Monday, July 19, 2010

Gaming Past: SNES In depth (Part 2) - Super Mario Kart


My top 3 SNES gems (cont.)

Back in 1995, I traveled back to Hong Kong for vacation. While in Hong Kong, I managed to bargin my way to get one game on the SNES. At that point, I really had no idea what I wanted to get, so as I browsed the windows at stores wondering what I would get. I stumbled upon a copy of Super Mario Kart at one shop and bought it on the spot, I figured that since I liked Mario games, this game can't be that bad (Thank God I didn't get Mario is Missing, that would have been just weird). Fortunately, it's probably one of the best games then, and a genre defining title.

At first I was quite underwhelmed: Donkey Kong Country was such a visual tour-de-force that it shames every games before. Sure, it had Mode 7 tech, which was something I hadn't seen before (We'll get to F-Zero :P), but just how plain the visuals looked compared to DKC was a setback for me. The Pseudo 3D effects were nice, but it was no SGI GRAPHIXLOLOLOL (I still can't believe I bought into that, but then again, people bought into "Blast Processing"). While the flat shaded artstyle fit with the designs of Super Mario World, the fact that lacks the look of "depth" sort of pushed me away. The fact that the game only displayed half the screen never really bothered me though. I thought that using it as a full map displaying where everyone was was a nice touch, never knowing that it was a "technical limitation".

The gameplay, however, was anything but disappointing. Even at the most basic level, the game creates many player decisions: Heavy or Light driver (My go to guy? Yoshi, followed by Mario, then Toad); Max coin on first lap or stick to the racing line (Always max coin); hold back and wait for better item in the first item area, or jockey for position (Always wait for items). Every track and "world theme" has their own unique trick to learn (like boosting through the gap in Donut Plains 1), and it was always entertaining (and sometimes frustrating, in a good way) to play through each cup. Learning the timing for the hop/slide was a long process, but I eventually got the hang of it (after countless trial and errors on Mario Circuit 1).

At the time, I never understood how heavy rubberbanded the AI was, but it created intense exciting races. Sure, this badly rubberbanded AI would run into frustrating situations of overtaking first place just at the last corner, but it also taught me to be ruthless in hoarding items, racing a sub optimal line to block, and holding a banana/green shell back for protection. Sometimes the AI would end up costing me the entire series because of one cheap lap, but it was merely another chance for me to replay the series again (Yes, my cart does have all tracks completed, with a 40/40 for all series).

Looking back, I'm surprised how well I took in the attempt at re purposing all the items: coins gave speed increase; mushrooms were speedboost; lightening to shrink, the list goes on. Yet the most interesting use was the Feather. Except for a few shortcuts, the Feather was pretty useless in the main mode. For the longest time, I though someone had to have screwed up somewhere, then I discovered Battle mode. During one game, I got a feather and managed to jump into a closed off pool.

A GLITCH! - I said.


I never found a good strategy to properly use that trick. I know that in all those pools, there are jump pads or item pads that will allow you to get out with ease. To this day I wonder whether this feather design was by design, or just another happy accident that turned into a feature. It is interesting to see Battle Mode to be considered now as the beginning of the "car combat" genre. To think, all the multiplayer missile shooting owes it's origins to a game where people lay down banana peels...

Oh, and before I wrap this up: Worst Rainbow Road ever. Even though I hate the new ones, this one takes the cake for having no barriers whatsoever. Who thought that was a good idea? be continued...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Gaming Past: SNES In depth (Part 1) - Donkey Kong Country


My top 3 SNES gems

As mentioned last time, there were three SNES games that I would consider "pinnacle" of the SNES. Obviously, this is a list of what I actually owned back then (pretty small list), and what I've played (which weren't much). Donkey Kong Country 1 was an eye-opening experience on how much visual and graphical fidelity can affect immersion and gameplay; Donkey Kong Country 2 built upon that with even more imaginative world and level design; Super Mario Kart entertained me for countless hours with it's fantastic balance of weapons and racing; and finally, Uniracers, an accidental purchase that I stumbled upon. I've technically cheated a bit here, as I'm wrapping "DKC 1/2" as the same game (I'll get to why DKC3 isn't in there :P). So with the intro out of the way, here goes nothing.

