Archive for Features

Can’t spell “pirate” without “-irate”: on DRM and punishing the customer

Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus: "Stop, thief!"

I am livid. Which superficially might sound very stupid, except that this kerfuffle combines ethics, DRM, social networking, and my integrity, all in an interesting and infuriating tangle.

I was at breakfast with one of my very closest friends—a retired English and Latin teacher—and her son. Her son and I had just started arguing over the pronunciation of the word “diaspora” when, half-joking, I pulled my phone out of my handbag and played a recording of the word aloud at the table.

Then I stared down at my phone. I frowned. My friend wanted to know what the matter was.

“Um,” I said, blushing furiously. “Um. This is weird. My cell phone is accusing me of stealing the Oxford Dictionary of English.” I blinked. “That was a really expensive piece of software.”

Some of you might already know about the Enfour dust-up. Here’s a quick recap anyway: at the beginning of this month, the developers at Enfour announced they were putting anti-piracy measures into their software. (Enfour develops and publishes iOS versions of the Oxford Dictionary of English and the American Heritage Dictionary, among others.)

How did Enfour intend to combat piracy? By auto-posting tweets to their users’ Twitter accounts! But the clever plan backfired when the tweet—a confession of “software piracy”—began appearing on legitimate users’ Twitter accounts, too.


Enfour has since launched a “crucial maintenance release” to iTunes, and the issue has seemingly been resolved.

Of course, that makes little difference to the Enfour customer who, ahem, discovers that a “critical update” is waiting for her in the app store queue only after she has confessed, to 3,454 of her readers (not to boast or anything), that she stole some software. (Until hours ago, Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman had confessed to the same crime via Twitter as well.)

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What ‘Glitch’ can teach us about being alive

A screenshot from the free-to-play MMO 'Glitch'

Derek and I have been spending an awful lot of time in Glitch, the free-to-play MMO that launched, finally, last month. (And when I saw “an awful lot of time,” I mean it. I’ve gained noticeable weight in the last three days. I’ve practically forgotten to keep eating, breathing, pooping, et cetera.)

Gameplay is ostensibly based on, of all things, the theory of ‘infinite play’ as outlined in this ultra-slim work of philosophy. The real point of Glitch, then, is “to continue the game for continuing-the-game’s sake.” There are gods and cities and objectives, sure, but there is no win: there is only forward.

In the earliest portions of Glitch, the dreaded ‘tutorial’ phase is scuttled in lieu of a long, unslodgy process of exploration. Your “Familiar”—he’s a google-eyed rock at the top of the screen, with occasional speech bubbles blooming from his sweet, mouthless little face—will give you small, achievable quest missions, which are less ‘go fetch’ and more ‘go discover!’ Your Familiar also helps you learn different “skills,” which open doors, in turn, to other skills. (When the Familiar is “studying,” his blank visage assumes a pair of reading glasses, adorably.)

Your autodidacticism is always and invariably rewarded with a triumphant trill, maybe even a badge or trophy, but then there’s that terrible carrot—there’s always more. And here is the truth about Glitch: the tutorial never ends. Because you’re always learning. That’s the game. And this could make you feel tired, but instead, it makes you feel awake.

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Lost & Forgotten: ‘Extra Terrestrials’ for Atari 2600 rediscovered

One of the more interesting aspects of the pre-crash era of video games is the curious proliferation of fly-by-night game production houses. Since actually making a game for the retail market was comparatively inexpensive at the time—compared to the million-dollar landscape that a high-profile game can demand now—small companies like Spectravision, Apollo, and Starpath were releasing games alongside the higher-profile publishers such as Atari, Imagic, and Activision. Even companies such as Parker Brothers and 20th Century Fox were involved in the game publishing world. While the smallest companies, such as MenAvision or Commavid, produced games with incredibly small print runs before the industry crashed, game collectors and historians believed they had accounted for all of the released unique North American games by now, roughly 30 years on.

As such, the surprising news that Syd Bolton, curator of the PC Museum in Brantford, Ontario, had come into possession of a previously unknown retail release titled Extra Terrestrials, has come as quite a shock to the Atari gaming community.

