My name is Robin, and this is my website about computer games. Here you can find essays about old games, industry commentary, free games I've made for fun, and funny songs.

“The Riddle”
Posted at 21:16 on 12th November 2017 - permalink

The first of two new Marioke video game karaoke songs of mine to debut this month – first performed by @MazHem_ 10/11/2017.

Thimbleweed Park is a neo-retro graphic adventure game by the creators of Maniac Mansion. If you liked Maniac Mansion and the first two Monkey Island games you’ll definitely get a kick out of it. As with the SCUMM games, Thimbleweed was made by a tiny team with the minimum of external interference, and is a very personal, precisely crafted work as a result. The mid-1980s setting begged the choice of song.

“Thimbleweed Park”
– after “The Riddle” by Nik Kershaw

Back at LucasArts
Maniac Mansion and
Monkey Island one and two
Were his, so we’ll kickstart
Ron Gilbert’s new adventure game
Now let’s play

A body by a river
Near the old Thimble town
Where two FBI agents
and a nerd and a clown
Hope to find out the reason
By the end of the night
But adventure game puzzles
Can take long to get right
And we’ll never use a guide for a clue

We’ll break into the
Old pillow factory
Send Reyes ahead of me
I keep on finding specks of dust
Those signals are strong tonight
Where to find a vacuum tube?

Though reluctantly
Ransome the Insult Clown
Will help Dolores out
So they can solve the mystery
Meanwhile old Franklin is a ghost
Why? Who knows

A body by a river
Near the old Thimble town
Where two FBI agents
and a nerd and a clown
Hope to find out the reason
By the end of the night
But adventure game puzzles
Can take long to get right
And we’ll never use a guide for a clue

It’s got tentacles
Sprites from the Commodore
Creator cameos
The hot dogs there will make you ill
Find me a thimbleberry pie
How we’ve tried


A body by a river
Near the old Thimble town
Where two FBI agents
and a nerd and a clown
Hope to find out the reason
By the end of the night
But adventure game puzzles
Can take long to get right
And we’ll never use a guide –

PICK UP corpse from the ground
We’re not sure all these puzzles
Are quite logically sound
As we hunt for a pixel
Use everything in sight
Tweet out to @GrumpyGamer
Hope that he’ll set us right
Cause we’ll never use a guide for a clue

No we’ll never use a guide for a clue

More Marioke songs

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“I’m Not Okay”
Posted at 20:16 on 14th October 2017 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed by James Scott and myself 13/10/2017.

This is something of a tribute song to Digital Foundry. DF get a lot of stick from some people who see them as joyless and pedantic, but it’s hard to deny that we’ve benefited from games being put under more (legitimate) technical scrutiny. It wasn’t that long ago that reviews didn’t make any distinction between platform versions and console makers could expect their technobabble to be taken at face value.

“I’m Not 4K”
– after “I’m Not Okay” by My Chemical Romance

Well if you want Ultra HD, please try another game
I know that I have let you down, I haven’t got more pixels in each frame
My video output
The framerate graphs that DF took
Regretting that you were mistook my resolution isn’t more

I’m not 4K
I’m not 4K
I’m not 4K
At TV Out

When they zoomed in to show you all my jagged vertex seams (I’m not 4K)
Denied it time and time again
– but couldn’t fool the bloke from Mean Machines
The review quotes you put
“The graphic style is off the hook”
My GPU begins to cook, is this realtime?
Take a good hard look

I’m not 4K
I’m not 4K
I’m not 4K
At TV Out


Forget about my last gen looks
Performance graphs and benchmark hooks
But if you’ll take another look, my renderer’s had an upgrade

I’m 4K
I’m 4K
I’m 4K, now
(I’m 4K, now)

But you really need to listen to me
Because I’m telling you the truth
I mean this
I’m 4K (trust me)

I’m not 4K
I’m not 4K
Well, I’m not 4K
I’m not 4-fucking-K
I’m not 4K
I’m not 4K (4K)

More Marioke songs

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Sega Forever
Posted at 21:48 on 1st October 2017 - permalink

A few months ago, Sega formally launched their “Amazing Sega” initiative in Japan, a company-wide effort to make better use of their massive back catalogue and heritage.

Sega of America’s contribution to this has been “Sega Forever”, a plan to bring Sega’s back catalogue re-releases under one unified brand, encompassing games made for any of Sega’s platforms, to be presented with a consistent feature set across all target platforms (although they’re limiting releases to iOS and Android for now, other digital stores are expected to fall under this banner in time).

Sega have previously done justice to segments of their back catalogue (the Sega Ages series on PS2, the 3D Classics series on 3DS, and Christian Whitehead’s ongoing work on 2D Sonic games culminating in the recent smash success of Sonic Mania), but the scope of these efforts has always been limited and local.

