Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Takayoshi Sato's character design master class

Last month's issue of Game Developer magazine contains a highly informative piece by Takayoshi Sato regarding his approach to videogame character design. A recommended read to anyone interested in becoming acquainted with the details behind Sato's work, as well as valuable advice and essential details: in short, a must read.

The pages included in the document above are scanned reproductions from the magazine. You may find this and many other issues in high quality downloads available at GDM's website.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

CoreGamers presents: The Making of FATALE

FATALE was one the most surprising releases of this year that now nears its end. Like an encore to the same brilliant approach to the discipline of interactive arts as essayed before in THE PATH, it was a unique portrayal of the biblical icon Salome as seen from the perspective of Oscar Wilde's play of the same name. If its irreverence has caused much doubt among the videogame playing community, its value has already been underlined by popular videogame critics from all over the world. Not only was it completed in a record-breaking time, it also provided a fascinating series of challenges to the Tale of Tales studio and invited colaborators.

This Making Of FATALE article I now present contains detailed information concerning the origins of the project, the development stage, as well as the ever enlightening perspective from both Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn concerning their work.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Portrait of videogames as a young industry: Q&A with Leonard Herman

And so a new industry was born. It has had its ups and downs but it has mostly kept on roaring ahead in step with technology. It has done its share of contributing to great technical advancements in the art of displaying complex graphics on a display. Most importantly, it has put imaginative, interactive gaming within reach of everybody.

Ralph H. Baer ( in the Preface to Phoenix)

Upon confirming the indefinite delay of a fourth edition whose creation is still in progress, Leonard Herman has decided to reprint the third edition of his milestone Phoenix The Fall & Rise of Videogames, previously released in 2001. While a decade has passed since its original publication, this last existing edition of his original 1994 book continues to be one of the most valuable resources on the subject of videogame history, covering the events of a time line that starts in 1970 (with a comprehensive introduction on computer history starting in the early days of Pascal) up until 2001 and the emerging 128-Bit console systems.

Phoenix has warranted strong reactions in what relates to its particular style of writing: whereas some are very keen and enthusiastic on its impassive chronicle, others have discredited the book for being an unpleasant and far from compelling read. As soon as I got my hands on the book I immediately began to understand how Herman’s scientific and largely unbiased writing method may be perceived as expressionless. Notwithstanding, this is a book regarding the History of videogames: and one so impartial and scientific in the way it addresses the subject at hand that one can't help but recommend it and vouch for it.

Not unlike other popular publications that succeeded it, in Phoenix should only expect to find the history of how videogames became a leading form of entertainment in North-America – the cradle of the early industry models – but also the critical stage for Japan’s rush for global home console market domination. In truth, the composition of a book concerning the global history of the videogame business could not happen without the active collaboration of several experts around the world performing a cooperative research. Ambitions of an ideal and all-encompassing volume on the history of videogames apart, there is no denying that Herman’s solo research has gathered enough data to make any of his book editions a complete guide to help the reader build an accurate mental picture of the home console chronology (computer games not being an actual priority to this work); or to simply be used as a reference in studies or mere fact checking.

The origins of this compilation of the videogame reality date back to several years before its actual release. I first understood the difficulties implied in the publication of a book of this kind so early in the 1990’s decade after contacting the author about that matter. I was surprised to learn that while the videogame industry had risen from its complete inexistence to one of the most profitable businesses on a global scale in a matter of a few decades, no book publisher was willing to risk the sponsoring of Herman’s book. Even today, Phoenix Fall and Rise and its publisher, Rolenta Press, remain an epitome of independent book publishing - its presentation simple and humble unlike that of most game-related books. And hardly ever has the expression do not judge a book by its cover been so appropriate: Phoenix is unquestionably one of the most important studies ever made on the subject of videogame History.

Mr. Herman was kind enough to answer a few of my questions regarding this object of his pursuit, a dynamic and sporadically revised information resource that continues to renew itself with every new inprint.

CoreGaming : Phoenix is often presented as the first true account of the videogame history. Please tell me a little more about its origins and the difficulties implied in the publication of this sort of book given th the year of its original release.

Leonard Herman : In 1982 I began writing a book called ABC To The VCS, which was a directory of all of the games that were available for the Atari 2600. After the crash, I realized that there would be very little demand for such a book so I scrapped it. Around 1986, I thought about writing a similar book about the NES, but I really didn’t relish the thought of doing it, especially since at the time I wasn’t a fan of Nintendo and didn’t even own an NES! However I didn’t want to give up the idea about writing a book about videogames.

For a while I began writing a book about each of the videogame companies, such as Atari, and Mattel. But a lot of the information overlapped. So that was when I got the idea of writing a chronological history of videogames, since such a book didn’t exist.

I spent the four years writing the book, using my large collection of magazines and press kits as source (since the Internet as we know it didn’t exist yet). My goal was to get the book published in 1992, which was the 20th anniversary of the release of the Odyssey and Pong. Unfortunately, No publishers were interested. Prima, which eventually published Steve Kent’s book in 2001, wrote to me in an August 1993 letter: “…we believe there is not enough interest in the general history of video games at this time.”

