Dungeons and DoomKnights

Dungeons and DoomKnights, a new NES release in 2022, dropped last week. I didn’t kickstart it, but I did pre-order it about a month ago. Unlike just about every other thing I’ve pre-ordered in the last 10 years, this one arrived quickly — not two years later than announced, but just a few weeks after I paid for it.

I put about an hour into it today. I haven’t gotten very far yet, but I’ve made a little bit of progress. So far, I’ve managed to lose and re-gain my Axe, collect two Heart Containers, and befriend an attack Pomeranian, who can reach some areas that I can’t fit into.

I’m not entirely sure what else I’m supposed to do, or where I’m supposed to go next. The level design is non-linear, allows backtracking (to an extent), and doesn’t give you a lot of indication about what you’re supposed to do, or where you’re supposed to go next (although there’s some tantalizing spots where you can see an area that you can’t get to due to some obstacle, and the primary challenge of the game seems to be to find objects that will grant you an ability that you can use to clear the obstacle to get to the next area.

I’ve managed to find two keys, and there’s been a few switches that you can flip to open doors as well. It’s that sort of game. So you have to experiment and figure things out. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be a pause feature, nor are there any functions to the start or select buttons.

My impressions so far are that it’s decent, if not great. I find the controls feel on the stiff side, not necessarily a good thing. Your primary attack is an overhead axe smash, which can hit slightly behind, above, and in front of you, as the axe passes through its arc. You don’t have a lot of range with it, meaning any time you’re close enough to hit an enemy, it’s also pretty close to you, and if you’re not careful you’re likely to blunder into it and take some damage. Due to the stiff controls, it usually seems like you should have been avoided most of the damage, if only they controls were a bit more fluid. Also, if you’re approaching from above, your attack hitbox will put you at a disadvantage, and so far I haven’t found too many solutions to compensate for this weakness.

Enemy AI is very rudimentary, but very much on par with what you’d expect from a NES game. Enemies basically move around in a simple pattern, not really reacting to your presence. They don’t sense your presence, and don’t deliberately attack you, they just follow a looped set of actions and if you’re in the way, you’ll take damage. Accordingly, although there’s enemies pretty much on every screen, they’re not terribly interesting or challenging to deal with. Certainly they’re no worse than many other games from the original NES era.

The game has a lot of nostalgic cultural references and callbacks to the NES, for laughs. It’s pretty cheesy, but if you grew up in the 80s, you’ll probably appreciate and understand most if not all of the references.

On the plus side, the graphics are really great. For a NES game, they did a excellent job of creating good looking pixel art for the background tiles and character sprites, using the palette limitations of the NES to good effect to create a legible visual language that is fairly easy to pick up. At times you can be fooled by what’s dangerous when touched and what you need to walk up to to talk to, though. And some of the entrances to caves can be a little bit non-obvious – basically if you see a big black hole in the wall, it’s a doorway, unless it’s not. Usually it is though. This was probably more obvious back in the day, but more recent retro games made for modern platforms tend to be a little less ambiguous.

Dungeons and DoomKnights was built with NESMaker, and (as far as I’m aware) it’s the first NESMaker game I’ve played. If you liked games like Wizards & Warriors or Rygar this is probably a worthy pick-up. You can purchase it, while it lasts, at their web site.

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Some thoughts on the design of Mini Metro

I picked up Mini Metro about a week ago. I know it’s been around a few years, but I never claimed to be trendy.

I like the aesthetic and the mechanics of the game. It’s relaxing to play, yet gets hectic and overwhelming. It’s a fairly unique concept for a game, so it gets innovation and originality points. It’s a math-y game, but it presents the math intuitively and concretely, using shape and color and quantities that you have to eyeball, rather than representing quantities with numbers. There are various rates at which things happen, things that place demand on your resources, and you have to come up with a system that effectively utilizes those resources and balances demand. It requires a bit of strategy and some cleverness, and you can pause it, take your time, and think, or count and measure, or whatever you need to do to figure out your strategy. You have to understand how the rules work, and there is complexity in the ways the rules combine, but the rules are relatively simple taken individually, and they are introduced one at a time in a way that makes them easy to learn.

I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s a pretty good game concept. Obviously, it’s been successful and popular.

But I think about ways I might improve its design.

What I don’t like about it is that there’s a little too much randomness in the spawning of the station points. Depending on how those play out, you can get totally screwed and have no possible way of managing the problems the game presents you. I feel like a better game design would always ensure that there was a solution that a sufficiently talented player could come up with, but that seeing the solution and implementing it would be the things that are difficult. It’s fine for the game to present a difficult challenge, and more difficult as the game progresses, but they shouldn’t be impossible.

So, for example, spawning a cluster of 6-10 Circle stations with no other types of stations in the region is an unfair situation. The spawning code should either not do this, or there should be ways to consolidate/erase multiple stations into a super-station. The game does give you Interchange stations, which have more capacity and speed than a basic station, but it only upgrades one existing station, and can’t be used to consolidate several nearby stations of the same type into one. I think it would be way more interesting if you could upgrade one station, and then all basic stations of the same shape within a certain radius of the new interchange would de-spawn, consolidating their traffic into the Interchange.
But I think the way I’d prefer to solve the problem would be to put the Station spawning in the player’s hands, not have it be done automatically by the game.

So my proposal would be that **passengers** would appear throughout the city, with a destination in mind (indicated by their shape). They have a limited walking distance that they are capable of traveling before they get tired and irritated. Irritated pedestrians change color and vibrate to indicate they are tired and unhappy. They will walk toward the nearest station, and try to travel to the closest station that matches their shape.

To make them happy, you can build a station near enough to them that they will walk to it, and then you can connect stations with your rail systems to take them efficiently to their destinations. You can spawn an unlimited number of stations (hmmm, perhaps), but you have limited resources in terms of rail lines, cars, carriages, bridges, and tunnels to connect them.

The passenger spawning is out of the player’s control, that part is provided by the game as the challenge, and the player can strategically build stations of the type desired, at the point desired. Maybe the player should be constrained by having to choose how many of which shape station is available to them, or something like that.

The other thing that I see with the game is that, at some point the game just decides to flood you with passengers until you die. Usually somewhere around the 1200-2000 passenger mark, the game just cranks up the generation of more passengers, attempting to overwhelm the player and force the game to a conclusion. Again, I think it’s better to give the player challenges that are possible. Maybe it gets harder and harder to keep up with the challenge, but there should always be a way to do it.

(I accept that it could be there is, and that it only seems like the game becomes impossible because I’m locked in to the design choices I made, and if I tore everything down and re-designed, maybe there’d be a way to create a more efficient system with the same resources available to me that could handle the new volume of traffic. But it doesn’t seem that way to me — even on Endless and Creative modes, where I have no constraints on the resources available to me to build the system, no matter how many lines and cars I throw at the problem, the population will always scale to a point where there’s always overcrowded stations.)

One thing I like about the game is that they don’t have an in-game currency that you earn by transporting passengers and use to spend on improvements for your transit system. I think if the game had that, it would be too much like a Sim-style game, and I think removing a concept of money, and de-coupling a potential feedback loop of performance income improvement more performance helps to keep the game simple — and I like that.

I wonder about that, and why the designer of the game decided on that. Because it’s inconceivable that they wouldn’t have considered every completed trip being converted into in-game money that would be spendable on more rail lines, trams, carriages, etc.

And they must have considered that, and then discarded the idea. I wonder why they decided it and what pros/cons they weighed to make that decision.

Making Minesweeper

I haven’t done any game development in years. My enthusiasm for game development took a big hit after I struggled to get used to the changes to the IDE that came when GameMaker Studio went from 1.4 to 2.0. I still don’t like the GMS 2 UI, for many reasons. The GMS 1.4 IDE had plenty of UX issues itself, but I thought that YoYoGames threw out too much when they did their ground-up rewrite of the IDE for the 2.x version. A more incremental UX transition from 1.x to 2.x would have been better.

GameMaker 2 is definitely improved over 1 in many other ways and obviously is the way forward for anyone who wants to work in GameMaker. But GameMaker is still rather limited in certain ways that I’ve always found annoying, and so I had the choice: stick with it, switch to something else, or quit.

I opted to quit. After spending nearly 10 years working in GM8 and then GMS1, I didn’t want to start over learning a new tool, and even switching from GMS1 to GMS2 felt enough like learning a new tool that I didn’t want to do that either.

Having taken all that time off, though, I realize that I still have a desire to make games, provided the experience is itself enjoyable more than it is painful.

In 2020, during pandemic lockdown, out of boredom I made a Snake clone in GameMaker, called Tangle, and it made me happy.