In theory Sega Forever is a really great idea. It gives Sega a way to make lots of their old games available legally, and to market them as something relevant to new audiences as well as people who remember them fondly from the last four decades. So it’s frustrating to see that, so far at least, they seem to be fumbling the execution quite badly.

The core problem with Sega Forever is a lack of conviction. It’s long been assumed that their old games have little value or relevance today beyond brand recognition, so any proposal that would have involved more than doing the bare minimum to exploit this brand value would have been a tough sell.

There seems to be a company dogma at Sega of America that the reason for their success in the 1990s was down to their marketing genius alone, with the quality or otherwise of the games being of little consequence. Any reference they make to their old games is accompanied by ‘ironic’ callbacks to their awful tone-deaf 1990s advertising. They’re gaming’s Peter Kaye. This trend reached its nadir with the meme-obsessed Sonic The Hedgehog Twitter account, which (one assumes) might refrain from pissing all over Yuji Naka’s legacy for a bit now that Sonic Mania has turned out to be actually good.

These misplaced priorities have affected Sega Forever in two major ways:

1. Their Mega Drive emulator is junk. The details of why have been covered at length elsewhere, but in a nutshell, they cheaped out because they believed that enough people would pay on the strength of nostalgia even if the product was substandard.

Contrary to recent press coverage, subsequent updates haven’t made the emulator “good enough”. All but the least technically demanding games run at sludgy framerates with inaccurate audio. Sega have tried to dodge the issue by blaming “device fragmentation“, which is nonsense. The emulator runs poorly on Apple and Samsung’s flagship devices that millions of people own. In fact it performs worse than the emulator they offered years ago when they first they started re-released Mega Drive games on iOS, when the hardware was orders of magnitude less powerful than today.

I think their best course of action would be to bite the bullet and license a decent emulator before it creates too much of a negative perception for the brand.

2. Their selection of titles is either being massively constrained by external factors or is just plain lazy. They keep teasing arcade games which then turn out to be the Mega Drive ports (because again, brand recognition is all that matters). If that wasn’t cheesy enough, they’ve also repackaged pre-existing iOS games (new, mobile-centric games using old IP, e.g. Virtua Tennis) which is a bit like subbing in the Tim Burton Wonka film for the Gene Wilder one in a retrospective of the latter’s work and hoping nobody notices.

Compare this to how Nintendo manage their re-releases. While the question “which of our game titles do people still remember?” was obviously asked, that wasn’t the end of the conversation. Nintendo have worked out deals with third parties, tidied up contemporary bugs and wonky translations, and even released games for the first time outside of specific territories (or in the case of StarFox 2, for the first time anywhere) to maximise the value of what they’re offering. Some games that are still well known seem to have been quietly retired by Nintendo because they’ve aged too badly.

Sega have just gone straight to the list of games that they know they own outright (e.g. Kid Chameleon, Comix Zone, Altered Beast) and market-tested brand names (Sonic, Golden Axe, Space Harrier, Phantasy Star, and again, crappy old Altered Beast) and chucked in the first things they found.

I understand that there are probably people involved in this project who are as frustrated about all this as I am. They’ve probably not set out to do a bad job, but have had to contend with a perception that this kind of project has limited commercial prospects and has been resourced accordingly. All I can urge them to do is to argue their case harder!

Sega Forever has a ton of potential to go beyond just milking a few pennies out of a handful of old Mega Drive ROMs.

Sega’s back catalogue is an Aladdin’s cave of treasures spread over a plethora of platforms, genres and target audiences. It may not be easy to untangle, but it would absolutely be worth the effort.

Starting with the most obvious thing they could be offering: direct coin-op ports. Letting mobile players watch video ads for credits seems like a no brainer, and using motion controls (or other non-standard methods) to replicate the controls of their custom arcade cabinets could work well.

They could be finding a way to offer the really strong second-party games from the Mega Drive era, the real meat of that platform’s library: Treasure, Sonic, Tecnosoft, Compile, WestOne, Novotrade, etc. A lot of these games made it to Virtual Console and other re-release compilations, so figuring out licensing must be at least possible.

They could be exploring specific periods of their history: the weird licensed games from the early days of the Mega Drive, the evolution of 3D arcade hardware, the Saturn/Dreamcast franchises that didn’t make the jump to subsequent generations. Coin-ops and home consoles aside, there are hundreds of Sega games for handhelds (from the Game Gear through to the 3DS) that have only ever been released on their original platforms.

And why not offer complete collections of platform-spanning franchises (Wonder Boy, Fantasy Zone, Shining Force, OutRun, Sakura Wars, Phantasy Star, Alex Kidd, Shinobi, etc. etc.)?

They could go down the multimedia route, and make video documentaries explaining the context of how some of their key games came about and the influence they had on later creators. Most of the key people are still around and (you’d hope) still have enough good will toward Sega to agree to get involved.

