My experience in the 2009 ICFP Programming Contest (part 1 of 2)

August 18, 2009

How hard of a problem could you solve in only three days? Who would you choose to help you do it?

The ICFP Programming Contest is an international programming competition organized in conjunction with the International Conference on Functional Programming, which is an annual academic conference about programming languages. Each year, teams from around the world compete in the ICFP contest to demonstrate the supremacy of their favorite programming language by solving a challenging problem over a 72-hour period.

The contest is organized by a different institution every time, typically a university, and the organizers work well in advance and sometimes take years to prepare the contest problem, which is kept secret until it’s time for the contest to begin. On the appointed day, which is usually a Friday in June or July, the organizers unveil an elaborate problem description on the Internet. When the problem is released — at a time that may be convenient or wildly inconvenient, depending on the difference between the organizers’ time zone and the time zone one’s team happens to be in — the teams go to work, using whatever tools they like to solve the task at hand. Past contests have challenged competitors to control a Mars rover that has to get to a home base while avoiding hostile aliens, design an ant colony capable of defending itself from invaders, and decode a string of letters resembling DNA (not coincidentally, the letters chosen for the bases were “I”, “C”, “F”, and “P”) and “resequence” it to draw a picture. The problems often include strange and hilarious twists, and the problem descriptions may be filled with in-jokes and cute asides.

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The Top Eleven Old Skool Video Games in No Particular Order

July 29, 2009

In this Gilded Age of the motion-controlled Wii, the Internet-friendly X-Box 360, the mega-military hardware of the Playstation 3, the guitar and drum controllers, the upcoming Project Natal motion-capture controllers and all the rest, I find it somehow refreshing to delve into the “classics” on emulation (without needing to pay a cent by the way!)  See anything you haven’t played?  Now’s the time to become more gamer-literate!

1. Rampage (1986)Lizzie passive-aggressively clings to the building she destroys

Play George (a.k.a. King-Kong), Lizzie (a.k.a. Godzilla), or Ralph (um… Fenris or Amarok?) as they destroy major metropolitan areas and eat human beings while being shot at by military forces.  I distinctly recall first learning of the existence of cities such as Duluth and Toledo through this game, as well as the lesson that most U.S. cities look pretty much the same when they’re being kicked to the ground by giant monsters.  Requiring almost no brainpower, yet fulfilling a deep-seated wish to be in control over the destruction of one’s own civilization, Rampage will remain a pick-up game for all ages for years to come.

2. X-Men – The Arcade Game (1992)

Back when I was growing up, the malls still had thriving video-game arcades with an assortment of quarter-eaters to waste my disposable income.  The best of these was a 6-player, 2-screen beat-em-up extravaganza starring none other than Cyclops, Wolverine, Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler and Dazzler.  Few people might understand the joy of being one of 6 pre-pubescent boys crowding around a set of sweaty joysticks and beating the living tar out of a giant pile of mooks that come at you on-screen.  I’ll be this one would still make money in any surviving arcades today.  Not too many 6-player games came after this one, after all…

3. Full Throttle (1995)

“You know what would look good on your nose?”

“What?”  *nose ring grabbed and slammed down on the bar*

“The bar. Now don’t mess around with me.”

Probably one of the best animated adventure games released for the PC, Full Throttle showcases the best of LucasArts’ SCUMM engine while offering a meaty array of bad jokes and crazy biker action (including a climax involving a chase between a bike, a semi and a wing-less cargo plane).  I find I can just sit someone down at the computer and play through it in about 2.5 hours… the length of a solid, well-made animated movie.

4. Maelstrom (1993)

Ambrosia Software certainly didn’t invent Asteroids – the 1979 Golden Age game that served as part of Atari’s main stable of games – but they certainly brought it into the 90s for the Macintosh user.  Chock full of Simpsons, Beatles and other pop cultural references in its soundtrack and brightly colored, 3-D-looking sprites, this game plays like a hyperactive stepchild who found the meth supply… in space.  Now if only they were to option this for a movie!

