I’m about halfway through Once Upon Atari: How I Made History By Killing an Industry by Howard Scott Warshaw, and loving it.
Howard Scott Warshaw, if you didn’t know, was a programmer for Atari in the early 80s. He worked in their console division, where he developed the games Yar’s Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600. These were groundbreaking games on the most popular home console of its day, and accomplished many “firsts”.
In 1983, the video game market suddenly collapsed, due to a combination of a multitude of factors, but at the time Warshaw’s E.T. was often given blame for causing what came to be known as the “Great Crash of ’83’. E.T. has often been referred to as “the worst video game of all time” but that is quite unfair to the game, which pushed the limits of the Atari 2600 hardware, and while not perfect, was by no means a bad game — although it was drastically over-produced by Atari, leading to a huge amount of unsold inventory, which hurt the company’s bottom line. Warshaw was given 5 weeks to develop the game, a feat thought by his managers to be impossible given that most Atari 2600 games took about 6 months to develop.
This is all well known and chronicled history for video game fans. Warshaw to his credit has been remarkably accessible and open about his story for some time, and has given numerous interviews over the years. He’s even been known to appear on the Atari Age facebook page and comment once in a while. He’s truly a legend of the industry, and a wonderful, brilliant human being. This book details his story, how he came to work for Atari, what went on there during his tenure (confirming a lot of the oft-retold stories about the workplace culture), and how he faced the indignity of being cast as the creator of the “worst game of all time”.
Warshaw left Atari and went on to become a licensed psychotherapist and has helped people like himself, who worked in the high tech field to deal with the immense pressures that they’re put under to be creative, be correct, and deliver products that will make billions of dollars for themselves or their shareholders.
I haven’t gotten to that part of the book yet, but from what I already know of his story, his approach to dealing with failure, or at least the perception that he had been responsible in large part for a massive and very public failure of what had just a year prior been the fastest growing company in the history of the world, is remarkable as it is instructive. He has embraced the label, but adds to it that his Yar’s Revenge is often cited as one of the best video games on the Atari, thus giving him the rightful claim to having the greatest range of any game developer. Turning a negative into a badge of pride, he has faced the critics, rebutted them with not just clever rhetoric, but also facts, figures, and sound reasoning, and provides us an example of how “failure” often isn’t failure, that perceptions matter, that what you tell yourself matters, and that above all it does not define us — we have the power, if we choose to use it, to define ourselves.
Warshaw’s writing style is accessible, not overly technical, candid, often quite humorous, warm and insightful. Reading his book makes me admire him even more than I did, and grateful for the handful of times that he’s Liked something that I’ve said on the Atari Age facebook page, and most of all, thankful for the many hours I spent as a young child engaging with, and enthralled by, his digital creations.
Usually we hate to forget things. But one of the best things about being able to forget is that you can have a cherished experienced again as though for the first time.
REDDER was a game by indie game developer Anna Anthropy and first released on the web in 2010. I played it for the first time not long after, and it remains to this day one of my favorite puzzle platform games. Few games have made me want to design my own games as much as REDDER, and that’s perhaps the highest compliment I can think of to give it.
I’ve re-played it multiple times since then, and always enjoy it so much.
This year is the first year that Adobe has ended support for Flash, the technology that REDDER was originally built on. I have written previously on the impending death of Flash, and what that means for tens of thousands of video games that were built with it during its 25+ year history.
I feared that this would result in a vast, rich cultural legacy becoming more and more inaccessible. I still fear that. Adobe didn’t just drop support for Flash, didn’t just cease continuing development of it. They pulled the plug. Browsers stopped supporting it, so now in order to run Flash objects in a browser, one needs to keep an outdated browser. This of course has its own problems, and very few people will continue do do it. Moreover, as the userbase moves into a post-flash browser-scape, web hosts will over time have less and less incentive to continue hosting legacy Flash experiences, and in time perhaps the only ones that will persist will be deliberate historical preservation efforts.
That’s a damn shame, because REDDER belongs in the Smithsonian, or the Library of Congress, or both.
Fortunately, Anna Anthropy has re-packaged Redder, in a desktop OS format that wraps a Flash player into stand-alone application, and allows it to be enjoyed on Windows and Mac OS X. It is available for $5 on itch.io, and is worth every penny.
What a beautiful thing it is that I can forget this game just enough to be able to come back to it and experience it again, re-discovering the solutions to the maze and helping my little space explorer friend in their quest to collect all the diamonds to replenish his stranded spaceship.
