Is it just me? Pixel art vs. modern graphics

Given that I run a retro gaming blog, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that I like old games. Occasionally, I try to work out exactly what is that I find so appealing about them that I’d rather play a 30 year old game than a more modern one.

There are lots of things that appeal, but one of them is the artwork. You might think I’m insane, preferring the block, limited palette graphics of older games to the photorealistic graphics of modern consoles, but there is just something about pixel art that I find appealing. Indeed, it’s no co-incidence that my interest in modern gaming started to diminish around the time that sprites and pixel art were making way for polygons and 3D images.

I’m not trying to claim that all 80s games were works of art. Before the days of the dedicated graphic artist, there were plenty of games with some pretty basic/dodgy graphics. However, when you got to see the output of a truly talented artist, the results could be jaw-dropping. As the 8 and 16 bit eras progressed, so programmers and artists became ever more proficient in squeezing the last ounce of memory out of the machines, resulting in better and better graphics. Just take a look at System 3’s The Last Ninja (1987) – such stunning, detailed graphics would have been thought impossible just a few years earlier. Yet in the hands of a group of talented artists and programmers, the game was beautiful to look at, as well as superb to play. Of course, there were some games that relied a little too much on the graphics to sell and were little more than tech demos with a shallow game attached (Saucer Attack was one), but that doesn’t diminish the quality or importance of the artwork.

There was a real art (pun intended!) to drawing sprites and pixel art. The memory and hardware constraints of the machines meant that every pixel and every byte counted. Artists had to be really efficient in the way that they drew. Graphics might have been small and blocky, but they oozed character. You could even argue that what was left out was just as important as was included. Artists became very clever at giving sprites sufficient definition to make it clear what they were, whilst leaving the player’s imagination to fill in some of the detail.

As consoles and computers have got more powerful, the quality, size and scale of graphics have obviously improved massively. Whole cities and worlds can now be visualised… and yet, I still find basic pixel art can create a better atmosphere and give games a unique look and feel.

This is partly because modern games leave little to the imagination. Because hardware is now so powerful, graphics can be very precise and very detailed. There’s no need for the player to fill in any blanks, because everything is up there on screen. With sprites and pixel art, you had to do this yourself and this somehow made the characters more personal to you.

Similarly, no matter how powerful modern machines are, they still can’t quite create completely convincing images of people. There is always something slightly odd about them – whether that’s facial textures, body movement or lip syncing. For me, this means that they sometimes jar with the rest of the world that’s been created or fail to convince me that they are real. Again, 8 and 16 bit sprites couldn’t aspire to this photo-realism – they were what they were and this meant they fitted into gaming environments much better in many ways.

I’m sure I’d be shot down in most art circles for this, but I’d argue that pixel art and sprites deserve to be viewed in the same light as other works of art. It might be drawn using a very different medium or and have a very different purpose to “normal art”, but it still takes a really skilful artist to create graphics that look good, and provoke a genuine emotional attachment. Isn’t that what all great works of art do? In their own medium, I’d argue that great graphic artists were creating real works of art in just the same way that Constable or Picasso did.

It’s surely no co-incidence that recent years have seen a resurgence in this type of artwork and retro-styled games are starting to make a comeback. Clearly, I’m not the only one who thinks like this.


Gaming Disasters: NATO Commander (C64)

NATO Commander box

When I was growing up, I was pretty lucky that I didn’t suffer too many gaming disasters. Money was tight and games were expensive, so using Zzap!64 as my bible, I carefully researched my gaming purchases to make sure I didn’t buy a dud. Occasionally, though, one slipped through the net: Outrun was one (bought based on my love of the arcade game, before I saw the Zzap! review), NATO Commander was another.

NATO Commander was an early computerised wargame. Playing as either the Warsaw Pact/Eastern Bloc countries or the Western European NATO allies, you had to marshal your forces, deploying them to ensure victory for your side. Each side had different types and numbers of forces, whilst other factors (such as terrain or the strength of the opposing army) influenced their effectiveness.

