Friday, December 30, 2011

Of Import: Shubibinman III (1992)

If you follow this blog at all, you know that my import game habits tend to be pretty random; if I can pick up a Japanese game that I haven't played for a reasonable price, it's a candidate for the collection.  Sometimes this means I end up with good games, common and cheap because they were deservedly popular back in the day, and sometimes I buy bad ones, cheap because nobody really wants to play them.

I'm glad to say that Masaya's Shubibinman III (full title: Kaizo Chojin Shubibinman III: Ikai no Princess) for the PC Engine is one of the good ones, despite its publisher's decidedly mixed reputation.  The Shubibinman series started out as a bit of a Mega Man imitator, especially the second game in the series which arrived in North America (and on the Wii Virtual Console) as Shockman.  But by the time the series reached its third entry, the first and only installment released on the CD-ROM format, it had matured into its own style of game.  This one has sharp, arcade-quality 16-bit graphics, quality CD remixes of the game's musical themes, and substantial, high-quality animation and voice work.

And it's quite a fun ride -- while it doesn't quite reach the heights of Treasure's Gunstar Heroes or SNK's Metal Slug series, it shares an anything-goes love of novelty with those classic side-scrollers.  Our hero (or heroes -- two can play simultaneously) fights through side-scrolling levels and simple mazes, battling various robotic and organic enemies.  But the game takes full advantage of the CD-ROM medium's capacity to shift gears early and often, preventing the gameplay from becoming predictable or repetitive.  It's also technically impressive, pulling off some striking effects on the PC Engine.

The opening animation sets up the story, which has a little more character than the norm -- while I don't speak Japanese, I was able to suss out that the pink-haired villainess has something against our champion, based on her tone of voice every time she spits out "Shubibin Man!"  She's accompanied by a couple of comically useless henchmen, and the whole affair is treated in a lighthearted manner, allowing for plenty of variety in the gameplay.

The first level is graphically impressive, with parallax scrolling way beyond the usual scan-line effects; large buildings are placed clearly in the foreground, no mean trick on this platform.  Shubibinman can attack by swinging his sword, and if we hold down the fire button for a while before releasing, he can fire a semi-steerable ball of intense energy.  And after taking out a number of routine enemies, our hero defeats and commandeers a giant mech, sprinting through the rest of the level firing its lightning weapon and occasionally tripping and rolling harmlessly past low-lying obstacles.

Later, the game takes a stylistic break from its futuristic setting, presenting a classic kung-fu movie scenario with a setting sun and a traditional jump-kicking foe -- who turns out to be a cyborg as we whittle him down.

We also encounter a snowman made of sprites, who appears in several different forms, including this one that spawns miniature snowmen to get underfoot and cause trouble.

Eventually we face the ostensibly final boss, who unleashes magical attacks until we succeed in bring her down.

Of course, she is not the real enemy here -- she has been manipulated by this purple-haired dude, who summons an array of demons and creatures for a final boss rush sequence.

Along the way, this cool spotlight effect turns up -- I'm really not sure how this is pulled off on the humble PC Engine, but it looks very nice:

This dragon boss is impressively large, though the absence of other background imagery gives away the programming tricks involved as we flee, dodging its laser breath and trying to duck above its wings to get in a few shots of our own:

After defeating the real final boss, there's this very bizarre coda in which a genie robot talks Shubibin Man's ear off before finally succumbing to his attacks:

And then it turns out it was all a dream, as Shubibinman wakes up on the beach -- or was it?  Our trio of villains shows up at sea, riding a giant mech -- and the game is over, the sequel apparently promised here never having materialized.

There's an unusual Omake bonus section that becomes available on the Options menu after the game is finished -- it features art submitted to Masaya by fans of the earlier Shubibinman games:

As well as a brief little cartoon that features our hero's own fan art, presenting our heroes in a situation with which our female lead is apparently not in agreement:


This proves a cautionary tale for otaku everywhere:

And that's where the fun of Shubibinman III finally ends.  It's too bad that Shockman apparently didn't sell well enough in North America to merit release of this solid sequel -- it really does show off the hardware nicely, and it's far less repetitive than most games of its era.  But the CD-ROM peripheral was not a strong seller here, and localization would have required a significant investment in translation and recording.  At least we can still play the Japanese original -- it will run just fine on the American TurboDuo and TurboGrafx-CD -- and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

This one is well worth owning, and it's not overly expensive. You might be able to find a copy for sale here:

Shubibin Man 3 PC-Engine CD

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The LoadDown - 12/29/2011

Christmas is past, and it's almost 2012.  Not a lot of major titles coming out during this post-holiday season, but here's what's new on the wire this week, for all those new consoles Santa brought...

WiiWare --  The new incarnation of a long-running educational videogame character continues, with the second game in what seems to be a series: Carmen Sandiego Adventures in Math: The Big Ben Burglary.  Just the one new game this week, which seems to be par for the course lately.

DSiWare -- Two new titles.  Cake Ninja is a stylus-driven cake-slicery game with decent gesture recognition and physics, though one imagines the concept gets old after a few minutes of chopping up flying cakes.  Slingo Supreme is just what it sounds like, if it sounds like anything -- it's a game of Bingo with numbers generated via slot machine.

