Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Donkey Kong Anomaly: Anatomy of a Mini-Revival

In 2007, classic arcade gaming was brought to the center stage in a film called The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.  If you're reading this post, I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you're already up to speed on what the film is about, so there is no need to provide a synopsis here. 

Several years after its release, The King of Kong stands as somewhat of a cult-classic in retro-gaming circles, even though it is all but openly acknowledged that the film is more of a loose, fictionalized account of events than it is a bona fide documentary.  It's no secret that creative editing was employed and scenarios were outright fabricated in order to craft a screen-friendly story arc.

It could be argued that the most glaring fabrication is the very premise of the film itself.  It holds that a weird-looking braggart named Billy Mitchell was the official Donkey Kong world champion with a score of 874,300 points, which he supposedly achieved in 1982 at the tender age of 17.  By all accounts this score actually happened, but so did several other scores that were omitted from the movie for the sake of dramatic expediency.      

Billy Mitchell: hot sauce mogul and arcade legend
Onscreen, Mitchell is characterized as part train wreck and part legend; his utterances make you think he's completely nuts, yet his gaming skills are portrayed as untouchable, and he serves as de facto ringleader to a clan of sycophantic arcade weirdos who have never so much as touched a boob in their lives (not consensually, anyway).

I've no doubt that Mitchell is idolized by undersexed middle-aged men who peg their self-worth to their high score on Dig Dug, but the part about his Donkey Kong record remaining intact for over two solid decades is simply not true.   

This guy's license plate says "LADYKLLR".
The official Twin Galaxies Donkey Kong world record actually changed hands in the year 2000 to a fellow named Tim Sczerby, who squeaked past Mitchell's 1982 mark with a score of 879,200.  Not to be outdone, Mitchell later surpassed Sczerby with a score of 933,900, which he achieved live at a Milwaukee gaming convention in May 2004. 

Both of these scores were officially acknowledged by Twin Galaxies, both of them occurred before The King of Kong, and both of them are ignored in the film's narrative. 

To muddy the waters even further, Steve Wiebe himself submitted no fewer than four videotaped scores in 2003-2004, all of which, if taken at face value, would have been new world records.  Much to the chagrin of Wiebe, forensic scrutiny of these submissions uncovered various procedural missteps, including Wiebe's use of a so-called "double Donkey Kong" machine that plays both Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong.  A judgment was reached by Twin Galaxies officials to reject the scores, but word of Wiebe's exploits had already hit the streets, and there is evidence that the rejection ruling might not have been made abundantly clear to the community. 

The rejection of these scores is painted as somewhat of a scandal in the movie, with the unmistakable message being that Wiebe was unfairly thwarted at every turn by Twin Galaxies politics and corrupt officials keen to keep Billy Mitchell on top.  While it's no secret that the classic arcade gaming scene is somewhat of a cliquey good-old-boys club in which top-performing newcomers are greeted with standoffish reluctance, I'd stop short of calling shenanigans on the decision to reject the scores.  After all, nobody had any way of knowing if this Wiebe guy was a man of integrity, and besides that, rules are rules. 

Regardless, one thing is obvious: the official world record that existed during the timeframe depicted in The King of Kong was not Mitchell's mythical 1982 score as claimed in the movie. 

Liberal usage of creative license notwithstanding, The King of Kong is still a compelling work by any standard, deftly squeezing entertainment value from the time-honored paradigm of humble underdog protagonist versus detestable villain.  Any child of the 80's who cheered when the vile bully Johnny received his comeuppance at the hands of Daniel-san in the original Karate Kid knows exactly what I'm talking about. 

It would be an understatement to say that The King of Kong has kicked up some dust since its release, not only in the realm of competitive classic arcade gaming, but retro gaming in general.  Through my participation in the online community over the last few years, I've lost count of the number of times I've encountered somebody citing The King of Kong as the impetus behind their current interest in old video games—be it a nostalgic rediscovery of an old passion, or a new fascination altogether. 

