Archive for the ‘Game trail’ Category

Lode Runner, Choplifter, Oregon Trail, and other classic diversions from 8-bit gaming.

Bard's Tale post-mortem at GDC

December 11th, 2017 8:10 AM
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The Game Developer's Conference is an annual event that invites members of the computer and video game industry to collaborate, inspire, and share their stories and best practices. This professional affair is expensive to attend but nonetheless attracts developers both mainstream and indie.

One of the flagship offerings of each year's GDC schedule is the post-mortem, where developers take attendees behind the scenes of their memorable games, be they modern or historical. Past post-mortems have included games Maniac Mansion for the Apple II and Raid on Bungeling Bay for Commodore 64.

At GDC 2018, to be held in San Francisco on March 19–23, another classic game will enter the post-mortem vault: The Bard's Tale I and II. Dr. Michael Cranford, creator of The Bard's Tale series and programmer for the Apple II version of Donkey Kong, will host the session:

Cranford… will share the vision that led him to the game's conception, design, and development from his years as a dungeon master. The games are an expression of Cranford's personal love for the genre and desire to surpass the experience of tabletop gaming. The session will explore the vision behind the game and help illuminate a trajectory in gaming which has remained strong to the current day… [and] many elements in current RPGs are developed in 'The Bard's Tale'.

… this talk is not going to be technical. This session targets those who are interested in concepts behind game design (RPG game design in particular), how that came together in the early '80s, and how it impacted so many people.

Although I've not played many games in The Bard's Tale series, I recognize the role it played in gaming history, as it was named among the top RPGs of all time by both Game Informer and Retro Gamer, inspiring me to back the Kickstarter for The Bard's IV. I would love to be in the audience for this upcoming talk… but alas, attendance at GDC is not for the casual gamer, with passes starting at $999. I will instead hope the video and slides will eventually make their way into the GDC Vault, where they will be preserved and made available to the wider audience interested in RPG history.

(Hat tip to Gamasutra)

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

December 4th, 2017 9:46 AM
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I subscribe to only two monthly magazines, one of which is Game Informer. While it's not my only source for video game news, I enjoy its in-depth features on game development, previews of upcoming titles, and reviews of games I might never play.

One of those games is Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, a first-person shooter and the eighth in the Wolfenstein series, released just this past October. The game follows protagonist William "B.J." Blazkowicz, introduced in 1992 in the series' original first-person shooter, Wolfenstein 3D, as he sets about to free an alternate-history modern America of its Nazi rule.

I haven't played any Wolfenstein games since that 1992 title, but I was struck by this passage in Game Informer's review of the latest game:

The New Colossus does not shy away from tough themes but, on the contrary, aggressively pursues them. The 14-hour campaign tackles racism, being complicit in cruelty, executions, child abuse, despair, patricide, the holocaust, white supremacy, and terrorism. While these themes are dark, the game handles them well, giving a proper amount of drama and emotional depth to each while also refusing to offer easy answers to the questions that plague the characters’ hearts. However, this parade of tragedy is never too much to bear, because the game takes the time to throw in wacky humor, like when machines are zapping Nazis into a fine red goop while Set Roth explains to B.J. just how broken his body is. You also see heartfelt moments of romance and friendship among the crew; amongst all the murder and sorrow, The New Colossus makes room for love and hope. Where these brands of tragedy and comedy might mix as well as water and oil in other games, here they are necessary parts to making this experience work as a cohesive whole.

My first reaction was to be impressed that the game had such a strong narrative. I'm a big fan of narrative-driven games, from Life Is Strange to Gone Home, and while first-person shooters often have story, they're hardly the reason gamers play them. But it seems developer MachineGames and publisher Bethesda Softworks have nonetheless taken Wolfenstein's plot seriously. For the first time in 25 years, I find myself wanting to play a Wolfenstein game.

My second reaction was to laugh at the absurdity of the juxtaposition of such a strong narrative with incredibly violent gameplay. The New Colossus is rated 'M' by the Entertainment Software Rating Board for reasons that include plot and narrative but which focus primarily on the action: "Combat is frenetic, with realistic gunfire, explosions, screams of pain, and large blood-splatter effects. Some weapons allow players to blow off enemies' heads or cut off their limbs; cutscenes sometimes show decapitations and/or acts of disembowelment." It is no doubt this gratuitous violence, not the "heartfelt moments of romance and friendship", that will attract most gamers.

