February 23, 1998
Every time I bump into James, I seem to end up saying "Oh, I must pop round to see your Yaroze in action sometime!" but never actually do anything about it. Not in keeping with my technophile nature perhaps, but then I'm never going to get a Yaroze of my own, am I? Still, the idea of playtesting the latest build of James' potential EDGE competition winner - Snowball Fight - certainly appeals to me. Maybe if it wins, I can put "Lead playtester of Snowball Fight" on my CV and send it off to Pete Molyneux?
Finally, on Monday, 23 February 1998, I get my act together and scoot along to James' flat with my equally games-besotted flatmate Ross Anderson. After some pleasant chit-chat, we pile into Jimbo's room. Hey, it might be a bit of a tip, but that doesn't detract from the sight of the black Playstation sitting tidily, patiently next to the PC monitor on his desk. There's no other way to describe it - it looks fucking cool. It's a Playstation. It's black. It plays any legit game. It lets you write your own games. I knew all this before, but actually seeing it for real brings home how wild this whole Net Yaroze thing is - it's suddenly real (much like the first time you saw Terminator 2, even though you'd read about how awesome the liquid metal special effects were).
One thing that struck me, something you won't know unless you've fooled with a Yaroze yourself, is that the texture of the machine and pads themselves is different from that of a normal grey or white Playstation. They have a smooth-yet-sandpapered feel to them, a rough texture that is really pleasant. I guess it's so you can still grip the pad even as rivets of gaming-induced sweat run down your arm. For example, as you make one last-ditch attempt to crack your Wipeout records (yeah man, hard-core gamers play the original Wipeout and not the sequel, because it is a lot harder and thus your mates are doubly astounded by the traditional "their immense crapness vs. your godlike proficiency" divide. A similar logic applies to the 16 and 64-bit versions of Mario Kart).
Jimbo boots up his PC, a fairly impressive P166 MMX against which my lowly P133 would struggle valiantly to keep up with (before failing miserably, subsequently claiming to have suffered a sprained IRQ port, or something). He has a bizarre Windows 95 desktop arrangement IMHO, but then he is an Amiga cadet and probably gets a bit homesick, so we must make allowances. First of all he loads up his Yaroze homepage, recently feted by SCEE for its reviews of demos and games. Nice! I didn't know Yaroze owners got homepage space - this is a definite plus. I quickly flick through the reviews and make a mental note - you must need an NTSC compatible TV to run Yaroze demos; almost all of them seem to use the US and Japanese television system. Reading James' reviews, the content of the games seem to vary considerably, including the traditional (Cosmo Fight - "a competent 3 level horizontally-scrolling shoot 'em-up"), the adventurous (Little Wing - "places you at the centre of a paper aeroplane competition"), the crude (Gas Girl - "harness the power of trapped wind to eliminate the bad guys") and the bizarre (My Flower - "a 'grow 'em-up' - you play a milkmaid-style character").
"So, what do you want to see first?" asks James.
"I dunno. Start with a goodie. What's the best game you've seen?"
Using an indecipherable string of commands in a DOS window, James loads up the Japanese Yaroze epic Hover Racing. The Yaroze's standard loading screen is nicely done - a brick wall backdrops the loading screen as data scurries through the serial cable (all Yaroze game data is stored on your PC or Mac's hard disc and transferred into the Playstation's RAM when you need it). Alas, it's only playable in black and white (Mr Frosty doesn't have a fully NTSC compatible monitor) but it still looks good.
Hover Racing is a blatant attempt to do SNES classic F-Zero in true polygonal 3D. Technically, it is superb; the 3D is on a par with the earliest commercial Playstation games, the sound is suitably funky and it even supports the memory card for saving high-scores! James swiftly points out that this game represents the pinnacle of Yaroze coding so far. I am not surprised. It is difficult for me to contain my excitement at the thought of a group of like-minded Japanese individuals coming up with such an accomplished game. It isn't perfect (the control of the ships is a bit too clever-clever if you ask me), but it's an astonishing testament to what a dedicated programming team can get out of the machine!
Ross and I take breathless turns racing a single Hover Racing track. The computer continually thrashes us. I'd love to blame this on cheating AI but the truth is, we suck. Hey, I thought that Japanese gamers liked easy games! Of course, I'm thinking of Japan's "Average Video Game Playing Kid" - not the hard-core gurus who crafted this beauty. People like myself, who prefer to master a game over time, relishing the challenge of a long, rewarding and well-structured learning curve. The snack food gamers of the world don't care so much; they don't want to write the games, they want to play them! Master the basics, see the pretty graphics, beat the final boss and move on to the next big thing - that's their motto. These Hover Racing guys and me, we have a common bond. I like that. It's an otaku thing.
