Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dirty Laser Games?

I don't know what Photon Technologies had in mind when the company placed this tiny ad in the back pages of Electronic Games magazine, but the words designed to draw the most attention probably attracted the wrong audience:

It's not actually an ad for games of the X-rated variety, see; the DIRTY GAMES so prominently referred to are likely ordinary cartridges, corroded and dusted and clogged with fuzzballs of indeterminate origin from the rec room floor.

The ad doesn't provide much actual information about the company's Laser Cleaning System, beyond the fact that it costs $9.00, plus $3.00 for shipping and handling, which circa 1983 makes it highly unlikely that any actual lasers are involved.  All we are really told about the product is that It Works! Others Don't.

Which others, and in what manner they fail to work, remains suspiciously open-ended.  I can certainly think of a few that would qualify -- the New Mexico Landfill Long-Term Sanitization Process, perhaps, or M. Higby and Sons' All-Purpose Patented Royal Chocolate Pudding and Tuna Fish Cartridge Scouring Regimen.  But these are not actual products.

Take that, you dirty games.  You dirty, dirty games.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: World Jockey

Recently I imported a copy of Namco/Namcot's World Jockey for the PC Engine -- it's a simple but very entertaining horse-racing game, originally released on the Nintendo Famicom under the title Family Jockey.  The Jockey franchise has long been popular in Japan, appearing on multiple console generations from the Famicom to the Wii, but Namco has never seen fit to bring it to the states.

I debated whether to label this one as an "Of Import" post, as it's playable enough without speaking the language, but there is quite a bit of Japanese text, enough that I wasn't quite sure what I was doing in most of the menus.  This one is obviously the Name Entry screen, but as I am not familiar with the kana alphabet I just picked a character and stuck with it:

Other screens were even more mysterious, listing horse and jockey statistics and what I took to be odds for betting on the races.  I never quite figured out what the difference was between the title screen's Horse and Jockey modes; in the real world, the roles are clear indeed, but in the game I suspect the only difference is in the information presented for bettors' decision making.  There's also a "Ticket" mode that puts the race itself on autopilot and lets the player focus on betting, or at least that's how I interpreted it.

Fortunately, we can hit START repeatedly to move through the menus and get to the racing action proper.  Each race begins with a weather update -- rainy weather makes the track muddy, for example, which some horses prefer.  Up to 4 human players can participate using the PC Engine multi-tap -- basically, we tap the I button to spur our horse on and the II button to jump over obstacles, steering the steed with the directional pad.  If we don't make the jump successfully, our jockey tumbles head-over-heels through the air for a moment, then regains his mount after a bit of a setback.

The horse also has a stamina gauge -- we can only spur on so much before the poor beast just gets tired.  The track isn't particularly well-maintained and is littered with icons -- we can pick up stars to regain stamina and speed icons for a temporary boost.  Skulls deplete stamina; mystery icons can affect stamina unpredictably and are best avoided.

The race is cartoonishly presented but has some degree of sophistication in its simulation code.  The horses have some mass, and running too closely together slows everyone down, so while it's tempting to stick to the inside track it sometimes makes more sense to run in the open.

Whatever happens along the way, it's what happens at the finish line that counts:

If our horse and jockey placed in the top three, we earn some money and get to continue:

If we place fourth or below, it's game over, with our horse and jockey retiring and anyone who bet on us regretting their foolish decision:

World Jockey is a fun little game -- I probably wouldn't have bought it at full retail price back in the day, but it's not a rare title and at current used import prices it's a fair deal.  The graphics are cute and colorful, very much in the style of the Famicom version but with significantly more detail, and the action has more depth and strategy to it than one would expect.  Simple and fun wins more than its share of races in my book.

If you're looking for a fun little PC Engine game, especially if you have the multi-tap, you might be able to purchase it at this affiliate link:

World Jockey PC-Engine Hu

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Oddities: A Bug's Life (Genesis)

Videogame hardware lifecycles can often be dated based on the licensed games by whose presence each platform was graced -- or, generally, disgraced.  The Atari 2600 had a Krull game, the NES got Hudson Hawk.  Pixar's second animated feature, A Bug's Life, arrived in movie theatres in 1998, and the videogame adaptation was released on the Nintendo GameBoy Color and the Sony Playstation.

It wasn't supposed to appear on the Genesis at all -- Sega's 16-bit system was well past its commercial prime by the late 1990's, even on the hand-me-down/bedroom system basis that tends to keep a trickle of kids' titles coming late in a console's life.  And it never did in any legal form.  But enterprising Asian game pirates saw an opportunity to cash in on Sega and Disney in one go, and thus this wholly unlicensed conversion of the GameBoy Color version of A Bug's Life appeared on the Genesis:

The game's ancestry is clear -- the sprites have a distinctly GameBoy look, lacking the color depth of even the earliest Genesis titles.  The graphics have been changed a bit -- Flik sports a new shade of blue instead of his customary purple -- but the only real enhancement is a second layer of wallpaper-style background graphics, added to take advantage of the Genesis' parallax scrolling hardware.

