Monthly Archives: February 2013

Chelnov/Atomic Runner

AR3Let’s face it–Contra/Probotector costs a lot of money. For a game with such simple concepts, its popularity has, ironically, rendered it prohibitively difficult to access in order to play. If you, like many others, are stuck in this predicament, worry no more, because a reasonably inexpensive equivalent exists which harbours just as much artistic quality.

The name of this title is Atomic Runner, outside of Japan. Originally an arcade game, its transition to the Sega Mega Drive saw it undergo a host of changes both in form and in substance. Both Atomic Runner‘s game-play and plot were altered (supposedly for the startling similarity that the original Japanese arcade game bore to the Chernobyl nuclear-reactor meltdown), but this rendered it a far superior game according to the critics (Sega-16 review and forum discussion, GameFAQ review, Krooze’s Haunt).

AR1With impressive mid-life-cycle Mega Drive parallax scrolling, and large (if only slightly repetitive), colourful backgrounds and bosses, Atomic Runner sports very solid game-play. Against many run-and-gun games (and indeed many shoot’em ups) AR really does hold its own. The myriad of power-ups and environments through which to peruse are interesting, and the overall theme of the game, a synthesis of ancient cultures and ultra-modern technology, is well-executed.

It’s both an opportunity and a shame that this game has been overlooked, because its developer, Data East hasn’t really been remembered for any of its fun and imaginative games. I might return to Data East and go through its history.

AR2The only issue that is commonly identified with AR is its length. Because the game is so short, Data East correspondingly made the obvious decision to crank up the game’s difficulty a fair amount. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, though. This was a fairly frequent design formula for many developers, as computer memory and system processing limitations virtually bound them to making short, difficult games.

If the reader needs some persuasion, they should find their attention directed to the following video:

 

PS3 Bargain Bin

One of the best things about console gaming is when a console begins to enter its late life-cycle period, especially the period of time following the announcement and launch of the successor console to that aging platform.

The great opportunity that gamers face in this period of a console’s life is the movement of quality game titles into game store bargain bins. Given Sony’s announcement of the PS4, one can only wait until the time that many great PS3 titles eventually filter into the bargain section of physical, and accompanying eBay game stores.

A quick perusal of the current PS3 stock in your local game store is bound to reveal each of the following titles, all for $AUD20 and under. Because Bioshock is the only PS3 game I’ve ever really played for some reasonable length, let’s take a look at what some various different gaming sites have said about these games.

Where accessible, non-commercial game-reviewing websites have been featured to provide a bit of an antidote to the very palpable copy-cat attitude employed in commercial website’s game reviews.

Genji Days of the Blade
Release: 2006
Developer: Game Republic
Rough genre: Action-adventure

Consensus: Excellent early PS3 graphics, but the game-play boils down to repetitive button-mashing. Combine this with a terrible camera system and you have a very average title.

Metacritic: 55/100
Gamerankings: 57%
IGN: 6/10
Eurogamer: 6/10
Gamespot: 6.4/10

Hardcoregaming101 (passing comment, third paragraph): “Laughable”

Blazblue: Calamity Trigger
2009
Developer: Arc System Works
Rough genre: Fighter

Consensus: Reminiscent of the developer’s previously-established franchise Guilty Gear, the game’s innovative ‘Drive’ concept expands its game-play and helps to differentiate its plethora of characters effectively.

Metacritic: 87/100
Gamerankings: 87%
Eurogamer: 9/10
Gamespot: 8/10
IGN: 9.4/10

Darksiders
2010
Developer: Vigil Games
Rough genre: Action-adventure.

Consensus: While the premise and graphics (gothic/fantasy gore?) of the game seem a bit samey and/or ridiculous, the puzzle and exploration elements to Darksiders carry it along nicely.

Metacritic: 82/100
Gamerankings: 83%
Eurogamer: 8/10
Gamespot: 8/10
IGN: 7.8/10

Darksiders 2
2012
Developer and genre, see above.

