've been saving. Big Bread completely fills Taloon's stomach, so there is an advantage to waiting as long as possible before eating it. However, if the player waits until he's starving (losing hit points each turn from lack of food) he might end up encountering a monster that must be taken care of on a turn he'd like to eat. It's best to put off eating when you can, but not to the point where it could become an eat-or-fight situation.

Later on the level I find a Magician and a Drakee, and I tackle the Magician by blinding it, with a thrown Blinding herb. For the monsters, being blind is about the same as being confused. There's still a chance the Magician could attack me each turn instead of one of the seven other spaces around him, and if he did that he could choose to cast sleep instead of hit, but the odds are against it. I'm not too concerned about the Drakee because they are like Rogue's bats: they often move randomly instead of chasing the player, and they're pretty weak anyway.


Oops! I decided to take care of the Drakee first, and in the process of moving stumbled on a gas trap! If I hadn't blinded the Magician I'd be in trouble here. Fortunately, the chances that he could find me before I woke up were slim.

Unfortunately, soon after that I died to a Mummy whose strength I woefully underestimated. Moving on to the next game....

Another good haul for level 2. Of special interest is the Chestnut staff, which is unidentified, the Clairvoyant scroll, which shows item locations on the level, the Antidote herb, which restores lost strength back up to maximum, and the Strength seed, which increases strength by one point.

Strength seeds and Antidote herbs are analogous to potions of gain strength and restore strength in Rogue. It is best to eat a Strength seed when the player is at maximum strength, because then it'll also raise the player's max strength by one. Then, if a later monster strikes and drains strength, the next antidote will restore to the new maximum. But sometimes Antidotes aren't easy to find, and if the player's strength gets really low, he might have to consume strength seeds just to remain viable.

Also in the inventory here is some normal Bread. Although the message reported upon eating it is that it fills Taloon's belly, in fact, it only fills it by 50% of capacity.

Here's a question: which is better to eat first, Big Bread or normal Bread? The answer is normal Bread, because the player's inventory capacity in this game is limited. The types of bread fill Taloon's stomach by different amounts, but they both take up the same amount of inventory space. Thus, it is best to use up the least valuable item first. That'll free up a spot for other treasure sooner, while keeping the extra 50% of food for later.

This, if you can arrange it, is the best way to handle Magicians: kill them with arrows. (You don't need to find a bow. Apparently, Taloon carries one at all times.) You can either select them and choose Fire, or you can equip the arrows and fire them off with the L button. The later is recommended in cases where no enemies are around, but if near an awake foe and with no arrows equipped, it's better to Fire them, as equipping an object uses a turn.

Ah, the Magician dropped an Onyx ring! Things are looking up. It's best to identify these babies before putting them on.

Level 5, not bad at all.

Notice that Taloon is carrying Big Bread, normal Bread, and Moldy Bread. He's also carrying an Antidote.

Eating Moldy Bread fills up the stomach all the way, but does a little damage and drains a point of strength in the process. One can undo the drain with an Antidote, but Mushroom enemies might drain it again. Eating an Antidote cures all strength loss, so the player is usually better off using it as late as possible.

Except in the case where he's already low on strength. If Taloon is already going to use the Antidote, he might as well wait until he's starving, then eat the Moldy Bread and taking the strength drain. Then he can eat the Antidote and undo both the original loss and the point from the mold.

A Bikill scroll increases the strength of the player's weapon by one plus. It also uncurses it in the process. Unfortunately, in this game I've yet to find a weapon!

Taloon may have reached level 6, but take a look around him.... Yikes! How did this happen?

The monsters here are Liclicks. When one takes damage, there's a chance that it could split, resulting in a second monster with as many hit points as the original had. Further, the new monster is also capable of diving! I got careless and hit one a few times, and I was soon mobbed.

But with a little thought, I was able to salvage the situation. You see, monsters cannot attack diagonally in corridors like this. I can't attack diagonally here either, but that's okay. The idea is to reduce the number of monsters pounding away at those goofy pinstripes at once.

Also, notice how the Liclick south of Talon isn't facing him? That's because I had thrown a Confuse herb at him. Not only are there only two monsters that can hurt me, but that one can only attack one turn in eight. And Liclicks can only multiply if there are empty spaces nearby into which to divide. In a corridor, those fill up quickly.

