I have played two games recently that only exist because of the terrible power of nostalgia. Ah nostalgia, come to bite us again have you?
I’m glad these games exist because they are both good, but nostalgia did them no favours in a couple of different ways. I’ll get to that. First, the requisite old man recap.
Side scrolling brawlers, or beat ‘em up’s, were extremely popular in arcades during the mid to late 80’s. It was a genre that served both the player and the arcade owner so it is no real surprise that they became so dominant. For the player, they initially provide a lot of variety and action. You can usually play them cooperatively with a friend and, at least for the first few areas, you can play for quite a while on a single quarter. As the game wears on though they often become quite difficult and that means, if you want to continue, more quarters dropped. More profit for the owner of the arcade machine. The success of the brawler genre was almost assured.
As home consoles became more capable, creating ports of the best arcade hits was just smart business. And so, beat ‘em up’s like kung fu master, double dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Final Fight made their way to living room tv’s. Never underestimate the video game industries ability to sell the same thing to the same people over and over and over again.
It wasn’t long before developers started making original games in the genre specifically for consoles. Almost 30 years ago Streets of Rage came out for the Sega Genesis and Battletoads made its debut on the NES. Equally coincidental, both series have received brand new entries this year. Coincidental, or nostalgia runs on a very specific time cycle.
I played through Streets of Rage 4 and I am most of the way through Battletoads. Both of these games are side scrolling brawlers, now a largely dead genre. Both of these games are slavish to this largely dead genre, but suffer for that in different ways. I think one of these games is much better than the other. Nostalgia has ways of muddying which one that is. I suppose it’s worth noting that I played neither of these series much and have no particular affinity to either. I just like games where you can punch stuff.
As I was playing Streets of Rage I found that I enjoyed the visual design and the music, I felt the game played fairly well and seemed very much “one of those”. A Beat ‘em up. A good beat ‘em up, but it did nothing particularly interesting either. All in all a fun couple of hours. But there is a reason this is a mostly dead genre.
The beat ‘em up works well for the arcade. It’s fast, kinetic, easy to pick up, and short. All things that players and arcade owners want. When you have the game at home, with no risk of spending any extra quarters, the design and play cycle is a tad on the simplistic side. 30 years later this continues to be true.
Battletoads on the other hand attempts to mix up the regular button mashy punching with all sorts of puzzles, mini-games, and comedic diversions. The previous Battletoads games contained sudden, radical difficulty spikes, so of course this one does too. Thankfully they took a more modern approach to these spikes and pretty much let you brute force them by never really punishing you for failure. As a result it ends up being a much better, more modern, game than Streets of Rage 4. Problem is, nostalgia is a real kick in the head.
The Streets of Rage series, in its time, was much more highly regarded than Battletoads. Streets of Rage simply looked, sounded, and played better back when both game series were still young. If you look up reviews for the recent versions you will see a marked trend where reviewers heap praise on Streets of Rage 4 and are mostly lukewarm on Battletoads. Completely inverted from how I would evaluate them, but exactly as I would expect, nostalgia being what it is.
So nostalgia created these new games, nostalgia kept them stuck in old, mostly abandoned conventions, and nostalgia distorted the public perception of them when they were done.
Maybe it’s time for everyone to admit that nostalgia really does this art form no favours and maybe, if we just frame past works as they really were rather than chasing how they made us feel, we could better appreciate the past, present, and future of this medium.
But we won’t. And I would absolutely play a new Legendary Wings game.
I've been doing some editing on the last story I wrote. It's pretty amazing what changing 100 or so words can do. The tone of a lot of sentences can change drastically with one or two small adjustments. And sometimes changing the setting or wording of an entire scene can change the story.
Editors jobs are tough I think.
For both of these I tried to paint more like I would with regular paints. Laying down daubs of color and pushing and pulling them around on one layer rather than creating masks and layers like I would often do while painting digitally. Mostly I'm just trying to get better at painting.
Best Games - Trackmania
You could learn how to race a car. You could study every minuscule technical detail that makes one car perform better than another. You could master aerodynamics and the physics of rubber on asphalt. You could steel your will and steady your hand when contending with other vehicles and drivers traveling down the same track at high speed. You could simulate all of this in a racing game.