5. Maniac Mansion (1987)

Not to spend this whole blog singing LucasArts’ praises, but they did produce some damn fine adventure games.  A group of hapless teenagers are off to save their cheeleader friend Sandy from a sentient evil meteor and the weird family it has corrupted in a mansion filled with surprises.  Maniac Mansion adopts much of the crazy object-based logic puzzles inherent to the genre (“So I need to grab the faucet handle in the garage to turn on the shower to move the corpse to find the number I can call Nurse Edna with so I can get her out of the room so another kid can get up to the telescope and steal her money while they’re at it.”) but it self-referentially mocks its own silly set of errands often enough.  You can stick the hamster in the microwave in some versions!

6. Super Bomberman (1993)

Many nights I slept not a wink because of this Super Nintendo game’s excellence.  In Battle Mode, 4 players have two minutes to be the last one alive in a grid filled with bombs laid by you and your fellow players going off every which way.  A 30-second looping soundtrack amplifies the tension in ways you wouldn’t believe.  Most of its sequels are actually not as good as this original, a fact for which I cannot account.

7. Cyborg Justice (1993)

1993 must’ve been a good year for video games in my mind… This Sega Genesis beat-em-up features a combination of excellent sprite graphics and over-the-top ultra-violence (i.e., you can rip off an opponent’s arm and use it as your own).  You’re a cyborg and you’re seeking, well, justice!  It’s too bad that Sega was never able to keep up with the other franchises – their game design was always above-par.

8. Return to Zork (1993)

’93 also saw Activision’s great adventure game release Return to Zork, which pre-dated Myst by several months and involved a much more interactive environment than said game.  In any given room, you can do like 50 things involving various objects you’ve picked up, etc.  What I really enjoy about this is the Neil Gaiman-esque dark fairy tale plot and the video-captured actors whom you can all kill if you get frustrated (and then you’re told by a guy in a funny coat that you can’t complete the game!)

9. XCom (1993)

Speaking of 1993, there was a turn-based strategy game for the PC produced by MicroProse that knocked our socks off.  In XCom, aliens have invaded Earth and you’re part of a worldwide task force sent to kick their ass.  The game features a sophisticated tactical engine copied by games like Fallout and later games like Freedom Force.  I watched fellow college students piss away whole semesters on this thing…

10. Marathon (1994)

So you’ve played Halo, right?  Let’s call it “Marathon 4” and be done with it.  Marathon brought all kinds of innovation to the first-person shooter table:  network multi-player, a flexible map and sprite editor, and an intricate plotline of an almost literary quality.  You play a marine dispatched to a multi-generational colony ship that is under alien attack and has multiple AIs also vying for control of your activities.  We used to haul computers over to each other’s houses just for the opportunity to kill each other on maps we had created.

11. Hunt the Wumpus (1973)

The scariest game ever. You’re hunting a goddamn wumpus with these crooked arrows, and if you miss, it’ll come and eat you.  It fills your screen with its awful face.  I played this on my Commodore back when I was like 6, only to discover that the labyrinth is a cruel place.  The psychological environment of this deceptively simple game still gets me every time.

In summary, 1993 may have been a pivotal year in game development history – self-conscious, impressively addictive games made their appearance around that time.  But at least in 2009, we can still revisit all of these classics! After all, all our culture is nostalgia.


Assassin’s Creed – A gamer’s perspective

April 4, 2008

Some of you might be surprised to see me posting about my thoughts of this particular game today. Truth be told, I bought the game months ago when it first came out. I was looking forward to the game so much I actually pre-ordered it. I began playing the game the day it was released. In large part, the delay is due to my struggle to experience the game in its entirety and then to decide what exactly I had to say about it.

It’s not that I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoyed the game or not. To the contrary, I was immediately certain that I loved it, and no part of my continued play could convince me otherwise. The game was hugely enjoyable. Every time I set my X-Box controller down I found myself looking forward to the next time I would be able to play the game.

I think, overall, that my trouble was that the game was considerably different from any other game I’d ever played. Many video games are simply variations on the theme of other games I’ve played in the past. Those games can be very good even if they’re not entirely innovative. While Assassin’s Creed certainly was reminiscent of certain other games I’ve played, it confounded my expectations, and required me to do a lot more thinking before I could clearly articulate my experience with it.

