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kottke.org posts about video games

Mario Royale

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 23, 2019

Mario Royale (now renamed DMCA Royale to skirt around Nintendo’s intellectual property rights) is a battle royale game based on Super Mario Bros in which you compete against 74 other players to finish four levels in the top three. Here’s what the gameplay looked like when it was still Mario-branded:

Kotaku has coverage:

And because Mario Royale is partially a race, there are all sorts of ways to play. Do you try to get items and destroy the competition? Do you speedrun through levels? Do you take it steady and win through careful progress? These are all viable options. There’s a silliness here that makes each option a wacky spectacle, even as each option is also a worthwhile strategy. It only takes a handful of minutes to play a match, but you always walk away with a cool story.

Introducing the Playdate Gaming System

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2019

Playdate

Playdate is a new handheld gaming system from Panic, the makers of FTP software. Hold on, what?! From the press release:

Playdate is both very familiar, and totally new. It’s yellow, and fits perfectly in a pocket. It has a black-and-white screen with high reflectivity, a crystal-clear image, and no backlight. And of course, it has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, USB-C, and a headphone jack. But it also has a crank. Yes, a crank: a cute, rotating analog controller that flips out from the side. It’s literally revolutionary.

The crank made me laugh out loud — in delight, mind you. Who puts a hand-crank on the side of a handheld video game console?! A very playful Nintendo-esque touch, designed in collaboration with Teenage Engineering. There’s more info, including photos of their first prototype, in this Twitter thread.

The old school tech blogging community1 is fired up about this thing in a way I’ve not seen for years. John Gruber writes on Daring Fireball:

The idea of a new upstart, a company the size of Panic — with only software experience at that — jumping into the hardware game with a brand new platform harkens back to the ’80s and ’90s. But even back then, a company like, say, General Magic or Palm, was VC-backed and aspired to be a titan. To be the next Atari or Commodore or Apple.

In today’s world all the new computing devices and platforms come from huge companies. Apple of course. All the well-known Android handset makers building off an OS provided by Google. Sony. Nintendo.

Panic is almost cheating in a way because they’re tiny. The Playdate platform isn’t competing with the state of the art. It’s not a retro platform, per se, but while it has an obviously nostalgic charm it is competing only on its own terms. Its only goal is to be fun.

And from Anil Dash, Putting the Soul in Console:

I’d been given a hint a while ago that something like this was coming, but the final execution is even more delightful than I’d imagined it might be. (That crank!) More importantly, it’s captured the imagination of so many, and seems like the kind of thing that could inspire a new generation of creative people to think, “Hey, maybe good tech is something we can make ourselves.” I’ve seen it happen on Glitch, and now I see it happening around Playdate after just a few hours.

That idea, that maybe things like our gaming devices or the websites we visit should be created by people we know and like, instead of giant faceless companies, seems more essential than ever. We would never settle for replacing all of our made-with-love, locally-grown, mom’s recipe home cooking with factory-farmed fast food, even if sometimes convenience demands we consume the latter. And we shouldn’t compromise any less on making sure that some of the time we spend playing games with each other, and delighting in the promise of technology, comes from people who’ve been diligently working for years to make well-sourced, organically grown, made-with-love technology.

Playdate starts shipping in early 2020. Supplies are probably going to be limited, so if you’re interested in getting one, you should hop on their mailing list.

  1. I.e. the folks who write about technology (software, gadgets) because they love it, not the folks who write about technology (IPOs, funding rounds) because it makes them money and gives them power.

The Legend of Nixon, a Data-Driven NES Soundscape

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2019

Brian Chirls took the approval ratings for Richard Nixon’s presidency and using sounds from The Legend of Zelda’s classic Dungeon Theme, he made a data-driven soundscape of the public perception of Nixon’s tenure in the White House. Here’s what his approval rating looked like:

Richard Nixon Approval

And here’s the resulting audio track:

The sound effects mostly represent actions the protagonist Link takes like the “sword slash”, things that happen to him like a grunt when he gets hurt, or the status of the game like the low health alarm that beeps when Link has only half a “heart container” left and can only take one or two more hits before he dies and the game is over. The goal of this project is to create a piece of audio that sounds like a typical playthrough of the game and also accurately tells the story of Nixon’s fall as represented by the data.

What a cool example of using the familiar to explain or illustrate the unfamiliar. If you’ve ever played Zelda, you can clearly hear Nixon doing more and more poorly as the track goes on — he’s taking damage, the dungeon boss sound chimes in right around when Watergate is ramping up, and he’s gaining fewer hearts. It’s like he’s a novice player armed only with the wooden sword trying to defeat the level 3 dungeon without a potion…the end comes pretty quickly.

How to Play Pac-Man

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 11, 2019

The highest score a player can get in Pac-Man is 3,333,360. In a fascinating recent article on the game, Cat DeSpira doesn’t tell us how to play the digital game on the screen but instead shows how people interact with the physical artifact of the cabinet while playing Pac-Man. Specifically, she notes that the particular pattern of wear on the sides of Pac-Man machines arises from the nature of the game.

