Hong Kong

Easter 1998

Hong Kong. Land of John Woo (and Wong Kar-Wai), Jackie Chan, mobile phones, rampant copyright theft, soft-core neon nights, cash-rich consumers and ill-mannered crowds. It’s a truly unique place, a city which, until recently, also happened to be its own country (come on, do you think Britain ever really owned HK?). I’ve been zipping back and forth for five years now, and although I get tired of the mad pace after a couple of weeks, I always miss it when I get back to the UK. "What has all this wistful crap got to do with the Net Yaroze?", you may be asking yourself. Good point. Well, Hong Kong is a veritable Mecca for gamers - the many software shops import just about every title you could ever want, and it’s common for games to be out in Hong Kong the day of their official release in the US or Japan, if not earlier. The average cost of a Playstation title varies wildly, but let’s say that old releases can be picked up for less than $200 (about 15) whereas the brand new games hover at the $420 mark (35).

Hong Kong is perhaps better known for its pirate games; known as ‘HKs’ or ‘silvers’, these retail for about 3 each if you buy a large number at a time. Allegedly. I’ll just dwell on the morals of software piracy for a moment, although I guess it’s up to each individual if they think it’s worth buying pirate games or not. As someone who quite fancies a career in the software industry, I have to say I now think it’s just plain wrong to steal someone else’s hard work. Plus - and I have to admit I speak from experience - you cannot fully appreciate games when you pick them up for next to nothing. Sure, you can buy 15 HKs for the cost of a legit game, but when do you think you’re going to find the time to play them all properly? Also, imagine getting to disk 3 of Final Fantasy VII and then finding out that you bought a dud copy. Annoying, no? Pirate disks are often well dodgy, and they do your PS’s laser lens no good, believe me. What is truly fascinating about piracy in Hong Kong is the open environment in which the pirates operate - they’re usually located right next to the legitimate shops (which still manage a brisk trade, it has to be said). Since 1997, it has certainly become less blatant - several notorious pirate CD hangouts have even been closed down - but you’d never think there was anything illegal about the rest of the places if it wasn’t for the ridiculously low prices and obviously photocopied CD covers... It’s not just Playstation software, either. Brand new movies are for sale on copied Video CDs (Titanic and Jackie Brown when I was out), and pirate PC software is even more common. I guess ELSPA wouldn’t know where to begin!

I picked up the following games while I was out in Hong Kong - all, I hasten to add, legitimate Japanese versions:

Wow! Gaming sure can be an expensive habit, though I suppose I get more for my money than most! I’m extremely happy with all my purchases - Biohazard II certainly makes the top of my list (please, indulge my zombie obsession by reading the George A. Romero article I wrote for Edinburgh’s student paper and my old Resident Evil review...) and BTW, I couldn’t give a damn if the text is in Japanese! As for the brilliance of the rest, well, I don’t know about Tekken 3 - it’s a stupendous beat-em up, but I think the whole "I-slap-you, you-slap-me" genre is looking very tired. Bust A Move is obviously "inspired" by Parappa, but takes the premise a great deal further with gorgeous 3D visuals, an awesome soundtrack, great characterisation and a gameplay-saving two player mode. Ignore the (slightly harsh) 7/10 review in April’s EDGE - pick it up on import if you fancy a genuinely amusing and entertaining change from the usual PS fare (Graeme Evans’ "It’s Love" kitty-petting weirdfest is perhaps the closest experience on the Yaroze). For those who care - and you should - 1080 Snowboarding is a beautiful snowboarding game with oh-so-nearly flawless playability, and knocks the socks off of any of the Playstation snowboarding games. Yes, a pity about the brain-dead opposition AI, but the control, graphics and sound are fantastic.

Enough of the games! This is meant to be my Yaroze Diary, not the game reviews section of my homepage or N64 Gazetta (plug, plug). When I wasn’t playing my spunky new games, I did crack on with C for Dummies II and spent a lot of time cruising the Yaroze websites, particularly the SCEE ones (with a mind to picking up all the EDGE competition entries). The results of the EDGE competition were up the first few days I was back, and I’ll confess, I had mixed feelings about them. This isn’t small-minded Snowball Fight bias, I assure you! I just didn’t feel the winning games were the ones that I had found really exciting - Chris Chadwick’s "Blitter Boy" was beautiful and technically superb, but really at too early a stage of development to merit first place IMHO (as ever). No offence, Chris! I was also surprised Robert Swan’s "Revolution" wasn’t in there somewhere, along with James Shaughnessy’s "Gravitation" (PAL/NTSC switching! 2 player ‘Thrust’-style battles! Dodgy ‘gate bug’ - now fixed!). But then, who am I to argue with ex-EDGE ed. Jason Brookes?

Aside from picking up the odd demo or ten (I’m not reviewing them all - you can go to Mr Frosty on SCEE for that!), I also got hold of Ira Rainey’s sprite tutorial, Pete Passmore’s 3D tutorials, and Robert Swan’s explanation of exactly what an "ordering table" is. Excellent! All I can say to these people is "Thank you" (they’re probably now wondering why I never mailed them to say so at the time - erp!), these references are about 1000 times more useful than the official Sony stuff (again!?) and are making it much easier for me to get the hang of writing stuff for Yaroze.

