My new article about Vectrex Regeneration is up at Gamasutra.com.
Here it is, I'll come out and say it. I used to play pencil and paper role playing games. I played games like Dungeons And Dragons, Palladium and Call Of Cthulhu for most of the 80's. I was blessed with a great friend (and he is still my friend to this day) named Brandon who was an amazing Game Master and story teller. Brandon made RPGs really interesting and hard to pass-up, and playing them became my obsession for many late nights in high school and even into college. I did not play every weekend, and I took long breaks, sometimes for years, but I still played. I pretty much gave them up when girls started showing interest in me, but there was a point at which both intertwined (and sometimes not harmoniously).
Some of the adventures we played through, especially the swashbuckling sci-fi horror of Call Of Cthulhu, have stuck with me over the years just like the best books I've read or movies I have seen. While I never stopped playing computer RPGs, those mostly solitary games are a completely different breed from the very social and imagination fueled games we used to play. There is no substitute for a group of us sitting around Brandon's coffee table, consuming pounds of sunflower seeds and gallons of cheap, sugary iced tea, rolling dice and talking about using Elephant guns to take-down Nyarlathotep. I still get the urge to play now and then, but with a young family, the time commitment is too great. Brandon and I have talked about getting a game together, but for now, pencil and paper RPGs are a memory gathering dust in the attic of my mind, waiting for their time, if it ever comes, to shake off the cobwebs and return to the forefront of my disposable time and income.
A recent book (2009) explores a similar fascination with youthful role playing games in the middle-age in a very thorough and thoughtful way. Ethan Gilsdorf's Fantasy Freaks And Gaming Geeks explores the author's attempt to understand, explore and come to gripes with, the role playing games he played and loved as a kid. Like many other kids in the 70's and 80's, Gilsdorf first dove into the fantasy horrors of role playing games as an escape from the very real horrors of his everyday life. Much like myself, he gave them up just about the time he could legally buy alcohol, but as the years turned into decades he realized the urge to play still burned within him . Around his 40th birthday, he set out on an adventure to find meaning from fantasy, and to come to grips with his past and present.
Gilsdorf's fascination with the fantasy exploits of his past becomes a hero's journey (of sorts) in the present. What starts as a trip to the basement of a comic book store, turns into a quest to walk in the footsteps of Gary Gygax and J.R.R. Tolkein both real, and imaginary. Gilsdorf travels the world, interviewing people who play table-top games, live action role-playing games (LARP), computer MMORPGs and much more. He observes the proceedings, and also takes part, exploring his feelings about what the activities mean, both in light of his past and his present. Some people might be turned off by just how personal Gilsdorf's travels become, but I really appreciated them. To me, dry facts and figures about the affect and influence of fantasy games are boring without a good helping of personal narrative to help wash it down.
Gilsdorf touches on the fact that other more "acceptable" activities (e.g. fantasy sports) have many of the same qualities as role playing games and offer the same kind of benefits (socialization, competition) and drawbacks (addiction, unhealthy escape), but are not derided in the same way in the popular press as fantasy games and activities. He struggles from both internal and external pressure with the idea that he should "grow out" of the youthful kid stuff of role playing games, but at the same time embrace "adult" activities that are pretty much the same thing dressed up another way. I would have liked a bit more exploration and comparison of "fantasy" vs. "accepted" activities but what is here, at the very least, sparks the fire for future conversation.
Even though you can pretty much guess the results of Gilsdorf's quest from the outset, the journey is what matters here, and it is quite a fascinating ride. The author gives the reader a warts and all look into his mind, offering a kind of naked analysis of himself that goes a bit further than I expected on the outset. The book is recommended for anyone who either thinks or once thought they have "grown out" of pencil and paper games. It just might inspire you to pick it all up once again...or run screaming for the door. Either way, you'll be better for the experience.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is the the best book about video games you will read this year. However, this is not a history book, nor is it a personal narrative. Instead, Ready Player One history lesson in 80's pop culture wrapped inside an engaging sci-fi story.
