Friday, December 31, 2010

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Cosmic Fantasy 3: Hoken Shonen Rei

One of my favorite TurboGrafx-CD games back in the early 1990s was the sci-fi RPG Cosmic Fantasy 2, brought to the US with a witty translation by Victor Ireland's Working Designs, at a time when the anime style was fresh and new on our shores.  So I had to pick up the PC Engine sequel Cosmic Fantasy 3: Hoken Shonen Rei, which continues the story but never saw an English translation.

There were actually 5 or 6 Cosmic Fantasy games in Japan, if one counts Cosmic Fantasy 4 (Chapters 1 & 2) as two separate games and Cosmic Fantasy Stories as a game; there were also a number of offshoot titles and related projects in other media, detailed at the very dedicated Fred Duck's Cosmic Fantasy Home Page

The game series was published by Nihon Telenet's Laser Soft label in Japan.  In an unusual legal touch, we see that the copyright is shared by the game's creator, Kazuhiro Ochi:

Since I don't understand much Japanese beyond what I've picked up from anime and import games, and don't read the language at all, I don't expect to have much luck playing Cosmic Fantasy 3.  But I'll see what I can glean from it, as a follow-on to CF2.

The story opens with our cat friend Nyan from chapter 2 crash-landing on an inhabited planet, after his chicken-shaped spacecraft is shot down by some other spacefaring cats.  There's some nice, expressive animation here, with the additional memory of the Super CD-ROM card allowing for more dynamic content than the 1.0 CD format original.  All of the music seems to be CD-based this time, as well, perhaps because the system can now hold all the necessary game content in memory -- even the in-town themes are quite pleasant to listen to.

We won't see Nyan again for a while, as the story cuts to our apparent hero, a young man with long blonde hair, as we wander around a bucolic village that seems to focus on agriculture, but for some reason I never fathomed has hidden tunnels connecting all the buildings.  We can talk to the pigs and chickens, and trail several of them along with us.  I'm having a pleasant visit, despite my inability to understand what anyone is so earnestly telling me.  But as soon as I dive into the menus, I remember how cumbersome Cosmic Fantasy 2's system was -- and at least those were in English:

I continue talking to random villagers, and one of these conversations generates a little digitized chime sound, so that must have accomplished something worthwhile.  Finally I wander outside town to face some rather comical monsters -- unfortunately, I have to battle these bird creatures on my own, as my animal "friends" vamoosed as soon as I hit the village limits.

I can't quite make sense of the battle menus, so I deal and take damage more or less at random for a while.  I do notice that when we level up, our hit points are increased and fully restored, so that's convenient during these early battles.  And I figure out that the option below the main "fight" option is the "flee" option, and that the second item within the fight menu accesses the healing spells.  I ultimately manage to make it to a neighboring town, where I can again pick up a trailing party of livestock while the local denizens wonder what this strange-smelling kid is up to.

Unlike the village where we started out, this town has a few useful shops.  There is an Inn where we can rest up in the traditional fashion, if we have the 20 GP required:

The town is no metropolis, but has a potions shop, and a weapons dealer, with an armor forgery upstairs.  But once again, I find myself floundering -- I can tell that the price of whatever I'm looking at here is 56 GP, but I have no clue as to whether it's a valuable or useful whatchamacallit.  And once I purchase a random item, I have a tough time figuring out how to equip or use it.  The language barrier is rapidly becoming a challenge.

I do manage to wander out of town again and encounter some different, highly fanciful enemies in the new area of the map -- snake harps wearing bowties, and what seem to be armed, bejeweled vegetables.  But I didn't get too much more out of the gameplay -- without an understandable story to keep my interest, I start remembering all the things that were not so great about Cosmic Fantasy 2.  The menus are cumbersome, there's very little animation in the battle scenes (and no backgrounds to speak of), the maps are full of maze-like dead-end passages, and the journey to the next animated intermission is looking long indeed.

But before I wrap this one up, the game's packaging is worth discussing in some detail.  Cosmic Fantasy 3 comes in a double-thick, two-compartment CD case -- there's only one game disc, but the case includes some additional goodies.  We get a full-color 24-page manual (with an ad for a strategy guide on the back cover), and a full-color fold-out map with full weapon and item statistics charts (though, of course, it's in Japanese, so it's not as handy a reference as I might like).  Best of all, there's a 44-page Cosmic Fantasy Official Guide Book, which includes character profiles, making-of sketches for the cutscenes, photos of the voice actors and game programmers at work, even sheet music for the title theme song.

So I will not likely be able to finish Cosmic Fantasy 3, and that's okay.  It's still been fun to revisit the series' world for a little while, if only for nostalgia's sake.  RPG technology has moved on, even in the somewhat more genre-bound world of the JRPG, and there's no shame in doing so myself.  I'll probably pick up some of the other CF games eventually, but I'm not in any rush.

