Life Is A Highway

If you’re wondering where I’ve been all this week, I can answer that question in just three words: Mario Kart Wii. I’m told that another big video game was released this week and that everyone and their dog is playing it, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is. For me there are only mini turbo-boosts, banana peels and mushroom cups. My ghosts are setting records, I’m unlocking karts and not getting the sleep I need.

If all of this makes absolutely no sense to you, then count yourself lucky you’re not caught in the vice-like, addictive grip that is Nintendo’s latest creation. But for the rest of you, you know exactly what I’m talking about and you’re in luck. I’m going to share just a few of the pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned from my brief, but remarkable stint on the Mario Kart racing circuit:

Don’t use the wheel

– You can get much greater steering control, as well as deploy and control weapons better using the Wiimote and nunchuck controller combo.

Start regional

– Nothing is as demoralizing as starting a world-wide race and seeing 5 players pop up whose names are Japanese and who have virtual rankings somewhere in the 8000 level. Race the home front to start.

Bananas are good for you!

– Drag them behind you to block incoming shells and keep players from bumping you from behind.

Tricks, tricks, tricks

– Flick the wheel or Wiimote whenever you go over a jump and you’ll do a trick and gain a mini-boost when you land. It really helps to keep you ahead of the pack.

And if you want to put these tips to the test in a little old 1 on 1, then my Mario Kart friend code is: 0216-1192-5921, I hope to see you on the Jungle Parkway soon. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have just enough time to get in a 50cc race before I head off to work. Bye!

Playing In Hell

First there was Cooking Mama, and then my friend Dave Miller blogged about the upcoming Iron Chef game for the Nintendo Wii and DS. Now the genre comes to full circle thanks to the controversial but always entertaining Gordon Ramsay. His hit show Hell’s Kitchen, is being transformed into a digital arena where wannabe chefs can hone their culinary skills or face ultimate humiliation in the comfort of their own homes. According to the Hell’s Kitchen website, the game includes “Career Mode” and “Arcade Mode”, kitchen and dining room challenges and even includes recipes you can try at home! I fancy myself an amateur chef and I have to say the game seems to capture the manic feel of the TV show without all the hassle of actually becoming a reality TV contestant. If you’ve always wanted to feel Gordon’s wrath after ruining his famous risotto for the 10th time (as I have), then this is the game for you.

A video preview of the game includes a virtual Gordon complete with his famous potty mouth, digital Jean Philipe and much more. Although the release date has not been published, thankfully the HK site reports the game will be available for both the PC and Macintosh operating systems. From the looks of the screen shots and the illustrated nature of the settings, the graphics seems to be a cut above most games of this type. Hopefully game play will be interactive, fun and challenging enough to keep players chopping, sauteing, and plating for days. If you’re interested, there is a sign-up available that will keep you posted about the game and when we can expect it to hit shelves. In the meantime, sharpen your knives and harden your ego, because apparently virtual Gordon, like his namesake, takes no prisoners!

For the Love of the Game

When was the last time you played a game of pinball? If you’re anything like me, it’s been years since you plunked quarters into one of those classic arcade contraptions. The plight of the pinball machine is one, that in today’s modern world, has grown more and more familiar. What once captured the money and imagination of players across the country, has become relegated to collector’s garages and played by a small group of enthusiasts who look back on pinball with fond memories through neon colored glasses. The story of pinball’s origins and how one company tried to re-invent it, is being told via a new documentary written, produced and directed by my friend and designer Greg Maletic.

Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball tells the story of the Williams company and their dedicated team of designers who were tasked with nothing less than single-handedly saving the entire pinball industry. The DVD can be ordered via the Tilt homepage, and is a wonderfully produced documentary spanning the entire history of the game. Tilt takes the viewer on a light-hearted and fascinating journey from pinball’s humble beginnings as merely a game of luck, to the industry changing era of classic video games, and the creation of Pinball 2000.

The DVD’s production values are top notch and are marked by retro style graphics (all created in Adobe Illustrator and animated in After Effects), an easy to follow narrative and some of the best music I’ve ever heard written for a documentary by composer Skip Heller. Much more than just “talking heads”, Greg’s film gives special insights into the world of the penny arcade that eventually morphed into the electronic palaces of the 60′s 70′s & 80′s that so many of us spent our childhood in. Watching Tilt, it’s easy to see how much a labor of love this film has been for him. Case in point comes in a scene discussing Baby Pac Man, an unsuccessful fusion of pinball and video games. The director’s audio commentary reveals he was unable to find a functioning Baby Pac Man unit to film, so he decided to animate the entire cabinet in After Effects. An impressive feat to be sure, and one that I would never have realized had I not listened to the commentary. Tilt is full of these kinds of subtle treats which bring both eye candy and visual interest to a subject that some might consider boring.

Over 2 and a half years in the making, Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball, not only serves up an interesting slice of history, but also provides insight into problems that designers face every single day. How do you make something old and familiar, new and fresh? How do talented individuals leverage their skills to create a unique new experience even in the face of tremendous industry pressure? All of these questions, and many more are tackled in Tilt. It’s a fun journey for pinball fans and lay people alike that I highly recommend. Check out the trailer available on the Tilt homepage or via YouTube.

