Video: The History of Compile Shooters

AAH COMPILE SHOOTERS ARE SO AWESUM SQUEEEE

My favorite shooter of all time is Zanac on the NES/Famicom, with The Guardian Legend following not far behind. I have a softspot for the Gradius series, but Zanac is really something special. I think you can get a sense for how someone feels about shooters as a genre in general by what they think about Zanac, its powerup system, its adaptive difficulty, and above all its blistering speed. Zanac presents a lot of Compile’s greatest strengths as a maker of shooters unalloyed. It’s a great shame that its Playstation-only sequel ZANACxZANAC was never brought to the US.

It was just a couple of minutes into Shmup Junkie’s video that I realized that he gets it. He knows these are amazing games, hugely foundational and inspirational. Without Zanac the whole history of shooters would have gone in a different direction. Plenty of arcade shooters, especially the Raiden series, are obviously iterations on ideas first found in Zanac.

(BTW, my favorite shooters? Besides Compile shooters and the Gradius series in general, I also like Twinbee and 1943. I generally don’t like the modern ilk of bullet hell games, which seem to me to be more about responding to patterns than dynamically-arising situations. This is all just me, of course, but it is me, that means something I reckon.)

@Play: A Reintroduction to Angband

Of all the @Play columns, which begin to approach 100 in number, I have only directly tackled Angband once. I admit, that’s a huge oversight. Our first treatment of Angband was on GameSetWatch, which now only exists on the Wayback Machine. A reprint of that column is in my @Play collection Exploring Roguelike Games, out in print through CRC Press, but that’s admittedly kind of expensive.

Don’t let this retro title screen fool you, these days, on Windows at least, Angband has full-color graphical tiles.

An Angle on Angband

If you’ve played a Hack-like, Angband (home page) will probably look fairly similar at first. It, too, is a grid-based dungeon exploration game where you fight lots of monsters and find objects with unknown properties that you must discover as you play. Both games have randomized maps, dangerous monsters with fearsome abilities, powerful magic items to use against them, spells you can learn and cast, and traps you must look out for. Both standard-bearer for the Hack series, NetHack, and Angband now feature graphical tiles by default, although they can also be played in the old ASCII-based format.

Where the games differ is in their general philosophy of what dungeon exploration means. While NetHack has lots of strong monsters, it seems to take the view that the dungeon itself is your greatest opponent. The puzzle of figuring out item identities is a larger part of the game, and NetHack offers both more uncertainty in identification and more ways to identify. NetHack has more set locations that offer specific puzzles players must overcome, like finding the Luckstone at the bottom of the Gnomish Mines, or getting past Medusa, or crossing the moat around the Castle; Angband has only one set location, its Town, although there are lots of special areas that can be randomly found within its dungeon levels.

NetHack’s dungeon cannot be exited without giving up the game, for even once you get the Amulet and escape, you’re thrown into an End Game that functions as a coda to your adventure; in Angband, you’ll probably leave the dungeon many times in order to avail yourself of the Town’s useful services. In Angband, this Town offers shops where you can buy and identify items, but the shops are all menus. NetHack’s shops have a physicality, in that they’re rooms in the dungeons, overseen by a Shopkeeper character, which allows players to steal from shops if they can survive the shopkeeper’s eyes and wrath. And, of course, NetHack has its iconic pets that can help you explore the dungeon and provide other services, while in Angband you fight alone.

NetHack’s has a stronger sense of place than Angband, where dungeon levels are much larger but also less distinctive, and anyway are forgotten once you leave a level. If you go downstairs then right back upstairs in Angband, you’ll find a completely different map waiting for you, with new monsters and items. NetHack’s dungeons persist so long as your character survives, and you can go back to a level after a long time and find it’s largely as you left it.

It’s possible to see a kind of rivalry between NetHack and Angband, but I think this is largely an illusion. Both games know what they’re about and are content to pursue it in their own way.

While NetHack has more name recognition, lots of people like Angband! It’s spawned several popular variants all its own. One of them, ZAngband, is basically its own game by now, with a ton of variants and other notable branch-offs.

The Legacy of Moria

While Beneath Apple Manor has many aspects of a roguelike, Rogue is still at the center of the roguelike genre. Rogue inspired Hack, and then, NetHack.

But also, Rogue inspired Moria, and in fact Moria predates Hack by several years. Moria may be the first “roguelike” game, in that it’s not Rogue itself but was clearly inspired by and derived from Rogue. Even the “direct” descendants of Rogue, like URogue and SuperRogue, came along after Moria. If there is another character-based game played on university computing terminals between Rogue’s release and Moria’s, word of it has not come down to me.

UMoria

Moria was created by (the recently deceased) Richard Koeneke. First written in a dialect of BASIC, then converted to one of Pascal, he left university and, like many other roguelike authors who exited academia, appears never to have worked on their game again. But he opened the game’s source, and some other people ported it to C, and called the new version UMoria. UMoria still exists, and can be downloaded to play locally or via a web browser.

