Monthly Archives: June 2008

Review: Every Extend Extra Extreme (XBLA)

Listed as E4 on Xbox Live Marketplace.

E4.jpgEvery Extend Extra Extreme (E4) is an enhanced remake of the PSP game Every Extend Extra (E3) which is an enhanced remake of the freeware game Every Extend (E2). Every Extend Extra Extreme has been developed by Q Entertainment, the synesthesia wizards who have also made Rez and Lumines which also make excellent use of light, color and audio.

The freeware game only has one level which can be easily finished in less than 10 minutes. It is very basic game and it started to truly evolve into an arcade masterpiece once Q Entertainment got their hands on it.

There are 4 modes of gameplay: Unlimited where there is a countdown timer that can be extended, timed where the countdown timer cannot be altered, a mode to use music stored on the Xbox hard drive to affect the level and a mode called “The Revenge” where the player shoots down multiple objects instead of using chain reactions.

The controls are simple: Left analog stick to move around, A to explode (or shoot in The Revenge mode), and B to end a chain reaction.

There are 4 levels in single player mode, each with its own music and behaviors. As the music plays, objects fly across the screen in geometric patterns such as V shapes, and the sounds in the songs affect their speed, direction and how fast the screen will become crowded.

When the player pops in the level, they have a shield and remain invulnerable for 5 seconds so they don’t die immediately in an over-crowded level. When the shield goes down, they can still freely move around, but cannot touch any enemy objects. If they do, they will be destroyed, and seconds will go down before the next player appears in the center of the screen, so they need to move more carefully.

As enemy objects move in, the player must find the best possible place to explode to start a chain reaction. When the player presses A to explode, any objects caught in the explosion will also explode, continuing the chain reaction. The player can press B to end the chain reaction to respawn and collect time extensions for more time to score points.

There are 4 objects the player can collect to help rack up a high score: Quickens make explosions faster, multipliers increase the score for every exploded object, shields which give you a short time of invulnerability and time extensions which increase the countdown timer.

The player’s score will increase at an alarming rate. For example, when I played for 10 minutes, I had a score of 1 trillion. This is because the player receives 1 point for every object that explodes in the chain reaction times the multipliers that have been collected. If a player gets 2000 chains and 2542 multipliers, they will receive 5084000 points.

In addition to simple controls, score modifiers and simple strategy, E4 has the same attributes that can be found in Rez and Lumines: The player’s movements and actions create sounds that match the level’s music, there are plenty of colors, flashing objects, different modes, the controller vibrates with the music and it be played for long periods of time. I found myself bopping my head to the music as I watched my 45-second chain reaction make clapping sounds that are in sync with the upbeat techno dance music.

The next mode, titled “Wiz Ur Musik”, prompts you to choose a song from your hard drive, which will be played and used to control how objects will move in the level. Prior to this, I inserted one of my music CDs into the Xbox and had it copy it to the hard drive which took a while. While I played this mode, I didn’t feel or see anything different from other songs. It looked like it was only counting bass and snare sounds and using that to control the pace of the game. In any case, it was nice to hear my own music for a while.

The final single player mode, “The Revenge” gives you the power to fire a weapon instead of exploding. Before the game starts, the player can choose if they want to fire in all 4 compass directions, or have those 4 directions of fire concentrate in the forward direction in a cone shape. Afterwards, the player can also choose the speed of the levels before it starts. When the game starts, the player has the same 5 second shield, but this time, must destroy a certain amount of objects, then defeat a boss afterwards. The enemies move faster and in different patterns as the levels progress. This is a fun variation of E4, and it’s a lot more challenging too since I can’t use the explosion to escape when I’m surrounded by enemies and I have to find a way to shoot my way out.

There is online multiplayer over Xbox live, but there’s nobody hosting or seeking any matches so I can’t say anything about this feature. If I wanted to play online, I’d have to add a friend who has E4 and send a message to them to arrange some time to play together.

Overall, this is an excellent game on Xbox Live Arcade. It is definitely without a doubt, much easier, more addictive and fun than Geometry Wars. This led me to believe that Geometry Wars became more popular due to the fact that Microsoft Game Studios was publishing it. This is the simplest and most addictive casual game I have ever played in my life. Even though there are only 4 single player levels, it can last from a few minutes to a few hours depending on how long I can stay concentrated and gather multipliers, quickens and time extensions. I know that not many people are aware of this game and if you have 800 points lying around in your live account and you want something to do for 10 minutes to an hour, then E4 is worth it. I wonder what they’ll make the fifth E stand for in E5 if they ever make a sequel: Every Extend Extra Extreme... Elephant?

