Saturday, 17 November 2012

Day 175 - get a load of this art (Part 1)

I'm really busy at the moment... last night, for instance, I left for work at 6:30am and didn't get home until 8pm.  It's not conducive to blog writing, so for now I've taken the unusual step of having a guest writer critique some loading screens from some of our favourite 80s games.  Let me introduce you to Mr. Arthur Critic.  Take it away, Art.

Computer and video games get a rough ride from most art critics.  Roger Ebert has famously said that they cannot be art.  Surely that's a ridiculous assertion.  Art takes many forms, and just because Mr. Ebert likes films and not video games, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are a lesser art form than movies... rather, a different one.

I'm not here to discuss that, though.  I'm going to look at an aspect of computer games that are most definitely art... the loading screen and/or the title screen.

Graphic artists had a difficult job with loading screens or title screens.  They had to convey a sense of excitement and anticipation about the game they represented for a fleeting moment, with the creator having the knowledge that whatever they produced would be instantly forgotten when the "Start" button was pressed.  They could almost have been forgiven for knocking out some quick, barely-representative rubbish, and some did, but many took pride in their work and produced some top quality efforts.  Let's look at some.

Thrust (Commodore 64)

Thrust is an incredibly difficult game, which sees you piloting a craft into the mining systems of planets, retrieving an energy pod and then, if luck and skill allow, escaping before the planet blows to smithereens.

This dramatic piece offers the pilot the light of hope as he heads out of the darkness with his hard-earned prize, yet reminds the player that complacency kills, with even the exit to freedom looking more like the mouth of a monster.  The subtle use of monochrome with just a hint of colour in the ship's tail lights prepare the player for the simplicity of the game's wireframe graphics, but also serve to heighten the effectiveness of the piece.

Eliminator (ZX Spectrum)

The idea of a roadway in space seems ridiculous to those of us trapped squarely on terra firma, but when you think about it, is it any more ridiculous than the idea of a space elevator?  No, it isn't, and that's been mooted for many a year now.

Eliminator has the premise that you must clear these roads of alien infestation.  It's a bit like today's M6, but with more missiles.  This Spectrum loading screen leaves you in no doubt as to what you'll be up against, as it contains all elements of the game: aliens, space, explosions, and a futuristic highway (complete with what might even be road works).  The large spaceship emphasises the fact you are a bad-ass, and this is further enforced by the large yellow ELIMINATOR game logo positioned under your ship.  This is a very effective loading screen.

Tetris (Commodore 64)
Everyone in the developed world knows about Tetris.  It's not just a game, it's a cultural phenomenon.  However, as the game involves nothing more than manipulating coloured bricks into a fixed area, it doesn't really lend itself toward imaginative artwork.

Thankfully, then, this game's loading screen artist eschewed the notion of representing gameplay, choosing instead to portray a naked man in space.  In one image, he appears confident, even seeming to sprinkle magic from his fingertips.  In the other, his back is turned, and he holds his head as he is engulfed by a storm.

I think we can determine from this that the artist wanted to convey the simplicity of the game, with the naked man representing the stripped-back game mechanics.  He may also have been attempting to portray the mental anguish and torment that comes from actually playing Tetris, as the player finds himself addicted to the challenge of continually placing shapes in a manner that will prolong the game.

On the other hand, maybe he just didn't fancy drawing a loading screen featuring a purple 'L'.  We may never know.

Wizball (ZX Spectrum)

The Commodore 64 version of Wizball, a game about colours developed for and programmed on a machine that was very good at handling multiple colours, had a somewhat bland loading screen.  There was lots of white, and a frankly average looking wizard standing in the middle of what ends up being an ellipse, rather than a ball shape.

I find it slightly ironic, then, that the Spectrum version had a markedly superior loading screen, featuring bold images of all the main elements of the game, loads of character, and above all, bags of colour.  Remarkable, for a machine that was mocked for its problems in that area.  This is a loading screen that would have had any Spectrum owner excited at the prospect of the game to come.

Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo (Commodore 64)

The path of a samurai is a noble one.  Usagi Yojimbo is about a samurai rabbit... probably no less noble, but I can see why he would keep his ears under his hat at times.  That said, in the game itself, they are proudly on display, and the peasants he encounters recognise him instantly for it and are humble.

The Spectrum loading screen is a more literal translation of the game box.  I prefer this more imaginative image.  Its use of Japanese symbolism is strong, with the dragonflies signifying the courage and strength of the warrior, and the lotus flowers in the foreground indicative of the purity of the samurai's values.  The picture shows a serenity that the warrior is forced to give up a short way into his tale.

Hydrofool (ZX Spectrum)
At first, I didn't realise this striking effort was a game screen.  It was so markedly different to any Spectrum art I had seen that I thought it was a pack shot.  When  I discovered I was wrong, I was actually quite excited.