3DS eShop -- Two new games up here as well.  VVVVV is a decidedly 8-bit-style maze/puzzle game with a screen-flipping gravity mechanic.  Bionic Commando is the black-and-white Game Boy version of Capcom's arcade and NES hit, replacing trusty hero Super Joe with the gimmicky-sounding Rad Spencer but retaining the timeless gameplay style.

XBox Live Arcade -- Just one new game this week, All Zombies Must Die!; also available on PS3.

PS3 on PSN -- Two new titles up this week.  All Zombies Must Die! is a twin-stick multiplayer shooter with an undead theme.  Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD brings the last of the Oddworld Inhabitants releases for the XBox to the PS3 -- this imaginative game didn't get the attention it deserved when it was released, so it's nice to see it getting a second bite at the apple.

PSOne Classics -- One new title this week, the classic 2.5-D cartoon platformer Klonoa: Door to Phantomile.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Jungle Adventure Part II - King Solomon's Mines (1982)

This week, we're tackling a game informally listed as "Solomon Adventure" in the online archives, published in January of 1982 by the cassette-based CLOAD magazine for the TRS-80 home computers.  It's actually billed as Jungle Adventure, Part II -- King Solomon's Mines, but I haven't yet been able to track down Jungle Adventure, Part I, so we will just have to start in the middle of the saga.  This BASIC-language adventure was written by John R. Olsen Jr., of Newberg, Oregon, author of quite a few adventure games, mostly in the early 1980s with several published as late as 1992; this is the first of his works I've covered here.

This is a fairly difficult adventure -- there are time pressures of various kinds to deal with, and once a puzzle is figured out it's often necessary to restore, go back and re-execute as efficiently as possible.  The game does have a functional SAVE feature, but it allows only one slot and using it seems to count as a move, so some care is required even there.  My walkthrough below attempts to optimize the game's solution, but one wrong move can spell failure.

I always encourage interested readers to play these games a bit before reading my comments here; I'm going to be documenting the game's storyline and my experiences while playing it, and for history's sake, there will doubtless be...

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

The game begins outside a trading post near a watering trough, and we are told that (presumably in the first game) Yesterday you brought back IVORY from the Elephant's Graveyard.  You are now ready to start out alone on your next quest.

We are carrying a letter, which tells us to bring the treasures from King Solomon's Mines to the trading post and say SCORE, so we can surmise that this will be a traditional treasure hunt adventure.  TRS-80 users with lowercase kits beware -- the parser is case-sensitive, so read letter doesn't mean anything but READ LETTER does.  We can GO POST to find a plastic bag, a revolver, and some ivory, all of which will potentially be useful.  (Though the intro implies that by using the ivory for another purpose, we'll be negating everything we worked so hard to accomplish in the prequel Jungle Adventure.)

We get a feel for how this game's going to go when we discover that we have also started out very thirsty -- we get a You will die of thirst in 5 moves message shortly after starting.  Even moves that the parser doesn't understand get counted against this expiration timer, which can be a bit frustrating while we're figuring things out.

We can observe a rock slide to the east, where after one turn the room description suddenly includes a RHINO charging you, with no additional comment from the engine.  Once he charges, we're pretty much dead, although if we have the revolver we can shoot him twice to casually turn him into a dead RHINO in the Great White Hunter tradition.

There's foul water in the grassland to the west -- DRINK WATER yields the perspective-challenging It's poison!  We're dead!  So finding potable water really has to be our highest priority.  The watering trough in our starting location will do, so this really isn't much of a puzzle, though the textual sound effects are entertaining: Slurp! Ahhh!  But the respite doesn't last long -- unlike many games where drinking takes care of the issue for the rest of the game, thirst will be a constant challenge here.  It seems we need to drink water every 9 moves to stay alive, which will put a serious cramp in our adventuring style.

There's a pygmy village at the end of a winding jungle trail littered with skulls.  South of the village is a rock canyon with stones littering the ground (they turn out to be flint if we LOOK STONE, so we ought to be able to use these to make a fire.)  A jungle clearing features a dead tree, from which we can observe our surroundings but not really obtain any new information. 

We can't map very far away from the trading post's trough without dying of thirst, so we need to solve that problem.  We can't seem to carry water in the skull or the bag, and there are no canteens at the trading post.  We can't GET TROUGH either, not that I really expected to be able to.  I was on the right track, so I don't feel guilty about peeking at the game's programming code to figure this one out.  As it turns out, we can't FILL BAG, or GET WATER / WITH BAG or GET WATER / IN BAG, but we can PUT BAG -- In two words, tell me where? -- IN TROUGH to get some potable, portable water.  LOOK BAG now tells us that It contains 24 turns of water.  Oddly, we never have to actually drink water from the bag -- having it handy just allows us to move for 24 turns without running out of water and starting to die of thirst.

Now we can make it to the edge of a lost city, where we see a temple and poisonous SNAKES slithering towards you.  We can't move after we see them, because immediately The SNAKES bite you! You have been killed!  We can't shoot them with the revolver either, at least not effectively -- one gets killed but the rest keep coming. 

We pause to note here that the revolver has limited bullets -- we start with 6, which should be plenty.  Our inventory is limited to 5 slots, which is more of a challenge.  GET checks the inventory limit before resolving the object -- GET [anything] yields You're carrying too much! even if we've asked for something nonexistent or un-gettable.

