Video Games

Atari 2600 Games: Honorable Mention

There are, of course, many great games for the Atari 2600. Some (like Pitfall II) have aged better than others, but there is a certain sentimental value to be had in even the most mind-numbingly repetitive of these games. As I’ve mentioned before, most games have a completely arbitrary goal set for you, usually having to do with a score or time. This can get tiresome, but back in the day, they were still a whole lot of fun. In reality, it’s actually pretty impressive, considering that most of these games were about 2k – 4k in size. Here are some of my other favorite Atari games:

  • Adventure: One of a handful of exceptions to the typical Atari game formula (i.e. your mission is an arbitrary point score) is Adventure. Your goal is to return a chalice to the gold castle, exploring other castles, chambers, and mazes along the way. There are several objects (including a sword, a magnet, and keys to the aformentioned castles) strewn about the virtual world to aid you in your quest. Three deadly dragons roam the area as well. The graphics and sound are primitive – your character basically appears as a dot on the screen, the sword looks like an arrow, and it’s often remarked that the dragons resemble a duck (personally, I think the yellow one looks like big bird. Also, when you kill a dragon, it takes on the shape of what appears to be E.T.). On the other hand the keys and the castles look great, and the gameplay more than makes up for the lack of visual complexity. This game apparently contains the first video game easter egg (unfortunately, I haven’t been able to reproduce this on my emulator yet). Shamus also noted a strange bit of functionality where you could enter the difficulty selection screen (an odd bit of functionality, that, but I was able to reproduce it).
    Gold Castle
    The Gold Castle
    Big Bird the Dragon
    Big Bird or a duck?
    You decide!
    Is that E.T.?
    Is that E.T.?
  • Dragonfire: Another game featuring dragons and castles (yeah, I was a sucker for these types of games), this one follows a more standard Atari formula. The gameplay switches between two different screens. On the first, you dodge fireballs in an attempt to enter a castle. Once inside, you’re confronted by the castle’s guardian dragon and your goal is to collect all the treasure and escape, all the while dodging more fireballs. Excellent graphics (the dragons actually look like dragons and the treasures are detailed and relatively intricate) and smooth animations make this a pleasure to play, and despite the standard treasure collecting goals, the challenge of each successive level is rewarding.
    Fireballs! The Green Dragon
  • Chopper Command: And now we reach the point where a game gets about as formulaic and arbitrary as possible, yet is still entertaining because it executes it’s (simple) premise so well. Decent graphics and smooth animation make this game fun to play, though I’m convinced that my childhood opinion of this game was based mostly on the sound effects, particularly that of your weapons (and holding down the fire button allowed for some serious rapid-fire action). Another interesting aspect of this game is the radar map at the bottom of the screen which gives you an overview of the level. This is something that has become common in games these days, which is interesting to see… An enjoyable, if simplistic, game.

    Blasting away...

  • Enduro: I get the impression that this is one of the more underrated Atari games, perhaps in part because it resembles the classicPole Position (but I prefer Enduro). The gameplay for this racer is a bit different from its competition though. Your goal is to pass a certain number of cars in a “day,” and each day progresses through a series of weather conditions, including rain, snow, darkness, and fog. The graphics are about medium-range, and the sounds of revving engines are decent too. It gets pretty intense at times, especially when night turns to dawn and you still need to pass some cars before sunrise…
    Racing Racing Racing
  • Keystone Kapers: In this game you play a cop (sorry, a “kop”) who chases criminals (kriminals?) through a department store, dodging shopping carts, little airplanes, radios and beachballs along the way. Every level is essentially the same, with the krook becoming more and more difficult to catch. Fun, fluid gameplay is bolstered by the excellent graphics and animations.

    Closing in on my man...

  • Battlezone: Probably a little ahead of its time, I could arguably consider this my first first-person shooter, complete with a little circular radar map at the top telling you where your oponents are lurking (more akin to the one used in Unreal Tournament than the one in Chopper Command). Despite the limited hardware, this game actually managed to pull off its three dimensional nature which is pretty impressive. The enemies are varied and challenging, but in the end, it’s another one of those unending formula games. Still, it was impressive enough at the time…


  • Stampede: Another simplistic formula game, Stampede was still pretty fun. Some nice animations of lassos and running horses/cattle. Movement is a bit restricted (you can only move vertically), but some interesting gameplay allows you to push slow moving cattle ahead, giving yourself some extra time to lasso them. It’s actually a pretty unusual game in these respects, and I think that’s part of why it sticks out in my head.


Well, I think that just about does it for the Atari 2600 games. One final caveat, I’m sure there are plenty of great games that I’m missing on my list, but this is a) a subjective list and b) limited to my experience playing video games as a youth. As it turns out, many of the old standbys (Space Invaders, Pac-man, etc…) just didn’t make that much of an impression on me. The games above did, even if they were clones of other popular games (like Chopper Command and Enduro). Anyway, expect another Atari post or two to wrap up. I may be taking a bit of a break before I start on the next system (the classic Commodore 64 – not technically a console, but a vehicle for many hours of game playing as a young’un). I like taking this stroll down memory lane, but I don’t want to completely jam the blog with all video game posts…

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns

Perhaps I’ve gone too far. I’m in an underground cavern beneath Peru. It seems to be a complex maze, perhaps eight chambers wide and over three times as deep. Niece Rhonda has disappeared, along with Quickclaw, our cowardly cat. I am beset by all manner of subterranean creatures in this vast, ancient labrynth. And all because of a rock–the Raj diamond. It was stolen a century ago, and hidden here.

