RIP Jack Tramiel

A couple of days ago Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore and subsequently responsible for Atari’s home computer renaissance in the 1980s passed away.

I grew up during the home computer boom of the 80s. My first machine was a Sinclair ZX81, but that was replaced by a Commodore Vic-20. But it was my next computer, an Atari ST, which was perhaps the first machine I really fell in love with. I worked throughout my 6 weeks school holiday in order to save the £260 it cost, and although it has since been re-housed (using a hacksaw on the motherboard in order to fit it into a 19″ rack case!) I still have it sitting next to me now.

For day-to-day use it was replaced by an Atari Mega STE, then an Atari Falcon. I even have an Atari Jaguar which still sees occasional use for games of Tempest 2000. Ultimately, through using MiNT on the STE and Falcon, I was able to gain my first serious experiences with a Unix command line interface… which led directly to my switch to Linux in 1995 (and which I’ve been using ever since).

From games to music to programming, Tramiel’s Atari was behind most of my hobbies during the late 80s and early 90s. Rest in peace, Jack, and thanks for all the good times.

Nintendo 3DS hands-on, Part II

Previous Part: Trying to get to, and find, the event

After finally arriving at, and being let into, the Nintendo 3DS preview event in London, I made my way into the first of two rooms containing 3DS units and software to try first-hand.

The first room was blacked out, and illuminated by the combined glow of dozens of 3DS screens, and the flourescent stands they were attached to. Being near the end of the crowd, I found all the immediate devices in use, and headed for the far end. I hopped onto the first free machine I could find, regardless of what game was on it, and found myself faced with Kid Icarus: Uprising.

The first thing I did, of course, was to check out the 3D screen. It’s the kind of 3D that drops back into the screen, rather than popping out of it. That makes sense for a gaming system, as 3D that pops out can suffer from clipping problems when the object reaches the edge of the screen. I don’t know if the system is capable of making things pop out, but I didn’t see any evidence of that during my time there.

I have to admit that I had trouble with the 3D screen in Kid Icarus; most of the time the 3D was fine, but every now and then I would lose the effect and see two overlapping images instead. I think the most likely reason was that I was playing with the 3DS on its stand rather than in my hands, as it looked like it was bolted down. By the time I’d moved onto another game, it was clear that it was simply tethered using a metal frame – the rest of the games were played with the 3DS in my hands, and I never experienced the problem again. It’s also possible, but less likely, that there was a problem with that particular DS, the software, or just that my eyes hadn’t yet “clicked” into the 3D effect properly.

I found the 3D effect itself to be a little underwhelming. It was certainly visible, but didn’t add a huge amount to the gameplay, in my opinion. Unfortunately that was my view of most of the games I played – the 3D was okay, but didn’t transform them into anything extra special – so I would suggest that you think of the 3D as the icing on the cake, rather than the fundamental reason for owning a 3DS. More importantly I would suggest a try before you buy approach if 3D is your main reason for being interested in it.

I did play with the 3D depth slider, but found that I had it set to the max on every game. That led me to wonder if perhaps it just didn’t go far enough for my tastes.

My other point of contention with Kid Icarus is the controls. It required the use of the “circle pad” (the analogue nub) for movement, the stylus to aim, and button presses to fire. Being a southpaw I automatically used the stylus in my left hand, but that meant that I couldn’t move and aim at the same time. I would guess that this will be a common problem with circle pad+stylus games, and that us lefties will just have to get used to having the stylus in our right hands.

Between losing the 3D effect and struggling with the controls, I didn’t get the most out of Kid Icarus, so it would be unfair to talk any further about the game itself.

From there I moved to a game in which you control a submarine and attempt to sink passing naval vessels without getting sunk yourself. From the list of upcoming 3DS games I would guess it was “Steel Diver”, but the screenshots I’ve found of that don’t match the first-person game I was playing. It reminded me a lot of the Submarine arcade game that I played in my youth (and had forgotten until now). Movement left and right was via the touch screen (it desperately needs gyro support, if it hasn’t got it), and the game consisted solely of timing torpedo launches based on the speed of your targets in order to sink them. It was fairly easy, and fairly dull. If it’s just a small part of a larger game, it might be okay, but if that was the main part of the game then it probably needs a rethink. I didn’t find that the 3D either helped or hindered with aiming the torpedoes – but then all the ships were roughly the same distance from the sub. Perhaps more variety in ship placement would have led to the 3D being more useful in judging when to fire.