If you're interested, Cosmic Fantasy 3: Hoken Shonen Rei appears to be less in demand than some of the other games in the series.  You may be able to find a copy for purchase at a reasonable price here or here:

Cosmic Fantasy 3 Bouken Shonen Rei PC-Engine SCD

Thursday, December 30, 2010

At Random: Namco Museum Volume 3

Unlike some other surviving videogame companies from the early days, Namco has never been shy about recognizing the value of its classic coin-op arcade games - official versions of Pac-Man, Galaga, Dig-Dug and others have been made available for platforms ranging from PCs to mobile phones over the years.  Most of these releases have been fairly bare-bones; for a reasonable price, generally, one gets the classic game, either stand-alone or in a compilation with other titles, with, perhaps, added online leaderboards and achievements.

But back in the mid-1990s, when this concept was still fairly new, Namco went all-out with a five-disc (six in Japan) Namco Museum series for the Sony Playstation.  Each disc contained a handful of emulated or ported games, ranging from the well-known (Pac-Man) to the obscure (Phozon), wrapped up in a slick 3-D museum environment.  Only two of these discs, each sold separately, sold very well in North America, based on the included games; this was one of them, and here I'm taking a look at the Greatest Hits re-release of Volume 3:

The set includes 6 games, most of which won't need much introduction to retro gaming fans:  Ms. Pac-Man, Galaxian, Pole Position II, and Dig-Dug.  The Tower of Druaga was a simple coin-op RPG that was huge in Japan, but never released in the US, and the similarly unreleased-here Phozon is a kinetic puzzle game. 

The disc opens with a crudely-animated, pre-rendered montage of characters from the various games -- we see the monstrous Druaga, racing cars revving up, and Pookas popping out of the ground, before Pac-Man is reunited with Ms. Pac-Man and they set out together to visit the Namco Museum.

Once inside the museum, we can navigate -- rather crudely, using the D-pad, as these titles were released before the PSX controller had analog sticks -- to explore a simple 3-D museum environment, hosted by a silent robot receptionist.

Much of the value of this package, beyond the games themselves, is the historical content.  The library contains vintage Japanese magazine covers and development artwork, with a heavy emphasis on The Tower of Druaga, clearly the big draw in Japan.

There's also a movie theatre, populated with Namco characters, like the dolls from Toypop:

Here, we can look at sprites and listen to music and sound effects from each of the featured games, as well as the museum itself:

Each game is given its own specific environment -- we first enter an anteroom, where various game-related artifacts are on display, including instruction cards, promotional brochures, and vintage gewgaws.

After perusing the items on display, we can go into the game chamber, where we find a model of the original coin-op cabinet, often dwarfed by its themed decor.  Pole Position II shows off the car's "design specs," with an attractive polygonal attendant in the background:

The actual Tower of Druaga features prominently in the game's world, with the monster's huge feet dangling nearby:

For the molecular-assembly game Phozon, we find ourselves in a lab, where white-coated scientists look on from a window:

The Galaxian machine sits in the futuristic launch bay, where the player's ship prepares for takeoff:

And Ms. Pac-Man dances with Pac-Pup in the Pac-House, while a charming Japanese tune plays and female vocalists repeatedly exclaim, "Ms. Paku Man!"

I don't quite get the Dig-Dug environment -- it features stony arches, with Pookas bouncing up and down nearby, and no sign of the game's underground environment.

You may notice that I haven't spent much time discussing the actual games here -- they're well-handled and fairly accurately emulated, though the limited display resolution of the PSX causes a few problems.  Having the coin-op bezel art is nice, but the game becomes visibly chunky-looking, with insufficient detail to render the original coin-op visuals:

There is a neat feature, though, that allows for flipping your TV on its side to get the actual arcade screen layout in full resolution (rotated here for your viewing convenience):

The games have survived, of course, and in more accurate form as consoles have become more capable.  But what I miss in most recent vintage coin-op compilations is the interactive Namco Museum environment -- I'm a geek, I know, but it's just cool to wander around a virtual world unabashedly celebrating a handful of old arcade games.  I will admit that this kind of 3-D navigation was novel at the time, and seems inefficient today.  But I would love to see a higher-resolution environment with more, and more detailed versions, of the historical Namco artifacts featured here.

This one's readily available for the US Playstation, and it's not expensive:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Elsewhere: Colecovision Has More Peripherals Than Atari

I'm not sure this was really a selling point -- certainly any modern gamer with a room full of plastic guitars, skateboard controllers and dance mats might beg to differ -- but Coleco took Atari on directly with this vintage TV commercial, promoting the Colecovision's plethora of add-on controllers and the ADAM computer module:

With historical hindsight, I think the most telling comparison actually shows up, unremarked, in the early part of the ad.  The Atari 5200 owner on the right appears to be fiddling with the system's floppy analog joystick, trying to get it to work properly.  Coleco could have spent the entire 30 seconds comparing the controllers, even given the standard Colecovision unit's stiff and stubby little stick, and come out ahead.

