Friday, March 30, 2012

East vs. West: Neutopia (1989)

It was 1989, the 8-bit NES was still leading the market, and NEC knew they needed something to compete with Nintendo's major franchises.  Keith Courage was no Super Mario, but Hudson Soft managed a creditable Legend of Zelda clone with Neutopia.  I played the US version from beginning to end at the time of its release, and enjoyed it immensely for what it was.  Now I'm finally getting around to sampling the PC Engine version (and adding Volume 23 in Hudson Soft's numbered HuCard series to my collection.)

The title screen of the Japanese version is completely in English:

The North American version differs only in the year of release (1990), the customary added "FROM NEC" legend, and minor layout details:

The gameplay is so clearly and completely lifted from Zelda that there's not much for me to write about here.  There's more RPG-style human interaction, with lots of characters hidden behind bombable murals and down hidden staircases; most offer hints (in Japanese text), and some sell potions or offer free healing services.  Neutopia's color palette is rich and subtle compared to its NES forebears, bringing its world to life with rounded, shaded imagery and animated water effects, without skimping on the color.  It really does feel like a 16-bit upgrade of its inspiration, although the overworld musical theme is not nearly as stirring as Link's enduring march.

Beyond the look of the game, this is wannabe-Link territory all the way through.  Our hero was known in the US as Jazeta, and the primary villain as Dirth, and in both regions the game begins with a short cutscene as the villain makes off with a princess/priestess/heroine of some sort:

Some of the enemies are clearly, shall we say, "inspired by" Nintendo's series:

And our hero joyfully lifts bombs, potions, and the Holy Bible the Book of Revival over his head when he finds them in treasure chests, just like that other fellow:

Eventually we pick up a fireball weapon that's slower but more controllable than Link's boomerang, and we can use bombs to blow holes in certain walls to meet new people and find secret (bonus and/or required) dungeon passages. And of course there are 8 dungeons to explore and conquer, with the expected aid of compass and automap -- this interface will look very familiar to Zelda fans:

 The dungeons feature simple combat, with plenty of flicker-free enemies roaming about, as well as puzzle rooms where we must push blocks or kill all the monsters to escape or gain access to a treasure chest.  There are gold and silver coins, and various powerups and new abilities to acquire, like improved armor and a fireball-throwing sceptre.  There's a boss to fight in each dungeon, and if our hero dies, he is soon resurrected back at the beginning of the map to fight his battles anew.  

If he defeats a boss and collects a medallion, he returns to the same location, with one of the empty slots on the temple floor filled in to track his progress, and the adventure continues.

That's Neutopia.  It's not a bad game at all -- the production values are solid, it controls well, and I thoroughly enjoyed playing it back in the day.  Of course, at that time, The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link were the only existing titles in Nintendo's now long-running series.  A few decades later, Neutopia's derivative nature, and the continued popularity and advancement of the original franchise, means this game doesn't hold up as well as the more original titles in the PC Engine library.  But it sold well -- a sequel, Neutopia II, was released in both Japan and North America -- and while it's just a classical old-school action RPG, there's nothing wrong with that.

If you wish to explore every incarnation of the land of Hyrule, even the unofficial ones, you could do much worse than Neutopia.  This game isn't particularly hard to find -- it was popular on the TurboGrafx-16, and is also available on the Wii Virtual Console (Nintendo circa 2007 apparently coughing politely and looking the other way.)  The American version can be readily found at Amazon:

If you prefer -- remembering that this is a HuCard, so you'll need original PCE hardware to play it -- you may be able to find the Japanese edition for sale here.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The LoadDown -- 03/29/2012

Time Marches out, with one last round of downloadable news for this month -- a relatively quiet week.

WiiWare -- Getting a bit quiet on this platform; the only new item this week is a free demo version of 2 Fast 4 Gnomz, a speedy cartoon platformer released about a month ago.

DSiWare -- And as if to emphasize that the 3DS (now officially one year old in the U.S.) is where the contemporary action is, the latest DSiWare game is 90's Pool.  It's a billiards game.

3DS eShop --  One new title this week: ARC STYLE: Soccer 3D, which borrows the Sensible Soccer aesthetic to some degree (at least in the overhead view) but doesn't play nearly as neatly; some may find it a cost-effective alternative to Konami's 3DS soccer cartridge.  There's also a demo version of the retro-styled and well-received platformer, Mutant Mudds.

XBox Live Arcade -- Wrecked Revenge Revisited is the only debut title this week, latest in a long line of car-combat games inspired by Twisted Metal; this one features fairly realistic-looking stock cars, augmented by cartoonish weaponry.

PS3 on PSN -- Just one new game here also.  Closure is an indie platformer with a light-based mechanic -- only platforms that are lit can be touched safely by the player, so manipulation of the lighting is key to success.

PSOne Classics -- Going twice...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Legacy (1984)

I've only recently started to look at the Apple Macintosh platform, thanks to a reader's encouragement.  Eventually the Mac and PC software scenes converged, but when the Mac was the only consumer point-and-click system on the market, it hosted some unique adventure games.  This week, I'm taking a look at Challenger Software's 1984 adventure, Legacy.  It was a team project -- games were getting more complicated now that more sophisticated graphics were possible, and the artists corral the Mac's monochrome pixels into some highly detailed artwork.  Rather than trying to list all the authors, I'll just show you the credits popup:


The manual informs us that we are a young magician seeking to recover a mystical orb, in the standard adventure game tradition.  The game's authors were reportedly high school students, and while the text occasionally sounds derivative, it's still evocative, and location names are fresh and poetic; it's nice to wander through Scattering Leaves and Burning Hickory rather than endless rooms of Forest.  The puzzles are straightforward, as long as we have the spellbook containing a few key details, but there are a few red herrings so fleshed out that they're quite capable of leading the player down the wrong path for a while.

Technically the game has a few shortcomings, chiefly that the illustrations are apparently uncompressed, and while the map is fairly compact the game takes up two disks, requiring frequent swapping for the east and west sides of the map.  This wouldn't be so bad, except that each disk stores an independent save file, so if we want to return to a save from the other side of the map, we have to find our way there before we can resume.  The parser is fairly sophisticated but occasionally interrupts the story's flow, and there are a few holes in the logic where the designers didn't anticipate the player's actions.

Once again I suggest that interested readers explore the world of Legacy before continuing below; I will be divulging everything I discovered about this adventure, and as I found no published walkthroughs online, mine will be provided at the bottom.  So take heed, brave adventurer -- there will be...

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

We begin in the forest, where scattering leaves blow about and there's nothing obvious to do.  Heading to the west and crossing the rickety, one-way bridge over the Misty River calls for Disk Two, so perhaps we shouldn't go there just yet.  Still, there's not much to do where we are, in the woods -- we see some very nice graphics and lush descriptions, but it's a bit... touristy.  There are no immediate signs of humor or danger.

So we cross the Misty River, transitioning to Disk Two, and examine a log lying across the path.  A large tree at the end of a path looks to be the only interesting thing we've encountered so far -- EXAMINE TREE reveals a rope ladder hanging down its opposite side.  We can climb up to a wooden platform, and easily OPEN the ironbound oaken DOOR.  And now we can't ENTER DOOR or GO DOOR or navigate in?  Ah, we must simply ENTER.  (ENTER is treated as a direction more than an action on something, at least in this situation; when we're near the cave, a simple ENTER yields You must supply a noun.)

Inside the treehouse we find some potentially useful items -- an old book, a lamp, a splintered broom, some old garments, a large dusty trunk and a bed.  Trying to take some of the useless old stuff reveals something about our character -- Certainly a magician of your prominence doesn't need to be carrying around... whatever non-portable item we were trying to pick up.  We do find a coin in some old overalls, though I never found a use for it; I think it's an intentional red herring.

There's no SAVE or SAVE GAME command -- we have to use the Mac's File menu per Apple's GUI standards.  This makes sense, but it's annoying that the same goes for INVENTORY, with an Inventory menu that lists the items in our possession even though clicking on them does nothing; some of these point-and-click experiments justifiably did not survive.  The parser also appears to give a few details away -- attempting to SWEEP DUST with the broom yields You can't sweep the diamond dust with your bare hands!, and READ BOOK produces You must specify which book you mean, even though there's only one present at the moment.  But the confusion is understandable -- we already have a spellbook in our inventory, and a container filled with diamond dust if we examine it closely.  OPEN THE OLD BOOK yields You can't open that, but READ THE OLD BOOK works, even though it's written in a language we don't understand.  We can't read our spellbook in-game, but must reference the documentation, where detailed backstories and casting instructions fill out the game world's mythology a bit (and provide yet more red herrings, in the form of promising spells that are not actually implemented in the game.)

