Gravitar

Gravitar

While it’s true that the first video games to employ the combination of a space vessel and a landscape with a fairly realistic interpretation of gravity came earlier than this one, the first one you could really call an actual game was Gravitar. Like the earlier Lunar Lander and Asteroids, it makes use of lovely vectors to create its landscapes and other bits and pieces, and this time they’re in glorious technicolor! Unsurprisingly for a ‘gravity game’, it’s also set in space and involves cleansing several star systems of the many gun emplacements, or ‘bunkers’, that are sprinkled across the surfaces of their various planets. Your ship is a small blue thing somewhat reminiscent of the craft in Asteroids and is controlled by five buttons. Two turn it left or right, one shoots its feeble but invaluable cannon, another thrusts its engine to counteract the gravity, and the last activates its shields.

Gravitar - Atari 2600

By making use of these buttons you’ll need to guide your craft through three solar systems and clear them of bunkers. You start off emerging from a portal of some sort from where you’ll immediately be drawn towards the nearby star. Getting too close will cost you a life so you’ll instead need to use the ship’s thrusters and head for one of the five planets that lie further out. Touching any of these switches the action to a side-viewed section of land featuring several red bunkers. Destroying one takes only a single hit but they’re constantly shooting as well so you’ll often need to be a very good shot! Once you clear the section of bunkers, simply head back to the top of the screen to re-enter the ‘home’ area and head for another planet. Do the same for all of the planets and you’ll move to the next ‘phase’ which has some new ones. If you manage to clear all three phases and you’ll then be transported to the next ‘universe’ where the same job awaits.

Gravitar - Atari 2600

It’s not quite as repetitive as it might sound though. Each planet has a different layout – one might feature a flat (though ‘bumpy’) landscape, others require you to go underground and take out the bunkers around tricky caverns, and one stage consists of what seems to be an asteroid with bunkers all around the outside of it. Each solar system also features a ‘red planet’ which contains a reactor at the end of a winding tunnel. The tough part is, you have to get to it, destroy it, and get back out within a tight time limit. Doing so will ‘complete’ that solar system. The planets also have different points values which indicate how difficult they are – not only in terms of bunker positions/numbers, but also how strong the gravity is and therefore how much fuel you’ll need to use, for your supplies are indeed finite and, unlike Lunar Lander, you don’t get more simply by inserting more coins.

Gravitar - Atari 2600

As well as the thrusters, fuel is also used by the shield so it can disappear quickly! Luckily, there are more fuel cannisters available on most planets which can be grabbed using your tractor beam (activated the same way as the shield). It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that the bunkers are pretty good shots, and enemy ships also appear now and then and zero in on your position, so hanging around to grab fuel can often be costly. It’s not an overly tough game though, at least in theory. Lives are lost often at first but the stages are well designed and control of your ship is well implemented too – it’s one of those games where mastering the controls makes a lot of difference and can potentially see your game last forever (almost). Like many early arcade games it does keep repeating too. There are four ‘universes’ in total – the second one reverses the gravity (which will mess with your mind big time), the third one features invisible landscapes, and the fourth one has both features, but if you complete all of them you’ll just go back to the first one.

Gravitar - Atari 2600

The only thing that changes for each universe is the time limit for destroying the reactor which gets smaller and smaller until it becomes impossible, but that can take a good while – the amazing world record score for this game was achieved over a continuous 24 hour (almost) period! I’m not sure I’d want to play Gravitar for that long even if I was good enough (and I’m pretty far from that – I can generally only last between 5 and 10 minutes!) but it is a pretty decent game. The sound is limited to a couple of effects but I’ve got no complaints about anything else. The vector graphics are as crisp as you would expect (and are even all glowy on the Xbox 360 port!), the ship movement and collision-detection is fine, and those controls, while initially a little confusing, do at the very least challenge you to do better. It may still be a bit too tough for some but it’s a challenge that I enjoyed anyway!

RKS Score: 7/10

Arcade Classics: What happened to them all?

It is easily the most common question I get when I chat with anyone about the classic arcade games of the early 1980s. What happened to them all?

Tron

They remember those days just as I do. Video arcades were commonplace and practically every type of business out there had arcade games in them. I remember seeing a Defender in the window of a flower shop, Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga machines at the local Denny’s and entire gamerooms in select 7-Eleven stores. These machines were literally everywhere.

Over time a number of these machines have ended up in homes, mostly as an addition to a rec room or something fun in the corner of the garage. A smaller number of home collectors are deeply dedicated, some with dozens or even hundreds of machines. In recent years, arcades and taverns with classic themes are popping up around the country, giving an extent of new life to a bygone era.

Atari Football

What most casual and even many die-hard classic arcade fans don’t realize is that the vast majority of machines from the early eighties arcade boom are long gone from the planet. While games such as AsteroidsSpace InvadersPac-Man and Donkey Kong set arcade sales records that still stand today, most did not survive.

Today I provide some insight into why. While none of this is going to cover things in depth, it is going to touch on the basic answers to that common question.

The Great Video Game Crash

Atari Pole Position

While it is becoming a hardly known legend to the younger generations of gamers, the entire North American video game industry crashed hard in 1983 and 1984. The arcade market and home console markets crashed for different reasons, with the coin-ops dropped off first. Things slowed in the summer of 1982 and went into a free-fall the next year, due in large part to oversaturation of the marketplace and aging equipment.

By 1984, a great number of arcade operators had gone out of business. Those that survived had significantly smaller operations and routes. The vast majority of arcade machines seen in non-arcade businesses were never owned by those businesses but rather by vendors who installed the machines in those locations for a cut of the revenue.

Operators were stuck with huge inventories of machines nobody wanted to play anymore, and with almost everyone forced to scale back operations, most older machines had no resale value or potential buyers. Everyone had enough Scramble and Galaxian machines gathering dust in a warehouse already.

Joust

So they trashed them.

