Friday, August 30, 2013

How The NES Zapper Works

I have professed my undying love for the light gun peripheral elsewhere on this blog. To me, it remains one of the most natural and immersive ways to interact with a video game, despite its decline in popularity. Though nearly every game console from the mid 80s to the mid 90s had one, the NES Zapper is probably the one most gamers are familiar with.

Nintendo's involvement with light gun games actually predates the NES by over a decade. In 1973, Nintendo turned several old Japanese bowling alleys into light gun-based skeet shooting parlors.  A year later, Nintendo introduced its first arcade game, Wild Gunman. The purely electro-mechanical Wild Gunman used a couple of 16mm film projectors to show footage of various Old West bad guys ready to draw and fire on you, the player. Your goal was to wait until their eyes 'flashed', then draw your own pistol & shoot. If you were quick enough, "YOU WON" would be projected on the screen over a shot of the bad guy clutching his chest & crumpling, Sergio Leone-style, to the ground. 

The NES wasn't the first home console to sport a light gun, (that honor belongs to the Odyssey) but it was the first to couple one with complex games, and it has by far the largest library of supported titles. The Zapper is based on the Famicom's light gun, a very convincing-looking black revolver which was itself modeled after the one featured in Wild Gunman. Fearing a potential rise in cases of police-perforated eight-year-olds, Nintendo of America redesigned the Zapper to look more futuristic, and less lethal. The earliest Zappers have a dark gray body, light gray accents, and a red trigger, mimicking the NES' color scheme. Later models have a bright orange body, light gray accents and a black trigger, again in an attempt to make them look even less like real firearms. 

Opening up a Zapper reveals that there's not much to it. A small lens in the barrel focuses light from the TV screen onto a photodiode, a device which generates a small electrical current when exposed to light. An amplifier boosts the current and sends it to the NES console to be processed as input for the game. As simple as it is, the Zapper can't tell if the light it detected came from a TV screen or another source, like a light bulb, so it's up to the NES game to make that determination. The more well-written games use a multi-step process to determine which target on screen has been hit:

Here, we have two Duck Hunt ducks flying around:

When the Zapper's trigger is pulled, the NES blanks the entire screen for one frame of video, or roughly 1/30th of a second. This establishes a baseline that the NES uses to make sure the player's not just aiming the Zapper at a lamp. 

Next, the NES draws a white box around the first duck on the screen for one frame:

The first box is then removed and another one is drawn over the second duck:

Finally, the NES resumes drawing the game's normal graphics. If the Zapper picked up light from one box or the other, the NES registers a hit and the game murders the targeted duck accordingly.

This entire process takes a fraction of a second to complete, and is nearly imperceptible to the human eye. You can watch the whole process unfold in this slow-motion footage from Hogan's Alley:

When the trigger is pulled for the first time, the NES blanks the screen and puts a white box in place of the cop first, the professor second and the bad guy third. The NES registers a hit with the bad guy, so he is removes from play. When the trigger is pulled for the second time, only the cop and the professor are left as valid targets, and the NES replaces just those two characters with white boxes.

It's a simple and effective technique, but it's not fool-proof. The television has to be adjusted so that the image is not too bright or too dark, as either will screw up the baseline or keep the Zapper from picking any light up at all. The targets have to be large enough so their white box can be picked up by the Zapper, and the number of targets on screen are limited to no more than three or four to keep the TV screen from going black too long. The process is also extremely time-sensitive; if there's any significant delay between the time the NES sends the image to the television, and the time that image appears on-screen, the NES won't correctly register hits. This isn't a problem for old-school analog CRT televisions, as they respond pretty much instantaneously. However, digital HDTVs spend a lot of time (relatively speaking) converting the analog signal from the NES into a digital image, and then rendering it on screen, causing a phenomenon known as input lag. In some HDTVs, this lag can be as bad a 1/10th of a second, which is much longer than the 1/30th the NES is expecting to wait. As a result, Zapper games work only spottily with the handful of tube-based HDTVs in existence, and they won't work at all with LCDs, plasmas or projectors. All the more reason to hang on to your old Radiation King, in my opinion.

Friday, August 9, 2013

SolarStriker for Game Boy

I own three copies of SolarStriker. I've actually run across this game in stores, purchased it for dirt-cheap, taken it home & realized I already owned a copy twice. It's not that I have Mel Gibson's Consipracy Theory OCD; it's that this game is so forgettable, it keeps falling out of my brain.

