On electronic games’ history and culture

This post is a collection of related subject, combined into easier access

A game is an interaction between at least two individuals under certain rules to achieve some sort of goal or achievement. These rules can be shared between the parties and can contradict one side. This idea has not changed with electronic games, and they are not the first ones to have a non-living party. Just like card games have a card deck as the opposing party alongside other human players, electronic games use their device as the party to oppose the human player. In the end, modern video and computer games use the same rules and point calculation methods used past games and plays, be it sports or card games. After all, Super Mario Bros. is just a continuation of our play culture.

Steve Russel’s famous By gosh, it’s a Pinball! is a good contrast how not even the first computer game was, in the end, nothing new. After the Second World War, game parlors had become the cradle of youth culture, and pinball game parlors (or game arcades) became the place where young men and their girlfriends could escape to from the world, essentially becoming their own little separate worlds from the oppressing reality. This world was from the reach of mainstream culture and its moral guardsmen, allowing the youths to let their suppressed side to blow out.

Originally released 1969, this song is iconic representation of the time

Pinball Wizard is an anti-hero, an abused young man who is shunned by the larger world. However, in the game parlors he is able to convey himself to his peers, becoming one with the machine.

As such, it should be no surprise that parents would be worried about these parlors. After all, penny arcades before had been seen as place of vagabonds and men with beaten past. A place where people with less fortune could come together and entertain themselves with cheap coin operated machines, while possibly making connections to the criminal world. Different leagues and mafias controlled these penny arcades at during the 1930’s America, and as such it’s understandable to see people shunning arcades well up to the 1980’s. That shadow never left these places where men could get together and play games. It could be argued that even the games we have nowadays are suffering from similar complains, where moral guardians blame games for ruining whatever they deem valuable. In this light it is interesting to note that it is more than probable that many parents bought computers and game consoles to keep their children out of the arcades later down the line to keep them away from entering the wayside paths of life.

While my text is largely based on American culture, it’s not to say that the rest of the world saw these parlors in any better light. In France, Jean-Claude Baudot banned all coin operated machines in 1937 to prevent the disease penny arcades were seen as. According to Baudot, this law was still in effect up to the early 1980’s, though the law had been eased and circumvented in all ways and manners. In 1981 Ferdinand Marcos, the president of Philippines,  banned all arcade video games. To enforce his rule he smashed arcade machines in public. This is the same man who banned Voltes V  and other similarly themed cartoons just before the series’ final episode. Both of these men echo events that had taken place during world history time and time again, and events like these would be repeated after them, like how Pokémon was seen as the tool of the Devil by some religious forces. In Colorado Springs, 1999, pastor Mark Juvera took a 30-inch sword to a Pikachu toy in front of 85 children and calling Pokémon poison, not to mention the claims of video and computer games causing players to be more violent. Neither of these points are anything special, they’re just continuing  the same backlash games and other media forms have experienced throughout the ages.

It is somewhat ironic to note that television was seen as one of the remedies to keep these rebelling young people at home, as the 1950’s saw it entering mass markets despite not many having the money to buy one. Television didn’t give solution to the problems parents saw game parlors to be, as the problem was social and parlors were not the originator. Turned out that these young people watched television and took themselves to play pinball with their mates. Basically everything that was seen a solution to a problem would later be deemed a problem in itself as well, as seen with books, movies, amateur radio and maybe some day with games too. The problems were real to an extent, they are always more about the stereotypical view the mass culture takes at them. Books, amateur radio, television and games share the same blame that they keep people, children and adults alike, inside rather than “allowing” them to go outside and play, or do something more worthwhile.

Arcades, as we now remember them, didn’t come from nowhere during the 1970’s. They are just those game parlors with a new name and new machines, just like penny arcades before them. We can trace these places back to the game events held before mechanical games existed. In Herrad von Landsberg’s manuscript from the 1100’s we can see a pair of knights fighting each other through controlled marionettes. While it would be easy to compare this to modern era Vs. fighting  game, that would be far too direct. We do not know whether this was a common event or not, nor whether or not this is a real depiction as intended.

Artikel_45890_bilder_value_1_augsburger_puppenkiste1[1]Street Fighter with dolls?

Nevertheless, the core idea of contest and games are still present, even in the physical games. In the same extension, cock-fighting has been compared to Pokémon and other similar games. This is not rare in any way, as all games have their roots in some form of other plays and games. Majority of first person shooters are based on war games, strategy games are war board games, platformers are adventures children have in forest and elsewhere and imitates jumping form rock to rock, fighting games are rooted in physical combat and so on. Plays and games the adults play do stem from the childhood games, and to certain extent adulthood work and politics are just grander, more serious form of these games. It should be noted that video games especially have stemmed from boy’s play culture (and still reside there due to the competitive nature of it), thou arcade games like Pac-Man and Breakout are more or less neutral in their approach.

But what are the original electronic or mechanic games that can be called as the firs physical grandfathers of modern computer and video games? Perhaps the first ancestral machines are the automata, with machines offering entertainment and awe to the audience. However, games require interactivity, and one of the first proto-interactive machines that allowed the user to dictate some elements of the entertainment was the mutoscope from the late 1800’s. It was deemed to cause moral decay and was blamed to corrupt the youths for the pennies they cost. Pornography was a thing, and mutoscope is most remembered for those kinds of movies. We shouldn’t forget shooting galleries and the like as one of the proto-interactive game machines, as Nintendo’s Zapper and the games it used are pretty much a straight continuation.

