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Tag Archives: Intelligent Systems

 

 

Mountain.

 

 

Christmas. 1990. California.

I was seven.

I spent an entire year asking my parents for a Game Boy.

I didn’t think I’d get one.

Christmas morning and we opened our presents.

And there it was.

I ran out of the room.

I was confused about who bought it. I thought it was my uncle.

I ran into the living room. I tore into the box.

Popped in the batteries. Caressed the system.

I turned it over in my hands. I enjoyed the weight of it.

I enjoyed its thickness. I was in love with its density.

I grabbed the only cart I had: Tetris.

The label was beautiful. The cartridge had a fulfilling proportionality.

It felt more promising and better designed than NES carts had been.

NES game carts were too long and too thick.

There was too much space on them. They had no visual impact.

Their faces were empty.

The Tetris cart was beautiful: Thin. Asymmetrical.

A subtle rectangle.

I slid it into the back.

I turned the system on.

The sound was crisp.

I burned through the options.

I wanted the game.

After a few rounds I thought I understood what it was.

I started at 0 and cleared lines as fast as I could.

The Game Boy was my first portable video game system.

Tetris was my first portable game.

I didn’t understand any of its subtlety.

I didn’t care to seek out its language.

I didn’t see what was so enthralling about its design.

I dropped Tetris.

I chased after Super Mario Land. Kirby’s Dream Land. Ninja Turtles.

I needed environments I could relate to.

I needed an imagined narrative.

Tetris was cold.

It fell away and I moved on.

 

Doughnut.

 

Summer. 1997.

Lebanon and the village is dead.

I gave my cousins my first-gen Game Boy one year earlier.

I now have a Game Boy Pocket.

The electricity is out. The water’s off. The arcade closed.

We revisit Tetris Attack.

It’s the first time I engage with the ‘Tetris’ brand since 1990.

I play through the stages. I enjoy the characters and the dialogue.

Puzzle mode feels more genuine than the original’s ‘B-Type’.

Endless mode is a meditative training ground.

Tetris Attack is Tetris inverted.

The pieces climb up from the bottom.

The cursor can switch two adjacent pieces horizontally.

The game pieces were blocks with symbols on them.

The object isn’t line clears, but matching blocks.

It was a proto-Bejeweled with Yoshi characters.

Tetris Attack was small, but full.

Strategic, but not complicated.

It had the sticky touch of Intelligent Systems.

Tetris Attack wasn’t Tetris.

It released in Japan as Panel de Pon.

Nintendo wanted name recognition in the West.

They wanted the Tetris name. They settled on Tetris Attack.

The Tetris Company cleared it.

And regretted it.

Henk Rogers felt it diluted the brand.

But Tetris Attack was an alternative.

It was a solid, strange experience.

It presented unique tools to rethink the Tetris universe.

Like Majora’s Mask and Zelda: It planted the seeds for the series’ deconstruction.

It brought warmth to the series.

It brought a crooked heart.

 

Hall.

 

Winter. 2015.

I try to consolidate my games.

I look for my Game Boy carts. I find Tetris Attack again.

It holds up. It still has warmth and life in it.

I find Tetris again.

I slide it into my SP.

25 years later and I decide to give it another shot.

I start at level 7.

25 years later and it feels different.

Something clicks and my hands start buzzing.

I begin to see its elegance and the subtleties of its design.

It was never just about line clears.

It was about setups. It was about adapting to flaws.

It was about recovering.

I hear about the AGDQ Tetris run.

I learn about Tetris: The Grand Master.

Developed by Arika and the series only released in arcades.

I loved what they had achieved in the past: The PS2 version of DoDonPachi Daioujou.

I seek out and download the entire TGM series.

And TGM 3 is dark, fun, and beautiful.

TGM 3 is the Daioujou of the Tetris universe.

Its presentation is clean.

Its music is engaging.

It’s difficult, but it doesn’t push the player away.

It dredges up the will to do better.

TGM 3 presents four modes of play with two different rulesets.

Easy teaches the game.

Sakura is a variation on a previous release: Tetris with Cardcaptor Sakura Eternal Heart.

Master is Tetris with speeds that gradually increase over time.

Shirase is Tetris at blinding speeds coupled with odd challenges.

Classic rule maintains the rotation style of the two prior iterations of TGM.

World rule is a set pushed on Arika by The Tetris Company in order to unify newer Tetris games.

The multiple modes and rulesets give TGM 3 a depth not seen in the arcade puzzle genre.

It gives the player the freedom to decide what sort of game they would like to play.

TGM 3 is difficult and obtuse.

It doesn’t explain itself and it doesn’t care.

It only wants to pull the player in as fast as possible.

The entire game is a boss fight: It seems impossible.

In Shirase, you can’t see the pieces fall.

The higher levels in Master require instinctual reaction times.

But it’s these elements that make the game so enjoyable.

In most fighting games, the curve seems vertical.

Inexperienced players become frustrated and turn away.

Fighting games require study. They require a deconstruction of situational behaviors and habits.

They bloom and open as the player’s mind and technique does.

TGM 3 must be approached the same way. It requires study.

It requires the player to focus both on the game and themselves.

It’s no coincidence that the TGM series and fighting games were both born from the arcades.

They both ask that the player be efficient and aware.

The payoff in fighting games is convincing wins against human opponents.

In TGM 3 the payoff is watching yourself calculate, strategize, and play at speeds you never thought you’d ever be capable of.

