Sunday, November 29, 2009

8-Bit City Banners

It's been almost two years, and I've made quite a few banners for 8-Bit City. Here they are:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

BBS: The Documentary "Thanksgiving" Special

Jason Scott filmed this panoramic documentary from 2001-2004, and BBS: The Documentary became available for purchase in 2005. Scott explores the birth of computers and computer networking from its early roots in the telegraph system to the internet today. He interviews Tom Jennings (creator of FidoNET), Ward Christensen (creator of CBBS, the first BBS), and other famous people. He covers the history of BBSes, astscene (ANSII art), hacking, phreaking, FidoNET, commdore vs. atari vs. apple vs. etc. and several other early computer topics. It's a 3 disc set, and each disk has 2 or 3 45 minute episodes, so there is quite a bit of content. It's brilliant, amazing, thought provoking, interesting, and even emotional.

Scott goes beyond the surface observations of history and explores the lives of people who grew up with BBSes and ran BBSes. He interviews early computer artists, poets, programmers, and philosophers. He presents a slice of the underground 80s computer subculture, and I couldn't recommend it more.

BBS: The Documentary official website.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Pixel Art: Skeleton Monsters

A boss and 2 types of minions. These aren't for a game, but maybe I'll use them one day.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I needed a new Adventure game for the 2600. Something epic and exciting. To this end, I spent the night playing Krull (for the first time). Dave Staugas designed Krull, and it launched in 1983 (about 1.5 months after the titular movie was released). I haven't seen the movie (though I've always wanted to) so this review won't be informed by anything in the film.

The game is divided into 4 mini-games. On the first board, you hastily marry your pregnant girlfriend only to have a brigade of angry rainbow robots attack. This is by far the most enjoyable part of the game; however, the monsters will eventually swarm your princess and take her away to the Rainbow Castle to be tortured. You can literally fight the robots for days (a sun rises and sets at the top of the screen). Alternately, the player can simply let the robots capture the princess right away, but one won't receive any points without slaughtering some rainbow robots.

The second stage consists of a horse ride across the plains. Suspiciously, two heros ride across the green fields of Krull. Who is this mysterious companion? Sometimes the hero's horse gallops over "glaives" (boomerang throwing stars) and extra men; tapping the button at the correct time will pick up these items. The player needs as many glaives as possible because these allow the player to defeat the final boss, so stock up!

After the brief horse ride, tremble in fear because oh shit it's a giant spider. This stage repeats the same 8 notes over and over and over again, obviously in an attempt to "create tension" (induce suicide). Spider "webs" will wash across the screen. Touching a web results in loss of control for several seconds as the wave pushes you away from your goal. This level is conquered by jumping over webs, avoiding the spider, and reaching a white square on the web. This action causes a cocoon to appear which marks the location of the Rainbow Castle. Then the player must jump to the cocoon and jump around until one exits the level. In addition, if the on-screen hourglass empties, the spider will launch into a berzerker rage and attack instantly.

Fuck this level. The webs create patterns that prove almost impossible to dodge in certain situations (the webs flicker, so the screenshot only displays 2 of the 6 "web waves"). By the time you are free from one wave, a wave spawns in the opposite direction. When you are free from that wave, another spawns in the original direction. This continues back and forth and so on. Sometimes I found the location of the cocoon, but, no matter how hard I tired to exit the level, the game refused to let me exit. Time ran out. I died. The hero moves frustratingly slow in the web, and I literally threw my controller a few times (don't worry, I threw it onto a pillow :) Nothing like a nice video game rage to get the blood pumping.

If the player does manage to get past the spiderweb (despite being annoying, sometimes it's really not that hard, other times...) he or she then returns to the horse-riding level for another chance to snatch some glaives and extra lives. During the first 2 hours in which I played Krull, sometimes after this second horse level, I would lose a life and return to the spiderweb. Other times, I reached the Rainbow Castle. It was extremely confusing, but after researching the game I've discovered that the sun at the top of the screen serves a purpose: the Rainbow Castle "teleports" at sunrise; leaving the spiderweb level at the wrong time caused those perplexing deaths. The player does not have much time in the spiderweb level, so good luck waiting while that pixelated sand drains away. A better strategy might be to exit and hope for the best (time will always be running out). If the player doesn't find the Rainbow Castle, at least the horse stage will allow him or her to (maybe) grab some glaives and extra lives.

