Wednesday, March 3, 2021

A (Not So) Random Update Appears!

No, you're not seeing things. This is a new post. I hope you've all been well since last summer. Much like the Wii U getting its first update in three years recently, I have an update to share as well. 

I usually reserve this website for writing during my time off from teaching during the summer. During the school year, I have found it easier to "microblog" using my Twitter account. It doesn't require as much time as a full blog post here usually demands, and I can do it from pretty much any device. I always considered this site to be more of an extension of my ramblings and video game-related stuff from Twitter. 

I'm thinking about changing that. As much as I love using Twitter, it's not what it used to be. While I won't leave Twitter entirely, I have been considering using my websites more-- even if the posts won't always be "long form" or contain the usual photos or formatting. Since many of my thoughts on gaming tend to be threaded anyway, it makes sense to use this website (and my Retro Referee site) to expand those thoughts instead of tweet threads of 5+. I've oddly felt like basic posts on websites would be wastes of time and wouldn't be up to my usual standards... but I'm rethinking that. 

The Retro Referee site will be where the sports video game stuff will go. (I have a Twitter account for that, too.) This site would be for the more general gaming stuff. Collecting, impressions of retro games (and some Switch games), maybe some reviews, and so on. 

It may take awhile to get going, as free time is more of a premium for me these days and I don't even post on Twitter as often as I used to, but that's what I'm thinking. 

For now, I can tell you that:

-- I moved into a new place last fall
-- I'm serving as a long-term substitute technology teacher until June (Hence the little free time.)
-- I have a Wii U now! (I'll be talking about that for sure.)
-- I'm still making videos once a week over on my YouTube channel

In the meantime, you can visit my Twitter feed and see what else is going on. 

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Coin-Op Time Machine #4: GORF

The year is 1981. I was 9 years old at the time, having just moved back to Western Massachusetts after a brief residence in Norwich, CT. When I visited the Holyoke Mall with my paternal grandmother that summer, there were two Just Fun arcades in the Cafe Square food court. One was a big room, with lots of machines... and the other was considerably smaller, with fewer machines lined up along the walls. Two of the machines had voice synthesis-- Wizard of Wor, and the game featured in this installment of Coin-Op Time Machine. 

It's a game that I dropped many of the limited quarters and tokens I had at the time into. It's a game that I would eventually get to play at will on the home versions for my Commodore VIC-20 and, later, my Commodore 64. It remains one of my favorite arcade games of all time. That game is...

Distributed by Midway in 1981, GORF is a repeating series of five levels as players fight the evil Gorfian Empire as they man ships representing the Interstellar Space Force... and, no, neither Christopher Nolan or Donald Trump had anything to do with the name. After beating all five levels, the player receives a promotion in rank and the levels repeat at a higher difficulty. The game provides an option to play with three lives in reserve for one credit, or six ships in reserve for two credits. Each mode of play has its own high score board-- although no initials can be entered for high scores, which is too bad.

Let's examine each stage:

The first of these stages will look familiar to any arcade veteran. Dubbed Astro Battles, this stage is a wave of enemies from Space Invaders, with a couple of notable differences. For starters, an arcing shield protects the player from incoming missile fire as long as the player's ship isn't shooting back. The player's ship can fire faster than the moving base in Space Invaders, and shots can be cancelled by firing again. Finally, there are several different types of targets that cross the top of the screen and can be shot down for bonus points, including an undeniably cute member of the Gorfian Empire. 

The blue background makes incoming missiles tough to spot. This can lead to some cheap, early lives lost. My strategy here, since I first played the game, is to pick off the enemies as they are dropped into formation. As players reach Space Colonel level and beyond, this strategy is almost mandatory. Formations start out very close to the bottom, so quick reflexes and trigger fingers are needed to clear them out. 

Next up, we have Laser Attack. In this stage, there are two squadrons of enemy ships to pick off, each spearheaded by a laser cannon. Much like Galaxian, the ships attempt to dive bomb the player while the laser cannons jump around the screen and try to shoot the player down. Eliminating the laser cannon causes the remaining ships to continually dive bomb the player until they are shot down. Conversely, if the ships are destroyed before the laser cannons, the cannons gain speed and fire faster. 

