A Brief Chat With Matt Phillips About Tanglewood (Interview)

As long time readers may know, I’m a big fan of learning from the older elements of game development history. So it was a little bit of a pleasure to have a brief chat with one of the creators of Tanglewood, Matt Phillips of Big Evil Corp, to get a glimpse of the kind of things you have to deal with when using a development kit from 1993, on a well known 16-bit system, to make a game in 2018.
TMW: As someone who grew up with older systems, it’s quite nice to see folks still making things for those older systems, what inspired you to go down that route?
 
The kid in me wouldn’t let it go – it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a 9 year old, proud Mega Drive owner. I also had access to a Commodore 64, so I was no stranger to the delights (and frustrations) of programming from an early age, and the dream never faded all the way through to adulthood.
 
TMW: There’s a lot that folks don’t really know about making games for older systems, so I’d like to start by indulging folks’ curiosity on creating a game for an older platform. Knowing that you were going to make Genesis cartridges, what sort of obstacles did you face, in the coding and hardware end?
 
The biggest problem we faced was that none of this old equipment works reliably any more. The devkit is from 1993, and parts fail on a regular basis. It’s quite frustrating when you’ve spent a few hours debugging a problem in the game, only to find out your code wasn’t at fault – it was another problem with the machine! When it works, it works BRILLIANTLY, though. I’ve yet to find a modern alternative that does such a good job.
 
Learning the language was a tough one, since resources for this kind of thing are few and far between these days. Further into development I started finding other 68000 programmers to talk to, and we struggled together to figure out some of the more intricate parts of the Mega Drive, and banded together to figure out optimisation issues.
 
TMW: Similarly, when building a game for an older system, there are limitations. What sort of things did you want to put in, but found wouldn’t really work?
 
The Mega Drive’s Achilles heel is its limited palette – it has 4 palettes of 16 colours, but three of those are reserved for transparency, so only 61 colours can be displayed on screen at any one time. Even worse, there are deeper rules about how those colours can be assigned to pixels, so we had to write a lot of tools to help arrange everything. Thankfully we found the right artists for the job, and they did most of the heavy lifting when it came to arranging colour usage.
 
Another issue is the slow CPU – although it certainly wasn’t at the time, the 68000 was a luxury compared to other consoles. There were a few things I had to cull in order for the game to run smoothly, the one that hurt the most was buoyancy on physics objects. Originally, Fuzzls could float on water, and would have been hilarious, but I had to rip it all out because it was only a gimmick and was very heavy on CPU usage.
 
TMW: Now, one of the hot button issues of the day is the games industry’s preservation (or lack thereof) … What would you, once the game’s reached the end of its sales life, like to do to preserve it for the future?
 
This is something I’ve thought a lot about, and I’d like to be the anti-corporation in all of this and release the game’s source on github on its 1 year anniversary – complete with raw assets. I can’t see sales coming in strong after a year, people would benefit more from studying – and maybe laughing at – the source code.
 
TMW: Well, thank you for talking to us, Matt, and, in conclusion, what sort of advice would you give to aspiring game devs of the future? 
 
Make games. Make a lot of games. Just keep making games. Small games, stupid games, experimental games, ambitious games, games on new platforms, games on obscure platforms, just keep doing it and you’ll end up with such a wide range of skills you’ll be able to walk into any studio. Don’t stick to one genre, engine, tool, or discipline, try it all out.
Tanglewood released on the 14th of August, and you can see my thoughts here.

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Going Back (?) – The 8-Bit Adventure Anthology, Volume 1

Source: Review Copy
Price: £5.79
Where To Get It: Steam

Adventure games have quite the history, and it’s one with a lot of branches, and, interestingly enough, more than a couple of roots. For example, while it’s commonly accepted that CAVE, which was eventually renamed Colossal Cave Adventure, was the progenitor of Interactive Fiction (Due to the fact that anything earlier has been lost to time, it’s intriguing to note the history, as adventure games with graphics cropped up as early as 1980 (With Sierra’s Mystery House), and games with a point and click cursor (Controlled by the keyboard) came around 1983, with Project Mephius for the FM-7, a computer that released only in Japan. Indeed, part of the reason the timeline of game design is so messy is that European, American, and Japanese markets had their own home grown items that none of the others saw (Until later.)