The original gameplay has also been preserved -- only two buttons are used, one to fling grapes at enemies in a parabola that seems to go out of its way to miss the intended target, and one to jump.  The jumping animation is horrendously awkward, likely driven by a technical need to keep Flik within an established bounding box -- instead of leaping naturally with his legs, he appears to bend halfway over and, erm, propel himself upward from the rear.  The animators at Pixar would not be happy.  And the sound is awful -- beyond the generic music, random vocal exclamations are heard.  They appear to be coming from Flik, but they sound nothing like Dave Foley's voice work from the movie, nor do they fit the character's personality.  Hearing Flik yell "Nice one!" and "Ohhh YEAH!" ad infinitum doesn't exactly evoke the original character's nebbishy charm.

Fortunately, the game is unforgivingly difficult as well, and it doesn't take more than a few hits to put Flik out of our misery.

This misbegotten conversion is no good at all, but I have to give begrudging credit to the pirate organization that actually invested in software development, even if the entire design was lifted wholesale from someone else's hard work.  And due thanks to the gaming underground that has made this travesty of gameplay available for our ironic and arguably guilt-free entertainment. 

After all, it doesn't seem appropriate for a pirate game publisher to complain about piracy, now does it?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Elsewhere: Sega's Zaxxon Ad

In lieu of a video podcast this week, I refer your attention to this rarity from YouTube - Sega's advertisement for the now-classic arcade shooter, Zaxxon.  The expensive ad features then-state-of-the-art 3D rendered computer graphics, and if memory serves this actually ran in movie theaters as well as on television.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Adventure of the Week - Lost Island / Lost on the Great Barrier Reef (1983)

This week, something a little different, and as it turns out, challenging in a different sense than usual.  I'm playing a TRS-80 Model I text adventure game of questionable provenance -- it announces itself as Lost Island on the title screen, written by Tom Johnstone and Mike Matthews:

Internally, in the BASIC code, the game calls itself LOST ON THE GREAT BARRIEIR [sic] REEF.  This initial comment line is significant, because it led me to the source, AND the typo supports my hunch that the version floating around the Internet today was typed in from the game's print appearance in the August 1983 issue of 80 Microcomputing.  As further substantiation, I believe whoever typed the surviving version introduced at least three significant errors in the process -- the game as I found it is actually unsolvable, but I've provided a critical fix in the spoilers section below.  (I do not have access to the original magazine listing to confirm whether I've fixed this as the authors intended - I only confirmed the game's origins thanks to finding the relevant table of contents at Ira Goldklang's excellent TRS-80 site.  My fixes are based on looking at the code and drawing what I believed to be reasonable conclusions about the intended functionality.)

Lost Island, befitting its 8-page magazine space allocation, is a short and simple island adventure.  The player starts out aboard a motorboat with no fuel, and has only 100 turns before darkness, and a fatal crocodile attack, arrives.  We have to reach the nearby island, obtain several artifacts, solve a couple of puzzles, and escape as quickly as possible.

Normally I recommend that interested readers go play the game at hand before reading further, but in this case I'm going to have to spoil a small aspect of the game for everyone, because it's otherwise impossible to finish.  Finding and re-typing the entire original magazine listing would presumably spoil a great deal more, so consider this first section a...


The program as found online (my copy is from a disk image called BASIC1.DSK) contains a game-breaking error in the source code on line 2300.  As it exists, this line reads:


I concluded that this should be changed to:


There are a couple of other bugs in the code that I believe to be transcription errors as well, but this is the only one that absolutely MUST be fixed to allow the game to be solved.  I'll mention some others below.

If you want to visit the Lost Island on your own, make this patch and go forth and play now.  Otherwise, feel free to continue with the...


I am inclined to (dis)credit the anonymous typist with a number of misspellings in the game --

And I must blame the authors for some more substantial issues here -- the game gives us 100 turns to finish, with a TIME command to see how we're doing.  But the parser's vocabulary is very limited, and invalid commands that it doesn't understand still count against the turn limit, so parser battles can in fact be lethal over the long term.  GO TRUCK, for example, yields HOW IS IT POSSIBLE TO ENTER SUCH A THING!, and we can't pick up the DEAD FISH by typing GET FISH, but must GET DEAD.  If we try to DRIVE TRUCK we are told that IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO DRINK THAT, so this kind of thing is an ongoing annoyance.

We can die within a few turns of starting the game by walking S or W from the cannon room, in which case we are blown to SMITHERINES as we try to exit if we have neglected to TURN CANNON - if we have done so, it blows up our formerly handy lifeboat.  But there's no way around it -- we just have to find a replacement later on, keeping in mind that we can only get the rubber dingy with GET RUBBER, rather than GET DINGY.

This one I lay to the typist's charge -- the EXAMINE verb returns I CAN'T SEE THAT HERE whenever it lacks a specific response for the item under examination, but this is clearly a code typo where ESLE was entered instead of ELSE on line 1340.

The map is schematic, with no surprises and straightforward compass-point maneuvering.  At one point, YOU ARE STANDING ON THE SOUTHWEST CORNER OF A TROPICAL ISLAND; I hadn't realized islands had corners, but it's an accurate description of the map.

