Saturday, October 31, 2009

Oddities: Halloween

It's Halloween!  A perfect time to take a look at Wizard Video's 1983 Atari 2600 game, based on the classic John Carpenter movie that spawned a long line of sequels and remakes.

The game casts the player as heroic babysitter Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the movie.  Her goal is to keep herself and the children in her care alive, under constant assault by The Shape, a.k.a. Michael Myers, on the original "night he came home."

The screenshot below lays out the basic elements of play.  There are two floors to the house; some rooms have doors that allow Laurie to move to a room on the other floor.  The children run screaming along the lower section of each floor, and Laurie can capture and escort them to safety at either end of the house by pressing the fire button.  The Shape attacks by simply making contact with Laurie or a child, killing his victim instantly with his constantly swinging butcher knife, as shown here:

The Shape's appearances are accompanied by a decent (by 2600 standards) two-part-harmony rendition of the classic Carpenter-composed Halloween theme; the console's beepy sine-wave audio sounds perfectly appropriate here, as he springs suddenly from the side of the screen or through an inconveniently-placed doorway.

Laurie can occasionally maneuver around Myers by moving up or down at the last second, countering his trajectory and running past him, but her best shot at defense is to pick up the knives that appear randomly throughout the house.  Each is good for one attack that will briefly send The Shape running offscreen.  Of course, much of the time a knife is visible, but not accessible from the current room.  The house map is not random, so once the player is familiar with the layout, Laurie has a shot at retrieving it in time, if she stays calm and doesn't lose her head:

Points are earned for warding off The Shape with a good stab; more points are earned for escorting the children to safety.  But like most games of this era, there's no victory condition or genuine ending.  Laurie can rescue the kids (who promptly return to the danger zone) and avoid The Shape for quite a while, racking up a high score -- but eventually, her three lives are exhausted, and the indestructible Michael Myers lives on.

Halloween is a pretty good game by the standards of its time -- the sprites are multi-colored, large and flicker-free, no mean feat on the Atari 2600, and the gameplay gets pretty intense, encouraging the player to go for those near-misses every time The Shape appears.  This and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were Wizard's only video game releases, but both are unique and worth taking a look at.  Halloween wasn't nearly as controversial as Chainsaw, however, since despite the spurting blood, the player still gets to be the hero.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Hyaku Monogatari - Hontou ni Atta Kowai Hanashi

With Halloween approaching, I felt the urge to play something creepy yet likely incomprehensible.  So it was time to pull Hyaku Monogatari - Hontou ni Atta Kowai Hanashi out of my stack of import PC-Engine games.  Hyaku Monogatari translates as "One Hundred Stories", and is derived from a long-standing Japanese anthology tradition -- as far back as the 1840's the name was being used for collections of supernatural tales.

One thing I love about Japanese horror is that it never feels the need to explain itself.  Western horror movies always insist on coming up with some sort of rational explanation -- zombies are resurrected by a meteor shower or a virus; hauntings have dark historical origins; giant monsters are created by science gone awry.  The Eastern vibe is much more mysterious and bizarre -- it focuses on atmosphere and disturbing organic imagery, and is perfectly willing to live with gaping plot holes and unanswered questions.

So it was with no little anticipation that I ventured into this 1995 PC Engine Super CD-ROM disc.  It makes good use of the CD storage medium to illustrate one hundred supernatural tales -- there are plenty of scary music riffs and unsettling sound effects, and digitized photos both mundane and horrific.  Some of the vignettes announce themselves as being in "3-D Stereo", which seems to mean that the stereo image pans around a lot, though I didn't try it on a Dolby Surround decoder to see if it has an embedded rear channel.

The game opens with a creepy animation sequence, with children playing a game similar to ring-around-the-rosey:

Once into the game proper, the player is presented with a screen of one hundred selectable candles.  Each candle leads to a short story, a few minutes long, illustrated with images, audio and limited animation.  At least that's what I have gathered, since I don't speak or read a word of Japanese.  The player can watch the vignettes in any sequence, and the disc seems to be meant to be savored at leisure.

After each vignette is watched -- interactivity is generally limited to pushing a button to advance the onscreen text -- its candle is snuffed out on the selection screen.

Even not being able to read the text or understand the spoken language, it's very atmospheric.  There are deserted classrooms and empty buildings, with unearthly voices crying and shrieking.  More explicitly disturbing human images appear on occasion -- apparitions, deaths, suicides, and phantoms provide plenty of shock value.

Hyaku Monogatari is more of an audiovisual experience than a game, really, but at least one candle leads to a more detailed interface, with what looks like a progress evaluation and scoring mechanism ("POINT").  I got the impression that points were being awarded for witnessing certain events in various geographic locations, even though the stories aren't interlinked.  As this interface, like the other candles, can only be accessed once, remembering where this element turns up could be important for a serious playthrough:

Even without understanding the language, or perhaps because of that, I found Hyaku Monogatari - Hontou ni Atta Kowai Hanashi engrossing and fascinating.  I was able to make sense of the stories enough to maintain my interest, even though the specifics laid out in the text were lost on me.  I certainly saw plenty of intriguing images along the way, so I'll let a handful of my favorite pictures speak for themselves to close this post.






Some things, it seems, are disturbing in any language.  Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Oddities: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

As Halloween approaches, it seems like a good time to examine one of the earliest horror-themed home videogames ever produced.

Charles Band's Wizard Video label pioneered exploitation and horror movie distribution during the early days of VHS and Betamax home video, and in 1982 the company branched out into videogames with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the Atari 2600, under license based on the classic movie directed by Tobe Hooper, inspired in turn by real-life murderer and human skin fashionista Ed Gein.

