Monthly Archives: May 2016

How does 1990s virtual reality hold up today?

At Play Expo Blackpool I met up with Simon Marston, who’s something of a Virtuality megafan. His garage is stuffed full of 199os VR kit, and he’s become an expert at keeping these fragile machines running.

He brought along his two Virtuality 1000 series VR pods to the show, and he reckons that these are the last two working examples of this model in existence, although one of them continued to play up throughout the day, and may well be on its last legs unless he can find a vital replacement part. The 1000 series is based on an Amiga 3000 and dates from the turn of the 1990s, whereas the later 2000 series was based on a 486 PC and was produced in greater numbers.

Here I am, entering the world of 1990s VR.

Here I am, entering the world of 1990s VR.

It was fascinating to experience 1990s VR after all this time. I remember playing on one of these machines many years ago, but as I was only young at the time, I remember that my fragile noodle neck struggled under the weight of the headset and I was quite confused about what was going on. Going back to the machines as an adult, I was pretty damned impressed at how good the tracking is – despite the low frame rate and chunky polygons, the experience was incredibly immersive. They were definitely onto something back then.

Is it me, or do I look like an Alien in this shot?

Is it me, or do I look like an Alien in this shot?

In the end though, it was the price that did these things in – each machine cost several tens of thousands of pounds, not to mention the cost of an attendant to help people into and out of the things, and arcade owners had to charge an accordingly high price to punters.

I wrote about my meeting with Simon for Kotaku UK:

The Man Who is Keeping 1990s Virtual Reality Machines Alive

He’s truly the font of all knowledge on 1990s VR – you can catch up with him on Facebook or visit his website here.

The VR genius that is Simon Marston.

The VR genius that is Simon Marston.

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Same as it ever was.

13178858_10154120255997416_9038126142346035337_nI find it comforting just how quickly I fell back into old habits playing id Software’s rebooted and somewhat reimagined Doom. Innovation to video game mechanics – the nuts and bolts that make the things tick – move at such a rate of knots that it’s easy to forget to often simple joys of what came before.  Doom in this case is what came before, and on spending a good chunk of time with the new game, I’m starting to wonder why we left it behind.

Doom is quite simply the same as it ever was. It’s prettier sure, and there are some more modern day trappings sprinkled across the top, but Doom is now as Doom was then. It’s impossible to know what would or could’ve been, but I can’t help but feel that if the Masters of Doom had the latest technology in the 90’s, this is what they would’ve unleashed upon an unwitting society.  It’s fast, it’s violent, it’s frenetic, and it’s fantastic.  From the moment the first zombie-soldier shuffles on to the screen, it feels just as it did more than 20 years ago. The masters may have changed, but Doom is back in a big way.

I’m amazed at how much I missed the simplicity of the series – where the action more often than not reigned supreme. Getting from A-B is a pleasure:  the enemies are fun to fight, the weapons are distinct and memorable, and the top-notch level design is maze design at its best. Doom isn’t about telling a grand story or about engaging the player on an emotional level (there is a premise, but I hesitate to call it a story), it’s about tapping into our primal instinct to survive. Minute to minute the pace of the game requires a “don’t think, just shoot” mentality, and as levels came and levels passed, after a few hours of play I realised that Doom is exactly what I wanted from video games.

It was at that point I realised that the game at no point asked me to reload my weapons. Thousands upon thousands of rounds were spent on hundreds and hundreds of enemies and not once had I stopped and reloaded in preparation for the next encounter. I had felt overwhelmed and I had felt like the odds were stacked against me, but not once did I feel like the mechanics of the game were imposing that sense of dread.  Doom is a game that respects your time and respects your ability, and in that sense despite being filled with nostalgia for those of us that were around in the 90’s, is the most modern video game I think I’ve played, lest I call it ‘post-modern’ in its design.

Doom doesn’t feel like it’s striving to be anything more a bloody good video game. . The modern video game has conditioned us all to look for an explicit progression path, dangling the carrot of a new enemy or a new perk in front of our eyes at every corner. It teaches us to look forward to the next thing rather than enjoy the here and now. Doom doesn’t pander to modern tastes, rather serves as a keen reminder that videogames are fundamentally about the connection between our hands and our eyes. It isn’t deep, it isn’t smart, and it doesn’t feel the need to introduce new mechanics or new enemies to players right to the death. But it knows that what it has ‘in the moment’ is enough to keep you wading through the giblets and playing right through the very end. Doom knows its a video game and it is better for it.

(Doom isn’t the first reboot of a 90’s id Software classic I rather enjoyed; I found Wolfenstein: The New Order  quite excellent albeit for different reasons)

DOOM_Mars

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From The Armchair: Back To Batman

ArmchairThe other day, I took Merriweather Jr down to the local library for ‘Bookbugs’, a sort of pre-school jamboree involving singing, hollering and general high-jinks. Afterwards, we tarried a while, and he selected a few cardboard books to borrow that he especially liked the taste of.

