Monday, June 24, 2019

Games 73-77: Early Nintendo

For a more comprehensive guide to early Nintendo, read Before Mario.

It’s well known at this point that Nintendo began its existence as a playing card manufacturer in the 19th century, and diversified into toys in the 1960’s. For the purposes of this blog, it’s their video games that interest me, and the earliest one listed on Mobygames is Laser Clay Shooting System, as an arcade game from 1973.

Photo found on Quora, original source unknown

There’s not very much information about it, but from what I can tell, the original system would hardly qualify as a video game. Many online websites, including Mobygames, describe it as a 16mm film projection system, but I believe this is incorrect, and that such descriptions are conflating it with the later Mini Laser Clay, which may have used 16mm film to project a scene of a flying clay pigeon for players to shoot at. The original system's projection mechanism seems to be an electromechanical light device, something akin to a blend of a zoetrope and a laser pointer, which Nintendo later miniaturized as a toy called Duck Hunt (no relation to the 1984 NES game, tech-wise).

The next Nintendo game, Wild Gunman from 1974, appears to be based on the 16mm Mini Laser Clay system. There’s more information about how it worked, and there’s even footage on Youtube of two guys playing a faded print at a convention in France.

The cabinet had two 16mm film projectors, one loaded with a film loop of cowboys shooting at you, and the other loaded with an alternate loop where the cowboys fall down dead. Hit, and the system would switch to the “B” projector, and show the defeated cowboy fall down.

It’s debatable whether a film-based system could be called a video game. Nintendo apparently doesn’t, as they officially consider EVR Race, a horse race betting simulator which used a videotape-like format, to be their first real video game, but it’s almost a moot point. These games are all, at best, extremely rare, and it's questionable if emulation is even possible by now. Archivists would need to digitize the films/tapes, and to my knowledge there has never been any serious proposal by anyone to do this.

In 1977, Nintendo released the Color TV Game systems, which were essentially home Pong clones, but with a garish color scheme, multiple game modes, and a TV sports-like score display that appears whenever a point is scored, and is hidden during play. These systems are not emulated, but there’s ample Youtube footage, no doubt thanks to the relative ease of collecting home electronics and their durability.

1978 saw the release of Computer Othello, the first arcade game by Nintendo R&D1 and also Nintendo’s first to be self-published. It also saw Block Fever, a Breakout clone. Both are unemulated, but there is footage on Youtube.

From this, we can see three distinct game modes. Mode 'A' has some blinking blocks, which cause the blocks to start dropping when hit. Mode 'B' has horizontally scrolling blocks. Mode 'C' is simply a Breakout clone.

1979 marks the first year of Nintendo games that can actually be played.

Game 73: Space Fever

The earliest playable Nintendo game, Space Fever is credited to Masayuki Uemura, whose only prior credit is Laser Clay Shooting System. Graphics and artwork are credited to Shigeru Miyamoto, and are his first video game credit ever.

And it’s a pretty shameless Space Invaders knock-off, though not without some differences.

Most notably, there are three game modes to choose from, which affect the invaders’ movement formation. Mode ‘C’ plays exactly like Space Invaders. Mode ‘A’ mixes things up a bit by having the phalanx split into two independent phalanxes which weave in opposite directions from each other. Mode ‘B’ spawns one line of invaders at a time, from the bottom-up, outright preventing the strategy of attacking columns from the outside-in. Occasionally it spawns a row at the top, and I don’t know if this is a glitch or deliberate.

Mode ‘C’ frankly plays the best, showing that Space Invaders got it right the first time, but ‘B’ is the most interesting one, at least from my perspective that if I wanted to play a game exactly like Space Invaders, I'd play Space Invaders. The constantly spawning rows does make hitting the UFOs nearly impossible.

Also of note are the color graphics - a step up from Space Invaders' simple overlays, but well behind Galaxian's multi-color sprites - and the use of music.

Game 74: Sheriff

Of all of the games Nintendo released in 1979, Sheriff is probably the most important, and with references to it in WarioWare and Super Smash Bros, seems to be more fondly remembered by Nintendo. It was the third game designed by Genyo Takeda, whose previous credits are Laser Clay Shooting System and EVR Race. Shigeru Miyamoto, who collaborated on Sheriff, considers Takeda to be Nintendo’s first video game designer.

I played the Exidy-produced “Bandido” at Funspot earlier this year, and remember it having a very stiff joystick. Aiming used a dial with 8 discrete positions, but MAME maps this to a second joystick, akin to Robotron: 2084. Take away the difficult controls, and now Sheriff becomes a very slow-paced shooting game, where you can easily outrun bullets. It’s not often that I say this about arcade games, but the difficulty doesn’t ramp up fast enough.

There are still signs of Space Invaders here, with the bandits moving around in a formation, speeding up and occasionally invading your space as you gradually thin out their numbers, shootable barriers which deflect shots from both you and your opponents until they erode, and vultures overhead that take the place of UFOs.

Also, the animated scenes in between stages remind me a lot of Pac-Man, but Sheriff came first. What was the earliest game to have these?

Game 75: Radar Scope

An infamous flop, Radar Scope, could have been the game that killed Nintendo's American operations arm. They had bet the bank on its expensive, full-color graphics hardware. But now it’s known as the game that Miyamoto salvaged by developing Donkey Kong as a conversion kit.

But, how does it play?

