And we're not stopping there! In the future look for technical articles, how-to's and more creative uses of the Web's amazing potential (hint: video and Flash are just the beginning) that makes us a publication unlike any other. Of course there will be more of everything that you already love about Armchair Arcade...
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Issue 4's articles:
The editors speak in this Issue's Hot Topic editorial: Games for Grownups
The Rise and Fall of Game Audio
by Matt Barton
What can you do with a computer that you can't do with an orchestra, and why aren't more people doing it? To answer that question, Matt takes us on a journey through the history of game audio and shows how big business and lack of artistic integrity led to the fall of true innovation in the field. The article is informed by Matt's personal interviews with greats like Rob Hubbard, Jon Appleton, Jan Harries, and George Sanger (The Fat Man).
System Ranking Matrix - Technical Statistics and Ratings for 75 U.S. Game Capable Systems
by Bill Loguidice
How does the Commodore Vic-20 compare to the PalmOS platform? How does a modern PC compare to the RCA Studio II? How do all four of those units compare to each other and dozens of other systems? These questions and more are answered in two ways for 75 different US game capable systems, with a factual, objective ranking, and a real world observation-based rating that is subjective. Don't agree? Have information to contribute or correct? Do so via each system's handy comment box. This will be an ongoing Armchair Arcade feature.
Violence in Videogames: The Second Person Perspective
by Buck Feris
This is part one of a two part series where Buck examines the effects of videogame violence. Where do you stand?
Scorched Parabolas: A History of the Artillery Game
by Matt Barton
Remember Scorched Earth? Worms? How about Artillery Duel? In this article, Matt presents an illustrated history of the artillery game, starting with obscure 70s BASIC titles and ending with the incredible new Scorched 3D and Worms 3D.
Atari 2600 Mega Mini Reviews: Part I [An Armchair Arcade Video Article]
by Bill Loguidice
Bill brings us our first video article, which features a lively look at five shooting games for the Atari 2600: Chopper Command, Defender, Fantastic Voyage, Space Cavern, and Space Jockey.
In Defense of Retro Gaming: A Discussion of Abstraction
by Buck Feris
Part one of Buck's multi-part editorial takes issue with those who believe a game's visuals are a deciding factor in whether it's good or not, thus eliminating a large portion of classic games with tremendous gameplay.
Head-to-Head with Popeye the Sailor
by Mark R. Wiesner Jr.
Mark brings us a look at the legendary Popeye and provides a comparison of the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, ColecoVision and NES translations of the arcade game. Which version will come out on top?
Sequential Access: Essay Nybbles
by Bill Loguidice
Through a series of five short essays in this first of a regular column, Bill gives us a highly opinionated look at some interesting topics as they relate to classic and modern computers and videogames: ESSAY 01 - Exploring Emotions and Sophisticated Themes in Videogames, ESSAY 02 - Defining Videogame Eras, ESSAY 03 - Perceived Value in Gaming, ESSAY 04 - Defining Past and Present Game Genres, and ESSAY 05 - Classic Games, Music and Movies. Don't agree with the conclusions? Take it to the forums!
Author: Bill Loguidice
Application Development: Matt Barton
Data Entry: Elizabeth Katselis, Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice
Additional Fact Checking: Elizabeth Katselis
Article Editing: Matt Barton
Article Layout: Bill Loguidice
Special Thanks: Matt Barton and Buck Feris
The System Ranking Matrix is designed to be an at-a-glance guide to the various capabilities and demonstrated marketability of the major videogame and games-capable computer systems released in the United States.
System Information lists the standard technical specifications of each system. However, rather than list what each system was theoretically capable of, I have listed the standards set by the majority of its game library. For instance, if a system supported up to 128 on-screen colors, but the majority of games utilized only 32, then 32 will be the number given. I have also rounded certain values for consistency.
The matrix not only provides objective technical details for each system, but also thoughtful Armchair Arcade Ratings, which are subjective and generally in relative comparison to each other and specifically to other systems of their generation. While one system may have better technical specifications on paper than another, in real world observations that consider multiple factors such as game availability and quality, the technically weaker system may outscore it. Scores higher than 10 are allowed only where necessary, like Visuals and Audio, as are scores lower than 1. Only whole (such as 3.0) or half points (such as 7.5) are allowed.
An asterisk (*) indicates a dominant game system in popularity for its era and class.
NOTE: We have tried our best to provide accurate information and careful evaluations of each system. However, you are encouraged to use the â€œAdd your commentâ€ section to provide corrections, feedback and anecdotes.
Why a matrix? There is no easy way, without lots of research and hands-on experience, for the average user to visualize where a particular system fits in the context of history and technical capabilities, among other areas. We can spew strictly technical specifications, but the reality is most want to know what a systemâ€™s demonstrated or real-world abilities were.
There are so many factors to consider other than simple technical specifications. For instance, the Atari Jaguar may have been a 64-bit system, but did it ever show its full potential? Because the Jaguar was 64-bit, did that automatically make it better than Segaâ€™s later 32-bit Saturn? How do the legendary Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) or Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) stack-up to Sonyâ€™s PlayStation 2 (PS2) or Microsoftâ€™s Xbox in key categories? These are questions that can only be answered through direct observation. Thatâ€™s the purpose behind this matrixâ€”to sift through the hype as objectively as possible so weâ€™ll have our answers.
Why only focus on the U.S.? One reason is to keep the number of systems to a more manageable number. Another reason is that this is where the authorâ€™s expertise lies. It is open to see if other authors will take up the cause for other territories that theyâ€™re intimately familiar with, such as Japan or Europe. In any case, if you feel there is a system we omitted or would like to comment on other territories, please write in our discussion forums or use the â€œAdd your commentâ€ section provided for each system within the matrix itself.
The Armchair Arcade Ratings has eight categories leading up to a ninth, which is the overall score.
Letâ€™s face it. For many, the Atari 2600 and NES are the penultimate game machines of their eras or even all-time, but the reality is technology has moved on, and, while the games are certainly no less fun than they used to be, areas like control have arguably improved, and audio-visual technology has definitely leapt forward. Therefore, while the Atari 2600 and NES can potentially achieve perfect 10â€™s in several categories, it will be impossible to give them scores anywhere near 10 in some of the more technically-skewed categories. This gives relatively new systems like the Nintendo GameCube â€“ which has a high ranking in visual and audio categories, but a lower ranking in software depth â€“ a fairer basis of comparison. Alternately, the older the system, the more potentially mature the offerings, such as in software diversity, which should help to offset many of the newer systemâ€™s technical advantages.
Letâ€™s examine each of the nine categories, in order.
This category takes into account such features as a systemâ€™s resolution, colors and animationâ€”basically everything that ends up on a screen. Some systems such as Tigerâ€™s Game.com and Nintendoâ€™s original GameBoy can display relatively high resolution black and white graphics, but blur on moving objects detracts from the overall experience. In fact, difficulty in actually seeing the action on the screen of the original GameBoy further hurts its score in this category since a good light source is required. Other systems like Sonyâ€™s PlayStation 1 have high resolution modes that were rarely used, so that factors little as a benefit in its final scoring. In fact, most systems have theoretical polygon or sprite output values that are quite high on paper, but in real world applications like games, they were rarely, if ever, realistic targets. Our final example to show how visuals were judged â€“ the original Commodore Amiga â€“ had a 4,096 color mode which was a bit odd and difficult to properly utilize, so most games only used 32 colors, so this is what that system was rated on.
This category judges a systemâ€™s inherent sound abilities, except where otherwise specified. For example, if a significant number of games utilized an add-on and the add-on was and still is quite common â€“ like with the Magnavox Odyssey2â€™s and Mattel Intellivisionâ€™s voice modules â€“ then those may be counted in the rating. For a system like the Apple IIgs â€“ which in theory had incredible inherent stereo sound capabilities for its era â€“ it was nonetheless crippled by the fact that without a relatively obscure add-on, it was only able to output a mono signal. In more modern examples, the Nintendo GameCube is â€œonlyâ€ able to output Dolby Pro Logic II sound (analog cables), while the Sony PlayStation 2 and the Microsoft Xbox can output the superior Dolby Digital (digital cables), but only the Xbox utilizes the ability in the majority of its games. Nuances like these affect each systemâ€™s ratings.
Controller Options and Quality
In order to achieve a high ranking in this category, portable and handheld systems must offer an especially well-built control panel, and other types of systems must feature a wide-range of easy-to-find and well supported options. Criteria includes whether the system offers digital or analog control (or both, as applicable), gamepads, joysticks, light guns, dance or foot pads (or other specialty options), steering wheels, keyboards, vibration/force feedback, proper accommodations for more than one player, and so on. The more one system has and supports, the better the scoring.
Add-Ons, Peripherals, Expandability, Features
Items like disk drives, memory cards, display options, headphone support, touch screen capabilities, RAM add-ons, printer support and other types of upgrades and modules are the criteria used to evaluate this category. At the top is a system like the modern PC, which is the ultimate type of generalist system, with a seemingly endless array of useful and useless add-ons (sometimes at the expense of ease-of-use), while near the bottom is a system like the Emerson Arcadia 2001 where the system you got is the exact system you were always stuck with, hard-wired controllers and all. Having a lower score in this category does not necessarily indicate a poor system, but itâ€™s almost always preferable to have more options and flexibility to tweak your entertainment experience rather than less.
Software Lineup Diversity and Complexity
First, this category determines whether a system has a good range of game genres with sufficient diversity. Second, this category determines if any of the games for the system in question have depth, or whether they are predominantly shallow diversions (a mix is best, but all depth over all shallow would rate a bit higher). For instance, the Atari 2600â€™s software library includes arcade, puzzle, racing, role-playing, adventure, fighting, card and text games, and offers options for those seeking quick or longer-term play, so it scores high. The Mattel Aquarius, on the other hand, misses many key genres, so its rating is quite low.
Software Density and Raw Number of Mainstream Titles
This category puts a great deal of emphasis on the total number of titles in a systemâ€™s library. Some systems, like the Nintendo Virtual Boy have a handful, while others, like the Sega Dreamcast have hundreds, while others still, like the modern PC, have countless thousands, so each system is scored accordingly. The primary focus of this category is on commercial titles, but certain systems either due to age or popular use of public domain software, blur the commercial designation, hence the use of â€œmainstreamâ€ as a qualifier. So any well distributed, readily available game of acceptable quality counts towards the systemâ€™s library and thus rating.
Ease to Set Up Optimal Game Playing System
DOS-based PC systems could be very powerful and quite flexible â€“ thus rating highly in other categories â€“ but were often quite unpleasant to try and set up to actually get a game running (can you free enough memory?), then working optimally (is there enough memory to have sound?), so these will score lower than a typical console, like the Atari Jaguar, which is basically plug-and-play. Some systems score lower in this category because of uncomfortable ergonomics or needlessly complex setups, physical or otherwise.
This category examines a systemâ€™s popularity with the general buying public, with a heavy bias towards when first released. Some systems achieved greater fame after they were pulled from the market, such as GCEâ€™s Vectrex, and some systems are still popular with certain communities today, like Atariâ€™s 2600, but those types of scenarios are not heavily factored into the score because of all the variables involved (for instance, newly published software is available for the Atari 5200, but some of the original software is difficult to find).
The grand culmination where we arrive at our systemâ€™s final ranking. What is your favorite systemâ€™s total score?
Category Breakdown Example
Finally, in order to illustrate the thinking that went into each rating, read the following breakdown of the Initial Popularity category.
Ranking of 0.5: Entex Adventurevision, Fairchild Channel F, RCA Studio II, and Spectravideo SV-series
The systems that achieved a 0.5 as a ranking essentially were released into the marketplace and available for purchase for at least a limited time, but few made purchases and even today the most hardcore gamers have a hard time identifying the systems.
Ranking of 1: Commodore 16 and Plus/4, CP/M Compatible Systems (Kaypro, Osborne, etc.), Emerson Arcadia 2001, Mattel Aquarius with Mini Expander and 16K Memory Cartridge, Milton Bradley Microvision, NUON DVD Platform, Tapwave Zodiac, Tiger R-Zone, and Timex Sinclair 1000 with 16K Memory Expansion
The systems that achieved a 1 as a ranking may have been released to some fanfare or expectations, but never took off in the marketplace, particularly in reference to gaming. The two Commodore systems suffered from a lack of software compatibility with the best selling Commodore 64 and were too underpowered at the time of release to establish their own niche. The Tapwave Zodiac is too new to properly analyze its impact on the marketplace, but as it stands now it is a non-factor.
Ranking of 1.5: Commodore PET Series, IBM PCjr with Second Generation Keyboard, Nintendo Virtual Boy, Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer 3 (CoCo3) - 128K Unit, Tandy TRS-80 Model I â€“ IV, and Tiger Game.com
The systems that achieved a 1.5 as a ranking were popular or long lasting enough to have a devoted or somewhat mainstream following, but never in significant enough numbers to be competitive with other contemporary systems. The Commodore PET series of computers and the Tandy TRS-80 Model I â€“ IV systems as examples, did not have the audio-visual horsepower of other systems of the day to bring their gaming abilities to the next level, likely limiting their ultimate potential for market growth.
Ranking of 2: Bally Astrocade, Magnavox Odyssey2 with Voice Module, Nokia N-Gage/QD, Sega 32X, and SNK Neo Geo Pocket Color
The systems that achieved a 2 as a ranking made enough impact on the marketplace to have reasonable sales and a memorable existence for most gamers. The Bally Astrocade actually had several re-releases, which helped its score, while SNKâ€™s Neo Geo Pocket Color was always facing a losing battle going against Nintendoâ€™s GameBoy juggernaut, but was around long enough to garner a loyal following.
Ranking of 2.5: Cell Phone Platform (BREW or J2ME-enabled late model phones), and Commodore Vic-20
The Commodore Vic-20 was a best-selling computer, but ultimately had a shortened lifespan once its more powerful sibling, the 64, was released. BREW or J2ME cell phones are in a lot of consumerâ€™s hands with lots of gaming options available, but itâ€™s still a growing category in the US.
Ranking of 3: 3DO Multiplayer, Apple IIgs, Atari 5200 SuperSystem, Atari 7800 ProSystem, Atari Jaguar and Jaguar CD, Coleco Adam, GCE Vectrex, IBM and Compatible PCâ€™s up to 286's with CGA graphics and PC speaker sound (DOS), NEC Turbo-Grafx 16 CD/Super CD, Philips CD-I with Digital Video (DV) add-on, Pocket PC Platform (late model), Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer 2 (CoCo2) - Up to 64K Unit, Sega CD, and SNK Neo Geo and Neo Geo CD
The systems that achieved a 3 as a ranking had acceptable lifespans and a good amount of support. However, all of these systems lacked something to take their popularity to the next level, most typically never being able to overcome more popular contemporary competition. The Atari 5200 SuperSystem had poor controllers and was released too close to the videogame crash of 1984 to have more of an impact. The Pocket PC platform, while currently still active, has always taken a back seat to the Palm platform in terms of raw numbers. Systems like the Radio Shack TRS-80 CoCo2 was always a fourth or fifth choice in the U.S. to systems like the Apple II series, Atari 8-bit computers and Commodore 64, among others. Appleâ€™s IIgs was limited by Apple themselves since it was in direct competition against their own Macintosh line, which Apple deemed the future of the company.
Ranking of 4: Coleco ColecoVision
Colecoâ€™s system was only hampered by being somewhat in the shadow of Atariâ€™s wildly popular 2600 and the videogame crash of 1984. The console had a brief life in mail order outlets after the crash.
Ranking of 4.5: Atari ST Series, Commodore Amiga Series - AGA Chipset and Amiga CD32, and Texas Instruments TI-994/A with Voice Module
The Atari ST series of computers never caught on like their contemporary PC, Macintosh, and Commodore Amiga (ECS) competitors, but still had a market impact. Commodoreâ€™s AGA chipset systems like the Amiga 1200, never reached the same popularity levels of their own prior ECS-based models and were soon overrun by the popularity of Windows PCâ€™s. The Texas Instruments TI-994/A was popular, particularly after drastic price cuts, but never cracked into the top three systems of the day, which were the Apple II series, the Commodore 64, and the Atari 8-bit computer line.
Ranking of 5: Apple Macintosh pre-iMac PowerPC-based - Full Color, Apple Macintosh up to 16 color 680x0-based, Apple Macintosh up to G4 or better with Current Generation 3D graphics, Atari Lynx, Mattel Intellivision with Voice Module, and PalmOS Platform (late model)
The systems that achieved a 5 as a ranking represent the median of popularity. In the case of Appleâ€™s Macintosh, it was always a popular system, but never approached the top in any of its iterations. Today, the Macintosh line has been marginalized by the popularity of Windows PCâ€™s, but counts among its many millions of owners a rabidly devoted core of fans. Mattelâ€™s Intellivision is one of the more interesting stories. While never reaching the top of the videogame world, Mattelâ€™s system saw several revisions of compatible hardware and can count among its contemporary competitors both the Atari 2600 and NES, having a long and eventful lifespan.
Ranking of 6.5: NEC Turbo-Grafx 16 - Turbo Express, and Sega Saturn
Both of these systems were usually in third place in their respective generations, but still had devoted followings with good support and a continuously loyal fan base. The biggest problem with each of these systems was that they were up against systems that would become legendarily popular, which in the Saturnâ€™s case was Sonyâ€™s PlayStation and in NECâ€™s case, the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo consoles.
Ranking of 7: Sega Game Gear, and Sega Master System (SMS)
Both of these systems from Sega were distant seconds to Nintendo machines, but were popular choices for those that wanted an alternative to the choice of the masses. Relatively speaking, both of these systems did extremely well.
Ranking of 8: Commodore Amiga Series - ECS Chipset, Amiga CDTV; Microsoft Xbox; Nintendo 64; Sega Dreamcast; and Nintendo GameCube
None of these systems ever reached the top spot in their respective generations, but still moved a tremendous number of units and received a wealth of support. Microsoftâ€™s Xbox and Nintendoâ€™s GameCube are still going strong, creating an unprecedented long term three console race with Sonyâ€™s unstoppable PlayStation 2 (PS2).
