Monday, October 8, 2007
So imagine my amazement when they announced Marvel's X-Men for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It seemed like a match made in heaven; my two favorite things were coming together in a way that was surely going to be undeniably awesome. The game publisher, LJN, had been responsible for the NES version of Jaws, a pretty good game by my standards back then.
Marvel's X-Men was at the top of my Christmas list in 1989, right above the Power Glove. I would have to say it was quite an ironic coincidence that both of these products were the worst pieces of shit (X-Crement?) I have ever received from Santa. The fat man was just trying to do his job, I concluded. He followed my list almost exactly and couldn't be held responsible for bad programming.
It was mere seconds after pressing START that I realized what a terrible and useless game Marvel's X-Men proved to be. The opening screen was slightly promising, at least more so than the back of the box. Then it was all downhill from there.
The game allows you and another player to pick two X-Men who must traverse through a bird's eye view of a post-apocalyptic landscape littered with enemy blobs, robotic tanks, and centipedes. Lousy enemy designs notwithstanding, the biggest disappointment for me was definitely the portrayal of the valiant X-Men as strange, blocky humanoid-like creatures with practically any noticeable powers. Wolverine should have claws at least. If I remember correctly, Iceman and Cyclops are able to shoot some kind of projectile energy beams. That seems to be the only display of the X-Men's powers. Most ridiculously, using said energy beams lower your health as you use them. You can actually commit suicide in this game by using your powers. That sure doesn't sound like anything I remember from reading the comic books.
To make matters worse, this game is unforgivably hard. Those blobs are aggressive enough to be nearly inescapable. Whether this is a testament to the absolutely horrid game design or the clunky control scheme, I don't know. Either way, I can't help but think about how my life would have been without this disappointment of a game. The only video game experience that was more monumentally disappointing than playing Marvel's X-Men on Christmas day was playing Marvel's X-Men on Christmas day using the Power Glove. But that's a whole 'nother blog. Nuff said.
I meant to play this game on an emulator and get some screenshots in order to demonstrate it's high level of sucktitude, but it turns out that I can't legally download the ROM because it's "Protected by the ESA." Why anyone would claim legal rights to this game is beyond me. It must be because it's a Marvel game. If Marvel was smart, they'd hold on to the rights and hunt down every copy in existence in order to wipe it our from the face of the earth.
Since I have no screenshots, I'll post this youtube video instead:
The one positive thing this video reveals is that the game actually looks better than it plays.
Friday, September 28, 2007
Like the kid in my last post, I was fortunate enough to typically get a few video games for Christmas when I was a kid. 1990, the year Snake Rattle n Roll was released, was no different. I don't remember the other titles I got that year, but that's only because they might have seemed irrelevant compared to Snake Rattle n Roll.
To put it simply, Snake Rattle n Roll was one of the first games I remember that defied video game conventions in a way that provided the player with a truly unique game experience. From the moment I pressed the START button, I was whisked away to a another world filled with geometric computer landscapes, unusual enemies resembling toilet seats and detached feet, all set to a catchy MIDI soundtrack.
In the game, you played as Rattle the snake. A second person could play co-operatively as Roll. You had to navigate the 3D isometric levels shooting your forked tongue out to catch these colored balls called Nibbley-Pibbleys. Rattle and Roll started out with a pathetically short tail trailing behind them. As you continued to eat Nibbley-Pibbleys, Your tail began to grow in segments. Eat enough of those little spheres and your tail would grow to full length. At that point, your snake would be heavy enough to use a weight scale that triggered the level's exit door to open.
Each new level introduced an interesting new color scheme along with another infectiously catchy tune. Adding to the game's difficulty, each new level would introduce a new type of Nibbley-Pibbley, each more elusive than the last level's. In the first stage, the Nibbley-Pibbleys would simply roll around on the ground. Later stages would have you trying to catch winged Nibbley-Pibbleys, Nibbley-Pibbleys with legs, and bouncing Nibbley-Pibbleys on springs. After eating Nibbley-Pibbleys with appendages, an in-game animation would show the snake spitting out the inedible parts.
