Thursday, 26 July 2012

Pixel Nation Magazine: An Interview

   Traditionally if you have ever wanted to buy a gaming magazine of any type, then it has always been a case of taking a walk down to the local news agents or local branch of WHSmiths. No matter what home computer or console you had, or even which video games company you sided with, they have always been the preserve of retailers, all clumped together in one part of a shelf. Of course there has been the option of a subscription if you felt a magazine was a justifiable purchase every month, and you had a penchant for that particular magazine, but the digital revolution means the whole landscape is changing dramatically. Not only is the traditional form of print media under threat, but also the very foundations of its distribution: no longer are gaming magazines the preserve of the big companies rich enough to ensue such an endeavour and consigned to a small elitist club, and no longer does a magazine have to be printed in physical form or even distributed nationally by traditional means.

   The rise of the internet has sparked a revolution in the sharing of information and the form and type of journalism on offer, and this is no more evident than in the gaming scene. Just scouring the world wide web on such an entertaining pastime and your search engine is flooded with countless websites, blogs, podcasts and much more, all talking about the gaming great and good. This unbarred and unfettered immediate access to any and all information about gaming, has caused a natural slump in the sales of traditional printed games magazines, as the reasons for such a slump is as plain to see as the sky. That’s not to say that things have slid so far down the garden path that magazines in their natural guise have become unviable, or that they are about to disappear off of store shelves and consigned to past memory’s with immediate effect, there is still life in the old dog yet as the saying goes. But whether you like it or not, the landscape has changed and is still evolving, with the digital switch becoming more encompassing with each passing minute, it would seem, at least to some, that the writing is on the wall as it were, but is it?

   This hasn’t deterred some; rather the internet has given rise to an opening in the gaming magazine market that in the past didn’t exist. While magazines like Retro Gamer continue to thrive, catering to what is still seen by some as a niche within gaming (that being retro gaming itself,) and with the loyal support of its customers, it still follows the traditional route of print media distributed to, and sold from newsagents across the land with subscription as a substantial counterpart. It would also seem that finding a niche can work to a magazines advantage, rather than becoming a hindrance as so often thought, as it can be rather appealing and stand out in a cluttered market. Others with a passion for retro gaming have formed their own small teams and taken to creating their own retro games magazines, releasing and sharing them on the net. If you can think of any old system from yesteryear then the chances are there is a fan devoted PDF magazine created and available for it somewhere on the internet. Some who haven’t sampled these would probably argue that they can’t hope to match the quality and design of traditional big publisher driven magazines, or even hope to have the in-depth scope and insider information in their articles. But after reading plenty of them for myself, it is quite honestly clear that such a conclusion is most definitely wrong. The quality in design and layout of some of these magazines is actually substantially high, as is the quality of the articles contained within, and these magazines are a credit to all involved and the hard work put into them by all contributors.

   Still, there was until recently, only one UK based magazine on the market devoted to retro gaming (Retro Gamer Magazine) covering all formats, and only one other magazine, a parent of Retro Gamer no less, that devotes a section to retro gaming (Games TM). While there are other multi-format retro gaming magazines, they remain locked in their digital form and remain solely on the internet duo to the cost it would incur to get them into print. They are also not regularly released like Retro Gamer and Games TM are, which are both buy monthly’s, this is in part due to the very independent nature of these mags and the much smaller teams involved in them.

   But this is all hopefully set to change as a new independent magazine has emerged onto the scene that hopes to fill the retro reading void on a quarterly release bases and with the options of a printed and digital version of the mag available for purchase. Pixel Nation is a new, fully independent Retro Games magazine, with its first issue released to the world on March of this year and is the brainchild of fellow gamers and retro collectors Steve Gauntly & Keith Lutener. But there is more to Pixel Nation than meets the eye as it shakes off some of the shekels of decade’s old tradition, and cleaves its unique path in the games magazine market, forming its own original ideas and quite unique concepts. I caught up with one of Pixel Nations founders Keith Lutener to get some insight into the Magazine and explore its unique concepts and ideas.

What is PN?
Pixel Nation is an independent retro game book publishing company with a range of retro books and regular quarterly bookazine.  We don’t have a board of shareholders or upper management to report to, everything we do is for the love of retro gaming.

Where did the idea for PN come from & why did you decide to start it?
I’ve been a big reader of the likes of Retro Gamer for several years and throughout 2011, I’d been involved with NES-Bit.com. The community grouped together to help create a magazine to help promote the site to NES fans and it was a huge success. Shortly after the idea was born to try other magazines and after a bit of brain storming Pixel Nation was formed.

How long did it take to go from concept to launch?
A few months spent planning out how we could even tackle such a project, shortly after which a website was built then tested.  In the end it must have been close to 7 months from start to the launch of our first issue PN1.

What were the hardest parts of PN to realise & what hurdles did you have to overcome to bring PN together?
The hardest part involved contacting writers, designers and people from the industry for interviews (such as Bob Wakelin). We pretty much came from nothing and convincing people this was a project worth taking part in was always going to be a struggle.

How many people are involved in PN & are you looking for others to get involved?
We are growing bigger every issue! With 1 we had around 8 people involved including writers, it’s just passed 15 for issue 2.  Always happy for others to join the team, we’d like to offer every writer the opportunity to present their work to the retro community.

PN Issue 1 was released in March, what has the reaction & feedback been like for the first issue?
Overwhelmingly positive, there was always the fear that people wouldn’t take to such a book. It’s hard to judge how big the retro crowd actually is as we are all so widespread, but everyone has really showed their support.  We have listened to everyone’s suggestions and the overall look and feel of PN2 will be very different, it should be available by the time you read this!
Is PN available in digital & printed form & how much does it cost?
The PDF download of PN is £3.99 with it being £8.99 for the high gloss print edition.  We can’t say enough how gorgeous the printed edition is, it’s a high quality glossy print in full colour with a book covering.  Looks fantastic on a bookshelf by any retro collection!

Do you offer worldwide shipping & if so how much does it cost?
We offer worldwide shipping at £3.99 for the US and all of Europe.

When do you plan on releasing each subsequent issue?
The initial plan was for a quarterly release, roughly every 4 months but with the current team and way things have gone, it offers the opportunity for a Bi-monthly publication. A case of watch this space!

What can readers look forward to seeing in issue 2?
Just a few tid bits, Steve Wozniak sat down with us and talked about his early days of Apple and the programming language that started it all, in some detail too, this is a huge plus for us. Next up is the guy behind the C64 classic Alter Ego, Peter Favoro, who goes into detail about what was involved making the game.  A look at Touhou shooters, a feature on Final Fantasy VII and even a special glimpse at Atari Japan, a side of the history I can guarantee you won't have read or seen before. We have done our best to try and gather as many industry interviews as possible this issue and the book is packed full with content.

What improvements, based on reader feedback, have you made in issue 2?
One of the main ideas for Pixel Nation is to offer readers the chance to comment and suggest what they would like to see. With this in mind we have listened to a lot of feedback about general issue design, even taking on some professional designer comments. I’m hoping people will see just how well the new issue is streamlined to a professional appearance yet still maintaining that retro feel.

What is your vision, aims & goals for the future of PN?
Beyond the draw of the main quarterly bookazine the main goal is to eventually offer a central retro hub. A place where people can pick up professional publications mixed in with the work of people of the retro community.  U-Publish is a big part of our site where everyone can download books/magazines produced off site.
Pixel Nation Issue 1
   The first PN mag is quite the debut it must be said, as the design, layout and writing contained within it are of a really high standard for such a small independent mag just blossoming into the retro gaming world.  Its fair to say that PN is a bookzine rather than a magazine, and its easy to see why, its size is A5 rather than the typical A4, something which sets it apart from other publications from the start, this makes it easier to take on your travels for reading on the go as well as making it easier to store around the home. PN also uses thicker paper with a higher gloss to it than anything you’ll find in any typical mag, giving it that extra added touch of quality for your moneys worth, this is another nice touch that I like that adds to the overall special feel and unique nature of the bookzine.

   The first issue has quite a varied range of articles that should keep any retro fan enthused, spread over a hundred pages, with a diverse range as interviews with Cynthia Preston and Jonathan Potts about their voice roles in the Zelda cartoon to a look at games such as Nights into Dreams and Outrun. I really cant do the diverse nature of the content within PN issue 1 any justice here as there is far too much interesting stuff contained within, so be sure to check the links below to take you through to each issues contents page at the PN website, this will give you a full run down of the contents as well as some pictures of the mag.

