VGM Entry 04: The dark ages

VGM Entry 04: The dark ages
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner

One of the final systems to be categorized as “second generation” was Coleco’s ColecoVision, released in 1982. It also happens to be the only second generation system for which I have found an example of good music.

I don’t believe that any music actually appears in the original arcade version of SubRoc-3D (Sega, 1982), but the following year’s ColecoVision port features a wild avant-garde pause screen tune that I really think captures the best second gen technology had to offer. Certainly the ColecoVision had better audio than the Atari 2600 to begin with, but it’s a little easier to imagine a piece like this on other platforms. Who needs a coherent melody anyway? On more advanced systems like the Nintendo, game audio is plagued by attempts to capture musical styles beyond the system’s means. Nobuo Uematsu for instance may be found guilty on such charges, and the scores for the first three Final Fantasy titles really aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. What you get with SubRoc-3D is a pretty early example of a sound programmer adapting musical style to the needs of the machine.

But the third generation and its partners in crime did not rise up from the dust and ashes in 1985. The mediums through which the first really great video game music would take shape often originated years before developers, and specifically sound programmers, took notice of them. Just as the Atari 2600, a pop culture icon of the early 80s, was actually released in 1977, gaming as it came to be redefined around 1985 often took place on early 1980s systems. The gap between system release and major game development would not really disappear until the fourth generation. If you look for music in the earliest years of the Commodore 64 for instance, the best you’re going to find–or at least the best I could find–are tunes like that of 3D Skramble (Anirog, 1983). Given what Commodore 64 music would soon become without any improvements in technology, it’s reasonable to wonder whether a few solid early 80s works have been forgotten over time.

A lot of the early to mid-80s systems which would resuscitate the video game industry are a bit obscure. Different systems thrived in different markets, and the North American gamer is not likely to have ever heard of say, the PC-8801 or the MSX, despite their significance in Japan. Let’s take a moment to look at some of the names that will be reoccurring throughout this series of articles. I’m not going to pretend I know much about them, but at least some name recognition will help clarify future events.

The one overwhelming exception to the rule of ho-hum early 80s home gaming music is Ultima III: Exodus, composed by Kenneth W. Arnold and released across a large variety of systems (and thus a large variety of audio formats). I will be returning to it later, but I thought it might provide a nice background piece for the moment.

1977 – Apple II
The Apple II was a home computer designed by Steve Wozniak and released in 1977. (Steve Jobs was little more than a shady businessman exploiting his success as far as I’m concerned, though I don’t know whether Wozniak would agree). As with any system of that era, its sound capacity was very limited, but upgrades were developed over the following years. Sweet Microsystems released their first Apple II soundcard, Sound I, in 1981, and at some point in time between then and 1983 this was upgraded into the Mockingboard A, which used the General Instrument AY-3-8910 Programmable Sound Generator (PSG). Game audio as it actually sounded through the Mockingboard is a little hard to come by these days, but the most important music to utilize the Mockingboard, that of the Ultima series, has been faithfully reconstructed.

1981 – PC-8801
NEC Corporation’s PC-8801 was a computer only released in Japan, and judging by the shear quantity of material created for it I have to imagine it became Japan’s most dominant gaming system. As a musical entity the PC-8801 came to life in 1985, when new models began to incorporate the Yamaha YM2203 FM synthesis chip.

1982 – ZX Spectrum
Britian’s Sinclair Research Ltd. released the ZX Spectrum home computer in April 1982. Musically, the ZX Spectrum would always take second stage to the Commodore 64, but it was sufficiently capable for some significant names in sound programming to work their magic on it. Later ZX Spectrum models would employ the General Instrument AY-3-8910 PSG.

1982 – Commodore 64
Commodore International was founded in Toronto and headquartered in Pennsylvania, but their Commodore 64 found the bulk of its success in Europe. Released in August 1982, it would become the quintessential medium for chiptunes. Its SID chip (Sound Interface Device) continues to define the genre today, and the most famous European sound programmers of the 1980s all had a go at it. Through the SID such figures as Rob Hubbard, Tim Follin, Martin Galway, Chris Hülsbeck, Jeroen Tel, and Neil Baldwin would revolutionize game music.

1982 – FM-7
The FM-7, or Fujitsu Micro 7, was a Japanese home computer equipped with the AY-3-8910 for which little original game material has been brought to my attention. Occasional game port projects for the FM-7 may make for some interesting comparisons.