In 1994 I learned about self-publishing so I founded Rolenta Press and published Phoenix that way.

CoreGaming : Sometime ago you presented the fourth edition of Phoenix as a book containing information about the last years in the industry of videogames. However you decided not to move forward with the fourth edition for now and publish the 3rd once again. What originated that decision and how actual (or up-to-date) do you think this book today?

Leonard Herman : Well I am moving forward with the fourth edition, however the work is not progressing as quickly as I would like. In addition to adding new chapters, I have also decided to update the entire book, and fix any errors that have been in there that I’m aware of. I’m also including Japanese system prior to the Famicom so that is additional research that has to be done. And sometimes I get held up for stupid little reasons.

For example, in 1989 View-Master released the Interactive Vision. I found information from several places citing that this system was awarded “Game of the Year”. The only problem was I couldn’t find who gave it that award! I contacted the Toy Industry of America, but they’re records only went back to 2001. I even contacted one of the designers of the console, and while he remembered the system getting the prize, he couldn’t remember who it got the prize from. I spent over a month looking for this information and finally had to give up on it.

CoreGaming : Since you first decided to research the subject of videogame history, many other authors and researchers have been publishing their own books regarding the history of videogames: either focusing on specific contents, like David Sheff and his Game Over History of Nintendo; or more broad and wide-randing like Kent's Ultimate History of Videogames and Russel deMaria's High Score. What do you think that Phoenix offers to readers today that none of these books does?

Leonard Herman : Actually, the first edition of David Sheff’s book came out before mine. Anyway, one of my best supporters is Steve Kent, who tells everyone that our books complement each other. While his book tells the story of videogames through the words of the actual participants, mine is an encyclopedia of all the little details that aren’t covered anywhere else.

One of the main criticisms of the book is that the writing is dry and not entertaining. This was done by design. The book was written to educate, not to entertain.

CoreGamer : As a researcher, you must have spent thousands of hours going through different sources of information regarding videogames. Of all the interesting episodes in the history of videogames, which one do you think is the most enticing?

Leonard Herman : One of my favorite stories is the story of Tetris. In fact, for the 4th edition I’m removing it from the main body of the book and inserting it into a Focus On section where it stands out by itself.

CoreGaming : Finally, as someone who has been particularly close to videogame issues and debates since their dawn, how do you see the industry today? Were there such dramatic changes or are things closely the same as to what they were two or three decades ago, in spite of the drastic popularity increase?

Leonard Herman : Well three decades ago everything was new, so any change was a dramatic one! But we are still seeing new things today. The Wii changed forever how humans interact with videogames (although Nintendo wasn’t the first to do it). The only difference between now and 30 years ago was that the dramatic changes took place a lot more often back then.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Amusement magazine, issue 6: BUG!

There was a time, long before the arrival of the Internet, when videogame players celebrated the inclusion of game-related topics in the smallest of columns of everyday newspapers. In time, the small footnotes became single and double-page features about fresh game releases, hints, pokes and cheats. As a consequence of the sudden growth of the computer and console business, a few dedicated publications appeared in the United States of America, the epicenter of the videogame industry revolution; yet firstly in the United Kingdom. Countless magazines were edited during the 1980's and 90's throughout the globe; some of them vanished in a matter of months; others were successful for a short while; only a few kept alive until this day.

But just as the format of the printer paper slowly capitulated to the emerging HTML format, so did the videogame magazines become a secondary choice to game players who needn't wait for the end of the month to read the latest news, now updated every second in the windows of their internet browsers. In order to oppose the costless information supply of game sites, magazines were forced to improve and to become more exclusive than ever in order to survive. AMUSEMENT magazine, a fairly recent French trimestral publication, addresses some of the larger problems of the games journalism sphere, providing the sort of educated reading that is still light-years away from the common videogame website.

A first look at any of the existing issues of AMUSEMENT is sure to cause shock and awe: apparently, even after a quick browsing through the pages, this magazine is hard to identify as being related to the subject of games. Its discerning design easily evokes the flair and elegance seen in the visual presentation of a Vogue or Vanity Fair magazines. There are no game previews, reviews or even news articles proper; each piece has an identity of its own. This radical perspective has made this magazine a new and inspiring reference in the treatment of videogame subjects, something which is clear not only in its daring imagery, but also in the selection of themes.

The latest issue of the magazine, entitled BUG, is dedicated to concept of game program bug or glitch. Through different articles, the authors provide unique assessments on how these program errors have characterized videogames for long and will continue to do so in the future. The following are some of the highlights of this sixth edition (please click the images for larger views).

Not a Game, Just a Digital Amusement is a joint venture between the magazine and the artist Pierre Vanni on the subject of game bugs. Scheduled for release on the iPhone on the 25th of December, this non-game will make use of elemental volumes and shapes. Theplayer must use the touch screen to create visual motives which can only be interpreted at a distance in an exercise that relates to the true nature of digital images - the pixels -, very much like a new aged version of Plato's cavern.

