Archive for August, 2011

It Ain’t Easy Makin’ Games: When Console Games Turn Evil

This time in It Ain’t Easy Makin’ Games, we’ll return briefly to the world of consoles for not one but two system-hacking equivalents of the Windows-killing Anarchy Online 11.2 patch, one for the Nintendo DS and one for Playstation. Alas, nobody’s perfect, but is it really that hard to make a game that doesn’t wipe your entire PS memory card?

11. Pokémon: Fushigi no Dungeon Kills Other Gameboy Advance Games

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This (yet another) Pokemon spinoff came in two releases: Blue for the DS, and Red for the Gameboy Advance. You could plug your old Red version into the Gameboy Advance Port in the DS and use the advanced Blue system to play the Red file with better graphics and sound. This was good. The same technology that allowed the DS version to access the Gameboy Advance port for the Red save files, however, tended to erase the data of any other game plugged into the port while the DS Blue version was running. This was bad. Very, very bad.

Nintendo’s solution? Free replacement of the Blue version within about three weeks of game release. I guess a time machine for recovering lost data was too much to ask.

10. Playstation Underground Demo (Holiday 2004 Edition) Kills Your Memory Card

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I remember fondly my first Playstation Demo disc, the bright red artifact that whisked me gently into the exotic worlds of Um Jammer Lammy, Crash Bandicoot, Tomb Raider, and some intriguing puzzle game that involved being smashed by rolling cubes. One reason that these memories remain fond is that unlike Capcom’s Viewtiful Joe 2 demo on the 2004 Holiday PS Underground disc, the games on my own disc did not spontaneously wipe my memory card, obviating hours—days!—of Elnoyles hunted, Cool Boards collected, and Hall of Hero weapons unlocked in one swift kick of programming ineptitude.

PS Underground’s solution? Remove your memory card before using the demo disc, duh.

Interestingly, this demo disc is now known as one of the only ways to reformat a corrupted Playstation memory card, as seen on this help forum:

Guess level freezes and the occasional system crash aren’t really so bad after all.

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It Ain’t Easy Makin’ Games: When MMOs Kill Windows

After a short adventure into the world of vg music, it’s time to return to some examples of just how hard but important it is for a good game to also be reliable and loophole-free.

The need for well-constructed technology and mechanics is even more vital for MMOs than it is for the mostly single-player pursuits we’ve discussed thus far. Hacks in multiplayer games are necessarily less benign than their counterparts in single-player ones because they touch on issues of fairness left alone when you’re the only conscious entity affected by your cheating. The cost of loopholes is extremely high in massively multiplayer games, in which the abuse of bugs, hacks, or bots can disrupt slow-burning game mechanics across an entire server, forcing data rollbacks and creating lost time, energy, and money for thousands of players around the world. Still, the thought that every piece of gold hacked into your account coffers might deal a devastating blow to the game economy doesn’t stop many MMO players from getting their hands dirty on the illegal benefits doled out by the right (read: wrong) scripting.

For this reason, MMO developers need to be even more careful, perhaps, than developers of other games when closing up loopholes and fixing bugs; any small leak in the system is an opportunity for unscrupulous people to ruin the experience for everyone. It ain’t easy makin’ games, but some games are definitely harder to make than others. Just ask Funcom, the developers of Anarchy Online (2001).

12. Anarchy Online Kills Windows 

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 One of the worst bugs in MMO history was the fabled Anarchy Online 11.2 patch, released during the game’s beta testing in 2001. Purported to “increase stability” in testers’ systems and fix another bug that caused items to disappear, the patch actually blew out the user’s Windows OS, causing failure to start upon reboot. Jump into the wayback machine to check out the firsthand user reactions to this so-called “Beta Patch of Doom”:

Unfortunately, the Windows killer patch wasn’t the only problem in Funcom’s fated beta, which has been widely ascribed with one of the most failed launches in MMO history. Aside from its numerous technical problems—from invalid CD keys and client timeouts to intense lags and random crashes—the game also required credit-card subscriptions on a server that initially wasn’t secured with encryption. Oops!