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Project Sylpheed – A gamer’s perspective

February 8, 2008

Usually when I buy a video game, I pick up something that I’ve carefully explored in advance. I read reviews, watch videos of the game being played, and perhaps even download a demo of the game to play on my computer or a game console. In this sense, Project Sylpheed was different. I was in my local Best Buy to pick up something else, and happened to see it while walking past the video games. I had recently finished the a game, and didn’t have anything new to play at the time, so I bought it on a whim.

The game describes itself as a “space saga.” I would describe it as a combat flight simulator. You fly a small space fighter, engaging in dogfights against other space fighters and larger capital ships. There is a very simple economic system built into the game by which you earn points based on how well you do on each mission which you can then spend to get access to better weapons and equipment for your fighter. The game also allows you to start over from the beginning after you beat it, but to keep all of the equipment you earned the first time through, and to continue to earn points in order to further expand your gear.

As a combat flight simulator, the game is exactly the sort of highly engaging, mindless entertainment you might expect from the cover art. The game doesn’t require a lot of thinking. You can more or less point your craft at the enemy of your choice and hold down the button until your weapons lock on, then let go of the button to fire a swarm of dozens of guided weapons at them while you turn your attention to something else. The game also does its best to provide an engaging storyline, but this is an area in which it tends to fall short.

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Mass Effect: A game review for non-gamers

January 8, 2008

As Mark mentioned, he was excited about Mass Effect long before it came out. After getting so involved in watching him play BioShock and then learning that Mass Effect was from the same people, I got pretty excited, too. I fear, though, that BioShock has ruined me for all other games, because its level of plot was so high and engaging, and it was so darn pretty. Mass Effect didn’t push BioShock off the top of my list, but it didn’t disappoint, either.

I was around when Mark played through Knights of the Old Republic as well, and as you might be able to tell from my old review from back then, I didn’t like it that much. A lot of the packaging annoyed me, to the point that I couldn’t get truly involved in the plot and didn’t enjoy being in the room with the game. Mass Effect is very much the same style of game, as Mark pointed out, but much, much better from my perspective, because they have moved far beyond all the things that irritated me.

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Mass Effect – A gamer’s perspective

January 6, 2008

Not too long ago, I was presented with an opportunity to be massively disappointed. I had seen some of the early previews and interviews surrounding the game Mass Effect, and frankly my expectations, in spite of my best efforts to contain them, had grown to the point that I could not possibly be satisfied. A story-driven game with heavy role-playing elements set in a fully-realized science fiction world? It sounded more or less like just plugging wires directly into the pleasure centers of my brain, as far as I could tell.

Mass Effect was created by Bioware, the same company that created Bioshock, which I reviewed earlier here on the Buffet, and for which Dana published a review from the perspective of a non-gamer. This is also the same company that created the game Knights of the Old Republic (and its sequel, KotOR II) for the original X-Box console (the games were both also ported to the PC). This second game is much more important for understanding Mass Effect, because the two share a number of similarities in terms of the type of game and the manner in which the player is expected to interact with the world.

I have been very pleased in the past with Bioware’s work, and once again, they do not disappoint. I enjoyed the game immensely, in spite of my stratospheric expectations. I have a few quibbles, of course, because nothing is ever perfect, but in Mass Effect, they have delivered a solid, highly entertaining game that leaves me both satisfied with what I got for my money and eager for more.

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Enso Beta

November 8, 2007

A while ago, in this very space, I waxed rhapsodic about Humanized Enso, a program that aims to bring computers a little closer to Jef Raskin’s ideal. I agree with a lot of things in Raskin’s book The Humane Interface, so I was happy to see his work in a form that I could use in my everyday life.

For those disinclined to read my earlier article, Enso uses a semi-modal, textual interface to perform all sorts of useful actions anywhere in Windows (there are rumors of a Mac vesion on the way).  For example, if I want to open up Word 2007, I can hold down Caps Lock and type ‘open word’ no matter what I’m doing and it’ll open up a copy of Word for me.  I can also tell Enso to learn a particular file as a command, so that I can say ‘open geek’ and it’ll open up my folder of Geek Buffet articles.  My big problem with Enso is just that there’s no way to extend the commands.  Sure, you can open new and interesting files, but you can’t do new and interesting things.

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