After checking out the latest, typically profound Stuff No One Told Me comic, The weight of things, it got me thinking yet again about my own life and habits, and in particular an area that relates to Armchair Arcade's mission, which is primarily to chronicle the complete history of videogames and computers. As a co-founder of Armchair Arcade, I've obviously been a part of shaping said mission, which is no surprise as it's clearly a reflection of my own life. As I used to like to say, I have three basic loves in my life: family, working out, and of course, technology, with a big focus on videogames and computers.
As you probably know by now, I have a ridiculously large videogame and computer collection--more stuff than can be appreciated in one lifetime, stuff I've been accumulating for the better part of my 39 years on this planet in one way or another. It is in that particular area that that comic speaks most to me, as, as much as my collection brings me joy, it also feels like the beast I must constantly tend to, and, most sad of all, constantly feed, with little time available to stop and smell the actual "roses," which is usage of the very items that elicit the warm and fuzzies in me, both in recollections of positive childhood memories (again, as in the comic) and to satisfy my present desires.
I think as much as we'd like to think otherwise, I do believe we can have all of the same feelings of "weight" about digital goods, i.e., items that only exist as bits of information stored somewhere other than a physical medium we retain all rights to, like a record, cassette, disk, optical disc, etc. Again, there's a certain burden of guilt of lack of usage because there's simply not enough hours in the day. It's part of the reason why I avoid any and all MMORPGs--not for fear of addiction, but rather for fear of not being able to put time into it to make it worth the effort. "First world problems" as they say...
Naturally, abundance in that area also breeds indifference. I always like to use MAME as an example. It's something we would have practically murdered for as kids in the 1980s, but shortly after gaining the ability to replicate literally thousands of arcade games in the late 1990s, we as a whole became somewhat indifferent to the idea. It's there, it's free, it's accessible, it's everything we hoped for, but the "chase" is over. The dream has been realized and it's overwhelming. In other words, it's all in our possession without barriers and it somehow became far less special than when we had to plunk down .25 or more per play. In fact, digital subscriptions like Netflix and OnLive can feel like that too, where we can somehow complain about the lack of selection despite hundreds or even thousands of possible on demand selections that we couldn't possibly have the time to explore even a portion of.
So, can I rid myself of my possessions like in the comic and set myself free? Although I've fantasized about it, probably not. I don't think most of us could or ultimately would want to. You'd have to be at a very specific point in your life with very specific responsibilities. I guess all I - all we - can do is acknowledge the problem, try to keep it under control, and for goodness sake, try and really enjoy this trip through life a bit more. To put it another way, think about and smell those "roses" now and again, whatever form they may take...
They say hindsight is 20/20. (Actually, I think it's more like 10/40, but what can you do?) So, if you found yourself suddenly zapped back to the dawn of the videogame era, what choices would you make? Which systems would you rather have had? And what impact do you think these changes would make on your personality today?
Of course, most of us back then could only afford to support one, maybe two systems (assuming one was older). It would have been nice to have enough money and time to have all of them.
Now that I'm older and hopefully wiser, I've put together a list of the systems I wish I had had, and roughly when. I'd very much like to hear your thoughts and see your lists.
1977-1982: Apple II. There's really no doubt about the importance of this system during this period (and beyond), but it saw the birth of countless genres and franchises. Ideally, I would have been able to expand and keep this system after getting a new computer, since it was still seeing important exclusives well into the 80s, especially the Ultima games and Sierra On-Line adventures.
My second choice for this period would be the Atari 2600, a very capable games console with a respectable lineup and of course immense popularity.
For those who didn't catch it, those bizarre rumors of Nintendo releasing an analog joystick add-on for the 3DS are true. What's bizarre about this $20 add-on - besides how quickly this will be released after launch - is that it will require a AAA battery. Some are speculating that this is for some type of rumble feature - something Nintendo has tried a few times before on their handhelds and never supported beyond a few games here and there - but it could simply be because of the way the expansion clips in and is utilized that may it require a power assist. This of course does nothing to help the 3DS's anemic battery life, so why Nintendo didn't address the REAL issue here (hint: it wasn't the lack of a second analog stick) and make it a combination rechargeable battery slice and analog stick combo is beyond me, but then Nintendo has not been making much sense in the past year anyway, be it the anemic Wii game release schedule or the seemingly panicked series of "corrective" responses to a tepid 3DS launch.