Many machines were gutted for useful parts such as monitors and coin doors then had their cabinets smashed, burned or taken to a landfill. Others were left to rot in abandoned warehouses, sheds or fields.

This practice actually still continues today. Me and a friend came across an antique store a few years ago that had obtained a few trailers of early eighties machines. Thinking they had no value they left the open trailers outside and smashed up entire machines until they’d filled their dumpsters. By the time we got there, we found pieces of games such as Donkey Kong Junior andCentipede in the trash and the machines still in tact had been rained on so much they were falling apart.

While there are hobbyists who restore classic machines scattered across the country, it is commonplace for them to use several machines to complete one full restoration, trashing the rest.

Conversions, Multicades and MAME

Mame arcade cabinet

Most classic arcade machines that didn’t end up as scrap were converted into newer game titles, and still are today.

The first successful conversion kit game was Mr. Do! in 1983, starting a trend that helped operators survive at least a while longer. For a far lesser price than a full arcade machine, vendors could purchase kits with new electronics, graphics and sometimes wiring which was used to turn that old Qix or Berzerk machine into a brand new game title.

While most arcade manufacturers resisted this trend as long as they could, they were forced to change with the times and start offering kits to operators. Some, such as Nintendo and Atari, began to produce kits designed to specifically convert their older titles.

Pac-Man

 

This trend continued through the middle of the decade but slowed for a time in the late 1980s. A bit of a resurgence in the arcade market came along with the rebirth of the home console industry during this time, and dedicated machines of newer hit titles began to sell once again. Most converted machines were simply converted again to newer titles for street locations.

The next big period of conversion mania came with Street Fighter II in 1991 and 1992. This game earned so much money so quickly that many operators quickly bought kits for every arcade cabinet they had in storage. Years ago I met an operator that literally converted every remaining early 80s machine he had to SFII when it was hot, and remember locations with classic machines such as BurgerTime and Front Line that they converted at this time.

Donkey Kong 3

In recent years the conversion mania has continued in two forms. Over the past decade an influx of overseas knock off boards often dubbed as “Multicades” have made their way into North America. These bootleg boards contain dozens and sometimes hundreds of games. Many arcade machine resellers have gutted surviving classics in favor of converting them into these multi-game machines in the name of making a buck.

Other home collectors have built arcade machines based on the MAME emulation program. While some of these MAME fans have built their arcade rigs from classic cabinets that were already stripped or converted beyond reasonable restoration, others have posted blogs where they show their process of gutting a surviving arcade machine to build it into a computer-based conversion.

Several arcade conversions have appeared on these popular treasure-hunting television programs in recent years, often without the people on the show seemingly aware of it. An episode of Pawn Stars saw someone bring three “Japanese Arcade Games” into the Las Vegas shop, two of which were conversions from Defender machines. The Ms. Pac-Man machine that appeared on an episode of Auction Hunters was actually a conversion of an original Pac-Man machine, a cabinet that is similar but quite different in many ways as well.

Arcade Passports Required

Ms. Pac-Man

Classic-era arcade machines that weren’t trashed, left to rot or converted may not reside in the country at all anymore. Several people in southern states have confirmed to me in the past that they have shipped and sold entire box trucks of older arcade machines to Mexico.

The current world record holder on Taito rarity Zoo Keeper had his machine shipped to his Australia home from the United States.

Preservation is Key

Trojan

At the present time it seems that the number of people who’d rather turn a retro arcade machine into a Multicade or MAME machine far outnumbers those who would rather try to restore them into their former glory. It is a long and often expensive task to do so.

However, these machines are pieces of pop culture and video game industry history. Just as memorabilia from films, television and various sports have seen efforts to save and preserve their history over time, video games are finally starting to see signs of a preservation effort.

The efforts of groups such as Southern California’s Videogame History Museum and New Hampshire’s American Classic Arcade Museum should be noted for being among the first in the country to take serious steps in this direction as well as many individual collectors across the country such as New Jersey’s Richie Knucklez and Cat DeSpira in the Pacific Northwest.

In time, such efforts may turn the question from “What happened to them all?” to “Did you see all that are left?”

Everything you ever wanted to know about Pac-Man, but were afraid to ask

The Pac-Man Dossier

Everything you ever wanted to know about Pac-Man, but were afraid to ask

The original Pac-Man arcade game might be pushing 32 years of age, but the name still has interest with video game fans of all generations.  Pac-champ David Race once again made international headlines when RecordSetter announced he’d set another new speed record while the recent online World’s Biggest Pac-Man game estimates more than 40 man-hours have been played on their website in the past year.

Casual players and observers who think there isn’t much to Pac-Man strategy and gameplay might be surprised by a visit to the Pac-Man Dossier website.  This labor of love by dot gobbling fan Jamey Pittman goes deep into the Pac-Man program, explaining not only strategies but how the game thinks and reacts to the player’s every move.

“As a kid, my grandparents would often take me to a local shopping mall that had a Gold Rush arcade,” Pittman recalled. “This is where I encountered my first Pac-Man machine in 1980 or 1981. Up to that point, I had dropped most of my quarters into space-themed, ‘shoot ’em up’ titles like Space Invaders and Asteroids, but that all changed once I saw Pac-Man.  Everything about it seemed so new and different compared to what I was used to: the cabinet, the colorful characters, the sounds, everything.”

Decades later, Pittman once again returned to the deep blue maze.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLfugsoU3d0[/youtube]

“The game studio I was a software developer for went under in 2008, and I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands,” he said. “I started playing a lot of Pac-Man using the MAME emulator and realized that, as much as I enjoy playing Pac-Man, it would be even more fun to reverse engineer the game and finally learn how the ghosts work ‘under the hood’, so to speak. So I set out to fill in the many gaps in the internet’s collective knowledge base on the inner workings of Pac-Man. The goal was to conclusively prove how every part of the game functioned, especially everything related to ghost behavior, and put everything I learned into one reference document to share with interested parties.”

