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Microsoft Game Room Sucks; Let’s Fix It.

Posted by nfinit on June 8, 2010

I admit holding unreasonable hopes for Game Room when it was announced.  Microsoft and developer Krome promised the ultimate retro jukebox, a one-stop shop for the entire history of videogames.

The first sign that the hype of Game Room was far removed from reality came with the very first game pack.  No Pitfall!, no Adventure, no River Raid– No compelling 2600 titles at all, truth be told.  There was an odd emphasis placed on Intellivision titles, while the three genuinely good games present among those initial twenty-some-odd games– Tempest, Crystal Castles and Centipede– were broken in degrees ranging from mildly annoying (Tempest) to downright unplayable (Crystal Castles).  What was there was mostly awful and wasn’t was mostly broken.

The Promise of Outlaw 2600...

In the following months Microsoft has done little to sell the concept.  The initial slate of games was followed by a month-long wait for additional titles, with perhaps one or two titles in every additional pack proving enjoyable or even particularly playable.

...meets the horrible, deeply confusing reality

The most recent update to Game Room may in fact prove to be its most troubling, and in the words of Giantbomb.com, “looking back, may be the point where Game Room went off the rails

With every weekly update to Game Room, we were promised seven titles.  This week, the week of the 3rd, we instead received five.  If those five games only one title proved to be compelling, that being Missile Command, it itself being mostly broken thanks to the inefficiencies of the 360 thumbstick as compared to the arcade trackball.

The problems with Game Room may indeed prove to be too great to be fixed without a complete overhaul of the service, but here’s where I’d start:

1:  Expand beyond 2600 and Intellivision.

I’m not saying to stop producing 2600 and Intellivision games for the service entirely.  There are still important games for both systems that we’ve yet to see on Game Room, and they represent an insight to the sort of problems developers had to deal with when working with hardware that was underpowered even for its time period.  But what’s being released right now feels a lot like filler.  The Intellivision is a historical curiosity at best, whereas the 2600 catalog was so bad it nearly destroyed the videogame industry entirely.  Yet every update includes 4 or 5 of these titles.

Maybe Microsoft will never get the rights to emulate the NES on Game Room, but the 5200 existed.  Why have we yet to see any of those games?  The Colecovision was arguably as important and beloved as the Intellivision, if not more, and the MSX code is sitting around not making anyone any money whatsoever.   There’s a lot of room to explore before you get to the Crash, and a lot of this stuff we never heard about– the stuff that Game Room excels at– is nowhere to be found.

2:  Don’t double dip titles.


2b:  If you must double dip, put the good version out first.

The fact that the 2600 port of Millipede was released before the arcade version of Millipede is blatantly cynical cash-grab on Microsoft’s part, a borderline scummy action that will cause fans to hesitate before buying further console ports.  Instead,  include 2600/Intellivision ports when releasing the full arcade original.  Having the 2600 port of Millipede available with full version is a good way to illustrate the compromises made by game developers back before console hardware surpassed arcade hardware, but few people will be interested in buying the 2600 port when the arcade original is available for the same price, and if you release the arcade version later, buyers of the console port just feel ripped off.

(Note that there are some titles where this wouldn’t apply.  During the NES era developers gave up on the idea of trying to convert arcade titles whole cloth, instead rewriting games from the ground up to take advantage of the console market.  So releasing  Bionic Commano arcade separate from Bionic Commando NES makes perfect sense.  Somewhere around the PS1 era the situation actually reversed and the console port became the preferred version.  No one is interested in Tekken 2 arcade when the PS1 game does everything Tekken 2 does and adds more stuff.  But the same idea holds true– release the good version first, and in the case of 2600 ports where the console game is more an approximation of the original, release both at once.)

3:  Optimize controls for the 360 gamepad.

Non-standard arcade controllers– stuff that used paddles or trackballs instead of a joystick– are rendered all but unplayable using the 360 controller.  Crystal Castles is utterly broken on Game Room, whereas getting into high level  Missile Command play may prove literally impossible.

But it also extends to stuff that would be easy to fix if we were simply allowed the ability to fully customize the game’s controls.  As was previously discussed, the Xbox 360’s D-Pad is an awful, awful tool for the purpose of playing videogames, and many 2600 games pay the price for this as non-directional inputs often had to be placed in weird places on the joystick.  For instance, in River Raid one must press down on the joystick to decelerate the plane, upwards to gain speed, with the left/right controls responding differently depending on how fast the plane is going.  With the 360 d-pad it’s almost impossible not to press the diagonal when pressing left/right, resulting in a schizophrenic experience that leaves the player living in mortal fear of moving more than an inch away from the center of the screen, making even the most trivial fuel tank grab…

an exercise in sheer terror.

Now if we were allowed to, say, put accelerate on X and decelerate on A with “fire” mapped to a bumper, this problem is eliminated and you’d have a game that plays as least as well as the original.  Tempest is another good example– far too often it’s easy for the player’s ship to become stuck as the analog movement of the thumbstick no longer tracks correctly within the shape of the tube you’re flying around, resulting in a game that’s difficult if not impossible to partake in high level play using the standard controller.  If instead left/right were mapped to the shoulder triggers you’d accurately replicate the arcade paddle.

This is the sort of rudimentary shit that you expect to see implemented on every single game at Kongregate.com.\ a flagship XBLA product.  Jeff Minter was basically driven (more) insane by Microsoft’s certification process, yet somehow Krome has released five updates for Game Room and in not one of them has Crystal Castles been rendered a playable product.

4:  The arcade interface is a clumsy gimmick; get rid of it.

The “game room” idea of Game Room is interesting enough– A personal arcade that you slowly fill with authentic replicas of the original arcade machines.

