Saturday, August 30, 2014

Frogger lottery ticket

My partner knows that I'm the guy with a totally tragical video game hang-up, so she sees this lottery ticket under the counter at the corner store and picks it up for me for laughs. (I can't shut it off. At the garage sale this morning: "Oh, look, those stuffies are of Club Penguin characters! It's basically Warcraft for kids, run out of Kelowna and owned by Disney.") I never gambled (if you know you have obsessive tendencies to your personality, it seems a foolish line to willingly cross), but there is admittedly some grey area between gambling and gaming. (Just take out the "bl".) Anyhow, I could have just scratched this up right away, but instead I thought -- no, let's use this an an instructional opportunity and blog through it for my readers! So I'm off to Blogger to talk about Frogger!
OK, so far, so good. Wait, let's read the instructions on the back:

Blah, blah, blah. Hey, where's any mention of the owner of the Frogger character, Konami? Oh well, let's proceed:
OK, so far, so good.  Frog 1 is headed in the right direction!

A bonus!  Also, a straightforward navigational gambit.  It's curious how the vehicles serve more as walls than opponents in this static representation of the game screen.

All right, we've gotten the hard part out of the way and made it to the shore!  Just a few more hops to freedom...

Not the optimal route to get there, but who am I to complain?

The plane has crashed into the goddamn mountain!  It's like Frog 1 got disoriented and forgot which direction the goal was in.  I suppose once he had foolishly hopped to the end of the log, there was just nowhere else to go.  In the real game, of course, you would just kill time on the log waiting for one to pass going the other direction, but in this weird static version, you need a complete and continuous path to the goal in that moment frozen in time.  Alas!  On to Frog 2, may he have better luck!

OK, so far so good.  I wonder if it is even possible to have a different starting direction, like Frog 2 might break out of the border and wrap around the edges like Pac-Man's tunnel.  No: Pac-Man is Namco, and Frogger is Konami.  Don't be silly!

Another bonus!  This means that I have found three $3 bonuses, which if I have interpreted the rules correctly means that I could return to the store and now redeem this ticket for its initial price, making all this outtasight fun absolutely free!  And further prizes may still await, I'm only halfway through my play session!

Well.  Frog 2, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed in you.  It's like you were so shocked by the appearance of the mega-bonus portrait, conspicuously revealing itself as if to tauntingly say "see, there is some genuine potential to pull down some cash in this totally non-deterministic game", that you momentarily forgot where you were and walked off edge.  (This is a legitimate place to again question why the amphibious frog is so susceptible to death when entering the water.  Frogs live in water!  They require it!  This isn't Toadder!)  Oh well.  On to Frog 3.

Frog 3's journey has been somewhat streamlined, as it has few variances from what we have seen before.  Specifically: where have I seen this situation before?  It's like the big bonuses are strategically situated deliberately before deathtraps!  Well, maybe this time the water won't kill me...

A bit of wishful thinking on my part, apparently.  And so close to the goal!  Maybe the Frogger portraits only come with directions indicating horizontal movement, and you just have to hope that when they come, it's in a place where your frog has a future, rather than into a surefire death on the very next space.

What have we learned?  Supposing I bother to go back and redeem the ticket, this playthrough had zero overall cost (save the time to acquire and redeem the ticket), which beats an actual playthrough of Frogger in an arcade, which would cost at least 25 cents.  Probably my enjoyment of the ticket lasted longer than it would have taken me to burn through 3 lives in arcade Frogger as well (here it looks like you're guaranteed to get past the traffic), though much of that was time spent scanning the ticket repeatedly and rotating and cropping the photos.  In arcade Frogger you are guaranteed to never have a cost per play of under 25 cents, while this one turned out to pay for itself and actually has a small chance of redeeming actual money.  The ground rules are the same in both cases, however -- in the end, the rules always favour the house.

OK, time for some bonus content: an actual print ad (I know, shocking and scandalous!) for the Atari 2600 conversion of Frogger:


Frogger has just jumped out of the arcades and into your home. Sights, sounds, and all. Do you have the skill to get him to his home? Frogger's first challenge is to cross a highway where reckless hot rods hurtle by, and huge trucks go thundering in his path. Every safe jump in this maze of motor and metal is a crucial step home. Beyond is the raging river where the safety of a slippery log or diving turtle is all Frogger can count on to stay afloat. Frogger's last leap to his lily pad home must be perfect, or it's back to the road to try again. Good luck, Frogger's counting on you.