I moved on, nearly getting onto the only free Zelda console but beaten to it by someone else. I settled for Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars. If you’ve played a Lego Star Wars game – or, indeed, one of the other Lego themed games – then you know what to expect. The 3D again neither helped nor hindered, but didn’t really add anything to the gameplay. Other than using the circle pad to move, I didn’t see any other use of the 3DS technology. The “force throws” were triggered with button presses, whereas they would probably make a great candidate for the using the gyros to control them.

Then we were asked to move onto the next room. We’d been in there about 15 minutes, and I hadn’t had a chance to try Pilotwings or Zelda (or PES or Street Fighter, though I was less interested in them). Never mind, I’d probably be able to play them in the next room…

Note to Nintendo: If you’re going to limit people’s time in a room, tell them that when they go in. If I’d known I only had 15 minutes, I wouldn’t have wasted five of them shooting submarines.

The next room was much lighter, decorated in white and lit with soft pastel shades. From the game selection it was obvious that this was the “casual” game room, and the previous dark room had been the “serious” game room. That also meant that I’d missed my chance for Zelda, as it wasn’t present in the casual room.

Note to Nintendo: It would have been nice to have at least one of each “serious” game also in the casual room for players that missed their chance before being moved on.

Taking pity on my girlfriend being stuck babysitting my niece, the first game I tried in the casual room was Nintendogs+Cats, on her behalf. Again the 3D was okay, but nothing special. If anything the use of 3D detracted from the game somewhat: in the original Nintendogs you interact with the dogs on the touch screen – so your stylus directly presses against the image of the animal. Because Nintendogs+Cats keeps its animals firmly locked to the top screen, your stylus movements (on the lower screen) are abstracted from the animal itself. It’s easy to get used to, but doesn’t feel quite as personal as the older game.

Next I tried a couple of augmented reality (AR) games. The first was specifically branded as an AR game, the second, Face Raiders, wasn’t branded as such – but by any reasonable definition it still counts. Nintendo’s branding of AR games covers those that use the supplied AR cards for their interface with the real world. In this case a card was placed on a table, and when the game was started and the 3DS’s cameras pointed at the card, it acted as an “anchor” for graphics overlaid onto video footage from the cameras.

First a box popped up out of the card, and you were invited to shoot the front of it. To do that you had to move the 3DS around to get the targetting reticule lined up, before pressing a button to fire. The box popped open into various arrangements of targets that you then had to shoot – again by physically moving the 3DS around in space. The most impressive part was the pit that seemed to appear in the solid table, with a target at the bottom of it, requiring you to lean over the top to hit it. That released a dragon writhing up out of the “hole” in the table which had to be shot several times. It was one of the best examples of AR that I’ve seen.

Face Raiders was similar but different. Whereas the AR game had the card as a fixed point, and you moved relative to that, Face Raiders has you as a roughly fixed point with targets (your face) appearing around you. Instead of moving around a card to aim, you tend to stay in place but move the 3DS around yourself. Missing a shot sent it past your face and onto the background where it appeared to blast a hole in reality to expose a dark universe behind. That effect was particularly well done – fairly subtle, but implemented well enough that it really looked like you were blowing a hole into another dimension.

I felt that the AR game and Face Raiders were the highlight of the event for me, though I’m not sure how much longevity they would have. They’re also both freebies with the system, so perhaps longevity isn’t so much of a concern if you’re not paying extra for them. They reminded me of the games with Wii Play – simple games intended to introduce you to the system’s capabilities, rather than full-on titles in their own right.

The next machine had a Mario Kart title screen, but appeared frozen. I pressed the usual buttons to try to get it started, but it dumped me to a developer page. I pointed this out to the girl who was guarding that batch of machines (and who had clearly spotted me pressing buttons) only to be sharply told that “it’s a demo, you can’t play it!” Demo or not, it wasn’t working – and the two other 3DSs on the block were sitting at the same developer screen.

