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  ‘Electroplankton’: Second Impressions  
Posted 2006-07-01 by Tony Walsh
In a recent "First Impressions" post on the Nintendo DS game Electroplankton, I lamented the lack of practicality of the interactive toy. My chief complaint was that in "Performance" mode, generative electronic music can be created, but not saved. I had a chance to let Electroplankton play itself in "Audience" mode for a couple hours on my way to and from meetings yesterday, and am again struck by the lack of sensible features.

In Audience mode, one can pop a pair of headphones into the DS, and let Electroplankton cycle through its various generative music scenarios. Unfortunately, it seems that one must leave the DS open (it features a clamshell-like design) during playback--closing the unit stops the music. Having to leave the unit open while it's just playing music makes it bulky (I had it stuffed into my bag) and wastes the batteries. But the biggest design gaffe is the absence of a playlist--a means to control one's listening experience. I enjoy some of the Electroplankton music scenarios, but not all. Some, I'd like to hear more than others. Some, I'd like to skip altogether. Some individual pieces, I'd like to hear for an hour. But no. I must listen to about 120 seconds of random electronica at a time. It's not like I expect my DS Lite to be an iPod, but it so easily could be *like* an iPod without too much extra design effort.
  ‘Electroplankton DS’: First Impressions  
Posted 2006-06-26 by Tony Walsh
Electroplankton is not a game, but it can be played on the Nintendo DS handheld game console. At worst, it's a toy, and at best it's a live performance tool. Users can interact with (i.e. "play") digital plankton, each with their own musical abilities and functions. Improvised and generative musical compositions can be created through Performance mode, but not recorded (except through outside means). Generative music can also be appreciated through Audience mode--basically, you can just set up Electroplankton to play crazy electronic music all day.

While I appreciate the well-crafted, intuitive interactivity, colourful, cute graphics and animation, I think Nintendo missed the boat on this title. It's totally overpriced (roughly $50 CAD) for a toy. At the very least, I would have expected compositions to be recorded, but better yet, shared through WiFi. Unfortunately, the audio seems to be comprised of samples rather than chip-based synthesis, resulting in sub-par quality. And my final gripe is that there's no built-in way to broadcast the images from Electroplankton to a video device during a performance, but that's really a fault with the DS.
  ‘Tag Friends’: A Micro-World on Your Web Page  
Posted 2006-06-16 by Tony Walsh
‘Tag Friends’: A Micro-World on Your Web Page
Actual size :)
Japanese developer Core Colors brings us Tag Friends, a 2D, avatar-based microworld (called a "TAG") meant to reside on one's blog or web site. With a look somewhere between Animal Crossing and PaRappa the Rapper, Tag Friends uses miniature environments and cute critters to attract participation.

When installed on a web site, visitors will show up in the TAG window. Unregistered visitors are depicted as a translucent Zombee, and can't chat, but registered users of course have full functionality. The Tag Friends service acts not only as a chat gateway, but also as a web-ring (promoting travel between TAG-enabled web sites), messaging system, and a blog-reader. While signing up for the currently-free service is easy, avatars can't be changed once chosen--a major drawback given the role of an avatar as a vehicle for user self-expression.

The strategy with Tag Friends seems to be to keep users generally inside a closed, controlled system. This is similar to the virtual worlds of Second Life and Habbo Hotel but differs from avatar-creation services such as Meez, and WeeWorld. I'd love to see Tag Friends come to the WiFi-enabled Nintendo DS. Actually, if the pending Opera Browser for the DS supports the right version of Flash, my wish might come true.
  Network Function Card Coming to Nintendo DS?  
Posted 2006-06-13 by Tony Walsh
Next Generation reveals details from a conference in Tokyo last week where Nintendo president Satoru Iwata spoke of a pending DS "network function card." The add-on, reports Next-Gen, "will turn the DS into something of a portable email and communications device," and will sell for roughly half the price of a DS Lite. This is great news [via Edery], but weak on the details. Aside from email, what specific network-oriented software might be available? I'm hoping for Opera (which is already due to grace the DS in one form or another) and Skype (unlikely, but the prospect of free wireless calls via the DS is juicy). I pine for an iCal-compatible calendar system, which Nintendo might as well add, if they're going to bring PDA-like functions to the DS.
  DS Lite: First Impressions  
Posted 2006-06-12 by Tony Walsh
I braved rabid crowds of Toronto-based Insert Credit readers to pick up Nintendo's little white DS Lite yesterday, as well as a copy of Nintendogs for the wife. The updated console may be lighter than the original DS, but it's still heavier than I was expecting. It's not totally uncomfortable in the hands, although I'd still prefer the device to be more rounded. And, while the twin DS screens are bright and colourful (and just begging to be scratched), I still feel like I'm playing with two Game Boy Advances stacked on top of each other--but worse, since there's so much space on either side of each screen. The GBA SP was pretty much all screen. Too bad Nintendo couldn't squish the DS down to such efficient proportions.

