Happy 30th birthday, PC era

I may be a hardcore Apple fanatic now (and, well, for about the last 20 years), but back in the ’80s, I lived in the “IBM-compatible” world, as it was called back then, in the days before Microsoft Windows.

IBM-compatible, of course, meant a computer with the same basic architecture, and capable of running the same software, as the (literally) definitive Personal Computer — PC — IBM introduced on this date in 1981. I have so many vivid memories of the ’80s IBM PC experience that I’m at a loss where even to begin to discuss them. So many games. Such terrible graphics.

I never actually owned the IBM PC, the model 5150 (not to be confused with this), myself, but my uncle did. It was always a treat in the early ’80s when we’d visit him and he’d let me go into the spare bedroom where he kept his PC. He was the first person I knew who owned a computer. It was dazzlingly futuristic, and I eventually learned some rudimentary command line skills — just enough MS-DOS to get myself into BASIC, where I loved to write stupid, pointless little programs.

Eventually, in 1987, I got my own PC-compatible computer, the Tandy 1000 EX that I’ve mentioned here before. The Tandy 1000 was an odd beast. It boasted a better graphics card than the average PC, allowing it to display a whopping 16 colors instead of the usual 4, but in almost every other way it was already hopelessly outdated at the time of its release. It was never able to run even version 1.0 of Windows, so we got Tandy’s feeble semi-GUI, DeskMate, instead. But I still thought it was cool.

It all began with the IBM 5150 PC, though. Without that, Apple might have become the world’s largest (technology) company 25 years earlier. But in the end it all worked out OK. The iPhone 4 I carry around in my pocket now is (approximately) a kazillion times more powerful than the 13-pound metal box IBM gave us 30 years ago today.

Still, I have fond memories of so many games I played on that old Tandy 1000 back in the late ’80s. Here’s a list of some of my favorites.

I brought my Tandy 1000 EX to college with me in the fall of 1992, but the campus computer labs were dominated by Macs (except for a couple of the high-tech labs in the physics building that were full of NeXT cubes), and it wasn’t long before I was a convert. I bought my first Mac — an LC 475 — at the college computer store in the spring of 1994 and I haven’t looked back. Except when I have. That Tandy 1000 EX is long gone but my love of those old games I played in junior high and high school lives on.

A childhood fantasy (almost) realized: 100 Atari games in my pocket

Owners of 1980s technology intellectual property are in an unenviable position. Their IP has very little value beyond historical significance or nostalgia. No one (well, I hope no one) is going to use an Apple IIe computer for serious productivity work these days, but that doesn’t diminish its importance in computing history, nor the strong positive memories its once loyal users may still hold onto.

There are few properties from the ’80s whose value is more purely historical and nostalgic than those bearing the brand of Atari. Sure, there’s still a company today named Atari, and it still makes modern video games for modern consoles, but this Atari shares only its name with the hallowed institution founded in Sunnyvale, California in 1972. The name and all of the properties that go with it have been sold and re-sold and re-re-sold so many times over the intervening years that any minute connection to the past, beyond the games themselves, has been lost.

So, what is a modern company that owns all of this (relatively speaking) useless IP to do? Trying to cash in on it is obvious, but doing it right is a huge challenge. The biggest hurdle is the very historical significance and nostalgia that give these games any lingering value in the first place. The only people who are really going to want to play Combat or Yars’ Revenge or — ah-hem — Math Gran Prix on an iPhone are people who either owned (and played the hell out of) these games as kids 30 years ago, or their kids, who harbor a morbid curiosity about this old crap their parents like for some reason. In order to satisfy these customers, the company that now calls itself Atari needs to achieve perfection in recreating the experience people remember. Not just the graphics and the sounds and the program mechanics of the games, but the feel… the essence of what it meant to play video games in the days when Ronald Reagan was president, pastels were popular in men’s fashion, and MTV still showed music videos.

