Thursday, April 30, 2009

On The Cell Phone

I never used to have a cell phone. I finally got one about four years ago after A) my wife felt I really should have one for emergencies, B) I was working on some projects where I needed to be reachable, and C) I realized cell phones could now play reasonable facsimiles of some of my favorite retro video games. Mostly C).

My first cell phone is now nearing the end of its useful life -- its battery only lasts for an hour or two, and occasionally runs out of power before the end of the work day. I really ought to replace it, but the "free" phone my carrier is offering is still going to induce some expense, because my game-related purchases won't carry over to the new phone. So I will have to rearrange and rebuy some things when I take the leap, and it's a good opportunity to take inventory, make some decisions, and get a blog entry out of the deal.

Ring Tones --

These are really the coolest things about my current phone, the must-replace items when I do get a new one. I have the Pac-Man opening theme for general calls, Ms. Pac-Man for when my wife calls, and odd tunes like the Dig-Dug music for good friends. Now, given the need to replace the phone eventually, I will probably want to mix it up -- maybe bring the Space Harrier theme onboard, or Super Mario Bros., or the Galaga opener. But Mr. and Ms. Pac-Man have got to stick around, or I probably won't notice that my phone is ringing. The Pac-Man theme is also very handy when I'm in a meeting with my phone on the table, because the opening "gulp" sound is brief and there's just enough of a pause before the rest of the theme kicks in for me to hit "Ignore" if I can't answer the phone.

Games --

I will probably NOT replace the games themselves immediately, mostly because the novelty of playing games on the phone has worn off for me personally, cell phone buttons don't really work that well for control purposes, and I rarely have time to kill where I'm tempted to pull out the phone and play. Usually I'm either ON the phone or doing something else where games are not an option, so the actual value of the games I have downloaded is limited. Still, it's a good opportunity to review and discuss what I currently have on my aging phone, so here goes.
  • DOOM RPG -- I bought this one for a fix after finishing the original DOOM for the umpteenth time (this time on XBLA), but it's better than I expected. It's a nice mix of old-school fake-3-D dungeon crawler and the classic DOOM universe, with more of an adventure feel to it. I haven't actually gotten too far into it, though, so I probably won't really miss it.
  • Frogger Online -- Bought, fun, works reasonably well on a cell phone. Removed to make room for DOOM RPG. Would probably buy again, as I really love Frogger and its controls work well on a phone.
  • Metal Slug Mobile -- Turns out that SNK's Neo-Geo arcade shooter series is a little too ambitious for the horsepower on my phone. The game looks like Metal Slug, but the gameplay is awkward to control, scrolling is jerky (though the parallax effect is neat), and the animation and audio are severely limited compared to the original series. The levels are short and not particularly well-designed; this one belongs on a console, not a phone.
  • Tetris -- Alexey Pajitnov's classic puzzle game rocks and always will. It's simple, fascinating, and works very well on just about anything. This is the game I gravitate to when I really do have some time to kill, and I will definitely keep a version around on the next telecommunications gadget I own.
  • Lode Runner -- Hudson Soft's mobile version gives it a good try, but the digging controls are awkward and you can't really see enough of the screen in many levels to plan strategy adequately. I love Lode Runner, but I'll stick with console versions.
  • Galaga -- Ah, Galaga. A truly classic design descended from Space Invaders, but so perfectly balanced that it has outlived its inspiration as well as its series-mates Galaxian and Gaplus. I wish it played more smoothly on my current phone, but the next one will likely be more powerful, and I will likely give Namco my money for this one all over again.
  • Puzzle Bobble -- also known as Bust-a-Move, this is another one I deleted to make room for other games at some point. The game mechanic works well enough on a phone, but without the cheerful Japanese music and characters of the original arcade game, it's just not the same. One of those cases where a stripped-down version is stripped of too much.

And that's it. Somehow I never got around to downloading Pac-Man as an actual game, and some games on my wish list have never materialized for mobile phone play (Miner 2049er, please?) And that's okay, because my experience with mobile gaming has been mixed.