Frankly, Nintendo doing a HUGE price drop for the 3DS shortly after launch spurred sales enough where you think they wouldn't have to do this analog stick thing (which, by the way, adds another set of shoulder buttons!), but these days there's no telling what's going on behind the scenes over there at Nintendo HQ. Perhaps Nintendo has projected that the sales boost won't be sustained, or perhaps they're somehow fearful of the wide 2012 release of Sony's Vita, but I really doubt either scenario. While I've gone on record stating that I believe this is the last sustainable generation for a dedicated mainstream gaming handheld in the light of already good enough smartphone and tablet gaming (which will quickly get ever more powerful due to the amazing amount of competition in those spaces, outpacing anything possible in dedicated gaming handhelds), there is still this generation to keep the proverbial good times rolling at least somewhat like they were before the iPhone kicked off the smartphone craze and threw a monkey wrench into the whole portable gaming thing.
Naturally this analog stick add-on kind of minimizes Nintendo's other announcement of 3D video recording with the 3DS, which is rather neat, but it will probably be more of a novelty than anything particularly useful anyway given the handheld's inherent power. There was also the usual announcement of additional entries in their popular franchises, which of course Nintendo has been leaning on almost exclusively of late.
Oh, and one more thing... If anyone thinks for a minute that this analog stick add-on doesn't mean that a combined 3DS hardware revision isn't coming sooner rather than later, then I guess you probably also think that Nintendo is fully in control behind the scenes these days...
I was recently kvetching about Dragon Age II for various reasons, but then decided to zero in on something that seems to be a problem for almost all modern games: crude exposition. By "exposition," I mean the parts of any narrative where you have to break from the action and provide context. For example, if you're describing a spy breaking into a safe, you might need to stop for a moment to let the reader know who the spy is and what he's doing there, where and what time period this is taking place in, etc. Most authors break this stuff up and distribute it throughout the piece, so you aren't just suddenly hit with page after page of facts, but get them piecemeal as you proceed through the story. For instance, the author might mention in passing that there's a flag with a swastika above the safe, thereby letting you know this is probably taking place in Germany during World War II. Then she might put you in the spy's head, imagining scientists building a missile based on the schematics in that safe. Without any kind of exposition, the reader will have no reason to care about what's taking place and probably stop reading. One sign of a good author is that the exposition doesn't impede the action too much, but maintains a certain flow that keeps us turning pages.
I've encountered so many examples of crude exposition in games recently...the "codex" in Dragon Age 2, the tape recorders in Bioshock 2, the consoles in Halo ODST, the pages in Alan Wake...It seems when confronted with presenting context, the first instinct of a game designer is to make it superfluous.
As you can imagine, the business of exposition is tricky for any medium. Watch some of the early X-Files episodes and you'll see a lot of rather blatant expositions, usually something like this: "Stonehenge? Oh, yes, the ancient druid stones that researchers think may have served an astronomical function, but some conspiracy theories think could not have been built by anyone but extraterrestrials," etc. I mention this show because the exposition is usually so blatant that it feels forced and thus obvious to viewers. Obviously, they didn't expect the audience to know much, if at all, about the subject matter of the show. Games shouldn't ever have this problem because designers know exactly what the players know--assuming they have done their homework and not made the context superfluous to the content.
Let me say here that it makes no more sense to interrupt the gameplay with a screen full of text than it does for a bag of fried chicken to include an instruction manual. If your game requires players to read text, re-design it so that it doesn't.*
A lot of peeps have been asking me to compile a list of my top ten favorite CRPGs of all time. Like most fans of the genre, I have many favorites, and these will shift around as I come in and out of different phases. Also, this is just a personal list of what I either enjoy now or look back on with the most fondness; I'm not worried here about what is most influential or innovative. It's just my top ten favorite CRPGs, as of this moment. I'm also going to skip hybrid games that try to cross genres, such as Mass Effect and Deus Ex, as well as MUDs and MMORPGs. Okay, enough disclaiming already! Here goes the list:
10. Knights of the Old Republic. I have to admit the bulk of my appeal for this game comes from its setting in the Star Wars universe, which I love almost as much as Middle Earth and Krynn. There were times playing this game where I felt I had actually entered that universe and was a part of something bigger than the game itself. It seems to me that after this game, Bioware cut the cord and went Action, Action, ACTION. There's some of that tendency here, but compared to Dragon Age and Mass Effect, at least this still reminds me of a true CRPG.
9. The Bard's Tale. It's a bit of a guilty pleasure to love this game so much, since it was heavily derivative on Wizardry, but what can I say...It didn't take me long to really want to explore the town of Skara Brae and get my pack of wimpy, glass-jawed heroes up to snuff. I also really like the Bard as a class and character; it seems obvious today, but back then it was really fun to think about a guy out strumming a lute as the rest of the party fought for their lives. I also really like the artistic style, which adds a certain character that really is unique. It also has a great box that you can fold out and see a lovely map of the city. Good stuff.