There are a few in-game hints, though they aren't very useful and one is misleading.  A sign at the edge of the swamp reads CARNIVORES DEVOUR MANY INTERESTING ITEMS!, which is only a hint that we can FEED CROCODILE, as there's no way to KILL or OPEN the beast.  We can LISTEN SHELL after finding one on the beach to learn that THERE MAY BE MORE THAN ONE KEY TO SOLVING THIS ADVENTURE!  -- this is true, as we need both a key and a hairpin to open a couple of locks -- but that's pretty standard adventure game practice.  There's a truly useless clue on a beachfront sign, which reads TRY TO DIG UP AS MANY CLUES AS POSSIBLE!  -- but we can DIG everywhere and find absolutely nothing, except in a few rooms where instead we are told THE GROUND HERE IS TOO HARD TO DIG IN.

The worst trap in the game is a tempting tree -- we can follow standard adventuring practice and CLIMB TREE, which causes us to lose a whopping 50 of our precious turns, as ARRGGHHH!! A COCONUT HAS JUST FALLEN ON MY HEAD AND KNOCKED ME OUT!  We die immediately if we DRINK WATER from the river or try to KILL CROCODILE, and can also sink into quicksand.

There's an ABORIGINE in the game, but he or she serves no apparent purpose, although we can GET ABORIGINE and carry the poor person around.  I am pleased to confirm that the game doesn't consider the local citizenry suitable as crocodile feed, so we are not made to be complicit in any variety of genocide.

The game has a six-item inventory limit, but it's not a major problem -- we can ignore many of the game's objects, and it's possible to get everything done without having to spend a single turn to DROP anything.

The toughest puzzle I ran into involved retrieving the key from the swamp; it stumped me for a while, but in the final analysis a bug was to blame.  GET KEY tells us only that we can't reach it.  We can bring and DROP PLANK to keep ourselves from sinking into the bog (as would otherwise happen within a few turns).  Elsewhere we find a bit of line, and EXAMINE LINE reveals that IT HAS A HOOK ON THE END.  This seems handy for the purpose and implies that HOOK works as a verb, but try as I might I could not HOOK KEY.  What confused me further is that HOOK [any other object] returned I CAN'T SEE THAT HERE, while HOOK KEY returned IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO HOOK SUCH A THING.  Finally I gave up and took a look at the code, and discovered what I am quite certain is an error, fixed above.  As typed, the game refused to acknowledge the KEY as the object of HOOK -- but if we get past that check, the next bit of code tests to see if we are in the room where the key originates and also have the LINE in inventory, and if so then it puts the key in inventory.  So I concluded that the code was incorrectly entered, fixed the first test so that KEY would be accepted as the target of HOOK, and was able to finish the game.

Incidentally, this game uses a different and radically less efficient room/object model than the norm -- it maintains an array of strings for each location and for inventory, and actually moves string values around.  That is, rather than having a persistent DEAD FISH object that maintains its own state, including its location, a "DEAD FISH" string gets removed from one array and entered into the first available slot in another one.  The code spends a lot of time hunting through arrays and doing comparisons to see if a particular string is "in" the room or inventory, and the approach makes this BASIC adventure even slower than most.  Array limits also mean that each room can only hold up to 10 items; if the player tries to drop an eleventh item in any location, the game is forced to claim that THIS ROOM IS PILED HIGH WITH JUNK AND I DON'T HAVE ANY ROOM TO PUT ANYTHING.

Another error that I presume is a typo -- we can't EXAMINE TRUCK in the location where the truck resides; we can only examine it when we're in the NAVEL MESS HALL, where the truck is not.  I believe the related "LC=" location check was incorrectly typed.

We can OPEN TRUCK in the correct location if we have the hair pin, which we pursue by executing an OPEN DOOR in the crocodile room; UNLOCK DOOR is not recognized, but we can only OPEN the door if we have the key.  An exit south becomes available after the door is open, leading us to the belly-button cafeteria -- sorry, NAVEL MESS HALL -- where EXAMINE CHAIR reveals a crack in the lug.  BREAK LUG does not work, but BREAK CHAIR does, revealing the hair pin.  Then we can OPEN TRUCK to reveal the FUEL CAN, and use the RUBBER DINGY to go back to the motorboat.

We don't have to actually use the fuel to make our escape -- we just DROP FUEL in the boat, and victory is presumed:

Lost Island, a.k.a. Lost on the Great Barrier Reef, ended up as an entertaining meta-adventure for me, as the version available online has bugs which were likely not in the published listing.  This was actually a pleasant change of pace -- I had to do a fair amount of code-level exploration to get the game into solveable condition, which made up for the actual design's simplicity.  Many of the in-game characters, creatures and items never actually come into play - the ABORIGINE, JELLY FISH, LEECH, SKULL and SEA URCHIN seem interesting but provie completely irrelevant - and there are really only a few puzzles to solve.  So while this is far from a great game, and not even a very good one, I still had fun working through it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Gaming After 40 - Adventure Games Index

Since embarking upon the Great Scott Project and the subsequent Adventure of the Week series nearly a year ago, I've noticed that many visitors are searching the Gaming After 40 archives for articles on specific adventure games.  I'm also finding it more difficult to keep track of where I am with the multitudinous series and games on my mental to-play list.  The existing "adventure games" label link kind of works, but it lists everything in reverse chronological order and includes the full body of every post, and it seems a more concise reference is needed.

So to help everyone out, I've added a new Adventure Games Index page as a tab at the top of the blog.  I'll be cleaning it up and reorganizing it as time permits -- the Miscellaneous table in particular is overflowing at the moment, and should be organized by platform if nothing else -- but it's a start at least.

