News 9/1/22

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

It’s been a bit difficult getting consistent signals from Earth lately, and what has gotten through hasn’t been of too much interest to my gelatinous brain. Maybe some of this might pique your interest?

Jonathan Bolding at PC Gamer says that playing dual-screen with a Steam Deck proves the Wii-U was a good idea! I knew it! What they’re talking about is the ability of a Steam Deck to play dual-headed via HDMI out. This play style is explicitly supported in Wii-U emulator Cemu. The article also notes that Valve has stated that the Steam Deck has out-performed sales estimates, which is good! After the Steam Link and Steam Controller were put on sale for ultra-cheap, I was feeling bad about scooping them up as Valve was clearing out stock. Not too bad, though.

SMB3 Scribe’s tile selector

Here’s some news from a different source than usual. At romhacking.net, creator Michael Nix has been working on a pair of GUI rom editors for Super Mario Bros. 3! One, SMB3-Foundry, is for editing levels, and the other, SMB3-Scribe, edits overworlds. A game like SMB3 is a bewilderingly complex beast under the hood, and the strictures of platform, rom space and development time sometimes force unorthodox decisions, like hardcoding some object placements. There is an article to be written some time about the lengths NES carts had to go through to encode their data, which was usually done using a kind of domain-specific data compression.

SMB3 Foundry’s level editor

I have been avoiding linking CBR.com for a bit because of some excessively clickbait headlines, but a recent device change has reset my killfile, so they’re back. Shane Foley from there reports on series nadir Metroid Other M having one level that made it worthwhile. The “level” in question is in fact the entire postgame; up until the main boss, the whole game is heavily on rails, with full exploration only possible afterward.

At Polygon, Nicole Carpenter mentions the content warnings on new indie title I Was A Teenage Exocolonist, which has a number of traumatic events in the game, but is quite upfront about what will occur, going so far as asking the player if they’d like to be spoiled regarding which characters die, or may die. It is a heartening development.

Keith Stuart at the Guardian has a retrospective on gaming on the Commodore 64 at age 40. That old huh. Naw, that doesn’t immediately paralyze me with fear.

(Note: the Guardian is in one of those phases where they nag you with a huge yellow subscription ad. It can be easily closed, and not nearly as bad as some sites out there, but it happens. One article I checked this time-I will not link them-had autoplaying overlaid videos in the corner, which resulted in them being ejected from this post. Bad web designer, no biscuit!)

Baba Is You

Shaun Musgrave at Touch Arcade lists the best recent iPhone game updates. Mentioned are Baba Is You (yay!), Genshin Impact, and Mini Metro (yay again!).

Destructoid’s Chris Carter lists Switch games that make substantive use of the right Joycon’s IR sensor.

Blogfriend Kyle Orland at Ars Technica reports on Fabrice Breton, creator of indie game Brok the Investigator, and their efforts to track down Steam key scammers, curators who would ask devs for free Steam keys but then sell them. As usual from Kyle it’s great and informative reading!

From Alice Newcome-Beill at The Verge, a report on a new version of a Switch Pro controller from 8BitDo, who seem to make good products, although they note they have not yet received the controller for testing.

I’m sure I won’t see this image a thousand times over the next few months drebnar.
(Source: Lorcana’s official Twitter feed)

And for our weekly eyeroll exercises, it’s been reported everywhere but GamesRadar hasn’t been seen in these pages yet so let’s give the link to them: Benjamin Abbott relates that Disney is releasing a Magic: The Gathering style trading card game going by the name of (roll your eyes now!) Lorcana. I’m already brainstorming jokes to make about it as they leak its features over the coming weeks!

K.C. Munchkin for Commodore 64

The always great Indie Retro News mentions, from Pretzel Logic, a Commodore port of one of the best Odyssey 2 games, K.C. Munchkin (itch.io, $0)!

Why is this interesting? The machinations of the old old days of video games are so easily forgotten now. K.C. Munchkin was a big seller for the underdog in the second-generation video game sweepstakes, but was taken off the market by court order way back then for being too similar to Pac-Man. Although Magnavox managed to come back a bit with sequel K.C.’s Krazy Chase, they remained a distant third in the market.

The C64 version has multiple modes, including a random maze mode and editor like the original, also has an arcade mode with 96 mazes!