I no longer remember why or where I've heard of Donkey Kong Country, but I NEEDED it (chalk it to magical marketing hype, I guess). So much so, I remembered putting that, and only that game on my Christmas List, over and over. As you can guess by now, yes, I did get the game for Christmas, and I played nothing but that for months on end. Comparing this to Mario World at that time was an unfair comparison, and to a 11 year old, it was a visual feast that made me forget everything that has come before it. Donkey Kong Country, at the time, used this magical "SGI rendering" to create these incredible color and detail in the world that I haven't seen before, and it felt more "fun". The two areas I remembered the most was the underwater swimming stages and the snowy mountain stages; both which were richly detailed and full of character and life. Additional, the music created an unforgettable atmosphere that was a joy to listen and play through (the visuals showing blizzard in Ice Age Alley, combined with the tension inducing soundtrack and the echo effect has been burned into my memory -

By the time Donkey Kong Country 2 was released, I had made sure I got it as soon as possible (which happened to coincide with my birthday). Visually, the game dramatically improved from it's precursor, with far more detailed characters, enemies and environments. I was so immersed with it's detailed worlds, I ended up playing this fairly quickly just to see everything that the game had to offer. Like the first game, it had memorable environments (the volcano levels, and the marshlands were the most impressive) and suspenseful stages (Screech's Sprint -, to me was the most memorable one, especially because a) the awesome music, b) how stupid hard it was, which meant I played that stage way too many times to count, and c) that roll -> jump gap at the start of the stage, which blew my mind when I figured out how to do it).

However, even though I've actually completed the game with 102% (in contrast to DKC1's 87%), I came out somewhat more disappointed at it. So much so that I never did end up buying or ever playing DKC3 (even to this day). Both these games were great, but I've had enough of the platforming by that point to not want to care about the new one. Looking back, I think it's easy to see why:

1) Donkey Kong Country 2 were slowly showing hints of Rare's trademark obsessive collect-a-thons. Each stage had the KONG letters (carried over from the first one); the DK Coin; and numerous banana coins and kremkoins, which were currency for opening up even more content in the game. This drive to collect things were great in forcing replay, but by the end I was sick of trying different tricks to reach for hidden areas to collect things.

2) While Miyamoto might not have actually said that the gameplay was mediocre because of the graphics, I do agree that because of it's awesome graphics, people have dismissed it's somewhat derivative gameplay as a trivial issue (I am also guilty of this). Looking back, while DKC1 had "new" mechanics like barrel blasts, mine kart jumping, they weren't hugely innovative and refreshing. DKC2 suffered even more, as it was merely gameplay refinement and polish over the first. However, in both cases, since the graphics were such standout features, most people were more than willing to forgive it being less than refreshing.

...huh. Didn't realize that I've written way too much for just one game. Looking at the last few post, it seems like it's a bit too much to digest, so I'll try to cut down the length, and maybe switch up to more frequent posting instead. How's that? be continued...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Gaming Past: 16 Bit Gaming


My real foray of console gaming

It's been a week since I wrote the last entry, and looking back, this title seems a little too much. It's not that I didn't consider the Famicom that I had a system, but instead, it's the first time where I would be stuck picking and choosing a much more limited choice of what I can play. The end result, for me, is a much deeper appreciation for what each games did and didn't do.

I got my SNES at Woolco (yeah, remember those, yeah, they don't exist anymore) soon after moving to Canada. It was the crazy bundle that came with Super Mario World, Mario Paint, and Mario All-Stars for some ridiculous low price (I recall it being around $130, it's the good old days when consoles can be bought with games for sub-$200, good times). Those games lasted me for a good year, and with very good reason.

Let's get the surprise out of the way first: Mario Paint. Mario Paint, for me, opened up a interesting view into what entertainment can be. Like most people, I gravitated to the only thing resembling a game in the package: "Coffee Break". Using the mouse to wack flies was infinitely entertaining, and even though it was obvious that most of the game was pure chance (enemy position is random). Difficulty ramped up as the stages started to repeat, but that didn't matter to me back then as the high score was the only thing that mattered.

While that game never got too tiring, I did eventually discover the joy of creating both art and music with the "game". I never really had the patience to properly paint a full screen of something, but creating the small pixelart icons and music tracks was a blast. The MIDI music creator baffled me in the details of creating a full music track, but I never got tired of replacing the mario theme with just dog and cat barking sounds. I also never really considered myself to be awesome at creating those small icon pixelart, but I remembered having fun creating alternative colours of the 1Up mushrooms (changing colours was the easiest thing to do, and I made an awesome yellow/red one that Nintendo went on to steal with the Mega Mushroom.