The game opens with a rarity among 2600 games, an actual title screen:

The game was controversial at the time of its release, partly because of its subject matter, but mostly because of its perspective.  Unlike LJN/Acclaim's later NES Friday the 13th game, or Wizard Video's own contemporary Halloween game, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre game did NOT cast the player as a hero or heroine pitted against the movie's villain.  Instead, the player takes on the role of Leatherface himself, armed with a chainsaw and limited fuel.

The game plays a bit like Activision's Stampede.  The object of the game is to chase fleeing victims (who shriek with a high-pitched beeping) and mow them down with a button-activated chainsaw, while avoiding or chainsawing obstacles including wheelchairs, fences, sagebrush and cattle skulls. Fuel is the primary limitation -- the player has to target victims efficiently, and avoid wasting fuel, to achieve the highest possible score.

The game actually looks pretty good by 2600 standards, with a bit of parallax scrolling and blocky renditions of the movie's iconic house and blue pickup truck visible in the distance.  Victims bleed brownish red from the head and feet whenever Leatherface succeeds in his mission: 

Of course, all evil things must come to an end, and when Leatherface has exhausted his three tanks of fuel, one of his potential victims runs onscreen and ends the game with a swift kick to his serial-killing posterior, knocking him offscreen:

Due to the controversy, the game was usually sold "under the counter" at the independent video stores that were willing to stock it.  It consequently didn't sell well, and Wizard Video only produced two titles before leaving the videogame market. 

But through modern eyes, inured to the more explicit horrors of Resident Evil, it's clear that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a sense of humor and was not meant to be taken seriously.  It's a simple game, just 4 kilobytes of Atari 2600 code and data, and worth a quick play for history's sake, and the rare opportunity to play the bad guy.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Video Podcast: Torcher - Arsonist of Evil

Since it's Halloween week, we're taking a look at TORCHER: Arsonist of Evil!

If you prefer, you can also watch it at or via the iTunes Store (search for "Gaming After 40" in the Podcast Directory.)  It usually comes out via those channels before I get around to posting it on the blog.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Adventure of the Week: The Lurking Horror (1987)

In the week leading up to Halloween, it only seems appropriate to venture into unearthly realms with Dave Lebling's The Lurking Horror, published in 1987 by Infocom.

It's a classic pure-text adventure, but this title was augmented with digitized sound effects for extra eeriness, with sound engineering by Russell Lieblich to take advantage of then-improving computer audio capabilities.  The audio elements are VERY short samples that loop, sometimes with volume variations, because storage space was still at a premium, especially given Infocom's tradition of products that fit on a single floppy disk.  I wouldn't have it any other way -- the text is rich and evocative, the map is large, and the puzzles are complex and detailed.  There's definitely something to be said for NOT devoting any of the limited disk space to graphics.

The game is set on the George Underwood Edwards Tech university campus, reportedly modeled on the MIT campus where Zork was born, though speaking from personal experience I can say that it bears a certain resemblance to any technical/engineering college.  Infocom fans will note that G.U.E. also recalls the Great Underground Empire, and there's at least one other Zorkian reference in the game.

The setup is a traditional college student scenario -- it's the end of the term, a paper is due, and the general circumstances are not encouraging:

Of course, once the player attempts to meet the stated objective, things start to get weird and horrific very quickly.  The game has a nicely understated sense of humor, especially in the details, and it doesn't pull any punches in creating a sense of Lovecraftian horror.  There's some very nice plotting as well, which I will provide more details about in the spoilers section below.

This was a tough one for me, with plenty of ways to die and even more ways to screw up irrevocably -- even with the official Infocom InvisiClues on hand, I had to keep past saves handy and retrace my steps to accomplish everything necessary.  And I had to wrestle with the parser here and there -- Infocom's Z-machine was much more sophisticated than the two-word engines of the early 1980's, but it's still no mind reader. But the struggle was well worth it -- Infocom was known for a certain standard of quality, and The Lurking Horror is no exception.  The prose is expertly crafted, the puzzles are challenging but generally logical, and it's a very entertaining, spooky experience (especially with the sound effects on.)

Be forewarned -- for purposes of discussion and documentation I will give quite a few things away in the following section.  If you've never played The Lurking Horror and wish to be surprised when you do, read no further!

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

Early in the game, we encounter a futuristic PC, at least from a 1987 perspective -- the specs are no longer as impressive as they once were:

This is a beyond state-of-the-art personal computer. It has a 1024 by 1024 pixel color monitor, a mouse, an attached hard disk, and a local area network connection.

I had to adjust to the more sophisticated Infocom parser after playing quite a few early adventures in recent months -- my two-word habits kept tripping me up.  LOOK CHAIR doesn't work, as the interpreter insists that I be more precise and LOOK AT, or LOOK UNDER, or EXAMINE it.  Similarly, SIT CHAIR is not accepted, but SIT IN THE CHAIR works.  And trying to GO DOOR yields Please use compass directions instead, even when it's not clear in which direction the door lies -- but GO THROUGH THE DOOR always works.

The game's setting is mundane and naturalistic at the beginning, but there are a couple of Zorkian fantasy references as the story develops.  Infocom fans will appreciate the Frobozz Magic Floor Wax (and Dessert Topping), and the university has a Department of Alchemy, where all the trouble starts.