We can't GET LAMP in the treehouse.  We can EXTINGUISH THE LAMP, though that doesn't seem like a good idea as we have no way to relight it.  We can still EXIT, fumbling our way out, but if we go back into the dark treehouse, we somehow regain vision momentarily, enough so that again You see some old garments and an old book here.  This kind of gives away which items are important and which are just window dressing.

I managed to crash the game (or at least the Mini VMac emulator) by taking the old book in the darkness where I knew it was even though I couldn't see it, so I started over and stayed on Disk 1 for a while.  A cave to the south is the origin of the Misty River, and the parser informs us that it cannot be entered except by following the river; this led me down the wrong path for quite a while later on.

A battle axe is embedded in the bark of a tree, so ingrown that we can't retrieve it.  Maybe we can use our spellbook here -- it looks like the Mandukaal spell will do the trick, reverting the tree to the acorn stage.  The spells are fairly complicated, which is kind of nice as it makes the physical spellbook seem like more than copy protection.  We have to make a triangle around the base of the tree using fine white powder made from crystallized sap, then place three silver acorns at the vertices of the triangle.  And then say "Entragon."  Hmmm.

Back on the west side of the river -- the bridge disintegrates as we cross -- an ominous gray cottage is also decaying.  It contains a crushed barrel and a charred shovel, both burned beyond use, and oddly there is a fire in its fireplace. We can't put it out, so it must be magical in nature.

So what next?  Well, the map at this point is pretty constrained, so let's go through our inventory.  We have an ivory vial containing -- ah, crystallized tree sap powder.  Good.  So we just need to find some acorns.  We also have a pouch containing some fish scales, a glass bottle with ointment, and a sack containing diamond dust.  Most of these seem to be ingredients for our spells, so it looks like we will probably have to gather others in the right order and end up casting all of them to finish this adventure, though that's not really true.

At the top of some stairs, we see that there are apparently good trees and evil trees in this land, and they line up right along the border of Frimlock Forest and Sechryll Forest.  Nature vs. nurture?  There's a grassy clearing to the east, but there's no DIG verb so I'm not sure what we are going to do here.  Sitting on a log briefly notes that the roar of the wind in the trees is strangely reminiscent of the crashing waves of the ocean.  Is that significant or just descriptive?

Looking at our collection of spells, we have Lacrhymith, for levitating large inorganic objects, and Zuryll, which changes non-living objects to dust.  Flameir makes the caster invulnerable to flame and heat.  Most of these -- all of them, actually -- require some ingredients we don't have, but we can still examine the possibilities.  Flameir requires an ointment -- is it the one in the glass bottle?  We can't OPEN THE BOTTLE to check -- You can't open that -- nor can we USE OINTMENT or SPREAD OINTMENT.  The spellbook says we have to put it on our hands, feet and forehead, in that order, but how?  We can try to PUT OINTMENT ON HANDS and PUT HANDS IN OINTMENT -- both yield You can't do that with your hands.  Oh, well -- we also need a lump of fireclay, which has spent thirteen days in a Minathian lamp, and that's nowhere in sight.

Except -- is that a Minathian lamp in the treehouse?  I don't know yet, but going back there and trying to TAKE THE TRUNK moves it, revealing a hole with a gold coin stamped with the name Crun Drasmoor.  We can't TAKE COIN, we have to TAKE CRUN DRASMOOR.  When we try to climb down, we discover that the rope ladder has been moved, but we can CLIMB VINES to descend the tree.  If we examine the tree afterward, we can see that the ladder is no longer hanging from the platform above.  But we can still CLIMB LADDER to return to the treehouse, or even just go UP, even though an attempt to CLIMB TREE indicates there are no branches low enough to climb.

Hmmmm... now we are seeing a slender, surefooted figure creeping about near the rotting log.  We can't examine or talk to it, though.  Taking the broom to the ominous cottage is more productive -- we can SWEEP FLOOR WITH BROOM to discover a trap door.  Entering the cellar, someone slams the trap door closed, and we are, as one might expect, trapped.  There's a well down here, and a lantern hanging nearby that is not mentioned in the description.  Trying to TAKE THE LANTERN is a bad idea, it falls and goes out, leaving us in darkness again.  We can't ENTER THE WELL -- it only lets us stand next to it and note that its waters aren't reflecting anything.  Restoring a save so we have light again, we can EXAMINE THE REFLECTION and see an image of the decrepit cabin's past: a man with a telescope and a fire; then we see a horrible fire break out.  A molten monster leaps out of the well -- and terrified, we run up the stairs, through the trap door cartoon-style -- all on autopilot -- and find ourselves in a different cottage than before.  Well, it's the same cottage, but as it was before the fire.  And here we find an intact barrel, a strong shovel, a box, and the man and his telescope.  The box contains two large sea shells, needed for the water-crossing spell Zythrimnos.  But before we can act, the molten monster shows up:

And now the Mac is beeping and Time is running out as the man is killed by the fire creature and the cabin begins to collapse.  We only have time to take three objects, as going for a fourth is fatal.  The telescope turns out to be broken, having been dropped, so we should take the box, shovel and intact barrel, probably.  What's in the barrel?  We can't seem to OPEN or BREAK it.
When we EXIT to escape the nightmare from the past, we find ourselves in the cellar again.  Can we escape this location via the well?  No, it's gone black; but we can just go UP again to enter the present-day decaying cabin.  If we go back D, we're told that someone slams the trap door again, but we need only go U again, we're not actually stuck.  The designers apparently never anticipated unnecessary return trips.  EXIT in the cottage of the past goes to the cellar, while EXIT in the present day goes back outside.

It's not clear why we need the shovel, as the parser does not understand the DIG or USE SHOVEL.  All we have gained, it seems, is the ability to cross the river after the bridge was broken when we came over earlier.  Following the spellbook's instructions, we OPEN BOX, THROW SCALES ON WATER (THROW SCALES is not acknowledged by the parser in any way), HOLD SHELL, and SAY ELYSORR.  Now we can just go E (and insert Disk 1 again).  We still have some fish scales in inventory, but we're down to one white shell, so I hope we don't need to do this too often.

So now what?  Are we any closer to casting another spell?  SWIMming in the river is fatal.  We can try the tree spell -- we can successfully MAKE TRIANGLE WITH POWDER... but can't ENTER TRIANGLE yet because the game recognizes that our preparation is not complete.  We still need acorns from a Black Nemesis tree, and a thorough examination of all the trees we can get to doesn't help us with that.

Can we translate the old book?  Do something with Crun Drasmoor?  Figure out why we hear the ocean when we sit on the log? Or open the barrel?  We can't DROP BARREL or THROW BARREL from the tree (THROW is treated as DROP.)  Seems like we might be able to SHOVEL (something) -- it works as a verb and needs a noun?  No, the parser is just saying that I'm trying to use a noun as a verb (Illegal noun usage.) 

The manual mentions that we should look for clues in the illustrations.  There are definitely items that the text does not mention, but sometimes it's hard to tell what an illustration is illustrating.  We can't CLIMB THE HILL by the cave; we slip, fall into the river and drown.

Okay.  It seems like the fire protection spell and the fireplace ought to work together somehow.  But there's no fireclay in the game?  Or -- time to cheat by poking at the parser -- recognition of the associated magic word HENKEL?  Nor MANAT, nor ALSOV -- it seems most of the spells in the book are red herrings, where we have one of the ingredients as the game begins but the second is not actually available (perhaps due to overambitious design?)  The tree-to-acorn spell Mandukaal is workable, and has an obvious application.  So we need to find the silver acorns, that's the only other spell that's truly available.

I had to cheat by peeking at the unencrypted game text to learn that the acorns appear to be hidden in a cavern somewhere.  Some other material suggests that the intact barrel is not actually sealed, it just isn't crushed -- we can get into it.  Maybe we can use the barrel to travel in the river -- holding it and jumping in isn't sufficient, but can we GET IN THE BARREL?  No.  CLIMB BARREL?  No.  ENTER THE BARREL works.

Entering on the west side of the river sends us rapidly around a bend, where the barrel capsizes and we drown.  This seems to happen no matter where we launch the barrel.  Do we need to hang on somehow?  Can we use the shovel as an oar?  Not that I can see.  This probably won't work anyway, as the river is flowing OUT of the cave, not into it.  Time to look at other ideas.

The unidentified thing in the Large Grassy Clearing that I took to be a haystack or a grave or a small garden-sized patch of dirt is actually... a rock.  We can PRY ROCK WITH SHOVEL to reveal a hole (although the graphics actually cause the hole to appear to the right of the unmoving rock, creating the impression we have been digging the hole instead.)  We need a rope ladder to climb down, dang it, and it's already been stolen, double dang it.

