Monday, May 31, 2010

Elsewhere: Prince of Persia - Sands of Time Review

I couldn't quite bring myself to go out to see the new Prince of Persia movie this holiday weekend, as much as I love the game and its descendants.  Videogames are interactive and the aesthetic is experiential, rather than scripted and observed -- movies are not the same medium at all.

But I still thought it might be fun to see an old-fashioned Douglas Fairbanks-style Arabian Nights movie a la Jerry Bruckheimer.  Then I read a friend's review, and now I'm thinking maybe not.

The LoadDown - 05/31/2010 - Doom II!

What's new and entirely ephemeral...

WiiWare -- Three games this week.  See the XBLA section below for information on Voodoo Dice and Ben 10 Alien Force: The Rise of HexRobocalypse: Beaver Defense is a tower defense game with a T-rated sense of cartoon humor.

Wii Virtual Console -- An unusual title this week, Natsume's Wild Guns, a two-player SNES target-shooting game with a Wild West theme.

DSiWare -- Four games this week.  X-Scape is a 3-D spacefaring navigation/RPG game with an epic story.  Hero of Sparta is a mythology-inspired action game with puzzle-solving elements.  A Topsy Turvy Life: The Turvys Strike Back™ is another turn-the-DSi-upside-down game using the stylus to control arcade-style shoot-'em-up action.  And Telegraph Sudoku & Kakuro brings another 500 Sudoku puzzles and a sampling of the more difficult extension, Kakuro, to the DSi.

XBox Live Arcade -- Three games last week.  Doom II brings ID's classic shooter sequel to XBLA, with original graphics and audio intact (albeit in 5.1 Surround now), and 9 brand-new levels in a package called "No Rest for the Living."  I'm a big fan of the series and haven't actually played II to death, so I had to pick this one up.  Voodoo Dice is an action/puzzle game with a generally 2-D design occasionally complicated by 3-D considerations.  And Ben 10 The Rise of Hex is a platformer based on the popular Cartoon Network series, taking advantage of the character's transformational abilities.

Game Room -- Nothing new to play last week.  Might as well hang out and speculate quietly amongst ourselves about whether that scruffy guy hanging around by the change machine is an employee, a drug dealer, or just plain creepy.  UPDATE:  Game Pack 004 actually went live 05/19 and I missed it -- it contained multiple games, some of which did not become available until 05/26.  So we are getting onto more of a weekly schedule, with biweekly packs unlocking over time.  To catch up, Game Pack 004 contains 14 games:  Konami's arcade games Time Pilot and Strategy-X; Atari's coin-ops Asteroids, Millipede and Space Duel, Intellivision games Boxing, Buzz Bombers, and Shark! Shark!, Activision's Stampede, Spider Fighter, River Raid and Grand Prix for the Atari 2600, and Atari's 2600 titles Haunted House and Demons to Diamonds (which was paddle-controller based, so beware the XBox's analog stick.)

PS3 on PSN --  Two games debuted last week on Sony's console.  Super Stacker brings the popular Flash puzzle game to PS3, with all of its blocky personality intact and new multiplayer and online modes.  Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype continues the horizontally-scrolling shooter series as a sequel to the original downloadable game that arrived on the PS3 in December 2008.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

In the Wild: Crazy Kong Coin-Op

My wife and I were out at a flea market this morning, where someone had this for sale - a vintage early-1980's Crazy Kong arcade cabinet:

This was one of the more popular illegal copies of Nintendo's Donkey Kong -- it had a new title screen by "Eagle," some rearrangement of the level order and color scheme, and a crudely rendered new logo on the machine itself.  The cabinet's side art is lifted straight from Nintendo's version, although the colors are different -- Pauline has brown hair instead of blonde.

I actually have fond memories of this questionable edition, because my brother and I used to play this bootleg version at a local movie theatre back in the day.  It's highly unlikely this is the same machine, but for the asking price of $200, it was tempting to pick it up for nostalgia's sake.  Fortunately there wasn't room in the trunk for this particular piece of pirate booty.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

And By 'Fantastic', We Mean 'Sheer Fantasy'

I have wondered about this product for decades now, but as far as my research can determine, Protecto Enterprizes' (Fantastic!!) VIC-20 Game Loader never actually saw the light of day. 

It was advertised in Electronic Games and Popular Mechanics, and purportedly allowed Atari 2600 games to run on the popular Commodore VIC-20 home computer:

Other than these ads, furious Googling produces no record of the device ever having actually existed, and it seems unlikely to have worked as advertised.

The idea seems fishy on the face of it -- the Atari 2600 used a 6507 CPU, while the VIC-20 ran on a 6502 running at a slightly slower speed, so there's no way even hardware-assisted emulation could have done the job properly.  The Game Loader would have to have been a mini-2600 built into an add-on, similar to the Colecovision and Atari 5200 VCS "adapters."  But the ad further promises that loaded games will feature "fantastic VIC-20 sound and graphics," and the system's display hardware was also radically different from that of the 2600.  Any such enhancement would have required considerable interpretation and modification of the 2600 code, far beyond what any modern emulator has tried to pull off.

I suspect the Game Loader was like the automobile paint, which if fading memory serves was also advertised in Popular Mechanics around the same time, that purported to shield vehicles from police radar.  The technology did not exist and was highly infeasible, but consumer protection authorities discovered that the product had been advertised by a clueless promoter in the hope of drumming up enough orders to... and I may misquote, but this is how I remember it... "hire a scientist to develop the paint."

I also note that Protecto Enterprizes sounds more like a home security firm with a couple of soldering irons in the back room than a full-blown technology company, though they were an official Commodore dealer.  I suspect someone in the marketing department thought this would be a great idea and figured if Coleco could do it, so could Protecto Enterprizes, without understanding what was actually involved.

I have no facts to back this theory up, but there's one dead giveaway -- computer geeks usually watch enough Star Trek to avoid misspelling Enterprise.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Fire Pro Wrestling - 2nd Bout

While its library was never dominated by the genre to the same extent as, say, the American Nintendo 64, the Japanese PC Engine played host to its share of wrestling games in the late 1980's and early 90's.  Maniac Pro Wrestling adopted a fairly deep RPG-style approach to the sport; this time, we're looking at Fire Pro Wrestling - 2nd Bout, which did not.

This was the second game in a series whose PC Engine installments included two additional Fire Pro Wrestling games and an all-female version called Fire Pro Women; later games in the series appeared on the Dreamcast and PS2.  2nd Bout was published in 1991 by Human Creative Group, a company whose name manages to translate effectively while still sounding entirely Japanese.  It was released on the PC Engine HuCard format; the menus are necessarily simple, with decent chiptune music, heavy on the drums, that wouldn't have been out of place in a shooter of the time.

The Fire Pro Wrestling series focuses on straightforward action, structured in one-on-one bouts, two-on-two tag team matches, and several tournament formats.  The wrestlers depicted aren't licensed, but seem to be inspired by established personalities of the time:

These characters are clearly inspired by the American wrestling scene:

There are even a couple of masked luchadores... from parts unknown; I always thought they were most popular in South America, but at least one is from... Canada?

