Category Archives: The Cellar (a place for old games)

Killer Instinct, parental sex, a Vegemite sandwich, and the natural order of things

SNES KillerInstinctForget all of that internet spurred groupthink nonsense about whether Killer Instinct was actually a good game or not for a minute and you’ll see the game as a fantastic insight into the wonderful decade that was the 1990’s.  At a time where the arcade was a king (about to be dethroned) and arcade conversions were the best thing since a hot Milo on a rainy day, Killer Instinct was, for a couple of years there, the biggest thing on the planet within the confines of the schoolyard.  And at a time of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter that’s really saying something.

To anyone that wasn’t there in the 90’s, it’s hard to describe how rabid all the kids were for fighting games, but trust me when I say the arrival of a new game at the arcade somewhat resembled bunch of Korean teenagers at a Got7 concert.  And in the 90’s Killer Instinct was exactly the sort of killer combo that sent the British Knights sneakers and Klue Jeans wearing youth hog wild. It came with a killer CD, it had ultra-combos, an inference to boobs, and some of the most creative finishing moves since the still-fresh Primal Rage. Killer Instinct quite simply is about as 90’s as it gets.

And as a child of that particular decade Killer Instinct will always hold a special place in my heart.  Entire days at friends’ houses were planned around Killer Instinct.  We’d trickle into any one of our houses in the Northern suburbs of Adelaide as early in the morning as possible, leaving our bikes in a pile in the front yard, and get ready for a day of fun and frivolity.  As an adult I find it hard to imagine anything, let alone a 2D fighting game, holding my attention from sun up until sun down.  But the hundreds upon hundreds of bouts of not just Killer Instinct, but any game where we could punch each other in the face, are testament to just how engaged we all were with the genre.  Win or lose we just couldn’t get enough of the genre that practically defined a generation of kids.

But perhaps most importantly Killer Instinct was a conduit for the boyish shenanigans that would ensue throughout the course of the day.  There were copious punches in the arms, wrestles to the ground, an even the spontaneous game of British Bulldog in the backyard that would invariably end with someone having to seek parent-administered first-aid for a blood nose.  Of course there was also copious amounts of talking absolute shit, calling each other dickheads at every available opportunity, and telling nonsense stories that I’ve come to learn are only funny to boys under the age of 20.

I even distinctly remember one of our mates, Daniel, painting a rather graphic picture of the time he walked in on his mum and stepdad having a good old fashioned root on the kitchen bench. Much to his disgust, we had a field day with it, adding tiny but vivid details that I’m sure to this day haunt him, particularly at family gatherings.  But as near-teenaged boys we thought it was a right bloody laugh rubbing his nose in the fact that his mum still had a vagina. Needless to say it was hard to keep a straight face talking to her at that very kitchen bench, while we all stuffed out faces full of Vegemite sandwiches.  It was awkward, yes, but bloody hell it made for a great memory.

Killer Instinct was great, but it always played second-fiddle to shooting the shit with the kids from school, the friends I’d grown up with. We weren’t friends because we played videogames, we were friends who just happened to play video games.

And that’s the natural order of things.  Friends first and video game foes second. Anyone that has followed my writing would know that I don’t necessarily buy into the idea that online multiplayer makes video games great.  And from my experience most of the fun of playing video games together comes from the familiarity of the people you’re playing with.  Whether it’s knowing that they got dacked at school that day by the kid we affectionately call “Chubbs”, or taking the piss out of a bloke for being rejected by Cara, it was these personal relationships that made playing these games together fun.  Whether Cinder beat Glacius was neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things.

Killer Instinct will always be a fond reminder of a pivotal time in my youth.  Orchid’s endowment is a reminder that puberty had hit me hard in the mid-nineties. Fulgore is a reminder of the ultimate male power trip that hits every boy in his teens.  And Spinal is a reminder that skeletons are really easy to draw once you get the hang of it.  But more importantly it is a reminder that playing with games with friends makes for some amazing memories.  Was Killer Instinct a good game?  Well for starters I don’t think that’s a question that should be answered by committee. But from where I stand it’s an amazing piece of video game history, an example of the ingenuity of British developers, but most importantly a time machine to my childhood.  Killer Instinct was the talk of the town for so long that it feels like friendships were practically forged while playing it.  But that’s not the case, and if anything going back and playing it as a disgruntled adult, reminds me of all the friends I no longer have.  And you know what?  Playing Killer Instinct online would never fix that.