I moved onto a 3DS with Super Monkey Ball on it. Burned by my Mario Kart experience, I skipped the normal mode and went straight for Super Monkey Race in order to see what a karting game looks like on the 3D screen. Again, I’m afraid, I was less than enthused by it; there was nothing wrong with it, but it also wasn’t a revolutionary leap foreward.

At that point I had run out of time – not because of Nintendo booting anyone out, but because I had to go and meet my girlfriend and niece at the arranged cafe. Unfortunately I’d missed Zelda, Pilotwings, the Mario Kart demo and probably more.

Note to Nintendo: You might want to label the groups of consoles more clearly so that people can easily find what they’re looking for, rather than wandering a little aimlessly from machine to machine and possibly missing out on things.

My final analysis is that the 3DS, for me at least, is not worth the £200 to £230 they’re asking for it. The 3D didn’t wow me enough to make my budget stretch that far, and whilst the AR games were fun, I’m not sure they’ve got the longevity to make it worth purchasing based on them alone. When the price drops, some must-have games come out, or the hinges on my DS Lite give up (which looks like it could be soon), I’ll probably buy one, but nothing I saw made me eager enough to pre-order for launch day.

That said, if you’re interested you really should try to play with one for yourself and not just take my word for it. I’m sure Nintendo will be ramping up their demo schedule as the launch approaches, so keep an eye out for an event near you and give it a try. 3D is a very subjective thing, and what failed to wow me might have a better impact on you.

Final Note to Nintendo: For a “family friendly” company supposedly trying to broaden the appeal of games, it seemed like a very male oriented event. Martial arts and zombies to start with, combined with a collection of young, atractive “booth babes” guarding the machines. They were friendly and helpful, but choosing a wider range of people (sex, race and age) might help to reinforce the message that there’s more to the 3DS than just games for men.

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Nintendo 3DS hands-on, Part I

Yesterday I went to a hands-on preview of the forthcoming Nintendo 3DS. First I’d like to mention a few things about the event itself; if you’re just interested in my views on the 3DS and games then you might want to skip to the next post.

The first I heard about the event was when an email arrived from Nintendo inviting me to apply for the chance to possibly get a single ticket to the event. Maybe. If I was lucky. Apparently I received this invite at least in part because I’ve registered one or more products with them in the past 12 months. That’s great, but it really was literally an invite to apply for a single ticket. No plus-one allowed. My girlfriend is just as much of a gamer as I am, and probably plays her DS more than I do mine, but because she hadn’t registered a game recently she wasn’t even eligible to apply for a ticket. The reason she hasn’t registered? Because we log all our games against a single account, to avoid splitting our loyalty points between us.

Note to Nintendo: Please consider allowing “ticket holder plus one” for future events.

We decided to head to London anyway; we’d promised my 7 year-old niece a trip to the Sylvanian Families shop, so took her along for the day. The plan was that they would have a wander round the shops for a while, and we’d meet in a cafe after I’d finished at the Nintendo event. The invite to the event didn’t specify where it was being held. I only found that bit of information out when my ticket became available for download last Wednesday. Suffice to say that it wasn’t in the centre of London, but rather in Brick Lane, in North East London. Had we realised that sooner, we might not have dragged my niece along with us, but by that point we’d already promised her a day out.

Note to Nintendo: Please give a bit more location information with the initial email. “London” isn’t really specific enough.

There are three underground lines that readily service the Brick Lane area. Unfortunately Nintendo had managed to pick a day when all three were closed for maintenance work. What should have been a fairly simple journey from Arsenal (the location of the Sylvanian shop) to Aldgate East (for Brick lane) turned into an excessive journey to Liverpool Street (the closest station we could get to). Working round the closed lines had delayed us, so I thought we’d take a taxi from Liverpool Street Station to make up some time (and because I wasn’t really sure of my route from there). Unfortunately, due to “the street market” (I think he meant Petticoat Lane market), the taxi driver claimed he couldn’t get us there. He advised walking, as it was “just through there and over the road – you can’t miss it”. We missed it.

After wandering for a little while, we stopped for some lunch and fresh directions, then made our way more successfully to Brick Lane. The address I had was “The Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane”. We joined Brick Lane at number 1, and proceeded up the street until a large set of buildings were in sight, bearing the brewery name. We walked up and down Brick Lane through this collection of buildings. Several times. No sign of Nintendo, and no sign of number 91.

