Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cover Gallery: VG&CE, Halloween 1990, Featuring Elvira

For Halloween 1990, Video Games & Computer Entertainment magazine put the beauteous Elvira on its cover, inspired by the new UK HorrorSoft label's adventure game Elvira - Mistress of the Dark, distributed in the US by Accolade, and starring the horror hostess with the mostest:

This was the second time Elvira had appeared in an adventure game -- she previously hosted HorrorSoft's first title, Personal Nightmare, but this time around she figured more directly into the plot.

This was also, very possibly, the first and only time Elvira appeared in any context that did not prominently feature Cassandra Peterson's bountiful cleavage.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cover Gallery: Electronic Games, Halloween 1983

There have always been horror-themed videogames in the mix, even as far back as 1983, when Electronic Games magazine ran this Halloween cover.  Unfortunately, the industry didn't yet have any recognizable horror-themed mascots -- no Silent Hill Pyramid Heads or Castlevania Belmonts -- so the artist had to make do with the usual suspects, cast into a Halloween milieu:

See, they're celebrating scary games, and the 3rd birthday of Electronic Games magazine.

Ummmmm... yeah.

So let's see -- at the top we have the mad bomber from Activision's Kaboom!, a generic dragon beautifully painted for an early issue of EG and frequently recycled during the magazine's run, a red cartoon ghost with a Crazy Climber obsession, and a penguin who appears to be unhappily participating in Konami's Pooyan.

At the bottom, we see Donkey Kong, a remarkably muscular Mario, and his original, buxom main squeeze Pauline from the days before he decided that royal chicks were his thing; Q*Bert, apparently playing a tune on his nose; a couple of drug-addled Smurfs; a toothy beer-drinking Pac-Man; and a mustachioed gentleman I take to be Bounty Bob of Miner 2049er fame, based on the presence of his faithful mule. 


Friday, October 29, 2010

Of Import: Youkai Douchuuki

Back in 1989, I encountered the Japanese PC Engine for the very first time as a cover story in Video Games & Computer Entertainment magazine.  And the first screenshot I ever saw was from an unidentified game pitting a little boy against undead monsters -- the graphics were impressive, clearly a couple of notches above the NES standard.  I was always disappointed that I never got to see that game in action, as it never came to the US, and in fact I never knew which game it was -- until I picked up an imported copy of Youkai Douchuuki.

It's a HuCard format game by Namcot, Namco's home division at the time, based on a coin-op original.  Wikipedia tells us that an English-language version of the arcade game called Shadow Land exists, but was never released in the US; a version was also released in Japan for the 8-bit NES.

A further sense of deja vu ensued when I started up the game -- the PC Engine City podcast has featured the game's musical themes, so the tunes were familiar.  There's a fair amount of Japanese text here, but the game can be played without understanding everything that's being said.  The gameplay and themes, however, are quintessentially Japanese, which may be why this title never found its way West despite its obvious popularity in the East.

We start out with traditional boy-vs.-monster platforming action -- our hero can hit enemies with his boomerang-like weapon and jump up hills and across floating cloud platforms.  Running jumps enable him to leap higher and farther than normal, although his jumps never gain much altitude, perhaps because the action is confined to the lower 60% of the screen.  He can also charge up his weapon through several levels of power by holding down on the control pad, then letting loose and taking out multiple enemies.  Some enemies can't be taken out (at least not without wandering into their clutches) and operate more as obstacles, like the lost souls filling the chasm below:

The enemies are varied, with different attack styles and levels of resistance.  And there are no continues, so we have to fight carefully if we hope to make any real progress on the world map in the upper right-hand corner.  Trying to take on too many enemies at once usually leads to the inevitable:

There are also doorman monsters along the way who lead to optional gambling minigames, where we can win or lose the currency of the realm:

Each level ends with a demon boss -- we don't necessarily have to fight the demon, as if we've earned enough money along the way, we can choose to just pay him off and gain passage to the next level.  If we try to bribe him but haven't got the cash on hand, our finances are drained and we have to fight anyway.  The battles have a uniquely Eastern twist -- our hero stops fighting physically and kneels at a mini-shrine to pray, while a female spirit character takes over, sending floating attacks at enemy demons and spirits.

Once the first big demon is defeated, the weirdness continues, with deformed crawling priestesses and giant demon monks, as if we've stumbled into some sort of hellbound Mardi Gras:

Youkai Douchuuki is reasonably fun, and quite challenging, but it's undeniably old-fashioned, from that period where "challenge" meant that with the home version, where buy-in continues aren't supported, you might not get to experience everything you've paid for.  And it's not as faithful to the arcade version as some of Namcot's other PC Engine releases; much of the animation is simplified or missing, and the level layout has been flattened to simple side-scrolling, without the original's vertical paths (which, oddly, are retained in the 8-bit Nintendo Famicom edition.) 

I admit I had a good time with this one for a few hours, but it was mostly for nostalgic reasons; there are better PC Engine titles out there.

Interested collectors and gamers may be able to find a copy for purchase here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Zombie Review: Zombies Ate My Neighbors

[Ed. -- This review of Lucasarts' SNES classic is brought to you as a Zombie-As-A-Second-Language presentation.]






Non-Commercial Plug: Scream Theatre 2010

'Tis the season, so please pardon this personal plug.

I know most of my readers aren't within driving distance of Flint, Michigan, USA, but those who are might be interested to know that Flint City Theatre is presenting its annual Halloween old-timey radio show production, Scream Theatre.  Lots of scary and funny stories, poems and songs, performed live with old-fashioned mechanical sound effects, written largely by the cast, yours truly included.  Here's an audio sample, written by Dan Gerics and myself.

Check out the details at the Flint City Theatre website.  And if by some odd chance you've been led to our den of non-Equity by this blog, please say hi after the show!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Unreleased: Drac's Night Out

The podcast I was hoping to have ready this week isn't going to make it on time, so instead I'm going to share some information about an unreleased game that turned up while I was doing some research.

Parker Brothers circa 1990 was planning a vampire-themed game for the Nintendo NES as a joint promotion with Reebok.  The game, to be called Drac's Night Out, was designed to promote Reebok's "The Pump" athletic shoes -- the protagonist, a teen-aged vampire (just like in real life), was supposed to "pump up" the sneakers to gain faster speed and higher jumps (just like in real life).  So the whole play mechanic was a marketing device -- not a bad idea, really, though these kinds of ad-driven games rarely turn out well.  The game was scheduled for release in the winter of 1990-1991, according to an article in the November 1990 issue of Video Games & Computer Entertainment magazine.  But it never showed up at retail.

Fortunately, however, a prototype version of the game with a playable first stage has survived into the emulator age, and numerous clips and reviews are available on YouTube.  From these artifacts, we can see that Drac possesses hypnotic powers he can use to freeze villagers, but he can't actually attack them directly.  He has to flip switches to encourage Frankenstein's monster, a ghost, a rolling boulder, a poisonous arachnid, a portcullis, a falling chandelier, an axe-throwing suit of armor, and/or a swinging pendulum... among, one presumes, other elements of classic horror... to knock the innocent civilians out of commission.  Once that's done, he can kneel down and drain them of blood with a pleasantly graphic sucking sound.  Evidence also indicates that the Reebok "The Pump" shoes are simply picked up as an instant power-up, so perhaps the "pump up" mechanic described in the press release didn't pan out in practice.

