One of the most enduring legends in the world of video games is the one stating that Atari buried millions of unsold cartridges of its failed game E.T.: The Extraterrestrial in the New Mexico desert. Between the game’s terrible reception and the video game crash of 1983, Atari wound up with more unsalvagable merchandise than they could handle.
So they buried them in the desert.
Or so the story says.
Because that’s just what it was, right? A story? An urban legend? Something whimsical we’d like to think actually happened? Something for us to dream about how, gee, wouldn’t it be neat if someone went and tried to dig these things up and find out once and for all?
Over the course of the last couple of days I have been replaying Pokemon Gold. It has probably been a good 12 years or so since I last played this game – I never even got around to playing the HeartGold/SoulSilver remakes. While I was initially wary of going back to an older Pokemon game after being spoiled by the ridiculously good Pokemon X/Y, I’ve found that, much to my delight, the game is actually really pulling me in. I do often feel like I’m m-o-v-i-n-g v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, but since I’m emulating I just press the turbo button when I want to get from place to place quicker. Hey, it’s a valid replacement for the roller blades, right?
Other than that I’m having a blast. What a great game. What a great Pokemon generation.
Dear readers, when is the last time YOU played through an older game that you hadn’t touched in forever? And how did that go for you?
Genuine question. I want to know. I can’t think of anything.
Now for all three of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, well, the good old BBC has got you covered (and so does Twitch of course.) Basically for the last week or so tens of thousands of people from around the globe have been trying to collaborate on a romhack of Pokemon Red. It’s about as chaotic as you might expect, although somehow the stream has managed to get about halfway through the game.
I keep trying to think of something that this can compare to but for the life of me I can’t. We’ve seen multitudes of people get together for a gaming event (like a game launch), even multitudes of people all in the same place in the same game (like Ahn-Qiraj in World of Warcraft), but all controlling one single character and trying to collaborate on a single player game?
I’ve been playing games for three decades and can’t think of something similar. This might be unprecedented.
Go check it out or alternatively help me think of a previous similar event of this scale so I stop beating myself up and racking my brains over it.
I was recently seized by the desire to play some Final Fantasies so I went back to the beginning and played through I in a couple of days, and then I started II. Now, like Pike when she started it a couple of years ago, I had never played FF2 before now. And like Pike I had heard a lot of polarizing talk about the game, especially with regards to its somewhat unconventional character growth system.
See, in FF2 you don’t gain experience points to level. Instead, much more in the vein of western RPGs like The Elder Scrolls, your characters grow according to what they do in battles. If they take a lot of hits they’ll gain HP and Stamina. If they cast magic, MP and Spirit or Intelligence, depending on whether it’s White or Black magic. Dodge and you gain dodge and agility. You get the idea. This doesn’t just apply to stats though, but also to your weapon proficiencies and magic. Use a particular class of weapon more and you’ll get better with it. Use a particular spell more and it will grow more powerful and more accurate, though also costing more MP.
I’m playing the PSP version which has enjoyed some years of refinement and polish over the original so it’s quite possible that the original’s balance was all out of whack. But I can safely say this system is one of the most engaging I’ve encountered in a JRPG in a long long time. I’m enjoying it tremendously and I cannot even begin to fathom what the complaints are. (I mean, I know what they are because I’ve read them, but if I hadn’t read them I’d never have figured them out by myself.) It’s deeply satisfying to get such feedback and results to how you play and it feels like there’s a lot more freedom here than in typical party-based RPGs.
But this goes, in my eyes, further than just being a system I am enjoying. What I’m finding is that I’m very naturally finding roles for my party members and that it’s not based on preset things but rather what feels sensible when a role needs to be decided. For instance, at the start of the game Guy, a big dude, seems like the obvious choice for heavy hitter. And he is a pretty heavy hitter. But he’s also loaded with the exact sorts of spells that have moderate, occasional, or intermediate use. I don’t need to stick Teleport on a dedicated mage, and I’d rather have Life on someone with a ton of health. The thing that makes this work is that you can level your spells as well. Guy doesn’t need to spend much time on his magic to still be useful with it. On the other hand Firion is carrying my offensive spells and because the spells grow as you use them, I find myself ensuring I do some casting regularly. I’m still early in the game but it already feels like a much more natural and sensible system than many RPGs manage. It’s a system which influences how I play without dictating it, and a system which rewards investment without being too malleable and having characters end up being very easily swapped because their abilities are tied completely into equippable items. It’s pretty simple to turn Barret into a mage and Aeris into a heavy hitter once you’ve got the materia to do it.
Ultimately what I’m enjoying is that character development fits into this wonderful niche of being freeform and not constricting without simply turning the characters into identikits of each other. By the standards of Final Fantasy this was a highly experimental game and I’m very glad Square made the choices they did with it because it has resulted in a real gem.
What about you guys? Do you have opinions on FF2, or perhaps you’ve come across interesting leveling systems in other games? Feel free to share your opinions, and remember we’re as interested in hearing about games that tried and failed as much as those which succeeded! Not every experiment will succeed, but learning about why one failed is at least as important as why another succeeded.