The story is set in the mid 21st century, after all the disasters that threaten to befall the world right now, come to pass: peak oil, global warming, famine, drought, long-term massive unemployment, etc. The one bright spot (if you can call it that) is the OASIS, an online world in the vein of World Of Warcraft that has usurped the internet, and has became the defacto "reality" for most of the world's population.
Just before he died, James Halliday, the creator of OASIS devised a game , inspired by Atari's Adventure, by hiding an Easter Egg somewhere in the OASIS that would grant the winner full control of OASIS and access to his vast fortune. He gave one clue , and as the book opens, the world has been trying to figure out that single clue for five straight years, with no avail.
The hero of the story, Wade, is an everyman who has been affected by the worldwide downturn as much as anyone else. He is a "gunter", the name given to people who spend all their time trying to figure out how to find Halliday's Easter Egg. His story and the pathway to the Easter Egg form the narrative of the book.
I will give no more away, except to say that this is also the perfect book for 8bitrocket.com. Cline goes to great lengths to include bits of nostalgia that will suit every taste...but much of it centers on the era of Golden Age, 8-bit, Atari. Since James Halliday was an 80's fanatic, all of the gunters have enveloped themselves in the most minute 80's trivia imaginable, trying to find clues to find the egg. This gives the author an excuse to weave the games, tv shows, movies, music, etc. from the 80's in a futuristic setting .It also keeps the story moving without it becoming a pure nostalgia piece. It was a brilliant move, as it allows the author space to set the book the future and the past at the same time without attempting some kind of time travelling mechanic. In fact, in a way, this book sort of warns of a situation in our not-too-distant future, where there is no "past" at all, and everything just exists in the present.
Ready Player One is a fun, accessible page turner that will appeal to anyone who enjoys video games, the 80's, dystopic sci-fi, mysteries, or any combination of those topics. With this book and Lucky Wander Boy, we now have a "collection" of great novels based on video game nostalgia to put onto our required reading shelf.
It appears that we are in a "gaming book" renaissance the likes of which we have not seen since the since the early parts of the 21st century when Dungeons And Dreamers, Masters Of Doom, and The First Quarter all fascinated us with inside stories of games being made and played.
While there have been a few good books in the past few years including Vintage Games, Dungeons And Desktops, and Racing The Beam, just last year we got the phenomenal Replay, and now two more books that are sure to delight the connoisseur of video game history have flung out of the gates.
The first book is 1001 video Games You Must Play Before You Die. This hefty tome makes a valiant attempt to cover the evolution of games by covering great ideas and great innovations, one game at time, chronologically. I'm not going to spoil the content, but what I will say is that you will be excited by what is included, but will also probably attempt to make your own list of 1001 alternate games that would be just as valid. It's a fun book to read for few minutes at a time, and it certainly will get your mind racing, either to play some games you have not heard about, or to furiously come-up with your own list of what was missed.
The second book , All Your Base Belong To Us, is even better. Author Harold Goldberg has done a wonderful job with this one. He tells the story of video games in short narrative, biographical chapters about the people involved in the evolution of the medium. His writing is crisp and interesting. The best compliment I can give the book is that it reminds me of the best technology history book ever written, Hackers by Steven Levy, and I don't say that lightly.
-Steve Fulton (8bitsteve)
(By the way, there are no affiliate links or anything sneaky attached to the links to amazon above, they are simply provided for your own connivence)
I can honestly say that The new book Replay by Tristan Donovan is the best book about the video game history ever published. Donovan's book unseats The First Quarter by Steven L. Kent (the previous title holder) by taking a broader, world-wide approach to the subject. Donovan was inspired by Kent's book, but was dissatisfied by it's focus on the USA, so he set out to write his own.
Donovan succeeds by focusing mostly on games, game design, and technical advances instead of the legal and hardware wars between manufacturers. The text flows from one subject to another, while covering topics that have not seen much ink in earlier books (i.e 70's computer games and the UK games scene). What emerges is more like a story about continuum of game design and development than a business school case study. Bravo! As a game developer, it is exactly what I was hoping for.
