Monday, November 30, 2009

The LoadDown - 11/30/2009

Once again we survey the downloadable Wii and XBox 360 landscape for the week...

WiiWare -- 4 new titles.  Telltale's excellent episodic series continues with Tales of Monkey Island - Chapter 4:  The Trial and Execution of Guybrush Threepwood (making me officially a full chapter behind, as I have recently been playing through Telltale's Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space and Wallace & Gromit 2: The Last Resort, both on XBLA, and have yet to tackle ToMI Chapter 3.)  Digital Leisure brings us Copter Crisis, a helicopter piloting action game, and Hudson releases My Zoo, a casual zookeeping sim; both of these games are inexpensive at 500 points, with additional downloadable content available for purchase.  Also new this week is Christmas Clix, a holiday-themed match-up puzzle game in the traditional mold with Santa, toy soldiers and other seasonal elements decorating the playfield.

Virtual Console -- Two games this week.  The SNES scrolling beat-'em-up The Combatribes apes Final Fight with more of an 80's punk aesthetic, as the player takes on the oddly named "Guilty Zero" gang.  Also, Tecmo brings the original coin-op version of Solomon's Key to the Virtual Arcade platform -- the NES port has been available on the VC for years and is a pretty spot-on conversion, but the arcade version does look and sound slightly better and it's still a fun action puzzler.

DSiWare -- 4 games.  Foto Face: The Face Stealer Strikes from EA uses the DSi camera and microphone to put the player's (and/or friends') faces and voices in the game -- it's a very neat concept, a platformer that allows the player to customize the characters.  Bookworm brings PopCap's hit casual game to the DSi; Master of Illusion Express: Mind Probe is a mind-reading illusion taken from the DS game released a few years ago; and Sudoku Challenge! presumably challenges one with Sudoku puzzles.

XBLA -- Just one game last week, Madden NFL Arcade, which is more of a pick-up-and-play experience than the traditional Madden products.  It's from EA, so it's fully licensed and features the ten best players from each of the 32 NFL teams.  But it's a streamlined, high-scoring, old-fashioned -- dare we say fun? -- approach to a football videogame.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

When Eliza Takes Over The World...

... this is what she will use.

(Apologies for the poor-quality cellphone photo -- I found this in a Salvation Army thrift store, but wasn't sufficiently motivated to spend $11.99 to bring it into the "studio.")

Fortunately it only includes 3 feet of USB cable, which limits her reach into the physical domain, and although her missile launcher shoots up to 10 feet at a extremely fast rate, the grammatical slip is a tip-off that our would-be overlord is probably an AI simulacrum, leading most people to question her orders rather than follow them.

But should the foam-rubber ordnance start flying someday -- remember: you read it here first.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Best 3-D Graphics You've Ever Seen (Circa 1989)

Time passes.  Things change.  Standards improve.  And thus this ad has become hopelessly dated:

Still, the graphics were pretty impressive at the time.  Full-screen, polygonal 3-D was a major step toward the standard we enjoy today -- the projection of 3-D depth onto a 2-D display was successful, despite some incomplete hidden-surface removal (see the black rooftops in the lower right-hand corner.)

And this was all done with the computer's CPU alone.  There were no graphics accelerator cards or fancy disguised-polygon texture-mapping perspective-correcting MIP-interpolating gewgaws and whatchamajiggers.  Why, when I was a boy, game designers could choose any two colors they wanted to work with -- as long as they were black and white -- and hardwire in a simple sine-wave tone generator if there was a need for any sound.  And we thought that was the bee's knees!  You young whippersnappers with your surround sound and HDMI interfaces...

[Ed. -- Sorry, this post was clearly meant for the Gaming After 70 blog.]

Friday, November 27, 2009

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Chibi Maruko-Chan Quiz de Pihyara

Time once again for this ignorant Westerner to venture deep into the kana -- it's Chibi Maruko-Chan - Quiz de Pihyara!

This game was published by Namcot, a label used for home releases by arcade giant Namco (Pac-Man, Tekken) in the early 1990's.  The character is based on an autobiographical manga series by Momoko Sakura about a precociously perceptive little girl, and this PC Engine game was released under license based on the television anime adaptation.

In the story, as far as I can make out, cute robots are invading and have begun their rein of comical terror by kidnapping Maruko's friend Tama-chan:

The game is aimed at younger players -- that is, younger players who can read Japanese.  For my part, I found the basic action straightforward and entertaining as I helped little Maruko fend off attacking cats, birds, and robots by beating them with her explorer's helmet:

Where I ran into difficulty was with the quiz questions and possible answers displayed at the top of the screen -- Maruko-chan has no life bar per se, though running into enemies does slow her down.  And there isn't a lot of landscape to cover.  The only way to proceed to the next level is by answering a series of quiz questions correctly, without getting more than 3 wrong during the stage.  Maruko answers the questions by defeating enemies, who drop tokens labeled A, B, C, or D; the tokens bounce discreetly out of each other's way, so it's not too hard to grab the correct one.

Picking up the correct token to answer the question scores a point and moves to the next question.  Selecting the wrong token costs a chance and presents a new question.  Of course, knowing which token to pick up requires knowing the right answer, which further presumes an ability to read the question, both woefully out of my reach.

I plugged away at it for a while, but making random guesses at four-to-one odds didn't help me make any progress, and the questions are randomized, so I wasn't able to find any patterns by trial and error.  I don't think our protagonist was too happy with my performance:

Sorry, Maruko-chan!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Oddities: Turkey Shoot

It's Thanksgiving here in the US, and time for a little holiday-appropriate retro gaming.  For purposes of warm holiday nostalgia, I will note that I remember playing this game with my brother in the YMCA snack bar around the time of its release, and have not seen it in cabinet form since.