Hello friends! Of course, when Pike and I resolve to get the blog going again, we both fall deathly ill and can barely rouse ourselves from bed that exact week! Still, I have largely recovered so here we go with a little blog post!
Here’s what you do: Go to Google Images and type in “atari breakout”. As you will soon see the screen will morph into that precise game, using the images for the blocks! Breakout is one of my very favorite classic games, one I’ve always adored, and it provides a really useful launching off point to show how very very simple systems can still make a very engaging and deep game. If you’re not familiar with Breakout, well, here’s your chance to get acquainted with it – though you might want to hold off if you’re in the middle of an important project ;)
That’s what Breakout looked like in the beginning and very little has changed. Those colored bars across the top consisted of a number of ‘bricks’, and you use the paddle to hit the ball up towards them, with the objective of breaking every brick. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well it is. But marrying such a simple concept with such a sense of satisfaction is the genius that makes Breakout such a great game – all you’re doing is breaking bricks to clear the screen. You’re not fighting wars like in Hearts of Iron, you’re not shooting mans like in Call of Duty, you’re not going fast like Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed – you’re just breaking some bricks. You’d wonder how it can be so fun and addictive. But that simplicity might be the very reason for it. Anyone can figure out the conceit of Breakout within a few seconds of watching or playing. There’s nothing extraneous to it, not even graphically in the beginning, it’s what you might call a very ‘pure’ game. And when you managed to breakthrough the bricks and get your ball to bounce along the ceiling and the top row? Well, that’s one of the more satisfying experiences in gaming, simple as it might be.
Breakout is a stellar example not just of how videogames began but of what makes them special. With a very simple premise, controls that are simply “left” and “right”, and almost nothing in the way of aesthetics, it’s not something that modern gamers, used to all kinds of razzmatazz and particles and trillions of polygons on Lara Croft’s breasts, might immediately see the value in, but it’s about as pure as a game gets. You’ve got your objective and the means to achieve it, and the only enemy is your own mistakes. It’s pure gameplay, nothing else. That’s something maybe some developers could do with a gentle reminder of in this day and age.
Lovely readers, if you have a moment I invite you to click here and spend 10 or 15 minutes playing this gem of a game. It’s first-person Pac-Man. This sounds straightforward at first, but augmented with eerie music and ghosts that materialize out of the darkness or pop around corners when you least expect it, it quickly becomes an experience you probably weren’t expecting when you read the word “Pac-Man”.
Mister Adequate and myself couldn’t help but somewhat whimsically wonder what the gaming landscape would have been like if the first Pac-Man had been less cute and more spooky. Survival horror: survival horror everywhere!
I was recently hanging out with my friend Mike having some drinks, watching some movie (The Raid is amazing seriously go see it) and playing some games. Of course while doing this we were chatting about various things – mostly games – and we turned to stuff from back in the day that we liked, as us old-timers are prone to doing.
Something we both agreed on though was that for all the newfangled graphics and physics engines, and for all the gun games of recent years, gaming seemed poised to go down a particular path and then swerved violently away from it. Probably the best example of this path is Bushido Blade, a fighting game where you choose your character, weapon (such as the Ancient Hanzo Sledgehammer), and have at it. Thing is there are no health bars; you take swings, they take swings, and you might get one-hit killed or cripple their leg or all sorts of things. It’s ropey, because it’s an old game that never had a huge budget to begin with, but it’s honestly one of the best fighting games ever.
You know in Samurai movies when the two dudes stand facing each other for a long, long time before making a single sudden attack that decides things? Bushido Blade is the only game I’ve played where that can happen. You and your friend will be sitting there watching, circling each other, trying to feel each other out, and then there’ll be a sudden burst of violence that decides the round. It’s brilliant – and even by the time the second game came out it was abandoned in favor of health bars and too-crazy characters and so on and so forth. It was a shame, though the original is still worth popping in if you’ve got a copy.
But it’s emblematic of a rather broader trend – namely, the reduction in experimentation over the years. Now to be fair this is picking back up a bit again, as indie games gain more and more ways to reach people, as kickstarters let people choose the sorts of things they want to see, and as publishers see the success of games they might not typically consider salable, such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Still, in this day and age you’d think we’d have developed depth that built on the sorts of ideas Bushido Blade seeded – locational damage in a fighter for instance. Or look at the game Sentinel, which had a very ambitious conversational system where you could actually ask NPCs things in a free-form manner. Underdeveloped and ropey, again, but a thing with so much potential. Instead we get yet another Soul Calibur, yet another Tekken, yet another Call of Duty. Nothing wrong with those in their own right, just sad to see there’s so little experimentation and attempts to use computing power for anything other than better graphics.
