Consoul's Blog Consoul Games: June 2004

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Honour Among Thieves

A few posts ago, I noted Divineo's announcement of its forthcoming HDLoader software for PS2. I began the post by saying "The PS2 scene is about to change." I can now say it has changed, and much more profoundly than I could have imagined.

The product has only been shipping for about two weeks now, but it has caused absolute chaos in the unofficial PS2 development scene. Until now, the PS2 Dev scene was pretty straightforward - groups of coders all working together to get the most out of the PS2 hardware, by any means legal or otherwise. Exploits found and programs developed were offered freely to interested parties for further development and for the benefit of the scene as a whole. The classic hacker credo "Information wants to be free" springs to mind.

Then along came HDLoader. It was clear from the outset that it ranked among the most important unofficial developments for PS2. And it was not free. The scene exploded. The devscene forums were on fire. Who was behind this software? Divineo were distributing it, but someone had coded it for them. It had to be a known coder. Divineo had certainly had well-known coders on the payroll before (in the development of their modchip solutions), but that was different - chips are hardware, so they can't be freely distributed. HDLoader is software only. As one scene member put it, someone had "turned to the dark side" (gone commercial). Within days of the software being shipped, the code was analysed to find out who wrote it. By all accounts there were pieces of code from several corners of the scene in there (as would be expected of a free scene release), but all fingers eventually pointed toward legendary PS2 coder Sjeep (who has conspicuously disappeared off the face of the earth since HDLoader's release).
No doubt Sjeep knew he had written the PS2's new killer app, and he knew he could pay some bills with it. Good on him. Chances are he'll never show his face in the scene again.

The devscene was buzzing with excitement about the implications of the software. Predictably, as soon as scene members got their hands on it, a pirate copy of the disc started floating around the usual channels. Sjeep and Divineo weren't stupid - the pirate version would allow the installation of games onto a PS2 harddrive, but would not actually boot them. Only an original copy would make the games playable. The pirate copy was little more than a teaser.

Divineo and the other distributors of the HDLoader software could not have been happier. For years these companies have been sponsoring the sites where the sceners hung out, and suddenly they were getting more clicks on their banner ads than ever before, selling HDLoaders by the bucketload.

Then the inevitable happened - though no doubt much sooner than expected. A cracked version appeared online. Someone had cracked the protection on the HDLoader software and had made a fully operational pirate copy. Not only that, they had reduced the size of the software by more than seventy-five times. HDLoader had become free and its filesize was tiny (under 10MB), making it easily distributable on the web. It was now so small, that scene members were attaching it to their posts in forums for everyone to download. To make matters worse, the cracked version of the software had been clearly marked as having been cracked by someone from, one of the scene's most well-known sites. The revised title screen said it all: "Free HDLoader - no copy rights for those who don't respect copyrights". PS2ownz have since strongly denied any involvement with the cracked release. That was the day before yesterday.

All hell broke loose. Massive conflicts of interest arose. The people who run the websites where all this was happening are financially supported by Divineo and friends. The symbiotic relationship between the scene and the commercial distributors of 'unofficial console solutions' was broken. I watched yesterday as several prominant figures in the devscene were banned from the forums they lived in. Their posts were edited by the moderators. By this morning, all trace of them, their posts and even the whole topic threads were gone. Any record of the pirate release was being wiped out like it had never happened. Warnings were posted across the frontpages of the sites and 'stickied' in the forums to let everyone know that any posts breaching copyright would result in immediate banning of members and their IP addresses. This afternoon I watched the boards go offline completely. The hurriedly typed message "Slight Hicup we will be back!" is all that's left of them now.

Things certainly have changed. For my part, I'll be placing an order for the PAL version shortly. Sjeep deserves the money for delivering what Sony never would. Divineo have done all they can to stop the free distribution of the software. It probably won't be too long before Sony do the same for the commercial distribution.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Mind the Generation Gap

David Gosen, managing director of Nintendo Europe, has come under fire after he spoke at the ELSPA Games Summit in London two days ago. His speech put many noses out of joint, with its attacks on Microsoft, European retailers and the gaming press. I tend to agree with most of what he had to say.