Consensus: While it doesn’t really offer much new, featuring very similar concepts and game-play to its predecessor, its campaign is massive and its artistic direction is elevated to new heights.

Metacritic: 84/100
Gamerankings: 85%
Eurogamer: 8/10
Gamespot: 8.5/10
IGN: 7.5/10

Enchanted Arms
2007
Developer: From Software
Rough genre: JRPG

Consensus: This is a solid JPRG through and through. If you’re a Skyrim/Mass Effect/open-world, non-linear RPG kind of gamer, this isn’t the game for you. Enchanted Arms seems to have been unfairly treated by the commercial games media for its adherence to its traditional genre.

Metacritic: 64/100
Gamerankings: 68%
Eurogamer: 7/10 (X360 version)
Gamespot: 6.8/10
IGN: 6.5/10

Penny Arcade: “A dog, huh? You’re not a cat. Why would anyone like a stupid dog like you? All you do is bark. You never meow.” (link)

The Darkness
2007
Developer: 2K Games
Rough genre: First-person shooter

Consensus: A fairly solid ultra-violent first-person shooter. If you’re known to inhabit this territory, by all means proceed.

Metacritic: 80/100
Gamerankings: 80%
Eurogamer: 8/10 (X360)
Gamespot: 8.5/10
IGN: 7.7/10

Videogamecritic: B-

Brink
2011
Developer: Splash Damage
Rough genre: First-person shooter

Consensus: Its RPG meta-game elements are well-balanced, but nothing to write home about. Similarly, its core game-play concept–first-person squad shooting–is executed fairly, but it may suffer from a lack of replay value.

Metacritic: 72/100
Gamerankings: 70%
Eurogamer: 8/10 (X360)
Gamespot: 6/10
IGN: 6/10

Dungeon Siege 3
2011
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Rough genre: Action-adventure; Action-RPG

Consensus: A pretty formulaic button-masher (N.B. the way you’ll cycle through loot in much the same way as in Borderlands), but, much like Enchanted Arms, if that’s what you’re into, you’re sure to have a good time.

Metacritic: 71/100
Gamerankings: 73%
Eurogamer: 8/10
Gamespot: 6.5/10
IGN: 6.5/10

Mirror’s Edge
2008
Developer:
Rough genre: First-person 3D platformer/shooter

Consensus: While the commercial media seems to have forgiven its short-comings and lauded Mirror‘s Edge for its graphics and conceptual innovation, a couple of independent, non-commercial websites that I trust have slammed this title. For them, the inconsistent execution of its ideas–patchy level design, poor control scheme–really drags it down. Perhaps you’ll be able to forgive this title for its mistakes, like Eurogamer, or perhaps you’ll run out of patience?

Metacritic: 79/100
Gamerankings: 79%
Eurogamer: 8/10 (PC)
Gamespot: 7/10
IGN: 7.4/10

Videogamecritic: D
Curmudgeon Gamer: “Too often you want to take back a half-second twitch to save you from redoing the same tedious 90 seconds of tricky movement, but there you are again, staring at the same white loading screen and cursing at your aging reflexes.” (link)

Batman: Arkham Asylum
2009
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Rough genre: Action-adventure

Consensus: The character development seems to be the stand-out achievement in Asylum, with its game-play sadly losing out. If you’re in for a fairly convincing cinematic treatise that will gratify all of your old Batman nostalgia, Asylum is for you. Of particular note is the game’s fantastic voice-acting.

Metacritic: 91/100
Gamerankings: 92%
Eurogamer: 9/10 (X360)
Gamespot: 9/10
IGN: 9.3/19

Red Faction: Guerrilla
2009
Developer: Volition, Inc.
Rough genre: Open world, third-person shooter

Consensus: Like many other open world games, the player might find themselves repeating a lot of behaviours and having to, similarly, repetitively continue from a save point due to a poorly-timed encounter. The best thing about this game, however, is its concept of demolition. I was recently talking to a friend about this game, and they were gratified to report that this idea is executed in a really satisfying way. This may or may not save the game for you. The shooter elements are samey, so perhaps the player could find some solace in Guerrilla‘s theme of revolution.