With input from several Pac-Man champs and classic arcade reverse-engineering guru Don Hodges, Pittman completed the Dossier after two months of work.  With explanations on every aspect of Pac-Man from how the monsters react to player movements to why and how the player can sometimes pass through an enemy without losing a life, Pittman notes a few programming bugs in particular that caught his eye.

“I think one of the more interesting tidbits was how the chase mode logic for Pinky and Inky works slightly differently when Pac-Man is facing upward,” he said. “After noticing this subtle discrepancy in Pinky’s targeting algorithm, Don and I did some additional code analysis and concluded the game developers screwed up by leaving an overflow bug in the code used for calculating tile offsets relative to Pac-Man’s current position. Another interesting bug I uncovered is how to trap three of the ghosts inside their home during the first two levels of play. That one took some time to figure out as the code governing when and how ghosts leave their home is fairly convoluted.”

Since launching, the Pac-Man Dossier has received hits from over 300,000 unique visitors and was even used as a learning tool when Google developed their popular Pac-Man 30th Anniversary Doodle in 2010.  If time allows, Pittman says he may do similar site for another arcade classic.

“I could easily do an sister site on Ms. Pac-Man as it’s based on the original Pac-Man code,” he said.  “Both I and Don have already spent a lot of time looking over that game’s disassembled code.  But in terms of choosing a completely different title, I think I would most enjoy tearing Centipede completely apart. Defenderor Joust would be fun projects as well.”

The Pac-Man Dossier can be visited by clicking here.

Patrick Scott Patterson has been a gamer since 1981, acting as a writer, technician and world record holder on several game titles. He has appeared numerous times in the yearly editions of Guinness World Records: Gamer’s Edition. In addition to writing here, Patterson has also written for Yahoo!, Twin Galaxies, VGEVO and Gameroom Magazine, and is always looking for unique and positive news to report from the video gaming world.

Atari Flashback

Atari Flashback console system

We all know that Atari no longer actually is Atari. It is just another game publishing brand name. But what happens when the executives running such a company decide to tap into its legendary hardware fame? Atari Flashback. That’’s what.

Atari Flashback is (theoretically) a retro gamer’’s wet dream. An Atari 7800 styled console (only smaller, without a cartridge slot and with a cheaper build), that runs on a normal AC adapter, includes 20 built-in Atari 2600 and 7800 games, and costs less than a contemporary pc game (and much less than a XBOX 360 one). You even get two 7800 styled joysticks thrown in the bargain.

Among the included games, some gems of the early video gaming history are to be found: Adventure, Breakout, Canyon Bomber, Revenge, Food Fight, Haunted House, Asteroids, Centipede, Warlords. You’’ll also get the dubious pleasure of experiencing the previously unreleased Atari version of the famous Saboteur. Just don’’t expect all those games to run as smoothly as they used to on the old machines. Atari Flashback is definitely not a true 7800 and it shows. Most of the games are emulated and a lot of them have serious gameplay, music or graphic glitches (Food Fight for example is a prime offender).

So… Should you buy this small retro-gadget? Depends. Atari Flashback is great value for the average (casual some might call him) gamer. The hardcore retro fan, on the other hand, will spot the various problems and the emulation inconsistencies, and might just have to wait for the Atari Flashback 2.0.


Outrun

It was on a family holiday that videogames first got their hooks into me. Sure, they were around before that, and I was vaguely aware of them, even ‘dabbling’ on occasion, such as when I played the table-top classic, Astro Wars, for practically the whole weekend I stayed over at my cousin’s house, for example, or when I played Frostbite on a school friend’s Atari VCS after school now and then. At that point though, they were never anything more than a passing distraction.

Torbay - The English Riviera

The aforementioned trip was my first vacation and would see us visit the land of my forebears. Namely, the Torbay area of Devon, and we would stay in a rented cottage. I was around 11 or 12 at the time and was very excited about my first trip away, it sounded fantastic, even if it would be occurring in the school summer holidays, thereby failing to ensure that I’d miss any schooltime! For those who don’t know, Torbay is a beautiful area of the Devonshire coast known as “the English Riviera”. It enjoys a mild climate and is home to a sizable marina, some top beaches, three lovely resort towns – Torquay, Paignton, and Brixham, which collectively feature many sights and attractions of magnificent splendour. I, however, ultimately saw very little of all this after I first wandered past an amusement arcade.

OutRun Deluxe arcade machineUp until this point I’d had little interest in arcades. Sure, I’d seen most of the big-name machines like Centipede, Asteroids and the like dotted around here and there and I had a bash on occasion like when my dad would give me a few 10p coins to use on the Space Invaders machine at my youth club, but videogames were still a niche subculture at this time – some games had intrigued me but none had ever truly captured my imagination. Until, that is, I happened upon one of the several arcades in Torquay and something caught my eye. I saw a machine, big, bright red, gleaming like a….. Ferrari! Now cars were an interest of mine at that time. This magnificent-looking machine grabbed me by the ears and pulled me in.

I arrived beside the dauntingly large machine. I felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Amazing images greeted my young eyes. It was fast and colourful. The sounds came booming out of the speakers. There was actual music… The arcade games I’d seen before were pretty impressive, but I’d never seen anything like this – it was amazing! After moaning at my parents for what seemed like an eternity, they yielded and bestowed upon me a shiny fifty pence coin. I finally lowered myself into the large seat armed with the coin and immediately felt more important. I deployed it and selected the music – Magical Sound Shower of course – and began the game. The excitement as I floored the accelerator and zoomed away from the start line was immense.

OutRun game Start screen

I soon reached the first corner of the exquisite Coconut Beach Boulevard, started to turn the wheel and – oh my God! – the whole seat moved! I managed to get as far as the uphill chicane before succumbing to the ever-precarious tree-lined roadside. Upon hitting them for the first time, the whole machine shook around! To say that this was unexpected would be to put it mildly – this was quite incredible! Unfortunately this revelatory experience didn’t last much longer as my time expired, but it was to become an important experience for me. Suffice to say, and the rest of this holiday was predominantly spent in the various arcades of Torquay, and most of that time, sat in an OutRun machine’s seat.