We backtracked a little. Number 76 preceded the building. Number 97 succeeded it. We must be in the right area, so we asked one of the locals. “This lot is all number 90 to 95. There’s a helpdesk in that building there.”

The beleaguered sigh from the woman at the helpdesk as soon as I waved a Nintendo ticket indicated that I was far from the first person to have trouble finding it. “If you turn left out of here, there’s a small alley filled with food shops. Turn down there, go to the end, do a left and it’s on the left before you reach the cycle shop.” We followed her instructions and found the place. Suffice to say that the road we needed was too minor to have its own name, and would have been best described as “round the back of The Old Truman Brewery”.

Note to Nintendo: If the entrance to your event isn’t actually on the street you specify, at least provide a map of the locale to clarify it.

We finally found the place – with a footsore 7 year-old in tow – at about 14:25. My ticket was booked for 14:30, but we still hadn’t found a cafe or somewhere for my girlfriend and niece to meet me in afterwards. A bit more wandering got us to Spitalfields Market, where we found a suitable meeting point, and I dashed back to the Nintendo event. I got there at about 14:40.

“I’m afraid you’ve missed the two-thirty slot. I can fit you in at three.”

“In that case I’ll have to skip it.” It didn’t seem fair to make my niece wait any longer.

“Hmmm… Come up with me, and I’ll see if we can get you in. I’d hate for you to miss it.”

I have to hand it to the staff there, they were very friendly and understanding, and did, indeed, get me in. I’d missed a Street Fighter themed martial arts display (no great loss there), and joined the rest of the group just as they were about to be escorted through a Resident Evil themed invasion by a horde of two zombies. A few minutes watching a demo reel, and a few more minutes listening to Jonathon Ross espouse the glories of the 3DS, and we were finally allowed in to play with the machines themselves.

Next time: The 3DS and the games

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R4 Cards Now Illegal in the UK

*Sigh*

R4 (and similar) cards have now been declared illegal in the UK. Personally I think this is a significant injustice, as it further erodes individuals’ ability to use their purchased hardware for non-approved (but legal) uses, under the flag of preventing piracy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m generally against piracy and have purchased all my DS games legally. But I do own and use an R4 card. There are two reasons for this: firstly I do play the occasional homebrew game; secondly I use it as a means to conveniently carry all my games with me without the need to keep swapping cartridges. If there was a legitimate way to achieve this then I wouldn’t have any need of this “piracy device”.

The most worrying part of the article is this quote:

“The mere fact that the device can be used for a non-infringing purpose is not a defence,” read the ruling by Justice Floyd.

By that argument we’d better all get rid of our cameras, CD writers, PVRs, video capture cards and any other technology that may be used for copyright violations as well as legal uses.

I use an iPod as a means to aggregate hundreds of CDs into one device: my R4 is a means to aggregate dozens of games into one cartridge. I could put illegally downloaded music onto my iPod just as easily as I could put illegally downloaded games onto my R4. Yet one device is seen as a successful stalwart of consumer electronics, whilst the other is a scurrilous device used by pirates and ne’er-do-wells. The main difference I can see is that Apple are a big, rich company whereas the defendants in this case were small independent suppliers.

Yet again it would seem that money talks – or at least buys expensive lawyers to do the talking for you.

World of Goo – pay what you want

Or more specifically pay whatever you think it’s worth – for this week at least. I’ve got the WiiWare version, and have to say that it is a great game – well worth the full asking price. If you don’t fancy spending that much though, and have a Windows PC, a Mac or even a Linux box, you can go to their website and download it for whatever price you think it’s worth, until the 19th October.

Despite already owning the Wii version, I might take this opportunity to buy myself a cheap copy for my Linux box – if only to thank them for actually taking the time to produce a Linux version. If you want to see what the game it like, here’s the video they’ve got on their website:

A few follow-ups

Just a quick follow up on some earlier posts:

• British sci-fi Primeval, which finished with a cliffhanger and was then cancelled, has been brought back from extinction. It may not be the best programme in the world, but there’s little enough home-grown sci-fi as it is, so beggars can’t be choosers.