You may be asking yourself why I'd bother to buy the DS, considering I'm not gushing over how amaaaazing it is. Because it's not going away, that's why. And I need to pay attention to sticky technologies. Once the Opera Browser add-on is available in North America, I'll be looking into creating some DS-specific web content.
  ‘Balloon Express’ Delivers Package of Fun  
Posted 2006-04-14 by Tony Walsh
‘Balloon Express’ Delivers Package of Fun
Amelia's balloon over Venice. I didn't make it this far :(
Menara Games suggested I take a ride with their debut title Balloon Express, and I'm pleased to report I've got a new appreciation for heights. With Balloon Express, the two-person team delivers highly-polished casual fun exclusively for Windows-based computers. In the game, players control a hot-air balloon to help globetrotting courier Amelia in two interesting game modes. I sampled each mode in a free, one-hour trial of the game, which can be unlocked for only $19.95 USD.

Story Mode puts Amelia to work, floating above a cartoony Ireland to drop packages to waiting customers. Other real-world locations are unlocked as Amelia's career progresses. This is a top-to-bottom scroller that requires matching available payloads in the balloon's inventory to package-requests on the ground. Each successful delivery pays out, with bonuses if you're quick on the draw. Succeed, and you'll pass to the next stage. Seemingly simple at first glance, subsequent levels add more inventory items to match, and more package requests to uncover. It soon becomes an enjoyable clicking frenzy.

Continue reading: ‘Balloon Express’ Delivers Package of Fun
  PopCap’s Healthy Games Research Needs Oxygen  
Posted 2006-03-24 by Tony Walsh
Only a few months following the announcement of a joint research project by PopCap Games and The Games For Health Project investigating the potential cognitive benefits of game play, the underwhelming summary results are now in. In a press release this week, Ben Sawyer, co-founder and director of the Games for Health Project said: "We have reviewed a large base of literature, and what we've found is that, while still in the early stages of scientific understanding, there is growing consensus that defined cognitive exercise can play a critical role in healthy aging. As part of that role, it seems clear that puzzle games, strategy games, and games which aren't as spatially oriented can play a significant role in that effort." Sawyer added that there is not "absolute consensus" on what types of games or mental exercises are ideal, and that it might be ten years before we find out which mental workouts are the best.

The joint research effort included review of "a wealth of research papers and major media stories covering the state of cognitive exercise," and doesn't seem to have involved any live subjects. Although there's value in compiling the research of others, there's far less value in using "major media stories" as serious pseudo-scientific research, and the absence of actual test subjects is unfortunate. When I originally heard about the research effort, I'd assumed the methods would be more rigorous and relevant.

Continue reading: PopCap’s Healthy Games Research Needs Oxygen
  Millionth Gamer Connects To Nintendo WiFi  
Posted 2006-03-07 by Tony Walsh
One million unique users have logged into Nintendo's WiFi service through the Nintendo DS handheld game console, the company announced today. The milestone, hit by a Japanese player of Animal Crossing: Wild World, was reached after the WiFi service was launched under four months ago. Over 27 million game sessions have been logged by those connecting to the service.
  Living In Adamsvil  
Posted 2006-02-28 by Tony Walsh
Living In Adamsvil
Joe Fourhman's Animal Crossing town Adamsvil. Image credit: Joe Fourhman.
Joe Fourhman is an Animal Crossing documentarian with a shady past. His early exploits in the original Nintendo GameCube game cast a darkly humourous shadow upon its typically-bright world.

"I'm on the run," his first journal entry, posted in September, 2002, begins. "New name, new town, new life. They call me JoeForever (spelled J-o-e-infinity symbol) and I have just moved into Adamsvil, a town in Animal Crossing… I left the big city and began to melt into the countryside. On the train to Adamsvil, I met a simple cat named Rover. Already I am suspicious... a cat with a dog's name?"

Fourhman recalls that he was the first blogger to portray the kiddie game in a decidedly adult style. "It's funny," he says, "because back then, nobody was doing that with Animal Crossing. The game was still such an unknown property. Since then, I've seen a lot of Animal Crossing weblogs that put a dark twist on it. Which is, I think, a pretty natural thing when you stick 20-30something gamers in front of a game that contains absolutely nothing dark in it. It's an easy thing to poke fun at."

Continue reading: Living In Adamsvil
  Flash Hacked For PSP  
Posted 2006-02-26 by Tony Walsh
Earlier this month, announced the winner of its "Flash Player Coding Contest." A member of the PSPHacks community named 71M developed a semi-functional player for Flash files that runs on PSP handheld consoles with version 1.0 and 1.5 of the official Sony firmware. The unofficial PSP Flash player, which will reportedly be released on February 28, currently supports "a good portion" of Flash 7 ActionScript, but doesn't support complex vector shapes very well. When the software is released at the end of this month, an XML file will be included to allow PSP-specific buttons to activate Flash actions.

While this is not a perfect implementation of the Flash player by any means, it is a noteworthy milestone for independent game developers. Flash is a versatile tool that allows rapid development of rich, cross-platform content. Creating a proof of concept or demo for the PSP might generate industry interest in a full-fledged game, or could pave the way for an indie Flash developer to market their own PSP-compatible games.

In related news, the Nintendo DS is expecting Opera Browser support, opening up official support for web-based homebrew applications, depending on the support for tools such as Flash.
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