Ranking of 9: Atari 8-bit Computers/XEGS* - 48K - 64K, and IBM and Compatible PCâ€™s up to 386's with EGA graphics and Ad Lib sound (DOS)
Atariâ€™s 8-bit computer line was active in the mainstream from approximately the late 1970â€™s to the very early 1990â€™s. While Atari was never able to overcome Appleâ€™s II series or Commodore with the all-time best selling computer, the C-64, the devoted following and vast amount of support made these systems a good choice for the savvy or â€œaccidentalâ€ consumer. The IBM EGA and Ad Lib standard began the PCâ€™s dominance of computer gaming, finally reaching a point where the PC specification was becoming technologically competitive with other formats.
Ranking of 10: Apple II Series* - 48K - 128K units, Atari 2600 VCS - Standard Unit*, Commodore 64/128* - 64K Software, IBM and Compatible PCâ€™s up to Pentium II's with First Generation 3D (Monster 3D equivalent) graphics and Soundblaster Pro sound (DOS/Windows)*, IBM and Compatible PCâ€™s up to Pentium IV's with Current Generation 3D graphics and Soundblaster Audigy-level sound (Windows)*, IBM and Compatible PCâ€™s up to Pentium's with VGA/SVGA graphics and Soundblaster sound (DOS)*, Nintendo Enterntainment System (NES)*, Nintendo GameBoy Advance/SP*, Nintendo GameBoy Color*, Nintendo GameBoy*, Nintendo Super Nintendo*, Sega Genesis*, Sony PlayStation 1 (PSX/PS1/PSOne)*, and Sony PlayStation 2 (PS2)*
These systems were without question the best selling and most popular computers, consoles, and handhelds of their day, garnering huge followings and tremendous support, often to the detriment of other contemporary systems. For whatever reason, these were or are the systems that resonated with the buying public and set the mark that all other competitors strive to reach.
Let us know what you think of the rankings. If you feel a system should be higher or lower in a category, let us know. While you may feel passionately about a system, facts are always appreciated to backup your opinions. Remember, this matrix was not created to show favoritism to any one system or systems, but to provide as objective a ranking as possible in several key categories. Since this is a â€œlivingâ€ document, it is safe to assume that there will be future revisions based on feedback and new system releases. Finally, while great care was taken to make sure the System Information data was researched as carefully as possible, common conclusions may be wrong (for instance, about the systemâ€™s most popular resolution) or other data may be incorrect. Since accuracy is our highest goal, please provide your corrections as you uncover possible errors. Keep in mind, the â€œAdd your commentâ€ section will be everyoneâ€™s best friend in order to make the matrix as indispensable a reference and discussion tool as possible, so make use of it!
Author and Production Credit: Bill Loguidice
Musical Theme to Armchair Arcade: Matt Barton
Online Layout: Bill Loguidice
Special Thanks: Albert Yarusso and AtariAge for providing access to additional information and scans required for the article
Do a â€œSave Target Asâ€¦â€ or similar to download the .WMV video file above to your local system
File size: 17.5MB
Running Time: 10:56 minutes
Advantages â€“ Great presentation and control.
Disadvantages â€“ High difficulty level. Not a great deal of variety.
Overall â€“ Excellent (4 out of 5 stars)
Advantages â€“ Fun play mechanic, especially when rescuing humanoids.
Disadvantages â€“ Poor presentation, mediocre control and some unusual play conversion decisions from the original arcade version.
Overall â€“ Fair (2 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Advantages â€“ Simple, solid graphics and sound. Interesting setting and gameplay.
Disadvantages â€“ Perhaps a little too simple in both presentation and play variety.
Overall â€“ Good (3 out of 5 stars)
Advantages â€“ Simple to play.
Disadvantages â€“ Boring, repetitive, too easy, and a poor presentation with sound effects that seem lifted from other, better games.
Overall â€“ Poor (1 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Advantages â€“ Great graphics and customizable play variations.
Disadvantages â€“ Repetitive, overlapping sound effects. Only single player.
Overall â€“ Good (3 out of 5 stars)
Guide to Game Rankings:
Author: Mark R. Wiesner Jr.
Editing: Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton
Online Layout: Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice
Special Thanks: The Video Game Museum (www.vgmuseum.com) for use of the screen captures
Popeye Cartridge label
Popeye the Sailor is an internationally renowned superstar, and itâ€™s no surprise that he earned a video game in his honor. The 1982 arcade game was very popular and was ported to numerous consoles and home computers. In this article, we will examine four particular ports out of the many: the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, ColecoVision, and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Popeye, of course, has a long history that predates video games. The character first appeared in newspaper comics, animation, and live-action film before making the transition to video games. Popeye was created in 1929 by cartoonist E.C. Segar. It is said that Segar based Popeye on an actual man he knew, a local tough man named Frank â€œRockyâ€ Fiegel, whose ability to fight amazed everyone.1 Originally appearing only as a temporary character in Segarâ€™s comic strip, Thimble Theatre, Popeye was an instant hit with the public and soon overtook the comic itself. His popularity spawned cartoons, merchandise, and even a live action film in 1980 with Robin Williams in the title role. With the Golden Age of video games in the early 1980s, the people at Nintendo finally decided to bring Popeye to this new but popular medium.
Before we can compare the four ports of Popeye, it would be only fair to examine the original arcade game first. Nintendo's Popeye (1982) is an action game with a plot resembling something straight out of the cartoons. As usual, Popeye and his arch nemesis Bluto (alternately referred to as Brutus) compete for the romantic attention of Olive Oyl.
In each of the three levels, Olive Oyl throws out items that represent her â€œloveâ€ for Popeye and the sailor must catch them all in order to advance to the next level. But Bluto will have none of this, and is gunning for Popeye. Popeyeâ€™s abilities are the ability to walk, climb ladders and staircases, and punch.
The first level consists of four floors connected by staircases and one ladder in the middle of the screen. The top floor is where Popeye starts play and is the only floor that he can move through one end of the screen to get to the other. Bluto wanders around the last three levels. Popeye must avoid Bluto while catching the hearts that Olive Oyl drops. Bluto, however, is one persistent customer and follows Popeye around the screen. He canâ€™t come up to the top floor, but he has a reach that rivals any professional basketball player. If he gets directly above or below Popeye, Bluto can reach Popeye with a powerful punch. If Bluto hits Popeye, a life is lost.
Whatâ€™s a sailor to do to stop the big lug? On the first level, thereâ€™s a punching bag on the top floor next to a bucket. With proper timing, Popeye can punch the bag so it knocks the bucket onto Blutoâ€™s head, temporarily immobilizing the big schnook. Thereâ€™s also another way of stopping Bluto, and anyone whoâ€™s seen a Popeye cartoon ought to know what it is. (Hint: Itâ€™s a green leafy vegetable that the sailor made famous.) You guessed it: Spinach! Once on each level, a can of spinach will appear. If Popeye can grab it, he will be temporarily invincible for as long as the Popeye theme plays. He can deliver a knockout blow that will send Bluto into lower earth orbit, briefly removing him from the game. All point values are doubled while under the influence of spinach.
Bluto, however, is the least of your worries. In addition to Bluto, Popeye also has to deal with the Sea Hag on each level. Sheâ€™ll briefly appear and throw bottles at him, which must be punched or dodged. The items that Olive throws can be an enemy too. If they hit the bottom level, Popeye has 10 seconds to grab them or die.
The second level is set in a nighttime neighborhood. Olive Oyl throws down music notes for the sailor to catch. There are four floors, including a top floor similar to the one from the first level that Bluto canâ€™t get to (but can still reach you from with punches). Two more Popeye characters put in an appearance too. Sweeâ€™Pea, the baby, hovers on a platform and the hamburger loving Wimpy operates a springboard that Popeye can use to vault up to the higher levels with. If Popeye catches onto Sweeâ€™Peaâ€™s platform while jumping from the springboard, points are gained. As before, Bluto aggressively chases Popeye and can reach up or down if he passes directly under or over him. He can use the springboard, too.
The third and final level is the trickiest of all. Olive is trapped up on top of a tall ship and tosses down the letters â€œH-E-L-Pâ€ for you to catch. Popeye cannot take shortcuts on any tier as he did in the earlier levels. The only items that can help him here are the spinach and a small sliding platform on the upper floor. Besides the Sea Hag and Bluto (who can now jump up or down two levels), thereâ€™s also Bernard the Vulture to deal with. When the level is beaten, the Popeye theme plays briefly. The game then starts over again, albeit with faster, smarter enemies and white skulls to deal with.
The arcade game was a hit and is very enjoyable even today. Itâ€™s not hard to see why this game was ported to a number of home systems, to the NES by Nintendo and the 2600, 5200, and ColecoVision by Parker Brothers. But how do these four ports stack up against each other?
The Atari 2600 Popeye is arguably the weakest of the four systems. While the game itself is playable and has pretty good sound (especially considering the fact that itâ€™s the least advanced of the systems), there are many flaws. The graphics are drab with Olive Oyl, Popeye, and Bluto being displayed in only one color and not very well detailed. The stages are also very drab in color. The bottles and the spinach are represented as flickering blocks, which further detract from the graphics. Popeyeâ€™s punches are hard to time because his fist does not extend outward when he punches like it does in the other games. The Sea Hag doesnâ€™t appear (though her bottles do) and neither does Sweeâ€™Pea, Wimpy, the bucket on the first level, or Bernard the vulture on the third level.
The ColecoVision version is the first home version of Popeye that I played and is much better than the 2600 counterpart. The music is excellent. Just about everything from the arcade version is present, and boasts the full cast of characters (including Wimpy and the others) that the 2600 game lacked. The only real flaw in the game is the color. Some of the characters and backgrounds look monochromatic. The character design is slightly flawed too. While Bluto looks good, Wimpy, Popeye, Sweeâ€™Pea, and Olive could look better.
The Atari 5200 version of Popeye features good music too, and its graphics stand up well against the ColecoVision port. Its color even surpasses the ColecoVision game because it looks brighter and more colorful to the naked eye. This is apparent when you compare the screens of the ColecoVision Popeye with the Atari 5200 equivalent. The 5200 Popeyeâ€™s only real flaw is its collision detection. When Popeye punches a bottle or other item, it doesnâ€™t always register and is counted as a hit on Popeye, costing a life.
The NES version was the last of the four made and showed up on the NES with the consoleâ€™s release in Japan and the USA. Hands down, it beats out the other three in technical terms. The outstanding graphics, color, and the superb sound effects and music outshine the other three versions. Itâ€™s probably the one that plays most like the arcade version. â€œMostâ€ is the key word, for it is not a perfect translation. The Sea Hag throws skulls instead of bottles and Wimpy is missing from the second level. The biggest flaw, though, is actually the size of the characters. Popeye, Bluto, and Olive look very small.
Atari 2600 Popeye (Parker Brothers, 1983)
Advantages: Good music, good playability
Disadvantages: Punches hard to time, weak graphics, many things missing from arcade game
Rating: Good (3 out of 5 stars)
Atari 5200 Popeye (Parker Brothers, 1984)
Advantages: Excellent color, good music, plays like the arcade game
Disadvantages: Collision detection is off
Rating: Good (3 out of 5 stars)
ColecoVision Popeye (Parker Brothers, 1983)
Advantages: Good graphics, good sound, plays like the arcade version
Disadvantages: Monochromatic color, a few characters lack detail
Rating: Good (3 out of 5 stars)
NES Popeye (Nintendo, 1986)
Advantages: Excellent graphics and sound, most resembles the arcade game
Disadvantages: Characters are small
Rating: Excellent (4 out of 5 stars)
The Final Verdict
When it comes to the best version of the four, the NES takes the checkered flag as having the best playability, graphics, color, sound effects, and music. The other versions stand up well though. They are definitely worth playing if you enjoyed the Popeye arcade game or if youâ€™re a diehard Popeye fan. Versions were released too on other systems like the Intellivision, the Texas Instruments 99/4A computer, and the Commodore 64 computer, but that goes beyond the scope of this article.
So what are you waiting for? Grab your spinach and go help Popeye take down that big schnook, Bluto!
Guide to Game Rankings:
Each Issue's Hot Topic features brief commentary from the Armchair Arcade editors on an issue currently in the news...
Though we at Armchair Arcade typically enjoy talking about classic games, we're certainly not oblivious to some of the issues plaguing the modern game industry. One key difference between vintage and contemporary videogames is the possibilities provided by the hardware for graphic realism. We've come a long way from the blocky boobs of yesterday, as this site dedicated to preserving the "Sexy Side of the Commodore 64" attests. However, with this "advancement" comes all the problems associated with pornography and its slow creep onto videogame shelvesâ€”the concern of most parents, of course, is whether they'll be able to prevent their children from playing these games and whether they should be legal in the first place.
With the recent or upcoming release of games such as Singles: Flirt Up Your Life (Uncensored version), Playboy: The Mansion, Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, and The Guy Game, adult gaming finally hits its stride on the PC and consoles. But is it a good thing for the industry?
Fun for a boy or a girl?
Buck Feris, Editor: Not really bad or good. Although one of my article's this month discusses violent videogames, many of the rules apply for sexual content as well. People want sexual content in their games. As long as the demand is there, game makers are going to supply this product. Our culture is inundated with sexually explicit movies, music, theater, poetry, prose, and yesâ€”videogames. Complain, lobby, and pass all the laws you want. Sexually explicit content is here to stay. The last line of defense is in your own home. Parents, do you know where your kids are?
Matt Barton, Editor: Should we strive to keep young people ignorant about the two most basic aspects of human lifeâ€”namely, sex and death? Anyone who has ever been 12 years old knows that the more a subject is held as forbidden or taboo, the more kids want to learn more about it. Hell, if my parents had decided that geometry was of the devil and that it was a mortal sin to line up angles with a compass and protractor, I'd likely be a math professor right now. Why do so many young people smoke and drink? Because it was forbidden to them as children, and now they want to demonstrate their maturity (and adult status) by doing "grown up things." These are some pretty hasty generalizations, of course, but theyâ€™re not a bit hastier than those launched by groups dedicated to censoring and distorting the truth to young people.
Sex and death are certainly not forbidden topics for young people in every country, particularly in so-called "Third World" countries that haven't become infected by the Western paranoia about such things. It also wasn't so forbidden in America's historyâ€”some of my great-great grandmothers were married and having children at the age of 13, and let's face itâ€”mothers and fathers haven't always had the luxury of a private bedroom. These people lived, raised big families, and died without the benefit of knowing that they were immature and socially underdeveloped.
The idea that young people need to be shielded from the facts is distinctly Western and distinctly modern, and that's mostly because we have the economy to support a large population of young people who are legally and socially ineligible to be anything but freeloaders. In countries that lack advanced technology, fast food, and Wal-Marts, itâ€™s practically impossible to support such a large leisure group. For late capitalism, it makes sense to have a large a group of pure consumers as possible, which means (a) early retirement and (b) ever-prolonged childhoods. They donâ€™t waste their time doing anything but spending money, and considering how many products are available at your local shopping mall, itâ€™s important that at least some people have the time to think up reasons to buy them.
Our beloved videogames are in many ways a result of this widening bracket of childhood consumers. A large, highly-developed toy market would never be possible in a country where people were worried about where their next meal was coming from. A starving kid will take a box of Pac-Man cereal over a Pac-Man Atari 2600 cart any day of the week. Come to think of it, almost any kid would.
Once you start to understand that the whole idea of "innocent children" arises purely from a late-modern capitalist ideology, the easier it is to realize why so many people have a problem with sex in cartoons and videogames. Let's face it; the two are lumped together in most people's minds like T&A. For the love of God in His Painfully Prolonged Chastity, we canâ€™t keep a husband and wife married for more than a year, but if we can do something to stop Junior from sneaking off to watch Porkyâ€™s, I guess weâ€™ve upheld our moral obligations this time around the sun.
Now, we all know that the good folks who made Porkyâ€™s and even Debbie Does Disney World arenâ€™t responsible for keeping it out of Juniorâ€™s hands. Thatâ€™s clearly the fault of the clerk who sells it to him or the parents who donâ€™t keep their DVD collection in a safe deposit box. Good parents know the whereabouts of their children as surely as a man sight-seeing at a sausage slicing factory knows the whereabouts of his danglies. Itâ€™s those bad parents who let their chilluns run wild, do drugs, get pregnant, commit violent atrocities, and watch cartoons that cuss.
Magnum Cum Laude
Matt: I know I sure enjoyed playing LSL as a kid.
Fortunately, even the most neurotic parents, bless their souls, have trouble keeping their wee-ones under constant visual and aural surveillance. The best they can do is threaten them with slow bodily dismemberment if they go near that Tree of Knowledge.
And whatâ€™s the result of stringing up an electrified barbwire fence around that unwholesome tree? Curious, sex-obsessed children engage in constant sexual experimentation without the benefit of reliable information. Is keeping children in the dark about sex and death really worth the whole of society lying to them about it? Listen, every kid has the equipment, and for Godâ€™s sake, at a certain age thereâ€™s even hair growing on it. Thereâ€™s no harm and probably a lot of good in providing kids with manuals for these puzzling and potentially devastating devices. Games like Leisure Suit Larry can provide kids with a safe sexual playground to try new things and gain insight into this mysterious matter of being a human.
Consider: What's more likely to keep a kid from smoking pot? (a) "Marijuana doesnâ€™t exist." (b) "You're not old enough to know what marijuana is." (c) "Hereâ€™s some pot, and here's what it does, and here's some videos of people who are now dying of a fatal marijuana overdose." You don't have to be a psychologist to figure out which is the more effective preventative measure, though you may need one if you think those videos are going to be easy to find. Kids aren't nearly as stupid as we'd like to think they are. They also don't like being lied to anymore than we do, and no, smoking pot wonâ€™t make you go blind or grow hair on your palms, though itâ€™d be a lot easier on the cops if it did.
