CW: Not game related, which is why it’s up as a Sundry Extra. Also, has to do with Tibet, so I’m probably now making the Chinese government allergic to this post, yikes.
Some years ago, around the web went this interesting and entertaining comic condensation of the Bardo Thodol, a.k.a. the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It had fallen offline since then, although if one searches for it it might turn up again. (Ah, I see it’s up on ultraculture.org.)
The Bardo Thodol is a guidebook for those who have just died, detailing what worlds (Lokas) a soul will wander through, as well as their ruling entities (Buddhas) as it searches for a place to be reborn, unless it can become liberated from the cycle of rebirth, slipping between the cracks and not having to do it no more.
Well, as web observers may have noticed, different sites have different levels of staying power than others. The original was self-hosted, meaning when its creator Thomas Scoville stopped paying his site’s server bills it evaporated into residual electric charges.
While big tech sites tend to keep things around only for as long as it suits them (witness Geocities), Google tools that have had a substantive presence (other than Google Reader) seem to persist for a little bit. Por ejemplo, Blogger is still up and functioning, at least for now. Another thing within Google’s domain, at least until some bean counter decides the company can be made slightly more profitable by deleting it, is Google Sites.
We love weird old game commercials from before (or in this case during) the crash, before games and game ads began skew quite so much towards the stereotypical tastes of teenage males, and before companies like Nintendo became such jealous guardians of their products.
And just look at all the effort that must have gone into this commercial! This isn’t just people sitting in front of a TV raving about a game, these actors are wearing costumes and running from puppet creatures on an actual set! And this may well be the first human actor to ever portray Luigi in front of a camera (he may look like Mario with his color scheme, but his hat says Luigi, and he’s calling Mario for help). It even calls back to the theme song of Car 54 Where Are You. It’s a shame that the game couldn’t possibly have moved enough units to justify this production.
Watching massive layoffs happening at multiple big tech companies, Wizards of the Coast’s current licensing debacle (it’s what, their third?), and the Age of Owner Idiocy happening over at Twitter, I think right now it’s worth going over some of the big game properties that have been harmed, ruined, wrecked and generally destroyed by clueless executive edicts.
For some reason MMORPGs are particularly rife with this. City of Heroes was a popular game that was shuttered completely because NCSoft decided they didn’t want to run it any more, at all, full stop. Oh, and no one else can run it either. I seem to remember, two long eons past, that WorldsAway, an early graphical service I was an avid member of once, was racked with management argument over whether it wanted to be a virtual world or a chat service, and in the process technology just left it behind.
This kind of thing happens all the time. Recently I was reminded by a Metafilter thread of the story of what happened to Star Wars Galaxies.
This recent article at PC Gamer is basically a love letter to Star Wars Galaxies’ early days. It highlights its great sense of immersion, something that has been lost from MMORPGs as World of Warcraft’s massive success drove everyone to make their games much easier to play, regardless of other factors. It also mentions its many design missteps, which make it seem almost inevitable in hindsight that, eventually, the game’s design would be completely overhauled.
Before the change, called by the management the NGE, or New Game Enhancements, Star Wars Galaxies had a classless, skill-based system. Jedi powers, particularly, were notoriously difficult to unlock. They required that players find very rare Jedi Holochrons in the game that would tell them what they had to do to awaken the Force in their character. It was a demanding system that meant most players would never become Jedis, but it kept Jedi powers special, ensuring that they wouldn’t overwhelm the game universe, especially important since SWG was set at a time, between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, when Jedi were thought to be almost extinct.
Lots of players wanted to be Jedi but couldn’t, but the game had become known for making a difficult design choice and sticking to their guns, and if players did achieve Jedihood, it accorded them a level of respect that was rare in MMORPGs. Anyone can reach max level in an MMORPG if they just spend enough time playing, but this was something special. And Jedi characters had permadeath on; if one perished, it was gone.
In short: the game switched to a class-based system, Jedi were made an ordinary starting class, and gameplay was made much more action-oriented. While locations remained the same, the underlying gameplay was completely changed. It immediately lost a large portion of its userbase. It gained some back over time, and continued along for six years after, but the popular perception was that it was a grave misstep.
