Sunday, October 19, 2014

Video game ANSI part 8: another Blocktronics pack!

I've already regaled you with choice cuts from the 1980 artpack release of Blocktronics, today's ANSI art supergroup (and let's face it, sole inheritors to a pretty lifeless battlefield). But wouldn't you know it, they've kept on keeping on and, well, there have been subsequent releases -- with new renditions of video game characters and situations in the ANSI medium! It's funny with this weird beat, I can go from showing archival material dug up from 1992 and then zap directly to mid-2014. So has been the power of the enduring cultural relevance of video games, I suppose. A distinguishing feature of this "WTF4" pack (F4 being one of the function keys bound to displaying the ANSI "block" characters in ANSI editors) is that it contained what must be by far the longest piece of ANSI art ever commissioned -- I won't give you specific numbers, but for a ballpark, it measures about 7 stories end to end -- a group collaboration produced to compete at the Evoke 2014 demoparty (whose ANSI art category it won handily). Though it has recurring themes, the diversity of authors and subjects have resulted in recurring flashes of video game iconography surfacing in the greater work which is basically about something else. It opens as demonstrated below, with a classic gaming reference from the 1983 movie War Games. Then a group logo, and then the classic Konami code. Then some dream imagery, and then a classic arcade cabinet! I'm not sure what game is being advertised on the cab's sides -- there are Q*Berts being shot at by what look like Galaga ships -- but if you look at the joysticks and the screen, you can appreciate a classic smallscale representation of Konami's Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game. Finally, the screen dissolves into an unrelated transition, with a lone Space Invader lurking in the eaves.
Another Invader or two turn up over the next few thousand lines, but this is the only other major game-related stop in the so-called "megajoint", a point at which a cubic dreamscape resolves into a playground for Q*Bert.
The pack has much more gameinalia in its other works however. Here, for an audience of Metroid and a panel of Space Invaders, the two great red junk food mascots of the early '90s, 7-Up's "Cool Spot" and Domino's Pizza's "Noid" -- both subjects of their own video games -- duke it out. (I don't see why: their products are complementary, not competing.) Cool Spot seems to be dominant in this conflict, aided perhaps by a line of 1-UP mushrooms.
What's the score again?
A fun thing about this piece -- it started as just a weird amoeba-like tree, but R5 felt it would be a suitable backdrop on which to superimpose the hilariously 4th-wall-breaking Mr. Resetti the mole from the Gamecube classic Animal Crossing. I saw an early draft and recommended a balloon-package to kick it off, and there it is! My contribution to art history.
Enzo has been using ANSI art to illustrate articles about tech for his day job; this is one about the whizbang potential of mobile devices, with a little bit of smallscale Pac-Man action going on in the background.
And there we are. But oh, my gosh! It takes me so long for these blog posts to come out these days that another Blocktronics pack has since come out, containing in it still further video game ANSI art. It's really a vicious cycle. My work is cut out for me. You'll be seeing more video game ANSI from this well-heeled crew of textmode art survivors.

And now, on a different note: Hallowe'en is coming up, and I didn't have enough long coffee breaks and no-work-scheduled days to revisit my month of spooky game ads as I did last year (though World 1-1 has been holding that beat down admirably so far in 2014), but here's something new for this blog: music! In preparation for a 20th anniversary reunion artpack of my Mistigris crew from the mid-'90s, I've been shaking down my computer art archives for unreleased materials I've been sitting on for upwards of 16 years. Here's a tune by Onyx, the 604's prolific Impulse Tracker addict of Sonic Equinox and Delphic Oracle -- and yes, sporadically Mistigris -- executing a tribute to the soundtracks of Konami's very Hallowe'eny Castlevania series, entitled NecroNuke. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Portland Report

I was in Portland a week too soon to partake in its annual Retro Gaming Expo, as I was visiting town for entirely unrelated reasons, but that said -- if your antenna are attuned to the cosmic vibrations of gamery, it will find you. Case in point: this street art showdown on Alberta Street:
I gather that I may have possibly missed for the second year running an opportunity to play Johann Sebastian Joust, a game that basically is pointless to describe if not possible to demonstrate. I did however manage to fortify my gaming book collection at Powell's City of Books, yielding among other finds the "Worlds of Power" novelization of Metal Gear for the NES by "F.X. Nine", described by Fireguard somewhat mordantly:
It's always struck me as bizarre why anyone would write a novelization of Metal Gear but do everything humanly possible to downplay the violence when the people you're hoping will buy the book are kids who like or are at least curious about a game about a commando running around blowing up enemy soldiers and tanks. Then again, the geniuses who dropped Snake behind enemy lines sent him into danger armed with nothing but a pack of cigarettes.