Link to the freeware game: Every Extend

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A more accessible PandA

logo.jpgI only a few days ago got around to cracking open the latest (April) issue of Puzzles and Answers magazine (a publication we've mentioned on this blog before), and noticed an interesting format adjustment - its editor and constructor, Foggy Brume, has decided to lead in each issue with several pages of stand-alone puzzles. The entrée of each issue continues to be an "extravaganza," a thematically linked series of more difficult puzzles with a meta-puzzle topper.


Since I became a regular reader/solver last year, I've noted that Foggy's been moving in this direction over the last few issues; not long ago he started introducing a page or two of easier warm-up word puzzles before getting into each issue's main course. I approve of this change, which I hope makes the magazine more accessible to a wider audience of solvers without alienating its current readership.

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Review: Laser Quest (Danvers, MA)

Did you know that laser tag still exists as a commercially viable concept? When the gf stated that she wanted to celebrate her birthday this year by playing laser tag, I reacted quizzically. My concept of laser tag does not stretch beyond memories of the Worlds of Wonder-branded toy that flared into a bright but brief fad in the 1980s. I recall the spread it had in the Sharper Image catalog, and its cheesy Saturday-morning cartoon. My friend Jaimy and his little brothers got some sets for Christmas one year, back then, and we played at running around zapping each other in his driveway at least once. But that was all long ago, and I'd assumed it had long since gone the way of all gimmicky plastic.

ltvests1.jpgBut according to Wikipedia, the concept of laser tag - that is, mounting an infrared flashlight into a gun-shaped casing and firing it at wearable, IR-sensing targets - originated with the US military in the late 1970s, and started appearing in a variety of toys at around the same time. While home versions no longer have an aisle to themselves in toy stores, there continue to operate across the US laser tag "arenas" operating under a variety of names and trademarks. The closest one to us happened to be Laser Quest in Danvers [noisy Flash link, sorry], so we grabbed a dozen or so friends and tripped out to the suburbs.


We played two 20-minute games, both of which had rules I can best summarize as those of a first-person shooter deathmatch - every man for himself, basically. As with an FPS, the penalty for "dying" - getting beamed in any of the sensors attached to your vest or gun - was to leave play for a few seconds, during which you can't fire (or be meaningfully fired upon). You gained 10 points for zapping someone, and lost some points for getting zapped, varying by the sensor's location and who shot you. And the end, everyone receives a scorecard detailing whom they tagged and were tagged by, on which sensors, and for how many points.

The arena was impressive, despite (and perhaps somewhat assisted by) a certain low-budget-ingeniuty charm. It was essentially a large wooden labyrinth, its walls painted with goofy fun-house designs in colors that reacted well to the black light employed throughout. While it wasn't truly multilevel - there were no bridges to walk under - it did employ a lot of variance of elevation, accessed through a series of ramps. This gave a sense of high ground you could take, which actually did give you a better view of the whole maze (and all the potential targets within).

The biggest surprise for me was the use of real lasers in the guns. While the actual "munition" was the usual IR beams and sensors, the guns also shone red lasers forward when their triggers were pulled. What made this actually impressive was that the labyrinth was filled with mist before each match, not thick enough to obscure vision (especially in the dim light) but enough to make the lasers fully visible. I was truly taken aback the first time I pulled my trigger and saw a coherent beam flash out!

In this mode of play, the Laser Quest organizers seem to prefer piling as many players as they can at once into the maze. So our first game pitted our group against a horde of 10-year-old boys who happened to also be visiting that day. We then took a breather while the boys were allowed to play by themselves (while a theory circulated among our group that the boys' parents were tweaked to see them being pursued aggressively by some 15 adult men and women of questionable maturity). I scored 12th out of 28 players; not bad! First place went to one of the little ones, while one of our party took second.

Our second game was just ourselves, along with three teenagers who came alone. I am embarrassed to admit that, during this second round, I forgot the rules that explicitly prohibited sitting, lying down, or taking any other non-vertical pose. Wigging out a little from the relentless fog of war, I commenced crouching and tumbling around all bad-ass like you see in movies. Don't do this, perhaps especially if you're of a certain age or older. While it was fun for a while and I felt all hardcore, after a few minutes I spontaneously overheated (the place is not the most well-ventilated or air-conditioned in town) and had to sit down because I couldn't move anymore. The gf found me in this state and valiantly defended my prone position for a while. After I told her I was OK, she kissed my forehead, shot me in the chest and ran off to seek more challenging targets. It was truly a touching scene.

