NES Hard

September 25th, 2009

At the local shopping mall last week, I saw an ad for A Boy and His Blob, an upcoming Wii game. I became pretty excited, because I quite enjoyed the original NES version of A Boy and His Blob when I was younger, and I had no idea that a new version was in the works.

As I thought about it, I realized that A Boy and His Blob is the perfect candidate for a modern remake, because it features novel gameplay that still holds up well, yet has some issues that could be addressed in a new take on the concept.

The gameplay mechanics were done right the first time around, and are actually rather novel. The player controls an ordinary-looking boy who’s followed around by a shape-shifting alien blob. The boy carries a pouch of jellybeans of various flavors. Feeding one to the blob causes him to transform into one of several different objects, depending on the flavor of the jellybean. Feed the blob a licorice-flavored jellybean, and he transforms into a ladder, allowing the boy to climb up to high ledges. Feed him a punch-flavored jellybean, and he transforms into a hole, through which the boy can drop into underground passageways. There are thirteen flavors altogether. Solving the game requires figuring out which objects to use in various situations, and feeding the blob the appropriate jellybeans.

A Boy and His Blob

Unfortunately, despite its fun gameplay, A Boy and His Blob is frustratingly difficult in places. Often, it is unclear where the player should go or what he should do to proceed. There’s nothing wrong with difficult puzzles, but A Boy and His Blob is artificially hard in the way that a lot of old NES games are. It presents the player with obstacles but not even the slightest hint as to how to progress past them. That’s more than mere difficulty; it’s outright unfairness. It’s practically impossible to beat that kind of game without using a walkthrough, and forcing the player to resort to external references to progress indicates a fundamental design flaw.

A friend of mine coined the term “NES hard” to describe this kind of faulty gameplay. I like that description, because it’s the kind of problem that was sadly prevalent among games of the NES console generation. Even the best and most enduring games of that era succumbed to this phenomenon at times. The Legend of Zelda launched one of the all-time great video game franchises, spawning over a dozen sequels to date, yet even it forced the player to somehow divine which specific bush out of thousands in the game he had to burn in order to reveal the hidden entrance to a particular level.

The Legend of Zelda

In spite of its flaws, The Legend of Zelda is now considered a classic, and the series has since produced even better games by combining the time-tested adventure elements of the original with more sensible level designs. A Boy and His Blob has the potential to be a great game by coupling the same sensible design philosophy with the basic mechanics of the original. That’s why I’m looking forward to the new Wii version, which is being released on October 13.

A Brief History of Widescreen

September 24th, 2009

The classic film Penn & Teller Get Killed has finally been released on DVD thanks to the “Warner Archive” program, through which Warner Bros. sells smaller catalogue titles on DVD-R media via their web site.

Penn & Teller Get Killed

What I found most interesting about the release is that it is in widescreen, whereas all previous home video releases of the title—even the laserdisc—were in full screen. Since the Warner Archive program is aimed at releasing titles on the cheap, I wouldn’t expect Warner Bros. to have created a widescreen transfer of the film especially for this release. Some of the Warner Archive titles (though not Penn & Teller, specifically) even include an “Important Note” on their product page: “This film has been manufactured from the best-quality video master currently available and has not been remastered or restored specifically for this DVD…release.”

When I asked about the issue on the official Penn & Teller bulletin board, another fan informed me about a recent widescreen presentation of the film on cable television. In describing this version, she explained that “what they actually did was crop the top and bottom off the 4:3 version,” then pondered whether the new DVD featured a “genuine 16:9” version.

That’s a reasonable question. Conventional wisdom holds that a widescreen image offers more picture information, revealing parts of the image that are cropped out of its full-screen equivalent. Actually, the situation is more complicated than that. Understanding why requires a brief primer on film history.

Movies were historically shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, about the same as that of a standard television, until the mid-1950s, when the introduction of television inspired studios to adopt the “widescreen” process as a gimmick to persuade people to watch movies in theaters instead of at home.

However, they didn’t develop new cameras or film stock to achieve the wider aspect ratio. Instead, they continued to capture an image on the entirety of the standard 1.37:1 frame of film, while actually composing the shot for a smaller 1.85:1 area within that frame (wider 2.39:1 “scope” films are shot differently, an even more complicated topic about which I’ll write in the future).

This practice continues today. The monitor that a director or cinematographer uses to frame his shot typically has markings on it to indicate the 1.85:1 area that will be displayed in theaters, but there is extraneous picture information above and below that area that does find its way onto the film. When a movie is released on DVD or shown on television in full screen, the frame is usually just “opened up” to expose this additional area.

So the viewer will indeed see more picture information in the full screen version than in the widescreen one, but the important point is that only with the widescreen version will he see the image as it was composed by the director and his cinematographer.

Sometimes, opening up the frame can lead to revealing mistakes. A Fish Called Wanda features one of the most famous examples of this, wherein a supposedly naked John Cleese is shown to actually be wearing shorts, which are hidden just off-screen in the properly-framed widescreen version.

A Fish Called Wanda, widescreen

A Fish Called Wanda, full screen

If you know a little bit about film history and the way films are shot, it’s not surprising that the widescreen version of Penn & Teller Get Killed reveals less of the image than the full screen version. But that’s the way it was exhibited in theaters, and more importantly, the way it was meant to be seen, so I’m quite glad that the widescreen version is the one being included on the DVD.

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