A fine example of this magazine's focus on subjects of interest to videogame players that are not directly related to the industry; this is an interview article with Xavier Veilhan, a vanguardist French artist whose recent work consists of presenting flat polygon sculptures near historical locations. This contrast between old and new architectural and scultpural techniques is well illustrated by the image above, where a purple geometric chariot being pulled by horses is placed on front of the Versailles Palace.

The celebrated creator of Konami's DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION, Naoki, is briefly enquired about his vision of the music games industry where his title played a central role in the last years.

One of the best photo shoots of this volume, Overheating depicts several objects being thrown through a wall, namely the red DS Lite, in a visually pleasing manner.

Another great visual feature, Dérapages, blends models with polygonal compositions to suggest everyday life accidents: on the picture, the suspended waiter accidentally drops the digital serving dish.

Glitchography is a small but very interesting piece on the important role of the bug hunters and game testers in the development of each new game.

Bugs come in different forms and shapes. Léo Bourdin assumes the role of Bug Hunter and catalogues them in different classes from the Fatalist to the Pathologic according to their level of threat to the game experience.

Bugs are a unique property of hardware and software systems. In Cinema, however, the absence of these errors is compensated by different occasions where fictional computers display abnormal behaviors that play an important role. Listed movies include famous computer gremlins from 2001 A Space Odyssey, Electric Dreams or Alphaville.

Reminiscent of the film District 9, this visual article combines the chaos of technology on the foreground with the superimposed CGI insects alluding to the original circumstances in which the computer term bug came to be.

A one-page mention to the game MACHINARIUM, by Brice Roy, underlines the exquisite aesthetics of Jakub Dvorský's game.

Possibly the most important article of this edition: a multi-paged interview with Tetsuya Mizuguchi in which he speaks openly about his early days at SEGA and the several experiences that motivated him to seek new grounds in game design when founding UGA or his recent studio Q? Entertainment.

Like many other Japanese game designers often credited as being artists because of their exquisite work - including Ueda or Kojima - Mizuguchi speaks honestly about his definition of what videogames are. The page highlight reads: To me videogames aren't art, they're entertainment.

In his career, Mizuguchi has developed a mastery in blending audio and video. The inclusion of the concept of synaesthesia in his games, particularly REZ, originated in Paris when visited the Kandinsky painting gallery. The highlight reads: Everything will merge in the future: Videogames, Music, Cinema.

The author speaks openly about his ambitions: I see myself as still being young. And that which interests me is what comes next, the next day, the next project.

Surprisingly, the final pages are printed in a different kind of paper. One of them shows a very amusing article about an inevitable ludic reference, given this specific issue's main theme: BUG, the Sega Saturn game, is recognized here as one of the most important chapters in the history of 3D games.

More information about this issue at the Amusement mag official site.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Without further ado: Haruhiko Shono

How hard it is to manage a website - a network of internet contents - on one's own. CoreGamers begun as a project where different sorts of articles could be inserted, from modern to retro gaming, from purely nonsensical delirium to the rigor of profile and interview articles. Of all the plans and expectations I deposited in that site, together with the absent co-founder, I have only been able to carry out the one which I think to be most important; the one where I am able to contribute with a small amount of information about creators who, in spite of their importance to the field of videogames, are not usually taken into consideration by mainstream media.

Some months ago, I advertised the rare chance I was given to interview Haruhiko Shono. As mentioned in the Profile and Interview article I publish today, his name might not be of importance to the witless videogame players of the current generation. I'm sure that even older generation players will have a certain difficulty in associating his name with an actual game title. But one single word, as if by magic, might help telling apart those who truly admire the art that exists in videogames and those who claim to the industry from inside out: and that word is GADGET.

Other relics from times past make their appearance in the article; the ethereal ALICE, one of the first interactive works to appeal to the love for Arts; and L-ZONE, in which the author expresses his matured admiration for video art, machinery and the coming of the digital age. Exceptionally, I've also prepared a long gallery of media to support the article: apart from the unreleased projects, published in the parent visual blog Pixels At An Exhibition, and the several materials I've been publishing for the last months, there will be high quality videos documenting his major creations. Given the fact that the Internet has been rather useless in the research for information concerning this admirable videogame designer, I felt the necessity to bridge the gaps and provide a substantial - while not definite - account of his career and the creations that define it.

