Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Picture on the Wall

There is a picture hanging on our wall that is frozen in time…

…and I don’t know what to do with it. It hangs there dutifully, year in year out, collecting dust motes and the like, outwardly showing signs of the passage of time, but the actual picture contained within the frame does not age. The other pictures have changed over the years: features have matured, skin has cleared up, hair has gotten longer and darker, but this one, THIS ONE has not. I would take the picture down but I find that I do not have the strength to do that. And if you think I mean physical strength there…then you should probably stop reading this right now.

There is a picture hanging on our wall that is frozen in time.

The same picture sits on my desk. It stares at me, grinning its benign grin while I pound out my witty sentences, pithy phrases and (somewhat) coherent paragraphs. Sometimes that picture talks to me. It says things to me that only I can understand, like we have an unspoken language this picture and I. Sometimes this discourse is comforting. Sometimes it is disturbing. Sometimes I want that goddamn picture to go away; to stop staring at me, accusing me, telling me that I failed it and how the hell could I have let what happened happen?? Sometimes I think I am losing my mind.

There is a picture hanging on our wall that is frozen in time.

I’ve been told that there are different stages of grief that everyone goes through. I think that’s a crock of shit. The only “stage” I can tell you about is the constant ache I feel in my heart. Sometimes it is worse than others, sure, but it is always there, regardless. It’s been four years and it hasn’t gone away yet. If it hasn’t yet, I’m not sure that it ever will. And if it does, what does that mean? That I am forgiven? That I can move on? That all is well…whatever the hell that means…because I honestly have no idea anymore.

There is a picture hanging on our wall that is frozen in time.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” And, sure, it’s a nice, succinct quote that people like to bandy about on Facebook and Twitter and the like and if it’s helped you find strength in a dark moment, bully for you. But my question is this: what happens when the broken places feel like they are everywhere and you’ve been wounded to the very core of your being? If someone has the answer to this query I’d really like to know because…

…there is a picture hanging on our wall that is frozen in time.

Monday, February 6, 2012


The following article is published in the upcoming super-mega-awesomely-important 100th issue of Retro Gamer (UK) Magazine. All kidding aside, it is quite the honor to be included in this milestone issue of one of the best video game magazines (still) published today.

February 8th, 2012 marked the 30th anniversary of the Twin Galaxies Scoreboard which has been the official scorekeeper of video gaming since 1982. Through a partnership with Guinness and their famous Book of World Records, Twin Galaxies is still going strong today as they are the official supplier of verified records for their annual gaming edition. Most people, however, will associate Twin Galaxies with the 2007 documentary film, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which chronicled the battle for Donkey Kong supremacy between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe. The film casts the organization in a (somewhat) unfair light, depicting a bunch of overzealous, even Machiavellian, classic video gaming nerds out to break the spirit of the upstart new kid on the block. Walking away from the film with just that portrayal of Twin Galaxies lingering on the brain would be doing the organization, and all those who are intimately involved with it on a day-to-day basis, a massive disservice.

Twin Galaxies humble beginnings can be traced back to a simple arcade in, of all places, the quintessential American small town of Ottumwa, Iowa. The gaming palace originally opened its doors on November 10th 1981 and a scant three months later “The Twin Galaxies Intergalactic Scoreboard” was born. The Scoreboard laid down the official rules for competitive video game playing and crowned the champions on a multitude of video games. Twin Galaxies activities inspired Mayor Jerry Parker to decree that Ottumwa was the “Video Game Capital of the World” on November 30th 1982. On top of that distinguished honor, both LIFE magazine and popular American TV show “That’s Incredible!” came to Twin Galaxies to create celebrated events that are now etched in memories of all gamers.

Walter Day, the iconic face and Head Scorekeeper of Twin Galaxies for almost 27 years, had a few thoughts on some of the touchstone moments in the organization’s history.

On being Head Scorekeeper of Twin Galaxies for 27 years:

“People like to rib me about my referee’s jersey and I even called myself ‘The Man’ in King of Kong, but being the Head Scorekeeper for Twin Galaxies for over 27 years has been the most wonderful experience – like a beautiful dream. I was honored to be a part of the ‘birth of organized video game playing.’ However, destiny was knocking and if I had not started Twin Galaxies and made Ottumwa the ‘birthplace’ of the gaming age, it would have happened somewhere else, with other people inspired to take on the task of turning video game playing into a sport."

