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Saturday, 22 August 2015

Pixels movie review


Hollywood made a movie about classic arcade game characters and I write a blog about classic arcade games, so I had to review Happy Madison Production's new flick Pixels, whether I wanted to or not.

Anybody who calls themselves a gamer, anybody who grew up in the 80s and anybody with kids under 12 will have had Pixels on their radar for the last few months, and the trailers show you everything you need to know about the film. In 1982, NASA sent a probe out into space that contained, among other things, footage of several hit arcade games. Decades later, a race of aliens find this footage and take it to be an act of war. So they launch an attack on Earth using that very same footage as the inspiration for their weapons of mass destruction. Cue Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Galaga, Centipede, Arkanoid and a whole host of other classic sprites tearing up city streets around the world as giant, voxel monsters, while Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad and Michelle Monaghan try to stop them.

Galaga kicks things off by attacking an air base
The movie actually starts in 1982, with young friends Sam Brenner and Will Cooper heading to a newly opened arcade on their BMXs to check out the hottest games. Sam, it seems, is a natural, able to spot the patterns that were intrinsic to games of that era and exploit them. Such are his skills, that he and Will enter a national arcade competition, where the pair meet the even younger Ludlow "Wonder Kid" Lamonsoff and the devious Eddie "Fire Blaster" Plant. And this, it turns out, is the source of the ill-fated footage that NASA sends out into space.

Fast forward 30 years and Sam (Adam Sandler) is now a divorced 40-something, installing TVs for a living, despite his promise as a youth, while his chubby best friend Will (Kevin James) is the freakin' president of the freakin' United freakin' States of freakin' America! The only possible explanation for this is that it puts both characters in positions that allow them to be involved in the ensuing chaos. Enter also Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), a hot single mom who's also happens to be a Lieutenant Colonel and weapons specialist. Sam and Violet cross paths when he is sent to her house to set up a new TV and PS4 for her son. Naturally, there is a clash of personalities, with an undertone of attraction, as you might expect from a film like this.

When a US military base is attacked by unknown forces, capable of rendering people, hardware and buildings to little glowing cubes, President Cooper brings both his friend and the Lieutenant Colonel on-board as advisors. On studying footage from the attack, Cooper has a hunch that the aggressor's formation resembles that of the aliens in the Namco classic Galaga and he wants his friend to confirm or deny his suspicions. It's around this time that an adult Ludlow (Josh Gad) is brought into the picture as a "typical gamer", i.e. a 38 year-old virgin, living with his gran, obsessing over fantasy female characters, namely Lady Lisa from Dojo Quest. This is the only non-authentic video game and character portrayed in the movie and also the only circa 1982 video game character to appear as flesh and blood, rather than a bunch of primary-coloured cubes, because bewbs! As well as being a true-to-life representation of us gamers [insert sarcasm here], Ludlow is also a conspiracy nut, who already knows about the invasion and has come to the same conclusion as Sam and POTUS Will.

The Arcaders, Lieutenant Colonel Violet, Sam, Wonder Kid and Fire Blaster.
The aliens then reveal themselves through a montage of 80s icons, such as Madonna and Fantasy Island's Mr. Roarke and Tattoo to throw down the gauntlet to planet Earth. Each side gets three chances or lives, if you will, in a series of battles based on the games contained in the space probe. Only, Sandler and crew had already lost two rounds before anybody had figured out WTF was going off, so the next battle is an all or nothing fight in Hyde Park, London. Here the aliens attack using the Atari classic Centipede. Armed with "light cannons" (developed by van Patten's team), Sam, Ludlow and a bunch of US soldiers battle the Centipede through the streets of London and Earth gains its first victory. The story then continues with a giant game of Pac-Man through the streets of New York. It's at this point that the team break Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage) out of jail to help with the fight, because he was the world's best Pac-Man player. It's a decision that costs them later, as Eddie is not to be trusted. Things soon escalate, with a chaotic showdown that doubles-up as a who's who of classic arcade gaming. In terms of plot, there are no surprises, but did you really think there would be?

