Saturday, March 27, 2010

Amazing Races!

Tron, if it had been released in the 1960s and had titles designed by the legendary Saul Bass:

Truly, this is why I get up in the morning.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sora in Naboombu.

Since there’s been no major Epic Mickey news in a while, I thought I’d move on to my other Mouse-House gaming obsession today: Kingdom Hearts (not that there’s been any notable developments on the third installment of that series either, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make wild, random speculations in the meantime.)

Rob Bricken, my fine feathered friend over at Topless Robot, has compiled a list of ten hitherto-unvisited Disney worlds he’d like to see in upcoming Kingdom Hearts games – amongst them, the Horned King’s Castle from The Black Cauldron, Romney Marsh from Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, and Notre Dame from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It’s really quite an insightful list and probably at least partially prophetic, since I can’t imagine The Princess & The Frog’s New Orleans or the Isle of Naboombu from Bedknobs & Broomsticks not being touched on at some point in the future by Square Enix.

Inspired by that list, here are a few suggestions of my own:

5. Sleepy Hollow, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

More than any other Disney movie, Legend of Sleepy Hollow scared the bejeebus out of me as a kid.  It was aired every Halloween, and was just part of the spooky tradition for me – trick or treat, come home and gorge on candy while watching Ichabod Crane try to hold onto his head, and then have Headless Horsemen nightmares.  Sleepy Hollow would fit in well with KH’s naming traditions (Hollow Bastion, Twilight Town, Castle Oblivion) and would almost certainly feel more natural than the awkward Port Royal\Pirates of the Caribbean levels in Kingdom Hearts II.

4. Bald Mountain, Fantasia

Fantasia deserves to be mined even further in the KH universe.  It’s been touched on briefly (with the presence of Yen Sid amongst other shout-outs to the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” bit) so there’s some precedence there, and Bald Mountain in particular would make a fantastic end level.  I mean, think about it: ghosts, skeletons and goblins would be scary enough, but HEARTLESS ghosts, skeletons and goblins?  That’s like two orders of badassery in one.

3. The Jungle, Jungle Book

In my mind, Shere Khan is one of the greatest underappreciated villains of the Disney pantheon.  He seemed far more complex and malevolent than the power-hungry Scar from Lion King, because unlike the latter, Khan is motivated purely by animal instinct. Given the predilection for wilderness levels in Kingdom Hearts (the Jungle from Tarzan and the Pride Lands from Lion King) a nod to Jungle Book seems like it would be entirely appropriate.

2. Andy’s Room, Toy Story

I’m assuming the reason why the Pixar\Disney films never made it into any of the Kingdom Hearts games was due to convoluted copyright situations, but… Considering the presence of both Halloween Town and Port Royal, I can’t see why I should be so quick to assume anything Pixar-related will never crop up.  Anything from Wall-E to The Incredibles would make for excellent KH fodder, but Toy Story takes the gold, in my mind: imagine articulated, toy-jointed, miniature versions of Sora, Donald and Goofy running around in a gigantic house fighting toy-Endless alongside Woody and Buzz Lightyear and try to tell me this isn’t the best idea you’ve heard all day.

1. Green Town, Something Wicked This Way Comes

I’m not sure I can justify this, because Something Wicked is more tone than action and it may be too grim even for Kingdom Hearts, but I would sell my left kidney to see it happen.  Mr. Dark, Mr. Cooger, The Dust Witch, and all manner of sideshow freaks and carnival folk are cartoonishly overwrought antagonists, and while the film doesn’t offer an iconic central hero the way, say, TRON does, Green Town is a perfectly self-contained small-town environment that actually bears a lot of similarity to Hollow Bastion and some of the other non-Disney worlds in the games.  Given Square-Enix’ tendency to dip into the occasional obscure reference, I’d like to believe this could actually work.  A guy can dream, can’t he?

Sinister Peripherals For The Southpaw Sniper.

As a left-hander, I have long struggled against the oppression of the right-hand man.  I’ve had to restring more than one guitar to accommodate my mutant handedness, and I struggle to cut an even line with normal (read: right-handed) scissors.  Chop saws and chainsaws are pretty much straight out for me.  God forgive anyone who puts a bolt-action rifle in my hands.

So when I came across the Razer DeathAdder Left Hand Edition mouse on Kotaku, I was kind of surprised.  And a little infuriated too, since it retails for $60, when all the righties of the world can just go pick up an ergonomically-aligned mouse for a third of that.

Luke Plunkett over at Kotaku decries this on the basis that he, as a left-handed gamer, has just adjusted to using a right-handed mouse – a sentiment I can appreciate to some extent.  However, I still use my left hand as my mouse hand… I’ve just made a point of buying design-neutral mice to facilitate that.  I can’t help but wonder if a mouse designed to fit my crazy freak flipper would improve my game somehow.  I don’t $60 wonder, but I’m still intrigued.

