Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Warlords Return to Battle

Maybe you're like me, and had tonnes of fun playing Atari's Warlords with your buddies at the arcade. You all stood around the elevated table top cabinet, controlling your paddle with a spin knob, trying to prevent cannonballs from chipping away at your castle walls, while trying to knock through to your opponents to destroy the king residing behind. With proper timing, you could capture the cannonball and send it flying to chip out a larger chunk of enemy bricks. Things would gradually speed up into shouting mayhem as the balls whipped around, with you trying to save your king with the paddle as your protection melted away. The game was released to arcades in 1980, with a popular home adaptation hitting the 2600 the next year.

Atari has just announced the return of Warlords with a retro-remake for XBL and PSN. Gameplay twists on the theme include a co-op siege mode, 2 v. 2 teams and various power-ups. Look for the game to come crashing through the wall this summer.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hawkins Trips Over Finances

Trip Hawkins was one of the founders of EA back in 1982, forming from his previous effort Amazin' Software. EA truly helped form the computer game industry into a powerhouse, though transformational attitudes towards talent and marketing.

Hawkins was also very forthcoming with information when I contacted him while researching the EA article on The Dot Eaters. And for that, I'm truly appreciative. However, he has recently been dinged by the U.S. federal government for a tax bill of over 20 million dollars. Seems he took all that money from EA stock, hid it in various dodgy off-shore tax shelters, and then declared bankruptcy while still living it up.

Uncle Sam tends to get a bit miffed when you welch on him.

Here's the story.

The Mighty Bishop Unit!

This made me laugh, despite the dodgy spelling. It also relates to my previous rant on retail-specific pre-order bonuses.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Another Day, Another New Deus Ex Trailer

As the title says, another gameplay video released for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the prequel to the great PC game Deus Ex. And again, it focuses on the different ways to play the game. Enjoy.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

GDC 2011 Classic Game Postmortems Online & Free

To celebrate the video game industry's illustrious past, the 2011 Game Developers Conference hosted a series of talks by famous game designers, dissecting their most classic achievements. Lectures featured such luminaries as Sim City creator Will Wright discussing his first game, Raid On Bungeling Bay, and Ron Gilbert reminiscing about his game-changing point-and-click adventure game Maniac Mansion.

There's plenty to watch here, and plenty to learn. Check it here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Gameplay Video

I've talked about this upcoming game and its pedigree in earlier posts, so here is a recently released video showing the various paths and tactics you can employ to get things done in the game.  I'll let Mary DeMarle, Narrative Game Designer at Eidos Montreal, explain the rest:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tapper Remake: Tapping the Retro Love

Tapper is a game any denizen of early 1980's arcades will remember fondly. It was a very successful arcade game released by Bally/Midway in 1983, featuring a bartender slinging the game's sponsor's suds, Budwieser, to thirsty patrons in various bar settings, from old-west saloons, to far-out space-stations. The official cabinet even featured Bud labelled pull handles as controllers.  Via the obligatory outrage over a videogame peddling alcohol to the poor innocents of the local arcade, Bally/Midway pulled the game and re-tooled it as Root Beer Tapper the following year.

A remake called Tapper World Tour has just been released on the Apple app store, a version for the iPad at 1.99 CDN, and one for the iPhone at .99, although these are introductory prices so you better belly up to the bar fast.  The game was developed by Square One Studios, founded by animation great Don Bluth and his long-time business partner Gary Goldman.  Bluth, most famously known to video game afficianados as the man behind the artwork for the classic Dragon's Lair and Space Ace laser disc arcade games, also provides the artwork here.

The iOS version plays a bit different than the game you might remember from the arcades.  Here, you get multiple lives, instead of it being a sudden-death game-ender if you screw up throwing drinks or picking up empties.  Instead of using any kind of virtual joystick to move your bartender between kegs, you tap on the screen to move and then tap again to serve drinks, so this extra tapping  (kind of gives a new meaning to the title, eh?  Heh heh heh) to position yourself takes some getting used to.  There are also power-ups you are granted for playing the campaign mode, and these can be used in-game to, for instance, make a patron automatically give a tip, which if picked up will grant you another life.  Another change is that you control when the entertainment starts, used to distract the customers and give you some breathing space.  Also, while distracted, these customers will grab drinks thrown them, making things a bit easier than the arcade version, where you had to be careful not to whiff one right by someone watching the floor show.