So, back to the original question. Sex and death can be presented to young people in a way that is neither dishonest nor harmful, but it requires plenty of foresight and consideration on the part of the presenter. Iâ€™m not talking about exposing kids to the same things we ought not be exposing to any sane individual, young or old. It's a worse sin in the eyes of Plato to let kids play a videogame that has them smashing-in the heads of innocent goombas than it is to let them play games in which husbands and wives engage in honest sexual activity. It's better to show young people what the world is and how it should be like, so they can learn about its problems and the best ways to cope with them.
You can be honest without being obscene, just as you can discuss the most sensitive topics without resorting to profanity (or the word â€œtherapy,â€ a thoroughly obscene term that ought to make the hardest felon blush redder than my checking account). I'd say what's needed in the videogame market is a sensible approach to incorporating "adult" elements in a manner that is both instructive and morally encouraging; the kind of â€œpersonal activitiesâ€ that we wish everyone would engage in. This means expecting a little more from our young people than being brainless â€œbuy me that!â€ machines that require zombifier pills to keep them civilized. For Godâ€™s sake, if we want our children to behave like responsible citizens, weâ€™d better find it in our advanced capitalist brains to treat them as such. If Joe Camel, Jack Daniels, and Ron Jeremy are poisons for our bodies and souls, then maybe we ought to pass some laws to protect ourselves as well as our children. My bet is we need it more than those sons of upstanding young mothers anyway.
Oh, and, folks, that â€œmature humorâ€ they talk about in movie and videogame guides; itâ€™s anything butt. Yeah, I said "butt."
Bill Loguidice, Editor: Bad thing. While I welcome the influx of any new game types, these particular games will be attaching a dangerous image to the industry if they're not tempered with other types of games. I talk about this in one of my articles this issue, and I think it's especially applicable here: we need games that make us think, care and feelâ€”in other words experience real emotion. Sure, keep on expanding what we can play, even if it's silly games that objectify women and show naked boobs like the games listed above. But if we do so, developers and especially publishers better start pushing gaming in the OTHER direction as well, more towards the high brow artistic side to balance it all out. Our industry has been given a bad enough name over the years as it is.
Does this game come in a plain brown wrapper?
David Torre, Assistant Editor: I think this is good for the industry because erotica is truely one of the last frontiers (content wise) in gaming. Virtually every other art form has its form of erotica. A film for mature audiences can have violence and softcore erotica and still recieve an R rating. A relationship simulation game like Singles: Flirt Up Your Life features similar softcore erotica but instead of this game receiving a "Mature" rating, the game receives an "Adults Only" rating. Even with this unfair, but clear distinction, I expect a major campaign from "family values" groups similar to what we faced with games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. It will stop once people realize that these games are played by average, normal adults.
Even though Singles: Flirt Up Your Life has been toned down for a US audience (only breasts are shown), I think even the European (uncensored version) of this game has been tastefully done, as it only shows erotica as a result from building a strong "virtual relationship". I've been playing this game, and although it's clearly a ripoff of one of the Sims romance expansion packs, I prefer it to Sims because I feel a game that simulates relationships should include experiences that happen in real relationships.
Your Life: Should your kids even be
seeing the box?
Whatever the case, it is a parent's responsibility to watch their kids. Some parents do not realize that they have incredible control over their children. Already the law makes it very difficult for children to come across this content. Furthermore, a parent's discussion about healthy sexuality with their child at a young age will have a significantly greater impact than the potentially negative outside influences that their child may come in contact with, whether it be a foul-mouthed classmate on the playground, or an erotic magazine they find in a field.
Take it to our forums and let us know where you stand!
Author: Buck Feris
Editing: Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton
Artwork: Buck Feris (All screenshots taken from the DOSBox and WinUAE emulators)
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Leo Laporte of The Screen Savers fame did a small segment on a game called Achaea on their show that aired June 10, 2004. Achaea is one of few MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) that can still boast a strong following. It is not uncommon for as many as five hundred users to be logged in at any one time. (For more information on MUDs, also see last monthâ€™s article on the Discworld MUD.) Laporte, possibly the victim of ageism, did not fair well during the G4/TechTV merger. Having been demoted from his role as host on the show, his appearances are now limited to the odd tip segment. He talked favorably about the game, noting that it was text based, but still offered a level of interaction not possible in most if not all of the available graphical MMORPG's (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games). After his segment, he segued, handing control over to one of the new, younger people who often do small segments and tips. The young man who took control of the camera all but rolled his eyes at Laporte, stating he would rather play games such as *insert innocuous game here--long on graphics, short on gameplay*. Shortly after this there was a collective chuckle throughout the whole studio.
Upon seeing the attack on Laporte, I became incensed. The recent merger of the two cable channels has resulted in the cancellation or inexplicable crippling of many of the shows I enjoyed. When a former host of my favorite show was flippantly dismissed for mentioning retro gaming, I decided to take action by writing this editorial, which I hope will turn into a series designed to defend our beloved pastime.
This is not the first time that retro gaming has been attacked, nor will it be the last. Click here to see another example of naked aggression.
Most of the arguments against retro gaming are not really arguments at all, but really just knee jerk reactions to something misunderstood by younger people. I would imagine that the same people who trash retro gaming are the same sorts of folks who are unable to tolerate watching a black and white movie, or listening to pop music written more than two years ago. Such behavior only limits the enjoyment of a rich art form, and shows a sophomoric and limited understanding of our culture.
The material available for use to defend retro gaming is so vast, that attempting to comprehensively cover the subject in one article is futile. So, today I will attempt to defend our pastime from just one perspective: abstraction.
For those who may not be familiar with abstraction, it refers to the graphical representation of the games we play. In years past, hardware limitations kept graphics at a minimum, forcing us to play with avatars resembling stick figures. This is an example of high abstraction, with the player having to engage in an unspoken contract with the game similar to a suspension of disbelief. Of course, the ultimate example of this is a text adventure, interactive fiction (IF), or even a MUD like Achaea. Having no graphics, the avatars in these games will only be viewed in the player's head, never on the screen. In contrast, modern console and PC games employ graphics that sometimes border on photo realism. Today, gamers do not have to exert their imaginations nearly as much as in days of old. This is known as low abstraction.
At first glance, the ever increasing polygon count of today's games may seem like progress, but is it?
What is the purpose of computer graphics in games? They are supposed to represent the object or idea being simulated in the context of the game. This representation aspect provides an avenue of artistic expression that is exploited less and less as technology reduces the abstraction level. A good example of this would be the graphical representation of a shotgun. In an older game such as a side scrolling platform game with a high abstraction level, the shotgun may only be represented by a straight line of gray pixels. In a modern first person shooter (FPS) the shotgun may be a fully rendered replica of a firearm produced in the real world, complete with reflective chrome. To the untrained observer, a quick assessment would be that the newer graphics are superior.
However, the artist's touch has been all but eliminated. In the early days of the industry when hardware imposed high abstraction, it was the artist's or programmerâ€™s job to creatively make use of what was available. Creativity was what was needed, and creativity was what gamers got. The result was gorgeous hand painted scenes such as those found in Lucas Artsâ€™ adventure games such as Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle. Just as some older movies were gorgeously shot exploiting the limitations of black and white, many older games just oozed with cleverness as to how objects were represented.
What is maddening about this is that there is absolutely no reason why modern game makers should not employ artists to create fantastic worlds dripping with clever uses of high abstraction. High abstraction doesn't necessarily mean lower polygon counts either. Anyone owning a computer and a copy of Photoshop has the most powerful artistic tool ever created right at her fingertips. Are good painters only recognized by their ability to photographically reproduce a scene? Of course not! If that were the case, we wouldn't need artists. Simply taking photographs would be sufficient. We want artists to put their spin on things. That's where the art comes in. If you placed a tripod on the floor in front of a fruit bowl and took 10 digital pictures with different cameras, you would have 10 pictures of a fruit bowl. The only difference between them would be the resolution and lighting differences brought about by flaws in the image sensor of each camera. If you put 10 artists in front of a fruit bowl, you would get 10 vastly different pictures...10 works of art. The hardware of today makes it possible for us to graphically represent just about anything, and yet we squander this new found ability on photo realism. Artists should be graphically reproducing the wild thoughts in their heads, not volumetric fog. It has been said that the invention of the camera finally freed artists to express themselves abstractly. At what point will this freedom be awarded to game designers?
It is also important to note that all the hardware advancements in this area of game development, and all the time and money spent on photo realism has done absolutely nothing for gameplay. Look at RPGs as an example. Ten years ago, we had titles such as Elder Scrolls: Arena, and the later installments of the Ultima series. These were mostly open ended games with large environments to be explored. Players had to manipulate their control screens to make use of weapons and spells to better engage in combat and improve their abilities. Today we have such games as Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and the Neverwinter Nights series of expansions. These are mostly open ended games with large environments to be explored. Players had to manipulate their control screens...someone remind me again what has changed.
Isometric and 3D RPGs have changed little over the years, save for their polygon counts. However, production time has lengthened, production budgets have skyrocketed, and the amount of staff needed to produce one of these games has multiplied exponentially. Why has this happened? In the final analysis, the flames look better on that Fire Elemental and the finish looks better on that sword, but how has the gamer really benefited? He is still clicking a button to hit a fiery demon with a sword. Why don't we take that big budget and that extra manpower and do something new?
To those who roll their eyes at retro gamers, I say, "What is really so great about the games you are playing?" Is there really that much difference between Soul Calibur II and International Karate? We are still mashing buttons and kicking people in the groin. Why did your game take years to produce?
I can tell you what we have lost. We have lost the slapstick animation of Sam & Max Hit the Road. We have lost the hand painted sunsets of It Came from the Desert. We have lost the lush greenery in the Kingâ€™s Quest series. We have lost the clever cartoon architecture in the Monkey Island series. We have lost the eerie landscapes in Out of this World.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then high abstraction was a call to all artists to do what they do best. Big budgets and big teams don't make a good game. They don't produce good art either. I won't even go into the benefits of playing text based games and leaving everything to the imagination. I don't think the young people this editorial is aimed at could comprehend that. I have to fight this war one battle at a time.
The usual argument against retro gaming from todayâ€™s young people is that todayâ€™s graphics are betterâ€”hands down. To that I say, â€œGo back and play some old games, kid.â€ When I look at a John Ford Western, I am stunned at how gorgeous the cinematography is. The fact that the movie may be in black and white in no way diminishes the achievement. A gorgeous game is a gorgeous game, no matter what time period it was made in. I would much rather see a clever use of color to represent a lush forest in a low 640X480 resolution than see my GeForce 4 video card render every single blade of grass in a field because some foliage generation engine allowed the designers to do it. In the final analysis, it has done nothing for game play.
Go ahead and keep talking, Leo. Some of us are still listening.
The following text (not including illustrations) is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Most PC gamers over the age of 25 will fondly remember a classic DOS shareware game named Scorched Earth. It was truly a landmark game for the PC and demonstrated, once and for all, that the humble IBM clone was a viable platform for fun and addicting videogames. Many are the children who spent recess tucked away in their school's computer lab, engaged in fierce Scorched Earth battles with their eager friends.
Perhaps the reason for the game's popularity was that it lived up to the Golden Rule of Games: It was easy to learn, yet hard to master,”and it helped that it could easily be installed in IBM compatible computer labs at school. Of course, Scorched Earth, released by Wendell Hicken in 1991, was not the first of its kind, though it is arguably the first widely successful title in the genre of "artillery" games. What I've attempted to do in this article is present a history of the evolution of artillery games, starting with obscure BASIC programs and ending with Team 17's Worms 3D (2003).
First, I'll define the genre. The term "Artillery Game"describes a type of shooting game in which players command pieces of artillery, like cannons, tanks, bazookas, or catapults. Players can only destroy their enemy by correctly determining certain firing parameters which affect the trajectory of their projectiles. One parameter is power (or sometimes "powder"), and the other is angle. Since the other players are usually blocked by features of the terrain, players must not aim directly at their targets. Instead, they must fire in a parabolic shape (think of an upside-down U). Artillery game-makers quickly invented new challenges to make the game more difficult, including wind and, more famously, elaborate weaponry. Later artillery games feature hundreds of weapons, many types of shields, variable terrain, and even jetpacks. Team 17's Worms titles are so far the most arcade-suitable artillery games, offering platform-game elements like swinging, jumping, digging, and climbing in addition to superb graphics, sound, and animation.
The origins of artillery games are quite dark, but it's probably a safe bet that the first such game was programmed on a long forgotten mainframe computer in the 60s. The programmers who wrote games for mainframe systems often saw no commercial potential in their games and distributed them freely and anonymously with other mainframe operators, who often took it upon themselves to add features. It is likely that the first artillery games required punch cards and a printer to read the results of each round, though it's anybody's guess who truly programmed the first artillery game. I expect that gameplay consisted of players taking turns entering angles and power parameters, then being told by the computer if they overshot or undershot; it was really more or less a sophisticated version of Milton Bradley's Battleship board game. The reader must keep in mind that these were the days when games like Hunt the Wumpus were considered groundbreaking.
The game is rather straightforward, and generates excitement, with a great amount of vicarious aggression.
--Lyon and West, authors of WAR 3
The first artillery games for personal computers were likely homebrew efforts by BASIC programmers, some of whom published the source code of their games in computer magazines. It was up to the readers to manually type the game into their computer's RAM and then, if one were lucky enough to have such devices, save the file to a cassette tape (otherwise, the entire game would have to be typed in again when the computer was turned off). If this process sounds tedious, just imagine having to debug hundreds of lines of code that varied only by a few digits, and if one digit was wrong, the program wouldn't run. To make matters even worse, the magazines frequently made mistakes that would not be corrected until the next issue. Still, players were not hard to please in the late 70s, and magazines that published new games were highly sought after.
One such magazine was Creative Computing, which published several "gunner"or "battleship"type games which were obviously the prototypes of modern artillery games. A game called "Artillery,"was written by Mike Forman and published in 1976. The game was revised by M.E. Lyon and Brian West and published as War 3 in 1977. Unfortunately, I was not able to review Forman's original game, but was able to find the remake by Lyon and West. Their game is quite simple, which is to be expected from a BASIC program of 143 lines of code. It is completely text-based, and leaves almost everything to the player's imagination. Players first input how much distance they would like between themselves and the other players. Each round, players select which player they are aiming at, their muzzle velocity, and firing angle. At the end of the round, the computer reports how far each player undershot or overshot. Several other games published around the same time build on the theme, like Seawar and Geowar, both published by Creative Computing the same year. All of these games are virtually identical except for a few choice lines of in-game text (such as "depth charge"for "cannon ball"). Gregory Yob, who wrote a critical review of Geowar in 1977 wrote, "I am most annoyed with Geowar. It's another hunt and kill game in an era where mutual co-operation in complex systems is a vital need. Missiles and cartesian [sic] grids are very common in computer games, and in writer's words, 'the theme is a bit overdone.'"Obviously, the theme was not so overdone as Yob might have thought!
The Commodore PET's Artillery (circa 1981), pictured here, was also a game first published in Creative Computing. Though quite minimalist by today's standards, it is still vastly superior to text-based artillery games like Geowar. Though the game is monochrome, graphics definitely make the game easier and more fun to play. Players take turns inputting their cannon's angle and powder, compensating for wind, and then firing their shot. If the shot hits the ground instead of the opponent, it creates a small crater, an important feature known as "destructible terrain." Each game is different because the ground is randomly generated each round; players might find themselves on high peaks or at the bottom of crevices. Artillery contains all of the basic criteria associated with the genre.
The Magnavox Odyssey2 was home to one of the earliest commercial artillery games: Philips' catapult-artillery game called Smithereens! (1982). This game, programmed by Robert L. Cheezem, is a very simple yet compelling game of timing. Players move their joysticks to determine how far rocks from their catapults are slung. Two features make this game special: First, it is not turn-based, but allows players to sling rocks simultaneously. If a player (or a catapult) is hit, that player walks off the side of the screen and returns a moment later (pushing a catapult if it was destroyed as well). With enough practice, a player can time her hits so perfectly that the other player is destroyed before he ever gets the chance to fire. The second feature that really sets this game apart is a phenomenal use of the Magnavox Odyssey2's voice module. The game constantly mocks players, saying things like, "Come on and play, Turkey!"and "Mercy, mercy!"The sound of boulders crashing and whizzing through the air is also digitized and surprisingly realistic. The sarcastic humor of this game is found in later games like Scorched Earth and Worms. You can try a browser-based version of the game here.
The earliest commercially manufactured tank-style artillery game I could find is Jerry Brinson's Artillery Duel, released by Xonox in 1983 for a variety of platforms, including the Commodore Vic-20 and 64, the Atari 2600, the Colecovision, and the Bally Astrocade. The versions I tested for the sake of this article were for the Commodore Vic-20 (Vic-20), ColecoVision, Commodore 64 (C-64), and the Atari 2600.
The differences among these versions are significant. Though Artillery Duel uses color to create a more compelling display, no version takes much advantage of its respective platform's power. They all suffer from horrid interfaces. The C-64 version has several features that are sorely missed in the 2600 version, such as music, a parallax background, and, most importantly, destructible terrainâ€”an unforgivable omission in the 2600 version. The Vic-20 version is quite similar to the C-64's, though it lacks music and the graphics are a bit blockier. The ColecoVision version has music and destructive terrain; I'd say it was just as good as the Vic-20 version. All versions require two players and lack computer opponents. Obviously, Artillery Duel is a humble entry in the artillery genre, yet it contains most of the features that helped establish the genre: Angle, power, and wind. The game is made even more challenging by a time limit of 30 seconds per turn, which, given the clumsiness of the interface, makes for a frustrating experience. The projectile travels rather slowly across the screen, making for long, dull games. Still, even with all of these shortcomings, the game is still playable, and anyone happening by the television during a match will instantly grasp the gameplay.
After personal computers became more widespread, a slew of shareware and commercial clones appeared, some of which improved the genre significantly. Many, like Microsoft's Gorilla (1990), were programmed in BASIC and intended to serve as tutorials for aspiring BASIC programmers. The two most significant titles to emerge in the early 90s were the aforementioned Scorched Earth (1991) for DOS, and Michael Welch's Scorched Tanks (1993) for the Amiga. Both of these excellent games were released as shareware by independent developers.
