Best Games - Pang (or Pomping World or Buster Bros.)
The early 80s were a time of wild experimentation for computer and arcade games. Game ideas would come from clever bits of code that someone managed to write in their bedroom more often than any sort of high level concept. If someone figured out how to create a smooth scrolling background, they turned that into a game. Figured out how to make it look like you are travelling down a road or tunnel by cycling colors or scaling sprites? That’s a game idea. You can make a block or character jump when you press a button? Gotta make a game out of it.
Two games, Galaxian and Asteroids, came out right at the start of the decade. There were about a thousand riffs on both concepts. A two dimensional shooting gallery and a game where you shoot one thing and it splits into two smaller things. Both of these games are built on extremely basic concepts and probably no small amount of clever code entirely unrelated to creating a game.
It didn’t take long for someone to merge these two ideas. In 1983 Hudson Soft came out with the game Cannon Ball for the Japanese MSX series of computers. A game where you guide a character back and forth across the bottom of the screen shooting ropes upward at bouncing balls. When you hit a ball, or a ball ran into one of your ropes, it would pop and split into two smaller balls. At some point fairly early in the development of the MSX computer, someone figured out how to make balls bounce. They thought, why not make a game out of that.
Cannon Ball is pretty bare bones. It came out very early in the life of the MSX and what people were looking for out of their entertainment software was probably just that it existed and ran. Still, the core is already there.
It would be another six years before Mitchell Corporation would do something that was rarely done in those days, they would license Cannon Ball from Hudson Soft to create an updated version. They would call this new version Pomping World. Typically companies would just steal game concepts and move on. Just ask Mitchell Corporation who’s own concept for Puzz Loop would be lifted by Popcap to create Zuma. You could ask them, except Mitchell Corporation shut down only a few years later.
Treachery of the game industry aside, have a look at these two games. I think old MSX Cannon Ball polished up quite nicely.
In Pomping World (later retitled Pang) you direct a character left and right across the bottom of the screen and fire ropes upward. There are balls bouncing around up there and if you hit one of them it will split into two smaller balls, or bubbles. The object of the game is to clear out all the balls and their debris, without the character being hit by any of them.
While Pang does offer a nice graphical upgrade over Cannon Ball, the main difference between the two games is the power-ups.
You start out only being able to fire one rope projectile that disappears when it touches any barrier. You can pick up a power that lets you fire two ropes, one that lets you fire a rope that grapples in place, only dissolving after a set amount of time unless it’s hit by a bubble, or a gun that fires quickly but leaves no ropes behind that you can use as barriers or shields.
That’s the main mechanic in Pang that makes it different from something like Galaxian. When you shoot a rope up the screen, the bubbles can crash against the side of it and pop. That means, ropes aren’t just an offensive weapon against the bubbles. You can fire one and then step to the side, putting the rope between you and any bubbles coming to hit you. It’s not enough to just aim up-screen like you would in Space Invaders. In Pang you have to plan for bounces and deal with the smaller bubbles when the larger ones burst. It’s an action game that boarders on the strategy of a puzzle game. There are other power-ups that play with time, but none of them are an instant win. They all have upsides and downsides that you will have to get used to if you want to succeed.
Pang, and it’s sequels, are such simple and refined games. It takes a few minutes to develop a winning strategy. After a few more minutes you will discover that strategy was terrible and you will develop a new one. This will keep happening for as long as you play the game.
Pang may be one of the last games that sprang directly out of some clever thing that someone figured out how to do on a computer. Game development now is a much wider field. If you can think something up, there is probably a way to do it. Some clever person probably already has.
Pang is truly one of the best games.
I had planned to write about a fun old game this week. Or maybe I would have called an audible and wrote something about writing or submitting or art or how inspiration can come from anywhere and it’s great to use your diverse interests to feed your art.
Instead, I think I will write a very small amount about harassment. Online harassment to be specific.
We hear a lot about online harassment, and I don’t know if you know this, but the internet is not different from real life. It is a connected and shared space. It’s not physical, but actual people are on the other end of every interaction you have. They are very real, and they can, and often do, react in very real ways to the things that you do or say.
I write all of this, because this week I was harassed online. Well, sort of online, sort of in physical space. The details are, frankly, too stupid to reiterate, and the incident is over, but the anger, and even fear, I felt were very real.