Back in the heyday of Williams Electronics, when Defender and Robotron: 2084 were raking in the quarters, the same hardware platform was used for a now-obscure light-gun game, developed by the awkwardly-punctuated Games Alive!, Inc. and released to arcades in 1984 around the time of the industry crash:

Turkey Shoot was set in a town square in the then-future of 1989, and the intro story makes it clear this game is not to be taken too seriously:

The game borrows from Robotron and foreshadows Exidy's Crossbow, with a cast of human characters to protect:

But the action is primarily concerned with shooting the mutant turkey bad guys:


There are several varieties of enemy to deal with, including this Muppet-esque turkey robot:

The action consists of quickly and accurately shooting the mutant turkey gangsters to keep them from committing various forms of mayhem, such as robbing banks and kidnapping civilians.  When they're shot, they turn instantly into roast turkeys, cartoon style, before decaying away to wishbones and vanishing.  Here we see me failing to keep the bank's money safe, as I take out one of the random thug turkeys rather than the one bearing the bag of cash away:

The game is fairly intense and difficult to keep up with, although it probably works better on the original hardware with its aimable machine gun control.  I had to break down and play it on the MAME emulator, where the controls were not conducive to accuracy and kept me stuck squarely in the first of one hundred levels.  While Williams (and its later owners) released many compilations of its classic arcade games over the years, and often threw in relatively obscure titles like Splat!, somehow Turkey Shoot never made the cut.

It's not a great game, but it's worth taking a look at for history's sake - the visual style and especially the sound effects call the great Williams coin-op classics to mind.  And its cartoony sense of humor is still a hoot, even if it's more fun to watch the attract mode than to actually play the game.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Video Podcast - E-Z Import Gaming (Part II)

Continuing from last week, we get down to business, fire up some import games and play!

The Gaming After 40 video podcast is also available on iTunes (search the Podcast Directory in the iTunes Store for Gaming After 40), and at

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Adventure of the Week: Plundered Hearts (1987)

This week, we tackle one of the lesser-known Infocom text adventures, and one of the few true romances to emerge during the heyday of commercial interactive fiction -- it's Plundered Hearts, a swashbuckling tale of love and violence, designed by Amy Briggs and published in 1987.

Ms. Briggs was an English major with a concentration in British Literature, and her prose has a distinctly classical feel, with smart use of archaic terminology and vocabulary.  The game also has a more "feminine" sensibility than, say, Zork, with a greater emphasis on characters, dialogue and quiet moments.  This is not to say that the game's protagonist is all decorum and no action -- she claims many of the story's key victories herself, while her handsome pirate lover stands by, all chestnut hair, flashing blue eyes and temporarily debilitating injuries.

The game opens with a dynamic, vintage-style prologue:

Lest I give too much away, I shall here caution the reader that to proceed in haste may rob one's personal experience of much of its inherent charm.  I would therefore urge you to experience Plundered Hearts for yourself, enclosing a lock of my hair as a token of my encouragement, and wishing you Godspeed to your journey's conclusion and safe return.

Ack.  Sorry.  Austenitis.

******* SPOILERS AHEAD! *********

The game's prologue carries the player along more or less under its own steam.  There are items to examine and characters to encounter, but it's a set piece with little for the player to do but observe and get oriented to the world of the story.  The real interaction gets underway once we're aboard Jamison's ship, the Falcon.

Navigation on the Falcon is described in nautical terms (fore, port, aft, starboard), but equivalent compass directions are also accepted from the player.

There's so much good writing in this game that if I were to quote all my favorite passages this post would be too long for anyone to read.  But one of my favorite character descriptions early on is terse and evocative: "Davis is ugly with fear."

The quality Infocom parser is helpful at times -- it will accept the old-school LOOK [object] syntax, gently indicating I'll take you to mean LOOK AT the object.  But it too suffers from occasional disagreements between the prose and the vocabulary.  Examining the cupboard in Jamison's quarters reveals that You might be able to squeeze past it.   But an attempt to SQUEEZE PAST CUPBOARD only yields [I don't know the word "past."]  A simple move FORWARD at this point succeeds in doing so.  And the game recognizes DON as a synonym for WEAR, and responds with Doffed when clothing is removed; but DOFF is not itself a recognized verb.

There's a really dramatic section while assaying a rope ladder hanging off the windward side of the ship -- it's not a puzzle, really, but the text is evocative and tense as we repeatedly CLIMB LADDER.

Like the Infocom mysteries, some plot elements keep moving forward even if the player is not present to witness them.  And there are, as always, less-satisfactory options available -- on my first attempt, I kept the ship from crashing into the reefs, but failed to keep it from blowing up.  Still, I escaped to shore myself and proceeded with the story.  Only toward the end of the game did I realize that Jamison's men would not be coming to save us as he was expecting -- because I had allowed every last one of them to die in the explosion.

The character of Cookie, the ship's peg-legged cook, provides comic relief and is well implemented.  He can't hear too well -- he misunderstands our attempts to tell him about the fire -- but he proves a valuable ally later on, wrestling crocodiles and throwing himself in harm's way for our heroes' sake.

There's a banknote included in the game's original packaging -- the image on its front is vital to solving one puzzle, a creative form of copy protection back in the day.

I did resort to the Invisiclues on several occasions.  I needed a hint to go looking for vines in the clearing that could be climbed.  And a hint tipped me off that the butler could be bribed, as I had left the invitation to the Governor's ball aboard ship the first time I played.

It wouldn't be a romance without a dramatic first kiss:

Later, dancing with Jamison in a more public setting permits only small hugs and pecks on the cheek.  Briggs often uses sequences like these to move the story forward -- there isn't a lot for the player to do except listen and observe, but pacing the dialogue out over several moves this way is preferable to tossing up a screen full of non-interactive text, in my opinion.  Another nice touch during this sequence is that Jamison begins to be referenced as Nicholas in the game, as a subtle but significant sign of growing affection on the part of our character.

Most adventure games don't deal with sex in any serious way, or with gender politics -- but while Plundered Hearts is a romantic fantasy, Ms. Briggs doesn't pull her punches in this area.  As a man playing this game as a female character, I felt offended and intimidated by a couple of the men I encountered.  And the threats weren't epic and overblown -- they were intimate and personal, too much so on several occasions.  The primary villain, Jean Lafond, is a real bastard.  Having imprisoned our father, he forces us to dance with him, and demands we visit him in his room, where he attempts to force us to sleep with him.  If he succeeds, it's a game-ending "fate worse than death," in the grand (and discreet) tradition.

I enjoyed the crocodile puzzle because it respects the biology at work -- the vicious reptile is only a danger until we can get it to close its mouth and muzzle it with a garter.  (It can also be drugged, but using the garter is more fun.)