The available clips indicate that the gameplay got repetitive after a while, but the concept isn't bad, and it has a mid-1980s arcade feel with nicely-animated cartoon sprites.  It's a little different from the typical late-era NES platformer, and it's a shame it never got released.  Here's a playthrough of the first level captured by YouTube archivist mrgamer1 -- enjoy!

Non-Commercial Plug: Late Night at the Horror Hotel

Since it's Halloween week, it's a perfect time to plug a friend's contributions at the horror blog, Late Night at the Horror Hotel.  His recent review of the campy and obscure horror movie Blood Freak is available here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Stephen King's The Mist (1985)

The annual Gaming After 40 Halloween week celebration continues with this week's text adventure: Stephen King's The Mist, adapted from King's 1980 novella by Angelsoft in 1985.

Angelsoft was co-founded by author Mercer Mayer, best known today for his Little Critter children's books, and the company did its best to publish literary adventures in the Infocom style, with distribution handled by Mindscape.  The game's designer is not credited onscreen, perhaps in deference to Stephen King as the marquee name, but it was written by one Raymond Benson, who also wrote both of Angelsoft's James Bond adventures and went on to write a number of post-Ian Fleming official 007 novels.

We're playing the IBM PC version, which as an early release for that platform is designed to run on a single floppy drive, swapping diskettes to save progress.  Because of this, I actually had difficulty running the game under the DOSBox emulator, which doesn't support floppy disk changes on the fly.  This meant that I couldn't save the game, a major problem thanks to some randomized events near the story's climax. But to my pleasant surprise, the vintage IBM PC GAME.COM executable runs in plain vanilla text mode, and there are no timing-based events, so this 25-year-old program runs perfectly fine under a Windows Vista command prompt, allowing successful SAVE GAME operations to the current directory.  The only reason to use DOSBox at all is to invoke the separate title screen executable, which presents the only graphics we'll be seeing:

The game opens with a screen or two of text to establish the situation (details below), and then we're in control.  There's a move counter at the top left of the screen, and the day of the week (SATURDAY) is displayed in the upper right-hand corner, though I never saw it change during my playthrough.  Unlike the Infocom games, the status line does not include the current location, and there's no score as such.

The writing is quite good, approaching Infocom quality, though the parser is definitely not up to the same standard.  And the game itself is fairly linear, aside from some seriously obtuse conversational puzzles I would likely never have worked out without the CASA walkthrough handy.  I'll give away all the gory details in the remainder of this post, so if you plan to wander into The Mist on your own, be forewarned that there are thorough...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD!!! *****

In classic Stephen King style, the player is cast as a hapless New England Everyman, a father standing in the checkout line at Federal Foods as the game begins and The Mist appears.  We start with nothing in your hands, and have only your clothes on your back as people begin to panic in the supermarket.  The town is called Bridgton, and the player's ultimate goal is to find his son Billy, who's "safely" some distance away at the lake when the power goes out and the mist hits the fan.

The initial phase of the game can be mapped out fairly easily -- while there are quite a few rooms in the supermarket, there are only a few items of note left by the panicking crowd, and most of the puzzles lie in the dangerous world outside.

There are only a few human characters, but they're well-written and nicely detailed.  One Mrs. Carmody leads a growing group of followers around the store, preaching an end-of-the-world gospel that can eventually result in the player's demise, as a blood sacrifice to the nascent cult's expiation theology.  It's a twisted but believable take on fundamentalist Christianity, and an unusual theme to see broached in a game of this era.  In practical gameplay terms, Mrs. Carmody and her followers are just there to keep us moving and instill a sense of social hysteria.  The Mist focuses on human characters quite a bit, but the player's interaction with them is limited.  We witness the tentacle-napping of Norm the bag-boy in the storage area, for example, but it's just a set piece -- we have no opportunity to talk to him or prevent his untimely demise.

Outside, the pressure continues, as there are four nasty monsters lurking around which we will eventually have to dispatch --the Bug, the Spider, the Bird and the Dragonfly, all oversized, mutant versions of familiar creatures.  They tend to patrol specific areas of the map, but when encountered, they block the player's movement and kill the player within a few turns, so leaving the store unprepared is not advisable.  For example, death by Dragonfly is swift and unpleasant:

The slug-like Bug can be dispatched with a box of table salt, and the Spider with a can of bug spray.  I pause to note that in these early days of computer gaming, nobody concerned themselves too much with trademarks -- so we have genuine Morton's Salt and Raid-brand insecticide on hand here, lending a nice sense of naturalism to the horrific proceedings.

The parser makes the mistake of trying to seem smarter than it is -- when a non-understood phrase is entered, it won't admit to its lack of understanding, but instead tries to nudge us along with general hints and reminders about our objectives, e.g. It won't do you any good to tell yourself it's only a game.  Sometimes these phrases imply that the engine understood what we were asking it to do, when that is not in fact the case.  For example, START TRUCK yields only Please try to be rational, but trying to go S while we're in the truck usefully reveals that You're not going anywhere without the truck key.  Another parser oddity here is that there is no GET [object] verb, only TAKE and GET OUT, and I and INVENT do not work; we have to type out INVENTORY or use the official abbreviation, INV.  Most annoying, invalid commands still consume a turn, which means that if we type GET RAID instead of TAKE RAID after entering the Bugblasters store, the Spider will have us for supper before we ever get a chance to SPRAY SPIDER.  We should also drop the Raid can immediately after doing so, because otherwise we will have trouble if we try to SPRAY with the insecticide sprayer later on -- the parser always assumes we want to use the empty can of Raid if we're still carrying it, unintentionally robbing us of a vital weapon later on.

Horror is surprisingly difficult to manage in an adventure game -- sudden scares and gory descriptions can be effective, but maintaining a tense and oppressive atmosphere is a challenge when the pacing is largely at the player's discretion.  The Mist tries to keep us on edge with random frightening events, like a tentacle that reaches out of the mist to touch us, but then wanders off.  But after a while we've seen all of these set pieces, and the effect wears off.

My biggest complaint about The Mist is that several puzzles depend on guessing that the right phrasing is needed, without any real clues to point us in that direction.  For example, it isn't initially clear whether we can do anything with the dumpster in the garbage dump south of the supermarket.  OPEN DUMPSTER reveals that It's already openLOOK DUMPSTER ignores the noun and repeats the general room-level description; and EXAMINE DUMPSTER only indicates that This is a battered, green Dempsey Duster.  I had to resort to a walkthrough to learn that EXAMINE DUMPSTER CAREFULLY reveals a notebook lying on top of the garbage -- though, in fact, the information in the notebook isn't critical to finishing the game, so I can't claim that this adverb dependency is a fatal flaw.  But it still seems odd that we don't notice this with a more casual examination.