From the moment I opened up the box and loaded the cassette, I hated it. The gameplay and pace were (relatively speaking) slow and each move had to be carefully considered, weighing up the likely implications for your forces, rather than just charging in there, all guns blazing. After just a couple of games (in which whatever side I was controlling lost badly), it was consigned to the shelf, never to be retrieved until the day I sold my C64.

In fairness, NATO Commander wasn’t a bad game in its own right (it typically scored 3/5 or 7/10 in the reviews of the time). It’s just that it was the wrong game for me. I’m not the most patient person and text/graphic adventures aside, I prefer faster paced games, with shoot ‘em ups and driving games my favourite genres. NATO Commander was totally different to anything else I owned or played and the more considered style of gameplay was not for me.

To make matters worse, there were a couple of other things that really rubbed my nose in it. First of all (for no obvious reason), NATO Commander was more expensive than other games of the time (from memory, the standard price for a game at that point was £8.95, NATO Commander retailed at £10.95). Secondly, my C64 gaming setup involved a really crappy, ancient black and white TV (it was a rare treat when I was allowed to bring it into the lounge and put it on the big colour TV!). This had very dodgy brightness and contrast controls which made distinguishing between the different units (or even the different sides) almost impossible, rendering an already frustrating game (in my eyes) even more inaccessible.

NATO Commander screen

The worst thing of all, though, is that I only have my own stupidity to blame. Let me explain: I was never one of the cool kids at school and always struggled to make friends. I had a reasonable number of acquaintances (mostly fellow C64 owners with whom I used to swap games), but few people I would call real friends. One day, some of the cool kids were talking about NATO Commander and how they wanted to play it. Desperate to ingratiate myself (and because I already had a reputation of being able to acquire games), I blurted out “Oh, I’ve got that”, effectively committing myself to letting them have it.

I asked around all my contacts, but no-one had it, leaving me with two choices. I could either ‘fess up and admit I didn’t have the game (thus losing face and risking being ostracized even further) or I could go out and buy a copy.  And, like an idiot, guess which one I did. To make matters worse, in return for lending them the game, I got a copy of the rubbish Danger Mouse, so I couldn’t even console myself with the fact that I’d got a good game from the transaction.

To this day NATO Commander remains the biggest single mistake in my long gaming career, and sat on my shelf for years as a shameful reminder of my stupidity. Even now as a forty-something adult, I still feel a sense of shame that I was manipulated so easily and wasted so much of my hard-earned pocket money on something I never wanted.

I learned my lesson. From that point on, I never bought another game unless a) I wanted it and b) Zzap!64 (and to a lesser extent Commodore User) said it was worth buying. I also learned that I was never going to be in with the cool kids and, if that’s how they treated people, realised that I didn’t actually want to be part of their group anyway. Valuable life lessons indeed!

A Quick Update

You’ve possibly noticed that RetroReactiv8 has been a little quiet recently (or, more likely, you haven’t – but I like to delude myself that you hang on my every word!)

There are a number of reasons for this: work (boo!), a brief holiday (hooray!), family (yayy!) and many other things.

In fact, I did actually write and post something last week – a review of Rainbow Islands on the Amiga that was so beautifully crafted it would have made Shakespeare sob for joy… until I realised that I had, in fact, already reviewed Rainbow Islands, so there was no point posting a second review. It must be old age catching up with me or something.

Anyway, the wait is almost over and I promise there will be something this week…

I know. I bet you can scarcely contain your excitement, right?

A Gremlin in the Works (by Mark Hardisty) [Book Review]

Gremlin in the Works slip case

There are retro gaming books and there are retro gaming books.

Then there’s A Gremlin in the Works by Mark Hardisty; the Rolls Royce of the genre

Thanks in part to Kickstarter there have been quite a few recent retro gaming titles focussing on specific software houses or publishers: 2 on Ocean (from Chris Wilkins and Bitmap Books), 1 on US Gold (Chris Wilkins again) and Gary Penn’ Sensible Software retrospective, just to name a few. All are excellent titles, but future publications will need to up their game if they want to match Hardisty’s effort.