Reading the game's article on wikipedia, I was surprised to see that it was criticized for a couple of issues that had never been much of a problem for me. The article makes a brief mention that the game sold poorly "possibly a result of its high difficulty and unintuitive controls." I may claim to know a lot about video games, but I can't say that I'm a particularly skilled player. The only reason I'm good at any games is because of practice. This may be the reason I was never put off by Snake Rattle n Roll's controls or difficulty. I must admit that I never actually beat the game, with or without the use of a Game Genie. The last boss is next to impossible to beat, but I can't claim to have beaten many NES games in my lifetime as it is. I never even finished the first Super Mario Bros. game! And yet, this game was extremely challenging, but I was able to make some headway through various levels.
As for the controls, I can understand why they would be called "unintuitive." Isometric games usually had this weird control scheme where pressing down would make you walk diagonally in a down-left direction. Pressing left would make you move in a up-left direction. The console version of The Immortal had a similar control scheme. It's disorienting at first, but becomes second nature after playing for a bit. Just make sure you know which direction to press during platform jumping sequences like the one pictured below.
The artwork and visual presentation of Snake Rattle n Roll was one of the most stylized for video games at the time. It was sort of reminiscent of early 3D computer animation from the 1980's with all it's bright colors and rounded edges. Fans of this type of animation might remember a video demo made by Robert Abel and Associates in 1982 called High Fidelity (pictured below). Canadians might also remember a show on YTV called Short Circutz which was basically a series of computer animated shorts and demo videos. Similar art styles have been used in other video games since Snake Rattle n Roll, including games like Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure and, to a lesser extent, Rayman.
Over 16 years later and I am still a big fan of Snake Rattle n Roll. You could say that the game profoundly impacted my interpretation of what good gameplay means to me: a completely original (and weird) gaming experience with artfully executed presentation. As long as some games dare to venture beyond the norm, video games will continuously take steps towards being considered a legitimate art form.
Here's a video review I found on youtube. Props to the reviewer paulisthebest3uk...
Monday, September 24, 2007
What's really great about this video is it reminds me of the enthusiasm I felt during Christmas morning, especially when receiving a new game console. I hope that says more about my love of video games than my shallow childhood sense of materialism.
Oh, sure, I had the original Nintendo Entertainment System along with the grey Zapper and even R.O.B. the Robot. By the middle of 1991, I had over 40 NES games in my collection. My parents even got me the original Game Boy when it was released for the 1989 Christmas season.
But they wouldn't budge when it came to the SNES. They didn't see the point in spending the money on a new system when they had invested so much in the NES. If the SNES were backwards compatible, then maybe they would have considered it, but as it stood, they didn't see the logic. To them, electronic equipment consisted of household tools that could last at least a decade before becoming obsolete. They couldn't be blamed for thinking that in 1991 while they watched TV on a set purchased in 1979. Even with an enlightened attitude brought on by the rapid evolution of computers and home video, they didn't understand how the NES was about to be replaced by what seemed to be the most incredible system ever.
This tale is essentially the beginning of my "How I got a Sega Genesis" story. But I don't want to digress. It was the mystical lure of Japan's Super Famicom (Japanese name for the SNES) that had me daydreaming of playing in 16 bits.
I remember going over to my see my friend Yoshitoyo (coincidentally nicknamed "Yoshi") and playing Street Fighter 2 and F-Zero on his Super Famicom. Strangely enough, all the Japanese kids in my town must have lived in Yoshi's neighborhood because every Saturday I'd go visit him, there'd be like six younger Japanese kids sitting around the Super Famicom playing Street Fighter 2. Considering that I spoke no Japanese, it was a little unusual hanging out with them. I had to endure their laughter and verbal outbursts as they effortlessly pummeled me in the game. When I asked Yoshi what they were saying, he'd just laugh and shake his head in that timid way Japanese people do.
Fast forward about a decade and a half and I still don't have a SNES. Now that I see what a treasured history the system has in the minds (and libidos) of gamers everywhere, I can't help but feel that I missed out on something special. I never got to play through much of Super Mario World. I never got to develop my skills in Street Fighter 2. I never got to experience the joy of playing Pocky & Rocky co-op. I still don't get all those clever Earthbound references. I never even got to experience the complete disappointment of playing Faceball 2000.
