Sunday, November 24, 2013

Football on the Atari VCS

I played some old Atari 2600 games over the weekend and so was inspired to jot down a little post about it. I was once again struck by how much fun this ancient system of my youth can still be when played with an opponent. Yeah the solo play on an old-school Atari is still fun in short bursts too, but two-player head-to-head competition is where it really shines. And a few Founders Centennial IPAs down the gullet certainly didn't hurt any.

We played several oldies - including Bowling, Surround, Slot Racers, Combat (possibly my all-time favorite Atari game) and one that I recall playing with my little brother - Football.

Atari Football came out in 1978 and for you youngsters out there (i.e. anyone younger than 40 - God I'm getting old) the graphics will appear quite archaic, but you have to remember that just 1 year earlier when you looked at the screen of the cutting edge football game on the market you saw this:

So give it a break already.

I didn't realize it until I started writing this, but Football for the Atari Video Computer System (pre-2600 days) was designed by Bob Whitehead while he was still with Atari. Whitehead also designed several other personal favorites after co-founding Activision like Chopper Command and Stampede as well as two of my favorite sports games on the Commodore 64 - 4th and Inches and Hardball. So I'm a fan of his work.

Here is an advertisement for Football from a 1978 games catalog.

I can only assume this odd picture represents some sort of play action pass in the making - maybe a fake reverse. This ad came out before the game was actually published so I'll grant them some leeway, but either they were intentionally exaggerating the technical capabilities of the game or else they couldn't quite figure out how to make everything work because some of the bold claims proved to be false. "Bewilder the defense with a razzle-dazzle double-reverse." "Break tackles on your way to a 90-yard open field gallop". "You're up against cunning opponents, time limits, and crazy bounces.".  OK let's take these in order. 1) There is no way to actually run a razzle-dazzle double-reverse - or even a single reverse for that matter. You can call a running play if you want and reverse the direction in which you are currently running - that's it. 2) There is no breaking tackles whatsoever. Whitehead DID implement that nifty little feature 8 years later on 4th and Inches on the C64 but not here. In Atari Football once any defender touches even one loose thread of your jersey you collapse to the turf like a Matrixian Sentinel after an EMP burst. 3) There is a time limit, and I suppose you could even call your opponents cunning if you like, but there are absolutely no crazy bounces. If you touch the ball you catch the ball. If you don't you miss it. No fumbles or kickoffs or deflected passes or anything else like that that might constitute a bounce, crazy or otherwise.

But even with those broken advertising promises - this little game remains a gem.

There are 3 variations in the game but honestly I don't think I have ever even played any of them except number one. Just like with cock pushups - one is all you need. Before each snap you move your joystick to call your "play". I put the word in quotation marks because which play you choose is more or less meaningless - just basically tells your 3 lineman which general direction to move, but nevertheless there are 5 different plays on defense and 4 on offense plus the option to punt if it's 4th and long. But your chances of scoring on any given play are so good that I completely ignore the punt option. OK, I forgot about the punt option. But if I'd remembered it I'm certain I would have ignored it. Once you snap the ball you can either run it for a running play or hit the button and throw a pass. You really have to step carefully if you run the ball because one touch drops you immediately. But if you choose to pass - in a delightfully retro thumb in the eye of realism - you can remote control the pass after it leaves your hands. So you are able to move it left and right as needed to thread it between defenders. Yeah!

Now admittedly I had played this game as a child much more than my opponent Pungent Onion, so I probably had a bit of an unfair advantage, as evidenced by the final score of 154-35 or so. But even with the lopsided score this old game remained great fun. For me anyway. And Pungent acted like he was enjoying it too I think. And as high-powered as the offense was, it was the defense that really put us over the top. Interception after interception returned for 7 points. A touchdown scores 7 points automatically - there are no extra points or field goals. But you CAN score a safety if you are able to tackle your opponent in his own end zone - alas, I was unable to spread that icing on the football cake. And one more feature - the game indicates the first-down marker with a line across the field - same as television broadcasts do digitally, but first downs are not all that plentiful as more often than not if you make it past the first down marker you are likely well on your way to taking it to the house for 7. But still it is a nice little addition. One thing I wish they had been able to add would be the ability to speed up your players by rapidly tapping the fire button a-la Track & Field. Here everyone runs at exactly the same speed so once you get past the defense it's off to the races.

The graphics are admittedly weak - your blocky football players look like dumpy versions of the Berzerk robots. And the sound effects are pretty shaky too but you know, the 2600 games weren't exactly known for their kick-ass sound, especially in the early years of the system. Some white noise static for crowd noise, a beep for completions and a simple little bleep bloop song for a score. Geez the more I write and look at the picture I don't feel like I'm doing the game justice. I guess this is just a game you have to play to appreciate. But it is literally unplayable as a 1-player game so you gotta have a friend to play.

So if you are looking for a completely intuitive almost-as-old-as-it-gets-old-school football game that is perfect for playing while drinking beer and producing minimal brain wave activity then Atari Football is the game for you. Not at the absolute top of my Atari 2600 favorites list, but it's on up there.

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Gaming on $2 or Less - Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge

Happy National Aviation Day everyone! That's right, it's a real day, Google it! And seeing how today is Aviation Day and coincidentally I've been watching reruns of the old TV series Wings lately (one of my all-time favorite sitcoms) - I thought it was only fitting that I jot down a few words about the old XBOX game I've also recently discovered - Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge - released in October 2003 by FASA Interactive. I picked this one up CIB on eBay for $1.04 shipped.

The game takes place in 1937 in an alternate history North America where the Great Depression, prohibition, and regional fighting have fractured the land into a number of State-Nations that have closed their borders to outsiders. The transcontinental railroad and the new highway system have now become largely useless and this has forced people to embrace an aviation-based lifestyle - and with so much commerce taking place in the air sky piracy is a common occurrence. The speculative leap from post-war depression to sky pirates might seem a little far-fetched, but I remember an episode of the Twilight Zone where a scientist traveled back in time and accidentally stepped on a prehistoric butterfly, which somehow lead to the Nazis conquering the world. So anyway, the takeaway message here is don't try too hard to understand the timestream, just go with the flow, because time can really hit you with some unexpected shit.

Here's the trailer.

And I tracked down a TV spot as well...

I was always more of a Sony guy than a Microsoft guy so I'd never heard of this game before I bought it, but apparently it is fairly well-known in Xbox circles. Microsoft maintains a website for the game at which offers a considerable amount of backstory information including a rather lengthy description of the fictional timeline from 1920-1937 by Prof. Warren Gilmont, Harvard University (1938).  Over at BoardGameGeek I also learned that the game was actually originally released in 1998 as a tabletop RPG game. Later in 2000 it was released as a video game for the PC, and then the improved Xbox version was released in 2003 which is the only version I've personally seen.

Like I mentioned, this is an alternate history 1939 where experimental planes and zeppelins fill the air and intrigue abounds. You play as Nathan Zachary, the leader of the group of high flying adventurers known as the Fortune Hunters. Nathan is a ladies man, a charmer, a bit of a scoundrel, and a crack pilot. Early on in the game Nathan's friend, Dr. Fassenbiender, is killed by an evil German scientist in an effort to steal the doctor's secret plans to build a wind turbine machine capable of creating storms, but unbeknownst to the villain, doctor Fassenbiender had already given the plans to Nathan for safekeeping. And thus begins Nathan's quest across exotic lands to find the doctor's killer and bring him to justice!