The significance of Moria and UMoria on the history of computer gaming cannot be overstated. Rogue was popular yes, and has inspired a legion of games taking one or more of its aspects and running with them. But there is something fundamental to the core of Moria that has seeped even more deeply into CRPGs. Diablo’s credits mention UMoria as a direct inspiration, but more than that, the basic sense of Moria has become pervasive.

It is easy to forget now that there used to be all freaking kinds of RPGs, and early on games in the genre looked very different from how they look today. dnd and Oublette on PLATO systems have a slightly familiar kind of overhead view, with the walls of the dungeon around you drawn in lines, but monsters don’t exist outside of your immediate interactions with them. Wizardry, what is now weirdly called a “blobber,” has a grid-based world that is experienced in first-person, and this became a very common means of presentation, inspiring… well, all of these are purely from memory: The Bard’s Tale series, the Might & Magic series, Dragon Wars, Dungeon Magic, Eye of the Beholder, Dungeon Hack, Swords & Serpents on the NES, the dungeons of Phantasty Star on the SMS, Arcana over on the SNES, a funky 3D version of the original Bomberman on MSX, and countless other games that presented the mazes without the monsters. Even Strong Bad has wrestled against one of the blobber ilk with his begloved hands. (“Who’s Strong Bad,” asks half of my audience. I know, I’m old.)

UMoria

In particular, it should be remembered that Dungeons & Dragons, which inspired this whole category, was not a solo game. Despite promises of solitaire play in the 1st Edition AD&D DM’s Guide, you really needed at least two people, a player and a referee, or “DM,” to play; most groups had multiple players, each playing one or more characters. This is still how D&D is most commonly played today. Rogue was one of the games that, by attempting to offer a solo version of the experience, put the emphasis on the solo.

But Rogue has other things going on in it. Its identification game is a work of genius by itself, and the way its systems work together make it special in ways other than just being a D&D simulation. Its descendant Moria, on the other hand, offers a more generalized RPG framework, and that is what has come to suffuse and infect nearly the entire rest of video gaming. What Moria did was generalize the solo fantasy RPG experience. Moria has multiple attack types, like fire, cold, and electricity, and resistances to them, has equipment items with add-on special properties, and has a bunch of generally plain monsters but with colors that identify their properties like they were palette-swapped.

In fact, I do not think I am being hyperbolic when I say that, due to Moria’s influence on Diablo, nearly every game now that features what they call a “loot system,” is actually offering a Moria-style loot system. It is that pervasive. And Angband, as UMoria’s direct descendant, has kept up that system and elaborated upon it for over 30 years now.

J.R.R. Tokens

Angband started out as mostly a themed version of UMoria. If the name Moria sounds familiar, like you might have heard it in a movie once, that’s because it comes right out of Tolkien. The Mines of Moria* are the dungeons of the game, and that’s why at level 50 the player fights a Balrog, trying to do a better job of it than Gandalf did.

* Off the subject. A fun game to play if you’re of a frame of mind is, when watching the relevant scenes in the movie of The Fellowship of the Ring, to refer to random things as “the Something… of Moria!” You can start from outside with “The Gates of Moria!” Say it like Gimli, with a gruff voice, and it helps if you can rouse yourself to try a Scottish accent. It’s more entertaining if it’s a bad one. Then: The Halls… of Moria! The Goblins… of Moria! The Hasty Retreat… of Moria! The Panicked Screaming… of Moria! I find that one can amuse themselves for quite some time this way.

Well you might have heard that there are other Middle Earth books than The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. One of these, cobbled together by John Ronald Reuel’s son Christopher Tolkien, is The Silmarillion. It’s a big collection of backstories and myths and legends of questionable canonicity.

You might remember that the Mines of Moria were not the final destination of the LotR books, but merely a stop along the way. If you read The Silmarillion, you’ll know that there were once even worse places in Middle Earth than that. One of them was a stronghold of Morgoth, called the pits of Angband.

That’s why you fight Morgoth in the game of Angband, on level 100, and his lieutenant Sauron, the same entity that was the big baddie in The Lord of the Rings, on Level 99. And what’s more, all of Angband is deeply drenched in token Tolkienness. It’s got a bunch of Tolkien monsters, both unique types, from the afore-mentioned end bosses down to Farmer Maggot and his dogs, to representatives of species like goblins, orcs, Ainur, and Maiar. A lot of the items have add-on properties like being a weapon “of Westernesse,” which in game terms means it’s quite good.

LotR inspired some iconic fantasy book covers.
These were scavenged off of Reddit.

Despite how deeply it plumbs the pits, If you approach it as a full adventure in Middle Earth where you can visit the Shire, smoke a pipe with Frodo and hang out with Strider, Angband will disappoint you. It takes the wonder and beauty of The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings series, and the Silmarillion, and uses them as basically a list of monsters and items. Some of the variants that I’ll get to later try to restore a bit of that, but for the most part Angband is a game of tactical combat, map exploration, and loot collection, and anything from the literature that doesn’t fit that purpose is left out. There’s no Land of Mordor, Where the Shadows Lie; no Gondor with its rich history, except where it involves special monsters and items; and no sad departure of the Elves to the West. (Writing about Tolkien involves capitalizing a lot of seemingly random terms.)

