Jul 132012

Street Fighter 2010 Sticker ImageIn the mid-to-late eighties, making a game for the NES was like having a license to print money. It was almost impossible to do wrong. Games with horrible artwork like the original Mega Man were a success, games with terrible gameplay, such as Athena, were a success, and games with ridiculous storylines and titles were a success. Case in point: Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight. I’ll give you a moment to just say that title out loud and wrap your head around it. While the original Japanese version of the game was simply Street Fighter 2010, the western localizations added The Final Fight which is what really pushes this over the top. You might not immediately realize or remember that this game was released in 1990. Street Fighter II would not be released in arcades for another year. Given that the original Street Fighter was only mildly successful, Final Fight was actually a bigger draw, so adding that name onto the end definitely lured in more potential players. Players who might no have tried it otherwise. Players like me.

Of course, it would only take five seconds of gameplay to discover the immense irony in the game’s title: Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight has nothing to do with Street Fighter or Final Fight. It plays like neither game and has a storyline and continuity all its own. Sure, the localized version of the game says that your protagonist is Ken, the champion from Street Fighter, but it also says he won the street fighting tournament 25 years earlier. Since Street Fighter took place in 1987, that should make this Street Fighter 2012: The Final Fight. If you can’t even get your timeline right, how am I supposed to trust that Ken, who could only even complete Street Fighter under odd gameplay circumstances (*) is who we’re playing?

Alright, alright, enough about the title and story. What about the game, you ask? It’s actually pretty nice and one of those that never really got the respect it deserved (although hardly a timeless classic.) You control “Ken” as he moves from location to location, taking out select enemies to gather energy to power teleportation portals to new areas. Your ultimate goal is to track down the villain who killed your best friend and co-scientist Troy. Some stages have you hunting multiple smaller enemies to build up the necessary energy supply, while others pit you directly against a boss creature.

Street Fighter 2010: Giant Eyeball Boss

When the big boss tells the bad guys to keep an eye out for you, they take it very seriously.

Although you’re a former street fighting champion, you won’t be using any punches or kicks against enemies, at least not directly. Instead, you’ll fire energy projectiles akin to the hadouken fireball used by Ken in Street Fighter. You can launch these with kicks as well, causing them to curve around the screen in wide arcs. The distance for your projectiles begins at a not-very-respectible quarter of the screen, but can be increased with power-ups. You can make incredible jumps, easily climb up walls (or even streams of quicksand) and do backflips, all befitting of someone with your renowned physical prowess, but you don’t get to actually punch or kick anyone.

Street Fighter 2010 is a tough game. Really tough. Although the controls respond well enough, enemies come at you from all directions and it takes precision placement in order to eliminate them without being hit. And you do not want to be hit because, aside from the obvious loss of energy and eventual death, each hit reduces your power-ups by one, which will very quickly eliminate your ability to defend yourself. As it progresses, the game can become very unforgiving and I have no shame in admitting that I never actually beat it without help from my trusty Game Genie.

Street Fighter 2010: The Dune Years

Sure, fighting these enemies is tough and all, but do you know how hard it is to get sand out of powered street fighting armor?

In the graphical arena, the game performs well. The sprites used are small, but well animated. Areas take advantage of the full available palette, even changing the colors used to display your life and power-ups from area to area, to increase the number of available colors (**). Although it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Blaster Master the game looks great. As you would expect from Junko Tamiya, the woman who composed Gun.Smoke and Bionic Commando on the NES and Strider in the arcade, the music for Street Fighter 2010 is energetic, catchy and fits the themes of the game. I wish some of the tracks went a little longer before looping, but shorter music was often a trait of the times.

Ultimately, Street Fighter 2010 works on a number of levels. If you’re looking for a challenge, it will certainly provide that. If you just want to cheat and run around blasting things to pieces while backflipping over alien environments, you can do that as well. With skill, the game can be beaten in half an hour, but the same goes for so many other pure-action games of the time, that it’s hardly a drawback, especially in this day and age of cramped schedules and instant gratification. It may never have been a contender, but it deserves to be given another shot.