Honestly the book isn't that badly written considering it's adapted from a video game and meant for young readers, but it's nothing to write home about either. It feels more like reading an online walkthrough than an actual story.

Still, my biggest problem is the dissonance between forbidding the writer to have the main character kill his enemies, when it's not only allowed but often encouraged in the game they give tips for at the end of chapters. It's self-defeating, and speaking as a writer that's about the worst thing you can do.

On trips to Powell's, I used to have to scour the sci-fi and children's sections trying to find gamebook and game novelization needles amongst a tremendous haystack. There were always plenty of finds, but I could spend hours combing the stacks. Looks like someone eventually took notice of my very peculiar receipts, as a couple of years back visits to Powell's surprised me with shelves and sections consisting exclusively of this somewhat niche material I'd been prospecting for. I can go right in the front door, walk directly to the shelf, compare what I see with what I have on my "want" list, pay at the front counter and be out within 5 minutes. It's a very different experience, that's for sure!

Portland has plenty to offer game enthusiasts outside the PREX and Powell's -- on previous visits, I have whiled away many a happy hour at the Avalon Nickel arcade. (And, well, some hours there haven't been so happy -- once, I drove over with friends with the express intent of serving skeptics with my formidable Dance Dance Revolution skills, honed in the UBC arcade during picnics with friends on campus, but while exiting the vehicle somehow got my fingertip pinched in a closed (and, eurk, locked) car door. We immediately iced it in a major way, and decided to continue on with our planned activities only to find that the DDR machine had a massive line up. I'd paid my entry to the arcade, but couldn't use my mangled hand (the nail eventually turned black and fell off) to operate any other machines. Sometimes a can-do attitude isn't enough.)

I gather that there are other gaming sites in the good ole PDX -- the name of Ground Kontrol comes up regularly, though somehow I've managed to never go! Also seen in my recent travels was an arcade bar in Eugene, OR, two hours south of Portland -- entitled Level Up. (Google reveals another one in those environs, named Blairally. What I want to know is why Eugene of all places has two arcade bars and there are none here at my home in Vancouver? The answer is, of course, real estate prices. Admittedly the Storm Crow Tavern does come close, but it's conspicuous that the bar owned by the founder of PopCap games -- responsible for Bejewelled and Plants vs. Zombies among others -- takes as its focus the earlier culture of pen and paper tabletop gaming.)

Also down in those parts, we passed a Chuck E. Cheese's. Is that still a going concern? Are they filled with Xbox 360s and iPads now instead of arcade cabinets? Has the pizza gotten any better? Are the robot mascots holograms instead? These and other questions will just have to wait to be answered. Next time, Portland!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"How to Turn On Your Computer", Bantam Software, 1986.