Video: Easter Eggs in Classic C64 Cartridges

The always terrific 8-Bit Show And Tell shows us some secret codes for old cartridge-based C64 games that reveal they were developed by Andy Finkel. These are recent finds! I had the C64 port of Lazarian growing up, and much later I was surprised to find out I prefer it to the arcade version, the C64 version feels more polished and has better music!

Along the way we’re also taught about the super-obscure Commodore product the Max Machine, which is like a severely stripped-down C64 with a bad keyboard, no ports for storage devices, and only 2K of RAM, but including the C64’s iconic VIC-II and SID chips. It was designed solely to run cartridge software. The Max is mentioned on the C64 Programmer’s Reference Guide, where I saw it long ago and had to wonder what the heck that was about. Turns out the Commodore 64 has a compatibility mode that lets it run Max Machine carts!

The Max Machine only saw release in Japan, where it was very obscure. Just think, if Commodore had put a full 64K into that, maybe it could have supplanted the MSX? Well maybe not, but it’s interesting to think about!

News 7/31/22: Overwatch Tournament, Vestaria Saga, C64OS

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

Shaun Prescott at PC Gamer notes that Steam going forward is banning the use of award icons and review scores in the main graphical assets within their store. This is the “key art,” which I believe is the stuff that heads a store page. Readability is a given concern, in order not to shrink the game’s logo to make room for a muddle of icons and text, and also to be more considerate of non-English speaking users.

Luke Plunkett at Kotaku: it seems Blizzard changed the rules during an Overwatch tournament, making a set that was intended to be best-of-seven into best-of-five while it was going, causing players to refuse to play in protest. In retrospect it seems like it may have been a result of confusion among the event’s organizers.

Graham Smith at Rock Paper Shotgun: the original creator of Fire Emblem has been making games in its style independently, Vestaria Saga and Vestaria Saga II. They’re designed by Shouzou Kaga working with volunteers over the internet, using a package called SRPG Studio, which is represented in the article as free, but costs $60 on Steam. Similarly, while Vestaria Saga II is free in Japanese, a translated English version is on Steam for $20.

Ollie Reynolds at NintendoLife makes a case that Super Mario Sunshine is the best 3D Mario game. It is quite underrated! For those who haven’t kept up, that’s the Gamecube version, which was also included in the limited release Super Mario 3D All-Stars on Switch and nowhere else.

Screenshot from Hackaday

And it’s not strictly gaming-related, but Bryan Cockfield at Hackaday keeps us appraised of the progress of a modern-ish OS for Commodore 64 computers! It’s called C64OS. People who have followed the 64 since olden times know this isn’t the first, or even the second, time this has happened. This project uses a character-based display to show its buttons and windows. It’s worth noting that it isn’t out yet, and it’s intended to be a paid offering, not something which one can just download and tinker with, which may limit its reach. Still though, it’s an interesting idea, and one that can take advantage of some of the C64’s more advanced peripherals, like mice, ram expansions and WiFi modems.

Tutankham Returns

Tutankham Returns (itch.io link, $0) is a port/expansion of the classic Konami/Stern arcade game Tutankham. While Tutankham had only three levels, this has seven, but otherwise is much the same kind of thing. Compare the above to the original. It matches the original’s sound, graphics, and presentation exactly! The games have especially good sound design.

Creator Luca Carminati has a number of other recreations of classic games in itch.io, some, like a version of Tutankham Returns, for the Commodore 64. (Yes, it’s another Commodore post!) Of particular note is Bagman Comes Back (video, C64), a port of another neglected classic, with 24 different maps, compared to the original’s single three-screen board. Luca has been in this for a long time; he has a collection of Amiga games on itch that he made starting back in 1995!

Vision BASIC for the Commodore 64

The Commodore 64 was, for its time, quite a wonder, an inexpensive home computer with 64K of RAM and excellent for its time graphics and sound capabilities. Sadly, it came with one of the more limited versions of Microsoft BASIC out there.

Microsoft BASIC had its strengths, but many of them were not a good match for its hardware. The C64 had no commands to take advantage of any of its terrific features. To do nearly anything on the machine besides PRINTing and manipulating data, you had to refer to a small number of cryptic-yet-essential commands: POKE for putting values into arbitrary memory addresses, PEEK for reading values out of them, READ and DATA to read in lists of numbers representing machine language routines, and SYS to activate them.