This is a puzzle of its own -- we can't TAKE LADDER from the treehouse platform, as it is securely tied to two pegs on the platform.  If we UNTIE LADDER, it drops to the ground and the thief makes off with it -- he must be the mysterious figure we can't otherwise interact with.  We have to PULL THE LADDER UP to keep it.

Now we can enter the hole below the rock and find the Room of the Black Nemesis, to collect the acorns we need for the axe-freeing spell.  We just SHAKE THE TREE to free up the three shimmering silver acorns we need.

North of the Black Nemesis we find the traditional Stygian Boatman (here called a Boatsman), who wants Crun Drasmoor and will transport us to the Sechryll Forest if we give it to him.  We can also just climb back up the rope ladder, but we should see where the apparition takes us... he refers to us by name, Dagon Bathraal, in case we haven't read the manual.  On our way back to Disk 1 territory, we see two large looming claws threatening the fragile boat... and then it destroys it.  Is this another red herring or do we need to deal with the creature somehow?

Let's just take the acorns and run for now.  We can MAKE TRIANGLE WITH POWDER, PUT ACORNS ON TRIANGLE, ENTER TRIANGLE, and SAY ENTRAGON to reduce the tree to an acorn.  Now we can obtain the massive battle axe.  Can we CHOP TREES to clear the way?  No, despite the many directions which are blocked by growth, we are told that, Being good, you can't kill the trees.

So now what?  It seems that we still have some fish scales left -- I thought the first use consumed them, but we do have more scales and a shell left over so we can use the water-walking spell one more time to go back across.  Maybe now we can use the axe somewhere. Yes, we can CHOP CLAWS WITH AXE to get safely to Sechryll Forest with the Boatsman.

We are now approaching The Drab Castle -- Roberta Williams would never stand for such lame coloration! -- and destiny urges us forward, making our next few moves a one-way trip to the castle gates.  We can open them and enter to find the Room of the Orb, presumed object of our quest.  It lies on a red velvet pillow.  (The prose is particulary purple here, with graceful yet surly lines carved into the patterns on the walls as the young authors struggle to create a sense of beauty and foreboding all at the same time.)

What now?  It won't be as simple as taking the orb... oh, wait actually, we can just TAKE THE ORB, but if we try to EXIT we are prevented from doing so, as our quest is somehow incomplete: To turn back now would be a foolish decision that you would regret for the rest of your days.  We must EXAMINE ORB to see a vision of a black magician -- and a white one -- two versions of the Wizard Arkimar.  He looks very much like Gandalf -- we've briefly seen him before, muttering in despair whenever we die.

The finale presents a moral conundrum -- we are told that an evil being's soul is trapped in the orb; if we give it to the white Arkimar, he will destroy it; the black Arkimar will not, and suggests that this is the greater good.  I'm not one for moral absolutism, but I follow the lessons of Star Wars and give it to the white Arkimar.  This proves to be a bad choice... but so is giving it to the black Arkimar, apparently.

If we opt not to make a decision and just KEEP THE ORB, the two figures coalesce into one and congratulate us for our moral fortitude, though it feels more like good old-fashioned indecisiveness.  And now we do actually give it to Arkimar to claim the reward of apprenticeship under his magical hands.  As it turns out, there wasn't much at stake here, really -- just a test of our hero's resourcefulness.  But the game is over, ending at last in victory!

Legacy never saw a sequel, and its young authors apparently went on to other pursuits.  But it's not a bad little adventure, and some of the illustrations are very attractive.  My solution is available at the CASA Solution Archive, and is also available below the fold.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cover to Cover: Infocom 1987 Catalog (pp. 13-14)

Our cover-to-cover pagethrough of Infocom's 1987 product catalog continues, with a couple of trilogy box sets.  These preceded the Lost Treasures collections, and still featured the original packaging with the classic Infocom "feelies" included.

Page 13 begins the series, with the always popular ZORK trilogy:

ZORK will always be the granddaddy of the genre, with a sophisticated parser that made it more playable than the original Crowther/Woods Adventure, while still focused on classically challenging puzzles, sword-and-monster themes, and rich prose.

Page 14 continues the theme with the Enchanter Trilogy:

I've recently been inspired to start replaying these games -- I had almost forgotten they were a ZORK spinoff, set in the same universe and written by original Infocom Implementors Marc Blank and Dave Lebling.  I'm working on Enchanter at the moment -- it feels very Zorkian, but with better storytelling and more interesting magic-based puzzles -- so keep an eye out for that one to show up as an Adventure of the Week sometime soon.

Next time, the box sets continue...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Saturday Giveaway! Magicka

UPDATE:  We have a winner!  DrPixel is the happy new Magicka player,and his favorite game more than ten years old "is EASILY Half-Life, the original! I've actually been playing it a lot lately and still love it to this day, what a great FPS."  (This is definitely a worthy choice IMO -- Valve's classic game pioneered integrated storytelling in first-person, proving that designers don't have to take control away from the player to tell a compelling story.)  Congratulations, DrPixel!


Okay, last time was fun, so I've got another game to give away via Steam!  (This one's only for the PC, unfortunately; apologies to my Mac-based and console-exclusive readers, as well as anyone still gaming primarily on the Commodore 64, Atari ST, TRS-80 Model I/III, Sinclair Spectrum, PC Engine, et cetera... I recognize that my audience is simultaneously niche-y and all over the technology map, so you'll just have to bear with me.)

Anyway, this time I have a copy of Magicka, Paradox Interactive's multiplayer wizard-based action game.  It has a sense of humor, which works more often than not, and while the action tends to be a bit linear, playing through a few levels with friends and learning the game's extensive spell system is not a bad way to spend some online gaming time.

The game will be delivered via Steam; there is no cost to use the service, but if you have any objections to installing the Steam client and potentially becoming addicted to a rich new vein of games, or you live in a region where Steam is unavailable, this is not the giveaway for you.  This is not a promotion, and it is not sponsored or endorsed by Steam or Paradox Interactive; I'm just using the little bit of ad revenue this blog generates to fund a treat for a lucky reader once in a while.

The first person (who has not already won this year) to see this post, consult the About Me page, find my contact information, and send me an email with the subject "SATURDAY GIVEAWAY" and the content described below gets the game.

* Tell me the name of your favorite video game that's more than ten years old
* Tell me how you want your name announced on the blog, so I can respect your privacy appropriately (nicknames and handles are A-OK)
* Send your email from the address you want the game sent to via Steam

Those are the rules, as simple as I can make 'em.   Good luck!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Of Import: Browning (1991)

The PC Engine's Super CD-ROM format allowed games to become bigger and better -- at least in theory.  Sometimes the extra memory enabled fancier intros and cutscenes, but the gameplay remained standard, or even substandard.  Nihon Telenet's 1991 mech shooter Browning, developed by RIOT, is one of those games.

Despite the title, Browning is slightly more exciting than watching an apple change colors in the open air.  The title actually stands for BROWN INnovatory Gunner, as explained in the intro text (or at least, this is what I assume as some familiar characters beckon to my Japanese-impaired eyes):

The intro display seems to be the only Japanese language material in the game -- all other onscreen text, and even all of the voiceover acting, is in English.  The game opens with an introductory section, showing the titular mech flying through the air, while aging pilot Breed Schuyler's female sidekick Chikako Maxima zooms along below on her motorcycle:

Now, if Browning were an American television series, viewers would be subjected to a great deal of rumor and innuendo about whether the lead characters were or would eventually become involved in a romantic relationship, despite their apparent age difference.  (I mean, they are named Breed and Maxima, after all.)  Browning's intro makes such speculation completely unnecessary:

Oh my God!  His nipples!  What have you done with his nipples?

So that's the setup -- post-coital bliss is disrupted by the news that something is evil in the world, and one man in a giant robot suit must sally forth to destroy it (while Chikako, unseen after this point, apparently stays home and repairs her motorcycle.)  As the action kicks into gear, Browning starts to lose its appeal.

The graphics are quite nice, with layers of background parallax scrolling not often seen on the PC Engine; even more impressive, when our hero jumps into the air, the ground layers closest to the "camera" separate and spread vertically the way they ought to.  The music is decent CD-Audio game rock circa the early 90's -- the biggest problem is that the mech's suitably heavy, thunking, metallic step sound effects are played so loudly they obscure the otherwise pleasant background tracks, and the introductory voiceover is uninformative: "You're on time, Browning.  Start the mission!"  Thanks, HQ! I forgot my watch and was actually planning to have a snack first!