It’s hard to explain how much Outrun means to me. It was the first videogame I ever really played properly – the beginning of what was to become a passionate, not to mention expensive hobby, which has been vigorously pursued ever since. It’s a real possibility that had this encounter not taken place, I may not even be a casual gamer now, let alone the hardcore gaming nerd that I became and remain. The holiday had to end though, and upon returning to Hampshire, the source of my obsession was nowhere to be found. This situation was soon rectified, however. After a hard fought campaign, my parents finally bought me a Sega Master System, on which I had discovered I could play Outrun. I had to pay them back of course, so three years of paper rounds ensued, all proceeds going to this cause. It didn’t matter though – I had Outrun!

OutRun Marquee

Commercial Wars: Atari in the 80’s

Commercial Wars: Atari in the 80’s

You did not have to be born in the 80’s to appreciate some of the insane commercials that were produced and released during that time.  In the 80’s we had a mix of commercials still influenced by the 70’s combined with the emerging technology of the 80’s with directors and writers trying everything to get you to buy their products.

Atari-Computer-System

Since console gaming was brand new and even arcade gaming itself was not wide spread to the TV watching audience the challenge was presenting their ad in a way that would interest the consumer. In addition, since the graphics of the day were not that exciting the fear was showing simpler graphics on a television screen where you can watch shows that have a higher production value could turn parents off to buying their kids the system. As a result the creativity level for the commercials was, unique.

Joust

My question is why would you want to highlight a home being destroyed over playing a video game? See, the bird knew what was coming and the kid just stood back and watched it happen. What was that thing at the end with him turning into a bird? Oh, I forgot, LSD was still popular back then.

Dig Dug

Know I understand how the war in Iraq came about it was Dig Dug. I really hope our department of defense is not this stupid. However, I think I discovered how Independence Day was made, with the cuts to different locations including “lovers lane” and the dirt moving from under peoples feet. Perhaps it was more like the movie, Tremors.  We jump into crises mode at the White House while dancers shake their butts on screen. You have to love the 80’s.

Come on! Do the Dig Dug Dance!

Asteroids

You know alien’s visited our planet back in the day. What you did not know was they were looking for video games. These people look like a mix between the Andorians from Star Trek and Night Elves from World of Warcraft. The main person looks like Data and they talk like Mork from Mork and Mindy. The good news is they will be too busy playing to enslave us. The bad news is they have the technology to travel to earth, but think Atari graphics are awesome.

Berzerk

So we start off here with an old lady almost nailing a kid in the balls. Old people, they think you can only play Berzerk in the arcades, but now you can play it at home. I think there were millions of bands back in the 80’s whose sole purpose was to sing jingles for commercials. At least we got the “Have you played your Atari today” line.

Solar Fox

This was before Wing Commander and women’s lib, we have the dashing and bored Soul Fox and the bubbling blond eating popcorn while their spaceship flies toward what looks like a 3D chess board. Poor Soul Fox is so annoyed that his busty companion wants to navigate his loins and he only wants to navigate the space field. I know the feeling, wait, no I don’t.

One thing of note, I did not even know of CBS Electronics.

Back to the Future

There you have it, five commercials from Atari made in the 80’s in a style only Puff the Magic Dragon could understand. Now you vote, which was the best.

What is the best classic space shooter and why?

Space Shooter arcade
Space Shooter arcade

There are a ton of great space shooters from console to PC and it started with a simple premise, invaders from space. Something as simple as shooting down attacking aliens became one of the most played shooters in history. I guess technically since the ship is on earth it is not a space shooter, but you get the point. In years since we have fired off shots at everything from Asteroids to Intergalactic warlords and had a ton of fun doing it.

We are beginning a new season with the Insider Discussion and will be focusing more on ranking, commenting and comparing classic games and what better place to start than with the space shooter. I personally loved the space shooter from Galaga to Tie Fighter to Descent, but honestly there was one game I really got into overall.

Freelancer

I loved this game because it was the first that felt really open ended to me. You started off as a jack-of-all trade’s character and from there you could decide what you wanted to do. There was an overall storyline, but you could go off on your own and fight against various factions. You could be a good guy or a bad guy, a pirate or an agent of the law, a miner, a broker or a thief, there were tons of choices.

There were also tons of areas with wide open space areas full of other ships and hazards. What I really enjoyed was that events happened in each area regardless of storyline or even your presence. You could warp into an area of space and right into a war between two factions and choose to either get involved or run for your life and if you did get involved it would affect your faction.

As you gained money you could upgrade your shipping and become a real badass. Honestly, once you got a few key upgrades you could own pretty much anyone, but it did take time to do that. The controls were pretty easy to use and standard for open space shooters like a Decent Free Space. In addition the battles could get really intense and there was a strategy to winning as well as avoiding battles.

One of my favorite things were the warp gates, especially when you were being chased and had to wait to be able to go through, made for some exciting times. Overall this was a fun game and you could even play with others online with one group on one side of the galaxy and another on the other side. Perhaps it was not the best space shooter of all time, but it was true enjoyment for me and a game I will remember for a long time to come.

Panel Choices

Defender

Chris Skaggs from Soma Games wrote: Does Defender count? (and Stargate) I think that game was a fantastic and unique vision of the space shooter that did something really unique.

Life Force

Justin Melendez from Lan Slide PC’s wrote: Life Force for the Super Nintendo was one of the coolest space shooters ever made. Not only did it have awesome power ups and a two player mode, but the entire game takes place inside the guts of a giant alien. If that isn’t awesome I don’t know what is.

Xevious

Juan Gril from JoJu Games wrote: If you include Shoot’Em Ups, I think that would be Xevious for me.