Perhaps the mutoscope’s history is closer to films overall. However, it’s slightly more interactive nature does make it a relative of playing

1900’s saw all these machines to become everyday objects, and despite the bad rap they got, they spread like wildfire throughout the world. UK created their own machines alongside Americans (a lot of mutoscope’s UK had were either destroyed or exported to the Denmark during coin change in 1971), France and Germany had their own similar history with coin operated machines and Japan had adult-only pachinko parlors in 1930’s Nagoya. It’s not a large step from these mechanical devices towards electronic games, and through that, into computer and video games.


While many of the fears from the late 1800’s and early-to-mid 1900’s still persist when it comes to electronic games, those who play games and are most enthralled by them has not changed too much since then. Things changed with the advent of Golden Era of games, especially with Pac-Man, a game that attracted both men and women to play. Pac-Man as a character was largely a non-descriptive blob despite the game’s and character’s name.

I’ve talked about Industrial revolution being the main dividing point between arts, crafts and design, but when it comes to games it also created a cultural point with boys’ and girls’ cultures. According to E. Anthony Rotundo (1994), the industrial revolution separated boys from their father’s work environment, leaving them for their mothers’ to take care of. Boys moved outside from there, as motherly care usually emphasised good morals, pampering and kindness. Boys’ games and plays often were almost the opposite of this with physical contact with surprising aggressive attitudes. Going against mother’s command was a way to show that you weren’t a momma’s boy, and building from that onwards is a sort of step towards independent manhood. Regardless of how wild these games were, boys would return home to their mothers. One could say that unlike the Freudian Oedipus complex, boys’ fight against their mothers’ culture.

Rotundo contrasts this against girls’ culture, which is tied to their mothers, which have lived in a sort of symbiosis with each other. While he boys’ “adventure island” had a confrontational setting, girls’ had their own place within the “secret gardens.” While girls tend to favour for more socially interactive game with less or not emphasize on competition and physical contact, the concept of secret garden, a secret place reserved only for them and their fantasies. It should be noted that a lot of books for girls are the opposite of this thinking, where their normal lives are broken by a fantastic individual of sorts and their lives see a change, often at the cost of that secluded place. The differences between classic boys’ and girls’ literature is that boys had the heroes travel far away, while the girls’ literature tended to emphasize on staying home. Through that the stakes were different; for boys the adventures were physical like their games, whereas girls’ adventures were more about the psychology and emotions.

It’s not hard to see why electronic games would end up seen as a boys’ hobby. It is far easier to create a game that’s based on competition and rules rather than a game that requires methodical interaction between characters. A game is easy to program to offer a direct challenge the player needs to achieve, like destroying alien invaders than it is to program to reply to inquiries in a naturalistic and sophisticated way to counter the player’s emotional state.

The question whether or not there is a difference between boys’ and girls’ is cultural at its core. American game developer Purple Moon was known for developing games aimed at girls of age 8-14, and their Secret Paths series could be used as an archetypical example of what is generally seen as a girls’ game.

Secret Path games showcases some traditional symbols and images associated with girls. The cursor in the example above is a heart or a ladybug, there is no physical conflict in itself, and whatever action there is leans on metaphysical than physical. Interestingly, despite Purple Moon’s games tend to be simplified in how things are presented, they still manage to make better use of progressive values than most games we have nowadays.

While Purple Moon’s games were designed to be more about places of relaxation, where girls could pour out their stress and observe things with their hearts, so to speak. Each character has their own secret, and it is up to the player to find the secret paths that are laden with gemstones and other artefacts that give social, emotional and psychological strength. These visuals and pathways are representative of the characters’ plight, and the stories these physical environments contain encourage the player to try things out in their own social life. It’s not hard to see why the founder Brenda Laurel called their games as friendship adventures.

Similarly, Theresa Duncan’s Zero Zero is another example of a game that ties to girls’ culture.

While Secret Paths can be regarded as a continuation to the secret garden idea, Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 novel Harriet the Spy, is about another sort of play space for girls; the city. Within the book, Harriet observes her city’s, her microworld’s she creates, citizens and their complex interactions and how she changed them as she sees fit. This idea of creating a world and having total control over it is similar to SimCity. The difference between the two is how SimCity is more about playing god and micro-manage everything. To Harriet, creating this world is just the first step, and moves towards spying on the individuals to the point of breaking in real world buildings to understand adult interactions. The same contrast repeats here; there is no physical confrontation like there would be in boys’ novel, all the challenge comes from the human interactions and gaining information on the interactions.

It wouldn’t be too hard to see Harriet the Spy as a stealth game that has no combat. Zero Zero is essentially a computer adventure game version of the novel, where the player goes through the city and similarly seeks people’s’ stories. Despite this innocent sounding setting, Zero Zero and other games from Theresa Duncan do not try to be sleek and pat down the reality. On the contrary, Zero Zero‘s French are bored and tend to insult the player in a stereotypical fashion, as do the flowers. Women with strong make-up smoke freely and tend to flash themselves, promising an event in the Red Lights district.  The Sims has a considerable female fanbase, and in a way can be seen as a modern example of a game that allows the player not only play dollhouse, but also play god and decide the interactions.

Secret Path games and Zero Zero are good examples of two strong sides of traditional girls’ games. Secret Path games are very balanced and encourages the player to feel, so to speak. Zero Zero is an example of a game that shows the misshapen world in a very caricature fashion and encourages the player to seek knowledge and information that is hidden from them. Both are about exploring a physical space, but in the end both are about the players’ inner worlds.