Yesterday Atari released Atari’s Greatest Hits as a universal app for iOS devices. (To the non-nerd[s] in my audience: that means the same app works on iPhone/iPod touch and iPad.) The game comes free with arcade Pong, and 99 other classic (and not-so-classic, but… well… old) Atari games, both from the arcades and for the Atari 2600 VCS, available as in-app purchases. The games are sold in packs of four for 99 cents, or the entire set can be downloaded for $14.99. Let’s be serious: anyone who cares about this at all should just get it over with and download the works, immediately.

So did Atari live up to my unrealistic expectations? Read on after the screenshot gallery to find out.

First impressions

It’s clear from the moment you load Atari’s Greatest Hits on your iPhone or iPad that a great deal of attention and care went into putting this package together. And yet, it just doesn’t quite hit the mark. The graphic design of the menu interface bears plenty of superficial nods to the vintage Atari experience: plenty of use of Bauhaus font (the font Atari used with the original 7 cartridges released with the Atari VCS in 1977), lots of browns and oranges, and of course the carousel navigation that uses the original cabinet and/or game box art to help you select a game to play. But despite fonts and colors, this doesn’t look ’80s, and it certainly doesn’t sound ’80s. The entire time you’re on the menu, loud 21st century techno music booms from your speaker. To be fair, I like this kind of music, and the music they chose is decent. But it’s a distracting anachronism.

I compare this to the Williams Pinball Collection that came out a few years ago on the modern consoles. Its interface looks like an arcade, with the pinball tables lined up along the wall, and over the din of a dozen pinball machines blasts licensed ’80s popular music. (The song that stands out for me is the quite-possibly-perfect Loverboy hit “Workin’ for the Weekend.”) This is what I would have liked (if not downright expected) in a properly executed Atari collection.

Lamentations about “what could have been” aside, it is truly great to see the original game box art and arcade cabinets on the menu, and the menu itself is intuitive and fun to navigate. And it’s great that each game also includes a full high-resolution scan of the original instruction manual, which also explains why a collection of 100 games, most of which were only about 4 KB each on the original cartridges, could add up to a 68 MB download on iOS.

The sound and the fury

There was almost no question for me which game I would try first: Yars’ Revenge. I logged hundreds of hours (sometimes in a single game, it seemed) playing this game in the ’80s, long past the date when I should have moved on to the NES or PC games. Any true Atari retro experience needs to deliver a perfect rendition of Yars’ Revenge for me to consider it a success.

I started the game, picked my favorite game variation (Game 6), and then… WHAAAAA!!! Playing the game on my iPad, I was assaulted by hideous distorted grinding noises. I tried a few other games and confirmed that all of the 2600 games had horribly distorted sound. (It also didn’t help that Yars’ Revenge gets most of its intensity from a constant droning buzz, making this quite possibly the worst game I could begin this experience with.)

Fortunately, later in the evening I loaded the game onto my iPhone 3GS, and found absolutely no sound issues with the 2600 games, even Yars’ Revenge. So I’m not sure if this is a general issue with the game on the iPad, or if it was an isolated problem that could have been resolved with a reboot. I’ll follow up on that when I know more.

Playing the game

With my worries about sound allayed, I was able to focus my attention on the quality of the game experience. All of the games are presented in a relatively small area of the screen, with ample space above and below devoted to on-screen controls. There have been some complaints in App Store reviews about the games not using the full display, but I think those complaints are misguided. These Atari games in their original form were so low-res that even when shrunk down to a little less than half the size of an iPhone screen, they’re still easily viewable. Plus, displaying the games in full-screen mode would mean you’d need to obscure part of the display with your fingers in order to control the game. Unacceptable.

The developers and designers who worked on this collection put considerable thought into translating the original game controls to on-screen counterparts that do not necessarily mimic the original feel, but that usually (but not always) contribute to a satisfying game experience.

A good pair of games to consider in reviewing the merits of these control systems are the arcade versions of Asteroids and Tempest. Both games translate quite well to the iOS experience. They look fantastic (all of the vector games, in particular, come through well here), and are just as fun to play as ever. With Tempest, the original control mechanism was a flywheel-like spinner. That is replaced with a thumbwheel that reminds me of the volume controls on old transistor radios. It’s way different from the original control, but it feels surprisingly natural and it’s very easy to adapt to this type of play.

Asteroids, on the other hand, does not benefit from this new alternate control mechanism, at least for the way I like to play the game. (I should probably note that I own an actual Asteroids cocktail table, so I’m very accustomed to the arcade controls.) The default control mechanism is a combination rotate/thrust “disc,” not unlike the disc controller on an old Intellivision. (Intellivision controls on an Atari game? Blasphemy!) Some people may prefer this, but I found it absolutely unusable, mainly because of my preferred Asteroids playing style: I don’t thrust all over the screen. I stay in one spot and just rotate, and I move around only when absolutely necessary. The disc control makes it nearly impossible, for me at least, to rotate without thrusting. Luckily, Asteroids (and apparently most of the arcade games, though I haven’t tried them all yet) offers multiple control schemes, including the original arcade-style five-button configuration. This worked well for me on the iPad, but I didn’t try it yet on the iPhone, and I imagine size could be an issue there, not to mention just holding the iPhone while fiddling with five on-screen buttons at the bottom of the display.

A few other miscellaneous game notes:

No licensed games. This was a no-brainer for me, but apparently (based on reviews on the App Store) it’s confusing to some users. This collection only consists of games Atari owns the rights to. That means games that were licensed for the original Atari 2600 won’t show up here, not even if Atari developed those games. You won’t find arcade classics like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Defender or Berzerk, and you won’t find licensed movie properties like Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark or E.T. And you definitely won’t find games that were originally released by other game companies like Activision, Imagic or Parker Brothers. Although… one wonders. Atari licensed Pitfall! and River Raid from Activision for inclusion on the plug-and-play Atari Flashback 2 console a few years back. Maybe a similar license could be in the works. It wouldn’t be difficult for Atari to offer additional in-app purchases of more games in the future.

I think the funniest instance of licensing issues popping up here though is the matter of Pong Sports. Back in the ’80s Atari manufactured the 2600 and a number of its games under special branding for sale at Sears stores, and there were three Sears exclusive titles (Steeplechase, Submarine Commander and Stellar Track), all of which are included here. And then there’s Pong Sports. Atari released this game as Video Olympics, and sold it as Pong Sports in Sears stores. But here it’s called Pong Sports, presumably because they couldn’t get the rights to use the word “Olympics” this time around.

Unreleased and homebrew games. If you’re not a hardcore Atari fanatic, you probably don’t realize that in recent years a number of unreleased prototype games have come to light as downloadable ROMs to play in computer-based Atari 2600 emulation software. And a rabid homebrew community has developed as well, creating brand new games for the system. This collection includes a few of these prototype and homebrew games, such as the Atari 2600 version of Tempest and an unreleased game called Save Mary. I find it funny that Atari had to, of course, come up with box art for these games for the menu interface, and they went with some really low-quality homemade art for most of them. But Save Mary is the weirdest… it uses the cover art that originally went with the Atari 2600 BASIC Programming cartridge.

It’s also funny… and probably an intentional joke… that for these games, the manual scans that are displayed are not for the games (since they don’t have instruction manuals) but for the Atari 2600 console itself. Somewhat of an Easter egg, I think.

God (or is it the devil?) is in the details

Atari got a lot of things right with this collection, but there is definitely room for improvement. Here are a few things that come to mind, some of which I’ve already mentioned.

License some great ’80s music for the menu. The aforementioned Loverboy hit would certainly be great, but really just about any music that was in heavy rotation on MTV circa 1983 would work. Personally I’d love to hear plenty of Duran Duran and Men at Work.