The publication just oozes quality. It comes in a cardboard slipcase that holds not one, but two hardback volumes. Volume one covers the early years of Gremlin up to 1990, whilst Volume 2 charts the later years, up to Gremlin’s sale to Infogrames in 1999 and beyond and covers some of the publishers lost or unreleased titles.

Gremlin in the works books

From the very first page, it’s clear that this is no cheap cash-in job. It’s officially endorsed by Gremlin co-founder Ian Stewart and has a lot of input from him and other influential members of the Gremlin team. It looks at some of the development houses whose games Gremlin published and includes the recollections of the in-house programmers from the very earliest recruits, through to those who joined Gremlin when it was already established. Hardisty has even gone to the trouble of tracking down people who only stayed with Gremlin for a very short time or developers who only ever wrote one game for them in order to ensure this is as complete a history as possible.

The length of the book (over 570 pages across the two volumes) means that you never feel short-changed in terms of the content. Different elements of Gremlin’s history are covered in appropriate depth so that you never feel that an issue is being skirted over, but neither do you get bored by too much detail.

The content is presented in a Q&A interview format which works well, making the text short, punchy and very readable. It means that Hardisty can pose a question and then intersperse it with recollections from several of the contributors at once. Hardisty’s input is suitably anonymous – he simply poses the questions and then lets the interviewees speak for themselves.

Of course, this is a celebration of Gremlin as a publisher, so the general tone is pretty upbeat. That said, you don’t’ get the impression that it is a whitewashing of history and (as far as you can tell) the interviewees are being pretty honest. There are several occasions when various personalities admit that they didn’t get on particularly well in the past, or where they criticise some of the Gremlin management’s decision making, or the way they occasionally treated their staff. This tension is perhaps particularly apparent when US Gold’s Geoff Brown (who acquired a majority stake in Gremlin in the late 80s) enters the conversation and it’s fairly clear that his ideas for Gremlin were pretty divisive. There are also occasions when people provide different accounts of the same events, or contradict what someone else has said, demonstrating how people can perceive or experience the same events in very different ways.

The text is nicely broken up by various archival images, including old photographs of the Gremlin offices and teams, contract letters to publish games and royalty statements (if I’d know how much money there was to be made in those days, I might have made a bit more of an effort to learn programming sooner than I did!). These really help to capture the spirit of the times and the extent to which the industry was making things up as it went along, as how it changed over the course of Gremlin’s lifespan.

Moreover, the book is the gift that keeps on giving. A Gremlin in the Works is still a live publication and as Hardisty secures more interviews or writes new content, he sends out periodic updates (appropriately called “an expansion disk”) to new online content.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I really, really, REALLY like this book. I am sitting here genuinely wracking my brains for something negative to say about the publication (just for the sake of balance, you understand). So, for once, I’m going to give up on the negative stuff and stick my neck out and say that A Gremlin in the Works is the best retro gaming book I have read by some distance. If you don’t enjoy it, then you probably owned a Dragon 32 or something.

A Gremlin in the Works is available from the Bitmap Books website for £24.99 which makes it incredible value for money. As I said at the start, from both a content and quality point perspective, it is far and away the best retro gaming book I have read and it’s going to be a hard act for future retrospectives on the 8 and 16 bit software houses to follow.

In summary? Best. Retro. Gaming. Book. Ever.

From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years [Review]

From Bedrooms to billions - amiga years

The original From Bedrooms to Billions documentary by Anthony and Nicola Caulfield was very successful, focussing on the early days of the industry from the early 80s to the mid 90s. They have now followed that up with from Bedrooms to Billions: the Amiga Years – a new two and a half hour documentary that looks at Commodore’s massively popular 16 bit computer.

The original film featured talking head interviews with major players early industry interspersed with archive footage. It was well received by fans and the Caulfields have clearly taken the line “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” for this follow up.

This proves to be a strength and a weakness. Adopting the same approach means viewers who enjoyed the first film can settle into The Amiga Years knowing what to expect. On the other hand, it sometimes leaves it feeling a little too-familiar and a touch uninspired.