Even so, discretion is the better part of valor. Especially when they got me down to 9 hit points so quickly. Time for the next level I think....

Sometimes it's best to let sleeping monsters lie. There are two reasons not to disturb this Magician. First, he's a Magician, and we already know to be careful with them. Second, he's taking his nap in front of the room's entrance, blocking that Liclick! This is a case where the small chance of treasure in that last room up there is probably not worth the danger of waking up the Magician and having to deal with two dangerous opponents.

Alas, shortly after that I stumbled upon a gas trap, and that allowed another Mummy to end that trip in to the Mystery Dungeon. I never even got to find out what that Onyx ring was. Ah, but the next game... the next game went very well indeed.

For starters, I found a Mirror shield on level 2. They're rustproof, quite strong, and this one turned out to be +2.

And using an Upper scroll got it to +3!


A short while I found a Leather shield. They're weaker than Mirror shields, but they're also rustproof. They can be quite useful because one quirk of the Mysterious Dungeon games is that, for some reason unknown to me, as long as you have a Leather shield equipped, your food consumption is lowered. Very interesting indeed.


This game I had very bad luck with rings. I found three, and they were all Adornment, which in roguelike-ese means "worthless."

On level 7 I start meeting Derangers. They get that name because the first Dragon Warrior game they appeared in, they had a confusion spell that could cause your party members attack each other, so the English localization team gave these lumpy wizards that name. But it's misleading here; the special power Derangers have in this game is to teleport you randomly. (Still, one might think it makes more sense than calling them Quantum Mechanics.)

But still, things are going pretty well, and it looks like I'll be able to win bef—

Sweet merciful heavens, a monster lair!

Take a look at that room on the map. Look at all of those red dots! This doesn't look good.

There's also plenty of treasure in monster lairs (they're this game's version of Rogue's zoos), but surviving the opposition to use them is not a trivial problem.

Times like this, the best thing to do is STOP AND THINK. There is a very good reason roguelikes are not real-time games.

Let's look at the monsters. Hm, there's a Mummy among them, on the far right edge of the screen. With my Mirror Shield +3 they're a lot less dangerous than the last two games, but he's not the only monster to worry about. There's an archer in there too, and a Mushroom, and several monsters off-screen. Haven't found any solutions yet....

Well, none of the monsters are adjacent yet. May there's something in inventory that'll help out....

Ah! I have two Bang scrolls! Oh boy, this is going to be awesome....




Remember, Bang scrolls damage all monsters in the room. It's not huge damage, but at this level it's significant. It's like they were made to take care of mid-level lairs like this one. I've clipped about 20 pages of damage messages here.

After reading both scrolls, it's just me and the loot. Woo-hoo!

Notice what I was able to do because I didn't panic? (Well, not paniced much, I've been killed many times by zoos and lairs before.) Standard procedure in lair situations is to retreat into the hallway and take the monsters on one at a time, but then the Bang scrolls would have been far less effective, and they probably would have worn me down.

Ah, a Dragon Sword! The hardest monsters in the game are green dragons, and Dragon Swords to extra damage against them. Lots of good luck, I hope it holds.

An unknown wand and an Identify scroll. Let's have a look.

A Seal Wand. This disables the special ability of any monster you wave it at. Magicians lose their sleep spell, thieves can't steal or teleport, and dragons can't breathe fire. Very useful when used at the right moment.

Here, we see the importance of keeping "escapes," ways out of arbitrary danger. Taking on this Wyvern in hand-to-hand has proven a bad idea, and with only 6 hit points left I probably won't survive another round. Let's have a look at my stuff.

A Blaze herb will do nicely.

Blaze herbs do tremendous damage! Almost every enemy in the game will die to one, but they only work at melee range, if you're facing your opponent, and they only affect one monster. Thus, they are best saved for emergency use.

On level 10 I found the safe that is the subgoal for the dungeon. If you die when carrying a safe, instead of losing half your gold you get to keep all of it. Gold taken out of the dungeon improves the state of the town (the "outer game"), so it helps to build up its amenities faster.

This enemy is called a Lethal Armor. It's hard not to get spooked by that name. But I'm doing pretty well, and I've got enough general escapes handy, so I'm going to take a risk and use-test a wand.