In keeping with the setting, there are also some funny and accurate nerd-tech references, like the hacker's dialogue, and "The Tomb of the Unknown Tool."  Computer games weren't yet mainstream in 1987, and it was presumed that people interested in this sort of thing would know what assembler code and routers are, and get the "dismountable disk" and "YAK text editor" jokes.  And any college student will appreciate the ability of (unlicensed) Classic Coke to ward off sleep for another hour or two.

I appreciated the game's honesty in concisely informing the player that The offices are inaccessible, and saving me considerable time trying every office door.  Thanks, Mr. Lebling!

Favorite moment:  At one point, the signature on a discovered note is noted as being oddly familiar, but no further details are provided.  A few moves later, the player character remembers that it's the name of a missing grad student, whose body was found smashed and broken at the base of the tallest building on campus.  Looking at the note again now mentions that he was an Alchemy Department student.  It's a really smart approach to simulating the way our brains work, when something rings a bell but isn't quite coming into focus when we want it to -- the game delays the reveal just long enough for the player to turn his or her attention to other matters, so when it pops up it really feels like the information has just come to mind.

I played the game using the IBM PC Frotz interpreter under DOSBox.  It handles the sound effects fairly well, although there were times they didn't turn off and became annoying; I had to quit the game to restore silence.  There is a $SOUND command to toggle the effects on and off, but it's not able to cut them off once they've started playing.  I don't know whether the original Infocom interpreters handled this better or not.

As with most adventures, the game rewards experimentation -- most items and characters have a purpose, even if it's not immediately visible.  There are a number of hints provided, although some are so loose and generally associative that they're only recognizable in hindsight.

The flashlight duration is fairly generous, but does eventually dim -- I restarted once so I could accomplish all the things I knew how to do more efficiently, and started keeping my potentially-unneeded inventory items in a lighted area, in order to conserve flashlight power.

I did find a rare Infocom grammatical error in the version I played (Release 221) -- You scramble up ladder.

There's a fun real-world puzzle early in the game, requiring heating up some cold Chinese food to the hacker's satisfaction.  Depending on the microwave level and timing used, it can end up cold, warm, hot, volcanic or radioactive.  Hot and volcanic are the right targets to aim for.  After eating, the hacker provides a master key -- he says it opens three out of five doors, which turns out to be exactly right.

The game makes its inspiration explicit here and there, especially when the word "Lovecraft" turns up on the computer systems.

I had to use the InvisiClues to get past one section -- they are cleverly crafted, and are willing to mislead the player a bit before giving the answer in detail.  I was having trouble dealing with the rats in the steam tunnel, triggering the following clue/response cycle: You need more strength to open the rusty valve.  So I tried eating the Funny Bones snack food, but that was no help.  The next clue was:  Leverage is an elementary principle of physics.  I agreed, but couldn't immediately see how leverage would help to turn a valve.  Loosen the valve by hitting it with something heavy made more sense, and employing the crowbar did the trick.

Even death can be informative in this game.  While dealing unsuccessfully with the rats, I was able to see a strange symbol on their leader's neck.  After handling the situation correctly, that same rat was left behind, dead, which afforded me an opportunity to see the symbol again, in a position to make use of the knowledge.

One of the backtracking situations I ran into was this -- I found a dried, chewed looking mummified human hand, which a flying demon-beast was only too eager to snatch away.  Since he took it instead of killing me, I assumed that was desirable.  It was only after getting hopelessly stuck that I learned I should have obtained something else to throw at the beast, so I could keep the hand.  I had to obtain that object early in the game... using information available only in the original game documentation.  Fortunately, my manuals from Activision's The Lost Treasures of Infocom compilation came to the rescue.

Another complicated puzzle was tough, but entertaining and dramatic.  The Professor at the Department of Alchemy initially refused to let me see his lab, until I let him know I knew something about what happened to his grad student.  He then took me into the lab and attempted to sacrifice me to the titular Horror.  This puzzle was difficult, with tight timing requirements, and I went down several wrong paths while trying to solve it.  To the game's credit, though, it handled most everything I tried in a responsive and interesting manner, even when I poured the Classic Coke on the chalk pentagram in an attempt to wash it away.  After trying many ideas, the solution turned out to be a matter of escaping the situation altogether -- thank goodness for InvisiClues!

My biggest wrong turn/restart issue was that I started wandering around the campus and exploring too much, too soon.  I solved a number of puzzles, and didn't even deal with trying to meet the original objective (writing my term paper).  As a result, I had missed a lot of important exposition, and hadn't obtained a key item.

I found a special symbol in four different places -- on a stone, a rat, the mummified hand, and a bloodstained altar.  The game supports a COMPARE command, which in the absence of graphics came in handy for verifying that it was indeed the same symbol.

Getting down from the catwalk proved a bit of a challenge -- I found a wooden ladder up there, but I had to wrestle with the parser for a while before I was able to PUT LADDER ON CATWALK.  I ran into a similar issue later, where PULL COAXIAL CABLE didn't work or hint at the right way to approach the problem, but DISCONNECT COAXIAL CABLE did.

Once I had the mummified hand, and reanimated it in the Alchemy Lab, I still didn't know what to do with it.  It didn't crawl into the hole in the brick wall for me, or log in to either of the computers.  A few hints established that I could use it to scare the urchin into dropping a vital item, and with a ring on its finger it helped me through a maze near the ending.

I finally finished the game with all 100 points -- some Infocom titles offered different scoring for different/better solutions to puzzles, but I don't think The Lurking Horror can actually be finished without earning all of the points along the way.  There's a lot of good, scary stuff before the actual ending comes up, so this victory screenshot doesn't spoil as much as you might think:

And that's The Lurking Horror, in the grand Infocom tradition.  Well worth playing.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The LoadDown - 10/26/2009

Every week we round up current happenings on the downloadable console scene...

