Category: games

Super Mario Maker 2 review

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.

Atari taking pre-orders for VCS console. But where are the games?

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, devs@atari.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?

RAMless Pong for Atari 2600

In contrast to the amazing Galaga port to the Atari 2600 that I discussed in a previous post, here is an amazing accomplishment: a full implementation of Pong in 1kb of ROM, which uses 0 bytes of RAM at runtime.

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.

AtariBox joystick and gamepad designs updated

Atari announced updated designs for their joystick and gamepad peripherals for the AtariBox (now called the Atari VCS) today.  Allegedly, these are about to go into production soon, but are still subject to change and are not final.

I have to admit, I do like the design of the joystick, and wouldn’t mind owning one if they ever do get manufactured, assuming they will work with generic PC systems and aren’t tied exclusively to the AtariBox console.  

One neat thing about the joystick that they revealed is that the stick will rotate, enabling play of paddle type Atari games.  This answers a long standing question I’d had about whether/how the new system might support paddle games.  I don’t know that this will feel as good as the old-school paddled did in their day, but it’s good that they’re at least supporting them.  As well, it means that spinning stick arcade games, like the Ikari Warriors series of top-down run-n-gun games, might be decent to play with a stick like this.

The joystick will also have rumble and LED lighting features. Wireless, it will be powered by lithium ion battery, with a life of about 15 hours per charge. No word on how easily replaced the battery pack will be, or if replacement batteries will be available. I wouldn’t count on it, although of course it should be possible to hack them and replace with any third party battery of the correct spec, which is what I imagine owners will have to do once these things are a few years old and no longer can hold a charge.

The gamepad, I’m less interested in, as it seems less special, not different enough from an XBox gamepad to be worth buying.  Since Xbox gamepads are already very good, the AtariBox gamepad would need to outshine it in some way to be worth my attention. I haven’t seen any indication that it might.

If these start shipping, and the initial reviews are good, I’d order a pair, but I’m still wary enough about the reputation for the current company using Atari trademark that I don’t want to go in on a preorder. 

Homebrew hacks

Galaga, Champ Games, and enhanced cartridges

Champ Games announced a new project, an Atari 2600 port of Galaga.

I have seen some of Champ’s other Atari 2600 homebrew projects, and they’re very impressive. They did a version of Scramble which is virtually indistinguisable from the arcade, which is an incredibly impressive accomplishment on hardware as limited as the Atari 2600.

Galaga is a classic arcade game, one of the most successful of its era, and can still be found in bars and arcades all over. It was one of my favorite arcade games as a kid, and I’ll still drop a quarter in one when I find one and have some time to kill.

I owned the Atari 7800 port of Galaga, and was glad I could play a version of it at home, even if it wasn’t quite exactly the same experience as playing the arcade version. What Champ has come up with, from what I can see in their video, it appears it feels closer to the arcade than the 7800 port, although the graphics are slightly inferior to the 7800 version.

Galaga (Champ Games, Atari 2600) title screen
Galaga (Champ Games) title screen
Galaga bugs flying in from the left at the start of a wave.
The motion of the incoming wave is stunning!
Galaga fighter capture
Fighter capture looks impressive!

Here’s a preview video showing the game in action and talking about some of the technical details:

As a Galaga fan, I really want a copy. As a game developer, I’m impressed with the effort and execution it takes to get a game looking and playing this good on such limited hardware. It simply shouldn’t be possible on an Atari VCS, which only has 5 hardware sprites plus backgrounds, and nowhere near enough CPU or memory to handle all the complex movement that is required to accurately re-create a Galaga experience.

How do they do it? Well, I asked them. And they were nice enough to answer: they build a cartridge with an ARM CPU in it, and it augments the Atari’s built-in hardware, and this is how they’re able to create games that are vastly superior to what should normally be possible with the 2600 console alone.

My response to this was disappointment, and I said as much. But I think it came off the wrong way and more than one person jumped on me for saying something negative about what is otherwise an exciting project for fans of the Atari and of Galaga. No one was particularly brutal toward me, but the creators behind the project were a bit nicer than their fans, and engaged with me and we had an interesting conversation on the philosophy of homebrew, and how their technology works. I want to thank them for that, and for creating such great games for the Atari 2600 in 2019, and keeping the system alive more than 40 years after it launched. I have a copy of Scramble and am really looking forward to playing Galaga and Zookeeper (another favorite classic arcade game) when they’re ready.