I also like to imagine Nolan Bushnell slapping his forehead in dismay when these ads aired -- Atari was a great company name when there was no real competition, but I'd bet he never foresaw the day when a new challenger would use Sorry, Atari! as an ad tagline.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Forbidden Planet Part I (1981)

UPDATE 12/31/2011:   A reader playing the Mac version, Futuria, noticed a couple of glitches in the walkthrough -- I had the player removing the amulet in the dark cave, which would have almost been okay had I not also included an unnecessary extra (and fatal in the "dark") move a few steps later!  I think this was a leftover step from my attempt to thwart the spear trap -- thinking that if it was dark in the room I might not get hit by it.  I've updated the walkthrough accordingly.  Thanks, Gael!

UPDATE 08/06/2011:  I received a note from the author of Forbidden Planet, Bill Demas, offering some historical corrections and additional information.  With his permission:

I just came across your review of my 30-year old adventure.  Such a long time ago.  There are a few historical errors that I think I can correct for you.  Fantastic Software was not my company, but was a local Las Vegas software company run by Al Loose at the time.  I cannot recall how I became involved with him after all this time, but he had the contact with Dick Barker about the speech synthesis and thought it would be great for an adventure game.  I was, and still am, a Las Vegas resident, but I was already in college when I started developing software on the TRS-80.  I wish I had been only 14 years old as Scott  seems to think I was!  No online service companies etc. myself, but I did go on to write many educational games for a company called Unicorn Software in the mid to late 80's on several platforms (Amiga, Apple IIgs, Atari).  I even ported the Forbidden Planet / Forbidden City adventures onto the old original B&W Macintosh and they were redistributed by Unicorn Software.  I believe the titles were "Futuria" and "Utopia", but I honestly do not remember. I'll have to have a look and see if I still have any of the packaged products. We added graphics to the adventures for the Macintosh.

Thanks for the kind words.  I do remember having a lot of fun writing in machine/assembly language back in those days.  To this day I still have several of the Z80 instructions burned into my brain.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog post...

This week, we're exploring the first in a short-lived adventure game series -- Forbidden Planet Part I, aka Talking Adventure #1.  Two such games were written in 1981 by William Demas, best known in adventure game circles for his collaboration on Scott Adams' Adventure #12: Golden VoyageForbidden Planet (no relation to the classic MGM space opera) was published by Demas' own company, (CORRECTION 08/06/2011) Fantastic Software, with a dedication to Adventure International.  I remember seeing it in a software catalog back in the day, when I could only dream of the whopping 48K of memory required to run it. Here's a vintage ad, from the December 1981 issue of 80 Micro magazine, with a remarkably pigeon-toed hero:

Unlike a lot of its contemporaries, which dive straight into the gameplay, Forbidden Planet Part I starts with a fairly detailed title screen:

The memory requirements and the Talking designation stem from short, lo-fi digitized speech samples provided by Dick Rogers Barker (CORRECTION 01/03/2011).  Aside from a few introductory phrases, most of the snippets are standard adventure response material - "Sorry?", "What?", and my favorite, "Tell me how?", because the low sample rate caused my wife to hear it as "Kill me now!", especially after umpteen repetitions.  The voice is a technically interesting novelty, but I highly recommend playing this one with the voice DEactivated.

The game is presented in mixed-case text, unusual for the TRS-80 at the time.  Plotwise, Forbidden Planet Part I is a bit of a genre hybrid -- it starts aboard a space cruiser, with the ship's alarm sounding, but eventually the player will encounter fantasy motifs, with ogres and a centaur planetside.

Interested readers are, as always, urged to explore Forbidden Planet before proceeding here.  It's a fairly difficult game, and I will be giving away the interesting details in the following discussion, along with a full walkthrough below the fold.  That is to say, there's no sign of Anne Francis here, but there are definitely...

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

We begin inside a plastic cylinder, aboard a space cruiser in trouble.  To leave the cylinder, we need to GET OUT.  The parser is a standard two-word engine, with a few quirks of its own -- inventory is checked with I, not INV or INVENTORYSAVE GAME works, writing to disk; there's no RESTORE command, so we can only restore after dying or quitting (at which time we can choose to play with or without voice.)

There are old-school warning-free deaths a-plenty as well -- aboard our space cruiser prior to landing, OPEN HATCH yields I'M DEAD! PLAY AGAIN?

On the bridge, SIT CHAIR produces OUCH! -- because LOOK CHAIR yields I found something. It's a Disruptor, a ray-gun of sorts, with 5 charges.  The bridge's control panel has a blue button and a white button; PUSH BLUE turns on a viewscreen, where LOOK SCREEN reveals that The ship is on a collision course with a planetoid!  The white button turns on the autopilot, or attempts to; it is not initially in working order.

The puzzles aboard our cruiser are fairly linear and not particularly difficult to deal with, nor do we need to bring many items along for the second phase of the game.  To fix the autopilot, we have to unscrew a metal plate in the floor to find a crawlway, using the screwdriver found in a metal cabinet, after we unlock it with a key, of course. The cabinet also contains a box, which contains a tube, and an old rag.