* In order to play Ken in the original Street Fighter, a second player would have to join a one-player game in progress and then defeat the first player. After doing so, the second player could continue the game as Ken and potentially win. Without winning a two-player match, no one can play Ken in that game, much less win the tournament.

** The NES can display 16 colors at a time from a palette of 52 total colors. By changing colors from the UI, there were more varied colors available for the game’s graphics. Other games either used a static UI, which reduced graphic colors available, or only made the UI black and white.

Jun 292012

Spy Hunter sticker imageWhen I was a child, arcade gaming was a way of life. In addition to dedicated arcades such as Aladdin’s Castle, arcade games could be found in all sorts of ancillary locations. Laundromats, convenience stores and even some restaurants would have a couple of cabinets on hand to pass the time. You could hardly swing a cat without hitting an arcade machine, which is just how I liked it, even if the cats didn’t appreciate it so much. Dedicated arcades were the province of malls or other out-of-the-way places, so most of my exposure to these games came from those isolated cabinets. One of the earliest arcade games I fell in love with was Bally Midway’s classic Spy Hunter, located in a Stop-n-Go in the Florida town I lived in.

Spy Hunter puts you behind the wheel of a tricked-out car on a never-ending race against the eponymous spy hunters. Your vehicle comes equipped automatically with infinite-capacity machine guns, which can be used to take down some of your enemies. Other opponents are either bulletproof or remain out of reach of machineguns. For these foes (and to help with the others whom you can still shoot, of course), you’ll need to upgrade, which is accomplished by driving up into a semi, much like Knight Rider, the television series that premiered a year before. Via the semi, you can acquire limited supplies of oil slicks, smoke screens and even surface-to-air missiles. A light on the cabinet’s display will even flash to get your attention when the semi approaches, which would hopefully help prevent you from accidentally wiping it out with said weapons. In addition to weapons, you can also ram some enemies off the road, but you’ll have to exercise caution not to run off the road and into a tree yourself.

Spy Hunter, Upgrade Time

This smokescreen semi couldn’t have come at a better time. Now all you have to do is survive long enough to get in it.

Your car is controlled through a gas pedal for speed and a steering wheel (complete with weapon triggers) for direction and attacking. Points are awarded for distance covered as well as enemies eliminated, so driving faster will result in a higher score but make it more likely you’ll rear-end someone, totalling your car. And you do not want to crash this car. In addition to the travesty of smashing up this sweet ride, you’ll end the game very quickly. Unlike many games, Spy Hunter starts off with a timer, about a minute and a half long, during which you have infinite lives. Get destroyed during this period and you’ll lose nothing but scoring opportunity. Once the timer ends, however, you have only the car you’re driving, plus any extra cars you earned from bonus points.

Civilians are an issue. They populate the roads and get in the way of your glorious escape. Accidentally destroying them isn’t as punitive as it is in, say, Operation Wolf, Lethal Enforcers or even City Connection — they won’t cost you a life — but they’ll temporarily disable earning any points. While you’d often have to actually try to destroy civilian cars (watch that machinegun fire), it’s very easy to nudge motorcycles with your own car and wipe them out. But really, that’s kind of what they get for being in your way. You’re trying to save the world from some nefarious plot; they’re just trying to save a little gas by driving a bike.

Stay alive long enough and you’ll have the opportunity to covert your spy car into a boat and take to the open water. This provides a nice dash of variety, even if the gameplay changes only slightly (the coolest change being that oil slicks catch fire, leaving a trail of flames that torches enemies.) Eventually, you’ll cycle through terrain changes, such as the gray environments of an icy winter.

Spy Hunter, Boat Chase

Laying down a trail of flames in a speedboat while evading all enemies. Does it get any better than that?

Technically, Spy Hunter was and is a remarkable game. It sported a much larger resolution (480×480) than almost any other game of the time or, for that matter, most arcade games following it for the next two decades; even modern widescreen sprite-based games rarely crossed 400 pixels in either dimension. This enabled the sprites it used to be small yet surprisingly detailed, an important element in trying to tell the good guys from the bad guys without relying on silly high-contrasting elements like pink cars. The graphics and sound, use of multiple weapons, different enemies with distinct attack patterns and even the ability to detour into playing on water were significantly above the depth offered by many other arcade games at the time, including hits like Zaxxon, Xevious and Pole Position.