Another Game Boy launch title, SolarStriker is a vertical spaceship shooter with a standard boilerplate of a plot: You and your super-advanced prototype fighter are Earth's last defense against the overwhelming forces of an invading alien race. You fight your way through waves of enemies until you encounter the level's boss. Once you defeat it, you move on to the next level in the game. In standard shmup fashion, you have no control over how fast the screen scrolls, but you can move up and down in addition to left & right, and the screen scrolls slightly left or right to reveal more of the play field than will fit on-screen at once. You have only one weapon in this game (A & B buttons both fire it.) which can be upgraded from a single shot to twin, triple, and ultimately the high-powered Super Shot by shooting space-crates & collecting the 'P's enclosed within. There are no other types of weapons or power-ups at all in SolarStriker

It's an uncomplicated game to be sure, but it's not easy. You start with only three lives and no continues. Scoring 50,000 points earns you a bonus life, but unless you're really good at dodging enemy fire, that won't be enough to sustain you through all six of its levels. Dodging itself is a problem because, while you can move in any direction, you don't do so very quickly, and you can't outrun enemies at all. The SolarStriker is one pokey little spaceship, but then again the play field is so tiny, there are times when you can't avoid getting hit no matter how fast you move. Maddeningly, you can only shoot straight ahead, while most of your enemies can shoot in any direction. You're usually screwed if you let too many enemies get behind you, because there's no way you can take them out. Oh, how I yearned for a Super Zapper or something when this happened! Fortunately, the game is not so cruel as to actually spawn enemies behind you. It's not a thumb-busting button masher either, as you just have to hold A or B down to keep firing. Come to think of it, this may be the first shmup I've played to actually sport that feature.

The graphics in SolarStriker are basic but clean, and nicely high-contrast. It's very playable on the original Game Boy's notoriously smear-happy screen because nothing moves very quickly. I'm glad the developers chose dim, unobtrusive backgrounds, even if black stars on a white background do look a bit odd. (Nintendo corrected this on the Game Boy Color, Advance & Player.) The sound effects never rise above Atari-style beeps & bloops, but the background music isn't bad. If nothing else, SolarStriker demonstrates the Game Boy's potential to produce some very good chiptunes in subsequent games.

It's unfair to be too critical of a launch title like this, as developers almost always have a tight schedule & limited budget to work with. SolarStriker certainly feels like a rush job, but there's a germ of a good game here. If it just had a little more variety in its design, a little more balance in its gameplay, and a little more reason to keep the player coming back for more, it wouldn't be so forgettable today. And I wouldn't own three copies of it.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Nintendo Virtual Boy and Mario's Tennis

Ahh, Virtual Reality. In the mid 90s, it's possibilities seemed boundless: Entirely new computer-generated worlds were waiting to be discovered, explored and sexually assaulted in. Yes, with comically large goggles strapped to our faces, Humanity would soon enter a new golden age of infinite possibilities, and Nintendo would lead us there with the Virtual Boy.

Virtual Boy was the brainchild of Gunpei Yokoi, legendary designer of The Game & Watch series and the original Game Boy, as well as the father of the Metroid and Kid Icarus series. In the mid 90s, most of Nintendo's R&D efforts were tied up in development of the Nintendo 64, but its portable R&D group was relatively idle, since the Game Boy was still selling like crazy. Yokoi came about the idea of developing a 3D virtual reality game system after witnessing a demonstration of a new type of LED-based imaging system created by a company called Reflection Technologies. Yokoi had lofty goals for his new system, like a 3D full-color head-mounted display with full motion tracking capabilities. Cost and technological limitations quickly brought the project down to Earth, and Yokoi ultimately settled on a tabletop system with no head-tracking features and only a red monochrome display for his prototype, which he dubbed the VR-32. Nintendo, eager to put any kind of new hardware on store shelves, rushed the VR-32 prototype to completion, against Yokoi's wishes, and demonstrated it for the first time at the Shoshinkai Trade Show in 1994. It met with a tepid response from the attendees, who balked at its clunky design, monochrome picture and, worst of all, copious health hazards! Much like the 3DS 15 years later, the Virtual Boy came slathered with warnings that its 3D technology could cause headaches, nausea, and even permanent eyesight damage for players under 7 year of age. Nevertheless, Nintendo released the console in Japan in July of 1995 and in the US one month later for an initial retail price of $180. Customer response was just as tepid, and Virtual Boys languished on store shelves for months. Nintendo began dramatically slashing the price to as low as $99, but it seems they couldn't even give the Virtual Boy away. Discouraged by abysmally low sales and with the release of the Nintendo 64 imminent, Nintendo quietly killed the Virtual Boy in may of 1996, less than a year after it debuted. It was so short-lived that it never reached Europe and only 22 games in total were released. Yokoi left Nintendo shortly thereafter, his reputation in tatters despite his insistence that the console needed more time to develop. Nintendo, for its part, now officially had its first epic flop.

The Virtual Boy really is an oddity. It works something like a Viewmaster, in that each eye gets its own display screen, and each screen shows the game's action from a slightly different perspective, creating the illusion of three dimensions. The displays themselves are made up of a single vertical column of high-brightness red LEDs, the light from which is reflected off a mirror that oscillates horizontally about 50 times per second. The result of all this crazy video voodoo is a red monochrome 3D image with an effective resolution of 384x224 per eyeball. The system is battery-powered, but it's not something that can really be played on the go. The player places the Virtual Boy on a desk or table and mashes his face into the viewfinder. A neoprene mask blocks out ambient light, leaving the player able to see nothing but glorious reds and blacks.

