Archive for September, 2008

Tempest 2000

tempest-zappoI had intended to get back into Etherlords his weekend, but I just didn’t feel like it. Sometimes the brain wants a rest. And so I choose a game that the spinal cord can play by itself. Tempest is of course the original fast-paced shoot-em-up-in-a-tube, and Tempest 2000 is its by-now-also-retro remake with a toe-tapping techno soundtrack (played directly off the CD, olde-style).

There was a brief but substantial wave of these remakes of “classic” arcade games around the turn of the millennium: re-imaginings that took advantage of 3D hardware and new innovations in game design, or, to put it another way, attempts on the part of the new IP holders to cash in on nostalgia by bolting on texture-mapping and power-ups and rudimentary storylines. Tempest 2000 wasn’t really part of this trend, having come a few years too early — despite the name, it was originally released on the Atari Jaguar in 1994, and its PC port in 1996. Because of this, it doesn’t quite fit the template. It has the powerups, sure, but it thankfully avoids spoiling the abstract purity of the original with a storyline. And (outside of the bonus levels) it doesn’t have texture-mapping — it uses Tron-esque solid-filled polygons instead of the bare wireframe of the original, but that’s as far as it goes.

Instead, the graphics technology it wants to show off is particle effects — there’s a constant spray of rainbow confetti in the background, and there’s often enough explosion debris and floating word residue on the screen that it’s hard to see what you’re doing. Seriously, check out the screenshot. The thumbnail doesn’t do it justice. It all reminds me of the complaints about Space Giraffe, a game which I’ve never played and don’t know much else about. Well, as you may already know, but I did not, Space Giraffe is in fact a remake of Tempest 2000 by the same designer. I’ve been vaguely aware of Jeff Minter since Llamatron, but somehow didn’t notice that he was involved with this game, probably because it doesn’t have some kind of quadruped in its title.

Filtering out the visual noise is of course a skill that you can learn. Some have gone so far as to call it the fundamental videogame skill. And this is very much a skill-based game. The day’s practice has seen me make substantial improvement already — I can now consistently clear level 20 (out of 100) from a standing start — but it’s not because I’ve made discoveries or varied my tactics or anything like that. I’ve been hesitant to start games of this sort since starting this blog, because they provide no guarantee that I’ll ever be able to complete them. With an RPG, there’s always the option of level-grinding until it’s easy. With a FPS, you can generally get through the hard bits by saving more often. With an adventure, there’s always walkthroughs, or, failing that, reverse-engineering the data files. But if a level in a twitch game is beyond you, there’s not much you can do. Tempest 2000 effectively provides infinite continues — within a session, you can always start a new game at or near the level you died. I expect I’ll be needing that.

HL2E1: Ending

Spoilers strut about boldly in the daylight ahead.

It turned out that I had only one major set-piece battle to go before the end of the episode, against a tripod in an enclosed area full of boxcars and other obstacles. The tripod is too large to follow you as you wend your way through the maze-like environs, but its weapons are strong enough to physically alter the environment in ways that must have taken a good deal of careful planning on the part of the designers.

After that, Gordon and Alyx set a train in motion, hop into the caboose, and watch the city explode noiselessly in the distance. At least, it’s in the distance at first, as you see the ships flying out of the towering citadel just in time to escape and speeding off in all directions. Then the fireball (plasmaball? otherworldly-dimensional-energyball?) engulfs the places your train has just sped through — it’s sort of a “Yee-haw!” moment, staying just ahead of the wall of white in your wake, until you have the dismaying realization that you’re not going to make it.

I’ve had nightmares like this. Dreams of near-escape, followed the realization that you’re doomed and powerless to do anything about it. The sense of doom can be surprisingly peaceful at these moments, because if there’s nothing you can do, there’s no need to react in any way. Being on a train isn’t completely necessary to the feeling, but it adds a lot to the sense that your course is beyond your control. And that’s Gordon’s life in a nutshell, isn’t it? Trains have been a major part of Half-Life all along, bringing Gordon to places he doesn’t want to be, literally railroading him.

