Sunday, 9 October 2016

Idolising the Pixel

Over the past decade or so the pixel has gone mainstream. High-definition televisions and media formats really put the number ‘1080’ in the mouths of anybody upgrading their bulky cathode ray tube TV, and inevitably the layman question “1080 what?” had to be answered. The seventh generation of video game consoles (specifically PS3 and Xbox 360) arrived to showcase that High-Definition. That very few games ran natively at 1080 was immaterial - HD had landed! And with our hi-res obsession came a new appreciation for the humble pixel itself; after all, those individual blocks made up all our jaggy games of old. But as the novelty of anti-aliased polygons wore off, players and developers began looking back and embracing the 2D pixel aesthetic from the earliest video games. And that aesthetic spread into fashion, furniture and art. Pixels even got an eponymous movie last year (about which we shall never again speak.) ‘80s retrogame-chic pops up everywhere these days – Famicom phone cases, Tetris t-shirts, Atari manbags - they are cultural callbacks to the dawn of our digital age and are displayed as badges of lo-fi credibility – we were there at the beginning when the now-Disneyfied plumber was just a 16x12 collection of squares.
Box and manual art for early home console games were designed not only to really pop on store shelves,
but also to give the players an idea what those rudimentary, pixelated blobs actually represented.

Nintendo embraced their sprites and advertised them
prominently on their boxes in the West from the beginning.

But they were muddy, blurry squares. Modern remasters and emulators outputting 1080p via upscale trickery make us forget the colourful gloop most of us saw as we sat in the glow of our curved screens thirty years ago. We forget that those games were never designed to be viewed in HD. We forget that while some companies embraced the pixel in their advertising, most attempted to hide their ‘ugly’ cuboid characters behind hyper realistic or extravagant covers that bore little relation to the sprite but, instead, communicated what players were ‘supposed’ to be seeing. Beyond that, players had to impose their own imagination on the impressionist canvas of the flickering CRT. Our current pin-sharp pixel worship doesn’t celebrate a return to the purity of some past experience, but highlights that this modern fixation actually echoes far older artistic preoccupations.

Some examples of the work
of street artist Invader.

Alexander the Great. Pfff, hardly. Not even 720.

We've been creating and idolising lo-fi interpretations of the real world for centuries. Art history constantly demonstrates the deconstruction of complex forms into simpler blocks for rebuilding and reconfiguration. Greco-Roman mosaic tiles offer an ancient analogue to the pixel, although they allow the viewer to appreciate the image’s complexity in a way an animated sprite couldn’t until we were able to screen-grab and fetishise each frame. Unlike mosaics or textiles where intricacy is easily considered and appreciated in the final product, animated art usually prevents similar analysis without disrupting the final form. When taken in isolation and out of context, ironically it’s often the economy of pixel art rather than the detail that is most admirable in a field governed by strict technical limitations. The implication of a single pixel on a character can read differently to every player. I was always convinced that Sonic the Hedgehog had no visible mouth. Looking closely at the sprite blown up on a monitor, one could argue that the darker red pixels imply his mouth but I always perceived a defiant, determined frown, not the shit-eating grin he wore in all accompanying media that fed into his ‘hog with ‘tude persona. The sprite was open to individual interpretation.

“Enemy GAUDIZARD attacked!”
In the 19th Century ‘realism' in painting and portraiture lost relevance somewhat following the invention of the photographic camera. The Impressionists began exploring the effects of light and the eye’s perception of a scene, and more abstract takes and movements followed.

Pointillism is a painting technique involving thousands of coloured ‘points’ painted to create the scene, much as sub-pixels use RGB to represent the whole colour spectrum. It’s perhaps most famously exemplified by George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884. Try zooming in on those sub-pixels!

Intricately beautiful, but a ‘mare to animate. [Source]

This retreat to the abstract is echoed in video game history – the constant drive towards 3D, sandbox play experiences and photorealism created an offshoot of games exploring a more ‘abstract’ aesthetic. This occurred even before games entered the third dimension. While Rareware shot for incredible 3D-esque sprites in 1994’s Donkey Kong Country, which were certainly impressive at the time, Shigeru Miyamoto resisted calls from within Nintendo to replicate that style in Yoshi’s Island and instead raided the crayon box, producing a look that still stands up today. The ‘Celda’ controversy surrounding Wind Waker was the result of developers maturing artistically and being chastised by a playerbase excited by the Spaceworld 2000 tech teaser and locked into the mindset of MORE REALISTIC = BETTER. Wind Waker’s timeless art style endures in a way its follow-up, Twilight Princess: Fan Appeasement, simply doesn’t. Nintendo, as with all large companies, are somewhat hamstrung by their audience, but the ‘indie’ studios that sprung up in the late ‘00s were free to make bold artistic choices which happily dovetailed with their limited resources and growing retro nostalgia. Minecraft’s voxels offer a new way to interact with our beloved pixels. Mario Maker allows the player to swap palettes, taking us from pixel to polygon at the touch of a button. Super Mario Bros plays and looks just as you remember it. As you REMEMBER it, not how it is if you go back, but ignorance is bliss. It was always 16:9, no? It was always HD!

