Monday, November 30, 2009

The Best Super Mario Game Ever

I've been having the time of my life with New Super Mario Bros Wii, and now that I've finally reached the ending and defeated Bowser, I can confidently report that this truly is the best Mario ever.  The game is absolutely smashing fun from start to finish, deeply layered and richly textured.  The graphics are beautiful, warm, colorful, everything you ever wanted a 2D side-scrolling videogame to be.  Truly, this is the Super Mario Bros 5 we've demanded for so many years.

And then there is multiplayer.  4-Player Super Mario Brothers?  I know enough from my own experience with friends and family, and watching others play on Youtube, to know that your sense of fun doubles with each player that joins in.  This game manages to achieve an impossible challenge that has always haunted game design - how do you make a game that is equally challenging for single and multi-player?  New Super Mario Bros nails it perfectly.

While I have reached the ending, I am by no means finished.  I still have two whole worlds to explore, and many Star Coins to collect.  You will know when you have truly "beaten" this game - in addition to a congratulatory message, you will have five sparkly stars next to your name.  And unless you are an expert gamer, you'll have to play through Super Mario all over again from the beginning to reach that status.

And I couldn't be happier with that.  This is a game that is meant to be played endlessly, for months and years, just like the original Super Mario games on NES and Super NES.  The kids who first played Super Mario on their Nintendo in 1985 are now parents.  We can now share the excitement and the discoveries with our own children.  Nintendo has truly become a family tradition.

Can somebody please tell me why Sony and Microsoft are exclusively targeting 30-somethings?  The video games business cannot survive without generating new customers.  We were all kids when we were first playing these games.  And many of us would like to share that tradition with our children.  When I see the crowds of children at Nintendo's weekend mall attraction at the Mall of America, I can't help but be amazed.  Nintendo has those kids all to themselves.  And those kids are going to grow up to become lifetime fans.

As long as Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo can churn out games like Super Mario Bros 5, they'll have a license to print money.  They'll own this industry, if they don't already.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nintendo Wii and the 2D Renaissance

Has anybody noticed the Nintendo Wii lately?  This year has seen a bold renaissance of 2D video games.  What's more, these are not simple retro nostalgia trips, but modern games, with state-of-the-art graphics and skillful art design.

The XBox 360 and Playstation 3 deliver spectacular high-definition graphics - I mean, just mind-blowing to someone like me who grew up on Atari - but without any innovation or cleverness in the design, what's the use?  This is why I picked up a Nintendo Wii, instead of a 360.  It's just about the only place where anything interesting is happening in games.

Most of my criticism against the "HD Twins" (great shorthand for XBox 360 and PS3) is the relentless push towards more and more Hollywood-style theatrics.  They aren't interested in making videogames anymore; they want to make summer movies.  They want to make the next Transformers movie.  They don't want to make the next Pac-Man.

I think this has spurned a gaming counterculture on the Wii platform, and it's bearing fruit now.  This is a good thing, because Nintendo cannot sustain their momentum on Wii Sports forever.  The expanding audience has to come not just from parents and relatives who never play, but those of us who did, and left the current scene.  What happened to the NES and Sega Genesis games I played when I was a kid?  Yeah, the new Modern Warfare 2 looks fantastic, but where did Revenge of Shinobi go?  Where did Thunder Force 3 go?  Where did Sonic 3 & Knuckles go?

Where the heck did the video arcades go?  Remember those places?  Two dozen arcade machines packed together into an Aladdin's Castle, with classic pinball machines tucked in the back?  Ah, those were the days.  And those were great games.  They had to be great, because the competition was fierce and unyielding.  Designers had to create videogames that were immediate, that hooked you in, that dispensed with theatrics (laserdisc games like Dragon's Lair bombed) and got straight to the point.

I shouldn't sound as though I'm piling on the current blockbusters on the HD Twins; if videogames are to evolve, diversity is key.  We need as many mutations in the gene pool as possible.  But the game industry cannot turn its back on its history, nor can they discard every possible audience, past or present, until only the hardcore fanboy clique remains.  This business cannot survive on the backs of Comic Book Guys, especially when production budgets for single games soar into the tens of millions.

There needs to be more diversity and there needs to be some better options.  And there needs to be some better ideas.  I think Nintendo gets that.  They don't "get" everything, and every dedicated gamer will have their list of complaints.  But Nintendo does get this.

Just within the last six months, we've seen the following 2D games on the Nintendo Wii: Klonoa, Muramasa, A Boy and His Blob, and New Super Mario Bros.  A similar revolution is brewing on the online WiiWare service, including the all-new sequels to Mega Man, Gradius, Contra and Castlevania.  And those are just the classic titles; wait until you see the new games, Lost Winds and World of Goo and Swords & Soldiers.

I'm playing through New Super Mario Brothers now, and it's absolutely smashing.  It's brilliant and wonderful, everything that ever made 2D Mario fun and compelling.  It's a grand statement for the 2D videogame, of everything it is and could be, much like Ponyo was Hayao Miyazaki's grand statement for hand-drawn animation.

It's about damn time that other software developers figured this out.  Leave the $30 million "interactive movies" to the handful of corporate giants large enough to absorb them.  Let the rest of us have real video games.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Deep Thought

I'm thinking to myself that if I want more traffic, I should write about topics that actually matter to other people's lives, and less about a year-old videogame nobody likes.  Unfortunately, I follow the beat of my own drum and I'm too stubborn to change.

Still, it would be nice to get some attention on this blog once in a while.

My Wii Music Songs - Ode to Joy

I quickly wrote this thrash assault on Beethoven's Ode to Joy. It's something I've been scheming and practicing in my head for a week, and I'm thrilled that it came together.

This "Metallica" version of Wii Music features Cliff Burton on drums, bass, rhythm and melody. Tempo is set to "5." A few retakes on bass and drums was all I needed to find that great opening, and then the drums go crazy, heh heh. The fastest tempo setting enabled the drum sound I wanted. I don't have a Balance Board, so precise drumming is harder.

As you can see, I have a lot more fun completely tearing the Wii Music songs apart and creating entirely new mutants. The incredible depth in arrangements and improvisation enables this, and it's revolutionary for music games. Don't like the song selection? Create your ow

Playing and creating songs in Wii Music is much harder than it appears. This isn't the simplistic button presses of Guitar Hero. You need to practice, you need to communicate with your bandmates, and you have to know what you're doing.

I shot these videos with my digital camera, pointed at the old tv set in the dark. It's cheap and old-fashioned, yes, but it gets the job done.

My Wii Music Songs - American Patrol

I wrote this song on Monnday, 11/23/09. This is one of my most recent original compositions for Wii Music, and I'm really happy with it. The bass is spectacular, and the song sounds absolutely nothing like the original.

Cliff Burton slams down some killer bass and Eddie Vedder rips on guitar. I'm playing turntable in the back. A Muppet provides some added percussion. Tempo is set to "5," the fastest setting. The beats were recorded first, then Cliff's growling bass, which only required a few takes. Eddie Vedder's electric guitar leads required about 20 or 30 takes to really get right.

This is a great example of discovering the music as you are playing. I always wanted that chorus, but the short guitar leads at the beginning were discovered on the many takes. I wanted a "verse" sound that fit in with bass, and eventually I just followed Cliff to the chorus.