Metacritic: 85/100
Gamerankings: 87%
Eurogamer: 7/10 (X360)
Gamespot: 8.5/10
IGN: 8/10

As you had no doubt worked out by the time you’d reached the mid-point of this list, the titles mentioned here are definitely solid, but not necessarily must-haves. Each of these games, though, has something to commend, and for the small amount you’re likely going to have to pay, you may find yourself picking up a new personal favourite.

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Glover

glover6This is a 3D platforming game from the late-nineties about an anthropomorphic glove, and its ball. They don’t get any more abstract than this. Considering, though, that two of the best and most popular 3D platforming main characters were a plumber with various magical caps, and a bear with a red bird in its backpack, the outlandishness of Glover‘s protagonist is, strangely, neither here nor there.

Glover is such a different game from your standard late-nineties 3D platformer because its fundamental game-play concept revolves around coordinating yourself with, and balancing yourself against your only tool–a ball–which is both indispensably useful for your cause, but incredibly dangerous. The player, as Glover, must bounce, throw, and roll this ball in order to manipulate the game environment and solve puzzles. What makes performing these actions so innovative is that the physics of this undertaking in Glover is so realistic. When the player stands on top of the ball, the controls become inverted. When Glover’s ball is thrown or bounced against a surface, it bounces away from it along a realistic trajectory. At the touch of a button, you’re able to transform the quality of your sphere, which can make it lighter or heavier, more or less elastic and so on. After coming to master these basic ideas around which Glover was based, the player should start to feel like they’re not so much struggling to master and dominate an inanimate object, but beginning to enter into a partnership with a silent and uncommunicative, but nonetheless willingly cooperative second character.

Glover (E) (M3)The unusual nature of working with a ball to explore and interact with a 3D platformer might place the player on a steep learning curve at first, but it manages to open up a strange and interesting new perspective through which to view what might have become a stale and boring game genre. The player is sure to have never seriously thought about just how complex it really is to transport themselves up some stairs, or about coordinating themselves up and around a series of simple slopes. The added difficulty is definitely palpable, but with Glover, a large, varied, and endlessly useful move-set is at one’s disposal. Glover’s ball is a means for such things as reaching distant items and straddling high perches, destroying walls, floating on water, defeating enemies, and providing a speedy escape to tight situations. The incredible number of things that Glover‘s developer has managed to enable the player to do with this ball is pretty damn clever.

glover2While glimpses of this kind of game-play can be seen in games such as Super Mario Galaxy, the nature of Glover as a 3D platformer takes on a completely different character to other games in its genre due to its total reliance on bouncing, rolling and throwing. Getting coordinated with Glover‘s ball-based mechanics can at first be difficult, but mastering it will lead to very satisfying game-play.

Game-play aside, the game’s visuals are colourful and appealing, and it seldom suffers from any frame-rate slowdown or texture clipping. The game’s textures themselves are simple, but they work together harmoniously to show off a well-constructed atmosphere. Glover‘s worlds are incredibly abstract, but satisfyingly coherent, and never shallow. Levels are frequently large, and the N64’s draw-distance (Z-buffer) limitations are ‘concealed’ with copious amounts of fog. This is a bit disappointing because you might find yourself wanting to look beyond the immediate puzzle at hand and give yourself some bearing–and being unable to do so. Other than that, Glover manages to exploit the features of the N64 reasonably well.

glover5 If you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t given Glover a spin. If you have, and think Glover‘s not really worth anyone’s time, then you haven’t really been responding to what it’s asking you to do. In many places it will be challenging your hard-wired platforming sensibilities very aggressively.

With so much to offer at dirt cheap prices on eBay, you don’t have anything to lose–and so much to gain!–by picking up a copy of Glover.