Asteroids

Aaron Hunter from Playtechtonics Inc wrote: All I can think of as an answer is ASTEROIDS! But that’s probably because everyone says the control system in Starport is very similar. So if you like asteroids, check out Starport.

David Warhol from Realtime Associates wrote: I like Asteroids.  The mechanics of the rocks getting smaller and more dangerous is great, and the physics of the ship really good too.  Space ballet.

StarWars: X-Wing

Mike Jorgensen from Zombie Studios wrote: Back at the dawn of time (which I like to call the early 90’s), there was a surge of crappy Flight Sims (including Space Flight Sims). From the chaos, there would arise 2 predators to sit atop the food chain, namely the Wing Commander Series, and the X-Wing Series. These two would embody the very ideals of Survival of the Fittest, with each iteration getting stronger and better than the last (not to mention stealing ideas). Watching the two grow and evolve was like watching Lions and Tigers (and we all secretly hoped for a Li-Ger, which would finally occur in Wing Commander 3 with the talents of Mark Hamill and Ginger Lynn).

In the end, the crown of King Of the Jungle would go to the Xwing Series (and specifically the first Xwing title).

Ok, so let’s strip away the sheer awesomeness of StarWars. You are still left with an engine that;

  1. Runs in 640×480 in 16bit color on 486 hardware (and is VERY versatile for scaling up or down on a relatively wide variety of hardware)
  2. Includes a full suite of gameplay related functionality (such as in-game movie recording and playback, character progression and awards, and those mission prep and planning screens)
  3. Includes an editor for making your own missions, scenarios, decals, textures, and modifying ships.

I can’t help but to re-iterate how significant the first accomplishment was. This was in the days before DirectX, before any abstraction layers, back when Men were Men & Women were Women & game programmers had to write universal binaries for what hardware MIGHT be running their code. That feat is the equivalent of walking into the UN Building and trying each language until you’re talking to everyone.

 

Separate from the capabilities of the engine, the game itself was a near masterpiece. Several missions included a pre-rendered intro. The audio and music was fantastic (but really, what else would you expect from LucasArts audio division). Nearly every actionable piece was animated, and I really do mean nearly everything. The user feedback on committing and completing an action, still stands out today. The beeps on the target lock, the HUD color change when within range, the end dots indicating which guns could probably hit the target. The actual gameplay was easy enough to get your feet wet in the first five minutes, but could take a couple days to master. You could spend days perfecting the little things like when to “set your deflector shields to double front”, or selecting in which pattern your lasers fired, or selecting what type of craft you were flying and what armaments it had.

In the end, the Xwing Series concluded with the Xwing Alliance, which included full 16 player support (OVER DIALUP NO LESS), frigate combat (with Turret and AI support), and more realistic physics (which are perfected in titles such as Freespace 2).

If you haven’t played anything from the Xwing Series before, grab the oldest PC you have in the house, throw the demo on, and enjoy the finer points of the 90’s.

Galaga

Grace Snoke from EOGamer wrote: Galaga.  Because it was fun and frustrating to me as a kid.  Okay, I’ll be honest, it’s still frustrating to me now.  It was one of the games that required a lot of thought, planning and quick reactions.  I reacted, just sometimes not quick enough, or not agilely enough and would end up dead so quick.  I admire the folks who have set world records in that game.  It would drive me insane to attempt that.  I just don’t have the patience required for it.

What is your vote for best classic space shooter?

Mark van Diggelen: SkillPod Media

Skillpod Media logo
Skillpod Media logo

Name: Mark van Diggelen

Company: SkillPod Media (Pty) Ltd

Profession: CEO / Chief Gamer

Favorite Classic Game: Larry Lounge Lizard

Quote: It was one of the 1st true strategy RPG games and kept you glued to your 286 PC for hours and hours on end, it’s a legendary game.

I have a lot of great game playing memories from the early to mid-eighties. My best friend, Jose, my brother and I were absolute arcade games addicts and used to take our R1 (roughly Us$12 in today’s money) and walk across to the corner cafe (convenience store). We had an ongoing dilemma and that is that each game cost 20c and our favorite chocolate cost 20c, but we were 3 people and each of us needed to play at least one game, of either Pacman, Asteroids or the latest and greatest release, Space Invaders. What we did was buy 2 chocolates and then share them between the 3 of us, as evenly as we could.

Thereafter it was time for action and sheer determination to achieve the highest score, we were pretty good and used to play for between 30 and 40 minutes per player. Then came the PC and the 1st RPG games, Larry Lounge Lizard, this game had me instantly addicted and turned out to be my favorite game of all time. At the time I was studying and would start playing at around 9pm, after some studying and completion of projects, and invariably only finish after 3am and still need to be up by 6am for college. Larry Lounge Lizard is a legend, even in its simple form.


Bio/Current Event: SkillPod Media is an innovative online gaming and application development business, that’s passionate about the casual gaming market. SkillPod Media  has developed a world class proprietary gaming platform, for online and mobile, which already powers a number of highly successful games sites for some of the top International and South African online portals. We’re currently launching our new platform that includes Power-ups for games, ability for users to customise their games and create and pimp their avatars.

Mungo Amyatt-Leir: Flight 1

Flight1 Software logo
Flight1 Software logo

Name: Mungo Amyatt-Leir

Company: Flight1

Profession: Managing Director, Europe

Favorite Classic Game: Asteroids (Arcade)

Quote: In 1979 I was 11 years old and the chip shop, next to the new Secondary Comprehensive I had just joined, revealed a whole new world of entertainment beyond Grange Hill and Crackerjack. It was the low throb and moonlight glow of the Asteroids machine in the corner, with a gaggle of older boys madly shouting instructions, interspersed with the unforgettable high pitched UFO sound, that drew my interest. I quickly become hooked, walking 4 miles each way to school so that I could spend my bus (and lunch) money on this beast. My nightmares were punctuated by the appearance of that tiny saucer and hundreds of vector-rendered tiny rocks, perfectly rotating as they hurtled across the screen with only the limited hyperspace jump acting as my saviour. The machine moved on, as did I, and it was not too many years later I found myself rendering sprites of those same rocks as we programmed the a 16-bit conversion of this seminal game.