For the most part, The Mist plays it straight.  There's a nice little Stephen King in-joke in town, where the local cinema is showing T E DE D Z NE (the David Cronenberg film adaptation of King's The Dead Zone was then current.)  And the mutated creatures allow room for some humor -- the Spider dies like a cartoon bug, and there's a set-dressing caterpillar licking its lips in one location.

The parser's disambiguation works fine in some cases, for example OPEN DOOR - Do you want to open the office door? - YES - The office door is now open.   But in other situations it breaks down, most annoyingly when dealing with the aforementioned truck key.  The game has two keys in it, one of which the parser recognizes as KEY, the other of which must be specifically referenced as the TRUCK KEY.  We have to obtain the key from Mrs. Reppler, and the truck key from Ollie, the Federal Foods manager.  Unfortunately, Ollie will readily tell us that his truck is parked in back of the supermarket, but when we ask him for the key he feigns total ignorance that such a thing exists.  He will only give us the truck key if we specifically ask for it as the truck key.  This means that we can ASK OLLIE ABOUT TRUCK, but we can't ASK OLLIE FOR KEYS or GET KEY FROM OLLIE or ASK OLLIE ABOUT KEY.  The game consistently gives the impression that Ollie doesn't have his own keys for his truck -- OLLIE, DO YOU HAVE THE KEYS? - "No, not today."  So how did he get to work?  Oh, right, he's only able to think and converse like the game's parser -- only if we ASK OLLIE ABOUT TRUCK KEY do we get the desired result.

The Bug is described as slug-like, so we can conclude that the Morton's Salt can be used to dispatch this dangerous foe.  We have to THROW SALT AT BUG, as we can't POUR SALT or DROP SALT (at least, not with the desired target in effect.)  THROW SALT is accepted, but too general, as we just throw the salt randomly around the location and can't reasonably gather it up again.  It's also smart to OPEN SALT BOX before we face this foe, as the Bug has little patience for inventory management and attacks quickly.

We can't carry the bodies of the insects around with us, and they don't revive, so once they're dead, they're dead.  Unfortunately, while I figured out how to kill the Bug and the Spider in traditional adventure game fashion, the Bird and the Dragonfly remained fatally dangerous pests.  I tried hitting them with the bug sprayer, spraying them with it, knocking them out of the air with my bare hands -- no luck.  I returned to the walkthrough to learn that there's a gun in the game, if we have had the spontaneous prescience to ASK OLLIE ABOUT GUN.  He seems like the last person who would own a firearm, actually, and he's far too nervous to use it, but he has one.  But he won't give it to us until we say OLLIE, RELAX first.

There's a gas station in town, but I never had reason to visit it -- the truck is ready to go once we have the key.  There's some nice detail here, though -- the station calls itself Giosti's Mobil,and the 70-year-old proprietor, Bill Giosti, is inside.  We can ASK GIOSTI ABOUT MIST, and he recalls the Black Spring of 1888, when a similar phenomenon apparently occurred.  This doesn't directly tie in with the backstory as it develops in the game, nor is visiting Mr. Giosti essential to finishing the adventure, but it's a nice little optional scene that helps ground this fictional world with a sense of its history.

First move deaths are always amusing -- in this case, we can die immediately after starting the game by simply going N, where we get stepped on by some kind of giant foot in the mist.  Most of the other deaths provide some degree of warning, even when they're instant -- we can see sparks flying in the Central Maine Power Office from outside, so getting fried by the hot sparks upon entering is not completely unfair.

Another Angelsoft parser convention that's a little odd is that it always uses the definite article, making every item sound very specific even if we haven't encountered it before.  This isn't too jarring when we find the salt box in the store, but when we're immediately told that You see the dead soldiers in the supermarket's refrigerated meat locker, we immediately start to wonder if we have met them at some point.

The text has a pleasant, timeless quality -- the only circa-1985 reference I spotted is a description noting that all the store's produce was "scarfed up" earlier by desperate citizens.

Since this is an adventure game, the outdoor map has to be constrained -- most of the possible roads out of town are blocked, but at least the fatal obstacles are varied.  Some areas cannot be explored safely on foot, which is why we need the truck.  Even so, there are still limits -- heading east on Shaymore Road only gets us swept up and devoured by something huge and unseen.

We need the non-truck key to get into the hardware store.  ASK MRS. REPPLER ABOUT KEY inspires her to mention that she dropped it on the way to the store.  With Ollie's gun, we can SHOOT BIRD, and discover the key on the ground afterward (but only if we have asked Mrs. Reppler about it -- apparently the act of asking retroactively changes recent history!)

In the hardware store, we find the broom, the old ammunition clip (with three bullets) and the shovel.  We can only carry four items, so this trove makes for some interesting inventory juggling.  If we've dispatched the Bird and the Spider, the pistol's polished clip is down to one bullet.  There's no way to combine the bullets in the old clip with those in the polished clip.  In fact, TAKE BULLET OUT OF POLISHED CLIP is interpreted as TAKE POLISHED CLIP, unfortunately.  So we have to take the polished clip out of the gun, drop it with its remaining bullet, take the old clip, and put it in the gun.

This isn't a serious problem, as the information is optional, but again the parser is a little too unhelpful.  When we try to READ NOTEBOOK after carefully finding it in the dumpster, we are told that You'll have to open the notebook first.  Trying to do so indicates that we don't have it.  So we have to TAKE NOTEBOOK, OPEN NOTEBOOK, and READ NOTEBOOK to learn that radiation experiments with insects are responsible for all the trouble.  I knew it!

In the truck, we can travel out of town to reach a dead-end dirt road.  Here, we can DIG HOLE WITH SHOVEL (DIG HOLE just tells us we need a better tool, even if we have the shovel in hand) to create a tunnel into the top-secret military base, which is heavily fortified against any external threat, as long as it's not carrying a shovel.  Next, we have to shoot a nasty Centipede three times, successfully, and as we only have three bullets, and randomized misses enrage the beast to a fatal degree, it's critical that we SAVE GAME here.  Once the many-legged critter is dispatched, we can explore the deserted base and get to the bottom of this whole misty mess.

There's a tank in a lab, secreted behind an air lock, that contains a weapons-grade pesticide (most likely the one referred to in the notebook.)  On my first attempt, I discovered that it's dangerous to go into the lab without protection -- even the fumes prove fatal after a few turns.  But fortunately, there's a rubber hazmat suit in Captain Jones' closet nearby. Um. At least I am assuming it's a hazmat suit.

There's also a memo on Captain Jones' desk, which we do not have to take or open before reading.  It indicates that the military effort codenamed Project Plague is responsible.  If only these people would choose more responsible names for their biolethal weapons programs, instead of creating these self-fulfilling prophecies all the time!

Now we can fill our not-handy-to-date bug sprayer with the military-strength pesticide, or at least we can if we can get past our most persistent enemy: the parser.  EMPTY SPRAYER reveals only that You can't do that to the sprayer.   Nor can we FILL SPRAYER WITH PESTICIDE.  Instead, we have to POUR INSECTICIDE FROM SPRAYER -- which makes some sense -- then POUR PESTICIDE INTO SPRAYER -- which doesn't, quite, as the pesticide is in a huge vat and we seem to have no real way of pouring the stuff from it.  But the command works.