Okay, so I’ve uncovered this… But how the heck do I open this door to the left? HRM.

Why all this preamble? To establish two things. That the adventures comprising this remake anthology are not, strictly speaking, firsts in the genre. Influential games, yes, but not firsts. But also that it’s fascinating to see changes and shifts, not just on the purely international level, but within individual nations. We’ll be briefly coming back to this, but first, the games!

The three games that comprise this trilogy were originally created in the mid 80s (1985-87) for the then humble Apple Macintosh, and, as such, were known as the MacVentures: Deja Vu, a noirish tale about an amnesiac detective down on his luck; Uninvited, a haunted house tale with the main character searching for their younger brother; and Shadowgate, a fantasy yarn that, despite the comparatively higher difficulty of the former two games, has a reputation for its gotchas and deathtraps. They had a graphic user interface, a selectable parser, and an icon based inventory, all of which were not, strictly speaking, new… But they might as well have been to the European and American audiences.

They did pretty well, well enough that a company called KEMCO ported them, with permission, to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989 and 1990. These are the games remade and presented in this anthology, and this, also, is interesting because the UI was changed, a controller led pointer was introduced (as in Project Mephius, several years previously), and Nintendo, a family friendly company even then, asked for… Changes. Some of these changes, I’m sure people are very grateful about: As far as I’m aware, the ten minute timer for one of Deja Vu’s “Solve this or die” puzzles (finding a cure for your amnesia) was gone. Yes, ten real time minutes. The interface was made tighter due to platform limitations, pentagrams were replaced by stars, and crosses by chalices, and, in an odd decision, it’s not the younger brother you save in Uninvited, but an elder sister.

Yep. That is indeed a greenscreen terminal filter. Yessirree.

In any case, that’s where we are today: Reviewing a port of a port of a trio of adventure games from the 80s. How do they hold up? Not that bad, actually! The Nintendo versions were not only notable for their changes, but a solid soundtrack that still holds up to this day, distinctive spritework, and an interface that, thanks to the fact we’re using a mouse rather than the NES controller, is highly accessible and a delight to use. Each could be played through over the course of an afternoon, perhaps less if you follow the ancient adventure game maxim of “Save Early, Save Often” , and only a few of the puzzles don’t have some signposting to their solution (There’s no clue, for example, that a certain ghost is afraid of spiders, sadly.) Be warned, however, that garbage items with no actual use in game abound. Old adventure games loved to do that, partly for realism’s sake (Yes, even then), but also partly to obscure solutions.

Being able to keep saves, and switch between them with relative ease? Oh yes, this is good. Having… Old monitor filters? Well, I guess it’s there? (Not gonna lie, if I wanted more eye strain, I’d just dig out my old BBC Micro and its CRT monitor. But they are nice filters.) And the writing of the games, for the most part, holds up. Deja Vu, being both a game of the 80s, and being inspired by the pulps, is perhaps the one that has aged most poorly, but there’s still some solid design there.

Also, the achievements. Ah ha ha yes, the achievements! It somewhat tickles me that the achievements for this trilogy all have to do with something you would either, unaware of this game from its heyday, stumble into, or, if you’re like me, a person amused by the death states of old videogames, actively seek them out: The deaths. Wait, you mean that lady wasn’t friendly? Gosh! And my shield could only take a few puffs of molten, superheated death spewing from a dragon’s mouth? Golly!

Well, we know we’re a dude. This much, we can be sure of.

As pieces of relatively faithfully preserved games history, this isn’t bad at all, although the “Volume 1” confuses me a little. After all, there were four MacVentures in total, so… Where would you go from here, General Arcade and Abstraction? Although it must be said, this trilogy did seem to inspire a wave of graphical adventure innovation in the West, from the Legend Entertainment games, to the Magnetic Scrolls series, each of which contributed, somewhat, to the eventual rise of the point-and-clicks we know and love today.