The wand made the Lethal Armor not attack me next turn, but face a random direction. Ah, a wand that causes confusion, those are called "Chaos wands," aren't they?



We should make a note of that. Using the "Name" command, we can label all items of a specific type with a reminder of its use.

That Mirror Shield I've been building up pays off. Horks (similar to Rust Monsters/Aquators in Rogue) do no hit point damage, but lower the enchantment on your shield by one point... if it's not immune. Other shields can be protected by reading a Plating scroll.

Oh no, another monster lair! The quality of monster in this one is much greater than the last. Wyverns are still giving me trouble, and there are also Stone Hulks in here. There's even a Metal Babble in the lot. This is a serious test.

But I have a plan. Take a look at the map and notice how the monsters are arranged. I ran back into the long hallway I had emerged from, and all the monsters followed me in.

After consuming an Elixir herb to get my health back up, I notice that I have a supply of Silver arrows! They aren't equipped, but as stated before, I can save a turn in an emergency by firing them from their item menu.

Silver arrows are unique in that they don't stop with the first monster hit. They continue in a line, damaging all monsters in their path. They even go through walls!

This means that, if a Silver arrow misses, it can't be retrieved and reused, since they always leave the map. But clearing monster lairs is no time to skimp on the resources. Fire away!

It worked! There's so much loot in here that I have to make some hard choices about what I can take out of this place. Still, that's the kind of decision I like to make!

Argh... this lair also has a good number of traps in it. Mine traps remove half your hit points and destroy any adjacent items!

Monster lairs are good places to check for traps. In these games, the way to do this is to swing your weapon into a space where a trap might be. Note that items cannot be on the same space as a trap, so as long as I only step on spaces that held loot, I'll be okay.

A new enemy type, Ice Sloths. Hm, I don't remember how to handle these. They're asleep at least. I've got a lot of resources at hand though, let's see if I can kill them.

This is bad... they all work up at once, and despite being sloths they're actually double-speed! I probably won't be able to make it back to the corridor at this rate. This is no time to skimp on the resources, let's get out of here!

Ah, an Outside scroll. That should do the trick. Here goes...


WHAT?! I escaped the dungeon?!


Ah, I remember now.

There exist, in the game, two items with confusing names. There is the Outside Scroll, which I used and which teleported me out of the dungeon, and the Return Herb, which teleports me elsewhere on the current level. Notice the names! Both are legacies, like the lump wizards being named Deranger, of the American holdover names from the localization of the Dragon Quest spells. I assumed that the Return herb was the exit item (as in "return to the surface") and that Outside scrolls would teleport (as in "outside the room"). Alas, I was mistaken.

Ah well, I didn't really want to spoil the ending for all you folks anyway.

Yeah honey, go to hell.



I was originally mistaken as to the level of the Happiness Box.
Thanks to dessgeega for the reminder that the translation I played was made by Magic Destiny, with an unofficial release by necrosaro. Here's the romhacking.net entry on the translation.

Inside N+'s Sublime User-Created Levels

- Over at Metanet Software, they've just announced the winners of the N+ level competition, in which a bunch of level-designers have contributed some pretty cool levels for the DS, the PSP, and the XBLA versions of the game.

Firstly, I want to say that it's very cool that the Metanet folks (currently working on Robotology) are getting so much user-created content (from their gigantic online following) into the console versions of the game. This is a great precedent to make - helped by the fact that it's so easy to make N levels.

Over at their blog, the Metanetters have been discussing the 'unique levels for each SKU' concept - here's what they think: "Anyway, there doesn’t really seem to be a down side to having each game come with unique levels — unless for some reason you become obsessed with the thought that somewhere out there are levels you haven’t played. Waiting. Out there. Alone."

GameSetPics: British Gaming 'Gems', Part 2

So, following the first in the series in which, rather than quizzing EA about Spielberg's latest (pah, breaking news!), we wander around some British video game stores taking pictures of obscure games, we're getting on with some more randomness, as follows:

In the States, it's still incredibly hard to find a Nintendo Wii in stock, and I sense it's been the same in England until very recently, because I saw several signs at stores here in London triumphantly proclaiming that the Wii was available again - this one outside an HMV. Nintendo's worldwide success continues, then.

