Mario 64 was the proof of the strengths of the N64. More than that: Mario was the explanation for the N64 having been made the way it was. It was hardware and software in unison; it explained the analogue stick and C buttons, in hindsight almost absurdly tailored to that one game.

Contemporary reviewers looked to 3D Land to do the same for the 3DS. What would it be like to explore a real 3D world?

Unfortunately, Nintendo couldn't repeat the same trick. The 3DS’s defining hardware characteristic came with a switch to turn it off and a warning that children shouldn't use it. So Mario had to work without it.

However, 3D Land did expose some ways game makers could play with 3D, even if it couldn’t commit to them itself. There was the fact that parts of the game were actually a throwback to isometric 3D of the 1980s (Populous, Zaxxon, Snake Rattle ’n’ Roll, etc.). A delightful joke: build a 3D environment, render it from a fixed angle, with mis-sized, off-grid blocks, then only communicate depth with the stereo images. It’s a funny leveraging of the brain-hack approach to 3D of a stereoscopic display. Your brain is able to decode what you're seeing even though it would never be encountered in the natural world.

You’re really seeing a new world, which is mindblowing (if you switch it on).

The coin’s not where you think it is. The console's called “3DS”, but they still needed a big “3D” label…

The coin’s not where you think it is. The console's called “3DS”, but they still needed a big “3D” label…

Holding a window versus holding a projector

But there was one other idea that 3D Land showed us, even though it didn’t make use of it itself. That was the ability, with the d-pad, to toggle the 3D type between innie and outie: keep all the depth behind the screen, or allow it to stick out in front.

This option shows us two different models of how a 3D world can stand in relation to a viewer: one like holding a window; one like holding a projector. The window has the world behind it, the projector has the world in front of it.

Interestingly, though, the window can be made sense of in the topology of the game world whereas the projector cannot. What’s the nature of this new world we’re seeing?

(Those are noses.)

(Those are noses.)

In my diagram, a set of three red balls is presented to a viewer in three different ways. In the 2D example, each eye sees the same parts of the scene exactly. In the “window” and “projection” examples, the frame of the screen obscures a different part of the scene for each eye. The yellow shaded area shows where both eyes can see and where the scene will resolve cleanly in three apparent dimensions. Outside that area, only one eye can see the scene, the other being limited by the edge of the screen.

The “window” diagram could equally represent three red balls outside an actual window. The principles of the diagram would be the same. It’s impossible for the right eye to turn and see the right edge of the right ball because the right edge of the window frame is in the way. You would have to move your head or the window frame and have a look round the corner. (This is the 3DS tech’s biggest ask for suspension of disbelief: you can’t look round the corner. That’s a major differentiator for VR, and the part that makes you sick if the latency is bad.)

The “projection” diagram, on the other hand, could not in the same way be used to represent three balls in front of a window. Here the right eye cannot angle itself to see the left edge of the left ball because the left edge of the frame is “in the way” – even though it’s behind it. The window frame would to obstruct your line of sight to the ball even though the ball is in front. The pretence of 3D here is completely impossible in the natural world. The projected scene and the real world cannot stand in relation to one another insofar as the boundaries of the screen are crossed and the scene extends outside the sweet spot where both eyes can see.

 

So what?

Is one of these better? Apart from one sticking out and the other sticking in? Perhaps you would feel like the window version, since it presents a consistency between your universe and Mario’s, places you in the game world in some way. Perhaps, on the contrary, you would feel that the window ties the game world to mundanity in a way that is destructive of its fantasy – a little toy world in your magic box. In that case it is rather the projection that allows the imaginative leap into the game world.

Of course the correct answer is that neither is absolutely better. However, if you had a game which involved holding a window into another world, then that would be depicted very nicely by the window model.

Steel Diver putting a periscope in your hands (Source)

Steel Diver putting a periscope in your hands (Source)

Likewise, although the projection model doesn't make sense in some very strict interpretation, its basic idea is that stuff sticks out of the screen. That could of course be used to depict some relevant scenario of holding a sticky-out thing between your hands (a Doki Doki Majo Shinpan! update?), although the depiction will be contravened if that thing crosses the boundaries of the screen and introduces the impossible aspects of the illusion.