I decided to get in on the borrowing action, too, but the thought of all the many, many unread books on my shelf at home deterred me. Free time is at a premium these days, and I’m lucky if I can finish one novel a month, let alone one a week. But then I spied the graphic novel section. “Aha! Picture books! Something I can read in one sitting while the babe naps – just the ticket!”

I helped myself to various pictorial tomes, including a couple of Batman volumes: Batman R.I.P. and Batman: Gotham Shall Be Judged. The former is a particularly famous Grant Morrison story, where Batman’s mind is driven to the point of no return by a group of ne’er do wells walled the Black Glove. But in a delightful twist, Batman has already prepared for this eventuality and has developed a ‘back-up personality’ in the form of the ‘Batman of Zur-en-arrh’. One of my favourite aspects of Batman is the idea of a master detective with a mind so finely honed that he plans for every possible outcome, so I love the idea that he even plans for what happens if his mind is destroyed.

The Batman of Zur-en-arrh. Mental.

The Batman of Zur-en-arrh. Mental.

But otherwise Batman R.I.P. left me cold – being part of the mainstream Batman canon, every other sentence contained tortured references to various other things that happened in previous issues and other comics. As such, it felt like walking into a movie halfway through – a problem that plagues mainstream DC and Marvel comics. It also felt very ‘comic-y’ in the sense that it was incredibly cheesy and silly – one of the villains is a mime artist for chrissakes. Altogether it came across as a bit naff, save for the clever/ridiculous idea of Batman’s back-up psyche.

Gotham Shall Be Judged was a bit more interesting and more up my street. It features Azrael, a sort of holy version of Batman with magical swords and a set of ancient, sentient armour. But unlike Batman, Azrael is willing to execute those he deems to be wicked in the eyes of God, and the mixture of superheroes and religion works very well. There are still too many annoying cross-references with other comics for my liking, but overall I thought it was much better than Gotham R.I.P.

Batman_-_Gotham_Shall_Be_Judged

Both graphic novels were a bit of a mixed bag really, but then again I’ve always found Batman stories to be a bit patchy – as prone to veering off into theatrical nonsense as to generating moments of genuine pathos. In a way it was unfortunate that the first Batman graphic novel I read was The Dark Knight Returns – by going in at Batman’s high point, everything I read afterwards could only disappoint.

But I’ve always loved how versatile Batman is as a character – his story can be moulded in all sorts of ways and still work, whereas by comparison, his DC stablemate Superman feels quite one-dimensional. Batman is essentially an absolute nutcase, which is what makes him compelling.

One version of the Batman mythos that has consistently hit all of the right notes is that of the Arkham series of video games. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the Arkham games provide the definitive version of Batman – sufficiently grounded in reality but with snatches of the fantastic, as well as the best ever version of The Joker, voiced by Mark Hamill.

batman arkham origins

After reading through the Batman stories above, I was itching to get a bigger Batman fix, so I finally took down Batman: Arkham Origins from The Mantelpiece and began playing. I’ve been putting off playing it until now because I know it will take a while to complete (and time is at a premium these days), and because it garnered lukewarm reviews at the time of release, with most reviewers arguing that it’s essentially ‘more of the same’.

Well, sometimes more of the same is just what’s needed, and immersing myself in Arkham Origins felt like stepping into a comfortable old pair of slippers. Oooh, those slippers are comfy. So nice and snug. Mmm-mmm.

Origins is very similar to Arkham City, but that’s no bad thing – and it’s been so long since I played that game that I relished the chance to glide through the streets of Gotham again. The plot is also pretty good, with a few unexpected twists here and there, although I think they went a bit overboard with the Riddler trophies this time around. Sometimes less is more, right guys?

The artwork in Batman: Year 100 is just phenomenal. Check out more at http://paulpope.com/batman-100/

The artwork in Batman: Year 100 is phenomenal. Check out more at http://paulpope.com/batman-100/

Anyway, I’m enjoying my mini Batman renaissance – and I’ve already been back to the library to snag a few more Batbooks. One of them is Batman: Year 100, which I think might have actually overtaken The Dark Knight Returns as my favourite Batman story. The artwork by Paul Pope is just fantastic, and I love how he re-imagines the character in a very different setting where he seems more vulnerable than ever before – and he even leaves open the question of whether the main character is actually Batman. Brilliant stuff.

So, what’s your favourite Batman tale?

Buy Batman Year One Hundred from Amazon UK.

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A few surprises from Play Expo Blackpool

As promised, I thought I’d write up a few thoughts on my visit to the wonderful Play Expo Blackpool just over a week ago. It was a crazily hectic day in the end, as I rushed around trying to interview people and type up my notes, but I did manage to find some time to check out some of the exhibits and play a few games.

