Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Coin-Op Time Machine #2: Berzerk



COIN DETECTED IN POCKET.

When nine year-old me first heard that voice while looking around at the arcade machines at a Norwich, Connecticut bowling alley back in 1981, I was freaked out. Who said that, and how did anyone else know that I had two quarters in my pocket? The voice came from an arcade game called Berzerk, and that immediately caught my attention. I needed to play this game-- it talked!

I put my quarter in, and was greeted by a maze-like room with robots in it. They were just kind of standing there, so it was easy to destroy them by firing my laser. It was kind of creepy, though; there was no music-- just the sound of laser fire and exploding robots. Then the voice boomed again:

KILL THE HUMANOID.

It sent a chill down my young spine. It was me or them. I tried to quickly dispatch the robots. It was weird that they were just standing there, but I didn't want to take any chances. As each robot exploded, my score increased by 50 points. Destroying all of the robots gave my score a nice boost, too. After eliminating the last enemy in the room, I left via the right exit. "This is pretty easy," I remember saying to myself.


The next room had a different layout, and the robots were a different color. Unlike the last room, the robots were firing at me this time. Their shots were slow and easily avoidable. One robot shot another in trying to take me down. Two others ran into each other. I was a bit more methodical this time, being careful not to eat a laser beam. With one robot left, that voice sounded an ominous warning:

INTRUDER ALERT! INTRUDER ALERT!

Huh? What was this? Emerging from the left side of the room was this bouncing ball with a smiling face. "Bonus points!" I thought to myself, as I charged at the grinning sphere-- but that was a mistake. Laser fire did nothing as the thing happily bounced toward me. I turned to run, and wound up banging into a wall-- which zapped me dead!

GOT THE HUMANOID! GOT THE INTRUDER!


I made it through another pair of rooms. The robots got faster and more accurate with their gunfire. In trying to zap all of the robots in a room, that bouncing ball would show up and chase me down. It bounced into me and zapped me in one room, taking my last extra life. In the next room, in order to survive, I decided to flee when it appeared. The decision to leave any robots surviving elicited trash talk from the disembodied voice:

CHICKEN! FIGHT LIKE A ROBOT!

I lost my final life in the next room, thanks to not seeing a laser beam shot at me diagonally. I got to put my initials in for a high score, and I became a fan of this game for life thereafter. This never-ending battle for survival against the machines and the creepy voice received more than several of the quarters that I would have during my year or so living in this small Connecticut town. Since the bowling alley was within a short walking distance from where I was living, I would sometimes walk down there and just hang out, hoping to find quarters in the coin return slots or maybe get to watch someone else play the game.


Berzerk, on the surface, is a very simple game with three key objectives: Destroy robots, navigate each room's pseudo-labyrinthine layout, and survive as long as possible. It's got a simple control scheme, too, using just a joystick and a fire button. It's easy to learn, and the gradually-increasing difficulty succeeds at drawing players in with early success...  only to humble and humiliate them before too long. This is, after all, an arcade game-- and the mission of any arcade game is to separate a player from that player's coins. Getting more than 5 minutes out of one credit is a pretty good run. Heck, in revisiting Berzerk for this piece, I was only able to manage 8,000 points twice-- and never scored 10,000. If you get to a room with silver robots (more than a dozen screens in), the laser fire is nearly impossible to avoid because of its speed and frequency. You almost have to anticipate where shots will come from and hope that a few robots off each other to stand a chance.

The game's simple graphics still hold up today, nearly four decades later. The robots change color after each couple of rooms, but the sprite remains the same. There's something about Evil Otto-- the indestructible bouncing ball of death-- mostly because of that unchanging smile as it bounds toward the player. It's just a simple sphere with a smiley face, but Evil Otto is unforgettable once it chases you down. The animation of the player is pretty good, too. All told, that visual simplicity allows Berzerk to be a timeless classic that can be enjoyed by any player of any age, from any generation of video gaming.

