I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy and emotion in video games lately, and this has really given me the itch to play through Portal again. This weekend, I did just that… sort of. Jamie Fuller1 has released a 2D adaptation of the classic for the Commodore 64 (C64), and it is pure joy. It’s quick – 20 levels with brief introductions from GLaDOS, completable in around a half hour. The C64 had a two-button mouse peripheral (the 13512) but it was uncommon enough that even graphical environments like GEOS supported moving the cursor around with a joystick. Very few games had compatibility with the mouse, and here we are in 2018 adding one more – using WAD to move and the mouse to aim/fire is a perfect translation of Portal’s modern PC controls. If you’re not playing on a real C64 with a real 1351, VICE emulates the mouse, and it works great on archive.org’s browser-based implementation as well.
The Atari VCS, better known as the 2600, was an important part of my formative years with technology. It remains a system that I enjoy via emulation, and while recently playing through some games for a future set of posts, I started to think about what exactly made so many of the (particularly lesser-quality) games have such a unique aesthetic to them. The first third-party video game company, Activision, was famously started by ex-Atari employees who wanted credit and believed the system was better suited to original titles than hacked-together arcade ports. They were correct on this point, as pretty much any given Activision game looks better than any given Atari game for the VCS. Imagic, too, was made up of ex-Atari employees, and their games were pretty visually impressive as well. Atari had some better titles toward the end of their run, but for the most part their games and those of most third-parties are visually uninspiring. Yet the things that make them uninspiring are all rather unique to the system:
- Horizontally stretched sprites
- Many copies of the same sprite sharing a horizontal plane
- Simple, horizontally symmetric backgrounds
- Simple, square ‘balls’ in ball games, ‘missiles’ in shooting games
Tetris, the ‘killer app’ of the Game Boy and proven-timeless time-sink has a pretty bizarre history. Alexey Pajitnov originally wrote it as a proof-of-concept for a Soviet computer that lacked graphics capability. Pajitnov’s coworkers ported the game to the IBM PC, and its availability on consumer hardware meant that unofficial ports popped up across the globe, and licensing deals were struck without Pajitnov’s involvement. Facing some difficult decisions regarding licensing, Pajitnov gave the Soviet Union the rights to the game. Licensing was then handled through a state-sponsored company known as Elorg (the famous Game Boy pack-in deal was during the Elorg era). During this period, brick colors and rules were inconsistent from this Tetris to that Tetris. Some games branded Tetris during this era bore next-to-no resemblance to the game we all know and love.
The Elorg deal was temporary by design, and some years later Pajitnov got the rights back and formed The Tetris Company. The Tetris Company has proven to be an absurdly aggressive intellectual property monster, which is hardly surprising given the game’s licensing history1. The Tetris Company has done one positive thing, though: standardized the rules and the colors of blocks into something known as the Tetris Guideline. This means that any Tetris from the late ‘90s and newer is largely interchangeable2 – and if you can make out the color of the next piece from the corner of your eye, you know what shape it is. The consistency is valuable, and even though years of NES Tetris have left me rather untalented at T-spins, all of my favorite Tetris games are of the modern sort. This also largely means that the distinction really boils down to hardware, but that’s kind of important when some form of the game has been released for pretty much any given system. So on that note, the four I most often reach for are:
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”.
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 ghost1.
Is there a word for nostalgia, but bad? Kind of like how you can have a nightmare that is on one hand an objectively terrible experience, but on the other… fascinating, compelling even. When I was quite young, the household computer situation was a bit of a decentralized mess. I guess the Commodore 64 was the family computer, but it was essentially mine to learn 6510 ML and play Jumpman on. My sister had a Macintosh Quadra which I guess was largely for schoolwork, but it had a number of games on it that were positively unbelievable to my 8-bit trained eyes. Among these was the bane of my wee existence, Another World1.
I guess I’m about to give away a few spoilers, but they’re all from the first minute or so of
punishment play. Another World begins with a cutscene where we learn that our protagonist is a physics professor named Lester who drives a Ferrari2. At this point, we realize we are dealing with a science fiction title. Lester starts doing some very professorly things on his computer, and then some lightning strikes his ARPANET wires or whatever and suddenly our protagonist is deep underwater! Some kind of sea monster grabs him, and… game over?! The cutscenes are rendered with the same beautifully polygonal rotoscoping as the rest of the game, so it’s entirely possible that you die several times watching this scene before grasping that you’re actually supposed to press buttons now.