And getting the values to do those things required obtaining and poring over manuals and the venerable C64 Programmer’s Reference Guide. Even then, Microsoft BASIC was notably slow, especially when doing work with numbers, due to its dogged insistence of converting all values, including integers, into floating point before doing any math on them. So while BASIC supported integers, which required less memory to store, actually slowed the machine down due to the need to convert to and from floating point whenever an operation needed to be performed on them. This doesn’t even begin to get into the many inefficiencies of being an interpreted language.

Vision BASIC, an upcoming commercial compiled language for the Commodore 64, looks to remedy many of these faults. The above video is a nearly 40-minute explainer and demonstration of the system. It requires the purchase of a memory expansion unit in order to be used on a physical machine, but it can produce executable code that can be run on a stock C64 as it came out of the box.

It’s not free, and at $59 for the basic package it may seem a little high for a system for developing software on a 40-year-old computer, but that price includes the software on floppy disk and a USB drive. It’s certainly capable, and runs much faster than many other compiled languages on the system. It’s definitely something to look into for people looking to make games on the system without digging deep into assembly, and if you have a desire to do that it has a built-in assembler for producing in-line machine code too! It is an intriguing new option for Commodore development.

Commodore 64 Ads Retrospective

This is not a real ad, it’s a reimagining, but it’s pitch-perfect.

Bryan Lunduke has a collection of old ads for what is still the best-selling model of personal computer of all time, the Commodore 64. No doubt it retains that title today on the basis of a number of technicalities, like PCs are atomized among many different makes that still all run the same OS, and people not considering an iPhone to be a computer somehow.

I’d like to draw your attention in particular to the ad for GEOS on that page, the early C64 windowed operating system that breathed new life into the system. In the end it was probably doomed due to a number of factors: Apple’s head start and much better marketing, the fact GEOS had to be booted from disk while Mac OS was partly ROM-resident, and a bit of clunkiness. But you can do rather a lot with GEOS all by itself, and it comes with a capable word processor in GeoWrite. GEOS, and its weird legacy, probably deserves a post of its own eventually.

The image above is for a fake ad, but it’s based off of an iconic, and slightly disturbing, television ad from Austrailia, Keeping Up With The Commodore:

Commodore Basic 2.0 for Other Systems

Say what you will about Commodore BASIC 2.0, the built-in programming language and makeshift shell for the Commodore 64, written by Microsoft employees and descending from code written by Bill Gates himself, it’s certainly, um, basic. Nearly everything that takes advantage of that machine’s graphics or sound features involves POKEing values into memory at various locations, requiring a programmer to memorize a long list of important numbers.

Because it doesn’t interface with the system’s unique features to any great extent, it’s a very generic version of BASIC. But this means it can be ported to other systems without tremendous effort. Fancy-pants commands don’t have to be converted to another architecture’s norms, because there aren’t any! And lots of systems used the instruction set and general capabilities of the MOS 6502, upon which the Commodore 64 is based, so now we have versions of its BASIC that work on the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Atari 800. They’re both based off of Project 64, an annotated disassembly of the C64’s BASIC and Kernal ROM code.

The NES port should be able to run on actual hardware, but you’ll need the Family Keyboard that was made to work with the Famicom’s own official BASIC to use it, which was only released in Japan.

By the way, the reason that I write BASIC in all-caps is, it’s an acronym! It stands for Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.

Link Roundup 4/24/22

Patrick Klepek for Vice, about Melon Han-Tani releasing the player movement code for his game Sephone.

Sam Machkovech for for Ars Technica, reviewing geometry puzzle game Tandis.

Alana Hauges of NintendoLife on the forthcoming Zero Tolerance Collection, which includes an unreleased sequel to the original Mega Drive/Genesis game.

Alana Hauges also informs us of preorders for a vinyl release of Ace Attorney music.

Keema Waterfield for Wired writing about playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild with her five-year-old daughter.

Arto

Ryan McCaffrey on IGN tells us about an upcoming RPG, Arto, with a very interesting look to it.

Stephen Totilo, Axios, on the return of Ken and Rebecca Williams, founders of Sierra On-Line from years ago, and their attempt at a comeback.