The platforming is basic. You move, you jump, that’s it. There’s no wall jumps, no edge hanging, no coyote time, it’s pure basic simple. There’s no shooting, no destroying enemies. Your only tools are your brain, to figure out how to get past obstacles and get to where you need to go, and your agility, to accomplish the task. There are save points, to make the deadly obstacles a lot less annoying. There are switches to flip, which toggle special colored platforms into and out of existence, which serve as doors and platforms that block your way or create bridges to access deeper reaches of the world or traverse deadly obstacles to add an element of risk to the challenges you’ll face. When one type is on, the other type is off. And together they serve as the building block of the platform puzzles you’ll need to solve to win the game.
As you progress through the game, the graphics and music begin to glitch. It’s subtle at first, a tile here and there, and it adds an element of mystery to the game. As you continue to collect diamonds, the glitching increases, until, near the end the entire game is out of control with random tile animations. When the final diamond is collected, the entire facade is stripped bare, and everything turns into raw collision boxes, color coded — a clean, pure visual language.
There are only three types of hazard in the game: patrolling robots, which traverse horizontally and are deadly to touch but never react to your presence in any other way; “drip guns”, which shoot deadly pellets that you must duck, jump, or otherwise avoid with good timing, and electrical fields which don’t move and must be avoided.
For all its simplicity, the game provides an engaging challenge to find your way through the complex, maze-like alien world, and collect all 27 diamonds.
One thing I love about REDDER is that there are no locks. You start out with all your powers, and apart from the switch platforms that are the only real puzzles blocking your progress, there’s nothing preventing you from doing anything, going anywhere that you can go in the game, from start to finish.
What I love about this is that this forces the design to challenge you in ways other than “oh if you get the item, you can get past this”. This comes down to understanding the map — the twisting, interconnected pathways connecting the grid of screens that comprise the world of REDDER, how platforms and switches relate to one another, flipping switches in the correct order to allow passage, and having a modest desgree of skill to master the timing and agility needed to make the jumps and avoid the dangers.
It’s a casual play — I would call the vibe relaxing. The music is soothing and evokes a spirit of exploration and puzzle solving. The game provides a fun challenge without relying on fear, anxiety, or frustration. Toward the end of the game, as the graphics and background music become increasingly glitch-ified, the game does start to produce a bit of anxiety. If you’re playing the game late at night, it can almost feel like your lack of sleep is to blame for the game’s breaking down. I really like this. To me it is the “something extra” that gives the game a memorable mystery, a question left unanswered, which both frees and empowers the player to come up with their own explanation, should they choose to.
Additionally there are three secret hidden rooms off-map. These serve no purpose other than to delight you for finding them, and perhaps provide a clue or an auteur’s signature.
It seems there have been a few changes from the original in this version. I don’t remember these secret rooms having these messages — a web search reveals that the original REDDER had secret rooms with the words “ANNA” “TRAP” and “PART”. TRAP and PART are of course pairs that make a palindrome, and ANNA is a palindrome, and REDDER is a palindrome. There’s something up with palindromes in this game.
But I don’t know what ROB? OWOR and BORR mean. It makes me wonder what else may have changed, and why the changes were made.
Donkey Kong is the foundation of a modern business empire, a cultural cornerstone, the genesis story of the Marioverse. Not liking Donkey Kong is something akin to blasphemy. I gave it a shot. I wanted to like it. But I just never liked it.
I first played Donkey Kong when it was new, in the Arcade, on Atari, and ColecoVision, and I never considered it one of my favorites. It was a smash hit when it came out, sold tens of thousands of arcade cabinets, swallowed hundreds of millions of quarters, sold millions of cartridges on home consoles, and been ported to just about every console of its generation and the next few after. It was groundbreaking, both technically and in terms of game mechanics and narrative.
I recognize all of that, and I still don’t care for the game. I respect it for its accomplishments, but yet I don’t like it. I can’t enjoy playing it.
This isn’t merely a statement of opinion or taste; I don’t enjoy playing Donkey Kong, and I don’t find it to be a particularly well-designed game.
Let’s talk about that.
Barrels – the first screen
Donkey Kong is very difficult and unforgiving. Part of its difficulty stems from the tight window for clearing dangerous obstacles, and the narrow clearance for successful jumps. But much of it comes from design choices that tend to make the game feel unfair.
Jumping is the key mechanic around which the whole game is based. Yet, the jumping mechanic is rough. When you jump, you can’t change direction or height, so you’re committed to the path of the jump until you land. This makes jumping risky and hard. When you make a mistake, there’s no second chances. You know you’re going to die, and there’s nothing you can do but watch and wait for it.