• In an effort to revitalise the concept of an “album” in a world of individual track downloads, Apple launched their “iTunes LP” format, as I discussed previously. Despite being little more than a zip file with a load of HTML in it, it seems that Apple are using it as a hugely overpriced money making scheme which is only open to the major record labels with deep pockets. Indie labels need not apply (note: in fairness the update from Apple on that page indicates that they will be releasing free and open specs for iTunes LPs “soon” – but with no indication of when “soon” might be. Until the specs are out, I guess the $10,000 price tag still applies)

Edit, 30th November 2009: It looks like “soon” is “now” – I’m glad Apple decided to go down the open-specs route on this one, though I still prefer my idea of a “collection” rather than trying to prop up the outdated concept of “the album”

• Having thoroughly enjoyed Okami on the Wii, and been disappointed that there wouldn’t be a sequel, I was delighted to discover news of Okamiden (and here) on the DS 😀

EDIT: A late addition – it looks like Gnome Zeitgeist might be just the answer to my “honest serving men” question, if and when it reaches fruition. Definitely one to keep an eye on

The Legend Of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

Yesterday’s post was just a precursor to this one, to explain why I’m so behind the times in writing about The Legend Of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. The reason goes something like this…

  • Phantom Hourglass was released in October 2007, and my girlfriend bought me a copy for Christmas that year
  • I decided to play The Wind Waker first, in order to get the continuity right.
  • After playing The Wind Waker (and Twilight Princess before it), I felt all Zelda’d out, so I took a break to play Super Mario Galaxy.
  • Then I bought Okami, which I finished in July.
  • Finally, about a month ago, I got round to playing Phantom Hourglass (largely in preparation for Spirit Tracks later in the year)

So although the game has been sitting on my “to play” pile for 18 months, that’s why I’ve only just finished it.

The game is great – nicely pitched in difficulty, with a few ingenious puzzles that make great use of the touchscreen. Drawing boomerang paths or steamboat routes was very intuitive and there was some nice (if limited) use of the microphone. I would have preferred the shoulder buttons to act as toggles rather than requiring a press-and-hold to activate the selected tool: too many times in the heat of battle I found myself releasing the shoulder button prematurely and losing the boomerang path I’d drawn.

The temple designs were inspired. In particular the little shortcuts which let you progress through the main temple faster with each new weapon gave you hope that this time you might have enough sand in your hourglass to make it through on the first attempt.

With the immediacy and convenience of a portable game, this has perhaps been the best Zelda I’ve played to date. I just wish it had been longer – but I suppose there is a trade-off to be made when you’re running from a cartridge.

My girlfriend played it as the same time as me, and also thoroughly enjoyed it. She found it a little more taxing than I did, but did manage to complete it. Usually she wouldn’t fancy a role-playing game like this, but the cute graphics and simple control mechanism made her an instant convert. We’re now both eagerly awaiting the release of Spirit Tracks.

Showing a little restraint

Like many games players, I’ve got a pile of half-finished games. Sometimes I’ve just got bored with them, but more often I’ve just been tempted by the latest new game, and ended up getting distracted. Often I stop playing while fully intending to resume at some point in future. It’s rare that I ever do pick them up again, though, so they just get added to that ever-growing pile of half-finished games, stretching back across several generations of consoles and computers.

The first game that I consciously remember thinking, “I’ll just have a few goes of the new game, then I’ll finish this one off” was Xenon 2 on my Atari ST – and I’ve been suffering from this affliction ever since.

A couple of years ago I decided that enough was enough, and I would stop this bad habit once and for all. Since then I’ve made sure to complete one game, before starting another. “Complete” could mean any number of things, largely depending on how much I’m enjoying the game, and what is sitting in the “to be played” pile, tempting me. Generally it means finishing the main story mode, but not worrying about every single little collectable item – though I enjoyed Super Mario Galaxy enough to go for all 120 stars, even though it meant dealing with Luigi’s Bastard Purple Bloomin’ Coins. I also plan to go back through SMG again as Luigi in preparation for the release of SMG2 next year.

