Weekly Content Blog #24 – Retro Flaws

It’s no secret that we here at Something Classic are very much into retro games. With an average age of 28, we cut our gaming teeth on early 90’s titles that are now firmly established as, to use a technical term, “oldschool.” Gaming has progressed forward significantly in terms of technology, presentation, and user experience since that era. Now, nostalgia is a powerful thing, and our collectively rose tinted glasses can cause us to overlook some of the blemishes in the classics. So, to counteract that, I’m going to identify some gameplay faux pas that existed in older jRPGs that we made sure to avoid.

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Weekly Content Blog #23: Post-processing

So after going over your level design budget trying to figure out how those darn attractive tiles connect to each other, you finally figure it out and have a level. Congratulations! Your game is complete and now you can release and retire to a Nepalese Monk Monastery. Wait, what do you mean the level is bare and has none of that extra juice?

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You let out a loud groan of despair and shake your fist at the user who ruined your retirement plans. As you return to the lowly confines of your office, you plan how you’re going to make the level built by Luke the Wondrous the most amazing level yet seen in the game. You’re young, idealistic and invincible. What can you add that suits your greatness? Which type of effect can be found littered throughout every triple A game? That’s right, post-processing effects.

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Nothing can bring you down now, for you possess the power of post-processing effects! Now let’s see them say there is nothing to do! Now let’s see if they can find all the secret effects littered throughout the level to unlock the secret super badazz effect boss that can only be beaten with the power of love.

Shadows of Adam is using two methods to handle post-processing effects; the first, and main method, is using WebGL to render advanced effects in real-time that require full image awareness. Our second, and fallback/OMGNOWEBGL, method is to use native canvas API capabilities to either fake the desired result through hackery, or imitate the effect exactly, but with a noticeable performance hit. Our planned minimum hardware specifications for release is a AMD E3-350 CPU with a AMD Radeon HD 6310 video card; This is pretty low-end hardware, and is primarily found in cheap notebooks or media/playback machines, so hopefully the vast majority of the players will not have any problem playing the game with all of the post-processing effects firing off at it’s highest quality setting.

I initially had a lengthy article planned about how these effects work in our game, but this post is already a few hours behind schedule and I’ve gone and borked the entire game:
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and I may be using a tiny bit too much VRAM
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So I’ll leave a bunch of images at the bottom, along with a GIF, and use the time-tested excuse of “It’s a feature” and see myself out….

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Okay fine, I’ll fix it. Only because you, the reader, are awesome and deserve a product that works.

Weekly Content Blog #22: Studying Tilesets Like Leonardo

So you’ve got big dreams of making the ultimate RPG dungeon. Your art director hires some hot shot pixel artists to whip up the graphics and when you see them your eyes light up like the Fourth of July. Oh, the things you’re going to do with those beautiful pixels. That lava is looking hot!
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Yeah, yeah, yeah… You’re young, idealistic, and think you’re invincible. We get it. The first stirrings of the dreaded CTS “virus” have yet tickle the soft underbelly of your vernal palms. That’s carpal tunnel syndrome for the new guys and gals in the room.

But there’s another problem. The tileset didn’t come with a user guide or any example level to look at. The pixel artist just whipped it out and sent it over. Maybe if you had planned ahead and mocked up all the tiles ahead of time this wouldn’t have happened. But that’s a lot of work and might infringe of the artist’s creative genius. God forbid you ruin their flow with your pedantic strictures and doom your game to a sub-standard set of connect-the-dot tiles!
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Sure, some of the relationships between the tiles are obvious. But not all. The master pixel artist has many tricks. Some tiles you may stare at for hours, perhaps days, mumbling under your breath to yourself, “What… is your… purpose?!” until this escalates into a full-on existential crisis. Delightful.

So, like the great Leonardo da Vinci and countless other artists, you study your subjects (the tiles, not corpses) carefully and begin to learn their ways. However, there is a little devil on your shoulder (especially for tilesets evoking fiery hellscapes) telling you to just jump right in and start making a level. “It will turn out all right!” he says, poking you with his all-too-cute mini-pitchfork.

No. You must stay the course. Start with small structures. Learn how they fit together. Create the templates (if in your mind only) from which you will base your master models.
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It’s the seams, the joining together of the larger wholes that is tricky. At first, this tileset is every bit the fiery hell to work with that it visually represents.
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Yet upon further reflection, you wonder: Is it possible that even hell might be beautiful to its maker?
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Weekly Content Blog #21: Musical Influences

Originally this post was supposed to be a live blog detailing my quest to write our title screen theme. But after staring at a blank manuscript pad for a few hours without producing anything I figured to instead talk about my musical influences from the gaming world. Hey, it might even inspire some new music out of me once I finish!