I turned off the audio shortly after trying to GET WIRES below deck -- the attempt produced a fatal electrocution, and a painfully lengthy bit of speech, which I eventually realized was just reading through all of the data in memory.  It played through all of the available speech samples, and turned program code and data into white noise, until it finally got around to telling me I'M DEAD! PLAY AGAIN?  Whoops.

If we don't get the autopilot fixed, our ship eventually collides fatally with the planetoid.  It's not hard to find the faulty hardware, but I wasn't able to FIX TUBE or GET CHARRED TUBE or REPLACE TUBE.  We actually have to approach it indirectly with USE RAG, so the old charred tube shatters and we have an empty socket into which we can INSERT TUBE.

After replacing the tube we can turn off the alarm by turning on the autopilot, but the viewscreen still shows the impending collision.  The only safe course of action is to return to the plastic cylinder where we started out, and WAIT for the crash landing.

Once we're planetside, the ship EXPLODES shortly after the crash landing.  We have to get out and away from the damaged space cruiser in the few moves available before it goes up; we can discard most items we're still carrying from the ship, as aside from the Disruptor none of them are called for after this point.  But first priority is to open the hatch and get out of the ship and at least one room away, as the game's voice announces I HEAR SOMETHING EXPLODE.

We find ourselves on a planet described as Earth-like, but still strange and hostile.  We land near a Strange lake that contains a strange liquid.  Hmmmm.  DRINK LIQUID yields the expected POISON!! I'm DEAD!  GO LAKE has similarly fatal results, numbness followed by drowning.

Entering the nearby caves without a light source is dangerous in the Scott Adams tradition -- we can fall and break our neck, though if we know where we're going we can navigate safely.

Our first indication that we've left the science-fiction leg of the story behind comes when we find a leather bag on a dirt road, containing three crossbow bolts.  We find a crossbow on a mountain top, and an ogre blocks the way to a cave. We can pick up an Amulet near the dark forest, and if we
WEAR AMULET, It begins to glow. (And the voice goes insane once again, so I really recommend turning it off when the option is presented during startup and restores!)

With the amulet as a light source, we can explore one of the caves to find a shovel and an Old Book that reads, "Summon the Guardian of this land and He'll transport you ac..."   The fragment is incomplete, but we can assume it's a way to get ac...ross the strange lake.  The cave also contains another ogre, sitting up against the wall and preventing access to a hole leading to another area.

Designer William Demas begins to make our lives interesting but tricky at this point, as there are a number of possible paths and sequences available, and only one (with minor variations) will lead to ultimate success.

We can GET BOLT from the leather bag and LOAD CROSSBOW to assemble a Loaded crossbow in inventory.  But we can't KILL OGRE / WITH CROSSBOW -- we have to FIRE CROSSBOW - At what? - AT OGRE.  If we have attempted to fire the crossbow or the Disruptor previously, an AT [target] command will assume we want to use the same weapon previously employed.  We can also TIE ROPE / TO BOLT, but must do this before we load the bolt into the crossbow.  When this is done, the Other end of rope is handled as a separate inventory item, allowing us to shoot the bolt at a target and retain access to the attached rope.

The Dark Forest is a small but convoluted maze, and at first it seems like an unnecessary excursion.  But once we retrieve the axe from the other cave, we can visit the forest to CHOP one of the non-petrified trees, producing a Log and a Branch, both of which prove to be very important.

How do we get into the other cave?  Well, we can use the crossbow to kill the ogre in the first cave, revealing a hole in the wall.  But that doesn't help with this problem.  It just leads to a boulder in a dead-end passage - we can SHOOT DISRUPTOR / AT BOULDER until the charge runs down, but nothing useful happens.

We can also pick up a conch shell in this cave, where BLOW CONCH causes a cave-in, killing us; it's more useful on the shore of the strange lake, where it summons a Charon-like boatman.  But we can't cross the lake until we can pay the fare.  Even if we have no coins at all in inventory, we can try to GIVE COIN to the strange figure, but He counts the coins, looks dissatisfied and strangles me!!  Clearly we need some cash, and rounding up nine gold coins to pay the ferryman comprises most of this adventure's remaining challenge.

The pair of ogres present an interesting and fairly complex puzzle.  Killing the ogre at the mountain with the crossbow works, but causes death as he falls on us; using the Disruptor just angers him, and he squashes us.  It took me quite a few experiments to figure out that we can use the Disruptor to anger the first cave ogre, causing him to chase us all the way back to the mountain, where his arrival distracts the ogre guarding the second cave.  But the fighting ogres will eventually cause an avalanche, sealing off the cave entrance.  We need to get the axe from the cave, but escape before the avalanche occurs (it's triggered when we explore beyond the cave entrance) so we can visit the Dark Forest and come back with the Log and Branch.

Inside the cave, we find one gold coin near the entrance, where we can also DIG to find a Small bowl.  The cave is very dangerous -- it's advisable to SAVE GAME regularly here, as a number of creatures attack randomly, sometimes immediately.  For example, we can SHOOT DISRUPTOR / AT BAT to dispatch him, but sometimes we don't get the chance to do so before Bat lands on my neck and bites ME! I'm DEAD!