My third reaction was disbelief at how far the Wolfenstein franchise has come. Although it may have achieved mainstream popularity with its 3D incarnation in 1992, the series was founded in 1981 by Silas Warner's Castle Wolfenstein, a 2D, top-down stealth game. Did Warner ever expect that his humble program would evolve to "make room for love and hope"? Would he see any of his genetic code embedded in this descendant? What would he think of The New Colossus?

It's impossible to say: the first and latest Wolfenstein games are so far removed from each other at this point as to share only a name and general anti-Nazi theme, such that Warner may see only a passing resemblance. But as a gamer, I'm heartened that the Apple II has made possible such a prominent, highly anticipated, and well-received entry in the modern gaming landscape. Whether or not most gamers realize it, our lineage persists.

Teens play Oregon Trail

November 27th, 2017 3:35 PM
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Last month, 1990s kids played Oregon Trail. They had nostalgia going for them when they set out from Independence, Missouri. Would a new generation of travelers, untested on the Oregon Trail, find a similar appeal on the road to Williamette Valley?

A year after shooting the original video, Buzzfeed returned to the Oregon Trail with that question by inviting three pairs of teens to play Oregon Trail.

"I have trouble believing this is from the 1990s," said one kid; "it looks prehistoric." Well, sure: the original version was released in 1971, and the Apple II edition from 1985 remained largely unchanged for the 1990 MS-DOS port played here. By that point, the game had nearly 20 years of history behind it. But kids who are teens now likely weren't alive in the 1990s, so in that sense, the game is "prehistoric".

Even though today's gamers may be accustomed to more action and less information, I'm still surprised by the response of one teen who survived all the way to Williamette Valley: "It's pretty underwhelming." Oregon Trail's graphics aren't significantly different from the variety of pixel-art retrogames available today, such as VVVVVV, or the reading required by gamebooks, such as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Given that many of these kids had never heard of Oregon Trail, I'd be very curious to know if their impressions would've changed had Oregon Trail been presented as a modern game designed with a retro aesthetic.

1990s kids play Oregon Trail

October 30th, 2017 10:38 AM
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Many of us in the Apple II community were first introduced to the computer in its heyday. And for some younger members, that introduction occurred in the classroom, playing Oregon Trail.

If that wasn't our last encounter with the Apple II, then we wouldn't be surprised if we booted Oregon Trail today and saw blocky graphics and heard rudimentary music — that's typical of an early 8-bit computer. But if we graduated from that classroom and never looked back, then we might be surprised that Oregon Trail isn't quite what we remember — if we remember it at all.

That's what Buzzfeed set out to test in a react-style video: it recruited adults who grew up in the 1990s (a bit after the Apple II's height of popularity) — adults who have apparently never played modern adaptations of Oregon Trail, such as Organ Trail — and asked them to play Oregon Trail.

Despite the hardware and software being from their youth, both seem absolutely foreign to these players. They expect mouse input where there is none; they're surprised by the amount of text and lack of real-time interactivity; the keyboard controls for hunting are indecipherable (I'm guessing it's IJKM); and one couldn't remember where the Oregon Trail led. (Hint: it's in the title.)

Even if this video is a rough reintroduction, the gamers nonetheless seemed to enjoy themselves. Their exasperation at the various maladies that befall their parties has an undercurrent of amusement. One test subject even says he might go home and play Oregon Trail. Now that would be a win!

In the end, these players congratulated themselves — not on making it from Independence to Willamette Valley, but on playing the game at all. They commented, "Kids these days would hate this game… They wouldn't have the patience." Is that true? Stay tuned…

Final Fantasy V by Chris Kohler

October 23rd, 2017 9:50 AM
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The Apple II and its software and community had a tremendous influence on my evolution as a gamer. But as much as I enjoyed its games, many of them would today be described as "casual" games — something I could play for a few minutes before moving on. My Apple II collection didn't include the deep, engrossing titles of Ultima or Wizardry; for those role-playing experiences, I turned to my Nintendo. It was on that gaming platform that I lost myself in the worlds of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. These two Japanese RPGs offered worlds, characters, inventories, and more complexity than any of the action games I was otherwise accustomed to.

So when Boss Fight Books launched a few years ago with the promise to delve behind the scenes of such console games, I was quick to back all four of its Kickstarters — for seasons 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each "season" featured several books by different authors who would offer their own personal experiences with a game, woven with the original interviews with the game's designers.