Despite a legacy that includes a buggy-but-fun NES port, a terrible arcade sequel, and some very respectable re-imaginings on the PS2, the original Spy Hunter is still the best. It’s also one of those games that, unfortunately, you need to play in a cabinet to truly appreciate; while the game can be emulated, the experience of controlling your car through a keyboard, joystick or even mouse ranges from mediocre to rage-inducing. You’re best off seeking out an old-school arcade (for a variety of reasons, in truth) and spending some quality time cruising to the tune of Peter Gunn.

Jun 222012

Raid Over Moscow sticker imageIt was 1984 and even though we were 30+ years into of the Cold War and (unknown to us) nearing its end, we were clearly at the height of its social and media exposure. One year earlier, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy had narrowly avoided starting a nuclear war in Wargames. Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen were about to lead a guerrilla resistance of russian occupation in Red Dawn. And in a year, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky would be tackling Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago (“I must break you”) in Rocky IV. Far from attempting to hide the Cold War, the entertainment industry was riding the idea all the way to the bank. Propaganda or Capitalism? Either way, it opposed the doctrines of Communism represented by the Soviet Union.

Enter Raid Over Moscow, not the first Cold War-based computer game, but arguably the greatest of its era. As the name might suggest, the ultimate successful conclusion of the game will put you in the position of directly attacking the heart of the USSR. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning. The game’s intro sets the stage. Following successful anti-nuclear movements throughout America and Europe, the United States and Soviet Union signed a nuclear disarmament treaty. The U.S. has complied with the treaty, desroyed all of their missiles and is replacing its arsenal with a series of defense satellites bearing both lasers and military dropships. The USSR has not been able to implement such a plan so, while on the surface they have been disarming, they have hidden nuclear stockpiles in three major cities. When tensions increase due to a American-Russian conflict in the Persian Gulf, the Soviets launch their missiles, threatening to detonate if the U.S. does not back down in the gulf. In response, the United States dispatches the forces from its single operational satellite to take out the control centers for the missiles and then strike the Soviet headquarters.

Raid Over Moscow, Incoming Nuclear Strike

The world map, displaying the current incoming strike from Russia. Note: Incoming Russian nuclear missles are not to scale.

As a youngster in middle school I didn’t really grasp the full context of this intro, being content to just blow stuff up and save the world, but this story has a surprising amount of complexity for an action game in its time. Many developers (and players) would have been satisfied with the mere concept of intercepting and stopping a Soviet nuclear launch, but the backstory surrounding disarmament and Persian Gulf conflict were remarkably prescient. To be sure, there are some gaps in the logic involved, and the technology proposed within the game still isn’t feasible nearly 30 years later, but it was still a great step forward for action gaming.

You take control of the commander of the satellite station, and will be responsible for the decisions that will (hopefully) save the United States from nuclear annihilation. The first of these decisions is how many shuttles to launch from your satellite during each sortie. You have to pilot each out manually, potentially destroying them in the process. Take too long, and the missiles in the air will touch down, obliterating a United States city. Don’t take enough shuttles, and you may run out of them during the next step of the process, a Zaxxon-style shooting stage leading to the enemy control center. Running out of shuttles would be a bad thing, as it means starting back at the satellite and travelling to the city all over again. Assuming you make it through this, you’ll still need to face down a number of armed bunkers to take down the control center. And if you defeat that, there are two other major cities just waiting to launch their nuclear strikes. Why didn’t all three cities launch simultaneously? Who knows, but that kind of thinking must be why we won.

After disabling the nuclear arsenals at Minsk, Leningrad and Saratov, it’s time for Moscow itself. You’ll have another Zaxxon-esque flying stage to tackle on your approach before, armed with nothing more than a grenade launcher, you assault… the State Historical Museum? Well, that’s a little weird, but I can’t blame the developers for possibly thinking this was the Kremlin considering how many people nowadays make that mistake. It certainly looks more Russian than the chief building of the Kremlin–maybe that was the reason. The only building more demonstrably Russian is St. Basil’s Cathedral, which would later be featured on the cover of Tetris–and who would want to blow up that?

