Friday, April 28, 2006

But Seriously

[News] [Computer Gaming]

Okay, I've had my kneejerk reaction to the name "Wii". Now I've had time to think it over carefully, and in all seriousness I have some very real reasons why this would be an extremely bad name for a gaming console.

1) The name does not come naturally to the Japanese.
Now, I'm taking some lead here from people who know Japanese better than I do, but I do know that there's no Japanese syllable/consonant for "wi" (or anything starting with "w" except "wa" and "wo"). It seems unlikely that Nintendo would choose a name that doesn't fit naturally into the language of their home turf, and if indeed the name is for real it seems silly.

2) "Wii" has no obvious meaning.
If you look back on past (successful) consoles, you'll see that they all are either existing words (Genesis), compound words (PlayStation), words built from word fragments (Famicom = Family Computer), or acronyms or partial acronyms (XBox, where presumably the X is for Extreme, or at least intended to convey mystery). Although Nintendo goes to some trouble on their website to explain that "Wii" is meant to suggest the word "we", with the two i's being like two people, that's not in any way obvious on its face, and it requires someone to explain it to you. And if it needs explanation, then what's the point of it? A title is meant to qualify an unknown product; you shouldn't need a product to qualify an unkown title ("qualify" in the sense of "reveal qualities").

3) The pronunciation of the name lends to obvious scatalogical jokes...
... and not just "mature" jokes (such as you might get if they'd called it the Nintendo Fook), but jokes that suggest an even greater level of infantilism than your average toilet humour. Let's be clear, the name is pronounced "wee". As in, "I'm going to spend a couple of quality hours with the latest Mario title and my wee," or, "I'm so glad I have my wee." I know this has been the point everyone's already focused on, but it is a valid point - it's remarkably hard to talk about interacting with the console without dissolving into giggles. And that's.... really not a good image.

4) The name does not convey the function.
This is really an extension of (2). Nintendo is presumably hoping to reach non-gamers; possibly they're trying to move away from the hardcore stigma of gaming but they now face the whole trouble of explaining to their potential new users exactly what a Wii is and what it can do. They're not just going to have to sell consumers on the benefits of their console over others; they're going to have to re-sell consumers on the concept of consoles in general.

5) The name is small.
No, seriously, it doesn't take up much space on a printed page. If an article says "this game will be available for the XBox 360, Wii, and PlayStation 3," Nintendo's really only getting about 15% or something of that publicity space. (Please don't check my maths; I already know they're dodgy.) The name just does not grab the attention visually when placed among other print. Even the original XBox had that big mysterious "X" at the start.

6) It's unclear how the name is pronounced.
You have to have it explained to you how the name is pronounced. They're doing themselves no word of mouth favours if half their theoretical casual-gamer evangelists are telling their friends to go out and buy a "Nintendo Why", and then their friends are looking in windows for something with the spelling "Nintendo Y". Legions of people will be referring to it as the "Wee, or Why, or Whatever", or just not talking about it because it's all too confusing. My prose style makes that seem like a humorous exaggeration, but seriously, this certainly isn't helping their marketing. Why would you deliberately pick a name with this problem?

So that's six reasons. I know you should always shoot for 5 or 7 reasons because people like those sort of numbers, but six is all I've got. I'm very serious about them, though. There's six hard reasons why this is a damned ridiculous choice of name, and the only one I've really got in favour of it is that its sheer strangeness has everyone talking. I'm not sure that balances out, and the more I think about it the more I think that Nintendo realliy can't be serious about this.

Any comments?


[News] [Computer Gaming] [Obssessive Harking On Same Subject]

Because clearly there's nothing else relevant in the world today other than Nintendo's new console, I have further news of the wiierd.

Patrick over at King Lud IC demands we call the damn thing the "NinWii" as a kind of subversive Nintendo-undermining compromise. I'm going along with the crazy scheme as he seems to have the power of some kind of mushroom-eating platform-jumping Jesus on his side. I'd be a brave man indeed to argue with the Son and the Holy Ghost over matters of console branding.

5 Reasons To Praise Nintendo

[News] [Computer Gaming]
Contradicting Greg is the Australian national sport; I'd be un-Australian if I didn't join in. So - five reasons to praise Nintendo.

1) Getting the words "Nintendo" and "Revolution" at the top of every gaming site in the lead-up to E3 without revealing any new games, system information, or technical specifications is damn impressive.

2) Their contemptuous disregard for corporate image, focus testing and marketability is a breath of fresh air in this recycle-what-works industry.

3) The Wii website has a little dancing lowercase letter "i". No, wait - not just one, but four! Look at them - they're so cute!

4) There can be no finer demonstration of how the branding of a product is just as important as anything the product can actually do. Marketing professors worldwide should be damn grateful.

5) They didn't call it the "Nintendo Puu".

I still have a sliver of hope that it's viral marketing or a tasteless prank (based mainly on the website name still containing the word "Revolution"), but it's waning by the hour. I think I'll go and stab myself to death with my tilt-sensitive controller.

(The image at the top of the post was copied wholesale from Kotaku; whether they made it themselves is anyone's guess. If someone feels I'm infringing on their infringement of Nintendo's IP give me a yell and I'll use it as an excuse to laugh at the name "Wii" some more.)

And That Was The Last Time I Ever Praised Nintendo

[News] [Computer Gaming]

You may have heard by now the various news reports (1, 2): Nintendo has revealed that the name "Revolution" for their new console was merely a design handle, and the product will in fact be shipped under the name "Wii" (pronounced "We"). In one smooth move this console has gone from being something I was looking forward to a lot, to being something I'd be embarrassed to ask about in a store.

I can't help but feel that this in ironic in the light of my post yesterday; I'd be only too happy to find out that this is all a tasteless belated April Fool's joke and have them tell us it'll still be called the Revolution. Gah.

(For further evidence that Nintendo kicks puppies, check out the official Wii website.)

UPDATE: Hope springs eternal? (1, 2) Or is it denial? I don't know, "Nintendo plays crazy head-games with fans" falls pretty much into the same puppy-kicking category as "Nintendo names new console after urine".

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Roll 3d6 To See If Gamers Unite!

[News] [RPG]

Some poor souls are attempting to bring together Australasian roleplayers for a united gaming website and forum. I can hear the spirits of the damned cackling as we speak, but on the off chance that it doesn't turn into a haven of political infighting and ruleset snobbery I've registered for some sweet, sweet access. Unfortunately my membership activation code has been summarily mailed to my work email so I won't get to go nuts on the forums until tomorrow but if you're in any way interested in some kind of geek solidarity or discussion of RPG game mechanics then it might be worth your while to check out the unimaginatively titled Game Circle.

In case the above link didn't catch your attention, go here and sign up, damn it.

Ehrgeiz, An Underappreciated Classic

[Computer Gaming]

I fully apologise for giving Wizards of the Coast the nod for best April Fool's Day gag of the year. I somehow completely missed Gamespot's effort, modestly entitled The Top 10 Final Fantasy Games. (Warning, you have to be a fairly heavy gaming geek to understand the funny.)

It's still April. In my opinion, the "April Fool season" continues pretty much the entire month. This post isn't really out of date at all. Stop looking at me like that.

Gentlemen - To Evil!

[Game Design]

Screeching howler monkeys have brought to my attention that there's been something of an unofficial Round Table going on with regard to the subject of evil in computer games. I'll refer you to the following ramblings on the subject by other bloggers:

* Introduction to Villainy at Project Perko starts off the subject with some interesting blatherings on how portrayals of evil in video games are generally as well-developed and convincing as a photo of the Loch Ness Monster.

* The Inadequacy of Evil at Man Bytes Blog replies with some scribblings about walking the dark path and believable motivation.

* Super Columbine Massacre RPG! at King Lud IC intelligently rambles that of course your depictions of evil will be shallow if you're too gutless to tackle the hard stuff.

* Evil Deeds and Ookie Thoughts at Unfettered Blather pleads for a wider variety of ways to be truly evil.

* Video Villain at Project Perko hypothesises that maybe the origins of a bad villain are a mere lack of screen time.

I intend to post something on this topic later today; stay tuned for eyeball-traumatising ranting!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Champloo, Expanded Blogroll, And Old Friends

[News] [Site News] [TV]

1) Finished watching Samurai Champloo. Absolutely fantastic visually, and it so very almost dodges the curse of the unsatisfying anime ending. Top notch entertainment. The full set of seven discs is now available for loan if Matt or AJ or someone wants to lay claim.

2) You'll note some new entries in my sidebar in terms of blogs. I'm expanding out my game blogs; though be assured that I'm reading and commenting on a lot more than I actually have featured. Also say hello to Cap'n Oblivious who gets added in a furious burst of nepotism after he referenced my post Fear the Message, Not the Medium on his LJ.

3) Hello out there if the delightful Sim Lauren is reading, or if Greg Cook of the far-away Land of Perth has found this site. Lauren (who maintains the Flypaper Archives) is pushing for another attempted resurrection of the Flypaper. If you'd like to see my old e-zine dug from its grave and made to dance, then you're going to need to pledge some content; get in touch with Lauren ASAP 'cos she's collecting it for a potential first issue. If she gets enough I'll work my magic at it and see that it gets distributed in some fashion.

Infrequently Answered Questions

[Computer Gaming] [Game Design]

It's a Wednesday night. I'm sitting down for a session of The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past on my DS. I've just completed Blind's Hideout in the Dark World, and have emerged armed with the mighty Titan Mitts, which will allow me to lift those pesky darker-covered boulders and therefore access a whole bunch of new places in the overworld.

I do a quick reconnoiter of some conspicuous areas I've seen earlier in the game which may now yield their secrets to my mighty new powers. A visit to the Dark World's blacksmith rewards me with an upgraded sword; another possibility in the desert turns out to be a dead end. I'm pretty sure I saw another place up on Mount Hera that looked promising, but from where I am to the top of the mountain can be a ten-minute journey, even if I get the Cuckoo to carry me to a closer location, and it may eventually prove to be a complete waste of time.

Sighing, I boot up my computer and make my way to GameFAQs.

Sorry, what? Use an FAQ? Surely that's the wussy way out. Ten minutes is nothing to a hardcore gamer like me; I've spent much longer grinding mobs for purely cosmetic enhancements in any number of RPGs, right? Well, yeah, I suppose. But I've been up Mount Hera three or four times already; if I can save myself another pointless trip, I'll do it. And I'll use an FAQ to get there. And that's just the start - after all, I'm mostly playing this game for nostalgia and for the fun of hitting things with a sword; I really don't have the time to track down every last heart piece all by myself.

