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Nintendo NX announcement: Nintendo Switch

Nintendo just dropped their big, long awaited announcement of the console heretofore known as the NX. Now we know that the official name of the new console is Switch.

It is an impressive, ambitious design that shows Nintendo are deeply committed to innovation and reinventing how we play videogames.

Portable, handheld, yet capable of connecting to docking station, playing through a standard HDTV and acting like a full-size console, with detachable controller-handles that Nintendo calls “joy-con”. It also looks like it is very easy to do social/party games, with easy to configure multiplayer, where every player brings their own Switch and they communicate wirelessly in an ad hoc manner.

The Switch logo evokes the detatchable controllers, and looks like a yin-yang. Very cool.

Nintendo Switch "yin-yang" logo

Nintendo Switch “yin-yang” logo

It shows that the console is essentially like the Wii U controller with the large screen in the middle, with controls at the wings, which also serve as handles. But beyond that, the controller wings are detachable, and can be held in the hand, while the screen is propped up at some distance. Or the console/screen can be mated to a dock which allows the console to use a full size TV as its screen.

This design is so smart, it’s like something that you’d see in an art student’s senior portfolio for industrial design concepts — concepts which tend to be more whimsical or ambitious, and less practical. That it’s actually a working piece of engineering is jaw dropping. Switch is reconfigurable, almost like a Transformers toy.

I’m still digesting it, but I do think that my initial impression is that this is somewhat gimmicky and the “neato” factor will wear off unless Switch is better than everything it’s competing with in all its configurations, and not a “swiss army knife” game console that does everything but none of it better.

And that’s a really tall order. Especially considering that it’s virtually certain it won’t have the power of the PS4 and XBone. Nintendo have always done well with lesser hardware by bringing better games, though. So I think ultimately the success of Switch will hinge on the software and whether Nintendo can keep us interested in another sequel to their 30+ year old gaming franchises.

But from a practical standpoint, it may not be as fun to reconfigure and transport the thing all the time. While the “take anywhere, play anywhere, same experience everywhere” factor is pretty cool, I’ve yet to see what Switch will offer gamers that is actually new. The Wii gave us motion controls, taking a bold new direction from the then-standard gamepad paradigm, and thus offered a new way to play videogames. I’m not sure that Switch does anything like that, or what a new direction for playing games would look like. I’m even skeptical that a new direction is needed at this point, or whether an incremental evolution is all that we need. But it does impress that Nintendo have put so much thought and creativity into the design of the new hardware.

There’s also practical considerations such as the pieces becoming separated and lost, their locking mechanisms wearing out and not working securely, and so forth. This could slide the Switch more toward the gimmicky, impractical end of the spectrum, and away from the cool, does everything end.

At this point, it appears that the writing is on the wall for the DS handheld line. If the Switch is portable enough, it seems like this is the new handheld platform, and it can do more than the DS did.

It doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to offer backward compatibility with the DS library, either, since the Switch doesn’t have dual screens. We haven’t seen yet whether the Switch tablet screen is even touch sensitive (although I have to assume so) or whether it will support the 3D effects introduced by the 3DS (which at the moment I doubt). It’s possible they could emulate the dual screen DS by doing some kind of split screen windowing effect, or perhaps by using the tablet screen in conjunction with a TV. Nintendo has said that they do not intend to release any new information about Switch’s specs or capabilities until the official launch in March 2017. But if the aim was to unify the customer bases, bringing the living room and handheld markets back together, Switch looks capable of delivering.

Ultimately, whether the Switch succeeds or not will depend entirely upon the catalog of games released for it, and support of third-party game developers. If these are good, and compelling, and different from what the competition are able to offer, Switch will be another big hit.

Price is another consideration, of course. People seem to be saying that $300 is about what they feel it should be. If it turns out to be more than that, it could hurt sales. With the lackluster sales for the Wii U, Nintendo cannot afford to have a slow start with Switch. But I expect that Nintendo will bring its usual first person exclusive titles and draw fans of Zelda, Metroid, Mario, Kirby, and the rest in, almost regardless of price, so long as those games are top-notch. And from the teaser video’s snippets of the new Zelda, it looks like they’re on target.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Switch handles battery life. With separate, detatched controls, there are three different distinct units that make up the system and will need to be powered somehow. This appears complex, perhaps overly so, and may not work out as great in practice.

One of the neatest ideas I’ve seen for the Nintendo Switch is the idea of having variant joy-cons, the modular controllers that clip to the sides of the tablet-thing. If they could produce a variety of inexpensive yet high quality joy-cons with different layouts or different types of controls on them, it could open up home gaming in a big way.

One thing I miss about the early 80’s arcade was that every arcade cabinet had its own unique layout of just the right controls for that game, whether it be a joystick, buttons, spinning dials, trak balls, light guns, or whatever. Game design was more inventive back then, more experimental, as companies were trying to find out what games were, or could be. Of course in time this converged into some more-or-less standard layouts, but to this day the arcade enjoys a wider variety of control schemes.

The home console market by contrast has usually tried to offer different types of controllers, but in order to reach the widest possible market these controllers usually have to conform to a design spec enough so that the controller can be used with any game, which tends to make them all same-y. You may get a gamepad and an arcade stick, but that’s about it. Nothing crazy, like track balls and flight sticks and more exotic stuff. This changed somewhat with Guitar Hero’s unique controllers, and more so with the launch of the Wii and the Xbox Kinect. But the possibilities enabled by modular controls hinted at by the Switch are tantalizing.