The other day, I was feeling nostalgic for the old built-in Windows game Minesweeper, and discovered that it is not included with Windows 10. You can install a version of Minesweeper from the Microsoft Store for free, and so I tried it, but I hated it. They added all this needless tutorial crap to it that tries to teach you how to play minesweeper by telling you how to do every little thing — stuff that’s easy to figure out on your own, and more enjoyable and rewarding to figure out on your own.

There was a fad in game design over the last 10-20 years to build the manual into the game, in the form of tutorials that told you about how every feature in the game works and how to do every single thing. This is a great idea in theory, but in execution they often prove more annoying than useful. There’s so much built-in gamer knowledge that any experienced player will bring to a new game, from the hundreds of games they’re already familiar with. Such conventional knowledge is just tedious to explicitly spell out for a player.

As well, putting up signposts for every single mechanic is insulting to the player’s intelligence. It’s really more delightful to discover things through exploration and experimentation than it to have the experience of someone holding your hand and telling you when and how to interact with every single thing in the world.

At the same time, in a lot of games I find that I can get frustrated when I can’t figure out how to do something, and I spend a long time trying to figure it out, and it’s not obvious how to “do the thing”. Often the game world is dressed up to look like a realistic world that is full of things we’re familiar with, and we bring assumptions and expectations about those things with us. When we see a chair, we think “I know what that is”. In many games, a chair is just a tile that you can’t interact with, that serves to convey to the player that they’re indoors in a furnished room that has a chair. But there’s nothing to do with the chair. You can’t sit on it. You can’t pick it up and use it to tame a lion. You can’t set it on fire. You can’t break it over someone’s head like a pro wrestler. You can’t move it next to the shelf so you can stand on it and get an object on the top. It’s just a tile that you can’t walk over and have to walk around.

And that’s bullshit. Because it creates the expectation of useless or limited usability in the other objects in the world. You see another object in the game, a chest. You know you can open the chest and find a treasure. You know some chests are locked, and some are trapped or trigger encounters. But even though the chest looks like it is made of wood, you can’t break it up and put the pieces into the fireplace, or set a fire and use it to signal an ally far away on the map, or keep yourself warm in a cold zone.

Games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild amazed us with the greatly broadened scope of things you could do with nearly every object in the game world that you could see. But that amazement was a break in expectation from what decades of more limited games had trained us to know about interactive game worlds.

Minesweeper is super simple and abstract — about as far away from BOTW as you can get. You can figure out how to play it in a few seconds by clicking. There’s no need for a tutorial mode with achievements to track the things the game explicitly taught you to do. You just go directly to the game play, and you figure it out, all on your own. This makes you feel smarter, empowered, and like the game respects your intelligence. The Microsoft Store version of Minesweeper treats you like a baby, insultingly trying to be helpful and explaining things to you that you already knew, or could have figured out faster without their “help”.

It turns out that the OG minesweeper is available for download if you google for it, and you can still run it on modern day Windows. I don’t know how legal it is to download, but it ain’t like anyone’s making a fortune pirating minesweeper, a game that was given away for free for over a decade with every install of Windows.

So I downloaded it and played it and, you know, it’s just minesweeper, but as I was playing it I was appreciating the design of it, the simplicity, the clear logic that it communicates to the user through its iconography. And I have to say, minesweeper, though utterly commonplace, is really well designed as a game.

I thought, “what the hell” and decided to try to make it myself. I just wanted to see if, A) I could do it, and B) if I could find the experience enjoyable.

It turns out, I could.

I fired up GMS1.4, still installed on my PC, because I didn’t feel like being frustrated by the lack of familiarity with where all the controls in the GMS2 IDE are, and how they all look familiar yet work subtly differently.

Minesweeper is really, really simple. You have a grid of cells. Apart from edge cells, each cell has 8 neighbors. A cell can either have a mine in it or be empty. An empty cell is safe to click on, and doing so reveals how many mines there are among the eight neighbors. You can then use this information to deduce the locations of mines. Once you are sure of a mine’s location, you can right-click the cell to mark it with a flag. This makes the cell safe, because you cannot accidentally set off a mine in a cell that has been flagged. You proceed to traverse the entire minefield, until you have identified and marked all of the mines correctly. If you make a mistake, and click a cell containing a mine, you lose the game. When you lose the game, the entire minefield is revealed, and if you mistakenly flagged any empty cells, those flags are marked with a red X to indicate your error; also the mine you clicked on to end the game is drawn with a red background to indicate it blew up.

There’s a bit more to it than that: a timer, which is used to rank players based on how quickly they can complete the game; a scoreboard of high scores; also the first click in the game is always “free” — the position of the mines is determined after the opening move is played, so that the first cell the player clicks on can always be empty, and thus you always have a chance to win the game — there are no unfair first-move deaths. Finally, there are three different levels of play: beginner, intermediate, advanced, with grids of increasing size and more mines to find at the higher difficulties.

I went with the simplest approach I could think of to build the core features. I didn’t bother with the high score, the timer, or the dashboard at the top of the window. I just implemented a mine cell object, a controller object to handle global state and data, and put most of the logic in the cell object. There’s no actual grid data structure; the mines are simply laid out to create a grid, and each mine cell only needs to be aware of its surrounding eight cells, so that’s all they do. The checks for this don’t care if they’re edge or corner cases, either. They check all 8 positions where a cell could be, and check to see there is one; if so, it checks to see if it is empty or a mine, and if it’s a mine it counts the neighbor and adds it to its tally.

When the game starts, every cell is empty, but when you make your first move, the cell you picked is cleared, and the rest of the mine cells that comprise the field randomly determines whether it contains a mine or not, and the state of the minefield is thereby determined. Thereafter, when you click a cell, if you release the button while the mouse is still over the cell, you trigger the sweep script, which will reveal whether there was a mine or not; if not, the cell will reveal how many mines are in its neighboring cells. If you mouse outside of the cell after clicking on it, and then release the mouse button, the mine cell will not trigger. This allows you to think about the move you are about to make while the mouse button is down, and if you decide that you want to take the move back, you can.

If you click in an empty cell that has 0 neighbors with mines, something special happens. Since the game is telling you that all of the neighbors are safe to clear, it does this for you automatically, saving you the time it would take to clear each neighbor manually. To do this, we check when this condition exists, and if there are 0 neighbors for the current cell, we call the “sweep” function for the eight neighbors. This “sweep” function checks each of the 8 neighbors in the same way, so that if any of them also has zero neighbors with a mine, then all of those neighbors are cleared automatically as well. This results in potentially large areas of the filed being cleared by a single click, and is probably the most fun part of the game.

The game conveys all of its information to the user graphically, through sprites. I created one sprite resource, containing the different states for a mine cell: untouched, cleared, mine, flag, and for the number of neighbors containing a mine. Most of my time spent in development was taken up by drawing the sprites. I wanted to get the colors accurate to classic Minesweeper, and but I didn’t otherwise concern myself too much with exact pixel accuracy or font accuracy. Due to my rusty pixeling skills, it took me a bit before I figured out a good workflow that would enable me to create individual images that had consistently centered positioning and sizing. I ended up deciding on 32×32 pixels for my cell size. This enabled me to create attractive, classic-looking cell graphics.

I did the drawing work in paint.net, in a single 32×32 pixel image with one layer for each sub-image in my sprite. The bottom layer had the grey background and outlining needed to convey a sense of bevel and shadow to create the illusion that the un-cleared cells have a raised tile on them. Within these, I drew very rudimentary flag and mine images, and using the text tool I created labeled numbers for the neighbor counts, colored them accurately. Then I imported the graphic into GameMaker and ordered the sub-images in the sprite in such a way to make the coding as convenient as possible.

Coding took the least amount of time out of everything. It was all pretty easy. The only complexity about the code had to do with some order-of-execution details that I worked through at the game start, because I have each cell determining whether it has a mine in it sequentially, and then I have to have each mine check its neighbors for the presence of a mine, in order to count them. Since the counting can’t start until all the cells determine whether they contain a mine, the neighbor counts don’t take place on the first step of game execution.

I also took a lot of time debugging a logic error that I created for myself unwittingly when I tried to code the recursive checking for neighbors that takes place when the player sweeps through a cell having zero neighboring mine cells. This was tricky because I was using the sprite sub-image to contain state information, which made a lot of sense because the sub-images directly convey this information. But there was one case where there was a state ambiguity: when you left click on an un-checked cell, the sub-image briefly switches to the sub-image I used for the cleared cells, because this gives the appearance of the cell being clicked like a button. When the player releases the left mouse button is when the game checks for mines, and then in the event of a zero-neighbor cell, the recursive check that happens used the sprite sub-image to confirm the state of the cell before doing further checking. Because the neighbor cells aren’t clicked on, they don’t switch from the unchecked sub-image to the cleared sub-image, and thus fail the logic test to see if the sweep check should continue, and thus nothing would happen; the if statment would follow a false branch that would stop the recursion from happening.