However improbably girded for battle, we can now drive out to the lake where Billy (remember him, our son?) was last seen.  When we pull in, we are told that The Giant Thing is here, but if we try to SPRAY THING WITH SPRAYER from inside the truck's cab, the engine is forced to contradict itself and tell us that The Giant Thing isn't here.  After we open the door and get out of the truck, we are wise to SAVE GAME to insure against random fatalities, and then spray the giant beastie three times with the deadly insecticide. All we have to do to wrap things up now is enter the bait shop (stepping over its dead proprietor) and make our way downstairs to the basement, the first and only time in the game that we travel up or down.

Here, we find Billy innocently sleeping, apparently having concluded that there's no way Dad is ever coming back, what with all the deadly monsters running rampant and killing everybody, so he might as well get some shuteye while the carnage continues.  Victory, of a tentative sort at least, is ours:

We celebrate our good fortune by being dumped unceremoniously out to the command prompt, leaving us to yell helplessly at a program long since shut down.  "Dad!  Put that kid in a seatbelt!  Holding him on your lap and driving blindly through the mist to destinations unknown while whispering in his little ear is a good way to ensure everybody we've grown to care about still ends up dead!"

Well played, Mr. King.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Telltale Games' Back to the Future Site is Up

Telltale Games' foray into movie licensing looks to be off to a quality start.  The official Back to the Future adventure game website is up and running, and true to form, Telltale's team is taking the license seriously.  Screenwriter Bob Gale is onboard as a consultant, and Christopher Lloyd is back in character to voice Doc Brown.  The story takes place after the events of Back to the Future III, sending Marty McFly on a new quest. 

Unfortunately, Michael J. Fox is not available to voice Marty's many lines of dialogue, so those duties will be handled by A.J. Locascio.  But Telltale is running a preorder special that honors Mr. Fox's contribution to the series in a socially-responsible manner: preorder the downloadable series on PC or Mac for $24.95, and Telltale Games will donate $1 to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.

Telltale almost singlehandedly revived the adventure genre with their funny, well-designed games in the Lucasarts tradition, so I'm looking forward to this one.  There was never really a decent Back to the Future game when the movies were originally in circulation -- but with Telltale's focus on storytelling, they just might be able to pull it off.

UPDATE:   A friend ran into Christopher Lloyd at a convention in Chicago this past weekend, and she reports that he talked a bit about this project.  He reportedly loved playing Doc Brown, and would gladly do another Back to the Future movie, but will settle for the game.  Watching Telltale's video clips of Lloyd performing the character in the recording booth, it seems evident he's loving every minute of it, acting full-on even though only his voice is being captured.

The LoadDown - 10/25/2010

It's Halloween week here in the US, and time for our regular roundup of the week's downloadable titles before we start a weeklong series of seasonal gaming posts.  The only seasonal title seems to be Costume Quest on the XBox 360 and PS3, but there's a solid lineup of new titles just the same.

WiiWare -- Two new titles this week.  BIT.TRIP FATE continues Aksys Games' retro-psychedelic series, this time in the form of a side-scrolling shooter with one or two-player simultaneous action.  My Planetarium is a cool solar system explorer, with approximately twenty thousand celestial bodies mapped out including stars up to the 7th magnitude.

Wii Virtual Console -- Nothing new this week.

DSiWare -- Four new titles up for download.  Go! Go! Island Rescue! sends the player's squad of fire fighters out to rescue a vacationing family.  Spot the Difference brings those annoying newspaper puzzles to the DSi.  Flashlight is a utility program that basically sets both screens to a bright white (color and intensity variable) light, so the DSi can be used as a very expensive flashlight; I'd say this is a strange idea, but I've been known to use my cell phone in exactly this way.  And GO Series Defense Wars is a tower defense/shooter game.

XBox Live Arcade -- Three games this week, with the long-awaited indie title Super Meat Boy leading the pack.  Costume Quest is the latest from Double Fine (see PS3 notes below), and Hudson's Dream Chronicles is an attractive-looking hidden object adventure game ported from the popular 2007 PC casual title.

Game Room -- Several games were expected this week, including Konami's Jackal, but have not materialized on schedule.  Is this the beginning of the end for Game Room?

PS3 on PSN -- Two new games last week.  Aqua Panic! brings the popular PSP puzzle game in the spirit of Lemmings to the PS3.  Costume Quest is a Halloween-themed adventure/RPG/scavenger hunt game from Double Fine, creators of Psychonauts and Brutal Legend.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Everyone's Gonna Tap That!

Hudson Soft and NEC pioneered the "multitap" N-way controller adaptor out of necessity -- the small size of the PC Engine console meant there was only room for a single controller port, so even two-player games required an adaptor.  With the multitap accessory added, the system was able to support up to 5 controllers, paving the way for multiplayer classics like Bomberman and Moto Roader.  The MultiTap was quite popular in Japan, and many PC Engine games support multiple players.

When the Super Famicom came along to push the PC Engine into obsolescence, it already had two controller ports built-in.  But Hudson Soft still anted up with an SNES-compatible multitap, primarily for use with the company's classic 16-bit version of Bomberman.  The product image in the ad isn't to scale, I presume -- its sheer size here gives the Super Multitap an unsettling take-over-the-world vibe:

One might imagine that this peripheral had limited market appeal -- an investment in the multitap virtually guaranteed spending money on additional controllers to use with it.  And there weren't many worthwhile 3, 4 or 5-player games on the SNES, with Squaresoft's RPG Secret of Mana being a notable exception.  The multitap was a niche product for the hardcore and casually well-off gamer.

None of this prevented Henk Rogers' team at Bullet-Proof Software from releasing their own, more compact version of the same product -- judging from the ad, demand for the Super Link was driven by Midway's goofy arcade basketball hit, NBA Jam.  I assume the product had to be taken out of the box for actual use, but the ad design ensures you'll know what to look for at Electronics Boutique:

Several more of these products came to market for the SNES, a few of which supported up to 6 players. None of them was successful enough to be common today, but thanks to a few classic games these devices still fetch a reasonable price in the used peripheral market.

Some niches, apparently, are easier to tap roomier than others.

PC Engine Gamer Issue #2 (Has Been) Out

How'd I miss this?  sunteam_paul's excellent online retro magazine PC Engine Gamer has a second issue, out since October 1st.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Man, I HATE that Al!

Friday, October 22, 2010

East vs. West: Wizardry I & II

Role-playing games in today's market tend to fall into two categories -- the Western style, generally inspired by the pencil-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons system, and the angst-ridden, soap-operatic Japanese RPG a la Final Fantasy.  But the JRPG began life as an offshoot of the Western RPG before finding its own voice, and a number of American dungeon crawls have been licensed for release in Japan.

One of these games was Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead's seminal Wizardry, which debuted on the 8-bit Apple II way back in 1981.

