Best Games - Karateka
Fighting games are all about range and timing. You press the kick button of this side of the screen and a few milliseconds later your character has their leg extended reaching for the unguarded midsection of your opponent. Let that kick fly from too far a distance and the game's hidden collision boxes strike nothing. Too close and your opponent can intercept with a shorter range, but slightly quicker attack of their own. Range and timing.
Karateka is probably best known as one of the first, if not the first, cinematic games. Jordan Mechner was a college student studying film when he developed Karateka. The game wears those film school influences proudly. Musical stings. Cuts to establishing and framing shots. Presenting your progress through the stages with wordless camera movements rather than scripted story dumps. Fluid rotoscope style character animation. It all works to propel you through the game, but I don’t want to talk about any of that.
It is amazing to me how successful Karateka is as a fighting game.
Karate Champ is typically thought of as the first arcade fighting game. It is a twin stick game where you can use fairly complex inputs to manipulate the would-be Karate Champ. You can engage in martial combat against a computer opponent or against another person.
While firing off attacks in Karate Champ isn’t too terribly difficult, actually landing them is. Still, as a first shot in a genre Karate Champ is a decent game. A flawed early step into what would eventually be the last great arcade genre before home consoles overtook location based games.
In contrast, Karateka nearly knocks it out of the park.
Karateka, Karate Champ, and side scroller beat’em up Kung Fu Master, were released the same year so it is pretty much impossible that Jordan Mechner took any inspiration from them, or any other fighting game for that matter. Karateka is a fully formed singular creation. Punch and kick fighting was just in the early 80’s air. Even with that ‘first game in a genre’ deficit Karateka manages to nail the fighting game formula. It’s all about range and timing.
It’s true that Karateka offers no player vs. player mode, but in the game’s defence, it was programmed on an Apple II. Not a real powerhouse of computer hardware, even at the time. The best that could be accomplished was pitting the player against one solitary computer enemy at a time. It does help that this limitation plays into all the Kung Fu and Karate movie tropes of a lone warrior defeating a cadre of villains singlehanded. Only Karateka seems to be set in a world where no one ever learned to turn around.
The fighting system itself does seem like it would probably work in a player vs player mode, as evidenced by this patch to the game that lets a second person play as the enemies ( https://archive.org/details/karateka-two-player ).
Karateka is a smooth and deliberate game. You will quickly learn over the first handful of enemies that you can’t mash on the attack button and hope to win. You need to wait for your enemy to overextend themselves before you dive in to deliver a kick or series of quick punches. The whole game is range and timing. You can keep yourself a hair out of their range, rocking back and forth in a crossover step just waiting for enemy goons to slip up and launch a kick at the air where your head used to be. And if things are getting too hot and your health is dwindling you can retreat a few steps.
Jordan Mechner recounts in the journals he kept while making Karateka how he thought games needed to have two different but overlapping goals. In Karateka you need to balance the fights against individual enemies with the total ground you have to cover. You will need to start at the edge of a cliff and fight all the way through a fortress in order to battle the final enemy, Akuma. If you retreat more than you advance during a fight you won’t reach the next checkpoint before a fresh guard appears. Retreat too far, and you fall off the cliff. The faster you close the distance between you and Akuma, the fewer guards you will have to deal with. Some of the later fights can be very tough so you won’t want to retreat much if you can help it. Even the meta game of Karateka hinges on range and timing. It is a fighting game to its core.
Karateka might be one of the earliest fighting games, but it’s also one of the best games.
This guy here came out of the new resin 3d printer currently humming along in my basement. I think I would like to make more of this sort of thing. Miniatures, figurines, toys. When I work on the game I'm making, I think of all the characters in terms of action figures and toys. They have to look like they are meant to be played with. The robot characters I designed for Neon Noodles have an air of "miniature" about them. I've sort of always wanted to make stuff like this guy. I suppose this printer is one more tool to making that happen.
Best Games - Metal Gear Solid V
Imagine you are in a forest. It’s a pleasant day. You hear birds chirping in the treetops above you. Enough shade to be cool, enough sunlight to be warm. There is a shallow creek in your path that you would like to cross. What do you do?
You could simply walk through the water counting on the heat of the day to dry out your shoes and socks. You could toss enough fist sized stones into the water to create a makeshift bridge. You could fell a nearby tree to span the creek. You could scrounge through the forest for enough deadfall to create a pathway over the water. You could walk until you found a path around the water, assuming it pooled at some point. You could leave and come back tomorrow with a truck or a bulldozer and bend the earth to your wants.
Any of these are possible because this is a real world situation that involves real world interactions. In the real world there are more options than there are constraints. Sometimes there are so many options that it seems like none of them are viable. Unlimited interactions, unlimited choice, unlimited solutions to unlimited problems.
Videogames are not like the real world. Videogames are extremely limited sets of systems that play off of one another. Pac-Man eats dots, ghosts eat Pac-Man, Pac-Man eats big dot, Pac-Man eats ghosts. Repeat. This limited interaction space is one of the things that makes videogames fun. When a player can explore the boundaries of the play experience quickly they can also attempt to optimize for better solutions quickly. Optimizing for better solutions to seemingly random problems is something that humans find fun, so getting there quickly is often a good thing.
What if, instead of creating a small interaction space to get to ‘fun’ quickly, you went huge. Like ridiculously huge. What if you layered systems on top of systems on top of systems and created so many potential solutions that it would be difficult to untangle them all or to determine which ones are viable. While you would never be able to create so many possible interactions that it rivaled the real world, what if you made a videogame that gave you a taste of that real world interaction space. Just enough to trick your brain into thinking that anything you attempt might be possible. What if enough of those attempts actually did turn out to be possible, not because they were specifically designed to be possible, but because there was no restriction against whatever weird garbage you tried. Now you have a different sort of fun. The type where you aren’t compelled to optimize, but to experiment. To improvise. To see how far you can push the simulation before you break it. To push the simulation with the intention of breaking it.