The wrestling action itself is presented in an isometric perspective, with a diamond-shaped ring and simple character sprites that have an 8-bit NES feel about them.  Unfortunately, while the viewing angle presents a more realistic perspective and allows wrestling moves to be depicted clearly, it makes it rather difficult for a single player battling against the computer.  The computer is very good at lining up in just the right spot to land a decisive blow:

While the player's attempts to get into position more often than not end in a missed punch or kick, followed swiftly by the opponent's near-inescapable hold:

The computer occasionally trips or makes other strategic errors, but these don't generally happen at the right place or moment to give the player any advantage:

To the game's credit, there are quite a few different moves and holds available, though the animation isn't particularly fluid -- there are a lot of short animation cycles, with heads bobbing up and down at unrealistic right angles.  I was able to witness most of the available moves only by watching the computer execute them; for a mere human, pulling off the expected input sequence with a D-pad and two buttons proves iffy at best, and I spent most of my time trying to land a simple punch or kick, or escape from a hold.  It's probably a much better game with two human players, leveling the playing field with two wrestlers who can't always figure out where they should be standing or how to engage their opponent.

Fire Pro Wrestling - 2nd Bout is yet another one of those highly non-collectible sports games that litters every console's library -- it's not in much demand today, as the style has been rendered obsolete by graphical advances, and it's therefore an inexpensive game to import.  It's fun to goof around with for an hour or two, but its age shows in every aspect, and there's nothing unique about its gameplay approach. 

You can, if so inclined, investigate this game's availability for purchase (and, I predict, low price if it's in stock) at this affiliate link.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Concept of Depth in Games

There's a laudatory term that occasionally gets thrown around when we talk about videogames as an art form, but is not very clearly defined.  What do we mean when we say a game is "deep"?

Depth in a game context is generally meant to signify the same thing it does when we talk about literature or film -- complex and thought-provoking, with layers of meaning that reveal themselves only when we invest the effort to discover them.  In the interactive medium, this may mean that the story branches in interesting ways, or that we can choose to discover things about the game's world that aren't strictly necessary to finishing the game, but the discovery is rewarding in itself. 

In this sense, contemporary open-world games with role-playing elements are generally considered to be deeper than the linear action games of old -- the player can choose which challenges to tackle, and in which order to tackle them.  Some general constraints must exist to preserve the structure of the game's storyline -- an area may be off-limits early in the story, opening up after some significant event occurs -- but the player feels free to wander around, experiment and explore.  As the form has matured, depth has also come into play in character development.  We may make decisions while defining our character, if such options are offered.  More significantly, how we interact with other characters, and with whom we choose to interact, may affect the story and our own role in the unfolding drama.

But this is not always the case -- some games don't have a story of any substance, and so complex, character-driven games make fine examples, but don't provide us with a solid working definition. 

When we say a game is "deep," it can also, simply, mean that there are a number of interesting and worthwhile options available to the player.  I spent some time with the Raiden Fighters arcade trilogy recently, and each game allows the player to choose a fighter from a lineup of aircraft with different handling and weaponry capabilities.  For purposes of balance, this usually means that a slower craft has stronger weapons, and vice-versa; a fast, heavily-armed option would tend to make the other choices irrelevant.  Good design attempts to ensure that each player finds an option that suits his or her style, without a burdensome disadvantage compared to other players. 

Is my choice of which plane to fly against the incoming enemy forces a story point, or an intellectually interesting decision?  No, but yes; it makes a difference to my experience of the game, and my preferences will likely differ from those of another person.  Action really IS part of the meaning of video and computer games when we look at them as art; the choices we make become part of our own experience.  Whatever art a game may offer is collaborative in nature -- the designer gives us a framework, and we explore that framework as we see fit.  We may have fun in ways the designer never intended, or miss something the designer felt was important because our interest is drawn to something else.

So in terms of gaming, I suggest that "depth" really means choice: freedoms by design that allow each player to experience the game in a personalized, somewhat unique way.

This simple definition has complex ramifications.  For example, it means there can be "false depth," an illusion of choice that doesn't really mean anything in gameplay terms.  An example manifests in a common criticism of fighting games -- a broad array of available characters sometimes masks the fact that several of them are essentially the same.  If there's no clear reason to pick one character as opposed to another, very similar one, these are not "choices" at all.  Exaggeration makes us feel cheated.

I think this gets at something fundamental about games: interactive entertainment's true value, as art, has to be driven by interactivity.  Looking at a game on a screen, watching someone else play it, is wholly insufficient.  Game appreciation has to incorporate experience.  And therefore depth has to exist at the gameplay level -- we have to develop a personal stake in what happens, a style of approaching it that reflects who we ourselves are, as much as the game's designers.  Too much repetition or clumsy "game-iness" about the action reveals the illusion -- if we begin to feel like we're just pushing buttons at random, the fun vanishes.

Don't get me wrong -- music, graphics and storyline are important, and aesthetics can contribute energy and atmosphere that engages our minds and emotions beyond the game's mechanical objectives.  But just as a good movie cannot be made from a bad script, regardless of budget, neither can a good game be built on poorly designed mechanics.  Audiovisuals may dazzle long enough to get a few glowing reviews into print, but the truth will out over time.

So I would argue that Ric Ocasek was wrong.  When we assess a game as art, it doesn't matter whether it was "deep."  What matters is where we've been.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Elsewhere: Of Interest

An interesting study was recently published in the journal Psychological Science concerning violence and videogames -- it's subscription-only, so I only know about it because NeoAcademic has summarized it in an interesting post.  The researchers weren't concerned with any supposed effects of violent videogames on the people playing them, but it did take a look at the expectations of those people.  Apparently, people inclined toward anger may seek out a violent game as a form of release -- but it generally doesn't serve as the catharsis they're seeking.

On another note, I recommend Andrew Sorohan's webcomic A Townsville Fairytale -- it's funny and matter-of-fact, with a dry sense of humor and some really nicely done autobiographical strips and blog posts.  He has a piece up this week inspired by the old Sierra adventure games, and I really liked this one too.

Elsewhere: Atari Kangaroo Promo

I've had an exceptionally busy week, with family in town for a visit, so I haven't had time to prepare a video podcast on my usual schedule.  I keep promising to slow the pace down a bit, and perhaps this is a good opportunity to do so.

So here's something you should enjoy in the interim -- an in-house 1980's video promo for Atari's original arcade version of Kangaroo:

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Adventure of the Week: White Palm (1981?)

A while back, I covered the first game in Brian Nash's Pharaoh text adventure trilogy for the TRS-80 Model I, and played through all three games on an episode of the video podcast.  So it's time I got around to publishing my notes on the rest of the Pharaoh trilogy.  This week, we'll take a look at White Palm, clearly inspired by Oasis of the White Palm, an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons module created by Tracy Hickman:

I've covered the apparent history and general character of the series in earlier posts, so without further ado, let's get to the details of this game.  I haven't seen a published walkthrough online, so I'll include two walkthroughs of my own below -- an honest version, and a sneaky cheat-laden version.


As the series has no SAVE GAME feature at all, there's no existing record for the second game to read, but there are story dependencies in this chapter based on the first one.  So White Palm starts off by asking the player a few questions about two critical items (rope and water) that the player needs to have brought along from the first game.  For purposes of finishing this game, it's advisable to answer Y to both prompts -- and only Y counts, YES is not recognized and actually equates to "no."

As in Pharaoh, most of the puzzles are solved by wandering around and finding useful items laying about.  There's an amulet in a tent, and if we LOOK WAGON, YOU FIND A GEM!  A characteristic bug from the first game persists -- if we TAKE it, then LOOK WAGON again, the item is pulled out of inventory and returned to its original location.

It's interesting to test the navigation when mapping, as Mr. Nash apparently did not -- for example, a south exit from the White Palm room is not mentioned in the room description, but takes us to the stores room in another area of the map.  The same thing happens if we attempt to go S of the fortress entrance, so this is likely a bug.