Razer is far from the only company that’s dipped their toe into the left-handed market, though I have to admit I like their design better than anything else out there.  For that matter, there’s apparently a burgeoning market in left-handed keyboards – the Evoluent, for example:

… Which doesn’t make sense to me at all.  I appreciate the gesture, but after a lifetime of remapping WASD to 8-4-6-2, this just feels like a step backward.  Maybe it’s really great for southpaw data entry clerks, though.

Of course, my heart leapt with joy when I discovered Maltron’s left-handed version of their keyboard.

Because, you know, why make something slightly more awkward when you can go the whole hog and make it so uncomfortable as to be absolutely infuriating?  $650 for the unit is a steal.*

* And yes, I realise that the Maltron keyboard is designed specifically for those with limited dexterity\motor function and I’m sure it’s been an incredible boon for many, but could you imagine playing Call of Duty with this thing?  My point being, if I’m ever in need of a computer keyboard to get through my daily life, I’ll stick with my crappy Microsoft one if at all possible. Although having said that, now I really want to try playing Call of Duty with a Maltron.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Retro Roots: How Did You Get Started?

Inspired in part by this post over at Kotaku, not to mention the urge to prove to myself that I have actual readers beyond search engine spiders, today I’m opening up the floor (or at least, paying more attention to the comments than usual) and asking the question: What was the first gaming rig or console you ever owned? 

I suppose 90% of gamers out there got the bug with their first NES, and rightly so – for me, although I was staunchly a member of the Nintendo Generation, my first post-arcade pixellated experience was two-fold and pre-dated the household NES by about a year.

My first console, or at least ostensibly mine, was the ColecoVision, around 1984.  My grandparents, suddenly burdened with half-a-dozen grandsons between the ages of six and twelve, did the only sensible thing they could think of (and in doing so, were nigh prophetic in the grandparent-grandchild-videogame interrelational framework which exists to this day) and purchased a ColecoVision and handful of games to keep us occupied while the grown-ups drank coffee and, I dunno, made borscht or something.  I only recall playing two games on this console, but I played them harder than any young boy had a right to – The Smurfs: Rescue In Gargamel’s Castle and Donkey Kong.

The Smurfs game was horrible, insanely hard, and tedious.  Like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong or any of the other classic games from that era, there seemed to be an endless number of levels, patterned thusly: daytime meadow, scary night-time forest, Gargamel’s castle.  If you could get past even the first meadow, you were treated to a round of cheers and astonishment from the collective cousins, but you quickly discovered that the greatest gamer in the world could not BEAT this god-damned Smurfs game.  And the music… Christ, it haunts me to this day.

Donkey Kong, on the other hand, struck a chord with me from the very start, and I presume I hassled my parents for my own videogame system almost immediately.  Never quite trusting new, hyped technology (my dad got burned in the whole Betamax fiasco) they opted for an Atari 2600 over the just-released Nintendo Entertainment System.  While the NES thus became the ever-untouchable Holy Grail for my brothers and I, the 2600 did an admirable job of keeping us entertained over the next year.

I don’t recall the complete list of cartridges we owned, but a few will stay in my memory until my dying day.  Yar’s Revenge was easily my favourite, along with Atlantis and Dig Dug.  I logged my requisite hours with Adventure and Joust, though I could never figure out the point of the latter.  I made my little brother cry whenever I played E.T. (which wasn’t very often.)  And although I could not now comment on its overall quality as a game, I remember making my mother take me to K-Mart to pre-order Desert Falcon and then shell out $59.95 upon its arrival (subsequently, whenever I was being a pest, her typical exasperated response to me was, “Why aren’t you playing that $60 game I just bought you?!”)

Around the same time, my parents latched onto the firm belief (which was admittedly widespread in the ‘80s) that Computers Were Our Future, that it was their responsibility to expose their kids to the wonders of personal-computing technology, and that somehow, Pac-Man on a Commodore 64 was more educational than Pac-Man on an Atari.  Thus began the near-constant stream of computers into our household: A Timex-Sinclair 1000 with a cassette-tape drive my father could never quite figure out how to make work; a used C64 that broke after six weeks; an Apple IIe; and countless others.  Somewhere in the midst of this, we adopted a Trash-80 Model III.

The TRS-80 Model III was notable in exactly one regard: it was a complete unit, housing CPU, drives, keyboard and monitor.  It also had one other quality that allowed it to survive in a household of reckless, overexcited boys.  It was virtually indestructible.  I swear to God, it lived in our garage, amongst my dad’s power tools, dune buggies and engine parts, and it worked beautifully up until the day someone accidentally rested a welding gun on its frame.  The thing had some serious silicon balls.