When Link to the Past was created it wasn't intended that the game would require an FAQ to solve it. Heck, it's almost the perfect model of a game that can be completed perfectly well without the slightest reference to an outside source. But not all games fare so well.

Modern RPGs follow a fairly simple quest cycle (particularly MMOGs):
1) Find a quest giver to give you a quest.
2) Gather information on where you have to go, what you have to kill, what the best way to survive the quest is, and whether it's worth your time to do.
3) Complete the quest.
4) Return to the quest giver and obtain your reward.

Stage 1 is well catered for - I can't walk ten paces in World of Warcraft or Morrowind without impaling myself on someone who wants me to kill ten rats. Stage 3 and 4 generally work fairly well, too, unless the game bugs out. It's stage 2 where we run into trouble.

I've tried avoiding stage 2. It annoys me. It's tacked on as a mechanic designed to make you care about the game's generic and poorly written lore, or at the very least to cause you to have to "interact" with the game's other human denizens (who often have communication and social skills comparable with the ebola virus). But you can't get around it. Even the best-designed questgiver will shortchange you on information, especially in worlds with over a thousand quests. Their poor directions, wrapped in their charming but confusing dialogue, will leave you wandering looking for "the cave to the north" for hours when what they really meant was "the sewer on a completely different continent". They'll inadequately describe the success objectives, telling you to kill "white rats" when what they really mean is you should kill Snow Rats, rather than the confusingly named White Rodents nearby. And then when you do it all, they'll give you nothing more rewarding than a pat on the back.

So you need to gather information. Where do you turn? Sometimes the NPCs are good at helping you along; the Elder Scrolls series does better than most in providing meaningful context-sensitive directions. But that's a rare exception. More often NPCs will just regurgitate back the quest text, or refer you to another NPC without telling you where to find them (and doubling the number of things you need to search for in the process).

Some MMOGs actively encourage you to ask other players for advice. That has its attractions, in terms of providing a basis for meaningful chat with people you've never met, but any long term player of World of Warcraft (at least on the Horde side) will doubtless be sick of telling newbies where to find Mankrik's Wife or who exactly is interested in talking about their Empty Keg. Co-opting other players into endlessly regurgitating answers that would be insultingly repetitive even for an NPC seems a little cheeky, to say the least. Plus you run the risk every time you access this "living database" of subjecting yourself to random abuse, and as much fun as that is, I think I could live without it.

Failing either of the above, you have FAQs. You load up your favourite hints website (or, if you're still living in the past, buy a printed game guide) and read everything there is to know about the aspect of the game you're dealing with.

Don't feel guilty, it's expected of you. No, really, it is.

Please, feel free to put your hand up if you found all 100 packages in any GTA game without any advice from someone who'd played the game before. Let me know if you picked up every last Pokemon entirely from your own explorations. Tell me if you unlocked every one of the hundreds of bonus extras in Soul Calibur III just by repeatedly playing the game.

Sure, some of you will have. Go, you hardcore gamers, you. But you're in the minority. Game designers are deliberately locking away loads of content with the expectation that people will find it with the use of external help. The FAQ is being co-opted into becoming an extension of the official game content. And it seems to me that this is bad design.

Every element necessary to play the game should be contained in the game, as far as humanly possible. To put it another way, if a player may reasonably have need of an FAQ to play the game, the FAQ should be included in the game. As, I don't know, a help system or something.

Did anyone ever play Under A Killing Moon? (Or its inferior sequel The Pandora Directive?) These excellent point-and-click adventure games came with a complete in-game walkthrough attached to the user interface The walkthrough included step-by-step instructions on how to complete every challenge in the game, obscured under a "hint layer" system (so for each problem you could get either a general hint or explicit directions), but docked you "points" from your game score for accessing them. (The points were wholly cosmetic, and in any case abuse of the save/restore system made this fairly meaningless.)

This kind of system is where games should be going. GTA should come with an optional map-overlay and directions of how to get to its secrets - but using it comes with a marking on your saved game that you used hints, with the result only that the words "with hints" appear on your end of game score card.

Fighting games have (partly) learned this lesson already. In the past, the inputs required to pull off certain moves were complex and "secret", requiring experimentation to discover. Now that philosophy is recognised as just an access barrier to casual players, and you can usually access a full list of moves from the menu.

If you expect a user to need to engage in a lot of "search grind" to complete an objective, and they will in any case be able to circumvent that grind by going outside your game, and there is a strong chance that a large amount of your player base will do that because they do not enjoy the "grind" portion of the game, then not providing for that eventuality in-game is just kneecapping your own design.

It's all about user choice - if what a user enjoys is searching for the hidden, let them do it, and reward them for it (in a very minor cosmetic fashion). But if what the user really enjoys is finding the hidden, then there should be a mechanism to keep the search to a bare minimum.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to find out how to upgrade my boomerang.

Looking for Suggestions

[Site News]

The mighty wheels of my intellect have been churning, carrying me at high speeds down the road towards submitting something to the next Carnival of Gamers. Not content merely to regurgitate my previous posts like some sort of bird feeding its mentally deficient young, I'd instead like to bring forth new light from the void with an original post.

My initial thinkings are tending towards some sort of something on the topic of play length and microgaming, but I'd like to throw the field open to all my gibbering monkey-readers to see if you've got something gaming-related that you think I could find an intelligent rant within. Any suggestions?

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Movies Post-Mortem

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

Ugh, three posts already today. Okay, I'll make this quick.

It being two weeks since I last booted the sucker up, I'm now willing to admit that I'm probably not returning to playing The Movies any time soon. I paid full price, got a total game experience of probably 10 hours, and I really can't even advance the argument that at least those ten hours were a top-shelf experience.

Don't get me wrong - it was a great idea for a game, and the "make your own movie" bit was better realised than my highest practical expectations. But ultimately, just like every other game ever created by Peter Molyneaux or Lionhead, it was a product with an awe-inspiringly unique and ambitious concept jammed into a sub-par implementation suffering from a variety of technical and gameplay faults.

Take my game experience. I mean, in eighty years of film studio operation, I get maybe a total of 20 people wanting jobs. Despite the fact that I'm rolling in cash I can't keep my sets together because I can't get a repair guy for love or money - never mind that I'd be willing to pay them wages that would make my stars green with envy. The game stutters badly and regularly no matter what I do to my graphical settings, and the online "screen your movies and view those of others" component is set out with no real thought given to the practicalities of finding genuine quality in amongst the dross.

The act of actually making a movie in-game feels shallow as creating your masterpiece has no real effect on your progress through the standard game, and yet the sandbox mode where you get to go nuts with what's arguably the game's centerpiece requires you to have completed said standard game to have all the features available. And I don't know, but having to regularly instruct my entire cast to "drink yourselves happy" between each and every scene of a movie in order to get top results just doesn't feel right.

Props to Molyneaux et al on once again daring to go where no designer has gone before; but would it kill you to take a few lessons from Blizzard or Konami on how to deliver a polished well-considered final product that actually achieves the gameplay and atmosphere that it's aiming for?

Fear the Message, Not the Medium

[Computer Gaming] [Politics]

This excellent post from Design Synthesis got me thinking again about the recent political attention-slash-witchunting being directed at electronic gaming. (If you're not aware of the Senate hearings in the US or the censorship issues in Australia then do yourself a quick web-crawl and get up to date.)

To claim that videogames should be censored or controlled because they promote violence, incite crime, or desensitise children it is first necessary to distance videogames from other forms of literature. The battle has already been fought on these topics in relation to the printed word, and the would-be censors lost. The right to publish and to read whatever fictitious content one desires to is one that is now fairly well enconsced in our society, and one that I'd like to think most people understand the importance of. In films the lines are less clear but certainly "the promotion of violence" and "the incitation fo crime" are no longer excuses used to deny film content to interested viewers. So to claim videogames need special treatment, it needs to be made clear that they are a different class of media from film, music, and the printed word.

The main argument put forward by soapboxers like Hillary Clinton in the US, and by the OFLC and certain bush politicians in Australia to draw this distinction is that videogames are interactive. The power of control given to the player, they say, is what turns content that would be considered merely "tasteless" in film into a "murder simulator" on a console. There's very little research to support such a viewpoint, and what little there is seems to support both sides of the argument equally.

But is it really important? Suppose that videogames are inherently more capable of promoting and provoking viewpoints and patterns of behaviour than other media? So what?

Media influences people, and it influences them strongly. This is true of all media, and it has been true for a very long time.

The printed word can inspire people to compassion, to creativity, to faith, to apathy, to leadership and to rebellion. It can march people to war and it can move them to peace. It can create religions, political movements, and it can birth nations. Its use is so closely associated with the wielding of power and the alteration of the material world that it has been fetishised, ritualised, spiritualised, and used as the foundation of law in almost every nation.

Music can inspire passion, sadness, pride, action, and unity. It is no coincidence that it is strongly connected with riots, with rebellion, and with suicide; it is also no surprise that it has for so long been used for national anthems, for marching songs, to unite social groups, and to advertise products.

Film plays tricks with the viewer; it can present the same content as a tragedy, as a comedy, or as a heroic epic. It can take a person and canonise them, demonise them, or eulogise them. It can cast a villain as a king or a king as a villain, and it can do us all without letting us think we're seeing anything but the unvarnished truth. It can elect Presidents, pull down celebrities, or villify entire racial groups. It can be simultaneously the agent of discovery and the bearer of propaganda.

We know that media is powerful; we know it can bring about dramatic changes in those who partake of it. We know that it can convey harmful messages very effectively, and can obfuscate issues by omission and glorification. But has the solution ever been to control the medium? Has it ever been to censor and restrict the content? Has that been the problem-solving method that we have prided ourselves on as a civilisation?

No; we have risen to the challenge. We have grasped the tools laid out before us, and learned to use them every bit as effectively as our opponents. For every book which marginalises and de-legitimises women, we write another that exposes the danger in making half our population second-class citizens. For every film with an offensive racial stereotype, we produce another with a rich cultural experience steepd in humanity. For every song by Enimem, we... *cough* sorry, my bias is showing.

And do we expect that the audience (which is, after all, ourselves) will consume our media, and not that of our competition? No; they'll consume it all, the bad and the good, the pearls and the offal, the gratuitous and the transcendent, and hopefully in amongst all the noise they'll come to their own viewpoint which is greater than the sum of its parts. And we call that process education.