We should remember that although the number of pixels in the vertical line was still the measure of resolution before HD ruled, CRTs had the ability to support multiple resolutions. They would rapidly scan across the screen projecting one line at a time, ‘skipping’ every other one if the input resolution was sufficiently low, resulting in that delicious banding effect. CRTs would take the input resolution and, regardless of horizontal pixel number, alter the beam sweep rate to fill the width of the 4:3 screen. Consequently, the pixels would ‘stretch’ and become rectangular. The NES (see the Super Mario Bros illustration) output 256x240 pixels, which is not 4:3 (320x240), but the CRT stretched them by about 20%. Nowadays TVs have a set resolution across the screen (1080p, or ‘full HD’, gives us 1920 fixed pixels across with the standard 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio) and they cannot be ‘stretched’. Therefore, displaying NES games in 1:1 pixel mode on modern screens results in a thinner than expected screen. This can be remedied but it involves some algorithmic trickery that necessarily blurs the x-axis pixel info to fudge that extra 20%. We get our 4:3, though it doesn’t look as sharp due to a fundamental limitation that the older tech didn’t have. Add a scanline filter and you’re getting close.

Those textures are shocking. Where’s my 4xMSAA?? #lazydevs

I remember the static of CRTs though: being so close I could discern the bright red/blue/green of each sub-pixel; turning the TV off and touching the screen, watching it glow white under my fingertips; hearing the static discharge and smelling the burning dust rising out of the back vents of the hulking great Trinitron. Replicating all that is much more difficult than getting the sharpest, cleanest signal from the source and faking the scanlines. It’s that atmosphere which is hard to recreate. Because, if we’re honest, many of the games themselves don’t hold up after 30 years. They often need a spit-polish to bring out the fun again in a modern context (not only visually, but also in feature set – things like online multiplayer or leaderboard/achievement support).

And that’s really the ultimate goal here – creating the circumstances that give us the feeling that we’re playing just as we did. For some this involves replicating the exact set-up, but for most others, spoiled by years of pin-sharp definition and digital convenience (or lacking the space to accommodate the bulky old tech), it actually means embracing the upscaling, emulation, remasters and remixes. Ultimately the delivery method, be it clone console, emulator, virtual console or the real painstakingly sourced article, isn’t important so long as these games are played and enjoyed. The advertising for Nintendo’s upcoming NES Mini plays on early ‘90s VHS nostalgia with tape warping effects and curved screens before a burst of light heralds the arrival of 16:9 and they showcase the HDMI output and various display options in HD. The catalogue of 30 included games are advertised to run at 60HZ – something most PAL gamers never knew they were missing back in the day. And, of course, some fans want a 50 HZ option because ‘they’re not the games I played’ without it. They’ll be faster and/or smoother, yes, but not identical. This demonstrates the tightrope developers walk when revamping their back catalogue. The unoptimised Sonic the Hedgehog we European gamers played would be a syrupy nightmare to US/Japanese players, but that was all we knew. No wonder I never thought ‘speed’ was Sonic’s defining characteristic. For me it was all about maintaining the flow through those beautifully designed levels. Hearing the music at 60HZ for the first time made me anxious. ‘No, no, slow down! Calm down!’ I’ve taken mp3s into Audacity before and slowed them down 20%-ish to match my memories and appreciate all those notes! But after playing the games on several other platforms since then (it surely tops the Game Ported To Most Platforms Ever list), returning to the original hardware is TOUGH (‘how did I ever play this chuggy mess?!’) and not how I want to remember the game. We think we want technological authenticity, but the human mind is a treacherous bastard. Grezzo’s Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask 3DS remasters are masterclasses in how to update aged classics while respecting not only the original intent and direction, but also players’ memories.

How you remember (top) versus how it was (bottom).
Going back to the source is jarring after years of 30-60fps.
Standardisation across regions means NTSC/PAL discrepancies are a thing of the past, though our preoccupation with resolution and frames-per-second is far from over. Sony and Microsoft are both diving into the 4K quagmire and once again arguments about upscaling versus native rendering abound. ‘4K’ itself is something of a misnomer – the actual vertical resolution is only doubled from 1080 pixels (to 2160), but 2K doesn’t sound as impressive, I guess. So convention was broken and the name was taken from the horizontal pixel count instead. Which at the standard 16:9 ratio is actually only 3840 pixels, NOT 4000. That’s right, tin-foilers, we’re being screwed out of 160 pixels. I’m sure there’s a lawsuit in there somewhere. Of course, things are further complicated by the film industry which uses a marginally different standard of 4096x2160…

Regardless, 1080p60 isn’t bleeding edge anymore. But is native 4K30 better? How about upscaled 4K45-ish? Post-processing? HDR? Downsampling? Filters?...