The sound-- particularly that robotic voice-- is what makes Berzerk memorable for me. Voice in arcade games around this time always got my attention. Not too far away from the Berzerk machine at this bowling alley was Gorgar, a 1979 pinball machine from Williams that also utilized voice. Across the street from the bowling alley was a diner that had a Vanguard machine, which had some digitized voice included. Wizard of Wor and Gorf are also up there for me when it comes to voice in arcade games. That said, it was that one line about a coin being detected in my pocket that grabbed my attention... and the rest has been history.



Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Coin-Op Time Machine #1: Capcom Bowling


Bowling has been a favorite hobby of mine for decades. One of the coolest non-electronic birthday presents I ever got was a set of plastic bowling pins and a ball for my ninth birthday in 1981. I would bowl along with TV shows like Bowling For Dollars or telecasts of the PBA Tour every Saturday. A few years later, in 1986, I joined a youth candlepin bowling league... then, during my adult life, I began ten-pin bowling in 1993. The ten-pin bowling league was really a front to get into the good graces of my then-girlfriend's parents, who were league bowlers. I even bought a $200 ball, a pair of shoes, and a bowling bag to try and fit in. In time, I learned how to bowl okay, and learned how to "hook"-- or curve-- the ball from right to left like the pros do. I bowled in leagues on and off until 2001; I tried to get back into it last year, but this 47 year-old body isn't built for the rigors of 50-60 hard-cranking throws of a 15-pound ball anymore.

"What's your point?" you're probably asking.

Well, arcade games and bowling alleys go hand in hand. Bowling alleys introduced me to coin-ops that I've forever enjoyed since, like Berzerk, Gorgar pinball, Street Fighter Alpha, and more. One such game is Capcom Bowling, developed by Incredible Technologies and released by Capcom in 1988. Virtual bowling in a bowling alley? It's just crazy enough to work, and I sure dropped a few quarters into that machine either at the bowling alley or in my favorite mall arcade during that time. It's a rather no-frills kind of experience; aside from a high score leaderboard, there's no stat tracking, characters to pick from, or even a bowler displayed on-screen. It's your ball, ten pins, and a wooden lane between them.

To quote the great Al Bundy: STEEEE-RIIKE!
The best part of Capcom Bowling is its simplicity. Using a Trak-Ball controller, players roll the ball toward the pins and aim for the "pocket"-- the space between the front (head) pin and either pin just behind it. Finding the right speed is important, too; launching the ball down the lane doesn't allow the pins to react and often leaves nasty splits. There is an option to hook the ball either slightly or more severely, but I honestly never use it since a straighter trajectory works just as well in most situations. Like real bowling, the biggest challenge is being consistent with your shots every frame. Slightly slower speed or missing the target by even a little bit can mean the difference between a strike and a split. Whatever you do, be sure to watch the hourglass! If time runs out on your turn, it's a foul!

The presentation is laid back and amusing. After most spares or strikes, a short cutscene will play. It's fun to see how many you can watch during a game or two. Cows, kangaroos, animated bowling balls, and more will pop up to compliment your performance. Rolling the ball between pins of a split, much like kicking a football through the uprights, will sometimes trigger a funny field goal scene. Electronic bowling alley scoring these days employs the same kind of fun animations after each frame, so perhaps Capcom Bowling was a bit of a trendsetter!

This is the one cutscene you don't want to see.
Playing the game alone, as I often did (and still do), means a pretty quick experience. Solo games can be completed in just a couple of minutes. It means competing against the leaderboard for the right to enter your initials for other players to see. Adding up to three friends, usually for only a quarter per player, makes the experience a lot more competitive and fun. It's especially fun at a bowling alley or a bar, where you and your friends can just hang out, talk a little playful trash, and have a few drinks (or Pepsis, in my case).