The Rainbow Castle rises from the ground like an acid trip from hell. The flashing animation is the highlight of the game, but the majestic architecture houses a dull interior. In the final stage, the player battles a wild savage for control of the imprisoned woman. One must throw the glaive and slowly break away the prison to save your wife and unborn child. However, if you fail to catch the glaive, or if the savage catches the glaive, your weapon is gone. When the glaives are gone, the battle can't be won. The player must exit the final boss room, return to the spiderweb, ride around on a horse, and collect more glaives. (The exits are not actually located in the lower-right and lower-left as the manual says: I exhausted several minutes trying to exit at the bottom of the screen. Instead, the player must exit slightly above the bottom of the screen...) When the princess is rescued, she transforms into a fireball which must be hurled at the wild man to "end" the game and restart at the next-highest difficulty--the standard Atari routine. However, if one misses the throw, the level again becomes un-winnable and one must return, yet again, to the spiderweb.

Although Krull does provide some fun and sense of adventure, it fails on many levels. The first stage is by far the most enjoyable, yet the player spends the majority of the time on the spiderweb level (definitely the most frustrating). Logic fails to provide a reason why the player must continue returning to the spiderweb. Arachnophobes, this game is not for you. Replaying the first stage (without the woman, obviously) would encourage the player with actual gameplay instead of torture. The final boss mechanics also prove idiotic. Because the spiderweb level is the first real challenge in the game, requiring the player to return to the silky slums essentially ends the game.

Krull is almost beautiful, but all the shiny demonic Rainbow Palaces and smooth horse animations can't save this butchered cart. But perhaps I'm not looking deep enough into the symbolism: despite all the video game action, the most constant factor remains the solar cyle. While the player battles for love, the heavenly spheres continue their endless dance, the spider continues to hunt, and the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full: unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. So too with Krull.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I've already written extensively about Adventure 2600. I blogged the first article in March, The 2600 Adventure of Zelda. In this article I explored the connection between Adventure and The Legend of Zelda, and I argued that Zelda owes most of its mechanics and feel to Adventure. Soon after, I reviewed the fantastic remake, Adventure 2600 Reboot pioneered by SlashX. This time, however, I'd like to actually focus on Adventure 2600.

Part of Adventure's charm is its impressive creation date: 1979. The suits at Atari told Warren Robinett not to make the game because it couldn't be done. There simply wasn't enough room for a real Adventure in 4k of data. Robinett proved them wrong and still had enough free space on the cart to produce a nice big "fuck you": he included his name in a secret room. His action is both a rejection of Atari's tyrannical authorship attribution policy (no designers were credited for their work) and the creation of the first video game Easter egg. This act of defiance is worthy of a folk song. I'm already writing it in my head: it could involve some programming contest with the devil in which Robinett wins by producing Adventure and Satan loses with the "Basic Programming" cartridge also produced in 1979 (programs on this cart can only be 63 characters in length, have fun).

Although its background and conception are interesting and complex, the plot of Adventure remains simple and archetypical: a wizard stole the chalice (Holy Grail) and you have to retrieve it. There are bats and dragons. Well, that's the official story, and, like the simple graphics, the player is free to imagine what the escapades of their heroic square symbolize. What does the square do once the kingdom is saved? What kingdom is this? Where is the wizard? Why is the world so small? We'll never know the answers, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Some games you can be a valiant night on a righteous quest to save the land. Other times you are a sneaky rogue or dragon poacher. The possibilities only end with your deteriorating adult imagination!

It's difficult to determine if more gamers played Adventure around its release or in more recent times thanks to Atari collections, emulators, and TV plug-ins. My first experience with Adventure is worth noting: the year is 2003 and I am a college freshman. I had always heard of Adventure, and vaguely remembered seeing it played as a kid, but had never paid attention and didn't know anything about the game. My friend Ryan and I were exploring the city, reveling in our recent emancipation from parental constraints, and, of course, we ended up at Wal-Mart. Now, if you'll think back 6 years you might remember that A/V Atari TV adapter joysticks were all the rage. We see one that looks fun: it has Missile Command, Adventure, and other classics (and several not-so-classics). Back at the dorm: we try to play Adventure. We have no idea what the fuck to do. Ryan grabs the sword and accidentally kills a dragon. We reach the first hyper maze (blue) and explore for about 5 minutes, but we don't find our way out of its treacherous perplexity. We switched to Missile Command.