Games like Pac-Man and Nights into Dreams are in neither space as such. Pac-Man‘s design as a character and game had no points to either direction, and as such I personally consider Ms. Pac-Man a needles exercise in hindsight despite it becoming extremely popular. Nights into Dreams on the other hand was designed to be androgynous from the get go, both in gameplay and character designs. It even has a boy and a girl character, Elliot and Claris, who have very different dreams for their life.

As games have evolved, contact between the two cultures have become more frequent. One could argue that open world games that contain as much non-physical social confrontation as they do physical are mixing these cultures. MMORPG’s and other games that offer larger interaction with real life people also supports the idea of supportive interaction between girls while offering brotherly confrontation and rivalry boys’ culture has. This sort of neutral space in gaming requires both sides giving something in, and in real life this can cause some argumentation and fighting between children.

Stereotypical girls’ games tend not to be remembered. Purple Moon folded in 1999 and merged with Mattel, and their games were not without criticism. Their games were called to be called sexist, stereotyping the characters and themes, a thing that can be extended to a lot of other girls’ games, especially Barbie games. The space where these games were set in was another major factor.

Space is a keyword here. The pinball culture if the mid-1900’s was very masculine and based on long-standing tradition of penny arcades. When these games began to appear outside their initially designated areas, e.g. pinballs in restaurants and shopping centres, it was seen as a positive progress as anyone, women included, could now access these machines. As games moved away from spaces that were largely seen as dominated by men like universities’ IT-departments and penny arcades, the view on them changed. Pinball is not associated with violent rebels any more, but as a classic game everybody can play. Similarly, the advent of Japanese games in arcades and the renaissance of electronic gaming after the second Video game Crash introduced further colourful and fantastic creatures to the electronic game culture. Pac-Man, Mario Bros., and their like, despite being competitive, offered visuals that weren’t all about blowing shit up, but also attractive colours and challenges that weren’t just about the abstract.

It should be noted that games like Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog and Abe’s Odyssey garnered players from both sexes, and both games shows that in the end, the player character doesn’t really matter as people don’t tend to see themselves in the character. If there is a character creation, sometimes people make themselves, but often it’s an admired, a fantasy version of themselves. They create a fantasy persona, and similarly each player character out there is a fantasy persona that the player doesn’t exactly identify with. After all, the player character is largely unimportant, the game world is what matters.

Perhaps the only truly neutral game between the spaces and cultures is Tetris. Tetris wasn’t just a game that can be described a perfect game and neutral, but a game that was everywhere. It was on home computer where anyone could play it and it was on the Game Boy where everyone could carry it with them. There is no true confrontation in the game, and despite the having a competitive goal in form of scoring, the gameplay is from neither side particularly.

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Escalation of moral maturity from game to game

One aspect that’s been part of boys’ play culture for as long as we can go back in written history with records of children’s play is the moral play between good and evil. One of the modern classics that display an everyday battle between these two extremes would be Cops versus Robbers. As we grow up, the stark contrast between good and evil usually begins to dim to the point where we can accept that good and evil are subjective, at least on philosophical level. The contest between the perceived sides still persist into our adulthood, more often than not shaded to the point of the perceived evil being more justified than the opposing side.

The traditional pen and paper role playing games stem from the myths of antique and the knight plays. I don’t think there’s one child in the world who has no played a role of a knight in some play. The knight I’m referring here is more akin the idea of local protector, hence why black knights are the opposing, equal power. Perhaps an allegory for the fallen angel of sorts on some level. Nevertheless, the early computer RPGs were largely digitised forms of Dungeons & Dragons games these people used to have, with Ultima being an example of such. If you look in late 80’s and 1990’s Japanese fantasy light novels and series branched from them, like Slayers, they’re largely based on the author’s own D&D games. With the D&D crowd, at some point they stopped playing knights outside in the nature, and moved indoors. Of course, Live action role playing, or LARPing has become somewhat popular, and is effectively just people playing like kids with far more serious intent and costlier props.

The aforementioned paragraph may sound rather negative, though it’s more an argument of natural change. Whether or not theatrical plays predated children play acting is unknown, but the two have a linear connection between maturity and playing. Play acting became a profession, something done so good that it could be made money with. The adult life is strongly reflected in children’s plays, as playing is often the best form of education and learning for the future. Kids trading stones and sticks on the playfield essentially prepares for commerce. Pokémon TCG was largely panned by parents in its initial release years, but one thing they learned about it was how it taught children the value of goods and trading. Modern world simply allows certain aspects of immature play to be present more than with previous generations. The concept of something being childish and for children only has seen a silent paradigm shift.

Perhaps the example of this is electronic games. While computer games were seen somewhat more mature compared to console and arcade games in the 1970’s and 80’s, they’ve been accepted as a media for all ages since the late 1990’s, with some grudges here and there. It’s still not all that uncommon to see some parents from previous generations to describe game consoles and computers as toys, which often yields a rather negative response due to associated immature mental image it carries with it. While understandable, toys are means to play. Describing a game machine a toy in this sense isn’t wholly inaccurate, as all it exists for is to play.

However, electronic games and machines they run on prevent any creative forms of plays. They offer a statistic, controlled and extremely limited form of play, which is more akin to adult overseeing a children’s play. This is currently a technological issue, as we’ve yet to see completely dynamic world that allows the player to enact whatever possible they want. One can’t build a hut and live in there for the rest of the character’s natural life in a Final Fantasy game, because the game is not prepared for that. It’s limited to the story the game wants to tell. Playing often requires the player to follow the rules, after all. Not all toys allow all forms of play either, after all. While calling video and computer games as toys might sting your ear, the association with play is completely natural and such naming shouldn’t be deflected from the get go. After all, we have adult’s toys as well, which children shouldn’t have access to before they are mentally and physically mature enough.