Speaking of drinks, there's an alternate release of this game, called Coors Light Bowling, which came out a year later. Much like Midway's Budweiser-branded Tapper coin-op, Coors Light Bowling is loaded with Coors Light cross-branding in the game's presentation. The cutscenes are different here, with shots of the Coors Light logo or characters from Capcom Bowling holding beer cans instead of bowling pins. Rolling a strike in the 5th frame will earn players a "Beer Frame" cutscene, featuring a mug of (what else?) Coors Light. A few of the cutscenes are a bit more... adult, as well. If you see the bowling pin with the Mary Hart legs, you'll know what I mean. Obviously, this cabinet wasn't found in most arcades; you had to find this one in bowling alleys or bars. If you've played Capcom Bowling, though, you've played Coors Light Bowling.

Strike in the fifth frame! Virtual Coors Light for everyone!
One last note to make here is that Incredible Technologies, the development team behind the game, would quickly go on to make a game called Golden Tee Golf in 1989. You might have heard of that one before. Much like Capcom Bowling, Golden Tee uses the Trak-Ball controller; pull the ball back to set the backswing, then hammer it forward to let it rip. Golden Tee Golf eventually replaced Capcom Bowling at many bowling alleys as the de facto arcade game of choice.

I have a lot of fond memories of Capcom Bowling, and playing it definitely takes back in time. It's not the deepest game, it's not the most fully-featured game, and it's not the hardest game around... but it's what a classic arcade game should be: easy to learn, difficult to master, and fun to play. It makes me long for mall arcades, chicken tenders and Pepsi at the local bowling alley, and the days when I could bowl fifty frames without getting sore knees or other pain.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Video Content Update

It's time for one of those update things, but this won't be a long read.

It's looking like another stretch of hot summer weather that's going to persist most of this week, if not all of it. That means no new videos will be coming, unfortunately. I do have games to open for the Unsealed show, and more stuff to talk about on camera, but that's going to have to wait until this heat and humidity die down long enough to get some video shot.

Since I'm on the subject of videos and the YouTube channel in general, here's a look at what to expect when I can resume filming and uploading:

1. I still have quite a few games to open for future Unsealed episodes, including a pair of sealed games arriving this week. A few of the games that I was intending to open-- the Grand Theft Auto Trilogy, Jackass the Game, and Rumble Roses-- will not be part of the show. As the channel is family-friendly, it doesn't make a lot of sense to open up and talk about M-rated games. I probably have between 10-15 episodes left to make before I run out of games to open, and we'll see where things go from there.

2. New RePete episodes are still planned. These are a little more difficult to make than Unsealed episodes, because it's tough for me to pick just one topic and stick with it. I've thought about doing short oral reviews or memory shares of games, but these would probably fall under a different series name. I'd like to do an episode on strategy guides in the not-so-distant future as well, hopefully during the fall.

3. Live streams on the channel will no longer take place, and I have deleted the archived streams. According to several reliable sources, streaming-- and archived streams-- do serious damage to your channel's visibility and position in the platform's algorithm. Any streams from here on out will take place over on my Twitch channel. I'm not sure how much streaming I'll do in the future, but I'll probably play some here and there.

It makes sense, after thinking about it some, to keep streaming separate from the stuff I do on YouTube. The downside is having to build a Twitch audience, and that streams don't auto-archive there... but I'll figure things out as I go.

Aside from the stream archive deletions, everything else is on hold until Mother Nature cools things off around here. I'm looking forward to getting in front of the camera again then!

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Perspectives: In Defense of the Atari 2600

Cosmic Ark is still one of my favorite 2600 games.
The Atari 2600 came out in 1977. I was all of five years old back then, and didn't play it at that time. I was still fiddling around with the APF TV Fun unit that my dad had brought home a year prior, and honestly... that's probably all that I could've grasped at the time. A dial was enough of a challenge for me, though (according to my mom), I was still good enough to beat my dad pretty consistently. 

My first Atari 2600 experience came in 1980. My mom wound up taking us to live with her parents after my mom could no longer live with my paternal grandparents, who had taken us in just after my mom an dad had split up. I wasn't a fan of this arrangement, but the purchase of an Atari 2600 by my maternal grandparents lessened the blow a bit. This thing was awesome. Combat was a bit simple, but playing Space Invaders without going to an arcade was really cool. Adventure tested my skills and patience as an eight year-old. Bowling was a lot of fun. All told, having video games like these in the house was mind-blowing. 

