Archive for January, 2009

Throwback games are awesome.

The other day I was making the usual internet rounds, and came across some people on a retrogaming site talking about an upcoming Wii Ware title, called Bit.Trip Beat. I was intrigued, and went looking for the trailer they mentioned.

To me it looks like what Space Invaders Extreme was to Space Invaders, only in this case, to Pong. I’m a fan of those games with dynamic soundtracks, like the aforementioned Space Invaders Extreme, Orbient, or Rez. And the total late 70s/early 80s graphics are just too awesome to someone whose earliest memories include playing the family Atari.

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Cave Story mosaic

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Spacewar: It’s just a trick of Velocity

Something I’ve noticed in a few puzzle games that came out last year, such as Strange Attractors 2 and Orbient, is the focus on gravity and velocity. In both games you are completely at the mercy of these two forces of nature, and you can only indirectly interact with objects around you.

Spacewar! In a sense these games, as well as a few other examples, owe a great deal to arguably the first major game, Spacewar. Spacewar was initially released in 1962 by a group of computer hackers at MIT who, upon getting access to the university’s fancy new PDP-1 computer, proceeded to pool their efforts and write one awesome head-to-head game. The premise is simple enough—each player controls a ship and tries to blow up the other guy while utilizing a limited supply of fuel and ammunition.

What makes the game interesting is the role of gravity. The ships are circling a star, and crashing into it will destroy you. The star’s gravity will pull you in or fling you out, depending on how well you can utilize it. Though you do have direct control over your ship, your thruster isn’t good for much more than maneuvering. Firing the rocket long enough to actually move independently of the star will drain your fuel in about 28 seconds. The winner is the person who can keep gravity from becoming an enemy.

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Nintendo music on the melodica

I love vintage children’s instruments, and I try to collect them. (It goes along with the edutainment thing, I guess.) I really like miniature accordions, toy pianos, and different types of glockenspiels.

Usually I troll YouTube for ukulele covers, but tonight I figured, hey. Ukulele is stale. I ought to listen to melodica covers instead.

Now, the melodica is an interesting instrument. It looks like a child’s instrument, like some common recorder or penny whistle, but it has a really warm, organic sound that hints at its relation to the accordion and harmonica. But it doesn’t sound quite like any other instrument—the melodica is inscrutable. With both the melodica and the accordion, you get the sound of breathing, of little air valves pumping, which lends these instruments a “voice” that you don’t usually get either with wind instruments or with keyboards.

And that is why I like the melodica.

With no more ado, here are a handful of classic Nintendo songs as played on the melodica.

This is the Super Mario Bros theme.

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How to design a game that effects social change

Over at Opposable Thumbs, David Chartier writes,

Nonprofit organization Games for Change (G4C) is continuing its march to save the world through gaming. Aided by some vicarious funding from the AMD Foundation, G4C today launched a new toolkit designed as a crash course to help non-profit organizations learn how to create “social issue digital games.”

The Games for Change Toolkit is primarily a Flash-based presentation containing video, reference material, and links to demonstration games that cover various aspects of game design, from the initial concept to production and distribution. While an actual SDK may not be involved, the toolkit introduces nonprofit organizations to both the broad potential and finer details of bringing an issue-conscious game into reality.

According to Chartier, the design primer’s video resources are culled from footage from the 2008 symposium “Let the Games Begin: A 101 Workshop on Making Social Issue Games,” here reorganized into a logical hierarchy for the G4C site.


I guess I thought the G4C Toolkit would be kind of a bore*, but I ended up hunting around the flash site for a long time: this kind of game design philosophy absolutely overlaps with the broader genre of edutainment. One of the best moments, I think, is during Karen Sideman’s presentation, when—paraphrasing James Paul Gee—she asserts that games don’t necessarily ‘make’ learning fun. In fact, it’s just the opposite: games are fun because we are learning.

*More social issues games ought to be as addictive as PETA’s Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals.


Shia LaBeouf could totally cosplay

Look, I know that people in their right minds don’t read celebrity gossip every morning. And I really, really do feel dirty about it.

