Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What the Trump presidency means for games; Get up and take action!

I don't post a lot on this blog, because my first language (Dutch) doesn't reach a lot of people and my English is not good enough to reach the depth I'd like to go into with certain subjects. Also, I don't like to talk about politics, because it is usually just people screaming at each other and people at the sidelines shaking their heads. I don't want to be part of any of that. Yet, here I am, writing about politics on my neglected blog.

Pretty enough for at least 4 years.
The reason I post here is because nothing I currently hear in the media resonates with my own opinion. On one hand there are people cheering for Trump, because their sports team won, and on the other hand there are people weeping for Hillary Clinton, because getting a woman into office would be progressive, no matter what her policy would be. My concern, as a game developer, is how this will influence the games coming out in the following 8 years.

You see, every presidential term brings with it an overall feeling for its citizens and, because America exports a LOT of media, this feeling is often communicated to and adopted by other countries with other cultures. Therefore, the presidential election can have a big impact on entertainment and, for me in particular, games. When you look at presidential terms and what games were generally played during those in the western world, you can see a connection between what the overall feeling was and what was done in games of the time. My prediction for the future: Dread what's coming, it's gonna be the Bush years with military shooters all over again.

The positivity in the 80's and 90's

Let me tell you where this is all coming from. I'm 31, the American news claims I am a millennial as I am born between 1980 and 2000. I am, however, old enough to claim that, with Trump, I have closely followed 5 American presidents. Yes, I live, and was born and raised in the Netherlands, but we are not ignorant about international politics. The USA is always broadcasting their woes. So, naturally, I was up to speed in the early 90's. I was too young to get any of the Reagan years, but I vividly remember the switch from Bush senior to Clinton at 8 years old.

Even Sonic does not know what to make of this election.
Now let's get to the games, music and movies I grew up with in the 80's and 90's. We all know the gaming classics of Mario, Sonic, Megaman, Zelda, and I am sure there are some obscure titles from that era you remember fondly. Even if you weren't born then, there is a big chance you played something on an emulator. Those games were colorful and had a grand sense of adventure. It was a time in which everyone dreamed of bigger things and games tried to be more than they actually were. It didn't matter they had less pixels than pixies existing in the real world, we dreamed, and filled in the crude parts with our imagination.

Yes, I am romanticizing the 90's a lot, but it is hard to explain what the overall feel was back then to people who don't vividly remember it. For instance: games were fucking colorful. I remember wanting Robocop for my Sega Gamegear and a friend advised me against it. "If a game is dark, it will most likely suck." He was right.

Sonic was awesome and the late 90's saw some of the most colorful games. It is easy to point to mainstream games, like Mario 64 and say the 90's were colorful, but they were all like that! If you take a look at less known games, like Turok, Buck Bumble or any racing game, the colors blast of the screen. If I needed to summarize the whole experience in 1 game, I think this gameplay of Gremlin's N2O will do:


With the turn of the millennium in our visors, everyone was filled with hope. By breaking down the Berlin wall, we eradicated the last remnants of world war 2 and we connected with people all over the world with our first internet connections. This positive energy is probably best summarized in the songs Waiting for tonight by Jennifer Lopez and Will Smith bantering about a Willenium. Click those links and take it all in, that was the overall feeling we had back then.

The 2000's and our crushed spirits

Also, Gerrymandering! Google it! It's fun!
And then, in the year 2000, America shocked the world. Not because they elected Bush junior, but because the majority did not want him. I was 15 years old when I learned how the presidential election really worked. Apparently, the president only needs to be elected by half of the states. 15 year old me did the math: if voting for A/B is 49%/51% in slightly more than half of the states and the other half votes 100%/0%, B is elected by 26%, even though A got 74% of the votes. Votes only count in those first half amount of states, the rest does not matter. If it looks like it is neck-a-neck between 2 candidates, you just started counting at the wrong state. Not only that, but within each state there is ANOTHER district system with the same rules, making the ACTUAL devide more A 87% and B 13% with B winning. Al Gore lost to Bush junior, even though Gore had the popular vote. "You know," 15 year old me thought,"they're adults. They'll surely gonna fix that."