Scorched Earth is a simple, yet exciting artillery combat game, based on an auspicious history of artillery games. Most of the options are very intuitive, and you can begin playing with only a little bit of information.
--Wendell Hicken, creator of Scorched Earth
Simply put, Scorched Earth is to artillery games what Super Mario Bros. is to platform games: It revitalized and set a standard for an entire genre of videogames. The graphics and sound are clearly leaps ahead of predecessorsâ€”the game requires and uses all 256 colors of VGA at a time when plenty of IBM compatibles were still equipped with either monochrome or CGA graphics cards. The backgrounds are sharp, the destruction scenes are colorful, and the interface is intuitive. There are at least three important releases of Scorched Earth, the earliest being 1.0 in 1991, followed by 1.2 in 1992 and 1.5 in 1995. 1.2 is mostly a bug fix, but 1.5 brings scanned mountain ranges and new weapons and shields. Most of the critical features of 1.5, however, are already available in 1.0. The version I focus on in this review is 1.5.
What really sets the game apart is the impressive set of playing options that dramatically enhance gameplay. The game packs more features than a year's worth of newspapers. First, the game offers computer opponents with seven difficulty options (ranging from moron to cyborg.) All other conditions, like gravity, wind, air viscosity, effect of walls, and so on, are all customizable by the players. There are even options to determine the economy of each game; that is, how the money won for victories is handled at the end of each round. There is hardly any aspect of Scorched Earth that isn't somehow customizable, and a few tweaks can have such a dramatic effect that it's like playing a new game. Players will likely spend hours just toying with the physics options.
There are also defensive (parachutes and shields), guidance systems, fuel, triggers, and energy-related items (batteries) that affect gameplay. Obviously, all of these items make the game more complex; a player with no batteries, for instance, will not be to able to fire a projectile with sufficient power to reach a distant opponent. Players must carefully weigh the offensive advantage of an expensive weapon versus the defensive advantage of parachutes or shieldsâ€”the economical aspect of the game is one of the most intriguing for many players. Also, unlike early artillery games like Artillery Duel, Scorched Earth allows players to move their tanks provided they have purchased fuel and have selected a tank icon with treads (some are simple cannons). This introduces yet another element of strategy, since clever players will want to reposition their tanks to take advantage of natural cover provided by the randomly generated terrain. There are five different guidance systems available, ranging from "heat seeking,"which only works if the player is already hitting fairly close to an enemy tank, to "lazy boy,"which guarantees a perfect hit without the player's need to aim at all. The player can also select among six shield types: normal, magnetic, force field, heavy, super magnetic, and auto defense, each of which has its own impact on gameplay. "Auto defense"allows players to access their defense menu and enable a shield before combat begins.
When you first play Scorched Earth it seems so simple, almost not worth bothering with. A few hours pass however and you are still playing and beginning to realize there is more to it that it looks. Damn, I've been hooked. It's the original geeky beer drinking party game.
--Gavin Camp, creator of Scorched 3D
There are over 30 weapons available in Scorched Earth, from the humble baby missile to weapons of mass destruction like the nuke, napalm, MIRVs, and Death's Head. Roller weapons, as the name implies, will roll down a hill and strike an enemy lodged in a crevice, and "leapfrogs"bounce a few times before exploding. Sandhogs burrow underground and then curve upwards to strike an enemy from beneath. There are also weapons that do not directly damage the opponent, but nevertheless make his or her life more difficult, such as clods of dirt. Other devices, like diggers and riot charges, are used to extract one's tank from the aforementioned dirt clods. The most destructive weapon, the Death's Head, expands in-flight into nine different warheadsâ€”the trick to using the weapon is avoiding accidental suicide, though there is certainly pleasure to be had in launching the weapon that destroys every other player on the screen.
Scorched Earth may not live up to its self-claimed title, "The Mother of all Games,"but it is certainly the mother of modern artillery games. The games that follow it borrow liberally from its features, but also correct some of its flaws, such as its sometimes buggy interface and unpolished feel. Some critics feel that the biggest flaw of Scorched Earth is that all of the action takes place on one screen. Michael Welch fixed this problem in his Amiga game Scorched Tanks. Welch created the game because Scorched Earth "was the first game I'd ever seen for the PC that was better than anything I knew of on my beloved Amiga."Though the Amiga certainly had its share of fun games, it was lacking a competitive artillery game, and Welch was about to solve that problem.
The main reason Scorched Tanks was better than Scorched Earth is that I didn't own a PC at the time. I had no way to go back and compare my work to the original, so I created what I 'thought' was a Scorched Earth look-a-like. But the joke was on me, and Scorched Tanks was a lot better because of it.
--Michael Welch, author of Scorched Tanks
The first obvious improvement Scorched Tanks offers is the larger-than-screen playing field. Now, tanks can be positioned far to the left or right, and players often find themselves aiming at targets that aren't visible on the screen. This adds to the difficulty level of the game, but not so much that it diminishes gameplay. Indeed, having a larger battlefield unquestionably makes the game more fun to play; at last artillery fans can fire extremely devastating weapons without inevitably committing suicide. Since the game offers over 70 weapons, it's nice to know players have enough space to make use of them.
Scorched Tanks also takes advantage of the Amiga's power to deliver crisp graphics and realistic sounds. Whereas a game like Scorched Earth is obviously a computer game, Scorched Tanks could hold its own on any of the game consoles of its day. It has a polished, professional feel that is usually lacking in most independent shareware titles, and the theme music is a classic Amiga mod file. Still, as good as Scorched Tanks was for the time, the best was yet to come.
In 1994, a programmer named Andy Davidson1 wrote a game in Blitz Basic called Total Wormage, which he decided to enter in a contest hosted by Amiga Format magazine; the prize was publication by Team 17. Davidson didn't win the contest, but Team 17 was impressed enough with the game to release it anyway. A year later they published Worms on a variety of platforms, including the Super Nintendo. Two years later, Team 17 released its last Amiga title, Worms: Director's Cut, which is by far the best artillery game ever published for the Amiga.
Worms once again demonstrated that the artillery genre had plenty of room left for innovation. The tanks (which truly were getting a bit "overdone") were gone, and in their place were cartoonish, Lemming-size worms that could jump, scoot, and swing across a colorful battlefield. The game oozes arcade charm and a quirky Monty Python-style humor ("This worm is an ex-worm!") that adds personality and character to the usually drab world of artillery games. Indeed, the humor in Worms is one of its greatest appeals. It affects all aspects of gameplay, including the arsenal of weapons. One of the most unusual and creative weapons in Worms is the sheep. The sheep trots and bounces across the screen until the player hits the space bar, which causes the sheep to explode (and hopefully damage an opponent). While the sight of an exploding sheep would undoubtedly be too violent in "serious"contexts, the zany, cartoonish world of Worms keeps us from getting upset over such things. Like its predecessor Smithereens!, Worms uses voice samples to taunt players ("First blood!â€) and add spice to the gameplay. Even the theme music of this game is classic, and remains one of the most often-requested tunes at Internet game audio radio stations.
The worms can do much more than the tanks in Scorched Earth or Scorched Tanks. For one thing, they can sidle up next to their opponents and punch them (if they have the weapon in their arsenal). They can also fire handguns, shotguns and Uzis, though proper use of these weapons requires that the worm target an unobstructed enemy. Of course, expert players will want to demonstrate their utter contempt for their unworthy opponents by disposing of them with a simple push over the edge of a cliff. Since the worms are much more mobile than the tanks in earlier artillery games, players can get quite creative. For example, a worm may use a rope to swing over an enemy, drop a stick of dynamite, then leap away. Such flourishes allow for some stunning player performances.
Team 17 followed Worms with a number of sequels, including Worms 2 in 1997, which added Internet play, Worms Armageddon in 1999, which added many more weapons and utilities, Worms World Party in 2000, and Worms Blast (a puzzle game in the style of Bust-a-Move) in 2001. All of these games feature great graphics, humor, and plenty of surprises. Finally, in 2003, Team 17 made the leap into three-dimensions with Worms 3D.
Of course, Team 17's Worms 3D isn't the only game that takes the artillery game into three-dimensions; other projects, like the openGL Scorched 3D, took the artillery concept into 3D as early as 2001, and Bruce Carver's Beach Head (1983) certainly had some 3D artillery elements. I'll finish up this article with a comparison of Worms 3D and Scorched 3D.
Given that Gavin Camp's Scorched 3D is not a commercial project, I was surprised at its quality and polish. The graphics, animations, and sounds are superb. Much in the spirit of its name's sake, Scorched 3D takes full advantage of advanced PC graphics hardware (using OpenGL), and sports lens flares, detailed models, realistic waves, and highly textured landscapes. It also offers players a wealth of options and configurations, including multiplayer LAN and Internet play, an abundance of player avatars (from traditional artillery pieces to helicopters!), tons of weapons (including adaptations of the Scorched Earth arsenal), and almost unlimited camera freedom (a vital feature in most 3D games, especially this one). The authors of this game ought to feel very proud of what they've accomplished. Watching a chunk of the island explode and fill with water after being hit by a MIRV brings enough pleasure to warrant an immediate download of this title. It's as fun to play Scorched 3D in 2004 as it was to play Scorched Earth in 1991.
However, whereas the basic gameplay of Scorched Earth is easy to learn, Scorched 3D asks for practice and patience. Working the camera is initially a very confusing process, even with all of the auto-zoom options. It's frustrating to line up a shot, then accidentally move the camera and lose the proper viewing angle. Of course, making a good interface for a 3D game is certainly one of the most serious challenges for any developer, particularly makers of artillery games where accuracy is critical. Still, the developers have obviously tried their best to accommodate the player's camera preferences, and can even choose to request that the camera automatically follow their shots. Also like its predecessor, Scorched 3D takes place on a relatively small playing field (an island) that can definitely seem cramped at times, especially when Death Heads are in the air. Let's face it, no sane commander would fire a nuclear warhead at a target on the other side of an island.
It seems that Scorched 3D is more focused on graphics and precise 3D modeling rather than humorous or compelling gameplay. The game is beautifully rendered, but certainly not a story-based game. The game is fun in the way that a classic Doom frag fest is funâ€”heavy on action, light on everything else.
We wanted to take the feel of the 2d game into 3d without compromise and do all the things we felt were cool in 2d, in 3d. This was a considerable challenge and it's been interesting to see people's reactions when they see the game since most assume it's going to be something of a mess given the heritage of the 2d game.
--Martyn Brown of Team 17
Team 17's Worms 3D seems to have found a way to retain the simplicity of the older 2D interface as well as migrate the popular Worms franchise into three dimensions. The graphics and animations are as smooth and lively as what we've come to expect from Team 17, of course, and the worms look and sound better now than ever before. Watching a bomb-strapped sheep bounce across a 3D playing field towards a wide-eyed enemy worm is not an experience to be missed.
Most of the same weapons and abilities of the 2D Worms games have been carried over into the new game. There are still sheep, nukes, Holy Hand Grenades, and jetpacks (though I did not see the grappling hook in the demo version I tested for this article). The camera is controlled by the mouse; it's a simple interface that is readily picked up by even 2D-centric gamers like me. The worm is moved by the familiar WASD-keyboard layout (ENTER jumps), and the weapons are aimed with the cursor keys. As usual, the power of each shot is controlled by the duration the player holds down the space bar. The camera automatically follows projectiles. This is a logical arrangement that works quite well and makes for a fun game to watch as well as play.
When players are ready to fire, they can hold down the Q key to get the "aiming view," which makes aiming weapons like the shotgun much easier. Of course, players will usually need to destroy enemies with artillery pieces like the bazooka or grenade, sometimes lobbing them over the roof of a building. I suppose the geometrically challenged player can avoid the matter by relying on the jetpack to fly the worm to a more strategic location (such as the top of a building), though this will inevitably make them an easier target for other worms. All in all, Team 17's Worms 3D is a brilliant game that demonstrates the continued validity of the artillery game genre in a 3D market.
Artillery games, like the computer platforms required to run them, have certainly come a long away since 1977, but what modern players must keep in mind is how literally "groundbreaking"even an early title like Artillery Duel was for its time. Still, even though the genre has evolved from simple text-based games like Geowar, to the spectacular 3D graphics of Scorched 3D and Worms 3D, the objective remains the same: Adjust angle, adjust power, FIRE!
I guess we still haven't gotten enough of missiles and Cartesian grids. Sorry, Mr. Yob.
1 Andy Davidson soon ran into conflicts at Team 17 and, after receiving a "significant financial arrangement,"has now entered the "Where are they now?"category of videogame history. See this forum thread for more information.
Author: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Buck Feris and Matt Barton
Online Layout: Bill Loguidice
Scans: All images come from the authorâ€™s private collection
Special Notes: This first series of five short essays has been inspired both by the authorâ€™s recurring thoughts and interactions with others on popular newsgroups and forums over the years. In relation to Armchair Arcade, the author would like to thank the other editors and regular forum goers such as Fractalus!, crcasey, majortom, Rowdy Rob, Mark1970, Dragon57, mrCustard, davyK, PoloPlayr, ryuhayabusa, PearlJammer, OldSchoolGamer, joe_jet and classic gamer for making discussions on the Website so interesting and informative. The author encourages everyone looking for a mature and stimulating discussion environment to check out Armchair Arcadeâ€™s forum.
ESSAY 01 - Exploring Emotions and Sophisticated Themes in Videogames
In 1983, magazine ads for the newly formed Electronic Arts asked, â€œCan a Computer Make you Cry?â€ In 1984, magazine ads for Infocomâ€™s Planetfall, offered, â€œHow to Make Friends on Other Planets.â€ What do these two early advertisements have in common?
Both ads make the assumption that computer and videogames then and in the future would have the ability to make us think, care and feel. Based on whatâ€™s been made available then and now, Iâ€™d say for the most part, this assumption was wrong.
Think of this as a call to arms to game designers everywhere. Letâ€™s cast aside for a moment the business or profiteering aspect of the industry, which often dictates what gets made. Letâ€™s assume that even if a developerâ€™s hands are tied â€“ for instance theyâ€™re asked to make yet another first person shooter â€“ (wait for it) set in space â€“ where the player kills zombie mutants (Iâ€™m giving this idea away for FREE), the designer has enough creativity to make it the best damned first person zombie shooting game set in space ever. How could this be accomplished? One answer lies in Planetfall.
Planetfall was a text adventure (Interactive Fiction or IF) that made you laugh, made you think, and yes, made you cry. I think 20 years after the fact I can give away the surprise. Floyd, your mischievous robot buddy and faithful in-game companion, dies. This made many players cry because the game made you take an interest in that character. He wasnâ€™t just a generic character programmed to spew canned responses. He was programmed to simulate a personality, and it worked within the context of the well-designed game world. While some will argue that being a type of interactive book, such a game has an advantage over graphical adventures. I say nonsense. When was the last time one of your favorite television shows made you cry, made you identify with a character, made you feel for a character? How about a movie? Visuals or lack thereof are obviously no indicator of a creatorâ€™s ability to tug at the heartstrings or make you relate to a characterâ€™s angst. Even the right type of music can make us feel happy or sad. Since a modern game can incorporate some of the best elements from books, music, movies and television, and mix it all in with compelling gameplay, shouldnâ€™t videogames then logically be at the forefront of thoughtful art in media?
This emotional advancement cannot be accomplished through non-interactive cut-scenes either. Gaming should not be about watching, it should be about doing. Newer games like Rockstarâ€™s Grand Theft Auto 3, show there is as much doing and flexibility as ever, but do these games also evoke emotions or explore sophisticated themes? Not necessarily. Itâ€™s a problem that should be addressed by at least a few mainstream games if we ever want to get more out of our favorite entertainment experience than we have for the past 25 years.
There are the proponents of Japanese-created role-playing games, like the latest Final Fantasy titles, who will contend that these embody a lot of what I seek. I agree that if you can stomach the Final Fantasy world you will find an exploration of some of the themes I speak of, but titles like these are so stylized that its overall message is often lost on people like me, and key story elements still take place through non-interactive cut-scenes. I canâ€™t help but think thereâ€™s a better way.
Finally, I leave you with something perhaps a bit unusual. By my casual count, from 1983 to the end of this month, there will have been at least five different Rocky games produced for systems like the ColecoVision, Sega Master System, GameBoy Advance, Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox. All of these games over the past 20 years have only been about boxing. Was the original Rocky movie, the 1976 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, about boxing? Yes, it had wonderfully choreographed boxing in it, but it also had wonderful characters and an interesting story. You cared about the good natured, but deeply flawed boxer, Rocky Balboa. You cared about the cripplingly shy love interest, Adrienne. You disliked but understood Adrienneâ€™s loser brother, Paulie. You were fascinated by but rooted against the arrogant champion, Apollo Creed. The list goes on. By the time the fight takes place at the end of the movie, you have an emotional interest in the eventâ€™s finale. Itâ€™s telling that in the final scene of the movie, the announcement of the fightâ€™s outcome is downplayed (muted) in order to focus on the embrace and words between the battered Rocky and the hatless Adrienne. So again, was Rocky really just about boxing? Since weâ€™ve had at least five Rocky boxing games, maybe the designers of the next one will try to tap into what the movie was really about.
For our industry to truly advance and be taken seriously, the production of at least a few games that explore sophisticated and emotionally charged themes is the least we should expect. Maybe then, other popular media like movies will start to be compared to games, rather than the other way around.
ESSAY 02 - Defining Videogame Eras
With the System Ranking Matrix, I rate the relative capabilities of the various computer and videogame systems released through the years in the United States. While I feel it does its job well (and will get even better over time with feedback), a lot is made in casual discussion of eras, or time periods when certain systems or types of technology ruled. What is lacking when these discussions take place is an agreed upon definition of what these eras encompass. Here is one attempt. Separate definitions of computer, arcade and handheld eras will be topics for another day as I will now focus solely on defining videogame (console) eras, as follows:
PONG ERA (1972 â€“ 1977, Paddle and Ball Games) â€“ This era began in 1972 with the original Odyssey and lasted right through the introduction of the first programmable (removable cartridge) consoles in the late 1970â€™s. These pong systems were self-contained devices that played a pre-set number of games. There was little that could be done with bars and moving blocks (â€œballsâ€) and most games were of the "deflect and donâ€™t miss" variety.