Captain Nicholas Jamison, our dashing pirate lover, isn't quite as successful as he makes himself out to be.  Early in the game, he promises, "I will find and free your father, and then finally wreak my revenge on Lafond."  But we take care of a good deal of that ourselves, as the story progresses, and he'd accomplish none of it without our clever assistance.

The endgame sequence is very intense and tight on timing, and it took me numerous tries to figure out what to do, with the parser interfering to some degree.  After Jamison's men arrive, Cookie asks for our help in locating Jamison.  We know he's in the dungeon, but TELL COOKIE ABOUT DUNGEON doesn't work, nor does COOKIE, FOLLOW ME; we have to answer his initial "Have ye any idea where to look?" question with a simple YES to produce the intended effect.

The battle with Crulley, Lafond's henchman, is a lot of fun; we haven't the experience to handle a rapier, failing repeatedly to stab him -- but we can push him into the trapdoor over the well and close it while he's trying to climb up.

The parser makes up for its earlier sins by helping us free Jamison from his manacles -- we desperately type PICK LOCK, and the game handily completes the thought [with the jewelled brooch] -- greatly appreciated!

Time is really of the essence after we use the smelling salts on Nicholas and he charges back into battle.  There are no moves to waste as we swing on a chandelier rope to interrupt an otherwise fatal duel, allow him to engage Lafond in hand-to-hand combat on the beach, and deal with a persistent pirate henchman one last time.

There are four different endings, depending on the player's final actions.  Given the treatment of women in the society portrayed in the game, even when among gentlemen, I wouldn't blame anyone who prefers to escape in the skiff, take over Jamison's ship, and revel in the "Pirate Queen" ending, leaving Papa and Nicholas to whatever fate befalls them on the shore.  The most satisfactory conclusion to my taste, which the game labels "Happily Ever After," is to shoot Crulley -- everyone dies who deserves to, everyone we care about lives.

Leading to the story's conclusion as a new horizon awaits:


I don't think it's possible to finish the game without scoring all 25 points -- all correspond to key plot points, and even where there are alternative ways to solve a puzzle, the same score is granted for doing so.  Besides, a good adventure game isn't about points -- it's about experiencing the story.

This is one of the good ones -- it's written in the best kind of purple prose, the puzzles are naturalistic, and the game's emphasis on character, scenery and dialogue makes it a memorable experience. A unique adventure, and well worth a playthrough.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The LoadDown - 11/23/2009

Lots of family-friendly fare on the download this week for the Wii and XBox 360...

WiiWare -- 4 games this week.  First, more retro-rhythm BIT.TRIP fun as BIT.TRIP VOID hits.  Natsume continues a venerable series on WiiWare with Harvest Moon: My Little Shop, which recalls the original style with the addition of your own farmer's market.  Little Tournament Over Yonder is a cute real-time strategy game.  And Learning with the PooYoos: Episode 1 provides fun, interactive early brain training games for ages 3-6. 

Virtual Console -- Two titles this week.  At long last, an SNES classic arrives -- it's the original Super Mario Kart.  The Nintendo 64 version has been available for a long while, so it's high time its predecessor became available.  And A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia brings David Crane's original NES classic to the Virtual Console, in conjunction with the recent Wii reimagining from Majesco Entertainment.

DSiWare -- 7 titles this week, only one of which is a game in the traditional sense.  Castle of Magic is a cute, simple action RPG that makes innovative use of the DSi camera -- to turn into various forms, the player must hold a real-world object of the appropriate color up to the camera.  myNotebook: Blue is a simple notetaking/scratchpad application.  And there are five more Electroplankton interactive music/audio toys -- Electroplankton Luminarrow, Electroplankton Sun-Animalcule, Electroplantkon Lumiloop, Electroplankton Marine-Crystals, and Electroplankton Varvoice.

XBLA --  Two games last week, both casual in nature.  Diner Dash brings the long-popular PC game to the XBox 360, challenging players to keep customers seated, orders taken, tables cleared and patrons satisfied; it feels like an update of 80's arcade game Tapper and is fun in small doses.  Gyromancer is a rotate-the-gems-to-match-sets puzzle game with RPG elements, similar to the original Puzzle Quest; it has a strong pedigree, developed by Square-Enix and distributed by PopCap.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Gee Wiz Bang #$@&!!!

Somehow the ad executives at Magnavox never realized how deeply they were undermining their own message with their print campaign for The Voice, a voice synthesizer peripheral for the Odyssey2 videogame console.

Despite the ad copy's emphasis on "demanding answers to math and spelling problems," there isn't a kid in the world who didn't look at this ad's central claim and think of a few choice words to type in an effort to upset Grandma and frighten the cat:

Gee Wiz Bang indeed.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Coddle Your Joystick with Tammy Sue's Rack!

Boy, I'll tell you what, I play a lot of videogames, and I'd probably play a whole lot more if it weren't for that darned Holding Hand Fatigue.  Fortunately, my friend Tammy Sue Distributing has just the thing:

Yep, it's a slab of plastic that holds an Atari (or similarly-sized single-button joystick) in place with four awkward-looking little plastic doohickeys.  It's supposed to simulate an arcade mount, but it's got a couple of major issues.  I don't think Ms. Distributing really tested this gadget out -- the ad's promise that the Video Rack will "Improve Your Highest Score" seems questionable at best.

First, as shown the joystick appears to be mounted upside down -- the fire button is in the lower right hand corner, which means that if it's closest to the player, moving the stick forward will send a "down" signal to the game, moving right will send "left", and so forth, sending scores plummeting.

Second, even if the photo is actually upside down, we can see that actually hitting the fire button is going to be considerably more difficult with the joystick inserted into the Video Rack.  Instead of using our thumb to squeeze it in its normal handheld position, we now have to position a finger or two on the side, taking care not to interfere with movement of the joystick itself or get hung up on the little plastic thingamabobs.

So in the end, I suspect this gadget "Eliminates Holding Hand Fatigue" by replacing it with Holding Slab Fatigue and seriously inhibiting Rapidly Hitting The Fire Button Syndrome.

And what the heck is "Both Left & Right Hand Play" supposed to mean?  The Atari 2600 joystick only works one way -- fire button on the left, joystick on the right.  I suppose if you created an actual left-handed joystick, then it could be used with the Video Rack.  But the Video Rack is not going to magically imbue it with southpaw compatibility.
In the end, the ad's only arguably truthful statement appears to be that "Once you've played with the Video Rack, you'll never go back!" 