But one major problem is that any unique controller that isn’t packed in with the console doesn’t get games developed for it, because the smaller install base of the unique controller makes the games market for games that work with that controller that much smaller. The NES Zapper wasn’t part of the cheapest basic package that Nintendo sold, and so the number of games developed to use the Zapper was very small — game studios wisely targeted the largest market, which was everyone who had a NES, and everyone who had a NES had a gamepad.

In any case, I’m sure this new system will get a lot of talk and attention over coming days and weeks, and more information will be forthcoming shortly.

GameMaker Studio 2 nearing release

In the last couple of days, YoYoGames have released some teasers that seem to be signaling the immanent release of GameMaker: Studio 2.0. This long-awaited release will overhaul the GM:S GUI, which YoYo have been rewriting in modern C++, and usher in a new era for GameMaker. Beyond that, little is known, as YoYo have been pretty secretive about their plans for the future of GameMaker since being acquired by PlayTech in 2015.

My greatest hope is that GM:S2 will have builds for Mac OS X and Linux. Out of all the software I use today, GameMaker is the last product that runs only on Windows, and I am eager to move to Linux full-time.

It remains to be seen what the release will bring.

Recent purchases of GameMaker who picked it up through the Humble Bundle have been speculating about what GM:S2 will cost. Obviously, a major release isn’t going to be free. It’s typical practice for software companies to sell upgrades to existing users at a substantial discount, so I’m expecting no less.

If YYG do extend discounted upgrade pricing to Humble buyers, most of whom paid around $15, they’ll still be getting an incredible value.

The RetroUSB AVS reviewed

My AVS arrived from RetroUSB last Friday, 9/16/16. Following up on my earlier article announcing it and some other competitors, here’s a review.

The AVS from RetroUSB.

The AVS from RetroUSB.


Selecting the AVS

I pre-ordered my AVS about a half hour after hearing its announcement, about after carefully reading the details and specs. While waiting on my pre-order to be shipped, I saw many skeptics on RetroUSB’s facebook page, complaining about this or that, mainly the price, or questioning the need of yet another console that plays NES games.

Many people think it’s best to play on original Nintendo hardware, on an old NTSC CRT TV, and have taken to repairing and modding their consoles for improved reliability and improved video, split-mono sound, etc. and a cottage industry has grown up around supporting these enthusiasts in keeping their original hardware running.

Still others think that having access to the entire NES catalog for free via emulation and ripped ROMs is the way to go, and that emulation is good enough that there’s no reason to spend money on games anymore.

To be fair, there have been a lot of other products over the years that have over-promised and under-delivered: Messiah’s Generation NEX, the various Retron consoles, etc. It’s fair for the market to be leery of yet another console promising the moon.

I’m not here to tell anyone how to play, or why they have to buy something new. People can make up their own minds. But I will explain why I was excited to buy an AVS, and share my experiences with it.

The most important feature that the AVS delivers, is HDMI without upscale lag. I have played my NES and Generation NEX on a HDTV, and it’s just not good. I only kindof understand why, and it’s complicated to explain, having to do with the differences between CRT and LCD screen technology, differences between the old NTSC standard and modern HDTV standards, and the fact that the NES doesn’t output a true NTSC 480i signal. This leads to visible artifacts as well as processing lag when an HDTV attempts to handle the raw signal coming through an NES.

Rather than try to explain it all, the TL;DR version is that I wanted a simple way too play NES games on a modern TV without having to educate myself to the point where I could be a video engineer.

Now that the AVS is here, it seems that they really have delivered a high-quality modernized NES that gives gamers everything they would want in a tricked-out NES: HDMI output; built-in 4-score; no problems with the 10NES lockout chip or worn out ZIF socket; and a 100% hardware, no-emulation implementation to provide full and faithful compatibility with the entire NES and Famicom libraries (with the exception of light gun games, where the compatibility is due to the TV display technology, not the console). If you happen to have a CRT HDTV that can handle 720p, however, you may be in luck (I have not tested this).

The top competition to the AVS currently are the Retron 5 by Hyperkin (not recommended, so no link), the HiDef-NES mod from Game-Tech.us, and Nintendo’s upcoming NES Classic. I covered these in a previous article, but to briefly recap:

  • The NES Classic held no interest for me at all since it does not support playing my vast, existing collection of cartridges, but it may be of interest to more casual gamers who never had (or no longer have) the original games, and want to relive 30 of the most popular NES titles, with the addition of save states. It is official Nintendo hardware, and is the cheapest option at $60.
  • The Retron 5 does HD output, but has some significant limitations, being an emulator-based solution it cannot properly handle some games, and has some ethical issues with stolen software and comes with a really, really bad controller, but on the other hand it can emulate multiple consoles. Currently it is no cheaper than the AVS, and given the choice I’d overwhelmingly prefer perfect accuracy in playing my NES library to imperfect support of multiple consoles and unethical abuse of software license.
  • The HiDef-NES mod requires you supply your own NES console, or else buy a pre-assembled one from Game-Tech if one is available for $500. On the other hand, it’s a true-hardware solution and does 1080p while the AVS does 720p, and the firmware on the mod gives you some great options including color palette choices. I’m planning on getting my top-loader modded soon, because I’m a geek like that. Also, Game-Tech have a great YouTube channel and do fantastic work repairing and modding old consoles, and deserve support.
  • Analogue NT is another modern, upgraded, high end system, and they are rebuilt from original NES components, but very expensive and not currently in production. Analogue are taking pre-orders for a new NT Mini system, at $449. Original NT’s are available on eBay for hundreds of dollars more.