On the LIFE Photograph:

“Interestingly, the 1982 LIFE Magazine photo that shows the top gamers of that early time gathered in Ottumwa has become one of the most recognizable images in the history of the video game age. Possibly, the industry's most famous photograph as many people who are not connected to the gaming field recognize that photo.”

On the “That's Incredible!” Video Game Invitational:

“Considered by many to be history's first ‘video game world championship,’ the tournament co-created by Twin Galaxies and ‘That's Incredible!’ and filmed in Ottumwa January 8-9, 1983, is revered as the ‘birth cradle’ of competitive gaming.”

On Ottumwa:

“Ottumwa, Iowa is now recognized as the ‘birthplace of organized video game playing’ and the cultural crossroads of the video game age. It’s not surprising that the Ottumwa City Fathers are working to create the official International Video Game Hall of Fame & Museum in their city.”

On the future of competitive gaming:

“What’s going on these days with the professional gaming leagues is very exciting. Twin Galaxies formed one of the first gaming teams in 1983 but the spirit of it all seems much, much different now. And, in saying that, I don’t mean to disparage any particular group or entity. Overall, I think the future bodes well for competitive gaming; it will become an even bigger deal to hold a world record score on a legendary classic game. And that will include all high-score-based games from the 1970s up to the great titles being produced today. And, at the same time, head-to-head elimination will reach new levels of professionalism, with the top stars being revered as genuine athletes.”


Nov. 10th 1981 – The Twin Galaxies arcade opens its doors for business in Ottumwa, Iowa. Walter Aldro Day and Jonathan Bloch are the proprietors.

Feb. 8th 1982 – Walter Day’s database of video game high scores is released to the public for the first time as “The Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard.”

Nov. 7th 1982 – Gamers from around the world descend on the sleepy Iowa burgh for a chance to have their picture taken for LIFE magazine. Among those in attendance are Billy Mitchell, Steve Harris (founder/publisher of Electronic Gaming Monthly), Steve Sanders and Ben Gold.

Nov. 30th 1982 – Jerry Parker, Mayor of Ottumwa, declares that his fine city is “The Videogame Capital of the World.” The Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, ratifies this bold declaration.

Feb. 21st 1983 – The popular U.S. TV show “That’s Incredible!” broadcasts The Videogame Invitational from the Twin Galaxies arcade. The event is ultimately won by Ben Gold.

July 25th 1983 – The U.S. National Video Game team is formed by the Twin Galaxies Intergalactic Scoreboard. Walter Day is named team captain and the first six members of the tem are: Billy Mitchell, Ben Gold, Steve Harris, Jay Kim, Cat Cabrera and Tim McVey.

Feb. 8th 1998 – The Twin Galaxies’ Official Video Game and Pinball Book of World Records is published. The 984 page tome contains records dating all the way back to 1981.

Aug. 24th 2007 – The documentary film, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, is released in theaters. Another film dealing with Twin Galaxies history, Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade, is screened at the Sundance Film Festival a few months before Kong’s release.

May 5th 2009 – Ottumwa reclaims its title as “Videogame Capital of the World” and plans are set in motion to establish the International Video Game Hall of Fame in downtown Ottumwa; a few short blocks from where the original Twin Galaxies arcade stood.

Dec. 16th 2009 – Walter Day officially hangs up his zebra striped referee jersey and retires from Twin Galaxies to pursue a career in music.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


A little over a year ago I posted a blog on this very site that made a few bold accusations in regard to Marvel Comics "borrowing" a few ideas from me. Through the magic of the interwebs and the great Jim Shooter's blog, I came in contact with Tom Brevoort, the Senior Vice President of Publishing at Marvel Comics. While Tom and Jim seem to have some "issues" to work through, Tom's posts on Jim's blog were reasonable and thoughtful, so I thought that it couldn't hurt to reach out to him to see what he had to say in regard to my contentions.
Yes, I will take the first appearance of The Punisher off your hands, Mr. Brevoort.
I fully expected to be ignored and/or swept under the rug but, amazingly, Tom took the time to respond to my accusations in a considerate, 2000+ word email that I took to heart. I believe the guy. Here are some notable excerpts from that email:

"...I can tell you absolutely, without any reservation or hesitation, that nothing entered into it outside of the ideas, conceptions and brainstorming of the creators involved." 