Raid Over Moscow, Assaulting Moscow

Admittedly, it was convenient that someone dug a trench in Red Square that you could hide in while bombarding the capital.

Even after you’ve overcome snipers and a weird alien tank-thing to bust into this building, you’re still not done. The central reactor for Moscow is guarded by not just one but two drones that you must take out Deadly Discs of Tron-style. This is very difficult and complicated by the fact that after the first drone is defeated, a reactor explosion counter starts, and you’ll need to defeat the second drone in time to successfully escape.

Raid Over Moscow is a remarkable game for its time. The game has six different types of gameplay to go through, all loaded into memory simultaneously and all sporting graphics that, while sometimes simple, are quite respectable. You’re challenged right off the bat to pilot shuttles out of your satellite, dealing with altitude, direction and inertia all at once. Things only get trickier from there and the fast action plus missile detonation deadlines really stress the urgency of a Defcon 1 scenario. And although modern games (especially shooters) still portray Russians as a force of potential evil in the world, we may never again see a game that so places you so squarely in the iron-clad tension of the Cold War. While the fears represented in the game when it was published were very real, now Raid Over Moscow serves only as a look into what could have been, and thankfully wasn’t.

Jun 112012

Spelunker sticker imageFive years ago, if you had asked me, I would have laid good money that this game–a treasure of the ancient past about seeking a treasure from the ancient past–was long forgotten. That was before Irem arranged for the NES version of the game to appear on the Wii Virtual Console, and created Spelunker HD for the PS3. Neither of those are the Commodore 64 version, because they’re based on the inferior NES port, but they’re enough to show how long a good game can live.

Spelunker, a Brøderbund release (completely coincidental to The Guardian Legend I posted about last time), was one of the earliest games I played on my Commodore 64, which is the version I’ll speak of here. It puts you in the role of–you guessed it–a Spelunker, making your way through an extremely large series of caves in search of hidden treasure from who-knows-when. Along the way, you’ll need to deal with the sort of dangers that real spelunkers face, such as instantly deadly bat guano, ghosts and dropping more than five feet from any surface. Don’t be fooled by the cover art from any version; you’ll be playing no fit and bold explorer, but instead a dumpy unfortunate with bones are made of crystal and whose ability to slip off any surface could make Groo look graceful.

This game is hard, make no mistake. Your movements require the kind of precision that would make many modern platformers look easy, and there’s almost no allowance for error. Virtually every jump that you slightly mistime will end in your death because if you fall more than about one body length for any reason, you lose a life. You don’t have forever to stand around figuring out how to make a sequence of jumps either, because, just like a real explorer trapped in a cave larger than that seen in The Goonies, you’re constantly running out of air. Go figure. Air supply tanks are plentiful, but they don’t last long when picked up, so you must continuously move from one to the next. To make matters worse, ghosts occasionally appear. While you can blow them away using a fan-type device (if only someone had let Egon Spengler know it was so easy), doing so consumes even more oxygen.

Spelunker, grabbing an air tank

It may not look like much, but this little object will let you breathe for a whole 60 seconds! (No, I'm not kidding.)

There are either five or six levels–I can’t remember how many because it’s been so long since I finished the game (a feat I’m proud of)–but many players will never make it past the first due to this kind of difficulty. If you survive to the third stage, consider yourself accomplished. Beat the game, and that’s one to put on your gamer résumé.

So what makes such a punishing game worth talking about? The atmosphere. No, not the literal atmosphere of the game, which must be something like 99% cyanide to kill you so quickly. The Commodore version of the game runs on a 320×200 resolution, sports 16 colors, has part of the display taken up by your score, the game’s title and a bar for the remaining air, and still manages to portray a large, immersive underground world. Each level (loaded from disk when you move from one to the next) is surprisingly large given the memory constraints of the machine at hand and the amount of things going on in each.

Spelunker, hitching a ride

Nice of someone before you to leave a bridge and cart. Right next to the deadly fire spouts.

Curiosity about what you’ll find next (or at the end) constantly drives you forward. The puzzles, if they can even be called that, are incredibly simple; find dynamite, flares or keys and use them to overcome appropriate obstacles. Jumping and maneuvering around hazards takes real work and can send your blood pressure through the roof, but like the best of games, the challenge comes with a thrill of victory that’s reward enough in itself.