This stressful memory came back hard upon recently purchasing a Switch and inexplicably making this year’s port of Another World my first purchase. Well, I guess it is explicable: ‘nostalgia, but bad.’ The frustrations of a game that will let you die if you simply do nothing within the first five seconds had not changed much from my childhood. This is a fundamental part of the experience; Another World is a game that wants you to die. It demands that you die. A lot. It’s a lovely game, and one that I’m sure a lot of folks remember (fondly or otherwise) from their Amigas and Macs, but I couldn’t help but think that this sort of trial-and-error experience really wouldn’t fly today if not for nostalgia3. Though I have to ask myself, how does this differ from, say, Limbo, another game that tricks you into death at every turn?
The next death in Another World is when little polygonal slug-looking things slip a claw into Lester’s leg, collapsing him. You have to kind of squish them just right, and it’s the first of many deadly puzzles that rely more on a very finicky sort of perfection rather than just a clever solution. Slightly further into the game, Lester faces a challenge that neatly sums up the whole problem: perfect positioning and perfect timing are required to dodge two screens worth of oddly-timed falling boulders. These moments are very reminiscent of the frustratingly exacting challenges in Dragon’s Lair, a point of inspiration for designer Éric Chahi4. I think this is where a modern take like Limbo feels less annoying in its murderous tendencies – you rarely die because you didn’t time something out to the nanosecond or position yourself on just the right pixel; you die because something crafty in the evil, evil environment outsmarted you.
This sort of thing seems to be a point of maturity for gaming in general. The aforementioned Jumpman was one of my favorite games back in the day, but it was painstakingly picky down to the pixel. Collision detection has eased up in modern times, and additional system resources give designers a lot more room to make challenges diverse and clever instead of simply difficult-by-any-means-necessary. Another World’s spiritual successor, Flashback5 definitely still had these moments, but by the time its 3D sequel, Fade to Black came out, things were much less picky.
I’m certain I beat both Flashback and Fade to Black, but I don’t think I ever had it in me to get through Another World. I guess this was part of why I jumped right on the Switch port. The game has won many battles, but I do intend to win the war. And the fact of the matter is, that for all my griping, it is still an incredibly enjoyable game. ‘Nostalgia, but bad’ certainly doesn’t mean that the game is bad, it means that the game forced all of my respective memories to be bad. The graphics have a unique quality about them6, and the sparse atmosphere feels very modern. The challenges are often interesting, even when they’re more technical than cerebral. It’s a game that I think is best experienced in short spurts, so as not to be consumed by the seemingly infinite tedium of frustrating deaths. It’s a product of its time, and must be treated as such. And while its demands certainly reveal its age, little else about it feels out of place on a portable console in 2018.
Somehow, I missed that HAL Laboratory (creators of the Kirby franchise) had broken into the mobile market earlier this year with the game Part Time UFO1. I tend to be oblivious to even these big mobile releases because I’m just generally not that into the mobile game scene2. Touch controls are limiting at best, and the market is saturated with free-to-play snares. If anybody is going to release a mobile gem, though, HAL is bound to, so I snatched this thing up as soon as I heard about it.
In Part Time UFO, you control a flying saucer (oddly reminiscent of UFO Kirby) with a claw-game-esque grabber attached to it. Every level has a bunch of objects, and a place to put them. Some of the objects are mandatory, others might net you extra points or help you meet a bonus goal. The primary goal is usually straightforward – put all of the important objects on the target, get five objects on the target, get the objects to fit a particular shape on the target, etc. Each stage additionally has three bonus goals. One is usually a timer, and the other two either involve stacking things perfectly, not dropping things, stacking more things than required, etc. The real trick comes from the fact that the target area is small, so you pretty much have to stack things. The physics of swinging something four times your size from a flaccid claw make this stacking less than simple.