"Our creators are perfectly capable of coming up with the storylines themselves—they don’t need to steal ideas from other people. And if somebody walked in the door with ideas that good and the ability to execute them, we’d hire them—we’re in the business of cultivating talent, not swiping from them." 

"This all sounds very cold and clinical and down-putting I’m sure, but let me assure you, seriously, legitimately, and properly, there is no way that anybody involved in HOUSE OF M or CIVIL WAR lifted the concepts for those stories from you or what you proposed. I’m sure that this will be a difficult thing for you to accept, having lived for so long with an anger towards Marvel and these people, but it is absolutely and unequivocally the truth."

Now, I'm sure some of you out there will say, "He's just handling you, you fool! They'll do anything to avoid a messy lawsuit!" and I thought that myself at first...


...He didn't have to say anything at all to me. Not one single, syllable. He could have just sat back, watched his Disney stock options climb through the roof and said, "I'm not touching that mess with a 10 foot pole!" I already made it abundantly clear that I no intention of suing anyone. Even if I wanted to sue, I just don't have the resources (i.e. money) to take on the Marvel/Disney corporate giant. That's a fucking windmill I just cannot tilt. So, he could have just avoided me and my potential, legal morass altogether, added my email to the crank pile and that would have been that. In fact, I would have been more suspicious if he did do that. I would have thought he had something to hide, was afraid to say anything to me and would err on the side of caution. But I got just the opposite: 2000 or so words of truth and common sense. And I, for one, completely appreciate that time and effort. 

There's a saying that goes, "It takes a big man to admit when he is wrong." Now, I'm not saying I'm a "big man" or anything like that but I was wrong here and I can cop to that. And honestly, I'm kind of glad that I am wrong because being wrong here restores my faith in humanity...just a teeny, tiny bit.

And that's kinda cool, I think.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Interview with Rawson Stovall

You can find the printed version of this interview in this month's Retro Gamer (UK) Magazine (issue #97). The interview was edited extensively for space...but I think what the man had to say deserves a little more room. Many thanks once again to Rawson for agreeing to do this; you inspired me, as an 11-year-old lad growing up in Philadelphia, PA, to do what I do today.

Rawson Stovall was the kid friendly face of video game journalism in the 80’s. At its zenith, his pioneering “Video Beat” column was syndicated in newspapers all across the United States. Today, Rawson is a producer for Electronic Arts, working on titles such as “The Godfather” and “The Sims.”

Do many people remember you as the "Vid Kid?"

Sometimes people do, especially people who are still in the game industry. I ran into the legendary David Crane at an event at Stanford University and when he remembered me it just made my day.

When I first started on The Godfather I met with Wilfredo Aguilar, who was the Art Director on the game. I had actually met him years earlier when I was a kid when he was an artist at Imagic, which I was lucky to visit because it had been onbe of my favorite companies. In Willy's office at EA is perhaps the only full-sized Demon Attack poster left in existence. I was just staring at it and I mentioned visiting Imagic years earlier and he exclaimed, "I know you -- you're the Vid Kid!" He had remembered the suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying 11-year old version of me.

If/when they do remember you from those days, do they cite you as an inspiration for wanting to become a video game reviewer/journalist?

I mainly meet people who are working in production. Usually they don't know and I usually don't bring it up. At some point, though, it eventually comes out, including the old pictures. If someone does remember me they often tell me that what inspired them was seeing a kid go out and do something -- which meant that, really, they could go out and accomplish something as a kid as well, that age alone shouldn't be a barrier to entry. That means a lot to me, because when I was young and writing my column I was extremely motivated by proving that I could accomplish anything that adults could.

For the first couple years I sold my column to newspapers myself. If editors or publishers seemed like they were going to be naysayers about a kid writing video game reviews I would point out that, at the time, people were paying 7-8 times as much for a video game than for a movie and that there was no shortage of movie reviews in their papers. And, so, if only from a consumer protection standpoint they should offer some reviews. I would also ask them who would know better about video games than a kid? In those days kids were the primary target audience for video games. This helped sell them on the column and on me.

What was like to be a guest on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson?"

It was awesome, but it was filmed in front of a large audience, which was new to me and made me nervous. So, I just never looked at the audience, never even turned my head so that I would accidently see them. This meant I never really met Ed McMahon, even though he was sitting right next to me, because that would have required me to turn my head and see the audience, which I was certain would cause me to freak out.