I'll blog again when I finally get around to replacing my trusty Samsung model; I'm sure I'll be tempted to pick something up, just knowing there's more horsepower in my pocket than there used to be. But I haven't made any real decisions yet. I know the iPhone can handle sophisticated games, but I'm not sure I really want to be that trendy or sophisticated. Give me a decent selection of 2-D pixel-pushers on an otherwise useable phone, and I'll be happy.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Game Graphics: Diminishing Returns?

From a historical perspective, we've seen huge leaps in the graphical sophistication of videogames -- compare Pong to Bioshock and they're just worlds apart, even though under the hood they're doing exactly the same sorts of things. The current generation of consoles just does it all much, much faster, with a bigger palette to draw from (and on) and hardcore support for 3-D math. And that has produced some very impressive results.

I am inclined to think that the law of diminishing returns is starting to kick in, however. It was a huge leap from black-and-white, color-stripped Space Invaders to Galaxian in full color; the NES era had a limited color palette but delivered sufficient resolution to allow some differentiation in art style among publishers and developers. The SNES generation improved on that with better color (and sound); then the Playstation brought consistent 3-D to the table. And then... what? Well, the Dreamcast upped the resolution to 480 lines; the PS2 included hardware support for 1080i, though it went largely unused; and the modern consoles support full HD, except the Wii which tops out at 480p. There are other measures, of course -- draw distance essentially became a minor concern with the PS2 generation, and bump mapping has only come into its own recently. There are lots of little things that can be done to improve the realism of computer graphics.

But where do we really expect to go from here? It's hard to imagine that the next generation of consoles will do very much that looks different from this generation. There's always the "real time ray-tracing" target, of course, but ray-tracing tends to look geometric and computerish, not organic, and I'm not sure it's really the holy grail of graphics technology it's made out to be. Resolution (for televisions, anyway) and color depth are maxing out. I think we will continue to see better physics, more consistent frame rates, more heavily-textured and layered polygons, and more moving objects. But all of these advances will be incremental improvements, not revolutionary steps forward. Eventually we will have filled the screen with pixels doing interesting things, and find that there's not really anywhere else to go on that front. There's true 3-D, of course, but that's more of a display technology (possibly requiring a 120 Hz refresh rate, I should note) than an image generation advance.

So it will be interesting to see what happens in the "next generation". My expectation is that Wii 2.0 will look more like the PS3/360 generation, because it could definitely stand to catch up a bit. But what about the PS4/720/what-have-you? Seriously, from here on out I expect the "wow" factor of graphical advances to start wearing off. Even handhelds will eventually catch up with their console brethren on the cosmetic front.

And I hope that means we'll see game design return to the forefront. Innovation for the past few decades has gone largely into improving the audiovisuals, and I appreciate the benefits of those advances. But there's something about technological constraints that seemed to unleash developers' creativity back in the day. The current retro/downloadable trend has produced some fine contemporary examples like World of Goo and Braid -- it's easier to take risks with lower budgets, and technological targets that don't require doubling your graphics staff each generation. And as the investment curve in new graphics possibilities starts to level off, I hope we will see developers freed to take bigger, more interesting risks.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Abort! Abort!

I like to finish any game that I start, assuming it has an ending. But too often I find myself abandoning ship midway, never to return.

Often it's not a conscious decision -- something else comes along that simply MUST be played, or a shiny new or old console enters the house and unplayed/unfinished games on its predecessor are shunted aside, at least for a while.

Sometimes I remember that I meant to finish the original, and go back to it with the best intentions, only to find that I've lost my place in the storyline or the game world, and realize I'm going to have to start over and really take it seriously next time.

