Smartball

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD JUST END IT NOW

When the needle slid into your vein, and your muscles strained against the straps, and the doctor’s glasses, briefly reflecting the lamp above you, were a harsh white glare, you knew what was coming. Darkness, and then hands.

Claws, talons, pincers, gripping and cutting, pulling you down, though your body lay there on the cold table. Each laceration was a reminder of your crime, each crushing grip a reflection of yours, locked around your wife’s throat as the life went out of her eyes.

Down, down, down, a tunnel of black and red and fire and ragged stone, with horrors at the edge of your vision, leaving a trail of blood and flesh as they took you deeper, their talons ripping, forcing you through holes and crevices, always down.

An eternity of tumbling, screaming descent, and then a terrible impact.  You can feel your bones – your mind cannot release its bodied self even now – splinter and split, and you bite off your own tongue when your teeth are driven together with enough force to shatter in your mouth.

You lie, a mewling pile of blood and viscera and agony, before they drag you up and forward, to a small room.

Inside the room there is a chair, and a television, and a Super Nintendo Entertainment System. There is one controller, and one game.  They fling you into the chair and shackles snap shut. The controller is in your hands. Then, the claws and pincers are gone.

You are laughing.  Pain, physical pain, and this? This is it?  This is your punishment?

The television turns on, and the game. You hear a voice:

PLAY.

You see the title – Smartball – and your broken hands begin to move on the controller. It is not long before the screams begin.

In the deepest, blackest, coldest infernal pit, Judas himself looks up from his indescribable torment, hears the notes of your suffering, and shudders.

Sim Earth

Apparently, it is supposed to look like this.

Before today, I had never actually played Sim Earth. I bet it was much better on PC. But based on Wikipedia and other internet sources, it was certainly interesting.  You could control atmospheric gases with percentages down to three decimal places, the rate of continental drift, reproduction and mutation rates, and so on.  You can place devices that change the planet’s development, like oxygen generators or monoliths. You can even produce, through manipulation of evolution, a sentient civilization which develops technology – and if it becomes dependent on nuclear power, it can annihilate itself in nuclear war if fuel becomes scarce. All of this depends on a finite budget of energy units you have available for fiddling with the planet, as deity or spacefaring progenitor race or whatever.

This is a game where sentient molluscs can battle carnivorous plants for supremacy. And if nuclear blasts destroy the highest technology level, you get a bonus civilization – machine life!

Well, this game sounds awesome.

It turns out that on this platform, it is inscrutable.

Most games in this genre and this era end up being pretty impossible to decipher – the constraints of low-resolution screen real estate, low memory, and control mechanism make it very tough to create a strategy or management game that is at all intuitive, or a tutorial that is at all effective.

Not only that, but game design at the time was not supportive of in-depth tutorials or explicit gameplay explanations of any kind. I would imagine the instruction booklet was helpful for this game, though, to some extent.

But about six button presses from turning on the game, I got stuck on a blue screen.  None of my buttons would allow me to retreat from the blank blue above the menu.

The game didn’t sell well.  A game where fiddling with the atmospheric composition of a planet allows you to tweak the evolutionary prospects of a variety of eukaryotes is probably not what the gamer demographic at the time was looking for. Sim City did way better.

I would love to see a real Sim Earth remake or sequel done with contemporary technology and design philosophy, but maintaining the same in-depth sandbox quality.  This is exactly the kind of thing that Spore was lacking – any kind of granularity, any kind of feeling of simulation, to give its superficiality some weight and impact.

Shanghai 2

As far as I can tell, mahjong is like Memory, only the cards are all face up.

I thought this was going to be some kind of kung-fu brawler/platformer, because I had forgotten about it.

It turns out that Shanghai II is, in fact, Mahjong, the domino-esque tile game, for the SNES.

Why did they release this game?  Was the first Shanghai an insufficient volume of mahjong? Why would anyone want to play mahjong on an SNES, with the clumsy 8-directional manipulation and lengthy intro screen of a dragon giving an invisible blowjob? Apparently the first Shanghai never made it to North America.  I wonder what made them bring this one over.

I don’t even know how to play mahjong.

In my experience, boardgames-turned-videogames are often poorly cobbled-together money grabs. Sometimes you’ll get some really good translations that take advantage of the new medium, like Carcassonne and other recent offerings, and sometimes you’ll get an interesting new entirely digital game that is essentially a boardgame – Greed Corps and Culdcept Saga for the 360, for example, or Solium Infernum for PC.