One nice touch is the "people running around" in some rooms as they panic in the face of a djinni attack -- we can't interact with them, as they're just window dressing, but it's still a pleasant change to see some human activity surrounding the customarily lonely adventurer.

As in the first game, blatant and sometimes useless clues are provided -- there's some writing in a battleground area, and the game tells us IT SAY'S [sic] 'THE PASSWORD IS 'CLOUDSKATE'!!!', though I never found a place to use said password.  Similarly, a found map has a message on its back indicating we should give it to a trader, but we can't GIVE MAP or GIVE MAP TO MERCHANT, we have to DROP MAP in the general vicinity of the merchant.  (And, actually, it turns out we can DROP [anything] there to get the merchant to transport us to the second area of the map, a desert fortress.)

Immovable objects aren't handled by Nash's engine, leading to some comical results -- we can freely TAKE and carry around the white palm, a water pool, an unwieldy statue, a fierce lion, and the friendly merchant, which is convenient but, like, totally cheating and also not very useful.

As in the first game, we SAY SCORE in the Fortress Entrance Chamber to receive our score... and end the game, whether we have scored all the points or not, so soliciting evaluation is not an action to be taken lightly.  And the treasures are a little harder to find in this one -- there are six of them.  The hardest ones to find, in my experience, were the final two: * A BRONZE LAMP and * A GOLDEN IDOL

It was while playing this game that I first discovered the game-breaking bug that makes it possible to play the entire Pharaoh trilogy in under eight minutes, load times included.  I was able to LOOK WAGON, get the * MO-PELAR STAR discovered as a result (YOU FIND A GEM!), then LOOK WAGON again, DROP GEM, then find and pick up the * TO OSIRUS GEM.  I thought this behavior was by design at first, until I realized that DROP [treasure], or indeed any object, causes it to materialize wherever the player happens to be standing.  What happened was this -- the Mo-Pelar Star is referred to as a GEM in the description, but as a STAR in the dictionary, so when I DROPped GEM I actually retained the star and caused the gem to appear in the room.  This works with any object in the game and saves quite a bit of time, if one is in the mood to cheat; the gem, for instance, is intended to be found by drinking from the pool near the white palm.

There are some loose ends in White Palm, though not as many as in Pharaoh.  We can HIT LION and kill it with the scepter, but the lion didn't seem to be getting in the way so I initially saw no reason to do so.  But eventually I found myself stuck, and dove into the code to figure out what I was missing.  I discovered the existence of a mysterious room 14, per the game's data structure, and subsequently that HIT LION causes a door to the east to open which I hadn't noticed the first time.  This leads to a new room, rather buggily described, assuming of course that the adventurer has not suddenly become an author putting would-be readers at considerable risk:

Here, PUT ROPE is not the same as DROP ROPE - PUT ROPE allows us to travel down the dangling rope, where we find the remaining two treasures.

As the game's climax approaches, a high-pressure situation develops -- if we spend too much time wandering around the fortress, the building collapses.  We only have ten moves available after freeing the efreet -- and we don't actually have to free the much-talked-about princess, just deliver all six treasures to the entrance:

Martec's Tomb is indeed a bit tougher, but still suffers badly from the DROP-materialization bug.  I'll cover that third game in the trilogy in the near future.  If you wish to experience White Palm in low-impact fashion, you can rely on the following information, below the fold, that is to say...


Monday, May 24, 2010

The LoadDown - 05/24/2010

Once again we sum up recent downloads...

WiiWare -- 3 games this week.  ArtStyle: light trax continues the popular series, featuring racing light beams.  Manic Monkey Mayhem is a comical battle game with local and online multiplayer... and Wii Balance Board support???  Viral Survival is an action game casting the player as a "DNA agent" growing its presumably chromosomal tail by rescuing friendly DNA fragments and avoiding or destroying enemy virii. 

Wii Virtual Console -- Nothing new this week, as often happens when more than one WiiWare game is on the schedule.

DSiWare -- 4 new titles.  Metal Torrent is a substantial vertically-scrolling shooter, with eight levels and online leaderboards.  World Poker Tour Texas Hold 'Em is yet another portable poker game.  Real Crimes: Jack the Ripper is a hidden-object game with a rather darker theme than the norm.  And Advanced Circuits features 60 Pipe Dream-style connecting puzzles, made more difficult by the fact that each puzzle has only one correct solution.

XBox Live Arcade -- Two games last week.  Metal Slug XX continues the classic SNK 2-D side-scrolling action series with a brand-new entry.  AQUA is a seafaring battle game of tactics and action, with local and online multiplayer.

Game Room -- ... (crickets)...

PS3 on PSN -- Rocket Knight actually arrived on the 18th, not on the 11th as I had reported last week.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

How To Beat Home Video Games

Vestron Video, responsible primarily for bringing low-budget horror and exploitation movies to VHS in the early days of home video, also found a way to capitalize on the video game fad with this series of videotapes in 1982:

At $39.95 a pop, these tapes cost more than most new videogame cartridges, and I've never seen one in the wild, so I don't know if they sold very well.  There were a number of popular videogame tip books out at the time -- a few focused on a single major title, and there were many Pac-Man guides published, but the more serious books collected strategy tips for a number of arcade games in one paperback volume.  Doing the same thing with video demonstrations would have been difficult to do for arcade games, but the Atari VCS (later 2600), 5200, and Colecovision were more straightforward, though I am curious about how Vestron captured footage from the vector-monitor Vectrex system.

I have to give the box designer for volume 3 credit for noting that arcade monitors have a different orientation than home videogames; only the Vectrex was truly vertically-oriented, but it's nice attention to detail.  The series' title is, of course, largely a misnomer -- there's really no way to BEAT home video games like Chopper Command, Frogger, Megamania, or Galaxian.  It's true that E.T., Pitfall! and Raiders of the Lost Ark had endgame scenarios and could in theory be completed, but most games at the time simply became faster and/or more difficult until the player was defeated or had mastered the gameplay and grew bored.  Neither really qualifies as a victory scenario.

But I understand Vestron's motivation.  How To Get Beat By Home Video Games would likely have been a non-starter at retail.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Is Anyone Working On This?

Sometimes subtle changes happen between a game's early advertising and its official marketing message after it's released.  But in this case, one is led to wonder just how far along CSG ImageSoft's isometric RPG Solstice actually was when the first ads were put together.  There are screenshots, but an unfortunate typo on the left gives the impression that the team responsible for putting together the prototype was nowhere to be found:

Fortunately, middle management was not busy searching hither and yon for the missing Staff Of Demos; the game concerns a quest for the Staff of Demnos, as became clear in later ads.

It might have been more interesting if they had restored the letter N to a different position -- a Staff of Demons would have been something to behold at the Consumer Electronics Show.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Yokoyama Mitsuteru Shin Sangokushi: Tenka wa Ware ni

This one's a mouthful -- Yokoyama Mitsuteru Shin Sangokushi: Tenka wa Ware ni, released in 1992 for the PC Engine CD-ROM drive by Naxat Soft.  My Japanese skills are almost non-existent, so I'm not even sure how to appropriately abbreviate the title.  A little research indicates that Yokoyama Mitsuteru is actually the name of the manga artist who created the comic Sangokushi, one of many works inspired by historical events in second and third century China.  Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms game series is known as Sangokushi in Japan, so for differentiation's sake, I'm just going to call this game Shin Sangokushi.