 

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Antichamber/The Witness

Well, Jon Blow’s The Witness is going to be released exclusively on the PS4. That is in terms of its availability in the guise of a console game, however. Those seeking the game on the PC or through an iOS device won’t be presented with a sweaty dilemma.

the witness undertreeI’ve always been magpie-like in my choice of console, and have usually arrived at the conclusion after some time that my original choice was pretty much outright wrong. This bit of experience, combined with the fact that my respect for Blow and his ethics, as well as his design philosophy, makes me want to pick up The Witness as early as I can, makes me question my initial disappointment that Blow didn’t choose to make a Wii U release a priority.

Well, never mind that for now. Blow featured Antichamber on The Witness‘s blog, a very different kind of first-person puzzle game. Take a look at its teaser trailer:

After watching part of this walkthrough/let’s play, it becomes obvious that the fundamental concept that drives this game has borrowed from quantum physics–the observer effect. It’s fantastic!

The reader can find its Steam page here (digital copies for $20, not unreasonable for an independently developed game), and its website here.

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More Unbridled Praise for Lobotomy Software/Ezra Dreisbach

It’s worth re-mentioning the virtues of putting effort into good game design in connection with the Sega Saturn once more before it gets old.

In this interview (with, again, Ezra Dreisbach) about the Saturn port of Quake, the reader can find more evidence of Lobotomy Software’s attention to detail in their game design. For quick reference, compare the quality of the level design between the Saturn and the N64 in these two screenshots:

N64

quake n64

Saturn

quake saturn

Needless to say, the N64 might have featured better hardware, but Saturn owners were rewarded with a better game. Of particular note is Dreisbach’s repeated attention to dynamic lighting.

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PC-FX Devotional Film

ThePC-FX_banner

Bizarrely underpowered, but able to do push out better full-motion video than any of its fellow fifth-generation peers, the NEC PC-FX occupies another corner of the obscure game console ring. It was only ever released in Japan, but it gained notoriety for being home to pile upon pile of dating sims due to NEC’s hilarious attempt to boost the console’s sales by relaxing its game quality control.

Click here for a thread on the PC-Engine FX.com forum that links to a video about the PC-FX.

 

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PS4 Architecture: More ‘Open’?

ps4 controllerRecent comments that game console software distribution is quickly becoming a media channel that is too archaic for reaching today’s gamers are somewhat misguided. Many high-profile websites like Eurogamer and Kotaku seem to be lauding the rough specifications of the new PS4 console as a sort of dramatic shift in the way console gaming has traditionally been conceived. They allege that by adopting a hardware architecture more in line with that of the PC, the PS4 will exhibit an openness as yet unseen in console gaming. Is this really true? This article from Gamasutra applies some healthy scepticism to Sony and Eurogamer’s optimism–what does an ‘open console’ mean, and, perhaps importantly, what isn’t an open console?

Confucius Say, Look To The Past

Wise old Confucius tells us to look to the past if we want to divine answers about the future, and by looking back at the console architectures of ages gone by, one can tell that he’s not far off the mark. It’s a commonly known fact that the most popular at successful game platforms of the last 40 years have usually always featured relatively open and accessible hardware architecture:

  1. Atari 2600: It may have only possessed 128 bytes of RAM, and lacked any kind of frame-buffer–not to mention Video RAM–but its CPU was a stripped down the MOS Technology 6502.
  2. NES: While its PPU featured bit-mapped sprite indices (limited sprites per TV scan-line, limited sprite sizes, colours and transformation rules), which caused developers endless frustration late in its life-cycle, it’s CPU was, again, based on the MOS 6502–it was modified to incorporate a sound generator, and more O/I addresses.
  3. Commodore 64: Famously employed the MOS 6502 in its modified form, the 6510, which incorporated a general 8-bit O/I port into its design.
  4. TurboGrafx-16: Possessed a very intelligent three-chip architecture, which featured a CPU based on a modified 6502 design. Its CPU had an additional memory management unit, allowing it to address many times more memory than the original 6502, a parallel I/O port and a programmable sound generator. The brilliant thing about the TurboGrafx/PC Engine’s architecture was that its 16-bit Video Processor and accompanying Colour Encoder chip allowed the processing ability of its CPU to be maximised, allowing what was really a much cheaper console architecture to convincingly compete with its more modern rivals.