Stop worrying about how powerful interactive media may be, and remember that the way forward in dealing with a new media has never been defined by the word "control" - it's defined by the word "competition".

If you've come here courtesty of the May Carnival of Gamers, click here to see the rest of my site - the power of my mind compels you!

A Link To The Past

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

A while back I commented on how I'd completed Morrowind, and felt let down that it didn't give me a parade and fireworks to commemorate my epic deeds. That experience, coupled with the nostalgia evoked by my recent posts on classic gaming, has led me back to The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, as ported to the GBA in the "Four Swords" edition release.

This is a title I've had sitting on my shelf for a while. I've loaned it out, I've toyed with the multiplayer, but I never actually played the darn game myself. This was partly caused by having been "Zelda-ed out" after completing the original Zelda and the two Capcom "Oracle" Zelda titles in quick succession, and partly by the arrival of shiny new hardware in the form of my laptop, my DS, and my PSP.

Well, I'm playing it now, and it's pretty much as everyone told me - the defining and stand-out title of the 2D Zelda games. It's lacking some of the subtle refinements of the Oracle games in terms of pacing and NPC characterisation, and it has a few points where it will let you make a time-consuming mistake that it probably should have warned you against (such as undertaking a long overworld journey when you don't have the necessary equipment to achieve the objective at the end, or letting you warp back to the beginning of a dungeon using the Magic Mirror without so much as an "Are you sure?"), but on the whole Link to the Past embodies everything that makes 2D Zelda good.

It certainly has the bells and whistles I was missing from Morrowind; never has a game given the player such a sense of satsifaction for finding an empty glass jar. Almost every change in the game state, no matter how insignificant, comes with a palpable sense of accomplishment. It feels epic and heroic merely being able to charge around Kakariko Village at ridiculous speeds in the Pegasus Boots and bump into things hard enough to shake them.

I have every 2D Zelda title sitting on my shelf; I just haven't played them all. Getting really stuck into this gives me hope that some day I'll make my way through Link's Awakening and The Minish Cap. The real question is the future of 3D Zelda: given that I abandoned Ocarina of Time a mere two dungeons from the end, and can't motivate myself to return to it, should I bother being excited about the impending release of Twilight Princess?

Movie Round-Up

[Now Experiencing] [Film]

Some films seen in the last week:

The Grudge [2004]: If you missed seeing this on the big screen with surround sound, then you missed half the movie. I was deeply impressed by the sound design when I first saw it in the cinema, and the impression has been reinforced by the sheer inadequacy of my home system to convey the claustrophobic audio experience of this remake of the Japanese original. When I originally saw it, I placed it on a par with the remake of The Ring for quality and for creepiness; but upon bringing it home on DVD I'd have to say that it's not a spot on its excellently constructed predecessor.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [2004]: This film is a great advert for why screenwriters should get bigger billing. If I'd known this was a film from the twisted genius of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovic, Adaptation) I'd have rushed to see it at the cinema. Instead, I made do by picking it up on DVD within a week of finding out its pedigree. And if anything it's a better screenplay than either of his previous works, relying less on the quirky premise to establish the essential humanity and meaning of the plot and instead letting the characters do the work for him. Anyone who's seen Jim Carrey in The Truman Show knows that he's capable of serious acting; his performance here is a further step beyond anything you've seen him do before - he manages to actually convince you that he's someone other than Jim Carrey. Co-stars Kate Winslet and Kirsten Dunst aren't quite so fantastic, but they're unobjectionable. The movie follows the story of Joel Barish (Carrey), a typically neurotic Kaufman character, and his relationship with the impulse and insecure Clementine (Winslet). After a serious argument, Clementine takes advantage of a new medical procedure to have all her memories of Joel wiped from her mind; devastated, Joel intends to reciprocate by likewise removing Clementine, but as his memories begin vanishing he realises that he doesn't want to lose his past after all - is it too late to hold onto the good times he has had? A fantastic film, well worth watching.

U-Turn [1997]: This gripping story of damnation by director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Natural Born Killers) has always been a favourite of mine; I watched it last night with my girlfriend and it's still just as good. Absolutely fantastic cinematography, a performance by Jennifer Lopez that's actually halfway decent, and great roles for Sean Penn, Billy Bob Thornton, Nick Nolte, and Claire Danes. Not enough people have seen this; if you can stomach Oliver Stone's over-the-top use of symbolism and relentless sense of pressure you should do yourself a favour and find a copy of this film.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Games You Should Have Played - 1986

[Computer Gaming]

We're churning through the years at a rate both terrifying and beautiful. We've flown past Pac-Man, past Ultima, past Duck Hunt, and we're now coming gently to rest in the year 1986 - a year troubled by a dark shadow, and yet poised poignantly against a coming sunset like a lady on a balcony. Everywhere, everywhere, the cherry blossoms falls and dust forms words amongst the clouds.

But you'd only notice those things if you looked out the window, and why would you? The Sega Master System is making its shiny debut, Nintendo's churning out hit after hit, and the arcade is continuing to rock like the golden days will never end. So pick up your light-guns, and your reassuringly non-ergonomic two-button controllers, and let's take yet another walk down a brightly lit and softly "bloop"ing memory lane.

1) The Legend of Zelda (NES)
This was the Year of Nintendo. In 1986, Nintendo released more genuinely groundbreaking and original best-selling games than most companies produce in their entire lifespan. And this is on top of a not-too-shabby 1985 which included Super Mario Bros, among other classics. But even amongst such a wealth of excellence, one game clearly stands out, and that game is The Legend of Zelda. This is the first Zelda game, and it's also the first one I played. Admittedly, I played it in 2002 on the GBA port, with the aid of a walkthrough and a map, but still, I loved it to bits. A gigantic map, the illusion of open-ended gameplay, one of the most memorable musical scores in the history of gaming, a wealth of new abilities acquired from items that opened up more of the map, and some cute-as-buttons characters and enemies all combined to make this game the gaming genius that it remains today. If you've never played a Zelda game, go grab yourself an emulation of this at your first opportunity.

2) Metroid (NES)
Either of Metroid or Zelda would be enough for Nintendo to gain a spot in gaming history for all time, but Nintendo went one better and released them both in the same year. Metroid saw a huge range of innovation - password saves, a four-directional scrolling platforming world that you could explore non-sequentially, a range of power ups each of which drastically changed the entire feel of the game, a half-decent plot that advanced as you went, and the first big surprise twist ending of action gaming. If you can't stand to replay the original (although it's highly recommendable), there's a very excellent remake available on the GBA called Metroid Zero which keeps everything that made the original good (including the plot), while featuring slightly remastered levels and neater graphics and controls. (Plus a variety of modern Nintendo games including Metroid Fusion, Metroid Prime and Animal Crossing include the entire original Metroid as a bonus unlockable.)

3) Bubble Bobble (Arcade)
This is a game that's still endlessly fun to play today, two decades after its release. It's theoretically possible to play this game solo, by why would you want to when it's such a two-player cooperative masterpiece? You and a friend control the hapless Bub and Bob, who've apparently been turned into bubble-blowing dragons by an evil witch or something. Anyway, you don't need much of an excuse to start bubbling your way through level after level of puzzle-platforming madness. The great thing about the game is how your inherent abilities can be used in conjunction with a friend to add a whole extra dimension to gameplay - whether it's jumping on a friend's bubbles to reach higher than you normally could, or just coordinating efforts to beat the punishing time limits. You have no excuse for not having played this game.

4) Defender of the Crown (Amiga)
It is a time of gorgeous graphics... I mean, er, of civil war. Or, well, just war. England is under invasion from Norman hordes and it's the duty of every good Saxon to give them what for and send them home in time for a refreshing spot of tea. This largely consists of conquering and managing territories of England, laying sieges, the odd bit of recreational jousting, the occasional saving of a damsel in distress, and larking around with that cad Robin of Locksley, also known as Robin Hood. This all occurs in the midst of some absolutely lush graphics, well ahead of the tech curve for '86, giving console owners everywhere just a tiny bit of Amiga envy. I had a lot of good times with "that Crown game" as we called it. (Well, we might have called it that; 1986 is all a bit of a blur.)

5) Rampage (Arcade)
There have been so many sequels to this game - and yet none of them ever captured the magic of the original. Play a giant monster! Destroy buildings! Fight other giant monsters played by your friends! That's really all there was to it, but that was enough for Rampage to be unique, rewarding, and a heck of a lot of fun. I played the fairly decent Sega Master System port to death, and I long for the day when Midway sells the rights to someone who actually employs talented staff so we can get a decent modern version of it that isn't inflicted with the same Midway-itis that's ruined every recent incarnation of Mortal Kombat, Gauntlet, or Rampage.

6) Alex Kidd in Miracle World (Arcade)
Jan! Ken! Pon! I know at the heart of every strategic game lies a basic scissors/paper/stone methodology, but Alex Kidd took it to ridiculous heights by making the level bosses have heads shaped like giant fists making the scissors, paper or stone symbols. Actually, this was a fairly decent platformer for the time, which mixed a rewarding and easy to grasp gameplay with some fairly unique bicycling and swimming sequences, and really nice pacing throughout. I hated Mario, but I loved this enough to finish it (but then, I was an unpaid Sega thug from the dawn of the Master System until the demise of the Megadrive). It didn't hurt that it came built-in to the Master System II, either. Sega were clearly learning from some of Nintendo's successes.

7) Castlevania (NES)
Another NES hit, albeit produced by Konami rather than Nintendo. It's a horror-themed platformer. And by "horror", I'm not talking about vampires and bats (although those did make an appearance) - I'm talking about the reaction of the average gamer to its hideously unwieldy controls, its sadistic instant-kill traps, and its cripplingly horrendous difficulty overall. This was the platformer's platformer - if you considered yourself a macho man in the platforming circle, this game was always out there to take you down a peg. I honestly don't know what people saw in it, but it's so ubiquitous today that you have to at least play it until you run out of life once (don't worry, that won't take long).

8) Dragon Quest (Famicom)
Released as "Dragon Warrior" in the US; not released in Australia in any fashion whatsoever. I don't know, this franchise got really big in Japan. Yet another installment in it was released recently. I guess it looked kind of nice, and it did have alternate endings... I really don't get it, but if you're going to talk games I guess you'd better know how crazy they go over this in the Land of the Rising Sun.

