Open World is an art exhibit of contemporary art influenced by video games. The Open World Arcade is a one-day event, to be held on December 7th, 2019, from 11 AM – 5 PM. Games presented in the arcade are judged by a panel of museum staff and video game professionals based on novelty, professional polish, aesthetics, quality of game experience and “wow factor.”
My game Ancient Technologies was an homage to the “ancient” technology of videogaming’s past, and re-creates the experience of setting up an Atari 2600 video game system. If you “win” the challenge of setting up the system correctly, your reward is that you get to play a somewhat faithful re-creation of the game Asteroids.
I created the Ancient Technologies in about 25 hours using GameMaker Studio, Stella, and Audacity. The Asteroids game that you play inside of Ancient Technologies is a simulation, not emulated. I used graphic and audio samples generated by Stella to create the simulation. I also sampled pixel art renderings of the Atari 2600 six-switch console and joystick created by pixel artists, and a partner provided the TV image, while I created the background of the living room. The simulation is a reasonably faithful re-creation of Asteroids’ gameplay, and feels pretty authentic in many respects, although it is not completely accurate. Most notably, it is missing the UFO and Satellite enemies, which I ran out of time to implement in the game.
An interesting thing happened to me few months ago.
I was reading Shovel Knight, by David L. Craddock, published by Boss Fight Books, and thoroughly enjoying the ride, when I received an email from none other than… David L. Craddock. Craddock had found my contact info through this website, and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in reading a pre-release copy of his latest book, Arcade Perfect, and publishing a review on it.
I thought that the name sounded familiar, so I looked him up, and found that he’d written the book that was in my left hand, as I read the email on the smartphone in my right hand. I wrote back, asking him if he was indeed one and the same. He was. I felt oddly watched.
Shovel Knight was a fantastic read, a detailed history of Yacht Club Games’s origins and how they came to create one of the best videogames of 2014. It was well paced, thorough,, interesting, and covered the human side of the story as well as the technical.
Of course I said yes.
I also offered to provide feedback on the manuscript, as I have helped several other authors in the past with technical review of their manuscripts. Craddock appreciated my offer and offered me an acknowledgement in his Foreward. I say this not as a brag, but for transparency’s sake, to say that this may not be a review completely free of bias, although I’ll strive for that anyway.
The book is long. At nearly 600 pages, it will take you a while to get through. It spans almost the entire the breadth of video gaming history, starting with Pong and going through about 2015-17. Golden age titles Pong, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac Man, Missile Command, and Donkey Kong are all given treatment, as is Tetris, and the 90’s are represented by the games NBA Jam, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Each of these games has an interesting back story of how it came to exist, and how it was brought from the arcade to home consoles. The challenges the developers faced are many. Most if not all of these games were ported to other platforms not by the original developers, but by another talented programmer or team. Oftentimes, no original project documentation was provided to the porting effort, and developers had to “interpret” the game by playing it until they knew it backwards and forwards, reverse engineering to the best of their ability, and working within the constraints of the target platform’s hardware, dealing with hard deadlines and high expectations to deliver an acceptable translation of a very popular title eagerly anticipated by a rabid consumer fanbase.
The last 150 or so pages of the book are devoted to full transcripts of the interviews that Craddock conducted with various creators who worked on the games. This is primary resource material and very nice to have in its entirety.
The book is illustrated, although in the advance copy I saw, the image layouts were still rough. I would hope that these issues will be addressed before the first edition of the book goes to print.
Diatris is a Tetris-like falling stack game by Rob van Saaze. Released earlier this year and developed in GameMaker Studio.
I had the good fortune of catching a work-in-progress screenshot tweet, and messaged Rob, and ended up being a playtester for his game.
I like the interesting twist he put on the classic Tetris. This game is really different from its inspiration. The shapes are different, the falling pieces slide down the slopes of the stack, and the angle factor really changes the way the game feels. It’s quite challenging, and fun.