It all boils down to a pixel, whether crisp and clean or smeared by its nearest neighbour. Play and let play…except, of course, if you use that unholy Super Eagle filter. That is obviously and objectively wrong and you should be punished/reeducated. [/sarcasm]

Thursday, 21 January 2016

No Salvation

I’ve just rewatched Terminator Salvation for the first time since 2009. ‘Exceptionally dull’ was my evaluation back then. But how does it hold up after 6 years with my expectations suitably lowered? My word, it’s still awful. It lacks, well, everything.

Sometime before the rise of the machines Sam Worthington’s character, Marcus, commits some unspecified sin in the early ‘00s leading to the deaths of his brother and two police officers. On death row he signs his body over to cancer-survivor/shady tech person Helena Bonham-Carter for some non-specific post-mortal experimentation. Marcus is lethally injected. Judgement Day happens. He then wakes up in 2018, like, totes confused, looking identical but naked, covered in mud and screaming in a storm. He meanders round post-apocalyptic LA meeting the principal cast until he and everyone else discovers he’s actually a robot. But with a Heart. And a Brain. And Courage. He decides to help the Resistance fight the evil Skynet. The 'monster' returns to destroy its creator. That’s what they were going for. Powerful stuff.

First up, let’s start with a dialogue sample:
Blair                      You don’t meet many good guys these days.
Marcus                 I’m not a good guy.
Blair                      Yes, you are – you just don’t know it yet.

Oscar! Unfortunately this is just one example of the screenplay playing 'Guess The Next Hackneyed Line' with the audience. There's nothing wrong with a little meat-and-potatoes but this script sounds like it was made by a Hollywood dialogue generator; generic and dull. And it only gets worse from there. Now, I am a huge Terminator fan - I know the lore and the characters – but here the audience is expected to get goosebumps with every mention of a character’s name. The words ‘John Connor’ and ‘Kyle Reese’ are repeated literally DOZENS of times. It’s worthy of a drinking game.  Series-stalwarts get bored and first-timers are bewildered by the meaninglessness. They already got the JC/prophet analogy signposted in the opening text but when it’s not just being derivative and dry as all hell, this script DEPENDS on characters repeating each other’s names to drive the narrative. Half of poor Anton Yelchin’s lines are introductions, and Bale does little but announce who he is over the bloody radio (apparently Skynet doesn’t monitor the wireless).

"You tried to kill my mother, Sarah Connor. You killed my father, Kyle Reese.
You will not kill me.” (That's John Connor.)
Connor HAS TO mention Reese so Marcus can recognise the name and push the plot forward appropriately. You can hear the gears clunking and grinding and it highlights further faults. While reverential to Cameron’s films when it suits, it discounts them when they become inconvenient. Connor doesn’t reveal his father’s identity to anyone in the originals. Not even to Reese HIMSELF. Here he’s forced to because otherwise the story flatlines. In The Terminator Michael Biehn explicitly states of the future war that it’s dangerous to go out during the day but at night you can move around (though the machines use infra-red so don’t go mad). This is ignored in Salvation. There are ways to get around this if you want some daylight in your film. It only takes one clever line.

Plotholes abound and without any fun or excitement to distract, you end up picking at threads until the movie falls apart. It’s a mess but that in isolation isn’t the problem. Plenty of films make no sense but if they’re entertaining, you go with them. Salvation is po-faced, self-righteous and excruciatingly dull. Worthington does what he can with practically nothing. Who is this random? Why should we care? His confusion is the only thing the audience can empathise with. His character’s past guilt is a MacGuffin but without any details it’s impossible to appreciate his redemption. Petty thief? Haunted veteran? Too many parking tickets? We're left in the dark. ANYONE, however, with a passing interest in the series will realise he’s a Terminator. If they missed the reveal in the trailer, McG’s angles should clue them in. The director replicates some choice shots from Cameron (the camera fixes on Marcus as he takes a hit to the side of the face and slowly rotates his scowl back towards the assailant; the frame follows his legs as he approaches a downed goon, knife-in-hand). McG fills the movie with the iconography of the series. He manages to contrive Griffith Park Observatory, Guns ‘n’ Roses and a CG Arnie into it. And sure, he’s got this Wizard of Oz/Frankenstein motif pasted in, and HB-C’s got cancer because…er, well...death lingers on her..., or something deep, and Christian Bale has the Earnest-o-meter dialled up to eleventy-stupid. No question the director’s assembled a stellar cast. Why doesn’t it work?

It fails because everything is superficial and unearned. Marcus has a heart but machines don’t have hearts. Of course, brains and hearts are what make us humans different and special, and Marcus did something bad in the past but he gives his heart to save John Connor and is redeemed and will go on to be the ‘heart’ of the Resistance (*emoji heart*). It’s his ‘second chance’ and people deserve second chances because that nice woman told us so in the second act, and we’ve resolved that circle by saying so again at the end. That’s writing. And then the former-veterinarian performs a heart transplant. Obvs.