The cave's lower reaches feature a strange red river, where a thirsty Centaur prevents us from crossing. He holds out his hand, and if we GIVE COIN he will wander off, allowing us to GO RIVER.  But this isn't the right approach -- we need that coin, and the centaur handily deflects our weaponry with his shield.  So what we need to do is observe that the Centaur frequently drinks from a nearby well, and use the small bowl to contaminate it with the river's poisonous liquid.  He drinks, dies, and falls into the river, unfortunately taking his handy shield with him.

Now we can GO RIVER... and if we aren't carrying the log, regardless of how many inventory items we are carrying, we discover that I sink like a rock. I'm DEAD!  If we have the log, we float across easily.

There's an advertising sign on the other side of the river, Scott Adams style, promoting Forbidden Planet Part II, which did come out under the title Forbidden City.

A piece of paper nearby finishes the fragment discovered earlier, and gives us an important detail; READ PAPER reveals that It says: ross the lake.  Price for this service is 9 gold coins.  At this point we only have one coin, so further adventuring clearly lies ahead.

We can cross the nearby swamp on foot, as long as we don't stay in the muck too long, but a lurking alligator will now begin following us around, eventually attacking and killing us.  I tried to shoot him, to no avail, and lure him into the poisonous river, also with no success.  Eventually I tried to WRESTLE ALLIGATOR, which works, but only in the swamp; wrestling him elsewhere only angers him, fatally (on our end!)

With the alligator out of the way, we have a slightly better chance of dealing with the next tricky puzzle.  In the Shrine on the other side of the swamp, we find a classical amphora (vase) on a pedestal.  If we try to GET AMPHORA, a spear shoots from across the room, and we're dead once again.  We have to USE BRANCH, which knocks the amphora to the floor, shattering it to reveal some gold coins as the spear ends up embedded in the wall and a poisonous asp also appears.  Often the asp attacks immediately, so it's wise to SAVE GAME before doing this.  We have to USE BRANCH a second time, to catch the deadly snake, and trust to luck that we'll be able to survive for a few moves before Asp slithers up the branch and bites me!   If we even get that far -- sometimes the asp doesn't even wait that long:

Dealing with the asp stumped me for quite a while.  Removing the amulet and working in the dark seemed to inhibit its attack for a few moves, buying some time, but I was still dying on a regular basis.  I tried to use the bowl to pour some of the poisonous river water into the amphora before shattering it, but that didn't work.  I thought perhaps the alligator would take out the snake, but they're both more interested in attacking the player than each other.  I tried to shoot the asp with the Disruptor and the crossbow, multiple times, missing on every attempt.  I tried to THROW STICK, hoping it would take the asp with it, but it always just dropped the asp on the floor or ground, where it promptly attacked.  What I finally worked out was that we can leave the Shrine quickly and THROW ASP / IN SWAMP.  Whew!

There are a couple of annoying bugs at large here -- DROP BOWL is also taken by the parser as DROP BOW, so it drops the Crossbow if we are carrying both items.  I also ran into a situation where the bat consistently attacked me immediately after restoring, so I had to try different random actions after each die-and-restore cycle until I finally lucked out and was able to destroy the winged nuisance.

Back at the cave entrance with 8 gold coins accumulated (checking with COUNT COINS), we're still trapped by the avalanche.  LOOK UP reveals a hole in the ceiling, but it's too high to reach.  We need to use the crossbow and rope to shoot a bolt and line into the hole, allowing us to CLIMB ROPE -- but only once, so we have to take everything with us that we're likely to need later.  Oh, and we'd better SAVE GAME before trying any of this, because we can miss the hole with our one and only rope-tied-to-bolt... at least, that's what happens if we forget to LOOK UP and establish the hole's existence before we try to SHOOT CROSSBOW / AT HOLE.

Having emerged from the cave, we find that one of the ogres is dead, but the winner is still alive and has returned to his post in the other cave.  This time, we need to kill him properly with the crossbow.

Now we can explore the final sections of the game.  With the pickaxe found in the dangerous cave, we can break down the boulder in the dead-end passage and find the last coin.  With 9 coins, we BLOW CONCH on the shore to summon the boatman.  He invites us aboard his raft -- but when I tried to CROSS LAKE, the parser interpreted it as GO LAKE, ignoring the raft and drowning me.  GO CITY to the metropolis visible on the other side of the lake doesn't work either.  But GO RAFT does.

We're almost at the end here.  Once we're on the other side of the lake, at the gates of the Forbidden City, we just have to READ SIGN to get the password for Part II:  COSMIC (which saves us solving a puzzle at the beginning of the second game.)

Victory is ours -- at least, You've escaped ALIVE!

I enjoyed playing Forbidden Planet Part I  -- it's difficulties are legitimate, aside from the irritating random events, and I plan to tackle Part II in a future installment.  A full walkthrough is below the fold, and is also available at the CASA solution archive.