Woe is me—I really missed out, didn’t I?Well, I'll live vicariously through the 10 minutes in this video:
Thursday, September 20, 2007
The plot of The Count was some generic take on the Dracula story. You had 3 days to find and kill the vampire. If you tried to exit the castle, an angry mob kills you and you are forced to start over. There are several incidences in the game where you are attacked and wake up the next day with two small holes on the side of your neck. If that happened 3 times, then the game would end.
Due to the fact that the limited technology only allowed for very specific input commands, the game is fairly hard. If you constructed the input command in a way the program wasn't familiar with, you would have to keep rephrasing the command until you typed it in exactly as the programmer gad intended. This issue persisted for many years in all games that used text input commands, including the Sierra adventure games (King's Quest 1-4, Space Quest 1-3, etc).
If you don't believe me, then you can follow this link to play The Count on the web. The game starts you off in a large brass bed. It should be obvious, but I remember spending a ridiculous amount of time just trying to find the right commands to get out bed. These days, I can't picture myself spending as much time trying to figure out what the game designer had intended for me to do to progress through the game.
Despite the inherent flaws that came with text adventures, their text-only format really painted a picture in my over-imaginative 5-year-old brain. It goes back to the old argument of book vs. film adaptation. A novel will let you make your own interpretations and allow you to mentally visualize the story, while a movie does the interpreting for you. More often than not, you lose something in the process when you view someone else's interpretation.
Here are some links to classic text adventures that you can play straight from your browser window:
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Even as a kid, I made a distinction between console video games and computer games. In the early 80's, my family had a couple of consoles at home (Atari VCS and ColecoVision), which were pretty much under my older brother's authority. I had no say when it came to playing his video games. I assume now that he kept the consoles under his reign because he needed something to do on rainy days after he and his friends got high. I remember spending more time on the Commodore Vic-20 my father had bought. It was a fairly inexpensive computer that was underpowered even for the time, so the focus of their software was gaming and educational software. Despite this early start on computers, I never became that genius wiz-kid my father had envisioned.
Home computers at the time had such a limited graphical capability that a new genre of entertainment software was created: text adventures. These days known as "Interactive Fiction", text adventures are games where all the action is described instead of depicted graphically. A narration on screen describes your (the player's) location and circumstances, then waits for your input (i.e. "look west" or "throw dung at peasant").
These games really allowed my imagination to soar as a kid. I'm sure I gained some good reading comprehension skills from playing these over and over again.
Here's an example of a typical text adventure exchange between the player and the computer:
You are sitting in a chair in a darkened room. The only light source is a bright heat lamp that is dangling from a power cord 2 feet above your head. Your wrists and ankles are fastened to the chair's legs with duct tape. Almost invisible among the shadows, a small figure appears to be smoking a cigarette in the corner of the room.
>examine small figure
I do not understand what you are trying to say.
The figure steps out of the shadows to reveal an angry-looking dwarf wearing a fedora that barely covers his sweaty, bulbous forehead. He takes a drag off of his cigarette before stamping it out under his pointy alligator-skinned cowboy boots. The dwarf then approaches you as he fishes in his pocket, pulls out a butterfly knife, and flips it open in one swift, menacing move. He snarls at you and asks you "Do you want to live to remember the worst day of your life or do you want to die and lose all consciousness for all eternity?"
This game does not understand "shit."
Your hands and legs are taped to the chair, remember? You must break free to move. The dwarf is tapping his feet impatiently.
>talk to dwarf
Right as you open your mouth to talk to the dwarf, he flashes a quick smile and brings a finger to his lips in a motion to shush you. He raises the knife and starts cutting through the duct tape that binds you to the chair. He frees you and, laughing maniacally, runs out of the room through a door to the east.
You are now in a large hallway to what appears to be an abandoned prison. There is an open door to the east. Construction debris blocks the hallway on the south. You can continue down the hall to the north. The smell of sulfur hangs in the air.
Basically it goes something like that although most text adventures don't read like a David Lynch screenplay.