Wii Music does a spectacular job of capturing the immediacy of improvisation, and the sense of surprise - music is never created as much as it is discovered.

My Wii Music Songs - Chariots of Fire

This week, I recorded a number of my songs from Wii Music with the trusty digital camera, and posted them on Youtube.  Obviously, I'm going to share them all here on my blog.

This may be my favorite composition yet. I began with Chariots of Fire, set Tempo to "1" - the slowest setting. Turntable DJ supplies the beats, and two galactic horns play bass and rhythm parts. My ever-bending guitar leads became more haunting with each take. In the end, all the parts came together, and I'm more than proud.

As you can see, my song has practically nothing to do with Chariots of Fire. There are some chords that drift in and out, to keep my guitar centered. But I never paid attention to that. I wanted an original work that still had a good melodic hook. I'm astonished that Wii Music allows me this degree of freedom.

I hope you enjoy this, and that it inspires your own Wii Music jams. Spread the word, pass and share!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Videogame Classics - Wii Music

Wii Music is spectacular, incredibly rich and deep, and arguably the most revolutionary videogame since Super Mario Brothers. In time, it may well be seen as Shigeru Miyamoto's "lost masterpiece."  It's difficult to describe it accurately to someone at first, and there is a learning curve until you "get it." It helps tremendously if you are a creative type. But this is perfectly normal and to be expected; this is not a "music rhythm" game at all, but the next evolutionary step in the Music Game.

I think you definitely need to sit someone down and show them what Wii Music is really about. The Wii Sports graphics and motion controls give the impression that you're dealing with a simplistic child's toy, a glorified baby rattle. The reality is about as far from that stereotype as you can imagine, but that tremendous depth is hidden below the surface. It's kind of like the original Super Mario Bros in 1985. At first glance, it just looks like another side-scrolling arcade shooter. But then some curious or lucky kid discovers hidden pipe rooms, coin boxes buried in the walls, 1UP mushrooms, minus world, and warp zones. The game then becomes a completely different experience.

It's the very same with Wii Music. This is a game about live performance, about learning music theory, about composition and song structure, about group dynamics, and most importantly, about improvisation. This is the revolutionary break, and it affects absolutely everything. The 60 instruments can be mixed and matched in any combination. Songs can be played in any number of styles. You can change the tempo of the songs. And you can play the instruments any way you wish.

Think of it as multiple skill levels. Level 1 is just shaking the Wiimote on Improv mode, banging at the cowbell for kicks. Level 2 is learning to play the songs perfectly, matching the beats and rhythms like the old rhythm music style. Level 3 is learning to improvise, learning to create solos, leads, learning to hold and bend notes, and working together as a group.

I think if you make it to Level 3, you've done very well. You will have learned a lot of music theory, especially if you take the music lessons. And it takes a lot of practice to become skilled. Just like real music. Pretty soon, you'll start wondering what will happen if you swapped instruments around, or changed the tempo. Should I use a beatbox and rapper for percussion on the Animal Crossing theme? What can I use with steel drums on the Super Mario theme?

Then you start re-arranging the parts. You add in pauses and breaks, space for the drummer to play four beats after the verse, space in the middle for that trumpet solo you've been practicing for. I think I'll play the F-Zero theme with a guitar solo, and then cut out and bring in the rapper. Or maybe three singers for the classical songs.

Finally, you dig deep enough and reach Level 4 - Wii Music Nirvana. Now you are no longer playing and improvising the existing songs. Now you will rip out the parts, reinvent the beats, and create a completely new song - a strange mutated beast. Now you're in the Wii Music Minus World, my friend. "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" has been turned into space techno with galactic trumpet. "Ode to Joy" has been turned into Sgt. Pepper. "Frere Jacques" has been turned into Radiohead trip-hop. "F-Zero" has been turned into some fusion of Miles Davis and Metallica. And everything has been turned into Public Enemy.

Wii Music is not random waggling. There is nothing random about Wii Music. There are, in fact, two competing musical scales for every song. There are the "official" notes for the melody, harmony, rhythm, and bass (two percussion spaces fill out the six tracks). Then there is a second set of notes, the "improv"scale, for all four parts. You can weave back and forth on your instrument at will, sometimes weaving between chords and notes.

And then there are the drums. The drum kits are based on the song's "official" rhythm when using standard controls. If you just want to follow the beat, you'll get a good sound. Now add the Wii Balance Board...and the drums are now opened up to you. I don't mean you get more beats or rhythms. I mean that you have a complete virtual drum set, and you have complete freedom to create whatever the hell you want.

The old rhythm music genre has just been smashed to bits. Wii Music lets you goof off, play songs, remix, mutate, and improvise. Your imagination is the only limit. Rock Band lets you press buttons. Guitar Hero lets you press buttons.  The next generation of Music Games will allow you to create.

If you're still skeptical, that's perfectly alright. Come to Youtube and I'll prove it. Watch Wassi JJ's videos. Watch Alasted's videos. Watch Tirelat's videos. Watch 3GAAC's videos. Shigeru Miyamoto is universally hailed as the world's greatest videogame designer for a reason, kids. He has revolutionized the medium countless times. It's what he does.  Yes, Wii Music is Shigeru Miyamoto's latest vanity piece.  I will not dispute that.  But don't let vanity stand in the way of greatness.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

We're All in Mario's Castle Now

Behold!  Another master of Wii Music emerges!  Wassi JJ completely reconstructs songs into strange, spacey, melodic creations.

Just sit back and contemplate this for a long moment.  Wii Music is intended for anyone who wants to create, regardless of musical skill or talent.  At the entry level, it is so simple as to appear simplistic.  But underneath this surface lies a deep, dark secret. Improvisation.  Everything can be improvised, altered, remixed, and deconstructed.  There is no right or wrong, no lives lost, no timer counting down, no Pavlovian judgment - only the pure joy of discovery and creation.  This may be the most gleefully anarchistic videogame ever made.

We are no longer among the denizens of the music rhythm genre.  That ancient fad has peaked, and now it seems like a mirage, an illusion.  Guitar Hero promised the fantasy of being a rock star, and that's what it delivered - a fantasy.  The music rhythm genre cannot create music, and so it fails and dies.  In its place stands a new creation - the music game, a true music game.

This is a game where a child can play a hundred perfect renditions of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" (of course the music is iconic; all paradigm shifts are iconic), a note-by-note copy.  Or he may abandon the melody and create a new one.  In time, he will learn to smash the song to atoms, then reconstruct new worlds.

And below all of these layers, at the very deepest core, Shigeru Miyamoto's greatest achievement: he has smashed all the ancient conventions of the arcade video game.  No more time limits.  No more credits.  No more Pavlovian risk/reward systems.  The video game is not a movie, it is not art.  It is play.  In Super Mario 64, he constructed a castle garden for players to run, jump, and swim in freely, without any rules or goals or threats.  We are all in Mario's castle now.

A Look at My Mii's

Here's a look at my collection of Mii's on my Nintendo Wii.  I'll have to add more pop culture figures when inspiration - and my next visit to Mii Characters - strikes.  The plaza is already resembling the album cover to Sgt. Pepper.