So, first things first, from a gamer’s standpoint, the only thing that truly matters is the game experience itself. It doesn’t matter what technology is inside of it, or how amazing, complicated, or messy the engineering is. The only thing that matters is the experience you have when you play the game. If it’s fun, if it’s polished, it’s a good game. End of story. And that’s exactly why I’m excited about buying a copy of this when it’s ready for release.

Now, as to my disappointment. At first I thought I was seeing something impossible, and I was really keen to hear how they had managed it. The solution of adding an ARM to the system architecture of the VCS is fine, nothing wrong with it. But it’s not amazing. My disappointment was from the vantage point of the programmer, who was mind-boggled at how this team had managed to get so much performance out of a 6507 CPU backed by 128 bytes of RAM. Well, they didn’t. They bolted on a 70 MHz ARM CPU, and got it to talk to the rest of the system, and while that also requires some neat engineering, it’s not magical in the way that somehow figuring out how to get 3x Zilog Z80’s worth of performance (which is what powered the original arcade Galaga machines) out of a MOS 6507.

That’s really all I meant by what I said. I don’t consider it “cheating” to augment the console hardware by packing in additional chips on the ROM cartridge circuit board. This was done back in the day, and was very necessary in order to extend the life of the Atari. All cartridge-based consoles that had a market life of more than a few years needed to use such tricks in order to keep their hardware competitive and relevant as computer technology doubled in speed every year.

The only real difference is that these augmentations were done using chips that were comparable (or at least within 1 generation) of the capability of the original hardware. They truly did augment the system. Whereas, with a 32-bit ARM CPU, you really could build a system around that chip alone, and do more than you could by interfacing it to a 40-year old Atari system architecture that forces it to slow down and work within the constraints of its design. I mean, with a 70MHz 32-bit ARM CPU, it should be possible to do an arcade-perfect emulation of the original arcade hardware, or if not then to certainly come much closer to that than what you can get by running the I/O and video drawing through an Atari VCS. So, rather than the ARM augmenting the Atari, the Atari is kindof bringing down the ARM. This doesn’t matter if you’re nostalgic for the Atari and like the feel of a CX40 joystick in your hands and the crude graphical style just barely possible with the 6507-driven TIA. If you don’t know or don’t care about the engineering, it just looks and feels like the best damn Galaga port you could imagine, running on an Atari 2600, and actually quite a bit better looking than anything you would have thought possible if you did know the system’s capabilities.

But really, it’s almost all due to the ARM chip’s capabilities, which are many times the power of the rest of the system.

I suppose one could take an Atari 2600 controller, put a wifi chip in it, and have it interface with Google’s Stadia console-in-the-cloud, and run Assassin’s Creed, downsampled and graphically degraded, through the Atari, as well. And… actually hell yes, that would be cool as fuck. I want to buy that too. But it’s a different kind of cool to hook an Atari up to a cloud supercomputer platform than it would be to somehow squeeze Assassin’s Creed into 4 KB of ROM, if that were even possible.

I thought about how to express this properly, and the best analogy I could come up with is the stage magician David Copperfield. In 1983, David Copperfield performed a magic act where he made the Statue of Liberty “disappear”. Of course, he didn’t really make it disappear. It was an optical illusion done with misdirection, a rotating stage, and some very bright lights.

If he had somehow teleported the Statue of Liberty, and then brought it back, or if he had somehow made the Statue of Liberty disappear, how awesome would that have been? Whether by real “magic” or by some super-advanced technology that no one else had yet heard of, that would have been beyond amazing. It would have changed the world we lived in, in untold ways. But it didn’t. He just set up some elaborate rotating stage, hid everything behind curtains for over an hour while everything was being moved into position.

Eight year old me was captivated by the idea of a giant statue disappearing and reappearing, whether through magical or advanced technological means. A couple years later, though, I was old enough to realize it wasn’t “real” magic, and that it was some kind of “cheap” trick (well, relative to the cost of really doing it, anyway), and wasn’t as impressive as I had thought, and as a kid you really hate being lied to, you hate being fooled. It makes you feel embarrassed and dumb, and you want to hide the fact that you ever thought it was cool.