The Virtual Boy's controller is ergonomic and comfortable to hold. It sports two D-pads, allowing the player to move about in a 3D space, though in most games, the right pad isn't used. A, B, Select and Start all make a return, as do two trigger buttons on the controller's underside. Curiously, the Virtual Boy houses its batteries in a removable compartment attached to the controller itself. The compartment houses six AA batteries which are good for only about 6-7 hours of play, and make the controller annoyingly heavy. An AC adapter is also available, but its power cable also plugs into the controller, forcing the player to sit near a wall outlet to use it.

Viewing a Virtual Boy is a pretty surreal experience. The image fills up only the center of your field of view; everything in the periphery is pitch black and devoid of any visual queues. This effect couples with the 3D images to create an experience I can best describe as being in a darkened theater, watching a play unfold that's lit entirely by red gels. It can be very striking. However, watching in an audience is still a far cry from delivering an immersive VR experience, and it's here that the Virtual Boy falters. Besides the color limitations, the Virtual Boy has no 3D acceleration, and its 32-bit RISC CPU, though state of the art for its time, isn't up to the task of pushing polygons around by itself. As a result, most Virtual Boy games are 2D sprite-based, with only a few 3D gimmicks thrown in. The handful that do use 3D polygons render them as hollow wireframes, reminiscent of Vectrex games. Of all the games in the Virtual Boy's library, only Red Alarm and Teleroboxer are played from a first-person point of view, generally considered a mainstay of VR technology.

The Virtual Boy's sound is also a big disappointment. Ironically, the first thing I noticed when I fired up my eBay-fresh Virtual Boy was how it sounded no better than the Game Boy, a system six years' its elder. I realize that CD-quality audio tracks probably couldn't be squeezed onto those old cartridges, but the SNES' audio quality puts Virtual Boy's to shame, and the Virtual Boy was touted as having a superior, 16-bit wavetable sound chip. If that's really the case, then the games I've played so far seriously under-utilize it.

Finally, I can happily report that, despite its copious warnings, I did not go blind playing Virtual Boy. I didn't even get a headache or sour stomach. After several marathon play sessions, the worst injury I sustained was a sore neck from craning to look into it. The red-on-black color scheme is distracting at first, but it doesn't take long to get past it, as anyone who's used a monochrome computer screen can attest. Overall, the Virtual Boy has plenty of shortcomings, but it's not the dramatic trainwreck history has made it out to be. It's endearing in its own quirky way, and it does have a few games worth playing. Let's check one out now.

Mario's Tennis

Mario's Tennis was the Virtual Boy's pack-in title, and the very first game in the Mario Tennis series. You play as one of six Mushroom Kingdom's denizens, and Donkey Kong Jr. for some reason, in a singles or doubles match of tennis. Unlike the games that followed, Mario's Tennis really is just that. No special moves are allowed here, although each character has a set of unique strengths and weaknesses. For example, Mario is once again the jack-of-all-trades, while Yoshi is fastest, but plays with a small racquet. Toad and the koopa troopa can both lunge for the ball and, in my experience, were the hardest to score against. In doubles matches, the computer-controlled teammate is competent enough, though sometime it'll ignore balls hit directly at it. It never gets in the way of your own shot, though, which is a plus. The opponents put up a real fight, particularly in the higher difficulties, and they employ a little bit of strategy in their game. They generally aim for the side of the court you're not occupying, and they will lob the ball over your head if you're too close to the net, or hit it short if you're playing too deep. Unfortunately, a two-player mode is conspicuously absent, since Nintendo never released the cable that allowed two Virtual Boys to communicate.

 The controls in the game are pretty basic. The left D-pad moves you around the court, while the A & B buttons cause you to hit groundstrokes or lobs, respectively. How you swing your racquet (forehand, backhand, smash, etc) depends on where your character's body is in relation to the ball. Pressing a direction on the D-pad mid-swing lets you roughly aim the ball, but you can't precisely pick where on the court to send it, and you can't apply topspin or backspin to the ball.

The graphics are pretty good, even if the color scheme makes it looks like you're playing tennis on the surface of a dying sun. Though the characters are all 2D sprites, they move around on a 3D court that looks convincing enough. The 3D effect helps you zero in on the ball easily despite the low camera angle, though the third-person perspective means the character's body sometimes blocks your view of the ball. The sprites are large and detailed, and they have a pleasant, hand-drawn aesthetic. They're all well animated too; lots of frames went into each of their movements, ensuring they don't just look like static drawings sliding around a tennis court. When they're facing toward you, their expressions change to reflect how they did at that last serve. If they've just scored a particularly difficult point, they'll usually react in some way: Mario flashes a peace symbol, Peach curtseys, Toad spazzes out, and so on. The backgrounds are sparse and don't draw attention away from the game. Occasionally, though, a gaggle of boos will float by or a few fireworks will explode in the distance, just to add a little visual flair.

Again, the audio is a disappointment. The characters themselves are completely mute, and the sound effects are typical Game Boy-ish bleeps and bloops. The music is unobtrusive, though the same four background songs played on a loop become tiresome to hear during long tournaments. At least the stereo sound is put to good use; sound effects pan and fade to match the action on screen.