One last possibility for the projection model: it actually depicts something you cannot experience in the real world – the visual presence of two worlds that cannot logically relate to one another. These are the game world and our world – ours represented by the frame of the 3DS. The only point these two worlds can have in common is the viewer, who sees them both.

Seeing a universe isolated from our own sounds like a science fiction scenario. Imagine a sci-fi game that portrayed that with visuals only possible on a 3D screen. Now that would be hardware and software working in unison.

 

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Tokyo Game Centre series

Kawasaki Warehouse

This is the Kawasaki branch of Anata no Warehouse (“Your Warehouse”), a chain of amusement arcades in the Kantou region around Tokyo. The Kawasaki branch is based on the Kowloon Walled City, a mutant rat-king of buildings housing a Hong Kong slum that was demolished in 1994. The Walled City is a fascinating story, and seems to appeal to architects and anthropologists alike for its emergent organisation and inventive (and regulation-defying) physical structure. As portrayed at the Kawasaki Warehouse, though, it’s a kind of run-down metropolis of street food and neon lights, like a Blade Runner back alley.

To appreciate the grimy facade you need to consider it among it’s pristine surroundings in Kawasaki. Anything that looks remotely rusted, worn-out, dilapidated, or in disrepair has been very carefully presented that way.

The neighbours must have been thrilled.

The neighbours must have been thrilled.

Inside, a retro game corner sits in a street scene of exposed and roughed-up concrete, scattered with worn out posters and notices allegedly imported from the backstreets of Hong Kong. Washing hangs up high at an apartment balcony; a stall of plastic roasted wildfowl sits next to the vending machines.

The themed decor continues into the toilets — the darkest, filthiest corner of the establishment. But it’s not really filthy of course, because we’re in (Greater) Tokyo. Sure enough, the Toto Washlet bidet-lavatory awaits inside the stall with it’s extensive electronic control panel. Anything you might need to touch is impeccably clean.

Warehouse Kawasaki Kowloon game centre toilet 2.JPG

Amusingly, the faux-filth is deemed unbecoming of female patrons, whose bog looks like they moved it brick by brick from Disneyland.

 

Games, though?

So this place is lots of fun when you first see it, and it’s certainly done the rounds online over the years, but the whole Kowloon thing is a bit short-lived. It’s very nicely done, but there’s just not much of it. Apart from the entrance floor, the retro corner, and toilets, it’s just a game centre. So how are the games?

The retro cabinets are amazing. The trio of sit-in Sega cabs at the entrance — Space Harrier, Outrun, and Rad Mobile — is delightful. Then there’s Darius, Gauntlet, a deluxe Street Fighter cab, and a handful more, plus some table-tops of things like Space Invaders. The retro corner alone would be worth the journey from central Tokyo. (OK, so for me the Sega cabs alone were worth it. OK, just Space Harrier was enough.)

Beyond the museum pieces, it’s all the usual stuff, but up to date and well implemented: all the music cabs have headphone sockets, all the racers are in multiples, and the layout is spacious and cool. They even have designated smoking locations, so it stinks a bit less than most places.

Expansive as the videogame section is, it only takes up a fraction of the building, the rest of which is given over to medal games, darts, a manga café, and a pool hall (where you can get a beer).

Heading out to Kawasaki for a night at a game centre might seem like a bit of a trek, but this place is special. The game selection is top drawer and, ironically given its styling, it was cleaner and more spacious than anything in the middle of Tokyo. The theme park presentation and non-videogame activities might even give you a chance of convincing less game-obsessed acquaintances to join you.

Here it is on Google Maps. Take the train to Kawasaki station and it’s an easy ten-minute walk. 


 

Previous posts from Kawasaki Warehouse

 

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I was completely oblivious to the recent release of GTA V on PC when I finally started tidying up this piece I started a year ago, already late then for the PS3 version. But here I am, accidentally almost-on-topic.