So for a long time after that, I kindof had this grudge against David Copperfield, and stage magic, and whenever I’d see someone pulling off some sleight of hand or optical illusion trick, I’d get annoyed and impatiently insist that magic is bullshit, and refuse to be impressed by it, because I wasn’t some fool. For maybe a year or two, I had believed that we were on the cusp of a Star Trek-promised future, with instant teleportation, or at least invisibility shields. That would have been so cool. But no, we didn’t get that.

Well, now that I’m 43, I’m back to being impressed at how convincing an optical illusion David Copperfield could create with just some lights, scaffolding, cranes, and a rotating stage that moved slowly and gently enough that an entire audience didn’t notice they were moving. Even if the entire trick required the cameras filming it to be positioned just right. That still took some serious engineering effort, and even for as limited as the result was as compared to true invisibility or teleportation, when you realize all the work and planning that had to go into it, that’s still pretty damn impressive — just in a different direction completely than I had been (mis)lead in the first place.

So this is what I meant by “disappointed” when I found out that Champ Games puts an ARM CPU in a cartridge and through some impressive engineering hacks gets it to talk in sync with the console and run a game that blows most other Atari 2600 cartridges away. Sure, the game is impressive and it’s certainly going to be fun to play. On the other hand, a ARM CPU is in a different “weight class” from a typical ROM cartridge with perhaps a little extra RAM or a sound chip soldered onto the board. This isn’t to take anything away from the experience of the game, or the technical wizardry required to build it.

But it’s a bit like putting a 1000cc engine into a go kart and then winning a go kart race with it against a bunch of stock go karts. It’s still a pretty cool project to put a 1000cc engine in a go kart, but when you find out that’s why that kart was so much faster than the others, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed that the secret wasn’t some method of suping up a 50cc lawnmower engine to get the performance of the 1000cc engine. And then you realize that the chassis of the go kart really limits how much performance you can actually get out of that 1000cc engine, compared to something engineered to get the most out of it, like, say a state of the art motorcycle chassis, transmission, wheels, etc. And then the super kart seems, well, it seems pretty fun still, but kinda wasteful of the potential of that engine.

When it comes to chip enhanced ROM cartridges, I think it’s fair to say that, at least from an engineering standpoint, once you get to the point where the enhancement hardware is not only more capable than the console itself, but is actually held back by the restrictions imposed by having to interface with the console, such that you’re exceeding the console’s limits, but not able to push the expansion hardware anywhere close to its limits, you’re at a cutoff point. While it’s entirely possible to create an awesome game experience this way, you’re really at a point where you’re well beyond the capabilities of the console, and the console is holding you back. At that point, you might as well engineer a new system.

The only practical reason not to engineer a new system would be if the existing install base for the obsolete console is still a viable market; the work it takes to establish such an install base with a next-generation system is considerable. But this is a business consideration, not an engineering consideration. And business considerations aren’t less legitimate than engineering considerations, but obviously businesses do at some point make the decision to roll out a new generation of console hardware. Which is why we’ve had several of those in the intervening 40 years.

And of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing it “just to do it”, in the way mountaineers climb the tallest mountain they can find “because it’s there”.

Update: ROMs for Galaga are now available for download.

Analogue Mega Sg arrives a week early

Analogue was announcing that their new Mega Sg, a FPGA-based Sega Genesis clone, would be shipping in April. But I was pleasantly surprised to receive mine, preordered a few months ago when they were announced, early last week, only a day or two after early bird reviews started hitting my favorite YouTube channels.

It’s pointless for me to do a review after GameSack and My Life In Gaming so thoroughly covered every conceivable aspect of the system, but I’m pleased and impressed that Analogue delivered this not just on-time, but a week early. And really, when they told me April, I was expecting it would be more like mid or late April, which makes this about a month early. In an age of crowdfunded preorder projects that are always later than projected, this impresses me. Kudos to Analogue.

Atari VCS hardware refresh announcement… lol

So, Atari… remember them?

Yeah, they’re still at it. After about a year of relative silence from the VCS project, the other day they made a Big Announcement, which is that they are delaying the project to late 2019.

Surprise! No, not really. Everyone pretty much called this before they finished their initial round of crowdfunding.