Pike wrote extensive about XCOM: Enemy Unknown yesterday and I’m going to follow up on her post now that I’ve had the chance to spend a few hours with it. Through methods. As you can infer from the title, I’m a big fan. I’m a HUGE fan.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with classic PC games will probably be aware of X-Com even if they’ve never played it; it’s regularly highlighted as one of the best games ever made and this is not a reputation attained without sound reasons. It is an absolutely masterful blend of strategic and tactical thinking, it crafts an atmosphere of extraordinary tension, and it somehow manages to combine a very strong attachment to your troops with a massive rate of attrition among them. It also featured the torture of watching your brilliant tactical maneuvers getting completely undone and everything going to hell.
This game masterfully recaptures that. The mechanics are different in a lot of ways, such as the removal of Time Units (Something that caused a sudden intake of breath among X-Com vets when it was revealed) and the smaller squad sizes. But it’s an isometric tactical game with a strategic layer on top, and it’s all about tension and everything going downhill and your desperate efforts to pull it off despite all your best laid plans going the way of George and Lennie’s.
Indeed, most of the changes are very sensible and nice ones and it’s patently clear that the team at Firaxis put a huge amount of work into figuring out what worked and what didn’t and then polished the thing nicely. Which isn’t to say it’s not buggy as heck, because many reports suggest it is, but the underlying design decisions and mechanics all seem to be very, very solid. One nice touch I’d especially like to point out is the addition of three characters in your base, your chief scientist, engineer, and your right-hand man. It adds a lot to hear their commentary on various matters, but their suggestions are never more than that. They’re a wonderful little addition that add a lot to playing.
What this game does though is it takes me back. Like an old war vet, playing this game reminds me of the original, and it pulls me back to when I was a kid playing that game all summer long, getting destroyed by Cyberdiscs and Mutons (Not to mention Tentaculats and Lobstermen oh god), and this just feels like a game from a bygone era, when they were unforgiving bastards that made you incredibly angry but were far, far too damn good and addictive to actually put down for more than five minutes.
If you were worried about this not being true to the original, you can rest assured that all the changes I’ve seen so far have allayed that fear completely. The mechanics and look may have changed but the spirit absolutely has not.
(It should be noted that Pike and I are both playing the PC version of the game, and indeed one of the few genuine criticisms I have is that the UI is clearly intended to allow consoles to play the thing. I’m all for a game this relentlessly ballcrushing on a console but I hope Firaxis patch in a few tweaks for the PC side of things.)
As you may have recently heard, SCE Liverpool – formerly known as Psygnosis – is being shut down. To anyone who grew up playing the games I did this is a moment for reflection and, yes, perhaps a little bit of mourning.
Psygnosis was founded in the early 80s in Liverpool, UK. It didn’t take long for them to get noticed because of games like Shadow of the Beast, but they really started to shine in 1991 when they displayed some seriously canny foresight by publishing DMA Designs’ Lemmings. DMA Designs, you may or may not know, went on to change their name to Rockstar. In 1993 Psygnosis was acquired by Sony, though they would keep the name for eight further years, and it was here under Sony that they made their real gems.
Wipeout was the flagship title for the Playstation One, and the then-impossible level of graphics and the cool use of contemporary music to race holy shit flying race cars certainly sold the console to me, and to a few of my friends. It was like nothing we’d ever seen before. It was also hard as hell, which was pretty great. They complimented this by retaining their publishing acumen to help games like Destruction Derby, and made the little-known but extremely silly and enjoyable giant mech game, Krazy Ivan. Later was Wipeout 2097, the best iteration of the franchise and an extraordinary game still worth playing today.
But it would be another year or two, in 1997, that Psygnosis put out the two games for which I will always remember them, despite the brilliance of Wipeout. Colony Wars and later in the year G-Police were both superb, amazing sci-fi games, the first set in space (and with a wonderful, narrated in-game encyclopedia) and the second on Jupiter’s moon Callisto. Both featured all the things you could wish for in such games; dystopia, violence, futuristic weapons and vehicles, and “The Tsar and his battle fleet saw everything… knew everything… punished everything“. That same year also saw the release of their weird, experimental game Sentient, which was one of the most unique games I’ve ever played.
When the 90s closed the spark seemed to have gone out of the company, and despite the great sequels to G-Police and Colony Wars they fell back on Wipeout games and on their Formula 1 line, all very solid but somehow never as impressive as taking chances on Lemmings or the Discworld point’n’click games. Still, they will be missed, and not soon forgotten, by those of us from that era who grew up with all these amazing games thanks to Psygnosis.
When I first saw the above phrase on the Internet this morning I was rather taken aback. Surely Atari isn’t that old! Quickly I rushed to Wikipedia, though, where they confirmed it: “Atari was incorporated in the state of California on June 27, 1972.”
Now Atari didn’t invent the video game, nor did they invent the arcade video game or the home console system. They did, however, popularize these things and prove that video games were a profitable and interesting thing to go into. Pong was the first game to really take arcades by storm, and while the Magnavox Odyssey might have been the first console, it was the Atari 2600 that wound up in the home of so many kids in the early 80s. It was certainly in mine.
Thanks to Nolan Bushnell and Atari, games went on to become first a cultural phenomenon and then the art form that they are today. So stop and take a moment to reflect on the last forty years, and enjoy a slice of the cake: