Monday, April 27, 2009

Saturn Game Advertisements

Here's a look at an early advertisement campaign for the Sega Saturn. Adorned with characters for marquee games in the Saturn line-up, these ads also contained words that were to epitomize the system's revolutioniary 32-bit gaming.

And cheese.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What makes a game good?

What makes a game good? It seems like a straightforward question, but there's definitely not a straightforward answer. There's probably no single answer to that question either, but the debate will continue on.

Often it starts with a simple comment like, "The more I think about it, the story makes the game," or, "It's all about the controls." Some even chime in with, "The graphics make it good. That's why people keep buying the same game with better graphics..." Inevitably, someone comes along with, "No way, it's the gameplay that really matters."

This is usually followed by everyone else agreeing that, "Oh yeah, it's definitely the gameplay."

What does that even mean?

For some, it's the responsiveness of the controls, for others, it's the mechanics and rules to the games; another group consider it the speed and action of the game.

Tic-tac-toe is a game, but I've never heard anyone say that it has poor gameplay (or good gameplay for that matter). We could apply to some of the previous definitions:

  • The controller response seems slow, since I'm using a piece of chalk instead of a pencil.

  • Tic-tac-toe is too slow, there's not enough action.

  • The game's rules are so shallow that only a limited number of possibilities exist, so the game gets boring fast.

While I'm inclined to think that most people associate the gameplay with the third option, it doesn't explain everything.

People will say point-and-click adventures have good gameplay. What? Myst was one of the highest-selling games in its time. You point, then click, then watch something happen. Then you point, click, and watch something happen.

The Sims is a game that you don't really have to play. Throw a bunch of variables together, sit back, influence a couple of things, and see what happens. Yet it's still considered a good game and was a huge seller as well.

So, the problem with using gameplay is that it's an all-encompassing term that doesn't have a specific definition. It's too broad to have any real meaning in discussion of what makes a game good.

Now, it's way easier for people to define what doesn't make a good game. Arguably, you could say that if it doesn't have all the things that make it a bad game, then it could be good. Well, at least it probably won't be a bad game.

Before I propose anything, let's see where we're at:

  1. It can't be the story. Games like Tetris don't have them and are still considered classics.

  2. It's not the graphics, an ugly Tetris is still Tetris and people still like it.

  3. It's not the controls, since playing a highly-responsive game of tic-tac-toe is still tic-tac-toe.

  4. Gameplay is too vague of a word to accurately describe what is good about a game.

Here's my goal: Find a set of criteria that is necessary for a good videogame. This should be valid regardless of the type of the game; it should work on everything from Tetris to Deus Ex to Virtua Fighter. With any luck, it'll be applicable to non-video games as well.

Alright, so down to business. What makes a good game?

First step: the rules or game mechanics. What makes one game different from another? The rules. Really, that's it. In a game, you're defining that things need to be done in a certain way or in a certain manner. In tic-tac-toe, we know the rules: You play on a 3x3 grid, with two players placing alternate symbols (usually an O and an X) on the grid.

The groundwork is laid, and we have to work within that. Tetris has a defined set of rules about fitting blocks together. Fighting games have a set of rules about what attacks can work against certain defenses, how long an attack takes to happen, ho much recovery time there is for an attack.

For a first-person-shooter, rules include gun damage levels and reload times.

Even point-and-click adventure games have rules. Maybe the most simple of all: click on a clickable spot.

If the rules are absolute shit, then the game will be absolute shit. Ever find yourself in a game thinking, "This is dumb, why would I have to do/want to do this?" and answering the question by never playing again? Regardless, there must be rules in the game.

Next on the list: There needs to be an objective or a goal. Now, the objective doesn't have to be "become a supreme being that can kill anything in its path." It might be something as simple as making it to the end of the level, seeing what's around the corner, or just outdoing (racing, fighting, whatever) your opponent.

If a game has no objective, then it's going to get bored fast. Ever play though a level while someone is building it. Maybe they post it to a website and say, "Tell me what you think of it so far." You get into the level and there's a hallway. You go down it, and there's nothing. That's it, that's where the level stops. There's no ending as such, it just simply stops.