Anyway, despite this momentary lapse (where I quite deservedly came in last place) I had a delightful time, and look forward to playing again sometime. The scorecards imply the existence of other rulesets, including team-based and even capture-the-flag-style play. Some in our group, intrigued by this, are already talking about the 60-person all-night special the facility offers. I shall have to remember to take it easy, that time.

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Myst: the movie: the trailer

People talk about a movie based on the Myst games. People have been talking about it since Myst first appeared. Cyan even starting working with the Sci-Fi Channel around 2002, but that effort was quietly canned after a few months. (For creative differences, i.e., Cyan didn't like what the SFC was planning. As the SFC's adaptations have ranged from the miserable (Earthsea, Riverworld) all the way up to adequate (Children of Dune), nobody was too stricken about this.)

It is less well known that a couple of indie filmmakers have been struggling with a Myst film for several years now. They only opened their web site this past February, but there has been a great deal of quiet work before that.

Patrick McIntire and Adrian Vanderbosch do not yet have a movie. They do not yet have funding, or actors, or indeed a complete script. They do, however, have a concept trailer. This is an animatic, a series of storyboard images linked with music and voiceover dialogue. They produced it in 2004, in support of their proposal to Cyan to make a movie. Cyan liked the looks of it, and said "Go for it."

Yesterday they put this animatic on-line. So take a look.

It may help to know that the movie is based on Myst: The Book of Ti'ana. It is set many years before the Myst games, the era of Atrus's grandparents, at the height (and end) of the D'ni civilization.

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On Authorial Intent and Space Giraffes

Last year I became interested in a notion of literary theory known as authorial intent. In a nutshell, it states that if there's a conflict between an author and their audience about the interpretation of a work, the audience wins. Put another way, an author's own statements about their work, when stated outside of the work itself, carry no more or less weight than those of any other well-informed reader. This I learned about after the controversy that arose after Ray Bradbury stated that his 1953 masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 was not at all about censorship, but was rather a critique of television's social effects. I found myself feeling so strongly about it that I became involved in a Wikipedia edit-skirmish over it, after certain individuals quickly marked up the book's article to indicate that decades of academic study regarding the work had become invalid overnight due to Bradbury's new words.

1183407644_08a53177d2.jpgThis came to mind again recently as I stumbled across the curious story of Space Giraffe while researching the market of XBox Live Arcade. To be honest, I'm not sure how correct it is to call this particular case another instance of an author's intent running contrary to that of the audience - in this case, the game's players - but it's close enough to warrant a comparison anyway.

Continue reading On Authorial Intent and Space Giraffes.
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Returning to the Shelf

Ahoy, readers! It's time for a meta-post. Another post that's actually about games immediately follows this one, so if this sort of thing isn't of any interest to you, feel free to skip ahead.

When I relaunched this blog in February, I planned it to be an annex of the TV show I produce of the same name. 2008 was going to be a banner year for The Gameshelf. I would produce at least four episodes, continuing the higher standard of quality that we set down with the launch of our new "season" last year.

Ah, you feel you can already see where this is going, eh? Well, it's not as bad as all that. Here's the short version: My life is currently eaten up close to completely by two things. The software consulting business I started about a year ago has become my sole source of income, and my full-time job. While a reorganization of my professional persona, this in itself isn't enough to take over my life. No, that task is filled quite adequately by something I have been calling Project X. This is my attempt to enter the commercial digital game market at a new angle (as opposed to my existing one) by adapting a certain tabletop game for play on home consoles. (I must remain coy about the nature of the game in question until a deal is inked, which is months away at least.)

Many weeks of intense work passed before I finally had to admit that I'd have to put hopes of doing anything on even a semi-regular schedule with The Gameshelf show back into the freezer. This made me shy about posting much to this blog, even though I have more to say about games than ever - it just doesn't necessarily relate to the show so much, lately. However, the blog and the show are less tightly bound than I might assume. There are many more subscribers to the blog's Atom feed than the show's, for one thing, and even during my lengthy quiet period several posters and commenters kept the thing puttering along with new insights and content about the medium of games and the cultures that surround it. That's very cool.

So, here's the plan: The Gameshelf blog sails on, an I return as a poster who is informed and inspired by whatever facet of the world of games that I happen to be closest to at the time. Half a year ago, it was producing a TV show, but now it's transformed into producing a console game, and that's OK. I still have a lot to say about games of all sorts, and shall endeavor to share and engender conversations about the more interesting things I run into. I also plan to start inviting friends and colleagues who haven't been on the TV show to join The Gameshelf as posters.