The Centipede scenes are genuinely great
Pixels has been mauled by both movie critics and the gaming press alike, but I will say this: the Centipede and Pac-Man scenes are intense and authentic, right down to the movement patterns, rules and colour schemes for each wave. By the end of Centipede battle, I had a big smile on my face and I was willing to go along with Sandler and co for the ride. To be fair, this is probably the highlight of the entire film, but throughout Pixels does do justice to its source material. But there are problems, not just with its cookie cutter plot and characterisation, but also its portrayal of women; they are shown as being either pretty and insubstantial or simply prizes for the men to win. There are other problems too; Sandler and James seem uninterested in the proceedings and Dinklage has very little to work with, other than being a sneaky, diminutive Billy Mitchell look-a-like. Gad's character, on the other hand, is very muddled, alternating between being so obsessed with Lady Lisa that he has written and published his own book on how she could be real, to lusting after the muscular soldiers and touching their asses (as the Americans say) whenever he can. Michelle Monaghan's character is also ill-defined. At one moment she is a strong, confident woman who can hold her own with the big boys and the next she's reduced to crying and drinking in a cupboard because her husband has dumped her for a 19 year-old bimbo. We can only assume the speed at which she falls for Sandler is a classic case of rebound. The movie also wastes the talents of Jane Krakowski, who plays Will Copper's wife and is therefore First Lady, Brian Cox, who plays a typical crotchety US army general and Sean Bean, who plays a British commando who gets shown up by Sandler when the chips are down.

However, despite all this, I must confess to enjoying the film. There is no denying I got off on all the obscure gaming references and it was great to see Q*Bert getting another moment in the spotlight (he also appeared in 2012's Wreck-It Ralph). I will also admit to laughing from time to time too, but then this is only my fifth Sandler movie (the previous ones being Eight Crazy Nights, The Wedding Singer, Big Daddy and Airheads — yep, they are really the only ones I've seen), so his schtick is still relatively new to me. I also got a strong Ghostbusters vibe from this movie, although I won't pretend it's in the same league as the original. They both have a group of no-hopers in jump suits trying to save the world from forces they don't really understand, they both feature futuristic, bespoke guns, designed to deal only with the enemy at hand and the pixel monsters can be likened to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. My kids (who are 5 and 9) loved it too and the only video game characters they knew were Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and Frogger. So as someone who has had to suffer such kid-friendly dross as the Nativity movies, the Tinkerbell movies and Post-Man Pat: The Movie, Pixels really did not seem all that bad. In fact, I'd happily watch it again and if I had to chose just one kids movie to see this summer, I would chose Pixels over Minions every time. Yes, I really did say that.
However, if you're a big gamer who wishes the medium was treated with more dignity or your're an adult with no interest in video games, you probably won't enjoy this movie at all.

MTW

P.S. They actually made an 8-bit mobile game of Dojo Quest, which is available for free on iOS and Android.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

A gamer at 40 (or "a gamer grows up")

WHY!? WHY HAS THIS HAPPENED TO ME!? I WAS SO BEAUTIFUL, SO VIBRANT, SO YOUNG!!! NOW I'M OLD, WASHED UP, USED UP AND FED UP!

Sorry, I should be more professional, but you see last month I turned 40 — four friggin' decades old. They say life begins at 40, but you try telling that to Paul Walker or Chris Benoit! Ooh, sorry. Anyway, being 40 in 2015 means that I was born just before the start of the golden age of arcade gaming, I grew up through the 8-bit and 16-bit eras and I came of age just as the internet connected PC gamers from all around the world for unprecedented levels of virtual mayhem and carnage. I was still young enough to thoroughly enjoy the online console explosion and the Xbox 360 ranks as one of my all time favourite game consoles. For the past five years I've been prattling on about my favourite arcade games and occasionally I've talked about modern games, but those articles are now few and far between. I've defined myself as a gamer since before that was even a term and I've spent more time gaming than almost any other leisure activity. Unfortunately, a couple of years ago things started to change. As work and family life took up more and more of my time, I found myself almost resenting the time required to indulge in certain hobbies and I have to confess, gaming was one of them. The reason for this was simple: few hobbies require as much of a time commitment as gaming. Just take the recently released The Witcher 3, for example; the developers, CD Projekt RED, have said there are around 200 hours of gameplay in it. 200 hours? That would get you about a third of the way to learning French or Spanish and that's just one game.

It's because of this time commitment that I gave up playing online after Gears of War 2, but even single-player gaming needs more time than I have spare and it all started to feel a little pointless. I may have played over 200 hours of Skyrim back in 2012, but since then I've only completed two games: Mass Effect 3 and Diablo III. In my various game libraries I have a lot of great games waiting to be played, including Dark Souls, Bioshock Infinite, Borderlands 2, The Witcher (1), Kingdoms of Amalur, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Dragon Quest IX, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Super Mario 3D World, L.A. Noire, Metroid Prime Trilogy, Legend of Grimrock, Legend of Zelda: Spirits Tracks, Brutal Legend, Trine 2, New Super Mario Bros Wii, Mark of the Ninja and both Mario Galaxy gamesAnd I have countless more downloadable games going stale on the hard-drives of my Xbox 360 and PC. There is no way I will finish even half of them.

