Thursday, March 26, 2009

Flight of the Amazon Queen

Year: 1993
Rating: ****
If you’re looking for a review FotAQ is fun. It has great puzzles, a decent art style and a silly but enjoyable plot. It’s also Freeware now so you have no excuse to not try it. Now for a long winded rant about adventure game puzzles.

Put me in front of most point and clicks and I’ll normally only care about the story. The mechanics of these games are never really interesting. Is a streamlined two click interface better than a complicated verb based one? No but who cares? Like wise I’m not normally fussed with the quality of the puzzles (except when they’re painfully bad like say Legend of Kyrandia). But with Flight of the Amazon Queen I found myself getting really excited by the puzzles. These are some of the best puzzles I’ve ever come across in an adventure game and with a couple of small changes they’d be the best puzzles I’ve ever played.

What I love about these puzzles is they cut out 90% of the bullshit. Two of the most common complaints against the adventure game are that items only ever serve one function and the internal logic is obtuse and impenetrable. Flight of the Amazon Queen figured out how to solve these problems and amazingly no one noticed or much less cared.

The reason is because it wasn’t very commercially successful. Hard sales figures for an obscure and old title like this are hard to find but suffice to say the publisher didn’t order a sequel and the studio shut up shop. Which is a shame when you realise that this game was a labour of love by two guys from backwater Australia. Just getting this game to market was an amazing achievement, especially in the days before the Internet made Indie development so much easier. That those two men managed to turn out a game with a LucasArts level of quality blows my mind. But no it didn’t set the world on fire and sadly the adventure genre was poorer for it.

All right let’s get down to brass tacks, why do I like the puzzles so much? Well for starters certain objects have multiple uses. For example the baseball bat gets plenty of use and in different and interesting ways too. And it’s not just inventory items that are useable in different ways. Game world objects really make use of the multiple verb system. For example there is a sarcophagus that requires you to use LOOK, USE, OPEN, CLOSE, PICK UP, and MOVE (PUSH/PULL collapsed to one verb) at different points to solve separate puzzles. Most adventure games with a SCUMM-like interface make half the verbs feel redundant. Flight of the Amazon Queen makes all the verbs feel important. Yes I need separate verbs for USE, OPEN, CLOSE, PICK UP, and MOVE. No a single hand icon will not do and don’t even get me started on this “Right Click” nonsense (Okay I could probably deal with OPEN and CLOSE being collapsed to one verb, I mean when do you ever need to open something that’s already open?). As a result the world feels so much more interactive and some how less gamey. Which in my book is totally sweet.

Plus these puzzles make sense, and when they don’t the game is smart enough to give you a clue. You’re usually given all the information you need to solve any puzzle. For example really early in the game you need to cross dress as a showgirl to sneak past an armed goon. Sure it’s an out there premise not one that would immediately spring to mind but right next to where you find a black wig there is a poster. When you look at it you notice that the woman in the picture has an Adam’s apple. When you hear about the goon’s love of a certain showgirl the wheels in your head should start turning. Now before you get on your “That’s hand holding” high horse consider the Achilles heel of the standard adventure game. No matter what puzzle you create, trying every interaction with every object, and using every object with every other object can always solve it. This is very tedious and dull but if your puzzle doesn’t make sense then the player will resort to it and they won’t have fun. Actually this is a problem with any genre, if the player can get away with doing something that’s boring but effective they will and they won’t have fun.

Look you don’t need to flash clues up whenever the player gets stuck. Hiding clues in things like posters, comic books, NPC dialogue etc all work fine. In fact they give the player a reason to really explore all the details of your game world which in turn pulls them deeper into your story. In a perfect world Valve’s multiple iteration, player first, design process would have been invented before the adventure game kicked the bucket. Have you played Portal? Do you ever remember ever getting well and truly stuck? Of course not, check out the developer’s commentary on it some time to see all the various ways they subtly poked and prodded you into the solutions. This philosophy applied to adventure games could be really powerful. Anyone engaged in the fight to bring back adventure games should seriously consider it. Flight of the Amazon Queen doesn’t quite hit those lofty goals (The giant snake is afraid of fire? How the hell was I supposed to know that?) but it’s so tantalising close to the promised land I can make out the hot chicks in bikinis.