The game looks and sounds fine, but the controls are absolutely awful -- even with only one D-pad and two buttons to contend with, I had to dig into the manual to find out how to do some very basic things.  Yes, it's a mech -- it shouldn't be too light on its feet, but the approach squeezes all the fun out of the action.

Here is how the controls work:  The D-pad moves the character right and left, or allows him to crouch.  To shoot, we press the I button, and to jump, the II button.  This is fairly satisfactory until we realize that some enemies sneak up from behind, and others approach in the air.  To face left or right, we have to tap left or right D-pad twice in rapid succession.  And to turn on Browning's short-lived hovering jets, we have to hit the jump button twice; the D-pad's up capability never comes into play.  We now discover that the hover jets are woefully underpowered, and do not actually lift the heavy robot into the air; to get him up and keep him aloft requires Joust-style pounding on the button, trying in vain to get enough altitude to hit the other button and get off a clear shot.  We also discover to our growing dismay that we cannot turn the mech around in mid-air... if we need to fire behind us with the hover jets on, we have to land, turn around, and then take off again -- at which point we will probably learn that the jets overheat very quickly and will not be useable again any time soon.

There are only 4 missions, if the manual is to be believed, and Mission 1 is short indeed - it can be finished in under 2 minutes, including a perfunctory boss battle.  To keep gamers from feeling ripped off, the designers have been kind enough to turn up the difficulty using the laziest means possible -- on Mission 2, everything suddenly does double the damage, and aerial enemies have a nasty habit of crashing into Browning as they die.  It's also annoying that, given the capacity of the CD-ROM medium and the load time between levels, the main enemies here are recolored versions of the Mission 1 foes:

I was unable to get very far into Mission 2, and wasn't really motivated to work out a cheat code for infinite lives to see the rest of the game.  If this game were better known, I bet we could sell novelty t-shirts reading, "I'd rather be almost anything-ing than Browning."

Yes, this blog does derive some ad revenue from these links. But I would be remiss if I pretended that everything I have been suckered into importing is something you should buy too. This is yet another one I can't honestly recommend, but if you have a thing for incredibly clunky May-December mech action, you might be able to pick up a copy here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The LoadDown -- 03/22/2012

It's been unseasonably warm and sunny in my part of the world, but that doesn't mean I can't still stay inside and play new downloadable games.  Here's what's up on the wire...

WiiWare -- A continuing series gets a new installment, with Carmen Sandiego Adventures in Math: The Island of Diamonds, as players continue to try to hunt down the international criminal by doing math problems.  Geography always seemed a little more directly applicable to this series, but these new games must be selling well enough to keep the series going.

Wii Virtual Console -- Back to its usual quiet state here.

DSiWare -- One new title for the DSi and 3DS: 1st Class Poker & Blackjack, with solo and local multiplayer support.

3DS eShop --  One new 3DS title: Zombie Slayer Diox.  I know, the whole zombie thing is starting to wear out its welcome.  But one ought to at least take a look at a rhythm-action videogame hero whom Nintendo's press release describes as "a samurai guitarist living in a future time when zombies have taken over most of the world."

XBox Live Arcade -- Two intriguing titles arrive this week.  Rayman 3 HD is a high-definition remake of Rayman 3; with Rayman Origins out on disc, it's nice to see the armless animated hero making a comeback.  Grasshopper Manufacture's Sine Mora is a 2.5-D bullet-hell shooter with a sharp-looking diesel punk art style.

PS3 on PSN -- Rayman 3 HD also shows up here; the PS3 has been a great platform for HD remakes of worthwhile older games.

PSOne Classics -- Quiet... so quiet...

Notable on Steam -- Spanish developer Pendulo Studios (the Runaway series) has a new adventure game out called Yesterday.  Also, the 2005 PC remake of Ys III: Wanderer from Ys, confusingly retitled Ys: The Oath in Felghana, finally arrives on Steam.  I'm fond of the Ys series and may have to try this one out at some point.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Seastalker (1984)

This week, we're diving (get it?) back into the classic Infocom line of interactive fiction, with Seastalker, originally marketed as a Junior-level game aimed at younger players.  Written by Stu Galley (The Witness) and established children's author Jim Lawrence, the story casts the player as a young inventor who has managed to put together an undersea lab, an observation dome, and a number of impressive technologies for moving about and living in this environment.  We're playing Revision 16, using the modern-day Windows Frotz interpreter; the various flavors of Frotz have done much to keep the Infocom flame burning on many platforms never dreamed of when these games were originally published.


I remember being seriously intrigued by Seastalker back in the day, because it was the first Infocom game made available for the humble, 32-characters-per-line TRS-80 Color Computer.  It was distributed only by mail order through Radio Shack's educational software division, and I was sorely tempted to buy it -- but then Infocom released some of their major titles for the CoCo, and I lost myself in ZORK I, Planetfall and The Witness instead.  So I'm just getting around to playing it now.

Interested readers are always encouraged to spend some time with this week's Adventure before proceeding with my commentary below.  Seastalker is meant to be introductory, so don't expect a major challenge, but Infocom's stirring prose and sophisticated parser are almost always worth a visit, even if the puzzles are simpler than the norm.  It's more fun to discover some of these things by oneself, but in the interest of history, I will be documenting the entirety of the game as I experienced it. That's right, there are multitudinous...

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

The game begins with a traditional attempt at personalization, by soliciting the player's first and last name, but it starts to get a little gimmicky.  I signed in as Gaming Afterforty -- we are interrupted by a shout of, "Gaming, snap out of it!" by one Tip Randall, and our facility is referred to as the "Afterforty Research Lab," which sounds incredibly boring.  For those of us who are not new to interactive fiction, the game notes that our lab is based near the town of Frobton, in reference to traditional Infocom Frobozz-speak.

The game does a fine job of introducing the concept of interactive fiction to new players -- the initial "puzzle" involves answering a videophone call and making use of the device, with a need to TUNE VIDEOPHONE and TURN ON THE MICROPHONE along the way, with generous hints from the game and sidekick Tip Randall (who seems to take his first name very seriously.)  We learn from Commander Bly that our underwater facility called the Aquadome is under attack by some sort of huge monster.  I should note that Commander Bly is female, which seems like a very progressive touch in a game published in 1984... until she shouts, "Gaming! Gaming! Our transparent dome enclosing the Undersea Research Station is being battered by a huge monster!"  Portrayals of women in power still needed some development, or at least better dialogue.

Tip Randall, who sounds like the chiseled-chin man-of-action type, is found upon closer inspection to be holding a magazine and a Universal Tool, both of which he will give up for the asking.  The magazine cover features fanciful sea life, and an article inside (after we OPEN MAGAZINE) tells us that one Dr. Jerome Thrope claims to have created artificial life that has since evolved.  His creatures' chemistry is reportedly based on the Amino-Hydrophase (AH) molecule, a nice bit of science fiction that seems like it might make for some plausible and educational puzzles later on, but does not.

The game is consistently friendly and helpful, hinting to the player that he or she may want to reference specific hint-loaded Infocards in the Seastalker package, and also making suggestions as the game goes along. There are 100 points to earn, and they are often doled out one at a time for minor successes, a nice way to reward the player's incremental progress.

Even though this game's dialogue is often lacking, the Infocom parser remains good at certain types of conversation -- BLY, TELL ME ABOUT THE MONSTER yields a little information.  The lab's divers have nicknamed it the Snark (Lewis Carroll, anyone?) and Bly isn't sure how long the facility will hold out.  It's beginning to look like dealing with this creature may be our major objective.

Thinking we should get on our way, I HANG UP the videophone -- and immediately lose three points?  I thought that I had been overeager, but closer inspection reveals that the videophone has conked out and I can't turn it on again; this interruption is by design, and happens even if we don't hang up.  Tip suggests I use the Computestor; I find it in the north part of the facility, and all we have to do is turn it on and ask it about the videophone to learn of... 6 different possible issues.  Suggestion #2, "A short in the undersea coaxial cable linking transmitter to the Afterforty Research Lab, if signal is coming from Aquadome" seems most promising, but we'll have to do some further investigation.

There are some mechanical, electronic and chemical supplies in other parts of the lab, but we can't search for anything interesting.  Outside the lab is a corridor leading to assistant Sharon Kemp's office, and a large circuit breaker panel on the north wall.  Closer examination establishes that one circuit is open -- it provides power to the videophone and its network, so that's probably the problem.  We just have to CLOSE BREAKER to get 3 points back, as Tip says, "How did that happen? You didn't overload the circuit."  Was this sabotage?

