Lit­tle bits of his­tory re­peat­ing

A kalei­do­scope of videogames from down the years, Multi­bowl is a twist on War­i­oWare wor­thy of study


A tour through gam­ing his­tory with the cre­ators of Multi­bowl

Multi­bowl’s mad­cap tour through hun­dreds of vin­tage games feels like some­thing that should have ex­isted a long time ago. Set­ting two play­ers the task of fac­ing off dur­ing ten bouts of clas­sic gam­ing ac­tion, it’s a nos­tal­gic jour­ney through the his­tory of si­mul­ta­ne­ous mul­ti­player gam­ing and lit­tered with novel twists. In the Mid­way clas­sic Ram­page, the goal is to avoid touch­ing the floor in­stead of caus­ing chaos. Cave’s DoDonPachi ap­pears as a bul­let-dodg­ing chal­lenge, with the play­ers’ guns dis­abled.

The ac­tion isn’t lim­ited to the ar­cade – it takes place across an ar­ray of vin­tage con­sole and com­puter for­mats. Once a chal­lenge is won and points awarded, it’s onto the next, and the next af­ter that. Multi­bowl, how­ever, is no com­pi­la­tion. It is con­sciously a col­lage; com­prised of ‘found’ me­dia and then as­sem­bled, in­stalled and pre­sented to en­ter­tain and ed­u­cate, al­beit in a ran­domised se­quence. For cre­ators Ben­nett Foddy and AP Thom­son, Multi­bowl is more than facile retro tourism or icon­o­clas­tic ap­pro­pri­a­tion. It’s an ex­pres­sion of deep pas­sions and firmly held be­liefs.

Multi­bowl was born from mild frus­tra­tion and Foddy’s pas­sion for gam­ing his­tory. “It was by virtue of try­ing to play old twoplayer games over and over again, and try­ing to teach peo­ple to play old games,” he says. “It’s very in­ac­ces­si­ble if you’re not su­per fa­mil­iar with em­u­la­tors – there’s a huge amount of setup time. If you’re try­ing to play a Com­modore 64 game, you have to wait for the cas­sette to load and all those sorts of things. I’d al­ways en­joyed the di­rect­ness of Mario Party and War­i­oWare, where it’s jump­ing you from one game to an­other, so the idea [for Multi­bowl] had been there for a while.” Foddy’s inkling only be­came a pos­si­bil­ity last year, when MAME and MESS uni­fied, bring­ing an ex­haus­tive range of ar­cade and home gam­ing plat­forms into one code­base. In March, MAME went open source with, as Foddy puts it, “quite a lib­eral li­cence”. This al­lowed Foddy and Thom­son to take all the lib­er­ties they needed with gam­ing’s past.

De­spite hav­ing coded the likes of QWOP and Speed Chess, Foddy ad­mits his skills weren’t quite up to the task of wran­gling MAME/MESS into a vin­tage-gam­ing juke­box, so he turned to pre­vi­ous col­lab­o­ra­tor, ex-stu­dent (and now co-ed­u­ca­tor) AP Thom­son to han­dle the thornier cod­ing over­heads. The need to find hun­dreds of games that would work in Multi­bowl’s merry-go-round rep­re­sented a colos­sal cu­ra­tion chal­lenge. Foddy took this on with quite some ardour: “There are the games that ev­ery­body loves, that they re­mem­ber fondly. There were my favourites and games that were rec­om­mended to me, but then we were near­ing the bot­tom of the bar­rel.”

It turns out that quite a few favourites that ad­vo­cates were sure had twoplayer modes were ac­tu­ally sin­gle­player. Thom­son re­calls, laugh­ing, “I said, why don’t we have F-Zero in there?

“There’s more we could add. I’d like to get to the point where no hu­man be­ing can know them all”

Then we dis­cov­ered there’s no mul­ti­player in that game!” With mem­o­ries of friends and col­leagues ex­hausted, Foddy be­gan some se­ri­ous min­ing to fill the ros­ter. “It was just an enor­mous re­search project,” he says. “I would go to web­sites that cat­a­logue old games and fil­ter them by which ones had si­mul­ta­ne­ous mul­ti­player. I just went through and played them! Once that ran out, I went to web­sites de­voted to trans­lat­ing old Ja­panese and Korean games. It was a real chal­lenge to find things that aren’t re­peats in terms of game­play.”

“We have a list of games to put in if we can get cer­tain em­u­la­tors to work prop­erly,” Thom­son ex­plains. It tran­spires that MESS’s Amiga and MS-DOS em­u­la­tors don’t na­tively sup­port save states, which is a cru­cial func­tion for set­ting up games within Multi­bowl. With 232 ti­tles re­pur­posed al­ready, Foddy isn’t en­tirely sat­is­fied. “There’s more we could add, and I think 300 is a good num­ber. I feel that at 230, if you play it for a while, you can start to know all of the games. I’d like to get to the point where no hu­man be­ing can know them all.” We pro­pose that 256 might be a good num­ber. “If we’re go­ing to go above that,” Thom­son sug­gests, “we need to get to 512!” “There prob­a­bly are 512,” Foddy says. “The more re­search I do, the more I dis­cover there’s a long his­tory of [si­mul­ta­ne­ous mul­ti­player], par­tic­u­larly

in pub­lic-do­main games, which aren’t eas­ily found now.” But af­ter search­ing for the ti­tles came the real work – over­rid­ing each game’s for­mal rules to en­force their own. “There was a tech­ni­cal side, which was fig­ur­ing out how all th­ese games func­tion in the code and where the data is stored, and also choose what the win con­di­tions should be,” Foddy ex­plains.

“Trans­form­ing the games into be­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of game en­tirely emerged from us putting them to­gether in this re­ally con­strained for­mat,” Thom­son adds.

“That’s re­ally true,” Foddy says. “There’s a whole se­ries of de­sign con­sid­er­a­tions that you wouldn’t run up against mak­ing just one game. What should the win con­di­tions be? What should be the mo­ment that we pick in the game that’s the most ex­cit­ing mo­ment? It’s not al­ways just the be­gin­ning of the game.” He ex­plains that Multi­bowl’s take on the no­to­ri­ously tricky NES ver­sion of

Con­tra dumps play­ers in one of the later lev­els, and the task is to sim­ply sur­vive.

The doc­tor­ing of­ten went fur­ther than mere level skips. “There are cases where you want the play­ers to have very lit­tle health and you want them to have the ex­act same health,” Foddy ex­plains, “so I had cus­tom cheats to re­duce their health to one of 200.”

Be­yond the glee that comes from ac­cess­ing gam­ing his­tory in such a fun way, Multi­bowl and its tech­nol­ogy rep­re­sent some­thing deeper for its cre­ators. “We’re only scratch­ing the sur­face,” Foddy says. “There are so many mix­tapes, col­lages and as­sem­blages that are pos­si­ble now, es­pe­cially with em­u­la­tors that sup­port so many sys­tems.” He con­fides that the tech­nol­ogy, which can seam­lessly load, cue and al­ter a se­quence of games from a pool of thou­sands, may have a life be­yond ap­pear­ances on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit. “We’ve talked about re­leas­ing the tools so peo­ple can make some­thing sim­i­lar them­selves. Of course, you wouldn’t be con­fined to hav­ing it work in the same ran­domised way. You could cu­rate a list of scenes from games that you play in or­der.” The pos­si­bil­i­ties for aides-mé­moire and his­tory lessons are ob­vi­ous. The fes­ti­val cir­cuit, which will be

Multi­bowl’s home, is no new ter­ri­tory for its cre­ators. Foddy has a long his­tory in event games, as does Thom­son, who cre­ated Stel­lar Smooch, the game played by hug­ging a yoga ball. “There’s a draw be­cause there’s an en­ergy at those events when it’s clear this is the only chance you get to play a game,” Foddy says.

For Thom­son, the in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenge is key: “It com­pletely changes the kind of de­sign you’re aim­ing for if you know its pri­mary ex­pres­sion is go­ing to be in this one-off event.”

Foddy agrees. “You de­sign the games to be en­joy­able for the au­di­ence, so the games tend to be much more ori­en­tated to­wards the group of peo­ple watching.”

In some ways, the fes­ti­val event game harks back to the orig­i­nal ar­cade ex­pe­ri­ence, set apart from do­mes­tic gam­ing thanks to ex­otic hard­ware and in­ter­faces, and the lure of play­ing some­thing rare and unique with a hu­man au­di­ence. Foddy con­curs, con­fess­ing that he was ob­sessed with ar­cades as a child. Multi­bowl man­ages to con­nect that ex­pe­ri­ence of the past with cur­rent trends, and it forms a per­sonal state­ment for him, both as a de­signer and ed­u­ca­tor. “I’m mo­ti­vated by a de­sire to teach peo­ple about old games so that they don’t die in the com­mon mem­ory. And to dis­cover old games I didn’t know about. I think the his­tory of games is im­por­tant – it’s such a for­ward-look­ing medium, and peo­ple of­ten think they’re in­vent­ing things that have al­ready been done six or seven times. We also have a real prob­lem with era­sure [in games], and it’s some­thing that I’m seek­ing, as an ed­u­ca­tor, to avoid.”

Through­out our dis­cus­sion, it’s clear that Multi­bowl has been very much a labour of love. “It was some­thing we didn’t have enough time for, but we did it any­way,” Foddy says. He’s proud of the project, and it’s clear that’s be­cause it so ably il­lus­trates his ap­pre­ci­a­tion of games and the de­sire to in­form, while also be­ing thor­oughly en­ter­tain­ing.

“I’m mo­ti­vated by a de­sire to teach peo­ple about old games so that they don’t die in the com­mon mem­ory”

FROM TOP Multi­bowl team Ben­nett Foddy and AP Thom­son

While many of the games are drawn from the vin­tage coin-op scene, Multi­bowl also em­u­lates con­sole and home com­puter for­mats, throw­ing up odd­i­ties such as Psy­clapse’s Bal­lis­tix, rep­re­sented in Amiga form

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