Fast Forward to about 10 months ago. I had just moved to a new city and was craving a new adventure. Naturally, Adventure came to mind and I traveled far and wide searching for the same cheap TV aracade stick I played Adventure on years earlier. After visiting every store in town (Toys 'R Us, Wal-Marts, K-Marts, etc.) I caved and downloaded Stella and the rom. Still confused, I managed to beat the game in about 20 minutes (on Quest 1, which is pretty pathetic). A huge wave of disappointed washed over me: the game was pathetically small. However, after quick internet research I discovered that the game has OTHER MODES!

So I began Quest 2 and was shocked by the bat! I'd never seen it before! Originally I felt crippled by the bat. I was always nervous that she would grab my items. The anxiety was surprisingly heavy in those early days before I had beaten the game hundreds of times. Commonly, the bat will steal your items at the exact moment before you use it, often replacing it with a dragon before you even notice that something happened. The bat seemed like an impossible foe, I couldn't fight him and my only hope, originally, was to catch her and let her hold the items that I needed to use. I later discovered the bat's secret: she can only swap items, never randomly drop them! This includes items laying on the ground or in the player's hand. She can, however, pick up any item when she is holding nothing. It was a tough battle, but, with the help of the continue feature I finally tackled Quest 2.

(In Adventure 2600 Reboot the Bat is currently glitchy: she can pick up more than one item, instantly teleport items, drop items anywhere she wants. This weekend she literally took my sword and replaced it with 4 fucking dragons. The goddamn game only has 3 dragons so I'm not sure what was going on. Cases like this are somewhat rare, but not as rare as you might think. Still, the challenge is welcome!)

Quest 3, however, composes the meat of the game. Certainly I'll revisit Quest 1 and 2, but most of the hundred-or-so hours I've played Adventure (and Adventure 2600 Reboot) have been dedicated to Quest 3, in which all the items are randomized. This typically produces an easier quest than Quest 2 because in Quest 2 the player is required to enter all 3 castles, including the "secret" room in the White Castle which is only accessible via the bridge. However, it can also generate extremely painful quests, or even impossible quests. Overall, because of the complexity and variable output, Quest 3 is the most satisfying mode Adventure has to offer. Unlike other adventure games, in Adventure 2600 your hero is lightning fast. The player can zip around the map at high-speed, fusing arcade twitch gameplay and exploration.

But playing games by oneself can grow dull, and, therefore, you should seek out fellow adventurers. This weekend, Sami and I Adventured together and I think she gained a new appreciation of the game. We didn't just play it once, of course, but, as typical Adventure 2600 session go, we played game after game after game. Together we probably saved that fucking cup around a dozen times (and I sneaked in even more games when I could). I still get a thrill from trying to run 15 screens with an item before the bat steals it.

Designers can learn a lot from Adventure. Although Adventure is small in size and relatively "simple," it constitutes a very complex and well-balanced game. The design is absolutely perfect, in a way that more complex projects can never hope to replicate. It is a perfectly balanced equation. I don't expect perfection in art, but I do expect an attempt at perfection. But above all else, like Ezra Pound says, make it NEW! Make it ambitious!

More important than appreciating Warren Robinett's achievement, however, is an admiration for the oldest hero in video games, that tiny square. One can learn a lot from the square: how to blend in to the environment, advantageously use magnetics, and, finally, understand that no matter how far and wide we adventure our reality remains small and confining. One's life may be confusing and difficult, yet one has the ability to heroically triumph under most conditions. Sometimes, like in Adventure, victory is impossible. Victory and loss, however, are both arbitrary terms created by other humans; it is through one's own deeds that one makes meaning from a randomly-scattered reality.

(article not yet proofread).

Friday, November 6, 2009

Pitfall 2

The 2600 possesses sadly few Adventure games. Pitfall 2 fails to top the sublime excitement of ADVENTURE and lacks the charm or Pitfall!. Instead, the player explores bland caverns with the most annoying "battle system" mechanic that I've ever seen. The main difficulty comes from walking under bats and vultures with pixel-perfect precision. No ducking either, just walking. An attack should have been added, or the game should have retained the "jumping over" system from Pitfall! Sure, the scorpions return at times, but most of the monsters (about 95%) are bats and vultures. You'll be timing your walks under these guys for hours, have fun! Also included are: electric eels which provide no threat and frogs which guard some ladders.

To mediate this increased difficulty, the designers included checkpoints. You'll never "die"... you'll simply move slowly back to the checkpoint, flying through walls, eschewing all logic. You'll lose points while flying to the checkpoint. The entire point of the game is to collect a monkey, girl, and ring with as many points as possible (gold provides points as well) so getting hit runs quite counter to escaping from the South American drug dealers who stashed all this gold in a cavern at the heart of the Amazon.