***** WALKTHROUGH *****

Monday, December 27, 2010

The LoadDown - 12/27/2010

Christmas has come and gone, but if you have a little time to kill for the holidays, there are plenty of new options... especially for the PS3, with 18 new games this time around.

WiiWare -- Two new titles and a demo this week.  chick chick BOOM is an attack/defense territory game for one or more players.  Around the World is a geography quiz title.  A free demo version of Max and the Magic Marker provides a preview of this interesting platformer with drawing and physics elements.

Wii Virtual Console -- D4 Enterprise brings a couple more NEO*GEO arcade classics to the Wii Virtual Console, with one-on-one fighter Fighter's History Dynamite and cute puzzler Magical Drop III (previously released on the Data East Arcade Classics compilation disc.)

DSiWare -- Three new games are now available.  G.G. Series Z * ONE is an inexpensive side-scrolling shooter.  DodoGo! Challenge is a puzzle/action game challenging players to save endangered eggs.  Fantasy Slots: Adventure Slots & Games brings one-armed bandits to the DSi.

XBox Live Arcade -- Just one game this round -- A World of Keflings is a sequel to the popular kingdom-building game, A Kingdom for Keflings.

Game Room -- Plenty of activity here this week, with a dozen titles.  Atari releases 2600 games Codebreaker, Desert Falcon (a late isometric scrolling shooter), Football, Realsports Baseball, Star Ship, and Surround, and the venerable console also gets Activision's gag demo Venetian Blinds, which isn't truly a game.  The Intellivision sees INTV's Slam Dunk Basketball and the original Mattel Tennis.  Best of all in my book, we get three Konami coin-op games: Devastators, The Main Event, and Iron Horse.

PS3 on PSN -- A whopping 18 new games this week, including ten SNK Playmore releases of NEO*GEO classics, including Magician Lord, Metal Slug, Art of Kighting, Fatal Fury: King of Fighters, League Bowling, Baseball Stars Professional, Samurai Shodown, ASO II: Last Guardian, Super Sidekicks, and The King of Fighters '94.  PS3 gamers also get Telltale Games' excellent point-and-click adventure Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People.  If that's not enough, there are a bunch more to choose from: Top Darts, Blokus, Buzz! Quiz Player, Eat Them!, Echocrome II, and Risk: Factions

PSOne Classics on PSN -- Life at last!  Square's tactical mission-based mech RPG Front Mission 3 is now available for download.  I somehow also missed that RPGs Arc the Lad II and Arc the Lad: Monster Game with Kanji Game arrived back on November 23rd.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

No, This Is Not an Ad for Christmas Porn

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas 1980 -- Avalon Hill Ventures Into Microcomputer Games

It's Christmas, and a good time to look back at the early years of home computing.  It was a classic gold rush era, businesswise -- many game companies sprang up overnight on somebody's kitchen table, published a few games, noteworthy or otherwise, and disappeared when the industry crashed in the mid-1980s.

But Avalon Hill was an experienced game publisher, producing myriad pencil-paper-and-chit wargames and strategy simulations for the pre-computer hardcore -- those hardy gamers willing to gather together, set up a game and spend hours or even days playing through it, rolling dice and calculating fog-of-war effects and movement allowances by hand.

So it was natural that AH would move into computer gaming as soon as the segment looked commercially viable -- this vintage catalog page announces the company's initial product lineup for Christmas 1980:

Supported platforms this first year out included the TRS-80 Model I, the Apple II, and the Commodore PET, a hardware lineup that would change rapidly in the coming decade.  But the industry's software pace wasn't as madly hit-driven as it is today -- debut title B-1 Bomber remained popular into the mid-1980s, when an IBM PC version debuted.  

Industry terminology was also still evolving -- I will assume for reality's sake that the tapes were, in fact, duplicated from masters, and not actually programmed on a cassette tape cartridge one at a time.  An innovative touch here is that a single package covered all three platforms, with a version for each machine stored on the same cassette.  The only marketing misstep here stems from Avalon Hill's traditional business model, which thrived on replacement parts and supplements -- the game rules are sold separately, so players can try to figure the game out independently, or pay for proper instructions.

Gamers may have felt spoiled and soft back then, with these newfangled computer games taking care of all the messy details and providing AI opponents for gaming any old time.  These kids today, with their tutorial modes and online play -- they only think they're hardcore.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Of Import: Marchen Maze

Namcot released Marchen Maze (aka Maerchen Maze) for the Japanese PC Engine in 1990, as a conversion of parent company Namco's 1988 coin-op arcade game.  Unlike a lot of relatively faithful PCE conversions, the game was altered significantly in the process -- the arcade version featured an isometric 3-D perspective, similar to Marble Madness, while the PCE version uses a simple overhead scrolling view.  The level orders were also rearranged.