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80’s music and the flicker of an old telly let me live someone else’s video game history

Pitfall2600Yeah, I’m well versed in Atari’s sordid history, allegedly bringing the gaming market to a crash. I’m also aware of the meteoric rise of Activision in that same period, driven by recognition hungry developers who more than anything, just wanted their name on the box.  I happen to also have held an Atari 2600 joystick or two in my life, admiring the stylish woodgrain panels on the front of the system, and playing a round or two of Asteroids or Centipede while admiring their simplistic charm.  But being just a tad over 30 now, it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to see that I was barely a twinkle in my parents’ eyes when the 2600 was at its peak, and so the rise and fall of that little American company that could came and went while I was still well and truly relieving myself directly into my pants.

So to say I’m not an Atari veteran is an understatement.

But years after Atari had come and gone, and other companies had risen to take its place at the top, there I was sitting in my teenage bedroom, enjoying Activision’s classic Atari games in much the same way a mullet-sporting 80’s teen wearing stonewash jeans and a jean jacket would have.  Of course I was sitting there in the early 2000’s on hardware umpteen jigawatts more powerful, clothing that in hindsight was only slightly less embarrassing, and a television that while now is antiquated was modern for its time, earning patches and dealing with a rolling picture all the while listening to a mixtape of bands including Naked Eyes and Twisted Sister.  For that moment in time I was an 80’s teenager.

ActivisionSpindle

Activision Anthology on the Playstation 2 was my gateway into the time before the Euro-centric home computer boom of the 80’s, and of course the rise and rise of the Japanese console manufacturers.  It was a time of mechanically simple games that relied on charm and the pursuit of high scores, of games that required little more than quick reactions and pattern memorisation, and a time where every game courted the competitive streak and sibling rivalry in every one.  They were in many ways the formative years of video gaming as we know it today, and while the history of Atari systems and its games taken in isolation couldn’t be more uninteresting to me, I couldn’t help but be utterly mesmerised by that collection of forty-something 4k artefacts.

I could never have imagined that, with games like Ridge Racer V and Gran Turismo 3 vying for my attention, what equates to a teeth brushing shoot ’em up of Plaque Attack would keep me glued to the screen in a ‘one more coin’ kind of way.  And in isolation they probably couldn’t have.  There was nothing particularly special about Barnstorming but I spent hours playing it, nor was playing multiplayer Ice Hockey any better than almost any subsequent sports game release.  But there I was sitting in front of the telly fixated on these video games most of which predated me, games that weren’t necessarily within my wheelhouse, and games that comprised someone else’s gaming history and nostalgia.

That’s when I realised that the history of the medium is more than just the games themselves.  It’s a function of its time – the sights, the sounds, the tangibility – that makes people hold these experiences dear.  Just as I would always associate the games I played with a time and place, there was something intrinsically 80’s about the Atari, something that could never be separated and enjoyed in the same way out of context.  And whether it be the flickering of an old cathode ray tube in a dimly lit room or Wall of Voodoo’s Mexican Radio playing on the very latest in tape deck technology, for many, playing these very old and very simple games takes them back to a time where their whole lives were ahead of them and where technology was changing the very fabric of society. Literally if you were dedicated enough to take a polaroid of your scores to score a coveted cloth patch to show off to the world.  And Activision Anthology was a window back into that world.

To say that the Activision Anthology was was a historical video game collection done right isn’t doing it justice.  It perfectly recreated a point in time, enabling those of us who weren’t around to live someone else’s history, and bask in everything that made that moment in video game history so special to so many people.  It allowed me to be a tourist in someone else’s video game history, into a time that I have no recollection of, and certainly no conditioned fondness for.  I don’t remember Atari, I don’t remember Safety Dance being on the radio, and I sure as hell don’t remember a time where wood-panelling was the pinnacle of home electronic design.  But for those precious few months in the early 2000’s, I could’ve sworn I did.

