2018 has come and gone, so it’s time for me to do a summary post and collection of my work on Bumbershoot over the year.
The various projects I did on this blog in 2018 are now collected for download in a single zip file. 2018 was marked more by a series of larger projects rather than a swarm of small programs. I had four sizable projects I worked through line by line and built from first principles:
- Conway’s Game of Life for the Nintendo Game Boy
- The Cyclic Cellular Automaton, with implementations for the Sega Genesis and contemporary macOS.
- Lights Out for the Atari 2600
In addition to those, there were a handful of smaller programs created along the way to test my build systems or my grasp of specific hardware techniques:
- Basic Hello World programs for both the Nintendo Game Boy and Sega Genesis
- A sprite, controller, and sound test program for the Sega Genesis
- Two implementations for the C64 of a Diffusion Chamber simulation from Scientific American on the way to a more systematic investigation with a modern computer. One of those implementations ended up being unusably slow, though, so only the machine-code version is actually on the disk.
2018 was the most active year for the blog by a factor of about two; this is the first year I cracked 5,000 page views, 50 articles, and 100,000 words. The most popular articles this year were largely the same as last year, covering weird CGA modes and file formats and machine code linking on the ZX81. Sneaking into the top 5 was my article about the VSP Glitch on the C64, which seems to have rocketed above my other C64 articles thanks to a Reddit comment linking to it as an explanation for how Mayhem in Monsterland managed its high-speed scrolling.
The three articles I wrote this year that got the most views were the beginning and the end of my Atari 2600 project, and the post on the legacy sound chip on the Sega Genesis. All them seem to, again, have risen above the other articles due to links in forums. As usual, though, Bumbershoot Software mostly works as a standing reference, and search engines drive more traffic than everything else combined by an order of magnitude.
Off of my usual topics, 2018 was also interesting in that it saw the release of five games that were very different from one another but also targeted quite narrowly at my current gameplay interests. I can’t really rank them against each other for a top five list, so here they are in alphabetical order:
- Celeste. I played a lot of Thorson’s early work—most notably the Jumper series—and while those were occasionally a bit rough-hewn I consider them foundational to the “challenge platformer” subgenre, which also includes games like VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy, but which distinguishes itself from “masocore” games like I Wanna Be The Guy by always honestly presenting what the current challenge is. (This measure, which I discussed as part of what “perfect play” means across genres, does mean that Limbo also stands with I Wanna Be The Guy despite having much more forgiving platforming challenges.) Celeste is an extremely well-polished challenge platformer and quite possibly the best example of the subgenre now extant. It achieves this through excellent controls and map design but also through accessibility—while much has been made of Celeste’s Assist Mode, even a player whose training and reflexes are a match for the intended design will find that the most punishing or abstruse stages are hidden behind clearly optional unlocks. I have observed that Super Meat Boy is in part about testing the player to destruction, and that as a result its plot and ending cutscenes and such are all extremely perfunctory. Celeste actually wants to tell a story alongside its challenges and it puts the more generally-inaccessible stages in places where no story is being told. It’s a very effective combination.
- EXAPUNKS. Zachtronics games are, in effect, a series of programming challenges. I like them, but I often have trouble sticking with them because it’s hard to motivate myself to write assembly language programs for pretend computers when I could instead be writing assembly language programs for real computers. The earlier Opus Magnum avoided this fate for me by not being as obviously a programming exercise even though it was one (you schedule motions of mechanical arms to assemble alchemical compounds), but EXAPUNKS seems to avoid it by having a sufficiently exotic programming model. Commanding cute little spider robots to run rampant through a pretend network seems to be far enough from the retrocoding projects I actually do to keep the challenges from interfering with each other in my motivation.
- La-Mulana 2. The original La-Mulana was an homage to the MSX generally and Konami’s Knightmare II: Maze of Galious specifically. However, Maze of Galious was in my opinion an unplayable mess, while (with a few exceptions) La-Mulana managed to be crammed full of tricks and secrets and still mostly work. It did this by (apparently unconsciously, since they’re open about their inspirations and didn’t list this one) lifting a lot of design aesthetics from Myst—overwhelm the player with information and have all of it be relevant to something eventually. This is then layered on top of fairly-traditional action-adventure exploration gameplay. When that game was refined and modernized for the Wii, the parts that were problematic in the design were polished away and the combat was rebalanced and generally improved. At that point it stopped being a quirky obscure freeware game and started being an interesting genre-jam game that didn’t get imitated. The sequel is in some sense more of the same, but since the original hasn’t been imitated since its release more of the same was very welcome.
- Return of the Obra Dinn. This is a first-person adventure game in the Myst mold, but manages to evolve the formula there in meaningful ways. Standard Mystlike games tend to involve using information in the environment to bypass obstacles, which in practice often reduces to replacing “find a key somewhere and use it to unlock a door somewhere else on the map” with “find a combination written on a wall somewhere and use it to open a combination lock somewhere else on the map.” Sometimes you’ll have to build the combination out of a lot of disparate pieces—Riven and the La-Mulana series both excelled at this—but Obra Dinn evolves the formula by requiring more aggressive deductive work on the part of the player to get the answers required. Despite being technically just a new, improved twist on a classic game design, it’s been long enough since Riven that this game was received like a bolt of lightning from a cloudless sky. It’s not that good but it is very, very good—and if you didn’t play the old Myst and La-Mulana games, you may indeed have never seen anything like this before.
- Yoku’s Island Express. This is a super-cheerful action-adventure game built around pinball controls, starring a dung beetle turned postmaster drafted into a plan to save the island’s local gods. Despite all that it remains relentlessly cheerful all the way through (you have a dedicated button to blow a party horn and possibly throw confetti around—while there are in-game reasons to do this you are free to deploy it at any point) and I found the difficulty to stay well within reasonable bounds. I’m not very good at pinball, but I was able to work my way through the game without too much trouble, and it also neatly avoided what I think of as the biggest problem with high-level pinball play—the path to high scores usually involves finding some technique that’s reasonably high scoring and that one can perform with extreme consistency, and then doing that thing for as long as your endurance and precision can hold out. Here, because you have actual plot objectives to accomplish and a cap on “score”—where a normal pinball game would grant bonus points, you get bonus money instead, and there’s a cap on how much money you can carry at a time—you are always encouraged to attempt sequences of more varied skill shots to progress. It’s an interesting case study in how mixing another genre of gameplay into a game can address shortcomings in the original genre’s gameplay.
Bumbershoot Software in 2019
2018 saw me complete my ambition of doing a software release for every platform I grew up with. As such, I don’t have any big pressing projects bearing down on me this year as things I really want to attack going into the new year. That said, this was the state I was in for most of the year and I wrote more than I ever have, and got several releases out to go with them.
As such, I’ll be walking into 2019 with no firm plans for the blog but confident that something interesting will ultimately come up. Onward we go!