The problem becomes evident when you realize most of the stuff released so far in Game Room aren’t arcade machines at all, but rather 2600 and Intellivision titles.  So instead of an arcade machine you get a model of an arcade cabinet with a 2600 glued to it for each individual 2600 game, a setup no one in their right mind would encounter as if you’re a functional adult with a game room you have a couch and a good TV and a box full of Atari games.  Most of these cabinets exist as a contrivance to fill up spots inside the arcade.  Cute yes, but also clunky.

Additionally, a large chunk of the games that existed as arcade titles are Konami games.  For whatever reason Konami refuses to use the original cabinets or the side art — instead there is this jarring generic black cabinet with a tiny marquee displaying the game’s title.  It looks like something someone with a MAME cabinet might cobble up with twenty bucks and three hours of effort.

Probably one of the top five arcade cabinets of all time and several layers of corporate indifference are keeping you from ever seeing it in Game Room.

For the handful of actual arcade titles that make full use of Game Room, it’s a great feature..  Some of this artwork is stunning in its detail and 80’s sci-fi aesthetic.  But for everything else that populates your arcade it’s just a clumsy gimmick that gets in the way of actually accessing the games you want to play.

for that matter, the entire interface for Game Room is clunky and needs an overhaul.  Trying to find the newest games is an onerous chore that’s best done from Major Nelson’s Twitter account.  There are no filters available for when a game first appeared on Game Room, just filters for year of release, platform it was released on, or title.  Also there’s no way to tell at a glance what games you’ve already demo’ed or any kind of rating system for the games you’ve tried but not purchased.  It’s just a dumb and clunky way to operate a list of games that’s already grown as large as it has, and something that will hopefully one day extend to hundreds of titles.

5:  Let Game Room become a museum for all (feasible) games.

If I had to name my one greatest frustration with Game Room– aside from seeing it populated with dreck like Haunted House and Outlaws– Is that it represents a missed opportunity to serve as a virtual history tour of the videogame industry.

By that I mean that there is almost no background provided with the games, at best a perfunctory paragraph or two.  There’s usually no indication of what influenced the developers, or how that title influenced further games, and there’s usually no real information on the developer.  There’s no story presented for these games and how they fit the greater narrative of the industry, and that’s a shame.

This moment in Adventure (and the game Adventure itself) is an important event in the history of videogames on several levels, but with Game Room you never really know why.

There’s a lot Microsoft could do to improve this.  There could be scans of instruction manuals and concept art.  For arcade games they could provide accurate 3d cabinet models.  They could provide streaming video via Xbox Live with developer interviews and the original commercials.

I should be able to look at Adventure for the 2600, play it and then bring up a menu showing that game’s impact on the game industry.  I should be able to sit a friend down and explain to them why something like Missile Command fit into the zeitgeist of the 80’s

Game Room could provide an entire history of the games industry in one easy-to-access package.  Instead we’re given mascots and fluff.  The confluence of events that resulted in Game Room may never be duplicated and the fact that it’s instead used as a vehicle to sell digital knickknacks is irresponsible.

6:  Reach beyond Konami and Atari.

Not saying that this won’t happen, but we’re into our fifth update and we’ve yet to see a single Namco, Capcom, Sega or Tatio game appear on the service.  These are all companies that have released classic titles for Xbox Live Arcade, so it’s not like they’re reluctant to work with Microsoft in this arena.  Sure, we’re probably never going see a Nintendo game or even a NES title, but there’s plenty of stuff that these companies have in their back catalog that does nothing but fill space on compilation discs.

Apparently Midway thought Defender was worth more money as a MAME rom than as a Game Room title. Observant readers will note that Midway is currently in Chapter 11.

If it’s a matter of price, then that’s workable.  It was never possible to get Namco to agree that Dig Dug should have price parity with 2600 games.  We need pricing tiers;  there’s simply no way to defend the idea that Outlaws (a game that has no single player component at all)  should be sold for the same price as Millipede.

7:  Address the broken games.

One of the unspoken secrets of Game Room is how many games don’t actually work within the service at all.  Take Combat for the 2600 for instance.  Combat never had a single-player component.  It was one tank (or plane, or jet fighter) vs another in brutal, one-on-one… combat.  The 2600 probably wasn’t even capable of producing a compelling opponent AI even if the designers had wanted.  As Game Room games are as authentically reproduced as possible (or, a someone of a more cynical bent may assume, cheaply reproduced as possible) the Game Room version of 2600 features no enemy AI either.

Before Call of Duty re-introduced us to the idea that single player campaigns don't really matter, there was Combat. Also Jimmy Carter was President and we were still making the Trans-Am. Overall it was just a better time to be alive.

Now, this is not unusual for 360 games, some are simply meant to be played online.  The problem is that Game Room  games can’t be played online.  You can have a second player with a second 360 controller join in on your 360 sure, but this is going to be a rare occurrence, and for most users Combat is broken and unplayable.

The other solution is to stop trying to sell this game at the same price as the most compelling and fully featured games on the service.  This philosophy can be extended to games that may fit within the feature set of Game Room but are of obviously inferior quality.  Don’t try to tell us that Grand Prix is on the same threshold of quality as Tempest.  Grand Prix doesn’t keep score and thus lacks the Ranked Mode feature that makes Game Room games inherently replayable.  Grand Prix, Combat, Outlaws, Skiing and other titles are obviously broken on the service and either need to be fixed (not likely considering Krome’s lack of effort exhibited so far) or simply not try to sell form for the same three dollars asked for River Raid and Tempest.

8:  Make all previously released XBLA arcade games Game Room games.