I had to sleep on the problem but when I woke up I immediately knew what the problem was and what I needed to do to fix it, which is my absolute favorite way to debug my coding mistakes. The only reason this took me so long to debug was that I assumed the cause of the problem was elsewhere in the code, and I tried everything else I could think of first before giving up and going to bed. But then again, if I didn’t do that, I probably wouldn’t have woken up with the answer in my head.

So now I have a fully functional core minesweeper engine. I don’t have the dashboard, timer, high scores, or variable difficulty levels, but what I have will serve as a good base to add those features.

My little minesweeper.

I enjoyed making it.

Atari publishes new IP: Kombinera

Atari has published a new game, called Kombinera. It looks decent — an action-puzzle game where you need to combine five different colored balls into one. Atari did not develop the game; that work was done by outside developers Graphite Lab and Joystick. My initial impression is that it looks like an indie game, and in fact visually it reminds me a lot of 140. Another reviewer said that the game had a platformer vibe reminiscent of VVVVVV — which certainly sounds like a good thing.

Kombinera is available on Steam. Which, is on the one hand good, because it means you don’t need to go out and buy a VCS console in order to play it, but also puzzling, because why did Atari bother with all the trouble of launching a console when they’re clearly not intending to support it by selling platform-exclusive titles?

As critical of Atari as I’ve been over the past several years, it’s good to see them putting out new IP, even if they’re not developing it internally. So, cautiously, this seems like a step in the right direction for the company.

UserWay: Accessibility powerup

Today I discovered UserWay in use on a website I was browsing. I was impressed at the user-configurable accessibility options. I looked into it a bit and found that it’s available as a WordPress plugin, and so I have installed the free version of it. It took less than ten minutes to set up, and most of that time was just reading. I think it’s a great addition to the site. I love that it’s that easy to add accessibility options to any website.

The Accessibility menu is a new feature of this site.

To use it, click on the Accessibility button at bottom left. If you do use it, I’d like to hear from you. Let me know how it works for you, good or bad.

The UserWay menu gives you a bunch of options for customizing your experience with the website to make it easier to use for your specific needs.

Failure to launch, failure to thrive

What can we learn from Ouya, Atari VCS, and Intellivision Amico?

The videogame industry is highly competitive and cuthroat. There is a glut of competition. The market is vast. Games are everywhere. You can play them on your desktop or laptop computer. You can play them on a gaming console attached to your TV. You can play them on your tablet or smartphone. You can play them on a handheld device. You can play them in a web browser.

The big players: Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Valve (Steam) all own hardware or distribution platforms. If you want to be a big player, you must own a platform.

Establishing a new platform that can compete in this market is incredibly difficult, and even big players with ultra-deep pockets can fail to establish a foothold. Atari and Sega couldn’t keep up and fell by the wayside. Apple and Google (Stadia) couldn’t get established and haven’t managed to build significant marketshare, but remain relevant to some degree due to the Apple App Store and Google Play Store with their vast catalogs of 3rd party mobile apps and games.

Most of the companies that have risen to the level of a top tier player in the market were either early innovators (Atari, Sega, Nintendo) who entered the market at a time when there was little to no competition and literally grew the industry up from nothing, or were already successful giant companies that could sink billions of dollars into R&D and operate at a loss for years in order to build marketshare in the gaming segment while operating profitably in other divisions (Sony, Microsoft).

There’s little to no room for also-rans. Tiny players can exist, but they don’t have a hope of cracking the “Big Three”. The best they can hope for is to establish themselves as niche players. AtGames, Hyperkin, and so forth produce clone systems for obsolete consoles that have exited the main market but still have healthy followings from large, established fan bases that will always be there.

On the side there’s some third party players who produce accessories and sometimes they can venture into creating actual consoles, although they tend to clone old systems. Semi-hobbyist and boutique projects (retroUSB AVS, Analogue, CollectorVision Phoenix, 8bitdo, Retrofighters) can be viable businesses, if they’re run right and can deliver products on time that are of acceptable quality and provide value to the consumer. Often these enterprises establish themselves first by making official accessories for the major console systems — controllers, carrying cases, and the like — and once they have a manufacturing and supply chain solution established, at some point they might try to expand by doing their own R&D to produce something beyond that.

Companies that fail tend to follow a pattern:

  • An idea or concept is announced, often a rebirth of some old, idle IP
  • They start trying to raise money, awareness, and support, by taking pre-orders and/or doing crowdfunding, but the fund raising goals are well under what would be required for a new platform to have any hope of becoming established as a big player. Nonetheless, the people behind the project push on.
  • Then they get to work developing the thing they described in their concept
  • Delays happen
  • The thing eventually releases (or doesn’t) after much acrimony, disappointment, and diminished expectations
  • If a product does get launched, it fails to meet expectations, doesn’t thrive in the market, the company fails, or drops support, and the product becomes irrelevant.

Ideas can be good and still fail. It takes more than a good idea for a thing to succeed.

A few million dollars raised, a few thousand backers, is not enough to support a new platform. It just isn’t. You need to sell at least a few million units at a minimum, and real success doesn’t come until you can sell tens of millions of units.

Ouya (2012-2019)

Ouya raised over $8 million in crowdfunding through kickstarter, which at the time was a record for crowdfunding. They had nearly 64,000 backers. Who knows how much money they raised through other means. But they didn’t have anywhere near the numbers they needed to succeed. Still, they “succeeded” in exceeding their crowdfunding goal (by over 8x), they “succeeded” in developing their console and controllers, getting them manufactured, and delivered them to backers. But that still wasn’t enough for Ouya to succeed as a new platform. They struggled to grow, they failed to gain marketshare, weren’t able to profit with their business model, ran out of money, and went out of business, went through acquisitions, the new owners tried to turn it around and still couldn’t, and today it doesn’t exist.

Ouya had no pre-existing market and didn’t try to leverage any old, defunct brands that had nostalgic mindshare. They didn’t necessarily need to, but it would have helped.

They had some problems with their controller hardware, but that could have been overcome had the company had deep enough pockets to stand by their products even if it meant taking a loss initially.

Ouya didn’t do enough to develop a library of first party/exclusive titles that would have given customers a reason to buy Ouya rather than another console. This was a strategic error. They thought they could court indie developers, who, at the time, faced high barriers to entry to get their games onto the platforms controlled by Big Gaming. At the time, though, this was already starting to change: mobile app stores, web gaming portals like Armor Games, Kongregate, Newgrounds, and the like, Steam Greenlight were all established to one degree or another, and providing indie developers with opportunities to bring games to an audience.

Soon the even the major players began to notice indie developers, court the best of them, and eventually the best indies found ways to get onto the big platforms, where they could make the big money.

Ouya’s approach was to lower the barrier of entry for everyone, including lowering the cost for consumers to “free to try” for everything, and it turns out to make a lot of money selling games, you need to sell games for money, ideally for a profit. Ouya couldn’t figure out how to do this, and even then, they weren’t the ones making the vast majority of the games that could be played on the Ouya, so they were putting in a ton of investment into creating a platform that they were not positioning themselves to monetize very effectively, while attracting indie game developers of any skill level indiscriminately to publish games of any quality onto the Ouya marketplace, where it was up to the individual consumer to try to find games that were worth buying, and then didn’t give them enough reason to buy them, and conditioned customers to believe that games should be far cheaper than was really viable to sustain their developers or the platform.

The business model seemed like it made sense, given that it followed the familiar example of countless early internet startups that gave a lot away for free, operating in the red while living off startup investor funding. It was a gold rush strategy that rewarded a lucky few, who were in the right place at the right time and figured out how to strike it rich, and was far from guaranteed of success — it was high risk, high reward. Sadly the risks didn’t pan out, and the reward never materialized.

Still, Ouya was one of the most successful and most promising of these failures.

Retro VGS/Colecovision Chameleon (2015-2016)

Some projects are out and out scams. The Colecovision Chameleon was one such.

Chameleon was supposed to be a throwback to old-school cartridge based consoles, a rejection of the “release when promised, even if incomplete, and fix everything you couldn’t deliver with 0-day patches” model that too many developer studios had come to rely on because of project management that couldn’t deliver projects on time or on budget because creative productions like video games simply aren’t software engineering projects. Publishers couldn’t accept “it’s done when it’s done”, forcing developers to ship on deadline regardless of quality or completeness, and customers hated buying a much-anticipated game to find out that it sucked, or that you had to wait hours to download gigabytes of patch files to play it. Players were buying discs with outdated, obsolete, broken software, as a sort of token that would entitle them to a digital download of a 1.1 release that should have been the 1.0. Rather than simply switching to digital distribution, Chameleon’s pitch was to go back to cartridges; cartridges couldn’t be updated, so had to be complete before they shipped. Hey, it sounded good at the time.

