Friday, May 13, 2016

Flipull (1990)

Image shamelessly stolen from GameFAQs.
Nothing says 1990 like ransom note style text, bright colors, and
a pun on the word "tubular". Michaelangelo, the Teenage Mutant
Ninja Turtle, would be so proud, and would totally play this game,
if he had small enough "fingers" to hold a Game Boy.

While I have tried to, thus far in the Game Boy Guru project, show a balanced set of games, with carts spanning multiple genres, for those unaware, something needs to be put on the table right now.  The Game Boy has a LOT of puzzle games.  We got quite a few in the US, though there are even more in Japan.  Jeremy Parish, who does the excellent Game Boy World series, has lamented the glut of puzzle games on the Game Boy throughout several of his YouTube videos, because you can only have so many puzzle games to play before the novelty wears off.  The overwhelming barrage of puzzlers makes sense, however, given the original hardware's limitations, what with its decidedly underpowered CPU, its small dot-matrix screen, and tendency to blur horribly when playing anything with fast action.  The real trick for developers was to come up with a unique way of implementing puzzle solving that was just different enough to warrant folks spending their hard-earned cash to buy yet another game in the genre.  Thankfully, Flipull has two advantages: being early enough in the system's life to beat the glut, and setting itself apart enough to matter, even after the flood of "me too" puzzle games.

I'm still not clear what "AN EXCITING CUBE GAME" means, Taito.

Flipull is not an original Game Boy title, but rather, a conversion of an arcade game by the moniker Plotting.  It saw a Famicom and Game Boy release in Japan, though curiously, only hit the Game Boy in the US.  I confirmed with noted UK Game Boy expert Matt, the Game Boyle, that Flipull did not, insofar as he's aware, receive a European release.  The rather exhaustive game database at RF Generation also shows in a cursory search for Flipull that only 3 versions of the game exist by that name, the Japanese and US Game Boy versions, and the Japanese Famicom version.  Though the game was released in the arcade as Plotting, and apparently ported to a number of European micro-computers during the 1980's, most notably the ZX Spectrum and Commodore Amiga, curiously none of those versions appear to exist in the database.

So I'm a tiny blob throwing blocks at other blocks, and then after I bit
a block, another block comes flying back at me. It's all fun and games
until someone loses an eye.

I've been unable to find a scan of the game's manual online anywhere, and despite the fact that the US Flipull cart is quite common, I've not stumbled across the manual in the wild as of yet.  As such, the only documentation I was able to find on the Game Boy version was a relatively small FAQ over at GameFAQs, and that barely covers how to play the game.  I also found a PDF scan of the US arcade version manual, which gives a brief overview of how to play the game, as well as noting that there are (in the arcade original, anyway), 60 stages.  I have been unable to confirm that in the Game Boy version thus far, because it's a difficult game, and I've not been able to complete it.  Even so, it's a hard enough game that I suspect even the most skilled puzzle gamers may find some real challenge.

How is it that the incoming block only lands on top of you when you
have no moves left? Or is it just beside you, and you, as the blob,
are just beside yourself with shame in knowing you failed your task?

The basic premise is as follows: you are a blob creature, and you are given a block with the letter "S" on it.  When you throw that block at any other block, you clear it (and any blocks just like it directly connected to the target block in the same trajectory), and whatever block it hits next, gets "flipped" back to you, and that becomes the next block you throw.  There are 4 basic block types: a block with an "X" in the middle, a block with a smaller square in the center, a dark block with a white diamond, and a block with an upside down "T" that looks a bit like the t-shaped tetrad from Tetris.  If my first statement about clearing blocks didn't make sense, let me set the stage.  If you have an "X" block that you're throwing at another "X" block, and there's an upside down "T" block behind it, you'll clear one "X" block, replace the upside down "T" block with the "X" block you threw, and the "T" block will be thrown back at you.  If there are more than 1 of the "X" block in line (vertically or horizontally) with the "X" block you're aiming at, and they line up with the direction you've thrown the "X" block, all those blocks will clear, save for the one you just threw, and whatever the next non "X" block is, that's what will be thrown back to you.  If the block you just received has a corresponding block you can throw at, the process repeats.  If not, you "MISS" and lose a life, denoted by the "S" block at the bottom right of the screen.  Your blob can only move up or down on the playing field, so in order to throw blocks to places you could only target vertically, you have to throw against part of the stationary wall blocks, and a handy-dandy arrow will show you which column you're aiming for.  Clear as mud?