Normally, I’m leery about buying new electronics products, until I’ve heard whether they’re good or not, and to wait for 1.0 bugs to be patched.

However, with the AVS I pre-ordered as soon as I found out about it. I didn’t want to take the chance that the initial product run would sell out. I have ordered other products from RetroUSB in the past: controller adapters, mainly, and knowing the quality of these products made the decision easier.

I first heard about the AVS in early August, so my wait time was only a month. Compared with many other product pre-orders (mostly crowd funded) this was a reasonable wait. RetroUSB promised delivery by mid-September, and importantly they successfully delivered right on time.

Way to go, RetroUSB! This, and their years of presence in the retro game market, inspires a lot of confidence.

Out of the Box

The AVS comes with the AVS console, power adapter, USB cable, and HDMI cable, and owner’s manual.


  • Price: $185 ($200 shipped)
  • Video: 720p wide screen HDMI output, 60Hz (NTSC) and 50Hz (PAL)
  • Audio: 48kHz HDMI output with expansion audio from carts
  • Display: Variable pixel scaling including integer options(1:1, 4:3, 5:3) with optional variable darkness scanlines
  • Carts: Front loading NES, top loading Famicom
  • Ports: Built in NES Four Score Pro, Famicom Expansion Port
  • Ports: HDMI Type A for video and audio, USB Mini B for power and data
  • Cheats: 5 cheat code slots with built in code database supporting Game Genie, Pro Action Replay, Pro Action Rocky, and raw formats
  • Online: NA Scoreboard online score system through USB
  • Updates: Upgrade FPGA configuration and menu system through USB

The AVS didn’t come with a controller, and before you start complaining — it doesn’t need to. If you don’t have your original NES controllers handy, they’re easy to find and cheap.

Mine arrived on 9/16/16, right on time for the mid-September shipping date promised by RetroUSB.

Build Quality

I didn’t crack the case for a look inside, so this is just a review of the construction of the system from an external perspective. The outer shell feels like it’s constructed from good plastic, not cheap flimsy junk plastic. The Power and Reset buttons look and feel just like real buttons from a toaster NES. The colors of the plastic are accurate to the original toaster NES. The cartridge slots grip games snugly, the controller ports plug in firmly. Everything looks and feels well made.

One thing I noticed, the AVS that I received does not have any UPC symbol or SKU number printed on the box, and the AVS itself does not have a serial number. Based on this, it appears that RetroUSB intend to be the sole distributor and seller of the system. This may be a necessity due to the power that Nintendo still has with retailers, or it may simply be that RetroUSB want to maximize profits and eliminate middleman markup.

In Use

The AVS comes with a USB cable and power plug adapter to allow you to plug it into the wall, but if your TV happens to have a USB slot on it, you can use that to power the console.

The USB port is also used for data transfer. Firmware updates are applied over USB with a PC as the host for delivering the update. I haven’t had to do a firmware update yet, but it’s nice that the device has this capability. As of this writing, the current firmware version is 1.10.

You can also use a PC with RetroUSB’s software to copy saved high scores off of the AVS, and upload them to Nintendo Age (and perhaps other participating websites).

Finally, the AVS has a Famicom expansion port on the back, meaning that you should be able to plug in Famicom devices that use this port. I don’t own any, and so am unable to test this out, but it’s very cool to have this option, and I may end up picking up some Famicom accessories in the future now that I have an easy way to play with them.

When you power up the AVS, you don’t see the game right away, but the AVS menu, which shows all the options: Start Cart, Scoreboard, Video Options, Controller Settings, and Game Genie Codes.

Start Cart will play the game currently loaded in the cartridge slot. The NES cartridge slot is very tight, and it’s difficult to pull the game out, mostly due to there being not much room to grab the cartridge with your fingers. I feel that RetroUSB could have done a little bit better here. My preference would have been for both the Famicom and NES slots to be vertical, like the top-loader NES, and lose the cover door. I suspect that RetroUSB chose to design the cartridge slots this way in order to make it impossible to have both slots loaded at the same time, but whatever the reason, I would have liked for it to be easier to remove NES carts.

Scoreboard allows you to store your high scores, which can be downloaded from the AVS over the USB port using a PC, and upload them to Nintendo Age if you want to see how your scores compare with the rest of the world. I have yet to try this, as most games that I play on the NES don’t even have a score, but it’s an intriguing feature.

The video and control options provide you with various adjustments to fine tune how your games look, and how the controllers work. The options are all fairly straightforward. You can adjust the height and width of the pixels, draw simulated scan lines for a more classic CRT look, and enable/disable extra sprites, which helps with flickering graphics that are a result of the limitations of the original hardware. The controller menu allows you to set turbo rates for the buttons, and some other miscellaneous settings.

The Game Genie codes are built-in, so you don’t have to enter them manually; just select them from the menu, and play. This is a great timesaving feature, and recordskeeping feature.

Light gun games do not work with HDTVs due to timing issues with LCD and Plasma based HDTV screens. This is not a shortcoming of the AVS. If you want to play light gun games, go with an old NTSC TV and original hardware. It might be that light gun games could work on the AVS if it is connected to a CRT-based HDTV, but CRT HDTVs are rare, haven’t been manufactured in years. If you happen to have access to a CRT HDTV, give it a try. Fortunately there were never that many light gun titles for the NES.