The Interview: Steve Gray

Steve Gray
Steve Gray

Steve Gray

When you have a gaming resume with names like Electronic Arts, Squaresoft and THQ there is little doubt that you know gaming. Obsolete Gamer was given the opportunity to talk with Steve Gray about his gaming career that started with EA Canada his time at Squaresoft and his work on Parasite eve. From there he created his own studio (Heavy Iron) which he sold to THQ in 1999. From there he returned to EA where he worked on many games including The Two Towers, The Return of the King, The Third Age and Tactics. Currently Steve Gray is the executive in charge of production at Tencent who is China’s largest developer and publisher and operator of online games.

We wanted to get a behind the scenes look at his time in the gaming industry and his many accomplishments from his work in Video FX to building the first Motion Capture Lab at EA Canada.

EA Canada logo
EA Canada logo

Obsolete Gamer: When did you know you would want to work in the video game industry?

Steve Gray: I originally wanted to be a Rock Star (just like Tremmel) and I played the clubs a lot in LA and up and down the California coast.  At that time I also worked in the feature film special effects business.  Which I continued to do until the early 90’s when I was VP Technology at Digital Domain (that’s when we made True Lies, Interview with the Vampire, Apollo 13, …).  When the PS1 came out I decided I really wanted to get into video games instead.

Obsolete Gamer: What was your first exposure to games?

Steve Gray: Asteroids in the arcades.

Obsolete Gamer: What was the first video game that hooked you?

Steve Gray: Asteroids in the arcades!!

Obsolete Gamer: Now before beginning work in the gaming industry you had quite the career in Visual Effects and working in television and movies can you tell us about that time?

Steve Gray: I worked at Robert Abel & Associates when I first moved to LA (to be a Rock Star).  Entry Level Rock Star doesn’t pay very well, actually… not at all.  RA&A worked on Tron, Star Trek 1, and a ton of really cool CG TV commercials.  Also with Omnibus and Digital Pictures we were really the first big CG effects house.  It was a great place to work, everyone was really young and crazy… we worked super hard, partied super hard.  It was a good time… late 80’s in LA was a fun time and place.  Guns and Roses was playing the clubs, the Sunset Strip was rockin’.  Then I went on to work at Rhythm & Hues as head of the Software department.  We wrote all our own CG tools then, because there really weren’t any commercially available packages yet.  I mostly wrote partical systems and rendering code, along with managing the team.  After R&H I moved over to Digital Domain, which was a lot of crazy house.  But we worked on really great movies… and working with Stan Winston and Jim Cameron was pretty amazing.

Obsolete Gamer: So you began the video game part of your career at Electronic Arts Canada, how did that job come to be?

Steve Gray: Digital Domain wanted to get into the video games business… so me and Chris McKibbin (then CFO of DD – different Chris than Chris Tremmel) went around to all the big game companies in the US and Japan trying to get someone to do a project with us… no one really wanted to do that because they (rightly) said we had no idea what we were doing.  Don Mattrick offered me and McKibbin both jobs at EAC.  So we thought about that and both took his offer.

Obsolete Gamer: What was it like working at EA Canada?

Steve Gray: It was really interesting. I learned a lot there.  A lot of really talented guys.  But unfortunately I discovered that making sports games wasn’t really my thing.

Obsolete Gamer: What did you think of the changing in video game technology at the time with the PlayStation One and the use of full motion video in games?

Steve Gray: We all though FMVs in games were super cool.  And actually I eventually built a game at my own company Heavy Iron that used FMV backgrounds in a “Resident Evil” type of game… except our backgrounds were pre-rendered videos instead of pre-rendered stills.  But that was on PS2.  It was the first Evil Dead game that THQ released.  But fundamentally I now think that FMVs kind of suck.  Or at least over use of FMVs kind of suck.  I like what we did in “Lord of the Rings The Third Age” with the transitions from FMV to In-Game Cinematic to Game Play.  And I’m definitely more of a fan of in-game cinematics now, especially if the player can customize his or her avatar, and that customized avatar shows up in the In-Game Cinematic.  But in general, I’m not a huge fan of linear content in games anymore.  Of course, working at Square we made tons of FMVs… but Square’s console RPGs are almost more of a big movie with some game play bits squeezed in there.   Which I still like.

Obsolete Gamer: What were the day to day activities of running the software tools group at EA Canada?

Steve Gray: Not really that interesting.  Just managed the tools group, tried to make sure that we really built things that were useful for the projects right now… no “ivory tower research” allowed.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about building the first Motion Capture Lab at EAC?

Steve Gray: In the beginning the EAC guys didn’t believe in it so we had basically no budget and had to rent out the auto-repair stall to use as our capture studio.  The guys in the auto repair shops around us all through we must be shooting porno movies because we brought in all this high-end camera gear… they kept wanting to know when the girls were going to be there.  Unfortunately it was just a bunch of geeky game developers.  Later we got a bigger a much nicer warehouse to work in…

Squaresoft logo
Squaresoft logo

Obsolete Gamer: How did the transition from EAC to Squaresoft take place?

Steve Gray: I knew some Square guys from various places in the past, plus I’ve always been a fan of their games.  When Sakaguchi-san asked me to join the company I couldn’t say yes fast enough.   Some of the other guys at Square invited me to Tokyo to meet Sakaguchi and we were in a private booth overlooking the massive dance club called “Welfare”, he asked me to join square and put out his hand… I shook it and the other Japanese guys asked me “do you know you just signed the deal”, to which I answered “yes”!!

Obsolete Gamer: Do you have a story or memory you’d like to share about your time at EAC?