This was by far the hardest research project I've dealt with in the last months, although it is extremely rewarding to receive such a positive reaction to the article from Shono himself. And it is at times like these that I understand more clearly that all this work is not in vain: it is an opportunity to learn and to pass that knowledge to others. Lastly, I would like to renew my acknowledgement to Sorrel Tilley whose help in the translation department has proved essential to the fulfilment of this personal goal - and to the many others, friends and strangers who have supported me in the completion of this piece.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Leaps of Faith - Eric Viennot interview with Jordan Mechner and Eric Chahi

One of the most fascinating aspects of videogame history concerns the spiritual nexus that unites Jordan Mechner and Eric Chahi. Working in completely different rhythms and proportions, not to mention in opposite sides of the Atlantic, their creative stance has resulted in fairly similar works given the context of their release, especially with the case of PRINCE OF PERSIA and ANOTHER WORLD. While Mechner's game was published two years earlier, Chahi has recently claimed that, at the time he created his masterpiece, he wasn't aware of his North-American counterpart's work. Considering Chahi's answer to this old question as a truthful retortion - and there is no plausible reason to question its integrity - then we are in the presence of a true videogame phenomenon.

The idea of uniting Mechner and Chahi was suggested on several occasions as the critical solution to this ancient conundrum that would confront and dispel all of the enduring myths. Making this long-held daydream a reality, the two creators were interviewed by Eric Viennot, the co-founder of the French studio Lexis Numérique and the creator of the cult classic IN MEMORIAM (see profile and interview by CoreGamers on February 2007).

An authority among France's most prodigious adepts of digital arts, Viennot is also very keen on videogame culture. Surprisingly, as explained in the introduction to this first part of the entire dialogue, the interview resulted from Jordan Mechner's initial request for help in establishing contact with Chahi. Seizing this exceptional opportunity in the role of an intermediate, Eric Viennot has drafted a number of stimulating enquiries regarding each of the interviewees’ perspectives and motivations through the course of their careers. Apart from providing a definite confirmation that Eric Chahi is involved in the creation of a new project, this interview is unquestionably one of the most important documents related to this peculiar chapter of videogame history.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

L'Histoire de Nintendo #2 - The birth of Yokoi's Micro Game legacy

Pix'N Love Editions is a French publisher specialized in creating and editing videogame books. Among dozens of issued works, concerning different companies and systems, L'Histoire de Nintendo is without a doubt their largest and most admirable endeavor. The two existing volumes of the series consist of the unmistakable result of a thorough and obsessive investigation, possible only on account of a great investment, as well as the unofficial participation of Nintendo personalities, interviewed during the course of the project. Whereas the first tome provided an absorbing account of the earliest roots of the Kyoto based company, #2, as hinted by its title 1980-1991 L'étonannte invention: les Game & Watch, explores the rise and expansion of Nintendo's first handheld system, envisioned by the late Gunpei Yokoi.

Codenamed Micro Game during its prototype phase, the Game & Watch system used a technology similar to that of dentaku (Japanese pocket calculators). Unlike its best-selling successor, the Game Boy, the G&W did not work with interchangeable cartridges and so the creation of each new game resulted in 59 unique systems released within a period of almost ten years. The Japanese phenomenon was later brought to different countries around the world, waging a battle against the predictable appearance of numerous replicas and clones – surprisingly featured in the book - that sought to cash in the portable LCD game vogue. In spite of the earlier efforts led by North-American companies such as Atari and Milton Bradley in the foundation of a handheld console market, it was Nintendo’s name that would become the universal epitome of portable gaming, a tradition that endured until this day.

With this second volume, author Fiorent Gorges and his aid in Japanese territories, Isao Yamazaki, have composed an overwhelming and wide-ranging document: not the smallest detail was disregarded in this compilation, including Yokoi's first experiments, unseen sketches of early models, detailed information of every Game & Watch series, advertising materials, official variations, byproducts and recent re-releases. Each of the 194 pages, printed in full color and extensively illustrated with the highest quality, is a heart-felt homage to one of the supreme geniuses of the industry whose tragic death resulted in the premature conclusion of a notable career. Written in an objective and passionate style, the latest volume of this succession is, to the lack of a better expression, the ultimate resource on the history of Nintendo and a paradigm of videogame publications.

More information on how to purchase this book can be found at the official website. For non-French users, please consult this brief tutorial on how to order.

Monday, September 28, 2009

It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

One week away from its release, FATALE remains a great mystery. While briefly described by its creators as an interactive vignette, no detailed information concerning its interactive system, scheme or genre was provided yet. Presented as a project of a similar scale to their previous avant-garde 2008 work, THE GRAVEYARD, FATALE has already summoned the attention of many a videogame enthusiast after Tale of Tales announced the official participation of Takayoshi Sato, of SILENT HILL fame, in the role of Character Designer.

All efforts have been made so far in order to conceal vital information regarding this upcoming title: the release of an audio trailer today is a clear statement that Tale of Tales wishes to preserve such secrecy until the fifth of October. As a follower of the official blog and an avid reader of all posts, it seems rather suitable that the promotion is being handled in this particularly awkward fashion, given the game designer's interest of late for sound novels and other alternative game designs. Already it is possible to verify the quality of the exotic soundtrack, aptly created by Gerry de Mol, of the vibrant sound effects, designed by Kris Force, as well as the sensuous voice acting and unique musical talent of Jarboe.