In terms of infrastructure, if they can make something that works for their own back catalogue, they could probably license it to other publishers/rights holders sitting on piles of old third party console games.

These are just some of the most obvious things that Sega could be doing to make better use of their IP hoard. I hope they’ll continue to expand and improve upon Sega Forever, but in the meantime there’s no shortage of indie studios stepping in to cater for the underserved demand with games like Racing Apex, Raging Justice and Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap.

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“Where The Streets Have No Name”
Posted at 16:54 on 17th September 2017 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 15/09/2017.

My self-imposed writing brief this month was to find songs by artists that have so far been absent from the Marioke songlist, and to favour the stupidest jokes possible.

“Where The Streets Are Of Rage”
– after “Where The Streets Have No Name” by U2

I want to punch
I want to slide
I want to throw down and brawl
And keep walking right
The cops’ll help out
Just once per stage
Where the streets are of rage

Ah ah ah yeah

I wanna kick
Bikers in the face
I’ll put Donovan and Galsia
Back in their place
We’ll beat up a wrestler*
In the pouring rain
Where the streets are of rage


Where the streets are of rage
Where the streets are of rage
We’re still stinging from your Grand Upper
Your Grand Upper
And when I go there
I go there with you
As your Player 2

The city’s corrupt
The streets filled with punks
We’ll beat them with blows to the chin
And knees to the junk
Eat chickens from bins
Roasted and stuffed with sage
Where the streets are of rage

Ah huh

Where the streets are of rage
Where the streets are of rage
We’re still stinging from your Grand Upper
Your Grand Upper
Yuzo Koshiro
Has wrote us some tunes
All of the tunes

The streets filled with punks

We’ll beat them with blows to the chin
Blows to the chin

Oh yes you know
See the streets filled with punks

I will beat them with blows to the chin
Blows to the chin

Oh when I go there
I go there with you
It’s Bare Knuckle 2

*Yes I know it’s actually a barman that you fight in the rain in SoR2, but wrestler fits the line better.

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“The Bad Touch”
Posted at 21:07 on 20th June 2017 - permalink

The second of two new songs I’ve added this month to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 16/06/2017.

“Switch” – after “The Bad Touch” by The Bloodhound Gang

I’d appreciate your input

Switch, baby, Switch, baby, can’t take an Xbox out
-side of the house to play the games that even Edge will rave about
Gameboy Advance, but enhanced, yes you could say some such
Yes there’s Squid Kids, yes there’s Tingle
Yes there’s racing Mushroom Cup
The Wii U wasn’t up to much
Nintendo had to put it down
Had to recover with another
Turn their sales curve upside down
They codenamed it the NX, shifted all their projects
Nintendo Direct is on it’s time
We know we can adopt it early cause it’s getting Metroid Prime

(Do it now)
Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
But now we do it on a unit that can go where we travel
(Do it again now)
Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So let’s do it on a unit that can go where we travel
(Gettin’ horny now)


Love…. to see a list of games that’s growing daily
From Pokken Tournament to Thumper
Splatoon 2 to Yooka-Laylee
Lineup’s t’riffic, but to be specific I wanna be playing Rocket League
when I’m on the toilet without spoiling my enjoyment
which I can’t on the PC
If I’m on wifi, when I fly, any time, worldwide
This function is legit, and I can cut you down to size
when we are playing SnipperClips
So you bring yours and I’ll bring mine
We’ll play four player local style
Unless our batteries are fried
From too much Breath of the Wild

Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So let’s do it on a unit that can go where we travel
(Do it again now)
Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So let’s do it on a unit that can go where we travel
(Gettin’ horny now)


Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So let’s do it on a unit that can go where we travel
(Do it again now)
Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So let’s do it on a unit that can go where we travel

Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So let’s do it on a unit that can go where we travel
(Do it again now)
Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So grab hold of that JoyCon like you’re choking a Fraggle
(Gettin’ horny now)

More Marioke songs

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Posted at 21:07 on - permalink

The first of two new songs I’ve added this month to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 16/06/2017 by Marioke’s resident Radiohead-head, @James_SWilson.

“Your Druid Needs More Health” – after “Just” by Radiohead

Elf needs food badly
You’ve been running round a maze
Dressed like a hobbit
Dungeoneering with your friends

Edged weapons not for you
Cause after all you took a holy vow

Your druid needs more health, they do
To fight the beasts that lurk
Your druid needs more health, it’s true
Druid who’s an elf
Your druid needs more health
Your druid needs more health

The stones are slippery, on the dungeon’s fifteenth floor
Evaded orcs and slimes
Till you reached a talking door
If you can get some herbs
He’ll teach you how to make a curing spell

Your druid needs more health, they do
To quest beneath the earth
Your druid needs more health, it’s true
Druid who’s an elf
Your druid needs more health
Your druid needs more health


Your druid needs more health, they do
To fight the beasts that lurk
Your druid needs more health, it’s true
Druid who’s an elf
Your druid needs more health
Your druid needs more health, whoa!