There are lots of different locations and varied characters in the campaign mode, which has you travelling the world slinging drinks to all manner of barflys.  What might be even more fun though is the endless mode, where you can choose one bar from among thoses you've beaten in the campaign, and just keep serving it up to a constant, never-ending crowd that moves increasingly faster up the bar as you play.  It gets wonderfully chaotic after awhile.

Bluth's artwork and animation gives Tapper World Tour a lot of character, both literally and figuratively.  It's great to see him back in action, lending his inimitable style to a great update of a classic game.  For more informaton on Bluth and his most famous contributions to video game history, consult your local TDE article on the laser game craze of the 1980's here.  As well, here is a video clip of the ColecoVision version of the original Root Beer Tapper, just another in a long line of great coin-op conversions done for that console.  Cheers!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sid Meier's Railroads! and Other Tales of the Rails.

I'll run the country like I run my RR!

I'm up North visiting my parents for a week with the kids, so I'm stuck with a dodgy Internet connection (tethering a weak 3G signal through my iPhone to my laptop), hence the lack of updates. Or at least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Stuck with only a laptop as a gaming rig, I'm downloading games it can run with its limited video card (thank Zod for Steam), so I snagged the Railroad Tycoon Collection. It's a great deal: the aforementioned Railroads!, Railroad Tycoon 3, and Railroad Tycoon 2 Platinum for only 15 bucks! That's a lot of spike drivin', and you don't have to be J. Pierpont Morgan to afford it.

I've been playing the heck out of Railroads! It's the definitive game for SMRR fans; the apex of the series, really. It strips out all of the annoying minutia of building your railroad, and adds a lot of graphical flourish and wonderful detail. It also features a delightful musical soundtrack that dynamically adjusts to the locale in your view at the time.

Sid Meier's Railroad games are a stalwart of computer gaming... after all, it was the first Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon, released in 1990 by Microprose, that put Meier solidly on the track of being considered one of the gaming gods of the industry. The man-hours of productivity lost to the original in nigh incalculable, although a guess might be that you could probably ring the Earth multiple times with railway track with all the time spent building virtual ones.

With its vaunted pedigree, the release of Railroads! in 2006 was naturally eagerly anticipated. And on the whole, Meier delivered. There is, however, one glaring flaw that turned a lot of people off, nearly myself included. The problem is the absolutely atrocious AI routing in the game. You don't notice it as much at the start, when you only have a few stations connected, without a lot of multiple tracks heading into cities. But as you add more trains and their routes into the equation, you need to start putting in more and more multiple lines to avoid congestion. And once you start doing this, the problem starts driving you nuts. There is nothing quite as frustrating as having four or more lines side by side, with proper switching track connecting everything nicely so no trains should ever have a problem negotiating through a route, and still trains bunch up because they keep heading into the same fudging lines as oncoming trains. Here's four lines wide open, and still trains are halted because for some goddamn reason they want to occupy the same goddamn space! AAAAAAARRRRGGGGGGGGGHHHHHH!

Still though, Railroads! is a fun game that can burn away hours like so many shovels of coal into the tender box. All aboard!

P.S. I also noticed this while playing.  Looks like Coco's career hasn't gone too well after losing The Tonight Show.  

Proof Conan O'Brien is a time-travelling warlock

Friday, March 11, 2011

Are You A Hoopy Frood Who Really Knows Where Their Towel Is?

The Hoopiest Frood
Today is Douglas Noel Adams' birthday.  He would be 59, if he hadn't been so rudely taken from us in 2001.

Adams was not a particularly prolific writer, and by all accounts had to be bribed, cajoled and downright threatened to produce anything.  "I love deadlines.", he once wrote.  "I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.".  Thankfully, while lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria in 1971, gazing up at the canopy of stars above him, Adams came up with the idea for and subsequently wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  Starting as a BBC radio series, through subsequent books, records, and other media, Hitchhikers was a hugely influential work of SF comedy. It follows the exploits of hapless earthling Arthur Dent  and his pal Ford Prefect, who Arthur is surprised to learn is not in fact from Guildford as he previously claimed, but actually from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.