And then 9/11 happened and again the world was shocked. Not because some angry men flew planes into several buildings, but because a dubiously elected president wanted to go to war and claimed "If you're not with us, you're against us," practically blackmailing everyone to join a war with him. We started the new millennium by collectively letting the first world go to war with a couple of third world countries. The hopes we had for world peace in 1999 were immediately crushed and there was this general sense of dread.

Spec-ops the Line. Original, but still a military shooter.
This dread translated to games more than you'd think. In 2003 the war in Iraq was well underway and it was also the year of the first Call of Duty. Over the years this series gained in popularity so much, it became it's own genre, the Military First Person Shooter. That was not the only thing that happened, Doom went from a colorful & gory shootfest to a dark, claustrophobic jumpscare game. At the time, a lot of reviews loved this new idea and more games followed suit.

But it was not only games that went the depressed route. The 2000's gave rise to the Daily Show and gave us the awesome Green Day album American Idiot. As entertaining as these were, they left me with a nasty, underlying feeling. Every time the Jon Stewarts, Stephen Colberts and other artist had something to say, everyone was pointing at each other and claiming how bad the other was, but nobody was taking any action. It sounds trivial, but making TV or writing an album might communicate an idea, but it does not get people to stand up and do stuff.

You can't play the game, nor relax to watch the movie.
To me, this is the worst change that happened in the 2000's in gaming. It was as if people were not meant to take action in real life, as well as in games. This apathy of "our actions (voting, etc.) don't mean anything" got games to be reduced to handholding and "cinematic experiences."We got Guitar hero, which, when you get down to it, was an arbitrary pushing of buttons. Even though military shooters claimed to be rugged and tough, they were very linear and started telling the player they did well, as if talking to a 4 year old. Also, let's not forget the 'Quick Time Event,' which gave pretty pictures, but practically no gameplay.

It was cool to not want Bush and claim it should've been Gore, even though Bush got re-elected. That gave rise to a lot of successful, but cynical media. Nobody took action, because, as I see it, moaning brought them more money. This apathy brought inaction to all sorts of media. Movies were not about adventures anymore and games were reduced to easy, mundane tasks. If you could not finish a game, it was now the game's fault, not your lack of skills.

2009, Regaining some positivity with Obama

SUUUUUPER MEAT BOY!
I know correlation does not imply causation, but around Obama's "Yes, we can!" campaign, the agency and ability for action returned in games. Even though the whole world was in an economic crisis, positivity soared with the president received the Nobel peace prize and securing everyone basic health care. Alongside this positive vibe came the rise of an awesome indie game scene and with it came a lot of the old color and difficulty. Games like Super Meat Boy even dug up a niche that found 90's games too easy. Seriously, it might have heralded "old school difficulty," but no game in the 80's or 90's was that hard and unforgiving whilst still loved by the general public. And let's not forget: Doom became a colorful, gory shooter again.

Action and agency in games was even expanded further with the likes of Minecraft. These were games with an infinite world and you can change the terrain and throw some materials together to make new tools and stuff. We did not have this in the 90's and it's an awesome system to have in games.

Let's get on an adventure!
It's weird how quietly crafting and building got into games. First we had Minecraft, then came Terraria, somewhere in the middle came Kerbal Space Program and now a lot of Indie games have some kind of crafting/building system in them. It got to the point that even big companies have started putting such a system in their games. Take a look, for example, at Dragon Quest Builders; That game is exactly Minecraft, but it still maintained the Dragon Quest feel. It's not my type of game (I am a 90's kid after all), but it is nice to see Indie ideas taken up by bigger companies.

But not everything went well this presidential term. For some reason, the same amount of people were still complaining about the president, it was just the other camp and I don't blame them. Effectively, this president was elected by 13% of the population too and that can leave people with a disgruntled feeling. But instead of trying to fix the voting system, this camp did nothing too. It claimed Obama was not born in America and was comparing health care with Nazis. People like Glenn Beck gladly moaned about everything they didn't like and on the other side people like Jon Oliver mocked the right-wing for being wrong. A lot was said, but nothing was done.


And again this apathy can still be found in games. Military shooters that hold your hand like a 4 year old, are STILL around. It's as if some people still need the affirmation that, yes, you are a good, capable person. Also, although there are more difficult games around, the overall difficulty hasn't changed and the difficult games are more a niche genre than a mainstream thing.

2016, Trump is president

Remember the geocities days when this would be a GIF?
As I am writing this, today is the first day after the 2016 election and we know Trump will be the next president of America. Twitter is now full of people claiming this is the end of the world. People can't believe he became president, even though he was effectively 1 of only 2 people that could be elected. People are acting defeated under a president that acts in a dominant way to put people down and force them to just take it.

I am afraid that we, as a games industry, will slip back into the apathy we experienced during the Bush years and that that apathy will slip back into the spirit our games' designs. Games do not fare well on apathy, they are a medium that prospers with agency and determination. Most of the people on my twitter are game developers or youtubers. All of them are left-wing supporters. Nobody is happy with the new president and everybody is feeling down. To all those people, I've only got 1 answer:

Shut up.

Shut up and take action. We've seen the apathy during the Bush years and it brought dreadful games. America has not completely recovered from those years as Guantanamo Bay, the war in Iraq and the economic crisis are still around. The games industry also hasn't healed as Quick Time Events and monochrome games are also still around. Don't let it slip back to the discontent mess of the 2000's, but find your spirit again and do your thing!

Closest utopia I could find.
Go look for games about an awesome utopian future where we all drive electric cars and everyone can live together regardless of their race, religion or sexuality! Talk with other people about how we can make this world a better place! But, most importantly, don't sit down or moan about how the current people in charge are holding you down! That pity is not helping anybody!

If you do your research, there are more non-violent ways to get things done in politics than just voting, like rallying, lobbying or running for office yourself. It's even possible to try to get laws into congress as a citizen! If your president does not make the world better, it's your job to do it for him! These are all possibilities if you drop the apathy and unite. If you live in America, take action and inspire other people! Also, fix your voting system, for goodness sake!


To America in general: stop feeling sorry for yourself. Whichever camp you are on, you are always waiting to get the guy you like into office. When that happens, he does not do enough to fix your broken state. When your favorite guy loses, you weep and moan how the other is ruining you. Don't be apathetic! You haven't lost the fight, nor can you sit down and hope the current guy will fix anything for you. This happened, now the adventure starts, and that attitude will make a damn fine game!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Why this action game dev made a visual novel

I just add these pictures for prettyness
I got into gaming because of Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Megadrive and Gamegear, I love myself a fast-paced arcade racing game, with Trackmania, Extreme G and WipEout as some of my favourites and even in modern gaming I can have my adrenaline fix whilst racing in a GTA-like game or any faux retro arcade game. Imagine my surprise when I was staring at my own design for a scripting engine and thinking: "You know what? I should make a visual novel!"

What brought me to this wild conclusion? Let's back up a little. Even though I finished a computer sciences degree at university, I make my games in Unity. I could make my own game engine, but why re-do something that has been done better by others before? With Unity as an engine base, I can make even more awesome games than if I had to build the graphics part myself. Unity is very suitable for 3D action games and that's why it is my engine of choice. With standard assets and scripts you can build a prototype within the hour.

But, as with any existing engine, Unity can not be tailoring to every possible kind of game you might want to make with it. What I was missing was a decent way of scripting. Sure, Unity has a great object-oriented scripting system, which is great when you want to handle many pieces in a game environment, but a story script does not work that way. Many things working at a time makes a story confusing. What you want is something more monolithic, guiding the program and player in a certain direction. What you want is something called a structural scripting language, something like BASIC.

More pretty pictures!
"Whaaaat?! Surely you jest, claiming BASIC is better than C-sharp!" You might be right in most cases, but story-wise it's a different matter. Object oriented scripts have other problems when it comes to writing stories. First, if you slip up in its syntax, your script won't compile. This is devastating for your flow of writing! A structural language, on the other hand, has more room for errors, which benefits the writing of the story. Second, if you want to make your story even slightly non-linear, you want to jump around between lines. Sure, there is a 'goto' command in Unity, but suffice to say you'll go to coder-hell if you use the C command we shall not speak of.

