Best Games - Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Treasure of Tarmin
The Intellivision video game console started development in 1977. The state of consumer processors in 1977 wasn’t really geared toward high fidelity gaming experiences. A lot of arcade machines of the time were still black and white and the most common video game that the public was familiar with was Pong. Pong isn’t a bad game, but no one would describe it as deep or dynamic.
The core of the machine was a CP1610. This was an update to a processor that was already close to a decade old at that point. CPUs in the ‘70s didn’t advance at the pace that they do now, but this wasn’t exactly state of the art hardware.
The good thing about any computer hardware is that it is always more capable than it seems at first glance. Given enough time and energy, people will come up with all sorts of interesting ways to use a processor or pool of memory. Things that seem impossible become common. Operations that used to take seconds are refined to the point that they happen before a CRT screen can draw the next frame.
There are limits, of course. You can‘t run Doom on an Intellivision. Still, the games released in the early ‘80s bear very little resemblance to the games released at launch. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Treasure of Tarmin seems like it shouldn’t even exist on the same platform. It’s astounding.
Treasures of Tarmin is the second AD&D game for the Intellivision. The first is a fairly basic, but fun, roguelike. Now I can’t be sure if it takes any inspiration from Rogue, or if both games are simply dipping into the same Dungeons and Dragons well. Either could be true. In any case, Treasure of Tarmin does a much better job with the material. Both were made by the same single developer, Tom Loughry.
Treasures of Tarmin is a sprawling, first person, adventure game where you will have to explore dungeons, battle a legion of different monsters, collect and manage a fairly intricate yet intuitive inventory, and level up your weapons and items. It defies belief that this one guy was able to pack that much into a cartridge that couldn’t fit a JPEG. And a pretty small one at that.
I could attempt to describe the game, but you already know what it is. Imagine wandering around a meandering dungeon, picking up items and using them to smite skeletons, goblins, and the like. You know, D&D stuff.
It would be a few years before a game like Legend of Zelda would come along to advance console adventure gaming. For the most part, I imagine that developers simply didn’t think that it was possible. To create a wide ranging, dynamic adventure you needed the memory, processing, and storage space of a full blown personal computer. And they wouldn’t be wrong. There are very few outliers like Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Treasure of Tarmin. It’s surprisingly deep and fully featured.
This was an early 80s game made on late 70s hardware, and it can still manage to surprise all these decades later.
AD&D Treasure of Tarmin is one of the best games.
Recently, I tried drawing on actual paper. I mean, this isn’t a new thing. I used to draw on paper. I still scratch things out on paper all the time. Just rough notepad sketches when I’m testing out an idea or figuring out a shape. But I never actually draw on paper anymore. Not proper drawing. Not something I want to finish. It feels a little strange.
I used to draw on paper all the time. Like actually all the time. I spent years doing it. I bought special pencils for drawing. Then, when I realized I liked different pencils better, I bought those instead. Then I bought boxes of entirely different pencils, because these new ones turned out to be so much more to my liking. I tended toward the blue and red ones. Pencils with just the right amount of pigment and wax so the lines could stay sharp when I wanted and flow when I tilted my hand just so.
I bought special paper too. Paper with just the right amount of tooth and snap. Paper that wasn’t too white, wasn’t too thin. Paper that matched my style of drawing. Whatever I thought that was.
When I recently went to draw on paper, I couldn’t even find my pencils. I had become so divorced from the act of drawing on paper that the tools to do the job weren’t nearby.
My IPad pencil is literally right in front of me as I type this.
I still draw all the time. I draw at the very least several times a week. Some weeks it’s every day. But all of my drawing is done on a computer or a tablet. All of my drawing is done digitally.
I can imagine that there is some loss of romance to that. The act of putting pencil to paper should mean something. Making actual physical marks on real paper. Spreading molecules of tinted medium across plant fibres in a way that is permanent. In a way that will probably outlive me. That should mean something, right?
I found my pencils and I sketched in a sketch book. What I discovered is that I didn’t feel it. Whatever caveman part of my brain that should respond to the act of physical drawing, I didn’t have it.
Drawing digitally, with a glowing screen and an electronic pencil feels just as natural to me now as using graphite… or whatever is stuffed inside these really great pencils that I have.