The graphical style is clean and polished, but juicy, and it looks as great as it plays. Rob has a great eye for graphical design, and it shows in his work. The attention to detail in animation and motion is
Yesterday, Nintendo announced their hardware revision for the Switch Lite. As I already have a Switch, I’m not likely to buy one, and if I didn’t have a Switch, but wanted to buy one, I’m not sure whether I would opt for the original or this new version.
The new version is cheaper, by about $100, but it gets to that price point by dropping features. The controllers are not detachable from the unit, which has a number of repercussions, both good and bad:
The controllers don’t get lost.
The connector/locking mechanism is a weak point that is prone to wear and breakage.
The controllers don’t need to have separate batteries so they can be used wirelessly, independent of the battery in the main body of the Switch.
This makes it considerably less expensive.
The left side incorporates a D-pad rather than the 4 separate buttons, which many gamers agree feels better and is better.
They dropped the HD rumble feature, which means that pretty much kills any future game development that might have made use of this feature.
The motion-tracking capabilities (accelerometer, gyroscopes, IR camera) of the controllers and their ability to be used in various configurations are gone, too. Even if they were kept, being attached to the console would prevent the controllers from being used freely in the way that detachable controllers could be. This marks a move away from the novel motion controls that Nintendo were lauded for innovating with the Wii.
It doesn’t connect to a TV, so is portable only. While the smaller size will appeal to gamers who want a more truly portable Switch, this likely means that the end is near for Nintendo’s venerable 3DS line of handhelds. (Of course, that writing was already on the wall the moment Nintendo revealed the Switch.)
To me, the bad outweighs the good, here. Dropping these features means that gaming consoles are reducing the scope of their capabilities, which means that game developers will have to work within a more limited set of constraints for how they can deliver experiences to gamers.
The reality is that most games are developed for multiple platforms, ported to any system that they can. The result of this is that game developers are already constrained to designing within the set of feature constraints represented by the least common denominator across all systems. As such, unique features that differentiate a console tend to go unused, and thus aren’t worth investing in. This means that innovations can only make headway if they’re adopted industry wide by all competitors.
That is, if everyone decides to do HD rumble and motion control, then game designers can create designs that target these capabilities, and by making use of them, will justify their existence and the large R&D and manufacturing costs associated with providing them. In other words, it’s use it or lose it.
This isn’t really anything new. In the NES era, there were very few games produced that supported the light gun. The Zapper was an optional accessory that didn’t come standard with every NES, and as a result the install base was too small, so a game developer who wanted to maximize sales would want to target the widest possible audience, which meant constraining themselves to develop games that could be played on any and all NES consoles, and this meant ignoring the people who spent the extra money to invest in the Zapper.
When Taito ported the arcade light gun rail shooter Operation: Wolf to the NES, they implemented an on-screen target reticle controlled by the D-pad, rather than support the light gun. I bought that game, assuming that of course they would provide a means to play the game for people who didn’t own a Zapper, but would surely have supported the Zapper as well, to provide the best translation of the arcade experience to the home console. But they didn’t. Instead, you had to deal with a slow, awkward control mechanism which made the game horrible to play. I couldn’t have been more disappointed. The game was a hit in the arcade, and a bomb on the NES.
In like fashion, we can now expect game developers to ignore the dropped features of the Switch that differentiated it from the market and made it special, but now are “non-standard” and not part of the full feature set. In large part, most 3rd party developers probably were already ignoring those features, rather than expending extra effort to create Switch-enhanced versions of their games that made full use of what the hardware could offer. But now even first party Nintendo titles that Switch-exclusive will likely not support these now-“extra” features.
Considering that Nintendo put so much effort into engineering these features in the first place, and made it a big part of the appeal to customers to buy a Switch instead of the more standard PS4/XBOne ,to me this feels like an admission that they were mistaken that such innovations would drive sales, and now they’ve taken an alternative track to target budget gamers. This might be a sound business decision; I’m not saying it isn’t. But it is a sad thing to realize; we’ll be seeing a blander future for games with the library of features reduced to just buttons and sticks.