How long do you think you'll play? My guess: 20 minutes tops. The average adult attention span is 20 minutes. If you can't find an objective or goal in 20 minutes, then you'll quit the game.

I see these goals working at two levels: a micro and macro level. Usually there's the "get to the end of the game" major goal, whether that's getting through all of the levels, obtaining the highest score, or collecting every single piece of the puzzle.

Micro level objectives would be done on a smaller scale, such as opening the next door or making sure a block fits in the correct position.

Let's take the empty level just mentioned and add a couple of doors to the empty hallway. Now you may ask yourself, "What's behind that door?" There's an objective - see what's behind the door. So you head over, and there's nothing. "Ok, what's behind door #2?" This has already made the game more interesting than the previous build.

Tic-tac-toe, with no goal, would end pretty fast. Just putting Xs and Os on a grid can only be entertaining for so long with no purpose.

Ok, so let's put #1 and #2 together. Now we have rules and an objective. This is where things may start to become fun. You have to accomplish an objective within a certain guideline or set of rules. Going back to tic-tac-toe, players will alternate turns placing their respective symbol on the grid until the grid is completely full or a player gets three of their symbols in a row. How you reach that goal is up to you. You've got place your symbol in a spot that allow you to get three symbols in a row.

This ties in with my next point: There should be problems and solutions. The human mind is brilliant at problem-solving. That's what it was designed to do, and whether people like to acknowledge it or not, they do seem to get joy of solving problems successfully. Some games implement this in a pretty straightforward way, explaining to you the goals and the solutions. While in others, the problems and solutions are little less so.

In an FPS, the problem is that there's a bunch of enemies that don't want you to reach your goal. The solution: kill'em all.

In Tetris, the problem is that these blocks don't fit exactly right every time, and you don't want them to fill up your screen. The solution: try to create horizontal lines of solid blocks so that they're removed.

Back to tic-tac-toe, the problem is that while you're trying to get three in a row, your opponent is doing the same while trying to block you. The solution: Be the first to get three in a row or block them from getting three in a row.

Building off this, we need interest. Now, I do believe that problems and solutions can be enough to build interest, but this isn't always the case.

Seeing the same old story every single time or the exact same problems and exact same solutions over and over would get old, too. So, another way to add interest is to let the player experience new things. In a platformer, this could be a new level. In an FPS, this could be a new monster with new challenges. In an adventure game, this could be a door that was previously closed off now opening up. Even being able to see the same old area in a new light with the addition of a new gaming element could do the trick. "Now I can jump higher and access different parts of level."

The fun in solving a problem comes from figuring it out. There's a tension that is built up, and then released when the problem is solved.

Games need tensions and releases to keep people interested. Some games, like fighters and FPSs will do this within their rules, by getting players into high tension situations. Having very little health in either game type while taking on a challenging (but defeatable) opponent will make for a tense situation. If you make a mistake, you're done.

Other games may have to pursue this through different means, like the plot or story. I think this is why in some games, the story seems like an essential element, yet others don't need a story at all.

A good narrative, whether is a book or a movie, is all about taking the reader for a ride. How's that done? With dips and valleys, with tensions and releases. Engaging music is the same way. Constant white noise, with no peaks or dips, is not interesting. A sports game, where the home team is simply blowing away the competition is not nearly as attention-grabbing as a game where the teams are battling back and forth. Don't believe me? Just listen to the crowd react when their team pulls ahead by one point with one minute to go.

So now, we've got some rules, we've got an objective, problems and solutions, and now tensions and releases. Only, if you give a person the option between taking a tense situation or an easy one, they'll most likely choose the easiest. If the results are the same, what is the point of trying the harder way?

So for the last ingredient, we'll add in risks and rewards. A game needs to reward players for playing the "right" way or by taking extra risks and accomplishing out of the way tasks.