I will admit, I’ve always been a fan of 8bit, 16bit and first generation 3D console music the most. To me the limitations in the hardware forced the composers to find creative ways to write good music. Put simply “Limitations breed creativity”. What I mean is, that with the file size limitations, lack of instrumental sounds and other confines, composers were not giving many options in which the modern composer or sound designer has access to today. The music needed a strong catchy melody, great but simple orchestrations and clarity in form and harmony. The composer could not rely on high production values to save mediocre music. Some of my favorite music is a result of those limitations. Let’s start from the beginning shall we?

Where would we be without this theme? Think about it. At most Nintendo games had 4 tracks to work with, two melody tracks, a mid/low track to serve as accompaniment and what sounds like a combination between a toy gun shot and a guy poorly beat boxing for percussion sounds. The result is one of the most memorable melodies in video game history. Stripped down to its most basic level, the source material – the tune if you will – is superb. The use of syncopation and multiple sections (four in total) displays a lot of creativity in finding ways to create variation without relying on different sounds. Remember composer Koji Kondo had few options with the technology at the time.

Moving to the next console, Super Mario World delivered on some exceptional music. The limitations were lifted a bit allowing Koji Kondo a few more sounds to use for different colors. Still, the composition itself is very simple but strong. The clear delineation of elements (melody, harmony, accompaniment, bass line) really give the composition clarity. Another thing worth pointing is this game’s strong use of themes. The theme found is this piece is found elsewhere:

You can hear it reintroduced as a more waltzing three feel. It gives the game a bit of cohesiveness. From wikipedia:

“Koji Kondo composed the music used in Super Mario World, using only an electronic keyboard. The entirety of the music heard in the game, with the exception of the music played in the title screen, credits, maps, and fighting Bowser, is a variation on the same melody. The melody, played in F major is heard normally on the standard overworld levels. It is slowed down and made to echo in caverns, whereas it moves in a slow, wave-like fashion, a slow (in 3/4 or waltz time) in underwater levels (a recurring musical tradition in underwater levels played in Super Mario games); in the athletic theme, it is played quickly and energetically to suit the more risky and lively nature of a level taking place in the air. The castle theme is a symphonic variation of the melody in F minor, then C minor, giving the song an overall ominous tone.”

This is also employed in lots of jRPG such as:

Ah good ol’ Nobou Uematsu! While Final Fantasy V was not a crowd favorite I always thought the music was a stand out. The use of simple orchestration and strong melodies really made this sound track great. And that bridge! I’m pretty sure those harp arpeggios are impossible to play by real humans, but Mr. 16-bit synth didn’t know the difference. I was heavily infleunced by this game’s style when I wrote our airship theme.

Similar to the Super Mario World example, Uematsu uses this theme in several pieces in the game:

The overworld theme utilizes the main theme of the game. Hey I think I know another game that does that!

Even the epic escape theme incorporates the melody as well! This could very well be a pragmatic approach taken by Uematsu (and Kondo) to reduce the amount of new material he would have to generate, but it does add a nice cohesiveness to the game.

Video Game composers also utilize the 19th century compositional technique of leitmotif. This is used everywhere from opera, video games, and even movies like “Star Wars.” One game that stands out as really using this well is Final Fantasy VI. Uematsu assigned each character his or her own leitmotif. Locke’s is probably the most recognizable:

This leitmotif tells you everything you need to know about Locke. He is brave, upbeat and cunning with a spirit for adventure. Another memorable leitmotif from that same game was the one that represented Celes. While it was tied into a specific story event, the nuanced theme does well to represent the complex character that she is:

My favorite musical moment of the game (or any game) comes in the ending. Spoiler Alert: When the party is escaping Kefka’s tower there is a scene showing Locke diving to save Celes from falling to her doom. While the scene itself is emotional what really gets me is the use of both Locke and Celes’ leitmotifs used in counter point. Holy crap! Just incredible. You can hear Locke’s leitmotif start around :24.

Well that wraps it up for this installment. Hopefully this post was a nice glimpse into some of the earlier video game music that influenced me. By no means is this list comprehensive, but a look back at some of the games that still resonant with me today. What do you think? What video game music do you like and why? Reach out to us on our facebook page or our twitter account.

-Tyler