At the time, I knew that "The Tonight Show" was a big deal but I never knew how big it was until I got older. When I was a kid, I was never allowed to stay up late enough to really watch it. So I never had the context of that show's almost historical impact. If I had known any of that it would have made me more nervous.

The whole family drove out to Los Angeles for the taping of the show. We actually rented an A-Team-like van for the drive, so the whole road trip felt like the movie Little Miss Sunshine or Vacation. We stayed at this big hotel in the valley near the NBC lot. The taping was at the end of the day and we, very conservatively, just stayed at the hotel that day. I was such a bundle of energy and nerves by mid-afternoon that my parents told me to go walk around the hotel lobby to burn of some of the energy. Maybe they were thinking that we would just stroll around but instead my sister and I subsequently spent an hour running up the down escalators and down the up escalators until I got back to the room just exhausted. I think my mom freaked and gave me soda and coffee to pep me up because it was show time and we had to head to the studio. I think I've been drinking coffee ever since.

Do you still have the "Vid Kid" suits and/or briefcase?

You know, I do still have the briefcase. I couldn't give that up. And I still have a tiny Members' Only jacket that's covered with Activision "high score" patches for games they did for the Atari 2600. True story.

What was the impetus for making the switch from writing about video games to developing them?

I wrote my video game column every week for ten years, from age 10 to age 20, covering the era from the Atari 2600 to the Super Nintendo System. I was honestly just ready for a change and I was young enough, and fresh out of college, and had moved to California from a small town in Texas so it was the ideal time to try something new.

What I found out was that years and years spent critiquing games and the elements about them that work and don't has translated very naturally into the role of producer. For me, it has been more of a natural transition than, say, to programming or even designing.

Because I grew up with video games and sometimes spoke for the industry to the press, I was always a fan of the industry's early roots as a very mass-market, family-oriented, living room-centric form of entertainment. My feeling has always been that the video game industry, both as an art form and as a business, needs to be as evangelistic to new and non-core gamers as possible. Games like The Sims is a great example of the success that can be found when you include people who were, by and large, ignored from the late 1980s to the late 1990s.

Overall, I like to think that I have always been the biggest fan of innovation and envelope-pushing in the industry in whatever stage or form that comes, sometimes it's graphics, thematic expansion, genre redefinition, or other times it comes in the form of crazy new play styles like some Wii games. Right now, I think we are in a new golden age of video game creativity and quality. Some of those games are very complex, deep and engaging PC experiences like The Sims 3, and others are very accessible, very simple, fun iPhone/iPad games.

What is it like working on a franchise as well-known as The Sims?

The best thing about working at the Sims Studio is working with the people that are overall responsible for it. You can't have one of the most popular and long-lasting game franchises in history without having some of the most talented, creative, and fun people in the business behind those games. Plus, it's great to work on games that have such a wide and dedicated fan base. Different people play The Sims 3 in different ways, some people like to tell stories, or create crazy situations and see how they pan out, others like to play with life, others like to play architect, fashion designer, interior designer, and so on.

Nerd alert -- I sometimes describe the Sims as the forerunner to the "holodeck" in Star Trek. If gaming technology ever advances to real life-like holograms then The Sims, at that point, will have advanced simulated personalities and A.I. to the point where the holodeck will in fact become a reality.

Any interesting/anecdotal Will Wright stories you'd like to share?

Sorry. There is a conference room named after him, which is kinda cool.

Beyond the obvious, what do you think is the biggest difference between the video games of today opposed to those of yesteryear?

Almost all games of yesteryear were ultimately designed to beat you, the player. Almost no one would actually finish those games; excelling at video games was primarily only about high scores or how far you got; the game itself was only a medium or an arena in which you really competed with yourself. Now, most games are specifically designed to be beaten. Hurdles, obstacles, puzzles, power-ups, etc. are all very purposely placed to make the game winnable yet make you feel like you are very special because you beat it. I think there's some kind of life analogy here somewhere.

What is your best/fondest memory from your time as the "Vid Kid?"

