Archive for September, 2008

Battlegrounds: Genre

Magic: the Gathering — Battlegrounds is a difficult game to classify. It’s hardly just an adaptation of M:tG. It’s got too much of a strategic component to be easily labeled a fighting game, but requires too much of the player’s reflexes to be easily called a strategy game. Mobygames pegs it as “action” and leaves it at that.

It certainly looks like a fighting game. It’s got a side view of two opponents squaring off, attempting to drain each others’ life bars. And if they’re doing this through spells rather than martial-arts moves, well, surely that’s just a matter of emphasis. Fighting games as old as Street Fighter let the players throw balls of chi energy at each other, and in Battlegrounds you can actually hit an opponent with a hand-to-hand attack if they venture across the virtual net into your half of the arena. It may seem fairly superficial to base so much of the genre judgment on where the camera is placed, but, well, consider the well-established “first-person shooter” genre.

In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I’d be fairly comfortable assigning this to the fighting-game genre, except for one thing: playing it feels a great deal like playing Battlemage, which was so much more clearly RTS-influenced!

Ultimately, it’s kind of foolish to insist that everything fit into a pigeonhole. Some things are sui-generis, and that’s all there is to it. Sometimes such a thing forms the seed of a new genre, although I think that’s unlikely here. But the concept of genre has one big effect on the player experience: it affects expectations. I purchased this game expecting an experience similar to playing Magic: the Gathering, and was disappointed. Suppose some fan of fighting games decided to give it a try on the basis of the screenshots on the package. Would such a person be as disappointed as me? In the same way?

Battlegrounds: Quest Mode

The single-player campaign of Magic: the Gathering — Battlegrounds is a series of duels, with no overland map or other in-game context. Some variety is provided by trick duels with goals other than simply killing your opponent — for example, killing your opponent within a time limit, or gaining a certain number of hit points before your opponent does. The premise, as communicated through cutscenes, is that the nameless player character, a young woman in a bikini, acquires a powerful talisman with five empty slots for gemstones. You can probably see where this is going: there’s a gemstone for each color of magic, and each is held by a master of that color. So there’s a chapter for each color, and apparently a sixth chapter after you complete the amulet, although I haven’t gotten that far yet.

However, the color theme of each chapter is not the color of its boss. Rather, the player has access to only one color of magic per chapter. In chapter 1, you have only red spells, and the boss is green. In each subsequent chapter, the player uses only the color of the last-defeated boss. Not all of a particular boss’s underlings will be the same color as the boss, but so far they’ve all been monochromatic, even though the docs say that you can use two colors at a time.

At the start of each chapter, you have access to only one spell. Each duel you win grants you one more. Consequently, the first few duels of each chapter are a bit more like tutorials than challenges. In fact, there’s an element of that in every match: “Here’s a new spell. Here’s an opponent whose tactics are best countered using that spell.” This is part of the reason for the trick duels: it lets them give you goals that exhibit your new spell’s strengths. (For example, given a spell that grants your creatures Haste, they put a time limit on the duel.) Except that in some cases they just force the issue by requiring that you cast the new spell in order to win the match, even if you have some other tactic that works. But once you have a large enough repertoire, the most effective tactic can be a combination, and the game takes on a puzzle-like aspect, as you try to discover a chord that works.

The thing is, you can have the right idea but fail on execution. Even with the controller that the game was designed for, I fumble sometimes. Sometimes the pace is too fast for me — there’s a level or two that relies on casting Counterspell, which is extremely time-critical, as you have to cast it before the opponent finishes casting something. Some enemies just have a spell or two that they cast over and over again in a cycle a couple of seconds in length, requiring you to react constantly, until you have enough mana to do something that breaks the cycle — and when you do, timing it wrong will probably get you hurt. If you lose a certain number of times in a row, the game starts giving you hints, and these hints are usually elementary enough that they can feel insulting if you’re in a frustrated mood.