It’s not that Angband seeks to balderize Tolkien, but that it just has no place to use those aspects of his work. These are generic fantasy exploration and tactics games that have been given a coat of Tolkien Paint, probably by Tom Bombadil, who has had difficulty finding work lately.

Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Painting by the Brothers Hildebrandt, borrowed from this page.

What Angband gets from the Lord of the Rings and its subsidiary books is a rich lore that it can just do with as it pleases. It lends weight to the games. Instead of just making up a bunch of monsters, which often falls flat, it puts on an Elven Cloak and seems richer for it. It’s not just Angband itself; there’s a whole family of Angband variants that work by replacing (or sometimes, just supplementing) the Tolkien stuff with material from some other author, from Roger Zelazny to Anne McCaffery to H.P.Lovecraft to Terry Pratchett.

That makes a good enough introduction! Next time, in a week, we’ll offer some early playing advice, then maybe a timeline of Angband and its versions, and after that will come the Herculean task of looking at some of those many variants. See you soon-adillo!

Video: The History of the A-Button Challenge

It’s now been some years since pannenkoek2012’s “A-button challenge” videos hit the scene, introducing the internet to hyper-obscure Super Mario 64 glitch concepts like the HOLP and Parallel Universes. For the record, those videos can be seen here and here, and if you haven’t seen them before, you are in for a ride. Videos like the Walls, Floors, and Ceilings series (37 minutes, 32 minutes and 37 minutes) are not only interesting in their own right (to people of a certain mindset) but are a good introduction to concepts for writing your own 3D platforming engine.

These videos are all ultimately in service to the A Button Challenge, a long-running quest to try to complete Super Mario 64 with a few presses of the A button as possible. What may seem like a completely spurious pastime, it turns out, has been an obsession with some players since not long after the game first came out!

The origins and history of the A Button Challenge are explained by a surprisingly long and deep series by YouTube user Bismuth, totaling over four hours of video and, as I write this, isn’t even complete. I’m not sure how many people would be interested in watching so much on such a niche endeavor, but pannenkoek’s videos have been popular enough that I figure they must be out there, and some of them may even read this blog, so here goes!

F-Zero AX on Gamecube

The last “major” F-Zero game released was back in the Gamecube, the sterling, yet extraordinarily challenging, F-Zero GX. What tends to be less remembered was it was a dual release. At around the same time, Sega released on Nintendo’s TRIFORCE hardware an arcade version called F-Zero AX. In the US arcades were pretty moribund around that time, so it tends to be a lot less recognized on these shores. The AX machine bore a Gamecube memory card slot so that players could take their save files to the arcade unit and use their custom vehicles there, and take data from that version back home. The AX version also has tracks and vehicles not in the GX version.

What tends to be even less well known is that nearly the entire arcade version of F-Zero AX is right there on the Gamecube disk! Back in 2021, Romhacker Elfor constructed a patch for the Gamecube version that, if played in an emulator or somehow made readable by GC hardware, can boot directly into that version of the game.

There are some differences from the arcade version in this revealed version of game, many of them related to music tracks left off the disk. More recently, Anthony Ryuki made a patch to restore those tracks, and bring the Gamecube AX version even closer to the arcade experience.

Scott Adams Q&A and Adventureland XL

One of the earliest companies that made a go of making and selling software for home computers was Scott Adams’ Adventure International, which was started based off of the success of his first game, Adventureland, way back in 1978, almost 45 years ago. Just to be clear, this is not the Dilbert Scott Adams! Adventureland predates Infocom and Zork, although not the original Dungeon written for the PDP-10. Adventure International would go on to make thirteen more games before going out of business in 1986 due to a declining market. Their old work is available for both download and immediate play via browser-based emulation from the Internet Archive.

The Q&A (about an hour long).

Recently Scott did a video Q&A over Zoom, the record of which is up on YouTube (listen for a certain familiar name to come up near the end-I was one of the spectators of the Q&A). One of the things revealed is that there is a modern remake of Adventureland, called Adventureland XL, on Steam for a mere $5! It’s in Early Access, and has been for some time, but they’re geared towards finishing it up for full release soon.

Adventureland XL is described as a “Conversational Adventure” game, which is to say, it’s driven by a text parser (although a better one than the old Adventure International games) and has text descriptions. But, like the original, it also has included illustrations.

Promo video for Adventureland XL

Scott works for a company called Clopas, which has a Kickstarter going for another new game called Stereotypical, to be made for iOS and Android platforms. It’s just getting started and has a month to go. They have a very charming pitch video! Please consider it, won’t you?

Another couple of items of interest came up in the Q&A. Scott Adams did games based on several Marvel properties at the time, which are Marvel’s very first computer game adaptations. They also made a graphic adventure version of cult movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, which The Retroist discussed here, and links a quick playthrough here.

A couple of other related items:

Mike Taylor has made available tools for using Ruby to compile your own adventure games using the old Adventure International engine, which you can find on GitHub.