One problem this game doesn’t quite solve is the where multiple objects could, in the real world, perform the same function. For example at one point you need to gather some sloth hair. Once you’ve lured the sloth into reach with a flower (which a priest is kind enough to mention sloths like) you use your knife on it but that doesn’t work. No instead you need to get the scissors from the pygmy hairdresser. Look I get it, it’s easier to design a game this way but seriously if you’re making an adventure game please remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. Just because Monkey Island did it doesn’t make it written in stone. I know Monkey Island was an awesome game I’m glad we all agree but wouldn’t you like to make a game that’s better than Monkey Island?

Every review I’ve read of Flight of the Amazon Queen says that they were heavily inspired by LucasArts and didn’t quite live up to their idols. How insulting, they weren’t just inspired by LucasArts they were inspired to try and beat LucasArts at their own game. Okay so they didn’t quite succeed. The writing, while fun, isn’t up to snuff but at least they tried. Learn from them because the only way we are ever going to see the adventure game rise like a phoenix and not a zombie is if someone finally has the talent and balls to make a better game than Monkey Island.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Legend of Kyrandia

Year: 1992
Rating: *
Legend of Kyrandia is exceptionally mediocre. From the dull plodding story to the pathetic puzzle design it holds nothing of interest to anyone. It deserves to be forgotten and thankfully for the most part it has been.

The first thing you need to know about Legend of Kyrandia is that it contains the following puzzle.

You’re told that to get magical Macguffin #2 you need to collect your four birthstones and place them on the marble altar in the correct order. To get the gems you have to search the entire map hunting for gemstones, of which there are twelve. You only need four but you have to collect all twelve because you don’t know which four you will need. Once you’ve got all twelve you head to the altar and get to work. You place the gemstones on the altar one at a time. If they sparkle and disappear then you’ve used the right one. If they burn and disappear then you’ve used the wrong one. If you’ve used the wrong one you need to reload your save and start again because you may need to use that gemstone later in the sequence. There is no way to figure out the puzzle without constant trial and error. You will need to save every time you luck into using the right gemstone. You might think this is some elaborate copy protection, it is not. Consulting a walkthrough will not help because the gemstones you need to use and the order you need to use them in is randomly generated every time you start a new game. Once you are finished you will feel like you have just swam through a swamp of bullshit.

The second thing you need to know about Legend of Kyrandia is that this is not the worst puzzle in the game.

The last thing you need to know about Legend of Kyrandia is that the characters, world, plot and humour are completely lifeless. It’s a cheap Kings Quest clone without the charm. Check out the disclaimer they had to put on the box.
I mean Jesus Christ.

Why don’t they make adventure games any more? I don’t know but I think Legend of Kyrandia deserves some of the blame. It isn't to blame but I feel like making it a scapegoat anyway.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Police Quest

Year: 1987
Rating: ***
Did you know they once claimed that this game was used as a real life training sim for police cadets? By that logic I’m now ready to take down drug pushing thugs. Let’s just hope RL has a better text parser interface.

You know I’ve got to love Jim Walls. He works for the Californian Highway Patrol for fifteen years until he has a particularly rough day at the office (bullets were involved) and retires. What is a man to do in that situation? Well if you’re Jim Walls you befriend Sierra Co-founder Ken Williams who offers you a gig as a consultant on an up coming game called Police Quest. Somehow you take on the task of writing and designing said title despite having absolutely no background in the video game industry. Legend has it that when he began at Sierra he needed to be shown how to turn on his computer. I don’t know how true that is but at any rate he must have been a remarkably quick study because right out the gate he managed to create what many consider a classic.

I think it may have been his outsider status that gave him an edge. By the time Police Quest rolled around Sierra had already published three very successful adventure games. To a certain extent they had already found their formula. A formula that probably stayed unchanged for too long in the end. But Police Quest is a different breed of adventure game. Gone are the obtuse lateral thinking puzzles and spot the pixel item hunting. In their place is nitty gritty police procedure. I wouldn’t even call them puzzles really. Is it a puzzle to know that when approaching a suspect in a stolen car you should call for back up? Beating Police Quest doesn’t require you to figure out the Byzantine pathways of the designer’s mind. To reach the end all you’ll need is common sense, a working knowledge of cop shows and, yes, some patience.