Server-based games like MMORPGs are in a difficult spot in cases like this: the pre-existing game basically ceases to exist, even for players who preferred it. There is no going back for them. People who didn’t enjoy that style of play had no choice but to like it or lump it. Meanwhile it has to build a membership anew based off of its new form, while overcoming all the negative press around its change of direction.
The pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies spawned a fan recreation using the old gameplay soon after the gameplay changed, called SWGEmu, and it’s still running today with two servers. People who liked the later system, which was still in place when the game shut down, have had no recourse until relatively recently. Now a new fan-led effort, Star Wars Galaxies Legends, looks to revive the game as it stood when it closed, NGE systems and everything. SWGEmu’s website is just a forum system; SWGL’s, by contrast, is surprisingly slick by the typical standards of a fan project.
That’s a lot of words to write about a game that, in either form, I have never played, but that’s how much people care about Star Wars Galaxies, in both its forms, and Star Wars in general. I hope both are running decades into the future.
“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter
My cell walls are feeling kind of rigid at the moment due to a computer issue that caused me to lose the first draft of this post. All of my witty remarks, lost to the electronic void. You missed out on my entertaining usage of the phrase “odoriferous blorpy.” Truly we are in the worst timeline. It’s all left me feeling kind of cranky, let’s get through it quickly this week.
Tyler Wilde, also from PC Gamer, on a $2,000 game on Steam and what it’s about. Summarized: it costs $2,000 but is short enough that people can finish it within the return period, and it amounts to a screed against women. Blech!
Zoey Handley at Destructoid on the 10 best NES soundtracks. The list is Bucky O’Hare, Kirby’s Adventure, Castlevania 3 (Japanese version), Contra, Dr. Mario, Super Mario Bros. 2, Mega Man 2, Castlevania II, Journey to Silius, and… Silver Surfer?
Gavin Lane and the NintendoLife staff on the 50 best SNES games. The list is compiled algorithmically from reader scores, and can change even after publication. At this time, the top ten are, starting from $10: Donkey Kong Country 2, Earthbound, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV, Super Mario RPG, Yoshi’s Island, Final Fantasy III, Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Mario World on top.
Tom Phillips at EuroGamer mentions that the original developers of Goldeneye 007, recently rereleased after 25 years on Switch and Xbox platforms, were a bit miffed that they weren’t asked to participate in the festivities. At the time most of its developers were completely new to the game industry, and they’ve been generally snubbed by its publishers in talking about the new versions. Does feel pretty shabby, Nintendo and Microsoft!
Andrew Liezewski at Gizmodo talks about the graphics in an upcoming Mario 64 hack made by Kaze Emanuar. I’ve followed Kaze’s hacking videos quite a bit (I think one’s been posted on Set Side B before), and the optimizations they’ve made to Mario 64’s engine are amazing, not only eliminating lag but great increasing its frame rate and making it look better to boot.
On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.
First, I’d like to fill you in a bit on the world of supplemental chips included in cartridges.
The greatest advantage of cartridges as a software distribution medium is that you can include extra hardware in the cart that extends the capabilities of the system. The inclusions, ranging from a few extra logic gates controlling banking to static save RAM and batteries to supplemental microchips to entire coprocessors, goes back to at least the Atari VCS/2600, where they played a major role in extending that console’s lifespan. The VCS only had 128 bytes of RAM, a ROM address space of a mere 4 KB, and didn’t even have lines going out to the cartridge for writing to external memory. In spite of these fairly dire limits, regularly games for the system would far surpass what was expected by its creators, culminating in the DPC chip used in Pitfall II.
It’s not true that you can do anything with extra hardware in a cart, but you can push the limits quite far. The inclusion of extra circuitry in the cartridge is what allows Champ Games to make their amazing Atari arcade ports (such as Mappy and Scramble).
After the VCS/2600 fell out of popularity the NES came along, and extra chips of this sort became almost mandatory. The tales of Nintendo being hampered by the chip shortage at the time of the NES’s popularity limiting production are true, but are also somewhat self-inflicted. Legions of popular games required at least a MMC1, a chip that could have been included in the base console, or supplied in an add-on peripheral like a pass-through cartridge. But instead Nintendo chose to include one with every game that required it, and also MMC3s, some MMC5s, and a handful of other chips.
