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12:37 PM on 01.10.2013

I Can Count to Nine: A Journey through Dragon Quest - Part 2

I choose to take a lack of people yelling at me to stop as encouragement! Here is my writeup of Dragon Quest II.


Dragon Quest II (SFC)

What, you want party members? What kind of luxury RPG series do you think this is? Well... okay, but you get no magic, the monsters get to gang up on you, the girl's as fragile as a kitten and nobody but you can equip basically anything. Enjoy!

Yeah, I know, what? The thing is, neither of us is that big of a fan of II. We'd both put it squarely at the bottom of the series, which certainly isn't to say it's bad - it holds up better than some RPGs of its time - but in a series this awesome, something has to be the worst, and this was kind of a halting step forward for the series overshadowed by Final Fantasy I. I didn't get around to playing II until after VIII had come out, and I wasn't enamored of the obnoxiously punishing difficulty or basically-impossible-without-a-guide crest hunt. We picked a remake for a change of pace and a somewhat easier time. We're using the translation patch of Dragon Quest I + II by RPGONE, which has two versions - one with DQ names, and one with DW names. We picked the latter for consistency's sake.

I was going to keep giving out numeral names, but my friend suggested we be a little fancier. So this chapter follows the adventures of Prince Double, or Dub to his homies. This time, we roll three Royals deep. Characters!

Double, the Fresh Prince of Midenhall: While a bit sensitive about his magical handicap and rumors about his heritage, P-Dub does not let that stop him from kicking ass, saving the world, and doing it in style. Check those goggles - so fresh!

Rolando, Prince of Cannock: This Canuck (what?) has a bit of a mean streak that causes him to buck his nationality's stereotype of politeness, but he's really a good guy, and despite some ribbing between the two, he's glad to join up with Double. His style is unique and doesn't at all look like he doesn't know how to wear a hat. His big sister used to enjoy playing "Broom" with him when he was younger.

Linda, Princess of Moonbrooke: No helpless princess here - this feisty young maiden is resolute in the face of her father's tragic death. Spends some time as a dog, but what people call her as a result isn't that different from usual, if you know what I mean. The world should thank its lucky stars she's around to keep the princes in line, because while brave and determined, they aren't that bright.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story of II, it's like this: Hargon's army of monsters lay waste to Moonbrooke, one of the three kingdoms founded by the hero of I, and you, the Prince of Midenhall, must gather the other descendants of Erdrick to save the day.

*Met up with Prince Rolando and got the Silver Key.

*Got a mirror to turn a dog back into Princess Linda. Mirror to show true form count: 1.

*After taking Linda to Moonbroke to say goodbye, got a cape, climbed a tower and took a flying leap.

*Got a boat and wasted a lot of time sailing around looking for treasure, which we eventually found. Visited Alefgard and poked around without achieving much. Visited some other towns. Next time we are using a guide for sure.

Status: Levels are 17, 16, 11. Beyond getting the party together and getting the ship's treasure, we've haven't really achieved anything, but that's still a good start. Even in a remake, this game does NOT screw around.

Highlights from the Imperial Scrolls of Honor:
*We've come to the conclusion that One is responsible for this mess. Remember that old guy who wants the Silver Harp? He just takes it and disappears. You give an old wizard-dude a harp that summons monsters, and a scant hundred years later the world is threatened by a wizard who controls monsters. Put two and two together, people.

*All joking aside, the King of Moonbrooke's heroic last stand and his daughter's confident assurance that she and her cousins will save the world, allowing his spirit to rest in peace... it's pretty touching stuff.

*You might think the King this time around is a bit more generous than the first, actually giving you a copper sword to start out with instead of nothing. However, that's not taking into account that you're THE FRIGGIN' PRINCE.

"Now go, Prince Double!"

"Uh, Dad, since I have to go save the world, isn't there anything else useful in the Castle I could.."

"No. Now go!"

"But daaaad..."

"You're adopted."

Double: ;_;

*First direction: Go to leftwynne. So, go left to win. Got it.

*When the Prince tried to start a bank account, they informed him the minimum balance was 1000 coins. He had... 46.

"But I'm the Prince of Midenhall!"

"Oh, the adopted boy?"

"Dammit, I'm not adopted, my dad is just a jerk."

*We couldn't figure out what the purpose of the Traveler's gate in Midenhall was, so noting the lack of other facilities, we assumed it was used as a toilet. Guaranteed to prevent you from peeing on your foot like one guy we met in Leftwynne.

*I am not comfortable with the shady-looking guy who hangs out in an alley and asks you to let him "show you his wares". We looked at his junk anyway, but only out of necessity.

*Once we found Rolando, he joined something called our... "Par-ty." That's like an inventory for people, right?

*Rolando: Nice to meet you, Prince Double. I'm inexperienced and can't lift heavy weapons, but I already know the spell of Heal. You look way more experienced. What spells do you have?

Dub: Uh... I pretty much either hit things or run away from them.

Rolando: No spells? Kind of weird for a descendant of Erdrick, eh? Are you adopted?

Dub: I'm just a late bloomer! I'm gonna have all kinds of spells! Any level up now!

*Guy in Jail:"Stealing's wrong."

Dub: So what are you in for?

Guy: Murder.

Rolando: Well, at least he's not a hypocrite.

*Rolando's sister wants to follow him around, but he slaps down that idea with a terse "You're useless." If One had only known getting chicks to not follow you around was that simple!

*Linda: Thanks for breaking that curse. Those freaking demons not only killed my dad, they turned me into a dog just because they thought it was funny.

Dub: Woah, I had no clue the princess was going to be this hot!

Rolando: Dude, ew. She's your cousin.

Dub: ...Damn it, I'm adopted, right? Tell me I'm adopted.

Rolando: I dunno. Why should we let this girl join us? How do we know she's for real?

Linda: But thou must, you jerk.

Rolando: She's one of us, all right.

*Linda: Okay, how do we get across this river?

Dub: Well, we've got this cape, and there's a tall tower there and I thought we'd sort of... jump.

Linda: ...are you SURE we're saving the world?

*Alefgard sure has changed. It's kind of depressing what's become of the place. Not much left anymore... We found the Erdrick Helm, and a crazy old hermit won't accept our word that we're of Erdrick's line and wants proof - "proof" that presumably anybody could find and dupe him. On second thought, Alefgard hasn't changed that much.

Week Four

Holy crap. Where to start? Well, we got most of the way through II this week...

*Got all the Erdrick Gear. Hung out with the Dragonlord's great grandson, he's a pretty cool guy. He called Double stupid, but hey, that just means he's perceptive.

*Got the ingredients and made the Water Flying Cloth for Linda.

*Got all 5 crests. What a nightmare.

*Barely scraped by in making it through the Cave to Rhone.

Double, Rolando and Linda (levels 27, 25 and 21, respectively) were last seen huddling together for safety just steps away from the Rhone shrine, mumbling nonsensically about "Bullwongs". Send help.

Seriously, we're not big fans of II. My friend remarked at one point that he'd gladly remove the number two from mathematics if it meant we could play III instead. After the really well-done first part - that is, after you get the boat - the game becomes a long and frustrating slog with little of interest to do and no actual bosses - an embarrassment next to its contemporary, FF 1. The dungeons are hellish - who puts several flights of stairs leading up to an empty room with no exits in a LIGHTHOUSE?

The game is full of insane crap you're supposed to guess at. I lost count of the times the only hint to something absolutely vital was a vague statement by ONE NPC on the other side of the world map in a totally unrelated location. You're told the sun crest is in the "Fire monolith". Sure sounds like a dungeon, but it's just a warp gate with some torches. Also there's no chest; you have to search a bush. WHY? This game is a never-ending series of fuck yous. To get the Dew Yarn to make the Water Flying Cloth, the princess's best armor, you have to search the third floor of the north dragon's horn tower, and you'd better believe the game is going to make you search every last tile. The last dungeons are full of enemies that can take out your whole party in a hurry and have the most unforgiving layouts I've ever seen, with random pits and the game's best weapon
hidden in a place I refuse to believe anyone would ever find.

Once you have staggered through the Cave to Rhone, you think you've done so well as you breathe a sigh of relief at reaching the shrine where free healing and saving waits. Wrong again - this game isn't done kicking you when you're down. Rhone is like the first part of Dragon Warrior I where you can't do anything but move right around the castle for fear of dying, writ large. We crept along 1 tile away from the shrine like the worms we were, getting wiped out as often as not by the
ludicrously strong enemies which use Defeat, Explodet and Sacrifice. It got easier once we started making heavy use of stopspell and once the Princess learned Explodet. I'm not gonna say this is fun, but I will say we'll have one hell of a sense of accomplishment when we finally beat this game. We were wrong to think the remake was going to take it easy on us, incidentally - it's VERY faithful. Whatever advantage we gained from its addition of stat seeds was surely nullified by a major bug in the patch that causes an unending text loop when you revive the sick Prince Rolando, rendering the most important inn in the game completely unusable since he becomes sick the first time you use it. On the plus side, the glitch also renamed Double "Doublolande." Which is awesome. Unfortunately it also turned Linda into "Prince Linda".

Highlights from the Imperial Scrolls of Honor:

*I owe Princess Linda an apology; Rolando is easily the least rugged and manly of the party. In order to keep him alive, he spends a lot of the time cowering behind his shield of strength while Dub and Linda do the dirty work.

*Old man: Use the echoing flute... castle... monolith... jail... lighthouse... cave...

Us: By your powers combined, I'm an annoying subquest!

*Double has taken to following every dog he sees around with a mirror, calling "Here princess..."

*The Prince falls ill:

Rolando: Ugh... you'll have to go on without me... I'll be dead soon...

Linda: Hmm, I guess you're right. Well, see ya.

Dub: Yeah, bye.

Rolando: No, you jerks! Come back and save me! I was just trying to sound noble! Waiiiit!

*Apparently, "Basilisk" means "Gay Cobra".

*The party finds Midenhall's treasure room:

*Dub: Wow, it's like Christmas! Except that I actually get presents!

Linda: Praise God, it's the Erdrick's token! There's some great stuff in here.

Dub: Hey, why does this last chest just have an Herb in it?

Rolando: Wait, I think it has something written on it. "Dear Double, you're adopted. Love Kingy."

Dub: Y'know, I don't think I'm coming back here anymore after we save the world.
*Getting the Erdrick's Shield:

Rolando: Dad! Useless! I'm home! Don't mind us, we've just come to open the inexplicably golden-locked door!

Old man: I've been waiting long for this moment.

Linda: Because we're the descendants of Erdrick, come at last to claim our birthright?

Old man: No, because the King locked me in here when I suggested we should just give you the shield instead of locking it up! You see this two-foot beard? I was clean shaven when he put me in here!

*The Erdrick's Helm has its own shrine... what's the Grand Order of the Hat going to worship now that we've taken it?

*The Princess loses it:

King of Osterfair: So ya want the crest, do ya? Well, fight for my amusement! Dance, monkeys, dance!

Dub: Oh, come the hell on-!

Linda: Patience, sweet Double! Surely God would not have put us, the chosen ones, on this path without everything having a purpose.

(Later, after going through five whole floors in the lighthouse just to reach an empty room with no purpose)

Rolando: Oh, for the love of-!

Linda: Fret not, dear Rolando! We must pray for the forbearance to pass these trials, and everything will make sense in the end.

(Later, the party comes up to the entrance of the Cave to Rhone)

Linda: We've finally made it. You see, I told you we would perservere!

Dub: Okay, here goes... *holds up... the moon fragment, not the Eye of Malroth*

Rolando: Uh... nothing's happening.

Linda: ....we missed another vaguely-hinted-at step, didn't we?

Dub: Yyyyup.

Linda: ...We're going to have to trek through another stupid cave to get yet another trinket, aren't we?

Rolando: Mmmmhmmm.


Linda: AAAAAA-


Hargon: Okay, hit me.

Malroth: What... 21 again? You try my patience, insolent... wait, do you hear that noise?

Hargon: I think that's the sound the very concept of sanity makes when it breaks.

(Back to the party)


And so, the party put aside their difference and were united in their hatred of everyone and everything else in their stupid, stupid world.

*Just when we thought we were doing well, we got slapped in the face by a giant Bullwong. Though we wrestled with it for a long time, at long last we were able to tame the mighty Bullwong. ...Bullwong.

Week Five

*Ground until Double was level 30 and tackled Hargon's castle.

*Defeated Hargon and Malroth on the first try! Final levels were 30, 28, 23.

This game never stops punishing you. The monsters in the final dungeon can take even a party at levels appropriate to fight the last boss and wipe it out if you're unlucky. The "illusory" Midenhall Castle when you get to Hargon's beachfront retreat is a clever touch, but when you dispell the illusion, you have to stand in a big cross and use the Eye of Malroth again. I have no clue how you're supposed to know this - it's never remotely hinted at. I guessed I ought to use something in that spot and got lucky.

This remake DOES make one major concession, it turns out - the Princess as well as the Prince learns revive. It's pretty much impossible to overstate how much this helps make the game beatable. It sure saved our asses in the final fight. Although we beat Malroth on the first try, it was NOT easy. Our resources were stretched as far as they could go - we were using Wizard's rings to restore MP, shields of strength to restore MP, and that leaf of the world tree got used at a key juncture. If we hadn't gotten lucky on a turn or two, we would've been wiped out for sure.

Time has been unkind to Dragon Quest II, but I'm glad we beat it. Now we can move on at last...

Highlights from the Imperial Scrolls of Honor:

*Today on Lifestyles of the rich and evil, Hargon's luxurious beachfront lair!

*The bugs in this patch came really fast and furious in the fake Midenhall. I think Hargon's illusion-producing abilities are buggy.

*Dub: Wow, this version of home is so beautiful... I even get my own bunny girl-in-waiting.

Fake King (with two bunny girls in front of him): Two girls, one king, baby!

Linda: Snap out of it, Double! Remember what Rubiss said; it's all an illusion.

Dub: But nobody here is calling me adopted...

Rolando: Yeah, it's DEFINITELY an illusion.

*Hargon: It is I, Hargon!

Linda: No, it's "It is me."

Rolando: Yeah, seriously. All this time to sit here planning what you're going to say to us and you didn't check your grammar?

Hargon: ...Rhone has really low standardized test scores. The only section we excel at is "Explodetology."

*Prayers said on prayer rings:

Linda: I pray that I'll get a chance to see Useless play broom with Rolando. That sounds really funny.

