My Ugly Games #1: Ugly Orbs

August 9, 2009


FROM JASON’S COMPETITIVE NATURE — It’s not that I hate Andrew, or want to crush him with my gauntlet of justice, or desire to tread over the dusty remains of his bones.

It’s just that when I saw his most recent post — the first in seven months — about his Lovely Games experiments with Lua and Love2D, all that nostalgia about using ClickTeam’s software came rushing back.

Here’s Ugly Orbs, the sworn arch-enemy of Lovely Squares. Maybe more will come. Who knows? I have some old games sitting around that have been complete or half-complete for four or five years. Boy, those were fun.

See, while Andrew’s been learning fancy-schmansy methods of “programming” and “coding” and “scripting,” I laid out some big bucks a few years back for The Games Factory and later MultiMedia Fusion. These object-oriented engines are very good at helping you slap together working applications using a WYSIWYG interface, an intuitive event editor to tell your game pieces how to act, and a graphics editor that’s fairly full-featured (I still use Photoshop for most sprite editing, though).

So the game that Andrew spent 10 hours on last week took me about four with the help of the right software. And I’m a retard, barely able to navigate Linux, write HTML, or edit a config.sys file. So if I can emulate his skills, you know ClickTeam’s stuff is powerful magic.

By the way, most of the sprites I used came from a Sinistar clone. They were released into the public domain by the author over at Lost Garden. It’s very possible that (if I can rouse the energy and willpower) I might do a shooter using the same graphics.


Left 4 Dead’s got great strategic scope, but hopefully modders will add even more

February 21, 2009

FROM JASON’S APOCALYPTIC ARSENAL — Despite initially cheerleading for the game, some critics said Left 4 Dead was destined to sparkle and fade in a matter of a month.

Well, two months after install I am still happily slaying hordes of the infected in the sewers under Mercy Hospital and under the shadows of trees in Pennsylvania state parks. True, there are plenty of things I’d love to see added to the game: the ability to build barricades, turrets, trip wires or razor wire, lay land mines, use flame-throwers, bazookas, place oil slicks, plant dynamite, string barbed wire fencing, use rivers and streams tactically, use chainsaws, axes, and baseball bats, set up stakes….

All that may well come when Valve releases its Source Development Kit this spring, along with additional free levels in which to go-a-zombie-slayin’. I’m hoping that some clever fan-boys with coding skills will dream up some brilliant maps with ample opportunities to lay ambush sites and take to snipers’ nests.

In the meantime, Left 4 Dead is still holding my attention quite well. As Tinker-Toy-ish as the game is in its simplicity, it still offers a wide strategical array if you’re willing to communicate with other survivors. For instance, I recently discovered how overlooked and powerful the hunting rifle actually is (see YouTube video above).

Every n00b starts with the machine guns — as was evidenced last weekend when waves of squeaky-voiced 12-year-olds inundated the servers as Steam ran a half-off sale. Those pimply newcomers made all the rookie mistakes. They shot alarmed cars, nailed boomers at close range, and walked through metal detectors. Worst of all, they all went straight for the uzis and assault rifles.

Now the automatics aren’t all bad, but they suffer for a lack of precision and punch. Most seasoned players stick to the auto shotgun, but I’ve found the rifle has enough stopping power to punch through multiple zombies with a single shot, and the versatility to pull one-shot-one-kill from afar with the sniping scope.

Now, the rifle’s not going to do much against a tank (unless you get far enough away to put several clips in him), but it’s perfect for picking off un-alert infected while sitting high above, or zeroing in on smokers and boomers before they can get in range to do harm. It’s even perfect (refer once more to my video) for dropping slugs into a witch while sitting safe and sound across open ground.

So this is the second time I’ve gone all fanboy over Left 4 Dead. The first time, I mentioned that it sports enough strategic nuances to make Sun Tzu proud; at the time, it was a throw-away joke, but since then I’ve taken the time to actually read The Art of War — something I’ve always wanted to do. You should read it, too. It’s short.

Anyway, the bulk of the work focuses on command decisions, understanding your enemy, marshaling troops, and managing them on the field. But in reading the translation, there were several tactical truisms I couldn’t help but apply to Left 4 Dead:

“In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack – the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers. The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn.”

This is true. In game, you can run around shooting the undead until your ammo is gone, or you can lure them into fire, draw them in crowds to pipe bombs, or push them from ledges to their deaths on the pavement or ravines below.

“Should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.”

Remember how Hitler (and Napoleon before him) tried to march into the Eastern and Western fields of battle at the same time, and his forces were ground to hamburger? Waging a multi-front war is a bad idea, and my blood turns to ice when brash young players want to “each take a window and hold them off” instead of bottlenecking. Speaking of which:

“With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.”

Dead ends are your friend. Get your back against a wall, load your weapon, and let the zombies pour through the narrow openings like Persians onto the waiting swords of Spartans. If Leonidas taught you just one thing, it’s that a very few can hold off millions if the correct terrain is chosen to make a stand.

