Powered by PETSCII: Halloween edition

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Happy Halloween, everyone!

Here's a PETSCII image I made a short while before the Jason one featured in my previous blog, but I thought I'd wait until the appropriate day to release it. This one was a real breakthrough for me at the time: I'd previously only really ever made stuff that used existing imagery or properties as inspiration; this one was my first true original creation that came purely out of my head. In making it, I discovered a new process that I've used a couple of times since, and it's been great realising that I'm making progress and growing into this medium.

Hope you enjoy it, and your spooky time fun day as well!

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Powered by PETSCII: Friday the 13th Edition

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As a lifelong fan of horror, I've always felt it's a pity Halloween isn't really celebrated in Australia. But the fact that 2017 sees the Halloween month of Shocktober having its 13th day land on a Friday? Well, I couldn't let that opportunity pass.

Continuing with my recent PETSCII jag, I've made a tribute to the unluckiest day in the spookiest month, with a C64 rendition of everyone's favourite hockey-lovin' psycho killer, Jason Voorhees. This is the first time, however, that I've ever applied any sort of (admittedly limited) animation to my PETSCII stuff.

Happy Friday the 13th! (Well, it is here in Australia.)

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Dr. Tracksuit arcade flyer

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Here's one I've been meaning to get to for a while. I'd been noodling about with a few disparate elements a couple of months ago, not really getting anywhere, with only half an idea in mind to just make a basic design. Then the idea struck me that I should turn it into mock promotional material in the form of an old arcade flyer. After that, things fell into place pretty quickly, and I'm pretty happy with the result! Hope y'all like it.

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Powered by PETSCII

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As you might have gathered from my last blog entry, I'm an old man a Commodore 64 devotee. My appreciation for the first system I ever owned manifests itself in various ways, like my on-indefinite-hiatus series devoted to the amazing SID sound chip, or writing love letters to cherished C64 games. One of my favourite things to do, however, is doodle pictures via the inbuilt character set, PETSCII.

The PETSCII character set in full.
The PETSCII character set in full.

As a designer, part of the reason I like making things in this format is that it forces you to create within a fairly strict set of parameters, something I always enjoy. The limited character set, colours and screen dimensions of the C64 can lead to some interesting (and at times anguishing) decisions about which character to use. The above image, inspired by the aces new season of Rick and Morty, had some easy choices (the nose, the body) and some more difficult ones (the eyes, teeth, and bones).

When I was a wee lad in the 80s, making things in PETSCII on an actual C64 was a pretty time-consuming process. I'd have to move the cursor with the cursor keys (the C64 only has two of these, left and down, modified into the other two directions in conjunction with the SHIFT key), remember which colour was assigned to which number key, and it was a pain in the butt to change anything on the fly. And if I wanted to keep the whole thing I'd have to write a bespoke BASIC program that would recreate my efforts when run - no screen capture back then!

Thankfully, the power of the internet makes it a much simpler process these days; I use this website to make my PETSCII stuff. While relatively basic, having the luxuries of modern image editing software – mouse control, easily selectable colours, the ability to move a selected portion of the picture, saving, et al – is a dream come true for 80s kid me.

If you'd like to see more of the things I've made in PETSCII, I've got a bunch of them over here. Or maybe you'd like to get a that website and have a go yourself! While I suspect I'm the only one on Giant Bomb with any real interest in PETSCII art, I'd love to see anything the community could come up with. It's really easy to noodle around in, and having pre-made shapes means some of the work's already done for you!

Here you can see the PETSCII characters for each key marked on the forward-facing sides.
Here you can see the PETSCII characters for each key marked on the forward-facing sides.

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Revamping C64 Castlevania

You probably didn't know this – hell, I'm sure there are at least a few Commodore 64 fans who don't – but back in its heyday the C64 got a conversion of the NES classic, Castlevania. And it actually plays okay! The tunes are tinny renditions of the beloved themes and don't really give a good idea of either the power of the C64's sound chip or the potency of the NES originals, but all in all there are worse things to load onto the old breadbox for rainy afternoon play. Here, check it out:

Being a designer, the thing that's always made me wince a little (and it may be your first reaction as well) is the visual side of things. I always look at the graphics in the C64 version and wonder why they're so rudimentary and only casually trying to capture the style of the NES original. I say this, of course, as someone who can't program for anything outside of C64 BASIC (although I used to be a beast in that); it's certainly very possible the limitations of the hardware meant that this was the best that could be done all around. And knowing the video game industry at the time, the tiny group of people charged with making this conversion probably had a very tight time frame and scant resources to use as reference when trying to recreate the NES elements.