WiiWare -- Two games this week:  Ghost Mansion Party is another family-friendly, Mario Party-inspired game with a virtual gameboard, minigames and a very Halloween-appropriate theme.  Tales of Monkey Island: Chapter 3 -- Lair of the Leviathan is also out, a bit later than expected, and I'm sure I will be playing that one soon.  Oh, and a correction from last week -- Shootanto: Evolutionary Mayhem turned out to be more of a shooting gallery game, rather than a first-person shooter.

Virtual Console -- Two games this week: Lucasarts' long-awaited Zombies Ate My Neighbors finally arrives in its SNES incarnation -- it's ghoulish, hilarious arcade-style fun as one or two players attempt to rescue their friends and family from a zombie onslaught.  The 32-bit generation Herc's Adventure tried to recapture this game's feeling, unsuccessfully, so it's great to have the original available on the VC, and to see LucasArts continuing its classic game revival.   We also get a Virtual Console Arcade game -- it's Sega's Golden Axe, already seen in its Genesis incarnation, but it looks and sounds better in its coin-op form.  It's a scrolling beat-'em-up with a fantasy theme, and like most games in the genre is fun but becomes repetitive after a while.

DSiWare -- Two games here also.  EA brings yet another SUDOKU game to the DSi; it's the perfect platform for it, of course.  There's also a strategy game called PictureBook Games: The Royal Bluff that appears to be some kind of multiplayer Mastermind.

XBLA -- Two releases last week.  Panzer General Allied Assault revives SSI's classic turn-based hex-map strategy game, interesting for those of us who are still getting used to RTS games.  Tower Bloxx Deluxe brings the PC action-puzzler to the 360.  Personally, I'm still working on Lode Runner and Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Video Shoebox, uh, Jukebox

There were a lot of cartridge-switching devices produced in the early days of videogaming, mostly for the Atari 2600, but I was surprised to find this mid-1990's ad promoting the very same concept, at the end of the line for solid-state media, as shiny little discs began to take over.

I haven't been able to find any evidence that this device was ever actually produced, though it's advertised here for the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and Atari Jaguar.  I'm almost positive the Jaguar version never came out commercially, and I haven't been able to find any photos of this thing online that aren't drawn from the magazine ads.

There were a couple of different ads run, so the Video Jukebox clearly had a marketing budget behind it.  But it's entirely possible it was one of those speculative "run the ad, see if we generate any interest" campaigns.  The promoter, ASG Technologies, Inc., also mentions a forthcoming videogame of its own in this ad -- but Hosenose and Booger definitely never came out.  Note also the absence of any operating TV display in the imagery -- it could easily have been faked, but perhaps ethics prevailed on the part of the photographer.  These indications tend to push the Video Jukebox into Bigfoot territory for me personally -- unless someone can produce a prototype, a working sample, or a corpse, it didn't ever really exist.

Realities aside, the idea, of course, was to have your whole game collection (with multiple $49.95 Video Jukebox units "networked" together if necessary) online at all times, ready for instant switching, instead of thrown in a shoebox under the bed.
But no game lasts forever, and this kind of device usually turned out to be just a more expensive shoebox.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Don't Interfere With My Game, Woman!

Video gamers have to deal with a number of negative stereotypes -- we are often portrayed in the media as antisocial, obsessive, sedentary geeks who are unable to deal with real people.

Most of us are actually reasonably intelligent, well-adjusted human beings with friends, family, and interests beyond videogames.

Ha ha!  Just seeing if you were paying attention.  These 90's marketing dudes clearly have us down cold:

If you ask me, this whole company isn't really interested in selling Gameboy and Game Gear accessories.  The products are branded "Interact", but the parent company is called STD Entertainment.

I bet it was just a front for some kind of abstinence organization.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Efera & Jiliora - The Emblem From Darkness

Once again, we venture into Japanese territory with nary a Ya Ta! in our vocabulary, as we take a look at Efera & Jiliora -- The Emblem from Darkness, published by Brain Grey in 1991.  It's an action RPG, a minor title in the PC-Engine library that was never released for the Western Turbografx-16.

Import emulation aside:  I ran Efera & Jiliora from the original Japanese CD, using the Magic Engine PC-Engine emulator.  Japanese HuCards don't work on the US TurboGrafx-16, and obviously there's no easy way to plug them into a PC, but PC-Engine CD-ROM games work just fine in the TurboDuo or a PC CD/DVD drive.

The game opens with a fairly lengthy cutscene -- it runs on the original PC Engine CD-ROM technology, not the later Super CD-ROM card with additional buffer RAM, so the graphics are small and there's not a lot of animation.  The style reminds me of the Sierra 3-D adventure games, with tiny but expressive characters; these scenes also feature quality voice acting, which enhances the story telling considerably.

The game seems to be set in the classical era of Greco-Roman history and mythology.  Storywise, it's a pretty dark setup -- one character dies from an encounter with the forces of nastiness, and during the burial another character commits suicide by slitting his own throat, complete with spurting blood.

Thus, in the grand RPG tradition, our heroines are spurred on a mission to defeat the evil influence.  The game can be played as Efera or Jiliora by a single player, with co-op play for two.