An excerpt from Pitfall Harry’s diary

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns - Cover Art; click for a larger version
Cover Art

Without a doubt, the greatest game ever made for the Atari 2600 was Pitfall II: Lost Caverns. The original Pitfall! set the standard for Atari adventure games as it sent our intrepid hero, an Indiana Jones clone named Pitfall Harry, to a junge where he must avoid the likes of scorpions, crocodiles quicksand and tar pits (amongst other things). The goal of the first game was simply to collect 32 bars of gold in 20 minutes without dying 3 times, a typical Atari-era video game goal. The sequel improves upon nearly every aspect of the original game and far surpasses the competition.

To start, the game actually has a legitimate goal, not some arbitrary point score. Your goal is to collect the Raj diamond, rescue your niece Rhonda and also your cowardly cat Quickclaw (with an added bonus for collecting a rare rat and the usual gold bars). What’s more, you are given an infinite amount of lives and time with which to accomplish these goals (there are scattered checkpoints and when you die, you are transported back to the last one you reached, deducting points as you go). You’re given a few new abilities (like the ability to swim) and you face a new series of hazards, including poisonous frogs, bats, condors and electric eels.

From a technological standpoint, Pitfall II pushed the envelope both visually and musically. It was one of the largest games ever created for the 2600 (a whopping 10k), and it included features like smooth scrolling, an expansive map, relatively high-resolution graphics, varying scenery, detailed animations and a first-rate musical score that was detailed and varied (quite an accomplishment considering that most 2600 games did not feature music at all). Obviously, all of these things are trivial by current standards, but at the time, this was an astounding feat. Indeed, it was only made possible because of custom hardware built inside the game cartridge that enhanced the 2600’s video and audio capabilities.

You start the game in the jungle. In a perverse maneuver, the game’s designers made sure that you could see Quickclaw (one of your primary objectives) immediately beneath your starting point, but to actually reach him you must traverse the entire map!

So close, yet so far away...
So close, yet so far away…

Again, the sequel imbues Pitfall Harry with a few extra abilities, including the ability to swim. Naturally, this benefit does not come without danger, as shown by the electric eel swimming along side our hero (you can’t see it in the screenshot, but the eel alternates between a white squiggly line and a black squiggly line, thus conveying it’s electric nature). Also of note is the rather nice graphical element of the waterfall.

Swimming with an electric eel
Swimming with an electric eel

As you explore the caverns, you run across various checkpoints marked with a cross. When you touch a cross, it becomes your new starting point whenever you die.

I think that green thing is supposed to be a poison frog.
I think that green thing is supposed to be a poison frog.

At various points in the game you are faced with a huge, vertical open space. Sometimes you just have to jump. One of the great things about this game, though, is that there is a surprising amount of freedom of movement. You could, if you wanted, just take the ladder down to the bottom of the cavern instead of jumping (though at one point, if you want to get the Raj ring, you’ll need to face the abyss). Plus, there are all sorts of gold bars hidden around the caves in places that you don’t have to go. Obviously, there are a limited number of specific paths you can take – it’s no GTA III – but given the constraints at the time, this was a neat aspect of the game.

Stepping into the abyss
Stepping into the abyss

Another innovation in Pitfall II is Harry’s ability to grab onto a rising balloon and ride it to the top of the cavern (a necessary step at one point), dodging bats along the way. A pretty unique and exciting sequence for its time.

That's some powerful helium in that balloon
That’s some powerful helium in that balloon

The valiant Pitfall Harry, about to rescue his neice Rhonda.


The designers’ cruel sense of placement strikes again. I can see the Raj diamond, but how do you get there? Luckily, the game’s freedom of movement allows you to backtrack if you want (and when you want).

Curse you, game designers!
Curse you, game designers!

The final portion of the map is still, to this day, challenging. Up until this point in the game, you’ve only had to dogde a bat here, a condor there. This section requires you to really get your timing and reflexes in order, as you must complete a long sequence of evasions before you get to the top. Nevertheless, success was imminent.

Victory is mine!
Victory is mine!

Naturally, the game does not hold water compared to the games of today in terms of technology or gameplay, but what is remarkable about this game is how close it got. And that it did so at a time when many of these concepts were unheard-of. Sure, there are still some elements taken from the “Do it again, stupid” school of game design, but given the constraints of the 6 year old hardware and the fact that nearly every other game ever released for the console was much worse in this respect, I think it’s worth cutting the game some slack (plus, as Shamus notes in the referenced post, these sorts of things are still common today!)