It didn’t feel bad when I drew on paper. It just didn’t seem to matter. What I craved was the result. I want the smooth mark created by the arc my wrist and arm. I want the illusion of dimensionality created in a flat image. I want the soft gradient I make when I vary the pressure of my hand and the speed of my movement. I want the result and the process, but I don’t have any particular affinity toward how I go about that.
Digital is fine by me. As long as that’s an option, I’ll probably continue to draw that way.
An update from the writing front. I only have one story out for submission as I type this (though when you read this, it will probably be at least two). So that isn’t great. But I did enter a new story writing contest, so that’s a bit better.
Story writing contests are a bit weird.
I don’t actually care that much about how my story places in the contest. I am more concerned with the motivation and the deadline.
This contest is a Halloween-ish thing with no particular theme, but you are given two prompts that can be fairly abstract. Each person entering the contest will be provided prompts by another entrant. They can be a word, a phrase, a picture, sort of whatever. There should be a fairly wild array of stories that spawn from this format.
We all have one month to write a story under 5000 words. After that, we all review the stories, choose our favourites, and rank them.
Maybe when I’m done writing I will write here what my prompts were. Maybe.
No matter what happens, I win, because I will have a new story at the end of everything. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. If I actually get this story done remains to be seen.
Based on the prompts I got, this story might be a little heavy. Not because the prompts were heavy, but what they made me think of is. So really, I suppose that’s on me, and not the prompts.
I took a few minutes out of writing that story to write this post. Maybe I should get back to the story.
I put up an image a few weeks ago. It was a screen capture of a game I have been working on for a little bit.
Here it is again.
That shot was from the old version of the game.
This one is from the new version.
I can imagine that most people won’t see much difference between the two. Sure, the background is different, and the character looks a little different, the second one isn't so horrifically zoomed in, but other than that it probably doesn’t look like much has changed.
The first image is entirely 2D. The images are sprites layered one on top of the other. The second image is a blend of 2D textures and 3D models.
Getting to this point hasn’t been easy, and I can guess that some folks might not understand why I made the change in the first place.
I have spent a lot of years learning how to create art and animation in 3D and I know there are a few things that I can get away with if I work in 3D. The only problem here is I want this game to have a certain 2D retro look. So that means making 3D look like 2D.
While that might generally be considered more difficult than just working in 2D from the start, I decided that the benefits were worth it.
My hope is that this game looks weird. That people who play it won’t be able to decide what is going on with it. Is it an old 2D arcade game? Is it a modern 3D game?
If I do everything right, it will be both, and neither. With a bit of luck, it will look interesting.
Best Games - Elevator Action Returns
Elevator Action is a classic arcade game from 1983, where you play as a spy infiltrating an office tower. Your mission involves ascending that tower to search for secret documents, and that will require the use of a lot of elevators. All the while, patrolling enemies will attempt to thwart your efforts. You have a few ways to fight them, but using the elevators against them is probably the most fun. It’s a great game.
That’s not the game I’m writing about here.
In 1994, Taito released the sequel, Elevator Action Returns.
Eleven years and many generations of computer technology later, Elevator Action Returns is as much a leap ahead as it is a throwback. It looks every bit a 1994 arcade game. Great character art, fantastic animation, gameplay action spread over beautiful levels that change dynamically. It looks that way, but it plays very much like a tuned up version of the original. Don’t get me wrong, it plays great, but so did the original.
Had this sequel been made any sooner, it just wouldn’t have been the same. This is a dream remake of a game.
When you play Elevator Action Returns, you can kind of imagine what was going on in the developer’s heads. It’s like they wanted to make the version of the game they remembered. The game they imagined in their childhood reveries. In place of the tiny, blocky spy character from Elevator Action, they imagined a trio of anime inspired action heroes. In place of the building, a set of sprawling levels in a continuous campaign. In place of the replicated, fedora wearing enemies from the original, they created a whole army of enemies with different looks, behaviours, and attacks.
Older video games didn’t look very good. We can just accept that as fact. The resolution and color palettes of most games left a lot to the player’s imaginations. Characters and locations were representational glyphs, at best. When you play them, your brain sort of fills in the blanks. Making a sequel to a beloved game over a decade later, some things can remain the same, but others will require some translation. Elevator Action Returns is like the real working model based off the Elevator Action sketch. Similar, but fully realized.
The elevators are still elevators. They go up and down, but that’s not all that they are for. It’s not long before you are using them not just to travel the various buildings, but as strategic weapons against an array of terrorist baddies.