There isn't a lot of difference between the warriors - each has a very short-range attack and can use the same items, but they do have different special abilities.  Efera can heal herself with magic, essentially trading magic points for hit points, but magic points are easier to replenish with items found in the wilderness, making her a better character for novices.  Jiliora has an aggressive dash move that costs one hit point and damages enemies considerably, but tends to leave her back exposed to attack on the other side.  I spent most of my playtime as Efera.

The gameplay is action-oriented and "borrows" heavily from Falcom's classic Ys series -- the music has a similar feel, and there are RPG elements like hit points, attack and defense ratings, leveling up with experience, potions and gold pieces. 

Like the Ys games, enemies constantly respawn, providing a steady supply of XP fodder; unlike Ys, however, the player has to actively attack, but the character's range isn't any broader than that of Adol's swordtip.  It's necessary to move toward enemies, or wait for them to approach, then hit the button at just the right moment to deal damage rather than receive it.  It isn't easy to pull off, and I died a lot in my first few attempts.

I got the hang of combat eventually, but the map design still made for a frustrating experience -- most plants and large areas of foliage are deadly, and a lot of the challenge involves simply walking from one place to another without stepping on or in something green and losing hit points.  And even the weakest enemies are very good at coming from around tight corners, moving fast on the diagonal and doing damage before an attack can be brought to bear at the proper angle.


There are items to find and people to talk to in caves and rooms, and the game checkpoints when exiting these locations, allowing the player to continue from that point and character condition, making the difficulty a little more bearable.  But healing potions are rare, and not very effective given the rate at which damage accumulates, so character health tends to steadily deteriorate as each new checkpoint is reached. 

Fortunately, like most RPGs, there are villages conveniently situated between the dangerous areas, where players can heal, restock equipment and converse with the residents.

One surprising "feature" I discovered is that, unlike most RPGs, the game allows the player to kill random people in the villages -- but retribution from the locals swiftly follows, so it's not a good idea.  Given that the "continue conversation" button is the same as the "attack" button, it's critical not to click through such exchanges too haphazardly.

Efera & Jiliora isn't a terrible game, but it is generic, and it borrows too much from predecessors that have done the same thing better.  In the end, I didn't spend a lot of time playing this one, primarily because my nonexistent Japanese skills kept me from understanding details of the plot that might have made things more interesting.  But I could probably have muddled through if the game were less difficult --Efera & Jiliora isn't hard to play because of the language barrier, necessarily; it's just hard to play.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Interphase Up, Interphase Down

Interphase was a small Canadian videogame software company that produced a handful of cartridges and disks in the mid-1980's -- their best known titles were Sewer Sam and Blockade Runner, for the Colecovision and Intellivision systems.  They were still a fairly new publisher when the industry took its major nosedive, and their ads illustrate the big picture more concisely than I can.

Early 1984 full-color, full-page ad:

Early 1985 1/3 page, black-and-white ad:


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Video Podcast: A Requiem for Midway - Part II

We conclude our look at the history of Midway Games, including the Mortal Kombat phenomenon:

Also available at and in the iTunes Store -- search the Podcast directory for Gaming After 40.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Wii Shop Channel Update 10/20/2009

Nintendo pushed out a Wii Shop Channel update this evening.  I just got the Wii-mail a few minutes ago, so this almost qualifies as actual news!

The only official reason seems to be that users who paid 500 points for the Wii Internet Channel, which was free early on and was recently made free again, can now download one free NES game, an equivalent value.  Not a deal, per se, but a nice thing to do nonetheless.

The Wii firmware remains at the same version, 4.2U.

Adventure of the Week: Escape from Rungistan (1982)

This week, we take on an Apple II adventure classic -- Bob Blauschild's Escape from Rungistan, published in 1982 by Sirius Software.  It's chock-full of content, by the standards of its time, and a major challenge to complete.

The game opens with a nicely-animated zoom-in, revealing the game's title on the wall of the prison, where play begins:

The graphics are implemented using simple line drawings, similar to the Sierra Hi-Res Adventures of the time.  Later games implemented colored fills for substance and shading, and employed the services of trained graphic artists, but this early effort gets by with very simple illustrations indeed.

The game also features music, an uncommon feature for its time, with an option for short or long versions, as gameplay freezes whenever music is playing.  The tunes are simply arranged for the Apple II's sound hardware, with no harmonies, and familiar, often punning in nature - a mouse is accompanied by the Mickey Mouse Club theme, a book on sailing by Popeye The Sailor Man .  The musical interludes turn up frequently near the beginning of the game, less so as the story progresses; one suspects the novelty wore off for the designer as well.

Escape from Rungistan also features spot animations here and there, like the mouse that crawls down the wall and across the floor of the player's cell at the beginning.  Several key events play out in real-time, requiring the player to enter critical commands before an animation sequence reaches its (fatal) end.  Woe to the hunt-and-peck typist!

The game is structured in three parts, and it is impossible to return to previously visited territory.  This allows the transitions between sections to serve as checkpoints -- after an untimely death, the player can choose to continue at any of the major milestones reached.  The game even has a HINT PLEASE feature that offers some useful help.

Still, I had to resort to a walkthrough, and replay an infamous real-time sequence numerous times, to find my way out of Rungistan.  I appreciated the game's sense of humor and its many, many ways to die -- but it's definitely an old school adventure, with plenty of room for fatal, unforeseeable mistakes.  I found its puzzles obtuse and aggravating on occasion, but the experience was still entertaining.

As always, I urge interested readers to play the game before reading further, because in the interest of documentation, I'm going to give a number of surprises away.  I realize this game is more than twenty-five years old, but if it's new to you, I don't wish to spoil anything.