At 512 pages, the book is just about the right length for the topic, but still feels short because it is such an interesting and entertaining read. Writing a history book about video games is not for the faint of heart. There are so many "experts" out in the wilds of the internet that an author runs the risk of stepping on any number of land mines scattered by people who hold secret information "up their sleeves". Donovan combats this by using mostly first-hand material from new interviews and sources (at least they appear to be new as I have never read many of the quotes before).
Replay will not always be the best game about video game history ever written. Just like Kent's book stood high above the crowd more than decade ago but has now been overtaken, this book will probably be surpassed 10 years on by another author with an even broader perspective armed with even more insight brought on by the passage of time. However, at this historic moment, Replay is required reading for anyone with even the slightest interest in the history of video games, and I can't see that changing any time soon.
-Steve Fulton (8bitsteve)
One of our super-brilliant readers, "AndyGoesToHollywood", sent over link to Dulldudegames because he wanted us to take a look at Iain Lobb's simply brilliant game design tool. I am very impressed, especially with the platformer widget. I don't think there is any way to have it show you the code it is using (which would make is ultimately useful), but as a sandbox is it pretty cool.
After playing with it for a few minutes I took a look around and starting playing the other games on the site. There are 16 games available, some of which I had already played and knew were brilliant (Stacker and Super Stacker for example). Some I had never seen before:
Pop Pirates: I assume the Iain that coded this is Iain Lobb, but anyway it is a very polished, fun "fly up the screen an blast the f*** out of everything" game. It includes bouncy music and has that retro atmosphere that makes me feel like I'm at home sitting in front of my Atari ST avoiding class and waiting for summer to start.
Don't Look Back: This is a unique adventure / platform title. It shares elements with quite a few classic games (Pitfall, Hero, Raiders of the Lost Ark etc) but is brilliant in its own way. Each screen presents a challenge to find your way to the exit. There are guns to pick up, enemy/obstacles to blast, jump over, climb over, and more. The style is similar to the Atari 2600 or other very early 8-bit systems.
Hanna in a Choppa: A strange and awesome jaunty little game where you must fly a helicopter trough tunnels and solve little dexterity puzzles with the controls. It is very stylistic and quite s fun time.
There are many other games on the site to check out. I am not sure if they are all done by the same group of people (Iain and his friends) or if some are from other developers. Any case this site has an excellent selection of unique titles to play and learn from.
(8bitjeff is Jeff D. Fulton)
Ahh, here I am, its a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Southern California, and I am in doors, playing YOUR games. God I hope they are good this time...
Hikouki Tomodachi (FGD) (82% Retrotastic) - A very fun, and well done 1 or 2 player vertical scrolling blast-fest.
Darts and Beer (FGD) (75% Retrotastic) - Just as the title states. Play a pretty decent version of Flash darts and chug some beer (virtual) between each round. The more you drink the more difficult the game becomes.
Megapolis Traffic (FGD) (79% Retrotastic) - I love the look of this game. The object is to navigate public transportation to get to your desired end point. A novel concept. There are some interesting game design ideas in this one.
Protect The Treasure (FGD) (70% Retrotastic) - A simple, but pretty well presented shooter. You must protect your treasure from the attacking horde of zombie-like creatures.
Britney Spears (FGD) (10% Retrotatsic) - This dress-up game is notable only for how little the avatar looks like Britney Spears. It gets 10% because they did a good job looping the music sample. Let's note that I don't despise these games and understand they have and audience and hopefully make some money for the developers. This is not a good one though.
Santa Pod Racer (FGD) (80% Retrotastic) - Now, this is a well done little "Dragster" style game. It reminds me of the Atari 2600 classic.
Gunzy (FGD) (80% Retrotastic) - Another fun little game. You keep the can in the air while earning badges and shooting other little critters that make an appearance. It really is a cool little time waster.
Zombie Beast Stampede (FGD) (83% Retrotastic) - A deep and fun little "Tower" not "Path" defense style game combined with an arcade shooter.
E7 (FGD) (90% Retrotastic) - A cinematic masterpiece hiding in a very well crafted physics-based side-scrolling adventure.
I find it easier to get into my day if I play a few games first. Digging through the Mochi Latest and Flash Game Distribution feed, here are some games that were good or bad enough for me to want to take a second look (at some ethereal unspecified future date).