You probably won’t even play a full level before you are waiting for just the right moment to roll a barrel down on top of a group of enemies, lighting them all on fire, or tossing a grenade into an empty shaft to light a completely different group of enemies on fire. In no time, the motion of the elevators becomes your plaything.
Some reviews at the time of Elevator Action Returns release weren’t particularly kind. There were some sentiments that the game was too simple, or not up to the level of its contemporaries. By 1994, the trend toward 3D was in full swing, and punched up versions of older game mechanics were very much not in fashion. Oddly enough, had the sequel been made even later, the reception for it may have been warmer.
Now, Elevator Action Returns is pretty universally recognized as a lost gem. A game that did what it was intending to do so well that some many people missed out on it at the time. The only problem is, most people never really got around to playing it.
It’s a sequel. It’s a remake. It’s a reimagining of what might have been, had the technology been available eleven years earlier.
Elevator Action Returns is one of the Best Games.
During the Alberta Game Jam, Kyle Nissen and I created this nightmare. You are tasked with cleaning a set of teeth that will not stop chomping down on trash food.
You can play it here.
Everything I have ever learned about logo design, I learned by tracing.
I’ve dealt with a lot of logos. I’ve probably only designed a few. More than ten, less than twenty, maybe. Might be more, but not a ton more. The amount of logos I have dealt with, I couldn’t even begin to count. And so very many of those I traced.
When you work in advertising or sign design (which, I suppose, is usually advertising too), you will get handed a lot of artwork. Companies will have existing designs and logos that they want put on whatever it is they have you making for them. From single page leaflets to magazine layouts to dimensional signs to enormous carvings to vehicle wraps to television commercials to full motion video billboards. The mediums and modes that advertising artwork can take are uncountable and ever expanding. Someone will hand you some artwork made with one of those mediums in mind and ask you to make it work on any of the others. All too often, that will mean recreating the artwork for that particular medium. You can, and will, ask them if they have their artwork in all the formats that you need. Most of the time they will say ‘no’, and send you a grainy jpeg sized for a letterhead, but what they need is a banner, or something that can look nice on the side of a bus.
Here is a common example of what I mean. Imagine that you are asked to make a set of stickers from that grainy jpeg. There are a lot of ways to make stickers.
You can print stickers onto some sticky backed surface, like paper or vinyl. The printer that you use might be something akin to the inkjet or laser printers that you are accustomed to, but it will likely not use the same type of ink. Industrial printers are made for industrial applications, and every printer uses a slightly different sort of ink and even sets of inks for the same printer can be slightly different. At the very least, the color of the artwork might have to change so that it can be properly reproduced by the printer.
You could also use a thermal transfer printer that uses cartridges of specific colored films. Very durable, but much difficult to use. Using a thermal printer usually means that the artwork will have to be in a vector format or converted to a vector format. If the artwork that you have is that grainy jpeg, it will have to be rebuilt.
Often, a sticker can be simply cut from the appropriate color vinyl. No printing necessary. That also means that the artwork needs to be converted to vector. Machines that drive cutting knives have no idea about color or pixels. They want paths to follow. You will have to redraw that artwork as a vector, AKA trace that thing.
Some artwork is pretty easy to trace. Others, not so much. But tracing, what has to be literally hundreds of logos, can teach you a lot about what makes a good logo. And what doesn’t.
You become accustomed to repeated shapes and recurrent arcs. Certain ways of composing and balancing.
I think you could go to art school, study design, attend classes and lectures put on by the best designers in the world, and you still wouldn’t learn as much as you would by cleaning up or adapting artwork. Tracing.
Tracing artwork, especially using vector tools, requires that you break down the original design process. You have to reverse engineer it. You have to understand how it was made in the first place.
Am I a master logo designer? No, probably not. But I did design this. I think it’s pretty good.
It’s balanced. There is a flow to it. You could scale it up to the size of a banner fairly easily, or cut it out with a vinyl plotter or cnc router, minus the glow effects of course. It could be a sticker or printed on clothing. I'm pretty certain it could be built from real neon or the led equivalent.
The only way I get from shaky legged art student to designing that with some confidence, is by tracing. A lot.
There is your permission. Go and trace some artwork, and improve your own skills in the process.
Neon Noodles, the game I did most of the art for, came out in full release this week. I think you should play it.
