Saturday, 22 August 2015

Video game textmode art part 19.5β - the Blocktronics advance following the Evoke feint

The notoriously mistranslated phrase is from the NES' "Pro Wrestling". But this version of it is from "US-LLDT.ANS" from the most recent Blocktronics artpack, a joint between Reset Survivor (happy birthday!) and Nullfruit (?!) ... this is the only video game reference in the piece that I can see, but there are others in the pack. I should have realised that when the summer demoparty entries started being annouced that the artpacks collecting them would quickly follow. I posted too soon, last time! Consequently, the Blocktronics pack that followed quick on its heels, "Block Fury", contained further textmode video game art. Had I just waited a week or so I could have made one real post out of this great stuff, hot off the presses, instead of two half-posts. Oh well! (To reiterate, for those who haven't been following along so far -- Blocktronics is the "last man standing" supergroup of ANSI art megatalent, a collection of folks who used to express themselves in that arcane digital art back in the '90s, developed their design sensibilities for 20 years... and have then made the odd choice to return to the strikingly minimalist medium. And hats off to them for doing so, it gives me much great art to feature here in this blog!)

While Reset Survivor isn't exclusively a textmode video game art specialist, he is as close as this scene has to one. In this larger piece (R5-KFC.ANS), virtuosic visual vignettes are interspersed with snatches of beat'em up video game history. I won't show you the whole thing, but let's zoom in on our three moments here:

Here we see the elegant brutes of Technōs' 1989 River City Ransom. Then next, a switch to a similar subject in the same medium (and interpreted to the same medium) from Irem's 1985 Kung-Fu:
Finally, we have a segment I needed a little help to identify. The sprite style reminded me of Konami's Contra, but as that is a shooter, not a brawler, that avenue of inquiry was a dead end. Fortunately, one of the experts at Mobygames pointed me straightaway to Hokuto No Ken, the NES video game adaptation of the hugely influential and ultra-violet manga / anime sensation known in the West as Fist of the North Star. I said, "that would explain why the enemy looks like he's been peeled like a banana!"

The interesting thing about all of this textmode video game sprite art adaptation is that the standard MS-DOS textmode, at 80 columns x25 lines, used rectangular cells instead of square ones. (The less-used 80x50 mode had square cells, but I don't think we have featured a single work in that aspect ratio; it was distinctly unfashionable.) NES games, of course, had square pixels. That means that the hard work the viewer isn't appreciating is not just producing something that looks like the original, but making something originally formed out of square blocks using only rectangular ones.

I'll close with a piece by the great Mattmatthew (and a happy birthday to you, too!), in a former life known as ts of the Hawaii-based artgroup "teklordZ". Last time around I talked about how the first thing that would occur to anybody to draw in ANSI is a Space Invader, which would simultaneously be one of the easier ANSI subjects to render, blocky as they are! Well, Mattmatthew doesn't do anything the easy way: instead, have your mind blown by some phenomenal Space Invaders typography, totally unrelated to their subjects' blocky iconography!
Finally, because Blocktronics don't represent the entire history of textmode art (nor do they presume to), I'd like to take this opportunity to share with you, my handful of readers, my call for submissions (deadline: Oct 15!) for the 21st anniversary artpack collection of my own artgroup, Mistigris. As you can see, we cast a wide net. Join us, won't you?

Saturday, 8 August 2015

A breaking textmode video game art update part 19.5: Enzo at Evoke 2015

Hi, everyone! Sorry things have ground to a halt here -- lots to say, but when there's time to write, there's no brain left... and when there's a shred of brain, no time. Parenthood, go figure!

In as close as I get to breaking news, I had to do some quick and dirty coverage of an award-winning (2nd place) piece of ANSI art that was just released at the Evoke demoparty in Germany (whose 1999 instalment I competed in with an in-person visit!) Why did I have to cover it? Because it contained video game imagery, of course!

