Sunday, November 6, 2011

Watching You Tube: Playing "Burn: Cycle" on the Philips CD-i

What is the CD-i, you may ask?  You could call it the earliest disc-based game console, but that's only part of what Philips promised with CD-i.  In addition to playing games, you could listen to CD's, watch Video-CD movies, sing along to Karaoke CD's, or use multimedia data.  To put it uncharitably, it was the CD-ROM drive you could use with your TV set.  And like the similar 3DO, it was a big commercial flop.

One of the groundbreaking specialties of the CD-i was its capacity to add full-motion video (FMV) to games. Most such games used FMV pretty uncreatively. There would be live-action interludes between game levels. Or you'd have to shoot live-action people with your light gun.  Burn: Cycle used its FMV to come far closer to the ideal of an immersive experience, an interactive movie.  That's not to say it got to that ideal, of course.  Quite a lot of the gameplay, as you'll see, is puzzle-solving that just gets you from one sequence to the next.  But the creators of the game built an interesting world from cyberpunk elements, with a dash of Hong Kong cinema.

Anyway, it's widely considered one of the best games produced for the CD-i.  And not just because so many of the others reportedly stank on ice.  (It got an A- from the Video Game Critic, one of only three CD-i games so far he's given better than a B.)

Maybe it's just me, but I find that the game's theme of the interaction between humans and computers makes it easier to excuse the somewhat low-fi graphics.  Like the saying about something being a feature instead of a bug, the fairly primitive CGI transcends unreality to become stylized atmosphere.

They did a surprisingly good job of integrating the actors into the environment. Even today, there's a tendency for live-action figures to look "floaty" when put in an entirely digital set (as with the mothership interiors in the recent V series). But these actors are generally well-anchored to the virtual floor. I don't know what was up, though, with that hotel scene, where the actors seem about 30 degrees off from the plane of the set.

Some of the green-screen compositing isn't so hot (there's noticeable fringing in some scenes), and I suppose they could have done a better job with the lighting, so that the live action wasn't so flat and video-like.  But it reminds me a little of the original Doctor Who series.  I can't help thinking that if it had lasted into the 1990's, instead of dying at more or less the "Video Toaster" stage of CG technology, there would have been episodes that looked like this.

(click on the post title to see all nine chapters of this playthrough)

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