Rolando: I pray that someday Linda will stop being such a bitch.

Dub: They're wizard's rings, man, not miracle rings.

*There were some amusing scenes in the credits. In one, the party takes Rolando's coffin to Useless so she can gloat over it.

*In another, the party runs around in circles, I guess because Linda hasn't quite gotten over the desire to chase her tail.

Linda: Hey, I resent tha- SQUIRREL!

The three heroes ruled the land as their reward, and set to making some immediate changes.

Hear ye, Hear ye. By decree of the triumvirate of Dub, Rolando and Linda, by their authority of we're-all-over-level-20-and-what-the-hell-are-YOU-going-to-do-about-it:

*Lighthouses with floorplans more complex than "entryway, stairs, light room" are outlawed, and their architects thrown in the dungeon.

*Monsters are no longer allowed to carry Clothes, thus cluttering the inventory of unsuspecting royalty.

*Bullwongs are against Our Law, in addition to several laws of nature, sanity and reason. One exception shall be made:

*For the entertainment of the populace, the former King of Osterfair will wrestle the aforementioned excepted Bullwong, daily.

*Any Citizen caught giving unnecessarily vague advice will be stranded in the Desert with a piece of paper reading "It is said that water lies under a tile in the southwest quadrant."

And peace and happiness reigned in the world for all time thereafter.

(screenshots from SNES Central)   read

2:37 PM on 01.09.2013

I Can Count to Nine: A Journey through Dragon Quest - Part 1

In late 2010 to early 2011, a friend and I played through all nine Dragon Quest games together in sequence, and I did a little writeup on GameFAQs. I was reading back through it and found it amusing, so I thought I'd post it here.


Dragon Warrior (NES)

Here's 120 gold, a torch, and a key to get out of this room. Thou art the descendant of Erdrick. Go save the world.

This is one of the first games I ever played. I first played it in 1990, when I was 5. My companion didn't get around to it until the GBC rerelease.

We got a late start due to playing the last chapter of Sam and Max Season 3. Named the hero One and we're off.

Progress: Not much. Grinded (Ground?) up to level 7, got the Copper sword, chain mail and a leather shield. Got the Tablet. Got to Rimuldar, but got killed.

*Always buy the club first. Nobody likes your style, bamboo pole.
*Thou hast done well in defeating the slime. 1 exp, 1 gold... this is going to take a while.
*"Watch thy hit points when traveling through marsh." "My what?" "Thy hit points." "My what?"
*You say inn, I say 25 gold to sleep on a single square of brick floor. Screwest thou, I'm going to stick with the free MP recharge at the castle.
*Skeletons wear pants?

Week Two

Good old, grindy old Dragon Warrior. Watch those numbers sloooowly tick up.

*Went to Kol and got the Fairy Flute.
*Got some keys and did the Garinham tomb.
*Got the Half plate and rescued the princess at level 13.
*Did the swamp cave because it's there. Got a useless ring. With this jewelry, One can prove he's a real man.
*Got the Full Plate and did some grinding. Managed to find Erdrick's Token by guessing. Got it right on the first try.
*After several False starts, made the long trek to Cantlin and beat the Golem. Having already saved up the money, we bought the Silver Shield.
*Assembled the Rainbow drop and went back to Cantlin to buy the Flame Sword.

Currently One is level 15 and has the flame sword, silver shield and full plate. We're in good shape to move on to II next week.

Highlights from the Imperial Scrolls of Honor:

*Soldier to King Lorik: Do you think that One might need this ancient technology used by Erdrick known as a... "bag?"
Lorik: Of course not. Did he, he surely would have asked.
*One has acquired a reputation in multiple townships and shrines as the local crazy for his habit of running laps around town for hours on end.
*King Lorik is living large. His throne is made of only the finest in cardboard boxes.
*I don't see what's so magical about keys that break after you use them once.
*Monsters have interesting fashion sense. Pink is in.
*Stairs, man. I warned you about stairs. Truly, they art a fearsome foe.
*"I doubt the Intelligence of these NPCs." "Intelligence? What's that? All I've got is Strength, Agility, Attack and defense, HP and MP."
*"Here I go... wish me luck." "Luck? What's that? All you've got..."
*Stairs, dawg. It keeps happening.
*They say it's a lake around Kol, but I say it's clearly a C. C is for Kol, and that's good enough for... wait.
*Hello Goldman. I've come for your Sachs!
*The princess is really creepy. You show up to rescue her and she throws herself at you, immediately insisting that you love her. There's no hope, One. It's already too late. You're just her puppet from here on out. I can see who's going to wear the pants in this relationship... "Aw, honey, I'm really too tired tonight." "But thou must!" "...okay."
*"65 north, 46 west to the castle... what units is this in?" "Loveometers!" "...CREEPY."
*In later games, Metal slimes exist to level you up quickly. In this one, they exist to PISS YOU THE HELL OFF.

Special Sunday Update!

Today was a Dragon Quest IX event in our area; we managed to put in a few hours of progress afterward.

*Got the Magic Armor because really, why not? Actually, we've done a lot of things for that reason. Dragon Warrior is Why Not: The game.
*Defeated the Axe Knight at level 16 and got the Erdrick's Armor. Thank you, Stopspell.
*At level 19, we braved Charlock Castle and retrieved the mighty Erdrick's Sword.
*We managed to put down two enemies who are so tough I regard them as optional bosses: the Metal Slime and the Red Dragon.

Currently One is level 19 and has the Erdrick gear and the Silver Shield. Now we are really set to get II well underway next Friday.

Highlights from the Imperial Scrolls of Honor:
*Metal slimes are terrible piles of metal goo who laugh at your frustration. After many attempts, though, we were victorious! Our efforts were rewarded with the game-changing sum of... of...

...115 exp.

...Somewhere, I can still hear laughing.
*Hauskness sounds like a good name for a holiday. It commemorates the time we defeated a Magiwyvern with just 1 HP left. Happy Hauskness!
*In absence of his recolored bretheren's axe and shield, "Knight" just looks constipated. Excellent move, Ex-lax.
*Tantagel Castle has death panels in the middle of its fountain. Sarah Palin was right!

Week Three

We're back on track. Ain't no stopping this train.

*Grinded to level 20 and fought the Dragonlord. Lost because my companion decided to tempt fate by choosing "FIGHT" with 42 HP left. Fate, it turns out, is very temptable. And very contemptible. Screw you, Fate.
*Grinded to level 21 and defeated the Dragonlord with loads of MP to spare. Got the super special awesome shiny ball and it made everything groovy.
*Apparently, One is Conan. I mean seriously, "If ever I am to rule a country, it must be a land that I myself find"? And this story shall also be told...

Highlights from the Imperial Scrolls of Honor:
*These imperial scrolls must get boring toward the end...

One: "I killed an Axe Knight. Then, I killed an Axe Knight. Then, I killed another Axe Knight. Then, I killed... NOT an Axe Knight! Naw, just kidding, it was another Axe Knight. Then I went and got my ass handed to me by the Dragonlord."

Lorik: "...Dearest daughter, remind me what thou seest in him?"
*I'm used to final boss inner sanctums being all dank and dark, but Dragonlord's is rather bright and cheery. I wonder who does his interior design.
*The climactic confrontation!

Dragonlord: I have waited long for one such as thee.

One: Oh,really? Gee, that's nice of you. I mean, I've been working out... been thinking of going into male modeling maybe?

Dragonlord: No you weirdo. I mean for you to join me and rule half the world.

One: Oh. Huh, that's actually a pretty attractive offer. I mean, Lorik gives me 120 gold and his crazy daughter, you give me half the world... Okay Sparky, deal.

Dragonlord: Thou art... wait, what? Really? You will? I... don't know what to say. I had it all planned out, I'd say join me, you'd say never, we'd fight... Okay, this actually works out a lot better. Thanks.

One: Psyche! *draws sword*

Dragonlord: Wha.... Thou art a dick!

-Phase one-

One: Man, that was easy. What a wimp, no wonder you were hiding down here AAAAHHH!

Dragonlord: Rooooooar!

One:, you're fat. No way those stubby wings could actually take you off the ground.

Dragonlord: Those cardboard boxes that make up my throne... they're filled with Twinkies.

And so, One saved the world from the Dragonlord and went off to be dominated by his wife into founding three kingdoms. He enjoyed life a lot more after he figured out that he could let his wife do all the ordering people around, and spent a long retirement relaxing and having other people beat up slimes and such for him. The end.

I thought I might post these here one game a day (except 6, which I didn't do much of a writeup for). Of course, if people think this sucks and posting it here is a terrible idea, then I won't clog up the cblogs with it. Let me know.   read

5:43 PM on 05.12.2011

1001games Part 5: 1983 - The Crash and the ZX Spectrum

1983 was the year of the famous North American video game crash. Going into the year, there were many competing consoles; by 1984, they were all gone. A glut of consoles, overall poor quality of games and high profile duds like E.T. and Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 (Atari rushed them out the door, making the bewildering assumption that there would be no connection between quality and sales) combined to torpedo sales and drive many companies out of the business. Retailers decided that video games had been a fad, which would make it difficult for the NES to break into the market a couple of years later. The industry would recover, of course, but the effects were far-reaching; most noticeably, consoles, up until then mainly made in America, became a Japanese business. There would not be another truly successful console from an American company until Microsoft's Xbox in distant 2001.

With the American market in shambles, it seems like a good time to talk about Europe.


One thing I've noticed repeatedly on the Internet is that "Retro gaming" means something totally different to people from the UK than it does to Americans like myself. Consoles didn't catch on there for a few more years, but home computers were marketed aggressively under the premise that buying your child a computer instead of a video game would be better for them and help them with school. Maybe it did, and these early computers encouraged people to learn to code (some programs would be distributed just as source code, usually in BASIC, which you would have to enter manually), but these computers were also the de facto game consoles for a generation. I'm not saying 80s home computing wasn't popular here in North America - noted successes included the Apple II and Commodore 64 - but the nostalgia gap is plain to see.

The Commodore 64 was popular in the UK as well, along with a system called the BBC Micro and others, but I'll be focusing on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It's the easiest of the systems to emulate, and seems to be the focus of most of the retro computer gaming tributes I've seen. Now, I've been putting (PC) so far for simplicity's sake, but until the 90s, PC gaming was not the unified platform we now know it as - games had to be ported between these platforms. The Spectrum's games came on ordinary audiocassetes - yes, really, you could theoretically even broadcast one on the radio, tape it and play it in your system. This made games very easy to copy, which might have contributed to the downfall of the Spectrum a few years later. Also, the use of audiocassettes caused long, long, go-make-yourself-a-sandwich long loading times.

0048. I, Robot (Arcade)

Oh man, this game is awesome! How did they make it way back in 1983, and why isn't it more famous? This is a 3D game with real, filled-in polygons; talk about before its time. The brightly colored polygons create a strange, wonderfully abstract environment that makes this feel more like a puzzle game. The object of the game is to paint all of the red blocks blue by walking over them while avoiding enemies and obstacles and minding the giant eye at the end of the stage - if you jump while it's open, you'll get blasted. Between levels, you travel through a field of objects that you'll have to shoot to avoid crashing. There's actually a lot going on in this game, but once you get the hang of it, it couldn't be simpler.

I, Robot also has a very unusual feature - when you start your game, you can choose "Doodle City - The Ungame" to paint an abstract picture instead of playing the game, using the game's various polygonal objects as brushes. The attract mode advertises this feature - "Tired of video games? Burned out on mass destruction? Forget the game. Relax in Doodle City." Yeah, this game actually has quite a wit to it. In the demonstration, a giant face says "The law: no jumping." Your robot says "Oh yeah? Why not?" while jumping around. The eye shoots it and says "That's why."

This game is amusingly creative and way ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful and few units are confirmed to exist today; thank goodness for emulation. Check it out.

0049. Archon (Various, ZX Spectrum played)

Playing with a ZX Spectrum for my first time, I have to note that the controls are very difficult to get a handle on, as the keyboard lacks arrow keys. Anyway, Archon is a crazy version of Chess where the pieces enter a real-time fight upon coming to occupy the same square. Different pieces have different stats, which are affected by the square they're on. Besides being an interesting take on Chess, Archon also feels like a precursor to the strategy RPG genre, which also features moving pieces on a grid and initiating battle upon contact with opposing pieces.

0050. Star Wars (Arcade)

The original Star Wars arcade game is definitely one of the most memorable movie license games. Instead of trying to cover the whole movie, this game focuses on the most exciting scene - the attack on the Death Star - and reproduces it admirably, in 80s first person wireframe glory. You've got to play this one in the original cabinet - it provides an actual cockpit for you to sit in, making the experience really feel real. A beepy version of the Star Wars theme and some amusingly lo-fi digitized voice clips from the movie add to the atmosphere. It's a lot harder to play with a keyboard than the original flight yoke, but I still successfully blew up the Death Star at least once. I really have to hand it to this one - it's common to be watching a movie and think "this part would be a really cool video game," but rare to be proven absolutely right.

0051. Chuckie Egg (Various, ZX Spectrum played)

Yay, another platformer. I gotta tell ya though, ZX Spectrum control layouts are BIZARRE. This one wants you to press 2 for up, W for down, O and P for left and right, and mystifyingly, M (???) for jump. Mercifully, this game lets you redefine keys, so I set up the more familiar WASD for a more comfortable experience.

This game is really fun! You run around collecting eggs and birdseed while avoiding the big birds climbing around the ladders. Your jumps are low - a more human arc than the superhuman leaps we're accustomed to - but long, and well-suited to getting from platform to platform. Jumping is actually fun in this game, which puts it above most of its contemporaries, where the act is a painfully precise chore. I have to admit, though, through more than five attempts I beat the first two levels flawlessly each time, and just as reliably lost all my lives on level 3. I just can't master the jump onto the moving platforms there.

0052. Dragon's Lair (Arcade)

Dragon's Lair was the first (or at least the first of note) of the FMV games, which bypassed limited hardware by simply playing cinema-quality video off of a LaserDisc or CD and scanning to different scenes depending on whether the player has pressed the right button at the right time. Barely interactive, these games nonetheless were popular for a time, and it's not hard to understand why - in the early 80s, the gorgeous visuals of a game like this must have been truly amazing next to the primitive graphics of contemporary arcade games.