"The name's Bond. James...shit, that's not right..."
Absolutely nothing registers as genuine on screen thanks to transparent characters and mistaking the repetition of individuals’ names in hallowed tones for plot development. McG completely fails to recognise and replicate the ‘heart’ of the first two films, despite liberally pilfering the iconography. I’ve written previously about the family dynamic but Salvation is also missing entirely the relentless threat of the unknown from Cameron’s films. More than simply the technological menace, 1 and 2 are driven by the chase; the danger of the pursuing Terminator always stalking, like the truck in Speilberg’s Duel. Cameron created two of cinema’s greatest villains and the franchise has struggled to offer a worthy nemesis ever since (the Swiss-Army-Terminator from T3, much like Genisys’ T-3000, is a visual mess on screen). That pursuit was the frame on which Cameron hung his commentary on humanity, family and the ambiguity of technology.

McG has absolutely nothing to say but he treats trite sentiment as profound. Rise of the Machines, derivative as it may be, had some simple ideas executed competently. Skynet selected Arnie’s likeness due to Connor’s boyhood attachment to his model number, thus helping him terminate future JC. That makes sense. Skynet was software that grew on the internet with no central core. That too makes sense. T3 dared to end with Judgment (sic) Day. The writers realised that this story couldn’t continue without change and actually ending the world rather than delaying the inevitable was bleak and bold - it challenges the ‘no fate’ adage. McG was tasked with taking the story into the future war that we’d only glimpsed before. You can see how elements thought to be important to a Terminator movie were written in (the moto-terminators are a misguided attempt to bring motorbikes back because, hey, Terminator films have motorcycles, right?!) but the DREAD - the constant fear of the predator - is utterly absent, as are any reasons to care about anyone on screen. That’s what should drive the story forward, not repeating ‘Kyle Reese’ forty fucking times. The obligatory zingers are crow-barred in but are unearned and they jar with the rest of the stodgy, sullen dialogue. It’s like McG doused the entire cast in liquid anti-charisma.

It is possible to take that dread and make it the focus of a story set post-Judgement Day. The paranoia of a Terminator infiltrating a base would be interesting – it would be a different film, but it could retain that element of fear. I found Genisys to be a fun mash-up of the first two movies that necessarily distanced itself from Salvation by rebooting the timeline. It’s a shame that it may not be getting a direct sequel. It had little original to say (and Jai Courtney's beefy Reese was a far cry from Biehn's wirey, vulnerable fighter) but it was entertaining fluff. Salvation is not. Michael Ironside is McG’s lone shard of light, providing barking ‘80s kudos. But even he can’t offer this film any salvatio...

That's writing, folks!

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Star Wars - Replaying the movies in video games

So apparently there’s a new Star Wars film out?

With the Force busy awakening, everyone’s online chronicling their rewatch binges. Good, good, but perhaps you’ve seen them recently or can’t stomach the prequel dialogue more than once a decade. If you’re still after a preparatory blast of nostalgia, might I suggest you revisit the galaxy far, far away through a different medium?

Star Wars and video games have grown up together. As tech improved, the games got prettier, though as evidenced by the movies, improved tech doesn’t necessarily mean a better experience. The quality of the SW video game catalogue is patchy, but the sheer number of titles over the years means you can now navigate the poodoo and relive the entire series very well through game adaptations alone. I haven’t played EVERYTHING, but I’ve sampled a good enough percentage to present the following.

So, allow me to guide you through Episodes I-IV, VG-style:

The Phantom Menace

With regards to video game versions, the prequels suffer in two ways. Firstly, they’re much newer than the originals and thus haven’t had nearly forty years of adaptation and reinterpretation. Secondly, the originals are cultural cinematic icons. The prequels were critical disappointments. Regardless of the spectacle and the fandom, nobody’s clamouring for a new version of the Gungan Battle on Naboo. Likewise, Hoth and the Death Star Trench Run trump Geonosis every time. Therefore the number of depictions to draw from is smaller.

Fortunately Lego Star Wars has us covered. One of the first licenced Lego games, it came as a wonderful surprise with humour, simple puzzles and collecting mechanics. Being able to wield a lightsaber (and play as almost any character) while listening to John Williams’ score and playing cooperatively was instantly satisfying (before the Lego licenced titles soured through repetition). The player is taken through the main plot points of the entire prequel trilogy (the game’s sequel would cover the originals) and is invaluable when taking the video game route through the movies.

Several terrible tie-in games accompanied the returning franchise back in 1999. Star Wars Episode I: Racer for the N64 stood alone and proud amongst the dross. It’s a fluid, nuanced racing game in the F-Zero/Wipeout vein with loads of vehicles and upgrades that channels one of the strongest scenes in the movie. I still remember being in awe of how the Tatooine circuit matched the one on film. Try playing with a controller in each hand for that authentic pod-feel.