The beginning sunset and snappy music only mislead the player into thinking the game will be fun. Quickly, this mistake descends into the great bland Caverns of Inanity.

However, the 2600 has precious few adventure games. After you've played ADVENTURE, Montezuma's Revenge, Pitfall! and H.E.R.O., you may as well check out Pitfall 2. It's definitely not bad by 2600 standards, but fails to provide any real amusement. The game fails on a basic input/output level. It requires intense ladder-climbing and walking skills, but does not reward the player with anything other than that same snappy tune heard when gold is grabbed. It is a pretty short game, however, and with the map provided you shouldn't have too much trouble finishing this one.

In a way, the game is like a simple Legacy of the Wizard (Part 1) and (Part 2). Except without the items, interesting graphics, different characters, battle system, secrets, magic, dragons, and fun.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Frenzy is Berzerk 2. Typically, most older gamers seem to appreciate Berzerk (1980) much more than Frenzy(1982); Berzerk receives considerably more internet chatter. From a historical perspective this makes sense because Berzerk sold many more units than its frightfully awesome sequel. Both games were created by Alan McNeil, supposedly based on a dream.

Berzerk represents both life, and, more specifically, the archetypical nightmare. You start, but no matter what you die. The nightmare motif is apparent through the minimalistic graphics, only the basic symbols required to transmit information are used. The "running man" resembles modern signs for "man," and the robots, similarly, use very few pixels to represent the concept. This simple transmission of information allows the player's imagination to run wild. However, death dominates the Great Electric Maze, so death dominates the player's imagination. Suddenly, the horrible smile on Evil Otto's face seems more sinister and the robots prove that despite all of your human intellegence you are outgun, horribly outmatched, with absolutely no hope of victory, only the possibility of a glorious death.

Frenzy expands upon this formula by adding skeletons, ghosts, and more horrors. Every 4 screens you'll encounter a "boss room" which has a special tile. The Giant Evil Otto punishes attacks on his kind, the telsa coils power the robots and when shot all robots will stop moving. The mainframe computer, when destroyed, causes the robots to go insane, or break into a "frenzy." Finally a haunted robot factory that produces ghosts.

The new enemies are a nice variation on the old robot AI. Skeletons are difficult to hit from above or below, and ghosts are harder to hit horizontally (but only when attacking from above the ghost, if you attack horizontally at the feet of the ghost it is still very easy). But best of all are the walls. The old electric walls are gone, replaced by destructible walls and mirror walls. Mirrors reflect bullets (slightly changing the angle in a predictable way) and destructible walls allow the player to blast an impromptu exit from the current board. The board is also subtly different from Berzerk's. Berzerk uses a 3x5 "grid" and Frenzy uses a 4x6. With the increase in "rooms," Frenzy increases the amount of robots per board dramatically (I've seen 24 robots on a screen!) No walls are electric in Frenzy, making pixel-perfect shots easier in certain situations.

Mirrors are your friend, and getting robots to kill each other is the key to success. Here are some other tips:

1. Find a "safe spot" as soon as possible.
2. Try to enter into the bottom-right "room."
3. Set the dipswitches to give you an extra life every 1000 points.

But in all honestly, the game is designed to award an extra life at every 3000 points, so, unlike Berzerk, Frenzy can theoretically be played for 64,000 screens (at which point the game would crash). Therefore, Frenzy is a more uplifting look at robot destruction, with a cheerful Halloween theme and amazing, colorful artwork.

Frenzy is, by far, the better game. Proponents of Berzerk will praise it's minimalistic approach and 1980 charm, and I too applaud Berzerk; however, Frenzy provides a more complex world without exceeding the general concept of Berzerk. Frenzy offers the player more flexibility when designing a creative, elegant solution to a difficult board. Skeletons, ghosts, mirrors, and boss rooms bring the nightmare into sharper focus. The hieroglyphics of Frenzy are more vivid and terrifying than its cuneiform ancestor. These games, along with Robotron:2084, define the robot-shooting genre.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Star Quest News

What did I do today? I didn't work on Star Quest and write hundreds of lines of dialogue, created dozens of characters and maps, nor iron out several major bugs? Oh wait, I totally wrote hundreds of lines of dialogue, created dozens of characters and maps, and ironed out tons of bugs.

Star Quest should be moving into closed beta soon! Enjoy the sprites!