Pac-Man wear pattern

Pac-Man is more of a driving game than a maze game. As you’re playing, you’re jamming that joystick left and right, up and down, movements that shifts your right shoulder forward and back, rocking your body side to side. When the going gets tough, and the ghosts start closing in, all of this rocking motion compels you to lean into the game and, whether you realize you’re doing it or not, you’re going to grab onto the game. You actually need to get a grip…on something. You’re either going to lean hard against your left palm as it rests on the control panel which isn’t comfortable for very long or, like most people, you’re going to grab the side of the game and hold on tight. You have to or you’ll lose your balance. You can’t take the sharp corners smoothly and quickly without doing this, ether. You need the extra stabilization to move Pac-Man around the corners accurately.

Many owners have “restored” the worn sides of their games so they look like new, but DeSpira argues that covers up a vital aspect of gaming history:

Pac-Man’s worn left-side is part of the game’s provenance. It’s unique only to Pac-Man games, including Ms. Pac-Man. It’s evidence left by “Pac-Mania” and also evidence of how the game was really played. It’s a time signature left by a generation of the first gamers. It’s history that should be preserved intact. It tells a story that we’ll never see written again.

Why anyone would want to destroy something that reflects a cultural phenomenon in gaming boggles my mind. It’s confusing even more to me that people can’t see it, can’t see the worn side of the game and know exactly what put it there and find it beautiful — hands. Thousands of human hands. Millions, even. Hands of many colors, many sizes; white collar hands, blue collar hands, no-collar hands. Hands that put a quarter in a machine that was attacked by the press as being “addicting” and “unhealthy”. Ordinances were passed that helped kill the video craze off early because of Pac-man, because a generation of newly risen gamers couldn’t keep their hands off it and, in a free country, shouldn’t have been expected to anyway. That scar was put there by an act of defiance.

(thx, s. ben)

Paper Mario Bros

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 11, 2019

I love the aesthetic of Paper Mario Bros, a hand-drawn stop motion animation of World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. The artist, @KisaragiHutae6, drew the world in their notebook and shared some behind-the-scenes techniques on Twitter…how they crumpled the paper for stomped-on Goombas, etc.

Paper Mario How To

(via digg)

Why Video Games Are Made of Tiny Triangles

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2019

For Vox, Cleo Abram explains why game designers use triangles when designing 3D animated games (and not, say, circles or rectangles).

Triangles are a key part of how these gorgeous, detailed games appear on your screen — the hidden heroes we should all thank as we play. This simple shape helps keep the number of computations needed for each detail as low as possible, allowing the player’s computer to process these elaborate games.

I like how the arms race among game developers to create more and more realistic objects out of smaller and smaller triangles mirrors the process in differential calculus of finding the slope of a curve by — wait for it — using smaller and smaller triangles. The game designers are going to have a problem truly getting to infinitesimally small triangles though…

Going Birdwatching in Red Dead Redemption 2

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2019

Birding in Red Dead Redemption 2

For Audubon, avid birder Nicholas Lund writes about the experience of going birdwatching in the mega-popular Red Dead Redemption 2 game, set in the American West, circa 1899. The attention to detail and the number of species represented is impressive.

I spent most of my time finding birds, and was impressed with the breadth and relative accuracy of the species represented. Birds change with habitat: Roseate Spoonbills and Great Egrets feed in the bayous of Saint Denis. Laughing Gulls and Red-footed Boobies roost along the coast, while eagles and condors soar over mountain peaks. Each of these are crafted with accurate field marks and habits. There are dozens of species I couldn’t even find, including Carolina Parakeets, Ferruginous Hawks, and Pileated Woodpeckers. Like real life birding, you’re never guaranteed to see anything.

The sound design, too, is impressive. The landscape is alive with birdsong, including many species not actually in the game, like Northern Flicker and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I was riding through a wooded area one time as dusk turned to night, and whip-poor-wills began singing out all around me.

But the game’s realistic portrayal of wildlife and its exploitation by humans causes Lund to reflect on how much destruction we’ve caused.

The demand for egret plumes for fancy hats was driving several species toward extinction. (Snowy Egret plumes can be sold in-game for $2.50 apiece.) Habitat loss and overhunting contributed to the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet soon after the game’s timeframe, in the early 20th century. (Carolina Parakeet flight feathers can be used to make far-flying arrows in the game.) The type of wanton destruction encouraged in Red Dead Redemption 2 is what led the National Audubon Society to lobby for, and Congress to pass, the real Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, and other environmental legislation in the following decades.

Lund’s birding trip reminded me of other non-conventional uses of realistic video games by players: Jim Munroe being a tourist in Grand Theft Auto III and war photographer Ashley Gilbertson sending back photographs from the ultra-violent The Last of Us Remastered.

James Turrell, the Video Game

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2018

Designer Jacopo Colò has made a video game that allows you to spend an hour inside a 2013 James Turrell installation, The Color Inside.

Turrell’s work is all about the fundamental materials: space, time and light, and is usually focused on permanent installations. His most famous works are the Skyspaces. A Skyspace is (most of the times) a room with a hole in the ceiling that allows to see the sky above, with nothing in between. At specific times during the day — at sunrise and sunset — a hidden strip of LED lights color the room, rotating trough the whole color spectrum. And if during the day the hole in the ceiling simply frames the sky, during the light show, filtered through a cloud of colored light, the view of the sky is altered. The sky can become pink, green, deep blue. It’s a beautiful spectacle.

