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.

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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.

Super Mario Kart

Word to the wise: don’t get your flatmate hooked on Mario Kart.

Oh, you might think it’s terrific at first having a Player 2 at the ready, but you’ve got to understand: it’s not just a “bridge title”; it’s a gateway drug.

Marx was wrong. Mario Kart is the Opiate of the Masses.

It’s like being married to a nymphomaniac – you might think that’s an awesome problem to have, but wait until you’re red, raw, run down, and can’t get a damn thing done*; then let’s see what you have to say about it. Oh yes, you can most definitely have too much of a good thing. Try telling that to my flatmate, though, who’ll happily put “World on a String” (as performed by Michael Bublé) on repeat for the entire duration of the morning commute, because it gets him pumped for a day at work.

I’ve worked long and hard at expanding his horizons, but it seems he can only latch onto one new thing at a time before culture club is adjourned. Oh well, I suppose listening to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack on repeat instead of Billy Joel is progress.

Thus far, I have failed to replace Super Mario Kart Wii. Can you see how that might be a problem?

I have another friend who’s stuck on Super Mario Kart. Not stuck as in “can’t finish it”, but stuck as in he keeps coming back to it. He uses the Classic Controller on Mario Kart Wii, if only to simulate playing it on a SNES. I’m pretty sure his frustration with the Wii version is parallel with my feelings “going back” to the SNES version. What he may see as impurities introduced to the Wii version, I see as tweaks missing from the SNES version. Nonetheless, Super Mario Kart is an experience enshrined with very good reason.

I’ve seen it referred to as an abstraction of go-karting, but it’s more an abstraction of Super Mario Bros. Your adversaries are your timer, as your driver jumps, hits question mark blocks for powerups, throws shells, and avoids obstacles to reach the finish line [flagpole]. It’s Mario in 3D, essentially, and a testament to the primal strength of the Super Mario Bros. game design.

It’s Wacky Races: The Videogame, where everybody knows your name playing dirty is a virtue, and mischief is encouraged. So many great games revel in the fun of mischief made.

For every time Nintendo has been berated for making “kiddie” games, they should be applauded for their timeless aesthetic choices. What separates Super Mario Kart (and indeed, any Nintendo game) from the rest of the dross is this thing we in the biz like to call “art direction”. This vibrant cast of characters wouldn’t look out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon, and I’m here to tell you that’s a good thing.  Donkey Kong, Luigi, Yoshi, Bowser, and Princess Peach have each become so familiar they can headline their own games and still sell a million copies.

I picked Yoshi because he looks like he has a thermometer in his mouth.

It blew the Mario game wide open – beyond platformers – into racers, sports, RPGs, and fighters. It was just a great idea.

Super Mario Kart deserves every bit of nostalgia lavished on it. Everything about it is memorable. Just don’t show it to your flatmate.

* This review was delayed by at least two days due to Flatmate Mario Kart Addiction.

Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse

First Contact
No, Mickey! You'll unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum!

Mickey Mania was a neat little game – fluid animation, confident visual presentation, clever little set-pieces – until someone put a goddamn mine cart level in the second stage.  I fucking hate mine cart levels, almost as much as I hate escort missions (maybe more, I can’t decide).  They’re a crime against platforming, and they should be blacked from the game developer’s palette.  Usually you won’t see one until the latter third of the game, when the level designers have run out of ideas (see Taz Mania, Donkey Kong Country); not so with Mickey Mania.  They’re* even clever enough to disguise the mine cart level as a ride through the Mad Doctor’s lab on a Frankensteinian operating table – but a lacquered turd is still a turd.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
A mine cart level by any other name...

They’re* still throwing out interesting puzzles well after that, albeit executing them in the most annoying way possible.  Mostly by sending wave after wave of respawned enemies at you while you’re trying to solve them.  The enemies are more trouble than they’re worth.  Take the skeletons for instance: some take one bean-shot to kill, some take three despite no apparent visual difference, all explode in a flurry of bouncing bones that continue to maim you from beyond the grave.  You’re better off just jumping over them so you only have one or two pieces of enemy to contend with (they throw their skulls).

