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california extreme 2009
games Posted 2009-07-29 22:34:57 by Jim Crawford
California Extreme is a, um. The event's web page calls it “an annual celebration of coin operated pinball machines, video games and other novelties you once found in game arcades.” Well-put! It is very much a celebration.

Chris Kohler over at Wired described it like this: “California Extreme is like an urban legend. Once a year, the best video arcade in the world, packed full of every game you ever played as a child, plus games that were never released, magically appears somewhere in the Bay Area. Two days later, it disappears.”

But I like to think of it as a museum that you can visit in order to explore the history of arcade games. It's temporally limited, which sucks in some respects, but also allows it to display artifacts that would be inaccessible to a permanent museum, such as the one-of-a-kind prototype cabinets donated from personal collections.

I went with Louis this year, and a great time was had by all. Both. Some observations, loosely organized by game:

Zoo Keeper (1982), by Taito:
The protagonist of Zoo Keeper walks around the outline of a rectangle, painting pixels brick-colored below his feet. A number of animals bounce around inside the rectangle, eating away at the brick-colored pixels that they bounce off of. This is a sort of game design you don't really see nowadays: a design that falls naturally out of the happenstance of how the underlying system works. Zoo Keeper is a bottom-up design, created by a programmer who thought of an interesting way to exploit a system he understood because he built it or had worked intimately with it, as opposed to the top-down designs you tend to see nowadays, created by designers who never really think about the systems involved.

In this case, the underlying system is the representation of the screen as an array of memory-mapped pixels (a “framebuffer,” in the parlance of our time) which leads to the possibility of game logic looking at the contents of the screen to make decisions. A lot of early games stored state in the framebuffer, the lightcycle trails in Tron and the shields in Space Invaders being the most salient examples. Even after developers switched to tile-based GPUs, some games still used this trick. For instance, Super Mario Bros. stored some of the state of game world (which bricks have been broken, mostly) in the background tiles, because the NES had just two kilobytes of RAM. This explains why Super Mario Bros. doesn't let you scroll back to the left; once a brick scrolls off the screen, the state of that particular brick is irrevocably lost. (Later NES games would include additional RAM on the cartridge itself to allow for a more robust world state.)

Bionic Commando (1987), by Capcom:
Interesting in large part because of how it compares to its NES port: unfavorably. The grapple arm was a brilliant idea, but the remainder of the game was unpolished and uninspired. In an era during which you judged an arcade port by how close it came to the original, here was an example of an adaptation that was worlds better than the source material.

Boxing Bugs (1981), by Cinematronics:
The protagonist of this vector-display game is a rotating arm with a spring-loaded boxing glove, the better to punch bugs with. As a game, it's pretty meh, but there's at least one fantastically low-budget vector cut-scene between levels. I couldn't find video of it, but there's a screenshot on KLOV. Imagine that this is accompanied by cheesy jack-in-the-box music, because it is.

Gorf (1981), by Midway:
An anthology of existing single-screen shooter games. One level is Space Invaders, another level is Galaxian, another level is... well, I don't know my single-screen shooters that comprehensively, but I bet the remaining three levels existed as earlier games too. The unifying factor here is that through all these games, you're always fighting fleets of aliens using the same ship with the same capabilities. The variety really lends the game a sense of epic scale.

Funny thing: I just assumed your ship is locked to the bottom of the screen, probably because it is in Space Invaders and Galaxian, so I didn't even try moving vertically. I found out I was wrong when I passed by someone else playing the game and I noticed that they were moving all over the screen. But you know what? I didn't feel constricted at all. I suspect the developers added that feature to one-up the games they were cloning rather than because it was necessary.

By the way, I just love this paragraph from the Wikipedia page. Every single sentence delights me in one way or another:
“The sequel, Ms. Gorf, was never released. It was programmed in the programming language Forth. The source code for the prototype is owned by Gorf programmer Jay Fenton (now known as Jamie Fenton). Unfortunately, the game exists only as source code stored on a set of 8-inch floppy disks, and is difficult to retrieve.”

I wonder whether Jay Fenton got the sex change idea from Ms. Gorf, or whether it was the other way around?

Journey (1983) by Bally Midway.
Another effective anthology, but in this case the game genres are all over the place and the collection has a stranger unifying factor, i.e. the protagonists are the members of 80s pop-rock band Journey. They made relatively direct use of the license: the game hardware includes a tape player playing a loop of Separate Ways, and the band members are represented by greyscale digitized photos running around. Here's a low-quality video. It's understandable that the photographs wouldn't be in color because greyscale digitization services were probably much cheaper at the time -- hell, they might've been the only such services that existed -- but couldn't they have gotten an artist to take a pass at colorizing them with flesh tones?