1983 – MSX
The AY-3-8910 was a prolifically distributed chip, and it found its way into the MSX as well. The MSX was an industry standardization project headed by Kazuhiko Nishi, vice-president of Microsoft’s Japanese branch and director of ASCII. The MSX model found a lot of success outside of the United States, and many early computer games were designed for it. This was followed by the MSX2 in 1985, which switched the audio chip to a Yamaha YM2149 PSG. I am not sure that this should be considered an upgrade though. As I understand it the YM2149 was a replica of the AY-3-8910, produced by Yamaha under license from General Instrument. At any rate, games like Vampire Killer (Konami, 1986) and Final Fantasy (Square, 1987, ported in 1989) would feature it.

1983 – Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
The NES requires little introduction, but it is certainly worth reiterating the fact that it was released in 1983. Super Mario Bros. was not actually a launch title (though it would be in the United States), and it would take two years, and arguably the brilliance of Koji Kondo, to really get the Nintendo game music revolution under way. NES hardware included its own audio design.

1984 – Amstrad CPC
Amstrad was yet another British company to employ the AY-3-8910. Amstrad would go on to purchase the rights to the ZX Spectrum in 1986 and develop new models of that system, so the CPC and later versions of the Spectrum would have a lot of technological overlap.

1985 – Sega Master System (SMS)
Sega showed up late on the scene with their Master System, in part because it was a recovery from the relative failure of the SG-1000, released in 1983. The Master System faired only slightly better. It used the Texas Instruments SN76489A–the same PSG chip appearing in the ColecoVision sampled above.

1985 – Amiga
The Amiga was Commodore’s next generation of home computers, with the original Amiga 1000 designed to be a major upgrade over the Commodore 64 (which dated back to 1982). But much like the Atari 2600, the Commodore 64 came into its prime a few years after its release, and consumers weren’t quite ready to upgrade in 1985. It would be the Amiga 500 version, released in 1987, that became the C64’s rightful heir. Like the C64, the Amiga had its own unique sound chip, called Paula.

Halo: Reach Finale

As Lisa marie correctly guessed I have been quite busy with some other  things to continue my level of blog posting these past couple weeks. This has been due to my heavy immersion in something called Halo: Reach. This game is the prequel to the mega-successful and extremely popular Xbox first-person shooter franchise which first came out in 2001. I’ve been with the franchise right from Day One and this latest game pulls me back into the franchise like all its predecessors before it.

Microsoft and Bungie (developers of the franchise) have always been in the forefront when it comes to promoting their latest Halo offering with some of the best tv spots and commercials. This particular one I’ve highlighted and chosen to post just for the fact that it thanks the 100,000-plus or so players who have finished the campaign part of the game and thus seen the aftermath of the game’s protagonist, Noble Six and the rest of his comrades in Noble Team.

The video may not show it but I am one of those hundred of thousands points light. 🙂

Fable III: Trailer E3 2010

Another game from one of Microsoft’s internal game studios, Lionhead, is the upcoming third game in Lionhead honcho Peter Molyneaux’s Fable rpg series. This rpg series has been one of the big guns in Microsoft’s exclusive 1st-party titles since the Xbox and now the Xbox 360. It is also the one game franchise which has polarized the gaming community into hardcore supporters and vehement detractors. This major extreme split is due to the fact that Molyneaux has had the tendency to overhype the greatness of each game in the franchise as game-changers for the industry. While each game has been great and fun they all fail to live up to the most extreme boasts by Molyneaux which the franchise’s detractors like to point out with relish.

I’ve been a supporter of the franchise right from the beginning and while I am disappointed that the games never really live up to the rose-colored heights Molyneaux hypes them to be, in the end the games when given a chance to stand on their own merits are some of the best action-rpgs and actually bring new things to the table. IF one was to ignore the hyperbolic rantings of the studio’s head honcho then the games really stand great on their own merits.

This third game (hopefully won’t be the final one in the series) continues the storyline from the two previous games but advances the setting several hundred years into the future. The first game was based in a medieval-type fantasy world while the second game jumped ahead to a Renaissance-type fantasy setting. This third game, if one was to base their observations from the trailer, looks to have the series jump forward to an Imperial Age-type of fantasy setting. Just think of it as 17th to 19th century alternate universe.

The game looks to continue with the series excellent use of morality-based decision making affecting the world around the player, but this time around not just whether a player decides to be hero or villain, but benevolent ruler or despotic tyrant. I like this progression in the series as it should bring new kinds of moral decisions which could affect hundreds of thousands and actually end or cause wars.

While the trailer doesn’t really show pure gameplay scenes it does look to be using the game engine to craft the trailer (something Lionhead has done in the past so no pre-rendered scenes). This is one title for 2010 that I am very excited to purchasing and playing.

Halo: Reach Trailer E3 2010

E3 2010 is just a day away from starting but that doesn’t stop all the announcements from being made by all the gaming companies. These pre-E3 press conferences are usually the highlight of the Expo for those who cannot attend. Pretty much all the biggest news in gaming are done during these press conferences while the official E3 days are left for people able to attend to try out the games announced. One of these games happens to be Bungie Studios very final Halo game for Microsoft before 343 Studios takes over. The game is Halo: Reach and it looks to be Bungie Studios best offering to date.

The game just recently completed a massive multiplayer beta where millions participated and checked out the beta build of the game’s multiplayer. From how people have reacted to the multiplayer it looks to be mostly positive with Bungie building on the past mulitplayer success of previous Halo titles. This time around Bungie has finally shown what the single-player and co-op campaign looks like. The trailer above shows the game to be squad-based with different types of Spartans outfitted with varying weapon and armor types depending on their roles.

While this squad-based gameplay is not new to the shooter genre what looks to be very new is the fact that space combat looks to be part of the gameplay. SPACE COMBAT!

The space combat scenes showed in the trailer is part of the campaign, but Bungie and Microsoft hasn’t officially said that it won’t be part of the multiplayer. Multiplayer space combat would definitely make this game a fitting send-off for one of the bright stars in the Xbox franchise’s alpha franchise.

Halo Reach: Live-Action Trailer “Birth of a Spartan”

Gamers of the past 5 years pretty much have seen gaming publishers go all-out to advertise their AAA titles to the public whether one was a gamer or not. The first to do so was Microsoft and Bungie Studios to help market the third game in their very popular and blockbuster-selling first-person shooter franchise, Halo. It was in marketing Halo 3 where we see live-action short films that helps build the hype and buzz for the game. Halo 3 was going to sell millions whether these short films turned commercials were made or not, but the fact that they were and the gaming community love them shows that the gaming industry was starting to think of itself as akin to the film industry. These were literally live-action trailers for games.

Three of the Halo 3 live-action trailers were directed by a young South African bloke who calls himself Neill Blomkamp. Halo 3: ODST came out with a couple of live-action trailers with one lasting a whopping 2.5 minutes long. This particular trailer had a Saving Private Ryan vibe to it and was actually critically-acclaimed in the advertising and marketing industry. Now, we have the final Halo title from Bungie Studios and the first live-action trailer has popped up. This is not even the trailer for the full-game out later this fall, but a trailer for the multiplayer beta which will begin in May 2010. This live-action trailer is titled “Birth of a Spartan” and shows a glimpse at how the Spartans (super-soldiers in the Halo universe are created).

The trailer looks great. It has a very futuristic clean look to it and even brings to mind military sci-fi influences. With the game still months from seeing it’s initial release I hope they continue to make these live-action trailers. These really are some of the best game trailers out there. Below are some of the previous live-action trailers that had been made for the other titles in the franchise.

Project Natal: Evolution and Revolution

This past summer of 2009, during a company press conference the day before the start of E3 2009, an announcement which might have brought a paradigm shift in how consumers interact with their consumer electronics. The announcement I speak of is their 3D, full-body motion-cap sensor control scheme dubbed Project Natal. Tweets, texts and status updates across the ether that’s the web was a consensus jaw-dropping with a mixture of excitement and skepticism. The initial reaction was that this was Microsoft’s answer to the new 800 lb. gorilla in the gaming industry: Nintendo’s Wii.

It’s a logical reaction and one that was duplicated in a smaller part from Sony’s introduction of it’s own motion-based controller system. But Project Natal seems to be the one that has the world of not just gaming buzzing with excitement and possibilities, but the whole tech industry. Microsoft’s gamble and evolution of existing technology has the making of revolutionizing not just gaming but how people interact and use their PC and everyday home gadgets and technology.