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

The game's intro screens promise that the player will have to learn skills to complete the game, but in reality this education consists of reading two books in the prison cell.  One book instantly teaches the player how to navigate via boat, and reading the second book on flight somehow causes a pilot's license to be mailed to an address discovered later in the game.  If the player misses this essential reading at the beginning, or fails to make use of the books before they are confiscated by the guard, the game is impossible to finish in the third act.

I trust my U.K. readers will not take offense to the American usage of the word when we LOOK MOUSE, and are informed that HE'S A CUTE LITTLE BUGGER.  On a similar note, given the lack of facilities in my cell, and some frustration with being well and truly stuck there at the game's beginning, I experimented with a certain colloquial scatologism involving the verb TAKE, and was surprised to see the game reply with THAT IS MOST ILLOGICAL CAPTAIN!

HINT PLEASE finally suggested I call the guard, who was willing to bring me FOOD on a tray when requested to do so.  The items delivered allowed me to make some progress.

The game's graphical limitations are most evident when human characters are involved -- without the text, I wouldn't know if this was a bearded old man, a space alien, Mr. Bill or a gingerbread man:

Old-school parser limitations reared their ugly heads in several situations -- FEED MOUSE doesn't work, but GIVE CHEESE does.  Similarly, it's impossible to DIG FLOOR; we have to DIG HOLE, and answer the game's WHERE? prompt with FLOOR.  If we dig more than once, the guard shows up and we are dead.  And as it turns out, WALL is a much better answer.

Once out of the prison, the player encounters a snake crawling through the desert, using a simple pixel draw/erase technique for animation.  But it's best to wait for the snake's animation to play out, as any action is immediately fatal, though funny, as follows:  THE SNAKE HEARD YOU TYPING. SINCE HE ALREADY HAD A HEADACHE, HE BIT YOU REAL GOOD.

The first real-time event requires the player to RUN EAST, then JUMP GORGE before the edge approaches too closely.  I liked this puzzle -- it made complete sense, even though figuring out how to pull it off took some experimentation.

The game features a number of hazards which don't have to be negotiated, just avoided.  For example:

It's best to duck back out of the cave at this point, as there's nothing there the player needs; otherwise THE BEAR EATS YOUR CUTE CUDDLY HEAD.

The game does its best to cover for a limitation of the engine, when a bridge becomes unstable and is destroyed in the process.  If the player hasn't crossed the chasm and is left on the wrong side, the bridge still displays from a distant perspective - here, the text addresses what the image cannot handle:

One bug I ran into while crossing the bridge -- I did a LOOK EAST before actually crossing the unstable bridge, and it never collapsed, it just forced me to retreat to safety.  But at this point, I could attempt to cross the bridge indefinitely, not getting anywhere but not dying or destroying the bridge either.

Many Apple II gamers will remember Escape from Rungistan's infamous skiing challenge.  I found the skis, but had a hard time getting started.  A walkthrough saved me at last, by providing the magic word GERONIMO.  This launches the player into an arcade sequence - unable to go around the approaching trees, we have to line our skis up precisely with the space between the trunks.  It goes on for somewhat longer than seems necessary, and it took me a while to get through this section successfully.

Once safely down the mountain, the next major challenge involves opening the safe in the saloon.  The four pieces of the combination are found in the area -- on a piece of paper in the cash register, a bottle on the shelf, and carved into two tree trunks in the mountains nearby.  There aren't too many assemblies of these fragments that make sense, fortunately.  But figuring out the combination is less than half the battle.  Satisfying the parser is an even tougher hurdle -- after trying various unsuccessful TURN DIAL, LEFT 7 and SET L14 commands, a walkthrough finally helped me out, indicating that the entire combination is treated as a single magic word: L14R21L7.  Here again, failing to open the safe is not immediately fatal, but makes the game impossible to finish within a few moves of victory.

I continued to find the walkthrough helpful at this point, as to get to the next section, the player has to catch a falling bird's egg, build a raft from the saloon doors, and obtain some dynamite without getting blown up by rebel guerrillas.  Whew! 

The third section of the game features a cat who appears to be holding a frying pan.  It's a classic bribe-ready guardian puzzle -- he's incredibly tough for a housecat and refuses to give up the prize, until the player gives him a mouse and obtains what turns out to be a magnifying glass.

There's also a friendly farmer who resembles Yul Brynner in Westworld, and gives the player a little employment:

A prison helicopter past this point is accompanied by impressive (for the era) sound effects.  Waiting around watching the copter turned out to be a bad idea, as eventually THE PILOT SPOTTED YOU AND LANDED ON YOUR FACE.  But letting it fly by the guard tower allows the player to sneak past while the guard is watching the helicopter.

The final chapter becomes truly difficult, and makes reference to a walkthrough almost essential.  Graffiti provides no clue about its purpose, which is to provide the key directions for navigating a maze.  The pilot's license promised earlier in the game arrives in a residential mailbox, but entering the nearby house proves fatal, as THIS IS THE PRISON GUARD'S HOUSE. YOU ARE DEAD.

Encountering this charming native stereotype is also fatal if an almanac has not been found in a field earlier:

Even with the almanac in hand, it's not obvious that PREDICT ECLIPSE is the right thing to do while in the cannibals' stewpot, nor does it quite make sense that doing this yields a precious religious relic -- to wit, an empty gas can.

After fueling the plane and using the player's book-larnin' piloting skills, another adventure game cliche turns up.  After the player gives the border guard the bottle obtained from the saloon safe, THE GUARD TAKES THE BOTTLE AND GETS SO DRUNK THAT HE CAN'T SEE.