But, so as to be able to spin this delay as a positive thing, they are changing the hardware specs to a more powerful system. Still not world beating hardware by any means, not that it ever needed to be. And more is always better, I guess. But I don’t think the actual hardware is all that relevant to this product. Really, it’s just taking a commodity small form factor AMD64 architecture system, and putting it in a nice looking case that evokes the classic, original Atari VCS. Basically, Atari can place an order with AMD to produce the boards and chips, and install them in custom designed cases that they can pay an injection mold company to manufacture, and pay someone else to assemble them.

Atari’s real job is to focus on the software, the operating system, user environment, and the games. Especially the games. And their announcement was, again, suspiciously silent on these topics.

We know the OS will be a linux distribution, with some kind of customized desktop environment designed to provide a good user experience as a game console.

We know that they will include some emulator(s) to enable playing of classic Atari-era games. We know that there are already dozens of platforms that already do this, so while it’s nice, and to be expected, it doesn’t seem to me that this is a compelling reason for anyone to buy an Atari VCS. Atari Classics have been repackaged and resold on every platform for decades, since the NES and Game Boy. While keeping these games around and still available is great, if you already have them on an older system, Atari have to do something extra-special to make them compelling to consumers to make them want to buy them again, like online leaderboards, social media integration, video streaming integration, something. And we’ve heard nothing about it for about two years since they made their crowdfunding goal.

We know that Atari wants to provide modern reinterpretations of classic Atari games. Apart from Tempest 4K, we haven’t heard anything. And Tempest 4K is already out, and has been for about a year now, on the PlayStation 4 and other platforms. Non-exclusive updated classics will not move units. Why would anyone spend $300 on yet another console when they can just buy the game for a console they already own?

We also know they’re supposed to be shipping modern reinterpretations of the classic Atari CX40 joystick, a modern-looking gamepad with Atari aesthetics, and (one would hope, but I have yet to see anything about this) some kind of paddle controller, but there’s been no mention of these either.

So, another year has gone by, and Atari just announces that they’re revising the hardware specs, before they even got the original hardware specs out the door. And we still have no idea what’s going to run on this system, beyond vague “It will run Linux” and barely anything, really next to nothing, about the actual games. Which is the whole reason anyone buys a game console, to play the games.

This is sad, and exactly what I expected from the beginning.

I would have really enjoyed a resurgent Atari with new games based on classic IPs, too.

Google Stadia: impressions

Google recently announced a new game platform, called Stadia, at the 2019 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, CA.

It can run though any device that is capable of running Chrome, which means that they already have a huge install base ready to consume. This should make the service very lucrative, potentially, as there’s almost barrier to trying the service out. It streams over high speed internet, meaning that there’s no need for any hardware beyond what is necessary to run a web browser, nothing new to buy, well, except for the gamepad. Which, see below.

Streaming

I’m immediately disinterested in any game platform that I can’t own in the traditional, tangible sense of own. Streaming games do not appeal to me. I like physical media, I like the ability to go back and play old games that I own, whenever I wish. Streamed content is always in the control of the vendor, and is subject to updating, being discontinued, and so on. There’s no guarantee that streaming resources will continue to stream forever, and it’s virtually certain that at some point the stream will either “run dry” or stream something different than original.

The downside (I guess) of traditional owned-media is that over time you accumulate a vast library which becomes difficult to store and manage, and may deteriorate over time. If you don’t like it, you can always sell it, trade it in, give it away, or throw it in the trash, so I don’t really see why that would be a downside, but if you’re a collector like I am, you like the fact that you can keep old tech and go back and use it 10, 20, 30, even 40 or more years after it’s no longer being supported, as long as the devices that drive it continue to function or be repairable.

But that’s just me. There seems to be a lot of evidence to suggest that a convenient, well-managed service would be popular and profitable with consumers who don’t all care about history and preservation as much as I do. Look at Netflix. They are doing very well, and while people are occasionally bummed out when Netflix drops a movie from its offerings, that doesn’t seem to stop them from having a profitable business selling subscriptions to a service. If Google nails the execution, there’s no reason to believe they won’t likewise be as successful, if not more.

