Dan Froelich and his Yamaha FM chip

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If I were smart, years ago I would have tracked down Dan Froelich and asked him what he used to write his funky CMF soundtracks for Jill of the Jungle, Solar Winds, Xargon, and other early Epic MegaGames stuff. Turns out I no longer need to, as he has written about his experience on his website. It seems he tracked his early game music in AdLib Visual Composer, a program that spoke to AdLib’s Yamaha FM chip (not dissimilar from the Sega Genesis chip) using a combination of piano rolls and FM instrument banks. Those elements were later crunched together into .CMF files for use with early Sound Blaster cards. To give a rare peek at the raw AdLib sound, Froelich has included clips of his Jill of the Jungle score, exported into ProTools. Cool beans!

So for anyone who wants to write early 1990s shareware music, that’s how the experts do it. Or rather, how an expert did it. I’m sure there are other methods.

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From Shooter to Shooter: The Rise of cly5m

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Seiklus was a turning point for the indie scene. Even if you’ve never played it, you’ve played something influenced by cly5m’s game. Seiklus was one of the first “exploration platformers,” now a booming and distinctly indie genre. A small man, nearly a stick figure, travels a gentle flat-colored world, collecting pointless trinkets and the occasional control upgrade, to find his way back home again. There is no death, and no overt violence; Seiklus is all about the journey, and the player’s relationship with the game world.

Seiklus comes off as a very personal game. Although the controls amount to little more than walking and jumping, and the presentation is nearly as minimalist, the experience feels emotionally rich. Its level geometry and sequencing trade epiphanies for careful observation and experimentation, and the sound design creates a distinct and whimsical atmosphere.

The stripped-down expression of Seiklus has helped to legitimize canned game creation systems, leading Mark Overmars’ Game Maker to become the respected behemoth it is now, and lending the indie scene an entry-level spine. There have been tributes and parodies. It’s just an important game.

For all its influence, Seiklus is kind of a one-off. For a while creator cly5m and Robert Lupinek teased the Internet with Velella, a sort of spiritual successor involving dream flight. Otherwise, the last eight years have passed pretty quietly. The previous eight, though – that’s a different story.

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Buttoning Down

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What if the GBA had had two more buttons, as people kept asking for at the time? What difference would that have made?

You know, aside from fighting games, I don’t see what use the extra two buttons would be. Few games really use more than that for anything significant, and if they do they’re often rather clumsily designed. The GBA has two shoulder buttons that rarely get used for anything much.

Even now, how many DS games use the extra buttons to any particular effect?

As much as I enjoy certain fighting games, I find it kind of stupid that they’re always used as an excuse for a million buttons and a standard layout for controllers. If people want to play fighting games, they can go buy a fighting pad — which most people who are serious about the genre, which includes most people who bother with it, do anyway.

Of course, you can’t easily do that with a handheld. Still, what are fighting games on a handheld besides a novelty? NeoGeo Pocket aside. Which has… two buttons.

But the shoulder buttons are awkward to use, so perhaps that’s why. Anyway, games don’t have to use every button on a controller. Don’t more buttons just increase the available options?

Shoulder buttons aren’t really meant to be action buttons. They’re basically useful for state issues. For changing the nuance of the face buttons — much as with holding up to use the secondary items in Castlevania, versus simply mapping it to a third button.

The more you can abstract the actions, the better. If you’ve got an attack button, try to put all direct attacks on that button. If you’ve got a jump/propel bodily button, try to put everything jumping or flying or swimming or whatever-related on that button. Context (including the context of state-shifting buttons like triggers) narrows down the verb, so the player doesn’t have to think about it.

That’s kind of the idea behind Ocarina, with its context-sensitive jumping and junk. It just wasn’t implemented too well there. RE4 does basically the same thing, except it gets it basically right. In that case, “A” is basically the “DO SOMETHING” button — and what you do is determined entirely by circumstance and what other buttons you’re holding down.

In this light, the point about few GBA games using the shoulder buttons still holds. Between the two shoulder buttons, that basically gives you six face button functions — and yet how many games take advantage of this?

