Spectre

I just played Spectre and managed to hold it together for like two minutes. It’s a vector based tank game kind of like battlezone but prettier. It looks sort of like this:

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That giant checkerboard is the playing field, you gotta get all those yellow flags, the red tanks and the yellow tanks and some other tanks are trying to shoot you. You get points for killin’ tanks and getting flags, and you have a bunch of gauges that can’t go down or you won’t be able to shoot or you’ll lose.

It’s really simple, it’s hard to see how someone might get good at it. There are a lot of buttons that do things that aren’t super clear. There isn’t much I can say about Spectre, but there is a lot to say about manuals. Manuals aren’t really a thing anymore in video games, at least not paper ones. Almost every game just tells you how to play it now in a way that might not have been very easy or fun to do in old video games.

But it became crystal clear after about 30 seconds of playing Spectre that I was going to need a guide. A guide from spectre town. So I found a manual.

On the manual was a 1-900 number for their hint line, so I started by calling that. The number was out of service. I wonder what happened! Did cybersoft get phreaked? Phone-owned? It’s pretty clear that the manual is going to have to suffice.

So when I said that Spectre was a tank game back there? Total lie. Spectre is about roaming around the battlefields of the cyber-war, capturing flags and shooting cyber-enemies. Everything in the game that I thought was a tank thing was a computer thing. I messed up all the metaphors is I guess what I’m trying to say.

I went back and played a little bit more now that I had rich new metaphors to colour my cyber-war experience.

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It didn’t help.

But I can say that knowing what hyperjumps and grenades and mines and flags and Soft I.C.E is helped me think about spectre a little bit with all its cyberwar trappings, and that it’s pretty great that people thought that maybe war in the future would be just like regular tanks stuff but in computers and that if you just drove around fast enough you could just take over everybody’s computer.

Because right now taking over people’s computer is tricking them into clicking on things or pasting things that they shouldn’t click on or paste and then you encrypt all their files and steal their memories unless they can give you enough bitcoins. I don’t think that would be a super fun video game but maybe it would!

Maybe somebody stole all of Cybersoft’s memories for bitcoins. Maybe that’s why their hint line is not running anymore! Maybe they became a real cyberwar target because they got too close to what the real cyberwar is like.

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I think it might all be connected.

Super Slapshot

AI is really really interesting. I don’t mean the science fiction BS about machines overthrowing their human oppressors (though that is undeniably interesting in its own right) but rather AI as a question of implementation. The first two years of a computer science degree are basically basic classes in machine psychology. In essence, you spend a lot of time learning what computers can and cannot do well and why they can or cannot do it. The practical applications of this are vast, and it sets you up for a long and accursed existence of yelling at your television every time computers are abused as a deus ex machina, because everything in fiction should be plausible.

In a vast majority of cases, the question of practical AI is one of simply making your agent act smart but in time to fulfill whatever objective. Computers are pretty good at coming up with complete solutions given however much time they need, and are less good at coming up with a good enough solution right now. When it’s properly implemented, the results are basically magic, here’s a short demonstration.

Now this is the result of some pretty heavy computation on a decently modern machine, which is part of why it’s magic, because doing the same thing on a 16 bit processor with limited memory is. Well it’s very hard.

So given that I’ve been sperging on AI this weekend and I really don’t want to drop another review on the pile of “phh, hockey, whatever jock” vs. “god stop being such a nerd sports enthusiasm is no less ridiculous than, say, reviewing every game ever“, we’re going to watch super slapshot play itself and see how it fares.

For the purpose of this test I chose Israel vs. Sweden. I thought it would be a fitting match up due to Israel’s scrappy and well known prowess both offensively and defensively and Sweden because they are a country with ice. It was only about 9 minutes in length and and neither put up a very good fight during play itself.

You do not need ice to play a strong game of Hockey.

The goalies were veritable ironclad juggernaut destroyer battleships, neither letting a single goal through even when Israel was shorthanded two players. I literally know maybe the first and second things about hockey, but I’m pretty sure the game isn’t played that way.

It came down to an overtime shootout which Sweden, who aside from absolutely stellar supernova goaltending played a pretty miserable offensive game, took handily by scoring two goals like it was nothing.

Now if you could have done that like 7 minutes earlier, this would have been a game of hockey.

What I’ve learned about hockey and AI today:

-Skate pathing and dodging while maintaining realistic movement must be a really neat and interesting problem to tackle.

-Shooting AI is probably boring because the goalies are invincible supermen.

-Israel got like 4 penalties, including 2 at a time, the Swedes got none, couldn’t close the deal when they were 2 players up, played passively, and took it at the end of the game. The programmers may have had some ideas about nations.

Super Nova

Shmups are interesting. From a contrivance standpoint, they are one of the simplest games to make. Along with platformers, they’re likely to be the most common type of game created by just one person. This has a couple of interesting consequences. It means

  • The shmup has had a lot of opportunity to evolve and improve due to the simplicity of the form.
  • There are a lot of them, and some of them are awful.