Xbox Live Arcade was an outstanding retro jukebox even before Game Room was introduced.  You can play everything from Rally X to Puzzle Fighter to Outrun 2 without ever turning off your system.  If anything, the arcade content on Xbox Live Arcade is more compelling than anything released for Game Room and serves as a much more useful history of the gaming industry.  The only problem is, none of those games are integrated to the Game Room.  Would it be all that difficult to simply plug Mortal Kombat into the service?  Retro fans would probably be willing to pay a couple dollars for the arcade cabinet and an integrated Ranked Mode– plus once they’re inside Game Room they may be willing to buy more Game Room games.

This argument becomes even more compelling when you realize that a great many previously released XBLA retro titles have been pulled from the service entirely due to low sales.  The work of getting Rally X onto XBLA has already been provided, the arcade boards perfectly emulated within the 360.  With that done, Game Room integration should be a trivial matter. I could be wrong, but how much more could this possibly cost, especially as this code is not making anyone any money whatsoever?

I'm posting this image to remind you all that one day Pac-Man 2600 will be released for Game Room when you could be playing this instead.

In closing, I’d like to state that it’s painfully obvious that Krome and Microsoft want to get away with the least amount of effort possible in Game Room while still monetizing the experience at every turn.  The company is more interested in selling mascots than in producing a compelling product.  As it stands there is nothing in Game Room that isn’t better served within any number of complication discs you can find most (if not all)  of these titles collected within, and the only compelling feature of the service– The ranked mode which allows for online challenges and achievement tracking– isn’t functional within a great many of the games within the service.

There is nothing wrong with Game Room that isn’t a direct reflection of Krome’s lack of effort in producing content for the service.  It’s fixable; it’s just that we’ve yet to see any indication in the past two months that Krome has the ability or wherewithal to do so.

Posted in Retro Wankery, Sperging about games | 4 Comments »

Wallet Abuse Wednesday 3-24-10: Buy iJumpman!

Posted by nfinit on March 23, 2010

It’s Retro Week here at Wallet Abuse, as there’s two retro-themed items you need to know about– One of which you really need to buy like, right fucking now and another which only I’m probably the only person in the room who’s really interested in it despite being a major push by Microsoft itself.  Anyway, onto the thing every last one of you jerks need to buy:

It’s iJumpman, by mcc!

I normally don’t talk about digital downloads here as getting anything resembling a coherent release schedule is damned near impossible and the best I could do is to report about the games a week late– and certainly I don’t talk about iPhone games here, the silly thing isn’t a console and roughly fifty thousand are released each week, most of which I have been lead to believe are some variation of Desktop Tower Defense, only with fart noises and motion control.

iJumpman though, is none of those things.  Instead it’s a retro-inspired (I believe the kids use the phrase low-fi) puzzle platformer where the player manipulates the level as much as they manipulate their own character.  It works better if you see the official vid:

There’s also a free Windows/Mac version up at runhello.com

iJumpan reminds me a lot of what the original Atari 2600 devs would have done had you put a Mode 7 chip into the VCS as well as a massive amount of RAM and an actual working CPU and maybe a GPU of some sort and a useable controller.

iJumpman is from friend of the blog mcc, who is both more handsome and smarter than you are.  Give him your money!  Also ask him about lasers!  Dude can go all day about lasers!

Okay so for the second retro download this week and the part that likely only interests me due to the markedly high chance of one day playing Moon Patrol on my 360:

Microsoft Game Room is here!

Presumably.

Sometime this week.  I hope.  Truth be told it might be on Xbox Live Marketplace as we speak, but the 360 navigation menu is only slightly more comprehensible than Linear A.  Supposedly upon release.. which may or may not have happened earlier this afternoon.. Microsoft Game Room will feature 30+ classic arcade/pre-Crash titles, with seven added each week until such point as Microsoft runs out of things to emulate or they accidentally release the 2600 A-Team prototype and the entire Entertainment and Devices Division winds up the property of Stephen J. Cannell.

Anyway, with all this retro wankery going about, I felt it best to judge this week’s games vs their appropriate pre-Crash title.

Imagine:  Gymnast

Publisher:  Ubisoft

Developer:  At This Point, Probably an Algorithm Specifically Designed To Crush The Dreams of Little Girls

Platforms:  Nintendo DS

Never let it be said that I lie to my readers.
https://i1.wp.com/www.collegian.psu.edu/photos/2009/04/03/7_640x360.jpg
It’s cool, she’s in college!
Okay so here’s the deal.  No more shovelware games unless I find them personally amusing and/or an excuse to post salacious pictures.
No more Imagine, no more Petz, no more Detineer or Zoo Games, no more painfully obvious Nicktoons cash-ins clogging up this page.  No one wants to buy this shit, and I ran out anything interesting to say about Imagine games the first time I mentioned that buying your little girl a game specifically designed to re-enforce gender stereotypes just seemed a little off.  Companies like Dreamcatcher Interactive are destroying my will to like good games, draining me of the time and enthusiasm to talk about stuff that really matters, like say:

Just Cause 2
Publisher:  Square Enix by way of Eidos Interactive
Developer:  Avalanche Studios
Platforms:  Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC, the insides of my dream

Kids, you remember Mercenaries 2?

untitled-30.jpg picture by bigredcoat

Yeah, we can all admit now that Mercs 2 was kinda terrible.
Kids, you remember how you wanted to remember Mercenaries 2?  Open world mayhem and utter destruction without the janky, unpolished feel that made Mercs 2 the sort of game that you had to convince yourself you were enjoying?  Okay, maybe Mercs 2 is a bad selling point. Let’s start over
Kids, you remember Red Faction: Guerrilla, right?  Alright, how imagine RF:G, but with grappling hooks.
Just Cause 2.  It’s sorta like that.  If this is your sort of game then I don’t need to tell you to buy this, you’ll already own a copy as soon as it comes off the trucks at Best Buy.  If this isn’t your sort of game– and by “your sort of game” I mean “you like being able to ram trucks loaded with explosive barrels into buildings just to watch that entire building explode” then be aware that open world games like Just Cause 2 carry baggage– namely that it’s never going to feel as complete nor as polished as a Modern Warfare 2.  But such is the price of videogame freedom.