Based on Salome, the 1891 Oscar Wilde play depicting the events that lead to the beheading of John the Baptist at the request of the dancing temptress, FATALE should be regarded as one of most important indie events of this year for several plausible reasons: not only it is the first work after the release of the sensational THE PATH, selected as finalist in different game award festivals, as it is a rare gathering of specialists in different areas of digital content production. What is more, the selection of such an erudite theme - a direct consequence of Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn's desire to explore mature contents in the field of digital games - altogether with the exquisite artistic skills shown in the past by the studio, will surely to bring about a controversial and equally memorable experience.

More information can be found at the
official site.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Machinarium sneak preview @ ACG

Quite the masterpiece. As MACHINARIUM is nearing its completion, I've written a thorough preview article for Adventure Classic Gaming based on my personal experience with two different builds of the game. This should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with SAMOROST: Amanita Design, an exceptionally talented ensemble, has managed to create one of the single best adventure titles of all time in what is their first attempt at a full-sized production.

The regal aesthetic sensbility and exquisite visual design, undeniably
one of the Czech studio's staples, are merely the first of many accomplishments: its storytelling methods confront years of adventure game design canons; Thomas Dvořák, making justice to his own name, has composed a transcending, expressive and highly atmospheric soundtrack that succeeds in intensifying the unique experience; additionally, there is something of an unprecedented poetic beauty to the very act of puzzle solving.

Contrasting with the tedious and mind-numbing spiral of reiteration and recycling that defines the recent history of the adventure genre, Amanita Design led the project with unusual creative vigor and maturity. By carefully managing its own references and inspirations, MACHINARIUM achieves a rare state of equilibrium between an alternative legacy of videogames, eastern European animation, science fiction literature, silent cinema and twentieth century plastic art. All this will become available for download somewhere in the fall of this year.

Also be sure to take a look at the exclusive sketches and artworks gallery, authored by Jakub Dvorsky and Adolf Lachman, that I published in the parent blog Pixels at an Exhibition.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Trip like I do

DETUNED was released just moments ago in the PlayStation Store. Sold for a symbolic price, this is the best and only existing alternative to Q-Games' GAIA in the category of dynamic music visualizers. The main difference resides in the larger amount of interactive features, namely a series of modifications that can be made to the on-screen elements in real time.

Developed by .theprodukkt, a team related to the demoscene community, DETUNED's magnificent visual presentation is located halfway between a psychedelic delirium and an Aphex Twin videoclip. This small application, following Plastic's LINGER IN SHADOWS, may very well bring new impetus to the creation of similar demos depending on its reception: if nothing else, it has already brought me new and uncanny reasons for listening to music on the PS3.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Otocky @ HG101

Motivated by the impressive technology of the Disk System, young multimedia artist and visionary Toshio Iwai, later responsible for SimTunes and Electroplankton, was the first to envision a dynamic and reactive use of music as the central element of a genuine videogame. His project, designed along with SEDIC and published by ASCII Corporation, was given a strange albeit contagious presentation for that which is easily one of the most singular and innovative games of all time. Named after its congenial robot protagonist, this stroke of genius came to be known as Otocky. (read full article)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Keeping it unreal

Fila C has posted the full series of the branded PlayStation 2 TV commercials directed by David Lynch, one of the most daring publicity initiatives of recent videogame history - well within the same line as Cunningham's ads for the original PlayStation. Seeing it in perspective does make one wonder about the exact circumstances in which one of the most influential film directors of our time got involved in a project of this nature: financial reasons have undoubtedly played a vital role, notwithstanding.

Altogether, these short clips provide a very definite notion of the mature audience that the Japanese company so wanted to captivate, in a rather refreshing deviation from the recurrent puerile advertising campaigns proposed by other companies in the same branch. As works of surreal marketing that originate from the depths of Lynch’s twisted sense of imagination, their viewing (or reviewing) is by all means indispensable.

Friday, August 28, 2009

FYI - CoreGamers Blog Structure

While I agree it could have been possible to cram all my work into one single space, I enjoy having several blogs as each one of them provides me a new impetus to keep on writing and creating these contents. Each one expresses a different part of my videogame researcher persona, possibly the reason why I ended up creating different pages where to accomodate my thoughts. In case you take any pleasure from reading my texts, please bear in mind that there is always something new and hopefully of interest in the other blogs, placed at the mere distance of a click. Thank you all for visiting.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Chronicles of a cosmophobic sleuth

It's been 15 years - yes, that long. In my case 13 full years. It has been that long, in fact, little more than a decade since I first read about POLICENAUTS on JapanMania, namely the 1996 re-release of the game for the Playstation and Saturn consoles, an improved version of an already redesigned port from the old PC-9821 to the CD-Rom age and the impressive hardware of 3D0. And yet the first glance at that newly translated start menu - whose theme will sound vaguely intriguing, at least, for those more familiar with the original METAL GEAR SOLID - was enough to make me feel like I finally had gotten there: now I can once and for all put away the Japanese dictionary, close the Kanji translating applications because of Marc Laidlaw and Artemio Urbina, to whom I shall be eternally grateful.