Looking at Donkey Kong specifically, the official scoreboard has exploded, with nearly the top 20 (!!) scores being achieved in the time since the release of the film.  As of this writing, there have been two live "Kong Off" tournaments, and there is a third in the works.  At these events, groups of the world's top players gather at real arcades over a weekend to compete side by side on rows of painstakingly restored Kong machines.  Not surprisingly, Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell are greeted with somewhat of a red carpet welcome at these events, even though they're slowly but surely getting crowded out of the top ranks by finely-tuned, MAME-trained Kong-bots who are hungry for a piece of whatever extant glory remains to be won in the world of Donkey Kong.  

Billy Mitchell at a Kong Off event

The fight for the throne can't go on forever, though, as the game has a killscreen, and therefore a theoretical score cap.  Opinions vary slightly on what should be considered the maximum humanly obtainable Donkey Kong score, but the general consensus is that we're almost there, inching ever closer with each incremental improvement. 

Just as we tend to discard a peanut butter jar the moment it becomes impractical to scrape the last remaining traces of good stuff from its inner walls, the day is fast approaching when the jar of remaining points to be found in Donkey Kong will be deemed effectively empty.  When that happens, gamers will hang up their Jumpman hats en masse, and the sun will set once and for all on a final champion who will fade into obscurity along with the culture that spawned him. 

This leads us to a pertinent philosophical question: can the phenomenon be repeated?  Will some other old game follow in the footsteps of Donkey Kong and go on to foster some modicum of classic arcade enthusiasm in the general populace, beyond the boundaries of disparate cliques and back alley internet forums?

I hope I'm wrong, but unfortunately, I don't see it happening.       

First of all, there's the movie factor.  The role played by The King of Kong in spurring the arcade mini-revival simply cannot be overstated, and it's doubtful that it can be repeated.  Not only is the film entertaining, but it was released at just the right time to tap into the vast wells of pent-up nostalgia that had been quietly brewing within the children of the arcade generation, whether they realized it or not.  It provided a glimpse of long-lost childhood bliss; a world devoid of mortgages, jobs, divorces, and responsibilities.  For a fleeting moment, the adjudication of arcade scores seemed so much more important than the economy or politics.  It was a welcome escape, and many sought to prolong the high by loading up their iPods with power ballads and dropping their quarters into arcade machines for the first time in decades.

We can't give all of the credit to the movie, though.  A great classic game was needed to provide an arena for the heated competition, and it's hard to fathom a classic game better suited to this task than Donkey Kong.  Lest you think that's a lofty claim, here are the reasons I believe it to be true:

  • The game provides variety by means of four different screens, each of which has its own strategies, tricks, challenges, and pitfalls.  Many games from the classic era are single-screen affairs, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the variety helps.  
  • The game is pseudo-random, meaning success comes down to skill rather than memorization of patterns, as in Pac-Man (for example)
  • The game is limited in duration by the killscreen, meaning that record attempts can be made in a few hours, rather than days like in Q*Bert and Nibbler.  This also makes the game better suited for head-to-head events like the Kong Off. 
  • Some might disagree on this point, but I feel the game is well balanced with respect to difficulty, in that practice is rewarded with gradual score improvements.  This makes the game inviting to a wide range of participants.
  • I don't care about this point personally, but there's no denying that the game has some serious name recognition working in its favour.  Mario is the most recognizable video game mascot of all time, and Donkey Kong is where he got his start.  This fact helps with the visibility of the game and increases the number of people who are likely to pay attention.            

Realistically, we probably won't see something like the Donkey Kong anomaly ever again.  There have been other video game documentaries made, and other world records fought over, but none have managed to make a splash comparable to what we saw with Donkey Kong. 

Classic arcade gaming is a niche hobby today, and it will only become more and more obscure as time goes on.  But you know what?  So long as I have a means of playing the games I want to play, I'm perfectly fine with that. 

I'm just glad that I managed to touch my first boob before I became a weirdo. 