That's all! I hope that you continue to read, enjoy, and perhaps participate in this nice thing we have. I surely look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

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A fascinating investigation into the difference between a web-comic's subject and its audience. By which I mean this: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 1 -- and what am I supposed to call it for short, anyway? -- is a game which will frustrate most readers of Penny Arcade. Just because the comic is about hardcore gamer geeks, doesn't mean the game should be built for them.

Episodic gaming has broken through with Sam&Max, and once again everyone is trying to storm the breach. I could go on about whether that is a good idea, but instead let me clear up the misconception that snared me: OTR-SPoD (this game, I mean) is not an adventure game. It's a CRPG. A Final Fantasy style CRPG -- you walk around the screen, until bam you get into a fight, and then the two teams face each other in a tidy row and select combat options from a menu until one team is pulp.

Now, it's not quite Final Fantasy -- it's the subgenre which is real-time. (If I were a hardcore CRPG gamer geek, I would know what games to compare it to, but I'm not -- I just read about them in webcomics.) Each of your characters has a little timer that builds up, and after twenty seconds (or thirty, or whatever) he can take a punch. (Or fire a gun, or whatever.) And you can block enemy blows by hitting the spacebar at the right moment. So to fight effectively, you have to hover over your controls and react quickly. But it's still selecting combat options from a menu.

I have not yet mentioned the exploration or adventure aspects of Rain-Slick (as we may call it). This is because there aren't any. You meet characters who want items, or you find items which are used in places; but they aren't puzzles. (Except in the broadest sense of "something which requires you to interact with the game".) They're the plot tokens you get for clobbering enemies. Each part of the story is "kill ten or twenty of those monsters", either explicitly or with a plot token pasted on. It's unquestionably a Penny Arcade script -- amusingly moronic characters, ceaseless obscenity, and fruit-violating robots -- but these things are in no way integrated into what you do.

I personally prefer adventure games to CRPGs. That's not my point in this review. My point is, Sam&Max is fun for non-gamers. At least, it can be fun. Because if you get stuck in an adventure game, you find a walkthrough and then you're unstuck. If you're enjoying the jokes, you can plow on through with the hints -- you may not feel clever, but you'll appreciate the cleverness that's in the game, and you'll be engaged with the plot. Plus, you can put down the walkthrough at any time and think "Hey! I can solve this next bit myself!" Sam&Max doesn't get harder as you progress through it. (I'd argue it gets easier, as the designers get better at smooth puzzle and clue flow.)

You can't do that with Precipice (if I may call it that). The entire game is combat, which means your skill at the combat system matters. It's real-time, which means you can't go ask the Internet for help. If you aren't good at clicking, whacking the space bar, and managing your items, you just won't get very far.

I'm not saying this is a hard game. Devil May Cry 3 was hard. Penny Arcade (you know what I mean, right?) is designed for experienced, moderately skilled action gamers. That's me, and I enjoyed the fighting. I rarely felt like I was getting stomped.

However -- I bet most web comics fans aren't experienced, moderately skilled action gamers. I'm sure Gabe and Tycho are. Maybe the people who post in the forums are. But is that their audience? I have a lot of friends who would be happy to show up for the fruit robots and the bad jokes, but who would never reach the third scene of Oh I Give Up Already (better known in these pages as the Lamb).

And the other "however" -- the thing gets harder as you progress. The last monster is a colossus with 32000 hit points, or some silly number. And I don't mean a Shadow Of The colossus with hidden weaknesses and exciting paths of attack. You slug it out. And if you fail, you reload and slug it out again.

Or you don't. I got stomped the first time I tried it. And I thought, do I want to try this again? Gather twice as many combat items, and then blow another fifteen minutes seeing whether I can cope with this thing?

No, I did not. I put it down, as Alton Brown likes to say, and just walked away. The game was too hard for me. And I'm an experienced, moderately skilled action gamer.

So why should I buy On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 2? Answer: I shouldn't. I'd like to read the comic of it, but the game is not for me. And the problem with an episodic series is, you have to hook your audience for the long term.

I'm sure ... has an audience, and they're probably laughing it up on the forums, mocking the rest of us. But I bet it's not the audience that the creators should have gone for.

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Erick Wujcik, 1951-2008

In March I wrote here about the death of Gary Gygax. Yesterday I heard about the death of another RPG designer: Erick Wujcik. But you're much less likely to know his name. (Or be able to spell it, but never mind that now...)