Your druid needs more health, your druid needs more health
Yeah, yeah, your druid needs more health, yes, yes, you
Druid needs more health!

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GameCamp 2017 (#gamecamp9)
Posted at 18:13 on 29th May 2017 - permalink

As previously noted, the ninth GameCamp event took place earlier this month at LSBU in South London.

I was invited onto the GameCamp committee this year, so for the first time got to see the whole process of how the event is organised. I’m massively grateful to all the organisers for the time and effort they volunteer to make the event go smoothly.

Around 200 people attended, and there was a good variety of talks / discussions and playtests going on throughout the day.

Every year attendees are given a ‘free gift’, usually accompanied by rules for a suggested game. For the first time this year, the freebie was an original game designed for the show – ‘Coaster Clash’, a set of five unique beermats depicting five characters that could face off in rock-paper-scissors-Spock-lizard fashion. (There are quite a few of these left over, so look out for them turning up in the Loading Bar and similar venues in the coming weeks.)

Here’s a rundown of the talks I attended – I was rushing around a bit more than usual this year and managed to drop in on a few others as well.

1010ish – Traditional opening address by James Wallis, explaining just what the hell is going on.

1030 – A discussion on adventure game conversation mechanics – I didn’t catch who ran this, but it was a great way to start the event, and encouraged lots of people to participate.

1100 – How you’d go about build Westworld in real life / How games can approach comedy (two separate discussions)

1130 – Pyrodactyl indie developer company post mortem

1200 – Telling stories in card games / There was also a discussion of working with different platforms to get a game published in this timeslot which I’m told was also very good.

1230 – Lunch. LSBU still require the event to use their in-house catering, to the dissatisfaction of everybody involved. And such large portions.

1330 – “Starting a game company” – I don’t know who was running this, but the bit I sat in on was more “how to pitch to investors”. Seemed to go well though.

1400 – A highly informative, quite technical talk on tools (Lua, React Native, Elm, Swift, etc.) that let you develop and deploy games very quickly by James Porter

1430 – Dr. David King led a discussion on dexterity in board (and card games), which it turns out is quite a tricky thing to implement, with various skill and accessibility considerations.

1500 – A joint Q&A / interview between Alan Hazelden (Cosmic Express et al) and Claire “Minkette” Bateman (Oubliette Room Escape et al)

1530 – I gave a rambling ‘travelogue’-ish talk about No Man’s Sky, on the basis that a lot of people who dropped out after the initial launch last year (or were put off by the negative press) were unaware of all the cool stuff that Hello Games have added to the game in the subsequent Foundation and Path Finder updates. I think I managed to persuade some people to have another look, and in turn I learned that the way the deformable terrain works means that the game is unlikely to ever support realtime multiplayer.

1600 – A beta version of Ste Curran‘s latest talk, given this year at Nordic Game. The contents are top secret.

As ever the day concluded in The Ship pub down the road, which we found has some uniquely terrible charity shop board games.

Thanks to everyone who came – until next year!

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“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”
Posted at 18:11 on - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 26/05/2017.

A song that went to #1 in the US and sold over 1,000,000 copies, but which peaked at #23 in the UK singles chart. Something to bear in mind for future song choices…

“50 Ways to Blow Your Cover” – after “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon

The target the agency wants dead, she said to me
Is always accompanied by their security
So 47, please approach them carefully
Because there’s fifty ways to blow your cover

She said I know you make a habit to intrude
And you utilise disguises to avoid being pursued
But sometimes you forget, and storm the front gates in the nude
One of those fifty ways to blow your cover
Fifty ways to blow your cover

Just whip out your gat, Matt
Stab the wrong man, Stan
Don’t make too much noise, Roy
You’ll get yourself seen
Start acting suss, Gus
Been causing a fuss much?
Don’t manage to flee, Lee
Or just be stealthy

Ooh, miss-time your shot, Scott
Get caught on cam, Pam
Be seen with a piece, Rhys
Concealment is key
Toss a grenade, Wade
That’s not how the game’s played
Just drop out a tree, Ste
Or just be stealthy

She said with Squeenix gone this could be your last game
I wish there was something I could do to make them think again
Or, y’know, failing that, at least give us a way to keep our online saves

I said at least we went out at our height
Cause unlike Absolution this one’s actually alright
But the episodic nature meant if one level was shite
Then you’d wait thirty days to play another
Fifty more ways to blow your cover

Just whip out your gat, Matt
Stab the wrong man, Stan
Don’t make too much noise, Roy
You’ll get yourself seen
Start to act suss, Gus
Been causing a fuss much?
Be too slow to flee, Lee
Or just be stealthy

Choke out a goon, June
Spike the wrong meal, Neil
Leave bodies in view, Stu
Where someone can see
Wait for a bus, Gus
Push ’em under the bus, Gus
Reload your last save, Dave
This time be stealthy

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GameCamp 9 is happening – 6th May 2017
Posted at 22:13 on 24th April 2017 - permalink

Do you like games? Do you like fun? Can you make it to London South Bank University on the 6th May? If your answer to all of these questions is “yes please!” you should probably consider coming to GameCamp.