It may well take months or years for me to exhaustively test the AVS with my full library of NES and Famicom games, but so far everything I’ve tried with it plays. I’ve tried both the NES and Famicom slot, and both work with every game I’ve played in it so far, and, not that I claim to have a perfect memory, but I don’t notice any problems. As I continue to play games on it, if I notice anything I’ll come back and update this article.


Accessing the AVS’s configuration menu is only possible before starting a game; you can’t change settings in the middle of play. Interrupting and going back to the menu kills the game session. This is unfortunate, but I suspect that it is a concession to making the FPGA implementation of the NES hardware as accurate as possible, and there wasn’t a way to introduce a pause-exit to AVS config-resume feature without making some concessions. If not, then who knows, there could be hope for delivering this as a feature in a future firmware update.


It’s hard to see this from the photos on the RetroUSB site, but the AVS is shaped like a trapezoid. There’s nothing wrong with this, really, but it was surprising to me. From the camera angles they shot it from for their site, it tricks the eye into thinking that it’s a rectangle.


From this angle, it is less obvious that the AVS is shaped like a trapezoid.

For aesthetic reasons, I’d prefer if it were a rectangle. It would be keeping more in the tradition of the aesthetics of the original NES. But from a functional standpoint, it really doesn’t matter.

The flip-up door cover that covers the cartridge slots is quite large. Compared with the flip-up door on the toaster NES, it’s much longer. This means that there is potential for much more leverage to be exerted against the hinge, which could make this part prone to breaking. When open, inadvertent force applied to the door could cause the hinge to snap off. Although the plastic feels sturdy enough, I will be treating the door with a bit of care.

Despite being awkwardly large, the door still will not close with a famicom game inserted into the cartridge slot. This is simply a matter of poor design. I can’t understand why RetroUSB didn’t take the time to design a console that either had two vertical slots for NES and Famicom games and no door, or a door that would work with a famicom cartridge inserted.

There is no serial number on the console anywhere that I can find. There is what appears to be a model number, but no serial number. This is pretty unusual, as just about every manufactured thing these days does have a serial number. It seems a bit un-professional not to have a serial numbering system. This could make it harder to do repairs and maintenance if RetroUSB goes through hardware revisions.


Highly recommended.

Shut up and take my money!

The RetroUSB AVS is everything I want in a modernized NES setup, without all the DIY complexity. For the cost of all the mod kits, time spent figuring out how to solder everything together and hope it still works, at $185 + shipping, it’s money well spent.

For people complaining that it costs this much, consider that it’s a small production run, not a mass consumer item made by a manufacturing giant. RetroUSB are hobbyists turned pro and are doing a great service to all gamers by helping to keep the NES alive and relevant.

$185 in 2016 dollars is only about $83 in 1985 dollars. If you think $185 is too much because $185 is a lot of money to you, then complain about how poor you are, not how the AVS doesn’t deliver $185 worth of value. It does.

(And, for that matter, adjusted for inflation, the $449-in-2016 Analogue NT mini is about what a $200 NES cost in 1985 dollars.)

Other reviews

  1. My Life In Gaming
  2. John Hancock
  3. RetroRGB
  4. Kevtris disassembly pt 2 pt 3

iMprOVE_WRAP 2.0 released

My GameMaker extension iMprOVE_WRAP has been updated with a new release to 2.0.0.

iMproVE_WRAP is an extension for GameMaker: Studio that provides a number of new functions that improve upon the built-in GML function move_wrap().

iMproVE_WRAP is an extension for GameMaker: Studio that provides a number of new functions that improve upon the built-in GML function move_wrap(). It allows you to define the range in the room where the wrap takes place, and draw the instance on both edges of the wrap, as well as detect collisions on both edges of the wrap.

Version 2.0.0 adds two new functions:

  • draw_sprite_wrap()
  • draw_sprite_ext_wrap()

And makes improvements to the existing functions as follows:

  • boundary wrap drawing occurs at the corners of the wrap range (8 phantom drawings rather than 4) when do_wrap_h and do_wrap_v are both true.
  • the collision functions iw_collision_wrap() and iw_collision_wrap_map() incorporate do_wrap_h and do_wrap_v parameters, and only perform collision checks where they are needed. The functions still return all potential collision variables so that there is never an undefined value, even where collisions are not checked. (Unchecked collision locations return noone.)

You can get it at the YoYoGames Marketplace or Itch.io.

Full documentation.

Westworld and Stranger Things: games driving fiction

After watching the first episode of Westworld, I had this to say:

Westworld = eXistenZ + The Matrix + Bladerunner + Firefly. It will be epic if it has something new to say, forgettable if not.

After watching the second episode, I had this:

This show will get inevitable discussion in game dev circles. The setting is essentially a game. Specifically a role playing game. It takes place in not exactly a virtual reality, but an artificial one, that promises total immersion.

The degree of realism is unparalleled by our current capabilities, but the problem with the game is readily familiar to anyone who has a tried to reign in a group of misbehaving players in a tabletop RPG or LARP who refuse to play as though their actions in the game world can possibly cause them to have any real world regret. People who refuse to immerse themselves in the game world and act disruptive ways for their own amusement, are just like these “vacationers” who are told that they can do anything they want, and nothing can hurt them, nothing bad can happen to them. Participants who understand this is the reality will not get into character, and will behave cynically, in game breaking ways.

The game in Westworld fails as a game because everyone playing is aware they are privileged, playing in a sort of God Mode, and this enables them to be as out of character as they want, and ruin the world for everyone else. In short, it’s a poorly designed game system with incredible production values and play mechanics.