Maximum Zen

You have to hand it to the people at PopCap. It’s amazing how something so simple can be so addictive. I mean the player strategy behind their hugely successful game, Peggle Deluxe, amounts to little more than a digital coin toss. Despite this, the game is immensely satisfying and keeps players coming back for more. One of the reasons is the sheer joy you get when you pull off shots like this:

In many ways, Peggle has a lot of the same visceral qualities that made games like Ambrosia Software’s Malestrom and Apeiron so great. These noteworthy creations from Ambrosia Software helped to inspire my love of Mac gaming and provided a great deal of inspiration when it came time to bring the user interface and general feel of Frenzic to life. Ambrosia has gotten away from these types of straight forward, fun as hell, games lately (with the possible exception of Sketch Fighter) and it’s too bad. I would kill for an updated OS X version of Malestrom. One that combines the simple fun of Peggle with the classic sensibilities of Ambrosia and the power of Mac OS X.

In the meantime, my hat goes off to the folks at PopCap for creating Peggle. I think it’s almost as addictive as Frenzic… almost ;-) If you have videos of your favorite shot replays, post links to them in the comments and help spread the Extreme Fever. Tally ho!

Is Thurrott Laughing Yet?

A full six months after the hugely successful launch of Nintendo’s innovative Wii game console, PC and Windows “analysts” Paul Thurrott published a predictable piece about how Microsoft’s XBOX 360 was the console to beat. Despite Thurrott’s own “concerns about the 360′s reliability” he still felt that consumers would choose the XBOX over both the PS3 and especially the Nintendo Wii. He remarkably advised that except for parents with very young children, all others should “skip out on this console”, and called the Nintendo Wii “a joke”.

It’s now seven months later and the Wii buying season is upon us for the second time. The funny thing is, people are still lining up to get their hands on a Nintendo Wii. This weekend, I went to Best Buy here in Greensboro to finish up my Christmas shopping and arrived a bit before they opened at 10am. What I found was a line of about 50 people waiting outside the store. What were they waiting for? Had they braved the chilly morning air since 7am to snap up an XBOX 360 and a copy of Halo 3? Not in the least. The majority of these people were waiting to earn a chance to take home one of 18 Wii’s the store manager later told me had come in for the week. As I walked past the line I was reminded of Thurrott’s column and knew I couldn’t resist the urge to say “I told you so.”

In the span of less than a year, Wii sales have far outpaced those of the XBOX 360. I challenge you to walk into any electronics or toy store today and walk out with a Wii. People still can’t easily get a hold of the console, even though Nintendo ramped up production to 1.8 million units a month. If the Wii is a joke, then it’s one Nintendo’s laughing all the way to the bank. Depsite Microsoft’s success with Halo 3, Nintendo is making money hand over fist with each Wii sold. Not so for Microsoft, or especially SONY’s PS3, where margins are miniscule.

The Wii has once again secured Nintendo’s place in the halls of gaming history and proven that flashy graphics and all the cash in the world don’t make up for innovation, solid game play and word of mouth. Best of all though, it has shown that like many things he writes about, Paul Thurrott doesn’t have the first clue. I’m looking forward to playing Super Mario Galaxy over my holiday break and I hope all those people waiting in front of Best Buy this morning eventually get to play too. If you’re still on a quest for a Wii, remember to keep an eye out for one for Thurrott. After he takes his fifth or sixth XBOX back for repairs, maybe he’ll start to give Nintendo the respect they so rightfully deserve.

PS – I’m already bookmarking this gem that says Super Mario Galaxy sales figures won’t live up to expectations. With this kind of crack analysis from TheStreet.com, you know it’s got to be reliable.

It’s Just Another Shooter People!

You’d think with amount of mind-numbing hype coming from Redmond these last few weeks that Halo 3 was the second coming of the video game industry. But then you’d be wrong, that was called the Wii. So unless Bungie has been keeping a really big secret, Halo 3 is just another first person shooter. Am I wrong? Can someone please tell me why Halo 3 is such a big deal?

I get the fact that Halo 3 is probably the most popular thing that Microsoft has ever “embraced”, which is sad in its own right, but do I have to have the Master Chief stuffed up my ass every minute of every day? This must be what it was like for all of those people who were sick of hearing about the iPhone in the weeks leading up to the launch. I guess one man’s plague is another man’s present. Go figure.

A Match Made In Geek Heaven

Over at my place of work, I often receive email asking what people can do to help support the Iconfactory. I always reply that the best way is to purchase our software and to generally spread the good word about efforts to support the Macintosh and icon creation community. Since WWDC 2007 though, we’ve thought of another way that the average person could help show their love for what we do, and it doesn’t even cost a penny.

Earlier this year we released our very first game for the Macintosh platform in conjunction with ARTIS Software. Frenzic is new take on classic puzzle games like Tetris that is easy to learn and quite literally can take months to master. The game was met with positive reviews, scores of downloads and an entire roster of enthusiastic players from around the world. People agree that one of the things that makes Frenzic so fun to play is its simplicity. Stay alive as long as possible, rack up points, power-ups and lives to scratch and claw your way up the leaderboard.