The story plays out very much like the old pulp serials of the late 30's which I've always enjoyed. And I've always had a soft spot for aviation-based shows in particular. Has anyone ever seen the old TV show Tales of the Golden Monkey? I remember really liking that show back in the early 80's but it only lasted one season so I may have been the only one. I also used to love Baa Baa Black Sheep (still one of my favorite TV intro sequences). I even watched a little Duck Tales cartoon although I was older by the time it came on and it wasn't a huge favorite. Crimson Skies has the same feel to it as those shows. It's kind of like Indiana Jones in the sky - now who wouldn't like that?

The game is somewhat open-world with primarily flight-based action. There are core missions that drive the linear narrative, but there are various diversionary tasks available too as you fly around and explore the world. Yes, there is no shortage of enemy dogfights, but there are also a number of other sequences such as anti-aircraft set pieces, strafing runs against enemy naval ships, boss battles against zeppelins and giant mechanical caterpillars, air races, hidden trophies you can pick up, etc. - quite a few different twists to keep the main dish of plane-based combat fresh. Plus, there is an RPG element as well in that you can acquire different planes as you go along along with money and upgrade tokens which you can use to upgrade the planes to higher levels of aerial deadliness. I'm a little disappointed in the upgrade mechanic though - it seems like it takes too long for me to be able to upgrade and also it is a simple click of a button to OK you're upgraded. It would have grabbed me more if the upgrades were more frequent (they could be smaller increments) and if it would allow me to spend upgrades on different facets of the plane such as speed, maneuverability, main guns, secondary guns, etc. but still, it is a nice addition.

The controls are very smooth and familiar if you have ever played any flight-combat games at all. It took me a little while to get the hang of it (because I suck at flying games) but before too long I was flying through those canyons like nobody's business.

In addition to the one-player campaign you can also play multiplayer which from what I'm told is where this game really shined back in the day. I say shined because you can't play it online via Xbox Live anymore so that part of it is dead. But you can still play someone locally with split screen, and as a guy that used to play the hell out of the dogfight game in Atari's Combat cartridge, I'm quite interested to try out that split screen action. I have a feeling I'm gonna really enjoy it.

Once again the original Xbox surprised me with some great graphics. The sunset hues in the skies, the wispy clouds, the driving rain on the camera, the detailed faces in the cut scenes, the cool working/moving parts on the planes, the fiery and shrapnel-laden explosions. It was very impressive for a last-gen - heck at this point darn near two-generations old system.

Excellent sound. The sounds effects really help immerse you in the game, from the rushing wind, to the rat-a-tat of your machine guns, to the exceptionally strong musical scores to set the moods - wistful and dreamy in the slow and scenic exploration scenes, fast-paced and hectic during the fights. Apparently the music was even released as a soundtrack.The voice acting is decent but not great - kind of cheesy and formulaic, but it feels consistent in with the universe of the game so it fits fine.

I've never been very good, or for that matter very interested, in plane-based games, but this one clicked for me. A good part of it is probably the fictional hook of the Crimson Skies universe, but I found the gameplay surprisingly enjoyable. Quite a bit more than I expected it to be for me personally. There is only so much variation one can instill in a fighter plane game before things tend to get somewhat repetitive, but I think Crimson Skies handles it pretty well all things considered. This games ranks near the top of my rather limited Xbox collection. I give it an 8.9.

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Monday, June 24, 2013

The Last of Us - a Must-Own for the PS3

A few days ago I completed the latest and greatest game from Naughty Dog, the PS3-exclusive The Last of Us. It was just released June 14 and I don't talk about brand new games on here very often, but I'd been looking forward to this one for a long time and it was quite an experience so I felt like putting fingertips to keyboard. I'll try to stay away from any spoilers in case you haven't played it yet but plan to (which I highly recommend).

In The Last of Us, the world has been overrun by a fungus that infects humans via spores which cause the fungus to grow on the human brain, driving the victims insane. The fungus then spreads throughout the host's body, mutating it as the infection progresses through various stages of severity.

These infected humans then spread the disease in classic zombie fashion by biting non-infected humans. But this is an infection, not the walking dead, so the good news is that if you die you are off the hook. The game starts with Joel and his daughter Sarah in the Texas hill country as the plague is just beginning, but after a small amount of backstory it quickly fast-forwards 20 years to a point when the resulting pandemic has decimated the population and left roving bands of infecteds and merciless humans in their place.

You play most of the game as Joel, who in the 20 years since the outbreak has been forced into doing some morally questionable things to survive. Joel now lives in a military-controlled quarantine zone in Boston and the rest of the story revolves around Joel's journey across a post-apocalyptic America with a 14-year old girl Ellie to meet up with a resistance group called the Fireflies.

I hesitate to give any more details than that for fear of spoilers, but suffice it to say that this is probably the best story I have ever experienced in a video game. As you would expect from the game's premise, it isn't really a feel-good tale - the underlying tone is grim and brutal, but it is emotionally moving. The plot itself doesn't hold anything particularly new in the realm of post-apocalyptic fiction (I've read and seen my share for sure!), but of course the true strength of any tale is the characters, and these are believable and lifelike - I actually cared about them and even gasped when shocking things happened to them. On your journey you meet several other people along the way and even though you have much less time to get to know these supporting characters they seem very fleshed out and believable as well - all leave you with the impression that there is a rich backstory there even if you don't have time to hear it during the game. Oh, and the game utilizes the common game device of finding old diaries, tape recorders, notes, etc which fill you in on a lot of the details of what happened to the various people you find, both living and not-so-much.  The quality of the story and the depth and interaction of the characters really made me feel like I was watching a good movie as much as playing a good video game.

And in the fact is stranger than fiction department, I stumbled across these videos about the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus that act very much like those portrayed in the game. My background is in microbiology and environmental chemistry so that probably boosts the interest level for me, but mostly I just thought they were cool because they were so damn creepy. Check 'em out.

I would describe the gameplay as a stealth-based survival horror third person action game. Didn't realize I was going to use that many words before I started that sentence - is that a genre?

There are four different stages of the disease which lead to four different types of infecteds that would just love to floss their teeth with your neck tendons.

Runners - Newly infected who have lost most of their reasoning ability and run around frantically, viciously attacking anyone they find.
Stalkers - The infection has spread so that the fungus has begun to sprout from the person's face but has not completely covered it yet. These infecteds tend to flank and sneak up on their victims instead of mindlessly running about until they find one.
Clickers - The fungus has progressed to cover the infected's face which blinds them, but these infecteds have developed extremely sensitive hearing which allows them use a method of echolocation to "see" via audible clicks.
Bloaters - These infecteds have survived long enough that the fungus has completely covered their entire body. They are slow and lumbering but very strong and their fungal layers provide them with an armor plating of sorts which makes them very difficult to kill.

In addition to the infecteds, there is no shortage of crazy-ass brutal human survivors who's hobbies include walking in deserted towns and shooting you in the forehead.

First and foremost I consider the game survival horror almost by definition given the horrific survival scenario in which you find yourself.  Supplies and ammo are scarce so you search them out where you can and conserve them as much as possible. And you also search out tools and mechanical parts which allow you to upgrade and craft your own weapons and health kits once you are able to find a workbench on which to work. I've never been a fan of the search for useless coins and treasure in games but making me search for parts I can use to make things I need to survive fools my mind into thinking it is less of a useless exercise. Shades of Resident Evil, Dead Space, and Fallzone 3 here.