The game opens with a fairly lengthy introductory sequence -- the images are not full-screen, and the animation is limited, as this game was released for the original PC Engine CD-ROM 1.0 card with its limited onboard buffering RAM.  But the visuals and music do a good job of setting the stage -- three rulers, one land, with tension and betrayal lurking in the wings:

As one might guess from the derivation, Shin Sangokushi is a strategy game in the vein of the Koei products, and it's probable Naxat Soft acquired the manga license in order to give its market entry some visibility.  On the main game screen, the player is presented with a map of villages, color-coded by fealty; the object is to conquer each village (not necessarily by force), managing community resources and military tactics to expand influence and eventually unite the three kingdoms of China. As the game gets underway, we can see that unrest is brewing in the streets:

But this is about as far as I got with any degree of coherence.  Shin Sangokushi is thoroughly Japanese -- there is NO English text beyond the Naxat Soft logo on the title screen, which means that my play session consisted primarily of trial and error menu selections, trying to make something interesting happen.  And I didn't really get anywhere -- there isn't even much graphic iconography to provide hints, as most of the labels are in Japanese text.

The CD-ROM storage capacity allows for occasional spot animations -- I was able to see and understand that floods and droughts were striking various villages, and see my investments (for such I presume the adjustable numbers strewn throughout the menus to be) yielding illustrated results in construction, education, and military training.  But in general I muddled through the extensively detailed screens, divining no clue as to what the various statistics on display might actually mean:

So in this case, I am truly and completely the Clueless Gaijin I half-jokingly claim to be, finding myself unable to play the game in any meaningful way.  Perusing the manual shows me I've only scratched the surface of what Shin Sangokushi has to offer -- for one thing, I never found my way to the hex-based strategy map sections of the game.  But as with any simulation worth the name, the game's statistics are complex, with subtle interactions -- poking around at random seems unlikely to yield much more information than I've been able to glean, and so I must concede defeat.

A working knowledge of Japanese is an absolute must for this one, so buyer beware.  Yokoyama Mitsuteru Shin Sangokushi: Tenka wa Ware ni is currently out of stock as I'm writing this, but may on occasion be available for purchase via this affiliate link.

Coolest. Google. Doodle. Ever.

Google's logo doodle today is an animated Pac-Man maze.  Very cool!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Old-School RPG: Champions of Krynn (1990)

Early computer RPGs were patterned after the pencil-and-paper role-playing games that came before them, betraying a strong Dungeons & Dragons influence in almost every case.  But it was nearly a decade before the technology was sophisticated enough, and the computer game market large enough, to support licensing of TSR's AD&D rules for official adaptation.

SSI (Strategic Simulations Inc.) bet much of its future on the TSR license after developing a number of its own successful RPG franchises; the arrival of the genuine article eventually put paid to Phantasie and company, as SSI turned its attention to its licensor's expectations.  Fortunately, the results generally pleased computer gamers and classical AD&D fans alike.

SSI's famous "Gold Box" line debuted with a game called Pool of Radiance in 1988.  The implementation served SSI well and was used as the basis for a number of games, among them 1990's Champions of Krynn, first of a three-part trilogy inspired by TSR's successful Dragonlance novels.   

Compared to later Dungeons & Dragons games, the Gold Box rules are played very straight, faithful to the tabletop experience, with few "computerish" accommodations to streamline play.  There's no filtering or visual flagging to prevent a character from purchasing weapons and armor useless to his or her class; spells must be memorized in camp before setting out on an adventure; long periods of rest are required for healing; and treasures and cash must be formally taken and pooled after successful battles.  The series assumes basic familiarity with the official AD&D rules, and the interface supports a mouse but can be navigated much more efficiently with the keyboard.

The game was designed to fit on floppy disks, of course, so the story is told using text and elegant but limited EGA illustrations.  There are plot points to experience, and settlements to visit, but there are also wandering monsters and merchants about.  And random encounters are important, because after a fairly straightforward story-driven battle to kick things off, the party will discover its members need to spend some time leveling up before invading any of the major strongholds that litter the game map, if they hope to survive.

Battles play out on an isometric battlefield, the computerization of which introduces a few issues a human Dungeon Master could more easily avoid.  Movement rules are inconsistent -- characters can walk in front of trees and other obstacles, but often get hung up in walled corners, unable to switch places or otherwise move around each other.  And the grid-based map imposes some odd constraints when targeting ranged weapons and spells.  Still, it's much faster to play with a computer handling the dice rolls and damage tracking, and tactical formations are easier to set up.


Some environments offer 3-D maps to navigate -- an encounter with a creature here may lead to conversation and plot development, or it may lead to a traditional battle, usually against multiple foes who materialize to back up the party's initial contact.

As is often the case with older RPGs, the gameplay and storyline of Champions of Krynn hold up better than the graphics and interface have.  RPG remakes are not common outside of the Final Fantasy franchise, as designers would rather use new technology to tell new stories.  But that's fine with me -- almost all fantasy RPGs share certain common elements, and the fun of putting a party together and pitting it against the forces of evil survives changes in technology.  But from Apshai to Dragon Age, the genre always owes a debt to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's seminal Dungeons & Dragons.  It's only fitting that SSI's official adaptations made it to market, and sold so well.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Video Podcast - Timeline: Video (American) Football

Highly popular, highly non-collectible, every console has had at least one football game.  In this episode we survey video game football, pre-Madden. (Oops -- in trying to decide whether to include the arcade or the NES version of Tecmo Bowl, I inadvertently left it out altogether!)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Feasibility Experiment (1981)

It's time for another Brian Howarth adventure - Mysterious Adventure #7: Feasibility Experiment, co-authored with Wherner Barnes (Howarth's collaborator on #5 and #6 as well.)  This UK series was written to run on the classic Scott Adams interpreter, but Howarth's design sensibility is a bit different.

Feasibility Experiment casts the player as an unidentified Ultimate Warrior charged with recovering the treasures of the ancient ones, primarily by solving puzzles and killing mechanical monsters.  I played this game using the modern ScottFree interpreter -- while I prefer the original versions, even in emulated form, I thought it was worth demonstrating again for readers who may not be aware of its existence.  ScottFree runs on many current platforms, and Scott Adams and Brian Howarth have generously made their classic adventures freely available.


Mapping is a must.  Howarth has somehow crammed more than fifty rooms into 16K of memory, spanning several environments and time periods, and remembering where an important item was found (or dropped) requires efficient navigation.  There's a complicated Roman maze smack-dab in the middle of the map, and several important locations accessible only by traversing it, so it's worth taking the time to map it all out.

The game opens amidst a surge of strange Power with a mysterious voice intoning, Gather the *Treasures* of our Ancient Culture or we are DOOMED!  That's all the explanation we get -- whom these entities are, or why they are doomed if we don't collect ten treasures, remains a mystery.  So the plot is really just a treasure hunt, though the mysterious nature of our mission and the odd time/space warps filled with "vague shapes" between areas lend it a more metaphysical feel.  There are ten treasures in total, each worth 10 of 100 points.

Most of the puzzles are item-based, and a lot of the items are hidden -- we have to EXAMINE TREE at the lip of the chasm to find a metal block, and search the rocks on the grassy plain to find the *Ornate Dagger*EXAMINE WINDOW above the Roman-era cage gives us a peek at the pride of lions lurking below, which hints at dangers to come.  But it's wise to save frequently, as this game is unusual in that the EXAMINE verb is occasionally fatal in and of itself -- EXAMINE SCREE causes an avalanche, and EXAMINE EMPEROR before we have killed the lion causes the Imperial Guard to attack us.

Because there are so many rooms, text description is sparse.  We have to infer some of the details from experience -- I concluded that we're able to pass through the grill sealing the lions in their cage, but the big cats are not; if we OPEN GRILL while standing in the arena outside, Lions rush out and maul me! I am dead.