Spelunker is not for the faint of spirit, but it’s an experience that you won’t find elsewhere. Nearly 30 years later, many games can’t set the simple yet deep tone it provides. Check it out and see for yourself–just be sure to have some stress balls handy.

May 312012

The Guardian Legend sticker imagesFor this, the inaugural edition of our revived Games of Yore feature, I picked one of my favorite NES games, 1988’s The Guardian Legend, published by a company known for games that can stand the test of time, Brøderbund. This is the North American port of a Japanese Famicom game developed by Compile known as Legend of Guardic. While I can understand changing the name of the game to The Guardian Legend, I remain puzzled, all these years later, why they chose a cover that not only has nothing to do with the game but shamelessly rips off the 1985 sci-fi film Creature (a not uncommon act, as the covers for Navy Moves, Metal Gear and Contra, among others, demonstrate.)

Cover choice aside, The Guardian Legend instantly captivated me in my youth and can easily still do so today. One reason for this is how the game starts. You can wait at the title screen if desired, and you’ll gladly be presented with a token one-screen rundown on how you have to save the Earth from a planet hurtling toward it, but actually starting the game, you get nothing but white-knuckle action, as your ship propels through space at insane scrolling speeds which I didn’t even know were possible on an NES at the time. Just because this is the first stage of the game doesn’t mean things will be easy, either. Meteors and enemies zoom in from off-screen, pelting your ship as they go. In most shooters, the instant death suffered as a result would be frustrating in the extreme; because The Guardian Legend operates on an energy meter, here it simply forces you into an adrenalized state of survival. Survive the initial blistering-speed corridor and things slow down as you approach the first boss. That’s right; you have to fight a boss before you’re allowed to get into the game proper. You must earn the right to fully enjoy The Guardian Legend.

After the first boss–consisting of a dozen cannons simultaneously firing on you–is defeated, you’re taken into the actual game, where you’re given a mysterious message beseeching you to explore the ten corridors of the planet Naju and shut down the failsafe in each of them in order to trigger a self-destruct sequence that will stop Naju from colliding with and infecting any other worlds. You’ve now entered into the other part of the game: top-down exploration similar to The Legend of Zelda, only with space-age weapons, alien life forms, and, admittedly, less secrets to uncover. You scour the planet Naju, locating and clearing the ten corridors. While exploring the overworld of the planet, you’ll find and purchase weapons, and encounter mini-bosses, who also provide permanent power-ups when defeated. Each corridor contains two different shooting stages, which you play through when your robot character transforms into a spaceship. Each of these shooting segments is a few minutes long and punctuated with a boss fight. While the bosses do repeat with different colors and attack patterns in different corridors, there’s plenty of variety between them.

The Guardian Legend, Corridor 3

An open corridor, just waiting for you step forth, become a spaceship, and save the world.

To help you defeat the many enemies in your way, you can acquire up to 11 special weapons that can be switched through at will through a sub-menu, and each of these can be powered up to three levels. There’s a massive amount of variety, with lasers, fireballs, enemy-seeking orbs, and even lightsabers that attach to your ship, damaging anything that comes within reach. Fueling these weapons uses up “chips” which serve as a weapon energy supply separate from your main energy; your maximum chips can be increased along the way, which not only increases the power of your primary, unlimited-ammunition weapon, but allows you to use special weapons longer. The lower your chips fall, however, the weaker your primary weapon becomes, so it’s important to balance the use of them.

From start to finish, The Guardian Legend is a quality product. The graphics, especially in the shooting stages, are colorful and varied, and demonstrate the personalities of each zone, from underwater areas where you’ll encounter giant crabs and cosmic anemone, to icy terrains with active volcanoes erupting with ship-seeking  alien debris. Musically, the game squeezes a lot out of the NES’s four-channel processing. While the game lacks the length and depth of dedicated overworld explorers like Zelda or Crystalis, what it has works really well, especially when you consider that it also includes 21 shooting stages (including the opening.) And in the end, it’s this fusion of styles in a smooth package that makes The Guardian Legend an experience that each gamer should try.