A lot of the terrible FMV games that dominated consoles like the Sega CD were not much of a movie in addition to not being much of a game, but this isn't true of Dragon's Lair due to the involvement of talented director Don Bluth, fresh off of his breakout masterpiece The Secret of NIMH. This game has charm, wit, majesty and fear. Each room is a clever new trap, and the player is rarely more than a second or two away from death. In fact, the various death scenes are actually a large part of the game's entertainment value. Its popularity spawned followups Space Ace and Dragon's Lair II, ports to countless platforms from the Sega CD to the iPhone, and near-totally unrelated versions for platforms with no capability whatever to handle the central gimmick (the NES, for example).

If you want to play the actual arcade version on a PC, there is an emulator for LaserDisc games called Daphne, named after the bubbly, slutty princess from Dragon's Lair (Bluth: "The elevator doesn't go all the way up, but she serves a purpose"). My games ended before long as I couldn't pin down the timing. I ended up watching a YouTube playthrough, which is extremely entertaining; I recommend it. If you want to actually play the game, my research has found that the best port is "Dragon's Lair Trilogy" on the Wii, which apparently has excellent timing and features optional move prompts to make the game far easier, and I'll bet more fun. I'd be tempted to pick it up myself for $30, if I weren't broke.

0053. Gyruss (Arcade)

Like Tempest, this shoot 'em up is played on the outside of a tube; in this case, however, the tube is not visible and the objects look like spaceships instead of abstract vector shapes. Like that game, this one is better with its original controller; however, this game isn't as broken as Tempest when using a keyboard. Actually, it's still quite fun. Every few levels you pass a planet as you get closer to Earth, starting with Neptune. On my second try I managed to get almost to Jupiter and scored over 40k points. This game also features Galaga-like bonus levels where you shoot down streams of enemies; it's easier to get them all if you get the double-shot powerup in the levels by shooting a special enemy that looks like a fuzzy orange ball.

0054. Mad Planets (Arcade)

When you hear the name "Mad Planets," you probably think it refers to the setting, but this game is way more nuts than that. Instead of spaceships or vaccuum-dwelling aliens, your enemies in this game are actually planets. They try to crash into you and fling their moons at you in crazy arcs. You have to shoot their moons and then blow the planets up; it's brilliantly insane. How come nobody else has ever done this?

Unfortunately, we have another game here that's next to impossible to play on a keyboard. You can turn your ship to aim in any direction with a spinner, which is difficult to approximate with buttons or keys. If you ever see this uncommon cabinet, you should give it a look - it's amusingly odd.

0055. M.U.L.E. (Various, NES played)

M.U.L.E. was the first game to be developed for Trip Hawkins's new game company Electronic Arts. It was released for the various 8-bit computers of the time (Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit) and ported to the NES in 1990, which makes playing it way more convenient. Hurray!

This is a turn-based economic sim game where you can select an alien race to play as (each having certain advantages and/or disadvantages) and select the plots of land you're given for farming, mining or energy production by putting a M.U.L.E. (Multiple Use Labor Element, which at least in the NES version looks and sounds like a robotic mule) loaded up for that application on the plot. After each turn, there is an auction between the four players where you can buy or sell these three resources to one another or buy them from the store. Though you compete against the other players (which can be the computer, as they were in my play), there is a certain almost collaborative element because you don't want to totally shut out the other players from the resources they need - without all the players producing, there really isn't enough of the resources to get anywhere.

I couldn't beat the computer - honestly, I might have missed something in the rules, since I couldn't figure out why my plots were producing less than others. Incidentally, I'm still waiting for the first real co-op game in this list, which might be Gauntlet in 1985. Does anybody know of an earlier example?

0056. Planetfall (PC)

Planetfall is the first Infocom text adventure by Steve Meretzky, that company's most famous designer. His games have a pretty good sense of humor - in this one, for example, you meet a buffoon of an alien who blathers on about relations between your races ("he says that all humans look the same to him"), and he hands you a useless brochure. When you drop it, the description of the room you dropped it in says "Unfortunately, that stupid brochure is here." This game elicited quite a few smiles out of me.

In this sci-fi adventure, you (a low-ranking member of the Space Fleet, with standard-issue scrubbing brush) land on a deserted planet and have to find a way off. Along the way, you figure out that this planet's population was wiped out by a plague. Fairly early, you can activate a robot. He identifies himself and follows you around. Floyd is bouncy and manically friendly. He can be pretty funny - when you save the game, he says "Oh boy! Are we about to do something dangerous?" Some might think Floyd annoying, but I think it's nice to have a little company during yet another text adventure spent exploring a deserted world.

Meretzky makes it clear that he's a fan of Douglas Adams's science fiction works by including a towel in this game - if you examine it closely, you'll find the number 42 written on it, a reference to the book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Two years later Meretzky and Adams would collaborate on a text adventure adaptation of that book; rest assured it's on this list.

I got a bit stuck about halfway through this game and gave up, but I bet I could have beaten it with a bit more effort. This game does have some annoyances, however. Compared to recent amateur "Interactive Fiction," which in interest of the player's convenience allows "l object" for "look at object," this game insists on the full sentence. When I typed "look watch" it snapped back at me, "this isn't some primitive two-word parser. If you want to look at something, say so." Honestly, what is gained by making me waste my time typing a longer phrase? I know it's not much longer, but doing it again and again gets old. I don't really want to have to type "slide elevator card through slot" every single time I need to use an elevator, but in PlanetFall I certainly had to. This game also makes you eat and sleep every so often, which is a chore to keep up with and really doesn't add a lot but a drag, in my opinion. Sure, give the player these problems to solve once, but over and over? That's not fun. This is actually a pretty cool adventure with some interesting and funny elements; I just wanted to make it clear that it shows its age in certain unpleasant ways.

0057. Spy Hunter (Arcade)

This might be the most direct game ever. You're a car, and you shoot other cars. Hell, the same pedal that accelerates also causes you to shoot an endless stream of bullets from your front fender. You can also bump most cars to the side, although some have deadly spikes that come from their tires - as far as I can tell, staying directly in front of these is the only way to avoid getting killed by them. Oh, and the Peter Gunn theme plays the whole time. According to the text one of the bridges eventually stops short and you turn into a boat, but I never got that far.

This game is unusual for its time in that it has no lives. Instead, you have unlimited cars as a counter ticks down from 999, and just one after it gets to 0. Although the cabinet had a steering wheel, it's functionally identical to arrow keys. This game is worth a play if only for how awesomely blatant it is about its premise.

0058. Crystal Castles (Arcade)

The unusual sights of Crystal Castles are quite compelling - multi-leveled isometric playgrounds with buildings, elevators and tunnels. As the absurdly cute Bentley Bear ("Oh no!" he says in word balloon when he dies), you have the Pac-Man like goal of collecting all the red gems inexplicably covering every path. Unfortunately, this is another game that suffers from lacking its original controls. The arcade trackball made zipping along the paths easy. Without it, I wouldn't quite call the game impossible to play - you can give it a go with the mouse, and I made it to level 5 - but the awkwardness of control makes things pretty frustrating.

Unusually for an arcade game, this one ends after its thirty-seven levels instead of looping. This game is definitely a curiosity, but I'd hold out for the real cabinet to really play it, unless you own a PC trackball.

0059. Jetpac (Various, ZX Spectrum played)

Jetpac was the first game by Ultimate Play the Game, the English developer which would later become Rare and go on to make many highly-regarded games on Nintendo and Microsoft consoles. After wrestling with another perplexing ZX Spectrum control scheme (a number of keys are mapped to this game's four actions; the most usable combination I found was Y, H, M and ,), I discovered a really fun and exciting game. So many home computer games, especially platformers, of the early 80s are plodding, delicate affairs where great care must be taken not to miss what feels like a perfectly good jump; this is true even of good examples like Chuckie Egg. This is totally untrue of Jetpac, where you gracefully (and quickly!) drift through the air with solid physics, firing your laser with mad abandon. This game is fast-paced and exciting, and a blast once you get the hang of it.

In the first wave, you have to assemble the three pieces of your rocketship, then refuel it by collecting the pink fuel packs that drop at random locations. After the first wave, only refueling is necessary. Because parts and fuel drop onto your rocket simply by being carried directly above it, it's a good idea to spend most of your time on the top part of the screen, where it's slightly safer. Despite MJ Hibbett's reverence for "the thrill of getting through Jetpac," you can't beat this game. Indeed, it doesn't even have real levels - the only thing that changes when you successfully ride your rocket are the enemies. Having said that, I managed to get to wave 7 and score over 10k points. This game has been both ported and remade for the Xbox Live Arcade as Jetpac Refueled - check it out, it's a good time.

0060. Juno First (Arcade)

Juno First is an unusual choice for this list. It's a solid but not particularly remarkable shoot-em-up that isn't terribly widely remembered. Its most noticeable feature is probably the simplest faux-3D effect ever, accomplished by a series of dots that accomplish a sort of perspective. It is pretty cool to be able to see your enemies approaching before they actually enter the playing area. Another neat feature is a bonus item you can get that not only gives you an 800 point bonus, but makes all enemies worth 800 points for a limited time. Other than that, I don't have much to say about this one.

0061. Lode Runner (Various, ZX Spectrum played)

Hooray, another Spectrum game with a redefine keys option! However, I still suck hard at it. Bummer.

In Lode Runner, you climb ladders and collect gold. You can't really call it a platformer on account of a lack of a jump. There is an unusual mechanic in which you can make holes in the floor in front of you for your enemies to temporarily fall into, allowing you to then walk over their heads. You have to be careful, of course, not to fall into your own holes, and of certain floors that are indestructible.

The most interesting thing about this game is its built-in level editor. The game already contains an enormous 150 levels, but gamers made countless others. It can be really amazing what gamers put together when you hand them the creative controls, and to this day not as many games employ this element as ought to.

0062. Manic Miner (Various, ZX Spectrum played)

I know I keep complaining about controls, but you seriously use Q and P to go left and right in this game. WHAT?

Manic Miner, I understand, is one of the most nostalgic platformers for fans of the Spectrum, but due to the strange controls, unforgiving jump and tight placement of hazards, I can't get anywhere at all in it. It's too bad, because it seems remarkably advanced for its time, with elements such as conveyer belts and fall-away platforms. It's a bizarre game with strange color choices and weird enemies, which I guess is part of its charm.

I'm sorry to give such a beloved game such a terse treatment, but I'm out of my element here, having been born in 1985, and this is quite frankly one of the most difficult games I've ever played in my life. It took me a lot of tries to get to the second screen, and after a lot more tries I still never got to the third. If you want to laugh at me, try it yourself first, that's all I've got to say.

0063. Tapper (Arcade)

Tapper is a very early example of the now popular time-management genre, where a number of impatient customers must be juggled, a delicate balancing act. This is a lot faster-paced and simpler than the likes of Diner Dash, however, and much more fun in my opinion.

This colorful (gorgeous for its time, really - you couldn't port this to the NES without losing something graphically) game is sure to get a chuckle out of you. It's foaming over with personality - the griping customers, the self-satisfied bartender, the Budweiser logos everywhere (a rare example of desirable product placement - the game even says "THIS BUDS FOR YOU" when you win the shell game bonus round). You might know this game by its sanitized-for-the-kiddies version Root Beer Tapper, which makes a few graphical changes.

Like I said, this game is a lot of fun. You have to send beers to the customers before they reach the end of the bars. It's fast, but you've actually got to be careful not to send too many beers too fast, as some customers will send their glasses back for a refill, which can get overwhelming. Some will also leave a tip, which you can get for a pretty big bonus (as well as dancing cheerleaders) if you think you can spare the time. Seriously, play this game. It's a riot.

I spent a long, long time on this post. I don't know what made me think 16 games in one post was a good idea. 1984 will be divided into two parts. Please drop me a comment to let me know what you think of the series so far.   read

5:11 PM on 04.25.2011

What are games about, really?

The other day it occurred to me what we mean when we speak of what a game is "about," and how it differs from the explanations of other media. I think that part of the reason that the discussion of games as art is so contentious is that games can't really be examined in quite the same way as other works. When we look at a comic book, a book or a film, what we see on the page or the screen is the work of art, plain and simple. With games, it's not quite so straightforward - what we see on the screen is only part of the game. The real heart of the medium lies in a curious limbo - it cannot be seen. The real center of a game is the player's interaction with it, making the whole thing a collaborative experience. The game isn't really a game until you start playing it. When we discuss what a game is about, then, we ought to be discussing what it is that you do.

Sure, games have traditional stories, and they're important to the experience. However, they're crafted of the materials of other media - pictures, animation, words. The story created by actually playing the game is a different thing, although in many of the best examples of video game storytelling the two are carefully interwoven, like in Braid or Dragon Quest V, to give a couple of examples. You can attach any background story you like to a falling shapes game - it's still fundamentally a game about stacking and clearing away, just like Tetris. It's fun to distill your favorite games down to this simple essence, often describable in a single sentence of the form "X is a game about Y." Ecco the Dolphin, whose story involves aliens and time travel, is fundamentally a game about being a dolphin. That's why people are drawn to it: the sheer experience of darting through the blue ocean, flipping high into the air, nosing through tunnels in search of air pockets. This is what really makes that game memorable.

In some cases, the two stories of a game can differ greatly, and the dissonance can actually create an captivating effect. Let's talk about the 1982 arcade game Sinistar, famous for its titular villain, a face-shaped spaceship that talks to you in a digitized voice, taunting you, "Beware, I live" and "Run, Coward!" Its ominous voice, combined with the spaceship coming after you at high speed and then eating you alive with a mighty roar, is genuinely frightening. The object of the game is to destroy Sinistar, but what is the game about?

Sinistar is a game about mining.

Seriously, this is what you spend most of your time doing. To me it's one of the biggest cognitive disconnects in gaming. To get the Sinibombs you need to defeat Sinistar, you fly around shooting rocks to release "crystals" you collect to construct the bombs. Sinistar isn't in the game at all for a couple of minutes, so it's just you, the rocks, and some annoying little enemies that get in your way. It's tricky, but almost Zen-like really - you just keep hammering away at those rocks. Honestly, I think it heightens Sinistar's impact to look at the game this way - when it does show up, the game you've become familiar with is torn apart by a violent and terrifying force of nature. It's quite an impact.