The same applies to video games. Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim are both games we constantly see people of all ages playing, despite the age recommendations being there. Being a direct descendant of Cops VS Robbers and knight plays, both game simply take the basic core and expand on it. GTA may have you play as the Robber, but the moral hues you’re given are numerous. The same applies to Skyrim, where the player character is a figurative knight on his route to slay a dragon. The means and toys have just changed from a stick representing the baton or sword to a plastic controller and readily set digital world.

The question how much industrially prepared playing via toys has affected modern world’s play culture as a whole is a topic I’m not ready to touch on. However, some examples how things simply change drastically with a toy would be Barbie. The toy is not a doll for girls who play with it, it’s a Barbie. Singling out a toy like this outside all others has grown to the point of almost all toys have been made their own rather than for overall playing in general. Perhaps the largest reason for this change is the successful franchising, where the association with a toy and a character is made so much stronger. A child is not just buying a transforming robot toy, he’s buying Optimus Prime and all the mental images associated with the character.

While the contest between moral sides in boys’ games has escalated since the 1950’s, similar escalation has been lacing in electronic games. This is due to all the aforementioned; electronic games are just part of it. The age-old discussion about boys’ and girls’ games is valid, and while I’d argue that a well made game does cater to both sexes, the truth is that one has more interest towards certain kinds of games over the other. That is the nature of things. However, nothing exists in a vacuum, and games experience as much mixing of these two play cultures as real life does. The Sims is still the best example of girls’ play culture being completely accepted by both sexes (the game’s essentially playing Home), as is Super Mario. Super Mario just happens to be perceived more immature due to the design choices and lack moral greys over something like Halo, which is perceived a a “big boys game.”

This is a point, as not all games, electronic or not, are for all ages. It is up to the parents to decide whether or not Little Jimmy is ready to handle mature concepts like interrupted penetration, self-mutilation in the name of love, the absurdity of how pointless life is or the sheer sexual tension between a man and a machine. Something truly is for “big boys.” The core play doesn’t change with maturity, but the concepts and themes that frame the act do.

Sleep in the bed you made

Christopher Paul’s take on video games is an interesting one, to say the least. According to his book, The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games: Why Gaming Culture Is the Worst, games have a problem of focusing on the individual and promoting meritocracy. Which really isn’t a problem, considering competitive and single-player games all necessitate player to become at least good enough to stand a chance. It’s a natural continuation from the whole game culture thing video and computer games have to them.

Of course, Paul’s argument against this is that this competitive environment is that this prevents creation of positives spaces for interaction. This is bullshit, as these spaces are created by the people, not games. Whether or not you’re a sore loser  or a graceful winner matters more whether or not a game requires you to have enough skill to compete. Certainly certain game franchises attract specific types of people for whatever reason, as we’ve seen with the Sonic the Hedgehog fandom throughout the years, yet we have to give the individual weight on their life selections over blaming the game they like.

Paul mentions Mario Kart and Mario Party as examples of games where things are the opposite of supposedly toxic meritocracy. Which is a riot, considering both games can destroy friendships. Mario Kart may have some elements of randomness to it, but the player with the highest skill will always come at the top, as they he can make the best of his calculated risks and knows when and how to take certain positions. Being aware of the weapons in the game is important as well. The same applies with Mario Party, which while having some cooperative mini-games, is still all about the individual aiming to get Stars or whatever it is you collect them in the latest versions. These games still promote individuality and rewards the players with most skill. Their random element may add a layer of uncertainty, but that’s nothing new to video games at any point and only provide a challenge to beat the odds, rather than trying to level to playfield.

It’s an odd thing, really. Boys’ play culture has always had a competitive edge to it, mostly in form of adventure games and sports, so it’s not exactly a surprise that electronic game culture would mainly stem from that. Especially considering that it’s the men who generally love to tinker with mechanical stuff and mathematics. Trying to change this by force doesn’t exactly work, because you’d need to change the paradigm of what essentially is a result of thousands of years of evolution. What Paul seems to want to do is to change the paradigm toward girls’ play culture, which is more about peaceful interaction with each.

The two aren’t completely separate, of course. Nothing exists in a vacuum, despite certain sections of the population wanting to hole themselves into comforting bubbles. Boys’ and girls’ play cultures have their differences, but they mingle with each other to an extent. However, forcing one’s values towards the other has never really gone well. Just asking boys to play with girls’ dolls like girls would rarely goes as intended, which is why boys have action figures, not dolls, by name.

Paul’s assumption that meritocratic systems, the ones promoted by games according to him, are toxic by their nature is incorrect. People are individuals who have to strive for individual goals. At times, we combine out forces for a common goal, but we still stay as individuals with out own desires. Collectivising population into grey mass has never been successful without excessive force from the ruling party. Even then, nations like the Soviet Union no longer exist, despite brute forcing their way into power, keeping their power through terror and violence all the while subduing all forms of resistance. North Korea’s really the only place all people have been leveled down to the same field, except the ruling party. There, no matter how good you might be, you’ll be hammered down like a nail.

If we view video games from Paul’s perspective as a tool to promote individual achievements and rewarding merit, we soon come to a point where games are only a positive tool. If games affect their consumers like Paul seems to assume, then all who play games should be striving for high achievement in other fields in life. This should then yield highly educated and highly skilled set of workers, who would step into fields where people can contribute the most while raking in the most rewards. The STEM field would be one of these as would other similar fields of high degree of demand. The best workers would also deliver the best results, and without a doubt the person most fit for a job should always get it, as this would be seen in results across the board.