ATARI/CARTRIDGE ERA (1976 â€“ 1986, Shooting Games) â€“ This era began in 1976 with the release of the first cartridge-based system, the Fairchild Channel F. However, the system that defined the era and videogames in general was Atariâ€™s Video Computer System or VCS, which later came to be known as the 2600. In the beginning, these systems were barely more promising than the Pong systems before them, but by the end of 1984, the potential of these systems was made clear, with many of the game genres we know today first introduced, like shooting, racing, flying, maze, adventure and first person. In fact, technology that never saw the light of day because of the arcade and console industry crash of 1984, like save game battery backup on the ColecoVision or cartridges with eight times the typical capacity for the Atari 2600, only became evident years later. The first arcade-to-home translation, Taitoâ€™s Space Invaders (Atari), classified as a shooting game, set the tone for this era and was among the most often released type.
NES ERA (1987 â€“ 1990, Side-scrolling Platform Games) â€“ This era, post-crash, began in late 1985 with the return of console videogames to the US following the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). In the beginning, these systems would feature nothing more than better arcade translations, but ultimately would lead the way for modern consoles. Examples include requiring a license to publish games, releasing console-style role-playing games (RPGâ€™s) that introduced Japanese cultural influence in design, battery backups and large cartridge capacities. With Nintendoâ€™s Super Mario Bros., the influx of 2D scrolling platform games began, and is what ultimately set the tone for this era.
GENESIS ERA (1989 â€“ 1993, 2D Refinement) â€“ This era began in 1989, with the introduction of the Sega Genesis, and to a lesser degree, the NEC Turbo-Grafx 16. This was the era of moreâ€”more action buttons, more graphics and sound, and larger cartridge capacities, building heavily on the advancements of the previous era. When Nintendo began releasing its last few games for the Super Nintendo (SNES), such as Rareâ€™s Donkey Kong Country, it is clear in hindsight that this was to be the peak of sprite-based 2D gaming.
CD ERA (1992 â€“ 1995, Vast storage and FMV) â€“ This era began in 1992 with the introduction of CD add-on units for the Genesis and Turbo-Grafx 16, right through to systems like the 3DO Multiplayer, and stopped right around the release of the Sega Saturn. The defining characteristic of this era was, in comparison to cartridges, the virtually limitless storage capacity of the CD media that was often underutilized for actual gameplay. Instead, developers mostly used the extra space for things like CD-quality sound within the same type of games available on cartridge and the ever controversial Full-Motion Video (FMV). Nevertheless, as with the introduction of removable cartridges, the release of a new type of media into gaming would have important repercussions for future eras.
PS1/POLYGON ERA (1994 â€“ 2000, 3D Gaming) â€“ This era began in 1994 with the introduction of the Sega Saturn, but really took off with the introduction of Sonyâ€™s PlayStation (PS1) in 1995. As with the NES ERA, rather than simply introduce new technology, this era introduced a new type of gaming: 3D. All the usual genres that were in 2D and used sprites, eventually found their way to 3D polygonal versions. This was still early technology with several problems like low resolution and poor in-game cameras, but it caught on in a major way with the buying public at the expense of 2D.
PS2 ERA (1999 â€“ PRESENT, 3D Refinement) â€“ This era began in 1999 with the introduction of the Sega Dreamcast, but is defined by the success of Sonyâ€™s PlayStation 2 (PS2). As the GENESIS ERA brought additional polish and sophistication to what was established by the NES ERA, the PS2 ERA does the same for the PS1/POLYGON ERA.
ESSAY 03 - Perceived Value in Gaming
What do I mean by perceived value in gaming? Value in this case means that you really appreciate the games that you have. For instance, one question that often comes to mind is, â€œDid games have more value in the past when you had to put a quarter in the machine to play versus now when you can play for free on an emulator any time you wish?â€ How about when you go to an arcade now and use a swipe card instead of quarters or tokens; you have little concept of what youâ€™re spending with a swipe card so the games seem to mean less. Or how about classic arcade style gameplay that is now really only found in the mainstream in mini-games that are part of larger games; has this marginalization of simple gameplay forever tainted the appreciation and viability of stand-alone (non-Web) quick arcade-style games?
The simple abundance of gaming, the fact that we can emulate nearly every system ever made and have relatively easy access to every game ever produced (legalities aside) has to have an effect on us. As a child in the early 1980â€™s, I would have killed to have even a few of the thousands of arcade perfect games now available through the MAME emulator. Now that I have them, I rarely play them, due in large part to the fact that theyâ€™re always there and it costs nothing to have them (or as Buck Feris pointed out in his review of this editorial, the "saturation effect").
Finally, as a collector of classic and modern computers and videogames in his early 30â€™s, I have acquired a boat-load of wonderful equipment and software. Every year that passes, the more stuff I get. Itâ€™s my hobby and I love it, but I long ago passed the point where Iâ€™ll ever really be able to use it all. Iâ€™ve reached the point where the act of collecting is the satisfaction, not necessarily the act of using. Again, too much stuff.
In gaming as in life it seems, if something is too easy to come by, be it to play, use or always have, we inevitably appreciate it a little less than if we have to work for it and see the actual â€œcostsâ€ involved.
ESSAY 04 - Defining Past and Present Game Genres
Why past and present? Quite frankly, certain game types, while still alive through the efforts of thousands of active hobby programmers, are no longer available in mainstream retail outlets and thus donâ€™t knowingly exist to large portions of the game playing public. With this in mind, I will do my best to describe, in alphabetical order, what has been and what is still available. Keep in mind, however, that one of the beauties of gaming is that many games donâ€™t fit neatly into one specific category.
Action Adventure â€“ The player goes on a type of quest that not only involves some puzzle solving and exploration, but also plenty of action. This does not involve statistics or significant character building. Includes Adventure, Quest for Quintana Roo, The Legend of Zelda, Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones and The Emperorâ€™s Tomb, and Metroid Prime.
Action RPG â€“ Role Playing (RPG) games that emphasize action over detailed statistics and character choices, but still involve player-character management and advancement, comprise this genre. Includes Gateway to Asphai, Gauntlet, Diablo, Baldurâ€™s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath.
Adventure â€“ Either using a parser, point-and-click or real-time interface, the player usually directs an on-screen character in overcoming puzzles and other challenges as part of a larger story in a graphical environment. Includes Kingâ€™s Quest, Monkey Island, Full Throttle, Myst, Syberia and Lifeline.
Board/Casino/Game Show â€“ Either based on a real-world or original board or casino-style game or television game show, these embody what we classically think of when we think of this play concept. Arcade elements often push a particular game into the Party/Mini-Game Collections genre. Includes Pensate, Chessmaster, Reversi, Yahtzee, Jeopardy, Omar Shariff Bridge, Twisted, Caesarâ€™s Palace 2000, Wheel of Fortune and Trivial Pursuit: Unhinged.
Educational/Edutainment â€“ These games emphasize learning over all else, but still qualify as compelling games. Includes Oregon Trail, Agent USA and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?.
Fighting â€“ These games feature either scrolling or single screen environments where two or more combatants face off with or without weapons. Includes Jedi Arena, Bilestoad, Joust, Karate Champ, Double Dragon, Street Fighter II, Streets of Rage, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance and Soul Calibur.
Full-Motion Video (FMV) â€“ These games allow a player varying degrees of interaction with pre-rendered video footage. This is not the same as overlaying regular graphics on top of video or a game with a lot of cut scenesâ€”interaction with the video is the whole game. Includes Dragonâ€™s Lair, Thayerâ€™s Quest, Cobra Command, Quarterback Attack and A Fork in the Tale.
Maze/Chase â€“ The playerâ€™s avatar collects or chases other objects, normally in a maze-like setting. Includes Pac-Man, Ant Eater, Radar Rat Race, Snake, Serpentine and Mouse Trap.
Party/Mini-Game Collections â€“ These games feature a selection of mini-games usually inspired by other games. Often a player competes against other opponents to reach a finish line or goal, such as making it all the way around a virtual game board. These games are action-based in contrast to the Board/Casino/Game Show genre. Includes Beach Head, The Three Stooges, Mario Party, Fuzion Frenzy and WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Party Game$.
Platform â€“ These are running and jumping games that either have single-screen or scrolling environments. Includes Pitfall, Miner 2049â€™er, Jumpman, Super Mario Bros., Megaman, Rolling Thunder, Crash Bandicoot and Conkerâ€™s Bad Fur Day.
Puzzle â€“ These are pure problem solving games. The games may or may not be action-based, but are always stand-alone and not smaller parts of other games in other genres. Includes Lemmings, Tetris, The Lost Vikings, Bomberman, Bejeweled and Bust-a-Move.
Racing â€“ The playerâ€™s avatar competes against other objects or time to reach a specific location as quickly as possible. Includes Night Driver, Turbo, Mancopter, OutRun, Super Mario Kart, MotoGP and Gran Turismo.
Real-time Strategy â€“ Similar to Turn-based Strategy, the action does not stop to wait for the player to move. These games may include simple action and puzzle elements. Includes Rescue Raiders, Warcraft, Command and Conquer, Pikmin, and Full Spectrum Warrior.
Rhythm/Performance â€“ The player has to respond in-time to either a musical beat or some type of on-screen prompt, often using some type of specialized controller. Includes Dance Dance Revolution, Um Jammer Lammy, Space Channel 5, Mad Maestro and Karaoke Revolution.
Role Playing (RPG) â€“ The player directs one or more pre-made or created characters through a series of progressively more difficult challenges and situations towards an overall goal, all the time improving the characterâ€™s or charactersâ€™ in-game statistics and abilities. Includes Ultima, Wizardry, Phantasie, Wasteland, Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, Pool of Radiance and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
Sandbox/Free Roaming â€“ These games may be part of other genres, but let you interact with the game world as you see fit, either in addition to or in lieu of overcoming pre-set challenges and goals. Includes Elite, Freelancer, Grand Theft Auto III, The Simpsons: Hit and Run, Morrowind, and Tony Hawkâ€™s Underground.
Shooter/Shooting â€“ The playerâ€™s avatar, usually visible on-screen, shoots at objects that may or may not shoot back. These games vary from the very simple to the very complex. Includes Space War, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pooyan, Demon Attack, Berzerk, Survivor, Gradius, Devilâ€™s Crush, Wolfenstein 3D, Virtua Cop, Typing of the Dead, Ikaruga, Ghost Recon and Doom 3.
Simulation â€“ These games simulate a real-world or other worldly machine, activity or environment, often realistically. The games may be purely statistic-based, incorporate physics, and/or have action elements. Includes Flight Simulator, Pinball, Indy Car Racing, Computer Quarterback, Micro League Baseball, Seaman and The Sims.
Sports â€“ These games may include strategy elements, but always have a significant action component. The games usually mimic real-world sporting activities. Includes Pong, Hardball!, Track and Field, Madden Football, Wayne Gretzy Hockey, Fight Night, Speedball, Arkanoid, Ultimate 8 Ball, Ten Pin Alley, Virtua Tennis and Tony Hawkâ€™s Pro Skater.
Text and/or Graphic Adventure â€“ Sometimes referred to as Interactive Fiction (IF). A type of game that places the player in a sort of interactive book, usually requiring the input of two or more words (an action directed at a target) to advance the gameâ€™s story. May be pure text or have multimedia elements. Includes Colossal Cave, Zork, Pirateâ€™s Cove, Hitchhikerâ€™s Guide to the Galaxy, Amazon, Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, Gateway II: Homeworld and Eric the Unready.
Turn-based Strategy â€“ Gameplay advances only in set phases or when a player makes a move. These games are normally quite detailed and take place on a map of some type. Includes Eastern Front, Star Fleet I, Computer Ambush, Six-Gun Shootout, Civilization, Colonial Conquest, Sim City, Caesar, Worms, Panzer General and Alpha Centauri.
ESSAY 05 - Classic Games, Music and Movies
I often compare computer and videogames to other media, like movies and music, and usually from historical or business perspectives. While games should never try to be like any of those other media â€“ for instance, the whole "bring the movie experience to gamers" was nonsense when Full-Motion Video (FMV) was â€œpopularâ€ â€“ the parallels can still be uncanny.
While dismissed by some who only wish to see in color, classic black and white movies are still given their due, with their own cable networks, regular airings on a variety of general television channels, classic film festivals, and more, including frequent press mentions and references. This appreciation of the classics seems to only reach a certain point though. Remember when colorization was supposed to be the next big thing? It reached a point where many thought the joke of colorizing the first part of The Wizard of Oz was going to be a reality! For the most part, though, this tampering with the classics in the 1980â€™s was rebuffed and turned out to be something of a fad. Today, except for digital remastering, the original films usually stay as they were first shot. However, this appreciation for classic movies seems to only extend from the â€œtalkiesâ€ forward (roughly from the early 1930â€™s), as silent films are rarely even mentioned anymore, let alone given the same deference as their vociferous younger siblings (as Matt Barton pointed out in his review of this editorial, one reason for the "silence" regarding silent movies is that they're in the public domain and therefore have minimal commerical value).
Classic recorded music follows a similar pattern as classic black and white movies. According to most of whatâ€™s on the radio and available in stores today, popular music is really only worth a listen if itâ€™s from the late 1950â€™s forward. Sure, there was plenty of recorded music before that, but apparently as dictated by the powers that be, little worth making a big deal about.
It seems like the pre-PC computer and pre-NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) console eras are our equivalents of silent movies and pre late 1950â€™s music. Itâ€™s out there, itâ€™s known to exist, there are even small devoted groups that still care, but its not really given the kind of larger attention or respect it really deserves.
Did you know that the Commodore 64 (C-64) is the best-selling computer of all time? Or that Apple II computers were produced from 1977 to 1994? How about that the first version of the best-selling Madden football series was produced for the Apple II? Facts like these simply arenâ€™t widely known.
I canâ€™t tell you how many times over the past few years when a classic computer game was referred to as a PC game, complete with PC screenshot, when the PC version wasnâ€™t the original and no one cared about the PC port, which often featured poor 4 color graphics and grating single channel â€œbeeperâ€ sound. Of course PC can mean generic â€œPersonal Computer,â€ but these references are rarely used in the generic sense. It seems that most magazines and television programs feel itâ€™s easier to gloss over computer and videogame history than try to explain it. Perhaps itâ€™s even a circular process â€“ the mainstream ignores our industryâ€™s past so the industry ignores its past when in the mainstream (as Buck Feris pointed out in his review of this editorial, even textbooks allow printed errors if a misconception is so widespread that printing something correctly would cause unwanted attention). Either way, itâ€™s time for a change. Know your history and spread the word!
The following text (not including illustrations) is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Telling the story of game and computer audio isn't an easy task1. Its not even easy to know where to start. Does it begin with the first electronic music? Early pioneers like Otto Luening, Wendy Carlos, Vangelis, Jon Appleton and Karlheinz Stockhausen began producing electronic music nearly five decades ago and caused quite a controversy among professional musicians and composers. There was fear that electronic music would make professional musicians obsolete and reduce the cultural value of music”living, breathing human performers would be replaced by soulless machines. Even tape recorders were viewed with suspicion. In 1982, Victor Fuentealba, then president of the American Federation of Musicians, tried to have synthesizers banned from recording studios2. The new technology was feared by academics as well. Electro-acoustic composer Jon Appleton, a professor at Dartmouth College, says the prejudice against electronic music has always been and will likely continue to be strong even in university music departments, which are the very places that should be embracing experiments and exploring new ideas. Nevertheless, brave composers were willing to break their dependence on traditional instruments and embrace new technology. They were quickly followed by pop composers. Through the early to mid-80s, electronic music dominated the pop charts, and artists like Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Tangerine Dream, Devo and countless others set the tone for a œtotally wired generation. And who could possibly forget the inspiring melodies of Jean Michel Jarre? Taking into consideration all of this talent, its hard to imagine that electronic music would ever fall out of chic. As technology progressed and talented composers grew better at harnessing its power, the innovation was never going to end.
Yet it did.
At some point in the late 80s, electronic music fell out of vogue. It seemed as though electronic music had been nothing more than a fad, and the fad was dying. Suddenly, a work like Jean Michel Jarres Oxygene was as uncool as Ataris Pong or fanny packs. People cried out for a return to traditional instruments and œvintage sound. Pop musicians who were formerly obsessed with the latest cutting-edge synthesizer technology were now combing pawn shops and flea markets for the hallowed guitar amps of the 1950s and 60s. Classic music buffs abandoned their Korgs and Kursweils for grand pianos. Digital music was recast as something distinctly œ80s and quite unfashionable. Hair-metal, grunge and other non-computer based musical genres knocked the sultans of synth off the charts. The synthesizer was out, the guitar was in. Appleton blames the fall of synthpop on the lack of creativity on the part of the artists”œIt all started to sound the same, he says. A new generation wanted a new sound, and the electronic bands werent going to provide it.
Today, the only the electronic music most of us hear is the repetitive, simplistic beat of dance or industrial music piped into clubs and dubbed over with offensive lyrics and banter. The synthesizer-heavy bands still around, like Depeche Mode and Ministry, have traded most of their electronic sounds for guitars and other œreal instruments, though they (like almost every artist today) rely extensively on computers to record and mix their albums3. Some musicians have even gone a step further, unplugging their amps and playing acoustic sets of their repertoire, touting the œauthenticity, œpurity, or œnaturalness of non-electronic sound. Now that the computer has rendered guitars and drums obsolete, we see little else but sweaty guitarists and drummers on MTV. Perhaps there is some œperformance value in watching young men and women power chording away on guitars and beating on tubes and metallic plates with pairs of wooden sticks, but I have long lost my fascination for these silly spectacles. I consider our reluctance to put aside the performance tradition shameful, and our turn from electronic music devolution.
I had this belief that if you could play electro-acoustic music live, if people could see you do it, they would be more attentive. What turned people off was that they didnt understand that it could be made by a human being; they didnt see the connection between the music and what theyd known all their lives.
In many ways, the story of the rise and fall of game and computer audio is the same as that of electronic music in general. But I dont want to get ahead of myself.