The controller

A very standard, generic looking dual analog stick gamepad. Initial impressions are that it doesn’t look especially comfortable in the hand compared to the competition. Google didn’t need to innovate here, gamepad design is pretty mature today, even if companies like Nintendo continue to dare to try new ideas (Switch, Wii U, Wii). Still, I’m not sure why Google would emphasize their controller given that it is so very unremarkable in its design. Given that the controller appears to offer nothing new, one wonders why Stadia wouldn’t simply leverage any/all existing “standard” dual-stick gamepads.

To answer that question, there are two additional buttons: a youtube integration button, and a help button. The help button enables gamers to request help with overcoming some part of the game, somehow, without having to leave the game. Which, I guess is appealing, but man, I’m gonna miss the brutal, unforgiving difficulty, and the completely arcane hidden secrets that you can only figure out if someone tells you what to do, so you had to go buy a book or magazine that made you want to kill yourself from the NES and Atari era. I guess the help button takes the place of the magazine, but it’s just not going to be the same. The youtube button makes it so easy to set up a gamer streaming channel that everyone in the world can do it, which means billions of youtube channels that no one will be able to wade through to find the good ones. Probably. This will likely also kill the professional youtuber/patreon beggar gig that so many of the popular streamers have been doing for the past few years. I guess that’s maybe a bit harsh, naive, and premature, but the bottom line it will become very competitive and difficult to differentiate yourself from other random streamers, so the ones that will stand out will have to be unbelievably good and work very hard to attract and keep an audience.

Do we need another gaming platform?

I’m intrigued by anything Google does, and they have the resources and innovative thinking to do things that few other companies can. That said, I’m not really seeing a need for yet another new game platform. Whether Google can differentiate itself from Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Steam, etc. remains to be seen. While it’s hard to bet against a company with the resources that Google has, they’ve had notable failed ventures in the past: Wave, Plus, etc. and have been known to discontinue even popular projects (Reader) leaving fans with little recourse. Will it work? Probably. Even if it doesn’t, it’ll probably be a few years before Google pulls the plug on it or pivots to something else. But it seems like they’re serious about competing in this already-crowded sphere.

It will be interesting to watch.

The Writing on the Wall

What really strikes me about this is, if Google can stream applications as powerful and resource hungry and demanding as videogames, instantly, anywhere, they can do that for any software. What does this say about IT departments in every other company on the planet? We’re pretty much obsolete at that point, aren’t we? It might be a good time to think about early retirement, and finding a second career. Maybe a livestreaming channel.

Game review: Tetris 99

I bought a Nintendo Switch about a month ago.

Since buying it, I’ve only played one game, so far: Tetris 99.

I’m a long-time fan of Tetris. I played it on my NES ever since 1989. I’m decent, but not great at it. My skill tops out around level 13 or so in the NES original. I can cruise comfortably up to about level 9 or so. My best efforts these days are about 1/4 what it would take to qualify for the Tetris World Championships, as I found out when I was at Portland Retro Gaming Expo last October.

Chances are excellent that you need no introduction to Tetris. It’s only the most famous and successful videogame ever. Blocks fall, you rotate and drop them to complete lines and clear them from the well. Everyone is born knowing this now.

Tetris 99 takes the classic mechanics and puts you up against 99 other players in a battle royale. It’s amazing how quickly a new tournament can get ready. It seems that at any given time, there is always at least 100 Tetris 99 players ready to go within a minute’s notice.

That’s incredible. I don’t know how it’s possible, but you never seem to have to wait more than a minute or two for the next game to start. Nintendo has sold 8.7 million Switch consoles since launch. The subset of Switch owners who are playing Tetris 99 at any given moment must be considerable. If we assume every Switch owner is playing Tetris 99 24/7, that works out to 6250 tetris players per minute of the day. Obviously, Switch owners are playing lots of different games, and not playing 24/7, but even so, the fraction who are playing Tetris 99 might well be around 1/62 of the total install base. So, just maybe, it really is plausible that in the real world that you can get 99 players for a pickup game at a minute’s notice. But I’m still amazed that it’s consistently the case every time I want to play another round. Perhaps they’re filling slots with bots? I wonder.

The tetris gameplay is fine. I wouldn’t say there’s any major problems with it. If I want to nitpick, though, I could think of a few things:

First, it’s a bit too easy at times to accidentally hit Up on the control cross, and instantly hard drop your block right where you didn’t want to. Maybe I’m just clumsy, maybe my hands are too big to work with the joycon. But I’ve also played a lot with the Pro Wireless controller, and I still have issues. And from what I’ve read, it’s not uncommon.