So yes, give these a go if you feel like experiencing some relatively solid 80s game design, and perhaps it might inspire you to check out other bits of adventure game history (Or, indeed, some of the other ports existing out there.)

The Mad Welshman enjoys older adventure games. Things tend to happen when he BITE LIP, however. Terrible things.

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Morphblade (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £3.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I could write a single paragraph, and sum up Morphblade’s mechanics and concept. That’s how simple it is. I could sum up how I feel about it in a single sentence, if not the single word “Pleased.” That’s how uncomplicated it is to review. I could write a tiny essay on the tactical complexity the game’s simple rules and simple and easy to identify enemies provides, further fuel for my platform of “All games are made of simple rules, it’s what you do with them that counts.”

All games of Morphblade start something like this. There is, at first, one move.

I am going to do one of those things. Okay, maybe two. But first, I’m going to say it’s a short game where the pleasure is in playing. Unless you’re good, a single game will last all of two to five minutes. And then it will ask you whether you want to play again.

Instead, I’m going to use 264 words (counting this sentence), to ramble briefly about niches, and how “Short” and “Simple” are not dirty words. People seem to have this weird idea in their heads that if they have a short and simple game, they’re going to play it, get bored, and oh gosh, they’ve wasted… What’s currently the equivalent of two, maybe three bottles of Dr. Pepper. Oh no.

See, here’s the thing about short and simple games… Sometimes, you don’t want a long game. Even the people who say they want long games will find themselves, at 5AM (Coincidentally, it is 05:16), unwilling to touch their Torments, or their Age of Wonders. They’ll find themselves not wanting to stress out over their Overwatch rankings, or their Bulletstorm combos, or the inner complexities of a Hearthstone or whatnot. They’ll want something where they know what they’re in for…

As you can plainly see, tiles and enemies have their function explained, and it’s easy to remember (Not pictured: With right click)

…And Morphblade will be waiting for them. Silently, it will be reminding them that all its rules are explained… As you play. That all its symbols are open to it. That it won’t need you to quit in the middle of a game, because the end is always just around the corner. Just a couple of false moves (Rarely one. Usually two. At worst, three), and it’s all over. And it is definitely your fault, but it isn’t a problem. It doesn’t judge. In fact, it wants you to play it, and you can tell because it’s highly accessible, with an easily deciphered and colourblindness friendly palette, simple, easily deciphered shapes. It fits its niche excellently.

I bet a friend a tenner I couldn’t write more than 500 words about Morphblade, but not only am I going to win this bet, I’m going to finish the review by showing you some simple steps as to how to see for yourself how simple, deadly simple, the game is.

First, you look at the top of this review. There’s that price, less than £4. There’s also a Steam Store page link. Go click that. A video will autoplay (Or, if you have autoplay off, you can click play), and Tom Francis of Suspicious Developements will spend less than 3 minutes demonstrating the game (The length, funnily enough, of a normal game)

I can take one hit, so both of these enemy bugs are effectively dead. If one of them had been armoured, I could have run away. PLANNING.

I’ve now won a tenner, and am 6 quid up on my purchase. Which I can then use to buy Morphblade for a friend. Because I’m almost certain, based on play, the game, and Mr. Francis’ explanation of the game, that they will at least like it enough to come back to it.

It won’t mind. How can it, it’s a video game. Video games don’t judge. Only people do. I judged “Yea” on this one. You might too.

…Oh yeah, and a bottle of Dr. Pepper. Truly, I’m blessed.

Inevitably, you die. The only thing the game doesn’t *tell* you is that the turn counter is also the menu button.” Which is a tiny niggle, honestly.

The Mad Welshman smiled. Wave 19 isn’t so bad. We’ll see if we can top 20 later on. Or… Maybe now. Yeah, nothing urgent going on.

