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This post ©2013 Capcom

I was out traveling all of last week and didn’t have time to do any blogging — well, that’s not quite true. I wrote a pretty lengthy piece on the current ugliness in games that’s been going on, but I don’t really have the stomach to get involved in all that awfulness. Instead, please enjoy the video above, wherein I praise a 25-year-old pinball game. Hard-hitting games journalism, that’s what I’m all about.

OK, OK; despite my self-effacement, I had a bunch of great developer interviews at PAX this weekend to cap off my trip: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Hajime Tabata, the Dragon Quest guys, Keiji Inafune… hopefully I’ll have time to transcribe them this week. Please look forward to it.

Also, last week, Jaz Rignall spearheaded a pretty much amazing comprehensive history of video games for USgamer that you really ought to read. We’re moving into fall release season and won’t be dwelling much on history for the coming months, so please enjoy this last hoorah for the past.

Posted in Blog.

(A tiny window into) the history of RPGs

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I really enjoyed the brief time in which I was able to produce the Daily Classics series for USgamer this past spring, but they tend to be fairly time-consuming and once I switched roles to editor-in-chief I ceased to have that particular luxury — time, I mean. And self-indulgence. But I decided to bring the series back for one final engagement — OK, maybe not final, but the last for a while. The fall release season is about to kick off, so we’re going to have lots to write about that isn’t old.

This time around, I decided to tackle the role-playing genre. As ever, the premise of Daily Classics is to look at games celebrating an anniversary in the multiples of five this year and try linking them together in some way. In this case, that meant touching on 1984′s The Black Onyx, a game by a Dutch designer based on a Canadian RPG made specifically for Japan, then following up by jumping ahead five years to see how Western and Japanese RPG designs had diverged. Though as always, I do try not to force the connection.

Anyway, they turned out pretty well and I hope you’ll read them and stuff. The end.

Posted in Blog, Games. Tagged with , .

If you only read one thing today…

…it should not be this post. Agh! What are you doing!? You’re blowing your quota!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo, it should be this week’s USgamer cover story, wherein Jaz and I spent an hour chatting with Dave Lebling on the creation of Zork. It was a pretty phenomenal experience, and I think the story that came out of it is equally spectacular. If I could somehow make my job into nothing but hanging out with game designers and talking about the philosophy and iteration behind their work… eh, I’d probably be assassinated for having a job that’s unacceptably rad. Probably just as well, then.

If you read carefully here, you can spot where I was sneaking in a question or two for the upcoming Zork article at Metroidvania.

P.S., this box art is still the best. The goblin’s all like, “Ohhh crap, Dabney Coleman looks super pissed!”

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Hey Mom, I’m in a Bundle

The latest video games StoryBundle has gone live, and among the books you can pick up as part of this name-your-own-price word buffet you’ll find The Anatomy of Super Mario Bros. Vol. 1. It’s pretty amazing to have been selected to take part in this collection; my project is sitting alongside some genuine heavy-hitters. I mean, I’m in the same tier as Mega Man 2 composer Manami Matsumae and Akira Yamaoka. That’s just mind-blowing.

As always, the mere prospect of promoting myself and encouraging people to spend money on something I’ve created gives me a nauseating cross between intense guilt and a throat-closing panic attack, so… please support all the other really talented authors whose work is on offer here. I won’t take it personally if you don’t hit the $12 bonus threshold at which my book gets bundled into the package.

Video game books! They’re cool, they’re cheap. Support the people who make them.

Posted in Blog.

Mighty (Gunvolt) fine

IntiCreates and Comcept just announced the most self-referential thing I could ever imagine: A 3DS downloadable game called Mighty Gunvolt, which combines the protagonists of the as-yet-unreleased Mighty No. 9 and the soon-to-be-released Azure Strike Gunvolt in a retro-NES mode that riffs on IntiCreates’ Mega Man 9 and the Mega Man Alpha mode of Mega Man ZX Advent.

What really gets me about this thing is that it does a better job of presenting NES-like graphics than Nintendo’s own 3DS console. In this screenshot….

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…the yellow border (which I added; it’s not part of the actual game) perfectly defines the NES’s 256×224 resolution. Then, padding the extra vertical space on the upper 3DS screen (which has a resolution of 400×240), you have a score, a health bar, a score multiplier, and a life count.

Meanwhile, Virtual Console NES games on 3DS stretch the graphics the 6% or so difference between 224 and 240 pixels, destroying the integrity of the graphics with no means of forcing true resolution. I can’t decide if I’m happier that IntiCreates gets it than I am more annoyed that Nintendo doesn’t. For gods sake, just give all your VC emulation duties to M2 already, Nintendo.