And also mentioned at the Q&A is FujiNet, which is a line of network adapters (and other useful tools) that work with 8-bit computers. They work by handling all the actual networking within the device so it doesn’t strain the resources of their old processors. They can even emulate printers (so as to produce PDFs of output by the machine) and storage devices like disk drives, making for a nice all-in-one device.

During the talk someone mentioned what I think was a version for the Atari Lynx portable console, and even talked about using it to play Lynx Rampart with others over the internet, and since I am the biggest Rampart fan in the entire world, it felt like they were pressing my buttons specifically.

Romhack: Raggedy Land with Ann & Andy

Here at Set Side B our purview is “Indie, Retro, Niche,” and we consider romhacks, of the niche, to be among the the nicheist. (Nietzsche-est?) But there are lots of romhacks, with more every day, and most just aren’t that newsworthy.

This one’s pretty interesting though? As the Romhacking.net entry mentions, Raggedy Ann, while once a pretty big pop culture property with an animated movie and two TV specials directed by Chuck Jones, has fallen into disuse for decades due to rights issues.

The linked hack, for Data East’s Famicom McDonalds tie-in game Donald Land, is an attempt by Garrett Gilchrist and Brooklyn Williams to simulate what a Raggedy Ann game from the NES era would have been like, using graphics and characters from different iterations. Here’s a scene with The Greedy, from the feature cartoon, that once inspired many a nightmare:

Pretty cool, and rather more ambitious than your standard pedestrian graphics swap!

Robert Koeneke, Creator of Moria, R.I.P.

News comes from Ben S. on Twitter, and echoed by Temple of the Roguelike that Robert Alan Koeneke, creator of Moria, passed away on July 15th, at the age of 64.

TotR identifies Moria as the first follow-up game to Rogue. My notes have it popping up three years after the original, which seems like an impossibly long time now for no one to have made a copy, but even Advanced Rogue, which was built off of Rogue code, didn’t see the world until 1984. Moria, by contrast was written from scratch. Moria’s Wikipedia page notes that Koeneke originally wrote it in a form of BASIC, but rewrote it in Pascal, and I think that’s probably the version that first saw distribution.

(A good place to look for the relative appearance times of roguelike games is this page on the Tangaria website. There is also BALROG, which no longer exists on the living web but is preserved on the Wayback Machine, although a link to it currently eludes me.)

Moria was converted to the C language to produce UMoria, which the credits to Blizzard’s Diablo cite as a direct inspiration. A prototype of Diablo was found some time back that was turn-based, and was even closer to the Moria play style. There’s also GMoria, another variant of UMoria.

A browser-playable version of Moria is reputed to reside here, but currently seems broken. Moria itself wasn’t ported beyond Pascal, but UMoria was written in C and so managed to proliferate. User polluks at GitHib has preserved and cleaned up the source to UMoria and released a version 5.7 that remains true to early versions, and runs on Windows, Linux and macOS. Previous versions ran on VMS, DOS and Amiga. Their account also maintains several other versions of Moria, including the Pascal source of the VMS version.

The object of Moria is to descend into the titular mines and defeat the Balrog that gave Gandalf so much trouble. Some of its many improvements over Rogue include a town level where players can purchase and sell items, more types of equipment including helmets and boots, the need to carry a light source in the dungeon, and levels that could be much larger than one screen in size.

Angband players will find most of this familiar; while it has a much longer dungeon, in structure its apple doesn’t fall far from Moria’s tree. Both Moria and Angband place the game emphasis more on fighting and tactics than Rogue.

Rogue was popular in the culture of university computing, but its source was closed, and what variants it got were built off of leaked code. Moria was the first open source roguelike, which allowed for its conversion to C. This C version was renamed to UMoria. UMoria is the ancestor of mighty Angband, which is one of the most-permuted games ever made, with well over 100 variants, with even more appearing once in a while.

I can’t resist turning this into a parable about the virtues of cooperation and sharing. Because of Rogue’s closed source, its immediate variants are very hard to find now, with only the versions preserved by the Roguelike Preservation Project surviving, and Rogue itself has largely been overshadowed by NetHack and its variants.

For more on UMoria, back in 2015 Roguelike Radio did an episode on it. There is also a good Moria resource page.

It’s Time to Ruin Your Enviable Ignorance of Rebus Crossword Puzzles

This post is written quickly and opportunistically, so please excuse any errors of syntax or content. I started writing it at 2 AM and finished some time around 7, but the ire flows through my veins, giving me unnatural strength and preventing sleep. Please bear with me.

Set Side B is about all forms of niche electronic gaming, and I figure you don’t get more niche than the app of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, Android version. Even if, in fact, especially if you have no prior experience or interest in crosswords or doing them, this should serve as a window, both into a rather insane subculture and its crazy UI requirements.

The New York Times Crossword is an institution. It’s the gold standard of the form. Famous and powerful people, folk like Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart, are known to do it every day. I do it too for some reason. I’ve followed the career of famed puzzle editor Will Shortz since his 15-year tenure at the hugely underrated GAMES Magazine, which I bought issues of as a very weird kid.