You can’t jump very high — just the exact height to clear a barrel or fireball, and the exact distance to clear two barrels if they’re right next to each other… barely. Miss a jump by a little bit and you’re dead.
On the first screen, some of the ramps look like they might be close enough together to allow Jumpman to jump up to the next platform from the one below, but that is not permitted. You can only ascend to the next platform by climbing a ladder.
Not that you’d normally ever want to, but you can’t jump down from the edge of a ramp to the one below, either — the height is not great, but it will still kill you.
If you jump off a platform, you die if you fall just a short distance. Jumpman can’t survive falling any farther than the peak height of his jump.
You can’t get off a ladder until you get allll the way up to the top of it, or allll the way to the bottom. Very often, you’ll think you’re there, and try to move left or right, only to find that you’re still locked onto the ladder and unable to move. A better design would have been to treat horizontal joystick input as continuing Jumpman’s previous climbing direction, moving him the rest of the way up/down the ladder until he is clear.
There’s no jumping from a ladder, either. Allowing this would make the game play feel less stiff, and give the player greater control and flexibility. It seems like Jumpman should maybe be able to reach up from the lower ladder to grab the bottom rung of the upper half and climb up, or to jump off from the top of the broken ladder to get some extra distance and height out of the move. And, surely, if only he could only jump vertically from the top of the ladder, you’d be able to reach the top half and continue up. But no, he can’t do any of these things.
Some of the ladders are broken, turning the ladder into a deadly dead-end. You can climb up them, but only get part-way. Even if you’re at the very top rung of the bottom half of a broken ladder, barrels rolling by below you will still hit you and kill you, even though you’re well off the ground. It’d be nice if the game gave you a break and decided there was enough clearance that you could be safe here. And a barrel that decides to roll down from the platform above and take the ladder path will also kill you. If it does, there’s no way you have time to get out of the way in time; you’re a sitting duck You’re stuck on the broken ladder until you backtrack down and get off. If you could jump off the ladder, or jump to clear the gap where the ladder broke, you’d have one more option, open up possibilities, a chance to dodge out of the way, and it would make the game feel a little more fair. But Donkey Kong doesn’t give this to you.
The Hammer power-up allows Jumpman to fight back against the barrels and fireballs that are his bane, and earn extra points. But this comes at a cost.
Jumpman can’t climb ladders with the hammer, and cannot jump. This means he is stuck on the platform where he grabbed the hammer, for as long as the hammer persists.
The hammer is a temporary item, which runs on a timer that ends after a few seconds, but without warning. You can be right about to smash a barrel when suddenly the hammer disappears, leaving you defenseless and no time to jump out of the way. And if that happens, again you have no choice but to die. This feels unfair. To fix this problem, the game should give the player a cue to let them know that their hammer time is about to expire — blinking or an audio signal would be helpful. And maybe if the game detects that Jumpman is facing a barrel, and it is within a “close enough” distance just as time is about to expire, give the hammer enough extra frames before despawning it to allow the barrel to be busted, avoiding what would otherwise feel like an unfair death.
Since the levels are timed, and running out of time will kill you, and you can’t clear the level when you have the hammer because you can’t climb with it, getting the hammer can screw you if you grab it while the timer is running low.
As well, your remaining time gives you bonus points, so being forced by the hammer to wait before you can finish the level can actually cost you points, unless you can smash enough barrels/fireballs to make up for the lost bonus time, and make it worthwhile. It would be better if you could cancel the hammer early, or if you could still climb and jump while holding it. Or, perhaps hitting the jump button while holding the hammer could make Jumpman throw the hammer, giving you a useful way to cancel it early, and a ranged attack that could come in handy and give you one more option.
The hammer may make you seem invincible, but you can still be killed if a barrel gets past the hammer to touch Jumpman. Most players don’t realize this until, soon enough, they learn it the hard way. A barrel coming down a ladder can be hit by the hammer, but if it swings out of the way and the timing is just wrong, the barrel may hit Jumpman in the head before the hammer swings back up. Likewise, the rolling barrels may approach Jumpman from behind, or roll under the hammer while it is swinging above Jumpman’s head. The swinging of the hammer is automatic, not controlled by the player, so whether the hammer hits the barrel or the barrel gets through is somewhat random. Usually Jumpman will hit, but once in a while the barrel will get through. I would fix this design issue by making Jumpman invincible from the front while holding the hammer, but still let him take hits from above and the rear.