Deep Diver (FGD) (83% Retrotastic) - A well made arcade / exploration game with mellow music (I was almost lulled to sleep by the long intro and the music, but it is a great game for kids)
Crazy Race Arena 2 (FGD) (85% Retrotastic) - An ambitious (if slightly flawed) first person 3D "smash-em-up derby game". This took some technical wizardry.
Cork Blaster (Mochi) (65% Retrotastic) - This isn't a deep game, you simply try to shoot the corks off the tops of bottles, but if you miss and shoot the bottles it makes a satisfying explosion. That's enough to get me excited this morning.
Zombie Miner (Mochi) (80 % Retrotastic) - Well made, fun little mining game (shoot to grab treasure from the top of the screen style) with a Zombie(?) theme.
Paint Man (Mochi) (65% Retrotastic) - Better than it looks 8-bit (or even 4-bit) style game. It's hard to explain, so watch the tutorial.
Cavity Crusade (Mochi) (88% Retrotastic) - I was getting bored and ready to stop reviewing games, but then this gem came along. Shoot the baddies and save the teeth.
Space Mission (Mochi) (75% Retrotastic) - There are both English and Spanish versions of this little arena / avoider game. Not incredible, but it was fun for a few plays a little unique.
Soviet Conquest (Mochi) (75% Retrotastic) - Hmm, I don't know about this one, but I would try it out again. You don't find too many traditional war games on Mochi. if I have time I will come back...
Oil Spill Escape - (Mochi) (82% Retrotastic) - Very well crafted little side-scroller where you avoid the gulf oil spill.
It would be easy to just go to the Mochi featured game list and hit those as they have been pre-screened for me. No can do, bud. That would leave out the wonderful world of games that don't get much attention (most deservedly so). Today I will be going through some more of the FGD feed and the Mochi Latest Games list to discover games that I would actually play again (if I had the time to play games). Each of these is special in its own way (good or bad). If you would like me to take a look at your game, send me and email to info[at]8bitrocket[dot]com.
All games get a score from 0-100 on the Retrotastic scale (a first impression of game's overall quality biased by my completely biased likes and dislikes). A game doesn't have to be retro in any way to get on this scale, but it helps because I will play it longer.
Anti Invasion Fighter - (FGD) Arcade blaster (82% Retrotastic) - A fun, well made game.
Blockies Breakout (FGD) - Awesome Breakout/Arknoid game (88% Retrotastic). It doesn't hurt that I am a HUGE Dave Munsie fan, but that aside this is a wonderfully crafted game.
Royal Envoy - (Mochi) - (No Score). It's not that games like this are not well crafted and professionally made...it's that they ARE! This is a demo of a a pay to buy game and it shows. I don't plan on reviewing too many games like this, but I fully support what they are doing. The production values and scope of this strategy / kingdom style game are well above what an individual indie can produce. That being said, it is a wonderfully made game. I don't have time to give it the due it needs, but you certainly should. These are the types of games (if purchased by players) that will keep the indie game business going strong.
Deadly Road Battle - (Mochi) - Classic top-down scrolling shooter with 360 shooting action. (80% Retrotsatic). Fun, but not deep. Good for a fun basting time.
Sub-zero condition - (Mochi) - 8-bit looking adventure / zombie shooter. (83% Retrotastic). I can't honestly give this one a score yet as it looks awesomely fun but I need more time with it.
Miranda Kerr Dress-up (Mochi) (75% Retrotastic) - As dress-up games go, this one is not technically too shabby (clothes stick to the correct spots, etc). Plus, it has a surprisingly accurate depiction of the Victoria Secret cutie to dress-up. Yes, there probably are some issues with IP here. Would I play it again? Probably not, but it shouldn't stop you from trying it. Also, I can't completely ignore a genre like this.
Shoot Down (Mochi) (75% Retrotastic) - An interesting take on breakout / Arknoid. It has some issues but the kernel of a great game is in here. It needs polish to become a big hit.
That's all the time I have for today, but there are mountains of games to look through. Send me a link to yours so I don't have to find it in the pile...