When I first wrote the ‘Solo play’ series, they were basically the top five solo board/card games that I was playing at the time, in order of preference. Adding to this series at this point is just adding more solo games that I love, the order isn’t particularly meaningful anymore.
Beyond nostalgia, I’ve enjoyed a lot of the modern takes on the Choose Your Own… errm… Narrative style of book. Recently, my fellow commuters and I have been laughing and stumbling our way through Ryan North’s 400-page Romeo and/or Juliet, which I highly recommend. There are great independent works up at chooseyourstory.com. It’s an art form that’s alive and well, and has grown beyond the exclusive realm of children. Does a book that you read out of order, and often fail to bring to a happy conclusion count as a game? Does it warrant a post in my ‘Solo play’ series?
Cardventures: Stowaway 52 by Gamewright is a card-based version of the choosable narrative. The premise is something along the lines of being stuck on an alien ship set to destroy Earth. The assumption is that you like Earth, and would therefore like to keep this plan from happening. My initial suspicion was that the thing should’ve just been a book, and that the card-based system was a cost-cutting measure or a gimmick. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was quite wrong about this.
The card system has a few implications, two of which make it stand out for the better. First, the game instructs you to start with any card in the deck (of 52, in case the name wasn’t telling enough). This is a little bit gimmicky, but it’s oddly charming as well. You pick a card at random, and go from there. The narrative is largely about moving around the ship, and so the cards are almost all just locations, except for those which make for the second neat thing about the card-based approach: items. Ordinarily, as you choose your next node, you discard the current card so you can measure your progress later. But some of the cards are items, which you set aside for further use – some paths can’t be chosen unless you’ve already acquired the necessary item. This could be done in a book, using counters or a notepad or something, but I think it would be very clunky compared to the cards. This is a very clever mechanic that brings the experience slightly closer to a Zork.
Those rather innovative aspects do have some drawbacks. Because there’s no defined beginning, there can’t really be a defined end either. Instead, you go through until you can’t go anywhere (cards always have two choices, and you can’t revisit a card). Every card has a point value, and when you have no more choices, you count up all the points from the cards you made it through, and read one of four endings accordingly. They are… not terribly satisfying, because the game has no real sense of what narrative decisions you took, only that you made it pretty far or not far at all. Likewise, as mentioned, the cards themselves are by necessity basically just locations. This is more satisfying than the issue with the endings, you do get the sense that you’re frantically sneaking about, trying to avoid aliens. But it still lacks the depth that the control afforded by a slightly more linear system would have.
Cardventures: Stowaway 52 is a novel approach to the choosable narrative concept. Gamewright apparently has a second entry in the series, Jump Ship, which I look forward to trying at some point. In my first run-through of Stowaway 52, I managed to get over 200 points (the maximum is 300, and hitting this is the only way to get the winning ending). Even though the narrative itself was kind of thin, moving through all the bits of the ship and grabbing items was pretty satisfying. Reaching a node where I needed one of the items I had was very satisfying. Enough so that I think it deserves a write-up in my Solo Play series, apparently.
HOW TO PLAY THE GAME:
- Slide ON/OFF switch to “ON” position. Listen to a few bars of the song “Anchors Away [sic]” and see a computer graphic of the American flag appear on the screen.
Such begins the instruction booklet for the Microvision game, Sea Duel. A few days back, I wrote about the Microvision, and reviewed the handful of games I had at the time. I figured I’d acquire the handful of remaining games, and in several months or whenever, I’d sum them all up in one more post. But then Sea Duel came in the mail. This game is such a prime example of depth in a limited system, that I feel compelled to discuss it on its own. Putting aside the hilarity of describing listening to a song and looking at a flag as one of the steps you must take to start playing, it highlights one of the immediate standout features of this game – despite having 256 pixels, a piezo buzzer, and ridiculously limited processing power and storage space, the game actually has an intro screen that shows something resembling an American flag and plays something that resembles “Anchors Aweigh”.
The game is a battle between a submarine and a destroyer. While it is not the game of Battleship (also a Milton Bradley property), I can’t help but imagine that was the inspiration – two different-sized ships operating in secret from each other on a grid. The destroyer is a 3×1 pixel vessel that dumps a 3×3 depth charge immediately adjacent to itself as its attack; the sub is a single pixel that fires a single-pixel torpedo in any direction that attacks until the edge of the screen. The game can be played two-player, or as either boat vs. the computer.