For Tetris, this is built in. "If I build a hole for this particular shaped block, and that block pops up soon, I'll be in the clear." If the gamble doesn't pay off, then the player is in some trouble. There's a risk, but the rewards make it worthwhile.

Even in tic-tac-toe, there are tensions and release. "I put a symbol here, either I win with one more turn or my opponent will win. It all depends on how astute they are..." Is it worth the gamble? Let the player decide, but allow them to make the call, to feel the intensity in the air, to get the enjoyment of figuring out the solution and successfully win the game... or lose it all.

Clearly, this isn't the end-all, be-all, as I do have a couple of lingering thoughts:

First of all, why isn't tic-tac-toe the best game ever? It's very shallow and lacks the complexity to provide enough thought-provoking situations. Between experienced players, it's a draw every time.

Now chess, on the other hand, may be one of the most popular games of all time because of its complexity. Complexity is certainly important to an extent, but I think this is a topic for another day.

More specific to videogames are the controls. I think the important issue with controls is they don't hinder playing the game. The first issue is a technical one involving latency between the controller and the game. If Guitar Hero took a second to register button-pushes, no one would play it. The second is with the complexity of the controls themselves, which I think points the same direction as the tic-tac-toe to chess comparison and is best left to discuss another time.

To hear a little bit more from someone who actually knows what they're talking about, former Sonic the Hedgehog developer Hirokazu Yasuhara speaks to Gamasutra about the psychology of game design.

(Somehow this had to tie into Sega, right?)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Virtual On Oratorio Tangram on XBox Live Arcade

Virtual On Oratorio Tangram is soon making its way to the XBox Live Arcade, which is good news for Virtual On and Sega fans. The series has been pretty low-profile since the release of Marz on the PS2. And for good reason, too: Marz is a pretty poor game.

Interestingly enough, its version 5.66 that's being ported over, which is the final arcade release. Compare that to version 5.45 that the Dreamcast used.

(If you're wondering what happened to the earlier versions, they were different play mechanics for Tangram that were ultimately rejected before the game was released. One involved fighting in only floorless stages, similar to the game's final battle.)

GameSetWatch's Robot-chan! column has an excellent run down on all of the past VO games and insight on how this new port will affect the series.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Sega Saturn Guide

Welcome to the Next Level

Lately, the Saturn has seen resurgence amongst the retro-gaming crowd. The retro scene itself has been growing lately, with emulation and cheaper prices of older games providing a great way to jump in.

I'm not a Saturn expert, and I don't consider myself a "retro" gamer, as I just never really completely left my Saturn alone, but for anyone who is just entering the world inside of Neptune, there's a few things to know about the system, and hopefully, I can help out.

A little background info

The Saturn was designed as the next full-console follow-up to Sega's successful Genesis. Part of the planet naming code which included Mars (32X) and Neptune (A 32X/Genesis hybrid), the Saturn would be the only system to carry its code name. Originally developed in the hey-day of 2D gaming, the system was to be a 2D powerhouse, powered by a single processor. After having seen the 3D power of upcoming rival Sony's Playstation, Sega quickly shifted gears, adding in a second SH-2 processor at the last minute.

This led to the system's infamous "hard to program" reputation. Not only that, but developers were given few tools to get games up and running by the Saturn's launch date. To make matters even worse, as a "sneak attack," the launch date was moved forward unannounced at select retailers, leaving developers with little time to finish their games, and leaving other retailers out in the cold. It would do well to damage to Sega's reputation in the store front, with some chains, notably Kay-Bee Toys who chose to boycott Sega altogether, and with 3rd party developers, already reluctant with the relative failures of the 32X and Sega CD.

The Saturn initially seemed to be doing alright despite the setbacks, at least until the Playstation came around. Despite going toe-to-toe for a few months, the Saturn couldn't hold out against the better marketing, slightly higher visuals, and of course, Final Fantasy VII. Despite slowing sales and monetary loss, Sega continued to pump out ports of its popular arcade games, new exclusives, and other titles that, if not popular, were quality games waiting to be discovered.

Why bother?