    Starting to see a pattern emerging?

  5. Super NES: Utilised a 16-bit CPU that was based on the architecture of the MOS 6502. Its instruction set (the list of digital input data required to make the processor do something) was a superset of that of the 6502, meaning that it could emulate its operation more or less flawlessly. In designing one of the most famous and fondly-remembered game consoles of all time, Nintendo made the decision to base its architecture on a platform already well-understood.
  6. Sega Mega Drive: Had its CPU based on the Motorola 68000, which was, for a time, very popular for its power and inexpensiveness. It was used in many famous computers such as the Apple II, the first Macintoshes and the Commodore Amiga. One of the stand-out features about the 68000 family of processors is that their design philosophy focused on orthogonality. This meant that its instruction set was as divided into two types of instructions as strictly as possible: operations and address modes. Ideally, all operations and address modes should be available and compatible with one another. Very simply, operations specified how to process/manipulate information, and address modes more or less specified where that information was. For a time during the 80s, it was uncertain whether the design architecture of the 68000 or the x86 (8086, 80286 &c) Intel IBM PC architecture would come to dominate the future design of computers. In comparison to the 68000 design philosophy, the x86 architecture was (and is) incredibly ugly and unintuitive.
  7. TRS80, Sinclair ZX80/Spectrum, Sega Master System: These gaming platforms used the Zilog 80 CPU, which, along with the MOS 6502, dominated home computing in the 80s. The Commodore 128 used famously the Z80 alongside its 6502-derivative CPU so that it could attain CP/M (a widespread Operating System) compatibility.

    Compare the CPUs used in the following post-fourth generation era consoles with those of the above.

  8. Playstation 1: Used a MIPS Computer System’s R3000-family CPU, then a high-end graphics workstation processor. It was fairly well understood and documented in elite graphics-production circles, but did not have anywhere near as widely-spread commercial use as the above processors.
  9. N64: Made of use of another member of a MIPS CPU family, the VR4300. Again, a very specialised processor.
  10. PS2: The Emotion Engine; custom processor designed for the PS2 alone by Sony and Toshiba. While it features a MIPS-compatible instruction set, the processor is actually eight separate processors that were designed to work in parallel. This design architecture was notoriously difficult to harness without special effort, in comparison to the Intel Pentium 3-based Xbox and IBM PowerPC-based GameCube.
  11. PS3: Another highly customised CPU developed in conjunction by Sony with Toshiba, and this time IBM, the Cell Broadband Engine. It was another parallel-processing chip. As many commentators have said before, its potential has not been realised due to the increasing prevalence of multi-platform

While there are exceptions (barring the original Xbox, both Nintendo consoles and the latter Xbox being based on slightly more common, but still commercially obscure IBM PowerPC architecture) to the pattern constructed above, the decision by Sony to base the PS4 on x86 architecture actually presents a return to basing a gaming console on a widely understood and utilised hardware architecture. In this vein, the comments that some media outlets have been making about the purportedly archaic console-concept of game content delivery is misguided because, as history shows, consoles originally echoed the design concepts of personal computing.

Gaming in the 1980s was more-or-less exclusively powered by the MOS 6502, and to only a slightly smaller extent the Zilog 80. In the fifth generation we see something of a deviation from the use of common processor architecture in the form of MIPS CPUs. A qualification here is important–both Nintendo and Sony used MIPS technology, so, in a sense, the CPU instruction sets that they were asking programmers to deal with was very similar between their two competing systems. However, if the fifth generation was to follow the trend of the first four generations of console gaming, they should have implemented x86-compatible architecture then!

The release of the fifth generation of gaming consoles also coincides with the commercial rise of Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC): the design philosophy that smaller CPU instructions lead to more efficient and powerful computer processing capabilities. If we use the implementation of RISC CPUs as our independent variable for the analysis of how gaming console processors have diverged from those most commonly used everywhere else (x86 architecture) we can conclude fairly decisively that game consoles have done nothing but very significantly specialised their hardware since the mid-to-late nineties, since the PowerPC architecture is indeed RISC.