Well, it’s a lot like Galaxian, but kind of bad. The odd 3D-ish perspective makes hitting enemies harder without really adding to gameplay, but being able to fire more rapidly means you don’t need to be so precise. Annoyingly, your firepower seems to decrease when the screen is full of chaos, as if there’s an absolute maximum on-screen projectile limit which your own shots are subject to. The enemies seem a lot less aggressive than the Galaxians, which sort of balances the difficulty out, but doesn’t make it more interesting. A twist on the formula is the “damage meter,” which accrues damage as certain types of enemy fire hits the bottom of the screen (you still die in one hit).

Not sure what else to say about this game. The artwork by Miyamoto is kind of neat, so I left it in.

One last game of 1980 before it’s on like Donkey Kong.

Game 76: Game & Watch: Ball

Back in 1998-2002, Nintendo released a series of “Game & Watch Gallery” collections for the Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance, which I found immediately addictive, not so much for the gameplay, but for the emphasis on unlocking stuff like galleries, history files, and more games. These games were very simple but well-designed within their limitations, far superior to those awful Tiger Electronics handheld games that my dentist used to keep his waiting room well stocked with.

MAME emulates some of these games, but not (yet) the very first, simply titled “Ball.” (update: it does now) It isn’t the best Game & Watch, but I think it would be the best candidate to serve as a representation of the series as a whole. I opted to play a fan-made simulator, rather than go with Nintendo’s official Game & Watch Gallery 2 incarnation.

You control the arms of a juggler, and have to keep some balls in the air for as long as possible.

There are two game modes, and the scoring system difference is quite lopsided. In Game A, there are two balls to juggle, and each ball caught is worth a point. In Game B, there are three balls, and each catch is worth 10 points. Between getting ten times as many points and having to juggle the balls 1.5 times as often, it doesn’t take long at all to reach 1000 points, which was the rollover point in Game & Watch Gallery 2.

I suicided deliberately after reaching 1000 points, which displays fine in this version. I don’t know if that’s an authentic G&W property or not.

Game 77: Donkey Kong

How much you got?

My first serious attempt at Donkey Kong was the bonus game included in Donkey Kong 64, which requires you to beat all four levels of the original arcade game, and to do it starting with a single life. Before that, I had rented the NES port once, and couldn’t even beat the first level, and had once played an arcade machine with a broken joystick that wouldn’t move left or right.

The U.S. version has a significant gameplay change, so I opted to play the original Japanese version, where the loops behave as you’d expect. There, you have to beat all four levels in order, and then do it again on a higher difficulty. The U.S. version doesn’t let you play through all four levels until the third loop, which I already find pretty odd. Even more strangely, the level I find the easiest, the cement factory, is locked for the first two loops, while the barrel stage, which I find the hardest, is there from the beginning.

And if you can make it beyond the third loop, the fourth inserts an extra barrel stage after the cement factory, and the fifth inserts another after the elevators. After that, all loops are like the fifth.

Consequently, “beating” the Japanese version could be seen as easier or harder depending on your criteria. If you just want to defeat Donkey Kong in the rivets stage once, then the U.S. version is marginally easier as you’ll skip two moderately easy stages. If you want to beat every level, then the U.S. version is much harder, as only the Japanese version allows you to do this on the first and easiest loop.

I managed to beat three loops, which is more than I was hoping for. I certainly don’t intend to go for the killscreen, let alone obtain a million points.

An embarrassing amount of deaths happened because Jumpman got “stuck” on a ladder when I tried to move him and he wasn’t quite all the way at the top. Most of my deaths occurred on the first level, where random barrels falling down ladders can really screw you over.

Seriously, what was I supposed to do here?

It’s been said that Donkey Kong is the birth of the side-scrolling platformer, and I’m inclined to agree, but there’s a bit of unbuilt trope here. The genre is all about jump physics, and this is the earliest game I know of that has any, but there is no sense of momentum or any kind of in-air control. You can essentially jump forward, right, or backward, depending on which direction the joystick is pressed when jumping, and there is no way to alter your jump’s height, distance, or speed. Falling too far will kill you, and the exact distance for a fatal landing seems rather arbitrary, barely higher than Jumpman’s jumping peak, and falling any distance without jumping first is certain to be deadly. The act of ascending platforms with jumps, a crucial part of platformers, isn’t present at all except for in the elevator stage. And, of course, there’s no side-scrolling here, even though we’ve already seen it in games like Defender and Super Cobra.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Games 69-72: Early Activision

The very first company founded for the purpose of developing console games, Activision was formed in 1979 by four ex-Atari employees; Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, and David Crane, who, dissatisfied with working conditions at Atari, left to form the original third-party video game developer. Carol Shaw later joined them.

I’ve already played at least one VCS game by each of these developers.
  • Kaplan – Combat, Air-Sea Battle
  • Miller – Surround, Basketball
  • Whitehead – Star Ship
  • Crane – Outlaw
  • Shaw – Polo, 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe

In July 1980, Activision released their first four games, all for the Atari VCS.
  • Boxing, by Whitehead
  • Checkers, by Miller
  • Dragster, by Crane
  • Fishing Derby, by Crane

None quite reach whale status, but I’ve decided to play two of the ones that came the closest as Activision intros (Boxing actually crept ahead into whale territory since I began this project, but I’m not counting them retroactively). Both are two-player competitive games, and I played some rounds with “R” rather than against the ingame AI.