Fortunately, Unity has an asset store that can get you any kind of asset, script or functionality you desire. Unfortunately, none of them felt right. There's a lua framework, that mostly focuses on moddability of games and there are several visual novel toolkits that do little else. However, none give me any tools to script events in a game field, which, as an action-fan, kind of saddens me. The final level on the spaceship in Sonic 2 would be less impressive if you just teleported there, the scenes in Tomb Raider with Miss Natla made the spelunking feel extra mysterious and anyone who played Final Fantasy 6 (or 3, maybe not an action title) will remember how awesome it was to see that asshole Kefka be blown apart bit by bit in the end. Also, yes, I am excluding over-scripted games, so I can make my point.

So, with all the existing systems being unsatisfactory, I set out to make my own scripting system. These were the requirements I had for the system:
  • Portability to every platform Unity provides, so everything had to be built from scratch
  • Modularity, it should be easy to expand and easy to use for multiple purposes
  • Easy localization for text and speech
  • Communication with the playing field, start animations etc. at given times in the script
  • GUI handling, let the new script handle menus, because Unity's GUI handling is so atrocious, it needs a complete post of its own.

I call it: the Story Engine.

What could all these pretty pictures be for?
If you've done it once, building a scripting system is pretty easy, provided you consistently keep using modules and functions the way they are supposed to. To put it in proper English: I blatantly copied the insides of a computer: I made a C script to store values (memory), a C script to execute commands (processor), a C script to handle the GUI (monitor, mouse and keyboard), a C script to hold and interpret my custom scripts (HDD?) and connected them withing unity like you would with a real PC. Add to this that the scripting language I botched together was based on assembly and it's a surprise IBM did not come knocking on my door. Luckily, this design is older than computers have been around, so I was in the clear.

The scripting language was the main focus for the system. A script for the system consists of a CSV or "Comma Separated Value" file. For easy parsing, I interchanged the commas with whatever this vertical line character is called: "|". That way I did not have to worry about quotes and commas in text. Another benefit of CSV files is that you can edit them in Excel or any other alternative.

Basic design of the system


The first row in the CSV file tells the interpreter what every cell in every column does.The top line of a typical script would be:

label cmd arg0 arg1 arg2 arg3 txt_en txt_es txt_fr spk_en

Every row in the Excel sheet holds 1 command. I won't go into too much detail, but these are the basics:
  • There are several possible commands possible for the cmd column. All commands are eventually handled by the 'processor' module.
  • Arguments for those commands can be put in the arg0-arg3 columns, if you want to use a command with more than 4 arguments, just add a column in Excel
  • The label column depicts labels for the goto and gosub commands to jump to.
  • The txt_xx column sets the text for any GUI element, like buttons, story-text or subtitles. A locale command can switch the txt column used for text with the language code used for xx.
  • spk_xx, for when spoken text is needed, holds the name of a sound file. Also switchable with the locale command. In this case, the budget only allowed 1 spoken language :(.

A little girl with explosives.
It only took me 2 days to design, implement the bare basics and have the first prototype running. However, a prototype is barely the beginning. If I wanted to use it, I needed to test it with something bigger and that's where the idea for a visual novel sneaked into my mind.

I have not been kind to the dating sim, the sibling of the visual novel, comparing it to a screwdriver to my eye, but I have always had a certain respect for the visual novel format in a story-telling kind of way. Text based stories easily break the "show, don't tell" rule, while on the other hand visual stories need to have everything shown, even dull conversations, or it breaks immersion. A visual novel can show a lot without description, while still leaving room for the imagination of the reader.

Also, a visual novel is perfect to test your scripting system with. Even though I did not know much about visual novels, I was happy to dive into that world and I met a lot of nice people along the way. If those people are reading this: you know who you are, you're awesome!