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Five *more* MAME Titles That Even Your Buddy's Bitchy Girlfriend Can Enjoy

Several people who have read my article entitled “Five MAME Titles That Even Your Buddy’s Bitchy Girlfriend Can Enjoy” have lamented the fact that all of the games in that article require a trackball to be played properly.  Since the trackball is a specialty controller that not everybody has in their drawer or on their MAME cabinet, I decided to revisit this subject and do a write-up on games that can be played with joysticks and buttons. 

The criteria are essentially the same as last time.  I won’t repeat the whole spiel here, but all you really need to know is that we’re looking for games with inviting walk-up appeal that will improve your chances of getting the non-gamers in your midst engaged in the geekery of your social gathering that just turned into an arcade party.   

Before we get down to business, some preface items:

  • In selecting games for this list, I intentionally avoided the obvious.  I mean, do you really need me to tell you that Ms. Pac-Man and Tetris have widespread appeal?  No, you don’t. 
  • Most of the games I’m going to talk about are completely new to me; I only discovered them because I was researching this topic.  Ultimately, I chose the ones that I felt were the most accessible and instantly engaging. 
  • There are thousands of games available in MAME, so despite the fair amount of time I spent on this, there is a good chance I’m missing some titles that would be better for this list.  If you know any, please feel free to educate me.
  • After conducting my research, I’m more convinced than ever that the trackball games I talked about last time are the best choices when you’re looking for lowest-common-denominator appeal in the MAME catalog.

Alright gamers, let’s have a look, shall we?  These titles are in no particular order. 

Trog (Midway, 1991)

Trog may very well be the last of the great Pac-Man clones to hit the arcades.  Released more than a decade after the revolutionary dot-munching game, this title has players controlling claymation-style dinosaurs around mazes gathering eggs and avoiding hungry one-eyed trogs.  There are various power-ups available, the best of which is a pineapple that temporarily turns your cute little dino into a vicious Tyrannosaurus Rex capable of eating the trogs—a very satisfying arcade experience.  This title has a bit of an interesting history; apparently it was originally intended to be some sort of slower-paced strategy type game, but that prototype did very poorly in location testing.   Having already invested shit-heaps of money into the development of the then-advanced character animations and graphics, Midway set out to reuse that code in a different type of game, ultimately settling on a Pac-Man style maze game.  Somehow, despite what must have been a rush job, it manages to work, because this is a very entertaining and highly recommended title for up to 4 simultaneous players.   

Puyo Puyo (Sega, 1992)

In reading the name, it probably doesn’t shock you to learn that Puyo Puyo is of Japanese origin.  If you’re a word-nerd like me, it might interest you to know that the name is actually an onomatopoeia, but I digress.  The game was originally released on Japanese home consoles—including the venerable Nintendo Famicom—but it didn’t really make any waves until it became an arcade game.  It plays a bit like Dr. Mario in that your objective is to rotate falling bunches of colored globs in an attempt to group like colors together and make them disappear.   Skillful glob-grouping will cause grey globs to rain down on your opponent’s side of the screen, making a mess of his shit.  I realize how generic this sounds but I was instantly reeled in by the addictive and easy-to-understand gameplay. 

Diver Boy (Electronic Devices, 1992)

In Diver Boy, the playfield is an underwater scene and your job is to dive down from the surface to collect treasures while avoiding deadly sea creatures.  When you press your button to dive, your character will descend until he meets an obstacle, then head back up toward the surface.  You can move left and right during the dive to dodge enemies and collect treasures, but once you start a dive, you have to let it run its course.  When I first tried this one, the play mechanics reminded me of crappy smartphone pseudo-videogames like Jetpack Joyride, but I rather enjoyed it nonetheless.  Think of it this way: if you want to connect with your buddy’s bitchy girlfriend over videogames, then those resembling shitty iPhone apps are probably a great place to start.  Two-player simultaneous action is possible, so credit up and show her how it’s done. 

Puzz Loop (Mitchell, 1998)

Speaking of casual touch-screen games, if you’ve ever played Zuma on your iPhone then you’ll immediately notice it owes a thing or two to Puzz Loop.  One or two players shoot colored marbles at chains of marbles that are gradually working their way to the center of a spiral.  Connecting three marbles of the same color makes them disappear, and levels are cleared if all marbles are eliminated before they reach the center.  Not a terribly earth-shattering concept, but I found this one fun and instantly addictive.             