Everything about this game, from the packaging and manual (which is actually an excellent document done in the style of Pitfall Harry’s aformentioned diary) to the graphics and music to the innovative gameplay and freedom of movement, is exceptional. Without a doubt, my favorite game for the 2600. Stay tuned for the honorable mentions!

A Video Game Retrospective: Part 1

Samael’s recent Mario Marathon of Madness put me in a nostalgic mood. I started thinking about my history of playing video games. These days I don’t do much gaming (with occassional exceptions), but when I was younger, I certainly did. So I figure I’ll write a series of posts about my favorite games for all the various platforms I’ve played on, starting with the glorious Atari 2600.

Technically, the 2600 was not my family’s first gaming system. I do remember a strange console that had two paddles and could only play Pong. I’ll have to see if I can dig that up. In any case, in looking at the history of the 2600, I don’t think I really started playing until after the video game crash of 1983. I suspect this is partly because prices fell dramatically and thus made it that much easier to convince the parents to purchase them (plus, my brother is 4 years older than I, so he had already built up a collection of games).

In any case, you gotta love the 2600, with it’s awkward single-button controllers, faux wood panelling console, and huge library of games (yeah, most were clones of popular games like Pac Man, but so what?). The default controllers were awful, but I remember when my brother managed to get his hands on a pair of Epyx 500XJ Joysticks. These unique controllers were more responsive, fit ergonomically and comfortably in the palm of your hand, and as a bonus, could also be used with the Commodore 64/128 (which will be the next system in my series).

The games will be covered in separate posts, but I will say that while they were fun at the time, I can see why people lost interest until the NES. Most games primarily involved manipulating various elements on the screen to get a higher score. Period. There really weren’t any goals other than running the score up as high as possible (there were exceptions to this which will be covered in later posts). That said, I recently downloaded an emulator and started playing some of these games again, and it instilled a powerful sense of nostalgia. These games bring back a lot of memories! And there are so many of them. Again, my favorite games will be reviewed in separate posts, so stay tuned!

Update: Follow up posts:

The Super Mario Mega Marathon of Madness

Perhaps loyal Kaedrin reader Samael has too much time on his hands:

Because I have too much free time on the weekends, and because I loves me some Mario, I’m going to have a little marathon session this weekend.

The goal: Conquer the worlds of Super Mario Brothers, in order, in as little time as I can.

I’ll play through the console versions of the Super Mario games, starting with the original Super Mario Bro., and finishing with Super Mario Sunshine for Gamecube. For the sake of convenience, I’ll be using the Mario All-Stars version of the first few games, so that I don’t have to drag out my old-school NES.

I’ve set rules for myself, because I am lame. The only rules are that I can’t use any cheats or exploits, and I can’t use warp-pipes or warp whistles to skip levels. This really only effects the first few games, since it’s easy to work your way around levels in the later Mario games.


He started about 7 hours ago (he’s posting updates in my forum as he goes), and appears to still be going strong. Some highlights:

1 pm: The slot machine thing- to get free guys- is really hard to win.

It only further reinforces my general dislike of gambling.

Except for poker.

I still like poker.

I’d totally kick Bowser’s ass in a poker tourney.

3 pm: Mario looks like a doggy when he crouches with the racoon tail.

3:30 pm: World 4’s boss is named Larry, I think. His ship didn’t have any cannons on it- only the fire-spewing engines. Despite this, it had two power-up boxes. Crazy.

3:35 pm: It took me 12 seconds to defeat Larry.

That’s what he gets for being blue, and for wearing antlers on his hat.

What a tool.

Again, he’s still going. Read all about it in the forum.

Update: Anyone ever heard Mr. Bungle’s version of the Super Mario theme? Supposedly, they also do a good Tetris theme as well. I wish they’d release another album…

Update 6 pm: “I’ve crushed Bowser’s Army, his Navy, and his Air Force. What’s next King of the Koopas?

“I’m coming for you Bowser. I’m coming for you like Rambo.”

GalCiv II: Kaedrinian Victory

This is a continuation of a Galactic Civilizations II game example I started a few weeks ago. In the Rise of the Kaedrinians, I recounted the birth of the Kaedrinian empire as well as its first major conflict with the adorable but deadly Snathi. With the conquest of the high quality Snathi homeworld, my empire was doing reasonably well and had secured reasonable long term prospects for success.

However, it would not be long before the Kaedrinian empire had another challenger. The Kaedrinians had neutral or close relationships with almost every other civilization. However, The Drengin Empire, perhaps jealous over our conquest of Snathi, were not too happy with the Kaedrinians. They had not declared war just yet, but I could see the writing on the wall… And to make matters worse, the Drengins discovered some precursor machines on the Drengin Homeworld that doubled their planetary quality. This would be problematic. Their military abilities were further developed and this added capacity (once fully utilized) would give them a higher industrial base (one that I probably could not match).