WHICH CLASSIC PRE-CRASH TITLE DOES THIS GAME MOST RESEMBLE?

riddle_of_the_sphinx.png picture by bigredcoat
Riddle of the Sphinx!  (Atari 2600)
Sometimes the word “classic” doesn’t really mean “classic” as much as it means “this thing is old and awkward”, sort of like if an Andre the Giant match were to appear on WWE Classics.  Anyway, Riddle of the Sphinx represents something of an early sandbox game in that there was no real goal to what you were basically left to wander around to your own devices and just make things happen.  It also proved to be staggeringly complex, with a control scheme that used both 2600 controllers and the difficulty switches and TV Black/White switch on the 2600 console itself, something I didn’t realize until twenty some odd years after I stole procured Riddle of the Sphinx from a friend in elementary school.  Easily the worst possible thing I’ve ever broken up with a friend for.  But I mean, just look at the cart, for fuck’s sake:

https://i2.wp.com/www.atariguide.com/c2/Riddle_of_the_Sphinx_287.jpg
How could I help myself?

Moto GP ’09/’10
Publisher:  Capcom
Developer:  Monumental Studios
Platforms:  Playstation 3, Xbox 360

By all rights, I should love the Moto GP series.  After all, I love games with bikes:

the-ninja-warriors-again.png picture by bigredcoat

and I love games with racing

chase-hq-4.png picture by bigredcoat

So why am I utterly unimpressed by every motorcycle racing game I’ve ever played not specifically named “Road Rash”?
I blame the series on it’s rather exacting handling and twin-stick control scheme… well that and a lack of ninja robots.  Apparently this revision includes a more forgiving physics model and a more traditional racing-game control scheme, so maybe I’ll pick this up if and when Capcom includes brutal physical assault along with the free 2010 track downloads.
Unfortunately, the bike racing bike racing fans really want to get to– the beastly 800cc bikes– are locked away until you complete the 125 and 250cc campaigns.  This is a highly regressive practice, especially in the face of Forza Racing 3. It’s encouraging to see racing game embrace driving lines and rewind functions, however, even if this particular game lacks a restart feature for whatever insane reason.

WHICH CLASSIC PRE-CRASH TITLE DOES THIS GAME MOST RESEMBLE?

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/d/d1/Fonz_1976_sega_arcade.PNG
THE FONZ! (Arcade)
It was hard to find a pre-Crash motorcycle-themed title, and even harder not to just throw my hands up in the air and post a picture of Stunt Cycle, but luckily Sega somehow managed to trick Paramount Television into allowing this to happen, resulting in what may well result in the underpinnings for Super-Hang On.  But probably not.

But you’d have thought a Fonz game would work, right?  So it’s sort of like MotoGP 09/10 in that regard– Motorcycle arcade games seem like a rock-solid idea, yet they rarely wind up being worthwhile.

Red Steel 2
Publisher:  Ubisoft
Developer:  Ubisoft Paris
Platforms:  Wii
So here we have a game that utilizes the Wii Motion Plus attachment in a unique combination of first person shooter gameplay and swordsmanship with compelling cell-shaded art style that plays well with the Wii’s hardware.  What we’re not sure of yet is if these elements combine to form a good game, but you have to like everything that surrounds it and it’s the sort of thing Wii-owning hardcore gamers have been begging for from third parties.

It’s also the sort of game that hardcore gamers should very much want to see succeed.  And while I say that I’m not encouraging the flawed practice of buying specific games with the goal of being rewarded by seeing more games like it released… it’s not like there have been a lot of hardcore Wii games released lately.  What do you think you’re doing, saving money?

WHICH CLASSIC PRE-CRASH TITLE DOES THIS GAME MOST RESEMBLE?

182_2.png picture by bigredcoat
Bank Panic!  (Arcade)

Just barely making the cut as a pre-Crash title, Sega’s little-known arcade shooter featured… the old west.. and.  Guns.  Sort of.  There were surprisingly few pre-Crash old west-themed games ever released, and absolutely nothing that included both shooting things with guns and cutting them up with swords.  I guess selectable weapon technology was beyond the grasp of game developers before the NES invented a Select button.

Rooms:  The Main Building
Publisher:  Konami
Developer:  Hudson Soft
Platform:  Wii, Cracker Barrel Gift Shop, Dollar Store, McDonald’s Happy Meal
So this is a sliding puzzle game.
On disc.
For thirty dollars.
In 2010.
ScreenShot Image
Okay correction, an absolutely hideous sliding puzzle game on disc for thirty dollars in 2010.  This is some Destineer-quality shit, and makes it hard to remember that this is the same company that occasionally puts out incredible stuff like Lost in Shadow and… um…
https://i2.wp.com/media.giantbomb.com/uploads/0/5911/919573-14026_large.jpg
No, wait
Oh, that’s unfortunate
No, not that either…

Okay that’s good enough.
Seriously though, has there been a more inconsistent used-to-be-relevant game developer in recent memory?  These guys had their own fucking console for a while and now they can’t even get Bomberman right.  If it wasn’t for the fact that the Mario Party games somehow sold seven hundred billion copies it’s hard to imagine they’d still exist.

WHICH CLASSIC PRE-CRASH TITLE DOES THIS GAME MOST RESEMBLE?

