Thursday, May 14, 2009


When Naked City's self-titled LP debuted in February of 1989, it brought with it a whole new way of looking at music. Inspired by everything from Napalm Death to John Coltrane with cartoon composer Carl Stalling as the great unifier, what John Zorn and crew brought to the musical table was genre hopping; often, within the same song. Naked City was one minute Ornette Coleman, the next Brutal Truth, and then whatever the hell they felt like. The sound has aptly been compared to a radio on seek; that is, if each station you came upon featured the same band playing something different. It went on to inspire avant rock for years to come; indeed, where would Mike Patton and his associates be without Naked City?

Refrencing Naked City seems like the best way to lead in to ROM CHECK FAIL, a quirky freeware game born out of Tigsource's Video Game Name Generator competition. RCF is almost the literal video game equivalent to Naked City; imagine if someone wrote a program for the Wii that randomly and dynamically switched virtual console games on the fly. One minute you're Link facing off against a horde of Ghombas; the next, you're the ship from Defender versus the Space Invaders in a Pac-Manified version of the first stage from Donkey Kong to the tune of Stage 1 Double Dragon.

Despite the absurd mess that the above makes ROM CHECK FAIL sound like- and in some ways it is- it is a real game with a set, achievable goal. A few things stay the same despite the random changes: each stage has a set geometry that doesn't really change (though its textures do); your goal, whatever you are at any given point, is to destroy all enemies onscreen, whatever they are at any given point. Kill them all, you move on to the next stage (twenty stages in all).

In reality, the game itself is about as simplistic as most of the games that its emulating. The real fun comes from the absurd clash of game mechanics that come from the switches. It's not just sprite changes; both you and the enemies play like they would in their respective games, and that means everything. It adds a whole new layer as far as attention goes: since each "phase" of the game lasts for something like ten seconds, your position becomes a thing to look after. For example, if you have a line of floating asteroids right above you that suddenly become solid, gravity bound Ghombas and drop, you're screwed. And then you have Pac-Man, a character that starts running in whatever direction you were previously pointed towards as soon as the switch occurs, which gave me more than a few instant deaths. Luckily, that's not impossible to master. As you play, you pretty quickly get a feel for how long each segment lasts, and the game does give you fair warning in that the screen and sound glitch a few seconds before.

And then there's the game's replay factor. I'm honestly hyper-skeptical of most claims that "no two play-throughs in X game (*COUGHLEFT4DEADCOUGH*) are the same!", but this game is the most literal interpretation of that idea that I have ever seen. When I say that no two games are the same, I mean the appearance of the stages, the music, the enemies, and hell, even the character you control. ROM CHECK FAIL embraces randomness in almost every aspect of the game, and it's kept me playing through multiple times. Luck plays an important part, too. A stage that might take me several minutes could also be completed in less than a few seconds; it's all based on the luck of the player character/enemy combo draw. Of course, therein lies the games biggest flaw (if you want to call it that): it doesn't even pretend to be a balanced game. Several of the player characters, such as the Spy Hunter car and the Defender ship have ranges limited to 1-2 directions. In the case of the near-useless Space Invaders tank, not only do you get one firing direction, you lose y-axis movement. When your enemies are bubbles or ghosts, you're pretty much finished. It's frustrating, sure. But the game, in general, is definitely on the easy side. You gain extra lives at the drop of a hat, and it's pretty well guaranteed that you'll at least make it to the last few stages on your first try.

With ROM CHECK FAIL, developer Farbs has created a rapid fire nostalgia-fest viewed through the lense of a trigger-happy radio selector. It's equal parts classic arcade, WarioWare, and Naked City. RCF is a game that does John Zorn and Yamatsuka Eye damn proud.


Free download from the offical website
Some Naked City for your listening pleasure:
Speed Freak
Jazz-Snob, Eat Shit!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What I Want from Special Editions

The Criterion Collection is one of best things to come out of the home video industry. Releasing high priced DVDs that often contain veritable gold mines of information about important films (as well as "definitive" versions of the films themselves), Criterion in many ways forms the basis of what I want to see from game publishers in the future. Now that the Special Edition SKU is in full swing (name a big name title coming soon; it has a special edition), I would like to see special editions that are more than just a tin box with a game disc and an action figure inside. I'd like to see a Criterion Collection of gaming.