Steve Gray: I think the day we installed the flying-faders audio mixing board in the sound lab was the best day.  Back then those things were super crazy expensive, and as a musician I’d always wanted to have one to play with.

Obsolete Gamer: What was it like working at Squaresoft?

Steve Gray: Working at Square was the best of times and in some ways the worst of times.  Working with Sakaguchi-san was extremely challenging because his standards are insanely high.  Which is a good thing, but it can be tough.  Also the cultural and language differences between the Japanese and Western teams we not really understood or managed very well.  I’m sure we were one of the first projects to be developed by a “mixed” team.  Of course now this is happening more and more, and people have gotten much better at managing those situations, but we were really on the bleeding edge, so to speak.

Obsolete Gamer: What were some of the challenges in directing Parasite Eve?

Steve Gray: The biggest issues were really finding consensus and understanding between the Japanese crew, many of whom had been at Square for many years and were used to their style of working… which was actually very “agile” though they didn’t call it that.  The Western team was much more into what’s now referred to as Waterfall project management… which we didn’t call it that either.  We didn’t really think about this sort of thing, and didn’t understand the differences, and basically made a big mess.  But the game did quite well when it came out, so that’s great!

Obsolete Gamer: Now the game was a sequel to the book correct?

Steve Gray: The game wasn’t a sequel really, it was based on a Japanese novel.  There is also a Japanese movie based on the same book… with some cool VFX from Toyo Links (Japanese VFX company).

Obsolete Gamer: There are many fans who loved that game, but some felt it did not get the attention it deserved, do you feel that way as well?

Steve Gray: It sold over 2.5 million units world wide I think, and sold something like 1.6 million units in like a week in Japan or something crazy like that.  Not quite Final Fantasy numbers, but pretty good.  I’m happy with it.

Obsolete Gamer: What did you think of Parasite Eve 2?

Steve Gray: I think the graphics and FMVs are probably better… I haven’t really played it all the way through, so I don’t have a lot to say about the game.  I was a little bitter with the way things ended up at Square, so I cop’ed an attitude and only played it a bit.

Obsolete Gamer: There were rumors of making a Parasite Eve 3 but it did not happen would you want to see a part 3 made?

Steve Gray: Only if I make it!!!  I don’t know.  Don’t really care.  I don’t think the franchise really took off enough to warrent a whole long series of games.

Parasite Eve box
Parasite Eve box

Obsolete Gamer: You also contributed to Final Fantasy 7 while at Square, can you tell us about that?

Steve Gray: Mostly I just helped another team at Square LA work on some maps.   Square LA did a bunch of maps for FF VII.  I don’t remember how many or what percentage of the total maps were done there.

Obsolete Gamer: Do you have a story or memory you’d like to share about your time at Square?

Steve Gray: Ha.  The stories I have to share involve other Square employees, cute Japanese girls at various locations in Tokyo at night.  They are not fit for public consumption… so I’ll let you guys imagine some of the trouble we got into.

Obsolete Gamer: What made you want to open your own game development company?

Steve Gray: After we finished PE1 at Square, a core group of us thought we were super badass game developers and that publishing companies would fall over themselves to give us projects and money.  That was not entirely true.  We worked on a bunch of games that never saw the light of day, and then finally landed the gig with THQ building Evil Dead 1.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about Heavy Iron Studios?

Steve Gray: It was originally called Chemistry Entertainment.  For a while we partnered with the Canadian VFX Company called Rainmaker.  Heavy Iron didn’t really 100% work out as we hoped.  But a bunch of really great people worked there, many of whom have gone on to successful careers in the game industry… for example my partner Marcel Samek went on to be CTO at EALA for many years.  Shiraz Akmal ran the central outsourcing group at THQ… Matt Coohill continued to work at Heavy Iron for a long time, and is now up in Seattle at Microsoft working cool stuff there.  And many others…

Obsolete Gamer: How did it differ from running your own company than working at EAC and SS?

Steve Gray: We had no money.  I didn’t really like running my own company that much… I thought it would give me the freedom to work on the kinds of projects I really like.  But instead I got to be an administrator and was always managing cash flow and trying to make payroll.  Not cool.

Obsolete Gamer: When did you make the decision to sell to THQ?

Steve Gray: When we were starting on Evil Dead 1, it was going to be one of the biggest projects THQ had ever done… and they really wanted to have us be part of THQ so that they would be building equity in the team.  And honestly, Marcel and I were a bit tired of managing the company instead of making games, so we decided to join THQ.  Of course, we also got paid some money (stock).  When I left THQ, their stock was at an all-time high… this was a good thing.

Obsolete Gamer: Do you have a story or memory you’d like to share about your time with Heavy Iron Studios?

Steve Gray: When we were finalizing Evil Dead, I was basically living at the office.  We had a group of THQ QA guys in the first floor, and they would find bugs, we’d fix them… I’d burn new test disks… they bang away at them.  It was a crazy project.  But then many things I’ve worked on have been crazy and hard… but that’s what makes it fun.

Obsolete Gamer: Then it was a return to EA what was that like?

Steve Gray: I came back to EA to join my original Digital Domain friend, Chris McKibbin, to help run what was called the “Worlds Channel” in EA.com.  We were all the entertainment products, meaning all the MMOs.  I guess younger readers may not know about EA.com – EA.com was EA’s first big jump into online games, and think we were a bit ahead of the times… EA.com didn’t work out, and got closed down, and many of the people merged back into the other EA Studios.  That was pretty rough because many people were also laid off, and as one of the senior guys there it fell to me to do a lot of layoffs.  But it’s lame to feel bad for yourself in that situation because it’s 100x worse for the people getting laid off.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about the development process with creating the Lord of the Rings games?