The artist: Brazilian Luciano "Enzo" Ayres of Blocktronics et al. The work? Well, it also contains much that does not pertain to video games, so I give you the lobotomized gamer highlights reel, but you can go appreciate everything in full context at its source. Beginning with some Invaders is an easy-pitch opening gambit. What naturally follows?
Sure, why not some Pac-Man. This looks like a race: who will make it to the centre first? My recent Ms. Pac-Man experience suggests that the ghost will also take second place, but it does raise an interesting question of how the machine prioritizes things if Pac touches a power pill and a ghost simultaneously. But I digress.
This is where things get interesting. You can show someone who doesn't play video games Pac-Man or a Space Invader and they'll have some idea what you're talking about. But what we have here is a video game that is basically installed on all modern computers as an easter egg that virtually nobody knows about. The only reason I was able to place it is because "easter egg games" is kind of a beat I cover over on Mobygames, where I documented this one. It basically works as shown here: in recent versions of the (typically self-updating) Google Chrome web browser (whose deformed logo is depicted in this piece), if your internet connection conks out mid-browse and you try to access a page that's no longer available, you'll be shown an error message with the dinosaur and a cactus, apparently a cute icon to mellow the harsh cut of the malfunction. But what Chrome users may not realise is that the error message's picture is interactive: it turns out that the dino can be made to head out across the desert in a bland kind of endless runner game.

And this is that dinosaur, and I know about it, Enzo clearly knows about -- and now you, the reader, do as well.

Will continue with this series when time permits -- there's no lack of further material to share, just time to process and frame it usefully. Don't give up hope! In the meantime, you can occupy yourself making a dinosaur jump over some cacti. Cheers!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Landyachtz' Pop-Up Arcade

We'd heard the rumours of its approach, but it wasn't really real until the reports from its opening night party: the pop-up arcade at the LandYachtz skate shop, squatting in the space reserved for its upcoming cafe. Well OK, arcades were a really real part of my nostalgia (proximity to the multiple cabinets at the nearby Blue Moon convenience store, compounded with a sporadic allowance that would see me feeling my wealthiest for decades, certainly gave me a temporary boost to punch above my class in the vicious rich-kid social scene of grades 4 and 5 at Kerrisdale Elementary) and I still make sure to check out the (always disappointing) arcade room on the ferry whenever I'm crossing the waters. I guess I had to check it out.

But of course regular hours wouldn't be the same as the late-night booze-slinging opening night hours; I fished a bit without success...

But after a second prod a week later word came back to me -- looks like it opens and closes in tandem with the factory store's regular business hours. Now where is it...
Ah, this must be the place! Sandwich board made from longboard decks, very clever. Now, just around the corner, and then...
Well, this must be the place! Looks a bit dingy compared to the unforgiving, stark light of broad daylight, but then that is only more period-authentic arcade flavour!
First things first: to instil a healthy interest in video gaming, hook my toddler daughter up with good gaming role models. OK, so what do we have on tap, here?
The answer is: lots of pinball. Mostly pinball, in fact -- over 50%. These machines were not specifically part of my nostalgia (I always knew of them and recognized them to see them, but they were never the targets for my quarters), but derive from an earlier, '70s tradition. What we see here is... Demolition Man, Jack*Bot (there's some tortured wordplay!), the bizarre Wizard of Oz video pinball cabinet, The Addams Family, and ... I'm sorry, my crappy photography has failed me on the rightmost cab, the only one which at that moment anyone considered to be worthy of playing! (Further research suggests: White Water?)
And still more! To the left of Demolition Man, we see: Star Trek, Street Fighter II, and what appears to be the most old-school of the bunch, Taxi. I'm always a fan of exploring the liminal, intertidal areas where genres and disciplines meet, but to my dismay I left the arcade without having explored how the beat-'em-up milieu of SF2 translated into pinball form. I may need to return in order to conduct further research.
Fear not -- there are also video game cabinets, with many excellent selections. From left to right, we have the popular Centipede, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man, Bubble Bobble (!) ...
and more: Puzzle Bobble, pinball machines for Batman and Rollergames, and a Rampage arcade cabinet. But wait, there's still a bit more!
Also an R-Type cabinet (out of service), two-player Atari Tetris cocktail, and another cocktail Galaga I believe (also out of service, not pictured). Not a bad buffet!