9) Wonder Boy (Arcade)
Loincloths! Tomahawks! Skateboards! Together at last! This game had several key elements that made it really stand out in the arcades. One was an attractive, clean graphical style. Another was the slightly larger than average size protagonist, which made it easy to see the game from further away in an arcade. Another was the simple, focused platforming gameplay which seemed so easy to pick up and start playing... at least, until the machine had eaten your first coin. It should be clear by now that the platformer was beginning to take off as the mega-genre of gaming - and history showed that it would not be easily stopped.

10) Arkanoid (Arcade)
You know the gameplay better as Breakout, but Arkanoid is the version that made all the money (and besides which Breakout predates my 1980 starting point for this article series). There's a wall of bricks; you have a paddle, with which to direct a bouncing ball to smash the bricks. Simple, uncomplicated gameplay deriving naturally from the elements presented on screen - the Holy Grail of gaming.

Number 11... oh, wait, I stop at ten. I guess it's time for the runners-up, then, and this year our honourable mentions go to:

* Out Run: classic driving action
* Dizzy: the most lovable egg of all time
* King's Quest III: it only needed to be more of the same in order to be more of the best
* Silpheed: classic shoot-em-up action
* Leather Goddesses of Phobos: commercial adult interactive fiction

Join me for 1987, wherein I talk Phantasy Star, Double Dragon, and Leisure Suit Larry!

Games You Should Have Played - 1985

[Computer Gaming]

My apologies if these giant and rapid posts are spamming your LJ feed, but I'd really like to get this series moving forward so that there's a lot of content in it to direct people to. To that end, I'd like to take you back to a simpler time; a gentler time; a time when the words "spamming your LJ feed" were a kind of dangerous gibberish that would see you comitted to an asylum.

That time is 1985. It is a year when we all wondered what Willis was talkin' 'bout, a year of innocence and optimism, a year in which a little company called Microsoft began selling a little product called MS Windows - and what could possibly be wrong with that? In America, thrilled consumers were unwrapping their first Nintendo Entertainment Systems and wondering what crazy kind of game could possibly need two joystick buttons. In Australia, street urchins were shining the shoes of rich coal barons by gaslight, and wondering what theses "electric games" they'd heard so much about were, and what "electricity" was anyway. And in my house in Perth, I was apparently the only person in the world to ever own a copy of Little Computer People.

So let's take a look back at what people were buying in that prehistoric age; or, in one notable case, what was coming pre-packaged with their NES and reshaping the face of gaming for years to come....

1) Super Mario Bros (NES)
We've been toying about with the "proto-platformers" in the last few installments of Games You Should Have Played - Donkey Kong, Pitfall, Ice Climbers... but this is where it really starts. Sideways scrolling screen, platforms suspended in midair, a variety of opponents with varying abilities, levels with different graphical themes, power ups, boss fights, new game plus mode... this is the first time many of these were seen, and it's certainly the first time they were all combined together. What's more, the game was packaged with the NES in America, meaning practically every owner of the console got to play it. As much as I personally find this game and its entire 2D genre largely frustrating and non-fun, there is a very good reason why this game took over from Pac-Man as being emblematic of the nature of video gaming, and remained so until the release of Doom. And by the way, thank you, Mario, but the princess is in another castle.

2) Bomberman (Arcade)
Actually 1983 featured a game in Japan called Bomberman that was released in the West as Eric and the Floaters, but that's beside the point. We're talking here about the one true Bomberman, in which you run around a maze dropping timer-activated bombs to destroy enemies and clear away blocks to allow you access to the exit (which takes you to the next level). If only the original had featured multiplayer it would have been perfect.

3) Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Apple II)
Look, personally, my favourite of the early Ultimas was the first one, but there's no denying that it's IV that made the series popular. This was ported to pretty much every system ever, and for good reason. It featured a revolutionary character creation system that assigned a character class based on your answers to a series of moral dilemmas; the gameplay itself, while still featuring lots of dungeon crawling and monster killing, set all this within the context of a quest for spiritual self-improvement littered with tricky moral choices. NPCs had multiple different things to say, depending on what you asked them about, and your party was filled out with actual predetermined characters (including Iolo, Shamino and Dupre, who would go on to be staples of the series). There's no question that in 1985 Ultima was still leading the RPG genre and defining its form and content for future generations of games.

4) A Mind Forever Voyaging (Apple II)
Considered by many to be the high water mark of commercial interactive fiction, this could probably be seen as the last hurrah of the genre before being subsumed beneath the emerging graphic adventures being created (mostly) by Sierra. No information about this; let's just say that I can say with certainty that you've never played anything like it before.

5) Little Computer People (Apple II)
(Uh, no, really, the Apple II's going to stop dominating the lists any year now. Really.) Little Computer People is a game well ahead of its time; it anticipates the now-popular genre of life simulation led by the eponymous The Sims. It would also fall neatly among the "non-games" that Nintendo is doing some very nice trade out of such as Animal Crossing and Nintendogs. The game's conceit is that within your computer lives a Little Computer Person, or LCP. The game sells itself as software which will allow you to meet and talk to this LCP; and indeed, loading the game results in a cut-away image of a house, wherein you can see your LCP (who has a unique name and personality in every copy of the game) as he cooks, cleans, plays card games, and types letters (among other activities). You can write him letters yourself, join him for a round of poker, or just generally watch him go about his day to day work. I don't have the opportunity to re-evaluate this game today, but at age 8 (when I got my copy in 1988) I can tell you I found it incredibly unique, original, and enthralling. You'd have to wonder how it would do today, ported to the DS and given a severe graphical touch-up.

6) Gauntlet (Arcade)
A true arcade classic. Simultaneously four-player action, a crazy pace set by a constantly depleting life bar (requiring frequent coin-input top-ups), and a real-voice announcer constantly yelling things like "Wizard needs food badly!". Punishing difficulty amongst genuinely addictive gameplay - a well remembered part of gaming history.

7) Bard's Tale (Apple II)
Generic dungeon crawling at its... er, most generic. Enter dungeon, kill monsters, take loot; rinse and repeat. The modern remake would have you believe the Bard's Tale franchise to be a deep rollicking yarn filled with wit and charm, but that's really only true if you consider "wit" to be dungeon crawling, and "charm" to be... more dungeon crawling. But what it did, it did well. It was considered something of a genre-leader at the time. Also kind of cool was that the game let you import characters from Ultima or Wizardry to use and play in Bard's Tale.

8) Ghosts 'n Goblins (Arcade)
Super Mario Bros was barely out when Capcom made its attempt to one-up Nintendo with their arcade platformer Ghosts 'n Goblins. The player took control of a knight with the highly original name of Arthur, who then proceeded to make his way through a series of sideways-scrolling levels. However, the game's frenetic action and demanding pace set it apart from Super Mario Bros and into a new "run and gun" style of platformer catering to high-speed action over the skillfully timed jumps and exploration of Nintendo's flagship product. Also, for the time, Ghosts 'n Goblins looked dang purty.

9) Gradius (Arcade)
An epitome of horizontally scrolling shoot-em-up action, Gradius was for its time innovative, graphically excellent, and a whole lot of fun to play. It had a range of different selectable weapons, and a distinctive and well-rendered soundtrack. Definitely a landmark in the whole spaceship-shooting milieu.

10) King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne (Apple II)
More of the same gameplay as the first in the series; but hey, at the time it was gameplay which represented the pinnacle of adventure gaming. It's entirely possible I'd have more love for the whole franchise if I hadn't already encountered Monkey Island before I sat down with these early installments... but I doubt it. Still, anyone aspiring to talk games should definitely have some familiarity with them.

Well, we've once more come to number 10. On the whole '85 was kind of a bleurgh year for games; a selection of genre kings shine brightly, but behind them there's not a lot of quality in the "runner-up" area of the field. Let's take a quick look at our honourable mentions:

* Commando: vertically scrolling shoot-em-up action, except instead of flying a spaceship or a plane you're just one guy on foot. That's like innovation, only not.
* Mach Rider: spaceship racing, including a track editor and a range of game modes. I actually never played this; maybe if I had I'd have a higher opinion of it.
* Hang On: if you liked motorcycle racing games, this was where it was at - pretty graphics, nice controls... but otherwise it was just another racing game.
* Clu Clu Land: what were Nintendo smoking back in the 80s? I mean, really?

That's all this time around; see you in the future for the games of 1986, wherein I may just need to make my list longer than 10 games, what with all the Legends of Zelda, Rampages, and Wonder Boys to be found. Let me tell you, it's an embarassment of riches. Take care.

Games You Should Have Played - 1984

[Computer Gaming]

Hah! You thought I wasn't coming back to the Games You Should Have Played - but you were wrong! This time we're digging up a time capsule from the year 1984. In Michigan a farmer reported an eggplant shaped like the head of Yoda, Bill Clinton recorded his first hit solo saxophone album, and for five minutes in March the Great Wall of China inexplicably turned a bright duck-egg blue. The console market had become suddenly attractive as game after game started coming out for Nintendo's Famicom system, and some other things happened that no one in their right mind cared about.

The list of games you should have played for this year is long, but let me reiterate again - living in the 80s and not playing these games is the same as living in the 60s and not going to Woodstock. If these games haven't passed under your gaminig thumbs you're living a sad, pointless existence which you should terminate at the earliest opportunity (and restart from a saved game in the 80s).

1) King's Quest I: Quest For The Crown (PC)
This is probably the most important adventure game released until 1990 (when LucasArts produced Loom and Secret of Monkey Island). It's not the best (by a long way), but it's the most important. Why? Because this is the first animated adventure game; it's the first animated adventure game by Sierra (kings of the adventure genre for the next decade); and it's the start of the eventually very good King's Quest franchise. Zork had a better verb parser; King's Quest's graphics would be quickly surpasse;, and it still had the frustrating system where an early error could completely stop you from winning the game. But this is the release that would define how adventure games would look for years to come.

2) Ghostbusters (C64)
I love this game. This is one of the very few examples of a movie license being used to make a really decent videogame. You drive around New York busting ghosts, making money, and upgrading your ghostbusting equipment. After a certain point, you go fight Zuul in some platforming-style action. Classic stuff, and as far as the ghostbusting part of the game it features some truly original (for the time) gameplay.

