Friday, 30 October 2015

Thinking back to... an early Open-World simulation...

Finally... the game actually loads correctly and I'm in the car, 80's dashboard rendered. Outside though, cars are moving by and I'm parked at a crossroads... Their simple textures don't seem to notice me. Yes, it's a simulation game and there is a world going on out there. But it's also San Francisco and it gives me a huge sense of urgency to explore and cause some trouble is stirring... For someone who can't drive yet, this game will be fun...
What is this game that I've just remembered?.. suddenly it occurs to me... Vette!, a driving simulation game behind the wheel of a Corvette and with an actual version of San Francisco to explore. This was the first taste of total adulthood freedom for any 80’s kid with a clunky PC where sometimes games just didn’t even load at all. I don't think there were many missions apart from trying repeatedly not to get fined, and failing to capture some other fast cars.

For a full review and retro-reminiscing, visit this extensive video...

I think my uncle gave me this game as a kid, on floppy disks. But I now realise it would have come with a cool manual, a full map of the city etc. I’d love to receive such a gamebox, even today…visit more cities... especially a non-fictional GTA-style one... So…more driving simulation open-world experiences please !

The STAR WARS post !

A Galaxy of Games... A Universe Getting Closer and Closer...

star wars logo

The signature Star Wars universe offers such ultimate opportunities for developers that almost every type of game has a Star Wars version. Shooters, simulations, adventures, mobile platformers, lego, pinball.., It just goes on and on, and seems to be getting more and more wide-ranging. There are even mods for other games to turn them into Star Wars games (search Skyrim Star Wars mods). And as technology improves the scale and vividness will increase until… well… until we will be plunged one day into some Massively Multiplayer Virtual Star Wars Ongoing Conflict, which moves on, I suppose, a cyclical time-loop of all movies that have been made. In that universe, many types of game will exist, from entering a Tatooine pod-racer or an Endor speed-bike to piloting the Falcon on smuggling missions or Death Star raids. The question will only be how long will a character survive for, in whatever path they choose to take? How will we die and be reborn and delay player fatigue and frustration? How can we stop ourselves playing any other Star Wars games, outside of this futuristic game-world vision??

Today we exist in a world of fragmented Star Wars experiences, the newest of which as I write – the new Battlefront reboot game – surely captures a vivid sense of participating in the major battles.

Star Wars is a fantastic universe that offers a package outlined by the vivid movies: an array of exciting scenarios, characters and aliens, from the reluctant good guys (Han Solo) ,strong females to the guardian Jedis, with an even greater array of charismatic evil characters, including one of these Jedi Knights turned bad. It was just a unique combination of mythical elements brought carefully together. A deep saga for the space age with iconic fighting devices and sound effects.

How can games take advantage of all this, to create the most resonant or involved experience?

zen pinball

I’m still playing Star Wars games. Due to limits on time I’m reduced to the absorbing distraction of Zen Pinball and the fortify game Star Wars Commander on my phone.

But I remember a different time… especially the time of Kyle Katarn in Dark Forces. This was the first time 3d shooters post-Doom entered the Star Wars domain and we could properly begin first-person adventures in these realms.


Let’s think about what these early developers decided to do for a moment to really capture and sell an engrossing, exciting, educational experience, entering and enhancing the star wars universe (which they did).


The above format simplifies a large part of it. Just as in Wing Commander the trick was firstly to make an engaging story with levels set in different – old favourite – worlds or scenarios, with a brand new character to engage interest and act as our avatar. Of course, he'd be a mix of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, and we'd see him interact with old favourite characters. Next, the story would be coloured by exciting cut-scenes that described his situation, before we enter the first-person shoes of the hero. Over now to the level designers who – in the Jedi Knight series – continuously came up with surprising, challenging, memorable and frustrating(!) levels. On top of this progression must come the Force, of course, and the possibility of choosing a binding path through the game which is either Good or Bad, with a number of force powers to employ.

You could say this is pretty impressive and long-awaited since the credits rolled and left us stranded after Return of the Jedi. LucasArts pulled it off here at the beginning of the Age of Gaming. Add to this the variety of weapons with all our favourite sound effects and music, and a graphics engine that got better with every release, enabling it to cater for more and more widespread multi-player action.

dark forces screenshot

This format is still in use today with such focussed adventure shooters. In fact, even the larger-scale open-world games simply contain this format, but offer us more widespread or prolonged interaction with a universe. But the focus gets lost and for many these ambitious games are simply too much.

There are game formats that Star Wars hasn't yet breached. I don't think there's a Wing Commander-type Star Wars game, with a campaign that gets positively or negatively affected. There isn't a full-scale RPG Elder Scrolls type game yet (although the online Star Wars Galaxies came quite close). And meanwhile we see some newer developments arising in games, in response to the improving technology. In games these days, a scenario can be more fully explored without compromising game-play or switching to cut-scenes anymore. The focus seems often now to be about not compromising one, fluid, elaborate first-person gaming experience. I’m thinking Alien: Isolation and the Nathan Drake games.