Here’s a sped-up video that shows the, uh, “game play”:

Why Are Humans Suddenly Getting Better at Tetris?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2018

Tetris was invented in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov. It was a hit from the start but became a sensation after it was bundled with Nintendo’s Game Boy. It’s perhaps the most popular video game of all time and was played casually (and not so casually) by hundreds of millions of people around the world. You’d think with all those people playing, the limits of the game were fully probed and the highest scores reached, right? Not quite…

As John Green explains in this video, a few people are actually getting much better at the NES version of Tetris than anyone was back in the 90s. One of the reasons for this is that a smaller dedicated group working together can be more effective than a massive group of people working alone on a problem. Today’s top players can not only compare scores (as people did in the pages of Nintendo Power), but they get together for competitions, share techniques, and post videos of their gameplay to Twitch and YouTube for others to mine for tricks.

The two approaches boil down to ants solving problems vs. deliberate practice. The hundreds of millions of players were able to map out seemingly all corners of the game, but only up to a point. It took a smaller group engaging in a collective deliberate practice to push beyond the mass effort.

Green’s discussion also reminded me of something Malcolm Gladwell said in his conversation with Tyler Cowen:

The most interesting thing happening, to me, in distance running right now is the rise of Japan as a distance-running power. And what’s interesting about Japan is that Japan does not have any one runner, particularly in marathons, does not have any one marathoner who is in the top 10 in the world, or even the top 20 in the world, but they have an enormous number of people who are in the top 100. So, your notion of whether Japan is a distance-running power depends on how you choose to define distance-running power.

We have one definition that we use, where we say we recognize a country as being very good at distance running if they have lots and lots of people in the top 10, but that strikes me as being incredibly arbitrary and it goes to my point about we’re not encouraging mediocrity. Why? All that says is… OK, Kenya’s got 9 of the top 10 of the fastest marathoners right now — why is that better than having 300 of the top 1,000? It’s purely arbitrary that we choose to define greatest as just the country that most densely occupies the 99th percentile. Why can’t we define it as the country that most densely occupies the 75th through 100th percentiles?

Tetris today is like Kenya in distance running…all the best-ever players are active right now. With Tetris in the 90s, you had a much broader group of people who were really good at the game but none of whom would crack the all-time top 20 (or perhaps even top 100).

Maybe you don’t give a flying flip about excellence in Tetris or distance running, but how about education? Should we direct the resources of our educational system to ensure that most people get a pretty good education or that fewer get an excellent education? Having a few super-educated people might result in more significant discoveries in science and achievements in literature or music (that everyone can then take advantage of) but having a broader base of educated citizens would result in better decisions being made in untold numbers of everyday situations. Which of those two situations is better? Which is more just? I’d suggest the answer maybe isn’t that obvious…

A history of video game speed runs

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 05, 2018

If you’ve never seen a video game speed run before, a decent place to start is this computer-assisted Metroid run, completing the game in less than ten minutes through an artful mix of exploiting glitches and improbably precise movement, shooting, and jumping.

Or, if you want to see a speed run broken down piece by piece, try this half-hour video where speedrunner Bismuth breaks down how his fellow runner Kosmic broke the world record for the fastest unassisted Super Mario Bros. run. As Jason wrote:

If you forget the video game part of it and all the negative connotations you might have about that, you get to see the collective effort of thousands of people over more than three decades who have studied a thing right down to the bare metal so that one person, standing on the shoulders of giants in a near-perfect performance, can do something no one has ever done before.

But if you want to understand how speed run culture got going? Ah, for that you need this document by Kat Brewster. While people always gunned for high scores and world records, almost as long as we’ve had games of any sort, speed run culture as it exists today starts with Usenet forums and obsessive players of the first-person shooters Wolfenstein 3D and especially Doom, which introduced the innovation of making it easy for players to record their gameplay.

Doom also posted a “par time” statistic on its end-of-level screens, taking the best time of designer John Romero and challenging players to beat it.

This is a theme which comes up again and again from speedrunners. ‘It’s a challenge,’ they say. ‘How fast can I get it?’ It’s a natural question to ask. When it comes to speedrunning games, there is no rulebook, no guide. There’s simply one possible way to do it, or one route which might be better than another. The game ceases to be the game it was authored to be, and becomes the landscape and language for an entirely separate practice. Players take what is given, and build something else out of it. It’s a kind of subversion, a subtle power play of guerrilla game design.

Now, there are whole companies built on sharing video game play results, from the dedicated platform Twitch to a not insignificant corner of YouTube.

My favorite part of Brewster’s story is her contrast between Doom (mostly glitchless, which makes speedruns both more constrained and more accessible — there’s no secret knowledge or special tricks) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which is full of glitches. Documenting all these potential shortcuts was an obsession of the Zelda community in the mid-2000s, centering around the Speed Demos Archive forums, and a brand-new video sharing site called YouTube.

With both a community and the capability for easy video sharing in hand, folk experimentation could begin. Narcissa [Wright] credits the inspiration for early experimentation in the game to Kazooie’s videos, and specifically, certain jumps. Narcissa describes this period of time from 2006 to 2008 as one of rich experimentation. Few speedruns were actually attempted in this two year period, opting instead for creating a catalog of glitches from hours of chipping away at the game environment, or planning possible routes with what they knew already. “In fact,” she said in a video commentary, “it felt more like we were doing science than anything else.”

From an initial glitchless runthrough of about five hours in 2006, speedrunners can now exploit these built-in accidental hacks to finish the game in less than 17 minutes. That’s a different kind of fun.

How constraints lead to creativity: making music for Super Nintendo games

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

In this short video, Evan Puschak talks about how music is made for Super Nintendo games. That system was first released in 1990 and the audio chips could only hold 64 KB of information, only enough room for beeps, boops, and very short samples. But composers like David Wise, whose soundtrack for the Donkey Kong Country series of games is on many lists of the best video game music, were able to make the SNES sing despite its limited capabilities.

Enhance!

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

Enhance

Nicole He has built a voice-controlled game called Enhance in which you speak commands to zoom & enhance images to look for secret codes, just like a detective on a CSI TV show. I bet if you try this in your open plan office, your coworkers will look at you like you’re nuts for a sec but will soon gather around, shouting their own commands at the computer. After all, everyone wants to enhance:

TANK, a 2-minute visual homage to 80s vector arcade games (and Tron)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2018

TANK is a short animation by Stu Maschwitz that’s based on the look of vector arcade games from the 80s like Battlezone, Tempest, Asteroids, and Star Wars. And a sprinkling of Tron for good measure.

If you’re interested in how the video was made, Maschwitz did a 20-minute making of video that’s actually really interesting. I don’t know why I said “actually” there…I love watching how creative people make things. Maybe because the length is daunting? Anyway, how he reverse engineers this style using a modern visual effects software package is worth watching…the attention to detail is *kisses fingers*.

The way I made TANK is a little crazy. I made it entirely in Adobe After Effects, with equal parts animation elbow grease and nerdy expressions madness. This video is part behind-the-scenes, part After Effects tutorial, and part therapy session.

Maschwitz also shared some of assets & software he used, including an After Effects template you can use to make your own vector animations.

See also recreating the Asteroids arcade game with a laser. (thx, ben)

My media diet for Spring 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2018

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I went to Florida with my kids and we did the Harry Potter thing at Universal & visited the Space Coast. I stopped watching Mr. Robot s03 after two episodes. Still making my way through Star Trek: Voyager when I want something uncomplicated to watch in the evening. (Ignore the letter grades, they suck.)

The Americans. This season, the show’s last, has been fantastic. It’s idiotic to say The Americans is the best show on TV with like 50,000 shows on Netflix alone, but after five strong seasons and this finish, they’ve earned it. (A)

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: The Podcast. I wrote an appreciation of this a few weeks ago. (A-)

Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew. I love Andrew’s Instagram feed but even so, her book surprised me with timeless and universal themes woven into her life story. (A-)

The Handmaid’s Tale. The first season of this show was great and season two picks up right where it left off. I binged the first six episodes of this across two nights and came away shellshocked. (A)

Wild Wild Country. Not sure why anyone followed the Bhagwan anywhere, but Sheela on the other hand… There were several interesting threads in this documentary that didn’t quite get pulled together in the final episode. (B+)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida. The tickets for this were incredibly expensive and worth every damn penny. This was very nearly a religious experience. (A+)

Downsizing. I wanted more from this about the implications of the evolution of humans into nano sapiens. Still, better than many critics & audiences suggested. (B)

Brain It On. I saw my daughter playing this physics puzzler on her iPad and basically grabbed it away from her and played for 24 straight hours. (A-)

Westworld. Watching this every week feels like a chore. Even though the safeties are off, everything that happens in the parks feels consequence-free. I don’t care about the robots. Should I? (C+)

Fantastic Mr. Fox. Stop-motion animation might be Anderson’s natural medium because he can shoot everything *exactly* like he wants. (A-)

Isle of Dogs. Loved this. The style of it made me want to design something amazing. I could have watched the sushi-making scene for like 15 more minutes. (A)

On Margins - The Making of Rebel Girls. Craig Mod talks to co-creator Elena Favilli about how Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls came about and came to be so successful. (B+)

L’Express. A classic Montreal restaurant. Best steak frites I’ve had in a long while. (A-)

Babylon Berlin. Super stylish. The dance scene in the second episode is amazing. The best things about the show are the music and the world-building in the first few episodes. (B+)

Death of Stalin. I love that people still make films like this. Most of the audience I saw this with had no idea what to make of it or why a few people were laughing so hard at some parts. (B+)

Kennedy Space Center. The solar eclipse last summer awakened the space/astronomy nerd in me, so this visit was incredible. We saw a Space Shuttle, a Saturn V rocket, the VAB, and a whole mess of other great things. Thinking of going back for their Astronaut Training Experience. (A+)

Avengers: Infinity War. The ending of this left me stunned…it broke the fourth wall in a unique way. (B+)

A Quiet Place. This entire movie is a metaphor for trying to keep small children quiet on a long plane flight. (B)

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire Evans. This book demonstrates that telling the story of technology, programming, and the internet mainly through the many women who helped build it all is just as plausible and truthful as telling the traditionally women-free tale we’ve typically been exposed to. (B+)

Songs of the Years, 1925-2018. So glad this playlist is back in my life. (A-)

The Avengers. I’d forgotten where all the Infinity Stones came from, so I’ve gone back and watched this, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the first Thor movie. Fascinating to see the changes in the filmmaking and pacing. If Infinity War had been made with the pace of Thor (directed by Kenneth Branagh!), it would have been 5 hours long. (B+)

Caliphate. Gripping and disturbing and very nearly a must-listen. But I keep showing up places shellshocked after listening to it in the car. (A)

AWB OneSky Reflector Telescope. When I looked through this for the first time at the Moon, my first thought was “WHOA”. My second was “I should have bought a more powerful telescope”. Luckily I can just buy more lenses for it… (A)

I’ve been doing this for more than a year now! Past installments of my media diet can be found here.