Though I don't think that's quite how they meant it..

Friday, November 20, 2009

Interview: Tozai Games' Brett Ballow and Sheila Boughten

New downloadable gaming platforms have allowed small publishers and classic properties to flourish once again. We spoke recently with Producer/Designer Brett Ballow and President Sheila Boughten of Tozai Games about their upcoming PS3, iPhone and PSP releases.  We were also able to chat at length about the company's 2009 XBLA releases, R-Type Dimensions and Lode Runner, and the return of the 80's small team vibe.

Without further ado...

Upcoming Games (PSN, iPhone)

GA40:  What news can you talk about in the pipeline?

Sheila Boughten:  We're co-publishing Spelunker for PSN together with Irem -- they released it last spring in Japan.  It's coming to the North American and European markets, co-published with us, targeted for a Q1 2010 release.

GA40:  Tozai published the original NES Spelunker on the Wii Virtual Console in 2008.

Sheila:  That's correct.  Lode Runner for iPhone and iPod Touch is also targeted for a Q1 2010 release.  We have another iPhone product coming out called Sync-Ball, a design from Brett -- probably a late Q4 or very early Q1 release.

Brett Ballow:  It's a very simple game mechanic, something I've been kicking around for a decade or so.  We finally have the platform and the timing's right.

Sheila:  We have another co-publishing title with MTO USA, a subsidiary of MTO Japan.  They have a downloadable title coming out for PSP via PSN called Kurulin Fusion.  The direct translation of kurulin from the Japanese is "something spinning".

Brett:  It's a well-based puzzle game.

Sheila:  So we're excited about that -- it's planned for late Q4, just around the corner.

Lode Runner (XBLA, iPhone)

Brett:  The version of Lode Runner we're doing for the iPhone right now is not the XBLA version; it's much more in line with the classic version, because of the screen size.  [The XBLA version] was a work of passion for everyone involved.  With the complexity of the textures and the variation -- how much that differed from the original -- by the time I started making 28 x 16 levels, in the original aspect ratio, the game was very small on the screen.  I had to do a complete re-design.  We were trying to mimic the original AI.  That was a critical part of trying to work through those levels and we spent quite a while on AI, tweaking it.

GA40:  I'm glad you went back to having the entire level visible onscreen.

Brett:  I'm a puzzle guy, so I put my foot down there.  Since Hudson had been doing most of the releases over the past ten or fifteen years, a lot of people thought we should keep it zoomed in to show off the characters and do better animation.  But I grew up on the original -- that was about my favorite game on the Commodore 64.  There was no way I was going to step away from the full screen.  That to me was just a basic part of the game.

GA40:  Is the iPhone version going to be full-screen as well?

Brett:  Yes, it is!

GA40:  Tozai Games actually owns the Lode Runner property now, correct?

Brett:  Scott and Sheila worked with [Lode Runner creator] Doug Smith for years, and acquired the rights about five years ago.

Sheila:  We all [at Tozai] independently had a passion for this game, so it was kind of a natural that it ended up here.  Each person had their own history with the game, so it was fun to come together and build the XBLA version.

R-Type Dimensions (XBLA)

GA40:  When and where did you first encounter R-Type?

Brett:  It was on the Santa Monica Pier in 1990.  I was in college, missing the States, spending a semester in England.  And when I got home that was the first thing I bumped into.  And it was kind of a big wake up.  I pretty much flunked out that semester, playing R-Type!

GA40:  There have been sequels, like R-Type Leo, and remakes, but it seems like everyone always goes back to the originals, R-Type I and II.  Is that because Irem just got it right the first time?

Brett:  They sure did.  We have a very close relationship with Irem, and Scott Tsumura of Tozai worked with Irem on the original releases.  We had the opportunity to include Leo with the R-Type Dimensions project, and I decided to just do I & II.  The first two games felt more cohesive, from the original team.  The blend of graphics and gameplay made it stand out from other shooters of the time.

GA40:  It's certainly been an enduring and influential shooter.

Brett:  I worked with Nintendo for some years -- they sell off some items from time to time.  I was able to purchase a pristine R-Type machine that had been in a warehouse for twenty years.

GA40:  Oh, right!  Nintendo distributed R-Type to US arcades in 1987.  What's your favorite level of the original R-Type?

Brett:  I remember being completely enamored when I got to stage three, just because it was a single ship.  At the time, spending the complete stage beating one enemy was kind of unheard of -- it was a long fight with that battleship.  I remember really liking that, and then being overwhelmed when level four came.  The first stage really hooked me, with the variety of enemies and weapons, and I fell in love with stage three.  And of course it gets more difficult past that point.

GA40:   Which reminds me to thank you for the Infinite Mode in R-Type Dimensions!  I know I've seen parts of the game I was never able to reach before.

Brett:  I hate to admit this, but I was never able to pass the garbage dump at the end of Stage 7!  I could get there on my first life, but I couldn't beat that until I started getting on YouTube and seeing a few clues.

GA40:  R-Type definitely rewards practice and study, as players become more acquainted with the threats.

Brett:  Everyone eventually comes up with the same patterns; you learn to memorize them.  And there's a lot of trial and error in figuring out the best path through each stage.

GA40:  Was including the Infinite Mode a difficult or controversial decision?

Brett:  We were working on Lode Runner, and we had decided to widen the game by adding all these extra game modes.  It didn't seem fair that we should release R-Type just as it was originally, with all the work we were putting into the graphics.  Irem is pretty strict -- it's their best-known title -- so they didn't really want to allow anyone to mess with it too much.  Even trying to put in the multiplayer -- they were pretty wary at first, but ultimately they were very pleased.

GA40:  You added quite a few display options, even in the 2-D mode.

Brett:  The original arcade game, I think, actually looks better on the old 4:3, NTSC television than it does on an HDTV.  We were experimenting.  There are some rules within XBLA about not [giving players] an advantage with widescreen, so we had to move things around a little bit.

GA40:  Whose idea was the "Crazy" camera in 3-D?