This level is pretty simple the first time around, at the Space Cadet level. As ranks increase, however, the ships move faster and are harder for players to dodge. The preferred strategy here is to take the cannons down first, and then destroy the escorts. To be honest, this is my least favorite level in the game. It's easy to make mistakes here, and losing a life or two isn't uncommon. Beginners may wind up losing their extra lives here, and be forced to try and survive through the next three stages without error. It's a weird difficulty spike. 

Galaxians is another level that's going to be familiar, because it's literally Namco's Galaxian. The scoring system varies slightly, and there's a chance that a Gorfian soldier can be shot down as it crosses the top of the screen if it appears, but the core here is exactly the same. What makes this version tricky is that incoming enemy bullets are tiny and not all that easy to see. Enemies also fire a lot of bullets, making it unfairly difficult to dodge everything. As with the original game, try to leave the "boss" Galaxians until they dive out of formation to earn more points for these targets. 

So, you may be asking... how did this game get away with blatantly copying levels from two other arcade games? Midway was the domestic distributor for Space Invaders and for Galaxian in the early 1980s. While Taito and Namco would never allow this today, they let it go back then. When the home versions came out a couple of years later, though, the Galaxians stage was removed... and it wasn't replaced by anything. The only way to play GORF as it was originally released is to play the coin-op version. 

Anyway, moving on...

Space Warp is an interesting level. Enemy ships spiral out, one at a time, from a cluster in the center of a warp hole. Each ship takes a different path; some fly in tighter outward spirals, while others take a more oval-like trajectory. These ships also fire torpedoes with varying speeds at the player, which can be tough to dodge, Additional enemy ships are added after the Space Cadet rank, and their speeds increase. 

There are two ways to approach this level. The first is to stay close to the bottom of the screen and focus on dodging everything. This is an effective strategy if trying to conserve lives, but avoiding ships doesn't add to a player's score. The other way is to move the ship up closer to the center of the screen and shoot down enemies as they emerge and before they can fire. This strategy works best early, but as enemy ships get faster from Space Captain level and beyond, it's also risky. I tend to do the latter, but that's after years of play. 

Finally, we come to the Flag Ship level, which is my favorite in the game. At first glance, it seems easy. It's just the player's ship and the enemy flagship, with its obvious glowing reactor core as a target in the center. Before long, though, the challenge becomes very apparent. For starters, the flagship has a shield that the player must shoot holes in before any missiles can find their targets. Hitting the core isn't easy, and any part of the ship that a missile hits careens back down toward the player. It's deadly if it hits the player. The ship also frequently drops torpedoes down toward the player. From Space Captain level onward, two Gorfian soldiers also appear and drop down toward the player. 

It can be very difficult to keep track of everything here. Falling pieces of the ship are easy to miss at times, and torpedo fire intensifies as the flagship descends toward the player. Cutting through the shield can be annoying, and it's always frustrating to line up the perfect shot... only to have it strike a small piece of the shield that remains. With persistence, skill, and a bit of luck, eventually a missile will find its target. And, when it does... 

Watching the screen flash and then the flagship explode for 10 seconds while seeing the rank rise to the next level is always satisfying. Then the levels start again, with faster enemies, more projectiles, and more ribbing from the Gorfian Emperor. It becomes a battle of endurance, as players must stay focused and avoid mistakes in order to keep playing and compete for a spot on the leaderboard. There isn't an ending here, so good players can shoot for becoming Space Avengers-- the best warriors on all of the Interstellar Space Force. 

GORF still holds up today, nearly 40 years later. Competing for high scores has become a bit of a lost art in modern video gaming, but GORF defiantly dares players to rack up the points. Putting your score up on the leaderboard was a badge of honor back in the 1980s. You never knew when someone better might come around and knock you off... so you dropped another token in and tried to beat your new high score. High score competitions were at the core of arcade culture back then, and I definitely miss it. 

In fact, I miss all of arcade culture. I miss the ambient sounds. I miss watching other players and learning from what they did. I miss the thrill of shooting down another player's score. I miss watching attract screens and perhaps learning a thing or two from them which convinced me to try them. There was rarely any trash talk, and arcade attendants never took kindly to jerks. 

I'll always feel fortunate that I got to be an active part of the Arcade Era. 

Unsealed: Dreamcast Double Feature

This week's Unsealed episode features the opening of two sealed Dreamcast games from 2000: SEGA Marine Fishing and Demolition Racer: No Exit. Check it out, won't you please? 

