Risk Factions introduces Commandant SixFour

December 12th, 2016 12:30 PM
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I grew up playing all sorts of computer and video games, but there was something especially magical about online multiplayer games. There weren't many of them back then, but in lieu of face-to-face interaction, the friendships I forged in CompuServe chat rooms were reinforced through those friendly competitions.

I still use online games to connect with people I know from other venues, such as KansasFest. The Xbox 360 was the first broadband console I used in that fashion, though I had a hard time finding two-player games that weren't sports or first-person shooters. Need for Speed and Castle Crashers fit the bill, but for more retro experiences, Worms and Lode Runner scratched that itch.

There's one game I enjoyed that I never finished, though: Risk: Factions. I enjoyed this 2010 release enough to rank it as one of my favorite Xbox Live Arcade games of the year — but, like the classic board game, a session of Risk can last an unreasonably long time. Alas, my counterparts and I could never find enough hours in one day to sit through an entire round.

But I did enjoy this game's cartoonish presentation (as opposed to the more realistic approach taken by its 2015 update, Risk). And I especially appreciated that it acknowledged the roots of early computer tactical games. Each country in the game was represented by an animated avatar, with one militaristic individual being identified as Commandant SixFour:

Like its namesake, the Commodore 64, the Commandant doesn't have the highest graphical fidelity. In Terminator fashion, we occasionally see the world through the Commandant's eyes, where everything is pixelated:

Pixelated image as seen by Commandant SixFour

INTRUDER ALERT

This lack of resolution isn't just a cheap joke: it becomes a vital plot point in the above cinematic video, introducing a new villain to the Risk storyline in Wargames style.

Both the Commandant and the Commodore are worthy enemies for their eras. Perhaps some day, I'll find the time to defeat one.

(Hat tip to Open Apple)

Gaming across the platforms

December 30th, 2013 11:35 AM
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I spent much of December overwhelmed by too many freelance commitments. Activities that are supposed to be fun, like writing articles and playing video games, adopt a different tone when a deadline is applied. But I kept my sanity in large part to the opportunities these pursuits gave me to interact with my fellow Apple II users outside our usual contexts of Juiced.GS, Open Apple, and KansasFest.

Specifically: we've been playing video games. Lots of them.

My YouTube channel, where I unboxed the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One, gained the attention of prolific and accomplished media producer Lon Seidman, former guest of Open Apple. Although I lack the polish and equipment of his A/V setup, he invited me onto his show for a livestream first look at the Xbox One.

It was fun to see and work with Lon in real-time — a first! Who knows what other opportunities he and I may have to collaborate? Could an Apple II show be far off?

That same weekend, I was invited to be a guest on the weekly Internet radio show Pixel Pizza, hosted by Jared Ettinger, a student at Emerson College, where I'm on the adjunct faculty. I was concerned that I'd be outed for my lack of hardcore gaming experience, but I was able to turn the conversation to more technical details about the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 that I could expound upon. My confidence was further bolstered to know Steve Weyhrich of the Apple II History site was listening live. During sign-off, I thanked him on-air with a plug for his book, Sophistication & Simplicity.

Interviews and talk shows are all well and good — but video games are meant to be played, not discussed. So this past Friday evening, I switched on my Xbox 360, connected to Xbox Live, and met Dain Neater and Andy Molloy for some online gaming. Our weapons in this duel were high-performance speed demons, with us racing down the California coast trying to escape the police (or, sometimes, each other) as we duked it out in Need for Speed Hot Pursuit.

So thanks, Microsoft, for giving us Apple II users so many gaming platforms to discuss and play on. Any medium that serves to connect us retrocomputing enthusiasts is okay by me!

Dino Eggs Rebirth coming soon

June 17th, 2013 8:24 PM
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At KansasFest 2009, I presented a session on modern games inspired by Apple II classics, a list I expanded with a follow-up session at KansasFest 2010. The motivation for both was implied: our favorite games don't exist anymore, but here are some of today's games that come pretty close.

Every day, that underlying assumption is negated a bit more by the increasing trend to resurrect the titles and franchises of yesteryear. Now it's not only big-name titles like Lode Runner and Karateka that are being revisited. Recently announced by original creator David Schroeder is the pending release of Dino Eggs: Rebirth, a sequel to 1983's Dino Eggs. Check out the trailer:

I've never played Dino Eggs on either its original platform of the Apple II or on the Commodore 64 or IBM PC, to which it was ported. I would wonder if the demand for a sequel is there, but as I've heard of Dino Eggs before this video, I'm assuming I'm unique in having not experienced it directly. On the other hand, the developer didn't go to Kickstarter for crowdfunding, suggesting either the project didn't require outside funding, or he wasn't confident in his ability to find outside funding.

What do you think? Do you remember Dino Eggs fondly enough to check out this sequel? Or is the market for nostalgia already crowded?

Look for this game on PC and Xbox — no mobile devices! — this summer.

(Hat tip to Brian Picchi)

The Making of Karateka

December 10th, 2012 1:51 PM
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As I previously blogged, I'm not a fan of the new Karateka. I admittedly did not play the full, commercial version of Jordan Mechner's new game, but those who have reaffirmed my opinion: the game has a 62% aggregate rating on Metacritic, based on two positive reviews, one negative review, and 11 mixed.