8. Dungeon Master. Another game that I am deeply saddened to have missed out on when it was fresh. I know I would've absolutely loved it. Unfortunately, it required 1 megabyte of RAM to play, and my Amiga 1000 was limited to 512K. That still frustrates me to this day! Still, when I finally got to play it, I was really impressed with the interface, and it's obvious at once how the real-time elements set it apart from its predecessors and contemporaries. It's a bit hard to get into today because of the magic system, which definitely requires some reading, but overall it's still lots of fun. I remember the ads stressed that you need to wear headphones and only play the game at night. I don't know if that was necessary, but it was a neato game for sure.
While the old 7800 is connected up I may as well cover the other games I have, including a homebrew effort.
Hi, folks. I thought that today, in the spirit of the "top" lists that are so ubiquitous these days, I'd offer you a list of five reasons why you should care about Armchair Arcade. Many of you may not even know what it is or how it got started, but even those of us who've been around since the early days might like a little refresher and a personal view. So, here goes.
Reason #5: Founded in 2003. That's right, folks, Armchair Arcade has been around for eight years. Actually, its birthday is in September. There's not many non-commercial websites that can make that claim, especially not many dedicated to vintage games and computers. You should feel comfortable making this your home base, because you can rest assured we are here to stay. You can read our about us page or our FAQ to learn more.
Last week I had the pleasure of traveling to Bogotá, Colombia, to attend and present at Campus Party Colombia 2011, a fantastic industry event that evolved out of LAN parties. The place was packed with thousands (tens of thousands?) of gamers, most of whom stayed up all night playing multiplayer games and then sleeping in tents provided by the event. It's like a summer camp for gamers! In the past few years, though, they've been adding on game development features, with the government and Colombian companies trying to spur some interest among young people in building games. I assume they realize (correctly) that a strong interest in making videogames will lead to a flowering of many related industries, including many that are good for business.
I could write a book about my adventures, but I'll just stick to the highlights. Two were getting to see Captain Crunch (John Draper) and Nolan Bushnell. I didn't get to meet CC, but did hear him speak (he sounds like Dennis Hopper). Somebody asked him what he thought about Anonymous, and he replied with something very witty: "Anonymous? I've heard of them. That means they're not good hackers." Haha!
Everybody who's been gaming or awhile is well aware of the Videogame Crash of 1983, a period that saw the collapse of the American console market and a strange period when many people thought the videogame was dead. The causes are numerous and hotly contested, but it's likely just an unexciting story of a bubble that popped. One strain of the story I've always found interesting as it is improbable, is that two games are primarily responsible for the crash: Howard Scott Warshaw's E.T. and Tod Frye's Pac-Man, both for the 2600. In both cases, we're talking about massively hyped games that sold tremendously well, but then got returned to stores in droves. My thought for today is whether something like this could happen again--could a rapid-fire succession of massively disappointing games topple the industry like it did in the 80s?
We've recently seen five games that by all rights "should" have been great--expectations were high, fanboys numerous, and, for the most part, very talented people were in control. However, in each case, the major critics either dismissed them as mediocre or blasted them as if they were almost personally offended by their perceived lack of quality:
Duke Nukem Forever. Metacritic score: 55.
Alpha Protocol Metacritic: 72 (Gamespot: 60, IGN: 63).
Hunted: The Demon's Forge. Metacritic score: 63.
Alice: Madness Returns. Metacritic score: 75 (IGN: 65).
Dungeon Siege 3. Metacritic: 73 (IGN: 65, Gamespot: 60).
Even Nintendo seems to be having problems. Despite the waves of hype the 3DS is currently receiving over the re-release (yawn) of Ocarina of Time, I still see the whole thing as another Virtual Boy with a much better marketing campaign. I see an upcoming backlash, though, as more purchasers find that they aren't getting full refunds when they try to return the devices that give them headaches. That's the kind of episode and bad publicity that can make anyone think twice about buying a game. As for Nintendo's new console, it sure looks like that "U" stands for "Useless." Sony, of course, is unlikely to ever recover from the PSN nightmare, and Microsoft doesn't seem far behind. Even if the new console is great, who can justify it in this economy?
Let me start by saying I haven't played Alice: Madness Returns and will probably never play it. After all, avoiding games like this is why I read reviews, such as this one, this one, and this one. If you don't want to read all those, let me sum it up for you: The baby has turned into a pig.
It's funny how so many quotes from Lewis Carroll's work seem appropriate here. Consider:
March Hare: Have some wine.
(Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea.)
Alice: I don't see any wine.
March Hare: There isn't any.
Alice: Then it wasn't very civil of you to offer it.
March Hare: It wasn't very civil of you to sit down without being invited.