Usually you just get a crappy version of real life that kids probably played because they wanted to play a video game and that’s all they had.

I don’t know how good this one is.  I have seriously never played mahjong for more than ten seconds.  It’s powerfully boring. There could be some really good mahjong going on here.

But I doubt it.

Samurai Shodown

Mitsurugi from Soul Calibur is pretty obviously inspired by this dude.

Samurai Shodown kinda looks like a platformer, but it turns out it’s a pretty solid fighting game worthy of the successors it spawned.

It’s pretty plainly in the Street Fighter tradition, with weapon attacks and kicks, three of each, and special moves executed with the same controller inputs. It’s got a pretty high damage output, and simple combos.  All in all it reminds me a lot of Street Fighter II in its various iterations.

Unfortunately, I’ve managed to draw an assortment of games in the letter S that narrowly avoid all the Street Fighter games, even though I dearly love Street Fighter. I was not expecting to enjoy this game as much as I did, though, so now I feel a bit better.

I don’t really know much about Samurai Shodown as a series, or the various spinoffs and related series from the same publisher, SNK – they did the various other big fighters like Art of Fighting and Garou: MOTW and King of Fighters and what have you.

What I do know is that there is a peculiar slowdown when hard attacks land – similar to that in SF2 when a projectile lands.  I find this terribly annoying, and I always thought it was lag.  It turns out it was intentional, and it was included in Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix (longest game name ever?  Quite possibly) for projectiles.  The more you know.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms III

It's like this screen is specifically designed by a team of expert psychologists, UI designers, and professional sadists to make me want to stop playing the game.

Historical strategy games on the SNES, as we have discovered, can all be described in the same way.

But I cannot identify the exact word, the precise adjective, to define that ephemeral quality.

So let’s just look at all of them!

  • Impregnable
  • Indecipherable
  • Unintelligible
  • Nonsensical
  • Unfathomable
  • Impenetrable
  • Inarticulate
  • Incognizable
  • Incoherent
  • Incomprehensible
  • Opaque
  • Tenebrous
  • Perplexing
  • Baffling
  • Bewildering
  • Confounding
  • Confusing
  • Exasperating
  • Inscrutable
  • Enigmatic
  • Sibylline
  • Indiscernable

Surely there are more, but we can agree: the right word probably begins with the suffix in- or un- or similar.

Here’s a thing game designers seemed to have learned, bless their hearts: if you have to compress every single word in every single menu into a meaningless abbreviation by subtracting, seemingly at random, various vowels and occasional consonants, you are probably reaching beyond the reasonable capabilities of your platform!

Robotrek

This is a JRPG that begins in darkness, with someone saying your name, and then you waking up in a quaint isometric house.

I have named my character thusly because it pleased me. I feel it unnecessary to give a real picture, because if you have seen any other JRPGs, you've seen this one.

Because of this, I was unable to play it for more than 10 seconds.

From what I’ve read, though, Robotrek was one of the predecessors of Pokemon – you would go around and find parts to build and raise three different robots, whom you would use to fight instead of doing it yourself.  It’s an ATB system where you can switch robots instead of using your turn, which is also very reminiscent of Pokemon.  That’s kind of interesting, but I’m sure it takes about half an hour to an hour to even get to the point where you get to fight or, you know, actually play a game.  The pacing on JRPGs is fucking unapologetically glacial, in this era, and at this point I am unwilling to tolerate it.

Okay, to be fair this robot enemy that I Googled is actually pretty cool.

Rise of the Robots

Bender would beat the shit out of either of these assholes.

This game is shockingly bad.  You can only play one character.  There are only six other characters, who you fight in the same order.  Everyone only has two moves.  The AI spams the same move over and over and does more damage than you.  Multiplayer involves the first player using the crappy one character, and the second player choosing one of the bosses, who do more damage and take more damage to kill.

The pre-rendered graphics were clearly the focus of development time.  They were really hyped up, apparently, so much so that one magazine gave this buzzing fly-ridden pile a 90%.  It’s a shame that there is only an incredibly terrible game underneath those graphics – which aren’t even that good, even by SNES standards.

Reading little snippets of the video game market in the past make me feel a bit better about our current state of affairs.  Sometimes people worry that we care too much about graphics, at the cost of other areas of development.  Well, complain as you will, I have yet to play a game with great graphics in this generation that was anywhere near as skull-fuckingly atrocious as this game.