3d_tic-tac-toe.png picture by bigredcoat
3D Tic Tac Toe! (Atari 2600)

A barely justifiable digital version of a game that works perfectly well without any transistors whatsoever.  I hate to admit that I actually owned this thing, but for the life of me I don’t understand what my reasoning was behind begging my mom to buy it.  What’s even weirder was that I didn’t own my 2600 until well after the Crash and while my friends were all happily playing NES games– for whatever twisted reason I chose to spend time and my parent’s money with this instead of Castlevania.  The 80’s were a deeply confusing time for everyone involved.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
Publisher:  Atlus
Developer:  Atlus/Lancarse
Platforms:  Nintendo DS
All the previews for Strange Journey seem incredibly positive, and well they should– it reads a lot like a combination of Etrain Odyssey and the dungeon-exploring bits of Shen Megami/Persona games minus the all the annoying RPG bits.
Of course this also means you’re playing a SMT game sans improbably leggy Japanese schoolgirls, but the ESRB had to give in an “M” for some good reason, so I’m holding out hope something fucked up happens later on.
WHICH CLASSIC PRE-CRASH TITLE DOES THIS GAME MOST RESEMBLE?
AD&D:  TREASURE OF TARMIN!  (Intellivision)
File:ADDTarmin.png
Finding a pre-Crash console 3d dungeon romp proved difficult, as pre-Crash consoles had no business playing RPGs or 3d games.  I badly wanted to  put Xanadu here both for its fantastic early 80’s anime box art and the fact that it was actually Japanese, but it came in a year after the Crash itself… Oh, what the hell.
https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/84/Xanadu_MSX_Cover.jpg
NEXT WEEK~!
SAKURA WARS:  SO LONG MY LOVE somehow combines Annie Oakley, Anime, 1920’s Manhattan and Giant Robots.  GAME OF THE FOREVER.

DEAD OR ALIVE PARADISE is easily the skeeviest, most embarrassing game released… in at least three weeks.  Seriously, it’s softcore porn.
GRAND THEFT AUTO IV:  EPISODES FROM LIBERTY CITY will challenge you with full frontal male nudity; Microsoft’s fundamental understanding of the term “exclusive content”

Posted in Retro Wankery, Wallet Abuse | 1 Comment »

Bad Controllers: The Jaguar

Posted by nfinit on February 13, 2010

Observant Bigredcoat readers have noticed that I tend to use the Bad Controllers feature to pick on Atari.  There’s a good reason for that– Atari spent nearly thirty years making terrible game consoles and could not once produce a game controller meant for human hands.  Even their lone commercial success, the 2600, requires that you partake in a fair bit of nostalgic wistfulness before you can admit it’s controller wasn’t a catastrophic failure of the understanding of the design of the human wrist.

Now, I like Atari.  I grew up with Atari, and Atari games are what made me fall in love with gaming.  Atari is the gift that keeps on giving, as their commercial exploits– or failure thereof– have provided me hours of easy blog content.  But sadly, the Atari gravy train is nearing its end, as today’s update will explore Atari’s last console and it’s into experimental interrogation techniques disguised as controller design, the Atari Jaguar.

https://i0.wp.com/www.breakfrom.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/jaguar.jpg
One of the terms that sports writers get to throw around a lot is “historically bad”.  “Historically bad” describes awfulness that goes above and beyond mere failure, awfulness that sticks out in a sea of suck, awfulness that sets the standard for futility for future generations.  The 2003 Detroit Tigers were historically bad, having lost more games than any single team in American League history.  The Carolina Panther’s Chris Weinke was a historically bad quarterback, having lost 17 games in a row and sporting two wins in five years in the NFL.

If any entity within the videogame realm qualifies for historically bad status, then it’s Atari..  We’re talking about the company that all but created the Crash of 1984 and the near-destruction of the console gaming industry; the company that turned away the rights to publish Nintendo’s NES; the company that thought it was a better idea to sit on a warehouse full of completed 7800 consoles for two years instead of actually selling the stupid things– So the infuriating thing about this article is having to admit that Atari very nearly came close to producing something that looked like a good system with the Jaguar.

Now, I don’t mean “good” in terms of hardware– the console itself was a nightmarish amalgamation of half a dozen chipsets running under radically different architectures with no clearly defined CPU– Nor do I mean they did a particularly good job marketing the system, as they forced the “64 bit” thing down everyone’s throat despite not being able to provide a clear case for why the Jaguar was a 64 bit system.  Even the poorly documented development tools provided by Atari seemed designed to thwart any attempt at producing decent games for the system.  Yet despite these flaws– and the overseeing malevolent eye of Jack Tramiel– the Jaguar managed to produce a handful of decent games, something Atari hadn’t managed to do in quite literally decades.

Well okay, maybe two.  But still, this was more decent gaming than Atari had managed to pump out with the 5200 or 7800 or the Lynx, and we’re dealing with a period in gaming history when developers had a wealth of platforms to develop games for.  They’re just lucky that Jeff Minter is more concerned with the benefits of psychotropic drugs than making money off his work.

But maybe it’s a good thing the Jag sported as few compelling games as it did.  After all, if it had any more than Tempest 2k and Aliens vs Predator going for it, we’d have to actually use this  goddamed thing:

https://i2.wp.com/img.villagephotos.com/p/2008-2/1299319/JAGUAR7.JPG

**

The first thing you’re struck by when viewing the Jaguar gamepad is that there’s too many buttons, and nearly all of them are in the wrong place.  This wealth of buttons has its roots back in Atari’s own pre-Crash roots, where plastic overlays were considered important elements of the gaming experience.  More on that later.