Yes, Indeed More Open

Ignoring content delivery systems (Blu-ray discs, Steam-like online content delivery &c), based on a mere cursory glance at the Central Processing Units used in game consoles since the late seventies, the PS4 architecture, if indeed based on the Intel x86 design concept, actually does present a more open platform for development. Much like the jump from the more-or-less exclusive use of assembly language to the use of higher level programming (like C) from the fourth to the fifth generation of consoles, the use of an architecture more familiar to that of the PC will allow developers to access more resources (both in terms of capital and labour) at much cheaper costs, ideally causing games to be more plentiful, and of better quality due to the ability of everyone being able to ‘talk the same language’. However this increased openness doesn’t actually present a challenge to console gaming as a tradition or a concept, because the dichotomy between console-versus-PC is actually only a relatively new event. It’s only really subsisted since the mid-to-late nineties.

Shovelware: Plato’s Republic

This might present itself as a fairly obscure and convoluted way of making what is really a very simple argument, but in The Republic, Socrates outlines to his listeners that justice manifests itself in three different compartments in people’s ‘souls’ (their personhood or psychology &c): a rational part, that pursues and lusts after truth, a ‘spirited’ part that desires nothing but honour, and an appetitive soul-section that lusts after everything else: carnal desires, food and money. Socrates argues that in order for someone to be just, these three parts of someone’s personhood need to be in the correct proportion. The same could be argued to apply to the design of console hardware.

If this strikes the reader as a fairly bizarre connection, I point them towards Egoraptor’s famous and influential (not in an academic sense, obviously) ‘Sequilitis’ video about the first and second NES Castlevania titles. His argument is actually just a derivative of Plato’s argument in The Republic! The point trying to be made here is that by basing their console on x86 hardware, Sony risks exacerbating what their Playstation 1 and 2 console libraries suffered from worst of all: poorly and cheaply developed games. While the cause of the production of all the terrible money-grubbing titles that flooded store shelves in the 90s and 2000s for the Playstations was not due to the hardware design of those consoles, but due to their branding good will, Sony are actually risking the creation of a particularly efficient cause for the development of PS4 shovelware.

While Plato’s argument about justice (in the mouth of Socrates) has fairly undemocratic consequences about politics, and correspondingly fairly elitist suggestions with respect to the artistic value of games (let alone anything: see the sections where Socrates discusses the ‘noble lie’ on which his republic would be founded (n.b. Nintendo fanboyism), and his justification for state censorship), one should at least be partly persuaded by it when the plethora of mindless first-person shooter franchises that dominate our current gaming culture are brought to mind. More than that, if we construe Plato’s 3-part soul argument more favourably, we can acknowledge that too much appetite (shovelware, mindless sequels &c) is the antithesis of good artistic values, but also see that too much lusting after truth produces illusion, and the excessive pursuit of honour is oppressive and unnecessarily violent.

While quite often success is based on something external to a planner’s purposive intention, let’s hope that this return to hardware convergence that the PS4 (and the new Xbox) seems to be making escapes excessive appetite in terms of aesthetics. Who knows, the PS4 might fail due to excessive honour, instead of appetite, like its predeccessor, and many other consoles before it (the Saturn, with its rushed redesign due to Sega’s ignorance of the rise of 3D graphics, and, in part, the N64–with Nintendo’s spate with Sony leading to their rejection of CD-ROMs as a game medium).

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Exhumed/Powerslave

titlecardAs previously alluded to in our article on the development of the Sega Saturn hardware, history is written by the victors. It’s because the Saturn ultimately failed–commercially–as a platform that games like Exhumed never got to deliver developers like Lobotomy Software the reward for their efforts that they deserved.

Exhumed (or Powerslave, as it was known in the US) is a corridor game that touts the virtues of the Saturn. With tight controls, well-executed concepts, and fantastic early fifith generation graphics, Exhumed is an example of a triumph of substance over form, a true case of game design done right. At the risk of sounding formulaic, it’s important to stress that while it is a fantastic game, it isn’t without its flaws.