At the end of each chapter, the protagonist gets one more gem for the talisman and a little additional clothing. Clothing is something that she and many of the other duelists (particularly the female ones) desperately need, but the articles chosen are pretty ridiculous: you get gauntlets while you still lack trousers. There’s also a FMV cutscene showing each boss’s defeat. They generally thank you for setting them free, which I suppose is supposed to morally justify beating up even the putative-good-guy white-magic specialist — the initial premise establishes your whole quest as being for the good of the land somehow, but I’ve forgotten the details, because they’re never referred to again. I assume that chapter 6 ends in defeating the mastermind who’s bent the bosses to his will and forced them to guard the gems.

Battlegrounds: Comparison to the source

The Battlegrounds manual contains a list of things that are different from M:tG. Some key items, with comments in square brackets added:

  • You do not draw and discard cards — all of your spells are available at all times. [All those you brought with you, that is. You can bring at most ten spells into a duel.]
  • There are no artifacts.
  • You have a shield. [That is, you can press a button just before something hits you to reduce the damage it does.]
  • You have a duelist attack. [That is, you can press a different button just before something hits you to do 1 point of damage to it.]
  • Creatures fight until they are dead.
  • Damage is permanent.
  • Most creatures attack, but some block. Others run to the back and perform an ability. [That is, what a summoned creature does is not chosen by the player, but determined by the creature’s type. Despite the reduction in player agency this represents, I consider this to be an improvement over Battlemage, because it simplifies the UI and gameplay so much.]
  • Flying creatures do not interact with ground creatures. They attack only other flying creatures or directly to the enemy duelist. [So ground creatures can bypass air units just as easily as the other way round. This is a drastic change to the dynamic of flight.]

Given such radical changes, you might be wondering: What’s left?

Well, some of the creatures from the card game are kept — or at least, their names are. Those ubiquitous Llanowar Elves are around, but instead of increasing the amount of mana you have available to spend, they let you replenish it faster. Or consider the Raging Goblin. As in the card game, it’s a 1/1 red creature with haste, costing 1 red mana. From its stats alone, you’d think it’s identical to the original version. But “haste” means something completely different in the two contexts: in the card game it means that it comes into play untapped and can attack immediately after being summoned, while in Battlegrounds, which doesn’t have a summoning-sickness mechanic or anything like it, it just means that the goblins move more quickly than normal creatures. And a lot of the creatures are just made up from scratch, with no direct counterpart in the card game.

But such things happen when you translate a work from one medium to another. Have the designers at least succeeded in preserving the flavor of the original? I think I have already been clear that they have not, except in superficial matters of theme and setting.

So let us imagine throwing those superficialities to the winds. Suppose this game had been made without any obvious M:tG branding. Would I have at least been reminded of M:tG?

I suspect so, because I was reminded of M:tG by Puzzle Quest, which is at first blush even further removed from M:tG‘s gameplay. And yet… Puzzle Quest is at least turn-based, and that goes a long way towards recreating the M:tG feel. It also has a strong random element, like M:tG and unlike Battlegrounds. So I’m really not sure. At the very least, Battlegrounds has the five colors of magic — and, that being the single strongest vestige of its source material, they naturally make it the entire basis for the minimal plot of “Quest Mode”. More about that next time.

Magic: The Gathering – Battlegrounds

mtgbg-duelIn writing about Etherlords, and before that about Puzzle Quest, I made mention of how much they drew from Magic: The Gathering. Well, there’s one sort of game you’d really expect to draw from M:tG, it’s a game specifically based on the M:tG license. There have been several.

The most straightforward adaptation is undoubtedly Magic: the Gathering Online, which is exactly what it sounds like: a system for playing M:tG against other humans over the internet. Before that, there was a single-player RPG-like title, called simply Magic: the Gathering, that used straightforward M:tG duels for combat, and before that there was Battlemage 1Or, more fully, Magic: the Gathering — Battlemage. It seems to me that Richard Garfield kind of painted himself into a corner with respect to names for derivative properties. “Magic” is a generic enough word that you really need the subtitle “the Gathering” there to positively identify the franchise, which results in these multiply-subtitled derivatives. I don’t know what I’m going to do about naming these blog posts., a realtime variant.