Chameleon was so-called because it was going to have adapters that allowed you to play old existing cartridges from any game system, making the Chameleon “look like” whatever hardware was originally supposed to run those games — hence the name Chameleon. That’s not a terrible idea — imagine a multi-core FPGA system with a bunch of different cartridge ports capable of reading games from every conceivable system you could ask for, that could output HDMI and let you play your favorite games on a modern HDTV. That’d be awesome, right?

It was all smoke and mirrors. They didn’t have the rights to the Coleco trademark secured, and they tried to fool the public with an early mock-up of their hardware that was in reality a Super NES stuffed inside of a modded Atari Jaguar case. Nevertheless, they managed to fool a few people for a short time, taking some people for a little money. There’s little or no evidence the project ever had any real R&D or concept to it. It was all just mockups. People were fooled, and once the deception was uncovered, people were pissed.

I mention it despite the Chameleon not being a genuine effort, in order to underscore the point that consumers shouldn’t be pre-ordering products. Pre-ordering games was a thing for one reason: fear of missing out (FOMO). At the height of the NES’s popularity, 1987-88, a chip shortage made it difficult to find games in stock on store shelves. People scrambled to buy when they could find them, which sent demand through the roof. This was great for business and Nintendo to this day seems to like to size supply to demand in such a way that they can brag about selling out, and FOMO can persuade hungry fans to pay full retail, and use pre-ordering to feel secure that they will be able to get a copy of the next release in their favorite game franchise when it comes out.

There’s absolutely no reason to pre-order games if there’s no shortage. For digital download distribution, there will never be a shortage. You can buy whenever you want, and you can play wait and see, putting your money down only on games that deliver the quality and fun that you expect. You don’t have to take a gamble on a pre-order and wait months (or years) hoping there’s no delays and that the game is actually as good as the hype.

There’s absolutely no reason to pre-order games if there’s no shortage. You don’t have to take a gamble on a pre-order and wait months (or years) hoping there’s no delays and that the game is actually as good as the hype.

Chameleon promised everything and delivered nothing. But a lot of the ideas that were part of its pitch were things that appealed to gamers who weren’t happy with the status quo at the time, and felt nostalgia for how games used to be.

It’s possible that the people behind the Chameleon didn’t set out to defraud the public, and that they really wanted to develop the concept. But it was so under-developed at the time that they pitched it, they had no working model, nor did they truly have the capability to design a working model. It was basically just an idea. An idea that seemed cool and exciting. Imagine: being able to play all your favorite old games in their original format on a new console attached to a modern TV, that can also play new games with classic flavor, delivered in the way those old games you loved were, without the perceived downsides of modern games. In reality, it’s a long way to go from a cool idea to a prototype, and the people behind the Chameleon weren’t capable of delivering that, but they maintained a charade of it for as long as they could. Perhaps they were hoping they could get real hardware engineers interested in working with them, but it didn’t pan out.

Disappointment with underwhelming games is bad enough. Outright deception and scams a la the Coleco Chameleon is terrible. At that point, people should have wised up, and many of them did. The public had been so conditioned by Nintendo and Sony’s successful products that they forgot that they probably weren’t the first kid on their block to buy a NES or a Playstation. They wanted to be the first kid on their block to own a Chameleon, even though the developers of it had nowhere near the reputation or resources of a Nintendo or Sony.

The lesson: don’t buy into something just because it sounds cool. Buy a real product, not an idea. If the hot new thing is destined to be a success, you’ll have no problem buying it. If you buy it the moment you hear about it, without seeing if it’ll prove to be a success, you have a much greater likelihood of buying into a failure. Don’t waste your money.

But as P.T. Barnun said, there’s a sucker born every minute. So this story goes on…

Atari VCS (2017- )

Initially Atari was mysterious about their AtariBox concept. It was all image and brand. This generated a lot of interest. It might have worked had they had a product ready to go, to follow up quickly on the interest their early marketing efforts had generated.

Sadly, they teased a little, waited, then teased a little more, then waited, then eventually they announced a concept for what AtariBox was. Renamed Atari VCS, reusing the original name of the first Atari home gaming console, they had a great looking design for the system, which beautifully recalled the aesthetic of the original woodgrained CX2600 system.

But it took Atari over 3 years to develop a manufacturable version of this case, put low-end commodity PC hardware into it, set up a graphical UI shell and store for downloadable games for the system, arrange some third-party deals and ship it to the retail channel. At the same time, they should have been developing games for this system, and they did work on a few, but all of it was underwhelming. Mostly you can play old games that have been available for years through other platforms on the Atari VCS.

Atari claims a library of thousands of games for the VCS through providing gaming marketplace apps for Google Stadia, Luna, nVidia GeForce Now, XBox Game Streaming, AntStream Arcade, and AirConsole, and… so what? These are all available on any Windows PC, which you already have, and probably has better hardware specs. And these aren’t free subscriptions bundled with the VCS, these are add-ons that you have to pay extra for. So why do you need a VCS, then? This is like picking the dandelions that happened to grow in your yard and calling it a garden salad. Technically it is. But you didn’t have to buy a house to make yourself a dandelion salad.

This is like picking the dandelions that happened to grow in your backyard and calling it a garden salad. Technically it is. But you didn’t have to buy a house to make yourself a dandelion salad.

There are a handful of new titles, some third-party games that aren’t great and are available on other platforms as well, and as for the first-party content, they’re all warmed-over remakes of old classic Atari games which they brand as “recharged”. Mostly this means a re-skinning, updated graphics, and the original game play, which, while classic and solid, doesn’t offer anything innovative or novel. Just a slightly more polished version of some 40 year old arcade IP with some neon glowing wireframe vector graphics.

Other games they used to hype the project (Tempest 4K) were released on the major platforms years before the VCS was ready to ship. Atari outright lied about its relationship with the Tempest 4K developer and implied that it would be a launch title and exclusive, when none of that was true. A total embarrassment. Tempest, originally an Atari classic IP, should have been an exclusive, and a launch title. But (wisely) the developers of Tempest 4K put it out when it was ready, on platforms that existed at the time, and made money.

That left Atari with nothing, and when the VCS went to market, Tempest 4K would be a 2-year old, non-exclusive game. And guess what? You still can’t buy Tempest 4K for the VCS. It’s a Windows/XBox/PS4 game. (Which means you can sort of play Tempest 4K on an Atari VCS, if you boot it in PC mode and run Windows. You’re kidding, right?) Even if Tempest 4K had been an Atari VCS exclusive, I’m not sure that Tempest has enough draw to it to make it a killer app that would have sold consoles. Like, Tempest is a cool game for 1981, but it’s no Mario or Zelda. Nowhere near.

The VCS has been out for a little over a year now, and while it at least exists today, it is hardly compelling.

The best parts of the Atari VCS were the joystick hardware and the “recharged” games. Atari could have put all of its effort into developing these, put them out on existing platforms in 2017-2018, and built from there. Instead, they tried to build themselves a platform which would give them power to be masters of their own fate (or something) but really just made it harder for them to bring a product to market.

It’s pretty clear they never intended to go toe-to-toe with the big platforms of Nintendo, Sega, Microsoft, and they’ve always said as much. They certainly never had the capability to do so. But what then is the point of having a low-end non-competitive platform that doesn’t offer anything unique or exclusive? Atari have no real answer to this. They’ll tell you it’s a “hybrid” console that you can also boot into “PC Mode” and use as a Windows or Linux computer, but so what? Everyone has 2-3 old PCs sitting around that they can install Linux or Windows on. Probably with better specs than the VCS, or cheaper, or both.

After years of delays, people starting to question whether the project was legitimate or a scam, Atari finally launched the VCS, and it was pathetic. It felt incomplete, like a homework assignment by a kid who procrastinated until the morning the project was due, and tried to con the teacher into accepting something they were scribbling on in the minutes between classes.

Atari’s main problems were having insufficient resources to match their ambition, combined with a complete lack of strategy and planning, and half-assed execution. They hyped their project before it was even a project. If they had developed the product quietly and then launched it within a few months of their initial hype announcements, and had a launch library of new, exclusive games that leveraged their classic trademarks and provided novel and innovative gameplay experiences on par with what Pac-Man Championship Edition was to Pac-Man, or what Yacht Club Games is to the NES, it could have been a completely different story. As it is, Atari VCS has been a disappointment. Atari does have a wealth of IP that they could do something with if they had the resources and talent behind it, but instead they wasted years trying to sell a budget PC to sell games they didn’t have yet.

Intellivision Amico (2018- )

In October 2018, a group owning the Intellivision trademark lead by Tommy Tallarico announced the Amico, a relaunch of the Intellivision brand that would embrace retro-style gaming and provide simpler, family oriented gams for all ages at a budget price point. Their four word pitch: Simple, Affordable, Family, Fun.