You can find it here
This is some concept art I am working on.
The game project this is for is a retro-pixel top down affair. The character won’t look like this in-game. It will look more like this.
I made this stand in so that I could test the perspective, the shaders, and the animation pipeline, but I always knew that the character would end up looking different. At the time, I hadn’t determined what that different would be.
I wanted a character and a style that fit the retro era of the game. So, sometime late 80’s to early 90’s. I wanted a touch of North American, a touch of European, and a touch of Japanese in the style. A game that could have spawned from that arcade, console, and micro-computer soup. This is the best I have come up with so far.
Best Games - Dead Connection
The attract mode for Dead Connection opens with a screen that says Taito Film Presents. So far as I can tell there was never an official division of Taito called Taito Film. That fictional declaration helps to set the tone. This won’t be the usual arcade action fare. Aliens, zombies, monsters, you aren’t going to find any of those here. Dead Connection borrows from a lot of sources, not the least of which are the historical crime dramas Untouchables and the Godfather. Gesturing toward film makes sense. This is a game that oozes cinematic style. That is far from being the most interesting thing about Dead Connection.
Dead Connection is set in 1953 in a big city somewhere. It says so in the opening titles. The game drapes itself in a film noir, gangster pastiche. Nothing about it is realistic or properly historical. It is, at times, anachronistic and overly cliche. But that’s okay. This is a fanciful take on the crime and revenge genres. More than that though, more than any of the trappings, Dead Connection is a game. The way it plays matters more than the way it presents itself. And it plays like no other game I know.
There are plenty of games where you direct a character to walk toward enemies and punch them. There are even more where you use some sort of weapon to shoot at enemies. There are games where you can interact with the background, and there are games where you can dodge and dive for cover. Dead Connection combines all of these, and it did so at a time when that didn’t happen. Games did one or two things very well. Or at least they tried to. Games didn’t try to incorporate multiple overlapping systems. Dead Connection is a piece of gaming history that is both obvious, and well ahead of its time.
I’ll attempt to explain why.
There were a few run and gun character shooting games made previous to Dead Connection’s release in 1992. Okay, more than a few. Literally hundreds of games had you controlling a character who runs around the screen and shoots at enemies. There were even a couple of games like Cabal, and Blood Bros. where you can dive and dodge enemy fire. It’s possible that Dead Connection took some inspiration from those games. There are a handful of games where they will give the player a certain amount to auto aim, inferring your intentions from simple directional and button inputs. Maybe Dead Connection is aping those games. There are even games that offer a variety of interactions with background elements in the levels using the same simple, context-sensitive, controls. It could be that Dead Connection is trying to be like one of those games.
Maybe. But Dead Connection is all of those things. All at once. The wild amount of potential interactions is staggering. You can set parts of each stage on fire. You can destroy almost everything in various ways, and they will display different levels of destruction depending on what happens to them. Cover comes and goes dynamically. You can hit the deck and enter buildings to hide behind walls. You can climb stairs and ladders to take the high ground, and you can lay prone behind a vehicle until it blows up. There are switches and doors. Glass that shatters. Chandeliers that can come crashing to the ground.
In 1992, arcade games simply did not have this level of interactivity. They just didn’t. And, as it turns out, they never would. Games like Dead Connection would never be the norm until they were developed specifically for powerful consoles and home computers.
There is a fairly minor tradeoff for all of that interactivity. Every level in Dead Connection takes place on only one screen. I said it was a tradeoff, but it may be a strength. Keeping the action on one screen means the player has some time with each level. They have time to investigate each of the interactive elements. They can try to use the level in different ways. If the levels were long, scrolling affairs, it would be likely that you would miss a stairway or switch in all the gunfire, and just walk right on by.
Dead Connection is an anomaly. A unicorn. The action arcade game that tried to do a lot with a little and succeeded.
At the end of the day, it’s still an arcade game. Relatively short, borderline impossible without spending a mountain in quarters. But that shouldn’t be too surprising. What is surprising is that this game wasn’t copied a million times. There are no home console ports. There isn’t a genre based around the Dead Connection framework. It is really one of a kind.
When you look into the resume of the team who worked on Dead Connection, it all starts to come into focus. They worked on several games that I have either covered in a Best Games or have on my list. Dead Connection was made by people who know how to push the envelope. Try new innovative game design solutions. They made sure that Dead Connection is one of the Best Games.