I’m going to buck the trend and say that the best thing about Exhumed is its non-linearity. That’s not to say that non-linearity is a virtue in itself (cf. this Kotaku article); in this particular game, it, as a method of delivering game-play, non-linearity has been well-executed. From the very beginning, the player will get the impression that there exists some deeper intention behind the levels they’re exploring. Out-of-reach items and impassable passages might at first present themselves as confusing obstacles, but upon finding new power-ups and using good old-fashioned logic, finally satisfying your curiosity is definitely satisfying. Given Exhumed‘s Egyptian setting, it’s entirely appropriate that the player should be feeling as if they’re stabbing around in a warren of inter-related pathways (many fittingly tomb-like), some to be traversed early, some later, some many times, and some to be noticed once and then entirely forgotten. As the game progresses you will truly get the feeling that you’re moving deeper and deeper into the heart of some powerful and mysterious heart of darkness–and this is where Exhumed‘s aesthetics lend a great helping hand.

obeliskIn addition to the way it structures its substance, Exhumed‘s graphical prowess offers much to impress. I’m going to ignore the features of Exhumed‘s graphics that modern attitudes towards first-person shooters would deem unacceptable (like the lack of: two real degrees of player visual freedom: left-right, up-down; full 3D, context-sensitive game environments; complex NPC AI &c), because they don’t impact on the kind of game Exhumed was trying to be. In 1996, first-person shooters were games of a fledgling new genre. Many of them, like their proginator, Doom, were corridor games. Given that it is a corridor game, Exhumed‘s graphics/aesthetic features are of a very high standard. Combine this with the fact that it was purposefully designed for the Saturn, a platform with hardware architecture that was notoriously difficult to program, and you have something of great interest in terms of video gaming history.

The stunning thing about Exhumed‘s visuals is that they feature large environments without sacrificing its fast-paced game-play speed. This is achieved through a neat programming trick that owes much to Exhumed‘s Doom origins.

As Exhumed‘s 3D-engine programmer Ezra Dreisbach tells Eurogamer in 2009,

…the main different thing about console FPS of that era is that every wall has to be diced into a grid of polygons. This is because there is no perspective-correct texture-mapping and, in the case of the Saturn, no way to clip. You really needed some custom tools to deal with/take advantage of this, and Lobotomy had Brew (made by David Lawson).

As Dreisbach stated in his interview with Segasaturn.co.uk, overcoming this limitation in texture-mapping was achieved by

automatically [combining] the wall tile graphics into fewer “uber-tiles” and [rendering] the walls like this when they [were] far away.

machine gun lasersIt’s a simple concept, but many 3D games of the era on the Saturn failed because they refused to take account of the Saturn‘s hardware. Through original programming, Exhumed was able to pull off enormous environments with fluid animation and dynamic lighting, helping develop a proper atmosphere in which to immerse the player.

Much like the effect achieved by the game-play progression, the visuals really do convey the idea that you’re penetrating a many-thousand year-old civilisation. Sky-lit levels leave you feeling roasted, laying everything bare and brutally exposed in its openness. The swarm-like onslaught of enemies in these environments cause you to become desperate with your weapons, as there is frequently nowhere to run. Contrastingly, underground levels are suitably chilling and dank, sparsely but properly lit, all giving the strong impression that these places are musty from thousands of years of rest, previously untouched, unseen, dormant and perfectly sealed.