Although the game is set on a planet that is like a giant aquarium, I like to think that this image is a metaphor for life, with the protagonist feeling as though he is trapped in a giant fishbowl.  The giant eyes seem to express surprise, or maybe even fear.  Perhaps the artist here was implying that we are all like goldfish, with somebody bigger watching us all the time, in some way.

Sorry, what was I doing again?

Oh well, not to worry.  I've enjoyed this little guest spot.  Maybe I can come back and do it again sometime.  Art, out.

Well, I think that went quite well.  I've called this part one... perhaps our guest columnist will be persuaded to visit again sometime, and discuss more of the graphic delights of our 80s games.  I, for one, would look forward to that.  I hope you enjoyed this enough to look forward to it, too.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Day 168 - in loving memory

Seven years ago today, we lost my youngest brother, Jamie.  He was only 26 years old, which is no age at all.  November 10th will always be tinged with sadness, naturally, but we prefer to be more celebratory and remember all the great times.  As he was a real character, there were plenty of them!

For the purposes of the blog, I'm playing some of the Commodore 64 games that I associate with him.  Although he was only born in 1979, he loved computer games from an early age and was soon able to pick up my second Zipstik and get stuck in alongside me.  This was great, because my other brother, Steven, wasn't that much of a games fan.  So it gave me someone to game with when I wasn't with a mate.  To be fair, most of his gaming was done on the Sega Megadrive and Saturn, but we did have some fun with the C64, even if it was on the wane by the time he was interested.

Rock 'N' Wrestle

After the mighty Way of the Exploding Fist, hopes were high among magazine reviewers that the next fighting game from Melbourne House (Fighting Warrior didn't count, did it?) would be amazing.  But they seemed disappointed, with reviews being less than stellar.  I, too, was disappointed... I'd hoped it would be brilliant fun, and the reviewers seemed to be saying it was nothing of the kind.  But then I played it...

That's going to cause a bit of a headache.
It's fair to say that Rock 'N' Wrestle is not an amazing game... but it CAN be brilliant fun!  It certainly has its flaws, but back then, they barely seemed to matter.  The wrestlers were all the same sprite but in different costumes, which didn't impress the magazines.  But to us, with a bit of imagination, they were all wildly different!  Did anyone really want to play as the dodgy moustachioed leather boy, though?

The game had digitized speech... but it was terrible!  If you managed to pin your opponent, the referee would shout out the count, something like this: "KHAAAA!  KHOOOO!  KHREEEE!"  And yet, we loved that!  We'd even shout it out when we were play-fighting!

For all its lack of polish, though, Rock 'N' Wrestle had a lot going for it in terms of gameplay, mainly in its use of the joystick.  There were a variety of moves available, depending on your position in the ring.  When both wrestlers were standing, you could kick, chop or grab.  If you grabbed, you could swing your opponent round, headbutt them, lift them or do a backbreaker.  If you lifted them, you could do a number of moves, including the vicious piledriver.  You could even climb up the turnbuckles, if you wanted.

Woah!  Woooooah!  WOOOOAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!
Even then, there were flaws.  You could batter your opponent senseless, taking away all their energy, but if you got careless they could still beat you!  This annoyed in the single-player game, but it was a real leveller in two-player games, and on more than one occasion I would get cocky and toy with my brother, only for him to grab me, throw me and pin me for the ultimate humiliation!

The Willow Pattern Adventure

This was the first game Jamie ever bought with his own money.  I suspect it was the oversized and different packaging that appealed... it probably looked like you were getting a lot for your money, what with Willow Pattern (as it said on the box) being a budget game.

I want that huge diamond, but I don't fancy scrapping with that fat lad to get it!
He played it a lot.  It was probably a good game for a young un to play and enjoy.  It's quite simplistic, as were many similar games of the time.  The object is to roam around the palace gardens in an attempt to find your way in, then make off with your love, the Princess, whilst avoiding her father.  Naturally this isn't easy, with the palace guards proving a formidable enemy.

It always used to annoy me when I found my way blocked by a guard and I had no sword.  It took me ages to realise that if you could lure a guard into throwing his sword and then get out of its way, the sword would drop to the ground and you could pick it up.  Once armed with that knowledge I could progress fairly well, and games lasted a decent length of time.

The path to true love never does run smooth!
Willow Pattern was never a great game, but this was a popular genre in its time, and this was a pretty classic example of an early budget game.    It appealed to me until games got more sophisticated, but Jamie really loved it, so it will always be a special game for me.


I will, to some degree, feel bad about Bounder until my dying day.  Why, you may ask?  It was a great game, after all.  Well, here's the thing...

It was Jamie's birthday, and he'd been given some money as a present.  I was going into Newcastle that weekend, and he asked if I would buy him a game with his birthday money.  Naturally, I told him I would... after all, I would stand to benefit from this, too.

And so it was that I was entrusted with his ten pounds, and the task of returning home with... The Eidolon.

It's always nice to know you have fans...
I was quite excited about that.  After all, it had received a massive Gold Medal from ZZAP! 64, and it looked amazing.  The prospect of fighting those giant dragons was very appealing indeed.

