Best Games - Lode Runner
The first version of Lode Runner I ever played was on the Atari 800. Then I played it on a Commodore 64. And then on an Apple II. And then on a PC. I just played the Arcade version on a Steam Deck. And then again in a browser.
In every single case, Lode Runner is brilliant.
Developed by Doug Smith, allegedly Lode Runner was based off a recollection of a retelling of a kid’s time at an arcade playing Space Panic and a somewhat failed attempt to recreate Donkey Kong. Lode Runner and Space panic share the ability of the main character to dig holes and have pursuers fall into those holes, but that’s about it. Where Space Panic is an action game, Lode Runner is a puzzle game through and through.
I think that’s what makes Lode Runner so special. It’s a puzzle game, where you might have to play a little action game jazz to arrive at the solution. Juking and dodging are tools just as vital to your success as planning and strategizing. This ain’t Donkey Kong either. Moving in one direction and dealing with threats as they come to you won’t help win a level of Lode Runner.
Lode Runner is a game about stealing gold, including gold that guards might pick it up as they pursue you, escaping, and then stealing all the gold on the level. Sometimes you can approach the level in a haphazard manner, and sometimes only a perfectly precise path will solve a specific level’s puzzle. You won’t know what sort of level you are on until you fail at it a few times. Since the game has something like 150 of the things, you aren’t likely to get bored. And even if you do, Lode Runner has a remedy for that.
Lode Runner is one of the first games that shipped with a level editor. You could make your own levels, or modify the existing ones, to make any sort of challenge you want. The real joy of this feature would be to see your friends attempt to beat difficult levels that you created, unfortunately I didn’t have any friends with an Atari 8bit computer, so I just made weird levels for myself. Not gonna lie, it was still fun.
More important than the level editor, or the hybrid, action, puzzle gameplay was what Lode Runner meant to game design in general. While there eventually was an arcade port, Lode Runner isn’t an arcade game. Lode Runner takes advantage of the environment in which it is experienced. Lode Runner is a computer game. It expects that you will be at home, on your computer. You will try one puzzle room again and again to perfect it. This is one of the earliest games that understands where it is and how that changes the way you play it. Lode Runner is undoubtedly an influence on later home console games like Legend of Zelda, games that are built around a different way of playing. A different pace. A different level of focus. This is a game that isn’t content to only hold your attention for ten minutes at a time. This is a game that knows that you might have hours to devote, and it lets you.
Type Lode Runner into a web browser and go play any of the many html5 versions out there. You won’t be sorry. It is one of the best games, after all.
Sometime in the early 90s, I was flipping through channels and stopped on this amazing movie. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know how long it had already been running, and I barely knew what anyone was saying.
I watched all of it.
It was Wim Wenders 1987 film, Wings of Desire. It had just started, it was in German, French, and English, but it was playing on the French channel so I could only get so much context from the subtitles. It didn’t matter. It was absolutely wonderful.
A few years later, I watched it again, only this time with English subtitles. Aside from a few minor subtleties, I hadn’t really missed any of the core story or themes that first time. It was a movie you could watch without understanding most of the lines, and it still made sense.
While I think that Wings of Desire is a fantastic movie and you should probably watch it, if you haven’t, praising it isn’t the point I’m getting angling toward.
Wim Wenders understood the medium of film so well that he made a movie you could love without understanding any of the languages spoken in it.
I’ve played a few games, video games, recently that don’t seem to understand the medium they are working in. Where movies have to tell the story visually at least as much, if not more, than through dialog and description, games have to tell theirs through interaction.
The game Disco Elysium is incredibly dense with text and voice acting. It’s several novels worth of words and description, but it wouldn’t work without the interactive element. Creating the character, and the world, through your choices is at the core of the game. Everything is built around the interaction between the player and the systems of the game.
Several recent visual novel style games, on the other hand, have you click through a series of paragraphs that are delivered in an extremely linear style. This is the same level of interaction as turning the page of a book. Just because the player presses a button, does not mean that the interaction was meaningful or core to the experience.
I won’t ever go so far as to say, or even imply, that this makes these games bad or unenjoyable. There are a lot of people who dearly love the stories told in these visual novels. They are not wrong. The stories could be amazing, but the medium isn’t being used to enhance the experience. It’s a mismatch.
Wings of Desire held my attention for two hours because it used every part of every frame to tell the story. It is a movie, through and through.
Games are a much younger medium, so maybe the vocabulary hasn’t been fully developed yet. They are also a very important and impactful medium. There is so much yet to do in games. So many interactive experiences and stories. But to do it, I think it’s important to ask “why a game?” as opposed to a book or comic or film. If it’s difficult to answer “why a game?”, maybe what you are making is something else.