Game 69: Boxing

The manual suggests, on its front page, to simply plug in the cartridge and play. So we did.

You move your boxer around the ring with the control stick, and pressing the button causes you to punch. The game automatically selects the hand and kind of punch, depending on your distance, and on whichever fist is closest to your opponent’s face. Like Atari’s Basketball, Boxing only has two game modes; singleplayer and multiplayer.

We found that whoever controlled the black boxer (player 2) won, every single time, and it was never close. Maybe there was less lag – we had a gamepad mapped to player 1’s controls and a wireless keyboard mapped to player 2’s controls. We didn’t really have time to test this theory. Regardless, I wasn’t really able to see a good strategy here. If you’re in a position to punch your opponent’s face, then they’re in a position to punch yours, and if you both try, then whoever hits first will score a hit.

We read the manual, and it only has three pages with any content, including the front page!

The most interesting page was the third, which had a photo credit to designer Bob Whitehead, a perk that neither he nor anyone else enjoyed at Atari, and his tips for beating the computer. Apparently, it’s programmed to get tired in the last minute of the round!

The AI opponent isn’t completely stupid, but isn’t all that good either, and I easily outscored it even with both difficulty switches flipped against my favor, causing the AI boxer to move fast and mine to move slow.

Both the manual and contemporary (and retro) reviews mention an aspect of this game that wasn't a factor in emulation; that playing with a real Atari joystick is fatiguing, and as in real boxing, you're going to get tired at some point into a 15 round match and start to slow down. Our gamepad and keyboard were comfortable and lightly operated, and I'm pretty sure that if we wanted to go the distance with them, it wouldn't have been a physical challenge. Is this a case where the convenience of emulation has actually been a detriment to the intended game experience?

A side note, there is an earlier prototype arcade game by Atari called Boxer, and it looks suspiciously similar.

As similar as the games may look, it’s not completely clear if Boxer is an ancestor. Boxer’s controls are much, much more complex. That’s not my video; neither I nor “R” could even figure out the controls. From the looks of things, there is an analog stick used to control your boxer’s position, and a pair of bike-handle like grips that can be swiveled to punch. When we played, sometimes the boxers would respond to inputs by moving around erratically or flailing their limbs, and sometimes they would do nothing but bob at each other back and forth. MAME’s game info file says that the controls don’t map well to MAME’s schema, but evidently someone had better luck with it than we did.

Activision’s developers previously worked at Atari’s VCS department, not their coin-op department. Would they have had access or knowledge of an unreleased coin-op prototype? It’s certainly possible, but far from a granted.

Game 70: Fishing Derby

This too, suggested playing without reading the manual, and we did.

Two fishermen sit on dueling piers and cast their lures into the water below. The deeper fish are worth more points, up to a maximum of 6, and the first fisherman to catch 99 points worth of fish wins. The joystick moves your lure, and when it gets close to a fish, it bites, and then jerks around quite violently. Then you can hold the joystick button to reel it in, but you must time it so that the shark swimming around at the top of the pond doesn’t eat your catch.

The shark’s movement feels somewhat random. Sometimes it looked like the shark was calm, and then would go berserk as soon as I started reeling, ensuring that between its rapid, erratic glide and my fish’s swaying, they would touch and I’d lose my fish.

We only had time for a few rounds, and only in the last one did we both feel like we knew what we were doing.

I won by a good margin, but it didn’t feel like a fair victory. The fish on the bottom two rows are worth the most points, but the fifth row fish initially spawn closer to the left pier and the sixth row fish spawn closer to the right, giving me on the left a bit of a head start since I didn’t have to sink my lure quite as low to maximize my points. And after the first few reels, the fish all seemed to group up on my side, not giving “R” a fair chance for a good portion of the round.

Later, I tried playing against the computer on my own. I beat it very easily, but then I tried setting the difficulty to ‘A’ and had trouble getting the fish to bite consistently.

So, I read the manual.

First, it pointed out that the setting the difficulty switch to ‘A’ means the fish won’t bite unless the lure is directly under their nose. Secondly, it told me that the button can be used to reel fish in faster, but interestingly, only one player can reel in at a time, and priority goes to whoever hooked their fish first. It seems catching your fish first and denying the reel button to your opponent could be a viable tactic!

With this info, I beat the computer easily on difficulty ‘A.’ I got a feel for where the fishes’ mouths are, and also discovered that you can slow down your reel by releasing the button and speed up again by pressing it again. This tactic is important for avoiding the erratic shark, but the AI doesn’t seem to use it, and so its fish got eaten by sharks more often than mine did, making me the winner.

Activision’s earliest whale came out in 1981, but before moving on to it, we’re going to go back in time to 1978 Atari.

Game 71: Avalanche

A very Breakout-like game, where you control a paddle and have to catch falling rocks.

I used my Atari paddles to play this. At first, it didn’t work well at all in MAME; the on-screen paddles would come to a sudden stop for a second when they were right in the center of the screen. But then I tried setting the joystick deadzone in MAME to 0.0, and the saturation to 1.0, and that solved the problem. The paddles then worked quite well.

As in Breakout, the longer you last, the faster things get, and as the rows of bricks diminish, you get fewer paddles, and they get narrower. But it seems like a poorer game than Breakout, because there is less interaction. You either catch the rocks or you don’t, and the angles are irrelevant. There’s some strategy involved, thanks to the multiple paddles, and that sometimes it’s better to catch rocks that fall close together rather than catch them in the same order that they fall. But other times, Avalanche just drops two rocks close to the extreme ends of the screen at almost the same time, and then you have no choice but to frantically move the paddle back and forth.