3) Lords of Midnight (C64)
You've probably heard of most of the other games on the 1984 list; but I expect that many of you will never have heard of Lords of Midnight. And that's a shame, because not only was this a game epic in scope, orginality and ambition when it was released, but there's STILL nothing else like it ever been attempted in gaming. The game presents you with a selection of characters, who can move around independently of each other in a fairly large world, depicted as a series of locations on grid coordinates, each presented as a picture of the terrain. Characters can fight monsters, raise and command armies, and explore for treasure. Against you are arrayed the forces of Lord Doomdark (who also command armies). To win the game you must either find and destroy the Ice Crown, or conquer Doomdark's home city of Ushgarak. Thus the game could be played as an RPG, a wargame, or both. (Yes, it's more than a little inspired by Lord of the Rings.) Fantastically addictive and multi-levelled - get an emulator for the original or check out one of the many remakes (1, 2, 3).

4) Duck Hunt (Famicom)
Yes, you know it better on the NES, but the NES doesn't come out until next year in the US and two years after that for Australia. It's Duck Hunt! Light guns! Shooting birds! Annoying dogs! Yes, it's pretty much the first home light gun game. And Nintendo's recent tendency towards nostalgia fan-service has pretty much canonised it in the annals of classic gaming. So, y'know, check it out.

5) Marble Madness (Arcade)
Navigate a marble through a 3D isometric level! What could possibly be more enthralling? I can't stop using exclamation points! It's sheer MADNESS, I tell you!

6) Karateka (Apple II)
High kick! Punch! High kick! This might be considered the first scrolling brawler; or then again, it might not. But regardless, you can go completely kung fu krazy kicking guys in the head in this game... or, y'know, karate krazy, cos there's not really any kung fu. In retrospect, I am so surprised I ever managed to finish this game, especially at age 6. It's filled with sections designed to do nothing more than frustrate the player, like the stupid falling gate that impales you unless you deal with it just so, or the fact that the girl you're trying to save will kill you if you don't drop out of fighting stance before approaching you. Gah! Damn you, stupid girl!

7) Paperboy (Arcade)
Well, actually, I played the Master System port of Paperboy, but that didn't come along for another, oh, 6 years, so I'd better deal with the arcade original. It's a simple enough game - ride bicycle forward, throw papers at houses, attempt to NOT smash windows of your subscribers, and dodge common roadway obstacles like breakdancers, tornadoes, and the Grim Reaper (??). At the end of each "day" (level), you get to see how many subscribers you kept, and how many got pissed off and cancelled their service; this then carries over to the next day. Very simple gameplay, but the fact that your performance carries over in such a concrete way makes it substantiallly deeper than many other straight action titles of the era.

8) The Ancient Art of War (Apple II)
Early real-time strategy. Not very deep, but fairly successful for its time. You had three types of troops (Knights, Barbarians and Archers) that operated on a kind of rock-paper-scissors (Knight beats Barbarian, Barbarian beats Archer, etc), and you used them to beat your enemy. They moved around in real time. The game tracked hunger, morale, et cetera, and had various options for fighting and moving in formations and travelling at different speeds.

9) Boulder Dash (Apple II)
(Don't worry, you're going to see these Apple titles tapering off soon in favour of the emerging PC and the burgeoning console market. But boy howdy was the Apple the place to be in the early 80s - probably the best thing my parents ever bought me as a child.) Boulder Dash basically takes the gameplay from Lode Runner and Dig Dug, mixes it together, and adds an additional layer of graphical polish and strategic depth. I have memories of this being a better game than either Lode Runner or Dig Dug, but I haven't played any of them for years so it might be just the dementia talking.

10) Spy vs Spy (C64)
(Yes, it was on the Apple as well, but the C64 version is the one I played, because my friend's C64 could support two joysticks whereas my Apple couldn't.) Look, there are better games than this in the honourable mentions below, but Spy vs Spy had some fairly unique gameplay mechanics that make it worth a place in the top 10. Firstly, it had multiplayer. Secondly, and most importantly, the gameplay was split-screen. The two players could be in different places doing different things, which was pretty much a first. Based on the comic strip from MAD Magazine, the two players controlled the Black Spy and the White Spy as they wandered around an embassy setting traps for each other while collecting vital items necessary for victory. As a competitive game, it has a range of design flaws which kept it from ever being truly classic, but it does have a whole heap of "got there first" design cachet.

And that's ten. Thanks for the attention, everyone. As always, I'll conclude with a few honourable mentions:
* Ice Climber: platforming fun for all, including simultaneous co-op play
* Excitebike: another part of Nintendo's classic canon, and decently memorable, but nothing really to make it worth talking about
* Balloon Fight: Nintendo reinvents Joust, only cuter
* Hogan's Alley: more light gun shenanigans, but less well loved than Duck Hunt and otherwise functionally identical.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Ang Lee

[Now Experiencing] [Film]

I just finally got around to watching Hulk, as directed by Ang Lee, and having done that, I'm not even going to dignify it with a review.

I was tricked into watching it by the opinions of this fellow, who generally seems to have good taste in most things. In relation to Hulk, though, he was full of hideous dirty lies. (Sorry I can't provide a link to his review; it was some time ago and now buried somewhere in his blog archives. If anyone turns it up let me know and I'll change the linkage.)

Oh, sure, it makes use of some interesting wipes and frame-in-frame techniques to achieve a fairly authentic comic-book screen layout. But this one unique and good aspect is then buried under:

a) A hideous script that completely misses the point of what makes the Hulk good. Bruce Banner should be an everyman, a scientist who strives to improve the lot of humankind, while at the same time struggling with a terrible anger problem. He's turned into the Hulk when saving a civilian from the effects of the gamma bomb he designed; the monster is born from a simultaneous act of compassion and act of destruction, and remains eternally poised between mankind's capacity to do good and its instinct to destroy. He's a man who's been looking for a fight to pick his entire life, and he finally has no reason not to and the power to win. He's an unstoppable force looking for a wall big enough to beat against. And all this is completely sidestepped by the unfocused and meandering script, with its nanomeds and pre-natal treatments, and hideous pacing and unnecessary characters.

b) Completely wooden acting from Eric Bana in the role of Bruce/the Hulk. For a character so totally driven by his emotions, Eric does a fine job of making sure we never actually see any of said emotions.

c) Horribly visual stylings. The Hulk should live in a world of blacks and whites. Sure, the military may say there's shades of gray, and that sometimes you have to do bad to do good, but the Hulk is there to remind them that no, there's good and there's bad and they're different things. But Ang Lee has chosen to make a grittily realistic world completely unsuited to the bright primary colours inherent in the genre.

d) The soundtrack. Danny Elfman does a great job at making interesting music; unfortunately it's the same interesting music that appeared in the Spider-Man movies, and completely unsuited to the moody claustrophobic rage-driven atmosphere of the Hulk's world.

So, in short, if anyone tries to tell you that this movie is not complete drivel, you should laugh in their face, and then kick them. Not even Jennifer Connelly could make this movie interesting, and... well, that's saying something. Avoid it at all costs.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Infinite Crisis Aftermath: The Battle for Bludhaven #1

[Now Experiencing] [Comics]

Were you shocked by the apparently gratuitous devastation of Bludhaven during Infinite Crisis? Were you hpping to find out the fate of characters you'd come to know and love from Nightwing, Robin and Batgirl? Were you eagerly looking forward to the awkwardly titled Infinite Crisis Aftermath: The Battle For Bludhaven miniseries?

Well, don't bother. It's utter garbage. Beginning to end. Nightwing doesn't appear in the series, period. Robin has so far made a brief appearance on the first page of issue #1 with no clear sign he's likely to return in future issues. The story is littered with characters you have no reason to care about, with insulting ridiculous super-hero identities. An example is the resurrection of the supergroup "The Force of July", featuring Major Victory, Lady Liberty, and the Silent Majority (pictured on cover, above). No sign of anyone you'd be the least bit interested in learning more about.

This is another pathetic example of DC attempting to advance its world plot and cash in on a marketing event without giving the slightest attention to actually telling an engaging story. Bah. I wish I'd left it on the shelf. Go pick up the "One Year Later" issues of Teen Titans, Batman, Birds of Prey or Nightwing, and you might actually get some entertainment out of your cash.

Being Healthy Is A Badly Designed Game

[Game Design]

I just read this post over at Clickable Culture today, and you should too. No, really, go read it. I'll wait.

(While I'm waiting, thanks to Raph Koster for highlighting it on his blog.)


Oh! Welcome back! You read it, right? About how if airport screening could be more effective by dressing it in the real-life trappings of a successful videogame, there's no good reason not to, no matter how apparently humorous the result? (Well, it wasn't precisely about that, but I extrapolated.)

This is wonderful thinking. There's almost no level of human life this can't be applied to, with outcomes ranging from the sublime to the downright scary, and I say we embrace it with both arms.

I'd benefit from this no end. Filing could be turned into a collection-oriented game; when a file contains a full set of a certain list of prescribed important documents, it could be granted a special shiny sticker, and then go into a trophy case where it could be rotated in three dimensions. Every hundred successful completed files extend my maximum lunch break by one minute; completing enough files will eventually let me upgrade from the horrible files that use wiggly plastic tubes to lock the paper in and start using something with a decent lever-arch system instead. Maybe there could be some sort of filing high-scores board out in reception; man, I'd dominate at that game.

But you know where this kind of thinking is really needed? Healthy eating. No, seriously. Look at my choices. I can get a meal from McDonalds in five minutes, or I can wait half my bloody lunch hour for a salad roll to be ready. Time efficiency would suggest McDonalds; plus I get an instant reward in the form of friendlier, standardised service, and a chemical release reward from the flavour-carrying fat. That's a game system that's designed to encourage me to eat junk.

Take another health food situation. I'm at the supermarket, standing in line. To my right is the fresh produce section, and a bunch of lettuces and bananas and so forth. To my left is a stand of Kinder Surprise. You will notice that the lettuce does not come with a free collectable toy, and does not contain an inherent game-process of eating the fatty chocolate to discover the random reward inside. After eating twenty lettuces, I have found one caterpillar and a mild sense of nausea. After eating twenty Kinder Suprises, I have a toy collection and the illusion of progress (not to mention a significant gut). Lettuces would do a lot better if they came with collectable toys, or at least, you know, made that secret-uncover noise from Legend of Zelda whenever I took a bite. I'd settle for getting to level-up to a tastier brand of lettuce after eating enough of the damn stuff.