Barrel pathing is pernicious; whether a barrel will go down a ladder or continue down the ramp can’t be known for absolutely certain, but it seems that barrels are more likely to go down the ladder if you’re on the ladder, making using ladders especially deadly. It makes you paranoid to avoid starting up a ladder until any approaching barrels have cleared the ladder you need to climb. To some extent, you can manipulate the barrel AI by your position and direction, as the enemies will tend to take the path that is least advantageous to you. So by standing to one side or the other of a ladder, and facing the right direction, you can often influence the barrel to take the short path or the long path.
Barrel spacing is too random and can often kill you unfairly. Donkey Kong will sometimes roll two barrels at you too far apart to jump both together, and too close together to jump the first one and then immediately jump the next one.
Sometimes DK will toss a barrel that will go straight diagonally down the screen, ignoring collisions with the ramps. These move extremely fast and are unpredictable, making them all but impossible to dodge. If you happen to be in their path, at the top of the screen, you have almost no warning and no time to get out of the way.
Collisions with barrels will kill you with any overlap — even if you’re standing on the platform below, with your head poking above the next level, a barrel rolling along that level will collide with you and kill you. An if it passes below and clips your feet even a little, while you’re on a ladder, it’ll kill you as well. Collision boxes could have been made smaller, to make slight collisions forgiving, and allow for exciting “close calls” rather than cruel kills.
You clear this screen by popping all the rivets out of the girders, causing the structure to collapse. You clear the rivets by walking over them. This creates a narrow gap between the two rivets, really it’s just a crack. It looks narrow enough that you should easily be able to walk over it without inconvenience, much less danger. Yet, if you try, you find that Jumpman will fall through this narrow gap, to his death. This could have been nerfed by making you stop at the edge of these gaps rather than fall, or by allowing you to step over them unimpeded.
In later Mario games, Mario has the ability to fall any distance without injury, so long as he doesn’t fall into a bottomless pit. In Donkey Kong, though, Jumpman can’t fall any distance greater than the height he can jump. This means you have a lot less options and possibilities for moving around a level. The result is the controls feel stiff and uncomfortable.
You can grab a hammer on this level, as well, and if you do, you’ll be stuck walking back and forth on the girder you’re on, unable to walk over any gaps created by a missing rivet. This often means waiting for several seconds on one of the smaller side platforms, unable to climb up or down the ladders, and unable to cross the rivet gap. When you have the hammer, the fireball enemies that move around this level will often keep out of your reach, unless they happen to already be on that platform with you, seemingly waiting for your hammer time to end, so they can swarm you the instant you’re again vulnerable. If this happens, you’re often blocked from multiple sides, or facing two consecutive fireballs spaced so that you can’t clear them with any possible jump. Again, it’s like the game is designed to punish you.
I could never clear this screen as a kid, not that I got many chances to. To get to it, you have to clear Girders, Rivets, and then Girders again, making the first Elevator screen level the fourth level in the game, and by this time I’m usually out of lives.
The jumps on this screen are very unforgiving, due to the height that Jumpman will fall if he misses the moving elevator platforms that he must land on in order to make his way to the goal. If you mis-time your jump, you may miss the platform, or simply land on it after falling too far. And you don’t have to fall very far to fall too far and trigger a death when you land.
There are bonus objects to pick up on this level, and not very many other scoring opportunities. But the bonus objects are so difficult to reach it’s not really worth it. You’ll waste too much time, or miss a jump and die.
At the end of this level, there’s a bouncing spring that moves horizontally very quickly, bouncing at you before falling down the right side of the screen. This makes any approach up the level involving movement through the right side of the screen especially deadly. It takes pixel perfect timing to avoid this final obstacle, and it’s probably the hardest single challenge to negotiate in the entire game. Apparently (I say, because I’ve never done it) the way to clear this final obstacle is to wait patiently, and time your move so that you can pass through the danger zone between one spring launching and the next. Move at the wrong time, and you’re screwed. It’s possible stand in a specific spot where the spring will bounce over Mario harmlessly. I don’t think it’s possible to jump over the spring; if you can it’s almost certainly not worth the risk.
Pie Factory Screen
This screen is also known as the cement factory, or the conveyor belt screen. I don’t remember ever playing it, so I don’t really have complaints here. To get here, you need to clear 7 screens, and since I could never get past the Elevator screen in level 4, making it to the Pie Factory was far beyond my ability. It’s also the level that is often omitted from home console ports. I don’t even know what you need to do to clear this screen.
I watched some videos of people playing this level, and it looks like it might one of the more enjoyable levels. A few of the platforms are conveyor belts, which affect Jumpman’s horizontal speed when running on them, depending on which direction you’re facing, they’ll make you slower or faster. This doesn’t seem to affect your jumping ability much, though, because any other objects on these platforms are also affected by the conveyor belt speed.