Here’s what makes the game interesting – both players secretly input up to eight commands for their boat (a command is either moving a space in any direction, or firing in any direction), and when the second player is done, the actions all play out. Actions have to be input in a certain order (for instance, your first two actions have to be movement – if you want to fire immediately, you forfeit two moves for that turn), and they’re played out in a certain order. The manual describes it as a simultaneous playback system, which isn’t entirely true, but given the limitations of the Microvision it’s still impressive.
I’ve only played against the computer thus far, and I can’t really tell what its ‘strategy’ is, though I assume it involves cheating. I imagine playing it against another human would be far more similar to playing a board game than a typical multiplayer video game. Indeed, this idea of ‘we take actions secretly and independently, and then reveal and play them out’ mechanism is present in a lot of modern board games. Programming piece movements in board games dates back at least to Richard Garfield’s 1985 RoboRally. It would be easy to imagine Sea Duel as a board game: tokens to keep track of ammo and fuel, eight action tokens per player placed on an ordered track behind a shield, plays revealed and boats moved around on something like a Battleship board. It’s also the sort of thing that could easily be implemented as a little web puzzle, possibly even as a very naïve machine-learning playground.
Sea Duel is very involved compared to the other Microvision games I own. It’s the only one that requires more than two pages of instructions, it’s the only one with anything resembling an intro screen, and given the 16 bytes of RAM it’s just all around pretty impressive. 256 pixels put to good use.
The app and website that I generally turn to for weather forecasts is Dark Sky. Recently they made some great changes to the app (like being able to save locations, bizarre that that took so long to implement and that you can still only save six). Alongside these other changes, they swapped out their old monochrome icons with new colorful ones from The Iconfactory. The icons are lovely, the artists who created them did a fantastic job. But when I see them all lined up on the screen, I get… something resembling anxiety.
I really freaked out a little bit when I first saw them, and I still find them very unsettling, and the whole thing made me reflect on my relationship with colorful things… I’ve always gravitated toward monochromatic photography, I spend as much of my computing time as possible in fairly monochromatic terminals, my blog looks like this, I had the same sort of disturbed feeling when Microsoft switched to color emoji (and still pine for the monochromatic ones), I miss laptops with monochromatic LCDs (and still play Game Boy DX games on the Game Boy Light), etc. Obviously this isn’t a universal issue in my life, I love a lot of colorful animation and other media, but even then… I definitely prefer muted palettes.
I’m not entirely sure why I felt the need to write about this, though if nothing else it’s something to mull over in design. I’m sure the muted palette of this blog is received negatively by some, just as very colorful things seem to cause my mind considerable unease. I think part of it is simply that more colors make for a busier presentation – it’s more visual data providing the same amount of information. And to that tack, perhaps the constant bombardment of ‘eye-catching’ advertising ubiquitous throughout the world, providing nothing but noise competing with the signal of life has taken its toll.
This links to a much more complete article from the SWling Post, but unlike most of my external-link posts, I have quite a bit to say about this. The gist is that there’s a pair of antenna arrays in Colorado broadcasting an analog and digital signal on 60kHz. The proposed FY19 PresBud proposes shutting this radio transmitter down. I’m a radio nerd, and an analog nerd, and I’m always lamenting over technological shifts and shutdowns that nobody else cares about. Like, say digital transmissions on the AM band. But this is different. Part of NIST, WWVB broadcasts an incredibly accurate time signal across the U.S. If you have a clock or watch that describes itself as ‘atomic’, it maintains its accuracy because of this radio transmission.
WWVB sits next to WWV, which started its life in Washington, DC in 1920. For nearly a century, we have had an official radio broadcast of the time. In 1983, Heathkit released the GC-1000 clock which automatically synched with WWV. It was quite possibly the first clock for consumers to receive radio direction for impeccable accuracy, and one of the only radios to use WWV before WWVB went online. These clocks still routinely sell for upwards of $200, with an unbuilt kit selling on eBay this month for $810. I’m sad to see AM going digital, SW dying out partly because of such a rich legacy of receivers out in the wild. To an extent, this is no different – be it WWV, WWVH (on shortwave, similar to WWV but in Hawai’i), or WWVB, millions of devices seemingly magically pull an impossibly accurate (and official) time standard out of the air.