MTA Country, a game about the NYC subway

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2018

MTA Country

Everyday Arcade, which is responsible for The GOP Arcade (sample game titles include The Voter Suppression Trail and Thoughts & Prayers: The Game!), has designed a new game called MTA Country. Based on the SNES title Donkey Kong Country, the goal of MTA Country is to guide Andrew Cuomo, Bill de Blasio, and celebrity straphanger Gregg Turkin past hazards like track fires and stalled trains to their destination. That ending though… Hmm…

The political alignments of Mario Kart characters

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2018

In this short video, Art House Politics goes through all of the characters in Mario Kart 8 and describes their political alignments.

Mario is just your average working class guy, like “oh get the government off my back” kinda guy. Luigi is a Republican, like a nerdy technocratic…like he cares about the debt to GDP ratio. Princess Peach: monarchist. Daisy is an environmentalist. Rosalina is a flat-earther. Tanooki Mario would only care about kink shaming. Cat Peach is alt-right, but one of those female alt-right YouTube personalities that are really popular.

We found love in a hopeless battle royale game

posted by Jason Kottke   May 10, 2018

I love this little piece by Robin Sloan about the world’s current video game obsession Fortnite Battle Royale, its relation to Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, and how humans can turn zero-sum situations into nonzero-sum ones.

Worse, and predictably: I’d offer my heart and it would be accepted — I knew this because I received a heart in return, sometimes a merry dance emote — and then, delighted with our teamwork, I would turn around and … get blasted in the back.

I tried this negotiation many times with no success at all and my “Is this it?” curdled into “Is this us?” These were just the rules of the game — its very design — but even so. What a dire environment. What a cruel species!

Then, one night, it worked. And, in many games since, it’s worked again. Mostly I get blasted, but sometimes I don’t, and when I don’t, the possibilities bloom. Sometimes, after we face off and stand down, the other player and I go our separate ways. More frequently, we stick together. I’ve crossed half the map with impromptu allies.

A book I think about a lot is Robert Wright’s Nonzero, in which he argues, contrary to conventional wisdom about capitalistic competition, that much of human progress comes about through cooperation and that the effect increases as the complexity of the possible cooperation increases. As Sloan notes, the brute force of 1 vs 1 vs 1 vs 1 can get a bit boring after awhile, but add a simple way to communicate with other players and suddenly there’s more you can do with the game.

A world record Super Mario Bros speedrun explained

posted by Jason Kottke   May 10, 2018

In this 27-minute video, Bismuth explains how fellow speedrunner Kosmic achieved the world record for the fastest Super Mario Bros game ever. 27 minutes may sound daunting, but if you’ve ever played SMB more than casually, it’s fascinating. As Craig Mod said, “it’s like watching a swiss clock maker explain his machine”.

Heck, even if you aren’t into video games it’s pretty interesting. Here’s why. One of the reasons for the popularity of sports and sports media (analysis, etc.) is that, unlike many other human endeavors, it’s relatively easy for spectators to judge and compare and analyze athletes’ performances, to see how & why they fail, where they might improve, and how they stack up against past performances and records. This is similar to a point David Foster Wallace made in his piece about tennis player Tracy Austin (collected in Consider the Lobster):

Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere — fastest, strongest — and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.

In the video analysis of this speedrun, if you forget the video game part of it and all the negative connotations you might have about that, you get to see the collective effort of thousands of people over more than three decades who have studied a thing right down to the bare metal so that one person, standing on the shoulders of giants in a near-perfect performance, can do something no one has ever done before. Progress and understanding by groups of people happens exactly like this in manufacturing, art, science, engineering, design, social science, literature, and every other collective human endeavor…it’s what humans do. But since playing sports and video games is such a universal experience and you get to see it all happening right on the screen in front of you, it’s perhaps easier to grok SMB speedrun innovations more quickly than, say, how assembly line manufacturing has improved since 2000, recent innovations in art, how we got from the flip phone to iPhone X in only 10 years, or how CRISPR happened.

Anyway, that video is interesting & well done, you should watch it, the end.

One Hour One Life

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2018

Jason Rohrer, one of the most well-regarded indie video game makers out there (he made Passage, which is incredibly poignant for a video game that lasts only 5 minutes), has just released his latest game, One Hour One Life. Rohrer bills the game as “a multiplayer survival game of parenting and civilization building”. Here’s the trailer:

This game is about playing one small part in a much larger story. You only live an hour, but time and space in this game is infinite. You can only do so much in one lifetime, but the tech tree in this game will take hundreds of generations to fully explore. This game is also about family trees. Having a mother who takes care of you as a baby, and hopefully taking care of a baby yourself later in life. And your mother is another player. And your baby is another player. Building something to use in your lifetime, but inevitably realizing that, in the end, what you build is not for YOU, but for your children and all the countless others that will come after you. Proudly using your grandfather’s ax, and then passing it on to your own grandchild as the end of your life nears.

