Tag Archives | Games

Solitaire, Minesweeper, and Beyond

They’re some of the most-used software in history. Some of them were written by legendary techies, such as Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak. They’re a tradition that’s lasted for decades and shows no sign of ending. And yet they get no respect–in part because very few people stop to give them much thought at all.

I speak of the little games that come with operating systems–Windows Solitaire being the most obvious example–and it’s time they got their day in the sun. Benj Edwards has rounded up twenty of them, including ones you’ve played (I still miss Windows Reversi) and ones I suspect you’ve never heard about (Gorillas?).

View The Great Operating System Games slideshow.

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The Great Operating System Games

Since the dawn of computers, games have been an entertaining way to demonstrate a system’s capabilities. Manufacturers like DEC distributed them as early as the 1960s: They were as powerful sales tools with universal appeal. The tradition continued with some of the earliest PCs. Simple (but often addictive) games are bundled with operating systems to this day.

Here’s a look at notable games that have shipped with OSes through the ages–including ones written by a few of the most famous programmers of all time.


The True Face of Mario

Everybody knows Mario–Super Mario.  And how: an oft-cited 1991 poll found that more American children recognized Nintendo’s cheerful mascot than they did Mickey Mouse.  Almost two decades later, the famous cartoon plumber, forever clad in blue overalls, regularly stars in blockbuster games for the Wii and DS.

Regarding Mario’s origins, it’s common knowledge among game fans that legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto created him for 1981’s Donkey Kong arcade game. But few know that Nintendo borrowed Mario’s name and Italian heritage from a real man.

That man’s name is Mario Segale, and he’s not a plumber. He’s a wealthy real estate developer in Tukwila, Washington.  Segale unwittingly stepped into video game history by renting out a warehouse that served as Nintendo’s U.S. headquarters in the early 1980s. At that time, a financially struggling Nintendo of America (NOA) was preparing the U.S. launch of Donkey Kong. Legend has it that NOA President Minoru Arakawa noticed physical similarities between Donkey Kong’s short, dark-haired protagonist and the landlord. So the crew at NOA nicknamed the character Mario, and it stuck.

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Spawn: It’s SlingBox for Your Console Games

SpawnThe most potentially interesting thing I’ve seen so far at the TechCrunch50 conference is Spawn Labs’ Spawn HD720 box. It’s also one of the easier things to explain: Just as a SlingBox lets you redirect your TV signal to another PC on your home network or anywhere on the Internet, Spawn lets you broadcast console games–it supports PS2, PS3, Xbox, Xbox 360, and GameCube, but not Wii–to distant computers. You can use it to play a game in another room when your TV is otherwise occupied, or to play a game remotely when you’re traveling–and you can even play against someone who’s in the living room using the console directly, or who’s in a third location.

It all works via a $199.95 box (which goes on sale today) and adapters you plug into your computer to let you connect gamepads, and Spawn says it’ll work with any game for the consoles it supports. It worked well in the demo–which isn’t a given, since several TechCrunch50 debutantes haven’t–and if it does what it’s supposed to, it’s going to be cool. Spawn says that games look good and there’s virtually no latency on home networks and only a tiny bit over the Internet, but even the impressively-engineered SlingBox sometimes has trouble dealing with chokey real-world Internet connections. I’ll believe it when I play it.

Even if it performs as advertised, it is, of course, another box to buy and install. Wouldn’t it be nifty if this feature was built into consoles–or if Spawn and Sling teamed up to sell one box that did both games and TV?


Computers on Game Shows: What a Concept!

JeopardyWhen IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat chess world champion Garry Kasparov back in 1997, my reaction was pretty dispassionate: As someone who’s played only a few games of chess in my life, I simply didn’t have a deep understanding of the game or an emotional attachment to it. But when the news came out over the weekend that IBM is programming a supercomputer to play Jeopardy–well, that’s a breakthrough I can relate to. I haven’t watched the venerable game show much in years, but back in the 1980s, I planned my college courses around it to make sure I was home in time to watch (this was before I had a VCR). I get the game’s subtleties–it’s not just about having an encyclopedic knowledge of both serious stuff and pop culture, but also about being able to unpack the meaning of those questions-phrased-as-answers in a split second. And given that countless very smart people have gone on the show and fallen flat on their faces, I’ll be impressed if IBM’s computer manages an unembarrassing third-place finish. But I don’t have any difficulty dealing with the idea that a computer might someday beat any flesh-and-blood Jeopardy player on the planet.

Thinking about the prospect of a computer taking on Alex Trebek, metaphorical buzzer in hand, led me to the conclusion that game shows in general aren’t a bad Turing Test-like gauge of artificial intelligence. They require knowledge–okay, only a little of it in many cases, but some. They’ve got a social component, by definition. They involve thinking on one’s feet, or the simulation thereof.

So how might a really well-programmed supercomputer fare at other famous game shows of the present and (mostly) past?

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Fake Me Out to the Ball Game!

SmallballWith a bit more than a week to go until the first pitches of the baseball season, I’m in a sporting mood. So I’ve prepared a slideshow on the hottests sports toys of three decades ago–the early electronic sports handhelds produced by Mattel, Coleco, and others. Never have LEDs engaged in such heated competition, from the baseball diamond to the football field to the hockey rink and beyond.