A final example. I have a microwavable pizza. Not only does this meal go from stored to eaten in less than a quarter hour, but in the process of making it I get to zap things with lasers. Lasers, people! Admittedly it's all a bit vicarious and happens behind the door of my microwave, but still - lasers! Whereas when I eat a pear there are no lasers involved whatsoever and my fingers end up sticky. If this were any decent sort of game, the clear inference would be that microwave meals are a more advanced food that I have been granted access to thanks to my superior tech level; by dint of requiring more technology to obtain they are inherently more nutritious and have a more positive effect on my game state.

Honestly, if eating a pear required the use of some sort of high tech sonic-scalpel to peel it open before consumption, I'd instantly be willing to eat a lot more of them. True story.

I think the health food industry as a whole could take some clear lessons from game design. I think instead of products displaying their fat content in very small print, they should instead display their "Health Points" (HP) in large colourful fonts on the front of the box. Collecting enough HP allows you to level up and use the internet to request prizes from the makers. Ideally, everyone's HPs would be tracked on some kind of internet high score table, and you could get some sort of a concrete ranking (I'd see myself as a serious contender in the "Intermediate" class). Eating food should probably have some sort of chat functionality, too. You know, where you could beg for chips or form some sort of guild or "family", based largely around sharing meals... that'd be awesome. Whey has no one ever thought of this before?

Games You Should Have Played - Home Page

[Computer Gaming]

Welcome to Games You Should Have Played! Collected here is my series of posts starting at 1980 and moving inexorably towards the present which details the videogames you should have played in order to have a good grasp of gaming history and the evolution of game design. Why 1980? Because it's the year I was born. I'm as old as Pac-Man, and now you can be too... in some sort of vicarious quasi-mystical way. Enjoy!

Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Ultima, Zork, Rogue, Defender, Mystery House, Wizard of Wor, Tempest, Berzerk

Donkey Kong, Frogger, Ms Pac-Man, Galaga, Asteroids, Wizardry

Q*Bert, Dig Dug, Pitfall, E.T., Joust, David's Midnight Magic, Choplifter, Tron Deadly Discs, Pole Position, The Hobbit

Dragon's Lair, Mario Bros, Star Wars, Ultima III, Mappy, One on One, Impossible Mission, Moria, M.U.L.E, Pinball Construction Set

King's Quest, Ghostbusters, Lords of Midnight, Duck Hunt, Marble Madness, Karateka, Paperboy, The Ancient Art of War, Boulder Dash, Spy vs Spy

Super Mario Bros, Bomberman, Ultima IV, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Little Computer People, Gauntlet, Bard's Tale, Ghosts 'n Goblins, Gradius, King's Quest II

The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Bubble Bobble, Defender of the Crown, Rampage, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Castlevania, Dragon Quest, Wonder Boy, Arkanoid

Phantasy Star, Double Dragon, Dungeon Master, Sid Meier's Pirates!, Maniac Mansion, Final Fantasy, Skate or Die!, Leisure Suit Larry, R-Type, Mega Man

Feel free to berate and insult me for my choice of games. I like a good flame war!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Games You Should Have Played - 1983

[Computer Gaming]

We once again return to the Gaming Dungeon, from whence come my strange and demented visions of concepts too terrible for mortal minds to grasp. This time we're going to the year 1983. It is an auspicious year for science - Margaret Thatcher invents the chia pet, Jacques Costeau returns from the dead and speaks in tongues to his followers, and the Police invent stalker-pop with their hit single "Every Breath You Take". Commodore 64s are bestowed unto the masses, the trackball mouse is packaged with new computers, and a lucky few in Japan are unwrapping their first taste of a little machine that Nintendo likes to call the "Famicom".

Oh for those simple, innocent days again. As Atari leads the gaming industry into a near-fatal economic nosedive, and gaming executives begin throwing themselves from tall buildings, let's take a look at the stand-out titles of the era.

1) Dragon's Lair (Arcade)
It's a tough call to say that this was the biggest game in a year that also featured the Mario Bros arcade game... but, really, it's just Mario Bros - it's not like it was SUPER Mario Bros. Dragon's Lair is the clear standout in 1983. In an era of the 8-bit sprite, Dragon's Lair featured full motion video (FMV). And not just for cutscenes - the entire game was in animated Don Bluth-created full motion video. Every inch of it. Admittedly, interaction was on the short side - you pressed the right button at the right time, or you died. But you have to give it credit not just for pioneering FMV, but also for a bunch of other terms that are still being treated like buzzwords today - meaningful narrative, context sensitive actions... this was a game that was technically years ahead of its time, and deserves recognition as such.

2) Mario Bros (Arcade)
Unless you're a big fan of Mario or of classic gaming, this probably isn't the Mario Bros you remember - this is the arcade version. Only one screen of gameplay, no scrolling, with the aim of killing everything on screen. There's a good reason why the one we all love added the word "Super" to the start. But hey, two player simultaneous play, Mario gets named at last, the first appearance of Luigi, Koopa Troopas, fireballs, pipes, and the visual style that we've all come to associate with the fat little plumber. If the platformer didn't already exist as a genre, it does now. While everyone else is still trying to copy Donkey Kong, Nintendo have moved the state of gaming forward again.

3) Star Wars (Arcade)
I can't go near this one without making a variety of jokes based around the quote, "Pull out, Wedge! You're no good back there!" Anyway, you've probably seen this around, at least in films if not in real life. The cabinet itself came in a fairly distinctive sit-down version and is probably more memorable than the actual game. Star Wars basically recreates the attack on the Death Star sequence from A New Hope, casting you as Luke Skywalker fighting through waves of TIE Fighters in a vector-graphic starfield and eventually attempting the trench run to fire a photon torpedo down the exhaust port. Kind of pretty for its time, when the "fake 3D" of vector graphics was still a novelty. Certainly a precursor to a range of space flight simulators that were actually rather good.

4) Ultima III (Apple II)
Not my favourite of the Ultimas, but worth noting for its major departure from its two predecessors. Although it still features a lush top-down overworld, and compelling 3-D wireframe dungeons, the adventure is no longer the quest of a single adventurer, but the epic journey of a group of four companions, all of whom are graphically depicted on the battle area during fights. Moreover, the gameworld now had a cohesive design, with each accessible area of the world having a particular significance to progress through the game (as compared to the first two games which featured a wealth of irrelevant towns and dungeons, much like the occasional modern game *cough* Morrowind *cough*). A huge success for designer Richard Garriott and his company Origin, and vastly advanced the style and direction of the RPG genre, in which Ultima was still by far the leading name.

5) Mappy (Arcade)
Mappy, the Police Mouse. Oh, how I hate him. He thinks he's so clever, but one day his furry little ass will be mine. Namco made this, and I can only assume still owns the rights, so I can see no good reason why Mappy shouldn't appear as an unlockable extra character in the next Tekken or SoulCalibur offering, just so I can beat the little prat to within an inch of his authoritarian life. Oh... you want to know about the game? It's another of these Pac-Man style platformers - avoid the mostly indestructible baddies while collecting the loot. In this case the baddies are cats, and the loot is apparently stolen property, and the whole thing's set within a multi-story mansion, with the various floors presented in cut-away on a 2D plane. Can you say "search without warrant"? Enjoy life now, Mappy; yours will be all too short.

6) One on One: Dr J vs Larry Bird (Apple II)
A sports game... featuring licensed sporting personalities... and published by Electronic Arts. And with this one simple game, a market was born which would go on to make lucrative but unimaginative games by the bucketload, year after year, ad infinitum. Actually, the game itself wasn't bad considering the competition at the time. Basketball fun all round.

7) Impossible Mission (Apple II)
Actually this one came out first for the C64, but the version I played was the Apple one, so I'll use that so as to speak from experience. In 1983, Nintendo may have been inventing platforming in the guise of a little plumber called Mario, but a little company called Epyx were picking up the idea and running with it, in directions which Nintendo weren't even considering just yet. Impossible Mission requires you to explore multiple randomly-generated platform-filled rooms, avoiding robots and searching for pieces of a hidden password, all the while racing a fairly punishing time limit. It's been a while since I played this, but I remember the nameless secret agent hero as being a fairly nimble fellow for his time, possessed of a fair degree of skill in the jumping-and-doding department. Never did finish the sucker, though (unsurprising, as my last serious attempt was when I was aged seven).

8) Moria (Apple II)
I covered Rogue back a couple of years ago, and Moria is really only a re-release and update of that classic game, but still... I loved this game so much, I just can't leave it out. I want to hug it and kiss it and call it George. Someday I hope Moria will marry me and we can have little children rendered entirely in ASCII.

9) M.U.L.E. (Atari 400/800)
Fine, fine, I'll include M.U.L.E. I never played the damn thing, but Gamespot seems to think it's pretty hot, and the reasons they cite are compelling. Y'see, there are these Multiple Use Labour Elements (MULEs), which can.... well, it's about supply and demand economics, and.... ah, hell, read what they have to say for yourself.

10) Pinball Construction Set (Apple II)
Make your own game. Such a simple concept, but destined to have such massive impacts on the future of gaming, the most notable of which in the modern context is the very existence of Counter-Strike, the most successful online game of all time. Bill Budge and Electronic Arts got there first with Pinball Construction Set, which basically let the user make their own pinball table layouts, save them, swap them, and play them. Between this and David's Midnight Magic, the 80s saw me in a kind of pinball-themed heaven. And the sad thing is you've probably never even heard of this title.

And of course, I'll round out 1983 with a few honourable mentions - if you've played the ten games above, and you're hankering for more electronic cold-cuts from the best code-butchers around, take a look at my honourable mentions:
* Archon (early version of BattleChess),
* Planetfall (more Infocom interactive fiction, and beginning the tradition of including bonus souvenirs in game packaging)
* Spy Hunter (vertical shooter disguised as a driving combat game)
* Starship Command (because games written for the BBC Micro did matter, dammit)
* Tag Team Wrestling (I've always loved a good wrestling game; this was the first. More importantly, one of the game's wrestling teams, the Strong Bads, became the inspiration for a certain character we all know and love).

And... cut to credits.

What do you mean, we don't have credits? How do I finish the post? Click "Publish Post"? Where's that... oh, I think it's

Games You Should Have Played - 1982

[Computer Gaming]

Fear not for the unholy speed at which I'm concocting these posts, dread readers. There's going to be some kind of compilation post in the works sometime soon, which will ensconce this entire project neatly within my sidebar to ensure its continued consumption down through the ages. So you won't miss a year of the fun, no matter how hard you try.