My C programming also progressed in leaps and bounds this holiday. I managed to make it to the end of the massive chapter on pointers; I now understand pretty much how they work, and why people get into trouble with them! Other topics I covered included advanced stuff on arrays and strings, as well as some of the more advanced maths functions like ‘cos’, ‘sine’, ‘log’ and all that GCSE maths stuff. The only things I have left do now in C for Dummies are the chapters on structures, memory allocation and writing big programs. There are also some "missing" chapters on the web that I might look at, as well as a section on PC disk accessing which isn’t really Yaroze-related but might come in handy. Hey, you never know!

Looking at Yaroze source code (namely, the "bouncing balls" demo you get on the PC CD and Mr Frosty’s well-commented ‘Funky Spirals’ code) these days is both encouraging and profoundly depressing. It’s encouraging because I now understand so much more of it than I possibly could a month ago. OK, so that isn’t hard because I knew absolutely ZERO a month ago, but it gives me a real sense of progress. What is depressing is looking at all the Playstation-specific commands - all the sound and graphics functions, controller handling and sprite instructions look horribly complex. Even the simplest programs, such as Ira Rainey’s sprite tutorials, are vaguely intimidating. But then, I knew what I was getting into, didn’t I? And don’t think I’m giving up, all you veteran hardcore Yaroze coders! I’ll be entering a polished (if likely simplistic and sonically-challenged!) game for the GDUK ’98 competition, or I’m a big hairy gooseberry with no mates! It’s a case of "so near, and yet so far" if there ever was one.

Ah, yes. The Games Design UK 98 competition. I suppose it’s testament to the reputation I have amongst friends and family that I received no less than three e-mails and one fax alerting me to the subject while I was out in Hong Kong. My aunt faxed me a newspaper article with a big cheesy picture of David Jones from DMA Design, and the encouraging claim that the British software industry would be worth 15 billion by 2000. Hmmm. Really? Anyway, I checked out the GDUK 98 website and was most chuffed that my nation was pioneering such a brilliant competition - GDUK is primarily sponsored by Scottish Enterprise, Dundee-based (just like my flatmates) DMA Design and Glasgow bods Red Lemon, among others. Scoland, eh? FREEEEDOM!!! *ahem*

Wetting my trousers with excitement at the so-remote-it’s-not-even-worth-thinking-about prospect of scooping 5 grand for writing a game, or getting 1000 for trying hard (or something), I made a deal with my parents that my termly allowance from them will be extended into the summer so I won’t have to work and can instead get to grips - seriously, now - with writing for the Yaroze. The situation is also helped by the fact that my workload this term is ridiculously light - no summer exams, and only 1 lecture a week. I do have a lengthy dissertation to write, but as I plan on doing something along the lines of "Difference in levels of aggression between children and adults when playing video games" I think that will turn out to be quite fun, and give me better leverage when we have family arguments over the damaging potential of "those TV games" (as most adults in my family tend to call them). Another plus side of this "not working" lark is that I don’t have to pickle my brain working at UCI Cinemas or for the British Survey of Fertiliser Practice (great people, lousy jobs) this year. The minus side is that it doesn’t look like I’ll be going away on holiday in September, and I won’t have the usual stacks of cash (hah!) to spend on the girlfriend/games "habit"/Edinburgh Festival this year. The sacrifices I make, eh? One funny thing is that people are saying "Shouldn’t you be getting work experience this summer?" so I tell them, "Well, actually, this is what I want to do - design and (maybe) write video games..."? Most people are surprised, used to me saying that I want to be a film director (should have done a film course, then), or write novels and screenplays (ditto), or work for the BBC (hmmm), or write for EDGE, Empire, or some similar tome (hey, still might!). Maybe I could produce the first decent games-related program not aimed at kiddies - the "Top Gear" of video games? Arf! Sounds good to me.

The only other notable thing I did was to write my first C program for the PC (run it in a DOS box under Win95). No great shakes - basically it’s just a modified version of a program in C for Dummies but "I’ve done a lot of special modifications myself". Download lottery.zip from my FTP directory if you want a random number generator for the British National Lottery. Oh, and I’m just kidding about 50% of any wins (erm, is that statement legally binding?). I still say it’s a mugs game...

So, two weeks in Hong Kong passed by in a flash, really.



I arrived back in the UK and promptly spent 5 days with my girlfriend in Darlington. Hey, it was more fun than it sounds - I saw "Sphere" (disappointing) and, er, did a very large jigsaw. Oh, and I got taken out to eat a lot, too! Then I had this university management course when I got back to Edinburgh which was absolutely brilliant. Then it was back to work after being told I had to get my overdue Psychology project (from last term) in within a week, or else! Erp! The epic Yaroze Diary saga WILL continue...after I deal with the whole evil project thing!

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