The mine area has an elevator capable of reaching five different floors using numbered buttons, although PUSH 3 is fatal.  To explore floors 4 and 5 we need a lit lamp - and not just the Rusty lamp, but the rusty lamp, a piece of cloth for a wick so we can FIX LAMP, a small can of oil, a flint, and a metal striking block.  This tends to make this area the last bit of new exploration.  I inadvertently discovered something interesting about the elevator implementation -- each floor's elevator is actually a separate room, with the buttons moving us from one room to another.  This means if we leave an item in the elevator, as I did, we have to go to the floor where we left it in order to find it.

As in Howarth's other games with digging involved, the DIG verb is recognized but not handled, prompting How?; we have to USE SHOVEL.
Digging in the primitive-era stone circle reveals a slab; MOVE SLAB reveals steps down to a Temple, where a worn inscription on the altar reads AM...T .N. .IA...D.  Not having found these treasures yet, I guessed (correctly as it turned out) that this might mean AMULET AND DIAMOND.  I tried to PRAY but was told I can't do that yet; doing the same with the *Golden amulet* and *Red diamond* in hand causes a *Crystal scimitar* to appear.

We can also wear the gauntlets found by the altar, which we need to do in order to pick up a flaming brazier; without them we are fatally burned, impugning our character's nervous system and reflexes.  The brazier is used to gain access to an ice tunnel and ultimately the treasure store room, but we have to explicitly WAIT after dropping the brazier in the ice cave.  We can use up moves by doing other, more productive things, but the tunnel will not appear until we WAIT.

Many items in the game have multiple uses, a naturalistic touch I always appreciate.  The brazier can melt ice in a couple of different locations; the shovel is also used more than once.  Many of the treasures also have practical uses, especially the weapons -- there are several foes that can only be vanquished with specific treasures in hand.

Retrieving the *Ivory Statuette* from the Lions' Cage requires some luck -- we can GO WINDOW from the viewing room to get there, and if random chance is with us, Lions ignore me for the moment long enough for us to get the statuette and escape to the south. In my experience, it most often happens that Lion rips me apart!  I am dead.

The USE verb behaves a bit oddly -- if no specific use case is met, it responds with [object] is useless here.  But it also does this if we don't actually have the item we are trying to use -- so USE SHOVEL in a diggable area yields a rather compressed shovelis useless here response, which can be misleading if we forget we dropped the shovel earlier.

I wasn't sure if ATTACK GLADIATOR was the right thing to do, as it caused him to vanish - but the mechanical man had been no help in dealing with the lions, and later monsters also vanish, so I concluded this was appropriate.  Most of the enemies we encounter prevent us from performing specific actions -- for example, the guard in the mine's museum room is there only to keep us from opening the display case, which he will do repeatedly and cheerfully.  He, of course, must die for his diligent, non-violent dedication to duty, because somebody or -bodies we haven't really met will otherwise be DOOMED.

After dispatching the lion in the arena, EXAMINE EMPEROR yields a different response:

The Emperor praises my courage
He's given me a prize!

The prize dropped into the room is the *Ixion shield*, but due to the existence of another, leather shield in the dictionary, TAKE SHIELD does not work; It's beyond my power to do that.  At first I thought the Imperial Guard were still being a nuisance, but then realized we have to TAKE IXION.  A similar situation occurs with the Iron and Black keys; the iron key is KEY, the black key is BLACK.

There are some nice, ominous details in the Dragon's Lair area -- a cave on the way in features a blackened skeleton (wearing the *Gold Amulet*, which we can take but not wear ourselves.) The fire-breathing mechanical dragon is dangerous -- and we can't KILL DRAGON unless we have both the *Ebony spear* and the *Ixion shield*, attempts without these items.  This required several rounds of trial and error -- I died ignominously while attempting to kill the beast with the scimitar, sword, and dagger, and also failed with the spear when I made an attempt sans shield.

When we have rounded up all ten treasures, victory is ours:

I enjoyed this one -- it was a bit convoluted, and was thoroughly unfair in the old-school tradition, but the puzzles made sense even though few hints were available in-game, and I liked the scope of the environment.  Sometimes there's a "radio play" aspect to these early adventures that allows the adventurer's imagination to fill in the gaps that text and graphics do not otherwise address -- mapping it all out on paper was a pleasure.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The LoadDown - 05/17/2010

Sorry for the late update -- Nintendo's press release site was malfunctioning for a good part of the day.
WiiWare -- Two games today.  BIT.TRIP RUNNER continues Aksys popular hip retro videogame series with a slightly more modern platforming game and a musical cameo from Anamanaguchi.  Blood Beach is a T-rated island defense game set during WWII.

Wii Virtual Console -- The drought ends with a decent one -- Kirby Super Star for the SNES, starring the lovable, hungry pink hero in an episodic series of platforming adventures and minigames.

DSiWare -- 4 titles this week.  Looksley's Line Up is a hidden-picture adventure with classical folk and fairy-tale themes.  Frogger Returns brings Konami's (generally poorly-received) Frogger remake to DSi.  Tecmo Koei's puzzle game A Topsy Turvy Life: Turvy Drops makes innovative use of the handheld, asking gamers to turn it upside down and draw blocks on the touch screen.  And EA's Flips: More Bloody Horowitz features Alex Rider creator Anthony Horowitz's horror stories for kids, in interactive eBook form.

XBox Live Arcade -- Two retro games last week.  Konami's Rocket Knight revives the 16-bit possum hero of Sparkster and Rocket Knight Adventures for platforming and flying action.  Things on Wheels is a slick-looking radio-controlled toy racing game, with a visual style reminiscent of the early Pixar short films.

Game Room -- A quiet week; the weekly releases promised early on seem to be monthly in point of fact.

PS3 on PSN -- Rocket Knight also arrived on the Playstation Store.

Eliza's Grandchildren Shill for Viagra

I moderate the comments on this blog, mostly so I see what's coming in and can respond if appropriate, partly to filter out the automated comments from commercial blogspam generators.

I humor them mostly because they aren't common - real comments outnumber the spam replies -- and because they remind me of my old friend Eliza, the artificial-intelligence simulatrix about whom I have written on several occasions.

I think of these spambots as Eliza's grandchildren.  Their attempts to find relevant topics and comment in a meaningful way are often amusing, because they tend to give themselves up as soon as they open their virtual mouths.  The Turing Test is an instant fail, because it's obvious they haven't actually read or comprehended the post -- they're looking for a word or phrase they recognize, generating some text, and posting it with an ID stealthily linking to a commercial website. 

Today, one calling itself "generic viagra" attempted to post this comment concerning the Atari 2600 game Strawberry Shortcake: Musical Match-Ups:

I thought it was an excellent blog, that information has been very helpful in my life, I am a strawberries lover, so I really enjoyed this reading, the strawberries taste is so delicious! Thanks for this great moment!

I wonder what led this bot to me.  Did its dictionary somehow lead it to conclude that it should call itself a "strawberries lover" to justify posting a Viagra link on a post about 80's kiddie favorite Strawberry Shortcake?

But I admire the attempt, transparent as it may be.  And I'm glad the information was very helpful in its life.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hollow Back, Satan!

Bally/Midway produced a reasonably successful arcade game called Satan's Hollow back in the day -- it's since been released in emulated form on compilation discs, but was never converted to home consoles at the time.  Still, the company ran this magazine ad in Electronic Games magazine to promote the arcade version and push an official t-shirt:

I find two things about this ad amusing.