It might well be that this is all any game designer “needs”, but I feel like the painter’s palette has been reduced. Imagine if painters had developed paints that produced scents that reproduced the odors of the subject, creating an enhanced experience for the viewer. Or textured paints that reproduce the tactile experience for someone touching the artwork. Not every painting would need olfactory features or haptics, but it would be more immersive for those that did make use of it, and would open up new worlds of possibility for people working in the medium. But if only a few painters bothered to make use of the capability, and if the enhanced features could only be experienced in person, and not through prints, photographs, or other-media transliterations of the original, many painters might well think “why bother?” and abandon the enhanced paints, leading to their death in the marketplace, and an endpoint to further development of the innovation.
What about “Switch Pro”?
The other rumored Switch revision has not surfaced. It seems unlikely now that it will. But many Nintendo fans had expressed a desire for a “Switch Pro” with features like a bigger, higher-resolution screen, larger JoyCons for adult-sized hands, larger internal storage and a beefier processor/RAM, and possibly losing the handheld mode and going TV-mode only.
While I’d definitely be more interested in this, I don’t think we’ll see it, especially now that the Switch Lite is out. Switch was intended to be a crossover device that unified living room and portable gamers. Splitting back up to “Switch Lite” for portable gaming and “Switch Pro” for higher-end entertainment center gaming would be a reversal of course, and for that reason alone I doubt Nintendo would make such a move.
It’s more likely that a hardware revision for the full Switch would bring additional RAM, CPU, and/or internal storage, but I wouldn’t count on a bigger screen with higher resolution (too much battery drain) and it seems to me there’s more than enough controller options for players with larger hands, particularly the Nintendo Pro Controller that if the JoyCons are too tiny for you, they’ve got you covered already.
Although my friends know me as someone who is an avid video game player, I have a confession to make. My last Mario game was Super Mario World on the SNES. I never played Super Mario 64, or anything later than that on the main Mario sequence. I mean, I’ve played Mario Kart and most of its sequels, but in terms of 2D run and jump platformer Mario games, I kinda left off early. By the time Nintendo 64 was out, I was in college, I had to work, and didn’t have as much time for playing games as I once did.
It wasn’t that the Mario games weren’t good. But I did feel like Mario was kinda over-hyped, and a bit overrated.
There, I said it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Mario. I do! But he’s everywhere. With Nintendo’s other star franchises — Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Punch Out, Kirby, Pokemon — you had time to miss them. A new game might or might not come out for this generation’s new console. But it might only be one game. And there wouldn’t be a slew of cameos and guest appearances in other games, either. Mario hype was just relentless, and for me at least, it became somewhat tiresome. It felt like they should come out with a game called Super Mario Saturation, and be done with it.
That’s kindof where we’re at now. After three, almost four decades of Mario games, the developers have a robust, mature Marioverse. They keep coming up with new ideas, somehow, but one wonders just how many more Mario concepts there might be left to explore. Infinity – 1, of course, but one might well ask: Does the world really need another Mario game?
The answer, of course, is: of course. The world will always need another Mario game. Nintendo will see to that, rest assured.
But that said, Super Mario Maker 2 just might be the last Mario game you ever need.
I missed out on the original Mario Maker, as it was a Wii U release, and I didn’t buy into the Wii U. But man, was I tempted to buy a Wii U just to be able to make Mario levels!
The idea of Mario Maker was obvious: Take classic 2D Mario platforming and add the level editor from the original Excitebike, and garnish with social media. This was everything a Mario platformer fan could ask for. Fans unleashed their creativity. People created amazing levels that pushed the limits of Mario physics. Some really amazing levels were made. I can only imagine that Shigeru Miyamoto’s own expectations were exceeded.
So when Nintendo announced Super Mario Maker 2 for the Switch, I pre-ordered it immediately. This is noteworthy, as it’s the first time I’ve ever pre-ordered a videogame. I’ve always felt that videogame preorders were a bad deal and a bad idea — games get canceled all the time, and frequently games don’t live up to the hype when they’re finally released, and it’s always cheaper to wait a bit and buy games on sale. But I’d been waiting — since 2015! — to get my hands on Mario Maker, and I would not be delayed.