We will need to deal with the snakes somehow, it seems.  We can GET GRASS in the grassland to come away with a handfull [sic] of GRASS, though this isn't immediately useful either.  We can STRIKE FLINT and observe that, as expected, The FLINT makes a small spark.  If we do this in the grassland, though, we observe FLAMES!! It's a grass fire!! and we are dead again.  Making sparks doesn't seem to help with the snakes, and it doesn't seem we can light a handful of grass on fire either.

Aha!  There's some trading possible with the locals.  If we DROP IVORY in the Pygmy village, then leave the "room" and come back, we find a carved wooden MAP in its place.  This opens up a hidden trail out of the village; we can FOLLOW MAP to find a small ravine with a cave, a bubbling SPRING, a knife and an old stick of dynamite.  Now we're getting somewhere.

The cave to the south is extremely dark; it seems to be black hole of sorts, as if we don't have a light source we can't even walk back out the way we came without falling and getting ourselves killed.

The dynamite seems like it might be useful for clearing the rockslide, but if we just LIGHT DYNAMITE it immediately explodes.  LOOK DYNAMITE (following a restore) indicates that There's no fuse.  With a handful of grass we can MAKE FUSE to produce a FUSE made from woven grass.  But we're still on the wrong track -- we can't just DROP DYNAMITE, light the fuse and run; it explodes but makes no visible impact on the rockslide.  We can't seem to use it against the snakes either; we are fatally bitten before we have time to drop the dynamite or light the fuse, even if we light it before entering the temple area.

Can we find anything of value in the cave?  Well, if we go into the dark cave with the flint and the dynamite, we can LIGHT FLINT, which ignites the fuse... but doesn't illuminate our surroundings at all.  Nor does a brief spark from the flint without the dynamite nearby show us anything about the area -- it really is dark in here. We can try to map the cave in the darkness with repeated SAVEs and LOADs... if we try to move in an invalid direction, we get the potentially revealing You can't!  But if we are successful at finding a valid direction, then we fall and die of a broken neck.  So this approach is not going to be very productive.

LOOK TREE in the clearing reveals that The BARK has been eaten away.  But we can't seem to CUT BARK or GET BARK or CUT WOOD from the dead tree.  It's impervious to dynamite also. 

We can CUT HORN to obtain the dead rhino's horn, and then trade this to the pygmies to get a wood FLUTE.  (I pause here to note sadly that, in the real world, rhinos are being driven to extinction by the superstition-driven demand for their horns.  I plead self-defense here.)  The flute is carved to resemble a snake, and PLAY FLUTE scares the snakes away.  (We are not given any information about what tune it is we have played, but clearly it's no charmer or we are really bad at playing it.)

Now we can access the ancient temple -- and its sealed stone door.  OPEN DOOR yields only I don't understand you, so it's pleasantly satisfying when we figure out that this is where the dynamite finally comes into play.

The temple contains goggles, a stone idol, and an elaborate wall mural depicting men cutting tree bark and chewing it.  Okay.  If we wear the goggles, everything looks dark, so we may want to try these in the cave... nope, they're not night-vision goggles.  Maybe the mural indicates that we need to chew some bark too.  We can't CUT BARK at the base of the tree, as previously established, but by climbing the tree we can get some.

Chewing the bark makes everything too bright outdoors in normal light -- the goggles cut the light down, so we can take them off in the cave to see normally now.  There's a path going down to a rock ledge, and another ledge across the way.  JUMP LEDGE yields You weigh to [sic] much right now.  We have to drop everything to make it across to the other ledge.

At last we have found King Solomon's treasure room!  There are sapphires, rubies and diamonds here on a stone table.  But we can't JUMP CHASM with any of these treasures in hand -- they're too heavy.  And eventually we are told that Your eyes itch, which can't be a good thing; they eventually return to normal and we can't see in the dark any more.  So we need to get the treasures out of here, and quickly.

We can try to THROW RUBIES to the other ledge, but They scatter and fall into the chasm.  Maybe we can put them in the bag, if we empty the water first?  Yes, that works, and THROW BAG causes it to land on the other ledge.  But the bag can only hold one type of gem at a time -- it fills up quickly with our questionable gains, so we have to make several trips to rip all of these invaluable archaeological finds out of their in situ location so we can cash in.  And of course, we are likely to run out of night vision partway through the process, and have to go get some more bark.  Ack.  It is possible to get all the treasures bagged, tossed and retrieved before the timer runs out -- but just barely.

On our return from the treasure cave, we find that our path is blocked in the pygmy village by a large group of PYGMIES, previously unseen.  We need one of the skulls (which we selected at random but turns out to be the Sacred Skull) to drop, so we can scare them off without giving them a treasure.  Of course, we can't get to the skull pile with our path blocked, so if we didn't think to bring a skull along before we went into the cave, and our save post-dates that point, it's time to start over.

With the pygmies dispersed, we can either empty the bag and fill it with water from the spring, or just drink water at every opportunity to get safely back to the trading post and deliver the treasures.  Despite our blatant disregard for animal life, native religions and archaeological integrity -- victory is ours!

