Category: product reviews

12-month license moves GameMaker Studio toward SaaS business model

YoYoGames recently announced a new edition of GameMaker Studio 2. Called the “Creator Edition”, it is $40/year subscription.

I’d pointed out earlier in the year that YoYoGames had taken all the necessary steps to make ready to abandon perpetual licensing, and this announcement proves my assessment was right on. See, reddit? I was right.

Permanent subscriptions are still offered starting at $99, although the software license is active only as long as the machine it’s installed on is able to log your YoYo Account in with YYG’s license server. Which is to say, if they want to they can disable your license, and if they go out of business, or if the license server goes down, you won’t be able to use the software.

AtariBox update: who is Feargal Mac?

I learned more today about Feargal Mac, real name Mac Conuladh, one of the guys behind the AtariBox. And what I found out wasn’t so good.

It looks like this guy has been involved in a number of dubious crowd funded tech gizmos before. And by dubious, I mean disastrous. This guy’s LinkedIn profile reads like a character from Silicon Valley: a CEO of various incarnations of rapidly pivoting smoke/mirrors vaporware startups that promise a lot while having nothing.

If you look at Mac’s twitter profile, he still lists his website as gameband.com, one of the crowdfunded gadgets he was involved with. Here’s a screen capture that I took of the page today:

gameband.com screencap

Not quite as exciting as zombo.com, but give it time!

Based on this track record, it’s going to take a LOT of evidence and convincing to get me interested in the AtariBox. Maybe it’ll be different this time, after all people do fail, try again, and succeed, and maybe this time they’ll deliver something worth owning, but until I see some substantial evidence of this, I’m no longer interested in the system.

[Update 3/26/18:] I’ve just learned according to this interview with current Atari CEO Fred Chesnais that Feargal Mac Conuladh is no longer with Atari as of 12/14/17.

[Update 11/26/18:] Feargal Mac Conuladh has sued his former partners at Atari over the terms of their agreement and moneys owed.

Game Programming for Artists

Game Programming for Artists by Jarryd Huntley and Hanna Brady

Game Programming For Artists is a new book about to drop by my Cleveland Game Developer colleagues Jarryd Huntley and Hanna Brady.

It’s a book that intends to introduce artists to computer programming for games. Oftentimes artists and programmers come to the problems of game development from a very different set of skills, and it can be a challenge for them to understand each other. As well, often artists have ideas for games that they need help to program, and this book should help them to start to become a little more self sufficient.

I haven’t seen it yet, but I know that they’ve been working hard on it for the past year plus. I’m looking forward to seeing it in print.

Top Atari 2600 games still worth playing

I don’t like to do Top N lists, because it’s always arbitrary. For whatever value of N you select, there’s always a game that doesn’t make the list that’s just as good as some of the others that did. Why limit yourself?

Released in 1977, the Atari VCS turned 40 this year. So there’s no better time to look back at the games that are still worth playing today. The VCS catalog is vast, and there were so many bad games released on it, particularly in ’82-’83, but despite its primitive, minimal hardware specs, there were many outstanding games released on the platform over its life.

These aren’t in any particular order. I considered ranking them in terms of greatness, alphabetically, and in order of release, or grouping them by categories such as arcade ports, shooters, etc. but there’s no one way to do that. It’s also hard to separate games that were historically significant, or first innovators, or important evolutionary steps, or have high nostalgia value, from games that are worth playing today purely for their own merits. I guess there’s a little bit of all of that wrapped up in these recommendations.

I took a look at Wikipedia’s List of Atari 2600 Games and skimmed through it, and picked the games that in my opinion are good plays, and on that first pass, I came up with over 50 titles. But don’t take this to be “The Top 50 Atari VCS Games”. I’ve decided to list them alphabetically, because it’s the laziest way to do it.

This list excludes homebrews, which I really shouldn’t because some of the best games ever produced for the VCS are homebrews. But they weren’t on the wikipedia page, and this is already taking too long. But seriously, check out the homebrew scene. Some of the games that have been published in the last few years will blow away the games that we had in 1977-83.

There’s surely a few titles that didn’t make this cut that are still good plays — either games I am not familiar with, or games that I underrated.

I’m not going to try to do justice to reviewing these games in full in this article. And I think a brief description isn’t of much value, either — just go play them. But what I will do is state why I think they’re worth playing.