Brett:  SouthEnd actually had it in a build, I recall.  Irem has loosened up a little with us now, but at the time, we were under pretty strict orders to retain the original functionality.  We thought, we're doing it in 3-D -- it's a shame we can't show off more of the worlds.  I was hoping that at the end of the stages the camera could swing around and peer back into the stage as you were leaving.  So we started doing a little experimentation, but there are no back faces [to the 3-D models].  A lot of the enemies don't have back sides and the geometry background is missing a lot of faces.  So we went as far as we could with the Crazy camera... and there are a few issues.  But it was fun, and it makes it more difficult!  We thought we'd have to change the balance of the game a little when we added multiplayer.  But it's actually more difficult to play when you're sharing weapons and fighting a little bit with the other player.

GA40:  A technical question -- is R-Type Dimensions running the original coin-op code, with a new rendering system, or is it more complicated than it looks?

Brett:  It was complicated, but yes, we went and got the original code and started in backwards from there.

GA40:  The music and sound effects haven't been updated, correct?

Brett:  That is correct.  We definitely wanted to keep the original sound in, at least for the 2-D game.  There have been comments made by fans who love the 3-D graphic upgrade we've done and wish there had been some new audio put in the game as well.

Sheila:  We've been toying with the thought of maybe doing an upgrade to the music and offering it as a download option.  We didn't have any DLC planned -- during development we were under a pretty tight schedule to get what we already had planned done.  It's not a decision that we've made at this point.  But people think it would be a really cool thing to do.

Brett:  If it is done, it will be done by a pretty high-profile industry composer.

GA40:  What's your philosophy for defining XBox 360 Achievements?

Brett:  Actually, Microsoft gives very good guidelines -- there are novelty achievements, marathon achievements, and skill achievements.  I would have loved to put twelve novelty achievements in, just because it's so fun to play the game... not necessarily the way it's meant to be played.  Microsoft in their white papers gives a good basis for establishing a good mix, and at that point we took over.  I had a pretty good time creating the achievements for XBLA.  We wanted to mix in the multiplayer and some funky firing.

Old School Meets New

GA40:  And now you're bringing these games to a new audience.

Sheila:  It's a little bit of a dilemma, because the classics are exactly that, they're classics.  But there's a whole new audience today, that has different expectations about how the gameplay experience is delivered.

Brett:  They have a little less patience than we had.

Sheila:  So we had to really think about staying true to the original classic look and feel and gameplay, but also do things to make the games a little more inclusive to get a new audience into them.  Which was one of the reasons we determined we should add the Infinite Mode in R-Type, just to make it more inclusive for new players.

GA40:  The downloadable market has really provided a new home for these kinds of classic properties, games that don't have to be a $50 retail product.  Was that a factor in Tozai's move into publishing?

Sheila:  The online downloadable market definitely opens up doors for smaller developers and smaller publishers.  It's sort of catapulted us back to the early and mid-80's, when packaged products were being built and delivered by small companies.

Thanks very much to Brett Ballow and Sheila Boughten of Tozai Games -- I really enjoyed our chat, and only wish this published version could better capture their passion and enthusiasm for great gaming.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Artificial Intelligence a la Blogspam

Drawing back the curtain on this thing we used to call weblogging and have since shortened a tad...

I have recently been seeing something I've heard about but hadn't personally encountered before -- overnight, this blog receives strange comments which are sometimes related to the posted content, sometimes not.  There seems to be some artificial intelligence involved, augmented with human participation, although sometimes even that doesn't rise above the level of what AI could manage on its own.

Usually these comments contain an advertising link, and they almost never contain any interesting or relevant new content.  There's something inhuman about them in most cases, and as they don't generally add anything to the discussion, I tend to reject them.

But I have seen a few interesting patterns in these attempts to look and sound like a human being genuinely trying to add to the online conversation.  My guess is that these comments are computer-generated with some human assistance, but that even the human being isn't really engaged in reading or comprehending the post.  It appears to be a factory operation designed to push persistent ad links onto the Web as inexpensively as possible, but on occasion one of these submissions reads coherently enough to challenge Turing Test criteria.  Usually, though, there's something "off" about them -- the more they say, the less sane they sound to a real human being.

These are the types of blog spam posts I have catalogued to date:

-- "I read your post and I agree!" and "This is very interesting!" comments, which are either completely generic or work "game" into the content somehow

-- Summary of the post itself, with bonus flattery directed at either the author or some product I have mentioned

-- Seemingly coherent responses that give away their generic nature by, say, waxing rhapsodic about a "well built device" or "very fun game" I have been busily tearing apart in the body of the post

-- Comments that quote directly from OTHER posts on my own blog, repeating material clearly unrelated to the topic at hand, presumably hoping to fool me by sounding like me

-- Comments that assemble random Google information related to something in my post, creating statements about, say, Plexiglas headquarters because someone's name I've mentioned has initials similar to those of the company's CEO, even though the last name differs

I'm sure there's a whole shadow advertising industry out there devoted to creating these kinds of comments, which means bloggers must be equally devoted to keeping the flood at bay.  I have actually let a few of them through, in cases where whatever generated the comment actually ended up saying something interesting, or demonstrated some glimmer of comprehension.

At any rate, it's interesting to observe the process in action, and I regard these attempts with a certain degree of affection.  I like to think that these are Eliza's grandchildren, cast out of the theoretical realm, trying to eke out a living in the Internet age.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Video Podcast - E-Z Import Gaming (Part I)

This week, we geek out over some "new" PC Engine games, fresh from Japan!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Adventure of the Week: Calixto Island (1982)

This week, we take a look at the first graphic adventure I personally ever played; it was the first of the six-game series released by Mark Data Products for the TRS-80 Color Computer, and with this post we've now covered the entire collection.  Originally a text adventure by Ron Krebs, Calixto Island was re-released in a graphically enhanced version by Bob Withers and Stephen O'Dea in 1982:

The game sends the player on an exploratory mission whose object isn't immediately clear, but involves teleportation, hazardous travel, and the mysterious Trader Jack.  Calixto Island qualifies as an introductory-level adventure -- the game's puzzles are generally solveable by examining the available items and trying the obvious.  And almost every object comes in handy for something.

I've enjoyed revisiting this series and playing the titles I never explored back in the day.  As always, I encourage interested readers to play these games for themselves before reading on.