Then the SNES came along, and more extra chips entered the picture, most notably the DSP, the SA-1, and most famously the SuperFX. The SA-1, basically a coprocessor for the machine’s overworked Ricoh 5A22, a variant of the WDC 65C812, which was itself a 16-bit version of the venerable MOS 6502, is our focus here.
Extra chips in SNES carts weren’t nearly as essential as they were for most NES games, but there were still a good number of them. In the early days of the SNES extra chips like these were not hugely common, although a DSP was used even in one of the system’s launch games, Pilotwings. On the other hand F-Zero, a game remembered fondly for its great sense of speed, didn’t use any special chips.
The SA-1 was one of the more powerful of these chips. It was basically a second 65C812-type chip running at triple the main CPU’s clock speed, with a small amount of dedicated memory and some other minor features. Most famously it was used in Super Mario RPG, but it was also used in both of the SNES Kirby games.
The SA-1 wasn’t used in that many games, and it wasn’t even available for use, I think, in the system’s early days, which was a shame. The power of the SA-1 was quite great, if used correctly. SNES hacker Vitor Vilela has made a growing number of hacks that recode classic SNES games to use its calculatory prowess, and the difference is often quite dramatic.
There’s a lot of stuff there on his Github page that I’m going to save to present later, but one of their earlier projects, and one of the best I’d say, is his conversion of SNES Gradius III to use the SA-1. Gradius III is probably the SNES game in which slowdown is the biggest problem, it is not hard at all to get Gradius III into a state where the game slows down to half speed, or even one-third speed, simply by loading up on Options and powerups. As a difficult game where slowdown makes it much easier (and it may have been designed around it), and as a SNES launch title with great graphics and sound, it’s still playable without the SA-1, but you can nearly hear the processor creaking under the weight of all those projectiles and effects.
With the SA-1, all of that slowdown is just gone. It makes the game a fair bit harder, but also a lot more fun to play. See for yourself:
And now, look on in horror at a deathless playthrough of Gradius III with this hack:
You might have notices the videos of Josh Bycer in these electronic pages. He does us all a wonderful service by seeking out interesting indie games and presenting them to us, often several to a video, as well as interviews with their developers and sometimes other topics too.
What you might not know is that Josh has a number of books in print on game design, out through Routledge! If you have some spare cash, you might want to check these out! Sure, it is blatant pimping, but Josh is a deserving subject, and he graciously lets use a lot of his work, it seems like the least I could do, plus some of you may find these very interesting!
20 Essential Games to Study: “The purpose of this book is to look over the past 35 years of games to discuss titles whose design deserves to be studied by anyone with an interest in game design. While there are plenty of books that focus on the technical side of Game Development, there are few that study the nature of game design itself. Featuring a mix of console and PC offerings, I purposely left off some of the easy choices (Mario, Starcraft, Call of Duty, Overwatch) to focus on games that stood out thanks to their designs.”
Game Design Deep Dive: Horror: “The Game Design Deep Dive series examines a specific game system or mechanic over the course of the history of the industry. This entry will examine the history and design of the horror genre and elements in video games. The author analyzes early video game examples, including the differences between survival, action-horror, and psychological horror. Thanks to recent hits like Five Night’s at Freddy’s, Bendy and the Ink Machine, and recent Resident Evil titles, the horror genre has seen a strong resurgence. For this book […], Joshua Bycer will go over the evolution of horror in video games and game design, and what it means to create a terrifying and chilling experience.”
Game Design Deep Dive: Roguelikes: “[…] examines the history and rise of the often-confusing roguelike genre. Despite being more than 30 years old, the roguelike genre remains a mystery to a lot of consumers and developers. Procedural generation, or having the game generate content, has been a cornerstone and point of complexity since its inception. The 2010s saw an explosion of new designs and examples, along with a debate about what a roguelike is. The genre found its way back to mainstream audiences with the award-winning Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. Since then, roguelikes have revolutionized the way we see and design games. Author and game design critic Joshua Bycer explains the differences between the various roguelike designs and give a detailed blueprint showing what makes the best ones work.”