This is CREATURES. The title is actually a long and forced acronym, if you care to look it up. The game itself is an adorably cutesy and violently gory romp.
This is CREATURES. The title is actually a long and forced acronym, if you care to look it up. The game itself is an adorably cutesy and violently gory romp.

But when you look at other games released in 1990 around the same time, Castlevania is up against legendarily gorgeous C64 games like CREATURES, Flimbo's Quest, Last Ninja Remix, and Turrican. Smaller games of the year, like Gremlins 2, Rick Dangerous II and Dan Dare III also eclipse Castlevania in looks.

1990 also saw the Amiga behemoth Shadow of the Beast shuffle its way onto C64, complete with the title's trademark over-the-top parallax effects (and also its dubious gameplay depth). C64 Shadow of the Beast wasn't the best looking game, but it still did everything it could to try to jam the Amiga's look and feel into the C64's limited palette and pixel count.

This is something that Castlevania on the same machine doesn't do. It functionally has all the same elements from the NES original, but there's something about the way the graphics are employed that make it seem like the C64 visuals are not always interested in being a totally spot-on translation. Sometimes it's little things like the shading on a brick or Simon looking less nimble than his NES counterpart; other times it's the whole colour palette being out of whack or things being so splodgy as to be unrecognisable as anything at all, let alone as something that appeared on the NES. It also doesn't help that no allowance has been made for the pixel dimensions of the C64, with a pixel twice as wide as it is high, resulting in everything looking squished and cartoonish.

(A quick aside in the name of being fair and balanced: 1990 also had a lot of rubbish C64 games, both in looks and general being-a-video-gameness; Castlevania being based an established favourite just makes the disparity more annoying and slightly less forgivable.)

Again, I want to stress that I'm no programmer on C64 or otherwise, and I never thought I'd be the kind of person who would look at video game graphics and say I could do better. I'd always make a face at the online reaction to initial screens of things like Diablo III or the Doom reboot. It would annoy me to see people lunging for Photoshop so they could noodle about with the contrast and colour saturation of something that was very much a prerelease image, then go SEE THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD LOOK YOU'VE GOT IT ALL WRONG AND YOU'RE RUINING MY FAVOURITE FRANCHISE AND QUITE FRANKLY MY ENTIRE MY LIFE AS WELL.

And yet here I am, about to do the same thing as those know-it-alls. I've sure made a short story long with all that preamble and quick history lesson guff, so here's the skinny: I've had a crack at redoing a level in Castlevania for C64. In my eyes, the standout offender in Castlevania's wobbly visuals is that first castle interior, after Simon battles his way to get inside from the start of the game (43 seconds into the above video, for those playing at home). That level is just so freakin' white. It doesn't contain the dank, moody atmosphere of the NES; instead it's lit like a sitcom with no nuance or spookiness to it. Moreover, due to the aforementioned difference in pixel widths between C64 and NES, everything's so chunky and wide, at odds with the elegantly sinister tone it's supposed to evoke.

So I set to work on the "what if" project of trying to make everything look more like the NES. Here are the results...

(Sorry for the weirdness of it going through the whole thing in reverse and me mucking about in menus. I could have edited the video, but then figured ehhh sod it, good enough.)

Because I'm not a programmer, I made this in the Shoot 'Em Up Construction Kit (or SEUCK). This is a neat little suite of creation tools I've been using since I was a kid, so my fluency in using it really helped in the project. It's normally used to help people (like me) who can't program to create scrolling shooter games, with a variety of applications to make sprites, animations, backgrounds, attack waves, sound effects, and even a spartan title screen (you can see I quickly whipped one up for this video, but ran out of character tiles for the logo's dynamic V, dang it). SEUCK was originally only for vertically scrolling games, but in 2008 a fan tinkered with the software to produce the horizontally scrolling version I've used here.

While I tried to make things as NES pixel-perfect as I could, I had to make some compromises due to the nature of both the software and the hardware. Obviously those wider C64 pixels meant I couldn't always get the finer details spot on. SEUCK also has some tight limitations in the amount of colours you can use for level art, and how and where it you use the hues you settle on. Without getting into too many specifics, the quirks of how SEUCK handles colour have meant I had to omit the blue of the sky seen in the main windows. I simply couldn't have green and blue in the same background tile, so I had to ditch one or the other, but I'm pretty sure I made the right choice. As a trade off (and this is really the only place I deliberately diverged from the NES design) I placed a couple of grey pixels into the window frames that weren't in the original, just to give them a tiny bit more depth and interest.

