in Computers

We’ve got thrills and shocks, supersonic fighting cocks

At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in 1994, one particular SNES title on the show floor was being completely ignored, and I had the chance to examine it in some detail.

That SNES title was “The Flintstones: Treasure of Sierra Madrock.” Heck, you remember that one, don’t you?

Or maybe you don’t. Around 1994 there was a huge surplus of mediocre me-too licensed games built around similar recycled 2-D scroller engines for the SNES and the Sega Genesis. The 1994 Summer CES show floor had plenty of them. The basic game play mechanic was well known: you are the licensed character, you run to the right, you jump, you have a short-ranged attack, and you pick up powerups which give you ranged attacks. Bad guys move in predictable patterns except for a boss at the end of the level.

The designers of “Treasure of Sierra Madrock” did not require deep knowledge of their previous title, “The Flintstones,” in order to enjoy their new work. You jumped over the rocks, you punched the snakes.

Anyway, I had no competition on the CES show floor to play “The Flintstones: Treasure of Sierra Madrock.”

Everyone else was playing 3DO. In 1994 the 3-D revolution hit the industry like a tsunami and the sidescrollers all washed away. With the launch of the 3DO and the Jaguar in 1993, then the PlayStation in 1994, the 2-D scroller game mechanic got very dead very quickly.

Fast forward to the Mongolian cluster fuck of E3 2005. Between meetings, I wandered the West and South Hall and I did my level best to ignore the tits and the subwoofers. And truth be told, there were a handful of shockingly beautiful games out there.

This E3 2005 will be remembered as The E3 That We Decided In Our Hearts To Buy An HDTV. In particular, Top Spin 2, an Xbox 360 title by Indie Built, stood out as a tennis title with some great attention to shadows and character detail. Also on Xbox 360, Activision’s Call of Duty 2, done by Infinity Ward, got their building and sky textures just right in the demo level, and the result was a first-person shooter that will sell next-gen systems.

In the PS2 department, Capcom’s Clover Studio showed Okami, a stylized “nature adventure” that incorporates elements of Japanese calligraphy with an updated Viewtiful Joe engine. You take control of a sun god, embodied in a wolf. You can call down spells, painted on the screen by a vast Japanese brush as time is frozen; leaves and blades of grass flicker brilliantly about you. Beautiful. Won’t sell, but it’s still beautiful.

Around a third or so of the titles on the E3 2005 show floor fell into a category that we will refer to as the Formula. The Formula involves putting your licensed protagonist character in a third-person perspective view, Mario World style, and letting him wander around outdoors. He has a short-range attack that he uses against the bad guys, and he has a long range attack that typically works with short-term powerups, and the camera floats behind his head like a balloon on a leash.

There are several technical problems with the Formula. First, you will notice that, due to the camera angle in the Formula, we constantly look down on the protagonist from the ceiling, a few feet behind the character. This means that the majority of screen real estate is taken up by the ground. And the ground is in severe perspective, so unless you do some fantastic mipmapping tricks or procedural texturing, either your ground looks pixellated, or your world is small. You have to get your memory from somewhere. Second, the camera always seems to want to do the wrong thing in a Formula game. Typically it drags along behind the character until some bad guys come along, at which point it hops back to get the bad guys into frame. Going around corners or reversing directions during a fight sequence typically causes camera conniptions.

Those issues are surmountable, but this one is not: at E3 2005, there were just too many games that depended too heavily on the Formula.

PS3 and Xbox 360, supporting HDTV and HD-DVD, are coming out within a year. And as of this writing there is a bunch of licensed games for the old platforms that follow the Formula.

It’s Summer CES 1994 all over again.

Supply and demand will sort this out. I suggest that, come E3 2008, you will see very few Formula games on the show floor. Something better is coming.

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