The Saturn was home to several exclusive games at the time, many of which are still only available on the Saturn. Though not as ubiquitous as Playstation games, more popular Saturn games can still be had for just a few dollars, so despite certain exceptions, building a decent collection is still relatively cheap. Many haven't had the chance to play through the Saturn library, instead having a PS at the time. Unique games that are off the beaten path can be found on the system.

  • Arcade games: Fans of Sega's arcade line-up of the era (anything Model 2) will find many home conversions on the Saturn with added modes and extras.

  • 2D Powerhouse: Though facing stiff competition as 3D system, the Saturn was the superior 2D machine in the 32/64-bit era, with many of Capcom and SNK's fighters having arcade perfect ports on the system. That is not to say its 2D library is limited to fighters, though.

  • RPGs: I'll admit, I'm not much of an RPG player, but the Saturn has had several exclusive RPGs, and from what I've heard, they're pretty good, too.

  • Imports: If you're willing to import, there's even more games available for the Saturn, ranging from exclusive RPGs to one of the greatest shooters of all time.

System essentials

Sega Saturn - A bunch of games and no system won't do much good, so make sure to have one of these. The Saturn is commonly found in two flavors: the Model 1, which is noted for its oval-shaped buttons; and the Model 2, identified by its round buttons, a smaller version that was redesigned to reduce manufacturing costs later in the Saturn's life.

Controllers - The Saturn had several different controller styles made for it (I plan to do an article on the myriad of official choices later on), but the most common are:

  • Original - With a large plastic shell and bulky looks, these are probably the worst of the official control pads. Unfortunately, the shoulder buttons are pretty poor and tend to break easily.

  • Model 2 - These are included in the redesigned Model 2 Saturn and are generally sturdier and more comfortable than the original.

  • 3D Controller - At the time, Nights into Dreams was touted to be so revolutionary that it needed a new controller to play. Really, Sega had to jump on the analog boat with competitors Nintendo and Sony. This is a must-have, as most later games have analog support, and to use it will require this pad.

  • Stunner Gun - If you like to shoot things on the screen, this is the way to go. Even though the official gun lacks the features of 3rd party devices, on-screen, it is one of the most precise home light guns I have encountered.

Memory Card - Included with the Saturn is an internal memory feature, but with the right combination of games (Nights & VF2), it won't last long at all, making a memory card a necessity. In my opinion, there are two options to go for: either the official memory card, as this one seems to have the highest reliability rates on the console, or the Pro Action Replay 4 in 1. The Pro Action acts as several things, including an import device, memory card, and RAM expansion card for some 2D imports.

Read the Interact Memory Card Plus Review

Battery - Tired of having to put in the date every time you start the Saturn? Then, throw a battery in there. The Saturn takes a standard watch-size CR2032A battery that's available at drug and department stores everywhere. If your first Saturn is used, be sure to replace this first thing.

Learn more about the Saturn's battery.

Unique games

This is why you have the Saturn. You had your eye on that one game, and the only way to play it was on this console. So, here's some of the Saturn's most prominent series and exclusives. Note that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Burning Rangers - While Nights was to be the savior of the Saturn, Sonic Team's other project didn't catch on and drifted out of the limelight.

Read the Burning Rangers Review

Fighter's Megamix - Fighting Vipers and Virtua Fighter combine to create a smorgasbord of Sega. The real fun, however, is unlocking bonus characters from other Sega games, including Virtua Cop, Sonic the Fighters, and even Daytona USA.

Nights into Dreams - Though it spawned a Wii sequel years later, the original is still the better game and, outside of Japan, a Saturn exclusive.

Panzer Dragoon Saga - The entire series is reason to get a Saturn, but to this date, the Saga has only been released on this system. Granted, it's a costly addition to the collection, but it remains a Saturn exclusive nonetheless.

Read the Panzer Dragoon Saga Review

Sega Rally - While Daytona USA suffered from a rushed release, Sega Rally didn't have that problem. The game ported just fine and included improvements not found in the arcade, with extra modes and even an extra car.