At the top of the screen are two extension ladders which slide up and down according to a timed pattern. To clear the level, you have to wait for the ladders to extend up, then climb to the top-most platform. This doesn’t seem terribly difficult, although you’ll be at the mercy of the timing if there happen to be any fireball enemies nearby, you may not be able to get past them due to the timing of the ladders.
It’s hard to say without having played it, but all-in-all I think the Pie Factory might actually be one of the easier levels in the game. Which makes it seem strange/questionable that it is the last to be introduced to the player.
Lose a life and start over
On any level, if you lose a life, you start over from the start of the level you’re on. No progress is saved, no checkpoints. In order to clear the level, you have to do it perfectly, not making any lethal mistakes. This makes clearing any level which you have difficulty with especially difficult.
In a modernization, I imagine that there would be a waypoint system to allow you to keep some of the progress you make in a level. On the Rivets screen, this would be a simple matter of remembering the rivets you’ve popped. On the Elevator screen, starting Jumpman on the last platform he safely touched before dying would be helpful. On the Barrels screen, resuming exactly where you died would be nice, but if not, then at least start over on the last platform touched.
Why did Donkey Kong succeed?
Donkey Kong was one of the most successful arcade games ever, and even today it is a favorite of many gamers who appreciate the games of this period.
In 1981, arcade videogames were still quite new and had grown almost unimaginably popular after about a decade of market growth and technical development, with great interest in any new title that came out. It was a time we now look at as a golden age for the video arcade, after several years of ascendancy through the 70’s black and white era that gave way to the mega-popular blockbusters that dominated the early 80’s, games like Asteroids, Berzerk, Defender, Pac Man, Dig Dug, Joust, Galaga, and Moon Patrol. Out of all of them, only Pac Man made more money than Donkey Kong. What made it such an attraction?
Donkey Kong had the benefit of being unlike anything that had come before it, in terms of play style and technology, yet it had instant familiarity all at once, in the way it echoed the familiar King Kong story from classic cinema. It had colorful cartoon-like graphics. Its sound effects and music were charming. The game play was novel, yet intuitive, despite the brutal difficulty level. And for an arcade game, being extremely difficult was actually a good thing, since it resulted in shorter games, more credits per hour, and thus higher revenue. The challenged appealed to many gamers of the time. And there were not yet other games similar enough to compare against it, so the rough edges in the mechanics weren’t very obvious.
As one of the earliest platformer games, it broke ground and innovated, and for the time that was enough. Despite the shortcomings, rough edges, and unforgiving difficulty, it captured the minds of the public and gave them entertainment.
For all that, though, it just wasn’t for me, and I’ve come to accept that. For my quarter, Ms. Pac Man or Zookeeper is a far better play.
In 2007, Pac Man creator Toru Iwatani gave me all the reason I needed to buy an XBox 360 when Namco released his farewell game, Pac Man Championship Edition.
Easily the best Pac Man game ever made, it was a fantastic modernization of the classic game which updated the design to maximize Flow, the zen-like state of consciousness sometimes called being “in the Zone”. Featuring a split maze, where completing one side spawns a prize on the opposite side, which, when eaten, refreshes the completed side, the game is perfectly set up for non-stop maze running and high score runs, where your goal is to maximize points in a timed run through a combination of eating dots, prizes, and ghosts.
I learned yesterday that a NES demake of Pac-Man CE has been released on the latest Namco Museum anthology, available on Nintendo Switch.
The original Pac Man CE was designed for 16:9 TV screens, while the NES is obviously engineered to display its graphics on an NTSC 4:3 display at 240i resolution. So to work around the limitations, the demake uses an ingenious programming technique to scroll the maze, using the NES’s video buffer to create an infinite horizontal wrap when you use the warp tunnels.
This is a must-play, must-own if you’re a fan of Pac Man or the NES. It’s also worth owning on the Switch. Apart from online leaderboards, it is fully featured, quite faithful to the XBox 360 original, and extremely well done.
Champ Games revealed their latest project last night: an Atari 2600 port of Robotron 2084. One of the best videogames of all time.
The announcement, released through ZeroPageHomebrew’s twitch.tv stream, comes a year after Champ announced their homage to Galaga, later renamed Galagon. Champ is also working on an Atari 2600 port of early 80s arcade classics Zookeeper and Lunar Lander, both of which look fantastic even in pre-release work-in-progress states.