There are some some other differences here and there I couldn't avoid – a couple of those red floor stones are elongated to make platforms the correct length and the staircases generally have 1 more step compared to the NES – but overall I've come pretty close to rebuilding the stage as it appears on the NES. It's been interesting coming to some realisations about the compromises and design decisions people might have made back in the day when converting a game from one platform to another.

Now that this level art is done, I may to revisit the project later with a view to populating the environment with some sprites, like doors opening and closing as they scroll by, and bats and zombies whizzing about as they do in the game proper. At the moment there are only a few candles featured the start of the scroll, popped in to test the way they look.

To be totally honest, the existing C64 version does an okay job of retaining the look of the NES stages in later levels - it's certainly not a complete disaster across the board. For the most part, everything's at least recognisable from the NES version, and there are sections which are more or less bang on in comparison. But it's just that I know the C64 was capable of more, especially for the official conversion of a big NES title. I'm not saying my efforts here are the pinnacle of what could have been achieved for the C64 incarnation, and I'm definitely not saying what I've made would be easily handed to a coder to turn into a comfortably functioning game. I'm not even really saying it's the fault of the people who made the 1990 C64 iteration - I don't know the story behind the game's creation and release.

What I do know is this has been a project that's been burning away in me for a while now, so I'm glad I ended up with something that turned out to be fairly true to the look of the original game, considering the many unique peccadillos of SEUCK and the C64 in general. Really, I'm just glad this is out of my system. Well, until my brain remembers what Contra on the C64 looked like.

P.S. How is there not a Giant Bomb wiki page for either of the C64 CREATURES games? Man, I gotta fix that.

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Steal My Splash Screen!

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It's been a good while since I've done anything that's Photoshop intensive on the site, so I thought I might make a splash image for the wonderfully shambolic new GBE feature, Steal My Sunshine. This took a lil while to make, and faffing about with this many letterforms definitely reminded me of the time I made that StarCraft-related image.

So yeah, nothing else to report, save for the fact that Steal My Sunshine has reminded me why I think Sunshine is not really that great a Mario game, which I may have to write a separate blog for soon...

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Introducing K-Faber

Before we get started, here's a quick, very incomplete list of things I hadn't done in a long time:

  • Played a WipEout game
  • Designed anything inspired by the WipEout franchise
  • Posted a blog entry on Giant Bomb

So, let's mash all those elements together and get down to business!

Those of you who know me are fully aware that I love WipEout, and I love the Designers Republic. The worldbuilding and tone of the WipEout games is so compelling and verging on the tangible that it rarely fails to ignite a creative spark in me. Sometimes I'll get the urge to redesign existing team logos. Other times I'll create whole new teams based on the Giant Bomb crew. Hell, I even got do a shirt for the guys because they were lovely enough to indulge my obsession.

But it's been while since I've made anything like that, and I think it's because I've not been playing much WipEout in more recent years. Thankfully, the release of the Omega Collection on PS4 has pulled me out of my creative nosedive. Once the Omega Collection landed, I knew it was only going to be a (probably very short) matter of time before I'd feel the need to fire up Illustrator and get to work.

But I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do, exactly. Would I create yet another series of logos for the in-game teams? Or would I look elsewhere for inspiration? When the Quick Look for the Omega Collection popped up on Giant Bomb, the answer came pretty quickly: Dan and Alex both seemed like they very much appreciate the franchise, and they're two members of the GB staff I'd never made logos for. Bingo.

A couple of hours later after that epiphany, I had myself a Dan-inspired design:

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As I mentioned long, long ago when I made a team logo for Drew, I always create a little headcanon for myself to inform the direction. With Dan, the touchstones are pretty obvious: wrestling, and the US of A. So I wanted to make a team that was about exertion and sweat, something with a design that could almost come across as athletic apparel; it also had to use the colours of the American flag for added jingoistic flair. Oh, and obviously the team name is a wrestling pun, so bonus points there, I guess.

I guess I'd better get to making one for Alex now, huh?

>> alt_treatments
>> alt_treatments
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Giant Bomb NHL style

In the recent NHL 17 Quick Look, there's a bit at the start where Alex, Vinny and Jeff (Bakalar) are perusing potential logos for their bogus team. This quickly got me thinking about designing a hockey-style logo based on Giant Bomb's ever-chipper mascot (in the same colours as those in the Quick Look, obviously). And here's where I ended up.

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Not too much else to say, really. Well, except to maybe point out that I've obviously fallen off the face of the planet when it comes to making blogs on Giant Bomb. This is something I want/need to rectify as soon as possible. So watch this space I guess?

