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Othello (NES) artwork

Othello (NES) review


"I was able to game early chess computers pretty easily by locking up the pawns and then watching them flail. That made me feel smart. Othello was the computer's revenge."



As a former chess player, I'd always been curious about Othello (aka Reversi,) too. It was a great choice as a programming exercise for the early consoles and probably still is today. It's a counterintuitive game, where often taking the most of your opponent's pieces is one of your very worst moves. It's based on calculations of squares left and of how your pieces are formed, and even of how many moves you can make. The more, the better. I was able to game early chess computers pretty easily by locking up the pawns and then watching them flail. That made me feel smart. Othello was the computer's revenge.

It's an easy enough game to understand. Every move, you can flip an opponent's piece--or a chain of them (vertical, horizontal or diagonal)--to your color by placing a piece of your own so you've got a piece on each side of the chain. These can go in any direction, but you always have to turn every opposing piece you can. If you have no such move, you must pass. If you have only one such move, you must make it, even if it is very bad.

Much of the trickery of Othello relies on making innocuous moves your opponent can't do much about, or setting things up so he can't. There's a big fight over who is forced to place a tile on a square one diagonal from the corner--whoever does that risks letting his opponent have a whole corner. From the corner, you can take a whole side of the board that can't be flipped. Then you can expand that territory. It's quite possible for a game to swing from, say, 40-10 to 10-54 very quickly.

The big reason Othello is so nasty is that humans are naturally greedy about these things, and having more tokens seems to indicate more moves and possibility, when the reverse is true. There's always that temptation to bag a few points for later. In chess, better and more pieces almost always work, but in Othello, "better" isn't what you'd think. While you want to control the edges, you may do that first by controlling the center and giving your opponent a bunch of squares one away from edges. Once he has those, he can't place anything on an edge--and you can dictate where he moves next.

This is a harsh and surprising punishment for greed, unlike any other board game I've played. And it requires relatively simple programming. Without too many calculations to make, the computer can just focus on getting certain squares, or letting a player have a useless line of tokens. Before I knew what I was doing, the ups and downs were crushing. Now, granted, the earliest level of NES Othello plays badly enough to give you corner squares pretty easily, but even that seems like part of a grand cruel joke, half like the game is fake-applauding you for understanding trivial stuff. There are four levels. Number two will wipe out good players.

This all gives Othello something your average fifty-odd level puzzle game will never have. They often have clear solutions, and sometimes it's quite clever to figure out what to do, and there's no real enemy to muck it up and show you were doomed all along. In Sokoban, for instance, you simply see that you shouldn't have pushed that block into the corner, or you should not haave clumped that group together, or you needed to space things right. Othello moves randomly at first, so memorization doesn't work, and by the end, wherever you might've failed is long since paved with your opponent's tokens. You see the punishment without understanding why. Research is necessary to beat a machine with relatively little memory. Some online help has even been compiled without computer simulations.

Othello gets no style points. Really, any attempts would be cheesy. You'll want to mute the music. The "GAME END" is an extra twist of the knife after the computer beats you 57-7...and you're not sure why it did, or how it knew all along. The game lets you have up to forty minutes to think, but it moves instantly. Like the quiet moves that are so strong in the game proper, this is a passive sort of bragging that says enough on its own, part of a fascinatingly simple, even frightening example of how computers can quickly outstrip humans. I don't think I enjoyed my journey toward winning, and I don't think I want to go through the pain of relearning the strategy. I would rather just settle for clobbering the Atari version of Othello--but even that, all two kilobytes of code, might beat me on the toughest level for a bit.

Rating: 6/10

aschultz's avatar
Featured community review by aschultz (January 09, 2012)

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Feedback

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honestgamer posted January 09, 2012:

It was good to see another review from you, Andrew, and you did a nice job discussing the attraction of Othello and the unique challenges it can afford a person. I remember seeing a "programming" book that my uncle had with one of his old computers (you hooked it up to a television; I'm not sure what one it was) and I think it detailed how to make a text adventure game and an Othello game. I never really see the game brought up today in video games, yet it definitely can provide a fun challenge.
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aschultz posted January 09, 2012:

Thanks, Joe! I wasn't shooting for the stars with this one. I'm a bit surprised it's at the top of the front page. Jason, if you're reading this, I'm ok with this sort of thing getting bumped down. I'm not doing it for the immense popularity, but it's good to have an outlet.

I never looked into a program that could write an othello game, though now you mention it, they've got to be out there. Something like this is astounding to me, and it's more the sort of thing I want to read these days.

Now everyone get busy and knock my review to the bottom quick quick. Or my next few. I've got spare ideas floating around.
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honestgamer posted January 09, 2012:

Hey, I'm Jason! I just have a new avatar of my handsome mug.

I'm not in any hurry to push a single retro review from you down the page, or even a grouping of them, not necessarily. Retro content has in the past been a big focus for HonestGamers, and I'd like for things to stay that way!

Staff will continue to post reviews and news articles on weekdays, which keeps content chugging along in frequent spurts, so there's not much concern if you submit a bunch of consecutive reviews on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. The other days aren't as certain, but I definitely like the idea of seeing more retro stuff from you and there's no reason to regard that as second-rate content or in some manner less worthy of its time in the spotlight!
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aschultz posted January 09, 2012:

Goodness it's late. Sorry about that, Jason and Joe! I mean, you're two good people to be confused for, but, uh, I have an excuse. I was reading up on Othello theory to see what all I missed.

Plus I have an image of you being besides a better lighted brick wall, because that was your avatar for a while.