We LIFT GATE, cross the border and:

It's a bit anticlimactic after all of the challenges, illustrations, and humorous asides up to this point.  But victory is sweet just the same, and I did enjoy the journey.  Thank goodness for online walkthroughs, though -- there's no shame in resorting to a hint or two.  Or ten.  Everyone has their own threshold for when a puzzle stops being fun, and the good, often anonymous folks who have shared their solutions over the decades deserve a lot of credit for keeping the rest of us moving forward.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The LoadDown - 10/19/2009

It's a good week on the downloadable scene -- lots of content, much of it worthwhile!

WiiWare -- Two games today.  First, LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias was rumored to be lined up for release today, and I'm happy to report that it made it out on schedule.  I really liked the original LostWinds, which made great use of the Wii's pointer controls to influence the natural environment, and this sequel looks to provide more of the same unique, gentle platforming experience.  The second new WiiWare game is Hudson's Shootanto: Evolutionary Mayhem, a first-person shooter with a deep-history bent as weapons and enemies evolve over time.  I imagine the visuals will be limited by the 40MB download size limit, but Hudson's WiiWare FPS games have been pretty solid to date.

Virtual Console -- A single, but interesting, Virtual Console Arcade release today:  Tecmo's original coin-op arcade game Rygar, which is different enough from the NES version to be worth a look.  It's side-scrolling hack-and-slash battle action in the classic 1980's 16-bit mold, with nicely detailed and shaded graphics, but the insert-coin-to-continue gameplay isn't as deep as the NES version, lacking the gurus and the adventure/item-acquisition elements.  Unlike the Namco and Sega games, the Tecmo arcade games haven't been re-released to death, though this game was made available on Tecmo's classics compilation for the original XBox some years ago.

DSiWare -- An experiment in episodic gaming as a mass release, apparently, as a new character stars in five simple but commendably varied action games:  Crash-Course Domo™, Hard-Hat Domo™, Pro-Putt Domo™, Rock-n-Roll Domo™, and White-Water Domo™.  Each sold separately!

XBLA -- The recent Telltale Games adventure drought on XBLA ended last week, but in an unexpected manner, as the second season collection, Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space hit the service for 1600 points (US$20), a very good value.  I've just completed the first of the five episodes, Ice Station Santa, and am enjoying this season as much as I did the first (though playing on the 360 this round, I do miss the Wii's point-and-click controller).  Another adventure-ish game, Axel & Pixel, also hit the service, with an interesting collage look and some action and puzzle elements to mix things up a bit.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Our Games Will Beat You Senseless!

In the early 1980's, truly challenging videogames held a certain cachet.  At the time, most games didn't have real endings or storylines, there was no online competitive play, and there wasn't anything like an achievement system.  So getting a high score on a tough game was as good as it got for the hardcover videogamer.

Imagic really capitalized on this vibe -- many of their magazine ads featured fictional players blown away, beaten down and driven cartoonishly insane by the difficulty of their games:




Even as late as the 1984 Christmas season, after Imagic had been absorbed into Activision during a wave of industry consolidation, computer game publisher Datamost borrowed their marketing approach.  Although Datamost's fictional gamer is considerably older, and looks like he may actually be mentally unstable:

Nowadays, I play games to relax.  Maybe I'm doing it wrong.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

In Praise of Atarisoft

During the early 1980's, Atari ruled the home videogame roost, and in addition to their own sizeable stable of hits, they bought licenses for a number of popular coin-op arcade games, including computer rights for Nintendo's Donkey Kong and exclusive rights to the original, non-super, regular guy Mario Brothers.  The intent, I suspect, was to make the most desirable titles available exclusively on Atari systems -- the 2600, 5200, and 400/800/XE line of computers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to profit.  Many, many unofficial versions of these games had already been released for competing platforms.  While those of us with non-Atari systems may have preferred to buy an officially licensed product, in general we were content to play Snack Attack or Ghost Gobbler or Scarfman or Jawbreaker or Piranha; many of these clones were well executed, in contrast to Atari's awful official Pac-Man cartridge for the 2600.  We certainly weren't likely to buy a whole new platform for the sake of a handful of worthy games.  Atari tried to encourage us to do so -- the company filed a lawsuit over Magnavox's K.C. Munchkin for the Odyssey2, but after much legal wrangling the effort yielded no real reward.  There were so many clones on the market, and such a short profit window at hand, that further litigation likely seemed impractical.

Thus, the company swallowed its pride, acknowledged the fact of competitors' established market share, took a page from Coleco's marketing playbook, and launched the Atarisoft line.

To Atari's credit, these conversions were generally of competent quality.  I spent a little time with Atarisoft's Commodore 64 version of Centipede recently after finding a copy in a thrift store, and it sounds and plays very much like the arcade game.  The VIC-20 editions were a little more primitive, the Apple II versions on the sluggish side, and the IBM PC versions looked like Christmas in reds and greens, or woefully pale in pastel reds and blues.  But there's no question that Atari was in these markets to succeed and make money.  While schoolyard prophets predicted they would intentionally produce inferior versions for competing platforms, they did not treat the exercise as a hugely expensive PR campaign. 

Unfortunately, the timing was awful -- just as Atarisoft was ramping up, the videogame market was winding seriously down for a while (the ad above appeared in the very last issue of Electronic Games magazine.)  But it was a smart and forward-thinking idea, an attempt to make Atari a software leader beyond its own hardware, and it foreshadowed Sega's later decision to go software-only, following the commercial failure of the Dreamcast.

