Nerd Notes: game-shopping with Brian Taylor

Solstice: NES title screen

My friend and colleague Brian Taylor visited Chicago over the weekend, and I tell you, I barely got to drag him all over town the way I’d planned. In another life we might’ve gone to Three Aces, Grange Hall Burger Bar, and all the other places the foodies have not yet discovered and ruined. We did visit Myopic, but there wasn’t time enough to go around the corner to Quimby’s. (We did hit up the Paramount Room, even though I warned the burgers aren’t as good as advertised, and then my hamburger was ridiculously delicious, and then I felt foolish in a really nice way.)

Mr. Taylor and I went directly from the airport to Videogames Then & Now, which is this fantastic store out in Norridge. If you are ever in Chicago, do yourself a favor, rent a Zipcar, and make the drive.

We ought to have recorded ourselves talking in there, because we were hilarious. As a matter of fact, the gentleman behind the counter thanked us for being such lively loiterers, and I admitted to him that ordinarily I am very in-and-out of that store, all business. This time I was excitable, even a little bit twerpy; I’ve seldom had so much fun in public.

BT and I spent a long time among the stacks of NES cartridges. We are both great fans of the MacVenture games and their NES ports, and I found Shadowgate pretty easily. Brian wanted his own copy of Déjà Vu, and I located that pretty nimbly, too. I also snatched up the NES Gyruss—that “tube shooter” is only the greatest arcade machine ever—while Brian, who is even more into hardboiled crime fiction than I could ever aspire, picked up a bizarre little game called Nightshade. I hope he decides to write about it.

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A review of ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ in under 1,820 characters

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial title screen

I’m a big, big fan of “My World of Flops,” an ongoing series of movie reviews by Nathan Rabin of the A.V. Club. “Flops” conducts post-mortems of critical and commercial failures, reevaluating each film with fresh eyes. And Rabin gives every movie a fair shake (his review of Tom Green’s Freddy Got Fingered is, in a word, generous), ultimately grading each film as a “failure,” a “fiasco,” or a “secret success.”

I have always held that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the 2600 is a “secret success” (Kevin agrees), and when Rabin first announced to Twitter that he was going to score the video game for “My World of Flops,” I was floored with delight.

For one, this is the first time a video game has ever made it to “Flops,” and E.T.’s notoriety certainly qualifies it for inclusion. For another, the “Flops” series was only meant to last a single year; not only has it endured, it has spiraled out of control! Video games! Licensed video games! What next?

So I was totally thrilled when Rabin tweeted that his review is complete:

@nathanrabin I just turned in my first, and possibly last game-themed My World of Flops piece on Atari’s E.T. It is less than glowing.

In an effort to rally interest in Rabin’s upcoming E.T. review, I took to Twitter to inflict my own opinion of the game on everybody. There are a lot of inactive verbs. The whole thing could stand a rewrite.

Here, now, and unedited for posterity (mostly), are my E.T. tweets.

jennatar In honor of E.T. (Atari 2600, 1982) making it onto @nathanrabin’s Flops, here is my GLOWING review, presented one painful line at a time.

jennatar E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is about an extra-terrestrial named E.T.

jennatar In it, you play ET. You are trying to assemble an “interplanetary” phone, because you believe in liberties and that VOIP ought to be free.

jennatar In the game, your only ally is a 10-year-old child named Elliott, here rendered in stark, rudimentary pixels.

jennatar In the film, Elliott’s idealism and childlike naïveté are tested when Spielberg replaces all the guns with walkie-talkies.

jennatar Your adversaries, alas, are numerous. There are, for instance, a number of gov’t agents who are trying to strip-search you.

jennatar There are also scientists, no doubt working for Big Pharma, who probably want to capitalize on your organs and turn you into the latest pill

jennatar Despite all that, your greatest obstacle, poor ET, is yourself. Yes, the landscape is riddled with enormous pits. Step carefully, ET!

jennatar You could become a captive—by your own hand!—in one of these deep furrows, which itself is a metaphor for the “liminality”

jennatar For you are a stranger in a strange land, stretching yourself across space and time in search of a moment of connection, and small candies

jennatar It is during these liminal fugues, when ET is lower than ground itself, that most players, disgusted, switch the Atari off.

nathanrabin @jennatar Color me impressed. Beats the hell out of my infinitely more verbose take.

jennatar @nathanrabin Shh! Not yet; I’m not finished.

jennatar That players leave w/out finishing—that is, without making “contact” with “home”—is a potent metaphor for a collective lack of agency.

jennatar Finally, the graphics are OK but maybe the framerate could have been better. I’m not sure the 2600 is being pushed to its full potential 3/5

P.S. This E.T. “strategies” video rules (thanks, Andrew!).

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The gAtari looks silly, sounds rad

I think my favorite part about the gAtari 2600—besides, you know, the body of the guitar is an actual 2600—is how the “frets” are just these ginormous footpedals, all fused onto the “fingerboard” in a row.

No, I realize the pedals are actually being used to play loops (Right?? And then the “whammying”), but they look hilarious. This machine does not sound hilarious, however. Rather, it sounds awesome.


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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“Break out” your 2600s today: a ‘Breakout’ flashback

Screenshot: Breakout for 2600

Breakout, based on a concept by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, was designed by Steve Jobs (with pal Steve Wozniak doing all the heavy lifting, of course). The game was released in May 1976, just two months before Jobs and Wozniak unveiled their first creation as Apple Computer.