I wonder... Had Nintendo chosen to pack in a game that appealed to a wider audience, would the Virtual Boy been a hit? Excepting perhaps Pong, tennis games haven't had nearly the same cultural impact that games Tetris or Super Mario Bros have. Had a game with more depth or originality been bundled with the Virtual Boy instead, would the future of video gaming really have become goggles on sticks?

Probably not.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Magnavox Odyssey

A particularly memorable episode of  What's My Line? aired in 1972. In it, the panelists try to suss out what host Larry Blyden and his mystery guest are doing with a television that's out of view. It becomes apparent, as they grasp at straws and ask increasingly irreverent questions, that none of the panelists have any earthly idea what the correct answer is. When Blyden finally reveals that they're playing tennis, the confused looks on the panelists' faces show they still don't follow. And why should they? As far as they knew, television was only for watching. Finally, the other shoe drops: The TV is turned around to show the panelists an image of two white boxes batting a third box across a white line in what could charitably be called a tennis simulation. The mystery guest is identified as Product Manager for Magnavox Inc and the strange, white box on the desk is described as the world's first "electronic beam simulator that's attached to a television", the Magnavox Odyssey.

The Odyssey is the brainchild of Ralph H. Baer, a radio repairman-turned engineer and inventor. In 1966, while working for a defense contractor caller Sanders Associates, Baer began to develop his idea for a consumer-level interactive electronic device which used a television as its display. Working with fellow Sanders engineers Bob Solomon and Bob Tremblay, he created the prototype console and nicknamed it the Brown Box. It was initially capable of drawing two boxes on screen which controlled by the players, with the idea that one player would chase the other in a game of electronic tag. Later in its development, a third "ball" box was added which could move around independently, but still be influenced by the players' actions. After a few more tweaks and added features, the Brown Box prototype was ready for prime time by 1968. Baer patented his idea and shopped his prototype around to several major electronics manufacturers. After a deal with RCA fell through, Magnavox purchased Baer's invention and both Baer and Magnavox engineers spent the next four years developing it into a marketable product.

The production Odyssey was now completely solid state and capable of only black-and-white images, (the Brown Box supported limited color) but otherwise fairly faithful to Baer's prototype. It hit Magnavox dealers' shelves in August 1972. Unfortunately, it met with a tepid consumer response due in part to poor marketing (The commercials left impression that the Odyssey would only work with a Magnavox television.) and an astronomical price tag of over $550 adjusted dollars. Deep discounts and a renewed ad campaign failed to generate much more consumer interest in the Odyssey, and only about 300,000 units were sold before it was discontinued in 1975. Magnavox kept the Odyssey name alive though, applying it to a series of Pong consoles released in the mid 70s and ultimately to a new, completely programmable game console called the Odyssey 2. Though the Odyssey 2 sold many more units than its predecessor, the Great Video Game Crash hit Magnavox hard, and it bowed out of the video game biz altogether in 1983. Ralph Baer went on to develop Milton Bradley's phenomenally popular electronic game, Simon, in 1979. He also spent a great deal of time in court defending his patent from competing game console manufacturers like Atari and Nintendo. He was ultimately successful, and these companies were required to pay royalties for each game console sold, until Baer's patent expired in the early 90s.

So now let's check out the Odyssey. At first glance, it doesn't look all that different from later game consoles, though it's battery-powered and it's completely silent. There's a cartridge slot on the front and a couple of ports in the back that connect to two big, chunky controllers. The controllers themselves are a little more unusual: Horizontal and vertical knobs move the player's block around, Etch-A-Sketch style. A third knob, labeled English, allows you to steer the ball as it moves across the screen, while a reset button typically puts the ball back into play if it leaves the screen. A third port on the console connects to Videogaming's very first hardware add-on, a disturbingly realistic-looking light rifle that actually needs to be cocked each time the trigger is pulled.

It also comes loaded with accessories. In addition to the console, the box contains dice, poker chips, game boards, tokens, score counters, card decks, Monopoly money, and several transparent plastic overlays that fit on the TV screen. There are also six game cartridges included in the box, imaginatively named 1 through 6. The rather thick user manual explains the rules for each game, as well as which cartridges, accessories and overlays are needed to play. In total, 12 games are available out of the box: Table Tennis, Tennis, Football, Hockey, Ski, Submarine, Cat & Mouse, Analogic, Roulette, States, and Simon Says. The light gun accessory adds two more, and a handful of additional games were sold separately. That sounds like a lot, but every single game employs some combination the same basic objects: two player-controlled blocks, a ball, and a vertical wall. This is because the game cartridges contain no program data at all, and the Odyssey has nothing remotely approaching a CPU. Each of the above screen objects is quite literally generated by its own discrete circuit board. When inserted, the game carts simply switch the circuits on and connected them together in such a way to create the desired objects. It's incredibly primitive in design, and yet ingenious in its simplicity. It is a video game console in the most basic sense imagineable.