But despite all this, I still like video games and I still feel they have a lot more to offer than people give them credit for. So what is a 40 year-old gamer to do? About a year ago I thought I'd jack it in altogether, but in recent months I've had a change of heart and there are two reasons for that:
  1. I got out of a job that was killing me with overtime.
  2. My kids are now both old enough to play and they love gaming. 
My son is nearly 9, has been playing since he was about 4 and loves his racing games, pouring hours and hours into Burnout Paradise (surely one of the greatest games of the last generation), Blur and Sonic & Sega All-Star Racing; my daughter is 5½ and she started about two years ago with Kinect games, but got really good at gaming thanks to Minecraft and Mario Kart 7. To my kids gaming and the Internet are just part every day life, and because of games like Minecraft, Terraria, Super Mario, Skylanders, Disney Infinite and of course, the Lego games, they are now both big gamers. I didn't even push games on them, I merely responded to their interest by showing them other games.

At Christmas, my kids got their first console (as opposed to hijacking mine), a Wii U and we all love it. Nintendo has put out some fantastic stuff and I've already played it far more than I ever played on the Wii, despite owning one for nearly 8 years (SteamWorld Dig is my current jam). The half-tablet/half-joypad controller is great for keeping the kids quiet when the wife or I want the TV (even if we just want the TV off). And despite the fact it is already facing its twilight years, with games like Splatoon, Xenoblade Chronicles X and the new Zelda still on the horizon, I reckon we'll be enjoying it for some time to come.
Is Splatoon a genuine, family-friendly
alternative to the big military shooters?
For me it's a bit like coming home to my gaming roots, because it has loads of games that are like the kind of games I played growing up and they have no pretensions of being Hollywood block busters or grand artistic statements. They're game-ass games. And for a man who is, in truth, a little too old to still be playing games, the feeling of reliving my youth with my kids, rather than extending it, seems an acceptable compromise. And besides, they say the family that plays together, stays together, so when all four of us are whizzing around Rainbow Road on Mario Kart 8 or kicking seven shades of shit out of Jigglepluff on Super Smash Bros, our family is no danger of falling apart.

I know there are some gamers out there who will mock the direction my gaming has taken and say that I'm out of touch, that not a real gamer. But listen, I really have down the rabbit hole with this hobby for most of my life.

Homeworld was great on these
As a kid, I marked myself out as a nerd by playing on my computer or console, rather than hanging around the local park, and my favourite holidays were the ones that gave me access to an arcade. I spent my entire summer between 5th year and 6th form playing nothing but 4D Sports Driving (and gained about a stone in weight as a result). As an adult, I got even deeper into gaming. I played the original Quake online using QuakeWorld and custom character models that I'd designed. I spent a decade building gaming PCs, doing dumb things like over-clocking my Intel Celeron 300A to at 466MHz in pursuit of more frames per second. I had crazy peripherals like 3Dfx Voodoo graphics accelerator cards, almost every controller in Microsoft's Sidewinder series (including the ForceFeedback steering wheel and Dual Strike FPS gamepad) and even ELSA 3D Revelator glasses (they were great, especially on Homeworld). I used to lug my giant tower case and a 17" Iiyama CRT to my friends' flats and houses, so we could all play Half-Life or Age of Empires or TOCA Touring Car Racing against each other. I was even in a Half-Life clan at one point, called Full Metal Y-Fronts, who took part in an online tournament hosted by WirePlay (we completely failed to get anywhere in the competition, but never mind that). By the 2000s I had added a Dreamcast, a PlayStation, an N64, a GameBoy Color and a NeoGeo Pocket Color to my hardware collection. In the mid-noughties, my girlfriend and I were as deep into World of Warcraft as you can go, sacrificing sleep, food, sunlight, and even sometimes hygiene in the quest for epic loot. I can remember lost weekends were we would be up until 3 or 4 in the morning doing raids, only to get up again by 7 AM so we could stick all our unwanted drops in the Auction House. And in 2008, I even pursued my hobby into professional life and got my name of the credits of a handful of already forgotten games.