"Ooh, a swing and a miss for the rookie! Tough break, kid!"

In practice, it's actually more intuitive than my overly verbose description might make you think, and once you start playing, it's something you pick up on rather quickly.  Toward the top-right corner of the screen, you see "CLEAR" and a number below it - that number is the maximum number of blocks that need to be left on the screen to clear a level.  "TIME" is, of course, the amount of time you have left to play a stage, and "BLOCK" shows how many blocks are actually left in a level.  Once you reach the max number of blocks in a level, the stage doesn't automatically end, however.  If there are still available moves and time, you can continue playing until you're out of moves.  This is advantageous, as you score additional bonus points for clearing more blocks than what you need to reach the "CLEAR" total.  As you advance a few levels, you begin to have obstacle "pipe" blocks in the stage that you can throw against to catch blocks 1 column closer to you, or if you throw against stationary wall blocks, you can often pass through the pipe block to reach whatever is below it.  As the game goes on, each stage will have more and more blocks, more obstacles, and less time to reach your goal, so you have to manage your time very effectively in order to complete a level.

That little blob jumps pretty high when clearing a level. I suppose
if I were just a blob, such things would excite me like that as well.

A couple other considerations: first, if you're targeting blocks vertically, and you clear the last one from the column you just threw the block at, rather than disappearing, the last block will be flipped back to you, so you have to be careful to not pull such a maneuver too early in the level, lest you waste "S" blocks.  Second, for each block you clear on a level beyond the "CLEAR" count, you earn 1,000 bonus points.  If the "CLEAR" count is 9, and you have 9 left on screen when there are no more moves, you get 1,000 bonus points, but for each block you eliminate below that total, you get an additional 1,000 points.  So if the "CLEAR" count is 9, but you finish the level with just 7 blocks left, that's 3,000 bonus points.  In addition, for every second left when you finish the level, you earn an extra 10 points, so between that and the block count, you can really rack up the score if you can think on your feet and act quickly, decisively, and most of all, correctly during each stage.  The other major consideration is that each level is randomly generated, which means no two experiences will be the same, at least not unless you play the game a lot.  So each time you go into Flipull, you have to be cognizant about the moves you're making and think critically.

As mentioned, you can rack up a lot of points simply by playing
stage carefully to eliminate as many blocks as possible.

I don't have any information about how well this game sold, but I do remember seeing quite a few ads for it as a kid, and I remember it getting generally positive reviews.  I also remember being intrigued by it, but never remember seeing it in stores when I went to buy the occasional Game Boy game.  Either that, or I was already set on which game I wanted to buy, and had tunnel vision when I got to the store.  Despite that, it seems to be quite common, which is good, because it's a good game that, for puzzle enthusiasts, is worth a look.  I haven't played enough of them yet to know whether this would be considered a top-tier Game Boy puzzler, but I certainly had fun with it, and it has an addictive quality that makes me want to keep trying, even though it brings a relatively stiff challenge.  I paid $7 for my copy, which is close to the current (as of this writing) average price of a loose cart on eBay.  If you can score it for less, go for it.  If not, it's still a good game, and has enough content to keep you coming back, assuming you enjoy puzzles.  If so, give Flipull a try.  Hopefully, you'll be entertained as I was.  Casually recommended.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Cultural Impact Of The Game Boy

Image shamelessly stolen from USGamer.  This ad really shows the diversity of the
Game Boy game library.  Represented here, we have 2 puzzle games, 2 racing games,
an action/platformer adventure title, an action puzzler, a beat-em-up, a shoot-em-up,
a sports game, a light-hearted action title, and a puzzle/adventure game.