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Going Back: Dungeon Hack

Goodness me, that rhymed. Lovely. Well, anyway, once again, it’s time to set the Wayback Machine, and the interesting game for this outing to the groggy times of yore is Dungeon Hack, the only official, licensed Dungeons and Dragons roguelike. Which is highly amusing when you consider how much early roguelikes (And even some modern ones) have been influenced by 2nd Edition DnD.

Dungeon Hack, released just after another title I’ve briefly dealt with, Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, uses an interface very similar to the Eye of the Beholder games. Similar enough, in fact, that I’m halfway convinced it’s the same engine, despite being developed by Dreamforge (Who, like SSI, created strategy and roleplaying titles, and did not survive 2001.) Nonetheless, it’s not the engine, so much as the visual style that impresses. There are several different level themes, all of them have a variety of different locks, tapestries, paintings, and gewgaws, and, if it weren’t for the rest of it, I would say that every run is a refreshing and different experience.

One of something like… An absolutely *silly* number of potential locks.

Unfortunately, I’m not saying that. Every run is, in fact, a tedious nightmare that often ends on dungeon level 2, due to the mechanical aspects of the design. Procedural generation has come a long way since the days of rogue, ADOM, and the like, and Dungeon Hack shows one of the weaknesses of early experiments… It’s predictable, and the difficulty curve is not so much a slope as one of the cyclopean steps of Great Cthulhu’s abode. As is often the case with roguelikes, there is a single, playable character.

But many of the monsters in AD&D are, in fact, balanced around groups taking them on. A perfect example of this is the main monstrous feature of the second dungeon level: The humble Ghoul. The Ghoul is normally a cowardly eater of the dead, picking on things it thinks it can eat, and making corpses when… Well, the corpses it normally feeds on are scarce. To aid it, it has a paralytic venom in its claws and fangs. Now, to be perfectly fair to the developers of Dungeon Hack, unlike in Eye of the Beholder, when your character is paralysed, they can still move (but not attack or use items), whereas if a mass paralyse from a Beholder hit in EoB 1’s later levels, you were pretty much dead.

The problem arises, then, from the fact that it’s corridors… And rooms. And corridors predominate. Corridors in which the other monster type that always inhabits the second level, the Troglodyte (in 2E, a stronger, but less intelligent relative of the lizardman) are very likely to ambush someone who hasn’t cleared the way behind them, and, even then, may get surprised by a respawn. As a Mage, you may just about have fireball at this point (Requiring a rest after every cast to regain it… We’ll come back to resting), as a warrior, you don’t really have any recourse except that old first person RPG technique of the sideways shuffle (Exploiting the AI in… Er… A room… To, er…Well, crap, that sort of invalidates it in a large set of situations, doesn’t it?), and it’s only as a Priest that you get… Turn Undead. Which, on the one hand, you have an infinite supply of. On the other, it’s not guaranteed to work, and you’re not guaranteed to hit on the attack that will break the Ghoul out of its “OhGodsAHolySymbolRunRunRun” mode Turn Undead tends to put it in.

Ghouls. There are many words I have to say about a lone adventurer fighting even small groups of ghouls. The vast majority of it is unprintable, even here.

So yeah, the difficulty’s a little sharp. Adding to this tedium is the predictability of monsters. Yes, you will always encounter Ghouls and Troglodytes on level 2. Just as you will always encounter Goblins and Orcs on level 1, with only the occasional Out of Depth monster to liven things up… Usually in a rather fatal manner.

And then, there are the keys. I mentioned before that there are a variety of different locks, and hoo boy, does the game use as many as it can. Each locked door has a specific key type. I’ve never encountered a situation where the key was behind a door, but each level becomes a case of three things: A sweep and clear, not unlike those annoying missions in Hero Quest and Space Crusade (Remember those?) where the victory condition was “Kill everything”; A hunt for various keys (Ice keys, flower keys, gold keys, chrome keys, platinum keys, bone keys, missing bull horns… The list is quite large); And, another staple of first person games and DnD RPGs of the time, either being a Dwarf, able to sense secret doors, or looking at the map, noticing large empty spaces, and wondering which of the walls you’re going to try and walk into will, in fact, turn out to be illusory.