So what's next up? Snowball Fight - James' competition project! As it loads, I'm thinking, "What's this going to be like? Are we talking slightly cheesy or genre-bending? He's been pretty vocal about the exceptional nature of the other Yaroze demo, does he think Snowball Fight sucks donkeys in comparison?" Time will tell. It loads. First impression? It's cute - the penguins move in a very cartoony way (and their resemblance to Pingu doesn't hurt, either). The control is excellent - Ross and I are partaking in a two-player battle, and the friction of the icy landscape is spot on. Hey - this game is fun! Snowball Fight is probably the one key thing that got me seriously considering buying the Net Yaroze, so I feel obliged to explain how it plays in great detail!
Imagine an icy island in the middle of the Antarctic (as we all know, penguins do not frequent the North Pole). On this island are stuck two penguins in the middle of a mild snowstorm. As the snow falls, it gradually builds up into piles - there are four or five piles of snow randomly dotted about the screen. All this is viewed from an two-dimensional three-quarters perspective. Your penguin comes armed with a directional crosshair - you can rotate this using the L and R buttons on the PS pad, indicating the direction in which you can pelt snowballs at the opposition (a hacked down Robotron device enabling you to run one way whilst firing the other). The penguins themselves have eight directions of movement and are controlled using the traditional gamepad.
Your penguin begins unarmed, so to gather your first snowball you have to dash to the nearest snow pile and start bashing the 'X' button. As you gather and pack the ice into one mean mother of a snowball, watch the bars at the top of the screen. The most obvious element is a Street Fighter II style energy meter, but at the end of each character's bar is a tiny snowball which grows and grows as you pump the 'X' button until it reaches maximum size! As you might suspect, the size of your snowball is directly related to the energy lost in the event of a direct hit. Where this system gets clever is that as you scoop up snow, your snow pile disappears. This means you can only make a couple of snowballs from each pile! Furthermore, you then have to move away from a depleted pile to allow the falling snow to build up again; this keeps the gameplay fluid and frantic, as well as introducing a tactical element! Oh, did I mention that the energy bars and snowball indicators are transparent? He likes his transparencies, does our James.
Snowball Fight v0.1 (which is pretty much what I played) is great fun. The basic controls and gameplay are on a par with the better multiplayer NES games (a major compliment in my book), except with better graphics and no sound (soon to be rectified - James' Snowball Fight MIDI anthem oozes pure Nintendo charm). It suddenly strikes me that this lone Yaroze coder has come up with an incredibly imaginative game engine - one that feels like it has been tweaked and tinkered with by Shigeru Miyamoto, the 10th Dan of gameplay, as if in passing. It's impressive. Most impressive! It doesn't really matter to me that the game is clearly unfinished (i.e. missing animation frames, reducing the other penguin's energy bar to zero means nothing - the game engine just rolls on - so victory is purely symbolic), it's just bloody good fun. And surely that is what the Net Yaroze is all about?
The evening proceeded as you might suspect. I could go on (and on) about all the demos I saw, but I won't. Suffice to say I was hooked by the time I saw Snowball Fight ("You had me at 'Hello'."), although James' less developed projects appear to have at least as much potential. I played EDGE's recommended hot titles, Fatal Fantasy - a brief (but-oh-so-crafted) spoof of Final Fantasy VII - and the 3D RPG Terra Incognita (with hilarious Japlish translation). I briefly tinkered with James' Shadebob demo, which created awesome light patterns in response to movement of the analogue pad. I played through the entirety of George Bain's Star Fighters in a couple of minutes. I played numerous multiplayer games with Ross, getting drubbed most of the time. It was about then that I looked at some Yaroze source code for a number of programs
Oh shit! I was so blown away by the arctic coolness of Net Yaroze I had completely forgotten that I couldn't actually program. Never mind my financial status (solution - student loan) or my temperamental girlfriend, I lacked even 'basic programming qualifications', as it probably reads in the advertisement for "Hi-Score Engine Writer" at iD Software. But then I thought, like a character in a tacky management training video, "Hey, work the problem!" Suddenly, everything turned around. Fitness? I can get fit and still code in my spare time, and hey, my flat can stand a little more negligence. Besides, I have a light lecture schedule next term, no exams, and that peachy university summer holiday to follow. I guess you can give yourself plenty of spare time when you really want it! What follows is an approximation of my subsequent thoughts (imagine dramatic, crescendoing Hollywood music) -
"Aaaah, sod it - I never used to be able to use DOS either, but I'll just have to learn. How hard can it be? Isn't C meant to be fairly easy to pick up, anyway? I'll go out, buy "Learn C in 21 Days" and become a guru before you know it. And even if it takes months, and then a few more months on top of that to get used to the Yaroze, I don't care. I'm going to DO IT. I can do it, and I will do it! As long as I live, I'll never go hungry again !"
Thus feeling suitably self-empowered, I arrived home sometime past midnight clutching a loaned copy of "A Guide to C", blabbering enthusiastically to my bemused flatmates about the merits of amateur programming. That night I slept fitfully, dreaming of sliding penguins.
Or return home?