HL2E1: Escort Mission

Speaking of hardware modification, it turns out that I was right: all that I needed to pass the Point of Certain Crash in Half-Life 2 Episode 1 was a second gigabyte of RAM, which seems to cost about two cents per meg these days. So the stated “minimum requirements” of the game, which would have it running on a fraction of the RAM I had beforehand, are a lie. This is probably pretty common. There’s little motivation for game producers to tell people in advance that they shouldn’t bother buying their games.

I’ve mentioned before how the structure of Half-Life 2 makes me end most sessions in the middle of a difficult battle. The latest quit-for-the-night scene for me is one of those scenes where people start following Gordon around and get massacred for their trust in my ability to defend them. This time around, though, it’s not just a regrettable happenstance. Defending them is in fact my explicit goal: Barney has dragooned me into shuttling people from a safehouse to a waiting train, four at a time. (This seems to be a magic number for the game engine. Whenever NPCs are spawned dynamically, there are always four of them. New folks show up only as fast as you let the old ones die. If it were a movie, I’d suspect that they only had enough money to hire four extras.)

So, it’s an escort mission, that traditional bane of shooters. I don’t know yet if getting my charges killed actually makes any difference in the game here, and on the basis of precedent, I suspect it doesn’t. But for various reasons, I’m unwilling to let them die, and this makes the scene harder than it would be otherwise. The fact that it is my explicit goal is of course part of it. There’s also the fact that it’s my fault that they need to get on the train in the first place — the reason they’re fleeing the city is that it’s about to blow up, due to my own actions in the endgame of Half-Life 2.

But also, it just seems like discharging a karmic debt. The whole episode so far has essentially been one long escort mission — one viewed from the opposite side. Gordon frequently has to concentrate on things other than shooting, like operating machinery or pushing cars onto antlion burrows to block them. And whenever the player is occupied in this manner, Alyx covers him. There have been battles where I’ve hardly fired a shot. In one of the scenes shortly before where I am now, Alyx climbed up onto a high vantage point with a sniper rifle to pick off enemies while I ran ahead. I’ve played that exact scenario in several other games, but always as the sniper. So after being the beneficiary of so much uncomplaining protection, it would be ungracious to refuse the same to others.

Pokémon: Trading again

So, I’ve finally done something about the Gameboy cable problem. It turns out that GBA cables are wired slightly differently than the original Gameboy and Gameboy Color: where the older model just has two of the wires cross over, the GBA does something tricky to accomodate plugging in another cable in the middle. Furthermore, the type of connection that a game expects depends on the hardware the game was created for, not the hardware it’s actually running on — so in order to trade original Pokemon on a GBA, you need an old-style cable. This is the sort of fact that’s easy to find documented on the web, provided you’re looking for it in the first place.

I’ve seen it suggested that an official GBC cable will fit in a GBA socket (although not vice-versa), which would solve the problem if I had an official GBC cable. But I don’t, and I’m not really willing to spend any more money on this problem (buying second GBA was about my limit for this project), so I took apart the GBA cable I had formerly called “defective” and rewired it. And it works great! I’ve pulled off my first successful pokémon trades trades in something approaching ten years, and stand ready to do more.

Of course, given my track record, I couldn’t justify asking someone to trade with me until I knew it worked. Which presents a bootstrapping problem. Fortunately, I had someone else’s Pokémon Red cartridge on hand — he wasn’t using it, so he let me borrow it. (With the stipulation that, once I got trades working, I had to take in his raichu. It’s the one pokémon that he wants to still have available if he starts over.) In short, I had to engage in some behavior I had spoken of derisively before: solo trading.

Still, this was a fairly satisfying conclusion to the whole problem, because I got to play with a soldering iron. I’ve played games where I had to read the data files in order to figure out how to win. I’ve played games where I had to read the source code, or even reverse-engineer the executable — it wouldn’t be exaggerating much to say that this is how I learned how to program. But how often does the pursuit of completion descend to the hardware level like this? Actually, pretty frequently, if you count the games that you can’t even start playing until your system meets the right specs. But this is different somehow.

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