When I started creating this Best Games series, I really just wanted to advocate for good things. I wanted to celebrate joy and the hard work people put into creating these strange digital toys. So, with that in mind, here is another Best Game. A small break from whatever stuff you are thinking about today.
Best Games - Dolphin
First the boring description.
In Dolphin created by Matthew Hubbard for the Atari 2600. In case you hadn’t guessed you play as a dolphin. The entire game is nothing more than a single, unending, chase. You swim as fast as you can to escape a giant octopus that is trying to catch you. Currents can either speed you up or slow you down. There are walls of seahorses spaced at regular intervals that extend all the way from the ocean floor to the surface of the water. Each wall will have a gap located somewhere just large enough for your dolphin to swim though. Using the tone of your sonar you can tell where that hole will be before the wall arrives on screen. When the game picks up, and your dolphin is break necking away from that octopus, you will often have to be in position to pass through that gap before you can actually see it.
You can jump out of the water to catch a seagull that powers you up for some reason. A powered up dolphin can beat an octopus. Obviously.
Games were pretty weird in the 80’s.
Play Dolphin, and you will notice some pretty interesting things. First off, it’s an endless runner. This is the distant ancestor of some pretty popular mobile games, like Flappy Bird. An awful lot like Flappy Bird. Dolphin might not be the first of this type of game, but it is probably one of the first. Sure, you can change direction and head left instead of right, but you will be doing exactly the same stuff, just in the other direction.
Dolphin uses a tone scale to help you decide where on the screen the gap in the wall will be. You get used to using sound cues so quickly it almost seems as though other games had just been wasting one of your senses, with their digital bloops and farts. In that way it is one of the first musical games, or at least one of the first to use sound as a game mechanic, and not just window dressing.
There is a commonly known exploit in Dolphin that skilled players used to achieve very high scores. Your dolphin can jump out of the water, and if you time it right, leap completely over the wall of seahorses, ignoring the sound mechanic completely. This is also a very risky strategy, because the octopus will inevitably creep up on you, catching speedy currents, while you stay above them so you can time your jumps. If you mistime a jump you will hit the wall and get yourself knocked back toward the octopuses waiting tentacles. It’s a tactic you can use, but eventually you will need to dive and engage with the sound mechanic again. Nailing the timing of those jumps is a precursor to rhythm games. Again, maybe not the first, but a very early example.
It’s rare that you have one game that proves out several mechanics that are still fun and relevant decades later. Tastes change, technology moves forward. Here we see at least three mechanics, new at the time, that fully hold up today. Dolphin is still one of the best games.
How was your weekend?
Me? I sat down with some great people for a couple of days and we made a game.
A huge thank you to Paul Cooper, Logan Cooper, Dione McGuire, and Ryan Dallaire. For the amount of work we did, it was a surprisingly relaxing and fun 48, or so, hours.
There were a lot of other amazing creations assembled by some really nice folks here in Calgary. You should probably check them out.
I’ve been very slowly working my way through this amazing book, Art of Atari put together by Tim Lapetino. Every single page reveals a new beautiful image that I have to study for a few minutes before moving on. This makes reading the actual text of the book take a lot longer than I would have expected, but I can’t really complain. It’s all just cover to cover gorgeous.
I have read several books on the history of video games and the history of silicon valley. As you might expect, stories about the inner workings of Atari come up fairly often. Tales of the work hard, play hard lifestyle Atari had going are pretty entertaining. Since those histories tend to focus on the games, the game developers, and the fledgling business of games, a lot of this book is pretty new territory for me.
As the title would suggest, the book is mainly focused on the artists and designers that created the Atari look of the late 70s and early 80s. The state of the art in actual on screen graphics at the time consisted mainly of chunky abstract blocks of color. If you were going to suspend disbelief and accept that those few yellow squares are actually a medieval warrior, bridging that gulf had to start somewhere. Playing a video game in the early 80s didn’t start when you put the cartridge in the console. It started with the box art, and the pictures in the manual. It started with the brief tales of galactic adventure that accompanied them. the work that went into that art and design are every bit as fascinating as stories about the games they complimented. At least for me.
What I was particularly taken by was how all of the art, all of the design, had to be filtered through the production technology available at the time. When I started creating commercial art, the world was well into the Photoshop era. Getting digital art out of the computer and into the physical world was still a bit janky, but creating in the computer was rapidly becoming the standard. None of these folks had that available to them. Everything had to be hand done and prepped for screen printing. Large format Inkjet printers that spray the images directly onto vinyl just didn’t exist. The had some four colour process printers that could do the smaller stuff, like cartridge decals and product boxes, but even those lacked the fidelity of modern printers. Working to the technology available, the Atari artist and designers created some amazing things.
For several years I worked designing and manufacturing signs. While most of the technology for that industry has advanced significantly since the late 70s, there are still some places where it has lagged behind print production. I have, for example, hand cut a rubylith, which is something only old timers in print and screen printing hipsters will understand. It still comes up from time to time in the sign industry though. Most of it is robots with knives issued marching orders by custom software not too dissimilar from Illustrator. Even with that experience, I have some difficulty wrapping my brain around the hurdles a designer would have to leap to get a six foot tall graphic produced and applied to an arcade cabinet.
Well, I have some more amazing pictures to stare at, so I’m going to go do that.
Best Games - One Must Fall 2097
The early 90s were the era of the fighting game. Entire arcades could be filled with nothing but fighting game machines and they would still draw a crowd. It was not uncommon to see multiple versions of the same game, stood beside each other with a line queued up in front of each.