Here are some game-winning tips:


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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Stress, pubs, and rock and roll

I’d had influenza for exactly one week and was beginning to feel the symptoms of crazy, and I think that is why I accidentally double-booked myself for bar trivia. I’d never done trivia in a bar before, and then somehow I managed to join two different quiz teams, each playing at 8PM CST on opposite sides of the city. Whoops! But I was very committed to meeting my friend Robyn for the quiz because, put together, we are a dainty, shrieking Ken Jennings.

I read somewhere that pub quizzes are more stressful than first-person shooters. I think I read that somewhere, anyway. (No, I just checked. It’s an actual video game called Pub Quiz, I see, that is so stressful, as opposed to a digital pub quiz.) But this sounds believable, right? Studying for the GRE is stressful. Taking tests is stressful. Public speaking is stressful. If I could only be on Jeopardy!, I could at long last fulfill my dream of vomiting on television. Without Robyn to steel me, I am not much like Ken Jennings at all. I have a numb brain and a slow trigger finger.

I felt both social and bloodthirsty, so I started my shit-talk well before the quiz began. But then, as our competitive spirit waned, Robyn and I decided to combine forces with our friends Brian and Ben. They let us join their team even though I had been emasculating them for an hour. That was a pretty shrewd move by all of us, though: Brian and Ben are versed in politics, movies, and history, but especially sports. They both are writers, too. Four writers at a table! And for as smart as we are, we are awfully loud and awfully good-looking.

I don’t mean to be a creep, or smug, but I did announce that we had the best-looking team by miles.

The quiz started. Guess what! Just one member of the team had two thumbs and zero idea who Clarence Darrow is: this gal!

The actress from Saving Grace? I started to write down “Brenda Blethyn.” Robyn slapped my hand. “Holly Hunter!” she hissed. Oh, a TV show! Not a movie!

“Oops, there is also a movie,” I told Robyn. Which I took my parents to see! Eleven years ago! I picked it! I drove us there! I’d already seen it once before! It’s about marijuana! And! My parents loved it!

Midway through the quiz, Robyn and I, who do not have the sports streak or zeal for self-improvement and exercise that Brian and Ben have, admitted that we each had become incredibly competitive. We had gone from giggling and slacking in round one to MIGHTY by round three.

“I have tasted blood, and I liked the flavor!” I said to Ben.

“See?” Ben said. “Now you are thinking like a winner.” Ben high-fived me.

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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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Emulate in style with Retro Thing’s limited-edition USB joystick

That gleaming lunar landscape is my trusty MacBook workhorse, but also my primary Game Center. So of course I splurged (US$35) on Retro Thing’s Clear Classic USB joystick, available now in both blue and red (but the cool kids are all about blue). The controller’s chassis, sturdy, crystal-clear plastic in the original 2600 joystick’s likeness, is illuminated by a single LED.

I am anti-emulation—I play all my Atari cartridges on a girthy CRT television, thanks—but the joystick integrates with Stella software seamlessly, no re-mapping required. And as emulation goes, this as good as it gets. The stick itself has that apt resistance that feels authentically Atari, yet its diagonal movement is an improvement on the classic joystick’s, making Mountain King a much happier experience. Still, this ain’t no d-pad: homebrew twitch-titles like Lead are best with the keyboard’s arrow keys.

Retro Thing—yeah, the blog! I know, right?—has manufactured just 1000 of these babies for the holiday season. I ordered mine through Amazon (painless; free shipping), and it arrived in only a couple of days. Legacy have done a great job with the joystick’s design: it feels sure and true, and it won’t crumple under aggressive play. Really nice.


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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Hello, Homebrew: Halo 2600

With the release of Halo Reach, Bungie—the studio that created and developed the series—has officially washed its hands of the Halo franchise for the foreseeable future. Now the baton has been passed to other developers, which has resulted in real anxiety from some circles in terms of the game series’s fate.

Not that this worry is anything new: Halo Wars was, in fact, developed by an outsider—Ensemble Studios—and is generally considered to be a top-notch RTS game. I Love Bees, the ARG by 4orty2wo Entertainment, is so highly regarded that it is arguably better, and certainly more inventive, than the game it was meant to promote. At the 2010 Classic Gaming Expo, however, another non-Bungie Halo game made its debut: Halo 2600.

Halo 2600 was an unexpected product from the people at AtariAge, who had previously promised a surprise homebrew release at what would be the first CGE convention since 2007. Developed by Ed Fries, former vice president of Microsoft’s game publishing wing, the game was borne out of an interest he had taken in programming for the Atari 2600 after reading Nick Monfort and Ian Bogost’s book, Racing the Beam.

“I wasn’t sure what to write, so I created a little Master Chief from Halo and made him run around the screen. Then I created an Elite for him to shoot at,” Fries explains in a post on AtariAge. “At this point it wasn’t my intention to make a full game. I was just screwing around.”

After getting tacit approval from Bungie and Microsoft to go ahead, Fries put together a game quite similar to the seminal Atari title Adventure, and on the first day of CGE, the game was announced, sold, and the ROM, dumped. And perhaps most impressively, the game is also one of the best homebrews to come along for the system!

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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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Daily Linksplosion: Wednesday, July 14, 2010

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The 2600 Post: something old, something new, and something lost


Of course, after a run of 100 issues over 19 years, I can certainly understand why editor Al Backiel has decided to hang up his hat. That’s a very long time, and an awful lot of issues. The 2600 Connection has been a fixture of the Atari fan community for years, a work of dedication celebrating one of the most important game systems of all time. [...]

The magazine’s demise doesn’t mean that the 2600 collector scene is dead, though; far from it. Atari Age and a number of other sites dedicated to the VCS and its siblings are perfectly alive and active. And people are still producing all sorts of interesting new homebrew games for the platform, such as the infamous VCS rendition of Mega Man that’s been making the rounds this week.
-E. Jeremy Parish

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