I cheated just to see what happens when you clear the screen. Unsurprisingly, you get another screen of boulders (and a free play), only now the stack of paddles recedes at a faster rate.

The best thing about this game, I think, is the monitor bezel, which I left into the gameplay video.

Game 72: Kaboom!

Read the manual here:

Activision’s first whale, created by Larry Kaplan, is a ripoff of Atari’s Avalanche, but somehow it’s more fun, and certainly more personable. While Avalanche flopped, Kaboom sold a million.

An unapologetically idiotic premise, a “mad bomber” in a striped shirt moves around the screen dropping lots of bombs, and you have to catch them all in buckets of water, which you control with a paddle, breakout-style. Every round, the mad bomber’s speed increases, until he’s flitting across the screen like a fly on crack, unloading up to ten bombs per second, while you madly dash back and forth to keep up.

The manual says that the difficulty maxes out at the eighth wave, and suggests that scoring 3,000 points constitutes a victory, as Activision would mail you a “Bucket Brigade” emblem. The real prize, though, is the Mad Bomber’s face when you hit 10,000 points.

I used my paddles to play this game. The buckets moved around a little bit on their own, which wasn’t an issue with other games I had played with the paddles. In fact, I expect this is part of the game’s programming; they only jittered while the Mad Bomber was moving around, and never during the downtime in between rounds. Movement felt smooth enough while turning the paddle, which you should be doing constantly, and I can’t imagine playing trying to play this with a joystick or even a mouse. The difficulty ramps up FAST. I found that disabling Vsync made a big improvement to my performance, but even then, the best I could do was to score 1,200 points.

As I noted, it’s more fun than Atari’s Avalanche. The mad bomber adds a bit of personality, and while Avalanche was random about the order in of falling boulders, the mad bomber’s movement guides the order of the bombs, making them fall in sinusoidal lines. The bombs drop fast, but your buckets are wide and spaced closely together, creating a fairly large catching zone, and it becomes more about smooth, controlled, zig-zagging movements than about precisely lining up your paddle with the falling objects as was the case in Avalanche and in Breakout before it.

One change I wasn’t a fan of is that when you miss a bomb, you lose one of your buckets. As a result, when you fail once, the game becomes even harder, and you’ll certainly fail again. Even that, though, has some nuance to it, as you’ll also get demoted one level, and if you were on level 8 when you failed, then there’s a good chance you’ll be able to reach a multiple of 1,000 points on level 7 with only two buckets, and get your lost bucket back.

Also, the range of paddle motion recognized is tiny, not even half of the actual arc of motion that is physically possible. This undoubtedly makes bucket movement faster when you’re in the live zone, but the side effect is that the dead-end zones are enormous, and when you move the buckets all the way to one side, the paddle will probably be fairly deep into a dead-end zone. When you reverse the paddle direction, the buckets won’t move at all until you rotate them back into the live-zone, which doesn’t feel very good from a control standpoint, and makes it hard to anticipate just how far you’ll need to move to get the buckets to go where you want them to. I’d have preferred a wider live zone for this game, for more precise movement and less dead zone, even if this meant I’d have to turn the paddle even faster to keep up with the Mad Bomber.

I did a bit of measuring to see if I could find out some hard data on the differences between levels. The manual tells how many bombs are dropped per round, and the point value of each bomb, but it doesn't say how fast the bombs are dropped.

Surprisingly, game logic in Kaboom! operates at 40fps, a number that doesn't fit neatly into the display frequency of 60hz. And while the level speed trends toward faster, and the rounds trend towards longer, it isn't consistent. Level 8 is the fastest round, but level 7 is the longest.

"Frames per drop" is based on the 40hz logic frames, not the 60hz display frames.

Level Bombs Frames per drop Seconds per drop Seconds of bombing
1 10 24 0.6 6
2 20 12 0.3 6
3 30 12 0.3 9
4 40 6 0.15 6
5 50 8 0.2 10
6 75 4 0.1 7.5
7 100 6 0.15 15
8 150 3 0.075 11.25

Gameplaywise, all of these games by Activision feel very much like games Atari might have made. They’re all simple, single-screen action games, and in my view, are even more simplistic than the median Atari VCS game of the time, and not only because they forwent those extensive lists of game modes.

But there’s one aspect that makes them stand out in a way that wasn’t common in Atari’s games. All three have recognizably human characters, and while Boxing needed to have human-looking avatars, Fishing Derby and Kaboom could have easily done without them. Activision went ahead and created multi-colored sprites to represent these people on the peripheral of the playfield anyway. How appropriate then that Atari, a company that viewed its employees as cogs in the machine, would make most of their games about machines like space ships, racecars, tanks, and planes, or abstract objects like balls, paddles, bricks, and boulders, while Activision, a company founded from the desire to credit the people behind the games, would make games about boxers, fishermen, and bomb-throwing anarchists.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Game 68: Asteroids (VCS)

Buy Asteroids and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:

Read the manual here:

Once again, Atari went overboard with padding their games mode count. Its 66 game count sounds less egregious than Space Invaders’ 112, and yet it feels far worse.

The most offensive option here is extra lives. Without it, there would be 18 game variations. With it, there are 66. Is Atari really trying to push “extra life at 5,000 points” and “extra life at 10,000 points” as separate games? I’m not buying it.