Row 1 (front): C-3PO, Me, Garfield, Ice Cube, Jesus
Row 2 (mid): John Lennon, Lando, Marilyn Monroe, Mr. Burger, Orson Welles
Row 3 (back): Spider-Man, Weird Al Yankovic

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wii Music - One Song, Three Different Takes

Because Wii Music is rather difficult to explain, I thought this would prove an effective example.  What we have are three different takes on the same song.  The song, K.K. Blues, comes from Nintendo's Animal Crossing, Wild World on Nintendo DS.  It's one of several video game songs that can be performed on Wii Music.  It's a pretty straightforward blues number with a catchy melody.

Listen closely to these three performances.  There are many similarities, and that's to be expected, since they're reading from the sheet music.  But take notice of the differences, not only the instruments, but the arrangements.  Pay very close attention to the improvisational bits, little bits here and there that bring each unique performance to life.

I should also point out another key point that won't be noticed by casual observers - this is a lot harder than it looks.  Even when following the musical cues perfectly, and overdubbing all the parts yourself, it's a serious challenge to bring all these parts together in a good song.  It's very easy to rush through and miss beats or melodies, and the result can be a lot of noise.  But that is true of music in real life, and it's a testament to Shigeru Miyamoto's genius that he makes it all seem so much...well, so much fun.

Tirelat's Wii Music - Sgt. Pepper's Ode to Joy

"Tirelat" is a master at Nintendo's Wii Music.  He has been posting videos to Youtube on an almost weekly basis since the game was first released last year.  For all the doubters and skeptics of this much-maligned music game, all I can say is: Watch Tirelat's videos.

This is his latest creation.  It's Beethoven's Ode to Joy, played by The Beatles, and rearranged to sound like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  It's really quite remarkable how closely he matches Sgt. Pepper's rhythm in the verse.  The closing verse returns to Beethoven, playing to the same rock beat.

You see, this is what Wii Music is really about.  It's a music program that inspires you to create music.  There is a genre of videogames called "music rhythm," but there's nothing truly musical about them.  Shigeru Miyamoto has crafted another groundbreaking masterpiece.  Not many people realize this yet, but these things happen.  Give it time.

Friday, November 13, 2009

New Super Mario Bros. Wii

New Super Mario Bros. Wii is coming to the US this weekend (it's already out in Australia), and it is looking spectacular.  The big innovation is 4-player action, which turns Super Mario into a chaotic party game.  This is going to be soooooo much fun!

The multiplayer Coin Battle looks especially fun.  This might just become required for future drinking games.

Giant Bomb has a long (37 minutes) video, taking us through Super Mario Wii, showing several worlds, the ghost manors, the boss castles, and the warp cannons.  Four players are jostling and laughing the whole way through, and it seems Shigeru Miyamoto's dream of cooperation has gone up in smoke.  Cutthroat Mario is much more fun.

I think it's a safe bet that Super Mario Wii will be a blockbuster smash.  I say it sells 20 million copies, easy.  Nintendo is going to have a spectacular Christmas.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Improvisation in Wii Music

Improvisation and the sheer fun of playing music lie at the heart of Nintendo's Wii Music. It's too easily lumped into the "casual games" ghetto, but there's a clever impishness below its surface. This is a far deeper and more rewarding experience than many people realize. Hopefully, these Youtube videos will show you what all the fuss is about.

In these freestyle jams, the backing players will jump into a rhythm to support you, and they'll match your own tempo, but it still takes some effort for the music to gel together. But that's part of the magic of creating music.

Wii Music - Playing Group Songs

Playing songs in a group setting is a main feature of Wii Music. You can even make your own records and videos. This is where playing with family or friends really pays off.

You can see the diversity in musical instruments and styles; it's almost overwhelming at first. There are even some "joke" performers like a cheerleader, or a person dressed as a cat or dog! Hah! Yeah, they even bark and meow to the songs.

If you pay close attention, you'll hear moments of improvisation in these songs. The players are following their own musical cues, but there are opportunities to be creative. The fourth video, playing the song from Legend of Zelda, even includes a scorching guitar solo! How awesome is that?

These first four videos were all created by the same Youtube user - 3GAAC. He recorded all the parts by himself, seperately, in "one take." Very impressive.

The final video is one I had to cram in somewhere, before I overwhelm this humble blog with video clips. It's called, "GhostFace Rap," and it's an excellent moment of hip-hop bliss. The band includes DJ, beatbox, rapper, singer, and dog. When the rhythm kicks in...ooh yeehh!

In Defense of Wii Music - Swan Lake Version 2

This Wii Music video was posted by a dedicated fan who wrote the following message:

The reason I have posted this video is that I believe that Wii Music is much better than many reviewers give it credit for. I think that Nintendo has a pretty good engine in this thing that allows a novice to do some interesting improvisation. NONE of the reviewers out there have discussed this technology in depth. The reason for this is that it will take a long time to figure out just how effective this technology is. This video is my attempt to show that Wii Music has more under the hood than most reviewers give it credit for. My hope is that other fans of this game will do a much better job than I have, and prove these reviewers to be WRONG.

On a personal level, having completed this video and a few others, Wii Music has already payed [sic] itself off for me.

It's fairly difficult to explain just what Wii Music does.  Its premise is easy, yet murky at the same time.  But it fits in perfectly with Nintendo's current obsession with creating new expressions, and finding new audiences, in video games.  They're embracing the very idea of "fun" in whole new ways, and if you haven't been paying attention these past few years, you'll miss it.

Who would have guessed that Nintendo would become avant-garde?  They were the buttoned-down conservative types years ago.  Now they've embraced a surreal brand of anarchy and Warhol Pop.

Dork Band

Hah hah hah hah....Here is another hilarious fake ad from NeoGAF.  These guys are really creative with their Photoshop skills; and true to my character, I prefer the viciously funny ones.

Wii Music has become one of those defining love-hate games.  You either click with its fun sense of group improvisation, or walk away disgusted with a simplified gameplay.  I'm sure the Guitar Hero phenom plays a part in this, too.  Both music games couldn't be further apart.

Still, you can afford to have a good laugh at Wii Music's expensive.  It's not a game that takes itself seriously, anyway.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Greatest Videogame Ad of All Time

Okay, this isn't a real print ad, but it should be.  This comes from a running thread on NeoGAF.  Find more here.

I shrunk this down because it uses some naughty words, and some of you might not care for that.  If you're fine with the language, then just click on the photo to see it in full size.

Poster - R-Type

Here is the original Japanese arcade poster Irem's R-Type.  R-Type is unquestionably the most influential side-scrolling shoot-em-up ever made (Gradius would be number two).  Every arcade and console shooter for the next decade looted and pillaged freely.  Some stole a little.  Some stole a lot.  But in the minds of hardcore shooter fans, Irem's original remains the king.

The best games managed to build upon Irem's original ideas and move the genre forward.  The best example would probably be the TOZ unit in Telenet's Gaiares on Sega Genesis.  The TOZ unit could be fired on enemy ships, where it would steal its weapons like a virus.  Your own ship was barely armed with a pea shooter, so strategically stealing the correct weapon for each scenario was key.