The second thing you’re struck by is that despite this embarrassment of buttons, the thing somehow manages to not have nearly enough buttons, or at least enough buttons where they might be of some actual use.  Remember, this was 1994– Games were massively more complex than what could reasonably be played on a 3-button pad and fighting and sports games ruled the market.  Even Sega admitted that the standard Genesis 3-button gamepad simply could not compete with the wealth of input options offered by the SNES and released a superb six-button pad of their own in 1993.  Yet here was the Jaguar sporting all of three action buttons and still Atari wanted to sell the Jaguar as the most advanced games machine ever released.   I mean, maybe this was a workable gamepad for when you just needed to port Final Fight.  Aliens vs Predator?  Not so much.

The Jaguar was one of those weird transitional consoles that popped up between the end of the 16 bit era but before anyone was really interested in upgrading their systems, and in many ways its design reflects how it was stuck between the 16-bit and PlayStation  eras.  It was one of those systems that had an add-on CD player, for instance, back before console developers knew better than to split their userbase in two–

well, before they’d do it again, at any rate.  The design of the controller itself is probably the best reflection of just how caught in time the Jaguar really was– in between not having enough action buttons to faithfully replicate a game of Super Mario World, the designers saw fit to re-introduce a design cue last seen in 1982–

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You may remember these systems as being the last consoles released before the entire industry COLLAPSED UPON ITSELF.  Now I don’t want to sit here and blame the entire Crash on  controllers that looked like a Motorola DynaTAC 8000, but you will remember that the very first console to actually make money after the crash went back to two action buttons and a d-pad.  Just saying.  Anyway.  This damned thing.

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The idea was that gamers would pop in a plastic overlay over this section of the pad and thus every game developed could sport its own customized controller layout.  Which was fine, until you realize that the keypad was so far away where a normal person would want reach while playing a game that it may as well reside on nether regions of an enraged  gorilla.

The whole point of the overlay is vaguely silly anyway.  If there’s any point in a game where I feel compelled to look down to see what button I’m supposed to be pressing, then you’ve failed as a game designer.  This is why tactile feedback is so important to gamepad design and why the Genesis and SNES pads were rather outstanding– The SNES featured a row of scalloped and convex buttons, whereas the Genesis had a bump on the middle action button.  You always knew where your thumb was resting .

(Sadly this idea was forgotten sometime after the release of the Gamecube pad– to this day I cannot tell you exactly where the face buttons are on any Playstation gamepad, and if prompted by a quick time event I have to look down at the buttons to see where the “X” button is at.)

And then there are the myriad of other, smaller problems with the Jaguar pad.  The D-pad, for instance, is a flat featureless cross inexplicably surrounded by a raised circle that thwart attempts to make simple rolling motions, and the action buttons themselves are amorphous blobs with no analogous shape found in Euclidean geometry.  The shape of the pad is not designed to be held as much as it is engineered to feel like it’s in constant danger of slipping out of your hands.

The baffling thing about the Atari Jaguar gamepad is that Atari would go on to use this same design to develop a very good gamepad, the Atari Pro Controller, representing the only example of Atari ever building a device that did not inflict intense physical punishment upon anyone attempting to interface with it: The Atari Jaguar Pro Controller.

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Not only did Atari finally manage to develop a controller meant to be held by a human hand, having excised sloping surface present on the original controller, leaving a nearly flat surface that doesn’t actively try to squirm free from your grasp, and there were enough buttons present that you could wholly ignore the keypad, provided the game you were playing were developed with the Pro Controller in mind.  Which, of course, seeing as the Jaguar itself only sold around 200 thousand units, meant that few games were developed to do so. But hey, if you ever want to play an authentic game of Primal Rage, this is the gamepad you want to have on hand.

Make no mistake, the Atari Jaguar would have been a colossal failure even if it sported the best game pad ever made.  The whole operation was handled in the way the Tramiels always did business– cheaply, and with obvious contempt toward consumers and developers.  Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Jaguar is that it’s failure would represent the final indignity the Tramiel family would be allowed to commit upon the gaming industry.  By the time the Jaguar’s fate became obvious to everyone involved, Sony had so fundamentally changed the business of console gaming that it would be impossible for any company that wasn’t an enormous corporate behemoth to compete– which, when you’re dealing with a family as regressive as the Tramiels, isn’t always a bad thing.

Posted in Bad Controllers, Retro Wankery, Sperging about games | 2 Comments »

Authenticating the Xbox Game Room Experience

Posted by nfinit on January 24, 2010

Save for a brief dalliance with online Street Fighter IV, I’ve managed to avoid the siren’s call of Xbox Live Arcade Gold membership.

Paying for online service seems a punitive and regressive tact for Microsoft to take as compared to the fully functional free services offered by Sony (and to a lesser extent, Nintendo) and the fluff services that Microsoft has tried to attach to Live Gold (Twitter, Facebook, Last FM) have yet to entice me as these services work perfectly well for free on the regular ol’ Internet.

So I’m a fairly satisfied second-class Xbox 360 owner, and I’d be hard pressed to think of a service which would sway my opinion and warrant another $50/year bill to my credit card– Well, I mean, unless Microsoft had a plan to create your own arcade space within Live using retro arcade games where your friends could come and visit then yeah, I’d probably have to break down and buy Live Gold for that.

(via Kotaku)

(via Destructoid)

(via Giant Bomb)

…motherfucker

However, Microsoft being Microsoft, I’m concerned that they may push the ideal of the arcade over the reality of the arcade– namely,a bright, safe, clean, a place you don’t dread walking into, nothing of which represented the actual authentic arcade experience.  And I think a lot of reason for that is that most gamers haven’t actually been inside an arcade.  They went out of business!  Arcades were dank, dismal places that probably did more harm than good to the gaming industry and it’s no mistake that as soon as home consoles could convincingly replicate Tekken without need for specialized hardware that the arcade industry in America died virtually overnight.