So I picked up the game on Friday, and have been playing it for a few hours a day since then.
Mario Maker lets you create levels using most of the 2D Mario engines: classic SMB, SMB3, SMW, New Super Mario Bros. Notably missing is the capability of making levels in the SMB2/Doki Doki Panic engine, which I find sad as SMB2 is a different game and among the best in the series.
To my surprise, I have yet to make my first Mario level. The game has a Story Mode, which I’ve been using to get caught up with all the changes that have accumulated since I last picked up SMW. The story is: the mushroom people had just completed a new palace for Princess Peach, when Undo Dog accidentally sets off the Reset Rocket, obliterating the entire construction. Wiped out, they must build anew, but lack the coins needed to fund the rebuild. So Mario must complete “jobs” in order to earn coins, which are used to rebuild the castle bit by bit. So far, I’m a bit less than halfway through the reconstruction.
The Story Mode gives me the opportunity to experience a wide variety of course designs, and appreciate them as a designer as well as a player. If I struggle with a level, the game gives me the option to edit the level to add a power up, or remove a challenge, to make it easier to complete. This is such a clever way of giving the player a way to get into level design — by editing a professionally designed level, rather than having to start from scratch. If I really have trouble, I can also “call Luigi” to clear the level for me. I had hoped that this would involve watching a computer-controlled Luigi run through the course, so I could see how it’s done, but it all happens off-screen, which is a bit disappointing.
For clearing these Story Mode levels, you are rewarded with coins, which you can use to rebuild the new palace, and each bit of building advances the story a bit further. I find that it really does make me feel like I want to play more levels, beyond my desire to enjoy the levels for their own sake.
So as I’m playing these levels, I’m getting ideas for how I might design a level using the multitude of design elements: time limits, auto-scrolling, platform jumping challenges, hidden secrets, puzzles, enemies, all the different power-ups a Mario game has ever given us — to create an interesting and fun level. There is a lot to work with.
I will probably follow up this brief review with another article focusing on the Mario Maker editor in greater depth. My initial impression is that while the variety of pieces you can work with is a bit daunting, the level editor is polished enough that it is enjoyable to work with it. While a Mario level can be quite complex, it’s pretty simple to get started. From there, you can get as complicated as you want. If you’ve been living under a rock and would like to see what’s possible, without actually owning the game or a Switch, just check out all the videos on YouTube of people showing off their amazing, crazy level designs.
Once you’ve designed a level (which I have yet to do), you can upload it and share it with the world. Then you can download and play levels made by other players, and challenge yourself to complete them. The replayability offered is truly unlimited. And, I would imagine, probably frees up Miyamoto to retire from designing new Mario games, if he would like. I hope that he continues to produce new, creative works, but at 66 years old, it’s inevitable that day will come sooner or later. And, let’s face it, with all that he’s given the world in his career, he’s definitely earned it if he wants to step away.
Even if Miyamoto-san becomes immortal and never stops working, perhaps we could say that the Mario Universe has now been completed, and that from here out, we can make our own Mario levels, and Nintendo can reassign their design teams to developing some brand new ideas. But I’m sure there will probably be a Mario Maker 3, maybe it will be a Mario Maker 3D, and give us the ability to make Mario 64, Sunshine, Galaxy, and Odyssey levels. But I’ll be satisfied if they release a 2.1 that includes the ability to create SMB2 levels.
Even the title screen of the game is fun. It is actually a complete, playable SMB3-style ship level. No, wait, it’s better than that. It’s a random different level every time you restart the game! I got to the end of it, hoping something special would happen, like I’d get a trophy or unlock something, but I guess it was just for fun. For all I know, maybe there’s some secret I didn’t discover in there.