Monday, June 1, 2020

Retro Referee Review: Greatest Heavyweights

Out of all the different sports that I play video game versions of, boxing is pretty low on my list of preferred ones. Outside of Nintendo's Punch-Out!! series and Midway's Ready 2 Rumble games, I just don't understand the sport or the strategy well enough to appreciate most of games that represent the Sweet Science. There is one, however, that I come back to every so often...

Greatest Heavyweights, developed by Malibu Interactive for the SEGA Sports brand and released for the SEGA Genesis in late 1993 didn't really get my attention until I started building a library of sports games back in 2012. I found the game complete for less than $5, and I liked what I saw on the back of the case. The visuals looked great, and the idea of playing as some of the most well-known pugilists of all time drew me in. It's certainly not another Punch-Out!!, but the pacing is quick and the difficulty curve is just right to draw players of all skill levels in. 

A real boxing match has its peaks and valleys of activity. Boxers aren't just flailing away at each other. There's a strategy involved, targeting different parts of the body while defending against incoming blows. Sometimes fists will fly, other times it's quiet as boxers size each other up or regroup after an exchange. Greatest Heavyweights simulates this well, but moves quicker in pace than reality. There are times when boxers will pull back-- and even taunt each other, with rather foolish schoolyard insults like "Momma's boy!'-- but there are others where punches are fiercely exchanged, making violent contact at times. 

The play controls are pretty easy to learn. There's a button for each fist, and a button for blocking. Pressing a punch button and the block button together will launch an uppercut, which is the most damaging punch in the game... but is easy to see coming and can more easily be blocked. Jabs, hooks, and body blows are all simple to execute, though you don't always seem to get the intended punch. Using the D-pad to determine punch type should be more accurate, but can fail you during heated exchanges. It's not game-breaking, but can be annoying. 

As punches land on a boxer, his energy depletes and his damage meter for either his head or body-- depending on where the punch strikes-- drops. Once a boxer's energy is depleted, a punch that lands will send him down to the canvas. A 10 count ends the fight, of course. Unlike Punch-Out!! or Ready 2 Rumble, however, boxers are scored at the end of each round between 1-10. At the end of the number of set rounds, if a knockout hasn't been registered, the boxer with the highest cumulative score from the judges wins by decision. Knocking an opponent down, landing a high number or percentage of punches thrown, and avoiding getting knocked down during a round will push the player's score higher. If the player is knocked down, mashing the A button repeatedly will restore energy and a prompt to press the C button to get up will flash when energy has been sufficiently restored. If the player has taken too much punishment, though, energy may not come back and the player will be counted out. 

Everything flows well, whether players choose one of the Greatest Heavyweights to carry out a dream match, or if they embark on the game's Career Mode. The Career Mode isn't incredibly deep, but there are choices to be made after each match in terms of regimen to build a boxer's stats in three key areas: power, speed, and stamina. This allows players to create balanced fighters, power punchers, fighters who can withstand lots of physical abuse, or speedy fighters that opponents have a hard time keeping up with. I always build power punchers, which gets me through the first five or six bouts with ease. After that, weaknesses in speed and/or stamina often come back to haunt me as I face a speedy or stout opponent and brute force can't overcome weakness in other areas. 

The game looks and sounds great. The fighters are all well-detailed and animate smoothly. The ring gently swings around-- though the camera keeps the fighters in the middle of the screen-- and the crowd is into what's happening. Uppercuts boom when they land, while hooks and jabs thump. The music is sparse, but does the job in menus and between fights. Notably, Michael "Let's Get Ready to Rumble!" Buffer is the announcer for the game, and his voice samples are clear and strong. During Career Mode, a post-match newspaper page flashes an appropriate personalized headline and takes a picture from the replay of the final knockdown. It's a neat touch. 

Though I do struggle with the game's difficulty before too long, I still find myself coming back to Greatest Heavyweights occasionally, like I have for this piece. I do prefer more arcade-style boxing games, but I think this one straddles a fine line between arcade and simulation to deliver a game that hardcore fans of boxing and more general sports video game players like myself can both enjoy. If you've got a Genesis console at your disposal, grab this one and lace up the gloves.

The Ref's Decision: We have a winner! 

Buyer's Note: As of this writing, PriceCharting currently lists the game at around $9 for a cartridge-only copy and around $17 for a complete-in-box copy. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Unsealed: Chaos May Cry

This week's Unsealed video is up! 

It took longer than I had intended to get to opening Chaos Legion, but I'm glad I did... since I had sold off my other copy earlier this year in anticipation of opening the new one. 