First, the t-shirt is available to anyone with $4.95 plus $1.00 shipping, whether a person has scored well or never even played the game; it merely proclaims that the wearer has DUELED with Satan of the Hollow, and no verification is required.  Given the game's rarity in the arcades of my youth, the open policy was likely a good decision if the t-shirt offer was meant to bring in any amount of money.

Second, the ad apparently refers not to the fabled Satan of song and legend, but to one Satan of the Hollow, presumably a more provincial cousin of the better-known Prince of Darkness.  This personage is billed only as a Master of Darkness, as though he picked up a night school certificate down to the community college before that terrible combine accident doomed him to a marginal existence, hustling battles with passersby for a quarter apiece.  As pictured in the ad, he seems to be developing a little bit of a pot-belly, probably from hanging out at the Bridge of Fire spicy BBQ joint.

Even Satan's gotta eat.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

EA Humbled - Buy 2, Get 1 Free

The mid-1980's industry crash took a lot of video and computer game companies with it.  Electronic Arts was one of the few that survived -- but even the mighty EA had to do a little bowing and scraping in the bargain bin to get through it, as evidenced by this 1985 ad in Electronic Games magazine:

Tossed onto the bonfire of the humilities were certifiable classics like M.U.L.E., Archon, Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Kit and One on One.  But EA had the right attitude for the long term -- founder Trip Hawkins was indeed one  who still believes in the potential of personal computers, and he was absolutely right in his steadfast faith that interactive entertainment would still be a growth industry over the long term.

So EA made it through the downturn, and continued to take chances and produce innovative new titles deserving of the scarce mid-1980's gaming dollar.

(Mind you, the lean and hungry years would eventually end, but at the time this ad was running,  Touchdown Football, which gave birth to Madden Football and sequels ad infinitum, was still a few years off.)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Savage Reign

It's high time for me to take a brief break from the PC Engine, and look at one of the first import games I ever played:  Savage Reign for the Neo-Geo CD, published by SNK in 1995.

SNK produced a lot of fighting games for the Neo-Geo arcade system, including the enduring King of Fighters and Fatal Fury series.  Many of those titles were ported to other systems, which usually couldn't compete with the 2-D power and speed of the Neo-Geo arcade and home hardware.  But the Neo-Geo was an expensive console with pricey cartridges, so the various ports, however approximate, did much to popularize the SNK lineup.  The later CD-based iteration of the console was cheaper, but suffered from loading time problems, with frequent appearances of this sort of thing:

Savage Reign was an exception all around.  It was not a good candidate for porting to the 16-bit console generation, due to its heavy reliance on scaling -- each stage has two vertical levels, and the whole view shifts in and out dramatically.  Because each character has a ranged weapon, hand-to-hand combat is very different from distance fighting.  The SNES had a background scaling mode, but couldn't scale sprites, the Genesis couldn't hardware-scale at all, and the gameplay style ensured that the usual solution of putting the whole game in a fixed scale would not really have been workable:

The game was also never released for the American version of the Neo-Geo CD, although its SNK arcade system heritage means that the game will recognize an American system and run in English (though the digitized voice-overs remain in Japanese.)  I decided to play in Japanese anyway, in keeping with the theme of these import gaming posts, but here's the alternate title screen:

The main menu offers a "DEMO GAME" selection, which replicates the arcade attract mode, and the Options screen provides four supported languages: English, Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese.  It seems the loading screen hints and strange jokes added for this CD release -- like "WHY'S CAROL BLOND? D-Y-E. GET IT?" -- are only available in English or Japanese, and much of the text is always rendered in English.

One reason Savage Reign wasn't big in the US may be that the lineup of ten fighters is unconventional, to say the least.  Beefy Hayate is the game's main hero and is fairly conventional in design, but fights with a boomerang in a style the game calls Fuun-Ken.  Eagle wears a chest-baring jacket and US flag drag, and fights with a battle axe.  Gozu is a beefy ninja with steel spikes jutting from his wrist, and Mezu is a similar character.  Then things get strange -- Carol is a ball-throwing cheerleader in a short skirt, Nicola a shield-wielding techno-boy, Joker an insane rollerblading clown who wears an armored codpiece, Chung a club-wielding retiree in shades and a backwards baseball cap, Gordon a crazed hairy-chested ex-police officer, and Shishioh a boxer who wears a mask, gloves and midriff-revealing armor.  Some pairings inevitably evoke a certain comic-book homoeroticism:

I don't think any of these characters showed up in other Neo-Geo fighter series, but they definitely have personality -- here, Carol makes sure her top hasn't slipped following a successful bout against Nicola:

There are also detailed victory portraits -- Joker's is downright creepy, making me somewhat relieved that I don't read Japanese, lest he be threatening those dear to me:

Savage Reign is a decent, fast-paced fighting game, with the arcade-quality graphics and audio we've come to expect from the Neo-Geo, and it was successful enough in Japan to merit a sequel, Kizuna Encounter.  The split-level environments and ranged weaponry sometimes makes it feel more like a platform shooter than a classic one-on-one fighter, and its bizarre characters lend it a distinctly Japanese feel.  I found the differences refreshing, and can recommend this one for anyone looking for a different style of retro arcade fighter.

Savage Reign for the Neo-Geo CD is worth playing, and may be available for purchase via this affiliate link.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cheap Thrills: Jungler (1981)

A downloadable game I've been playing recently is Konami's Jungler, available via Microsoft's Game Room retro arcade environment.  I have never seen this one in an actual arcade, but there was a licensed conversion released for the Emerson Arcadia 2001, a short-lived early-80's console that arrived just in time for the industry crash and was heavily discounted almost immediately.  I wish Konami had followed Atari's example and recreated the Jungler coin-op cabinet for the Game Room version, instead of putting it in a generic conversion cab, but Microsoft has opted not to impose any standards in this area.

Fortunately, Jungler is a pretty good game for three dollars.  It's an old-fashioned 2-D maze chase with elements borrowed from Pac-Man and Centipede.  The player is cast as a long, multi-segment white snake who must chase enemy red snakes through a maze and blast them away.  When the requisite number of snakes have been destroyed, the level ends and a new one begins.  There are complications, of course -- the player can only shoot enemies from behind while they are red; head-on collisions are fatal until the player has scored enough rear-action hits to turn them green.  Strawberries occasionally appear in the maze, which when eaten turn all of the enemy snakes yellow, making them less dangerous and easier to attack.

The maze layout changes as the levels progress, and the AI isn't bad for its time -- whether it's truly dynamic or pre-programmed, the enemy snakes become smarter and better at using the maze to their advantage as the levels progress, and there's some randomness to their movement, breaking the pattern strategies that worked so well in Pac-Man.  They also move just fast enough that the player really has to chase them -- it's not possible to launch a volley of shots and take out an entire snake from behind.  The enemy snakes are also armed, even when they're green, and are capable of taking the player out in the same fashion, whittling the player's snake away segment by segment.  A short snake is short-lived in the world of Jungler.

This was a fairly early Konami game, and Jungler's graphics are very simple even compared to games released a year or two earlier -- the maze is blue, the strawberries tiny masses of red, white and green pixels, and the snakes solid-colored aside from their eyes.  There are no attract mode hijinx, intermissions, or persistent scoreboards, though in this emulated incarnation, the Game Room leaderboards pick up the slack.  There are odd dead-end icons in the maze whose purpose I was never really able to understand -- they seem to be fatal to the enemy snakes that run into them, but not immediately; the snakes appear to nuzzle the cold fingers of Death for several seconds before exploding and vanishing, and can be attacked while they're so occupied.