At war with the Drengin Empire
At war with the Drengin Empire

It did not take long for tensions to escalate into full-scale war. The Drengin ships seem to exclusively use missile-type weapons, which meant that my current generation battleship, the Space Lion, would be outmatched (it only featured a small shielding mechanism not meant to defend against missiles). Thus work began on a new prototype:

The Hunter Class Battle Cruiser
The Hunter Class Battle Cruiser

Offensively, this isn’t much different than the Space Lion, but it has a drastically improved defensive system which should be able to stop anything the Drengins throw at me. Indeed, the Hunter class ships live up to their name, annihilating the entire Drengin fleet in two weeks of battle, taking only negligible damage. A few weeks later, and the ground invasions begin, making quick work of the Drengin empire. Two new planets are mine, including the Drengin homeworld, which rates a 20 in planet quality (this is the highest in the known galaxy, significantly higher than even the Snathi homeworld).

A fleet of Hunter class starships in orbit around the newly acquired Drengi
A fleet of Hunter class starships in orbit around the newly acquired Drengi

At this point, I control a significant portion of the galaxy, and my influence is on the rise. It looks like I could pull off an influence-based victory if I start building and upgrading starbases in key positions. As I make preparations, two events occur that would force another change in strategy. First, it appears that the United Planets (like the UN, but with galactic civilizations instead of countries) had built a prison facility on an Altarian planet. This gave the Altarians a boost in production capabilities, as they could use the prisoners as a cheap source of labor. However, as you might expect from a United Planets type organization, the plan has backfired and the prisoners have escaped, hijacking several ships. I’ll need to keep an eye out for these new pirates, who are sure to be intercepting trade routes and generally causing mischief.

The prisoners have escaped!
The prisoners have escaped!

On its own, this would not prompt much in the way of action from me, but a few weeks later, another unexpected event rocks the galaxy:

The Altarians declare war on the Kaedrinians!
The Altarians declare war on the Kaedrinians!

The assassination of their leader has set off another war, one which I’m not especially prepared for. Unlike the Drengin, the Altarians have spread their research into a diverse set of weaponry. They have ships utilzing beam weapons, missiles, and mass drivers. What’s more, they’ve also developed certain defenses and fortified their territory with military starbases, giving their ships a significant boost in capabilities. This war was going to get ugly. The Hunter class battle cruisers that had served me so well in the Drengin campaigns would crumble under the diverse weaponry of the Altarians. It was time to develop the next generation warship:

The Wildcat Class Battle Cruiser
The Wildcat Class Battle Cruiser

Again, this ship’s weaponry has not changed much (it’s smaller, but of the same power and type), but it will still pack a solid punch against the Altarian ships. What’s important about the Wildcat is that it can defend against any weapons thrown at it. It doesn’t handle any attacks as well as the Hunter handled missiles, but it still has quality defenses. Also, since I had spent some time early on in the game developing a large economic base, I was able to purchase several Wildcats at once and deploy them against the Altarians. However, during the design and construction of the Wildcat fleet, several hunter class ships had fallen against the Altarian onslaught. The Altarians even attempted a ground invasion of Drengi, which, thankfully, was repelled decisively. Once the Wildcat arrived on the scene, things turned around in fairly short order. The Wildcats were first used to take out the Altarians’ military starbases, thus removing their most important advantage. After that, things went much better:

Kaedrinian Task Force Alpha takes on some Altarians
Kaedrinian Task Force Alpha takes on some Altarians

Without their starbase bonuses, the Altarian ships are no match for the Wildcat. In their first engagement with Altarian forces, the Wildcat performed superbly, destroying two Altarian capital ships while taking only minimal losses.


After decimating the rest of their fleet with my Wildcats, the Altarians begin to have second thoughts…

Altarians offer peace...
Altarians offer peace…

My planetary invasion fleet was already on its way, so my answer here was pretty much irrelevant. However, my fleet was intercepted by pirates (remember those escaped prisoners?) and destroyed! It turns out that the pirate ships have very heavy missile defenses, which means my missile weaponry was ineffective. Therefore, even though I had a Wildcat escort, the entire fleet was destroyed (the Wildcats have diverse defenses, but not as extensive as the pirates’ so the battle took quite a while, but eventually the Wildcat succumbed to the relentless pirates), including my invasion force of two billion troops! Ouch! And what’s this? It seems that the Yor Collective have seized on the Altarians’ temporary weakness and sent an invasion fleet of their own. Crap! The Yor have stolen two Altarian planets. The Altarians, sensing the writing on the wall, surrender their remaining planets to the Torians. Damn, all that work and I didn’t even gain a single planet!

On the other hand, my civilization was finally at peace with all of the remaining civilizations, and my influence had spread far. Checking my stats, I saw that I was quite close to an influence victory. All I needed to do was build a few new influence starbases and enhance them with some cultural improvements. In relatively short order, the soft power of Kaedrinian culture had infected the rest of the galaxy, flooding the markets with Kaedrinian products like the ikorx:

Say hello to ikorx
Say hello to ikorx

Victory! The Kaedrinians have conquered the galaxy not with weapons, but with ideas. All praise tallman!