One of the more interesting features of text adventures is the limited vocabulary that is understood by the computer. Typically, input commands were regulated to verb + noun. You would type "open door" to open a door. If you typed "open the door," the computer would start spitting out smoke and sparks because of the complexity of the input command.
The Commodore Vic-20 had a bunch of great text adventures. We had a few at home. I'll tell you more about them in my next post.
Until then, remember: This game does not understand "shit."
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Having been born in 1977, I wasn’t around when my older brother and sister owned the home version of Pong. Shortly after I was born, however, they received an Atari 2600. Also known as the Atari VCS, the 2600 set a new standard for home video game consoles by implementing interchangeable cartridges with games that can be purchased at retail stores. A new business model was born and the Second Generation of Video Games hit the
I don’t remember the Atari too much. It was close to being obsolete when, sometime in 1982, my parents brought home a Colecovision.
Coleco (aka the Connecticut Leather Company) found great success a year later in 1983 with their famous line of freaky-looking dolls called Cabbage Patch Kids. Of course , it was the Colecovision I remembered most fondly. The Colecovision had far superior graphics than the Atari. Many of the games were completely faithful to their arcade counterparts. Two examples were Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. Actually, I only remembering owning 3 games for the Colecovision, and those were two of them. The other is one I played over and over again for a couple of years. It‘s probably my favorite game from before the NES days—Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle.
I’m not shitting you when I tell you that you can see everything this game has to offer in 2 minutes. The screen shots I posted here comprise about 30% of the total game. I must have really sucked at video games as a kid because I remember this game to be fairly challenging.
I just found a video of this game on youtube. Now I feel even worse for thinking this game provided even a modicum of challenge. In the video, the guy beats the game in only 1 minute and 40 seconds!
Monday, September 17, 2007
Here are some of the best:
RetroforceGo!: Podcast from Destructiod.com: My most favorite podcast from the good folks at Destructiod.com (in itself one of the best video game sites). They have a regular podcast where they talk about new games and the industry, but the relatively new RetroforceGo! podcast wins for focusing on old games. The first half of the show reviews the week's releases on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console and Xbox Live Arcade, the second half revolves around an assigned topic of their choosing. Computer games are also sometimes covered along with console games.
Retro Core: UK Gaming site that closed shop in late April 2007. Looks like I found them just a bit too late. Retro Core produced 37 videos almost completely consisting of gameplay with narrative reviews. If you can't find them on the link I provided, then simply do a search for "Retro Core" in archive.org.
It should be noted that it seems that there is a much stronger retro game scene in the UK than over in the US. There used to be this magazine that specialized in Retro gaming that was published in the UK. I'm not sure if they stopped printing it or if my bookstore stopped distributing it.
Well, there you have 3 sites that are better than this blog will ever be. I simply hope you will find a reason to return to read my irreverence.
What I'm trying to convey is that I'd like to pretend that it's a normal and well-adjusted thing for a guy my age to be completely enveloped in video game subculture, sometimes at the sacrifice of my social life. Oh sure, you might think it's completely normal, but that's because you probably share my enthusiasm for gaming. Trust me--it doesn't go over so well when an attractive woman my age asks me what my interests are and the answer is "I like to play video games."
It's not that my ex-girlfriends haven't been supportive of my pastimes. Most women that get involved with me know that I lean a bit over on the geeky side, with my love of toys, Star Wars, and games. It's just that when I go to "business networking" events for work, I find that everybody is more interested in talking about real estate, insurance rates, or wine collecting than anything that geeky. Occasionally there's some tech stuff people talk about, but those discussions are usually in the context of how the said technology applies to real estate, insurance rates, or wine collecting. The more I try to relate to my peers at these yuppie meetings, the more I feel dissatisfied with business and the more I think that I should pursue a game-related career.
Which leads me to this blog. Whether I can make any money out of it or not, I want to share my interest in video games with others. I'd rather focus on older games that hold a cherished place in my memory instead of discussing the obvious blockbuster hits. I've been blogging for years on a wide variety of subjects, so let's see if I can stay on track. Many thanks to you for taking the time to visit this page. I always welcome comments, no matter how irreverent they seem.