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Getting it in just in time: My 2014 GOTY Top 10

2014 was a fucking weird year in gaming. Hell, you probably don't need me to tell you that, right? It was a year where communities and AAA game engines alike were all doing their best (or worst) to tear themselves apart. But between fruitlessly trying to dissuade people from being monsters on the internet, watching the ever-awesome Jenn Frank leave (and thankfully return to) my Twitter timeline and pining for a decent excuse to buy The Master Chief Collection (which I still haven't bought) there were still some good reasons not to abandon The Pursuit of Gaming™.

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Before kicking off the list proper, it's time for some special awards.

The 2014 On The List, Off The List Award - The Castle Doctrine

The permadeath in this creepy little gem carries a couple of penalties, the biggest of which (for me at least) is the fact you have to start from scratch with laying out your devious, trap-filled floor design. Once you're dead, it's all gone in a single moment of hubris and heartbreak. As such, I still have a folder on my desktop that's full of screen caps of levels I made for this game, which I could go back to and use to painstakingly recreate and tweak the floor plan I had in place before I'd foolishly decided to try to rob someone else. This game was in my Top 10 for a while until I remembered another game that promptly shoved it out again.

The 2014 Fuck You It's a Roguelike Award - Heavy Bullets

Weirdo FPS Rogue thingy that's got a style all its own. A very enjoyable game that definitely warrants a mention, especially as another game I thought might make it into my Top 10.

The 2014 You Played So Much Of It So Why Isn't It In Your Top 10 Award - Destiny

I'm still playing Destiny. If it's not the best-looking game I've played this year then it's certainly close. Tonally, it's such a cohesive and impressive world. It's just a shame that world ends up being so small and uneventful for the most part. That said, I'M STILL PLAYING DESTINY.

2014's Console I Should Have Bought More Games For - Wii U

Mario Kart 8. Super Smash Bros. Bayo-fucking-netta 2, for chrissakes. (Captain Toad's not out here in Australia until next year.) Despite best intentions, I bought none of these apparently awesome games that were tailor-made for a console I'm not sure I even turned on during 2014. Not even the almighty enthusiasm of The Ryckert got me to indulge. I'm a bad human being with no joy in my heart.

2014's I Didn't Buy This In Time To Play Enough To Include It Game - Far Cry 4

Apparently it's great. You already know this. I'm about to find out for myself once I spend more than ten minutes with it.

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And now onto The Real Deal. (With Bill McNeal!)

10. Fract OSC

Not much to say on this one, other than it's a gorgeous, unique, dazzling musical adventure that made me feel like I was playing the true successor to the Myst games, which I love(d). Who doesn't enjoy being dropped into a strange world with nothing but the urge to explore and discover as your guide? Plus it looks like the kind of game a Tron-obsessed youth imagined would be the norm in the future.

9. Luftrausers

VROWWWWW ACK ACK ACK KABOOM PEOW UNTZ UNTZ UNTZ UNTZ
VROWWWWW ACK ACK ACK KABOOM PEOW UNTZ UNTZ UNTZ UNTZ

This shit is all action all the way, in an old school manner that very much appeals to me, a dude pushing 40 years old. SHUT YOUR MOUTH, IT'LL HAPPEN TO YOU ONE DAY. Ahem. Anyway, everything about this game, from the graphics to the gameplay, taps into the kind of classic twitch shootery fun that helped form my childhood. Well, I say everything is classic, but that's a lie: Luftrausers' soundtrack is pure modern-day banger crunch. And it's also the most canny soundtrack you'll ever hear, each part of its tune informed by what parts you choose for your aircraft. Change your tactics, change your parts, change the music. It's fucking brilliant, and is yet more excellent work from Kozilek, who produced the Nuclear Throne music (and was totally cool with me mashing up one of his songs with Ke$ha).

8. The Wolf Among Us

For the record, I played Bigby as a guy trying to keep his rage in check, but occasionally letting his true nature slip.
For the record, I played Bigby as a guy trying to keep his rage in check, but occasionally letting his true nature slip.

There are some corners of the internet that consider this game to be uneven or just flat overall. Not me. I enjoyed everything about it. In between shooting nazis in the face, tearing giant robots to pieces and cleaving Uruk heads from Uruk bodies, each episode of The Wolf Among Us was a laconic oasis of storytelling that I'd happily let wash over me. The change of pace would deliver me to such a lovely, meditative place that I may have simply not noticed any shortcomings in the way the game's story unfolded. Simply put, The Wolf Among Us had an atmosphere that so completely enveloped me that I was too involved to recognise most of its flaws. Just wish I didn't have to wait so goddamn long between drinks.