“With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.”

Seek high ground. It takes time for infected to climb the sides of a truck, or a perch, or a stairwell, or a building. And they can’t attack while climbing, either. It’s true in both swordplay and gunplay — take the high road, and the advancing enemy below will fall into your hands.

“…Those who use fire as an aid to the attack show intelligence…”

This is so elementary: Set up gasoline cans in key zombie rush lanes, wait for them to pour into the gap in numbers, and then ignite the fuel with a single shot. Watch one bullet and a little hydrocarbon wipe out two-dozen infected. Arm a molotov and repeat.

These are all tremendously simple tactics, but the wonderful thing about Left 4 Dead is that the designers left a rich and varied topography where they can be applied in many ways. After all, the game is fairly limited in scope when you strip it down to the essentials — a few select weapons, health packs, and fire. But it’s the combination with the environment that keeps me going back, and I don’t expect my fascination with the game to run dry anytime soon.

Homemade utility install disks are a lost art

January 19, 2009

floppy8FROM JASON’S HARD DRIVE — Back in the deep recesses of time, in an era of blackest techno-prehistoria of the 1990s, when IBM computers still roamed the Earth and the mighty Megahertzaurus ruled, I had a magic CD full of essential software for clean installs.

I’ve set up several computers in the past month, including one that I’ve formatted and reloaded three times with different operating systems. I’ve found myself missing that old CD, but not needing it.

dysan_floppy_disk_011That disc held all kinds of goodies: system utilities like Zip-It Deluxe, WinAmp, modem drivers, task tray hacks, RAM optimizers, benchmark tools, system.ini backups, and a hard drive rescue program. Several of these were leftovers from the days when the magic utilities were all crammed on a tiny 3.5-inch diskette.

cdromThanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, those fixed mediums aren’t necessary anymore. I still felt myself in the past few weeks reaching for the old canvas CD case under my computer desk, though. Of course, the absolutely must-have apps these days are much different; here are the ones that I install right away on a fresh install:

AdBlock Plus
Download Status Bar
PDF Download
Image Zoom

Java, Flash, VLC Media Player, IrfanView

7-Zip, WinRAR, TweakUI, ZoneAlarm Firewall

Digsby, Skype, iTunes, Open Office

RocketDock, Yod’m 3D

NOTE: So if I’m being honest, none of these are revolutionary finds for the computer savvy. But if you’re setting up a Windows machine for the first time and you need the basics, this list will get you there. It’s also going to serve as a checklist for the next time I need a fresh install for myself or friends, which has become disturbingly frequent.

I also realized in writing this post just how many third-party shell hacks have been assimilated into Windows. You used to need seperate programs to make icon text transparent; to make quick-launch bars; to more efficiently manage RAM, to monitor the system benchmarks; to set up drivers; to optimize hard drive efficiency; to do color and gamma management; to tweak power usage or core temperature.

I’m kind of lonely for that mid-90s need for under-the-hood work.

YesterGames #3: Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

March 6, 2008

FROM JASON’S GLOBE-TROTTING COMPUTER — My biggest fear, the one paranoia that keeps me awake some nights, is that we’re breeding idiots. The only thing keeping hope alive is Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego (download).

In America, we’re very good at certain things. Geography is not one of them. A 2006 survey conducted by the National Geographic Society found half of young Americans can’t find New York on a map and only 37 percent can find Iraq. The Society gave 510 U.S. citizens a weighted geography test and found that youngsters answered about 54 percent of the questions correctly, while most adults ages 18 to 24 failed.

And we’re not just talking about being able to label state capitals, here, folks. My fellow Americans don’t understand much about foreign culture, language, religion or history. Three-quarters of those tested didn’t know that Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim nation, and the same number thought English is the most-spoken language in the world (it’s actually Mandarin).

The study also found:

  • 75 percent could not find Israel on a map.
  • 44 percent could not find Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Iran.
  • 88 percent could not identify Afghanistan on a map.
  • 54 percent did not know Sudan is in Africa.
  • 40 percent did not know Rwanda is in Africa.
  • 35 percent were able to identify Pakistan as the country where 70,000 people died in an earthquake in October 2005.
  • 67 percent were able to find Louisiana on a U.S. map.
  • 52 percent were able to find Mississippi on a U.S. map.
  • 69 percent found China on a map — and it registered as one of the few recognized countries outside of North America.

Public schools keep churning out geographically and historically illiterates, but I credit software developer Broderbund with doing more to further my knowledge of those subjects than any teacher or class.

The Carmen Sandiego series of computer games was born in 1985 with Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego, which would run on ludicrously slow computers and CGA monitors. It had the advantage of being prevalent in a time when edutainment software still had a viable share of the market, and I remember playing it at school and then begging my parents to buy a copy for home on my 286.

The game is little more than a test to see if you know that Indians speak Hindi, that Tokyo is a world electronics capital, that the Aztecs ruled what is now Mexico, that the Niger River is in Africa, that sherpas can be found in Kathmandu, and that Ferdinand Magellan didn’t quite circumnavigate the globe.