Except that, late last week, Shia LaBeouf left a convenience store wearing a bag on his head (no, really, it is he—I compared the shoes), and I’m thinking he looks a little like Faust from Guilty Gear.

For your consideration:

labeouf faust

I’m just saying.

P.S. Is this site running really, really slowly for anyone else?

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1UP Show theme song on the ocarina

I have a major soft spot for the Squadron of Shame, a videogames book club built around zealously attacking those artful games that no one seems to get around to playing (hence the titular, “shameful” feelings). The club’s frequent game playthroughs eventually and inevitably spun off in a podcast, for which the Squadron’s founders periodically assemble across the globe and Skype together.

In the most recent episode of their podcast, A.J. suddenly announces that he has uploaded his video performance of the 1UP Show theme song (here, also) to YouTube, as performed on the iPhone’s “Ocarina” app. I’m familiar with the Ocarina application—it’s a nice little nod to Zelda—because “Ocarina” was named among TIME Magazine’s Top 10 iPhone Apps of 2008.

There is nothing more resplendently geeky than announcing, on a podcast, that there is a YouTube video of you whistling into your iPhone, and more specifically, that you recorded it in honor of a popular videogame webcast. Here’s A.J.:

Isn’t it eerie and melancholy? It’s perfect.

I promise to type about something other than 1UP’s staff cuts soon.

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Pac-Man reinvented as a MUD

map I’ve seen Pong as a text adventure. I’ve even seen Pac-Man as a text adventure. But—this one was totally new to me—what about Pac-Man as a MUD?

The Pac-Man Dungeons calls itself “interactive fiction,” but it’s a classic MUD, through and through, right down to the fake telnet window (“You may chat with a ghost that is not more than 2 steps away,” the help file dutifully instructs).

Pac-Man Dungeons


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Starflight and the open-ended RPG

I remember the first time I saw Mass Effect in action, months ago. Here was a game where you could travel from solar system to solar system, exploring worlds in your ATV and interacting with alien races. And I couldn’t help but feel that I had done this before, years ago, with the Genesis.

Starflight screen, filched from Wikipedia Starflight is a now-obscure EA game that originally saw release on Microsoft’s old DOS platform, before being ported to the Genesis and a slew of other computers systems, where you essentially traveled through the galaxy, exploring planets, meeting aliens, and either talking with them and getting information or blasting each other to bits. Part of the appeal of the game is simply how fleshed out the world is; each of the alien races have histories together, and each will tell you slightly different stories about one other and themselves. Some will come after you for having a particular species of crew member on your vessel, while others will just try to blow you away immediately.

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The Mac turns 25

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The 1UP Show, reborn

It has been difficult to sidestep news of EGM’s closure on the eve of its 20th anniversary. That alone was disheartening.

1upshowBut for many, it was perhaps harder still to see the crew of the venerable, and much younger, 1UP Show suddenly orphaned. Created by then-editors Jane Pinckard, Ryan O’Donnell, and Che Chou, the 1UP Show was the first real experiment in bringing true web-only content to Ziff’s gaming family. But just as the 1UP Show had found its legs again—and it really had finally matched and surpassed its creators’ original vision—the whole creature was shuttered.

But thanks in large part to an outpouring of donations—US$12,000 in all!—the tiny crew of producers, editors, and cameramen immediately set about creating the first episode of CO-OP, which premieres today. Obviously resources are limited, but man, it’s still available in high-def.

Help these guys out, Internet! Advertisers, where are you? Cash in while the iron is hot!

P.S. This is only part one of a longer 2008 retrospective. Ohhhh just go watch it.

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Gaming’s worst presidents

burgerhahahahaHere in the U.S.—in fictional works, anyway—we usually depict our president as some trim, bland-faced, pepper-haired dude (Harrison Ford works, too).

Over at the fairly new Retronauts blog, E. Jeremy Parish takes a peek at three of the worst (read: strangest) presidents in videogame history.

It’s timely!

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We don’t play D&D: a timeline

In keeping with this blog’s current trending toward pictureless confessionals and ridiculous ruminations on avatars, here’s more of the same.