In 1990 I had no idea what Tetris was.

I dismissed it for having no heart.

I misunderstood it.

2015 and I realize now how much I’ve missed in the last 25 years.

Sometimes you just need the right kind of eyes.

Sometimes the heart is so big that you only catch a small piece of it.

Ignorance has a slow, enduring momentum.

And time isn’t always enough to kill it.

You need something savage and raw to tear through the filters you’ve tied yourself in.

Tetris Attack. Eight years on: It’s joyful and enduring.

Tetris. 25 years later: I wake up.

 

Tetris The Grand Master 3. 2015: My hands tremble, my teeth rip, and my brain is pummeled into the sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deform.

 

 

When I first picked up Advance Wars in 2001, I had no idea what I was doing.

I enjoyed strategic war games, but I never played them with any tactical focus.

Always brute forcing through missions.

In Command & Conquer: Red Alert, I would spend hours amassing huge tank swarms, sending them into the enemy base at once.

In Age of Empires II, I would scour the map for every last remaining enemy before the mission ended.

I always thought of myself as a strategic person, but I needed a narrative draw to act strategically.

In RPGs, I did well at managing my parties and character abilities.

But whenever the narrative layer was removed, I had no drive, no patience, for strategy.

When I first picked up Advance Wars, I had no idea what I was doing.

The game frustrated me because unlike Red Alert and AoE, I didn’t have total control.

Each mission was tight. The parameters were clear.

There was no free rein to sit back and amass units.

There was no brute forcing the enemy.

Because of the tight margins, Advance Wars taught the player how to be tactical, but only if the player had the right kind of eyes.

Advance Wars required the right kind of mind.

I struggled with the game because I had neither. I resented its limitation.

I hated the game for keeping me focused.

I stopped playing.

 

Contort.

 

Advance Wars lingered in the back of my mind the following years.

Whenever I came across a war game that gave me the space to breathe and slow the game down, I felt like a fraud.

I’d recall my time feeling stressed and pushed to act in AW’s world.

That urgency felt more authentic in a strategy war game.

No one else seemed to get it right.

Advance Wars became the lens through which I would assess myself in other war games:

“Would this strategy have worked in an Advance Wars level?”

The answer was always no.

My tactics, my strategy, lacked all focus and urgency.

I was using war games to fulfill my inherent desire for spectacle and completion.

I was using strategic war games as engines of ego.

I needed to return to a place of focus.

I went back to Advance Wars, 13 years later.

What shocked me was how the game had lingered in my mind.

The controls were so elegant and logical that they were impossible to forget.

The rest of the game struck me as lean and clear.

Now that I had the right kind of eyes, now that I approached the game with a softer mind:

I understood what the missions were.

I understood what the game was.

 

Arms.

 

Advance Wars is a strategy puzzle game hiding within a turn-based war game.

AW is more about solving than attacking. Much like Ikaruga, it is about adapting.

The ‘puzzle’ elements of Ikaruga (switching the ship’s colors to absorb bullets) slow the game down and it becomes a sequence of novel set-pieces.

By not giving the player free rein to hold back or charge forward, digging out the ideal strategy for the mission is much more engaging in Advance Wars.

Unlike other war games, the UI in AW is simple and concise.

The player can do everything  inside of two small menu screens.

It avoids the clutter and bloat of larger games.

It rewards a player’s attention. The proper strategies are not immediately obvious, but also are not buried under layers of difficulty.

They are there if the player chooses to focus.

In spite of all that it does stunningly well, Advance Wars does have its design problems.

Rather than acutely increasing the difficulty each mission, the game increases the options available to the player.

The player might gain a new Commanding Officer (CO’s determine the special passive stats and active abilities that a player has access to) or the ability to build and manage units, or adding new units.

Intelligent Systems did an excellent job in gradually ramping up the player’s options.

But by focusing so much on access to options, the difficulty is uneven.

There is no gradual development of difficulty, only plateaus.

The ratio seems to be 3:1 or 4:1. For every three or four missions, there is one which spikes.

Advance Wars is a game about patience, but it doesn’t take the time to teach the player how to be patient. It operates as if it expects the player to stick through it.

These vertical difficulty spikes were one of my problems with Dark Souls II.

One of the stranger things about Advance Wars is the art style.

It is a war game that does not take itself too seriously. The colors are bright, the unit icons are bubbly, and the dialogue can be childish.

This creates a fair bit of dissonance considering that soldiers are supposed to be dying.

This clash of style and substance has left me with quite a bit of  cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, I’m happy to play a war game with a different aesthetic: One that isn’t entirely drab and brown.

On the other hand, this is trivializing the worst parts of us.

The way the COs carry on talking as if no one is dying adds to the sense that of avoidance. It’s happening everywhere, but no one talks about it.

Intelligent Systems has worked very closely with Nintendo since the very early NES days.

Seeing as how Nintendo likes to keep their games from tackling cultural issues like homosexuality in their latest Tomodachi Life release, I could see them not having a problem white-washing the brutality of war.

Although, IS is also the developer behind the Fire Emblem series and does not seem to have an issue tackling questions of sovereignty, nationalism, death, and sacrifice in that series.

In spite of these issues, Advance Wars is a substantial game, especially for an aging portable system.

It is a thorough study of excellent design.

With clean controls, a unique aesthetic, and tight levels: It is a strategy game that out-maneuvers nearly every other war game in the genre.

13 years after its release and the game still shines…

long after many have forgotten it.