Or you could do none of that and play Trackmania.
You pilot a car, yes, around a track, yes, but Trackmania is nothing like Forza or Gran Turismo. Trackmania is not like car racing.
Trackmania is filled with impossible tracks that you careen down as fast as you possibly can. There are other vehicles on the track but they are intangible and you will have no interaction with them besides watching the path that they drive. There are special interactive zones on the track that will speed up or slow down your car. Some will cut your engine forcing you to glide the remainder of your race so you best have your speed up before you hit them. Solving this puzzle of speed and angles, drift and airtime, that’s what Trackmania is.
You can play it with the four arrow keys on your keyboard. That might be the best way to play Trackmania.
There have been about 150 different Trackmania games. Don’t let that fool you. They are all the same game. They are all a perfect distillation of speed, reaction, and anticipation. They are all perfect games.
Trackmania is one of the best games.
This past weekend I participated in the Alberta Game Jam. Game creators from all over the province convened over Discord to put on this remote version of the game jam. While I usually find the fun of a game jam is working with a team, I opted to attempt this one solo. It wasn’t very successful.
The past two times I did a solo jam it was so that I could try something different. I wrote a random text adventure that you couldn’t win and made a single pixel at a time drawing program with no instructions.
Both times I was working with tools I wasn’t very familiar with and using it as an excuse to mess around. This time was very similar. There were a few things that I wanted to test out using tools that I am fairly familiar with but never have the opportunity to try. Some of those things worked, but even more of them didn’t.
In the end I wound up making the beginnings of a 2d platformer. I had even intended to use a readily available character controller script but when that didn’t pan out like I had hoped I ended up writing my own. It’s not perfect but it has most of the features I wanted to add and it would be fairly simple to reuse or extend it in the future.
I tried a bunch of stuff with shaders and some of that worked and some of it didn’t.
In the end I didn’t make much of a game, but I did learn a few things and I now have all the basics for a simple 2d character controller. So that’s not nothing I guess.
I wouldn't recommend it but if you want to poke at the thing I made it's over here.
Did some editing and rewriting over here. This story isn't fully working yet, but it's getting better. Probably needs another pass or two. and maybe some structure changes. and maybe some more eyes on it. If you know what's broken here and have ideas on how to fix it, let me know.
I sort of want to talk about machine learning and intelligence.
I spent a bunch of time over the last few weeks messing around with Unity’s machine learning tools. I won’t be putting together any kind of tutorial or forwarding any real actionable info here, because honestly I don’t think I am in any position to offer any. I have a better idea how ML works and what sort of problems it seems to be good at, but I think that there are some very harsh limits to what machine learning is capable of. I also think that there are a lot of people out there who are quick to overlook those limits. There is this commonly held belief that machine learning will be the thing that makes computers smarter than humans. Let me tell you, Skynet, this ain’t.
If you aren’t familiar, machine learning or neural net computing or tensorflow ai or evolutionary algorithms, or any of a million other names, are ways of getting a computer to solve problems by iteratively teaching itself. Rather than getting a programmer to study the problem and come up with a generalized solution, machine learning is a method of showing the system the problem, giving it a desired goal, or goals, and then leaving the actual problem solving up to the software. It just sort of fumbles forward until it comes up with a solution that gets to the goal in as efficient a way as it can. It might not be the best solution, but it will be fairly efficient and all it will have cost is computer time.
If they were to read that last paragraph there would, no doubt, be a bunch of machine learning researchers tripping over themselves to tell me what I got wrong. There would also be another gang of researchers behind them eager to point out what the first group got wrong. It seems to be that sort of field. Everyone is pretty sure that it’s great, but none of them really know how it works. When they tell you they know how it works they are usually wrong. What they probably won’t say is that machine learning solutions are ‘smarter’ than humans.
Let me rephrase some of that. They know how machine learning works, like technically how it functions. Maybe it would be better to say that they disagree on how to make it work. Or how to make it work well. Those are really just nuances. Academic inconsistencies.