PlaqueAttack2600

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Halo: Combat Evolved’s “The Library” is a textbook game design

HALOCEAnniversaryI love The Library.  There, I said it.  Every time I play through Halo: Combat Evolved it dawns on me that it is once Master Chief makes the acquaintance of 343 Guilty Spark that the game really picks up, and becomes justifiably one of the historical cornerstones of the medium.  Being trapped in the tight corridors with the deadly Flood and its infected prey may not be the pinnacle of the tactical combat that to that point Halo had been the purveyor of, but it is during this intensely compressed period of fast-paced and twitch-based combat that Halo really comes into its own.  You may not be flanking Covenant grunts or taking down energy shields, but the change of pace that The Library brings with it is for mine, the pinnacle of first person shooting.

Anyone who has played Halo – and I’m sure that’s close to everyone both living and deceased by now – knows that in a lot of ways The Library is trial by fire.  The Flood has barely been introduced to the player before you’re forced into close quarters combat with a foreign enemy, an enemy that attacks en masse, and an enemy that challenges you to change your approach to combat.  I could write ad nauseam about how the Halo series made weapon design and balance into an art form – and it did – but it is during The Library that it becomes incredibly obvious just how integral the weapons are to the whole experience.  What may have been your go-to weapon combination fighting the covenant may not suit your battle against the rushing kamikaze infected – 343 Guilty Spark even passes comment on it, “Puzzling. You brought such ineffective weapons to combat the Flood, despite the containment protocols””, and it is the Library’s school of hard knocks that very quickly forces you to find your feet, and discover what weapon combination works the best for you. Or die trying.

But it is also the textbook level design that helps make the great halls of The Library not only a brilliant lesson in first person shooter weapon design and selection, but the perfect training grounds for fighting the flood .  Isolating the Flood the first time you experience them in their full force is one of the smartest design decisions of the modern era, taking the player out of the fight with the Covenant temporarily, and focusing the player on learning how to approach this entirely new enemy.  Halo is as much about knowing the opposition as it is knowing your surroundings, and it only takes a moment to recognise that intelligent and battle-hardened the Flood are not.  But The Library – complete with the scripted progressively narrowing kill rooms – is the perfect exam to test your mettle and teach you the skills you’ll need to make it through the rest of the game.  Because the moment you step out of the Library, you’ll be caught in the crossfire between two vastly different enemies, who are both hellbent on killing you.  Whether it was intentional or not the aptly named Library is the place almost singularly designed to teach you how to succeed for the rest of the game, and it is this cleverly-disguised tutorial right at the peak of the game’s storyline, that is the moment the game went from a cracking good time to a masterstroke of game design.

As someone who has never played a Halo game online, rather opting to enjoy the cracking single-player yarn Bungie and its kin have continued to wind throughout the series, it is easy to perhaps take some of the nuance of the game’s design for granted.  But time and time again every time I play the game – and Microsoft has given me ample opportunity to do just that – it all falls into place the moment the Flood comes onto the scene.   From level design that is purpose-built, to the way it changes player expectations and behaviour, and finally the way it represents a significant tonal shift in the game’s narrative, the Library is one of the best hours of gameplay in video game history.  And it’s an hour worth studying to understand what makes it so.

HaloCE-theLibrary

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The Bright side of the Moon – the upside to the Game Boy’s monochromatic screen

It doesn’t take long to get me ranting and raving about how bloody fantastic the film Moon is. In addition to being a thoughtful science fiction film, spearheaded by an amazing performance by the always excellent Sam Rockwell, it is also a beautifully shot film with a colour palette that does a shitload with very little. Space is one hell of an isolated place, and the incredibly utilitarian look of the Sarang combined with the sparseness and contrast of the moon’s surface against the blackness of space, is incredibly effective not to mention visually striking.  In my books it’s nigh on being the perfect theoretical depiction of life in space.  And that’s high praise for a medium that has the equivalent of a rip-roaring erection for the extra-terrestrial.