So, I have been what people would now call a "hardcore gamer", but that time has passed for me, like going clubbing or owning a hot hatch. And I say what people now call hardcore gamer, because back then we were just known as gamers. Back then, there was us and them, the non-gamers, and that's it. Now, people who play games can be split up in to all sorts of groups. There's a divide between casual and hardcore, a divide between console and PC gamers, a divide between online and single-player gamers, a divide between simulation and arcade gamers, a divide between retro and modern gamers, a divide between indie and AAA gamers, a divide between games played by enthusiasts and those played by people who don't even think of themselves as gamers and a divide between people who love artsy games and pretty much everyone else. If you talk to people from any one of these categories you will find some who think people on the opposite side of the divide are downright crazy. Take single-player and online (multi-player) games. Even in games that offer both, such as the Halo series, you will find people who never explore and experience one half of the game.

Dear Esther is a strong argument for games as art and has no gameplay whatsoever
But what does all this mean? Well, at the beginning of this post, I talked about turning 40 and how I've grown up with games, but the fact is, video games are closer to 60 years old (if you take William Higinbotham and Robert Dvoraks oscilloscope-based Tennis For Two into consideration). Games have grown up too. We've all heard the reports of World of Warcraft having 11 million active players, Minecraft selling over 60 million copies, AAA games having $100 million budgets and Grand Theft Auto V earning more money than any movie or album, but those facts are not the biggest evidence of gaming's growth and maturity as an entertainment medium. It is the fact games can be divided into so many different categories and serve such a broad audience that really speaks to the maturity of the medium. You can compare it with the success of Marvel's blockbuster super hero movies, which appeal to everyone from comic book guys, to movie geeks, to families and to women who just like Chris Hemsworth's pecs.

Marvel has mastered mass appeal
I've learnt to accept that I am now a gamer dad, I play games with my kids and I love it. Seeing my daughter giggling with excitement because she's just taken out her mummy's kart out with a red shell is as much of a gaming high as I could wish for. You might be a die hard retro gamer, eschewing polygonal graphics and 32-bit processors as "modern rubbish". You might be a sharp shooting Battlefield nut, who could head shot me from the far side of Paracel Storm before I'd even worked out where the beach was. Maybe you only play FIFA and would never consider yourself a gamer, despite buying a PS4 just to play the next game in the series. Maybe you love Kingdom Rush on your phone, but only play it every now and then. Maybe you have a mock F1 car in your living room, with a three-screen display, an authentic F1 force feedback steering wheel and hydraulic seat. Maybe you want your games to ask deeply psychological questions, such as Lucas Pope's immigration officer game, Papers Please. All of that is fine, because no matter what type of game you like, the industry has something for you. This is the evolution of any industry or art form, it is not a sign of selling out, dumbing down or pandering to stock holders. Fear not, the kind of games you want are still being made, whatever they might be, they just now have to take their place with the games everyone else wants.

What I'm getting at is this: what we, as gamers, need to do is show our maturity, especially those of us who are part of the old guard. We need to accept that there are difficult types of gamer, without making a big deal about it, in the same way most of use will happily watch Max Max: Fury Road, Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Minions movie without putting ourselves in a particular movie goer pigeon hole or verbally abusing someone who isn't in the same pigeon hole. Because there is no us and them when it comes to most other entertainment mediums, because with time and greater diversity comes mainstream acceptance. And I don't know about you, but I think games and the people who make them, deserve to be considered normal and worthwhile, not just niche and nerdy. Games are brilliant and game developers and some of the smartest, most talented and hardest working people you'll find in any industry. They and their work deserve better from society and it starts with us.

MTW

Sunday, 10 May 2015

TV Review - Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist


What do video game movies and McDonald's breakfasts have in common? One you can only face when you're drunk and the other when you're hung over. I'll leave you to guess which one is which. Any Street Fighter fan who grew up in the 90s will remember the disastrous Jean Claude Van Damme movie. Superficially, it had lots of promise; it centred around Guile (played by JCVD) and his squadron of marines trying to take down Bison (played by the brilliant Raul Julia in his final role) and his Shadaloo organisation. Throw in Ming-Na as Chun Li (also on the hunt for Bison), Roshan Seth as Dhalsim, Wes Studi as Sagat and a young Kylie Minogue as Cammy and you'd be forgiven for thinking it had a solid mix of physical prowess and acting chops. However, much like the Super Mario Bros movie of the previous year, Street Fighter: The Movie was so poorly executed and deviated so far from the source material, that fans were bitterly disappointed. We had to wait decade and a half for the next live action SF movie, but sadly, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li (starring Kristin Kreuk as Chun Li, Taboo off of the Black Eyed Peas as Vega and not much else) was even worse. That said, by its release in 2009, gamers were used to bad movie adaptations, not least because of a certain German director.