And let me also take a moment to thank all the readers and friends who frequent Gaming After 40.  You  keep me going.

The LoadDown - 07/26/2010

Another week of new games available over the wire and on demand...

WiiWare -- Two games this week, both with some rather nice graphics squeezed into the WiiWare format.  Dive: The Medes Island Secret is a 2-D underwater treasure hunt.  Heavy Fire: Special Operations is yet another inexpensive target game with Wii Zapper support.

Wii Virtual Console -- After several quiet weeks, a worthy 16-bit title arrives - Sunsoft's Aero the Acrobat for the SNES, one of the better furry mascot games of its time, with some innovative platforming mechanics and a memorable circus environment.

DSiWare -- Yet another five-release week for Nintendo's handheld.  Crystal Monsters is a lightweight Pokemon/Monster Hunter-type game.  Puffins: Let's Race! presents more casual fun with the big-billed birds.  Petz Hamsterz Family is yet more virtual pet entertainment from Ubisoft.  Absolute Brickbuster is a child of classic Breakout.  And the most innovative, if overly self-explanatory, title is Face Pilot: Fly With Your Nintendo DSi Camera!, which allows players to digitize their own faces AND control a hang glider with head movements.

XBox Live Arcade -- 2010's Summer of Arcade kicks off with Playdead's stylish puzzle/action game, LIMBO.  The physics-based puzzles are challenging and unpredictable in the best of ways, and the foggy, underexposed black-and-white backdrops and charming 2-D animation make the boy's quest to rescue his sister a pleasure to experience.  There's also quite a bit of comical particle-based gore, with the option of turning it down.

Game Room -- Microsoft needs to start organizing the Game Room library more efficiently, as it's not always easy to identify what's new now that the releases are flowing on a regular basis.  This week saw the unlocking of Activision's Enduro and Ice Hockey for the Atari 2600, Konami's pioneering one-on-one arcade fighter Yie Ar Kung-Fu, early console RPG Tower of Doom for the Intellivision, and Atari's 2600 version of Gravitar, an odd choice given that the genuine coin-op version has been available since March.

PS3 on PSN -- It appears that, just as Hollywood studios' rival releases duck out while Harry Potter casts his spell on the box office, Sony isn't releasing much for the PS3 while the Summer of Arcade rolls on.  But there are some interesting titles coming up in August.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Swingin' Thumbs!

In the early console era, thumb-based controllers were not yet common; most players would fumble for a while when the Nintendo NES arrived a few years later, learning to maneuver and press multiple buttons with the opposable digits previously employed for simple grasping and squeezing.

One pioneering exception was Nintendo's Game & Watch series.  An American company imported and distributed similar handhelds produced by Masudaya, and decided to emphasize the control approach by calling itself Thumb Power:

I like the artwork, because these thumbs aren't just having fun -- they seem to be indulging in some kind of over-the-top 70's swingers' party orgy.  There certainly are a lot of goofy grins, googly eyes and tongues hanging out, at any rate, with the mass of thumbs positioned carefully to avoid revealing any naughty knuckle bits.  We see red and purple nail polish wherever we look.  And at bottom, there are even a couple going at it in the kitchen.

Hans Brinker would be dancing in his grave.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sticks of Joy

I can barely remember a time when people didn't know what a joystick was.  The most reliable origin stories for the word I can find online date back to the 1910's, when it was first used as an alternate name for an aeroplane's control stick.  Some sources cite "joyride" as an antecedent; others suggest a humorous double-entendre, due to the stick's customary placement relative to the pilot's body.

Today, the joystick has come and largely gone in the gaming world; the simple, all-purpose stick-and-button has been superseded by multiple thumb-sticks and D-pads on consoles, and by mouse and keyboard control on the PC, with flight simulators a wholly appropriate exception.

But there was a time a few decades ago when the word was unfamiliar and had to be taught -- from the 1981 textbook Computer Literacy: Problem-Solving with Computers:

The photograph features two Texas Instruments controllers, for use with the 99/4A home computers.  And I'm okay with the archaic "Joy Sticks" spelling; after all, to-morrow and birth-day were hyphenated not so very along ago.

But the inclusion of the yardstick, courtesy of SHARP HARDWARE, bothers me, and it's not just the blatant product placement.

Because I believe with every fiber of my being that it's not the size of your joystick.

It's how you play with it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Of Import: Wonder Momo

In this installment, we take a look at a fun and extremely cute Japanese arcade game that never reached the US -- it's the PC Engine version of Wonder Momo, released on HuCard in 1989 by Namco's home division, Namcot:

The game opens with Momo doing her best impression of the MGM Lion, kawaii as a button:

After that, the curtain goes up, and we find ourselves in a strange world where the school play features a young girl who materializes out of thin air, lands on the stage, then proceeds to beat up a variety of colorful enemies, presumably costumed members of the show choir and A/V club:

The audience goes wild below, and occasionally photographers pop through to snap photos in violation of theatre etiquette, as the flash briefly disorients and damages our heroine.  Momo has a very small repertoire of moves -- jumps, kicks, and a handy acrobatic double-kick:

Occasionally, between groups of levels, we are treated to a picture of Momo relaxing -- and apparently a gratuitous reveal of her personal measurements:

But these visual rewards are few and far between.  Like the arcade original, the home version of Wonder Momo is cute but not easy -- I made it to Act 6, using a number of continues, before finding myself overwhelmed by ever more resilient and powerful enemies.  Each level features one or two boss characters who must be defeated to end the level, but random enemies constantly emerge from the wings to interfere.  The ones that attack from the air are particularly hard to deal with, as Momo can only jump so high, and I found it difficult to time her attacks on elevated foes so as to deal damage rather than absorb it.