Approaching the previously mentioned stolen car is the virtuoso scene of the game. I enjoy how it is subtly built up at the beginning. During your first briefing, in a throwaway line, the chief mentions that a light blue sedan has been reported stolen. I almost immediately forgot that detail. Later another hint is dropped and as you complete the next couple of missions the blue sedan is always sitting in the back of your mind. Those missions are fun and interesting but you're never in any real danger. Then when you hear the dispatch blaring to intercept a light blue sedan you think to yourself "Shit is about to go down".

I won’t ruin the scene by describing it but it is as tense as typing short sentences into a text parser can be. What’s remarkable is that you don’t even fire your gun. This game isn’t about violent cops and robber heroics it’s about the simple street level tension of being a cop. You may think that sounds boring and that surely no one would want to play it now days. Sure I’ll admit you probably couldn’t get away with a triple AAA console game like this today but anyone who thinks there isn’t a market for this kind of drama needs to take a look at all the police procedurals currently clogging book store shelf space and television prime time. When was the last time you saw a cop on Law and Order fire their gun? Sure it happens but that show can go for weeks without a single gunshot. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t filled with tense compelling scenes they’re just tense and compelling in a different way. Police Quest is like that at times.

There is one slight problem though and for me it really spoils the experience. When your character finally shots his gun it happens automatically so you never get to type ‘Fire Gun”. It’s in the final climatic scene too. I mean Jesus Christ I just wanted to waste one dude. The whole rest of the game can be a prick tease building up to the final moment but let me have my damn satisfaction. Don’t yank it away from me in a cut scene. Much more recently Army of Two does the exact same thing which makes you wonder when the hell are people going to learn. For all that Police Quest is an almost awesome game and one-day I’ll probably play through the sequels just to see if they ever managed to do it right. If they didn’t, well that just means there’s the potential and opportunity for someone else out there to finally close the case on this weird sub-genre once and for all.

Oh and at one point you dress like a pimp. It’s fantastic.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Balance of Power

Year: 1985
Rating: ***
I don’t like this game but I think there should be more like it. Doublethink is a difficult thing to reconcile.

I want to like Balance of Power. I like its creator and I like his aims. But this is his masterpiece and I can’t stand it. I find myself feeling slightly ashamed to admit that. If Balance of Power was a girl she’d be the frumpy bespeckled girl sitting alone in the International Relations section of the library with a pile of books and a hatred of men. Oh sure you can tell underneath it all she’s really smart and interesting and not at all like those other prettier more vapid girls but still you never really want to go talk to her. Cause if you do she’ll talk your ear off about post-modern theories of empire in the bored kind of voice people reserve for the stupid.

If you haven’t heard of it, Balance of Power is a strategy/simulation where you pick one of two superpowers and engage in old fashion Cold War doomsday dodging. It’s like chicken with nukes but with so much detail that it boggles the mind. One of the first screens in the game informs you “Those who play this game without reading the manual are wasting their time.” Seeing that was when I first thought about giving up. But hey I’ve got a blog to write and I won’t let a little reading get in my way. About one third of the way through the manual I got bored and decided warning be damned I’ll just play the game (In my defence it’s a very long manual).

In less than a turn I had lost. These were the words that greeted my defeat

“You have ignited a nuclear war. And no, there is no animated display of a mushroom cloud with parts of bodies flying through the air. We do not reward failure.”

I’ve been frustrated by games before. I’ve given up on games before. I have never felt emasculated by a game before. Let’s be clear here, I like politics more than it can be deemed reasonable. I enjoy reading about the machinations of powers and their effects on our world. This game is probably the purest realisation of a political simulation possible and it puts me to sleep.

I read the rest of the manual. I tried again. I lasted longer that time but still saw those same words again.

“We do not reward failure.”

I can just see her sneering at me, I tried to prove that I am her equal but I don’t even know the historical precedents of the Velvet Revolution. A few more tries and I gave up. If you like this game I’m sorry it just isn’t for me. I wish I could but I just don’t enjoy playing a game of chicken against a computer. The computer does not know fear so how can I defeat it? Answer: I can’t.