When Mortal Kombat and Silent Hill rank among the better movies based on video games, we gamers have had little reason be hopeful about any others. So I was pleasantly surprised by Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist, a budget web series, which made its way to Netflix earlier this spring. On seeing the mock posters for Assassin's Fist one thing immediately caught my attention: it showcased Ryu and Ken, who have been sorely under utilised in any previous live action translation. Before watching it I looked it up online and discovered it was made by the same team that produced the 3 minute short, Street Fighter: Legacy, about five years ago. I did watch the short when it first came out, but it subsequently escaped by memory. If you haven't already seen Legacy, you can check that out here. But while that short showed the team had some physical talent and decent special effects, it was by no means proof they could pull off an actual story. But by being careful and restrained, I think they have done the impossible: make an authentic Street Fighter series that isn't completely corny.

As stories go, Assassin's Fist is a stripped back, bare bones affair. I suspect this was done for reasons of budget, but necessity is the mother of invention, so the result is a focussed tale of Ryu, Ken, their master Gouken and his brother Gouki, who is seduced by the dark power of Satsui no Hadou and becomes the demon Akuma. Although there are a few other characters in the show — most notably the old master Goutetsu and his daughter, Sayaka — there are no other characters from the games. 

Gouken teaches the kids how it's done
The story begins in 1987, with Ryu (played by Mike Moh) and Ken (played by Christian Howard) learning the martial art Ansatsuken (Assassin's Fist) under the guidance of a middle-aged Gouken (played by Akira Koieyama) at a dojo in the remote Japanese countryside. The show spends a little time explaining how the two friends ended up at the dojo, under Gouken's care and training, before getting meaty with the plot. 

When Ken starts complaining about the lack of progress in their training, Gouken takes the young men to the dojo where he and his brother trained, under Goutetsu (Togo Igawa), decades earlier. Here Gouken begins to teach them how to produce a Hadou (those annoying fireballs cheap players lob at you constantly). Before long, Ryu's is outpacing Ken, much to the frustration of the American fighter. Then one day, in a boarded up room of this old dojo, Ken discovers a book that explains how to perform the Satsui no Hadou. Gouken is no fool and on seeing Ken's new technique, he realises the boy must have uncovered something that should have stay buried. 

Ooh-ohwa your fist is on fi-yer!

This then leads to a long sequence of flashbacks, where we learn how the young Gouken (played by Shogen Itokazu) and Gouki (Gaku Space) are taken in by Goutetsu, after their father is killed in battle. Like Ryu and Ken, Gouken and his younger brother are torn between their love for one another and their rivalry. This rivalry extends to also winning the affection of Goutestu's daughter, Sayaka (Hyunri Lee). When his older brother proves himself to be the better warrior and the more eligible bachelor, Gouki is lured towards the darkside of Ansatsuken and the poisonous effects of Satsui no Hadou. This story then takes up the bulk of the series, with us only occasionally checking in on the boys in the white and red jammies. Assassin's Fist was originally released online last May as a series of shorts, but for the Netflix version it has been turned into a 2½ hour movie. While I've not seen the serial, I suspect it probably works better in that format than as a movie. For example, we spend a long time in a cave in the woods, as Gouki slowly transforms into Akuma (played by Joey Ansah). This is an important part of the Street Fighter canon, but viewing these slower paced pieces of exposition as stand alone 20 minute episodes may be an easier way to digest them, rather than slowing down an entire movie with scenes where not much is said or done.

Akuma meditates in a cave for much of the film
Overall, the script and acting are fine; they are a step up from any original content cooked up by the SyFy channel and miles ahead of any Uwe Bollocks. Howard and Moh are not the best actors by any means, but the script (written by Howard and Ansah) does not demand too much of them. In many ways, the true stars of the show are Koieyama/Itokazu, Space and Igawa, who benefit from being allowed to act in Japanese. This mix of English and Japanese also lends authenticity to the series, which it might not otherwise have had. Most importantly for fans of the games, the combat is well choreographed, with many key moves well represented - even if the shoryuken looks a little silly. 