Video games, like film, too have a fascination with the great expanse above our atmosphere. While utilitarian by virtue of its technical constraints, Super Mario Land 2 for mine captures that same sparseness one would expect from the moon.  As undoubtedly one of the prettiest games on the Game Boy, it may seem a bit strange to talk about the least graphically impressive part of the game, but there’s just something about the Space Zone that hits all of my lo-fi space-loving buttons.  The (incredibly) limited colour palette works to create one mighty desolate lunar world, while at the same time capturing the beauty of the ‘universe’ that has had humanity gazing up at the stars probably since the moment we evolved to have eyes.  It is entirely accidental, of course, but the monochromatic constraints of the Game Boy delivered the same amazing minimalist vision of space that Duncan Jones’ film so beautifully captured.

Although snot green wasn’t necessarily the most flattering of base colours, the high contrast on screen was enough for the mind’s eye to fill in the blanks, at least that was until the Game Boy Color with all its fancy palette swapping madness perfected the picture.  It was finally the picture of black and white perfection I’d pictured all along.  While the Pumpkin Zone levels had the same effect, with the way the various shades of grey – not quite 50 – are used to give the sensation of light peering in through windows or the gradual fading of light from wall-mounted torches, it isn’t quite as special as the graphical contrast between the moon’s surface and the star-spangled vacuum that is beautiful nothingness.

(It’s starting to sound a bit like I have a rip-roaring erection for the moon, isn’t it?)

In many ways all of humanity’s views of what it’s like to be on the surface of the moon come from that still pretty bloody amazing 1969 footage of the first man to set foot on our great celestial sidekick.  But it’s an incredibly strong visual image that, until we have our own visual reference, is going to form the basis of any attempts to recreate it.   It’s a beautiful image, really, and one that captures humanity’s imagination almost like no other.  But while more modern games may do a better job of it – Gran Turismo 6’s bizarre but unbelievably striking journey to the moon comes to mind – I’ll always have an unrivalled fondness for Nintendo’s constrained but artistically beautiful vision of a man walking on the moon.  Low-gravity and all.

SuperMarioLandSpaceWorld

 

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On Adventure Games – from obscurity, to the silent revolutionary, and the right bloody obvious

BrokenSword2It was probably about 10 years ago that people were crying out for a return of the Adventure game.  Driven by a perception that a bit of creative bankruptcy had perhaps set in, and the release of the stylus-driven Nintendo DS seemingly a perfect fit for the genre, all eyes were turning to the past in search of a nice bit of nostalgia and a life jacket to save us from drowning in first person shooters.  As sincere as it was at the time, I’m not sure anyone was in any way shape or form cheering for the genre’s rise back to the top of the pile, and if they were like me they were probably caught a bit off guard by just that eventuating.

I have never made it any sort of secret about the fact that  The Secret of Monkey Island is one of my favourite games, probably a product of the fact that it was an enormously popular genre at the time and that it was ridiculously funny game that really appealed to my childhood sensibilities.  But whether the game holds up or not is another story, and if my recent attempts to play through it are anything to go by, it may not be the timeless comedic classic people like me thought it would be. It’s still good, very good in factbut perhaps not great (although I’m not quite as negative as Lucius on the matter).

And things only got worse as things went on as puzzles went from slightly offbeat to nonsensical.  While things weren’t much better for its peers, it was LucasArts that suffered most from what was either the ambition or misguidance of making intricate and overly clever sequences.  Stumbling upon intricate solutions to difficult problems was always the draw for playing these games, but as trial and error became more and more prevalent, it became less and less satisfying. That mentality behind the design of these games hit its peak at Grim Fandango, and so while it may have been a swansong for the genre, it was also the best sign yet that adventure games had well and truly passed their prime. So while it is a classic, it is certainly a heavily caveated one.