Sony Computer Entertainment Europe continues to do an amazing job of making European punters happy with casual-focused games, firstly with the EyeToy titles, and more recently, the Singstar karaoke series. Singstar finally made it to the States recently, and the Buzz! quiz/mini-game series is another set of games that SCEA is being slow to pick up on. Here's a recent one, Buzz! Junior: Robo Jam, kiddie-focused and doing a great casual-spanning job.

Yet more SCEE bounty, this time a series of city guides for the PSP - a really cool idea which again targets the casual. Is it my imagination, or does SCEE understand the concept of the wider market so much better than the other Sony divisions? Or is there just something different with the U.S. market that makes it less willing or able to 'get' concepts like Buzz!, Singstar, and these guides?

Anyhow, stay tuned for a couple more in this series, including a look at Touch Generations' advertising in the UK and a UMD title that you'll never ever see outside of Europe. Fun!

July 8, 2007

Let's Play Takes On Dwarf Fortress

- We've previously mentioned the now greatly expanded Let's Play archives, and now Rob 'Xemu' Fermier points out a newish addition rounding up SomethingAwful's collaborative play session on the completely insane ASCII RPG Dwarf Fortress.

Xemu grins over it: " It's a succession game of DF from the Something Awful forums, and I was literally falling over laughing reading it on my laptop over the 4th. Of course, trying to explain to my wife what a "Dwarf Fortress" is and why an internet thread about it is the funniest thing ever is not easy, even when explaining to a fairly tech- and game- savvy woman like Elise is."

Incidentally, I just found the Dwarf Fortress Wiki, and it includes a really handy explanation of the slightly complex overall concept: "Dwarf Fortress is an ASCII game which includes both a roguelike adventure mode and a city management mode similar to Dungeon Keeper. Before you play either mode, though, you must generate a world to play in, which persists until you create a new one."

'Might Have Been' - Kingdom Grandprix

I refuse to write it as '8ing.'[“Might Have Been” is a kinda bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Eighting/Raizing's Kingdom Grandprix, released for the arcade in 1994 and for the Saturn in 1996.]

Shooters had it tough in the mid-‘90s. At the decade’s start, games like Raiden, Gradius, Gate of Thunder, R-Type, Axelay, M.U.S.H.A commanded so much attention that they actually helped sell systems, but the years that followed saw shoot-‘em-ups thoroughly humbled. By 1994, American publishers seldom bothered translating them, critics disdained them as uniform and repetitive anachronisms, and the Japanese shooter scene was already shrinking into the niche it is today. And within that niche, developers found the space to experiment.

The original Mahou Daisakusen was a standard enough arcade shooter, and one of the first created by Eighting/Raizing. The two-in-one development house had a history with the genre, though, being staffed in part by former programmers from Compile, the creators of Spriggan, M.U.S.H.A., Aleste and other acclaimed “shmups.” (How I hate that term, and how I wish I knew why.) Yet Mahou didn’t quite stand out as much as the Aleste series had. Eighting/Raizing decided that its 1994 sequel needed a gimmick, and it found one by becoming something rarely seen: a 2-D racing shooter.

A MOSQUITO, MY LIBIDOAttitude for Gains

Eighting/Raizing didn’t have to change much to make a racer. Kingdom Grandprix (or Shippu Mahou Daisakusen, as it was known in Japan) still resembles a standard vertically scrolling shooter. Yet instead of one or two fighter jets, eight characters take off from the starting line, jockeying for position while blasting pawn enemies, dodging bullets, and arriving at an end-of-level boss.

Like Mahou Daisakusen before it, Kingdom Grandprix presents a world heavy on fantasy trappings, with just enough steampunk technology so that cannons, gyrocopters, and skull-faced gunships can float alongside castles, dragons, and cloaked, wraithlike mages. The game’s shakily translated prologue explains how the eight-contestant race celebrates the end of a vicious “Goburigan” war, and how the winner earns whatever he or she might desire.

Those eight selectable entrants include a sorceress who dreams of pop-idol stardom, a gung-ho mercenary human, a samurai dragon called Miyamoto, a steam-powered robot in search of a girlfriend, a hideous rat-bastard wizard, a goblin overlord, a dimensionally displaced Earth kid, and a rather large pixie named Nirvana, who the game, showing a colloquial ignorance rarely found outside of SNK localizations, describes as a “Huge Fairy.” Each character has distinct projectiles and bombs, though anyone serious about winning should go straight for Miyamoto.

