Best Games - Smash TV
Did you know that The Godfather wasn’t the first gangster movie? There were a lot of them. Like really, a lot. All sorts. Funny ones, scary ones, true ones, boring ones. All the types of gangster movie. The Godfather is still one of the best. “How can that be?” you might ask. How could there be so many of the same type of movie, and one of them is somehow better than almost all of the others. Except Goodfellas. Goodfellas is better.
The Godfather and Goodfellas were built on a legacy of similar films and stories. They used all of the same ingredients, but those movies mixed them in a more successful way. It’s success through iteration. Movies aren’t usually very good at that. Games though, games are rooted in iteration. The only way to make a game is to iterate, and the only way to make a better game is to iterate more.
Movie sequels and remakes tend to be worse than the originals, but games follow the opposite trend. Every subsequent version and revision tends to be better than the last. Every sequel improves. Even games that aren’t direct follow ups to previous works can benefit from past innovations and build on them.
Smash TV is spawned from Robotron 2084, Berserk, and Space Dungeon. All decent games in their own right, but Smash TV combines all of those same ingredients into something outstanding.
Borrowing not only from other games, but also prominent action satire movies of the same era like Robocop and The Running Man makes Smash TV a surreal and nightmarish affair. With no real story, except what is delivered through the environment and set dressing, the player is left wondering what awful events could possibly have transpired to result in this game. Two shirtless men gleefully enter televised arenas and battle hordes of bald clones armed with 2x4s, laser firing robots, snake people, and enormous armoured mutants, for VCRs, luggage, and meat.
None of that really matters, since the gameplay is so sharp, difficult, and relentless, that most players won’t notice a lot of the nonsense around the periphery. Actually beating Smash TV in an arcade must have cost a small fortune in quarters. Some of the stages nuzzle right up to the border of impossible.
I won’t stand here and say that Smash TV is a perfect game. Some of the subject matter alone might put some people off. Even back in the dark ages of 1990, I think that presenting women as prizes was considered pretty skeezy. It’s sometimes hard to tell how much of that stuff is deliberate satire, or just the result of a game developed by a room full of dudes, who may have actually thought it was cool. If the point was to be unsettling, Smash TV probably does a better job of it than the movies it’s emulating.
Smash TV iterates on the precise, demanding play of previous games, it iterates on the nasty, sarcastic subtext of late 80s action movies, and it even manages to make fun of itself.
Smash TV is one of the best games.
The first game that I ever played networked multiplayer, was Doom.
That isn’t true. I wish that it were true, but it’s not. Getting Doom to connect was an arduous task and we didn’t get it right the first, third, or 15th times. The first game that I ever played in networked multiplayer was Wing Commander Armada. A friend and I connected our computers across a ping pong table using a null modem RS-232 cable. I don’t know why we knew that it would work, but apparently the ancient nerd knowledge had been delivered unto us and it was our responsibility to carry it forward.
With some work we were able to set up a multiplayer game of Wing Commander Armada, but the experience was pretty lackluster. We were both huge Wing Commander fans, having played the first and second games in the series several times. This game was different. It was a combat focused game with no real story to speak of, where you flew against wave after wave of enemy ships, or in this case, against other players. When the game finally registered the connection and both of us were able to choose ships, it was pretty amazing. We got into a dogfight or 12, and while it was fun, watching a speeding dot whizz across your screen once in awhile didn’t really feel like competitive multiplayer gaming. After an hour or two, we decided to give Doom another try.
We had learned a few things setting up Wing Commander Armada, so we tore back into the arcane workings of Doom network connections. Eventually, after reading and rereading console commands off what amounted to the internet of 1994, a handwritten note on lined paper, we got it. Moments later we were connected and standing face to face in a Doom level. I mean, I could literally see my friend on the other side of the ping pong table, but something about being able to also see the flat stanley Doom Guy guided by his finger movements was pure magic. We were sharing another space composed of circuits and code, our screens acting like windows to a simulated, but newly real place. Real because there was now another person there. Past multiplayer games, where both players shared the same screen and moving characters around was much like moving pieces on a board, or magnets on a fridge, couldn’t compare. I saw our shared world from my view, and he saw it from his. If he were to walk around a corner, out of my sight, neither of us stopped existing. We now lived as much in that Doom level as we did in his basement. A frenetic shooting gallery had instantly become a real place, a tangible world, not because of the visual fidelity or complex interaction, but because it was shared with another person.
I have played a lot of networked multiplayer games since then, and that magic hasn’t faded. I occasionally jump into a game of Minecraft or Terraria with my kids, and it is still thrilling when I see their game character jump up and down. We point to some far off monument in that shared world and strike out for whatever adventures we can find. I still play a lot of games. I know the map of Dark Souls’ Lordran or the Mass Effect’s Citadel as well as a lot of places in the real world, but no game world has ever felt real until I shared it with someone else.