The one player / two players option sounds cool, with having two ships blowing up asteroids together. I thought this was the best feature of Atari’s Space Invaders. Just one problem; here, the two player modes merely alternate, making them completely pointless.

“Features” dictates what your ship does when you press down on the joystick. “H” is the hyperspace jump found in the arcade version. “SH” means shields, and “FL” means an instant 180 degree turn, which sounds quite useful. “W” means nothing happens.

Modes 33 and 66 are “children’s” modes, described in the manual as easy games with slow asteroids, hyperspace, and an extra ship every 5,000 points. But it doesn’t say what makes that any different from modes 1 and 34, and from playing, I couldn’t really tell.

If these game modes were arranged as an options menu, it may have looked like this:
  • Players: 1 / 2
  • Children mode: Off / On (On disables all options below)
  • Asteroid speed: Slow / Fast
  • Extra life every: 5k points / 10k points / 20k points / never
  • Features: Hyperspace / Shields / Flip/ None

If we took out the options that look like lazy padding to me, it would look like this:
  • Asteroid speed: Slow / Fast
  • Features: Hyperspace / Shields / Flip

That would be 6 modes, rather than 66.

Difficulty switches control whether or not UFOs appear. Off would be no fun, so I turned them on. I’m surprised Atari didn’t just use this setting to double the number of game modes.

Mode 1: Slow, extra lives at 5,000 pts, hyperspace

Oh dear. This mode is amazingly boring! The asteroids, now colorful blobs, just sort of move up and down the sides of the screen, being no threat at all to you as long as you don’t move left or right. The UFOs aren’t much of a threat either.

In accordance with the VCS’s limitations, big and medium asteroids usually don’t split when shot, but just shrink instead.

Eventually I started moving just out of sheer boredom. After that, I quit out of sheer boredom. I decided I would not play any slow modes from here on.

Mode 10: Fast, extra lives at 5,000 pts, shields

Fast asteroids make a huge gameplay difference. Oddly, the asteroids don't seem to be any faster, but they actually change their trajectory when shot, making them almost a credible threat. Almost.

I never used the hyperspace option in the arcade game or the VCS port, but shields are an interesting substitute. Unfortunately, they trivialize any difficulty in the game by providing a reliable invincibility option for whenever you think you might be in trouble. Granted, overusing shields will kill you, but you’d almost have to try for that to happen. I can also kind of imagine that this would be more difficult with a real VCS controller, as you have to push “down” to activate them. And the “fast” asteroids are still much slower than their arcade counterparts.

The first few rounds are still so boring that I cut them out of the video in order to spare you a modicum of the tedium that I went through. I did not need to use the shields at all during the cut portion.

Mode 18: Fast, extra lives at 5,000 pts, flip

I lost the footage for this one. I didn’t care enough to try to re-create it.

The flip option instantly reverses your ship’s direction. For this game, I decided to play it more mobile, not because it seemed like a good strategy, but because staying still was already pretty boring, and reversing your ship’s direction also seemed better suited to a mobile playstyle, giving you the ability to move in one direction and instantly turn around so you could shoot in the other.

I kind of imagined it being more interesting, but inertia isn’t as big a deal in the VCS port as it was in the original, so the whole “shoot backwards while moving” scenario wasn’t as common or dramatic as I envisioned. I still quit out of boredom long before I ran out of lives.

Still, this mode was the closest I came to having fun with this port, having a ship option that I actually wanted to use, but not one as overpowered as shields.

I just don’t think the VCS was suited to this game. Even at its best, it’s slow, repetitive, and predictable, with far too little going on in the screen to be interesting. I’ve used the word “boring” a lot in this post. I suppose breaking big rainbow-colored rocks down into smaller rocks at a pleasantly relaxing pace without much threat of failure could hold a Zen-like appeal, but that’s not why I play video games.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Pong, Rebound, Clean Sweep, & Breakout revisited

One of my earliest posts on Data Driven Gamer was on a bunch of discrete logic arcade games, mostly by Atari, which were emulated in DICE. Some of the games used paddle controls, which didn’t map well to the joystick controls we had available and made it a frustrating, unsatisfying experience. I noted that I almost wanted to pick up a set of paddles and replay.

Recently, I went to a flea market in Connecticut, where multiple vendors were selling Atari 2600 hardware. I picked up a cheap set of Atari paddles, and ordered a 2600-dapter, counting on using it to revisit some of these games, starting with Pong.

I played a session with “B”.

It works pretty well in DICE, far better than the analog joystick did, but it’s not perfect. My paddle seemed to suffer from backspin when I turned it too fast, and I don’t really understand why a paddle would do that. Backspin might occur with a mouse or any other spinning device which spins faster than the sensor can deal with, but a paddle measures position, not speed.

“B”’s paddle, if anything, seemed to be a bit under-sensitive.

I noted that the paddles have slight dead-zones on the extreme ranges of their motion, where input doesn’t register. Dead-end zones, if you will. The paddles do not rotate 360 degrees, but rather have a limited range of motion covering an arc of about 330 degrees, and stop rotating when you turn it as far left or right as it will go. This design makes sense for a paddle-based game, where the video paddle also has a limited range of motion, and a free 360 spin (e.g. Tempest or TRON) wouldn’t be useful. With the 2600-dapter, Windows treats the paddles as a single analog joystick with two axes. Normally, an analog joystick has a dead-zone in the center where slight movements register as neutral so as to prevent jitter or drifting when the stick is centered. The paddle has no such central dead-zone, but the final 15 degrees of the arc of movement on each side are ignored, probably to ensure that your video paddle can always hit the extreme edges of the screen.