  1. Adventure: Adventure (1980) (Atari)
    The “first” (famous) easter egg. My vote for best original game on the system. I spent endless hours investigating and experimenting with the various objects in the game. See my article on Adventure for more details. And another for good measure.
  2. Asteroids: Asteroids (1981) (Atari)
    An arcade classic, free flight screen-wrapping shooter with acceleration and inertia. Blast big space rocks into littler space rocks, while watching out for unfriendly UFOs. A solid arcade port of a classic, great game, with 66 variations.
  3. Astroblast:
    Astroblast (1982) (M Network)
    Basically a mashup of Asteroids and Space Invaders; a vertical shooter where you blast space rocks falling towards you from above. In Asteroids, space wraps toroidally around the edges of the screen; rocks that drift off the edge appear on the other side. In Astroblast, you lose points for rocks you fail to shoot, which can result in a negative score. In a weird way, you can think of this as analogous to the spatial wrapping in Asteroids; in Astroblast space doesn’t wrap — the score does.
  4. Berzerk: Berzerk (1982) (Atari)
    A fantastic, faithful port of the arcade game. Run around an endless maze, fighting mindless robots programmed to kill you, and fleeing from the invincible Evil Otto. The only thing missing is the digitized speech. (And there’s a homebrew for that!)
  5. Boxing: Boxing (1980) (Activision)
    A basic, competent sports simulation which shines in 2P. More so than most consoles, the Atari 2600 offered a lot of very good 2-player vs. games, which made it a more social console than the NES, which tended to feature long-form 1P action-adventure games.
  6. California Games:California Games (1988) (Epyx) California Games (1988) (Epyx) California Games (1988) (Epyx)
    Featuring a chiptune cover of “Louie, Louie”, that and the surfing event are more than enough to make this worth playing. But the hackey sack mini game is pretty good too. The other events include half-pipe skateboarding, and a BMX downhill run.
  7. Combat: Combat (1977) (Atari)
    Going all the way back to the beginning. The original pack-in title, and a very worthy 2P vs. game. Battle a friend for a two minute round with a variety of dueling tanks, bi-planes, and jets.
  8. Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles (1984) (Atari)
    One of the more interesting games influenced by the dot-munching Pac-Man, you control Bentley Bear as he gathers gems in a 2.5D map while avoiding a variety of whimsical baddies such as skulls, a witch, a swarm of bees, animated trees, and giant gem-eating caterpillars. The 3D-looking levels are particularly well done, considering the hardware capabilities. Elevators and tunnels are present which give the game a true 3D feel. A fantastic port of the arcade classic.
  9. Dig Dug: Dig Dug (1983) (Atari)
    Dig Dug was another popular game influenced by Pac-Man, but was one of he more original designs to take direct influence from the popular maze game. In Dig Dug, the “maze” is created by the player as they dig through the dirt. Instead of energizer pills, Dig Dug is armed with an air pump that he can use to defend himself against monsters, or he can undermine a rock which can fall, crushing his enemies.
  10. Frogger: Frogger (1982) (Parker Bros)
    Yet another great arcade port. Hop your frog across a road and river, avoiding cars, snakes, alligators, and drowning, because for some reason frogs aren’t able to swim in this game.
  11. Frostbite: Frostbite (1983) (Activision)
    Similar to the more well known Q*Bert, in that you hop around on things, changing their color. In Frostbite, you jump on ice flows to collect material to build an igloo. The mechanics are quite different from Q*Bert, howeverIn a way, it reminds me of another Activision game, SeaQuest. If SeaQuest and Frogger had a baby, it might be Frostbite.
  12. Galaxian: Galaxian (1983) (Atari)
    Another arcade port, what it lacks in graphics it more than makes up for with gameplay. Galaxian was a spiritual successor to Space Invaders, and followed its vertical shooter, no scrolling, waves of enemies in rows and columns formula, but added dive bombing (and, in the arcade, full color graphics). I enjoy this version of Galaxian more than the arcade, by a wide margin. Full review.
  13. Gravitar: Gravitar (1983) (Atari)
    A free-flight shooter similar to Asteroids, but with more complex game play involving destroying bunkers on planets. The planetary gravity adds a dimension of difficulty to the game. Watch your fuel, and take care with your inertia. It’s really challenging.
  14. Gyruss: Gyruss (1984) (Parker Bros)
    Another arcade port, Gyruss is a twist on the Space Invaders formula that has you shooting into a faux-3D field where sprites shrink and disappear into the distance, a bit like Tempest but without the wireframe tunnels. Like Galaga, enemy ships fly into the screen from the side/behind the player, doing acrobatics before taking up formation in the center of the screen. And like Galaga, there’s a double-shot power-up. The arcade game had an awesome soundtrack, based on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The VCS can’t quite replicate this, but it does have a (for the technology, decent) musical soundtrack, one of the few Atari VCS games to do so. Graphically it also lags behind the arcade original, but that’s to be expected — it’s an Atari 2600.
  15. H.E.R.O.: H.E.R.O. (1984) (Activision)
    Fly through caves wearing a helicopter backpack, blasting through walls and killing cave denizens with a laser in order to clear a path to rescue people who didn’t have enough sense to stay out of caves.
  16. Haunted House: Haunted House (1982) (Atari)
    I never played this game as a kid, because I never knew anyone who had it. But even if I did, I probably would have been too scared to play it. I’ve tried to play it recently, and couldn’t figure it out. This is one of those games where you have to read the manual in order to understand the cryptic messages the graphics and sounds are trying to convey.
  17. Joust: Joust (1983) (Atari)
    The original “flappy bird” game! One of the best two player games of the early arcade era, and a fantastic arcade port. Jockeys mounted on flying ostriches compete in an arena by “jousting”. The higher lance wins the contest – the loser is a rotten egg. The 2P mode is a cooperative affair, or you can compete against each other by PVP kills.
  18. Keystone Kapers: Keystone Kapers (1983) (Activision)
    A proto-platformer by Activision. You play as a keystone kop, chasing a burglar through a multi-story department store full of obstacles. Jump and duck and gradually gain on the thief, hopefully catching him before he escapes.
  19. Kool-Aid Man:
    Kool-Aid Man (1983) (M Network)