We’ve had the Steam Deck here for a while now. It’s a great machine. We have played a handful of modern games with it, but, in all honesty, I mostly play old games on it. Mostly Street Fighter.
I did play Street Fighter using a gamepad for a while when I first discovered Mame and other emulators. But not for very long, and not seriously.
I built my first arcade stick in about 1998. I have had an arcade stick or arcade cabinet ever since. At times, a couple of them. If I wanted to play arcade fighting games at any time in those years, I played on an arcade stick.
Any time I played a fighting game on a gamepad I didn’t really have a feel for it. I would swap back and forth between the stick and the D-Pad, never really finding my groove with either. I wouldn’t know how to map the buttons, so I would end up putting my heavies on the face buttons and just never using my medium punch or kick. It was so foreign to the way I was used to playing. I could get a fireball or hurricane kick to come out once or twice per match. Dragon punches? Forget about it. I just could not get my thumb to perform the movements.
The convenience of the Steam Deck has changed how I play fighting games. I think I will always prefer an arcade stick (bats not balls), but I think I get it now. I am incrementally catching up to all those kids who played a ton of Super Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting on the SNES. I can crank out fireballs all day on a DPad now. I can even get the dreaded dragon punch to come out 9 times out of 10.
I am not now, nor will I ever be, a master at fighting games, but I still have fun playing them. I crank up the computer difficulty pretty high to make the early fights more difficult (though that does mean that the cpu does some pretty wild stuff that a human could never do) and I am getting more and more good wins with gamepad style controls. I still get stomped a little past halfway through the arcade campaign, but that is sort of intentional. These games were made to eat quarters after all.
I knew that we would use the Steam Deck to play current games, and I knew that I would put emulators on there and use it to play older games, but I didn’t really think that it would change the way I play one of my favorite genres. I have a noticeable callus on my left thumb from doing quarter circle swipes.
Maybe I can use it to understand the charge system in Art of Fighting. I doubt it.
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.
I wrote a story a few years ago that I keep wanting to go back to. It was a short little thing. Maybe 1500 words or so. It felt like a lot at the time. Now, I can’t sum up a single thought in less than 500.
I liked that story, but there was a major problem with it. It wasn’t actually a story. It had a start and middle, maybe, but that was about it. There was no end. There was no conclusion, nor was there really any plot. It was like a scene from a larger story that I never wrote. A character study with nothing for the character to actually do, or feel, be about. Just a sort of story-stub. Something that could be a story, if I was a better writer.
I don’t know if I am a better writer now, but I am, at least, a slightly more confident one.
As these things usually go, I thought of a way to actually write the story I had been attempting back then while I was writing a different story. The end result of working on story ideas, is always coming up with story ideas. They just might not always be for the story you are working on right then.
I decided to have a look at the old story and see if I could just punch it up a little. You know, give it a bit of a rework without actually rewriting everything. I’m thinking you can guess how well that went.
This will be a better direction and I might have a usable, maybe even sellable, story at the end of it, but it needs some major work to rebuild. Or, if this is a story-stub, a blueprint, then maybe this isn’t so much of a rebuild, but an actual build.
I could keep writing this vague and meandering thought salad, never saying exactly what I am working on or what the story used to be, or I can just go and write it.
I think I will do the second one.
Over the last week I taught my kids some 3D modelling in Blender. The task was to go from zero, downloading and starting Blender for the first time, to making a model and then printing that model on the 3D printer. I thought we might be at it for a week or two. It took them about three days. Four if you count the day of downloading and setting up Blender.
I started learning 3D modelling over twenty years ago. Tools and processes have improved somewhat since then.
The idea that someone could come to something like Alias Power Animator (the first pro level 3D software I ever used, at least the one that wasn’t AutoCAD) and make an object that would be prototype manufacturing ready in three days is laughable. Those were not user friendly tools at all. There was an expectation at the time that if you were ready to pay the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to use 3D software, a little bit of a learning curve was to be expected.
Strange that Blender, a program that is available for free, is a positive breeze to use by comparison. There is an inverted ratio of usability to money spent.
Of course a lot of that ease of use is just due to time. User interfaces have gotten better, more intuitive, over the years. Computers have gotten more powerful and the software more capable. I will give myself a small amount of credit. If I hadn’t used a variety of 3D programs over that 20-25 year period, I wouldn’t be able to field the questions they had or present the material in an easy to understand way. And when I didn’t know something (which happens a lot) I know how to look it up, so I taught them that too. That’s probably the most important skill I could impart.
We now have a couple of new printed plastic dodads in the house. I’ve shown my kids enough that they should be able to make more. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.