Since M:tG itself is about as realtime as chess, Battlemage was a quite loose adaptation, and perhaps better described as an action game inspired by M:tG. It kept the basic notion of a duel between wizards who summon monsters at each other, and a mechanic of regenerating mana, but the mere fact that it was realtime changed the character of the game fundamentally, and not for the better, in my opinion. Where M:tG is essentially about showing off how clever you are, the hectic pace of Battlemage basically prevented me from thinking while playing it. As I remember it, my mind was mostly occupied with trying to remember how to use its user interface, which seemed unbelievably awkward to me for time-constrained use, ignoring obvious mechanisms, such as using the mouse to select spells, in favor of paging through lists with the arrow keys. (I didn’t understand this at the time, but the whole UI was just a minimal conversion of the Playstation version.)

Battlegrounds, released in 2003, was the last attempt at a new M:tG-based title. It’s essentially a remake of Battlemage. This isn’t obvious at first, because the presentation is so different — Battlemage used an overhead 2D view and a largish scrolling map (probably intended to give the player time to react to the opponent’s summons, but it also had the effect that you never knew what was going on outside of your current window), while Battlegrounds has a smallish side-viewed 3D arena more reminiscent of a fighting game like Mortal Kombat, or possibly tennis. But it’s still realtime and hectic, and the whole thing is obviously designed around the PS2 controller, even in the PC version.

Maybe I’m mellowing, but it seems to me that Battlegrounds is more successful than Battlemage was. Duels are typically over with quickly, one way or another, and seem to be turning puzzle-like — you may not have time to think during a battle, but you can certainly devise tactics between times. However, it’s definitely not as faithful to M:tG as Etherlords.

1 Or, more fully, Magic: the Gathering — Battlemage. It seems to me that Richard Garfield kind of painted himself into a corner with respect to names for derivative properties. “Magic” is a generic enough word that you really need the subtitle “the Gathering” there to positively identify the franchise, which results in these multiply-subtitled derivatives. I don’t know what I’m going to do about naming these blog posts.

Etherlords: Finished

Well, that didn’t take long. It seems that all it really takes to motivate me to keep playing a game without pause until I reach the end is continual tangible progress. As in, the kind of progress that doesn’t happen when you’ve got the difficulty set too high.

I should mention that part of the reason it took me less time than I was expecting was that I made some discoveries about the user interface that got things going faster. It turns out that you can skip most animations by pressing the space bar, which I apparently hadn’t tried before. Well, it’s a highly mouse-driven game in most other respects. In most of my sessions, I didn’t even touch the keyboard, and I probably still wouldn’t have tried it if I weren’t recently involved in some space-bar-skippable animations in a different context. I knew that Etherlords lets you turn animations off entirely through the options menu, but I had found this to produce glitches, and besides, I didn’t want to turn them off entirely. Watching the animations is part of the charm of the game. At least, it is the first few times for each type of monster. But I was stuck for ages on a level where I was playing Team Black, which has Mech Worms as its basic starting unit, and not only do Mech Worms have a frustratingly slow crawling-forward-to-attack animation, they automatically attack every round (that is, they have the “berserk” attribute). So I was very glad to not have to sit through that again.

But even with that assistance, I couldn’t have breezed through the remainder of the game in the span of a day if I hadn’t been unexpectedly close to the end. In my last post, I was on level 5. It turns out that there are only 7 or 8 levels, depending on how you count the end boss.

Map 6 shakes things up a little by giving you no castle, and thus no way to cast overland spells, such as the spell that summons new heroes. So, you’re stuck with what you start with — a traditional variation found in strategy games of this sort. Usually such levels derive tension from the slow attrition of your irreplacable troops, but since Etherlords heals your heroes completely between battles, that’s not really a factor here. The map does limit the resources you need to cast spells, but you can pick up more stuff from monsters, and at any rate, it just doesn’t feel the same.