And looking at each life as a unique story. I was this kid born in this situation, but I eventually grew up. I built a bakery near the wheat fields. Over time, I watched my grandparents and parents grow old and die. I had some kids of my own along the way, but they are grown now… and look at my character now! She’s an old woman. What a life passed by in this little hour of mine. After I die, this life will be over and gone forever. I can be born again, but I can never live this unique story again. Everything’s changing. I’ll be born as a different person in a different place and different time, with another unique story to experience in the next hour…

That sounds kind of amazing, like a cross between Passage and something like Spore or Everything. And dare I say it’s a little Game Neverending-ish as well?

And check out the “thinking behind One Hour One Life” section at the bottom of the home page. It includes links to videos on the meaning of human life, Milton Friedman’s views on market capitalism (a riff on I, Pencil), and the Primitive Technology guy. (via andy)

Jelly Super Mario Bros

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 26, 2018

What if World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros was made entirely of Jello? It would look a little something like this:

That’s from Stefan Hedman’s Jelly Mario, a playable demo of Super Mario with really elastic in-game physics (up arrow to jump, left and right to move). It’s not exactly compelling gameplay, but it is super fun to pilot a drunken Mario around to off-kilter SMB theme music. (via prosthetic knowledge)

Update: Since posting this, the rest of World 1-1 has been added as well as the first part of World 1-2.

8-bit scenes from TV shows

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2018

Pixel Art TV

Pixel Art TV

Pixel Art TV

Pixel Art TV

For his Pixel Art TV project, Gustavo Viselner illustrates scenes from TV shows in a pixelized video game style. Looks like he’s done scenes from Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Breaking Bad, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Seinfeld, Star Trek, and several others. (via @john_overholt)

Update: See also The Screenshots, a project by Jon Haddock from 2000 in which scenes from historical & fictional events are rendered in a The Sims-like style. (via @dens)

My recent media diet, special Black Panther & Olympics edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I have fallen off the book reading wagon…I really really need to find some time to start reading more. Maybe after the Olympics are done and I’ve made it through all of the levels in Alto’s Odyssey

2018 Winter Olympic Games. Yes, the Olympics are corrupt & corporate and NBC’s coverage is often lacking, but on the other hand, all of America gets a two-week look at all of these amazing women, immigrants, children of immigrants, and openly gay athletes (some of them just children) displaying many different kinds of femininity and masculinity while performing amazing feats and suffering humbling defeats. The Olympics, as the joke goes, is the future that liberals want and America is watching and loving it. (A-)

Black Panther. Really entertaining and affecting after an expositional slow start. (B+)

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. Leonardo da Vinci is not overrated. (B+)

Alto’s Odyssey. A worthy successor to one of my favorite games. (A-)

Reply All: The Bitcoin Hunter. Is admitting that you bought illegal drugs on Silk Road a thing you can do without the risk of being prosecuted? (B+)

Black Panther The Album. I can’t wait to drive around playing this as loud as I can. Also, based on my experience, movies should put more effort into their soundtracks. The really good ones (like this one) inspire repeat viewings and cause me to remember the movie more fondly. (A-)

Paddington. If more people in the UK over 65 had watched Paddington, Brexit wouldn’t have happened. (A-)

Paddington 2. Seriously, these Paddington movies are better than they have any right to be. Smart and lots of heart. (B+)

See You in the Cosmos. Read this to the kids as a bedtime story over the past few months. We all loved it. Rocketry, Carl Sagan, the Voyager Golden Record…what’s not to like? (A-)

Allied. Bland and forgettable. (C-)

On Being: interview with Isabel Wilkerson. An excellent interview of the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. (A-)

Phantom Thread soundtrack. More strong work by Jonny Greenwood. But don’t listen if you want something upbeat. (B+)

Song Exploder. A podcast where musicians break down their well-known songs. Always solid. I recently caught the episodes about the Stranger Things theme song and DJ Shadow. Oh, and I’m going to give the Arrival score a listen soon. (A-)

Apollo 13. One of my I’ll-watch-this-whenever-it’s-on movies. Love the scientific and engineering detective scenes. (B+)

Alias Grace. Several people asserted this was a better Margaret Atwood adaptation than The Handmaid’s Tale, but I didn’t think so. (B)

I, Tonya. I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. (A-)

Goodthreads T-shirt. Goodthreads is one of Amazon’s house brands. Ordered a couple of these after a recommendation from Clayton Cubbitt and damn if they’re not some of the most comfortable and best-fitting t-shirts I’ve ever worn. And only $12! My new go-to. (A-)

Sleep. One of the best things I’ve done for my work and my sanity is going to bed at about the same time every night and getting at least 6.5 hours (and often 7-8 hours) of sleep every night. (A+)

This American Life: Chip in My Brain. Holy parenting nightmare. (B+)

Professor Marston & The Wonder Women. The surprising role of BDSM in the development of Wonder Woman. (B+)

Atomic Blonde. John Wick-like. I wanted to like this more but the plot was a little muddled. (B)

SpaceX launch of Falcon Heavy. That choreographed double booster landing… (A)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

Really excited for Alto’s Odyssey, the sequel to Alto’s Adventure

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2018

The long-awaited sequel to Alto’s Adventure is coming out soon! Alto’s Odyssey will be out on Feb 22nd and is available for pre-order on the App Store. The game takes place in the desert and has a very similar vibe to the original, which is one of my top five favorite video games of all time.