But I'm still glad Mechner revisited his classic Apple II property, as it's proven an elucidating experience, one that he's chosen to share with the retrocomputing and game design communities. On his blog, Mechner reflects on making and remaking Karateka. Much has changed from the original game's release in 1982 to the remake three decades later, with Mechner commenting on the experiences and inspirations across four short videos themed around inspiration, animation, audio, and gameplay.

For those who prefer a more textual experience, Mechner has followed up his previous e-book, The Making of Prince of Persia, with a complement, The Making of Karateka. Both books are published in ePub, PDF, Kindle, and (coming soon!) paperback, with free samples available for download.

With his recent iOS re-release of The Last Express, I think Mechner has now tapped all the properties with which he launched his career. Might we see something original next?

An underwhelming Karateka demo

November 12th, 2012 1:31 PM
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I had marked November 17th as the date Jordan Mechner would return to the world of Karateka, his classic Apple II fighting game. Ten days early, Sean Fahey announced that my marked date was for the PC, iOS, and PlayStation 3 versions of the new Karateka, but that the Xbox Live Arcade version was now available.

As primarily an Xbox gamer, I was happy to hear this news and immediately downloaded the game, accepting of the fact that I'd be unable to load it upside-down. Up until then, I'd wondered as to the game's genre and nature: was it best described as a sequel? A reboot? A reimagining? Having played only the ten-minute free trial, I would describe the game as a remake — and one that doesn't capture modern gamers with its demo.

Karateka

How much has Karateka changed in the last 30 years?

With an art style and musical underpinning that harken back to the classic Apple II fighting game, Karateka is a visual and aural delight. The Japanese gardens and goofy goons that our hero encounters are evocative of another time and place. There is little freedom to explore these environments, though, as the protagonist (one of three) proceeds through it on two-dimensional rails, unable to move any direction but forward.

Once he engages with a foe, the opportunity for input becomes limited to three buttons: punch, kick, and block. It is impossible to strike an enemy without first blocking his own attack, at which point his guard is lowered and he is open to a chain of attacks. In an interview with Polygon's Samit Sarkar, Mechner describes the combat system as rhythm-based in which players "have to time your attacks to the score from Grammy-winning composer Christopher Tin". This was not my experience; my blocks were based solely on cues from the castle's keepers — tells that they were about to strike. A successful block then let me pound the punch and kick buttons, but there seemed to be neither functional difference between the two nor incentive to experiment with a variety of combos.

In an interview with Steve Peterson, Mechner indicates that the simplistic gameplay is intentional, allowing other aspects of Karateka to take center stage:

Mechner believes Karateka is an unusual design, one that will attract a broader audience. "It's not a fighting game in the sense of trying to rack up points, or fighting for fighting's sake. It's fighting in order to get to the happy ending in the story, and it's a love story. I think we're appealing to a slightly different audience than most fighting games," he says.

I can appreciate Jordan Mechner, as someone whose ambition has always been to write Hollywood scripts, wanting to focus on that aspect of Karateka. Storytelling has become an increasingly important part of both big-budget and indie games, with hits such as Braid, Portal, and even the BIT.TRIP series having set new milestones for their innovative and memorable plots.

But plot is also the hardest quality for a game to convey in a short demo. It is more effective to draw players in with engaging gameplay, then present them with an increasingly intricate and meaningful narrative. In that respect, the free demo I played falls flat. The only challenges I encountered in my time with Karateka was identifying a foe's pattern and timing my blocks accordingly. With digital distribution and mobile apps, there are much more involving experiences I could get for my $10, and demos that give me more confidence in that investment than Karateka has.

(Hat tips to Blake Patterson, John August, and Steve Melton)

The Voyage of the Kansasian

October 1st, 2012 11:09 AM
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A little game that's been making the rounds this month is FTL: Faster Than Light, released on September 14 for Windows, Linux, and Mac. It is first game to have sought Kickstarter funding and be released after Double Fine Adventure broke the dam on indie game funding. Like Tim Schafer, FTL developers Subset Games got much more than they asked for: their goal was $10,000, and they got $200,000.

Some of the media is describing FTL as a roguelike — that is, a game like Rogue, a fantasy role-playing game that was ported to the Apple IIGS. (Don Worth's Beneath Apple Manor for the Apple II has also been described as a roguelike, even though its release predates Rogue by two years.) A roguelike is "characterized by level randomization, permanent death, and turn-based movement", though the outer space setting and spaceship interface of FTL has prompted its developers to call it a "roguelike-like".

Gamer and KansasFest alumnus Wayne Arthurton decided to plot a retro course for his FTL spaceship by christening it after the premier Apple II convention and manning it with fellow geeks. The virgin flight of the Kansasian was last week, with more adventures to follow:

Like Wayne, I too have named characters after Apple II users. Andy, Wayne, and I are all gamers on the Xbox 360, where we sometimes play Worms 2: Armageddon. Annelids named Sheppy and Antoine have taken a few bazooka missiles to the face in their day.

Another opportunity to connect KFesters with gaming may come at KansasFest 2013, where it's been proposed we play Artemis, a starship simulator modeled after Star Trek. Artemis networks several Windows terminals as bridge stations such as helm, communications, and weapons. Here's a sample of a game with a six-person bridge crew:

Who knows in what other actual or virtual gaming environments we KFesters may encounter each other?

UPDATE: Artemis is coming to iOS and will be cross-platform compatible with the PC original. That should make a KansasFest session much easier to arrange. Thanks for the heads-up, Sean Fahey!