The series was hugely successful in the States, and many licensed conversions were released on Japanese platforms in the years that followed.  Here, we're comparing the original to the 1993 PC Engine Super CD-ROM edition, which combined the first two Wizardry games, Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord and Knight of Diamonds, into one console release:

The original game was fairly small in terms of what we call "content" today, but it was a full-blooded computer implementation of a D&D-style RPG system, with character attributes and classes, spells, experience, character levels, and equipment shops.  The menus even called the Apple II's rarely-utilized hi-res mode into service, to fit more data onto the screen:

It also featured a whole Monster Manual's worth of crudely-drawn monsters.  I'm particularly fond of the low-level Scruffy Men, though it seems a bit unfair to call them monsters -- they probably just need the cash:

The heart of Wizardry's gameplay, and a major reason for its popularity in the face of stiff competition from Richard Garriott's Ultima, was its innovative 3-D dungeon adventuring engine.  There were no geographical details beyond doors and stairs going up and down; movement was not animated, just refreshed with each step or turn; players couldn't see monsters coming, but would simply encounter them on contact.  And there was no automapping, so one had to either learn one's way around or draw a map by hand, step by step.  But this limited early technology appealed to pencil-and-paper RPG players, who for the first time were able to explore a proper dungeon without needing to round up a Dungeon Master and a party of fellow adventurers.

As testimony to Wizardry's impact and longevity, we note that this Japanese edition came out more than ten years later.  The PC Engine version features updated, full-color graphics and a stirring audio score, rendered with CD audio or chip-based tunes, at the player's discretion.  But it respects its roots, and the options menu even allows playing with the original Apple II-style dungeon graphics:

Or the updated look:

The PC Engine version is extremely faithful to the Apple II original -- a map drawn for one version works for the other, and the monster and weapon names are consistently rendered in English.  There is a fair amount of Japanese text, but beyond the intro it's limited to standard messages like BUBBLY SLIME DIES! and THERE IS A STAIRCASE HERE.  DO YOU WANT TO CLIMB IT?  We don't have to type anything in this console version -- menu selections make it easy to answer YES/NO or choose which type of trap to target for a disarm attempt.  The monsters, traps, and key menu options are in English, and with a little experience playing the US version it's not at all difficult to figure out what's going on in the Japanese edition.

The biggest difference is that the monster graphics have taken a big leap forward on the PCE -- they're still not animated, but they're very nicely drawn and detailed:

Of course, neither edition of the game is easy either -- unlike the gentler nature of modern RPGs, it's very easy to lead one's party into deadly situations, and very expensive to drag them back to town and resurrect them at the temple.  In this case, I failed to disarm a dangerous chest trap and managed to gas my entire party to death, forcing me to restore and start over:

Part of what makes Wizardry so challenging is that, in the classic RPG style, it takes patience and time to raise a party to higher levels.  The handful of hit points allocated to first-level characters don't go very far in the maze, and gold pieces aren't easy to come by either.  Healing stays at the inn, resurrection fees and equipment purchases are all expensive, and it's tricky to balance equipment upgrades against basic operating expenses.

But despite the throwback feel of the Wizardry engine, I still spent several hours mapping out the first few levels of Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord on graph paper, the old fashioned way.  And while the experience wasn't compelling enough to keep me fighting through to the end in this age of more sophisticated and streamlined play systems, I thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to Llylgamyn.  Sometimes an oldie really is a goodie.

A number of the Wizardry games were ported to the PC Engine, but I would recommend starting with the simple, pure dungeon-crawling fun of Wizardry I & II.  An NES version made it to the US; players with more exotic tastes may want to check out the import version here or here:

Wizardry I II PC-Engine SCD

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Let's Make Us A Game! -- Working the Turkey

We're making a simple adventure game using the Inform 7 development language.  We've established a world, allowed the player to navigate it, and added some perspective and style.  But the game's purported objective is still not reachable -- the story can be explored, but not finished.  Our puppy hero cannot possibly obtain the family's turkey dinner, because it barely exists and never comes within his reach.

Way back at this series' beginning, I pounded out a quick turkey definition out as follows, as part of the Kitchen definition:

The turkey is here. "One scent in particular stands out -- rich and juicy and tasty."

So let's see where we're at with a little playtesting.  There are bound to be some nasty surprises lurking in the details, even at this very early stage.
> smell scent
You can't see any such thing.
Whoops.  I have defined the turkey as an item, and for doggy-appropriate descriptive purposes I have referred to its scent.  That works fine from my perspective as the designer, but from the player's perspective there is only a scent in the room.  The player can't even refer to it as turkey without guessing, but the parser will only see it as turkey.
One way to solve this is to use a synonym, telling the interpreter to treat the word "scent" as if we're referring to the turkey:
    Understand "scent" as the turkey.
That solves the obvious problem, but now smell scent just returns You smell nothing unexpected, because we haven't defined a smell response for the scent or the turkey.

Game design often requires us to turn a problem into an opportunity -- there's a more natural and interesting way to approach this.  What if the scent leads Riley to discover the presence of the turkey, upon smelling the scent?  And scores a point?  Here's how we do that.  First, we remove the original turkey definition.  Then we add:
The scent is here. "One scent in particular stands out -- rich and juicy and tasty."

Instead of smelling the scent: Remove scent from play; award 1 point; move the turkey to the Kitchen; say "It's TURKEY!"

The turkey is a thing. "Tuuuurkey..."

Of course, this introduces some complications.  If we remove the scent and replace it with the turkey, now we want to be able to smell the turkey. 

Instead of smelling the turkey, say "It smells as delicious as anything you can imagine. Visions of giblets dance in your head."

A little playtesting also reveals that Riley can, at present, carry the scent around before smelling it, in which case dropping it elsewhere results in a credibility-straining You can see a scent statement in its new location (in Inform 7, an item's initial description is always used in its first location, and is simplified after interaction; this generally supports storytelling by not boring the player with the richer description after some initial interaction has occurred.)  Riley can also take the turkey without so much as a by-your-leave, which will make this a very short game.  So we'll fix those things.

The scent is fixed in place.  Instead of taking the scent, say "You bite the air with gusto, but as tangible as this delicious odor seems, you can't actually take it."

Instead of taking the turkey:
     if the turkey is in the Kitchen, say "Mom has ensured that the turkey is safely out of your reach.";
     if the turkey is on the Dinner Table, say "You look around to make sure nobody's coming.[if Mom is in the Dining Room]  Whoops!  Hi, Mom!"
We've escaped another potential problem here -- the scent has disappeared from the world after the player discovers its source, which doesn't quite make sense; it ought to stick around for sensory effect, even if its description is no longer appropriate.  But because we have told Inform 7 to understand "scent" as the turkey, and the in-game existence of the two items is mutually exclusive, everything actually works out.  When we smell scent while the scent is in the room, it becomes the turkey; smelling scent after that point actually smells the turkey, which is exactly the right effect.  We also can't smell the turkey before it exists, so the player can't cheat by using a priori knowledge (or miss scoring the associated point.) The only minor hiccup is that now take scent or eat scent will attempt taking the turkey, but Riley knows the scent is coming from the turkey now, so that doesn't seem inappropriately jarring.

That was a little more complicated than I expected.  Details do matter.  (And we have NOT solved another problem in the offing, which is that if Riley does succeed in obtaining the turkey, but drops it in the Kitchen, he will not be allowed to take it again!  We'll just note that for the moment.)