They had a lot of good ideas: all games that would run on the system would be exclusives, that you couldn’t get anywhere else. The games would be super cheap, there would be no hidden costs like in-app purchases or DLC, and they would be designed with couch multiplayer in mind, and provide balanced play so that players of different skill levels from toddler to great grandma could get in on the action and still have fun and feel challenged. The target market was families with young children, and parents (or grandparents) who remembered the original Intellivision system from 1979.

Similar to the pitch of the Coleco Chameleon, Intellivision pitched that the present-day game industry had gone astray in so many ways, and lost sight of what we used to love about video games. This meant that a return to classic roots would tap into a latent market of everyday people who want to play casual “fun” games, and couldn’t get into big budget “hard core” games that require hundreds of hours of focused play and high skill to beat. They promised to eschew violence and adult themes, and everything would be 2D only, aiming at an all-ages family friendly audience.

In short, their vision differentiated them from existing platforms enough that it seemed like they might have a shot at finding underserved markets. The announced price point was a budget bargain $150-180, with games costing under $10. Additionally, all games were to be Intellivision exclusives.

Unlike the frauds behind the Chameleon, the people involved with Intellivision appeared to have legitimate pedigree and full ownership of the Intellivision trademark. They had physical demo units early on, and a few teaser trailers of games in various stages of development. The controllers were unique, intriguing, and paid homage to the original Intellivision controllers. It looked like they were serious, capable, and had a clear concept of what they were going to build, unlike Atari which mostly focused on superficial case design, logos, 3D model mockups, and branding.

The Amico had a unifying vision and a market strategy. It even appeared that they were already pretty far along with physical prototypes of their system, which included a unique and interesting controller design.

The controller gave Amico the opportunity to make games with unique player interaction, with motion controls, a touch screen, as well as a classic Intellivision-style thumb disc. The thumb disc was a slightly controversial and perhaps questionable design choice, considering that the original Intellivision controller wasn’t necessarily great. But it tied the Amico to its predecessor in a way that a D-pad couldn’t. It wasn’t yet-another standard, off the shelf dual-stick gamepad. It made the Amico unlike any other console. Who knew, maybe it would turn out to be strong selling point, like the Nintendo Wiimote.

You could, in a pinch, even use an Android smartphone as a controller by installing an Amico app on it, as well. So instantly you could add 3rd and 4th players to the game cheaply, without having to buy additional official controllers. Maybe not with all the features of the official control, but would provide at least something.

Intellivision issued an early release of the Amico app, which wasn’t actually the controller app, but rather a demo of a re-imagined Moon Patrol that you could play on your smartphone, without any Amico hardware. It wasn’t much of a game, but it really existed, and gave the project legitimacy. It seemed like they had the hardware ready to go, or nearly so, and just needed to complete some games to provide a decent launch library, manufacture them, and get them into stores.

Over time, though, the project seemed to stall. The COVID-19 pandemic lead to economic disruption and supply chains stalled. The electronics industry was disrupted by chip shortages, the effects of which rippled through the economy and were widely felt by many industries.

With Amico development, not much happened for months on end, deadlines slipped, news announcements appeared to be using recycled footage and showed little to no actual progress. Worse, it appeared that some of the games they demoed were using stolen graphical assets. Tommy Tallarico leapt into action with excuses and damage control. The graphics were placeholder, not final, and so on. Some of this might have been legitimate, but a lot of it was suspect. Tallarico’s personality rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and his tendencies to get into petty internet wars with minor “influencers” on forums or social media didn’t look good.

Today, the future of Intellivision appears to be in doubt. Tallarico has just been replaced as CEO, and there’s a lot of concern among the community following the project that the delays may prove fatal as cost overruns and lack of revenue due to not having a product to sell will doom the console, which never had much of a chance of becoming a major player alongside the likes of Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony, but might have been viable as a B-grade market alternative.

Lessons

  1. Startups shouldn’t launch platforms as their first product.
  2. It takes billions of dollars and vast resources to develop and launch a successful platform. Only a mature, thriving company can properly support a console and bring it to market.
  3. Even then the chances are good that it will fail in the market.
  4. History shows that at most there is room for 2-3 successful platforms.
  5. If you can’t knock out Nintendo, Microsoft, or Sony, you’re going to fail. Google failed.
  6. Hitting a crowdfunding goal is not success. It’s a very early step along the road.
  7. Success means in 5-7 years, you have enough profits that you can self-fund R&D for your next generation console without having to crowdfund or court investors.
  8. The best time to launch a new console is 5-7 years after the successful launch of your previous console.
  9. The best time to announce a new console is within weeks of retail launch, and not more than 1 year ahead of time.
  10. If you can’t take money and ship immediately after your announce your product, you’re probably going to ship late and disappoint a lot of people after they spend a lot of time hyping themselves up to a point where nothing can possibly meet their expectations and dreams.
  11. Don’t let them dream too long, give them a reality. Or when you deliver your real console, it will reality-check their dreams and inevitably lead to dissatisfied customers. Those who once sang your praises will suddenly call for your head.
  12. It takes longer than you think to develop a console. It takes longer than that to manufacture and distribute that console.
  13. Don’t try to combine pitching to investors and marketing to customers. Crowdfunding is not the way.
  14. If you don’t have a previous console in your past, perhaps consider not trying to develop a platform. Develop other things — games, controllers, accessories. Perhaps in time you can gain experience from doing these things that can allow you to develop a console.
  15. If you have a vast, successful business with R&D, manufacturing, distribution, logistics, software development, marketing, and customer support all figured out, and sufficient reserves and revenues that can afford to pour billions of dollars for several years without realizing a profit, you might have a chance of developing your own console platform. If you’re not sure, ask yourself: do you have a lot in common with Microsoft, Sony, Google, or Apple?
  16. If you can’t do something unique and better than what already exists, why are you even bothering? If you want to make games, make games. Pick any of the existing platforms, or all of them.

Copyright, contractual obligations screw Ms. Pac Man out of existence

Ms. Pac Man has an interesting history.

Pac-Man, the original game, was developed by Namco in Japan, and distributed by Midway in the United States, and was a massive, massive hit — the most popular arcade game of its day, and still one of the most popular arcade games of all time.

The videogame industry was different 40 years ago than it is today, and video games were still new enough that a lot of the intellectual property rights weren’t yet established in law, leading to unsettled (and often unasked) questions.

As a result, there was a sub-industry of third-party mod kits for arcade games, which gave arcade proprietors a way to renew interest in older games that had waned in popularity. It wasn’t illegal to modify an arcade cabinet that you owned, and so over time kits were developed by third parties to do just that.

One of the companies producing these hardware mod kits, named GCC, hacked Pac Man to create an unofficial “sequel”. To avoid trademark infringement, they named it “Crazy Otto” at first, but that wasn’t enough to avoid a lawsuit. In the end, a settlement between GCC and Namco turned Crazy Otto into an official sequel which became Ms. Pac Man.

GCC’s contract entitled them to royalties on each Ms. Pac Man cabinet manufactured or sold by Midway-Namco. Ms. Pac Man was a smash hit, just as popular as the original Pac Man. Everyone got rich and everyone way happy.

Ms. Pac Man went on to have a long life, and has been ported, re-packaged, and re-released on many platforms over the years, but GCC’s contract entitled them to royalties only from “coin-op cabinets”. Twenty-five years later, new cabinets were produced for the anniversary, and hybrid Galaga/Ms. Pac Man cabinets were a popular sight in bars in the mid-2000s.

By this time, the executives now running Namco had forgotten about the contract with GCC, who reminded them of it by suing for their royalties. Namco paid what they owed, and weaseled out of paying on arcade cabinets made for home use, which didn’t have coin slots, since the contract wording specified “coin-op cabinets” (which was simply what arcade machines were called at the time the contract was signed). And then, to avoid ever having to pay another royalty to GCC again, Namco wrote the Ms. Pac-Man character out of the picture, replacing her with other female pac-man characters such as “Pac-Girl” and “Pac-Marie”. Thereafter, future Ms. Pac-Man re-releases only came out on platforms not covered by the GCC contract, so Namco wouldn’t have to pay the royalties.

It just goes to show the level of sheer greed that companies have when it comes to paying creators and ownership of intellectual property. If the company can make money without having to pay the creators, they will do that. Granted, GCC wasn’t producing an authorized work, and this could have colored the relationship. But considering how much money Ms. Pac Man earned for everyone over the years, you’d think that those profits could go a long way toward smoothing over any rough spots in the relationship. Apparently not.

GCC later sold their ownership rights to Ms. Pac-Man to AtGames. If they had instead sold to Midway-Namco, this might never have been an issue. But because of how things worked out, one of the most iconic videogame characters of the 80s golden age of the arcade is basically sidelined indefinitely. Because contested or jointly owned intellectual property rights are that much of a legal pain to negotiate around that it’s better to just kill the property and make no money from it at all than to try to work out agreements for sharing revenues. How sad.