Natural order of things isn’t as forgiving though. People have different dispositions and there are biological differences between people, sex being one of them. Multiple elements affect us, but that does not prevent us from having the chance to strive and aim higher. Games, in that sense, offer a level playfield, as almost anyone can take part in them and learn. Hell, even people without arms can gain the same merit in video games than their more armed competitors.

If you choose not to put the time and effort to get to the level of gaining merit, nobody else but you yourself can be blamed on. That’s the decision you’ve made as an individual and that can’t be put on anyone else. If you didn’t take the chance, that’s on you.

Fight! Iczer-1 series celebration

These posts were originally posted as a Monthly Three, as well as Iczer-1’s 30th anniversary celebration series. They are now here collected for easier access. This post covers introduction to the history and the Original Video Animations the franchise has seen.


Rei Aran

If one doesn’t find much sources about Hariken Ryu in English (his career with Godzilla gives him a lot of leverage over other of his contemporaries, Aran Rei is barely recognized in any degree. While Aran is known as one of many people who made up the best era of Comic Lemon People, and thus one of those who influenced then-current Japanese popular culture, and to that extension modern Japanese pop-culture, his name is all but lost in the Western front. He was at his most active in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, having an influence over stylistic sensibilities as well as contributing to the OVA scene.

Born in 1960, Aran’s first published work was Fairies of the Star in Comic Lemon People #6, 1982. Whether or not he had released doujinshis before this is unknown. The one work he seemed to like the most and kept working on  between 1983 and 1993 is Galaxy Police Patrizer-3. If any of his works, it is this one that shows how Aran refined his self-taught skills within one decade to a whole new level.

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Breakout, Arkanoid and Cyber Block Metal Orange: Evolution in simplicity

Few years back when I was looking at old game footage with some of my friends, one of them could not get his head around how games like Breakout and River Raid could be called games, they didn’t even look the part. I never understood what he meant, but I’m guessing it has everything to do with him growing up with PC games of mid-90’s. Granted, I didn’t specifically live grew up with Atari 2600 either, if anything it was the Atari computers and C64.

It’s been few years since that, but it never left my mind for whatever reason. It doesn’t even look like a game, was his exact words. To him, it looked too simple to be enjoyed. Is the current cultural mentality expecting games to look complex and reflect reality whenever possible?

Breakout is a 1976 game headed by Nolan Bushnell. One of Atari’s biggest hits, Bushnell conceptualised Breakout as a single player Pong, and prototyped by none other than Steve Wozniak. Single player Pong in itself sounds dull, but what Bushnell and Steve Bristow made a significant change; the tiles.

If Pong is an example of pure core game design without any extra elements hampering the competition between two players, Breakout is similarly an example of pure single player game design. There is nothing unnecessary in Breakout, there is nothing in-between the player and the game. There is, quite simply to put it, only the game and the player.

Breakout is a game I played a lot during the mid-90’s and early 00’s on computers in my local library and whenever I had the chance at schools. It was, at a time, very popular game to code for aspiring game designers and coders, as Breakout‘s apparent simplicity hides relatively complex nature. For example, the paddle that bounces the ball is often split into five sections, each sending the ball to a different angle trajectory. In the Atari 2600 version, each 12th bounce would increase the speed of the ball. Things like that you wouldn’t consider consciously, unless you found yourself obsessed with the game and wanting to rip it apart. Breakout, as Atari designed it, has no random elements to it either, and there is nothing to keep the player from having a perfect, calculated game.

Breakout, compared to modern games, tends to look rather bare bones. That is, of course, due to technological limitations of the era, but on the other hand anything else thrown in there would be unnecessary to an extent. The classic Atari sound effects also have a function rather than just filling in silence. I’ve read reports from years back how some players were able to complete a game just by the sound alone. That’s a key to one of the most mesmerising elements of Breakout; it hooks you.

Breakout‘s apparent simplicity is easy to understand. Send the ball flying off, hit a tile, calculate where the ball will land and bounce it back up. Rinse and repeat. However, the actual game is challenging and involves more skill and eye-hand coordination than it appears. It’s a game that’s easy to get into, but ultimately hard to master. Once you get into the game, it doesn’t let you go easily. Watching the ball rhythmically hit the walls and tiles with each blip from the speakers announcing a contact is something only other similar games can ultimately replicate. Some people talk about getting into the zone with games, and Breakout is a game where you can find yourself in very easily. This has happened to be with Breakout’s few descendants, Arkanoid and Cyber Block Metal Orange. To some extent, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach volleyball can induce similar effect once you get into how the ball goes over the net, how it’s returned and in what way. DoAX really is just Pong with prettier graphics and more physics thrown in.

There is nothing in your way to blame the game for in Breakout either. Modern games have animation management, random element management and God only knows how many more elements thrown in there just to drop a monkey wrench in your gears. Technology has allowed games to represent motion and reality to a larger extent than what they could in 1976, and with that certain design elements in game development have been lost. Certain instantaneous elements in gameplay has become a rarer element as natural animation has taken its place. Link swings his sword more realistically in 3D, but there is a lack of satisfaction that you got from a well placed near instant stab from the original game.