Space Dungeon, by ... uh. Actually. Looking at Space Dungeon's Wikipedia and KLOV pages, it's pretty clear that Space Dungeon isn't the game I played, which was a single-screen puzzle platformer featuring a shifting water level. I had suspected that this cabinet was the result of some nature-defying surgical operation, in which the brain of one game was inserted into the body of another, because the jump button -- just about the single most common operation you'd want to perform -- was placed awkwardly on the front of the cabinet. After a few minutes of play, my left hand ached from being splayed around the corner in an attempt to access all the controls at once.

Death Race (1976), by Exidy
In Death Race, your goal is to run down stick figures with a car. The packaging calls them “gremlins,” but the game's working title was “Pedestrian,” and the name is a clear nod to Death Race 2000, a movie about a sport in which drivers earn points by running people over. This game didn't go over too well with the national media.

Like many early arcade machines, Death Race had no CPU or ROM, just discrete electronic components. Some games with surprisingly complicated logic were developed this way.

Chiller (1986), by Exidy:
Another Exidy game, one that I'm pretty astounded got wide distribution. This was a horror-themed lightgun game in which the player shoots, among other things, people strapped into torture devices. You'd think this sort of game would only ever show up in the back room of an adult video store, but I remember seeing this cabinet in mall arcades growing up. I have to assume that they only got away with it because no adults ever deigned to actually enter an arcade.

The Act (2007), by Cecropia:
I was enthralled by this game, though I never actually got a chance to play it. In the cabinet I saw, you selected one of three scenarios in which the male player-character is trying to woo a female non-player character. This is an activity that -- much like being a spaceship pilot or ninja assassin -- the typical arcade-goer has very little experience doing and would probably be very interested in. But unlike spaceship piloting or ninja assassining, you rarely see games about wooing women, because it's very hard to turn social situations into rule-based simulations.

So that's fascinating to me. But is game any good? I donno, like I said, I never got a chance to play it.

Moon Quake (unreleased), by Sente:
Moon Quake was never released. That you can find so many unreleased cabinets at CAX is a minor miracle, but in almost every case, it's easy to tell why the developers never bothered putting them into production. I ended up spending about 10 minutes on Moon Quake basically out of sheer stubbornness. I'm guessing that this makes me one of the best Moon Quake players in the world. (It took me half of that play time to realize that the second stick wasn't for a second player, but was for firing shots at enemies a la Robotron.)

Marble Madness 2: Marble Man (unreleased), by Atari:
Another prototype. This sequel replaced the original game's trackball with a joystick, which misses the point fairly hard. Fortunately, if you've only played the home versions of Marble Madness, which all use a crosspad or joystick, you probably won't notice, because those versions miss the point too. The result is that Marble Man is not even quite as good as a hypothetical rehash of the existing gameplay with new levels to roll around in.

But playing Marble Man was still special even among all the prototypes, because it's one of the few prototypes for which ROMs are completely unavailable. There are three known copies of this hardware; Scott Evans, a California Extreme organizer, owns the machine I played. The story is pretty fascinating: he put together a ROM-less Marble Man machine from parts gleaned from various sources, and finagled copies of the ROMs out of an anonymous Atari employee under the condition that he'd use them only to fix his own machine, and wouldn't distribute them.

The Grid (2001), by Midway:
This game consisted of six individual cabinets, networked together to form a simplified deathmatch FPS with the aesthetic of Smash TV. The level design was very simple and flat, because looking up and down does not come easily to FPS newbies. It used a trackball for aiming, which I've never tried before but which worked pretty well.

Computer Space (1971), by Nutting Associates:
This was a clone of Spacewar!, Slug Russell's 1962 game for the PDP-1, one of the earliest video games. Computer Space was contemporary with Galaxy Game, by Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck, also a Spacewar! clone. Both were commercial failures, probably because such a complicated game was not a good introduction to the medium.

Nolan Bushnell, who waited close to a decade for technology to become robust enough to bring Spacewar! to the masses, went on to much greater success with the much simpler Pong in 1972. (Which he evidently ripped off from Ralph Baer? Early videogame history is complicated. An early draft of this post described Spacewar! as the first video game, but then I read about Tennis for Two. Does that count as a “video” game even though it used an oscilloscope for display rather than “video”? I can't decide whether the question is as retarded as it sounds, but if Tennis for Two doesn't count, then neither does Asteroids.)