One other thought on the survival horror aspect - I used to play through my games in the most difficult mode for the sake of the challenge, but after some consideration a while back which I discussed in a previous post, I have switched to typically choosing the "Normal" difficulty level for my more recent games. But here, for this game so keyed on survival and scarcity of resources, I think the "Hard" mode may have been the better choice (there is also the even more difficult "Survivor" mode). I didn't think that Normal was too easy - it played great and believe me I had my fair share of getting my throat ripped out, it's just that I think the tone of the game may have been a bit more enhanced if ammo and supplies were just a little less available. Of course, with all the bullets your enemies are spraying at you the reality is there should have been be even MORE ammo available for you to grab after you take them down, but reality aside, if I had it to do over again I think I might have preferred to play it on Hard. Right now I'm playing through on Survivor mode, but as much as I like the game I doubt I will finish it again - I'm not much of a trophy whore and I almost never complete a game twice.

Don't get me wrong though, even on Normal ammo is NOT plentiful. If you just shoot everybody you will run out of bullets very quickly, which is where the stealth component comes into play. You try to avoid confrontations where possible and to conserve ammo you can sneak up on enemies and choke them out or shiv them. To assist in this, Joel can focus his listening which allows you to see enemies through walls as long as they are making at least a little noise. This is pretty much exactly like Batman's Detective Mode sight in the Arkham games, except Joel's ability seemed a bit more realistic where as the enemies get quieter or further away they get fainter and disappear altogether if they are totally silent. I really enjoy this mechanic. This ability isn't available at all on Survivor mode which I suppose is more realistic, but not sure if it is more fun. I found the stealth play suspenseful and fun. Perhaps a bit slow to develop at times, but this felt consistent with the tone of the game so it worked. However, I don't expect it to wear quite as well on subsequent playthroughs. My only minor complaint about the stealth encounters is that the AI seemed a bit weak. Enemies didn't seem to notice me when I was pretty sure they were looking right at me. And they NEVER saw Ellie who stumbled and bumbled her way all over the place literally right in front of them. And somehow the gurgling chokes of the guys I snuck up on did not alert their nearby cohorts or even clickers for that matter. That might be a result of playing it on Normal difficulty though - maybe the enemies are more alert on the more difficult levels. Either way not a big deal just a bit inconsistent with the reality in that universe.

The action component primarily consists of smooth gunplay and slightly less smooth melee combat that feels pretty much exactly like that in Uncharted. These encounters were broken up by a number of setpiece sequences like when you are doing things like sniping infecteds from a perch as they attack your approaching friends, keeping infecteds from invading all sides of a cabin (a-la zombie mode in the COD games), escaping an armored truck that is firing a heavy machine gun at you, riding a horse throught a forest, etc. There was also a small puzzle component where you had to find ladders, planks and other items like that to get from one point to another. Overall I would say the action encounters were somewhat repetitive but they were so well-done and dispersed throughout the game that it never really felt that way to me at the time.

Naughty Dog has consistently made some of the most visually stunning games I've played and this is no exception. The detail in both the urban cityscapes and in the natural landscapes across multiple seasons was just beautiful. And I am always a big fan of the palette of rich colors that they use. Proof that you don't have to paint everything dull gray and brown to make it realistic or to set a grim tone.

And Naughty Dog is a master of camera work on its games. Their signature cinematic cut scenes not only blurred, but virtually erased the lines between video game and movie here. At one point my wife came in the room and said, "I thought you were playing your game." "I am" I responded. She took another look, "oh, it looked like it was a movie for a minute - very realistic."

The detail on the characters was equally impressive. The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes in their facial expressions and the detailed mannerisms really added up to make the characters more believable and consequently enhanced the immersive experience.

I did see a few instances of objects in the distance blinking in, one instance where I found an odd pool of static, and one glitchy part where Ellie was on the back of an invisible bad guy who was trying to shake her loose so she basically looked like she was shaking violently in mid-air. So I guess I can't say it was perfect, but damn near.

First off, the music - it was excellent. The tunes playing during some of the trailers had already piqued my musical interest a bit and the rest of the music in the game just confirmed that I loved it. Hauntingly beautiful during the moving scenes, tense during the firefights, suspenseful and spooky during stealth encounters with infecteds - the music perfectly accentuates every situation. The music was the work of Gustavo Santaolalla who I had not actually heard of before but after looking him up I see he has won a ton of awards for his work in the music industry and the movie industry. And probably soon for the videogame industry as well.

Does voice acting go under the Sound section? Guess so. The voice acting is superb - especially from the main characters but from ancillary characters as well. Just outstanding. Joel was voiced by Troy Baker who also voiced Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite and Two-Face in Batman Arkham City. I'm not familiar with the work of Ashley Johnson, but she did an excellent job of providing the voice of Ellie. Naughty Dog veteran voice Nolan North (Nathan Drake) even made a voice appearance as David - a character you meet maybe 3/4 the way through the game. And on my second playthrough I've discovered quite a bit of rich dialogue taking place between the environmental characters that I didn't even notice the first time. Some of the dialogue from the numerous nameless thugs you encounter is pretty cliche and can get repetitve just like it did in the Uncharted games but I suppose there are only so many different ways one can pre-record "we're gonna fuckin kill you old man!" so that's understandable I suppose.

And the sound effects are very realistic, even my dog Chico thinks so - when dogs started barking onscreen he started barking back at them. The environmental and combat sounds work extremely well to enhance the realism - especially if you have a surround sound setup.

So as you can tell I thought the Last of Us was a great game. I hesitate to use the word "fun" to describe it given the overall dark tone, but I found it to be a rewarding and entertaining experience. And despite my frequent use of the word "grim" in this review, there were also a number of very touching moments where more positive human feelings like hope, loyalty and love were on display as well, even if they felt more like the seasoning than the primary ingredients. But good or bad, or I guess I should say good AND bad - that's life. Especially after the world has been destroyed and all the trivial distractions of modern life have been stripped away. I think Keates said it best - just kidding, I just realized that I'm starting to annoy myself by drifting to much into the heavy stuff so I'll stop.

I'm guessing some people might find the ending somewhat controversial, but to me it was consistent with the narrative and characters set up in the previous 15 or so hours so it felt like a natural conclusion. For that matter it was more or less consistent with my own feelings anyway - so I got no beef with it. Wish I could discuss it here but like I said - no spoilers.

Also, the game is very linear - which for some ridiculous reason seems to often be immediately interpreted by some gamers these days as a bad thing. Like I said, playing this game felt like watching a good movie or reading a good book, and with the possible exception of the Choose Your Own Adventure books those media are of course quite linear. And to me, all things being equal, linear video games are not only not a bad thing, they are a good thing. So I don't consider that a knock. Just mentioning it for those anti-linearity folks out there. All that being said, the world that is available for you to explore didn't really feel confining to me, so most of the time I was left with the impression that it was an open world that I just didn't have the time or interest to explore - and if the developer can achieve that they have succeeded in my book.

On my personal ratings list I would give it maybe a 9.6, although as always I reserve the right to change that later. I often find that my long-term opinion of a game in the context of certain systems can change a bit as I ruminate on them after completion, so I might decide I like it a little more or less in a couple of weeks, but for now I would say it goes pretty near the top of my PS3 games list.  Not AT the top, but near.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Gaming on $2 or Less - Dead Space Downfall

"This is deep space... weird shit happens."

Truer words were never spoken.

My second post for the new Gaming on $2 or Less feature is not actually a game, but a video based on one. A Blu-ray video to be precise - Dead Space Downfall - which I recently purchased from Fry's for the paltry sum of only $2 (we'll conveniently ignore the sales tax - dang already breaking my own rules).

I'll admit, I am a sucker for horror science fiction movies. They don't even have to be particularly good for me to enjoy them. Whether they are universally accepted classics like Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, lower tier thrillers like Event Horizon and Pandorum, or B-grade cult favorites like Galaxy of Terror and Life Force - I have been in love with horror sci-fi flicks for a long long time.