I will begin my treatment of computer and game audio by retelling an endearing fairy tale. Youve heard it before, Im sure, and possibly even told it to your children, but lets hope that it hasnt lost its charm. Its œThe Story of How Much Better Games Sound Now than They Did Back Then.
Once upon time, the story goes, there was only very primitive audio in videogames if any at all. The venerable old classics that established the genre were either silent or limited to beeps, buzzes, and the occasional wocka-wocka. These sounds were, at best, cute and at worst annoying, as any parent of a formerly Atari 2600 or Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) addicted child is painfully aware. Even top-shelf computers were limited to a tiny internal speaker about as musical as the buzzer in a cheap digital alarm clock. Thankfully, highly skilled engineers were soon able to improve the sound capabilities of gaming hardware. Game and computer systems began to feature multiple channels of sound at higher bit rates. Soon it was even possible to incorporate recognizable human speech and make a guitar sound like a real guitar. Games stopped sounding like games and started sounding like real life”the sound was just as good as that produced for Hollywood films and compact discs. Finally, granted a substantial budget to hire full orchestras or license the latest pop track, game audio professionals have reached the pinnacle of quality, and gamers can listen happily ever after without fear that their games will sound like something composed by a robot operator with a pocket calculator.
œWeve come a long way from the bloops and beeps of yesteryear, says the modern game professional. As if coming away from electronic sound was a desirable goal in the first place”as if games œsounding like games was a bad thing4. Ive always thought these sweeping generalizations were rather like a film enthusiast declaring, œOh, how much better movies are today now that we have color and surround sound! Yet most film critics and directors still cite Orson Welles Citizen Kane (1941) as the greatest movie ever made. The problem with modern game audio (and, as some would argue, the problem with modern games in general) is the same as the problem with modern films: The medium has evolved, the art, arguably, has not. Perhaps because the medium has evolved so quickly, artists simply have not had the time to catch up. Perhaps pressure from big business stifles creative energy and forces game audio artists to stay narrowly within the confines of the œtried and true rather than engage in costly, risky experiments.
George Sanger, more commonly known in game audio circles as œThe Fat Man, describes the three mistaken assumptions of novices, intermediates, and advanced game audio programmers. The novice mistakenly believes her music should sound œlike game music. The intermediate feels that game audio must sound like movie sounds, even if it means producing slavish imitations of John Williams. The advanced nitwit feels he must œwrite game music that sounds like the radio or those guys on MTV. Better yet, I have to license those songs4. At this point, the game and computer audio professional feels he must follow the latest music fads and achieve rock star status”composing mere game audio is certainly beneath him. If these are mistaken assumptions, what are the proper goals of game and computer audio?
Let me establish at this point, for those for whom it is not obvious already, my attitude towards electronic music (and videogames in general). I see electronic music tools as a way to liberate composers from the constraints imposed by tradition; any effort on the part of electronic musicians to mimic the sounds of older instruments is, in my opinion, a step in the wrong direction. Im not arguing here that electronic composers should avoid samples or forget all of their classical training; what concerns me is when they ignore the abilities unique to the electronic medium. It makes no more sense for a game audio programmer to mimic a string quartet as it does for a flutist to make his instrument sound like a kazoo.
Technological innovation and artistic innovation are two often unrelated things, and they do not necessarily follow one another. Indeed, perhaps the second (the computer being the first) most versatile musical instrument ever created, the piano, required half a century before talented composers like Johann Christian Bach and Franz Liszt were able to write memorable pieces for it. Other composers and musicians (including Johann Sebastian Bach) felt that the pianos keys were too heavy, and others argued that no one would ever master this difficult instrument. What people so easily forget is that innovation in technology does not imply innovation in artistry. Indeed, one of my points in this article is that advances in game audio hardware have actually led to a decrease in artistic innovation, though the hardware itself is not to blame.
Without exception, computers offer composers and musicians the finest musical instrument ever constructed”but it can also be difficult to master and hopelessly confusing to musicians accustomed to traditional instruments. Any other musical instrument, be it a piano, violin, or guitar, can produce only sounds enabled by their physical architecture. The sound of a guitar string, for instance, is determined by its length, diameter, and material (nylon, steel, or brass). Though guitars and pianos have a wider octave range than many other instruments, there are always limits. Furthermore, even the best performers are limited by the dexterity of their fingers and their overall endurance. More importantly, traditional musical instruments dictate the sound and quality of music that can be produced on them. No matter how creative a composer may be, she cannot make a triangle sound like a bass drum or a clarinet blare like a trumpet without electronic equipment. A synthesizer and a harmonica are both musical instruments that allow musicians to express themselves musically; the difference is not one of kind but of degree. In the same way that a painter could produce a painting with three colors and her fingers, a composer can choose to artificially limit her palette to simple instruments. However, other artists will not be satisfied with such limitations; they desire the widest possible palette of colors, the largest possible vocabulary of sounds, even those that may be unfamiliar to the public. Classical composers required a wide variety of instruments to enrich and add depth to their musical expression. Performing these pieces requires a small army of highly-trained performers, many of whom have dedicated their lives to the mastery of a single instrument. Modern electronic composers have at their command a variety of instruments and sounds that the classical composers could not possibly have imagined, yet can perform their music without a single human performer.
Artists need not stop at the familiar electronic tones we associate with DEVO, switched-on Bach, or dance music--there are still infinite possibilities for new sounds, and those possibilities increase every year.
--The Fat Man
From an economic perspective, things have never looked better for amateur electronic composers. Most concert instruments, like cellos, tubas, and upright basses, are far too expensive for a casual purchase. A would-be musician can expect to spend at least $300 to acquire a decent used guitar and over $2,000 for a used piano. Even a single cymbal for a drum set can cost over $400. Of course, even if an amateur composer could afford to buy all of the instruments in the average orchestra, he or she would likely need decades to learn to play them. The only answer would be to write a full score and hire professional performers to play the instruments, but now the costs have far exceeded the budgets of all but the largest game companies. On the other hand, there are name brand sound cards selling at the local Wal-Mart for $30 that feature 128 voices and CD-quality audio. For $200, would-be digital Mozarts can pick up a 24-bit soundcard with 7.1 channel sound that can produce infinitely more sounds than a whole arsenal of guitars, pianos, or drum sets. Simply put, modern audio technology enables composers to produce any sound that the human ear can hear, in any sequence, at any speed, for very low cost. No longer are composers restrained by monetary expenses, the physical capabilities of a human performer, or the acoustical capabilities of traditional instruments”the only restraints are imposed by the composers lack of skill and knowledge.
We have the technology. What we need now are artists with the talent and bravado to take advantage of it”musicians who are willing to quit trying to make their computers sound like theyre not computers. Of course it will be scary to step away from the familiarity bred by thousands of years of listening to the human performers and traditional instruments”yet, who can truly call herself an artist who is not willing to take that step?
Let me tell you a little about my own musical tastes. I bet Im the only guy in Tampa who listens to classic Commodore 64 SID tunes at moderately high volume while cruising around downtown”with the windows rolled down and his fiancÃ©e in the passenger seat. My favorite musical genre is œchip tunes, a term that Wikipedia defines as œmusic written in module formats where all the sounds are synthesized in realtime by a computer or video game console sound chip, instead of using sample-based synthesis. Granted, I didnt enjoy this music the first few times I heard it; indeed, like most of you, I was long conditioned by the music on the radio and movies. Acquiring a taste for electronic music, be it a smooth work like Jarres Oxygene or Hubbards Monty on the Run, does not happen overnight. Still, as any wine connoisseur will tell you, the pain of acquiring good taste is something you will never regret.
Dear reader, please buckle up. I am about to set once again to find/replace œcommon sense with œherd mentality and do my best to convince you that Im not as crazy as I sound. Maybe by the time were finished, youll even burn a chip tune CD for your own driving pleasure.
I will begin by describing some of the extensive history of computer and game audio”well talk about the pioneers like Rob Hubbard and the technology they had to work with (or around!) to make decent sounds. Then well talk about the perilous state of the future and how, sadly and inexcusably, talented electronic composers are being steadily replaced by old-fashioned orchestras or commercially successful pop and rock bands. Hopefully, its not too late for true fans of computer and videogame audio to make a difference!
Some parts of the œfairytale I told earlier are certainly true. The first arcade machines, personal computers, and home videogame consoles were quite limited in terms of memory, storage capacity, and processor speed. All of these factors seriously affected what electronic musicians were able to accomplish on these platforms. Of course, we should bear in mind that audio has never been as important for game developers as graphics and animation. According to The Fat Man, œAudio is always the lowest priority for game developers. Always has been. Probably always will be5. Nevertheless, audio hardware has progressed steadily, becoming ever more efficient and affordable.
The first videogames, Spacewar! (1961) and William Higinbothams video tennis game (1958), made no effort to incorporate sound, and neither did the first arcade machine (Nolan Bushnells Computer Space ) or the first home videogame console (the Magnavox Odyssey). The first videogame with sound was apparently Ataris infamous Pong arcade machine released in 1972 and designed by Al Acorn. Nolan Bushnell wanted Pong to feature the sound of roaring crowds when a player scored a shot”and Ted Dabney (Bushnells partner) asked for a œboo and a hiss when players lost. Acorn did the best he could: œI said, ˜Screw it, I dont know how to make any one of those sounds. I dont have enough parts anyhow. Since I had the wire wrapped on the scope, I poked around the sync generator to find an appropriate frequency or a tone. So those sounds were done in a half a day. There were the sounds that were already in the machine (qtd. in Kent, 42). The result, while not exactly what Bushnell and Dabney requested, was nevertheless a success, and most players thought the œresonant ping-sound was anything but accidental. At least we can say that the first game audio was truly innovative!
Glenn McDonald writes in his excellent œBrief Timeline of Video Game Music that Milton Bradleys Simon (1974) was the first videogame to œincorporate music as a game element, though it is perhaps arguable whether the tones (in random sequence) can truly be considered music. McDonald also lists Taitos Gunfight (1975) as the first game with a CPU”and a one-channel, mono amplifier to synthesize the sound of gunshots.
The Atari VCS, released in 1977, featured 2 channels of mono sound. Two years later, Atari released a line of 8-Bit computers featuring 4 channels of mono sound and an innovative sound chip called œPokey. Thankfully, over 1,500 songs produced for the 8-Bit Atari have been archived and made available at the Atari SAP Music Archive. Thanks to a handy plug-in for WinAMP, we can still enjoy these tunes today. The Atari remains a popular platform of choice for many contemporary audio programmers. Other computers and game machines, including the Mattel Intellivision, Atari ST, and Sinclair ZX Spectrum+ 128 incorporated the Yahama YM2149 chip, which also allowed three voices.
In 1982, a company named Commodore released the best-selling personal computer of all time, the venerable C-64. The Commodore 64s SID chip was the answer to many aspiring digital musicians dreams, and the C-64 remains the programming platform of choice for many modern chiptune composers6. Bob Yannes, the creator of the SID chip, said in an interview with Andreas Varga that he felt compelled to invent a better sound chip because he œthought the sound chips on the market (including those in the Atari computers) were primitive and obviously had been designed by people who knew nothing about music. The SID chip was his attempt to create a chip as good as any available in professional synthesizers. In many ways, the Commodore 64 marks an important turning point in the history of game audio, and is still celebrating its audio some two decades after its release. New SID tunes are being added regularly to the massive High Voltage Sid Collection.
In 1985, Nintendo released Shigeru Miyamotos masterpiece Super Mario Bros. for the NES. In addition to being one of the finest run-and-jump platform games for any system (and often hailed as the game that resurrected the home video game market after the great crash), Super Mario Bros. features one of the first memorable musical soundtracks. The game's soundtrack contains several hopelessly catchy tunes and variations, all of which very much add to the atmosphere of the game world. Indeed, how many young men and woman under the age of 30 can hum the rest of the title theme after hearing only a few bars? The music is consistently upbeat and meshes perfectly with the goofy, cartoonish Mario world. McDonald points out another fine feature of the music of Super Mario Bros.”it literally becomes a part of the gameplay, as players must use it to gauge when a power-up is expiring; one might almost call it œinteractive audio, a term that surfaces often as the holy grail of game audio programming. Though the Nintendos sound hardware is technologically primitive compared to the Commodore 647, it is nevertheless responsible for producing some of videogame historys most famous tunes. A collection of Nintendo music files are available at Zophars NSF Archive.
Still, no matter how catchy and memorable the tunes of Super Mario Bros. may be, they remain distinctly chirpy and fruity”saccharine for hyperactive adolescents. Please dont think that Im trying to undervalue the superb work of its composer, Koji Kondo. However, I am suggesting that what was needed to truly revolutionize game and computer audio were compositions that could inspire an adult audience; music that could provoke insight and stimulate regions of the brain and spirit hitherto unreachable by those œbloops and beeps and colorful cartoons reminiscent of the earliest videogames. What was needed were mature games and mature compositions by masters like Hip Tanaka and Rob Hubbard.
Tanaka is the composer responsible for the excellent music of Nintendos Metroid (1986). Few indeed are those who have played this game in their youth who will not recognize its music if they hear it today. Metroid is a good example of a game whose music doesnt merely add to the atmosphere produced by the graphics; instead, the graphics add to the atmosphere produced by the music. In an interview with Alexander Brandon for Game Developer, Tanaka describes his mindset for creating the music of Metroid: œI had a concept that the music for Metroid should be created not as game music, but as music the players feel as if they were encountering a living creature. I wanted to create the sound without any distinctions between music and sound effects. The image I had was, ˜Anything that comes out from the game is the sound that game makes8. To accomplish this feat, Tanana did not rely on specialty music software”he wrote his own. œI always created my own sequencer and used assembly for the programming language. Being a programmer and a composer using my original program was a strong element of my uniqueness, says Tanaka.
While Tanaka and Miyamato were demonstrating the musical might of the NES, other legendary figures, like Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, David Whittaker, and Ben Daglish were showing off the power of the personal computer. Rob Hubbard is known for several incredible game tunes for the C-649, including my all-time favorite piece of game audio, the œloader music for a somewhat obscure C-64 œshootem up game named Sanxion. This game will probably always be remembered more for Hubbards innovative œloading music than for its gameplay. I suggest that you download this tune now and listen to it a few times before reading onward. Remember, you will need Sidplay2 to listen to .SID files on your computer. I would also recommend Hubbards other famous tunes available at HVSC.
Okay. So whats so great about the Sanxion loader music? There are no samples, digitized voices, or even a reasonable proximity to that omnipresent œtechno bass/drum loop that saturates modern electronic pop music. I can almost hear someone complaining, œBut it doesnt even sound remotely like rock! It doesnt bear the faintest resemblance to what you hear on the radio or in films! For Petes sake, it doesnt even sound like real ˜game music!
Exactly. Thats because you cant innovate by only doing whats been done before. Imitations may be entertaining, but they are hardly creative. If it doesnt sound like anything else and still sounds good”well, thats a level of talent only reached by dedicated masters. Hubbards work is innovative precisely because he isnt trying to mimic œreal music or make his computer sound like something besides a computer. The music is neither a random production of noise nor lacking in careful structure or attention to detail. He is adapting his music to the medium in which hes working”the C-64”and he plays that instrument with the same love and skill a master violinist would take to a Stradivarius. Hubbard is no pianist trying to convince people that his music is worthy simply because he can make a piano sound like a harpsichord.
Andrea Vargas: Have you heard the tunes by Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, Tim Follin, Jeroen Tel, and all the other composers ?
Bob Yannes: I'm afraid not, are recordings available in the US?
--Interview with the creator of SID
I had the honor of talking with Hubbard during my composition of this article. As one might expect, Hubbard came to the game audio industry with a background in synthesizers, piano, and saxophone. However, Hubbard wasnt simply a musician”like Hip Tanaka, Hubbard is an assembly programmer, and programmed all of his own musical routines and wrote his own software. œThats why it became unique, says Hubbard. œYou became a programmer and wrote your own software to control everything. Thats where the creativity came from. Hubbard, like Tanaka, was poised perfectly between the two creative horizons”programming and composing. This position gave him the unique ability to control his instrument, the computer, with a knowledge and skill that precious few digital musicians have possessed.
Clearly, there is a connection between being a good programmer and being a good game audio composer. The musicians of the earliest game and computer audio were required to have both sets of skills”there simply wasnt any existing tools that could do what they needed and wanted to do. Perhaps the relationship between programming and composing is similar to that relationship between playing a piano and writing music for it. Ostensibly, someone who knows how to write and read music can write compositions for any musical instrument, but this is not the case. Each musical instrument, be it a flute, piano, or synthesizer, requires a special knowledge. A master composer must be conscious of how a given note will sound on a given instrument”and even if such a note will be playable on the instrument (since most instruments have a limited range). Furthermore, a composer must be aware of the performers limitations”flute players can only a hold a note for so long, guitar players are limited in terms of the speed with which they can play notes or change chords. Many masterful compositions were written especially to showcase the skills of a well-known singer or talented player. Finally, a composer must be aware of the overall acoustics of the situation; will the roaring tympani overpower the delicate piccolo?
Famous composers, such as Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, or Handel, possessed tremendous technical knowledge about musical instruments as well as artistic knowledge about musical composition. This is why, according to Otto Luening, their compositions were able to endure so many bad performances”none of these men had access to a recording studio. The only composition tool available was pen and paper for writing down notes to be interpreted by human performers. In other words, these composers were programmers, though of performers rather than computers. If this terminology sounds a bit strange, consider that even today visitors to a classical music event may be given a œProgram that lists the pieces to be performed that day.
Game audio composers like Hubbard and Tanaka were able to produce such excellent and well-suited computer and game audio because they were excellent at writing code for computers as well as human performers. Their music was naturally adapted to the new medium and took full advantage of what it had to offer a talented composer. They used their computer as a musical instrument in its own right, and they gained the knowledge and skills to properly play it. As we will soon see, however, this œperfect storm of technical knowledge and artistic ability was soon to end. computer and game audio hardware would soon become little more than a fancy CD player, playing back recordings of music produced by traditional means.