Map 7 is where the alliances finally break apart. You’re on the threshhold of the grand prize, so it’s every etherlord for himself. I’ve been playing the red/black campaign, so at this point I had to choose red or black. I chose red — that’s the team that has my O(n2) kobolds, which proved quite useful. Ultimately, though, I didn’t need my heroes to defeat my three computer-controlled rivals. This is a really big map, with a lot of mines and ether nodes scattered around, and once you have above a certain threshhold of spell fuel coming in every turn, you can destroy the opponent castles with overland spells alone. You don’t even have to know where the castles are, which is fortunate, because even after I had destroyed them, it took me a while to find them. At any rate, the real bosses of the level are the level 12 dragons, the most powerful beings in the game up to that point, who guard the entrance to the Temple of Time, where the final challenge awaits.

The final level doesn’t even have a map. It’s just a duel against the White Lord, holder of ultimate power over the cosmos. It is this power that the etherlords crave; your goal is to kill him and take his place. He’s level 15. But for the final fight, you get a level 15 character as well, and you get to choose whatever assortment of spells you feel like, provided of course that they’re your color. (The White Lord is not limited to one color.)

Now, this was clearly going to be a high-powered fight. High-level characters have more hit points and get mana faster than low-level characters, and these were the two highest-level characters I had ever seen. So I figured I should try the Mana Burn trick. Mana Burn is an enchantment that makes unused mana hurt. It cuts both ways, though, so if you use it, you have to be sure you have some kind of mana sink — something that has a power-up effect that can use arbitrary quantities of mana — so that your own excess mana doesn’t damage you. There are a couple of “wall”-type summonables (things that can’t attack but can block attacks) that fit the bill. Anyway, it seemed like this approach would be a good fit for a long fight with lots of hit points, because the number of open mana channels just keeps on increasing, and there’s only so much an unprepared opponent can do with them.

Apparently the designers of the game came to the same conclusion: the White Lord also used the Mana Burn strategem, but did it better than me. I couldn’t even imitate what he did, because of the way he mixed colors. It took me five or six tries to catch onto a winning modified strategy, mixing in some Cyclopes and some Disintegrate spells. (The advantage of Disintegrate is that it removes creatures from play entirely, so they can’t regenerate or rise from the dead. The White Lord had some things that kept coming back.)

etherlords-whitelordAt which point it turned out to be one of those two-stage boss fights, with the real White Lord showing up encased in some kind of robotic life support tube or something. This time he’s level 20, and uses a completely different strategy, involving creatures with the special property that they can’t be targetted by spells, which rendered my lovely Disintegrates useless. Nonetheless, I managed to get past this part on my first try, although it was a close thing.

And so I hand over ultimate power to the Chaots, the fire-and-bloodhshed faction. This isn’t going to be a pleasant eon. Of course, eventually the stars will align again and someone else will come to challenge the new White Lord — it’s that sort of ending. I suppose that if I don’t actually sympathize with the player character, there’s at least some consolation in knowing that he’s going to be locked up in that temple for a few thousand years.

At this point, you might be wondering about the other sides. There are two separate campaigns — or four, once you’re past map 6. Can I really say I’m finished with the game if I’ve only completed one? This is really something tha varies from game to game. In Starcraft, for example, playing only one side would be ludicrous — you’d be missing out on 2/3 of the gameplay, not to mention 2/3 of the plot. But Etherlords is much more symmetrical than that. From what I’ve seen of the campaigns, it’s clear that they really only differ significantly at the tactical level, in combat mode. I’ve seen what campaign mode has to offer, and don’t need to see the same thing from the other side. But I am kind of curious about the end boss. The Mana Burn gimmick is something only available to the Chaots. How do the other sides deal with it? Does the White Lord, in fact, choose different decks depending on who invades his sanctum? If I ever decide to play this game more, it’ll be to satisfy my curiosity on those questions.