Super Nova, also called Darius Force, is not awful. It is, however, the sort of game that’s nearly too arcade for a console, the kind of game I can’t ever imagine pouring a whole lot of time into. With most shmups, it’s just a matter of pattern recognition and memorization and this one is no different. It’s a process that traditionally was limited only by the availability of quarters, but by console release only by the amount of time the player had. I could understand it at the arcade, certainly. There you could play and talk smack and beat high scores and what not. At home in front of a console there’s none of that, just sitting silent with the odd curse when you make a mistake or see the next wave to be negotiated.

It’s a genre that for all intents and purposes died in North America, on account of the lack of arcades. It did well enough in Japan, where there were still arcades, but the expense and difficulty of producing boards and cabinets likely prevented any amateurs from making any.

Eventually, with the market saturation and availability of PCs, groups and individuals started to make their own; the most notable examples are Japanese. There are a stunning array of vertical and horizontal shooters released by Japanese groups, a couple that even reached a reasonable amount of popularity here. Warning Forever is a great example of a strong attempt to create something simple and pure as well as fun, even when there’s nothing on the line.

While Super Nova is a good example of something that isn’t far from the arcadey roots of the shmup, the genre has become something quite compelling. There’s a wealth of gameplay ideas that have been tried and tested in that environment.

Additionally: mechanical fish.

Super Mario World

Turtles can have no shells planes can be diagonal watch out you should probably jump right about now.

After playing the first five minutes of a wealth of 16-bit platformers they all start to feel a little bit samey. The side-scroller format is pretty limited in its breadth of expression, but as a result a well made platformer can be a pretty effective experience. The games start to feel like interactive sheet music or language; the challenges are similar to those of sight reading. Your first task is to decipher the intent of the design by reading it and then, with plenty of room for improvisation, execute it.

Platformers are just rhythm games with a little more space to back up and more ways to recover from a mistake. The rest is just a matter of reading and negotiating an idiom. In the same way sheet music notation has evolved from imprecise and arcane methods of timekeeping and notation, platformers have refined down to a few nearly universal symbols of danger, desired outcome, and hints to overcome challenges.

The Super Mario series of games is arguably the most influential in defining a platformer idiom; you’d likely be hard pressed to find anyone making a platformer that doesn’t cite its designs as important influences. One of the reasons, I believe, for this, is the chance to iterate the design over 3 decades now. The language has slowly built into a series of nearly universal heiroglyphs. Pipes, tubes and pots can take you elsewhere. Distinct blocks offer reward. Frowny faces indicate enemies. It’s interesting to go back and play the earlier Mario games because the first level or two operate as a demonstration of the new grammatical elements of the game. Super Mario World is no different. In some 20 screens nearly every new concept you need to get by in the game world is demonstrated. If you’ve somehow managed to miss the previous iterations, this gives plenty of time to catch up.

Some enemies take two hits now. Slanted pipes probably don't take you anywhere.

Most of the games in the series don’t stop at mere introduction, either. The learning curve for Mario World is constant, combining existing elements into new concepts. The game, when played, can be read as a narrative or an instruction manual. It’s a sort of learning machine that can read in text like this:

turtles without shells retain mobility, diagonal planes are common, pits are fatal, diagonal pipes go nowhere, bullets come in larger varieties, plants can fly from pipes, some enemies take two hits, spin jumping is more shallow but more fatal, additional power ups can be stored, 50% progress is marked, shells can be fired omnidirectionally, fire works the same, beware the football players, congratulations!

And every level works like this, the grammar becoming less crude and more refined to create more complex sentences like “Upon eating red shells, Yoshi can spit fire.” This implies high level knowledge of the game and that you have already completed and learned other actions.

It’s possible that every game boils down to this, a simple how-to dialogue between player and machine until, when the player has achieved some competence, they can explore and make the game sing in the way the designers intended.

Quit Now.

Sonic Blast Man II

Alright listen you tweedy little fucks, put down your Capri Suns and trade in those glasses for goggles, because today we’re going to learn how to be super heroes. Okay, so we’re gonna do this the hard way. We’ve kidnapped all of your girlfriends. And also the president. So this one’s for all the marbles. Put on your boxing gloves and robot suits or whatever you use to protect your fragile goddamned limbs and lets get to it.

See those oil barrels over there? I want you to beat the shit out of them. We’re not moving one inch from this spot until you can punch an oil barrel clean in half with the fists that god and technology gave ya. What are you just standing for gawkin’ at me like jay birds? Get to it! Put your back into it, step into the punch. Lord Tunderin’ your parents sent me the weakest excuse for action squad rangers I ever laid eyes on. This is pathetic, you’re never gonna be bad enough dudes at this rate.

okay you rat turds, you're gonna watch me do it. Cause I got a megaton punch. Do you want a megaton punch? I thought so.

Alright we’re gonna take a break. You see that guy Sal? Sal’s your camp cook. Everybody haul off and clock him a good one and he’ll drop you a hamburger. Do I look like I’m kidding? Do you want to eat tonight Jeremy? THEN YOU WALK RIGHT UP AND YOU PUNCH SAL RIGHT IN HIS AMPLE GUT! That’s better.