Other times I run into an obstacle I tend to blame on poor design instead of my own approach to the game, wherein our hero realizes that a poor decision early in the journey has made completing the game impossible. This used to happen to me in adventure games all the time, but it can occur in other genres as well. Case in point: I have reached the final level of Ogre Battle on the SNES (via Virtual Console), and after several unsuccessful attempts using various promising strategies, I finally cracked the manual. In so doing I discovered that I should probably have created some additional units back in the early levels, and given them plenty of experience along the way so they could now be powerful enough to give me a second wave of attacks. As it is, my strong units are just barely taking care of the first boss, dying off in the process, and my remaining units are not strong enough to even fight their way in for an audience with the second "surprise" boss. I can create units out of the legions of monsters I have befriended along the way, but they are too weak to compete at this level. So I am just stuck, doomed to repeated failure.

And so I have filed this one away for the moment. I really like the game, and am at this writing certain that I will fire it up again, start over and be more judicious in my management choices. But it will probably be a little while before I'm ready to invest the hours a second time. And it's entirely possible I never will.

That makes me feel guilty, but it IS just a game, after all. Sometimes it's healthy to remember that.

Monday, April 27, 2009

XBLA Catch-up, Nintendo Monday

This weekend I had a moment to fire up the XBox 360 and catch up with what's new on XBox Live Arcade during the past several weeks.

Two games of interest to us in the, er, older demographic are the new HD remakes of Sega's 80's arcade hit Outrun and Broderbund's Apple II-era hit, Lode Runner.

Both are solid remakes -- they're very faithful to the gameplay mechanics of the originals, with graphics suitably updated. Outrun looks like the original might have had the Daytona USA technology been available at the time, and Lode Runner adds some nice dimensional visuals and a faster pace to what remains a classic 2-D game design. I played through the trial versions of each and ended up buying Outrun -- the remixes of the classic tracks were just too appealing to pass up, and the simple arcade racing gameplay is what I was in the mood for on Saturday. Lode Runner is also very nicely done, and I will probably buy the full version at some point.

Nintendo's Monday today was semi-disappointing -- Cocoto Platform Jumper is a WiiWare release of a minor 2004 PS2/Gamecube game, not of interest to me despite the rarity of platformers on WiiWare. But Koei's Nobunaga's Ambition is a classic strategy game, brought to the Virtual Console in its SNES incarnation, and I may be tempted to pick that one up when I have some time to put into it.

I did pick up Square-Enix's Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King on WiiWare over the weekend, I will share some impressions when I've had time to play it more.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Scarface: The World Is Yours

As I sit here typing this near the end of a busy day, I am listening to the soundtrack from Brian de Palma's Scarface, starring Al Pacino. It always puts me in a good mood.

You might think I'm a fan of the movie, but I've never actually seen it. I picked up the soundtrack CD after playing through Scarface: The World Is Yours, which managed to seem more authentically like fictional 1980's Miami than Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, while at the same time feeling like a GTA mission pack, so similar are the games in style and map layout.

GTA borrowing aside, Scarface:TWIY is a solid game, and works really well on the Wii, where the ability to point and shoot beats double thumbsticks any day. It was one of the first M-rated games on the Wii, ported over from the PS2, and it's a high-quality effort with decent graphics and quality voice acting. It didn't sell spectacularly, to my knowledge, but it still turns up in stores at a discounted price point and is well worth playing.

The game's licensed music mix is quite different from its GTA inspiration, and includes Giorgio Moroder's quintessentially 80's pop score from the movie. After spending so many hours guiding Tony Montana back to the top of his drug-dealing game, I became quite fond of the soundtrack. And it evokes the feel of the game every time I hear it. There's nothing quite like firing up my Chevy HHR and driving to work with Giorgio on the stereo, feeling like trash-talkin', gun-totin' Tony Montana, even though the only dealing I'm going to be doing involves the stack of emails accumulated overnight.


What I really loved about Scarface as a video game was the emotional impact of the finale. Bereft of the arsenal accumulated in the game prior to this point, Tony Montana now has to fight his way into his nemesis' compound with a mere pistol in hand, taking whatever weapons and ammunition he can from the thugs sent to take him down. It's a real struggle at first, as ammo is scarce and the bad guys vastly outnumber Tony. Tony is likely to die early and often until the player gets a handle on what works and what doesn't. But careful movement and target selection pay off, and eventually Tony infiltrates the big guy's inner sanctum.