Super Mario Maker 2 offers so much to the player. I’m tempted to say “everything a Mario fan could want” but without a SMB2 physics engine, it feels a bit incomplete. Still, there’s no end to the creativity enabled by this tool. And even without creating anything with it at all, there’s still a ton of fun to be had from playing the included Story Mode levels, and playing the thousands of levels thas SMM players have created already. Whether you’re a creative, level designer type or just a casual Mario gamer, Super Mario Maker 2 is a must-buy.
I’d love to see Nintendo bring out a Zelda Maker for top-down classic Zelda fans. And if Capcom would put their blessing on the MegaMan Maker project and give them funding, publishing, and everything else they need, that would be sweet. And we should all be asking for a Metroid Maker, and a Castlevania Maker.
There have been a few retro/homage products released in recent years for the Commodore 64, famous to many for being the best selling personal computer of all time. Jeri Ellsworth’s C-64 Direct to TV project from 2004 being one of the first, if not the first, and last year’s C=64 Mini. It was a cool little system-in-a-stick that could plug directly into a TV set and play a selection of built-in games that could be played with the joystick, but lacked the keyboard and floppy drive, making it a limited re-creation of the original at best.
A “C=64 Mini” that came a couple years ago was kindof a disappointment; it had a collection of built-in games, but not a working keyboard, or interface for installing/running other titles. I guess if you really wanted to, you could hack them, but that was well beyond what someone with a casual interest of re-living the C64 with their favorite games and programs would be likely willing to pursue.
A new TheC64 Mini project has been announced which will be full-size and include a working keyboard, and HDMI output, which should ship in December 2019. I don’t have details on the internals, so whether it will be some kind of C64 SOAC or a FPGA-based system, or what, is anybody’s guess for now.
It will come with an improved joystick as well, and apparently will have USB ports, which means it may be possible to run software beyond the 64 built-in games that it will come bundled with, but that’s not clear at this time whether it will actually have any such capability. It would be ideal if you could mount a microSD card with disk images of games that came on floppy, or ROM files for cartridge-based games, and play them on this new system. Due to copyright, it’s unreasonable to expect every software title ever released for the system to be included out-of-the-box, but wouldn’t it be nice if copyright were reformed to allow obsolete software that is no longer marketed to be distributed freely so that this could be possible?
The C64 had a fantastic library of software, and has been a demoscene favorite for decades, and it would be amazing to see a modern, fully featured re-issue. I don’t think that this will quite be that, but it may be the closest thing we get for the forseeable future.
Ouya. The kickstarted, indie-friendly mini console based on Android that failed in the market, is now on its deathbed. After Ouya gave up on its dream, it sold off its assets to some company, and there was some vague plan of relaunching a new brand in China, or something, but it didn’t work out. Now, the games servers are going offline, and the games will not be able to be downloaded or even played in some cases, if they need to connect to servers that no longer exist.
This shows dramatically the dangers of digitally distributed games-as-a-service. When the service is discontinued, there’s nothing left to own. History is lost, and there is no legacy, as everything fades into oblivion.
Atari made another announcement about their upcoming console, formerly known as the AtariBox, today. They are now taking pre-orders, through their website, as well as GameStop and Wal-Mart, and expect to be shipping orders in early 2020.
I went to Atari’s website, AtariVCS.com, to see what other information I might find about upcoming game titles, and found… no further information.
Well, nothing beyond what they’ve already announced months ago, about making old classics available through the “Atari Vault”. Which, given the existence of 9 previous generations of Atari Flashback consoles, which have sold for less than a third of what the Atari VCS will sell for, doesn’t make me feel too excited. The “Atari Vault”, which seems to echo Disney’s marketing with the “Disney Vault” of old re-releases that they would only put out once in a while, to ensure demand for them when they did, isn’t really an apt metaphor, considering that Atari IP has constantly been repackaged and made available with every generation of new hardware, from the NES to Now. This is simply the latest such repackaging.
Atari have a section of their site devoted to game developers, with an email link for interested developers to contact Atari for more information about developing for the system.
I make games, so I tried sending an email to their address, email@example.com. The email bounced.
Not a great sign. Even if there are developers interested in working with Atari on games for the new system, they can’t contact them, because their email server isn’t configured correctly.