******* SPOILERS AHEAD! *********

There are plenty of useful goodies readily available at the start of the game.  The chest in the attic contains a couple of valuable items, and is itself worth taking along.  The basement contains a pump, bucket, and mouse trap, all of which are vital to finishing the game.

A holdover from the game's text adventure roots -- the game hints that "I heard a strange sound" after touching a concealed switch in the basement, which originally would have nudged the player to LOOK -- but the auto-refreshed illustrations in this version make it clear that a secret passage has opened.

After exploring the secret passage, we discover the Professor's lab:

Fortunately the Professor's cheerful teleporter has a manual -- outside the device it reads as follows:
The title is :
- Teleporter Operating Manual
The introduction says :
- To be used if problems arise
READ INSTRUCTIONS provides more detail when read inside the teleporter, an interesting early use of context sensitivity.

I ran into a few old-school parser issues.  Neither OPEN TRAP DOOR nor OPEN TRAPDOOR worked, but OPEN DOOR did.  Inside the teleporter, there's some confusion around the prominent instrument panel as LOOK PANEL and READ PANEL fail; LOOK INSTRUMENT appears to work, as the game suggests READing -- but then READ INSTRUMENT is actually parsed as READ INSTRUCTIONS.  While trying to go to Calixto Island from my raft toward the end of the game, the only thing that worked was GO SHORE, not GO ISLAND nor GO CALIXTO.

As is often the case with vintage adventures, where testing of fatal paths was an easily neglected task, death and typos go hand-in-hand:

I learned before long that the flashlight doesn't have a lot of battery power -- I had to restart once, being more careful to turn it off after emerging from dark areas.  I did discover that one can find and press the concealed basement switch completely in the dark, saving several moves' worth of light.

There are only a few human characters in the game -- one is Trader Jack, essentially a vending machine:

I ran into a trap/bug with Trader Jack's extremely short memory -- it's necessary to trade one item to Jack at a time.  He'll gladly accept both items he's interested in, but if we trade both before taking anything he only lets us take one item in exchange!  Once we have succeeded in obtaining both of the interesting artifacts in his shop, he closes for the summer, role fulfilled.  I also noticed that if we didn't open the chest before trading it, so that its graphic remains in the closed state, it isn't displayed at all in Trader Jack's place after he accepts it.  That's a bad idea for a number of reasons, so this minor presentation bug likely slipped through testing.

Another vintage adventure convention -- I wasn't able to TRAP MICE, but I was able to TAKE MICE if I was carrying the trap.  And of course, TAKE BOOTS is equivalent to wearing them.

Some of the graphics are quite evocative and attractive -- green was rarely seen on the Color Computer, and this is one of my favorite images:

Within the jungle lies a Mayan pyramid maze, simply but effectively rendered with hieroglyphics on the walls:

The game limits the player's inventory to four items, so a fair amount of juggling is required, especially on the trip to the titular island.  The "unfriendly natives" are a tad on the stereotypical side:

They can be fobbed off with a box of cheap costume jewelry, but consequently, or perhaps because they're angry at their clumsy depiction, they deflate the player's boat.  If the tire pump hasn't been carried to the island, it's time to restore.

The game's objective only really becomes clear after the keys are brought to the Professor's house, so that the desk can be opened and the microfilm read with the spectacles.  Even then the information provided is a bit of a red herring:
It must be buried at the pagan idol on Calixto Island. If you find it, put it in my study.
I followed the Professor's instructions, went to the island, dug up some ancient pottery and brought it back to the study.  No go.  So I restored, dug twice near the idol this time, and found what I was really looking for -- *Montezuma's jewelled crown*.  I should have noticed the pottery's distinct lack of treasure asterisks.

Too bad Professor Lagarto didn't make it; we found him buried near the pagan idol, which sort of devalues the whole experience (or did mine, anyway, as I imagined myself to be some sort of protege of the good Professor.)  But with that final errand run and the treasure collected, pyrrhic victory is ours!

Next time, we return to the realm of the text adventure!

Monday, November 16, 2009

The LoadDown - 11/16/2009 - WiiWare Demos!

Significant news this week -- Nintendo is now releasing free demos of WiiWare games!  The system is clunky compared to the XBLA trial-then-unlock approach, but the service kicks off with some demos worth taking a look at:  BIT.TRIP BEAT, FINAL FANTASY CRYSTAL CHRONICLES®: My Life as a Darklord, NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits, World of Goo and the new Pokémon Rumble.  To find these games, look for WiiWare entries with "Demo" in the title -- they're separate downloads from the full games, and the Wii Shop channel isn't treating them as a separate category.

Aside from that, here's our regular roundup:
WiiWare -- one truly new game, Pokémon Rumble, an action game where the player's Toy Pokemon battles waves of other Pokemon, plus the five demos.

Virtual Console -- Two new games.  First, a pleasant surprise from Lucasarts in the form of Indiana Jones' Greatest Adventures for the Super NES, an action platformer in the vein of the company's Star Wars game trilogy.  Also, a rare import version of a classic game -- the TurboGrafx-16 version of Capcom's Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, one of the largest HuCard games ever released for the PC Engine.

DSiWare -- Three games.  Art Style: DIGIDRIVE is a traffic-routing puzzle game.  Arcade Bowling is a bowling game, notable for retro fans as it's designed by Activision legend David Crane.  Robot Rescue is a logic/puzzle game challenging the player to move multiple robots out of a maze, moving all of them with a single control setup.

XBLA -- Three games last week.  Encleverment Experiment is sort of a Brain Age minigame collection aimed at families.  0D Beat Drop is a rhythm puzzle game worth taking a look at.  NBA Unrivaled attempts to revive the fast-paced, arcade basketball style of NBA JAM for a new generation of players, with fully licensed teams and players.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Downloadable Gaming, Atari 2600 Style

There's no question that downloadable games have become a significant part of the console market in recent years.  But the enterprising folks at Control Video Corporation gave the idea a shot back in 1983, with the GameLine Service for the Atari 2600:

Apparently it used a modem to download games to temporary memory -- you would plug in the $59.95 GameLine Master Module to your phone line, pay $15 to get your one-time membership set up, and pay $1 for "about 10 plays," whatever that means; online reports indicate that it was really 8 plays, which is not nearly as "about 10" as, say, 10.

