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.
Featured community review by aschultz (January 09, 2012)
Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.
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