Warrior (1979) by Vectorbeam:
This sword-fighting game was crammed in with all the space-themed vector games (Star Wars, Asteroids, Tempest, Major Havoc, &c.). I never got a chance to try it properly because there wasn't a second player around to play against, but the control scheme was interesting. Reading up on it, it looks like the intention was to give each player two joysticks, one for moving your player and one for rotating your sword, but budget constraints forced the developer to map the control scheme to one joystick and one button per player: by default, the joystick moves your character, but if you hold the button, it moves your sword. The result was awkward and hard to play. The dual stick scheme probably would have worked much better.

I, Robot (1983), by Atari:
Filled-polygon 3D! In 1983! *Boggle*. This game had a dedicated camera angle control, allowing the player to scrub between a downfield perspective and an overhead perspective. This translates to the player choosing between playability and immersion, a classic 3D game design tradeoff. I later found out that the downfield angle actually is balanced to score higher, because it's harder to play. A really interesting design decision.

Ms. Pac-Man (1981), by General Computer Corporation:
Probably the most common arcade game, and for good reason: it's basically a perfected Pac-Man. This was a very strange product in that it was an unlicensed ROM hack developed by programmers at General Computer Corporation (who had earlier designed and sold a much-less-successful unlicensed ROM hack for Missile Command) and published by Midway. GCC and Midway both eventually turned the rights over to Pac-Man creator Namco to prevent legal action.

M.A.C.H. 3 (1983), by Mylstar:
This game consisted of an extremely simple HUD drawn on top of canned laserdisc POV video shot from a plane. The cabinet at CAX featured cockpit seating and an enormous fresnel lens in front of the monitor to increase immersion. I'm sure this was really exciting in 1983, but as I recall it really didn't hold up so well even towards the end of the 1980s.

Play Choice 10 (1986), by Nintendo:
I didn't touch this guy on Sunday, but I saw Play Choice cabinets around while growing up. You could drop a quarter into one of these to get a fixed amount of play time -- about five minutes, as I recall -- from a selection of NES games. The fixed amount of time bothered me, because it divorced the amount of time you could play from your play ability. (More specifically, I got annoyed that the game ended when I hadn't yet lost.) But looking back on it, these machines provided a valuable service in that, before video game rental was a widespread busiess model, they allowed you to try out games before purchasing them. I can also remember one game (The Goonies) that would show up in Play Choice cabinets that was never released as an NES cartridge in the United States, and another game (Super Mario Bros. 3, probably the NES game with the most pre-release excitement) that showed up months before the cartridge release.

There were also a number of pinball games, though I didn't bother with these, having explored that territory over at Lucky Juju in the recent past. But Louis and I did attend a lecture given by Rick Stetta and Andrei Massenkoff on how to play pinball. We wandered around looking for the lecture hall until we discovered that the talk was actually happening in a regular hall. Like, a hallway. There were few enough people in attendance that we could gather around the pinball machine used to demonstrate the techniques. There's a YouTube video of the analogous talk from last year, which is pretty representative, though it's difficult to make out what's going on.

They demonstrated a number of flipper techniques. The interesting thing is, since the control interface is so limited, all these techniques basically break down to timing of button presses and releases. Unfortunately, the flipper timing is not very consistent even between instances of the exact same game, so machines used for tournament play have to be made available, so players can practice with that machine's specific timings.
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Posted by Anonymous (Adam) on 2009-07-30 11:00:42
What a great post. :-) Too bad they don't have such cool things in Estonia.

"The grapple arm was a brilliant idea, but the remainder of the game was unpolished and uninspired."
Funny. :-) They pulled the same trick again just recently!;reviews

"Like many early arcade machines, Death Race had no CPU or ROM, just discrete electronic components. Some games with surprisingly complicated logic were developed this way."
Another fascinating fact! Did you know this going in, or were these things explained in the museum? :-)

RE: the marble madness story, it's pretty amazing that it's possible to repair those boards by hand the way he did.
re: neat
Posted by Jim Crawford on 2009-07-31 02:04:42
Yeah, the new Bionic Commando had great platforming but not so great anything else. And Spider-Man 2 did the 3D-grapple thing better.

I had already known Death Race used TTL. That's one way that CAX is unlike a museum: no explanatory plaques.

Repairing PCBs is part and parcel of being an arcade game collector. You have to love it or the hobby isn't for you. One of the reasons I'm never going to own an arcade machine :)
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