I wasn’t allowed to play RPGs as a kid.

More specifically, I wasn’t permitted to play computer games in which you could create or alter your own character. Sometime, maybe a year and a half ago, I mentioned this fact on a podcast which, along with my semi-lyrical overuse of the word “totally,” seemed to arouse some bafflement and curiosity. “Why wouldn’t her mom let her play role-playing games?” some folks wanted to know. I hadn’t elaborated—I’d only mentioned it offhandedly—and perhaps that caused some people to be discouraged.

Of course, I was surprised by their surprise. Do these people not know, I wondered, that playing fantasy games will turn you into a warlock and your bedroom closet into a portal to hell?

I obviously have some lingering issues.

The power of urban myth

I was born in 1982, and I spent almost all of my childhood in a small, conservative town in Texas, during what I’ve now heard called the “Satanic Panic.”

The late 70s and early 80s are banner years for contemporary legend anthropologists. Urban myths—the likes that get a foothold among small-town Christian fundamentalist communities—were running amok. In 1977, Ray Kroc of McDonald’s allegedly copped to being a member of the Church of Satan. Fact. And in the early 1980s, it was common knowledge that Cabbage Patch Dolls themselves were possessed by demons. Duh.

One variation on the Cabbage Patch legend held that Xavier Roberts signed the buttocks of his doll-progeny to signify that he had blessed each one in the name of Satan. These bits of trivia were pronounced at the tables of our elementary school lunchroom as cold, hard evidence that evil dolls could, in fact, murder you in your sleep, if they wanted to.


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Pictorial tribute to Ziff Davis magazines and podcasts


I used to very literally wallpaper my desk with artist Bill Mudron’s deliriously detailed EGM illustrations. Each panorama is a tangle of pictorial puzzles, the geek equivalent of a Peter Spier painting.

In lieu of recent events, Mudron’s latest is this bittersweet cartoon collage of happier days. Each bubble is crowded with some of the people and in-jokes, past and present, that made each of the micro-franchises fan favorites.

Plenty more at the link, below.

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Strong Feelings: or, for the love of the hate

Someone once told me that the ‘easiest’ game reviews to write are the scathing ones, and I agree. Except, by ‘easiest,’ I think he meant “interesting enough that it writes itself.” If done well, hatred, cursing, surliness, and foulmouthery are maybe more engaging—for their writer, especially—and as a result, criticism is a lot more fun and interesting for its readers when the writer is gleefully hating something.

I think because feeling ambivalence toward a game is too much like feeling sad and all mixed up, and because being happy with a game is somehow showing too much intellectual deference, the giddiest thing is to write as if you hate something. In fact, maybe the pleasantest thing is to castigate things you secretly love. Someday I will create another alter ego, register another domain, and post only scathing game reviews, even if I secretly like the games I am pretending to hate. I might post to that blog infrequently, or not, depending on the season: some days I sincerely love everything, and some days I hate everything. (If there weren’t so many people who do wrathful criticism so well, my idea would have a future.)

Because on the day I played it I loved everything, I thought Dead Space was an OK game. But Action Button’s scathing Dead Space review made me smile (it went up last month, but I’ve only just seen it).

He’s probably literally thinking: “Man, I hope there are some dead people in there.” It’s said that the art team of Dead Space researched photographs of car-crash and train-wreck victims in order to achieve a command of the accent of death; we wonder if the game designers didn’t do similar research, like, maybe by visiting actual car-crash sites and jumping up and down joyfully on the dead bodies while wearing football cleats.

It’s not your fault if the guy in the TV is stomping so many innocent corpses, either. The game designers of Dead Space want you to stomp the corpses. The evidence of this is that you are able to stomp corpses, by pressing the R trigger. Usually in an Xbox 360 game, the R trigger fires your gun. In Dead Space, you have a gun. The game designers of Dead Space obviously consider corpse-stomping more important than gun-firing. Dismembering corpses by stomping them on their articulation joints is so important to the game that the box art shows a detached hand floating in zero gravity.

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