Block Hole (Konami, 1989)

Relax, this game has nothing to do with kinky sex toys.  Here, the usual coloured balls are eschewed in favour of blocks, making this puzzler feel almost like a mash-up of Tetris and Bust-a-Move.  For some reason known only to the programmer, the game is arbitrarily skinned with a “ship in outer space” theme, requiring you to shoot at patterns of blocks descending from above.  Your bullets attach themselves to the array of shapes approaching you, allowing you to build new shapes.  Building rectangles causes them to disappear.  Bigger rectangles bring bigger points, but they also take more time, which makes for a frantic risk vs. reward play mechanic.  Block Hole is a surprisingly enjoyable game despite the unfortunate double entendre contained in its moniker. 

Honourable Mentions

Snow Bros. – Nick & Tom (Toaplan, 1990).  This single-screen platform game features cutesy graphics and 2-player action that has a lot in common with overrated snore-fest Bubble Bobble, the main difference being it isn’t shitty.  Rather than blow bubbles at enemies, players throw snow.  Different power-ups allow for enhanced abilities and the scoring system welcomes strategy in order to coax out the biggest bonuses.

Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo (Capcom, 1996).  I’m not sure what’s more weird—the fact that Capcom thought it was a good idea to use their juggernaut Street Fighter IP for a puzzle game, or the fact that the game is actually pretty fun.  You select your favourite Street Fighter character, stand toe-to-toe with your opponent in the center of the screen, and, naturally, start playing a falling-block puzzle game.  You lay the beats to your opponent by creating combos in the puzzle of different colours and sizes.  Obviously, this game is much more fun when played by two human players rather than against the machine.  The only reason I didn’t include this title in the main list is because I thought the weird concept might be a bit off-putting to those knee-jerk A.D.D. complainer types not willing to give things a chance.

No, I don't get it.  WTF?

Liquid Kids (Taito, 1990).  This title is basically Bubble Bobble converted from a single-screen platformer to a side-scrolling one.  The graphics are rendered in a lovely-if-not-so-masculine art style and the game is reasonably fun.  I had a buddy drop by while I was playing this game and he called me a “fag”, but he’s narrow-minded like that.  I don’t think Liquid Kids is fit for the main list because, well, let’s just say that the cutesy audiovisuals serve to belie typical arcade credit-munching difficulty.

Dishonourable Mentions

If you try all of the games I’ve talked about here and your buddy’s girlfriend is still wrinkling her nose, claiming to have a “migraine headache”, and wanting to leave your party before the street lights even come on so she can go home and change her tampon, it might be time to give up on the entertainment value of MAME, and start trying to use it to piss her off even more than she already is.  Here are some games that are sure to help you do that.

Super Zaxxon (Sega, 1982).  If this game’s geeky-sounding name and 80’s sci-fi nerd appeal don’t get the job done, then the ridiculous difficulty will.  Credit up, stand Ms. Pouty in front of the cabinet, and revel in the shortest-lived credit you’ve ever witnessed, as the game thoroughly wastes her cranky ass over the next 7 seconds or so.  Bonus points for filming the action, posting it to YouTube, and sending me the link. 


Pipi & Bibis (Toaplan, 1991).  In this single-screen platformer, you move your spy character to different floors of buildings to activate bombs and escape before time runs out.  Inexplicably, though, clearing levels brings you to still “cut scenes” that feature increasingly revealing depictions of nude cartoon women.  Yeah, it was a WTF moment for me as well.  In this sense the game works as the ultimate bait-and-switch; Ms. Pouty might actually get reeled in by the simple and fun gameplay, only to be sent to the zenith of her bitchiness by means of incongruous encounters with pixelated nipples and muffs.  Sure to be comic gold. 

The game itself is actually rather fun, but...

... seriously, anybody who gets turned on by this needs help.