And this guy deserves to die. He gloats over the deaths of Tony's loved ones, twisting the knife verbally, taunting the imperfect but honorable man the player has come to know over the course of the game. It's well-written, well-acted stuff. And when the time for talk ends and Tony finally gets to take him down, it's not the usual over-the-top gunplay seen in these kinds of games. It's up close and personal, driven by rage and loss and the desire for revenge. And it's very, very effective, especially with the Wii's "hands on" controls. When the credits rolled, I personally felt drained and victorious and relieved and dirty and slightly empty inside.


A videogame can provoke an emotional reaction, but it doesn't often work out exactly the way you'd like it to.

Scarface: The World Is Yours
nails it.

Vamos a bailar, esta noche.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Scepter of Kzirgla

Okay, folks, this is one primitive, obscure Rogue-like title I'm dragging out of the deep memory banks.

The Scepter of Kzirgla was a simple dungeon crawler that I played on the TRS-80 Color Computer back in the early 1980's. It was written by Paul Penrose for Rainbow Connection Software, and sold the old-fashioned way, via mail order on a cassette tape in a poly bag with photocopied instructions. There was a sequel, Conquest of Kzirgla, which I never played, and apparently also a version released for the TI-99/4A, something I only learned today via a Google search. Neither of these systems was tremendously successful, so whatever your retro platform of choice, chances are you have NOT played this one. I can pretty safely bet it will not be showing up on the Virtual Console or XBLA, either.

I have not played or seen the game in a couple of decades, so I am going from vaguest memory here. The game featured randomly generated dungeon mazes and played a bit like Epyx's "Apshai" series, although the CoCo version had very simple single-screen, character-mode block graphics rather than the animated monsters and scrolling dungeons of the Epyx games. Basically, the player entered the map at one point on the screen and had to fight his or her way through, RPG-style, to find another point on the screen, representing an exit to the next, deeper level of the dungeon. There were some rudimentary stats and economics, if I recall correctly, and the monsters got tougher as you progressed. I don't remember what happened if the player character died, though I'm pretty sure there was an ending of some sort -- a drawing of a treasure chest, or something like that. I really don't remember.

What I do remember is that the game was written in Extended BASIC, which meant the source code was completely accessible after loading and so could be experimented with. My brother and I noticed that weapons would eventually break with use, which would result in a tremendously ugly "THUUUNNNNGGG" sound effect and the message, "THE [WEAPON] BROKE!" The player could be reduced to fighting with bare hands, so naturally we were anticipating silly computer hilarity -- but there was a logic check in the code to prevent the obvious from happening, until I disabled it.

And then...



That was absolutely hilarious!

For a few minutes.

I guess.

Sigh. Like so much of retro gaming, you really DID have to be there.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Unsung Heroes: Mappy

I love Mappy. He's a plucky little police mouse, chasing and being chased by a nasty gang of kitties (endearingly called "Naughty Folks" in the arcade game's attract mode). His only defenses are the ability to open and close doors and bounce on trampolines to buy himself some time; he never gets to go on the offensive, which makes him a uniquely sympathetic figure in the videogame world. And his game is great fun, kind of Keystone Kops-meets-Tom-and-Jerry; it's not as elegant as Pac-Man, but it has some of the same feel, and its rinky-tink ragtime music is excellent for the time.

I only saw Mappy once in an actual arcade in the 1980's, at a theme park during a family trip, and I didn't last long on the single quarter I put in. But since that time I have played Mappy on the Namco Museum collection for the Playstation, the Namco Museum Remix set on the Gamecube, and most recently on the Wii Virtual Console Arcade. I always get a kick out of it and spend at least enough time with it to get on the high score board.

