Best Games - Trial Bike
Imagine that all of the controls for a game exist on two axes. Up, down, backward, forward. That’s it. That’s all. I mean, Pac-Man manages to operate on only two axes, so maybe it isn’t that difficult to imagine. Now, how many games can you think of that both only use two axes for input and sparked a decades spanning franchise. A franchise that remains successful to this day? It’s probably only Pac-Man and Trial Bike, or Trials, as the series would come to be known.
I’ll back up slightly. Trials, in the real world, is a competition where people riding motorcycles attempt to climb, hop, and navigate increasingly bizarre obstacles. Rocks, logs, concrete blocks, child play structures, stacked barrels. If you could find it in a landscaping storage yard, these folks will probably ride a motorcycle on it. Some of the obstacles are twice as tall as the riders zipping over them and they roll up these things like a squirrel climbing a tree. It’s unreal to watch. I can honestly say that Trial Bike was my introduction to the sport. It’s the sort of thing that would pop up on late night sports networks between infomercials. So, of course, It’s amazing source material for a video game.
Here we have this Finnish game from the early 2000s that borrows its theme from an obscure motorcycle obstacle course competition. The original game was made in Java and then ported to Flash. You could play it in a browser. Nothing about that description should make you think ‘franchise spanning two decades’, but new games in the Trails series come out at a fairly regular pace. Not only that, they are still made by the original developer. Now they are highly polished 3D affairs with lots of particle effects and ragdoll physics, but they haven’t really deviated from the initial concept. Ride a motorcycle, climb obstacles, try not to crash. It just works.
The other thing that works is the control scheme. Web games of the early 2000’s were fairly simple out of necessity. There was no real way to stream high quality graphics to you at that time. You couldn’t use a webGL plugin to play a game in your browser. Web games were quick things that you could drop a few minutes on here and there. Unfortunately that does mean that a lot of them have been lost to time. There probably aren’t many that you would still want to play, but from a preservation standpoint, it’s upsetting that some games might be lost forever. Tangents aside, the control scheme of Trial Bike is really something special.
Like I said before, Trial Bike only uses two axes, or four buttons. Forward and back control the throttle and brake on your bike, up and down control where the rider balances their weight on the bike. When you press down the rider sits lower on the bike, but also further back on the seat. When you press up the rider stands and leans over the handlebars. Shifting the riders weight changes how and where your bike grips the ground. Press down and forward on the throttle and you can make you bike do a wheely. Press up and slam on the brakes kicks your back wheel up into an endo. Feather each of these controls just right and you are doing some Trials! You climb straight up that pipe that looked impossible to scale. You hop those boxes and land each tire perfectly straddling a dangerous gap. You ride just on the edge of control. You only use four buttons.
The legacy of Trial Bike is sort of a wild one and it’s really no surprise. Trial Bike is one of the best games.
Two weeks ago I posted up a painting. This is one of a series of concept paintings that I have been doing for my game. The aim with all of these paintings has been to create a sort of 70’s album cover aesthetic. The sort of fantasy art that would have been printed on 12 inch vinyls.
While I could have tried to just straight up copy the style of someone like Roger Dean, that would never have felt like something that I would actually paint. Instead, I started shifting whatever my own style is in the general direction of 70’s fantasy art.
The last painting I did was fine. I like some elements of it. The figure has some good energy and the palette fits the era, but I just didn’t like the painting. That happens. I think I actually like about three paintings from the entire series. Sometimes I don’t even like those. I read recently that the reason artists don’t like their own art is because it looks like they made it. I can second that. Anything that looks like I made it, I’m usually not that interested in.
Just to be absolutely clear, I am not some self flagellating artist. I don’t have a perfectionist complex or think that nothing is ever good enough. I’m just not that interested in looking at stuff I made, because I remember making it. More than that, I know that I can always do more. It’s very easy to see the potential in a thing that I made because I typically have no fear of changing it. If I want to repaint a thing, I repaint it. No big deal. When I look at someone else's art I get to dissect it. I can imagine how it was made and reverse engineer the stroke choices, the techniques, the tricks. That is much more interesting to me.
Since that last painting wasn’t really doing it for me, I decided to try again. Usually I like to move on and paint something new since I will probably learn more from painting something new. This time I painted the same subject with a similar composition, but I attempted a bunch of the techniques I have been gathering from 70’s album art.
Maybe it’s successful, maybe it isn’t. That isn’t really for me to judge. I mean, I made it. I enjoyed making it. But I did make it, so I don’t really find it that interesting. Time to move on to the next one.
Best Games - Death Rally
This post is not really about a game. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Death Rally is great. It’s as much fun now as it was when it launched as an Apogee published shareware title 25 years ago. This post is about first steps.
In 1995 a group of Finnish demo scene kids set out to make a game.
Let’s walk this back a little. The demo scene, if you’re not familiar, might be described as a loose network of extreme hacking clubs. These are the type of people that like to make dazzling animations set to electronic music on Commodore 64 and Amiga Machines. Sometimes long after the usable lifetime of the machine. They like to compact an unreasonable amount of data into a miniscule space just to watch it sing and dance. These are the type of folks that want to see what they can make a computer do. They are most often European. Not sure why. It might have something to do with the Amiga.
This group of demo scene kids had been dabbling with the PC. In 1990, no one would have tried to make a fast action game on a PC. PC’s were primarily business machines. Beige monoliths with green and amber crt screens. Good at crunching numbers, awful at moving pixels. Machines much more suited to spreadsheets than Mario. In five short years PC’s went from ascii art to Commander Keen to Doom. Formidable graphics and sound advancements, along with the concept of shareware, had made the PC the place to play for up and coming developers.
That’s the world that this group of Finnish demo scene kids were working in. They knew how to make a PC sing, and they wanted to try their hand at making a game. They pitched a car combat game to Apogee, the shareware people, and got to work. They needed some writing done, so they got their friend who was studying English literature to do it. They were in the right place at the right time, yes, but they had arrived there with the right skills.
Death Rally is a PC take on arcade and console driving games like Super Sprint and Badlands. It remains a great game to pick up and play. The controls feel great and the car combat is satisfying, if maybe a bit too difficult. It looks like a SNES or Genesis game that got dislodged from its cartridge and somehow ended up on a PC floppy disk. Suffice to say, the game is great but the real reason I selected Death Rally for a Best Games has less to do with the game and more to do with who made it.
The team at Remedy who made Death Rally went on to create Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Control. Some of those same demo scene kids are still there, still at it, making dazzling images set to phenomenal music. Death Rally was a first step. It’s a very good one. While their games diverged from Death Rally in terms of genre and point of view, one ingredient remains. You can tell that these games are made by people that aren’t aware of what the boundaries are. They don’t know what the ‘right and proper’ way to make a game is. They are still demo scene kids trying to pack as much of everything they love into every single game. As a result the pacing and tone of each of their games is slightly different than what most studios would make.
So there it is. As a first step, Death Rally is really quite phenomenal. Go give it a try. It’s one of the best games.