The second pack-in was Super Mario All-Stars, a collection of Mario Bros 1,2,3 and Mario Lost Levels. This became the first opportunity where I completed Mario Bros 1 from start to finish (with improved graphics!), and my first exposure to both Mario Bros Lost Levels, 2 and 3. Lost Levels was a baffling experience, clearly created to spite my 10 year old brain. A mushroom that shrinks you/kills you? EVIL! To this day I still haven't gone back to play through the entire game (which I should someday). Mario Bros 2 and 3were also eye-opening experiences, breaking down my conception of what a platforming game is (which was mostly formed around Mario Bros anyways).

Mario Bros. 2 was an interesting game because it was just so weird. Floating enemies that chases you when you take a key? Pots that shrinks in size? Potions that create doors and alternate paths? Birdo? BIRDO! Timing that stupid egg was annoying! However, the idea of having 4 playable characters, each with slightly different jumping and running mechanics was very very appealing. In hindsight, the Princess' floating mechanics (Yes, it's Princess, not Peach, what the hell is going on there?) was a brilliant move in making me (and probably many people) feel like they're cheating the game and making them feel awesome. I've probably abused every single jump in that game with the floating move.

Mario Bros. 3 was even more interesting, with the frog suit and all, but unfortunately for me, I finished Mario World first, which made 3 feel like an awkward time warp of a game that I didn't really enjoy. A lot of the mechanics were wonderful in hindsight, and I really wish I had learned to appreciate it more back then. The bonus item for clearing each world was empowering; the new abilities were fun to use; the end level bonus reward cards reinforced stage grinding; the silver blocks where you can crouch down and find a secret path was brilliant; the idea of equipping an item into any stage was the best thing ever created since slice bread. Similar to the Princess' floating jump, the idea that you can bring an item into a difficult stage is an empowering cheat that makes players feel like they've gamed the system, even though clearly this was a planned possibility.

However, all the above games are overshadowed by Super Mario World, which was a fantastic experience from start to finish. The first time finding Yoshi; finding out chaining 8 hits in a row earns an extra life; finding out how to get the feather, and mastering flying; finding the ! switches; discovering about multiple branching exits on the red stages... everything about it was carefully paced to deliver a new discovery at every level.

More importantly, the jump from the Famicom to the SNES created a new sense of atmosphere. The SNES, like all my game systems, was placed in the basement with the main TV. Playing games often makes for a chilling experience, where the temperature drops to around 15 degrees on average. This fact greatly contributed to what I remembered in Mario World: The Ghost House was haunting and scary; the mines was cold and echo-y; the Butter Bridge was breezy (hmm... apparently all of the game was just cold, which I guess, doesn't work as well at the Valley of Bowser). The Forest of Illusion, by far, was the most memorable set piece, a haunted forest with no clear exit.

The most mind blowing fact of Super Mario World was when I found out about Star World, and eventually, Special World. Branching multiple paths was cool in other stages, but this "broken glitch" created this illusion of awesomeness about my gaming skills (which, of course, most people did stumble upon anyways). In hindsight, what I appreciated most about it is how all of this was put together: Star World represented "bonus stages", but were also special places to have unique mechanics that were not placed together (Like Star World 3's Football guys, Lakitu, and Grab Blocks); Special World were even more extreme applications of awkward mechanics, like Gnarly's extreme use of vertical space, or Awesome's slippery floor.

To wrap up SMW: Yes, I do have a 95* save; All the turtles are now walking heads; I have opened up every stage, including the Cheese Bridge exit to Soda Lake; Tubular was designed by the devil; Yes I exploit Star World 2 for Blue Yoshi; Yes, I have cleared Bowser's castle once as regular Mario; Forest of Illusion 3 still has it's mid-checkpoint, as it's the fastest ways to rack up 1Ups.

One of the goals for these introductory posts for me was to do a fairly detailed chronicle of the types of games I sunk deep into. I hoped that by looking into the past, it gives better insight into who I am as a gamer and a "designer". At this rate, I'll end up covering way too much detail about too many minor things, without getting on the eventual goal of "actual design topics on my mind". I guess I'll map it out now (at least for maybe the next 2 posts), for both my sake and yours...

Even though I only have 10 SNES games, they have made such a huge impact on how I see games are be played and what made games fun and magical. In the next post, I'll cover what I considered the 3 greatest games of that generation (and miraculously, some of them are also well regarded too! :P ) : Donkey Kong Country 1/2, Super Mario Kart, and Uniracers. After that, I'll cover the rest, for example: Super Mario RPG.