I know that what I experienced is an absolute sliver of what people being systemically harassed experience. I also know that I will never suffer the way some people do. There is very little that any individual online can actually do to me. I did nothing to earn it, but I have a certain amount of armour, built of age, cultural privilege, and means. It makes me a very poor target. For one, I have the privilege of feeling and expressing anger rather than fear.
Not everyone has that armour. People I know and care about might not have that armour. And that was the part that made me the most angry.
I’m extremely lucky. I can laugh this sort of thing off. I spent a few tense hours communicating with people I know and preparing a defense that I knew I would never need. That was all. Nothing really. I will likely not come across an individual this misguided again, and if I do, the incident will likely follow this same pattern.
What about people who don’t have that armour? What about people who for whatever reason wouldn’t be able to talk to administrators, or management, or police? What about all the people who might have a legitimate need to keep a private life separate from their online one?
There are far too many people who could have been put in personal or professional danger from the sort of thing that just happened to me. I wish that everyone could be so impervious, but the fact is, they are not. And the internet is real life. Things said and done on the internet are real.
I know that I can’t do much to stop harassment from happening. I can attempt to shield my friends and family from it. I can try to ensure that the shared spaces I occupy are free of bullying and harmful attacks. I can intercede on others' behalf, because, let's face it, I might not deserve this armour, but I do wear it.
Online harassment is real. It’s not lesser. It’s not different. It can, and does, cause actual harm.
If you also wear this armour, use it. Make the spaces you share on the internet safer for those who don’t.
I finished the first draft of a new story. The first draft of anything is going to be lacking. It’s going to have typos, and missing words, and rough edges where the prose doesn’t flow. There are pacing issues and maybe even missing details, details that, were they there, would bring the story to life in the mind of the reader. I know this, and still I want it to be great right away. I want it to work the first time.
I draw. If you have read any of these posts previously, or you have known me for any length of time, you probably know this. I have drawn since I was very young. Every single time I make a mark on paper or activate a collection of pixels, I want it to work perfectly the first time. I want every mark to be perfect. They aren’t, and they have never been. I want it, but I know that’s not how it works.
When you draw anything, it usually helps to start out with a sketch. Some simple marks that won’t be part of the final image, but give you anchor points to build an image around. If the picture is a person, I like to create a line of action. One or two marks that represent the characters balance or movement in the image. Then I like to create certain anatomy landmarks. The rigid and immutable parts of a person work well. The skull, the rib cage, the positions of the joints. After that I build up the mass of the form. Muscles, fat, hair, clothing, etc. This is what gives the character their silhouette, their unique shape. Then I go in and create detail that defines that character.
I continue to do the same for every element of the image. Structures, machines, animals, garbage, all of it. Everything is built of layers, and every layer is dependent on the one before it being strong and accurate. But it isn’t only a one way process. Sometimes the shape of a hand will define the base structure of an arm and the line of action through the shoulder and down through the hips.
I only know this because I have been making drawings for a long time. Drawing for a long time means I have learned to trust this process. I know that it will get me from a blank page to a finished drawing.
Every single time I still think, this is the one where I do it all perfectly, right out of the gate. I won’t need a strong pose, because everything will work the first time. I won’t need to create landmarks because all the details will just be in the right place.
That never happens. So, instead, I trust the process. I work through the steps. I refine the drawing in stages.
I just finished writing a sketch. I haven’t been writing like this nearly as long as I have been drawing, so my path forward is a little more hazy, a little less practiced. But I know that I have a sketch. I think it’s a strong sketch, but I will have to move some landmarks. Maybe the line of action isn’t exactly balanced yet. I’ve been starting to develop a process for this, but it will take time. For now I just have to think that it will get there. It will be a finished story. It might take more than one pass is all.
When I started writing this blog, it was a sort of dev diary. I didn’t post once a week and I titled, rather than numbered, each post. While I thought that no one would likely read what I wrote here, on the off chance that they might, I tried to make it a somewhat pleasant experience. Somewhere along the line, I decided to both switch to one post a week and stop worrying that people might read it. That’s why the posts are numbered rather than titled, and I sometimes repeat myself. Like right now. I have written a very similar thing in an earlier post, but I don’t think that anyone has read all of them, so I can probably slip it by without anyone catching on.