Of course just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I don’t respect the shit out of it. I think if you were going to make a game about politics this should probably be your inspiration. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the whole serious game movement. These are games whose aims are to educate their players rather than entertain. And I don’t mean educate in the sense of how maths blaster made you use arithmetic to shoot enemy formulas. That sort of game tries to entertain their players first and stealthily drop knowledge in their heads when they’re not looking. If you’re playing a serious game it’s because you want to learn something. They can be useful as training tools for everything from doctors to labourers. Some people are even starting to use them for propaganda.

Take for example September 12 – A Toy World. In this game you are tasked with the goal of defeating terrorism by blowing up terrorists. However, killing civilians or damaging buildings creates more terrorists thereby making your goal harder to achieve. The rub and source of the message is that you can not not kill civilians. Now I can see where this game is coming from and I can even agree to it’s underlying assumption but doesn’t it strike you as incredibly simplistic? Surely the War of Terror can not be accurately depicted with two or three rules? I would guess that the makers of this game agree, but would insist that their purpose is not to represent the War on Terror in the most accurate way possible but instead to make a simple statement on one aspect of it. And that’s their problem they’re just making a statement. Anyone can make a statement. They’re simple, easy and you can use them as a club against people you disagree with. But a statement without detailed thought and argument to back it up will never convince anyone of anything.

Balance of Power is not a statement. It’s an incredibly reasoned and intellectual meditation on the nature of Cold War brinkmanship. Above all else it attempts to depict its subject matter accurately, and as a result it leaves the player in no doubt as to the nature of the Cold War. Mad horrific and ultimately pointless.

“We do not reward failure.”

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Contra III: The Alien Wars

Year: 1992
Rating: ***
Is Contra III a serious social commentary on late era Cold War American foreign policy? Probably not. But it is a pretty bad arse action game.

Historically speaking The Contras were a counter revolutionary terrorist organisation from Nicaragua that engaged in a bloody war with the Sandinista government throughout the eighties. The Contras were funded and equipment by the CIA in an attempt to contain communism in Latin America. They are almost universally reviled by left wing types, partly because of the terrible human rights violations they committed but also because Reagan had such a hard on for them (the left tend to ignore or gloss over the human rights violations of the government forces). Basically it was a period of human history that was violent, tragic and far more complicated than either side cares to admit.

So at some point before 1987 a Japanese game design dude is reading a newspaper, sees the name Contra connected to real genuine human misery and thinks “Wow that’s an awesome name for a video game”. I would like to high five that man… to the face… hopefully breaking his nose in the process.

Actually according to the series cannon (and wikipedia) Contra means

“A title awarded to a superior soldier possessing almost super human drive and ability, while excelling in guerrilla tactics”

That sentence mixed in with the hyper masculine characters, the endless waves of faceless alien others and steroid to the dick gameplay leads me to believe that Contra may be the most right wing game ever created for a home console. Not that I’m complaining, I might be a pussy liberal but even I can admit right wing wackos can make awesome art when they want to. For example 90% of all films starring Charles Bronson.

I wanted to play a Contra game because I’ve heard good (admittedly hyperbolic) things. I chose Contra III because I could easily get my hands on it. I’m probably going to talk about it like it's representative of every Contra game ever. I assume it is I could be wrong. It doesn’t have the famous Konami code so I was only able to beat the first couple of stages. Not that it matters, those stages told me everything I need to know about Contra. It is a good game but I will never truly love it.

Have you ever heard the saying “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”? Well Contra is a hedgehog and the one thing it knows is “shooting shit is fun”. To that end the entire game design is focused on presenting the player with shit to shoot, fancy weapons to shoot shit with, huge set pieces to shoot shit in and many different ways to shoot said shit. It’s actually fairly impressive just as you think they’ve wrung out everything they can from the simple mechanics you find yourself dangling from a cable killing an endless horde of flying monsters barely inching forward in the small moments when you’re not fighting for your life. It has moments to remember and as an object lesson in “turning it up to eleven” it’s fairly peerless. It also has co-op gameplay which I can only assume would increase the game's enjoyment by a factor of N, when N = Bitchin x Awesome / How ever much your friend sucks at video games. Yep both players share a pool of lives so if one person is stinking up the room the other suffers for it. I can just see the sibling beat downs that must have arisen from this game.

The only slight problem is it all just turns to noise. The action is so unrelenting you start to switch off from it. The problem is made worse by the fact that you die so often you replay the same sections again and again. So to progress you need to learn the frankly ridiculous enemy attack patterns. After a while certain sections start to feel more like decoding a sequence with trial and error than playing a game.