I think in any discussion of the premise or story of a game, it's worth stepping back to examine what exactly you, the player, do. It's an angle that can be amusing and revelatory.   read

7:46 PM on 04.24.2011

1001games Part 4: 1982

Dig Dug painting by Brock Davis

I wouldn't say 1982 was quite the year 1981 was for arcades, but what year was? It still featured some great classics like Joust, Dig Dug and Q*Bert.

0033. Gravitar (Arcade)

For me, the best way to describe Gravitar is "Asteroids meets Lunar Lander." Like Asteroids, you're a triangle-shaped ship with a forward thruster and a single gun; like Lunar Lander, careful manipulation of gravity and momentum is required. This game starts you out on a galaxy map showing the different planetoids you can visit; when you approach one the game zooms in, kind of like Venture. Each planetoid has a mission to complete - destroying all the planetoid-mounted turrets, usually. There are also little marked spots you can land on to refuel your ship. Once you've completed a planetoid, you can leave and return to the map to fly to another.

This game's extremely simplistic vector graphics work very well for it, evoking a kind of retro VR feel. It's pretty impressive how the game zooms in as you approach a planetoid. The orbital gravity mechanic is challenging and refined. The whole game feels like a precursor to later, much more complex galaxy exploration games.

The text says this game bombed in arcades, and I can see that happening. It has some problems - it's tough to make Lunar Lander-type trajectory adjustments when all you've got is a forward thruster, and the enemy turrets' fire is tough to see and tougher to avoid. I bet I'd have had a lot less fun if those had been real quarters consumed by my screw-ups. Still, this is a cool game. Check it out.

0034. Joust (Arcade)

Sure, Joust is weird. You're a little alien-looking dude jousting with other little alien looking dudes, and you're all riding birds. You're riding what appears to be a flying ostrich (or a stork for player 2), while your enemies are riding buzzards or maybe condors. After you defeat your enemies by colliding with them while being higher on the screen then they are, you have to collect the egg that's dropped or your enemies will re-hatch and be more dangerous than before. Also, you should take care to avoid the pterodactyls and lava. Yep, it's pretty weird - but the wonderful thing about video games is that it does not matter.

The text calls the game "better than it sounds" and implies its popularity was "surprising." Joust needs no such apologies or tepid defense; it's one of the great arcade games ever. Flapping, the game's central action, is so much deeper than simply sending you upwards. You can adjust the speed of your flaps or hold left and right to achieve a variety of precise movements, like hovering, changing direction, speeding up or slowing down. A useful move involves going up and pausing ever so briefly to achieve a little float, then flapping while holding a direction to charge at an enemy. Everything in the game is balanced - You need to go for those eggs, but going down can be dangerous. Being at the top isn't always best, either - you can play territorially, using the platforms to define a loose box to defend. As the game speeds up, the frantic jockeying for position is intense fun.

Best of all, this is the first game on the list to feature cooperative play. Co-op is my favorite way to play games - I even play one-player games with my friends, alternating turns with the controller. Now, the co-op here is kind of competitive, since you're going for score, and if you want to be a jerk, you can take out the other player for 2000 points. My favorite video game experience, though, is to work together with someone and feel the camaraderie of the common goal.

I played Joust way more times than I needed to to write this; it's just so much fun. I never got past wave 6, though. I'm an arcade owner's dream - addicted, but not very good.

0035. The Hobbit (Various, Apple II played)

The Hobbit, released for various home computers, is a text adventure based on J.R.R. Tolkien's classic book, which I loved as a kid. This text adventure features graphics, which are drawn on the screen with agonizing, line-by-line slowness and feature amusingly awful color choices.

The Hobbit features a very impressive parser for its time, recognizing complex sentences with multiple actions separated by the word and. According to the text, it also follows the book very closely. I didn't get far, though, due to frustration with the AI characters who follow you around. They'll frequently take items you need to proceed from you, and although they'll sometimes give them back, I can't find a reliable way to get them to do so. To give you an idea of how awful of an experience this is, I was standing in front of a locked door when Gandalf took the key from me. I then had to wait one turn for him to say, "Fascinating, but I wonder what I could use it for?" and another turn for him to give it back to me. Argh! Also, since they act freely and on their own, your companions are capable of getting themselves killed, rendering the game unfinishable. Frustration awaits in Middle Earth.

0036. Choplifter (Apple II, Arcade played)

Choplifter, originally released for the Apple II, was ported to many systems, including, in rare twist, an arcade cabinet by Sega in 1985. I played that version for convenience's sake; it features greatly superior graphics, obviously.

In Choplifter you must pilot a helicopter past many enemies in order to reach the hostages. Then you have to land, wait for them to board, and go back and return them to your base. You've got to be careful not to shoot or land on the hostages, and if you're shot down when transporting them, they'll all die. This game is frantic fun, but punishingly difficult. Enemy turrets and vehicles fill the screen with bullets, and it takes next to nothing to bring you down.

0037. Robotron 2084 (Arcade)

Robotron was the first twin-stick shooter, assigning one joystick to the movement of your character and a second to directing a stream of fire. It might be hard to believe something that's become popular so recently dates all the way back to 1982, but here you go. It was a brilliant innovation, as the freedom to cover all sides allows the game to completely surround you with enemies.

This game is a frenetic spectacle, a retro-futuristic blur, all bright colors, flashing lights, loud noises and countless objects moving around at once. In addition to shooting enemies, you are to rescue humans by walking into them. This game is obviously designed to be fun as hell while separating you from your quarters with brutal efficiency, and it's effective at both. I got to level 6 and scored nearly 100,000 in a few tries, which I think is pretty good considering I'm shackled to an inferior keyboard scheme.

0038. Dig Dug (Arcade)

Everybody knows Dig Dug, right? It's one of the most invitingly fun arcade games of its time. It's not as brutally difficult as many of its contemporaries, at least at first. That is hardly to say it's easy, but it is more welcoming to the beginner than most. Still, it's more complicated than it looks, and as the levels advance it becomes important to manage tunnels and master the strategy of leaving an enemy partially inflated in order to turn and take on another. The enemies can converge on you in a hurry. And don't forget, when you're down to one enemy it'll try to escape. Beat it to the surface in order to claim those points.

You know, amidst all the bright colors and cheerful music it's easy to miss how disturbing this game's premise is. You're pumping your enemies full of air in order to make them burst from the inside out. Ewwwww.

0039. Miner 2049er (Various)

This Atari 800 classic got many ports: the Commodore 64, the Apple II, the Atari 2600, even the Game Boy and recently, smartphones. I ended up playing a bewilderingly inferior DOS port. It might not even have been official.

Anyway, this early example of the platforming genre might somewhat resemble Donkey Kong with its girders and ladders, but it actually takes some cues from Pac-Man. The object of the game is to "paint" all the platforms by walking across them, similar to Pac-Man's goal of covering all ground and eating the dots. On top of that, after collecting certain objects the enemies begin to flash and may be defeated simply by walking into them. Sound familiar?

This one starts out as simple as can be, but adds a few wrinkles as it goes on with slides and teleporters. The jumping here is a big step up from Donkey Kong; it's a lot easier to control and jumping between platforms doesn't seem so delicate. It's exciting for a 90's gamer like me to watch the platforming genre slowly emerge as its glory days approach.

0040. Moon Patrol (Arcade)

Moon Patrol is an interesting game in that it eschews the fast pace typical of 80s arcade games. It's not slow, exactly, but plodding and methodical. Your rover rolls along in a chill fashion, and you have one fire button that sends shots both forward, to take out obstacles, and upward, to fight the UFOs that hover overhead. You can jump to clear pits, and you must keep adjusting your speed so your shots will hit the UFOs and so you won't be going too fast and run into obstacles before you can clear them.

This is the first game to use parallax scrolling, a graphical technique in which different parts of the background scroll at different speeds. This technique would later become very popular on the Genesis and SNES. It's simple here, but still a cool effect. Also, this is the first game on this list to feature that brilliant arcade hook known as "insert coins to continue." You can keep going as long as you want, as long as you have the money. This would later become the standard way to relieve arcade gamers of their change.

Lunar Lander is an unusual kind of fun - you can clearly see the next problem coming, and the fun comes from the triumph of properly executed precision. I'm actually pretty decent at it - the game has checkpoints labeled A through Z, and I got to P without continuing on my first try, scoring nearly 20,000 points (When you get to Z, which takes quite a while, the game moves on to a more challenging course). On my second try, I made it to U without continuing; with another try or two I bet I could one-credit the first course. I wouldn't mind spending a bit of cash on this if I saw it in the wild.

0041. Mr. Do! (Arcade)

At first glance, Mr. Do! looks a lot like Dig Dug; you dig tunnels through colorful dirt in an identical manner, and you can drop apples on enemies the same way you drop rocks on them in Dig Dug. This is a somewhat more complicated game, however. Instead of inflating your enemies, you throw a ball that bounces through the tunnels and destroys one enemy if it contacts them. If you miss, however, your ball will keep bouncing around until you touch it again. Even if you hit an enemy, the ball is temporarily destroyed and you must wait several seconds before it returns to you, so you can't just throw with wild abandon.

There are two ways to beat a level in Mr. Do! You can collect all of the cherries placed without the level, or you can defeat all of the enemies. Put another way, you can play it like Pac-Man or like Dig Dug. You should also make sure to get the dessert in the center of the level for a big bonus. If you ever encounter Mr. Do!, you should get past the "it's a Dig Dug clone" first impression and give it a try. It's a fun arcade game in its own right.

0042. Q*Bert (Arcade)

Q*Bert might be the weirdest megahit in video game history. I mean, everybody's heard of Q*Bert, but what the hell is he? He's this weird fuzzy orange thing with a tube nose who swears with a word balloon filled with punctuation when he runs into an enemy. Just your typical video game protagonist, right? So you've got to jump from block to block in order to change the color of all of the isometric cube boxes while avoiding the many enemies. Things soon get a whole lot weirder, though, as things start using a different side of the boxes as platforms, breaking the isometric effect by making you picture it two ways at once and creating an impossible, Escher-like extradimensional figure. As far as I know, Q*Bert is the only 80s arcade game set on impossible geometry.

It's very difficult to avoid the many enemies that bounce around the level; success involves figuring out efficient paths to color all of the blocks. Oh, and I suck at this game, whatta surprise.

0043. Xevious (Arcade)

Xevious is one of the most important games that few people have played. It marks the emergence of the modern shoot 'em up. Although Space Invaders and Galaga are classics, nobody makes games like that anymore. Xevious is where things get recognizable. Although the text isn't technically correct that this is the first shmup not set in space (what, did they forget about Centipede?), you might say it's the first one with a real setting at all. The space of the prototypical shmup is a featureless void, an excuse to pit you against your enemies in waves. Xevious has real levels that scroll vertically by, containing features like forests, roads, rivers and even a reproduction of Peru's famous Nazca Lines.

This game really set the standard for shmups going forward. Observing that players just fire all the time anyway, Xevious is the first game to allow you to continuously fire by simply holding down the button. With not quite as much focus required for that activity, the game adds complexity by giving you ground targets to hit with a secondary attack, which actually requires aiming. This is a mechanic that would be copied by a great many shooters to come.

Despite having so many firsts, Xevious isn't as bland as you might expect; actually, it has a great variety of enemies and obstacles. It's not only amazing for its time, but a real solid, classic shmup.

0044. Sokoban (Various)

Sokoban is one of the simplest games ever, and one of the most pure. You push boxes around a tiled, confined space in order to get them into the marked spots. That's it - no refinement or enhancement is required. There are no tricks in Sokoban, no gimmicks; there's only you and the boxes.

This simple format has produced some of the most bedeviling puzzles I've ever seen. The hardest levels will have you stumped for hours, wondering "How? How is this one supposed to be possible?" It helps to consider which moves make victory impossible by creating a situation from which boxes may not be extricated, but sometimes this just makes you feel even more stuck. And then you'll stumble upon a series of moves that seem to work, but just when you're getting confident, you'll learn that this path unavoidably puts one box out of reach. "But that means this is impossible - it has to," you'll think, your eyes beginning to water. It isn't, though. If only it were - then you'd be able to quit with your dignity intact. But the solution is out there, mocking you.

In desperation, you'll try the same moves over and over again. You'll wonder how you can get anywhere when you've been over every possible move a hundred times (this will not be an exaggeration). This isn't just your mind playing tricks on you; Sokoban is actually an excellent test of AI theory because it's so resistant to brute force solving. And when you do find the solution, your feeling of victory will be tinged with bewilderment - how was that possible? How did that move hide from you for so long? It's a feeling like that of Alice going through the looking glass, an uneasy feeling that you're standing on the precipice of another side to the world, dark and hidden and seemingly impossible.

Sokoban was originally released for a few 80s Japanese personal computers, but has been endlessly ported and remade. Find a version and play it; it's amazing. This game literally could not be improved.

0045. Tron (Arcade)

Hey, it's a movie license game. I didn't see Jeff Bridges in the VR world of Tron, but as I understand it the games are pretty close to the ones depicted in the movie, and I can imagine how cool that was. When I was a kid, every time I saw some made-up video game in a movie or TV show I immediately wanted to play it. A good example is the computer game from Big, which has been remade online.

Tron the arcade game is made up of four minigames; you must beat all of them to advance to the next level, where they all get considerably harder. The games include two where you're one of the oddly-clad guys from the movie, throwing discs, and two set in vehicles. The two non-vehicle games, which require you to enter a circle while dodging cyber spiders and to enter a cone by breaking through a spinning breakout rainbow that's coming toward you, are a bit awkward to be honest. The tank game is serviceable but nothing special. The star of Tron is definitely the cycle game, where you zip around leaving a solid trail and attempt to entrap your enemies while they try to do the same to you; it's kind of like competitive Snake (actually, Nibbler, the game upon which all Snake variants are based, is another 1982 release). It's fun and exciting, and I'd rather play a game consisting solely of it than this one.

0046. Time Pilot (Arcade)

Time Pilot is an unusual shmup in that it doesn't force scrolling vertically or horizontally; instead, you stay centered in the screen and can fly freely in any direction. All around, swarms of enemy planes attack; you must weave between their shots while directing a constant stream of fire at them. You can also score bonus points by picking up parachuters. Each level in Time Pilot represents a time in history - 1910, 1940, 1970 and the far-flung future of 2001. After destroying a quota of enemies, a boss will appear. After defeating this enemy (who is just a bit tougher than the regular enemies, actually), you time travel to the next stage.

This game is unique, fun and I'm actually OK at it. On my second try I got to the third boss and scored over 80,000. This one is worth a try.