Alternate control schemes for the 2600 titles. Here’s the one thing that I think would make the biggest difference in creating an authentic Atari 2600 experience: position the on-screen controls to better mimic the feeling of holding an old CX-40 joystick. The space is already there; they’d just need to rearrange the controls. Move the fire button to the upper left where the pause button is; move the d-pad to the lower right where the fire button is; and move the pause button to the lower right where the d-pad is. Holding a square-ish device in the left hand and pressing a button with one’s left thumb while using one’s right hand to control movement is the natural way of the Atari 2600 experience. Ideally the d-pad would be tweaked a bit as well… it’s a little too restrictive feeling. A lot of iOS games with a virtual d-pad allow you to place your thumb anywhere in a general region of the screen and that instantly becomes the “zero” position of the d-pad. I suspect (or at least hope) that, given the nature of iOS apps, Atari will continue to refine the controls in future updates.

Better “cabinet art.” I have to be honest… I can live with the graphic design of the main menus, but the graphics framing the game itself while in play are downright ugly. Better to have it look like an actual vintage TV set like VH1’s (yes, VH1’s) Intellivision collection for iOS. And I’d prefer that the on-screen buttons look exactly like the real buttons on the arcade cabinets and console controllers, without the unnecessary added visual junk. It also seems like they phoned in the design of the on-screen slider for the paddle-based games. (Why doesn’t it at least look like the control they developed for Tempest?)

Final thoughts

I could nitpick details only an OCD Atari junkie will notice, much less care about, but in the end there’s only one thing I can say about this collection. Back in the early days of the App Store, Atari released a few of its classic arcade games as standalone apps, each consisting of both the original and a new version with modernized graphics and sound: Centipede, Super Breakout, Missile Command. Then they disappeared, and were gone for ages. A month or two ago, they reappeared, but with only the modernized portions. For ages I’ve been speculating that Atari had a massive collection app in the works, and finally yesterday it arrived. I was absolutely giddy. And while it will probably never fully live up to my expectations, it’s damn close. I’ve dreamed ever since I first got my Atari 2600 console in 1982, when I was 8 years old, that one day I’d be able to carry the experience around in my pocket. And now I can… almost. It’s not perfect, and it couldn’t be. But I’ll take it anyway.

Chaos Rings: an iPhone game review

I’m not a super hardcore gamer. I don’t spend any time in MMORPGs, I’m not on any XBOX Live leaderboards, and I’m able to balance my interest in playing video games with other things like work and family. (When something’s gotta give, that something is, invariably and rightly, playing video games.)

And yet, I guess I’m a pretty serious gamer. I’ve been into video games since I first got an Atari 2600 in 1982. I’ve been collecting both vintage and modern games since I had a resurgence of interest in 2002, and I now count among the game systems I own: Panasonic Tournament 2000 (a mid-’70s Pong-style console), Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari 7800, Intellivision, NES, GameCube, XBOX, Wii, XBOX 360, Sega Game Gear, Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS. And all told, across those systems I own a total of around 500 games. And, oh yeah, there’s the iPhone. But… is the iPhone a game system or not?

I’ve explored this issue before, and come to the conclusion that not only is it a game system, but it’s arguably superior to the Nintendo DS, at least in two key ways: 1) its technical capabilities, and 2) its portability. To paraphrase Chase Jarvis, the best game system is the one you have with you.

The iPhone’s technical capabilities far outshine those of the Nintendo DS (the main strength the DS has working in its favor is its physical controls), and it also has the big advantage of the fact that I’m far more likely to have it with me at any given time than my DS, even considering how much more often I carried the DS with me before I had an iPhone.

Since I got the iPhone, I’ve spent far more time playing games on the iPhone than on all other systems put together. And yet I’ve mostly played casual games like solitaire, Scrabble, or, when I’m feeling particularly… erm… risky, Strategery. But the deeper, more engaging adventure style games I really like, especially games like the ones in Nintendo’s Metroid and Zelda franchises, or Konami’s recent Metroid-esque entries in the Castlevania series, just aren’t there.