To finish our initial work here, we need to look at the turkey's function in the game.  In order for the player to win:
NEW -- The turkey must move from the Kitchen to the Dinner Table under official escort (i.e., Mom).
ALREADY WORKING -- The player must get onto the Dinner Table.
NEW -- The player must take the Turkey.
NEW -- The player must return to the Back Yard with the Turkey and enjoy it.

To move the turkey to the Dinner Table, we'll piggyback onto Mom's existing agenda, by adding a turkey countdown variable:

Mom has a number called turkeycountdown.  The turkeycountdown of Mom is 3.

(within her agenda, when she heads back to the kitchen to start a new cycle)
        change the turkeycountdown of Mom to the turkeycountdown of Mom minus 1.

(and now recognize when the turkeycountdown has reached zero in Mom's moves from the Kitchen to the Dinner Table -- for clarity, we'll use one of Mom's so-far-unused agenda values to handle this, and we already have her programmed to be in the Dining Room when her agenda value is 5:)

    if the agenda of Mom is 5:
        if the turkeycountdown of Mom is 0:
            move the turkey to the Dinner Table;
            change the turkeycountdown of Mom to -1;
            if the player is in the Dining Room, say "Mom just... she just put it on the dinner table!  Turkey is here!";

(for debugging at the moment, we'll modify Mom's conversation too)
Instead of talking Mom, say "Mom says, 'I'm feeling rather [agenda of Mom]-ish.'  She looks like the turkeycountdown is [turkeycountdown of Mom]."

We have ignored some subtleties for now -- the turkey is warping from the Kitchen to the Dining Room, without the player being able to tell that Mom is carrying it in between.  In fact, Mom will visibly leave the turkey in the Kitchen, yet magically put it on the Dinner Table a few turns later.  That simplifies our code, in that the turkey is never actually in the Hallway so we don't have to worry about further complications if Riley attempts to take it there.  But it's a bit of a cheat, and I suspect playtesting will force us to deal with this detail eventually.

Now, Riley is a very small puppy.  So let's surprise the player at the last minute by letting him take only a leg of the turkey.  That should still allow for a satisfying ending, without breaking reality overmuch.  It also makes it possible that Riley can hide the theft from Mom long enough to escape the house; last time, we established that he gets at most 5 turns on the table before Mom spots him and throws him back outside, so this fits comfortably within the limit.  We ultimately need to give him 5 turns' worth of activity to do, for challenge's sake, but let's keep it simple for now.  We'll define the turkey leg and modify the take turkey action as follows:

The turkey leg is a thing.  "It's a fat, juicy thigh of turkey.  Not quite as good as a whole turkey, but a lot more portable."

     if the turkey is on the Dinner Table:
        say "You look around to make sure nobody's coming.";
        if Mom is in the Dining Room:
            say "Whoops!  Hi, Mom!";
            say "You pull, and pull, and pull some more... and are rewarded with a turkey... leg!";
            move the the turkey leg to the player;
            award 1 point;

To wrap up the story, we need to recognize that Riley has made it to the Back Yard with his prize and is chowing down, and award another point as we formally end the game:

Instead of eating the turkey leg:
    if the player is in the Back Yard:
        say "You settle into the cool grass, place the turkey leg firmly between your paws, and bite.  Who says it's a dog's life?";
        say "";
        say "CONGRATULATIONS!  You have finished Riley's Adventure!";
        award 1 point;
        end the story;
        say "This is not a good place to dine... Mom could show up at any moment!".

Now our brief story has a happy ending.  But it's not much of a challenge, and there are several bugs both known and unknown.  For instance, the player can repeatedly take the turkey leg, earning a point for each try.  And if the player hasn't smelled the scent earlier, the turkey is still revealed at this point, AND the scent is still present in the kitchen.  So we should figure out a solution for that problem.  It also seems far too easy for Riley to get out of the house with his contraband turkey leg while Mom is patrolling the hallway on her usual rounds.

In the remainder of this series, following a Halloween break next week, we'll see if we can't add a few more puzzles to the mix, polish up the scoring, and with any luck wrap up the remaining issues in time for Thanksgiving.

The complete current source code is below the fold.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Elsewhere: Imagic Dragonfire TV Commercial

Imagic spent a lot of money on their TV commercials back in the early days of home videogaming, and this ad for Dragonfire is no exception:

Dragonfire was never as popular as Imagic's flagship title, Demon Attack,  but its release life surpassed the Atari 2600 and Intellivision versions advertised here, appearing on quite a few console and home computer platforms back in the day.  (It was Imagic's only title to appear on the Apple II.)

Imagic's humorous and image-conscious marketing may have had a lot to do with its success.  Note the intricacy of the dragon costume, which is cartoony but easily as detailed as Toho's Godzilla suits.  And the expense put into creating hand-animated but otherwise unembellished versions of the Atari 2600 sprites, which couldn't otherwise be enlarged enough to show detail.  And the on-set live pyrotechnic effects.

Games today look a lot better -- but most game ads just feature in-game footage.

I kind of miss the days when ads had this kind of freedom to fill in the details.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Crash Dive! (1984)

The Internet is a deep and wonderful resource, but the technology can also spread errors and misinformation, as one source copies from another.  I mention this because this week, we're playing Brian Moriarty's Crash Dive!, a text adventure for the Atari 400/800 computers, originally published as a type-in listing in issue #18 of ANALOG magazine.  There should be no question regarding its authorship -- the title screen lists Moriarty (later of Infocom and Lucasarts fame) as the author, as does the original magazine article.  Mr. Moriarty has also laid claim to this game as his own work in published interviews.  But still, numerous online sources list this as an unreleased game by another ANALOG contributor, one Tom Hudson.

The source of the confusion is this: ANALOG Computing's commercial boxed software division had an action game in the works called Crash Dive!, and the box art for that unreleased game does indeed list Tom Hudson as the author.  Both are submarine-themed games, both are titled Crash Dive!, and both were (or were going to be) published by ANALOG in print or on disk.  But Moriarty's published game was a text adventure, while Hudson's unreleased effort was clearly an action game, based on the box copy.

Going back to primary sources is usually a good way to set the record straight:

The author's first published text adventure, Adventure in the 5th Dimension, was written in Atari BASIC; this one is completely in assembly language (encoded in printable form for its magazine type-in debut), so it fires up immediately and plays speedily.  The original magazine (link above) is well worth referencing, as it includes a photograph of several key props containing clues for the game, an interesting print approximation of the Infocom "feelies."  As a matter of fact, while this game is a two-word parser affair, it was Moriarty's last magazine effort; he would shortly move up to begin work on Wishbringer for Infocom.