Alright now it’s time for bed, remember that all your loved ones AND THE PRESIDENT are locked up in their own cabin tonight so you better sleep quick before the enemy changes up and relocate’s em. Bunk assignments go to the strongest, no holds barred, chow at 6. Some of you who couldn’t even knock over the barrel might want to get to sparrin’, it’s gonna be a lonnnng week.

Action Squad Rangers, MOVE OUT.

The Simpsons: Virtual Bart

Where to even start with this dense and confusing bit of surreality? The premise is this: Virtual Bart is one of a number of franchise titles, allegedly cranked through some sort of awful development puppy mill to allow Fox to squeeze just one more dollar from the unprecedented moneysponge that is Matt Groening’s brain. This show is still running and seems actually to have become extraordinarily funny in its irrelevance. The last episode I saw was about the Vancouver Olympics and I’m pretty sure tackled the heroin problem in Vancouver, the racial tension between west coast white people and first nations people, and how funny it is when we say vowels. It is posessed of a bravery that comes with self-awareness regarding its own faded cultural cachet and both breadth and depth of subject matter. Most times I can’t watch a new episode without being some mix between amused, offended, confused and inspired.

And somehow, Virtual Bart, despite gameplay that is best described as compulsory, manages to touch many of the same nerves. Not 5 seconds into the intro you can see a girl crying over the fact that science has failed to resurrect her beloved and deceased pet. An entire novel could be written about Sophie Jensen’s tragedy, one that serves merely as window dressing to set up the premise.

Poor, poor sophie.

While at a science fair, Bart Simpson (whose contribution is the jarred head of his own father, 5 YEARS before Futurama sent the jarred head gag to its grave) stumbles into an unknown experiment: a virtual reality device. He is strapped to a wheel and fitted with VR gear, and spun around to determine his first digital excursion.

Opening his eyes,  Bart finds that he has taken on the form of a pig. Such shame, to become the thing that we revile for its similarity to us, the hideous mirror through which we see and criticize ourselves. Nicholas Cage refuses even to eat its flesh, so undignified are its mating habits.

But look: he is not the average pig, sitting in an idyllic farm, wallowing in his filth. He is in a factory farm, modern day prison camps to domestic animals. Unlike his porcine brethren, he is free of his prison. Its keepers chase him as he runs about, trying to free other swine from their grisly fate.

Corn Dogs: Now With Converse

The guards in this gulag of industry: clowns, every one. Take from that what you will, player. Upon his death, Bart is ground into a Krusty brand corn dog. His fate? To be devoured by his own Father.

A moment of hesitation, a struggle.

Homer, in a struggle that might have been attacked by the blind poet, looks upon the visage of his son, now a mass-produced snack, hesitates a moment. He screams, his short iconic yelp of terror so often accompanied by his undulating sine wave of a tongue. Ultimately though, his desire to consume overcomes his grief and loss, perhaps even augmenting it, before he devours the small, cylindrical remains of the son, whole.

Virtual Bart goes on to drag its eponymous protagonists through a chain of poignant escapes, sometimes joyful in their mischief, sometimes tragic in its subtext. Where is this focus on continual drive of technology to immerse and entertain, to drag us kicking and screaming from our own context to lead? What world are we creating for ourselves when we populate it with enemies, objectives, simple rules for achieving simple ends?

Sim Ant

Come comrades, we strike out for a new world!

Comrades, our colonies to the south have grown and prospered. Our aphids are fat, our mold colonies great, our enemies nonexistent. It is time, fellow workers, to bring our young to new and foreign lands, to liberate all those that labor under their bourgeois masters. I speak, of course, of Amerika!

Amerika!

Amerika, where decadence has left food enough to sustain a colony spanning the entire continent! Amerika, where the pig-dog is comfortable and complacent, unwary of the inexorable approach of the revolution. Rise, workers, make ready soldiers, prepare yourselves young queens and those guys with wings! For tomorrow we shall choke the verdant lawns of the bourgeoisie, claiming their wealth for our own. Their pet-slaves will be freed, and if they refuse, they will nourish a thousand larvae.

Their kool-aid shall give our soldiers the strength to defeat the traitorous red ants, those that would have achieved our end were it not for their weak wills and soft mandibles. The time is now, brothers and sisters, for now we strike without warning. For years the “local news affiliates” have warned the Capitalists of our coming. No more! Now they fear border threats of another kind, and a president who they fear shall destroy them from within. We strike now, before their beady eyes are turned back upon us.

Come, there is no time to waste. Who will lead us to a glorious new tomorrow? Who will bear a thousand workers that will dig the tunnels to house the revolution? Who will bear a thousand soldiers who shall defeat our enemies and expand our ideal? Who will bear the queens that bear the queens that will spread us from lawn to lawn, village to village, state to state, to our destiny?

Yellow ant?

Yeah, you’ll do.

For the Motherland!