This was a pretty challenging game, but it's a fair design that doesn't cheat too much beyond the usual die-to-learn-how-not-to adventure situations.  I'm pleased to see that Mr. Olsen created quite a few games, and I look forward to playing more of his work.  My walkthrough should be available at the CASA Solution Archive soon, and is posted here below the fold.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

What's Santa's Favorite Video Game?

Schoolyard joke one day, national magazine cover the next:

My recollection is that the handling in Namco/Atari's racing coin-op Pole Position was pretty drifty already, so turning it into a special ice-laden Christmas edition would have been straightforward.  (And if the game were around today, in the age of DLC, it would probably have happened.)

This is a magazine cover circa 1983, from Electronic Fun magazine's second year of operation.  I've found actual Christmas-themed video game advertisements to be unexpectedly rare in these seasonal issues.  Most companies just ran the same ads they did year-round, we just saw more of them printed during the gift-shopping season.  In 1983 the home game market was not as mainstream as it is today, nor was Black Friday quite so prominent, and new releases were not necessarily promoted at retail in the days when a "big" release might sell tens of thousands rather than millions of copies.  So the holidays were not necessarily a big sales period for anyone but the console manufacturers... and, of course, the kids who depended mostly on Santa for new games.  That well-used copy of Combat was just itching to move into a cardboard box under the bed.

Too bad that North Pole Position cabinet doesn't have any room for Santa's bag of toys.  And it's even more unfortunate that Santa's watching the screen instead of his actual flight path, and appears to be headed for the outer limits of the Earth's atmosphere.  Asphyxiation appears imminent; perhaps Santa heard about the X Prize and mistakenly thought it had something to do with Xmas.

C'mon, you know you laughed when you read that, in spite of yourself.

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Santa Claus Will Be Sad If You Don't Subscribe

I'm not quite sure what the illustration selected for this 1982 holiday season subscription ad for Electronic Games magazine was supposed to convey.  Santa's expression certainly doesn't befit his usual image as a jolly old elf.  He appears to have forgotten something important, like his bag of presents.  Or maybe his pants.

I like to think he suffers the same memory malady I find myself experiencing more and more often as I get older.  I'd be willing to wager I sport much the same expression as Saint Nick here, whenever I find myself thinking:
"I know where I am.  Why the heck am I here?"
But we know why Santa's here.  He's here to sell magazine subscriptions, and sucker people into subscribing for years in advance.  I wonder if anyone had a subscription paid through 1987, say, and bugged the new Electronic Games publishers for long-delayed fulfillment during its brief relaunch attempt in 1992?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: PC Engine Hyper Catalog 4 (1993)

Christmas Day approaches, and as it's Friday, I've managed to find a Japanese import disc with a seasonally appropriate theme.  PC Engine Hyper Catalog 4 is not a game, per se, but an edition of a periodically issued reference/demo disc with lots of cool stuff onboard.  While most of the content is in Japanese, the back cover of the disc insert advertises the "PC Engine Monthly Magazine for Game Freaks" -- in English.  I presume this ad refers to another publication, as I don't think this CD-ROM would have come out monthly.  And I don't know how many issues were produced, but I can say with reasonable certainty that Shogakukan and PCI produced at least 4 of these discs -- this one is from Winter of 1993.

And while I'm personally more inclined to wish my diverse circle of friends "Happy Holidays!" than "Merry Christmas!", this is definitely a Christmas issue, not a generic holiday theme.  It opens with Christmas-y music as an odd purple dinosaur (no, not that one) scoots out of the way as our boy and girl hosts appear -- all quite nicely animated.  Note the Christmas stockings, stars, bells, and... yes, Christian churches in the title screen's background:

The disc actually opens with a neat trick, as the PC Engine startup CD-ROM menu seems to tilt and rotate into the background when we press the RUN button -- but if we boot with an alternative system card, like the TurboGrafx-CD, the impressive effect is revealed as a pre-rendered sequence, not a real-time image warp.  Past the title menu, our friends spot Santa claus zooming through the skies over Tokyo, and rush to see what he has left under the tree.  A candy cane cursor provides access to the selectable gifts:

The centerpiece of this PC Engine CD-ROM disc is the Hyper Catalog of games, with prices, genres, and brief text details -- but no images.  If I could read Japanese, this would be a really valuable resource; one assumes it was updated in each issue of the series, so that PC Engine otaku would have a reasonably current and complete database available.  We can search by vendor and other categories, and see brief summaries and reviews.  Today, we have the internet and the fabulous PC Engine Bible, so I'm not really feeling left out.  But in 1993 this must have been the (Hudson) bee's knees:

From a cost-effective vintage gaming perspective, the disc's best feature is the series of demos onboard.  Some are playable excerpts of the full game, others are non-interactive animated promos -- but all of these are fun to look at, and may save collectors a few curiosity purchases.

First up is Gojira - Bakuto Retsu Den, a.k.a. Godzilla:

We only get to pit Gojira against a few of his traditional foes from the popular Toho kaiju films -- Rodan and Anguirus -- but it's a pretty healthy sample of the game:

Next up is Super Darius II, second in Toho's series of robotic fish-themed shooters:

We're allowed to play one level, after which the demo game is over whether we beat the boss fish or not.

Next up is the intro sequence, complete with its excellent music, from Falcom's RPG Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys.