This is a terrific poster for a classic videogame.  The H.R. Giger designs continue to stand out, and the art direction is superb.  And R-Type is a tough game, damned hard.  Games in the '80s were really hard, weren't they?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Videogame Classics - Herzog Zwei

January 23, 2003

Herzog Zwei
Technosoft for Sega
Sega Genesis

Technosoft was one of the truly great videogame studios. Based in Japan, they are best known for their brilliantly innovative shoot-em-ups, their careful attention to visual detail, and their unforgettable musical scores. They hit their creative peak in the early '90s on the Sega Genesis: the masterful Thunder Force series; the surprisingly clever Elemental Master; a superb rendition of the best video pinball game ever made, Devil's Crush. And early in the Genesis' life span lay a little gem called Herzog Zwei.

Herzog Zwei is very probably the finest videogame you've never played. It is a fiercely competitive strategy game so innovative as to practically create a new genre; easily deserving a place alongside the two other great genre-defining games of its time, Populous and Tetris. Unlike those widely-recognized classics, however, Herzog Zwei went virtually ignored for years. In the American videogame press, it was either dismissed or harshly criticized by reviewers; Electronic Gaming Monthly handed out its lowest scores of any Genesis title.

Why was this game not well-received? I suspect that the reviewers simply did not know what they were facing. Traditionally, strategy games followed a certain formula. They were turn-based, like Avalon Hill's pen-and-paper war games, or Hudson's Military Madness on the Turbografx (also released in 1989). Players separately took their turns moving units and fighting battles. It was all very cerebral, but not much fun. Herzog Zwei changed all that. Players still fought for control of territory, capturing bases and attacking enemy units; but now the action was continuous, like an arcade game. This was no longer just a strategy game, but it wasn't just a shoot-em-up either; it was an altogether new beast. Technosoft had brought the genre into real-time.

Back in Japan, Technosoft was quietly experimenting with melding the war game with the arcade shooter. Zwei is, in fact, the sequel to an even more obscure game called, simply, Herzog. Appearing on the MSX computer in 1988, Herzog allowed players to control a transforming robot who leads his army against an opposing army. The game was simplistic, maybe even a little crude, but a spark was undeniably there. Somewhere in the mix lay the foundation for greatness.

Real-time strategy games have since then grown and flourished, becoming one of the most profitable styles of video and computer games. Dune, Cannon Fodder, Command and Conquer, Battlezone, Starcraft, Age of Empires, Warcraft - all owe their existence to Herzog Zwei.

And yet none have really surpassed Technosoft's classic. Why is that, I wonder? The masterstroke, I believe, lies in the Mech. Most RTS games put the player in the role of general, but not soldier. You cannot march into battle alongside your soldiers and tanks. But Zwei offers you both roles. You know that visceral thrill you get from clearing a roomful of monsters in Gauntlet? That sense of overcoming great odds, and surviving? Herzog Zwei gives you that thrill. There is a perfect, almost Zen balance, between military strategy and arcade action. Relying on only one skill is suicide; success lies in knowing when to play the general, and when to play the soldier.

There are other brilliant qualities to the game. Each of Zwei's eight battlefields is wonderfully designed. Battles take place in forests and caves, across lava pits, over islands, and through a futuristic city. Every map is just large enough to force players to rely on conquering territory (by capturing bases), but small enough to maintain a high level of tension. You are never more than five seconds away from the action. Perhaps the very simplicity of Herzog Zwei is its strength. Only eight different kinds of military units are at your disposal; of those units, only seven different orders are given (mainly attack, defend and supply).

Visually, Zwei is marked with a style that's detailed and varied, almost Zen; the rushing of water on a shoreline, the turning of a tank turret, the way a foot soldier explodes in a wash of blood. It's all very smooth and clean. Even the game's objective is uncluttered: destroy the opponent's home base. Since they cannot be repaired, yet another layer of tension is added. Do you stay and fight on the front lines, or do you fly back to stop that pesky motorbike that's pecking away your home's life bar?

Was this the Genesis' finest hour? Very likely, yes. If asked to name my absolute favorites, I'd choose Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Gunstar Heroes, Thunder Force 3, Gaiares, Fire Shark, and the EA Sports games. Herzog Zwei would top them all.

M.U.L.E. - The Gatefold Album

Way back when Electronic Arts began as a software company for home computers in the 1980s, floppy discs were the standard storage medium.  They resembled small records, so EA, in a fit of brilliance, packaged their games in gatefold albums.  The goal was to present their game designers as artists, as creators in a new medium.

Since I was going to reprint my 2003 MULE review here on Videogames of the DAMNED, I thought I should show the game's terrific album cover.  It's really quite impressive.  The four men of Ozark Softscape - Dan Bunten, Bill Bunten, Jim Rushing, and Alan Watson - are not shown as computer nerds hunched over mysterious machines.  They're portrayed as rock stars, as cool.  The "electronic artist" was a pioneer in this new, futuristic medium, and they were going to get all the perks of celebrity stardom.

That sort of recognition has always been a goal - and a source of frustration - for game designers ever since the Atari era.  Even in 2009, there are only a small handful of "names," and you almost never see any names on the boxes.  Development teams are immensely large today, hundreds of workers for a single big-budget project.  The artists have become swallowed by the machine they created.

I think the rise of digital distribution and the growing indie game scene may be a successful route for the artists.  If it is still possible for a small team to create a great video game, then a future of "electonic artists" may yet become reality.

I'd like to see indie game designers pursue this dream of the designer-as-pop-star.  I'd like to see what you could do with that in the iPod era.  If you want games to be seen as art - low or high art, it doesn't matter - then you're going to need recognizable artists.  You have to create something that isn't mere product, but something valuable, something that brings people together.

MULE brings people together, young and old, children and grandparents, casual and hardcore gamers alike.  It really is the greatest multiplayer game ever made, and you can see that creative, communal spirit on the MULE album cover.

Videogame Classics - M.U.L.E.

March 17, 2003
Ozark Softscape for Electronic Arts
Atari 800 (4 Player), Commodore 64 (2 Player)

Playing around with Super Bomberman 2 got me thinking about the truly great multiplayer games. The best ones always allow for that extra edge. It's fun to outmaneuver your friends, but when you can really put the screws to them, you're on to something. A brilliant example, one of my personal favorites, is the computer game classic, M.U.L.E.

MULE was the product of an Arkansas-based development team called Ozark Softscape. The team was comprised of Dan Bunten (project leader), Bill Bunten, Alan Watson, and Jim Rushing. These were the heady days of the early 1980s, with the fall of dedicated consoles (Atari 2600), and the rise of home computers. There was a great desire to experiment and create games that stretched out in new directions. An upstart company named Electronic Arts was entering its own "golden age," with a solid string of excellent, original games like Pinball Construction Set, Archon, Murder on the Zinderneuf, and One on One.

Electronic Arts followed the trail blazed by Activision. Game designers weren't stereotypical computer nerds, but young, creative, and above all, craving attention. They imagined themselves as the new artists, and their games as a creative work. These were not merely children's games, they were…something more. Different. New. Electronic Arts promoted this idea, and Bunten and his team were willing to accommodate.