Up Next Time: My top 3 SNES gems.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Gaming Past: The Gameboy Era


The Gameboy Era

I could have sworn that I had received the Game Boy right around the same time I got the Famicom, but in hindsight, I'm not even sure anymore. Like most people, the first thing they remembered about the GameBoy was Tetris. Even though I swore by Tengen's version (which I didn't know was any different at the time), I still played the GameBoy version more than anything else at the time. There was something very very satisfying about clearing lines, optimizing and planning out for blocks ahead. However, I was quickly distracted by the glut of other games due to the easy access of pirated carts available back then.

Unlike the Famicom pirated carts, GameBoy carts consisted of these stupid rubber nubs at the top of the cartridge, which toggled to the next game in the list. Given the amount of games that were on these (one of them billed as 58 in 1), the horrendous packaging (I had a picture of a cover, instead of even the title), and almost an infinite amount of time to figure stuff out, I pretty much tried all of the games on these carts 1 by 1. Emphasis on TRY, as the Japanese language and other obscure games would have put me off completely before the menus started.

One of the games I remembered the most was Motocross Maniacs, a 2D side scrolling "motorcross" game. At the time, I had strongly contrasted it against Excitebike as this weird racing hybrid game. On one hand, there was a "racing component" to the game, where you had to get a certain time to advance; but you never ever see any other racers on screen at the same time. What was fascinating to me were the loop-de-loop jumps, requiring the right amount of nitro boosts, item pickups, skill, and luck. Eventually, random ledges and rocks started appearing in the stages (which I later found out, needed me to pop a wheelie), which frustrated me to rage quit. However, since the carts never saved, I've always gone back to play the first 7+ stages, before quitting all over again.

Tiny Toon Adventures: Babs' Big Break was in hindsight, the most fully realized game on the GameBoy I've played at the time. Every stage was playable by at all three characters, and they would all play slightly different. It had some basic gameplay elements that reminded me of Mario (item boxes, etc), but it also had interesting quirks that was interesting to play with (everyone had a weird weapon throw angle). Stupid pirated carts don't have any save data (and I'm not even sure if you can actually save in the actual game), so I've never really finished it.

Like Gradius and LifeForce, Volley Fire was another SHMUP like game that kick started my lifelong obsession with things shooting other things while dodging between things. Volley Fire, however, was done more like a fighting game in attempts to outsmart the AI. Shooting between the floating asteroids moving in a given direction never made any sense, nor did the reflective mirrors in the middle, but it was great fun nevertheless.

Solomon's Key, along with Flipull and Dr. Mario, were a few of many interesting GameBoy puzzle games that I had first discovered on the Game Boy before finding them on the Famicom. Solomon's Key was fantastic in the world and the rules it creates, but I absolutely hated some of the timing puzzles when it came to creating/destroying blocks (and since it's pre-youtube days, I'm still left wondering how some of them are done). Flipull is reminiscent of Yoshi's Cookie of today, and it had a maddeningly addictive "step" mode, where you are limited in the number of moves and blocks that can be used. Dr. Mario needs no introduction, and I've blown way too many hours on setting the difficulty at max, filling the play area, and seeing how long it takes to clear it back down to nothing.

And just like the Famicom list, I've now gone on far too long, and still nowhere close to covering everything that's worth, here goes a (shorter list) of stuff: Adventure Island (I eventually discovered it to be much much better on the Famicom, but yes, I associate it with the GameBoy first), Hudson Hawk (I've never seen the movie, but the game was interesting and weird with the baseball throwing, the wire grabbing and platform dodging), Klax (in hindsight, I have no idea why this was even fun, but the match 3+ risk reward system was interesting, and that stupid sound effect is still goofy today), Pitman (looking back, OH GOD, IT'S FURRIES, but again, another weird platformer/puzzle game that was fascinating), Tennis (Mario is a terrible ref, but I have a killer ace serve), Yoshi (hmm, another puzzle game, do I really need to explain anymore?)

...I think this is a natural point to stop this post and moved on. The GameBoy for most people sorta fell into the background in a few years as the industry transitioned. For me, I moved from Hong Kong to Canada, and it's a pretty good point to start my next post.

Up Next Time: My real foray of console gaming.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Gaming Past: Intro, and the Famicom System


Video games, by it's interactive nature, is highly personal and highly subjective. What I find fascinating in a game maybe completely inconsequential to 99% of the gaming population, so I think it might be best for me to give you the reader some grounding about myself before I dive into other topics. I personally believe that it is important for game developers and designers to not just observe and ask about what people see, but also understand the reasoning behind what people experience. For me to start a blog about my observation of what I see in games, without going through the types of games I've played, knowing what my background and focus is would be a disservice to you all.