Content-wise, the Caulfields certainly can’t be accused of skimping on content. They have managed to bag interviews with a whole range of people who were involved in the development of the Amiga as a computer, game developers of the time or staff of Commodore (including Commodore UK’s David Pleasance, whose promised “warts and all” account has recently been funded on Kickstarter). This makes for a massive amount of content, reflected in the run time which is 30 minutes longer than its predecessor.

The wealth of material is handled extremely well, organised and presented in a logical and coherent manner that gives the film a strong narrative. It pulls together a fantastic amount of archive footage, most of which I’d not seen before. Whether it is images and film from the Amiga’s early development or footage showing the computer’s many ground-breaking (and breath-taking) games, there is plenty to feast your eyes on. These sections really help the documentary to come alive and help to remind you (as if you needed it!) of how incredible the Amiga was for its time.

As with the previous film, there is a slightly uneven feel to the screen time given to various interviewees. Some seem to pop up every 2 minutes and give lengthy chunks of dialogue, others pop up only rarely and are limited to a couple of sentences. Of course, this could simply reflect how much individual interviewees were willing/able to contribute, or how insightful their comments were. However, you do feel that some people are given more of a platform than others.

The talking heads format also feels a little overused (possibly given the extended run time). I’d perhaps have liked to have seen a little less of this and a bit more archive footage (although again, I appreciate this is limited by what is available – either in terms of what has survived, or where copyright clearance can be acquired).

Yet despite some flaws in the format, the documentary is never less than interesting and entertaining. Whilst I personally enjoyed some segments more than others, I was never even vaguely tempted to skip any. Again, if I was being critical, the first hour (which focuses on the Amiga’s development) felt a little slow-paved and over-long. It was certainly interesting to hear Amiga legends like the pleasingly bonkers RJ Mical and the late Dave Needle talk about the computer’s development, but there was an occasional tendency to dwell a little too much on technical specifications (which my highly untechnical brain is never capable of understanding!) Again, though, it’s horses for courses – I’m sure there are lots of viewers who will find the recollections of Mical and company fascinating.

Any slackening in pace soon picks up when the documentary shifts its focus to the games (which, let’s be honest is the reason we all had one). This proves a fascinating insight into how programmers managed (or in some cases didn’t manage) the transition from 8 to 16 bit and what a step up the Amiga represented in terms of game design. It’s also here that the documentary is at its strongest visually, with loads of footage of Amiga games showing off this explosion of creativity.

(As a minor sidebar criticism, it would have been good if the games shown could have had captions giving details of their title and publisher. As a retro gamer, it’s fun trying to name the different games as footage flashes up, but unless you’re a walking retro gaming encyclopaedia, you will probably struggle to identify all the footage.)

The Amiga Years probably won’t tell seasoned retro gamers anything they don’t already know about the Amiga, but the extended format and wide range of interviewees allows it to explore some of these stories (such as the Atari/Commodore tug of war over rights to the machine) in greater depth. It also gives you a rare opportunity to hear the tales and anecdotes direct from the horse’s mouth, rather than via a 3rd party magazine or webpage article.

The producers have also done a good balancing act, making the documentary interesting for seasoned retro gamers, whilst remaining accessible for more casual viewers. People with a passing interest in the Amiga who want to recall happy childhood memories will find it as informative and interesting as those with a long-standing interest in the retro gaming history.

Whatever Atari ST owners might say, the Amiga is arguably the most fondly remembered computer of the 16 bit era. This documentary is an fascinating and fitting tribute to a computer whose life was sadly curtailed by the incompetence of Commodore and the rise of the consoles. Whilst there are a few flaws, these are nowhere near enough to detract from a quality production that should be watched by all retro gamers.


Seabase Delta (C64) Review

SeaBase Delta cassett

When I was growing up, I had a slightly younger friend whose parents had bought him an Amstrad. My, how we laughed at him! And if that wasn’t bad enough, he only had the green monitor version which made all his games look like they’d been covered in grass. Needless to say we spent most of the time round at my house playing on the mighty Commodore 64.

Just occasionally, though, I’d take pity on him and we’d go round to his house to play on the Green Machine. Happily, there was one such occasion when this proved to be A Very Good Decision.