I love Mappy in part because it's the rare 80's arcade game that never saw a home console conversion in the US, so I never really got to spend time with it until the emulation age arrived. There was a Famicom version in Japan, and some 8-bit computer versions in the wild-and-wooly 80's UK scene (maybe just the MSX, actually). But the only home game we got here was Mappyland on the NES, which is basically Jaleco's City Connection with the Mappy characters.

I am now intrigued by a title on Namco's Virtual Console Arcade list -- Hopping Mappy. Is it just Mappyland, or am I in for something fun and fresh like Mr. Do's Castle? Only time will tell, unless I break down and actually research the thing. So far I am resisting the urge.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Video vs. Non-Video Games -- Why?

What makes a video game different from other kinds of games? It's a question worth considering, prompted by a friend's comment the other day, and it's not something anyone talks about very much. We talk about "hardcore" and "casual" gamers, and go on about how never the twain shall meet, but is there even a fundamental difference between video games and other types of games?

From a definition standpoint, it's fairly simple -- a videogame involves certain technological elements that make it a VIDEO game, even if the concept has roots in traditional games. There's a display device of some kind, an interface between the user and the game, and logic that implements the game rules and monitors the user's interaction with the game to determine loss/victory/score conditions. The logic is generally contained in a program run by a computer (multi) processor, or a set of interrelated chips and circuits, back in the early days before CPUs became inexpensive enough to put in games.

But beyond the technology, what is the nature of a video game? It's difficult to generalize, because the technology supports a wide range of game types. There are implementations of real-world card and board games and simulations of team sports; there are abstract puzzle games and fully-realized 3-D worlds. And there are things like Endless Ocean and flOw that are presented as video games, even if they don't have hard and fast rules for victory or defeat.

I think the term "video game" is so general that it's not very useful to most people -- people whom we would call casual gamers may not see themselves as playing "video games" any more than they would say they like to watch "movies" or eat "food." They are playing Solitaire, or Wii Sports, or Rock Band, or Madden, or Call of Duty. As a hardcore gamer, I make an effort to sample genres and styles of game that might not be my cup of tea. But we're all playing video games -- it's a matter of degree, investment and interest level.

So is there anything in the nature of play itself that separates video games from other types? A few characteristics come to mind -- let's see if any of them work out as differentiators.

Interactivity: On the face of it, this is something that video games deliver that most other media do not. But in the context of GAMES, it's not a differentiator. All games involve some kind of interaction between the player's intelligence, a set of rules, and other human beings more often than not. Even a crossword puzzle is a game in this sense -- there is a design, meant to be challenging at a certain level, and the player/puzzler tries to work out a complete solution within a framework of rules. There is interaction between the minds of the player and the designer, even though they never meet or interact directly. So this is not unique to videogames... FAIL.

Time: Most video games take place in real time; time pressure is sometimes part of the drama, although there are turn-based video games where time is not a factor at all. And of course there are many real-world games where time is an element. So... FAIL.

Experience: Video games, moreso than other games, have the potential to give the player an experience beyond the rules of the game. Dialogue, music, and artwork can bring compelling storytelling to bear, with more drama than who has the best hand or whether Red or Blue will reach the finish line first. It's a debatable topic as to whether all of these elements qualify as contributions to GAMEPLAY, but strides have been made towards integrating storytelling with the action. Myst did this to an extent, although the action was limited. I think Bioshock does this admirably, never pulling the player out of the game interface, but still allowing a human drama to unfold within the context of the game's world and the player's experience of it. It is possible, and when done well it is something that other games and other media cannot achieve in the same way, so... PROVISIONAL PASS.

Subject Matter: I am tempted to suggest that video games tackle a broader range of subjects than traditional games, but as I really think about it, there are always precedents in traditional games and contests. Leading a party of adventurers in a fantasy world comes from pencil-and-paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, inspired in turn by the hunter-gatherer's love of the quest; fighting games, despite the strong fantasy element, have clear antecedents in wrestling and boxing. Guitar Hero is a low-impact substitute for actually mastering a musical instrument, and first-person shooters capitalize on our fight-or-flight instincts, like Tag. Trauma Center is a game of skill and dexterity, like pick-up sticks; Tetris is a shape-fitting puzzle; Grand Theft Auto is cops-and-robbers and capture-the-flag. So even though video games may present a more convincing illusion of reality than traditional games do, play itself doesn't seem terribly innovative. So... FAIL, at least until some better examples come to mind.