Adams made several contributions to video game history, starting with the computer text adventure adaptation of Hitchhikers, produced in 1984 by the dominant company in that genre at the time, Infocom.  His collaborator on that project was Steve Meretzky, who himself had been hugely influenced by Adams when creating Planetfall (1983) for the company.  The game would flout several conventions of the text-adventure, including a sequence where the game would outright lie to you about what you were seeing.  Adams also did the text-adventure Bureaucracy in 1987 for Infocom, and later the Myst-like graphic adventure Starship Titanic, published by Simon & Schuster Interactive.  Titanic featured voice talent from John Cleese and Terry Jones, two members of the famous British comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus, for whom Adams had contributed early in his career.

Fallout from Hitchhikers also helped shape Sierra's long-running Space Quest series, done by The Two Guys From Andromeda, Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy.  In fact, it's hard to think of any comedic foray into science fiction without seeing a touch of Douglas Adams in the proceedings.

As much as I might be a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot in terms of literary contributions to the Universe, Adams had a profound impact on me as a writer, as well as a human being.  He continues to leave a 6' 5" hole in the world, one that will never be filled.


The Kong Off

It's on like... well, you know.
If you've never seen the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, you owe it to yourself to go right now and watch it.  It's even on Netflix, go ahead, I'll wait.

Now that you've seen the brilliant story of Steve Wiebe going after the high-score record on Donkey Kong, held by the legendary Billy Mitchell for nearly 25 years, you can appreciate The Kong Off, a Donkey Kong competition to be held on March 19th and 20th at Richie Knucklez' Arcade Games in Flemington, NJ.  Knucklez's showroom boasts over 75 various working game cabinets on display, lovingly restored and available for purchase if you think you can fit one in the old hatchback.

This competition is sure to attract the cream of the crop of competitive Donkey Kong players.  One dark horse is Dean Saglio, who actually boasts a score higher than the top three favoured participants.  The problem?  He holds his high score of 1,136,400 on the MAME arcade emulator, which emulates the original arcade game CPUs using ROM information pulled right off the original game chips.  While Donkey Kong on MAME is perfectly replicated using the program, there is a huge difference between sitting in a comfy chair in front of your computer, and standing in front of an actual Kong cabinet, joystick in your sweaty hands.

It looks to shape up like a thrilling competition.  Gentlemen, roll your barrels.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Quick Look Back: Mail Order Monsters

Post Office refuses to
deliver to your house ever again
As part of the glorious early history of Electronic Arts, Mail Order Monsters (1985) is an intriguing and involving game that offers a metric tonne of fun, originality and replayability.  Either against the capable AI, or pitted against another human in front of the computer, MOM makes for hours upon hours of vat-bred enterslainment.

The game was designed by Even Robinson, Nicky Robinson and Paul Reiche III.  Reiche had previously designed the classic Archon: The Light and the Dark chess-like fantasy game for EA, as well as its equally enjoyable sequel, Archon II: Adept. The one-on-one battle system from these games are reprised in MOM, now with some deep creature customizations available for players to tailor their charges to their tastes.

Title Screen

EA revolutionized video game packaging in their formative years, presenting their wares in large, flat, square cardboard sleeves reminiscent of LP record albums with colourful, creative covers.  The entire premise of MOM is summed up by the image up front: a tricked-out creature bursting forth from an envelope.  The whole idea is that the player is a participant in a futuristic pastime, that of growing and splicing various beasts for sport.  It offers three types of play from which gamers can choose: the Free Trial, where one can pick from any of the 12 stock monster types without any customization, and take them for a test drive.  Choosing Rental opens up the game considerably, putting the player on the Morph Meadow and letting them walk around to the various facilities available.