So, I made the first prototype of a Chapter in 1 day (12 hours in 1 day, so technically one and a half work day), a proof of concept demo with actual artists in a month (released as a demo much later) and today, as of writing, we release the full product. Introducing:

The logo of Detective Hank and the Golden Sneeze


Detective Hank and the Golden Sneeze is an interactive whodunnit visual novel with a different culprit on each playthrough. It uses almost all capabilities of my scripting system. Localization and voice acting are pending. As for now, I will keep on polishing the engine, as after release a lot of people are bound to bump into fringe-bugs.

It's getting crowded in here.
The fun part is: everything can be added in a matter of seconds (if you don't count actually making the extra content) and the code I wrote for this system can also be used for other purposes. Every module is interchangeable due to use of inheritance in C-sharp and can be linked to different parts of a game field. In other words: the code that moves the pictures on screen can later be expanded to move 3D models through a field or do all kinds of things.

Building this visual novel was a fantastic test for my scripting system. I found out a lot of parts did not work as I intended them to and, because the system did not need much expansion, the bugs were easy to isolate and fix. As I wanted more functionality for the novel, I got to experiment with inheritance and see if expansion of the base-code worked. And it did!

For the sake of just making a visual novel why didn't I just go with Ren.py or TyranoBuilder? I could have, but the pieces of code I hold now are so modular, I might just use them for every game I am going to make for the next couple of years. It was fun to build a visual novel to test both my engine coding and story writing skills and it definitely made me a better game developer. That's why this action-loving dev made a visual novel... and it might not be his last.

As of writing, Detective Hank and the Golden Sneeze is still awaiting the Steam Greenlight process, but it is already available on itch.io over here. If you want to try it out first, we have a demo available here.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Gley Lancer, the coolest game with the weirdest name

When I first came across Gley Lancer I played it on an emulator and how could I otherwise? It was released exclusively in Japan until it got released on the Wii in 2008. Now, this isn't going to be one of my "Oh, what a shame" posts, because its developer is still in business and still making money off of this game. This post is going to be an "Why haven't you played this already?" posts.

Gley Lancer might just look like any ordinary side-scrolling shooter and, in a way, it is. You move left to right and shoot bad guys until you get to the boss and shoot him to pieces. Yet, slowly, but surely, its awesomeness starts creeping onto you. Let me take you on the trip I had when I started playing this back in 1999.

Memory lane
When I first booted up Gley Lancer I was taken aback by the large intro. This intro was really, really long, but also very relatable: girl's father gets kidnapped, girl is sad, girl steals space ship to rescue father, you know, the usual. I didn't speak Japanese at the time and since I learned to, I haven't taken the time to translate the story, but I recon that's what the pictures meant. And then there was the first level.
First level and you get stuff thrown at you.

Gley Lancer features spoken text and its first line is "Stick to it and believe in your power." That first line sets the tone for the rest of the game. I played this in 1999 and spoken language was so common that its presence did not impress me. Yet, I was blown away by Gley Lancer's first level. The brilliance of Gley Lancer is not in its technical abilities, but its usage of its aesthetics.  The designers of Gley Lancer knew that the human mind can not block the brilliance of certain sights and that's why the first level has you flying through the ring of Saturn.

At first it looks like you are flying through an asteroid field, but then Saturn comes in from the right. It's a very simple level to learn you the basics of the game. Enemies come in gently, becoming more and more during the level and around the middle, you get asteroids thrown at you. Saturn fades away to the left and you arrive at the boss, which appears to be literally throwing the asteroids you encountered mid-level. It's a nice pay-off for a gentle beginning. The game is full off satisfying build-ups and pay-offs and the first level is just the beginning of a fantastic adventure.

LIGHTSABERS!!!
LIGHTSABERS! (insert SPACESHIP! reference)
While Gley Lancer has great pacing, it's not even its best feature. No, the best feature is that your plane can have FRIGGIN' LIGHT SABERS! Sure, the lasers, spread bombs and even flame throwers are awesome, but come on man! LIGHT SABERS! Nothing I can say can add enough to that. Gley Lancer has different ways of gun movement, one of which is a constant roll around your plane. In my first play-through I combined the roll with the light sabers and EVERYTHING EXPLODED! I was 13/14 at the time, it was the coolest thing I saw in games at the time and since then I've seen very few things surpass that.