So if we’re going to do this right, I want my arcade experience to authentically replicate the arcade as I knew it personally, if perhaps for no other reason than for my arcade to serve as a lesson for generations to come:

Clifford

Possessing no discernable form of income, no car of his own, nor any detectable identity away from the immediate confines of the mall arcade, and likely operating under a variety of illegal narcotics, Clifford exists for one reason and one reason alone– to defeat you at Street Fighter.  Clifford is an implacable arcade game playing machine, laying waste to all in his path, issuing mocking dismissals to his opponents even as his quarters fall into the catch box.

If Clifford were to direct his natural game-playing skills toward something useful instead of mastering Guile’s seven hit corner handcuff combo he could have become one of the great chess grand champions, or world-famous poker player. As it stands he uses a mixture of phenomenal natural talents and a drug-induced haze to make sure you won’t spend more than two minutes at any given Street Fighter cabinet before slinking off to a nice safe game of Fatal Fury Special.


Phillip

The straight-laced, methodical Ryu to Clifford’s cocky and overbearing Ken; Phillip may seem a nice fellow with a good-paying job (despite also seemingly never leaving the arcade) and a bright future ahead of him– but make no mistake about it, Phillip also exists entirely to take your hard-earned tokens away from your pockets, denying you even the visceral thrill of Clifford’s elaborate, flashy 27-second long air juggles as he executes an endless, demoralizing, boring secession of three-hit Jumping Fierce-> Crouching Jab-> Fierce Fireball combos.

Possessing no discernable personality of his own, Phillip eschews Clifford’s opiate-induced zen state for a mixture of his own superb skills and an obsessive amount of research to stifle his foes.  Phillip will peruse messageboards, usenet, YouTube, ancient Assyrian texts, anything at his disposal in order to gain an advantage, all to perfect the exact frame of animation where Ryu’s first pixel of fist interacts with Chun Li’s hitbox.

Battles between Phillip and Clifford often take hours to complete and are fully capable of depleting the gold reserves of developing nations.  These conflicts will usually end with Phillip issuing grudging respect toward Clifford’s abilities while Clifford will ask for a ride to a friend he knows who “owes him some money”.

That One Awesome Machine That’s Always Broken

Maybe it’s a deluxe Galaxy Force machine with full rotating cockpit, a Capcom Dungeons and Dragons arcade machine, or  a two person Tokyo Wars booth, but whatever it is it’s by far the coolest machine in the entire arcade and it’s always broken.  Maybe you’ve heard about another machine like it in a Chuck E Cheese three towns away, but the one time you drove out there to lay witness to a fully functional version of That One Awesome Machine That’s Always Broken you found a barren lot overrun by wild marsupials and vagrants.  You’ve never actually managed to play That One Awesome Machine That’s Always Broken yourself, but you’re sure that if you were to experience but a credit’s play on the machine that you could die a happy man.

On the rare occasions where you’ve actually seen it operational That One Awesome Machine That’s Always Broken is almost always being surrounded by….

Foundlings

You don’t know how they got there and no one will take responsibility for the little bastards, but they’re invariably all over the place, under foot, slamming violently on buttons to machines they don’t have quarters to play, waving their hands between you and the screen, begging for quarters, screaming with the staff over the crane machine, asking if anyone has seen their dad, running cover for their friend who’s being chased by a liquid metal assassin robot from the future, breaking the Galaxy Force cabinet again… And the worst bit is how you’re utterly powerless against these little brats as you just know if you ask the kid if he’d mind moving out-of-the-way so you can play some Captain Commando that his meth-riddled mom who’s been using the mall as her own personal daycare will materialize to knee you mercilessly in the crotch.

Dropping off the kids at the arcade was a classic late 80’s/early 90’s white trash child rearing technique and one wonders where these mothers abandoned  their children once the arcades began closing their doors.  It’s interesting to note that this dovetails nicely with the rise of the homeschooling phenomenon in the United States– Could it be that the collapse of the American arcade industry left millions of mothers with little option but to force their kids to stay at home?  Would America be facing its current public education crisis if Daytona USA had never been developed?  Most importantly, are we raising an entire generation of children lacking an instinctual smooth crouching roundhouse into a double fireball?

A Row of Daytona USA Machines


As much as I love Sega of yore, I have to wonder exactly how much the success of Daytona USA played into the eventual downfall of the arcade.  Sure, most people like to point fingers to the proliferation of fighting games, but it always seemed to me that the Daytona USA machine– while undoubtably popular– took up most of the oxygen for the casual arcade fan.  How many times would someone pop into the arcade, see the Dayona USA machine in use, only to walk back out again without dropping a single token in an NBA Jam machine?

I contend that the success of Daytona USA forced arcade operators to stuff their arcades with ever more elaborate Daytona USA setups, eventually forcing operators to spend tens of thousands of dollars on multiple four-player cabinet setups– which in itself set up an arms race between arcade developers to release the most eye-cacthing, stupidly expensive, space-hogging arcade cabinets imaginable, culminating in Dance Dance Revolution and the spectacle of thousands of obese pasty geeks sweating profusely as they attempt a sadistic form of digital Riverdance.

Posted in Retro Wankery, Sperging about games | 1 Comment »

Greatest Games Ever– Magician Lord

Posted by nfinit on November 21, 2009

This pretty much encapsulates everything I've ever wanted to do with my life

Chances are you’ve never heard of Magician Lord, much less ever actually run across the game– It was an early 90’s SNK arcade release, one of the very first wave of games released to America using the Neo-Geo hardware, and to be honest the only time ever encountered the game in the wild was in a little laundromat arcade back in Conover, North Carolina, back when you could count on laundromats and Pizza Huts and even convenience stores to have at least one good arcade cabinet hiding somewhere, usually with some forborne store manager muttering under his breath why he just doesn’t get rid of that stupid machine.