Knowing that I was a massive fan of adventure games, he loaded up his latest acquisition – Seabase Delta – a budget game from Firebird’s £1.99 range. We started playing it together and becamse completely hooked. Several hours passed, much progress was made and eventually, it was time for me to go home. I found I’d enjoyed the game so much that the very next day, I went out and bought my own copy.

Seabase Delta put you in the role of reporter Ed Lions (ho! ho!), trapped on board a submarine that had been captured by enemy agents and towed to an enemy base. Your task is to escape by using the usual assortment of odd objects that tend to get left carelessly lying around in adventure games.

Seabase Delta was written using The Quill software. This often (unfairly) became a byword for a poor game, but without ever being anything astonishing, Seabase Delta shows what could be done with the tool when used properly.

Sure, the parser was a little basic and the graphics weren’t anything to write home about (though they were perfectly adequate and added something to the atmosphere). As with many text-based adventures there were times when the game’s limited vocabulary was slightly frustrating. Unless you hit on the exact word or phrase, you’d get the ubiquitous “I didn’t understand” message, so even if you knew what you had to do, actually find the right words to do it was a whole new issue. On the whole, though, the game’s relatively basic parser worked in its favour since you only had to remember a limited number of verbs for most of the puzzles.

The text also had a rather pleasing sense of humour. It wasn’t as zany as some (like Monkey Island) or a skit (like Delta 4’s offerings), but it could still make you smile. The text descriptions and computer responses were written with tongue very firmly in cheek and the deliberately bad puns appealed to me at the time (and, if I’m honest, still do!)

Where Seabase Delta really shone was in the game design. Even though the game was limited to a single location (the enemy base), there were lots of locations to discover, plenty of puzzles to solve and dozens of items to pick up and use. Crucially – at a time when walkthroughs were hard to find – puzzles were generally pretty logical and, with a little bit of lateral thinking, could be solved by most people. This helped to give the game a real sense of progression and motivated you to carry on. Every time you “outwitted” the game and solved a puzzle, it felt rewarding and opened up a new area of the game to explore.

I can only remember one puzzle I got totally stuck on. It was one of those frustrating puzzles common to old adventure games, where I knew what I needed to do, but not how to achieve it. One task required you to get hold of an egg which could be supplied by an unlikely, but handily available, chicken. However, the chicken was asleep and wouldn’t lay until it woke up. Could I wake up that damn chicken? I tried absolutely everything I could think of (up to, and including hitting it with every object in my inventory), but progress came to a grinding halt. For months, I checked the computer magazines on the shelves of John Menzies (remember them?) in the hopes that someone would have sent the solution in to one of their tips pages, but with no luck. Then, just when I had given up hope of ever waking that chicken, one magazine finally printed the answer. (For the record, you had to chew the bubble gum you had previously picked up, blow a bubble and then burst it to wake the chicken. Obviously.)

That one frustration aside, Seabase Delta proved to be a lot of fun. The constant progress made it rewarding whilst the relatively easy-to-solve puzzles (chickens aside) kept frustration levels to a minimum. I’ve always been a fan of adventure games (and the purist in me has a particularly soft spot for non-point and click games) and from the 8 bit days, this along with Delta 4’s The Boggit, is the one that I remember most fondly.

(Actually, I tell a lie: I was also rather fond of Melbourne House’s The Hobbit because a) I first read and fell in love with the book around this age and b) my 11 year old self never  tired being able to tell Thorin to do unspeakably rude things to Gandalf!)

Anyway, back to the game in hand. If you were being critical, you could argue that the game was too easy – seasoned adventurers could easily complete it in a couple of hours – but given that it only cost £1.99, it offered tremendous value for money. Like most adventures, once you’d finished it, it was extremely unlikely you’d ever replay it, but again; given what you’d paid, this wasn’t really an issue.

The only other negative was the really poor ending which was the adventure game equivalent of “Then they went home and had their tea.” After all the work you’d put into solving the puzzles, the ending was a massive anti-climax– surely the least you could have expected was a pretty picture of you escaping the base? Still, it shows how good the game was that even this could not spoil my sense of fondness for the title.