The Game Room medal standards for Jungler aren't too hard to beat, but do require mastering the basic gameplay.  I had no problem with the survival medals, because I tend to run scared a lot of the time in maze games, so running up the clock is not a problem.  The score medal was more challenging, though I managed to beat the gold standard a couple of times while putting in the play time required to earn the associated Time Spender medal.

Jungler is no classic -- in that I can't see a remake getting much traction in today's market -- but it's a competent and playable game from the early 80's, and one I would probably never have encountered if not for Game Room.  It's a reasonable deal for three dollars if you're looking for a fresh vintage experience.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Video Podcast - Rock Games That Didn't

Before plastic instruments, music games were all about the music... ians.

Featured games:  Journey Escape, Journey, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Michael Jackson's Moonwalker, Revolution X Featuring Aerosmith, KISS Pinball, KISS Psycho Circus: The Nightmare Child, Space Channel 5.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Adventure of the Week: The Domes of Kilgari (1981)

In this installment, I'm playing through The Domes of Kilgari, a 1981 Programmer's Guild adventure written by Alex Kreis for the TRS-80 Model I.  I have reason to believe that Kreis (not sure if it should be Mr. or Ms.) was also a young programmer when this game was made, judging from the style of the game.  I haven't been able to find any biographical information to confirm that; it's only been about thirty years, but the history of these early games is already fading.  At least it seems I'm in no danger of running out of interactive fiction titles to explore in this series -- every platform has its own unique adventures, and text games worked well on even the earliest microcomputers.

The screen RAM fills with the title and some graphic decoration while the game loads:

The Domes of Kilgari is an early adventure game, with a classic Crowther/Woods scrolling parser interface rather than the more advanced, windowed Scott Adams approach.  It's written in machine language and runs speedily enough, but it also has no SAVE feature whatsoever, so while it doesn't take long to solve, fatal mistakes are annoying and time-consuming.  There's also no way to QUIT or RESTART if we discover we've made an irreversible error, and if we die (or succeed) the game just hangs, so the system reset button also gets a bit of exercise.

The game's sci-fi plot finds the player in a broken-down shuttle craft, out of fuel, near an imposing alien structure.  We must infiltrate the building and find a fuel rod, which ends up having some unintended consequences as the plot develops.

As always, I encourage readers to try these games out before reading my comments below the fold.  I have no qualms about ruining a particular adventure's surprises, as these titles are fairly old and my goal is to document them for the historical record.  In other words, there's a plethora of...

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

Monday, May 10, 2010

The LoadDown - 05/10/2010 - DSi Photo Dojo FREE!

What's new for consoles on the wire in the past week...

WiiWare -- Two games this week.  Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS is the third in the popular Capcom series ported from the DS.  Chess Challenge! from Digital Leisure features online play and rankings, and is fairly full-featured for 500 points.

Wii Virtual Console -- Another fallow week here, unfortunately.

DSiWare -- Four titles this week, including a potentially big tgame that Nintendo is offering for FREE through June 10th: Photo Dojo, which lets you photograph friends and record their voices to insert them into this fighting game.  It's a neat idea that makes good use of the DSi's camera, and should be a lot of fun for anyone with Mortal Kombat performance aspirations.  Other titles this week are Chess Challenge! (see above), an enhanced port of 16-bit classic Earthworm Jim, and interactive e-book Flips: The Enchanted Wood.

XBox Live Arcade -- Last week saw two new XBLA games:  Zeno Clash, an alien-themed Punch-Out type game, and Raystorm-HD, a remake of the classic Taito shooter.

Game Room -- At last Game Pack 003 arrives, though there's not much here that most retro fans won't already have played.  The freshest entry is Konami's 1987 arcade pool game Rack 'Em Up.  Otherwise, it's familiar stuff - Activision's Atari 2600 titles Megamania and Pitfall!, Intellivision games Night Stalker and Basketball, Atari's 2600 Realsports Volleyball and the original coin-op Super Breakout, which 8-Bit Rocket unfortunately reports doesn't work well at all with the 360 controller.

PS3 on PSN -- One new game last week,  Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West, a third-person multiplayer action shooter.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Computer-Illiterate Customers Love ADAM!

Putting it mildly department:  Coleco's ADAM home computer did not repeat the resounding success of the Colecovision console.

Timing was bad, for one thing -- entering the market with a new home computer was not a great idea in 1984, and Coleco's experience in the game market did not translate to courting more substantial investments from more serious users.  The system was inexpensive enough, but the ADAM was a truly shoddy collection of equipment.  The daisy-wheel printers looked impressive in ads but often didn't work as delivered, the included productivity software was seriously buggy, and the newfangled "wafer drive" was unreliable and tended to damage the stringy magnetic tape media early and often.

But this was still the pre-Internet era, and there was a chance that the bad word-of-mouth might not have spread to everyone on the planet.  So Coleco continued to advertise in print -- but its campaign couldn't very well rely on glowing critical quotes from magazines, as there really were none of note.  Instead, it featured letters from customers -- most of whom apparently didn't know enough about computers to realize the glass was mostly empty:

They sound a bit like the kids in the old comic-book American Seed ads, absolutely thrilled at being allowed to be the company's sales force at far less than a living wage.  Many of these people seem to be pleased that they can turn the ADAM on and see that it seems to do something, without any need for reading manuals or actually learning how to use the software.  Coleco's dogged insistence that THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT tends to be undermined by the general "I spent money on this, therefore it is of great value" tone of the correspondence reproduced here.

I can only presume that Mr. Prohaska, the gentleman who wrote "Your keyboard is better than the Apple," was referring not to the keyboard of the Apple II computer, but to the deliciously awful Golan-Globus 1980 rock musical movie, The Apple.

And even then, I'm not sure I'd agree.

Still, the keyboard was not singled out for critical abuse, to my recollection.  And the quote is brief and likely taken out of context, so perhaps Mr. Prohaska was simply damning the keyboard with faint praise before proceeding to trash the rest of the ADAM components.

As did most of the people who bought one, within a few months, I would guess.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Columbia... Software... Club?

Believe it or not, the Columbia Record Club and its indentured-consumer marketing approach once took a swing at this new videogame thing all the kids seemed to be into:

The game lineup featured here is a veritable who's-who of software publishers of the day -- Broderbund, Infocom, Datasoft, Epyx, Sega, Activision, and Coleco are prominently featured.

It operated on very much the same principle as the Columbia Record Club and its arch-rival, the RCA Record Club.  You were invited to pick up a couple of games cheap, after which you were obligated to buy four additional games at retail price during the next two years.  In fact, you were forced to do so up to nine times a year if you habitually forgot to return the "PLEASE DON'T SEND ME THIS!" postcards in a timely fashion.

I imagine logistics were a bit complicated -- customers picked their platform of choice from four supported hardware systems, and Atari and Commodore users further indicated their preference for cartridges or disks.  This went far beyond the LP, cassette or 8-track basis of the record clubs, and most titles were only available for some subset of the six possible options.  But there was a bigger problem -- as with so many videogame industry bandwagon-jumpers circa 1984, the Columba Software Club debuted just as the Big Crash was looming.

I wonder whether the club survived long enough, or could find sufficient new product, to encourage its customers to make good on their promises.  I imagine by 1986 it was becoming pretty difficult to come up with nine Pick-Hit Selections a year for the Apple II or the Colecovision/Adam, though the Commodore 64 and Atari computers were still viable.

I also wonder whether the "10-Day Free Trial" offer resulted in certain eyepatched, beparroted parties signing up, "trying out" two games, then returning them for a full refund.

