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.