A very satisfying game! For those interested, loyal Kaedrin readers who’ve been persuaded to purchase the game (I wonder why?) have posted their experiences on the Kaedrin forum. Read all about the Samaelian empire (with their leader, Skeletor). Also, the game seems to be doing incredibly well:

The second manufacturing run of Galactic Civilizations II has sold out. We’ve now shipped more units of GalCiv II in the first 10 days than the total retail sales of the first GalCiv in its entire history.

If my experiences so far are any indication, GalCiv II deserves every last penny.

GalCiv II: Rise of the Kaedrinians!

Galactic Civilizations II continues to occupy the majority of my free time, and I wanted to try showing a game example (similar to this one by one of the game’s creators, though my example won’t be as thorough). I’ll be showing how I was able to secure good long term prospects at the beginning of my second game.

I played my first game as the Terran Alliance (humans), and one of the most enjoyable things I’ve noticed about the game is the ability to customize various aspects, such as planet names and ship designs. So this time, I decided to create a new race, the Kaedrinians (long time readers should get a kick out of that), and installed tallman as their emperor.

Update: Moved screenshots and commentary to the extended entry. Click below to see full entry…

Initial Impressions of GalCiv II

As I predicted in last week’s post, I’ve gone ahead and downloaded Galactic Civilizations II. Installation process went smoothly and easily (relatively high download speeds as well), but while I enjoy the game as a whole, I found a few things baffling. Here are my initial thoughts:

    Lightning Class Battle Cruiser (click for larger image and more details)
    Lightning Class Battle Cruiser
  • I need a new computer! Or, at the very least, I need to upgrade my existing computer with a newer graphics card to take advantage of the new graphics. However, the game is perfectly playable even with my turn-of-the-millenium hardware, which is actually quite nice (hard to believe that this computer is almost 6 years old!).
  • I haven’t yet made up my mind about the planetary maintenance changes. So far, I haven’t encountered anything bad, but I can see certain things getting on my nerves later. Initially, I thought it was very confusing, but the way “upgrades” are automatically added makes it much easier to handle than other games of this type that I’ve played (which is to say, not many).
  • War is fun! One of my big complaints about the old game was that military conquest was somewhat annoying. In this game, you can customize your ships with various styles of weaponry and shields, and you can build your ships to capitalize on the weaknesses of your enemies (i.e. defend against their weapons, while circumventing their defences with your weapons). The ship building interface is a little confusing at first, but I think I’m starting to get a little better (it probably would have helped if I watched the tutorials instead of just jumping into the game). However, my designs are tremendously boring compared to the stuff I linked to last week.
  • My big complaint is that I lost. However, what’s annoying about this is not so much that I lost as that I have no idea why I lost. Update: I’m pretty sure the problem I was having was my own doing. I had started a war with the Drengin empire, and after a few initial setbacks, I had managed to completely decimate their fleet (courtesy of the Lightning class battle cruiser). I was preparing my planetary invasion when all of the sudden, the game just stopped and said I lost (and there was no explicit explanation about why I lost or who actually won). However, I was able to go back a few turns and start my invasion again, and I continued the game without running into this again. I thought perhaps one of the other races ran away with it while I wasn’t looking, but glancing at the statistics, I could see no obvious reason why. The only thing I can think of is that there was some sort of time limit, but that doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps it was just a fluke (I sure hope so!)

Aside from the odd and frustrating ending, I really enjoyed the game. I’m hoping the ending thing is just a minor bug that won’t come up again, but I guess we’ll see. I apologize if this entry seems a bit sparse, but if the game hadn’t ended so abruptly, I probably still would have been playing (and no entry would have been posted at all). Expect more later in the week.

Update: Ok, so I must have accidentally surrendered (instead of offering a peace treaty) from the diplomatic dialogue. That’s the only thing I can think of that would have caused the defeat. I just went back to my saved game and was able to mop up the rest of the Drengin empire without a problem (except that once I really had their backs to the wall, the surrendered their one remaining planet to another alien race, dammit!) So the problem I encountered seems like a fluke, which is great news!

Update II: After I figured out what happened, I went back and played more and the game is truly excellent. My only complaint is that the ship design interface is a little difficult to use at times… but the good far outweighs the bad when it comes to that feature, as it is one of the coolest aspects of the game, allowing you to interject your own personality on the game…

Update III: I’ve written up a game example

Galactic Civilizations II is coming…

Brad Wardell has been posting a lot of interesting stuff over on his blog. Wardell is the founder/owner of Stardock, a company that is known more for it’s windows customization programs like WindowBlinds than for it’s video games, but each of their games I’ve played is excellent. They’re currently gearing up for the release of Galactic Civilizations II, a sequel to their excellent turn-based strategy game in which you vie for galactic influence with a number of alien races. All throughout the development of the game, Wardell has been posting progress reports and generally shedding some light on the process.