The game for next week's episode is going to be a Twitter's Choice situation. I'll narrow my selections down to four games, and then Twitter will decide which one gets opened. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Coin-Op Time Machine #3: Champion Baseball

Summer is almost here, and my thoughts this time of year often go back to one of my least favorite activities that I was forced to endure as a child: camping. You see... I'm not the outdoorsy type, and yet my mom's parents were in the Boy and Girl Scouts, and my mom followed suit in the whole camping thing. Me? Back in the 1980s, I wanted to stay home, watch MTV, maybe play some Commodore 64 games, and leave the bees, bugs, and dirt for someone else.

And yet... most weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day-- and sometimes during the week-- my mom loaded myself, my siblings, and essentials into the car for a trip to rural Whately, Massachusetts.

That's where White Birch Campground was (and still is). My maternal grandparents had a seasonal site there every year until they died, complete with a camper for them... and a musty old tent for us. Lovely.

It was somewhat easier to handle as a young kid. It got harder as a middle school kid and a high school student. None of my classmates came here. I sure wasn't bringing a computer, and my mom frowned on my taking electronic games on the trip. The pool there was fine in small doses, though I got an ear infection after swimming in it during the summer of 1985, which caused my ear to bleed. The pavilion sometimes had a makeshift DJ on Saturday nights, but there wasn't much music that I wanted to hear playing.

Of course, it wasn't the campground's fault that I didn't like camping. The staff was nice enough when I was there. They called me by name, and often chatted me up if they drove by on their golf carts. I generally saw them in the rec hall. The rec hall sold candy (and other, more essential goods), plus it had some soccer balls and lawn darts for us to take out and try to pass the time. It was a place to hang out when it was raining or when it was a little too hot in the sunlight.

I loved the rec hall because it also had arcade games inside. They weren't top of the line, mind you. The Missile Command cabinet had exposed metal that would sometimes give you a little shock if you leaned on it the right way. The Aquarius pinball machine had carbon buildup on the table, slightly blackening the colorful playfield under the glass. Battlezone was okay, but I stunk at it and rarely wanted to waste one of the precious quarters that I had to continually beg my mom or her parents to give me on it. Galaga was there, too, but I never appreciated the game back then like I do now as an old man. Mr. Do's Castle was a cool game, and I had rarely seen it in arcades. I liked watching others play it more than playing it myself.

There was one game that always got at least one quarter from me, even though it was set up to steal your money quickly. It's a game that, even more than 35 years later, I still can't play very well. It's a game that helped to fuel my early interest in sports video games.

Champion Baseball commanded my attention the first time I saw it... or, rather, I heard it. The game has speech, notably umpire calls that are clear and authoritative. I watched someone else play it first, taking turns between batting and pitching, trying to outscore the CPU or at least keep the game tied after the bottom of each inning. If the computer opponent takes the lead before the third out in the bottom of an inning, the game is over. It is possible for the game to end before a full inning is played, by the way. Losing a credit in less than three minutes was frustrating.

Let's back up for a bit and talk about how the game is played. After inserting a quarter and pressing START, a Team Select screen appears. Each team is loosely based on Major League Baseball counterparts, but with generic city names, player names, and stats. While there may be better teams to select than others, it becomes quickly apparent that the earned run average stats are only there for show. Pitchers with ERAs under 2.50 should not get knocked around after a third of an inning, but it often happens here.

Once a team is selected, the computer picks an opposing team and takes the field. Having the first at-bats of the game allows players to perhaps build a lead out of the gate and provide a cushion for their hapless pitchers later. The pitcher versus batter showdown plays out in a vertical window on the left side of the screen. The rest of the screen shows the fielder and any baserunners. Stealing is an option after getting on base, but computer-controlled catchers are extremely accurate-- so it's critical to steal only once in a while. Pitches move down toward the batter, and can be curved left and right. It's a weird top-down but level perspective, but it works. Batting is as simple as timing the swing to make contact and moving the batter left or right to account for the break on certain pitches.

After making contact, some of the game's problems become apparent: the computer-controlled fielders have amazing arms and can sometimes throw out runners at first base after what looked like an easy single. However, for runners that get on base, and for players who become adept at the game's baserunning controls, it's unfortunately possible to goad the rudimentary fielding AI into making boneheaded throws to the wrong bases, thus turning many hits with runners on into RBI opportunities. It's not quite cheating, per se, but it is taking advantage of the computer and thus leading to dozens of runs scored. In this case, it's possible to outslug the computer and win games after a combined 40 or 50 runs.