Somehow though, the Broken Sword series managed to sidestep the minefields everyone else seemed to willingly walk into, while still maintaining what made adventure games such an appealing prospect for more than a decade.  It was intelligent and thoughtful without being obscure, and funny without the need to be weird. Fast forward a few years to the Game Boy Advance, and an unlikely port of Broken Sword to the portable system fixed streamlined the game’s control system, for mine making it at the time the definitive version of the game, and possibly the best example of the genre. Direct control of the character wasn’t a new thing, but the ability to cycle through points of interaction with the GBA shoulder buttons was a welcome addition.  Broken Sword was never devilishly difficult, but in working with the limitations of Nintendo’s handheld, the developers managed to sow the seeds of a silent revolution that wouldn’t begin in earnest until much later.  It became a journey, something akin to a good Tintin novel.  And so while it was an admirable – nay masterful – attempt at keeping adventure games relevant by bringing them to an enormous and diverse GBA audience, the genre disappeared.

For a while at least.  Telltale Games is credited with bringing back the genre from the brink of extinction, and while 2012’s Walking Dead was the first big mainstream hit, for years it had been leading the charge in a miniature renaissance for the genre.  Zombies were big, the Walking Dead was bigger, and Telltale Games was practically hitching a ride on a pile of already free-flowing money.  Adventure games were back and they were bigger than before.

But for me, something was missing.  While the rest of the world fell in love with The Walking Dead, I found myself struggling to claw my way through episodes.  I played through Episode 1 over a lazy Sunday afternoon and left unfulfilled.  A year later, again on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I played my way through Episode 2.  By Episode 3 I decided it was all over.  “I like the Walking Dead comics.  I should love this”  I thought to myself.  With everything that killed adventure games in their heyday fixed, from the clunky interface to the shithouse puzzles, it seemed like a done deal.  So what went wrong?

Quite simply it was bloody obvious.  The solutions to puzzles were bloody obvious.  The story beats were bloody obvious.  The character relationships were bloody obvious.  I never felt like I was outsmarting the game in so much as I was going along for a ride, with the only real points of interest being the choices that were made throughout the course of the game.  It was a Choose Your Own Adventure game come to life.  But without agency in the characters all I was left with was a story that brought no surprises.

The revival of the genre left me with somewhat of a bitter taste in my mouth.  While the things that drove me away from the genre were gone, a vacuum had formed around the absence all the things that made adventure games so special in the first place, leaving something that resembled a visual novel more than an adventure game.  And a predictable one at that.  After years of being an adventure game apologist I’ve finally come to realise that we can never go back to those heady days where adventure games were king.  But if the way forward means stripping the brain out entirely and replacing it with heart then, for me at least, adventure games as a mainstream genre died out long ago.

At least I’ll always have that copy of Broken Sword for the Game Boy Advance.

BrokenSwordCinematic

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This is Football, this is van Hood the giant slayer, stuff of video game legend

PierrevanHooijdonk

Pierre van Hooijdonk

While playing games our own little legends are born.  The stories we form in our heads, the narratives we create to put context to what’s happening on screen, they always go on to become things of legend that tell our own personal tale of time spent with a game.  In many ways it’s this imagined narrative that cements games in our memories, more than the stories being told by characters on the screen, and more than the resolution the credits rolling brings.  It is in a lot of ways more important than the scripted tale woven by the talented writers and artists, and definitely more insidious, as your brain constantly seeks to put imagined but relevant context to what’s happening on screen.  From the simplicity of Space Invaders and Galaga, to the sprawling open worlds of Far Cry and Grand Theft Auto, our imaginations fill in the gaps to create something unique to us.  We all may be playing the same game, but the meta-game – the one happening in only our minds, defines our experience.  That is until we hand these stories down, telling tales to friends and families of our conquests, creating folklore in the process.

And this is no truer than for sports games.

I’ve played more sports games for more hours than I care to admit.  From the early days of International Soccer on the Commodore 64 right through the most recent Pro Evolution and NHL games, I’ve been a virtual winner and loser for nearly 30 years.  And i’ll play however I can get it, single player exhibition, tournaments, seasons, Be a GM – you name it i’ve poured hours into it.  But even though I’ll sit there on my lonesome, hunched over on the couch watching the virtual minutes (and real life hours) pass by, it’s the multiplayer that has provided me with the best memories over the years.  Mainly because of the legends that were created.