    Originally, to get a copy of this game, you had to drink a huge amount of kool-aid, and send in proofs of purchases. I think it must have been available in stores as well, because this game is not as rare as it would have been otherwise. It’s a decent game to play. You play as a pitcher of kool-aid, who is guarding a swimming pool full of water which is under assault by swarms of “Thirsties” who slowly drink it up. If you collide with a “Thirsty” who isn’t drinking, it will bounce you around the screen out of control. But if you collide with a “Thirsty” that is in the act of drinking, you eliminate it, getting points and protecting that water. You can gain a few seconds of invulnerability by grabbing symbols of the ingredients for kool-aid (icons representing Water, Kool-Aid mix, and Sugar). When the swimming pool runs out of water, the game is over. Seriously, it’s better than it sounds.
  20. Mario Bros.: Mario Bros. (1983) (Atari)
    A very well done arcade port. After Donkey Kong, Mario made a career shift from carpentry to plumbing, and started battling sewer turtles and collecting coins. The direct sequel to this game, Super Mario Bros. would set the industry on fire and change the world forever.
  21. Megamania: MegaMania (1982) (Activision)
    One of the most finely tuned shooters on the system. I’ve written extensively about it already. A must have.
  22. Missile Command: Missile Command (1981) (Atari)
    Near perfect arcade port. Although the arcade game featured track ball controls, this version of Missile Command plays every well with a joystick.  The homebrew scene has since converted this game to play with trackball controllers.
  23. Moon Patrol:
    Moon Patrol
    Moon Patrol featured a number of innovations. This arcade port isn’t as good the original, but it’s still fun. The arcade version featured a great (for its time) soundtrack, reminiscent of the hit song Axel F from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. The background parallax scrolling is perhaps a videogame first. But I also recognize Moon Patrol as the great grand-daddy of the infinite runner genre: a horizontally scrolling game where you have to jump over obstacles, but can’t stop, so jump timing becomes critical. In addition to jumping over holes, there are rocks in your path (which you can shoot or jump), and occasionally alien ships will fly overhead, which you can shoot for points.
  24. Montezuma’s Revenge:Montezuma's Revenge (1984) (Parker Bros)
    A brutally unforgiving platformer with greater dimensionality than Pitfall, but not as well remembered today.
  25. Mountain King: Mountain King (1983) (CBS Electronics)
    An exploration quest platformer with interesting audio mechanics, not to mention what’s probably the best use of music in a game of its era. Gather diamonds, find the Flame Spirit, offer it to the Skull Spirit who guards the temple, steal the crown, and escape to the top of the mountain to become the Mountain King. Beware the terrifying giant spider in the basement. There is a glitch world hidden in the upper reaches of the sky, accessible by an impossible leap. Check out my full review of the game.
  26. Ms. Pac Man: Ms. Pac-Man (1982) (Atari)
    A far better port than Pac Man was. Homebrewers have been working on worthy Pac Man ports for the VCS for years, with extremely impressive results, but in 1982 this was as good as it got (unless you had an Atar 5200).
  27. Pete Rose Baseball: Pete Rose Baseball (1988) (Absolute)
    Another game to come very late in the life of the console, Pete Rose Baseball is easily the most graphically impressive baseball game on the VCS. However, looks aren’t everything. RealSports Baseball actually plays better, with better fielding and baserunning controls. But this is still worth playing just to see that it was possible to make a game on the Atari that looked like this.
  28. Phoenix: Phoenix (1982) (Atari)
    One of the better successors to Space Invaders, featuring one of the earliest boss battles. The other innovation present here is shields, which make you invulnerable for a few seconds, but immobile. Very handy for when you were trapped in a corner by a divebombing bird, or under heavy fire from the mothership.
  29. Pitfall: Pitfall! (1982) (Activision)
    A run and jump action game, and a proto-platformer, Pitfall was remarkable for its time. Exploring the procedurally generated screens of a pixellated jungle in search of treasure such as bags of money, diamonds, and silver and gold ingots. A lot of the fun of this game was in seeing how far you could go, but also in discovering through repeated play that the screens in the game weren’t random, and that as you played more and more, you could map your way through the game, taking shortcuts through the underground tunnels. The game does actually have an “ending” — if you can collect all 32 treasures in under 20 minutes, it just stops.
  30. Pitfall II: Lost Caverns: Pitfall II (1983) (Activision)
    The sequel to Pitfall!, this game went beyond the side-scrolling adventure, and introduced a huge, cavernous world with vertical scrolling sections as well as horizontal. The game featured swimming and balloon-assisted flight, and new hazards such as condors, poisonous frogs, and bats. It had a musical soundtrack, and if that wasn’t advanced enough for the Atari 2600, the music was dynamically linked to the in-game action, turning sad when you got hurt, and jubilant when you grabbed a treasure. It was also one of the first video games to feature save points and instead of having “lives”, when Pitfall Harry “died” he returned to the last save point he touched, loosing points for his trouble. Full Review.
  31. Pressure Cooker: Pressure Cooker (1983) (Activision)
    You’re a short order cook building hamburgers by catching ingredients flying out of boxes on the right side and adding them to burgers on the assembly line. Get the order right and drop it into the bin. Memory, concentration, and quick thinking are needed to succeed.
  32. Private Eye:

    Private Eye (1983) (Activision)

    I never played this title back in the day, but discovered it recently, decades later. It’s confusing to play, reading the manual is necessary in order to understand what’s going on, but you’re a private eye driving around a city in a car trying to solve a crime by finding clues. The mechanics of the game are weird, you can jump your car, which is a convertible, and when your car jumps, you jump much higher, and fall back down into the car. This is required to dodge obstacles and enemies and to collect clues and other items. Figuring out how to navigate the map and understand the clues in the manual are the keys to fun in this game.
  33. Q*Bert: Q-bert (1987) (Atari)
    A remarkably good port of the arcade action-puzzle game. Hop on blocks arranged in a pyramid shape to change their color to the correct color to complete the level and advance, while dodging an assortment of weird enemies. To play this game correctly, you need to hold the joystick at an angle, so that the fire button is at 12 o’clock, and you’re essentially using the diagonals as up/down/left/right.
  34. Radar Lock: Radar Lock (1989) (Atari)
    Released late in the life of the console, in 1989, this sophisticated jet fighter simulation game takes you from the runway takeoff, to dogfighting, and even features mid-air refueling. Multiple weapons systems are activated with the 2P controller. The graphics are pretty good considering the hardware. Compared to Top Gun on the NES, or Sega’s Afterburner, this game isn’t all that impressive, but on the Atari 2600 it more than holds its own.
  35. RealSports Baseball:

    RealSports Baseball (1982) (Atari)
    An impressive simulation of the game of baseball, the first baseball game on the Atari that was a full implementation of baseball’s rules, rather than an impressionistic “interpretation” of a “baseball-like” game. Even the infield fly rule is implemented. You can only fully appreciate this game with two players; the CPU controlled opponent in a 1-player game is nearly unbeatable.
  36. Riddle of the Sphinx: Riddle of the Sphinx (1982) (Imagic)
    An early questing puzzle game that demands you read the manual, loosely based on ancient Egyptian mythology. To pass various points in the vertically scrolling world, you must find and offer the correct treasure at one of the various temples. Clues found in the instruction booklet make this a bit easier to do. Along the way, you must fend off marauding thieves and scorpions and thirst. There were numerous items to be found, through trading with merchants or by digging in the desert sand, and these gave you various abilities.
  37. River Raid: River Raid (1982) (Activision)
    One of the best scrolling shooters of its day. Continuously scrolling, procedurally-generated stages. Avoid colliding with objects and walls, shooting destructible targets for points and to eliminate them so you don’t have to evade them, and be sure to pick up fuel frequently to top-off your ever thirsty engines.
  38. SeaQuest: Seaquest (1983) (Activision)
    A great action game from Activision. You control a submarine, trying to rescue divers who are being chased by sharks you can destroy with torpedoes. Fill up your sub with 6 divers and return to the surface before you run out of oxygen. It’s very simple, but a lot of fun as the speed increases with each time you return to the surface.
  39. Secret Quest: Secret Quest (1989) (Atari)
    Another late title for the system, this one was designed by Nolan Bushnell himself. I never knew about this game when it was released because by the time it came out the NES was ruling the world, and few people were still paying attention to Atari by that point. Walk around a space station infested with aliens, looking for a self destruct mechanism. Your main armament is a Energy Sword, but there are other weapons as well. I’ve only played this one a little bit, but it’s clear this is a sophisticated quest game for the Atari.
  40. Solar Fox: Solar Fox (1983) (CBS Electronics)
    Another great arcade port. Solar Fox is like Pac Man, in that you have to pick up dots (“solar cells”) on the screen in order to advance to the next screen. But there’s no maze. You just fly around on an invisible grid, at slow or fast speed, avoiding stuff that shoots at you from the edges of the screen. And you can’t shoot back, only dodge. The challenge is to collect all the cells in the shortest amount of time possible, and there are optimal flight paths to take in order to have the best chance at doing that.
  41. Solaris: Solaris (1986) (Atari)
    A first person space shooter published late in the life of the console, at a point when the obsolete Atari VCS was competing against the NES. There were a lot of similar games for the Atari, but this was perhaps the best of them, with more variety and better graphics. Check out Star Raiders, Star Voyager, and Star Master if you’re a fan of the genre.
  42. Space Invaders: Space Invaders (1980) (Atari)
    A fantastic arcade port with over 100 variations. The variations affect things such as the speed of the Invaders shots, and whether they fall straight or zigzag, whether the Invaders are visible or not, whether the bunkers are stationary or moving, and various two player modes that provide cooperative play options as well as alternating play.  Clear wave after wave of invading aliens who march across the sky in lock-step formation, speeding up as their numbers dwindle. Hit their mothership for bonus points.
  43. Spider Fighter: Spider Fighter (1982) (Activision)
    Extremely fast-paced shooter with extremely smooth motion that will make you twitch.
  44. Star Master:
    Another cockpit shooter, like Star Raiders and Star Voyager. Which one is my favorite? Which one is which?
  45. Star Raiders: Star Raiders (1982) (Atari)
    One of several first-person cockpit shooters, it came out the same year as Star Master, and is very similar.
  46. Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator: Star Trek - Strategic Operations Simulator (1983) (Sega)
    An unusual multi-view shooter with a 3D first person view combined with a top down view. The graphics are fantastic, with recognizable depictions of the USS Enterprise and Klingon Bird of Prey spacecraft, and even music from the TV show is represented. Warp from sector to sector, fighting Klingons and protecting Federation bases. This is an outstanding shooter with depth.
  47. Star Voyager: Star Voyager (1982) (Imagic)
    A cockpit simulator 3D space shooter. This was about as real as it got in 1982. See Star Raiders, Solaris, Star Master, and Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator for more of the same.
  48. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back (1982) (Parker Bros)
    A very well done scrolling shooter, re-creating the battle on the ice planet of Hoth. You pilot Luke Skywalker’s snow speeder, and try to give the Rebels enough time to escape by battling Imperial AT-AT walkers. It’s a repetitive game that has an inevitable doom at the end, but the controls and sound effects are excellent, making this a worthy shooter if you like games like Defender and Stargate, definitely a must play if you’re a Star Wars fan.
  49. Stargate: Stargate (1984) (Atari)
    An especially faithful port of the arcade sequel to Defender, it’s one of the best rendered arcade ports on the Atari. Uses dual joystick controls, one for flight and shooting, the other for the special weapons.
  50. Superman:
    I’ve written extensively on Superman elsewhere, and this remains one of my favorite games on the system, and of all time.
  51. Surround: Surround (1977) (Atari)
    Another solid 2P vs. game with numerous variations. It’s basically a “snakes” game, where you control a pixel that draws a path that both players must avoid. Think the light cycle scene in Disney’s virtual reality fantasy classic, Tron. Surround offers a number of variations to keep the action fresh. There’s even a free-form drawing mode, where there are no collisons, and no forced movement.
  52. Tac-Scan: Tac-Scan (1982) (Sega)
    In most space shooters, you get to control one ship at a time, and a couple of reserve ships that represent your extra lives. In Tac-Scan, you control a formation of up to 5 ships, essentially putting all of your lives in play at once. This is an arcade port, and a pretty good one, although it’s a bit simplified with fewer types of enemies.
  53. Threshold: Threshold (1982) (Tigervision)
    A vertical shooter often compared with Megamania as the best of the genre on the console. The enemy motion in this game is especially frustrating. Enemies will dance just out of reach of your bullets, and then kill you after embarrassing and frustrating you with your futile attempts to connect a shot with them. Whoever programmed it is a real bastard.
  54. Warlords: Warlords (1981) (Atari)
    The evolutionary zenith of the pong/breakout type games. Defend your crown by bouncing a ball away from your castle walls and into your enemy’s. Four player is the best way to play.
  55. Word Zapper: Word Zapper (1982) (U.S. Games)
    One of the more novel game concepts, based on spelling. Shoot letters in a scrolling marquee to spell a word. Reflexes, spelling, and memorization are all important, particularly on the difficult random letter sequence levels. It’s more fun and more challenging than it sounds.
  56. Yar’s Revenge: Yars' Revenge (1982) (Atari)
    A remix of the basic concepts of Star Castle, and somewhat overrated in my opinion, but still a solid, innovative game, with outstanding audio and good graphics.