Dead Space Downfall is a prequel to the first Dead Space game. It details the ordeal of the USG Ishimura leading up to, literally, the moment the story begins in Dead Space the game. The events take place at the same time as those occurring planetside as shown in the prequel game Dead Space Extraction. The chief protagonist of the movie is Ishimura's hard-ass Head of Security Alissa Vincent who does her best to figure out what is going on and try to save the ship's crew - spoiler alert - she does not succeed.

From the back of the case: "For the crew of the USG Ishimura, this is how the horror begins: On a deep space mining mission to a remote planet, an ancient religious relic - thought to be proof of the existence of God - is unearthed and brought aboard. It is worshipped by some, scorned by others. But when the unholy artifact unleashes a long-dormant alien race, its glimpse of Heaven transforms the ship into a living Hell. The chaos is immediate. The carnage is uncontrollable. And an onslaught unlike anything ever witnessed by mankind has now been set free to rip this world apart. Prepare yourself for the disturbing opening chapters of the new EA game that takes adult animation to graphic new levels of bloodshed and terror. This is DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL."

That pretty much says it all. And yes, disturbing, graphic, bloodshed and terror are good words to describe this video. There is a lot of gore in this thing. A LOT.

Here is the trailer:

Special features include the movie trailer (pretty cool), the game trailer (excellent addition but shaky quality), a deleted scene (draft drawn and a little hard to watch), photo gallery (kinda cool behind the scenes art), "isolated" soundtrack (meh), and supposedly cheat codes although I didn't notice those. You also get a separate DVD with the portable digital copy that you can copy over to your portable devices. I've never really used those from DVD/Blu-ray purchases before but a nice addition anyway.

The trailer for the movie looked good, but inexplicably the game trailer was not in HD and looked grainy. What?! To a trailer-lover like myself it is a sin for a Blu-ray to include a trailer at lower than HD resolution unless the HD source material does not exist, and I know full well the HD version of that trailer is available because I've downloaded it. So that annoyed me a bit.

Is the movie good enough to stand on its own merits for people that didn't play the game? Well, no probably not - it seems more geared toward fans of the game. Does the loosely woven plot start to fall apart if you pull too many threads? Yeah kind of, but the same is true of the game and I still loved it. Did they make a mistake by showing the security chief's final video transmission at the very beginning that spilled the beans about what was going to happen? Yeah, I didn't really care for that choice but everybody already knows the Ishimura crew is screwed from the get-go so no biggie. Did... OK OK stop asking me so many questions. It's not Star Wars, but like I said, I'm a sucker for this stuff, so even though the video is a little shaky I still thought it was pretty cool.

So if, like me, you loved the video game then you would probably enjoy watching this video to see the backstory events unfold. If you have no interest in the game whatsoever then it might not be your cup of tea. And if you are offended and put off by the thought of a violent and gore-filled science fiction animated film, well you are the polar opposite of their target demographic for this thing and you should definitely leave it on the shelf, but then again if you are that guy then you probably already made that assessment for yourself from the title and the dismembered arm on the cover. For me personally, it was definitely worth adding to the gaming/Blu-ray collection for only $2. Oh and it is also available for instant streaming on Netflix.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Gaming on $2 or Less - Crackdown for the Xbox 360

I don't mind paying good money for games or hardware that interest me, but there is something particularly satisfying about finding a used game in a bargain bin for $1.50 and discovering that I really like it. There are very few games I won't try for less than $2 and since I like playing all kinds of games it is not all that uncommon for me to find an unexpected personal gem that way - or at the very least a game that gives me more entertainment value than the mere $1-$2 I put into it.

Recently I bought a copy of Crackdown for the Xbox 360 complete with the case and manual on eBay for $1.46 with free shipping (I always include the shipping on my $2 or less rule). I was completely unfamiliar with the game, but now that I've played it for several hours I have to say I thoroughly enjoy it!

Crackdown was developed by Realtime Worlds in 2007, conceptualized by company founder David Jones, the British programmer who created the classic Lemmings back in 1991 and the first two Grand Theft Auto games.

The back of the case has a pretty good synopsis: "All justice. No Restraints. As a genetically enhanced agent of justice, it's your job to rid the city of crime - by any means necessary. You're the extreme solution to an extreme problem, as you attempt to take out 21 gang bosses and restore order to a sprawling metropolis teeming with lawlessness and strife."

The narrator puts it even more succinctly to begin the game: "It's all gone to shit!" as back story pictures pan by comic-book style - which fits because this game definitely feels like a comic book. Grittier than Superman or even Batman though. This is an indie comic where you're a juiced-up Judge Dredd type of law keeper and your job is to kill all the bad guys by stomping them to death, throwing them off rooftops, shooting them in the face, running over them in cars, etc. - good wholesome violence like that. And every once in a while the voice of HQ comes on and shows you some video intel on the latest evil-doer you need to hit. It basically feels like a modern-day sandbox version of one my old arcade favorites from Williams - NARC. In fact I wouldn't be surprised to stumble across a crazy clown or some dude flinging giant hypodermic syringes at me. But unlike in NARC, arresting the bad guys is not an option - you just put them in a grave.

The game begins in the garage of the Agency Keep. You go pick out which vehicle you want to take out into the crime-ridden city - a sporty supercar that drives under other cars and scoops them out of the way, a larger Hummer all-terrain vehicle that drives over cars and obstacles, or a big Mac truck that just piles through them. Once you get out into the city you can also jump into any other vehicle you see out there and if you return it to the agency garage it adds it to your inventory of usable vehicles when you respawn.

In addition to tons of vehicles you can also use all kinds of weapons, including those you pry from the cold dead hands of the criminals. And like the cars, if you check in captured weapons at one of various supply points throughout the city it adds them to you usable inventory. You have to reclaim the supply points from the gang members first but after that they provide a port in the city where you can refit with different weapons and reload all your ammo. You can jump all over the place, climb up everything, lift and throw everything (assuming you've built up enough strength), shoot, stomp, kick, grenade, swim - it is basically the fun open-world experience that I expected from Grand Theft Auto IV before I played that and found it utterly boring.  There are also lots of little add-on challenges like races, stunts, and collecting orbs. The game actually reminded me quite a bit of the PS3 game Infamous which I played a couple of years back, but then I realized that even though I played Infamous first, it was actually released a couple of years after Crackdown. So it seems like several of the things I liked about Infamous may have actually been inspired by Crackdown.

Graphics are bright and stylized - look almost Dreamcastish to me - which I like. This game is a big comic book and isn't going for realism so hyper realistic COD graphics would have been out of place.

The auto-aim on the shooting is intuitive and easy to use, although the melee combat is less so - several times I stood there doing roundhouse kicks in the air 2 feet in front of a guy while he sprayed me with both bullets and profanity.

The trailer shows off a few of your moves as clean the scum off the streets of Pacific City.

There is an RPG component as well as your skill ratings are tracked on-screen for 5 abilities - Agility, Driving, Explosives, Strength and Firearms. You get points for using each of these skills and when you attain enough points you level up for that particular skill. So the more heavy stuff you pick up, the heavier stuff you CAN pick up, etc. And there is something particularly satisfying about picking up up a big car with a couple of thugs in it and hurling it over a bridge into the water. Or just punching a car into a metal pulp a-la Street Fighter 2 for that matter.

As far as the story goes, Crackdown is not going to make you think and feel and empathize with the characters or any of that mushy stuff. It is pretty much just one long cliche-filled series of explosions. So if you are looking for an emotionally-moving tale well, move on to something else. But if you, like me, just finished a game with a more complex narrative and character development and were looking for some nice cheap fun to swish around and cleanse the palate before the next big game well for me this was it.