Game Design Deep Dive: Free-to-Play: “Game Design Deep Dive: Free-to-Play continues the series’ focus on examining genres with a look at the history and methodology behind free-to-play and mobile games. The genre is one of the most lucrative and controversial in the industry. Josh Bycer lays out not only the potential and pitfalls of this design but also explores the ethics behind good and bad monetization.”
Game Design Deep Dive: Platformers: “This book examines the history of jumping – one of the oldest mechanics in the industry – and how it has evolved and changed over the years. The author looks at the transition from 2D to 3D and multiple elements that make jumping more complicated than it looks from a design perspective.”
For this entry in my best-of-series, I’m talking about my favorite shooters and what games had the best gunplay this year. There were so many games this time that I had to double up the awards.
Honorable Mentions: Shadow Warrior 3
A game I feel a lot of people have forgotten that came out in 2022, Shadow Warrior 3 may not stand out as much as the second game, but this is a solid game that apes the push forward combat of Doom Eternal with the low brow humor that the series is known for. The gun play was fantastic, and I liked the use of environmental hazards to be used against enemies.
What hurts the game is the shorten campaign and just the lack of variety as the game went on. It was a fun time, but one that wasn’t that memorable.
3: Hedon and Vomitoreum
The GZdoom modding scene has continued to grow over the past 30 years, and the mods have only gotten bigger and more ambitious. For my #3, I actually picked two different games built off of GZdoom. Hedon is a massive open-styled FPS with each level feeling like a combination of several FPS levels put into one. There is a lot to explore in this game, along with some hard combat if you play on the higher difficulties.
Vomitoreum does one better, and is a metroidvania open world shooter. Taking place in a world long since destroyed thanks to a plague and alien force. It’s up to us to save what’s left in the world by exploring and shooting a lot of mutants. The metroidvania upgrades work to give you a lot of options as the game goes on, with numerous secrets and bonus weapons to find. The game is on the short side if you’re not going for all the secrets, but this is a great game if you don’t mind some body horror to see just how far modders have gone in terms of transforming Doom.
2: Metal Hellsinger and Neon White
The second place also goes with a tie this year. Metal Hellsinger combines the rhythm-based design of a music game, with the combat and feel of a push forward FPS…along with plenty of metal. While you can turn down a lot of the beat-detection, this is first and foremost a game about music. A really solid first concept, and if you’re a metal head and a shooter lover, this is a must play.
Neon White continues the trend of speedrunning-based FPS with a very stylish and anime inspired game. Each level plays out more like a puzzle of you trying to figure out how to get through it as fast as possible using the different weapons and their secondary abilities to skip huge chunks of the stage. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of the story, as it leans heavily into anime tropes, but the gameplay and gunplay are fantastic.
#1 Cultic Episode 1
This may be considered a cheat, but with the Cultic episodes being released as standalone, and the first one is completely done, I’m adding it to the list. Cultic honors its inspiration from Blood. The game has a stylized look with some of the largest levels I’ve seen from a boomer shooter. While the individual elements we’ve seen countless times, the complete package, even in just this first episode, is fantastic. There is a great sense of growth and evolution over the episode, as enemies and encounters escalate and so do your available weapons. If the ending is any indication, the remaining chapters are only going to get even better from here.
Owner of Game Wisdom with more than a decade of experience writing and talking about game design and the industry. I’m also the author of the “Game Design Deep Dive” series and “20 Essential Games to Study”
The dimly-remembered era of the dedicated game consoles, a whole age of gaming where machines played only a handful of games and that was it, is hugely interesting to me. I was very young when it came around and so only have only a vague recollection of these units, so any scrap of knowledge that floats into my vision gets immediately pounced upon and devoured. Especially units like Allied’s Name Of The Game II, which was not only produced in very small quantities but used a obscure MOS 7600 to provide its gameplay.
All so 1976 players could play Pong-like games in color with up to four people! Allied is scarcely remembered by that name today, but they were bought out by a former president of Taito of America. Then, under the new name Centuri, they became a fondly-remembered licensee and manufacturer of classic arcade games! The details are in OVCR’s post.