Mega Maker

Mega Maker is to Mega Man what Mario Maker is to Mario. Except, it’s not an officially licensed Capcom product, and it’s free. Built by fans using GameMaker, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever seen built out of GameMaker.

It’s awesome.

It’s very easy to use, and a lot of fun. Not that you really need it, but there’s a tutorial that explains everything in the editor with great style. Actually, the tutorial is very well done and I recommend using it to understand some of the finer points. But most of the point and click interface is intuitive to anyone who’s used a mouse-driven interface and knows a thing or two about Mega Man.

Mega Maker

I had my first level built and running in about ten minutes.

Unfortunately it only includes a small sample of the Mega Man resources from the first six games on the NES, but even so there’s a lot that you can do with the designer. There doesn’t seem to be any provision for designing your own enemies, bosses, or adding your own sprites or music. On the other hand, there’s zero coding needed, and it’s easy enough to use that an average grade schooler could get up and running designing levels in no time.

There’s an online community for uploading your level designs and downloading and playing the designs of other players.

So much work has gone into this, and it holds so much promise. I hope that Capcom sees fit to muzzle their legal team. If you’ve ever enjoyed a classic MM game, you really need to download this and give it a try.

“Atari” releases new images of upcoming, mysterious AtariBox console

As soon as I found out about it, I signed up for announcements about the AtariBox. Today, the company currently owning the rights to call itself Atari released some new images of what the console will look like. I think they look quite nice, for what it’s worth. It’s tough to say, but I’m not convinced that these are photographs — they could very well be 3D models from the mock-up phase, that have been approved for production.

AtariBox AtariBox AtariBox AtariBox

From the announcement:

Our objective is to create a new product that stays true to our heritage while appealing to both old and new fans of Atari.

Inspired by classic Atari design elements (such as the iconic use of wood, ribbed lines, and raised back); we are creating a smooth design, with ribs that flow seamlessly all around the body of the product, a front panel that can be either wood or glass, a front facing logo, indicator lights that glow through the material, and an array of new ports (HDMI, 4xUSB, SD). We intend to release two editions: a wood edition, and a black/red edition.

We know you are hungry for more details; on specs, games, features, pricing, timing etc. We’re not teasing you intentionally; we want to get this right, so we’ve opted to share things step by step as we bring Ataribox to life, and to listen closely to Atari community feedback as we do so. There are a lot of milestones, challenges and decision points in front of us in the months ahead. We’ll be giving you lots more information and status updates as we progress, and we are thrilled to have you along for the ride!

The HDMI is not a surprise, but it’s good to see that the AtariBox will use standard USB ports and an SD slot. Proprietary ports are all too common on game consoles, in order to lock consumers in to buying officially licensed peripherals at considerable markup.

What the console looks like isn’t all that important, but from what I see so far, this isn’t bad.

We still don’t know what the consoles hardware capabilities will be… but what the console’s specs are isn’t all that important, even.

What matters is what games it’ll play, and if they’re any good.

How can Atari create a unique platform for games that is simultaneously contemporary yet pays good homage to the past? It remains unknown.

N-Key Quest

It appears that a major obstacle to getting laptop makers to provide better keyboards is getting them to understand what properties matter to users.

I’m just one small person, but I am trying to raise awareness of key rollover and why it matters to laptop users.

A while ago, I had a chat with Lenovo Support. I had noticed that they had added an additional keyboard option to the P-series ThinkPads, and was hoping (though not holding my breath) that it might mean the new keyboard SKU would be for a model with acceptable rollover. Spoiler: The new keyboard option is for backlit or non-backlit keyboard, but they appear to have the same, poor, unacceptable key rollover characteristics as when I purchased my P50 last March.

But at first when I discussed with Lenovo Sales Support, they didn’t even understand what rollover is. I guess that’s not terribly uncommon; it’s a geek thing. But when your customers are geeks, it’s important to be able to speak about things they are concerned with, understand those concerns, and care about them.