0047. Utopia (Intellivision)

The Atari 2600 dominated what everyone for some reason refers to as the "second generation" of game consoles (I'm skeptical that the Odyssey, whose games were hardwired in and whose cartridges contained nothing but jumpers, and company really ought to be regarded as a separate console generation from later 70s consoles), but Mattel's Intellivision was a notable minor success for a few years before being wiped out by the crash of 1983. There were many consoles at that time, more than during any other generation, which is part of the reason why the crash happened, but I digress.

Utopia, developed by Mattel, may be the game that started the "God game" or "Sim" genre, as the text says. It may be. But to me, it's utterly incomprehensible. All I see are a bunch of unattributed numbers, a pair of oddly shaped islands and a pair of rectangular cursors (it's a 2-player game) that I can move around. When I try to do anything, however, including pressing ANY button or following the directions in the manual, which I looked up in desperation, I just get a loud buzzing noise. I'm sure there's a game here, but I can't find it. I know hardware resources limited how much you could explain in game, but some games from this era are just plain indecipherable to somebody like me. It's like a bunch of ancient runes. Then again, maybe realizing that players used to have to have an awful lot of outside-of-screen understanding going on just to play is part of the experience I should have as a gamer. Yeah, that sounds like a good cop-out.

Next time on 1001games: the year it all came crashing down in America, gaming went on in Europe and Japan.   read

3:57 PM on 04.14.2011

1001games Part 3: 1981

1981 featured some fantastic arcade releases, including household name classics Galaga, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man and Frogger, so it's appropriate that this year in the book is almost entirely arcade games. The one exception is an important one, though, as Richard Garriot's Ultima launched, without a doubt, the RPG genre as we know it today.

0023. Galaga (Arcade)

Today, in the sadly few arcades that still remain in the United States, you're likely to see the 2001 20th-anniversary cabinet that collects this game and Ms. Pac-Man, two of Namco's most enduring classics. This game has serious staying power and still holds up remarkably well.

With Galaga, Namco took their smash hit Galaxian and improved upon it considerably. Abandoning the rigidity common to shmups before (and really, it's not hard to see the difference in the genre pre- and post-Galaga), the enemies swoop in in graceful swirling arcs, affording you the opportunity to rapidly take them out by sitting in just the right spot. Even after entering their formation, they constantly abandon it, diving in complex, scooping dive bombs and firing a flurry of shots. This game also features bonus stages where you can score huge points by taking down as many of the carefully constructed patterns of enemies as possible.

Another cool feature of Galaga is the enemies that use a tractor beam on you. If you get caught, you'll lose a life as the screen displays "FIGHTER CAPTURED," but this actually presents an opportunity. If you shoot down the enemy that captured you, your previous ship returns to you, and although you don't get the lost life back, your ship becomes a dual, wing-to-wing pair of ships that fire two shots, a must for conquering the bonus stages. Using this clever trick, I managed a respectable 44000 points on my first try.

0024. Donkey Kong (Arcade)

The game that put Nintendo on the map, Donkey Kong was truly revolutionary. At a time when the only significant character in gaming was the rather abstract Pac-Man, Donkey Kong gave us Mario (Jumpman at the time - he'd get his name in 1983's Mario Bros.) and the titular big ape. Both had a really unprecedented amount of personality; DK would beat his chest and lose his teeth upon being defeated, while mario would get a little halo upon death. And then there was Pauline, an early example of the ubiquitous damsel in distress. It might all seem pretty standard today, but that's because Donkey Kong did it first.

Donkey Kong was also a huge step forward in terms of gameplay, being one of the earliest games to feature different levels that are totally distinct from one another instead of being basically the same thing with minor variations. There are four levels in Donkey Kong, although they're not presented in order from the start (it's more like 1,4, 1,2,4, 1,3,2,4). One level, which features direction-changing conveyor belts and ladders that raise and lower, has been missed by most modern gamers since it was inxeplicably omitted from the NES port that's been endlessly rereleased. Probably Donkey Kong's greatest contribution to gaming is the jump. Apart from moving and maybe shooting, the jump is the single most important action to gaming as a whole, and you see it first here, allowing Mario to barely clear a relentless series of barrels and tiny gaps.

This is one of the most challenging classic games - it's very unforgiving, requiring precise placement and timing of jumps, and there's an emphasis on moving quickly in order to get a high score. That score attack remains competitive today, as documented in the film King of Kong. I just managed 37,700 points in several tries, at least managing to reach the "lost" level not present in the NES version. Despite the high difficulty, Donkey Kong is a lot of fun; I could play it for hours.

This game has some interesting origins - In this interview,, Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto reveals that Donkey Kong was originally intended to be a game starring Popeye, the sailor from Max Fleischer's classic cartoons. A huge fan of Pac-Man, Miyamoto wanted to implement a similar tables-turning mechanic with Popeye becoming able to fight back after getting a can of his famous spinach. For some reason, however, the license fell through, the spinach became the hammer and Popeye became Mario (who got his famous moustache because it was the only practical way to distinguish his nose from his mouth in such a tiny space). Imagine that: the world-famous Mario was born of a dropped Popeye license. It's crazy how history works out, isn't it?

0025. Qix (Arcade)

Here's a game that's been remade so many times it'd be difficult to gather together a list of all its clones. Have you ever played a game where you draw lines across a playing field in order to partition off part of said field, a task complicated by having to avoid enemies or obstacles moving around the area? If so, you should know that it was a Qix clone. My first was a Texas Instruments graphing calculator game called Jezzball.

Qix has a weird, robotic atmosphere. The predominant sound is a low buzzing, and the main enemy is this spiraling neon-lines effect that looks like it came out of an early-90s screensaver. What really gets me, though - and I am appallingly bad at this game, barely clearing the first level in several attempts - are these sparks that trace quickly around the edges of the playing area, making it possible for you to die even when you're not currently drawing a line. This is a cerebral game that could probably be a lot of fun if you're less hopeless at it than me.

0026. Scramble (Arcade)

With full-color displays now standard, developers (Konami in this case) continued to make interesting color choices. The uneven purple and green alien landscapes seem to undulate as you fly past them in this side-scrolling shoot-em-up; it feels kind of like being inside a lava lamp.

This game has you attempting to invade an alien base (the title screen bears the tagline: How far can you invade our scramble system?). There are six areas; when you die, you have to restart from the beginning of the current area. In addition to having to dodge or shoot enemies, you must keep an eye on your fuel, which you refill by shooting little towers marked "FUEL." These are hard to access, though, because you usually have to fly very low to shoot them, risking a crash.

I'm as tired of writing about how I suck at various arcade games as you probably are of reading about it, but facts are facts, and despite a number of attempts you couldn't get me to admit to under torture, I never got past area 2 of 6 of this game.

0027. Stargate (Arcade)

Stargate is a sequel to Defender. Uh oh.

According to the text, the developers decided to follow up the extremely challenging Defender by making the sequel even tougher, adding types of aliens designed specifically to cripple strategies that were effective in the original. It's all miles above my head, though - for me, a quarter in this game is a quarter soon wasted. Stargate is very similar to Defender, but with more alien types added and a few extra features like a warp hole that sends you to the other side of the map. It's hard for me, personally, to get into a game that I can't make much headway in, but to those with the patience and skill I'm sure this game is quite addictive.

0028. Venture (Arcade)

Venture is an unusual arcade game due to its extremely limited graphics. It's made up of lines and simple icons, invoking the same kind of "just pretend these are graphics" deal between producer and player usually made on the Atari 2600. Your character, Winky, is a little red smiley face with a parenthesis that is supposed to be a bow and arrow. If you can look past the laughable graphics, however, there's an interesting game here.

Venture is an action-adventure game where you collect treasures. You start out on a greatly zoomed-out "world map" showing the rooms you can explore on this level. You enter the rooms, take the treasure inside and hurry out - if you spend too long in any room, the invincible alien things from the world map will come in and chase you down. When you've collected the four treasures on a map, you move on to the next level; there are 36 treasures in total.

This game is really engaging; you want to grab that treasure, escape, and see what's next. Each of the 36 treasure rooms has its own design and its own type of enemy or obstacle. For example, there's a "wall room" where you must avoid crushing walls in order to retrieve a diamond and a "serpent room" where snakes guard an apple.

Unfortunately, this game can be as frustrating as it is fun. The enemies in the treasure rooms wobble about in a state of quantum indecision, ensuring that your shots almost never hit and making it a better idea in most cases to simply dodge the enemies while getting the treasure and getting out as quickly as possible. Another bad note is that every once in a while, you'll come out of a room and immediately run into an enemy on the world map, dying without even having a chance to dodge or see it coming. Still, I recommend giving this game a try; it's fun and an interesting relic that predicts games like Zelda.

0029. Ms. Pac-Man (Arcade)

Ms. Pac-Man started out as a ROM hack. By reverse engineering the original Pac-Man, a small company called General Computer Corporation hacked it into an enhanced game called Crazy Otto. American distributor Midway liked this game so much, they purchased the rights and turned it into Ms. Pac-Man. To me, this kind of response makes infinitely more sense than the typical way companies treat hackers and makers of fan projects like criminals today. Just think, if they'd responded that way back then we wouldn't have Ms. Pac-Man, one of the greatest arcade games ever.

Ms. Pac-Man does the unthinkable: it takes a game that is for all intents and purposes perfect and makes it even better. It has three mazes instead of Pac-Man's one, and features improved ghost behavior and bonus fruit that bounce around the maze instead of sitting in a spot you'll never go. There were other attempts to spice up basic Pac-Man (Jr. Pac-Man, for example), but they diluted the experience with unnecessary, unfun additions, screwing up the all-important core experience. Only Ms. Pac-Man refined that experience, and that's a singular feat of game design.

It's also worth mentioning the character, gaming's first female protagonist. A little lipstick and a bow added a lot of personality to the Pac-Man family. Ms. Pac-Man also features little cutscenes showing the relationship between Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man - in a hectic world of eating and running, they find time for love. How sweet.

I'm actually a little better at Ms. Pac-Man than the original, oddly; I made it to the sixth stage on my first try. When I was a kid, we had one of those miniature handheld "arcade cabinets" of Ms. Pac-Man; I'll always remember the time I got to the twentieth screen.

0030. Frogger (Arcade)

Konami's arcade hit Frogger is damn simple fun. The screen is bisected into a busy highway and a river filled with turtles and floating logs, and as a frog, all you need to do is hop from the bottom to the safety of one of the five safe havens at the top, over and over. The two segments are an interesting contrast, focusing on positive and negative space - on the road, you hop on the blacktop and avoid the cars, but on the river you must do the opposite, jumping onto the floating objects and avoiding the river below. By the way, am I the only one bothered by Frogger's instant death upon landing in the river? He's a frog, for crying out loud! They are nothing if not prodigious swimmers!

Frogger is a game that looks like it ought to be easy, but a great many hazards make it surprisingly challenging. My vote for most annoying problem are the turtles that dip underwater, often when you're standing on them. You get points for finishing quickly and bonuses for escorting a lost fellow frog and for hopping into a cove while it has a fly inside.

It was fun playing Frogger again. When I was a kid, we had a shareware clone called "Revenge of Froggie" that I spent many hours on. It kept a running total telling you how many quarters you'd saved. Oh, memories.

0031. Gorf (Arcade)

Another space shmup, Gorf is a real oddity. It features five stages on a loop. The first level, "Astro Battles," is friggin' Space Invaders. They even use the same alien sprites! I am dead serious. The only difference is that you get a big, one-way shield that blocks enemy shots but not yours. After the second level, which features enemies with laser-line weapons, the third stage is an even more amazing ripoff - not only do they use the famous sprite from Galaxian, they go ahead and call the level "Galaxians." I have no clue how they got away with this. There's then a level where enemies come out from a vanishing point, and a boss called the "Flag ship." Each successful loop raises your "space rank," displayed on the lower right.

While its wildly varying and blatantly ripped-off stages are amusing, I don't really think Gorf ranks as a classic. The main thing holding it back is the fact that every time you hit the fire button, your current shot is canceled - this feels totally unnatural and is hard to get used to. The game lacks the polish overall of the games it rips off. I suspect it might have ended up in the book only because of the voice chip that insults you when you lose, but MAME sadly does not reproduce this element. It's too bad, because that sounds hilarious. I looked it up on Youtube, actually, and it is. The voice chip is the absolute worst imaginable, just barely managing to push out syllables that... sorta sound like speech? "Long live Gorf" indeed.

0032. Ultima I (Apple II)

The original Ultima is very difficult to play today. It doesn't hold up well at all, with the dated interface (hope you've memorized which keyboard key does what action), lack of direction, and difficulty. A successful play revolves around time spent entering a dungeon, fighting one or two enemies near the entrance, exiting and repeating. As dull as this is, if you try to bite off any more than that you'll die for sure. Speaking of biting, you also have to periodically buy food just to move around on the overworld. Doesn't that sound fun?

However, it's easy nonetheless to see why this game is on the list. The graphics, though primitive, allow for the creation of a huge world with a top-down, tiled overworld and first-person dungeons. Even while cursing the game's clunkiness, there's an amazing feeling as you realize that it all started here - this is the game that launched the RPG genre. Again, we see that this book places a lot of value on historical importance, and I can't say I blame them in this case. Even though actually playing the game is a chore, its impact is impossibly far-reaching.

Although I didn't get far in this game, I hear it gets kind of nuts. It starts out with a typical medieval setting, but by the end you'll be using a spaceship, blaster guns and a time machine to go after the final boss. Is that bizarre or what?

That's it for 1981, a banner year for arcades to be certain. Next time, 1982's releases include Dig Dug, Miner 2049er and Q*Bert.   read

1:07 PM on 04.07.2011

1001games Part 2: 1980

I was able to cover the 1970s section in just one post, but in the 80s, gaming really took off, so from here on out, posts will cover at best one year. 1980 (the "dark mists of time" according to the text) was a big year for gaming; any year Pac-Man came out would be.

0011. Battle Zone (Arcade)

Battle Zone, a tank simulation, used vectors to create a wireframe, first-person 3D effect; many other games would use this same effect, most notably the Star Wars arcade game. It was an astonishing effect for the time and it actually still works pretty well in a minimalist sort of way.

Playing this was a trip. In a unique way, I really got drawn into its surreal, black world. As simple as it is, it works - I believe that's a volcano in the distance. After slowly rotating and gunning down a series of enemy tanks, I thought I was doing pretty good. I was, in fact; I scored 15000, enough for an extra tank. Just as I was celebrating that, however...