The bottom line, I think, is this. Videogame technology simply enables broader and more convenient access to games of every kind. And human beings enjoy games. We like to challenge ourselves and learn new skills, even when the stakes are so low as to make the "gains" inconsequential in practical terms. We play because we like to play, we like to explore, we like to show off and test our limitations. There are many biological and evolutionary reasons for this -- a love of challenges, and a drive to overcome them, makes us more likely to succeed as individuals and as a species. So I think game play of any kind is educational in a fundamental sense -- it prepares us to meet the world head-on and persevere.

Don't tell the kids, though.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rainy Days and Mondays

So this week's new Wii Virtual Console release is Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive.

Which is the same game as Monster Lair for the TurboGrafx-CD, also available on the Virtual Console, except the graphics are more colorful and the music is much, much better on the TG version. I don't know if the original arcade game had parallax background scrolling -- the TG version does not, so I am a little bit curious about whether the Genesis version does. But probably not curious enough to buy the game. There are so many variations of the various Wonder Boy/Adventure Island games available on the Virtual Console that it's very difficult to keep them straight, and I don't really want to encourage this sort of thing.

But then there's nostalgia. I actually owned a TurboGrafx-CD back in the day, and Monster Lair was the first game I ever played on it. High-quality audiovisuals aside, it's not a great game -- it's basically a shooter with the Wonder Boy characters and art style, and it becomes fairly repetitive fairly quickly. It's also one of those "keep using infinite continues to finish the game" titles, which shortened its play life. But it does support co-op play, which is a point in its favor when my wife and I are in the mood to goof around with a quick round of something video-y.

And so it is that I keep looking at it in the Wii Shop channel and NOT buying it. So I'm doing the math -- I bought the game for $50 new back in the day, sold it later on for around $30, and now have the opportunity to rebuy it on the VC for $8 in one form, or $16 if I want to be a completist about it. So comparatively, given inflation since 1990, it's a steal if I really want to re-add it to my collection (at least in a virtual sense).

The sticking point is, every time I think about Monster Lair I realize I really don't want to PLAY through this title again. It's just luring me in with memories of days past, when it represented the latest in consumer videogame technology. What I really want, I think, is to hear the music tracks from the game again. I'd be better off tracking down a used copy of the original game and ripping the disc to MP3 format for my listening pleasure.

So knowing that, maybe I'll just hold off and see if the original arcade version materializes on the Virtual Console Arcade.

And if it does, then I can make the decision not to buy it THREE times over.

(I do have to check out today's WiiWare release from Square-Enix, Crystal Defenders R1 set in the Final Fantasy universe. Might be in the mood for that if I ever finish Ogre Battle... I'm on stage 25, and the enemy is throwing what seems to be an infinite number of units at us. But we will persevere!)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Fight It Out!

I have been spending entirely too much time playing Square-Enix's classic SNES strategy/RPG game "Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen" on the Wii Virtual Console these past several weeks. (Yes, the game's Japanese designer listened to a lot of Queen back in the day.)

At my age, these kinds of games are appealing because there's something quintessentially adult about them. They're about managing scarce resources and planning the best approach to meet a goal, like real life but with more concrete rules for success and more room for experimentation. The action is largely NON-interactive, so my aging reflexes are not at issue, and the game's events are emotionally engaging. And even with the Virtual Console's luxurious save state allowing me an indefinite pause at any time, for any reason at all, it's a VERY tough game to put down.

When I'm ready to dive into a session, I can start a new map, dispatch my troops, and leave them to head toward their assigned destinations while I tend to other things around the house. They move in something like real-time, and the action pauses when a situation arises that requires my attention. So I can be involved, but I don't have to be gripping the controller every moment. I can in theory step away for any amount of time I like.