After winning the Boonta Eve Classic, head back to Lego Star Wars until the final space battle when you might want to check out Star Wars Episode I: Battle for Naboo, again for N64. This was Factor 5’s ‘spiritual’ sequel to Rogue Squadron with a new and improved engine that permitted ground vehicles and improved draw distances. While it suffered for not having the cache of the original trilogy, it’s still a solid game with tight controls.

Head back to Lego SW to polish off Darth Maul and we’re on to Episode II!

Attack of the Clones

To cover the weakest film we’ll be calling on Lego Star Wars for the most part. However, the Battlefront games did a great job of conveying the scale and mayhem of the larger Clone battles in Episodes II and III. It might be worth hitting that for the Battle of Geonosis with Mace Windu, but let’s face it - Geonosis is pretty drab. I’d stick to Lego if you’re after purple saber action. Onwards quickly past the crass dialogue before we too are haunted by the kiss she shouldn’t have given us!

Revenge of the Sith

…Ah. Right. We’re still running on fumes here. VG-wise, though the film itself was a giant leap in the right direction, there were some lacklustre tie-ins. Once again, Lego Star Wars is your best bet for Episode III (with some Wookiee support from Battlefront in the Battle on Kashyyyk). Galactic Battlegrounds might be good if you’re an RTS lover. Otherwise you should go about your business. Move along.

To be fair, while video game depictions of the movies were suffering around the time of the prequels, there were plenty of great non-canon games being released. Battlefront and Galactic Battleground were joined by Knights of the Old Republic and the Jedi Knight series, which gave players other opportunities to get their hands on a lightsaber. Still, the biggest thrills generally came when they echoed moments or revisited locations from the films, with most characters acting as shoddy clones of movie originals (I’m looking at you, Dash).

"Stay on target."

A New Hope

Now we’re talking. Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy will service the bulk of on-foot passages in this trilogy too, but now we’re joined by the Rogue Squadron games. Although the first on N64 laid out a great template, it’s Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader on GameCube that nails the look, sound and feel of the piloting and dogfighting in the originals films. It’s still a looker 15 years on. The bonus level ‘Death Star Escape’ gives a nice shooting range version of the TIE fighter attack on the Millennium Falcon (“Great, kid! Don’t get cocky.”) and it also has the best version of the Death Star Trench Run (far prettier than the N64’s attempt). There are multiple versions of the trench run, and some that might even spark off nostalgia but - trust me - Rebel Assault is a mess. If you’re feeling old-school, you could check out the original 1983 arcade game Star Wars from Atari. It’s the original take and, some argue, still the best. Handily it can be found as an unlockable bonus on the otherwise dispensable Star Wars Rogue Leader III: Rebel Strike disc. Boom.

The Empire Strikes Back

The Battle of Hoth. The most depicted Star Wars scene in video games. Even rubbish games like Shadows of the Empire have a decent Hoth level. The new version in Battlefront (2015) looks pretty spectacular (especially with the Real Life mod). Battlefront II does a great job of giving the troops’ eye perspective, and Rogue Squadron II also has a great interpretation.

And it’s back to Lego again for the rest of the film. Rogue Squadron II features a bland bonus ‘Asteroid Field’ level following the Millennium Falcon escaping from the Star Destroyers and a great Cloud City-based mission, though the latter is not set during the film.

Return of the Jedi

For the last film in the replay/rewatch, we’re going to supplement Lego Star Wars II with a couple of the best depictions of Star Wars ever put on cart/disc/PCB. Star Wars Trilogy Arcade was an on-rail shooter cabinet from Sega that featured half a dozen scenes from the films. I remember vividly watching the demo screen loop, wishing I was good enough at video games to get beyond the first level. Its Death Star Run and Battle of Hoth are fine, but it’s the Speeder Bike section and the Dual with Vader that really nail the atmosphere better than any other game. Couple this with the hectic ‘Battle of Endor’ and ‘Strike at the Core’ missions from Rogue Squadron II and you’ve made your way through the whole damn saga. Yub-nub!


I’m sure I’ve missed some and you may disagree, but there are some damn fine moments in there. I haven’t tried the recently released Battlefront, though videos show that it nails the look at least. There’s one thing which I think we can all agree on though – thank god for Lego Star Wars.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A to Z - evolution under the right thumb

When we discuss the development of the standard video game console controller we tend to concentrate on significant additions to the basic pad. Things like shoulder buttons and analogue sticks and rumble. We less often talk about the arrangement of the buttons that have come to be standard. Why A, B, X and Y? What’s wrong with 1, 2, 3 and 4? Here, I'll take a brief look at the evolution of the buttons under your right thumb…