I used machine learning to teach a marble how to not fall off a track. Not how to get anywhere. Not what anything in their environment is. Nope. Just how to not fall. They don’t even avoid the edge of the track very well. They like getting right up beside the edge and not falling off. Many hours of training over a few weeks, and they will try their damndest to not fall off a track. At this point they usually succeed.
I made a machine learning agent reproduce a certain behavior that I was looking for in a variety of situations, but I don’t know thing one about machine learning. I do know this. It’s not smarter than a human.
The human brain is a massively parallel, analog, electro-chemical, comparative decision making system that never, ever stops running. Sleeping, still running. Chemically unbalanced, still running. Physically compromised, still running. Nothing short of death stops an animal brain from running. What’s more, human societies have developed high density communication systems that transfer information from one individual’s brain to another. These communication systems developed over hundreds of thousands of years. The amount of information conveyed in a simple interaction between people is absolutely staggering, but of course we take it for granted, because we are humans and we are uniquely equipped to be able to decipher that much data presented in that specific way. Tone of voice, cadence of speech, flutters of the eyelids, physical gestures of all types. Communication as dense and varied as there are groups of people to engage in them. Nothing in the realm of machine learning systems even comes close.
A computer beat several top level players at Go. That doesn’t prove that machines are smarter than humans. It proves that humans built a tool. If I use a wrench to turn a nut, that doesn’t mean that the wrench is better than my hand. It means that people have created a tool that solves the problem of enhancing grip and leverage. Wrenches are crap at shuffling cards. I can’t use a wrench to solve a rubik's cube or type this post. It is a tool that enhances human ability. The machine that is good at playing Go is just that. A machine that is good at playing Go, because people wanted to make a tool that was good at playing Go. It can’t tell me if the milk in the back of my fridge has gone bad. That would require a different tool. Maybe machine learning could be used to make it. That would not and will not make that machine smarter than the human who wanted to know about the state of their milk.
Let me also be clear here, this is not because I think that there is some intangible, fundamental, superiority of humans over the machines they create. Not even close. This is just a matter of time. Human brains run constantly and have run constantly for hundreds of thousands of years. Animal brains for hundreds of millions before that. And those brains don’t run slower than computer circuits, just different. All brains have done for over 500 million years, is figure out how to solve problems. You could throw all the Nvidia GTX cards you want into the machine learning arena, they just can’t compete with that much iteration time.
I think what a lot of folks who tout the idea of a generalized AI that’s smarter than people forget is that people created Go. It was people who created a game with such a wide possibility space that they themselves couldn’t competently calculate it. They created a problem they couldn’t solve and then hammered away on it for a couple thousand years because it was fun.
This isn’t the sort of species that you just surpass because you built a machine that can do multiplication real good. When it comes to being clever, humans are certifiable badasses. Problem solving, Iteration, intuitive lateral thinking. Really nothing tops us. We’ve just been doing it longer.
The wizard sits.
The wizard reclines, luxuriating upon the fabric of the universe pulled taut. Seated on a product of their own will. The imposition of their desire on local space. A type of calm radiates through their form. A body of flesh and metal coalesced through technology and sorcery. All one and the same, at a fundamental level. The forces and the fabric. The knowledge and the tools. Blood and muscle and conduits and electrical load. The suppression of fear, hesitation. The intent to manipulate. All the same. All the same. At a fundamental level.
The wizard sits and thinks.
Plans. Strategies. Tactics. Reflex and reaction. Everything must be aligned toward one singular goal. Visualize and execute.
The Void Lords demand entertainment. Diversion from the ceaseless roar of the void. In exchange they provide reward. To the victorious. To defeat a Sorcerer is to become a Sorcerer. Use of power begets power. Victory begets victory. These are the terms of existence decreed by the void. Stakes of life and power. Wizards will battle, Sorcerers will topple, a Sorcerer’s aspect consumed by another. But a wizards charge, above all else, is to put on a good show.
The wizard sits. The wizard waits.
Some pace. Some wail. Some seethe, rending the air about them with arcs of furious power. The wizard sits. The wizard contemplates. When the darkened gyre gapes and ushers them toward combat, the wizard will be ready. When the buzzer sounds, when the shot is fired, the wizard will be ready.
For now, the wizard sits.