We can enter a storage closet to the south, where Tip's constant assistance becomes a little overbearing and/or creepy -- we are told There's so much junk in here that there's barely enough room for you., yet still Tip follows you into the storage closet.  He's a submarine technician, so maybe he's just most comfortable in close quarters, but still!

Kemp's office contains a file drawer filled with a lot of business papers.  So far the miscellaneous supplies and junk have not been searchable to any productive effect, and these papers are no different.  While there's an office door, we can't exit -- There's nothing outside to help your mission!

Now the videophone is functioning again, but it displays a test pattern and an attempt to CALL THE AQUADOME yields only There's no answer.  The crew must be busy with the Snark. To the south of the main lab is a test tank, where our advanced submarine the SCIMITAR reportedly awaits our command.  We can enter the sub -- Tip takes up a position at the instruments, and there's a sonarphone onboard.  Before we take off, though, we should explore the walkway surrounding the tank -- there's a catalyst capsule here.  As an antipiracy measure (or perhaps a research teaching tool) we can't EXAMINE many of the important items and characters in-game -- we are often told, "(You'll find that information in your SEASTALKER package)" instead.

At this point, I accidentally crashed WinFrotz by misusing the SAVE command, but it was a worthwhile reset, because if we start over and enter the office early, we find Sharon Kemp hastily going through the file drawer (as in Infocom's mystery games, characters often have their own agendae and movements.)  If we ASK SHARON ABOUT FILE DRAWER, she claims, "I can't find the magazine I bought for my mother this morning.  I wanted to take it to the hospital for her to read."  Sounds fishy (get it?) to me.  We can give her Tip's magazine, but that doesn't seem to solve her issue (get it?)  She says, "Uh... That's not the magazine I'm looking for."  Not very convincing.

Leaving Sharon to her haste, and bringing up the videophone again confirms that we don't have to hang up -- it conks out all on its own, so this is just a progress/regress clue about how the scoring works.  We can also confirm that Sharon Kemp is gone now -- right after the circuit breaker just outside her office was thrown.  Definitely suspicious.

It looks like it's time to get the SCIMITAR underway.  The control panel is fairly complex, with 9 variables to manage, although we don't have to do anything with some of them.  There's also an open power reactor onboard; we load in the capsule we found earlier, turn it on, and the electrical systems are now activated.  We can't just TURN ON THE SCIMITAR yet, though, as the test tank is empty -- drydock isn't going to get us anywhere.  The controls to the west of the sub allow us to FILL THE TEST TANK.  Returning to the sub, we open the gate by remote control, turn on the SCIMITAR -- actually, TURN ON THE ENGINE -- and earn some more points.

To pilot, we have to set the throttle speed (slow, medium or fast) and move the joystick in the direction we want to go.  We are also reminded to CLOSE THE HATCH before we go anywhere.  SET THROTTLE TO SLOW, PUSH JOYSTICK EAST, and we are on our way -- with 24% of the points, and a reminder to SAVE.

Ocean travel in Seastalker uses the unofficial but useful "sea squares" system of measurement.  The surface of the bay is dangerous -- we almost get hit by a speedboat ---so we need to DIVE for safety then LEVEL OUT as the depth finder warning bell sounds.  Infocom must have playtested this game a lot, compared to the competition -- the first verb that comes to mind almost always works, and we rarely have to fight with the parser.

We do have to fight to get the sub safely out of the inlet and into the ocean -- we have to avoid obstacles visible on the sonarscope and shallows, getting some assistance from a map of the bay included in the package.  The sonarscope displays a map in classic text-based style -- it's quite effective and cross-platform compatible:

For some reason, this particular Infocom game does not support the AGAIN verb, so it's a bit of a pain to keep an eye on the sonarscope with repeated LOOK AT THE SONARSCOPE commands.  But just as we are getting annoyed, Tip says, "You wouldn't have to keep looking at the sonarscope if you set it to automatic."  SET SONARSCOPE TO AUTOMATIC keeps it onscreen, which is very convenient, and we can WAIT for a specified number of turns (default 10) if we like, knowing the game will helpfully interrupt is if some emergency arises.  We have to avoid crashing into the shallows and various ships entering the harbor; this all gets a bit tense and is nicely handled until eventually we make our way to the open ocean.

Now we can turn on the autopilot, which automatically heads for the Aquadome, and we can even SET THROTTLE TO FAST if we like.  But we can't just wait for the whole trip -- this is an adventure game, so eventually we have another crisis, as Tip summons his own bad dialogue mojo, crying, "Look at the way that control circuit temperature is rising!"  We can SET THROTTLE TO SLOW to level out the gauge, it appears, and observe impressive sea life as the SCIMITAR's brass search light kicks on in the growing murk of the depths.  We will keep overheating, so eventually I opted to CLOSE THE THROTTLE to let the control circuit cool down for a while.

No sooner is the ship's operating temperature under control than a blip shows up on the sonarscope, and Tip asks us to aim the searchlight to starboard -- we observe a whale swimming past, and can hear its crooning cries over the hydrophone.  It's beautiful down here, but it also seems like the ship becomes more sensitive to overheating as we travel deeper.

Fortunately, as we approach the Aquadome, the sonarphone rings and Zoe Bly answers, so the facility is okay.  But all may not be well, as she tells us that "I'd like to discuss a private matter with you, as soon as possible."  We have to dock with the Aquadome's docking tank, with ample help from the game as we settle into a cradle and emerge from the SCIMITAR.  We are informed that the Aquadome was invented by our youthful hero, apparently, along with all the other high-tech stuff in the game.

Commander Bly and the Aquadome crew wear badges that track the Aquadome's air quality, supported by a central Air Supply System.  When a badge turns red, air is no longer breathable, and while we're busy trying to ASK BLY ABOUT THE MONSTER and being incongruously directed to Infocard #6 in the package, we suddenly notice that everyone is gasping for breath.

So it looks like we have to fix the Air Supply system -- it's nearby, fortunately, with a purportedly helpful but rather vague sign reading, "To repair Air Supply System, first open access door with special Fram Bolt Wrench hanging on hook at right."  Time is clearly running out -- some crew members will suffocate in ten turns, while others who have emergency oxygen gear will survive for twenty.  Yikes!  It appears more sabotage is also afoot -- the Fram Bolt Wrench is missing, but the Universal Tool opens the access door.  Something has been unscrewed from a conspicuously empty space -- and something is lying on the bottom of the housing.  We can TAKE THE OBJECT to discover it is an ELECTROLYTE RELAY, and we can SCREW RELAY INTO SPACE (to the moon, Alice!) to get the air supply working again.  We can feel mildly heroic -- this saboteur is a rank amateur -- as we confirm that everyone is okay, and we are up to 49 points.  We may also be tempted by recent parser revelations to try to SCREW COMMANDER BLY -- we are asked, hilariously, What do you want to screw Bly in? -- but this is not that kind of game (I don't know the word "rumble seat.")

We need to know the crew members' names, and EXAMINE THE CREW just shows their status, though sometimes we are given specific notes about their actions.  The packaging material tells us they are Antrim, Siegel, Greenup, Horvak, and Lowell, and later on they announce themselves more distinctly.

Bly, oblivious to our dirty thoughts earlier, now asks us to discuss the private matter, and we go into her office (with Tip along, presumably to chaperone.)  She says, "There's a traitor here at the Aquadome!", which is hyperbolic and already fairly clear.  But it's odd that as we depart, we see the Fram Bolt Wrench lying under her desk...

Mick Antrim wants to install an Emergency Survival Unit in the SCIMITAR.  No reason we shouldn't, I guess correctly, earning 5 points for that straightforward decision.  In case Mick is the traitor, we are reminded to use the SCIMITAR's test button before we set off in her again.  Bill Greenup installs the part under the seat, and Amy Lowell handles the rest, per Lowell's report after the work is done.  Apparently the unit contains a hypodermic syringe, which is a bit disconcerting -- apparently it's designed to jab the pilot awake if he or she falls unconscious in an emergency.

There are separate female and male dorms, and only Horvak's locker in the male dorm seems worth noting -- it's locked, we need a key for it that never materializes.

In the Aquadome lab, Doc Horvak says the team has detected a high concentration of AH molecules and asks if we know anything about such a phenomenon. Since we are incredibly well-read on the topic, having chanced across a short popular article in Tip's copy of Science World magazine, we bring up Dr. Thorpe's work.  Doc Horvak gets excited -- he apparently knows exactly what drug will tranquilize the monster.  "Shall I make some up?" he asks, in his best Peter Lorre voice I imagine, and I answer YES... just don't be so eager, dude, it's freakin' me out a little.