Street Fighter 2 was the undisputed champion amongst fighting games, but Mortal Kombat was a strong contender. With it’s large digitized characters and outlandish violence, Mortal Kombat was designed to catch people's attention. It was brash and blunt in a way that most games at the time just weren’t. Most games that lean heavily on a flashy gimmick tend to have very little depth. There usually isn’t a real game there. Mortal Kombat was a notable exception to that rule. Mortal Kombat was a solid, nuanced fighting game.
Great artists steal, right?
One Must Fall 2097 apes Mortal Kombat in all the ways that matter. The pace of the game. The snappy back and forth sparring paired with movement that feels deliberately languid. A less twitchy game than Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat could be slightly more tactical. It rewards patience and timing over aggression. One Must Fall borrows, or steals, all of these elements. It also shamelessly lifts many animations and moves from the celebrated arcade game. It does all that and replaces the gimmick of violence and digitized humans with giant cg rendered fighting robots. A solid gimmick.
That could have been it. The developers of One Must Fall could have settled for making a sturdy Mortal Kombat clone, and it would have sold well. This was the early 90s after all, and fighting games on any platform would sell. One Must Fall 2097 was released on the pc in 1994, at a time when pc gaming was just starting to get exciting. Doom was installed on more computers than windows, and internet access was on the rise. One Must Fall was the right game at the right time.
Popularity is great, but this is why One Must Fall gets on my best games list. They could have done a straight clone of Mortal Kombat, but they didn’t. They built a game that plays to the strengths of the pc, rather than copying a game that was designed to digest quarters at a phenomenal rate. One Must Fall includes a deep robot customization system, and a campaign that could take hours to play, rather than the 20 or som minutes of an arcade machine. There were a surprising large roster of playable robots, and an equal array of human pilots, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. This mean that the total number of pilot / robot combinations is somewhere around 100, which is bonkers for a fighting game.
Variety, play time, customization, these are the things that pc games excel at compared to their arcade counterparts. That is why One Must Fall was great. They took an established genre, with well defined boundaries and conventions, and then changed them all to best fit the pc platform. It was risky and strange and not the type of thing that an established company like Capcom or Midway would have done, at least not at that time.
The game also uses a very simplified control system for a fighting game. 2 buttons, tapped rather than rolled inputs for specials. This might be thought of as a dumbing down, but One Must Fall is just as satisfying to play as its arcade cousins. Just as fast, just as tactical, just as fun.
The soundtracks for Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat are good, but they were made to be heard in a noisy arcade, so there are a lot of small musical stings and baselines, but that’s the height of it. The soundtrack for One Must Fall was made to be heard in your quiet home, on your pc speakers. It rocks. Fantastic era standard techno music plays behind every metallic clang and dense thud. This isn’t arcade sounds at home, this is sound designed for, and around the pc gaming experience. In other words, sound you can listen to for a long time without it ever becoming repetative or grating.
It might have started as a clone, but One Must Fall 2097 rose above its origins to become one of the best games.
Well, it’s 2017 now. I have been thinking about branching out a little on here for a while. This blog started as a development blog, because I thought that was the thing you did when you wanted to be an indie game developer. Back then I was using Microsoft XNA and just trying to learn C#. I only had the most basic grasp on a few other programming languages at the time, a few versions of basic, some rudimentary C++, a smattering of LISP and Pascal. I could make some sense of the code if I saw it, but lacked the fluency to really write much. I figured that C# was probably going to be around for a while, so I might as well focus on that. As it turned out C# has persisted, and become fairly popular, which is nice since that means there are always lots of answers available when I have questions. Now I typically use a combination of simple visual scripting with a graphical state machine system and very small C# scripts that do only one or two things, but do them well and predictably. The current tools for game development let you do a lot with small, well planned, effort. I wouldn’t say that it is easy exactly, but it is easier than it has ever been.
So that is sort of how the development part of this has gone.
At some point I started writing about video games in more abstract and non specific ways. I would write about remembrances of particular games that I think are important. I would write more generally about the industry and the culture surrounding video games. Mostly I would just write. Consistently, at least once a week, I would write something. Videogames was just a topic I knew well. A resource I could mine for words on a regular schedule. Videogames were never really the point. At least not for me. Writing was the point. Writing had to become a habit. I experimented a bit, and tried to “find my voice”, whatever that means. I also put every post out there in public so I couldn’t be precious with them. I rarely edit, and when I do, it is for readability and clarity, not content. I have written a few sentences that are real clunkers, and they will stay that way until this small corner of the internet is scoured from history.
Here is what I think I will do going forward. Most of the time it will be the usual nonsense. A write up about an old game that only I care about. A commentary on something in the larger gaming culture that I think I might have a take on. Some of it might be personal, some of it not as much. I’ll check in from time to time on my own work, art or development related. Once in awhile though, I will write something very different here. I might just post up a short story from my childhood, as I shakily remember it. Or I may, from time to time, post up a short bit of fiction that probably has very little to do with videogames. These I will write at times other than a few hours before I post them. I will edit them slightly more rigorously. I may even edit them and repost them with the changes.
I still love videogames, and I like talking and writing about them more than I like most other things. And when I say that I mean all the things. That exist. In the world. It’s sort of a problem. Anyway, I will continue to write and post at least one piece a week, but they might not all be about videogames. Some of them might be about bikes.