I was a fan of the first GalCiv game. Since I started my posting schedule of at least once a week, I’ve only missed a Sunday post a few times, mostly because I was travelling. However, there was one week in which I was so engrossed in a galactic war that I actually skipped posting that week. And it looks like the new game will fix some of the things that bothered me about the first game, namely the ability to control social and military production at a planetary level (as opposed to the first game where this was done at the civilization level). There also appears to be much more customization involved (you can design your own ships, etc…)

Wardell was in charge of the AI for the game, so much of his commentary focuses on that aspect of things, but it’s still quite interesting. Here are a few posts to check out:

  • He has posted several game examples which show you how the game is generally played. It’s entertaining reading as Wardell gives blow-by-blow descriptions of how his civilization wins or loses. The way he appears to have allowed ship customization seems much more realistic, as each successive generation of warship (for instance) must build and adapt according to who you’re fighting (i.e. if you’re enemy develops beam weapons, you should develop a certain type of shielding that protects against those… but that shielding might make you vulnerable to rockets)
  • The Galactic Civilizations Universe gives an overview of the general storyline behind the game’s universe. The first game didn’t have much of this, except at a very broad level. It seems that this game will also have some campaigns that you can play, mostly revolving around the mysterious Dread Lords.
  • Lots of general posts on the process of making a game such as this post: Is it done yet?

    Every time I play the game, I see something different that I could tweak, improve in some slight way. We’re way beyond the “it’s good enough to ship”. As some of our external and internal gamma testers said, it was probably read to ship a week ago. But each day I play it, I see something, something little that could be improved. Made better. When you’re deep into the code, you see all kinds of opportunities to make things even better.

    That’s one reason it’s hard to simply stop. To say “It’s time to stop and send it out there.”

    Other posts include thoughts on borrowing user interface tweaks and lots of other issues.

There’s tons of stuff over at his blog and on Check them out (and don’t be afraid to read back into the archives) if you’re interested in this sort of thing…

The game comes out on Tuesday of this week, and I’ll most likely purchase it at some point. One other feature that’s nice is that he’s made the system requirements deliberately low, so I don’t have to upgrade my computer just to play the game (though it probably won’t look as nice). Who knows, maybe I’ll miss next week’s post due to another galactic war…

Do you believe in miracles?

Yes! Starz was showing Miracle for the bazillionth time today (not that I mind – the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team’s victory over the seemingly invincible Soviets is great stuff, and Disney’s film nails it), and it occurred to me that this sort of concept would make a fantastic video game.

Long time readers know that I’m a big fan of Hockey video games (despite the fact that most readers aren’t, heh), and I think this idea has legs (or would have, if launched around the same time as the movie). Back in the halcyon days of NHL 94 for the Sega Genesis, all you needed for a good hockey game was some good gameplay, decent graphics, and reasonable statistics. As time has gone on, hockey games have improved along all axis, until the main area of innovation at this point are minutiae like player-specific dekes, and (more importantly) franchise or dynasty modes where you play a general manager and shepherd a team through 20 or so seasons, dealing with contracts, ticket and concession prices, drafting and developing rookies &c. This meta-game has become my favorite part of the experience, and this is where the Miracle video game would excel because it is essentially a story.

As a player, you’d be tasked with defeating the Soviet national team and you’d be given 4 years to do so. Those 4 years could be filled with any number of sub-plot like tasks. Perhaps you have to play a season in a college league, scouting out the players you want for your team U.S.A. The process of scouting players could be done through a tryout camp where players compete in scrimmages but also in the typical hockey drills (speed skating, hardest shot, accuracy, &c.) Take as long as you want to scout (and perhaps allow players to sim the scouting competitions) and cut players until you have your Olympic team. Once you build your team, you’ll be able to scrimmage teams from all over the world. And so on. There’s a lot of potential there for varied and interesting play, along with a significant portion of administrative tasks. All along, you’d get updates on how the Soviets are crushing their opponents. (Except, of course, for that fateful day on January 11, 1976 when the Flyers beat the crap out of the Soviets (and played some hockey too).) Getting into the social-political mood of the times might be a little much for a video game like this, but it could also lend some gravity to the proceedings.

The mechanics of gameplay are well established, and a developer like EA would simply need to leverage their already developed gameplay code (perhaps with minor alterations). Also, since we’re talking about amateur players, licensing fees would be minimal. There would probably be a fair amount of visual design work needed to simulate the vintage uniforms and equipment (however, vintage uniforms are a common feature in newer video games, so that’s perhaps not a big deal). The biggest challenge would be setting up the administrative challenges and making sure they’re not tedious (and if they are, allowing a way to bypass certain features if you want). If done right, you could end up with a series of very fun and playable sub-games along with the traditional gameplay.

Indeed, you could extend the game to continue on past the 1980 Olympics or even apply the model to other scenarios. In the original version of SimCity, you could start a city from scratch, or you could start with an existing city that had been beset by some disaster (my favorite being the Monster Attack on Tokyo) and rebuilding it. I’m sure there are all sorts of spin-offs that could result from this sort of game. Alas, despite what looks like a compelling concept and low production cost, it was not to be. Yet!

Hockey Video Games

With the NHL lockout upon us, I have been looking for some way to make up for this lack of hockey viewing. I’ve always been a big fan of hockey video games, so I figured that might do the trick. Over the past year, I’ve bought 2 hockey games: EA Sports NHL 2004, and ESPN NHL 2K5. I was very happy with EA’s 2004 effort, but there were some annoyances and I appear to have misplaced it during the move, so I figured I’d get a 2005 game.