Why not?

It’s pretty clear that we’ll never see a Metroid or Zelda game on the iPhone. Frankly I’m a bit surprised Konami hasn’t released a Castlevania game for the iPhone yet — they’ve made a few other iPhone games — although one may be in development and I just don’t know about it.

For the most part the iPhone seems to have become a magnet for casual games. It’s easy to understand why, to some extent. The iPhone is owned by a lot of “non-gamers” and casual games are most appealing to them. I think the iPhone as a gaming platform shares a lot of its audience with the Wii. But the Wii does have Metroid and Zelda and other “hardcore” titles.

To be fair, the types of adventure and action RPG games I enjoy on other systems do exist on the iPhone, but in my experience so far… well… they all kinda suck. I’ve been lured in many times by the promise of “Zelda-like gameplay” and impressive-looking graphics, but although I’ve found a few to be of passable quality, almost all of them are so buggy, or so riddled with grammatical or spelling errors, or just so ill-conceived and sloppily-executed, that I play them once and then delete them off my iPhone, consoling myself in the fact that I only wasted $3 instead of $30 (the going price on new Nintendo DS titles).

As for the big question — why this particular genre of games has never delivered a satisfying experience on the iPhone, that’s the big mystery. There are plenty of casual games on the iPhone that demonstrate a tremendous amount of polish and great execution: apart from the aforementioned Strategery, there’s quite possibly the best casual game ever — Plants vs. Zombies, and of course an assortment of popular card, board and word games.

Up to now, the best 3D adventure game for the iPhone was the Halo-meets-Metroid-Prime clone N.O.V.A. It’s pretty good, but there’s still something I just can’t pinpoint about it that just makes it seem a little rough and just not totally engaging. Still, it’s been the most promising game I’ve seen yet for the platform. Until…

And now, on to the review…

Chaos Rings is a new Japanese-style RPG from Square Enix, developed specifically for the iPhone. It’s not the first Square Enix game for the iPhone — a few of the early Final Fantasy games have been ported, for instance — but it’s their first full-blown, brand new all-out effort on the platform.

It’s the most expensive game I’ve ever bought for the iPhone. But at $12.99, it’s still less than half the price of a standard new Nintendo DS game. (Most Square Enix games for the DS retail for $39.99.) But there’s a reason for the extra price: the depth, quality and polish is unmatched by anything I’ve yet seen for the iPhone.

The game looks fantastic: the art is highly detailed and is consistent with the established and popular Square Enix style, and it’s technically impressive — the iPhone’s 3D graphics capabilities are stunning. The musical score and sound effects are great, too. Gameplay-wise, Chaos Rings is a traditional 3D RPG dungeon crawl: you explore a diverse variety of worlds, battling monsters with both attacks and magic, and there are also a number of puzzle rooms. The puzzle rooms feel a bit tacked on, although they’re a fun diversion from the level grinding characteristic of the game style.

Something that cannot be underestimated in terms of what makes the gameplay in Chaos Rings engaging in a way that so many other, otherwise good iPhone games (Hero of Sparta and Dungeon Hunter come to mind) lack is the control mechanism. It’s become standard practice for iPhone games that require “traditional” movement schemes to employ a “virtual” (on-screen) direction pad and buttons. Typically, mimicking the controls on traditional handhelds, the D-pad is placed in the lower left corner of the screen, and the buttons in the lower right. The big problem with this approach is that you don’t want to have to look at where you’re placing your fingers: when the D-pad and buttons are physical objects, there’s a tactile experience. You don’t have to look, because you can feel that your thumbs are in the right place. Not so with virtual controls on a glass screen.