And its awesomeness doesn't stop there. The game does its best to make you feel like a true hero. In the second to last level you have to save a ship from an alien attack. The boss of that level is shooting at a starship and you have to kill the boss before the ship is demolished. I have never seen the ship explode, but it can lose a lot of parts. It has 2 engines, a couple of middle parts and an escape pod, all of which fall off as you take longer to shoot down the boss. At my first play-through I (supposedly) saved the ship just barely, leaving just the escape pod. And when you do save the ship, a fleet of space-jet-fighters come in and congratulate you on your accomplishment. The best part? The higher you set the difficulty, the bigger the fleet.


Not for the faint of heart.
Kill it! KILL IT!
The game is not without its flaws. First of all: its art is not very consistent. At one time you fight aliens, but in one of the later levels you fly through ancient Greek architecture, which was a bit confusing. Also, the gun modes I mentioned earlier, there are 7 different modes: normal, reverse, auto-aim, 2way, 2way reverse, shadow and roll; but you can boil them down to 2: 'auto-aim' and 'why haven't you picked auto-aim?' Also, what is a 'Gley Lancer'? Usually I can re-translate Japanese errors in English, but I haven't got a clue what this should have been. (Grey Lancer? Grey Ranger? Glee?)


If its difficulty is a strong or a weak point is up for debate. Gley Lancer is easy in the beginning, but gets HARD around the third level and that might be off-putting. You will run out of lives FAST. On the other hand, some like it hard and 13 year old me didn't care, we had save-states in emulators in 1999. If you ever finish the hardest difficulty, you get a code at the end of the credits to unlock mania difficulty. At the fighter-fleet level, there will be so many fighters congratulating you, you can't see yourself or the ship you were supposed to save.

Have you played it yet?
So, have you played this game yet? Yes, it has some flaws, but it's one of the best I've played. I haven't even mentioned the music, which is awesome. It is still available for sale and if not to you, an emulator is never far away. Even if great gameplay doesn't convince you, let me just remind you: IT HAS LIGHTSABERS!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sonic 3 would have been the best in the series, if not for this one mistake

Don't worry, this is not a fanboy post. Yes, Sonic is my favourite video game character. Yes, I am of the opinion that Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is better than 2, Adventure and Generations. But, I am perfectly aware that Sonic 3 had a certain problem and that is what this post will be about.

 

From the start

ZOOM!
Let's take a look at the beginning of the series. Nintendo had a lot of success with Mario for almost 6 years when Sonic came around. If you remember the loyalty wars between Sonic and Mario fans, you can imagine that Sega did a great job designing Sonic to make people doubt the leading video game protagonist for 6 years running.

The first game for the Megadrive (Genesis for those across the pond) was pretty sweet. Sonic ran really fast, but you could see in some levels that the level designers did not know how to implement speed. They improved on this in Sonic 2, there were longer stretches to run in and jumping did not feel slow. The best idea they had was adding the sidekick, Tails the flying fox, as an immortal playable character next to Sonic as player 1. This was the best implementation of couch multiplayer I've ever seen, because anyone could just pick up a controller and play along without player 1 being too annoyed

And then came Sonic 3. They took everything and improved even more. Tails could now lift Sonic to places he could not reach before. There levels were even faster and the theming was better thought through. To top it all off, Sega release Sonic and Knuckles, with which you could play Sonic 3 AND Sonic and Knuckles back to back with Sonic, Tails or Knuckles. As a little kid, my mind was blown.


Bring on the classics!


This place has its own expletives.
And yet, if you ask, most Sonic fans will almost never cite Sonic 3 as the best in the series. Almost no youtuber (at least not my favourite ones) has made a Sonic 3 video and someone makes one, they are just walkthroughs. Why?

I will now give you 5 words that strike fear in the heart of any Sonic 3 player: Carnival Night Zone's Spinning Drums. For all the things Sonic 3 did well, there is 1 great mistake that undid all of them. Somewhere in the second half of the Carnival Night Zone level Sonic is locked in a small room with nothing but a spinning drum in a hole where you supposedly need to get through. You can not evade going into the room. You will enter and you will spend there more than 10 minutes. After those ten minutes, Sonic dies of a so called 'Time Over.' The torture is slow and the carnival music makes it all the worse.