So yeah it’s stupid and fun but probably not a masterpiece and hugely over rated by the “only-ever-plays-old-SNES-ROMs” breed of retro gamer. I like those guys but come on pick up an Amiga game sometime.

I read somewhere that CliffyB (you know the Jazz Jackrabbit guy) once described the act of firing a gun in a shooter as a way of “touching”. That’s slightly disturbing but maybe also a little true. In Contra the only way you interact with anything is by killing it. Storyline wise you’re meant to be saving the planet but everything you “touch” explodes in a fiery mess. In a way it’s tragic. At least it contains the potential for tragedy. The characters of Contra don’t seem to mind, they’re too stupid to care about their damnation. But I would like someone to take these characters (or characters like them) to their realistic and logical conclusions. I think that would be a game I could love.

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Commander Keen

Year: 1990
Rating: ****
Everyone is talking "Rollercoaster" or "Sand Box" and which is the future. Keen is neither but he's still pretty special.

Commander Keen is a strange and weird breed. A platformer for the PC. In the early days of consoles the platformer was king. This was never really the case on the PC it's hard to know why. Maybe it's because the PC with it's keyboard interface could easily support complicated genres like management sims, strategy games, RPGs, flight sims, adventure games, god games ect from the get go. Genre's that never took off on the console because mapping their controls led to horrible and unworkable UIs (In some cases still lead to). Ever tried to play Sim City on a console? You never ever want to put yourself in that situation. Maybe it's because the people who owned PCs tended to be older and thus had more patience for genres that take longer to learn. Like I said it's hard to really know why.

Still people did make platformers and one of those was Commander Keen. At first it looks like a fairly dodgy Mario clone with a couple of extra features but much worse sound and level design. But then you see the old school ID logo and read names like John Carmack and if you've got any sense you'll give the guys who would go on to create Doom the benefit of the doubt.

I know I said that at first the level design looks dodgy compared to Mario but it only looks that way if you judge it by what Mario was trying to achieve. One of the reasons Mario is held in high regard these days is because it's level design achieves an incredible sense of flow. Each level is simple and linier and the player always knows what they have to do next, it never confuses you just arranges a neat progression of challenges for you to overcome. Flow is currently game designs favourite buzz-word/mantra and in this way Mario was very ahead of the times. I appreciate flow it's generally a good idea but then I remember when re-playabilty and non-linier were the mantra. The simple truth is that while maximising flow is a great way to design games it is not the only way. If Commander Keen's objective was to maximise flow then it'd be a failure. Luckily this wasn't ID's objective.

To get to my point I'm going to back up and talk story. Commander Keen is about a small boy who in order to escape his bed time builds a rocket ship and flies off to go explore Mars. Aside from it being a cute concept (which it totally is) this also shows that Keen's number one objective is to explore. He's not racing off to save a princess or rescue animals. His mission is to poke around a planet and have a goddamn adventure. When he gets there aliens steal vital space ship components which he then has to find. How do you find things? You look for them and cause you don't have a clue where they are it ties neatly into Keen's original objective of exploration. Mario's got to rush to save Peach so a tight well flowing level design makes sense for that, it's the kind of narrative that needs to push forward at all times. Keen is in no such rush, he's exploring taking his time having fun on an alien world. Hell it's actually not in his interests to finish up quick cause then he'd have to go home and get to bed early.

The level design of Keen consists of huge sprawling environments with seemingly randomly placed challenges and basically no set path. In fact, in some of the levels it's pretty darn easy to just blast through to the exit and ignore 90% of the content. If your going for the now standard Half Life 'roller coaster' approach to action adventure design this doesn't work at all. But Keen isn't a roller coaster, I wouldn't go as far to call it a 'sandbox' either. Nah Keen is something better. A jungle gym. I like jungle gyms cause they're full of interesting little challenges and paths but you're free to play with them however the hell you like. Hey player, see that teddy up on that ledge? I bet you can't get up there. Do you have to? Nope, but hey wouldn't it be fun to try. And it is.