Pit-Fighter (Atari Games, 1990).  If you want to find elements that are stereotypically unappealing to high-maintenance females and combine them into a single harmonious symphony of boneheaded dude-ness, then Pit-Fighter is just the perfect storm you’re looking for.  Not only that, but whereas Zaxxon and Pipi are actually cool and fun arcade titles, Pit-Fighter is complete dogshit even to most guys who actually like videogames.  The game features an ambitious proto-Mortal-Kombat graphical style—preceding that mega-hit by 2 full years—but most seem to agree that Atari Games was unable to pull it off in 1990.  So credit up, invite Ms. Pouty to the player 2 controls, and give her a shoddily animated roundhouse kick to the yap.           
Wipe the drool from your chin and credit up.  Grrrr!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Five MAME Titles Even Your Buddy's Bitchy Girlfriend Can Enjoy

Even as a full-grown man with real world worries and responsibilities, I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoy spending time with decades-old video games that have me doing such ridiculous things as taking the role of a little red penguin who throws big ice cubes at bouncy, life-sized skittles capable of smashing through stuff with their hands.  I mean, to me, that description has “kick-ass fuckin’ time” written all over it, but I completely understand how others might not get it. 

Still, whenever there is a social gathering at my house, the MAME cabinet gets a ton of use.  It really is nice to see others enjoy themselves using something I spent so much time building.  The problem is, most of the games are better suited to evenings home alone because they consume the player’s undivided attention and exclude everybody else in the room. 

There are games in the MAME library, however, that I have found actually fit well in social settings.  For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to such games as “party games”.  From what I’ve observed over the last year or so, party games seem to have the following general characteristics: 
  • They allow for more than 2 players to participate
  • The objective or goal is plainly obvious
  • There are no “lives” to lose, and therefore no means to get instantly discouraged by the coin-grubbing difficulty arcade games are infamous for   
  • They use trackball controls   

I think the first three of these characteristics are logical, while the last one is just as much a coincidence as anything. 

The nice thing about games that meet these criteria is that they invite complete non-gamers into the fray, which is important for any party game.

So let’s get down to it.  These games are listed in no particular order.    

Shuuz (Atari Games, 1990)

The unfortunate spelling of the name notwithstanding, Shuuz is a very cool horseshoes game for up to 4 players.  The game’s characters are all caricatures of hillbillies, complete with southern accents as they utter such things as “Bah, fiddlesticks!” 

The graphics are fairly low-res by modern standards but they’re colorful and effective.  The best thing about Shuuz is its control scheme; you first use the trackball to position your player left to right, then press the button to fix your location.  Gradually rolling the trackball backward sets your “arc”, as indicated by a meter on the right side of the screen.  When you’re ready to make your toss, you simply roll forward on the trackball.  The length and straightness of your throw is dependent on this final forward roll.  This design provides a very intuitive flow to the game that is easy to learn and no more or less complex than it needs to be.    


World Class Bowling (Incredible Technologies, 1995)

If you’re like me and have no interest whatsoever in flailing your arms around like a Wii-tard when playing video games, then World Class Bowling is a great old-school alternative.  Up to 4 players can get in on the action and the game is dead simple to learn.  You simply roll the trackball left and right to select your starting position, then give the trackball a spirited forward spin to make your throw.  You can apply a “curve” to your ball by setting an incremental hook meter prior to making your shot. 

In the realm of arcade bowlers, this game kind of bridges the gap between the more primitive overhead games like Capcom Bowling and the popular modern simulation known as Silver Strike Bowling.  You won’t get the realistic physics in World Class that you get in Silver Strike, but the latter is not available in MAME, which makes World Class the next best thing.       


Shuffleshot (Incredible Technologies, 1997)

Shuffleshot is an arcade interpretation of shuffle board in which 1-4 players slide their colored pucks down a long table in an attempt to score as many points as possible.  The control scheme is virtually identical to World Class Bowling, but rather than a curve meter, you have the option to select the “slickness” of the table which affects how far your puck will travel.  It does take a fair bit of practice to get the hang of this one, because too soft a roll will land your puck in no-man’s-land out in front of the target(s), and too hard a roll will land your puck in the gutter at the end of the table. 