These strange things drop out of the sky and turn the strangely serene experience into chaos with a cacophony of noise. They head toward you in a hurry and you have only a second or two to shoot them before you get the cracked screen of failure.

Again I found myself laughing, at my own shrieks of "what the hell was that? What hit me?" This game deserves its spot for being the first on the list to totally immerse me in this manner.

0012. Defender (Arcade)

Holy crap do I suck at this game! After going through about $1.50 worth of plays, I was shocked to discover there was such a thing as levels when I beat the first one.

Defender is the first game I would not describe as simple. There's actually quite a bit going on here; you don't just shoot the aliens, you actually defend (hence the name) the people on the ground. The best way to score points is to shoot an alien that's abducting one of your people, catch that person as they fall, and return them to the ground for a pair of 500-point bonuses. Defender is an early example of the side-scrolling shmup, and you can turn around as well as fire, use bombs, and randomly teleport. The latter should only be done as a last resort, though - if you teleport onto something you die instantly!

The game has these erratically-moving alien buggers that kill me every damn time. I'm glad I didn't put real quarters into this. Next.

0013. Eamon (Apple II)

Eamon is the first text adventure on the list. For the uninitiated, text adventures are a genre in which there are no graphics; instead, you type commands into a parser and are rewarded with lines of text describing the results of your actions. Eamon is a little different from most; while most text adventures are really elaborate puzzle games, in Eamon you have stats, equipment and a turn-based battle system. The parser is also extremely limited to a few specific commands, and it doesn't understand complex use of even these commands. It's also the only text adventure I've ever played with loading times, and they're considerable.

The reason that Eamon makes the list is that it's more of a platform than a standalone game. The Eamon "master disk" contains the "main hall" where you set up your character as well as a beginner's dungeon, but when setting out for adventure you can swap in a disk that contains a module for a different adventure. You could write your own Eamon adventure and there are over two hundred of them in existence. There's even a "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" disk, though sadly I couldn't get it working.

The text has personality and a good sense of humor. A sign in the main hall says "sign up at this desk or else," and if you ignore it, you immediately get a sword in the back. When you enter your character name, the registrar mumbles about having better things to do than look up stupid names all day. I can see people really getting into this, back in the day.

I beat the beginner's dungeon on my second try - on the first, I read a magic book that turned me into a fish, causing me to promptly die. There's a hermit character who will usually fight you, but I found that by leaving the room and heading for the nearest monsters, he'll follow you and join your side, making things a lot easier for the rest of the dungeon. Unfortunately, unlike most text adventures, you can't really initiate a conversation with an NPC - there's no "talk" command (there is a command that lets you "say" things, but I never had any luck using it to communicate). I beat up some rats, a treasure chest mimic and a pirate, and earned a magical sword. I was able to carry my equipment and stats over to the next module, a disk called "FutureQuest," where I encountered The Author, "armed only with a sharpened pencil." I attacked him and got brutally killed.

There's definitely a whole world to discover with Eamon, but I found things a bit too frustrating. You can drop or break your weapons, and if your weapon breaks and you don't have a backup, you're screwed. Many of your attacks will miss as well. There's no saving, and when you die you have to start completely from scratch, which is SO lame. Still, it was a neat peek into what was probably an entire childhood for some.

0014. Missile Command (Arcade)

Missile Command used a trackball in the arcade, but using a mouse to control the cursor in MAME is actually an even better method of control. The book calls this game a Shoot 'Em Up, but I disagree. If you fire wildly in the manner standard to a shmup, you will quickly lose at Missile Command. You have a limited number of shots in each of your three missile stockpiles, and you have to protect your cities from the incoming missiles. It's necessary to anticipate where the incoming missiles are going to be because yours don't move instantaneously either. It's really satisfying when you manage to catch a group of missiles and set off a chain reaction of explosions.

I'd also like to note that the big yellow explosion and giant "THE END" when you lose is a bit unnerving - probably more so in the 80s when the Cold War was still going on. Maybe Missile Command is an early example of the apocalypse game.

0015. Rogue (Various, originally UNIX)

The nice thing about the selection of hugely important, landmark games is that it's generally possible to find them reproduced on the Web in some sort of Java emulator or reproduction. This is how I played Rogue.

Rogue has the simplest graphics possible: text. You are an at-sign, enemies are letters (B for bat, S for snake, etc.), gold is an asterisk and so on. The object of this game is to retrieve the amulet of Yendor from the deepest level of the dungeon, but since a million things can kill you your chances of actually doing so are laughably small. I managed to get to level 3 on my first try and that felt like a big victory, to be honest. I got killed by an ice monster - when it froze me, I couldn't fight back.

If you have the patience to really get waist-deep in this thing, there are apparently some interesting spells and equipment to be had - my favorite spell is "Genocide," which can only be used once and removes one type of monster entirely from that instance of the game.

This early RPG is notable for being the first game to use procedurally generated (or "random") levels. Each time you play Rogue, the layout of the dungeon and its contents are different. To this day, games like this are still known as "Roguelikes" in recognition of this 1980 classic.

0016. Tempest (Arcade)

Tempest is a uniquely abstract game. You, a claw-shaped ship, move along the outer edge of a vector-based tunnel with perspective and shoot the strange shapes that rapidly come out at you. The surreal world this creates is uniquely engaging - there doesn't need to be a reason for any of it, it doesn't represent anything, it just is. It gets really wild, too, having to keep up with the relentless advance of spikes that grow out from the center and approaching enemies that flip from vector to vector.

Sadly, Tempest is a game that is really impractical to play without its original dial controller. With it, you can strafe the entire board with great speed and fluid ease; without it, your movement is clunky and you're soon overwhelmed. I quickly gave up on trying to control it with the keyboard, only making it to level 5. If you ever see one of the original cabinets, you should definitely give it a shot.

0017. MUD (Online)

The MUD or Multi-User Dungeon is the first online multiplayer video game. A MUD can support hundreds of users simultaneously, making it the ancestor to today's MMORPGs. Way back when, users would dial into the network with their 1400 modems in order to pretend to be wizards and warriors.

MUD is a multiplayer text adventure; like a typical text adventure, you play by typing commands such as "look at statue," "attack pumpkin" and "north." You have stats and equipment, though, more like Eamon. You can "watch" the actions of others in the same room with you and may fight, trade with or talk to other players.

When I started planning this blog, I thought I'd have to skip MUD. Surely nobody was running them anymore in 2011, and if they were the communities would be so insular by now that they'd hardly welcome a newbie poking around. I really ought to know by now not to underestimate the Internet's ability to support obscure niches and nostalgia. There are in fact several highly active MUDs today; I joined the Discworld MUD, which is based on the awesome series of books by Terry Pratchett.

Joining the MUD was very easy - you can download a client or just use a java client in your browser. The guys and girls of the Discworld MUD were very friendly and welcoming to a newbie like me, and the newbie area you start out in teaches you all the basics, not assuming you've ever played a MUD or text adventure before. Once I got out of the newbie area and into the game proper, I was absolutely flabbergasted at the sheer scale of the game. I spent over an hour just walking from one end of one city to the other, and there were a number of amusing and colorful descriptions of the locations along the way ("This street isn't as packed as the others, but it's still fairly busy. Well, actually it isn't busy, but it's more comforting to say that it is. Solitude brings thoughts of whether there is someone behind you with a knife; in Ankh-Morpork, there probably is"). I watched as a high-level swordsman fought in the street and slayed two trolls, a merchant banker and a mean bounty hunter. When it was all over, I applauded; he bowed to me.

The MUD combined the lore of the books with a great deal of creativity on the part of the people making it. I really got a kick out of the variety of guilds you can join (think classes more than WoW-style guilds); you could be a wizard, wielding powerful spells that can be difficult to control, or you can be a witch, practicing magic based more on persuasion, making people think you have magic powers, and brewing special tea. The head witch said that witching was usually for women, but that I "might make a pretty good one" if I could get past the problem of my gender.

I can see why the MUD still has some allure today; it's like a collective gathering of human imagination - not only the imagination of the MUD's creators, but the imagination of the players as the world takes shape in their minds around the lines of text that scroll before them.

0018. Pac-Man (Arcade)

Pac-Man is probably the most famous video game of all time; its only serious competition is Tetris. Kids today may find it hard to believe - nobody seems to think much of Namco's old mainstay, these days - but Pac-Man drove the world nuts. Even today, it's extremely engaging - gripping that joystick for dear life, thrusting it into the turns, trying to get to them just ahead of your pursuers, producing an audible "thunk, thunk, thunk," and of course, frantically eating everything in sight.

Pac-Man was influential in its gameplay - many maze-type games followed, and the "prey temporarily turns predator" mechanic produced by eating a Power Pellet that lets you turn the tables on the ghosts was imitated both directly and subtly and still reverberates through gaming today. I mean, this is the genesis of the power-up, right here. Even without this exciting element, Pac-Man would have been a hit, but with it it was the coolest game of its time. Even in the 90s, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man remained arcade fixtures.

Even more influential than any aspect of its gameplay, however, was the character it brought to gaming. Pac-Man was the medium's first mascot - in the games that had come before, your avatar was not important. The spaceships, tanks and paddles were means to an end. Pac-Man was different; he was so important that the game was named after him. Even the ghosts got names. Pac-Man also introduced the cutscene, as every few levels the player would be treated to an amusing little skit. That little yellow pie chart was world famous, and the precursor to Mario, Sonic and all the rest.

Since the ghosts move in predictable patterns, true Pac-Man mastery revolves around the memorization of patterns to move in. I was never on that level, and I'm kind of rusty at even the inferior, reaction-based brand of Pac-Man I do play. After several attempts, level 5 (Apple) and 25000 points were the best I could manage. I wanted to keep going, though; this game is fiercely addictive.

Pac-Man is a work of genius that's on the short list of games anybody who considers themselves a gamer REALLY must play before they die.

0019. Phoenix (Arcade)

Phoenix is another space shmup, but it's well ahead of Space Invaders or Galaxian in terms of complexity. The main addition is a shield that protects you against all attack for a second or so. The implementation of the shield is great game design that adds a lot of depth. The shield takes several seconds to recharge, so you can't use it carelessly. Also, using the shield immobilizes you for its duration, so if you aren't careful, you can end up getting yourself killed by being stuck in the wrong spot right when the shield wears off. Finally, when enemies dive-bomb you, you can use the shield as a weapon, taking them out as they crash into you.

This game has a different atmosphere than most of the other games I've played so far. Instead of pumping you up with cheerful or frenetic tunes, this game creates an uneasy, alienated atmosphere with plodding, melancholy classical music. The high-pitched screeches of the enemies can also be unnerving, and the bloody (well, red at any rate) explosions they make and the shrapnel-ridden deaths you meet look freaking real for such a graphically simple game.

After two waves of pretty standard Galaxian-type enemies, you face two waves of enemies that start as round eggs. Those you don't manage to shoot hatch into big awful winged things that take multiple hits to kill. The fifth wave presents perhaps gaming's first boss. It's a skinny little alien protected by a great big mothership and another wave of standard baddies. You have to shoot a hole through the massive bulk of the mothership in order to take out the boss alien with one well-placed shot.

Video game bosses mean a lot to me. My childhood was filled with them, their patterns weaving threads of frustration and victory across long afternoons. Faced with what could well be the first, I knew I had to beat it.

It took me eight tries, which felt kind of embarrassing. Some of those tries were really pretty awful. On my eighth try, however, somehow it all clicked. The best way to avoid the quick, head-on shots of the enemies is by methodically sweeping back and forth, firing like mad (unlike Space Invaders and Galaxian, this game allows you to shoot rapidly, like you know you always wanted to). Not only did I beat the boss, I did so without even losing a life. I then looped through the second set of waves and beat the second appearance of the boss, then made it to the third before finally losing. I scored 210,152 points - nearly ten times my best score in the first seven attempts. Again, maybe I'm not so bad at video games after all.

0020. Zork I: The Great Underground Empire(PC)

Zork, inspired by the first text adventure, 1975's Colossal Cave Adventure, is the first game by Infocom, a Massachusetts-based company now legendary for producing some of the greatest text adventures or works of "interactive fiction" as they are also known. Infocom released 35 such games between 1980 and 1989, five of which are on this list. A fansite called The Gallery of Zork refers to the 35 titles as "The Canon."

I've seen a fair few sources dismiss text adventures as obsolete, but I strongly disagree. No graphical video game can ever give you the freedom to act provided by a well-made text adventure. In other games, there are a certain number of stock actions that you use to interact with your environment. In the best text adventures, however, you can do just about anything you can think of - you're in a world of pure imagination, yours and the author's. Also, since you're reading, the storytelling potential is as high as it gets for the medium - it's like an interactive book. There is still a dedicated community of amateur authors of IF, as they like to call it, and they turn out some pretty good stuff.

The text of the book admits that Zork I "may be the worst possible place to start" in Infocom's canon, and indeed it may. It's a simplistic treasure hunt with some wonky puzzles and features a less friendly parser than later titles (requiring look at x rather than just look x, for example). Still, this list clearly gives lots of points for historical relevance, and this game is too iconic to leave out - the white house, your dear friend the brass lantern. The phrase, "It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue" (this is not an idle threat).

Zork is a game in which you enter an enormous underground series of tunnels, discovering the remains of an ancient underground civilization called the Zorkers. The object is to retrieve all the treasures you can find (in some cases solving pretty obtuse puzzles to get them) and put them in a trophy case back above ground. Probably the most annoying aspect of the game is a thief that wanders the underground halls, stealing your treasures and killing you if he catches you off guard.

Using a guide - I salute those out there with the patience and fortitude to gut their way through an arcane title like this unaided, but it isn't in me - I got pretty far. I didn't beat the game - if I insisted on doing that all the time, I'd never finish this blog - but I killed that goddamn thief, which feels as good as winning. To get to his lair you have to navigate a near-impossible maze; "This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike" is another oft-echoed phrase. This game, though lacking the complex story of later adventures, has quite a bit of personality and can be fun to explore.

0021. Warlords (Arcade)

Warlords is a four-player riff on Pong. Played in a "cocktail" table cabinet, players move a tiny shield-shaped paddle around their corner of the field, protecting their little fortress from the ball, which is actually a rolled-up dragon. As the game goes on the number of balls goes up, so it gets quite hectic. You can play as two teams as well as in a free for all. It's an interesting concept, but I never got within a mile of winning against the computer opponents. Yep, I still suck at Pong.