[* ‘They’ of course refers to game designers Travellers Tales and Sony Imagesoft, which, most interestingly, included the likes of David Jaffe,  the very vocal director of the God of War games.  Later tonight he will post a video blog from his garage rebutting the many valid points of this article.]

It’s at this point I remember this was probably supposed to be a kid’s game.  Why is it that every single Disney game is far too difficult for its target audience?  Ducktales, Land of Illusion, Aladdin, The Lion King – I could go on forever – each one, though pretty enough to check all those graphics/presentation/sound/music boxes for gaming mag reviews, is the gameplay equivalent of torture.  Child torture.  And last time I checked, that’s against the law, people.

You wanna talk about torture?  Torture is having LOAD TIMES on a cartridge game.  It’s just wrong on so many levels.

'Timeless Adventure' alright!

Let’s go back to mine cart levels, why I hate them with a seething, white hot rage, and why this one in particular has raised my ire.  We’ve just become acquainted with with the titular character, his controls, how he handles, only to have that control unceremoniously snatched from us, helplessly hurtling (and hopping) towards all manner of deadly fates.  Passing the level then becomes an exercise in rote memorisation, and of course, abject frustration.  It’s nowhere near as soul-crushing as that most infamous of mine cart levels – the hoverbike-ride through the Wind Tunnels of Battletoads – but after save/load stating my way through the level, I found that the only way I could make the final jump was to purposely run into the final obstacle.  Who in their right mind’s going to think of something like that?  A child?  A ‘hardcore gamer’?  I know, I’ll just run into that thing that was killing me during the first three-quarters of the level!  On purpose!

Oh, and another thing: what’s with Mickey’s bean-shot?  What’s to prevent him from throwing magic beans anywhere other than directly left or right in a straight line?  I’ve seen platformers and side-scrolling shoot-em-ups get it on before, but Mickey Mania is an experience akin to playing Space Invaders sideways with an abacus.  That’s about the closest I can come to illustrating what a royal pain in the arse it is for a gravity-laden Mickey to shoot rogue bats on the y-axis.  He *can* jump on *some* enemies *some*times, but like all non-Sonic, non-Mario platformers, it fails to distinguish just where, when, and how that will succeed.

It’s a pretty enough cartoon to be sure, but controls maketh the videogame, and – I’m sorry to say – Mickey don’t got it.

Now somebody give me a medal for not mentioning Epic Mickey a single time during the course of this write-up.

Oh.

Claymates

Does anyone else remember the ‘clay’ craze that took place circa 1993?  It seemed like every game and his dog wanted to be made out of clay, when in reality it was probably just Interplay.  Maybe the whole thing was a symptom of those ‘photorealistic’ FMV games on the Mega CD, or Mortal Kombat.  Then again, who really cares? Claymates is the second ‘clay’ themed franchise from Interplay, ClayFighter having just been released six months beforehand.

Claymates is built around a bizarre premise: your name is Clayton (get it?), and your nutty professor father has developed a formula to turn humans into animals(!) and is presumably about to show you/experiment on you(!), when out of nowhere an evil shaman teleports himself inside the laboratory, transforming you into a ball of clay with his stick before spiriting your father away!

THIS IS BLASPHEMY!  THIS IS MADNESS!!

This is Claymates.

"NO!!  FATHER, PLEASE!!!"
“NO!! FATHER, PLEASE!!!”