Even the battles don't necessarily require my input -- if I'm confident in the outcome, I can hit an acknowledgment button and let the battle play out on its own, without any direction on my part. After the battle, the action returns to the main map until another interruption comes up. Perfect for getting some laundry folded or bills paid.

What I get sucked in by, though, is that once the battling starts, the enemy onslaughts are heavy and unpredictable. Even though I could wander away between battles, my attention immediately becomes focused on the state of my beleaguered units. If there's a chance they won't come out on top of a round of combat, or might die in the process, I have to watch the battle carefully, ready to tell my team to flee or play a Tarot card in the hopes I can salvage my leader and revive any casualties at a nearby temple. If my people acquitted themselves honorably but not spectacularly, I may have to alter the original deployment plan and send them somewhere safe to rest up.

And that's where the drama kicks in. In my opinion, the heart of all RPGs is really in the battling -- sure, there's potentially an involving storyline and a bevy of audiovisual delights along the way, but the thrills of victory and defeat are all in the battles. Will the mage get a healing spell readied in time, before the weakest party member up front dies off? Will the big, slow monster in my employ get a chance to use its most powerful attack before its lack of armor takes it out of the fight? Is the enemy leader as invincible as he seems to be? Will an enemy blindside us with a powerful, party-wide attack and send my own leader to his/her grave before I can issue a retreat command, taking the entire unit out of action for the rest of the battle? Careful resource management and movement strategy helps to put the odds on my side, but the visceral, emotional, oh-man-we-aren't-ready-for-this-fight stuff all happens in the battles. And once I'm engaged in protecting a unit on the verge of demise, all sense of time is lost.

And so it is that I can start up a "brief" game of Ogre Battle at 10:00 PM, checking the clock every ten minutes or so, because I only have half an hour or so to spare. And by midnight I'm sure I can get to bed as soon as this next battle with Lans plays out or I get Aisha's badly injured team heading back home to recover. And at 2:00 AM I'm finally going to bed, with visions of pixelated yellow units working their way desperately across the map, cursing my addiction and looking forward to ending it by finishing the game at last.

I'm writing this, of course, while my game is suspended in the early stages of battle 24, waiting for me to find an hour or three to resume command. It's a tough one -- we're getting hit with waves of successively stronger units, and I have not been able to move very far out of my own base to claim new territory and tax revenue without losing units to the enemy. Too many of the enemy's units are escaping with dead leaders, fleeing swiftly over the distant hills before my units can catch them and finish them off. We can only watch helplessly as they flee home for instant resurrection -- a privilege the incumbent forces of Evil enjoy that my brave, ragtag rebel troops do not.

But we will prevail. Maybe after this next battle...

In Praise of the Wii Virtual Console

Retro gamers have a love/hate relationship with Nintendo's Virtual Console on the Wii. No matter how many great games are available, there are always a handful of personal favorites that remain elusive Monday after disappointing Monday.

The standardized pricing can seem out of whack, and calculated to target our nostalgic addictions -- yes, I too have paid $5 for Super Mario Bros. on the VC, even though its sheer commonality makes the original cartridge universally overpriced at rummage sales and flea markets.

And emulation is inherently imperfect -- the Wiimote and classic controller will never really feel like an NES or Genesis or Neo-Geo controller. Purists will insist that the refresh rate, flicker level and sound timing don't replicate original hardware well enough to suit the purpose either, and they're probably right if you view the world through an oscilloscope.

But there are a number of reasons to love the Virtual Console:

-- Import titles. They are generally brand new to me, and they just work. No pinouts to convert, boot discs to employ, or soldering irons to wave around inside your vintage hardware. Just download and play.

-- Browseability. Now that the Wii's limited storage problem has finally been addressed with proper SD card support, it's like having an iPod of retro games. Boot up the Wii, go into the SD menu, and you have your whole library (well, up to 240 games) at your disposal. Most VC games are small enough to launch quickly from the SD card, and even a huge collection won't approach the 32 GB SDHC max, so as far as I'm concerned the storage problem is well and truly fixed.