I’ve been planning a post on the crossword itself for some time. This is not that post, that will have to wait until later, because boy howdy, there is a lot to explicate. I have a long essay on puzzle weirdness and solving advice in the works, but I want to get to one specific aspect that takes a lot of new solvers by surprise, in the same way a brick wall takes a speeding car by surprise.

This is your only warning that this post contains three solved puzzles. They’re here to illustrate what the hell a rebus puzzle is. This necessarily contains spoilers. The puzzles shown are May 12 and February 10th of this year, as well as July 17th, yesterday.


The NYTXC is known for its playfulness. Especially on Thursdays, you can expect a number of weird tricks to pop up from time to time when solving them. There’s many of these, far more than I can or should catalog here, and every once in a while a new one appears, but among the more confounding are what are known as rebus puzzles. They pose special problems for the solvers who have to struggle with them, and the people who have to maintain their app.

May 12. OO Rebus

Sometimes when working on a puzzle, most frequently on a Thursday, you’ll find clues that seem to indicate answers that couldn’t possibly fit in the number of squares provided. That’s a good indication there’s a rebus gimmick. Here are a couple of illustrative examples.

From May 12th. 46 Across: “The Handmaid’s Tale” author. Oh that’s easy, Margaret Atwood! No, no, wait, ATWOOD is six letters, and there’s only five spaces.

Could they mean something else? Sometimes they do! Crossword puzzles have a whole world of idiosyncratic rules and tricks that I look forward to introducing you to in the future. But in this instance those don’t matter, because it’s a rebus puzzle.

Button of Perplexity

At the bottom-right corner of the keyboard in that screenshot, notice the button with the three dots? That’s the cursed rebus button, doorway to an alternate universe, one where multiple letters, or even other things entirely, can fit in a single square. It opens a text entry box into which you can write almost anything, and of any length. In this case, it’s two letters OO that are put in the square. This is done in multiple places in the puzzle.

I must emphasize, this is not breaking the rules. Sometimes puzzles do break the rules, although they must let the solver know, in some way, that they’re being broken. But this is a special carve out. New York Times crossword puzzles are allowed to do this. This isn’t done willy-nilly, though. Whenever there are rebus squares, the puzzle must at least be consistent about them, and, in the current era at least, it’s always hinted to the solver in some way. But it’s not outright stated. Rebus puzzles lurk in wait, ready to pounce. They don’t erect signposts pointing out their hiding spot.

This hint could be in a puzzle title (available from the i button at the top), but more often one of the answers in the puzzle will refer to it. In this one, that answer is to 58 Across: Diacritical mark resembling a dieresis, both of which are represented in this puzzle, to which the answer is UMLAUT. Those self-referential clues are an almost sure sign of some screwy shenanigan.

Also note, in this case, the answer doesn’t actually name the trick visible in the solved puzzle. A double-O is neither an umlaut or a dieresis. Since rebus puzzles are sometimes a bit representational, they usually accept multiple possible answers for the tricky squares. You just have to be ready for this sort of thing in New York Times crossword puzzles.

Rebus puzzles are a bit shocking when they appear, but they’re not actually that common. There might be one rebus puzzle, on average, every month or so. It’s been calculated that 4.7% of all Shortz-era NYT crosswords are rebus puzzles. People vary in how receptive they are to them. When I first encountered one it was from a puzzle in a collection, and I felt like a bit of a genius for figuring out what they were looking for without prompting. A friend of mine who also does these puzzles is not much of a fan. He prefers a more orderly kind of puzzle that makes no mockery of the standards of the Cartesian grid. A second friend (Surprise! I have more than one!) loves tricks like rebus answers, and other gimmicks that step outside expected norms and rules.

Feb 10, DOT THE I S

One more thing to notice about that specific puzzle is that the OO squares read both horizontally and vertically. The clue that crosses with it is 44 Down: Greet with derision, the answer: BOO AT. This is not always the case with rebus puzzles.

Feb 10th. This screenshot doesn’t show the solution accurately, I’ll tell you that right now. The key clue is 62 Across: Attend to details … or a hint to entering six Down answers in this puzzle. The thing here is, the rebus squares read differently whether you’re reading them across or down. Across, the answers are supposed to be I, just a single letter I, but down they read DOT. So the answer to this clue is DOT THE I S.

POLKA (DOT)S
YOU (DO T)HE MATH

While the square here is depicted as just DOT, it’s intended to be read as just an “I” horizontally. Often, as in this case, the hint answer in a rebus puzzle is, itself, one of the rebus answers, which requires a bit of intuition when solving. But the vertical (to the left) is meant to be read as DOT: POLKA (DOT)S.

The other DOT there (in the image to the right) has the clues 38 Across: French agreements (OUIS) and 25 Down: “It’s not hard to guess how this will end.” (YOU [DO T]HE MATH).

The NYT Crosswords are selected mostly with consideration for how they will be solved in print, so some of the tricks are difficult to represent in the app. Rebus squares that read differently across and down is a common enough problem that there is a convention to entering them. You’re usually supposed to enter the across answer, a forward slash (not a backslash, we have standards here), then the down answer. Like this:

Often you can enter just the first letter of each of the directional answers and it will be accepted, but to me it’s not really solved until you have the entire text filled in.