There are 4 table designs to choose from, but the core objective is essentially the same in all of them: get your pucks as close as possible to the highest scoring zones.  Since players alternate turns, you also have the option of taking aim at your opponents’ pucks in an attempt to knock them off the table, which brings an element of strategy to the game.    


Golden Tee (Incredible Technologies, several versions existing)

Of all the games on this list, I’m guessing that Golden Tee is probably the most widely known.  There were several versions of this game released throughout the 90’s and into the new millennium, many of which are available in MAME.  As for which version to play, take your pick; unless you’re a connoisseur of the game you’ll be hard-pressed to see any big differences between the different versions. 

In Golden Tee, 1-4 players take to the links for a contest of skill.  The game can be scored by either strokes or skins, and there are a few different courses to choose from.  The trackball controls are fairly intuitive; you select your club by rolling side to side, take your back swing by rolling the ball backward, and shoot by rolling forward.  Experienced players can apply more advanced techniques like hooking shots by rolling at different angles on the back and forward swings.  This game is a great middle ground between realism and arcade-style fun; it’s not a “simulator” like some modern console golf games, but at the same time, it’s not Lee Trevino’s Fighting Golf either.    


Simpsons Bowling (Konami, 2000)   

Simpsons Bowling is a different take on the arcade bowler that employs a completely different control scheme than most others in the genre.  Up to 4 players can get in on the action in the likeness of their favorite Simpsons character, each of which has different strengths and weaknesses. 

To throw your ball down the alley, this game doesn’t use a simple move-side-to-side-then-roll-forward mechanic, but rather, one that consists of a series of steps.  First, you roll the trackball side to side to set how much curve you want on your shot, as denoted by a bending red line on the alley.  Next, you set your left-to-right standing position.  Pressing the button fixes your location, and pressing it again starts your character walking up the approach.  You have to keep your eye on a meter in the upper left of the screen, and quickly roll forward on the trackball when the meter is in the sweet spot.  It’s an interesting design, but might have a bit more of a learning curve than World Class Bowling for non-gamers. 

In addition to a more recent version of MAME and the correct CHD files, Simpsons Bowling will require a beefier PC than most classic games do in order to run at full speed. 


The Also-rans…

Here are some other games that logically fall into a similar walk-up-and-play category as the ones listed above, but I feel are not quite up to the same standard in terms of entertainment value. 

Honorable Mention: Shoot the Bull (Bally Midway, 1985)

Shoot the Bull is a very primitive looking take on the game of darts.  The control scheme is interesting; you don’t “aim” your dart before taking your shot, you simply roll the trackball at the desired angle with the desired speed and your dart emerges from the bottom of the screen and slowly travels to the board, giving you a second or two to cross your fingers and hope you hit your mark.  As you can imagine, this requires precision in rolling the trackball in order to hit what you’re trying to hit, which makes this game worth a look despite its basic visual presentation. 



Dishonorable Mention: AmeriDarts (Ameri, 1989)

Another darts title, I don’t enjoy this one as much as Shoot the Bull, despite the fact that it has a bit more of a modern look to it.  You roll the trackball around to aim the tip of your dart at a spot on the board, fix the location by hitting the button, then roll forward on the trackball to shoot.  This sounds like it would be the ideal control scheme for a darts game, but I just don’t care for Ameridarts.  I struggle to put my finger on exactly what is missing; I think part of it is the fact that the darts travel to the board quickly so you don’t have that “anticipation” factor that you get in Shoot the Bull while waiting to see where your shot lands. 


The Stinkeroony Award: American Horseshoes (Taito, 1990)

Maybe I just need to practice this game more, but I think it blows.  At first glance it looks like it has potential, but I find the “work flow” of the controls disjointed and annoying.  You set your throw angle and hook by means of button-activated submenus, then wheel the trackball forward to make your toss.  I don’t know what I’m doing wrong but I just can’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn in this game.  Rest assured that if I want to fire up a horseshoes game for my guests, it’s going to be Shuuz every time. 

Artist's rendition of American Horseshoes