These spinning drums are not a menace on their own, they are scattered across the level and sometimes Sonic will land on them and they will bounce. When you get locked in that room, that is what you are going to try: jump on the drum and try to get it through the hole. This will not work, you can get it halfway through and you will be able to make a huge jump, but you will not be able to get through.

No reason for this screenshot,
this game is just beautiful
If you want to enjoy Sonic 3, I've got 1 tip for you: use the up and down arrows on the gamepad. That is what you are supposed to do. The stupid thing is, the game does not give you ANY visual cues on it. Sonic does not bend his knees and at first the drum only barely moves up and down, but surely and steadily it will move 3 screens up and crush Sonic on the ceiling, if you are not careful. Why did Sonic Team put this in the game and why implement it like this? Everything else is intuitive and sleek, except for this part.

What happened?

Of-course, I haven't got the answers, but here is my speculation: it's a mix of things. First of all: the drums follow a complicated rule using a kind of acceleration we associate with standard physics nowadays. By locking Sonic in the room, the creators made sure you could not see past this complicated piece of game engineering.But that does not explain the lack of visual cues.

Pics or it didn't happen, am I right?
Let me sidetrack a little. I've got a portable Sega Game Gear in the attic that I got for my 7th birthday. The screen is burned and I keep it for parts for when my second Game Gear will finally break. On this Game Gear is a sticker I put under the screen when I was 10. On that sticker you can still see the number of the Sega Mega Phone. It's a telephone number you could call if you got stuck in a game for 1 Gulden per minute, about 0.45 Euro/Dollar cents.

And that is what went wrong. Those days, the internet was not yet widespread and what was on it, usually did not involve walkthroughs. Several 'information hotlines' sprung up during that time to help you with your games if you were stuck. With that information being hot business, it helped that new games would bring in money for them too. I will not say that the spinning drum room was deliberate, but with a game bound for release and thinking the info will be readily available, Sonic Team will probably not have wanted to fix that mistake either.

Except, nobody called those numbers as our parents would not let us. Most people just gave up on Sonic 3. Buying Sonic and Knuckles and combining it with Sonic 3 did not help much, because Sonic would still get stuck in the spinning drum room before you could get to the Sonic and Knuckles level set. The Knuckles level set did not contain the spinning drum room, as if the developers knew.

One tip to the perfect game

The spinning drum mistake should not have been made, it's a stain on an otherwise perfect game, but it does not have to spoil your enjoyment. If, despite my rambling, you still want to try out Sonic 3 with the Knuckles expansion, remember this: use the up and down arrows when you are stuck and you are in for one of the most awesome games in history.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Playstation 3 that never really was, was so awesome

BTW: this is not the 60GB. Can't you tell?
Imagine a Dutch boy going to a game store in a neighboring city, anticipating his new console and finally meeting the grandiose that is the Sony Playstation 3 60GB. "I had go through a lot of trouble to get this thing," he says. "I know," the shopkeeper replies, "we even get people from Groningen (far side of the country), just to get this model." Now imagine that boy nearing his 30's and this event happening last year, because that is me.

Although I hate the stereotype of us Dutch being cheap, I did not want to shell out the 800 Euro's required to purchase the system on launch. I was happy with my PS2, but I had mostly be playing PC games before that and I did not mind going back. Unfortunately I missed out on the awesomeness that would be the PS3.

It has been almost 10 years ago, but do you remember all the features that would be in the original PS3? Backwards compatibility spanning back to the PSX era, communication with the PSP, Linux installation and it's possibility to play Blu-ray make it an absolute behemoth of a console.

Unfortunately these features did not only come with a price tag. Sony had to do them right in order for them to stick around and they let that one slip. They had to cut down on features to save on costs, not only because of the material used in the product, but also to save on labor. Since I finally got my hands on the original PS3, let me break down some of those features on why they are awesome and what went wrong.