Etherlords: Shifting Down to Normal

Well, if I’m going to play a game where I’m stuck, it might as well be one where I can get myself unstuck fairly easily. Turning the difficulty down a notch in Etherlords has given me the ability to smack down the enemy heroes without undue difficulty — at one point I was surprised to take down a level 5 enemy with a level 2 hero who hadn’t even yet had a chance to purchase better spells. I still haven’t completed map 5 yet, due to occasional crashes (thank goodness for autosave!), but I’ve destroyed all of the enemy castles and don’t have to worry about being attacked at all, and thus can take my time upgrading a single hero to take on the actual mission objectives (destroying some “war altars” guarded by powerful elementals).

What we have here is the effects of very strong positive feedback — that is, the winners tend to keep on winning and the losers tend to keep on losing. Each side has only one or two heroes of significant strength. If you can attack the enemy’s strongest heroes and win, there’s nothing they can do to stop you; if you can’t, there’s nothing you can do to stop them. The weird thing is, this is a strategy game with multiple sides, and that’s usually a recipe for strong negative feedback, with anyone who seems like they’re pulling ahead suddenly finding their allies turning against them. But the alliances in the single-player campaign here are set in stone. (Or so it seems so far, anyway — there’s a whole Diplomacy interface that might come into play at some point, but currently I’m thinking it’s solely for online multiplayer play.)

So, the fact that the designers aren’t playing to their design’s strengths here hammers home the point (for which I’ve already noted other supporting evidence in previous posts) that the pseudo-multiplayer aspect of the game wasn’t the focus of their attention. And at this point, I’m willing to conclude that it therefore shouldn’t be the focus of my attention either. If I keep the difficulty set where it was before, I’ll spend the majorty of my play time on a fraction of the map, replaying the first few turns over and over in the hope of surviving to the midgame. If I turn it down, my assailants turn into a mere inconvenience to be faced as I roam about seeking treasures, fighting stationary monsters, levelling up, and generally treating the game more like a traditional RPG than a strategy game. The latter approach holds more appeal to me. Let the map be my enemy.

Tempest 2000: Stuck

Even taking full advantage of my infinite continues, I can only manage to get to a level somewhere into the early-to-mid 40’s. At that point, I simply stop making progress.

To understand this fully, you have to understand a bit more about the game than I’ve yet described. First of all, dying even once means you have to start the level over from scratch. Things you killed before you died are resurrected along with you, and any powerups other than warp tokens are lost. (On the plus side, dying recharges your superzapper, the kill-everything weapon that can be used once per life per level.) Thus, the only way to make lasting progress within a game is to actually finish a level, and, although you’re given three lives (to start with), you have to do it within the span of a single life. To make progress within a series of games, however, you have to finish two levels (not necessarily with the same life). This is because of an odd limitation on the levels you can continue from — that is, you can only continue from the odd levels.

Now, there’s a substantial luck factor in this game, and not just because the granularity of crucial events is beyond the ability of humans to control, predict, or perceive. Powerups are very important, and (apart from the first one on every level, which always gives you a “Particle Laser” 1OK, actually it’s a little more complicated than that. If you manage to grab a powerup while sliding down the web on completing a level (the “Avoid Spikes” phase), your first powerup in the next level will be an AI Droid.) completely random. And some of them are much more useful than others. If you manage to get an AI Droid powerup, it’ll wander around shooting things for you so you can concentrate on defense, and on picking up more powerups. Even better, the rare Outta Here powerup simply ends the level immediately.

So, even when you’re out of your depth, there’s some chance that you’ll have an easy time of it, but it’s a crapshoot. In fact, since the entire state of the level resets when you die, each life can be regarded as an independent trial with the same probability of success. If it weren’t for the odd limitation, the number of lives you have would be unimportant. No death would have any impact on the next life’s ability to result in permanent progress. If you have a 25% chance of passing a level, it’ll take an expected 4 tries, and so will the next level, more or less (the difference in difficulty between successive levels being insignificant), for a total of 8 tries — more than you get in a single continue. But since you need to pass two levels at a time in order to get anywhere, it makes a big difference whether you have 8 lives in reserve or only 3.