Champ have been consistently delivering amazing port of classic games on the Atari 2600 platform that far exceed the system’s original capabilities, and play very close to arcade-perfect. This version looks a tad bit slower and not as smooth, but is incredible considering it is running on an Atari 2600. There’s an ARM processor inside the cartridge helping out, too.
This is a must-own port of a classic game if you own an Atari 2600, and it’s on my very short list of eagerly awaited Atari 2600 games that I want but don’t have.
Even if 2020 is a complete dystopian hellscape, at least we’ll have Robotron and Zookeeper to play during our indefinite social distancing and sheltering at home. That makes it almost OK, right?
I bought a Nintendo Switch last spring, two years after launch, when Super Mario Maker 2 was announced, and I bought my obligatory copy of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the same day. And then didn’t play it until a global pandemic swept through the country and forced everyone into becoming homebodies.
I guess that’s weird, right? You should see my backlog of Steam games I have purchased but never played.
So, I’ve read reviews and know a bit about the game ahead of playing it, but I’m trying to experience this game as much as I can by figuring it out on my own, and not going to walkthrough sites and reading how to win the game. I think this is the best way to enjoy the game, because it seems like the designers meant for it to be a journey of discovery, and I want to experience it that way, and not as a list of tasks that I need to complete in order to say I’ve experienced the game.
So far, I’m liking the game. I think my response to the experience of playing BOTW is more interesting and nuanced than gushing fanboy praise. Zelda games are Top Shelf, and typically get high 90% reviews. And while they’re clearly lavish, and intended to be special, I think I’m enjoying being critical of it as well, perhaps more than I would enjoy the game if I felt nothing but awestruck by the whole thing.
I’m playing it handheld, and I wonder if maybe the small screen contributes to my feeling this way. There’s no denying the graphics are beautiful, but maybe they’d be much more impressive on a 40+” screen rather than on a 7″ or however big the Switch’s screen is.
At any rate, I started posting my progress and impressions on Facebook, and as I’ve gotten into it more, I think it’s more fun to post this sort of thing on the website too.
I haven’t done something like this before, but I think what I’ll do is continue posting to Facebook, journaling my progress in the game, and then re-publish them, cleaned up, here, later. The Facebook posts aren’t public, but these articles are. They’ll be published on a delay, so commenters won’t be able to spoil the experience for me. Hopefully this will be interesting and worthwhile for people to read along.
I get that these days the hip thing to do is stream and talk, and that’s where the monetization is (or was, for a while), but I’m a bit more old school than that, so it’ll be text, and occasionally images. Assuming I can remember to take screen caps, and then post them. While pictures are great, I’m not really here to sell the game, but to talk to my experience of it and my reflections on those experiences. And I’m not sure that images are all that necessary for this. If you’ve played the game, you know what I’m talking about.
And it’s been out almost 3 year snow, so if you haven’t, well, you should have already. What’s wrong with you?
Oh, and it goes without saying, I’m not worried about posting spoilers. The game’s been out.
Cathedral is a nostalgia-driven homage to the action-adventure platform games of the NES. If you enjoyed Capcom platformers like DuckTales, or Ghosts N Goblins, or Wizards and Warriors (by Acclaim), this is one to check out.
It looks and sounds like a NES game, but with a little extra — bigger sprites, fewer palette limitations. And the game play is pretty polished, and works with either keyboard or modern gamepad, although I definitely recommend the gamepad option. The map system, menus, and character dialogs and story scenes are all a few notches above a typical NES game, while still retaining a distinctly NES inspired flavor.
I would rate the difficulty as medium-hard, most of the challenges do not require extreme skill to overcome, but you start out with very low health, and stuff that hurts you tends to do a lot of damage, so there’s not much room for error. But it’s certainly not Ghosts N Goblins hard. The one boss fight I’ve encountered so far wasn’t too bad, and I enjoyed beating it.
I’ve been struggling through it, unable to figure out how to get past various roadblocks, to get anywhere to do anything. This is a bit frustrating, and I wish that there was an issue of Nintendo Power magazine laying on my desk that could tell me what to do.
It feels like I’m missing an item or ability that will enable me to clear these obstacles, and I have no idea where I need to go to get them. There’s a lot to explore, and a lot of missions. I’ve barely scratched the surface of it so far.
If I could fault the game for anything, it’s for not being clear enough in what to do. Visually, there are subtle indicators of what is a solid wall and what isn’t, what’s a destructible object and what isn’t, or what is a platform you can stand on and what isn’t. The visual language isn’t always as clear as I would like it to be, which leads me to feel uncertain at times. The game does have some nice in-game hinting/tutorial moments, which helps, but I feel aspects are still a bit too ambiguous.