The effort was certainly appreciated.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Retro Shop Talk: Roger Schrag on Airline (1983)

Early TRS-80 game programmer Roger Schrag handled several TRS-80 Color Computer conversions for Adventure International back in the day.  We took a look at Arex a few weeks ago, and now we turn our attention to Airline, originally created by George Schwenk for the Atari 400/800.

Airline is a simple strategy game for 2-4 human or computer players.  The object is to lease landing rights from 36 airports of varying size to establish routes, buy planes to fly them, and collect fares each turn.  When the specified number of turns is up, the game ends, with victory going to the most profitable airline executive at that point.

I asked Roger Schrag about the conversion process:

If I remember right, this was a very vanilla conversion. I pretty much converted everything as-is. About all I did on my own was introduce some color.  I worked from the Model I version. I knew there was an Atari version, but I never saw it.

Technically, Airline is very simple -- it's kind of like Monopoly without the board and the element of chance.  Only one player can purchase the landing rights at any given airport.  Each player can buy landing rights anywhere on the 6 x 6 grid, but flight routes only operate between adjacent cities, so while a distant airport can be bought up to block another player's expansion, it won't produce any fare revenue in isolation, while a cluster of airports near each other can produce quite a bit of cash each turn.

The game's approach is generally realistic.  The airports correspond to real cities and airports, and the planes available for purchase are based on real-world aircraft, including Airbus, DC-10, Boeing 747, and the Concorde, as well as a generic Prop plane.  The player has to balance the cost of landing rights at various airports versus seating capacity in building a fleet -- empty seats are a drain on profits, insufficient capacity is a bottleneck.

The artificial intelligence is fairly simple -- the computer players generally start somewhere on the board, then buy nearby landing rights and appropriately sized planes.  In the screenshot above, note the pixels across the bottom row while "CoCo Pro is thinking hard..." -- like most humans, I'm a pattern recognition machine, and I almost convinced myself that these "garbage" pixels were related in some way to the AI algorithms.  Roger recalls:

The "garbage" display while a computer player is thinking is just pseudo-random pixels drawn across the screen. Any significance you read in is purely coincidental.  I don't think the computer opponents have distinct personalities, but I don't remember absolutely for sure.  I really didn't get into Airline enough to want to fiddle with the strategies used by the computer players. I think I just converted them over exactly as-is.

The game's catalog blurb prides itself on the game's lack of random elements, but the approach proves flawed in the long term.  The absence of randomness is useful for development of a winning strategy, but once the player has figured out how to beat the computer it can be done consistently, and the challenge dissolves; there are no difficulty levels or rule variations to enliven the proceedings after that point. The game might hold up better playing against other humans, as the computer players' strategies are fairly conservative and very predictable.  They don't seem to try to block other players' expansion opportunities or otherwise disrupt the playfield in any interesting way, even by making mistakes as human players would.

Roger Schrag shares his thoughts on Airline, and draws some interesting contrasts to a much more venerable strategy game:
Personally, I never really got into the game. At the time I didn't think about games with random elements versus games that rely entirely on strategy. Today, though, I do think about that dichotomy quite a bit because I really enjoy the game of Go. Go is the world's oldest board game still played in its original form, and the strategy goes so deep that computers still have not mastered it the way they've mastered chess and most other games. There is no luck or randomness involved--you control your own destiny. But in Airline I'm not sure the strategy is deep enough to keep it interesting over the long run.
I also thought the game would be more fun played between people rather than one person against the computer. Of course, at the time, when I had a friend over we usually ended up playing Stratego rather than sitting in front of the computer to play a game. But boy have times changed!

After several tries and defeats, I managed to figure out the right balance of acquisition and maintenance to turn a winning profit against the computer, if only just:

I decided to declare victory and quit the Airline business while I was ahead.  It's ultimately more of a puzzle than a game -- the experimentation is fun while learning the rules, but once it's understood, there's little reason to go back to it. 

My thanks once again to Roger Schrag for taking the time to share his memories and recollections of the wild-and-wooly early days of computer gaming.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Capcom World & Hatena no Daibouken

Time once again for me to attempt a round of Japanese import gaming, handicapped by my very limited familiarity with the language.

This time, I made a particularly poor choice, given my linguistic impairment.  I booted up Adventure Quiz: Capcom World & Hatena no Daibouken, a double-feature port of two simple Capcom arcade quiz games to the PC-Engine Super CD-ROM format.  The opening menu allows the player to choose either game:

Both titles are similar -- each features a map-style gameboard for 1-4 contestants, challenging players to answer trivia questions to advance through the worlds of the game.  Each turn starts with a die roll and movement on the colorful game board.

After each move, the player answers quiz questions to score points, earn time bonuses and continue playing.  Some of the questions seem to concern Capcom games and characters, or at least videogames in general -- I saw the letters RPG crop up a few times.  But beyond that rough impression, there's not much to look at here for the clueless gaijin like me -- the screens are dominated by text:

You may correctly conclude that, without a working knowledge of Japanese, it was completely beyond my abilities to understand the questions, let alone answer them correctly.  However, given the pure-chance odds of answering correctly presented three or four choices, and the ability to "buy credits" arcade-style by hitting the RUN button whenever I was in trouble, I was still able to get on the high score board -- go figure!

In the end, despite enjoying some nominal success, I had a hard time extracting any real entertainment from this disc.  Ah, well.  It's a unique Capcom collectible, if nothing else.  And if I ever do get motivated to learn to read Japanese, this game will provide a fine test.  It may even provide a goodly portion of said motivation.