But that old SNK cabinet– an six-game MVS unit no less, capable of playing an entire arcade’s worth of games with a single button– played a huge role in my budding gaming obsession.  An inordinate chunk of my free time was spent hoarding quarters for the weekly Saturday afternoon trip to the laundromat, and I’d be heartbroken if my dad would decide on a whim that it’d be better to drive to a different one instead.   In that cabinet laid some of the greatest examples of classic sixteen bit arcade gameplay that could be found– Cyber-Lip, Sengoku, Baseball Stars, Crossed Swords, including a harbinger of a troubling obsession that’d drive SNK for the next twenty years– the very first Fatal Fury.

Ninja + Anything is a good shot for awesome, something the Wachowski brothers know well.

But the game that enchanted my heart in that old MVS cabinet, and the subject for today’s update is Magician Lord, a game you’ve probably never played, yet something I consider on of the greatest games ever made.

Magician Lord is as old-school Japanese as a game can be without involving 16-bit dithered hentai and Majong.  Take for instance the spiked balls that continually plague our hero– Now, in most games, you’ll get some sort of warning before something drops from the roof onto your head.  Maybe there will be a shadow on the ground, or maybe you’ll hear a distinctive clink-clink-clink from the chain holding the spiked ball aloft shortly before it dents your head in, or maybe the ball will simply fall slow enough for the quick-witted player to avoid a concussion.  Not Magician Lord!  You find out where the spiked balls have been hidden by having them land on your impudent little wizard skull.  Be more careful next time!

Magician’s Lord is an Arcade Game, and is not shy about its intentions.  It’s there to squeeze as much money out of you as possible while at the same time keeping you around with it’s stellar gameplay and enormous, gorgeously detailed sprites.  Dying  places you right back where you came from, with enemies, even bosses, having retained the same amount of damage as before, even after using a continue.  Bosses were quarter sponges– the art wasn’t in getting past them, it was doing so by spending as little money as possible.  Of course, that’s hard to convey in this day and age of emulators with save states and limitless continues, but if it makes you feel better you can add up the theoretical money  the first level skeleton miniboss would have deprived you from and then subtract that from how many theoretical copies of Todd McFarlane Spider-Man comics that’d have bought you instead.  There’s no small wonder I was never into comics in my formative years.

But back to those graphics.  I hate to talk about graphics when talking about older stuff , it seems like we should be above stuff like that at this point.  But there’s something about a huge, well-animated sprite that just doesn’t come across in a 3d model, no matter how much geometry you try to shove into it, and few developers have had the talent at drawing a sprite than SNK.  Magician Lord is a sadistic mistress who knows full well you’re there to gawk while being punished.  If you wanted to be treated with respect you’d be playing something sensible like After Burner.  Magician Lord’s spritework still hold up today, evoking stylistic hints that’d crop back up in SNK classics like the Metal Slug series.

This was about the exact moment I realized America could never be as cool as Japan

This was the exact moment I realized America could never be as cool as Japan

 

Of course, we’re talking about the 16 bit arcade era; and none of this would matter if the gameplay couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain.  And while there isn’t terrible much so far as controls– Walk left and right, fire and jump– what it has is spot on, and while you die often you’ll know full well the cause of your death was because your reflexes weren’t up to the task of avoiding the game’s many sadistic, credit-soaking traps.

Being an SNK game the story is delightfully incomprehensible.  At some arbitrary point in the level– quite often it felt like the designers just decided the current level had gone on long enough– You’ll be presented with some variation of a magical skeleton possessing a scimitar that will run back and forth trying to run you over or cleave your head open with a diving chop or at one point turning itself into a meteor– defeat this midboss and you’re berated by an evil wizard shortly before being forced to do battle with some variation of a face-in-a-wall mid-level boss.

"Impudent Human" was the original name for this blog.  True story.

Now that you see the butt chin you can't unsee it.

 

The levels themselves are not structured in a typical “run to the right and end” sort of way, they stroll as much vertically as they do horizontally and there’s no obvious path to which to find the end of any given level, and there’s a good amount of secret doors.  Every once in a while you’ll wander across a powerup that’ll transform your wizard into a dragon or a ninja, but they’re rare and honestly overpowered for the game proper, and as you’re nearly always losing health in this game you lose the transformations pretty quickly.

And that’s all there is to it, really.  A sprawling level that feels something like the town levels from Castlevania 2 and a couple bosses at the end that follow a rather predictable pattern.  Sometimes that’s all it takes, just doing one very simple thing and doing it exceptionally well.  Magician Lord is enjoyed for its gameplay and it’s art, and since it’s an arcade game, it never overstays it’s welcome– you can always just wander off to the next machine if you get bored.  That’s something that’s just not feasable for games today.  In Magician Lord you understand what you’re there to do in the first ten seconds of the game.  There’s not even a multiplayer mode, it’s strictly man vs stacks of expensive early 90’s ROM boards.  What you make of it past that point is entirely up to the player.  The only platform something like that is allowable on today is cell phone games,  and even they’re becoming mired in complexity thanks to the iPhone and Droid.

Perhaps "volume 1" was being a bit pretentious

 

Magician Lord encapsulates a history and a franchise all its own.  SNK stopped making platform shooters early in the Neo Geo’s life and focused on beat ’em ups and fighters up until Metal Slug, which may represent a sort of spiritual successor to Magician Lord, although it’s obvious the Metal Slug series owes more to Contra than anything else.  There was never a sequel and the game was largely forgotten until it popped back up with last year’s SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1, which is a solid retro purchase, encapsulating all the high notes of SNK’s early arcade work save for the lamentable exception of Cyber-Lip.

Posted in Retro Wankery, Sperging about games, The Greatest Games Ever | 8 Comments »