Posted in 2D Gaming, Games. Tagged with , , , .

A new Anatomy project appears

This won’t come as any real surprise to anyone who pays attention to dumb things like my Twitter and Tumblr avatars, but I’ve decided on my next Anatomy of Games project: The Anatomy of Bionic Commando.

I was going to take a little time before jumping (or rather, swinging) into my next Anatomy project, but I had so much fun playing through the game for last week’s video that I wanted to get things rolling while the whole experience was still fresh in my mind. Not that I would complain about having to play again, of course.

Speaking of Anatomy, the next book — which encompasses Mega Man and Mega Man 2 — is just about wrapped up. That’ll be going out in various forms (PDF or physical) to existing Patreon supporters next month as well as going up for sale by the usual venues (Blurb and Gumroad). I’m pretty much done with the layouts, but I’m trying to create some original artwork for the book. Unfortunately I can’t find my graphics tablet stylus, so I guess I need to buy a replacement.

For now, though, please enjoy the adventures of Captain Rad Spencer.

Posted in Blog.

A farewell to Astoria

Today, we reach the end of the anatomy of The Goonies II. I can finally change my Twitter avatar.

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I’ve really enjoyed writing this series, although as tends to be the case with thoroughly niche games, very few people have been interested in reading. At the moment I’m trying to decide whether to forge on ahead with Super Mario Bros. 2, tackle Bionic Commando (which I’ve just recently replayed for a video feature)…

…. or make a swerve into left field for something even fewer people will want to read about. Decisions, decisions.

Posted in Anatomy of a Game, Games. Tagged with , , , , , .

By request: The Mac gamer

By request of jjrademan

This blog post is like an episode of Seinfeld: It’s about nothing.

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Well, not quite. Macintosh computers (actually, when was the last time Apple called them “Macintoshes”? I think they just became “Macs” around the time the PowerPC chip showed up) do have video games, sometimes — though rarely — exclusively. Speaking as someone who has owned Macs as his sole computing format for more than 20 years, and who likes video games, my life has occasionally intersected with that of the so-called Mac gamer, but I don’t pretend to speak for any of these mythic creatures.

Mac games were actually pretty weird and unique in the olden days, and I actually could see someone being a Macintosh-exclusive gamer in the ’80s. The platform offered (1) mouse-based controls and (2) no color, or at least no guarantee of color support until they stopped selling the Mac SE and pre-PPC PowerBook lines in the mid-’90s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mac games felt a little different from console and DOS counterparts. Another factor there came from the fact that Macintosh had system-level support for graphics, it using a visual interface and all, whereas other computers kind of needed to be tricked in various degrees before they’d display images.

Perhaps naturally, the Macintosh lent itself to slower, more thoughtful games than I was used to on other platforms. Puzzle games, card games, point-and-click adventures like Scarab of Ra and 3 in Three. You’d also find software that would have felt more at home as a free iOS app, like StuntCopter, which consisted entirely of dropping a dude from a helicopter onto a moving cart of hay.

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Maybe it was the stick-man graphics, but I always kind of envisioned this as what the guy from Lode Runner did on his days off.

Even as Macs became more and more of a niche concern moving into the ’90s, the game output for the platform remained surprisingly vibrant. The big graphical adventure releases made their way over from Windows, probably because Myst had proven the Mac a perfectly viable platform for multimedia release, so everything from The Journeyman Project to The Daedalus Encounter showed up on Macs, along with everything from LucasArts both good and bad. Meanwhile, the system had enough interesting exclusive releases (such as Bungie’s oeuvre and pro to-indie games — we called ‘em “shareware” back then) to compensate for the occasional major DOS title that didn’t make it to Mac.

Actually, as I think back on it, Mac gamers enjoyed effective parity with PCs until Doom, which iD didn’t convert to Macs and didn’t get picked up by third parties until after Doom II had already showed up on Mac. Most early “2.5D” first-person shooters made their way over to Mac, but once the genre went full 3D with Quake and left behind the appellation “Doom clone” once and for all, that was all she wrote.

There were probably a few different factors at play here; the Mac had become a vanishing niche as Windows adoption rates increased and Mac rates… didn’t. Hardware acceleration allowed PC owners remarkable choice and power for 3D graphic processing, while Macs came with whatever GPUs Apple deigned to install at the factory. And, frankly, the Mac operating system was a disaster, and Apple’s plans to replace it with something more modern had constantly failed to materialize (look up terms like “Pink,” “Taligent,” and “Copland” sometime for some real tear-jerker reading). It didn’t really make sense to bring hot, cutting-edge games to a system that would struggle to support them both technically and financially.