I work in healthcare.  More specifically, I'm an "IT guy", one of those overly geeky "computer nerds" who takes care of all things technology.  I work for a hospital, and we work, in turn, with a local nursing home.  I was visiting that location a few weeks ago, when I was struck by a conversation I overheard.  There was some apparent shuffling that needed to take place of some people within the organization, and the woman who was doing most of the talking stated that they need to effectively "play Tetris" with some people and some rooms.  This woman is probably a few years younger than I am, and she was speaking to another person who is several years older.  Both parties knew what the other was talking about, and the Tetris comment was clearly understood.  This isn't the only gaming-related phrasing or metaphor I've heard from people I wouldn't consider to be "gamers" in the traditional sense, but as I've begun to collect a large number of Game Boy carts, and consumed a lot of related content on the internet, it got me thinking about the long-term cultural impact of the Game Boy, and the legacy it has created.

The ubiquity of Tetris is due, in no small part, to Nintendo wisely choosing to include it with the original Game Boy upon its launch in North America.  Sure, everyone knows now what a great game Tetris is, but looking back 30 years ago, who would have thought that an obscure, Russian-designed computer puzzle game would have had such widespread appeal and acclaim?  Who would have guessed that the game would be referenced in casual conversation like my example above, talking about having to rearrange things, much like you do in the game?  I seriously doubt many would have had the foresight to predict such a thing.  Nintendo themselves knew they had a hit on their hand, when they licensed it for the home console market, but I don't think anyone at Nintendo could have foreseen the runaway success their little handheld would bring them.

Image shamelessly linked from Alchetron.
The fact that Alexey Pajitnov isn't a multi-millionaire because of Tetris
is a sad result of the USSR, as well as the perils of software licensing.

If you look at handheld gaming from the mid-1970's until 1989 when the Game Boy was introduced, you'll find that while Nintendo wasn't the first to offer a portable gaming system with interchangeable cartridges, they were the first to do so successfully.  Most famously, the first handheld game console with individual cartridges was Milton Bradley's Microvision in 1979, though its relatively modest success was short-lived, and the line was discontinued in 1981.  A few other companies put products into the market between 1981 and the Game Boy's North American debut in 1989, but none of them were met with much success, and often had a lot of shortcomings due to utilizing relatively old technology.  Nintendo's entry into the handheld gaming console market (not just single-game portable machines) was a landmark that would forever alter the course of gaming.

The interesting thing was, as the technology to make a powerful, handheld gaming system came into being, Nintendo wasn't the only company to be developing such a concept.  Epyx, a software company fresh off a handful of successful titles, began developing their own handheld gaming device in 1986, nearly a year before Game Boy designer Gunpei Yokoi began work on his handheld system.  Epyx didn't have the financial capabilities to mass produce their "Portable Computer Entertainment System", however, so Atari Corp. stepped in to help them make it a reality.  If only the Atari Lynx had debuted 6 months ahead of the Nintendo Game Boy, instead of the other way around, the gaming landscape might be somewhat different than it is today.  Would the Lynx have sold enough at its initial $179.99 price point to keep Nintendo from totally dominating the handheld gaming market?  Probably not, but the Game Boy might have been a bit less ubiquitous, and the poor Lynx might have become more than just the forgotten competitor from the worn out Atari.

The initial model of the Atari Lynx was quite large, and not nearly as portable as Nintendo's
Game Boy system, despite the latter still being a large, white plastic brick on its own.

While Tetris was a large part of the success of the Game Boy, due to its near-universal appeal, the fact that Nintendo marketed the Game Boy so well is another factor that contributed to its runaway success.  Unlike the Nintendo of the last decade or so, Nintendo in the late 1980's was dominating the market, but that didn't stop them from advertising their new product to anyone and everyone.  It was marketed as a fun system with a lot of games for kids.  It was marketed as "edgy" and "cool" to the teenage set.  It was also marketed toward adults, as a diversion from the doldrums of daily life.  Nintendo reaped the reward for all their efforts, as history has shown us, because the Game Boy line sold in the tens of millions within its first few years.

Nintendo successfully fused then-modern music and fast image cuts
with game footage to produce this kid-centric commercial.