Both versions of the game are clearly inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  The Alice saga is an oddly enduring cultural touchstone -- there's nothing else quite like it.  It has (or at least, seems to have) literary ambition and resonance beyond The Wizard of Oz, and absurdist poetry and wordplay surpassing any classic fairy tale.  It has found fans in many eras and cultures, and seeing it filtered through a Japanese arcade sensibility is bizarre yet strangely familiar: 

I'm not sure who the various mini-bosses are meant to represent, but clearly the White Rabbit and a fanciful rendering of the Red Queen as portrayed by Tim Curry are involved.  Past the title screen, we're given a quick version of the story's traditional opening (or so I assume, as the text is in Japanese, a language with which I remain woefully unfamiliar):

Of course, this is a game, and our Alice here is given to more explicitly offensive measures than the impudent questioning tactics she uses in the books.  Here, she is permitted a bubble-blowing attack with several variations -- she can send a stream of tiny, rapid-fire bubbles to beat back the opposition, or charge up a large bubble capable of knocking multiple enemies aside.  She can also acquire various power-ups from the boxes that turn up here and there.

Here, she faces a set of smoke-ring blowing mushrooms; apparently the Caterpillar is inside, or has somehow merged with the fungus.  Note that a recent pickup allows her to be defended by a rapidly-circling ring of White Rabbits:

She also encounters a veritable army of Tweedles, -dum, -dee, and otherwise:

And at the end of level 1, she encounters a marked divergence from the books -- a giant purple witch who spits tiny versions of herself at our heroine:

After defeating this boss, one of the Red Queen's lackeys, Alice proceeds to a technology-driven world filled with conveyor belts and robots -- and, lest we lose sight of the game's inspiration, hopping chess knights:

I haven't gotten to see much more of the game itself, because its arcade-style difficulty is in full effect here.  We're allowed to select any level we have already reached during the current session, but there are no mid-level continues.  After the first level we start running into some fairly aggressive enemies combined with tricky platforming jumps, and just getting to the boss with some lives intact becomes a challenge.  Still, Marchen Maze is a weird and interesting take on Alice in Wonderland, and one even Lewis Carroll's fever dreams did not likely foresee.

Go ask Alice.  She'll know.

This is a fairly common game for the PC Engine, and may be available at a reasonable import price here or here:

Meruhen Maides PC-Engine Hu

Thursday, December 23, 2010

At Random: Low G Man (NES, 1990)

Once again I close my eyes and grope blindly into the stacks, coming up with an 8-bit NES game I have never before played or written about: Taxan's Low G Man (The Low Gravity Man). Taxan USA was the Western sibling of Japanese game publisher Naxat Soft (see what they did there?), both divisions of Kaga Electronics.  For some reason, the box features different logo artwork than the manual and the game itself:

I think the title screen version has more personality:

Low G Man is a side-scrolling action platformer of the type that dominated the 8- and 16-bit console generations; the hyperbolic gimmick here is that our hero can power up and jump higher than the screen, and some bosses are larger than one screen as well, so there's a lot of scrolling in both available 2-D dimensions.

The plotline, as breathlessly described on the back of the box, is fairly dramatic and wholly generic:

Your mission is to take back the robot-producing exploration planet from the evil aliens before they reprogram all of the robots for the destruction of the human race.

(As an IT professional by day, I kind of like this idea -- the aliens aren't going to attack us directly, but exploit our own technology to do us in by out-programming us.  The fiends!)

The gameplay is pretty standard, though the graphics are downsized a bit by NES standards to allow for a more epic scale.  This means that the character and vehicle sprites are detailed but fairly tiny -- they wouldn't have looked out of place, sizewise, on the pre-NES consoles or the Apple II.  The first-level palette choice is rather odd, as the primarily black background gives a misleading impression of the player character design -- he appears to be some kind of policeman, wearing a flat blue cap on his Pitfall Harry-style head.

It's only when we get to Chapter 1-2 that we can see the Low Gravity Man's unruly, punkish mob of black hair -- it even animates when he jumps (take that, Miyamoto-san!):

The game's most interesting mechanic is its complicated attack style -- the player can shoot an enemy to stun it, then jump and stab it from above or below to destroy it before it recovers.  This two-step process requires some finesse, timing and strategy, especially when there are multiple enemies onscreen.  It's also possible, but much riskier, to take enemies out without first freezing them -- they will yield powerups more readily when stabbed "live," but striking without taking damage is tricky.

There are also vehicles that our hero can commandeer, preserving his life bar while the fuel lasts and bringing more powerful weapons to bear.  (A bug/feature I discovered here -- if Low G Man takes fatal damage at the same time he's taking over a vehicle, he can drive around with no life left until the vehicle gives out, at which point he dies instantly.  Too bad this robot-producing world has no drive-thru pharmacies.)  This vehicle reminds me of He-Man's Wind Raider as seen in Mattel's Masters of the Universe game for the Intellivision:

There are also annoying power-downs -- Red Medicine bottles that actually reduce the player's life bar.  I found myself dying unpredictably often before I realized what was going on, and even then it's hard to break the habit of picking up every item that falls from a defeated enemy; there's not much time to recognize the nature of the dropped item before missing it altogether.  Walking into a boss battle with just a fraction of life bar left is not a good idea.