The primary gameplay is pretty repetitive so it does start to get a little old after a while. So I can't say that I see myself actually hanging in there long enough to kill off all the gangs and kingpins to complete the game, but I found the gameplay, even repetitive as it is, so addictive that every time I turn it on I still quite enjoy it. Also co-op play and a few other options are available to extend replay value as well. I'm not sure how many hours I've put into this so far, but I've definitely gotten my money's worth. Rating-wise - for me I think I'd give Crackdown like an 8.4 or so. Not bad for a game I had assumed would be closer to a 7 when I bought it.  Hell I liked it so much I might have to go check out Crackdown 2 now. I know one thing - if I find Crackdown 2 for $2 or less like I did the first one I'm definitely getting it.

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Excavation of Buried Atari E.T. Cartridges in New Mexico Approved

Any retrogamer worth his salt, or just older gamer in general (like me) for that matter, has heard the tale of how Atari, dismayed at the tremendous amount of E.T. games that were returned for a refund, sent truckloads of them into a New Mexico desert to be dumped and buried in a landfill back in 1983. Many people have alluded to this event when discussing this historically bad game that supposedly had such a pivotal role in the so-called video game crash of 1983. Well, I think the impact of that game's failure on spiraling console game sales at the time has been significantly exaggerated over the years, but it sure as hell didn't help matters. And I'd like to be the contrarian who says that E.T. was actually an underrated game, but  I played it back then and even still own my original cart today and I gotta say - it's a shit game just like everybody says.

Anyway, I bring it up because I just read that the City Commission of Alamogordo, New Mexico has recently approved an excavation at the municipal landfill where this mass video game burial supposedly took place. The excavation is reportedly going to be filmed and featured in a Canadian documentary.

I have to say, based on what I've read it appears that this mass dumping of games, assuming it did indeed take place, did not focus exclusively, or perhaps not even primarily, on the horrible E.T. game. It was reportedly a dumping of various returned and surplus hardware and games of all sorts that Atari had stored at its former game manufacturing plant in El Paso, Texas that was being converted into a scrap recycling center at the time. Given the huge numbers of E.T. carts that were returned for a refund it seems likely that E.T. would have constituted at least a significant portion of the dumped items but who knows. Regardless, the interest behind this story for me has nothing to do with how many E.T. games were actually put in the ground, it is the counter-intuitive notion that video game sales - which were booming just a couple of years earlier - were so dismal by 1983 that somehow the most financially sound solution for moving this merchandise was to load it up into 9-10 semi trucks, drive them to the middle of a New Mexico desert, and dump them in a giant hole and pour concrete on top of them. That's crazy! So if this documentary ever airs I'm going to try to track it down and check it out.

Local news station KRQE did a brief piece on the upcoming excavation below:

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Friday, May 31, 2013

My "New" TRS-80 Model 4D

In addition to old video game consoles, I'm also interested in old computers. I don't exactly collect them per se, but if I come across a particularly great deal I rarely pass it up. Last Friday I came across one such deal and have now added a TRS-80 Model 4D to my collection.

First, a very brief background on the TRS-80 line.

Tandy entered the personal computer market in August 1977 when they produced one of the first commercial home computers in the TRS-80 Micro Computer System (Model 1) which they sold through their Radio Shack stores at a retail cost of $599 - about half the price of its direct competitors the Apple II and the Commodore PET. The name itself was a shortened representation of the manufacturer and the processor - "TRS" referred to Tandy-Radio Shack and "-80" referred to the Zilog Z80 CPU which ran the computer at a blistering speed of 1.77 MHz - faster than the 1MHz chips used by the PET and Apple II. Arguably the first affordable commercial home computer, the TRS-80 went on to become extremely successful for several years.

Fast-forward 6 years (I'm skipping over the Model 2, Model 3 and Color Computers) to April 1983 when Tandy released the TRS-80 Model 4 at a basic retail price of $1,990. The system was a true all-in-one unit with a built in monochrome monitor, keyboard and two on-board 5 1/4" floppy disk drives. It ran off an upgraded Z80A CPU at a speed of 4 MHz and came standard with 64K RAM.

Then in late 1985 they released mine - the "Tandy TRS-80 Model 4D Microcomputer System" - as the final model in the TRS-80 line at a retail price of $1199. Might sound a little pricey, but it was $800 cheaper than the basic Model 4 just two years earlier. Plus it came bundled with DeskMate!  By the mid-80's there was a lot more competition in the home computer market so the TRS-80 line died out with the 4D.

I found the ad below in the January 1987 edition of 80 Micro the #1 magazine for Tandy users.

I don't really know the going price on these things these days, but I noticed someone on eBay is trying to sell one for just under the original retail price at $999.99.  I bought mine from a local Houstonian for the bargain basement price of only $10.  It's in great shape and seems to work just fine.

I couldn't find any old video of the Model 4D, but here is an old Radio Shack commercial I found for the Model 4 which is pretty close to the same thing.

The Model 4D is backwards-compatible with Model 1 and 3 software (don't ask about the Model 2) and actually even has a built-in Model 3 mode where it boots up from an internal Model 3 ROM and the CPU operates at half-speed at 2MHz to accurately run any Model 3 software.

As far I can tell, the main hardware difference in the Model 4D versus the original Model 4 was that the two disk drives were double-sided (thus the "D" designation presumably?) instead of single-sided and the monitor was a cool green-phosphor display instead of the boring white phosphor of the original Model 4 (later Model 4's also had the green display).

I just love the way this thing looks - like it was plucked out of an old science-fiction movie or a cold-war missile silo just waiting for launch codes. I was entertained by just goofing around with it for a while but ultimately my interest always turns to games. The 4D has the brain power to run some nice arcade games but unfortunately didn't come stock with much in the way of graphical power and sound as it targeted the more serious business user and was never really intended to be a gaming computer. But with the compact all-in-one footprint, the great retro clicky feel of the keyboard, and that wonderful bright green text it seemed a perfect gaming platform to satisfy my love of old text adventure games.Unfortunately it appears these old TRS-80 adventure games are apparently pretty rare and the ones I found on eBay were fairly expensive with prices starting at over $50 and several in the hundreds. One extreme example was a rare complete boxed edition of the original Zork, which debuted on personal computers in 1980 on the TRS-80 Model 1 - that recently sold on eBay for a whopping $1,500!!  Definitely too rich for my blood, but cool Zorkian artwork with the warrior with the glowing sword, the white house with the mailbox, the forest and the mountains. I'll never own it, but I like it.

There is still a loose disk of the TRS-80 Zork on eBay now for $150.

OK, I won't be buying the TRS-80 Zork anytime soon, but I am now officially on the lookout for some other text adventures that are actually affordable or some other cheap TRS-80 games to try out, or even better to start with, a big box of backup disks. If anyone out there happens to have played any TRS-80 games I'd be happy to hear some recommendations.  But for now although it looks really cool, until I get a game or two I'm only able to play DeskMate, and that game is kind of boring.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Create Your Own Atari 2600 Cartridge Label

Everyone would love to create their own Atari 2600 cartridge labels, but it's such a hassle.  Well not anymore!  Now you can make your very own custom labels with Label Maker 2600!

Just go to, upload a picture you want to use, pick the controller type, text color, and a few other options and hit a button and wa-la you have your Atari 2600 cartridge labels (both front and end) that you can then print onto an adhesive paper and apply directly to your forehead and chin. Or, you know, a homebrew Atari cart or whatever.