"This maze of motor and metal" is a breath of poetry in an unexpected place, like Tennessee Williams' apocryphal poems written on shoe boxes. I suppose if the rivers are dangerous rapids it accounts for its lethal effects on Frogger (but why not the turtles, then? Protected by their shells?) Then there's the usual bewildering small print -- Konami made the arcade game, but Sega, as Sega/Gremlin, licensed it to virtually everywhere outside the arcade. Just to clear that up. No digressions this time! See you later!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Garage Sale Report, August

Now that I'm working full time, I have so little free time, I can't even keep you posted about my recent games acquisitions in a timely fashion. (When do you think I get time to play them? The answer is: once every six months, at my retro gaming parties.) But here are three perhaps noteworthy lots now in my custody:
I had a sad little conversation with the seller of the games, about how remarkable it was he was selling for so many platforms -- PS2, Xbox, Xbox 360, Gamecube, Wii -- and he shared a little bit about growing up bouncing between two households. Keep a stiff upper lip, kid! I can tell him, it'll be harder to find these games the second time around, once nostalgia strikes.

Here we've got... Rayman 3 and My Street for the PS2, Resident Evil 4 and Odama for the Gamecube, and DOA 3, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, TMNT Mutant Melee, the Capcom Classics Collection volume 1, and Taito Legends for Xbox.  $20 for 9 games.  He had more, and I nearly came back for more -- priced at about half of my "buy" price threshold -- but these were the games I was most interested in.  I feel bad leaving garage sales with nothing but scorched earth left in my wake, as I am sure there are other dudes cruising around from sale to sale hoping to find a game or two.

I was especially excited to see Resident Evil 4, having experienced it for a brief spell at an old Video In all-night video game orgy party and later acquired a second-hand copy of my own ONLY TO FIND that it only included a single one of the game's two discs. (I do hear that the game goes sharply downhill by disc 2, however.)  Also, discovering things like Odama (the world's best voice-controlled pinball/Japanese military sim from the person who brought us SimTower and the Dreamcast's Seaman) is pretty much the carrot for my random crate-digging.  Is it any good?  Who knows, but they sure weren't afraid to try something new!

The emulated arcade compilations are also taking a higher profile in my collection, with retro appeal and often multiplayer packed in. (Also, it doesn't hurt that if a particular game isn't to your taste, you can switch tracks without having to even swap discs. Just go back to the main menu and pick another selection!) And then, today, my toddler's part-time nanny -- a PhD in children's literature -- was having her garage sale before getting deported. (It's a long story.) And there, among gems of children's literature, was this work sticking out like a sore thumb:
Luigi looks a bit uneasy, legs asplay like he'd just been paddled, holding his Fire Flower awkwardly like a rifle. Toadstool looks hypnotized. And Mario has an edge of the enraged to his jovial smile. Anyhow, that's the cover -- here's a sample of its choice contents:
"Together! That's it!" cried Mario. He ate his last magic Red Mushroom. In an instant he began to grow! Held high by the giant Mario, Luigi carefully aimed the last Fire Flower at the wooden trapdoor. "It's working!" he cried. "I couldn't have reached it without your help." "And I couldn't have opened it without yours," said Mario graciously.
The text gives the impression that the book was written by someone who had perhaps read the Super Mario Bros. manual but had never played the game. (Red Mushroom Proper Noun? Fire Flowers single-shot like Saturday night specials?) At least it has a redeeming message of fraternal teamwork. Mario has a certain King Kong-like demeanour in the second illustration, and it's funny how the artist has to make Toadstool emote with her gestures because the writers keep failing to give her any spoken lines.

It's hard to explain why I buy things like that. There's not even any point in asking "is it any good?" because how good can it possibly be? Speaking of which... I couldn't pass up picking up a $3 copy of the board game adaptation of the 1st-person graphical adventure game that smashed sales records and incidentally abolished my beloved system of 3rd-person graphical adventure games (which we have already just established weren't actually that good.) You saw its comic book adaptation, now play the board game!

The Myst game has two phases, one of which is assembling a puzzle of a map of its mysterious island. Already it's got more interaction than its source material! The Xbox games are overpriced, but Unreal II is as best as I can tell the last game of Legend Entertainment (of Spellcasters 101 fame), marking a real swan song for the Infocom torchbearers, and that hippodrome game has a novel premise -- one player steers the chariot, one attacks the passing competitors. I always envisioned a collaborative two-player version of Deathtrack with a turret that worked similarly. Will players actually encounter minotaurs or is the mythological creature merely being invoked to suggest the flavour of the cultures of antiquity? I'll have to report back after the next retro game party.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Evolution of Gaming

Hey, congrats to me! The previous 25-thousand-views milestone was more impressive, but the 30 thousand we've now surpassed is still nothing to sneeze at. I'll probably keep celebrating every 10k. Eventually, every 50k, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Now without further ado, I should hold forth on some topic related to old video games, especially an aspect only tangentially related to the blog's erstwhile theme, game ads as published in old comic books. (Hey, I just made two game-ad posts in a row, something not seen since February. So cut me some slack, er, me.)