Sales Rep: Hello, thanks for contacting Lenovo. My name is Quentin E.. I am reviewing your information now.

Me: Hi Quentin

Sales Rep: Hello, my name is Quentin with Lenovo Sales REP ID# #2900723431, at the end of this chat there will be a short survey that will pop up, Survey ranges from 1-9 and 9 being the highest, if you don’t mind taking a second to let my managers know how I am doing.

Sales Rep: I will be more than happy to assist with your purchase today

Me: I have a question about the ThinkPad P50. Last spring, I bought a P50, and at the time there was only one option for the keyboard. I see now that you are offering the choice of a backlit keyboard.

Me: I am very satisfied with my purchase overall, but with the keyboard I was very disappointed that it does not support N-key rollover.

Me: I am wondering what the key rollover property of the current keyboard offerings is?

Sales Rep: Are you looking to purchase an new keyboard today?

Me: potentially, if it offers improved key rollover to my current keyboard.

Me: are you familiar with what key rollover is?

Me: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rollover_(key)

Sales Rep: No I am not familiar

Me: that article will explain; it is the ability of the keyboard to register multiple simultaneous key strokes

Sales Rep: Are you interested in wireless keyboard ?

Me: I am a video game developer, and I have found that for my work in programming and testing video games that I make, the built-in keyboard does not reliably catch key strokes when more than 2 keys are pressed down at the same time. I’m forced to use an external USB keyboard if I am testing games. But I would like to replace the built-in keyboard with a keyboard that can hadnle multiple keystrokes, if that were a possibility.

Me: i’m not interested in a wireless keyboard, to answer your question.

Sales Rep: http://shop.lenovo.com/SEUILibrary/controller/e/web/LenovoPortal/en_US/catalog.workflow:item.detail?hide_menu_area=true&GroupID=460&Code=0B47190

Me: Like I said, I’m currently using an external keyboard, since the built-in keyboard doesn’t support N-key rollover…

Me: I’m just trying to find out whether there are any replacement keyboards available for the P50 that support higher key rollover. i’d prefer N-key, but 5 or 6 key rollover would be a major improvement.

Sales Rep: This is the only keyboard option for the P50

Sales Rep: other than the wireless keyboard

Me: I am seeing that there is an option for a backlit keyboard on the P50 — I don’t recall that being available when I ordered mine. If you could tell me what the key rollover property is for your offerings, it would be very helpful.

Sales Rep: can you provide the part number

Me: I’m looking, but i don’t see the part number. In the “configure to order” options for the P50, I see two options now: “Keybaord with Number Pad – English” and “Backlit Keyboard with Number Pad – English”

Me: and under help me decide it says this:

Me: Lenovo has refreshed the keyset on all ThinkPad laptops, outfitting them with the ThinkPad Precision Keyboard.

Me: This new keyset allows a more comfortable, fluid and accurate typing experience with it’s slate of individually rounded, spacious, and low-set keys. The ThinkPad Precision Keyboard simultaneously delivers a modern look and feel to your ThinkPad.

Sales Rep: That is only an option when config

Me: So I am wondering if this means that they have improved the key rollover property of these refreshed keyboards

Me: Surely the keyboard is an FRU that can be ordered? I would be interested to do so if you could tell me the key rollover.

Sales Rep: You can contact the parts department for additional information keyboard

Sales Rep: 855-253-6686 op 4

Me: ok.

Me: would you be able to pass feedback along to the system engineers who design the ThinkPad line, to let them know that this is an important characteristic?

Me: I would be willing to pay as much as $100 extra for a keyboard that supports N-key rollover, it is essential for my work.

Sales Rep: You can give the information to the parts department also

Me: ok

Me: this matters a great deal to me. As a satisfied user of the T-61 model, I felt it had the best built-in keyboard of any laptop I’ve ever used.

Me: I even wrote a detailed article on why it is the best.

Me: https://csanyk.com/2015/06/the-best-laptop-keyboard-yet-devised-by-humankind/

Me: It is one of the most popular articles on my blog.

Me: I will mention this to the parts dept as well.

Me: does the parts dept have a web chat feature or or email? or just phone number to reach them?

Please wait while we transfer your chat to the next available agent.

Service Agent is your new agent for the chat session.

Customer Service Rep: Hello, thanks for contacting Lenovo. My name is Mikella T.. I am reviewing your information now.

Me: hi…

Me: i was chatting with Quentin a moment ago, and then I guess he transferred me to you. Are you in parts?

Customer Service Rep: Hello Chris

Me: hi

Me: are you able to see my questions?

Customer Service Rep: Are you trying to reach the parts department

Me: Not really. I am just trying to get an answer to a question about the characteristics of the built-in keyboard for the ThinkPad P50.

Me: in the “customization” options for this model, it says “Lenovo has refreshed the keyset on all ThinkPad laptops, outfitting them with the ThinkPad Precision Keyboard.

Me: This new keyset allows a more comfortable, fluid and accurate typing experience with it’s slate of individually rounded, spacious, and low-set keys. The ThinkPad Precision Keyboard simultaneously delivers a modern look and feel to your ThinkPad.”

Me: I purchased a P50 last year, and at the time there was no option; I’m now seeing an optional backlit keyboard, and the description above suggests that the keyboards you’re shipping now may be different from what were shipped a year ago.

Me: so I am interested to learn the “key rollover” property of the currently offered keyboards

Me: my P50 does not register keystrokes if I have more than 2 keys pressed simultaneously (it may or may not register a third keystroke at that point). This makes it a poor keyboard for playing games. I am a game developer, so spend a lot of time testing games that I am making.