We replayed Rebound too, and I experienced no backspin there. Once again, we had more fun with this game than with Pong.

I also replayed Clean Sweep and Breakout with the paddle to see how it compared to playing with my spinner. There are two major differences between a paddle and a spinner. The first and most obvious is the paddle’s limited arc of rotation, compared to a spinner’s ability to rotate freely. The second difference is that a paddle measures the distance turned, while a spinner measures the rotation speed, as a mouse does. In fact, the paddle emulates a joystick, while the spinner emulates a mouse’s X-axis.

With Clean Sweep, I performed much better with the paddle than I had with a spinner. Playing with the paddle just felt good and responsive. I tried Breakout next, but performed much worse, unable to break 90 points after about an hour of trying, even though when I had played Breakout on my spinner, I managed to break out on my first try, and my record score was 297! I really don’t understand the discrepancy.

I also tried playing Breakout on MAME rather than DICE. I didn’t like it. On MAME, everything looks and feels wobbly. The paddle and ball exhibit an odd drawing behavior where their very widths fluctuate onscreen, and the paddle movement feels drunken. Whenever moving close enough to the left side of the screen, it would suddenly speed up and snap right into the corner, as if it was magnetically attracted to it.

So, the results of playing these games with paddles were mixed, and I’m not really sure why. Rebound and Clean Sweep via DICE were perfect. Pong wasn't perfect, but it was the best Pong experience we'd had yet, including a game played on a real Pong machine. Only Breakout was unsatisfactory, and then that was only because I performed so much better using my spinner, and can't really pin down anything wrong with the paddle experience that would cause it to be so.

But I'm glad I got the paddles, and this won't be the last time I use them. For the 1981 phase of Data Driven Gamer alone, there's Activision's Kaboom and Exidy's Circus, and in the seemingly distant future of late 1986 there's Arkanoid, and I'm sure that at some point, for my personal amusement, I'll be playing rounds of Warlords with these things.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Game 67: Frogger

I was never a huge Frogger fan. There’s nothing wrong with the game, and it’s a novel break from the space shooters that saturate arcade games of the era, but Frogger just plays bit too leisurely for my taste. Which isn’t to say it’s easy – Frogger still demands split-second timing and precision (it’s no Defender though), but I think the laid-back feel really comes from the fact that you can’t really interact with anything in Frogger’s world, and nothing in it reacts to you or anything you do. Trucks are going to drive, logs are going to float, alligators are going to swim, and snakes are going to slither. Turtles take no notice of you, and you won’t get chased around by first year medical students with glass jars or small boys with sticks or anything. All you can do is plan a route to your destination and try not to get splatted, eaten or drowned.

I considered skipping this game. I’ve played it before, didn’t particularly enjoy it, there’s no winning condition, and everyone reading this knows how Frogger works, right? But then again, maybe the later levels have things in them that I hadn’t seen yet. I got the idea to check the achievements list on XBLA, and found there are achievements for beating levels 1 through 5, suggesting that if I can beat level 5, then I’ll have seen everything Frogger has to offer. And so I made it my goal.

I also realized, having not known this before, that the little magenta things sometimes seen perched on logs are actually female frogs which can be rescued for extra points. Until I saw the XBLA achievements list, I had assumed they were hazards.

I didn’t quite reach my goal of beating level 5. The game starts getting really hard around level 4, and I’ve only beaten it a few times, usually on my last life. It doesn’t help matters that the collision detection feels a bit wonky when things move fast, as if Frogger’s bounding box doesn’t quite align with his sprite. Slight brushes against vehicles kill you, and sometimes look like they shouldn’t, and when the traffic is moving so fast and packed so densely, this leads to a lot of misjudged leaps and splatted frogs. Likewise, Frogger doesn’t need to be in complete overlap with frogs or turtles to land on them safely, but sometimes fails to stick a landing when it looked like there was plenty of clearance.

Frogger is also remarkably stingy with the extra lives. You get three lives, and need 20,000 points to get a fourth. Points are awarded as such:
  • 150-650 points per rescued Frogger
    • 10 points for hopping forward 10 times
    • 50 points for reaching home
    • 10 bonus points for each remaining second
  • 200 points for rescuing a lady frog
  • 200 points for eating a fly
  • 1000 points for finishing a level

I was able to get about 4,000 points per level, and don’t see how you could possibly get 5,000. As you beat stages, the scoring potential only decreases, as the starting timer gets lower and the maximum score bonus along with it, and you have less leisure to pursue flies and females. Realistically, you’re not getting that bonus life until you’re well into the fifth level.

I don’t really see what else I can say about Frogger. It didn’t grow on me as I made my attempt to “beat” it, and if anything I just grew annoyed with its collision detection.

One bit of trivia I find interesting is that in 1998, Frogger was among the very last games developed and officially released stateside for the SNES and Genesis. The SNES version is upgraded to SNES-grade graphics and sounds, but the Genesis version is a very accurate reproduction of the arcade original, as far as I can tell, and this strikes me as the more impressive accomplishment.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Game 66: Missile Command (VCS)

Buy Missile Command and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:

Missile Command for the VCS was one of the five best-selling games on the system of all time, and the first to sell 2.5 million copies, beating Space Invaders of the previous year.