But it’s disguised as a crime caper, allowing you to chase down goofy suspects who’ve stolen impossible maguffins — like the Leaning Tower of Pisa — and gone on the lam. Using clues gathered as you fly around the world, you have to stay on the thief’s trail, get a warrant, and make an arrest.

Sure, there are some softball clues lobbed in there (“She was asking what the exchange rate is on the peso.”) but there are also some brain busters. I played this game for two hours Monday and Tuesday and was hooked the whole time, smiling stupidly to myself as I relived a huge part of my childhood and stretched my brain.

I also couldn’t get the theme song from the Carmen Sandiego game show on PBS out of my head. When I was 11, I watched every afternoon at 5 p.m. and was howling pre-adolescent profanity at the screen because the questions were so easy.

You’ve got to watch this. Full episode ahead:

If you have a student age 8 to 13 (or maybe a little older if they aren’t wusses), I can think of no better learning tool than Where In the Wold Is Carmen Sandiego?. The 1990 deluxe edition can be found at Home of the Underdogs, or if you have the scruples it can still be purchased from Broderbund for $10.

HOTU also has downloads for:

MDK’s gameplay gimmicks hold up years later

January 25, 2008

mdk3.jpgFROM JASON’S CD CASE O’ LOST GAMES — The third-person shooter is a fairly standard vidjagame staple now, especially on consoles, thanks to titles like God of War, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Grand Theft Auto III.But back in 1997, it was a pretty novel concept.

MDK was among the first I remember playing in that genre, and I was gripped by a sudden urge Sunday night to play it after I saw a (totally unnecessary) HUD on Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles that reminded me of the game’s sniping action.

Of course, I had to rummage for about 20 minutes yesterday before I found the CD-ROM tucked away in the piles of software under my computer desk.

The game is short, and after some fiddling with the control scheme and about an hour making screenshots I ran through it real quick in three two-hour sittings. But don’t think shortness equals boring — especially if you take the time to toy with that sniping action.


MDK ostensibly stands for “Murder, Death, Kill” or maybe “Mission Deliver Kindness” — I remember the magazine ad campaign back in the day toyed with the acronym to hilarious effect (one ad tagline read “Massive Dollops of Ketchup”).

Kindly delivering the human race from the hands of aliens, though, was the mission of the game, so that’s what sticks in my mind.

There’s a plot of sorts: A slightly deranged scientist discovers aliens are heading for Earth aboard city-sized strip-mining ships to harvest its resources. He designs a high-tech fighting suit for his janitor — that’s you — including leather armor, an arm-mounted chain gun, and mostly importantly a pterodactyl-ish head-mounted sniper cannon that can shoot everything from mortars to guided bullets.

The “coil suit” also has a built-in parachute, which allows you to glide pretty long distances or even fly through the air on updrafts.

I’m not going to pretend that the plot is very deep or that it matters to the gameplay (just shoot everything). It is to third person shooters what Super Mario Brothers was to platformers.


The thing that is terribly important, though, is the game’s sense of humor. Some enemies hold nice, big targets you to aim at, you can call in an air strike by your robotic dog, if you aim properly you can actually shoot enemy eyeballs right out of the socket, and if you beat the game you’re treated to a non-sequiter French technopop tune.

Unlike Quake, Jedi Knight, or Duke Nukem 3D — all games that I remember playing in 1997 — you’re not exploring big dungeons with cramped passageways, hidden areas, and dozens of routes through each level. MDK is linear, taking you from one fighting area or puzzle area to the next. The difference is scope; MDK’s fighting arenas are sprawling affairs and the developers used some impressive software acceleration techniques to get the enormous levels to render without laggy load times.

MDK practically screamed along on my P133 with 128mb RAM and a 16mb 3D card, which for the day was a terrific machine. My parents had just upgraded from a 486 with 66mb RAM, and I was in geek gaming heaven moving from traditional 3D platforming to actual, immersive games (although they were choppy and low-res). Today I’m slumming with a 2.4ghz processor, 1.5 gigs of RAM and a 256mb graphics card, and MDK works as well as ever.

mdk4.jpgGraphics aside (and yes, they can be pretty damned square), MDK’s handling — if calibrated correctly — is just as good as modern entries to the genre such as Star Wars Battlefront. The developers allowed for what at the time was unprecedented mouse control, including mapping to the then-fairly-rare middle mouse button. Using the keyboard alone, the setup is crude and almost unwieldy. But with a little tweaking you can get the jumping, strafing, flying, sniping, and shooting all in easy reach.

I’m not really sure where we landed on the whole abandonware argument, but I can tell you that Home of the Underdogs has a free full CD version download. I couldn’t find a place where Moby Games was still directly selling it, but if you really feel compelled to pay somebody, then Amazon has used copies for about $4.

EXTRA: Here’s a neat list of the top PC games from 1997 that I found while doing some background research. Can you just feel that nostalgia seeping in over your Intarnets?