Programming: my 35 year journey

Game Maker logo

So far on this blog, I’ve mainly focussed on games, but of course in order to get those games, you need to have programmers to create them.

I’d guess that most of us who grew up in the early days of the 8 bit revolution yearned to be involved in creating games. I’m also guessing that we all dabbled in a bit of programming (and by that I mean beyond the ubiquitous Print “Hello World!”) and actually found that writing your own games was actually quite hard.

My own programming experience only really got as far as writing a few games in BASIC – machine code always seemed horribly complex – and getting a few sprites moving around the screen. Anything beyond that and my brain just couldn’t cope.

One game I wrote that sticks in my mind was called “The Curse of Anubis” (don’t get excited: the title was far, far better than the actual game.) In order to beat the game, you had to progress through 15 screens, defeating a different character on each in order to progress. Each would ask you a riddle – the answer to which was a number between 1 and 10, randomly generated each time. If you didn’t guess the correct number, you died and were sent back to the start. In the unlikely event that you did, you went on to the next level and got to do it all again. As you can imagine, it wasn’t much fun and it quickly became clear that game design was not my strong point! Indeed, I always found it much easier to come up with exciting sounding names for game titles or software houses, than to actually design anything approaching a playable game!

I tried my hand with the Shoot em up Construction Kit (Sensible Software) and Graphic Adventure Creator (Incentive), but again discovered my limitations as a games designer long before I hit the limits of what those packages could do! Sure, I knocked up a few crappy games for friends, but typically, these were just little in-jokes with really rubbish graphics and crappy sound effects. As well as game design, it turned out that aesthetic design wasn’t one of my talents too!

And that was pretty much it for my programming career. When I progressed from the C64 to the Amiga, I gave up all pretence that I could ever do it properly and just enjoyed the games other people created.

Somehow, though, the itch never quite went away. I always WANTED to learn to program on some level and recently I’ve rediscovered the urge to do it. The catalyst came when YoYo Game’s Game Maker Pro software was made available via the Humble Bundle website. Instead of costing several hundred pounds for the full package, it could be bought for about £11.

Having bought the software, I was determined it wasn’t going to languish unused on my PC and started trying to learn it. Happily, it turns out that modern programming is a lot easier. I don’t mean that in a dismissive way, suggesting that modern developers have it easier. However, one of the benefits of living in whatever generation of computing we are now up to is that more advanced (and user-friendly) tools are available and (even more crucially) a lot more help is available for the novice/casual user.

I started learning the software by following Shaun Spalding’s excellent YouTube tutorials – particularly his series on creating an Asteroids clone. Suddenly it made sense! I understood why this command did that or why things had to be expressed in a certain way to get the desired effect. Shaun’s explanations were clear and provided me with some of the basic building blocks needed to create a simple game.

After that, I decided to try my hand at creating something from scratch and decided to write a simple little game that my 3 year old daughter could play (start em early!). It took me quite a long time and a lot of trial and error, but I did it. And do you know what? I had a whale of a time. I suddenly understood what those old 8 bit programmers mean when they describe the excitement they felt the first time they managed to get an object moving on screen.

The process became addictive and I found that even when I wasn’t coding, I was thinking about it: how to fix bits of code that weren’t working; what additions I could make to make the game better. Finally, after years and years of trying, something clicked. When I hit a problem, I was able to work out why the code wasn’t working in the way I expected it to (even if I didn’t always know exactly how to fix it).

What I found most helpful of all, though, was the fact that I realised I wasn’t alone. When I hit a problem Google search would usually reveal that someone else had already had the exact same problem and had it solved by the ever-helpful gaming community. Perhaps for the first time ever, I was able to understand what they were talking about and even adapt and add to their code to make it do different things.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not heading for a career with Naughty Dog any time soon, and at this stage my games are still nothing more than a bit of fun for my friends and family. However, I’m really enjoying re-creating (and adapting) some of the simpler games from my childhood. Finally, after about 35 years of trying, I’m able to go beyond “10 Print “You smell”, 20 Goto 10”

I guess it just goes to prove two old clichés: “you’re never too old to learn” and “you can teach an old dog new tricks”. Oh; and “if at first you don’t succeed…”