The Guardian Legend, Area 11

You're a spaceship flying underwater, fighting giant piranha and space-sea rays. This is totally normal.

For those who love the sound of the shooting stages, but hate exploration to get to them, Compile has you covered. Completing the game or flipping through the most recent Nintendo Power checking the internet will reveal that putting in “TGL” as a password will take you through a version of the game with only shooting stages in immediate succession, with the power-ups you would have found while exploring instead awarded based on your gameplay performance. This turns the game into a monster difficulty challenge, so consider yourself duly warned.

There remains little else to say. By this point, you know if you’re going to try this game or not, but if you’ve ever enjoyed shoot-em-ups, you owe it to yourself to do so. There simply isn’t another overland/shoot-em-up fusion like it out there. Relive the glory of 1988 today.

Mar 172011

As any modern video gamer with a connection to the internet (which, I guess, would be just about all of them) can tell you, digital distribution is here to stay. A great deal of them would even say that it is inevitably the way of the future. But should it be? Today we’ll explore that in another installment of our award-winning series 64 Bits Good, 8 Bits Better.

Note: This post refers solely to pure digital distribution of games and game-modifying material; physically distributed games can still suffer from things such as digital rights management, which I’m not overlooking, but’s a post for another day.

The benefits of digital distribution [DD] are pretty apparent: easy access to games, demos, add-ons, patches and the like. Your disc can’t break or scratch because there’s no disc to break (also good for the environment.) Forgot to bring the game with you? You might be able to re-download it elsewhere. Stuff your computer to the gills with whatever your relevant gaming interest is and you might not even need to get up to change out whatever’s in the drive. When you take all these into consideration, it’s no wonder DD has become such a widely-adopted medium. It makes one wonder how we ever got along with floppy disks, cartridges and CDs.

But we did get by, and quite handily as a matter of fact, for more than two decades before DD achieved mainstream popularity. I’m not talking about shareware in the mid-90s that you could download and then activate fully for $10 or $15. I’m talking about what we see now: downloadable full-priced games (at least up to $40, which is the most I’ve seen but wouldn’t be surprised to find higher costs out there) and downloadable add-ons that in their totality can meet or exceed the cost of a $50 store-bought game. The gaming industry and we as gamers got by without these we had to. The quality of games had to be more robust as a result. In the days before you could patch games, they had to actually work as intended; you couldn’t afford to ship something that had critical, game-breaking (and sometimes system-breaking) bugs just knowing that you would push out a patch on release day. Mind you, some games did still release that way, but they were far fewer than what we see today. One can claim that the complexity of today’s games demand bugs and that may be true, but it’s also apparent that the ability to patch games is a de facto standard and crutch of the modern developer.

DD can also rob you of value in many cases. There have been multiple cases of companies who shipped a game  with extra content already included on the disc and just waiting to be activated with the purchase or application of a special code. This obviously would not have flown in the days where you couldn’t download a 50KB file that magically unlocks megabytes of gameplay. I totally disagree with this practice, myself; thankfully, I have yet to be burned by it. Likewise, it is not at all unusual now for companies to create a portion of the game during development and simply omit it from the final game, with the intention of putting it out as downloadable content [DLC] afterwards. To my way of thinking, if you make it in the course of developing the game, it should go with the game; only items created after the game’s development cycle go in an add-on or the sequel. That’s not to say I haven’t bought DLC that might have been made during a game’s development. I own all the expansion DLCs for Fallout 3, for instance, and there’s every possibility that one of them was completed during the game’s original development cycle. DLC can add a lot of value to games, but it’s also easily abused to squeeze a little more out of the consumer. True, games are certainly underpriced considering the nature of inflation, but if you’re going to set a price for games, set a price and be done with it, don’t try to surreptitiously eke out more from people.

However, despite these statements, my biggest problem with DD comes not from add-ons or decreased game-testing quality; it’s the matter of control. If you purchase a DD game, then it’s an automatic given that you have internet access; and companies can not only require you to keep that access, but they can use it against your games. Take this, one of many examples where Steam users’ entire accounts have been disabled over a single failed payment on the purchase of a new game. Let that sink in for a moment: an account full of legitimately purchased games (in this case, $500 worth, but I’ve seen up to $1000 claimed) can be disabled, cutting off access to all of those games, if you try to purchase a single new game and, say, a problem with PayPal causes a payment to reject. And it’s a common occurrence. Try a Google search for disabled steam account to see how common. Clearly it’s not enough of a headache to stop people from using Steam, but that doesn’t make it right.