Even as amazing games like Half-Life and Tribes failed to show up on Apple and faithful Bungie sold its body, and Mac-first action game Halo, to Microsoft, Mac fans clung to what little they could. Blizzard continued to be loyal to the platform, releasing all its games on hybrid discs that included both Windows and Mac installations (which came in handy for finding copies of World of Warcraft at launch — the game sold out everywhere except the Apple Store, because what Windows gamer would bother to shop at the Apple Store?). Stalwart little Spiderweb Software continued to hone its RPG craft for Mac gamers. Even Halo made its way back to Mac, eventually.

The biggest challenge for Mac gamers between 1994 and about 2006 proved to be fundamental compatibility. 1994 saw the move from Motorola’s 68000 chips to the RISC-based PowerPC platform; PPC had backward compatibility with 68K instruction sets, but not in any elegant way (non-native software absolutely crawled). Then in 2001, Apple began to phase out the “classic” OS in favor of the faster, more stable, more versatile OS X — a great move, but once again all pre-OS X software had to run in emulation mode, and that emulation wouldn’t support pre-PPC apps. A few years after that, Apple made the jump from the stagnating PowerPC line to Intel chips… and while Intel systems supported 68K code via emulation, once again it was kind of sluggish and completely locked out pre-OS X software. Basically, there have been four eras of Mac software (Classic, PowerPC Classic, PowerPC OS X, Intel OS X), and everything predating OS X simply doesn’t work on modern systems. Actually, I’m not sure if the system even supports pre-Intel software at all anymore. I think that may have been abandoned with OS X 10.9.

But there’s a happy ending to this sad tale. By bringing its hardware and software architecture more in line with mainstream computers, Apple ultimately opened the door to greater cross-compatibility with Windows games. Like in the old days, they may not show up day and date, but they show up eventually. Steam games frequently arrive with Mac versions in tow, and cool people like GOG.com have slowly added Mac versions of older games that never came to Mac once upon a time (like, yes, Planescape: Torment. You can stop telling me about it now).

I have no idea how this speaks to the universal Mac gamer experience, but from where I’ve sat Mac gaming has been a sad, challenging journey of neglect and public contempt, but those who have stuck it out now enjoy a wealth of options for interesting contemporary and classic games. That being said, I miss the unique character of classic Mac games, both from the old black-and-white ’80s and the defiant screw-you-I’m-gonna-use-a-Mac-anyway ’90s.

Posted in Games. Tagged with .

Thank you, Mikey, you’re the hero of Hyrule!

 heroofhyrule

No, wait, I think I messed that up. Oh well! Anyway, the penultimate chapter of The Anatomy of The Goonies II is up, and you can read it, if you like. I think you should.

Posted in Games. Tagged with , .

By request: Lovecraft in gaming

By request of magflare

About an hour into Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, you have the option to double back through the Marble Gallery, completing a loop back to the opening portions of the game rather than advancing to the next objective. There’s no value in this action, inherently, save for opening a path that previously had been barred. But it’s a tough walk, because along the way you encounter two boss-level enemies roaming freely through the corridors (the F.O.E. experience 10 years early — no wonder I love Etrian Odyssey): One Plate Lord, an armored giant who totally throws his body into his attempts to smash you with an iron ball, and this guy:

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Who operates under the name Cthulhu. Much later in the game, you find a guy called Malachi, a massive demon with a squid for a head who fires blasts of all-consuming dark magic at you.

Someone in the localization department really screwed up.

But oh well. I guess it wouldn’t do for Symphony to be completely perfect. Where would gaming be able to go from there? Besides, games have plenty of other more proper representations of The Great Old One to choose from.

Sadly, my chronicle of Cthulhu’s all-time greatest gaming appearance has been lost to time due to 1UP.com’s slow decomposition, which means my in-depth exploration of his starring role in Scribblenauts Unlimited exists only in a fragmentary form, such as me waking The Great Old One from where he dreams at the bottom of the sea and immediately dying:

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And later turning him into the leading man of an impromptu rock band:

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Alas.