0022. Centipede (Arcade)

This is the first shmup to take things in a different direction than space and aliens; centipede takes place in a garden, your enemies the centipede, spiders, fleas and scorpions, a field of mushrooms your obstruction. When you shoot the centipede, it splits into multiple chains, and each shot segment leaves behind another mushroom. The shrooms get in your way and increase the speed with which the centipedes advance, so you have to balance between attack and clearing them away. There's also some nice risk/reward gameplay with the spider, who gives between 300 and 900 points depending on how close it is to you (and therefore how dangerous it is). Controlled with a trackball, Centipede allows you to move up and down a bit as well as left and right, which is important when the centipedes make it to the bottom. After a few tries I managed to snag the first 1up at 12000 points, at least.

The book mentions that Centipede was programmed by a woman, an interesting tidbit. However, it then goes on to spend the whole space devoted to the game arguing that it was the first to bring women into gaming, kind of an odd way to treat such a well-worn classic if you ask me. I find the argument not only overstated but false, as Pac-Man had already brought gaming a considerable female audience; my big sister used to draw crowds with her skill at that game.

This one was intense! Join me next time for 1981, featuring Donkey Kong, Galaga and Ultima I!   read

3:34 PM on 04.02.2011

1001games Part 1: The 1970s

Welcome to my new blog series, 1001games. And yes, that's one thousand and one, not 9 in binary. You see, a while ago I got this book, 1001 Games You Must Play Before You Die, edited by Tony Mott. I really admire this thick tome with its super-high-quality presentation. The glossy screenshots are glorious, and the writing is thoughtful. I don't agree with all its selections (and you'd better believe I'll be bitching about the ones I disagree with), but it's overall a very solid set of games with loads of all-time classics. What really drew me to it, though, was the sheer number involved. 100 games? Yawn. A thousand? Now we're talking. I wondered what I should do with it, and my girlfriend said I should start a blog where I play all of the games. I think that's a great idea, so here I am.

Right from the start, I am approaching this project as a noble failure; I won't be able to cover all of the games in the book. Some games are impossible to play anymore - how is one supposed to play Ultima Online, this many years after its servers were taken down? Others, I simply lack access to and don't think I'll be able to gain it. I don't own an Xbox, 360 or PS3, and I doubt I'm going to get one of any of them for the purpose of this blog. My certain failure doesn't get me down, though - actually, it excites me. I mean, with failure assumed, what's the downside? So join me as I fail. I will try to cover as many as I can, which will be interesting since many games I'd ordinarily have zero interest in are covered.

Yes, that header was made in MS Paint. If you like my writing and have any sort of design skill, please save me from myself.

THE 1970s

The section in the book devoted to the 70s, when gaming was in its infancy, is very short, so I think I can cover it in one post. The 90s were really "my day," but I'm certainly acquainted with these vintage classics.

0001. 1971 - The Oregon Trail (Apple II)

It really surprised me that the original version of this game came out in 1971 - I had always thought that the 1985 Apple II version was the original. Nevertheless, that version is the easiest to access (I found a site where you can play it in your browser!) and even the text calls it "the canonical version," so that's the one I played.

I've always regarded this game as tremendously overrated. I found it boring as a kid, and I've thought that people have fond memories of this game simply because they got to play it at school. However, having actually played it for the first time in many years, I have to say that it was kind of fun. The color graphics, though amusingly primitive, are actually pretty damn impressive for an Apple II game. What really made me laugh were the shrill beeps of the computer's internal speaker soundtrack - that takes me way, way back. I even had to "switch floppy disks."

I remembered this game being a lot harder than it actually is. If you play as the Banker - easy mode, I admit - buy plenty of food and a few wagon parts, and take the safest option possible at river crossings, it should be no problem at all to arrive with everyone healthy and lots of time to spare, as I did on my first try.

I did the manual river crossing once just to get that part of the experience, and it is actually really easy in this version of the game - you just go left or right, it's as simple as a game and watch. Hunting is totally unnecessary, but I did that too - I laughed until tears came to my eyes at my own frustration as I slowly turned toward the darting animals only to have my shots inexplicably blocked by a leafy plant. No matter how much you shoot, you can only carry back 100 pounds anyway.

The Oregon Trail isn't very educational, but to my surprise, it isn't a bad little strategy game, either.

0002. 1972 - Pong (Arcade)

Atari's Pong isn't the first video game, the first arcade game or even the first game in this book, but it deserves its fame nonetheless for its inestimable role in introducing video games to the world. It was the first arcade game most people encountered, and later, with all the countless home pong system, it lead the charge in the introduction of the video game console.

Pong is simple but effective - you hit a ball back and forth, and you can affect its trajectory by the way you hit it with the paddle. What's really interesting is the length I had to go to in order to play this. MAME abandoned Pong long ago because it defies traditional emulation - there's no ROM and no CPU, just integrated circuits on the board that create the monochrome graphics electrically. The online versions available are all "off" in one way or another. Finally, however, I stumbled across a cool project called DICE, or the Discrete Integrated Circuit Emulator ( This guy painstakingly emulated all of the chips in the Pong architecture, and also added support for other, similar games.

As for the game, both me and my girlfriend are incredibly bad at Pong. I think having the original dial controller would help, as it provides much more precise control than the keyboard controls we had to use.

0003. 1976 - Breakout (Arcade)

Breakout is such a clever concept. You take Pong, turn it on its side and add a bunch of bricks that the player must break with the ball. This simple concept is both fun and frustrating - how can you angle the ball to hit that last brick? This game, of course, gave rise to Arkanoid and its countless imitators. The display is still monochrome, but this game was among the first to utilize the trick of putting strips of colored film over the screen to make things more colorful. This means that the top row of bricks is orange, for example, but so is the ball when it gets up there.

Once again, the original dial controller is vastly superior to the keyboard I had to use, but after several tries I was able to clear the bricks. Achievement was so simple back then.

0004. 1977 - Boot Hill (Arcade)

Boot Hill, featuring a gunfight between two blocky, monochromatic cowboys, is the first arcade game my Dad remembers seeing at his local bar. In the actual cabinet, mirrors reflected the display onto an enormous full-color painted background, but in MAME I had to settle for black and white.

This is actually a solid, exciting game. Wagons and cacti move up the middle, providing cover. You get only six bullets per round, so you have to be mindful of your shots, which you can angle off the sides of the playing area, making this, as the text notes, technically another variation on Pong. This has a feeling of combat, though, making it a progenitor of two-player competitive experiences like the Worms series - games more of finesse than power. I played against the computer, which actually works pretty well.

This is the first game on the list to get points for personality. When a cowboy gets shot, a funeral march plays as there's a really funny animation of the cowboy turning into a gravestone. Again, I'm reminded of Worms.

0005. Combat (Atari 2600)

Combat is a two-players-only game, and I didn't really have anybody on hand to play with, so I just messed around with it a little before moving on. In this game, tanks shoot at one another, shots that ricochet, pong-like, in some modes. A number of switches you could set on the console allow you to play on a variety of different fields or with planes.

I can imagine the strategy in this game getting pretty deep, and the competition fierce... the thing is, I've never been much of a competitive gamer. I prefer cooperative play, to the point where I frequently spend time with my friends taking turns at playing single-player games. It's a lot of fun. I know another person can provide a more invigorating opponent than any computer, but generally speaking, I just don't have the discipline for it. I've always preferred comrades to opponents; it's just the kind of guy I am.

0006. 1978 - Space Invaders (Arcade)

It's nearly impossible to mention a game more historically significant or influential than Space Invaders, the dawn of both the shoot-em'-up and the Japanese game industry. Without something like Space Invaders at the root, the landscape of video games would be unrecognizable. Everything from Mega Man to Halo shows the influence of this, the birth of twitch gaming. Hell, Taito's little alien critters are so iconic that they are frequently used to symbolize video games as a whole; now that's a cultural mark.

It's a simple game, of course. Rows of aliens step slowly toward you in a plodding zigzag, getting faster as you defeat them, accompanied by a single note per step - where did these aliens hire a tuba player, and why does he suck so bad? You can also shoot the occasional passing spaceship for extra points. You've only got one shot at a time, so aim is important, but more important is keeping a close eye on those enemy bullets so you can stay out of their way, constantly darting behind your rapidly crumbling cover.

The book recounts a tale to the effect that Japan had to mint more 100-yen coins because so many were spent on this game. I don't know if this is true or not, but it has a truthiness to it that really captures the spirit of the game's popularity and addictiveness. Space Invaders seized upon two basic human impulses with the kill-or-be-killed gameplay and the continuing desire to go for the higher score. In my short session, the best I did was a little over 2500 points - I'm not good, but I have to admit it's addicting. You could easily go on for hours.

0007. 1979 - Adventure (Atari 2600)

"Somebody get this freakin' duck away from me!" - Strong Bad

Ducklike dragons, a dot for a hero, and an arrow for a sword - nobody really misses the days when the programmer was the artist, do they?

Adventure, the direct ancestor of games like The Legend of Zelda, is the first game on this list that you can actually, honestly beat, and I did so in well under half an hour, and that's with me getting pretty lost in the blue maze screens - now that I know the way, I could do it again in three minutes. All you have to do is find the grail and bring it back to the start, and you've won. Slaying the dragons is optional, but it's a good idea and amounts to nothing more than poking them with the arrow-sword. Don't think you have any sort of inventory, though - your item moves along with you after you touch it, and you can only carry one at a time.

At the time this was a programming marvel, and it's the father of a genre as well as an amusing little romp. That all said, I'd have been pretty disappointed if I bought this at full price back in the day and beat it in 25 minutes or so. There is another goal to attain, however - one of gaming's first easter eggs, the designer's name hidden in a tough-to-access room.

0008. Asteroids (Arcade)

There's a certain joy to the serene minimalism of Asteroids. Everything is made up of just a few lines - that triangle? It's a spaceship! Those kinky rubber bands? Asteroids! Use your shooty gun to blow 'em up! Watch out for the UFO! Playing this on a real cabinet is an experience everyone should try - the bright streaks of light the graphics form on the screen are a cool effect even today.

The interesting thing about this game is the attention it pays to physics, as the trajectories of asteroid chunks are based, if you pay attention, on those of the larger chunk you split up as well as the bullet that hit it. Your ship's acceleration can also be carefully managed, although to be honest, I prefer to just sit in the middle and rotate like a turret, not moving unless I absolutely have to.

0009. Galaxian (Arcade)

Just a year after Space Invaders, the shmup had already come a long way. This game's full-color display is a real eye-opener after all the monochrome that's come before it, and it's even got real theme music. Instead of following a rigid pattern, the aliens here break formation to dive-bomb you in a difficult to avoid pattern. The scoring system is fun and deep for the time, with bonuses that reward high risk for taking out the back-row enemies first or knocking out an entire dive-bomb formation. The book correctly notes that Namco's follow-up Galaga, an all-time classic, is superior, but you can't hold that against this game, which is still a lot of fun.

0010. Lunar Lander (Arcade)

Lunar Lander is an unusual game. In a time when gameplay was simplistic, it had a rare focus on accuracy over fun. Using your limited fuel, you must adjust your lander's trajectory with great care and precision. A tiny, split-second adjustment can mean the difference between a successful landing and a crash.

This game is unforgiving and intense. It took me quite a few tries to land successfully - if you're coming down even a little bit too fast (you should barely be moving at all) you might get a result like "landed, but stranded forever due to broken gear." This game is not screwing around; stuck to slowly die on a lunar surface is its idea of mercy. Forget making you sweat - Lunar Lander will punch you in the genitals.

I'm happy to report that after my first landing, I actually got the hang of this game and was able to successfully land on one of the tiny, high-multiplier landing spots. Maybe I don't totally suck at video games after all.

That's all for the 70s. Next time, we'll go through the arcade classics of the early 1980s.   read

3:59 PM on 03.31.2011

Copyright is a scale, not a hammer: In defense of consumers' rights

When it comes to copyright and consumers' rights, there are some things I've been meaning to get off my chest for a long time. It's really the comments on websites like that have spurred me to write this. You see, as abhorrent as the behavior of corporations is in doing whatever they can to strip consumers of their rights, I don't really expect anything else from them. No, what shocks me is the consistent, bizarre occurrence of CONSUMERS lining up to take their side. "Serves you right, you should have read your EULA." "Oh, those hackers are getting what they deserve." There's no milder way to put this than fucking pathetic. I don't think those shortsighted people who are trying to make consumer rights a thing of the past ever in their wildest dreams imagined that a significant minority of consumers would voluntarily do their job for them. I'm here to explain why these people are wrong.


We're so used now to the idea of copyright as the bludgeon wielded against us by rights holders that we've completely forgotten that it was created to strike a balance. The idea behind copyright is that, in order to encourage innovation in culture, the creators of works should be given a fair opportunity to profit from them. At the same time, however, it was understood that giving these rights holders too tight of a control over their property would stifle innovation and inhibit the development of culture - after all, culture is ultimately the property of the society, and derivative works have spawned some of history's greatest works as well as entire new genres within which refreshing original work proliferates. Therefore, copyright was given certain exceptions in order to strike a balance between these two important concerns. These include fair use, the right of first sale, and the public domain.

The public domain, sadly, has been legislated out of existence in the United States - a grave error that demonstrates how lawmakers are bought and paid for by those with the money. The originally reasonable amount of time for which copyright lasted has been repeatedly extended and there's no end in sight. People find a way, however, and no amount of treating consumers as criminals will really prevent the free exchange of ideas that forms the gears of culture.

Fair use is an exception that allows the use of parts of copyrighted works for the purposes of parody, satire, commentary, review and demonstration, among other reasons. Its provisions are kept deliberately vague because whether a use is fair is something that needs to be decided by examining a case on its own. Of course, the position of many intellectual property holders these days is that no use should be considered fair, and they'll push that envelope wherever they can.


Hey, we are talking about video games here, right? I promise I'll mention them in this section.

A comments-section debate whose existence just baffles me centers around used games. Quite a few people seem to think there's something wrong with buying used games; a crazy few go so far as to nearly equate it with piracy. This brings us to copyright's other exception, the right of first sale.