Customer Service Rep: Ok , so we are not the appropriate department for that

Me: so if the keyboards now offered have improved rollover, i would be interested to purchase and replace the one that i have.

Customer Service Rep: Perhaps the number provided by sales can assist you with that inquiry

Customer Service Rep: As this is customer support

Me: Quentin did give me the number for parts, but only a phone number. it is better for me if i could use chat or email to reach them. is that possible?

Customer Service Rep: Sorry that is the only contact information that we have

Me: ok what was the number again?

Customer Service Rep: 855-253-6686 op 4

Me: ok thank you.

I give them credit for trying. Normally their sales support people are very helpful and can provide detailed information, but it doesn’t seem like anyone at Lenovo have bothered to document their keyboards rollover characteristic, as though they don’t care or aren’t even aware that rollover is a thing.

I did call the number the Customer Service Rep gave me, but it didn’t get me anywhere. Their technical people still could not answer the question.

I suppose I could try ordering one of the new “ThinkPad Precision” keyboards (with a name that has Precision in it, you’d really hope that it would mean that the keyboard is capable of detecting precisely which keys are down at any given time, no matter which or how many.)

Perhaps I will stop by a local computer store and test out their ThinkPads to see if their keyboards are registering new keystrokes.

Seems like a pretty long shot….

Even so, I hope my fellow keyboard geeks can raise their voices and make themselves heard. If Lenovo gets enough feedback from users, I think it could make a difference in their future offerings.

Thoughts on the Nintendo Switch now that it’s out

Nintendo Switch is out. I still haven’t bought one. Wasn’t planning to right away, as I’m habitually not an early adopter when it comes to game consoles. Here’s my thoughts anyway.

After reading reviews for Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild I figured I would definitely buy a Switch. Before, I wasn’t entirely sure. I’m very intrigued to give it a play. One thing that worries me is the fact that your equipment wears out and breaks. I think that has potential for an under-utilized play mechanic, but on the other hand I think it’s a design choice that runs the risk of turning the game into a never-ending grind fest to keep up maintenance on your kit, and I don’t necessarily like the feeling of being on a treadmill.

I never bought a Wii U, either, and I still have yet to hear an announcement that Super Mario Maker will be coming to the Switch, which is insane. How can they not bring SMM to the Switch? It has to happen, right? Only, I’ve heard nothing. Since LoZ:BotW is also on the Wii U, maybe I should just buy a Wii U on clearance, save money, and enjoy both games?

But there are a few other interesting new titles that will be coming out on Switch in the near future, like Blaster Master Zero, which looks like a phenomenal remake of the original.

I was at GameStop earlier today, and to my surprise they actually had the Switch and accessories in stock. I looked at them, but didn’t buy. I’m put off by reports that there are reliability issues with the right-JoyCon control. When it comes to game consoles, I am almost never an early adopter, and stuff like this are a chief reason why. But I am also struck by how absolutely tiny the controls are for the Switch. I understand the console needs to be small enough to be portable, and I read that the controls are small, but in person they’re still shockingly small, even forewarned. I haven’t actually held one to see how they feel in the hand, but my initial impression is, “Geez, I sure hope they come out with an adult-sized JoyCon pair.” But I’m doubtful this will come to pass.

I also just heard that game saves aren’t transferable between Switch consoles, which is pretty lame. I hope that Nintendo rectify this, and allow game saves to follow a user’s account, or even be shared between user accounts so that friends can send each other game saves.

Update 3/07/2017

I’m back to undecided on the Switch.

Early reports from users suggest that the Switch hardware has a number of issues that are simply not acceptable. I believe these issues are addressable, but Nintendo really needed a flawless launch if they wanted to have a hope of recapturing the marketshare that they lost due to the unpopularity of the Wii U.

Joy-con connectivity failures, attributable to how the devices were designed and/or assembled. Potentially fixable by re-routing some wires inside the controller, or by using a bit of soldering know-how. But really this is a warranty problem, plain and simple. These are defects that Nintendo should own responsibility for, and fix for free.

Dead pixels on the handheld screen. Maybe I shouldn’t care about this very much, since my main use of Switch would be as a TV console, but Nintendo’s policy is that dead pixels are a normal property of LCD displays, and that they don’t fix them because they don’t consider them to be broken. WTF, Nintendo.

The more I think about it, the more I wish the Switch weren’t trying so hard to be innovative. I think what Nintendo did to make it a viable console/handheld hybrid is amazing, but I think the result of hybridization is compromise. Switch compromises as a console because it lacks the processing power that full consoles like the PS4 and XBox1 have. It compromises as a handheld because of it’s somewhat inconvenient size and relatively short battery life.

That means that the only innovation left is with the joy-con. And while they do have some of the most clever design aspects we’ve seen on a controller to date, such as the HD rumble, their multi-use, multiple configuration design, and being packed with features, here too are compromises. The joy-con are tiny and not necessarily the best in ergonomics. And they have some reliability issues that Nintendo simply must address quickly and completely.

For what I would personally want out of a next-gen Nintendo console, it would be to be able to play games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, at full 1080p, or even 4K resolution, with a good, full-size controller like the Switch’s pro controller. I’m very unlikely to take advantage of the portable/handheld aspect of the Switch, nor am I very likely to use Switch as a party/social game platform. I do think it’s cool that Nintendo are thinking about such use cases, but they are simply not use cases that I see myself doing much, if at all.