View Smallball slideshow.

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Smallball! Handheld Sports Games of the 1970s and 1980s


When it comes to sports simulations, there’s an inverse relationship between realism and charm. The handheld sports games that toy companies cranked out in the early days used a single LED to represent each player, not thousands of polygons, but they had more personality than today’s console titles–and they were plenty addictive, too. This slideshow skews towards baseball (hey, it’s only a week until opening day) and football (unquestionably the most popular handheld-sports sport), and focuses mostly on games from Mattel and Coleco (the major leagues of handheld sports). It celebrates them through patent drawings, packaging photos, and original commercials. If you’d like more–a lot more–of this stuff, check out Rik Morgan’s wonderful www.handheldmuseum.com, where some of the images in this show originated.


Toys R' Us Toying With Used Game Sales

geoffreygiraffeWhen it comes to buying and selling used video games, Gamestop has failed to win me over. The store pays criminally low rates for used games, especially recent releases, and it’s all the more infuriating when you see that same game sold back again for more than double what you’re offered. A couple of weeks ago, the store quoted me roughly $25 to buy back Afro Samurai, which is currently sold used for $55.

Any competition is welcome in my book, so I hope Toys R’ Us’ experiments with buying and selling used games works out. Joystiq confirmed today that the toy giant is trying the idea in “a couple of New York stores,” according to a company rep, not including the Times Square location. Another blogger spotted one of the stores in Nanuet, N.Y.

Details are scarce, because Toys R’ Us doesn’t like talking about its test runs, and at present no one is saying how the rates compare to Gamestop. Still, as Joystiq points out, used game sales account for 42 percent of Gamestop’s profits, and sales are expected to reach $2 billion this year. If another major retailer wants to step in on that turf, so be it. As much as it pains me to buy video games from a toy store (you know, the infantilization thing), I can’t argue with saving a few bucks these days.

For now, I’m selling my games back through Gamefly, the mail-order rental service, which offers solid trade-in rates towards the cost of a subscription. Used game sale prices are also better with the service, to the point that you can buy a game with the money from two used ones and still have some leftover credit. Two used games would rarely, if ever, cover a $55 purchase at Gamestop.

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Christmas Isn't Everything, EA Realizes

mirrorsedgeGood news for people who don’t like juggling a half dozen top-shelf video games at the tail end of the year: an Electronic Arts manager says the company might be backing off the holiday release strategy.

The big takeaway from last year’s success of Mario Kart and Grand Theft Auto is that AAA games don’t have to be introduced in the holiday season to perform well. NPD Group analyst Anita Frazier said as much after her company put out its annual sales figures. “Get some high profile releases out in the first and second quarters,” she suggested.

Mulling over a fairly unsuccessful year, Electronic Arts is coming around to that school of thought. Glen Schofield, General Manager for the EA branch that developed Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge, told Gamesindustry.biz that there were “far too many” games to choose from before the holidays.

“I think that we traditionally thought that people only buy games at Christmas or around holiday time, and now we’re looking back and going, ‘You know what, GTA launched in May; Resident Evil comes out in March’.”

I picked this story up from Destructoid, where one commenter posed a clever theory: Publishers previously had the mindset that video games are just kids’ toys, and children are most likely to get them on Christmas. Personally, I can relate to that. I used to always get a video game on the eighth night of Hannukah, but now I just buy them when they deserve my $60, period. I would have loved to play Left 4 Dead in the summer of 2008, when nothing was going on. It’s still on my backlog now.

Let’s hope other publishers follow suit. With Halo Wars and Resident Evil 5 coming next month, and Street Fighter IV in stores now, it seems that this strategy might already be in play.

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California Video Game Law Smacked Down, Again

gavelBack in October, a federal appeals court listened to arguments on a three year-old bill that would put government labels on mature video games and ban their sale to minors. At the tail end of last week, the court ruled that law unconstitutional.

Judge Consuelo Callahan said while the games that concerned lawmakers are “unquestionably violent,” there are ways for parents to keep them from children, such as parental blocking features on consoles and the voluntary ESRB labels that appear on every retail game. Further, Callahan dismissed studies that suggest a link between violent games and aggression. None of it establishes or suggests a casual link between playing games and real mental harm, she said, according to the AP.

State Sen. Leland Yee, who wrote the bill, wants the case taken to the Supreme Court, but it’s not known yet how the state’s attorney general will respond.

The original hearing was one of the first stories I wrote about for Technologizer. Fresh-faced, I let out some of my pent-up frustrations with these kinds of laws, which have failed numerous times in the past. In short, sealing off mature video games as “harmful to minors,” along with cigarettes and pornography, can really hurt a medium that does address serious topics in new ways. Bioshock, Mass Effect, and Fallout 3, while violent, are great examples.

Entertainment Software Association president Michael D. Gallagher called the laws “an exercise in wasting taxpayer money,” which sounds funny given that the trade group is taking some of that money back — Californians were already forced to pay $282,794 to the ESA after the legislation was originally sticken down. Still, the industry does have the right to recoup its legal costs, and when it says a Supreme Court battle would only hurt taxpayers more, the anti-game crusade becomes even tougher to justify.