He accused the gaming media of being overly pre-occupied with next generation hardware and software, to the exclusion the current generation.
"For every game magazine editor bored with current products, there are hundreds of thousands of gamers around the world just discovering them."
He slammed European retailers for bundling huge numbers of free games with consoles.
"If we give consumers ten games in a bundle, of which eight are sure to disappoint, what have we actually achieved?" he asked. "A disaffected consumer."

The key critical thrust of his speech was aimed at the "self-fulfilling prophecy" of generational hardware change in the industry, where "five to six years is right, and come what may, we're going to stick to it". He argued that this is a trend that the industry must break out of in future.

He claimed that for Microsoft, games profitability "is not their key motivation" in aiming to launch the successor to XBox during 2005, after only a four year lifespan for their first console.
"In every cycle, some manufacturer not profiting from the current cycle is eager to kick-start the next one."

Microsoft's Entertainment division lost around a billion dollars last financial year. That was precisely their business model: establish a brand, create a user-base and take a huge loss. Microsoft can easily afford to pull stunts like this. Nintendo can't. Microsoft's brute force approach has certainly proven successful in crushing competitors. It's easy to dismiss Gosen's comments as a case of sour grapes, with Nintendo having lost a huge market share in this generation, but I believe his concerns about accelerated generational change are well founded.

Microsoft are hoping to gain an advantage in the next generation by being first to the market. Many people attribute the PS2's success in this generation to its headstart on the Cube and XBox. This is a simplistic and flawed view - Sega's Dreamcast was actually the first console to the market in this cycle and look where it ended up (despite being a great console). 3DO, Atari Jaguar and Sega Saturn also spring to mind as early starters that died young. Pushing the jump to the next generation may or may not pay off for Microsoft, but its a move that will hurt the industry as a whole.

It puts pressure on Sony and Nintendo to get their next consoles to market earlier than originally planned (shortening development time), and forces games developers back to square one, abandoning their steady progression toward getting the most out of current generation hardware.

In the PC world, the continual hardware upgrade path, where developers never get to tap the potential of the current generation hardware, has proved to be a successful business model for the Wintel group (Microsoft and Intel), but its a no-win situation for the consumer. If the console world falls victim to the same rapid obsolesence, gamers will lose out. As a gamer, I certainly don't appreciate the mountains of first-generation drivel that games developers pump out at the start of a new cycle. It's necessary I know, but I much prefer times like now, when developers are getting very comfortable with the hardware and are starting to get the best out of it.

Look at the original Playstation. It survived through several PC hardware lifetimes, and prospered through software development. If you compare a first-generation PSX title (like Tekken 1 or Ridge Racer) to a late title (like Tekken 3 or R4) it's difficult to believe they're running on the same hardware. The benefits of fully matured software development are immense.

Ridge Racer and Ridge Racer Type 4 (R4), both on PSX

I can only hope that Microsoft's gambit fails. Continued losses in the next generation will not be sustainable, even for them. If Sony and Nintendo have the fortitude to stick to their timelines and do not bring their forthcoming consoles to the table half-baked, the gaming industry will be much better served.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Tournament Torment

Wednesday. A day that brings with it mighty expectations and inevitable disappointment. A day that promises so much and delivers only missed opportunities.
For Wednesday is the day of the local pub's Playstation 2 Tournament!
I remember my excitement months ago, when the bold colourful signs appeared on Enmore road, heralding the impending competition. It seemed so simple:

Local Pub + PS2 Competition + Human Competitors + Cheap Beers + Decent Prizes = Ideal way to spend Wednesday nights.

I should have known that this apparently simple formula would be complicated by the kind of sophisticated, razor-sharp management skills (read: gross ineptitude) evident in most bar trivia comps.
All seemed well to begin with - upon paying my $2 and entering, I had to read and sign a full-page agreement of terms and conditions that seemed to have been very well thought out. First prize: Limited edition silver PS2 with two controllers. Second prize: $100 cash. Third prize: Slab of beer of your choice. Nice. I was also presented with a laminated colour entrants' card entitling me to cheap beer during the competition. Weeks passed, word spread, more entrants signed on.

At last, the day arrived - the official first night of the tournament.
The pub was more crowded than I had ever seen it. The PS2 was plugged into a large rear-projection TV and non-competitive warm-up games were afoot. The kick-off time of 7pm came and we waited anxiously for the tournament to begin. And we waited and waited. Eventually I asked one of the 'organisers' what the hold-up was. Apparently there weren't enough competitors yet. One detail they had not made public was that they weren't going to start the tournament until they had 64 competitors. At that stage, only about 35 people had paid and signed on. So rather than start it and encourage people to join as the event went on over the next ten weeks, they decided not to start it that week. Bad move.

Despite numerous new ring-ins turning up the following week, the decision was again taken to hold out for 64 entrants. For a pub with an average population of about 4 people, this was simply not a reasonable expectation. The next week, numbers were down. Way down. There was a maximum turn-out of about 15 people. Things got progressively worse and my disappointment grew - the punters had justifiably lost faith in the event.

Weeks later a call went out, or to be more precise, an SMS went out. All entrants were invited to turn up that Wednesday - the show would go on, with or without the 64 entrants.
The organisers had seen the small blue light at last.
My hopes were raised once more.

And dashed. The turn-out following the SMS was moderate. About 15 people showed up, a vast improvement on the 3 people of the week before. The organisers had decided to work on a revised tournament structure of 32 entrants, starting with as many as they could get and allowing competitors who were knocked out to buy back in - thereby filling empty slots on the tournament table and kicking in a few extra dollars. Unfortunately, this golden opportunity to salvage the competition was also ruined by incompetence. Rather than taking the 15 players present and slotting them into the first 15 slots on the tournament table, they decided on a whim to allow each player to choose a number between 1 and 32 that would determine which slot number on the tournament table they'd occupy. Brilliant. This meant that half the players in attendance (myself included) were unable to compete because they were adjacent to an empty slot on the table. My friend Dave K got to compete, but had the misfortune of coming up against the number one seeded player in the event. One look at this guy and you know that playstation is his day job.
To Dave's credit, he only lost by the narrowest of margins in a 5 lap Moto GP race round Philip Island.

Since then, things have gotten steadily worse. Last week I popped my head in there and other than three old cobbers watching the greyhounds the pub was empty. The playstation was plugged in, but there wasn't a player in sight. I figured I'd grab a beer anyway.
"Schooner of Old thanks" I said to the bargirl.
Moments later I was presented with a tall glass of amber ale. Hmm.
"Err...I ordered I schooner of Old"
The bargirl looked at me with utter contempt - "That is a schooner of Old."
"No, Toohey's Old is a black beer" I replied, motioning toward the words "Black Ale" clearly written on the beer tap.
She silently took back the unknown beer and poured it straight down the grate beneath the taps, briefly firing me a scornful look as if to accuse me of depriving alcoholics in the third-world of the beer they so vitally need. She then poured me an Old.
Insult to injury. Salt in the wound.
This pub has pushed me too far.

...and yet, I still feel the mirage-like allure of the tournament, compelling me to visit on Wednesday nights. Perhaps there will be a competitor? Perhaps they will simply decide to give the prizes to whoever shows up the longest? Perhaps the obscure government department that enforces competition terms and conditions will conduct a raid on the establishment, sending a crack team of operatives crashing through the ceiling as they abseil out of helicopters and arrest the organisers before sending them to Abu Ghraib prison? Certainly would be a pity to miss that.

The large sandwich-board sign on Enmore road remains: "Playstation 2 Tournament - still time to enter!"

Friday, June 04, 2004

Pac-Man gets the hook-up.