-- Quality. VC emulation is solid and reliable in general, and a good deal less hacky and configuration-tweaky than PC emulation can be. (Yes, tweaking is sometimes fun. But it distracts me from actually playing the games, and too often allows me to cheat myself out of the full experience.) The games are legitimate ROM images from the publishers, without random corruptions or hack/crack text inserts courtesy of the underground. It's emulation for the masses -- it starts up, it doesn't crash or fail to save the game, and it's handled cleanly and simply. Well, aside from the lack of widescreen support -- that's still a pain. I'm glad to see Namco's VC Arcade releases have an awareness of aspect ratio, and I hope that becomes a standard feature.

-- Legality and Economics. I like to know that the bucks I'm spending on classic games are giving me the legitimate right to play them, and unlike my thrift store searches, generating new revenue for somebody with an interest in responding to me as a market. Yes, the publishers that own the games today are not necessarily passing any cash on to the people who actually created them. And yes, I am often rebuying something I already own in physical form or on a disc-based compilation, which feels penny-foolish and convenience-driven. But the VC demonstrates once and for all that there's gold in these retro hills. Judging from Hudson and Konami's output, they're seeing a solid business case for supporting the VC, and WiiWare to boot, with titles that appeal to my retro tastes.

-- Pricing. Yes, many classic games won't cost you $5-$10 if you find them in the wild. But Neo-Geo games at $9 are very reasonable compared to finding and buying physical cartridges (if not compared to the SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 collection, also available on Wii). And there are other bargains -- for example, Ogre Battle and Harvest Moon, two fine but rare SNES games, are a lot cheaper to play on VC than to acquire as collectibles on eBay. And frankly, Super Mario Bros. on the VC is still good value for money -- anyone who claims that's not $5 worth of entertainment doesn't eat out very often.

-- The Library. Hundreds of games are available. Yes, there are many games I want that aren't there (Ys III, please, and the TG-CD version, not the SNES version.) There aren't enough Western publishers represented, although Activision has finally entered the fray. And yes, Mondays are too often underwhelming. But when I am ready for something new to play, and I just open up the Wii Shop channel and start browsing, I never come up empty-handed or have to settle for something I know is a poor choice. I haven't exhausted all the GOOD games on the VC, nor even all the GREAT games, not by a long shot, and that alone keeps me excited about the service.

I like XBox Live Arcade and WiiWare a lot, but when it comes to pure retro content, the Virtual Console is the only game in town.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Inauspicious Beginnings

I am part of the first generation to really grow up with video games. When home versions of Pong were proliferating in the 1970's, I was a kid, fascinated by my sudden ability to actually make something happen on TV. I saw black-and-white raster and vector displays augmented with color overlays before giving way to glorious full-color. I played early coin-op games that will likely never be made available under MAME emulation, because they did not make use of microprocessors and ROM chips, but instead relied on weird analog-electronic circuit designs.

I am talking seriously old-school here.

I am now just past the age of 40, and it occurs to me that there must be many of us who are not quite as sharp-eyed and quick-wristed as we once were. But I still love videogames -- my Wii and XBox 360 get plenty of use, along with my ever-growing collection of vintage consoles and games. I love new games and old games, and new versions of old games on the rare occasions when those work out the way we hope they will. I believe videogames are an art form, one that is only now beginning to be recognized as such. And I believe our tastes change and grow as we get older, and it's no shame to recognize our physical limitations either.

So I'm starting this blog to reminisce, speculate and celebrate the history, future and present state of the odd, wonderful fusion of art and technology that videogames present. I hope younger readers will find interesting retro trivia and history here, and older gamers will hear a sympathetic voice as we get our collective butts kicked online. I'm going to talk about what I'm playing, what I've played, what's exciting and new, and what has stood the test of time. Probably at excessive length, but that's why it's a blog and not a newspaper column.

I hope you will join me. Thanks for reading.