Pixel Nation Issue 1
   If I had to pick out some of my favourite articles in issue 1, it would have to be Revival of the 2D Platformer and Confessions of a Girl Gamer. The first article looks at what made platformers so popular and appealing back in the old 8/16-bit days and how we are starting to see this once loved genre, that seemed to almost disappear, make a much welcomed comeback. This is something particularly close to my heart as I played so many great games in the genre back in the day, and as it’s a genre that I have rediscovered over the past year both in retro games as well as in the current generation of consoles. The second article particularly stood out for me as I found  the writers perspective on the male dominated world of gaming and her view point on some of gaming’s most iconic heroin’s, such as Lara Croft, a very interesting read.
   One of the points the guys at PN have been keen to get across to its readers is that it’s a mag that will be guided and driven forward by the readers, and they are keen to hear any and all feedback on the bookzine that will help them build upon what has been accomplished each issue, and how they can make PN better with each subsequent release. Without the feedback from its readership they can’t gauge what readers like/dislike and would like to see introduced into the publication. With the recent release of issue 2, and after reading much of the feedback for myself first hand, it’s clear to see when flicking through the new copy that reader’s feedback has been instrumental in making the second issue better. The font used and its size is now more uniform throughout the bookzine with a better use of alignment and margins, this has given PN a more unified and integrated feeling throughout as you go from one article to the other. The use of pictures and artwork (essential to any publication of its type) has been altered as some of the feedback was that the use of them was taking president over the writing itself in the first issue. The team has sort to address this imbalance and find some middle ground between the writing, artwork and screenshots. PN’s layout and design certainly looks cleaner and less overbearing than in the first issue, though as many designers know, this is a fine art, so this is an area that will most certainly be closely refined with each issue.

Pixel Nation Issue 2
   Issue 2 sees the conclusion (parts 2) of Confessions of A Girl Gamer and the Amiga 1200 look back articles as well as The Shadow Of The Beast interview, the first part in issue 1 being with Martin Edmondson and this conclusive part in issue 2 being with Tim Wright. I really liked the way both parts of the interviews were done, rather than being with all one person for both, they offered two perspectives behind different parts of the games in each issue. Atari in Japan article offered a different look at what the company was up to in Japan, something not often talked about, as well as an interesting look at the legendary Atari Panther console. There is also a really in depth look at Touhou (bullet hell shmup’s) as well Bubble Bobble and the Dizzy series and much more besides, so there is quite the varied range and enough to wet any retro gamers appetite. One thing I really like and I hope that PN can continue, is with interviews and articles about composers and musicians that produced the music scores of some of our much loved games. Issue 1 has a small article on Koji Kondo while issue 2 has interviews with Philippe Vachey and Tim Wright respectively, this is a much welcomed step in my humble opinion as those who created the music for many classic games are not celebrated enough. So well done to the PN team in bringing these interviews and articles to the fore and lets see them continue to flow into future issues.

   Another part of Pixel Nation that’s unique in itself is the U-Publish area of the website; this area is dedicated to anyone who wants to publish their retro books and or magazines on the site. The idea behind it is to make U-Publish the ‘go-to’ place for retro gaming publications, where you can go to download, buy and discover new work all from one central location, rather than numerous ones that are spread-out and hidden away in undiscovered corners of the internet. It’s a fantastic idea, yet a very simple one with a potentially huge impact and it begs belief that nobody has hit upon this idea earlier. With the PN bookzine being the primary focus and drive of the site, this section makes a lot of sense, and shows that the guys behind PN have a true passion for gaming and the scene that goes hand in hand with it. Keith was keen to point out that those who decide to purchase PN have a keen interest in the subject, so its readers might like to read further works on the subject of retro gaming, and so PN can help people discover works by other writers. It’s this kind of selfless act and drive to help connect the dispersed parts of the scene and try to bring them together under one roof that really sets Pixel Nation apart, so I decided to question Keith some more about U-Publish.

You have another part to the PN website called U-Publish, what is U-Publish?
It’s a means for everyone to have a central location where they can download or purchase other authors retro gaming books/magazines.

Where did the idea of U-Publish come from?
Whilst producing NES-Bit Magazine System (which has 2 issues now available on U-Publish) the biggest hurdle was actually letting people know it existed. Even visiting various forums, news sites and blogs could only offer so many views. People just didn’t know it existed and that’s when the idea for U-Publish was born. The thinking was to offer a single location where readers could download or see the latest retro pieces without having to rely on luck that they came across it.  The best part of having them all in one place is that people can discover entirely new work as well without much effort. Plus it can help give a boost to other sites as Pixel Nation advertises in numerous places with regular updates, effectively giving authors a chance to share our visitors.