Of course this means that the Odyssey is dumber than a toaster. It can't keep score or time, enforce a game's rules or even limit where on the screen the players can move. There is of course no AI, so every game requires two people to play. I'll describe a few of the games in detail: In Ski, one player maneuvers his or her dot through a course laid out on the overlay while the other player keeps time and score. It sounds simple enough, but the Etch-A-Sketch controls do add a bit of a challenge. The two tennis games and Hockey are enjoyable, as they play like a sort of proto-Pong. Of course, nothing stops either player from cheating by constantly resetting the ball, noodling with the english knob or running all around the screen. Football is a complicated mess of a game, requiring a game board, several decks of cards, tokens, sticky tape, dice, and about six pages of rules to play. Here,  most of the action takes place on the game board, and the Odyssey is basically used as a down marker. At the other end of the difficulty spectrum, States and Simon Says simply involve one player drawing a card and asking the other to point to a specific US state/body part using the Odyssey. These two games are clearly aimed at a much younger crowd, but I have difficulty imagining that any little kid in the '70s would get much out of steering a white block toward Delaware. My guess is that marathon Odyssey-playing sessions eventually devolved into two people noodling around with a couple of glowing blocks on a TV screen and forgetting the rulebook. Maybe that was entertainment enough in 1972, but judging by the sheer number of closet-fresh Odysseys available on eBay, I'm guessing it wasn't.

So in the end, perhaps the Magnavox Odyssey should be best remembered for what it represented: the birth of a whole new entertainment medium. Edison's earliest films were just glimpses of daily life at the end of the 19th century, but they laid the foundation for a new form of expression and an industry which changed the world overnight. Likewise, the Odyssey demonstrated to the public that there is the potential to do so much more with our televisions than merely watch them. 40 years ago, a panel of celebrities couldn't imagine what life with an interactive electronic device would be like. Today, we can't imagine life without them.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Super Mario Land for Game Boy

On the day the Game Boy and Super Mario Land was announced, a cry of "Holy crap, there's gonna be a portable Mario game? I WAAAAAANT!" echoed from coast to coast. Soon, Mario would lead us all into an golden age where portable gaming was as limitless as its TV-tethered counterpart. Right?

Well, yes and no. Super Mario Land is a good game in its own right, but it's painfully short, and it feels like an also-ran to the NES series. A lot of interesting new ideas found their way in to Super Mario Land, but it ends before any are fully-explored. Developed by Game Boy creator, Gunpei Yokoi, Super Mario Land is set in Sarasaland, a tiny little suburb of the Mushroom Kingdom. Princess Daisy, of "Hi, I'm Daisy" fame, has been kidnapped by space aliens, and Mario sets out to rescue her. Because he was freelancing or something. Anyway, Sarasaland is divided into four worlds with three levels each. At the end of each world, Mario faces off against a unique boss character. Most of the Super Mario mainstays are present in Super Mario Land, such as coins, bricks and item boxes. Super mushrooms still make Mario grow, but the flowers now give Mario the ability to launch dodge balls which ricochet around the screen until they hit an enemy or fly off. They collect coins as they bounce around too, which is quite handy. Mario spends most of the game on foot, but occasionally he will take to the skies in an airplane or dive underwater in a submarine. In these levels, Super Mario Land actually becomes a side-scrolling shooter, as Mario blasts his way through blocks, enemies and anything else that stands in his way. It's an odd choice to turn a Mario game into Gradius for just a couple of levels, but the shooting sequences are a fun diversion from the standard run & jump fare.

Running and jumping is still at the core of Super Mario Land, though, and it's here that I find the game's other major fault. Super Mario Land is plagued with sluggish and imprecise controls. Mario changes directions like he's running on ball bearings, and he has a floaty jump arc that makes landing tricky jumps extremely frustrating. Mario's movements here are very similar to his in the original Mario Brothers, which makes sense given Yokoi designed that game as well. In a sense, Mario has returned to his roots in terms of how he moves. Unfortunately, it was a poor choice to make for this game.

Graphics in Super Mario Land are a mixed bag. Each world has a unique theme, like Ancient Egypt or Easter Island, and the backgrounds reflect the theme well. The levels contain much more detail and variety than the repetitious red brick constructs of Super Mario Bros. The enemies are almost completely original too, and most of them are unique to the world they inhabit; only the Goombahs make a return appearance in Super Mario Land. However, Mario's own appearance is carried over nearly unchanged from Super Mario Bros, as is the game's camera distance. As a result, Mario is nearly microscopic when viewed on the original Game Boy's screen, and he becomes a smear of pixels when he's in motion. I generally prefer to play these games on their original hardware, but Super Mario Land is an exception. It's nearly unplayable on an original Game Boy.