I got to meet a lot of cool people, from game designers to industry legends like Nolan Bushnell and even 80's icons like Mr. T and Andre the Giant. I got to introduce the original Nintendo Entertainment System at its US unveiling in 1985 and afterwards the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto (though it was very early in his career) and Hiroshi Yamauchi, who was the CEO of Nintendo at the time, called me up and we talked about the various appeal of different video game elements. Though the conversation was hard because we had to speak through a translator.

What were some of your favorite games of your "Vid Kid" era? And of today?

I never really had a specific favorite game from the Vid Kid era, but I do have a level of affinity for games like QiX, Dig Dug, Pac-Man, Demon Attack, Centipede, Kaboom!, Cosmic Ark, Joust, action games that couldn't ever really be beaten (unless you were insane.) Other games that come to mind now, as I'm thinking about it, that I liked:  Pitfall!, M.U.L.E., Maniac Mansion, H.E.R.O, Death Sword (which I think was known as Barbarian in the U.K.). Oh, the list can go on and on.

As for now, I think a team of ninjas might apparate in my living room and kill me if I didn't say that I was playing a lot of Sims Social on Facebook lately. But, really, the truth is that I am playing a lot of Sims Social on Facebook lately. It's a fresh new take on a franchise that I've spent years with and it's impressive that they were able to take The Sims and use it to really polish and add depth to the Facebook game genre. Other than that, I tend to travel a lot and so I?m actually playing a ton of games on my iPad, which I think is enjoying a Golden Age of gaming creativity, even though they are often smaller games.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Bill Kunkel 1950-2011

This is another piece I wrote for Retro Gamer (UK) Magazine. The great Bill Kunkel passed away last month and I wrote a eulogy/obituary for the magazine. It appears in November's issue, # 95.

The revered “Game Doctor” essentially invented video game journalism as we know it.

One of the great lights of the industry, its initial, gleaming beacon if you will, has been extinguished. Bill “The Game Doctor” Kunkel passed away at his home in Michigan early Sunday morning, September 5th from an apparent heart attack. He was 61-years-old at the time of his death and is survived by his wife, Laurie, and his siblings, Stephanie, Karen, Joellen, Ken and Stuart.

Bill’s career started off humbly enough, writing and photographing for various wrestling and science fiction fanzines. He then went on to write for Marvel, DC and Harvey Comics, working on such popular characters as Spider-Man, Superman, Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost. But it was in 1978 that he found his stride with the “Arcade Alley” recurring feature in Video Magazine. Launching off the success of that article, Bill, along with life-long friends and business partners, Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley-Katz, started the first magazine entirely devoted to video games, Electronic Games. It was there that Bill took up the pseudonym of the “Game Doctor” and invented many of terms and concepts (such as “screenshot,” “playfield” and “Easter Egg”) we take for granted today.

After Electronic Games folded in 1984, Bill, Arnie and Joyce went on to form Subway Software, designing such games as Micro League Wrestling, Batman Returns and The Simpson’s: Bart’s Nightmare. Bill himself would later join Running With Scissors and have a large role in the two Postal games. He also returned to comics for a stint with Platinum Studios in the late 90’s.

On top of all that, Bill provided expert testimony is several, high-profile video game related lawsuits (Atari v. Magnavox, Nintendo v. Galoob and Capcom v. Data East) and taught game design/theory courses at The University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV).

No words could better sum up who Bill Kunkel was, and what he stood for, than the words written by Arnie Katz in the foreward to Bill’s 2005 memoir, Confessions of the Game Doctor: “Bill Kunkel fought for the idea that gaming could interest adults at a time when the mainstream media dismissed players as glassy-eyed pubescent joystick addicts. He has always battled for information over ignorance, truth over convenience.”

With the Game Doctor’s untimely demise, the video game world has lost one of its first, true renaissance men. Anyone who has aspirations of becoming a video game journalist or game designer would do themselves a great service by checking out Bill’s seminal “Game Doctor” pieces, his incisive “Kunkel Report” articles and, of course, his aforementioned memoir.

Bill’s distinguished career touched and influenced myriad people throughout the video game industry. These are but a few who had kind words about the man after learning of his death...

Vince Desi, CEO Running With Scissors

“Bill was my friend, my advisor, and a founding member of Running With Scissors; he was our Editor In Chief. He was truly the Godfather of Video Game journalism, and a true Don in the game industry. He was smart and respected, and brutally honest, something this industry and world desperately needs. Bill always liked to say, ‘Life will kill you.’ God Bless him.”

Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, CEO Platinum Studios

“Bill was a good friend and a good person.  Nothing was ever too much for him to try and tackle.  What he did take on he approached in a wonderful and innovative manner.  He will be missed but also celebrated.”

Tommy Tallarico, CEO/Producer Video Games Live

"Growing up I remember reading Bill's columns in Electronic Games Magazine. I had the great pleasure of knowing him and being his friend for 22 years. Yo Bill...save me a seat in Heaven by the Intellivision console! Me and you in Downhill Skiing!"    

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Interview with Director Duncan Jones

This interview originally ran in this month's Retro Gamer (UK) Magazine (issue 93). Unfortunately, I was forced to heavily edit the interview due to space constraints within the magazine. The kind folks at Retro Gamer are allowing me post the full, unedited version (the Director's Cut, if you will...) of the interview here on my blog, which is great because Duncan had so much to say that was spot on and interesting that I truly hated whittling it down.

So, without further ado...

Duncan Jones is the director of the sci-fi films, Moon and, most recently, Source Code. He is also the son of one of the most iconic rock stars of all-time, the “Starman” himself, David Bowie. On top of that, Duncan has a deep appreciation for retro gaming and technology of all sorts. You can follow him on Twitter @ManMadeMoon.

As a filmmaker, do you ever think that a truly great video game film will ever be made? If so, what would that film be?

I absolutely think a great video game film can and will be made.  The inspiration for a good movie can be just about anything.  Take "The Social Network" for instance; Facebook is hardly an obvious choice for movie material.  Really it’s just about finding the key element of drama, an interesting setting, a fascinating character that can lead to an engaging story, and games have a plethora of these.  As always, though, it’s all about the script.  I think one of the common mistakes that is made in trying to turn video games into movies is to believe that all is required is to tell the story of the game in a linear format.  That's not going to do it.  You need to isolate and use only those elements that actually work.  Only those elements that are original and have dramatic potential... It can be done, and I think there are many games that have great source material, but really it’s going to take a combination of great writer, inspired director, and a franchise owner who is willing to let go enough to allow what needs to be done, to be done.

great film (and book), High Fidelity, was famous for its lists of “Top Fives.” What are your “Top Five” classic video games?

Totally unfair, as I have FAR more than a top five.  In fact I KNOW this is not a top five list, its just 5 treasured gaming memories, but it’s the best I can do.

The game that first tapped my imagination like nothing I had experiences before was Richard Garriot's "Exodus - Ultima 3," on the Commodore 64.  That was the game that first motivated me to buy a ring binder and a stack of graph paper, to draw pixel accurate maps and lists of reagent costs.  After that game, I was Lord British's subject, and Origin Software was my church.  The cloth maps, the "relic" inside... marketing?  Maybe... but inspired.  Garriot was a genius.