It's a bit much to ask this of the special edition of, say, Resident Evil 5. The video game industry is tight-lipped, and you wouldn't expect the level of honesty of a Criterion Collection even from a newly-released film. You have to give it some time, of course. Or, in this case, you could just go back in time and, with the unlikely permission of the original publisher, give us the special edition of an important game of the past?

What would you pay for Super Mario Bros. - Criterion Collection? It's easy to imagine the very basic idea of what that could be. A nice package; the original manual; a disc containing the original game and an in-depth documentary on the making of the game. Don't get me wrong; the documentary could be awesome. Video game development was still an untamed land in the early 1980's, and an in-depth story on how one would make a game back then-especially when that game is Super Mario Bros.- would be fascinating.

What I'd really want out of a video game Criteron Collection is something that would work a bit like the albums of unreleased demo's some bands release. Let's take Rhino's colossal 7-disc release of The Stooge's Fun House album. 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions documents every take from the Fun House recording sessions. And they aren't all pretty; there are plenty of false starts and studio dialog in the 142 tracks provided. But the real joy is seeing how one of the most important albums of the 1970's came together. Some songs never made it to the final album (Lost in the Future, Slide). Freak became L.A. Blues, while Loose was originally titled I'm Loose. We get a sense of the atmosphere of the studio through the tracks of studio dialog and get a glimpse at what could have been; a radically slower version of Down on the Street, an obscure single mix of the same track with Don Gallucci pretending to be Ray Manzarek of The Doors. We get to see Iggy Pop slowly putting together the final lyrics with each take.

Perhaps game publishers could take a similar approach with versions of games. Game making is, from my limited knowledge, an iterative process. Ideas are tossed around. Things change. The product that is set out to be made is often times not the product we recieve. Just try searching for beta versions of classic games on Youtube, and you'll find such gems as this SNES Wolfenstein 3D video with it's gore still intact. Or try this Super Mario Bros 2 prototype video. And those are pretty mild examples. What if Super Mario Bros. Criterion Edition contained every playable version of the game? What could we learn about how the game was made, or even video game design as a whole from playing these unreleased versions of one of the most revered titles ever released? I think being told about it could be fascinating, but being shown, or even better, playing these versions would be far more rewarding.

Of course, I wouldn't expect something like this anytime soon. The video game industry is far too tight-lipped for the kind of honesty I'd want out of this; and I don't at all begrudge them for it. But give it a couple decades-and video game's eventual wide recognition as an art form-I think we'll be seeing something very much like this.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

It finally happened

As of Saturday, May 2, 2009, the red ringed tragedy has finally hit home. The three-red-ringed tragedy, specifically. As it turns out, Microsoft's official 360 support page lists four possible combinations of red rings, which in turn point to four separate issues (I guess?) My Xbox fell victim to the big one; the reason for the supposed 30% failure rate among first-gen 360 hardware.

A warning to future red-ring victims: the crash will scare the shit out of you. Mine came as a frozen screeching screen of fucked-up colors while playing Bully. I took it as a sign to quit playing Bully; to be honest, I wasn't complaining. So I gave it twenty minutes, booted the system back up, and went upstairs for a drink. About halfway up the stairs, I hear a sound emanating from my TV that I can only imagine approximates what hell must sound like. The damn thing froze mid boot. I tried it a few more times before getting that final conformation, the red rings of death. Saturday pretty much sucked.

But hey, repairs are free.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Game Log #11

  • Burnout Paradise is a racer with the OCD gamer in mind; or, rather, the Crackdown fan. The idea is thus: combine the basic tenants of the Burnout series with over the top violence (strictly car-on-car in Paradise City) and widespread quick events, which kept Crackdown interesting for a few hours. It's also got the same eaisly-accessed collect-o-mania that kept Crackdown interesting long after that. Paradise succeeds where Crackdown fails in the variety and depth of it's various events. Whereas Crackdown's events where largely beat-the-clock affairs that felt like afterthoughts, Burnout manages to keep throwing in new and exciting things to do, while spacing them out enough so that you never feel you're doing the same thing too much.
  • Dark Sector is the kind of game that I like but know that I'm not going to actually finish within the first hour. It's mechanically sound; in most ways, that is. If you think Gears of War moves and shoots well, you'll agree that Dark Sector does the same. The game's most marketable feature, a remote controllable triple-bladed boomerang called the glaive, has some issues. So far, the unique aspects of the game (some of which are very noteworthy) are often drowned out by paint-by-numbers level design and hideous character designs. I'll try and stick with it as much as I can.