Extra Terrestrials was developed by the Canadian company Skill Screen Games, and ended up being their sole creation. The company was a family business, operated by Tom, Peter, and J. Maitland Banting, and the game was manufactured by Telcom Research, a manufacturer of time code generators that Tom Banting was also the president of. The game had no official distribution channels; instead, the Bantings had to take the game door-to-door to individual retailers in early 1984. Peter Banting told Bolton that in the end only a couple hundred copies, at most, were sold to retailers in southern Ontario before the market collapsed and the entire venture ended. The game was designed and programmed by Herman Quast, though Bolton has not yet gotten in touch with him to ask for details about the game’s development.

History aside, the other major question for anyone with my gaming priorities would be: how does the game play? And what’s its point? Bolton has been painstakingly figuring the game out; the Banting family, who first donated the cart to Bolton’s PC Museum, believes the accompanying box and manual were thrown out long ago. So far, Bolton has determined that Extra Terrestrials is a two-player-only game, where one player controls an alien collecting dots, and the other player is a human trying to catch the alien. Bolton explained to the Atariage forums that there are also “invisible walls, and eating the pellets gets you points.” There are also a few different alien sprites available for the player to choose from, including one that pretty clearly rips off the title character’s sprite from the underrated Atari release E.T. The Extraterrestrial.

Bolton recorded a gameplay video and uploaded it to youtube:

Bolton has not yet been able to get the game’s ROM archived; however, he is seeking someone with the equipment in southwestern Ontario to help so that the game could be made available online. For those who are in the area, he intends on having the game playable at the upcoming PC Museum open-houses on October 15 and 22, 2011. Road trip?

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Fear and Shadows: a Mountain King retrospective

Atop the mountain where the perpetual flame burns: Mountain King's 5200 & 8-bit rendition.

Video game horror—that is, really effective, interactive horror—comes in all forms. Maybe good horror stems from easy, visceral jump scares, or from the anxiety of a timer, steadily counting down to zero. Maybe it owes to the dread of a moody atmosphere—eerie music, a creepy setting. Perhaps real feelings of fear come from an impotent or nonexistent combat system.

The Famicom game Sweet Home is often acknowledged by hobbyist historians as one of the first examples of the survival horror genre, and it may well be. But those of you with longer gaming histories know the truth—you might remember that unsettling adventure into the depths of a mountain, stealing treasure that ought never have been disturbed, and trying to escape with your life. This is the tale of Mountain King.

Mountain King was a multiplatform release primarily by CBS Electronics in 1983—with versions appearing on the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Colecovision, Commodore 64, VIC-20, and the Atari 8-bit computer line—though much of my personal experience came from the Atari 2600 port.

E.F. Dreyer Inc. is credited as the copyright owner for all these iterations, with Robert Matson generally credited as the program’s creator. Another programmer, Ed Salvo, put together the 2600 version in a mind-boggling six weeks as a contractor through VSS. (“I had an 800 version of the game, which I was to emulate,” Salvo told Digital Press’s Scott Stilphen.)

The game’s objectives are rather complex; without an instruction manual, however, they are downright arcane. As a child, I only knew that I had to collect these diamonds lying around the silent mountain corridors, the sole sound being the “ding” as the explorer treads across clusters of those gleaming gems.

In Mountain King your explorer is armed with nothing but a flashlight which, when its beam is trained on the darkness ahead, can sometimes reveal a shadowy chest full of treasure. Traveling the bottom floor of the cavern puts you in the domain of the giant spider, which will encase you in webbing as it skitters past. If you mash the joystick back and forth you might escape, but should the spider return while you are still trapped, you will be sucked dry as a spider meal.

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The Best Video Games… of the DECADE

Kevin and I wrote this end-of-decade wrap-up last Christmas, and even as we neared the piece’s natural end, we couldn’t stop adding to our joint Google Doc. Maybe our selections are obvious and not inventive, and probably we are blowhards who like the sound of our own writing, but here is the whole unwieldy mess, not even in its entirety, as it has appeared in my draft box since 01/01/2010. Blah, blah, blah. —ed.