Yes, that's Donkey Kong. Really. 

"Okay," you're probably thinking, "but what's the point here?"

Perspective. 

I was fortunate enough to be alive when the Atari 2600 was the new thing, the in thing. We only had arcade games to compare the experience to. If you liked video games, as I did, the Atari 2600 was awesome at this time. The games were a mix of arcade-style games, traditional games (like sports or casino games), and experimental games. The arcade games were my favorites. Playing Berzerk at home wasn't that far from playing the coin-op, aside from the missing voices. Frogger was a decent approximation, even if the animation wasn't smooth like the game that I sunk a few quarters into. The experimental stuff, like Pitfall!, was neat to play because there was nothing else like it. Multiple screens and timed gameplay? Wow. 

Berzerk is still a lot of fun, and holds up well on the 2600.

What I find now is that some of today's content creators who cover retro video games tend to take a big ol' dump on the 2600. They wonder what the heck we were thinking back then. They criticize the graphics. They lament the simplicity. They tend to view these games and the platform on the whole through a narrow lens, missing a key layer of understanding... which revolves around comparing the games to what we had at the time. That perspective is important. 

I get that the graphics are simple. I know that the sound effects are limited. I understand that the games aren't that deep. Many games are unbeatable, as they revolve around scoring instead of an end goal. That's how things were. Arcade games were similar. You didn't "beat" Frogger or Gorf. You tested your endurance and skill, shooting for the highest score. There were some games you could beat, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even the unfairly-maligned E.T... but these games are hard to grasp for players who didn't grow up with them. 

So many people give E.T. a bad rap, and unfairly so.

I just played some E.T. prior to writing this. Memory and experience quickly kicked in, and I remembered what I learned when I played it originally. I'll grant that falling into pits is annoying, and happens a bit too much; however, the basics of the game are simple: Find the communicator parts, "phone" home, and wait to be picked up. The instruction manual (Remember those?) told us the "how"s and "why"s. I knew what the arrows and other symbols meant because I took a few moments to read the manual back then. I don't think many people in this day and age give a second thought to looking at an instruction manual, let alone take time to read it. 

I won't argue that the Atari 2600 is the best video game platform ever made. It's not even in my Top Five. As technology improved, so did the home video game experience. Having said that, I can also recognize why the Atari 2600 is so significant. It was the "in thing" for a few years, and that's due in no small part to the fact that it was-- for its time-- an impressive platform with a ton of games that delivered hours of fun to families everywhere. 

You don't have to like the console or its games, but I firmly believe that it deserves some respect and put into a proper perspective. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Unsealed: Junior At Bat

Episode 103 of Unsealed is now live on YouTube, and it features a Super NES game from 1996!


Backstory: I've been wanting to open more 16-bit games on the show, but those are mostly pretty expensive to acquire. I've done a few already that have been reasonable, like Vegas Stakes and On The Ball, but the selection of games without breaking the bank isn't great. I'd been watching this on eBay, and the asking price was less than market value. It also made sense to grab a baseball game, given that we're getting into the later stages of the current season... so I bit.

Other episode notes: It was nice to see the poster that was included, which was a surprise. The box advertised the Griffey collector card, so I knew about that... but the thing about 16-bit games was that they often came with other bonuses. Unfortunately, many people threw the posters (and the game boxes) away. I admit to doing so a few times during that era. I totally regret it now, 25 years later.

On deck: I have more baseball games that I want to get to for the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, as well as a couple of PlayStation golf games that I didn't get around to when doing the Tiger Woods miniseries earlier this year. That said, Episode 104 is not going to be a sports focus. I have a Wii game that I got for cheap recently, and it's one that I've never played... so that's probably next. It'll be a short episode (less than 10 minutes), as I have no experience with the game.

Finally: Video shooting will, unfortunately, continue to be sporadic due to summertime heat and the need for air conditioning. The noise from the air conditioning unit really spoils the audio, so it's a bad idea to record when it's running. I'd like to shoot one more episode this week to make up for it, while the heat is bearable, but that's not a slam dunk as I also would like to do a PlayStation 4 stream sometime this week, too.