But somewhere along the way — N.O.V.A. is the first game I encountered with it — an important advance was made: the D-pad only appears when you touch your finger to the screen, and it appears wherever you touch. So you no longer have to worry about putting your thumb in the right place — just put it down, and it’s always centered on the D-pad. Likewise, there may be “buttons” on screen, but usually just one, and a tap anywhere counts as a button press. This change makes a huge difference in playability and delivering a satisfying experience. As I said, N.O.V.A. uses this kind of control scheme, but that game had other problems that have kept me from really getting into it. But Chaos Rings offers a near-perfect execution of this evolved virtual control scheme, and it may be the single most important factor in my enjoyment of the game.

Chaos Rings is not a masterpiece — it’s not the kind of seamless, immersive world I loved so much in Metroid Prime (my favorite video game of all time), but it’s so far beyond every other iPhone game I’ve seen, in every imaginable way, that it seems to be an introduction to a new era in iPhone gaming… real iPhone gaming. It’s the first adventure/RPG game I’ve seen on the iPhone that I genuinely can’t put down. I’m sure there will be better iPhone games in the future — especially as the platform evolves with the iPad — but I truly believe this game will stand as a milestone in that evolution.

iPokédex update

Back in early 2008, I set up an iPhone-optimized Pokédex web app. I pulled information from some of the usual suspects in the online world of Pokémon compendia.

A few people have asked me why I didn’t build it as a native app I could then sell in the App Store for boatloads of cash (because, you know, there’s a huge untapped market for… this).

Well, that’s a good question. A few answers:

  1. The App Store didn’t exist at the time I created it, and I had no interest in either jailbreaking my iPhone nor in supporting the jailbreak “community.”
  2. I didn’t (and so far, still don’t) have a developer account with Apple, and I didn’t (and so far, still don’t) know how to build a native iPhone app. Web apps, though, are second nature to me.
  3. It seemed clear to me that Apple wouldn’t (or, more accurately, shouldn’t) approve such an app. The entire contents of the app would be in violation of copyright, and there’s no way (that I could see) that Nintendo would license the content under the circumstances.

As far as I was concerned, that was pretty much it. The only way a Pokédex could live on the iPhone was as a web app. I’ve since learned that, whatever criteria they do employ in approving apps, copyrighted content does not appear to be a “dealbreaker” for Apple. I think it’s safe to say that Apple wouldn’t approve an unauthorized Pokémon game for the iPhone, but there are currently four Pokédex apps in the App Store.

Anyway… my iPokédex web app lives on. I just finished some updates: mostly some minor bug fixes, but also some visual refinements. Overall the improvements are slight, but I’m still pretty pleased with how well it works and how useful it is, especially considering that I essentially created it in an evening.

If you haven’t checked it out (ever, or lately), take a look now… especially on an iPhone!

http://pokemon.room34.com

Panic’s “Atari” game art, framed and hung at Room 34 HQ

The other day I mentioned the super-cool watercolor-and-pencil game art Panic recently commissioned as part of a reimagining of their Mac software as early ’80s Atari 2600 games.

I ordered both the reproduction game boxes and the art prints, and they arrived just four days later (i.e. yesterday). They look amazing. As recommended by Panic, I headed out to IKEA this morning and picked up a couple of Ribba frames. The art prints were specifically designed to fit perfectly into these frames. I contemplated getting frames for all four of them, but at $20 a pop it seemed a bit much. So I went with two, for the two Panic programs I actually use (Coda and Transmit). It was just as well, anyway. Since they’re so big, two is all that fit on the wall above my desk!

The photo below shows Room 34 HQ, now graced with these fantastic looking prints. This wall was blank for months, and I had just been thinking I really needed to hang something up there, when these prints became available. The timing was perfect and I couldn’t be happier with the results! (Unfortunately the photo probably reveals, more than anything else, the limitations of the iPhone camera, especially indoors at night. I had every light in the place turned on but this was the best I could manage.)

panic_at_room34