GameCamp is an annual one-day ‘unconference’ event that covers computer and video games as well as board, card, physical and other flavours of modern games. (It’s called GameCamp in reference to the earlier BarCamp – neither event involves any camping.)

‘Unconference’ means that anyone attending can give a talk (or panel/interview/roundtable) or run a game – you just pick a room and a timeslot and post it on the central board. You can even claim multiple slots if you like, and the board is open throughout the day, for instance if you feel compelled to start another conversation in response to something else you’ve seen earlier in the day.

Attendance is not restricted to games industry professionals or academics – you just need to be curious about games. Nor is there any obligation to speak or participate in anything that doesn’t interest you – attendees are freely able to wander in and out of talks (provided they’re not too disruptive).

I’ve attended all but one of the previous GameCamp events and have written most of them up: http://citystate.co.uk/archives/tag/gamecamp/

From these you can get some idea of the variety of content on offer (although bear in mind I tended to favour talks about computer games over other stuff). On each occasion I have played something cool, learnt something useful, and met multiple excellent people.

You can buy your ticket here!

The ticket price covers a full day of activities (continued in the pub in the evening), an event programme, a surprise exclusive souvenir gift, and a canteen lunch with vegetarian option.

I hope to see some of you there!


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Posted at 18:19 on 19th February 2017 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 17/02/2017.

“Foundation Update” – after “Intergalactic” by Beastie Boys

Intergalactic, planetary, planetary, intergalactic ( × 2 )

Foundation update, mandatory, mandatory, foundation update ( × 2 )

Sean Murray‘s invention ( × 11 )

Well now, don’t you diss No Man’s Sky
Please stick around to give it one more try
Got planets beyond where you can fly
Maybe this will keep you occupied

“Why’d you lie?” fools said
Got haters on our backs trying to dogpile
Implementing systems can take a while
But now we’re coming back with a very large file

Now if you load it up it’s been restyled
Giant creatures roaming in the wild
No sand worms, sorry Kyle
Wombat’s head on a crocodile

Why do gamers gotta be juvenile?
Coming to my mentions to spit your bile
I’ll mute you so it’s all futile
Animes on your profile

Foundation update, mandatory, mandatory, foundation update ( × 2 )

Chasing black holes, that’s our scheme
Getting to the centre, to say that we’ve been
Trying to survive, no guarantees
I like my planet conditions extreme

When I look on Metacritic or on Reddit or Steam
“I played a half hour, it’s not like I dreamed”
Well on the dogfighting I’m not too keen
Wanna visit worlds not shoot laser beams

Creative mode gonna go sightseeing
I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe
Skies like paintings by Roger Dean
Taking screenshots to use as wallpaper themes

Now when it comes to smuggling my hold is clean
Traded all my finds with a nice Vy’keen
The Hilbert Dimension, new galaxy
Foundation update, mandatory

Foundation update, mandatory, mandatory, foundation update ( × 4 )

It’s from the family tree of old school space ops
Collecting fuel for galactic hops
It’s not a sim, but still on top
Cuz Elite only lets you land on lifeless rocks

They’ve been known to use bullshots
Promised things that weren’t in the box
But Sean Murray’s got no biz getting doxxed
Hello Games time to let that patch

Mmm… drop?

Now if your game’s procedural it needs no plot
Whole galaxy is the sandbox
Try a new planet if this one’s no cop
Or buy a mothership, okay let’s dock

If you want a refund you’ll get mocked
Hundred hours on the clock
I built a neat base where aliens can shop
It’s a cinch with a Gek who mists my crops

Foundation update, mandatory, mandatory, foundation update ( × 4 )

Sean Murray’s invention ( × 12 )

More Marioke songs

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Posted at 18:31 on 22nd January 2017 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 20/01/2017 (Eighties Night).

The Last Guardian is a must-own game for the PS4, unless you require games to constantly explain everything to you.