When Jenn asked me if I’d assist in compiling this list, I was pretty excited! Ten years of games! I thought. Why, I have quite a few favorites in that lengthy time period I could mention.

Of course, narrowing it down is no easy feat. In terms of gameplay, video games haven’t exactly taken the huge technological leap the way they have in decades past, and graphically, the only real change is in visual detail. Nonetheless, this decade heralded the advent of downloading games and the return of in-console saving. Some games introduced these fresh innovative ideas; other games didn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table, but did what they did extremely well.

I’m not saying I played all the AAA titles and underground hits—I have eclectic gaming tastes, a low budget, and a proclivity for gaming mostly with other friends—but that has not stopped me from proselytizing the multiplayer goodness of Powerstone 2 or wild system-pushing 2600 homebrews like Adventure II to anyone unfortunate enough to get me started on the subject.

So here are some top picks from the gaming experiences of both Jenn and myself from the past 10 years, and hey, maybe you’ll find something interesting to check out! Kevin B.

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Playing through the 2011 IGF Nuovo final-list: Loop Raccord

Now that the IGF’s Nuovo Award Finalists have been announced, I hope it’s safe for me to post my impressions of another strong contender, Loop Raccord.

In Loop Raccord, the player is tasked with finding just the right spot in an animated gif, splicing it there, and then reversing the footage so that it creates an infinite loop.

In any given stage, videos are arranged in a grid, 12 at a time, everything moving and bobbing and jumping all at once. Its no-frills presentation is jarringly ugly. It’s a YTMND migraine. It isn’t even fun. And I couldn’t stop playing it. Oh, my god, I came back to it again and again.

And I was horrified, too, because I knew that clearing all these stages was pointless: the game was developed according to the Experimental Gameplay Project’s Neverending theme. Loop Raccord’s visual cacophony is endless. I knew I was headed nowhere! And yet I was completely arrested.

What should video games do? Often we—I am lumping myself in with critics and reviewers, but game-makers say this, too—tell designers to ‘engage the player,’ without considering what we’re really saying. What does that even mean, to ‘engage’ someone?

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Playing through the 2011 IGF Nuovo final-list: A House in California

I have a Mystery House ROM for my Apple II emulator, and I’m going to be truthful, Mr. Jake Elliott: your A House in California did not exactly resemble it as advertised.

Oh, sure, A House in California, recently named a nominee for the IGF’s coveted Nuovo Award, is all stark white flixels against a black backdrop, in the style of some early 1980s graphic adventure game. It is point-and-click interactive fiction, terribly sparse, with all possible parser commands weighting the bottom of the screen.

But the commands are strange—“Remember”? “Forget”? “Befriend”?—and sometimes, depending on what I accomplish in the game, the commands change. That is disturbing. But also, inexplicably satisfying, to see that I am somehow changing things with my actions?

I now totally get why House in California was included in this year’s Learn to Play gallery exhibit: the game uses a lot of “dream logic” and “guess-what-the-designer-wants-you-to-do,” and as you explore and progress, you find yourself making real sense of the game’s mediations. Like other good games that toy with their chosen genres, this game demands that the player learn its secret language.

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Bizarre game mash-up: a K.C.’s Krazy Chase retrospective

Not long ago, I sat down with Pac-Man CE DX, the new sequel to 2007’s stellar Pac-Man: Championship Edition for Xbox Live Arcade.

Like its predecessor, DX is a Pac-Man style maze gobbler with a shifting layout and a strict time limit, forcing you to go for the highest possible score before time runs out. DX adds in a “ghost train,” wherein sleeping ghosts around the maze wake up and begin chasing Pac-Man. Provided you don’t get yourself trapped—think Snake—you can use the train to rack up huge scores, grabbing a power pellet and chowing down on dozens of ghosts in one fell swoop.

I’d had a nagging feeling that this reminded me of another game, but I couldn’t pinpoint what. It wasn’t until my riveting game of Centipede at Ann Arbor’s Pinball Pete’s that my memory jogged: DX smacks of the Magnavox Odyssey2 game, K.C.’s Krazy Chase! That game was a curious mash-up of Centipede and Pac-Man, deliberately designed to prevent a lawsuit from Atari—a fate that had befallen the game’s antecedent, K.C. Munchkin.