It occurred to us quite early in Frenzic’s development that it would make an outstanding game for the mobile phone platform and the iPhone in particular. Simply touch the screen to place pieces in the appropriate circles, touch power-ups to activate them and try valiantly to resist addiction! Games of Frenzic typically take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes making them perfect time killers in doctor’s offices or the airport. The game is programmed entirely in Cocoa and doesn’t rely on external game engines like Open GL so it would be extremely easy to port to the iPhone.

Needless to say we did our best to pitch Frenzic to Apple at the recent WWDC Developers conference in San Fransisco, but as the saying goes, it doesn’t hurt to have some insurance. This is where you come in. Head on over to Apple.com and take a moment to let Steve and gang know you’d love to have Frenzic as a premiere game for the iPhone. If enough people write, our little game that could, just might join the historic ranks of Bejeweled and Tetris. We’d love the opportunity to bring Frenzic to an iPhone near you, and with your help, it just might happen.

Digg It!

It’s Hip to Be Square!

Today at lunch, the guys and I stopped by our local GameStop (ah, the memories) so I could pick up my reserved copy of Super Paper Mario for the Nintendo Wii. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting too much from this game. I’ve played Paper Mario on the Gamecube, and while fun, it just didn’t seem to grab me the way that Mario 64 or Mario Sunshine did. Tonight after dinner, I popped the game in and checked it out. What a delightful surprise!

At first glimpse, Super Paper Mario seems to be yet another traditional 2-D side scrollers with the familiar jump and stomp action that fans have come to know and love from the plumber in red. But the Wii folks have a few tricks up their sleeve this time including a fantastic twist that puts a whole new “perspective” on video games (sorry I had to do it). By pressing the “A” button at any point during the game, you instantly transform Mario’s world to 3-D. Flat blocks and coins instantly become rows of objects several layers deep. Paths that you could not see when looking at this paper thin world from the front, come into view with surprising satisfaction. What you thought was just an illustrated children’s book, instead becomes a dynamic pop-up book.

The game also avoids some of the Wiimote controller headaches I’ve experienced lately (Call of Duty 3!!) by having the player hold the Wiimote old-school style on its side. In this way, you don’t get carpal tunnel and all of the buttons are familiar and immediate. From time to time the Wiimote can be used like a flashlight to “point” at the world and find out more info about the baddies and such, but for the most part, controlling Mario is as easy as pie. I still have nightmares about how bad the controls for Super Monkey Ball 3D were and SPM is a joy by comparison.

I’ve only played to the end of the first chapter, but I can already tell the game will hold my attention. It is fun, extremely well written and has both visual and visceral appeal. Nintendo knows how to write games for its own platform and it really shows with SPM. You are constantly discovering new hidden treasures as you journey along. One moment you think the road ahead is impassable, then you flip to 3-D and the choice is obvious. You can become part of wonderfully graphic backgrounds grabbing extra coins, play secondary characters, or just relish in the super-cool sound design.

While Microsoft seems to be struggling with the XBOX, and the sales of the eye-candy intensive PSP have been languishing, I am continually impressed with the Wii. Time after time it has presented me with all new and exciting ways of playing video games. It makes me want more. Paul Thurrott, PC technologist and hack, wrote this past week that the Wii was “a joke”. This isn’t surprising considering that he makes his living by rubbing Microsoft’s rhubarb, but honestly he has no clue. The Wii is not a fad. Only now are game studios realizing its potential as its continued scarcity proves. Parents and players alike love the Wii and with good reason. While Microsoft is stuffing the retail channel to artificially inflate its sales figures, games like Super Paper Mario are giving gamers new reasons to be couch potatoes all over again. Its a genuinely fun title and, in my gaming experience, totally unique. What more could you ask from a video game? Check it out, the Plumber will thank you.

The Magic of Zelda for iTunes

One of my favorite video game franchises of all time has to be the Legend of Zelda series from Nintendo. My first experience with Zelda was back on the Nintendo 64 system with The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and I have been hooked ever since.

Without a doubt one of the most compelling aspects of Zelda has to be the beautiful, haunting and often epic musical scores written by master composer Koji Kondo. From Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask to Wind Waker and now Twilight Princess, music has always played an integral part of the mood and gaming experience that is Zelda. And while there have been literally dozens of fan re-creations of these tracks, including some impressive MIDI re-mixes, I was recently put onto a wonderful collection of orchestrated versions from my friend Louie Mantia.

The ZREO (Zelda Reorchestrated) home page has free, downloadable MP3 tracks from all the major Zelda releases just waiting for you to enjoy. The largest collection hails from The Ocarina of Time, but my personal favorites are the Wind Waker series. The ZREO tracks of Link’s journey across the “Ocean” are simply wonderful, a true auditory journey filled with awe and adventure.

Some have theorized that the music in Zelda contains the audio equivalent of “Golden Proportions” that make them memorable. I’m not exactly sure about that, but I do know a good thing when I hear it, and these downloadable tracks are pure gold.