So there was that notorious scene where you torture someone. It certainly got a lot of coverage back in 2013, although everyone seems OK with it now. It’s graphic and unsettling — and not in a good way.

Between torturing sessions use B to view Mr. K's health and heart rate on the ECG monitor. If Mr. K is pushed too far he may need an adrenaline shot.

I say you torture someone, but really it’s Trevor the psycho thug — GTA V’s most ingenious and most wasted character — who does the torturing. You’re just watching.

Use  and A to pick a torture weapon.

You might be repulsed by the torture, and it’s implemented so blandly that you might even be a little bored by it at the same time, but you’ll sit there and get through it regardless, eager to continue the rest of the game. That’s how much power GTA has over you, and how much power was wasted on gratuitous, laddish, nonsense violence.

Press R to swing the wrench. 

But while this scene is pure, vapid, gross-out schlock, I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

 

Meaningless button-presses

Some unique tools games have for engaging an audience are barely used in Trevor’s torture scene:

  • Games can give us control, but here we have no option besides torture, and no significant say in how it happens.

  • Games can depict physical interaction using player movement and force feedback, but the torture control scheme is rudimentary and unengaging — almost as abstract and irrelevant as in a QTE.
     
  • Games can model systems and give meaning even to simple button presses, but since this scene rejects GTA V’s general control scheme, player actions lose all systemic meaning.

The potential of games as a medium is ignored, when it could have been exploited to give you ownership of Trevor’s actions. Had it been exploited, this torture might have been challenging. It might have unsettled us skilfully and made us think.

Hold R to grip a tooth.

As it is, it’s neither powerful nor moving; it’s just crass, gratuitously voyeuristic, and lazily unartistic.

Rotate  to pull it out.

But wait. Who says we have to own Trevor’s acts? Who would even want to own them? Let’s take a different approach to fixing this scene up.

 

Imagining a better heartless torture

So what if the problem here isn’t the emptiness of the controls? I think this scene could have been much better — could have shown us something much more affecting — without being any different at all.

I just listed some examples of what games do well that are missing from the torture scene. Let’s keep all these glaring gaps, then, and make something of them: we have no real control; we have no real physical connection; there’s no real meaning to our actions. What can we do with those facts?

Imagine this: earlier in the game, Trevor’s struggling against a compulsion to commit violence. He begins to push back against that impulse, and his progress is demonstrated by introducing genuine opportunities for the player to decide to avoid sadistic aggression. Taking these chances for Trevor to act like a better person rewards the player with his positive character development — the beginnings of a redemption. The monster discovers some humanity, and those beautifully acted and animated cutscenes can flesh it all out and splash in a bit of humour. We care for Trevor: he’s doing his best. But Trevor’s a tragic hero, and all this is only setting him up for a fall.

In the torture shed, under the command of the FIB, Trevor, who has fought to redeem himself — who you’ve fought to redeem —is given every excuse to let his old urges take over. Presented with a bench of torture tools and a defenceless subject, and facing a threat against his freedom unless he applies the treatment, it’s just too easy for him to succumb once more and let his impulses overwhelm him. He’s powerless. Irresistible forces drive him to commit those awful deeds while he’s almost watching himself from outside his body, acting without connection or engagement. The gruesome acts just seem to happen.

Now that’s something the scene as it stands can convey. We’ll just keep on pressing the buttons we have to press, like it’s an illness, and the man in the chair will scream and tell all. It’s graphic and unsettling, just the same as before, but now in an unforgettably powerful way. Now we’re free to relish in it guiltily, taking on the role of Trevor, and we can better understand the brute we’re dealing with.

 

Press A to flip the chair

We changed nothing about the scene itself, but we changed the game around it. In particular, the controls weren’t the problem at all. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the much-derided Press-[F]-to-pay-respects model. In our imaginary game, we could even simplify the controls further: let’s have all the horrible actions mapped to a single button press. The scene still works, so long as we change the job it’s doing.