What about non-SF fans, will they enjoy it? Maybe my love for the source material is clouding my judgement, but I think they might. It compares well with many of the epic martial arts movies that emerged following Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's release in 2000. So if you enjoyed that or films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers then you may well enjoy this too. The reason I say this is simple: at the heart of it all is a classic tale of love, rivalry, corruption and betrayal, which is are the cornerstones of so many other classic stories.


Highs

  • Tight, focussed story that does not stretch itself too far
  • Mostly great casting. Christian Howard's Ken is as good as I think we'll ever get.
  • Great choreography that does the game's action justice
  • Better acting than you might expect from a low budget web series
  • The most authentic Street Fighter story to date

Lows

  • The Gouken/Gouki flashbacks are a little long and may lose any non-SF fans along the way
  • Mix of languages may put off lazy viewers
  • Ken's hair piece

Verdict

Proof stories from games can be translated to movies/TV series and an interesting look into the core backstory of Capcom's iconic series. The convincing combat, focussed script and competent acting mean that this really feels like Street Fighter. 

Anyone on Netflix can get to the series using this link: http://www.netflix.com/WiMovie/80016891

Sunday, 29 March 2015

National Videogame Arcade opens in Nottingham

My home county of Nottinghamshire is primarily known for the legend of Robin Hood, as represented in countless movies, TV series and books over the decades and beyond. However, since 2006, Nottingham has been home to one of the UK's few gaming conventions, GameCity. And East Midlands as a whole has been home to many of the UK's greatest and most successful game developers, including Rare, Core Design, Free Radical Design and even one of Crytek's satellite studios. So it's no surprise that Nottingham was chosen to be the venue for the UK's first video game museum.

Called the National Videogame Arcade or NVA for short, the interactive museum has been created with the help of the GameCity organisation, various members of the UK industry and press, including Ian Livingstone, the founder of tabletop games manufacturer, Games Workshop, who are also based in Notts. It's an ambitious project, with games from every decade, ranging from modern console games to classic arcade machines (YES!) spread across five floors. But the NVA is trying to do more than let people play old games, it's hoping to elevate the industry and promote games as pieces of art, which can be good for head and body (under the right circumstances). With regular events, which include development workshops, this is exactly the kind of thing the industry needs.

You can check out YouTuber Xyphoe's look at the NVA's opening day here:


For more information, head over to http://gamecity.org/venue/national-videogame-arcade/

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Nostalgia Trip - Hunting High Scores

Completing the story mode of some sprawling adventure game is like finishing a long book; there is a sense of triumph and closure that you just don't get from watching a movie or TV programme and it's one of the many reasons why I've always felt a strong connection between the act of reading and the act of gaming. However, back in the days of arcade gaming, even if there was a story mode, it was really all about the high score, destroying enemies in as an efficient a way as possible and getting your three letter moniker on the electronic leader board (MTW in my case). If you were at the top, those three letters were like planting your flag, staking your claim. With those three letters you were saying, "I am the best!" It was an open invitation for all comers to try to topple you and even if you didn't know who belonged to a particular name, seeing your initials above theirs was a tiny bit of a rush. If you were a regular at an arcade, you might even see the same names appearing on the leader board of your favourite game. But of course, nothing could be better than beating a friend's high score, both in direct competition or just beating their score when they weren't around, knowing they'd get a nasty surprise next time they played.

My earliest memories of competing with friends for high scores were on a trio of games back in the mid-80s. There was Irem's Jackie Chan beat 'em up Kung-Fu Master, Konami's Olympic mini-game collection Hyper Sports and at number 1 by a considerable margin, an oft-forgotten shoot 'em up by Tekhan called Star Force

Star Force's highscore board
Yet again, these were games I played on holiday in Caister-on-Sea. As I met up with the same friends for several years in a row, the rivalries continued year-in-year-out, with the games changing every few years. Other games that sparked similar rivalries included Taito's bat-and-ball space epic Arkanoid, macho light gun blaster Operation Thunderbolt, pop culture phenomenon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Atari's stunt simulator Hard Drivin'. The latter was a difficult one for me as an 11 year-old, as I was trying to compete with my brother and brother-in-law, both of whom were a decade older. Talking of my brother, I still have vivid memories of people gathering around him while he played 1942. While he never finished it, he was one of the best players in that little seaside arcade. 

It wasn't just the arcade. At home, my friends and I would compete on our 8-bit computers and consoles, though very few games stored the scores between sessions. Of course, there was always the risk that either you or your friend would go off in a off if you beat each other at your favourite game you got for your birthday.