EA Sports is pretty much dominant when it comes to just about any sports game out there, and hockey is no exception. Ever since the halcyon days of NHL 1994 for the Genesis, EA has dominated the hockey space. So last year, in an effort to compete with EA, Sega announced that it’s own hockey title was going to be branded with ESPN. Not only that, but they dropped their prices to around $20 (as compared to the standard $50 that EA charges) in the hope that the low price would lure gamers away from EA. So in looking at the reviews for EA’s and ESPN’s 2005 efforts, it appeared that ESPN had picked up significant ground on EA. With those reviews and that price, I figured I might as well check it out, so I took a chance and went with ESPN. To be honest, I’m not impressed. Below is a comparison between ESPN’s 2005 effort and EA’s 2004 game.

To give you an idea where I’m coming from, my favorite mode is franchise, so a lot of my observations will be coming from that perspective. Some things that annoy me might not annoy the casual gamer who just wants to play a game with their buddies every now and again. I’m playing on a Playstation 2, and I’m a usability nerd, so stuff that wouldn’t bother other people might bother me. I’d also like to mention that I am far from a hardcore gamer, so my perceptions might be different than others.

  • Gameplay: Playing a hockey game is fun in both games, but ESPN is the king here. EA’s gameplay was one of my minor annoyances. The controls were jerky and awkward, the speed of gameplay was too slow by default (but could be sped up), and the player behavior could be extremely frustrating (especially with Off Sides turned on). ESPN, by contrast, has smooth controls and movements, a good default gameplay speed, and much better player behavior and computer AI. EA’s gameplay was rife with 2 line passes and off sides calls, which makes for frustrating play. Another advantage for ESPN is that it offers more and better gaming modes, including a franchise mode which is deeper than it’s EA counterpart (more on that later) and a skills competition (which EA doesn’t have). Advantage: ESPN
  • Sound: EA wins this one, hands down. Both games have decent sounds during an actual game, but where EA excels is in the maintenance screens. In all EA games, not just hockey, they have assembled a trendy group of songs from real mainstream bands, most of which seem appropriate as a soundtrack to a sports game. I don’t know if EA has launched any bands into stardom, but they seem to have a knack for finding good music. ESPN totally falls flat in this respect. The only music they have that is even remotely compelling is the ESPN theme song, which is good, but short and when it repeats for the 10th time, it grates. Their other music is this lame generic instrumental rock music. Normally this wouldn’t be that bad, but it just pales in comparison to EA’s stylish lineup. This becomes especially important in dynasty or franchise modes, as you spend a significant amount of time tweaking team settings, doing offseason stuff, etc… Both games have play by play announcers that get annoying after a while, but EA’s is slightly better in that their comments are usually relevant to what is happening. ESPN commentators will inexplicably throw out some odd comments from time to time. Advantage: EA
  • Graphics: Both games have decent graphics engines, but I think EA has a better overall look and feel. This goes both for the menu design and the gameplay design. The menus are neat and orderly, they look great, and are easy to use (this will be covered in more detail in the usability section). ESPN’s menus are allright, but nothing special. In terms of gameplay, while ESPN has a better experience, EA just looks better. Their player animations are great, and their graphics engine is simply superior. ESPN has some nice touches (it sometimes feels like you’re literally watching ESPN, as all of the screen elements have the same look and feel as ESPN tv) but it doesn’t quite reach EA’s heights. Advantage: EA
  • Usability: This isn’t something that is usually covered in video game reviews, but this is an area I think is important. Again, this is something that becomes more relevant when you get into dynasty or franchise modes, where a lot of fiddling with team settings and player manipulations are required. You need to be able to navigate through a number of menus and screens to accomplish various tasks. I think EA has the edge here. Their menus and screens look great and are easy to use. More importantly the controls are somewhat intuitive, and there are usually enough hints at the bottom of the screen to let you know what button to press. ESPN, on the other hand, is awful at this. Sometimes their screens are poorly laid out to start with, but when you add to that the clumsy controls, it just makes things that much worse. Take, for instance the Edit Lines screens, typically consisting of one or more lines, along with a list of players you can substitute. Neither interface is perfect, but ESPN’s list of substitutions is tiny and requires a lot of scrolling just to see your options. Another good example is sorting. EA’s sort is generally accomplished with the O button, while ESPN makes you use one of the least featured buttons on the PS2, the L3 button (and I needed to use ESPN’s help to figure that out). ESPN is just too awkward when it comes to this sort of thing. Gameplay controls are fine for both games, but EA is much better when it comes to the maintenance menus and screens. Advantage: EA