But using the shoulder buttons for state shifting isn’t practical. And besides, a diamond layout lets you pretend the buttons are a second D-pad, for all that implies. And again, isn’t it simply better to have more available options, even if those options are rarely used? Having fewer buttons limits the types of games you can create.

Let’s not be silly. State-shifting is not only practical; it’s one of the only significant concepts in control design to be introduced in the last fifteen years. I’d love to hear what makes it impractical.

Though I guess it’s nice, using the face buttons as a second D-pad is an incredibly specific and imperfect use, that is almost never implemented. Though I might adore Bangai-O, this argument is just as silly as saying every system needs six face buttons so people can play Street Fighter properly.

Of course having fewer buttons limits the possible variety of games. Which is why the PS2 has so many more kinds of games on it than the NES does.

As for the “more choice = inherently good” argument: not really. Arguably so at best. See my older sister, who gets confused when there’s more than one button on a controller. See the Brain Training game for the DS, that asks people to ignore all of those strange, extra buttons on the system. The most important element in any videogame is an intuitive interface — something that anyone can pick up and quickly understand. An ideal default interface will also offer flexibility on a game-to-game basis, meaning it can’t be too specialized.

The other benefit here is that the fewer input options there are, and the more intuitively they are designed, the more care and consideration developers have to put into control design. Sure, some people will always screw up their work no matter what help they’re given. Might as well rein in the margin for confusion as well as practicable, however — if just for the sake of the end user.

Of course, the question is one of balance. How little functionality is too little to be functional, and how much functionality can you include before you generate clutter — therefore distraction and confusion — in the name of very specific implementations?

State-shifting address this issue elegantly by providing few options then tiering them to accomodate extra depth, for those circumstances where it is desired or required. Think of it in terms of a reference tool. Is it more ideal to have every possible item you might want to read about all on one page, or do you want to break it down into categories, then subcategories? The more you want to know, the more specific the knowledge you desire, the deeper you delve. No clutter. No noise. No distraction. Or a significant reduction in all of this, anyway.

Here are a bunch of games that (arguably) require two joysticks, so ha! And see, I didn’t even mention a FPS yet! And I’ll pretend not to mention fighting games either because you clearly hate them so much!

Yes, exactly. So what?

Mind that I like just about every game you’ve mentioned. Almost.

But you said there were barely any games like that! So there’s a bunch, and I can keep on going! What else are you going to dismiss just because it doesn’t fit into your ideal scheme, huh?!

Look, it’s the same fighting game argument again: Street Fighter uses six buttons, so every controller must have six buttons or else you can’t play street fighter! Except weaker. I’m not dismissing the existence of fighting games or first-person shooters or these random and rare double-joystick games you seem so fixated on; I’m dismissing their import in dictating an idealized default input method, specifically because of their specialized nature.

Again, if you want to play fighting games it’s easy to buy a fighting game controller that’s more suited to the genre than a standard pad ever could be. If you want to play FPS games, a standard pad will never be ideal for them anyway, conceived as they are for a completely different control scheme, so there might as well be a specialized controller to better facilitate them.

I mean, hell. Ikari Warriors wasn’t even designed with two joysticks in mind; it had a rotary stick, the purpose of which was to allow strafing. A more accurate compromise there is using a shoulder button for strafe-lock. Chu-Chu Rocket’s control scheme was a compromise to start with; the game would be better suited to something like a stylus or a mouse interface.

Beyond the stylus, the DS also has the internet thing going — making for an even more ideal Chu-Chu platform.

Which kind of illustrates the point that not every game is suitable for every platform, and no single input device can account for every special demand. There will always be a compromise, and the question is as to where to draw that line.

What you’re asking for is an all-in-one device that accounts poorly for every possible variable, and not only will that never be entirely satisfactory on its own right; it’s also the wrong approach to a deeper problem. By this logic, what else should the average controller include? Should it rattle when you shake it, to make Samba De Amigo more feasible? I’m sure if the feature were included, Kojima would find something to do with it. And then of course it would have to be included in every future controller, or else if Kojima’s game were ported to that system it wouldn’t play exactly right!

Just, come on already.