As well as setting my own definition of “complete”, I also have a couple of other loosly-applied caveats to my “finish one game before starting another” rule. Games without a clear plot to them don’t fall under this rule – so I can play a few games of Pac-Man just for fun, without having to get all the way to level 256. I also apply this rule separately for consoles and handheld systems – so I can be playing one epic game on the Wii, and another on the DS. This works because time spend playing handheld games tends not to overlap with time spent playing console games too much – so progress on one doesn’t suffer at the expense of progress on the other. Finally, I tend not to play games from similar genres at the same time – so The Legend Of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass on the DS had to wait until I’d finished Okami on the Wii.

Taking this approach has its pros and cons. On the plus side, I do feel more of a sense of achievement due to finishing a game, rather than just moving on to the next release that takes my fancy. It also works out cheaper as I’m spending more time with each game, so have less time left to indulge in impulse buys. It does mean, however, that I just don’t have the time to play all the games I would like to, so I’m sure I’m missing out on a few classics. Even those that I’m certain I want to play tend to get bought then added to the list of games to play after the current one.

That last point, in particular, makes it a real lesson in self-restraint. All the while as I make my way through an epic masterpiece, I can hear those little cartridges and silver discs begging to be let out of the drawer…

Go on, just take a little break. Hyrule will still be there when you get back. You know you want to play us. We’re so shiny and new. Go on, just open the drawer and break the seal – think of the fun to be had.

Must…ignore…the…voices.

Okami

I finished playing Okami on my Wii last night. Beautiful graphics, great gameplay (even if the Wii controller made it a little hard to consistently draw the brush strokes), and thoroughly recommended if you like that sort of game. I’ve seen it described as “The best Zelda game than Nintendo never made”, and I think that description sums it up prefectly.

It’s a shame that the end credits were cut from the Wii version, but it’s even more of a shame that there’s unlikely to ever be a sequel. I’ll miss you, furball.

Feeling a little sore

On Friday I was one of the lucky people in the UK who actually managed to obtain a Nintendo Wii. Having taken the day off work to play it, I was a little annoyed that I didn’t get hold of it until the evening anyway, but at least I got it eventually.

It’s fully lived up to – and even exceeded – all my expectations. The motion tracking is more accurate than I thought it would be (the baseball bat in Wii Sports tracks the controller particularly closely) and the latency between the real-life and on-screen movements is negligible. When using it as a pointer for pressing on-screen buttons (or trying to shoot ducks) it’s very precise – much more like using a mouse than an analogue joystick.

The Mii system – a mechanism through which you create caricatures of yourself, your friends and family, and anyone else you fancy – is great fun and adds a real edge to the otherwise simplistic Wii Sports. The Miis also feature in some of the Wii Play games, appearing as spectators for the table tennis and being showcased in “Find Mii” where you often have to find doppelgangers of your own family in amongst a crowd. Believe me it’s much more fun, and far more addictive, than it sounds. I hope the Miis become more widely used rather than just relegated as a bit of a gimmick that gets dropped with the next batch of games.

I took the Wii to my parents’ house on Saturday night for the whole family to have a go. Watching my non-gaming mother and my sister battling against each other in a race between two knitted cows was pure comedy gold. And my six year old niece was easily the best at bowling. If my Saturday night was anything to go by then Nintendo’s policy to make gaming more inclusive and draw in more non-gamers stands a very good chance of succeeding.

Of course it’s not all party games; I also bought The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It’s the first time I’ve really played a Zelda game in earnest, and eight hours into it I’m really enjoying it so far. Even though the sword movements don’t match your controller movements exactly there’s still something decidedly visceral about physically slashing at the enemy, rather than just pressing a button. It definitely shows the controller to be good for more than just sports sims.

While I’m on the subject of Wii Sports again, however, I’ll just mention the fitness mode. This pitches you against three of the training programmes from elsewhere in the game in order to determine your physical age (with 20 being the optimum). It’s not trying to work out your real age, of course, it’s just a measure of how fit you are. I’m pleased to report that my physical age is now 32, compared to my real age of 34. With the Wii being the first games console that actually gets me to work up a sweat, I’m hoping to lose a little of my paunch and bring that age down even lower. I’m feeling a little sore today, from too much tennis and boxing, but given my usual lack of exercise I see that as a good thing.

They may be rarer than hen’s teeth at the moment (unless you want to pay through the nose on ebay), but once they become readily available I would recommend anyone to buy a Wii – even if you don’t usually play (m)any games.