K.C. Munchkin, released in 1981, was a huge hit for the Odyssey2, at least for its brief availability on the market. Beating the 2600’s notorious Pac-Man port to home consoles by nearly a year, Phillips, the parent company of Magnavox, found themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit by Atari, who argued that the maze game was too similar to their own, and that Atari had the sole rights to Pac-Man on home computer. To be sure, K.C. Munchkin had its differences—multiple mazes, a level editor long before editors were common (it used the Odyssey2’s attached keyboard), and dots that roamed the maze itself—but ultimately it was a game in which an impish munching character wandered a maze, eating dots and avoiding monsters. As if driving the point home, with a wink and a nudge, that K.C. really was Pac-Man in disguise, the game even had power pellets that would allow the player to hunt the three monsters for a limited amount of time. Of course Atari won the suit, and K.C. Munchkin was pulled from shelves. Still, the game’s success had blown the door wide open for a sequel.

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Farm-fresh burgers, now with bad eggs: a Burgertime retrospective

If there is one self-evident truth to the history of the gaming industry, it would be that the early 80s welcomed utterly bizarre gaming concepts. Even more bizarre, though, were the ones based around food.

There was Mr. Do, a game in which a clown digs tunnels underground to collect cherries, all while avoiding dinosaurs and monsters that look vaguely like Cookie Monster. Or Atari’s Food Fight, wherein a kid must make his way to an ice cream cone before it melts, battling his way past angry chefs with a variety of ingredients. But Data East took the enchilada, so to speak, when it brought out Burgertime in 1982.

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Video Game Feminist of the Decade: or, when “You” is a girl

Video Game Feminist of the Decade in Kill Screen, issue 1

05/26/2010 update: So a newer, better, EVEN LONGER, revised version of this hokum will allegedly be published in issue #1, the ‘No Fun Issue’, of Kill Screen Magazine. I’m very proud. Please avoid this version and read the longer, better one! Thanks!

I’m disappointed I haven’t been able to actively participate in any Bayonetta discussion—I kind of haven’t played the game, so I have no fully formed opinions, here.

But that won’t stop me from posting a long stream-of-consciousness with squirrelly punctuation in the middle of the night. No sirree!

The ongoing Bayonetta dialogue reminds me of a short conversation I had on a patio deck at a casual (birthday?) party maybe a year or two ago. I don’t remember which editor of what website I was talking to (and that’s just total laziness on my part, because I could just google around until I find his piece and byline), but he wanted to talk to me about his pick for Video Game Character of That Year.

And, for this editor, his choice had come down to two characters, each of whom he admired. There was Faith Connors (Mirror’s Edge) and—he excitedly told me this—“You!” (Fallout 3). And he could not wait to pen this article, because Fallout 3’s “You!” had thrilled him, you know, not only as a critic, but as a gamer.

I could totally get where he was coming from. In 2006, for instance, Time absolutely got it right when the magazine named “You!” the Person of the Year. I think the magazine did something really smugly stupid, too, like a shiny, mirrored cover that reflected your own face, which invited a lot of eye-rolling.

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The man behind the gears: Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum

I live in the Metro Detroit area. It isn’t particularly well known as being a mecca of gaming, but we do have one of the finest, and weirdest, homages to gaming’s past within our lands.

San Franciscans have the Musee Mechanique.

We have Marvin’s.

The following is an interview I did with the business’s proprietor back in 2007. I wrote an article about it, but wasn’t writing for anything covering the beat. Having just found the article, however, I’ve touched it up a bit and provide to you the story of this odd little place tucked away in the suburbs of Farmington Hills.

Marvin Yagoda is a busy man.

Dressed in an off-white shirt and suspenders, Yagoda is moving all over the place as children and adults both crowd his workplace, Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum.

“I’ve got three birthday parties today,” he tells me. He is working on a small television displaying the tale of the world’s tallest man.