In this well-publicized case, a user who made the disparaging remark of “Have you sold your souls to the EA devil?” on a Bioware forum got reported by someone. Bioware, acting under Electronic Arts’ terms of service, banned his forum/social account. This not only cut him off from DLC purchased legitimately in the past (which can, in turn, prevent games like the original Dragon Age from even playing), but it prevented him from installing and playing a brand new purchased copy of Dragon Age II.

In the interests of disclosure and avoiding sensationalism, this matter did ultimately get resolved according to EA and the person’s account has been reinstated, but just the ability to disable access to existing games over a forum infraction is control at some of its worst, and EA’s terms, which indicate they can rescind your license to play their games at any time for any reason are not unheard of elsewhere. Could you imagine if iTunes required you to log in every day before you could listen to music and they could use that connection time to revoke your right to listen to songs? That would be considered crazy behavior, and those songs cost only 99 cents, not upwards of $50. If Amazon could suddenly take books off of your Kindle, without a refund, just because, what do you think the reaction would be? (Hint: not good, even when the book’s cost is refunded.)

In addition, DD games are typically not transferrable. DLC that I buy on my 360 is tied to that console and my gamer ID; anyone can play it on that console or I can redownload it and play it elsewhere (as long as I’m online), but nothing more–and that’s pretty lenient terms in the industry. I often loan games to our friends Steve and Steph when they would otherwise be gathering dust on a shelf and this works out well. That won’t happen with digital games.

Part of non-transferrability is that you can’t re-sell DD games, either. That part doesn’t affect me because I don’t get rid of any games, ever, even terrible ones like Stretch Panic or games I’ll never play again like Final Fantasy XI Online, but there’s an entire used game industry out there for those who would like to get something back monetarily from their game purchases, as well as people who try to do it on the side. Your ability (I won’t go so far as to call it a right) to trade or sell them is annihilated. Don’t expect this to change, because eliminating used game sales is something that game developers have wanted to do for decades. Disabling basic features (such as online play) that can only be activated with new copies, but can be purchased for additional costs if your copy of a game is used, is one such method that makes their desire to see this through clear.

Finally, remember that any game which requires connection to a company for verification has a limited lifespan. It’s unlikely that Steam, a multi-billion-dollar company, is going away anytime soon. But if it did, so might your games. If you have to be authenticated on an Electronic Arts server to play a game, and that server gets disconnected, then your game isn’t playable; this is one way of ensuring you buy the next game they want sell instead of suffering a Starcraft-ism where one game gets played for a decade or more. It’s already done on a regular basis to discontinue the servers that support online play, rendering the most popular features of many games obsolete. I can pop in my cartridge of River City Ransom and do some team-up brawling any time, but you won’t be able to play Team Fortress 2 forever.

To be fair, DD isn’t evil–it’s a method of delivery and the restrictions and actions taken around it by companies are what can be unpalatable. For an example of how DD can be done well, check out GOG (Good Old Games), a site offering over 240 past games for download at a reasonable price without DRM or other arbitrary restrictions, and often with extras such as maps and soundtracks thrown in. Would that kind of treatment work for new games? Possibly not — certainly the lack of protection would make it easier to pirate games, but history has proven that anyone who really wants to pirate games is going to do so. Heck, I did it back in the day with Fast Hack’em on my Commodore, and that was before the internet told anyone how to get anything they wanted for free. But GOG shows that if you treat your customers with respect, you’ll get respect, and it shows that DD doesn’t have to stand for Draconian Downloading.

Make no bones, digital distribution isn’t going anywhere, but it doesn’t have to remain as it is right now. It likely will remain as it is or even get worse until gamers say otherwise, however. Until that day, I’ll continue to weigh up each transaction to determine if I’m really getting what I want to pay for–and I recommend that as consumers you do the same.