 Super Mario Land is a short, fun, but flawed little oddball. It's also a pretty daring reinterpretation of the series. made at a time when Nintendo was more willing to take risks with its flagship franchises. Give it a shot; if nothing else, it won't ask for much of your time.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Lunatic Fringe for Macintosh

Screen savers are strange, ephemeral things. They show up to guard your monitor from the heartbreak of burn-in while you're away, and then disappear the moment you return. They often provide a little passive amusement too, in the form of fish swimming, stars shooting, toasters flying, or dogs peeing, but some could be coaxed to stick around a bit and provide a little more interactive diversion. Lunatic Fringe is one such diversion. It's a screen saver module bundled with Mac versions of After Dark released in the early 90s. When it starts, it presents a title screen and a high score table. Like any good screensaver, moving the mouse or pressing most keys on the keyboard immediately dismisses it. But hit the caps lock and you're transported to an incredibly adorable battle for galactic dominance.

In Lunatic Fringe, you play a tiny, cutesy, retro-futuristic rocketship tasked with defending the Galactic Fringe from evil purple blobs, mace-wielding alien ships, four-way beach ball launchers and the like. In a bit of departure from similar overhead space shooters, your view remains fixed on your spaceship as objects whiz past. Each game starts you at your home base, which you can frequent to refuel and repair battle damage. As you suffer hits, your ships' weapons, RADAR, engines, turn jets, and such become damaged and eventually rendered inoperable. After a couple of hits, you may find yourself spinning helplessly out of control as your ship is mercilessly pounded by enemy fire. If you manage to escape, your ship will slowly repair itself as long as you have parts to spare. Eliminate every enemy in RADAR range and the next level will begin, repopulating the Fringe with a load of new enemies. Even so, your spaceship inhabits a very sparsely populated universe. The Fringe is a very big place, and enemies and obstructions are so few and far between that for most part, the only indications of motion are the dim, single-pixel stars that pass by in the background. Power-ups, like invincibility and weapon boosts are scattered throughout the vastness of Lunatic Fringe, but they're too few and far between to be particularly reliable. Your only real advantage in the game is the fact that your enemies aren't too bright. Most of them won't bother to pursue you for very long, and their weapons fire can be dodged fairly easily if you keep moving. Marathon session of Lunatic Fringe can last a very long time, so long as the enemies don't score a lucky hit on your engines.

Lunatic Fringe's simple, pre-rendered sprites are colorful and smoothly-animated, with a glossy, plasticky look common to CGI of the era. The sound effects are canned cheers, scream, pops, zaps, thumps, and the like, and they lack any real rhyme or reason. They're aural non-sequiturs which give Lunatic Fringe a whimsical, who-gives-a-shit vibe perfectly in keeping with the tone of After Dark.

Admittedly, there's not much depth to Lunatic Fringe. As you progress through the levels, enemies get only slightly less stupid and more numerous. There's no real objective to meet either, beyond the almighty high score, and you might find yourself losing interest in its repetitive gameplay long before you lose all your lives. Still, it always brought a smile to my face when it would pop up after hours spent banging away at whatever school paper I happened to be working on. Spending a little time each night on the Fringe probably helped me graduate high school.

After Dark may be dead and gone, but Lunatic Fringe lives on in the Lunatic Fringe Player available here for Mac OS X. A web-based version is under development here, but it's a work in progress and it's missing most of the original game's features.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Squish 'em Sam For ColecoVision

The year I was born, George Willig, one of history's great "Human Flies," scaled all 110 stories of the World Trade Center's south tower in under four hours. The stunt earned him worldwide fame, but it cost him a cool $1.10 in fines from the city of New York. The titular Sam would not abide this. He's a human fly who's only in it for the money, and he wants you to know it.

Squish 'em Sam is one of ColecoVision's rare 3rd party titles, released by Interphase in 1983. It features the titular Sam climbing the girders of an unfinished brick high rise in an attempt to reach a stash of cash left on the top floor. He can slide side to side along the girders, but he can only progress up to the next floor when he reaches a vertical girder, and he can't back down at all. Blocking his path are... bugs? octopuses? who knows, 8-bit beasties of some kind. They slide around erratically, blocking Sam's ascent and generally making life difficult for him. Fortunately, Sam can lift his legs off the girder and smash the monsters into submission. A stomped monster is briefly immobilized, but after a few seconds, it turns white and become invincible, forcing you to keep moving up to avoid it. As you progress up the skyscraper, objects fall from above, preventing you from moving vertically for too long. Occasionally, a bonus... thing pops up on a floor, which can be collected for additional points. As you climb the building, the enemies move faster and more erratically, they stay "dead" for less time, and objects fall out of the sky more frequently, making the overall challenge of the game increase as Sam progresses.

The game play is pretty straightforward, and the graphics are certainly nothing special. However, it does sport one feature that's pretty rare for a game from this era: digitized voices. Curb-stomping monsters generates either a satisfying crunch or a digitized "Squish 'em!" from Sam. When he reaches the booty at the top of the building, he exclaims "Money! Money! Money!" Our man Sam takes adversity in stride too, as getting knocked off the building elicits a flippant "Whoops!" as he plummets to his doom. Digitized sound effects may be commonplace these day (Damn kids, get off my lawn!) but in 1983, it was hot snot. Games with digitized voices on competing consoles typically needed special adapters to to be heard at all, and they were usually a garbled, unintelligible mess. The voices in Squish 'em Sam are reproduced clearly, intelligibly and without the aid of goofy add-ons.