Now things are heating up -- while Horvak works on the drug, Bly suggests we need a major weapon, and I don't have a clue about that yet.  If we answer NO to her question, Tip comes up with an idea to mount a bazooka on the extensor claw of the SCIMITAR, which sounds good to me.  Dr. Bly wants us to get going, but we're not quite ready so it's NO for now.  Doc Horvak shows up with the drug-equpiped dart gun, and asks, "What shall I do with it?"  Telling him to MOUNT IT ON THE EXTENSOR CLAW works, and now we're up to 74 points.  The endgame is already in sight!

Again, Bly asks if we are ready to take off now, but I feel like we haven't explored the Aquadome thoroughly yet so I put her off again (a decision I will later regret, as the turn clock is constantly ticking in this game.)  There's a comm center, a galley, and another storage room.  We can SEARCH FOR GUN, establishing that the dictionary knows of a dart gun and a bazooka -- the game helpfully reminds us that both of these are already mounted on the SCIMITAR's extensor claws if we try to FIND either item.

As we prepare to depart, Marv Siegal yells that two blips have appeared on the Aquadome's sonar scope.  Tip suggests we look out the window instead of looking at the scope, but it's shortly too late -- with very little warning, we learn that The Snark has flopped down on the Aquadome!  It cracks under the impact, everyone drowns and the game is over.  Take that, kid!

After a restore to earlier, happier days, I head straight to the SCIMITAR and push the test button, discovering that the Emergency Survival Unit is not properly connected; it has a heat sensor hooked up to it, and Tip says he doesn't like the looks of the hypodermic syringe.  He suggests we take it to Doc Horvak for analysis, which takes up 4 precious turns, but is worth it to discover that the hypo is full of arsenic -- so definitely dangerous, then. 

It looks like Bill Greenup might be the traitor here, as he did the underseat (get it?) installation.  We ASK GREENUP ABOUT THE SYRINGE, and he definitely acts guilty, fleeing to the SCIMITAR.  Commander Bly invites us to her office -- with the docking tank control panel we should be able to prevent his escape.  The tank is already empty, and we can LOOK AT THE MONITOR to see Greenup heading for our prize submarine.  We don't actually have to look at the Infocard -- I never did look at one, actually -- because the game suggests we look at Infocard #5 and fill in the blank with the words "docking tank electricity."  So it's not hard to guess we should TURN OFF THE DOCKING TANK ELECTRICITY.  We don't know much about Greenup, other than that he used to be a beach bum.  But now he's trapped and handcuffed in the galley, and we have 84 points.

We can't seem to ASK GREENUP ABOUT [anything of import], as he just claims ignorance or sneers at us.  We can hit him with the Fram Bolt Wrench, and he says something unprintable, but he's just not talking about anything useful.

So let's get into the SCIMITAR and see if we can wrap this adventure up.  Just as we get ready to set sail, the sonar goes off and the monster is near.  But we don't have time to do anything -- the game seems to end at 424 turns, consistently, so I have to conclude that I wasn't efficient enough, wasting  too much time fruitlessly searching for things in the various rooms of the Aquadome at 7 turns per search.

Backtracking again, we quickly find the issues with the ESU, have Horvak analyze the syringe, and trap Greenup... and now Zoe Bly presents some questions pointing to a happier ending.  She asks, "Can you use the SCIMITAR to hunt the Snark instead of waiting for it to attack?"  I think we want YES to be the right answer here.  Next, she wonders, "Do you wish to arm the SCIMITAR for attacking?"  We already have, so when she offers to let us go to the Aquadome lab there's no need to waste time; clearly the designer anticipated a different order of events here, and we can go straight to the docking bay.

As we pull out of the docking tank, Tip says, "I've got a bad feeling about this.  I don't think we should go out there without a fine grid."  And we soon discover after turning on the sonarscope that he's right -- he rubs it in a bit, saying, "Our sonarscope shows each sea square as 500 meters across.  When we're in the Aquadome, ask me about a fine grid."  ASK TIP WHY HE DIDN'T MENTION THIS WHEN WE WERE STILL IN THE AQUADOME yields no productive response.

Restoring, we now know we should ASK TIP ABOUT A FINE GRID before we try to take on the Snark, and he gets it installed quickly.  We have to make sure the docking tank electricity is back on, close the hatch and the tank's roof, fill the tank, open the gate, turn on the engine, open the throttle... and now at last we're off to hunt the Snark, remembering to SET SONARSCOPE TO AUTOMATIC.

I thought at first that the Snark was to the north, but that's the Aquadome.  I thought that we might need to travel around, looking for the Snark, but found it incredibly easy to miss it -- while I was circling around, a call came in on the sonarphone indicating that the Snark had attacked and everyone would soon be dead.  Hmmmm... we don't seem to see it on the sonar, and it always attacks around turn 425.

Pushing the joystick to the southeast after leaving the Aquadome produces some feedback indicating we're on course to hunt the Snark, so we should probably do that.  Suddenly Tip sees a big cloud of silt ahead.  The brass search light reveals the Snark and one of our Sea Cats, a bottom-crawling rocket-equipped machine of our hero's invention.  Now, suddenly, the voice Dr. Thorpe comes over the sonarphone, with Sharon Kemp, the other traitor -- no surprise there -- by his side.  Except that as he is telling us all the details of his dastardly plan, Sharon knocks him out with a wrench!  She's on our side after all!  I hope she found that magazine!

Tip interrupts to ask how Thorpe controls the monster; it's a good thing he's along, I hadn't even considered that possibility.  Sharon tells us that the Snark is sensitive to sonar signals on its right side, as the story takes over a bit here, prompting us with simple YES/NO responses.  Sharon tells us that Thorpe's accomplice (probably Greenup) installed a sonar box on the Aquadome to attract the monster, but it was thwarted somehow, and we can now guide the creature safely to a cavern for scientific study.  That sounds good to me -- if we say YES to Sharon's suggestion, we will be using the tranquilizer gun to do so.

Of course, Thorpe regains consciousness before we can tranquilize the Snark, and takes us out with a rocket from his commandeered Sea Cat.  If we do succeed in tranquilizing the Snark, Thorpe can aim at us with his Sea Cat's lethal rocket again.  If we collide with the Sea Cat, it is disabled but its rocket is not.

This climactic sequence is fairly tricky to pull off -- we have to pull right alongside the moving Snark, aim the tranquilizer and shoot at it before we lose the aim.  The Sea Cat stays in synch with the Snark, on its right side, but we can't easily target it without being rocketed to death; we have to move beyond the Snark's tail to get a clear shot, and Thorpe generally fires first.  The sonarscope shows the Snark, the Sea Cat, and its rocket's broad firing range to help us assess the situation.

After many unsuccessful tries to tranquilize the Snark and then deal with the villain, I discovered that it works best if we first cripple the Sea Cat with our bazooka.  But it almost works a little too well -- Sharon immediately takes over and handles the remainder of the details, including the luring of the Snark to an underwater cavern for further study.  I'm sure it can be done much more efficiently, but we've finished the story, with 100 points out of 100 possible in 420 turns:

Seastalker is not a difficult game to finish in an evening, but it's not badly done... even though it's aimed at younger adventurers and there are no really difficult puzzles, it has some worthwhile character interaction (despite the occasionally grating dialogue) and a degree of tension in its plotting.  I wish we got to learn more about the Snark itself -- a whole new chain of life based on novel chemistry is a fascinating idea -- but clearly that's left to the player's imagination.  Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence went on to author Infocom's Moonmist, another Introductory-level adventure, and someday I'm sure I'll get around to playing that one.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Post #1000!

It's Post #1000!  10^3!  100^2!  1000^1!

Wow.  I barely even noticed that 100^2 is not 1000, but 10,000.

I've been writing the Gaming After 40 blog for nearly three years, and thoroughly enjoying the project.  It gives me an excuse and motivation to play some old games I have always meant to, revisit games I enjoyed in the past, and occasionally do interesting research and interviews so I can share the results with you.

Thank you all, dear readers and podcast viewers.  Your comments and feedback are always greatly appreciated.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cover to Cover: Infocom 1987 Catalog (pp. 11-12)

Here's some more from the 1987 Infocom product catalog as we continue our current cover-to-cover pagethrough.  We see some then-recent introductory games, urging the new and nervous to come on in and see what this interactive fiction thing is all about, as well as some established classics...