Where gamey techniques for audience engagement are deliberately and conspicuously absent, they’re still, in a sense, being used. Their potential is being exercised even if not instantiated. I could have stomached this scene and all its vacant savagery, if only it had been deployed with some artistic sense.

 

Love/hate

It’s failures of this kind that grate most painfully against the fantastic scope, production values, and fun that make GTA V an unfortunate classic. In a game showing such great quality in other areas, this scene might have been brilliant. All it lacked was some judgment. If empty-headed torture had had a dramatic place among the other parts of the game, the flippant inevitability of it could have been devastating. We could have wept as we pressed A — for Trevor more than for his victim. While GTA V is one of the most accomplished feats of videogame design and engineering, of polished storytelling and of experience design, it isn’t even nearly reaching similar standards of artistic emotional insight.

GTA V’s missing a heart. Its content, its humour, and its style are deeply uncaring and exclusionary, but infuriatingly well produced. In that way it’s like Top Gear, only with a thug in the lead role. Oh wait a minute.

 

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Last time, I said I would need to do some research on this one. Two weeks later, though, I  haven’t found much out.

Searching for “Sega Derby Day” returns scrappy results of various Sega machines that have gone under that name. There’s a 1960s pachinko machine, and reference to a coin-op arcade item too, but no pictures confirming whether that’s the right thing.

 
“ALL FORMICA CABINET” Nice. Source

“ALL FORMICA CABINET” Nice. Source

 

So why do I need to research this? Why did I photograph it without even playing it?

I snapped it because horse racing is a very distinctive part of Japanese culture. It’s as Japanese as baseball, golf, or apple pie. OK, not apple pie. But horse racing, baseball, and golf are all things that are so un-Japanese that the peculiarities of their Japanese incarnations serve to separate out a bit of what Japanese-ness is. Baseball I dipped into for the Yakyuuban arcade game, and golf I covered in my discussion of F355 Challenge. (Yes, golf was discussed in relation to the Ferrari simulator. I needed to do a site search for that one myself to be honest.) What’s the deal with Japanese horse racing, then?

First thing to note is that horse racing has been the subject matter of Japanese videogames since forever. Apart from Sega’s machines going back to 60s electromechanicals, Nintendo’s first ever videogame release was a 1975 horse racing arcade game, and when they went online with the Famicom Modem in 1988, it’s most popular use was online horse betting.

Second thing to note is that in Japan, horse racing = gambling. Maybe that’s true everywhere, but it’s especially true when the only four things you can legally gamble on are bicycle racing, powerboat racing, speedway motorcycle racing, and horse racing.

 

So what have we got?

What we have here, then, is a gambling machine. Watching the screens for a while I thought maybe there was some opportunity to invest in horses, determine their training, and so on, but ultimately it’s about gambling. A horse betting machine still may not seem particularly Japanese — when I worked in a bookkeeper’s in the UK, the Virtual Racing machines were all the rage. You feed in some big notes, you pick a horse and the machine shows a fake race to communicate to you the result of a random number generation process completed in the first fraction of a second. It was a way to fill the unbearably long non-betting minutes between the real events running on the shop’s TVs.

Love these chairs.

Love these chairs.

But wait: that’s different. Yes, horse racing’s OK for betting on in Japan, but videogames are not legal gambling fodder, regardless of the subject matter. So how exactly are people betting? Welcome to the world of “medal games”.

Medal games are games where you insert medals in place of coins. You then stand to win more medals, which you can use to play the game some more, until you’ve lost all your medals. The medals are bought by players for cash, but can’t be cashed in at the end. They’re just medals. Pointless, futile, life-sucking medals. The old printed-out sign stuck up in the top-left of the picture explains that this machine is for amusement only, not gambling (and that medals from other game centres can break it, so please don’t use those).

 

A continuing presence

I wish I could find this thing online so that I could put a date on it, but the fact that the home-made sign’s in English dates it to at least when this holiday resort was seeing international visitors, which can’t have been more recently than 1995.