Here I am in Portland, and my standard resident "so, here we are in Portland, and it's October, so which IF comp games do you recommend?" conversor is permanently unavailable. Well, rats. But I do have you, the anonymous Internet, so you may have to do. It's true, the 20th annual Interactive Fiction competition is in full swing -- has been for a week or so now -- presenting a vast slate of amateur text adventures, parser and otherwise, for players to enjoy and rate. I believe that this is the first year that comp games with CYOA interfaces have outnumbered those with text parsers, a trend that will likely continue (and something I would explore in greater depth on my other blog if I had the time.) I was going to dip into the archives and pull out an Infocom ad for the occasion, but wouldn't you know, I used them all up this time last year (I have an exciting lead on some more, but they're not quite ready for prime time yet), so I had to take a tip from The Digital Antiquarian and find an ad from Infocom's contemporary genre boom in "Bookware".
How to turn your computer on. (The following is an actual conversation between Bantam Software and an unusually talkative personal computer). BANTAM SOFTWARE: We always ask what turns people on. Now we want to know what turns you on . PERSONAL COMPUTER: It's about time someone asked the real expert. What turns me off is boring software. Boring, uninvolving, predictable software. And cold rooms. Why is it always so cold in here? B: Games and Ahoy magazines called Sherlock Holmes in "Another Bow" one of the year's best. PC: Let me decide. Okay? (Disk inserted.) Well, this is anything but elementary. You're Holmes. Watson's at your side. And you determine your own fate in case after case. And look, you run into the likes of Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Henry Ford, Louis Armstrong. And such graphics! These derive from eariy 20th century photographs. I don't have a clue how you did it, but you have a winner. Next case. B: The Fourth Protocol, from Frederick Forsyth's gigantic best-selling book. Games called it "nerve-tingling." Here you go. (Slides disk in.) PC: You mean circuit-tingling. If 1 knew I had to save the world, I would have gotten more sleep. All kidding aside, this involves nuclear weapons. A British traitor. The KGB. And the subversion of NATO. This is a challenge. Will it help if I read the book? (Loud explosion on screen.) Oh no! Does that mean I lost? B: No, but losing's the whole point of the next one. The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. You know the bestseller. PC: Why, do I look heavy? Never mind, let's have a taste. (Disk is inserted.) This is some menu. It helps you assess your goals. Monitor your progress. Mix 'n match meals from all five Scarsdale diets. Even prepares your shopping list. It'll tell you how much exercise you need to work off certain foods. Let's see about kiwi tart... B: We've got one other program. PC: No more. I'm exhausted. B: No... this is a rebate program. Just fill out the coupon and mail it with proof of purchase and you get $5.00 back. PC: Thank you. That's a nice offer. B: So, did we turn you on? PC: Yup. Now, please turn me off so I can rest. I've got to do some running later on to work off that kiwi tart.
I kind of get the feeling that getting "turned on" in 1986 meant something a few rungs below what it means how. I remember trying to arouse a computer using our smooth talking as pre-teens and all it got us was a Dr. SBAITSO parity error. That photo-graphic of the computer with the bouquet is somewhat tragicomic. Share your favorite "insert floppy in drive" joke here!

This was actually pretty late for the first wave of chatbots -- we had Racter in 1983, and his conversations were much more interesting than this one. (And his volume of poetry, The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed, is great -- primarily because it is fudged.) What's the "why is it always so cold?" bit about? I figure it's "server room" humour, though that seems a bit out of place for a personal computer. Is your target market really people who don't know the difference between a mainframe and a microcomputer? Well, I suppose Bantam is a book company, not a tech company, so they may have been so genuinely clueless.

I've never heard of Ahoy magazine, but looks like they were credible enough to invoke as expert testimony here. The blurb describes, well, things you would expect in a (presumably unlicensed, public domain) Sherlock Holmes game: Watson, historical characters, player agency. Graphics? Fine enough, but is establishing their early 20th century provenance really a selling point, or maybe a disclaimer that they may not be as sharp as modern-day photos? They look just like typical Apple II graphics -- no worse than the Oregon Trail standard, nor exceeding it.

Then The Fourth Protocol: the book was gigantic and best-selling. We establish its themes of nuclear espionage and ... those are considered sufficient to sell the game. (Does it really have sound effects? Mobygames ratings suggest: yes! It seems to have more of a Portal-style interactive novel GUI presentation than the typical bookware IF text parser, but they're just different routes toward a similar end, right?)

And then, because it's impossible to sell on its own, the automated diet book / database. The Scarsdale diet was an early ketosis diet, shades of Atkins, whose doctor author had been dead for six years at this point, murdered by his lover. The blurb doesn't involve any of these compelling details, merely trading on the novelty of a computer diet program. Woefully mundane goods to be depending on novelty! Bantam apparently also sold a conversion of the Choose Your Own Adventure book The Cave Of Time, which would have been a much better fit here, but it looks like they were targeting an older, more world-weary audience.

And the rebate! That's an unfunny turn on ambiguous use of the word "program". All in all, I give the ad the thumbs-down. Bantam probably had no business in the software industry, and from the looks of things, this was both the announcement of its big splash debut and its swan song. Them's the breaks! (Meanwhile, did I mention that the Interactive Fiction competition has been running for 20 years now?)