Perhaps no developer (besides, you know, the folks behind Call of Cthulhu) has invested more of its energy into tapping into the Cthulhu mythos than Bungie. You know, the Halo guys. I mean, there’s even a bit of Lovecraft in Halo, between accidentally waking the Flood, and the unfathomably ancient menace of the Halo installations, and the inexplicable Gravemind — all kind of mining that particular vein. But nothing compared to their first major work, Pathways Into Darkness, which sees you descending into the earth beneath an ancient pyramid to detonate a nuclear bomb. See, there’s an ancient god slumbering beneath that pyramid, and it’s beginning to awaken, so you need to bomb it back to sleep. The further you descend into the depths, the more aggressively the sleeping god’s restless dreams distort the fabric of reality, causing all manner of abominations to become manifest. They don’t actually say Cthulhu at any point in the game, but the connection is obvious.

That slumbering god makes a cameo of sorts in Bungie’s Marathon trilogy — the entire third game consists of you leaping through time to prevent the sequence of events that lead to Marathon 2‘s conclusion from transpiring. Turns out the aliens you defeated there detonated a star out of spite, accidentally letting loose an ancient and unknowable deity who had been trapped inside its gravity well and, now freed, threatens to flay the fabric of reality itself and ultimately bring an end to the universe.

Speaking of flaying, I have always found the Final Fantasy series’ take on the Cthulhu concept fairly disappointing. Squid-headed mages called Mind Flayers can inflict confusion status, which is definitely on-point, but they’re still just scrub opponents. I guess we can blame Dungeons & Dragons, aka the Final Fantasy I sourcebook, for that.

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Source: katridges.tumblr.com

There have existed a fair number of games through the years based more overtly on Lovecraft lore, from Darkseed to the aforementioned Call of Cthulhu. However, the one I desperately want to play is Shadow Over Innsmouth for Virtual Boy, of all damn things, a complete anomaly for the console. It’s a Japan-only release, a survival horror title with a branching storyline, a first-person style game, and a licensed work based on a television series. Inexplicably, I’d never heard of this game at all until a couple of months ago when I added it to the Game Boy World database and felt compelled to do some research on it. I can’t believe such an impossible, unlikely game like this ever existed.

The only problem with games that explore the Cthulhu mythos is that they can’t really give you the money shot of meeting the Great Old Ones and still be faithful to the original work. Because, you know, as soon as they make their appearance, you go mad and die hideously, not necessarily in that order. Maybe that’s the real root of the Cthulhu/Malachi mixup — Konami was just trying to keep our minds from being destroyed as we gaze into the unknowable horrors of the eldritch.

P.S., no, the Batman Arkham games don’t count.

Posted in Games. Tagged with , .

Hyper Lode Runner joins the race

The latest entry on Game Boy World now lives among us. You can just watch the video here, but if you’re really cool you’ll also read the associated article for its added insights into the game’s history. Don’t lie, I know you’re totally into the particulars of 25-year-old PC game conversions for Game Boy.

Posted in Games, GameSpite. Tagged with , , .

Fragile

When last we left the band Yes, they had just sacked talented guitarist Peter Banks and replaced him with the even more talented (not to mention versatile) Steve Howe. Ah, but their firing spree wasn’t over year. With Howe on board, the band hoped to expand its sound even more into becoming a five-piece orchestra, using standard rock instrumentation and a bit of studio multi-tracking to accomplish what they had to use an orchestra to awkwardly achieve on Time and a Word. The obvious place for improvement was at the keyboards; bassist Chris Squire already had the most melodic style in the industry, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more capable and nuanced drummer than Bill Bruford. But Tony Kaye’s keyboard work, though perfectly competent, relied heavily on piano and Hammond organ, with only occasional forays into the more adventurous world of synthesizers. And he liked it that way.

Alas that the band didn’t. For Fragile, the follow-up to the band’s “reboot” with The Yes Album, Kaye was nowhere to be heard. In his place, we had Rick Wakeman, a classically trained keyboardist whose virtuosity was matched only by his love of the flamboyant: His stage presence involved wearing a mirrored cape as he stood surrounded by a bank of keyboards: Hammonds and Moogs and Korgs and Mellotrons and an electric piano and even the occasional harpsichord.

Wakeman may have embodied prog rock excess in his stylings, but the man could play. This became evident early on in the album, though not right away. Instead, the band holds him in reserve: Fragile begins with future rock standard “Roundabout,” and after Howe’s gentle acoustic lead-in, the song builds into an unconventional rock song with the thick baseline driving the melody more than the Spanish guitar. Wakeman’s keys are nowhere to be heard for the first minute or so, eventually falling in as a sort of accent — a quick arpeggio of Hammond organ notes that fades in and just as quickly vanishes. It’s not until the chorus kicks in at about the 1:50 mark that Wakeman’s keys appear in earnest… and never really disappear. While he doesn’t take a lead line until late in the song, his supporting role sounds nothing like Kaye’s work did. Wakeman rarely goes for sustained chords or atmospheres; if he’s playing, he’s playing in earnest — and his ability to step back and go silent for stretches only serve to make his contributions all the more noticeable.