There’s also a major subplot with the artificial people who are the programmed NPCs that the players interact with being on the verge of attaining personhood, and the ethical dimension of AI development, which is interesting, but I don’t know whether the show will say anything new on that matter, or if it’ll just make the same old points that have been addressed since at least Frankenstein.

I’m not sure yet whether Westworld will have something new to say, but it is holding my interest so far. It’s well acted, well written, and visually sharp. This hasn’t escaped the notice of others, either.

This comes hot on the heels of another series that featured role playing games prominently, the retro-80’s surprise hit Stranger Things. Stranger Things uses the classic Advanced Dungeons and Dragons RPG to help explain the real-world strangeness that’s happening in the world of the middle schoolers having a paranormal adventure, and their real-world party dynamics mirror and are instructed by their role-playing game. The characters make reference to their game to relate to the situation they’re confronting, and to try to make sense of what’s going on.

I have to say, it’s good to see gaming taking such a meta-role in modern storytelling. I hope we’ll continue to see more of this, and I think it’s likely we will.

Review: Pitfall! & Pitfall II: Lost Caverns

One of the most popular and successful games on the Atari 2600 was Activision’s Pitfall!, designed and programmed by David Crane. A proto-platformer, it featured running and jumping adventure in a jungle setting. Coinciding with the iconic blockbuster movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, released one year previously, it was arguably better at capturing the fun and spirit of an Indiana Jones adventure than the official Raiders videogame released by Atari.

As Pitfall Harry, you explore a jungle and found treasures such as gold, silver and diamonds, while avoiding obstacles and deadly animals drawing inspiration from Tarzan and Indiana Jones, such as snakes, scorpions, and crocodiles. Due to its brilliant technical execution which pushed the limits of the 2600 hardware, Pitfall! was one of the top titles of its era, and is still remembered fondly by retro gamers today.

Pitfall! gave us running and jumping, and swinging on vines, but didn’t really have platforms per se. There’s just two elevations to run along: a flat ground level, sometimes with holes to jump over, or vines to swing on, and an underground level, sometimes with ladders and holes connecting the two. The jump mechanic was a bit primitive, and limiting, compared to later platformers — Harry can only jump up or forward, and once you press the jump button, he always jumps the exact same height and distance, and he cannot change course in midair. While this limits the type of platforming action the game can offer, it was nevertheless enough to create an enjoyable, challenging game. A bit monotonous, perhaps, compared with later Super Mario platformers that would follow a few years later, but if we look to Mario in 1981, his jumping physics were also limited in much the same way.

The way the underground level relates to the above world is strange and mysterious. Pitfall! doesn’t scroll, so when Harry runs past the edge of a screen, the game advances one screen and we find him in a new “room”. But when he crosses the edge of the screen while underground, he advances several screens. Thus, the underground is a potential shortcut, allowing Harry to skip over screens and bypass the challenges there, hopefully to pop up closer to the next treasure. This isn’t really explained to the player, who has to discover it and puzzle through it on their own.

As well, Harry can run both left and right, and it’s not entirely clear which direction he should run — due to the direction of rolling log obstacles, it seems to be the intent that you should run to the right, jumping the logs as they approach you. But it’s a bit easier to run left, going with the flow of the logs — and there are treasures to be found either way. These ambiguous choices of this helped give Pitfall! a depth and replayability it would not otherwise have had.

The sequel, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, released in 1984, was equally well-received, and in a number of ways was an even greater technical feat. In this installment, we to get see Pitfall Harry swim, and catch a ride on a balloon, and a larger variety of dangerous animals that Harry must evade. There’s even dynamic background music that plays throughout the game, changing situationally — pick up a treasure and the music becomes happier and more adventuresome; get injured and the music turns sad. Go for a balloon ride and hear a bit of circus trapeze music. By 1984, games were starting to come with soundtracks, but this sort of dynamic music was still years ahead of its time.

The game also features an innovative waypoint system that replaces “lives” — you can fail as much as you need to, but the game won’t end; instead you’ll be returned to the last checkpoint you touched, and resume from there. In virtually all games up to this point, games granted the player a number of lives, typically three, and allowed extra lives to be earned somehow. Pitfall II was one of the earliest, if not the first, to do away with this, and allow the player to explore and take risks without the threat of a “Game Over” ending the fun. Decades later, this checkpoints without lives system has became a preferred method for making difficult platformer games that aren’t excessively punishing or unnecessarily frustrating.

There were a number of other games released in the Pitfall series on other consoles, but after the disastrous 1986 NES port, Super Pitfall, I had lost interest in the franchise and moved on to other things, so I never played any of the other games.

Of the two VCS titles, most fans seem to prefer the second. But while I do find it to be the more technically impressive of the two, I find that I prefer the original. I feel that Pitfall II suffers a bit from repetitive sequences where you have to pass the same enemies an excessive number times. Toward the end of the game, you have to climb upward while evading level after level of condors, bats, and scorpions — and each enemy requires near-perfect precision. Make a single mistake and you go all the way back down to the last checkpoint. There’s something like 20 creatures in a row that you have to run under, and it’s frustrating and tedious. There’s no other way to get past them — no ducking, no shooting, just time your run perfectly and get under them, or jump over them, and if you screw up even once, it’s back to the last checkpoint to start over. This has always struck me as poor design, rather than a fun challenge, so I’ve always felt like the original had the superior design, even if the sequel may have had a lot of cool, innovative features.