Actually, my favorite part of this ad, chock-full as it is with operational and legal fine print, turns up at the very bottom:

BRUCE LEE is a trademark of Linda Lee.

Movie star, husband, and registered marketing symbol.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Gaming After 40 Sofa Photo Contest! $40 In Prizes!

This is not a joke -- we really ARE having a contest, and there actually is a $40 prize.

This comes about because the Internet is a strange place.  Its revenue-generating mechanisms are vague and hard to define, with actual advertising income earned in large part by AI bots and spiders, crawling the web and looking for references to things that impressionable human beings can be convinced to spend money on from time to time.

I was recently approached by a marketing organization that covets my tiny share of the seething, faceless Internet masses, and seeks a boon.  And in exchange for this bountiful gift of blog reference, they have offered up a prize - a $40 gift certificate, good at any of their multitudinous web-based merchandising outlets.  My contact is an actual human being, and to her infinite credit she is allowing me to deliver this message in my preferred style, which takes everything and nothing seriously, especially when it comes to marketing.  We're just feeding the machine, but it's a fair trade.


What the sponsor wants me to mention here, as the first link in my post, is the venerable sleeper sofa.

That's right, the same kind of sleeper sofa that Dad used to lie down on after throwing his back out moving it.

Which has, truth to tell, precious little to do with videogames.

BUT our sponsor-who-shall-now-be-named CSN Stores has given me an excuse to run the first ever Gaming After 40 contest, because there are a few places where every gamer's world intersects the domain of the legendary sleeper sofa.  (One or two, actually, depending on whether one prefers to think of it as le butt, or les cheeks.)



Take and send in (via email) a humorous photo of yourself, alone or with friends and/or animals and/or friendly animals, sitting on your run-down, decrepit couch, futon, beanbag chair, barcalounger, what-have-you, or, sure, sleeper sofa, while playing video games.  Choose the moment -- show us the triumph of victory, the agony of defeat, the irritation at being pwned, or anything else that you think will make us laugh.  Please include "Photo Contest" in your email title/subject so I don't overlook it.

The deadline is midnight EDT on May 31st, 2010 -- actually, if it sneaks into my Inbox before I wake up on June 1st, it will make the cut.  I will appoint a panel of three judges, real-world friends who are familiar with sitting on their nether assets and playing games, to pick the funniest entry.  I will post the winning photo on the website, and instruct our generous sponsor's representative to email you the $40 gift certificate code, which I trust she will do posthaste.

Multiple entries are fine, though please don't send multiple copies of the SAME photo.

Admittedly, the $40 prize will likely NOT buy you anything new to sit on.  Like a sleeper sofa

And apparently the gifted $40 only applies to merchandise, not shipping costs, so do the math carefully if you win, as you will likely have to cover that yourself.  Though you can't buy anything too gigantic for $40. 

And our sponsor can only ship to a winner based in the US or Canada, which means if I get entries from elsewhere I will have to publish the funniest North American photo, awarding the submitter the $40 prize, and also select an honorary World Winner who gets no prize beyond satisfaction.

Note that CSN Stores is not a videogame retailer per se.  But they do carry worthwhile merchandise of a general nature, covering a wide variety of product lines, so the prize should not go to waste.  For example, retro gamers can always use media storage racks, available at reasonable prices at CSN's Racks and Stands website, so you should be able to find something reasonable to do with the $40 in free merchandise, good at any of CSN's two hundred-plus online stores.

And this way, I don't have to consider the alternative, ethically questionable offer, which is to do a review of one of their products in exchange for a discount for myself.  Tempting, yes, but this should be a lot more fun for all concerned.


Contest away!  Tell your friends -- the more the merrier.  You.  And/or others.  Playing games.  Being funny.  Sitting on something.

And remember, the deadline is midnight on May 31st.  Send submissions in digital form here.

Sleeper sofa.

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Sexy Idol Mahjong

Crazy Climber was Nichibutsu's only sizeable 80's arcade hit in the West, but Nihon Bussan Co., Ltd. continues to be very successful in Japan with its long-running series of strip mahjong games.  The company was also a presence in Japanese console publishing during the PC Engine era, and I've been taking it easy on the import front lately, playing a variety of arcade-style games that translate easily to this side of the planet.  So I felt it was time to dig into something a little more challenging, obscure, and quintessentially Japanese -- Nichibutsu's Sexy Idol Mahjong for the PC Engine Super CD-ROM.

The CD packaging for this title is fairly discreet, and remarkably honest, as the ladies are depicted with the grainy, digitized portraits seen in the actual game:

 The in-game title screen is a little more direct in its appeal:

I don't speak or read Japanese to any workable degree, so I can't speak to the title's accuracy as translated.  I don't know if these are actual Idols of the Japanese pop-culture variety, or if they're simply random women presented as such; seventeen years on, it probably doesn't matter much, as idol fame is fleeting almost by definition.  As to their being Sexy, my interaction with them has consisted solely of attempting to place small tiles into an aesthetically pleasing configuration.  Regarding Mahjong, at least, of that there is no doubt.

The game has some RPG trappings, as our Adol-esque hero progresses along a linear path through the land.  At each stop he must defeat an opponent at mahjong by pushing her score into the negative before she does the same to him:

There's also an item shop, where item points earned during matches (successful and otherwise) can be used to purchase temporary power-ups between rounds.  These can be used to aid the player's quest for victory:

Note that for one hundred points, the player can simply buy a winning hand and progress through the game using patience rather than skill.  This may be the first recorded instance of mahjong grinding, though according to Wikipedia mahjong bumping goes back at least as far as Nichibutsu's 1983 game, Jango Lady.

Beyond these design elements, this is a fairly typical PC Engine mahjong game.  The game consists of finding a sexy opponent, dealing out the sexy mahjong tiles, and trying to assemble a sexy tile sequence according to sexy standard mahjong rules.  The music is very typical of the PC Engine CD era -- cheesy and repetitive, but not painfully so, with electric guitars, synthesizers, and rapid-fire sampled hand claps.  (Insert your own joke about mahjong parlors and clap samples here.)

The tiles are rendered with appropriate and clear detail -- no suit or sequence confusion here -- and the computer AI isn't bad, occasionally purchasing and using power-ups itself.  I'm no mahjong expert, but I have learned enough of the scoring basics to play these games.  My biggest problem here, being unable to read the game manual or much of the onscreen text, was due to my fundamental confusion about the interface -- I was throwing away the tiles I meant to keep, building up patterns in my discard pile that would have been much more useful in my hand:

The ladies in each GAL vs. YOU match are pixelated in classical PC Engine style.  Each has a portrait image displayed during the game.  And like a good salad, the CD-ROM format leaves plenty of room for cheesecake.  A loss produces a moderately revealing pinup shot:

A win yields a more revealing image, though nothing X-rated:

Eyeballs sated for the moment, our hero proceeds across the map to take on his next, more difficult, opponent.  I realize they're going for sex appeal here, but the indistinct, backlit forest background and unblinking, piercing black eyes of the lady on the other side of the table tend to call unsettling Japanese horror movies to mind:

And that's about the size of it -- there are apparently eighteen different opponents to play against, or else the CD case is indicating that one has to be 18 years old to purchase Sexy Idol Mahjong.  Smarmy though it may be, it's still a relic of a more innocent time, when "strip" didn't necessarily mean "stripped of all dignity."

This is where I usually put an affiliate link, in an ongoing effort to generate some commission revenue from my bit-stained labors over obscure Japanese videogames.  Go ahead. I won't tell anyone.