For sheer arcade fun, the Amiga served up an amazing array of titles, but I’m going to pick out just a couple for my top 5 list.  The Bitmap Brothers fantastic "Speedball 2:Brutal Deluxe," and the equally amazing movie-game from Cinemaware "It Came from the Desert."
I remember getting my first PC, a 486/66 where you had to manually set your config.sys and autoexec.bat files.  A nightmare, but the only way you were ever going to play the amazing titles available on that format.  The best of that time was the space opera “Wing Commander” series, but a spin-off of that series was the excellent Privateer, which was a bit like David Braben's Elite on steroids. Amazing game, and yet another that had me bringing out the old ring-binder to keep notes on prices in various sectors.
I'm going to bring up another Cinemaware title now, back from the Amiga days.  "TV Sports Football."  Cinemaware was doing something here that modern sports games have completely lost sight of; they were having fun with the sport!  They had mock interviews and a sense of a life beyond the game itself.  I think it’s a lesson a lot of sports games could do well to relearn.
I feel sad having such a short list here.  I would want to give special mention to Amiga's Dungeon Master, Bards Tale, Barbarian, Sanxion, (introducing me to high culture as it used Prokofiev's classical composition "Montagues and Capulets,") the original Apple 2 version of Castle Wolfenstein and Wizadry and Daley Thompson!  Hit those two keys, my son!
What was your system/computer of choice back in the day and why?
Had a few but the real stand out was the Commodore Amiga.  Amazing colour, stunning sound, cool design.  And just to top it off, I recently saw THIS! 
Do you play many “current gen” titles? If so, which ones?
I have an Alienware laptop I am using to play Steam games now until a good enough new PC game comes out to warrant a desktop.  Hearing that the new Battlefield might be the one, but we'll have to wait and see.  I have a PS3 and a Wii, but they gather dust, more than anything else.  Play more games on the iPhone, to be honest! 
Beyond the obvious, what do you think is the biggest difference between today’s great games and the great games of yesteryear?
Humour and surprise.  Like the Spanish inquisition!  Old games used to be less corporate... they were less afraid, less rigid.  OK, so sometimes they got the play balance wrong...maybe you occasionally had to really struggle to get past a section that a modern game would be designed to let you succeed at, but that was the point!  You felt a real sense of accomplishment.  Also, because they were being made by small teams of really passionate people, and not by squadrons of corporate producers, they had a whimsy to them that we have really lost.  And it really is a loss.  That whimsy is something I really do miss.  Come back Origin & Sierra... come back Cinemaware and Lucasarts.  We need you now more than ever.
If you had a crack at making your own game what kind of game would it be?
Probably something retro!  Seriously.  I think I would try to distill the best memories I have in games into a small, tightly made package that could be played on an iPad, phone or browser... and if that went well, I would go for a great big fuck off RPG sprawler, like Richard Garriot used to make!
In your opinion, will there ever be a “perfect” synthesis of film (i.e. cutscenes, a la Metal Gear Solid 4) and gameplay?
I don’t know how out of the norm I am, but in all honesty, I rarely care about the story in games I play.  I tend to skip and/or ignore cutscenes.  Unless they are really visually spectacular.  Blizzard cutscenes keep my attention.  The reason I play games though is for the interactive opportunities.  If I want someone to tell me a story, I go see a movie. 
I don’t know if you’ve seen the mock up of Moon as a classic LucasArts adventure game but what are your thoughts on it? Would you/could you “let it happen” as the article suggests?

Brilliant bit of work that has not gone unnoticed.

What is your favorite video game theme song/musical score and why?

Well Jonathon Coulton's "Still Alive" at the end of the first Portal game was a touch of genius, and as I mentioned above, Sanxion introduced me to Prokofiev, but for sheer "put a smile on my facedness" I have to give it to the “Wanderer” from Ultima 3.  Ahhh, memories...

Did you ever get a chance to play any games with your famous father?

Nope. Was never his bag.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

What Lies Beyond...?

The year was 2003. A whirlwind romance led me down the aisle with little doubt or complaint. I was madly in love, this much I knew.  But, what I did not know was that a few scant months later I would meet another young lady who would capture much more than just my imagination…

Her name was Jade – a mysterious and exotic moniker to be sure.  She was quite the girl; the kind you don’t easily forget. She was a freedom fighter, a daring photojournalist and badass martial artist all rolled into one dynamic package. We shared a rollicking adventure together, she and I. We freed her home planet of Hillys from the clutches of the nefarious DomZ and all was right in the world.

And then, just like that, she was gone. One can only hold a tigress by her tail for so long, I suppose…

My cheeky, dime-store-novel introduction aside, Ubisoft's Beyond Good and Evil was a game that had a profound effect on me on various levels. In year that saw the release of the latest flavors in huge selling franchises like Pokemon, Zelda and Grand Theft Auto, BG&E wasn’t a mega-seller by any stretch of the imagination. But it was a critical darling, an “arthouse” game if you will, that had character, moxie even; something most franchise sequels sorely lack. The experience, as a whole, seemed to be screaming out, “Hey, look at me! This is how it’s done!”

The specialness of BG&E begins with its rock solid and diverse play mechanics. Whether you were piloting the hovercraft, sneaking past Alpha Section troopers, snapping pictures of the Hillys wildlife or laying the smack down Dai-jo combat staff style, all the elements came together seamlessly to form a most coherent whole. This is something BG&E shared with many favorites in my gaming past: Raid Over Moscow, Infiltrator and the Beach Head games on the C64 and Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 most notably. Why more games released today can’t/won’t do this is a mystery to me. And no, an insipid collection of mini-games with the word “PARTY” slapped on the box does not count.