Enjoy the new episode!


Sunday, July 21, 2019

Retro Referee: Bad News Baseball (NES)



Bad News Baseball isn't necessarily one of the games that comes to mind when thinking about NES baseball titles. Most players will instinctively think of RBI Baseball, Baseball Stars, or Bases Loaded... but this game absolutely deserves to be added to the conversation when considering some of the best baseball games for the console. It's easy to play, has plenty of replay value, and incorporates Tecmo's then-trademark cutscenes to spice up the experience.

Pitchers can change speeds and add a measure of break, but their skill in these areas is dictated by stats that managers can look at before each game. Some pitchers are fireballers, reaching speeds of over 100mph. Others can curve inside and outside, painting the corners with efficiency. Holding the D-pad up while pitching turns the pitch into a forkball that falls onto the plate and can fool certain hitters. Unfortunately, pitcher stamina is very short. After just a few fastballs or forkballs, pitchers lose a lot of velocity, making their deliveries easier to make contact with. Careful management of pitcher stamina is a requisite, even for teams that hold significant leads.



There's no doubt that offense is the star of the show here. Home runs come in bunches, with teams occasionally stringing together three or four round-trippers in a row. There are some seeing-eye grounders that can take defenses by surprise and speedy runners can sometimes turn these into extra-base hits. Computer-controlled pitchers are often always around the plate, so timing and an aggressive approach are favored over patience and taking pitches.

Fielding is decent. Players must react and move fielders at the ping of the bat, ranging deep on fly balls and ranging left or right depending on the batted ball's flight path. With some practice, fielding becomes fairly reliable; however, errors occur randomly and can sometimes be the difference between a 1-2-3 inning and a crooked number.



Games move at a quick pace, even in blowout situations, and full games can be played in 15-20 minutes. Cutscenes occasionally pop up during close calls on the basepaths, and always play after home runs. There are several different homer scenes, based on situations like solo shots or three-run jacks. They're reminiscent of a Little League game, with lots of team interaction and poking fun at adults-- like sleeping coaches in the dugout. Particularly long drives have a cool outer space scene that's seemingly pulled straight out of Baseball Bugs. These cutscenes add personality to the overall game while not being obtrusive or annoying.

Replay value for solo players revolves around trying to beat each team in the game. Difficulty gradually increases with each successive matchup. Don't expect to blow out later opponents after winning by the 10+ run "mercy rule" early on. Unfortunately, the passwords to resume play are lengthy, and it's recommended that players take snap photos of these if needed instead of writing them down. A battery save would've been really nice here.



The visuals are generally quite good, especially during the cutscenes and the pitcher/batter matchup. Players are nicely detailed and animate well through their swings or pitching motions. When the camera zooms out to a fielding perspective, players all look the same. One unique animation is that, when offensive players are called out, they fall to the ground with stars dancing around their heads. This gets old fast, though. Sound is fueled by catchy theme music for each team and occasional digitized voice calls from the long-eared bunny umpire. It's a decent audio-visual package overall that performs well and doesn't have too many drawbacks.

Bad News Baseball may be lacking features that the more prominent NES baseball games have, but it's not lacking at all in the fun department-- and that's what counts the most. Whether you just fire it up for a quick game or two, or whether you want to see what happens when you beat all of the teams, this game is worthy of a place in your NES library.


Sunday, September 2, 2018

Unsealed: Bitter Rivals

The full Unsealed: Bitter Rivals miniseries is now complete. It's been a fun ride through the final three years of the battle between Madden NFL Football and NFL 2K. Opening the games sure brought back some memories, and I shared some of them in the videos as I went on.