The following excerpt from an now-defunct Slovak game magazine does a great job at conveying an idea of what Exhumed‘s atmosphere is like. The language is somewhat over-the-top (and not perfect), but I couldn’t put it any better:

I won’t start with technical execution, graphics or sounds, but I’ll spit out immediately the most important and gigantic thing which Exhumed has: atmosphere. Atmosphere of this game is something so perfect, heavy, [colourful and full of emotional impact], that words are not enough to describe it. You will be walking inside thousand-year-old temples full of mummies, and most fantastic decorations: vases, paintings, hieroglyphs. That [is all said] with a regard for [the game’s] monumental architecture, which makes you feel–even though you are the main hero, [on] which the faith of mankind depends, [and] though you will be fearfully killing enemies with your weapons– small and unimportant. Even though you [might be] cutting with a machete the strings of the original inhabitants, the buildings remain. [So too remains the] gold, paintings and the old culture, which is [also] indestructible. The majestic columns benevolently gaze over at doings of some man with knowledge that he will [soon] leave, and will leave them to rest maybe for [many more] thousands of years.

Before moving on, it’s worth mentioning that a key feature to praise is Lobotomy‘s ability to engineer convincing transparency in the game’s water terrain–something heavily rumoured to be a weak ability of the Saturn.

sobek pass

Sobek Pass’s One-Texture … Samba

There are points where the visuals falter. The main complaint to level against Exhumed here is a common one among many games of its time: poor texturing. As an example, an early level, ‘Sobek Pass’, is almost entirely composed of one texture. See right for an image.

The difficulty in resolving different wall-faces apart from one-another makes finding your way around the level’s environment difficult, and at times frustrating. While this is regrettable, the level very cleverly riddles away the keys to its doors, and staggers its assortment of enemies in an intelligent way. This is much the same where-ever weak texture variation occurs: weakness in texturing is always moderated by the level design. The player is never unfairly forced to deal with too much of a challenge at once.

anubis roomA welcome complement to both Exhumed‘s graphics and game-play is its controls. While the main character’s enormous jump length, somewhat stilted ability to look up and down, and at times slippery pin-point on-the-spot manoeuvring takes some getting used to, Exhumed‘s auto-aim and pleasantly precise controls give it an intuitive feel. As opposed to many corridor games and Doom clones/ports, the controls don’t buck back at you in the middle of hectic fire-fights, resisting your will. It’s obvious that careful attention has been paid to the player’s interface with the game environment because one is able to learn how to get better at Exhumed. It’s rare that a console first-person shooter that relies entirely on D-pad controls features such intuitive player interaction (cf. Croc), but we here have a shining example.

firepotsModern FPS players might have a hard time adapting to what they might describe as primitive control scheme and limited game-environment context, but, that aside, Exhumed is a stellar example of the fruits of the labour of a developer who cared about their work. Lobotomy Software may have ultimately paid the price for not jumping on the same wagon as many other early 3D developers, but they produced something authentic. Effort, here, clearly translated into quality, and it is for that reason that Exhumed is definitely worth your time.

If you can scrounge together–by any means–a working version of this Saturn title, you’re guaranteed to be rewarded with an experience that creatively extends and develops the ideas that made their first exposition in Doom.

The reader can find a Lobotomy Software fan blog here and a YouTube video about the history of the developer here. A really good post to read from the fan blog that centralises a lot of information about Exhumed should not be missed. A write-up and a fairly illuminating interview about the technical aspects of Exhumed by GameFan can be found here:

I put the dynamic lights in after seeing Loaded on the PlayStation. Each of the wall polygons is being drawn gouraud shaded for the static torch light. As each vertex is transformed, the lighting contribution from the dynamic lights is added in. The algorithm is the cheapest, fastest thing I could think of that would still look okay.

EDIT: For more screenshots and another great discussion of Exhumed‘s concepts, read this  NeoGAF thread.

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2013 Wii U Releases

Rock on down to NeoGAF to view a fairly comprehensive list of Wii U games slated for release this year!

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E-zine: PC Engine Gamer

pc engine gamer mag coverYou’re sure to be in good hands, over at the PC Engine Software Bible. With a brilliant database of concise and analytical PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 game summaries, no longer do you have to resort to head-scratching when it comes to buying or playing your next HuCard.

The centrepiece of this website, however, is its free (!!) magazine PC Engine Gamer. The author keeps the issues collected in a folder on Issuu.com, among some other magazines, but for ease of access, find each of the seven issues listed here.

Issues 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.