This time around, we're navigating our way to the year 1982, wherein popcorn grows on trees and puppies and kittens run wild in the streets. The Smurfs formed a hit wig band, Winston Churchill's corpse was made the star of its own reality TV show, the Colecovision and the Atari 5200 hit store shelves, and somewhere in the stars intelligences greater than man's and yet mortal as his own regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly but surely drew their plans against us.

As with most of the 80s, the big news in gaming was the arcade hits coming home to the average lounge room, but in amongst all the console-porting madness some genuine pearls of gaming were cast before the swine. Let's take a look at someof them now....

1) Q*Bert (Arcade)
It's just startling how few games today get away with having an asterisk as a crucial element of their name. Q*Bert, however, pulls it off with flair. He's a little orange furball, and I have to say I hate the little tyke with a passion. But look at what he accomplished - making real-time puzzle/action gaming a viable arcade genre. He jumped around a bunch of cubes, trying to get them to change to the same colour (they change whenever he jumps on them), while avoiding a collection of nasty opponents and other dangers. If you look back at the other "Arcade" titles I've talked about in the last couple of years, you'll see that this is taking the basic Pac-Man formula... and moving it into a whole new and unique realm. It's one of those titles I can simultaneously appreciate the genius of while absolutely detesting the act of playing it.

2) Dig Dug (Arcade)
Help! Monsters! Underground monsters! .... I'm really not sure how to make this funny, right now. You dig tunnels on a 2-D plane representing the underground, and inflate monsters till they pop or drop rocks on their heads. Another example of the Pac-Man formula mutating into puzzle/action gaming. It's a bit of theme for 1982, I guess. This, by the way, is the forerunner of the series that you'll occasionally see today under the name Mr Driller.

3) Pitfall (Atari 2600)
You know what the wonderful thing about Pitfall was? You'd start a game... and then 20 minutes later, it was over. 20 minutes. That's the maximum time the entire game took. You'd say, "20 minutes? No way!" and the game would say "Yes way!", and display this clock counting down the 20 minutes up in the corner. You had only 20 minutes to finish the entire game. And you know what you had to do in that 20 minutes? Find 32 treasures! In this crazy jungle maze full of alligators and... pits.... and stuff. 20 minutes. That's focused gaming. Blizzard, take some notes, dammit.

4) E.T: The Game (Atari 2600)
Ha! No, just kidding you, you don't have to play this game. It's mostly just leading E.T. round in circles so he doesn't fall into pits. Awful doesn't even begin to describe it. But the game has what you might call historical value, mostly as the game which murdered Atari. Would you believe Atari manufactured more copies of this game than there were people who owned the Atatri 2600? That's right, Atari were apparently expecting that every last 2600 owner would buy a copy, and some of them would buy two for no reason whatsoever. This in an era when the words "successful game on home system" meant more or less the same thing as "ported from the successful arcade cabinet" and no one had ever even played this train wreck before. To the say that the game was unsuccessful would be like saying the Gizmondo was mildly unprofitable. Check out more over at Snopes.

5) Joust (Arcade)
Flying. Jousting. Together at last.

6) David's Midnight Magic (Apple II)
I'm not really sure that this game was hugely influential, but hey, I owned a copy and played it to death. Lots of fond memories here. Basically, it's a pinball simulator. Sure, back in the 80s you could walk down to a strange little place called an "arcade" and play a machine that actually had real pinballs and was operated mechanically, but for the terminally lazy you could buy a copy of this game and have all the fun on your home workstation. It started a fine tradition of simulating gaming systems on other gaming systems, which continues today... emulation, anyone?

7) Choplifter (Apple II)
Hey! I owned this one, too! Faced with the choice between firing this up or taking another round on Dave's Midnight Magic... I'd play Ultima. (Stay tuned for real historical footage of me having sex with the Ultima packaging.) But, you know, this wasn't bad for a third choice. You're a helicopter pilot, tasked with rescuing people from prisoner of war camps. There's tanks and stuff. Whatever.

8) Tron Deadly Discs (Intellivision)
At pretty much the same time that Tron Deadly Discs was appearing on the Intellivision, the Tron arcade game was hitting the public. They're both pretty interesting games, but I'm going to go with the home version featuring the discs game, mostly because it's the version that people still seem to have the visual images of today. Another *cough* "triumph" of vector graphics. Watch out or your head may a splode.

9) Pole Position (Arcade)
Here it is, people - the dawn of the racing game. And... it's functionally identical to every other racing game, ever. You have to achieve a certain lap time, and then beat other cars in a race. No other genre has come such a short distance in the last two decades. And I still don't like playing the damn things.

10) The Hobbit (Sinclair ZX Spectrum)
Actually more widely known on the Commodore 64, but as the C64 wouldn't be released until 1983 for now you'll have to make do with the Spectrum. Look, it was tough to pick a candidate for position 10, but I'm going to go with the Hobbit text-adventure, because a) it implemented a really good parser, b) it had a dynamic world filled with characters with their own agendas whose behaviours could not be predicted, and c) it had items that had "real-world" properties like weight, durability, and size. And the whole thing was written and published by Australians.

Alright, I'm done. That's 10, and I could probably have gone to 15. 1983 is a year full of quality games, so it's just a shame that it's also the year that the whole industry burst in flames and began running around like a horrible flaming corpse that doesn't know it's dead yet. Thanks for that, Atari - I blame you. (Spoiler warning: The industry later recovered.)

Honorable mentions: Sinistar (for the cool voice effects), Zaxxon (first isometric viewpoint), River Raid (quality top scrolling shooter, female developer), Xevious (even better top scrolling shooter), Ultima II (bug-ridden and confusing and yet still the best RPG franchise around), and Robotron: 2084 (twin joystick two-player madness).

That's it, web-enabled rodents, it's over for today. Check back soon for the 1983 edition, in which I vent about how much I hate Mappy.

The People's Mario

[Computer Gaming] [Web Stuff]

In between classic gaming diatribes, and seeing as I've just inducted Donkey Kong into the Games You Should Have Played, it may well be worth your while to apply your mighty web-engines to The People's Mario, wherein the adventures of our favourite plumber are revealed to be a riveting tale of class struggle and the overcoming of bourgeoisie oppression. Great stuff.

Games You Should Have Played - 1981

[Computer Gaming]

Welcome back, ugly and maladapted peons! We're here once more for another round of Games You Should Have Played. These are the games that you can use to measure your personal worth as a human, and almost certainly find yourself lacking.

I'll clear up a couple of points. These aren't the best games ever made. (Tempest? Sweet Jeebers, Tempest?) They're not the best selling games, or the most popular. They're the ones that you should have played in order to talk games. I can safely say that if you've played my full list of Games You Should Have Played, you'll be able to geek out on pretty much any games discussion talk you care to name. And if you haven't played the list, then your life is shallow and meaningless. But more of that later.

So we're jumping once more in our time-travelling police box and riding the time vortex back to the year 1981. It's a year marked by a worldwide shortage of sherbert, a year when Mr T set the world land speed record in a jet-fuelled go-kart, and a year when magical fairies were sighted my millions in the sky above Tokyo. Shigeru Miyamoto duelled Roberta Williams in a steel-cage grudge match on live TV, and in an underground bunker somewhere in Japan a colourful little Italian plumber was grown in a vat with a life-long mission to fight giant apes and evil tortoises.

So... let's get down to the games.

1) Donkey Kong (Arcade)
"It's-a me, Jumpman!" Yes, that's right, he wasn't always known as Mario. Back in 1981, everyone's favourite mushroom-fixated plumber made his first appearance under the inauspicious name of Jumpman. And he wasn't a plumber yet, he was a carpenter. And it wasn't all wine and roses out of the gate, either. Before he'd even had time to become an offensive ethnic stereotype, Jumpman was beset with problems. You see, Jumpman's pet giant ape (I'm confused too) had escaped! And what's worse, the hairy fiend, who went by the name Donkey Kong, had kidnapped Jumpman's girlfriend (who, dressed in pink and constantly screaming "HELP!", was a clear credit to her gender). Much madness ensued, with Kong rolling barrels at the hapless Jumpman as Jumpman attempted to scale a construction site to defeat the evil ape and rescue his helpless girl. The game's worth noting for having a clear narrative to the story, advanced by cutscenes between levels, which was pretty much the first time this had been attempted in an action game. It's also for pretty much all intents and purposes the birth of the platformer.

2) Frogger (Arcade)
I still find it a little hard to believe that this comes from the same game studio eventually responsible for Metal Gear Solid. Or, then again, maybe not. You can see this game as a kind of Metal Gear Zero, or, if you like, Metal Gear Frogger. Tactical Stealth Espionage Action, in a setting ripped straight from the freeways of today. Only you can guide Solid Frog across five lanes of traffic and a raging river to reach the top of the screen (where, presumably, an offscreen battle against a Metal Gear occurs). Hey, now I want to go back and play this game again! "Frogger... FROGGER!"

3) Ms Pac-Man (Arcade)
From the people who brought you Mortal Kombat. I'd go into the whole joke about how whenever you eat a ghost you can yell "Fatality!" but I just did that for Frogger, so... I suppose you could see this game as some sort of feminist statement. I mean, the protagonist is a woman! (You can tell cos she has eyeliner, lipstick, a bow and a beauty spot; she's still a yellow ball with a big mouth, though.) In a way, Ms Pac-Man is the direct ancestor of Lara Croft, another success for women's lib... uh, I'm just going to stop talking now.

4) Galaga (Arcade)
It's the sequel to Galaxian, and it's pretty much the same game as Space Invaders, except fun to play. Of all the early vertical shooters, this is one of the few that's still a whole bunch of fun today. You can occasionally still find a Galaga cabinet in old pubs; if you spot one, fill it full of coins and have yourself a blast.

5) Asteroids (Arcade)
Actually, I've found varying reports listing Asteroids as coming out anywhere between 1979 and 1981. I don't really care when the damn thing came out; just play it. It's such a simple game, and yet so addictive. You see, you're this little ship, and you can rotate, and there's these asteroids moving around, and when you shoot the asteroids they turn into smaller asteroids and you get points. And then you shoot the smaller asteroids... and, um, it uses vector graphics. So maybe they're not ALL bad...

6) Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (Apple II)
Why would you play this game when you could be playing Ultima or Zork? Why? And yet, enough people DID play it that it ended up with sequel after horrible, horrible sequel. It's bug ridden, it's confusing, it's got a punishing difficulty curve, it's largely pointless, and it looks really, really ugly. I can't stress enough, people, don't play any more of this game than you have to in order to understand why you shouldn't play it. Really, I'm only just including it here because 1981 was such an abysmally slow year for gaming.