Something tells me that if they can’t even be bothered to verify that their mail server is working before they launch their website, they aren’t exactly doing the best job with running the company.
It may be that this is simple incompetence on the part of whoever set up the site and didn’t bother to test critical functionality, and this will be corrected quickly. Or it may be that they didn’t bother setting up their email server correctly because they don’t have a product, or are so far behind in having a product ready that they’re not really able to field inquiries from would-be developers.
It’d be rather surprising if this were true; it’s one thing to scam backers on Indiegogo, but GameStop and Wal Mart would certainly file expensive lawsuits if Atari failed to come through with a product, wouldn’t they? One would expect so. But I think unless Wal Mart and GameStop actually advance any money to Atari, they wouldn’t have any reason to do so. Pre-orders don’t always mean that the product gets released after all, and retailers don’t have any control over that. Products often get canceled and delayed, and it’s almost a routine thing these days. Being partnered with two major retailers really doesn’t mean anything for Atari’s credibility. If Atari did end up failing to deliver and canceled the new Atari VCS console, GameStop and Wal-Mart already have returns departments that would reimburse customers. Meanwhile, they can sit on the money and allow it to collect interest from now until release day.
As usual, until Atari does more than show digital renderings of the case and controllers, and actually show working hardware, and announce a game lineup that is more than just repackaged old content, there’s no reason to recommend anyone buy this console. While I’d love to see the Atari of Old return and become a vibrant and relevant force in the industry again, the Atari of Today isn’t that company, and hasn’t yet shown the world anything to get excited about yet, a few pictures notwithstanding. I’m still skeptical that Atari is capable of successfully launching a new console in 2020.
To have any hope of being successful, Atari needs to bring exclusive new games that provide a compelling, refreshing vision of what their original intellectual property could have become if it had continued to be developed and evolve from the 1970s to the present day.
Their one title that they announced when they first pitched the AtariBox concept to crowdfunders about a year ago, Tetris 4K, was released last year — on other consoles. Consoles that actually exist. No other titles have been mentioned. Atari only makes vague statements about “talking with developers about some exciting things” and that they “can’t reveal more information at this time.” That’s hardly confidence-inspiring.
So, Atari, where are the developers? Where are the games?
From what Atari have been able to tell us about the upcoming hardware, it is a generic AMD x64/Linux machine with their branding and front-end, and will run games that run on standard Linux. Which means, a pretty big library, potentially, right out of the starting gate, but also means little reason to expect any games released for the Atari VCS will be exclusives that would draw gamers to buy the hardware. And why own an AtariBox if you can buy the same games for the conole(s) you already own?
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of an old computer system being hacked in such a way that its program doesn’t use any RAM. Several years ago, I saw a talk by someone who had done something similar on the Commodore 64. They eschewed storing any data in RAM by using the CPU registers and directly accessing other hardware components such as the controller ports, and were able to make a working program that used no RAM at all.
It’s truly amazing what can be done under such constraints.
I think, in appreciating the accomplishment of projects like this, it’s easier to understand my relative “disappointment” in learning that Champ Games had used a 32-bit, 70MHz ARM CPU in their Galaga cartridge to augment the VCS system, rather than figured out some way to get the game to run on stock (or minimally extended, as some later contemporary releases for the VCS were) hardware.
I regret that it sounded as though I thought that the game itself was disappointing — far from it, it’s amazing, easily one of the best ports of an arcade game to the platform that’s ever been produced. And the technical accomplishment of getting the ARM CPU to mesh with the much slower Atari hardware is likewise amazing, in a different way. But knowing what’s possible to do with zero RAM, for a moment I thought that just maybe someone had figured out a way to squeeze all that performance and graphics into a standard Atari cartridge.
But really, there’s no reason to judge one of these projects as superior to the other. They should both be appreciated. One accomplishes something through extreme minimalism, and is beautiful in that way. The other accomplishes something through an extraordinary joining of old and new technology, and is beautiful in its own right.