Second there’s no tutorial or guide built into the game, and this seems like a real oversight. In the NES era, Nintendo’s first-party games always had outstanding manuals, with higher page count than any other publisher, and high quality content inside. While Tetris may need no introduction or explanation, the competitive aspects that they’ve introduced could use some explanation. Sadly, this is lacking.

Fortunately, you can still get a good experience from Tetris 99 by just playing Tetris, overlook the new features and still have a fun time. That said, it’d be good to appreciate the new features and understand them!

So, to fix the missing manual, here’s what I understand:

  • On either side of the Tetris playfield, you see mini thumbnails of the 99 competitors.
  • You can (in theory, less in practice) tell how well you’re doing relative to the competition by seeing the stack size, see who’s in trouble, and see their Badges. Typically, I’m too busy worrying about the next falling block to look around and check on 98 other opponents.
  • When you complete lines, it sends garbage rows to whomever you’re targeting: 0 if for a 1-line completion, 1 for a 2-line completion, 2 for a 3-line completion, and 4 for a 4-line completion.
    • The garbage rows don’t pop up under your opponent’s stack immediately — rather there’s a timer that counts down, to give a player fair warning.
    • If you have incoming garbage, and you manage to complete rows while the timer is counting down, it will deduct the incoming garbage so you don’t have to deal with it, rather than sending garbage to your targets.
  • Targeting isn’t explained in the non-existent manual, and this is the thing that players should really understand in order to fare well in the battle. Using the right analog stick, you can select between:
    • Random (the default option), randomly attacking one of the 99 opponents out of whoever’s still left,
    • Attackers, counter-attacking those players who are targeting you,
    • Badges, targeting players who have a lot of badges, or
    • Killshots, targeting players who are close to elimination.
  • Eliminating a player awards you with Badges, and the more badges you acquire, the more “damage” you deal out when you complete lines.
  • If you eliminate a player who has badges, you claim their badges and add them to your own. So it’s smart to target players who are close to eliminated, and players who have a lot of badges, to maximize your badges. It can also be effective to counter-attack your attackers, and perhaps dissuade them from targeting you, or if not hopefully eliminate them before they eliminate you.
  • You can also target an individual game using the left analog stick. Who you’re targeting is denoted by the lines connecting the bottom of your playfield to one of the opponents’ playfields in the background. Or maybe that’s who’s targeting you, I’m not quite sure. Sometimes I see multiple lines targeting me, and it’s unclear what’s going on.
  • Hard Drop: This feature isn’t in OG Tetris, but if you’ve played a modern implementation, you’re probably already used to it. Press up to instantly drop the piece in play to the botton and lock it into position. This enables much faster play, which is essential to competitive battle. It can take some time to get used to it, if you’ve never used it before. But if you’ve played a modern Tetris in the last, I don’t know, 15 or so years, maybe, chances are you know about this already. There’s also a convenient “ghost” block that shows where the piece will lock into position if you hard drop it. This is really helpful and will enable you to be more precise and cut down on mistakes.
  • Hold block: Another handy feature that wasn’t there in OG Tetris. This is a holding cell that can be filled with a piece, taking it out of play until you need it. Press the left shoulder button to add the current active piece to the Hold. Press again to swap the held piece for the current piece. Grab those I-blocks when you can, and hold them for when you’re ready to deal out the damage with a 4-line Tetris move. Or put a piece that’s currently a problem on hold, and play it later when you’ve got a clean landing spot for it.

One thing about the Targeting feature, I find that after a certain point I’m pretty much only able to focus on positioning my next block, and can’t devote any mental capacity or time to retargeting. It’d be neat if targeting were also possible through Controller 2, so that a second player could assist me by targeting opponents intelligently while I focus on falling blocks. Wouldn’t that be a cool 2p-coop mode?

My only other nitpick with Tetris 99 is that there’s only one background music for the game. Technically there’s one track for when you’re in game, and one track for between games. But I would have really liked to have seen a variety of tracks, remixing and revamping the old classic Tetris BGM, and giving me some variety. Having the same song for every game gets repetitive and feels skimpy.

I’ve managed to place as high as 4th in round, but more typically I tend to finish in the top 50-20 range. It just depends on how good of a game I’m having, and how many players are targeting me.

