Tuesday, April 28, 2015
I have a soft spot for games that make the best of a limited display. Game & Watch is the most popular example, but go even further back, and you'll find things like the Merlin, or Mattel's old Football game. These games had to communicate with the player using nothing but blinking dots. And in that spirit comes Dot Arcade.
Dot Arcade began as two independently-developed games designed to be displayed on an 8x8 grid of LEDs. One of them was actually physically prototyped. But when the designers met and realized how expensive it would be to create physical toys, they decided to make them a discount bundle on the Wii U instead.
And it's magic.
The first thing that knocked my socks off was the presentation. The Wii U gamepad is such a perfect match for this game that I can almost forgive them for not going to the 3DS first. The gamepad is the same sort of bulky yet cozy size and shape that those old toys had, so it's almost as good as if they'd made the physical toys they'd planned from the start. The playfield is bordered with "cabinet art", and the style is so spot-on that it actually makes me feel like I'm playing with a real arcade machine. And the electronic manual is a delight. It's written in the voice of old Atari game manuals, and it never breaks character, thanking you for your purchase of your new Dot Arcade machine and advising you not to blow into the cartridges. I never get tired of this kind of attention to detail in these faux-retro packages.
And it has to be said, the fictional toy that they're giving you kicks ass. It licks all those old toys from the 70s clean. If this were a physical toy, it would have 64 LEDs, each capable of displaying a rainbow of colors; three cartridges (I'm guessing, based on the description in the manual, that the game wouldn't simply have a game-selection switch); six interchangeable face plates with cabinet art; and some way of connecting to a color television. Try doing that with your Simon.
As for the games themselves? They're not bad. These kinds of generic "Arcade Hits" compilations tend to fall into one of two categories. One kind is so generic that absolutely nothing about them stands out. The other kind tries to stand out by changing the game in some way that totally breaks anything fun about it. And Dot Arcade doesn't fall into either of these pitfalls. Here's the games.
Mr. Snake -- It's Snake. The game where you whizz around the board, trying to eat dots and avoid your own tail as it grows ever longer behind you. This game's a bit more interesting than most because the screen wraps in all four directions, letting you go out one side and come back in the other, and because there are moving obstacles to avoid besides your tail. It's just a little tweak, but it makes the game a bit cooler.
Dodge Club -- Near as I can tell, this is a completely original game. You're a square, and you're trying to avoid another square as it bounces around the screen. There's also a two-dot "snake" circling the edge to keep you from just finding a safe spot in the corner and sticking there. Fun game, slightly less "twitchy" than the other two.
Rally Driver -- You've probably played a game like this at some point. The motif is racing, but really you're just moving left and right at the bottom of the screen dodging cars that come raining down on you from the top. What makes this different from most such games is the variation. Though the enemy cars generally become faster as you go, every now and then a particularly slow or fast car will appear to throw off your rhythm, and once in a while a car will change lanes as it approaches, forcing you to react quickly. Probably my favorite in the set, combining fast action with the possibility to extend your score indefinitely.
Probably my favorite thing about this set is just how dramatically it demonstrates the power of abstraction in video games. The objects in the game are literally dots, just circles of colored light. And yet, it's amazing how easy it is to buy into each game's reality. The suggestion of the cabinet art to either side of your field of vision, combined with the brief theme tune that plays at the beginning and end of each game, is all your imagination needs to create the setting and tone. I understand that the blue lights in Mr. Snake are asteroids, the flashing square in Dodge Club is a fireball. The flashing lights that boarder the screen in Rally Driver do such a good job of suggesting the speed of a racecar that I sometimes have to remind myself that the playfield is almost completely static; I only think I'm racing ahead at incredible speeds.
And why shouldn't this be true? The more you get into a game -- any game -- the less you notice and appreciate the detail of any given object, and the more your lizard brain takes over. You're looking for very basic things -- movement, threat, attraction. You're thinking about fight or flight. Sure, it's great when things look cool, but when all of your focus is on surviving second-to-second, your fully rendered HD character might as well be a row of green lights.
Another thing I really appreciate is control options. I mean thank goodness. When I can't even play bloody Pac-Man Collection with a Wii Remote, it's nice to have a game that you can play with any controller -- the gamepad, a Wii Remote, any of the classic controllers... Even cooler is that you can play with any cross pad or stick. Even the ABXY buttons can be your joystick if you please.
The developers claim that their objective wasn't just to make a nostalgia piece, but to introduce this kind of gameplay to the new generation of gamers. It's hard to say if it'll hit its mark -- especially being a Wii U exclusive -- but it's certainly gotten me thinking about the possibilities of gaming inside an 8x8 grid. I'm working on a proper light grid game engine for the DS and playing around with making my own games. So if nothing else, it's gotten me interested in keeping this style of game alive.