Atari Age releases new crop of homebrews for 2022

The new titles hit the Atari Age store for pre-order yesterday, 12/31. Included in the release this year are two Champ Games arcade ports for the Atari 2600: LadyBug and the much-anticipated RobotWar: 2684.

The new store listings don’t have video clips as yet, and I think videos really help you to decide what to buy, but I’m aware that at least some of these games have had demo or beta romfiles available for a long time, and if you want to try them before you buy physical cartridges, you can seek them out.

Knight Guy in Low-Res World – Castle Days and Game of the Bear look like fun puzzle platformers in a similar style. I’ve played Game of the Bear, the platform action reminds me of Terry Cavanaugh’s Don’t Look Back, which I loved playing about 10 years ago. Cavanaugh’s game was made in Flash, which hasn’t been supported in current browsers since Adobe retired Flash in 2020. Wizard’s Dungeon looks like an action RPG in the vein of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons on the Intellivision.

I haven’t looked closely at the rest of the list, but the titles mentioned above looked the most interesting to me.

Unfortunately, prices are up this year. Atari Age games listed between $25-40 for many years, but this year they’re more like $45-60. This is unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s gouging — there have been chip shortages, and inflation has been high since the pandemic disrupted the world economy. As well, Atari Age has invested in producing new plastic shells for cartridges, rather than cannibalizing them from old games. New games for modern consoles tend to run around $60, and often less than that, so to pay that much for new homebrew releases on obsolete consoles is really something only for the most die-hard fans of classic gaming to afford.

Metroid: Dread criticisms

I loved Metroid: Dread, but nothing is perfect, and a way I show my enthusiasm for something good is to analyze it, look for weaknesses, and think about how it could be even better.

Melee counter is OP

Against most enemies, any time you melee counter them, you can one-shot them with a follow-up shot. What’s more, killing them this way dramatically increases the amount of loot dropped as a result of the kill. It’s like the creatures of ZDR are all piñatas. Shoot them and you burn most of the candy inside, but beat them open, and you get a ton of loot.

I get that this is meant to provide the player with incentive to make use of the melee counter. Since it requires getting up close and personal with enemies, and screwing it up will damage you, the game design needs to balance the risk with an increased reward.

But they could have nerfed this, so that when you have a high success rate at pulling off the melee counter move, the game stops dropping quite so much loot. Or maybe wean you into lower quantity loot drops for pulling this move off as your max health goes higher. Arguably, they should have.

I also think that it would have been better to have melee-counters set up a counter-attack that does extra damage, but not always a one-shot kill. This mechanic makes too many of the regular enemies you encounter almost trivial, and not a threat at all. Even if you do manage to screw up a melee counter once in a while, you’ll get so much loot out of them when you’re successful that you’ll rarely if ever be worried about your health level for virtually the entire game.

Enemies drop too much pickups

Maybe this is a sign that I’d appreciate Hard Mode more, and if so, then this isn’t really a valid criticism, but I felt like it was too easy to replenish health and missiles whenever I wanted throughout the game. I never felt like resource management was ever a serious problem. This makes me wonder why have ammo at all. It only seems to matter in boss fights. Regular enemies mostly don’t pose enough of a threat to kill you. They mostly seem to exist to provide you with targets to shoot at, and drop so much life and missile pickups that it’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet at times.

In addition to this, the game provides copious recharge stations and save points, and there’s no limit to how much you can use them, or how often. They’re almost always right there for you both before and after a major challenge. I appreciate that the designers wanted you to reach these challenges at full power and ready to face them. And I appreciate that the designers made the boss fights super challenging, so that you really needed to be at full power before taking them on.

EMMI fights are repetitive, lack variety

I really enjoyed outwitting the EMMIs and having to run and hide from them. I think this is something you don’t often get to do in video games, and I appreciate the EMMIs for being different from most other games.

But while the EMMIs were different from other games, they were too similar to each other. Why must you always defeat them in the same way? The Omega Beam as a temporary power-up that empowers you to kill the last EMMI you met, only to be taken away after each and every fight, feels so contrived, it serves to remove me from immersion in the world of the game, and reminds me that I’m playing a game.

I would have loved to see Samus really have to use her wits to defeat the EMMIs in unique ways, using her ever-expanding move-set, and taking advantage of the level design to use the terrain in various creative ways to trap and kill each EMMI. Sure, getting a super weapon that runs out of juice after you use it would be a great way to dispatch the first EMMI.

But if they told a story that you only got to use it once, and even then it was only because you overcharged it and the super charge Omega blast actually burned it out and left it permanently inoperable, that would have given you so much more of a sense of dread: Oh no, there’s still six of them left! Now how am I going to deal with them? Then you would get to learn that Samus isn’t just a hero because she has amazing weapons, but because she is a survivor, who can adapt and outsmart enemies that are more powerful than she is.

That would have been so much cooler than how they did it.

I’ve already said it a few times, but the Control Room fights are also repetitive, and, worse, provided too little challenge. I guess that they were supposed to serve as callbacks to the classic Mother Brain boss fight, but fighting Mother Brain was pretty hard — mostly because any time you took damage, you’d get knocked back into a position where you couldn’t hit the boss anymore, or into lava where you were taking damage every frame and you couldn’t hit the boss anymore.

Killing Mother Brain didn’t just require that you did a certain amount of damage, but that you did it quickly enough to counter her regeneration. So any time you got knocked out of position and couldn’t continue pouring on the damage, it was prolonging the fight. Those factors made the Mother Brain battles challenging and memorable. Control Room has some superficial similarity: you have to avoid laser turrets and Rinkas while hitting a thing that looks a bit like a brain that doesn’t directly attack you. But there’s none of the other element present that made the Mother Brain fight a classic challenge. So what’s the point? And why do we have to do it six or seven times?

What’s up with all the lame names?

Planet ZDR? Quiet Robe? Raven Beak? Couldn’t they come up with better names than these?

I guess maybe we could blame the English localization for this.

I guess you can name a planet whatever, but ZDR isn’t exactly rolling off my tongue. SR388, the name of the planet in the original Metroid, is obviously a take-off of the planet from the movie Alien, LV-426. So a convention of two letters, three numbers would have been reasonable, fitting, and consistent. Metroid already has a planet starting with the letter Z, Zebes, so why they went with ZDR, I don’t understand.

They could have just translated “Quiet Robe” and Raven Beak into Japanese and it would have felt fine: Shizukana rōbu, Karasu no kuchibashi. Even shortening these to Shizukana and Karasu would have sounded cooler. Many of the names given for enemies in classic NES games were just untranslated Japanese words (or at least Japanese-sounding words, or sometimes japanified or mistranslated English words…)

It’s not a major thing, but I think they could have done better.

Story quibbles

I don’t really play most video games for their story, which is to say I can very easily tolerate a very thin story in an action-heavy game, and I can accept weak storytelling that relies heavily or even exclusively on cliches and tropes that are utterly formulaic and even cheesy.

I do enjoy and want to encourage game story writers to aspire to do more than that and to elevate their craft to an art form, and to tell original stories in creative ways, and not simply apply “The Hero’s Journey” or some other formula again and again.

I found the way the story unfolded in Metroid Dread was satisfying. I always liked finding a new Communications room and getting an update from ADAM to find out what was going on, what I was supposed to do, and what new information he could tell me.

I also was very impressed by the way the cinematic moments in the game were blended seamlessly into the regular action. Everything is rendered in the game in the same 3D engine. Metroid: Dread is “2D” in that the camera is always showing the action from the side view angle that is consistent with 2D games, and that the levels do not make use of depth, even where they have lots of detail in the background. But the game uses 3D models and presents them in a way that looks the same as 2D side scrolling Metroids of the past have looked, with the added flexibility that whenever they want to, they can pop out of that camera angle and continue rendering everything that’s going on in a more cinematic and dramatic way.

This is brilliant, and I love it. It makes the “melee grab” action in boss fights look super cool, and even though they’re just scripted button mashing events, they look fantastic, are fun, and make playing as Samus so much cooler.

This is all preface to say that Dread does so much very well with its storytelling and with the plot and acting generally.

That said, there were things I didn’t much care for, things that didn’t really make sense, or that seemed unnecessary.

  • At the end of the final battle, the cinematic bit where Raven Beak monologues at you, you seem like you’re helpless, and they misdirect you to thinking you just died, when you suddenly revive and life-drain your way to victory, only to then have to face a “final form” of Raven Beak after he gets infected by the X-parasite and mutates into a giant beast for some reason. WTF was that all about?