Still, both games are among the best made for the VCS, and are historically significant innovators that established and advanced the platformer genre

Ludum Dare 36 is at an end

Ludum Dare 36 is officially over with the close of the feedback phase tonight — a bit anti-climactically, as there was no ratings given this time around. Only comments were given, through the new Feedback Friends site.

The ratings system was given a rest as it’s been decided by the powers-that-be that it isn’t working any more, and has more problems than it was worth. But I really liked to have a quantifiable method of comparing my games to others, and seeing my progress from compo to compo. Of course, I fully understand that the numbers are highly subjective and that the ratings shouldn’t be taken seriously, for many reasons (judges being biased, judges not being able to cover the entire competition, etc.) but none of that really mattered to me.

I would have really loved to have known how Ancient Technologies would have done in the rankings if they had done them this time. While I think the lack of originality in creating a simulation in homage to Atari 2600 Asteroids likely would have hurt it overall, I think it would still have fared decently as a well-crafted interactive experience, and done considerably better than my previous submissions in many categories.

I hope they have a new and improve rate and rank system in place by LD37. The most important thing about the rankings system was that it made it easier to find good games. No matter how many times I sift through the submissions, I always miss some great games. I know because I always find out when the rankings come out and I look through the top 10 or 20 games, find some titles that I never spotted even when I looked through every page of submitted games, and invariably these are pretty well done, the 48 or 72 hour creation time notwithstanding. I did find a few games that I felt were well worth playing, some of them truly great, but I’m sure I missed many others, and that’s too bad because without the ranking system, I don’t know how else I’ll find them.

As for the comments, I gave 85 comments, earning me 163 “coolness” points, and an overall balance of 105 coolness; the top-ranked coolness game on the Feedback Friends site had 121 net coolness, so I feel like I was pretty cool this time around.

I figured out that a comment’s point value basically varies by 1-3 points, depending on its length. Follow-up comments on an entry where you’ve commented already earn you 0 points, no matter how long they are, so they’re encouraging you to review as many games as you can, but not to have lengthy conversations with any one creator. To get the most credit for your feedback, then, your first comment should be a long-ish, multi-paragraph length. A quick one liner will only get you 1 point; a few sentences will give you 2 points.

My game Ancient Technologies received 37 comments, all of which were very favorable, and I think objectively speaking this game was my best-made effort I’ve created to date. I think a lot of LD48 reviewers are just naturally friendly, encouraging, and generous when leaving comments, and are reluctant to say that they don’t like a game. Even when I’ve played a game that was just terrible, I often see many positive comments and compliments. But I, for one, think that if there’s a problem with a game that it should be talked about honestly. Otherwise, feedback only serves to stroke the ego and doesn’t help you get better where you need to.

I get bug reports pretty reliably, which is very good; but if something sucks, people don’t seem to be willing to say that. If there’s serious design or implementation problems beyond a simple bug, people don’t seem to be forthcoming with that kind of criticism. If the game crashes, or if some feature described in the game description doesn’t work, or if there’s an obvious glitch with the sound or visuals, I’m sure to hear it; if I just made a game that sucks, wasn’t well designed or implemented, or wasn’t very fun, people don’t want to say that.

I guess that it’s refreshing in a way, considering how oftentimes comment sections are cesspools of abuse, and I’m not saying that I want to see abusive comments on my games; but I would definitely appreciate if players who give feedback on my games cared about them enough to offer suggestions on how to make them more fun, and to do that by pointing out a problem with the game and a proposal for how to fix it, wouldn’t be bad. Even if the suggestion isn’t one that I agree with, I’d rather hear that. Better some negative points than all positive encouragement, yet empty of criticism.


Top plays from Ludum Dare 36

In no particular order, here are the best-made games that I’ve played from Ludum Dare 36 so far…

Anachroma by Zillix

Anachroma by Zillix

Anachroma is a delightful puzzle platformer where the puzzles are defined by the topology of the level and the rewards are color-based, and unlock more new puzzles. I really got into this one.

Cognizance by Managore

Cognizance by Managore

Daniel Linnsen’s done it again, with a fantastic platformer mechanic involving a rotating gear wheel that can climb walls and interact with its environment to power treadmills and other cog wheels in order to move platforms and solve puzzles.

Canoe and Spear by BluShine

Canoe and Spear by BluShine

This is a fantastic single-screen death match, basically a tiny Towerfall: Ascention with a unique canoe paddling mechanic. Toggle left/right arrows to paddle/steer, and fire a spear with the Z or X button. Up to 4 players can play head to head, or you can play vs. AI. Built in PICO-8.

Invent the Wheel by Delicious Code

Invent the Wheel by Delicious Code

This simple game is surprisingly fun and addictive. All you have to do is draw a circle, and the resulting shape will roll down a hill. The faster it rolls down the course, the better your time. The more round the shape is that you draw, the better it will roll. It also seems to help to draw as large as you can.

Supercontinent LTD

Supercontinent LTD

A point and click mystery that you solve with a little hacking and social engineering via telephone. Great atmosphere and mood created by the graphics and sound, and the dialog system is fantastic as well.

The Leak by cabbage_

The Leak by cabbage_

A little adventure/RPG that you can play on a real Game Boy(!!)

Old Man’s Sky by Geared Games

Old Man's Sky

A parody of No Man’s Sky, or a de-make in the style of the Atari 2600, Old Man’s Sky pretty well skewers No Man’s Sky for being a pointless game about infinite sameness, as you go from world to pointless world, exploring and finding only differently colored versions of the same old stuff, over and over again. Never do you encounter anything truly interesting, nor does anything really happen. Still, it’s oddly beautiful, in its own way.