Page 11 features the introductory-level gothic mystery, Moonmist, and the original ZORK:

Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence also wrote Infocom's only Junior-level adventure, Seastalker, which I will be writing about later this week, so the Introductory difficulty of Moonmist (not to mention the titular alliteration) made for a reasonable followup.  And ZORK I: The Great Underground Empire remains the classic enter-the-white-house, open-the-mailbox, move-the-rug and now-it's-Thursday ZORK.  Most people who have only once played a text adventure sampled ZORK, I suspect; I have no doubt that it was indeed "the world's best-selling entertainment software product" at the time.  It reportedly sold some 380,000 copies in an era when this was still a niche hobby; today, of course, a new entry in a major videogame franchise typically sells millions of copies, but nearing half-a-million with a text adventure in the early 1980s is still quite an accomplishment.

Page 12 features a similar mix of introductory adventuring and an established standard:

Wishbringer was not the first Infocom game I ever played, but it's the first I covered on this blog; it's a whimsical, well-rendered fantasy effort by Brian Moriarty that encourages exploration and iss fairly forgiving with its puzzles.  And the Enchanter trilogy by Marc Blanc and Dave Lebling remains one of my all-time favorites -- it plays like a ZORK spinoff with a more compelling narrative, and allows quite a bit of experimentation with the spellbook for fun and disaster.

More to come next week, as I continue to add more Infocom titles to my mental must-play list...

Friday, March 16, 2012

Of Import: Skweek (1991)

From a Western perspective, the 8/16-bit videogame era was dominated by Japanese design and publishers; it's easy to forget that it was a two-way conversation, and games from the West were often converted for Japanese platforms.  Such a game is Skweek, a French Amiga arcade puzzle game published by Infogrames/Loriciel in 1989, and converted to the PC Engine in 1991 by Victor Musical Industries.

The game's bright graphics, compact level data and bouncy musical score were a fine fit for the PC Engine's HuCard format, although the music suffered a bit in translation.  The game is simple -- borrowing a key element from Q*Bert, our fuzzy orange hero (okay, two elements) Skweek has to turn blue squares on the playfield pink, while dodging enemies and, er, not falling off of the map accidentally:

Skweek is not powerless -- he can fire a ball in four directions to vaporize enemies, although they respawn after a few seconds.  There are various powerups available -- sneakers to run faster, freeze-drops to enable elimination of fire-based enemies -- and tiles with special effects, like one-way arrows, slippery surfaces and teleporting short cuts.  Some enemies are capable of turning tiles back to blue, or converting other types of tiles into blue tiles, forcing the player to backtrack and clean up the mess.

When all of the blue tiles have been turned pink (or otherwise eliminated from play), the level is over.  Skweek looks slightly evil when he finishes his work, giving the impression we are unwittingly aiding and abetting:

And that's about all there is to Skweek.  There are multiple levels, with some variety to the powerups and enemy characteristics.  But the basic mechanic doesn't allow for much strategic variation -- we just have to find the most efficient way to traverse all the tiles, being careful to eliminate or avoid enemies and pitfalls.  It's the sort of challenge that modern gamers are accustomed to handling in combination with more complex objectives, and two decades later this game's initially appealing simplicity wears thin quickly.  In fact, as the level designs become more complex, the player's available paths and options feel more constrained; the game actually becomes less interesting as we begin to master its rules.  After a handful of levels, I was very much ready for the inevitable (feel free to steal my Level 6 password if you like):

Skweek feels like an early-1980s coin-op arcade game design updated with Amiga-era graphics, and the mechanic just isn't particularly compelling; while I can understand Victor's interest in porting the game, I can also see why NEC's US offices elected to leave this one out of the TurboGrafx-16 library circa 1991.  Skweek and Super Skweek did appear on a number of handheld platforms, including the Atari Lynx, so perhaps the franchise will resurface someday on the iPhone, where its short-span play may be more appealing.

I can't really recommend Skweek as I write this in 2012, but if you're looking for it, it might be available here.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The LoadDown -- 03/15/2012

Almost forgot it was Thursday!  Here's what's new on the wire...

WiiWare -- Nothing here this week. But...

Wii Virtual Console --  This platform is enjoying a bit of a resurgence; this week, SNK's 1996 Neo*Geo fighting game Samurai Shodown IV: Amakusa's Revenge turns up.  It's one of the many solid fighting games that dominated the Neo*Geo library.

DSiWare -- Pirates Assault arrives, a tower defense game where the player's pirates must protect their booties.  Um, booty.  And you can rescue stolen treasure from escaping enemies by taking them out before they leave the screen, always a nice way to up the ante in TD play.

3DS eShop -- Three new games are available for download, all originally released on the SEGA Game Gear handheld.  Shinobi is sure to cause some confusion, as this is the Game Gear version rendered in virtual console form, while SEGA's new retail title created for the 3DS is titled... ShinobiSonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble is a collection of three Game Gear Sonic titles, and Dragon Crystal is a dungeon-crawl RPG with randomly generated dungeons.

XBox Live Arcade -- Two new games this week; hard to believe the XBox 360 is already six and a half years old, and still going strong.  Shoot Many Robots is a multiplayer co-op robot shooter with colorful graphics and a more cinematic presentation than the norm for a side-scroller.  Defenders of Ardania is a tower-defense game with a fantasy/RPG theme; it bears a certain resemblance to Defense Grid, but that's not a bad thing.

PS3 on PSN --  It's a busy week here, with four new titles arriving.  The cute/gory alien escape game, Warp, arrives after its XBLA debut, and Shoot Many Robots is also available (see above).  Journey has nothing to do with the 80's band, but is a PS3 exclusive -- a loose desert exploration concept with a certain degree of artiness to it, from the makers of Flower.  Artiness is not necessarily a bad thing, mind.  Time Machine: Rogue Pilot sounds more interesting than it might actually be -- it's a color-matching puzzle game with a plot.

PSOne Classics -- Quiet here also.  Going once?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Galaxias (1986)

Casting about for something unfamiliar to play this week, I decided to take a look at the UK's Sinclair Spectrum scene once again.  The machine was well-suited to adventure games, as it supported dynamic display fonts and 48K of memory, allowing for detailed descriptions and graphics on occasion.  It hosted many text adventures back in the day, so it's not hard to run across something I haven't played, and in this case my haphazard Internet wanderings led me to a 1986 game I had not heard of: Galaxias, published and written by similarly unfamiliar entities, Delta 4 and Fergus McNeil.

The game opens with an attractive title screen and uses a sci-fi font throughout.  The interface adopts a convention I haven't seen before - the onscreen Exits list actually tells the player what lies in each direction, instead of baking the navigational details into the room descriptions or leaving them up to discovery (although later in the game, some paths remain UNKNOWN.)   Galaxias was written using The Quill, a popular tool during the Spectrum era.

As always, I encourage interested readers to sally forth and adventure before proceeding here; the game features an expansive map, but most of the work involves finding a handful of useful items and doing the right things with them, ignoring the game's numerous red herrings.  The objectives aren't really spelled out in-game, so I was happy to avail myself of the walkthrough and hints available at the CASA Solution Archive.  Beyond this point, be advised that there are sure to be...

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

We begin in Zagro Spaceport; a landing bay with a spacecruiser lies to the east.  The interior map of the ship is pretty detailed, but once we're onboard we can't readily exit (at least until we figure out how the ship works.)  So we'll presume this must be the beginning of our adventure, not our destination, and that we should explore elsewhere before we GO SPACECRUISER.

To the west is an engineering centre -- one of many such centres, remembering that this is a UK title -- where we can and should acquire a Laser Probe of indeterminate usage and purpose; the game is extremely stingy with EXAMINE feedback.  We can pick up a laser probe here, and check out the Teleport Unit, which takes us to a large domed hall that we can reach on foot if we go around the long way, so it's not particularly necessary to dis- and re-combobulate ourselves.  We can enter the WARNING DISINTEGRATOR! room indicated to the west, if we wish to be disintegrated, but we don't want to do that.

Up from the domed hall is a sparkling glass streetway with a food dispenser, and we find ourselves just south of the starting location, thanks to the teleporter.  The talking food dispenser merrily offers us comestibles, but we can't seem to USE DISPENSER or BUY FOOD or GET FOOD.  We can go into

the nearby Food Consumption Centre to find SOME FOOD, presumably left behind by someone else.  We may be tempted to take it along, as we have no other apparent means of nutritional support, but it also develops that while there's plenty of food lying around the world, we never actually seem to get hungry, and needn't waste the inventory slot.

A security checkpoint is guarded, and there's some food here also.  We can only carry SOME FOOD at a time -- if we try to get more, we're told it's ALREADY CARRIED, and there's no reason to do so anyway.  We're not challenged in any way at the security checkpoint -- we can just walk through the gates to reach what appears to be a maze of BARREN WASTELAND, but we can't actually go anywhere here -- W takes us back to the checkpoint, all other directions just return to the same room (at least for now).  Upstairs from the checkpoint is the Defence / Communications Tower, which is apparently able to lock onto any enemy spacecraft and blow it to bits.  That seems like it may come in handy later on, except it never does.