High scores go legit

While arcade gamers the world over competed for high scores, in Iowa in the early 80s, Walter Day had plans to take it one step further. After opening his own arcade Twin Galaxies, Day set about collating high scores from hundreds of different arcades, as well as organising contests at his own venue. Then in February, 1982, he released his records as Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard. Throughout the 80s through to the early 2000s, Day and his black and white striped referee jersey, came to symbolise serious arcade competition play and official high score record keeping. If you thought you were good, it was the high scores on the Twin Galaxies' database you had to beat.


Then in 2007, two independent films brought Twin Galaxies to the attention of the whole world. Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade was very much a celebration of Day's work as a national record keeper, but then just months later, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters portrayed Day and his organisation as corruptible and dishonest, pandering to the whims of celebrity gamers.

In 2013, Twin Galaxies appeared to have folded, only to be resurrected the following year by American TV personality Jace Hall. Now, the organisation mixes its origin as gaming record keeper and competition organiser with a combination of sport commentating and Twitch's live streaming of gameplay. You can check out their YouTube channel at: https://www.youtube.com/user/TwinGalaxiesLive.

Evolution of the high score

For a while, outside of retro gaming and a few throwback games, chasing high scores lost its popularity. Online games, such as Quake and Counter Strike had no need for running high scores, just a kill count from match to match, while adventure games from Half-Life to Ratchet & Clank did away with scores altogether.

Then, in 2005, Microsoft launched their new games console, the Xbox 360, which included a new feature called Achievements. They were integrated into every game, including downloadable Xbox Live Arcade games, and offered players numeric rewards when they activated certain triggers. These triggers could be something mundane like finishing a level or beating a boss, something repetitive like getting 50 headshots or having 10 match winning streak, or something just plain stupid, like jumping off a bridge into water without dying or putting masks on zombies (a real achievement in Capcom's Dead Rising).


It all seemed innocuous at first, but achievements had a couple of tricks up their sleeves that were quite unlike the world had seen before. Firstly, the points you earned from achievements were aggregated across all of the games you played as your "gamerscore". With full price games offering 1000 achievement points, it was possible to get gamerscores in the hundreds of thousands, much like a typical high score. Secondly, the whole world could see your gamerscore and what games you'd played to earn them. Now the contest wasn't between you, your mates and the locals, it was between everyone who owned a 360, no matter where they lived in the world. High scores had evolved and for a period during the late 2000s, people went gamerscore crazy. There were even online forums springing up where people could not only boast about their gamerscores, but also exchange tips on getting elusive achievements. It became so popular, both Valve and Sony retro-fitted similar (but no where near as successful) systems into their games platforms.

Microsoft continued to develop the system themselves with their current console, the Xbox One, but the general consensus is that gamerscore hunting peaked with the last generation.

Full circle

So where is the humble high score now? Well, it's probably more popular now than it has been for 20 years, thanks to the increased popularity of retro-gaming. Not only are old gamers, such as myself, able to go back to games they loved, but new gamers are getting to experience these high score driven games for themselves. It seems to me that this is most apparent in the popularity of Far Sight Studio's Pinball Arcade on tablets and phones. Pinball has always been about the pure pursuit of high scores and Pinball Arcade has high scores that automatically feed into an online database. You can check them out for yourself here: http://www.pinballarcade.com/Leaderboards

But whether you are trying to beat your friends or strangers online, ultimately a high score is also a challenge to yourself. Much like your personal best time in a marathon or the amount of weight you can bench press, beating your own high score means one thing: you're getting better at the game itself.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy 2015

Happy New Year! Again, an automated message from me, as it's my little girl's birthday today, so we're in Cardiff for the Doctor Who Experience. Just hope I get to Jenna Coleman — I mean Peter Capaldi, yes, the Doctor. Ahem!

Anyway, I'm sad to say this marks the end of Arcade Throwback's scheduled publications. I've been running this site for 4½ years, but I no longer have enough free time to work on the site regularly and even my Classic of the Month feature has been slipping. A quick look at the archives will show in 2014 my post count was a third of what I'd posted in previous years — and my post count for 2015 is going to drop again. I've already dropped my other regular features and this year I am going to stop writing Classic of the Month as well. There are still a few arcade games I'd like to talk about, so I will replace the monthly feature with an ad hoc one called Nostalgia Trip, which I can use to discuss both random games and random arcade memories. I've actually gone back and tagged up some older articles that already fit that description, so the tag is already well populated. I still have plans for one or two Brief Histories, so the site will be updated every once in a while, just not routinely.