How many books/magazines are currently available on U-Publish?
We have 16 at the moment with a few more in the wings, books like Pixellation and the Retrocade magazines are very popular.

Can anyone submit their work to be published on U-Publish & are there any specific criteria that need to be met to do so?
As long as it’s not written on Post It notes we pretty much consider everything submitted. We full push everything on the U-Publish side with our Twitter, Facebook and forum so there’s always a form of advertising in the background.  We can even design a cover for authors if they feel their skill is only in writing, but we do like to specialise in smaller PDF gaming books. We currently have an author working on a 20’000 word book for U-Publish based around the Touhou series (bullet hell style shoot ‘em ups), this will be fully designed by ourselves as part of the U-Pub service.

What publishing options do you offer & how do they work?
With printing our own quarterly bookazine we have access to a large print company at trade prices. This means we can place orders for smaller book runs which don’t cost heaven and earth (like the big publishers insist on).  The first choice we offer for all is a downloadable PDF copy which can be offered for free or at a cost suited to the author.  If an author would like to see their work in print we operate a pre-order system, once a small number has been received then the print job can go ahead.  We feel it gives everyone a fair chance to gain something from their work and our rates are well below the industry standard!

   Pixel Nation issue 1 & 2 are out now and can be purchased from the Pixel Nation website, and both are available for world wide shipping. If you have any questions then don’t hesitate to send them through to the PN team as they are happy to answer any inquires.

   If you have a skill that you think PN might be in need of, whether it is writing articles, design, proof reading, or any other help you might like to offer the PN team then head over to their website and drop them an email. Further to that if you have a retro gaming magazine or book you would like to make available through the U-Publish service then don’t hesitate to contact the team as they are keen to hear from anyone who would like to publish their work.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Tin Toy Adventure

   Tin Toy Adventure was released in 1996 for the Amiga, so it was released quite late in the day, and by that time all but the most hardy and dedicated of the Amiga hardcore were still enjoying the fruits the system was able to offer up. So as you would expect with such a late Amiga game it’s an AGA (Advance Graphics Architecture) title, and honestly it really shows.

   This game has some beautiful looking graphics that are well drawn, well animated, with plenty of parallax scrolling. But what really shows off that this is an AGA game more than anything else is the sheer amount of colours displayed on screen; the game is very colourful with a diverse range on screen all throughout each level. The only other AGA title that I have come across that can match and equal this game in its graphical detail and amount of colours on screen is Simon the Sorcerer.

   Tin Toy Adventure is toy themed with each stage taking part in a different stage of a house, and each being differently themed in terms of design to coincide with each different room. Each stage consists of three levels with a boss fight at the end. The levels are well designed with interesting layouts and a good use of imagination for each one, but what really becomes obvious about the game is the fact that it is a tough platformer, and as a player you really have to know the levels inside and out if you want any hope of reaching the next level.

   The difficulty of the game is perhaps the most addictive thing about it, as the incentive to keep playing is the sheer sense of satisfaction you will be rewarded with when you have managed to get to that next level. The difficulty is quite reminiscent of a lot of the old 8-bit home computer games of the 80s, yet the game isn’t infuriating and impossible to complete like those games of old.

   You have quite a few different abilities at your disposal, you can jump on enemies to kill them, though they will take quite a few hits, which is something that will steadily increases the further you progress through the game as enemies get tougher to eliminate. Pressing down on the d-pad will scroll through a number of different abilities, that when selected will only last several short seconds, but can be more than useful when faced with a tough part of a level. You can select a tornado, and much like Taz from Taz-mania, it lets you wiz around the level really fast, knocking out enemies as you go. There is a power that inflates your characters body which will let you float above the level for a short distance, but the drawback of this is that when the ability wares off it can easily drop you onto spikes and enemies. There is even a magical top hat that will appear and walk in front of your character, knocking out any enemies that get in its way and it also doubles as a platform for you to access those hard to reach areas.

   Overall I honestly think that this game is a little jewel in the crown of the Amiga’s library, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea due to the steep difficulty level, but it is certainly a top quality title high up there with the Turrican series, Fire & Ice, James Pond, Super Frog et al. To me this is a platformer that managed to stand out from the crowd of 90s platformers, yet I reserved judgement until I had played the game proper, and it turned out to be an amazingly addictive and fun game, but don’t take my word for it, go and play Tin Toy Adventure.


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