Monday, October 8, 2007

The Uncanny Suck-fest that is Marvel's X-Men (NES)

From about 1989 to some time in early 1993, my primary interest was the fictional world of the Marvel Comics Universe. I collected a good mix of titles that included Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, Silver Surfer, Daredevil, Moon Knight, Punisher War Journal, Marvel Comics Presents, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the majority of the "X-books." The X-books, to the uninitiated, are the titles that dealt with the X-Men and other mutants in the Marvel Universe. Those were my absolute favorites. These included Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Factor, X-Force, The New Mutants, and Wolverine.

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

The Infamous Breakdancer Kicks the Baby vid: Street Fighter 2 style

The All-but-forgotten Adventures of Rattle and Roll

I don't remember how I originally heard of it, but one of my favorite games for the NES was Rare's obscure classic Snake Rattle n Roll. Maybe it was seeing the quirky box art (see below) at Toys R Us or reading a positive review in Nintendo Power that did it, but something told me I wanted this game. If I remember correctly, it was Christmas morning when I received it.

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.

High Fidelity

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

How I would have reacted if I got a SNES in 1991...

You've probably already seen this video of the famous "Nintendo 64 kid," but I thought it was worth posting here after my last blog. I vividly remember getting an N64 for Christmas, but I was way older than this kid. As you can imagine I exercised more restraint than this little guy and his sister.

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.

The SNES keeps on passing me by...

I never had a Super Nintendo as a kid. You wouldn't think it was such a shocking revelation, but you haven't seen the incredulous expressions on the faces of hardcore gamers when I tell them that I didn't grow up with an SNES in the house. The system obviously had a strong impact on a generation of kids, and I missed out. To some people, those younger than me by a few years, the SNES was their introduction into the world of video games. A world without it was the territory of hapless, unfortunate losers like me.

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

Scott Adams paints a picture in my head...

In my last blog, I wrote about the Vic-20 and mentioned how I owned a bunch of text adventures for it as a kid. The most memorable ones were created by a programmer named Scott Adams. Not to be confused with the cartoonist that writes Dilbert, this Scott Adams wrote some of the first and most basic [no pun intended] text adventures. Even though Zork is the most popular text adventure from the early days of the genre, Scott Adams' company Adventure International is recognized as the first company to market these games for home use on microcomputers.Commodore Vic-20 games came in cartridge form (pictured below). In my household we had at least 4 different Scott Adams text adventure games: Adventureland, The Count, Pirates' Cove, and Voodoo Castle. Among those 4, it was The Count that got the most attention at home. Since I was about 5 years old at the time, much of the game's vocabulary was consisted of words that I didn't know. If I asked my brother or sister, they would inevitably get sucked into the lure of the game's narrative and end up commandeering the keyboard from me. It would be worse if they had friends over, because then they would gather around the computer and form a fucking committee and start brainstorming on how to progress through the game. One of my brother's friends even spent the whole night trying to finish the game. If memory serves me correctly, he never did.

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

Adventures in Text

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.
>examine figure
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?"
>eat shit!
This game does not understand "shit."
>hit dwarf
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."