There was one other thing that I decided when I switched to one post a week. I decided that this would be a place where I advocated for good things. Usually that takes the form of commenting on Best Games, video games from the past that are great and deserve praise and recognition. Usually those games are fairly old, and have had countless articles and other, more important, blog posts written about them. I don’t like to Best Games a game that is new or current or ‘hot’.
I’m going to break that trend here. Also, I’m not advocating for a game this time.
It’s pretty rare that the first few minutes of a TV show make my eyes go wide. I like a good show, but even when they start strong, most shows will have a lull in them that makes me think ‘oh, the creators of this didn’t think that hard about this part. It’s just filler until they get to the next set piece’.
The new Andor Star Wars show doesn’t do that. Every shot matters, and every bit of background minutia has been considered. This is a TV series made by people with a deep love of Star Wars, but also by people with a deep love of stories. How stories grow and build. How one moment that seems inconsequential, but still sticks in your mind, can become the spark for wonderful, powerful scenes down the line.
This is a TV show that expects you to pay attention. You have to bring yourself to the material. There are things happening when the camera isn’t on them. There are characters saying things counter to what they mean. There are threads working through the background, and you have to keep them in mind while watching a scene in another locations with other characters.
Now, they could easily fumble this show. They could have a great setup and fail to pay it off. But I don’t think so. There is too much care and affection in this show. The creators know where it’s going, and all the steady pacing is deliberate. When those threads start to entangle with each other, I think the payoffs will be well worth it.
When the first episode ended I wanted to cheer. This was a Star Wars show made by people who love Star Wars and it was like they were saying “just go on this ride with us, it’s gonna be great”.
I’m on the ride and so far, I’m loving it.
Best Games - Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo
The time between the creation of Tetris and someone wanting to play Tetris competitively, in head-to-head fashion, is probably nanoseconds. At first, players would have been able to play against each other's scores. Who got the most lines, or who could reach a certain score in the shortest amount of time, or who could beat Alexey at his own game. When you are working with soviet era computers, I’m sure you took what you could get.
Once the game was on more capable hardware, like the NES, it was inevitable. The official Nintendo version of the game didn’t have competitive multiplayer included, but the Tengen version did. There is an entire story behind that, but I’m not writing about Tetris today. I’m writing about Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. A game that might be the pinnacle of head-to-head puzzle games.
When you are playing a head-to-head game, say a fighting game, or Chess, or Battleship, it is assumed that each player starts out on roughly equal ground. Now, one player can work very hard at getting good at the game giving them an advantage, but just based on the rules of the game, neither side of the board should have an inherent advantage. Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo is the ultimate expression of that.
Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo is VS. only. Even if you play by yourself, you will be matched up against a computer opponent. There is nothing zen or meditative about this game.
Like Tetris, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo is a game about dropping things into a well. In this case, the things are gems. If you stack up a bunch of the same color, they become larger gems. There are also special exploding diamonds. If you drop one of the same color on a column or series of connected gems, they all break. The ability to combo those gem breaks into other gem breaks is the very core of Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo.
As the name might suggest, this game is part of Capcom’s fighting game renaissance. There are chibi versions of characters from the Street Fighter and Darkstalkers games that give Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo an attraction that the gem based gameplay might not otherwise have on its own. It wouldn’t have needed it. The game is that strong.
Here is where it’s a different sort of puzzle game than Tetris. If you play VS. Tetris, the most skilled player will almost always win. The one who has had the most practice. Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo is more intuitive than Tetris. It’s more improvisational, more dynamic. After a couple of games, a new player will probably give an experienced player a serious challenge. It’s a game with almost no learning curve, and a variety of strategies to victory. In that way, it is something like a fighting game. It is very difficult to get yourself into a hole so deep that you can’t dig yourself out of it with a series of good moves. It’s likely that you can set yourself up to deliver a powerful attack almost by accident. This is a game about taking advantage of the opportunities before you, not necessarily strategizing your way into them.
I could be wrong. There could be an extremely high level of play in Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo where combatants plan many moves in advance. That has never been my experience. This is the accessible, party friendly, head-to-head puzzle game.
Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo is a great game to introduce to people who don’t really play games. Simple to pick up, and fun to play, really it’s just one of the best games.