Fun! It’s interesting to look at a game like this, because it has a lavish (if overacted) introductory cutscene (Involving the sorceress/demigod/secret deity… I forget which… Who sends you on the quest, and Sir Not Appearing In This Game, possibly the biggest, dumbest adventurer I’ve seen since Lands of Lore’s Conrad “The Scones Are Still Intact” McAdventurerson), a lot of thought put into a lot of locks and tapestries and statuary and fun things that mostly don’t have any bearing beyond looking pretty (Which I approve of), and yet… Once you get past that, there’s almost no balance, a steep difficulty spike on the 2nd level, and even less context than Angband or Nethack, relative contemporaries (1990 and 1987-2015.)

…I smell a cutscene, VO so fine!

Would I recommend playing it for enjoyment? Oh, Mystra, no! Would I, however, encourage budding developers to look at it critically? If you’re into procgen, licensed RPGs, and step/tile-based first person RPGs, yes. Because it is, to me, interesting to examine. Even if the examination can be… Rather painful.

I’ll get you, Ghouls. And your little frogs, too…

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On Game Design – Cacklingly Evil Corporations! (CONTENT WARNINGS)

CONTENT WARNING: Cacklingly Evil Corporations do things that would be considered triggering, such as forced impregnation, human experimentation and trafficking, wilful use of deathtraps, and other creepy shit that would horrify normal people and cause them to get locked up.

Playing Stasis (a “dystopian sci-fi horror” adventure game that got no small amount of critical acclaim at the time it came out, and is apparently getting a sequel) has reminded me how much CacklinglyEvilCorps piss me off. Not because they’re so obviously evil. But because they’re stupid, badly written evil. Oh, and let’s not forget, often edgy evil too. Because, y’know, nothing says evil like [insert horrific thing because reasons here]!

We’ll come back to Cayne Corporation, and how thickly that got laid on, in a bit. But first, let’s talk about a pair of supposedly massively evil corps in movies: OCP and Weyland-Yutani. It may shock you to notice, but they’re not actually that evil. Doing bad things, yes. But in a way that makes sense. Let’s start with Weyland Yutani, as they appear in the first three Alien films.

At the beginning, they are just The Corporation. The Company Store. Sure, Ash goes murderous, and you have the directive “Crew Expendable” , but up to that point? We can tell they do mining or extraction of some kind, that they have contracts, and employees, and, at worst, they’re penny pinchers.

And then we come to the second film and… Nobody on the board knows, or claims to know, of any such thing happening. In fact, we get a little nuance, because Van Leeuwen, the CEO, mentions that Wey-Yu has quite a lucrative sideline in… Terraforming planets. Shake-And-Bake colonies. Their colonies are apparently safe enough for families to join up (With, of course, the exception of LV-426 and, y’know, all the other LV numbers that get mentioned in the media of the expanded universe), and, before Carter Burke and the assholes he works for stick their finger in? What we see is normal, everyday frontier town analogies. They do medicine. They technically own the Marine Corp… They have nuance, and are not just black and white.

Two different faces of the same corporation. Nuance!

While we’re on the subject of Carter Burke, his motivation? Profit. As it turns out, Xenomorphs have all sorts of applications, and not just in the CacklinglyEvilCorp section of Wey-Yu that is the Bioeweapons division. Wey-Yu, as a whole, isn’t really the villain, so much as an element of an otherwise normal, if penny pinching and exploitative corporation.

Alien 3, of course, throws large portions of that out the window. We never even see Wey-Yu as an organisation, except, of course, the CacklinglyEvilCorp portion toward the end. Even the folks who attract the Bioweapons crowd by alerting them to Ripley’s presence aren’t doing it because they’re cacklingly evil. They’re doing it because a) They consider Ripley a disruptive influence , and b) There’s a reward.