And yet, when I stood in WH Smiths with the game box in my hand, something didn't feel right.  I'd been looking at all the games, and for some reason I'd found myself drawn towards a game called Bounder.  It was a much more unassuming package, coming in a box which was half the size of The Eidolon's case, and with much less flashy artwork.

It had, though, also received a Gold Medal from ZZAP! 64.  What's more, it had a second game on the other side of the tape!  Surely that would be a better use of his birthday money?  With that rational thinking, I went against my brother's wishes and bought him Bounder with his birthday money.  I made my way home, and handed it over.

It was probably half an hour before he stopped crying.

Not as many questions as I faced when I came home with the wrong game...
To be fair, he was only seven years old.  Even after explaining the "two games for the price of one" aspect, he wasn't remotely appeased.  He wanted the game with the dragons.  I don't think he ever got to play it.

Personally, I loved Bounder right from the off.  What a horrible shit.  He grew to enjoy it, but I don't think he ever really got over the fact that it wasn't The Eidolon.  And I don't think either of us played Metabolis, the "B-side", to any degree.  Oh well, you live and learn.  I've never done that with anyone's money again.

From these early beginnings, Jamie went on to be quite a gamer.  I'd always considered myself good at games, but he would routinely thrash me.  On the Megadrive, we played the very first FIFA International Soccer on Christmas Day.  It was a tense, well-fought battle, which remained goalless until the last kick of the game, whereupon he scored with a screamer from outside the box.  On the Saturn, I would cane the brilliant Sega Rally, only to be crestfallen on my returns home from work to find my high-score table filled with his initials.

Jamie died as a result of epilepsy, a condition that can be tied to video games.  We'll never know if games triggered his attacks, or if it was just one of those things, but his is a very sad loss that may have been avoidable.  To that end, I intend to dedicate this book to him when it's finished, and I'm also giving serious consideration as to what might be involved in donating part of any proceeds to an epilepsy charity.  It's certainly something I've started looking into.

This post in memory of Jamie Neil Morrison: March 2nd 1979 - November 10th 2005.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Day 162 - reviewing, and reviewing

I wouldn't say I've been having writer's block lately... although I have had a few problems with what I've been writing for the blog.  I've had a couple of articles on the go, one of which is unfinished because I realised it needed a lot more research, and one of which I'll probably bin because it just feels like something is missing and I don't know what that something is.  I might be able to re-use some of it, but for now, I've cast it aside.

It's not all bad, though!  The book is steaming ahead at a steady rate, although none of the recent work has been juicy, from-the-horse's mouth stuff.  Instead, I've been writing my mini-reviews of games, which has seen me do a bit of interesting re-evaluation.

I really wanted to be a games reviewer when I was younger.  The lads at ZZAP! 64 were to blame for that... they got to play games for a living, and made it sound fantastic.  You imagined that they had a right laugh in ZZAP! Towers, too.  I applied for a Staff Writer's job there when a position opened up after I'd left school... there was no chance I'd ever get it, though.

Howay the lads!
I used to write my own ZZAP!-style reviews of games.  I even had a BASIC program on my Commodore 64 which separated all my games by genre... you could select the genre you wanted, and then choose a game review.  I was quite pleased with it, even if it was made up almost entirely of PRINT statements.  Computer programming has never been my forte.

That's really how I've ended up doing this.  I was lucky enough to write for the fan-produced Issue 107 of ZZAP! 64, and its subsequent Def Guide tribute.  And from there, I went on to write a fair number of games-related articles online, which really whetted my appetite for writing.  Going from online magazine to blogs to book seemed the most logical progression.

I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride...
Anyway... back to what I've been doing lately. I've been choosing a programmer who I would like to include in the book and then playing through all of their games.  I've then written about each game, and taken screenshots.  My intention is to be well-armed when I go out to them about their games, and then I can add their comments and edit my pieces where necessary.

It seems so much better that way, that I don't know why I wasn't working like that before.  I suppose that organisation was never my strongest suit, either, but it's something that I've found coming to me over the last five or six months as I've worked on this, and that's how I'll continue with this from now on.  I'm improving my working practices all the time... which is pretty good for something that is essentially a hobby.

You saw me standing alone... I actually played this when it was originally released.
It's also forced me to have a look at how I intend to lay out the book.  My intention has always been to write about a programmer and their games, with comments from them on each where possible.  But an issue has cropped up there.  There are games, and there are conversions of those game.  Whenever someone wrote an original game, there was a fair chance it would be converted to other platforms... but not usually by the same person.

So, potentially I could be writing about the same games twice (or even more than that), on many occasions.  And it strikes me that, although there would be different challenges involved for each person's version of the game, it might not be that great to have different sections about the same game spread all throughout the book.

I don't know what I might do about this yet... it might be too early to tell.  I might find a way to tie together all comments under one heading... but then I'd be writing about the game, rather than the programmer.  Maybe my original idea is still the best one.  Luckily, it's something I can continue to play with as the words mount up.