Then there was Jade herself who was, and still is, something of an anomaly in regard to female video game characters. She’s “Zen chic,” to coin a phrase: she’s strong and empowered without just being a bitch, yet maintains a lithe femininity and beauty (green lipstick, FTW!) that’s all wrapped up in a distinctly proportional body. 

Don’t feed the people, but we feed the machines/Can’t really feel what international means...”

Every time I hear that line from a favorite, Rush song of mine thoughts of Beyond Good & Evil always pop into my head. For those who have played the game the reasons why the first part of that lyric carries weight should be evident. It’s the “international” in the second stanza that didn’t hit me until later on. To me, most RPG’s have patently Eastern feel and the majority of FPS’s have a Western flavor, BG&E has an international flair that I found entirely refreshing.  From the Rastafarian rhinos at the Mammago Garage to the Asian ambience of the Akuda Bar and the down home, Middle American “go get’em” attitude of Uncle Pey’j, this game had a global appeal that almost anyone could identify with and which, I think, is directly related to the myriad gameplay styles I mentioned earlier. And in keeping with the international theme, I thought it would be interesting to call on some “worldly” journalist friends to get their perspectives on Beyond Good & Evil.

Malaysian game journalist, Ian Miles Cheong , sees the politics of the game mirroring current events: “Beyond Good and Evil  was lighthearted, but it presented serious topics like freedom of information and human rights without being patronizing. It was a game that respected the player's intelligence. In many ways, the pro-democracy demonstrations that are currently happening in the Middle East remind me of Beyond Good & Evil. The game really managed to capture that revolutionary atmosphere from the perspective of a photo-journalist intent on revealing the truth of the society she lived in.” 

Pete Davison, British contributor to such sites as GamePro, Games Are Evil and The Big Pixels, was drawn in by the visuals and the uniqueness of Miss Jade: Two things specifically stand out when I think about Beyond Good and Evil:  the visual design, and the main character Jade. The distinctive visual style, where no two lines are parallel and everything is deliberately quite ‘angular’ mean that the game has aged very well and still looks good today -- good enough for an HD re-release without any significant upgrades needing to be made to the graphics, in fact. It's actually a very similar approach to what Blizzard did with World of Warcraft's visuals, and it worked well there too.

“Jade, meanwhile, is one of the best female protagonists we've seen in the medium. She's got a distinctive ‘look’ of her own -- from her clothes to the way she moves; she has a likeable personality that means the player is happy to play as her; but more than anything, it's refreshing to play as a female character who isn't overtly sexual and is in possession of a pair of breasts that don't defy all known laws of physics.”

Maria Montoro, Owner and Editorial Director of Game Dynamo (Spain/USA) was brought into the experience by the soundtrack but stayed for the diverse gameplay, much like myself: “The soundtrack of Beyond Good and Evil was an epic element that unconsciously transported you to the beautifully depicted world of Hillys, smoothly dragging you even further into the story. The variety of gameplay styles was a breakthrough. Fighting and platforming had been done before, but the addition of elements like clever puzzles, stealth, racing, and even a couple of arcade games into the formula made this game so unique. You never knew what waited around the corner, as you headed towards the slaughterhouse or visited the local bar. Plus, snapping pictures of odd creatures and collecting pearls was oh-so-rewarding that it kept pulling me forward.

“The remastering of the game for Xbox LIVE and PSN couldn’t make me happier; I can’t wait to relive this enthralling experience with HD visuals, which will make the presentation even more magical than it already was. Hopefully this release will have a grand welcoming, resulting in a truly official and unstoppable comeback of the franchise.”

Much like Maria echoed my sentiments regarding the gameplay, I wholeheartedly echo her anticipation for the upgraded, HD version of Beyond Good and Evil hitting XBLA and PSN this week.  And although there have been tantalizing hints at a sequel, a Ubisoft producer plainly stated  (via Gamespot and Eurogamer) last week that if the sequel to the game is ever to see the light of day, this “new” version of BG&E needs to sell. So, if you are a truly a fan of the game, now is your chance to show it. Return to the planet of Hillys and revisit your good friends (and hated enemies) there. For those of you who don’t know what all the fuss is about, well, now is your chance to explore this eclectic, pan-cultural hybrid of awesomness.

It was a true crime that original Beyond Good and Evil didn’t get into the hands of enough gamers when it originally came out. It would be even more of a crime if the gaming world as a whole was denied a sequel to this truly singular title.

Let’s not have that happen, shall we?