First up is the 2003 sports year, pitting Madden NFL 2003 versus NFL 2K3:



This was, to me, where the rivalry began in earnest. The Dreamcast wasn't involved anymore, and lead development for NFL 2K3 was on the PlayStation 2-- with Xbox and Gamecube ports alongside it. Both Madden and NFL 2K both boasted online play that year, for the first time. While the Xbox was already set up for online play, the PlayStation 2 needed a network adapter, which it had finally gotten. In the presentation department, Al Michaels had stepped into the play-by-play role for Madden that had been occupied for the previous six years by John Madden's broadcast partner, Pat Summerall. NFL 2K3 implemented ESPN network and telecast graphics into the game for the first time. Pre-game, halftime, and weekly wrap-up segments also added to the TV-style presentation, although none of the ESPN personalities appeared. It can be argued that 2K3 brought a few more obvious improvements to the table, but both games were solid.

Next up is the 2004 sports year, where things really heated up:

 

Both Madden NFL 2004 and ESPN NFL Football-- which was basically NFL 2K4-- offered more significant improvements over their predecessors. Madden NFL 2004 marked the debut of Owner Mode, which added a new dimension to the experience. Managing revenue, deciding on variables like ticket and concession prices, winning over fans, and other responsibilities was addicting... and that's on top of general manager duties and controlling the play on the field to win games. Playmaker controls were also new, focusing on the offensive side of the ball. Players were able to adjust run blocking and receiver routes on the fly, if desired. This was a fantastic addition for more serious football fans who understand the intricacies of offense. Finally, the addition of the EA Sports Bio file made it possible to unlock certain things in the game after completing certain objectives or meeting certain criteria.

On the NFL 2K side, ESPN NFL Football added two new modes of play-- First-Person Football and The Crib-- while also further improving its presentation with the debut of Chris Berman in a virtual version of the NFL Countdown set. Berman hosted the pregame and halftime shows, as well as weekly wrap-up show after each week had wrapped up. Berman's delivery is natural and the whole thing felt like you were actually watching ESPN.  New replay and camera angles were also added. As for the modes, First-Person Football is exactly what the title implies. Players see the field through the helmet of a selected player, which is a neat concept but doesn't command attention for long. The Crib allowed players to decorate their own house, complete with new furniture, playable minigames, and unlockable ESPN videos to play on a big-screen TV. Unlocking everything for use in The Crib took a lot of grinding, but because the game is fun, it's worth going back and earning more credits just by playing.

Finally, we come to the biggest rivalry of all... Madden NFL 2005 versus ESPN NFL 2K5:



When players talk about NFL 2K, ESPN NFL 2K5 is the game they're most likely talking about. While the game doesn't have the laundry list of improvements and additions that ESPN NFL Football had, it does refine the entire experience-- and it did so at a crazy price tag. Instead of $50, like most PlayStation 2 games sold for, ESPN NFL 2K5 was a $20 game from the start. This, at the very least, made it easy for Madden stalwarts to at least consider buying NFL 2K5 as well. The price cut came about after SEGA had joined forces with Take-Two, another large publisher who was thriving on sales of its popular Grand Theft Auto series. Take-Two would eventually obtain the rights to the 2K brand, creating a new publishing arm for it and calling it 2K Games.

Unfortunately for NFL 2K fans, the series came to an abrupt end after ESPN NFL 2K5. The NFL decided to grant one exclusive license for any video games, and EA won the bid for that license. While Visual Concepts gave football one last shot with All-Pro Football 2K8, which used former players instead of current ones, it just didn't have the same appeal with fans. EA won the war by stripping the ammunition from its rival, and Take-Two had no choice but to surrender.

Even today, fans of both series still argue back and forth over what they believe to be the best football game around. In at least some respects, EA Tiburon has never caught up to what Visual Concepts achieved with NFL 2K. The presentation values in ESPN NFL Football and ESPN NFL 2K5 continue to be unmatched by any Madden game, past or present. The unique balance between arcade and simulation play on the field that NFL 2K games had still hasn't been duplicated, and the focus on pure simulation for Madden today makes the games tough for more casual players to get into.

It's not that Madden games are bad-- because they aren't-- but there always feels like there's something missing. Maybe that something is competition, but unless the NFL license situation changes... we may never know.