I’ve played Alto’s Adventure a lot over the past year and a half. Like very a lot. At first, I played because the game was fun and I wanted to beat it. But eventually, I started playing the game when I was stressed or anxious. It became a form of meditation for me; playing cleared my mind and refocused my attention on the present. Even the seemingly stressful elements in the game became calming. The Elders, who spring up to give chase every few minutes, I don’t even notice anymore…which has become a metaphorical reminder for me to focus on my actions and what I can control and not worry about outside influences I can’t control.

Here’s the trailer for Alto’s Odyssey, which shows many of the new gameplay elements like bounce-able balloons, walls you can ride, water features, etc.:

I’ve been playing the beta version of Alto’s Odyssey for the past few days and while I can’t say much about it, I will share that fans of the original will be very pleased. It strikes a good balance between familiarity and novelty. So go forth and pre-order!

The history and lifecycle of CRT television sets

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 09, 2018

Sony TV Guide.JPG

Adi Robertson at The Verge has a fun, informative history of old cathode ray tube television sets, plus the people who study them, keep them working, and continue to use them. One maybe-surprising constituency: retro gamers.

Old games may look torn or feel laggy on a new TV. That’s in part because LCD screens process an entire frame of an image and then display it, rather than receiving a signal and drawing it right away.

Some games are completely dependent on the display technology. One of the best-known examples is Duck Hunt, which uses Nintendo’s Zapper light gun. When players pull the trigger, the entire screen briefly flashes black, then a white square appears at the “duck’s” location. If the optical sensor detects a quick black-then-white pattern, it’s a hit. The entire Zapper system is coded for a CRT’s super fast refresh rate, and it doesn’t work on new LCD TVs without significant DIY modification.

Old-school arcades, too, need to constantly maintain and replace their old tube monitors. Weirdly, this makes old television sets extremely valuable, even as it’s more and more difficult to have them recycled or thrown away.

“CRTs are essentially the bane of the electronic recycling industry,” says Andrew Orben, director of business development at Tekovery, one of the companies Barcade uses to dispose of irrevocably broken hardware. The tubes contain toxic metals that could leach into a dump site, and 18 states specifically ban sending them to landfills. They’re made of raw materials that are often impossible to sell at a profit, primarily glass that’s mixed with several pounds of lead.

They’re also insanely heavy. Even in 2002, a 40” tube TV would weigh more than 300 pounds. (Bigger TVs used to be rear-projections, remember?)

An appreciation of the emergent beauty of Tetris

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2018

Martin Hollis has fallen in love with Tetris. In this series of tweets, he explains that “Tetris is good because of the emergent things that arise from simple rules”.

In the beginning, you gather heuristics like ‘try to keep the surface flat and without overhangs, and without holes’. These rules of thumbs are emergent.

As you learn more, you realize that every one of your heuristics is wrong, and in the right circumstances a hole can be built and destroyed in two moves, or in more, or in less, to your considerable advantage.

Ultimately, everything becomes dynamic, and the rules of best play turn out to be baroque. The complexity seems to me to be large compared to any other video game.

Hollis also rightly notes that like other great games, sports, and human endeavors, Tetris boils down to a battle with the self, which I’ve previously stated, perhaps absurdly, is “the true struggle in life”.

Tetris produces narrative, or narrative emerges from the shape and flow of the surface, your hopes and needs, and the wax and wane of your doom.

You come to believe you are in control of your fate and that as the board stacks up, that is a monument to your mistakes.

A reversal feels like a release from a crushing end, or an angel’s redemption. You snatch a victory from death. You put a twist in your story.

Tetris is about you. That is its simple power. (via ben pieratt)

Pixelized 16-bit portrait of Ben Franklin from the 1840s

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 22, 2018

Pixel Ben Franklin

Ok, that’s not actually a screenshot from the hit Sega Genesis game Benjamin Franklin’s Polymath Academy. It’s a scan of an embroidery pattern from the 1840s or 1850s based on this engraving. Here’s a closer view:

Pixel Ben Franklin

The scan is part of an ongoing project by the Library of Congress to scan their entire Popular Graphic Arts collection, a wonderful trove of prints, advertisements, and other printed documents from circa 1700 to 1900. (via @john_overholt)

Playing video games as meditation

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2017

For GQ, Lauren Larson says that playing The Sims 2 is the closest thing she has to meditation.

Though I am a renowned fidgeter, I do not fidget. I am aware of the woke bikers who smoke below my window sharing their thoughts on “Cat Person,” but I feel no anger. I do not pause for snacks. I do not check my phone. I do not notice as day turns into night. My mind is clear. The Sims, agrees our photo editor Jared Schwartz, “is HELLA therapeutic.” It is the closest thing I have to meditation.

I’ve written before about how playing games on my iPhone, particularly Alto’s Adventure, has helped me through anxious times in my life.

I started playing the game when I was stressed or anxious. It became a form of meditation for me; playing cleared my mind and refocused my attention on the present. Even the seemingly stressful elements in the game became calming. The Elders, who spring up to give chase every few minutes, I don’t even notice anymore…which has become a metaphorical reminder for me to focus on my actions and what I can control and not worry about outside influences I can’t control.