First and foremost, Project Natal will be focusing on expanding the base of Xbox 360 owners and players to include not just the kids (both young and old) who play games ranging from kid-friendly to mature-oriented, but the rest of the family who want to be able to join in without having the master and pick up a controller. Yes, Project Natal will allow gaming to move forward with the option of actually not having to use a physical controller in one’s hands to play a game. Does it mean it will replace the handheld controller core gamers have gotten used to and by years of use become an almost intuitive part of their bodies? I don’t think it will, but instead become an option.

I will be the first to say that I will never ever get rid of my console gaming controllers. There’s an ease and familiarity of it in my hands when playing games. But the prospect of having the option of trying out all my games using my body as the controller itself is both exciting and intriguing. Project Natal is science quickly catching up to science fiction.

I say Project Natal both excites and intrigues me as a gamer for several reasons. It’s exciting to see how far gaming has evolved from the early days of the Atari VC (2600 for those who don’t recognize). While I have never been truly sold on the complete immersion Nintendo has touted the Wii and it’s Wiimote was to be for gamers, I will admit that it’s success has spurred it’s rivals to innovate and come up with the next step. If Natal is not bringing excitement back to an industry that is stagnating (even with the Wii’s innovation it has slowed down in terms of innovation) then why complain about the industry’s lack of innovation and imagination. Natal, whether one truly believes in it or believes it to be vaporware, has opened up a new door in how gaming will move forward in the forseeable future.

Another reason why Natal has me excited as a gamer is how it could breathe new life to old gaming experiences. I have never been a very adept fighting game players as combo systems and how to make them work on a controller pad has always eluded me. But with Natal I can see a future where even the most novice fighting game player could chain combos and attacks by simulating the moves themselves in a basic fashion. Playing Madden using the QB POV would actually become interesting and give a player a very close approximation as to what a real QB may see when standing in the pocket. The possibilities are endless.

Project Natal intrigue me as a gamer for the games dedicated to it that developers could come up with. Why have controller peripherals playing Rock Band when Natal could possibly make air guitar and air drumming a true reality. Console RTS would finally have a control scheme that could match the precision of keyboard and mouse system of their PC cousins. There will be hits and misses, but the fact that such a dynamic option on how games could be played should intrigue gamers looking to have a future in developing in the industry they love.

This coming evolution in gaming may be too ahead of its time. Some will say that Microsoft just took the existing technology already available with the Wiimote and EyeToy and just packaged both together into one package. That may be true but it doesn’t mean it won’t work. The industry has always been taking the latest innovation by one company and evolving and tweaking new ideas from it. While Nintendo and Sony may have arrived first in their respective tech they never thought of actually combining the two and adding new features to remove the controller outright.

Revolution that Natal brings will not be limited to gaming, but should also impact everything which relies on the synergy of software and hardware people’s everyday lives. Project Natal should be made to work with PCs, HDTVs, home electronic systems and everything in between.

It seemed such a coincidence that the one film depicting a near-future using a Natal-like technology would have its creator tout the new Microsoft technology. Project Natal does seem to be making the tech of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report move from the realm of science fiction and into the realm of science reality. Natal has the possibility of allowing people to forgo the use of keyboards and mouse when using their computers. Pretty much the whole armor development sequence in Iron Man where Stark manipulates, designs and finally complete a new suit design without ever typing anything on a keyboard I could see Natal turning it into a real-world application for mechanical and electrical engineers. Not to mention research scientists in other fields.

While it is still too early to consider Project Natal as a success. It is still in a beta form with no announced released date other than sometime around 2010. It should be seen with eyes looking at the exciting and intriguing possibilities it opens up for gamers and the world of technology instead looking at it with cynical eyes already deciding to view it with skepticism. It doesn’t matter whether one likes Microsoft as a company or not. What they announced and showed on June 1, 2009 in the Galen Center in Los Angeles may just usher an evolution and revolution in gaming and tech that everyone will benefit from.

As we have seen with the pre-release and post-release reaction regarding James Cameron’s Avatar sometimes the product does live up to the promise and hype. When they do the general public will embrace it even if it does have some initial flaws and weaknesses. I think like Cameron, Microsoft’s Consumer Electronics and Gaming Division decided to gamble and leapfrog what others have started and move it in a direction no one had been expecting or even comtemplate as a remote possibility.