Have still been playing mostly Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles on Cube this week. FF:CC really copped a hiding in the gaming press for it's multiplayer aspect, which requires each player to have a GameBoy Advance and the GBA-GC link cable. Not the most acheivable set-up, but one that works very well if you can manage it. Of course, you could just hook-up five Gamecubes, four GameBoyPlayers, four Wavebirds and five TV sets like these guys did.
I've found playing FF:CC single-player has been great and the game has turned out to be much bigger than I anticipated. The reviews have been unjustly harsh on the basis of the GBA-connectivity required for multi-player.

So, as an alternative, I'd like to post my impressions of another game that sports GBA-connectivity that is far more accessible. It may be nearly 30 years old but the multiplayer twist makes up for it.

Pac-Man Vs. by Namco and Nintendo
Nintendo Gamecube (with GBA)

Pac-man Vs on Gamecube is simple, but solid and fun. You only need one GBA, and the game is best played with 4 players, though three is fine (two is not so good). The player with the GBA is Pac-man and the others (with standard GC controllers) are ghosts.

The ghosts can only see a small portion of the maze around them on the TV, while Pac can see the whole maze in traditional Pac-Man style on the GBA. One significant element that hasn't been mentioned in the reviews I've read is that Pac leaves a short trail of diminishing light behind him. This can allow the ghosts to see where Pac has been (and how recently) even if they don't see Pac himself. This feature has been well thought out and helps strike the perfect balance between the challenge of chasing Pac as a ghost and that of running from the ghosts as Pac. There's also a good sense of co-operation between the ghost players as they team up to get Pac.

The object of the game is to reach a certain number of points (which you choose through the setup options). If Pac gets eaten, the player who ate him gets to be Pac. Clearing the maze gives Pac bonus points, as does eating ghosts.

What you need to know about Vs is that it is very simple. It is still pure Pac-man, and despite the addition of a handful of new mazes, there's no substance to the game whatsoever. A few minor tweaks to the formula add extra strategic elements, but its pretty much as you remember. Example of new strategy element: If you are playing with less than 4 players, the CPU ghosts will start as grey ghosts that are harmless to Pac. Once touched by a player ghost, they'll take on that ghosts' colour and be able to eat Pac, effectively giving the player ghost a teammate. So if the CPU ghost then eats Pac, the human teammate becomes Pac. The only addition that seems out of place is the announcer's voice - it's unmistakably (and inexplicably) the high-pitched italian stereotype voice of Nintendo's mascot, Mario. There's no option to turn it off either. There isn't even an option to save anything to memory card - there's nothing to unlock and no high score table. You play, you have fun, that is all.

It couldn't seriously have been released as a retail title in today's market, as its simplicity harks back to another age. Namco and Nintendo wisely decided to bundle it free with other Namco offerings on Cube. Unfortunately, in Australia you can only get it with R:Racing, Namco's unofficial successor to the Ridge Racer series. Despite the reviews, R:Racing is a good game - it's just a pity we can't get Pac-man Vs. with a budget copy of Pac-Man World 2 like most of the rest of the world can.

To end this shambolic raving on what is really a very basic game, let me say this:
Pac-Man Vs. is great fun for a quick blast with friends, particularly if you all share nostalgic feelings toward the yellow dot. It's the first title that really made the GBA connectivity concept make perfect sense.


The original creator of Pac-man,
Namco's Toru Iwatani and
Nintendo guru Shigeru Miyamoto.

As an aside, have you ever wondered what would happen if you dressed up a guy as Pac-man and then got other guys to dress up as ghosts and then set them loose to play Pac-man on the grid-like streets of New York? Of course you haven't. It's a ridiculous idea. These guys are doing it anyway:

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Divineo's HD Loader

Oh boy. The PS2 scene is about to change. Divineo (makers of Messiah mod-chips) have just announced a new product - HDLoader. With this little piece of software and an unmodded PS2 with broadband adapter and harddrive, you can copy entire games from the original DVD or CD-ROM to your PS2 HD. Not only can you then run these games without the original disc being required, the games actually run better - loading times are slashed dramatically.
The implications of this are huge. You can use a third-party hard drive of up to 120GBs, so getting around 100 complete PS2 games on there would not be out of the question. To be more blatent, getting all of the games at your local video store on there would not be out of the question either, if you get my drift.