  • Depth of Features: As already mentioned, ESPN has more and better gaming modes than EA, and even within the modes, they have a much deeper feature set. Most notably in their franchise mode, where your control of the coaching staff, contracts (which are themselves much more detailed than their EA counterparts), young players, scouting, and drafting is very detailed, to the point of even setting up travel itineraries for your scout and exerting a large amount of control over your minor league team. Even when it comes to unlockables, ESPN has the edge. On the other hand, EA covers most of the same ground, but in a much less detailed fashion. Their simplistic approach will probably appeal to some people more than others. I have not played enough of ESPN’s game to really give a feel for this, as one of the most enjoyable things about a franchise or dynasty mode is to watch your young players progress. EA’s simplicity could make for a better overall experience, despite the lack of detail. Sometimes, less is more. One other thing to keep in mind is that ESPN’s depth is partly nullified by their usability problems, sometimes making their more detailed features more confusing than anything else. If, that is, you can even find them. There are some features, such as the ability to specify line matchups for a game, which must be found by accident (as there is no way to even know such features exist, let alone how to use them). Advantage: ESPN, but it depends on what you’re looking for. More depth doesn’t necessarily mean more fun. EA’s simplicity might be a better overall experience.
  • Injuries: One thing that really annoyed me with EA’s 2004 game was the lack of information about injuries, especially when simming significant parts of the season. You’d sim 10 games, find out one of your star players was injured, but there was nowhere to look to find out how long that player was injured (if you were lucky enough to have your injury occur recently, you might find out through the news ticker at the bottom of the screen, but that goes away when you move a few games ahead). ESPN is better in that there is an actual injuries screen you can check. Unfortunately, that’s where ESPN’s advantages end – their auto-substitution code sucks, and it sometimes doesn’t work at all. Indeed, injuries in general seem to really screw the game up. This is one of my major problems with the game. The game actually locks up for unknown reasons, and I literally cannot continue my franchise mode because one of my players got injured. I’m serious, I’ve tried it five or six times in the last hour, and nothing works. This is inexcusable, especially for a PS2 game (where there are no possible patches), and is reason enough to avoid ESPN’s title altogether. Advantage: ESPN (technically, if it worked, ESPN would be better – the bug is more of a symptom of a larger problem that will play into the next section)
  • Franchise vs. Dynasty Modes: ESPN offers Franchise mode, while EA offers Dynasty mode. These are basically the same thing, where you take the role of general manager and control a team through many years, as opposed to just one season. It allows you to build your team up with young talent and watch them grow into superstars, etc… Personally, since I’ve been playing hockey video games for many years, and since these are among the first hockey games to have this mode, it is the most attractive part of both games (from my perspective, at least). I’ve already gone over some of the differences, most notably the difference in depth of features. EA is more simplistic and ESPN is more detailed. Unfortunately, since ESPN also has poor usability, the additional detail doesn’t do it much good. Add to that the inexcusable crashing issues (ESPN seems to have a lot of problems handling its rosters, which leads to the game locking up all the time) and I think that EA wins this category. Honestly, it’s difficult to tell, because I literally cannot continue playing the ESPN franchise. It freezes every time I try, no matter what settings I use. I honestly don’t know how they could release this game with such a glaring bug. Advantage: EA
  • Customizability: ESPN has far more configurations than EA, and their defaults are near perfect. Even better, you aren’t forced to choose these configurations when you start a season, but you do have the ability to change them if you want. Basically, ESPN has a lot of power under the hood, but you aren’t confronted with it unless you really want to look. This is one area in which ESPN really accels. Unfortunately, it’s not as important as some of the other areas and this is also sometimes hampered by poor usability. EA has some configuration too, and for the most part it’s fine. Again, simplicity has its virtues, but their options are considerably fewer than ESPN’s. Advantage: ESPN
  • Auto Line Changes: One thing that annoys me in both games is the auto line changes feature. It always feels like one of my lines gets the shaft. In EA, it’s often the second line, which only gets around 5-10 minutes of ice time, while lines one and three get the lion’s share. Line four usually gets screwed as well, but you kind of expect that. This is really baffling to me, as the second line contains, well, your second best players. They should be out there almost as often as the first line (one would think they’d get the second most ice time). ESPN is slightly better in this regard, but the third line gets next to nothing and in some games, the fourth line doesn’t play at all. I’m not sure why that is, but both games could use some work when it comes to that. Advantage: ESPN

I could probably add a lot more to this, but in general, I think EA’s game is better right now (at least NHL 2004 is, I can’t speak for 2005, which some believe is a step back). If ESPN can work through some of their rough spots, they could really give EA a run for their money in the future. As it stands now, they’re probably better if all you’re looking for is a straight hockey game, but if you want to get into seasons or franchise modes, EA is far superior. EA doesn’t have the depth, but their interface is excellent. ESPN has lots of neat features not available in EA, but their value is largely nullified by a lack of usability, not to mention the inexcusable crashes. Again, it’s astounding that such bugs made it through, and I just can’t get past that. If they can fix these bugs for next year, they’ll be in good shape. Of course, there might not be a next year for hockey, so that might be a problem.

Before I finish, I just want to stress that I’m talking about EA NHL 2004, not 2005. I’ve heard that the newer edition has generated a lot of complaints, but I have not played it so I can’t say. Again, I’m no expert, but I’m not very impressed with ESPN’s entry into the hockey gaming space. Perhaps in a year or two, with improvements to the UI and bug fixes, that will change.