Squish 'em Sam may not have an arcade pedigree like most in the ColecoVision's library, but it's every bit a classic risk-vs-reward arcade game. It's dead simple to pick up & play, but the difficulty scales up as smoothly as Sam scales each building, eventually offering a serious challenge for advanced players. Ultimately  though, it has no goal to meet beyond the almighty high score, and its repetitive gameplay may leave you reaching for a different cartridge once Sam has uttered his last whoops.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Wrecking Crew For NES

Super Mario Brothers is the British Invasion of video gaming. By and large, console games released before it played much their arcade counterparts: bite-sized chunks of video entertainment meant to briefly hold the player's attention, but lacking any real goal to meet beyond setting a high score. There's nothing wrong with this style of videogame at all, but once SMB was released, the immersive world its complex, elaborate, and interconnected levels built made older games seem quaint and limited by comparison.

So why am I yammering on about Super Mario Brothers? Like SMB, Wrecking Crew is an NES launch title, and it features Mario (and Luigi in two-player mode) in a prominent role. However, if SMB is the Beatles, Wrecking Crew is Fabian: It's fun to play, but it feels instantly dated by comparison. Your goal in the very arcade-like Wrecking Crew is to demolish nearly all of the standing objects in each level with your trusty hammer. There are brick walls, cement walls, pylons and breakable ladders that all must be smashed to complete the level. There are also ladders that can't be destroyed, barrels that block your path, and bombs that will blow up all other destructible objects adjacent to them. Hot on your heels are bipedal monkey wrenches, mask-wearing eggplants and big huge jerkface, Foreman Spike. The wrenches and eggplants just hunt you down and kill you, but Spike will ruin your life! He shadows you, occasionally smashing walls in your face and knocking you down, destroying objects critical to finishing the level or stealing your bonus coins. Since this is a family game, you can't cave this asshole's skull in with your hammer, no matter how hard you might like to. Instead, you can only avoid Spike and the other enemies, trap them in dropping barrels, or knock them off ladders. That is, unless you find the game's single power-up, the Golden Hammer. It's more powerful than the stock hammer, and Mario can swing it much more quickly. It can even knock enemies off the level if you're lucky enough to land a blow before they catch you. Unfortunately the Golden Hammer doesn't turn up very often, and you lose it if you die.

The enemies in Wrecking Crew certainly keep you on your toes, but the real challenge lies its puzzle elements. Mario can't jump or remove obstacles in his path, so you have to avoid trapping him or isolating him from the remaining objects you need to smash in order to complete the level. This is easy to accomplish in the early levels, but as you progress, it becomes clear that the bombs, ladders, pylons and such must be smashed in a very particular order. The upper levels are devilishly clever, so figuring out that order without the aid of a walk-through is a laudable achievement.

Nintendo generously included 100 official levels, but if that's not enough, a simple level editor is also included. In shades of Lode Runner, you can build up to four Wrecking Crew levels from scratch, and play through them in sequence. Unfortunately, this isn't Load Runner running off a floppy disk; it's Wrecking Crew on an NES cartridge with no battery backup. There's no saving your work here, which may confuse gamers when they try to select 'save' or 'load' from the menu screen. Selecting either option causes the game to freeze--pretty frustrating if you've just put the finishing touches on your own masterpiece of Wrecking Crew devilry. Evidently, the Famicom version included support for the Famicom Data Recorder, a glorified tape recorder similar to the Commodore 64's Datasette. The Data Recorder was never released for the NES, but Wrecking Crew left the Famicom version's save/load functionality in the game, assuming it would be one day.

Again, Wrecking Crew is an NES release title, and it shows in more ways than just the save/load bug. The NES may not have a huge palette of colors to work with, but it seems even fewer than normal are used in Wrecking Crew. This game would fail to impress if it were running on the Colecovision. The background of each level is a drab, black screen. Mario and Spike look ok, but the enemies lack much in the way of detail or variety. I thought the angry wrench monster was a road-killed dinosaur when I first saw it. Weirdly, Luigi has the same jaundiced skin color he sported in SMB, but now he's decked out in a hot-pink hard hat & overalls. The music and sound effects are lifted almost wholesale from Gyromite, another launch title meant to work with ROB, the NES robot. They're not bad per se; they're just derivative and not really memorable.

The germ of a really great classic game is hidden in Wrecking Crew, and had it been given more development time, it might have become one. It mixes action platforming and problem-solving successfully enough to be quite fun in short doses.Without much variety to the gameplay, though, it gets stale quickly. It's available for download on the Wii and 3DS virtual console where, mercifully, Nintendo has corrected the save/load bug. Give it a whirl if you still prefer the pompadour to the mop-top.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Gunstar Heroes For Sega Genesis

About 20 years ago, a group of developers at Konami got sick of cranking out run-and-gun Contra sequels, and left to form their own game company. Their freshman effort, Gunstar Heroes, is, well, another run-and-gun shooter. But this one happens to be a fantastic example of the genre, and an all-around great game.