Only an NTSC/US version has been announced so far, but other regions will likely follow. At $20-$30 US dollars, this is going to be well recieved by everyone but Sony.

Visit the Official Site:

Super Gitaroo Brother

OMG. Fire up Windows Media Player and turn on your speakers, because you are about to witness an amazing video featuring a long-haired japanese dude playing the Super Mario Bros theme on electric guitar.
Actually, that's not quite accurate - he's playing the sound of the whole first level. For those of you who are familiar with it, you'll recognise the sound of the descent into the first underground area, the coins being picked up and even the end of level fanfare! This man is a freak. I salute him.

Right-click to save: Mario Guitar

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Katamari Damashii

Now playing: Katamari Damashii by Namco
Currently only available in Japan for PS2.

Objective: Roll up everything you can into one great big ball. Sounds lame, but it's utterly addictive and immensely satisfying.
On one of the final levels I started with a ball radius of 50cm and ended up with a radius of more than 826 metres! To begin a level rolling over and collecting fruit and homewares and steadily grow to the point where you're tearing out skyscrapers and picking up cruise-liners is just awesome. At the end of the level, I had wiped the whole planet clean. Everything in every city and in the ocean and all the landmasses and every cloud in the sky rolled up into my one clump from hell. Now that's quality original gameplay.

This game concept was conceived by a student at Namco's Game School. Realizing its potential, Namco hired the student and assigned eleven other staff to develop it into a commercial release. The satisfaction of building an ever growing clump of stuff is so much greater than you would imagine. It's pure gaming genius. Couple that with great visual style, a superbly wacky soundtrack and one of the most tripped-out zany japanese intro sequences I've ever seen and you have an instant classic.
Don't hold your breath for a western-world release.


Sony Shenanigans!

The post E3 buzz is starting to die down and it appears that Sony's massive bluff has worked. Nintendo's new handheld (the DS) was at the show in playable form with loads of titles and many innovative features (touch screen, voice recognition, wi-fi, etc.) and was still massively overshadowed in the mainstream media by Sony's PSP - the console that doesn't exist.

Sony had a number of PSP's on show at E3...didn't they? Contrary to popular belief, they didn't. The one handheld prototype shown was not functional - it was an empty shell. The other prototypes were all conveniently bolted to display units and walls in order to disguise the fact that they too were shells cabled to workstation hardware that fed the screens. The vast majority of these showed only movie footage or played music. A couple were just barely interactive.

The PSP just isn't real - at least not yet. Sony have not pulled it off. They have aimed high and can't quite deliver. All the footage shown of upcoming PSP titles was running off devkits approximating the expected capabilities of the PSP. The DS titles on the other hand (NPI) were all running on real handheld units. Even the mighty Sony can't pack hardware of PS2 level capabilities, a new optical disk drive, an LCD widescreen, analogue controls and an adequate lithium ion battery into a unit the size of what they have shown. It's smoke and mirrors I tell you.

Sony were hoping to steal the spotlight with the emperor's new clothes and for the most part they got away with it. The Sydney Morning Herald was certainly fooled and impressed. Sony have no doubt planted the seeds of doubt in many gamers' minds as to whether they should buy the impressive but non-existant PSP instead of buying the real and much more innovative NDS.

Don't get me wrong - the PSP will eventuate (though it might be a little bigger than what we've seen so far) and will be the most powerful handheld yet (though hardly innovative). I'll most likely buy one. It just annoys me that Sony have pulled such an obvious hoax on the public and no-one called shenanigans.

The PSP as Sony would currently have you believe it.

The Nintendo DS (aka Game and Watch 2004).

This week I have been playing mostly Katamari Damashii on PS2 and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles on Cube with a brief burst of Metroid Zero on GBA.
Finished MGS: The Twin Snakes - still one of the best game storylines ever written.