And... you know what? That's it. There weren't any other important games. Oh sure, there was Crazy Kong (Donkey Kong in a funny hat), Castle Wolfenstein (eventual 3-D version notwithstanding, a very non-special game), Zork II (funtionally identical to the first installment in the series), but you can really get away with not playing any of them.

Six measly worthwhile games. Poor show, 1981. So stay tuned for Games You Should Have Played - 1982, wherein we discuss Q*Bert, and some other games too.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Games You Should Have Played - 1980

[Computer Gaming]

Greetings, sub-human reader-monkeys! I see you out there, waiting at your screens and repeatedly clicking "refresh" in the pathetic hope of an update! I am here, to answer your prayers and fulfil such pitiful hopes and dreams as you possess. Wipe the drool from your chins, and prepare to bestow upon me your unadulterated love and attention.

Today (or, more accurately, tonight) I'm going to begin to stimulate your brain cavities with the first of a series of articles that I'd like to name "Games You Should Have Played". Each article will focus on one year in the history of video gaming, and list out a series of games that I think are worthy of your personal time and consideration. Make no mistake - I'm making the clear implication that if you haven't played these games, you're just not as worthwhile as the people who have. The people who have played these games are laughing at you. That's them now, outside. Laughing.

I'm going year by year, but I'll warn you, this isn't a research piece. I am going to get release years wrong. I'm going to lavish attention on home console releases while overlooking their superior arcade origins. I'm going to mention facts that are inaccurate, or in some cases just plain fictitious. It's not that I'm not aware of the truth - it's just that I like to include these lapses to frustrate you, because it entertains me to do so. Really, it's all your fault.

We're going to get in the Wayback Machine and take a trip to 1980, a year when cherry blossoms filled the streets and human linked hands with human to promote a unanimous message of world peace. Scientists discovered Atlantis, Stephen Spielberg became the first man on the moon, He-Man was elected President of the United States, and the two greatest people in the history of civilisation were born - myself, and Pac-Man.

Sound familiar? I thought so.... let's fight our way through the crowds clamouring for the release of the Intellivision home gaming console, and check out the stand-out titles of this year.

1) Pac-Man (Arcade)
He's got a big mouth, he's always worried about mysterious threats that may or may not exist, and his entire life is the philosophy of consumerism. No, it's not George Bush Jnr, it's our lovable hero Pac-Man. 1980 saw the arrival of the first Pac-Man arcade cabinets in locations worldwide. Bewildered gamers at first had no idea who the circular yellow ragamuffin was, but before long Pac-Man was laying claim to the disputable title of "Most Successful Videogame of All Time". Players were challenged to guide the unstoppable ball of death around a neon maze, attempting to collect a set of dots scattered around the screen. Their efforts were frustrated by four ghosts (later given the names Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde) who chased Pac-Man around the maze - contact with any of the four meant death! Luckily Pac-Man could temporarily turn the tables on his pursuers by chomping one of four Pac Pellets located at the corners of the map, which allowed our butter-coloured hero to consume ghosts of all types and send their disembodied eyeballs back to the ghost-jail in the centre of the level. Gamers competed to see who could earn the best score, until eventually in 1999 Billy Mitchell answered the question by obtaining the highest score possible and making all further play of the game redundant.

2) Space Invaders (Atari 2600)
Yes, yes, Space Invaders came out in 1978, not 1980. But I'm not at this stage planning to cover anything before 1980, so I'm taking this opportunity to talk about the release of Space Invaders for players at home on the Atari 2600 (at the time known as the Atari VCS). Space Invaders is arguably the most important game of all time, being the first game to introduce a clear goal, by means of letting the player collect points and compete against a high score. The game challenged players to pilot a small spaceship located at the bottom of the screen against an oncoming wave of aliens which descended from the top. The player needed to fire projectile blasts at the aliens and eliminate the entire wave before the aliens reached the bottom of the screen and destroyed the player's spacecraft. The aliens, meanwhile, would rain laser blasts and bombs down on the hapless pilot. The further through the game the player progressed, the faster the aliens would move, and the harder the game became. Popular legend suggests the arcade version of this game caused a coinage supply in Japan until the Yen supply was quadrupled, and hey, a story that good HAS to be true, right?

3) Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness (Apple II)
I take eternal pride in having played and completed this game on its native system in an age before online walkthroughs and FAQs. Sure, I may have done it some 8 or 9 years after it was first released, but what does that matter? This game came out in the same year as seminal text-adventure Zork (see below). Both games offered a richly detailed world, featuring an epic quest with a punishing difficulty. At the time Zork was probably better received, but considering that Ultima I featured a sprawling illustrated overworld, vaguely real-time combat, 3-D dungeon-crawling, and an open-ended quest, whereas Zork had... text... I think I'm justified in declaring Ultima to have been the more historically important game. Created entirely by Richard Garriott, under the pseudonym Lord British, and incorporating elements of his earlier game of the same year Akalabeth, it's still amazing just how far ahead of its time this game was. It still stands as a momentous achievement in gaming and would not be outdone for influence on the future of RPGs until a full decade later with the first installment of the Final Fantasy franchise.

4) Zork I: The Great Underground Empire (Apple II)
Actually, Zork came out on pretty much every system that supported a keyboard, but I played it first on an Apple, so hence the system tag above. This is really the birth of interactive fiction, right here. Zork was published by Infocom, and would become the franchise that Infocom were best known for. The game appeared entirely in text, featuring a description of the player's surroundings, and presenting a prompt for the player to input commands, such as "GO NORTH". Beginning outside an inauspicious white house, the adventure soon dragged the player into a vast network of underground locations on a search for the Twenty Treasures of Zork. In the course of your adventure you were forced to puzzle out a baffling array of near-identical rooms, face an endless number of situations which would instantly end your adventures, and always, always, keep in the light to avoid the franchise's trademark under-described bogeymen, the grues. Stirring stuff - and by "stirring", I mean incredibly frustrating. It's amazing what passed for fun back in 1980.

5) Rogue (Unix)
Actually, as it turns out, all this Pac-Man and Space Invaders foolishness aside, in 1980 consoles were for chumps. Your PC-equivalents were where the action was at, and if you were lucky enough to have one you could buy in to the birth of the electronic RPG genre. While Ultima may have had the graphics, and Zork may have had the style, if gameplay was what you were after it was bursting out all over the place in the form of a little bit of home-brew coding called Rogue. Originally written in Unix but ultimately ported to everything that had a keyboard, Rogue cast the player as a generic adventurer looking for his or her fortune in a randomly generated dungeon of infinite depth. You fought monsters, found loot, and gained levels - and the entire graphical interface was presented through the clever positioning of ASCII characters! The game ended up birthing an entire mini-genre called "Rogue-like games" which includes such gems as Hack and Moria and continues today through the excellent freeware ADOM.

6) Defender (Arcade)
Aw, come, on - Defender! What's not to like? Get this - when the rest of the spaceship-gaming genre is locked into the Space Invaders style of vertical flight, Defender throws the whole genre for a spin... by flying horizontally! Why don't we get innovation like THAT any more? No, wait, there's more! Not only are you shooting down metric tonnes of alien bad guys, but ALSO there's these little humans walking around. The aliens are trying to capture them, so you have to shoot down the capture-ships - but if you shoot one that's abducting a human when it's too high above the ground, the human starts to fall to his or her doom, and it's up to you to catch the little tyke and return him safely to the ground. Levels and levels of gameplay, right at your fingertips. Um.... actually, I hated this game. Those humans really annoyed me. I could never save the little buggers from going splat. But, you know, we still know the name 20 years on, so it must have been doing something right.

7) Mystery House (Apple II)
The Apple II, baby, it was the system to have. I've mentioned above the marvel that was Zork, and how Ultima repeatedly kicked it in the sensitive bits and laughed. Well, there was actually a mid-point between these two interface extremes (being "text" and "something that didn't make your eyes bleed"). The mid-point was called Mystery House. It was created by the Williams Wonder Twins, Roberta and Ken (actually, they probably weren't twins, because that would be... wrong), and it made a bunch of waves by being the first text adventure to... well, not be a text adventure. Simply put, it had pictures. Really bad pictures, but nevertheless, pictures. Roberta Williams drew them herself. Hey, not only can the woman nearly single-handedly pilot the adventure genre for years until LucasArts showed her how to do it right, but she can also draw! Give her a round of applause, everyone!

8) Wizard of Wor (Arcade)
Okay, it's a little like Pac-Man. No, wait, it's a lot like Pac-Man, except with guns. Heck, I'm sold already. But it gets better. You see, this was a two player game. "Pac-Man was a two player game!" I can hear you shout. Well, yes, I suppose it was. But as we're all aware, in Pac-Man you took turns, which largely consisted of a lot of back-seat driving while your friend lost all their lives. Wizard of Wor let you play at the same time. And you could interact! You could take your little guns (I think they were meant to be wands or bows or something), point them at your opponent, and let rip! You'd get extra points, they'd lose a life! Hours of fun for the whole family, assuming that your family is amused by killing their friends and laughing. Oh, the memories.

9) Tempest (Arcade)
Vector graphics. Is there any word more wholly irrelevant to today's gaming world? Back then in 1980 it was a big deal; if 3-D wireframes were your thing you were happy as a pig in mud. I'm forced to ask myself now whether anyone cares, and as I believe the answer is no, I'm going to treat the whole tech genre with the contempt it deserves by not talking about Tempest at all. In fact, I'm going to tell you what I got for Easter, which was a big chocolate egg full of M&M-style chocolate beans, and an egg-shaped container full of Ferrero Rocher choccies. Yum.

10) Berzerk (Arcade)
A guy DIED playing this. Died. One minute he was running through the maze, avoiding robots, going toe to electronic toe with Evil Otto, and the next he was 80kg of meat that we are prevented by social taboos from making appropriate use of. Also, the robots talk. Yes, with actual voices. "The humanoid must not escape!" That's... really all I have to say about Berzerk.

Well, as it turns out 1980 was in many ways a pretty slow year for games. Five top-quality games that will be remembered forever, and then I'm pretty much just killing time to get to number 10. Tempest? I mean, really, Tempest? *sigh*

Stay tuned for Games You Should Have Played - 1981, which I promise will be even more personally and morally insulting on every level. That's a cast-iron guarantee, people.