As we’ve come to expect, there are a lot of games modes, with 34 modes essentially covering every permutation of game options.

If this was an options menu, it would look more like this:
  • Players: 1/2
  • Children: Off/On (disables all below options)
  • Target Control: Fast/Slow
  • Cruise Missile: Dumb/Smart
  • First Wave: 1/7/11/15

The option to start at wave “15” seems a little odd, as the manual notes that wave 13 and onward are identical.

Difficulty switches control the speed of your own ABMs. “A” difficulty sets the missiles to about the same speed as the center silo missiles in the arcade game.

The two-player modes just alternate players, and the manual states that “children” modes are extra-easy modes, comparable to modes 1 and 18, but everything is slower.

In playing around with these modes, I found I gravitated toward fast target control and smart cruise missiles. Fast target control seemed to be necessary at later waves, and as much trouble as smart cruise missiles gave me, it felt like cheating to disable then. This left, to my surprise, First Wave as the option I adjusted the most.

I played most of my games starting at wave 7, as this skipped the easy boring early waves, but it didn’t take too long before they got challenging.

The most profound difference from the original Missile Command is that only three of your ABMs may be in play at any given moment. You can’t spread clouds of flak like you could in the arcades. In later waves, it means shooting down all of the missiles is quite impossible. Even if you fire quickly and accurately, once you fire the third ABM, you’ll have to wait for the first one’s cloud to dissipate before you get to fire a fourth, which can feel like an eternity as the enemy missiles don’t relent. Some of your cities will get destroyed no matter how good you are.

The second biggest difference is that you only have one missile base to play with. If it gets hit head-on (a common occurrence with cruise missiles), you lose ten ABMs, and are unable to fire for about a second.

There are no bombers, satellites, or MIRVs. The only targets are missiles and cruise missiles.

Smart cruise missiles can be fooled by moving your targeting cursor directly over them. This disables their avoidance system, but it feels a bit unreliable, and is best done when you’ve got all three of your APM’s in the air, as you can’t aim your missiles effectively when trying to scramble the smart missiles’ countermeasures.

Starting at wave 7, I could usually reach wave 9 and only lose a few cities, but wouldn’t last much longer after that. But starting at wave 11, I’m lucky to survive even one round.

Starting at wave 15, I’m annihilated in the blink of an eye.

I’m really impressed by how much of the Missile Command gameplay was translated to this system, which wasn’t really designed to run anything involving more than two sprites. I’m further impressed with the amount of atmosphere left intact. It’s still a bleak game where you are doomed to fail. The crude bleeps of incoming cruise missiles are especially chilling, and when your last city falls, I find the final image of desolate craters against a stark backdrop to be more haunting than the arcade version’s exploding “THE END” screen.

But in the end, it’s still a downgrade from the arcade original, and unlike Space Invaders, none of the various gameplay modes do anything to enhance it, except maybe the ability to skip waves.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Games 63-65: Early Konami

The next game on the whaling log is Konami’s Super Cobra, but as this is the first post on the company, I wanted to touch on some of their earlier titles first.

An anonymous commenter provided a lot of insight here, with Japanese sources and some very plausible deductions, and I've revised this section accordingly.

According to the commenter's sources, their first video games came out in 1977-1978, and are:
  • Block Yard
  • Block Invader
  • Breaker 
  • Destroyer
  • Super Destroyer

The first two games are a mystery. I can find no practical information about Block Yard at all, but I'd bet good money it's a Breakout clone. Flyers for the other three indicate they are, indeed, Breakout clones.

Scan provided by The Arcade Flyer Archive

None are emulated in MAME, naturally. The earliest is Space King, and sources are conflicted on whether it came out in 1978 or 1979. Space King is a Space Invaders clone, but with altered sprites and a katakana status bar.

These games are listed in MAME as 1979 releases:
  • Kamikaze
  • Space King 2
  • Space War

Kamikaze was released in the U.S. as “Astro Invader” by Stern and its gameplay was somewhat tweaked. Space King 2 is, unsurprisingly, a clone of Space Invaders Part II, and doesn’t even change the sprites. Space War is listed as a clone of Taito’s Space Laser, but it may, in fact, be the other way around.

I decided to play Kamikaze as a representative of the earliest verifiable and playable Konami original.

Game 63: Kamikaze

Note that MAME does not actually emulate the sound hardware of Kamikaze. MAME will substitute Space Invader sound effects if you have the corresponding samples file, which ironically is not used or required by Space Invaders emulation any longer. Video footage of real Kamikaze hardware shows the effects are similar but not exactly the same.

And it plays a lot like Space Invaders, but with enough innovations to the formula to make it stand out. The game is all about efficiency. The invaders don’t bombard you with shots or even move horizontally once they start descending, but queue up in an array of columns where they are sitting ducks for your fire. Eventually the columns fill up faster than you can gun them down, and then they suicidally dive, and as they crash to the ground, they release a deadly shockwave with a radius of about three columns in each direction. Before long, they are released from the mothership faster than you can fire, ensuring that columns will fill up, and you’ll have to pick and choose which invaders to shoot and which you can allow to kamikaze and avoid their shockwaves.