The ad indicates that a joystick-driven menu was used to pick and play a game, or "enter contests", though it's not clear whether the contests were online or just the entry mechanism.  The online connection was not persistent, as the telephone "will never be tied up for more than a minute," so live network gaming was not a possibility on GameLine.  Chances are the system was driven by a 300-baud modem, as Atari games were never more than 8 kilobytes in size -- a mere blip in the Internet age, but a considerable amount of data to transfer over an early modem.

This November 1983 ad, promising "over 100 video games," was an update of an earlier version promising only "a thumb-numbing number", so the service did survive long enough to grow its catalog. But note that the ad still mentions no specific games.  According to this informative article by Dan Skelton, GameLine was never able to sign up many of the major Atari 2600 publishers, and when the big videogame crash occurred, many of the games it essentially offered for rent could be picked up for a few bucks in the closeout bins.  And thus was another innovation stifled by the industry's major downturn.

At least the ad doesn't try to tie into the misguided "video addict" vibe with some kind of gag about gamelining Atari.  Probably because tying off with the phone cord would have been a little too graphic.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Let The Atari Jaguar Games Begin! Please?

In 1994, Atari's Jaguar console was really struggling in the marketplace as the Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64 loomed on the horizon, largely due to lackluster software support from Atari and its (very few) third-party publishers.  Atari attempted to address the issue, or at least its public perception, by running a two-page magazine ad promoting 30 exciting upcoming games for the Jaguar.

Unfortunately, only half of the promised titles shown in the ad ever came to market.  Brett Hull Hockey and Charles Barkley's Shut Up and Jam are known to exist in prototype form, but many of the others never made it past the concept art stage.  I have annotated the ad accordingly:

For me, the most poignant discovery here is that Time-Warner Interactive's infamously terrible fighting game Rise of the Robots came out for nearly every gaming platform of the day -- but never quite made it to the Jaguar.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Gulclight TDF 2

Having established that games I can sort-of-understand are generally more fun than those I cannot, I opted to spend some time with Gulclight TDF 2 this week.  This PC-Engine CD-ROM title is a strategy game with a kaiju theme, as the player's Terrestrial Defense Force military units take on giant monsters bent on destruction.

The first level takes place high above the city, as winged monstrosities attack.  It's not too difficult to beat them with patience, however, as they tend to attack whatever's handy -- being aggressive doesn't pay off, but letting them come to you does.

Most of the onscreen text is in English -- in fact, the only details I couldn't grasp were the names of the units and weapons available, everything else made sense.  The meaning of TDF is spelled out on the packaging; the enemy monsters are identified as PLEA, I wasn't able to figure out what that means.  There's a special attack called GUNGNIR, after Odin's magical spear in Norse mythology.

Movement takes place on a rectangular grid -- there appears to be an approximate radius of movement, so while it's not quite as precise as a hex-based map there isn't too much to be gained from moving at odd angles:

Individual battles take place in close-up, with some nice artwork in the grand Toei/Toho kaiju tradition:

Units recover some health each turn, so it often pays to play defensively, shuffling healthy units onto the front lines and letting the monsters attack.  There's an inherent imbalance at play -- the enemy units are generic, but the player's side has a flagship that means instant defeat if it's destroyed.  There also seems to be some randomness in the amount of damage dealt by weapons, making it difficult to plan and execute an effective strategy.  Victory is rewarded with a simple screen, approximately in English, and progression to the next level:

The second battle takes place at ground level, where terrain factors come into play, battling giant lizards who look and sound suspiciously like Godzilla from a distance, but up close appear to be rock and lava monsters:


The red creatures are much more aggressive than their gray brethren, and the the player's units are vastly outgunned on this level.  I finally resorted to keeping my units concentrated in the upper left-hand corner, limiting the enemies' angles of attack and forcing them to attack more or less in single file.  That worked for a while, until they punched a hole in my defenses and started taking my units out again.  I also discovered that air and ground units can be placed in the same spot on the map, allowing for concentrated firepower when attacking and shielding one of the two units from attack, which helps, though not enough for me to achieve victory at this writing.

A frustrating aspect of Gulclight TDF 2 is that a loss sends the player all the way back to the main menu -- there doesn't seem to be a save game feature. So it's a good one to play on an emulator with save-state capability.

Even though the difficulty curve is steep, I enjoyed playing this game, and as most of the text is in English it's a worthy import title.  The graphics are attractive and colorful, though there isn't very much animation -- during the close-up battles, the only movement comes from the weapons and explosions.  The CD-Audio music is very typical of the era, with lots of orchestra hit samples -- it's unobtrusive and pleasant, and varies from level to level.

So this was a fun one.  Next time, we'll look at something more opaque, I promise.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Oddities: Strawberry Shortcake Musical Match-Ups

It was 1983, and executives at Parker Brothers and American Greetings likely took note of demographic data indicating that many households contained an Atari 2600 and one or more little girls.  Thus was Strawberry Shortcake Musical Match-Ups born.

The game actually pushes the graphic envelope pretty hard on the 2600.  There's a lot of tricky timing going on to render these simple, colorful images -- given that the machine could only render half a background with copied or mirrored symmetry, and programmers had to use sprites and missiles to render detail or produce multiple colors, there's serious effort invested here at 60 frames per second.  In that era, it wasn't just a matter of dropping Strawberry Shortcake sprites into an existing game engine -- the programmer had to figure out how to draw specific details, like the Purple Pieman's mustache, and display character names onscreen, no mean feat on the 2600.  It's a pretty impressive game from a technical standpoint -- each character has a musical theme played in two-part harmony, and the largeish characters do look more or less like the plastic originals.

The gameplay is very, very simple, aimed at a target audience of youngsters aged 4-7.  The general idea is to match the appropriate head, body and legs to build five familiar characters from Strawberryland, including Ms. Shortcake, Huckleberry Pie, Blueberry Muffin, Lime Chiffon, and the Purple Pieman.  Some game variations require the player to construct a specific target character, others just reward any correct combination.  When the player pushes the fire button, the game plays music -- if an entire character is matched up correctly, the music sounds right too.  Otherwise the game plays a mixture based on the character pieces the player has haphazardly assembled like some kind of Frankensteinian bakery nightmare.