When I buy a copy of, for example, Kirby's Epic Yarn, obviously I don't own the game itself. Therefore, I don't have the right to copy and redistribute it. But according to the right of first sale, I do own the copy that I bought, and it's mine do with as I please, short of making and distributing copies as mentioned above. This is why we have used games, used books, used CDs and used movies - it's your copy and you may sell it as you like. This is also what allows us to have public libraries, which are absolutely vital to a free society, as access to information and culture should be a right. Even video games are available in libraries today, which I think is a great idea.

This fact has stood for a long time, and while rights holders may not like it, it's simply something they must put up with. There is no cause whatever for video games to be any different from anything else. Back in the NES days Nintendo tried to sue Blockbuster for renting out their games - Nintendo lost handily, because this right is well-established. You buy a copy, you own a copy. Period.

Unfortunately, this concept seems lost on people today. Software companies would have you believe that you own nothing - instead, you merely pay for a license to use their software exactly as they want you to and no more. Corporate greed dreams of a day when you use products the way they want you to and pay every time for the privilege. Far more troubling is the way people defend this nonsense in threads about used games. "You should read your EULA," they say. "You don't own anything."

The End-User License Agreement is an attempt by software companies, who dislike the rights given to consumers by copyright, to supplant copyright law with far more restrictive contract law. It doesn't work, though - a contract requires negotiation and agreement, and no such thing happens with the EULA. Repeatedly, these so-called agreements have failed to hold up in court; EULAs are not legally binding. It's amazing how many people I've seen assert that by breaking this agreement, you're breaking the law, calling selling used games "illegal." Software companies do not make the law, although it's impressive how many people they've duped into believing they do.

Another argument I've encountered is that I've given up my right to complain by buying something, that I should have protested with my wallet. I have two problems with this: First, boycotts of this type are notoriously ineffective and even if sales were affected, the dip would never be attributed to a protest - instead, it'd be viewed as low interest. The other problem is that this argument basically says I surrender my rights when I pay for something, and frankly, fuck that. That's backwards to me - when I pay, I should be gaining rights, not surrendering them.

I should mention that enterprise software is a completely different matter; the EULA makes more sense in that environment because actual negotiation occurs and "copies" are less important than use. This is a totally separate field from consumer purchases, so I won't go into it here.

Buying used games isn't illegal, but is it wrong? Simply: no. It's true that if you want to support a developer, you should buy the game new, but that is YOUR CHOICE to make and not one that should be taken away from you. It's not wrong at all to try and save some money on your entertainment. It puts a seriously bad taste in my mouth when developers try to cripple used copies - technically they're within their rights to do so, but it's never, NEVER a good idea to treat your customers like crooks.

Yes, I said your customers. The argument that people who buy used games are not customers of the developers, that used games are a "parallel market," is total bullshit. Used sales are part of the industry too, and the parallel market argument supposes that used customers are totally separate from new customers. Let me give you an example: Shortly after No More Heroes 2 came out, I became curious and got the original used. I loved it so much that I immediately went out and bought the sequel brand new and at full price. The cheap price of the used game made me willing to take a chance on a new game and caused me to become a loyal customer - this isn't the first time this has happened with me, and I doubt it's an uncommon scenario.

Here's a great article on this subject:

(Note: I'm not defending GameStop's predatory business model. Please, sell your used games somewhere else - GS gives you next to nothing.)


This seal never had anything to do with quality.

Before I get to my last point, here's a fun bit of history for you. Many people on the Internet seem misguided about console makers' "Seals of quality" from the 90s - both Nintendo and Sega had one. When a bad game is published, I see people growl that this never would have happened with the seal of quality, and that they should bring it back. This is pretty funny because the seals were totally unrelated to quality - if the Nintendo seal were around today, Ninjabread Man would bear it proudly. What the seals were was an attempt by Nintendo and Sega to dissuade consumers from buying unlicensed games for their consoles, created by reverse engineering the hardware. Unlicensed games have always been a big part of the video game industry, though - Activision, who created most of the games for the Atari 2600 that were actually any good, started as an unlicensed publisher.

"Hacking," or reverse engineering, has been around as long as computers have - longer, really, but it was with computers that it got dubbed "hacking." The term is totally unrelated to the "hacking" that refers to malicious activity on a computer network, although companies love this bit of confluence because it makes it easy to vilify the reverse engineering community. "Hackers," they can spit. Sounds bad.

I can't imagine where we'd be today without hacking. Countless innovations have come from hacking, and countless professionals got their start at it. It's a natural impulse to get into the hardware you own and mess around, learning and creating in the process. The computers we use and video games we play today have hacking in their roots. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a profoundly stupid piece of legislation made possible by the technological ignorance of lawmakers, tried to make reverse engineering illegal in the United States, but it hasn't really stuck. It's too basic a right.

It's astonishingly nearsighted of Nintendo, Microsoft Sony, and Apple to fight hackers tooth and nail the way they do. Instead of drawing inspiration from talented people who constantly discover new, better ways to use their hardware, they have chosen again to treat their customers like criminals. And every time this comes up, I see comments like "Serves those pirates right!" and "Why would any gamer defend this?" Hacking. Is. Not. Piracy. Take for example, home of the awesome Wii Homebrew community. They've got tons of great homebrew software, and even bringing up piracy or "backups" gets you tossed. I've been enjoying homebrew on my Wii for years, and I've never used it for piracy. It really gets me mad when people act like homebrew is a thin excuse for piracy - it's not, it's an exciting way to get more use out of your hardware.

There have been some troubling developments recently regarding consumers' rights; I fear that they are eroding as we speak. My big concern is that digital distribution will be used as an excuse to totally strip consumers of their right to own what they buy, which is needless and stupid. All I ask, though - the point of my argument - is that we should, as consumers, advocate consumers' rights and fight for them instead of making things easy on those who would take them away by taking their side.   read

5:19 PM on 03.31.2010

What's in a number: Why Sonic 4 is kind of important, for better or worse

Since Sega announced Sonic the Hedgehog 4, a lot of people have been talking about it. Some people are very excited. Some people are very angry. A lot of people say, "Why should I care?" These people say that it's just another 2D Sonic game - it isn't like there haven't been a few of those fairly recently - and they don't understand why everyone's getting so worked up about it. This post is addressed mainly to those people, who ask a valid question; from a certain perspective, Sonic 4 hardly seems a significant enough game to attract as much attention it has. The answer starts with the name. Far less would be riding on this release if it were not called "Sonic the Hedgehog 4". I've seen some say that this is a meaningless distinction, but I think its importance is paramount.


A blue bomber by any other name might kick just as much ass, but he wouldn't capture the zeitgeist like MM9.

Capcom did an impressive little magic trick back in 2008. By making Mega Man 9, they took a franchise that felt abandoned and of which people had gotten sick and they restored it to its glory days. The game was well-designed and up to the standards of its predecessors; although I was disappointed the slide was gone, I have to say it's a finely crafted game and fun to play. But I think one of the most important things Capcom did was to actually call the game Mega Man 9, continuing a numerical sequence left untouched for 11 years. If they hadn't done that, people would certainly have still liked the game, and might even have said it was "basically Mega Man 9," something that's been said about the 1998 Super Famicom game Rockman and Forte. But they wouldn't have done the special magic they did - bringing back the Mega Man series like it had never left. It was a ballsy move.

I say it was a ballsy move because it could have backfired horribly. Imagine if Mega Man 9 had been a disappointment - Capcom would never have the chance to pull that powerful trick again. This is a magic that only works once, which brings us to Sonic the Hedgehog 4.

I know I'm not alone among Sonic fans in that I've been hoping for a return to form from Sonic for a long, long time - hoping for a game that finally brings back the strong design and incredible fun of those three Genesis classics. That game could only be called Sonic the Hedgehog 4. As disappointment after disappointment dogged the series, I still harbored this far-off "someday" hope.

So when Sonic 4 was finally announced? I understand both the excitement and the anger, because I felt both. When I saw that first teaser, my reaction was "Oh god yes... Oh, god, no." Elation that somebody was finally trying to bring Sonic back to his roots, followed by terror that the single most effective tool for doing so - that number four - might be wasted forever. And I felt this without even thinking it looked bad. I thought right off that it looked pretty fun. But you have to understand - Sonic Rush was pretty fun. We haven't been waiting 16 years for "pretty fun".

Jim Sterling can relax; I'm not here to complain, especially not about stupid things like the modern-styled Sonic or the 3D graphics. I am firmly in hope-for-the-best mode, even as videos of the levels leak out. But I'm saying that I understand, on a deep gut level, the frustration felt by those who are furious, who've already given up on Sonic 4. We just really don't want them to screw up this once-in-a-franchise chance.


You might have heard of these guys. There's one overwhelming reason why.

Doubtlessly, some of the people going "who cares" at Sonic 4 are doing so because they don't see the Sonic franchise as important at all. I've even seen people describe the original Genesis games as "nothing special". Probably not a lot of people are going around saying that, but anybody who does is wrong. Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the most important games of all time, and if it's not one of the best, it's damn well up there.

See, I've seen people on message boards and blog comments saying things about Sonic that make me wonder if they ever played the Genesis games. Jim Sterling astutely identified some of these things, such as that Sonic is "all about speed". Speed was the hook, the loop de loop was the thing they showed on TV to make you buy Sonic - but you stayed for the awesome level design and sweet physics.

Pictured: The real point of Sonic the Hedgehog

Let me talk a bit about level design, the single most important thing about the classic Sonics and why I disagree with those who rank Sonic CD with, or even above, the Genesis trilogy. Compared to the Genesis games, the levels in CD are a disordered mess. I'm not saying CD is at all a bad game - it certainly had its moments - but Sonic 1 - 3 are GREAT games, and it's thanks to immaculate level design.

There's a McDonald's-themed platformer for the NES called M.C. Kids. It looks as cutesy and as kiddy as you please. It's slow, kind of clunky, and was made on little budget and resources on an extremely limited tile-based engine by just a few people. It would be utterly unsurprising if M.C. Kids were a forgettable piece of crap, but it's actually an underrated gem among countless lousy NES platformers. The reason is that the developers took what little they had to work with and concentrated on making the best damn levels possible, hiding surprisingly complex paths in the level that reward the player handsomely with extra lives and magic cards that unlocked more levels. You can read more about the game here. These guys knew what they were doing when it came to level design.

If solid level design made an otherwise unremarkable game in M.C. Kids into a real diamond in the rough, the same kind of principles made Sonic an all-time classic, and in Sonic's case there was so much more to work with. Another thing people frequently say that makes me wonder if they ever played the Genesis games was that they consisted of "hold right to win". In fact, each level was a world to explore, bursting with fruits of secret enclaves and sweet alternate paths that made you feel like the coolest kid in the world for finding them. All these years later, the original Sonic games still find ways to surprise me. Did you know that there is a level in Sonic 1 with two exits? Did you know that you can finish Star Light Zone Act 2 underneath the signpost? There is so much to discover if you're just willing to play.

Of course, the physics were the other part of the equation. Controlling Sonic felt right in a way that no other platformer ever had before, and precious few have since. He rolled smoothly along edges, jumped and moved with very fine control. I think we underestimate how much went into the pure joy of being Sonic the Hedgehog, when so many games have tried to nail that feeling and just missed it - mediocre games like Aero the Acrobat, for example.

One thing that does confuse me about Sonic 4 complaints is that some people are upset it's episodic. Sonic 3 was episodic, and it was awesome. Sonic 3 & Knuckles was the most epic platformer I've ever played, spanning 14 zones and featuring 3 different characters with their own paths to find, particularly Knuckles. If the later episodes of Sonic 4 added elements like that, I would be ridiculously happy. It drives me crazy when people say they want "no friends" - it was great being Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles.

So the Sonic games were great - but why were they important? Well, let me take you back to the beginning of the 90s. The Genesis already existed, but Nintendo had such a stranglehold on the market that people didn't even talk about "video games" - you "played Nintendo". For anybody to challenge Nintendo's dominance was absolutely unthinkable, although several tried and failed. A lot of people now are too young to remember this. The Genesis never really made that big of a difference until Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic was just what Sega needed to become a force to reckon with in the gaming industry, and it single-handedly started what we know as the console wars. It wouldn't have happened without both a great game and great marketing. It's hard to overstate how impressive an accomplishment it was that Sega took so much market share from Nintendo - the big N had all the advantages: the cash, the development muscle, the third parties locked up. Sonic was one of many factors in Sega's success, but he was the most necessary factor. Without Sonic, the console war as we know it doesn't really happen.

To sum it up, my point is this: To truly compete with Nintendo, Sega needed a game that could seriously compete with Mario - a nearly impossible task. But the Sonic games delivered. At its best, Sonic was even BETTER than Mario - and I say this as a huge fan of the Mario series. That is just how far Sonic has fallen to its present lowly state - more precipitously than most realize. That is why there is so much riding on a comeback.


Remember when? Ah ha ha... ha...

To provide a bit of perspective, I know I'm biased. But I have a view that I really want to put out there. The majority of gamers on the Internet these days don't know what it was like to be a Sega kid. To look at the aggregate of content on the Web devoted to gaming, you'd think the early 90s console war never happened. The SNES's classic games are enshrined, gushed about endlessly, have whole webrings and songs and movies and art dedicated to them. The Genesis's classics, meanwhile, are mostly forgotten. Awesome games like Streets of Rage, Rocket Knight Adventures, Toejam and Earl. In a recent "best game ever" contest on GameFAQs, the imbalance was easy to see. People on the boards openly mocked the Genesis. A post on had a poll asking "Is the SNES the best console ever?" The only option provided was "Yes."

Coming from where I do, this revisionist history hurts. I'm not going to try to argue that the Genesis was better than the SNES - that would be missing the point. The point is that the 90s were a hell of a time to be a gamer, with awesome releases left and right, and it was all due to the intense competition of two great consoles. It's a time I'll never forget, and back then, most kids took sides - few could afford not to. I'll admit that there were times when being on the Sega side felt like getting the short end of the stick. But when there was a new Sonic game out, it was the complete opposite. Even your SNES-having friends would be wanting to come over to play it. I loved so many games on the Genesis, but to the Sega kid, Sonic was the center of your universe. I watched the lousy cartoon, had all the comics, ate chili dogs, and ran around in the yard pretending to be fighting Robotnik. That kind of fandom dies hard. I still want to give it at least one more chance.

That number four can't make me a kid again, but if it's used right, it can pick up something special where it left off. Here's hoping.   read

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