The backwards compatibility

All playable on the 60GB version
Let me start by telling you that the backwards compatibility on the PS3 was awesome! Remember that the PS1 released in 1994, so on release of the PS3 you already had a library of games 12 years big. With the PS3 not yet at its end of life, that accumulates to 21 years today! Also, these games are possible to view over HDMI and the PS3 takes care of the image scaling for you. With the wireless PS3 controller you add extra play comfort. I would play all of my old games on it, if not for one of several major drawbacks.

You can't load your saves from the previous playstations. Yes, the PS3 60GB has a memory card slot, but somewhere along the design line something was misinterpreted and that slot was changed from a PS2 type to one of those multi-card readers you find on those (now) old PC's. You also cannot connect any old PS2/PSX controller. I can perfectly imagine why this happened, cutting costs among others, but it does not end there.

The PS3 is region free (perfect slogan), but the PSX and PS2 are not. Probably for commercial reasons, they kept the region locking. It makes perfect sense to make a console region free: you make 1 type for all regions, but if you design your backwards compatibility to keep the region lock, you are still building different consoles for different regions.

It is obvious why the backwards compatibility was scratched first, it was the most expensive, but it is such a shame. If they had taken a better look at the design, they might have kept it. Then again, if you know a bit about computer architecture, you'd know how hard backwards compatibility can be, but I'll save that for another post.

Linux compatibility

I am out of puns, insert punguin here...
You might not care to remember, but the PS3 had the possibility to install the Linux operating system. I have not tried this myself, since I did not want to jeopardize my collectible PS3, but I have played enough with Linux to be really excited to try it on another PS3 someday.

Although it was cool, this feature really gave me the idea Sony wasn't really thinking in the design phase. Mainly for these 2 reasons:
  1. Practically no gamer uses Linux
  2. Any OS, but especially Linux, gives the user full access to your hardware.
It wasn't a surprise the Linux feature was the leak that eventually made the PS3 crackable and Sony even removed it with a system update. It's a shame, because the PS3 processor had some new stuff not common in PC's. There's a lot to say about that, but I'll save that too for another post.

Communication with your PSP

We take the PSX hardware and make it portable.
What shall we call it?
Has anyone tried this? Did you know you can play games on your Playstation Portable from your Playstation 3? No? Well neither did I. You can also swap out savegames from your PSP to your PS3, so you can continue a game at home on the big screen after you've played it on the road.

I got my PSP last year too and I had that thing soft-modded before you could say "hey, isn't that be piracy?" The irony of it all is that I only play legally purchased PSP and PSX games on it, the PSX games being the original disc softwarematically mangled on a PC to be stored on the PSP memory stick. This last feature was never fully developed by Sony, because a hacker group found out before the release of the PS3. Again, it's a shame, because it works so well.

Then there is remote play. Long before Valve's Steam had a streaming function, you could stream your PS3 contents to your PSP. Yes, you heard that right, you can go to the little men's (or women's) room and play Playstation games on your PS3! You can insert a PSX disc in a PS3 60GB and have it streamed over Wifi!

Unfortunately, Sony thinks the PSP does not have enough sticks and buttons, so the PS3 downright refuses to play most content, including PS2 and PS3, but also Netflix and any other app you might have installed, which leaves remote play to be nothing more than a remote PS3 savegames-manager. Then, there is the problem of the PSP not being able to connect to WPA2 wifi (most modern routers) and its chip is barely fast enough to stream. You can play an RPG, but do not try a racing game, the delay is just a bit too much. Add to that that Sony never really pushed remote play for developers and you will therefore probably never use it.

Enjoying the PS3 nonetheless

Even though Sony did not polish a lot of its features, the original 60GB is a hackers dream come true. The amount of features is a rabbit-hole I'd love to dive in some more and I definitely will. To end on a high note: although most of these features did not come out as much as we'd hoped, at least Sony has learned from it. They now know better what works and at least they continued the remote play feature to PSvita and PS4. I haven't had my hands on a vita yet, but it seems it can connect to a PS3 as well. Just to keep a combo going, I'll save that topic for another post.