The levels are adorably-themed, and the themes tend to influence the overall challenge. For instance, my least favorite are the ‘Lab’ levels, which require you to fit Tetris-like blocks into a precise shape – which feels like a bit much going on all at once. But this adds a nice bit of variety, I think there will be some themes that a given person really looks forward to unlocking more of, and some that are less captivating (though still enjoyable).
Points equate to money, and money can be used to buy new outfits for the UFO. Aside from being cute (and occasionally referential to other HAL properties – Kirby’s parasol comes to mind), these affect the control of the UFO in various ways. Certain challenges benefit more from some outfits than others, but generally it seems like you can pop one on that gives you a boost in control that makes you more comfortable, and just leave it. I made the mistake of buying a speedy outfit first, and became very quickly frustrated with the game.
Make no mistake, the game can be frustrating. But never to the point where it feels insurmountable or stops being fun. Part of it is probably just how charming and sweet the whole thing is. The challenges are goofy (stacking cheerleaders, balancing hamsters on a circus elephant, and of course placing cows onto a truck), and even when successfully completed, the end result is often uproarious. This is one thing I wish they had included – some kind of gallery feature of all your wacky stacks.
I haven’t completed the game yet, so I’m not sure how many levels there are. I definitely think it’s worth $43 – it’s just so joyful, well-polished, and fun – everything I expect from HAL. I do think the default controls – a fake analog stick and button type deal – are awful. That control scheme is bad enough for games in landscape orientation, but even with my tiny hands and Plus-sized phone, I could not figure out how to hold my phone so it would work. Fortunately there’s a one-handed control that’s a little bit awkward, but still streets ahead of the faux stick.
Well, damn. Come May 9, Nintendo is shuttering Miitomo. I don’t know that it was ever terribly popular – it was Nintendo’s earliest venture onto mobile, but it wasn’t really a game. There were some game-like elements, primarily throwing your body into a pachinko machine to win clothes, but ultimately it was a dollhouse. A game of dress-up.
Entertainment, in all forms and across all media, is often a tool for escape. Some wish to lose themselves in a setting, others as a passive bystander in a plot, still others seeing pieces of themselves in fictional characters. A dollhouse experience is largely concentrated on this third aspect – expressing yourself, consequence-free, as this blank canvas of a person. While certainly a valid means of escape for anyone, this seems especially valuable to trans folks and people questioning their gender identity. The answers and comments on in-game questions revealed a staggering number of trans Miitomo users. I don’t really know of another game of dress-up that will serve as a viable replacement to Miitomo, and this is heartbreaking.
The May 9 date will put Miitomo’s lifespan at just over two years. Unfortunately, the app is entirely dependent upon the service, and assets users have acquired will not be retained locally, etc. While it seems plausible that local copies could be downloaded so that users could still fire up the app and change into any number of outfits they had previously purchased1, this will not be the case2. This is not a matter of ‘no more updates’, this is ‘no more app’. And that’s… a fairly short lifespan, even for a niche non-game. This absolute dependence on hosted assets makes me wonder about some of Nintendo’s other mobile forays. When Super Mario Run stops being worth the upkeep, will there be no more updates, or will the game cease to function altogether? Nintendo is in a weird spot where a lot of their casual gaming market has been overtaken by mobile. Obviously they want to get in on that and reclaim some market, but they just haven’t proven that they quite ‘get it’ yet. Or perhaps rendering a game entirely ephemeral is meant to prove to us the value of a cartridge. I… doubt it.
On January 24, Nintendo stopped selling in-game coins and tickets3 for real-world money. Daily bonuses, which used to be a handful of coins or a single ticket, are now 2,000 coins and 5 tickets every day. That’s a lot of in-game purchasing power for the next few months, and I’m glad that Nintendo is saying ‘here, just go nuts and have fun while it lasts’. Better than making this announcement on May 1, and operating as usual (including in-app purchases) until then.