Steve Gray: We kicked some serious ass on Lord of the Rings.  First out at Stormfront, then internally at EA Redwood Shores.  Those were great games, beautiful games, built on very tight schedules under difficult circumstances and they were really good.  I credit my time and Square and my experiences working with Sakaguchi for my ability to really focus on quality… and of course, Neil Young was a great EP on the first two, I learned a lot working with him as well.  I have very happy memories of that time… though I did get diss’ed pretty hard in the infamous “EA Wife” blog.  I think our FMV->game play transition stuff which I mentioned earlier was a first for the industry, and we really set the standard for quality in movie games… a standard that has rarely been met since, in my opinion.

Heavy Iron logo
Heavy Iron logo

Obsolete Gamer: How did your experience with EAC, Square and owning Heavy Iron Studios factor into your return to EA and working on those games?

Steve Gray: I really credit Sakaguchi-san for helping me understand how to build great games.  I have to say that at the time, when I was at Square, I didn’t really agree 100% with how he wanted to do things… but in the following years I came to really appreciate how his approach to game development is able to consistently create such high quality product.  Now I’ve rarely (never) had the freedom he has as a developer, but his ideas fit into development even if you have to pay more attention to the schedule.  Heavy Iron gave me a lot of respect for how hard it is to run a business… and at EA I learned a lot about why publishers work the way they do, and why publishers make what seem to the developers like evil and unwarranted decisions.  That changed my understanding of the game business a lot.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about your work on Neverwinter Nights 2?

Steve Gray: This is a mistake in some profiles on me… I never worked on Neverwinter Nights 2.

Obsolete Gamer: With all your time in the gaming industry which prior of your career did you enjoy the most?

Steve Gray: I really really enjoyed working on the Lord of the Rings games.  The team was so fantastic.  Everyone was great to work with and super talented.  We may have had our struggles and moments of anger with each other, but I wouldn’t trade that time with those people for anything.  I am also really enjoying working at Tencent…

Tencent logo
Tencent logo

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about what you are working on currently?

Steve Gray: I am currently Executive in Charge of Prodution at Tencent in China.  Tencent is China’s largest developer, publisher and operator of on-line games, we have a huge IM client (over 1 billion accounts), we run China’s largest portals, etc…  I work with all of our Studios, of which we have 9… with about 3500 employees across all of them.  But there are some projects I’m particularly focused on.

Unfortunately I can’t really tell you about them, because most are unannounced.  However one I can mention is NBA 2K Online, which is a co-development project with 2K Sports in the US.  It’s a bit weird because I didn’t really like working on Sports games at EAC… but this is really more of a Sports RPG or something like that.  It’s really cool… it’s going to be a monster hit here in China.  Working with Visual Concepts (the 2K Games Studio that builds NBA2K) is really great, working with 2K China is great… our team in Shanghai is great.

It’s really fun.  It’s amazing how Tencent builds online games and how big we are (we have 4 games that have more than 1 million people playing simultaneously every day).  We get to work so closely with our customers… in a way you can never do on a console game.  Also the scale we operate at is just stunning… QQ IM (our IM client) routinely has over 100,000,000 people logged into it every day.  Yes – that’s the right number of zeros… 100,000,000.

Obsolete Gamer: With all that you do you must have little free time, but when you do if you play any games what are they?

Steve Gray: I rarely play any games other than the games I’m working on, or directly competing product… which I can’t say what they are, because that would be a dead giveaway of what we’re building.  I don’t really play games for “fun” in my free time… well, what free time, for one thing.  But I have a lot of fun playing the games I’m building or those few other games I play to understand what the competition is up to.

High Score movie review

High Score movie review

In the same kind of movie category as The King of Kong, High Score shows us the struggle of a video game champion trying to topple the top score for Missile Command.

The full movie can be seen in hulu or just click play on the embedded video below:

Let’s talk about the film… (I’ll assume you watched the film or that you don’t care if I talk about a spoiler, in this review)

Overall Score: 8 out of 10

Although the movie is only about 50 minutes long, the movie is done with good taste and character and the gamer Bill Carlton is a good sport and has a great attitude when it comes to life and his gaming goals.

Bill Carlton
Bill Carlton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bill is a world champion at Asteroids as well as Missile Command. The movie is about his fight to try to beat the Missile Command machine as he stays up for many hours and days trying to reach and beat the top score of 80 million. The problem is that the machine that Bill bought kept crashing, resetting, or overheating and as soon as that happened, it was game over.

If you have seen The King of Kong or you know about Twin Galaxies you will understand how he videotapes every hour of gameplay to try to submit for an authentic world record. If you don’t know what Twin Galaxies is, they are the Guiness World Book of Records approved association for keeping track of all authentic records for high scores for all video games. Click here to visit the Twin Galaxies website. They are very serious about their job and in order for a score to be accepted, you must be either playing at a world tournament or you have to record yourself playing on a machine that has been authenticated as being an original, unmodified machine.

The movie brings up some good points, such as showing that in some places of the US other than drinking and drugs, video games are one of the few escapes from reality people can have. Other than that, we see a fellow gamer that does not play modern games, bringing up that his kid can wipe the floor with him on PS2 gaming, but his son is afraid to even dare challenge him in Missile Command.

Many old games, like Missile Command, take a very long amount of time in order for you get high up there as far as world class high score record breaking goes. Bill anticipated that it would take him a good 2-3 days to reach the 80 million mark. A problem though is that the machine could not take the strain of his challenge.

Bill Carlton is frustrated
Bill Carlton is frustrated

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like brought up in The King of Kong, some machines will simply have a kill screen where the game will simply crash and you will simply just keep dying, giving you a Game Over screen. Usually this is a problem of the game running out of RAM or having it’s design limit reached.

I wish the movie would have been longer and that they would have bought Bill another Missile Command machine so that he could take himself to the limit and see if he could really topple the number one score help by the now gaming-retired Victor Ali.

Bill is still in the number 10 position currently for the Twin Galaxies scoreboard, and it would be nice to see him rise in ranks. Keep it up Bill!

If you want to see what the current scoreboard looks for Missile Command, click here! Otherwise… keep on gaming!