It was at school that I realized I could get the BBC Micro to play tunes by lining up the notes as numbers in DATA statements. Additionally, the BBC's operating system is laid out such that you can easily convert BASIC programs to assembly language. I proceeded to do so.
Glenn McDonald argues that game music only moved into the œrealm of true composition after the arrival of 16 and 32-bit computers and consoles. These later machines featured vastly extended storage capacities. The Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo (SNES) released in the US in 1989 and 1991 respectively, featured 8 channels of stereo sound and much more memory than their predecessors. Likewise, personal computers saw dramatically expanded audio technology. The Commodore Amiga system, released in 1985, sported 4 channels of 8-bit stereo sound, powerful music composition software, and up to 1 megabyte of system memory at the time. The Apple Macintosh of 1995 featured 16-bit stereo and over 16 MB of system memory. IBM compatible computers, which were quite slow to develop significant audio capabilities, finally emerged onto the music scene with powerful third-party sound cards that offered comparable or even superior sound capabilities over other systems.
A great many of the tunes made for these platforms were built with tracker software, which originated on the Commodore Amiga computer. Simply put, tracker software allows composers to arrange digital samples on a timeline to form songs. The tracker software automatically transposes the samples into different notes. So, instead of digitizing samples of each key on a piano, a tracker musician can take one sample and let the software transpose the other notes from it. The finished file, often called a œmod file, was considerably smaller than a fully digitized song, yet, with clever sampling techniques, could closely mimic songs heard on the radio or in films. The Amiga, Atari ST, and PC soon developed large, thriving œmod scenes which are still surviving today. To my knowledge, the largest online repository of mod files is the Mod Archive, which contains over 29,000 mod files. Though early mods contain only 8-bit samples and use only four voices, later mods (in newer formats like .xm) allow 24-bit samples and as many voices as the latest soundcards can support.
The development of the mod format and tracker software introduced a new division of labor into the computer and game audio scene. Though music-editing software had been available for some time, it was too crude for most professional game audio applications. Tracker software, however, enabled musicians to compose and produce well-compressed songs with little or no knowledge of programming or the intricacies of their computers hardware. A tracker music file could easily be incorporated into games by a professional programmer”the musician could focus on her music and not get involved with the programming. What began was the gradual separation of composing and programming”which had hitherto enjoyed a close and very rewarding relationship. A composer like Rob Hubbard was accustomed to writing new software routines for effects he desired but were not already available”he knew enough about the hardware to create truly innovative audio. Later composers, especially those with little to no knowledge of programming, had to rely on their music editing software to provide effects and give shape to their compositions”a classic tail wagging the dog scenario. The new composers worked at a greater and greater distance from the programmers who were ultimately responsible for a game. The upshot of all this is that the quest for the holy grail, interactive audio, was relegated to some indefinite point in the future, and hordes of new computer and game musicians entered the scene who lacked the skills possessed by their predecessors that made their music so creative, artistic, and innovative.
The thing that was so attractive about this business in the 80s was the fact that so many publishers and software developers were on the forefront of exploring new ideas with the software.
Later generations of consoles included the powerful Sony Playstation, the Nintendo 64, and the Sega Dreamcast, all of which were unquestionably technically superior to the consoles that had come before. The ground was ripe for a new type of computer and game audio that was virtually unlimited; game audio composers now had access to more channels, more voices, better processors, and dramatically increased storage capacities.
How did game audio composers respond to this sudden technological boon? They began to imitate. Rather than innovate, they only did what had been done so many times before.
For most modern critics of game and computer audio, the chief advantage offered by the newer systems was the ability to create whole digital tracks of music produced by traditional instruments. This began by replacing computer-generated sounds with samples of other instruments which could then be implemented by game audio programmers into game scores. The samples were like marshmallows in breakfast cereal; not very healthy, perhaps, but sugary sweet to tastes long conditioned by analog and acoustic music. Eventually, though, memory and storage capacity grew to the point where an entire song could be recorded from a live source and simply dumped into a game; a few digital samples interspersed with electronic music were not enough. Jack Wall of Game Developer magazine writes that œIt is the composer's job to add as much realism to game music as possible to bring the player into the experience. I can't think of a better way to not achieve this goal than to produce orchestral music solely with samples10. For Wall, œThe result of live performance is so much richer and more satisfying to the player. Record old-fashioned musicians and dump the finished product into a game. This lack of imagination betrays an almost industry-wide belief that videogames should be more like Hollywood films, both in terms of graphics and sound.
The Fat Man accurately sums up the œGolden Six styles of modern computer and game audio11:
The Fat Mans satire is surely appreciated by those of us who are disappointed by nearly every new piece of game audio we hear. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, the fault is not entirely with the game audio composers, but also with the game developers.
Its cheaper to use live orchestras than synthesizers. At first this statement may be hard to believe, but its certainly no secret to professional game developers. Andy Brick, a professional videogame producer, writes in an article for Game Developer, œOn the composer's end, by dismissing the synthesizers, you have eliminated hours and hours of extremely labor-intensive (and hence costly) work ... Provided you have a composer that can make the transition from MIDI to live orchestra, it is well worth $14,000 both to eliminate 400 hours of work and to have a live orchestra recording at the end of the day12. Brick reaches this figure by estimating that professional synthesizer artists require up to four to five days to œprogram a four minute cue in a manner that would yield an almost-real-sounding MIDI orchestra. The goal is to produce game audio that can compete with popular film soundtracks or even popular music recording artists. According to Jeremy Soule, another writer for Game Developer, œIf the music in your product isn't worth a stand-alone $10 to $15 soundtrack purchase price, then it's not as good as it should be, and definitely not as good as it could be13. Comments like this, presented as they are in an industry fixture like Game Developer, at first seem sensible enough. If youre going to imitate a movie soundtrack, then use the same methods as movie producers. If youre going to compete with commercial rock and pop artists, use their methods (or, better yet, license their tracks).
These statements presuppose, however, that game and computer audio ought to be about imitation, not innovation. Using a computer as a simple audio playback device may be easier now than ever before, but it is hardly innovative. As The Fat Man puts it, œUsing computers to imitate real-life instruments makes for some convenient efficiency, but to limit one's concept of electronically produced audio to such uses can be a lot like using the Royal Seal as a nutcracker.
The orchestra is a wonderful instrument”perhaps the greatest of them all. However, I am suspicious that many composers and many, many game developers like to be associated with the live orchestra because of the status it seems to bring them. Many of our people are secretly ashamed to be in gaming, and wish to prove to their dads that they are in a legitimate business, and so they reach to various game-irrelevant artifacts of Film and TV in order to gain some legitimacy by virtue of their association with things like SAG actors, famous personalities, and orchestral music.
--The Fat Man
During our interview, Rob Hubbard, who formerly worked for one of the worlds largest game developers, Electronic Arts (EA), made some insightful comments about why so much current game audio is lacking in innovation:
I was at EA for about two years. It was a great place to work, but then the industry changed. It was dominated more and more by the executive management trying to make all the creative decisions. Its part of a wider picture. A trend started in 1996. Game budgets go up, length of time goes up. Companies take less and less risks. Everything sinks to the lowest common denominator”a much wider audience.
If the videogame industry has imitated anything from the movie industry, it is the latters preference for imitation at the cost of innovation. Its not that great music is not being produced; its just not being paid for by the few all-powerful companies that dominate the industry and modern videogame scene.
Imitate or die.
Aaron Marks, author of the widely popular The Complete Guide to Game Audio, lays down the law: œNever give away any of your music or sound effects for free. In the beginning, it is very tempting to do just that, in order to add a project to your resume. But what it does instead is let a game developer take advantage of you and cheapen our profession14. This œnever give it away for free attitude sounds more fitting for advice about a career in prostitution than musical composition. Of course, to be fair, Marks is talking about a hardworking game audio composer being taken advantage of by a commercial game developer, an act that we should all condemn. Still, if the cost of making a living in game and computer audio is that composers restrain their artistic impulses for the sake of a marketing analysts report, it is probably best that we have no game and computer audio at all.
Ironically, as game and computer audio hardware improved, the music grew less and less innovative. Unfortunately, there are precious few composers left who arent slavishly imitating film music. The fault lies not only with composers, but with cowardly industry leaders, who are unwilling to experiment or support new creative projects. The result is shelf after shelf of near-identical sequels and clones. The artists who must earn their living in this market have long ago sacrificed their artistic integrity for the sake of a paycheck”and who can blame them?
As the settlers come to this frontier, it is incumbent upon us pioneers to make sure that this becomes a place that is free and open for musical expression. It is Team Fats intention that the music in this place be expressive, touching, and made for the sake of the human spirit, not repetitive, imitative, mechanical by convenience, nor needlessly enslaved by styles imposed by fashion or limited machinery.
--Team Fats Manifatso
Despite having to œgive it away, there are still plenty of game and computer audio composers still making and releasing exciting electronic music. One such artist is Jan Diabelez Arnt Harries, also known as œRambones. Harries, a citizen of Denmark and long-time member of the Danish œdemoscene15, still writes music for his favorite musical instrument: A Commodore 64 computer. œFor me, the computer is a musical instrument, said Harries in an interview with me. œIts been like that always. When I bought it, it was to play games. But after only a few days I saw that I could play on it like a piano with a program I had. And I always wanted to have a piano. The first year, I spent all the time playing games. The second and third year, I tried to make some music.
Why would anyone want to make new music for a so-called obsolete system like the Commodore 64? For Harries, the reason is simple: œBecause I have not reached my goal on it. My goal is to make something that is so good that I will go down in history like the other names. Like a guitarist striving to make music on par with Eddie Van Halen or Eric Clapton, Harries knows hes up against some near god-like figures. Unlike lesser men, though, Harries has never considered greatness beyond his reach. You can hear his older tunes at HVSC and some of his most recent work at Sound Monitor.dk. I also had the pleasure of interviewing Rafal Kazimierski, another modern SID tune composer. Kazimierski, better known in SID circles as œAsterion, feels that the technical limitations of SID music inspires him to be more creative:
The great thing about chiptunes is that they are a challenge for the authors. Sid-tunes can play only three channels. When creating an original composition, the low number of channels forces you to make frequent changes in song structure, inventing melodies, improving the œinstruments. If not, the tune will not arrest attention.
For Kazimierski, the advantage of composing for SID is that it allows him to focus on composition rather than arrangement. Kazimierski is also a skilled C-64 programmer, and has designed a sophisticated music editor. You can view his work at the Tinnitus homepage.
One of the most impressive websites showcasing and celebrating the work of innovative computer and game audio artists is Chiptune.com, which advertises œBlipp Blopp for the Masses. A few clicks will bring you to the œJukebox feature of the site, which not only plays some of the best chip tunes ever composed, but displays visuals reminiscent of the early demoscene. Nectarine Radio is another great resource for those interested in early and latter-day work, particularly the Amiga scene. Finally, Kohina radio offers œpure old school 8-bit and 16-bit game and demo music. Those interested in modern remixes of old game tunes will likely enjoy SLAY Radio.
A few readers may be unfamiliar with the term œdemoscene and unaware of the vital role that it played in the development of computer music. The truth is, many of the older chiptune maestros were heavily involved in the illegal circumvention of software copy protection, a process known as œcracking. Usually small groups of crackers would form into groups that would compete with other groups for the honor of cracking a program first. These groups were proud of their work and often displayed messages on cracked products to let the user know who was responsible for the release. At first these messages were limited to text, as in, œCRACKED BY THE TRADER and so on, but then other groups began coding tiny, incredibly innovative graphical and musical demos that would not only identify the groups, but demonstrate their creative talent. These demos, often called œintros, were by necessity very small programs since most of them had to fit on a single sector of a floppy disk (the œboot sector). Sometimes the graphics and music in an intro were superior to that found in the game”a situation that undoubtedly aggravated commercial game developers. Eventually, the coding of intros and demos by these groups took precedence over cracking software; many artists abandoned their illegal activities and refer to themselves now as part of the œdemoscene rather than the œcracking or œwarez scene. Probably the best websites to visit for more information about this topic is Scene.org and Orange Juice.
Modern demoscene and chiptune composers need not artificially limit themselves to the sound capabilities of early systems. Many of the top artists at Chiptune.com take full advantage of the advanced sound technology available in modern computers. Nevertheless, they do not rely on samples of traditional instruments to compose memorable music.
Most new computer games - including major releases - dont take advantage in any significant way of the capabilities of the latest generation of audio cards. Many dont even support the EAX standard (Creative Labs Environmental Audio Extensions, which modify audio to replicate the effects of specific environments), or any form of hardware surround sound.
What I hope to have accomplished with this article is to alert gamers, critics, and (most hopefully) composers to the need for serious innovation in the computer and Game audio genre. This will mean abandoning efforts to make game audio more like film audio. We have grown too comfortable with convention and tradition in music and have ceased to require true creativity and innovation from our artists. Instead, we have asked them to deliver more of the same, albeit in a new package.
What can you do with a computer that you cant do with an orchestra, and why arent more people doing it? This is one of the questions I bounced off The Fat Man in an email interview. He replied, œEven at our best, we the ˜new breed [a Rob Hubbard-ism] can still often come off as a bunch of tepid John Williams impersonators. If game audio were my life's work, and I suppose that it is, I would look very hard at dipping into our interactive audio engines, our strange sounds, sonic roots, unique humor, our character as Nerds, computer experts, etc., all to the end of trying to find out how we could bring something to the table that John could never hope to.
The secret to outdoing John is hidden deep within our computers and game consoles. There, lying amidst the microchips are the sounds and music that no human ear has ever heard. The time has come to wean ourselves from the hallowed traditions of our ancestors and let new angels give voice to those forever unspeakable expressions of the pure and courageous souls of our artists. The computer will take its rightful place as the most sophisticated and perfect of our musical instruments, not some cheap mimicker of ancient wooden contraptions.
If we videogamers and computer enthusiasts are truly on the forefront of technological progress, we should also be on the forefront of artistic progress. This may mean re-training our ears and developing taste for new types of music and sound. Mimicry and imitation are not the skills we should be requiring and cultivating in our electronic composers. We must try our best to fight our prejudice against new music and consider what the computer medium really has to offer”a whole new world of sound.
The picture above is of Rob Hubbard during his C-64 days. Try clicking on his Commodore 64's function keys (the four buttons on the right of the unit) to hear some classic SID tunes. Hit the C-64s SPACE BAR to stop the currently playing tune.
Barry Leitch, known as œThe Jackal on the C-64 SID scene, is probably now the most widely-heard of all former SID composers, but not for his SIDs (which include the infamous œChicken Song, which I promised I would not mention here). Leitch left the game audio scene to join the audio division of Fisher Price, the famous toy manufacturer, and quickly put his skill into upgrading the almost embarrassingly bad audio capabilities of Fisher Prices toy line. Leitch designed the audio for Fisher Prices Pixter device, and he now estimates that his music is heard by œten million people everyday. Barry is now a freelance composer.
Bill Loguidice has identified two episodes of Computer Chronicles that concern computers and music: Computer Music (1984) and Midi Music (1986). The historical value of these programs is considerable.
1 In this article, I try to distinguish between œGame Audio and œcomputer Audio. œGame Audio will refer to music specifically created for use in a videogame, whereas œcomputer Audio includes musical compositions like SID and MOD files that were made on and for computers, but may not be associated with a videogame.
3 Though a few German bands, most notably Kraftwerk and the Belgian band Front 242, remain dedicated to their futuristic roots. There are also plenty of underground bands producing electronic music, but Im more concerned here with the mainstream. Kraftwerk is particularly dedicated to furthering the electronic music frontier, and their musical ideology is identical to my own.
4 Though as Bill Loguidice pointed out in his review of this article, whenever television shows or movies portray videogames, they usually sound quite 80ish. It seems the general public still associates game audio with the primitive sounds of the earliest arcade machines.
5 Sanger, George Alistair. The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness. Indianapolis: New Rider, 2004. The Fat Mans book is loaded with hilarious anecdotes and sage advice; its definitely worth purchasing if you are interested in game audio culture.
6 Ibid, page 23.
7 Another computer system with a significant music community is that surrounding the British computer, the ZX Spectrum. I am not personally familiar with the system or this community, but I encourage you to visit Project AY to learn more about it.
8 Chris M. Covell explains why:
HOW do the NES' and C-64's (SID's) sound capabilities compare?
Well, there is very little comparison. The NES has more sound channels, but is highly primitive. The SID has synchronization, ring modulation, filtering, resonance effects, etc to its benefit. The NES has 5 sound channels: 2 square wave, with only 4 selectable duty cycles; 1 triangle wave; 1 noise channel; and 1 DMC sample channel. These assignments are fixed. Frequency is controlled through an 11-bit combination of registers, and volume is controlled through a 4-bit volume register. To its advantage, the NES can play 7-bit samples through its sample channel.
The SID has only 3 sound channels, but each can be selected to play any combination of square, triangle, sawtooth, or noise waveforms. Frequency is controlled through a 16-bit combination of registers; and pulsewidth is controlled through a 12-bit combination of registers. The SID has a sophisticated ADSR method of controlling a note's volume and shape as it is being played. Added to that is an 11-bit highpass, lowpass, or bandpass filter, which through subtractive synthesis can produce very complex and realistic sounds, like an electric guitar, string bass, techno-bleeps, you name it. Furthermore, channels can be combined to produce modulation effects such as vibrato or tremolo. The SID also has a way of producing sampled sounds, though I believe they are only 4-bit.
Covell added later in a personal email, œI guess I should add that several Japanese NES (Famicom) games added extra sound chips to cover over these limitations. They range from the simple (1 or 2 extra PSG channels) to the complex (several sawtooth-wave and digital channels, or even a full FM sound chip.)
9 Brandon, Alexander. œShooting from the Hip: An Interview with Hip Tanaka. Game Developer. Oct 2002. Volume 9, Issue 10, Page 12.
10 Hubbard is also known for compositions for many other platforms, including the Madden games for the Sega Genesis.
11 Wall, Jack. œUsing Living, Breathing Musicians in Game Music. Game Developer. Mar 2003. Volume 10, Issue 3, Page 30.
12 Ibid, page 68.
13 Brick, Andy. œThe Live Orchestra Recording: A Producer's Awakening. Game Developer. Dec, 2002. Volume 9, Issue 12, Page 28.