Before the arrival of the NES, the success of Pong and its associated clones meant dials were prevalent on home console controllers. Number pads were also common. The Atari 2600’s joystick controller had a single red button on it. The Vectrex was one of the first consoles to feature a layout resembling a pad as we now know it, with a micro joystick on the left and four circular buttons in a horizontal line on the right (labelled 1-2-3-4). The 1983 release of the Famicom in Japan introduced the home console audience to the D-pad, a cardinal direction input borrowed from Nintendo’s Game & Watch line of portable LCD games. It also introduced Select and Start, and labelled its two primary input buttons (initially square, though quickly replaced with circular versions) B and A. The outer button was where the player’s right thumb would naturally fall and therefore became A. Primary actions like jumping would usually be mapped to this, with B assuming secondary duties such as firing. Returning to games from this period often throws up anomalies for modern players. It feels peculiar to use Select to toggle between menu options now that we’re all accustomed to using the D-pad and hitting A to confirm, B to cancel. The NES kept the Famicom’s basic design, though changing the B and A buttons from black to red. Sega’s Master System used an 8-directional input on the left and two buttons on the right, labelled 1 and 2. Nintendo and Sega’s handheld consoles would ape the control schemes of their home-based brethren, though positioned at a more natural and comfortable angle. The Turbografx/PC Engine would reverse Sega’s numbers and make them Roman numerals.

The Vectrex and its pad
(Source: Evan Amos)
With the increased processing power of fourth generation home consoles, devs needed more inputs for more complex games. The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive ditched numbers in favour of A-B-C slanted on a chunky pad with a pellet-shaped Start hovering above. The SNES, while also gaining shoulder buttons (L=Left, R=Right), took B and A from the NES and added two buttons above in a diamond formation. D and C would seem the most natural choice (the Neo Geo went with these) but Nintendo chose instead Y and X. Perhaps it helped separate the pair in function from B and A, as evidenced by the lozenge-shaped border surrounding each pair, though why they didn’t choose Y and Z is puzzling. Nintendo also gave these buttons colours. A retained the glossy red from the NES, while B turned yellow. X picked up the third primary colour, blue, leaving Y with green. The curved shape of the pad coupled with the new diamond formation meant that B became the default position for the right thumb and Mario’s jump moved there. The US version of the SNES received a makeover that removed the primary colours (presumably a marketing strategy to make the console appear less toy-like), making B-A purple and Y-X lilac.

While the Mega Drive pad would grow to accommodate three extra X-Y-Z buttons above A-B-C, the Saturn had six buttons as standard at the start of the fifth generation. The three-pronged N64 pad was perplexing until you realised you only held two of them. Nintendo moved the diamond buttons further up the pad, made them yellow and rechristened them C-buttons (Cardinal buttons, perhaps?) above B and A (now occupying the spaces left by Y and B respectively). Once again, A became the principal input, now blue, while the central Start button inherited the glossy red colour from before. B was, obviously…, erm, green.

As confusing as this may seem, Sony were about to turn everything on its head with the PlayStation. Letters, numbers – who needs ‘em? Sony’s shapes became icons, surpassing even the SNES’ colourful diamond formation. Triangle pointed upwards so it took the top of the diamond. The SNES’ A button became Circle (which Japanese players use to confirm) and primary B became Cross (which Westerners use to confirm). Square took the remaining space. The design was slick, easily identifiable and it endures (as does the East/West confirm/cancel confusion). Less durable examples include: SNK’s Neo Geo CD, which borrowed the SNES’ colours and diamond formation with D-B-A-C labelling from the AES’ joystick controller; Philip’s CD-i, which used the familiar diamond with an array of ‘dots’ (·, ··, ·, and, of course, ·/··); and Atari’s Jaguar, which took Sega’s layout and flipped it horizontally.
Press  ·  to delete save file  (Source: Evan Amos)

Following 'A' around Nintendo's pads.
Following the addition of dual analogue sticks, Sony’s pad changed little for the sixth generation. The DualShock 2 featured pressure-sensitive face buttons but nobody really noticed. The organic GameCube controller continued Nintendo’s esoteric journey by transforming the C-buttons into a C-stick, returning B (now red) to its alignment from the SNES days and rotating Y and X (now kidney-shaped and grey) almost 90° around a big green A button. Sega took their six button layout and lopped off Z and C for the broad Dreamcast pad, leaving Y-B-A-X. They borrowed the primary SNES colours, reassigning them seemingly at random.

Following Sony's shapes...
But a new challenger approached - and a big’un, too. Microsoft constructed their monstrous Duke by carefully examining the competition. They borrowed the Saturn/Dreamcast letter configuration, though with smaller White and Black buttons in place of the now-deceased Z and C (these would shift below the diamond on the smaller ‘S’ revision and disappear entirely next generation). Xbox borrowed the colours but once again they were reassigned: Y=yellow, B=red, A=green, X=blue. ‘Green for go, red for no’ makes sense seeing how these buttons had evolved with use and Microsoft have stuck with them ever since.