Believe me when I say this is purely out of necessity. I have other projects in progress that unfortunately have to take precedence over Arcade Throwback. You can read about those on my technical and creative writing blog http://themattwardle.wordpress.com. I did have plans for other monthly features, but I know I won't find the time to do them justice.

I'll still be tweeting and retweeting from @ArcadeThrowback, so please follow (or keep following) me, as I still love talking to fellow retro gamers. I will also announce my sporadic posts through Twitter and my Facebook page. In the mean time, enjoy the rest of your holidays and I hope 2015 is a great year for us all.

MTW

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Classic of the Month - Pong


Manufacturer:Atari
Design:Allan Alcorn
Genre:Sports
Year:1972

Last month I talked about the game that, for me, represents the beginning of the end for arcade gaming. This month, for my final Classic of the Month, I'm going to talk about the game that was the beginning of my love affair with video games — and yes, it really is Pong! I really am that old!

I was born in May 1975, by which point video games had just got a foothold in arcades. Before then, arcade games consisted of mechanical devices, such as shooting galleries, one-armed bandits, shove penny games and of course, pinball machines. That all changed in 1972, with Atari's Pong, a table tennis game designed and built by Al Alcorn and Nolan Bushnell. The first Pong machine was sited at Andy Capp's Tavern, a bar popular with students in Sunnyvale, California. The game was a huge hit. Legend has it, a few weeks after being installed, Bill Gatiss, the owner of Andy Capp's, complained the machine had stopped working. When Alcorn opened the machine to check it, money started pouring out of it — it was stuffed with more quarters than it could handle.

There had been electronic games displayed on a monitor and controlled with buttons and dials before Atari's Pong and there's a lot of debate about whether Bushnell plagiarised Ralph Baer's designs in those early days, but however you look at it, Pong is the game the established video arcade games as an entertainment medium. All too often when people talk about Pong, what they end up talking about is those halcyon, but controversial, days at Atari, before they were first taken over in the late 70s. There are the tales of lawsuits, drug use on company premises, Steve Jobs working for Bushnell while he and Steve Wozniak built their first Apple computers and more, but all of that stuff is well documented. What I want to talk about is Pong as a video game.

Full disclosure time, I've never played an original Pong arcade machine, because by the time I was old enough to enter an arcade (around 1984), Pong was ancient history. However, I played one of the many (and there were a great many) home Pong clones. In fact, my earliest memory of playing any kind of video game was a machine called (generically) TV Video Game 5 in 1. My brother-in-law gave it to me when he moved on to home computers and it became my first video game system (the word console seems too generous for such a basic a machine). As its name suggests, it included five variations on the Pong theme, from the original two bats and two-players, to a version with both bats at one end and a wall at the other, which was Squash, to a four bat, two-player version generously called Ice Hockey and even a single-player mode called Handball. Like all of those early machines, the TV Video Game was controlled using paddles with variable resistors (or rheostats) that connected via 2.5mm jack plugs. I mainly played this Pong game with my brother-in-law, who, despite being 13 years my senior, was generous enough to let me win every now and then.

Like he real Pong, the idea was as simple as it gets. A square white block bounces around a black court, with various white lines representing the edges, the centre net and the players, who had to knock the square block hither and thither in an attempt to get it past the other player and score a point. However, as simple as was, it still contained everything that makes gaming such great fun: direct, intense competition between two players, each trying to out-do the other. It's the same formula that worked for countless other Pong and tennis games, as well as fighting games, racing games, sports games, flying games and military simulators. The number of players and the intricacies of each game may vary, but that kernel of competition and skill remains in all video games.

As my simple TV Video Game system demonstrated, Pong could be easily adapted into other games and mine wasn't the only one to do so. Atari themselves adapted the game to create Breakout and in thousands of homes across America, the Magnavox  used the same building blocks as the basis for a dozen different "games" for their Odyssey console (the world's first console, based on Ralph Baer's designs). The idea lives on today, not such in the countless tennis games on the market, but also retro-inspired games, such as Bit.Trip Beat.

There are a lot of video of Pong on YouTube, but this is the only one I've found of a Pong arcade machine in its natural habitat, an arcade — something I've not seen myself. Plus it has a Jo Garcia in it, so you know — blokes!




MTW