Kites by VitasaMode


A beautiful homage to Missile Command, set in ancient China. Fire rockets to stop a never ending flock of kites. The kites don’t seem to do any harm, other than if you let the blue ones fly over your city, you lose points. And if you accidentally hit a red one, you also lose points. The art direction is very nicely done.

Review: No Mario’s Sky/DMCA’s Sky

In my last post, I talked about the recent copyright and trademark infringement takedown actions initiated by Nintendo against No Mario’s Sky and various other games hosted on GameJolt.

Here’s a review of No Mario’s Sky/DMCA’s Sky.

No Mario’s Sky was made in a weekend for Ludum Dare 36. It is a mashup of Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky and Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. The theme for Ludum Dare 36 was Ancient Technologies. It’s unclear how this game relates to the theme. However, due to the popularity and familiarity of Mario and No Man’s Sky, the game got quite a lot of attention in very little time, and was picked up by websites such as Kotaku and Polygon.

The premise of the game is that Mario is looking for the Princess on an infinite series of procedurally generated 2D Mario worlds. The worlds wrap around a circle, giving them the appearance of planetoids.

Once you’ve satisfied your curiosity on one world, you can summon your spaceship and take off in search of another world. Apart from the color scheme of each world, there’s not all that much to differentiate them, which may be due to the game being developed in just 72 hours, or may be a deliberate commentary on the procedurally generated sameness that many players of No Man’s Sky have complained about.

No Mario's Sky

From a Mario standpoint, the game only borrows the titular character, the goomba enemy, and the basic concept of jumping on platforms and enemies, collecting coins, and hitting platforms from below. No sprite artwork is taken from Nintendo’s games, as all sprites and tiles appear to have been re-created by the ASMB development team, and while the Mario and Goomba characters are recognizable, they are not in any way confusable with Nintendo art assets. There is no brick breaking, no super mario mushroom, no star man, no fire flower. Again, this is likely due to the compressed schedule under which the game was created. Each world plays its own variant of the Super Mario Bros theme music, which is again a re-done composition, not the original music ripped from the Nintendo game.

In short, from a copyright infringement standpoint, this game is in a gray area, but pretty safe, in that nothing is actually copied directly from the Nintendo games. This game is about as much a Mario ripoff as KC Munchkin was a Pac Man ripoff. (Atari successfully sued Philips to stop the sale of K.C. Munchkin, even though the game was not Pac Man, but the case was bullshit and probably would not have succeeded were similar suit brought today.)

From a trademark infringement standpoint, of course, the game clearly is using the identity and behavior of the famed Nintendo mascot, without authorization or permission of Nintendo. If this were a commercial product, it would certainly be liable for trademark infringement. However, this is probably closer to a parody, or a “fan game” or homage. Unfortunately, the latter two concepts don’t exist as legal categories. It might be that the creators could have successfully defended the game as a parody, but that would have involved going to court and rolling the dice to find out whether they could persuade a judge of that. There’s simply no way an independent developer has the time or resources to try to defend what amounts to a weekend’s worth of work against a company the size of Nintendo for what would surely be months or years of litigation.

If ASMB had avoided use of the Mario name, perhaps renaming him something recognizable, like “Mustachhio”, say, and if the music had been done in a way that was recognizably Mario-eque without having the exact same melody, probably Nintendo would not have had any copyright leg to stand on, and the game could have remained as-is. From a trademark standpoint, though, it probably does run afoul of Nintendo’s trademark on the Mario Bros. franchise, given that it uses the Mario and Goomba names and likenesses.

While the game is fairly bland as-is, the concept is certainly fun and held promise. Were the game to be developed further, to better incorporate the Mario characters and play mechanics, it could have been a very enjoyable game.

DMCA’s Sky removes the Mario and Goomba artwork, replacing them with a generic space man and alien, and the music has also been replaced, but otherwise the game is much the same. Interestingly, the jump, coin and 1-up pickup sounds remain recognizably Mario-esque, but again do not appear to be direct rips from original sources.

DMCA's Sky

I suppose Hello Games could also make an IP infringement claim if they wanted to, and force the game to remove the procedurally generated planet hopping, at which point the game wouldn’t have much left in it anymore. Notably, so far at least, they haven’t.

It turns out, though, that when you break down just about any video game into its fundamentals, pretty much every game is based on, or borrows from, concepts that came from some other game. And — this is the important thing that must not be lost sight of — concepts are not subject to copyright. Not even play mechanics are copyrightable. Only actual works are copyrightable.

Of course, copyright is only one branch of Intellectual Property law, and there’s also potentially opportunity for patent and trademark lawsuits to shut down a game that borrows “too much” from a well known existing game.

Despite this, much of the charm of No Mario’s Sky was in its mash-up-ness, and this charm is effectively stripped from it by removing the Mario references. So clearly, the game derives some value from referencing the source material that it is based on. I don’t think that can be denied. I have a harder time seeing how this game harms either Nintendo or Hello, however. It was available for free, not for sale. It isn’t reasonably mistake-able for a real Nintendo game, and if that were a risk it could be prominently disclaimed on the title screen that it was not in any way connected to Nintendo, who retains full ownership of the “real” Mario characters. I see little evidence that the existence of this game or the numerous other Nintendo-IP infringing games done by fans over the years (including ROM hacks, homebrew games, de-makes, and homages) has in any way diminished the Nintendo brand or harmed Nintendo as a business.