Nonetheless, the Funcom team was able to remedy these problems in due haste, and AO remains to be on one of the most widely known and longest-running MMORPGs to this day, 10 years later.


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Freedom is Slavery: An Argument for Old-School Video Game Music

August 15, 2011 1 comment

Writing an 8-bit OST that lasts for years in the gaming community’s collective memory is like riding a broken bicycle to win a road race against a tricked-out Porsche.

Maybe I’m being unduly influenced by the neurochemistry associated with nostalgia to put on my Luddite hat here, but something in me prefers the few-track, fewer-instrument harmonies of the NES and Gameboy eras to the complex and realistic orchestrations being written into games today. It just seems to me that greater restrictions on an artistic production demand more inspiration to make it emotive and catchy; memorable tunes cobbled together from harsh and simple substrate, therefore, have a much bigger “wow” factor than those molded from harmonically complex sounds that themselves lend beauty to a song. So, to borrow everyone’s favorite Orwellian quip: In video game (or maybe any) music, freedom is slavery—a composer’s freedom of nearly infinite choice in high-quality sound effects enslaves him or her to an audience that pays attention to the sounds themselves rather than what is being done with them.

One of the best OSTs I have heard—and that includes games on the market today—is Mappy Land (1988) for the NES. While the other aspects of this home console adaptation of a 1983 Namco/Midway arcade favorite have been crucified in many a review, the music of the NES version is doubtlessly one of its finer points. The ten-some different songs in this production are all composed of two tracks—a melody track and a rhythm/accompaniment track—and have been described as having a cheerful “ragtime” personality, which seems apt for a cute little game about a mouse being chased around the world by a group of evil cats. The most striking aspects of these songs are that while they’re extraordinarily repetitive, they’re also catchy, motivating, and all rather different despite their nearly identical instruments, and end up fitting their respective levels (which take place in locations as diverse as primitive jungles, moving trains, and haunted graveyards) quite appropriately.

I’m apparently not the only one to admire the prowess of a well-constructed arcade or first-generation home console ditty. One of the most widely recognized and remixed songs in the world is Koji Kondo’s Super Mario theme, which first debuted under the name “Ground Theme” with the 8-bit arcade game Super Mario Brothers. And the original 8-bit Legend of Zelda (1986), Final Fantasy (1987), and Dragon Warrior/Quest (1986) leitmotifs have managed to undergo relatively few changes despite several advancements in auditory technology. If anything, it’s the newer games that seem to have more variable soundtracks, even if the series themselves have proven almost as timeless (look at the central melodies of the original Tomb Raider (1996) versus the Tomb Raider Underworld (2008) theme, for example).

That’s not to say that today’s video game compositions are rendered worthless or forgettable by the realism and complexity already built into their instrument palettes. Quite the opposite: Modern VG music is undeniably multifaceted and beautiful in a way that sets it on par with other types of instrumental music enjoyed in many circles of society. The Halo III OST (2007), for example, uses live recordings from a 60-piece orchestra and 24-voice chorus, a first for the series and even many AAA titles at the time; it’s now sold in a two-part disc series as a product separate from the game. Rhythm games Dance Dance Revolution (1998) and Guitar Hero (2005) slowly broke the already-softening barrier between Top 40 Hits and the synthesized “bleeps and bloops” (still inevitably mentioned in most articles on video game music; why should this one be any different?) that people tend to blindly associate with video games even now. And Squaresoft god-composer Nobuo Uematsu has smashed almost every box in the VG music world with a stunning range of enthralling, stimulating, and atmospheric pieces for several RPG series, most notably Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, that have been rendered on countless non-gaming cultural platforms including live classical concerts, digitally distributed remixes, and his own progressive rock band The Black Mages.

This VG music industry’s burgeoning interdisciplinary tendencies have caused its productions to demand more respect from increasingly mainstream circles. Since 2004, for example, MTV has been awarding an annual VG Music Award, and starting this year, the Grammies will be explicitly including video games as a viable category for entry in its more general “Visual Media” awards. The renowned British Ivor Novello awards for musical composition also established a video game music category in 2010.