You got your scorpion in my Lyonbear

Visiting the Vats lets you pick out and grant stats to a "morph" to do battle with, along with allowing as much physical changes as you can afford with the currency, or "pyschons", granted you.  Care to add a stinger to your Lyonbear?  Be our guest.  Think acid spitting is more your style?  Right this way, we have some particularly caustic toxics today.  You can then take your newly formed charge and visit the Weapons Shop for outfitting with some more mechanical armaments, like a Gas-Gun, or a perhaps a Multilaser for you tentacled types.

Leading the creature around the meadow

Then its a trip through the Transmat, and time for some one-on-one mayhem.  A battleground of varying landscape types is randomly chosen, and one of three game modes is chosen by the player: Destruction is a duel to the death, there's Capture the Flags in which the flags must be obtained in order, and The Horde featuring co-op play against a steady stream of invaders while competing for the most kills.  Once chosen, a large map appears, with the two monsters as small dots.  As the creatures approach each other, the view narrows to feature the two combatants at close range.  The players not only have to contend with each other's monsters; randomly placed among the battleground are guardians and other enemies, who come under the control of your opponent when tripped. Upon completion of the duel, the winner is presented in a graphical flourish, and the game is over.

Battle royale

M.U.L.E. cameo
If Tournament is chosen from the main menu, then the players have access to the corrals, granting the opportunity to save their creatures, and upgrade them with phychons awarded to the victorious. The corral also features a nice homage to famed early EA game designer Daniel Bunten, with one of the eponymous creatures from his classic EA game M.U.L.E. waiting inside it.

MOM is charming, deep, fun, and challenging.  The amount of creature customization available is staggering, and ensures that the game gets many a spin through the floppy drive as would-be monster handlers try their hands (or claws) at the vast amount of strategy on offer here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Video Games Invade the Smithsonian

Roger Ebert may have famously said that video games cannot be art, but the good people at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. know better.

They will be opening a new exhibit called The Art of Video Games, running from March 16th to September 30th, 2012.    In order to choose which games get inducted, the Smithsonian is currently requesting that the public vote for their choices.  The site currently has an online voting system active, allowing people to vote for 80 games across a pool of 240, across 5 gaming eras from the early Atari days to modern consoles.

It's not a bad selection of games, although there's always some puzzling omissions with these things.  But remember, it is an art museum, so they're looking for visually impressive or beautiful games, not just ones of historical significance.  This might explain some of the choices they made.

Go vote for your favourites here.

Deus Ex Sequel Coming Soon

The original Deus Ex, developed by Ion Storm and released by Eidos Interactive in 2000, is commonly regarded as one of the greatest PC games ever made.  It took the steadily advancing graphic capabilities of the FPS genre at the time, and paired it with an astoundingly deep level of character customization available to the player, as well as a deep and dense storyline that throws every X-Files conspiracy theory every floated onto the table.

Producer Warren Spector already had an impressive gaming resume heading into Deus Ex, having been a producer at Origin, involved in such games as Wing Commander (1990), Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1990),  Ultima Underworld games The Stygian Abyss (1992) and Labyrinth of Worlds (1993) and Crusader: No Remorse (1995), just to name a scant few. All this, but Spector also was responsible for System Shock (1994), developed at his famed Looking Glass Technologies game studio, as well as Thief: The Dark Project (2000) at same.

You would think Spector was bulletproof, but then he went and made universal ammo.  His illustrious career, which put him in the top echelon of game designers like Wil Wright and Richard Garriott, came crashing down due to one game: the release of the intensely anticipated sequel Deus Ex: Invisible War by Eidos in 2003.  It was met with wide derision among PC gamers for what was considered a massive dumbing-down of the complexities of the original, in order to curry favour (and sales) from the unwashed masses of the home console crowd.  Spector bounced back with a third game in the Thief series, Thief: Deadly Shadows (2004), but the damage had been done: he wouldn't surface again as head of a large gaming project until Epic Mickey , released by Disney Interactive for the Wii in 2010.  From a lion of the games industry, Spector was reduced to mice.