However, almost any modern game centre still has some version of horse racing like this, with banks of individual consoles, cushioned seats, and built-in ashtrays and cup holders to help you settle in for the long haul. The set-ups are more modern now, and more spacious with bigger screens, but it’s still Loserville — the dark end of a late-night basement dotted with suited men who either don’t have anywhere better to go, or do. And these days, the player consoles don’t face each other like they did in Derby Day. Medal gambling’s a game for private down-and-outs surviving on the weak fumes of hope that linger when they’ve shut away their real lives. Seeing another sad sack across the cabinet’s only going to remind you that you exist, which would be the worst fucking thing that could happen.

Well, like I said, I didn’t play it. Perhaps it’s a lot of fun!

Next time, a look at a cool game centre where a lot of these postcards have been sent from.

 

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Tokyo Game Centre series

Golgo 13

Golgo 13 (ゴルゴ13 / Gorugo 13) is a sniper game released by Namco in 1999, based on the Golgo 13 manga series about a hired assassin. Wikipedia tells me that’s the longest running manga series that’s still going (having started in 1968) and the fourth biggest selling ever. Superficially, Golgo 13 seems very similar to the Silent Scope series, which Konami launched in the same year. However, Namco’s Golgo 13 never made it outside Japan, where it later spawned two sequels, and beyond the appearance of the cabinets, the games are wildly different.

 

Unusual hardware

The cabinet features a positional gun mounted at shoulder height in front of a fairly small CRT. The rifle is weighted and, according to the Namco marketing copy, close to life-size, with the aim of “realising the weighty response and exquisite balance of the gun’s heft without becoming a burden for the player”. They’re not messing around — it’s heavy.

Whereas Konami’s Silent Scope featured a small display inside the scope, showing a targeted close-up of the main screen’s action, Golgo 13 actually has a real rifle scope (made by Tasco) mounted onto the cabinet’s gun. Of course, if all you had was a strong optical magnification then you would just see a load of pixels, so the scope offers only modest magnification and is accompanied by an on-screen zoom, activated by a proximity sensor on the top of the gun. So when you put your eye behind the scope, the screen zooms in, then the lens gives you a slightly finer aim.

 

Unusual game

I was always excited to play Silent Scope as a kid, but in hindsight, fun as it was, it was really just another gun shooter: you moved on rails, you picked off multiple targets in different parts of the screen (you looked at women in bikinis through your long-range to get extra lives…) — it was Virtua Cop with a bigger gun. Golgo 13, on the other hand, while it tests patience, certainly stands out as something a bit different.

Each level is a job for you as the assassin. There’s a specific target in a specific location, and you’re there to get the kill cleanly and quietly before moving on. Levels start with lengthy cutscenes of comic strip panels (which my Japanese struggled to keep up with) introducing your target and setting the scene for the kill shot.

Then, somewhat suddenly, you’re dropped into the action. You’re in the sniper’s perspective, with only the briefest opportunity to make the shot. By the time you realise the cutscene’s over, you may have missed your window.

It’s a strange rhythm of doing nothing at all for most of the time after the ¥100 drops, then getting ten seconds to try and manipulate the unfamiliar hardware. Somehow, it’s appealing, though, leading you to imagine a single, perfect, effortless shot — your lethal contribution to a complex story.

The zoom mechanic works really well here, too. The combination of actual optical magnification and “fake” on-screen zoom sort of simulates realistic visual acuity (like the zoom feature of the Arma series), but with a bit of added oomph to give the player an appropriate superpower for a manga assassin. (I’m talking superpowers in the videogame sense.)

 

Play it

Since Golgo 13 was Japan-only and stands out with distinctive hardware and unusual pacing, I’d say it’s a must-play if you get the chance. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see how much game they get out of pressing a single button once every couple of minutes.

In the meantime, Games Database has a short video of what looks like the attract mode, which sums up what to expect, minus the waiting.

Next week, something even more Japanese, and even more impenetrable. I’ve got research to do…

(Tokyo Game Centre is a weekly series. See previous posts here.)

 

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