We see some character dialogue sequences during the demo, and we also get to take control of the Ys series' hero Adol and putter around town a bit, although none of the shops are open for business (the owners appear briefly to tell us, I presume, that we should buy the actual game), there don't seem to be any substantial quests on offer, and of course we can't save or load.

The PC Engine had no shortage of RPGs, and an interactive demo of Irem's Sol Moonarge presents a lighter, more comical example of the genre:

Next up is a "SPECIAL VERSION" of Hudson's classic Bomberman '94 -- I'm not sure what makes it special, really, but it's preceded by a mock disclaimer apparently denying the existence of the game.

It's good, clean Bomberman fun:

 We also get a preview of Konami's dating sim, Tokimeki Memorial, due to arrive in 1994:

Which can come off a little creepy to Western eyes:

We also get to see the opening for the anime/manga adaptation Yawara! 2:

The first Yawara! game was a digital comic; this one has more game elements, as we can play a quiz game, or participate in a slow-moving, serious round of judo:

Next up is a PC Engine adaptation of one of the first true deathmatch games -- Faceball, popular on the Atari ST once upon a time:

The 3-D graphics are primitive, but the PC Engine pulls off this occasionally intense two-player battle:

We also get to try out fighting game Flash Hiders, a coin-op adaptation which doesn't hide much of the flash and features a few female characters who, er... like a bowl full of jelly, y'knowhatI'msayin?

Finally, we get a sample of the classic PCE hex-based strategy game Nectaris, known in the US as Military Madness:

It's a good bundle of gaming -- nothing full-length, but plenty of variety and a great way to sample some of what was hot on the PC Engine circa Winter 1993.  I will have to pick up more of these PC Engine Hyper Catalog issues as I run across them.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The LoadDown - 12/22/2011

Christmas is nearly here, which means a lot of people will have new consoles to play with.  And if whatever Santa left turns out to be less than entertaining, perhaps something newly available for download will fill the bill...

WiiWare -- One new game this week, Soccer Up, a simple soccer game with 4-player local multiplayer and Mii support.  There's also a free demo version of Gnomz, a Smash Bros.-style fighter that came out in November.

DSiWare -- Three new titles available for the DSi and 3DS.  Doodle Fit is a shape-fitting puzzle game.  Rytmik Retrobits is a musical tool for creating loops, beats and tracks in a retro-drum machine style.  Chronicles of Vampires: Origins is a hidden-object hunt.

3DS eShop -- Two titles arrive exclusively for the 3DS.  TETRIS is the black-and-white Game Boy version of this classic puzzle game; it was the Game Boy's killer app when it first came out and is still a great game today.  WayForward's Mighty Switch Force! is a 2-D sidescrolling platformer/shooter, with puzzle elements, really nice hand-drawn graphics and action from the folks who brought us Shantae and Contra IV.

XBox Live Arcade -- One new game this week: Trine 2 is a sequel to the Finnish side-scrolling fantasy game; the original never came to XBLA but this worthy sequel is a lot of fun, and supports 2-player co-op fighting and puzzle-solving.

PS3 on PSN -- Two new titles.  Sonic CD is the Sega CD-specific Sonic the Hedgehog game; it's been re-released in recent years on Sonic compilations, but it's good to see this overlooked classic available as a stand-alone title.  Apples to Apples brings the categorization-based card game to the PS3 and may be a good choice for family holiday gaming.

PSOne Classics -- Well, it's something, I guess.  Many families may be nostalgia-suckered into buying Atari's PSX "reimagining" of the classic Centipede, but this awkward 3-D version doesn't hold a candle to the original.

Notable on Steam -- Steam's holiday sale is in full swing, with a meta-game featuring special bonus achievements in a variety of games.  I've become a big fan of Steam's ability to push me to sample and buy indie games I might otherwise have missed, at very reasonable prices.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Klondike Adventure (1982)

This week's adventure has a bit of a Christmas theme, though I didn't expect that to be the case.  We're returning to the long-running SoftSide Publications disk magazine adventure game series, with SoftSide Adventure #9 -- Klondike Adventure, written by James Bash and published in February of 1982.  The author credit on the game's title screen is unusual -- most of the SoftSide games were uncredited onscreen, or at best had the author's name buried in the BASIC code.  Maybe Mr. Bash managed to slip this quick mention subliminally past the editors, just before the normal startup screen:

From the game's introductory text:  Face brutal snow, ice, and bitter cold as you search for fame and fortune in the northern country.  The player's simple goal is to find five treasures and store them in a specific location before freezing to death; this is a thematic forerunner of the later SoftSide Adventure #19, Alaskan Adventure.  We're playing the Atari 400/800 version here.

The SoftSide adventures are generally brief, uncomplicated treasure hunts, written by a number of authors with some "house style" consistencies and some interesting variations.  Klondike Adventure follows the traditional model introduced by Scott Adams -- we must collect the items denoted as  *TREASUREs*, store them in the prescribed location, and say SCORE to win.

As always, I suggest interested adventurers sample Klondike Adventure independently before continuing here.  I will be documenting the game's puzzles and storyline, and there are definitely...