Now, a third entry in the Deus Ex cannon is on the horizon, with the hope that it washes the bitter taste of disappointment from the palates of gamers.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a prequel to the original, is being developed for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC by Eidos Montreal, and has just been given a release date: August 23, 2011.  Mark your calendars, folks.  This will either be the salvation of mankind, or its greatest folly.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Skyrim Details Emerge has relayed some information gleaned from the official Skyrim forums, where a user has posted highlights from an preview of the game in the Official Xbox Magazine. Details include info on a couple of the new Dragonshout abilities in the game, one of which apparently slows down time, Matrix-style. Another interesting tid-bit is that creatures you stumble across while traversing the world, including dragons, won't immediately give chase, unless you give them a reason to notice you.

The article contains spoilers on the storyline, but they are labelled and placed at the bottom, so you can safely read it up to that point.

BurgerTime Remake

The Interwebs has been a-twitter the past week or so.  It could be that the retro-nerds have suffered a blood-sugar level crash, because the kerfuffle has been over the revelation that BurgerTime is getting the extreme makeover: retro edition.

The original BurgerTime was a highly memorable arcade game from Data East, released in 1982.  Bally/Midway licensed the game for North America the same year.  It concerns the culinary exploits of chef Peter Pepper, who must climb up and down the ladders of a giant scaffold, assembling giant hamburgers, piece by piece, while avoiding such deadly condiments as cheese slices and pickles, as well as the hamburger's natural enemy, the hot dog.  To hold off these frightening foodstuffs, Pepper is armed with just that: a pepper shaker that will stun enemies, as well as delightfully season them.

Word first came about the new version via discovery of an ill-timed ESRB listing of the game on their website, circumventing any official statement of the game by its developer, MonkeyPaw Games.  And now, IGN has released gameplay footage of BurgerTime HD, taken during a hands-on session with the game at GDC: 2011.  The remake retains the basic gameplay mechanics of the original, while giving the whole package a dramatic graphical overhaul.  Pepper now creates his gastronomical masterpieces while running around a circular, 3D platform that reminds me of the 3D chess set from the original Star Trek TV show. The game also adds new hazards for Pepper to avoid, such as flaming grills, as well as some new antagonists, including carrots and apple cores to appease the health-food nuts.

The game will be available for Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Wii, although no release date has been given yet.  Below is the the IGN footage on YouTube, as well as our own look at how the original BurgerTime evolved over various platforms during its heyday.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Quick Look Back: PowerMonger

Molyneux, 2010.  Game designer, sheep herder
In celebration of famed British game designer Peter Molyneux receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at GDC 2011, I want to take a look back at one of the many great games he has been responsible for creating.  But instead of picking the obvious Populous, the (literally) earth-shattering game he made in 1989 under his freshly minted Bullfrog development label,  a release that helped create the god-game genre, I'd like to go with a more obscure choice.

The followup game to Populous, released in 1990, wasn't quite as successful at cementing itself as a timeless classic. PowerMonger reduces the scope from all-seeing deity to power-hungry army general, but in my mind this helps to make things a bit more intimate.  Directly picking up arms and taking it to the enemy on the ground is much more viscerally satisfying than merely influencing your flock from above.

Gentlemen, we have located their sheep flocks.

PowerMonger's elaborate opening cinematic definitely gets the blood boiling and ready for battle.  The player, however, might give pause when he sees the task at hand after choosing  a name for himself: a giant scrolling map that represents the 195 lands he must conquer in order to win the game.   From top left all the way down to bottom right, he must spread his influence across the entire world.

A game typically plays out thusly: there are many smaller villages scattered throughout each land.  The player must take over these smaller towns as quickly as possible, recruit fighters to his cause, raid the village and surrounding sheep flock to feed his growing army, build whatever weapons he can at the workshop, and then move on to the next.  It's rinse and repeat, building his force up to a size that can take on the larger towns, culminating in a battle-royale at the city that inevitably remains.  One land conquered, dozens upon dozens remaining.

C'mon men!  Those sheep ain't gonna slaughter themselves!