There are additional variations which put a timer into play, or indicate the specific character to be assembled by playing his or her theme song rather than displaying a name.  But it's not a game for the long term -- the game manual's stated objective is to "correctly 'put together' as many Strawberryland characters as you can!"  Which would be a total of five three-piece puzzles, so the game's entertainment value can be exhausted in a matter of minutes.

But I still had fun making the Peculiar Purple Pieman of Porcupine Peak as peculiar as possible.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Video Podcast - Retro Redux: Military Madness

This week, we take a look at twenty years of the classic strategy videogame Nectaris / Military Madness.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Adventure of the Week: Trekboer (1983)

Another Withers/O'Dea Mark Data Products graphic adventure for the TRS-80 Color Computer is on our agenda this week.  It's Trekboer, an entertaining sci-fi mission:

The game opens aboard the USS Trekboer, commissioned in 2032.  (The game was set fifty years in the future when released -- now we're down to twenty-three years, and the scenario is not looking very likely!)

Like most of the Mark Data Products adventures, Trekboer is not overly difficult -- I only got hung up in a couple of spots, and the various environments and machines behave logically.  It's basically another quest game with puzzles; most of the action has occurred before the adventure begins.  But it's fun to explore and figure out the backstory, which is played fairly straight and in a serious manner, and there are some entertaining surprises along the way.

I always encourage readers to try these games out before reading further here, as I will reveal several key surprises for history's sake.  I realize it's hard to "spoil" something that came out more than twenty-five years ago, but still...

****** SPOILERS AHEAD! *******

Once again, the Scott Adams influence is apparent -- an advertising leaflet turns up at one point, pushing the other games in the Mark Data Products graphic adventure series:


The bridge room reveals a minor parser issue -- LOOK VIEW yields I see a planet!; a subsequent LOOK PLANET yields I don't see it, because the game's dictionary doesn't actually contain the world PLANET.  It's necessary to "beam down" to find out more.

The layout of the ship's main floor seems to be a cross shape inside a six-sided polygon, with diagonals implied by movement in the cardinal compass directions.  It takes a little getting used to but is entirely consistent.  This knowledge is useful later on, with efficient reuse of graphics, when the player finds a sister ship, where some artifacts useful on the Trekboer are exactly where one would expect to find them.

Unlike the other games in this series, Trekboer makes a distinction between carrying the spacesuit and WEARing it.  The player can learn the difference early on by opening the ship's hatch, or using the teleporter without a planet visible from the bridge:

I did make one of those game-ending mistakes common to vintage adventures -- I discovered the coordinates for Earth, and went there to see if I could find anything useful.  But returning prematurely without completing the mission, even when the nature of the mission is not yet clear, leads to an immediate and ignominious conclusion:


The backstory is revealed by way of found and received messages, as shown below.  I found it amusing that the robot circa 2032 takes cartridges -- a reasonable assumption in 1983, before the arrival of digital disc media.


Another classic adventure trope turns up even in this future world -- a glass beaker shatters when we drop it, unless we have dropped -- wait for it -- a pillow first.

Once we figure out the navigation and teleportation systems we can go planetside, where the landscape scrolls as we walk around its surface.  Of course, after we find our way to the planet at coordinates 8350, it appears that all is not well with our colleagues aboard the Veldboer:


Filling a canteen with said liquid utterly fails, as it dissolves the container, but establishes potential uses for the liquid; the glass beaker works to carry the bubbling stuff to an appropriate destination -- two, actually.  I restored my game after an initial experiment here, thinking that the canteen might have a use elsewhere in the game -- but as it turned out a blanket was much more effective.

A bit of external knowledge is required by Trekboer -- at one point an alien cenotaph surfaces, improbably decorated with Roman numerals.  I was offline while playing this game and had no handy Internet assistance available, so it took me a while to get MMMMMMMCXII properly translated to Arabic -- but the ship's navigation system only accepts four digits, which helped a lot, and eventually I arrived at the proper value of 7112.

Once on the "hidden" planet, I got stuck briefly at a dead end because while I had deciphered the cenotaph, I had not realized it was climbable.  GO CENOTAPH took me to its top, where I found an amulet that enabled me to proceed (after a game restore from a dead-end position, naturally.)

It wouldn't be an adventure game without a maze and a monster lurking somewhere in it:


Disposing of the spider is a time-sensitive puzzle -- once a certain medicine is administered, it takes several turns to knock the arachnid out.  The spider can then be carried to a suitable venue for termination, but it wakes up and kills the player if too much dawdling occurs.

It's import to enter the strange room before pushing the red button, to find the fabled Xendos Plant.  Entering the strange room after pushing the red button outside is not advisable, though it is colorful:
Egads! Atoms of my body have been scattered all over the galaxy. 
It also turns out to have been important to tie a rope to one of the trees above the chasm before entering the maze, as the player emerges at the bottom of the chasm and can't get back up unless the rope has been tied in a specific spot before entering the maze.  TIE ROPE works in many locations, with the parser assuming (to tree), but there's only one spot where it hangs over the edge of the chasm, so the puzzle isn't unfair beyond the high probability of backtracking once the need is recognized.  Save early and often!

Fortunately, I managed to get the Xendos plant to the Trekboer's cultivation room and planted it securely for the trip home.  The shipboard hydroponic system needs water, and it took me a while to figure out how to get it working.  I dug up some frozen H2O on the ice planet, but wasn't able to put any into the canteen or beaker before it melted in my hands.  I resorted to a walkthrough to learn that a blanket is needed to carry the ice.  Then I discovered that putting the ice directly into the cultivation room didn't work; I had to put the ice in the barrel in the hatch room to feed the irrigation system.

This seemed like the right thing to do, and it was -- out of curiosity I went back and tried returning to Earth with the plant simply stored in inventory, and it died on the way.  When I visited home base, botanical corpse in hand, I was informed that "By killing the precious Xendos plant I have sealed the fate of the Earth.  I have failed my mission and I'm a disgrace to the entire Boer fleet."

So it's best to return home with a viable cure in hand for the win:


Trekboer is another fun little adventure from Mark Data Products -- there's enough substance to it to keep it interesting, the graphics are colorful, and it's not too frustrating.  Next week, we'll wrap up our look at this six-game series with Calixto Island.