I don’t recall exactly how old I was when the Trash-80 happened along, but I do know that I was young enough that, by all rights, it should not have managed to lure me away from my Atari as successfully as it did.  To begin with: it had no games.  No store-bought, neatly-packaged games with instruction manuals, anyway.  We had exactly one original game for it, which had been thrown in by the original owner, and that was Zork

This was my introduction to coding my own games.  First off, the thing had BASIC built into it, meaning I could (and did) scour my local library for books with pages upon pages of reproduced BASIC code for everything from Pong to Chess to god knows what else.  While my pre-pubescent attention span never got further than laboriously typing in the first three or four pages, I did manage to pick up enough of the language to start making my own games, inspired by Zork and whatever Saturday morning cartoon show I had just finished watching.  Thus, I undertook to design my own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles text adventure – and though I devoted dozens of hours to it, it sadly remains unfinished to this day (and is probably still sitting on a 5.25” floppy in one of the melted drives of the defunct beast to this day.)

Of course, soon after its demise, we acquired an XT with a modem and everything went downhill from there.  The sheer availability of easily-obtained pirated software by that point deterred me from the necessity of programming my own entertainment, and sadly it’s a skill I have long-lost.  But I still remember that Trash-80 as my very first gaming rig, and it will always have a place in my heart.

Now it’s your turn.  What was the first game you remember playing?  When, where and how did you get hooked? 

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Saxton Hale Will Beat You Up.

Saxton Hale.  President of Mann Company (“We Sell Products And Get In Fights”), proud Australian, and inventor of Jarate (the jar-based karate).  He fights lions, sets grizzly bears aflame, and makes sharks cry.  He is more of a man than you will ever be (especially if you’re a girl).  In fact, you could invent a machine that allows you to travel to alternate dimensions, kidnap ten of the most manly versions of yourself, tape them all together, and Saxton Hale will still punch them to death with both hands tied behind his back and wearing a blindfold.

As always, click on the image for full size.

And you can check out one of Saxton Hale’s Thrilling comic-book adventures over here!  Saxton Hale.  He’s made of stern stuff.

I haven’t played Team Fortress 2 yet, but this is exactly the sort of demented thing that will convince me to get into it.

The Science Gets Done and You Make A Neat Gun

Days like today, you realise how beautiful a place the Internet has the potential to be.

Yesterday, Valve released a Steam update for Portal, containing one new achievement and a couple dozen short audio files which play on peripheral radios throughout the game. The fact, I guess, that Valve would bother releasing an update with such minimal content got fans of the game thinking, "There has to be something else going on here."

Naturally, they got to digging, and it turns out their suspicions were right. Here's the quick rundown of what they found:

1. Hidden in the audio-file data were Morse code transmissions and SSTV (Slow Scan Television) encoded images;
1a. Some of the Morse code data were easily translated and contained a username and password;
1b. One in particular was Morse coded Morse code for 'LOL';
1c. Another was an MD5 checksum string.

2. The SSTV images looked like framegrabs from security cameras from inside Aperture Science, along with a handful of close-up shots of keyboard keys and black\whiteboards, emphasising certain digits, characters and equations.

So far so good. This is starting to look like an adventure, Encyclopedia Brown!

3. After applying the presumably Hogwarts-acquired spell Mathemagicus to this information, smarter people than I came up with a random string of characters, which itself turned out to be, wait for it...

3wtf. ...An encoded phone number for a BBS.

4. Dialing up this BBS and logging in with the given username and password provided access to the old Aperture Science board, and an impressive amount of oft-hilarious infodump, most of it written by witch-hatin' Aperture Science founder, Cave Johnson.

A short sample of one of Johnson's typical missives to his employees:

"Science isn't about why, it's about why not. You ask: Why is so much of our science dangerous? I say: Why not marry safe science if you love it so much. In fact, why not invent a special safety door that won't hit you in the butt on the way out, because you are fired."

Anyway, here's the thing: amongst the witty little system responses like "ERROR: ERROR NOT UNDETECTED" and "WARNING: BIOS INSUFFICIENTLY BASIC", company memos from the 1970s detailing policy on "Low Risk" Human Resource Acquisitions (summary: Hobos good, Orphans even better, Psychiatric Patients and Seniors unencouraged,) and low-rez ASCII art renderings of various photos and diagrams...

There's a fair amount of teaser information for Portal 2 and, quite possibly, Half-Life 3.

To begin with, the above-mentioned memo seems to delve into the reasons for GlaDOS' fractured, passive-aggressive personality more than ever before. The founder of Aperture, "Cave Johnson", is introduced. And there's one ASCII image in particular, of two robots holding hands, that hints both at potential new enemies for Portal 2 and Half-Life 3, and suggests some kind of backstory for the Aperture Science\Black Mesa animosity.

Here are a handful of screengrabs for you to pore over and try to make sense of. Click through to embiggen.

Hey, Valve? Y'all are magnificent bastards. But I like your style.

[Original post on Kotaku right here.]