And what is the appeal of a game such as POLICENAUTS in mid-2009? Upon hearing about the newly released English translation patch for the Playstation version I feared that the appeal of the age-old game had somehow worn-off, vanished as did the interest for so many games wane with the passage of time. Yet not for POLICENAUTS. A few minutes in that redolent, messy dim-lit office were more than sufficient to remind me of how pleasurable this unique adventure classic was and still is. Without any control over my emotions I found myself invaded with strong returning memories of anime-style cyber city landscapes and rare depictions of Kindred Dick noire futures - truly rejoicing for having lived this long to see the day when they translated Policenauts.

There is also a strange appeal to this particular translation, emanating from its will to single-handedly reunite East with West. Having learned a little more about Kojima's unique mindset in the meantime, it seems rather natural to me, if not relieving, that such conversion appears after so many announces and failed attempts. His games, for reasons that may defy rational explanation, have always seemed to belong to the universe of that particular dialect: contrary to what can be verified in so many other distinguished titles from Japan, they conform and excel in it.

Additionally, I've come to believe that Kojima stands quite possibly as the one Japanese game author whose close references to the Hollywood imaginary of action and science fiction films seem to require the employment of English names and terms beyond the already frequent Japanese neologisms. And how beautifully captured is this lone gumshoe’s soliloquy, blended imperceptibly into the game with such an allusive roman alphabetic font type. At last - officially or not, the devil may care -, POLICENAUTS was released on this our side of the world.

Mr. Ingram, Mr. Brown: we’ve been expecting you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

PlayStation Store Presents: Game Diggin'

Game Diggin is a new Playstation Network video feature that is freely downloadable from the Japanese Playstation Store, apparently in an effort to generate more interest for the Playstation classics, as well as to boost up the sales of that catalogue. The hilarious show is hosted by none other than Teppei, a famous personality in Japan, along with the director of Famitsu PS3+PSP, Araji Yatsuka. In every show, a new guest is invited to demonstrate or simply play the selected game. In this first episode the show revisits, with the help of a gamer under the nickname Bunbunmaru, the first episode of the legendary AZITO series: a highly popular strategy game designed by Astec 21 and published by Hamster (before the sequels were given out by Banpresto). The game consists of an underground terrain where the player must create a solid shelter in order to protect people from the attacks of the vicious demons - given the programme's title, no other game could have been a better choice for its dazzling premiere.

Due to the great popularity of the re-release of FINAL FANTASY VII, Teppei and Araji, along with Eri Kawai, revisit the first moments of the game and discuss why Cloud was considered the top character of this Squaresoft mega-hit, according to a fondly-remembered Famitsu article from the time. Araji also mentions the Phantom Train from FINAL FANTASY VI as a possible inspiration for the use of trains in the seventh episode. Apart from this section, certainly inspired by another very famous videogame-related TV show, there is a weekly top 5 of the best sold and most popular PSX downloads on the store.

The second part of the first episode follows exactly the same approach. The well-known Taito shooter RAYSTORM is played in the company of guest Saji Kikuo in a two player match. The highlight of this episode (and of the whole show so far, in my opinion) was the choice of TAIL OF THE SUN for the next section, to which the author of the game Kazutoshi Iida was invited. Showing some of the game's most amazing and hidden features, Iida, whom I mentioned recently in an EasternMind article about his upcoming WiiWare game, provides a few minutes of sheer laughter in his own unique style.

A new episode has already been released, highlighting titles such as build your own arcade strategy game DEKIRU! GAME CENTER, the branded FIRE PRO WRESTLING, the single Playstation episode of the famous fishing RPG KAWA NO NUSHI TSURI series (RIVER KING) and finally, coinciding with the first four PC Engine re-releases on the PS3, Hudson's hit platformer ADVENTURE ISLAND (video uploads via PSPTeam on Viddler).

Friday, August 14, 2009

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet - Interview with Joseph Olson (Fuelcell Games) and Michel Gagné

INSANELY TWISTED SHADOW PLANET is an independent Fuelcell Games project being produced with the collaboration of the renowned cartoonist and animator Michel Gagné. In spite of his previous work in the field, this is the first venture where the Canadian artist is actively participating in the process of game design. The Seattle based studio is working on a very peculiar adaptation his series of interstitials entitled Insanely Twisted Shadow Puppets, consisting of brief, dark-humored segments of high-quality digital animation.

ITSP presents an incredibly smooth vector graphics environment - as seen in the recent HD trailer - where the player controls a vintage 1950’s flying saucer in the battle against an oppressive force of bizarre creatures inhabiting the obscure planet. Both Michel Gagné and Joe Olson, from Fuelcell studios, were kind enough to answer some of my questions for a brief interview regarding the production of this highly original reinvention of the old shoot'em up game genre.

CoreGaming | Mr. Gagné, given your wide experience in the fields of cartoons, comics, concept art, animation, cinema and television, it was rather surprising to learn that you had never participated directly in the creation of a videogame: how did the idea to adapt one of your animated features to this new format originate?