His bibliography is long, but I knew him for the Amber Diceless Role-Playing system. (Wikipedia link because there is no good home page for the game right now... drat.)

I have never been in the bleeding edge of RPG gaming, so I don't know everything that led up to Wujcik's 1991 diceless design. I do know that it spun my head around sideways. The nature of RPG gaming had been obvious to me since I was eight years old: you decide what you are going to do, you work out the odds of success (based on your skills and the nature of the task), and then you roll dice to see whether you succeed or fail. Hit or miss. Find the secret door or walk past it. Make your saving throw or turn to stone.

The Amber system offhandedly junked that whole idea. You're playing a superhero. (The characters in Zelazny's Amber books don't wear their underwear on the outside, but they are superhuman beings.) You don't have a chance of breaking down that door; you break down that door, because you are awesome. The guy standing next to you may be awesome at fencing -- that's his character role, not the result of lucky rolls.

Wujcik's insight was to set up a way to distribute these talents among the gaming group, via an auction system. And then to create stories which were shaped by the shifting alliances of the group (Amber characters never trust each other), and their manipulation of events. Once you come down to the attempt, you know how it's going to come out -- so all the fun is in scheming how you'll approach it.

I played in an Amber campaign, although it fell apart after just a couple of sessions. None of us were hard-core RPGers, except I guess for Eric. I think that actually made Amber easier for us. On the other hand, it meant none of us had the habit of making time for gaming, week after week. At any rate, those few sessions were wacky and interesting and difficult. Awkward, but interestingly awkward. Not at all the tedious awkwardness of my pre-teen D&D attempts.

Diceless role-playing did not go on to conquer the RPG landscape. It did inspire Nobilis, R. Sean Borgstrom's claim on the Most Stylish RPG Ever. Nobilis mixes up the pure diceless nature with elements that allow more scene-by-scene unpredictability. Again, you play a superhuman being -- the deity of some aspect of reality: sunlight, or zeppelins, or treachery, or what have you. The game rules give a very general guide to what you can do (creation is more difficult than destruction; destroying a zeppelin is easier than deleting the entire commercial zeppelin industry from reality; etc). But it mostly comes down to applying your aspect cleverly. You're never walking into a battle that you're certain to lose, because there might be a way to bring zeppelins into it...

(And yes, Nobilis is a game where you can delete the entire commercial zeppelin industry from reality by retroactively causing the Hindenburg to burn in 1937. I told you it was cool.)

As D&D 4.0 sloshes irrestistably towards us, the bulk of the RPG world remains in the old, pre-Amber, "roll to see if you succeed" model. The interesting fringe has moved beyond the diceless, into territory which seems even stranger. Imagine a game in which you decide what you want, roll the dice, and then decide what you are going to do. This is essentially the model of Dogs in the Vineyard, and it makes more sense than you think. You have leeway to use your rolled dice in different ways, or bring in the "cleverness" aspect by using your character history or traits. But sometimes you just roll crap -- and that makes for good roleplaying. Are you going to play this scene as failure, near-success, pyrrhic victory? Will it cost in reputation, self-respect, or blood?

These are the games for people who want their characters to have interesting lives, rather than to succeed at every challenge... and you can learn more about the topic than I know by Googling "narrativist games". I have no standing to give that lecture.

I have no standing to lecture about any of this. If that Amber game wasn't the last paper-and-pencil RPG I took part in, it was the second-to-last. I just find all this stuff neat, is all. And it's all grain for the "Can I do this on a computer? Why not?" mill.

Erick Wujcik: a man who fed the mill, for many of us. Keep the gears turning.

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Comics about digital games

A cheap topic, perhaps -- there are web-comics about everything. But I stumbled across two of these this week, and was reminded about the third. So let us venture forth.

(Links are to the first strip of each comic.)

To be honest, the binding thread across these three comics is my reaction: "Why... would somebody... be writing a comic... about that?" (Picture plaintive gesticulation of at least three limbs.) I plead guilty to the freak show. In each case, however, there is an answer to the question.

+EV is written to the audience of a great and powerful online gaming industry -- of which I know practically nothing. (I even have friends who work in that industry! But the all-seeing eye of Zarf is really pretty nearsighted and parochial. I stick with my non-third-person adventure games. It's a life.)

Clockwork Game concerns a piece of gaming history. It's too young a strip for the plot to be apparent, but I'm intrigued.

And My Name is Might Have Been is self-justifying. I won't spoil it.

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