    I didn’t buy for a second that Samus was really helpless, and when she uses the energy drain ability to win, it was never a surprise. There’s so much that doesn’t work for me in this little scene:

    Raven Beak’s holding her by the throat, but she’s completely encased in an armored exoskeleton, so it’s not like she’s choking in this moment. So how is it that she’s supposedly blacking out? Is the throat section of the armor that flexible? I guess it could be. Is she playing possum? That would make sense and explain how it is that she is able to “miraculously” wake up and lash out. She’s screaming as she unleashes this final power against him, so clearly she’s got air in her lungs, and her throat hasn’t been crushed.

    During the monologue, Samus is shown struggling, and she does use her left hand, which is her energy drain hand, to grab Raven Beak’s arm momentarily as she struggles to… grab him with her left hand so she… so she can apply the energy drain move… which doesn’t make sense: if she could grab his arm, she should have been able to drain him right at that moment. There wasn’t a need for the overly dramatic choke-out/fake-out. move. When Samus does apply the energy drain, she grabs Raven Beak by the side of the head. Raven Beak is roughly twice as tall as Samus, though, so there should be no way her arm can be long enough to reach his head. Not unless he pulls her in very close so that he can look directly into her eyes as she passes out for the final time, or something… But that’s not how it looks during the cutscene. Raven beak has her at nearly arm’s length, the entire time.

    It’s done solely for heightened dramatics, and doesn’t feel right. Samus should have grabbed Raven Beak’s wrist, and drained him, and that should have finished him off, and thus ended the fight.
  • But not only does Samus drain Raven Beak, this somehow causes the Itorash orbital station to lose power and fall out of orbit. This suggests a few things that are implausible and just dumb: that Raven Beak is somehow powering the entire Itorash station, and that its orbit is actively maintained through the expenditure of power, rather than a simple ballistic geosynchronous trajectory that would require no active power usage to maintain.
    Seriously, why did Itorash crash to the surface of ZDR?
  • The “epilogue” final final boss battle was silly. We see that Samus just drained Raven Beak, yet he’s still alive enough to stand up after surviving the crash landing of Itorash station into the planet’s surface. He’s apparently still got more left in the tank and is ready to continue the battle. Samus just acquired the hyper laser that we saw Raven Beak using in the battle, but we don’t know that yet. Then, out of nowhere, Raven Beak is infected with an X-parasite, and mutates, instantly growing to gargantuan size.

    Then we’re given a mostly-pointless final-final boss battle with Raven Beak X, where all we have to do is hold the charge shot and stream ultra laser into the boss’s face until it melts off and it dies.

    It looks cool, I’l give it that. Having a laser that shoots a beam that’s as wide as Samus is tall feels ultra-powerful, particularly during the escape sequence that immediately follows, where it absolutely obliterates anything it comes in contact with.

    But there’s no challenge to defeating Raven Beak X, it’s literally just holding a button down. I get that the point of it is to show that Samus’s Metroid DNA has fully awakened, giving her the ultimate power, such that what should have been the most powerful boss we’ve seen yet is now child’s play to destroy. But that could have been conveyed through cinematic mode, rather than returning control to the player and requiring they press the button.
  • The escape sequence. Why exactly is ZDR exploding? Did the crash of Itorash trigger that? Was Itorash station somehow maintaining planetary stability? Or did the impact with the planet trigger this destruction somehow? Or was there some other process initiated that coincidentally started the planet’s process of destruction?

    I feel like we get an escape sequence because it’s formula. You can’t have a Metroid game and not have it end with a two minute timer countdown where you have to get to your ship before the world you’re on self destructs.

    I mean, we kindof needed to destroy the world to contain the X-parasites and end the threat they represent to galactic peace. But couldn’t we have waited until we were back on the ship and then nuked the site from orbit? I hear that’s usually how it’s done.
  • The whole “Surprise! ADAM is really Raven Beak!” and “Surprise! Raven Beak is kinda-sorta your ‘father'” thing. Samus is somehow always acquiring her power from her enemies. The last Metroid, the one she spared/rescued in Metroid II, comes back to imbue her with a life-saving power boost in Super Metroid; she officially is infused with Metroid DNA in Metroid: Fusion, which in turn gives her the ability to absorb power (and also DNA, maybe?) from the X-parasites; and now apparently she also has some Chozo DNA, or… I don’t get it anymore. It’s a bit much.

    There’s no actual Metroids in Metroid: Dread, until, at the very end, we’re told by Raven Beak-as-ADAM that Samus is now a Metroid, due to her Metroid DNA activating and metamorphizing her. So… ok. That’s pretty cool. I like it. But it’s a little much that she’s also apparently part X-parasite, and also part Mawkin Chozo?

    In storytelling, you can do a cool thing once, and it’s cool. But if you keep doing the cool thing over and over and over again, it becomes less cool each time, until whatever original coolness was there is spoiled. I feel like, OK, getting some Metroid powers is pretty cool. Using the Metroid powers to become immune to X-parasites and instead absorb their powers is pretty cool. Being X-infected on top of that is where it gets to be a bit much, but if we allow that absorbing the X-power sortof integrates X-parasite DNA into Samus’s already overcrowded gamete is probably about where I draw the line. Telling Samus that she also has Chozo DNA from both Thoha and Mawkin tribes is way over the line. How do the writers of Metroid think DNA works?

    I know, I know. It’s a sci-fi fantasy, it can work however they want it to work. I.. just… do the cool thing once, maybe twice, max. Samus doesn’t have to merge genes with every species in the galaxy.
  • The overly elaborate setup to awaken and harness Samus. At the very start of the game, Raven Beak kicks Samus’s ass. He could have easily taken her DNA right then, forced Quiet Robe to do science-y stuff to it to activate the Metroid in Samus, and then cloned that shit to make his army.

    He didn’t need to toy with Samus to get her to gradually restore all her suit’s missing powers, yadda yadda, and then pull a Philip K. Dick move on her at the end, revealing that the “ADAM” she thought she had been talking to since she woke up was really him manipulating her, and then offering a part Faust, part Darth Vader bargain to sell herself out to rule the galaxy side-by-side with Raven Beak as father and daughter.

    The whole game isn’t necessary because the plot self-nullfies when you realize that he could have just taken a sample of DNA at the very beginning, killed Samus, and did the thing he told Samus he was going to do during the final monologue just before you win the game.

    The only way it’s not necessary for the game to have happened is if the adventures you guide Samus through were somehow necessary in order to “awaken” the Metroid DNA.

    Which is silly. Even if it were the only way, Raven Beak could have taken a clone of Samus’s DNA, and raised it in a truly fatherly fashion, and brainwashed it to see him as good and willingly serve him and work for him.

    When you see stuff like this happening in suspense-thriller movies, and I suppose now also video games, it’s because the writers have lost the plot, trying to keep the audience guessing by introducing so many plot twists that stuff no longer makes sense, failing to pass self-consistency checks.

    I’m a big stickler for internal consistency. I can suspend disbelief, but I need for the internal logic to make sense. Otherwise, it just feels like the storytellers are bullshitting you, and it only works if you’re too dumb to see through it. Which is an insult to your intelligence, and so obviously when I’m smart enough to see that, I have to reject it. I have no choice.

    It’s that, or pretend that I’m dumb, in order to placate the storyteller’s ego, or something.

I still love the game, but these story aspects don’t do it for me. It only detracts from the overall game a tiny amount. But when you can make something good, why make it less than it could be?

I could be fine with Raven Beak impersonating ADAM and trying to deceive Samus; that element has a lot of potential. They could have had buried subtle clues that this was going on throughout the game — perhaps some ADAM conversations could have been the real ADAM, and others could have been attempts at misdirection from Raven Beak. This could have created some confusion initially, rising to a level of “OK WTF something is not right here” and then a revelation that at times you’ve been following instructions from Raven Beak who’s been manipulating you into doing his work for him, because (for some reason) only you could have, and now he’s got a planet full of X-parasites that he can use to take over the galaxy with… And at some point you have to figure out that this is what’s been going on, and directly disobey your ADAM instructions in order to advance the game.

  • The very final twist at the end, where Quiet Robe is waiting in Samus’s ship, and is somehow still alive, and is somehow able to revert Samus’s transformation into a Metroid by just touching her, and this is necessary so she can take off without draining all the power out of her own ship, and that Quiet Robe speaks to her in ADAM’s voice, and that this doesn’t immediately turn Samus against Quiet Robe because she just iced the last motherfucker to pull that shit on her, and that this all happens conveniently seconds before ZDR explodes, allowing her just enough time to escape… yeah, it’s straining credulity a lot thin by that point, isn’t it?

I guess you could refute much of the above criticism by saying something like “Come on, you care way too much about all these little details. It’s just a fun story. Just enjoy it.” But, no, telling someone to enjoy a thing more by caring about it less is nonsense. The little things matter. Continuity and internal consistency matters. Good storytelling matters. Feeling like you’re smarter or have better taste than the creators leaves an audience member feeling dissatisfied.