I am truly sad about this; Miitomo has been oddly important to me. There is a lot of sadness and anger in the answers to the public in-game question running until May 9, ‘What was your favorite outfit in Miitomo? Show it off when you answer!’ Users are elaborately staging Miifotos with dead-looking Miis stamped ‘DELETED’, Miis crying on their knees, demonic-looking Miis labeled ‘Nintendo’ standing over innocent-looking Miis labeled ‘Miitomo’ with table knives sticking out of them. Ouch. We have #savemiitomo, #longlivemiitomo, #justice4miitomo (bit extreme, that) hashtags popping up. Suffice it to say, there is a frustrated community. I’ll be the first to admit that it never would have had the prominence of a Super Mario Bros. or Animal Crossing game, but Miitomo has been very meaningful to a lot of people.
Reigns was a game that really kind of blew my mind when it came out. I guess the idea was to sort of frame a narrative around Tinder-esque interactions, which I didn’t really grasp (Tinder seems like the polar opposite of how I wish to find a mate). To me it was just this story, played over a whole bunch of games (some of which you had to fail), each game potentially affecting future games, and all handled via this incredibly simple decision tree mechanic. For the most part, you have two decisions at any given time (swipe left or right, that’s the Tinder-y bit). It was an oddly engaging game.
Now, in Reigns, you played as a king. So if they were to make a sequel, it would only be fitting that you would play as a queen. This is Reigns: Her Majesty. I don’t really make a habit of reviewing mobile games1 on this blog, but Her Majesty is fucking phenomenal. I don’t know if Leigh Alexander was involved in the first game, but she definitely has a writing credit on this one, and it shows. Reigns was clever, but Her Majesty is ridiculously tight, smart, and progressive.
Part of my draw to the game is likely bias — you play as a woman, a woman who I deeply respect wrote the thing, and the entire game just oozes with femininity and feminism. This has always been a sticking point for me, I will become far more invested in a game where I can play as a woman vs. one where I’m stuck as a man. That’s not necessarily a knock on any given game (or unwarranted praise on any other given game), it’s just my bias. But, trying to look past that bias, this Queen’s world undeniably gives Her Majesty far more depth than its predecessor.
If you never played the first game, it’s worth briefly describing what swiping left or right accomplishes. For any given scenario, swiping either direction may raise or lower one or more of your piety, popular favor, might, or financial2 stats. If any given stat maxes out or reaches zero, you die. This is the same in Her Majesty, but there’s a much bigger struggle (at least, how I’ve played it) with the church. Part of this is that a major aspect of the plot involves astrology and the occult, and diving into that essentially requires you to defy the church. Part of it is that you’re constantly given the opportunity to flirt with all the other women in the game and I mean, how could you not!? Oh, and occasionally the Cardinal asks you to conceal your pendulous melons (or something), which… no, I dress how I want.
And this is why I think the feminine aspect really gives the game depth. Personally, I find it hard to play in a way that defies my feminist sensibilities (and, in fact, a random owl occasionally pops up to tell you how feminist you are or situate you in various fandoms3), but this is often detrimental to my score – you are, after all, ‘just’ the Queen, and in a sense must maintain your place. But beyond my personal hangups, this still adds a great depth to the game. Choices aren’t as clear-cut, and your level of control isn’t always what it seems. Layer the whole astrological woman magic icing on top, and it’s an even more impossibly complex swipe-left-or-right game than Reigns.
This complexity and my desire to be an empowered Queen means that I have been losing very quickly, very often. Which might be grating in a lesser game, but somehow losing Her Majesty usually feels pretty damned virtuous.
Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp has been available stateside for about a week now, and it is… strange. This post on ‘Every Game I’ve Finished’ (written by Mathew Kumar) mirrors a lot of my thoughts – I would recommend reading it before reading this. I haven’t really played a lot of Animal Crossing games before, and I tend to avoid free-to-play1 games. The aforementioned post is largely predicated on the fact that Pocket Camp doesn’t fully deliver on either experience. Which, I guess I wouldn’t really know, but something definitely feels odd about the game to me.
Early in his post, Kumar states that ‘[Pocket Camp] makes every single aspect of it an obvious transaction’, which is comically true. My socialist mind has a hard time seeing the game as anything but a vicious parody of capitalism. My rational mind, of course, knows this is not true because the sort of exploitative mundaneness that coats every aspect of the game is the norm in real life.