Thoughts and reflections: Goddamn, this place was SO NOISY! My toddler, holding her hands over her ears, agreed. I appreciate that the games back in their first-run incarnation were in a sense competing with each other for your quarters, each week's underperformers returned and upgraded into newer, hopefully more appealing games, but that's a concern between the game manufacturers and the arcade owners. As far as players go, c'mon: once you're in the arcade, does it really matter which machine your coins are going into? Never did I end up in a situation where coins allocated for gameplay went unspent just because none of the offerings were sufficiently loud.

(Speaking of audio cues: that "doom" sound when an Atari Games / later Midway arcade cabinet had a coin inserted is hardwired somewhere into my parasympathetic nervous system. They weren't all great games, but they were never less than good!)

My first game played was Rampage; seeing an opportunity for father-daughter bonding, I polled my tot regarding which of the three monsters she'd like to play (A: "the ape" -- and pardon my digression, but whenever she encounters this species of simian in a children's book now she will proudly proclaim how she knows another ape named Donkey Kong!), then tried to (multitaskingly -- while playing) lure her back after she wandered off, the 2P paid for but unplayed... shockingly, despite George just standing there picking his nose the whole time, I (as Lizzie) only outlasted him by 10 seconds. I never realised the game's constant player-health-chipping-away was so evenly calibrated!

Then we installed my daughter on a surveillance chair -- she's at the age where "playing video games" still pretty much means "watching Dad play video games", and got down to business with Ms. Pac-Man... which I performed surprisingly good on, but unused to the speed at which she moves on actual arcade hardware, kept accidentally ramming innocent ghosts! It turns out the second map pattern also is not quite as ingrained in my subconscious, and so I didn't last terribly long on this machine. The joystick seemed period authentic but the unforgivingness of its stark short up/down/right/left seemed hostile to one grown fat and lazy on gamepad thumbsticks.

Another real classic sat adjacent: there it was, Donkey Kong. To help my tot get over the "why should I care?" factor, I carefully explained to her how this was the very first game in which her beloved Mario appeared. That got her attention! This hardware was a bit rough; certain sprites would disappear from the screen when crossing certain vertical locations, only to reappear later. I was expecting it to be tougher; on my first try I found myself trying to remember what came next while wondering how I'd managed to get up to the top so quickly? But he who hesitates is lost; the second time through, inexpert hammer handling hubris proved my downfall, despite that being, via Super Smash Bros., the one aspect of the game I've experienced most recently. Its stubby arcade joystick, from the days before such things were standardized, also threw off my game.

As for Puzzle Bobble - well, it is what it is, which is a thin slice of perfection. There are funner games, and there are more beautiful games, and there are more exciting games, but for my money nothing dresses up such a slim premise so completely. It only pales compared to the original Bubble Bobble, which, well hey, here it is! It turns out that I am apparently embarrassingly good at this game, getting up to level 30 on my first credit virtually solo, despite the game's dip switches being set to a harder mode (the first level's bad guys aren't typically Incendos -- ah, I see the game had been set to "Super Mode".) While playing this game, my wingman finally made it, and we whiled away several minutes discussing how we'd play something together "as soon as I die"... which, stubbornly, refused to happen. I didn't finally shuffle on until just after he joined in; feeling that abandoning him was a gesture in poor faith, I popped in another credit only to blow through all the lives within a single level. Sprees: go figure.