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

The adventure begins in the lobby (is that the right word?) of a small building, with a vending machine and a sign reading "GOODIE STORAGE LOCATION."  So this is presumably the SCORE room.  INVENTORY at this early stage yields I am currently carrying: ZILCH!!!  The author's parser has a sense of humor and tries to keep itself fresh with randomized standard responses -- for example, its incomprehension phrases include No comprendo, Run that by me again? and That does not compute.

The vending machine sells FUR COATS for $19.95; presumably we will need one for the journey, to avoid the aforementioned freezing to death.  A locked door is to the east, and if we go north we find ourselves standing outside in front of YUKON BILL'S COUNTRY STORE, where we can also see AN AWESOME SNOWBANK.

We will also shortly discover that we can't even leave Yukon Bill's establishment safely -- we get locked out as we leave the store, and we'll likely freeze to death within a few turns.  But this is an adventure game, so we might as well map the world as best we can before we die in the frozen wastes. 

The Alaskan Pipeline runs through a snow-covered valley to the north of the store.  We can CLIMB PIPELINE to enter it, but it's not warm inside.  There's a frozen pond to the east, and some mountains to the north.  A KILLER WALRUS occupies the mountain pass -- we can't get past this surprisingly active large aquatic mammal, so we will need to eliminate him somehow.

So before we can really accomplish much outdoors, we're going to need that fur coat; we'll need to poke around Yukon Bill's and see if we can scare up some cash.  A PAN in the storage room inside the store might be useful -- this is the Klondike after all, home of the historical Gold Rush.  But The pan is on a high shelf and we can't just GET PAN, nor can we CLIMB, KICK, HIT, or MOVE the SHELF

The solution to this one is rather interesting -- we can MOVE or PUSH some items, and we're asked for a direction, so we can actually relocate these objects to another room on the map.  This is an unusual implementation for this generation of text adventures, and a neat idea.  We can actually move the vending machine into the storage room, and then CLIMB MACHINE to retrieve the pan.  Cool!  EXAMINE PAN confirms that I don't think it's for cooking... so we can probably use it to pan for gold, if we find a suitable stream later on.  There doesn't seem to be one running through the country store.

We still don't have any way to  buy a fur coat.  We can't BUY COAT or OPEN MACHINE, but we can attempt to BREAK MACHINE -- and out pops a coat!  This reveals a bit of intentional design strangeness -- the author likes to avoid using common words, so that we have to guess at the dictionary's intended term.  In this case, examing the coat reveals that It has a small piece of cloth affixed to the collar with writing on it.  But we can't seem to READ COAT or READ COLLAR or READ WRITING or READ CLOTH; most of these are not recognized as nouns, so we can't GET any of these objects first either.  I ultimately had to inspect the source code to learn that the dictionary wants us to call this a LABEL -- and READ LABEL reveals this is a *GENUINE MINK* and therefore a treasure.  I always like it when a treasure doubles as a utilitarian object -- and I can image players wondering where that fifth treasure could possibly be, when they've been wearing it all along.

Now that we're suitably befurred, we can explore the game's world in more detail.  The Alaskan Pipeline is a bit of a maze, but it's linear and fairly easy to map now that we can stay warm long enough to do it properly.  There's a valve inside the pipe; we can TURN VALVE, but Oil comes gushing down the pipeline towards me! I drown in a sea of petroleum! I'M TERMINATED!!  So that's a bad idea.  At the end of the pipeline we arrive in an oil field with a LARGE OIL WELL, and atop the oil well we find an OLD PARCHMENT, which turns out to be Yukon Bill's Last Will and Testament -- we can claim the oil well simply by signing on the dotted line.  Of course, this is an adventure game, so we have to find something with which to SIGN PARCHMENT.

I pause here to note that READ and EXAMINE seem to be the same verb in this game -- so we don't have to deal with any pointlessly obtuse There's writing on it! messages.

We can't just KILL WALRUS, because He gets upset. He eats me!   We can BREAK ICE on the frozen pond to swim underneath -- we are told it's surprisingly warm - it must come from a geyser of some sort.  This is another simple maze -- we can just go straight down to the bottom and ignore the other directions offered for exploration.  But there are definite limitations on how long we can hold our breath, and there's no apparent reason to come down here yet.

I checked, and moving the GOODIE STORAGE LOCATION sign does NOT actually move the location, so we will eventually have to get back into Yukon Bill's Country Store to get credit for our accumulated treasures.

And the AWESOME SNOWBANK doesn't register as a noun with which we can do anything, according to the implacable parser.  I was getting a bit stuck at this point -- I had run into several dead ends, without the one key I assumed would unlock some other solutions -- and I finally had to reference the code to learn we can collapse the snowbank with a YELL.  This reveals a key -- literally; it opens both the front door and the door at the end of the hallway inside Yukon Bill's.

The toolshop inside contains a SCRAP OF PAPER with YUKON BILL'S CHRISTMAS LIST - item 1 is a Pickax, item 2 is a Surprise gift...  There are no treasures here, but we can surmise a pickax will be involved in this story at some point.

With the snowbank collapsed, we can GET SNOW, MAKE SNOWBALL and THROW SNOWBALL - AT WHAT? - AT WALRUS to get him out of the way.  We can now access, but not enter, a FLOWING GLACIAL RIVER -- because I get frostbite! I'M TERMINATED! -- nor can we seem to PAN RIVER or PAN GOLD.  There's a hole in the glacier from which the river flows, but it's too dark to see inside, and we can easily slip and suffer a fatal broken neck in the traditional adventurer's manner.