So now you’re this blue ball of clay rolling around a garish level that exists solely within the confines of your backyard sandpit.  You’d be surprised what you can fit in a sandpit!  It’s funny, because Claymates invented ‘sandbox’ gaming before GTA did [except not really, because that was a joke, and if we were to take it that literally the first child that ever took up a bucket and spade invented sandbox gaming].  Anyway, you pick up a coloured ball of clay pretty soon and transform into a slow-as-buggery cat or a mouse-with-his-ass-on-fire most of the time, but occasionally you might transform into something interesting like a bird that pecks and flies really badly or a squirrel that throws acorns or a fish that shoots bubbles.  I don’t know what goldmine they thought they were sitting on here, but I noticed before the title screen that Interplay had trademarked all these animals, giving them names like “Muckster™ the Cat” and “Globmeister™ the Gopher” (apparently not a squirrel anymore), which is interesting considering the animals pretty much look like generic depictions of what they are (the mouse looks like a mouse, the cat looks like a cat, etc.).

Timeless Classics(TM).
Timeless Classics™.

Thing is, I thought you were still ‘you’ (Clayton) when you picked up the clay and transformed into an animal.  After all, is that not what Prof. Dad’s formula was all about?  Perhaps this means that you’re imbued with the evil shaman’s animistic powers and can channel the spirits of these kooky characters, which begs the question, why, then, would the shaman even need the formula if he already had the power to channel animal spirits?! This game raises far more questions than it seeks to answer.

After you’ve pondered the logistics of animism and weird science, you run and jump from left to right kleptomanaically collecting gems, items, power-ups, and uncovering secret mini-levels.  The collect-a-thon is, however, spoiled by dubious checkpoint placement and the fact that you lose all gems, items, and animality upon dying (even if you’ve reached a checkpoint).  The harshness of it all really discouraged me, and was seemingly at odds with the game’s initial invitation to experiment and explore.  That said, Claymates is still inviting, and packed full of things to do.  Upon finishing the level, two robots are unleashed upon your backyard (overworld) and help you break into your neighbours’ backyards(!) and consequently, their sandpits (levels).  Curiouser and curiouser.

The action button doubles as the run button, which is a bit awkward, seeing as slow-as-buggery Muckety-Mucky-Muckster™ can’t run and slash at the same time.  Oozy™ the Mouse is impressively fast – possibly even faster than a certain blue hedgehog – and must make use of the ‘blaze-processing’ boasted about on some virtual box art I found the other day.  Problem is these fellas run about as smooth as an oil slick, but let’s chalk that one up to personal preference, hey?  The level design is Spartan, but clever – the various power-ups and level devices themselves are crude, ugly, and reminiscent of Apogee shareware.

Deliciously Ugly.
Deliciously Ugly.

The sprites look okay, and I suspect the clay effect would have knocked the socks off of kids on their CRT televisions back in the day, but now they look a little out of place juxtaposed with the decidedly un-clay levels.  The character animation is terrible once again – I’m starting to see a trend here in most non-Mario/Sonic platformers – to the point that I’m wondering whether it was animation, and chiefly animation, that separated those two giants of industry from the rest of the competition during that era.

It may not be Mario and it may not be Sonic, but Claymates is definitely one of the more interesting platformers out there.  I suspect the lack of polish is inversely proportional to the overabundance of ideas crammed into these sandpits.  My advice: climb into the sandpit wide-eyed like a child and you’ll be in a state of constant surprise.

Just don’t come crying to me if you get sand in your eyes.

Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool

Chester Cheetah went to school, so he's 2 Cool 2 Fool.
Chester Cheetah went to school, so he’s 2 Cool 2 Fool.

Ah, Cheetos – the staple food of Geekdom. What better way to sell your cheese-flavoured snacks to that core demographic than to have your Company Mascot With Attitude(TM) star in a videogame? I’ll tell you: with a better videogame.

Too Cool to Fool is the second and last of the short-lived Chester Cheetah ‘series’ (THANK GOD). Both games released in the same year, which should give you an idea of the time and effort that didn’t go into this.