Michel GAGNÉ | About three years ago, I met Joe Olson at an FX workshop I was giving in Seattle. Shortly after, Joe emailed me and said that he’d love to do a videogame project with me. We met for lunch and started brainstorming about some ideas. I told him I had virtually no experience working in games, and to my surprise, he replied that it was a good thing. His thought was that the game industry was in need of fresh ideas and an industry outsider who has a strong artistic style could bring something unique to the table. I didn’t know much about the game process so it became a new challenge that I embraced with great enthusiasm.

Joe mentioned to me that we should do a game based on the design of a series of interstitials called Insanely Twisted Shadow Puppets I created in 2005. That was the starting point.

Joseph Olson at the Fuelcell studio space.

CoreGaming | Judging by the video presentations, ITSP seems to be a very ambitious project. Could you tell me more about the production team and the sort of technologies you're currently using?

Joseph OLSON | We started with Torque Game Builder, mainly because it was geared towards 2D game creation, allowed us to mix 3D assets in with the 2D in a convincing way, and most importantly it is fairly cheap for a source code license. Over the course of preproduction we’ve made various improvements and alterations in order to increase productivity and get the desired results.

The team here at Fuelcell is comprised of a handful of industry veterans - myself being in the industry for about 12 years now. Basically a bunch of guys in the Seattle area I've worked with over the years, as well as some newer folks brought in especially for this project. A good portion of us come from the special FX side of things, which is why creating a game with Michel made so much sense. Like most small independent studios these days we have taken on a lot of contract work for other games to keep the money flowing and the team together.

CoreGaming | I've read that the game is planned for release in multiple platforms: how is it like negotiating the game with different manufacturers?

Joseph OLSON | As we're still in negotiations, it's tough to answer this question. We're talking with a lot of different publishers right now and they all have slightly different visions for which platforms our game would appear on. We do wish to put this on as many platforms as makes sense, with the HD platforms (360 and PS3) being the main focus.

CoreGaming | Independent games abound at present. Everyday we witness the release of yet another independent title: some of them based on uprecedented concepts, whereas others are essentially modern-day homages to classic videogame titles. What do you think are the most innovative and interesting features in ITSP and to what audience are you aiming at?

Joseph OLSON | While the biggest feature is obviously Michel’s style and fluid feature quality animation at HD resolution, we’re very excited about our zoom technology, which allows us to zoom in or out in a given environment while keeping the resolution sharp. We first used it in our splash screen menu but have since started experimenting with using it in gameplay. One example I can give at this time is a viral attack game. Your UFO is attacked by a cloud of viral entities, at which point the camera zooms incredibly far in on the surface of your hull, where you then take control of a white blood cell type craft and have to frantically sweep up the virals before they infect your UFO. The transitions to and from this nano game and realtime are really quite impressive.

We're lucky to have a wide ranging audience for this game. Michel's stark art style appeals across age groups, casual and core gamers, as well as internationally. It's not often a western artist is so well received in the east, so we're fortunate in that respect. The development team grew up playing classic arcade and console games, so the gameplay is heavily influenced by games like MEGA MAN, R-TYPE, and the like.

CoreGaming | Is there a release date in your mind at the moment?

Joseph OLSON | No release date as of yet, stay tuned to the official blog for more news on that front in the coming months!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

NES Revival: Rendezvous with Zeus

Long before TITAN QUEST or GOD OF WAR, Greek Mythology already bore a substantial appeal to the videogame playing audience. Infinity's THE BATTLE OF OLYMPUS was without a doubt one of the most impressive titles in its time, more so than its thematic predecessor HERAKLES NO EIKOU: TOUJIN MAKYOU, also released for the Famicom. In the role of Orpheus, the player must travel across the Greek peninsula and islands in order to save his beloved Eurydice from the underworld of Hades - the original Japanese title refers to the game as LEGEND OF LOVE. In order to reach the final enemy, the player must meet with the gods, earn new powers while recollecting items, weapons and the crucial fragments of love that will enable Orpheus to travel to Tartarus.

I learned about this NES title long before I got the chance to try it in a French version of Super Power, the Official Nintendo Magazine. In that particular issue there was a guide with several pictures showing the different locations of the game that captivated me deeply. In spite of how similar it looked to LEGEND OF ZELDA II: LINK'S ADVENTURE, I've always recognized this game's merit in the portrayal of Greek mythos - a task in which the game was quite exceptional bearing its context in mind. As a post-METROID production, it came to include a non-linear exploration of the maps that provided, perhaps for the first time in the history of videogames, a small but authentic taste of a virtual Hellas: an alluring invitation to enter another world where the legendary cities, temples, divinities and monsters have come to life once more after centuries of slumber.