Now, in the early part of the game, at the easier stages, one tends to accumulate lives. This gives the player a certain momentum. You eventually reach a point where you’re losing lives faster than you’re gaining them, but your reserves catapult you onward. Consequently, when the game finally ends, you’re not at the limit of your ability, but well past it.

1 OK, actually it’s a little more complicated than that. If you manage to grab a powerup while sliding down the web on completing a level (the “Avoid Spikes” phase), your first powerup in the next level will be an AI Droid.

Tempest 2000: Perception

Probably because of what I’ve been reading lately, I keep thinking of Tempest 2000 as some kind of experiment into human visual perception. There’s always a lot going on, only some of which is visible at any given moment. In extreme cases, you can lose a life to something that hasn’t even been displayed yet.

This isn’t even just because of particle effects covering things up, like I described before. Unlike the original Tempest, the camera moves around a little to follow the player, but doesn’t move as quickly. Sometimes part of the web is offscreen. Some of the webs are crinkly, with segments folded tightly around each other, so that, depending on the camera placement, some segments will be hidden from view. In either case, you can actually be on part of the screen that’s not being shown. On the other hand, when you get killed without expecting it, it’s hard to tell exactly why. Maybe it was something that was hidden from view by a crinkle, maybe it was hidden by an explosion, maybe it wasn’t hidden from view at all and you simply failed to notice it.

So, you basically never have complete visual information. On the other hand, that’s true anyway. The human eye isn’t nearly as perceptive as it seems; only a small region of the retina, covering about 6 degrees of arc, has the acuity we associate with normal vision. We get the illusion of a larger visual field from involuntary movements of the eye. The brain is really good at piecing together the fragmentary data obtained this way, and at extrapolating from it. If it weren’t, playing this game would be pretty much impossible. Tracking things you can’t currently see is a big part of the game, and I suspect that with enough practice, one might learn to see important objects in the game even when they’re completely obscured.

On the other hand, the same phenomena work against the player too. The reason that the brain is good at filling in the gaps is that the eye doesn’t see everything even under normal circumstances. I think the most striking experiment I’ve heard of in this regard is one that involved a system that tracked a person’s eye movements as they looked at words on a computer screen. Whenever the subject’s eye was moving, the words would change. To anyone else observing, the screen was in a constant state of flux, but to the subject, it looked completely stable, just like the words you’re reading right now. Now, think about what this means for a fast-paced game with incomplete information. Obviously the screen isn’t tracking your eye movements, and appears far from stable, but given how much is happening, and how fast, some of it is bound to occur in ways that simply slip past conscious experience, even for a well-trained player.

But that’s what extra lives are for, and the game is pretty generous with them. It’s like Robotron in that respect, only less cerebral.

Tempest 2000: Bonus Levels

At level 17, the background music changes and the web changes color, from blue to red. Since there are 16 blue levels, it seems likely that there are 16 red levels as well, but I haven’t confirmed this. All I know is that the next change (to yellow) happens somewhere past level 30, and when it happens, the level shapes start repeating from the beginning, but with more difficult enemies. Obviously 100 is not divisible by 16, so what happens when you approach the end? Does it just continue in the same pattern, or are there four special levels? I don’t know yet, but I kind of suspect the former. There’s some indication in reviews I’ve seen online that reaching level 100 doesn’t even end the game, but just switches it automatically to excessively difficult mode (which is unlocked thereby) and keeps on going.

I haven’t yet managed to get into the yellow without using continues. I’m not considering continues to be dishonorable in this game, but it seems to me that seeing how far I can get without them is a reasonable way to gauge my skill. I’ve managed to get pretty close to the yellow, getting past level 30 at least and possibly up to level 32, just short of the expected transition. But I’m not sure just how far I’ve gone, because the game doesn’t display level numbers, and even when I try to keep track on my own, the bonus levels confuse the issue.