Here's my quickie example - still working on the code:

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bioshock Infinite

Grrr - I accidentally hit Publish instead of Save a bit earlier today so if you read that version on a feed it was just the first few draft paragraphs. Oh and since I'm editorializing here - the snapshots below are all pilfered from the internet - not my own. One of these days I'm gonna set my screen/video capture stuff back up. But not today! And since this is a newer game I'll try to keep it spoiler-free, although that does handcuff me on a few things...

I just finished playing Bioshock Infinite on the PS3 and it was a fun game with a good story. Do I consider it worthy of the lofty 9.5-10 ratings that many critics are giving it?  Well no, not quite that high for me personally - so if you're a huge rabid fan of the game you might think my minor criticisms are heresy. But hey just because I don't think it's a 10 doesn't mean I'm trashing it. Since when did an 8.4 rating for a well-received game become a bad thing?

The game takes place in the early 1900's and you are Booker Dewitt, a Pinkerton detective who has apparently done some shameful things and fallen on hard times. Booker has built up a large gambling debt to some bad people and at the beginning of the game you are directed to "bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt" - an imperative that is repeated throughout the game. So you are off to bring back (rescue? kidnap?) a girl named Elizabeth who you quickly learn is being held in a city called Columbia which floats in the sky. The girl turns out to have the power to open "tears" in the fabric of the universe and not only see into alternate timelines but also bring things over from them or pass through the tear itself to visit the alternate universe. The rest of the game deals with your efforts to take this girl out of Columbia while hordes of steampunkian loons are trying to kill you. And between firefights you struggle to piece together bits and pieces of this mysterious narrative as you go along.

Everyone knows I'm a sucker for game trailers so here is the TV spot that first grabbed my attention. None of this is actually in-game footage, but it actually does a great job of capturing the general feel of the game. I kinda like the song too - although I've never heard the whole thing.

The gameplay is virtually identical to what you experienced in the first Bioshock, so if you liked that one you should definitely like this one as well. If you never played the original Bioshock - well it's considered a classic and lucky for you it is included in the PS3 version of the game so you can play both of them for the price of one!  Anyway, Infinite has the exact same kind of smooth FPS gunplay and same kind of genetic powers although this time they are derived from "vigors and salts" instead of "plasmids and eve" (six of one half-dozen of the other).

This makes for some pretty cool fights against large groups of baddies, but it does tend to get repetitive after a while as did the original Bioshock - one of my all-time favorites on the XBox 360 by the way. But of course you can level that criticism at most games, the key is whether or not the game can keep you from thinking "ok this is starting to get a little repetitive" and I did find myself saying that a few times here. Not a lot, as the story keeps things progressing pretty well, but a few times. There weren't any real boss-battles to speak of - mostly just hordes of small to medium-sized baddies. I think one or two bosses or maybe a cinematic set piece here and there would have helped break it up.

So the basic program is something like this.

60  GOTO 10

A common criticism I have about these kinds of games is that even though you have a large variety of weapons and powers to use, there is often no real reason to vary your use of them. You could pretty much just grab a machine gun and use nothing else for the entire game. No real need for different guns, melee, vigors, etc. You don't even really need to use your vigors at all, a fact the game designers were apparently aware of as on multiple occasions when I'm mowing down enemies the message flashes on the screen "Don't forget to use your vigors!". The game should not have to tell me to not forget to use something I don't need to use - the game should find a way to make me need to use it. There were a few exceptions, but generally speaking I would've liked to have seen a little more situational need for a particular gun or power to mix it up a bit. I assume if I ratcheted up the difficulty the need for strategic use of weapons and vigors would increase, but even then is there any major reason to use "charge" instead of "devil's kiss" instead of "possession"?  I pretty much just started using the vigors randomly so I could see what they all do.

Once you break her out of her prison, Elizabeth is at your side for almost the entire game. But you aren't forced to protect her - in fact she never even takes any damage whatsoever during fights. She pretty much just takes cover and throws you health, salts and ammo as you need them which is very useful. She can also open tears and bring things through like gun turrets that will fire at your enemies or cover you can hide behind - VERY useful! Unfortunately she can only open one tear at a time.  And she continually finds money and other things lying around when you are just exploring and throws those to you as well if you want them (and why exactly would you turn down free money?). So she keeps you pretty well stocked in the essentials. And of course she also helps feed you bits of the narrative as you go along which is the key driving force in the game - even though she doesn't know the full story herself until the very end.

One cool gimmick is the system of roller-coaster like "skylines" set up around the city that allow you to ride them with a grappling hook that you obtain early in the game. This makes for some fun action during some of the fights, but unfortunately in most cases the skylines are isolated loops around particular buildings or small areas so again you can't really use them to explore the city you just loop around one small area during that part of the linear story. I think it would have been more fun if you could explore the whole city on them like you could on the trains of Infamous for example.

They completely did away with the hacking puzzle minigame that was used in the original Bioshock - and I kind of missed it.  I've seen this kind of mini-game tactic employed in several games and I thought the original Bioshock implemented it extremely well. But in Infinite you "hacked" a mechanized gun by shooting it with the "possession" vigor and you opened locks by asking Elizabeth to pick the lock. The lockpicks are scattered everywhere so you never run out of them and thus that little mechanic felt like an unnecessary inclusion. I can only assume that the lockpicks are more sparsely available if you play through on a higher difficulty.

The story is both the strength of the game and also where I think it is most overrated. So forgive me if I sound a bit snarky here in places as I really did quite enjoy the tale but feel the need to take the unfettered universal praise down just a notch here.

The setting for the great majority of the game is Columbia, an impressive early 20th century American city that floats in the sky and is ruled by "The Prophet", who has some pretty rigid ideas about religion, patriotism, and race. There are some that are not down with his views so in addition to the native elite you also have to deal with the revolutionaries - but any moral distinction between the two factions is lost as it appears that they are all nutjobs and would very much enjoy killing you.

Columbia is populated with all sorts of technologically anachronistic devices. One of my favorite moments of the game is a small part at the very beginning when a jet-powered barge flies alongside you during a carnival and a barbershop quartet starts singing the Beach Boys' God Only Knows - not a big Beach Boys guy, but I've always been a sucker for harmony.

There are several different floating pieces to the city that make for cool environmental eye candy but you aren't really allowed to explore many of them so even though the setting has an open-world veneer it is in actuality quite linear. Which is OK by me as I usually find most so-called "open-world" games somewhat boring as they tend to lean far too much on meaningless tangential exploration to the detriment of the core story. Still, I found it a little disappointing at the beginning when I hurdled over a fenced edge into the sky to what should have been a fairly easy drop to a slightly lower floating building only to suddenly reappear back where I had jumped.

A minor thing that bugged me was that the vigors never really seemed to fit in for me in the context of this universe like they did in Rapture. In Rapture everyone was preoccupied with improving themselves to some sort of perfection through chemistry and technology so the practice of monkeying around with one's own DNA to gain bizarre powers seemed a sensible fit. But it just didn't seem to flow in Columbia. First of all, the vigors and salts and vending machines to strengthen them are located EVERYWHERE for the taking, but you rarely come across very many people other than you that use them. I suppose a bunch of racial supremecists would inherently believe their DNA is already superior and thus be hesitant to tinker with it, but it is made widely available and even happily given out for free with no apparent stigma at the carnival at the beginning of the game so that doesn't make sense. And wouldn't a lot of the downtrodden revolutionaries start juicing to kick some vigor ass themselves?  It almost felt like the vigors were forced into use simply because Irrational Games knew they were a solid proven fighting mechanic for the franchise. Yeah I know - that's exactly why they are in there. And yeah they're pretty cool so fine, I'll accept the shaky vigors premise.