Any and all runs that the player's offense can score are going to be needed, because the CPU's offense will heat up and plate runs of its own. Pitching is a simple concept, at least. Left and right break can be added to pitches after release, and it's possible (especially early) to paint the corners with just the right amount of curve. CPU batters even strike out in early at-bats against pitchers who change speeds and locations... but this is usually resolved after the first inning or two.

Once batters starting connecting with a player's pitches, the game's automatic fielding often turns defense into a nightmare. Players can only control where to throw the ball to once it's fielded. Defensive positioning is, unfortunately, automatic... and far less than optimal. Fielders take weird angles to ground balls, or they sometimes don't react well to line drives. Fly balls can sometimes take fielders by surprise as they play too shallow, leading to extra bases and/or runs scored against. Fielders cannot dive or make plays against the wall. In short, after players make their pitches, they must rely on the computer to put their fielders in the best positions to make a play.

As with most arcade games from this time period, success in Champion Baseball is measured by a player's point total. Points are accumulated through many actions, including putting the bat on the ball on offense, touching each base as a runner, scoring runs, registering outs on defense, and more. It's possible to get a Top 5 score even if a player only makes it to the second or third innings. It's not quite as satisfying as beating the CPU in a complete nine-inning game, but getting to register your initials for everyone else to see who plays the game afterwards was a nice bonus.

When I think back on Champion Baseball now, it's fair to believe that I dropped well over 100 quarters into the game over the course of about six summers. I made it to the fifth inning once, but that was as far as I ever got. Playing the game recently to get screens for this piece, I was able to get to the third inning a couple of times, but always got beat by an opponent who suddenly knew how and where to hit the ball so my fielders couldn't do much.

When I was a kid and money was tight, I'll admit to getting frustrated at the game a few times-- and I even let out a string of expletives one time that I'm sure the campground manager overheard. Now, though? I'm not bothered by it. Granted, I'm not spending money on the game anymore, but I'm also older and wiser. I'm also cheered by the memories that playing the game brings to the front of my mind. Sure, I hated camping-- and still do-- but that rec hall was my place to get away from getting away from it all... and I'm glad now, years later, that my mom insisted on taking me to White Birch every year. I never would have had these memories, and probably wouldn't have really given Champion Baseball a chance at my local arcade, if not for that place.

The 4-1-1: Unsealed Continues, Twitch Begins, and... a Retirement Ends?

There's been a lot going on outside of the website over the last few months-- aside from that virus thing, of course-- but it's time to catch you up on what's happening. 

For starters, the Unsealed show on YouTube is still continuing... and it's approaching its 150th episode! I've opened up some interesting games, including new copies of Tobal No. 1, Zone of the Enders, NBA JAM: Tournament Edition, and more. The show will complete its third and likely final regular season by the end of the year, but may continue with a few spot episodes if I am able to get more sealed games. It's been a fantastic run, and easily my most consistent project ever. I thank those of you who have been checking out episodes of the show, and hope that you will continue to do so. 

Next up is Twitch. I recently moved over to Twitch from YouTube for PS4 streaming. I primarily run arcade games, with some other retro stuff and a sports game here and there. It's a fun way to share experiences and memories from my younger days and maybe set a few personal bests along the way. I'm working on trying to set a regular schedule of 2-3 streams a week, usually Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights at 11pm Eastern. Drop in and say hello, if you'd like! 

I will also soon be starting a new contributor role for an upcoming video game guidebook. This project will be a lot like the Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the SNES Library project that I worked on, but covering a different console. I'm anticipating that I'll be covering a fair number of sports video games again, but a lot fewer than the 80+ that I reviewed for the last book. I honestly didn't think that I'd be doing this again, but the project manager is hard to say "no" to. Work will begin this summer and last for about a year. Once the book info goes public, I'll talk about it more here. 

Finally, speaking of sports video games... I'm going to try bringing The Retro Referee out of retirement. This time, the project will look a bit different than I originally thought it would, as it will primarily be driven by social media and entries here on this website. I may make a few YouTube videos to go with it, but that's a bit further down the road. Retro sports games are a definite passion of mine, and I've often thought about giving this idea another chance. I think it's time to see how it goes. 

It's good to stay busy, especially with everything in the outside world that's currently going on... and I'm looking forward to doing as much as I can.