Look at this hip 1989 teenage boy with his cool denim jacket, his, "I'm
ready for 1990" haircut, and his hot sneakers! Nerds like me, when I
was in school, would have looked up to him and his Game Boy.

I'd never seen this particular Game Boy TV spot before, but it truly
demonstrates the scope of Nintendo's advertising plan for the Game
Boy handheld. Serious, hard-working adults were just as much a
target as children, and many bought into the hype.

This is the adult-focused Game Boy commercial I remember seeing
as a kid, often watching prime time TV with my parents. Of course,
they weren't interested in such things, but many adults caught the fever.

Nintendo continues to dominate the dedicated handheld gaming market today, though the ubiquitous nature of smart phones has begun to eat into the overall market share.  Still, the fact that we're even playing games on our phones is itself a tribute to what Nintendo accomplished by putting real video games into our hands, not just LCD screens with static images and little interactivity.  The Game Boy was the first system to market that gave the consumer a true video game experience on the go, and it was affordable to do so.  They also wisely chose to include the ability to connect two Game Boy systems together via the Link Cable accessory, which came with the initial hardware, and worked with the system's pack-in game, as well as 2 of the other 5 US launch titles.  I spent many hours as a kid linking up with friends for head-to-head Tetris and Dr. Mario sessions, and after buying F-1 Race, I even got to play that against a friend or two.  It was the first time handheld gaming could be truly competitive as well, a feature that may well have been part of the inspiration for much of the online gaming boon many years later.

Another interesting thing about the Game Boy is that, despite the handheld lasting for nearly 10 years on the market (from its debut in April 1989 to the debut of the Game Boy Color in November 1998), there are only just over 500 original titles for the system.  Several games received "Million Seller" re-issues, and some games were later reissued by other publishers (such as Sunsoft re-issuing the Final Fantasy Legend games), but the total number of original, licensed games released in North America was just a shade over 500.  It seems odd that the Game Boy had so few games compared to the NES, which had somewhere in the 700+ range.  Having said that, the Game Boy did have basically twice the size of library as its closest competitor, Sega's Game Gear, and it dwarfed the library of the Atari Lynx, which topped out around 50 titles.  Despite all this, there are a number of Game Boy games that went on to spawn game series that have had lasting effects over the years.  From the sleeper hit Gargoyle's Quest (that produced 2 console sequels) to Kirby's Dream Land, which continues today in new and interesting iterations, and of course, the pervasive Pok√©mon series, which sold nearly 10 million copies in the United States alone, and as history has shown, became a worldwide phenomenon, right at the end of the Game Boy's life, all thanks to some innovative gameplay mechanics and the monster collection theme.  For a system 1 month away from the end of its life to have a game that became one of the system's best selling stand-alone titles is no easy feat.

This iconic clip is from the 1990's TV series, Picket Fences. I wasn't
allowed to watch the show, perhaps for obvious reasons, since the
themes of the show were a bit more mature in nature, but the sheer
mainstream saturation of the Game Boy was present in this show,
which was targeted more at adults and teens than kids.

It's easy to look back 25+ years and say that the Game Boy was a resounding success.  By contrast, I understand why some say that Nintendo is floundering with the Wii U, and to a lesser extent, their 3DS line-up of handheld systems, despite that continuing to be a money maker.  Even so, the market is a much different place now than it was during the time of the Game Boy, and there's far more competition for the same gaming space these days.  Smartphones have taken over where Nintendo's white brick once ruled, and even the 3DS (and Sony's poor Vita) struggles to continue to find an audience, amid free-to-play tower defense and puzzle games.  Still, all the hipsters, millennials, and soccer moms crushing candy and slashing fruit like a ninja owe the lion's share of that ubiquity to Nintendo, and their little handheld game system that could.  Without the Game Boy to begin that portable gaming revolution, you probably wouldn't be reading this article, because the lasting legacy of the Game Boy would have been far less important than it actually is.  For that, we all owe Nintendo a debt of gratitude.  I know my life would be less interesting without having spent a lot of time with my Game Boy as a kid, and even in more recent years as I've rekindled a love for the hobby.