I played a round of Jack*Bot for a "classic" pinball experience, then had to try the Jersey Jack Wizard of Oz video pinball machine, with its 2013 creation date almost certainly the most recent of all the room's denizens (even including my toddler!); while fun enough, it filled my head with ponderings of its being symptomatic of the industry's slide into side avenues of guaranteed profitability, like Williams' wholesale transition into the video poker business and Konami's pachinko sideline... adapting the film version of the story from 1939, it was issued to celebrate its 75th anniversary, and featured a video-screen with what would have been highly distracting animated motion graphics and film clips during gameplay -- had I raised my head from the mechanical action down below. Maybe it's intended to catch the attention of spectators? Sorry -- I digressed from my digression... I was going to say that perhaps the pinball connoisseur demographic had now slid up high enough to overlap with the fans-of-films-from-1939 demographic, conspicuously a lucrative cohort to target. Maybe the next machines made would be for Casablanca and Metropolis? But maybe this is just sour grapes, given that both the recent Batman and Star Trek film relaunches had their machines present and accounted for -- was it so paining to me that the floor wasn't 100% pandering to youth popular culture trends?

My big regret is that I didn't play the cocktail Tetris, which to me was always the authoritative version of the game; all my life I've confused gamers discussing the great music from Tetris and talking about the kazachok dancers between levels, unaware that in the grand scheme of things it was the Game Boy version alone that achieved cultural canon status. This had, I'm sure, some intriguing competitive multiplayer modes. Next time! Next time for this and the Street Fighter 2 pinball.

Speaking of SF2, there's a game (heck, a genre) whose absence was conspicuous, and where were the Capcom / Konami brawlers in the Final Fight / Ninja Turtles vein? In my experience, those were the big quarter-hoovers -- four friends playing through TMNT simultaneously (did I tell you yet about how I distributed a strategy guide for this game through my elementary school's C64 lab?) could be expected to drop about $5 in quarters each. But maybe that becomes unsustainable with the new prices of $.50 per play for arcade games, $1 for pinball? And what's up with that inflation? Has a monopoly on period-authentic setting of the nostalgic experience taken on such a swollen premium? San Francisco's incredible Musée Mecanique, last visited in 2010, still only demands quarters for its amazing machines, ranging from the 1800s to Death Race to the present day, and one of my favorites, the Avalon in Portland, charges a flat fee for entry and then only a nickel per play.

All the machines in this arcade were sourced from East Van Amusements, which only raises more questions than it addresses: this company started in 2012? How did I miss getting in on a piece of that action? How come it has no representation at any of obvious local "nerd bar" locations such as the Storm Crow, EXP, etc., just the square footage premium of Vancouver real estate? These guys rent machines for weddings? A video recounted how, being stationed around the corner from La Casa Gelato, this site sees more than a few couples on their first dates visiting... I fear that had this site existed on my first date with my partner, there might not have been a second date: learning a little too much, too quickly...

You know, you really can't go back again, but though I could have enjoyed a very similar experience on my laptop through the Internet Arcade without leaving my living room, I don't regret going to get a feel for the trappings of the bygone era. The room was even decorated with pinball backings and video game marquee artwork, hung like animal heads in a hunter's lodge. I wonder what my 3-year-old daughter made of it, and if this experience will even be possible when she's my age. Or is it just one of those dwindling throwbacks like going to the opera or the horse races that is destined to slowly fade away across a couple of generations?

(I appreciate that, in uncharted climate change territory, a couple of generations hence may have far bigger fish to fry than celebrating the leisure electronics of the late cold war. But I still wonder!)

August 7, Edited to add: the arcade is open during regular shop hours, as noted, but in addition to their opening party they are hoping to do a late-night arcade party monthly until the space is renovated into being a cafe after October, where you get all of the games (plus new ones being added), as well as a DJ and the sale of alcoholic beverages. Admission is free with Facebook confirmation, which can be obtained here (though the games retain their somewhat inflated pricing.) I will probably miss out on this next one, but hope to find my way there in September -- that SF2 pinball game demands some kind of review. Cheers!