The question is perhaps both easier and more difficult for handhelds. It’s easier if other platforms are available, that offer different potential. It’s harder in that you can’t just switch controllers so easily. Although, actually, I can think of some ways around that as well.

In the case of the GBA, the question is whether two or four buttons are more ideal. In the long run, given how few games even used the triggers for anything of note, having only two face buttons certainly didn’t seem to hurt it too much, or to constrain too many developers. Would the extra two buttons have done any harm? Well, from what we’ve seen it doesn’t look like they’d have done much good. And, you know, omit needless buttons. Complication for the sake of complication does little save muddy the water.

The four buttons work as a concession on the DS because the main focus is on the touchscreen. The oversupply of buttons helps to balance that off and encourage pedantic gamer-types just as the touchscreen draws in non-gamers. The GBA doesn’t have a mitigating factor, so there the buttons would just be buttons.

Right, like anyone would get confused or put off by two extra buttons.

See, the problem here is that you’re a gamer.


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I have been requested of more Dalek footage (as referenced here). Far be it for me to overlook a chance to show off.

The colors are deeper now, and more in line with the New Series Daleks. I don’t know if it’s obvious from here.

As before, this fellow is a product of Graffiti Kingdom. I’ve now beaten the game; it’s short, and intentionally easy. There’s a lot more that could have been done, in the end; I kept waiting for a few tools that never presented themselves, like the ability to rotate and move pieces you’ve already drawn, or to define a “body” element, or to set multiple attachment points. Or to set individual portions of arms and legs. Or light-up or “hover” pieces. There’s a lot of overlap, and not much organization. The versus mode is a wasted opportunity, too.

Still, it’s pretty neat for what it is; these are all just details. If someone’s paying attention, a DS sequel could be one of the niftiest games around. Come to think of it, maybe the map drawing feature I proposed earlier would work even better if the levels were 2D. That would bring this game even closer to Cocoron. And that could hardly be bad!

Long beards and Hawaiian shorts

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To: Tim Rogers

In a dream I just had, you suggested that OutRun should have strikers in it (as in a fighting game) and that they should be cars full of old people, as a symbol of the speed of aging.

Just thought you should know.

Your Father Should Know

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aderack: Added something.
Thom: that picture is excellent
aderack: Those pirates really get around.
aderack: I tried to think of some developer who was irritating me lately, and Eugene Jarvis came to mind. So I searched, and that’s the first picture I found of him.
Thom: yeah, Eugene has kind of turned to the dark side
aderack: He started off well enough!

Recent things have made me question his actual intentions with NARC.
Thom: you mean?
aderack: Well. I always thought it was an underhanded mockery of Regan-era drug war stereotypes.

But. You know, maybe he was a little more serious than that.
Thom: he’s stated actually that it was intended to be drug dealers vs. the feds originally
Thom: and then had to be changed because it wouldn’t have flown in that era
aderack: Aha.
aderack: So it… is sort of part of the Regan establishment, rather than mocking it.
aderack: Which says something about the Regan era!
aderack: Lots of fairy tales about the Bad Guys.
aderack: And about who the Good Guys are.
aderack: Every paternal figure is a Good Guy. Every Good Guy is either a paternal figure or someone willing to kick ass.
Thom: pretty much
aderack: The Bad Guys are all boogie men.
aderack: Criminals have a capital “C”.
aderack: There’s no context for them.
aderack: They just come out of the woodwork!
aderack: Dad is there to chase away the boogie man.
aderack: That’s the Regan era.
aderack: Listen to Dad. Trust in him. He’ll protect you.
Thom: The Cosby Show
aderack: Gee.
Thom: part of why the Simpsons, and their defeat of Cosby, was as much as anything else, the end of the Reagan era
aderack: Yeah, the Simpsons are kind of an important symbol of the ’90s. Questioning authority and the system again. The bend toward irreverence.
aderack: Remember how SHOCKING it was when it first appeared.
aderack: Now it’s hard to imagine why.
Thom: and how staid it is now
Thom: yeah
aderack: I mean, even going back and looking at the early stuff. It’s just — what it is. How could anyone be offended, outside the people who get offended by things?
aderack: Systematically, that is.
Thom: it’s almost too sly