When we have defeated the primary enemies, the act ends and the curtain drops as the crowd cheers.  But as the difficulty increases, our spunky lead actress is occasionally reduced to tears as the curtain lowers on her embarrassing failure:

Wonder Momo is not a great game, but its simplicity is appealing, and I'd rather watch this onstage than Cats.

If you're so inclined, buy it at this affiliate link.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

At Random: Batman (1991)

Time once again to play something which has been gathering dust in my personal game stack for far too long -- a loose, unboxed copy of Sunsoft's Batman for the Sega Genesis, released in 1991, based on the 1989 movie, based in turn on the long-popular DC Comics superhero.

This game was a big deal back in the day, if memory serves -- Sunsoft had already released a solid NES cartridge, but this early 16-bit Mega Drive title was considerably more impressive-looking.  It was the subject of frequent gray-market importing, back when Japanese games were mysterious things, prior to the confirmed arrival of an official North American Genesis version.

It begins with a recap of the Joker's origins, which is slightly confusing as some of the events it refers to as historical actually happen while we're playing the game.  The intro might also have been improved upon by clarifying that Jack Napier fell/falls into a vat of liquid chemical waste:

The game certainly looks nice, with detailed, shaded sprites and backgrounds.  But it's also clearly a game on the cusp of the transition from 8-bit to 16-bit technology -- the sprites are small and NES-sized, with limited animation.  The level design -- or at least what I saw of it -- is also pretty flat, with minimal parallax scrolling, and rather sparse, featuring large but generally unpopulated environments.

The sound is similarly unspectacular, consisting of spot sound effects that too often sound clicky and staticky, and some solid instrument sounds wasted on generic 90's rock tracks; Danny Elfman's movie themes were apparently not part of the licensing deal.

The gameplay is, sorry to say, more limited than that of the NES version.  The 8-bit game featured Batman leaping hurdles and climbing walls Strider-style, fighting colorful enemies and bosses along the way.  The 16-bit edition starts out like a tepid version of Final Fight, with enemies running in from offscreen to be summarily dispatched by The Dark Knight.  There's no significant platforming action in the first level -- Batman just moseys along from left to right, ducking the occasional bullet and casually punching and kicking villains into submission, until he reaches the first boss.  This guy presents a fair challenge -- he has a longer reach than the Caped Crusader, so we must hit him with our stock of Batarangs, then jump over his head and try to give him a quick kick in the kidneys before he turns around:

Once Beefy McSunglasses has been dispatched, we move on into the Axis Chemical Factory.  This second level is more interesting -- we get something to do besides punching and kicking enemies, climbing with Batman's grappling hook and leaping from platform to platform.  But the difficulty ramps up rather dramatically as well, and after considerable struggle I decided to leave well enough alone.

It took me a while just to get Batman's extended jump move down (hit the jump button, then hit it again at precisely the right moment), which I needed to do in order to get over an inconvenient stack of boxes, while being harassed by a constant stream of enemies running in from the left and right.  The bazooka-wielding guards (rather an odd choice for a facility dedicated to the production of volatile compounds) weren't actually too hard to handle, as they don't fire often and they insist on firing just over the crouching Batman's head, but then I took our hero down a shaft and into a seriously unforgiving bit of NES-style platforming.

Pipes explode, difficult-to-jump chasms yawn if we miss a jump or arrive too late, and the fatal void lurks constantly at the bottom of the screen.  If we exhaust Batman's lives, we can continue a limited number of times, but we're sent back to the beginning of this level, that is, the entrance to the factory, and just getting to this tricky section was enough of a challenge for me.  So I never even got to see the Batmobile driving levels that were so talked about once upon a time.

Sigh.  Oh, well.  When I started this blog, I intended to write more about how aging affects us as gamers.  This is definitely one I should have played on arrival nineteen years ago; my reflexes, and moreover my patience, are just not up to tackling this kind of challenge anymore, at least not without some more interesting action to keep me plugging away.

But at least I've tried Batman out now.  That's why I bought it, right?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Video Podcast - Space Harrier Across the Fourth Dimension

Sega's Space Harrier hit arcades in 1985, and has continued to debut on multiple platforms for almost 25 years now.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Adventure C - Ship of Doom (1982)

We continue our exploration of the Artic Computing series for the British Spectrum home computers this week, playing the company's third release, Adventure C: Ship of Doom.  Some sources credit this 1982 adventure to Charles Cecil, and the author's style seems a bit different from the earlier adventures A and B, although the engine is likely the same.

The title screen does not cite the author's name, though there is a dedication to Chris and Gaynor; there's no color on the title screen, but the text presenting the game's very basic objective is presented in mixed-case, while the game proper reverts to uppercase-only.

You must find the control button and free your ship, which is simple enough, though... shall we say... reminiscent of the plot of Adventure A: Planet of Death and many, many other sci-fi text adventures.  I will shortly reveal quite a few details about the game's plot, so if you wish to experience Ship of Doom for yourself, I advise you to give it a go before continuing.  Because, as always, there are serious...