LET'S ASS KICK TOGETHER.Eighting/Raizing/Shooting/Racing

Promising as it may seem at first, the racing element is little more than a distraction. Characters gain speed by lingering near the uppermost third of the screen or by holding down the shot button (which prevents you from actually firing), and it's strategic only to a certain point. Winning a race is largely a matter of chance, and even if you try to speed through a level, it’s easy to get hung up fighting the obligatory stage boss, which all of the computer-controlled racers can zoom right past. It’s too easy to lose your place, and God help you if you’re shot down.

It’s much more fun to ignore the racing entirely and concentrate on the impressive shooter beneath it. Showing off the same inventive, detail-rich design that made Compile’s Aleste series so fun, Kingdom Grandprix’s an enjoyable twitch-fest, full of interesting stage layouts and backdrops.

It’s impossible to see everything in one go, as you’ll choose a different route after every stage, leading to several unique paths and game-closing bosses. Multiple trips are the best way to take in all the sights: lizards jut their heads out of swamp-alley walls, gigantic saw blades whirr inside castle passages, and a floating vampire boss refills his health by devouring one of his tiny sprite servants.

The obligatory nod to Giger.'Had' Indeed

Of course, ignoring the race cuts down your score and your chances of seeing a character’s decent ending (after which you'll be told "thank you very much it is had to play at this time"). Shooter fans are notorious for placing points above all else, but Kingdom Grandprix’s endings are amusing bonuses for those devoted enough not to credit-feed their way through the whole thing. The game’s English text, full of bizarre phrases and the occasional coherent line, almost makes it worth the trouble.

Perhaps the racing element didn't sit well with arcade goers. When Kingdom Grandprix got an only-in-Japan Saturn port in 1996, it actually offered a special mode that stripped away the racing theme. Eighting/Raizing clearly wasn’t interested in pursuing the idea, either. Their subsequent shooters, from the impressive Soukyugurentai to the routine Battle Garegga, weren’t so daring in their innovations.

When the company returned to the Mahou Daisakusen series with 2000’s Dimahoo (arguably their best work), there was no racing to be found. And there probably won't be any more racer-shooters from them. Eighting/Raizing has seemingly abandoned the genre completely at this point, busying themselves instead with licensed anime fighting games.

It's hard to imagine Kingdom Grandprix's ideas catching on and spawning a subset of racing shooters, but the game's an interesting footnote. In a genre often validly criticized for recycling the same concepts, it's a true curiosity, even if its one unique idea doesn’t quite work. And it’s still one to try, as both a solid twitch-game and a glimpse of one shooter developer’s attempt at something different, if not necessarily better.

Ethan Haas Was Right, JJ Abrams Was Flash-y

- My colleague Brandon Boyer was nice enough to point out JayIsGames' review of a freshly launched web game that's been causing quizzical looks around the Internet.

As Jay explains: "A new puzzle game with a distinct ARG smell recently popped on the scene without much known about what it is or who is behind it. Ethan Haas Was Right is a mysterious Flash-based website that presents a series of 5 unique puzzles, some original and some rehashed versions of classic puzzle games. Interspersed between the puzzles are video segments containing clues as to the origin and meaning of it all."

Well, turns out it may be related to a new JJ Abrams movie, sometimes named 'Cloverfield', that just started production, ComingSoon.net reckons: "The Hollywood Reporter has also learned that filming began in New York in mid-June. The cast includes Michael Stahl-David ("The Black Donnellys"), Odet Jasmin, Mike Vogel (Supercross) and Lizzy Kaplan ("The Class")."

Indeed, a recent H&G Summit talk with Jesse Alexander, who has worked with Abrams extensively, reveals the Alias and Lost creator's love of the cross-media play, video games, and the ARG: "Yeah, that was part of what we wanted to make. [Earlier JJ Abrams-created show] Alias came out in 2001, the same time that Neil Young was doing [early subscription-based ARG] Majestic. That was very inspiring to us. His keynote at GDC where he talked about that, was similar to us with Alias, in terms of serialized narrative." Most interesting.

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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