As the linked post mentions, most people likely have no idea how their ‘atomic clocks’ work. A lot of people seem to think that anything that happens automatically is just the internet at work. Time signals are also by necessity provided by GPS. But a ubiquitous (stateside) terrestrial signal that is easily interpreted and worked into signals… it’s obvious why that caught on (again, with millions of clocks out there in the wild). It’s incredibly disheartening to think that an open, official time broadcast will just disappear… but it’s far beyond disheartening to think about how that will affect millions of clueless users.
The array (originally built in the 1960s) has been upgraded and refurbished several times over the years, and in fact within the past decade. The bottom line is that an official standard is available to the entire nation via an easily received and decoded signal. This standard is time itself. This may seem trivial, but it’s important. Though from a budgetary standpoint it truly is trivial. This administration cuts every tiny thing it feels it can mock while lining the pockets of defense contractors and other private-industry capitalists. If you’re reading this, and you care about the free spread of information… things like WWVB are the prototypical information age. Contact your representatives, and let it be known that this is an unacceptable cut.
I’ve been restoring a Milton Bradley Microvision and am now happily at the point where I have a fully functional unit. Introduced in 1979, it’s known as the first portable game console with interchangeable cartridges. Anyone who has scoured eBay and yard sales for Game Boys knows that the monochrome LCDs of yore were fairly sensitive to heat and even just age. For a system ten years older than the Game Boy (and one that sold far fewer numbers), functional units are fairly hard to come by. But for a while, I’ve been invested in patching one together, and I plan to enjoy it until it, too, gives up the ghost.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m so drawn to the Microvision, though I think a lot of it is the simplicity and purity that comes with a 1 bit 16x16 display. While this isn’t the system’s only limiting factor (the 16 bytes of RAM, 100kHz processor, and piezo buzzer are fine contributions), those 256 chunky pixels lend themselves to a very poetic design. Unfortunately, only 12 games were released (only 11 stateside), and as of yet I’ve only collected half of them, but the diversity shown proves that a lot can be done with a little. Part of the system design is that cartridges lay a mask over top of the display – this is an interesting way to play with the limited capabilities of the screen. Pinball adds four circular bumpers to the game screen, which the ball bounces off of; it also turns the upper corners into 45 degree angles which change the direction the ball bounces. Bowling has lines on the screen to denote ball return and gutters. Baseball’s overlay looks like a baseball diamond and shows where the fielders are.
Internally, the unit is extremely simple. The processor is a Texas Instruments TMS1100, but it’s not a part of the console - every cartridge has its own processor. This was a cheap component at the time, and I can only imagine that the cost of the processor (with its internal ROM programmed for the game) was comparable to ROM and interface hardware. The TI chip was a commodity component, but the display driver (the only chip inside the console itself) was custom made by Hughes for the Microvision. The display itself was a custom component, and there wouldn’t have been an off-the-shelf solution for driving it. In light of this, it makes sense that the cost for the ‘special’ part would be placed on the unit, and an affordable chip bundled into each game (even if that did mean every cartridge having its own processor).
Externally, the system has a paddle (very 70s), and a 4x3 grid of rubbery buttons. The cartridge overlays this grid with either solid plastic (so you can’t press that spot), or a ‘button’ printed with what it does in-game (think Intellivision). These ‘buttons’ are cheap, crappy membranes on U.S. cartridges, and nice plastic buttons on European ones. The European buttons also use iconography or one-letter representations of what they do, presumably for localization purposes. It’s also worth noting that while all of the U.S. cartridges are kind of a beige-tan color, the European ones are bright, beautiful colors. They look better and the tactile buttons mean they play better, so they’re worth acquiring for the better games.