At the start, we learn that our ship is held in place by a GRAVITON BEAM; the Star Wars influence is strong with this one, as with many of these early 1980's adventure games.

One stylistic difference compared to the earlier Artic adventures pops up early on, though the lack of apostrophes persists and appears to be a limitation of the text engine.  If we try to PULL HANDLE in the alien air lock, we are only told I CANT.  If we TURN HANDLE, a passage opens, and we are prompted with the question DO YOU WISH TO GO ON BOARD?, to be answered YES or NO.  It's an unusual conditional prompt -- most games would automatically move us along, or reveal a door and expect us to navigate on the next turn.  This design choice adds a little tension to the proceedings, though we can return easily enough.

Most of the challenge consists of mapping out the game world -- our ultimate goal is to find the control button, and escape back to the ship before "time" (i.e., a limited turn count) runs out.  Some rooms and opportunities are red herrings, and there are some bizarre and humorous elements provided strictly for atmosphere.

This game was created in the United Kingdom, and so I wasn't immediately sure whether the TORCH I found was of the to-be-waved-by-angry-villagers variety, or a flashlight.  We can't TURN ON TORCH, and LIGHT TORCH yields only I CANT DO THAT YET.  I never did figure out which it was on my own, nor did I need to use it for anything, actually, but a walkthrough reveals that we can SHINE TORCH to disable a laser-beam alarm, as an alternate solution to the JUMP BEAM approach I discovered.

As we've seen before, the Artic Computing engine does not usually recognize object-specific LOOK commands.  LOOK HOOK in a windowed room confused me by revealing that I CAN SEE THE WHOLE GALAXY, VERY PRETTY -- but it was actually referring to the room, not to some transdimensional property of the hook.  This also means that, again,  REDESCRIBE must be used to refresh the displayed room description.  There is, however, one interesting exception to this general rule -- LOOK HOLE at one point reveals an in-game advertisement:

Another parser limitation -- PUT [object] IN [object] appears to work, as the parser doesn't reject the command, but is really recognized as PUT [object], i.e. DROP.  Where this sort of action is called for, the INSERT command must be used; for example, INSERT MICROBATTERY turns the SILVER ROD WITH SQUARE SLOT into the SONIC SCREWDRIVER.

There are some infrared glasses, but they don't do a lot -- they serve only to transform a dark corner in one room into the now-visible microbattery, and serve no other purpose.  Getting the sonic screwdriver is important, because we need a key stored securely under a glass cover; SHOOT GLASS with the laser isn't a good idea, as the whole case disintegrates, taking the key with it.  I was stuck here for a while -- there didn't seem to be any other puzzles I could work on, so it was clear I needed to find a way to remove the glass.  But I ultimately needed a walkthrough to get past the parser here -- UNSCREW COVER does not work, nor does USE SCREWDRIVER, nor USE SONIC.  The magic command is POINT SONIC - one of those times when an EXAMINE verb might have provided some insight into how the tool works, but the Artic games generally require us to take objects at face value.

Once I had the key, I was able to INSERT KEY - INTO WHAT? - INTO HOLE, which turned on the heat.  This allowed the ice in a nearby room to melt after a few turns, freeing A BODY IN A BLOCK OF ICE and revealing it as a murderous little girl, next to a hitherto inaccessible door.  I got myself randomly strangled by her a few times; SHOOT GIRL is not allowed by the parser, but I tried WITH LASER as a shortcut to finding the right target.  The parser kindly selected a target for me, shooting a hole in the door and allowing me to escape into the next major area of the map.

I never did figure out who FRED was -- in the room with the alarm, we are told that FRED WARNS YOU THAT THERE IS A LIGHT BEAM ACROSS THE SOUTH EXIT.  If we try to go south without disabling the alarm, BARS DROP BLOCKING THE EXITS... AND YOU ARE GASSED.  But we can see the light beam in any event, with or without the infrared glasses, so the warning seems extraneous.

There's another interesting side trip in Ship of Doom, but it involves some mildly adult content, so the related discussion can be found at the very bottom of this post.

Some comic relief is provided by an android repairing his ship, while tied to a rope that we need; when we CUT ROPE, he screams in horror and floats into space.  This action seems needlessly cold, but later on when we're escaping the ship, we see him as a CROSS ANDROID CLIMBING ABOARD, so there's no permanent harm done.

A control room has a switch and a sign reading DO NOT TOUCH, but TOUCH SWITCH is not recognized.  PUSH SWITCH is not a good idea, either, as it only establishes that YOU HAVE BEEN SENT HURTLING INTO OUTER SPACE.

A random hazard appears repeatedly, requiring us to keep the laser gun at the ready.  We are often told that THE LITTLE ALIEN HAS APPEARED AND IS WAVING A GUN.   We have to SHOOT ALIEN -- sometimes we miss, but usually we are told that THE ALIEN HAS DIED. WELL DONE.  If we take a pacifist approach, the alien follows us and eventually succeeds in shooting us, so it's best just to keep him/her/it and any persistent relatives as dead as possible.