Crash Dive! opens in a confined space, and it's highly unusual in that the player's goal is not necessarily to escape the doomed submarine, but to keep it from falling into enemy hands by any means necessary.  The user interface is a nifty extension of the Scott Adams "windowed" screen, divided here into several fixed windows.  The display approach handily establishes the player's carrying capacity -- beyond six items, the game tells us Your arms are full!  The layout also inadvertently imposes a visible item limit on every room, yielding Not enough room here when the junk piles up too much.  There's also a turn counter in the upper right-hand corner, handy for tracking some early "time"-limited events but not otherwise essential to play:

As always, I urge interested readers to sally forth and discover the game's secrets independently before continuing here.  My goal is to document Crash Dive! in detail for the historical record, and there will necessarily be all manner of...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

This adventure isn't particularly difficult, but it's wise to save on occasion, as we encounter quite a bit of time pressure early on, and there are several ways to die with no advance warning.  In fact, we are more than likely to fail on the very first move if we carelessly OPEN HATCH:

In what may be a Scott Adams-inspired puzzle, we have to HOLD BREATH before opening said hatch.  We can only cease respiration for so long, of course, and eventually we are forced to breathe, once again dying in the poisonous gas cloud.  There doesn't seem to be any way to do this intentionally - RELEASE BREATH, BREATHE, and DROP BREATH do nothing of note.  There is, however, a gas mask in a weapons locker -- finding that item is necessarily the first order of business.

Just to keep things interesting, there are several red herrings meant to lead us down the primrose path to plausible but unsuccessful solutions.  There's a secure door with a slot that accepts an ID card -- but the first card we are likely to find is in the crew's quarters, and turns out to be the ace of spades.  There's also a tiny screwdriver available at the start of the game, which proves too small to be useful in the obvious situation.  A key found in the radiation suit is not useful for opening the locked door.  And a dull knife from the galley is useless for dealing with the armed traitor onboard, but works pretty well as a screwdriver.

Once we have the gas mask, we may take time to LOOK PERISCOPE and learn that we can see Enemy approaching!  The sonar station's scanner indicates the same.  There's a serious time issue here, assuming we've obtained the gas mask, as within about 30 turns, Enemy captures the sub and kills you instantly!  I spent some time looking for a way to fire the torpedoes, but had no luck, and resorted to putting the submarine into dive mode.  There's a depth gauge onboard, but there aren't any subsequent complications to deal with -- the sub dives at 8 fathoms per turn, with no way to reverse course but no need to do so.  We can PUSH RED again to level out at any depth, and if we push the red button once, wander off and fail to stop our descent, the Sea Moss naturally bottoms out at 128 fathoms and the game continues after Bang! Sub hits bottom.  The periscope still shows Enemy approaching! even when we've parked our vessel on the sea floor; I don't know if this is a bug or just remarkable persistence on the part of the enemy.

An access tunnel toward the north end of the submarine (no FORE/AFT/PORT/STARBOARD maneuvering on this ship!) contains a warning sign reading, DANGER: Radiation zone!   Continue north, and A blast of radioactivity kills you instantly!, unless we are carrying the radiation suit from the equipment room.  With both the gas mask and the radiation suit, GET and WEAR are treated as equivalent, so WEAR MASK yields Already holding it.  There's no need to explicitly wear anything.

The shower stall adjacent to the crew's quarters contains shampoo and a grate fastened shut with screws.  Both of these items come into play, eventually, for dealing with the armed traitor hiding out in the fan room.  We need the shampoo, as well as the wrench and the cable cutters, to liberate the radioactive sonar unit from the sub's sonar sphere.  We need the dull knife (not the tiny screwdriver) to open the shower grate, which is larger than I had mentally pictured.  The open grate leads to a ventilation duct, from whence we can drop the deadly radioactive device on the traitor.  Oddly, just carrying the device into the fan room and dropping it at his feet does not have the desired effect, and there's no THROW verb implemented.  So we can hang around for a while, safely ensconced in our radiation suit, watching for any sign of incipient radiation poisoning on the part of the villain, but if we try to leave, the Traitor shoots you and kills you instantly!  Perhaps he has some natural immunity to poison gas and floor-level radiation; at any rate, only the ventilation duct route produces the desired effect, a Dead traitor.

One more way to die -- if we neglected to douse the sonar unit with shampoo, when we try to CUT CABLE A jolt of high voltage kills you instantly!   The shampoo also seems to help release the unit's tight and rusty bolts.

We must refer to the magazine photo for critical information on a couple of occasions -- READ MANUAL and LOOK SHAMPOO both instruct us to refer to ANALOG #18.

If we've read the article -- which I did only late in the game -- we know that our ultimate goal is to keep the Sea Moss from falling into enemy hands.  There'll be no escaping this time -- our goal is to go down with the ship.  We have three objectives -- I quote Moriarty's original article:
1. Find a way to survive in the submarine's poisoned atmosphere.

2. Get the sub under water, so that enemy ships will not be able to reach it easily. You have a limited number of moves after the game begins to accomplish this, or the Enemy will capture the sub and kill you on the spot!

3. Find a way to completely destroy the Sea Moss.

If we've examined the photo, we understand how the sub's missiles are targeted and armed.  The display in the Navigation center indicates our current X/Y position, which is randomized but should be noted, as we'll need this information to finish the game (it can be referenced at any time.)

I was confused at one point because the Crash Dive! parser uses only three characters to distinguish words.  I thought INSTALL was recognized as a verb, and spent some time trying to INSTALL UNIT and so forth, with the game telling me, Be more specific.  I finally realized it was reading the input as INSERT.  It's also odd that in this submarine game, we can't RAISE or LOWER PERISCOPE, only LOOK through it.

I had some difficulty with the locked door -- I tried sliding the playing card into the doorjamb, using various tools to pick the lock, kicking it and smashing it, all to no avail.  Finding the key in the radiation suit provided a brief but mistaken ray of sunshine.  But I was finally able to SHOOT LOCK with the traitor's pistol, gaining entrance to the Captain's quarters.

The Captain is no more, having left a suicide note and security ID behind.  With the ID in hand, we can now enter the "southern" airlock and unlock the missile arming switch with the key.  Our goal now is -- gulp -- to arm the sub's nuclear missile and target our own location.  It's handy at this point to know how the parser works, because (in my case) I had to adjust the aiming coordinates to X=80, Y=16.  There are two buttons, and I'm not sure what happens if we go beyond the intended targets; maybe the numbers wrap around.  Suffice it to say that PUSH GOLD increments X by 8, and PUSH SILVER decrements Y by 8, and you'll be somewhat relieved to know that PUS GOL and PUS SIL work just as well.

Once we've set the proper coordinates in the upper missile bay, we can return to the Missile Control Center and PUSH WHITE, earning perhaps the sparsest, bleakest victory display I've ever seen:

Victory is ours, though it's a bittersweet triumph -- no cheering throngs, no glittering treasures, nothing but a cold (okay, briefly very warm) and lonely death, 128 fathoms down.  Mission accomplished, at significant but heroic cost.

I haven't seen a published walkthrough for Crash Dive!, so mine is below the fold; I've also shared it in the CASA archive.

***** WALKTHROUGH *****

Monday, October 18, 2010

The LoadDown - 10/18/2010

Whassup loadin' down...

WiiWare -- Two titles this week.  Thruspace is a kinetic puzzle game based on rotating a maze to fit a three-dimensional shape through available gaps, with online leaderboards.  Happy Holidays Halloween is a creativity tool allowing users to assemble and send Halloween greeting cards to friends.  (Also, the Wii Netflix player is now available as a free download, though of course it's only useful if you have a Netflix account.)