Could I have done Metroid: Dread better myself? Absolutely not. Could I have fixed all of the above story and plot issues if I’d been on the team? I absolutely could have. How much difference would that make really? I dunno. Maybe it turns a 92% score into a 96%?

My point is, the game is really good, and these issues are all minor enough that it doesn’t stop me from loving the game and thinking it’s a triumphant return to form for the franchise. But that doesn’t mean that these things shouldn’t be talked about, either.

Metroid: Dread epilogue

Metroid: Dread is a fantastic return to the 2D Metroid franchise. Nintendo and MercurySteam have succeeded in producing a sequel worthy of the series’ previous highlights, Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion.

Fundamental to its success is the world design. The different areas of Planet ZDR are deeply interconnected, yet each is distinct and has its own feel. The level designers did a fantastic job of providing the player with a defined path, not an easy thing to achieve with an open world design. This is accomplished by ingenious use of one-way points of no return which commit Samus to exploring “forward” when it might become tempting to backtrack.

The game soft-locks from backtracking you frequently, and at first you might feel unready, even trapped, but each step of the way the design ensures that you have the capabilities needed to continue.

Samus’s character design fits hand-in-glove with the world design to provide a move set and tech tree that work with the world design to create these locks. Each ability that Samus acquires is well realized, with multiple applications, in terms of both movement and combat. Your missiles, bombs, and beams aren’t just weapons, they can unlock parts of the world that are blocked by obstacles that these weapons can eradicate. Likewise, your power suit augmentations aren’t just useful because they provide new ways for you to get around the map, but are effective moves to use in combat: the Flash Shift, especially, but also the Space Jump being essential for the later boss fights. I especially like that immediately after obtaining a new power, you can immediately use it (and often need to in order to escape the room you’re in) to make new progress in the “forward” direction.

I started the game feeling clumsy and awkward with the controls, but by the end I had gotten so practiced that I felt fluent in most of the moves, able to pull them off at will, when needed, and improvise reflexively without having to think about which button does what. There’s certain things that I’m not very good at, chief among them the Shine Spark parkour moves that unlock many of the advanced movement puzzles to earn extra Missile Containers and Energy Tanks, but overall I find moving around in Metroid: Dread to be delightful and empowering.

The challenge curve in Metroid: Dead is amazing. You smoothly ramp up in power as you explore and open up new parts of the world, but the game is always right there with you, providing a level of difficulty that matches well with your current power level in the regions where you need to go in order to make further progress. There were times when I’ve felt like the challenge level was a little beneath my current power level, but they were mostly transitory, and seemed to serve a purpose, such as pacing the challenge level so that I could relax a bit between the bigger challenges represented by the boss fights. Mostly, if the game feels like you need to concentrate and take things seriously, you’re moving in the right direction, and if it feels like it’s a walk in the park, you’re backtracking in the wrong direction (although you might be able to find some useful powerups this way.) When it takes one charge shot or less to destroy an enemy, it’s a fairly trivial threat, but in large numbers, or if particularly aggressive, they can still hurt you.

The enemies in the game have the right feel for a 2D Metroid: you’ve got a decent mix of:

  • “wall barnacles” (enemies who attach themselves to the wall and (mostly) don’t move,
  • “perimeter crawlers” (enemies that climb along the walls, floors, and ceiling, patrolling their platform or room along its edge.
  • “flyers” (enemies that fly about the room or hover, presenting a territorial threat to the space they fill)
  • “large animals” (creatures about Samus’s size, which can take a bit more damage to defeat)
  • “swarms” (clouds of tiny creatures, which present mostly a nuissance threat)
  • “respawners” (enemies that keep re-generating in an area, creating a space of constant, if low-level threat, or depending on how you want to look at it, farms for replenishing energy and ammo.)

They run a gamut from low power to high power, and as their power levels increase, their aggression towards Samus likewise increases. Mostly they provide a routine challenge, nothing special, but enough to keep you engaged and wary when you’re entering a new area, especially for the first time.

Most of the enemies are biological organisms, alien fauna, but some are robotic, and a few are intelligent. By “intelligent” I mean that they react situationally to your presence and respond in different ways, using a variety of tactics. Most enemies are not very intelligent, and will only vary between a passive mode where they ignore you, and an active mode where the respond to either your presence, or to being disturbed by you damaging them or getting too close, and always in the same, predictable way. Robotic enemies are resistant to blaster fire, and often missiles work better on them.

The boss fights provide a lot of variety, and each of them is well done and provides an appropriate level of challenge for your current power level. The only boss fights that I felt were disappointing were the Control Rooms where you’d have to blow up an armored robotic eye in order to temporarily obtain the Omega Beam in order to deal with the local EMMI threat. These were entirely too easy, and never seemed to get much more challenging as the game went on, despite being repeated in each world.

EMMI fights are a highlight of the game, and one of the things that makes it stand out as different from a lot of other games. It’s hard to think of another game where you have a similar setup of hunter and hunted, and then turning the tables. These fights remind me of movies, especially the 80’s sci-fi action trinity of Alien, Predator and Terminator — and in a good way. Your opponent is much more powerful than you physically, and you have to use your wits and resources to find a way to turn the tables and overcome it. It’s a little unfortunate that these encounters are so similar to one another — each time they do get a little more challenging, because the environmental obstacles become increasingly a factor, and because each successive EMMI has some additional power that makes them even more of a threat. But otherwise these encounters become repetitive enough to start to seem routine — you build on your knowledge from your previous fights to know how to approach the next one, which is good, but it’d be nice if there were different ways of dealing with them apart from the Omega Beam. Like, couldn’t I dunk one in lava, using a trap door platform that I can manipulate with a recently acquired movement power? Or couldn’t I crush one by caving in the ceiling? Or couldn’t I just trap one, neutralizing its threat, by getting it stuck in a one-way area that it can’t get out of? Or couldn’t I get trapped by one, and rather than it being “Game Over” I’m taken to a new area where I’m imprisoned and have to find a way to break out before it comes back?

There’s a lot of potential variety in the ways they could have employed EMMI, and to have a single basic paradigm for these encounters, with the only variance being that each one is slightly more difficult than the one before, seems less imaginative.

Still, they do have the scene in Ferenia where Quiet Robe intercedes and deactivates the EMMI before it captures you, and the last fight, when your latent Metroid energy-draining power awakens and you defeat it with your bare hands, are here. These are small bits of variety, but hint at what more there could have been.

Otherwise, I found the boss fights to be great. Little room for improvement, no obvious criticisms.

One does wonder why they brought Kraid back again, but not Ridley? I think you can have a Metroid game without re-hashing the original minibosses, and I understand why there usually are callbacks to these classic characters, but to me it seems unnecessary to constrain the series to having the same bosses return again and again, as though they didn’t die in the last battle. So I can accept no Ridley, and no Mother Brain — that’s fine. But why then did they bring Kraid back? I liked the Kraid battle, mind you, I just wonder why, from a story perspective — what was he doing waist deep in lava, chained to a wall on Planet ZDR?

I liked the new Chozo Mawkin tribe soldiers, and found them to be a nice challenge. Fighting them felt like playing a classic 2D fighter game in the arcade, like a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. Indeed, these fights had a bit of a Smash Bros. feel to them, I felt. These were really well done, and forced me to put my move set together in creative and agility-based ways, rather than just standing still, taking aim, and dishing out firepower, as I could in many of the other early boss fights.

Given how much skill and knowledge I’ve gained through playing the game, it would be appealing to run through the game a second time to see how much better I can do certain encounters. Most of the difficult spots in the game, I had to learn by playing through them multiple times, failing, trying again, and getting a little better each time, and now that I’ve done that, it seems like I could probably get through them much more readily than on my first run. And this seems like a fun, enjoyable thing to want to do again. So I think that the game has repeatability.

There’s also the fact that I’ve only managed to get a 68% completion so far — there’s a lot of secrets still to be unlocked, and I’m not sure I even know how to tackle them all. Some, the solution may be more or less obvious, just difficult to pull off. Others might require some study to puzzle out the deep mechanics that I’m supposed to understand and be able to use in order to navigate the obstacle keeping me from the secret.

The game also, obviously, offers a lot of replayability for speed runners and sequence breaking. I think it’s a great game and maybe the best 2D Metroid game yet.

One thing that is interesting to note about this Metroid game is that it seems that Samus has become a bit like Mega Man, in that she acquires abilities by defeating bosses who had them. It’s a bit more subtle in this game, but if you look closely, most of the bosses employ a power like the one you get from defeating them. From the EMMI, you obtain ice missiles and wave beam, and those EMMI can freeze you and shoot at you ignoring walls. And so on with most (if not all?) of the other bosses, as well. Even Corpius has a stealth cloak ability that you seem to extract from its corpse as it disintegrates after you defeat it.