Breakout’s design has been copied few times over. By few times I mean more than anyone can count. However, across all the Breakout-clones out there, the core gameplay is very much the same. Whether or not it has been realised well is a whole another thing. A lot of times I’ve heard people first experiencing Breakout on computer, either as a some sort of unofficial clone or browser version. Most browser versions out there are shit, without a doubt, and to find a well coded version that would improve from the original are essentially non-existent. I had the chance the play the Atari 2600 version once with the a paddle. There is nothing quite like finding yourself having an absolute control over the paddle’s movements on the screen, something that no controller has managed to replicate. Even with mouse controls it feels just inaccurate enough, even when it’s competently done. Google launched a version of Breakout you can still play today, but it’s slower than the original and mouse controlled. Ultimately, Breakout’s clones have a very hard time to beat the original paddle nub, because it simply works the best. Mouse control is the closest you can get to it, but it still can’t top the original intended controller. There are Breakout clones that do work with other control methods, but this is because the functions and speeds have been altered to accommodate these controls, which is just a good thing.

Much like Tetris, Breakout is a perfect game in its simplicity. While many mistakenly label it and Tetris as puzzle games, neither are that. Both of them are more or less unique entities of their own, something that could only be realised through a video game. The only way to continue from either from these games would be break that perfect, balanced simplicity by either changing the core rules, or with additional things. Super Breakout was the first sequel released few years after the original, but perhaps the most famous Breakout clone is Arkanoid.

I recommend everyone to read a book called Pilgrim in the Microworld by David Sudnow. The book is his autobiography, detailing his obsession with Breakout and how he manically spent his time to understand the game. He went to the extent of visiting Silicon Valley and interview the programmers to gain insights about the game. He understood how a game could become addictive, an obsession without being a gamer. Sudnow was a pianist. He came from outside the gamer culture of the era, someone who didn’t really saw their appeal until he stopped to learn about them, first by sight, then by trying his hands on them. It’s not only a fascinating glimpse into one’s mind how they saw a game, but also how Breakout’s design, simple as it is compared to the modern games’ overblown layers of complexity, can capture a person’s fascination.


Complexity fascinates people. Things and people themselves are not complex, but we make them to be. There is beauty in simplicity, but by our nature we want to mess with that simplicity. Breakout was a perfectly simple single-player game and effectively created a sub-genre to Pong games through its innovation. You can’t really add more depth to Breakout without changing its gameplay and design, which changes how it ultimately plays out. Super Breakout was the first official sequel to Breakout, adding new game modes and such. Still, it didn’t touch on the design itself.

Ten years later, in 1986, Arkanoid was released. Either it or Breakout are used as an example for the genre, and as such Breakout or Arkanoid clone is not too uncommon to see around. Nevertheless, Taito’s Arkanoid stands apart from Breakout due to its expansion to the formula. Arkanoid did not add any depth to Breakout, and by its extension, to Pong, but it expanded how the game is played and approached.

Arkanoid wasn’t the first Breakout clone, but it sure was the one that stroke true. Its expansions are basically power-ups that adds on top of the existing gameplay rather than changes it. There are some Space Invaders influences in there with a power-up capsule that adds a shot option, and thus another way to break the tiles. Other power ups affect the length of the paddle, adds a multi-ball mode and add a ball capturing ability.

These of course change how you approach the game. Do you pick up certain power-ups over the other, or will you stick the current ones you have? What will serve you best in what situation, and are you able to utilise them all equally well? As the game has become arguably safer to play with these additions, Taito added falling planet debris that spawns at the top of the screen. If the player’s paddle hits one of these debris, it affects how the paddle controls. Another addition is unbreakable tiles and tiles that require multiple hits, adding a way to prevent player from hitting certain spots with ease.

Breakout’s stage design follows the same simple idea as the rest of the game, whereas Arkanoid’s one of the best things are the stage layouts. Arkanoid abandons the idea of breaking out and increased difficulty and adopts progressive stage-by-stage transition. Progressing through the game is done by entering a door that opens up with a certain capsule or automatic progression when the screen is cleared.

Arkanoid got a slew of sequels pretty soon and was ported to pretty much all popular systems at the time. Out of them, Arkanoid DS is the most divisive entry due to how it changed dynamics of the core gameplay. It narrowed and lengthened the play field, making it far higher than in previous entries, and changed the tiles into squares. This changes the dynamics of the game, especially now that there is a loss of information. Breakout is a 100% information game; everything you see is what you get. Arkanoid’s slight variation in the planets debris’ motion adds a random element to the mix, but with Arkanoid DS you have a dead zone where there is no visual information for the player to latch unto. With DS, if the developer wants to use both screens in gameplay, they can either simulate the space between the two screens or ignore the space. Taito decided to include this screenless space, which does add unknown factor to the gameplay. The paddle doesn’t seem to have any changes to it and feels larger due to the narrower field.

Arkanoid DS seems to play in a lacklustre way without an additional paddle controller. Complains I’ve seen regarding the game range from lacklustre ball physics to amateurish visual designs to irritating elevator music used in the game. I have to agree with most of these points. Because there are far better Arkanoid clones out there, games that play reasonably well even without a paddle controller, I never bothered tracking one down to my library. Its presentation isn’t all too appealing,

Taito’s success with Arkanoid stems from well planned expansions on pre-existing game design. This made Arkanoid stand out from other Breakout clones. The additions were important and no other Breakout or Arkanoid clone has managed to beat them in how these two defined the genre. There are numerous good Arkanoid clones out there, and we’ll be taking a look at one next time.