The Evolution of Gaming show came and went; I reserved my tickets and strategically booked my partner and myself slots near the end of the run, thinking that any technical problems would be worked out by then. Hence we missed out on a French artist's circuit bending of NES Power Pads to control a modern rhythm game, played at opening night. Also, judging by the number of "out of order" stations (despite valiant Hackery volunteers sweating blood to keep vintage machines up and running -- and occasionally springing across the room to replace an Apple II's Oregon Trail disk 1 with disk 2 when needed), perhaps earlier in the show the exhibition would have garnered fewer hardware casualties... there were plenty of exhibits represented solely by a piece of hardware, an explicative plaque (and hey, why wasn't I tapped to write those?), and a dead TV screen. But I did get to see in person several gaming machines (eg. the ZX Spectrum, Odyssey2) I'd only ever read about before -- some of which were even working! -- and bring some perspective to the titles the curators had selected. Lots of stations were abandoned, derelicted in a working condition in favour of more famous generation-winners which always had nostalgic crowds watching. Also, there was some contemporary VR game experience for which there was a line-up to try... a line-up which I opted out of. All in all, it reminded me of nothing so much as one of my own vintage game parties -- with, admittedly more stations, of older machines (a Vectrex or a working Computer Space is always a thing of beauty -- Space Invaders controlled with stuck button controls, less so.) But is anyone really that disappointed when I fail to dish up KC Munchkin on the Odyssey2? Note to readers: the next game party is on track for this coming November, stay posted for dates.

My daughter was most interested in a giant life-sized statue of Pac-Man, who she found fascinating. Her mom asked her: "Does Pac-Man have a bum?" She wandered all around his base before returning to report: "No bum, just legs!"

Apparently the show had a portion of its bill footed by some French cultural attache, under the premise that France's videogame industry (currently: huge) had been historically significant and would be highlighted in this show along with local products, but barring BC: Quest for Tire (an improbable BC production published by Sierra) I didn't see it. (Even most of the "French" games cited in the supporting press release were made in Montreal.) If I'd been that cultural attache, I would have been steamed. In short, if you don't already have a pile of working vintage gaming systems in your basement, this would have been your only chance to see this history, living, bleeping and blooping. But if you do... what was the big deal?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"King's Quest", PCjr, 1984.

In 1999 I spent a short period of time visiting an Internet friend just outside of Washington, DC, before we travelled to Europe together to visit the Assembly demoparty in Helsinki. While at his home, I noticed that he had a stock ticker app running on his desktop. Thinking this was peculiar for a 20-year-old, I inquired, and he replied somewhat sheepishly that the reason he was tracking the performance of a bottled water company is because an uncle had bought him stock in a video game company which made games that he loved, which had been bought by a company that had been bought by a company that had been bought by a bottled water company. So now he owned stock in a bottled water company which had totally abolished his beloved video games. That game company was Sierra On-Line, and now it was a line-item in a corporate restructuring.

Ever since this trailer was released last week by Activision, people have been coming out of the woodwork and bugging me: Rowan, did you hear that Sierra is making a new King's Quest game? I don't know if it's even possible to make a King's Quest game in 2014. (Does King Graham have regenerating health, used in tandem with a cover system?) The original Sierra proved itself that the brand was not only meaningless but outright confused in the post-2D era with their stab at King's Quest 8 in 1998.

I found the rows of Quest boxes hanging from the Radio Shack pegboard hugely compelling when I was a little kid; I must own up to playing the heck out of KQ4, largely because... it's the game that I had. It seemed simultaneously a step up from KQ3 AND KQ5. The sixth game was a winner, relatively, but quickly it was becoming apparent that Sierra at its best couldn't hold a candle to Lucasarts. Sierra's games were triumphs only relative to what they had done earlier: King's Quest was a great step up from Wizard and the Princess. I have fond memories of Conquests of Camelot and the Quest for Glory games due to their triumphs despite the Sierra baggage. None of their A-list franchises -- King's Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, or even Space Quest -- could be described as good games. They just got in early and defined a genre by imposing certain limitations and constraints, which continued to plague the genre generally until it became commercially extinct.