Both Sony and Microsoft kept the same basic configurations for the seventh generation. Nintendo, however, unveiled a TV remote. After initial confusion, it became clear that they’d simply split the standard pad in two and augmented it with some accelerometers and an IR pointer, providing a non-threatening and familiar form factor for wary non-gamers put off by increasingly complex conventional pads. It retained the GameCube’s chunky, satisfying A button, planted the D-pad above it and added '-' and '+' (playing the roles of Select and Start respectively) and a Home menu button. Relegating B to the underside, it brought back numbers for ancillary functions at the bottom (1 and 2) which served as ‘B and A’ when the pad was rotated and assumed the ‘classic’ NES-like configuration. The whole thing, buttons and all, was finished in a benign glossy white. While continually trying new things in the home, Nintendo finally bid farewell to the trusty Select-Start-B-A combo of the Game Boy and dusted off the classic SNES X-A-B-Y diamond for their new portable, the DS (sans the sexy colours).

And thus we arrive at current-gen (eighth if you’re still counting). Nintendo threw the kitchen sink at the Wii U Gamepad, including the SNES diamond (again, without the sexy colours, although they have reappeared on the beautiful New 3DS). Sony and Microsoft have refined their pads but retain the same basic layout they’ve had for a decade. Those face buttons under your hovering right thumb have settled down in their middle age into something comforting and familiar, with little inherited idiosyncrasies from the past. Valve's Steam controller sticks with Microsoft's colours/labelling. Configurable touchscreen buttons with individual haptic feedback have yet to appear beyond fantastical artists' imaginings. VR's particular requirements deny players a view of their hands, let alone their gamepad, but although motion controls often augment the experience, traditional analogue inputs continue to play a crucial role in the interface. With NX on the horizon, it’ll be fascinating to see where buttons go next.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Welling up at Williams

I remember distinctly watching Superman Returns one afternoon, perhaps 7 or 8 years ago. I am a Burton Batman kid - Superman’s primary colours and goofy Donner-films never interested me. But this soft sequel was on the telly so I watched to see a more modern take on the character. A plane containing Lois Lane plummets to the ground and the Man of Steel saves it, plonking it down in the middle of a baseball game. After heading inside to check on Lois, he emerges to see the roaring stadium and John Williams’ theme starts up. Superman has returned.

At this moment an unusual thing happened. As he stood in the hatch, the crowd cheering, the percussive strings building to the fanfare, a shiver went down my neck and my eyes filled with tears. To be clear, I have no particular affection or history with Superman in any medium. Of course I know the icon and the premise, but I never read the comics and never paid much attention to the films. But there I was, blubbing on the sofa. Why?

This isn’t an isolated incident. Hearing the Star Trek: The Next Generation fanfare has had a similar effect on me. I remember several years ago loading Raiders of the Lost Ark into the DVD tray and being set off by the music on the menu screen. Only the other day I was blinking tears back at the end of Back to the Future part II when Marty receives the letter from Doc – that wasn’t even the theme tune, simply the mysterious ‘diddlo-diddloo’ prelude flourish (listen to the first seconds of ‘Western Union’ on the soundtrack if you’re unsure.) However, those are things I DO feel a childhood attachment to. Again, Superman doesn’t figure with those examples.

I do not usually cry, and certainly not in public. I’m not comfortable displaying myself in that state. I’m pretty cynical about attempts in TV and film to elicit tears through sentimentality and rousing string sections. That is not to say I’m immune to crying in the cinema – Toy Story 3 destroyed me – but a film really has to EARN an emotional response. The Superman plane sequence above was competently put together, but wasn’t designed to elicit tears – it’s simply a public reintroduction of the character in the fiction. A character I don’t particularly care for. SO again, what happened?

First I thought it must be nostalgia. I’m pining for a lost past, a childhood forever gone, lamenting our frail mortality, yadda-yadda-yadda. But I’m not nostalgic for Superman.

Then I thought maybe it’s a musical trick that Williams and co. are pulling on me. Say what you like about the Star Wars prequels, but JW absolutely NAILED it every time. I remember listening to the Phantom Menace soundtrack album back in 1999 and replaying Anakin’s Theme. It hits everything about the child – it's hopeful, fearful, with the delicate suggestion at the end of what’s ahead for the character. It’s masterful. Regardless how well JJ Abrams manages Episode VII, there’s zero doubt the score will be anything but perfect. Dinosaurs, archaeologists, aliens; he does it all the time. Maybe he's just deftly cracking out the leitmotif and playing me like a pipe with an algorithmic sequence that always produces results. Maybe I’m just getting trolled by the master.

Or perhaps I’m just getting sentimental with advancing years. You hear it all the time. It’s conceivable that seeing the pure goodness of the character through the lens of experienced cynicism has a profound emotional impact after the injustice and incompetence so readily visible in the adult world. I’ve heard of middle aged men overwhelmed while watching Secret Millionaire. Perhaps such acts of generosity and selflessness make sentimental fools of us all in our dotage. And maybe I’m weeping for optimism and enthusiasm of youth when I hear those melodies. Though that's a tad melodramatic for a 31-year old, no?