Within the game industry there really isn’t a comparative example to Breakout-Arkanoid relationship. The closest ones that hit the mark are Doom clones that run on the same engine, but there are not straight up analogies. Perhaps one of the best examples is Star Wars: Dark Forces, as the rumours say that the Jedi engine was made from reversed engineered and largely modified Doom engine. The difference in comparison is difficult to make between Breakout-Arkanoid and Doom-Doom clones is because the technology has become advanced enough that such changes have become more or less meaningless. Well, another one would be Street Fighter II compared to earlier fighting games, of course, but SFII did far more than just expanding from the base gameplay.

Most modern games are essentially derivatives from GTA-3D Zelda style games as simplicity and certain level of abstract worlds have been all but abandoned. What use is technological advancement if we can’t obsolete old games and still recycle the same exact methods of gameplay and progress we’ve had over two decades now? It’s no wonder that the general audience liked the Wii and the DS, it had games that deviated from the standard formula a bit, like Brain Age.

Perhaps rather than designing the expansive and complex game systems each and any game seems to go for, there should be a slight paradigm shift to concentrate on the core gameplay over everything else. Such approach is impossible for the modern Triple A game development mentality, I’m afraid.


After Arkanoid, Breakout styled games become hottest shit again. While people mostly remember that time as the boom of NES era and arcades were in a weird moment in time, when home consoles started usurp them. Not to say that the arcades didn’t have their share of awesome games, but less people remember any arcade games from 1986 than console games. PC had its own fair share of games from the time, and Arkanoid was ported to basically every major PC of the era.

Where do you go from Arkanoid? From Breakout it was a simple task just to expand with options, or vary the gameplay rules by changing the tiles or the ball. Arkanoid DS was less successful in changing everything from the physics to the shape and dimensions of the playfield. Nevertheless, Arkanoid stayed true to the idea of keeping it simple, but not all Arkanoid clones followed this path, at least not in visual design. Of course, it was just a matter of time until a porn version of Arkanoid would surface.

The Japanese PC scene was very different from the western one, until it was basically taken over by the IBM standard, a thing that seems to bother some people a lot. I understand these people very well, there are a lot of things that fascinate me in these old PCs, be it how the visuals or simply the how they work out. Even on emulation there’s some nicks here and there that need to be figured out, but luckily most modern emulators are straight forward. Once the IBM standard began to take foothold in Japan, some games had both PC98 and DOS support.

Japanese computers were not technological marvels when it came to screen scrolling, which is why Super Mario Bros. Special opted for screen-to-screen transitions instead. This is also one of the main reasons Visual Novels became a thing; it was easier to showcase one picture with bunch of text than code gameplay in. By 1990 people had got around how to make scrolling work, the year when Cyber Block Metal Orange was released on NEC’s PC-8801 series of computers.

Metal Orange is not really an expansion on Arkanoid‘s gameplay, but a modification. It takes the same basic gameplay as Breakout and takes the idea from Arkanoid, but mixes things with its own method of power-ups and progression. The gameplay is really tight and stands well throughout comparison, especially its Sharp X68000 port.

First thing that you may notice that the overall design of the screen is more expanded than what it usually is with Breakout titles. One third of the screen is dedicated to a HUD with score display, the operator of your spaceship and power-up indicator. It all looks really lovely, with that Japanese 80’s sci-fi flavour to it.

Nevertheless, there are three major flaws in the design of the visuals. The first one is that the power-up capsules increase a bar that indicates which power-up you have an access to. The capsules don’t straight up grant you a boost this time around, but you need to collect them certain amount get certain level power-up. From one capsule to seven and grant the usual Arkanoid like power-ups. The interesting one Silhouette, that gives you after images. The most expensive one creates a Barrier that bounces balls up. Unless you can keep up how many capsules you’ve collected and in what order the power-ups are on the bar, you’ll be eyeing that bar from the playfield to check what the current status is. While you can play Breakout just with the corner of your eye, most people want to focus on the action. Placing this bar underneath the playfield would’ve made it easier to keep an eye on, as players would still check where the spaceship paddle was located.

The second is the spaceship itself, and this is largely a personal issue I’m sure. The spot that bounces the ball up and down is the top of the craft, and doesn’t go deeper than the front of the ship. Sometimes I try to bounce the ball with the side of the ship, underneath the hitbox, with no avail. It’s a visual cue with no attributes. This is more an issue with the X68k version with more detailed graphics.

Third is a minor, but with the stuff that’s going on the screen, tiles breaking, balls bouncing, enemies falling and whatever power-up you have, the animated background can actually make you mistake one of the stars as the ball. I’ve heard this to happen some people who’ve played this game, so it’s a minor issue, but an issue nevertheless.

Depending on your worldview, you may dislike the porn aspect of the game, but that also gives it its rhythm. Each Stage is divided into smaller sections, first having two stages and then increasing each opened image until the player has to beat four stages in one go. Not that it matters really, there are infinite Continues and a Game Over doesn’t send you back to the first stage of a smaller section. The CGs themselves are decent and look very much in-line with other Custom games, like TEEN.

One last thing that Metal Orange does that Arkanoid didn’t was the music, as in there’s quite a lot of it for a Breakout game. Each Stage has its own theme, each character has its own theme, there’s the opening and ending themes and they’re all pretty damn good.

Nevertheless, Metal Orange’s greatest changes really do lie in the visuals and in the sound department, and these two are really what Breakout games can do without completely revamping the game system. The simplicity that started with Pong has not aged one bit in our modern-day games, but we’re seeing it less. Whenever Nintendo got back to basics with Wii and the DS, they faced great success, similarly how the NES and GameBoy become phenomenal.