I went to school for computer animation in 1998. You can go and look up the first release of the juggernaut graphics package Maya. When I started school Maya hadn’t been released. We learned for the first few months, the ins and outs of Power Animator. Before the School year was over, we had transitioned from Power Animator to Maya on Irix Silicon Graphics O2 computers.While finishing up my final class reel I was running pirated copies of Maya on a pentium 2 machine at home running windows NT and carrying the files back and forth to school on zip disks. Everything was moving so fast it was hard to keep up. Adobe also had their main video compositing program move from Mac only to both Mac and Windows I concluded that year creating animation and assembling video with tools that didn’t even exist when I started. It seemed that if you blinked, the industry would pass right by you.
Many times through the years I have thought that I had gotten too far behind, I had lost touch with the current software trends. I had missed the only chance I had to learn about dynamic tessellation or creating a perfect walk cycle. Everyone else had kept up the pace and I had not. As one popular computer language fell out of favour to be succeeded by the new hotness, I would never have the chance to board that train. It was gone.
I have used no fewer than five different 3D programs at actual jobs, and lord knows how many I have messed with on my own time. I have used nearly as many video editors, image editors, sound editors, and IDEs. Every single one of them had their own quirks and workflows. Every single one of them required a training period. I would flail hopelessly at the keys and menus attempting to produce a result until something approaching acceptable fired out the other end. I continue to do that. Every time I open up LightWorks (my current favorite video editor) I have to relearn some part of it. Every single time. I have never, and will never master it, but every time I create something in LightWorks, I get just a tiny bit better at editing video. Every time I adjust some vertices in Blender or Silo or Unity or whatever it is I’m working with that day, I get just a little better at 3D modelling. When you are grinding for levels, it really doesn’t matter what monsters you fight. XP is XP.
The tools still change at an incredible rate. There are always new ways of solving problems or accomplishing tasks. It can be tough to keep up with every iteration. Entire generations of tools can whiz right past you before you find yourself picking them up again. I don’t worry about losing touch anymore. I don’t worry that I will be left behind. It turns out that while the tools get better, the results, creating interesting art and solving problems are the same as they ever were. If learning the new tools is incorporated as a part of the process of creating you can never really get left behind. Fearing that flailing period while you learn can slow you down, but building it into your process gives you license to try anything.
So flail. Flail at everything. Flail at art, flail at process, flail at technique, flail at creating. You can really only get better.
I just spent the last few minutes searching the web for the origin of a particularly striking image. It ended up coming from Hong Kong based artist Alex FaiChan (http://alexfaichan.wix.com/de-saturation). The picture was only one of many excellent illustrations in his portfolio. If his career is anything like most of the working artists that I know, the stuff he can actually share on his portfolio is just a sliver of the work he has done over the years. The overwhelming majority of it is probably owned by some other company and doesn’t legally belong to him. This was an image created by a commercial artist. It is unlikely that he spent days, or even hours, on that picture. That is just not the way we (I’ll include myself here too) are wired. He probably creates a lot more than anyone will ever see.
I might not be working at the pace that I tended to when under deadline, but I still generate a lot more stuff than I ever present to the world. I have deleted more 3D models in early to mid stages than I will ever complete. Sometimes I need to explore a lot of dead ends before I arrive at a useable model, or a competent image. All of that work isn’t wasted. It is important and foundational. It is likely the sort of work that as a younger artist, I would have cherished as my very best stuff. The finest I had created up till that point. Now I discard it, because I would rather it didn’t clutter up my hard drive. More importantly, I don’t really feel like I have “best stuff” anymore. There are pieces I have sculpted, drawn, animated, or programmed that I think are nice to look at or do their job well, but I don’t really see any of it as great.
Okay, this isn’t some emo artsy nonsense. I don’t flagellate myself in darkness awaiting the muses. I just don’t really have strong feelings about any one creation or work. I think this is probably the default setting for working artists, if they consider creating their job. I doubt that accountants covet a particularly well filled in ledger. It is just one of many tasks they will accomplish in a day. Feeling satisfied with work well done is far better than seeking to create a masterpiece.
I don’t know Alex FaiChan, but I looked at his work. The image that led me to his portfolio is only one of many. A task well done, a standard met. Not a masterpiece. Not of particular importance. At least not to the artist that created it. How can I infer this from his work? He didn’t stop. He hasn’t quit. He still makes new images and none are in any place of prominence on his site. At least outwardly, he doesn’t seem to care more about one piece of art over the others. It is the collection of work that matters. This is the mindset of a working artist.
Thumb up to the working artist. They people that design logos and pinstriping on busses. The people that create illustrations for cereal boxes. The artists that create scores of icons, text treatments, page layouts, and storyboards. The design of your calendar, the lines and curves or your coffee pot. None of them care about creating a masterpiece. These works are not intended for museum walls or historical reverence. They are created to make our world just a little more pleasant to look at.