PowerMonger's graphics are a mixed blessing.  On one hand, polygonal landscapes make for dramatic zooming and 360 degree rotational abilities for gamers.  However, the villagers and soldiers are reduced to nearly indistinct blobs, especially considering the larger, more distinct populace from Populous.  But as they say, the devil is in the details, and the amount of detail contained in the worlds of PowerMonger is nothing short of enchanting.  Villagers roam the lands around their communities, chopping wood and setting sail in their little bowl boats to fish.  Flocks of birds burst from the trees as your army marches across the land.  The seasons pass visibly, with springs rains giving way to summer giving way to orange leaves in the trees in fall giving way to blizzards in winter. The seasonal impact on the game is not only visual; when the snow flies you can expect villages to cease production and take shelter in their houses, burning through their stockpiles of food.

The battle for sheep rages on

Contributing greatly to the feel of the world is the game's wonderful sound design.  Troops mumble and whisper as they huddle around the crackling campfire.  There is the constant blatting of sheep, annoying enough to have you relishing ordering your army to descend upon the helpless buggers, slaughtering them to help feed the mass for the next battle.  The hammers and sawing drifting up from the workshop as your men concoct new implements of destruction.  The clash and clang as the fighting rages. The belch of acknowledgement from your general as you issue commands is a common audio cue, and one that shows early on Molyneux's obsession with providing the player with organic feedback on how they are playing; the enthusiasm with which the general replies to commands indicates whether or not he thinks it's a good idea.  Also of note is the rousing score that accompanies the epic opening, done by prolific video game music composer Tim Wright.

"Psst!  How does one sheep feed all of us?"  "Shhhh!"

The downside to all this is the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the proceedings.  Once you get the rhythm to beating the lands, it's more and more of the same. Most people probably didn't make it all the way down to the bottom of the world map; not because of difficulty, but by giving up out of sheer boredom.  Another issue is the confusing litany of buttons on the screen, taking up nearly 1/3 of the gamefield real-estate.  The profusion of buttons needed in his increasingly complex games would continue to haunt Molyneux, until his not-entirely-successful attempt to do away with them completely in his magnum opus, Black & White (2001).

You may take our sheep, but you will never take our freeedoooom!!!

However, is it really a bad thing to repeat battles that are so enjoyable?  PowerMonger is a marvelously fun game, that also provides some respite from the predictable AI by offering online multiplayer, something exceedingly rare in 1990.  The game was also given a WWI themed add-on pack the next year.  Molyneux would go on to create even more elaborate and responsive worlds with games such as the aforementioned Black & White, and Fable (2004), but some of the first steps in the march towards his amazing and amazingly hyped career were made here, with PowerMonger.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Spacewar! Reduex

In 1962, Steve "Slug" Russell and bunch of his buddy hackers created Spacewar! on a DEC PDP-1 mainframe computer at MIT, and went down in history as creating the first widely distributed, fully interactive video game.

On my site I've linked to an online version of the original, running on a PDP-1 emulator written in Javascript in 1997.  The creators of this homage have recently upgraded the code to Java/HTML5. Why not put a buddy in front of your computer with you and see what fragging a friend felt like when Kennedy was President?

For more information on Spacewar! and those kooky hackers that made it, consult your local TDE article here.

Play Spacewar! online.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

GDC 2011: Elite Status

Part of the on-going Game Developers Conference is a series of lectures highlighting gaming's past. Yesterday's lecture featured David Braben, who along with Ian Bell developed the space trading game Elite for the BBC Micro computer in 1984, and multiple platforms soon after.

Elite was a watershed game, that laid the foundation for a genre now known as 4X: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. Other entries into this field of games that followed in the space wake of Elite are: Star Control 2 (Accolade, 1992), X: Beyond the Frontier (1999), Freelancer (Microsoft, 2003), and EVE Online (Crucial, 2003).

Armed with a B&W wireframe graphics engine and the mathematical algorithms to create an almost endless number of galaxies to explore, Braben and his Elite proved the sky was definitely NOT the limit for computer games.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

GDC 2011: Extreme Makeover, PS3 Home Edition

At the Game Developers Conference currently underway in San Fransisco, Sony made an announcement about a major patch coming to its virtual social space Home, available for free on the PS3.

I say free, but besides being a PR machine for upcoming Sony movie releases and games for the PS3 and PSP platforms, the driving force of Home has been the idea of microtransactions, where you can pay from .99 cents to a few dollars for costumes, clothing, virtual living spaces, and so on.  The margin is sky-high on the 1000's of items available, so Home seems to be a big revenue generator for Sony.