We can TIE ROPE - receiving the further prompt WHAT TO? - but I wasn't sure how to respond at the time I first discovered this.  Later, I was able to use TO HOOK to end up with the very British-sounding A ROPE WITH HOOK ON.  But I wasn't able to figure out what to do with it -- I found a PIT ROOM, but couldn't GO PIT or USE HOOK or USE ROPE.  A walkthrough came to my rescue again -- LOOK UP reveals that I SEE A LEDGE ABOVE ME.  But the (what seemed to me) logical commands THROW HOOK, HOOK LEDGE, CLIMB LEDGE and GO LEDGE do not help us get up there; we have to THROW ROPE.  This works even if we haven't actually discovered the ledge.

Making good use of the rope helps us get to a Galactic Bar where we find AN ODIOUS PURPLE DRINK and an ANDROID BARMAN DEMANDING MONEY.  We can't GIVE COIN, but can PAY BARMAN / WITH COIN, making him happy. But then GET DRINK knocks us unconscious, and we wake up in a Laser Prison.  We can't easily backtrack in this section of the game -- if we go back down from the ledge after climbing up, the hanging rope disappears; apparently we pulled it up after ourselves and left it on the level above, with no recollection of doing so.  So it's clear we must need to do something useful with the drink.  We do have to go to prison, then USE MIRROR to fuse the laser bars, opening exits south and east.

Going S takes us back to the bar. Going E leads to a Lift Shaft with red, green, and orange buttons.  At this point, we're very close to the end of the game, pending a little trial and error.  We have to push all three buttons to reach a destination, with saving before experimentation highly recommended; RED / ORANGE / GREEN takes us back to another level, and we can't easily return. Other combinations take us fatally to outer space, or back to the prison cell, a temporary setback.  RED / GREEN / ORANGE is the magic sequence that takes us to a computer room and the fabled CONTROL BUTTON.

PUSH CONTROL kicks off the alien ship's self-destruct sequence, and we have only 30 moves to get back to our own craft after being returned to the prison cell.  Good mapping comes in handy here, as does efficient play; for example, USE MIRROR is more efficient than the alternative FUSE BARS / WITH MIRROR combination, although we can cheat the parser by jumping straight to WITH MIRROR.  We also have to hope that we don't run into the gun-waving alien, or that our luck holds and we can keep moving instead of stopping to shoot it.

When we reach our ship, victory is ours; the antecedent of IT in the wrapup text is grammatically unclear, but it seems safe to presume it is not EARTH:

I had fun with this one, briefly, but there's not much of a plot here -- just a series of puzzles and a straightforward objective, nothing we haven't seen before in many other text adventures.  Our only concrete reward seems to be that we are now free to proceed with Artic Computing's ** ADVENTURE D **.  Which we will likely do, at some future date.

Oh, and one more thing... if you dare...


Monday, July 19, 2010

The LoadDown - 07/19/2010

Monday roundup...

WiiWare -- Three games this week.  AquaSpace is another virtual aquarium.  HoopWorld is an odd fantasy-themed three-on-three basketball game.  And Furry Legends is a substantial platformer with physics-based puzzles and a retro N64-style indie-game look. 

Wii Virtual Console -- The crickets are chirping here again this week, likely because three titles arrived on WiiWare.

DSiWare -- Five titles this week.  Petz Kittens brings Ubisoft's virtual pet franchise to the DSi.  Scrabble Tools is a utility/training program for fans of the venerable word game.  Hospital Havoc is a time/resource management game.  Crazy Sudoku is yet another Sudoko game for the DSi.  And Happy Birthday Mart is a shop-simulation game, sort of in the vein of Animal Crossing with 24 minigames.  (I believe the creature depicted below is a cheerful hippo, but could also be some sort of ravenous insect monster):

XBox Live Arcade -- Two games last week.  DeathSpank is an action-RPG with story and (unfortunately inconsistently funny) humor contributions by the legendary Ron Gilbert (The Secret of Monkey Island) -- it has dialogue trees and a very nice 2D/3D cartoon look; gameplay consists largely of a series of fetch quests, but it's all very nicely presented and fun to play.  Deadliest Warrior: The Game is a one-on-one fighter based on the Spike TV series, but focusing on eight historical warrior types and weapons to keep the battles even.

Game Room -- Game Pack 007 arrives, and its first week of unlocks includes Atari 2600 classics Barnstorming and Fishing Derby from Activision, and the rare Quadrun, an Atari Club exclusive back in the day, with an impressive smidgen of voice synthesis.  Last week also saw the release of Konami's venerable arcade hit Gyruss, and Intellivision title Hover Force, a rareish 1986 release salvaged from the wreckage of Mattel Electronics by successor company INTV Corp.

PS3 on PSN -- Two games last week: DeathSpank (see above), and Landit Bandit, an interesting helicopter piloting game combining realistic physics with elements of Pilotwings and Crazy Taxi.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Kick Back And Meet Death From Above, David Bowie!

CH Products ran this dramatic ad for its PC game controllers in a 1991 issue of Video Games & Computer Entertainment:

Talk about celebrity joystick excitement!  The legendary David Bowie is having a great time kicking back and relaxing on the beach, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and dungarees and balancing his favorite joystick on his thigh, with a bunch of other CH products tucked safely beneath his flimsy, non-bullet-proof lounge chair.  He's watching some sort of primitive video broadcast on his amazing levitating TV set, just as a jet plane, a chopper, and a UFO zoom into view, peppering the sand with live rounds.  We're witnessing Bowie's very last moment alive, just before the bullets rip into his pale flesh and all the bone structure and glitter spill out.