The game has 5 levels, each with two or more subchapters, and the bosses are nicely varied.  But like too many 8-bit platformers, the basic gameplay of Low G Man quickly becomes repetitive.  The challenge ramps up, with closer quarters and trickier jumps, but there isn't much truly new to see.  Worse, the designers' approach to increasing the difficulty often undermines the game's fundamental gimmick -- the player actually gets fewer opportunities to use the high-jump and take enemies out with powered-up weapons, and must instead slow down and maneuver carefully through tight corridors to avoid leaping blindly into the line of fire.

The powerups that can be acquired only apply to the current stage, and while a password system (prominently advertised on the box) allows us to continue next time we feel like playing, there's not a lot of incentive to do so.  Since I'm not terribly good at this game, I used a few passwords found online to sample the later levels and see the ending sequence.  While I didn't find the gameplay compelling, Low G Man does offer a lot of replay value -- the ending indicates that there are second and third quests ahead, and provides hints about how to discover a couple of hidden bonus levels.

Also, there's a final "If you think you're good" teaser for Taxan's upcoming NES game, based on a popular Hasbro action figure line:

Low G Man isn't an awful game, but it's no forgotten classic.  It's another case of an interesting play mechanic that doesn't fulfill its promise -- the idea works well for a couple of levels, but then has nowhere left to go.

This one hasn't surfaced on the Wii Virtual Console at this writing, though Naxat Soft has been an active VC publisher. Original NES cartridges are not hard to find, and can be purchased here:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Elsewhere: Wing Commander IV TV Ad

In 1995, computer game publisher Origin ran an expensive (by industry standards at the time) TV ad campaign to market Chris Roberts' space combat title, Wing Commander IV.  Full-motion video has largely gone by the wayside as a major draw today, but the Wing Commander series was on the cusp of the CD-ROM revolution, and video footage was seen as the wave of the future. A lot of effort (reportedly $12 million worth) went into building sets and filming actors, and improving video capture and compression techniques, while 3-D graphics technology was only beginning to mature.

As a result, the story footage here looks crisp and smooth, while the spaceships still resemble gigantic origami projects.  And like the game itself, this ad features the non-interactive video segments, starring Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell, much more prominently than the gameplay footage. 

Here it is on YouTube, as captured by edgesmash:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Adventure of the Week: King's Quest VI (1993)

It's been a while since I covered one of Roberta Williams' seminal King's Quest 3-D animated adventure games, published by Sierra; after playing through numbers I-V in fairly rapid succession, I was feeling a bit burned out on the world's most polite royals.  But some time has passed, and at last I have gotten around to playing through the series' 1993 entry, King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow.  I thought I had finished this one back when the game first came out, but I completely missed a secondary, more difficult path through the story, so this adventure was well worth revisiting.

The game improves on the CD-ROM multimedia pioneer King's Quest V in a number of areas; the voice acting is tremendously improved, with a skilled professional cast, and Williams' collaborator Jane Jensen brings more elegant descriptive text and dialogue to the familiar universe and puzzle style.  Sierra's SCI VGA engine is still evolving here, as the DOS era transitioned to Windows; the engine still has a detail slider for balancing animation detail against PC speed.  This iteration also supports scaling sprites, mirroring Lucasarts' innovations in that area, and the technology allows for larger sprites and more cinematic screen layouts.  Most of the artwork is still limited to standard VGA 320 x 200 resolution with 256 colors, though the Windows interpreter supported higher-resolution dialogue portraits.  I played the DOS version, running it under DOSBox.

Sierra continues to push the technical envelope here, though not always successfully, with a clumsy animated CGI opening sequence that is woefully stiff and mannequin-esque, with minimal character animation and camerawork that necessarily takes great pains to avoid depicting facial expressions:

In short, Prince Alexander is feeling down in the dumps, and his mother Queen Valanice asks why.  He then sets off on a quest to find Princess Cassima, inspired by their brief meeting in King's Quest V.  Alexander says that he is "tormented by thoughts of her"; normally, this is a recipe for stalking and tragedy, rather than romance, but love at first sight is a fairy tale tradition, so we will accept it at face value here.  At sea, the animation shows its age again, with visibly low-res textures on the ocean waves in the foreground.  Alexander is inexperienced as a seafaring captain (though he does have his own telescope), which apparently proves fatal to most of those in his princely employ; the crew cries "Land ho!" just before the ship runs aground and is dashed against the rocks.  The royal doofus is safe, however, with nary a scratch on his garish green-and-yellow outfit, and so our story can get underway.

There are two pathways through King's Quest VI -- an "easy" path, and a "hard" path, but both are fairly convoluted and detailed.  As usual, I will be covering the entire story to the best of my ability in the following discussion, so readers who wish to explore the Green Isles for themselves are advised to step away and do so before continuing below.  This is a substantial game, and as the details will be similarly lengthy, I've put them below the fold.  Before clicking to read the rest, remember that there are certain to be lengthy...

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