After taking this picture with my smartphone, I discovered that the Switch has a built-in screen capture button with social media integration. Slick!

I doubt I’ll ever be able to win a round, though, as the game becomes impossibly fast for me when the second speedup happens, with 10 players remaining. When this happens, I’m hopeless and bound to make mistakes quickly, busting out in short order. Still, it could happen if I get into the Top 10 with an extremely clean stack and my opponents are all close to KO.

While I wouldn’t say that Tetris 99 is worth the cost of the entire console, I will say that it’s definitely worth the price of the subscription to Nintendo’s Switch Online services. Considering that Tetris 99 is a free game, but cannot be played without the subscription, it’s just what Nintendo needed to get people to sign up. At $20/year, it’s not expensive, and well worth it for Tetris 99 alone.

New “Link’s Awakening” triggers debate on remakes

It seems a lot of forum activity has been generated by yesterday’s announcement by Nintendo about the remake of Link’s Awakening on the Nintendo Switch.

In short, it seems that a significant number of fans are not in favor of the remake for one reason or another. Mostly this can be summed up as: “It’s not the exact same game as the original.”

Which, is true. The remake completely changes the graphics style, from the old 2-D look of the Game Boy original to something almost claymation-like, using a fixed 3/4 perspective, but with 3D models done in a cartoonish style. It remains to be seen what other changes are in store, and whether they are good or bad. It’s rather likely that the game will play differently in some respects, whether due to differences in the game engine, or changes in the design of the game.

I happen to love the way the new graphics look, so this doesn’t bother me. I liked the original graphics, too. And if I want to play the original game, I still can, and so can anyone with a the original hardware or a decent emulator.
But it seems that, among Zelda fans, there’s a certain segment who prefer the graphics to look “serious” — like Ocarina of Time, Skyward Sword, Breath of the Wild, etc., and not “cartoony” like Wind Waker or Four Swords Adventures. Somehow, original LoZ pleases both camps, and Link’s Awakening is in the vein of LoZ and Zelda 3: A Link to the Past. And I guess the new look for Link’s Awakening is too cartoony for them. This does not bother me. I like good art direction, and that can be “serious” or “cartoony” or something else.

It’s certainly true that many attempts at re-making some original classic game fail to capture what was special about the original game. It’s tempting to try to re-imagine something that was very, very good, thinking that adding something more will make it even better. Often that’s not the case.

Certainly, there’s a built-in expectation that a remake has to live up to, which a fresh new game doesn’t, and this can offset whatever advantage the remake had in being based off of a familiar, known, successful game. It can be very easy to mess up by deviating from the original in the wrong way. For example, updating the graphics in a style that fans don’t like, or likewise with the music. But worse would be a major change in the story, something that violates canon or continuity, or is just a change that upsets fans by breaking an unwritten contract to keep the game authentic to the characters and world that Fandom has already accepted. And perhaps the gravest mistake would be failing to ensure that the controls feel tight and responsive and give the game a good feel, ideally something virtually identical to the original. There’s nothing like tasting someone else’s attempt at your favorite recipe that your mom made when you were a kid, and no matter what they do it’s always just slightly off in a way that, even if it’s not bad, it prevents you from accepting it. I think that’s ultimately what makes fans of the original all but impossible to please when it comes to embracing a remake.

But that’s not to say that remaking a game is always a bad thing. I don’t view a remake as an attempt to replace or supplant the original. Rather, I look at it like in the way I look at theater: A playwright can write a play, and it can be performed by an original troupe of actors. And other theater companies can put on productions of the same play. Some may try to do it exactly the way the original was done, following a tradition, while others may stray and experiment. Some will be good, some will not. But it’s not like people shouldn’t continue to put on performances of Shakespeare just because purists who were fans of the original will find something not to like about it. And of course people should continue to write new, original scripts. The entertainment industry is large enough, and the audience is large enough, to sustain both.

Ultimately, it will come down to how the game plays. It’s only fair to judge the remake based on what it is, and not what it’s not. And to be clear, it will not be:

  • The same as the original.
  • A brand new, original game.
  • Different from the original in exactly the way everyone would like it to be.

Will it be worthy? That remains to be seen, and will be a matter of opinion and consensus. But I’m excited about it.