So, where do I begin...

In the early days

My first gaming memory is definitely hazy, now that I think about it. I'm pretty sure I had gotten a Famicom first (before the GameBoy), but even that I'm not sure anymore. Let's assume it was the Famicom.

As many people can tell you, Hong Kong was a haven when it comes to piracy. I should make no excuses in terms of buying pirated game, but hey, I didn't know any better back then, and buying legitimate single cart game was downright impossible. As you can guess, all I have are these crazy 300 in 1 carts, mostly filled with different hacks of the same game. There are many pros and cons to this, in hindsight. I have probably sampled more games at that points than most people ever will, but it also means that I've never really beaten anything at any depth.

The fondest memory of any game I had on that system, like most people, was Super Mario Bros. I don't think I've actually ever cleared the game, or even advanced to the third world back then, but I've always find something endearing about how different it looked and played. (Having the ROM save state allowing you to switch to any level without trying also helped) I've either never had the patience, or the time, to fully figure out how to get to the start of the fourth world, but everytime I started playing again at 1-1, it always felt comforting, and it always felt fun.

Contra came in at a close second. Like Mario before it, it's one of those games I've never really good at for a long time. As far as I remembered, I had spent most of my time within the first 3 areas, the hillside(?), the underground lab, and the waterfall. Only much later did I ever see the snow level, and the factory (GOD DAMN SPIKES, ON THE CART :@ ). Looking back, if it wasn't for the pirated rom cart (the version of the game starts with 30 lives without the code + the Spray bullets by default), I would have never even tried the game more than once. It was one of those games that gave me an appreciation of difficult games (even if I have no skill to keep up with it), and showed a large amount of variety and imagination in what was possible.

Little did I know that playing Gradius/LifeForce, along with the aforementioned Contra, kicked off a lifelong obsession of ultra hard scrolling shooters. In all of them, there was the obvious obsession with shooting things (what kid at that age isn't), but more interestingly, as I look back, was that all of them obviously took place in these fantastical world not bounded by reality, and have their own interprtations of rules and logic. Spamming the laser in all three games create this stupid beam that goes nowhere; the upgraded bombs drop to the ground, but travel along it and hits the next enemy. They didn't make sense when it was placed in any other game, but it made playing and learning each game unique and interesting.

Speaking of rules that don't make any sense: Road Fighter. This was recently re-released on XBLA Game Room, and within the first 30 seconds, I wondered how I had actually tolerated this game back then. Cars go from 0-400KM/H; B is a turbo boost accelerator, but caps out at 280 and burns more fuel; running into a rainbow car gives you more fuel; red cars stay in place, blues turn away from you, and other red sports car turn into you. It's absolutely stupid, it's absolutely punishing (any wall grind = instant explosion!), but I've spent countless hours replaying the stages over and over, memorizing patterns of car movements and and timing the proper slide distance.

Then there's Lunarball, which is some absurd version of pool, played in space, with random number of balls, and random tables shapes. Ever wonder how pool plays like if it was a checkerboard? Apparently not that fun. How about a pool table in the shape of the letter A? In a way, this game reminded me of mini-golf, but, also pool. What was fascinating about this game was watching how "physics" would react here. 90% of the time, I would estimate an angle hoping to bank a ball in and miss; but that 10% chance of success would always feel awesome.

...and by now I realized I've gone way too long on mentioning a list of games that don't represent what I've enjoyed, but writing any longer would turn this into a book, so let's just list some of the more notable ones that I remembered. (And if you find any of them interesting, maybe I'll expand upon them later). In no particular (alphanumeric) order:

Baseball (that wicked knuckleball that spins in reverse, I still have no idea if that's intentional)
Battle City
Bomberman(those balloons are God Damn EVIL)
Elevator Action (I had way too much fun shooting out the lights)
Ice Climber
Lode Runner
Mappy(that stupid music is always stuck in my head)
Might Bomb Jack
Tengen's Tetris (Yes, I've played Nintendo's Tetris, I stand by Tengen's as the correct, and superior version)
Track and Field may have noticed that even though this introductory post is primarily Famicom/NES, there were no mention of any RPGs of sort: Final Fantasy and Zelda are all absent. Given the nature of those 190 in 1 carts, it's no wonder why I never saw them. But me and RPGs are a discussion for another time...

Up Next Time: The Gameboy era.