Sonic Jam - Though it's just a compilation of the original Sega Genesis games (Sonic 1, 2, 3 and Knuckles), Jam finally brought Sonic to the world of 3D, if only as a tease. The Sonic World feature saw the dude running through the 3D Green Hills in what would later turn out to be the basis for Sonic Adventure.

Steep Slope Sliders - This snowboarding game was a hit on the Saturn, yet never saw release on another system.

Virtua Fighter 2 - At the time, this was _the fighting game. Beautiful 3D graphics and flawless game play transferred to the Saturn under the expertise of AM2's Yu Suzuki and remains one of the few Saturn games to run in its high-res mode. The Saturn release is the definitive home version of this game.

Virtual On - Huge robots battle it out in this one-on-one fighting game. A PC version is available, but short of importing the Japanese PS2 release, the Saturn is the way to go.

And that's only the beginning:

View a very unscientific look at the Saturn's highest-priced games.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Fighting Vipers Review

Vipers is like the step-brother of Virtua Fighter. Though the two shared parents, FV was the neglected and less popular sibling, never really gaining the same status as its big brother. I remember, shortly after the Saturn was discontinued, seeing the game on sale for $1 at Toys 'R' Us. There were about 30 to 40 copies of the game amongst the stacks of discounted Sega merchandise. At the time, I felt a dollar was too much, especially since Fighter's Megamix had already taken care of my Vipers fix. But, was I right?

In the mid-90s, fighters were at their peak of popularity in the arcade. With the success of Virtua Fighter 2, Sega wanted to bring as many quarters as possible, so their famed AM2 development team went to work on a new brawler: Fighting Vipers. Vipers would keep the same simple 3-button layout as Virtua Fighter, but add a few new twists of its own.

This time, the characters come carrying weapons designed to inflict blunt-force trauma, like skateboards and guitars. To help counter these new smashing devices, every Viper has armor, with separate sections for the upper and lower body. The armor status is displayed by the character's names in the upper left and upper right corners of the screen. As the armor takes more damage, the display will go from green to yellow. Once it's yellow, armor can be spectacularly blown off with an armor-breaking move.Each character has a special attack designed specifically to blow the armor off of their opponent. Usually it's the last attack in a string of combos or a move that takes a moment to execute, making players have to figure out when it's safe or when a good time to use the move will be. Nail an opponent with the move and their upper or lower armor flies off, and an instant replay will show the action. With less armor, opponents are more susceptible to damage, but can move quicker to make up for it.

Nail an opponent with an armor breaker as the last hit of a match, and they 'll be sent flying through the walls that now surround each stage. All locations are enclosed and the Vipers will take advantage of that, using throws to punish opponents who get to close to the wall. No ring outs here, as walls can also be used in combos, bouncing enemies into and off the wall for even more damage.

When a character has been launched in the air, either through an attack or taking damage while jumping, they're now able to recover mid-flight. This'll let them land on the ground without taking any damage, but it does allow the opponent more time to potential juggle an attack - another trade-off and another spin on the Virtua formula.Overall, the action has been sped up. Everything moves faster in general, and recovery time in particular has been increased from Virtua Fighter. In doing so, the game seems to lose some of the strategy and timing that was integral to the VF series. Of course, there have always been players that mash buttons and hope for the best, but Vipers seems to cater more to this style of play. That's not to say time and strategy aren't important, just perhaps less so than in its big brother.

The new characters match with the game setting as everyone is decked out in "extreme" wear. There's the Guns N Roses-influenced Raxel beating people with a Flying V; the schoolgirl Candy (Honey) strapped with a PVC skirt and top; Jane, a very butch and strong female - as well as an assortment of other X-game wannabes and weirdoes: rollerbladers, skateboarders, an evil dude, and the unfortunately named "B. M." Just like Virtua Fighter, characters have different sizes and abilities, usually with the big guys (and girls, here) being slow and powerful and the smaller ones being weaker and faster.