The seedy Metalon Bar (color-coded in red onscreen) is frequented by space-pirates, or at least that's what we are told; the joint is curiously deserted during our visit.  We can GET DRINK here, though we don't really need to.  There's also an Alcohol Reclamation Center to the south -- or as it is known on earth, the loo.  We can't do anything here but enjoy the gag.  The bar's back room -- we can simply enter it by going east from the bar, ignoring the "KEEP OUT OR DIE" sign -- has some more food and nothing else of note or value.

So we have the impression that this spaceport is completely deserted, and there seem to be no puzzles or prizes to be had here.  It's probably time to climb aboard the cruiser and see what fortune yields.

The Meta-Galactic Sky Cruiser is fully equipped -- it features a Millennium Falcon-style laser turret with tracking system, a tubewalk (illustrated onscreen) that serves as a hub, a teleport unit that leads to the "nearest planet" but is not working at the moment, and living quarters with a sleep chamber and washrooms and more uselessly available food.  If there's any doubt about a certain Star Wars feel here, there's also a hologramic [sic] chess game in progress in the living quarters.

A long tubeway leads to the ship's more functional areas -- engine room, docking bay, and escape ship. So it seems I've explored the area and picked up all the objects.  Now what?  Can I FLY SHIP?  No.  Can I close the bay doors with the unit on the nearby wall?  Nope.  Can I PROBE UNIT?  Nope.  The parser is notably unhelpful here -- it tends to respond with NOT POSSIBLE or INPUT NOT UNDERSTOOD, and few hints emerge from experimenting. 

Stumped, I took an online peek at Ken's hints, which suggest looking at the floor in the engine room.  Ah -- the rattling sheets of metal conceal a well-hidden door when we EXAMINE FLOOR.  We can't OPEN DOOR but we can go D to find a hidden smuggler's compartment (yes, I should have taken the Falcon-esque hints!)  There's a gold bar down there, but the game has no SCORE command, so I'm not sure if this is actually going to be a treasure hunt.

Still stuck, I consult Dorothy's walkthrough, and -- aha! -- learn that there is a functional HELP command which actually provides information about how to use the ship's computer systems.  On the bridge, we TYPE LIST PLANETS -- we can apparently visit GRAFLON, TERMINAN, SEPTULE, and AKROL, and are currently at ZAGRO SPACEPORT, STATION 1, I erroneously assume.

TYPE GRAFLON does most of the spacefaring work for us -- we automatically set course, enter orbit, and use the teleporter to beam down.  Graflon is a green, tropical planet judging from the simple illustration we see as we land:

A forest maze leads to a vicious carnivorous plant that ATTACKS YOU WITH GREAT VIGOUR! but is apparently not immediately fatal despite our inability to KILL PLANT.  All of the game's maps are fairly large, with some detailed room descriptions, but there isn't really a lot to do or find anywhere we go; the Speccy's lavish 48K of memory is apparently devoted to a large map but few events.  At least this planet is inhabited -- or was -- as we see footprints in a nearby village along with a couple of huts.   We can pick up more food here, but I'm still not hungry.  There's a pool west of the plant -- it does not block our passage with its vigorous attacks -- where we can SWIM, and get EATEN BY A LARGE REPTILE SWIMMING IN THE DEPTHS!  There doesn't seem to be anything else to do here.

TYPE TERMINAN takes us to a mountainous desert planet, with snow up in the mountains.  We find steps carved into the rock, so there must have been inhabitants of some kind, though a nearby city is strewn with trash and deserted. An underground bunker is illustrated, as we enter the Terminan Defence Centre, and the computer systems are still working, indicated an ALL SYSTEMS OPERATIONAL display.  We can PUSH BUTTON to turn our space cruiser into dust, but that's probably not a good idea.  If we try to pass through the city's teleporter, we never re-materialize, so it's game over; this happens even if we don't blow up our ship.  (At this point in my playthrough I hadn't figured out how to return to our ship, nor did I feel like I had made any progress, so it seemed best to restore and try another destination.)

TYPE SEPTULE takes us to the roof of a building on an urban planet, where the streets are paved with platinum.  There's a SportCentre and a law enforcement building nearby.  There are no police about, though -- someone has spray-painted BEWARE OF THE FILTH! on the station walls, which are also bloodstained and full of knife marks.  But there is a pass card here, with ENTRANCE OK written on it, so that may be of value.  There are two living players in the SportCentre's arena, playing a dangerous sort of laser ball; their names are ZAXY and KYSEL, judging from the scoreboard, but we can't interact with them.  There's a park with synthetic trees and a strict anti-littering ordinance, an android factory, and a train that takes us to an old mining station with a stormy, impassable area to the south.  There's also nothing obvious we're supposed to do in this part of town.

Having acquired the pass card -- a potentially useful item at last -- we should figure out why we can't seem to get back from any of these places.  All we have to do is TELEPORT to return to the SkyCruiser, but we have to do so from our original landing location.  (This is also how we get out of the cruiser at Zagro Spaceport.)

TYPE AKROL takes us to an arctic planet, where we arrive standing at the centre of a frozen lake.  Here the scanner is frozen, so we have to map the world out ourselves, but it's a simple east-west layout. Somebody named Jekra is in an igloo, saying "I WANT COVALIUM" if we talk to him/her.  There doesn't seem to be any available on Akrol; returning to Graflon and exercising an ancient adventure game tradition, we EXAMINE WATERFALL, revealing a hidden space -- but we can't GO SPACE or ENTER WATERFALL.  We have to go S (guessing blindly at the correct direction) to discover a cave where there is some COVALIUM stashed.

Jekra will only talk to us once -- after that we'd better remember Jekra wants covalium, which he or she happily takes, giving us a map.  READ MAP indicates it will guide us through the wastelands.  I took this to mean we need to go back to Septule, but the map doesn't help us in the mining badlands where our scanner doesn't work, so this must apply somewhere else.

I had to consult the walkthrough again to discover that we can TYPE STATION to go to a space station -- the ship computer's reference to ZAGRO SPACEPORT, STATION 1 is meant to indicate two separate destinations, not part of Zagro Spaceport.  We can pick up a lance in the Space Station's power centre, which emits heat.  We can also note that the CIVILIAN LIVING COMPLEX is described as AN OPEN AREA OF NO REAL PURPOSE, much like most of the game's other locations. 

With the heated lance, we can MELT ICE in the cave on Akrol to find a rifle. We can SHOOT JEKRA, to watch as he DIES IN A CLOUD OF BLUE SPARKS, but there's no reason to do so.  We can also SHOOT PLANT on Graflon to take it out in similar fashion, but again, there seems to be no reason to do so.

So we'll go back to Zagro to see if the pass card and map are useful anywhere back where we started.  With the map in hand, we can now navigate the barren wastelands beyond the city gates and reach an old metal dome sticking out of the ground.  We need the pass card to get into the dome -- that's why we weren't having any issues at the checkpoint.

Inside the dome we find a dusty computer room, and a massive secu-vault, along with comfortable living quarters and a JACCUZI [sic].  We have to be careful not to leave the dome by going north from the computer room, because entering once uses up the pass card and we can't go back inside.  Trying to get the secu-vault open, we TYPE OPEN, which yields: "GOOD MORNING. ALL SECUIRITY [sic] WORKING. ELECTRIC FLOOR ACTIVATED."  We can try to OPEN DOOR directly -- and somehow the laser probe we've been carrying around for most of the game applies, and we succeed in doing so.  Except the floor is electrified, as previously noted, so stepping into the vault kills us in a blinding flash of hostile voltage.  TYPE SECURITY OFF and TYPE FLOOR STOP don't work, but TYPE DEACTIVATE ELECTRIC does.

Inside the security vault, we espy THE CRYSTAL -- not just any old crystal -- so this is presumably the point of all this galaxy-trotting activity.  We TAKE CRYSTAL -- and that's it! 


We are also encouraged to "WRITE TO DELTA 4 FOR YOUR NEXT QUEST!" -- even in 1986, computer software was not readily available in traditional retail outlets and mail-order was the primary means of distribution.

Fergus McNeil's Galaxias features a large map, but there's not very much to do except try things until something interesting happens; neither the nature of our quest nor the puzzles, such as they are, are very clearly laid out.  It seems like the mapmaking phase of the project became too ambitious for the plot as deadlines loomed; we're left with a detailed but extremely barren sci-fi world, where things that look like puzzles are completely optional and all of the useful items can be found just lying around.  I'll most likely play more of the Delta 4 games in the future, but hope for better adventuring ahead.