So I return to nostalgia – can you be nostalgic for things you didn’t experienced? For a time when you weren’t alive? I get melancholic when I hear certain songs on the radio. The Doobie Brothers’ 1979 hit ‘What a Fool Believes’, for example. I’ve never known the lyrics, which turn out to explore differing perceptions of events and constructed memories - the tale of a man meeting a woman he remembers as an old flame and the subsequent awkwardness when she remembers no such flirtation and it’s been built up over the years in the mind of the ‘fool’. For me the song simply brings back memories of Radio 2 morning shows (the playlists of which seem to have changed little since the mid-‘80s) and working with my dad in the school holidays for some extra cash. Again, childhood. Loads of songs from the ‘70s and ‘80s make me melancholic, regardless of the genre. Could that be why I’m weeping at a guy onscreen in blue spandex?

While writing this, the rousing Thunderbirds theme came on iTunes. I smiled, and my vision went blurry. Damn it. I excitedly await the day when I break down publicly to the Antiques Roadshow theme and the R. Whites Lemonade advert.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

A happy fate: Masquerading in Majora's Mask

There are many things Majora's Mask is not. It is not the prettiest Zelda game. Even with Grezzo's excellent work on the 3DS update, The Wind Waker's cel-shading bestows a timeless quality that will endure for decades, whereas the rudimentary polygons of the N64 entries locate them squarely in the '90s. It is not the most original Zelda either, reusing engine, assets and music from its predecessor and doing very little to update its base mechanics. And neither are those mechanics best-in-series. Hugely influential, they have been iterated on many times since and returning to their second-ever outing only highlights the enhancements made over the years, particularly to Z-targeting and swimming. Yes, Majora's Mask can be frustrating.

So why then is it considered the 'hidden' best of the series? All the cool kids claim it's their favourite, but why when it's so obviously flawed? For me, it's simply the most interesting Zelda has ever been.

Moody PAL.
Visually, Termina is a mash-up of Ocarina's locations, snow and ocean additions notwithstanding. Although it feels darker, the actual world is pieced together with the same earth tones as Hyrule, with hyper-colour highlights in the dungeons. That wonderful impression of rich purple and forest-green really comes from the art that accompanied its release. The development teams' recycling also extends to the population themselves. Many of the characters are duplicates from Hyrule, here assigned new identities (or sometimes multiple identities as with the Gormon Brothers or the Romani sisters). These doppelgangers exist as archetypes across dimensions and as satisfying touchstones for returning players to recognise. Our familiarity allows the makers to subvert expectations of these characters and perhaps reconsider the originals too. The player's memories of the egotistical Ingo from Ocarina (himself already an analogue for Luigi, the under-appreciated Mario Brother) colour our impression of Gorman the Troupe Leader, and give him a more textured personality when we discover his real story of entering showbusiness with youthful idealism and his anger at his failure to succeed.

The three-day cycle, maligned as the primary cause of player confusion and fatigue, rather than being a restrictive device, actually provides context for the characters' endlessly repeating paths and gives us a far more detailed view of their lives than would otherwise be possible. In this short cycle, every cause has an effect. If the bomb lady is mugged on the first night, the Bomb Shop will lose its stock. If Anju isn't on reception at the Inn, she'll be cooking lunch or taking a walk in the rain. In those 72 hours we become intimately familiar with these people: their hopes and fears; the risks they take; the secrets they keep.

The real draw to Majora's Mask is the universal questions it poses about mortality, acceptance, attachment, friendship and failure. It asks the biggest of all questions: what is our purpose here? The four moon children at the end of the game ask the player the questions in the textboxes throughout this page. I've written before about the effect of meeting these masked characters, and their questions impacted my impressionable teenage mind. The game has concerned itself with giving the player tasks and experiences that directly relate to these questions. It's impossible to please everybody all of the time, but we still empathise with them because we have witnessed their potential - their best self - in another time. The game can often be a gloomy proposition with the enemy-filled map and the looming lunatic face in the sky. No, I don't have time to save the Gorons today, so their winter will not end. The shambling mummies of Ikana must be ignored today because I'm needed elsewhere. My power to affect the world is great but so are the demands on my resources. And, just as in the real world, time is my most precious commodity.

Perhaps this is one reason why so many take umbrage with the time limit. It denies the player the escapism of other games and forces self-reflection. From a company that habitually prizes mechanics and game feel over story, the moments when Nintendo do explore narrative ideas and deeper questions seem all the more profound in a catalogue of work featuring a deluge of kidnapped princesses.

The Happy Mask Salesman instructs us to work to improve the world and create happiness through the use of masks. The essential duality presented, mirrored throughout the game by the recurrence of doubles, twins and alter egos, demonstrates through masks that pretence and play are very necessary components of the human condition. This ties into the very nature of games themselves, video or otherwise. Nintendo are experts at enabling play - Majora's Mask asks us to consider why that is so important.