I’ve also noticed this with Ski Safari, a game that came out more than 5 years ago that I still play when I want to relax. Which is funny because in the game, you control a skier trying to keep ahead of the constant avalanche following you, and if the avalanche catches you, you die. Sounds stressful, right? But as you get better at the game, the avalanche becomes less of a concern. You can’t do anything about it — as in life, the potentially crushing weight of something is always bearing down on you — so, you focus on being in the moment, controlling what you can control, and get on with your skiing.

For me, playing these games isn’t just meditative in the form of stress relief but also as a path to personal philosophical insight. The ideas of living in the present and emphasizing control over your reactions to external events (rather than to the events themselves) are found in ancient philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism. It’s one thing to read about these things, but it was helpful to realize them on my own, in the simplified and sandboxed environment of video game play. And I keep going back to them because it reminds me to focus on practicing those things in the real world as well.

My recent media diet, special Star Wars edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I’ve been busy with work, so leisure reading time has been hard to come by…but I’m still working my way through Why Buddhism is True. Lots of great TV and movies though.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I’ve been watching Star Wars for almost 40 years, and I can’t tell if any of the movies are any good anymore. At this point, Star Wars just is. Even so, I really enjoyed seeing this and will try to catch it again in a week or two. This is a favorite review that mirrors many of my feelings. (A-)

Wormwood. Errol Morris is almost 70 years old, and this 6-part Netflix series is perhaps his most ambitious creation yet: is it a true crime documentary or a historical drama? Or both? Stylistically and thematically fascinating. See also Morris’s interview with Matt Zoller Seitz. (A)

Flipflop Solitaire. Oh man, this game sucked me waaaaay in. My best time for single suit so far is 1:25. (B+)

The Hateful Eight. I liked this way more than I expected based on the reviews, but it lacks the mastery of Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino at his self-indulgent best though. (B+)

Our Ex-Life podcast. A divorced couple, who live almost next door to each other in a small town, talks about the good old days, the bad old days, and co-parenting their three kids. (B+)

Paths of the Soul. A documentary about a group of Tibetan villagers who undertake a pilgrimage to Lhasa that has a genre-bending scripted feel to it. I’ve been thinking about this film since watching it…it’s full of incredible little moments. What do I believe in enough to undertake such a journey? Anything? (A)

Stranger Things 2. The plot of this show is fairly straight-forward, but the 80s vibe, soundtrack, and the young actors elevate it. (B+)

Stranger Things 2 soundtrack. As I was saying… (A-)

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. Huge Errol Morris fan (see above), but I was a bit bored by this. (C+)

The Crown, season two. This is one of my favorite new shows. I know she’s not the actual Queen, but I still want to have Claire Foy ‘round for tea. (A)

Blue Planet II. Just as good as Planet Earth II. Incredible stories and visuals. Premiering in the US in January. (A+)

The Moon 1968-1972. A charming little book of snapshots taken by astronauts on the Moon. (B+)

Donnie Darko. This one maybe hasn’t aged well. Or perhaps my commitment to Sparkle Motion is wavering? (B)

Part-Time Genius: Was Mister Rogers the Best Neighbor Ever? Yes, he was. (B+)

The Circle. This hit way way way way too close to home, and I couldn’t finish it. Also, not the best acting. (C)

Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. Really interesting, but I stopped listening to the audiobook because I wasn’t in the mood. (B)

A Charlie Brown Christmas. You know, for the kids. (B)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Charming, perhaps my favorite holiday short. (B+)

xXx. An un-ironic favorite. Sometimes, dumb fun is just the thing. (B)

Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez. Tim’s recent post about smell reminded me of this book, which is a masterclass in criticism. (A-)

Young Frankenstein. I’d only seen this once before, but I wasn’t feeling it this time around. (B-)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

Sibilant Snakelikes

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2017

Sibilant Snakelikes

For his new game, Sibilant Snakelikes, Pippin Barr remade several games (Super Mario Bros, Missile Command, Ms Pacman, Minesweeper) using the gameplay mechanics from the classic cellphone game Snake. Says Barr about making the game:

Making the game has been a continuation of my interest in thinking about how the language of videogames works to express ideas. It strikes me that one useful experimental approach to understanding this is to “translate” one game’s expression into the language of another game. In trying to work out how the very simple mechanics and concepts of Snake can convey different sets of ideas (fighting a colossus, eating dots and running away from ghosts, playing soccer) I was forced to grapple fairly deeply with making reasoned design choices. The translation process doesn’t necessarily lead to “good games” and certainly not to games that are evocative in the same way as the originals, but I do think it shows us something about how a game like Snake can communicate more complex ideas without really changing it very much mechanically (there are exceptions to this of course). And then on the flip side it also shows us how moving the source games into the “Snake universe” alters those games and leads to new gameplay possibilities (or impossibilities, for that matter).

The code of the game is available on Github and is free to adapt and share for non-commercial purposes under a Creative Commons license. See also Snakisms, a philosophical take on Snake by Barr.

The Simpsons’ “steamed hams” gag as a Guitar Hero song

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 02, 2017

OMG, this is super nerdy and I am so here for it. Like it says on the tin, this is the scene where Principal Skinner has Superintendent Chalmers over to dinner for “steamed hams” presented as if it were a Guitar Hero song. (via @andymcmillan)