Wii Virtual Console -- Squaresoft's Final Fantasy Mystic Quest arrives for the Virtual SNES.  This was an offshoot of the main series that started life as a completely different series for the GameBoy; it's much more action oriented, but it has its charms.

DSiWare -- The pace picks up again with four new titles.  Snapdots is a puzzle-building game featuring a block-firing, rotating UFO.  Armada is a military strategy game based around an aircraft carrier.  Academy: Tic-Tac-Toe is tic-tac-toe with variations and AI opponents.  And Music on: Playing Piano is another piano tutorial with new songs to learn.

XBox Live Arcade -- The 360 saw the same two games last week as the PS3; see below for details.

Game Room -- Three Atari 2600 games arrived, still from Game Pack 010 -- the late-release "red box" air combat title Radar Lock from 1989, the simple 2-player overhead racing game Street Racer, and Submarine Commander, an Atari-produced Sears exclusive back in the day.

PS3 on PSN -- Two new arrivals last week.  Sega's long-awaited sequel Sonic The Hedgehog 4 Episode I sees its HD debut on Sony's console (a day after the Wii's SD version, a day before the 360 release).  EA's Dead Space Ignition is a digital motion comic/simple adventure game/minigame trio set in the Dead Space universe, meant to whet the appetite for the next major title in the franchise.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Once again, a videogame ad suggests that dire consequences await all who actually purchase and play the product.  In this case, it's not even about the incredible challenge or intense action -- according to the ad copy, this is just someone who has played and finished the game:

The successful player looks a bit like MST3K's Mike Nelson, and he appears to be pressed under cool 90's glass.  But the message is not that the game is so challenging that he's been driven insane; the symptoms are, apparently, natural side effects of dealing with Mansion of Hidden Souls and its... scary atmosphere?  Horrific cutscenes?  Irritating controls?  Slow loading times?

There must be tens, even dozens, of people out there with this affliction, thanks to Vic Tokai's irresponsible release decision.  At least we and the World Health Organization can take some comfort in the fact that, thank goodness, this title only came out for the Sega CD.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Please Don't Feed Your Joystick to the Alligators

Joystick ads have to be visually interesting, because the real selling proposition is about build quality and responsiveness, tactile qualities that are impossible to represent in print.

So the message often tends to misfire -- if this ad communicates anything at all, it's that one shouldn't feed one's expensive high-end joystick, whatever the brand, to a ravenous alligator unless one is prepared to get it back Johnny Weismuller-style:

It's How To Win!

Or, as presented here, How to Lose -- a few fingers, at least.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Princess Maker 1

The Princess Maker series is one of those uniquely Japanese games -- it's a virtual life sim combined with a role-playing game.  More recent entries in the series have seen limited US release, but the first game, Princess Maker 1, was only released in Japan and China, according to Wikipedia.  The game debuted on Japanese personal computers including the MSX series; here, I'm playing the version ported to the PC Engine Super CD-ROM format.

The concept is sort of like a virtual pet, but potentially more disturbing as the "pet" in question is the player's adopted virtual daughter.  We must make sure she is trained and educated through several stages of life, arm her for combat when necessary, and hope that we have raised her right and she finds a satisfying destiny.  There are reportedly 74 different occupations she can end up with, ranging from princess to prostitute.  The double-wide CD case includes two thick manuals -- basic instructions, plus a guidebook documenting the details of armor, weaponry and items.  There's also a mini-disc music CD, featuring two songs and a twelve-minute audio drama based on the game.

Famed Japanese animation/design house Gainax created the game's graphics, and they are uniformly excellent.  Even the title screen has a degree of character missing from most videogames of the era:

Of course, since I don't have any real Japanese skills, once I'm past the title screen, I am immediately at sea, as I am asked to define a Family Name and First Name for my virtual daughter.  I've picked some random characters, and hope that they translate as something nonsensical like "XVDFC DDFAVJD" and not as "Trampy Little Nosefarmer" or some such:

The game's storyline is traditional RPG material -- even with no reading or listening comprehension, we can gather that an evil warlord is at large, or, less probably, that our little Princess is a big Molly Hatchet fan:

Her family and everyone else in her village are killed by the evil forces, she flees the Big Bad, and ends up in our potentially less dangerous care.  And now we must start raising our little sweetheart to be something of value to society.  As we consider our available options, she looks on with big eyes full of... I wish I could say trust and hope, but doubt and concern spring more readily to mind:

I can't make any sense of most of these menus, but the manual, some illustrations and the odd word of in-game English helped me figure out that we can schedule her time for combat training, education, and the little lady refinements of finishing school.

She can't quite hold her own in battle at this tender age, it seems -- perhaps I should have enrolled her in a less advanced class, as it seems her instructor has nearly killed her here.  Does this school perhaps offer a "no blood" level for younger children?

In an attempt to make up for the whole mortal danger thing, I assigned her some time at finishing school to help her recover, but she eventually got tired or bored and started complaining.  Infants are one thing -- you can basically guess that they need food, water, changing, or mommy/daddy time -- but little girls have more complex social and emotional needs, and I can't make out WHAT she's talking about in her adorable high-pitched Japanese voice.  The instructor seems nice enough, anyway, and delighted with her progress (or her tuition) as we mold her to be a perfect stereotype of poise and balance:

I'm not entirely comfortable with this, however; princess or no, I'd rather she be her own person and learn to think for herself.  So I'm considering assigning her less time at Miss Hathaway's School for Stepford Wives and more time elsewhere, when it becomes woefully apparent that I've overworked her and failed to balance her schedule properly.  One year under my bumbling tutelage, and she hasn't really gained anything, nor does she seem to be very happy with her lot in life.  I've also managed to blow most of the 500GP with which she arrived at my doorstep, and appear to have dressed her in random castoffs from the Goodwill bargain bin:

It's very possible that one of these other screens or menus might have helped me to meet her needs more effectively:

But I don't know what most of these statistics are meant to tell me.  At least she's still alive.  Oh, and she had a very nice day on her birthday, thanks to a sudden invasion of giant butterflies:

I'd been putting off sampling Princess Maker 1 for a while, and I'm greatly relieved to report that the game is not in the least bit salacious or creepy.  It's rather a sweet little game -- I'm just not making enough headway to keep at it.  It's just not possible to raise a child effectively when one can't read the accompanying manuals.  (Yes, I know that's not how it is in the real world either.  But at least there are manuals in this case.)

Oh, and I was able to import the mini-CD into my iTunes library -- and to my surprise, the iTunes CD database actually recognized this disc and labeled the tracks correctly; usually my PCE discs import only on a "Track N" basis.  Thanks to somebody's foresight out there, I can say without reservation that [Pce]プリンセスメーカー1 オリジナルドラマCd rocks!

Given the game's popularity in Japan, combined with the difficulty of playing it in the US, this one's almost always available and inexpensive to boot. Try looking for it here or here:

Princess Maker 1 PC-Engine SCD