Pac-Man is a fun game. It’s fun for about 15 to 20 minutes. That’s enough time for a couple games usually. Maybe you play really well and you manage to extend one game for that entire 20 minutes. You leave the game satisfied and you can probably go back and play again in a day or two for another 20 minutes. That’s great. It’s a great way to design a game.
Metal Gear Solid V is the other type of game. It’s a game that you explore and experiment with. It’s a collection of systems so deep that you can run the same mission countless times (and you will) without ever exhausting the potential solution space. You can improvise or plan, use the systems or rail against them. You can play it whatever way you want for 100 hours and still never see every possible interaction.
Is Metal Gear Solid V the best game in the Metal Gear series? Yes. And No. I suppose it depends who you ask and when.
Is Metal Gear Solid V one of the best games? Absolutely.
I have had a 3D printer for about 5 years. This is it.
Right from the hop this thing never worked right. Turns out, after running the thing through all sorts of tests, the board that came with it had a counterfeit chip. Oh sure it could move around and print plastic bits, but it never really worked the way it was supposed to. I have had to recalibrate it several times and each time it would run well for months and then suddenly screw up a batch of prints. Then it would be time to recalibrate it again.
I mean look at this thing.
Honestly I would probably have let it go on like that. I mean it works well enough for what I use it for. Then about a month ago I spun it back up and it had no end of issues. Every print came out awful.
Eventually I figured out that this new problem wasn’t with the board at all, but the actual print hardware. The tube that the plastic ran through on the way to the heater was cracked. I figured If I needed some new hardware to get it working again, I should probably swap out that bad board at the same time.
Here is the new board.
The only problem is that the new board and the old board are nothing alike and I can’t mount the new one where the old one sat. So I had to make one of these.
There are all sorts of cases and enclosures for this new type of board, so I could have used one of those but really all I needed was something to keep the board up off the table and stable so I designed and printed (on my limp along printer) this base. In addition to that I made a stand for the new screen and control panel.
I’ll probably put these up on thingiverse in case anyone else is like me and only needs the bare minimum to hold these boards in place.
At present it’s about 80% of the way back to working. Here’s hoping it prints better and more consistently now.
I’ve been doing some work over here. I try to write on it at least once a week, but I haven’t been posting them up because most of what I have been writing doesn’t directly follow what is already there. I have some holes in the story. Great wide gaping ones. Ones that would cause the whole thing not make a lot of sense if you tried to read it. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a story that would be much fun if you randomly came across it.
Nearly every one of these over 400 posts have been written using Google Docs. It’s easy to use, convenient, and it autosaves to a server somewhere that I can access through whatever device I happen to have available. I type most of these on a computer but I have written them on phones and tablets. For whatever reason, I didn’t think that Google Docs was what I needed for more long term writing.
I have tried using a lot of open source and commercial writing apps and none of them really did what I needed. Most recently I have been using Wavemaker. In fact almost everything over there was written using Wavemaker. It works well. It’s multiplatform and it works on mobile devices, but it is just a little bit too fiddly for my purposes. I like it, I just don’t think I need it.
So in the last few days I have taken all my pages, my notes, my character bios, my outlines and backstory, and moved it all over to Google Docs. I use the outliner panel to break up chapters and scenes and I have everything else split up into different docs in a directory. Right now it feels fairly organized. I will probably clutter it all up soon enough, but for now it’s everything I need to keep writing without all of the “writing tools” that I never use.
Eventually I will stitch enough of the holes together so that I can start posting up chapters again, but until then I can at least feel comfortable writing and editing with whatever device I happen to have close at hand. Writing 3 sentences on my phone is better than not writing at all because I don’t have my laptop nearby or I don’t have my files synced up.
Best Games - Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back
Action video games are all about feel. The feel of connection between your fingertips and flickering pools of light on a screen. Get that feel wrong and it won’t matter how clever your mechanics are or how inventive your puzzles or how engaging your story, no one will want to play it. Get that feel right and it won’t matter that every other aspect of the game comes up short.
Star Wars - The Empire Strikes back on the Atari 2600 is Star Wars as imagined by Mondrian. Large flat blocks of color with a palette counted in single digits. It is a representation of the battle of Hoth in abstract. Imperial walkers look more like paper cutouts pasted in a shoebox diorama. The hero snow speeder is a rectangle with one bit jutting out the side. Sound effects are tinny digital farts and bloops. Even with all that simplification, the game feels like the battle of Hoth. It’s all here, just compacted down to the thinnest of essentials.
This game works, because it feels right. Your snow speeder can whip along at a staggering pace, but it can also stop and reverse direction with shocking agility. There is a slight drift to all of your movements that presents a sense of weight, but doesn’t feel out of control. The horizontal flight of the ship is incredibly smooth for the Atari 2600, a system not really known for its smoothness. The walkers are menacing and durable, but not indestructible. The odds are stacked against you, but there is at least a feeling of hope.
The truth is, there is no hope. This is a game, like the movie sequence it represents, where the good guys will lose. You will either see all of your ships destroyed by blaster fire or the inevitable march of Imperial walkers will overrun your base. Those are the only two ways this game ends. Surprising enough this only adds to the game’s feel. Letting the player change the fictional history of the battle would just feel wrong I suppose.
The game is simple, spare even, but it feels great to play. Smooth and fun and correct under your fingertips. More than the setting, more than the visuals, more than the mechanics, this is what matters. When a game feels right, it plays right.
This is why Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best games.
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.