You can’t simply stick to an edge of the screen, as the mothership will periodically drop a big flying saucer down the middle, which will kill you if it touches the bottom. Nor can you really stick to the middle, because if the outer columns are left untouched, then they will fill up and drop kamikazes nonstop, forcing you to keep away from them and the next three adjacent columns. Then the adjacent columns will fill up, shrinking your safe middle zone even further, until ultimately you have kamikazes dropping nonstop and the unavoidable blast radii reach you from both directions.

The 1980 US release of Astro Invaders by Stern has some gameplay differences that serve to make it a faster paced, more frantic game. There are fewer columns which fill up faster, and UFOs drop on the edges as well as the center, but to balance things out, the kamikaze shockwaves are a lot smaller. You can read more about the differences here.

Before moving on to Super Cobra, there was one other Konami game which came out earlier the same year, which didn’t quite reach whale status, but seemed notable enough that I ought to play it.

Game 64: Scramble

Buy Scramble and a grab bag of other Konami titles here:

Well, what can I really say that will add to the video? This is a clear ancestor of horizontally scrolling shmups like Gradius and R-Type. It predates Defender by a month, but also represents the start of stage-based level design in the genre, away from the wave-based design of Space Invaders through Defender where the terrain was irrelevant and all that made one wave different from another was the difficulty of fighting the aliens.

Anticipating Gradius, your “jet” has standard front-firing guns and can also drop bombs to hit ground targets, but the bombs follow a peculiar trajectory where they accelerate forward about a jet’s length ahead and then slow down to match your ship’s “neutral” horizontal velocity as they fall. Consequently, you have to fire them well in advance in order to hit your intended target, making them less useful than you might think. I found it easier and more productive to hit ground targets by flying close to the ground and firing the gun, though this isn’t always possible.

There are six stages, each with a distinct terrain type and theme of challenges, though there’s no break in the action between them. The terrain simply changes as you transition from one stage to the next. You also have limited fuel, and can refill it by destroying fuel dumps, which runs contrary to logic even by video game standards. None of the stages are particularly challenging, until you reach the final one, which has no enemies, and just some very tight maneuvering.

To have any chance of clearing walls like this, you must ascend while decelerating to minimum speed. However, the forwardly self-scrolling screen moves too fast and will “push” you right into the wall if you haven't cleared enough distance. Therefore, you actually must accelerate through the lower tunnel and emerge from it as far right into the screen as the game allows, and then immediately slam the brakes and ascend. With perfect timing, you’ll just barely make it.

After the tunnels are passed, you’ll encounter Konami’s headquarters and have to blow up their Pizza Planet squeak toy.

Bombs won’t work! Their trajectory means they’ll either miss or crash into the Konami sign, and if you miss, you’ll have to repeat this section until you succeed or run out of fuel. Instead, you must dive into the tiny space to the left of your target, shoot it, and immediately rise back up.

With your mission a success, you get to repeat the loop all over again, only fuel will drain faster. I don’t know if there are other changes, but by the time you reach the final stage on loop 3, I’m not even sure if it’s possible to finish without running out of fuel. I hit every fuel pod there was in that stage – it would be difficult not to – and I still ran out of fuel right at the moment I hit my target. Luckily, that counts as a win, but it doesn’t bode well for getting much further than that.

This isn’t the only horizontal shmup of 1981; Universal’s Cosmic Avenger and SNK’s Vanguard also came out that year; games I’ll get around to once I reach the years of their respective developers’ first whales. But another horizontal shmup released that year just a month later, was Konami’s first whale.

Game 65: Super Cobra

No wonder it only took a month. This is practically the same game, just with a Huey sprite instead of a jet.

Maybe I’m being uncharitable. Even though it controls and plays exactly the same, it’s a lot longer with eleven stages instead of six, and the enemies are more varied and interesting.

It’s also much more challenging, with more difficult terrain, full of ridges that prevent easily gunning down your targets at low altitudes instead of using your cumbersome bombs, and many of the enemies actually shoot back at you. To cash in on this increased length and difficulty, Super Cobra now has the possibility to continue when you run out of lives, at the cost of another token and your score. You can’t just pump quarters in all the way to victory as you could with later games; you are limited to four continues per game. Beating Super Cobra with five sets of lives was significantly more difficult than beating Scramble with one.

The tenth stage was quite short and easy. I wonder if it was rushed to finish the game on time.

The penultimate “base” area, like Scramble, has you flying through the inside of a building with tall, vertical corridors that will certainly kill you if you don’t execute your maneuvers precisely; enter the shaft at full speed, and then immediately decelerate as you ascend. It’s made even more difficult than before thanks to enemies who fire at you.

Finally, there’s a quick skyline area, and at the end of it is a crate full of Konami’s money, which you can swoop down at and collect to score an extra life, and then the game repeats.

There’s one thing that strikes me about all of these early Konami games. Details on who developed these games are virtually unknown! Atari may have set a precedent by not crediting their developers, but their names and histories came to light eventually. Taito and Namco, the only other Japanese companies that I’ve looked at so far, probably did not credit their developers either, but names like Tomohiro Nishikado and Toru Iwatani are somewhat well known to video game enthusiasts, even if Galaxian’s designer Kazunori Sawano isn’t.

But I don’t know who developed any of these games at Konami. Mobygames’ credits page for Super Cobra identifies the Philips employee who ported it to the Odyssey 2, but not any Konami employee involved with the original arcade game. Konami made eight games in 1981, and there are no names to go with the original development of any of them.

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