The update concerns itself with improving the nature of games available in Home, something Sony notes is a huge driver of interest in their virtual service.  Games will apparently be easier to create, and easier to merge with the space overall.  It also promises to incorporate ease of MMO-type gaming, where virtual peeps can join each other to game in large groups together.

Personally, I've found Home to be a wash from its inception.  I could bag on the lame money-grubbing nature of it, the asshats everywhere, the skin-deep shallowness... but I think how the boys at Penny Arcade summed it up, when the service launched back in 2008, still speaks directly to the Home experience:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Quick Look Back: Bagman

Bagman Ad Flyer
Bagman was a different kettle of fish back in 1982.  It's a platform game, but with lots to do besides climbing up and down ladders, although there's a lot of that, too. It also was an early game to feature multiple screens, and certainly one of the first with multiple contiguous screens. The game was done by Valadon Automation, a French company with a few other titles to its credit, although nothing approaching the same popularity as Bagman. The game was quickly licensed by Stern Electronics that year, who followed it up two years later with Super Bagman, adhering to the same theme but with some refinements in gameplay.   As for Stern, you can check out our article on their most famous creation here.

Bagman marquee explains it all

The game places you in the striped pajamas of an escaped convict, returning to the mines where he has hidden his ill-gotten bags of gold.  The plot is thin enough that the entire story can be relayed in a comic strip displayed on the game's front cabinet marquee: Bagman must pick up and take the gold bags to the top of the mine and place them in a wheelbarrow that he can move left and right across the three screens that make up the mine.  To facilitate this, he can grab hand-holds above the mine cart track and pull himself up to avoid it, and drop himself down into it as it passes below him. For defense from the guards who are chasing him through the passages, he can either drop sacks down on top of them from ladders, or use a trusty pick-axe he can find in the maze. If he can collect all the bags lying around, he's scott-free... at least until the whole thing starts again at a harder difficulty.

Wheelbarrow getaway

While the game is fun, it is also extremely difficult.  There are only a few paths to take to get away from the ever-patrolling guards, and there are plenty of ways Bagman can end up dead on his back; falling down a shaft, getting flattened by the mine cart, or perhaps just plain running out of time.  The bonus clock will reset every time the player puts a bag of gold in the wheelbarrow, but getting to the bottom of the mine and back up, while avoiding all the traps and the guards, before becomes a daunting task.  In this game, you don't only lose your bonus when it ticks down to zero, you also lose a life. Knocking the guards out only incapacitates them for a very brief few seconds, so rushing to put some distance between you and them before they awake makes for some thrilling moments in the game. A nice touch is that you can drop a sack of gold on an incline, and it will slide for a distance, knocking any guard who it touched out cold. There is also a buried blue bag of gold the player can go for, although he has to use a pick-axe to dig his way through.  This bag will award him more points if he plants it in the wheelbarrow, but it is also heavier than the others and slows Bagman down to a crawl.

Mine-ding Business

The graphics are serviceable and clever, but what might linger most in people's minds is the sound in Bagman.  Aside from the strains of Turkey in the Straw that repeat over and over again, burning into your brain as you play, the main character is also given a voice, of a sort.  His comments are produced by a Texas Instruments TMS5110A, a version of the TI LPC speech synthesizer chip that also appeared in TI's ubiquitous Speak and Spell educational toy line. They also seem purposefully nonsensical, such as the "Ohwaa" Bagman exclaims as he places a money bag in the wheelbarrow,  or his breathless "Ohhhhwe!" as he hoists himself up via rafter.  Not to forget the defeated "Ay yi yi" he utters when he's caught or otherwise dispatched. This really serves to bring the protagonist to life.  Or death, as it were.

Ride to riches

Bagman is a solid package, with a lot of charming quirks and being a lot more involved than most platformers of the day.  The real issue affecting its popularity is that it was inexplicably never ported to a home console.  It deserves to be hauled out of the mines of obscurity to bask in the bright light of gaming nostalgia.