With Elizabeth's ability to open "tears" into other realities, a large part of the game deals with alternate universes. I'm a sucker for alternate reality/parallel universe stories. Always have been. A Marvel comic book called What If was one of my favorite comic books back in the day. It would chronicle a well-known comic book tale with one small difference, usually at a critical juncture in the timeline, which would inevitably spin the entire tale off into some completely different conclusion - usually with rather dire results. It was one of the few comic books of the time that often had a dark or hopeless ending instead of a feel-good one. Somehow that appealed to me.

Also one of my all-time favorite science fiction novels - well series of novels actually - is the Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny. In it the royal family has the power to alter the reality they are in, not by entering a tear, but by taking a walk and mentally changing small details of their world as they go until they are in an entirely different world. Just a few weeks ago I watched Men In Black 3 - which featured an alien who could open tears of his own into alternate timelines very reminiscent of Elizabeth. The movie involves Agent J being caught in a villainous time-travel scheme and being forced to go back in time to stop it and save his partner Agent K from dying before they met. And even just last night I saw Looper, an alternate timeline-oriented movie which also has a number of parallels with the game. God help me I even enjoyed the Butterfly Effect with Ashton Kutcher - officially the only movie I will ever watch that features him.

So why am I mentioning all this? One - to point out one reason I really enjoyed Bioshock Infinite - I love that kind of stuff. And two - to point out that time travel, alternate universes and time paradoxes have been the core of countless numbers of fanciful tales for a long time and so I feel like Infinite gets a little too much credit on its handling of that front. Still, the wheels may be well-worn but the ride is still exciting and smooth. The ending was particularly good. It was thought-provoking, and even emotion-provoking, rather than your typical final boss-battle. When it flicked to black I sat there quietly just watching the screen for a while absorbing what I had just seen. It was so good that it brought the entire story that led up to it together and bouyed it up to a considerably higher point than it had been for the duration of the game up to that point. Even if I did pretty much see it coming...

And the floating city thing?  Well you can go all the way back to Gulliver's Travels for that one. And there have been several other SF/fantasy stories that have used that setting since then. So anyway, I'm not saying the game is cliche - in fact it might be LESS cliche than all the other FPS titles out there - I'm just saying that the fanciful aspect of it is not particularly groundbreaking in its creativity and I would assume that others that have read and seen the same kinds of books and movies that I have might feel similarly.

Finally, the game deals with some weighty themes like racism, revolution, fanaticism, religion and redemption. The conflicting juxtaposition of this seemingly idyllic Rockwellian community in the sky and the rampant racism and violence you soon encounter gives the tale a certain social gravitas that does add to its telling, but in my opinion also leads some reviewers to give it a little more credit than it deserves. To me the story handled those topics in such an over the top caricaturish manner that it seemed a bit amateurish - kind of reminded me of the juvenile sci-fi novels I used to get from RIF at school versus the more mature sci-fi novels intended for adults. The RIF books were a fun read, but the non-juvenile ones handled the storytelling in a more subtle and sophisticated manner. That kind of stuff has been the meat and potatoes for good science fiction for over a century - pick up some Huxley, Wells, Orwell, Heinlein. It brings to mind an episode of Frasier where Frasier and Niles had such fond childhood memories of a fine Shakespearean actor but when they met him again as adults and enticed him to act in a production of theirs they soon realized that his acting was overly exaggerated and melodramatic and they had simply not realized it in their youth. So to some degree I think Bioshock Infinite is that melodramatic Shakespearean actor and the gushing reviewers holding up 10's are the prepubescent Frasier and Niles.

So all that being said, yes it was a very good thought-provoking tale, but the reality is that the story itself, which is being praised as a brilliant masterpiece by most reviewers, would not be rated anywhere nearly as high if it had been presented in the more aged medium of film, and even less so in the grand elder media of a book.  The bottom line is it is a good story for a video game.  I enjoyed Infinite very much, but with the notable exception of the last hour or so I believe I still enjoyed the original Bioshock.

Graphics = Very good. Not muddy COD realism but more stylistic and colorful which is fine by me.
Sound = Excellent. Great music and sound effects. Some of the tunes during fights felt ripped from Wizard of Oz which fit the setting perfectly. The voice acting was also very strong.
Gameplay = Very good if you like Bioshock FPS play, although can get a little repetitive.
Story = Excellent. Although not as enthralling as some overly emotional reviewers have asserted.
My overall rating = 8.4

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Monday, May 13, 2013

A Long Hard Look at Scramble

Well it has been a LONG time since I wrote a real proper post about a real proper arcade game and this one has literally been in my draft box at around 90% complete for about a year, so now that I'm in a posting mood again I thought I'd put some finishing touches on it, take a quick vid, and hit the ol' publish button.

The game room has been growing by leaps and dare I say bounds in the last year but I'm so far behind in posts that the only appropriate place to begin is with my very first arcade game, an often overlooked classic called Scramble. (Curtain rises. Lights Dim).

The MAME cab is great, but for some time I'd dreamed of building a collection of real arcade games. If money and space were no object then one could build this collection relatively easily, but both are definitely objects with which I must contend - very dense objects - so somewhere along the line I got the idea that I would only buy an arcade game if I could find one below $100. That way I wouldn't spend all that much and my buying opportunities would be rare enough to allow my limited space to last a while. Many months later I came to realize just how rare those opportunities are, with virtually all ~$100 games being restricted to non-working fixer-uppers which was not optimal given my lack of repair knowledge. Several times I offered potential sellers on Craigslist $100 only to be met with either indignant refusal or more often simply the ether-chirps of no response at all.

That all finally changed in March 2012 when I placed a $54 bid on an eBay auction for a 1981 Stern Scramble arcade game and watched as the seconds ticked away leaving me as the winner!  Hit refresh to make sure - yep still me!  My very own classic arcade game for less than the price of a new PS3 game!  My wife was sitting next to me on the couch at the time, so I calmly gathered my thoughts and turned to her, "I just bought an arcade game". Her response - "you what?". Ultimately she succumbed to the logic that this was in fact an offer I could not refuse.

Of course, shipping charges on these beasts can run like $300-$400 so that would have completely blown my $100 limit, but this Scramble was more or less local (about 30 miles away from my house) so I jumped in my brother-in-law's truck and we headed out to snag it. I had never actually moved a real arcade game before so I had some logistical concerns like should we try to stand it up or lay it down, how should we best handle it to avoid damaging it, should we tie it down and cover it up, etc - but turns out it was quite easy. We just stuck it on a dolly, wheeled it up to the truck, leaned it over onto some cardboard we put down in the bed to help it slide and protect it a bit, and shoved it on up and in. No problem!

We brought a tarp (OK a shower curtain) to put over it, but the skies looked pretty clear and it was more or less protected from the wind so I didn't bother covering it. But by the time we were about halfway home dark clouds started rolling in which had me a bit concerned. Then my brother-in-law secretly sprayed the windshield wiper fluid and pretended like it was raining which admittedly freaked me out for a second or two before I realized just what the hell he was laughing at. Verrrry funny you bastid...

We wheeled it into the game room - a space formerly referred to by my wife as her kitchen - and into the corner right next to the Spidey pinball. Gorgeous! I just stood there and gazed at it. Lost in the realization of a child's dream of owning his own arcade game. Then I shuddered as a chill ran up my back. My excitement was suddenly tempered by the faint recognition of an icy stare boring into my shoulder blades. My instincts screamed at me to spin around to confront the threat, but fear of being stricken to stone prompted me to instead take a deep breath and glance at the reflection in the Scramble monitor. And there she was. My wife. Shaking her head in disbelief at this additional garish intrusion into her kitchen. But that was to be expected. I had planned for that. Contingencies were in place. The critical question was - was she smiling? I strained to get a better look at the dim reflection. Yes, I decided. She was smiling - sort of. Not much. But enough. Success!