This becomes even more entertaining when you observe how players set prices in their Markets. For the uninitiated, when your character has a surplus of a thing, they can offer that thing for sale to other players. The default price is its base value, but you can adjust the sale price down a small amount or up a large amount. Eventually you’ll likely just max out your inventory and be forced to put things up for sale in this Market. More eventually, you’ll max out the Market and be forced to just throw stuff away without getting money for it. But in the meantime, people (strangers and friends) will see what you have to offer and be given the opportunity to buy it.
For the most part, if you need an item (I use the term ‘need’ loosely), it is common, and either hopping around or waiting a couple of hours will get you that item. So there should be no reason to charge a 1000% markup on a couple of apples. But (in my experience thus far) that is far more common than to see items being sold for the minimum (or even their nominal value). I don’t know if it’s just players latching on to the predatory nature of free-to-play games or what, and I’m really curious to know if it works. I’ve been listing things in small quantities (akin to what an animal requests) for the minimum price, and while I’ve sold quite a few items, most still go to waste – I can’t imagine anything selling at ridiculous markups.
So far this description of a capitalist hellscape has probably come off as though I feel negatively toward the game, which I really don’t. To return to Kumar, he leaves his post stating that he hasn’t given up on the game yet, but ‘like Miitomo, the first time I miss a day it’s all over.’ This comparison to Miitomo is apt, and a perfect segue into why I’m invested in this minor dystopia.
Miitomo (another Nintendo mobile thing) is really just a game where you… decorate a room and try on clothes. You answer questions and play some pachinko-esque minigames in order to win decorations and clothes, but it’s basically glorified dress-up. It seems like mostly young people playing it, but it’s also just a wonderful outlet for baby trans folks, people questioning gender, and any number of people seeking a little escape. I find Miitomo to be very valuable and underrated, and a lot of the joy Miitomo brings me is echoed by Pocket Camp.
While the underlying concept behind Pocket Camp is that you’re a black market butterfly dealer or whatever, there’s also a major ‘dollhouse’ component to it. You buy and receive cute clothes and change your outfits, which has no bearing on the game. You buy things to decorate your campsite which (effectively2) has no bearing on the game. You can drop 10,000
dollars bells on a purse that does nothing but sit in the dirt looking pretty. I guess it’s hypocritical to praise this meaningless materialism, but it’s a nice escape. A little world to mess around in and make your own.
I don’t know how long I’ll obsessively island-hop the world of Pocket Camp, but I think that (like Miitomo) once the novelty wears off, I’ll still pop in to play around with my little world when it occurs to me to do so. And the whole time, in my mind, it will remain a perfectly barbed satire on capitalism.
So, Super Mario Run has been out for half a day or so now, and I’m sure more meaningful opinions than mine are bouncing around all over the internet. It’s just too juicy to not set my own uninspired thoughts in pink internet stone, however. I’ve always been a Nintendo fan. These days I really don’t game much at all. The occasional weird indie, a nostalgic retro re-release here and there, but mostly if I’m gaming on a screen it’s either a roguelike on the computer or a board game adaptation or point-and-click (point-and-tap?) adventure on the phone. The last consoles I’ve owned were the original Wii and DS Lite. All this to say, having a Nintendo side-scroller on my phone is ridiculously exciting. The game is a ton of fun, well worth the cost of entry, and generally feels very much like a Super Mario Bros. game. A few thoughts:
Tonight marked my first night spent actively hunting Pokémon; it was, in fact, the first time I’d ever bothered to catch one outside. Finding new critters in new places, seeking out pokéstops with lures attached, comparing notes with a friend… this was all fun but predictable. I guess I just also haven’t been on an evening walk in a while1, because the whole meatspace community aspect of the thing was new, and very unlike what I expected.
Walking through our main town park, which was technically closed since it was after dark, was fascinating. Where there were pokéstops, there were just masses of people huddled together… enough where it seemed rather unlikely to me that all these people actually knew each other… little social gatherings were forming in the middle of the night just out of the desire to catch virtual monsters. And while the basic idea here wasn’t surprising, the sheer scale of the groups, the sheer number of people glued to their phones and alerting others to the presence of a Goldeen really wasn’t something I had anticipated.