By the way! Where in the instructions is this laid out to the solver? They aren’t laid out there. They aren’t laid out anywhere. There are no instructions. Go directly to hell do not collect $200. (That’s how much the New York Times pays an author for a standard weekday puzzle, by the way.)

I think the reason for not explicitly laying out the convention is to avoid ruining, for solvers, the experience of discovering, that first time, that crossword puzzles are allowed to engage in this kind of fuckery (excusez-moi). I found out about the convention from Google, though, which I have to say, is not the right place to learn it.

The stakes for getting it right are very low, but still, greater than zero. The app keeps track of whether you solve a puzzle within the 26-hour period after its appearance. Puzzles go up the day before at 10 PM (Eastern time, at least), and to qualify for a streak it has to be done before midnight the day after. If you don’t enter the right configuration into the puzzle within that time, any streak you were on will end, and you won’t get the golden icon for that puzzle. If you can’t accurately enter rebus answers the way the app expects, you have no chance of that happening.

But of course, no one takes that seriously. No, of course not! Heaven forfend!

I never lack for things to obsess over.

Isn’t it funny how I said I wasn’t going to do a lengthy preamble, and yet, I just did one? But you have to know about rebus puzzles and the challenges the developers face to support them to understand how they messed up yesterday, Sunday, July 18.


If they had stuck to the rules for entering rebus answers, or at least allowed the solver to enter them that way, there wouldn’t have been a problem. But it looks like they weren’t followed. I think they’re thought of more as suggestions, anyway.

Here is the puzzle, from yesterday, to the right.

You’ll notice some of the squares are overlaid with playing card icons. This is something the app does sometimes after you solve one, it superimposes an image to make the puzzle’s gimmick more apparent. It kind of gets in the way of showing the construction of the rebus answers here, though. Here’s another picture I took just before it solved below. This has been lightly photoshopped to remove my final errors (modesty).

I was greatly sabotaged by trying to enter the symbols in this one. The gimmick was hinted by 39 Down: 123-Across’s holding that wins this puzzle’s game. A further hint is given by a title to this puzzle, a rarity for the NYT: It’s All On the Table. 39 Down’s answer turns out to be ROYAL FLUSH. The puzzle represents a game of Poker, of Texas Hold’Em in fact. The cards in the corners are each player’s hand (well, a shortened version of one containing only two cards; that was hinted at elsewhere), and the player in the lower-right can use their cards, with three of them from the middle of the puzzle, to make a royal flush. A great gimmick, if the UI doesn’t get in the way.

The worst thing about the app is when you understand the gimmick and know the answer, but a failure to grasp how it expects you to enter it into the puzzle prevents it from ever being marked right. Honestly forbids me from claiming that I got every other answer right, but even if I had, I’d never have been able to get this one solved in time because it didn’t adhere to the usual convention. To answer this one, you had to enter the first letter of the card followed by the symbol of its suit, like Q♣, or, oddly, the first letter of its suit, in this case: C. Entering neither QUEEN/CLUBS or Q/C would work!

The New York Times has a blog concerning its crossword puzzles, Wordplay. It’s run by serious crossword fiends, and has a post for every day’s puzzle. But it often gives out hints, which puts it off-limits during solving to the serious aficionado. Besides Wordplay is extra infamous, in our circle, when it explains answers, for never explaining the ones we really care about. In this case though it did offer information on how to enter the rebuses correctly, suggesting the first letter or the digits of the card’s rank, and its suit, with no slash between them. Like: QC. That would have been accepted, but Q/C wouldn’t. Didn’t.

I’m sure G/O Media is responsible for this too.

Also considered cheating is the use of an internet search engine. Even if you aren’t trying to cheat specifically, clue autosuggests are rife with each day’s puzzle. You really have no idea unless you happen to enter a clue’s text into the Google box on the day of the puzzle’s publication. That company is absolutely desperate to spoil crosswords for you.

The worst part of the experience this time was that, even once the streak period had ended and checking errors was acceptable, I had written in AVC early on for 1 Down: Pop culture sister site of The Onion. The answer (slightly out of date) is AV CLUB. That was slightly out of form, since it’s usual that, if the answer is an abbreviation, that there should be one in the clue as well, but I’ve noticed this convention is not always strictly followed. And C was marked as correct for it, because it’s the first letter of Club.

Not only that! Although the symbols are accepted as correct answers, and look the nicest while solving the puzzle, I found out that all of those squares were still considered wrong by the the puzzle for some unknown reason. My friend who likes rebuses did an error check on the puzzle with his computer, with the Unicode symbols included, and they came up correct, but it wouldn’t on my app! What [five letters, transfers as property]?

Python once again proves its usefulness!

My friend was doing the puzzle in a web browser, and I was using the Android app. There is a very subtle bug in the app, when it’s checking rebus answers, that it has to be one of a number of exact matches recognized in the hidden puzzle solution. I was using Gboard as my input method, and it turns out a property of that keyboard is, for some symbols, it puts an extra, invisible Unicode character in after them! Unicode #65039, VARIATION SELECTOR-16. With that invisible symbol in any of the boxes, there was absolutely no way that my puzzle would be accepted as correct. And, anyone using Gboard to input symbol-like glyphs is going to encounter this same problem.