I find myself wondering what hackers like Ben Heckendorn will do with the Switch. Ben Heck has made himself into a minor celebrity over the last 10 years or so, by doing ingenious hacks of old gen consoles, minifying and re-building them into portable/handhelds. These are very cool projects, but the Switch already gives us this. Nintendo appeared to have beaten Ben Heck at his own game. Or have they? Perhaps a hacker like Ben will hack the portability out of a Switch, and add hardware to it — a beefier CPU, GPU, more RAM, improved cooling and overclocking, turning it into a more serious current-gen console system, to allow Breath of the Wild to run without slowdown.

That would be an interesting and worthy project.

Nintendo announces Switch launch date, price

Yesterday, Nintendo had their big announcement about their new console, Switch. It will be $299 on March 3, region free, online play will be paid, launch titles have been announced. The Joy-con controllers are more sophisticated than initially shown in the teaser video Nintendo released a few months ago. Joy-con have motion control and “HD” vibration features, and even a camera on the right side. Onboard there’s only 32GB of storage, which is expandable with SDHC the built-in screen is “only” 720p (which to be fair is plenty on a handheld screen, and should help with battery life to a degree) but does support touch.

The new Zelda title looks amazing. New Zeldas always do, but this one really does look very impressive. The new Mario looks a bit weird, like they put Mario in a GTA world, or that Halloween episode of the Simpsons from years ago, where Homer went through some dimensional warp and ended up in the 3D world. But also amazing. It won’t be out until later this year, unfortunately. There will be other sequels — surprised? Splatoon 2 is happening, as expected. Mario Kart 8 is being revised somehow and brought along for the Switch. Surprisingly, no word on whether Super Mario Maker is going to be ported as well. It really should be.

The biggest criticisms of the announced launch titles are how few they are, and that not enough Big Names have been announced. It seems Nintendo may be playing a game to maximize sales by spacing out their major releases so that each gets full attention.

I have some new questions. Because the Switch hardware is so reconfigurable and flexible, how will games adapt to it? Will Switch games be designed with the intent that the Switch be in one particular configuration in order to play them? Or will they have multiple modes, which can be played depending on which configuration you have your Switch in at the moment? I imagine it will probably be a bit of both. Although, if it drives costs up to make the software flexible enough to handle whichever mode the Switch is currently in, that could end up backfiring as developers target one specific mode only per title. How will supporting all of these different modes with one game work for developers?

There’s been a certain amount of WTF and ridicule following the announcement among Nintendo naysayers. Accessories for the Switch seem to be pricey. Over the last few months, since the initial announcement, there’s been a considerable amount of second-guessing among gamers. Initially the Switch seemed very exciting and innovative, a do-it-all, go-anywhere console with loads of innovative features and potential, but that initial impression wore off quickly as gamers wondered just how good the graphics and battery life would be, and what sort of capability the hardware would have relative to the competition.

Does Switch offer enough to get me to buy one? Maybe… Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the most attractive draw to the new console for me, by far. If they had Super Mario Maker, and maybe a new 2D Metroid game, that might be all it takes for me to put it on my want list. Hmm, how about a Super Metroid Maker? Or Mega Man Maker? Or literally any 8-bit franchise maker for that matter? I’d buy Switch in a heartbeat if they had something like that in the works. The small number of titles at launch isn’t that small, although the number of games that actually interest me is.

That’s a concern, but I’ve rarely been an early adopter when it comes to videogame consoles. My first console, the Atari 2600 had been out for several years before I was old enough that my parents bought one. I had no input into that decision, but it was a happy one. I think we got our NES in 1987, after a year of the Atari 7800, maybe we got a SNES the year it came out, the N64 came out when I was in college and my brother had one but I didn’t play it all that much compared to when I had free time.

I wouldn’t have bought myself a GameCube, which came out when I was probably the least interested in videogames that I’ve ever been in my life, but I received one for Christmas one year, 2002 or 03, I think, and didn’t buy a Wii until they stopped instantly selling out of stores…

I still haven’t, and likely won’t, buy a Wii U, ever, despite how much I’d like to play with Mario Maker.

And while I thought the Switch had an exciting design when I saw the trailer video for it a few months ago, I don’t feel all that excited about it. It’s capability as a mobile game platform doesn’t do anything for me — I’ve never been into mobile gaming. Its reconfigurable controllers are clever, but I don’t know that they truly offer anything new. And the multiplayer aspect, which seems to be another big part of Switch’s appeal, doesn’t do much for me, because I’ve always been more of a solitary gamer. For much the same reason, I haven’t been very into network games, either.

I just haven’t found much compelling about AAA games, really, for many years. A few exceptions, to be sure, but probably not even 1/year. I’m pretty deeply rooted in the old school, you might say. These days, I’m much more into retro-styled indie games, like Shovel Knight, Hyper Light Drifter, and Daniel Linssen’s brilliant Ludum Dare platformers, and classic 8- and 16-bit era games.

These days, I find I just don’t care as much for 3D games, analog joysticks, and voice acting and cutscenes in videogames. These things can be done well, but are so hard to do well, and age so poorly, compared to 2D games with low-res graphics, which seem timeless. Truthfully, most modern 3D games either feel crude and lacking in polish, or else cookie-cutter affairs lacking in soul, offering little that their predecessor didn’t also.

As such, I don’t feel that Switch is necessarily aimed at me. That’s fine. I’m pretty niche in my interests, and am served well by my existing library, as well as by the indie market. And I don’t know that that’s a miss on Nintendo’s part. I expect that if the exclusive titles are there, Switch will be a hit. But if Nintendo don’t get a lot of great first-party hits, and attract a strong lineup of 3rd party developers to release games on their platform, it could be a repeat of the Wii U.

I fully admit I know nothing about videogames as a business. I really liked the Ouya, and I still do. Time will tell.