There's another thing in Keen that is totally out of vouge these days. Key collecting. The arguments against key collecting are many. It leads to backtracking and artificially lengthens the game. It sucks when you've found the exit but you can't continue cause you haven't hunted down the key. And worst of all key collecting wastes the player's time. Keen gets by these arguments by doing key collecting right. First off exits are easy to find so you never feel like you've slogged through hell only to have the fun come crashing down because you haven't got some arbitrary object. Backtracking is fun in Keen because it contains so many extra paths and optional challenges that whenever you backtrack you're almost certain to have missed something the first time around. And how exactly is it a waste of the player’s time if they're having fun? Oh sure it makes the experience longer but if that longer experience is still fun isn't that better? But why have key collecting in the first place? Because it's a way of making you explore the levels. If you didn't have to collect keys you'd just race through and miss all the content. Key collecting makes you explore, the game design makes exploring fun so key collecting becomes fun. It's kind of elegant and beautiful in it's own way.

(A quick little shout out to the pogo stick. In Keen you can jump or you can use the pogo stick to jump really high. But the catch is the pogo stick is difficult to control so in any jumping puzzle situation you've got to balance hight with control which can sometimes be a tough choice. I like tough choices.)

Today Keen plays like an anachronism. What it did well has largely been forgotten in favour of other more fashionable ideas. But I can't help but wonder if one-day jungle gym level design won't become the new buzz word.

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Year: 1992
Rating: *****
The finest platformer ever made.*

If you do a quick search for Flashback you'll soon find some website telling you that it's an action-adventure platformer. This description is insufficient. Flashback is a thriller right down to the core of its soul. From the plot, the pacing, the step learning curve to the gunfight mechanics every element quietly seethes slow burn suspense.

In your first hour with it you'll die, a lot, and in stupid humiliating ways. If you're like me you'll probably want to quit. But don't it's worth it. Slowly as you retrain your gaming instincts, as you get used to the esoteric controls as you begin to approach every situation with extreme caution you'll get it. The game isn't so much really hard as it is easy to die. As long as you're careful and think about what you're doing you'll be fine. It gives everything a sense of weight, of substance. When I play most platformers I can switch off and go along for the ride but I never really suspend my disbelief. Flashback above all is believable. I believe in its mechanics, its world, its characters, its story. It's like a giant snowball effect with the end result being an intensely atmospheric and immersive experience.

Flashback was created by seminal developer Delphine Software. Long before anyone was asking if games were art, Delphine like the French bastards they were just knuckled down and made great art. They remind me of Jean-Pierre Melville the French filmmaker who took American Film Noir and turned it into something more up scale and classy in the process inspiring the likes of Scorsese and Tarantino. Every time people talk about how games like Half-Life and GTA are pushing the medium in a more mature direction I think of Flashback and it's grimy dystopian world.

I very briefly mentioned how the gunfight mechanics are suspenseful and I just want to explain what I mean. In most gunplay based games you run around blasting enemies away in a frankly reckless fashion. The idea is to give you a steady stream of excitement. In Flashback you approach every enemy with caution. You look at where they are, figure out how you can reach them and from that formulate a plan. You have to because bravado will get you killed. Often times the fun is in the anticipation of the gunfights. Also pulling off your elaborate scheme carries an immense sense of satisfaction. Okay so sometimes the plan doesn’t work and you have to improvise. But when that happens the mad scramble is exhilarating because unlike most games you don’t spend 90% of your playtime in it.

Flashback is a platformer for the hardcore. Don't ever let anyone tell you Sonic and Mario are anything but casual, sure they can both be extremely difficult at times but so can Dinner Dash. What really makes something casual is the way it nurtures the player and guides them into the experience. Flashback throws you in the deep end and expects you to swim. You won't you'll drown but if you keep plugging away at it you'll find something much richer and more adult than the standard SNES and Mega Drive fare. Is it less fun than Sonic or Mario? Depends on your definition of fun really. Is candy tasty? Of course. Is beef jerky tasty? You betcha. Do they taste anything alike? I hope not.

*Cheers to Glyn for that line.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Schooling the Old Mission Statement

The Plan.

To write some smart analysis of classic video games with an emphasis on what designers could learn from them today.

To do so at least once per week.

To avoid snark unless it's absolutely necessary.

To be humorous if it's at all possible.

To be at least readable in terms of grammar and spelling.

To avoid getting off topic.

To fail gracefully at all those aims.

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