I have filed this with the developer as a bug report, which I’m sure they’ll put with my other reports in the usual file (see left). Every avid cruciverbalist (23 points) no doubt has stories like this to tell. It does seem like this happens fairly often with me though.

EDIT: Made a couple of minor corrections and clarifications.


In memory of Nancy “Rosaleah” Klee, a kind old lady who loved crosswords. Not one of the friends I refer to above, but still, my friend.

Arcade Mermaid: Pepper II

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Arcade Mermaid is our classic arcade weirdness and obscurity column! Once a month we aim to bring you an interesting and odd arcade game to wonder at.

Released in 1982, a couple of years after a little game called Pac-Man, Pepper II is a maze game set in a four-screen world. You’re a blobby angel thing called Pepper, obeying an edict from the Powers Above: zip up four screens’ worth of boxes. The box borders are made of un-zipped zippers, and by zooming around each one it’s zipped up and captured, filled with a pattern.

Opposing your efforts are a bunch of roving eyes and a weird pink creature callled “the Whippersnapper.” It was the golden age of arcades, and realistic scenarios were on the outs for a time.

Its box-surrounding play looks similar to Amidar at first, but it’s really quite a different game. Amidar‘s enemies move according to a set and inviolate plan, but the eyes of Pepper II rove mostly randomly, with a slight bias towards chasing you. Amidar only lets you attack your enemies once per board, after you’ve surrounded all four corners, but Pepper gets this power after capturing just one of the corners, or the box in the center, up to five times per maze. This means that you’re invincible a lot of the time! Play carefully and you’re almost always invincible, which is important because you’re really vulnerable when you’re not. There are up to three more enemies after you at a time than in Pac-Man, and their unpredictable meandering means you often get caught right as you’re finishing a box.

Pepper’s world isn’t a single screen, but consists of four interconnected mazes. The arcade manual calls them cubes, and when you clear one you get a little cube icon in the bottom-right corner of the screen, but it isn’t a cube really; there’s only four sides. The game world is more like a horizontal strip. When you go off-screen to the left or right, you enter the next screen in the strip, but if you go up or down you skip ahead/behind one screen. From Screen 1, left goes to 4, right goes to 2, but both up and down go to 3. Enemies don’t have an off-screen existence beyond a few seconds after you change mazes, but your progress on other screens is remembered, so you can solve each maze a bit at a time if you choose.

The best thing Pepper II has going for it is its speed. It is incredibly fast! It makes Pac-Man feel creaky by comparison! Surrounding an energizer box gets you only four seconds of invincibility, but it’s long enough to surround multiple other boxes.

Pepper likes to overshoot intersections, and even with attention you’ll still probably miss them sometimes. When you enter a new maze, enemies enter from the four sides randomly after only a second, and at the game’s speeds this makes them very dangerous at that time. You could start capturing a box, and by the time you’re all the way around it a roving pair of eyes have both entered and moved over into your path. The eyes are not focused pursuers, but their large number and randomness make them plenty deadly enough.

The Whippersnapper is a little special. When you activate an energizer you can destroy the eyes for points, but will just pass through the Whippersnapper. The Whippersnapper exists to prevent you from zipping up tracks randomly. It undoes your work as it moves through the maze! Once you’ve completely captured a box it’s safe and cannot be unzipped, but until then it’s easy for it to mess up your work. It also moves much faster than the eyes.

There’s a couple more nuances to play. If you go back over your own trail you’ll unzip it. There are bonus items you can surround for ever-increasing bonuses as the game continues. The energizer in the center of the board flips between a stronger version that also kills all the enemies on the screen. These play quirks don’t really amount to all that much. Pepper II is a game about careening at full tilt around a board, clearing it piece by piece, and frantically racing between energizers to keep your invincibility going, and the other details tend to get lost in the rush.

Extra lives are awarded at 40,000 and 80,000 points. A good early score is around 50,000. I can regularly break 200,000, clearing two cubes, but the difficulty goes up rapidly from there. Both as you continue in each board and as the game goes on the enemies speed up a lot, and starting with the second cube the unzipped trails turn invisible for short periods.

About Exidy

Exidy was founded by in the very early days of arcade gaming. Some of their better known games include Star Fire, Mouse Trap, and Venture. They were never known for their graphics, although some of their products were among the earliest arcade games to use digitized sound. Many of Exidy’s games made up for their lack of visual flair with strong gameplay fundamentals. Venture, particularly, is a minor classic. Exidy was known to court controversy at times, with games like Death Race, in which the player runs down pedestrians, and the excessively-gory Chiller, where the player uses a light gun to dismember helpless victims in a torture room. Chiller received an unlicensed port to the NES by AGC (“American Game Cartridges”).

Coleco ported Mouse Trap, Pepper II, and Venture to the Colecovision console, where they were met by an appreciative audience. Their port of Pepper II is especially good. It’s very much like the arcade game, just a little slower.