The takedown of unauthorized fan games isn’t anything new — it’s just the latest in a string of consistent defenses of Nintendo’s IP rights. It’s clear that Nintendo is aggressive in protecting their IP rights, and have always been. This has been in part due to their corporate culture, but also in larger part due to the nature of IP law.

But IP law isn’t immutable. We could as a culture elect to shape law differently, if we could agree to.

Nintendo’s takedown of videos on youtube and elsewhere, of people playing their games who do not participate in or follow the rules set forth by Nintendo in the “Nintendo Creator’s Program” is ridiculous — it’s not a copyright infringement for me to play a video game, or to talk about a videogame, or to record me talking about a videogame while playing it, and footage of said videogame that I create should legally be my sole creation (while the characters owned by Nintendo and other IP-holders are still retained by those holders).

If I want to make a video of a videogame for purposes of review, criticism, or parody, I shouldn’t have to obtain the permission of the IP rights holders of the videogame, nor should I have to share revenue with them. They earned their revenue already through sale of the game, and did none of the work to produce the video, so why should they be entitled to a share of revenue generated by the video?

Likewise, if I want to make a videogame that references other videogames, much as a work of literature may reference other works of literature, creators should have some right to do so. Exactly how this should work out so that the original creator’s rights are protected and respected isn’t very clear, however.

Ultimately, the power seems to fall to those who have the deepest pockets with which to pay the most and best lawyers. As as a result, the culture, and the game playing public, is poorer for it.

Mario on iOS, Nintendo copyright takedown

Nintendo announced the first (authorized) appearance of Mario on iPhone a few days ago:

There’s much to be made of this.

Ten ago, while the Wii was selling phenomenally well, there were some wild rumors about Nintendo and Apple teaming up to bring games to the Apple TV device. But, while tantalizing, these rumors never panned out, nor really made sense. While both companies were extremely successful on their own, they didn’t really seem to need each other, or have any reason to cooperate. Nintendo software licensees could have certainly helped put Apple TV in many more homes, but what could Apple have offered Nintendo, who weren’t having any trouble selling the Wii?

Fast forward to 2016, and the successor to the Wii, the Wii U, is widely regarded as a misstep for Nintendo, and now it appears maybe they do need some help. But rather than looking for it in the living room, where they are poised to launch their next-generation NX console in a few months, right now they are going straight for the pocket. Meanwhile, Apple’s huge hit from 2006, the iPhone, has been a juggernaut for much of these last ten years. And here is where Apple and Nintendo can help each other out.

It’s the first time in decades that Nintendo has put software out on a platform that it does not own. This could be seen as a concession that Nintendo is no longer dominant in gaming hardware, or simply an acknowledgment of the vitality of the mobile gaming market. While Nintendo have been hugely dominant in the handheld market since they released the Game Boy in 1989, smartphone and tablet devices have in the last decade created an even bigger market for games. With the massive success of Pokemon Go earlier this year, the writing was on the wall, and Nintendo making this move now only makes sense. In fact, it’s probably overdue.

Entitled Super Mario Run, it appears to be an endless runner type game rather than a typical 2D platformer. Due to the iPhone touch screen being the only controls, and a desire to make the game playable one-handed, this design addresses the constraints imposed by the user interface in about the only way that would work well.

Nintendo also made headlines this week by issuing takedown notices for a large number of unauthorized games that infringe upon Nintendo-owned trademarks, particularly Mario and Pokemon. It is not surprising at all that this should happen, but still disappointing for people who built or enjoyed those games. While many of these games may have been derivative and inferior games done in homage of, some were parodies or innovative or just fun, well done fan homages.

It’s too bad there doesn’t exist a legal framework in which fan-made games can co-exist peacefully with official releases by commercial studios, but licensing is only a solution if the IP-holder embraces it. Nintendo are within their rights to take these actions to protect their trademark and intellectual property rights, of course, and perhaps it is necessary for them to vigorously defend their trademarks or risk losing them entirely, but it’s nevertheless possible to set up a legal framework by which these unofficial games could be allowed. While it’s entirely ridiculous in my opinion for Nintendo to claim copyright and trademarks on speed run, Let’s Play, and review videos featuring their products, something like the Nintendo Creators Program would make a lot of sense for fan-produced games.

What might such a program look like? I would propose something like the following…

  1. The fangame creator would acknowledge that Nintendo created and owned whatever they owned.
  2. The fangame creator disclaims that Nintendo do not have any responsibility for content the fangame, and that the fangame is not an official Nintendo release.
  3. Any revenue derived from the fangame would need to be disclosed and shared with Nintendo.
  4. The fangame could be nixed by Nintendo (pulled from release) at their sole discretion at any time.

I very much doubt that a company like Nintendo would ever agree to such terms, but it’s too bad. Apart from perhaps Nintendo, everyone is worse off because of it.

The irony of this situation is that Nintendo can copyright and trademark its characters, but not the mechanics or genre of game. (Nor should it.) Someone can invent the infinite runner, and Nintendo can decide to do a Mario infinite runner game, and not owe anything to the inventor of the infinite runner game. So can anyone else. And Nintendo can make a running and jumping platform game, and anyone else can too, duplicating the Mario mechanics and rules system entirely if they should wish to, but simply can’t use the name Mario or the likeness of any of Nintendo’s graphical or audio assets.

csanyk.com © 2016
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