The Norbreck Castle Hotel.

The Norbreck Castle Hotel.

The exhibition took place at the Norbreck Castle Hotel, a bizarre pink and beige fortress that looms up in front of the beach like a sort of shabby Disneyland. You get the impression that the hotel has seen better days – not least from the copious amounts of missing letters on the sign outside.

The sign for the conference centre is more like a giant game of outdoor Hangman.

The sign for the conference centre is more like a giant game of outdoor Hangman.

Things were much more impressive inside, however. The main room was essentially a giant arcade, packed to the brim with fantastic old coin-ops. I made a a beeline for the Defender cabinet, as I loved the Amiga conversion but I’ve never played the arcade original.

Arcade heaven.

Arcade heaven.

Defender was as brutally difficult as its reputation suggests – and much harder than the Amiga conversion thanks to its needlessly complicated control system. In the Amiga version, you change the direction of your ship by simply moving left or right on the joystick, but in the arcade version you have to press a ‘reverse’ button to change direction. Similarly, on the Amiga you speed up your ship by simply holding in the direction you want to go, but in the arcade version you have to press a ‘thrust’ button. Then there are other buttons for hyperspace and smart bombs – the first few times I played, I was tying my hands in knots just trying to move my ship around.

I just about got the hang of it in the end – but getting to the second wave felt like an enormous achievement. And all told, I think the Amiga conversion is far more enjoyable thanks to the controls – a conclusion that I’m sure many will argue with.

A Megadrive dev kit, complete with Primal Rage.

A Megadrive dev kit, complete with Primal Rage prototype board.

One of the highlights of the day was meeting with Phil Robinson, who previously worked for Psygnosis and had a hand in the Primal Rage conversion for the Megadrive. He even brought the game’s prototype board along to the show. I mentioned that a certain Primal Rage megafan and co-blogger of mine would be very jealous that I got to meet him…

One disappointment was that I wasn’t able to track down the Virtual Boy that was supposed to be somewhere at the show – I suppose I’ll have to wait a while longer to play on Nintendo’s white elephant. But I did end up spending an enjoyable hour or so in the board game area chatting to various board-game aficionados, and receiving plenty of useful recommendations in the process. It took an enormous amount of willpower to resist buying some of the amazing board games on sale: I came very close to dropping nearly £50 on Fury of Dracula, but in the end I settled on the rather less expensive Forbidden Island, from the same guy who made Pandemic. (I’ve played it since, it’s ace.)

IMG_4770

A major highlight came during the Spectrum talk. Henrique Olifiers (of I Am Bread and Surgeon Simulator fame) gave a really interesting talk about the Spectrum mod scene, and highlighted some of the fascinating games that are coming out of Russia (something I’ve written about before). But then he dropped a bombshell.

IMG_4720

Henrique Olifiers is on the right.

Turns out he’s been working on a new version of the Spectrum with the original Spectrum designer Rick Dickinson, and he gave the official worldwide reveal of the system right there – the room exploded with excitement. The new system is compatible with all of the various expansions that have been built in Russia and elsewhere, and it has that all-important HDMI port, along with lots of various other bells and whistles. More importantly, it looks beautiful. You can check out the official page here – a Kickstarter is coming soon.

The beautiful ZX Spectrum Next, Image from http://www.specnext.com/

The beautiful ZX Spectrum Next, Image from http://www.specnext.com/

So all in all, a pretty exciting day – and it made me think I really should go along to these events more often, if only to meet so many people who are just as passionate about games as I am.

Buy Forbidden Island from Amazon UK.

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Is the world of Ready Player One just around the corner?

I read Ready Player One for the first time a couple of months ago, and I loved it. It’s unashamedly packed with references to 1980s games, films and TV shows, and it even feels like a good old-fashioned eighties hero fantasy movie in the way it’s structured. The fact that Steven Spielberg has signed on to direct the film version seems too perfect for words.

ready player one paperback

It got me thinking though – what with all of the hoo-hah about VR at the moment, how near are we to creating a persistent online VR world like the OASIS in Ready Player One? We’ve got pretty decent VR headsets now – things that were only on the drawing board when the book was written about five years ago – but what about all the haptic gizmos that Wade uses in the book? And would a persistent, online VR world even be possible with current technology?

It was fun finding out, and I wrote it all up for this article for Kotaku UK:

How Far Away is the Technology of Ready Player One?

I was particularly bemused by the crazy force feedback chair that someone has developed to play racing games – and the ultrasound-based Haptoclone is just spooky, frankly. But lag seems to be the main thing that would hold up an online VR world right now – broadband needs to improve before we can all lose ourselves in the OASIS…

Buy Ready Player One from Amazon UK.

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