Just a short writing update today. I have three short stories in various stages, one in the early edit and rewrite stage, one extremely early with only a concept and outline jotted down, and one that has been reworked so many times I’m not sure if it will ever get finished.
I have four stories submitted to a few magazines, but it could be literal months before I get a response back from any of them.
I also did a little more work on the draft of the novel I started during National Novel Writing Month. That will still take a while before it’s ready for major edits, but still, some movement is good.
And that’s writing. It’s slow. It’s mostly rejection. But I keep doing it, so there’s that.
Best Games - Street Fighter Alpha for the Game Boy Color
This game has no business playing as well as it does on a Game Boy Color.
I bought a Game Boy Color in 2001. The Game Boy Advance had just come out and people were rightly more interested in the new handheld machine than the aging hardware of the Game Boy Color. I think I paid roughly $50 for it, and it came with a multi cart full of games. I remember playing a bit of Pokémon, a lot of Link’s Awakening, and more Street Fighter Alpha than I ever thought I would.
I tried the Game Boy port of Street Fighter II on a friend's Game Boy once, and found the experience frustrating. Nothing worked right. The inputs felt off and everything ran at around ten frames per second. I think I played a couple matches before giving up.
I figured that the Game Boy was just not the right platform for a game so kinetic and demanding. Street Fighter Alpha proved that assumption wrong.
Whenever I write one of these, I always try to find a way to play at least a bit of the games that I am writing about. Often, I think a game would be a great candidate for a Best Games post, and find that raw nostalgia is not enough. They might have been interesting diversions at the time, but some games just don’t hold up as classics. In other words, they aren’t actually the best of games. I believe Street Fighter Alpha for Game Boy Color deserves a little context here.
I have been regularly playing a few rounds of Street Fighter III: Third Strike and Street Fighter Alpha 3 on a handheld device. These are arcade accurate. Tough act to follow. Not being able to find my old Game Boy Color, I tried Street Fighter Alpha on the same handheld, and it is absolutely breathtaking.
The pixel count and color pallet are extremely limited on the Game Boy Color, but the game is unmistakable. It looks and, more importantly, moves like Street Fighter Alpha. There are only two buttons, but the developers have somehow managed to fight most of what makes a fighting game work into those limited inputs. Specials, Supers, Counters, they are all in Street Fighter Alpha, and they work just like you would expect.
I went and looked up who could have executed such an amazing port. What I found was both astonishing and unsurprising.
The Game Boy Color port of Street Fighter Alpha appears to be mostly the work of two people. A tiny team managed to pack all this game into a tiny amount of space and processing power. It seems impossible until you look up the other things that they worked on.
Keith Burkhill is a British programmer that worked on some of the smoothest, fastest, and most technically impressive ZX Spectrum games. The ZX Spectrum was never a powerhouse, so lots of tricks had to be employed to get games to run well on a speccy. Kevin McMahon worked on some of the fastest pixel art games of the early 90’s.
There were probably a few people or teams that could have created a port as good as this one. I would guess that most of them had experience working with the extremely tight constraints of early home computers.
It might be fair to say that the title of Best Game should go to the original arcade version of Street Fighter Alpha, but I think that the ability to carry a game of this quality in your hand changes the way you relate to it. There was nothing else like it at the time, and while it was missing multiplayer, it truly felt like playing a good game of Street Fighter.
The Game Boy Advance would go on to have many spectacular ports of fighting games. Possibly the most impressive is Street Fighter Alpha 3, and it may come as no surprise that it was worked on by the same people.
At the twilight of the original Game Boy, there was no better way to play Street Fighter in your hand than Street Fighter Alpha on the Game Boy Color. An achievement, and still one of the best games.
I was going to post up a painting today. That was the plan.
I try to sketch or paint a bit every week. You know, just to keep limber or whatever.
I had a stint there where I was only really drawing when it was directly related to something I was working on. A concept sketch or a color study. Something quick and dirty that I would eventually turn into a 3D model or a vector illustration. One of the steps along the way, with no plan to create a final image.
The thing with doing anything repeatedly, you get a bit better at it. The drawings or paintings that I scratched out were good enough for my own exploration, but not really representative of the final model or scene. I did a bunch of drawings, got a bit better, and now I’m not really satisfied with what I paint.