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Hello, Homebrew: Thrust

This is the first in a series of articles about homebrew games. Quite simply, outside of the fanbase for a particular system, a number of these go clear under the radar. It’s a terrible shame, given that a lot of these homebrews end up being better than commercial releases. As such, I’m going to highlight some of my particular favorites for a variety of systems!

I had written previously on the subject of gravity in Spacewar, one of the earliest computer games ever made. The concept of gravity’s effect on games has extended beyond that, but only a few noteworthy games have ever stood out. One in particular, a BBC Acorn game (later ported, famously, to the Commodore 64, among others) entitled Thrust, became something of a cult classic.

Thrust was something of an evolution from Atari’s arcade game, Gravitar. In that game, you were flying from planet to planet, destroying guns and grabbing fuel before taking off to the next one. Ever present was the gravity each planet would ensnare you in, forcing you to make your moves carefully, lest you fall too far and crash.

Thrust took this a step further—instead of flying from planet to planet, now you were warping onto a planet, battling turrets and the forces of physics as you made your way deep into planetary chasms to grab a fuel cell. Once you had latched onto it with your tractor beam, you had to carefully maneuver your way back out, all the while fighting with the weight and inertia of your cargo.

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Heart, Toejam, Zero, and Tomato Fountain: A Zillion adventure

You have to give it to Sega: they have made some absolutely iconic franchises over the years. Consider Sonic the Hedgehog, Panzer Dragoon, or Virtual On. None of them are particularly new anymore, but they’re pretty well known, despite Sega’s incredible mismanagement of their properties. Contrast this to Nintendo, who at least acknowledges the existence of something random like Clu Clu Land. Consider the case of Metroid, revived after eight years of practically nothing but the hype of the fanbase. As a result, Sega’s own answer to Metroid has practically been lost to the ages.

Zillion's JJ, from the opening sequenceZillion is a two-game series on the Sega Master System. The second game is a bizarre amalgamation of a shooter and a platformer, and isn’t really the focus here. But the first game, on the other hand, is easily one of my favorite Sega titles, period. Released in 1987, Zillion was actually a joint production of Sega and Tatsunoko Productions (which has gone on to do other projects) based, incredibly enough, on a laser tag game. Tatsunoko produced a cartoon called Red Photon Zillion, while Sega did the games.

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Synesthesia in early gaming, NES style

To say the NES’s musical capabilities are famous is an understatement. With tunes like the Super Mario theme and the soundtracks to Mega Man 2, Castlevania, Contra, and dozens of other games, the system’s little sound chip can pump out some incredible music. The NES is practically a founding member of the chiptune musical genre, alongside such luminaries as the Commodore 64 and the Atari 800. Thus when I heard about an oddball, Famicom Disk System-only ‘musical shooter’ entitled Otocky my interest was piqued.

Otocky is the brainchild of Toshio Iwai, known more recently as the developer for Nintendo’s Electroplankton, and was released in 1987 by the ASCII Corporation. You play a weird little orange thing with cartoony eyes, arms, and legs that flies through inconsequential backgrounds populated with even stranger enemies. Your objective is to collect musical notes to fill a meter at the bottom of the screen, at which point the stage will end and you will face off with a giant, foe-spewing musical note. You must then fire off your collected musical notes at the holes in the boss until you’ve used them all. You can collect a bomb power-up, and your normal, boomeranging shot can be tweaked by collecting certain items.

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“For a quality experience…” An I Love Bees retrospective

ilovebees It’s been nearly four and a half years since the release of Halo 2 on the original Xbox console. The game is remembered for a number of reasons—online functionality, the story, perhaps even the hype. But for a select group of fans, Halo 2 is remembered fondly not for its play features, but for the Halo 2 ad campaign: The Haunted Apiary, or I Love Bees.

I Love Bees is an ARG, or alternate reality game. What that means specifically is hard to quantify, but ARGs tend to share a few common characteristics. They are played in real time over a finite length of time; they involve group efforts in puzzle-solving, either online or in the real world; their stories are told in rather unconventional ways, ranging from clothing lines to trading cards to false newspapers to in-game websites in games over the years. As for I Love Bees, the main action of the game occurred at the website of the same name.

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