After all, hitting the Blue Ocean market with attractive products always seems to yield hits.

This post was originally posted in three sequential parts, now collected for easier reading.

Behind the scenes theatre

After a long time, I had a moment to spare to watch some movies. Whilst my collection is nothing special and does not contain many flicks film buffs would tell you to watch, I noticed an interesting trend with then. Behind the Scene stuff changed across the ages. For example, with Star Trek‘s behind the scenes footage was quite honestly just someone on the set doing home videos, with the occasional Roddenberry-owned goof tape he used to sell at conventions without any approval of the studio or the actors. I think you can still find pirate versions of these tapes floating around the Internet. These are honest showcases of what was happening, all the flips and flops of the actors.

Television didn’t exactly have the same amount of documentaries about making of television or movies, all these were relegated to magazine articles and newspaper interviews. Something that the studios themselves didn’t do at all. The value wasn’t in there for them. Genre magazines shone with their exclusive contents, behind the scenes photos and such.

Things changed, albeit slowly. By the late 1970’s you began seeing more and more material on the television about movies being made, as studios began to recognize the PR value. Outside the usual interviews, footage was more often than not honest to the reality.

A paradigm shift began to take hold in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, where  some studios began to intentionally build a library of making of documentaries for documentary and PR use. While only Laserdiscs could really contain large amount of extras, television saw more of these Behind the Scenes stuff to a larger extent. These documentaries have a more professional feel and look to them, as they’re shot as intended for a purpose.

However, it wasn’t until the 2000’s when Behind the Scene documentaries lost pretty much all plausability. Star Wars Episode I; The Phantom Menace‘s footage is one of the last Making Of documentaries, where you see the director and his staff being completely honest. That footage is interesting, because it has no veil on it, and you can see all the little bits that would build up the movie, for better or worse. There are multiple moments of Lucas himself telling directly in a natural environment what he is doing and how. Him watching old silent comedy for Jar Jar Binks, using a marker to draw on storyboards or reviewing readied models, it’s all there.

Then jump to Star Wars Episode VII. By 2010’s, Hollywood has fully recognised the power Behind the Scenes and Making Of features have. DVD brought us an era, where discs were chock-full of specials features, something we’re starting to lack with BDs. While a lot of the special features were simply transfers from the LD versions, at some point you could find yourself watching a Making Of, where the actors, director and everyone else who is involved being interviewed against a backdrop, over a footage they act in or make models.

In effect, these features have become less about the reality of the situation and fully about the public relations aspect, and how the studio and its staff can promote each other to the fullest. These studios, Disney especially, exerts large control over what material gets out and how it should be presented. A book called Making of the Force Awakens supposedly would’ve revealed lot of the background while making the movie, including some of the details about the deal Disney and Lucas made. The only reason a book like this would get cancelled is because it had something negative, something that could’ve damaged reputation of Disney or Star Wars as a franchise. There would have been no questions about its potential sales, as Star Wars was at its hottest since Episode I at the time.

The design of these things have never truly been about what’s happening behind the scenes. However, with time these features have become effectively fraudulent, showcasing a reality that doesn’t exist. Well, perhaps this was to be expected, a documentary is one’s subjective view of the events after all, not the objective reality.

Virtual-On Retrospective: Oratorio Tangram

Previous: Operation Moongate

Virtual-On was a relative success for its time. It saw most of its popularity in Japan due to larger availability of arcades and the Saturn doing better there than anywhere else. For America however, the success was much more limited. Less arcade machines to go around and Saturn’s lukewarm success were the main reasons. The PC version, much like other Sega’s PC releases, was less emphasized over their own console’s port. This lesser success seemed to convince Sega’s European section not to release the Twin Stick controller in the region. Despite how the game is considered a sort of landmark for Sega and mecha games overall among fans, that’s all mostly in retrospect. Its impact didn’t exactly topple any towers, and ultimately met similar niche status as Sega’s other Saturn seller title, Panzer Dragoon.

The decline of arcades, and Sega’s mismanagement of their hardware side (especially during Mega Drive’s later years and Saturn overall) limited Sega’s business success overall, with Sony taking their place as Nintendo’s main rival with the PlayStation. That is not to say that Virtual-On ended up being some sort of sales catastrophe, as Japanese arcade goers took the series close to their hearts. This being Sega, they gave more emphasis on this fact rather than considering the franchise’s world wide success.

Despite Sega Model 2 being a success on its own rights, Sega was always pushing their arcade hardware further. If Nintendo has an obsession to introduce 3D to home hardware, then Sega had an obsession to push the 3D hardware at arcades. Hang-On, OutRun and Space Harrier are all examples of 80’s Sega finding ways around to introduce 3D-like effect to their games, and you could even argue that Sega’s teams became master of sprite scaling in this fashion.

Sega didn’t cut much corners with their arcade hardware, and Sega Model 3 supports this approach, as it was the most powerful arcade system board of its era. As Sega’s last piece produced by their partnership with Lockheed Martin, it contained graphical hardware designed by Real3D and Mitsubishi, which was a spin-off company from Lockheed Martin. However, Real3D only saw success with Sega, and their partnership with Intel and SGI ended up as market failure, and in the end was sold completely to Intel in 1999 due to changed arcade markets.

The reason why Mitsubishi was brought into the partnership was Real3D had a series of delays with their GPU. Originally, the Model 3 was supposed to be released in 1995, but had to be pushed back to 1996, with Yu Suzuki claiming it would deliver the best 3D graphics thus far.


Model 3, of course, ran the latest Virtua Fighter

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