How did CH Products convince a major rock star to sacrifice himself for their joysticks?

The secret is in the list of compatible systems -- the company cannily lists the Apple and the Mac BEFORE the lowly IBM PC, platform of choice for decidedly unhip corporate tools.

In fact, I suspect we've been mishearing one of Bowie's most famous lyrics all these years -- fact is, the Jean Genie lives on his Mac.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

What's Wrong With This Caption?

Hey, kids!  Can you spot the error in this photo caption, taken from the 1981 textbook Computer Literacy: Problem-Solving with Computers?

Hint:  There's something else in the photo too. Can you see what it is?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Of Import: Momotarou Katsugeki

The legend of Momotarou, the Peach Boy, is as well known in Japan as the tale of Hansel and Gretel is in Europe and the US.  It has all the traditional mythic fairy-tale elements -- an aging laborer is served a peach by his loving wife, and to the couple's great surprise a boy hatches out of it.  The boy, named Peach Boy for obvious reasons, grows up, grows strong and sets out to liberate a demon's treasures, armed only with a sword and some dumplings made by his adoptive mother, and assisted by some animals he meets along the way.

Several Momotarou-inspired RPG games were produced for the Japanese PC Engine, but Momotarou Katsugeki took a different tack -- it's an excellent little platformer made by the system's creators at Hudson Soft.  It plays reasonably well without knowledge of Japanese, and comes highly recommended.  Even if you don't speak a word of Japanese, like me, the title screen says it all:

This is a HuCard game, not a CD-ROM effort, and the relatively tiny cartidge is packed with snappy chiptunes and vintage platforming goodness.  There's not a lot of room for storytelling, and that's fine -- this little intro is enough to send Momotarou on his way: 

The game features a cute Super Mario 3-style map, although progression is linear, so there really aren't any decisions to make unless we want to backtrack to earn coins in less dangerous areas:

And the platforming action is fairly difficult -- as he starts out, Momotarou can only take a handful of hits before he floats skyward with angel wings and full frontal nudity:

What I like best about Momotarou Katsugeki is its sense of cartoon humor -- the animation is expressive and full of personality.  There's not a lot of room on the cartridge for graphical variety in the backgrounds, so the designers wisely chose to make the characters as comical and lively as possible.  These dancing demons, for example, are so engrossed in their routine that they don't even notice as the Peach Boy picks them off, one by one:

There are powerups and checkpoints available, though with the relevant announcements in Japanese it's hard to figure out what some of them are meant to do.  Note the attention to era-specific detail here, as the text is written vertically in the classical Japanese style:

The bosses are comical, but tough -- this loincloth-clad devil robot moves so quickly he's hard to get a bead on before we have to jump over him to avoid serious damage:

Would you believe I STILL hadn't made it past this first miniboss when I started drafting this post?  My platforming skills are clearly fading with age.  But I played some more, and discovered that, despite the spiky-looking horns on the machine's head, Momotarou can stand up there quite safely.  So the trick is to fire a few shots as it heads our way, jump on its head, jump off again, fire a few futile shots at its rapidly retreating side, and repeat.

Of course, that's NOT the end of the level.  There's considerably more depth to Momotarou Katsugeki than is at first apparent -- we can visit towns to restock our health-restoring supplies, and purchase odd powerups like gassy foods that give Momotarou a temporarily bidirectional mode of attack.  And if we've earned sufficient funds by mugging demons along the way, we can upgrade our weapons courtesy of the cutest arms dealer ever:


There are also random gambling minigames in huts scattered through the levels, hosted by colorful characters, all of whom seem very annoyed.  I never did figure out what this cantankerous fellow actually wanted me to do:

After some tricky cloud platforming, we get to face the end-of-level boss, a cute, cannonball-upchucking demon:

A little white cat is liberated from its demon captors, cherry blossoms burst into bloom, and there is great rejoicing:

Of course, things don't get any easier for Peach Boy in the second level, although if he dies the continue option will let him start there instead of all the way back at the beginning of the game.  New enemies join the established cast -- pirouetting yellow demons are invulnerable until they spin themselves sick and collapse on the ground, and fire-breathing demons have a much greater range than Momotarou's standard weapon.  Irritable bunny rabbits hop across the land, sowing destruction wherever they bounce:


The dice minigame secreted within a mountain doorway is hosted by a scantily-clad parlor girl who seems annoyed at her lot in life:

There's an astonishing amount of variety crammed into this little HuCard -- even an homage to Nichibutsu's arcade game Crazy Climber:

And the design keeps up the pace, with fresh, inventive challenges appearing on a regular basis.  It's too bad that Momotarou Katsugeki never came to the West -- Peach Boy could have been another Bonk for NEC's TurboGrafx-16 in the US, but sadly it seems to have been deemed "too Japanese" by the American marketing department.

I suppose it could have been worse, though -- they could have brought it over here and Westernized it into some sort of violent cop game to compete with Sega's more mature Genesis lineup.  Peach Fuzz, anyone? 

This Japanese PC Engine game really is worth owning and playing if you have the equipment to take it on.  And it's common enough that it can often be found at a fair price, at places like this.