So let me talk about the bonus levels. Here’s how they work: One of the powerups in the normal levels is a “warp token”. After you collect three warp tokens, you get a bonus level. Thus, they have no fixed place in the level sequence, although the content of the bonus level seems to be determined by what level you were at. Bonus levels are unrelated to Tempest gameplay, except in that they seem to all keep the flying-down-a-tube motif in one way or another. For example, the first few bonus levels involve flying through a series of rings. Each ring you fly through gives you a certain number of points, which I frankly wouldn’t care about except for the fact that points give you extra lives. Miss one ring and the bonus level ends immediately. If you manage to get all the way through a bonus level, you get another large bonus and skip ahead five levels.

It’s that “skip ahead five levels” that makes things unclear. Does it mean “add five to the last level you played”, or does it mean “add five to the level you would otherwise be playing next”? I could figure this out by taking notes about the web shape on each level, but I haven’t bothered.

Now, I’ve said before that there’s a distinction between completism and perfectionism in games. I haven’t really articulated that distinction. In most games, it’s pretty subtle — a completist and a perfectionist will, in most cases, pursue the same goals. But this skipping ahead strikes me as one of the few game mechanics that separate them. To play perfectly is to clear every bonus level without making a mistake, which means skipping levels, which means not playing completely. Of course, the fact that the game repeats webs affects this — you’d have to be a pretty extreme completist to complain about skipping content that’s basically identical to something you’ve already seen. But if there actually were 100 distinct webs, and I skipped some towards the end, I wouldn’t be completely satisfied.

Tempest 2000: Controls

Tempest had a knob. Rotary controllers of this sort weren’t uncommon in videogames of the day — why, the very first videogame to hit it big, Pong, used a pair of knobs. But they’re not common on today’s home computers or gaming consoles. (As far as I know, the last console to provide knobs as a standard feature was the Atari 2600.) I suppose the steering wheel controllers sometimes used for driving games are effectively a knob variant, but that seems cumbersome for the purpose. (If you’ve actually tried using a steering wheel to control a non-driving game, I’m curious about how well it worked.)

The usual way to compensate for this on a PC is to substitute the mouse, which works pretty well — like the knob, it’s effectively an analog device, allowing quick and precise movement by mapping motion on the screen directly to motion of the controller. It doesn’t work quite as well as for Tempest as it does for Pong and its ilk, though. Pong maps the rotary motion of the controller to linear motion on the screen, so switching to a controller that uses linear motion actually makes the mapping a little simpler and more direct. Tempest, on the other hand, has genuinely rotary motion on screen. Any mouse-based control scheme is going to wind up either (a) moving the player in the opposite direction from the mouse motion some of the time, or (b) being more complicated than the simple two-direction spinning of the original.

Now, Tempest 2000 has the additional handicap of having been developed primarily for the Atari Jaguar, a machine that had no knobs, no mouse, not even an analog joystick. It was built with a digital D-pad in mind, and the port supports nothing better. I might as well use the keyboard; switching directions is slightly faster that way. It’s probably not as bad as it sounds, though. The art of using digital controls to simulate analog ones is well-developed by now, and probably familiar to most gamers, if only subliminally. But it does suffer the inversion problem already noted about mouse controls. Pressing left moves you clockwise and right moves you counterclockwise, even when you’re at the top of the tube, where clockwise is right and counterclockwise is left. One gets used to this, but it’s easy to get momentarily confused, and every moment of confusion is a potential death.

Not every level in the game actually involves a closed curve — about half of them have endpoints, and are equivalent to lines. They’re lines bent into various shapes (one of the early ones is in a V shape that always makes me think of the Videlectrix logo), but motion on these levels is essentially linear rather than rotary. Does this make it easier? Not always! Context and perspective are important here. Some of these levels put the line above the middle of the screen, so that the monsters are below you — think of the normal tube-like view, but with the bottom half of the tube cut off. Or rather, don’t, because if you do, you’ll expect the controls to be inverted, like they are on the top half of a full tube. They’re not: left means left and right means right, just like you’d expect. The fact that I find these levels so confusing shows something about how quickly intuitive expectations can be changed.

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