But there's one important character I haven't mentioned yet: Pepsi Man. Said cola guy was used to advertise Pepsi products in Japan, appearing when help was needed and giving folks a Pepsi in order to save the day. In Fighting Vipers, he does something similar. Occasionally, when an opponent beats you, instead of having to insert another credit, Pepsi Man will appear in the Pepsi challenge. Kick his ass and you get to continue your game for free. The bad news: Since Pepsi Man was only used in Japan, that means he's only available in the Japanese version of the game. It's a cheap import, though, since there were plenty of copies of Fighting Vipers to go around.Graphically, the game trades in the Saturn's VF2 high-res look for a lower resolutioned Gouraud-shaded one. Personally, I prefer the higher resolutions, but we do see real-time lighting pop up in this game. Basically, it looks like most other Saturn games.

The Saturn conversion does add a couple of nice new features. In addition to the arcade and versus modes, there's also team battle, where a group of characters is placed against another group. A training mode is available from the start to practice different moves and get their timing down. As a bonus, there's extra settings for a big-head and sped-up "hyper" mode. It's all topped off with a few secret characters, including previously mentioned Big Mauler and the walking, stuffed bear Kuma-chan.

All in all, Vipers is a solid game, but it doesn't have a whole lot of holding value. It's not that I don't like the game, it's just everything FV does has already been done better by Virtua Fighter 2. And for those who like the Vipers characters and feel, Fighter's Megamix has that covered, and then some.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Shenmue Santa

It's that time of the year again. It's December. Snow is falling (at least in my parts). And, after a good day of running around and searching for gifts, it's time to sit back by the fire and soak up the holiday spirit, Sega-style.

Of course, there's the obvious Christmas Nights, which should be peaking in price on ebay right now, but let's take a look at a different game - a game where a young man embarks on a journey to find out who really killed his father by talking to kittens, collecting toys... and finding sailors.

That's right, it's Shenmue and it's got a little holiday cheer. For whatever reason, the game always reminds me a bit of this time of year. Maybe it was the November 11th release date. Or maybe it's the late November to early January timeframe.

Most likely, it's this guy:With a Japanese Santa walking down the street reminding people to make a purchase at the local shops while Christmas music floats through a snow-covered Debouita, nothing says, "'Tis the season," quite like it.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Before Rez was Rez, it was K-Project. Then it was Project Eden. Then it became Vibes.

In March of 2008, Vibes leaked online. Dated 2001/06/01 (Build 036), it's really close to the final version of the game, with a few major differences. Of course, the most notable is the music. Adam Freeland's "Fear" from Area 5 is in the game with a slightly different arrangement, but the rest of the tunes are provided by Underworld. Pacing, enemy locations, and some backgrounds are different than the final. As expected, there is a little slowdown and a few bugs, but the game is completely playable. Although Areas 1 through 4 remain largely the same, Area 5 has seen the most changes before release. A different flavor of "Fear" is used, one that has repeating voice loops throughout. None of the text describing evolution is included in this level, instead just shuffling players from one spot to the next. After finishing Area 5, an "Area 5 logout" screen appears and transports players to Area 6 instead of going straight into the second round of bosses. No longer do the "Why are you here?" messages appear. Rather, explosions eventually reveal the names and forms of the upcoming bosses.Throughout this last Area, there is no music. Upon reaching Eden, the camera is located right up next to her instead of at a distance, making things quite trickier, as enemies fire from the front and rear. The level looks pretty much the same layout-wise, but the enemies themselves have changed. There are a lot of missiles flying around, fired from machines traveling along the tracks surrounding Eden. A bit different from the final, this time they are destroyed easily, instead of taking repeated shots before finally going down. Eventually, large orange orbs will appear and after several shots, they release fragments of Eden, who is gradually pieced back together.

Movies still appear showing her reconstruction, but they're longer and have different scenes in the background - a cell dividing, landing on the moon, and lots of landscapes, such as deserts, waterfalls, forests, and the like - all of which is stamped "Digital Film" in the corner.All in all, Vibes is an interesting glimpse into the past of Rez. It can be found pretty easily, with only a little digging and plays on a standard Dreamcast. If you're at all interested in Rez, this is definitely worth checking out.