Football games were a mainstay in my household growing up.  It was almost impossible for it not to be being an Amiga 500 household, where Kick-Off and Sensible Soccer were both legitimately amazing ways to spend a few hours each day.  This fascination continued as long as I lived at home well into the Playstation 2 era,  and while Pro Evolution Soccer was my football game of choice, it’s actually Sony’s This is Football series that kept us playing together.  Having dutch heritage we derived inordinate amounts of fun cooperatively taking the men in orange to the finals of the faux World Cup.  Sure the team and player licenses weren’t as complete as FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer were, but for us, that was half the fun.  And he first time we lifted the cup was a thing of legend.  Every victory brought us closer and closer to glory, with some games being close and others thrashings.  But every game had one thing in common.

Enter Dutch Striker Pierre van Hooijdonk.  Or should I say ‘van Hood’.  The man that became a thing of legend, scoring at every opportunity, often clinching the win in the dying minutes.  He was our super sub, the man we would bring on at the most dire of moments, and take the game to the opposition with such intensity and vigour.  “Get the ball the van Hood!” we’d say as the 90 minute mark approached and victory seemed all but impossible, and the ever elusive lifting of the cup seemed out of reach.  Suddenly he’d appear as if by magic, seemingly everywhere on the pitch all at once, more often than not ready to knock the pinpoint accurate cross into the goals but more often than should be possible ready to take a last chance shot from outside the box.  van Hood made history and became a legend in the process.

Our next task was to take an English Premier League team to the top, the chips fell on Manchester United, and Rio Ferdinand – “Big Bad Ferdinand” – was our muscle ready, willing and able to take the red card by hacking at the legs of the opposition.  That is if he, like van Hood before him, wasn’t scoring supernatural goals at the other end of the pitch.  That year, Man Utd were crowned champions, and Ferdinand immortalised in our minds at the man that did it.

Funny thing is, neither van Hood or Rio Ferdinand were statistical outliers with impossibly high players stats, even relative to the worst players in the team.  But we had created our own narratives and our own legends around those fateful victories.  Just as in real life where sport is – for the spectator at least – more about the journey than the end result, sports games are full of moments and passages of plays that without context, are just a series of numbers on a screen.  Games are about the player on player contests, the amazing forward passes, that cross the just edged past the defender onto the head of the striker, the goal just on 90 minutes.  And that’s just for football games.  In all cases the physical reaction to these moments, and the way our minds remember them, is damn near identical to if we were sitting in the stadium or watching on our televisions.  Which is why we love them so much.

 

ScoreBoardNHL2015

 

 

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Do kids still draw video game logos?

DOOMlogo

I’m feeling old. I don’t know my Iggy Azalea from my Ariana Grande and have no idea what the kids of today think is cool. I mean I still think Faith No More and Mr Bungle are cool, but i’m becoming painfully aware that to the modern generations, they’re basically their versions of what the Ramones and the Clash were when I was growing up. Basically i’m totally out of touch with the youth of today.

Case in point, do kids still draw logos of their favourite games?  Being a thoroughly nostalgic chap that I am, I have kept a lot of the drawings (and many of the scribbles) from my childhood, and looking through some of them the other day I found pages upon pages with little DOOM (and id Software) logos scribbled all over the place.  It was such a simple logo that, as with any good branding or marketing, captured the spirit of the game perfectly.  It was edgy, it was modern, and with one word it said all that needed to be said. But most importantly, it was ridiculously easy to reproduce with a little practice, and before I knew it I was subconsciously scrawling it in the margins of seemingly every page I ruled up.  Or at least writing “Doom Rules” if I was being lazy.  Right next to JS 4 JL 4 EVA.

DOOMtext

But that was the 90’s.  In fact DOOM is 21 years old yesterday (Happy Birthday, DOOM!).  That’s more than two whole decades.  Basically, kids have probably changed, and while it’s no secret that DOOM is a special game for many people that grew up playing games at the time, including me, I often wonder what the cultural touchstones are for the kids growing up playing games on modern consoles.  What are the logos kids of today are drawing on their pencil cases and school books?  Do they even still have pencil cases and school books?  Do kids still giggle when someone says the “F word”?  I don’t even know.

And then I remembered.

Minecraft.  That MUST be what kids are drawing on their pencil cases.  Or iPads.

Minecraft-logo

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