Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Please define 'casual'

Is the NintendoDS retro ? will it ever be ? the question raised on twitter. Thinking about it, how it was launched and how different the titles available at launch were from other now-definitely-retro consoles (including SNES, PS1, and even GBA),
I'd say the NDS will have harder time to feel retro in general (although some games certainly will). The reason is that, by the time the Nintendo DS came out, the kind of games we played had changed significantly. GBA games play much like slightly simplified versions of SNES games all over the life time of the console. And they play themselves much like more refined versions of the NES games. The reason for all this is the controller.

To me, holding an SNES controller is a well-known feel. I don't have to think about where X or A stands. It is immediate. And it definitely wasn't the case when the SNES cames out: SMW gave me a hard time compared to the 1-button + dpad games I was used to (okay, I pressed SML B button from times to times). And for most games on those devices, it was frequent that you'd need to train yourself to the core mechanics and grow your controller skills before you could proceed further than world 1.

The DS, instead, came up in the world of casual games. Not games that you happen to play casually (as opposed to competitively), but those explicitly designed so that you don't really need training to experience their core gameplay. Zoo Keeper, for once, perfectly fits that line of titles targetted at bejeweled players. They're built around more intuitive and direct actions (thanks to the stylus). Any grown up can start playing them even when they have almost no training with gaming devices. They don't require players to know that they should hunt for 1-UPs or stock power-ups if they want to stand a chance against the end-of-world boss. Really, these are games that Hudson Hawk could have enjoyed despite he's been in jail since Pong is out.

That doesn't mean that there are no retro-like games on the system, but they were pretty rare gems compared to the avalanche of stylus-driven titles. And chances are that the youngster who had a DS as her first gaming system will have nostalgy towards titles that no longer plays like a DPAD+buttons retro game.

Will the NDS ever be retro ? of course. But it might have to wait until we no longer use touch screen as our primary model to design games. When virtual/augmented reality games become the norm, maybe.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Madness? this is refactory !

Maybe you remember this picture, the first one I scanned with my iris mouse. Maybe you remember the times where I mentioned some more things in the collision engine needed a revision. At last, I'm at it.

When two objects collide, they need to have access to each other for some times until all the rules of their state machine have been evaluated. To do this, I used a "GobCollision" object, linking to the related objects, script variables and hit boxes (GobAreas). That was a nice first step towards clean design, but it still has some drawbacks, like using weird arrays of so-called "GobCollision" that each captured only one side of the collision, and copies into the array to somehow "swap" orders when the collision initiator finally runs the 'found' rule with the collided object as "other" (while it just was 'other' for the 'hit' rule on the collided object).

But I had a small extra "Swap()" call dangling around. With some odd effects on the game, as you can see. But hopefully, I just got it sorted out. Now I'll be ready to be gone with the "collision-specific variables" telling how much hitboxes overlap each other, which is currently stored as a game-wide static array, while it should really belong to the new, real collision state object.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Junko Ozawa's Secrets

(re?-)Bienvenue à Upsilandre dans la blogosphère! Quel plaisir de pouvoir découvrir en détail ses analyses des techniques ancestrales de programmation assis confortablement avec ma liseuse. Son analyse de la "basse sunsoft" et l'utilisation du canal 'triangle' pour faire les drums (plutôt que le canal d-PCM comme dans SMB3) était un vrai délice. Du coup, j'ai envie de ressortir cette série de snapshot de l'interview de Junko Ozawa, responsable son et musique sur les jeux arcade Namco.

Some times ago, I found a video featuring an interview of sound designer Junko Ozawa, working at Namco. I was surprised that so early in video game history, there were digital loops send to sound chips. I had in mind that we went square waves -> SID-like waves -> FM chips -> samples playback. Then I found a post by French blogger Upsliandre mentioning old NES sound programming, and he pointed out the term for Junko's technique: wave tables.

Très tôt déjà, alors que les générateurs simplistes de la NES semblaient riches en possibilités et que la FM faisaient ses premiers balbutiements, les machines NAMCO travaillaient déjà avec des échantillons. Enfin presque.

Le hardware était capable de rejouer du contenu par modulation d'amplitude (PCM) sur 16 niveaux (4 bits) mais extrêmement courts ... disons 16 à 32 points par son. Plutôt que d'y envoyer par DMA un son enregistré en live de basse ou de trompette, Madame Ozawa va s'en servir pour comme d'un SID avec des ondes programmables. Des sons totalement synthétiques mais avec une signature unique.

Pendant que Myamoto retranscrivait sur des petits carreaux les traits de Donkey Kong pour faire du pixel art, Madame se livrait au même travail à partir d'un son visualisé à l'oscilloscope pour faire reproduire à son soundchip une "trompette pixelisée" ou un "violon pixelisé".

Unlike what happens with a SoundBlaster, the sound chip of Namco arcade boards isn't streaming digitized samples. Instead, it uses small waveforms made of about 32 4-bit values and plays them as a single loop, again and again. It's much lighter on the 8-bit CPU and memory chips with "slow" clocks: we only have to fill the soundchip's internal register with the sound wave and just update the pitch for the notes we want to play as we would do on a NES soundchip, but we have a wide palette of sounds at our hands.