It’s all the more disappointing when you consider the quality of the animation in the old commercials. There’s virtually no animation to speak of here, much less level design. Chester walks – yes, he’s a cheetah and he fucking WALKS – across a flat plain filled with enemy turtles that move faster than he does, in a post-Sonic videogame.

Unlike Sonic, Too Cool to Fool is Definitely Not Cool. The music can only be described as “dangerously cheesy”. The game opens with a prologue from the mouth of Chester himself (and indeed, so does every level) written in anapestic tetrameter. You may remember this poetic meter from such publications as Dr Seuss’ ‘Yertle the Turtle’ (AGAIN WITH THE TURTLES). Yeah, real cool.

When Chester went to school, he learnt to write in anapestic pentameter.
When Chester went to school, he learnt to write in anapestic tetrameter.

Let me showcase the frustration for you: you’re WALKING along flat, boring yellow ground with the occasional purple tree blocking your view in the foreground, jumping on turtles that are faster than you, collecting items that are in no way Cheetos-related. Then comes a bulldog-driven steamroller, seemingly impervious to your jump attack. There’s no visual feedback; you knock it backwards a little bit, but the bulldog appears decidedly nonplussed and the steamroller undamaged. It wasn’t until I watched the demo that I learned you could in fact destroy the steamroller if you jump on it five times. Or you could do what I did earlier; just let it steamroll you and drive on by. There’s collectible shades (even though Chester is already wearing a perfectly serviceable pair of sunglasses) which make the whole screen darker. Then you come to piranha-infested waters at the end of the level. This is the part of the game that forces you to learn to press ‘Select’ at the title screen and realise that the ‘R’ button actually does something for once, and that is dash. You then of course map the function to a more logical button like ‘Y’ or ‘B’ and replay the level. Now apparently cats are afraid of water because it makes them shatter into pieces, and piranha schools rise and fall in Mexican waves. They try to eat you sideways to no avail, but lucky for them they have razor-sharp fins that kill you anyway. And if you survive that, there’s a boss fight waiting for you on the other side.

Bland, boring level design: check!  Walking cheetah: check!  Invulnerable bulldog-driven steamroller: check!  Purple tree blocking foreground: check!
Bland, boring level design: check! Walking cheetah: check! Invulnerable bulldog-driven steamroller: check! Purple tree blocking foreground: check!

I can just imagine the disappointed looks on the 90s children’s faces as they wrangle with this 16-bit representation of their favourite cheese-flavoured snack mascot. Poor Mum didn’t know any better. It’s sad, because children were no doubt the intended audience, given the Seussian pre-level rhyme and the sheer poorness of the game. It’s a platformer without platforms, what else really needs to be said?

Chester summed up the whole affair from the very beginning:

“I just don’t dig this bogus gig.”

Neither do I. But maybe I’ve been asking all the wrong questions. Would it sell a pack of Cheetos? Probably it would!

“Screw this, Cheetos are heaps better than this game. Wanna get some Cheetos?”

“YES.”

Adventures of Dr. Franken

I’m not sure I understand the appeal during the 16-bit era to make biger sprites. The SNES allowed us to have guys on the screen that were bigger than they could have been on the NES, and a bunch of games jumped on this. What’s weird, though, is that the size of the sprites is often inversely proportional to the quality of the game.

Games with smaller sprites:
– All the Mario games
– Street Fighter
– Chrono Trigger

Games with bigger sprites:
– Dr. Franken
– Clayfighter 2
– Family Dog

Need I say more? This game feels kind of like a really, really cheap, awful clone of Castlevania, in a way. In that you climb stairs. That’s about it. You play Frankenstein’s Monster, if he looked like the 90s and was stupid. Your main attack is a useless kicking move. It’s actually a very funny animation in its awfulness.

This game is probably not worth checking out unless you are the HUGEST fan of Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster ever, and don’t mind something so ugly and so 90s that makes Zombies Ate My Neighbors look like a modern chic masterpiece, then you may just be in pig heaven when you play this game.

Adventures of Dr. Franken