So… Wey-Yu: Not as cacklingly evil as you’d think. But what about OCP?

OCP are an interesting one, because they’re inept, and that’s where the dystopia comes from. They own the police, and their main reason for RoboCop programmes? Again, penny pinching. Their reason for putting all those dumb rules in RoboCop’s brain? Because what he was doing up to that point was considered Bad PR. Y’know, something an actual company would care about. But it’s not until the series hits its nadir that they relentlessly pursue and antagonise. RoboCops 1 and 2, they are, yes, an Evil Corporation. But they act in a very corporate fashion, which is why the parody works so well with them.

The head of OCP, wondering what the hell his HR department actually *does* all day.

But then we come back to Cayne Corporation. Cayne is one of many CacklinglyEvilCorps, from Armacham to Umbrella, and the main hallmark of the CacklinglyEvilCorp is that there is little, if any nuance. In the case of Cayne Corporation, let’s put together a rough timeline of the Groomlake, the setting of Stasis.

First up, way back when, the Eugenics Wars happened. This was apparently some attempt at creating Post-Humans that went horribly wrong.

Then we get the Groomlake. From the beginning, it’s involved in human trafficking and experimentation, and cloning. The head of the ship, Dr. Malan, seems to think he can do Post-Humans better than whatever idiots tried way back when, and hires as his top research staff some highly questionable folks, including a drug addicted serial killing doctor. Because, y’know, nobody bats an eyelid at such things.

The good doctor then encourages his other staff to do incredibly stupid things, including letting the serial killing doctor indulge his hobby, and mulch the experiments, which then turns into a semi-sentient fungus because reasons. This, in turn, affects the mass cloning (Which is at least partially using Dr. Malan’s hybrid babies, created by forced impregnation), and hydroponics, affecting some bees so one turns into a supermutant. Oh, and experimenting on employees, which often kills them.

He also cures and keeps hold of the protagonists’ daughter, for reasons.

Welp. I’m sure this will turn a profit for the Cayne Corporation, no two ways about it!

Nobody bats an eyelid at Cayne Corporation. Except to send a spy who will hopefully steal Dr. Malan’s research, in the name of profit.

The clones and hybrids start wearing people’s skin and taking their Personal Data Tags (Which are grafted to their spines because reasons), so as to get around the ship to murder people. The fungus starts mind controlling everyone. A nurse realises they’re involved in human trafficking, tries to get a family off ship, and is shot.

Nobody bats an eyelid. Sometime during this, the protagonist’s wife has been put into Dr. Malan’s programme. You remember, the one about trying to breed post humans, forcibly. Because reasons.

John (J) Maracheck, living Aliens reference and punching bag of Stasis, is one of the few survivors, along with Dr. Malan, Te’Ah the corporate spy, and John’s small child, who is still being cared for by Dr. Malan because reasons. After witnessing the after-effects of Dr. Malan’s fuckery, having to do horrifying things, he confronts Dr. Malan. Who then kills the child he’d been taking care of and cured, right in front of her dad, because reasons. Then everyone dies.

How much of this, do you think, could the Cayne Corporation actually call a profit on, even assuming their sole motive is profit? At what point, do you think, did anyone on any corporate board ever think “Yes, this is a good investment, and will surely not be a sinkhole of money and death?”

No, it’s villainy for the sake of villainy, stupidity pretending to be smart, and at least two fridgings because let’s hurt this guy who, against a corporation, probably wouldn’t matter in the god-damn slightest.

Meanwhile, a second game featuring the Cayne Corporation is in the works. I don’t have terribly high hopes, especially after seeing this screenshot.

Ohhh boy. I can’t wait to see how what looks like a neural whip is explained… *sigh*

Yeaaaaaahhhh… Because that makes all the fucking sense. Periodic reminder: The setpieces are in the writing, not the writing being around the setpieces. Forget this, and you have setpieces that end up being “because reasons”, and large swathes of your plot being the same.

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