“Trico” – after “Geno” by Dexys Midnight Runners

Woke up in a cave with a fifty foot dog
Oh Trico
With feathers and horns? Maybe it’s not a dog
Oh! Trico!
So I fed you barrels of flourescent goo
After we were done plucking the spears from you
Bestrode your head and you didn’t bite
Just follow my steps and we’ll get outta this plight

Diegetic information, I gave you some
“A huge man-eating creature”
The Last Guardian
But now just look at me
As I’m riding round on you
Your AI’s pretty flash
You know what I want you to do


Climbing past each stage, the tower’s really high
Oh Trico
Made it past the armours, the bridges, the eyes
Oh! Trico!
When I couldn’t continue, I called out your name
But I never knew, like you knew, me and you were the same
We found a weird mirror, your tail’s shooting flame, brrrrr!
I’ve fed you, I’ve pet you, I’ll remember your game

Molyneux-like proclamations, Ueda shunned
We thought they must have cancelled
The Last Guardian
But it’s not vapourware
And you finally came through
You’d never get a game like this on your PlayStation 2


Oh Trico
Oh! Trico!
On Trico
Oh! Trico!
Oh Trico…

More Marioke songs

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Super Mario Run
Posted at 22:16 on 5th January 2017 - permalink

You may have noticed that Nintendo launched their first iOS game last month (with the Android version expected to launch imminently). Super Mario Run is a stunning debut – it’s polished, content-rich and unapologetically aimed at experienced video game players, with Toad Rally, an endlessly deep asynchronous multiplayer game, at its core (plus a set of 96 increasingly challenging single player objectives as a hearty side dish). It’s unquestionably one of the best premium mobile games ever released and is pretty much an essential purchase to anyone who isn’t deathly averse to Mario platformers.

While it’s priced appropriately (at the high end of the $5-$10 premium mobile sweet spot, with the quality associated with the brand bumping it a little higher than average), the game has received some negative press for its anomalous ‘free trial’ monetisation model: the game is free to download but only the first few stages can be accessed, with the rest of the game locked away behind a one-time $9.99 USD paywall.

There are few iOS games of note that have ever managed to successfully implement a hard paywall, New Star Soccer perhaps being the last, three years ago. (Since then a steady stream of minimalist one button shovelware has sadly led to many users assuming that mobile arcade games should be 100% free.)

Once the user has paid, Super Mario Run’s in-game economy works like a ‘sandpit’ version of F2P. There are currencies earned through time and skill which throttle the speed at which content can be accessed in other modes, but no microtransactions to let you bypass this process. A vaguely similar system is found in Ridiculous Fishing, although Mario is clearly designed to be played for much longer.

I think that – in theory – this was a very shrewd decision by Nintendo, allowing them to get the game into the hands of the widest possible audience (an estimated 90m downloads as of this writing – lots of new Nintendo Accounts that can be upsold to the Switch), while at the same time minimising their financial risk and avoiding diluting the brand. The choice of Mario (and specifically referencing the New Super Mario Bros games, a massive mainstream hit) further hammers home that you can expect a proper video game rather than a Nintendo-themed tie-in (in the style of the Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy, etc. F2P games) and sends the message to investors that they’re serious about this.

In practice, I believe that Nintendo underestimated the level of confusion and hostility that would be result from failing to clearly communicate how the game was sold.

Although comment sections and user reviews are always peppered with people claiming they would prefer to pay once than to jump through the hoops of the typical F2P game, in practice there is a section of the audience that simply refuse to pay for games ever.

Without the luxury of being able to soft launch Super Mario Run in a few territories to test the waters, Nintendo had to simply go on their foreknowledge of how the Mario brand was perceived (in conjunction with Apple’s assurance of an unprecedented level of marketing support on the App Store). The resulting negative reviews have overwhelmingly come from non-payers – if the game had used the conventional premium approach its review average would be much healthier.

The purchase process and first-time user experience (new players are led through a convoluted sign-up process, although unlike Pokemon Go the network side of things has at least been stable) have undoubtedly put a crimp in the percentage of players Super Mario Run has been able to convince to pay for the full experience.

However this shouldn’t be read as the launch having gone poorly. In spite of the unorthodox decision to not charge at install time, Super Mario Run is still a premium game, and has already shifted more full price units in the first few days than what many high profile premium mobile games have managed in their lifetimes. The ‘onboarding’ problem is isolated, and can be improved upon without Nintendo needing to fundamentally alter the design of the game. (They certainly shouldn’t react to a wave of disgruntled user reviews and investor grumbling by slashing the price – that is seldom a wise first resort.)

Thankfully, more sensible people seem to have grasped the idea that Nintendo aren’t trying to challenge the dominance of F2P games in the Top Grossing chart with a game that limits per-user expenditure to $10, and they didn’t design the game in this very specific way out of inexperience or arrogance. Here are some editorials that are worth your time:

Casually Yours: Super Mario Run Exposes Problems in Mobile Coverage (Remeshed)

Super Mario Run Is a Trojan Horse for Toad Rally (Kotaku UK)

What analysts think about Super Mario Run (ZhugeEX)

Super Mario Run’s inevitable backlash (GamesIndustry.biz)

Super Mario Run’s missed opportunity (GamesIndustry.biz)

So why have we seen so many pundits jump to the conclusion that Super Mario Run has been a flop, and that Nintendo’s chances of making mobile games a significant pillar of their business are now somehow irrevocably blown? Well, oxygen is free and dickheads are plentiful. But more seriously, there are two likely motivations.