So the universe of video game music is maturing into something much more expansive than it was before—but, perhaps akin to the chasm in artistic quality between awe-inspiring flops like Reign of Fire (2002) versus low-tech classics like Metropolis (1927), this “progress” doesn’t necessarily spell “improvement,” at least for some Luddites like me. Dear reader, what do you think?


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It Ain’t Easy Makin’ Games: Military Robots in Age of Empires?

August 5, 2011 1 comment

Let’s move away from console games for this installment of “It Ain’t Easy Makin’ Games” and get back to our roots with some good ol’ personal computer RTS action. So get ready to crack open your history book and flip back to the Ensemble Studios masterpiece that started it all: Age of Empires. Aside from inspiring an explosion of babies named Omus, Rogan, and Wololo, this jewel of an RTS helped us all pass junior high by prematurely enriching our vocabularies with words like “hoplite” and “composite bow.” No, mom; I swear I’m studying for my history quiz.

Luckily for those who suffer sweaty-palm mind-blankness when “Shang changes diplomacy status from Ally to Enemy,” the game is chock-full of simple resource and unit bonuses to be ordered up with the stroke of [Enter] and a whimsical cheat code or two. I’ll let you look up the more conventional ones on your own; listed below are a few cheats with more, uh, inspired results.

13. Age of Empires Conversions and Summons

  •  Turn mounted archers into mysterious black riders: During gamplay, press [Enter] and type BLACK RIDER
  • Control animals only: During gameplay, press [Enter] and type GAI
  • Turn birds into festive red and blue dragons: During gameplay, press [Enter] and type KING ARTHUR
  • Turn Archers into Stealth Archers that can walk on water and change into trees when immobile: During gameplay, press [Enter] and type DARK RAIN
  • Summon a white sports car equipped with a rocket launcher: During gameplay, press [Enter] and type BIG MOMMA
  • Turn Priests into super-unit St. Francis, who can hit close-range enemies with lightning: During gameplay, press [Enter] and type CONVERT THIS!
  • Summon photon-gun-carrying military units: During gameplay, press [Enter] and type PHOTON MAN
  • Summon nuke-carrying military units: During gameplay, press [Enter] and type E=MC2 TROOPER
  • Summon a military robot: During gameplay, press [Enter] and type STORMBILLY. Some people say this is only a hoax; it’s the only one I didn’t verify on my own computer. I’ll let you discover for yourself whether it works.
I have a nice digital stack of screenshots on hand, but I prefer to leave y’all guessing—you have to test the codes yourself if you want to see kind of tree the Stealth Archers turn into.
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It Ain’t Easy Makin’ Games: Metal Donkey Kong

August 1, 2011 1 comment

The word glitch is thought to have possibly entered the English language from the Yiddish word glitsh, meaning “a slip.” Not all glitches, however, have to make you lose your footing in a particular game; just like the Master Hand error reported in the last article, many can actually help you stand your ground, or at least don’t push you over.

The Metal DK error in Donkey Kong Country is one such mistake, though like everyone’s beloved Pokemon MissingNo, its manifestation in the game may cause a shiver or two to slip down your spine, especially if you’re playing alone at night.

Taking advantage of this glitch requires some solid timing, but the process is simple enough:

1. Acquire Rambi  the Rhinoceros in the first level (Kongo Jungle, Jungle Hijinx) and ride him back to the very beginning of the stage.

2. Go to where a steel barrel is hiding under a weak spot in the ground (marked by some brown lines that look like dead grass) under a floating arrow of bananas right of a stand of trees.

3. Dismount Rambi, jump down from the trees (following the floating banana arrow) onto the weak spot to reveal the steel barrel, and throw it against the wall so that it starts to roll toward Rambi.

4. Jump onto the barrel before it reaches Rambi and hold Y until you get to him.

5. When you pass Rambi, press B while still holding Y, which will make you disembark from the steel barrel to mount Rambi. Don’t let go of Y!

6. While still holding Y, have Rambi hit the steel barrel away.

7. Finally, let go of Y, and Rambi should have turned into a metal Donkey Kong! How’s that for smooth?

14. Donkey Kong Country: Ride Metal Donkey Kong

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