The late-to-the-party fanboys are out in droves celebrating the return of their beloved Sierra who had published Half-Life and Spyro. Really, the best you can hope is for a legendary company to backtrack slightly from dead and buried to being in steep decline?

One day in my dentist's office I found myself reading an article from one of the magazines there, a volume I ordinarily would never have chosen to pick up. In it, the author described how he and his wife would entertain themselves in their retirement by having yacht races with their friends, to see who could navigate from the US West Coast to Japan the fastest; the winner of the race would be the first eating fresh sushi right on the docks in Tokyo. That's odd, I thought, the author's name rings a little bell. Oh, wait -- that's Ken Williams, Sierra's founder. And his wife must be Roberta Williams. They peddled fairy tales to millions, bridging the eras of folklore and microchips, and now they shovel cash into a furnace for kicks. How banal.

So let's skip back a decade or so earlier and enjoy this ad from when they still appeared to have a future.

"IT'S LIKE PLAYING AN ANIMATED CARTOON!" From a review of King's Quest, Computer Games Magazine

No other computer games combine the graphics and animation of Sierra's bestselling 3-D Animated Adventures. They feature:

• dozens of animated characters that come alive -- they walk, talk, run, climb, even swim!

• hundreds of three-dimensional screens more detailed than any seen before -- animated characters pass in front of trees, behind rocks, even around other characters!

• optional joystick control -- use keyboard with optional joystick to guide the main character around a fantasy world.

• multiple solutions and variable scoring -- play again and again, each time uncovering interesting new twists.

The most fun you'll ever have playing adventure games!

Sierra's award-winning line of 3-D Animated Adventure games --


"a breakthrough in graphics-oriented adventure games —Compute! Magazine. For 128K Apple lle/llc, IBM PC/PCjr. $49.95.

NOW ON APPLE II KING'S QUEST II: Romancing the Throne: "the artists and programmers at Sierra continue to push available technology to its ever [] expanding limits" —Consumer Software News Magazine. For 12HK Apple lle/llc, Atari 520 ST, IBM PC/PCjr, $49.95.

NEW! The Black Cauldron: "the closest thing yet to a living game" -- Roe Adams, Computer Gaming World Magazine. Developed with Walt Disney Personal Computer Software Staff. For IBM PC/PCjr, $39. 95.

It's like playing an animated cartoon about a stickman falling off of a staircase ten thousand times! I appreciate the breath of fresh air the animated avatars must have been after cutting your teeth on Mystery House, but I don't know that this is really any closer to an animated cartoon than Pac-Man was. (Dragon's Lair on the other hand...) This wasn't new stuff, though perhaps the sight of it on your business PC was a bit exciting.

"No other computer games combine the graphics and animation..." WAT, graphics and animation? That reminds me of a zen koan my piano teacher once posed, asking which was more important to music: pitch or rhythm? Either in isolation is useless, and it's similarly hard to envision graphicless animation (my recent pitch black animated Auto-Awesome fail nonwithstanding.)

"dozens of animated characters that come alive -- they walk, talk, run, climb, even swim!" You can draw one stickman, why not 24? The "animation" involved in making these characters talk was typically flashing a single pixel in the middle of their face between black and white. Magical!

"animated characters pass in front of trees, behind rocks, even around other characters!" Here's the deal: this ad is written like it's selling a technical demo to a hardware store. It's like the early graphics demos that were technically proficient at showing revolving chromed spheres reflecting coloured Platonic solids, but were blown away when Pixar showed up and added a little story to the proceedings. You would think that Sierra would emphasis the storytelling and characters, but not yet. Truthfully, those categories as well were pretty feeble at this early time, but it may be the case that those were simply qualities the market wasn't yet demonstrating interest in.

"optional joystick control" OK, hang on, I need to nip off to the store to pick up five copies.

"multiple solutions and variable scoring -- play again and again, each time uncovering interesting new twists." Maybe for The Black Cauldron, but finishing a 200 point game with only 5 optional points missing doesn't qualify as that interesting a new twist from a 100% completion run.

"The most fun you'll ever have playing adventure games!" Now that's a outright lie.

I'm as keen as anyone to see increased interest in video game history, but the memory is still fresh in my mind of what undignified jig Activision made Zork do when they dug its bones up. I would rather Telltale had kept the license rather than Activision, who probably no longer have anyone on staff who ever worked on an adventure game (on the plus side, I snarked, they couldn't do a worse job of game design than Roberta Williams), but I don't get to call those shots. We'll see what comes of this.