1. Ignorance: If you’re an analyst, business journalist, or even some strain of specialist games journalist who isn’t called to cover mobile games very often, it’s understandable that you would take the current dominant business model (Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans) to define the entire format in perpetuity. Most people don’t follow the day to day events in the sector that closely, and may (certainly at the business end) view the market through the lens of the Facebook game bubble or other short-term gold rushes. In this context it makes sense to directly compare Super Mario Run to F2P games. Whereas in an informed context, it would be more sensible to wait until Nintendo/DeNA release a true F2P game, which they’re widely expected to do before the year is out.

2. Insecurity: In every field there are some who need to view perceived rivals as failing to validate their chosen team/tribe/hobby horse. The rise of freemium has emboldened a few ‘mavens’ with this mindset: The sort who typically spent the last few years pointing at graphs of declining PC sales and growing smart device sales. (Since PC gaming’s resurgence and tablet sales flatlining they’ve gone quiet on this topic.)

These days most of their hot air is expended on ‘proving’ that the changing way in which the public divide their time between different screens somehow means that ‘traditional’ (console/handheld/AAA/hardcore/single-player/pay-once/etc.) games are in terminal decline. They can’t understand why thoughtfully made, life-enriching games – and especially Nintendo games, which seldom pay heed industry trends – can have any more inherent value than Cookie Clicker or a fixed odds betting terminal.

It’s easy to spot the people in this camp when they’re discussing Super Mario Run – they’re the ones desperately retweeting any scrap of negative coverage, no matter how inane, from unconvincingly scandalised clickbait about how it’s burning through players’ data allowances to glib anecdotes about schoolchildren not knowing who Mario is. They’re the ones treating the ignorant howls of one-star user reviews (the game is “too short” or “overpriced” or “no better than any other endless runner” – clue: it isn’t one; another clue: these reviews never, ever name one of these supposedly ‘just as good’ games) as established fact while ignoring professional critics.

Pokemon Go received similar brickbats. It’s technically broken. The user reviews are terrible. Nobody is going to want to change their routine for a game. It’s a fad. It’s not updated enough. All of which proved to be nonsense as the game dominated the charts for months, still maintaining a more than respectable position between updates, AND massively drove sales of the 3DS games (the aspect of Nintendo’s multi-platform strategy that always seemed to be a bit more “2. ?????” than “3. PROFIT” to be honest). Toys were hurled out of the pram at Miitomo, Fallout Shelter, and pretty much anything else that ever dared to deviate from the narrow path of conventional wisdom before that.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth from some quarters is understandable. In a market where a few advertising and tech companies have been able to become wildly successful by prioritising data-driven design and casino tactics far above artistry and deep engagement, a new wave of customers having their first mobile game experiences with Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run (and soon Animal Crossing?) will have expectations they can’t easily meet, at least without a protracted, expensive and painful cultural upheaval. (There are plenty of fun, deep and artful F2P games, but the model has constraints that will always put certain kinds of games off limits.)

Now, I’m by no means a blind Nintendo fanboy. I’ve regretted a fair few purchases of games for their systems, dislike their habit of repeatedly hawking their back catalogue at inflated prices, despaired at their fumblings with making a modern online service, and thought that the Wii U was a massive backward step. But Super Mario Run is a truly great game and a confident step into the unknown for a conservative company for whom playing safe would have been understandable. Anything that makes the mobile games scene a more vibrant place to be should be celebrated.

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Season’s Greetings
Posted at 15:09 on 24th December 2016 - permalink

I participated in the Marioke Christmas Charity Single this year, in support of Asylum Aid. Please share the video and donate if you want. Merry Christmas!

Please note that this video contains rude words.

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“Virginia Plain”
Posted at 00:57 on 20th November 2016 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 19/11/2016.

I only knew this song from Kevin Eldon’s version, so I was worried beforehand that it would be a bit obscure. You can probably work out which line was written first.

“Neo Geo” – after “Virginia Plain” by Roxy Music

Make a machine and make it great
Factory sealed, I’ll take it
To C+VG I’ll show it
Hundred meg cart, so don’t blow it ’cause
They’ve been around a long time
Just try-tra-try-tra-tryin’ for console bigtime

Take me on at King of Fighters
Take a shot at Super Spy
We’ll play Garou: Mark of the Wolves and then we’ll
Have a Shodown with some Samurai
When we’ve got games like these
Who needs Sega or Nintendo? We are playing NEO GEO!