Wakeman also demonstrates an invaluable skill for the band: The ability to play two different lines at once. Where Howe’s rich guitar textures involve layered tracks from multiple sessions, Wakeman would frequently perform multiple parts simultaneously on two different keyboards in concert. But it’s not until the six-minute mark of “Roundabout” that you realize exactly why they brought Wakeman on board: His keyboard solo kicks in, and he dives into rapid swirls of notes, executing a brisk, high-speed finger workout that basically matches Howe’s guitar work for complexity and energy.

Finally, Yes has arrived.

That’s both good and bad. Fragile represents the culmination of everything the band has been striving for these past few albums, and the main tracks on the record — “Roundabout,” “Long Distance Runaround,” and “Heart of the Sunrise” — became instant standards, tunes the band continues to perform live more than 30 years and a dozen albums later. Even the less-beloved “South Side of Sky” manages to weave a complex, constantly changing performance. On the other hand, Fragile also introduces us to the dark side of Yes, something that didn’t really make itself manifest on the previous albums: Overbearing pomposity and pretension.

After the strong start of “Roundabout,” we immediately fall into “Cans and Brahms,” 100 seconds of Rick Wakeman playing an awful-sounding rendition of Brahms’ 4th Symphony in E minor (3rd Movement) solo — and lest there be any doubt of the piece’s origins, the source material is right there in the title of the track. This is very important rock music, do you see! It is Art!

But hey, fair enough. Howe got his own solo on The Yes Album. I supped it’s only fair for Wakeman to have one, too… oh, and Anderson? And Squire? And Bruford? And Howe again.

The solos aren’t all terrible — Bruford’s “5 Per Cent for Nothing” is interesting, at least, in the way it takes a percussion track and forces everyone else in the band to perform drum bits on the other instruments. It’s also mercifully brief. Howe’s “Mood for a Day” is a pleasant Spanish guitar piece.

Still, of all the solo efforts, only Squire’s “The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)” actually works as a Yes piece. It’s a fantastic segue from “Long Distance Runaround,” an intricately layered combination of multiple bass lines that surge and then ebb to give the other pieces space, ultimately reaching a vocal crescendo. It’s worth listening to a live performance of “The Fish” in which Squire tediously plays out each bass line individually over what feels like an absolute eternity just so you can pick out all the different parts that have been sandwiched together on the album.

The constant back and forth between group performances and solo joints makes for uneven listening at best, though in this modern age of digital audio players it’s a trivial task to strip “Cans and Brahms,” “We Have Heaven,” and “5 Per Cent for Nothing” from the album and restrict your listening to just the good stuff. And even if you suffer through the self-indulgent material, you’ll still go away from the album feeling good about life and music; it ends on one of the strongest notes imaginable, “Heart of the Sunrise.”

Alternating between hard-edged, bass-driven instrumental passages and lilting vocal sections, “Heart of the Sunrise” represents all that Yes aspired to be even more effectively than “Roundabout.” This is a truly collective work, short on flashy solos, with all five members of the band working together to create a superlative piece of music that rises, falls, builds again, explodes into action, crashes to a decisive halt… and that’s just the first quarter of the song. It’s also the only track on Fragile (well, besides “We Have Heaven”) in which Jon Anderson’s vocals feel like a lead instrument — when he sings on “Heart of the Sunrise,” the rest of the band plays with restraint so as not to overpower his delicate voice… except when he begins belting out the chorus (“Sharp — distance —how can the wind with so many around me?”), and the group builds to a crescendo together.

The song’s big instrumental break after Anderson’s first vocal passage is Yes at its best, with Howe and Wakeman taking the lead in alternating turns, and Squire and Bruford alternating playing along in unison and then counterpoint. The group performance subsides one last time for another verse, then rises together and ends with a final, decisive restatement of the main theme. It’s an 11-minute track built around a handful of musical motifs that never drags and never feels repetitive, exploring its themes in varied and interesting ways.

It’s a great finale to an album that’s about 90% brilliant by volume. While the 10% that’s cruft would grow considerably more prominent in future albums, for both good and ill Fragile is the album that Yes had been trying to make for several years.

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