It's great that you're still giving credit to retro content. I think a combination of that and new stuff is good for keeping the site healthy. I'll see what I can do for you in 2012. If it's not anything earth shaking, well, it's good to see you accept it, and maybe I can encourage others to look back at something they wanted to poke at.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted January 09, 2012:

I'll let it slide....this time. :D

"I was able to game early chess computers pretty easily by locking up the pawns and then watching them flail. That made me feel smart. Othello was the computer's revenge."

This.

And a resounding welcome back, Schultz!

Great review. Flows very well, easy to read, enlightening and engaging.

I never was able to get into any form of Othello. I seem to remember an arcade version that I always wanted to be good at, but never could muster the skill. I don't remember if it was called Othello (I want to say it was called Orbs), but I do remember the game showing you who your opponent was, though the only one I can recall is a group of gelatinous monsters called Colony or Legion or something like that.
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qxz posted January 10, 2012:

Joe, I believe the game you're thinking of is Ataxx (Leland, 1990). It's a game that I've seen in arcades, but never fed quarters to... maybe because I got creeped out by the "Droolman" character shown on the link's screenshots.

Speaking of, I actually played a "clone" of this game on the NES called Spot (based on the old 7-up character, and unrelated to the 16-bit platform games).

Have a look (Ataxx comes first, then comes Spot):
< width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/L-CTpCD-CNc" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></>

< width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/7cQkFb8s2Q4" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></>
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overdrive posted January 10, 2012:

Nice review. I owned Othello growing up. My mom bought it for me with SMB 2 (which I wanted) because she felt I needed a more intellectual game. I did think I'd utterly hate it, but with how quick games go and with how you're guaranteed to get STEAMROLLED by the computer until you learn how to play, I got hooked for a brief period of time. Until I got good enough to win on more than the easiest level with consistency, at least.
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aschultz posted January 10, 2012:

Thanks, qxz, for that very cool find, and Overdrive, too. I'd say it's a bit cruel to give a kid a game this tough if you don't give him a strategy guide unless the point was to hint that he should play less NES, period.

It occurs to me there were a lot of games like this--4-d tic tac toe, connect 4 (see a master's thesis here) and so on.
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honestgamer posted January 10, 2012:

I would never have had a problem with receiving this game as a kid, as long as it came with something more entertaining. I liked to be challenged mentally, and Othello could handle that (at least for awhile). The problem is that there's not much to it. Considering that I was lucky if I got two games a year, having one of them be Othello would have been crushing. That was a problem with the NES era. Parents could spend $50 on a game that would amuse their kids for 20 minutes, or $50 on a game that would keep them busy for 20 hours. Most parents were clueless and there weren't a lot of budget titles until near the end of the NES lifespan, so... yeah, tough times in some ways.
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overdrive posted January 10, 2012:

I always thought the real problem with games like this, Chessmaster, etc. on the NES was that after you got some skill, to have a real challenge, you'd have to move the difficulty to where the computer took too long to move for games to be particularly fun. Like, if I'm playing Othello and have to wait more than 5 seconds for the computer to move, I'm not having fun. Othello was like this, wasn't it? Or am I taking Chessmaster and applying the way it worked to another game unintentionally?

Of course, you could force the computer to move, but if you're going to do that, then what's the point of playing on that level instead of a lower one where the computer will move on its own quickly?
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JoeTheDestroyer posted January 10, 2012:

Qxz-
Ataxx was the game. Thanks!
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aschultz posted January 11, 2012:

Othello seemed quicker because there are fewer moves and trees to judge. I tried it on the highest level. I remember feeling very clever beating a Radio Shack chess computer on the highest level when it took a long time to think--even though it stopped making different moves, really.

Plus computers at first could be dumb enough to let their bishop get trapped by pawns without seeing an easy way out (e.g. e4 c5 Bb5 a6 Ba4 b5 Bb3 c4 in an extreme case, if you know chess notation)--and programmers didn't know how to deal with the Horizon Effect--so I got a bit fat and lazy with all that.

Nowadays computers are nightmarishly good at finding small positional stuff like pawns you shouldn't move and even though they spit out a number there's a strong sense that doing that DOES cost 1/3 of a pawn or allows your opponent's piece in--and while these results aren't parsed into English yet, I was able to pick up on a lot of it looking through my old games from high school after not having played for a while. It really shook me to say "Wow, this is what I didn't look for, for so long" or to be able to twiddle things quickly to understand why certain moves didn't work or shouldn't be feared.

Anyway, I agree that, yeah, so much was hit or miss. It was hard to tell. I got swamped with educational titles early on. And it was generally tough to see if bargain titles were good for the Atari. I remember a ton of educational titles for the Apple that were just plain boring, and I remember one I would LOVE to locate but can't.

It featured you as a news editor. If you landed on certain squares, you got a chance to edit paragraphs for money. The person with the most money won. You could move around the board several different ways. Anyone who knows the name gets my eternal gratitude.

I suppose I could partially blame it for my being so "good" at finding typos, etc. But really, it was just fun, and it was something a board game couldn't do. I bet simple cooperative efforts could even make a game like this where people could submit their own paragraphs and even allow for word choice or a range of acceptable guesses. The puzzles themselves could be open-source.

On top of that, "plain" games like Lode Runner were, in fact, VERY educational in their own way. Being able to create my own levels and determine what was fair/unfair or learn how to make enemies go stupid directions (vs. just making the computer make a dumb move in chess when it had better) or try stuff until it worked was just wonderful. It's fun to have dumb evil violent enemies, but it feels like cheating to have a dumb computer enemy in chess.

I realize I may've tldr'd here, but really, this thread is giving me ideas for slightly more exciting games I wanted to write--so thanks for that.

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