Dropping in coins and losing fast
To the front room, we’ll take it
Capcom’s around – we’re trying! – to perfect the Art of Fighting
Shock Troopers and Super Sidekicks
This is your average week
For a Neo Geo freak

Terry Bogard‘s down to street fight
Metal Slug, we’ve seen some wars
Lots of space to store those great sprites
Dual 16 and 8 bit cores – oh wow!
Sure you can play them all on MAME
But for you, and me too, only the real thing will do


Chojin Gakuen Gowcaizer
Names we’ll never understand
Just to buy the basic system
Would set you back a grand, but hey
Do you want an awesome game?
What’s their name?
It’s SNK

More Marioke songs

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COD:IW and the Windows Store
Posted at 20:35 on 4th November 2016 - permalink

There’s recently been a little bit of a kerfuffle about Activision making the puzzling decision to release a separate (UWP) version of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare on the Windows Store, in which the multiplayer mode only allows you to play with other UWP players (and not with players who have bought the game anywhere else – Steam, retail, etc.).

Microsoft presumably knew that this wouldn’t go down well with the specialist press, so released an official (making no mention of the game or Activision) and unofficial statement to a friendly site. Predictably, many of the major games sites that have picked up on the story have merged these two messages together, resulting in headlines along the lines of “Windows Store version of COD won’t let you play with Steam players and it’s Activision’s fault.”.

I don’t have any inside information about how the deal went down between Microsoft and Activision, but can make some confident guesses about some aspects:

1. Surely the only reason COD:IW is on the Windows Store is because Microsoft desperately want it there, and will have reached some kind of arrangement with Activision (involving cash, better terms, free marketing, technical assistance and/or some other incentive) to put it there. You can liken this to the deals they did around GTA IV (coughing up $50m for GFWL integration, some level of timed exclusivity, DLC, etc.) or ensuring big ‘name brand’ mobile apps (Angry Birds, Netflix, etc.) were on the Windows Phone store when they were still trying to make that work. I’d go so far as to speculate that Microsoft may even be eating the cost of the discounted launch price.

2. There is little chance of this version making much profit beyond that one-shot incentive, so Activision will have made the minimal effort possible to do the port. COD is a franchise that still does a big proportion of its business in console boxed copies, and while the PC market has exploded in recent years, the additional sales that could be mustered from small (non-Steam) distribution channels are unlikely to be a priority for them.

There is an assumption that the Windows Store can’t be doing that badly (compared to uPlay, Origin, GOG and the other stores that occupy the edges of the PC digital games market not taken up by Steam) because it’s bundled with Windows 10, but outside of a couple of Microsoft-owned IP, it’s hard to point to any notable success stories there. The fact that high profile ‘exclusive’ games like Tomb Raider and Quantum Break had to messily reverse out of their exclusivity deals don’t exactly suggest a marketplace in robust health.

3. Microsoft can safely say that they’ve not ordered Activision to break compatibility. What I suspect they’ve done is sneakier, and it’s a tactic that have form for using in the past to disadvantage rivals.

The Windows Store version of COD:IW has to support the weird Windows 10 Xbox app to facilitate multiplayer. The standard version uses Steamworks. While Microsoft don’t prevent developers from implementing Steamworks in UWP games in addition (although they used to), it’s extra cost and work to implement and test two separate systems. (There is a bit of confusion over what MS require, ban, or just make needlessly difficult to implement for UWP games sold on their store, but you get the general gist. The fact that MS are even able to refer to ‘crossplay’ as an optional feature between users on the same hardware platform shows how ludicrous this situation is.)

This is similar to how Microsoft tilted the playing field against Netscape back in the day. OEMs weren’t prevented from installing other browsers on new PCs, but Microsoft argued that Internet Explorer couldn’t be removed as it was part of the operating system. (This turned out to be flim-flam, and the European Court wasn’t very pleased.) OEMs didn’t want the cost of supporting two browsers, so Netscape got the bullet.

I don’t think that this latest silliness poses any kind of serious threat to Steam’s dominance of the PC games space, but it does add another little bit of fuel to the fire of Tim Sweeney’s argument that UWP and the Windows Store risk being used as a trojan horse to turn Windows into a walled garden.

Personally I don’t think that Microsoft can make the PC games market swallow the pill of the PC as a closed iOS-like platform even if they want to. No amount of money would have made GFWL work, and consumers rejected punitative ‘always on’ DRM systems (for the most part). That said, we should continue to scrutinise and question any moves Microsoft (or anyone else) make that normalise a situation where PC games can’t be modified by end users, and access to the market is increasingly reserved for major publishers with deep pockets.

I think it’s in everyone’s best interest for the PC to have credible alternatives to Steam (which is far from perfect itself), and I hope that Microsoft are listening. A few years ago I wouldn’t have believed that they’d ever kill Kinect (and various other ill-conceived projects) to save their Xbox business, so maybe they’re not still the stubborn gorilla we assume.

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