Exidy games from the time of Pepper II tend to have a visual look akin to DOS games played through a CGA card. Pepper II is like this, but it certainly can’t be called slow. It takes sharp reflexes just to get around its mazes.

Reviving the Ouya

The Oyua was a beautiful dream that was not to be. It was a notable early success on Kickstarter, bringing in much more money than they expected, but the money soon ran out and what they were able to produce turned out to be not as enticing as people expected, with weak Wi-Fi and flimsy controllers.

And yet, the premise was, and still is, pretty sound: an Android device connected to a custom app store, dedicated to games, and taking no money out of software sales.

That last bit might have harmed it, since it reduced the income they could make. But this post isn’t about what-might-have-beens, but about as-they-now-ares, how they are now is not that bad! A community of Ouya buyers have gotten together to support each other. When the Ouya servers went down in 2019, it had the effect of nearly bricking many of the consoles, but there are fan-made replacements where much of its origin al software has been made available again, and even including some new games!

Dan Wood explains the current scene in a YouTube video on the state of the Ouya in 2022, and it’s interesting reading. For those with Ouyas who want to connect with others, he mentions the site Ouya World (check out the Tutorials section!), and a Discord server called Ouya Saviors (which I can’t link to because of Discord’s invitation policy, YAY).

The tutorial that Dan recommends in his video is the stouyapi Ouya API server. It should help get people with inoperable Ouyas up and running again.

Dan Wood: Playing The Ouya in 2022

EDIT 7/10/22: Someone mentioned in comments that they didn’t think Ouya’s cut was nothing, and I think they may be right. Until I can find confirmation, I’m going to acknowledge their concern with this note.

The Twisting Gyre of Mobile Game Ads

If the algorithms that drive the ad servers of social media sites have you pegged as a casual gamer, you will be given a little window into a world of madness. Searching for “mobile game ads youtube” will turn up a fair number of YouPotatoes pointing at that madness and saying, “Look! Isn’t it crazy! How can that be allowed!”

Those kinds of videos themselves are their own exploitative little world, but they have a point. One such video recently made the Blue (that’s what Metafilter users call their main site), and it’s a prime example of both worlds, accurately calling out a lot of mobile gaming ads for being batshit insane, while also having the dismissive, hyper-edited, sound-effect-laden style all too illustrative of the problems with YouTube’s own engagement algorithms. It’s a crappy thing, making fun of a very crappy thing.

Edit: Here’s the video itself, which might be useful, it’s about 13 minutes long:

The thread is interesting, arguably more interesting than the video. Two MeFi users currently in the industry had a conversation there, and after a somewhat rancorous beginning, it was fairly civil by internet standards. Jilder is a writer in the mobile games space, and Ryvar works as a dev in more traditional computer gaming.

Here are some selected quotes:

[…]the ads aren’t aimed at children. Children don’t have money. The game developers want whale tier players – so people who can drop thousands of dollars a year on a game without blinking. There is a whole industry dedicated to building games to find and catch these sorts of players and the game developers are very much not interested in children – the ethics of that not withstanding, the legal implications are expensive.

Jilder

[…]boy, hes got no idea how wild ads can get if he’s only seeing the Dude Ads. Lily’s Garden ads are a whole ass thing all on their own and one of the grande dames of the genre, along with Merge Mansion, which is I suspect the game Alison mentions above. Merge Mansion’s most recent crop of ads full on have Oscar Award winner Kathy Bates starring as sketchy grandma Ursula (which, I must stress, are basically a tv mystery series only very loosely connected to the game).

Jilder (same comment)

The basic model for mobile game profitability is to release several dozen lightly reskinned clones of the exact same game and invest continued development into the handful that attract a sustainable population of whales. It’s grift, all the way down.

Ryvar

When mobile exploded the market and dropped financial barrier to entry by an order of magnitude, both game dev and game consumer culture were considerably thinner on the ground and even the best things to come out of the resulting environment (Genshin Impact, Lineage 2 Revolution) are still exploitative as shit. […] Part of the reason devs and gamers alike fucking hate Diablo Immortal is that it’s an extremely public beachhead for the tentacles of pure capitalist greed into a culture that has until now been moderately successful at keeping this avalanche of bullshit at bay.

Ryvar

All competitive online gaming has a pay-to-win element, it’s just not easily seen a lot of the time – it’s just that you pay for a decent gaming rig, and in my case you pay for having a decent internet connection. Like I’m in Australia, so lol how’s my ping bruh?

Jilder

But the gatekeeping around AAA rated gaming is huge – gamergate bros are just the most visible manifestation […]. As I mentioned in my first comment here, I’m a middle aged woman, so you know, I’ve been dealing with gatekeeping shit around gaming my entire gaming career.

Jilder

There’s lots more interesting discussion to be seen, start from this point and read on from there.

Pangur

Pangur is a text processing system that works entirely through visual code. People familiar with systems such as Scratch or Nintendo’s Game Builder Garage should be at home with it. Its workings are adjusted by creating and connecting a number of nodes, with both input and output connections. You can try it out directly in your browser (Firefox and Chrome are known to be supported), or read the guide to learn how to use it.