I sat down a few days ago not only to renew my acquaintance with the NES, but also to play this game more extensively. As expected from a 1988 title, the level of skill required to play it is very demandind from the get-go. The experience itself, nevertheless, is as charming and beguiling as it ever was.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What lies beneath

Edge Online published a rather interesting interview with Yasuhiro Wada, the former Natsume prodigy who created HARVEST MOON, now chief officer in Marvelous Entertainment. Some days ago, Wada has posted a highly controversial message in the company blog stating how the Japanese gaming market is shrinking and has lost touch with the demand for quality and originality. In spite of the negative responses to this statement, the fact remains that for the first time in years, an agent of the industry has recognized that the current lack of innovation in games has driven away many of the passionate players from older generations.

Marvelous Entertainment has been responsible, among others, for some of the best Wii and DS releases of recent memory, from NO MORE HEROES to OBORO MURAMASA YŌTŌDEN, including LITTLE KING'S STORY and LOL (ARCHIME DS): additionally it has developed intimate relationships with some of Japan's most notable studios like Grasshopper Manufacture, skip, Cing, Town Factory or Arte Piazza.

However the company still struggles with financial drawbacks which often come as a surprise in light of the positive reception from critics. As an expert in his field and a person who seems to be aware of the subtleties leading to the actual state of gaming in Japan, Wada presents a rather challenging series of opinions: furthermore, judging by his company’s clean record and increasing relevance in the actual market, this is a rare case where the theory about exploring new fields of game design is effectively backed up by practice.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The White Company

Established in 1974, the Shibuya-based group Shirogumi was formed by ex-Toei Animation studio members and worked for the better part of its existence in the field of animated pictures. For the last fifteen years, the company presided by Tatsuo Shimamura turned to the area of special visual effects and computer graphics, actively participating in the creation of celebrated Japanese TV series and mo such as Returner, Always Sanchōme no Yūhi or the award-winning anime Piano No Mori.

Their liaison with the industry of videogames has also been essential to their development, counting with dozens of participations not only in the production of pre-rendered movie sequences but also in the creation of character models, props, lighting and even animation. With clients ranging from large enterprises (such as NAMCO, CAPCOM, Square-Enix) to smaller and independent ensembles (Grasshopper, Punchline, etc), Shirogumi has earned a unyielding reputation as one of the most reliable and professional studios in their branch, accounting for their ever increasing demand. Apart from the projects where Shirogumi plays a central role in the development course, the employment of specialists from this provenance as a part of the support and consulting staff is also very frequent. In this advantageous environment, suscpetible to exponential growth, names like Akira Iwamoto and Takashi Yamazaki from the Shirogumi workforce soon became a reference of CGI directing.

Due to significant advancements in real-time rendering, provided by recent console and personal computer technologies, the use of full motion video is slowly being supplanted by in-game full motion animation. As it has been often stated, the use of CGI has been a valuable resource for developers in achieving a greater level of visual detail that has been, so far, impossible to attain with real-time imagery. To a certain extent, some companies, mainly Japanese, continue using pre-rendered graphic sequences as an enhancement to the visual spectacle - a feature closely associated to the so-called JRPG genre – since the proprietary game engines are still very distant from what a FMV can present. In addition, the recurrent use of this technique as an embellishment has mutated into the form of a traditional resource, now deeply rooted in Japanese game design mannerisms.

This conundrum of pre-rendered versus real-time finds a similar parallel in the motion picture industry, namely with the converse process of replacing mechanical special effects with computer generated imagery, now the dominant and economic option for filmmakers. In the field of videogames, CGI has played the ungrateful role of a two-edged sword for long: providing exciting cinematics with otherwise unfeasible detail but, simultaneously, a new visual layer that spawns acute contrasts among different strata of minutiae. With time, this implicit transition between the disproportioned parts becomes an impulse instantly assimilated by players as a shift between interactivity and non-interactivity, not unlike the paradigm of classic conditioning. Such clearly identifiable unevenness, notwithstanding, might be perceived as the result of the asynchronicity between the contending schemes. In essence, both evolve towards the realization of a common objective as demonstrated by the visible similtudes shared by today's real-time 3D and the pre-rendered images of older console generations.

Given the exception of several relevant titles where Shirogumi’s participation was less noticeable, the following list comprises the studio’s finest works in the field of traditional animation and CGI, adorning some of the most important titles of recent memory. Surprisingly, the range of the group's work is pervasive to the point of seeming ubiquity. As questionable as the (abusive) use of this technique might be in the creation of videogames, and despite the improved transitions between modes as seen in Mistwalker’s THE LOST ODYSSEY, there should be no plausible argument to refute the intrinsic optical spectacle casted in these memorable segments of digital graphics whose individual merit is far beyond apprehension.

Squaresoft 1997

Wolfteam / NAMCO 1997

Squaresoft 1998

CAPCOM 2001, 2002, 2004


Human 2003

NAMCO 2003

Game Republic 2005, 2006

NAMCO 2005

Square-Enix 2006

RULE OF ROSE (see intro video)
Punchline 2006

Atlus 2006

Tri-Ace 2006

Mistwalker 2006

Game Republic 2007

Japan Studio 2007

Mistwalker 2007

Grasshopper Manufacture 2007

Tri-Ace 2008

From Software 2008