There is a plateau that every artist hits. I know that I have hit it multiple times over the years. You’re good enough that you can sort of make what you imagine in your head, but you aren’t good enough to meet your own standards. Most artists just sort of learn to live with it. Once you hit a certain level of skill, you will never be satisfied with the quality of your work. So maybe it’s not fair to call it a plateau. I don’t think that my skill at drawing or painting is not improving, I think that I will always be reaching for a bit more than I am currently able to do.
So, long story short, I painted some stuff, I was going to post it, but I don’t like it. I’ll work on it some more and see if I like it next week. Maybe like is a strong word. See if I find it acceptable next week.
I’ve been doing a lot of stuff with procedural textures recently. I think that might be the way everything will have to go in the future.
3D graphics have gotten progressively better, more detailed, more reactive and interactive. Light bounces around in realistic ways, or if you like, unrealistic ways. Graphics cards can dynamically increase and decrease the resolution of models. We don’t really use that feature very often, but it exists and works fairly well.
One of the last frontiers of dynamic, resolution independent graphics, is the texture.
If you want to change the color of a surface in a 3D game or movie, one of the easiest ways is to apply a texture to it. It’s like an incredibly versatile sticker. It can be sliced up, moved around, rotated, adjusted, and animated. Everything that you can think to do to an image on a computer, you can probably do to a texture. Usually in real time.
The thing you can’t do is zoom in forever. There is a maximum number of pixels that you can store in a texture. If the texture you use to wrap a 3D surface is of a lower resolution than that image takes up on screen, you will see those pixels. If a player gets real close to a surface, they are going to see those pixels.
I don’t think this is really a problem, and most people who play games seem to agree, but there will come a time that being able to see the pixels won’t cut it.
There are two paths to go here. Bigger and bigger textures, or procedurally created materials that scale as they need to. The first one takes memory, the second one takes processing power.
For a long time in graphics, memory, or the time it took for a machine to swap images in and out of memory, was cheaper than processing. With textures already being made regularly at 4096x4096 the options for just making them bigger are sort of running out. Not only will we run out of memory to store huge textures, but we will run out of the ability for a person to meaningfully use that higher resolution.
I think the path over the next few years will be to use more small images in procedurally blended ways. Three, relatively tiny, grass textures mixed together to cover thousands of meters of plains terrain. Metal constructed surfaces made of a miniscule handful of textures covering huge surfaces with no visible repeats.
These materials are more complex to assemble, but they can take less memory while taking advantage of the massive amounts of processing power graphics cards have on tap.
A lot of these techniques are being used already in non-real time applications, but more and more this will be the path forward for games and VR content too.
If PBR setups were the revolution of the last decade, procedural materials will be the art creation workflow for the next decade, at least.
Best Games - Cameltry
Sometimes games get lost. Even great ones.
A singularly brilliant idea and design, a game that should have spawned endless sequels and copycats, just disappears.
Cameltry is one of those. A forgotten gem.
The game itself is beyond simple to describe. A marble is dropped in a maze. The only thing the marble will do on its own is fall. The player of the game has no direct agency over the marble. The only thing the player can do, is spin the maze. By spinning the maze, you direct the path of the marble. Get the marble to the goal, repeat on the next maze. That’s the whole game.
There are, of course, some additional wrinkles. You have a limited amount of time to reach the goal. You can press a button to hop the marble a bit, or hold it down to speed the marbles fall. There are different obstacles and bonuses spread through the mazes that you will need to deal with.
There is no story to speak of. No indication of where the name comes from. There is an appearance from a goddess of space and time, but the reasons for that are never provided. None of the backgrounds seem to have anything to do with the maze game happening in front of them, and none of them seem to be connected to each other. The strict, beautiful, mechanics of directing a ball through a maze is the only through line for Cameltry, and that’s all that it needs.
The game, designed at Taito and released in 1989, sets out to do one thing, and does that one thing so extraordinarily well. It is almost unbelievable that we aren’t playing Cameltry XV right now. And yet, here we are, living in a world where most people have never even heard of the game.
When the arcade game got its eventual computer and SNES ports, it was renamed On the Ball. A slightly more memorable name, but nothing that stuck as a franchise. There was a version for the DS and iPhone called Labyrinth, but none of them gained any traction.
Maybe it’s because the game is so singular, so perfectly unadorned and uncomplicated, that no one ever tried to resurrect it or create new versions of Cameltry.
It could be argued that something like Monkey Ball might be a spiritual successor to Cameltry, but that’s a stretch. I think that maybe the game was so perfectly formed on the first version that no one ever tried to improve on it.
Lost or not, Cameltry is still one of the best games.