So far, I’ve managed to exit the Cathedral, where you start out, and explore the town that you encounter next, and then everywhere else I go is an apparent dead end. There’s a graveyard, which I managed to explore a bit, a scary woods, which I can’t make any headway with, a sewer, same deal, and a library with a key that I can’t figure out how to reach. I can’t figure out how to go back to the cathedral, or if I’m supposed to.
There’s some other annoying things about the menu system, like, half the time I can not figure out how to get to the menu area that lets me exit the game. I’ve discovered it on accident 2 or 3 times, and I still can’t figure out how to get there. I finally figured it out. It’s accessed through the inventory screen, as one of the icons that you can select from your inventory. This is a pretty strange way to hide the exit menu.
So far, I like this game pretty well, and am enjoying its puzzles and missions, although I’m not sure how to proceed, and I wish some of the options available to me were a bit more obvious.
Every year, there’s always one or two indie hits that get a huge amount of attention, and this year it seems to be Untitled Goose Game.
I’ve been hearing a lot about it since its release, but prior to a few weeks ago I hadn’t heard about it at all. My first clue was when I posted that I was excited about picking up my pre-order of Link’s Awakening remake on Nintendo Switch, and one of my friends mentioned that UGG was also being released the same day.
I looked into it, and it did look darn charming.
Yesterday, I finally caved and bought the PC version and played through the first couple of scenes for a few hours.
If you needed someone to explain UGG to you, I would probably start out by saying “You know how a couple of years ago there was that Goat Simulator game that everyone was talking about and it was hilarous, because goats? Well, what’s another animal that starts with G-O?”
There you go.
But Goat Simulator and Untitled Goose are pretty different. Goat Simulator revelled in being sloppily implemented and having terrible, broken, hilarious physics. Untitled Goose, by contrast, is refined and polished. The art style of Goat Simulator recalls older 3D FPS games like Grand Theft Auto 3 or Counter-Strike. Untitled Goose has a more distinctive and original art design that looks illustrated, a bit like a children’s book, if it were drawn with scalable vector graphics and used 3D models. UGG’s physics are anything but broken, and feel like the developers were going for a more realistic simulation. The animations and the sound effects are especially well done, and I love that when you honk, you can get different audio effects by honking into, say, the well, or while holding a bottle in your beak, or into a walkie-talkie. It’s delightful when you figure out how to make use of it to accomplish some objective in the game.
The humor is likewise restrained, and feels a bit British, as do some of the cues in the design of the village. The reactions of the humans that you mess about with and the musical score are what sells the mischief. I haven’t hit an absolutely over-the-top moment in the game, yet, and I’m not sure that there is one waiting for me. I would like to be able to escalate my torment of the people in the village until they have a complete breakdown and go on a violent psychopathic rage. But this never happens. It seems like you can trigger a response by doing certain things, and that’s that. Once you’ve done it, you can do it again, but it never seems to go beyond that. Which is not to say that I’m disappointed, but something about playing this game makes me wish that I could push these poor people to their breaking point.
About two hours in to my session, I started feeling sorry for being such a naughty, horrible goose, and I started trying to make up for it. I went back to the gardner’s area and helped him pick all of his carrots. He didn’t like it at first, but once I put them neatly into the bin, he didn’t seem to mind, and just let me do it. But there wasn’t any reward for doing this, other than just the act of doing it. I kindof feel like the designers missed an opportunity there. Like, maybe if you torment the boy in the shopping area until he starts sobbing, you could do something nice for him, like bring him a lollipop that you steal from the shop, or bring his glasses or his toy plane back to him, and he’ll cheer up again, and not be afraid of you, and then you can be friends. House House, if you’re going to do an expansion pack, I kinda demand that you do a Good Goose mission set, where you get to make up for your past mischief by returning and do some good deeds to make amends.
I also wish that I could hop onto things, and fly. I can well understand why this was not permitted. Waddling is way more humorous and flight would be difficult to control. But I still would like to be able to hop up on certain things, like the park bench, or tables. I imagine it’d be quite a lot of fun to waddle along the shelves and countertops in the shop, knocking things over, breaking them, and causing a mess and a ruckus.
I’m not sure how large the game is; so far, I’ve managed to solve the puzzles on the To Do list in the first two areas, and I can see that there’s at least one more area beyond, but I haven’t quite figured out what I need to do to gain access to it. And there’s a page on my To Do list that is all question marks, which leaves me wondering what I need to do next.