Boss Fight Books hasn't always lived up to my expectations: of the four I've received, two of them were pretty good, and two were horribly unreadable. Despite that uneven experience, I had no hesitation in backing the latest season, as I knew what I'd be getting when I saw Chris Kohler was assigned to cover Final Fantasy V. Kohler is the founder of the games section of WIRED and is now a features editor at Kotaku, two websites that have done exemplary work covering the video game space. While I don't know Kohler personally, I've read his work and have attended his conference talks, and we were scheduled to be on a panel together at PAX East 2017 before circumstances conspired against us. (I'm still hopeful we'll have a future opportunity to collaborate.)

Sure enough, Kohler's book is a tight, enjoyable, informative tale of this JRPG that never saw an English-language release during its day. It's a game that inspired Kohler to import the Super Famicom version to try playing on his Super Nintendo, and ultimately to study abroad in Japan during his college years.

Having never played FFV, I had much to learn about this missing title in the popular franchise. I thought I knew everything else about the series, though, including the original Final Fantasy, which I'd spent the summer of 1990 playing. Kohler surprised me with an origin story I'd somehow never learned or had forgotten:

Eventually, [Final Fantasy creator Hironobu] Sakaguchi got his act together, graduated school, and entered Yokohama National University to study electronic communications. Unfortunately for his renewed interest in scholastic achievement, he quickly discovered video games. A classmate named Hiromuchi Tanaka owned an Apple II, and their group of friends would stay up all night playing Western RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima. Sakaguchi didn't go in for arcade games, but these RPGs were something else: They had fantastic stories like the ones he devoured in the volumed of Guin Saga, and you could play them for hours on end. Which he did. Sakaguchi and his friends would pull all-nighters on Tanaka's Apple II. He battled monsters in Ultima II until he maxed out the amount of gold his character could carry, and the counter rolled over from 9999 back to 0.

Though the Apple II was not as popular in Japan as it was in the USA, I had no idea it had landed in just the right hands to inspire an entire RPG franchise that continues to this day. While I didn't play Wizardry and Ultima, I'm immensely relieved that Sakaguchi did; the games they inspired him to create became my Wizardry and Ultima.

The official launch date for Kohler's book is tomorrow, but as a Kickstarter backer, I received my copy several weeks ago. I recommend it without reservation to anyone interested in the story of Final Fantasy and the early evolution of JRPGs. A further excerpt is available at Kotaku.

Nox Archaist on Kickstarter

October 16th, 2017 4:19 PM
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Nox Archaist, an 8-bit tile-based role-playing game in development by 6502 Workshop, is currently in the last week of its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

Nox Archaist first hit my radar in April 2016, when developer Mark Lemmert emailed me about contributing content for Juiced.GS. Mark has since written three articles about the behind-the-scenes development of this game and recruited me to contribute a unique issue of Juiced.GS available exclusively to Kickstarter backers.

Nox Archaist and games like it are important to me, as I grew up playing the games that inspired it, like The Magic Candle and Ultima III: Exodus. While I love the narrative of modern RPGs, they're often more linear, with a definitive route from the beginning to the ending. By contrast, games like Ultima offered an open world in which I could discover towns haphazardly, receive clues that wouldn't make sense until much later, and marvel with my friends at the different places, people, and monsters we were each encountering in our unique journeys.

Game design has come a long way in the thirty years since, and it's possible to recreate those early experiences while still applying everything we've learned in the intervening decades about elegant user interfaces, character progression, and more. While Nox Archaist isn't the first game to recently promise the best of both worlds, it seems likely to be the first to hit market.

The Nox Archaist crowdfunding campaign is seeking $43,078, which is ambitious by itself but modest compared to Unknown Realm, a similar RPG whose Kickstarter received $126,343 earlier this year. Nox Archaist's campaign started off strong, with donors making an average pledge of $109 each — no doubt enticed by getting in-game towns and artifacts named after them. The campaign currently stands at 41% funded — and 78% of projects that raised more than 20% of their goal are successfully funded. But without continued momentum, the Kicktraq prediction for this campaign is not favorable.

If this Kickstarter does not succeed, then per the platform's all-or-nothing nature, 6502 Workshop will receive none of the pledged funds. But I'm hopeful, even if that happens, that the game itself will nonetheless be a success — whether it seeks additional funding via a more flexible platform, such as Indiegogo, or simply proceeds as an exclusively homebrew effort. The Apple II needs games like Nox Archaist.