Stern made two styles of cabinet side art for Scramble - mine (shown above) which has the company name along the side and the other version (shown below) with some spaceman artwork. I would have preferred to have the less generic spaceman artwork on it but hey for $54 I can't complain. Online I found that This Old Game sells a stencil of the artwork that I might have considered buying to repaint the cabinet, but the set cost $100 which was way too much for me. Besides, then it wouldn't be the genuine original artwork so I wasn't completely sold on the idea anyway.

The cabinet is in decent shape but has a little wood damage on the left side side, some missing T-molding on the top right, and the glass bezel is flaking off in several places. I think I can repair the wood damage with wood hardener and Bondo and I can replace the T-molding simple enough and the bezel too if I can ever find a better one that doesn't cost too much, but for now anyway I'm just leaving everything as-is and am quite happy with it!  It plays great, the control panel and marquee look virtually perfect, and the monitor is bright and clear with very little burn-in. At first I didn't notice any burn-in at all but I noticed one day while the screen was off that you could just make out the outlines of a maze and a game logo - Mr. Do!  So apparently the monitor was at one time or another used for a Mr. Do! machine. But it isn't noticeable at all during gameplay and kind of adds to the real arcade history of the machine overall so no biggie.

A look inside the game revealed the coin counter - apparently this machine made almost $5,000 in its day.

Now a little about the game itself - Scramble is a horizontal-scrolling shoot 'em up developed by Konami in 1981 and licensed to Stern for manufacture and distribution in North America. Defender had introduced - or at the very least popularized - the horizontal scrolling shooter a little earlier the same year, but Scramble was the first side-scrolling shooter to feature multiple distinct levels and also the first to feature forced-scrolling - both of which became widely adopted standards in the genre. According to some sources I read Scramble was also the first shooter to feature a fuel gauge and refueling as part of the game play - if it was not the first it was at a minimum a very early example. So even though it doesn't have the same name-recognition as Defender, it is still a respected piece of arcade history. In fact, it was one of seven games featured on custom-made tokens created for use in the Video Expo arcade at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, with the other six being Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Qix, Gorf and Donkey Kong. I picked up one of the tokens dirt cheap on eBay.

In Scramble you pilot an aircraft with an 8-way joystick and are armed with lasers for destroying things directly ahead of you and bombs for destroying things below you (2 fire buttons). Like a number of the earlier arcade games, the joystick is positioned in the middle with identical sets of buttons on both sides to accommodate both left-handed and right-handed players.

And again, like a lot of these classic old-school games the directions are printed right on the bezel:

To summarize even more succinctly - don't run into anything and shoot everything.

The "five Scramble defense systems" start with a mountainous surface, then a cavern filled with hovering UFOs (looks like Vanguard borrowed from this level in particular), then a hilly surface where you have to weave your way through a meteor shower, then flying above a long wall that restricts you mostly to the upper part of the screen, then a maze that requires precision flying to avoid slamming into the walls, and finally a city where you must destroy THE BASE. Your progress through the 6 different stages is displayed by a rather unnecessary meter at the top of the screen. Once you destroy the base, in true arcade fashion, the levels start over from level 1 but with increased difficulty as your fuel is consumed more quickly.

In addition to the special enemies seen in a couple of the levels (meteors and enemy UFOs) each level contains lots and lots of rockets that launch from below without any warning to try and collide with and destroy you so you spend a lot of time either avoiding the missiles or trying to shoot them down. And all the while your fuel is constantly depleting which is indicated by the fuel gauge at the bottom of the screen, so you have to regularly replenish your fuel by destroying the fuel tanks located throughout the levels. Not sure how you recover usable fuel from a fuel tank explosion but them's the rules! It's a rather alarming feeling when you are up to your eyes in rockets with no fuel tank in sight and the siren starts blaring to alert you that you are almost out of fuel. If you run out of fuel - you guessed it - you crash.

Oh and speaking of the siren, I enjoy the sound effects on Scramble. They are pretty simplistic, as one would expect given its age, but they are loud and clear with enough variation to keep it from getting on your nerves like some old arcade games can do after a while.

You get points for everything you destroy of course and also for each second that you continue flying. I guess it's kind of like a horizontal space version of Atari 2600's River Raid - just DON'T run directly into the fuel tanks on this one...

Here's a little video of the gameplay on my machine:

And if you still aren't convinced that you need to find and play this game just glance down at the lower right corner of the bezel to see what else Scramble offers you... Space Porn!!

Konami didn't bother putting any copy protection in place on the Scramble hardware so apparently it was a simple matter for arcade owners to convert the hardware to run most other games that ran on a Z80 processor when Scramble started getting old. That's why in MAME there are several games that list a clone as running on "(Scramble Hardware)".  Stern themselves used the exact same hardware for Scramble's sequel Super Cobra and the games Lost Tomb and The End. There were also clone ripoffs of Scramble itself called Explorer and Strafe Bomb.

Scramble on Other Platforms

In the introductory sequence on the Game Boy Advance game Gradius Galaxies, Scramble is shown as the first game in the Gradius series; however, Konami issued the Gradius Portable guidebook a few years later which listed Scramble separately from the Gradius games.  So it's official position in that lineage is uncertain, but it was certainly at least a strong influence on the game.  Scramble was ported to the Vectrex and apparently to the Commodore 64 as well along with a few dedicated tabletop systems. In more recent years it has also been included in some Konami arcade collections.

Scramble was not widely ported to home video game and computer systems, but it did inspire quite a few clones. A quick search online shows the following list.  I was going to include some screenshots but there are just so many of them I opted not to, but if one of your favorite systems is listed below then you might want to check out one of the associated clones. I played a few of them on emulators to check them out and some of them are quite good.

Air Strike (Atari 8-bit computer)
Air Strike II (Atari 8-bit computer)
Alien Attack (Tomy Tabletop arcade)
Astro Blaster (Tomytronic tabletop arcade in UK)
Cave Fighter (Dragon 32/64 computer)
Cavern Fighter (ZX Spectrum, VIC-20)
Caverns (Amstrad PCW 8256)
Deathstrike (Sinclair QL)
Fire Galaxy (VIC-20)
Martian Raider (VIC-20)
Moon Raider (Acorn Electron)
Penetrator (ZX Spectrum)
PixelShips 2000 (Windows)
PixelShips Retro (Windows)
Raid on Isram (VIC-20)
Rambler (Tomy Tabletop arcade in Germany)
Rocket Raid (BBC Micro)
Scram-20 (VIC-20)
Scramble (Tomytronic tabletop arcade in US)
Scramble (ZX Spectrum)
Skramble (Dragon 32/64, TRS-80 CoCo, Commodore 64, MSX, VIC-20)
Skramble! (C64, VIC-20, MSX)
Striker (DOS)
Super Skramble! (Commodore 64)
Tube Way Army (Dragon 32-64 computer)
VIC Scramble (VIC-20)
Whirlybird Run (CoCo) (Actually might be a clone of Super Cobra because it is a helicopter)
Zeroth Zone (PC DOS)

So in closing I'll say that I do vaguely remember playing Scramble a time or two back in the day, but I don't recall thinking it was all that great. However, now that I've had a chance to revisit the game and explore it more fully, I have come to appreciate it as an underrated classic that deserves a respected place in arcade history. Which for me, to my wife's chagrin, is in the kitchen... er... game room. Uh-oh - there's that chill up my spine again...

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