7. Hitman Go

I downloaded this game in the middle of a hangover and finished everything it had to offer (at the time) in a short weekend. Once I'd picked it up, I just couldn't put it down. Hell, I don't even have an affinity for the Hitman series, having only ever played ten minutes of the first game; I can only imagine the feeling fans of Agent 47 got, seeing their favourite bullet-headed assassin's antics had been realised so perfectly in another format. When the next set of levels came out I devoured and completed them so quickly that I still wanted more. And there are indeed more levels to come, that brown package teasing another batch of perfectly formed miniature action.

6. Wolfenstein: The New Order

An amazing update of the revered classic. Sounds good, looks great, plays like a dream. There's not much more to say about a game that does what it set out to do, no more and no less, in such a effective and rock solid way. Tight as fuck.

5. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Goddamn, that Nemesis system. That's some clever-ass stuff right there. The game it's imbedded in is a great romp, with its satisfying combat and robust world, but that crucial unique element elevates the experience as something really special.

4. Crossy Road

Sure it's cute, but it will suck the sleep straight out of your body.
Sure it's cute, but it will suck the sleep straight out of your body.

Our household got its first iPad at the end of last year. As a result, three out of the ten games I'm listing here are titles I've played curled up on the couch next to my wife, or lying in bed trying to fight off that pesky sleep. Crossy Road is one of those perfect "just one more go" games. My high score is 399. I have 48/53 road-hopping critters you can choose from, and all without paying a cent despite the (very non-intrusive) suggestion I do so. I love this game so much. It's such a brilliantly simple idea, to make an endless runner Frogger (although some of the busier road areas remind me more of Freeway for Atari 2600). And it's done with such gleeful panache that you can't help but be charmed. Plus Hipster Whale, the company that made it, is from Victoria, Australia! I feel so good saying that.

FUCKING. GORGEOUS. BATHE IN IT.
FUCKING. GORGEOUS. BATHE IN IT.

3. Monument Valley

I've finished this game and its DLC multiple times, and still love going back and noodling about with it. While the puzzles are never really taxing (the RED dream charity levels up the ante a bit) they're still quite clever and not common fare. I've heard people rag on the fact it's not that difficult, but could those same people have come up with Monument Valley's space-warping ideas in the first place? And for me the puzzles aren't really the point, although I very much enjoyed that aspect. I think the package as a whole, from sound design to art direction to the sumptuous storybook feel, is what makes me marvel at it all over again each time. It's such a complete experience, and an inspiring one at that. It's just gorgeous to look at, and no other game on this list has made me feel like hopping on a computer and creating something of my own after I've spent time with it.

2. Sunset Overdrive

There's a lot of talk about how the attitude in this game tries too hard. And I get it, it does try too hard in places. But then I thought Sunset Overdrive's bratty swagger was perfectly in keeping with the 90s gaming vibe its art direction evokes. Heck, it even made me chuckle aloud on more than one occasion. Say what you will about Sunset Overdrive, it swung for the fences on the presentation front. But the fact there's a game that's just pure fun beneath the presentation's lurid impasto sludge? Hell the fuck yeah. Traversing an open world that's bristling with life has never been more of a fluid, natural joy.

1. Titanfall

I even have that fucking pesky Pull Harder! achievement. But I guess that was one of those monkeys-and-typewriters situations.
I even have that fucking pesky Pull Harder! achievement. But I guess that was one of those monkeys-and-typewriters situations.

AKA You knew this was coming if you follow me on Twitter.

I'm not one of those fanboys who gets so attached to a franchise or company that I get genuinely upset when even the smallest slight is made against it. Well, I wasn't until Titanfall came along. Now, every time I see someone snort and glibly ask if people were still playing Titanfall (or worse, Titanfail OH YOU'RE SO FUCKING WITTY AREN'T YOU INTERNET) I feel compelled to lunge at the keyboard to defend my favourite game of the year. But I usually talk myself out of typing a response, mainly because I'd come across as one of those fanboys who gets so attached to a franchise or company and gets genuinely upset when even the smallest slight is made against it.

So why am I so protective of this game? Because it just clicked with me, right from the first minutes of the beta. It's so fast, it offers so many options for getting from A to B in a flash, the gunplay feels right, there are big fucking robots… seriously, I could dump entire paragraphs here, all filled with the breathless, smitten awe I still feel for Respawn's spry debut (and the disappointment I feel that it didn't catch on among my circle of friends in a bigger way). Last time I checked (and this was ages ago) I'd spent 530 hours with the game. THAT'S JUST FUCKING RIDICULOUS BUT FUCK IT I JUST LOVE TITANFALL SO MUCH

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