The Gunstar family has served as guardians of the distant planet Gunstar-9 for generations, free to name their children after primary colors in relative peace. That peace was shattered when Smash Daisaku, an evil dictator with a suspicious resemblance to M. Bison and a fondness for interpretive dance, mind-controls Gunstar brother Green and forces him to steal four Magic McGuffin Gems. The remaining Gunstar brothers, Red and Blue, set out to free Green, defeat Smash, recover the gems and prevent the return of evil robotic uber-baddy, Golden Silver. Also Brown, Orange, Yellow, Pink, Grey, and Black.

From the get-go, Gunstar Heroes sets itself apart from the typical shooter by offering the player loads of choice. You can select the order in which you play through the first few levels, and pick the weapon you're equipped with at the beginning of each level. You can also choose from two different control styles: Free Shot and Fixed Shot. Free Shot is very similar to Contra's controls in that you can move freely but only shoot in the general direction in which you're facing. Fixed Shot plants your feet while shooting, but allows you to quickly aim in any direction. That may sound like a liability, but when enemies are swarming on you from all sides, the ability to Death Blossom yourself can be a life-saver. Your character has a few useful melee moves as well, like a surprisingly effective belly flop and foot slide. You can grab hapless minions who gets too close and launch them over your head, or dangle from ledges with one hand while spraying lead in any direction. You can even lob bombs back at the enemies who threw them. Smooth controls have often been a weak spot of run-and-gun games, but Gunstar Heroes has no such problem. The Gunstars' jump arcs are smooth and controllable in mid-air; they run at a brisk pace, and their more acrobatic melee moves are easy enough to pull off that they're actually useful. Useful melee attacks in a shooter... who'da thunk it?

Weapons are handled in a unique manner, too. There are powerful short-ranged flamethrowers, lasers that punch through multiple baddies, homing guns, and deadly high-speed ping pong ball launchers. At the beginning of each level, you can select any one of them to occupy your first weapons slot. This feature is pretty handy by itself, as anyone who's ever lost the Contra spread gun at a critical moment can attest. However, when you pick up another weapon in the level and add it to the second slot, you can use both weapons' effects at once. For example, combining the laser with the homing gun nets you a powerful penetrating weapon with homing ability, while mixing the flamethrower with the ping pong machinegun grants you a fireball launcher with a very high rate of fire. You can even pick up two weapons of the same type to make them much more powerful; picking up two flamethrowers doubles its range, for example. Experimenting with the different weapon combinations is a brilliant way for Treasure to extend the replay value of Gunstar Heroes. 

Gunstar Heroes breaks with tradition in another way: You only have one life, but you can take multiple hits. Your hit points, or 'vitality', is represented by a numerical value on the top of the screen; the game ends when it hits zero, but you have unlimited continues. Again, this is a brilliant design choice given the amount of carnage that most levels throws at the player. Not having to sweat instant death by a stray bullet or collision with an enemy makes the levels flow much more smoothly, and it encourages risk-taking, like soaking up a few hits to reach a boss' weak spot.

Speaking of bosses, Gunstar Heroes is full of them. Sub-bosses and main bosses abound; each more bizarre than the last. For example, the very first one you encounter is a gigantic asparagus stalk named Papaya Dance. Most bosses are made up of a complex assemblage of sprites that scale and rotate to give them an amazing 3D look. Nowhere is this effect put to better use than near the end of the game when a gigantic robot runs around a circular room, smoothly shifting from the background to the foreground in an effect that would look impressive on the Neo Geo.

Getting to the boss battles is just as much fun. There's not a lot of variation in the type of minions you run across, but they're nicely detailed; drawn in an cartoonish style reminiscent of the Metal Gear games, and, as I've mentioned before, loads of them attack at you at once. The typical left-to-right runs on foot are broken up by battles on magnetic mining carts, ascents on gigantic airships in flight, battles in space and, in one particularly memorable level, a series of mini-games played on a life-size board game. The levels tend to be short and intense, and there aren't many more beyond the initial four. On the easier difficulty settings, Gunstar Heroes can be completed in about an hour, though the harder difficulties make it much more challenging and two player mode certainly extends its play value. Gunstar Heroes' brevity may be its only significant failing, but really that's not such a bad problem for a video game to have. There are games I've never finished at all, and there are games I couldn't wait to be over, but Gunstar Heroes kept me riveted,  and left me begging for more. No padding, no backtracking, and no impossible levels; just a pure, intense gaming experience from start to finish.

Being a somewhat poor seller in its day, Gunstar Heroes has flown under the radar of mainstream gaming for a long time, earning only one direct sequel on the Game Boy Advance. However, the fans have spoken, and faithful recreations of this Genesis classic have finally turned up on the Playstation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, the Wii Virtual Console and on iOS devices. Gunstar Heroes is a perfect mix of amazing graphics, tight controls, intense gameplay and a quirky sense of humor. It's one of the best 16-bit titles ever released, and it absolutely should not be missed.