And what of the games? Well as mentioned, I only have a handful so far:
- Block Buster was the pack-in game both stateside and in Europe. It’s a basic breakout clone, with three rows of bricks. It has two speeds, which I will describe as fast and faster. The speed might not be so bad, if not for the fact that you have so little screen space to play with, and that the ball enters the screen randomly. This is the fatal flaw, in my opinion – you’re likely to miss quite a few of your balls before the first hit, simply because it’s so difficult to react to wherever the ball is randomly flying in from. Aside from speed (and how many balls you’ll be tossed), the only other option is a two- or three-pixel paddle. The two-pixel paddle is considerably more difficult than the three-pixel paddle. Humorously, the hardest cartridge to find is an upgraded version of Block Buster, released only in Europe. I do not own that one.
- Star Trek Phaser Strike is the worst of the games I own, so I’m getting it out of the way early. You have a fixed number of ships that fly by, which you must shoot at before they exit the screen. The paddle is unused, you use three of the buttons to either shoot from the lower-right toward the upper-left, from the lower-left toward the upper-right, or from the lower-center straight up. Actually trying to switch between these is probably a losing strategy, firing exclusively from the center seems like the best bet. You can set the size and speed of the ships, or you can make either or both parameters random, which makes it a bit more interesting. It was released in Europe as Shooting Star, and physical buttons might help this one, but I can’t imagine they’d help much. All in all, kind of a weak IP tie-in, something that has proven to be a reliable formula over the past four decades.
- Bowling is about as realistic as possible for 256 pixels. The ball comes down the return to the bottom of the screen and then bounces left to right; your goal is to press ‘Bowl’ when the ball is lined up where you want it. Pins have a pixel worth of whitespace around them, and placing your ball here does something resembling knocking the side of the pin. So, ideally you want to throw a pixel to the left or right of the one pin. If you hit the one pin dead on, you’ll get a seven/ten split, which you can pick up by hitting one pixel to the left of the seven pin or one pixel to the right of the ten pin. Scoring is in line with real bowling. It’s oddly fun.
- Baseball also does a good job of packing ‘realism’ into 256 pixels. Or, at least the essence of the game. You’re always the batting team, and you spin the paddle counter-clockwise in order to bat (which is really charming, to be honest). The overlay has the fielders printed on it, and if you hit it toward them you’re out. If you don’t you’ll go some number of bases. This seems to be decided by how close you are to a fielder, and not at random. How fast you flip the paddle doesn’t seem to matter. The pitch isn’t thrown until you wind your bat back into position (also very charming). The bat takes up two pixels, and the ball can go toward either of them for the strike zone, or outside, which counts as a ball. You can hit fouls, this stuff is all tracked as in actual baseball. It’s incredibly simple, of course, but it’s a really fun distillation of baseball. Unfortunately, I don’t think it was ever released in Europe, though at least the membrane ‘buttons’ on mine are in good shape. Cricket would have been a neat European release, I bet…
- Pinball sort of resembles its namesake, with a touch of breakout thrown in. Essentially, you have a breakout-esque paddle, and you’re trying to knock a ball around and hit the bumpers to get points. Eventually these light up, which I guess gives more points. My manual is in German, so I’m not 100% sure of the scoring details. Unlike Block Buster, you launch the ball, so you have control from the beginning. Lots of fun.
- Alien Raiders confused me at first because I don’t have a manual for it. A bunch of one-pixel ships are coming in from the right of the screen. Your ship is bouncing up and down on the left of the screen, and when you’re lined up with an enemy, you fire at it. What makes it interesting is that the paddle controls how far you shoot, and you have to be pretty close to hit them. There’s no on-screen display of where you’re aiming, so you kind of have to fire a lot just to gauge it. This one is a ton of fun. I’m not positive, but it looks like the European cartridge Blitz is the same game, though with lines added to the display overlay, presumably to aid in aim estimation.
Eventually I’d like to complete the collection of carts (though Vegas Slots is pretty low priority), because it’s a neat system and it does a lot to show the potential of 256 pixels. There have been some modern hacker-type projects for minimalist systems, like the Meggy Jr. RGB, which uses an 8x8 RGB LED array. I wasn’t being disingenuous when I referred to these sorts of things as poetry earlier, I think it’s entirely apt. There’s a beautiful magic about working within a tight set of constraints, and figuring out how to extract something new from them. Microvision did this wonderfully, and it’s a shame the system didn’t catch on with third-party developers.