Just what kind of game is MULE? It really is difficult to describe, since it seems so different from the conventional shoot-em-up, sports, and adventure genres crowding today's market. Perhaps it is most similar to Monopoly, with a dash of arcade action and commodities trading added to the mix. Taking place on the world of Irata, four alien settlers set out to develop the land over the course of 12 monthly turns. Each player selects a plot of land, and then equips that plot for production of food, energy, or mining ore and crystite. At the end of each turn, the plots bear fruit, and the players buy and sell their goods at the market.

I'm afraid that I am making MULE sound boring, but it is anything but. The casual pace belies a fiendishly competitive atmosphere where friendships are made and lost in a matter of minutes. If you do not grow enough food, you will lose precious time for your turns and risk falling behind. If you do not produce enough energy, your plots will suffer. And if enough ore is not made, there will be a shortage of mules.

The mule (for Multiple Use Labor Element) is one of the game's more clever touches. Each plot of land needs to be equipped for the proper function, and for that, you need mules. A mule is bought at the colony store, equipped, and then added to your plot.

This development phase is only one part of the game. The other part is the trading phase. After the monthly harvest, players meet at the market, watch the progress of their crops, and buy or sell with each other or the store. This is where MULE can become so fierce. True, it would be nice to share your extra food with everyone for the good of the colony, but what fun is that? Sharing is for losers. The real fun comes from cornering the market. When there is plenty of food in the store, for instance, the price is very low. But when there are shortages, the price soars.

This is where you screw your friends into the ground. How desperate are they for that extra unit of food or energy? Make them run up the screen and raise the price. Skilled players can learn how to control the market and make a killing in the process. And, yes, this is where shoulders start getting punched between curses.

The bidding in MULE is simple, with buyers on the bottom and sellers on the top. A price is found by both parties meeting somewhere in the middle. There is a certain, almost masochistic joy in watching other players desperately running up prices while you sit safely at the top of the screen. Another great "fuck you" moment comes during plot auctions; the leader runs up the price, then quickly darts back down at the last second, sticking someone else with the bill.

In the end, we are all competing for bragging rights and the rank of "First Founder" at the end of the game. However, in another inspired stroke, the colony as a whole must survive together. If the colony fails to make enough money at year's end, nobody is the winner. Think about that while you're cutting everyone off at the knees.

There are still more surprises to be found in MULE that I haven't mentioned. Mules go crazy and run off; pests eat your food; pirates steal all your crystite (diamonds); there are earthquakes, acid rainstorms, and meteorite strikes; the store catches fire, taking with it all surplus goods. And the game itself subtly teaches market economics: supply and demand, economies of scale, the Learning Curve theory of production, the Law of Diminishing Returns, the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.

There really has never been a game like MULE, and that is a tragedy. It deserves to be seen by anyone who considers themselves a lover of videogames.

"Key Oil Figures Were Distorted by US Pressure, Says Whistleblower"

Peak Oil is far closer than anyone in charge wants to admit.  And now whistleblowers have accused the International Energy Agency of spiking the numbers on future oil reserves to prevent a global economic panic.

Guardian UK reports:

Now the "peak oil" theory is gaining support at the heart of the global energy establishment. "The IEA in 2005 was predicting oil supplies could rise as high as 120m barrels a day by 2030 although it was forced to reduce this gradually to 116m and then 105m last year," said the IEA source, who was unwilling to be identified for fear of reprisals inside the industry. "The 120m figure always was nonsense but even today's number is much higher than can be justified and the IEA knows this.
"Many inside the organisation believe that maintaining oil supplies at even 90m to 95m barrels a day would be impossible but there are fears that panic could spread on the financial markets if the figures were brought down further. And the Americans fear the end of oil supremacy because it would threaten their power over access to oil resources," he added.
A second senior IEA source, who has now left but was also unwilling to give his name, said a key rule at the organisation was that it was "imperative not to anger the Americans" but the fact was that there was not as much oil in the world as had been admitted. "We have [already] entered the 'peak oil' zone. I think that the situation is really bad," he added.

I certainly wouldn't wish to spread panic, but Peak Oil is a very real problem, and it's going to hit us far sooner than anyone would wish.  The impact on the global economy will be severe enough, without any serious movements towards a post-carbon future.  For the United States, whose empire has been propped up by Petrodollars for 35 years, this is a looming catastrophe.

We need to get off the oil now.  We need to get off the oil 25 years ago.  But Reagan shifted this nation in the direction of big oil, global empire, and staggering debt.  The Bush II/Cheney era was really just the logical end of those policies.  It was shortsighted, reckless, greedy, and immensely stupid.  And now we're left with a bankrupt, crumbling empire, dependant on smaller and smaller pools of black gold.

And yet, despite all the warnings, global oil demand continues to rise.  This is sheer madness.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Hey, Nintendo Actually Bothered to Make a Game

It's an updated Excitebike for WiiWare.  It seems to capture the look of the NES original, while including course circuits, user-created racetracks, and online play.  Sharing your own tracks online should prove popular.  This game has always had its fans, and they're going to be very, very happy.  And it only costs $10?  That's a great deal.

It must be deeply frustrating for Nintendo Wii owners, to almost never see any good games.  Goodness knows, I'm frustrated, and I've only been playing Punch Out and Wii Sports Resort at game store kiosks.  The Wii deserves more than stupid baby games and shovelware.

Although, in all fairness...this is cute.  He looks so happy.

"I Would Argue That We Almost Have a Seasonally Ice-Free Arctic Now"

This is very, very bad news.  The melting of the Arctic continues at a near-record pace, and the multi-year ice is almost gone.  Like nearly all the recent research on global warming, we are discovering this process is moving far faster than even our worst-case scenarios imagined.  Here's a clip from Reuters:

Vast sheets of impenetrable multiyear ice, which can reach up to 80 meters (260 feet) thick, have for centuries blocked the path of ships seeking a quick short cut through the fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They also ruled out the idea of sailing across the top of the world.

But David Barber, Canada's Research Chair in Arctic System Science at the University of Manitoba, said the ice was melting at an extraordinarily fast rate.

"We are almost out of multiyear sea ice in the northern hemisphere," he said in a presentation in Parliament. The little that remains is jammed up against Canada's Arctic archipelago, far from potential shipping routes.

If you don't understand the implications of an ice-free Arctic, then I have one simple word for you: methane.  Read that paper on the dangers of methane and the melting permafrost, and then start apologizing to your children and grandchildren.

I try to remain optimistic when it comes to tackling climate change, just as I am aware the the human primate only takes action at the last possible moment.  But that's pretty much where we are right now, and I still don't see anyone in government offering any solutions that call for real sacrifice.  Preserving "the American way of life" is sacrosanct, even if that lifestyle - disposable consumerism, reckless greed, endless pollution - is the very cause of our crisis.  We can't stop global catastrophe by changing light bulbs and bringing your own bag to the grocery store.

I say give up your cars, and give up your hamburgers.  I say we learn to sacrifice for the sake of future generations.  Now what are the odds that I could get elected to Congress on that platform?

But, like I've said, I'll try to remain hopeful.  But the clock is ticking.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Ten Things I Love About Fire Shark

Things I always loved about Toaplan' Fire Shark on Sega Genesis

1) It was always challenging, even in easy mode.  Fire Shark has that perfect balance - it's never too easy, but never becomes overwhelming.  You're guaranteed a lot of value for your money, and you'll never get bored.  Too many arcade games are a cakewalk on the home consoles; their goal, after all, is only to take your quarters every couple of minutes.  It's a different story when you can just hit Start whenever you wish.  This game, thankfully, remains a challenge to me, no matter how many times I've beaten it.

2) The power-ups rock my world.  You had only three different weapons, but they were a joy when fully armed.  The spread shot covered the entire screen.  The green lasers snaked and weaved.  The flame thrower...well, that's the best of the lot.  Wooww!  Let's hear it for the flame thrower!

Oh, I should also mention the best part - rapid fire is an available option in the game.  On home consoles, that was usually available only on expensive joysticks.  Toaplan just saved my thumbs.  Rock on!

3) The loud, booming explosions and sound effects.  You should hear this game through stereo speakers.  The Genesis was great at this sort of thing, especially with the bass.  This is one of the best-sounding games on the Genesis.

4) The music soundtrack was fantastic. The music in Fire Shark sounds eerily like '70s guitar rock.  I was always reminded of Blue Oyster Cult or Thin Lizzy.  The buzzing guitar tones, the thundering riffs, the growling bass, and booming beats - it's all here, baby.  There was a time when "video game music" was an art, a craft.  The NES was great for music.  So was Genesis when in the right hands, as Fire Shark demonstrates.

Where can I find guitar tabs for Fire Shark?  I'm serious - there's some killer music and you should be jamming it with your local band.

5) Land, air, and sea targets.  I loved the sea stages, with the navy ships rolling after you, and the giant battleships. The tanks were always a blast; first you shoot off the cannons, then the hull.  And through it all, those endless waves of kamikaze planes.  Those guys are just insane in the later rounds.

6) Variety, Variety, Variety.  All ten levels were very different in style and tone. There's one stage with moving seas of sand.  Another one set in the arctic.  Another one sends you over caverns as you shoot down planes.  There's also a city stage that was really fun.  There was always something new on the next stage, never any cheap color swaps.

7) It wasn't impossible to claw yourself back.  This is a crucial distinction with most shooters of the 1980s and 1990s.  Most of the time, if you find yourself shot down in later levels, the games become impossibly difficult with only a basic weapon.  In other words, you might as well start over, and that's no fun.  Fire Shark avoids this trap.  Even though the final stages are very tough, you can beat the game with your basic machine gun.  It helps that you begin with a three-shot spread - a very smart move on Toaplan's part.

8) It's the little moments that are special.  There are little soldiers marching around your airstrips, directing traffic, moving around.  At the beginning, a group of soldiers line up in an arrow (that gag is seen in Porco Rosso and Finding Nemo).  The best gag comes at the end of one stage, where a soldier breaks formation to watch you land.  His Sergeant marches up and yells him back into line.  Hah hah.

9) Endless Replays.  Once you beat the game, it loops back to the beginning, ala NES Contra.  You get to watch a great little ending sequence, then you begin at stage one, albeit with a harder difficulty.  Why don't more games do this, especially the shooters?  Pay attention, kids - this is why Contra was so great.  We could play it forever.

10) Fire Shark has some of the best graphics on Sega Genesis.  Just look at the screenshots.  The art direction is just brilliant.  The landscapes show a solid variety of textures and details, and the colors are strong, bold, confident.  Explosions are colorful, fluid, never flat or dull.  You need good explosions for arcade games.  Your weapons looks great, especially that flame thrower...but check out the smart bomb!  Wow!  Now that is a real kick in the pants for 1990.

Notice how the tanks you destroy leave smoking craters?  That is great detail.  It's fun to see the carnage in your wake.  Same thing for the boats.  Planes will either incinerate or crash to the ground, another good moment of variety.

The large bosses that round out the stages, of course, steal the show.  Immensely large, difficult to take down, great to watch.  Here is where the allure of "16-bit" flexes its muscle against the older 8-bit generation.  These designers are trying to get you to put down your NES, remember.  Toaplan did a smashing job.

Thunder Force III - Some Really Cool Screenshots


As you can see, I've been porting over my old game reviews from  It's best to have everything under one roof, especially when I don't know how long my old site will stay alive.  I'm not sure even the hosters know it's there anymore.  Heh heh.

As always, I played through Thunder Force III and snapped some really great screenshots.  I wanted to capture the energy of the game, as well as its variety.  This was a standout title for Sega Genesis in early 1990, at a time when the console truly came into its own.  Revenge of Shinobi, Castle of Illusion, Super Monaco GP, and Fire Shark were all released during this time, alongside Technosoft's shooter masterpiece.  Later in the year, we would see Hellfire, Grenada, Gaiares, E-Swat, and Strider.  Am I missing a few?

Somebody should tell Nintendo how this busness works.  You actually have to make games for your system.  More than three or four a year?!  Yeah.

Anyway, enjoy these screenshots from Thunder Force 3 on Genesis.


Videogame Classics - Thunder Force III

October 28, 2004

Thunder Force 3
Sega Genesis

As soon as you plug in Thunder Force 3, you know you’re in for a crazy-fueled ride. That vibrant title screen pops up amid scorching rock chords, and that signature theme gets stuck forever in your head. There’s a certain confidence in many of the great videogames, a bold swagger that spills over from the artists and programmers and musicians onto the screen. We are witnessing one of the great game studios at the top of their game.

The side-scrolling shooter was already a well-worn genre by 1990, and goodness knows the Sega Genesis was getting pillared by them. For a time, it seemed as though everybody and his uncle had published a shooter. The inevitable result was that there was a crushing sameness to it all; we were all drowning in mediocrity. The list reads like a train wreck of forgettable titles: Air Diver, Arrow Flash, Bimini Run, Cross Fire, Curse, Heavy Unit, Insector X, Super Thunder Blade, Task Force Harrier, Whip Rush.

How could anyone even put out a competent shoot-em-up, much less a good one, when the store shelves were piling up with the likes of these? Even the better ones owed their very existence to classics like Gradius and R-Type. What the genre needed was some fresh blood.

That mantle fell to Technosoft. The studio had cut their teeth in Japan on the X68000, a popular home computer very similar to our Commodore Amiga. They brought an excellent shooter named Thunder Force 2 to America for the Genesis launch, and then followed up with the great Herzog Zwei. These people had imagination and zeal, and the necessary talent to pull it off. You can see that in Herzog, obviously, and TF2 had its moments as well, and you can see those qualities in almost every moment of TF3.

I’m trying to think of which scenes impressed me the most back in 1990, but it’s so tough to narrow everything down to a couple soundbites; there’s so much to enjoy, then and especially now. I think of the enormous animated bosses, like a giant fire-breathing lizard, a throbbing lobster, and various machines and spaceships. I remember creative enemies large and small, among these: a pack of killer sunflowers, insects carrying rockets, flocks of firebirds (the bird, not the car), a glass-shielded brain, an oversized golden crab, and gun-toting robots of all sizes.

Best of all, I remember the rolling flames from the lava planet. Alternately hypnotic and stunning, this was one of the greatest visual effects ever seen on the Genesis. This was also pretty much the first of its kind, setting the stage for al the crazy, inventive, and just tripped-out special effects that marked the 16-bit era. Those lava backgrounds are spectacular.

Thunder Force 3 takes the side-scrolling shooter and punches it up with speed and panache. What we see is a perfect example of brilliant game design. Most games of this type are content to merely offer target practice, with row after row of docile targets, marching in single-file lines with only minor variations. That can be passable, and maybe even fun in short bursts, but is it ever really good? What is the point, really? I think Technosoft was acutely aware of this, and structured their game appropriately.

Across the first five levels, with its thematic progression of forest, fire, water, earth, and ice worlds, we see a terrific variety of challenges and landscapes. Notice the rhythm of attacking enemies, large and small, navigating environmental hazards, quick speed bursts and momentary pauses. There’s more to do than simply shoot at everything. Your challenge lies in knowing when to shoot, and when to just get the hell out of the way. Sometimes, it’s all you can do, just to avoid a collapsing ceiling or rising lava flows.

I can’t tell you how much I love the variety. Each level carries its own unique style and rhythm, and often you will need to alter your strategies or rely on different weapons. It may be better to just dodge that hailstorm of rocks, or zoom past a row of missiles, let those bombs detonate; simply going in with guns blazing will get you killed.

TF3’s visual style set new standards in its day, with its vivid details and rich color tones, its tiny details and looming objects. Most everything that moves is animated, and it gives a real sense of immersion to the game, even if it’s something as minor as exhaust on a spaceship. The character designs are a unique mix of organic and machine, which thankfully avoids the H. R. Giger shtick that’s been played to death in countless other games.

And there’s the music, which is remembered in the same glossy-eyed way that moviegoers remember Lawrence of Arabia. Ah, the music! Thunder Force 3, that’s the one! Technosoft hit a high stride during the Genesis era, writing a perfect blend of rock and synth-pop, and this was their sharpest soundtrack of the bunch. Every song is loaded with hooks, hard beats, solid rhythms. Why the Genesis had a reputation for poor sound is a mystery I’ll probably never solve. The very idea is absurd.

Many consider Thunder Force 4 to be Technosoft's pinnacle of the series, and I’d be tempted to agree if that game’s first half wasn’t so inconsistent. TF3 burns on a solid high from start to finish, and that’s really the one we love the most. And, like good ‘ol Contra, the average person can actually finish the game in one stretch. The rest of us do have lives, ya know.

Videogame Classics - Super Bomberman 2

March 10, 2003

Super Bomberman 2
Hudson Soft
Super Nintendo Entertainment System

I've been wondering lately, what appeal does the videogame hold for me? I'm not a kid anymore, and I haven't been a teenager for a long time. I've gone to college, traveled, become educated, dated a few beautiful women, learned some things. In short, I've grown up; and yet, here I am, still playing games. What's the appeal?

For me, what continues to make it all fun is the social interaction. With the few exceptions of the masters, the best videogames are the multiplayer ones. There is a certain competitive vibe in the air, as friends become blood enemies then become friends again in the same evening. The best multiplayer games offer that unique blend of matching cunning, skill, and quick reflexes. I don't know, maybe we're fighting to keep our youth.

Super Bomberman 2 is probably the best multiplayer game ever made. At its best, it is as fierce and emotional as anything before or since. The game is the creation of Hudson Soft, a development studio from Japan who is best known for its long-running series of Bomberman games.

One of the conventions of any Bomberman game is that the single-player mode should be extremely boring. There's really not much game for one person. Taking control of the title character, you set bombs in a series of mazes, destroying blocks and barriers, grabbing power-ups, and evading or destroying enemies. It usually plays like a sedate puzzle game, and is usually explored for only a few minutes before moving on.

The Battle Mode is where the real fun is. Even in the post 9/11 world, there is a simple, vicarious thrill in watching four cartoon characters blow each other up with bombs. The basic maze, a standard of every Bomberman game, is a large square field, evenly broken up with blocks that can be destroyed. Each player begins with his or her Bomberman on each corner, and proceeds to blast away at pathways to reach at the others. Last one standing is the winner. Simple as that.

And maybe that is the Bomberman appeal: its utter simplicity, harkening back to those golden days of the early '80s. Videogames were simple then; today, you often need to read a small textbook to understand what you're doing. What fun is that? I want to be able to beat up on my friends while diving for the chips and beer.

And you will beat up on each other, I guarantee it. Super Bomberman 2 is the cream of a select crop of multiplayer games (Chu Chu Rocket!, MULE, Mario Kart) so fiercely competitive as to start real fights. You don't merely beat your opponents; you screw them into the ground.

What makes this version of Bomberman the definitive version? I believe this game managed to achieve that perfect balance, that Zen quality where every element falls into place. Each of the game's power-up items - the glove (to throw bombs), the boot (to kick bombs), the skate (faster speed), the skull (curse item) - is perfectly balanced. Having one power-up never guarantees easy victory.

The game's variety of boards is also just shy of perfection. Previous installments in the series started to experiment with different level design; SB2 has the payoffs. In addition to the basic maze, there are nine other battlefields which offer a terrific amount of variety. One board is covered, almost completely, by mushrooms. Another level takes place on ice and features warp tunnels. One level features a conveyor belt; another offers a trench which can be detonated from afar.

My personal favorite is a Pac-Man-style maze with warp tunnels; the catch with this board is that players cannot pass through each other. You can imagine what usually happens: you drop a couple bombs, and then try to shove the other players into the explosions. Do this a few times, and chances are there will be some punches thrown in between the laughs. Great fun.

Later Bomberman games would needlessly tinker with the formula, either by changing the power-ups, offering mediocre boards, or altering the game's speed. The worst offense, however, are the animals, which your Bomberman would ride, giving you essentially an extra hit. Where's the fun of trapping someone in a corner then? Those stupid animals are a staple of every game in the series after Super Bomberman 2; quite frankly, they suck.

There have still been good games in the series (Saturn Bomberman is quite excellent, actually), but I fear the formula was already perfected, and Hudson was never one to figure that out. It's like watching a favorite aging rock band play. The new songs are fine, but we really came to hear the old classics. Sometimes timeless nostalgia is a thrill in itself.

Videogame Classics - Ballblazer

April 1 , 2003
Lucasfilm Games (Lucasarts)
Atari 800

When it comes to the videogame, I think there's something to be said for simplicity. This is a belief I have long held; no doubt, this is because I grew up in the 1980s, when videogames were a genuine pop culture fad. The allure of the video arcade, the computerized rush of adrenaline, the unique challenge of reflexes and cunning; all this could be had in five minutes or less.

Of course, I still enjoy all the modern advances of our modern computer age, and I wouldn't change it for the world. Yet, somehow in the days of Quake and Tomb Raider and The Sims and the like, we're losing that simple spark that made those games long ago so fun to play. Videogames are losing their immediacy. Every developer wants to make the next epic, 100-hour-long virtual movie. Sometimes, I wonder if the budgets drive the project, or the other way around.

Where's the instant quick fix? No software publisher would give ten seconds to any of the classic videogames if they were dropped on their desks. Too short, too simple, not enough extras or Easter Eggs. Maybe I am just imagining things. Maybe nostalgia and adulthood is creeping in. Maybe I'm more right than I want to let on.

I'm reflecting on the state of contemporary gaming as I play another quick round of Ballblazer on my Atari 800 emulator. Here is a true classic of the home computer era, so simple, so stripped-down, so honest of what it is.

Ballblazer is, essentially, a one-on-one soccer match set in outer space. You control a spaceship, and proceed to carry a glowing ball into your opponent's goal. That's basically it. The whole premise can be grasped in five seconds, and probably mastered in five minutes. It is the perfect Zen essence of the video arcade game.

This 1985 game was the second release from the newly-formed Lucasfilm Games. Their first effort was a clever space rescue game called Rescue on Fractalus, which immediately heralded a potent new voice on the scene. It has never been lost on me that Lucasfilm could have sold on the Star Wars name, and simply rake in the cash; they chose instead to prove themselves with unique, original work. They chose wisely.

Lucasfilm Games, later Lucasarts, became extremely successful with some of the most memorable computer games ever made, like Monkey Island and Sam and Max and Grim Fandango. By the time the Star Wars and Indiana Jones games finally arrived, Lucasarts was among the finest gaming studios. Is it at all ironic that the games based on their movies are so formulaic and uninspired by comparison?

But I'm getting away from the subject here. Ballblazer remains a brilliant example of a videogame at its most basic, while still offering an innovation or two. Flying across the playfield, your ship must fire the ball against moving goalposts; as you score more points, the goalposts shrink, making it harder to make those final points. Your opponent, on the other hand, benefits from a larger target. As an added challenge, each goal is worth one, two, or three points, depending on how far away from the goal you were when shooting.

The scoring is just clever. Each player has five points on each side, but victory comes from scoring the full ten. When you score your sixth point, you literally erase his score. There's a great tug-of-war at play in Ballblazer; if it seems there is heightened tension for both players, you'd be right. There were countless matches over the years where my friends or I could not score those final points and win the game - the other guy keeps clawing back, and we're both sweating.

There are no extra modes, or hordes of options; there are no leagues or different stadiums or celebrity endorsements. There is only a game that feels timeless, flows smoothly, and never grows tired. I have to admit that the game's first-person view, racing down that wonderful green chessboard, has not aged a day; if anything, I appreciate the visuals more than in the '80s. No home console could match these fast, smooth graphics for years (look at the awful NES version); in no small way a technical achievement in 3D.

And then there's the music. Who can watch Ballblazer for five minutes and not come away humming the theme song in their head? The signature song, a blazing bit of boogey blues improvisation, stands as one of the finest songs in videogame history. If ever a song perfectly catches the mood, this is it.

There was an attempt to bring Ballblazer into the modern era with a Playstation sequel in 1997, but it was all wrong. The sequel was overburdened with bells and whistles, at the cost of the signature gameplay. Who wanted color commentary in the first place? Ballblazer never needed to be "modernized," it was modern to begin with. It's just the pictures that got small.

Here is another wonderfully competitive multiplayer classic; is there any surprise that these are the most loved of all videogames? Lucasarts seems to have lost their way these days with their over-reliance on the movie-based games; they would be better served to remember their roots, and why games like Ballblazer are so good. If they had any sense, they would port this game to the Gameboy Advance in a minute - they would realize that games should still be games.

Todd's Adventures in Slime World - Adventure #4

Here is a lengthy gameplay video of my favorite Atari Lynx game, Todd's Adventures in Slime World.  I've raved about this game enough times; now you can see for yourselves what the hype is all about.

Slime World features six adventures, all with different goals and agendas. This is the "mushroom" level. The world is on a countdown to meltdown, and pulling mushrooms will add time to that clock. You must still navigate you way out of the endless maze, and get around all the creatures without getting slimed to death. It's a pretty tough challenge, and a lot of fun.

Remember, folks, this game was made in 1990. The Nintendo Game Boy was the hottest thing going, with Tetris and Super Mario Land. On the console side, there was the Turbografx-16 and Sega Genesis. There was nothing - and I mean nothing - that could hold a candle to Slime World. The Lynx really was a masterful feat of engineering and design (created by the masterminds behind Commodore Amiga). Pity it had to wind up in Atari's hands.

I really wish Atari would get off their duffs and reissue all the classic games in their library.  Wouldn't this be spectacular on Nintendo DS or Wii?  What's really needed is a new Atari Lynx emulator, one that included four-player split-screen for all the multiplayer games.  That shouldn't be too difficult.  Emulators, after all, are created by everyday people in their spare time.  Put a couple engineers on the payroll and have them build it.

Enjoy the video, kids! And send some emails to Atari!

Miles Davis - Nefertiti

Whoever posted this song to Youtube used the wrong album cover - that's 1958's Round About Midnight.  Ah, well.  Nefertiti is one of the great albums by Miles' Second Great Quintet, featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams.  I love all six studio albums they made as a unit, and it's some of the finest 1960s jazz ever recorded.

For frustrated jazz fans who felt betrayed by Miles' evolution into electric music, fusion and funk, the Second Great Quintet holds a special appeal.  But I think on this period in Miles Davis career, we can all agree.  This is a brilliant song on a spectacular album.  I'm very glad I was able to find a "360" press on vinyl.  The sound is tremendous, full and deep and very melodic.  This digital version on Youtube is great, but just cannot compete with the original analog.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Todd's Adventures in Slime World - Some Screenshots


Here are some screenshots from another one of my all-time favorite videogames, Todd's Adventures in Slime World, designed by Epyx for the Atari Lynx.  It's atmospheric, underground caverns were endlessly pulsing, gurgling, breathing.  There was nothing else like it before or since, and it's a smashing great time.

The gameplay of Slime World essentially beat Super Metroid to the punch by several years, yet the focus is squarely on exploration and survival.  The most legendary feature is multiplayer deathmatch for up to eight players.  There were a lot of deathmatch games on Lynx, and all of which predated Doom.  Too bad everyone else you knew had Gameboys.  Multiplayer Lynx remains of the lost Holy Grails of video games.

I can't remember if I posted these screenshots years ago, but I've always been proud of them.  They were snapped on the Handy emulator on my PC.

Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer (GBA) - Some Screenshots


I'm porting thsi review from my old arts website,  I think I was playing around with Visualboy Advance here and there, and remembered how much I loved Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer on Gameboy Advance.  It was just about my favorite game for the handheld, and the only title in the "extreme sports" genre to really succeed on the Advance.

Isn't it strange how this genre just upped and died?  I'm not surprised to see the Tony Hawk series run into the ground (only the first two Pro Skaters were classic).  But why no other games in 2009?  What's the deal on that?   In any case, here is one of the greatest examples of the genre.  The animation of the surfers is impeccably smooth, and the rolling waves remain a dazzling visual feast.  This water on this Advance version is better than the Playstation 2 and XBox!  The console versions used smooth polygon graphics that felt wholly out of place, just flat and awful.  I suspect that's why Kelly Slater was overlooked as a game.

Meanwhile, Hot Gen Studios created a modern masterpiece on the Gameboy Advance, and I daresay barely anybody ever noticed.  It's a shame, a real shame.  This is one of the finest sports video games ever made.  Oh, how I wish a sequel could have been made, but the studio, like so many small studios at the time, went under for good.

Anyway, enjoy these screenshots that I snapped back in 2003.  I was so proud of myself for capturing such great action shots.  Feel free to steal whatever you want.