How can game companies escape the passive cut-scene without jeopardising our sense of story and character? The answer has come by bringing the cut-scene into the game itself, by merging the two into a fluid, continuous action set-piece. Or by making it a part of the world itself that the character is watching. Or by making the game one big scenario, so cut-scenes are no longer necessary. The Assassin’s Creed series still breaks into cut-scenes which tend to go on forever. But games instead are largely moving away from the retro Single-Player story experiences. Everything – perhaps - needs to be connected online and unfolding in the games of tomorrow.

So I think back with real affection at my time in the Dark Forces and Jedi Knight strategic shooters, (even where cartoon/animated elements described the blaster fire and cut-scenes). We were this separate commando-type character yet operating within this vast, familiar conflict. How would we get the Death Star plans out of the secret Imperial base? How would we free the captured rebel spy from the Detention Centre? You'd lie awake wondering how you were going to get through the tricky bits. It threw us into its large levels (where one blaster shot might shoot an alien off a walkway from long distance) and we knew we had to work it out using stealth, map consultation and the right combination of weapons, in order to achieve the exciting star wars-related objectives. Check out the Youtube videos of these old, engrossing classics.

Recently, I've been to to buy Jedi Outcast, because I might be able to find a moment to actually play this later Jedi Knight sequel, one that I missed when my PC was too slow. At the end of the day, such Star Wars games, those that enable you to 'become' a Jedi, offer an exciting promise to young adults; a chance to escape and explore, to become something, be good at something, and also to test themselves against others. Therefore the physics and keyboard controls etc. had to be finely tuned for in-depth PC controlling immediacy. It had to be a platform for wannabe hero gamers. Online, Jedi Knight was the first time I truly felt the power of Multiplayer Gaming... I would be running down a corridor and an opponent would be running towards me. I would use Force Pull to take his weapon out of his hand, and then use it on him before slashing him down with a sabre stroke. A complicated keyboard-assisted move and not so easy on a console. The pace of action was quick (when Internet was running well) and players would be re-spawning continually, but the trick was to use speed and to die less than others...

Later, with the less strategic and more accessible Star Wars Battlefront 2, the Unleashed series (a good try at more involvement with the Wii controller too) etc…we only knew the games would get more and more sophisticated until the entire universe will likely be available to play virtually and online, with the ability to play as any character… Surely there will come a proper smuggling Han Solo + Falcon-flying game one day too!…Because at the heart of this heroic, chivalric universe, there must always be: character, a sense of adventure, proximity to the classic characters, spirituality and friendship…if not cut-scenes, then ways to make you feel like you are close to the context, close to the experience you wish to complete… Good luck future designers... May the Force be With You!

Monday, 12 October 2015

Double Dragon 2 in EGA graphics

Having just downloaded the mobile game app of Double Dragon, which contains episodes 1 to 3 for a great price, I need to mention this nostalgic experience here. I only had the sequel, but now I get to be Billy Lee once again, fighting to rescue some unenviable lady friend and avenge myself with a variety of raw fighting moves. It's not easy being a small Patrick Swayze-like bitmap character. However, I find myself tapping away on a mobile and re-living the same excited sensations of seeing new scenery unfold as I fight my way onwards - rightward - to the edge of the screen.

DD2 original box
click to enlarge this 80s Game Box Artwork

The last time I saw these graphics in Double Dragon 2, was in the 90s, in EGA graphics, using a keyboard with keys so big they made a sound and now I get to see it work at a decent, playable speed. In the process, the controls of attacks have lost a lot of their depth but the mechanics were never subtle. Back then we hoped they were subtle. But this was before Mortal Kombat combos.

In this adventure fighting game, it was also possible to play Co-operative, with Jimmy Lee helping out against the assorted baddies. Seeing the magic of these Coin-op classics (yes, I had Golden Axe too), to play in the comfort of home on a PC/console was the real start of gaming, family and social. We were fighting our way through this key-stroked action movie, just after watching one on VHS, before leaving the house on BMX bikes.


Video gaming will get ever more advanced, and more immersive, and maybe more social. But we should never forget the simple (and frustrating) kind of experience that being Jimmy and Billy Lee in a platform-style adventure provided. What would the next baddy be like? Laughable or insanely difficult to thrash? What keystroke combos would work best? How long could we last before being sent back to the beginning of the damn level? And what would be the nugget of wisdom we might glean from the wise master at the end of it all?

Well in this case there are no nuggets... but you do get to fight the final boss from Double Dragon 1 and then... a spooky clone of yourself !