14 Marks, Aaron. The Complete Guide to Game Audio. Lawrence, KA: CMP Books, 2001.
15 To learn more about the demoscene, read this entry at Wikpedia
Author: Buck Feris
Editing: Lori Feris, Bill Loguidice, Matt Barton
Artwork: Buck Feris (Screenshots taken from the author's collection unless otherwise indicated)
Online Layout: Buck Feris
The progression of videogames is very singular compared to other art forms. The videogame medium seemed destined to do one thing: allow people to simulate and experience violent fantasies. The idea of one game/three lives has become so prevalent in Western culture that a sort of violent terminology has emerged when discussing videogames, whether the games themselves are violent or not. Even when playing a game such as Tetris, it is common to exclaim, â€œI died!â€ when the game ends. In fact, most videogames end upon the death of the protagonist.
Even though it is undeniable that videogames are violent, we are still left with the question: Why are videogames so violent? In this article I will try to explore this question, and in doing so, perhaps shed some light on this dark part of the human psyche. We also may find that the violent nature of videogames should not alarm us if experienced under the right circumstances.
No one questions the fact that as an art form, videogames seem to embrace violence more than music, literature, movies, or any other sector of the media arts. Violence in movies has sparked controversy, that has produced a rating system, but there are still a large percentage of movies that are produced that have no physical violence whatsoever. Hundreds of comedies, dramas, and romances are produced each year without having to consult a special effects artist about placing squibs on the actors. What about violent music? Indeed, there is also controversy in rap music concerning street violence being glorified, but the vast majority of popular music seems to be concerned with pleasant feelings such as love. When was the last time you played a love game?
A quick look at the Top 40 British software titles at gameindustry.biz reveals some interesting statistics. Thirty seven of the software titles listed are games. Twenty three of those titles contain some sort of violence. Fourteen of those titles include graphic violence throughout the duration of the game. Some of the titles in this category include Tom Clancyâ€™s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, Onimusha: Demon Siege, Full Spectrum Warrior, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Red Dead Revolver, Hitman: Contracts, Soul Calibur II, and others.
In contrast, a look at the top 40 grossing films last weekend (July 16th thru 18th, 2004) only reveals 15 movies with any violence. Among those fifteen movies, two were documentaries, and many were comedies or childrenâ€™s movies that contained some cartoon-like violence. A comedy about dodgeball, a Harry Potter movie, and Shrek 2 were included in the list containing violence. An inspection of the Top 40 Billboard charts will reveal even less violent content.
For a history of how quickly violence pervaded videogames after their invention, see the timeline at the end of this article.
In our quest to find out why videogames are so violent in comparison to other art forms, it would be logical to look at what sets videogames apart from other art forms. What is different about videogames?
The first major difference that comes to mind is perspective. Videogame perspective is usually limited to two categories: First Person and Third Person. It is interesting to note that the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre is defined by roaming around in a 3D world performing acts of violence, usually with a projectile weapon, hence the term shooter. However, these two categories are inadequate when discussing other forums of art such as literature. Literature has three perspectives. In addition, these perspectives are not defined in the same way as they are in videogames.
The first person perspective in literature has a story that is being told to the reader as if the events had occurred to the author. If someone is reading a novel in first person, it is not implied nor inferred that the action is happening to the reader. A novel may contain quotes such as, â€œI drove down to the dock,â€ or, â€œShe was filled with pity for my situation.â€ However, the action did not happen to the reader. In contrast, the first person perspective in videogames usually means putting a weapon in the hands of the player, and letting her roam through the gaming world committing acts of violence. It is implied that the actions and experiences are happening to the player.
Third person perspective in literature has a story in which the author is relating events that happened to a party that is separate from the author and the reader. The reader experiences this story with a certain level of detachment since the action in not happening to him. In contrast, the third person perspective in videogames still puts control of the protagonist in the hands of the player. The layer of detachment that exists in literature is gone. Although the player may be controlling what is perceived to be another entity, the skill of the player and the actions taken will decide the outcome of the story. In many cases, the death of the character is at stake. It is interesting to note that since this layer of detachment is removed, the player often identifies herself as the character. When someone is playing Galaga, even though the alien invasion is not being fought off from a first person perspective, it is still customary to say, â€œI died,â€ when the game ends.
So what is the other perspective in literature? It is the second person perspective. While there are not many examples of this in literature (or other art forms for that matter) it can be argued that all videogames fall into this category. If a novel is written in second person perspective, the reader is meant to infer that the action is happening directly to her. Quotes such as, â€œYou drive your car down to the docks,â€ and â€œYou are struck in the chin by your assailant,â€ can be found in novels in this perspective. The novel Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is one example as well as the popular Choose Your Own Adventure series of books written for adolescents.
There have been attempts at using the second person perspective in other mediums that have met with varying success. There was a popular off Broadway play making the rounds a few years ago entitled Toni and Tinaâ€™s Wedding. Theater goers attending this play were encouraged to take part in the story as guests at an Italian wedding. Another known attempt at second person perspective was made in the popular TV show M*A*S*H. In an episode entitled Point of View, all of the scenes are shot from the perspective of a wounded soldier. The viewer is asked to experience the show in a new way as you are wounded, flown to the 4077th, and operated on by the cast members.
Where this level of participation is rare in other mediums, it is the standing rule in videogames. The player must control the action in some way in order for the story to progress. It is always implied that the playerâ€™s actions will somehow guide the experience. The very nature of the experience of a videogame is an active one, where all others art forms are passive. In fact the argument could be made that all videogames are played in some variant of the second person perspective. I know full well that the videogame critics of the world are not going to change the terminology with which they discuss perspective, (I doubt the editors at PC Gamer will read this article and immediately tell their writers to refer to Doom III as a Second Person Shooter) but in the interest of defining terms in this article, I will make the distinction.
So, what can we draw from the fact that the first art form to embrace the second person perspective immediately becomes defined by its violent content?
Perhaps people need a safe way in which to explore violence and tragedy. This is not a new concept. The philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) is credited with tackling this subject first when he introduced the term catharsis in his work, Poetics. It was his contention that people have a need to purge emotions such as pity and fear through aesthetic experience. This purging is looked on in a positive light as a way to safely explore these feelings without any real danger or tragedy taking place. Much has been written both in support and opposition to this viewpoint. However, opponents never seem to be able to answer the simple question, why would we want to watch tragedy? There must be some reason for this exercise.
Much later, Freud explored related ideas in his book, Civilization and Its Discontents. To paraphrase, men and women are animals with natural instincts relating to sex and violence, for better or for worse. Through intellectual and technological growth, a civilized society has formed where the members agree to give up certain freedoms and repress certain urges in the interest of peace and safety. However, this orderly society comes at a cost, as the repression of these urges causes tension. Some are able to cope with this better than others, but some level of tension will always exist.
Most forms of art play directly to this system, allowing people to safely explore their desires and urges without consequence. Why would we want to sit down and watch a romantic comedy about two people falling in love? Why would we want to watch a movie about the horrors of war? The reason is because it reminds us of our own desires and instincts. It gives us a release from the tension that has been built by the social contract.
The study of music theory reveals much about the need for humans to experience a cyclic tension and release. The very structure of chords and scales are built to move toward a pleasant ending. But first we must be taken through a progression that may include some dissonance or tension. Beethoven as well as other masters of the Romantic Era of classical music had a rich understanding of how this cycle could affect the listener. Tension was created through dissonance on purpose, only to meet in consonance at the end. Think of how obvious the ending of a symphony written in the Romantic Era is when it finally arrives. This completes the cycle. The listener is taken through the stages of tension and given a reward at the end.
In contrast, this cyclic tension and release is purposely abandoned by modern composers to great effect. Dissonant chords without a resolution are used by composers such as Serialists in order to sustain tension and make the listener feel uneasy. By structuring the scales in a mathematical fashion, resolution becomes all but impossible and its effects on the listener do not go unnoticed. Many of the modern composers employed similar techniques to make statements about postwar society much like an abstract painter would.
Literature also has its cycles. The plot must progress and crescendo, until a climax is reached. Then, many times, the reader is given a denouement in order to bring things full circle so that the reader has a sense of resolution. With this cyclical technique, the reader can experience love, death, fear, anguish, rage, or any range of human emotions and be brought down safely again.
In applying the same theories to videogames, we see that players now have an arena where they can safely explore violence. Feelings of fear and rage were always possible, but technology has allowed the player to be immersed in the experience like nothing before. According to the timeline displayed later in this article, the public didnâ€™t waste any time using this new technology to do just that. One can hear a piece of music and feel sadness, peace, love, or rage, but they cannot be violent. A full range of emotions can be explored in the theater and the cinema, but it is always done in first or third person perspective. A young man can watch Lethal Weapon or some Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and feel exhilarated, but in the end it was someone elseâ€™s story, not his experience or achievement. Vanquishing oneâ€™s enemies in a round of Unreal Tournament 2004 is akin to the happy ending of a war movie.
Who is the audience for this new art form? Who are the people playing these games? They are young males between the ages of 18 to 35. Who else would feel the need to explore such violent fantasies? This is the same audience for action movies. This is the same audience for heavy metal and rap music. It only makes sense that young males would gravitate toward such a medium.
This is the same demographic that is also attracted to sports. It has long been theorized that some sort of sport has existed in every human society as a way to allow young men to safely experience competition and battle. This is a structured environment where young people can learn to channel aggression and competitiveness in a positive direction. These feelings do exist, and young people will explore them. How our young people explore those feelings is determined by societal norms, and now, technology. If school sponsored sports have long been upheld as a positive way for our children to channel aggression, why wouldnâ€™t we view videogames in the same light?
The answer to the question â€˜why are videogames so violent?â€™ is that this was the one remaining experiences we could not have with other art forms. Since before Aristotleâ€™s time, we have been missing out on one important avenue of catharsis. Elizabethan Revenge plays such as Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy came close. Metaphysical poets such as John Donne came close. Shakespeare came close. (How many people died in the last scene of Hamlet?) As soon as the experience became available, we jumped into it head first. Videogames are violent. They always will be violent. In a way, it is their function to be violent. And we as a society need them to be violent. Sports have been available up to now, but there is no aesthetic there. We need to experience these emotions artistically. In addition, not all people are lucky or gifted enough to be able to excel in sports. However, anyone can now channel aggression and experience the spirit of competition in his or her own home.
I believe as time goes on videogames will even become more violent. In the infancy of any art form, the waters are tested carefully. Public reaction to a new medium is usually mixed and boundaries must be prodded before they are brought down. I can remember the controversy concerning the red screen that was produced when Hunt the Wumpus players took a wrong turn and were eaten. However, as graphics become better, and the immersive experience of First Person Shooters becomes more real, the demand for more violence is amplified. Where running over stick figures in Exidyâ€™s Death Race was considered shocking in 1975, advanced skeletal models that allow decapitation and the severing of limbs are popular marketing points today.
This is catharsis in its final incarnation. Videogames are what every child wishes sports could be. Now we have the aesthetic to add to it.
Several studies have been published in the last few years suggesting that the playing of violent videogames somehow correlates to real life aggression. It is not the point of this article to dispute this. Before anyone quotes me as saying we should let our children explore their violent tendencies, let me interject by saying our roles as parents need to be approached with common sense. My daughter is now three months old. There are many forms of artistic expression that will be harmful to her if she is allowed to experience them while she is too young. As she grows up there will be movies she will not be allowed to see, books she will not be allowed to read, TV shows she will not be allowed to watchâ€¦and videogames she will not be allowed to play.
Ratings systems for the arts are a fine idea, but sometimes I have to laugh when they are applied to videogames. When was the last time a videogame tried to hide its violent content from the consumer? The violent content of these games is a prime marketing tool, not something to be hidden. If a parent is willing to buy a game with illustrations of flaming demons and skulls on the cover, I doubt a warning label will save his or her eight-year-old son from an inappropriate experience. There is a time in everyoneâ€™s life when reading books like A Clockwork Orange, watching movies like Apocalypse Now, and seeing TV shows like South Park is appropriate and even educational. There is also a time in everyoneâ€™s life where a game like Postal or Soldier of Fortune may provide a much needed release from societal tension.
However, it is true that we cannot watch our kids 100% of the time. Mistakes will happen. Chances are that my child will have some sort of experience with mature art or pornography before she is old enough to fully understand it. However, if some twelve-year-old boy commits some horrible act of violence, unhinging years of parenting after just a few hours of playing Mortal Kombat, I question the skill of the parents rather than the content of the game.
Some parents complain that their children are able to buy these games without their knowledge. This also puzzles me. Iâ€™m not sure what goes on in the houses of people who make these complaints, but I very much doubt that a pre-teen under my supervision will be able to make it to the mall by herself, plop down the prohibitive $49.99 US for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and be corrupted by itâ€™s supposed 150 hours of gameplay without my noticing.
Legislators are still attempting to alleviate the situation though. In recent years (mostly in the wake of the Columbine shootings where it is believed that playing videogames somehow led the assailants to commit those violent acts) many attempts have been made on both state and national levels to either declare videogames harmful or obscene. In so doing it is believed that their sale can be limited to minors. So far, not one law that made it to fruition has survived being challenged in court. Most recently the U.S. District Court in Seattle, Washington overturned state bill 1009 that limited the sale of videogames that allowed players to participate in violence against police officers. A similar bill is making its way through Judiciary Committee on the national level. Joe Bacaâ€™s (D-California) brainchild has no less than 43 co-sponsors.
If a bill like this ever passes, will it really restrict minors from playing violent videogames? How many kids under the age of 17 regularly see rated-R movies? How many kids under the age of 18 smoke and view pornography? How many kids under the age of 21 drink alcohol? If these other laws are largely ignored by our children, I seriously doubt that yet another prohibitive law will somehow alleviate parents from the responsibilities of raising their children. Enforcement of these laws still starts at home. Although I am not morally opposed to a law that prohibits children from viewing violent and sexually explicit content, I am frustrated that our government is wasting valuable time and tax dollars trying to pass laws that will have no effect while further diluting responsibility from the party that is really in question here: the parents.
One of the big opponents to the censorship of videogames is the IGDA (International Game Developers Association). The following is a position statement taken from their website:
â€œThe IGDA strongly believes that digital games are a medium of expression and an art form. Digital games deserve the same level of respect, and protection, as other forms of art and entertainment. Games are part of our cultural fabric and are enjoyed by a very diverse audience. The IGDA fully stands behind voluntary, industry driven, content ratings that allow consumers to make informed purchasing/playing decisions for themselves and their families.â€
The IGDA puts their money where their mouth is. They are often the organization bankrolling the legal battles against legislation such as bill 1009 in Washington state. However, I have to wonder, if the IGDA advocates a rating system, and the current rating system works, why would they oppose its enforcement? In theory, applying enforcement to a system that already works would have no effect on who gets to play these works of art. Sadly, I doubt that the IGDAâ€™s funding of these court battles has anything to do with free speech. While attempting to sound noble, it is far more likely that the IGDA is worried that sales might decline if the children of irresponsible parents were no longer able to purchase videogames that contained inappropriate content.
Videogame violence is here to stay. This is steeped in tradition since the conception of the medium. The active perspective of this new art form demands it. We play these games for the same reasons that drive us to watch movies that make us cry, and play sports that make us bleed. The visceral experience of videogames is as old as art itself. Although I am not opposed to a rating system for this medium, I question its effectiveness. The key to good parenting is education and participation. Is there a good time to introduce children to the danger and competitiveness of sports? Is there a time in someoneâ€™s developmental cycle when they should be introduced to the horrors of war and other adult subjects? The answer is obviously yes. All these things happen in our current educational system. There is a time and a place to allow young people to explore the tension and release of videogame violence as well. We just need to use some common sense and do it responsibly.
Part II of this article (coming in issue #5) will further delve into this topic. Some bold statements were made here concerning the need for people to explore violent tendencies. I will attempt to prove that this need exists, and that aggressive tension is just as pronounced as sexual tension, but goes largely ignored during cognitive development in this modern, safety-first society. I will also try and make some suggestions on how to approach this problem as a parent, and yes, videogames may be part of the solution.
In order to better show how fast videogames became violent after their invention, I have provided the following timeline:
1958: It would be very supportive to my argument to say that the first videogame ever produced contained violence. Alas, I cannot make that claim. According to historians, a version of table tennis was produced on an oscilloscope in 1958 by Willy Higinbotham.
1961: However, the second videogame ever produced had the word 'war' in the title: Space War. This game, originally designed in the computer lab at MIT, pitted two players in a death match in space.
1966: Ralph Baer, arguably the inventor of the home videogame, created his first playable game in this year. It was a chase game that was decidedly non-violent. However, one of the first peripherals he made for his system was a light gun that resembled a Winchester rifle.
1972: A programmer by the name of Will Crowther created the first widely distributed computer game called The Colossal Cave Adventure. This was a text adventure that had Dungeons & Dragons type elements that allowed you to type in such commands as â€˜kill dwarf.â€™ There were also many ways for the player to get killed during the game.
1975: By this time a handful of arcade games were being produced, and a game by the name of Death Race was released. Death Race was released to coincide with the movie Death Race 2000 starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. In the movie, racers are supposed to run over pedestrians for points in an attempt to win a gruesome game. The arcade game Death Race had a similar theme, allowing you to run over stick figures for points. Although Exidy tried to soften the subject matter of the game by calling the stick figures â€˜gremlinsâ€™ the game still caused quite a bit of controversy. Before release, the working title of the game was â€˜Pedestrianâ€™ which also gives some insight into the spirit of this game.
1977: Atari released their first home based video console called the Atari Video Computer System. For years it was shipped with one game inside the box: Combat. If the name is not obvious enough, it is a game that allows combatants to engage each other in various venues on the ground and in the air.
1980: This year saw the first 3D arcade game produced by Atari. Battlezone allowed players to control a tank in a vector drawn 3D world. It is interesting to note that upon seeing the game, the United States military commissioned a version of the game to use for training purposes.