Things become more interesting when we suddenly find ourselves at the North Pole -- and a billboard outside a building reads, "SANTA'S WORKSHOP."   The building can be entered -- it is, of course, S.C.'S HOUSE, and there's a FAT GUY IN RED SUIT here.  The stable to the west contains a REINDEER, who turns out to be the famous Rudolph, just in case we needed further confirmation of our whereabouts.  We can try to KILL SANTA -- one of the pleasures of old-fashioned text adventures is trying anything we can type -- but the jolly old elf only gets mad and walks away, permanently.  We can't seem to show Yukon Bill's list to Santa, even though LOOK SANTA indicates that He seems to be expecting something.

Oh, dear -- I think I just figured out what he's expecting.  We have to SIT LAP first -- LOL! -- and we need Yukon Bill's Christmas List in hand.  Now we can ASK PICKAX -- and despite the grammatically awkward phrasing, Santa says 'Ho Ho HO'.  And a PLATINUM PICKAX appears on his lap.  (Sounds painful, but it serves him right for calling me a Ho.)

ASK INK also works (handy for signing the parchment will) -- though ASK PEN and ASK for other things gets no response.  The parser's responses inadvertently reveal whether any particular noun is known to the dictionary -- we can see the difference between ASK WHAT? and a recognized item name.  I took advantage of Santa's tendency to leak information to learn that no SHOVEL or LAMP is available in the game.

Given that knowledge, perhaps Rudolph's nose bears closer inspection.  We learn that IT GLOWS - '45 watts' -- and while we can't GET NOSE -- it's connected somehow -- we can UNSCREW NOSERudolph cries & runs away -- sorry, dude, but we have treasures to find.

With Rudolph's creepy disembodied, glowing nose in hand, we can now get into the hole in the glacier and find the even creepier frozen remains of Yukon Bill.  We can DIG deeper inside the glacier with the pickax to find a *FIST-SIZED SILVER NUGGET*.  We have to EXAMINE BILL more than once to notice that he has boots on.  We can't EXAMINE BOOTS at all, but we can GET BOOTS, which reveals that they're fishing boots.  If we try to WEAR BOOTS, the game responds, That's kinky!  Apparently sitting on Santa's lap is not bizarre, but wearing fishing boots is considered outrageous.  As it turns out, we don't have to explicitly wear the boots; having them in inventory is enough.

We can also use the pickax to dig at the bottom of the frozen pond and find a rusty fountain pen, which we can fill with ink and use to sign the deed to the well, converting it to an official treasure.

Now we've only got one treasure left to find, and we haven't used the pan yet.  With Yukon Bill's fishing boots, we can now GO RIVER and PAN RIVER to find *GOLD FLAKES*.  They're probably not worth nearly as much as the other treasures, but they count just the same, and with all five treasures gathered at the late Yukon Bill's Country Store, we just have to say SCORE... and victory is ours!

This one's pretty straightforward, aside from a few parser-guessing challenges that tripped me up long enough to send me into the code.  My walkthrough is available at the CASA Solution Archive, and also here, below the fold.  I'll continue tackling the SoftSide Adventures now and then -- they're usually fun and quick to play through.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cover to Cover: Origin Systems 1985 Catalog (pp. 11-14)

This has been a whirlwind trip through a short catalog. We wrap up Origin Systems' 1985 promo brochure with Ogre, a hex-based wargame (adapted from another Steve Jackson board game) that isn't as well-remembered as some of its publisher's other products:

And then we get a little bit of insight into Origin Systems and the computer game industry of the time. The crash had come and gone, and Garriott's company (unlike many others) was still in business.  Today's multimillion dollar game budgets were nowhere in sight -- most of the company's products were created by very small teams or even single programmers, and Origin Systems, home of so many legendary products, had grown to "about 20 people" in its first two years of existence.

There was no world wide web to allow online purchasing of games, of course, so mail order was king -- the final page provides the usual contact info required and suggests visiting "your local software retailer" as an alternative; I could never really find one in small-town America circa 1985.  Almost as an afterthought, we see a list of upcoming titles, and can see that the Apple II is still the go-to platform.  Ultima V, Space Rogue and 2400 A.D. all saw the light of day -- but the basketball strategy game Homecourt was never released.

Origin Systems would go on to publish the Wing Commander series, and Ultima is still well-regarded today; Lord British made headlines as one of the first civilians to travel to space in recent years.  Origin stayed small and nimble enough to survive the trying period of the mid-80s, and only corporate acquisitions and apathy would eventually put its legacy to rest.  Today, EA owns the Origin trademark -- but they've opted to use the name for their new downloadable PC game service, in competition with Steam, so I don't think we'll see the brand revived any time soon.

And that's the last page of this one (I covered the back cover, which has no real content, in the first post of this series, last weekend), so I'll have to find something new to share next time.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cover to Cover: Origin Systems 1985 Catalog (pp. 8-11)

Our brief survey of the Origin Systems 1985 Catalog (really more of a promotional brochure) continues, with pages 8-11 covering two well-remembered games from Lord British/Richard Garriott's seminal Ultima series.  The Apple II was still the leading platform, as the Ultima universe expanded and the gameplay became more sophisticated, but the engine stayed 8-bit-friendly.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar was the series' largest game to date -- it's promoted here as filling both sides of two 5 1/4" floppy disks (so, like, 560 KB!)