Somehow, the variety of sounds we can get out of such chips is similar to that of the C64 SID, but the process to have them is different, just like vectrex graphics and NES graphics are different. While Myamoto is converting his Donkey Kong drawings into pixel art by tracing them, Mrs. Ozawa was performing similar pixel-sounds, checking what the instruments look like on the oscilloscope. Possibly easier to do than mixing sines and triangle-likes to get the sound you want ... but less likely to do live phase-modulations as the SID could do.

But power, tone, roundness of the sound is fully customizable. Tower of Duaga got released in 1984 and we are lightyears away from an Atari console. The NES is hardly reaching Pluto in comparison.

La puissance, la tonalité, la rondeur, tout est personnalisable. Ecoutez donc Tower of Duaga de 1984. On est à des années-lumière de la sonorité d'une console atari! et la NES est encore sur Pluton.

Sa bibliotèque de sons, c'est le trésor de Mme Ozawa. Elle les conserve dans un cahier, vu l'absence d'éditeur numérique pour ce genre de choses. Et il faudra bien longtemps avant qu'un synthé ne puisse interpréter en direct les sons imaginés pour le Namco WSG.

[Les wave tables], c'est la base notamment du son PC-Engine dès 87, mais on retrouve ca aussi dans le Famicom Disk en 86 (y a qu'un seul canal mais de bonne résolution, 64x64), dans la Gameboy ou on a une wavetable 32x16 qui remplace le triangle wave de la NES (j'aurais aimé la même chose pour la NES), aussi dans le soundchip SCC de Konami qu'on retrouve dans les cartouches MSX de Konami tel que Contra.
Effectivement, je n'avais pas fait le rapprochement, mais c'est bien la même technique qui permet à la version "Famicom Disk System" de Legend of Zelda d'avoir quelques sons inédits par rapport à sa version NES (dixit Nathan dans "I AM ERROR"). Et on voit bien les patterns un peu exotiques tout en étant très clairement des ondes simples dans la séquence de fin de Link's Awakening.  

Bref, de mon côté (et surtout vu que je suis assez fan des sonorités de Coryoon et Soldier Blade sur PC-Engine), ça me donne furyeusement envie de coder un petit Wave Editor for DS ...

Upsilandre also pointed out that those Wave Tables are the roots of PC-Engine soundchip (1987) -- that's giving this unique vibe to Coryoon and Soldier Blade soundtracks). And that the same trick had been added to the Famicom Disk System in '86, allowing some tricks in the Legend Of Zelda original soundtrack that couldn't be found in the NES version -- as mentioned by Nathan in his 'I AM ERROR' book). Another thing I didn't know was that the GB used that too. Sure, there were GB games that streamed a PCM sample through the 32-sample, 4-bit programmable PCM channel, but in Link's Awakening, it is mostly used as a Namco channel.

Maybe when I'll be a grumpy grand-dad, I'll find time to code a Wave Editor for DS ? Maybe we could morph one wave into another while playing on the DS hardware ? Time will tell.

edit: à suivre dans le post d'Upsilandre: le pixelat audio sur FDS

Friday, July 13, 2018


A lovely setting, charming character, platforming action in pixel art, and above all, a "whip/ninja rope" mechanics I'm in love with since Fury of the Furries and Mickey Magical Quest. You bet I'm following @whipseey in his quest recovering the Lost Atlas ^_^. And the fact it is drawing inspiration from the legendary Mr. Gimmick is just the perfect spice to complete the gift.

Yet, while watching I realised that one of the sceneries had an issue that also existed in Bilou School Rush and that was pointed out by Kirby Kid when he gave feedback on the early version of the game: one-block-wide pillars.

You have a lot of "one block wide" or "character width wide" platforms. I find this irritating. They put a lot of stress on the mechanics and they also slow down the gameplay a lot. Open the platform spaces up some more.

 For the untrained player, these will put strong stress on the player's knowledge of the game engine's intimacy, like how much exactly gravity and momentum there is, so that one can land her favourite pink avatar on such a tiny spot.

One think I like to do on Twitter is to dream how I'd approach those short video  sequences myself. Preferably in the original character's abilities set, a bit like how Myamoto and his team decided to make Popeye be able to jump over barrels in the early prototypes of Donkey Kong as it was the most natural thing to do if it wasn't a videogame.

And what would be the most natural thing to do if you barely missed a jump to a pillar while carrying a magical yoyo/whip/rope thing ? Well I bet I'd try to wrap the rope around the pillar to be safe again.

That in turn raised the question of "how would I do such a thing for Bilou in my own engine?"  Should the 'whip' be an extension of the player's gob (that is, the internal software element ruling the sprite's behaviour) or be a gob of its own ? Should the pillar be made of special tiles or would the whip-end object (if any) be able to detect a pattern of solid-but-small-enough area ? Both approaches would be valid in each question, but as you may have guessed from the way I ask (or read in the sketches), I'd rather opt for the second answers if I was immediately ready to introduce that ;-)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


Non, ce n'est pas juste de la procrastination, ni juste des hunger games, ni de la démotivation ni juste ma déclaration d'impôts. Pas même une diablite mundialesque.

C'est le fichier de l'été. Tendinite à soigner. La semaine dernière, tenir un crayon était une torture. ça va un peu mieux.