To be honest, I’m a bit torn by the existence of the To Do list. On the one hand, it’s helpful to have some kind of guidance as to what I’m supposed to be doing. On the other hand, I think a huge amount of the enjoyment from a game like this is figuring out what is possible, and discovering the things that the developers put into the game for you to do all on your own, without any guidance. To me, it would be far more special to figure these things out on my own, even risking missing something very clever, or not discovering after many hours spent with the game, than to have a list telling me to do all the things, and then the only challenge left is for me to actually do it.
There’s probably a lot of things that I have yet to figure out in the game. Which is to say that although I’m trying to resist the temptation to look for walkthroughs, I could maybe use a bit of a clue with some things.
For instance, I found a coin somewhere in the village, and picked it up. I later walked past a well, and of course I tried throwing the coin down the well. It took a few tries, but eventually I managed to drop it. I didn’t hear any splash, which made me wonder why that didn’t happen, but then I walked a bit further own the path, and came to the river that you have to cross to get out of the introductory area of the game, and saw the coin floating down the river! I deduced that the well actually connects to a sewer drain that I had discovered earlier when I was swimming up and down the river. And yes, if you honk into the well, or into the sewer, they both echo in the same way, which was a subtle clue to this connection. I love details like that. But it makes me wonder all the more why there was no splash for the dropped coin, and why “Dropping a coin and making a wish” wasn’t one of the To Do items.
For another, at the very start of the game, there’s a whole bunch of bells strewn about on the ground in an area that you can’t quite get into. I have no idea what their significance is, or why they’re there. The game’s camera seems to direct its focus to them, so they must be important for something or other, but I can’t figure it out.
Overall, it’s a delightful, relaxing, humorous, fun puzzle/stealth game that’s not very like anything else I’ve played, and it’s worth the $20 they are asking for it.
An interesting thing happened to me few months ago.
I was reading Shovel Knight, by David L. Craddock, published by Boss Fight Books, and thoroughly enjoying the ride, when I received an email from none other than… David L. Craddock. Craddock had found my contact info through this website, and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in reading a pre-release copy of his latest book, Arcade Perfect, and publishing a review on it.
I thought that the name sounded familiar, so I looked him up, and found that he’d written the book that was in my left hand, as I read the email on the smartphone in my right hand. I wrote back, asking him if he was indeed one and the same. He was. I felt oddly watched.
Shovel Knight was a fantastic read, a detailed history of Yacht Club Games’s origins and how they came to create one of the best videogames of 2014. It was well paced, thorough,, interesting, and covered the human side of the story as well as the technical.
Of course I said yes.
I also offered to provide feedback on the manuscript, as I have helped several other authors in the past with technical review of their manuscripts. Craddock appreciated my offer and offered me an acknowledgement in his Foreward. I say this not as a brag, but for transparency’s sake, to say that this may not be a review completely free of bias, although I’ll strive for that anyway.
The book is long. At nearly 600 pages, it will take you a while to get through. It spans almost the entire the breadth of video gaming history, starting with Pong and going through about 2015-17. Golden age titles Pong, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac Man, Missile Command, and Donkey Kong are all given treatment, as is Tetris, and the 90’s are represented by the games NBA Jam, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Each of these games has an interesting back story of how it came to exist, and how it was brought from the arcade to home consoles. The challenges the developers faced are many. Most if not all of these games were ported to other platforms not by the original developers, but by another talented programmer or team. Oftentimes, no original project documentation was provided to the porting effort, and developers had to “interpret” the game by playing it until they knew it backwards and forwards, reverse engineering to the best of their ability, and working within the constraints of the target platform’s hardware, dealing with hard deadlines and high expectations to deliver an acceptable translation of a very popular title eagerly anticipated by a rabid consumer fanbase.
The last 150 or so pages of the book are devoted to full transcripts of the interviews that Craddock conducted with various creators who worked on the games. This is primary resource material and very nice to have in its entirety.
The book is illustrated, although in the advance copy I saw, the image layouts were still rough. I would hope that these issues will be addressed before the first edition of the book goes to print.
Diatris is a Tetris-like falling stack game by Rob van Saaze. Released earlier this year and developed in GameMaker Studio.
I had the good fortune of catching a work-in-progress screenshot tweet, and messaged Rob, and ended up being a playtester for his game.
I like the interesting twist he put on the classic Tetris. This game is really different from its inspiration. The shapes are different, the falling pieces slide down the slopes of the stack, and the angle factor really changes the way the game feels. It’s quite challenging, and fun.
The graphical style is clean and polished, but juicy, and it looks as great as it plays. Rob has a great eye for graphical design, and it shows in his work. The attention to detail in animation and motion is