And Ultima III: Exodus was still marketworthy after two years on sale.  And that cloth map... still a source of many warm memories for gamers of a certain age.

To be continued... tomorrow!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Of Import: Legion (1990)

I consider video games an art form, but it's a young art, and the vocabulary for its appreciation is still taking shape.  Sometimes it's easier to describe the aesthetic ideal by looking at a negative example -- a game that's clearly derivative, clumsy and artless, that does all the things wrong that a worthy effort does right.  Such a game is Legion, published by Renovation Game (a.k.a Renovation Soft) in 1990 for the PC Engine CD-ROM system.  While this Japanese game was never released in the US, for very good reasons, it's presented entirely in English -- even the voiceover narration is read by an American actor.

Developer Telenet produced a number of memorable and playworthy PC Engine titles -- the Valis series, Legend of Dekoboko, and others -- but Legion is deservedly forgotten.  It feels like some executive at Telenet looked at Gradius and R-Type and said, "Hey!  We can make one of those too!  Get it on my desk by tomorrow morning!"  It's so incredibly bad that I'm tempted to think it's an intentionally poor parody of sci-fi shooters... but sadly, it is not.  Rather than spend any time describing Legion's scrolling and shooting gameplay -- which is exactly what you'd expect -- I'm just going to list its myriad gameplay and design mistakes.

The first thing we notice is that the enemy flight paths are inelegant and hyper-fast -- they move quickly and turn instantaneously, leaving the player little time to react, and making the animation look amateurish, with no sense of weight or momentum.  This first level looks like a ripoff of Konami's Gradius -- and the comparison doesn't do Legion any favors:

The game is "hosted" by a pilot character who delivers an extended voice-over at the beginning of each level.  But he sounds bored, and disengaged, and -- well, the most appropriate word that comes to mind is stoned.  He claims the aliens in the first level are partying and dancing, and later complains that his ship's computer can't make conversation.  At one point midway through the game, he announces his opinion that we should just give up and go home, which will sound very appealing to any player who's bothered to make it this far.  (I did resort to a Magic Engine emulator cheat code to get through the game -- my initial attempts all ended midway through the second level as I ran out of continues, and I simply had to see what came next.  Or, more accurately, I just couldn't look away...)

When we reenter play after blowing up, our ship flashes and is momentarily invincible.  But the collision detection is democratic in the extreme -- we can't pick up powerups while we're flashing, either, which makes it very difficult to regain fighting form in the thick of battle.

The CD-based game uses PC Engine chiptunes for all of the main level action, only shifting to CD audio when the boss arrives (that is, after the boss graphics have been loaded.)  And the music is far from memorable -- in fact, it's credited in part to everybody's favorite video game composer, "Business Support Co., Ltd.," which likely means some of what we are hearing is off-the-shelf stock music.  Even the worst PC Engine CD games have a few memorable music tracks, but Legion falls down in this department as well.  I could accept the chiptune approach if there were any evidence that the game was streaming data off the disc, but the levels are mind-numbingly repetitive, with the same backgrounds and enemies repeating until we finally reach the boss. 

I should also mention that some of the backgrounds contain invisible hazards -- it's not at all clear why enemy robots can stroll blithely through an area that the player's ship crashes into as if it were a brick wall.

There are some choices to make -- we can take one of two branching paths at some points between levels -- but having "extra" poorly-designed levels is hardly a reason to play Legion more than once.  And the level progression doesn't exhibit any sense of storyline or challenge -- the scenarios seem thrown together, with difficulty ramping up and down at random.

Even the boss battles are repetitive and poorly designed.  In some cases, the player can't avoid a constant onslaught of missiles that spawn without warning or apparent mechanism, appearing from thin air within easy striking distance.  In other situations, we can simply park where no bullets ever stray and whittle the boss down at leisure.  In the case below, the player can disable all of the boss's weaponry -- and then there's nothing to do but sit and press the fire button repeatedly to take out the helpless core.  Challenge FAIL!

This is definitely the case with the final battle, clearly inspired by R-Type's first-level boss and, ironically, the easiest confrontation in the game.  The armored eyeball-and-wiring entity throws a paltry series of attacks out -- small, slow-moving shots, and rockets that fly across the screen, all in repetitive, predictable patterns that make absolutely no attempt to target the player.  For the most part, we can just find a safe spot, park there, and hit the fire button until various pieces of the boss blow up. 

The talkative pilot character doesn't bother to make any closing victory remarks -- perhaps he has fallen asleep during this round.  We just go immediately into the credits, where even the staff appears to have adopted pseudonyms to avoid any lasting association with Legion, though apparently some unpaid intern assigned to write up the credits has missed the point and given away everybody's real name anyway:

The PC Engine benefited from a large and generally high-quality library, but Legion is one of the worst games I've ever played on NEC's venerable machine.  Don't get me wrong -- I found it entertaining enough... but not for any of the right reasons.

Did you read what I've written above? If you simply must own one really awful game from the PC Engine era, you might be able to waste your hard-earned cash here.  Don't say I didn't warn you.